Glass Heart

“Give me a song of hope and a world where I can sing it.” – Pauli Murray

Give a glass heart to

Me. say you’ll trade my heart back maybe tomorrow–

A lie too raw like a newly picked scab.

Song structure had always confused me–

Of sweet flowers and

Hope I was born

And songs never felt quite right like

A

World where my heart lives gleefully. I will never stop asking

Where? Where?

I can’t keep searching, stars.

Can you sift it out of the never-ending gem-studded sand of infinity?

Sing a song to help me understand–I won’t, though–that

It isn’t personal, it’s just the wrong world.

Blood on the Ice

The landing pod touched down on the barren planet as the crew took their first look at planet C42. “Landing pod to Space Center; We have touched down with no damage. I repeat, we have touched down with no damage,” the captain, Xavier Vanlaere, said into the com. 

London Hill, pilot and navigator, barked orders from her seat. “Do not move until final orders are given. There has been no hull damage currently, but we have lost contact with C42 PS crew 01. We don’t know what we are getting ourselves into, so stay sharp. Their landing pod is 3 clicks north from here, and it is our job to find it. This was a failed mission and there are no presumed survivors. Proceed with caution and level headedness.” Flooding out of the ship, a scout squad armed with the latest high caliber weaponry strode out onto the desolate planet. Ice geysers stood frozen. Wind whipped through the suits of the crew, and frost was already forming around their feet. They felt the cold of course, but they weren’t prepared for what would come next. As they strode in rank and formation toward the signal coming from the landing pod’s radar, none of them knew what to expect, but whatever they did, it wasn’t what awaited them.

As they marched toward the signal, the soldiers took bets with each other, trying to ease the tension that electrified the air. All of them stayed alert though, their halfhearted voices echoing throughout the empty planet. The group rounded a corner and the landing pod came into view. They all halted.

“Son of a bitch,” one of the soldiers swore. 

“Lieutenant Craw, send a squad to scout the ship,” Vanlaere barked. “We will remain here until you deem it safe. Be aware, soldier.”

The soldiers rustled with anticipation, and murmurs arose. None of them quite trusted this empty planet. 

Ten minutes later, Craw sprinted back toward the ship, face red with adrenaline and fear. “Sir!” He held something in his glove. 

Vanlaere snapped straight up. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

Craw reached them. “Captain,” he panted. “I’ve found something.” He dropped what looked like a hard drive into Vanlaere’s outstretched hand. “There’s not much else, sir. But this was in it. There were also test tubes, and it looked like it held some sort of blood.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” 

“Yes, sir.” 

Vanlaere clenched the drive. “Let’s see what really happened to C42 PS crew 01.”

28 YEARS EARLIER

Toby: Mission log, C42-01. We found ourselves here after an unmarked planet showed up on our radar. Landscape appears to be mostly ice. Still unsure about going out of our landing pod, wind speed appears to be far greater than earth’s. Sensors outside the ship read 14.2% O2, unsafe for us. We found a frozen ocean, H2O with an abundance of Sulfate. Still don’t have a good reading on the depths of the ice, Betty was disabled following a gust of wind. One landing pod was busted on impact. We landed almost 4 kilometers from the projected landing zone. Gravity 1.65 Gs, so the suits will be able to handle it. Sea level is -13 meters relative to earth, and the tallest visible peak is 1642.2 meters. This is Toby, engineer, signing off.

Violet: Mission log, C42-02. The landing was rough as part of the landing gear got stuck in the ice. I was tasked with mapping out the new planet with the drone Betty 1.0 but during the first hour of her departure the connection was cut, and when we sent Bella 4.6 to look for Betty, Betty was missing. Since Betty was destroyed we have put off making the map. I also helped Toby with fixing the ship’s landing gear. Tessa and I got into a fight when she wanted me to go outside and I resisted. Man, I really want to go home. I mean, it can’t be as bad as last time.

Sammi: Mission log, C42-03. We have not explored outside of the pod. Birdlike creatures have destroyed Betty, but haven’t done anything to the broken skeleton since then. It appears they attack anything that moves and it is almost impossible to avoid them. Our landing gear broke and we don’t have the parts to fix it. We are stranded now, but the panic hasn’t set in for anybody yet. It’s only a matter of time though. The thermometer outside reads -121.2 C°. Our suits can handle the cold, but we are not sure how to avoid the birds to get to the ice and fish people. Ice geysers streak toward the sky then freeze in a curved position as a result of the hundred kph wind and climate. We have been sent food, and supplies, but command doesn’t have the parts for the landing gear Toby needs to repair the ship. We also need to get samples.

Toby: Mission log, C42-04. Found an instance of C42-C just now. It was chewing through some of the wires. I haven’t seen a specimen this size. Subject resembles a rabbit mixed with a mole, with completely white fur and red eyes. They tunnel around in the snow to avoid the birds and winds. These guys prove how versatile life can be. 

Tessa: Mission log, C42-05. We have made contact with C42. The landing gear is stuck in the ice. This makes quick escape an improbable option. However this provides more time for data and sample collection. Violet has voiced how angry she is with me. I don’t understand it. Whilst trying to fix the ship Toby found a mole-like creature identified as C42-C. They tunnel under the ice and snow to hide from C42-B. This is how we could move without C42-B attacking us. We could use this to get to the C42-A. I need to get my hands on one of the C42-C to get samples. Sammi told me I shouldn’t touch them until we know more. I think she is a fool. We must act on this opportunity or we could lose it. 

Violet: Mission log, C42-06. Toby found a white mole-like creature that tunnels under the snow. Tessa said we could use this to move around without being killed like Betty, and she is going to chase after one of those mole things. I mean, what if the thing scratches her or bites her and she gets infected and it spreads to Sammi and Toby and everyone dies? I also helped Toby with the ship. 

Sammi: Mission log, C42-07. Tessa and I are taking a sample of the ice today. We have found a way to get deep under the ice to take the sample modeling after a new species we have discovered. C42-C looks like a hybrid of a rabbit and mole. It tunnels under the ice with sharp teeth and claws and seems immune to the cold, although it doesn’t have much fur. They are white. Tessa is intrigued but we don’t know its defenses and habits so I’ve told her to stay away from it for now. I’m running low on supplies to treat her if she gets injured. She’s not going to listen to me.

Toby: Mission log, C42-08.  Finally got a clear reading on the ice depths after going through 3 different Bettys. Ice is .54 kilometers deep, and lowest layers are past 12,000 years deep. Did you know the atmosphere here used to be breathable? MRS 01 was destroyed by those damn birds and, oh yeah, none of our measures to bring down instances of C42-B have been successful. They are immortal. Great. On top of that, they attack anything that moves even an inch. I managed to get a signal up to Betty 1.0’s backup camera and found a whole horde of the things. They seem to be riding air currents in a massive loop. Still trying to get that landing gear fixed, can’t take off till we do. This is Toby, engineer, signing off.

Toby: Mission log C42-09. Well, command abandoned us. They said it was “too expensive to keep us alive.” So we have about two weeks till rations run out, and a further three weeks to starve. Of course, we can’t let that happen. The others and I are trying to formulate a plan, but I know it’s gonna be up to me to put that into action. 

Sammi: Mission log, C42-10. Food is dwindling. We have enough to get us through at least a week and a half, after that… 

I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but we have slowly been receiving less and less supplies from Command. Our radars don’t pick up their orbit around C42’s atmosphere. Violet hasn’t been keeping records of our food, so we don’t know when the food started to stop arriving. They’ve given up on us. Toby seems panicked, I think he realizes. It just got a lot more dangerous for us.

Toby: Mission log, C42-11. I think I have a plan to get off this planet once and for all. Command originally sent us some emergency flares, which have since been lost when I outfitted them to a Betty. But I think that If I can make my own flares and get to the top of a mountain, I can get their attention, assuming our orbital AED is still there. I’m planning to take everyone with me in a few weeks. Our food is low, so I should work quickly. I will update you on further progress. This is Toby, engineer, signing off.

Tessa: Mission log, C42-12. We found a way to go under the ice to get to C42-A. We have not had any stable ways to communicate with C42-A. As of now my attempts to understand the language have been nearly impossible. I have discerned that the only way of communicating with them is through pictures. I am attempting to build a C42-A to English dictionary. I have yet to collect the samples of the bioluminescent particles that create the patterns on the C42-A people. They always run away or avoid me when I ask to gather more samples. Perhaps this is a tender issue for them. Whatever it may be, my samples are far more important.

Sammi: Mission log, C42-13. Tessa and I have gone down once before and taken a sample of the ice. She received a gash in her suit and arm on the way up, and after treating her I have no supplies left to treat anyone else. We are going down again today so Tessa may get her water sample. She also wants a blood sample of the Matcian people. I tell her that that will not likely happen. We have found two clans at war with each other. The C42-A, a kind of fish people we named the Matcian people, it appears, have been forced to choose sides. They live and fight under the ice, but never break it. Violet is leaning more and more heavily upon me, because Tessa is emotionally unavailable. Toby is sending Bettys out like sacrificial pigs. I don’t think he’s getting any work done. He knows the safe word and has the strength to crank the lever to pull us back up though. But I have a gut feeling something will go wrong, I just don’t know what. It’s not safe, and I will not insult anyone’s intelligence by saying it is, but I believe we have a chance to get these samples. If everything goes according to plan.  We just need to get off this damn planet.

Violet: Mission log, C42-14. I finished mapping the planet it is really snowy and icy and I am starting to use the stupid AI therapist. It’s supposed to help but I don’t think it is. We discovered a creature that killed Betty 1.0. It’s a giant bird that hunts things that move. Tessa calls them C42-B. I spent most of my time with Sammi then Tessa came in with a gash and for some reason I started to breathe heavily and I don’t even like Tessa. Then the stupid AI said “You are safe. Everything is alright, you are in a safe place.” NO! I am not safe. This planet killed Betty. 

Toby: Mission log, C42-15. Where is my wrench? Damn. Wait this thing is, oh. Okay, I think I finally did it. I finally outfitted the suit with enough oxygen to reach the mountain. I made some flares. I can finally talk to command. Only issue is, there is a stretch of water, meaning I can’t tunnel under the snow most of the way. It will be a run. I could go around, but that is a multi day trip, and I don’t have enough O2. Command can get me out of this planet, they can take me home. Violet has just been yelling at me, don’t think she realizes that if she tries to use the ship we’ll all die. They don’t think that it’s possible to get to the mountain. Don’t they trust their engineer? I’m planning to leave before anyone else. I’ll give you one more log, and then commands picking me up. This is Toby and oh yeah, one more thing. I hid Bella so only I can use her. Nobody else needs to know I’m scouting the mountain. These Matcians have been sacrificing themselves every few days, I don’t think they realize it does nothing. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be gone next week.

Tessa: Mission log, C42-16. My samples are nearly complete. I have yet to collect data from C42-B. Perhaps I should collect samples from C42-B before we return to command. The C42-A people seem to be at their wits end. I will not stop at this point. Sammi tells me I should be more careful to not offend them. My data collection is going swimmingly. Maybe Mother and Father will be proud when I return. 

Toby: Mission log, C42-17. I started picking up poetry for my last few days on the pod. Found some Edgar Alllen Poe from my school days. Forgot I even had these. Might as well read them, I doubt I can ever see them again. I still haven’t told the others. They will just try to “help” me. I no longer need the unwillful cries to stray me from striding to my future. Was that good? Anyways, I don’t think I’ll be going on anymore planetary sweeps after this. 

Toby: Mission log, C42-18. Woe is me, the lords of these lands have abandoned my memes. The breath of Pan has been breathed into me, yet I freeze in this sea of life-stealing cold. I have no will to go on, and I see that my life has none left to give. Those called “command” have left me. I see my path, burned into my mind, yet I hear the screams of the cruel, unforgiving, killing sky-tyrants. They cannot see me as my heartbeat slows. So many great persons have passed this way. I will join the scores of those living in the life after death, floating around the cosmos while my mortal form remains frozen. Free from this frozen hell. Let me rest now. Peace y’all. 

Tessa: Mission log, C42-19. The C42-A has taken me prisoner. I have attempted to take samples from the walls as they seem to be made of some sort of spongelike material I have not yet seen nor identified. The rest of the crew have not contacted me in awhile. The C42-A chitter away whenever they pass by my cell. I wonder if the chitters work as echolocation.

Violet: Mission log, C42-20. Sammi and Tessa are out with the fish people and I’m in my room with my thoughts. Command has stopped talking to me. When I saw Toby’s tool and drone room I thought I saw Rex working in there I got really scared. I talked to the AI therapist. It said that “her mother didn’t care about her” but she DOESN’T HAVE A MOTHER *cries*. AI therapist: “It’s all right to cry…” NO NO NOOOOOO! SMASH! *deep breathing* I threw it. It’s gone. Okay okay okay I should talk to Toby. Hey hello? Toby, are you there? Toby? TOBY please please answer. I-I-I can’t. We can’t be without you. Don’t leave meee! *sobs*. Why did I come here? Why did I let myself come here? I was a great pilot with a good crew that did good missions but then they died and here I am about to die. I don’t want to die.

Tessa: Mission log, C42-21. They are taking me out of my cell and covering me in a firm sticky seafoam like gel. They are drilling through the ice. This seems to cause a large commotion among the people. 

Tessa: Mission log, C42-22. I am done. Goodbye, thank you. Mother, father. 

Sammi: Mission log, C42-23. Toby is dead. I can’t find his body. I don’t know how. Neither does Violet. She refuses to talk about it. Tessa was sacrificed to the Birds. It’s just Violet and me now. Not much else to report on. Still don’t have a lot of food, very little medical supplies. I don’t know. I’m a little bit numb right now. I’ll try to update later. What’s the point, though? Nobody will see this. Our engineer is gone. Our scientist is gone. Our food is almost gone. Everything but the painkillers are gone from the medical cabinet. Time is running out. 

Violet: Mission log, C42-24. Sammi came back from trying to get fish people samples… without Tessa. *sniffle* WE ARE GOING TO DIE HERE. First Toby dies, then Tessa dies by being sacrificed by the fish people to the birds. I got it, I got it. We can leave even if there are parts broken, we can probably still fly and get out of here. Yes. This is going to work, we are going to be out of here and I will never step foot on another hostile planet again! Hah hah, I have figured it all out, no one will die ever again. I’m going to tell Sammi all about this. Sammi Sammi we should just leave. Even though some parts are broken we can still fly. Sammi: “The bird things will probably get the ship if we try to fly away.” Okay we can’t fly away. *cries*

Sammi: Mission log, C42-25. I found his body. He was impaled on an ice geyser. He was my companion. I was stuck with him for almost three months. I feel empty. But not sad. Not lost. All I feel is worried for myself. Should I feel bad? I didn’t know him that well, but… he was my crewmate. I don’t feel anything. It’s like an endless spiral into hell and insanity, and I don’t know a way to fix this. How do I help us? How do I save us?

Sammi: Mission log, C42-26. Violet is unstable. I cannot deal with it. She talks and talks and doesn’t do anything. She asked if I missed anyone. Then she asked if I had a partner. Then it was onto pets. Then it was a monologue on how much she missed her family. Then she explained every aspect of her social life. Next, she launched into every part of her education. Then she started sobbing. I hugged her, and patted her back. I can’t take much more of this. I need to help myself too.

Violet: Mission log, C42-27. So, things have been going well and no one has died. WE CAN’T LEAVE WE ARE GOING TO DIE HERE. I shouldn’t have thrown the AI therapist. At least I have Sammi. Speaking of Sammi, I’m going to talk to Sammi.

Sammi: Mission log, C42-28. I miss Mom, Buddy, and Dad. Damn it, I miss Tessa too. We weren’t family and we didn’t know each other before the trip, but we were stuck on an ice planet together for four months and all Violet does is talk to me. She won’t leave me alone. I don’t have a lot of alone time, but when I do my only thoughts are: Is this worth it?

Sammi: Mission log, C42-29. It’s not. It’s not worth it. Not with my entire crew almost gone. I’m going to try to get the samples of C42-B tonight. For Mom and Dad. I love you.

Sammi: Mission log, C42-30. I’ve used almost the last of my painkillers. They make me forget. I should probably stop but I can’t. I can’t stop.

I just…

can’t…

stop…

Violet: Mission log, C42-31. Sammi died! *cries* She overdosed on pain meds so she wouldn’t have gone crazy. *Ship door opening* *Quiet* Ohhhh I know what I can do, let’s go visit the fish people! Oh you must be the cult. You want me to join you. Rex, everyone! You’re here! I thought you died. I’m so happy. Guess I have to go. *Splash*

Four dead. A small sacrifice in the scale of humanity. And all in the name of science. Military personnel don’t flinch in the face of death, yet knowing the truth of what happens to astronauts who lose contact is more… grim. “Pack up and let’s move out!” barked Hill. “We gotta get this bird off the ground! There is nothing else for us here.” She avoided the eyes of her crew. It felt wrong to leave their memories here, but how else. Their families were dead, as far as any of them knew. There was nothing left. Nothing else to do. As the ship ascended out of the atmosphere, Hill couldn’t help but think about whether their deaths were necessary. 

Watching as the planet’s dying sun rose over the horizon, the dead crew’s landing pod fading into a black dot in the distance, Hill muttered to Vanlaere, “Do you think they had to die?”

“Had to?” He responded. “No; but it’s not up to us, and what’s done is done. Best not to think about it.” He kept his eyes on the horizon, not looking at Hill. Hill glanced behind her, through the film of the atmosphere. She took note of the soldiers behind her doing the same. Her guilt pounded through her with every second the ship got farther from the planet.

The icy planet grew distant, and most of the soldiers turned back. Hill stayed twisted around though, staring out the glass until her eyes glazed and her back ached, yet she stayed. The very least she could do to pay tribute to the four who died. Who no one would remember. And so she looked. The icy, desolate, bare, hostile planet that used to be full of life. The last London Hill and her crew saw of the planet C42 looked almost peaceful, when the harsh winds, and cold climate couldn’t be felt. Peace. She hoped those four crew members had found it.

The End

Or is it…

 Yes. It is.

The Path to School

Fall,

Wheat covered,

Wind whipped,

Dirt and mud,

Stones under foot,

Crunch as you step,

Walk through the dry, dead grass,

The forest

Covered in red and orange hues

And stick figure trees,

Nearly winter now

Over the storm drain,

Cloudy sky,

Off to school with you.

Winter,

Bone chilling cold,

Sky clouded,

Soaked with rain,

Grass dead,

Stumble,

Catch your balance,

Stumble,

Fall,

Mud everywhere,

The forest 

Covered in sticks

Dead vines,

Leaves crumble under foot

Hidden in mounds of snow,

Shiver over to the storm drain,

Can’t wait ‘till spring,

Get out of the cold,

Run to school.

Spring,

Buds,

On the trees,

Bushes bursting with little green leaves,

Color filtering back into the grass,

Hope coming,

Mind clearing,

Sun shining,

Joy blossoming,

Skip down the path,

The forest

Vivid red buds

Dappled light

Peace forming,

Jump by the storm drain,

Grass getting taller, greener,

Buds on the trees,

You are hesitant for school.

Summer,

Last days of cooler air,

Grass is green and tall,

Fall into it,

Roll down the dandelion covered hill,

Trees are green and thick with leaves,

Laughter fills the air,

So much light,

So much joy,

Sun shining, 

The forest

Calm place of shadowed shelter,

Full of cicadas 

Chirping away,

You spring to the storm drain,

Graze the waist-high emerald grass

With your hand,

Softly tuck a flower in your hair,

Touch a perfect green leaf

Put it in your pocket,

It’s the last you’ll feel for hours,

You don’t want to go to school. 

Based on All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury

All Summer in a Day

I dream of a

glistening

burning

radiant

Sun

gold crayon

sunflower

fire on the stove

I feel the

heat

warmth

Of the sun against my skin

I’m 

Spinning

Leaping

dancing

Across the soft ground

Flowers blooming around me

But then I fall

and wake 

from my dream 

and 

deep sleep

I wake up to see the 

pounding

endless

crystal – clear

Rain

An ocean of 

sorrow

despair

misery

A single raindrop

The thunder is

roaring

booming

whooping

Outside

A storm swirling with everlasting rain and thunder

The misty sky so

hazy

foggy

cloudy

The rainshower continues

Revenge Awoken

“The Old Ones are awakening, it’s time. Humanity will finally rue the day that it stoked the fires of our destruction. Come my fallen kin, the realm of land is ours to play.”

I had waited seventeen years for this moment.

I was raised to be the woman I am now.

I was born to be her.

Humans kill those who they cannot control. And now we shall kill them.

Ten generations of my family sacrificing their lives have led to this. The fate of our species’ kind rests on my shoulders. And I am ready.

I lean over my ancestors’ graves, swirling a drop of human blood with a drop of mine. For one of the few times in my life, I am above ground. I am surrounded by all our supporters, chanting the phrase from our Necronomicon.

The drop of blood falls. I step back from the tomb and drop my pendant into the dirt, crushing it with the heel of my foot, and recite the chant.

“Rise, my ancestors, the Old Ones have awoken! Come, and let us regain what is ours! Rise, my ancestors, let us seek revenge on thou who hast wronged us!” I shout into the night.

“Is it true?” our followers whisper. “Are they back? For good?”

“We do not know yet,” I announce, “but — we know one thing for certain. They’re here, and they will destroy those who wronged us!”

For centuries we were banished under the surface of the earth, as close to the Underworld as one can get. In both a literal and metaphorical sense. But this is the time to strike. We were knocked down and buried underground for long enough. Now, we rise.

“The humans have brutally murdered our kind! It is time for our revenge. A thousand years have passed and the Old Ones have risen again! They will help us in our quest for blood!”

My life is destroying humans. I was born for this. My parents strategically picked this time out. They trained me for this. Since I was a newborn. I’ve mastered the arts of killing and necromancy.

I am ready for this moment.

I have to be. It’s my only choice.

Otherwise, I’d be letting down my family and everything they’ve stood for. Thus, destroying what they’ve worked on for millennia.

I have to do this.

I have to sacrifice myself, the way so many others have.

The razor-sharp knife is gleaming. It is heated by the fire.

I cut a gash along my palm and press the bleeding flesh to the ground.

The pain and the blood loss are making me dizzy. Stars dance through my vision, my soul screams like a banshee wronged.

But I have learned to ignore pain. I grit my teeth, clenching my other, non-bleeding fist so hard my knuckles turn white and crescent moons appear in my palm.

Recently, my hands have been covered in scars. Some from the cutting. Some from the clenching of my fists.

But I have to do this.

Slowly I draw my hand up from the ground. The wound is full of dirt, and a pool of red is seeping into the soil where my palm was.

“Bring me the alcohol!” I bark.

A follower quickly rushes up. I’m not sure if this is the rubbing alcohol for cuts or my followers’ drinking supplies. I pour it over the cut and resist the urge to scream.

But I don’t feel pain. Pain is a weakness. I can’t be weak.

I wipe my hand on the side of my robes, adding another scarlet stain to the soiled, bloodied robe.

Gripping the Necronomicon with my non-injured hand, I begin to chant.

“Rise, my ancestors, the Old Ones have awoken! Come, and let us regain what is ours! Rise, my ancestors, let us seek revenge on thou who hast wronged us!”

“It’s time,” I hiss. Shadows pour from my throat, twisting in the moonlight. Souls in the form of white, wispy shadow-creatures emerge from their lairs.

“Daughter of the Darkness,” one of them bows to me.

“Lady of the Night.”

“Necromancer. Witch. Savior.”

“Thank you, my ancestors,” I say, sweeping into a low bow. “How may I serve you?”

“Dost thou remember thy promise?” one says. This is the biggest, most humanoid one. “Dost thou remember what thou hath sworn to uphold?”

“Of course,” I say. “Once the Old Ones have awoken, revive you, and you shall present the Old Ones with Necronomicon. Reclaim our land and take over the world. Do to the humans what they have done to us.” I hand my ancestors the Necronomicon after hugging it one last time to my chest. For all my seventeen years, the Necronomicon was my life. To most, it looked like any ancient, leather-bound book, but for me, it was special. I traced my fingers along the face emblazoned on the cover, mouth stretched open in a cry of agony, eyes lolling in slightly different directions. The face of the cursed soul trapped inside the Necronomicon. Shadorath himself, Ruler of the Old Ones.

I told myself that my ancestors had done just as much work as I had, worked with the Necronomicon twice as long, but my heart felt emptier with the Necronomicon gone. But I didn’t cry. I never cried. Crying was a sign of weakness. Someone like me can’t be weak.

“I thank you. Thou art not any little girl. Thou art our savior. Now that we have returned, we shall overthrow the Old Ones.”

“Of course. What shall I do?”

“Do what thou normally would before resurrecting us. Thy father, when he joined us, told us that thou were most talented at the art of Necromancy.”

I hid any emotion I felt at my ancestors, who I revived, doing everything, and I, staying here for necromancy. Like they said: I was their “savior.” I was one of the best necromancers, particularly with the Necronomicon, in several hundred years. So why did they leave me behind?

Well, they were right about one thing. I was not any obedient little girl. I was going to get revenge on the humans too, whether they liked it or not.

They can’t kill me. I died a long time ago. Seventeen years have passed since a little girl died and a necromancer was born.

My room underground is as well furnished as a damp cave can guess. Sconces for torches line the wall, and a luxurious bed graces the back wall. It’s not homely, but it’s home.

I stare grimly at the cold stone beneath my feet. “Goodbye,” I whisper to the air, a trace of the smell of mildew and smoke dancing in the cave. I gather my spell books and my notes on dark magic. What else would I need?

Wrapping myself in my long black cloak, I leave my room for what might be forever.

I unroll my map, yellowed by time. The nearest human civilization is around five miles away. I’ll walk there, and then slaughter them all.

When I was an innocent child, before I knew the ways of the world, I wondered why we wanted to kill humans. Now I know and do so without question.

One thousand years ago, humans brutally murdered us during a peace treaty between our kinds. They took over what was deemed our territory, and destroyed our villages, men, women, and even children. All just because we were born with dark magic. Of the few that survived were my ancestors, who created a new life underground. Ever since we’ve been planning revenge on the humans. Me, my ancestors, and everyone else. 

My footsteps are silent on the snow-crusted ground of the cold, empty night. Stars, normally sparkling flecks of light resisting the dark pull of the night have faded behind looming clouds. An ominous warning that the new age of darkness shall begin. 

My eyes gleam like liquid silver as I read the map. I am there. Redwood’s small, cozy village is a homely hearth in a haunted palace. But tonight, the fire shall be extinguished.

To conjure enough dark magic to kill the entire village, the price I’ll need to pay shall be more than blood. I shall need to pay part of my soul.

It’s easier to sacrifice parts of your soul when they’re in objects, like the pendant I crushed for the ritual. But when you care about something so much you would sacrifice your soul for it, you can do it.

You know part of your soul is gone when you feel the feeling of something draining out of you, your strongest emotions losing their edge, your heart hardening. Every day, I would take a tiny piece of my soul and transfer it to the pendant. It was adorned with a depiction of Shadorath, for it’s him you trade your soul for dark magic. When I crushed the pendant during the ritual, Shadorath took it and revived my ancestors. But if I lose the entirety of my soul, I can never be revived.

But I’d rather be gone than my life’s work.

I stand in the middle of the village, a shadow among the many, silhouetted by torchlight. I let the darkness gather upon me, seeping into my flesh, my blood. But before I kill them all, I want them awake, so they can feel themselves die, see that we’re back, we’re ready to do to the humans what they have done to us. So I scream, letting all of my anguish and stress, anger and sadness, fill the night air. Some lock their doors and windows, and some fling them open and rush out. I turn to them and smile malevolently.

“Hello, humans. We are back. You’ve killed us for long enough. Now we strike back.” My voice is devoid of emotion. It’s just facts. My smile turns sad. And I release everything that’s been holding me down. Shadows seethe and lunge, turn and twist. They rapidly emerge, pouring from every direction. Children sob and wail. Adults run, focusing their energy on escaping and not screaming. I see one woman making a gesture of prayer before jumping out her bedroom window, a newborn baby grasped tightly in her arms. I hear the snap of her neck once she hits the bottom and the baby’s cries. I smile to myself. Shadorath will make sure she does not get a happy afterlife.

No one can escape. No one can run from their shadows forever. They will all die. I watch the humans drop like flies around me. Certain all of them are dead, I turn away.

And then I hear it. The baby. It’s still alive. I turn around, ready to dispose of it. I draw my knife from my pocket ready to slit its throat. But I can’t. It’s just a baby, it can’t hurt anyone, a voice in the back of my mind tells me. That’s not what the humans were thinking when they killed us, I think back. But you’re better than them, says the voice.

Now I see why my ancestors didn’t want me on the quest. I’m weak. Mercy is weakness. But I can’t do it. Be better than them, the voice presses. Slowly I put the knife back. I could just leave it to die. That would be a slower death anyways. But—-no, I can’t. It goes against everything I’ve sworn to uphold, but I have to. I gently scoop the baby up and rock it to quiet its crying. The baby smiles a huge, toothless grin at me, babbling happily.

“Cora,” I murmur. That is the name stitched upon the baby’s blanket. It fits her perfectly. In our language, it means “heart”. “Cora LeTanith.” LeTanith is my last name. It sounds perfect on her. But what do I do? I can’t just bring her along while I murder everyone, can I? I’ll have to go back. My heart sinks. The next village is almost eight miles from here. If I go back, it’ll be five miles there, five miles back to here, and then another eight miles to the next village. That’s eight versus eighteen. And I can’t do that in one night.

Out of ideas, I decide to sleep on it. I enter the house and tuck the baby in her cradle, giving her a bottle of milk to feed on, and I sleep in her mother’s bed.

The mother that I killed, I think. My stomach turns and I chew on my lip, tossing and turning. I killed everyone. Just-just slaughtered them all. A few humans killed us a thousand years ago. This is proving we’re no better than them. But what will Father—I mean, my ancestors feel when they hear what I’m thinking? They would hate me. I’m failing to uphold my promise. How could I do such a thing?

I try to fall asleep, but I can’t bring myself to. What would Father think of me if he was here? I’m glad that Father completely sacrificed his soul before he died—wait, did I just think that? How could I? Father raised me. He shaped me into who I am today.

But is that a good thing? The voice in the back of my head asks. You just sacrificed your soul to kill a bunch of people who did nothing wrong.

I bury my head in the pillow, the weight of what I’d done digging deep into my back. Tears dampen the pillow and I taste the salt. What have I done? Showing mercy? Feeling guilty? Crying, for Shadorath’s sake?

Suddenly a high, sharp scream fills the air. It’s Cora. I rush over to her cradle and scoop her up. Her wails stop as I gently rock her in my arms. I slowly lay down in my bed, still hugging her. Her weight against my chest, the warmth of her breath, and the steady beat of her heart lull me to sleep.

I wake with an idea. “How would you like to live in a nice family in the next village?” I coo to her.

Cora babbles happily.

“Alright. Let’s go.”

I walk outside, her in my arms to find my ancestors. Crowing gleefully at the demolished village. I quickly duck back inside the house, but not before one of them sees me.

“Isobel!” a man barks, ghost face twirling in malice. “So. Thou decided to follow us.”

“Actually, I was here first, so it’s more accurate to say you followed me.” As soon as it comes out of my mouth, I know it’s the wrong thing to say. Turning sharply on my heel, I flee.

“Not so fast,” the ghost man says, floating up in front of me. “Where art thou going? And what art thou doing with that baby?”

I spat in his face. “Shadows, come to me,” I roar. I feel my soul slowly draining out as Cora and I are brought to the next village.

But there is no better. “Witch!” a man screams, running from me. I smirk at his fear. I’m not even a witch. I just possess dark magic.

I float above the village square, elevated by a pedestal built of shadows. “Villagers, I mean no harm. I have found this baby alone, parentless, in a town nearby. I am wondering if any of you would adopt this poor orphan.

I hold out Cora to the villagers. She squeals in happiness.

“We don’t want anything you touched, witch,” the same man said. “Now leave us!”

I scowl. Just when I think humans may not be all too bad after all, they prove me wrong. “If that’s how it’s going to be…” I leap off the pedestal gracefully, landing gently on the ground. The pedestal stretches out shadowy hands, grabbing the man and tying him up in the shadow tentacles.

“Who wants it next?” I sneer.

The entire village is dead silent, pierced by the man’s agonized screams.

I flick my wrist and the shadows drop him to the ground. “Do not tell me no again,” I declare to the townspeople, already leaving.

And then all of a sudden, I am surrounded by townspeople with pitchforks and kitchen knives. “You almost killed my father,” the shaky voice of a boy no older than me announces. The ring of humans grows tighter around me. Everywhere I turn, there is a blade aimed at my face.

How could I let this happen? How could I be so careless to just let them threaten me? I try to call the shadows, but they seem to have abandoned me.

Cora is crying, and I bring her close to my chest. She hugs me tightly with her tiny hands.

“Spare Cora,” I demand to the villagers. “Burn me. Drown me. Do whatever. But spare the girl. She’s just a baby.”

The boy snorts. “No.”

Suddenly a young man runs up. “This is the same girl who destroyed the last village!”

The villagers gasp and glare in harmony. “Kill her! Kill her!” They chant.

“How would you know that?” I demand. “The only survivor of that was little Cora.”

“Cora and my uncle,” says the young man. “He died moments after we found him. You killed him.”

“And now, we shall kill you.”

The villagers move forwards and stab me to death. I collapse with a smile on my face. Now. Now it’s fair. They killed us. We killed them. And now they kill me.

“Hello, Father,” I whisper. “I’m back.”

The last thing I see before I go home is Cora screaming. Running.

But one can never run from revenge.

Revenge is Best Served Cold

May 4th, 12:02 AM, 2022: S Flowers

S moved through the crowd, saying “excuse me,” and “sorry,” as she passed by different relatives. She found her mother wearing an all black dress next to her father who was wearing an all black tux. She sidled up next to them, and her mother hugged her close, tears streaming down her face. S let out a sigh of relief. Even though she hadn’t really known Mae Flowers, her great aunt that had died recently in a freak accident, it was still terrifying. What if that happened to one of her parents? (Don’t remember it.) 

“Are you okay?” S asked. Her mother knew Aunt Mae well, one of the only ones in the family. It must have been hard for her (knowing what her daughter had done). 

Her father put a hand on her mother’s shoulder, answering for her, “Your mother just needs some time.”

S nodded. “Should I go?” she questioned. Her father gave a curt nod before walking off. 

S sighed. It was always like this. Every year since S could talk, there had been a funeral in the Flower family. She turned and walked back through the sea of black clothing, spotting a girl under the shade of a maple tree, distant from everyone else. Might as well try to meet someone new. She thought, walking over to the girl. As she walked over she studied the new figure. She was wearing a tight black velvet dress, and next to her was a dog. 

“Hey!” S shouted, waving her hand at the girl. She looked up, realized S was talking to her, and quickly looked back down at the ground, trying to ignore S. Wow, rude much? S thought, squaring her shoulders and confidently walking over to the girl. The dog looked up at her, and its tail started to wag. S ignored it, although it would be fun to draw later. She took a mental picture. She was good at remembering things. It was what made her such a good artist: she could remember every shape that she wanted to. 

“Not much of a talker, huh?” S asked nonchalantly. 

The girl ignored her. “Fine,” she sighed, walking away again. 

She looked back over to where her mother and father had been standing. She couldn’t see them. Panic started to set in. Where are they? Where are they? Where- No. Don’t start spiraling. Not again. Never again. They just went to calm down. They’re fine. Don’t start again. She tugged at the edge of her hoodie, calming herself down until no traces of panic could be seen. Taking a deep breath, she looked over to the coffin where Aunt Mae’s body was. She smiled, today was a new day for S Flowers. 

April 7th, 1:03 AM: S Flowers

S snuck through the house, cheap knife in hand. This is a horrible idea. Her brain shouted at her, but she didn’t care. She needed to do this. Her father had recently been fired, and her mother was a public school teacher. They couldn’t survive without this money. She took a deep breath and quietly opened the door to her great aunt’s bedroom. She swallowed. She had to make this look like an accident. The knife wouldn’t work. She dug through her pockets and pulled out the strychnine bottle. She looked for the cup of water her mother said Aunt Mae always had by her bed, and poured the whole thing in. It was clear, and she really only needed a small amount, but this ensured that Aunt Mae would die. She had to. 

S turned to leave when she heard Aunt Mae waking up. “Child?” Aunt Mae asked, still groggy from sleep. S froze. “Has my time finally come?” 

S felt a tear slip down her cheek. God, she was a horrible person. “H-how did you know?” She asked, turning back to face her great aunt. Aunt Mae had the drink in her hand. Why is she drinking it if she knows? S asked herself. The thought was not filled with horror, more of a sense of relief. 

“I knew this day would come as soon as you were born, child.” Oh. “Will it be quick?” Aunt Mae asked. S just nodded, a mix of emotions stealing her voice. 

“It’s best if you leave, child.” Aunt Mae said to her. S regained her voice at that moment. 

“W-will you still take it?” S’s head was telling her that she was horrible, terrible, what was wrong with her?? Aunt Mae didn’t even flinch, just nodded. S whispered out a final “I’m sorry,” as she turned to leave. 

The last words out of her great aunt’s mouth were: “Take care, S. You’ve dug two graves for us, my dear.” S shuddered, a feeling of ice sliding down her spine as she walked away; she could hear the cup being set down, and knew what had just happened. Great Aunt Mae Flowers was dead.

Bad Things Come in Threes: Chapter One

Nora

I stare at myself in Tricia’s mirror. I shouldn’t be here, in her bathroom. She hates when I mess with her things. I feel so awkward in this black dress she made me put on. It’s snug with wide skirts and made of velvet. I run the comb through my light blond hair. I remember telling me how when I was a baby, Tricia thought I was albino and was freaking out. When they divorced I thought I would die being stuck with her. I’m positive the only reason I’m still here to tell the story is Nino, my Maltese dog. Dad got him for me before the divorce. I’ve never seen him since (Dad, not Nino); he died less than a year later and Tricia refuses to tell me how. 

“Nora!! What’s taking you so long? Come down here this instant!” A sharp voice from down the steps startles me out of my daydreams. That would be Tricia. She’s technically my Mother but the word couldn’t suit anyone less. She doesn’t have a mothering bone in all of her 207 bones. (She loves to brag about how she was born with an extra one.) Taking one last glance to make sure everything is in order, I scurry down the staircase and into the hall. Tricia awaits me on the Persian carpet by the front door. She surveys me with one eye and I fight the urge to squirm under her hard gaze. Finally she nods curtly, picks up her purse, and walks out the door. I follow behind her. Outside, the twilight air is frosty and I hug my Dad’s old jacket close to me on our way to the Sedan. Of course, I sit in the back, alone with my thoughts. Not that Tricia would have wanted me anywhere near the front anyway. It’s a long way to Flower, WV so we’ve started early in the morning. Does anyone understand silence? How it can be awkward and stiff, but yet bring beautiful peace? 

Usually, in my experience, silence is best. I would never lay my problems down on Tricia. For one thing, she is a large portion of my problems, but even if she wasn’t, she isn’t an understanding woman, especially not to me, and she’d probably make things worse. Sometimes purposefully. Anyway, since Dad left, or I guess, I left him, there hasn’t been anyone to talk to. Dad understood my need for silence, but Tricia took him away from me. At least he’s away from her too now. But usually, even when you’re talking to a really nice person, whenever you try to talk to them they jump in, asking you a bunch of questions and steering the conversation the way they want it to go. When that happens I feel like one little drop in their rushing river of conversation, being carried along without any choice. I hate it. So I remain silent. It’s easier without the possibility. 

* * *

I open my eyes to see sunlight streaming through the windows of the car. I feel hot and the air is stuffy. I rub my eyes and look around to see… no one

Sophie Levine lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her family. When not writing and reading, she loves hanging out with her brother and making memories together. (He is currently learning to swim!) She specifically enjoys writing poetry, realistic fiction, and essays. Sophie gives credit to her Writopia group, Nora will later meet characters from Caitlyn Levitan’s story and Nora’s story evolves from a group idea. 

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 

Spud the Spud

Spud the spud was an ordinary spud. He did spud things like play in the mud. Spud was the spuddiest spud one could be, doing the spuddiest things, like climbing a tree. One day Spud, (the spuddiest spud), invited his friends to play in the mud. Spud was excited, his friends full of glee, and the spuddiest of them went ahead and climbed a tree. That was Spud of course, the spuddiest of all, but when he tried to climb the tree, Spud the spud did fall. He landed on a tall, yet oddly small wall, and Spud the spud’s friends all gasped in awe. The bravery, the heroism, that Spud had possessed, they didn’t want him to end up like the rest, so they climbed up the wall, first aid kit and all, and checked on Spud the spud, after his fall. Spud was doing fine, so they slid down a vine, back to the safety of the ground. Spud looked around, and sat on a mound, pondering if his spudly wisdom was sound. Spud eventually knew that you’ve just gotta be you, you don’t have to show off or make others impressed. His friends were so great, really, the best. So from that day Spud decided to just appreciate what he had, instead of worrying a ton that his friends would be mad. 

The Satoria Program

Chapter One        

The wild lands of Cordoba, Spain

April’s pencil shattered. She was an excellent pencil breaker. She groaned and grabbed another one from her bag. Her history teacher gave her a look. Scattered around the sand colored classroom‘s floor were dead pencil carcasses. Yikes. 

         “Nice,” whispered Brooke.

         “It’s not a laughing matter.” Brooke laughed, and April rolled her eyes. Brooke was her best friend. At least in Spain she was. A couple of months ago April had moved from Baltimore to Spain because her Spanish professor father had come to study in Cordoba. So here she was in her international school. She sighed and turned back to her work. 

“Do you want to go to the La Mezquita Cathedral for a picnic during lunch break?” 

Asked Teresa. She was a native Spanish speaker but her English was really quite good. Since the students were encouraged to speak their second language out of class, April was her perfect English speaker; though nobody really spoke their second language out of class except for the English-speaking kids who didn’t have much choice if they wanted to have friends. 

“Sure.” Smiled April. “Oh, sorry, Si.” 

“¡Tu español está mejorando!“

“Merci beaucoup!” Said April, bowing. 

Something that April had to get used to was the very different schedule of Spain v.s. the U.S. In Spain, school ran from nine AM to five PM with a two hour break between one and three, so you could leave school during that time to eat lunch. Since it was only November, she was still getting used to this. Tereza led April up to the Cathedral. Outside on a picnic blanket sat Nour, Gala, Rosa, and Brooke. They looked very peaceful. 

“¡Holaaaa!” 

“¡Hola!” Brooke was from Switzerland and spoke English, French, and Spanish fluently, but the rest besides Tereza spoke little to no English. It was a fun lunch, but it felt like a hundred degrees out, even though it was November. Rosa had brought a frisbee and the girls decided to start a game, passing and chasing after it. The plaza around the Cathedral was blocked off by tan walls, but nonetheless April managed to throw the frisbee over them. 

“BRO!” Shouted Brooke. 

“¡Haha, búscalo!” said Nour. 

“Vamos. Geet.” Getting the frisbee was a shameful fate. The frisbee had gone over the west wall so she headed that way. She came out of the plaza onto the street and checked along the wall. Hmm, it wasn’t there. She walked along the street and looked all around– still nothing. She noticed a little wooden area up the street. It was odd that she’d never noticed it before; they ate lunch here a lot. Maybe the frisbee was up there. 

For some reason her hair stood on end as she entered the woods. 

“Ow!” she shouted. A small thorn bush had poked her. She rubbed her leg. Then she noticed something neon a little ways into the woods. It had to be the frisbee! She ran up to it. Perfect, a frisbee! But it wasn’t Nour’s frisbee. It was another frisbee. What a coincidence, she thought. Well, the frisbee could still be here; in fact, she saw something up to the left. It was a bit of an effort to pull it out of the tree it was stuck in. What… It was another frisbee. She looked around. More frisbees surrounded her! And there were balls too. Was that a whole bike? A skateboard? What was going on? Nah this is too trippy, thought April as she grabbed one of the frisbees and ran for it. Once she got out onto the street she ran straight to the plaza. 

She saw her friends chatting. “Gente!” 

“Tomó un lar-” Nour was cut off by April.

“I was in the forest next to that street on the west and I saw like five hundred frisbees and like balls and bikes and skateboards! They were everywhere! But I couldn’t find yours!” April was too weirded out to speak Spanish. 

“What?” Gala asked “ No entiendo.”

Brooke raised an eyebrow. “ There’s no forest on that street. Cordoba is like a desert, there aren’t any forests. Maybe it was a mirage.” 

“Um, no.” April said “ Because how would I still be holding-” She lifted up her hand to find nothing in it. “ What? But-but…” 

Nour sighed. 

“No frisbee!” They were all raising their eyebrows  at her. Even Rosa, who had no idea what she was talking about, looked doubtful. 

“I think you need to lie down.” Said Tereza. 

“¡Español por favor!” Said Gala. 

“Lo siento. Creo que Abril debe tomar una siesta.” 

“¿Qué?” 

The voices of her friends trailed off. Was April going crazy? Nour took her hand and led her inside.

“You really should go to the nurse, Abril– I mean, April.” Saadet, who sat next to April in Spanish, said as she tapped her on the shoulder. “You look really ill. “

“I am really ill.” April felt like throwing up. She raised her hand. 

“Abril?” Her Spanish teacher asked. 

“¿Puedo ir a la enfermería?”

“Sí.” 

As soon as April was out of the classroom she barfed in the trashcan in the hallway.

“Yuck…” 

On the way home April was burning up. Her parents didn’t have a car and relied on public transportation, so walking home was pretty painful. She called her parents letting them know she would be home soon. It was only a ten minute trip. When she got home her parents set her down in bed tenderly with an ice pack on her forehead. 

“Okay, you should just lie down for a while,” Her mom said. 

“Okay…” She trailed off.

The next morning April was still sick. 

And the morning after that.

Finally relief came. “Dad? I feel better…” 

“Really? May I take your temperature?” Her father said.

“Sure.” 

“Oh good, your fever has broken. Let’s keep you home today just in case.”

“Coolio.” 

April lay back down. While she was sick she’d had some weird fever dreams: flashing lights, maps of mysterious places, and a heck of a lot of frisbees. Her phone buzzed. 

“hola cuando vuelvas a la escuela? “ Read a text from Nour. 

“mañana” April texted back. 

“:)”

She thought for a bit while she peered up at the ceiling. I really need to find the frisbee woods. I need to know I’m not crazy. I need to know. I remember the plaza, and where it was on the west wall. There was only one day left of school this week, so she needed to take advantage of it. 

On Friday she packed some extra stuff in her bag. She planned to go to the woods before school so she woke up early.  She had 45 minutes to explore the woods.  

“Why the rush?” Her brother asked. 

“Gotta meet with my teacher because I missed stuff.” Nigel raised his thick eyebrows at her. She rolled her eyes. “Bye.” 

“Bye.” 

