‘Eha

A young woman swam in the sea, suddenly stopping and looking back. Her skin was almost a pure white, and she was watching a deadly scene unfold. She watched the sun sink into the rosy haze of sun setting into the deep blue, clashing with the bright bursting fire not a mile away. If you looked closely, those daunting hazel eyes were brimming with golden tears, spilling over, and increasing by the second, ‘till the pool of water around her was also a shimmering gold, and the angry fire in her eyes was clear, but the overwhelming guilt was even clearer.

As the sun was almost out of view, she called out a deep and mystic call, older than the sea itself. It was a call of utter sorrow, from the aching from the pits of the soul. It was all she could do. There was nothing left.

Less than a week earlier, the young woman, or rather, the young siren, ‘Eha, was in her favorite fishing cove, where she was humming a sweet tune to herself, plucking the tiny bones from the meat of a small coelacanth fish. 

GLUB! ‘Eha turned around and saw a bewildered young, human, woman, looking at her in awe. ‘Eha was in shock. She had never seen a human woman before, only stupid sailor men or her sister sirens. 

Overcoming her earlier bewilderment, ‘Eha grabbed the woman by the shoulders, and swam her up to the surface, where she could talk.

“Who are you and what are you doing in my cove?” ‘Eha asked once they were above water, shaking the woman fiercely.

“I- I- was observing the reef, I’m a marine biologist,” the woman said in response.

‘Eha cocked her head at the new word, to which the woman responded,

“It’s a job, where you observe life underwater, and learn new things that wa-”

‘Eha interrupted her with a snarl. “No! Why are you here in MY cove, looking at ME? Am I being observed?” ‘Eha snapped her jaws menacingly.

“ N-n-no! I was looking at the coral reef around your… cove, and then I saw you… I have never seen one like you… above the water we thought creatures such as you extinct, it’s like… a miracle!” The woman was over her fear now, and in awe. ‘Eha loved it, the attention-loving siren she was. You could see her thinking, and she made a decision in her head.

“I am ‘Eha the siren, and I would not leave you to drown, but you must tell me what man thinks of sirens, and more of this… marine biology. In exchange, I will spare your life, yes?” 

‘Eha’s declaration was more of an announcement and less of a question, but nevertheless, the woman said yes.

“Also… my name is Sophie, just so you know,” the woman said shyly. “Now, where to begin…” Sophie’s voice faded into the distance, telling all sorts of tales, most all of them good to sirens, to please ‘Eha. 

The next couple of days, in between these story sessions, ‘Eha would swim back to her home cove, where the sirens slept, and had feasts, as well as hunting sessions together. 

“…And then, it was said that the Sirens were fated to die if any mortal should hear them sing and live to tell the story. So, once Odysseus passed them unharmed, disheartened by their humbling defeat, the Sirens hurled themselves into the sea and bothered no man ever again!” ‘Eha was telling tales she had heard from Sophie to her sisters in their cove, now explaining the story of Odysseus to them.

“That is untrue and outrageous, that one lowly man might escape us in the first place, and that we might leave for no one ever again! Why do you tell us such foul tales, sister?” Ayca, another siren, complained.

“I-” ‘Eha was shouted over, 

“Now! Tell us another, a good one ‘Eha.” Ayca again interrupted, longing for more of her sister’s tales. ‘Eha’s words spun webs around the sirens, trapping them all in stories of delight, and fear, and the sea. It was as if ‘Eha had placed a spell on them.

Yet, all seemed to be happy and wonderful, but one fateful day, with the oncoming storm darkening the sky with a blanket made of storm clouds, and fog so thick one could barely see through it. But sirens’ eyes were made to see through the deepest ocean depths, so this was a slightly cloudy day to their eyes.

So, ‘Eha waited hours after Sophie would usually come, but her impatient qualities got the best of her. She swam off, in search of Sophie’s ship. She found a huge, lumbering ship, made of some material, harder than wood, unknown to her. The ship had Sophie’s scent on it. She could tell, as a natural born hunter of man. 

Finally, swimming around the sides of the ship, ‘Eha heard Sophie’s voice, and peeked through a porthole.

There was a sailor, and Sophie sitting in the cabin. The sailor had a heavy beard and was noticeably short next to Sophie. The two seemed to be relaxed in the cabin, drinking ale while the rest of the crew scurried up to the deck to help with the oncoming storm. Now, ‘Eha could hear voices clearly, her ears adjusted to the muffled talking.

“BWAHAHAHA, ahh, Sophie, that’s a good one, phew. By the way, how’s your siren friend coming along? I don’t mean to pry, but…” A deep sailor’s voice reached ‘Eha’s ear, with his sentence left unfinished for Sophie to continue. 

“Well, I’m so glad you asked.” Sophie said with a smirk.

“It’s going great. The stupid little fish girl is oblivious, and full of herself, leading me right to it. All part of my plan…” Sophie continued talking, but what was said is unknown, for ‘Eha had heard enough. She swam away in a fury, astounded that Sophie could call her stupid, and full of herself! And, ‘Eha thought, she was most definitely not a ‘fish girl!’

Yet, even being the self-absorbed fish girl ‘Eha was, she forgot about everything else Sophie had said to the sailor man. She spent the rest of the day fuming, as if she had been set on fire.

Coming back to the main cove, ‘Eha told no stories, much to the dismay of her sisters, until Ayca finally convinced her to. After telling a couple of tales, ‘Eha took a break, but was content, and had forgotten about Sophie for a while. 

When dusk had settled, all the sirens swam to the lowest depths of the cove to sleep on the soft sand at the bottom. ‘Eha had laid awake for quite some time, thinking and thinking, until her mind suddenly became clear, seeing a beautifully destructive path of revenge.

She would plant a chøktå in the ship, and watch it all burn.

See, ‘Eha was a fish girl, and very full of herself, but there was one thing Sophie was wrong about. ‘Eha was not stupid. 

‘Eha hatched a plan to set the ship ablaze.

A chøktå was a sort of bomb made by sirens. It was made of shell, with a whisper of the magic of a siren entwined with it. The shell would be placed on a ship, and no matter how far away the siren was who cast the spell on the chøktå, if they said the spell again, the chøktå would burst into siren song, causing all men aboard the ship to jump off, and drown.

Now, this would not work on Sophie, for she was a woman, and a song meant to ensnare men would not do the same for any woman. So ‘Eha decided fire would have to do. ‘Eha would go up the ship one night, and steal a spark from a lantern hanging on the railing of the ship. That same spark would be placed into a beautiful shell in ‘Eha’s cove, and magic would be whispered into its soul.

Soon, ‘Eha had it all figured out. It had been two days, and Sophie didn’t show, so a confrontation upon her next visit was unlikely. 

Coming upon the now moving ship, ‘Eha knew it was now or never. The ship had been stationary the last few days, so now it was most likely going somewhere back wherever it came from.

With the water lapping at the sides of the boat, ‘Eha wriggled up the side, tugging herself up by the crook between the ship and the portholes. Finally, she put her head over the railing, looking out for incoming people. No one was there, so scrambling off and over the railing, ‘Eha placed the shell in a coil of rope, hidden and entangled.

She heard a voice, and as fast as she could, heaved over the railing, and took the dive back down. 

Now in water again, she could feel her tail aching with the relief of touching water again, her scales quickly feeling good as knew, she zipped off to the main cove.

Feeling much better about herself, she smugly shouted, “Gather, sisters. I have another story for you.” The other sirens chirped up, and gathered around.

This time, ‘Eha began to tell a story of her own design, about a princess of sirens, who longed to explore the world of man, but her sisters forbade it. Determined to go through with her plan, she sought out a lone siren, who had been banished years ago for misusing her magic. The story went on, the siren princess fell in love with a sailor man, but he had betrayed her. He pretended to love her, but he lied and married another woman, shunning the siren princess. The siren princess then, for revenge purposes, set fire to the kingdom, while she watched from the water and went back to her sisters, the only ones she could trust.

Done with the story at last, ‘Eha’s sisters looked at her in awe, for this story was more powerful and wonderful than the last ones. ‘Eha truly was a master of words. She assumed they were silent because her story was so great, so she took a deep bow, and her sisters swarmed her. 

That night, she decided, with her confidence built up, she would repeat the spell, and light it up. Sneakily swimming out of the main cove, ‘Eha swam up and about a mile away from the cove and the ship, an equal distance where she could stay unseen by others, but see everything herself. Once there, she took a deep breath, and called out to the shell, starting the countdown.

Little did ‘Eha know, Sophie had also hatched a plan of revenge. Sophie’s real name was Ashley, and Ashley had come leading sailor men to investigate the mysterious disappearance of men in this area. Ashley’s husband, Mark, was a sailor on a ship in the area a couple months ago, where all the men on the ship were found drowned without any signs of struggle.

Ashley had come back for revenge, and thanks to ‘Eha, she was able to track ‘Eha back to her cove. Ashley was planning an ambush on the sirens.

Just as ‘Eha was currently starting the countdown for the fire, Sophie had all her men put earplugs on to protect themselves from the siren songs. Because of the boat above their cove, the sirens next move would be to sing, and kill the potential threats, but since the ship was aware of that, they sprung nets when the sirens swam up, trapping them and tugging them up onto the deck.

Just as the countdown hit four, ‘Eha heard her sister Ayca call out to her for help, and ‘Eha realized that ship had come just over the main cove. Panicking, she swam as fast as she could, as if she was going at the speed of light, but sadly, there was nothing she could do.

Five.

Six.

Seven.

“Help, ‘Eha!” called Ayca.

Eight

Eha was nearing the ship.

Nine.

Ten.

FWOOSH!

The chøktå exploded into flames, propelling ‘Eha backwards. The fire quickly expanded across the ship, and it started sinking slowly, the sirens on the deck shrieking. 

‘Eha tried to push herself over to the boat, but since the explosion slammed ‘Eha back, she was pushed against a rock. Her scales were bloody, and she couldn’t swim, no matter how hard she tried.

And so we return where we started, with ‘Eha bobbing in the sea, watching it all burn, and responding with her call of great sorrow.

The Doubles’ Disaster

Bob was walking in a dark alley when someone came up behind him. He felt that someone was following him, and assumed the worst. He ran away, not daring to look back. It seemed that even though he kept running faster, the follower was still just behind him. What could he do, but look back? There behind him were the unmistakable frown and pocketed overalls of Kate Herentock. He was right to assume the worst, but there was no running now. She was much too close.

“Bob,” she said, “we meet again.” They circled each other, neither daring to make the first strike. The problem, though, was that they were both so scared of the other’s hatred that the circling took hours. Kate had lost the element of surprise, and Bob was terrified. They circled and circled until finally it became day again, and they realized that they couldn’t fight anymore because they would be caught. They both ran off, neither of them saying a word during this exchange since Kate’s first statement. 

Hour later, onlookers stood, shocked. Nobody was sure what to do. The whole world was silent, and in regret. They were not sure if it was good or bad. Kate and Bob looked at each other distrustingly. They looked down. Bob saw a very familiar outline, so he looked up and down at Kate, and below her. The feud had gone on forever, yet he’d never known who it was with. Had he done something good, or bad? He thought of his twin, and now he understood why both Kates wanted to kill him. One was good, and one was bad: just like him and his twin. Except everyone looked at him suspiciously because surely good Bob would not have done this awful thing. Did he do it to Good Kate or Bad Kate? Would he ever prove that he was Good Bob? 

Someone walked up with handcuffs, saying “You have done an atrocity to one of the Goods of the city. We rule you, Bad Bob, and we will capture you.”

In another town, another Bob sat there watching the news of Good Kate’s death. He saw Bad Bob be arrested—or was it good Bob? Who was he? Was he the good one, or the bad one? He decided that he was done with his arguing, and that he would fight the Kates. He had decided that there was no good or bad Bob. It was all Bad Kate’s fault, but she had turned from the dark side, it seemed, after seeing her sister lying on the floor. 

He worked on a new potion. They had always used hatred potions, which he had been so scared of when he’d circled one of the Kates. This time, he put his emotion out into a forgiveness potion that would hopefully do something nobody had before: stop the hatred after it had already inflicted its horror on another. There was another murderer on the loose, spreading hatred everywhere.

In jail, the other Bob thought about what happened. He and his twin had been put against each other from the start by a hatred potion, and manipulation. They each did awful things, and great things in the constant fight against hatred. They both thought there was one Kate. The Kates both thought there was one Bob causing madness. The good Kate thought there was only a bad Bob. The bad Kate thought there was only a good Bob. So they both attacked the Bobs, making the Bobs fight back. This caused many disasters. They also went on rescue missions. Bad Kate’s turned into an avalanche by accident, and everyone thought she was bad. This caused everyone to hate Bad Kate, infecting her with hatred. That’s how she became truly bad: because she was possessed. Another rescue went wrong by the Bob in jail, and Good Kate and the other Bob both succeeded. This caused a massive confusion that spread hatred like a virus, leading to the panic attack that killed Kate. When the Bob in jail saw two Kates, he killed one. But now, two of the few things that could combat the hatred had come: understanding and forgiveness.

Tenderloin’s Six

Chapter 1:

Julian, California, 1875

Fresh hay poked at the inside of Thomas’ butt, as he struggled to put his shoe on. 

“Dang sweet busters, ay Willy how ya do ye ol’ shoe. Coulda taught me?” Thomas asked.

“I teached ya an hour go, ya dinger!” William shot back

“Ya ain’t teached me an hour go, dat’s yesserday!” 

“Watcha sayin’ ya fool?!”

“I sayin’ dat ya can’t do nuttin’!” Thomas yelled, throwing the empty glass bottle on the floor at William.

“Ya chop floppin’ spam tangler!” William said. 

“Hey, look! Some shiny gold!”

“Huh, where?” William said, turning around. Thomas slapped him in the back of the neck and let out a loud laugh.

“You slap danglin’ meat picker!”

“Ya know,” said Thomas. “I want some pie!”

“Yeah, me too!”

“But we ain’t got no gold!” Thomas said.

“Been five year since ol’ Coleman was got gold!” William added.

“Well, why don’t we steal some it ourselves?!” Thomas said. “The Eagle Mine’s got plenny of it!”

Chapter 2: 

“Now dat’s a real dang good plan. First one ya got in a whole dang year!” William responded. 

“Flap it, ya muskrat, I get dat jolly poppin’ idea just four day ago.” Thomas snapped back. 

“Nah, wiz just today when ya flopped dat dang bustin’ idea, ya bootlicker.” said William.

“No, it not!”

“Ye, it is!”

“No, it not!”

“Ye, it is!”

“Shut yer bone box ya filthy muskrat!” 

Some time passed as the friends continued to snap at each other. But now the conversation was on some more important matters. 

“So how we gonna bust into dat Eagle Mine?” William said. 

“Well dat simple! Throw a bunch of bombs inside!”

“Na, dat would just blow up dat rich gold ya meater!” 

“Oh. Den why don’t we just run in and slap ‘em all silly! Then dey all be out cold and we got steal dat gold!”

“Ye let’s do ‘at!”

Chapter 3: 

It was 8 AM on Thursday, July 12th, 1875, and if you happened to be out front of the Eagle Mine in Julian, California, then you would’ve seen two old men, dressed in old ripped clothing. William and Thomas slowly walked up to the front of the mine and stepped inside. It was pretty dark and they didn’t see anyone until a young miner spotted them.

“Where ya keep all ya dang gold, ya gibface?” Thomas yelled to him. 

“Ya’ll don’t look like miners. Watcha doin’ in here?”

“We are miners!” said William rather quickly. 

“Now ya fools shut it with your fimble fambles before I give you a couple blinkers!”

“We just wanna know where ya keep some gold, ya hobbledehoy!” 

The boy looked very surprised by that remark, and feebly punched Thomas square in the face and slapped William. He kept on hitting them until they ran out of the mine, yelling curses.

“Well,” said Thomas, after they got out of the mine. “Guess dat wasn’t a good plan.”

“It sure wasn’t! And it ain’t my fault, ya flop dangler!”

Chapter 4:

“Well,” said William, looking up from the apple pie he had stolen. “If my scientiifick chalky-lashins are co-rect, we need to ‘semble a team for da gold stealin’.”

“Yar, but we might have to flop em’ some of out jolly poppin’ gold.” Thomas said. 

“No, we do not! Alls we’ll gotta do is tell them fools we givin’ em some gold and dey flop der trousers off and we run away wit all dat golds!”

“Dat a poppin idea, now, what bootlickers are we gonna get?” 

“Well, how ‘bout Sunny and the Hornswogglers?” said William.

“Right, but Sunny and the Hornswogglers can’t flop a dangler,” Thomas said. “We need ’em to be able to flop a dangler.” 

“Well let’s go get ‘em and see ya flop bootslappin’ cheap bungle ball!” yelled William.

“Where are dey?”
“Ya know I factually dow no!”

“Let’s check the Hornswoggler Shack, dats der main hideout.”

“Dat’s all the way across town, so how we gonna get der.”

“Well let’s do it ya slap foff-gogglin’ slap wonderin’ meat danglin’ horn bogglin’ belly guzzlin’ sleep chogglin’ bootlickin’ fat bunderin’ foozler!!!”

Chapter 5:

After two and a half hours of walking, they finally reached the Hornswoggler Shack. Sunny and the Hornswogglers were playing cards, which they obviously didn’t know how to play.

“Watcha doin’?” asked Thomas. 

“Playin’ cards,” said one Horswoggler, as he took the deck and threw it up in the air. “I win!” he yelled.

“No, I win!” said another Hornswoggler.

“No!”

“Ye!”

“I wanna play!” Thomas yelled over them.

“Na!” said William. “We gotta get down to bizz nizz!”

“Alriy,” said Sunny. “Woot dar yer bootlickers wunt froym us?”

“We need ya’ll Hornswogglers for dem heist were pullin’,’ ‘ said William. 

“But we don wanna get got,” said Billy the Boy.

“Ya’ll gonna help us and yer gets dat golds!” said Thomas.

“Oooh I want dose golds!” said Jumpin’ Jimmy.

“Fer yer infromattin, I am in charge of dis heist!” said William.

“Ya, but will we ge’ dos golds,” Sunny said. 

“Oh ya’ll will get half of de earnin’s from the hiesteroonies!”

“Fine we’ll take the job,” said Sunny. “But I ain’t doin’ it, and yer only takin’ five of my boys.” 

“Alrightyright, ya slap danglers, dat’s a deal.”

All through the night the boys discussed their heist plans, and they woke up feeling a little dreary. 

Chapter 6:

When the morning light showed upon the Hornswoggler Hut, William and the boys had a heist plan ready. All night they had practiced and practiced until they had all memorized what was supposed to happen. They had the entire day to prepare for the heist. They would leave for the Eagle Mine at 6:00. But first, they had to steal a carriage. Finally, the time came for the heist.

At approximately 7:00 PM, Billy the Boy entered the mine, in mining clothes. William was already there, dressed as a miner. Billy casually walked down close to where the gold was, then he snuck into the gold area, and shoved it into a sack. After William’s signal, he ran out of the mine and passed the sack with gold off to Jumpin’ Jimmy, who quickly switched it with a bag of fake gold and ran behind the mine. 

At this point, people from the mine would be running out, trying to catch the thief. Meanwhile, in front of the mine, Billy was sprinting to the stolen carriage, which had Thomas at the wheel. He tossed the fake bag of gold into the carriage and jumped in. Suddenly, Frankie Choo-Cha and Bootlickin’ Bob screeched into the area in a police carriage, both dressed as police officers. Suddenly, Jumpin’ Jimmy ran out from the area which the other carriage had driven away to, holding the real sack of gold, yelling, “I got the gold! I got it from the thief!” He then threw the sack of gold into the “police carriage” and Bootlickin’ Bob, dressed as a police officer, yelled, “We got the gold and we’re gonna catch them thief real soon!” They drove away, the miners cheering, completely oblivious of what had just happened.

The Wall

The wall was waking up. Yellow light bounced around in the hexagon, ever so slightly moving faster in the span of a blink, until the middle opened like an eye, casting its piercing light over the entire planet. It was beautiful. Nobody else saw it, nobody else could separate the planet from its creation. Tears drew their first breaths in Azure’s eyes, falling into the void below before their first words were spoken. Azure stood alone at the edge of the world, watching the stars as their world sailed towards the annual death of its people. Pebbles flew into the abyss and twigs crunched as heavy boots approached them.

“Message from our scouts,” said a deep, raspy voice. “It’s for your eyes only, or some nonsense like that.”

Azure sighed and pulled the bundle of gold-plated leaves to their chest. In the light of the wall, it was like a small sun in their hands, each leaf reflecting the brilliant light. As the leaves were opened, the little plant gave its last dying breath, its carbon being put back into the imbalanced atmosphere. Once its shelter was gone, the electric message sparked to life. Aurorin’s face shimmered into existence on the plate of metal. Azure’s heart raced—Aurorin was alive! The sheet began to vibrate in Azure’s hands, the movements forming sounds, then words.

“Azure, this mission is failing. The hunters have been in pursuit for several days, and–”

On the metal sheet, Azure could see Aurorin fall forward, barely managing to send the message before she blacked out from what must have been a hunter’s plasma rifle. The recording suddenly snapped to black with the abruptness of a viper’s strike. This mission had been entirely snuffed out by the Locufortian hunters. Azure left the metal folio on the ground, staring at it for several minutes before their sword went directly through the center. The electronic chip whined as its circuits were maimed. Azure kicked it, sending the whole plate of metal off the edge of the world. Tears welled up in their eyes again, not out of reflex, but out of fear and anger. Azure snuffed out the tears with the back of their hand, marching back to the resistance’s camp. Tents and wooden shelters struggled to escape their terrestrial bindings, rising into the air and only being held down by stakes and vines. As Azure strode into the area, they activated their boots’ magnetic clamps, holding them down despite the erratic gravity. As they threw open the command tent’s flap, everybody stopped talking to look at them. 

“Aurorin, along with the rest of the scouts, is dead or captured. We’ve got little to no information about the Locufortian defenses.” The other commanding officers sat in crushing silence for a moment before Azure spoke again. “We need to go in and save them before the incursion starts! It-” They were interrupted by a younger, lower ranked officer.

“Why?” he asked. “Why do we need to devote our resources to saving the scouts that failed?” The other officers slowly nodded, each bob of a head, Azure’s anger intensified until it reached the breaking point. After years of being held back, it surged forward and grabbed their brain by the steering wheel. 

“You don’t understand! You…imbeciles! This is our best scouting group, and we only have a week to gather information! You all only care about yourselves…I’m going alone if nobody’s coming with me.” Before anybody could respond, Azure grabbed their weapon from where it was hanging on the wall, and stormed off. 

Hours later, with the sun down, the forest was still bright. The wall’s golden glow permeated through every corner of the trees, no matter how dense the thickets were. No chirps or rustles were audible, the snapping of branches under Azure’s feet was the only sound that carried through the seemingly infinite masses of trees. Azure pressed on through the woods, their eyes dancing over every surface, searching for any sign of life, movement, anything that would give away a friend, foe, or even a wild animal in the lush yet desolate forest. A hand grabbed their ankle. Something flew out of a tangle of vines, light flashing off a long silver object in their hand. Before they could even react, Azure was on the ground, somebody’s knees on their arms, a knife at their throat. As their eyes refocused, they saw long scarred fingers, and the necklace they gave away a year ago. They found it was Aurorin on top of them, slowly pulling the blade away from their neck. 