The Cathedral’s plaza was just a little out of the way to school. She stood right at the doorway to the beautiful cathedral and found the west wall, heading out the entrance onto the street and–

Nothing. It was just a street branching onto another street. No, that’s not…right. April was not crazy. But if nothing was there… She felt defeated. Then she had an idea. She grabbed a ball that was in her bag and ran back into the plaza, tripping a little but too distracted to care. She looked around, found the west wall, and threw her ball at it. After a few failed tries, she finally got it over the wall. Then she grabbed her bag and went to the western street. Was that-? Yes! The forest was there! What was going on? A forest that only appears when you throw a ball or frisbee? Now she was worried. Was she going crazy or was this…magic? No, that would be crazy, she comforted herself. But she still approached the forest nervously. She was glad there weren’t people around to see her. Her hair stood on end again as she entered the forest. She saw several balls and frisbees, and this time she saw more objects and noticed that the forest went on for a long long time. An abnormally long time. Cordoba has an average temperature in November of 65˚ which, when combined with the lack of water, meant there wasn’t much forest. Something was in the air. It was gold, almost like dust, and it smelled like vanilla.  

“Ow!” Shouted April as she tripped and fell flat on her face. A piece of gold dust settled on her hand. It looked like a piece of gold leaf but it moved through the air like it was moving through water. She saw an odd glow in the distance. She walked towards it, careful not to trip again. She pushed aside a bush and…

It was… a small female figure about five inches tall with long golden hair that fanned out across the forest like fog. She had tan skin and was wearing a short white dress with no sleeves. A long train of white followed her. Her eyes were closed, but she was standing up. No…not standing, floating. Suddenly her eyes opened and stared right into April’s. She floated higher and came to eye level with April, who felt like she couldn’t breathe. What was happening?

“Hello. My name is Cayetana.” April rubbed her eyes. Did it just…speak? 

“H-Hello…?” April whispered slowly. 

“We’ve got a lot to talk about…” Said…Cayetana? 

“Um…can I get back to this meeting? I’m available next week.” 

Cayetena looked majestically worried. “What?” 

“I don’t think I’m really ready to discuss my impending descent into madness. Could we talk at 5:30 later today perhaps?” 

“Um…okay..?” Cayetana said, looking confused. 

“Great, bye!”

April skidadelled out of the woods. She could not handle that right now – she just ran to her school, not looking back. Did she really just postpone her meeting with a faery to after school? She’d have to tell Brooke about it and make her come with her. She couldn’t do it by herself. 

  “Brooke!!” April collided with her friend. 

“April!!!!!!! You’re back!!?” 

April had almost forgotten she had been sick. “Yeah, yeah, anyways come with me!” 

“Huh? What is it?” 

April grabbed Brooke’s pale hand and ran along the corridor to the bathroom. Thank goodness there was no one in there to eavesdrop. “Okay, Brooke, this is going to sound a little crazy but… do you remember when I lost that Frisbee and I told you about that forest?”

“You mean that one you hallucinated because you were sick?”

“No! I mean, well yes, but I went back this morning!” 

Brooke put a finger over her lips. “Shh, you’re safe now.“ 

April smacked her hand away. “No! I went back and I saw a faery!” 

“A faery?” Brooke asked. “I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be at school today if you’re not feeling well.” 

“Fine.” April was getting tired of explaining. It would be easier to show her. “ Come with me after school to go see it.” 

Brooke sighed. “Well, alright. I’m just worried about you. Seeing things is not a good sign, April.” 

“I’m not seeing things, Brooke! You’ll see after school.” 

They walked to class in annoyed silence.  “Bye,” April muttered.

“Bye,” said Brooke.

April’s leg was bouncing up and down at top speed all day. She was so impatient to get out of school and go to the woods that she barely focused on her class. 

Aya, a kid in April’s Spanish program whispered from behind her. “Why were you gone so long?” 

April felt even more anxious since the intensive Spanish for non-Spanish speakers class meant she couldn’t leave for lunch on Fridays. She still had hours to wait.

“I was kidnapped by faeries,” April replied, seriously. Aya laughed. 

It was almost 5 o’clock. And…the bell rang. April grabbed her stuff and headed towards the door. 

“April, come stay with me!” Said Mr. Jimenez, calling for April, who rolled her eyes in the other direction and then turned to smile at him. “We should go through your missing work–” 

“Can we please do it at a later time? I have something urgent at home.” 

“Oh, of course.” 

“Thank you so much, so sorry!” I hope my parents don’t find out about that one. 

Brooke was waiting outside the door. “That took you a while.” 

“Yeah, I got held up. Let’s go!” April almost forgot her backpack in her rush to get out of the school. She ran down the stairs while Brooke laughed. 

“Are you unironically skipping?” She said.

“You got a problem with that, fool?” April honestly just wanted to go as fast as possible. 

“Can you please explain to me where we’re going and how and why?” Brooke asked.

“It’s hard to explain, you’ll see.” She swung through the ivory pillars into the Plaza de Mezquita, then led Brooke to the middle of it. 

“What…?” Brooke asked. 

“You’ll see.” April threw the ball at the west wall and it soared over the top. Hole in one. 

“Hey, is that my ball-?” 

“It doesn’t matter!” April savagely yanked Brooke over to the west entrance of the Plaza. “Ah yes! Here it is.” April caught sight of the forest a second before Brooke, who looked over her shoulder. 

  “What…” Brooke’s eyes were as big as dinner plates. And no, not Tapas like a salad bowl. Full dinner plates – and you can quote me on that one. The forest was there. Brooke was very interested in plants and as she looked at it, she saw plants that should not have been growing in Cordoba. Plants that shouldn’t even be grown anywhere in Spain. And plants that should not be growing together. And plants that shouldn’t be growing at all. There is no way that was a Sitka Spruce, an Alaskian mega tree, growing next to a Plumeria Plant which was grown mainly in Hawaii.  And…

“April…” 

“Yes?” 

           “April, that flower right there, is a Cooksonia, the first Vascular plant we know about.”

“Oh, cool,” said April causally.

          “No April. Not cool. That plant went extinct 25 Million years ago. “

“Wait, I don’t understand…” 

  “Yeah, me either,” said Brooke. As an avid plant lover she was very confused. “April, I know you said this before, but there is something going on with these woods.”

  “See, I’m not crazy!” April laughed. 

Brooke looked down at her hands. “Am I…on drugs?”

“What, no! Are- No!” 

Brooke looked worried. “ Let’s just go,” Said April.

“No, April, stop. We’re not going into the creepy woods that aren’t always there.”

“I’ve already been in, it’s fine.“ 

April ran in and Brooke hesitantly followed her. She grabbed a Cooksonia plant on the way in and put it in her backpack. They were both in the woods now. Frisbees and small playable things suddenly emerged from the brush as they walked. 

“Whoa, you weren’t kidding about these frisbees.” 

“Yeah. I definitely was not.” April stopped. “ This is where I saw Cayetana.” 

“Do you mean Cayenne? I thought that it was grown mainly in East Africa. I didn’t know it was this far north!!” 

“No, not Cayenne! Cayetana, the faery!” 

“Wait WHAT? Kanye??” 

“It’s actually Ye. Get it right Brooke. “ April looked like Brooke should have known what she was talking about. “Y’know, that faery I told you about.” 

“Yeah, I did not believe you.”

“Hey!” Said April sadly.

“Would you have believed me if I told you I saw a fairy in mysterious fake woods that most certainly do NOT exist?” 

“Ok, fine, that’s fair.”

“Anyways, did you talk to this faery?”

“Yes, it told me its name. And it asked to talk to me.”

“Wasn’t it already talking to you?” Brooke interjected. “ Also isn’t “it” a little insulting?” 

“It- I mean she wanted to talk to me about magic, I think.” 

“And so did you?” 

“No, I told her I was free at 5:30.”

“WHAT?! You blew off a magical Cayenne faery to go to school?!”

“I didn’t want to have to deal with that!” April looked upset. “ It was too much for one poor little 14 year old to handle. Yikes!” 

“Well, what time is it?”

“5:28” So close, yet so far. 

“Um… “ Said Brooke. “What is that?” April whirled around. What was that? A small purple glow was radiating from the brush a little ways away. April ran to the spot to find a small…portal? Hole? Purple hole? It was very small, big enough for a faery to fit through but not much else. 

“April…what is that?” Said Brooke, her hand shaking. Suddenly something came out of the portal. Brooke jumped back and grabbed April covering her mouth. April objected but Brooke pulled her behind a bush. 

“What did you do that for?” 

“We don’t know what that thing is!” Exclaimed Brooke who looked frightened and worried. 

“It’s a faery! What can it do!” 

“Well lemme tell you something it can do: hear you! Shut up!” Brooke covered her mouth again. Then they heard another voice.

  “Ugh, where are they?” Said a disgruntled voice. 

“They’re here. Behind that bush.” Said a calm and deep voice. Brooke and April looked at eachother, eyes wide. “Come over here, you two. There’s nothing to be scared of.” 

“That sounds very suspicious,” said Brooke. 

April rolled her eyes and stood up. “Hi there!” 

“April!” Yelled Brooke. “ We’re being subtle.” 

“By hiding behind a bush?”

“Yes.” They both looked around and then at the two figures floating in the air in front of them.

 “Wow,” Said Brooke. 

The first one had tan freckle-covered skin, and the most fabulous hair. It looked like her head was on fire. She was wearing a short orange and red dress with a large fiery skirt that fanned around her. She had two wings on her back which looked like stained glass. They seemed to be decorated with an animation of her fighting a fire-breathing dragon. The wings barely moved, but somehow were always moving. 

“Oh my god,” said Brooke. 

The other one was the complete opposite. Her long blue hair looked like a cascading waterfall which dripped to the ground. Her skin was smooth and dark. She was wearing what seemed to be a blue romper which looked like a blue leaf with veins, but sparkled with large water droplets. It had a belt which looked like a rain cloud. Her wings were also stained glass with water droplets animated.

“Hello there?” She asked. “My name is Dew.”

“Hi, Dew.” 

“We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

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. 

Bat Mitzvah

I remember arriving, and thinking everything looked picture perfect.

I remember it was dark, but at the same time very bright. 

I remember demanding that my friends were called by their nicknames. 

I remember when my friend made a weird pose in the photo. 

I remember being partners with my brother for every game. 

I remember my friends running around stealing each other’s phones.

I remember when everybody got a question wrong on trivia, except for my brother and his friends.

I remember how happy my 8 year old cousin was.

I remember the lanterns hanging from the ceiling in all the different colors of the rainbow.

I remember my hair, braided up in a bun with tiny clay flowers sticking out. 

I remember the flowers falling out of my hair all night.

I remember my dress, black with multicolored sparkles. 

I remember my dress getting glitter everywhere. 

I remember my shoes, white sneakers with an ombre rainbow and stars.

I remember my nails, a light lavender color.

I remember my mask, a splotchy rainbow watercolor. 

I remember my makeup, how it matched my features really nicely.

I remember standing there, while everyone watched me, but I wasn’t even nervous because

I knew I could do it. 

I remember being terrified when they lifted me up in the chair.

I remember the sheer shock when my friends threw candy at me. 

I remember the crazy face my 4 year old cousin made during family photos. 

I remember playing games where I had to sit on the floor and how I was trying so hard to keep my dress down.

I remember how good the food tasted, especially the pancakes. 

I remember feeling like a camera was on me at all times. 

I remember being a lot less nervous than I expected. 

I remember forgetting everything as soon as I finished. 

I remember people spelling my name wrong.

I remember there being family members I didn’t even know. 

I remember taking photos at the photo booth. 

I remember me and a couple of my friends getting excited at certain songs. 

I remember my little cousin copying everything I did, including hugging my friend who she had never met before.  

I remember my dress getting glitter everywhere.

I remember it being so colorful. 

I remember my friend’s little siblings standing on the couch and fighting each other. 

I remember the sigh of relief when it was over. 

And of course I remember more than anything, all the things I wish I had done, all the people I didn’t invite, and all the things I wish I hadn’t done.

The Field of Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

“Does something… feel weird?”

“Yeah, I dunno, I feel… uneasy.”

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

“What is that?” Olivia asked.

“I don’t know,” Emily replied.

“Should we check it out?”

“Yeah!”

“What if it’s dangerous?”

“Come on, don’t be a wimp. Race you!”

“Fine!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girls shakily nodded.

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

He lunged at Olivia, and everything went black. 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wha-what?” Emily sputtered.

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Y-yes sir,” Olivia whimpered.

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

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

“There is no mercy.” 

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

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

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

There was a long, tense silence.

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

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

The girls sat there in silence.

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

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

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

“But how?” Olivia replied.

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

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

“You have to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Run!” she croaked out.

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

The Witch Girl

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

But we can’t just start here, can we?

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

A witch, you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom?!” I called.

“Yeah?” said my mom from the basement.

“You better come see this,” I called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A ghost’s mark, Mir.”

I stopped cold. “A… A what?”

“A ghost.”

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

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

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

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

“Mom,” I said, “where are we going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…” I was getting a little lost.

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

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

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

“What is that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tat’s mom ushered me in.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” she asked absently.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I exchanged a terrified glance with Tat.

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

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

“Eep!”

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

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

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

Mine.

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

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

And… that’s where I am now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom!” we both call.

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

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

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

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

“Witches?” breathes Tat.

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

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

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

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

“Why would you think that?” asks Mom.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gateway to Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I smell humans. Top grade humans.”

“There are no humans here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A much smarter friend,” he joked.

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

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

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

“Take the lantern, Emma.”

“Where are we going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go. We have to keep moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you savor it?” I laughed.

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

 I shrugged, “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superhero Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Breakfast’s ready!” my mom yells. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You excited?” Jordan asks. 

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

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

“Thank god!” 

Bob the Doofus

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

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

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

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

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

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

The skeletons immediately caught fire and turned into ash. 

Like Living Creatures

Music. It’s what keeps us entertained, it’s what people have in common, it’s what genres we listen to, it’s what cultures we spread, and what languages we speak. Music is all around us. It is what makes my life so special, both now and when it first inspired me. In every way, shape, and form, it is the instruments that truly make music come alive. 

Music, and the instruments it is played on, have been a part of my life ever since I was little. The first time I was inspired to play music was when I listened to a popular classical piece by Ludwig van Beethoven called Fur Elise. The different techniques used to play this piece captured my imagination and showed me so many new possibilities: how fast the fingers moved, how loud or how soft it was played, how fast or slow different parts of the piece were, and what notes were played with. The moment I heard and experienced this piece, I knew that I wanted to start playing the piano. I never looked back, nor do I regret it. 

Beside the piano is one of the places where I feel the happiest. It makes me come alive. The keys on the piano make me feel so free. Every single black and white key located on the piano has a different tone and pitch. You can play two notes at once and they will sound different. The moment I touch the piano, I let out all my emotions and just focus on the beautiful instrument in front of me. Piano is also what inspired me to start playing the violin.

I prefer the violin over the piano because the violin has a much more pleasing and delightful sound. Like the notes on the piano, each note on the violin brings its own unique sound. Each string on the violin is a different thickness and texture. The lowest string on the violin, the G string, is a lot thicker than the E string, the highest string on the violin. Violin requires you to have diligent and concentrated fingers in order to successfully execute the violin. Every single technique used to properly execute the violin requires concentration and diligence. 

Of course, concentration and diligence mean nothing without lots and lots of practice. You cannot expect to be perfect all the time, or right away. As the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman says, “One must always practice slowly. If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly.” When I first started playing, it was a nightmare. My violin sounded terrible, my notes were all out of tune, my bow sounded scratchy, and I had poor knowledge of where the notes were on the violin. It was not a very pleasant experience. A scratchy bow on the violin with out-of-tune notes is equivalent to the sound of a dying goat. Not a very delightful and pleasant sound. 

 But I practiced, I had lessons, and over time, my playing got much better. Before playing the violin, I had no idea that composing music, and not just playing it, would be life changing. I discovered a new passion that I had no idea I loved so much. I also gained new friends because of orchestra and got to experience what it is like to play in a full orchestra. Playing as part of a full orchestra is an entirely different and fantastic experience. I got to be surrounded by the music in a way that felt entirely different from just playing by myself in my living room. 

My piano is located in the living room of my house. There, it sits waiting for me to warm it up and move around its keys that are getting older day by day. Everyday, it waits for me to sit on its seat and put music on its stand, and flip the pages of its music books. Every hour of every day, it sits in agonizing silence, waiting and waiting and waiting. I look and walk past it everyday in my house. My violin sits in a case in the family room of my house. In its case, it is nice and snug, sitting in the right environment to keep it from breaking or cracking. Everyday, it sits cozy in its case while waiting for the right time to be used. When it is time for it to be used, its strings prepare to make beautiful sounds, and its bow prepares to produce the beautiful sounds that come out of the violin. As every minute, second, hour, and day goes by, it loses the beautiful pitch and tone that it makes, gradually growing old, and eventually unusable. Instruments are like living creatures. Without the right care and nourishment, they will quickly rot and eventually die or become unusable. The longer they are in use, the slower they will break and become wasted. Music and my instruments is what keeps me engaged, dedicated, and passionate. Without music, I may not have discovered my true talent. I cherish every part of my music journey. 

Music brings me joy, happiness, peace. I hope by describing why music makes me happy, it will show how important and meaningful it is to me. Not just because of the way I play or what sounds come out, but because of the way it allows me to express myself without actually having to say words.

Beowulf, the Real Antagonist

In the book, Beowulf, Grendel and his mother are the main antagonists. From Beowulf’s point of view, Grendel basically marches into his hall, massacring many of his men, until Beowulf can pin down Grendel and rip off his arm; Grendel then runs away and dies. Later on, Grendel’s mother wants revenge on Beowulf, so she sneaks into Beowulf’s hall, retrieves Grendel’s arm, and abducts one of Beowulf’s men. So Beowulf goes to her lair, defeats her, and lives happily ever after until the dragon kills him, but that does not affect this essay. 

From Grendel’s point of view, it is revealed that Grendel only starts attacking Beowulf’s hall because of the loud clamor and noise that disturbs him every night. After trying and failing to reason with Beowulf’s men, he decides to take action. But when he moves to attack, he’s ganged up on by a group of warriors. The text reads: 

“But Higelac’s hardy henchman and kinsman

Held him by the hand; hateful to other

Was each one if living. A body-wound suffered

The direful demon, damage incurable

Was seen on his shoulder, his sinews were shivered,

His body did burst.” (Beowulf, XIII, lines 21-26).

Here, we learn that Grendel was unfairly outnumbered by all of the men. It also shows that this wound was “incurable”, meaning that Grendel wouldn’t have been able to use his arm again. At that point of the battle, there was no reason to kill him. In the book, the henchmen and kinsmen have successfully restrained Grendel, so capturing him should have been enough. 

After that, Grendel slinks off miserably to die. And, it is reasonable that Grendel’s mom wants to retaliate. Retrieving her only son’s missing arm is justified, and attacking one of Beowulf’s men is also fair — one for one.    

She would’ve left Beowulf alone and lived without causing any more trouble, but of course Beowulf decides to hunt her down. She is caught by surprise, and after a short battle, in which Beowulf steals a sword, is killed.

So Grendel’s mom dies at the hands of Beowulf while trying to avenge her only son, who was also unfairly teamed up against, and is killed by Beowulf. Beowulf finds that Grendel’s mother took his body. We see later in the book that Beowulf knows Grendel is tired of conflict, his joys seizing from him. 

“When he saw on his rest-place weary of conflict

Grendel lying, of life-joys bereavèd,

As the battle at Heorot erstwhile had scathed him;

His body far bounded, a blow when he suffered,

Death having seized him, sword-smiting heavy,

And he cut off his head then.” (Beowulf, XXIV, lines 30-33)

And yet Beowulf still cuts off Grendel’s head and takes the sword that he killed Grendel’s mother with for no other purpose than to use them as trophies, without any guilt of the deaths that he was responsible for. Beowulf’s subsequent death by dragon? Instant karma. 

Works Cited

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm#XII

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm#XII

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

Smile and Nod

Georgie’s friend Elliott’s mom, Clarice, opened the door of their large, pastel-blue house and waved at Georgie. She was still in her robe, and her hair was piled on top of her head in a messy bun. She looked as if she had just gotten out of bed. She was on the phone, so she pulled it away from her ear slightly and whispered to Georgie,

“Elliott’s in the basement.”

He smiled and nodded, something his mother had taught him to do at his dad’s funeral. Many of the guests were people Georgie didn’t know, so to avoid calling them by the wrong name, he just nodded and smiled sadly. The funeral had been seared into Georgie’s memory, the colors and sounds as vivid as a movie.

The funeral was located in a small town in southern Italy. Georgie’s father had always talked about it – he described it as the most magical place in the world. Georgie’s mother believed it would be where he wanted his funeral to take place. It was also the first time Georgie had been out of the USA. The plane ride had gone by in a blur of sleeping and crying and leaning into his mother’s sleeves which were stained with salty tears. When they arrived in Naples, the taxi ride to the funeral location consisted of mostly the same things as the plane ride, although Georgie distinctly remembered his mom screaming and ripping out grass on the side of the road at one point.

When he and his mother finally arrived at the hotel, his mom had crept into the bed and didn’t get out of it for the entire next day. Georgie felt obliged to stay and watch over her, so he missed out on viewing the beautiful countryside of southern Italy. He had snatched glances at it on the way to the hotel. It truly seemed magical, just like his father had always said. The ocean was bright blue. The rolling hills shone a vibrant green and the cliffs of clay houses reminded Georgie of something from a fairytale. It seemed like a dream compared to the bleak colors of Kansas City and the poverty stricken streets of his neighborhood.

Two days after Georgie and his mother arrived was the day of the funeral. They had been the first ones there, and the bright sun and cloudless sky were starkly different to the midnight black suit that Georgie was wearing and the black lace that adorned his mother’s even darker dress. Guests had trickled in after he and his mother had arrived, their faces somber. 

Then came the casket.

As the dark brown coffin was carried in by his father’s two eldest brothers, a wave of strange anger came over Georgie. How could his father have betrayed him and his mother? he wondered. His eyes welled up with tears and they spilled out in waterfalls of sadness. He gasped for the air that seemed like it was avoiding him. This was the only part of the funeral that was not clear as glass. Georgie thought he remembered shrieking, the ghastly noise making some of the guests jump. He remembered clawing at his head, as if there was some sort of costume over his body and he was really all happy and cheerful underneath. His mother’s arms tried to wrap around him, but he remembers them dropping and his mother’s sobs combined with his screaming drowning out the rest of the world.

Georgie flickered back into reality and noticed that he was standing frozen in the middle of Elliott’s living room, a single tear dripping down his cheek. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and ran down to the basement. He rubbed his eyes once more before meeting up with Elliott and the rest of his friends who were seated at a round, low-to-the-ground table. Elliott was practicing a new handshake with Georgie’s other friend, Jacob, while another friend named Oliver sat at the far side of the table playing on a Nintendo Switch. Georgie tried to pull his face into a smile, despite the memories that had just resurfaced in his mind.

Uncomfortable Situations

My parents didn’t allow me to travel anywhere on my own until the day I turned sixteen. They said it was too dangerous for someone as unaware as I was, always with headphones on or watching a championship match. I have always had soccer. My parents didn’t even think I really cared about my social life until I wanted one. I guess I always put sports first, and my parents thought that was enough. The people I met at soccer when I was younger were never usually my age, and if they were, their personalities were usually a lot more competitive than mine. When I started playing with kids who actually cared about the sport, I found that having a life outside of activities might be moderately important. That’s saying a lot. I even had to force myself to stop mentioning football as soccer, because no one here ever says that. It’s only when you watch American commentary day in and day out that the word becomes ingrained in your head, just as tourists can get into some embarrassing situations by referring to pants when clothes shopping. Currently, I am walking along the streets near my house, clogged up blocks crowded with people. This city is full of shopping malls with sports stores, where high top sneakers are the hub for people spending money they don’t have, and girls practically getting drunk on new styles of lipstick.

My friend invited me to her boyfriend’s eighteenth birthday party in a bar within the heart of the city. My guess is that I look quite dysfunctional, no makeup, messy bun, Barcelona jersey (No it does not have the name Messi on the back), dirty white sneakers, and jeans. I’ve never been to this particular bar before, but no one ever cares if I’m not old enough to enter, as long as I don’t start a fight. I smile crookedly as I walk, sitting in the opposite corner of the room to my supposed friends. I take the time to watch as Kika Littlebrook is whispering to Maggie Stilton about this cute boy’s outfit (which I have to admit, is pretty cool). I see them pointing, and that’s enough to tell me about their petty conversations. What really catches my attention, however, is their mouths hovering over each other’s ears, talking to one another about how ugly the girl is that he took to the party. I don’t even need to hear what they are saying to see it in their eyes, to watch their expression grow all sharp and soft at the same time as he looks over his shoulder and winks. Art Jacobs is his name, I remember he was the first person to publicly kiss a girl in eighth grade. Ophelia Janson sits across the table from Magnus Reid. Staring at her nails as he starts talking about rugby statistics compared to football. The only reason she even came was because he invited her. The only reason he was invited was because he’s good at sports. What I’ve figured out is how that somehow ups the level of status of the person hosting this party.

“Viki.” Evelyn McNair is rolling her eyes at me from across the room, smirking as I slump over.

“Hey Ev.” Evelyn has gone to school with me practically since I could walk. We were even on the same soccer team for a while, before I got too good for her on-field dramatics. It’s her boyfriend’s birthday today, Romy James. He somehow rented out an entire bar for the occasion. God only knows the strings this guy’s parents pulled. He is also a Barcelona fan, though I don’t think he has watched a women’s soccer game in his life. I even had a crush on the jerk in fifth grade, though he made it known that that was never going to work out. He’s the type of boy that’s just dating Evelyn because of her pretty little sister, mind you Angelina’s only fourteen.

“Viktoria!” He yells, pulling me into a tight, mostly uncomfortable hug. My watch starts buzzing, telling me I have an hour to be out of this bar, and done with the whole thing. Romy’s hugs always make me feel like I should run away, that something is just wrong with the way he holds you. His arms always squeeze a bit too tight and his hands grip the top of your pants, no matter how low waisted they are. Tonight his breath smells distinctly of alcohol, his eyes glossy and his shirt color sweaty against my forehead.

“Don’t hug her like that!” Evelyn scolds. I feel Romy’s grip loosening, moving around to hug Evelyn from the back. “I’m your girlfriend, not her.” The way she says the sentence makes me tense all over again. It’s not even like Evelyn cares about my own well being. It was different when we were little, apparently, she would stand up for me. I didn’t usually even talk to her, let alone care what she thought. I guess she just felt obliged to be a nice person, though I never needed her help. When I got older, I signed with a semi-pro soccer team in the area. In a few years, I hope to play internationally. If not a dynamic personality, at least I have that.

“Ev!” Romy practically drags Evelyn out of the barstool she is sitting on. “My birthday, my choice of who to dance with!” Evelyn’s face goes from slightly uncomfortable, to genuinely excited. I hate watching her like this. Everything that defines her had now turned into the devil’s opinion of her naive soul. She twirls and dips, spinning into dizzying circles not bothered by the way Romy greedily stares at her silver necklace, or little sister when Evelyn is anywhere but a party setting.

As the night drags on further, the dancing gets more and more uncomfortable to watch. Romy has now set up his own girlfriend with another guy. Surprisingly, he doesn’t look like he’s had many drinks, standing by the barstool fidgeting with his car keys. I see him pulling up Barcelona statistics on his phone. The bright blue background of the screen flashing the familiar colors into his eyes. By the time the watch on my alarm sounds, I am the only one not dancing who is still sober. The smells of smoke and alcohol numbs all feelings in my nose. The familiar buzz of my phone vibrating makes me want to scream. I just wasted an hour of my time, in a place I hated, with people I don’t even like, for something I felt obliged to attend. Why did I feel I needed to attend? I honestly think that I just wanted someone to see that I cared. I really don’t care. I only cared about the kid who thought about other people other than herself and that stupid, immoral disaster of a boyfriend. I care about having friends who actually are nice to others, and not just me because I seem to help them out in some way. She’s the girl who plays soccer, she’s the girl with a high GPA. My emotions feel like they are about to go on overload like they sometimes do when I have an exam I haven’t studied for at 1:00 am on test day.

 “Viki!” Evelyn yells at me when I start walking into the cold night air. The dark night wind flushes the redness and embarrassment into my face. I almost forgot I even heard her. “Viki!” Evelyn continues to run towards me, telling me things that were never true. She says that I hate her and that’s the reason I’m leaving.

“I don’t hate you!” I yell back through the bar door because I really don’t hate her. I just don’t want to deal with her. I don’t want to watch her melt further and further into someone she never was. I’m not due home for another hour, I just decided an hour was enough time not to seem like a bad friend. It wasn’t even her birthday party anyways, just some guy who pretends to love her.

“Viki!”

What do you want!” I snap. I feel my hair whip around into my face, making my mouth fill with strange, distasteful bile. 

“Whoa, hold on there.” Romy looks plain. I never thought I would use that description of any person living in my city, but Romy, of all people, looks plain. His usual cocky expressive features have flattened into a straight line. His leather jacket has been taken off revealing a plain white t-shirt and jeans, and his previously gelled hair has been pushed down into a wet mop.

“S-sorry,” I don’t really know what else to say. I mean, I did yell at the wrong person, but even he knows he deserved it.

“You leaving already?”

“Yeah,” I say, my back facing his bland outfit. I have no idea where I want to walk, all I know is that I have to look convincing for him to let me be.

“Mind if I walk with you?” Leave it to eighteen-year-old boys to not understand anything relating to body language.

“Actually, yes.”

“Well, too bad.” I grind my teeth to stop me from hitting him squarely in the jaw. We walk in silence for a minute or so. I try to lose him, walking into large, crowded groups of people and slinking into hidden alleys. Romy’s never been a threat to my existence. I can handle him if I need too, that’s not my issue. What I really am nervous about is the fact that it’s always the girl’s issue when she hits a guy, even if he could be tried for stalking me. That’s the only reason I’m running right now. Well, that and the fact that I need a good reputation for anything I want to try when I get older. I even try climbing an emergency ladder. I feel my phone bounce in my zipped pocket as I climb. If I need it, my phone has a GPS as well as numerous calling mechanisms. No, this is not one of those stories where I suddenly have no WiFi. I have a data plan anyway. I finish climbing the ladder to an abandoned fourth story window, and sure enough, he’s right behind me. The cool night air makes my cheeks pink with cold, and red with annoyance. I sit down on the fence ledge, to make sure he doesn’t even get near me. My fists are clenched like claws across the outside metal bars. I don’t have a fear of heights.

“What is wrong with you!” I stop, frustration clouding my eyes with anger. I really just want to leave. Why won’t he let me leave? “You of all people, have decided to follow me, an antisocial, slightly reckless person, who would have given anything not to even be invited to your eighteenth birthday party!”

“Why did you even come?”

“I-”

“Just stop talking. I know you, and you are going to start a sentence right now, that is not going to end for a solid thirty seconds, yet will still have no clear reasoning.” I wasn’t very good at words in the first place. This has just turned my tongue upside down in my mouth. It does not help matters when I suddenly realized that I am sitting on the ledge of a fire escape ladder, with a four-story drop below me, and a creepy guy in front of me.

“I guess I wasn’t as smart as I thought when I sat on a fence that is there for a reason, with a freaky dude in front of me who just chased me up a ladder.”

He smirks.

“Wipe that stupid smile off your stupid face or I will forcefully push you off this stupid balcony.”

“No.”

“Then get out of my space!” I practically leap off of the fence to land right in front of him, making him stumble backward and grip the railing.

“I have nowhere to go either Viki. No place important anyways.”

“Either! I just attended your birthday party. You just left to follow me out of your birthday party. Apparently no one has decided to care enough to search for you at your birthday party. WHY ARE YOU EVEN HERE AT-”

“Viki, I get it. But think about it, do you really have anywhere to go? Do you really want to go home by yourself?”

I bite my lip to stop myself from yelling again. I don’t know why I yelled. I don’t usually unless I get into fights with my parents. It’s hard to know what to say to that. I was planning on texting my parents that I was going to walk around for a bit after maybe doing some math homework. Nah, there was no way I was ever going to do homework. Or maybe… I’ve never been the person to plan out what I am going to do. I know what I don’t want and that’s that. But right now, it doesn’t matter. I don’t understand enough about my own head right now to determine what I want. All I know is that I don’t want to know if I care or if I don’t.

“Why did you leave your party? I mean, I understand why I left but you-”

“I wasn’t enjoying it.”

My mouth forms a million questions all at once.

“Stop. Don’t ask me anything. I know what I look like and what vibe I give off and what my girlfriend loves me for, and what my friends care about. I’m not stupid.”

I raise my eyebrows. He has to know what he sounds like, some intelect who has just robbed a bank with no getaway car. Better yet, a forward by the name of Lionel Messi who thinks he’s the best player in the world when Lieke Martens exists.“You sure about that?”

His face looks solemn. A sad smile stretching across his face. I feel no pity whatsoever.

“You still haven’t answered my question. Forget that question! Why did you start chasing a girl out of your birthday party when you already have a girlfriend? Why did you make your girlfriend dance with Jackson Quinn?”

“I didn’t want to deal with it.”

“Okay Romy James. You have-”

“Okay fine! I don’t know what I’m doing here! I just wanted to talk to someone who I thought would understand.”

I don’t really know what he means by that. I know there is a lot I understand about the world in my own way, that most people really don’t get. I understand what it means to hurt, to cry, to feel deeply. I know what it means to live, and to feel failure wash away like a hurricane. There are no particular experiences that have even hinted to why I can comprehend the things I do at my age, it’s just who I am, and who I will be for my entire lifetime. I know who I am but for some reason, who I am doesn’t always feel right, and what I do with my time doesn’t always feel worthwhile.

“Okay,” I count to ten before speaking again, a trick from my third grade teacher who noticed I was good with words, but had so much to say it came out all at once. “Let’s start with the first part of your comments. What are we doing here?”

“I don’t really know, that’s why I asked you.” I was asking Romy to try and process his emotional outburst, but his brain seems to be running like a mouse on a hamster wheel.

“I’ll answer first and then we’ll see if you can follow the example.” I take a deep breath and make sure he is making eye contact before I begin. “On a basic level, I came here to run away from you. I wasn’t worried originally about heights, as I have no fear of heights. But, I realized when I climbed up here that maybe it wasn’t the best idea as you seem quite misogynistic, and similar to a stalker, not to mention your ability to shove me off the roof.”

“As I told you before, I know what people think of me.”

“One, you really don’t. And two, no interjections while the instructor is speaking please. Why do I have no fear of heights though? Why do I crave high places? I don’t like people a whole lot Romy, I hope your little brain would at least know that. I guess to me, it’s easier to try and understand others better, than for anyone else to understand me. High places allow me to escape, observe others, and feel at one with the world and city around me.” I make sure my expression challenges him to have a follow up.

“Well that was a mouthful.” He pauses uncertainly, biting his nails. “This isn’t going to come out the way my brain wants it to. Okay, I know that at least to you I’m a jerk. I was horrible to you in fifth grade, I made fun of you loads as we were growing up, and I just chased you out of my own party. Why you though? I guess you intrigue me in some ways. You always just seem so solitary, and… figured out. I know this is going to sound stupid but you always seem to have your head filled with thoughts of the future while for me, it hangs over like a black cloud ready to soak my present day body to the bone.”

I nod, looking him in the eye to make sure he understands I listened. The city noise rattles in the background of our conversation. I can still hear the bars and concert hubs down the street. It is always busy here, though the music of it is ringing in my ears no matter where I go. “I don’t think you need to understand everything yet. You don’t have to have it all planned out.”

“But I feel like I do. You know you do. You’re that girl who has it all, smart, sports phenom, pretty, and doesn’t need anyone aside from herself.”

“I guess I do, but what about after sports? After all of my passions have been lived out?”

“Then you’ll find new ones. That’s just who you are.”

I smile, and automatically feel embarrassed about it. “I am pretty distinct, aren’t I?” I look at him for a moment, and wonder how this weird, oddly sentimental, guy is having this sort of conversation with me. Me, Viktoria de Leon, the girl with shoulder length, dyed blonde hair and dark roots. The girl who looks like she has her life figured out and quite frankly does, in a different sense.

“It’s not so much figuring out your life, and more what you love. Figure out what you are passionate about, what makes you happy.” I can tell he is thinking about something only he knows after I stop talking. His face is diving into the deep late night light, to ponder my words. “For me, it’s different. I know what I love and what makes me happy, though I need to learn to love myself.” The words come out more of a whisper to me than anyone else. I don’t even think he’s listening anymore, staring out at the street lamps and down the block to the bar. I say it because I need to say it to someone. I need to have my words make sense to me in their own right. 

We waited there for a minute or so, looking out at the blocks and feeling the night air across the back of our necks, enjoying the sounds of other people shouting, and other kids drinking the night away.

“I should go. You have pointed out to me numerous times throughout this conversation how strange I am for leaving my own party.”

“My opinion still stands.” I don’t leave my seat on the railing as Romy climbs down the ladders and onto the street.

“I like your Martens jersey!” He shouts from the ground. I let myself chuckle and wave back before hopping off the railing to take a seat on the floor and look through the metal bars. I have a feeling those are the last nice things he will say to me in a long while. It’s not like he’ll ever be mean again after this, but we are different people. It is more likely he will tell me nothing at all. We live different lives, and he has different friends and interests than I do. That’s just how it is, and I know it’s how it will always be. I do know one thing we have in common however, and that is our ability to persevere and grow along with the coming nights.

Loose Brick

On the last Saturday of August,

an ambulance sirened past Valley Forge.

Your red Toyota was our caboose.

The cyclists who found me, squashed,

waved and went on.

Above me, a clean-shaven man in white smiled. 

He told me I was brave. 

Your electric toothbrush 

vanished from Mom’s medicine cabinet.

My kitsch cast was claustrophobic with sharpie.

The maple trees out my window turned red.

How did the Continental soldiers survive

six months of wind whipped backs?

Were chalk blue fingers

suffering as usual?

Maybe if there was no Days Inn

no road trip  no grasshopper girl

no garden wall  no loose brick     

no tumble   no pavement  

no falling   no crumple

no left arm, cracked in two

maybe you would have stayed.

Floof

The following is not a true story, but it includes murder and cannibalism. Reader discretion is advised.

(It is horror as well as comedy. There will be funny parts throughout the story in hopes to cheer you up. This also takes place in the 1800s, which will be useful information to know. It’s also really weird. Like, really, really, really weird. If you don’t condone weirdness, don’t read this.)

My dearest Theodore,

I am afraid I will not be able to complete the task. I have recently been cursed. Do not worry, I have not been harmed. This may sound weird, but every knife I slice with now screams “FLOOF!” I know that floof is not a word, but it may be in many years, as it seems that the witch who has cursed me may be a time traveler. I know those are fake, and science fiction, but this witch was not dressed in black, as most are supposed to be. She had small, blinking machines surrounding her. When I saw her, she had almost flickered into existence. The fact that she managed to curse me is proof in itself. I have reason to believe she was a time traveler, as I have just explained, but that is beside the point.

I cannot complete the task due to this. I am afraid you will not receive your meal on the twenty-first, as you have specified. I will find someone else to finish the task, and swear them to secrecy. They shall send the meat to me, and I will give it to you in person. They shall think I am the one asking for this, and I shall pay them myself, do not worry. No suspicion will ever be pointed at you, all will go towards me. You will get it as soon as possible, but that will not be tomorrow, or the twenty-first, I am afraid. I love you, as always. Give my baby Mary my hugs and kisses, and tell her it was from me, her dearest, Elizabeth Johnson. I have the honor to be your obedient servant.

E. Johnson, 1800

That was the letter Elizabeth sent to Theodore on December 19, 1800. It was sent the day before, at 11 o’clock precisely. It arrived at his house at 3 o’clock. Theodore’s response was simple, sent at 4 o’clock.

Elizabeth,

Get it to me on the twenty-third at latest, or you will be next.

T. Wilson, 1800

Elizabeth was rushing when she received the message (8 o’clock). It was the 21st already! Who would she hire?! Looking up, the witch flickered into existence once again.

“You…” Elizabeth glared. “Get away, cruel beast!”

“Deal with it…” That was all the witch said before leaving the poor woman.

“Deal with it? That must mean I might go through with my project and succeed! Thank you, mysterious witch!”

A letter was immediately sent to Theodore, of course.

My dearest Theodore,

I am letting you know that the meat may be ready today. I will try not to disrupt anyone. My neighbor, Ryan Robbins, will be assisting me, as you might say, in my project. The witch visited me again, and said, I quote, “deal with it” so I shall. You may get your wish earlier than recently thought. The wedding will happen tomorrow, and I shall enjoy it. I love you, as always, and am awaiting living with you. Tell Mary I send her warm wishes. I have the honor to be your obedient servant.

E. Johnson, 1800

Theodore received the letter, and a slight smile snuck into his eyes, though his mouth stayed firm. He erased it once Mary started crying, and burned the letter, just like the rest. No one could know the undergoing process.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth was knocking on Ryan’s door. Her foot was impatiently tapping, waiting for him to come out. His house was huge, and he only lived with his parents (Yeah, he still lived with his parents at the age of 35. I know, right?), so he was the perfect person—not too old, not too young, and an easy victim, despite the noise. No one seemed to be home. She decided to wait until nighttime.

At home, Elizabeth was reading. Well, trying to. At least the book she was reading was on cannibalism, right? But she was too nervous to focus. She thought it would be easy, at least for the person she loved most, but her heart started racing. She closed the book, and the title flashed in her eyes—Fables, Ancient and Modern. She was so out of it. The book wasn’t even on cannibalism! She decided to change into a black dress, to be ready for later. Sighing, she looked out at the sun. It had hardly been an hour, the sun just peeking into her window. She wanted to visit Theodore and Mary, she really did, but she knew he would be mad to see her.

I can imagine it now, she thought to herself. “You should be ashamed of yourself! You aren’t providing the food for your fiance like you should be! Where is the ‘Ryan Robbins’ you talked about? He should be ‘assisting’ you right this very second! Leave!”

She saw her fiance’s quartz complexion, baby Mary’s slightly darker skin behind, pointing at her olive self. The dimly lit room, so much detail as to the rain drizzling out the thin glass window. Elizabeth felt a tear slide down her cheek, followed by more. How real this was, she realized. Did she really love him?

“No.” A voice said.

Elizabeth’s head snapped up, “Who was that?”

“Just the ‘witch.’ You don’t love him, but you’ll do ‘it’ for him anyway. Yes, before you ask any questions, I can read your mind. Yes, I am a witch. Yes, I am a time traveler. Yes, I know what you’re going through because I’ve gone through it before. Yes, the exact same thing including killing someone for cannibalism. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I want to help you so you don’t make the same mistake.”

“Who?” Elizabeth wiped her tears away, embarrassed.

“I’m sorry, what?” The witch stepped closer.

“Who did you do it for, who did you kill, who are you?”

“I did it for my wife, I killed Ryan Robbins (a different one), and I’m Rayne.”

“You had a wife and you’re a girl?”
“There’s a thing called gay, you only like your gender. I’m gay. Well, technically pansexual, but I won’t get into that. I’m also non-binary, so not in the gender binary, aka not male or female. Anyway, back to you. No matter what I say, you’re still gonna do it. So come talk to me after. I’ll be here when you get upset.” Rayne put her hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder.

“Were you cursed with floof?” Elizabeth sniffed, and Rayne stifled a laugh.

“Yes. Someone centuries ahead of me did the same thing. It almost stopped me, but… well, I thought like you, but slower. I hesitated more. And the messages were faster. Like, automatic. But, pretty much the same. I thought it would work better on you, but it didn’t. I’ll have to change my tactic.” Rayne sighed, and opened her mouth to continue, but Elizabeth interrupted.

“Sorry to interrupt, but… who was your wife?” Elizabeth started to feel more confident.

“Her name was Rose. She wasn’t as harsh, and she just wanted to kill him, not eat him, but it was a big mistake. On both of our parts. Yes, he died, and no, neither of us got in trouble. But she’s probably talking to your husband right now. She’s asking him to stop, like I’m asking you. It’s our job now.”

“I’m doing it. Like you said, I’m still killing Ryan. I… I think I love Theodore, so I’m going through with it. If I’m going to, I have to go now. The sun has almost set, and I need to strike, no matter the floof.” Elizabeth stood up, slipping a small dagger up her sleeve.

Almost immediately after she did so, she heard a knock on her door. A man stood there, looking tired. He handed her a pamphlet, and spotted Rayne in the back. He explained that he was openly campaigning, and gave a summary of the pamphlet. Leaving, he said, “It’s 1800, ladies, tell your husbands, ‘vote for Burr!’”

Elizabeth, walking behind him, shouted, “No, thanks! I don’t care how approachable others say you are, Theodore’s going to vote for Jefferson!”

“Lady, then, tell your husband!” Aaron Burr turned around.

“I’m not a lady! There’s a thing called non-binary in the future! Where people decide to not be male or female!” Rayne shouted, trying to act angry while stifling a laugh.

“Good riddance,” Elizabeth muttered under her breath, knocking on the door of Ryan’s house (well, technically his dad’s house, but same thing. He would inherit it, anyway. That is, if he wasn’t a total failure in life. He was, though, so his dad would probably give it to literally anyone but him…). Anyway, no one answered, as Elizabeth had suspected. His parents were out, and she could tell because their carriage was gone. Locks didn’t exist in the 1800s, as some of you readers might know, and you might just say to yourself, “robbers are gonna get caught, so they’re safe anyway,” but, unluckily for Ryan, that wasn’t the case. Elizabeth opened the door, and calmly walked inside. She was wearing the black dress, one she had from her mother’s funeral. It was tight fitted, but still the best thing she had to sneak around the house. Her frilly dresses would definitely not work, with all the bright colors and sound. Anyway, she walked in, and immediately blew out all the lamps in sight. She couldn’t be seen by Ryan, otherwise he would… scream for the nearest house? There weren’t any for miles, so, he wouldn’t really do anything. But Theodore told her that he likes the taste better when they were taken by surprise, and she wanted the best for her love.

She crept up the stairs, where she heard Ryan snoring loudly. It was so loud, it covered up all the creaks as she climbed up the steps slowly. She reached his door, which was already open, luckily for her. Walking in, she saw he was turned away from her, his short brown hair in a mess, although it was super short except for the top (Elizabeth couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a super short mohawk, or just was supposed to look really weird).

Good, she thought, and tiptoed closer, pulling her knife (pronounced ka-neef-ay) out of her sleeve. She somehow heard the rustle over his noise, so she thought her senses were on high alert. But then she realized that his snoring had not only quieted, but changed in sound. Was he smart enough to know she was there? Elizabeth didn’t think so, but she wanted to be careful anyway.

She crept up to his bed. He was covered in silk. It would be such a shame to ruin this, she thought, but it was too late to turn back. Besides, she couldn’t not do it just for silk. Her life was on the line! She smacked herself in the head. Why had she not told Rayne that? Rayne would have understood better if she had! Ugh! And then she almost smacked herself again. Ryan was staring at her and her knife (still pronounced ka-neef-ay), eyes wide.