“Oh,” she said. “It’s just you…wait, why are you here?”

“I was trying to find you!” Azure exclaimed. “I thought you had died!”

“Me too.” Aurorin absently felt at the back of her neck, which, as Azure now realized, was burned and mangled. 

“Is that…where he hit you? It’s bad, but…it could have been a lot worse.”

“Yeah, I know. It really doesn’t hurt that much.” The two stood in silence for a moment, staring everywhere but at each other. Finally, Aurorin spoke up. “Everyone else was captured…do you want to see where they are?” 

Azure’s brain seemed to work again, like it hadn’t since Aurorin had jumped out of the shadows. 

“O-of course. That’s why I’m here, after all.” As they began to creep through the jungle, something came to Azure’s mind. “How did you escape capture?” Aurorin turned to face Azure, while still walking in a specific direction. 

“I’m not entirely sure,” she admitted. “When I regained consciousness, the shelter had been destroyed, and I was out in the open. A few minutes later, you walked by, and…” The pair kept walking in silence. Finally, a movement in the leaves uncovered a large facility, showcasing its fountains of oil. A Locufortian building, plated with expensive bright metals and shiny gemstones.  Azure took out their spyglass—they could see people in prisoner’s garb inside.

“This is the place,” Aurorin said. “Let’s head around to the back.” As the two strode around the prison, Azure noticed that there wasn’t a single guard on the premises. Aurorin jauntily walked around the building like she hadn’t noticed. 

“You go on,” Azure yelled, “I’ll keep up.” As Azure stood there, trying to look busy, they felt Aurorin’s gaze on them. She wasn’t moving, just…looking. That’s not Aurorin. She would never just stand around like that. “Hey Aurorin! Over here!” Not-Aurorin sauntered over, a slight smile on her face. Before they knew what they were doing, Azure slammed the flat of their sword into the fake Aurorin’s throat. As she gasped for air, Azure grabbed her neck and pinned her to the ground. “Who are you?” The imposter Aurorin smiled, her face splitting apart. Underneath the now-gone face, a hideous smile was exposed, full of too many teeth.

The deep and unnatural voice seemed to reverberate through the trees, “It really took you this long to realize this? You’re losing your edge.” Rage filled Azure once again, making them slam their hand onto the imposter’s neck. 

“Where’s the real Aurorin?” The shapeshifting…thing laughed even harder, shaking the trees. 

“Dead. You failed, Azure.” Azure’s grip loosened, a numbness spreading throughout their whole body. They were whispering under their breath, not moving.

“I…failed…?” With that, a spear rose from the fake Aurorin’s chest. It touched Azure’s skin, then broke it, sending trickles of blood raining down the point, then the shaft. Azure didn’t feel pain, the spear was simply not strong enough to outmatch the emptiness inside, the void that had been filled by hope, the void that was now empty. As the spear rose higher, in a second that stretched into a year, the welling blood filled their vision, their life. Azure closed their eyes. Some time later—Azure had no idea how long it had been—they struggled to open their eyes, finding themself surrounded by trees, carnivorous plants moving closer to their body. They tried to push themself up, but their hands slipped on the pooled blood, their blood. They released their grip on their sword, which was planted into the lifeless body of…Aurorin. No, not Aurorin, somebody else. Azure looked down and saw the pike driven through their own body, their blood dripping off of the tip. All this time…all this work…and this is what kills me…? Faint footsteps came into their earshot, with yells of…their name? Hands brushed against the underside of their chest, and as a face became visible, the world dissolved into bright golden light. And it was beautiful.

Ish & I

A gentle breeze swept over a small neighborhood in Brooklyn. The sun shined over the New York City skyline, like any other spring day. It started with my little brother toddling around our apartment. 

“Ish, Ish, Ish, Ish.” I don’t know why someone would name their child Ish, but my name was Burtch, and that wasn’t any better.

I rolled out of bed and put on my glasses, and I was off. The house was empty except for me and Ish, which gave me no choice but to take him with me. Home life was never easy. There was always a bill overdue and our electricity wasn’t very stable. There were cracks in the paint, and after my mom left, I hadn’t had a single friend over. You would think that we would be living with another relative, but the only one still alive was my mom’s mom. She lived in California and only visited once a year. She was now too old and frail to travel. Part of me was used to this, but I knew Ish deserved better. 

 I tiptoed out the door and held my hand over Ish’s big mouth. I never grew up like the other kids nearby. My mom had left a while ago, and left me with newborn Ish. She left in the night, didn’t tell us where she was going, and we never knew why. I thought that she would come home one night, but to this day she still hasn’t. Once you opened the front door to our house, your ears were clogged by police sirens and the sound of loud piercing screams from the family next door. When my mom was there, it was always a lot easier to manage.

With Ish and my school bag in my arms I headed outside. Ish tried to run out of my grip, but I knew better than to let him go. I held him tight to my chest, my heart pounding and Ish kicking me with all his might. It had been the same way every morning since the day Ish was born. My pace quickened as I saw what was up ahead. The guys.

Ever since I was Ish’s age they would torment me. Then I had my mom to stand up for me, but now she wasn’t there to fend for us. I dodged the next corner and ran with Ish the rest of the way to school. It didn’t really feel like I could face them alone. I was small, skinny, and pale; they were huge and muscular, always on guard waiting to attack. I dropped Ish off at the preschool center. He gave me a kiss, and with a smile on his face, ran off. Now I had to face the walk to school.

The next few blocks were filled with broken glass, and the smell of smoke wafted through the air. It felt like my every move was being watched. With each step I could hear the faint sound of laughter getting louder and louder.

I walked into the hallway and kids pushed and shoved me as they walked by. I was the weird kid at my school. The one who was in the school band, answered every question right and I thought that was what everyone wanted. My mom always said, “Your education is the most important thing.” I tried to live up to that standard, but I never was good enough. Each time I got a perfect test score it didn’t feel perfect. I was confused, because I didn’t even know what I wanted. I was top of my class, but kids still passed me and looked at me like I was nothing. I was just that kid, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape from it.

I walked into classroom 5A with my shoulders hunched and head hanging low. I took my seat next to a small window while Ms. Crow went on about writers’ craft. Once we were dismissed, I went to the library.

 The library had been my second home since I entered middle school. There were shelves full of thousands of books, all categorized and placed in different sections. Scattered around the room there were little reading nooks, and all I wanted to do was stay in there for hours. I scanned each shelf and grabbed as many books as I could carry and went to check them out. There were very few kids who liked the library as much as I did. At the moment it was just me and the librarian, which in some ways made it nicer. It was quiet and there were no kids around to stare and judge me. I curled up on a small chair and picked a book out of my pile. The cover was blank, and I flipped through the pages– only to find a note written with the same neat, cursive handwriting as mine. The same handwriting that I had recognized through all of my childhood.

Run.

My mom left without leaving a note, but if she could bother to just write the word Run, it meant something. A wave of shock overcame me as I looked and realized that this was her handwriting. Just seeing it brought me back to when she would hold my hand and check on me every night to make sure I was okay. I could just feel her presence in the room. I couldn’t see her, but she was there watching me from wherever she was in the world now. My mind raced as I thought of Ish and how he never had a real mother. I was sure that this wasn’t a joke, but I was also sure that she would never leave me, but I was wrong. My breath started slipping, and suddenly someone’s hands were wrapped around my throat. Mr. March, the librarian, was behind the counter and couldn’t see what was going on. I looked up to see just another kid in my class. I wrestled my way out of the clutch on my throat, grabbed the small book and ran. This suddenly didn’t feel like teasing anymore, because it hurt all of me. My insides ached and my face was still purple from the impact of the hands that had just been around me.

I ran, tears dripping down my face, my legs aching and burning but I couldn’t stop running. I knew my mom too well. She didn’t want to leave us, but she felt like she had to. 

 My legs came to a halt and I bent down, panting, my eyes bloodshot red, and it felt like the whole world was spinning at full speed around me. My head felt this strange sensation, and my body was not in my control anymore. I was drifting and drifting away…

I woke up to find myself in a hospital bed. Where’s Ish? And then I saw him. His little smile was gone and he had gone quiet. Three people marched in the room and tried to grab Ish from his seat. 

“Where are you taking him?” I asked, but they ignored me and grabbed Ish tight around his little arms. 

Once he was out of the room he started to cry. Small tears dripped down his face, and now I was the one who had gone quiet.

The pain in my head was now sharper and stronger than before, I was helpless. I had let Ish go and didn’t even put up a fight. It felt like my fault, it was my fault.

Doctors came and went talking, whispering, sometimes even shouting but my ears still rang with the sound of Ish’s screams. I had no options layed out for me and my future. School had got me nowhere but stuck in my own head and I had to just wait. The digital clock in the room kept flashing bright lights and I just had to wait for child services to come and take me next just like Ish.

A figure came into the room. Her face was scared and frigid all at once. She was very thin and her hair was the color of straw, just like my own. Her shoes were torn, and her pants were covered with patches of dirt and grime. Her ears were too big for her head and her mouth was shaped with an almost perfect curve on the upper lip. 

“Run, she said, and then without another word, she gave me the slightest kiss on the cheek and left.

I discreetly slipped out of bed and felt all the blood rush down from my head. The air was still and I was able to take off the IV that had been placed in my arm. In my hospital gown, I tiptoed out of the small room and worked my way through each bustling hospital corridor. Once I had made my way down to the exit, I had to get past a bunch of security. I made my way around a metal detector and went into the large swirling doors. Once I was outside I realized exactly where Ish had gone.

I took off sprinting, jumping past cars going through streets, and then I saw him. Waiting at the bus stop for me. I didn’t care how he had escaped those other people, but he was alone. There was a large cut on his forehead, and when he saw me he came running. I embraced him in my arms, and decided that it was time to tell him the truth. “Ish, I’m sorry, but we can’t stay here much longer.”

“I know Burth Burth, we are not safe here anymore,” Ish replied. 

Ish climbed up onto my back and I ran. I ran past mountains and fields and skyscrapers. We were never going to stop because no one could stop us.

Night creeped up on us and my stomach grumbled. I laid Ish down on a patch of grass and he instantly fell asleep. At the break of dawn I woke Ish up, and we were off again. In the distance I could see a small village, and with Ish now running and the sun shining; my aching hunger was pushed aside by a sense of joy– because Ish was here with me, away from child services, the dangers of Brooklyn, and he was safe.

After another night on the run, the village up ahead was closer than ever. My bare feet followed the path of a wet cobblestone road, and I decided that this was where we would call home for the coming years. Education was important, but not as important as Ish. He was my everything from the day he was born to the day that I die. It would always be Ish and I forever.

The Pawn’s Parry

Chapter 1: The Beginning

Will Ravenswood woke up from a sleep devoid of any dreams with a smile on his face. Not because of anything that was happening that day or because he had a good sleep, but because he smelled something: the sweet scent of frying bacon. He jumped out of bed, dressed himself quickly, jammed on his boots, and ran downstairs so hard he practically flew. He lived in a small house, in a room only a couple feet wide with three beds in it. One was for his grandma, Em. He also had a small drawer, half of which was his, the other half occupied by his adopted sister. Downstairs was slightly bigger, with a couple of small lamps lighting up a kitchen and a table, as well as a door at the end. His grandma, who was standing over their small stove with a frying pan in hand, gave him an eye.

“Don’t stomp around like that!” she said with a scowl on her face. “You’re going to break your neck, or worse, the stairs!”

“Sorry Grandma,” said Will, walking as fast as he could down the rickety old steps. Will was a bright young boy of fifteen, with curly black hair and brown eyes. He was a perfectly average height for his age, but he was abnormally strong, due to his years and years of training to be a soldier in the army. Grandma Em was shorter than Will but she made up for it by being twice as strong as him. She wore a white dress and blue apron at all times and possessed hand wraps that she used to fight things.