“WHO THE F*** ARE YOU‽” He screamed. Loudly. Like, really loudly, louder than his real and fake snore combined.

“You were supposed to not know I was here! Ugh. Can you turn around and pretend like I’m not here? I’ll wait until you’re asleep. Or until your parents are coming back. You need to be taken by surprise!” Elizabeth said, in a rush. I mean, what was she supposed to say?

“WHAT THE F***!!! NO!!! ARE YOU STUPID!!!”

“Look who’s talking,” Elizabeth muttered under her breath.

“What did you just say?” Ryan was suddenly angry, but in a different way than before. His voice was (somehow) really deep, and his face was all squished up. It looked uglier than before, which seemed impossible to Elizabeth (and me).

“You are 35, and still living with your parents. You must be stupid. Also, why are you cursing? It isn’t proper.” Elizabeth kept going with insults. She had just remembered that Theodore could never tell the difference between a surprised meal or an angry one.

“Cursing isn’t proper? You’re coming to kill me, and you’re telling me that cursing isn’t proper?” Ryan smirked with disbelief, even while he was about to be killed. He’s crazy, right?

“Well, I’m not saying killing is proper, because it isn’t, but cursing isn’t either. Anyway, I’m going to kill you now. Also, I didn’t think it was possible for you to be uglier, but with your face all scrunched up like that, I was clearly wrong.” Elizabeth pointed at his face in a disgusted manner, and walked towards him, knife (ka-neef-ay) pointing towards his chest.

Ryan got really, really angry at that, and jumped at Elizabeth. He was obviously stupid, because he forgot about the knife (ka-neef-ay), and jumped right onto it. Needless to say, not only was he angry, but he was also taken by surprise, making Ryan taste the best for Theodore. The knife (ka-neef-ay) also said “FLOOF!!!”

Ryan saw her smile as he died, and said, “I have the honor to be your obedient servant… R dot Rob—” through gritted teeth, but his voice died off as he did. It was to annoy her, because he knew how many letters she sent (a lot, most to Theodore, and some to Theodosia, her friend), and thought it would annoy her, but it just made her smile more.

Bowing, Elizabeth sang to him (like the way it’s sung in Hamilton) “I have the honor to be your obedient servant! E dot John.” Elizabeth only said the first syllable of her last name to match Ryan, and because it sounded better. She cut him up quickly, forgetting about Rayne entirely. The knife (still ka-neef-ay) sounded not like a lot of loud floofs, but like “F-F-Fl-Floo-F-F-Floo…” because it was getting interrupted.

She wrapped him up in the sheets quickly, ignoring the silk. She tied the top, and brought the bloody pieces over to her house. Rayne was waiting there, along with who Elizabeth assumed was Rose, and Theodore. Rose had long, blonde, curly hair, and was wearing the same sort of gadgets as Rayne.

“You already did it?” Theodore asked, stepping forward.

“Yeah, you a**hole. Here’s your ‘food,’ you monster.” Elizabeth stopped smiling, and threw Ryan’s remains at Theodore.

“I shouldn’t have done it. I—”

“You what? You love me? You want the best for me? You shouldn’t have f***ing threatened me?! Well, guess what? You can get out of my f***ing house, turn yourself into the police, and leave me alone! Give me Mary, too! Or did she die?!” Elizabeth threw up her hands, flooded with emotion.

“Yes. She’s de—”

“Of course! You took everything away from me for your stupid ‘meat!’ I don’t want to see you ever again! Get out of my house! Now!”

Theodore turned away, and started towards the door. “I’m sorry…” He whispered.

“I don’t f***ing care! Get the f*** out! And take the rest of Ryan with you, too, you cannibal!” As Theodore left, Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief.

“You didn’t have to do that…” Rose whispered.

“I did. And I did it because of you two. Thank you.” Elizabeth turned towards Rose and Rayne.

“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Rayne stepped towards Elizabeth.

“I am, too. Theodore was more messed up than me!” Rose said, making everyone smile, even if just a bit.

“Goodbye,” Rayne said.

“See you on the other side,” Elizabeth replied, and with that, Rose and Rayne flickered out of existence.

The Beast

Something was in my room. The wardrobe doors opened and out it came. I froze as the huffing noises grew close. The beast was taller than a bear; its head scraped the ceiling as it walked even closer. I took a deep breath trying to calm myself, only to choke on the horrible odor. I closed my eyes, squinting hard while pinching myself making sure what I was seeing was real. I opened my eyes and there it was, now standing directly over me. Tears slid down my face. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My dad was home. 


The Monster

The beast’s most striking feature was its sunset orange fur, like flames licking at the sky. The color flickered as it sped past my face. I stepped back, slipping on a cold puddle of gray liquid and falling onto the cold stone floor. The creature, which I am temporarily referring to as a midset, took my fall as an opportunity, pouncing on me and placing its large, circular foot on my chest. 

The midset arched its back, spikes shooting out of the yellow-red hair that extended throughout its body. I wondered if that was to threaten me, or perhaps a hostile indicator that it was preparing to attack. 

There was nothing particularly frightening about its features. It had a long, drawn out nose that resembled something between an elephant’s trunk and an aardvark’s snout. It sniffed at my shirt, giving me a better view of its beady blue eyes, like buttons stitched onto orange fabric. Its pupils were miniscule, and I surely wouldn’t have noticed them if they hadn’t been a sickly, swamp-like green. 

I observed this in about two seconds, shrieking all the while. Startled, the beast jumped up, it’s stomach glinting in the dim moonlight that seeped in from what seemed to be nowhere. It seemed to shimmer, glittering in a way that a cat’s fur would not. Similar to how glass could reflect light. 

The midset pawed the ground, its four stubby legs seeming like they should collapse under the weight of its body. Its heart-shaped nostrils widened, and it let out a scream that perfectly mimicked mine, albeit ten times louder. I writhed on the floor, whimpering, adding to the amplified sound of my agony. 

It bounded towards me, and I jumped to the side, catching only a glimpse of its small tail, sphered, like a bunny’s. It spun to face me with uncanny grace, and my screaming once again filled the cave, louder still. My ears must have been bleeding as I crumpled to the ground. The beast approached me slowly, and I couldn’t tell if it had stopped the horrid sound or if I’d gone deaf. 

In that moment, while I could not hear, I noticed strange things about the midset. It had human ears atop its head, acting like flat horns. They were the only things not covered in that orange fur, and yet, as I watched, that orange fur wasn’t so orange anymore. It deepened to a sudden crimson, then a passionate blue, spotted white. Finally, it turned midnight black, its eyes an ominous lavender. 

Those captivating purple eyes were the last thing I saw of it as the midset disappeared, melting into the cave walls. 


Art School

Ten days. Ten days of having a fire burn through my brain as my teachers go through course expectations and how you’d get a detention if you were late three or more times in a quarter (I really don’t want one). And then there were the early quizzes and the English in-class writings, and, and—

(Breathe, Frances. You’re trying to make art here.)

It’s Friday night, and even though I begged my mom that I shouldn’t, I’m leaving my giant pile of homework for Saturday so that I can “do fun things to calm down my head.” The problem is, how can I calm down my head if I’m a junior now? After all, juniors have much more responsibility than sophomores and freshmen. Maybe the seniors, too. But I did want to calm down my head, though. I’m tired of all the headaches, nausea, and rushed breathing that I’ve been having since I graduated middle school, when not even my good grades could guide me through this anxious new life called high school. I just want serenity to drown my mental fire until it’s nothing but pure smoke. 

So here I am, sitting in front of my desk, desperately trying to keep the Saturday homework shut out from my brain as I think up what to draw. Maybe I could do my dog, Pippin, who’s been so loyal to me in trying to keep me sane all these years. Maybe I could do the sunset that’s sitting outside my window, the pinks and blues swirling together like a peaceful melody trying to calm down all the pain I’ve been going through. With a careful look at the beautiful sky, the small 5% of happiness in my body is flying in all sorts of directions, telling me that this is what I should draw. Yes! This sunset is the way to true peace!

I take a picture of my new peacemaker for reference, and that’s when I begin to create. As the tips of my colored pencils touch the paper, my extremely small happiness grows so big, my brain lights up not in a fire of fear, but in shiny rays declaring to the world, “Frances has found something to feel good about! She’s in her happy territory!” 

And it’s true. I am in my happy territory. Never in three years have I begun to feel so normal. Maybe if I keep fixing and coloring my sunset, all my problems will wash away into the sea and never come back to haunt me again.

***

I don’t understand why happiness can’t last forever. How can something so beautiful run away from you and be so reluctant to come back home?

It’s already Saturday, and my giant pile of homework is awaiting me on my desk, and I bet you that in just seconds it’ll be ready to tear me apart. But I have my first physics test on Monday that I can’t avoid, and so I have to start studying for that.

It’s when I try to get my index cards from my desk drawers that the fire returns again, this time consuming my stomach until there’s ash inside. And then as I begin writing flashcards, the fire heads up my esophagus and up to my head, roaring in a mighty fury, “You’re a failure! With that head of yours, you’ll never be a success! Hope you’re okay with a D on that test!”

And from the ashes come the nausea. I race to the bathroom, tears and screams just about ready to shoot out of my body. I throw up leftover breakfast into the toilet and flush it down, thankful that some of the pain is out of my system. However, the rest of the pain that’s still there throws me to the ground, and my head spirals and spirals like a rollercoaster until I can’t gain a sense of what’s going on.

It is my mom who eventually finds me. “Sit up, Frankie girl,” she coos to me, wrapping me in a soothing embrace that I wish to stay in forever. Safety wraps me in its warm, soft blanket. “It’s okay. Cry,” it whispers to me. And so I do. 

“Momma, momma,” I whimper, “I’m a failure. I’m gonna fail.”

“Absolutely not,” my mom replies. “Over the years, every single teacher has told me that despite all you’ve been through, you’ve been doing so great in school. You’re definitely not going to fail.”

“But what if I do?” That’s when the tears fall faster and faster like a mighty river. “Then I can’t leave eleventh grade. I’m gonna be trapped here forever.” 

My lungs can sense this fear, too, and they start moving up and down in a frenzy of fear. 

“I need you to take a break, Frances,” my mom continues, stroking my soft hair. “Until your brain calms down. In the meantime, I’ll go make you some chamomile tea.”

I head over to my bed, my overwhelmed body sinking into a sea of pillows and bedsheets. I’m just done. Why does the world have to pile itself onto me when I’m only sixteen and still technically a child? Just that alone makes me want to cry in a dark hole and never come out.

As I’m beginning to adjust myself under the covers, I can see my sunset sitting on the floor next to my backpack, calling my name. “Frances. Come, come. Remember me? I make you feel better.”

“I’m deeply sorry, dear friend,” I explain to my picture, “but I just feel too terrible to get out of bed. I mean, I’ve just had a panic attack for crying out loud!”

“Trust me, Frances. You need to do something to get yourself out of that awful state of yours.”

I think for a little while. I remember all the joy that was exploding in my body as I was scribbling those brilliant colors on the page and how peaceful I felt. How…okay I was.

“Alright, then, Sweet Sunset. I’ll try.”

Slowly, I rise from my bed, and as the sunshine outside encourages me to keep going, my body begins to recover from the wave of anxiety it went through. I zombie walk to my desk and sit down in my chair, the cool wood relaxing my body even further. As I continue coloring, the happiness immediately returns, shouting a quick hello as it walks through the mental door. 

My sunset and I start up a conversation as I continue with my art journey, and that’s when it starts with the questions. “Why are you so scared all the time?”

I sigh. I really don’t want to go through this, but my sunset’s a close friend of mine, so why not? I slowly begin my story.

“Well, I wasn’t always like this. I had friends, I was doing art all the time, and I was just a happy kid. But like, with high school coming, I started freaking out over it. I shooed my friends away and hid myself from the world. I mean, this anxiety came to me naturally, that’s all.”

My sunset brightens in a spark of curiosity. “Are you sure?” it asks. “You look really bad to me. There’s got to be more to this.” 

Oh God. I really don’t want to go further with this. I take a deep sigh, my stomach bubbling up. “Well one day, my dad died in a car accident.” That’s when the tears start flowing out of my eyes. “It was awful when he died. He helped me cope with going into middle school. I try to remember him by sketching his face into my sketchbook. But I just doesn’t look right. It hurts so bad when you can’t remember someone you love.”

“I bet. You loved him very much. When did this emotional stuff start coming?”

I dry my tears until my face is a hot, sticky desert. “Well, soon after he died I became really depressed, and I was even more anxious when ninth grade began. The worst part is, no one except my mom knows about this stuff, because I worry that everyone’ll make fun of me. Like, I do pretty good in school, but it’s really hard when you have to push yourself through all your problems to be successful.”

My sunset appears to darken, feeling pity for what I’ve been through. That’s when it decides to give me an idea. “What if,” it begins, “I can help you be happy in school?”

What? Happy? In school? This doesn’t make sense! How can I be happy when I’ve got so much happening in my life?

“I know. This sounds really weird. But you’re happy with me, right? What if you bring that happiness into your school day? It’s important for the sake of your well-being, Frances. Maybe it can help you with that terrible fear of yours.”

Well, I’ve always wanted to be happy, and my pain has prevented me from doing so. And with happiness comes peace, too, doesn’t it?

Wait a minute, no. What am I thinking? There’s no way I can be happy in school! I’ve got tests and essays and other things going on in my life! There’s so many things to do and so little time to do it! 

“No. No,” I say. “It’ll never work. I’m scared almost every day to the point where I can’t think straight! I can never be happy!”

“Don’t fall for the negativity, Frances! That’s what anxiety does to you! But if you’re positive, it can benefit you exponentially!”

I can feel my sunset reaching for my hand, trying for my trust. “I don’t know, Sweet Sunset,” I mumble. “It might never work.”

“Just believe me, Frances,” my sunset responds. “Let’s just try it. It could work.”

I sit and think for a while. Well, I have been doing well so far this year, and it’s only September. And I do want to be happy. Maybe, just maybe, this could work.

I tell my sunset of my approval for the plan. It lights up in a neon rainbow and reassures me once again that everything will go well. 

***

I begin my Monday morning rising from my bed, letting the warm sunshine sprinkle onto my face. “Good morning, beautiful sun,” I whisper. “Thank you for making such a gorgeous day.”

I get dressed, fix my hair and brush my teeth with beams of light shining in my brain, further telling me that this day will be absolutely great. And who knows? Maybe this will be a great day! I’ll ace that physics test and continue to bring my can-do attitude throughout the rest of this year!

I continue on through the yellow brick road of felicity as I eat my breakfast and hug my mother goodbye (she looks really surprised with my new disposition) as I grab my backpack and head out the door, greeting the day with a radiant smile that shines onto the whole world.

I skip to my bus stop in glee, where other kids just look at me and then move on with their lives. I don’t really care, though, as I wasn’t always the popular kid. In fact, I’m glad I’m not the popular kid, because I don’t want all my classmates to see me fall apart—

(Frances. You’re supposed to be positive here. Just calm down. Look! The bus is here!)

Once the doors to the bright yellow vehicle open, I’m the first one to head on and quietly say good morning to the driver before sitting in my seat. While we head on our way to school, I try my very best to ignore the screaming and the chitter-chatter that normally pierces my brain. Then I look at the sky, which looks exactly like my beloved drawing, bringing me to a state of serenity. “Thank you,” I tell it.

***

I walk into class like I’m a physics major, ready to put my pencil onto the test and write down everything from my brain. Nothing much happens during these five minutes as I sit down and breathe, except Kelsey from nearby asks me for a pencil, which I give to her.

And then the big moment happens. Mrs. Shaw begins to hand out the test to every kid in the classroom. I sit up straight in my desk, reassuring myself that I studied basically day and night for this, so what could go wrong?

Before I realize it, it is my turn to get the test. I write my name in my typical curlicue handwriting and head straight for the questions. 

The first portion of the test is a fill in the blank. My mind suddenly freezes at the very first question. “When the mass of an object doubles, the kinetic energy also…”

What in the world is the answer? Does it double? Triple?

I tell myself to calm down and let my brain come up with the answer. I eventually realize that kinetic energy doubles and bubble in the answer.

Then the next question asks me what happens to kinetic energy as an object goes up a hill. Doesn’t it increase since the object needs more energy to go up? No, no, no!

(Frances, just skip it and come back.)

But then the third question is even worse. “Although kinetic energy has been known to exist before 1849, who first came up with the actual term?”

No. No. No. 

Kelvin? Newton? Darwin? (Wait, Darwin wasn’t a physicist!)

And suddenly, the hurried breathing comes back. This—this—this doesn’t make sense! I studied so much! Why is this happening to me? I’m supposed to be acing this! 

My mind starts running in circles, and it takes only seconds before it struggles to breathe, too. And then Mrs. Shaw sees that something is obviously wrong with me and walks over to my seat.

No. No one can see me like this. Absolutely no one.

“Frances?” Mrs. Shaw asks soothingly. “Are you okay? Why don’t you take a quick breather and come back?”

I don’t respond with a single word. I slowly rise from my seat and walk out the classroom door. I sit against the wall and breathe heavily, hot tears ready to fall out of my eyes. 

“Why now?” I mumble. “I’m supposed to be okay. This happiness thing is all a big lie.”

I feel just at the peak of crying, yet I remind myself not to because that will only get in the way of my success (Will I be successful?). Once I calm myself down, I head back into class to continue the test. 

But things don’t continue as swimmingly as I wanted them to be. Each question is only a jumbled mystery in my brain that I can’t unravel, and although I try my hardest to answer them, I can see my success on this test ready to collapse.

Right as the bell rings, I hand in my poorly done assessment. I walk out of class wishing I didn’t have to go to English, even though it’s one of my favorites. The hallways and the kids around me are all nothing but a sea of blacks and grays, and all I want right now is to run outside and just ignore everything around me. 

***

It is 3:15 when I storm through the front door, completely ignoring my chef mother who’s making snacks in the kitchen. “Hey, sweetie!” she calls enthusiastically. “How’d it go?”

I don’t want to talk to her. Not now, not ever. I just can’t bear to remember the failure I was today, sitting at my desk barely unable to come up with a good answer.

I race up the stairs to my room, where I flop onto my bed and sob so harshly that the sunshine outside my window can’t bring me out of my despair. 

Can I drop out of school? I don’t want to go back there ever again! Heck, can I stay in my own house forever? Or maybe I can run away into the woods and live amongst the creatures so that I don’t have to encounter this evil world. Maybe—maybe—

I can’t. Stop. Breathing. That’s when the screams, the headaches, and the nausea come. I spin around in circles which leaves my head in a frenzy. No. No. I’ll never graduate. NEVER.

And then without thinking, I head to my desk.

Failure.

I stare at my wondrous friend, Sweet Sunset, who tells me to not fret and that he’ll come help me.

You’ll never be happy. Not in school, not EVER.

Maybe my brain is right. Nothing will make me happy. After all, everything is changing. I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m sixteen years old and am two years away from graduating high school and heading off into the real, terrifying world. If I ever graduate.

I give up. I can’t do this no longer.

Do it, Frances. Do it.

I pick up my sunset from my desk. “You idiot!” I sob. “You never did anything for me! Look at me! I’m a mess! I’M A MIGHTY AWFUL MESS, LET ME TELL YOU!”

I hear footsteps racing through the hall, and I bet that it’s my mom. But before she or anyone can stop me…

I begin to tear my creation apart. I rip it into shreds, little bits of ugly snowflakes hastily falling to the ground.

My mom races through the door and yells at me to stop. “No! No!” I yell back. “I’m a mess! I’m a mess!”

And then before I know it, all the snow is laying on my bedroom floor, every pink and blue hue a sad nothing. 

I stand there, shocked and horrified at what I’ve done. Me, a messy, broken failure. I can barely do anything but stare at my bedroom clock. It’s 3:18. How could something so terrible happen in such a short time?

My mom wraps me in a hug and tells me that everything’s okay. But it’s not. 

The regret seeps into me, black tar trying desperately to poison my body. And it works. I feel so much shame, so many terrible feelings. 

What did I do? What did I do? What did I do?

***

Almost every single person I know waits anxiously until Friday, when they can choose whether or not to study that day (most likely the latter) and just be a teenager again. Not me, or at least throughout this week. I can’t help but look out at the sky and remember what a horrible fool I am for the mess I made that terrible Monday. Every class and every lunch period involves me sitting in my seat, my eyes staring at a bottomless nothing as the world flies by without me. And whenever I do have time, I hide in the bathroom stall and sink my head down, my heavy brain letting the tears flow until my eyes become a sorrowful, gloomy desert.

Today is the day everyone was waiting for, but I don’t care. I’m sitting alone as I normally do at my typical lunch table when I hear footsteps around me. “Hey, Frances.” 

It’s Kelsey. Oh God. I can’t have her see me like this.

“You okay? Can I sit with you?”

I can’t bear having Kelsey’s kindness bear down on me when I’m such an awful mess. I reply sharply, “Leave me alone.”

Kelsey doesn’t budge. She sits right down anyway, putting her loving hand on top of my shoulder. “You sure? You seem really depressed.”

That’s it. I had enough. 

I throw Kelsey’s hand off my shoulder like it’s a cloth toy and look at her straight in the eye with a face just like the devil. “CAN’T YOU SEE, KELSEY?!” I scream. “I’M A MESS! A HORRIBLE MESS! CAN’T YOU JUST RESPECT THAT?!”

Kelsey appears stunned by my sudden meltdown. “You’re right,” she whimpers. “I’m sorry.” As she stands up to leave, a salty sea of tears begin to form in her eyes.

But just when I’m finally alone again, even more footsteps begin to come up behind me. “Frances? You want to talk?”

That voice sounds so familiar, yet it’s a voice I really don’t want to hear. I turn around and see our school counselor, Mrs. Pugh. But why do I need to talk? All I want is to be alone! Why doesn’t anyone get that?

“I don’t want to,” I reply stiffly.

“You sure? I’m pretty sure Kelsey felt bad by what you said. Maybe we can talk about how you feel.”

“Why do I need to talk about how I feel? She didn’t get that I had to be alone! I had to tell her! I’m a sick monster, after all!”

“Well, whenever you’re ready, my door’s always open. Just try to think about your actions for a bit.”

And once again, I’m finally alone. Thank God for that, because I don’t need help from anybody! Not Mrs. Pugh, not Kelsey, NOBODY! They can’t help me to be okay! I will never be okay! 

After all, if I can’t find happiness, then why do I need help to seek it?

***

It’s already 3:00, and all I want is to sink into my bed and never get up. 

That’s exactly what I do when I sulk up the stairs and into my bedroom. The sunshine is brighter than ever, yet I don’t bother to give a quick hello to it. Then, when I pass by my desk, I notice something recognizable: a pile of my torn-up artwork—my broken regrets—sitting right next to a note from my mom:

Just in case you wanted to keep it. It’s still beautiful to me.

Love you, Frankie girl.

Mom <3

Who cares? It’s nothing but a shredded mess now, so what can I do about it? All my happiness is smaller than a microbe. 

I head over to my bed and hide under the covers, my black and gray world getting even darker. My brain becomes a thirty-five pound weight, and a raincloud of sorrow ties me up like it’s kidnapping me. It hurts so much to even stare at a wall. When the pain becomes too much, I close my eyes.

But just as I am in the midst of my extreme melancholy, I hear a whisper so tiny not even a person with perfect hearing could listen to it. “Frances. Frances…”

I open my eyes at the sudden recognizing of my dead friend. “Sweet Sunset?” I mumble, just at the point of crying. “You’re still alive?”

“Well, not exactly,” my torn-up sunset responds. “But I can still talk to you, which is still really important. But why are you there? What’s wrong?”

And that’s when I lose it, crying without any end in sight. When I do eventually calm down, I tell it all my regrets and all the horrible events that happened to me since then. 

“Poor girl,” says my sunset in a voice with a melancholy almost as big as mine. “I wish you weren’t so miserable. But even though you can’t change the past, you can always make things better in the present. With that in mind, Frances, you can find happiness.”

“What? But how?” I croak, confused by what I just heard. “I’ve tried, and I failed. I’ll just live and die unhappy, I guess.”

“No, you won’t. Come. Get out of bed and walk over to me.”

I do exactly what I am told to do, even though I am 1,000% sure that I probably shouldn’t be listening to my spirit friend. Has he gone mad? I don’t think he even knows what he’s saying! Happiness doesn’t exist for me anymore!

But here I am, at my desk. Here we go…

“So, what do you want me to do?” I ask.

“Take me and go make something beautiful.”

My confusion becomes so big that it squeezes my brain really hard and latches on to it. I’m still pretty sad, and with a heavy brain, how can you make something beautiful? 

But at the same time, some of the depression has dissipated to the point where there’s some space for trying again, so why not?

I pick up two pieces from my beloved sunset, and as my mind spirals with possible ideas, my depression disintegrates even further to the point where it’s basically nothing.

And then, like a miracle happens, I have an idea. 

I search through my closet for empty hangers I don’t need and take a white one. Then I rush over to my art station in the right corner and picked out some yarn, tape, and my pink scissors. There. Now I have everything I need.

I head over to my desk and begin creating. I snip shapes and tape things onto yarn and hang those yarn pieces onto my hanger. I even smile and giggle while I do so (Isn’t that funny?). And then I finally have a yarn-paper waterfall full of yellow-orange suns, pink hearts, and blue moons. I even added some colored ribbon to it, adding a bright rainbow to my glorious creation. 

I hang my piece onto my closet door and step back to look at my work. And to be honest to you, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my entire life. It reminds me of a child’s mind, filled with color and life and silly childish nonsense. And then memories of my happy childhood start running up to me and begging for my attention. I used to keep them away, as I wasn’t the happy kid I used to be. But I think now I can let them in my brain, and so I do.

Wow. Why do I feel so…so…happy

My mom opens the door to my room, and I tell her to be careful. “Why so?” she asks.

I point to my beautiful work on the wall. She gasps as if she’s looking at an Alexander Calder piece, only more innocent than innovative. “Oh, I’m so proud of you, Frankie girl,” she exclaims, hugging me in an embrace that feels like warm joy. “How were you able to do this?”

“Just…creativity,” I respond. And then I suddenly find myself crying tears of joy. It’s so weird, yet I don’t care. “Momma, I want to be happy.” I whisper. “In fact, I will be happy. I’ll try.”

My mom hugs me even tighter, probably as a thank you for what I just said. “That’s all I ever wanted to hear for years,” she replies.

***

I go to Mrs. Pugh first thing after school Monday. She gives me a warm, loving smile when I go into her office, which welcomes me rather than stabbing me. I sit and talk about all the issues I’ve had ever since the end of eighth grade and how it was wrong for me to scream at Kelsey on Friday. At the end of it all I cry softly to her, “I think I need help.”

Then I sob harder, my regret for hiding my emotions stinging me to the point where I can’t move my body. Mrs. Pugh touches my shoulders and says, “Thank you for sharing that with me, Frances. It must have been so hard for you to talk about your pain, but I’m glad you did. That way I can help you get better.”

Is this what hope looks like? If so, I’m pretty sure I just found it, and I’ve never felt happier.

Mrs. Pugh tells me that she can meet with me Fridays after school from now on, and I happily accept the request. I walk out of her office brighter than I ever felt, hopeful that my terrible emotions can dissipate to a smoky nothingness.

And just as I am about to walk out of school, I see someone familiar by the trophy display: Kelsey. Normally my terrified brain would force me to run out of the building and never look back, but maybe this time I should say something to her. I walk up to her, and when Kelsey turns around and sees me, her face appears stunned at my presence.

“I know, I know,” I begin, “I probably shouldn’t be here right now. But I have to say this. I’m so, so sorry, Kelsey. I really am. Things were going on with me, and that probably made me all stupid. But I would never hurt you, and I feel really bad for that.”

Kelsey gives me the same loving smile she always gives to people like me. “It’s okay,” she replies warmly. “I understand that you may have been having a rough time. But no matter how I feel, I still forgive you. We all have our rough days. Hey, wanna share phone numbers? Maybe we can hang out sometime this weekend!”

Wow. Never in three years has someone been so nice to me like that. It feels so wonderful to be loved. I say yes immediately, and we both decide to meet for smoothies on Sunday.

***

So many beautiful things have happened these past eleven days. I feel my soul being lifted to substantial heights, and believe me, it’s quite a beautiful thing to feel. I’m no longer a bird desperate to hide in its cage, but a bird who’s really to fly in the sky. I don’t know how the rest of junior year will be, but I know for sure that when a challenge comes, I’ll take it on with might rather than hiding in the darkness.

Speaking of sky, I should probably say something to a very special someone for my sunny disposition. As I walk out of school, I can tell that my sunset can hear me loud and clear. 

“Thank you, Sweet Sunset,” I say out loud without a care in the world. “Thank you for teaching me.”

The End 🙂


Across the Galaxy

Ava

I can’t believe we were so close to Earth! It doesn’t seem real. After all this fighting and escaping and loss we were finally going to make it. I closed my eyes taking a deep breath, waiting for the pod to say, “Landing now,” or “You have arrived.” I looked to Arin and she was staring out the window. I felt sweat drip down my neck. I started to fan myself all of sudden feeling a bit hot. Soon beads of sweat started to pour down my forehead. My head started to throb from the heat. It was getting hot and my face felt on fire. I held Arin’s hand scared for what could happen next. My whole body was hot and it felt like I was getting lowered onto flames. Something wrong was happening.

Arin

This is the moment I have been waiting for for days. Should I believe that it’s happening? Sometimes when you want something for so long or so badly when it actually happens you have no idea how to react. Almost seems too good to be true. Until… it was too good to be true. We squeezed our hands together. My forehead starts dripping with nervous sweat. We were getting hot, like slowly walking near a bonfire. Ava mentions the escape pod might be burning up. I squeezed my eyes tight, I felt like we were so close. Why does this have to happen? We worked so hard it’s not fair. A tear rolled down my cheek. 

“ Oh no,”  I said under my breath.

Ava 

I got up from the seat in the escape pod and looked out the window flames that were engulfing the windowsill. There was a crash and I jumped back as the window burst shattering glass all over the floor. I slowly stepped back seeing the flames spread throughout the inner wall of the pod.

“WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! EVACUATE! EVACUATE!” the escape pod was blaring red lights but there was nothing to do. We had to wait as the flames crept to us like a wolf hunting its prey. I practically felt the flames leaping at my face, I started to cry my eyes wide as the bright orange flames surrounded my body. Suddenly I lurched forward as I felt a falling motion. We were moving fast and me and Arin hit the wall as we spiralled out of control. I closed my eyes wishing this was all done, that this feeling would go away. Then there was a crash, a big thud. I hit the side of the pod then tumbled out feeling the cool pavement, A dark screen fielded my vision and then everything went black. 

Arin

I gradually opened my eyelids. My head felt like it was just hit with a long metal pole. As I slowly tuned in to my surroundings and focused my eyes, I  saw that I was finally not on the toxic planet of Niburus. We have no chains no bandages, we were free. It was getting dark, I expect almost 9:00pm, the sky was grey and a storm might be coming. There were many old abandoned buildings. My knees were scraped from the cracked road. I saw Ava out cold on the pavement. I limped over to her body. This was the closest I have ever been to death, and I have had a gun held up to my head. I felt like my bones were holding on by a thread burning up side my body. I used the last bit of energy and strength to wake Ava up, “Please don’t be dead,” I repeated in my head. I can’t lose someone else.

“A-a-Ava..” I stuttered. I shook her, my muscles tensing up. She coughed and rolled over. 

“Arin, are… you ok?” she whispered. I used all my might to wrap my arms around her scarred body. I gave her a warm embrace after life was almost snatched from us. Sometimes you don’t realize what you have until you lose it, or almost lose it. I just realized how much I needed and cherished Ava. What would’ve happened if we didn’t make it?

Ava

I woke up, my head pounding. I looked up and saw Arin. She had a long cut on the side of her face dripping with blood next to her ear. She had a worried look on her face. As I rolled over coughing up some blood I crawled onto the concrete. I tried to stand up but my ankles gave in and I fell back to the ground. I looked at my cut arms and saw goosebumps rise. It was chilly out and the wind snapped at my face.

“Arin… we need to find shelter,” I said, then coughed again. I looked around then saw a sign made of wood and it was slightly tilted to the side, it said, “WELCOME TO THE TOWN OF SIER!”

Arin

I agreed with Ava, we needed to find shelter. I looked around, THERE!

“Ava, I see an old shed next to that brick building.” I  pointed out.

“Arin I’m not sure I can make it all the way there, my body is aching,” Ava groaned.

“It’s ok I will be right here to help you.” I lifted Ava’s limp arm over my shoulder and we hopped to the other side of the street. The wind was tugging on our hair, and the grey clouds were passing over our heads giving me chills up and down my body. Once we got over to the shed, we sat down on the rough wooden floor. First we needed sleep so we can rest before we decide what to do. I took off the sweaters me and Ava tied around our waist and balled them up for pillows. Ava’s skin looked pale and she had  bloody deep wounds. She looked terrible. I could tell she was trying to keep her eyes open.

“Sleep,” I whispered into Ava’s ear. As Ava dozed off I looked around the shed. I rubbed my hand against the creaky hardwood floor. There was a cracked window, a broken sliding barn door, three hay bails in the corner… A-are those bodies?

Ava

I heard Arin gasp and slowly tap my shoulder, I abruptly sat up. Suddenly the pain came shooting back into my body. I squinted to see in the dark shed but I could make out three figures walking towards us. I tried to shuffle backwards but my ankles still hurt so bad. I sat there waiting for whatever was coming towards us. There was a crack in the roof overtop of us, the moonlight shone down lighting up our face. I heard some toads croaking and the chirping of crickets. I waited as the figures came closer to the light, I waited for them to finally reveal themselves. I looked down as I saw a grey converse enter the pool of light and then the whole person, a raggedy boy with a buzzcut and cold grey eyes. He had dirt and scars all over him and was wearing a navy green T-shirt and dirty beige Khakis. Behind him was a girl. She had long black hair close to her waist, her skin was a light tan color and she had black trimmed glasses. She walked up next to the boy and I saw her jean shorts and yellow tank top. Standing next to the girl was a boy holding her hand. He had golden hair and blue eyes on the side of his arms was a blue tint as well as on his knees. He was wearing a blue shirt and sports shorts. They stared straight at me and Arin, their eyes looked scared.

Arin

“Ava, get behind me.” I stammered, staring back at the three kids.

“So clearly your name is Ava, hi I’m Rose, And you are?” The long black haired girl said as she looked at me.

“How do I know to trust you?” I scowled at her.

“I’m Liam and looking at you it doesn’t seem you just strolled in here, where are you from?” The blond hair boy said.

“Why would I tell you? You are nothing more than three strangers,” I said still sceptical.

“We got kidnapped by aliens, though I don’t expect you to believe us,” said Ava.

“I was kidnapped by them too,” Liam said, sighing, “They even put there serum in me.”

“Why aren’t you one of them then?” I asked. 

“It didn’t work fully.” Liam said staring at the ground.

“Ok, so you’re Liam, you’re Rose, I’m Arin and this is Ava, then who are you?” I stared at the hidden boy in the shadows.

“My name is Hunter.” We were all awkwardly standing in the light of the shed all connected in one way but still complete strangers.

Ava

“Come here, we have some makeshift beds over there,” Liam said pointing to the corner with the hay bales. Me and Arin walked over to the hay bales and saw a bunch of straw piled to make multiple beds. There were trash bags that seemed to be stuffed with grass which were used as pillows and a bunch of old clothes and rags tied together to make multiple blankets. Next to the bed was an old bag which seemed to be filled up with different foods. 

“Ok, you and Arin can share that bed me and Liam will share that bed and Hunter can sleep in that one,” Rose said.

“I guess they’re dating or something,” I whispered to Arin.

Arin

Me and Ava climbed into the pokey hay bed, And I can say that those pillows were not the comfiest pillows I have slept on. I heard Liam whisper, “Night babe.” 

Hunter slowly drifted off to sleep, the moonlight gradually disappeared. The wind was getting softer but the air was getting colder. I took a deep breath and waited for Ava to close her eyes, then I rolled over and released all my stress. 

I was sitting in a cold metal chair. My wrists dripping with blood, bound tight with rope. I was looking down at Ava lying on the floor with Master Malden hunched over her. He was pressing a hot iron rod on her throat, melting her like a marshmallow. She let out a blood curdling scream. 

“Arin, HELP. It hurts so bad…” Her voice was losing power. I tried to break free from the rope but it just burned my wrists causing them to bleed more. I tried to move out of my chair but nothing was working. I-I was trying. Then I heard Ava give a hopeless breath and then, she laid there motionless. 

I shot up in the hay bed panting, I was breaking out in a cold sweat coming down my forehead. It was a nightmare.

Ava

I woke up feeling good, that was the first time in a while that I had had a decent sleep in awhile. I sat up and stretched my arms. As I turned around, I saw Hunter looking in the bag for some food. He took out an old bagel as well as some nuts. He started to take bites of the bagel leaning against one of the hay bales. He looked up and saw me staring at him. He quickly looked back down at his food. I shook Arin awake and she looked up at me groaning. 

“What time is it?” She said rolling back around to go  to bed again. 

“Time for you to get up! Come on, let’s get some food.” I said trying to turn her back around. I got up and walked over to the bag and looked through looking for some food. I grabbed a slice of bread and some salami. I walked back to me and Arin’s bed and gave her some of the bread and salami. 

Finally after everyone ate, we all went outside of the shed. I still ached a bit and was kind of sore but I was able to walk outside, and the fresh air felt nice. 

“So what are we going to do…” I said. 

“Hey Ava remember all the other kids, you know there all going to be turned aliens right?” Arin said.

“And…” I said looking at Arin seeing what she was getting to.

“You want to just leave them there,” Arin said staring straight into my eyes.

I looked at her trying to see if she was joking or not. She wasn’t.

“Arin do you really want to do this, you want to go back and save them?”

“Ava, it’s almost our duty to do this if we could escape then we must be able to help them escape.”

“Well then how are we going to get there? The only way back is that escape pod and it’s really broken,” I said as we all looked over to the broken escape pod which was crashed in the middle of the road. 

“I mean if we tried we would probably be able to fix it or at least make it flyable, maybe there’s stuff inside the ship,” Rose said. I forgot that they were all there and didn’t even think about if they wanted to come or not. Hunter nodded next to Rose. I turned back to Arin.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I said to Arin.

“Yes,” She said. I turned to Rose, Liam, and Hunter.

“I’m in,” Rose said.

“Me too,” Hunter mumbled.

I turned to Liam, he was staring at the ground.

“I know you don’t want to do this because of what they did to you but…”

“Um, I don’t know guys I just… well I just don’t know, I’ll wait to see if you guys can actually fix that escape pod.” 

We all walked over to the ship and started to try and see how we could fix it. Rose was already starting to fix things, she seemed pretty smart and Hunter was listening to her and started reattaching wires. I turned around and saw Liam pacing back and forth looking nervous. Rose noticed Liam and went over to him and started talking, walking off in a hurry. 

Arin 

While we were all preparing the ship, I saw Rose and Liam walked off. He was yelling about going back to planet Niburus. Suddenly horror struck me. Liam was turning into an alien. A transformation that felt like burning metal piercing your skin. He was bending over seething with pain. Liam fell to the ground, skinning his now bright blue knee’s on the street. His head pounding and melting. He opened his teary salty eyes, seeing his skin bleeding profusely, slowly turning blue. Liam’s eyes were bulging out of his skull. He screamed as loud as he could, “Make it stop, MAKE IT STOP!” He couldn’t hear himself over the buzzing noise, feeling like it was bursting his eardrums. 

Liam didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t make it stop, he didn’t know how to. The pain was like nothing he had felt before. 

“Liam, you’re okay, you’ve got this. You are the strongest person I know. Fight it!” Rose screamed, but still muffled by the buzzing. Liam could see through his blurry vision Rose was sobbing. “Liam LOOK AT ME!” Her voice was trailing away as Liam wanted to tell Rose nothing could make it better.

“Rose, let me help!” I said running over to them.

“No! Let me handle this. I’m his girlfriend, I’m the one that’s supposed to be here for him.” She demands.

“Rose, st-stop, stop trying.. AHH UGG!” he suddenly screamed with a shock of pain

“Liam I will fix it, trust me.”

“Rose help me.”

“ I-I don’t know how, but I’m with you.” Rose was losing hope. “Just hold on to my hand, focus on this moment.” 

Liam took Rose’s hand and held on tight. He looked at her in the eye, and took a deep breath. The pain will go away, she said. She told him to wait. He waited, waited for Rose. He didn’t know why he felt the need to wait, I mean it wasn’t going away. But he couldn’t leave—he couldn’t leave Rose. For the first time in a while, he broke the tough screen he had been hiding behind and cried so hard his eyes couldn’t cry anymore. And all Rose said it’s ok.

Ava

Everyday we woke up, everyday we worked more and more on the pod, everyday we went to bed hoping that the next day would be the day where we would finally finish the escape pod, and everyday Liam got more and more anxious of the day to come. 

I went in the straw bed which wasn’t as uncomfortable as before. I laid awake, Rose said that we would be done with the escape pod by tomorrow. I was so nervous, I just couldn’t sleep. What if it didn’t work, or what if we don’t make it and we get lost in space? I wondered what Liam is going to do. I knew how much he doesn’t want to go but maybe he’ll still come, and how are we going to actually save all the children? I forced my eyes closed and waited as the sleep came over me and I finally fell asleep.

Arin

The next morning, we all woke up full of adrenalin. Today was the day, we were going to rescue all those innocent kids. You could feel the emotion in the air. We ate breakfast without a word, silently, slowly, nervous tension began crawling through my body. I tensed up and started breathing rapidly, my heart was pounding. Ava put her hand on my back, she knew I was panicking.  

“It’ll be ok, we are safe, and soon those other kids will be too. We are doing the right thing and we are right behind you.” Ava reassured me. We walked out to the escape pod and we all got in. The sky was clear and spotless, not one cloud to be seen. Me and Ava sat in the two front seats controlling the pod, and Hunter, Liam, and Rose sat in the three back seats. Me and Ava squeezed our hand tight together. Rose was leaning her head on Liam’s shoulder, I could tell Liam was choking back tears. Hunter was looking out the window gagging and coughing, he said he has motion sickness. I pressed one button and that was it “Taking lift off, destination planet Nibirus.”

Ava

I closed my eyes, hoping this would work. I felt nervous but a bit excited. I clicked the button that said “Lift Off.” We waited a second and we heard the sound of the escape pod turn on and then we shot up into the morning sky. The escape pod had left the ground. I closed my eyes as Arin reached forward to press the “Superspeed” button. I held the chair tight and waited until I felt the jolt forward, and then we were off. A minute later, I opened my eyes and saw the darkness around me. There were bright stars and when I turned around, I could see Earth behind us, it looked like a marble slowly shrinking away. I turned to see Liam and Rose cuddling and Hunter was standing next to the window. He almost looked like he was gagging.

“Hunter, are you ok?” I said. 

“Umm yeah just a little bit *gag* motion sick.” He said then turned and stumbled to the bathroom. I looked in front of me and gasped as I saw the planet of Nibirus approaching. We started to slow down as the surface of the planet became more and more clear. The engine started to decelerate we landed softly on the grass of Nibirus.

Arin

One small jerk and we were there. Memories and flashbacks began racing across my mind. Mia, my parents, that little girl behind tortured. Well, this is why we were here, I guess. To save those poor children. We headed straight to the entrance, I whipped out the card that I used a couple weeks ago to escape the building. I locked the door of the escape pod. We ducked over to the door and I swiped my card. Right away, there were two guards. Me and Hunter broke out in a fight. Two minutes later, both guards were down on the ground and I had a bloody nose. Meanwhile Ava, Rose, and Liam were on their way to the kids. Me and Hunter were trying too catch up to them, some more guards at our heels. We only had one key and over 100 children, and barely any time. 

Ava

We ran into the lab. There were tons of children and each one looked depressed and cold. Some of them were crying, and some of them were beating on the walls or trying to figure a way out.

“Hey! How did you get out? that’s not fair!” A girl with short straight hair and a gap in her teeth. All the kids turned towards us there faces surprised.

“Shhh they’ll come back,” Liam said.

“Who?” The same girl said.

“The aliens, they’re going to turn you into them you’ll-you’ll turn into an alien… like me,” Liam said as he showed them the said of his arms which were both a light blue color. All the kids gasped as the saw Liam’s arms. 

“Well how are you going to get us out?” asked a little girl with pigtails and two pink bows.

“With this!” I said as I pulled out the access card. I then began unlocking each cage and more and more kids came out hugging each other, and some crying.

“Now what do we do?” a little boy with brown hair asked.

“Well we need to escape, follow me,” Rose said motioning towards the exit.

Arin

As we were running to the others, six guards came at once. 

“I got these three you get the other ones!” I shouted at Hunter.

I kicked and punched and ran and jumped. Both sides weren’t giving up. A guard punched me in the gut and kicked my face, blood all over the floor. Hunter’s leg was dripping with thick blood. Me and Hunter went back to back and did one move and took 4 out at once. Only two left. I kicked one’s ankle and punched his nose one out, one to go. I looked behind me and saw Hunter finish the last one off. We gave one celebratory high five and ran straight to the cages where the rest were. On the way there we ran into Ava, Rose, and Liam. They were running back with a bunch of kids behind them. 

“To the escape pods!” Liam directed.  

Ava

We burst out of the door and ran towards the market. I turned behind me and saw all the kids running. There were kids of all ages, and we all flooded the streets of Nibirus. Aliens jumped back as kids came near them. I smiled. We were going to make it. Then I stopped, I turned around as I saw Master Maldens personal soldiers were chasing after us. 

“Everyone hurry, were almost to the path and then we can get to the escape pods!” I yelled. We hurried up and made it to the path, the path where Mia died. I held tears back as I remembered when Mia died in the acid, wait that’s it! We have to push the soldiers into the acid. The big doors were ahead of us, we just needed to make it there, then we’d be safe, but no. More soldiers came running through the doors. I stopped frozen.

“Every one on the count of three push them in the acid!” I said loud enough for everyone to hear but not the soldiers.

“ONE,” I yelled.

“TWO,” Arin yelled.

“THREE,” Rose said.

All the kids pushed the soldiers in front of them over into the acid. They began to burn in it and we kept running. Finally we made it to the doors. 

Arin

We all burst through the door.

“I have been in this situation here before…” I said under my breath.

“This time we are safe” Ava whispered grabbing me by the hand. We split up everyone in different escape pods. Me and Ava watched everyone safely get inside the pods and wished Liam, Rose and Hunter good luck. They were leading all the escape pods back to earth. Me and Ava will be the tail of the pack, making sure no one will get left behind. As we were getting into our last escape pod, we heard a cold, harsh voice we recognized. Master Malden was leaning on the wall one leg up like a highschool boy on a locker. He was there the whole time. 

“Go ahead, escape I will give you guys a head start,” Master Malden said with a smirk.

“What? Why aren’t you stopping us?” I replied.

“I’m giving you an advantage, I would take it if I were you.” He was slowly walking toward us.

 “Three, two.” He was counting. Me and Ava quickly go into the escape pod. We closed the door.

“ONE!” We were off.

Ava

I pressed the “Lift Off” button and sped forward, I looked forward. We were all the way in the back to make sure nothing happened to the other pods. We kept going then I heard a blast, I turned to look behind me. A big ship was behind us, I squinted my eyes and saw standing right in the center window was Malden, and the ship, it was shooting, AT US! We kept going and they kept missing but were getting closer. We got closer and closer. The Earth approaching, as well as Maldens ship. I clicked the “Boost All” button. All the escape pods burst forward, we all burst into the atmosphere. The escape pods were getting faster and faster because of the Earth’s gravity. We were so close I could see our shed, we were finally going to make it.

Arin

We were so close. Now was the time, I was shaking. Me and Ava saw everyone else we rescued standing on the ground below us ready for war, weapons, formation, and everything. We quickly approached them and landed on the ground. Goosebumps were rising on my lims. I have never been more nervous for anything. Not even this morning when we were setting free the kids. We rushed to the front of the blob of people. We had the taller ones in the front, shorter in the back. All of us carried weapons we stole from the aliens. Me, Ava, Rose, Hunter, and Liam all hugged as this might be the last time we could hug. Liam kissed Rose on the cheek and shared a warm loving hug (I held back throwing up). Tears were running down all of our cheeks. My eyes were red. This could be goodbye. If this is the end, all we got to, at least we got this far. I had a hole in my stomach, and knew it could only be filled if we won this battle. I was fired up, as determined as a fox about to pounce on a rabbit. We won’t run away, we hide, we will stand here, we won’t move for anything. We saw a big black ship coming straight for us. It was time to fight.


The Septic Eye

Hey my name is Shuji and this is my excellent story about how I got the Septic Eye.

Bye mom, I hope you rest in peace. I am going off to college, I hope I make you proud. I am at my mother’s grave, crying like a wimp. (Well of course I am, it’s my mother. Don’t judge me readers you are not Judge Judy.)

 I walk away with a glum look on my face, sluggish as an obese man that just ran the Iron Man. I pull out my phone and there is a weird Icon on the screen. I look around and think, why is this happening to me? It happens every week, but this time it said we have been watching you for the longest time, I think you are ready.  The confusion on my face then was obvious. A damp white cloth is slapped on my face. Chloroform! THEY WERE TRYING TO CAPTURE ME! I squirmed and tousled but they still got me. You see I’m a strong boy, but not as strong as that beast of a human that had me in his grasp. I got in a truck and I heard movement. 

The leader (Pewdiepie) took off the mask and said, “Welcome to S.H.O. Business.”

“What’s that?” I said with a smirk on my face, trying not to laugh.

“It’s not funny, S.H.O. Sacred Hero Organisation. This is what we do when we aren’t posting videos, we save the world.” 

“Ha HA HA HA HA HA HA. You’re funny”

“Anyways we recruited you because you work out, do parkour, are very smart, and are really good at shooting.”

“But what about college? And my dad is gonna die without me, you can’t take me. I am flattered but I can’t do this”

“Who said you had a choice? Guys knock him out!”

 After that 2 weeks of training blindly of what’s going

“Hey guys!”  I say happily, now that I am finished.

“Hey.” Sean said, “And welcome come to the S.H.O., the Sacred Hero Organisation.” 

“I thought your name was Jack?” I say with confusion.

“No that’s just my user name, Jacksepticeye, it is a very common mistake to make.” 

As I look around I see things that you would see in a movie. Like a supercomputer, images of the world and a weird picture with a floating eye that looks like a Septiceye named Sam. My thinking becomes corrupt and my mind is like a black whole taking away my memories and I feel my conscious walking into the darkest part of my mind. I feel a hand grasping my shoulder and it’s Sean, but he has no eyes, a bleeding mouth and a slit throat. I close my eyes and I’m back into reality. I notice the whole time that the team was shouting my name behind me.

“Shuji! Shuji! Shuji!” They all scream. 

“Get out of there it’s all fake, stop looking!” Markiplier says with a loud voice.

I need to not look at that. But, I think that is what we are looking for so how am I going to do this. Wait I see someone else, who is that? IS THAT?! H2O DELIRIOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!! Wait he has a hockey mask on in real life? And no one still hasn’t seen his face except CaRtOoNz? Why don’t people just try to take it off. That’s insane. What should I do? I should probably ask for our mission because we are all standing awkwardly.

“Hey Sean when is our mission?”

“Uhh, I think they are going to brief us right now.”

“Good morning all you bros!” Pewdiepie says to all of us.

“Our mission, it is very dangerous. We are going to to retrieve the SepticEye Sam!”

Everyone shouts with joy and and screams from the tops of their lungs. I do do the same. 

“Yeah, woooh, wahhhhhhh!!!!” I scream with the others.

“Shuji, Sean and Mark you guys are going to do this ultimate mission. Guys celebrate them, give them energy, they can do this, come on!!!!”

“YEAHHHH WOOO AHHHHH!!!” Everyone screams. “YOU CAN DO THIS!!!!”

I smile with joy, like a boy that just found his lost cat from 3 years ago. I actually feel like I can do this. Well no I can’t, but they don’t know that. All they know is that I am ready. I am not going to disappoint them even though I am scared. Probably when I get there I won’t be like a dog in a thunderstorm. 

“So Sean where are the weapons?”

“RIght here, but I don’t need them because of my power.”

“WHAT?! You have powers?”

“Yeah everyone does Mark won’t need them either. You’ll probably develop them later this week.”

“Wait what? What powers?”

“I don’t know Pewdipie said that you need to see something for you to unlock your powers.”

“Uhh.. I am so confused.”

“It doesn’t matter right now we need to focus on the mission, we can ask when we get back.”

“What? You started the convo…”

“SHHHHHHHH let’s go,” Sean says interrupting me.

I get into the hyper car and zoom off. My stomach drops to the bottom of my abdomen like an anvil falling onto an animated character. I’m surprised because we get to the location super fast. It is a weird lab place. (Cliche isn’t it readers? Spoiler, my friend Sean welp he….) I was right, now I don’t feel as unprepared. I have my 2 guns, a Scorpion, and my TMP. I’m ready to defeat these evil guards with these hollow points. Bullets flying, green magic and some fire. I roll into cover. 

“Shuji cover my back I am standing up.”

“Okay Mark let’s do this!”

We are back to back shooting. Headshot. Headshot. Headshot. We are destroying but where is Sean his magic is not flying through the hair. I only see fire in the hair from Mark. Wait he has a gun to his head. Oh no, what do I do. 

I whisper to mark, “They have Sean, what do we do?

“Just follow my lead,” Mark says confidently.

He walks up to the giant muscular guard with his guns in his hands.

“PUT YOUR GUN DOWN OR I WILL SHOOT!”

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! No.”

Boom. Sean’s brain blows out into pieces. His brains drop onto the ground and are covered in blood. His body drops and eyes turn black.

The guy who got shot him is the guy from my vision. Bop Bop Bop. Mark shoots angrily at the guard’s head and burns his body to ash. People are dead. Everyone here is dead, OMG, what the hell!

“Shuji go in side there are no more guards but security. DO IT NOW!”

“OK,” I say with a worried voice.

I walk into the lab almost throwing up because of all the blood around me. I see the eye. And walk towards it like a moth to a light, walking through the lasers for the mounted guns while dodging consciously. I am at the tube and, my mind, it’s, it’s in Darkness again. I see things that I don’t want to see. I see death itself. The matted black plague in my mind grows stronger taking away what is good and replacing it with evil. 

The eye says, “Death awaits others, have fun.” (Ohhh reader, I love this part. Read carefully.)

This is what I do. I have fun. Breaking the glass I take the eye from the tube and use my knife to gouge out my eye. With the eye in my hand I slice it. Slice it more and more with anger with blood coming out of my eye socket like a blood waterfall gushing with craziness. As I replace this disgusting eye with the Septic Eye, I feel this power and it’s great. I feel it pulsing through my veins and into my hands. It’s like all I need to do is Kill. I need the KILL! Just KILL! I jump out of the building breaking through the roof and find the car. I see Mark. I think that he is now my new victim. It’s time. Time to let the world know who is king!

The Cottage in the Woods

It was a seemingly ordinary day at Camp Lemon, but not for Emilya Collins. Emilya was simply hiking along the Yellow Trail like everyone else, except for the fact that she wasn’t engaging in meaningless chatter like everyone else. No, Emilya was a loner, and she wanted to stay that way. She also had dirty blond hair that she always kept in a tight bun at the back of her neck, and was only four foot eight.

The group halted when the counselors up front did so. At this point, in time and space, the group of middle-aged (by camp standards) campers on the Yellow Trail were supposed to meet the younger campers, by the way of the intersection of the Green Trail and the Yellow Trail, but the younger campers and the Green Trail had seemingly disappeared. 

Since the counselors couldn’t investigate just by themselves, (since that would mean leaving the campers alone) two of the counselors said that they would stay behind on the trail with anyone who wanted to, and two others would take students who wanted to explore (aka look for the younger campers, their counselors, and the Green Trail). Since Emilya preferred small groups to large ones (but she liked to be alone above all), and since less people wanted to “explore,” Emilya joined that group.

Twenty or so minutes after the “explore” group started “exploring,” Emilya got bored. When she thought the coast was clear, she set out to re-find and explore the cute and mysterious cottage she saw around five minutes back. 

Just as Emilya was escaping, she heard a most annoying phrase.

“Halt!” It was Claire Oderr-Clemens, the biggest bully in Camp Lemon. Even the head counselor was scared of her (only because the mad scientist Dr. Oderr-Clemens-Shakespeare-Rowling-Silverstein was her mother, and she threatened that her “explosion-causing mother will hear about this!”) Both mother and daughter were known for blowing things up. When they arrived at Camp Lemon, they planted an explosive in the Nurse’s office that didn’t blow up because, as Claire said, “I just want to scare people.”

Dr Oderr-Clemens-Shakespeare-Rowling-Silverstein threatened to actually blow up the nurse’s office if they expelled Claire.

“What does your uncivilized person want from me?” Emilya grandly replied. Claire got rather red in the face.

“Want to leave with Emily,” grunted Marsha Balonrey, the strongest person in the entirety of Camp Lemon. Due to the threat of Marsha, Emilya warily let them find/explore the house with her.

The walk to the house was peppered with Claire criticizing Emilya’s literary tastes, and Marsha pointing everything out.

However, soon they reached the mysterious cottage. It was small, but probably appeared bigger on the inside, with cute woodwork. It was the sort of place Emilya might want to live herself one day. 

When the rebels approached the cottage, some sort of forcefield froze the bullies in their positions, but they were surprised by the forcefield, so they were stuck in rather ridiculous poses. However, this did not affect Emilya, so she walked on through. 

Emilya adored the tiny little cottage, everything from the Gothic arches, to the fascinating books, and the cauldron on table, until she saw the old hag putting ingredients in aforementioned cauldron. Then Emilya was scared out of her wits.

“Emilya, I know what you want,” the hag croaked. “I know what you need.”

“Who-who are you?” the usually eloquently-tongued Emilya stammered.

“I am Cerona,” the hag answered, “and I can help you, Emilya. I can have an Asgardian spirit eat your enemies for breakfast. I can summon a Linckenlay poltergeist to drive them insane. I can do that Emilya, and so much more. Just say the word.” 

The always-quick Emilya replied, “That’s absolutely ridiculous simply because you never said what the word is. If you’re going to enchant people at least do it right.” The hag looked indignant.

“Little girl, have you any idea of what I can do? The things I know?” Emilya yawned. She looked and sounded bored.

“No. Please enlighten me.” The hag looked even angrier.

“I can send the Earth out of its orbit and into space! I can kill you with the snap of my fingers! You, little girl, need to learn about respect for your God!”

Emilya still looked bored. “I don’t care,” she casually announced. “If you could kill me with the snap of your fingers, you would have already. What do you want?” 

The witch was growing in size, and was slowly getting younger until she was a 25 year-old with her black hair in a bun, and was wearing extravagant, yet simple silken purple robes. She had red-hot, fiery anger in her eyes, and magic in her fingertips. She was all-powerful, and wanted everyone to know it.

“I am sick and tired of your comments, little girl. I had a reasonable price for you: in exchange for me fixing your problems, you would be my assistant for twenty years.” 

Emilya was still unimpressed. “You should be aware that indentured servitude is currently illegal in the United States of America. And hidden prices are common, but frowned upon…”

 Cerona literally had fire in her eyes.  While colors were flying out of her fingers, she chanted an incantation: “Hanf hivobe avilf. Levwe libh vall.”

Now Emilya looked impressed—and terrified. Cerona knew real spells! In her haste, she grabbed the enchantress’ cauldron and oar. Cerona looked frightened.

“Not so powerful now, hag,” Emilya snarkily said. Cerona now looked more angry than scared.

“I am no mere hag, little girl! Give me the cauldron and oar if you know what’s good for you!” 

Emilya now looked rather cocky, with a strange little spark in her eyes. “I don’t answer to hags! All my fear and ignorance was false!” ahe said as colors flew out of her fingers. “I know how magic works! You can only use your cauldron for ‘little’ magic, like making a hiking trail and a dozen people disappear, or for aiding big magic. Spells can only be used to aid big magic, but you can only use spells if you’re powerful enough. You’re a Felleli enchantress,” she said as she donned a scarlet, velvety cape. “The angrier you are, the more power you have. I was getting you angry for a reason, for I am the almighty in the sky, I am the power above, I am your Goddess, and now, with your hard work done, I shall rule the world.”


The Tale of Lillian Becket

Chapter One: The Beginning

Aug 8

My story is a hard one to tell. Most would say to start at the beginning, but isn’t that the least important part? My beginning starts with my parents, who have a tangled history, a history woven with lies and secrets.

My name is Lillian Becket. When I was born, I was far from expected. They called me a blessing, a very surprising blessing. My parents work some secretive job I know very little about. What I do know is ever since I could toddle, only one of them would be around at a time. Often, the dinner table is only half full and food lays cold and untouched. I have my suspicions, but most of them are unrealistic hopes that stir in the safety of darkness and twilight. Whenever I question their absence, I am met only with anger.

I have friends, some as fake as the plastic wind-up toys that sit on my desk. I do have two who understand me, and have for years. Their names are Maya and Dylan. They found me swinging from the old squeaky playground set, after a brutal round of taunting and teasing. Maya, with her kind blue eyes and hip length hair is the one who wraps her arms around me and tells me it is okay to cry until my eyes dry of tears and my heart is satisfied. 

Kyle, with his deep dark eyes and his tight curly hair listens to me and assures me that it will all work out in the end, and that the sadness lingering in my eyes will soon wash away like footprints in the sand.

 We live near the sea. The only place I feel truly safe is sitting by the shore. Salty wind whistling through my tangled hair. That is where I sit now, trying to explain my story in the lined paper of this jet black notebook. Besides the coast, my other safe place is my journal. I can explain myself without interruptions and judgements. So please, don’t ask questions, don’t wonder, just bear with me as I try my best to tell my story. 

So, now that you know a little bit about me, I can begin the middle. 

The middle began on a day much like this one. Clear sky, breeze whistling through the palm trees that line the outskirts of town. When I wake in the morning, nothing seems odd about the way the books are lined straight and ordinary on their bookshelf and the way the clouds dance across the sun. But in the air, a scent lingers, of blood and roses, sweet. Gruesomely sweet. Humidly sweet. And slowly my nostrils flare, registering the discomfort in the air, but dismissing it as quickly as it came.

Like any normal morning, I stretch my arms in wide circles, feeling the soreness sleep has brought to my shoulders.

I have always been a morning person, in that serene time between dawn and when people actually begin to stir.

Tiptoeing down the ice cold stairs, I listen for my mom, or my dad. Per usual, neither are present. I am almost positive that Dad went on an early morning run down the beach, just like every morning. Who knows where Mom is?
I head into the kitchen and grab a bowl and the box of honey cheerios. Filling it with cereal and milk, I turn towards the living room. I sink into the couch, bowl balanced unsteadily on my knee.

I slurp my cereal while the TV blares. The images and light mix together, searing my eyes. The smell of dusty light is embedded into my couch, along with the slightly sour smell of my mothers perfume. I take a long deep breath and turn as my phone lets out a high pitched chirp. Picking it up, I see a text from Maya and a response from Dylan.

I click on our group chat and see that Maya has asked to see if one of us will help her pick out a dress for some event she has to go to for her dad’s demanding job. Hearing her complain about spending time with her parents makes me want to scream, but she is my best friend, and I don’t want to be alone all of today.

I respond with a short, “Yes,” and turn back to my show. 

After ten short minutes, barely halfway through the show, I hear a knock on my door and open it to find both Maya and Dylan on my doorstep. I reluctantly let them into the house and stomp upstairs to pull a gray sweatshirt over my shoulders and shove the hood over my head. I want to give off the don’t-talk-to-me vibe.

Dylan gives me the side eye as we scamper to the car and I decide that I will tolerate them, and try to cheer up. In shotgun, I crank up the music and play the part of DJ. In between flipping through songs, I stare, expressionless, out the car window. Maya and Dylan make chit chat until they cut off the music and, from the backseat, Dylan turns to face me. He looks at me and I know something is on his mind, but before he can tell me, we pull into the mall parking lot. I shoot Dylan a glance, but read nothing from his expression. 

As we walk, I can feel the pavement, hot underneath my flip-flops. We enter the mall and the cool air conditioning and the smell of new products envelops me. I’m slightly overwhelmed, always have been when going to malls. I wish I could communicate this to my friends who are mall enthusiasts. I turn to glance at them and Maya is staring at me with an expectancy in her eyes. Did I miss something?

“Well?” Maya questions.

“Huh?”

“I asked if you want anything?” She sounds exasperated. This happens to me a lot, just spacing out in the middle of a conversation.

I shake my head, a definite no. Even if I did want something, I don’t think I have the strength to ask my parents for money right now.

“Hey Lillian, are you OK?” Dylan questions.

“Yup, just tired,” I reply. I’m not lying, I’m tired of being here and of these parentless nights.

After two hours of trying dresses on, both Dylan and I are completely out of steam and hungry for greasy fast food. We end up dragging Maya out of Macy’s with a light blue, strapless dress.

We drive to the closest Five Guys and buy paper bags of salty, hot fries and fountain cold soft drinks. Grease soaks through the bottom of the white paper bags and cold condensation lingers on my fingers. We run to the car and gobble fry after fry, slurp our drinks, and enjoy each others company.


Grayforce

“Hey, who’s Rose?” Cam asked. Amina looked up from her phone at Cam, seatbelt unbuckled and craning his neck from the backseat to peer over her shoulder. She giggled and turned off her phone with one hand, swatting her cousin away with the other.

“Cameron, sit your behind down and put your seatbelt on,” Amina’s mom said, eyes never leaving the road. “I know you know better.”

Amina stifled another laugh and pushed her round glasses up.

Cam hung his head, sliding back into his seat. “Sorry, Auntie E.” Amina listened to the click of his seatbelt as her mom turned the radio’s volume down.

“Why’d you turn it down?” Amina asked. “What were they talking about?”

Mrs. Jackson sighed. “Some members of Catch 88 robbed a restaurant in the next county over.” She shook her head and muttered something under her breath. “I’m not interested in hearing that right now.”

“It would be so awesome to actually meet Catch 88,” Cam said. Mrs. Jackson’s eyebrows shot up and Amina gasped in mock horror. “If they turned to the good side,” he quickly added. 

“Buuut,” he said, twisting his wrist, “I’m more interested in whoever Rose is.” 

Amina tried to keep a hold of her phone, but the pull of Cam’s telekinesis was too much for her. Her smart phone slipped clean out of her dark brown fingers, past her cornrows, and into Cam’s lap.

“Ugh, I think you’ve gotten too good at doing that,” Amina grumbled. Sometimes, she wished that she had mind manipulation like Cameron and Deterge, the wicked queen supreme of the criminal three-person posse Catch 88. Other times, she was grateful for her own gift, no matter how bothersome it could be every now and then. 

“Yeah, no thanks to our training classes.” Cam deftly unlocked Amina’s phone and went straight to messages. “Like, how the heck’s a genealogy project going to help us hone our abilities?”

“Genealogy project?” Mrs. Jackson asked, turning into the bursting mall parking lot. 

“I’ve got a genealogy project due next week,” Amina said, adjusting her glasses again. “And you know what would help? Maybe some more info on Aunt Deandra? I’ve got plenty of info on dad’s side of the family, but-”

“Nope,” Mrs. Jackson said as she turned the car into a teeny parking space and yanked out the keys. 

Amina sighed. She hated going behind her mother’s back, but the family tree part of the project she was supposed to present to her homeschool cooperative super training class was going to look pretty weird if she didn’t have any information about her mom’s side of the family. What she was about to do… well, it was the only way to get the details she needed. Besides, maybe she’d be able to figure out what had gone wrong between her Aunt Deandra and her mom  – and maybe even fix it.

Amina watched her mom get out of the car. It seemed like she was moving through water- couldn’t she hurry up? She was really trying to go about this without abusing her ability, but her mom was making it so hard. If her mom didn’t always somehow know when she was trying to dig through her mind, Amina would’ve probably jumped right in without hesitation.

“Are you planning on getting out of the car sometime this year?” Cam asked, poking her in the back.

Amina rolled her eyes. “Very funny, Cameron Lesley.”

Cam’s eyebrows scrunched closer together, making Amina’s cousin look like he’d glued a furry caterpillar to his forehead. “No, but really. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine!” Amina said, grabbing his arm and jogging to catch up to her mom. “Come on!” Excitement jiggled in her stomach alongside the guilt and unspoken worry she’d swallowed down.

As they walked towards the mall’s entrance on a fading crosswalk, Mrs. Jackson rattled off a list of rules. Practical ones like no talking to strangers, no using their abilities, etc. She seemed to be mostly preaching to Cam who grinned the entire lecture. Ironic that this time around, Cam would be playing the role of angel child. Well, hopefully. Cam could always tease a smile out of her, but Amina knew he was also thoroughly capable of turning heads for all the wrong reasons at all the wrong times.

“I’ll text you when I’m on my way back, alright?” Mrs. Jackson said, capping off the speech with a kiss on Amina’s cheek. “Be safe.”

 Amina nodded, then watched, toes itching to get moving as her mother strolled a bit further down the massive hallway sooo slowly. Finally- finally!-  Mrs. Jackson disappeared around the corner, probably on her way to get her nails done.

As soon as Mrs. Jackson was out of Amina’s line of sight, Amina turned to Cam, eyes still glued to the coffee shop window that faced the mall interior.

“Okay,” she said, trying to keep the giddiness out of her voice. “You stay here and keep watch for my mom. If she comes back, just… I don’t know, distract her, I guess.”

Cam nodded. “Should I pretend to choke on my mint latte?”

“Ugh, Cam, no,” Amina said. “And give me back my phone. Please.”

Cam handed her phone back to her. “So when will I be meeting this ‘Rose’ ?”

Amina shrugged. “Rose is my debate class partner. I put her name down so it would look like I was texting a friend instead of my aunt.”

“Alrighty then.” Cam paused. “Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean, I applaud your planning, this really is phenomenal, but what if she-”

“It’ll be great,” Amina said. “She’s my aunt. I should be close as close to my mom’s family as I am with my dad’s.”

Cam nodded. “ ‘Cause if you weren’t we wouldn’t be buddies, would we? If anything goes down, though, remember, she’s your family, not mine. I’ll come in there and,” he mimed clocking someone in the head with a bat.

Amina began walking towards the shop. “Sure you will,” she said over her shoulder. 

“Haha, you think I’m playing!” she heard him call after her.

Amina entered the coffee shop and scanned the large yellow-colored space. There were plenty of people, but Amina knew she was looking for a woman in a gray sweatshirt and jeans. That was what her Aunt Deandra said she’d be wearing over instant messaging. Amina had wondered if her mother was secretly in contact with her aunt, as she’d found a box full of Aunt-Deandra related stuff, including a conveniently current phone number, under her mother’s bed after FBI worthy snooping.

The strong smell of coffee undiluted by sugar curled inside of her nose. How could people actually drink this stuff? Soft chatter, occasionally broken by the sound of awkwardly loud laughter, provided some nice white noise. Amina forced herself to relax.

After a minute of searching, her eyes landed on the gray sweatshirt. The woman, her Aunt Deandra, was sitting alone at a booth in the far corner of the restaurant. Her hood was up and the sweatshirt was enormous, hanging off her body. Her auntie looked cozy. Amina liked cozy.

 She adjusted her glasses and strode over, clutching her phone. As she slid into the booth, she grinned. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

The woman, whose face had been obscured by the hood until now, looked up. To Amina’s delight, she shared her mom’s high cheekbones, rounded nose, and nearly black eyes. “Oh, we’ve met before. You were just a baby.”

Amina opened her mouth to say something else, but Aunt Deandra interrupted with, “Is Estelle around?”

Amina shook her head. “Well, see, I have a family tree project due for my training class, and it wouldn’t have felt right if you weren’t part of it. Estelle, er Mom, just dropped me off to meet with you…” 

Amina let her voice trail off, hoping her Aunt Deandra would put the pieces together herself.

“It doesn’t seem like Estelle to send you here alone to meet up with me,” Aunt Deandra said, rubbing her neck. “Is she nearby?”

Amina squirmed. Aunt Deandra sounded… almost panicked. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Amina wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but obviously, this wasn’t it. She could still fix everything, though. “Mom doesn’t know. I wanted to surprise her when you joined the family again.”

Aunt Deandra’s carefully waxed eyebrows furrowed before she laughed. “Of course. Just like your mom to say that I left the family.”

“Excuse me?” Amina asked. She glanced at the coffee shop entrance doors, where Cam was casually browsing on his phone. No Mom in sight.

“Did she tell you that I left the family?” Aunt Deandra asked. “That I didn’t want to be involved in her life anymore?”

Amina snapped her focus back to her aunt. “Kinda, yeah. She never talks much about you.” Sometimes, when her dad was working late and she and her mom were cleaning up the kitchen together, her mother’s lips would loosen from exhaustion and a good meal. Those were the nights she experienced her aunt in snippets and stories.

“That makes sense. It’s a shame you had to contact me without her knowledge.” Her aunt grinned with beautiful gleaming teeth. “A girl should know her auntie, right?”

Amina nodded eagerly. “Yeah, that’s why I’m here.” She quickly added, “Oh, and the family project, too.”

Aunt Deandra laughed. “Right. You thirsty, baby?”

Amina nodded. She had almost forgotten they were in the coffee shop! For one sparkling moment, she and her aunt had been laughing together.

As soon as Aunt Deandra returned with the iced lemonade Amina had requested, and a mango smoothie for herself, Amina pushed her glasses up, saying, “Can I start with the questions?”

“Sure,” Aunt Deandra said before taking a sip from her smoothie. 

“Well, why did you leave the family?” Amina asked.

Aunt Deandra’s smile evaporated. “I didn’t leave. I was forced out because I decided to do whatever it took to get the ability training I needed.”

Amina tried to hide her excitement at hearing that she, her dad, and Cam weren’t the only supers in her family. “You’re a super?”

Aunt Deandra nodded. “You didn’t just get it from your father’s side of the family.”

Wait…

Amina readjusted her glasses. “Uh… how do you know I’m a super?”

Aunt Deandra sipped her drink before looking around the coffee shop. “You know, you’re something extraordinary, Amina. What if I told you that there is a group of very, well, special people who used to be just like you? Being kept from the real way their abilities worked.”

Amina gripped her drink. This was starting to feel wrong, like she’d been tricked. She knew she hadn’t; she’d sought her aunt out and she’d arranged the meeting, but… her stomach was doing a funky flip-flop, I’m-not-happy dance with improvised choreography.

“What if I could introduce you to these very special people? They, in a way, know you already. Do you want to know them?” Deandra continued, stopping every now and then to take a sip from her drink and pull her hood tighter around her face. Her movements were so measured, so… practiced.

The warning lights flashed full force in the back of Amina’s mind. She shouldn’t be meeting strangers, but… they were her aunt’s friends… and her aunt wasn’t a stranger. Right?

Amina’s phone pinged. She ignored it. “Um, who are these people?”

Aunt Deandra swallowed. “I shouldn’t say.” She gestured towards a man in a black suit, his nose inches away from his cellphone. “We don’t know who’s listening.”

Amina knew that she shouldn’t use her ability in public. It wasn’t quite illegal but if she removed her ever present glasses now, the coffee shop-goers would get panicky. People didn’t like to be reminded that supernaturals lived among them no matter how commonplace abilities were. Then again, she didn’t normally meet up with mysterious estranged aunties, so, slowly, she slipped her glasses off.

She blinked as her eyes, uninhibited by her glasses’ vision modification lenses, swept over her Aunt Deandra. Her vision wasn’t as clear now, but she could see much more than her eyes alone could tell her. Any warmth she might have harbored towards her aunt drained right out of her chest.

Aunt Deandra sighed. “You know who I am now, don’t you?”

Amina clutched her phone to her chest and struggled to slide out of her seat. “I… I should go-”

“Amina, wait,” Aunt Deandra said, her voice still low and relaxed. “Don’t make me-”

“No, no, I have to go. This is wrong, I shouldn’t, you’re-” Amina’s words tumbled all over themselves.

Aunt Deandra snapped her fingers right as Amina slid out of the booth.

The yellow of the walls began to swirl. The people stretched like multi-colored spaghetti.

Amina tried to move, but her legs were lead and her tongue suddenly felt glued to the roof of her mouth. Of course, she thought. Short-term reality warping

“You’re Hypatia,” Amina breathed. Her voice sounded like she’d gone on a helium breathing spree and tied her tongue in triple knots.

Aunt Deandra nodded. “I am. Listen to me. Your mother isn’t going to get you the help you need to properly use your abilities. Only Catch 88 can do that. My parents refused to send Estelle and me to a proper super-learning institution, and-”

“How is Catch 88 a proper learning institution?” Amina asked, her voice climbing octaves as the temperature in her cheeks rose. “You guys mug people and rob banks and do… do bad people stuff!” What, did her aunt think she was stupid? And she’d mentioned her mom being denied the opportunity to go to the training school- what the heck was that about? Her mom had the supernatural abilities of a soda can!

Aunt Deandra frowned. “I’m not involved in most of the criminal activity. But you’d be surprised what Deterge and Clepsydra, despite their lawless lifestyles, can do for you.” She paused, then added, “It’s only going to get worse. You can’t control what your mind wants to see, can you?”

Amina didn’t want to answer, but her face must have betrayed her, because her aunt continued with, “Those glasses you wear in order to suppress your psychometry are only going to help your abilities strengthen. Eventually, they won’t work. Your mind will build up a resistance to the medication due to constant use. Matter of fact… I bet you’ve even seen into someone with the glasses on once or twice.”

Amina felt like cold fingers were doing the Irish jig on her neck and arms. Her aunt was right. It had only happened once or twice… but it had happened. That was how she’d learned that back-of-the-room Bailey in her SAT prep class had been late to class that one day because his bike had broken down, and that her dad secretly wanted to grow a beard. Harmless things. For now.

The yellow swirls shrank back into their normal form. The coffee shop reformed around them as people shrunk back to normal size. Her aunt’s reality manipulation ended. No one seemed to notice that reality had just been stretched out, stopped, and then smooshed back together by the invisible hands her aunt’s mind.

“Whoa,” Amina breathed as chilled air rushed through her lungs and the sounds of people around them returned.

“Imagine. You wouldn’t have to wear those glasses to control your psychometry.” Aunt Deandra- Hypatia– said. Her voice sounded far away and bluesy, like it belonged in the middle of a sultry jazz song playing from down the street. “You would be able to filter out whose information you want to know and whose you don’t at will.”

Amina was about to say that she’d think about it- then make a run for it- when Cam slunk over to their booth. Amina forced herself not to announce her aunt’s super identity. 

“Sorry to interrupt, Amina’s mystery aunt! Amina, your mom just texted me. She’s coming since you haven’t been answering your phone. We should go meet her outside so she won’t see,” he gestured with his hand towards Aunt Deandra.

Amina sucked in a quick breath. “Okay.” She looked at her aunt. “Is there somewhere I can meet up with you when I make the decision?” She wouldn’t join her wacko aunt in becoming a criminal, but she sure would be making all the right phone calls to the local authorities as soon as it was safe. Right? Criminals hurt people and enjoyed it. She pressed her clammy palms to the legs of her jeans.

Aunt Deandra shook her head as she looked over her shoulder. “You can’t get back into contact with me. It’s not safe.” She glanced at Cam, then back at Amina. “Choose.”

Cam snapped a finger in front of Amina’s face. Amina jumped.

With a flick of his wrist, Amina’s phone shot into Cam’s waiting palm. “Amina, let’s go.” He waved the phone a few inches from her nose. It pinged once, twice, then three times as her phone showed her the notification for missed calls and (probably ranty) text messages. 

Amina turned back to Deandra, trying hard to erase mental images of her mom, hands on her hips, give her the talking to of a lifetime for teaming up with a gang of super thugs. It wasn’t for real! She would go with her aunt and then call the police. They’d find Deandra that way.

But Deandra wasn’t looking at her anymore. She was scowling. Her eyes were fixed on a spot behind Amina’s head. Amina froze, sure that her mother was standing right behind her. She slowly turned, breathing deeply. In. Out. In. Ou-

Cam’s mouth fell open. He looked like he might drop dead on the spot. 

“Let’s make this quick. Hypatia, where’s my money at?”

Amina’s eyes finally landed on the person behind her. 

Deterge was even taller than she looked on television. Her short black hair framed her white mask. A bulky looking white and gray bodysuit concealed the rest of her body. It looked like she’d never been to fashion school and had designed it herself. 

Amina shivered. She’d studied Deterge for her current events class, but she’d never encountered any textbook information on Deterge having temperature manipulation abilities. Despite that, Amina felt cold radiating directly from the super. She was an unregistered super, so for all anyone knew, she could turn her eyes fifty million different shades of violet and see into the future with them in addition to her infamous telekinesis. If she could see into the future and was able to anticipate police raids, maybe that was why she never got caught. 

Deterge repeated her question. “Where’s my money?”

Aunt Deandra stood up. “I don’t have it. I have something better.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Amina could see people diving under their booths and tables, pulling out their phones, and snapping photos with flash. A baby cried.

Deterge crossed her arms. “Even after all the extensions I’ve given you? Pathetic… but not unexpected. I thought this might happen. This actually works out nicely.” She turned to her ‘audience.’ “What I’m about to do to this woman is nothing compared to what I’ll do to any government official who dares try to suppress us. Catch 88 will not stand for the suppression of our gifts, and we will bend-”

Aunt Deandra crossed her arms, too. “I’d forgotten how much of a drama queen you are. Are you going to accept my offer or not?”

“No,” Deterge snapped. “Give me the money.”

Under normal circumstances, Amina knew Cam would be live streaming this super-exchange via his mom’s Facebook profile. Instead, his eyes looked glazed as he gaped at the criminal super in white.

Aunt Deandra’s mouth opened and closed without a single sound, kind of like a fish’s.  “I don’t-”

Deterge snapped her fingers. Every drink sitting idly on a restaurant table exploded. A spray of ice-cold lemonade hit Amina’s right cheek and eye. People screamed.

“Now, you and I both know that I would like to blow you up just like I did those beverages. But I won’t since Catch 88 needs more than one competent member. So, if you don’t give me the money right here, I’ll have no choice but to do the next best thing.” Deterge said this like she was talking to an inattentive preschooler. 

“Which is?” Aunt Deandra asked.

Deterge turned to Cam. “Who is this?”

“He’s not involved,” Aunt Deandra said, rolling her eyes.

“Then he’s perfect,” Deterge said. She slid out of the booth from behind Amina and grabbed Cam’s wrist. “I know you know him.”

“I don’t,” Deandra protested, although she didn’t seem all that determined to save him. 

Amina screamed, “She doesn’t! Cam doesn’t have anything to do with Aun- Hypatia, she doesn’t know him.”

Deterge paused. She chuckled. “Did you say aunt?”

Aunt Deandra swore. She glared at Amina with the kind of look that seems to turn your insides to stone. 

Amina shrunk back from her aunt. “I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

“Oh, don’t apologize. I met you here because you have a chance to help your auntie out,” Aunt Deandra said. She looked back to Deterge. “What if I let you train Amina? You can let the kid go, I’ll have half the money by Saturday in return.”

Amina could not make her mouth move. 

Deterge tilted her head. “I don’t know… how long would she train with me?”

“Train? She doesn’t have to train.” Aunt Deandra said breathlessly. “You said you were raising an army. Amina’s your first soldier.”

“W-what?” Cam squeaked, not even bothering to struggle against Deterge.

Deterge shook her head and laughed. “Not gonna work, I’m afraid. Now, if you don’t have the money-”

“She can see into people’s minds, Alice.” Aunt Deandra said. Deterge flinched, probably at the use of her real name. “Where else are you going to find a natural-born spy? I am giving her to you.”

“I didn’t agree to that,” Amina heard herself saying.

Deterge grabbed Cam’s curly hair. “You’ll agree if you want him to live.”

“You wouldn’t kill a child,” Aunt Deandra snarled. “You haven’t reached that level of stupidity.”

“Haven’t I?” Deterge threw Cameron across the room. He went flying, hitting a nearby chair, landing limbs akimbo on top of it. He was very, very still. The man under the table next to the chair yelped and scrambled away. 

Amina screamed, heat pushing up into her chest and face. It felt like someone was holding her underwater. She was breathing, but whatever she was taking in wasn’t keeping her alive.

Her mind kept shoving Deterge’s stats in her face over and over and over. Then, she realized that though Deterge had the power to end everyone in the coffee house, and maybe the mall, Amina now had her real name and age and everything. Plus, something was brewing deep in her gut. Would she be able to use it?

She heard Deterge swear colorfully and hit the floor.

For once, her psychometry wasn’t just a bunch of nobody-cares facts that threw themselves at her in a flurry of color and sound. Everything was black and white, purpose stark. Her mind was an arrow, already locked on bullseye- a deep black tunnel leading into what looked like color. It knew where to pierce the skull and allow her inner eye to peer through. She could feel her mind scanning through Deterge’s, scraping through memories like they were file cabinets. 

Amina imagined her mind had arms and that Deterge- Alice Jennings, actually- had file cabinets for memories. She used her mind arms to rip a cabinet straight out of the shelving. 

She heard faint screaming in the distance, and for a moment, her arms weakened, and she could feel Alice/Deterge fighting against her.

Amina dug deeper, punching through the soft gray folds of Alice’s mind and pushing through the tunnel. She was swimming deeper into a clear pool of some kind of juice- ew, she thought, ignore that– deeper and further until she touched on a flaming red file cabinet. Her motions were slowed by the surrounding juice, but her arms still worked through it, grabbing hold of the filing cabinet and yanking. Someone was pulling in the opposite direction. Amina knew she couldn’t win and her stomach begged for her to stop. It rolled and flopped. She ignored it and examined the cabinet, holding on to it like it was the last morsel of food on earth.

Names, memories, all kinds of bits and bobs floated in the cabinet. Her mind’s hands pulled at the random objects. They crackled under her touch. Hearing them crinkle felt good.

John Jennings. Johnnie. Melanie Jennings. Little Mellie, Jennifer Jennings, Little Je-

“Stop!” she heard someone screech.

Amina blinked. The cabinet scraped against her hands before falling away. Her mind screamed in pain as it was ripped from Deterge’s. Searing heat danced along her forehead and temples.

She stumbled back, the world spinning around her in circles and ovals and craziness. Something warm leaped up from her chest and into her throat, filling her with a sour, gushy feeling. Her cheeks were furnaces on the verge of overheating.

Her vision, which she hadn’t realized had been missing until now, cleared. No matter how many times she swallowed, the gushy feeling in her throat wouldn’t subside.

Deterge writhed on the floor. She wasn’t covered in blood, or even scratched. Her hands clawed at her mask, scalp, and hair, trying to reach for something she couldn’t touch. Amina’s mom lay next to Deterge, groaning. When had her mom gotten there?

“Johnnie!” Deterge wailed. “Johnnie, I’m sorry!”

Amina stepped back. She had to get away. She had to get away from what she’d done.

The people who’d hidden themselves away under the coffee tables began to emerge as Deterge slowly stopped squirming. A few darted out of the open door, dragging crying toddlers and children behind them.

“Is she dead?” someone called out. 

She’s dead, she’s dead, her brain screeched. Amina’s hands shook. Did the people know she’d killed Alice? Had she killed Alice?

Arms wrapped around Amina from behind. Her aunt was saying something to her. 

“How did you do that?”

Amina shook her head. She didn’t want the credit. She didn’t want this. “Make it go back,” she whispered.

“What?” her aunt asked. “Make what?”

“Time! Make it go back, I can’t, I have to fix it and you have to do it because I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Alice! Make it go back!”

“I can’t,” her Aunt Deandra said. “But listen to me, Amina. You could make a lot of money using that gift of yours. If you did what I think you did, you-”

“No!” Amina screamed. Her mom. She needed her mom. Her mom would be able to wash this away, hold her tight and away from the world. “Let me go, I want my mom!”

The only signs her mother showed of hearing her was lifting her head. Her dark curls obscured her face.

Aunt Deandra’s voice sliced into Amina’s ear. “Forget about your mother, Amina. You and I, we can get your friend the help he needs and then train you. You have a gift, something so wonderful that you have to learn to use it properly. You can’t go on having a normal life with powers like yours.”

“You’re not my mom! I want my mom now!” she yelled. She stomped down on her Aunt Deandra’s foot. Hypatia, momentarily surprised, released her. Amina ran towards her mother, sneakers gripping and releasing the floor over and over.

Mrs. Jackson raised a hand. “D-Deterge might come back to her senses, honey. Stay where you are.”

Amina obeyed, eyeing Deterge. 

Then she remembered her cousin. She couldn’t just stand there.

She rushed over to Cameron, who was moaning and rolling around.

“Everyone put your hands where we can see them!”

Amina’s stomach dropped. Police threw open the coffee shop’s double doors and clambered in, shouting directions as their hands traced their gun holsters. 

Amina raised her hands high over her head, craning her neck over her shoulder to see Detege being apprehended. Her Aunt Deandra gave her one last look even as police surrounded her before pressing her palms together. Space folded in on itself, swallowing Aunt Deandra before popping back into place.

She didn’t care. Let her aunt warp away like she’d done nothing for now. Amina was going to find her. She knew what her aunt looked like, sounded like. It would only be a matter of when, not if, she and the police captured her. 

“Amina,” Cam groaned. “Amina, what’s… what’s going on?” 

Amina focused on Cam. Her mind immediately jumped into his, gathering facts she already knew. That had always happened without her glasses. But now, her mind was hungry to slice and tear Cam’s memories like they were gray putty erasers. That…that was new.

“Just- just relax,” Amina said, more to herself than to him.

Amina must have been making her I-can’t-see squint face, because Cam scrunched up his face and snapped his fingers.

Amina’s glasses knocked straight against her face and landed on Cam’s chest. Cam groaned. “You’re welcome,” he croaked. He hesitated before asking, “Your… your aunt? Where is she?” He tried to sit up, eyes darting around the coffee shop.

“I’ll find her,” Amina vowed, feeling silly with her hands still up in the air.

But first, she would train. She would petition her parents to send her to the National Training Institution, and if they refused, she’d run away somehow.  However it happened, she needed to get her powers in line before she destroyed somebody’s mind the way she had Deterge’s. She needed to rein in whatever in her had felt good as she crinkled Alice’s memories into badly burnt and churned pain.


Godel’s Guide to Breaking Everything

Introduction

Two people walk down the street in two opposite directions. They are going two separate ways, and will never see each other again. 

Enter C stage left, move centerstage, keep walking

Enter M stage right, move centerstage 

C “bumps,” M drops phone

M: Oh!

C: Sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going, I—

M: No, my phone!

C: Ooh, I can pay for that, it looks pretty broken. Here. I’ll go with you to get it fixed. 

M: Right now? 

C: Yeah. Why not? 

M: Well, I got a patient who I need to attend to before she gets hungry. 

C: Other nurses will take care of your patient. You can call in sick!

M: Well, I haven’t had a vacation for a while… you know, the earthquake?

M: Wait. How did you know I was a nurse? 

C: Well. You said that you had to feed a patient; doctors wouldn’t do that, they would be doing surgeries, and stuff like that. Also, when you dropped your bag (and your phone clattered out), a box of surgical masks fell out of your bag. I’m also assuming you’re going to night school? 

M: Wha? How…

C: Dark circles. Concealer can’t cover everything, honey. 

C: Now we got to go to get your screen fixed. 

Act 1

Waiting in the phone shop

C: So… do you want to talk about something? 

M: No. You’ve been super kind, but I think it would be best if we didn’t talk. 

C: So. You want to talk about nothing. 

M: Yes? 

C: Well, nothing is a thing.

M: No, nothing is black. Nothing is no-thing. 

C: Black is a thing, and no thing is the opposite of a thing, therefore, must be no-thing.

M: Oh my gosh, you’re right!

C: It’s called Godel’s Theorem. For example, take the statement, “This statement is a lie.” The liar’s paradox. The real statement behind this is, “This statement is unprovable.” How can you prove this statement? Or, really, ANY statement? For example, 1 plus 1 is just, 2. How do you know it is, though? 

M: Because, well… it’s just… well…

C: Yeah.

M: Can I have your number? 

C: Your phone’s done. 

M: How can we keep talking? 

C: I’ll call you.  

C exits stage right

M stays on set, curtain drops

Act 2

Soon after while lying on set, M receives a call… 

M: Blocked caller ID? That’s funny… hello? 

C: Hey.

M: Who are you? 

C: I’m just the CEO of a company. I just uncovered too much about Godel. It’s fine though. Sorry about the blocked caller. 

M: I was expecting you to call like, three weeks ago! It’s been a month since I broke my phone. 

C: Sorry, but I am a CEO. I have a job. 

M: Ugh. I don’t have time for this. I have to get to school. 

C: I’ll call you. 

M: (disconnects) Not if I call you first. 

C: (on the other end, M not hearing them) Dina? Look up where- wait. What’s their name? 

Act 3

One day later while M is at work, M calls C

C: Hello? 

M: No, no hello, I’m not wasting time having you or your pettiness stand in my way. You can hang up, but you won’t. Explain what’s happening. Right. Now. 

C: Look up Godel. 

C hangs up.

M: Hello? Hello? 

C calls back.

C: Dinner. Sandy’s. You’re free. 

M: No. Luigi’s. What’s your name again? 

C hangs up.

At dinner (at Sandy’s)

C: Wow. You dressed up!

M: And you didn’t? Anyway. I can’t even think about anything without going crazy, thinking  about the ways it’s wrong. I looked up Godel, but it only said that he commited a slow and painful suicide, and was a professor. 