“Why do we have bacon? We’ve never had bacon without something special happening,” asked Will. She threw her hands up in the air in anger, somehow not flinging fried pork through the air in the process.

“Do you need me to memorize your schedule for you? It’s your graduation day.” Will’s heart skipped a beat. He had completely forgotten in the night. He went to the Lightbringer School for Pawns, where he was training to be either a Knight, Pawn, or a ROOK (Royal Officer Of the King). The final exam was to decide whether or not he got promoted or stayed a pawn. He was one of the best in his class, but because he moved up two grades, he was worried that he was too young to beat everyone else in the final exam (a giant free-for-all battle between all of the students). His grandma must have seen his worried expression because she took the pan off of the stove and hugged him.

“Oh, don’t worry. There’s a reason you moved up two grades, right? You’ll be fine!” She smiled deviously. “Then, you’ll get a good job and give me a share of the earnings, like your sister did.” Will groaned. His older sister Mira was probably one of the most innovative Bishops (or witches) to ever exist, revolutionizing magic and getting a lot of money from making weird, magic, robot things. She figured out how to make fireballs and plants by combining machines and magic, so he could never hear the end of it from Em. 

“Now, eat your bacon,” she said, pouring a third of the pan’s contents onto Will’s plate. Will picked at his mere thirty-three percent of the pan, and as the stairs creaked, he was severely reminded as to why he could only have that portion. Rogue, his other sister, creaked her way down the stairs and, before sitting down in her chair, grabbed three pieces of bacon and tossed them into her mouth. 

“Good morning, dear,” said Grandma Em, her rough demeanor deteriorating at Rogue’s sudden entrance. 

“Morning, Grandma Em. Morning, Will,” she said, swinging her feet onto the table. Will twisted to do the same, but Grandma Em raised her eyebrow at him, and he sadly twisted back to his normal seat. Not too long ago, at the beginning of the year, when the last blizzard of the spring was raging, Will found the shivering Rogue on a street corner, only about as old as Will and only remembering her name. Will was wary of her suit of stealth pawn armor that she possessed, and her unnaturally purple eyes, but he still brought her home, and his Grandma Em said she could stay for a couple days to recuperate and perhaps remember something. Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and months turned to years, until it seemed like she was a real part of the family. Grandma Em still treated her as a guest, however, so Rogue could get away with anything she wanted. She had incredibly pale skin, like she spent all of her time underground, and raven-black hair, which fell down to a little bit below her neck.

“How’d my little brother sleep?” she asked, licking the bacon grease off of her fingers.

“Fine,” Will replied. “How’d my short sister sleep?” he replied, cutting up and finishing a strip of his bacon. Rogue’s face turned slightly red at the nickname. Rogue’s biggest ammunition against Will was the fact that when they used experimental age testing technology to help find out who she was, it said she was forty-two. While this was obviously not true, she still addressed Will as her little brother. Will’s only retort was that she was about a foot underneath the average height of a Pithosian girl, which she was quite embarrassed by. Grandma Em sat down next to Will, and chomped down her bacon with almost as much gusto as Rogue. Suddenly, a miniature owl dove in through the chimney and spread its wings, slowing down to a halt in front of Grandma Em and lying face up on the table, spread eagled, with legs curving outward to form a face-shaped arc. 

“Ah, it’s Mira’s messenger,” she said, putting it up to her ear and plugging her other. Will’s eyes widened.

“Mira’s coming? Today?” Will went back to being terrified for his final exam. Rogue, in contrast, seemed to be very excited for this. 

“Wait, Mira’s coming today? Finally, I get to see her again! We can discuss all the best ways to torment Will!” Grandma Em seemed to not hear that. Three days after Rogue came, Mira graduated and left for Atsbury, the capital. Rogue, however, only needed three days to start treating Mira like family. Rogue looked over at Will’s face and furrowed her brow.

“What’s wrong? I thought you might be sort of happy to see your sister again after…” she counted on her fingers, “What is it, three whole years? Is there something happening today?” Will rung his hands.

“Yeah. Final exams for Lightbringer’s.” He shook his hands. For the first time since he had known her, Rogue almost looked surprised, but she quickly switched back to her aloof personality. 

“Yeesh, sucks for you. Anyway, I’m gonna go stay in my room and have no worries about anything,” she said, but as she headed to the stairs, Grandma Em grabbed the cuff of her shirt. 

“Now, young lady,” said Grandma Em, ignoring the fact that she was supposedly forty-two. “I don’t make you do much in this house, because you’re a guest, but since you’re becoming a part of the family, you have to do some things.” Rogue looked horrified at the suggestion of having to do something against her own will. Will pumped his arm under the table.

“L-like what?” she asked, voice trembling. 

“You’re coming with me…” Grandma Em said. Rogue closed her eyes and gulped.

“To Will’s final exam.” Rogue sighed and looked relieved.

“For an hour.” Rogue shrieked and ran up the stairs, quick as a fox. Grandma Em laughed, pinching her nose. 

“What are we going to do with that girl, Will?” Suddenly, a large boom sounded across the town. 

“Oh no,” Grandma Em rolled up her sleeves. “That sounds like trouble. Come on, Will. Help your grandma kill a monster, won’t you?”

Grandma Em was Greenset’s resident monster hunter, a role given to her due to her successes in some war, but recently, Will had become old enough to start fighting monsters with her. This was especially useful because the monster attacks were getting much worse, and thus more dangerous for an old woman like Em to do on her own. Will grabbed his glaive, magic pendant, and armor (haphazardly strapped on in his haste), and then ran outside. The town square of Greenset was usually a very beautiful place, especially in the fall, with a massive statue of a goddess smiling serenely in the center. Many shops lined the square, including Grandma Em’s Vegetable Shop and Uncle Ben’s Butcher, the former’s bitter rival. There were also many gardens and trees lining the square’s edge in the small spaces between the narrowly stuffed shops. 

However, today was a little different. The gardens and trees (not to mention a few stores) were blazing with fire, and the usually quiet and nice goddess statue had the apparent culprit curled around it: a giant, horned snake. Will had seen many snakes in his life. Some green, some blue, and a rare few, red. But he had never seen a snake this color before. He wasn’t sure he had ever seen anything this color before. It was almost like it was the color of pure shadows, a completely, purely, opaque, black-ish purple he had never seen before. It didn’t burn his eyes and it didn’t hurt, but Will still felt like it was something that he was not supposed to look at, something that forced his eyes to avert themselves. It was like staring into an endless, horrifyingly empty void. However, it was still destroying the town, so Will cracked his neck and started to run over to his grandmother. She had seemed to have wrapped her fists with some padded cloth, but otherwise, she was still wearing the same blue dress and white apron that she had on at breakfast. Suddenly, she jumped up into the air, almost eight feet up, and delivered a massive punch to the snake’s head. Will could hear an audible crack as one of the horns of the reptile crashed to the ground. Grandma Em landed, but the serpent had recovered faster than anticipated and it shot out its cranium at the old woman, fangs bared. Will, realizing his grandma would never make it out in time, gripped his magic pendant tightly and ripped it off the chain, smashing it into pieces on the cobblestone streets of Greenset. However, instead of laying there, broken and useless, the shards produced a flash of light, and a horse suddenly appeared underneath Will. He started to flawlessly gallop towards the snake, and just before it injected its deadly venom into the aged body of Grandma Em, Will scooped her up and whisked her to safety. 

“Oh boy, this one’s a bit harder to kill than some others,” said Grandma Em. “It took a direct punch to the head and survived, not to mention almost breaking my fist.” Will shivered at the thought of something that could hurt the great Grandma Em. Suddenly, a shout sounded across the square as Rogue jumped out of her window and sank her rapier into the snake’s neck. However, instead of red blood pouring out, liquid darkness seemed to gush from the wound. It leaked over to a couple of flowers, and its touch seemed to suck the life out of the poor plants. Rogue rode on her blade down the coil of the serpent’s long, thin body and touched down to the ground, unscathed. Will rode his horse up to Rogue, who hopped on behind Grandma Em. 

“Thanks, sweetie,” said Em. “That was pretty good.” Rogue flashed a grin.

“Hey, incredibly fun violence is incredibly fun violence. Now that I’ve come, I think we’ve almost got this thing!” After Rogue said that, the snake shook itself and strained. The shadows around it started to creep towards the serpent, climbing up its tubular torso and filling in the cracks and cuts left by their collective efforts. It ended with a new horn poking out and completely growing back.

“That’s really bad,” said Will, his spirits sinking. But then, a streak of black flew through the air, a staff underneath it. A Bishop, wearing a mask that was said to magnify their power tenfold, looked around in their belt and then held a miniscule, glass bottle into the air. Suddenly, the snake started. It looked distressed. Then, with a great vacuum sound, the entire monster was pulled back, squashed and stretched into a tiny form until it flew into the bottle. The mage quickly corked the container, screwed it tight, and then maneuvered their flying staff through the air down to the ground. They jumped off of the branch and summoned it into their hand with a burst of magic. The cloaked figure threw off their hood and took off their mask, revealing the puffy ponytail, huge, hazel eyes, dragon-head tipped staff, and big, oxidized-copper goggles that Will had known since he was only a little baby. 

“Hey, little bro,” she said. Mira Ravenswood had returned.

Utopia

7 years ago…

My routine is quintessential. Nowadays, the word “perfect” is seen as a thing of the past. The word isn’t given much relevance since there is no perfection in our world. However, I would like to refute that point. The word “perfect” is pertinent to me because it so accurately describes my life. 

My eyes adjust to the luminous rays that fill up my room. I sigh contentedly. I rub my smiling eyes with my pajama sleeves and take a big stretch before I step out from the left side of my bed. I dance around my dreamy space humming the song that has been stuck in my head for the past week. Then, I start my valued morning routine that consists of getting ready in front of the shining vanity mirror, heading down the stairs of the manor to the abundance of fruit pastries prepared, and opening the embellished doors to explore my idealistic city, Utopia.

Utopia was the only place I ever lived. It was everything I could ask for. Homestyle bake shops on every block, fully restocked boutiques on every corner, and cinemas in every neighborhood. All of the citizens radiated a glow—a glow that could only be found in genuinely happy souls. The mayor of the city fulfilled every citizens’ needs and left no room for discontent. There was nothing that I would have thought to change. Absolutely nothing. 

Present day…

My eyes adjusted to the sunlight that beamed through the windows. I opened my eyes and stared at my bedroom ceiling. Another day. I had to drag my legs out of my comforter onto the cold stone floor. I entered my uncomfortably large bathroom to get ready for the day. I walked down the manor stairs into the dining table where the food spread was laid out. After taking a few bites of my toast, I grabbed my stuff and headed out the door. 

As I walked through the streets of Utopia, all I could see were smiles. Every face I saw was bubbling with excitement. The excitement that I contained 7 years ago. The excitement that I couldn’t find in myself anymore. 

As much as I tried to bring up that emotion that filled my soul once, I couldn’t quite dig it up. Utopia wasn’t the idealistic city. As I spent every day following the same routine, I started to find patterns. The cookie shops that were filled with the smell of sugar and buttermilk represented obesity in my society. Though enjoyable, cookies had a negative health effect on most citizens of Utopia. The boutiques that sold the latest gadgets, popular pants, and anything else you could possibly purchase, represented society’s greed. My closet and drawers were filled with things that I had little to no use of. It was when my dresser broke that I realized that I too had been corrupted by material goods. The movie theaters that satisfied the children left no room for actual education, disrupting creativity and a passion for learning. As I walked in the blinding radiant streets of my city, I realized how much it resembled a dystopian community. Oh how I longed for a humble routine. 

I soon arrived at my destination. I gazed up at the pure white, glimmering tower for five seconds, opened the clear intricate door, and entered. I walked across the marble floor with my heels click clacking against the stone. 

“Welcome back Ms. Solace,” the lobbyman called out. I gave him a quick nod and smile before entering the dinging elevator. I pressed the 13 button and I rocketed up the tower. I got out and headed to my office. The second I stepped out, I could hear greetings and laughter. As if excitement and joy were fairies, they surrounded me and filled every corner of the floor, maybe even the whole building. I opened my matte black office door and stepped into my soundproof space. 

I heard three consecutive knocks on the door. 

“Come in.” It was my assistant, she came in with a chai latte and a box of sugar cookies. I concealed my discontent with an illuminated smile and ecstatic thank you. 

“You always know what I need.” I happily responded. 

“Anything for you mayor.” My assistant walked out and gently closed the door behind her. I pushed the refreshments to the top right corner of my desk and opened my laptop. I opened my Gmail to see hundreds of proposals for “improvements.” Utopia had been manipulated with the lack of authority and I was going to resolve this conflict. With my cursor I selected all of the emails and clicked on the trash icon on the top right. The lives of Utopians would forever change. 

Chapter from the ‘Book of Problems #6: Fight Fire With Madness’

It was 11:32 am. Desmond showed up at ‘Milk Kingdom,’ his place of work. It was Saturday, the most perfect day of the week to carry out his plan with no school to keep him back.

Zofia, his coworker, was already there in her cow costume complete with the horns. 

“I got your text.” she said. “I’m a little confused. What’s LONG ENDS. INC?”

“The worst government organization in the history of the universe,” Desmond answered. “So I’m thinking 

we could use that new routine we were working on to distract them. Is that cool?”

“Where’s that Jim guy you were talking about?”

“Oh yeah, he should be here in a bit.”

“He better be compatible.”

“He is kind of…I can’t find the word. He yells a lot. That’s what he did to me and my friends when we tied him up in the theater.”

“Why did you tie him up?”

“Because he broke in.”

“Why did he break into a theater?”

“Because he’s a brother of a director-in-chief at LONG ENDS. INC, he calls himself Gemini. He thought that my friend Imogen had kidnapped a Greek princess, so he kidnapped her to get her to admit that she kidnapped the Greek princess. His best friend then hacked into her personal files and kidnapped my other two friends, Stefan and Ellis.” Desmond wished he could provide a more detailed explanation, but he was in a hurry.

Zofia just stared blankly up at him. “What’s a director-in-chief?”

“It’s what they call a commander-in-chief at LONG ENDS. INC.”

“Why is your life so weird?”

“There’s Jim!” Desmond pointed his finger out the window.

Jim pushed the door open. A little bell dinged as he entered the shop. He held up his phone. “Okay, so I got your text. About the plan…”

He said some words. Not some good ones.

“Bro!” Zofia scolded.

“It was not my plan,” Desmond said, like Jim could read his mind. “It was a mix of Sadie’s, Daisy’s, Finian’s, Magnolia’s, Sharon’s, Jaime’s, Fiona’s, Grace’s, Milo’s, Ilyas’, Lale’s, Zelda’s, Marina’s, some Bryan action here and there…yeah,  I only contributed a little bit. We’re just the distraction.”

“Why do I have to be the distraction? Can’t I just get into the action part of the plan?” Jim asked.

“No, because when your brother sees you, he will be distracted from his work, and be all over you which is exactly what we need. And since he is one of the commanders, or directors, or whatever you call them, everyone else will have to stay behind!” Desmond replied.

“Wait, what do you mean by ‘everyone else’?” Zofia asked.

“LONG ENDS. INC has sixty workers.” Desmond explained. “Those members are divided into five groups. Each group has a leader. That leader is called the ‘director-in-chief.’ All sixty members take their lunch break together.”

Jim shook his head. “Fine. I’m guessing there is more to this distraction?” He made sarcastic jazz hands.

“Wear this.” Zofia threw a black garbage bag at Jim.

He caught it, opened it, took a sniff, took the contents out, and cringed.

“I’m not wearing this.” he said, shaking his head in reluctance.

“Hey, a Moo-Moo’s milk cow costume is nothing to be ashamed of.” said Zofia.

“It’s nothing to be proud of either. It smells like my teenage years.”

“You can complain, or you can help rescue my friends.” said Desmond.

“Is this how you defeated Mildred and Marge?”

“No. We were wearing elephant costumes.”

“Can I ask a question?” Zofia asked.

“Sure.” said Desmond.

“What type of government organization has only sixty members? And what type of government organization has all sixty members go out on a lunch break at the same time?”

“Who cares?” Desmond asked.

“All that matters is that their HQ is empty then.” Jim said, pulling his costume on. “Their lunch break is in ten minutes. They’re probably at ‘Bucket World’ today.”

Jim pointed his fingers to the West. “Let’s roll.”

Zofia raised her hand.

“Yes?” asked Desmond

“Do you want me to bring out my choir group as an extra distraction?”

“We’ll call that plan C.”

“Plan C?”

“We already have a plan B.”

***

All sixty members of LE. INC piled out of the HQ building like raw sewage spilling out of a pipe. As Jim predicted, they all went to Bucket World for lunch, home of the buckets of mac n’ cheese and fried chicken. There were plenty of outdoor seating by the fast food restaurant with metal folding chairs and tables on both sides of the wide sidewalk. All sixty members sat on one of those folding chairs, taking up all the available seats. They were always lucky like that.

In the middle of their meal, Jim, Desmond, and Zofia were hiding behind a car parked at the corner of the street, waiting for the right moment.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to bring my choir group? They can be pretty distracting.” Zofia persisted.

“I think a teenager, a ten year old, and a college student dancing around in cow costumes rapping about milk is distracting enough.” Jim assured her.

“3…2…1! Go, go, go!” Desmond whisper-shouted.

All three cows popped out from behind the car to run to the eating area where the LE. INC members were sitting and struck their opening poses. Jim turned on a boom box. A heavy beat emitted from the speakers, shaking the ground like a heartbeat in a ribcage. That prompted Zofia to start rapping, 

“Moo-Moo’s milk is straight from fiction, it’s a non-alcoholic, drug-free addiction!”

Desmond texted Magnolia:

Dwiththeglasses direct message to MagnoliaWantsPeace: distraction in place. Start picking the lock.”

“Let me hear you scream ‘calcium’!”  Zofia continued with the rap. “Vitamin D!”

Meanwhile, Sadie, Daisy, Finian, Magnolia, Sharon, Jaime, Fiona, Grace, Milo, Ilyas, Lale, Zelda, Marina, and Bryan were waiting in the alley a block away from the LE. INC HQ building, or what they called ‘the loony bird nest’.

“Desmond gave the signal!” Magnolia shouted. “Let’s go!”

Sadie was fastening her harness. “Fiona, you got the rope?”

“Check. And the carabiners, too.” Fiona nodded. “Finian! I need your baseball bat.”

Finian handed it over. “Do not get it dirty.”

“No promises.”

They all ran to the front of the building. Magnolia was about to pick the lock, but Sharon picked up her leg, drew back, and with a running leap, kicked the door. It flew open.

“Lifting those weights really paid off!” she said, rubbing her arms to feel some toned muscle.

“The door was unlocked,” Sadie said.

“Oh. Enable the Blossom phase!” Sharon said in her anime voice.

Everyone rushed inside the building. There were cubicle offices, papers everywhere, and the whole typical corporate office shebang. The lights were off. A single switch controlled all the lights in the building. They didn’t turn them on so they didn’t attract attention.

Fiona and Sadie set up their gear. It was the gear you use when you want to hang from the ceiling to spy on people. Sadie was wearing a rock-climbing harness. Fiona slid a thick rope through a metal ring attached to a part of the harness on Sadie’s back. Sadie, wanting to remain incognito, wore a black t-shirt and black jogger pants to blend in with the shadows on the ceiling. Fiona was wearing a white hoodie and white cargo pants to blend in with the walls she would be leaning against. Fiona secured the rope, rummaged through her backpack, and took out a bow & arrow. She took an archery class last summer, and she hoped her aim was good enough for the plan.

There were various metal bars on the ceiling, all evenly spaced. Enough space to make a shot with an arrow. Jim had told Fiona that those bars were for safety measures. If the ceiling had collapsed, they would fall on the bars first, giving everyone in the building enough time to escape. Fiona tied the rope to the end of the arrow. It was a very long rope. She hoped it was long enough.

She aimed, took a deep breath, and let physics do its job.

The arrow shot up like a rocket, soaring through the bars, ricocheting off the wall, and dived down, hitting Fiona’s target on a wall opposite from where she was standing. Her target was a thin space between the wall and a large filing cabinet.

She reached into her pocket. “Crap!” she snapped her fingers.

“What? asked Sadie.

“I told Sharon to get me the counterweight. Where is it?”

“Right here!” Sharon said, carrying over a cow’s head.

Fiona screamed. So did Sadie.

“Shhhhh! Do you want us to get caught? This is fake,” Sharon said, turning it around and knocking on it. 

It was made of what seemed to be a mix of plastic and cement.

“Is this heavy enough?” Sadie asked.

Sharon dropped it on the floor. “Yeah, pretty sure.”

Fiona bent over to pick it up, but she groaned and grunted as the fake cow head barely moved. 

“I have so many questions.”

“You can ask them if you want,” said Sharon.

“First, where the hell did you get a fake cow head? Second, why the hell do you have a fake cow head? Third, have you been lifting weights or lifting—this? Fourth, why—WHY—does it look so realistic?”

Sharon had tied the end of the rope to the fake cow head securely and set it behind a stack of paper, out of view. She then left to do some other stuff. Fiona shook off her feelings about the cow head and got to work. She walked to the opposite end of the rope, the one that wasn’t tied to a cow head, and pulled it.

It was secure.

She turned to Sadie, gripping the rope. “My life is in your hands, and I just want you to know that I will never let go of this rope.”

“Are you sure you’re strong enough?” Sadie asked. “I mean, I am two years older than you.”

“I can carry my brother with one hand. I can handle you. He’s like, nine years older than me.” 

Sadie knew that this was true. She had seen it with her own eyes.

Fiona backed away and wedged herself in between two filing cabinets. She pulled the rope hard. It was now as tight as a guitar string. The rope was aligned to look like an upside-down ‘V,’ with the corner hanging by a metal bar. Sadie grabbed Finian’s baseball bat, bit the handle, and started to climb up the rope to the metal bar-infested ceiling. She didn’t stop until she reached the top. She grabbed one of the metal bars and took out the baseball bat from the grasp from her teeth. Finian had the most sweaty hands out of all the boys. She gagged thinking about what disease she had just put in her mouth. She was now hanging from the ceiling fifty feet off the floor. If there was any type of attack in the building, she could slide down the rope and hit someone with the baseball bat.

Magnolia, Zelda, and Bryan rushed to the room where Jim had told them to go. They ran down a dim hallway. Every ten steps, there was a different door with an eccentric poster on it. Only one door fit Jim’s description: the one with the poster of a guacamole pun.

‘Guac this way’.

Magnolia read the pun as she turned the door handle. It was unlocked.

“For a government organization headquarters, this building has low security levels.” Zelda stated.

Magnolia pushed the door open. Inside the room, there were three monitors sharing the same keyboard on one side. On the other side was a row of iron bars. Behind those bars was her missing friends: Stefan, Imogen, and Ellis.

“Holy crap! You’re alive!” Magnolia yelled.

“Magnolia?” Imogen shouted in both relief, surprise, and the verge of crying happy tears.

Bryan waved. “I was Tarzan when you were missing!”

“I trapped him with a glass of milk!” Zelda said. “For your cause!” she added.

Ellis rolled his eyes. He missed his little sister’s spunk.

“Bryan! What are you doing here?” asked Imogen. “You should be at home with mom and dad!”