C: Ok, I’ll explain it to you, and look up his theories. 

C: Now. Think of a rubber duck. How do you know it’s real?

M: Well… you can feel it, and you can see it. Sometimes you can smell it. 

C: Yes but you feel with your nerves, and you taste with your tastebuds, and you smell with tiny hairs in your nose, and all three of those are somewhat of a reaction from your brain. It could be your brain malfunctioning, and you’re actually eating dark matter.  

M: You’re saying everything could very well be a figment of our imagination? 

C: That’s up to you. 

C: I also ordered us a s’mores to go. I’ve found it’s best to cope with some soft, gooey marshmallow. 

M: How do you cope? 

C: I don’t. This is the first time I ever shared that with anybody. 

M: Well, glad you’re coping with me. 

C smiles. 

C: Goodnight. 

M: I’ve got to get to class.


Later 

: My mind is as sharp as an emerald, but as blunt as a dead body. 

: Wait how can you tell someone is even dead? 

: Don’t. I’ve thought about it… 

: All this time. I’ve never even thought about this before…

: Just once or twice. 

: To test. 

: I know how. 

: So do I

: Just twice. 

: Some idiot scum that no ones going to miss… 

Even later

News: “Twenty eight people have been suspected dead, over the past few weeks, no connection between them. Nobody knows where this person will strike next, but we do know this makes them the highest ranking american serial…”

:Why?

: Because. I had to, before you did. 

: we agreed on two. 

: …g

Goodbye, C. 

: Goodbye. 

Epilogue

Charlotte was driving to her second mansion. When she got there, somebody was standing where she was supposed to. 

Maya? I thought. We ran to each other and shared a familiar kiss. How… why… “They think it was me so I said I was going on vacation.” 

“They won’t look here because we have no connection, they would never suspect us of being friends, and they would never guess we’re more.”

fin


Loyalty

Loyalty

Is T   h e r   e

For you 

For your friends

She will follow you

If you wish 

Loyalty

With modest overalls  

And dirt blond hair

Cascading down her face

Loyalty 

Loyalty is T   h e r e


When you tell a secret

She keeps it 

When you spill the tea

She will always see

If you’re 

Sad

Sick

Hurt

Happy

Unaware

Loyalty

Loyalty is T   h e r e


If you can’t hold it in

You can confide within

Those kind green eyes and each warm freckle

So maybe just a speckle

Of love will shine through

From the both of you

Loyalty 

Loyalty is T   h e r e


Maybe if 

You catch a whiff

Of rumors dark and twisted

If you ever tear up a slight amount

You can always

Bury your head 

Into the bed 

Of friendship necklaces

Too many to count

Loyalty

Loyalty is T   h e r e


From the furthest corner

Of her satchel worner

Out comes a shiny gift 

Your birthday

With a Hallmark holiday

Card insignia on the back

She smiles and 

Gives it to you

Inked doodles on her hand

Loyalty 

Loyalty is T   h e r e


She is there for you 

Through and through

Thick and thin

She doesn’t choose

In a clash of cliques

She’s on her side

Your side 

No side

Loyalty 

Loyalty is T   h e r e

My Past

His family was lying to him about his father, about his old ways. It’s put him toe to toe with his family, why is that? Is it about the money, the cars, the shoes? No, it can’t be about the money. Oh I know exactly what it is about. [PAUSE] It is about the son of the only thing that was there for him, which is his mom. He loved his dad so much, but his dad did it to his body. If he went to a party and thought his son would not find out about it, but now he’s dead so the son can only cry about it every day when no one’s looking. Crying is like being a punk about it, that’s what people on the street say. The boy didn’t believe it at first when he came in the room on a Saturday in June and his mom was crying and said, “Your father passed away.” So he laughed. [PAUSE] The body had been found that Thursday. He said he didn’t believe it, and he didn’t believe it until he was standing beside his mother in front of the casket. He didn’t want to cry in that moment or break down. He went outside and played with his cousins. [PAUSE] Now the son has to move on, but doesn’t want to because he loved his dad with rap battle fire. He wanted to spit flames, he 87654687 got ready to spit flames, he wanted the crowd to jump up, laugh, and scream. [PAUSE]  They burned his dad down to ashes, like crumbs of bread moldy on the ground. [PAUSE] Now he doesn’t want to lose his mom, so he’s got to respect his mom with all his heart. Staying away from her is like burning himself down into ember. [PAUSE, look at audience] They lied about his father.


In a Crowded Train

WHAT’S GOING ON

“Maria Jane Wodson, there is a friend I would like you to meet!” Father yelled from downstairs.

As I made my way down the white marble stairs, I saw him. He wore the Nazi uniform, with the red arm band on his left arm, showing off his muscular arms. He looked like he was in his 30s.

Looking at his cold blue eyes caused my hands to tremble on the wood banister. Scared. I was scared, that’s the word. Scared.

Father saw that I had finally got out of my room and exclaimed, “This is my coworker, Kurt. He will be your math tutor for the next month.”

I said a quick, “Hi.”

I made my way past Kurt. Then I felt a cold hand on my shirt. It was Kurt.

Then he whispered in a low voice, “I know people like you, up to no good.”

What did he mean, “people like you.” He let me go, but I still felt his cold hand on my shoulder.

Making my way to my car, I noticed these kids playing around the street playing tag. And they each wore a necklace with the Jewish star. Then I continued observing the kids’ clothing, noticing the same star sewn on their spring vests, their jeans, and shirts. 

But I got in my car, driving to a cafe to meet up with a friend. I saw in front of me that Betty had already found seats. I made my way across the pink tiled floors, past the bar. But I could not stop thinking about why all Jews were sewing the star. I knew Betty was Jewish, but why didn’t she have the star sewn on? We had just started drinking coffee when these Nazis barged in. Grabbed Betty by the arm. And I just stood there in shock. Betty was thrashing and screaming in fear. No, I couldn’t lose her. She has been my best friend since, like, the beginning of time. Now she was gone. My head was spinning in confusion. What was happening. And why. 

FINDING OUT THE TRUTH

After I left the cafe, the only thing I could think about all day were the Nazis. Then all of a sudden, I fell to the floor. Looking below me I saw a yellow rubber duck staring at me with black beady eyes.

“What the heck!!” I said to myself. Why was there a rubber duck. Oh well, never thought that would happen. 

Making my way up the old brick stairs to my home, I felt like a melting marshmallow in the hot sun. I didn’t know if Father was home. So I went upstairs to check his office, but as I made my way closer to the office, I heard men yelling.

You know all Jews must be sent to the camps. Not one can slip past you!”

 What camps? I thought. And why target Jews? 

But then I heard more. “We finally got that stupid Betty. The troops just got her at the coffee shop when she was with my daughter. Get the rest of them. Hitler’s orders!”

It was Father!!! Father was the reason Betty was taken away. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Was this why the kids were wearing the stars, the Nazis needed to know who were Jews. But what camps.

The Nazis stormed out of the house. I was in the kitchen snacking on some potato chips when one of the men caught my eye.

He had cold emerald eyes, then he said in a loud booming voice, “Alright, men, hurry up. Let’s go.”

I recognized that voice. It was the voice of the first man in the conversation. I must stay away from that man.

One week later… 

THE TRAIN

I found myself in a crowded train, filled with Jews. Babies crying, kids crying, women and men crying. Why had I gone snooping? Why did I ever start to have feelings for Kurt? Kurt did this to me. I felt the train stop. The Nazis opened up the doors. Then they started pushing people off the train. One Nazi pushed me so hard that I fell.

I looked behind myself and saw Kurt. Kurt, the one who started this whole mess. But he looked at me like I was no one, kicked me, and said, “You stupid girl, get up.”

I wondered if he even noticed me, but then a loud scream interrupted that thought. A Jewish mama was being taken away from her daughter. I ran over to help the child.

I yelled back at the mama, “I will take care of her!!”

The girl yelled back at the mama screaming, “No!!! I need her. I need my mama.”

The girls eyes looked scared, so I said to the girl, “It’s okay. I will take care of you.”

“No, you are not my mama. You will turn me into them, then they will kill me!!”

“Come with me, so we don’t get in trouble and end up like your mama. We must follow the rest of the group.”

“Fine, but promise me they won’t hurt me.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t make any promises, but I will try my best.”

“Are you scared?” the girl asked, shivering.

“Yes, but you must stay strong. Please stay strong.”

The girl and I followed the Nazis through the concentration camp, past lines of Jews heading into dark tunnels. Then all of a sudden I heard bang, bang. I looked over my shoulder and found four dead bodies on the cold brick floor. Then I thought to myself what will become of me.


Glitch

Chapter 1

RUN FASTER! I tell myself. My legs are throbbing in pain because of the arrow that’s stuck in them. I hear yelling in the back and another arrow flies past me, just missing my head. I look behind me and see a whole tribe of Indians racing behind me with knives and all sorts of dangerous weapons. I see it! The doorway to the next level. Almost there. I jump for the door and make it. I look behind me and everything fades away. I put the golden Idol in the treasure slot and wait for the next level to load.

 I have been in this game for at least five hours. I press the menu button and take off the VR headset (Virtual Reality). I look at my leg to see where I was shot by the arrow, there was a big bruise there. I take off the RE suit (Real Effect), I turn on the newest AI assistant AIA (Artificial Intelligence), and ask for the time.

“It is 5 AM Mr. Lucas. You should start to get ready for school, sir,” she said in her robotic monotone.

I go into my closet and pick up some clothes on the floor. I tell AIA to get my bag and schedule ready. I go to the restroom and set the shower and sink to the right temperature and get ready for school. I get my bag and get onto the bus that has been waiting outside for me. 

I hop on the bus and find my friend Erin. I start telling him all about the game. I show him the bruise and how when I got shot it felt like I was really getting shot. He says it must be a glitch because that only happens in the VR competitions where people compete for money. 

“How do you win the competition?” I ask.

“You have to be the first to complete all 500 levels. It takes a whole week for the competition to finish.”

We get to school and go to our classes. School was slow. I had the usual classes math, English, history, and EI class (electronic intelligence). I get home and get straight back into the game when my mom calls me to come downstairs. I go down and see a man on the couch drinking some wine.

“Lucas, this is Mr. Oscar, he is here to talk to you about your VR gaming.”

“Hello, Lucas. Me and my colleagues have been watching you play and we want to ask you to represent America in the international VR competition with a few other kids.”

I was so shocked I could not talk at all.

“What do I get if I compete?”

“You will have the chance to win 500,000,000 dollars and will also receive an RSVR headset for participating (Razor Speed Virtually Reality).” He must have seen that my mom did not want me to go so he said that I will be monitored by professional doctors so I will be in safe hands. He looked at his watch and he said it was time for him to go. He gave his card and said if I want to compete, call him. 

Chapter 2

Saturday morning was slow, I lay on my bed trying to figure out what had just happened yesterday.

Maybe a bath would help me.

“AIA turn on the bath and set the water to warm.”

“Yes Mr. Lucas setting the bath to warm, would you like bubbles?”

“No thanks AIA.”

I stripped off my clothes and dipped my body in. I sat there for an hour thinking about all of the possibilities of what would happen if I went on the trip. Like if I won it could help me and my mom with rent and I would be able to have the best gear for gaming. I get out of the bathtub, put on my headset, and continue the game that I was playing. I finish the level and lay back down on my bed.

“AIA.”

“Yes, Mr. Lucas.”

“Call Mr. Oscar, and tell him I’m going.”

“Are you sure, Mr. Lucas? Your mom will not approve of this.”

“I am sure, AIA.”

I am still packing my bag trying to figure out what to wear. 

“AIA, order new Nike clothes and have them shipped in now!”

“Yes, Mr. Lucas.”

I go over to the PTD (Portable Transporter Device) that I got for Christmas and grab the clothes that I ordered. I finished packing and put on the headset. I had to get ahead of the other people that I am competing against. I put the mode on EC (Extreme Challenge) and started to game. I played all the way until I could no longer stand. I had bruises all over my body and one cut that was dripping with dark red blood.

“AIA, give me the first aid kit.”

I grab the sewing needle inside and sew it back together. 

Three days till I fly out. Mr. Oscar says that he will check in with me tomorrow to go over who I will be competing against and who will be on my team.

The next day, Mr. Oscar came over to pick me up. I grabbed my bag and hopped

in the car. I said bye to my mom as the car pulled away.

“So can you show me the people on my team?”

“Sure, here are some photos.”

I analyzed the photos, two other boys one had a military haircut and had a devilish look on his face. The other one had brown curly hair and freckles all over his face. We stopped at a big building with the words V.R. Corps in big bold letters. 

“Put this on,” Oscar said.

He gave me a silver suit that said AVR team (American Virtual Reality), then we went into the elevator and went up into a big room.

“Stay in here, I will be right back.”

He left the room and came back with the two boys that were on my team.

“These are your teammates, Lucas.”

The boy with the military haircut said that he was Romelo. The boy with the freckles was Lee.

“You have all been chosen to compete and you must work together in order to win, so get to know each other. When you guys are ready, you may start to practice in the hub. 

He points to a room behind us.

“Well, I will leave you boys to it. If you need me, just call me using your suit. I have put a personal AIA in each of your suits.” And after, he left the room.

“Listen up, dweebs, I am going to make this nice and easy. Mess with me and I will make sure that you don’t make it to the competition,” Romelo says with a nasty tone. 

“Now get to practice!”

We enter the hub and put on the RSVR headsets. 

Chapter 3

We complete each level with ease. We finished all of the puzzle challenges with the help of Lee. We finished all of the shooting and physical levels with the help of Romelo. But I was not much help at all. I could tell that they were starting to get annoyed with me because I am not as experienced in VR like them.

“Do you understand how to complete maze levels?” Lee would ask me. 

“Do you know how to aim for the head?” Romelo would ask me.

I could not take this anymore so I left the hub and take a break. I grabbed a cup of coffee, a bag of chips, and turned the TV on.

“AIA, how much time do I have until we fly to Montana for the competition?”

“You have 22 hours and 28 minutes left.”

I put my headset back on and practiced more and more. We are all so tired. Well, with the exception of Lee, who is never hungry or tired. We go to bed and fall into a deep sleep. 

“Hey, loser.” I get out of bed to see Romelo waving me over.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Dude, look at Lee. What a weirdo, he is still in the hub playing and I have been watching him for 9 hours.” 

“What the, is he like some sort of robot or what?”

“Whatever dweeb, I’m going to sleep now. We fly out first thing in the morning.”

On the airplane, Mr. Oscar tells us all about our competition and who to watch out for. He tells us that we will not be able to leave the game so use the restroom before the game starts. We all look at him with a bored face because this is the ninth time he has told us. 

I play some music and fall asleep. I get awoken to the sound of yelling. I see Mr. Oscar yelling at Lee and then clicking his neck with something. I had no idea what it was, but it must have been a comms device cause he started to talk about random stuff. 

“Hey Lee, what was Mr. Oscar yelling to you about?”

“None of your business!”

“Ok, sorry.”

Chapter 4

I looked outside the window to see what Montana looked like because I had heard stories that it was mountains and big lakes and all sorts of wildlife. But it was just buildings, workhouses. We landed and went directly into a limo!

“Damn this is my kind of ride,” Romelo said with an amazed tone.

The limo took us to this warehouse. It was all white inside and the AC (Air Conditioning) was on high, so it was so cold inside. Mr. Oscar took us to a room where he said he would get the other groups. Five minutes later, he came back with two other groups. 

“These are the people you will be competing against. I want to see nice and good sportsmanship, ok. No fighting. I will be back in three hours, I have to get the course set up.”

“You guys are going down, we going to win this and none of you losers will get in my way.”

“Romelo take it easy, this is just a friendly competition, ok?”

We get to our own hub and put on our headset. A voice comes up.

“Game starting in 3, 2, 1…”

The pixels start to form into a jungle. We start the game. We blow through the first 250 levels with ease. As we went through the levels, Romelo and I couldn’t walk anymore. Our legs were full of bruises and cuts and we needed to rest for a little while.

“Lee, stop moving please, we need a break.”

I get up and touch his shoulder. He grabs my arm and throws me to the ground. 

“The weak will die.” 

Just as he says that, he pulls out a gun and shoots Romelo in the head. His particles go away and that was it. Romelo was out of the competition. 

“What the hell, you are such an idiot!!!” 

Lee pointed his gun at me but the game paused and the locks on our headsets released. I took it off and went looking for Romelo. 

“Romelo, where are you?!”

I saw Mr. Oscar and asked him where Romelo was.

“Romelo said that he did not want to compete anymore so we had Lee kill him in the game and we sent him back home.”

Chapter 5

There is no way that Romelo wanted to go home. There has to be more than the eye could see. At night, I will follow Mr. Oscar through the vent to see what is up.

1:30, time to shine. I got out of bed and unscrewed the vent. I hopped in and saw

Mr. Oscar walking towards a room. The vent was so dusty and smelled of decay. I followed the sound of Mr. Oscar’s voice to a room where there were scientists everywhere with clipboards and typing on computers. What is this place?

“Sir, Group 47 is not doing so well, they are all still on level 100 to 110. Only one group has reached the average. And why did you give them an extra day of rest, now the data won’t be fair! Ohh and just to mention, you killed a test subject!” 

“I don’t care! You asked me for test subjects, I give you test subjects. One sees the lab or anything else, they get eliminated. Plus they’re all gonna die either way and we have more test subjects so take a chill pill.”

 What? How is this happening? There’s no way. This can’t be true. How could they kill innocent kids just for some dumb stupid experiment? I have to get out of here.

“Lee (Logitec Experiment Executioner), please come over here. I think that Lucas is onto us. On the next level, kill him and then eliminate the rest. We will bring in the next batch of kids after this is done.”

“Yes, Mr. Oscar.”

“Now go and charge yourself. I can’t have you run out of batteries during the competition.”

“Yes, Mr. Oscar.” 

I started to make my way back to my bed. I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. I always knew that something was up, but they were killing kids! I jumped back onto the bed. 

All of a sudden, I heard footsteps in the front of the door. I quickly pretended to be sleeping.

“I told you he’s fine, he was just sleeping the whole time.”

I peek out from under my pillow to see Mr. Oscar and a scientist at the door.

“Alright, let’s get the game ready for tomorrow. Oh and make the levels for Lucas extra hard. We need to make his death look like an accident.”

“Yes sir.”

Chapter 6

I get out of bed and get ready for the game. I am met by Mr. Oscar and Lee.

“How did you sleep, Lucas?”

“Fine.”

“Ok well just want to wish you good luck, you only have 3 levels left.”

“Thanks, I really wish that Romelo was here.”

“I know it’s a shame that he wanted to leave.”

“Yeah, it’s like he was killed.”

“Haha, your sense of humor always seems to get me, Lucas.”

We walk into the hub and put on the headsets. Again, the voice comes up.

“Game starting in 3, 2, 1.”

The pixels load and we are on top of a huge building. We go on to complete the level. We have to get a key that is hanging from a pole that is high up in the sky.

“You climb the pole, I will hold it so you don’t fall,” Lee says with a smirk on his face.

“No it’s fine I think you should climb.” 

“Ok be sure to hold the pole tight.”

He gets onto the pole and grabs the key. I sigh because he wasn’t going to kill me.

We unlock the door to the next level. 

This level is about aim, again someone had to climb up high and hold a board where the teammate has to shoot. I grab the gun and he gets the board. Success! We continue to the next level. 

Last level, we spawn on top of a bridge. We need to get down from the bridge without falling. In order to get down we either climb down a rope that is slippery, or we walk down the rail of the bridge with the wind blowing at us.

“I think that we should go down the rail,” I shout.

The wind is so loud that we can not hear each other. I turn to look at the rail when I see Lee running at me and kick me in the stomach. I stumble back and lose my footing. I grab onto the rail just in time and get back up. He comes running at me again and I dodge him. He almost falls off the bridge but stays on.

“That’s it. I have had enough of this nonsense.”

He pulls out a gun and points it at me. 

“Please, Lee, don’t do this, you don’t have to.”

“I am programmed this way.”

I grab the rope and wrap it around my waist and a metal pole. He shoots but I dodge it. I run at him and we both go plummeting down the bridge. The rope catches me Lee is holding on from my hand.

“I don’t want to let you go.”

“You don’t have to.”

He lets go and his pixels go away. I get off the bridge and leave the game. My locks release and I run out of the hub. Mr. Oscar is waiting for me outside. 

“Congrats, kid. You win.”

“Where are the other competitors?”

“All went home after you won.”

“How could you kill them? You are such a monster.”

“What are you talking about?”

“BS, don’t lie to me. Tell me, why did you kill them!”

“That’s classified, and now that you know, it’s your time as well.”

He pulls out a gun and shoots me in the chest. Blood drips from my chest and mouth.

“I’m sorry, Lucas but this is the only way,” he says with tears and walks away.

I sit there waiting to die, staring at the blank white ceiling, thinking about all the people who died. Then I fall to the ground.

***

One day later in an airplane

“Hello, sir this is Oscar, postpone the mission.” 

“For what reason?” 

“All test subjects have failed the test. None of them were able to complete the levels.”

“Don’t lie to me, Oscar. I have the data, it’s already been sent to me.”

“Yes, sir… what are you going to do with this data?”

“I can’t tell you that, Oscar.”

“Five years of studying human instincts and killing people and you won’t tell me what you are using it for?”

“This concludes our call. We will talk when we meet when you get home.”


The Crevice

The Shenandoah mountains are the perfect place to hike, especially in the fall. The leaves are my favorite part. They’re wet to the touch today. It rained this morning. My parents didn’t feel like hiking, so I convinced my sister to take me. She only takes me so she can take photos for her Instagram, I think. I don’t mind, though. I just like being here.

The trail is pretty empty today, so I can do my favorite thing without being judged. I think I get judged a lot, picking up rocks like that. My sister tells me to stop; I’m a fifteen-year-old girl, she says. And people give me this funny face, like they feel bad for me. That’s the worst part. The pity. 

I don’t like pity. It’s a way to look down on people by looking nice. It’s just another way to mask the nasty thoughts that are floating around in people’s brains. I have nasty thoughts too. I think that my older sister is a follower and my younger sister is flirty and my mother is too tall and my father is too fat. But I don’t pity them. Nobody deserves that. 

When people see me squatting in the mud like that, digging around for rocks, they sometimes say I’m on “the spectrum”, all loud and stuff, as if I don’t know what it means. I’m not, I don’t think. It’s not like I check.

It’s harder to find rocks today, probably because of all the fallen leaves. I wonder if it’s fun or scary to fall like this. Like a leaf. My older sister, Janet, says I shouldn’t say stuff like this, but I still think it. Thinking is a hobby of mine. Every rock that I pick up makes me think. I spot one in the middle of the trail. It kind of looks like a lowercase “B”. It makes me think about my name.

Benny is a stupid name. I would understand it if my parents had named me Benjamin, but my mother says that it is “simply unsuitable” for a girl. So why is Benny any better? Benny, that’s it. The whole package. 

I remember the first time the name’s irregularity dawned on me. It was the summer before first grade, and we were moving into our new house. The house seemed nice. My parents painted it butter yellow, which I hated, but it had big windows and a cool old attic, so the weird color didn’t bother me so much. The first day we drove into that driveway was just to show us kids the new house. The first thing I noticed was the dog poop right outside the car, but my sister seemed to notice something more interesting. A small apartment building loomed across the alley from the new house, and who should be on the lawn but two boys. While my older sister chattered about the older one and my younger sister whined about having boys for next door neighbors, I focused my attention on the little surprise outside of the door. There was no way I was stepping in it. After we made it into the house without any mishaps, I finally turned my attention to the minor situation at hand: the neighbor boys. There they were, on our front porch. Nobody would dare answer the door. My younger sister, Vienna, three at the time, held her stuffed elephant close. Janet, nine at the time, stuck her nose up and said that they probably had cooties. So there they went, my two sisters, clambering up the stairs to pick out their rooms. 

Gingerly, I opened the door. The boys looked smaller in person, and pretty clean. I couldn’t see any cooties from the doorstep. The younger one was tilting his head so much I thought it might pop off. The older one looked nervous, clutching the container in his hand for dear life. He was, it seems, because he dropped the container on the floor and ran off. 

That left me and the younger one.

His head was still tilted a lot, and he had a curious expression on his face. 

“Careful,” I said matter-of-factly, like my doctor, Dr. Kneeler. “I’m afraid it might pop off.” The idiot didn’t change one thing! 

“What?” He drew out the word. He sounded pretty whiny. I decided to do what needed to be done. His neck still cracks a lot. I guess I shoved it a little hard. 

Mitchell, that’s his name, but I call him Mitch and he calls me Ben and we’re still good friends, despite the whole neck thing. Usually he would collect rocks with me, but he has to go to church today and I don’t. You could say I’m not religious. 

The hunt for rocks is getting tricky, so I decide to just run ahead to the best part of the hike: the summit. The summit is a challenge every time I reach it. I’m not the biggest fan of heights, and rock climbing isn’t my thing. But Mitch and I found a loophole: the pit. In the brown rocks that form the tippy top of the mountain lies a crevice. If you get nice and flexible like Mitch and I did from our circus classes, you can wiggle your way into it. And voila! The perfect hideout. Janet usually stays behind, because she doesn’t like what the big gusts of wind does to her hair, so I run ahead, usually, just like today. Once I reach the rocky surface, I climb towards the crevice nice and slow, because the rain makes the smoother rocks pretty slick. I almost fall off anyway when I see what’s scattered all over the crevice. It glints in the sun. I shriek.

And that’s what starts it all. I like the word ruckus; I’ll use that. That’s what starts all the ruckus. There’s always that something that someone finds that causes all the ruckus. I’ve seen enough movies to know that. But I’m not running away from the ruckus, not today. I always do that, and look where it got me. Today, I’m taking my sister’s LuluLemon tote bag and taking ruckus. A lot of it. 


hi, i’m jojo

CHAPTER II

On the inside of the house, there’s a huge sectional couch with a couple big chairs across from it. A large chandelier is shining bright light onto the elaborate fabrics on the couch and chairs and reflecting off of the glass coffee table in the middle. In the back of this room is a big, carpeted staircase.

We walk through a hallway into the dining room. Inside is a long table with 14 chairs: six on each side and one on each end. The huge vase of flowers in the middle of the table sits atop a runner.

“It’s awfully well furnished and maintained for an abandoned house,” notices Eriphili. Raphael and Clarice nod in agreement.

The kitchen is adjacent to the dining room and is filled with all sorts of cutlery, plates, glasses, and some lemons hanging out in a bowl by the stove.

“There’s even fresh food,” adds Clarice. “I wonder why it’s so… well… different from the outside.”

“I’m outta here,” decides Loki, running to the door. He tries to pull the door open. 

“Hey, Clarice?” he shouts, his voice slightly quivering.

“Yes?” Clarice yells back.

“You didn’t lock this door, right?”

“No! Why would I be that stupid?”

“Well… I guess we have an issue.” We all run over to the door.

“What’s our issue?” asks Raphael, his face crinkled up with worry.

“Um… see for yourself.” Raphael grabs the door knob and pulls. Nothing happens. I grab onto the doorknob and we both pull. Nothing.

Soon, everyone is pulling on the doorknob as if our lives depended on it, and right now they actually might.

The door still doesn’t open.

Suddenly, a huge voice echoes through the house.

“Ha ha ha! I see you have entered my house!” The voice has a thick German accent and is very high and squeaky.

“Hello? Who are you?” yells Eriphili.

“Oh, just a passing ghost, not much to be concerned about. Endivay, you have 24 hours to find a vay out. If you don’t, vell… let’s just put it zis vay. Sometimes you try your best but you don’t succeed, and zen crazy animatronic killer monkeys come and kill you!”

Chills run up and down my spine and neck, munching away at my bones like animatronic monkeys as I realize what this means: if we don’t find a way out in the next 24 hours, we’ll be killed. Loki grabs Clarice and I can see Raphael and Eriphili tense up.

Raphael seems to be imagining what death is like because his face is turning the color of porcelain and he’s holding a hand at his mouth. His eyes are wide open and I can see the fear glazing them like they’re donuts.

“So… how exactly do we get out?” Eriphili asks, but she gets no response.

“Well, I guess we should go look around,” I suggest. Loki and Clarice start heading towards another room opposite from the dining room and kitchen. The rest of us follow them.

The room seems pretty normal. At least until I notice a small door in the back of the room.

“Hey, people, maybe this door leads to something helpful!” Clarice, Eriphili, Raphael, and Loki run over to where I’m standing and I pry open the door. Inside, there’s a narrow wooden staircase.

I step onto the first stair to check if it’s solid. It is, so I continue up the stairs. Once I reach the top, I am greeted by a wall. I groan. 

Then there’s a random and short flicker of light, revealing a keyhole.

“Hey, people!” I yell down the stairs. “I found some sort of keyhole!” I hear the pounding of feet as everyone runs up the stairs, meeting me at the top.

“Let me see!” whines Eriphili. “I know how to pick locks!” 

“I know how to pick locks,” mocks Loki, being his normal rude self. 

“Shut up,” says Eriphili, pushing past Clarice to the door. Loki kicks her. “Hey! If you touch me one more time, I will slaughter you. Got it?” Eriphili pulls a dagger out of her backpack to prove it.

“Eriphili!” I yell. “Why do you have a dagger?”

“Oh, you never know when you’ll need it.”

“But people don’t just carry around daggers!” protests Raphael.

“I do. Ah… I see. An HYT Chain Key lock… it’s unpickable.”

“Even with your dagger?” scoffs Loki. Eriphili rolls her eyes.

Raphael moans and starts jumping back down the stairs.

“What if we look around the house for the key?” suggests Eriphili. I nod.

“Alright. Let’s split up. Loki and I will go upstairs, Raphael will search this floor, and Kingsley and Eriphili will search the basement,” decides Clarice.

Eriphili and I walk towards the stairs, hoping that they have an opposing stairway that leads to the basement.

I search all around the stairs, but don’t see anything that could potentially lead to a third floor.

“Hey, Kingsley!” yells Clarice from the second floor. “I think I see something that could lead to the basement!”

I run up the stairs to where Clarice is standing, Eriphili right behind me. The second floor is made of a huge carpeted hallway with numerous rooms spread randomly among the floor.

“What is it?” I ask Clarice. She points to a little square outlined with thin black Sharpie. However, the square is on the ceiling. “Well, how are we supposed to reach that?”

“I don’t know,” Clarice replies. 

“What if we try walking up the wall?” suggests Eriphili.

“Do you seriously think that would work?” Clarice snaps back.

“I think it’ll work better than you and your annoying boyfriend sitting around doing nothing this entire time!”

“Don’t say that to her,” yells Loki.

“Hey! People!” I yell.

“It’s not like you or Loki have done anything!” says Eriphili, her voice rising.

“Oh, really? We’re the ones that found the trap door!” protests Clarice.

“You’re also the one who can’t survive a creepy bus driver without crying into Loki’s shoulder!” Loki runs up to Eriphili and prepares to punch her.

“Hey! Loki! Stop! None of you are helping us get anywhere! You’re just wasting time that we need! All your bickering is completely pointless! So shut up and do something! All of you!” I shout. Loki’s face looks sheepish as he wanders away from Eriphili, who is crossing her arms and rolling her eyes. Clarice puts her hands on her hips and I can see her nostrils flaring. 

Eriphili walks over to the wall and presses her hand on it. Then she presses her foot on. She lifts her other foot off the ground and, amazingly, she stays on the wall.

“Woah!” I say, doing the same on a different part of the wall. However, I fall down and land on the hard ground with a THUMP! “Ow!”

“I guess it only works on this part of the wall,” concludes Eriphili. So, once she’s up on the ceiling, I climb up after her. “Now, how do we open up this door?”

“Maybe just try to pull it,” says Clarice. Eriphili rubs her hand along the edge of the square, searching for any sort of notch that she could pull.

“Here,” she says, and then she grabs a little dip in the ceiling and pulls it. The squeaky door flies open. “You first.”

I crawl over to the hole in the ceiling and hoist myself up. It’s like a vent: square and metal. Every movement creates an echo that runs all the way down to the end of the crawl space and back. I start crawling down it and Eriphili tails behind me. Suddenly, I hear a switch flip, and then drop down a hole in the crawl space and keep falling, falling, falling.

I land on a huge pillow-like thing. Lights turn on, going all the way up to the top of the hole where I see Eriphili’s round face. She’s holding her dagger.

“I hope you’re not scared of clowns!” she yells, her mouth in a huge grin that reveals her teeth. They almost look like fangs. Then she cackles and the roof of the hole closes up.

All the walls around me pull backwards, creating a small pit with tunnels going out in every direction. The lights turn multicolored and start shining all around the room. Creepy carnival music starts blasting throughout the room.

“Wait! Eriphili!” I yell, but it’s no use. She’s gone.

The room is about seven feet by seven feet. The crazy-colored lights are making my head hurt a little bit, and the music is not helping. 

This is probably just a joke, I think. I really hope it is, because the aesthetic in this room is really creeping me out.

All of a sudden, I see a figure coming into the room. It has a white cloak, and I can’t really see what else it looks like. Is it an angel?

No, not at all.

The thing that is coming towards me wears a huge white robe and its face looks like Pennywise. It’s clutching a huge dagger in its right hand–no, its left hand. And the dagger is the same as Eriphili’s.

“Hello, Kingsley Caligari! Would you like to play with me? Forever and ever and ever and ever?” I recognize the voice. While the clown is still far away from me, I scan my mind for who it could be. Then I land on someone: Eriphili.

“Um… not really…” I answer.

“Too bad!” yells Eriphili. She leaps towards me and I jump to the side. The knife slices my right pinky finger off. I yelp in pain and dash off to one of the tunnels. Eriphili follows me. Suddenly there’s a clang on one of the other sides of the pit. Eriphili turns and starts walking towards it; I think she thinks that I’m over there.

Then I have a revelation: since the clown is Eriphili, she must be wearing a mask. Therefore, she can’t see, and only relies on her hearing to capture me.

I slowly tiptoe backward into one of the tunnels and Eriphili doesn’t notice.

When I get into the tunnel, I rip off my sweater to try to staunch the bleeding from my finger.

I almost reach the end of the tunnel when I hear clanging like cymbals. I look all around me and see nothing except a figure in the distance.

As it gets closer to me, I see a monkey figure. In its mouth it has huge sharp teeth and blood splattered around its mouth. The eyes are different sizes and the larger one is rolling around in its socket. 

“Oh, no,” I mutter as I notice that the sweater didn’t help, and that the blood is draining out of my finger like a storm drain during a hurricane. I start becoming dizzy and I can’t see straight. I think the monkey is close to me… or is it far? Now there are two. Or maybe I’m just seeing double. 

A white border starts creeping into my vision. It slowly takes over everything except the bloody, satanic face of the monkey.

Then everything goes black. And it stays that way for a while.


The Golden City

Chapter One

“In San Francisco, you’re going to love San Francisco,” my mom said excitedly. “The city is so pretty at night. We’ll be surrounded by water on three sides and a mountain on the fourth. There won’t be snow there, though. I know you’ll miss the snowstorms we have here!”

Pictures swirled across my mind as I imagined bright billboards and flashing lights. The city would be nothing like the small Pennsylvania neighborhood onlooking the Susquehanna in my little corner of the world.

“We’ll make up for it with some of the things you love. Applecrest has a great drama program. And if I do recall, a science program as well! You’ll be thriving,” my mom added cheerfully while making dinner.

“But what about Dad?” I glanced up at her as I sat curled up on the couch. I bundled the edge of a blanket and tucked it close to my chin. I was going to miss my dad, who lived all the way in Lancaster. I’d been visiting him on the weekends since I was nine.

“We’ve already arranged things, Rosie. You’ll spend the fall and a bit of summer break down here with him. We can even schedule activities for you and Chrissie down here. Things will be so perfect.”

But things are already perfect as they are, I thought to myself, pondering everything that would never be the same.

“You know I’m never forgiving you for this, right?” Chrissie huffed, arms crossed as she stared at me sadly. “You’re basically my only friend, Rosie. It’s sad but true. I’ll miss you so much…” Chrissie grabbed my hand and walked sulkily along the sidewalk like a wilting flower. 

I couldn’t console my friend when I needed consoling myself. “I’ll email you. I promise. It’s not like I’ll be making any friends at Applecrest, anyways.”

“Maybe someday, I can come visit you there. The Golden City,” Chrissie exclaimed, saying the name of my new home with pizzazz. “You know what they say. There’s gold in the hills! And the sunsets are warm and golden. And people say that the hills shimmer golden in the summers, too!”

“That’s just a silly nickname. There’s more fog than sun in the city. The water might be pretty, but not prettier than the Susquehanna. There’s a drama program, but I don’t think anyone will like me…”

“Don’t be such a Debbie Downer. Think on the bright side. You’ll get away from this boring place. Wish I was in your shoes.” Chrissie flashed me a smile that seemed pained but hopeful.

I rolled my eyes. Chrissie, of all people, didn’t understand how I was feeling. 

“One of Pennsylvania’s nicknames is Oil State. How pathetic is that? Compare The Golden City to Oil State!”

“Whatever, Chrissie. Since obviously you don’t get it, I’ll go wallow in self-pity by myself.” I stormed off annoyedly in the direction of my house.

“Geez! Well, I’m sad too! I was just trying to make you feel better!” she yelled after me, and I could tell by the quivering of her voice that she was about to cry. 

I ignored her, although my inner conscience was telling me not to keep stalking away. I turned back after a few seconds and saw Chrissie walking home to her neighborhood in the other direction, hanging her head like a gloomy scarecrow.

Chapter Two

Chrissie seemed so miserable and upset that I knew I couldn’t just walk away. I was almost home now, under the canopy of the huge willow tree by the playground connecting our neighborhoods. Chrissie always knew the right thing to say in every situation — maybe I was the problem. Maybe I misinterpreted her because I was so busy feeling bad for myself.

I turned around, speeding up my pace a little to catch up with Chrissie. She was passing through the cul-de-sac leading to her house.

 “Chrissie! Wait up!” I called, running toward her and sliding into the spot on the sidewalk next to her.

Chrissie didn’t seem surprised by me; she just hugged her arms to her chest and continued walking. “What is it, Rosie? Do you want me to talk about how awful San Francisco is? Make you feel better by talking about how amazing Pennsylvania is?”

“Look, Chrissie. I was really mean… I’m sorry. I know you were just trying to help. I’m really going to miss you,” I said, and after a few seconds we both went in for a hug. 

“I’ll miss you too. Too bad you’re leaving tomorrow… I’ll have to cancel the party. I’m not even nearly done decorating quite yet.”

“What party?” I giggled.

“Your going away party, silly,” Chrissie laughed, shoving me playfully in the shoulder. “I’ve been planning it since you told me a week ago.”

I froze, jaw open like a cod fish. Chrissie had planned a party for me? She was the best friend I could ever ask for.

“No way we’re cancelling this party! Let’s get decorating!” I exclaimed as the two of us grinned and headed in the direction of Chrissie’s house.

It was moving day. We had packed up the entire house — all that was left were dust bunnies and yearly height marks on the walls. I had spent some of the morning jumping from box to box, which had resulted in some bent cardboard and my very angry mother.

I sat here at Chrissie’s house, admiring everything we had done — the golden confetti and streamers, the giant map of Pennsylvania, the ice cream cake that read Bon Voyage, Rosie! in shimmering golden letters covered in edible glitter.

Maya, Isabel, Carly, and a few other girls in our grade were here, gathered around the kitchen table as my mom, my dad, and Chrissie’s parents poured sparkling cider into our cups.

After my mom had poured cider into Chrissie’s, she grinned and held her plastic red cup high in the air. “I’d like to propose a toast in honor of my forever best friend, Rosie. Of course I’ll miss her, but I hope she likes San Francisco. And I can’t wait to see her in the fall and the summer.”

“Cheers to The Golden City!” she cheered, then knocked her cup against mine.

“Cheers to The Golden City!” we all shouted, laughing, as we raised our cups in happiness.


Midnight Hour

My mind wanders as I stare out at the constellations on the top deck of The Midnight Hour.

“Leina.” I spin around, half expecting a ghost to be whispering my name through the cool breeze. My mom stands at the edge of the deck beckoning me to go downstairs to my room. Her cool, light brown eyes watch over me closely as I pretend to ignore her. Never once does she use the world sleep. My family doesn’t believe the night ends day, and bedtime has never been an issue for their only daughter. She trusts me to know when my body needs to rest and plans the rest of my day around it, only on nights like this one does she actually care what time my body falls asleep. The calendar has already been laid out for tomorrow. 

I turn to look at my mom. Xandra Morrigan has always been gorgeous, dark black hair, soft tan skin, and curvy hips, as well as being the perfect owner and manager of the large ship I call my home. My mom has never told me where the ship came from or how it came to be hers, though I never viewed it as my place to ask.

“Magdalena,” my mom says, her smile faltering into a slight frown as I rise from my leaning position on the fence guarding the drop into the ocean. I roll my eyes, kissing her cheek before running down the stairs to go to bed. My parents are planning on hosting a masquerade tomorrow, to celebrate my father’s 51st birthday. Even though it is well past midnight, the crew of The Midnight Hour will be preparing and decorating the ship the entire day right up until we dock at Celestia Cove tomorrow evening. We have just over 100 staff with us at the moment, their sleeping quarters are located on the second level of the ship, only above the cargo area, and next to the kitchen. They are usually only with us for a month or so to earn a little extra before returning to their normal residences, though some use their appointment as a free method of travel to get to a particular destination to see relatives, or spend vacation. The third level of the ship is our ballrooms and dining areas. Our small family area is located in the back of this floor, with my parents’ grand master suite right next store. This is where my family and I spend most of our time. Other guest rooms and guest access is on the fourth floor with the main deck right above. 

The outside of our ship is largely uninteresting, with metal covering most of the outside and concrete holding up the decks. No one knows how the ship can support this giant concrete flooring, though no one questions it since this is the way it’s always been. Our ship seems quite large compared to other ships we pass. Our ship is currently around 650 square feet, with additions happening around every 5-10 years. I have had two renovations in my lifetime. Our current capacity is around 1,500 guests depending on the amount of staff staying with us at the moment. This usually allows us to entertain every adult in the island or coastal town we have decided to dock at for the festivities.

The halls are deserted as I make my way through the ship. My room is currently located at the back end in one of our smaller guest rooms, so I can stay away from current festivities, and so I have easy access to both my dress and changing rooms. Fatigue overtakes my body, though not my mind, as I stumble my way through the halls, tripping over my own feet as I run. Despite what I may look like, bloodshot eyes, rumpled hair, ragged fingernails that I am scolded on for chewing everyday, I don’t feel the slightest bit tired because I know I need to do one more thing before climbing into bed. 

Once I reach my door, I creep into my room and flick on the lights. My room illuminates with a pale, white glow dancing off of the sandy-colored walls. My bed sits in the middle of the room right up against the wall to the left of me as I walk in. Its bright, blue-colored bedsheets stand out as virtually the only color besides the starlight casting my light blue rug into what reminds me of Marena’s city lights, my favorite island off of the mainland. As I spin around to face my closet, I catch my reflection in the mirror which hangs over my brown, wooden dresser. I always liked the way I looked at night better, my gray, green-gray eyes are squinted into slits from minimal light, making me feel powerful and deceptive. My short-cut black hair hangs over my eyes jaggedly, wavering as the fan above my head attempts to push it out of my now black-looking eyes. The rest of my face I rarely notice in the frenzy of various maids trying to match dresses with my already complex complexion. I have bright rosy cheeks that stand out against my harsh olive skin tone, with a long, tipped-up, pointy nose to finish. I grin wickedly at the thought of the maids trying to dress me tomorrow now that I have cut off most of my wild hair with a sharp butcher’s knife. I have always preferred the look of shorter hair and I thought it would require less maintenance when either climbing or getting ready for a party. My pointy lips fade into a smirk as I turn to look at my dress selections for the rest of the night.

“White, black, blue, purple,” I mutter the colors of each dress I look at that is currently in my closet. “Red,” I say at last. “That’s what I want.”

The night is cold and windy, though during the summer, the stars that shine off of The Midnight Hour look as brilliant as ever reflected in the midnight blue water below. I find sneaking out onto the lower deck off the side of the kitchen is a good way to calm my anxious spirits before going to bed. Red, I think again as I watch my flowy silk red dress sail over the water, allowing the rest of my body to breathe in the night sky. Red goes well with midnight blue. I laugh as my fingers brush the edge of the water, illuminated only by the moon and the stars. The lower deck is my favorite one to sneak out onto because of its lack of a railing. This gives me the ability to literally hang onto the handrails and allow my feet to dangle above the starlit waters. I yell as loud as I can muster into the wind whipping my face, telling it to carry me away.

“Take me to the place of wind and weeping willows.” I choke my powerful calls into a delicate whisper. “To the places where stars are places I can visit and the moon is the light I use to read and write.” I pause, gasping as though I have said too much, and maybe I have.

Magic has always been a part of this greater world that I have never gotten the chance to be a part of, wishing it were there. I have always known I have it, and it runs through me like a sheepdog would herd its cattle. I feel it now, boiling under my skin, caressing my head and my body until I can’t feel anything else. The wind starts to gush around me, making my hair fly out from my neck. This is my magic, who I am. This is it, I think. I know the wind will carry me to somewhere I want to be, somewhere, where I can live my life. And, it does.


Pulling Me Back Under

Everything was quiet.

Everything was still. The hands of the clock shifted letting out a sharp ringing sound alerting everything that it was now three am. The sound echoed throughout the empty house, shaking its walls. Everything stopped, everything stayed still as if it were afraid to breathe. As if it were afraid to scream. Nothing moved as I felt that nothing would, yet I couldn’t help feeling like something would happen. Like something was there watching me, waiting for me to move, breath, or scream. I felt the chills crawl up my spine and into my shoulders. I felt caged in my body, imprisoned, not able to break free. I was standing there still alone in the empty house waiting. Waiting for something to happen, waiting to see it breathe. Still I felt there was something behind me, something about to jump and release me from this trance where I’m stuck, waiting. The clock chimed again. However, when I turned to look it was three am again. The sound chimed another time again. I felt something reach into the depths of my soul, something I had never felt before. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t open my lips. They felt like stone pressed closed not able to move. The clock chimed again. Everything went black. It was as if it were a blink that my eyes had never opened from.

I woke up in my bed dazed and confused. I could not recall whether my dream was a fragment of my imagination or if it was a reality. I could smell the savory smell of bacon coming from the kitchen. I felt chills all over my body. I began to sit up as I rubbed my head, I felt a bump on the back of it. I stood up and walked to the kitchen. I stopped. I was stunned. There she was, cooking bacon. Her soft black hair draping down to her lower back. Her smooth pale skin. She looked so peaceful. She was so quiet. I tried to say something, anything, but my lips were sealed. My legs wouldn’t move, or rather they couldn’t move. She turned around. Her face was so pale and long. She was wearing her white nightgown with the lace hem. It was her favorite. She started walking over to me. Her eyes were white and empty, it felt almost as though you could stare at them for hours and see nothing but emptiness. She touched my face with her long, cold, boney hand. She just stared at me as though she was longing to be there in the moment. She then opened her mouth. I could see her blackened teeth. She reeked of rotting, I felt my nose hairs curl up. She let out a blood curdling scream, and then it all went black. I woke up with my hands grasping my chest. I could hear my heart pounding. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe and I was gasping for air. Finally I realised it was all just a bad dream. 