“I came to see you!” Bryan replied. “I thought you would like to feast your eyes upon your hunky brother.” Ellis and Stefan broke out into a laugh. They started rolling around on the floor, clutching their stomachs.

“Sooo…I’m going to pick the lock now.” Magnolia said, holding up a bunch of differently shaped metal strips.

Stefan and Ellis stopped laughing. They got up and started to rapidly nod their heads. “Get us out of this metal prison!”

Magnolia shoved the metal strips inside the lock of the ‘metal prison’s’ door. The art of lock-picking was tedious, and it made a lot of noise. “Did you actually kidnap a Greek Princess?” she asked.

“No!” Stefan, Ellis, and Imogen said in unison.

As Magnolia picked the lock, Daisy and Finian were shuffling through the file cabinets. “I’m sure they keep records of who they take in for questioning.” Daisy said.

“You mean kidnap,” said Finian.

“Yeah. If we can find those records, then we have evidence of a failing government organization. We can take it to court, then LONG ENDS. INC will close down!”

“That would be nice. Or we could burn it to the ground. That would be quicker.”

“Not while Sadie’s hanging from the ceiling.” Daisy pointed out.

Grace, who had a plan of her own, looked around for vents. She found a loose vent cover. She tugged at it until it came off. There was quite a lot of space in the vents, big enough for her. She climbed inside, carrying a pocket knife with her. If anyone tried to do something to her friends, she could pop out of the vent quickly and threaten the attacker with a corkscrew or something. 

Milo saw her. He placed the vent cover to hide her face. Grace was lying on her belly.

“Thanks,” she whispered. “You better find a place to hide.”

Milo didn’t feel the need to hurry. All the lights were off. He could just shut himself in a supply closet at the last minute. Jaime and Ilyas went into a room with a sign on the door that said ‘Director in Chief #5 Office,’ and hid under a desk. Jaime turned on the recording app on his phone. They might be able to get some oral evidence from the man that was the whole reason they were there.

The whole reason their friends got kidnapped.

The whole reason why their lives were in danger.

It all started with one man’s stupid idea that a teenager captured a Greek princess.

A single moment of misused thinking.

All because of this man.

Jaime and Ilyas were fuming under the desk. They wanted revenge on this man as soon as possible.

Lale followed them in and looked down at them. “Guys, I don’t think you’ll get any oral evidence—” she started lecturing.

“I want to shut this place down!” Ilyas said angrily.

“—we need to leave in ten minutes! If we get caught, we’ll end up getting locked in here like our friends!” Lale explained. “Finian and Daisy should have found the right file by now. We can get out of here soon.”

Jaime nodded. He always liked listening to Lale’s powerful reasoning with Ilyas. In the back of Jaime’s brain, he could hear a doorknob being turned. He jumped. 

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Ilyas asked. “C’mon, J, let’s get out of he—” 

But before Ilyas could finish his sentence, something happened that brought fear to everyone’s hearts. The lights switched on. Director-in-Chief #5 entered the building.

Gemini.

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.

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. 

A Pop Star’s Thoughts on the Universe

A Pop Star’s Thoughts on the Universe 

What is the universe made of?

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

How did life begin?

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

Are we alone in the universe?

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

What makes us human?

Sleep, a lot of days. 

What is consciousness?

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

Why do we dream?

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

Why is there stuff?

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

Are there other universes?

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

Sources: 

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

9 Hours: Worth Much More

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

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

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

She asked, 

“Why are you here, honey?” 

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

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

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

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

“Would you like some, Linda?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just for a Selfie

Henri really hadn’t meant to mess up the old castle’s drawbridge. How was he supposed to have known that it would collapse and trap them inside? 

“That moat is 6 feet deep and 6 feet across around the entire castle,” hissed Sarai, the other tourist who had lagged behind the rest of the group, “and you collapsed the only viable exit, since neither of us can swim. Plus, we’re probably going to get sued for destruction of private property now!”

“Mmkay. You do realize that if we don’t stop arguing and leave here soon, there will be no light for us to search with? This is an old castle, and the only light we have right now is from the windows,” Henri pointed out, making his way towards the stairs that lead to the main bedroom. Surprisingly, he didn’t hear any footsteps from behind him. In fact, the footsteps seemed to be going further away. He turned around and saw Sarai walking down the stairs to the servants quarters. 

“What are you doing?” he yelled, his voice echoing through the stone hallway.

“Logically desecrating the servants quarters to make a raft,” Sarai replied, not even bothering to look back at him. “If you could just remove the curtains upstairs, we could probably escape. Besides, if they ask why we did this, we just blame the tour guide company. There was a clause that said that signing this meant that if we were missing without communication directly after an event, the guide would return to the last location they saw us.”

“You read the terms and conditions on the papers they gave us?” 

“You didn’t? And hurry up,” she turned to face him. “The rope isn’t going to fly down the stairs.” Henri sighed and walked up to the first staircase window. The curtains were surprisingly flimsy, but looked like they would be a good rope when twisted. Henri was so engrossed in removing the curtains and trying to escape that he didn’t notice the small pling of a recording ending. Nor did he think to check his phone for cell signal, since the carrier he used didn’t work in that location. 

Sarai smirked. Playing the role of victim was far too easy when Henri was so gullible. She’d recorded him ripping the curtains and managed to get a picture of Henri holding the lever as well. All she’d have to do now was send the recording and photo to the tourists group chat. It was easy really, and a foolproof method to turn the full blame on Henri. He had collapsed the drawbridge, after all, and Sarai wasn’t willing to pay the price for his stupidity. She hit the send button, and then slipped her phone into her purse. 

“It’s getting late,” said Henri in a surprisingly loud voice. He was standing at the top of the stairs, looking at the small pile of wooden doors that Sarai had pulled off to make it seem like she was actually doing something. 

“Really?” Sarai responded, injecting her voice with false surprise. “I hadn’t noticed. I was having some trouble removing doors from their hinges downstairs.” Henri frowned and threw some curtains that were tied into a makeshift rope near the three wooden cabinet doors.

“Couldn’t you have done anything more?” he complained, watching the sunset through the window.

“Are you complaining? You’re the one who got us into this mess! I don’t even know you, but you literally decided that leaning on an old lever for a selfie was a wonderful idea! You don’t get more stupid than that!” 

“Stupid?!? I am an up and coming social media influencer! Everyone who follows me knows I’m on a trip to Europe and that photo would have been perfect! We just got to Spain, and of course everyone would want to see this old castle if I’m in it! I couldn’t let them down and lose most of the following I’ve just gained!”

“You’re so self centered that you couldn’t see it was an idiotic idea! And now you’ve dragged me, the unfortunate other tourist who lagged behind to see the tapestries, into your mess!” Sarai yelled, yanking out her phone and showing him the screen. “You see this! I sent the other tourists, and the tour guide evidence.”

“Evidence of what?” asked Henri, his voice calm and cold all of a sudden. Slowly he began to approach Sarai, reaching for her phone.

“Evidence of you destroying this place,” she hissed, pulling the phone back. “And it’s already sent, so you can’t do anything about it.”

“What? How dare you?” Henri hissed. “Give that to me. Now.” Sarai’s eyes widened with shock as she started backing down the stairs.

“How about no?” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “I am not getting incriminated for your crimes, nor am I becoming the victim of your next one.”

“And I am not losing my entire career-” Henri began, only to be cut off by Sarai.

“Your career? You call taking photos and putting them on social media a career? You literally only have 10,000 follows! You aren’t that famous, just a normal influencer who thinks he’s super famous,” Sarai muttered bitterly, being careful not to fall as she stepped down the stairs backward. Before Henri could respond, the ping of a notification came from Sarai’s phone. 

Almost instantly, Henri lunged for the phone as Sarai pulled away and turned on the screen. 

“We’re sending the police. Hang tight,” Sarai read aloud, relief flooding her eyes. “You’re done for.”

“If I’m going down, I’m taking you with me!” yelled Henry, grabbing a wood panel from the top of the stairs and hurling it at Sarai. 

“Crap,” Sarai whispered. She started running down the cold stone stairs, hoping to outrun Henri. Catching her foot on a ledge, she tripped and her knee slammed against the stone landing with a resounding thud. “No, no, no, no…”

“I heard that! Come out; there’s no escaping now!” Henri said in a disturbingly sing-song voice. It was as if the thought of losing his so-called “career” had driven him mad. Taking shallow, quiet breaths, Sarai began to scoot across the landing and toward the empty doorframe near her. Grabbing the hinges, she pulled herself up and began hobbling into the hall. She’d barely made it to the cellar stairs when a figure appeared at the start of the hallway. Yanking open the cellar door, Sarai pulled the ladder out of the room. 

Henri smirked, staring at the woman crouched near the cellar door. She’d set up her own trap. Slowly, he crept up to her, stretching his hands out. 

Sarai tried her best to keep her breathing even, as if she hadn’t noticed trouble. Henri’s shadow covered her like an inky nightmare, blocking out the sun’s dying rays. She sat right at the edge of the cellar hatch; Henri’s arms were outstretched, ready to push her in. 

“Like I’d let you win,” Sarai hissed, yanking Henri’s leg out from under him and shoving him into the cellar. She slid the ladder through the handle, and crawled unsteadily to the wall. A smeared trail of blood traced her path on that floor and she switched on her phone, breathing normally once more. The sound of now audible police sirens mixed with Henri’s screams, but Sarai hadn’t been more at peace in the last hour. 

When the police finally came, Henri was arrested. It turned out that he was a criminal named Tauren Lakst in the States who had run a relatively famous vlogging channel. After evidence was found that he murdered his neighbor, his following dropped (who would, after all, follow a murderer) and he ended up on the run. He then killed the actual Henri Widener who’d owned the Instagram account @henri_awesome_travels and stole his place in the tourist trip. 

“I’ll get back at you, witch,” Henri, or well Tauren, spat, as the police dragged him away.

“Sure you will,” said Sarai dryly. “We all know that you’re only salty that you snapped and got caught faster. Eventually, someone would have found Henri’s body.” Tauren only bared his teeth at her like a rabid animal, before the police pulled him away. 

“That… was certainly an interesting vacation. I sure am glad I’m a British doctor. The states have a lot of murderers and so do the police,” muttered Sarai, hobbling out of the castle. There wasn’t an ambulance, but the police had two cars and could take her to the local hospital. Sarai was fairly sure her knee wasn’t broken, but after all that happened… eh. Small mercies, I suppose. Sarai looked at the window, watching the dying rays of the sun fade away.

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. 

Monsters in the Dark, Part 1

Chapter 1

“Alice, are you ready to go?” Ian turned back from scrabbling through trash.

“Yeah…” Alice seemed down, she was looking at the garbage, but she grabbed a food sack. She really didn’t want to see what’s inside.

“What’s wrong?” Ian now grabbed another food sack.

“How could this happen to us humans…” Alice sighed.

“What do you mean?” Ian went over to Alice.

“We used to be at the top of the food chain.. But now after these monsters came, we are stuck searching through trash eating remains of… huh… nevermind,” The thought of what they eat disgusted her.

“Ye – ” Ian was about to say.

“FIND HUMANS.” A robot walked into the alley way.

“Oh no, run!” Ian darted deeper in the alley way.

“I – uh.” Alice walked backwards before running after Ian. After a while of running they bumped into a wall with two boxes stacked on top of each other.

“Get onto the boxes and jump the wall!” Ian yelled at Alice.

“Got it.” Alice climbed the boxes then she jumped on top of the wall. Just as she jumped up the top box fell down. 

“FIND THEM,” The robot said in a robotic voice. It was completely silver.

No!” Alice just realized that the box fell.

“Grab this!” Ian grabbed something out of the pouch and held it out to Alice.

“No, I can pull you up!” Alice rejected the thing in Ian’s hand and grabbed his wrist.

“Listen, I’m the older one. Mom and Dad put me in charge, so take it.” Ian looked back at the robot, which had now grabbed a taser. 

“Fine.” Alice grabbed the thing in Ian’s hand.

“Now, GO!” Ian turned around to face the robot. Zap! Ian fell down. Alice jumped off the other side of the wall, running away with tears rolling down her cheeks. She knew what was going to happen to her brother.

***

After a while of running, she found a safe spot to hide, which was a hole in a building. Alice then opened her fist to see that the thing Ian gave her was a pocket watch. After a while, she fell asleep. 

Thunk. Thunk. 

“Huh?” Alice looked out of the hole she entered through and saw a robot walk by. It was carrying a sack that seemed to be squirming. Ian might be in there, Alice thought. She snuck out slowly, following the robot. Luckily, the thunking of its metal feet was too loud for it to hear Alice. It eventually stopped at a small dumpster and dropped the bag in. Alice quickly hid behind something as the robot turned around and walked away. She looked back before running for the dumpster-like thing and jumping in. 

“WOAH!” she fell down into a pipe sliding. She fell down onto a table that was the size of four trucks next to each other and two trucks on top of each other. The bag that the robot threw down was next to her. “Hello?” she edged closer to the bag, untying it and then opening it. Two people got out.

“Thanks!” said a boy.

“Hmm.” Alice looked around, not seeing Ian. She looked around, trying to see if there were any more bags, but there weren’t. All of a sudden the door flung open, and a monster walked in. The monster was paper-white skinned and was kind of a much larger and much fatter human. Alice saw it, darting to a side of the table before jumping onto a stool and then onto the floor. The other people followed her. They were running towards a small vent when the monster noticed them and started wobbling towards them. Alice reached the vent, grabbing the bars of the vent door. She tugged at them, trying to rip it off. 

“Quicker!” The boy, who was now behind Alice, yelped.

“Shut up, it’s harder than it looks,” Alice hissed, still trying to rip off the vent door.

“Jeez.” The boy turned back to look at the other person running towards the vent.

“Phew.” The other person who seemed to be an adult got up to them.

“Erg!” Alice kept tugging at the vent door.

“It’s getting closer!” The boy now looked at the monster, who was getting closer and closer.

“There!” Alice finally ripped the vent door off the wall, throwing it away and running in. The boy jumped in after her.

“Woah!” The adult tripped, and the monster grabbed her. 

“NO, MOM!” The boy looked back to who was supposedly his mom being taken by the monster.

“God…” Alice looked back grabbing the boy and tossing him farther in the vent before the other monster’s hand could grab him.

“NOO!” The boy still seemed to be sad.

“Let’s keep going.” Alice pushed past him, continuing forward. They kept walking for a while and the boy seemed to be calming down.

“I’m Jell, by the way.” The boy was trotting behind Alice.

“I’m Alice,” she grunted, continuing forward. After a while, they reached an opening that had a bunch of trash bags and green murky water. “Finally, now we can separate.” Alice jumped down onto a trash bag, not daring to touch the disgusting water.

“But shouldn’t we stick together?” The boy jumped after her.

“No, just leave me alone.” Alice jumped to another trash bag.

“C’mon, I can help!” Jell almost tripped into the water but managed to get to the bag that Alice was on.

“I said no!” Alice turned around, glaring at Jell.

“Jeez.” Jell backed away. 

“Now leave me alone.” Alice looked back. She jumped onto another bag and saw that there were no more bags ahead of her. Alice looked around, noticed a rope and jumped on it, and swung to another bag. She looked back, seeing Jell.

Alice let go of the rope and began walking away. “There,” she said, jumping onto a platform. She walked to a door, busting it open. The room she entered was filled with trash. There were also some monster-sized stairs leading up to another floor. Alice walked towards the stairs. A monster fell through the floor and started groaning like a dead animal before being still. “Yikes.” Alice went back to the stairs trying to get up.

“Woah, what happened to that monster?” Jell entered the room looking at the dead monster. 

Alice ignored Jell and continued up the monster-sized stairs. “Whatever,” she said. Jell also went to the stairs. Alice was almost at the top when she heard a dead animal noise and thumping. When she got up to the second floor, a monster, who looked like all the other monsters except for the fact that he was wearing brown rags, entered the hallway, looking at Alice. All of a sudden, the dead animal noise got louder, and it started running towards her.

“Uh oh,” Alice backed away her foot, almost falling off the stairs.

“What’s wrong?” Jell looked up at Alice.

“MONSTER!” Alice jumped down the stairs.

“Monster? Another one!?” Jell seemed surprised.

“YEAH!” Alice shoved Jell to side running father into the room.

“HEY – !” Jell looked at Alice for a second before he heard a dead animal noise at the top of the stairs. The monster wobbled down the stairs getting ready to grab Jell.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? COME, RUN!” Alice looked back at Jell who was frozen a bit. Jell snapped back to reality, running after Alice. Right as he ran, the monster tripped slamming onto the ground where Jell just stood. 

“Is it dead?” Jell, who had shorter legs, had a hard time catching up with Alice.

“Nope,” Alice looked up at a pipe jumping onto it trying to climb up.

“How do you know?” Jell jumped after Alice looking back at the monster who was getting up.

“Because I know a lot about monsters. That fall wouldn’t kill it.” Alice continued up.

“Ohhh.” Jell almost slipped off.

“C’mon, faster!” Alice was on a second pipe which was going right to left. 

“I can’t!” Jell was almost there when the monster got up, running towards the pipe.

“It’s coming!” Alice pulled out her hand bending down. Bam! The monster ran head first into the pipe and made a large dent right where Jell was.

“Phew, that was close,” Jell said. He had pulled up before the monster hit the pipe, which now had steam shooting out of it.

“Yeah.” Alice watched as the monster walked backward and then fell to the floor. “Let’s go now,” Alice ran on the second pipe.

“Got it.” Jell started running after Alice. 

“This way.” Alice skidded to a halt opening another vent door. The monster put his hand up before falling down again. 

“Er…” Jell looked at the monster before following Alice. Jell and Alice semi-crouch-ran through the vents. Eventually, she ran into a vent door which broke off and fell down into an alleyway. 

“Wait.” Alice noticed a dark green jacket farther down the alleyway. That was the color jacket Ian had.

“Let’s keep going,” Jell was about to go left, where the vent continued.

“Ian?” Alice jumped down, running through the alleyway filled with small puddles.

“Alice!” Jell jumped after her.

“No, no.” Alice now noticed there was blood on the jacket. She paused, then grabbed the jacket and saw Ian’s name on it.

“Alice?” Jell stretched his arms out.

“HUMANS DETECTED.” Robots entered the alleyway, blocking the exit.

“Oh no!” Jell walked backward. 

“There’s no use, it’s a dead end.” Alice was looking down at the jacket that she now dropped. The robots took out tasers, shooting Alice and Jell.

Chapter 2

“Err…” Jell woke up in a bag that was carrying a random person and Alice. The bag opened and a monster put its hand into the bag, grabbing Alice.

“Woah!” Alice was surprised, she didn’t know there was a monster there.

“Alic – !” The monster closed the bag before Jell could finish his sentence. The monster walked through the door into a monster-sized kitchen with a stone counter. It set Alice down and walked into a different room while making the dead animal noise. She got up, running across the counter. She looked around, saw a vent, busted it open, and ran through it. She ran into a room and saw a teddy with a key in its back.

“Woah…” She began to edge closer but saw a skinny hand with long fingers grab the toy and twist the key. She jumped back. Beautiful music started playing from the teddy bear. Alice peeked the corner and saw a very tall and skinny monster working on what looked like the robots that capture people. After a few minutes, the music stopped, and the monster turned and grabbed the teddy again, twisting the key before returning. Alice looked back at the monster to make sure it was looking away, then she dashed across to the edge of the wood desk and jumped to a large coffee table. She almost fell down but grabbed the coffee table, got up, and ran farther. As she was getting ready to jump to the next table, she was grabbed by the monster. The monster looked at her, tilting its head. 

“LET ME GO!” Alice was shaking and kicking the monster, trying to get out of its grip. The music stopped, but the monster did not turn around to turn the key on the teddy bear. A few seconds passed with the monster looking at Alice. It finally put her down and went to the teddy bear. When the monster looked back at Alice she was already jumping to another table down a hallway. She ran as fast as she could, hearing the monster behind her. She saw a vent and a pile of books leading up to it. Alice was getting ready to turn toward that pile of books when she tripped on a monster-sized needle. She fell off the table into a bucket full of water which tipped over, splashing water everywhere. She got up, dashing away. She didn’t mind about the water, after all, the monster was chasing her. 

Alice looked back. The monster was really agro now, throwing things off tables and whatnot. She noticed a kitchen up ahead. She knew there were vents in all of the monster kitchens. The monster was catching up to her as she entered the kitchen. She ran up a chair that was tilted onto the counter. Then, she jumped on a pepper thing, then jumped into a cupboard, and saw a vent. She climbed up a wooden kitchen knife holder to get to the vent. But when she went to the vent, it knocked over the kitchen knife holder and the knives fell into the monster in the face. The monster hit the floor. She went through the vent without looking back. 

“Great! That monster’s dead, that’s one monster gone,” Alice whispered to herself. She continued forward as quickly as she could, hoping she’d find Jell. Alice stopped walking through the vents and sat down. She put her hand in her pocket and noticed something was missing… The pocket watch Ian gave her was gone. She frantically searched all her pockets but all of them were empty. She lost the last thing that Ian gave her. Alice curled up into a ball wondering why life had become like this. She got up in the morning, at least, what she thought was the morning, as Alice couldn’t see the sky. She continued to crawl through the vents for some time. All of a sudden, she heard heavy footsteps below her and music that sounded familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. A can fell out of her jacket clanging on the metal vent. Alice paused, listening for the heavy footsteps, but she couldn’t hear them anymore. A dead animal noise came from below instead. 

“Oh no,” Alice said. She sped up through the vent. She heard a scraping noise and realized that the place where she just was was gone. At this point, she was running through the vents but whatever was done there was faster, and eventually, the place in front of her was ripped off. The vent she was in started shaking when all of a sudden, the vent floor below her was ripped off. Alice grabbed the edges not wanting to fall off, but the sharp edges cut into Alice’s palms. She looked up, seeing a monster staring right back at her. The monster, which was holding the vent floor she was on, brought her closer. The lower half of its head started opening like a mouth but instead of teeth, it was monster flesh. It grabbed Alice off the piece of the vent with its other hand bringing her closer to its mouth. A noise came from behind the monster. It seemed that a can had fallen, but whatever fell made the monster let go of Alice and turn around. She fell down into a pile of trash. She got up and ran away from the monster as quickly as she could. 

When she looked back she noticed that it was the same monster that she thought had died from the kitchen knives, it even had wounds from where the kitchen knives fell, yet no blood fell out of the wounds. It turned around, howling loudly, and began to chase Alice. She didn’t care about the fact that her hands were bleeding, she only cared that she ran fast enough to get away from the monster. Alice noticed a sewer grate and darted for it. She tried lifting the grate but it was too heavy. She ran back, grabbed a stick and ran back to the sewer grate lifting enough for her to put the stick below it and she slipped through the small gap. Alice grabbed the ladder, going down it and splashing into green water. “Ew!” She jumped to the side so she didn’t have to walk in the green water and shook her boots trying to get the water off. She noticed that the sewer she was in looked like a man-made one, as it was smaller than the monster-made ones and the bricks were more nicely placed. Alice ripped off a bit of her old jacket, tying the pieces to her hand to stop the bleeding. 

She continued forward through the sewer, eventually reaching a stack of rocks that were obviously placed to stop people from going past it. She went to the nearest ladder, pushing a sewer grate up. Alice saw multiple uninhabited buildings with either wide-open or ripped-out-of-the-doorway doors. There were also a few old items lying around like an old backpack which was half decomposed. She looked around seeing a giant stone wall on the outskirts of where the buildings were fewer and fewer. 