I looked over at my wooden nightstand to see our wedding photo sitting there. It was just there, like it was calling for me to come home. I thought I put all of my memories of her away. I saw the time on my alarm clock, three am. I wasn’t sure if all of this was a long series of dreams and I am finally awake, or whether I was just stuck in a trance, a paralysis, never to be woken again. It still reeked of rotting. I got up and decided to take a shower to try and calm down. 

I turned the water on and let it run until I saw the steam start to pour out of the curtains, and float up to the ceiling. I stepped into the shower and the water was ice cold. There was steam, but the water was cold. Is this another dream? I thought. I got out to wait for the water to warm up. I looked in the mirror and realised I hadn’t shaved my beard. The mirror started to fog up. I opened it and reached for my shaving cream. I started rubbing it into my beard. I looked down and saw my razor in my hand. It just appeared there, like it was meant to be there. I began to bring the blade to my beard, and watch the hairs fall into the sink. One after the other, as if it were long black rain. I got back into the shower to wash the remaining shaving cream and hairs off. The water was finally warm. Maybe this wasn’t a dream and I was awake again. The water felt good on my skin. All of a sudden the water felt thick and heavy. I looked down to see a thick heavy pool of water. Somehow the water had filled the shower up. I ripped open the curtain to try and get out. The bathroom was still covered in water. It kept rising up and up. I reached for the door trying to escape but it was locked shut. My head was touching the ceiling. Soon I was submerged. I tried to wake up, but I couldn’t. I felt the air run out in my lungs. I turned to see her floating there. She was so beautiful, her hair and nightgown floating up like she was an ethereal creature. Darkness started to close in on me. I felt her soft lips press against mine. I woke up again.

There was a pool of sweat around me. I looked at my alarm and saw it was three am again. This couldn’t be another dream. Why was this happening to me? I got up, grabbed my coat off the foot of my bed, and left my apartment building. The sky was pitch black. There were no stars because they were hiding behind the clouds. The wind swept up the fallen leaves and moved them around through the air as though they were dancing. The streetlamps were flickering and newspapers tumbled around on the ground. I started to walk on the sidewalk. No one was out. I was walking along an empty road filled with abandoned secrets. I started walking along the river. I kept smelling the smell of rotting. Where was it coming from? Was she there? Was she following me? I wasn’t sure. I kept walking faster, scared to look behind me.

There was a tunnel that led to the bridge above the river. I ran to the tunnel, hoping the smell of rotting would not follow me, and she wouldn’t be there. The smell only followed me. I could feel a stream of tears flow out of my eyes and hit my shoulders. The tears felt cold, almost refreshing. I finally reached the bridge and saw blue and red lights flashing up ahead. I thought maybe they could help me. The air felt cooler up here, like a ghost had just walked through your body. The lights kept getting brighter the closer you got to them. My legs felt as though they couldn’t go on much further. My chest hurt and my head was spinning. I finally reached the blue and red lights. They were all gathering towards the right side of the bridge, looking over. There was a big gap in the guardrail. I felt the chills all over my body again. It felt strange this time, almost as though something bad was about to happen. I walked up to them. They all looked sad, however there seemed to be a sort of calmness surrounding them. 

I asked them what had happened. They just stared blankly into the water. One of them asked what had happened, and another one responded that some insane man drove off of the bridge. They then got into their cars and began to drive away. I saw the blue and red lights fade into the distance and then they were gone. I walked across the bridge to the other side, hoping someone over there would help me escape this demon of mine. By the time I reached the town on the other side of the bridge, it was five am. I searched and searched to find someone, anyone who could release me from this pain. As I walked along the sidewalk I heard a bell from behind me. Then I felt something hard hit my head. I turned around to see that there was a boy delivering newspapers on a bicycle. The boy fell over, and I went to go help him up. He looked straight at me, but kept ignoring me. I could tell he did not want my help. 

Once he finally got a hold of it he got up. He hopped on his bicycle and rode away. Now alone I stood there in the dark, in the cold, wondering, waiting. Trying to piece it all together. Maybe I might wake up this time, maybe if I tried hard enough I could go home. I walked over to where the newspaper hit my head. I picked it up and began to read. The chills filled my body again. I felt her. I knew she was near. Why wouldn’t she go away? Why wouldn’t she stop? Tears started to pour out of my eyes and on to the paper. One after the other, weighing the paper down, smearing the ink. Scared for my life, standing there waiting to wake up, wondering how I could wake up, I felt her hand press against my back the way it used to, however it was not the same. It was different. Colder, sadder, lonelier. I felt all of her pain of being alone, all the sadness, all the cold. I continued to read, hoping she would go away. I felt her hand move up to my shoulder, as it fit perfectly into place. It was like we were a puzzle, and all the pieces fit perfectly. I read and read hoping to wake up. The tears kept flowing. The fear kept growing. I stopped. I didn’t breathe. I didn’t speak. My tears stopped running down my cheeks. I didn’t move. The chills were now rapid, crawling all over my body as if they were a nest of ants covering you completely. I turned around to see her, standing there so peacefully. She looked at me and asked if I was ready to go home. I realised I had been running from the truth, and did not remember or know it. The newspaper read: man dead. Drove his car off the bridge into the river. Screaming that he couldn’t live without, his wife. There was a picture of the man. His pale body, his black beard, his lost face. I realised why the boy and the police officers ignored me, why she was here, why the blue and red lights couldn’t help me, why there was a bump on my head.

Everything went dark. Everything was still. Everything stopped, everything stayed still as if it were afraid to breathe. As if it were afraid to scream. Nothing moved as I felt that nothing would. 

Everything was quiet.


Between Four Walls

She, the girl, stands facing sideways towards the mirror, talking fast to distract from the movements she makes, twisting her waist from left to right, her eyes quietly seeking out every imperfection. The mirror is the great enemy. The mirror is the battle. Why does she look so much… doesn’t she know what it reflects by now? Why must one stand for so long looking at a mirror that only reflects what truly is. Or is it possible that one can stand so long looking at the same thing until finally, they forget what the reflection appeared to show in the first place?

What is perfection? Why does everyone want it? It seems much like fog. One is always too far to reach it, but able to get close enough not to abandon it. It is an ever lasting search for satisfaction. Everybody knows they will never find it, but still they continue to look. Maybe they keep looking because if they stop they’ll be faced with the fact that they were looking in the wrong place all along. Or maybe they keep looking because they want to win the battle so much they sacrifice themselves in the process. Maybe.   

***

A plate unfinished. Peas 60 calories, chicken 150 calories, mashed potatoes 300 calories, with butter 75 calories. Total: 585 calories. Too many. Because if I eat this, the person I like won’t notice me and the dress I like won’t fit me and the friends I talk to everyday will stop talking to me and then I’ll be left with nothing to like about myself. So I’ll eat the peas and half the chicken and pretend I had a really big lunch which was actually just an apple and hide the fact that I want to finish the plate and eat three scoops of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate ice cream which I know is in the freezer. But I can’t because if I do then I’ll have nothing left to like about myself. So I’ll go back to my room and lock the door to return to the mirror. And then it will be just the mirror and myself. I strip naked and count every bone I can see, ribs, collar, and shoulders. This reflection I see, how come it doesn’t please me? I eat less, I workout more, but still I can’t see beauty. Why? 

I step on the scale that I long to see all day. But I have to be quick because if my parents saw me I know they’d be concerned. The numbers on the scale start to form, until I see they have gone done. What a relief, because now I can be sure that all my hard work was not for nothing, and a smile starts to form on my face, and I think to myself of how very good I feel. I wish I could share this with someone. My dad calls me downstairs to finish up the dishes so I cover my body with a baggy sweatshirt so no one can see what is actually underneath. So no one can see the truth.

***

Control. She needs it. She thrives on it. Because when her life is falling apart the only thing she has left to dominate is herself. That’s why she’s protecting a secret that is slowly killing her. Even though she knows it will hurt people. Even though it hurts herself. So she keeps fighting the enemy and the battle. But what is the battle now? For the mirror is only a reflection of what truly is. There is no one battle, there is no one reason for all the bad things. If there were, it would all be much simpler as there would only be one thing to get rid of. The mirror, the plate, the scale. . . all the battles that need to be fought to achieve beauty and perfection. That’s what she, the girl, keeps telling herself.

“I ‘ll be perfect and then I’ll be okay.”

“I’ll be beautiful and then I’ll be okay.”

But she tried and still she is not okay. Because perfection is like fog, easy to get lost in and never to be reached, and the search for beauty has always been in the wrong place, never to be found. Is it possible the greatest battles were always herself? All along was she her own enemy? After all a mirror only reflects what truly is.

*** 

I am tired of looking at the mirror for every imperfection, and I am tired of the scale going up and down, and I am tired of only eating a quarter of my plate. I am tired of hurting everyone including myself. And I’m tired of forgetting everything that once mattered to me. So I will return to my mirror. The battle that I don’t even remember starting in the first place… CRACK

 Suddenly I see thick warm blood beginning to trickle down my knuckles. Sharp pain shooting through my fist which is pressing against the ice cold mirror. I released my hand from the mirror and slowly started to open up my fingers one by one, each one more painful than the last. My hand is shaking in the end, now covered in blood, a deep crimson red. My wrist ached with a rush of pain coursing through my arm. What is this reflection I see now? Who is this person staring back at me? I can see myself, thin body, only enough skin to cover the bones sticking out of me, but only, this time I look, I am covered by a million cracks, running down my face in every direction. Lines running through my left ribs and chest. But more noticeably a large crack cutting down straight through my face. And finally I can see myself, stuck in this webbed mirror. Stuck in this idea of perfection. Is this who I am? Is this my reflection? After all, a mirror only shows what truly is.


Messages in the Wind

I walked into the kitchen and plopped my school bag on the table. After the chilly walk home from school, the vegetable soup heating on the stove smelled delightful.

“Hi Mom!” 

“Hi Emma,” she said unenthusiastically. 

Then I heard my mom’s phone ringing on the counter. I looked down. The name Johnny popped up on the screen. My mom rushed to her phone to pick up it up. She looked at me with a why-are-you-staring-at-my-phone look. I returned the look with a confused stare, grabbed my bag, then walked upstairs and into my dad’s office. Who could Johnny be?

“Hi Dad,” I said. “I’ll be in my room, ok?” 

My dad sat in front of his desktop, lost in thought. “Hi sweetie, how was your day?” he said, looking up.

“It was fine-” Ding! I looked down at the phone on his desk. Johnny. Again. So my dad knew this Johnny guy too? I didn’t have time to see what the message said, because my dad snatched the phone and shooed me away. 

“Shouldn’t you be doing homework?” 

My parents were acting so weirdly these days. I decided to ignore it for now and go up to my room. Maybe Johnny was just an old friend of theirs. 

I made my way to my desk in front of the big window facing the sea. It’s my favorite place to relax. The window gives me a nice view of our small neighborhood and the Scottish beaches of the Isle of Mull. I opened it to let in the fresh ocean air. 

I took my worksheet out of my folder. Great. Conjugation. My favorite. I sighed. J’aurais, tu aurais, il, elle, on aur-” Suddenly, a flutter outside my window caught my eye and I saw a paper airplane fall into the garden. I opened the window farther and tried to find where the plane had come from, but there was no sign of anybody except my dog, Tanzie, playing in the water with my older brother Mike. He was visiting from his first year of university and he wouldn’t throw a paper airplane at my window. I knew I should finish my conjugations, but I felt intrigued—and a little bit bored with french—and decided to go get the plane. I wandered down to the garden and found it in a flower bed.

When I picked it up, I saw it was made from part of a map. Why a map? It looked a lot like my neighborhood, and I could see something that looked like directions. I climbed the stairs back up to my room where I spread the plane out and unfolded it on my desk. Someone had indeed made the plane out of a map, the kind you find in guidebooks, but I couldn’t find any other information and the directions went off the page. It was interesting, but it wasn’t going to help me with my French so I went back to my conjugation.

But later, during the night, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. I had so many questions: Where did the map come from? Would I ever get the other part of the map? Also, who was Johnny? And why were my parents acting so oddly all of a sudden? All those questions exhausted me and I finally fell asleep. 

The next day, my parents behaved as if nothing weird was happening. 

“Good morning Honey!” said my dad, setting a bottle of maple syrup on the rough pine farm table.“I made you french toast. I love that yellow dress!”

“Hey Little Sis!” said Mike, scratching Tanzie’s neck as he sat in his usual spot across from mine.

“Morning, thanks,” I said, sitting down. Not sure if I was thanking Dad for the french toast, the complement, or both. I ate my French toast then walked to our small local middle school. It was a normal school day; maths, english, music, French, and P.E. 

That afternoon, I planned on going to play with Tanzie, my border collie after finishing my homework. After thirty minutes of solving algebraic equations, I saw another flicker in the corner of my vision. My heart beat faster – could it be another map? I rushed down to the garden and grabbed the paper airplane and unfolded it. Another part of the same map! I ran back up to my room and tried to put the two pieces of map together: They fit! But the map was still incomplete. The directions still ran off the page.

Every day that week, I looked forward to coming home from school and getting more and more pieces of the map. After five days, I finally put the final pieces together, I noticed something odd at the bottom of the last piece of the map. I looked more closely and was shocked to find a signature: Johnny. “Oh. My. Goodness.” I murmured. “How..? What…?” I needed to talk to my parents. They couldn’t hide things from me anymore.

I walked into the living room, where Dad read his newspaper and Mom and Mike watched a cooking show on TV. “Mom, Dad, Mike, I think we need to talk.” We gathered around the dining room table. My parents looked worried and my brother just looked confused. 

“I’ve noticed some weird behavior from you, Mom and Dad,” I began. “First of all, the name Johnny keeps popping up on your phones. And then there’s this.”

 I spread the taped-together map out on the coffee table in front of the sofa and pointed to the signature. Their worried expressions told me they had been expecting whatever this was, but weren’t ready. “Can you please tell me who this Johnny guy is, and why he’s been sending me these parts of a map?” 

My parents exchanged looks and muttered something to each other. 

“Hello? Can you answer me please?!” 

They quickly looked back at me, and my mom said “Oh Honey, we’re all sorry. We think you should find that out yourself by following that map.” 

“Wait. ‘we’re all’?! Are you saying Mike knows what this is this about? And why are you sorry?” I felt nearly ready to explode—confused, shocked, and enraged all at once. 

“Calm down!” My dad said, defensively. Yes, he knew. “Fine, I’ll explain: Before- ” 

My mom cut him off. “Stop! No. We need to let Johnny explain. It’s his story.” 

“Fine. If you won’t tell me, I’ll go figure it out myself.” I snatched the map off the table, grabbed my coat off the hook by the door and stomped out slamming the door behind me. 

I followed the directions and it brought me to the market. I saw a boy, maybe twenty years old, who looked a lot like Mike, standing apart from the small crowd shopping for fresh seafood at the stalls. He seemed to be looking for somebody and when he spotted me and walked carefully over, as if he didn’t want to frighten me.

“Emma? Is that you?”

 I felt confused. “Who are you!?” 

He ignored my question. “I see you got my airplanes” 

“Who are you?!!” I repeated, louder now. 

“My name is Johnny. I’m your brother.” 

I stood, shocked and speechless.

“Let’s sit down on that bench and I’ll explain everything.”

“A few years before our father met your mom, he met a woman called Rose. She got pregnant with me, and when I was born, Rose left our father. She took me with her and we never saw him again. Then our father met your mom and had you and Mike, but my mother never told me I had a sister and brother.” He sighed sadly.

“When I turned thirteen, my mom had to leave me for the military and my grandma took me in, but she died six months later. It was quite a shock for me and it left me scarred. Social workers took me to an orphanage in Harris. My mother never came back and no families adopted me. When I turned eighteen, they let me leave and I got a job at a public library. A friend agreed to let me sleep at his house.” 

What a terrible story, I thought. How could he go through all of that with only one friend?

“But how did you know about my family?” I asked, not wanting to hurt his feelings—he was already scarred for life.

“I started doing research because I wanted to find my father. I got a lot of help from friends and co-workers, but it took me two years. When I found him—last week—I got extremely excited and I called him. He didn’t believe it. He told your mom and your brother, but apparently not you.”

“Wasn’t Mom shocked or furious?” I asked, confused.

“She knew about me when she met our dad, but it was shocking to learn I wanted to come back. It took some persuading but she agreed.” 

“Oh,” I said, still not having all the answers I wanted. “But why did you send me those paper airplanes with the map?”

“Your parents didn’t want to tell you because they felt embarrassed that they hadn’t mentioned anything earlier. We agreed to let you figure it out by yourself and I must say, it was a pretty bad idea.” He chuckled. “I hope you’ll forgive us.”

I stammered. “I…I forgive you.” 

We walked home in silence, thoughts swirling around in my head. Why hadn’t I sensed I had a long lost sibling before? Did my parents know his mom left him? Why had they told Mike and not me? All these thoughts had distracted me and soon we were already home. We entered the living room and my family came to hug us.

“We’re so, so sorry,” said Mom

“Guys, it’s all good,” I said, comforting them.

“Let’s make dinner,” said my dad, “as a family.”

We all agreed and Johnny and I helped Mike make pasta bolognese while mom and dad set the table. We told funny stories and got really close with Johnny. 

“One, two, three—”

“Cheese!”

At Easter holidays, my whole family had decided to go to Edinburgh to celebrate our reunion. We sat beside Edinburgh Castle, beaming at the camera and we probably looked like the happiest family in the city, because we were! My family felt complete and we all had decided that we wouldn’t keep secrets anymore. I never wanted this moment to end. I looked up and saw Johnny, smiling at me, mouthing, “thank you.”


Normar at Dawn

He left early morning, before the sun had even thought of rising. He took the bag he packed last night and was gone. The squeaky stairs and door were a ghost of a sound to the rest of us as we slept soundly. He said he didn’t want us to see him leave, that it would be easier for everybody. Or that’s what he wrote on the little scrap of paper he left behind. I disagree. I grab the other letter he left, the one with my name written on it in blue ink, and quietly leave the house.

I run as fast as my legs can take me down to the port, dodging crates of fish and clams that are being carted up from the fishing boats. They ooze a salty smell that I have grown up surrounded by, that everyone here has. I weave my way between merchants, whose carts are piled high with barrels of seafood, bags full of salt, and piles of sail cloth and rope. They will leave Normar at sun set. 

Precious few outsiders stay in Normar for long; there is nothing for them here. Job opportunities are few and far between. Most of us are sailors and fishermen, at sea all day from dawn to dusk, sometimes longer. The rest are traders, weavers, shipwrights, glass blowers. Our town is one built around the sea: there are no cobblers, for leather will only be ruined by the water; no silversmiths, for the metal will simply tarnish. Those who are born here though, often stay for a lifetime, for generations. Sons and daughters learning their trades as they watch their parents perform them. 

But Normar is no place for artists, for writers or scientists. Many townspeople would have hired my brother, for his deft hands or sharp eyes, but he didn’t want to spend his life here. It made sense; of course Normar is no place for an artist like him. His creativity is wasted here. So he’s on a boat, preparing to go somewhere new, to London, then maybe even Paris. He’ll probably never return.

The bell on the dock begins to clang adding to the cacophony of the streets. I turn sharply, towards the sound. It signals ten minutes to the next ship’s departure, my brother’s departure. I, like all the other people of Normar, know the sound by heart. I can tell you when it signals an arrival, a departure, or simply the time of day. Some things you learn by living. 

I stand at the edge of town center, on the brink of complete chaos. There are vendors who sell their products out of the bottom floors of their homes, pushing out farther into the street than they have a right to. Donkey carts positioned at opposing angles, making it difficult to get through. I dive in head first, side stepping children playing tag, ducking through conversations, and dodging the brooms and canes of men and women fending off the hordes of hungry seagulls. The air is filled with shouting, disgruntled neighbors and competing merchants. They are accompanied by a clatter of wood and metal. I step out of the chaos, not entirely unscathed, but in relatively good shape. I check my pockets quickly to make sure that his letter wasn’t stolen.

I hear someone shout my name and I wave a friendly hello, still walking quickly towards the seashore. I step onto a side street and a crash sounds from a few yards away. I quickly pivot towards the source and see a few of my father’s friends, Steve and Martin, I think their names are, struggling to keep a stack of barrels from toppling over.

“Maria!” one of them shouts. “A little help here?”

“Sure thing.”

Quickly, I rush over and take the barrel from him. It is heavier than I am expecting, and he and I both lower it to the ground while he balances another. As the men work, I steady the foundation, ensuring that none of us are crushed beneath the barrels. Judging from their weight, I guess they are full of lobster, so I work with caution. I definitely wouldn’t want to set these little sea devils loose. When we are finally finished, Martin and Steve wave a goodbye as I continue towards the dock. 

My earlier walk is now a run, racing the sun, even though I should have plenty of time. But when I reach the dock, I slow down and when I reach the post, where there is supposed to be a rope tied, mooring the ship to land, I come to a full stop. I see the boat already much too far from port, the sails out and full of wind, blowing him away from me.

 He said it would be easier like this. How can a single envelope be easier? With its messy white seal and chicken scratch writing. It’s not better. Two pieces of paper aren’t better. A letter telling me how much he cared about me, and I know it’s selfish but I can’t help but think that if he really cared he would have stayed. Sailors bustle around, continuing their work as I unfold the other leaf of paper. It’s a portrait of both of us, his arm over my shoulder. We look so close, and for a moment I forget how far apart we really are.


The Last Robbery

Prologue

In the small town of Memphis, Tennessee, where the crime rate was high, two robbers simultaneously spotted their next job. 

Paz was slim and worked behind the scenes. She sat on the dirty curb next to a busy street. Traffic screamed in her ears while she scanned a newspaper article. Her face lit up as she found the house waiting to be robbed. A grin spread across her face, and her eyes widened.

Dave was a tall and stocky man. He was very clumsy, which was not a favorable trait for a robber, but he still got away with it. He drank warm coffee from Starbucks in his apartment. He bit his lip when he set eyes on the article. His face dropped as he started the plan.

Lurking in the shadows, a greater evil held the newspaper with a gleam in his eyes.

***

Dave

I sit in my musty apartment, planning my next robbery (and figuring out how to pay rent this month). I know that my neighbors, the Henkins, will leave to go to Hawaii this afternoon. My stomach tingles and I twist my thumbs every time I steal from someone. I’ll spy on the house before I go in.

I go over and decide that they’re gone after a wait in the yellow and green shrubs that seem to trail on forever. I walk around the house, through the gate and into the backyard. My lock picking will take a while, and I don’t want anyone getting suspicious. I figure the other neighbors will be easily convinced that I’m taking care of the Henkins’ lizards. 

I slowly open the kitchen door in the back of the Henkin’s house. The guilt is already creeping around the house with me. I know it’s only a trick on the neighbors, but I do wind up checking on Dexter and Kiwi, the family’s lizards.

“Hi, Dexter! Hi, Kiwi! Do you miss your family? Oooh, yes, you do, yes you do- o,” I say in a baby voice to them.

Acting out Dexter’s rough, made-up voice, I say, “The telephones aren’t working!”

“Oh, Dexter, I might be able to fix those, right after I rob your house okay!” I respond in my normal voice. I chuckle and move away from the terrarium the lizards are kept in. 

I poke my head further into the kitchen, pushing back the thought that I have to do this quickly. A smile slowly spreads across my face every time I enter the Henkins’ house. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, is clean and organized. There are two candles in copper candle holders sitting the same exact distance away from the clear vase in the center of the table. Purple, blue, pink, and yellow flowers spring up from the rim of the vase, growing off of the table, slithering on the ground, and wrapping around my feet like snakes. I blink and rub my eyes and the flowers turn back to normal. Turning around to the living room and leaving the flourishing flowers behind twists my smile into a slight frown, but I have the willpower to leave.

The Henkin’s living room holds a long, curved, brown couch. An oval blue rug lays on the oak floors beside a small glass coffee table.

As I explore the living room, I stumble into the office and gag as the bitter smell of the fresh cleaning supplies drifts up to my nose and races around my head, making my stomach churn. I lift my dark red shirt over my nose and mouth. I trip over a neat stack of books with torn covers of all colors as I walk towards the leather chair in the middle of the room. Sitting on the shining desk are forty-five, eight-inch tall rag dolls of the U.S. presidents. The first one in the row is George Washington; the last is Donald Trump. They all stare my way with their beady button eyes. As I think back to being here six months ago at the house party when they moved in across the street, more guilt swallows me like a wave, swarms me like wasps. Six months ago the books were not on the floor. The spot on the desk which Trump now fills was empty. The bigger white rug that was in the living room has now been replaced with the oval one.

The steps quietly creak as I tiptoe up the stairs and meet the biggest window in the house. The stars have been hidden in the black night outside. I’m so caught up in the exploration of the house that I don’t immediately recognize the sound of the door clicking open.

***

Dave ran into the nearest closet he could find, in the room of Emma Henkin, the smallest daughter in the Henkin family. The panic that had been following him flooded under the door of the closet, and soaked him with sweat. Was there an actual pet sitter or housekeeper there to check on the house? Would he be caught after everything that he had gone through? He had money once, when he was only six years old, but when his parents died, a storm of dust had ripped them and their fortune away from him. He needed this job. He couldn’t be arrested.

***

Earlier that day, Paz was at a sketchy restaurant, impatiently waiting for her small salad to be delivered to the window booth she inhabited almost every Wednesday and Saturday. Turning her head to face the window made her nose wrinkle and lips curl up. The window had been smashed in and there was a sheen of dirt coating the cracks.

“Excuse me ma’am, excuse me? Your order is here,” the waitress said in a sing-songy voice. 

Paz snatched the salad and turned away, rolling her eyes. She was not a sing-songy person. She looked down at the pathetic pile of greens and dressing. She rose up from the booth, her legs sticking to the vinyl material of the booth as she stood, lifting the plastic tray of the salad with her. She took slow, long, paces to the black trash can in the corner, which was sitting on the dusty floor. Her eyes scanned the contents of the bin, and her nose wrinkled again.

***

Paz

I push open the creaky blue rimmed door and an evil grin is plastered onto my face as I think about my plans for tonight. I creep around the neighborhood until I reach the house of today’s victims, and push through the gate and to the door.

I begin to take out my lock picking equipment and turn the door handle. It’s not locked. My eyes widen and my face becomes a little more pale. I think about whether I should rob the house or not. I’ve never been wrong before when it comes to telling if a house is rob-able or not. I decide to go in, preparing myself to face anyone inside. 

All of the lights are off, and the house was left clean. I straighten out and silently laugh at myself. I begin to forage through the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen, bending down to reach compartments closer to the white tile on the floors. I have my mind set on finding the house’s pearl. I shift my attention to the living room, ducking as I pass the large windows. There are two bookshelves in the one corner of the room, and a rocking armchair in another. One bookshelf is shorter than the other, and I carefully shove books, big and small, away, as I search the smaller one on my knees. Not there. I stand on my tiptoes and start from the top of the lofty bookshelf. I finish searching the top shelf, the two shelves in the middle, then the bottom shelf. Not there. I fling the cushion off of the armchair, causing it to rock faster. 

I’m about to storm up the stairs, but I soon regain the knowledge that I have to be fast and quiet. Softly, landing my feet on the stairs ahead of them, I go up the stairs. One. Two. Three … Ten. Eleven. Twelve! I quickly duck down in front of the biggest chunk of glass I’ve ever seen in a house.

What a terrible place for something of such value! I think to myself as I feel around the wooden floors. I search the bathroom, the master bedroom. I look everywhere. The shower, nightstands, and dressers. Under the bed, over the bed, and in the closet. Nowhere to be found. The only rooms left in the house are the kids’ bedrooms. Guessing on what the doors of the bedrooms look like, the family has a young girl, and a teenage boy. One door is covered with messy doodles of princesses finding their princes. The other door has a printed out “Keep Out” sign, held on by a measly piece of tape in the top right corner. The cool draft of the AC had caused the sign to tilt, hanging off the door. I quietly cackle as I disregard the sign, entering the boy’s room.

The smell of dirty socks makes me dizzy as soon as I open the door. My stomach swirls, but I proceed on into the room anyways. After poking my head in the closet, reaching my hands into piles of sweaty clothes, and moving around dandruff covered pillows, I still haven’t found the famous item.

My last destination is the little girl’s room. My shoulder’s slump as I pointlessly push open the door. Why would an item of such value be hidden in a foolish, senseless little girl’s room? I think to myself.

I open the closet door and my face lights up as I stare in disbelief at the valuable treasure. I’m still in disbelief, but this time, as I shift my focus a few inches up at the hand grasping the small painting. 

As soon as I recover from the shock, I grasp the baton at my waist and manage to mumble a threat to him.

“This street is my turf,” I say, my voice shaking.

The man looks up at me, meeting my eyes with a confident glare. The traces of confidence in his eyes disappear as he backs up and stumbles over the angry bird figurines in the large closet. I stifle a laugh, wanting him to know that I take my job seriously.

“I’m sorry, are you robbing this house?” he asks.

I answer him with a yes and note the awkwardness of the situation, not knowing what to do next. Should I grab the painting and run?

He speaks again before I can take action, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you should be proud of robbing houses.”

I’m about to say that I’m not, but I realize two things. One, I called the street “my turf.” Two, I am proud of being a quality robber.

“Why shouldn’t I?” I ask in a judgy tone.

“Well it’s just not very nice of you to rob houses.” he responds.

“Excuse me? You’re doing it too!”

“I take no pleasure in it.”

“Why? Being mean and mischievous is awesome!”

“At our age, it’s really not. We should be caring for our community. It’s a little irresponsible of you to think that being mean is a good thing.” I don’t get this guy. He takes the same thing I’m after and then tells me I’m being malicious. Sure it’s mean. Sure, being mean isn’t cool, but he stole it before I did! I love sneaking around, and all of those people who have regular lives are just pathetic.

Memories of the orphanage flash in my head as I see more doodles of the family in the girl’s room. Memories of the trouble I made. Memories of the people who came and left, taking a friend of mine every time. But never me.

This family has something that I never had in me. They love each other. They have lives that are worth saving, and I’m interfering with those lives.

***

At this moment, another force of evil lurks in the backyard. He wears dark jeans, and a hunter green colored cotton T-shirt. He paces the patio after realizing that the door was yet again, left unlocked. He silently creeps closer to the muffled voices up the stairs and turns the door handle without a sound. He is now thinking sinister thoughts while positioned behind Dave and Paz, who still do not know that he is in the house with them.

***

Dave

I begin to walk out of the closet, but the woman reaches out and stops me. I know she won’t leave until she gets the painting. I freeze up as I turn. My eyes widen and my jaw slightly drops. My face is pale. Beyond her is a taller man who stares directly down at me with a blank expression. He slowly reaches a gloved hand out, expecting me to hand over the painting. He wears a black glove on one hand and nothing on the other. A large hat shades out most of his face, but I can still see his eyes and mouth clearly enough to know that he is made up of pure evil. His eyebrows curve and he glares at me. His eyes hold no shine, like there’s nothing in there, but a black heart.

I tap the woman’s shoulder and point to the man, my mouth still hanging open. She surprises me, and glares right back at him, but his expression doesn’t change and he doesn’t seem the least bit intimidated. 

The woman reaches for her baton as we reach a silent agreement. She takes a step towards the man and swings her baton towards him. He lifts the gloved hand, blocking it from touching his head. I leap forward in an attempt to tackle him, but again, his hand reaches up and pushes me onto the floor. The woman and I meet eyes. We nod, and spring forward, pouncing on the man and taking him down to the ground. The hard floors knock him unconscious and we use our socks and a few ropes from Emma’s closet to tie him up.

“By the way, I’m Paz,” the woman says.

“I’m Dave.”

We leave the house and carry the criminal to her car, opening the door and shoving him in. Paz gets in the driver’s seat and I get in the passenger seat, but the moment we turn around, he’s gone. We look around, but he’s nowhere to be found.

We pinky swear to never steal again.

***

5 years later…

Dave and Paz sit at the outdoor mesh table reading the news. A criminal named Randy Bluett had recently been caught. They exchange glances and grin, their eyes gleaming. Dave had taken the wallet of the criminal they had encountered on their last robbery five years ago. Some of the name had been scratched out, but he could read “Randy Bluett”. Dave drinks a latte and Paz drinks black coffee. Dave pays and Paz gets up and heads to work after saying goodbye to Dave. Paz now works as an author. Most of her stories are about robbers who have great adventures. Dave works as a fortune cookie writer. He gives great fortunes to bad people. It will get better . . . after you learn your lesson. Dave and Paz are the only people who know about their pasts. Besides the Henkins . . .


Anactoria’s Cry

I traced her name into the swirling brown dust,

and it came out loud, and free, and infinite — 

Sappho,

on a clay tablet, on a hard patch of earth… 

Till papyrus, colored stylus,

pulses bright

as the woman in the flower field.


Before, I did not know the name, 

I did not know of sleepless nights,

sacred fires, 

girls who dance on wet grass.


But she came to me, 

pudgy grapes in slender hands,

violet hair and olive skin… 


And she touched my lips,

with the taste of wine, and pomegranate,

and honey cake stuffed with fig.


I was not Sappho’s schoolgirl — 

men and schoolgirls are for figments


wine, pomegranate,

honey cake with fig;

when there were 

sacred fires, women who danced on wet grass

and we burned.


When Time comes by

to split the fig open and eat away the pulp,

spoil the wine,

smear the pomegranate,

and turn the honey thick with poison… 


Let me eat the rotted fruit, 

bury my heaving body in the swirling brown dust,

devour the last molding seeds — 

Till I become numb to the men that tarnish my name,

Numb to the girls who sneer as I struggle to breathe… 


Till I am with Sappho, Eros, dust

dust, dust, dust, dust… 

tracing the name… 

tracing the woman that saw me


Into the crumbling Lesbian soil.


The Willow Tree (Excerpt)

“Oh, what am I doing?” Azure whispered to herself.

Abruptly, the crowd of people that surrounded Azure gave a wide berth to a group of teenagers. From the way they spoke and the excruciating detail and craftsmanship of their clothing, they seemed to be from… the higher folk in the desert lands. The two girls in the group wore colorful silk tops that matched the bright colors that swathed the marketplace’s stalls. Barely a streak of muck or dirt showed on their tanned faces. They bickered loudly over a large diamond-encrusted necklace as the frenzied merchant tried to separate them.

Azure swallowed down the bitterness that rose in her throat. Here there were people fighting over the simplest issues, only worrying about how expensive the things they purchase are, when there were people dying from the Desert’s Wrath and fighting over life and death.

“Typical,” Azure exclaimed. “Fighting over a piece of jewelry while death and disease are elsewhere.”

She blew a strand of hair from her face, thinking sickeningly about her own family and their suffering from the Desert’s Wrath. She spotted a water stand near the bickering girls, and suddenly she felt how dry and parched her throat had been. Perhaps I have a few coins to spare to get water, Azure thought.

“Come on,” Azure urged. “We can spare getting a water supply before we head out.” 

Erix shifted uneasily in his place as Azure gave him an impatient glance over her shoulder. His eyes continued to squint at the group of kids in the center of the market. Azure swiftly made her way ahead of Erix, when the apparent leader of the teenager group, a tall boy with sleek, dark hair and a crooked nose, waved his two arms up in the air.

His face lit with recognition as he shouted, “Hey Erix!” His voice reverberated along the market shops. 

Erix stopped mid-step, a few feet behind Azure. His face fell, and he slowly began to back away. Azure’s eyes shifted from the boy and Erix nervously, creasing her brow. Immediately, the guy wrapped his arm around Erix’s shoulders like they were longtime friends. He tassled Erix’s already messy hair.

“I missed you, little guy!” he exclaimed, despite Erix being an inch taller than him. “Didn’t think you’d actually go on that silly dare we gave you!”

Azure knew Erix had tried to steal her ruby when they met, and stepping away from the two boys, she wondered if they were accomplices. She’d only met Erix last night when they’d both made the agreement to help each other find the willow tree. Azure was still wary of him.

Erix pulled away, but not before the guy snatched his map from his pocket. Erix angrily went to grab it back, but the guy held it high above his head, throwing it to his friend.

“You said something’s been stolen from you alright, Rowlen,” the boy said to the guy next to him. “This it?” 

The second guy shrugged. “Nope, but finders keepers, eh?” He went to put the precious desert map in his trouser pocket. 

Azure stepped up in front of Erix to face the leader of the group.

“It’s ours,” she said defiantly, craning her neck upwards to meet his eyes. “I’d like you to give it back.”

The boy laughed and raised his eyebrows. “Sorry, my lady.” He bowed sarcastically. “But it’s ours now. Besides, do you really trust this guy to take you to the willow tree? If it even exists, you’re going to die anyway, reaching it. I’m doing you a favor by sparing you the trouble of dealing with him.” 

Azure narrowed her eyes, her eyes still glued on the map that peeked tauntingly out of Rowlen’s pocket. She knew well enough that some people only searched for the tree to gain glory, and she was quickly running out of her time, and patience. 

“You think he — ” The boy pointed at Erix. “ — is true to his word? Ha! Well I’ll tell you what I know of Erix of Ragnarox.” The boy spat.

“Kwan, that’s enough,” Erix said dangerously. 

“Just leave him alone! I don’t care what you think of him,” Azure snapped back. She glanced nervously behind her shoulder. The exit from the marketplace was too far to steal back the map and get away from these people. Of course, she had to be dragged along into Erix’s problems. “Just give me the stupid map… now.”

“Actually for your information,” the boy replied, “Erix wouldn’t even have helped you or known anything about this map without my help. He didn’t even know about the legend itself! I’m the one who dared him to find that tree when we met back in Ragnarox and led him to the place where he could most likely find the map. All that’s left for him to do is to find it and cut it down. Then you’ll be accepted by us, right pal?” Kwan continued. 

Erix tensed his shoulders and his fists. “Shut up, Kwan!” he exclaimed stiffly. 

Kwan ignored him. He turned back to Azure. “Still don’t believe me, eh? Just see the look on his face then!” He and his friends laughed.

Azure stood still. She opened her mouth, yet no words came out. She didn’t know how to make her words come out. She gritted her teeth. She’d just run off with the map and leave. The bitter feeling in her mouth returned. Erix would cut down a tree that had the cure to the worst disease in the desert, something that has been surviving in the desert for so long, just to prove himself to these ignorant people.

With a cry of anger, Azure grabbed the map from Rowlen with such force that he fell over a cart of caged chickens, and ended up landing straight in a pile of donkey droppings. The group of kids suddenly stopped laughing as Rowlen glowered, his eyes on Azure. Azure’s instinct took over. She had one thing on her mind now.

Get out.

With that, Azure sprinted away, pushing the crowd despite people’s cries of annoyance. In her haste, she knocked down merchant stalls, sent baskets of market goods flying, while the group of teenagers took off in pursuit. Dust clouds flew in front of her face, blocking her view. Kwan was right on her tail, merely a few feet away. The edge of the marketplace was still out of reach. Azure had no idea where Erix was, nor did she care. She wanted to run, far away from everyone and everything, off into the middle of the desert where no one would lie to her for their own reasons. 

“Azure, watch out!” Erix was a bit ahead of her just near the barren, golden landscape of the desert. Azure’s ears perked as she turned, her face inches from the furious hooves of a horse, its rider frantically pulling on the reigns.

Aahh!” both Azure and the rider screamed.

Azure swung her head down and rolled out of the way, hitting the side of a crumbling building. Clutching her aching head, Kwan appeared over a pile of rubble. He loomed over her and reached his arm out, grabbing the other end of the map. 

“You’re not getting away, you lowly wretch! It’s time you learned your place in the world.”

People stopped by as they watched Kwan and Azure. Neither one of them was about ready to let go. Azure grabbed the edge of the paper till her knuckles went white. Her arms shook from the effort to hold on. The crowd murmured and whispered, chickens clucked while the donkeys brayed loudly, Erix shouting out for Azure. The image of the willow tree on the map blinked up at Azure in the sunlight. The beautiful willow tree that Azure yearned to find. The one that would bring her back to her former life. 

Azure’s head was about ready to burst as tears of frustration pricked at her eyes. From the distance she could see the silhouettes of the others making their way through the market. Freedom was too close to let go, when Azure was nearly at the desert. Sweat slipped down the sides of her face as she bared her teeth. The crumbling building next to her continued to crack faster and faster, breaking apart the dried, dull yellow stone. Rocks and stones began to fall as the building’s bottom began to deteriorate.

Everything happened too fast.

In a shout of frustration, Azure tugged with all her might, pushing Kwan backwards onto the dirty road, freeing the map from his clutches. Her hand hit the building, and like a rippling effect it continued to crack apart at a mad pace until it reached everywhere, up to the top of it and beneath Azure and Kwan’s feet. Azure’s mind was racing. She didn’t know what she was doing, yet her mind had no control over her movements. Her hands swung upward and to the side. The right side of the building finally collapsed.

A huge dirt cloud blasted in Azure’s face. Azure coughed in the flecks of debris that now swarmed the air, engulfing her lungs and throat.

People cried out in shock, and Azure could barely hear the faint warbling sound of Kwan and his groups voices.

“She’s cursed!” came their cry, along with the scared agreements of the crowd.

Azure had heard enough, and this time she had no retaliation to say back. Words had completely left her. Azure’s clothing was ridden with dust and dirt. Her hair was a wretched mess, just like Kwan had said. Breaths came in quick, constricted gasps. The map was still clutched in Azure’s fist, yet the view of the market was fully blocked with all of the fallen debris and wreckage. All that was left to see was the glittering sand and the one lone stray fox in the distance. The sun glared down on Azure as she kneeled down, resting her head heavily against a rock face.

What have I done? she thought to herself, scared of looking at her own hands. She shot a quick, narrowed glance at Erix, whose face had gone pale. He didn’t back away or run from her however.

“W-w-what did you — ” he shakily began.

“I don’t know what I did, okay?!” Azure shouted, louder than she expected. “I don’t know! But this is all your fault! Of course, you care more about being ‘accepted’ by people that will never really be your friends, don’t you? You’re just like everyone else. Just as bland and just as selfish and self-involved.” 

Erix didn’t say anything. He looked at his torn shoes.

“Of course you don’t have anything to say, huh?!” Azure exclaimed. She thought he would have at least said something, anything, even the most stupid excuse to his actions would have worked. “Aargh, I hate you! I hate everything. I hate your stupid ‘friends.’ I hate myself!” Azure punched the eroded rock, clutching her hand in pain. She couldn’t bear to look at Erix anymore. “Good luck getting accepted,” she said quietly, turning her back to Erix. 

With that, Azure ran. She didn’t care how far she went or where she was going at the moment, but she needed to leave. She ran and ran, her feet flying before her eyes, the entire landscape a blur to her. Only when the sun began to slowly descend into the crimson sky did Azure stop. Splat. Azure looked down. A single tear hit the grainy desert sand, before absorbing into nothingness. 

Hurriedly, Azure wiped her tears with the back of her hand, streaking dust and mud across her left cheek. She looked around. No sign of life was in sight. Azure had gone right back to stage one in her quest for the willow tree, alone and helpless as daylight fell through her grasp once again. Not even the map could comfort her now.

Azure slumped her way over to an array of rocks that bordered a series of towering sand dunes, their sloping hills shining deep orange in the fading sunlight. A skull rested at the base of one of them, slowly crumbling to dust. Wait a second, Azure thought to herself. With a shaking hand, she lifted up the map. Skull Man’s Dunes was drawn onto it, shielding the place of the willow tree that barely anyone dared to pass. Four sloping dunes were drawn in shining ink, identical to the ones that stood menacingly before Azure.

Azure’s knees sagged, and she clutched her chest, her heart rapidly beating, sinking lower into the ground.

“Oh no. Oh no no no no no no!” she cried out to no one. “I have to get out of here,” Azure squeaked. She tried keeping her composure, but her movements were clumsy and she struggled to stand. She had to keep going. The donkey. Azure tugged at her hair in anger. “Stupid Azure!” Azure exclaimed. “How could you forget about what you needed most to reach the tree?!” Azure imagined Erix, happily riding on that donkey, making his way across Skull Man’s Dunes without a care in the world, free and safe from any possible harm. 

“Arghhhh!” Azure shouted, her voice breaking.

She began to run, hoping she hadn’t been in that treacherous area for too long. Abruptly, the ground shook, and Azure’s legs buckled. She fell face flat in the sand. Turning her head around, Azure’s eyes bulged, her mouth agape, unable to make a sound or a movement. 

The dunes had been awakened.

A vast cloud of golden sand and speckles of dust rumbled in Azure’s direction. It burst through the desert, devouring everything in its path greedily. The wind shrieked and howled in Azure’s ears as she covered her hands over her head. Spumes of dust and dirt rose above Azure, coating her in a thick layer of sand and grime.

Azure could barely see through the haze of dull yellow grains of sand that flecked at her stinging eyes and skin and lips. She shouted out desperately for help, yet the moment her mouth moved it was engulfed in dust. Azure, closing her eyes shut, crawled along the ground, grappling her way through the monstrous domes of sand that blotted out any source of light. The wind grew louder, crying in agony as Azure shouted along with it. Her hand managed to find the rough edge of an object, and she squeezed her fist around it like a lifeline. 

It crumbled to dust in Azure’s hands, relenting to the storm. “Stupid power!” Azure managed, clutching her aching hand, wiping her mouth from all of the grainy sand that dotted it. It did nothing as the storm raged on, enveloping Azure’s nostrils and her mouth once again, not letting down.

Dust and bits of rock caked Azure’s face and clothes. She lay there, crouched on the floor, coughing out dirt. Her hands were cut up raw from the million bits of sand that flew past her skin. Another wave of sand flew into Azure, and upon the impact, Azure was sent flying across the desert, scabbing her knees on the rough desert plains, not knowing where she was or what day it was. Her throat begged for water, yet all it got was more dirt and speckles of rock. 

After shouting for help repeatedly, Azure stopped her struggling. “Help,” she said hoarsely, before letting go to the storm.

Clutching her torn and rugged satchel that was miraculously still there, Azure prayed that it would end. She didn’t care about the willow tree anymore. It was hopeless. She had no one left by now. She was no one. Her family was sick, and she had trusted the wrong people. She failed. 

Azure thought for a moment she heard her name beyond the howling sound of the ghastly wind. Images of her family, her parents, and her siblings flew through Azure’s mind. The smell of fresh warm baked bread her mother would always make every Saturday morning, her father’s low, rumbling voice that would resonate through the house when he was in an elated mood, as well as her little twin brothers’ shrieks of laughter as they’d play outside, sending dust clouds in the air as they chased after one another. 

“I’m sorry,” Azure finally spoke, her eyes shut tight, her ears ringing from the sound of the wind. 

Azure breathed heavily, every bone in her body smarting and aching. She begged repeatedly for everything to be over, for everything around her to just end. Azure’s voice grew so loud in her head as she screamed for everything to stop that she couldn’t hear the overbearing sound of someone calling out. 

Azure’s eyes barely opened, and as she squinted through the golden haze, she could make out a frail silhouette. Her hands left her ears and the ringing subsided, followed by a clear sharp voice. “Azure!

Weakly, Azure looked up. An arm reached out, and without knowing who or what that thing had been, with her last ounce of strength, Azure reached out her own hand. She got hoisted up onto what seemed to be a stout gray animal that clomped hurriedly across the dunes. An animal that looked just like a donkey. The person finally turned, only his eyes visible, warm dark eyes that were filled with concern. Erix, Azure thought. As they made it to where the dust and sand had lessened, Azure could finally take a full breath. She nearly sobbed with relief. The one person who’d originally wanted to cut the tree was here. 

The sand still loomed above them, and not saying a word, the two bolted off to the nearest border of rocks, where a small opening revealed a stone cave. Just as the wind pushed the sand furiously closer, they leaped through the opening. 

“Come on, we have to close the opening!” Erix finally said, struggling to push a giant boulder at the back of the cave.

Azure rubbed her sore arms, barely able to push or move anything. She looked down at her hands. The scene at the marketplace flashed before her eyes, Kwan and his group chasing her, and the cracks in the old building, spreading out like a ripple. Maybe I don’t only have to cause things to crumble. With a shaky breath, Azure thrust out her hand willing herself to move the boulder. Come on, please! I don’t have any idea how my hands have been doing any of this, but you need to move now! 

Closing her eyes, Azure felt a gush of air and a final crash. She snapped them open, praying she hadn’t accidentally crushed Erix with a boulder or something. The giant rock now lay on its side at the entrance to the cave, and the world was drenched in darkness except for a tiny sliver of sunlight from the ceiling of the cave.

Azure panted heavily, then broke into nervous laughter that instantly grew louder. She must have looked delirious. “Ha! I did it! I moved a boulder, Erix! A boulder!! With my bare hands!” Azure turned, Erix still staring straight at the blocked entryway.

“Uh huh… ” he said weakly. “So this is… normal now?” He turned to Azure, his hair and clothes caked with a layer of sand, he grasped the leash of the old donkey as though it was his lifeline.

Azure looked down, finally calming down. “I honestly don’t know, Erix, ever since being in that marketplace… I just felt so furious at that moment, trying to get hold of the map, I could barely even think straight! And the next moment I destroyed that building. Imagine if there had been people in there!” She slid down against the cool cave wall.

Erix crouched down beside her. “But there wasn’t. That building was ancient after all. It would have eventually been taken down.” 

“You saved me after our, well, you know… argument. Why?” Azure spoke again after a still silence, trying to change the subject.

Erix fiddled with his fingers. “W-well, you did stand up for me back there in the market. No one’s done that for me before.”

“That kid was being a brat anyways,” Azure said finally.

Erix chuckled. Erix might have been selfish at hiding his motivations, but after seeing him save her, perhaps, he could be trusted.

“Look, whatever Kwan said you did… about being dared to take the map and cut down the tree and all that was wrong, and unjust of you… ” Azure took a deep breath before continuing. “But Skull Man’s Dunes, it isn’t a one man journey. To be honest, I never imagined I’d ever say this yet… I need your help, Erix. We both need each other’s help if we hope to make it out of here successfully… and alive as well. Perhaps the reason I even have this new ability is to somehow help us reach the willow tree.” 

Azure finally turned to Erix, and she caught a flicker of determination in his eyes. “Well, what are we waiting for?” He flashed a mischievous grin. “You think you can find a way to move that rock again?” 

Azure nodded, stiffening her shoulders. “I-I think so.” 

Together, Azure and Erix reached the large boulder that blocked the cave entryway. The sound of the howling wind had diminished to a faint whisper as the storm began to drift away gradually. Here goes nothing, Azure thought to herself. Steadying her shaky breaths, Azure pressed her palm against the rockface. Instantly, it grew warmer by the second, and the warmth spread all the way up Azure’s arm. Still concentrating, she used all her will to cause the rock to move. Slowly, Azure’s tense arm relaxed as the warmth from the rock filled her. The surface of the rock left her fingers, and when she opened her eyes, the rock had been pushed away, revealing the fading orange light of day. 

Erix, giving the boulder one final push, clapped his hands happily, still heavily ridden with dust. Wiping sweat from his brow he glanced at Azure.

“I suppose I could get used to this.” Azure rolled her eyes as they stumbled their way onto the donkeys back once again.

They were still in dangerous territory. The thought of the violent storm was still clear in Azure’s mind. The map had still miraculously survived, and it lay clutched in Azure’s fist. They’d been in Skull Man’s dunes for a while.

“We have to be getting closer,” Azure began, furrowing her eyebrows as she studied the map.

“Let’s hope we find it before we can’t see anything at all.” Erix, grabbing a hold of the reigns on the donkey’s saddle, nodded towards the tiny faint sliver of light in the corner of the sky. The sun was setting fast, and already stars began to pop up in the sky. “You know,” Erix continued, “we never got to name him.”

“Who exactly?” Azure began slowly, confused.

“The donkey, obviously. Got any ideas for names? How about… ” Erix scratched his head as though in deep thought. “Erix Jr. maybe?”

Azure crossed her arms, giving him an incredulous look. “The fate of an entire village is at stake, and you are worrying about naming our donkey at the moment?” Erix merely smiled in reply. “Well, looks like it shouldn’t be at stake anymore.” They suddenly stopped, and Azure’s eyes grew wide, a grin breaking across her face.

The willow tree towered above them, wide burly branches reaching to far ends, with broad leaves in deep golds and greens. Its roots extended deep below the sand beneath it, and although its bark was chipped and cracked, it was alive, surviving even in the most harsh circumstances. The shriek of a hawk pierced Azure’s ears, and a chip of the tree’s bark fell before Azure. Upon closer inspection, it looked blackened and… dead almost.

With a sick feeling rising in her mouth, Azure immediately hopped off of the donkey, rushing to the tree, Erix right in her wake. As she got closer, Azure realized how weakly the leaves flittered in the wind, how the branches groaned under the weight they had to hold, and how the mahogany-colored bark was fading into a deathly black color.

Erix stood next to Azure, his eyes twice their normal size as he looked about the tree in utter shock. “I-is is it… dead?” he spoke faintly.

Azure gently reached out her hand to the tree. She pressed her forehead against it. No. She repeated to herself over and over. I couldn’t have come all this way for nothing. No! Tears began pricking Azure’s eyes and slowly began to streak down her cheeks, yet she didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. “No! It can’t be! It’s not dead!” Azure hit her fist against the ground, not gaining the strength to use any of her powers. Azure released her hand from its fist, staring at the center of it, wishing somehow a miracle would occur and her hand would be able to heal the tree. 

A small, papery object flew into Azure’s open hand, a green leaf. Azure looked up at the tree, her heart thundering in her chest.

“It’s alive,” she cried. “It has to be. Its leaves are still not blackened!” Azure stood up abruptly, her mind whirring. “It’s not dead yet. It’s just been… ”

“Poisoned?” a gravelly voice spoke from a few feet away.

Azure’s head snapped to the side, clutching her leather bag tightly.

“No need to be afraid… ” the voice continued smoothly. “I’ve been expecting someone to arrive quite soon.” A figure emerged from around the tree. He was lean and tall with a narrow tan face and crooked nose, his dark eyes glinting mysteriously. His lips curled into a thin, sly smile. “Hexron’s the name,” he said calmly, as though he was in any normal conversation. “So the Desert’s Wrath. I heard it’s been spreading quickly, hasn’t it? It’s a pity how ignorant people can be when it comes to finding clear solutions to their problems. By then I’d already poisoned this pitiful tree. It’s already gotten terribly old, hasn’t it? It’s grown old and tired from the disease and terrible actions of humans it has had to fix.” Hexron chuckled slightly at himself, as Erix and Azure’s mouths hung open in shock.


The Sapphic’s Jumble, A Grammerless “Unpoem”

The words are sweet and watery you gorge 

yourself on them. Euphoria is instant inside this 

inner monologue when we are poetry and

poetry is addictive. We call this The Sapphic’s Jumble.


A Woman rises in the distance. I lived that

the words are poetry and 

poetry is addictive. The woman is addictive poetry. The

woman is very undecided, very loose and very 

beautiful, lying on your bed in silence. Sometimes 

you loved her as you loved addictive

poetry. 


The Woman was lying in your arms and her

breathing sped up and her eyes were blooming

pale tempests. You think you loved her, maybe you

didn’t love her. All this because of a closeted girl, 

silly thing. Steady your breathing and learn to 

think again. Push aside the clawing and screaming memories 

making up the throbbing Jumble.


Addictive poetry in the mad world. 

Chained to an internal monologue 

that smells like violets. 


This is what disorder is. She loved you, and she

loved you not in A Sapphic Jumble. The state is 

a disorder, it causes disorder. Disorder is chaos;

we are chaos. 

The Sapphic chaos.


Here is where you fight to? delineate the Lines;


Delineate the Addictive Poetry


Delineate The Sapphic’s Jumble


She loved you and maybe she never

loved you but either way. 

Punctuation is for fools. 

Punctuation is for Women of Logic.

You exist beyond Logic.


The existence of Your Lover

The existence of Your Presence

causes (a beautiful chaos)


Take it or leave it 

in The Sapphic’s Jumble. 

You can-a-can’t-can’t think,

till


We lie in Insanity


As we lie in Beauty


Pay No Mind – VII

          

VII.

I stare at a mere reflection,

a girl whose eyes, drained, are watering still after hours nonstop

For she had cried all night, and there’s no stop in sight

She had screamed and hissed 

And the birds chirped a lovely, sad song

The wind whistled, but she paid no mind

As she lay on the bathroom floor

Fixated on the weeps of crows

And the wails of wilting roses

She the wilting rose, the weeping crow, cannot point where things went wrong

The birds and flowers fought relentlessly over sentences described in paragraphs

IX.

Yesterday, the tree whistled at the glowing moon

And glass smiles stood until we fell fast asleep, today

The trees melt away

As we say goodbye to dreams, today

They’ve said I’ve changed

But I feel the same, this world has done the changing for me, today

Today was as long as the last and my pains are tired of growing.

I must stop, but the ride’s not over yet, no not today

She puts in another quarter

But I can’t take another today

I miss you — 


when i ran out of thyme

when i ran out of thyme

they should have buried me in lavender

lavender — great swooping fields of it

Girlhood joins me with a simple dress and starry-eyes

she lays down

in the dust

in the dirt

in lavender — great swooping fields of it

we pass the time eating honeysuckle

and resting our rosehips

in the dust

in the dirt

staining our dresses

not our heartbeats

such buttercup crowns,

such strands of mallow in our hair

hanging on our lips —

what broom and borage we played in

till we lost our protea and primrose

and lavender — great swooping fields of it

to sultry red fruit

and roses neath thistle and thorn


The Dream Sixteen

Today is the day of my 16th birthday party. It all started out as a normal day. I was just taking my birthday party outfit out of my closet. I’ve been waiting for this party since forever. All my friends will be there. I just can’t wait.

This party will probably be the best party I’ve ever had. My guests are just starting to walk in. “Hey, Aspen,” my friend Jordyn says. “Are you excited for your party?”

“Yep,” I say. We decide to hang out at the snack table for a few minutes.

“So who did you invite,” Jordyn says.

“I invited you, Taylor, Peyton, Ashley, Amari, Jackson, Jamie, Lila, and a lot of other people.”

“Sounds like you have a big guest list. Are you sure that you’ll have enough food? Did you invite a lot of the boys?”

“Yeah. My mom said that the caterer is bringing more than enough food. So I can only hope that they don’t eat it all.”

“Did you invite anyone else?” Jordyn asks.

“Yeah. I invited Adonis, Marcus, Lexi — ”

“Wait, you invited Lexi?”

“Yeah,” I say. “What’s wrong with that?”

“You know that if you invite Lexi that Tori will come. And you know how Tori is,” Jordyn says.

“Just because her twin sister is mean doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t be invited to parties too. I genuinely like Lexi. And you have to admit she is really cool.”

“Yeah, she is really nice. I feel so bad for her though. She’s stick with a twin sister that’s so mean. I wonder if she’s really mean to her.”

“I know,” I say.

I know that if I had a twin sister that I would want her to be nice to everyone, including me. I honestly feel so sorry for her. At that moment, a large group of my friends arrive. My older sister, Ashanti, just brought them into the party room. The theme of my party is lights out. It’s a major dance party with neon lights. Everyone gets a glow bracelet or glow necklace when they walk in.

My mom, Aunt Chantelle, and Ashanti helped me come up with the theme of my party. Ashanti and Aunt Chantelle helped me plan where my party would be. We rented out a country club ballroom and decorated it to look like a dance club. There are flashing strobe lights everywhere, and there is also a disco ball. The lights are bouncing off the walls. Music is going. You can actually feel the beat of the music.There are white, shiny marble floors. The lights are reflecting off the floor. Different color balloons and confetti are all over the floor. There’s a long white table on the right side of the room with different finger foods on them. There are little sandwiches, cakes, fruits, and punch on the table. In the left corner of the room, the DJ is getting ready to play music. It’s kind of awkward right now because nobody is here yet. But once the party gets started, it will be a whole lot of fun. People won’t be able to help dancing and having fun.

“Hey, Aspen,” they all say.

“Hey, guys,” I say.

Ashanti shows them the table where they can put my gifts. I can’t believe this is finally happening. A few minutes later, more of my friends come in. A little while after that, more of my friends come in. After about 20 minutes, everyone is there. The party was just about to start when all of a sudden Tori and her friends, Marcy and Samara, walk in. Right behind her are Lexi and Denise. Everyone stops to look at Tori and her friends. There is complete silence, and I feel completely awkward. Now I’m starting to understand what Jordyn said.

“Happy birthday, Aspen. Great party,” Tori says with a smirk. Marcy and Samara start laughing maliciously.

I’m really starting to regret inviting Lexi. But at the same time, it’s not Lexi’s fault that her sister is extremely mean. Hopefully Tori doesn’t try to make a scene and humiliate me at my own party. That would be awful. But then again, I invited some of the boys. I know she definitely wouldn’t want to embarrass herself in front of them. She already knows what a laughingstock she would be if she did that. She should know because she’s already embarrassed plenty of people before.

“Thanks, Tori,” I say. “The party will start shortly.”

Suddenly, the music starts. People start coming out onto the dance floor. The lights come up. The disco ball starts to spin and reflect its lights. Everyone has glow sticks. Music is playing. Everyone is dancing, but I just can’t make myself join in. I wander off into the hallway to go to the bathroom. Just as I get ready to open the door, my sister Ashanti comes out of the bathroom.

“Is everything okay? You look a little worried.”

“I guess I’m okay.”

“Isn’t that Tori?” she says.

“Yeah,” I say.

“What is she doing here. The last thing we need is someone to ruin your sweet 16. It’s the most memorable party of your life so far. Do I need to go and say something to her?”

“No,” I say. “The last thing I need is for someone to upset her. That would just give her more reason to try to humiliate me. You understand right?”

“Yeah. I get it. You remember Andrea, right?”

“Yeah.”

“She was like a Lexi to me when I was 16. She always tried to do whatever she could to humiliate someone.”

“Your point being?”

“Don’t let one person ruin your party. Look around. All these people came here to celebrate you. They all came because they care about you. They’re not concerned about Lexi and what she could do to them.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

“Anyway, these people came to celebrate you. Now go have fun at your party. I’ll peek around now and then to make sure that everything is okay. If Tori tries to even start to make a scene, I’ll take care of her. Don’t worry about anything.”

“Thanks,” I say. We give each other a hug. I go into the bathroom to check my reflection one last time. Then I decide that it’s time for me to go back to the party.

The party is going great. The music is loud. A rap song has just ended, and a dance song has come on. I’m able to feel the beat of this song. Everybody is dancing. Everyone is having fun. I decide to start dancing. I start to lose my worries in the song. Suddenly, I notice that the party is actually going great. Maybe it’s just me being paranoid. I mean, a party is supposed to be calm, right? But something doesn’t feel right to me. I see Jordyn standing by the food table getting some punch. I pull her aside. We leave the party and go into the hallway.

“Jordyn, have you seen Tori?” I ask.

“No, not recently. The last place I saw her was over by the food table. Why? Is something wrong?”

“No. It’s just that the party seems normal.”

“What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what a party is supposed to be?”

“Yeah, it is. But it’s still weird that Tori is here. You don’t think she’s going to try to ruin something, do you?”

“I sure hope not. I’m pretty sure that you got some really cool presents. My present is so pretty that you’ll never want to leave it alone.”

“Can you tell me what it is?”

“Nope. That would ruin the surprise. I want your breath to be taken away when you open my present.”

This sounds so much like Jordyn. She’s such a caring, sweet, and kind person. But you don’t want to get on her bad side. It’s really scary. But all in all, Jordyn is one of the kindest people I have ever met.

“Okay. I guess I can wait.”

“Now come on. Quit worrying, and have fun at your party.”

“Okay.”

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but my party is going great. I’m enjoying myself and so is everyone else. But I still have this sneaking suspicion that Tori will do something. I decide to push this thought to the back of my mind. This is my party, and I’m going to celebrate.

I walk over to the food table. Everything looks fine. Nothing seems suspicious. My presents seem to be safe. Suddenly, I hear a rustling noise over by the DJ. Then I hear something drop right near the table where my presents are. I wonder what’s going on. I hope Tori isn’t trying to ruin anything. I have a really bad feeling about this. I decide to go over to the DJ.

“Excuse me, sir. Have you seen anybody come over this way recently?” I ask.

“Nope. I haven’t. Sorry.”

“Thanks anyway,” I say.

Well, the DJ seems to have not seen anything or anyone come over there. So I wonder what that noise could have been. Now the worst thoughts are starting to come to mind. What if an animal wandered into my party and is going through my presents? What if one of Tori’s friends is going through my presents? What if Tori paid someone to go through my presents and ruin my party? Or worst of all, what if Tori herself is going to do something so mean that it’ll cause me to start crying at my own party?

“Come on, Aspen,” I say to myself. “You need to get yourself together and stop assuming that the worst is always going to happen.”

Eventually, I talk myself into walking over to where the rustling noise came from. As I grow closer to the table where my presents are, the noise grows louder. The noise keeps growing louder and louder and louder. I can’t take this suspense anymore. I decide to finally see what’s making this noise.

As I walk around the table where my presents are, I find Tori going through my presents. I stand behind the table frozen with fear. I’m brought to tears. I can’t help not crying. There’s presents everywhere. There’s pink, purple, red, and a lot of other colors of tissue paper all over the floor. Some gift bags are strewn all over the floor.

“This present is okay. Uh, what is this present? Who would ever want this as a present? This is so lame. People can really do better with presents these days,” Tori says. Marcy and Samara are with her.

“Why would anybody want this as a present? It’s so dorky,” Marcy says. She’s waving a gift bag in the air.

“Honestly, I don’t know. But then again, these presents are for Aspen. Why wouldn’t you expect them to be lame. She’s really, really lame.”

“I know. But still, anybody could give her a better present. I kind of feel bad for her,” Marcy says.

“Why should you? Obviously, a lame person deserves lame gifts. Aspen is a completely lame person.”

“I still can’t believe that you were friends with her when you were younger,” Samara says.

“Really, I don’t even know either. I guess we all made mistakes when we were younger,” Tori says.

“You certainly did, Tori. I really can’t understand why you were ever even friends with her either,” Marcy says.

I can’t take this anymore. I shouldn’t have to listen to this anymore. I decide to come out from behind the table.

“I can’t believe you, Tori. How could you do this to me?” I say in disbelief.

“Well, if it isn’t Ms. Crybaby. What’s wrong? Did someone steal your blanket?” Tori says sarcastically.

Now everyone has turned to stare at the table where my presents are. The music has been turned down some. Everyone starts laughing at what Tori just said.

“For your information, I’m not a crybaby, and I don’t have a blanket. What are you doing over here in my presents anyway?” I say with an attitude. My hands are on my hips.

“I just came to check and make sure that your presents were okay. I wouldn’t want you to receive any horrible presents. But lucky for you, they’re all horrible presents.”

“That’s exactly why they aren’t yours. Now how about you do yourself a favor and get away from my presents,” I say.

“I don’t think so. You can’t tell me what to do. Marcy, what do you think about this present? Isn’t it so stupid?” Tori asks sarcastically as she looks into a gift bag.

“It’s so stupid. Why would anyone want to own such a stupid gift? Would you want to own it, Samara?” Marcy asked.

“Leave me out of this,” Samara says.

“Why? What’s wrong? Do you think it’s good enough for you? Marcy says sarcastically.

Everyone starts laughing. The boys are making “ooohhh” noises.

“No,” Samara says.

“Then what’s your problem?” Marcy says.

“My problem is you. You and Tori are always picking on innocent people that have done absolutely nothing to you. I’m tired of being around people like you who always put people down.”

“So let me get this straight. You’re trying to stand up for Aspen, Samara?” Tori says.

“Yes, I am. I’m so sick and tired of being around cruel people like you and Marcy. Aspen has always been nothing but nice to you, and yet you still treat her horribly,” Samara says with boldness.

There’s a long period of silence in the party room. Even the music stops. Everyone is staring over at where Tori, Marcy, Samara, and I are.

“Well, you know what, Samara? I can’t be friends with people like you. People who think its okay to be friends with losers.”

I’m tired of hearing all of this. It’s getting on my last nerve. I can’t take it anymore.

“Guess what, Tori,” I say. “I’m not a loser, and you can stop talking about me.”

“And she’s right,” Jordyn says. “We all know that the whole reason why you even came to this party was to ruin Aspen’s great party. Well, guess what, you failed to accomplish your goal.”

“I don’t understand why you would do such a thing, Tori,” Lexi says. “It’s Aspen’s party, and this has absolutely nothing to do with you. Why don’t you just leave?!”

“Because I don’t want to,” Tori snaps. “Look, Samara. Here’s the thing. If you want to be friends with us, then you have to not be friends with Aspen, and if you want to be her friend, then we won’t be your friends.”

Everyone is staring intently at Samara. For some reason, the DJ is playing action music.

“So what’s your choice, Samara?”

“I choose Aspen. I don’t want to be remembered as the mean girl like you and Marcy.”

“Very well then. You made your choice. I hope it was worth it to lose your only friends that you have,” Tori says sarcastically.

“Why are you doing this?” Marcy asked sincerely.

“Because I’m ready to move on and be around actually nice people,” Samara says.

“Whatever, Samara. Come on, Marcy, let’s leave this lame party. We’ve got better places to be,” Tori says.

“Tori, Marcy, do you need an escort out?” Ashanti says.

“No thanks. I’m good,” Tori says.

“No thanks,” Marcy says.

They both storm out of the party.

Finally, they’re gone. The music has been turned back up. Everyone has resumed dancing and having a good time. The strobe lights have come back on. Samara is still here all by herself.

“You okay?” I ask.

“Not really. It feels kind of weird to not be around Marcy and Tori,” Samara says.

“Its okay. It must’ve felt really weird to actually stand up to Tori for once.”

“Yeah, I know. But it eventually had to be done.”

“That was really brave,” I say.

“Thanks.”

“Look, I know that we’ve started off on the wrong foot, but I’m willing to start over and be friends if that’s okay with you,” I say.

“Sure. I mean, I haven’t been exactly nice to you either.”

“So friends?”

“Friends,” Samara says.

“I’m so proud of you,” Ashanti says.

“For what?”

“Standing up to Tori. You really are growing up.”

“Thanks.”

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned after tonight, it’s that people may actually come to surprise you in the end.


The Food Chain

    

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boars kept on kicking the human.

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what I’m saying?”

The human nodded.

“Do you have a home?”

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

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

The human shook his head violently.

“What about Spot?”

The human nodded and jumped about.

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

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

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

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

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

That was when it got way, way worse.

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

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

“Just help me, Leonard!” George screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He picked himself up and left in a huff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your name Leonard?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One person yelled, “Animal lover!”

Another yelled, “Farm animal!”

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

I sat down, and the judge began to speak.

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

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She banged her gavel.

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

Was I robbed? Did… did George do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The large chimpanzee spoke in a calm, soothing voice.

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

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

I asked, “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Project Complete

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Breakfast,” I mumbled and ate the cookies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I licked my lips.

 

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

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

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

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

paper and took it. It read:

         Kris Yalgougly,

         Temporary Apartments

         Under Construction

         For those in need

         Head of Public Attention,

         Ashley Nofraih

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

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

 

 

No One’s Safe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Great.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, why?”

“You just seem a little out of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Jack’s here too, by the way.”

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

“Uhh… no thanks, I don’t drink.”

“Okay. Danny, you?”

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

“Lmao okay, two drinks coming right up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m trying to, it just — it just — ”

“It’s right there, Jack! Hurry!”

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why?”

“Jack, just tell me where you were.”

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

“Jack! Where were you?”

“I don’t want to tell you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What — what do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Lost Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hunter would soon become the hunted.

THE END (FOR NOW)

 

The Darkest of Depths

       

The Bathroom Toilets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah!” yelled Ben. “What’s going on!”

“Just what I needed,” Daniel muttered.

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

 

A Dark Realm with a Cold Reaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silence, fool!” Chloe screamed.

“Just joking,” Jack said.

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

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

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

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

“Who is your boss?” Ben asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They ran through the temple, and then Daniel stopped.

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

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

 

The Temple of Webs

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

A Cheesy Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha ha,” said Daniel. “Very funny.”

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

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

“My name is Maxarella.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hopscotch with a Lava Pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we go in?” Ben asked.

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

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

“That must be the way out,” Ben said.

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

 

“Ah!” Ben yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine with me,” Jack said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He jumped down and landed on the door.

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

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

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

“Sorry, Ben,” Daniel said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa,” Jack said. “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Deja Vu

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Wait,” Ben said. “Look at that, in the center of the room.” They gathered around a circle carved into the field, with a mini circle at the center. Both of the circles’ outlines were glowing. Then, a line appeared, cutting both circles down the middle, and then the mini-circle split apart at that line and out rose a ball of light, so filled with energy and heat that it blinded them for a second. It smelled, emitted, and sounded like pure energy, humming with power. The ground around it was black and crackling with energy.

Then, light from the ball poured into Jack, making his hair turn red and blaze with heat and fire. His pupils in his eyes turned into little fireballs, and his entire body seemed to be emitting smoke. Light from the ball then poured into Ben. His hair turned blue and coursed with electricity. That electricity ran down his entire body and into his hands which sizzled with power. When the light finally poured into Daniel, his hair turned the color of wheat, with strands of hair turning into leaves. Markings like vines engraved themselves into his arms, neck, and legs, and a wave of dim light burst from him, healing injuries, and making everyone feel wonderful. They all knew instantly what this was.

“The Eternal Flame,” said Jack with awe.

 

A Cold-Hearted Reunion

Then, something else came out of the circle hole. A white wisp, almost like a ghost. Then, the white wisp landed on the ground. It swirled around and around, and then it began to change. It grew and shaped itself into a human shape and solidified into a woman with icicles for hair, a scythe on her back, and a long robe on her body. Chloe.

“AFTER THEM!” she screamed. Then, the ground shook, and thousands of wisps exploded out of the hole, solidifying into Icers, their teeth bared, their staffs swirling. Jack, Ben, and Daniel ran back all the way to the entrance in the field and stood there, facing the impossibly huge army.

“Now I remember,” said Jack to his friends. “This is the castle of that ice spirit we fought last year.”

“You dare try to steal the core of the sun,” said Chloe.

“Oh, so that’s what that was, besides being the Eternal Flame,” said Daniel in realization.

“This is vengeance for the last time we met. Icers, ATTACK!” Chloe yelled, waving her scythe like a maniac.

Jack jumped up 30 feet in the air and summoned an incredible amount of fire. He then blasted that fire in a wave of heat that vaporized at least five hundred Icers, shrieking as they faded into puddles. Ben raised his hands to the sky and summoned a very powerful lightning bolt that struck him. His hands sizzled, and he sped in the air towards the enemy and blasted them with electricity from his hands, cracking with heat and static as they pounded their targets. Daniel summoned a storm of leaves as sharp as daggers and pushed them telepathically towards the enemies. Then, he ran towards another group of Icers, raised his hands, and summoned vines that wrapped around all the remaining Icers, and around him. He drained their energy the way a tree drains nutrients. All the Icers were now melted water, or piles of snow.

 

“Your turn,” Jack said to Chloe with glee. Chloe screamed in rage, leaped up, swung her scythe above her head, and smashed it down. Ice power hit the three fighters, and they flew backward, their bodies smashing into the ground when they landed. Chloe then summoned a small ice and snow tornado, and sent it flying towards Jack.

 

The snow swirled around Jack for a second and then quickly dissipated, evaporated by his fire. Jack summoned a fireball that grew bigger and bigger in his hands. Heat rippled around him like water flowing. Ben stood up and started waving his hands majestically. Electricity arced between his fingertips, trying to escape. Meanwhile, Daniel breathed in and out heavily, and green energy flowed peacefully out of his mouth in tentacles towards Chloe. As they grew closer to her, they solidified into branches and wrapped around her body, tying her to the floor. Suddenly, a lightning bolt came from what seemed like nowhere and struck Ben’s hands. His fists were completely enveloped in electricity as he jumped up, swung his fists back behind his head, and crashed down towards Chloe.

The sound was unbearable, and the smell of ozone filled the air. Chloe was thrown back, her body rippling with electricity and her cloak flew around her. There was now a small circle of charred ground where she lay. Then, Jack threw the fire ball at Chloe. The whole world was on fire as Chloe screamed and the fireball exploded.

When the dust cleared, Chloe was gone. In her place was a divot in the ground, and in the center, was a man.

 

140 Miles to You (Excerpt)

     

Chapter One: The Blood Test

“This is not how I would like to spend my weekend.” That’s exactly how my best friend,

Isabel Cheston was feeling. Sitting in the doctor’s office one Saturday morning. She actually wasn’t really sitting. She was pacing the large white room while freaking out about her blood test. I could see why — she was getting four vials of blood drawn! Her hands were sweaty and clammy from her worrying. Her short brown hair tangled and knotted from her pulling.

“You’ll be fine, I promise” I said. “They just want to make sure your blood is healthy.”

“That really makes me feel better, Kosette!” Isabel snapped.

Surprised by her icy tone I paused. “At least I’m coming with you on a Saturday. Give me that much!” When Isabel didn’t respond I added, “Your mom is taking a long time parking the car.”

She glanced at me, but before she could respond the doctor opened the door. “Isabel, you may come on back.”

Isabel looked back at me and mouthed “Thank you.” She turned toward the doctor. “Can my friend come back with me?”

The doctor hesitated and looked like she was about to say yes. Then she thought better of it and said to Isabel “How about your friend stays in the waiting room, and you can see her when you come out. You’ll be done in no time and besides, your mom is coming up. See there she is!”

Isabel slowly nodded, her face crumpling up like she was about to cry.

Suddenly, Isabel’s mom hurried in. “I’m sorry I’m late Dr. Blakeman. The parking lot — it’s insanely full!”

“It always is” he agreed. “Isabel, can we come back now that your mom is here?”

Isabel nodded. The doctor took Isabel’s bony shoulders and guided her to the back rooms. Her mom following behind.

“You will do great!” I called. “I will be here when you are done!” I sat back down and sighed. I grabbed a Sports Illustrated magazine but my eyes weren’t reading the words. I couldn’t focus. Isabel’s blood was fine, wasn’t it?

 

A week later I was with Isabel in her backyard. The Florida air playing with our hair. Isabel had emerged from the back of the doctor office last Sunday acting fine. My worries had left… somewhat.

I still couldn’t shake the last few months out of my head. All the times Isabel had seemed okay, but then suddenly not okay.

One time that really worried me was when we were at Daytona Beach together. We were boogie boarding as we always did when we went to the beach. She suddenly looked up and said

“I’m tired, I need a break.”

“What about a few more waves? Then we can take a break and recharge.”

Usually Isabel was as active as me, preferring soccer and basketball to reading and writing. So I was pretty surprised when she strongly replied “No my knees are really hurting. I NEED to stop.”

“Fine” I agreed. “We can hit the ground running this afternoon. Sorry you are not feeling well.”

 

And now we were here. Sitting outside her house braiding each other’s hair. This was also a break from yet another fun activity, soccer.

And yeah, Isabel had been the one to ask for it.

Suddenly her mom ran outside and hurried over to Isabel. I expected her to yell that Isabel and I had left the ball in the street. Despite there being barely any cars on the road. She just looked at the ball without really seeing it.

“Isabel come with me.” Isabel stopped braiding my long brown hair and followed her mom back into the house. She turned around and shrugged as if saying she didn’t know what was going on.

I automatically followed Isabel. Her mom turned and said to me “It would be best if you could just stay here, alright? I need to talk to Isabel about a few things.”

I nodded but of course, being the nosy nine-year-old girl that I was. I had to know what was wrong. As soon as Isabel and her mom disappeared into the house I silently crept to the sliding glass door to listen.

“How?!” Isabel’s response was high-pitched. She always got like that when she didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t either. My heart pounded so hard I thought both of them would hear it. I wanted to stop listening. I couldn’t tear myself from the door. I heard Isabel’s mom reply. Her voice sounded muffled, as if I was underwater. I tried desperately to piece together what I was hearing and only grasped this: Isabel’s blood test from last week came out positive for some type of cancer. She needed the right blood. She needed to go to the hospital to get the wrong blood removed from her system.

 

I slid the door open a crack. I could now hear clearly.

“Isabel it’s called leukemia” Isabel’s mom said slowly.

“What’s that?” Isabel asked. “I don’t understand!”

“Imagine you put gas into a car” Isabel’s mom explained.

“The gas does not react well in the car. It’s the wrong gas. The car becomes sick. The car has to go to the automotive shop to get the right gas put into it. Then the car becomes healed. You have to do the same.”

The doctors will put the right blood into your body. And you’ll get better.”

“When do we leave?” Isabel’s voice cracked like it was on the verge of breaking. When her mom didn’t respond Isabel asked again. “When? When?!”

My heart felt like it would break out of its cage. I anxiously raked my hands down my hair. My fingers running along each strand.

“That’s the thing, Isabel, we have to start treatment quickly,” her mom responded after a long pause. “We leave for the hospital tomorrow.”

 

If Only

Long ago, when people didn’t destroy the Earth and people were the Earth, there were two. The water belonged to the Goddess, and the land belonged to the God. The Goddess and the God were in a relationship of sorts, as they worked together and around each other. But that was all they could do, because the land and the water were separate. They longed for each other. Every morning, the Goddess would bathe in the water and greet her aquatic friends. They looked up to her. Her, in her green, grassy-skinned glory. She was different from them, and powerful. The Goddess looked across the world to the land and to the God. The God, whose long beard reached his toes and beyond, met her gaze easily. His skin was different from hers. It was smoother and rosier. His beard was different from anything she had seen in the water, too. Cherries and fruits and leaves were growing from it, and the Goddess wanted nothing more than to reach out and be able to hold it in her hands. To pick the cherries and the fruits and the leaves and eat them, adorn her meals with them, cherish them. She wanted him. His smile was shy and tentative, but it was there, and the Goddess smiled back like she would with any of her friends in the water. The God turned around to talk to one of his own friends in the land, and the Goddess looked down, content with the interaction. She continued with her day, and he continued with his, and it went on like that for years. They would meet eye contact, smile, and then look away.

One day, the Goddess decided she wanted more. More than just seeing a smile, but instead holding the smile closer to her, in her hands. She called out to the God. He looked back, shocked. They had never dared to talk to each other. Nobody would dare to talk between worlds. But he responded.

“I want to meet you,” the Goddess said.

“We’ve already met.”

“I want to feel you.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t allowed. Not in this lifetime,” the God said after a pause, and he frowned.

“But why isn’t it allowed? What are we scared of?” the Goddess said, her voice liquid hope. Everyone was staring at them now. All of the Goddess’ aquatic friends, and all of the God’s woodland creatures. They all looked at the God and the Goddess as if they were insane. No one had ever even thought to break the unspoken rules, and no one had ever even thought that the leaders would think of doing so themselves. “We could be happy together.”
“We could get banished.” His eyes were skipping around her, looking everywhere except her.

The Goddess looked at him, hurt. She couldn’t believe her ears. After all this time — she thought that the God wanted her just as much as she wanted him. She would be willing to throw everything away for him, why didn’t he feel the same. The God looked up at her again, his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes crowded by a cloud of confusion. The Goddess reached her arm out, across the world, trying to grab onto the God. There were gasps all around: that was never done before! The God didn’t move back, but he didn’t move closer either. The Goddess was getting closer to him, closer, closer, closer… Her arm was thin and cracking from the stretch, like elastic in freezing temperatures, and she knew she couldn’t go much further. But she was so close… Suddenly, the God stretched his arm out too and easily clutched onto the Goddess’s grass covered arm. Light beamed from the interlapse, and again, the crowd gasped. The God pulled at the Goddess, and the Goddess pulled at the God, bringing the two worlds closer. The light was growing in size and in power, until finally, the two worlds connected, and the God fell into the Goddess’s arms, and the Goddess fell into the God’s arms. The light between them grew and grew until it took over both of their visions, and all of the visions of the aquatic friends and woodland creatures. Abruptly, the light fizzled out, and the God and Goddess were one, as were the water and the land. The woodland creatures walked around and looked curiously at the aquatic friends, and the aquatic friends reciprocated those stares. The God and the Goddess were together from that point on, and they couldn’t be happier. The one catch was that now there wasn’t a God or Goddess to look over the aquatic friends or the woodland creatures. They were on their own, and the Goddess thought to herself that they’d be just fine. She knows them, and the God knows them, and they both know that none of their own beings could ever be cruel.

If only they could see what the world they created has become today.

 

Tunnel Vision

I was walking along the streets of Georgetown with my friends Jason and Barry, watching the filming of the new Wonder Woman movie. The busy street was filled with all sorts of 80’s cars, and there were cameras everywhere. There was even a movie theater that pretended they were playing 80’s movies like Gremlins.

All of a sudden, I saw a tunnel that looked like a secret passageway. It looked like one of those old dead-end alleyways. I immediately nudged Jason and Barry. We originally thought it was part of the filming, but then we saw it was past the end of the film crew’s roadblocks and looked deserted. There was a door at the end of the tunnel, painted all black, even down to the doorknob. The door itself blended into the tunnel, and we pulled towards it, deciding to check out what was inside. As soon as we were inside, the door slammed shut behind us.

I threw my shoulder against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. We were trapped. I pulled out my phone and dialed my brother’s number, but I didn’t have a signal. I couldn’t see a wall behind me, so I started walking away from the door. After a few steps, I found three tunnels. The first tunnel had a sign on it that said DO, the second tunnel had a sign that said NOT, and the third had a sign that said ENTER. That couldn’t be good.

“Well, this sucks,” Jason sighed loudly.

“The door didn’t move, and I can’t get signal. Why not try a tunnel?” I asked.

Despite suggesting it, I had no idea what tunnel to go through.

Barry then suggested, “How about we split up? If one of us finds the right tunnel, we can all meet up and get out that way.”

I stopped pacing, smiling in disbelief. “You’re joking, right? We can’t do that. What if one of the tunnels goes to a maze or something? We could get lost.”

Jason said, ”Sticking together is definitely the right option.”

Barry then said, “I still think we should split up. More tunnels, less time.”

Jason replied with, “Why in the world should we split up”

“You all want to go home, right?” asked Barry sarcastically.

Jason said, “Well, I am not going to split up.”

Barry said, “Fine, stay here and rot if that suits you.”

“I’m just trying to stay alive, to be honest.”

I took a deep breath. “Look. We have an equal chance of picking a wrong tunnel as we do the right one. Let’s just take the first one.”

Jason and Barry, having no better argument, agreed. When we reached the end of the DO tunnel, it was a dead end, the tunnel filled with nothing but dust.

Barry started humming a bass line.

Jason gave Barry an annoyed look. “Is that one Another One Bites the Dust? Seriously?”

I led us back to where we started and then went into the NOT tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was another door that was completely covered in dust but seemed like it had words on it.

Jason looked skeptical. “You guys willing to trust another door?”

Barry shrugged and wiped the dust off. There was something on the door in a weird language. The words, Omissa spe quae ponitur faciatis, were carved at eye-height. We spent a few minutes trying to figure it out, but seeing as none of us could speak Latin, we were stumped. As we began to walk back to the lobby, a man in a dark robe jumped out of the shadows scaring the crap out of us.

We ran around a bend in the tunnel, but when we stopped, we heard him speak, in a dry, rasping voice.

“Stop! I can translate that for you. I know you don’t trust me, but you’ll want to hear what it says.”

We inched back towards the door and saw the man waving us forward. As we walked towards him, he spoke again.

“The writing on this door says Abandon all hope ye who enters here.

When Jason heard that, he said, “Dang that’s freaky. Let’s just go back to the beginning and wait for someone to break us out.”

The man in the robe then said, “Wait! My name is Bernard. I’ve been trapped here for almost a year. Please. If you’re thinking of going through this door, don’t. When I went in, I barely made it out alive.”

Barry then said, “Well if it is our only way out, we have to try it, right?”

I replied with, “I agree, but if going in there equals death, it isn’t worth it.”

Jason said, “Equals death, seriously?”

I said, “Yeah seriously. And Bernard, what happened when you went in there?”

“They attacked me,” he said.

“Who attacked you?” I asked.

“No doubt we should go in. It is pretty much our only way out.” Barry interrupted.

Bernard looked nervous.

“Bernard, will you come with us for a little while?” I asked.

“No, never will I go back there!”

“Please just once,” I pleaded.

“Please?” asked Barry.

Bernard groaned reluctantly, but placed his hand on the old doorknob.

Barry, Jason, and I all looked at each other hopefully.

Bernard opened the door, and we all went in. It was pitch black in there for about ten seconds until a ginormous red light shined on all of us. A voice, deep and menacing, thundered from all around us.

“WHO IS THERE?”

Jason screamed and inched backwards. I shot out a hand to grab him.

“We just got in here, man!” chuckled Barry. “You can’t freak out on us yet.”

 

“Oh, but he can, and probably should” exclaimed Bernard, looking like he was regretting the decision to stay with me.

“Not helping,” I said.

“I ASKED YOU A QUESTION,” the voice boomed.

I was dying on the inside but found some scrap of my voice. “We were just leaving! Do — do you know where the exit is?”

“DON’T LIE TO ME! I CAN SEE BERNARD UNDER THAT HOOD,” the loud voice said.

“How do you know who I am?” Bernard said, his voice even more filled with nerves.

“TAKE THE HOOD OFF,” the voice snarled, sounding different now. “DO IT OR DIE.”

Bernard, faced with no other option, shook as he slowly took his hood down.

He had somewhat long dark brown hair, a small brown beard, brown eyes, was wearing a black sleeveless shirt, and had black pants. He looked rugged and intimidating, like he fit in this underground situation.

“Bernard?” asked Jason, the anger returning, “Something you wanna tell us, buddy?”

Bernard turned slowly and began to speak.

“I know this place. These are my old friends. We came here years ago, but they have been building incredible things for decades. They were made fun of as kids, and when I stuck up for them, I was made fun of. We wanted to take over the world. I realized it was pure evil, and I decided to turn on them. Using their technology, they stopped me. They brainwashed me. I’ve been under their control for almost a year and just escaped.”

“Sounds like they’re great buddies,” spat Jason.

Barry had the courage to laugh. “Hey, you know? You go out for a round of spelunking with your pals and get brainwashed and trapped trying to stop them from world domination. Sounds like a great Tuesday, am I right?”

“We can help, Bernard. Do you want us to help you kick their butts?” I asked, looking at Bernard, who looked pitiful.

“No, go now and get help. There’s a key under the mat at the end of the ENTER tunnel.”
“You just thought to tell us this now?!” Jason exclaimed in disbelief.

“I just remembered now!” Bernard shouted, pointing at his temple. “Brainwashed, remember?”

“Right.”
He slipped his arms out from his sleeves. “Here, take my robe. It’ll keep you concealed.”

I took the robe and thanked him, not wanting to think about Bernard taking on whomever “they” were by himself. We ran back to the second door, all the way back to the entrance, and sprinted down the ENTER tunnel. The key was right where Bernard had promised it would be.

When I left the tunnel, I felt like a vampire in the sun. We were going to go straight to the police, but then realized they would never believe us. I knew though we couldn’t leave Bernard behind. Barry was in on going back to help Bernard before I even said we should. Jason seemed reluctant but ready.

As soon as got to Barry’s house, we slipped into his garage and began making weapons to do whatever we could to help Bernard. I found a metal baseball bat, Barry made Jason a whip out of hot glue sticks and duct tape, Barry made a mace out of a hard foam ball, tacs, tape, the chain of many key chains, and a mini M&M’s bottle as the handle. We also got three baseballs each.

We were ready. Now the only other thing I wanted was a headband and eye black.

Once we finished, we went back to the tunnel. I thought we must have looked like idiots walking through Georgetown with our makeshift war weapons, but Bernard was in trouble. We tip-toed in and peeked at what was going on inside. We saw two strange looking people sitting at a table looking to their right. There was a third person shackled to a chair, and I could only see half of their face, enough to see a thick brown beard. After that, they pulled out some weird looking sci-fi gun type thing.

Then Jason said, “No! That must be the mind washing machine!”

“What do we do?” I asked.

Barry looked at us like we were stupid. “You idiots! We charge!”

He then let loose a scream and charged like a buffalo who had just robbed a candy store, his M&M-handled mace swinging wildly behind him. Jason and I had no choice but to follow. We ran through the door and threw a few baseballs at them. I ran up to the one in the middle and struck. He pulled up a metal pole and blocked it. Barry went and attempted to hit the one on the left with the mace, but the guy dodged it. We all continued to fight as Jason went and freed Bernard. Bernard then grabbed a hammer and was ready to get in the action. I was having an intense one-on-one battle with my guy, and Barry kept trying to hit his guy but kept missing. Right when I was starting to struggle holding mine off, Bernard came in and whacked the guy in the back of the head, making him crumple. Jason ran to help Barry, whipping the guy Barry was fighting in the back. The man saw that his friend was down. He made a break to a table that had tons of their technology on it. I knew we couldn’t let him get the table, so I ran to guard it. When the man got to the table I smacked him in the forehead and realized why Cabrera must love his job. My bat rang off his forehead and was still shaking by the time the other three got to me.

Bernard got chains that were in the room and tied his now unconscious captors up. After that, he led us out. We were covered in dirt and dust, our hair was all messy, we had rips in our clothes, and and my right shoe was ripped. We all tried to make to through the crowd without getting noticed, but everyone wanted pictures of us because they thought we were extras on set. I had completely forgotten that everyone else in Georgetown was having a normal day. We walked to the police station, and we told them they had to come to the tunnels to arrest the psychos and confiscate the weapons and technology. The police went down the tunnels, arrested them, and took the weapons and technology. They then blocked down the tunnels and returned us to our parents.

“Fun day today, right guys?” Jason laughed when we had all taken showers and were watching a movie at his place.

“Now you’ve got the spirit!” Barry laughed. “We should do this more often.”

“Heck yeah!” I exclaimed.

 

The Monster

 

There is a monster inside of me

The monster —

It scares me

It stays in me

Haunts me

Controls me

it takes what it wants

From me

 

It tells me it just wants

a game to play

A game of fun

And sharing

And happiness

And giving

But I know that

That’s not why it came

 

There is a monster inside of me

The monster —

It scares me

Its horrible hands —

they’re strong enough to

Rip the soul

Out of me

 

The monster won’t

set me free

It’s always taking

A piece of me

It tells me

It loves me

But I know

That it doesn’t

The only thing it loves is

What it wants to make me

 

Because

You see

There is a monster inside of me

And the monster —

It is me

 

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.

 

Little Bird

     

The Cove

Its water an incredible, powerful beast

Dormant for years

Warmly welcoming her father’s fishing boat and allowing her to splash in the shallows as a child

Then suddenly awake

Awake

Awake and angry

Filled with the things people toss away

Plastic straws from summer picnics and papers with old news

It swallows all that come near

Swallows them in rising tides

And storms that have no mercy

Its waves, its hands, pound

Against rocks made smooth by weather and time

Wren

Her mother’s little bird

The one her father left behind when he found out

Left in the night in the boat that first caught her mother’s eye

She stands in the surf

Her white dress soaked through

Numb

 

Home

Her home

Its broken glass

And shells and things from the deep

Blown in from the storm

All covered in dust

A fractured nest

Since the storm

The storm that took everything

Family photos and china plates

Patio chairs and hand painted shutters

The storm that broke the glass and tore open the walls

The storm that sucked her mother into its maw

Taking her forever

And then left

Left the little bird by herself, without a mother

 

Alone she walks

The little of what’s left of her red hair

Caught in the cool summer breeze

The dust clinging to her dress

Her dress

Once so perfect

But torn and dirty now

Alone she walks

Through the town miles away from her broken home

The town of stares and whispers and pointed fingers

The town of normalcy and family dinners

Of barbecues and sunny days

The town of friends long gone

Gone, blaming her for her father’s choice

Vilifying her mother for not finding another

She’s learned to ignore it

She wouldn’t come here at all

But even little birds have to eat

 

By the market she sits

Tin can in hand

A tin can found in the wreckage of her home

The clink of people’s spare change her only hope

Relying on the guilt

Of people that call her mad

To them, she is simply a girl who went insane after the storm they barely noticed

 

Walking home

The dirt path again

Stale bread sandwich in hand

Fireflies flicker around her

Dancing in the dark of the twilit forest

Walking up the stairs

That creak and moan and bend

The door

A purple door

A rusted knob

At the table

Where she once sat with her mother braiding her hair

Red hair just like her own

But her eyes are her father’s

As the lights flickered on and off

And a harsh wind rattled the windows

The booming thunder

The crackling lightning

And clouds that can’t decide if they’re blue or gray

Now she sits

By herself

Red hair uneven

Cut by scissors she found in the bathroom

 

Trying to find sleep

On a blanket outside her mother’s door

Sleep doesn’t come

Instead come visions

Visions of running along the cove

With her mother and a faceless man

Visions of family dinners on Sundays

Her parents laughing at a joke she just told

About a pirate’s 80th birthday

And at bedtime

Her parents tell her the story of the wren

The one that wasn’t as strong or as fast as the other birds

But realized it didn’t necessarily need to be

And became king of the birds

But even in her dreams she knows none of it is real

 

Morning

The pale sunlight sneaks through the broken window

And dances upon her head

From the dust she rises

Walking out of the house

Down to the shore

The water calm and shimmering with early morning light

A washed up rowboat bobs gently on the surface

In that moment she makes a decision

Looking back at what was her home

But hasn’t been in months

 

Thinking of the possibilities

Of finding her father

Of joining her mother

She pushed off the shore

And flew away

Over the coral guts of the great beast

 

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.

 

Dancer Attack

Addie woke up to a gloomy sky on the biggest day of her life! A college dance instructor was coming all the way from The University of the Arts in Pennsylvania to California where she lived, just to see her dance.

This would determine her whole life. She picked up her phone and called Eliza, her best friend. When she didn’t answer, Addie knew she must have been sleeping.

Addie sighed. Her list on the door reminded her of the grocery shopping she had to do. Her mom used to do all the shopping, that is when she was alive. Her dad always had work meetings and never went shopping. Addie always spent the day at Eliza’s, and it was almost as if Eliza’s mom was her mom too.

Snap out of it, she thought to herself. You hate thinking about how lonely you are.

She changed into her bright red crop top and jean shorts, put on a raincoat that covered up her newly cut chestnut colored hair, and drove to Eliza’s house.

“It’s so early. Why did you have to wake me up?” Eliza groaned.

“Get up, you lazy head. We have to go to auditions,” Addie whispered in her ear to not wake up her brother, Tyler.

“Auditions?” Eliza popped her head up from under the covers. You could see her blue ring to match her hair. She hopped out of bed and threw clothes on. Grabbing her phone, she ran out the door, leaving Addie in the dust.

“I’ll never understand her,” Addie said, yawning midway.

“C’mon, slowpoke,” Eliza yelled from the passenger seat. “We’re gonna be late!”

“You were the one I had to wake up! We also don’t have to be there for another 15 minutes, and we are going to Starbucks,” Addie remarked.

“You know Ms. Ivey hates when we’re late.”

“Who said we were gonna be late?” Addie questioned.

When they got to Stuart Landing Performing Arts Dance Studio, the tall poles in the front stand out from a mile away. They walked over to the makeup stand where the rest of the dance team was getting makeup done.

“What’s up?” Addie yelled.

“The sky!” Casey screamed back. Her bright blonde hair flowed back and shimmered like the sun.

“Hey, guys, where were you?” Beatrix asked. She had her dark hair that was almost black being braided.

“You’re late!” Ms. Ivey interrupted. Her brown eyes flared with anger. “Get your makeup done quickly. We need to rehearse your performance.” Addie and Eliza quickly sat in the closest seats to not make Ms. Ivey angrier. Of course showing up late with Starbucks in your hand would not exactly please Ms. Ivey, but being five minutes later would’ve really set her off.

Once Addie got her makeup done, she went to rehearse. After about an hour, Ms. Ivey called everyone to see her. Addie went to go get her hair flower while Ms. Ivey gave her speech.

 

***

 

“I need you girls to work harder than you ever have, to show the women in the chair what amazing dancers you can be. You have never worked so hard in your life.” Eliza zoned out when she was speaking. Where is Addie? She’s been gone a while, she considered.

“Excuse me, Ms. Ivey, but Addie’s been gone for awhile. Do you mind if I go see what she’s up to,” Eliza blurted out.

“I do not like when people interrupt me, and you know that! I suspect that you probably should go check on her,” Ms. Ivey snapped.

“Thank you.” Eliza walked back to the dressing room but came out screaming.

“Ms. Ivey! Ms. Ivey! Help! Addie’s dead!” she howled.

“What do you mean she’s dead?” she roared. “OH MY GOSH! She was my star! She was the best student I’ve ever had! Our whole show will be ruined.”

“What are we going to do? She’s our star!” Nicole squealed.

“Let me go see for myself!” Ms. Ivey screamed.

“But Addie has her own solo. She was so excited,” Simone hollered. Everyone was yelling at the same time. There was a blur of screams.

“My life is ruined without her!” Eliza squeaked.

“If this is a trick… ” Everyone heard Ms. Ivey starting to yell from behind the two bulking doors. Abruptly, there was silence. Everybody had thought Addie originally pulled a prank, but no one knew why anyone would ruin their costume with fake blood right before a huge show.

 

“Ms. Ivey,” Zoey said.

“What do you want? My star is dead right now,” Ms. Ivey screeched. Her short, dark hair flashed in the light.

“I’ve heard of people killing themselves because of nervousness,” Zoey replied.

“Addie would never do that! She’s way smarter than to do that,” Ms. Ivey returned.

Eliza started to pace, thinking to herself, Phoebe always played with her hair too much which could mean she’s hiding something in it, and she recently has been talking about leaving the dance team, but Annabelle always tried to direct murder tak another way. Plus, neither of them had spoken yet, and it looked like they were avoiding to talk.

“Eliza, you were the one who originally checked on Addie. You would easily have time to take Addie somewhere,” Annabelle pointed out.

“You think I would kill my best friend! Not in a million years. She was basically my sister,” Eliza cried.

“You might’ve, and also you were her understudy in the recital. We all know how badly you wanted to have that solo, but you knew you would have to support your friend,” Annabelle pushed back.

“Why would Addie have been in the dressing room so long? For all we know, you could’ve missed all of Ms. Ivey’s speech just to take her away and come back when I left,” Eliza opposed. Annabelle had never been very nice to Eliza. Why would Annabelle want to blame me for kidnapping Addie. Unless, if she wanted to cover herself.

“Stop fighting! It’s not gonna help if we blame each other, but we know that it was someone in here,” Ms. Ivey bellowed. “Someone still has to show that lady the dance, so get on the stage, Eliza.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Eliza ran to her starting position as Ms. Ivey went to go turn on the music. All the girls dashed into the front row of the auditorium. All the doors were locked, so the college dance teacher would feel safe inside.

 

“You were amazing!” Casey cheered once they were in the street.

“Thanks, but knowing how excited Addie was for that performance makes me sick. We need to find her fast,” Eliza aforementioned.

“Agreed, let’s first go get lunch at my house.”

“Speaking of lunch, I’m starving. Let’s go.” They ran to Addie’s car, preparing to drive it back to her house and get Eliza’s car. They went up to Casey’s room after lunch.

“We need to find Addie now and get to work.”

“Agreed.” As they laid on the bed, they made a list of suspects.

“It’s either Beatrix, Annabelle, Zoey, Pheobe, Nicole, or Simone, but I’m gonna bet it’s Annabelle because of how she accused me of doing it.”

“You know Annabelle, and she always tries to get on your nerves.”

“So? She was trying to make herself not a suspect by blaming other people.”

“Keep in mind it could’ve been a group of people,” Casey reflected.

“I don’t think so. Nicole was last out of the room, but anyone could’ve snuck back in while Ms. Ivey was giving her speech. That makes me think that it could be Beatrix because she tends to get distracted easily.”

“That’s like saying it was me. We were talking during Ms. Ivey’s speech, so you are positive it wasn’t me. Just like I’m positive it wasn’t Beatrix. She’s way too kind to kill someone even if she secretly hated them.”

“I think we should go back to look for clues.” As they walked to the dance studio, there were police cars everywhere. They walked up to the gigantic wooden doors.

“No publicitors in the building,” the police officer said to them.

“We were friends of Addie,” Eliza said while trying to push through to go inside.

“I’m sorry, ladies. This is a crime scene.” The girls headed back to Casey’s house.

“How could we possibly figure out who murdered Addie if we can’t get into the crime scene?” Eliza questioned.

“I don’t know, but why do we actually need the scene? We can start questioning people.”

“We could just let the police do it. They have all the tools they need to find the killer.”

“Are you trying to go off of the case? Addie was both of our best friends. We can’t just let her go. We should interview the dance team. ”

“You’re right. Let’s go interview. First, Annabelle.”

“Of course she’s your first suspect,” Casey sighed. They headed over to Annabelle’s house, and Annabelle’s mom opened the door. Annabelle’s mom’s dirty blonde hair shimmered in the sun.

“Hello, sweeties. Annabelle is in her room if you were coming by to see her,” Annabelle’s mom answered.

“Thank you, Mrs. Gidmon,” Eliza and Casey exclaimed together. When they stepped in the house, it smelled like lavender. They bounced up the stairs and knocked on the door that had save the animals posters.

“Who is it?” Annabelle called from inside.

“Eliza and Casey,” Casey yelled.

“Why did you tell her I was here? Now she’ll never let us in,” Eliza whispered.

“Casey can come in, but not Eliza,” Annabelle hollered. Casey flung the door open, and they both stepped inside the bright yellow room with streamers hanging everywhere.

“Can’t you hear Eliza? You’re not permitted in here,” Annabelle yawned mid sentence.

“It looks like a yellow neon highlighter exploded in here,” Eliza commented.

“Why are you here anyway? It’s not like you would actually want to hang out,” Annabelle replied.

“We came here to talk to you about the murder of Addie Dunakin,” Casey said proudly.

“You really think I did it. I mean sure, I hate her, but I wouldn’t kill her. Plus, it was clearly Eliza.”

“Stop trying to blame me! I would never even hurt my best friend.”

“Then why does every clue point to you?”

“That isn’t true.”

“Stop arguing!” Casey cried out. “Annabelle, what did Ms. Ivey say in her speech?”

“She was talking about how we all need to show respect in front of the college teacher. Also, we need to be nice to Addie if she doesn’t make it, congratulate her if she does make it, and help her not feel as nervous because this dance is her whole future, and blah blah blah, all about Addie. Then, she started telling us about how we have to be quiet during the show, but Eliza decided to interrupt.”

“Thank you for your time,” Casey spoke in a serious detective voice, then turned around to leave. Once the girls got out of the house, they were exploding with words.

“I can’t believe it wasn’t her!” Eliza yelled.

“The only time they could’ve killed Addie was when Ms. Ivey was speaking. No one would’ve had time to kill her before she started talking, and Annabelle recited what Ms. Ivey was saying from the start of her speech.”

“I’m still shocked. Why would she blame me if she didn’t do it?” Eliza questioned.

“That’s a mystery still, and you’re such good friends with Addie. Let’s head to Phoebe’s house next because she’s closest.” Once they opened the door to Phoebe’s room, they were shocked by seeing only blue everywhere they looked. The comforter, pillows, rug, chair bean bag, and even the walls.

The girls asked her what Ms. Ivey said during her speech, and she claimed she was in the bathroom when Ms. Ivey gave her speech. They finished interviewing her and walked out of the white house with gray shutters.

“She claimed she was in the bathroom while Ms. Ivey gave her speech. How suspicious is that? She has an easy way to kill Addie, and she can hide in the bathroom when I went into the makeup studio. She could pop out of the bathroom right when everyone hears about Addie being murdered,” Eliza commented.

“That makes so much sense, but maybe we should still check the other suspects.”

“Agreed.” They checked out all the other suspects, but nothing seemed suspicious. They didn’t think it would unfold that easily. Was it really that easy? Did they already solve the case? They decided to go tell the police.

“Officer! Officer! We know who killed Addie!” Eliza yelled at the top of her lungs. They sprinted towards the doors, and once they got there, they started panting really hard.

“We do too,” Officer Antonio said ferociously. “Give me your wrists, Eliza.”

“What do you mean? You think I did it!? Eliza screeched. “It was Phoebe Green. She told Ms. Ivey that she had to go to the bathroom, and she went to kill Addie. She went to the bathroom and waited until someone realized she was dead. She walked out of the bathroom when we were screaming, and she pretended to be clueless.”

“I’m sorry. Your handprints are on her neck.” Casey gasped.

“She framed me. When I saw the marks on her neck, I went to see if her pulse was moving.” She remembered the gasping. How soothing. The croaking when she tried to breathe. The satisfying, helpless way she tried to squirm in the strong hands. Oh, how helpless she was. Eliza loved it. It all made sense to Casey.

“You went to go suffocate her when you were supposedly checking on her. Then you came running out, blaming it all on Phoebe. You are so selfish killing your best friend for a dance solo!”

“Fine! I did it! I always hated her! She got every bit of attention everywhere. It’s like I was outshined everywhere I went!” Eliza screamed. The cold handcuffs cut her wrist. They were tight and ate up her feeling in her wrist.

“Case solved!” Casey screamed.

 

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.

 

The Sun Is Up

          

The sun is up

But I am not

I am numb

For the day is not

When I feel things

I only feel

When the sun is sleeping

And I can be alone

I can think my dangerous thoughts

By myself.

I am trapped.

Alone with just my feelings.

Why aren’t they there when I need them?

Why are they only here to hurt?
Is this normal?

Is something wrong with me?

What is it?

What can I do?

To stop it?

So many questions.

Where are my friends?

Why can’t I make them?

Why am I so alone?

Stop.

Pause.

For just a moment.

Stop asking questions.

Answer them.

Is this normal?

No.

Is something wrong with me?

No.

I’ve read about this.

They tell me there are other people here,

They’re just like me.

I don’t believe them.

What can I do?

I need someone.

I need someone to listen.

Someone to talk to.

Someone to understand.

Why don’t you understand?

Unpause.

The questions will not stop.

What can I do.

Who can I ask for help

If I have no one.

Pause.

Again.

Think.

Who do I have?

My parents?

No, they wouldn’t understand

They tell me I need therapy.

No.

No.

No.

But what if it could help?

They would judge me.

But what if they were okay?

I can’t take the chance.

Yes I can.

What harm would it do?

You’re right.

I’m crazy.

I’m right.

I need help.

Unpause.

The sun is up.

I’m almost up.

I can feel the progress.

I still have questions, but they are leaving.

I’m going to be okay.

I know it.

I am normal.

I am not alone.

Pause.

I know that they will help me.

Unpause.

The sun is up.

And so am I.

I think that I’m okay.

I was brave.

I got help.

Unpause.

 

Dogfriend

           

Yellow dogs.

Black dogs.

White dogs.

Red dogs.

Brown dogs.

Grey dogs.

Even pink dogs.

So many dogs

To be my friend

For me to defend.

An ally

So diverse

That to be my dogfriend

Would be not a curse.

Yellow dogs.

Black dogs.

White dogs.

Red dogs.

Brown dogs.

Grey dogs.

Even pink dogs.

Accepting of all breeds

To diversity these are the seeds.

Kindness

Is diversity’s heiress.

Compassion

Is in our fashion.

Open-mindedness

Is to be taught with stress.

Accepting of all breeds

For to diversity these are the seeds.

 

Blue

        

Blue house

New house

New blouse

Blue blouse

Blue hue

Few to

Enjoy all that blue can do

The color blue

It stays so true

To all of the emotions

Blue dew

A happy sight

Reminds of the end of the night

And beginning of the day

Blue coo

So comforting

A blue coo’s a special coo

As it’s only cooed by those you knew

Who you know always care for you

Blue displays the happy

But blue displays the sad

And blue displays the anger

That everyone has had

Blue can tell of glory

Or blue can tell a story

It all depends on who

Is watching blue with you

 

Poisonous Rain

        

Rain is falling

Mom is calling.

It’s time to go inside

Weather lied.

Rain is falling

Mom is calling.

She is fleeing

I am seeing.

Why?

I say.

Is the rain poisonous?

No.

Then why?

I ask.

Are you going to die

Because water is falling from the sky?

Rain is falling

Mom is calling.

Storm is coming

I’m still humming.

Water’s spraying

I’m still playing.

Rain is falling

Mom is calling.

Thunder’s frightening

Here comes lightening.

All is calm

Don’t worry, Mom.

It’s time to go inside

Weather lied.

Rain is falling.

Mom is calling.

She is fleeing

I am seeing.

Why?

I say.

Is the rain poisonous?

No.

Then why?

I ask.

Are you going to die

Because water is falling from the sky?

 

Cold Summers Night in the Country

 

We’d hear the wild grass

Rustle like a blanket

On a cold summer night

As we watch the stars.

Our mouths turn o-shaped

And I point at the constellations.

You would tap on my shoulder and

Point to the shooting star,

I’d blink and miss it.

You’d groan at just the

Right pitch so that

I would know

You were joking.

You had an odd sense of humor

That always made me laugh.

I loved it when you made me laugh.

It felt different

Than all of the other times.

After a while

We’d fall asleep

With the blankets up to

Our noses.

 

Shelves

              

on dusty racks

my whole life sits

in crumpled balls of

scribbled lines

the stories that

i couldn’t tell

my snowglobes

show foreign times

and foreign places

brought to me by

loving hands

letters to people

long forgotten

all the friends

i left behind

pictures of my

shiny face

framed by glowing

youth and mirth

both things lost to the years

and covered in filmy dust.

little toy frogs

and old, folded blankets

yellow music boxes

and chipped, brown mugs

sit in cobwebs

to tell my story.

 

The Smell

Cyrus woke up that morning without the familiar scent of pine. Even in his sleep soaked mind, Cyrus immediately recognized the change. Something was wrong. He opened his eyes, searching the little room for any noticeable differences. But no, the dresser, the desk, the chair, everything was there. Everything except for the subtle, clean smell he woke to each day. Thinking about it, he didn’t even know where the smell had come from or when it started. Cyrus only knew that it had become the most comforting part of coming home every day. The thought of being in his tiny apartment without it sent a pain through his heart that he didn’t fully understand. Cyrus sat up in bed. He knew, with an almost mad determination, that he would need to find his smell and bring it back.

 

First, Cyrus started in the bedroom, carefully combing through every inch of the space. Papers, notes, letters, the usual. He smelled each one, but there was nothing. Not even a hint of pine. Cyrus moved on to the living room. So many things lying about, not one of them smelling quite right. Kitchen now. Cyrus tore apart his refrigerator, then each drawer. Food and knives laid on the floor when he was done, smelling of everything all at once. Everything except his pine. Heart beating faster, he ran back through the apartment. Maybe the smell lived inside the mattress or at the back of the dresser. Perhaps it hid in the couch cushions or in the space behind the refrigerator. Sometimes he caught tiny whiffs of his scent, like it was taunting him. Or maybe he was just imagining things.

After hours of tearing up the apartment over and over, Cyrus sank down against his front door. Looking around the room, he did not see the destruction caused by his search. He only felt the absence of pine. And with it, he knew that his world would never be right again.

 

The General

As the general took his strides around his base, he smiled. He saw the lieutenants preparing for battle, the cadets screaming at one another to get ready, and the captains going over the strategies one last time. Ever since the last time the enemy knew they were coming and had drastically overpowered them, they had assured each other that they would never experience the humiliation of defeat again. They had doubled their practice time, and, being the general, he had noticed the change. He himself used to be a cadet just like them, so he understood the pain that they were going through when they did their ten-mile run with their supplies on. Over the course of the year, he had come to know each and every one of them quite well, and he was proud. He knew they were ready for battle.

The day had come to take the enemy base. Their country was rooting for them, and they would not let them down. As they boarded the plane and attempted to take the high ground, the general felt a sense of stress unlike any other. When the ground of the plane opened up, and the soldiers started to jump off one by one, the feeling of time started to shift. One second turned into ten, so much that it seemed like an eternity before he was finally able to fall into the field.

As he returned to action, however, the long-lost feeling of the air flowing against his face brought up an old memory. For a while, all was chaos. Gunshots breezed through the air, causing his ears to ring. He even let out a few shots from his gun, though only one made contact. He looked behind him to see his best snipers shooting from a half-mile away. His foot soldiers continued to gain ground, and after a while, it seemed like they had the advantage. That was until they got to the wall. As hard as they tried, they could not break down the barrier that was keeping them from getting inside the base. All the while they tried, the enemy was throwing down grenades at them, ending the lives of too many people. It was at that moment when the general made the decision to do the one thing he never thought he would have to. He was going to have to —

“Kids, come down, and have your dinner! And don’t forget to clean up that pillow fort when you’re done!”

 

Human’s Humanity

It is a human’s greatest humanity to see beauty in imperfection. The way that her mouth curves slightly to the left when she smiles. The way that a wave never breaks the same in any place. It’s that happiness that is unique and different to each sadness that follows it. It’s how life can never be just as you want it, and you know this, but you keep dreaming of the perfect one anyway.

I’ve been on this earth for a very long time. I’ve seen all that anyone could imagine, done all that anyone could think of, and been through all that anyone could conceive, as wonderful or cruel as each was. But was it real? I experienced each day without color, loved each person without passion, but still told myself that everything I ever did was right. It is my nature to not except the consequences of simply living with all the things you’re supposed to live with. It was how I was raised. All I can do is watch. I watch you feel, and it makes me sick to think that you’ve seen more, felt more, loved more, been more in one short lifetime than I have in twenty.

You there, on the street. You look at me as if I’m a monster, watching through this soot-stained window as my city burns. But I was cursed. I couldn’t see it. All of those little imperfections that make you so terribly human. All of the beauty in this world is lost to me. So when I lit that fire, you should know that I felt nothing.

 

Diary of a 1700’s Girl

     

12/3/1775

Williamsburg

Today is my birthday! I’m turning 12! My name is Elizabeth Port, but people call me Beth for short. I got this diary from my mom for my birthday. My family is the middling sort. My father is a blacksmith. My parents’ names are Mary Port and James Port. I have two older brothers. They are named Joshua, who is 17, and Tomas, but everybody calls him Tom, and he is 14. I’m going to write this diary like it’s a story and explain everything about my life because sometimes, I think that someone might read this in the future.

My father inherited the house that we live in from my grandpa. It is made of brick, and it has actual windows! The inside of the house has a downstairs and an upstairs, and it has open fireplaces in almost every room. It has one in the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms, and the dining room. The upstairs has three bedrooms, one for my parents, one for me, and my brothers share a room. The middle floor has a living room with a couple of chairs and a small table in the middle. The dining room has a big table in the middle and chairs all around it. We eat ham, fish, apples, peas, beans, lettuce, onions, carrots, potatoes, squash, and corn. We drink tea, milk, coffee, wine, apple cider, and beer.

The bedrooms have soft feather beds and curtains around them. There is a necessary bathroom behind the house. My mom has a kitchen garden, and I have to weed, water, and plant in it. I also have to chase away the rabbits that come. We grow peas, carrots, corn, and lettuce. Also, we grow herbs and some plants that she thinks are good for medicine. Remember, my father inherited this house, but we didn’t have the money to buy it if it wasn’t ours. Girls and women wear a shift, stockings, stays, petticoat, pocket, outer petticoat, and a frock. It takes a very long time to get dressed. Almost every morning, my mom and I go to Market Square. There are fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, butter, crabs, oysters, sheep, pigs and chickens, and also pottery. We pay for it all with Spanish silver. There is pence, shillings, and pounds. Sometimes after we go to Market Square, we go to Chownings (CHEWnings). Chownings is a tavern.

I used to go to school, but I had to stop because the teacher said, being a girl, I had learned enough. But my mom still teaches me a little bit of something every morning. She taught me how to read and write. My brother, Joshua, is going to William and Mary next year. My dad wants Joshua to be a blacksmith like him, but Joshua wants to be a lawyer. By now, I’m sure you are wondering if we have slaves. Answer: we do not. My entire family thinks slavery is wrong. So that’s pretty much my life. Oh, and one more minor detail, the war has started. A couple of years ago, in Boston, they dumped all of their tea into the harbor, and it was called the Boston Tea Party. And a couple of years before that was the Boston Massacre. I’ll explain more later.

 

12/5/1775

Williamsburg

So, people have been growing more and more restless and annoyed because of taxes and other things. So, we started a war! I didn’t do a very good job of explaining that, but I hope you have the general idea. I’m going to Market Square soon, so I am going to write this quickly.  Yesterday, we got invited to my friend’s birthday party, and it was amazing. She is very rich, so they had all sorts of food and things to do. There were six different kinds of meat and apple cider. Then, for dessert, there were pies, cakes, candy, and a thing called a trifle, which is a rich cake made of a jelly roll, custard, cream, rum, and wine. Also the children sat apart from the grown ups. It was so fun. Well I have to go.

 

Later…

Today, when we were in Market Square, I saw a slave auction going on. My mom steered me away from it. I asked her why anyone would be so cruel as to sell human beings.

She said, “Beth, I don’t know. Most people don’t think the way we do. When you grow up, I want you to fight for what is right. I want you to become an abolitionist. And the best way to tell other people that slavery is wrong is to become a teacher.”

And now that’s all I want to be.

 

12/6/1775

Williamsburg

I have heard about unrest in different parts of the thirteen colonies. I heard gunshots! I was in the garden, and I heard them! It’s really scary. Joshua went to William and Mary today to see what it was like. He really liked it, though I don’t know if we can afford it.

 

Later…

My mom bought me some clay at the market, and I can draw with it. Here are some of the colors: red, yellow, green, light blue, magenta, and blue. I have already drawn something with them. Anyway, I have big news. Joshua got into William and Mary! We are so happy for him. I saw another slave auction. I HATE THEM!!! Tonight, my mom and I are going to make a huge dinner for Joshua. We are going to have: (drinks first) beer, tea, and apple cider. And then to eat, we are having: peas, ham, carrots, corn, and potatoes. But right now, I’m bored. I think we (my mom and I) are going to a tavern today for lunch. I’m really excited. I haven’t been to a tavern in years! We stopped going when taxes went up. But today, we decided to go. I need to go now.

 

Later…

Right now, I’m in the cargo part of a ship.

Here’s what happened. It’s close enough to Christmas that there were Christmas trees and wreaths all around the tavern. We went to the tavern and walked inside. It had candles all over the place and Christmas trees in the corners. We got led to our table and sat down. In taverns and homes (like ours) they have metal cups, plates, and silverware. A waitress came over and asked us what we wanted to eat.

“I would like ham, and cornbread, and peas as one side, please,” I said.

“I don’t want anything,” said Mom.

The lady nodded and walked away.

“Mom, why aren’t you getting anything?” I asked.

“Because I’m not hungry, and I want to talk to you,” said Mom. “Your father is going to Great Britain with a couple of other people who are going to ask the king to lower taxes. He is going on the ship that leaves tomorrow.”

I gasped. “Why?” I asked.

“Because the taxes are really getting to be too much, and it doesn’t seem like it’s affecting us, but it is, and it’s going to be very dangerous because of the war.”

I stared at her. The waitress came up to our table and gave me my food. I felt sick now, and I didn’t want to eat anything, but I didn’t want Mom to feel bad. Suddenly, we heard a gunshot! We looked around and saw Redcoats (Britain’s soldiers) walk in. A waitress walked over to them and asked if they wanted a table. They waved her away and walked into the tavern.

“Is James Port here?” asked the leader.

I looked around at Mom, but she wasn’t there. I looked back over at the Redcoats, and I saw her talking to them. I walked over to them and heard what they were saying.

“There is no James Port in this tavern. But I do know where he lives. He lives on…”

I moved away from them then. I couldn’t believe it! The Brits were looking for my father! I wonder why? When my mom came back, I asked her why they were looking for him. She said it was none of my business, and I should eat my food so we could go home. So I did. When we got home, Mom went straight to my father’s workshop to talk to him. When she came back, she was extremely pale.

“We have to go,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because your father is in trouble. Get your things together.”

I went to get my clothes and saw a gun pointing into the room. I screamed and ran to Mom.

“Mom! Mom! There is a gun pointing into the hallway window!”  

She ran to the window and stared.

“Quick, get ready to go. Now!”  

I ran to my room and grabbed a couple of cloaks and a bonnet, and a bag with some of my toys. I ran to Mom, and we ran out the door.

“What about Joshua and Thomas?”

“They will be fine. They are in school.”  

We ran to my father’s shop and found him packing some things.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked.

We nodded, and we ran out.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To the ship that your father was supposed to go on.”

As we were running, we heard a crash of thunder, and it started to pour rain. I groaned and started to run. When we got to the port, I was muddy and wet and really cold. I realized that only my father had a ticket! I was going to ask Papa about it, but he waved me off. I was silent for awhile. He looked at the ship. When he waved for me to follow, I walked over to him.

“Where are we going?” I repeated.

He put his finger to his lips, and we walked over to one of the guards. We waved, and he nodded at us. Papa looked around quickly to see if anyone was around, no one was. We ran up into the ship and went down as far as we could.

So now I’m in the lowest part of a ship headed for London. Then we are going to go to France to get away from the people who are looking for Papa. I’m really scared.

 

12/16/1775

We’re here! London. It smells like wet horses, and I saw someone empty a chamber pot onto the street. I saw a man, who had an eye patch and a crutch, stagger towards us and ask Papa for money. Now we are in someone’s house. Papa says that it’s a family who he knows from college. They don’t have any kids, so they were very happy to see us.

 

12/17/1775

I slept in the guest room by myself! I was so scared! I don’t like being by myself. We left the house today, and we went to an inn for lunch. When we left, I saw a person talk to a soldier in a red coat and point to us! I told Papa that, but he waved me off, and we kept walking. We went to another person’s house. This time, it was my grandma! I saw a picture of someone on the mantelpiece, and it looked like Mama. I asked Grandma if I could have it, and she said yes.

 

12/21/1775

We are in France! We took a boat a couple of days ago! We are looking for a house to stay in right now, so we are staying in a old, dingy abandoned house. But I love it here! Everything is better. And Mama thinks we will have a house by Christmas! I’m so excited. It’s beautiful here. It started snowing yesterday, and Mama and I had a snowball fight! It is getting cold in the abandoned house, though. We got baguettes at a cafe once, and they were so good! I loved them! There is a really big place where people are selling Christmas trees! When we find a house, we are going to buy one! I found this letter stuck in one of the floorboards in the house. Here is what it says:

 

12/17/1775

To my dearest Ana,

I miss you more than words can say. I will come home soon, once the colonies have calmed down, but for now, I am stuck here in Virginia. The revolutionary war is keeping me here. But, there might be a way to end it soon. We are planning a surprise attack on Boston in ten days. Then maybe I will be able to come home.

Well, I firmly clasp and kiss your hand. Keep well, cheerful, happy. Work, leap, let yourself be carried away, sing, and, if possible, don’t forget a humble soldier, your zealous admirer, Charles.

 

I have been thinking about what it says, and I think they are going to do the attack on the 27th, which is in six days! I haven’t told anyone about it yet, because if it means nothing, then, you know, but I really do think it means something! I wonder who Ana is, and if she lived in this house.

 

12/23/1775

Williamsburg

We own a house in France! Oh, I forgot to mention where in France we are. We are in Paris! The house we bought is tiny, but very comfortable. You walk in, and there are stairs leading up to the bedrooms. Then, you turn left and walk into the living room. It has a little fireplace and a mantle. The person who sold us the house left all the furniture and stuff in it, so we have everything we need. Once you walk past the living room, you walk into the dining room. It has a little table in middle, and then you walk into the kitchen. There is a little counter, and in the corner, there is a fireplace with a cauldron hanging on a iron rail. Then you walk back through the dining room and the living room, and walk up the stairs. When you are upstairs, you can go into two rooms. One is my room, and the other one is Mama and Papa’s room. My room is fairly small, but I love it. It has a little window overlooking the Pont Neuf. I have a big bed, and then there are my clothes (which we bought in Paris), and then there is a little desk, and on it, I have a couple of books and my drawing things. So that’s the house that we are staying in. I love it! The person who we bought the house from was very rich, so there is a ton of fancy furniture, and plates and cups and so on. There are curtains by the windows, and little cushions on a bench by the windows.

 

12/24/1775

I am really worried about that letter. I told Papa about it, and he is going to give it to a French officer that he met when we were looking for a house. It is Christmas Eve! We are going to have a feast tonight! We got a tree and put some decorations on it. It is not perfect, but I love it. I have a stocking over the fireplace.  

 

12/25/1775

HA! I was right about that letter! They are going to attack the Brits tomorrow before the Redcoats can attack Boston. I am really glad I found that letter. Today is Christmas day! I got some grapes and oranges in my stocking. Under the tree, I got a doll, some dresses, and a couple of little toys. I also got a letter kit! It has a couple pieces of paper, and a quill and ink, and a seal!

 

12/27/1775

They got them! They ambushed the Brits before they could attack Boston! I sent Joshua and Thomas a letter each, and I hope that they write me back. Papa has to find a job. I think he is getting worried. He definitely wants to be a blacksmith like he was in Williamsburg. I really miss it there! I miss my friends, and I really miss Joshua and Tom. I haven’t gotten a response from them. I kind of hate it here! I miss everything and everyone in Williamsburg. And I don’t have any friends here.

 

1/1/1776

I got a letter from Joshua and Tom! They said they missed us, and that they were going to come to France and find us! I can’t wait to see them! I have a new friend! Her name is Anna. She is my age, and her birthday is right before mine. It is November 12th. I am going to go to her house tomorrow. I can’t wait.

 

1/15/1776

I had a great time! I played with her for an hour! I am going to see her in a couple of days!

 

1/17/1776

Anna is sick! I think she will get better, though. I am praying for her every night. I am so worried. I am kind of liking it in France now.

 

1/25/1776

She is dead!!! I can’t believe it! I feel so bad for her parents. I am so sad. I am going to go to her funeral. I hate France. I really, really, really want to go back to Williamsburg

 

2/5/1776

NOOOOOOO!!! We just got a letter that said that Joshua and Tom got shot! By a Redcoat! I can’t believe this. I am an only child now! I am so sad! Mama and Papa are very sad. I don’t know how we are going to hold a funeral. I can’t… ugh. I can’t contemplate what has happened.

 

2/7/1776

We got Joshua and Tom’s bodies today. They have dried blood all over their chest. I threw up all over them when I saw them. There are three bullets in Joshua’s chest and one in Tom’s. We have put up a bunch of black cloth on our house, and all the furniture has black cloth on it. We are not going to be following the French funeral practices. We are going to have it the way we would have it in Williamsburg.

We are not going to give out gifts, because we don’t have enough money. We are going to hire two boys to carry them, and I am making rings and sewing gloves for everyone who is coming. We are inviting a couple of friends Mama and Papa made when we moved to France and Anna’s family as well. This is going to be very expensive. The coffin is 10 shillings,  and there has to be lots of wine beer and liquor, and all of that is about 20 shillings, and we need to pay the boys who are carrying the coffin five shillings each. So in all, it is about 40 shillings, which is about two pounds! I don’t know how we are going to get all of that money.

 

2/11/1776

OH MY GOSH! I had a great time at the funeral! So the boys that we hired, one of them is seventeen and the other one is thirteen. So after they carried the coffin, the thirteen-year-old grabbed my arm and pulled me into the shade of a tree.

“Do you recognize me?”

“William?! Yes!”

I realized that he was an old friend I had known when I was really young.

“Good! I moved here a couple months ago.”

“Me too!”

“I am sorry that your brothers died.”

“I am not going to say that it is fine, because it’s not, but thank you.”

We stayed behind the tree the entire funeral and talked.

 

2/15/1776

We are going to a fair really soon! I can’t wait! I have seen William three times since the funeral! I am going to a market tomorrow, and it is, like, the most expensive market in the world. I can’t wait! I am going to a newspaper place with Papa because he wants to write newspapers. I am really excited for him. I don’t think that’s the job he wants. He wants to do something. I’m scared for him. I don’t want him to do anything stupid and get killed.

 

2/20/1776

OH MY GOSH! We are going to move back to Williamsburg!! I am so excited! I can see my friends again! I am kind of sad that we are going to leave this house. But I am actually really excited! I am kind of scared though. I don’t want to get killed. But I really want to do something! For George Washington! I am so jealous of the people who can actually fight! Which means only the men. So stupid. They could use the help of women! Aside from, of course, washing and cooking and cleaning and all that stuff. Outrageous! But I am really excited to move back!

 

3/1/1776

We are leaving tomorrow! I can’t wait! I am so excited to see all of my friends again! But I am also kind of scared. There is a war going on after all. I still don’t know what my dad did to make us have to leave. I am going to ask my mom about it. I think he committed a crime against the British. I’m worried about when we go back. I don’t want to have to leave again.

 

3/8/1776

We are home! I am so happy! I have seen all of my friends again, and I am so happy! HAPPY! HAPPY! HAPPY! But I’m also kind of scared. I don’t want to move away again. EVER! We have moved back into our old house, and we are going to have a party! I am going to invite all of my friends over, and we are going to have so much fun! But, I am kind of afraid that the British will come and try to stay at our house, like they did with my friend, Molly. She said that it was really scary, and that they threatened to kill her and her family. She said that she would stay in her bedroom for most of the time because she didn’t want to see them.

 

3/13/1776

I am really bored with life here. I thought that if we moved back I would be really happy, but I actually hate it here. Oh, and I asked what Papa did, and Mama said that he offended a general for the British. I want to DO something! I want to be a spy.

 

3/20/1776

AHHHH! The British are at our house! They are staying here for a week! I am so mad! It’s actually not as scary as I thought it would be, but they are eating all of our food! And we don’t have enough rooms for them, so they kicked us out! Now we have to sleep in the living room, on little mats! But, now is my chance to run away and spill everything that I hear. I am going to listen in on their conversations. They have all been talking about how they are really excited to kick George Washington’s butt. I think that is rude and vulgar, and I would like to kick their butts. I have learned a lot, though. I am not going to write it down here because I don’t want anyone to find it. But I have learned a lot! I am very proud of myself.

 

3/25/1776

I am going to leave in a couple days. I am not going to tell anyone, but especially not my parents. They would freak out! I can’t tell anyone about this. And I have to make sure to hide this diary, so nobody finds it. Because if they do, then I will be in so much trouble.

I have a little problem. I don’t know where to go! I am very lost. I think I am somewhere in Virginia. (I mean obviously, because Williamsburg is in Virginia.) Somewhere else in Virginia. Right now I am in a big hole I found in a tree trunk. I have run out of water, so I am looking for a river or stream. I have been practicing hiding from people, so I can practice being a spy. I also have to practice being a boy. I have no idea how to act. What would a boy do? I am having some second thoughts about this. I am really scared. I don’t really know if there is a punishment for girls and women if they get caught in the army. But I really hope there is not. I have to keep going now.

 

3/30/1776

I made it! I found someone to take me to their camp, and I am now a spy for General George Washington. I don’t think he trusts me. He keeps looking at me strangely. I think he may think that I am a spy for the British. I have to be very careful about what I do. Nobody likes me. I feel very lonely, and I wish I hadn’t run away. I feel like crying. I am not meant to do this. I have seen a bunch of slaves in the camp. They have to do a bunch of manual labor. And they get whipped. It is terrible. I went to their part of the camp, and they barely have any food or water or anything like that. They don’t even have good blankets! They are going to freeze! I feel so incredibly bad for them.

 

4/2/1776

I am going on my first mission! I have to find out when and where the British are going to attack. I have to go to Charleston because General George Washington thinks that the British are going to try to take over the seaport there. Charleston is of course in South Carolina, so it is going to be a very, very, very long trip to get there. I don’t really know why they didn’t just send someone else to go. Someone who is closer! It is going to take days to get there! From what I hear, there is a small American force there already, but they need someone to find out the following:

Commanders: how many and who.

How many guns, men and ships they have, and when they are planning the attack.

And I have to do it all in two weeks. It’s like they want me to fail. How am I going to get all that information in two weeks?! I have to gain the Commanders’ trust, and then I have to figure out everything they want, and then I have to get away! That’s the part I am worried about. The getting away part. I don’t know how I am going to do that. I have talked to some people about it, and they have been no help at all.

It’s just been: “Well I don’t know, you are supposed to be the spy, not me.” Or “Don’t ask me! I don’t want to talk to no spy! Good for nothing slinking about slimy lowlifes!”

When someone says something like that, I usually walk away from them as fast as I can.

 

4/5/1776

I am almost to South Carolina. I can’t really write right now because the carriage is bumping so much. But I am going to try my best. Right now, my schedule is: get to South Carolina, get to the camp, learn as much as I can,  then get away, and tell them what I learned. I am really nervous. I CAN NOT GET CAUGHT! If I do, I will be put to death! I am going to meet the men at the rebel camp there, and then I am going to go into the British territory. I am really scared about this.

     

4/10/1776

I have talked to the people in charge at the camp, and now I am getting ready to go. I won’t be allowed to bring this diary, so this is going to be my last entry for a really long time. I have to go now.

 

Little did Elizabeth know that that would be her last entry in her diary. When she got to the camp, everyone started to get suspicious of her, and soon found out that she was a spy. She was put to death the next day. When her parents found out, they held a big funeral service. All of the Ports children were killed by the British. The Ports moved back to France and lived there for the rest of their lives.

 

The End      

 

Don’t Make Prank Phone Calls, Kids! (Excerpt)

“Hello?” six-year-old Fate said into her mother’s cellphone.

“Oh, ah, hello, Porro! My house went down in a fire today, and the firemen are extinguishing the flames, but my son, Terry, is still inside. The flames are getting bigger and bigger, and I’m getting more and more worried. I just wanted to tell you because you’re my sister. Also, do you have a cold? You sound different. How are your twins doing?” She didn’t sound worried at all.

“Uh, I don’t know what the words you just said mean,” Fate said, picking her nose.  

“Oh, ah, yes, you’re new to the English language!” Fate’s Aunt, Carry, said. “Well, the point is, my son is in a fire and is probably going to die. Anyways, that’s not important right now. How are Cake and Fate?”

“My mommy isn’t home,” she then took her slimy finger out of her nostril and stuffed it into her mouth.

“Oh, my! Fate? Is that you? Or is that Cake? You guys sound just alike. Anyways, forget all the stuff I just said to you. Everyone’s fine. Heh. Heh…” Carry said, and on the other line, she was shrugging off the topic as if it were troublesome dirt on her shoulder that she was sweeping off.

“My mommy went grocery shopping with Cakey. Also, my daddy doesn’t like you!”

“What?! I thought that we were friends! He said that he did and now he is being such a liar! Why? Why? Why?” she said, including some words that may not be written.

“I don’t know no words you said just now. My daddy still doesn’t like you.”  

“Well, I DON’T LIKE-” Fate hung up.

“Fate? Cake? Where are you? Where did you put my phone?” Porro’s voice was rising now, getting angrier. “You two are going to be in so much trouble when I find you!”

“Cakey, c’mon! Stop standing there like an idiot! If mommy catches us, we’re dead!”

Fate grabbed Cake’s shaking arm and practically dragged her into their closet. Fate put the cell phone in a little box that was supposed to be for shoes, but she had thrown those away when they were three. “Don’t tell Mommy where I hid this! Okay?”

Cake nodded, cowering in the corner. Fate quickly opened a little hatch in the floor and jumped into the hole.  

Cake’s eyes widened. “T-the bunker?” she said. “I thought we were saving that for the zombie apocalypse!”  

“This is the start of the zombie apocalypse! Now get down here before that zombie bites you!” Fate yelled from down in the bunker.

“O-okay…” Cake said, and jumped down, closing the hatch as she went.  

She landed on her butt on a mattress with a little ‘oof.’  

“Now, shush,” Fate said. “Mommy will be coming very soon.”

“You mean the zombie?”

Fate grinned. “I mean, the zombie.”

 

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.

 

Death by Misadventure

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

“You’re early,” Death finally said.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” Alex asked.

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

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

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

“Her name is Winnie,” Alex interjected.

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

“What are you suggesting I do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“I got hit by a car,” Alex replied.

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

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

“What were you thinking about?” Winnie pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Benjamin?” Winnie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alex?” she said. “What’s going on?”

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

“What do you mean?” Winnie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me,” Death said impatiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE END

 

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 Bell Tower (Chapter One)

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

“Cassandra!”    

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

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

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

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

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

Elle rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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