At that moment, Alice had an idea. She remembered that the monster that made robots seemed to be angrier when the music wasn’t playing and wondered if breaking or stealing the toy would cause the engineer robot to get mad. Would it kill the other monsters? Alice knew what to do immediately. She would have to go back and find the long, tall monster base. She turned back, hopping through the open sewer manhole. When Alice splashed into the dirty water she looked around trying to remember which way she came from. Eventually, she ran to her left, and when she reached a ladder, she climbed up. Alice stopped for a second, wondering where the tall monster’s place could be. “If the monster was here before it must be near here right?” Alice said out loud while running through the large hallway. 

CRASH. “What was that?” Alice looked around, noticing that a vase had fallen and crashed. A few things smaller than Alice which kinda looked like dirty brown cones ran past the vase. “What the hell is that?!” The cones turned and looked at Alice, and all of the cone people ran away except one. It stared at Alice and slowly walked to Alice. 

The cone said something like “Alice,” but it was muffled and also slightly echoed. 

“Who are you?” Alice backed away running trying to get as much distance from the cone thing. It looked after her for a little then ran after its friends. “Man, that was weird.” Alice kept running then turned a corner seeing a large terribly made wooden door with gears and pipes on it.

“Oh, hey!” A voice came from beside Alice.

“AH!” Alice turned her head quickly seeing Jell was right next to Alice staring at the door. “Wha – Ho – How did you even ge – I’m so confused.” 

“Eh, I had a piece of glass and I cut the bag open… I was scared you were dead,” Jell said.

“Listen, I’m some sort of bad luck. I mean, I ran into a single monster twice, thinking I killed it the first time! Just…. Just go.” Alice turned her head away and ran towards the door.

“Bu – I mean…” Jell just stood there thinking what to say next.

“Nope, just go,” Alice, who was not at the door, looked for a way to open it.

“Hey! Try climbing into that pipe sticking out of the door!” Jell called to Alice.

“Sur – Wait, you should be gone by now! I said I’m bad luck!” Alice jumped to the pipe that Jell was talking about and walked through it. She walked through the pipe until she reached an open area and jumped out to the other side of the door. Alice looked around. She was in a room with one large desk and a stool in front of it and an elevator on the other side of the room. BEEP. The elevator doors opened revealing the tall and skinny monster. It walked into the room without noticing Alice, sat down at the desk, and turned the key to the teddy bear Alice remembered. The monster grabbed a few pieces, screwed them together, and took a metal rod with wires coming out of a ton of holes. The monster placed the rod in a metal box, connecting the wires to the metal. Alice looked around, trying to find a way to distract the monster and get the teddy bear and hide it. She found a tin can on the ground behind the monster then Alice saw a wood twig she ran over grabbed the twig and with all her might threw it at the can. Clank

The monster turned around, looking for what made the noise. It spotted the can and grabbed it with its long, skinny fingers. Alice looked around seeing that the wooden peg holding the table was scratched deeply. She darted for the wooden peg and climbed it by putting her feet in the holes and using her hands to pull herself up. When she was three-quarters up the monster turned around, didn’t notice Alice, and returned to his stool. Once Alice got up, she ran for cover, hiding behind fully made robots that were not turned on or toys, like a toy doll or elephant. As she passed a broken monkey with cymbals it randomly turned on, making the cymbals clash, alerting the engineer monster. 

“AH!” Alice jumped back, hitting a wall. The monster pushed the toy monkey aside upon hearing Alice get jump-scared. She got up, looking at the monster, trying to think where she could run. The monster neared Alice, its hand getting closer. Right before it could get Alice she jumped to the side, pushing an unfinished robot, and ran for the teddy bear that was playing the music. It moved its hand away to try grabbing Alice again she just got to the teddy bear when its hand was trying to get her again. CRACK! The hand grabbed the teddy bear and accidentally crushed it, missing Alice. The monster’s other hand came up and went for Alice. “Oh sh – ” Alice jumped back from the hand and quickly ran away. Alice jumped off the table, landed on a stack of books, and slowly climbed down. When she was nearly down the book that she was on – “OOF!” Alice hit the floor, trying to push the book that was now on her but it was too late. The monster grabbed Alice, its long fingers almost touching below its wrist. “Let me go!” Alice tried grabbing something sharp from her pockets, but they were completely empty. Alice could see that the monster was getting angrier and angrier. 

CLANG! CLANG! All of a sudden a Jolly Chimp, a toy monkey with cymbals, turned on. The monster turned its hand, loosening its grip on Alice. It placed down Alice striding to the monkey grabbing it and ripping it to pieces, the cymbals hitting the floor. Alice took the chance and jumped off the table again heading towards the elevator that was still open. She noticed that there was a lever. Thinking that’s how the elevator turned on, she tried to push a box into the elevator. The monster turned around and saw Alice and rushed towards the elevator. Just in time, Alice pushed the box under the lever and grabbed the handle, pushing the lever down. 

“Phew, that was close – ” The monster had grabbed the elevator doors before they had fully closed. SCREECH! The doors slowly slid open. “Why isn’t the elevator going up?” Then, as if the elevator was listening, it started going up. The monster let go, and the doors slammed shut. 

The doors opened, revealing another room. It had trash bags and a very rotten blue wallpaper. As she walked farther in, she noticed a drawing of a door on one of the walls and a dusty desk with what looked like an old teddy bear. Alice examined the trash bags and noticed more old toys. 

“Must’ve been the monster’s old working place,” Alice muttered. She walked over to the drawing of a door as if she expected it to swing open. “Worth a try. I mean if monsters exist, so can magic.” She looked around, trying to see if she didn’t miss anything. She noticed a doorway next to the elevator with wood planks nailed into the wall, covering up most of the doorway. “Wonder why that’s there… I mean it could be that it’s trying to keep me in… Or of course, trying to keep something out!” She shuddered at the thought that something would have scared the monster so much that they had to block it. Alice swung around because she heard something behind her and noticed a doll had fallen down. She started hearing footsteps and turned around back to the doorway. She could barely see a humanoid-like thing that was the size of a monster. It even looked more human than the monster’s shadows that were covering most of it. It was just standing there, lifeless with its right arm stretched out towards the door. 

“I don’t think that was there before… Or was it?” Alice backed away and turned around, searching the room again. Then, there were the footsteps again. Alice twirled around, swearing that the footsteps came from the door. Then she noticed something… the humanoid monster thing was closer to the door. “…M-must be my imagination, right?” Alice was actually starting to get slightly frightened at the fact that something had caught sight of her and that she couldn’t get out. “I can just leave in the elevator.” She turned her head towards the elevator ready to walk towards it then noticed the doors were closed and the button to open it was too high for her. How did I not even notice?! Alice thought. She quickly turned back to the nailed door seeing that the thing had moved a bit closer. “Is it moving when I’m not looking?” She twirled around then turned back to the doorway, noticing it moved again. 

Alice could now see the monster full. It looked much like a mannequin except for a few key factors. Its face was deformed in a horrifying way, the face was smushed, its nose was bent, and its left hand was missing. Alice slowly backed up, hitting a melted teddy bear. She gulped, turned around, and ripped off the teddy bear’s head then quickly turned back and saw that the monster’s right hand was gripped over one of the wood planks, blocking the door. Alice slowly walked towards the elevator, making sure to keep her eyes on the monster. She looked at the elevator and threw the teddy bear’s head towards the button but the sudden noise of wood starting to break scared her, and instead of it hitting the button, it hit the elevator door and fell back. She ran for the head trying not to listen to the wood cracking. Alice once again grabbed the teddy bear’s head and threw it again towards the button, the head hit the button giving a BEEP, and the elevator doors slowly started to open. Alice could see in the corner of her eye that the wood went flying, and she could hear the running of the monster behind her. She ran for the elevator door and once in, quickly turned around and saw that the monster’s hand was extended into the elevator. She slowly backed away and then turned around, jumping onto the box she left under the lever. She pulled the lever down which had apparently moved up after she left the elevator. 

SCREECH. She turned back, noticing that half the monster’s body was already in the elevator. The sound of plastic being crushed came in as the elevator doors crashed into the monster, slowly breaking it. Wait… if I go down, that tall monster will be there, Alice quickly remembered. She jumped off the box running towards the doors. CRUNCH! Alice ran under the monster’s legs before they crashed together and the doors crushed the monster. She looked around, trying to find another way out, then remembered the hallway where the monster came from. Alice turned to look at it. The only light was coming from the room she was in. She turned around, searching through the pile of toys when she found a cat-shaped nightlight that ran on batteries. The glass-shaped cat was cracked and missing pieces. She flicked the small switch at the bottom of it so the light would turn on then she walked towards the hallway. “Why is it so dark down there? I hate the dark.” Alice strode into the hallway, holding the night light in front of her.

To be continued…

Fracture

The first time was when I was eight. I’d been bouncing on the balls of my feet, waiting for my best friend outside in the scorching hot playground, but when she arrived, she told me she wanted a break from me and was going to go play with someone else today. A small tear tugged at the threads of my heart, and a small crack rooted itself in my heart, so I rushed to the bathroom before anyone noticed the crack. With tears streaming down my face, my shaking fingers landed on the hidden button by accident. But when the soft flesh of my fingertips collided with the well-concealed button on the base of my neck, everything was okay. The button took me back four hours before. With those extra four hours, I thought of a solution: I wouldn’t go to school that day. It gave her the break that she needed but spared me from the pain of being told she needed the break. 

Of course, I know restarting doesn’t really change anything, but it at least gave me the option of pretending it never happened. 

The next time was when I was 11. I’d heard through my friend, who heard through her friend, that my friend had told someone that I was an embarrassment to be friends with. The secret made its way through the furtive chain of people until it made it to me. And as those words were whispered back to me, the same way they had been whispered down the chain, a fracture opened in my heart. And surprise! The fracture was in the same place as the one that my eight-year-old self had sewed up sloppily three years earlier. So I ran to the bathroom to sew up the new fracture. I hit the button and got my extra four hours. This time, my solution was a little more direct. I decided if she was going to call me embarrassing, I may as well just do it first. So I walked up to her slowly. I’m really sorry, but I just – I-I-I don’t know if I wanna be so close. I’m going to be honest, you’re a little bit embarrassing to be around, and I think I might need a break from our friendship. The moment the words escaped, there was a slight guilt that blossomed in my chest, but I ignored it. I watched the tears form in her eyes, and she shook her head and ran off. I wondered if maybe she was running to the bathroom to push her own button. 

After that, I started using it more frequently. With each use, I sewed up the same fracture that kept appearing in the same place until my heart was a jumble of threads pulled together sloppily. 

I used it for the 26th time when I was 13. I had been friends with these two girls for three years. We’d made a promise that our friendship was for life. We’d looked each other in the eyes and told each other how much we valued our friendship. It was your typical middle-school, coming-of-age-movie type thing. But obviously, three aren’t best friends. Two are best friends. Three is a pair of best friends and an extra. Apparently, I was the extra. Three months after we had made our pact of friendship, I figured out that they had been having sleepovers together every month. In fact, they had made it a tradition. Another fracture. Off to the bathroom. Better sew it up. Tears streaming down my face. Hair being flung out of the way. Fingers searching for the button. Finger. Button. Finger. Button. Finger. Button? Finger. No button? Finger. No button. 

That was the day the threads tore, and the fracture, no longer contained, etched itself into my heart, a cruel, burning emblem that had seared the words:

Tiresome.

Annoying.

Burden.

Embarrassment. 

Into my heavy, broken heart for everyone to see.

Wright: The Oil Chain

Chapter 1

Trapped in a hellhole. That is how I felt when I got shipped to a little farm 70 miles away from civilization. While rolling away from my parents’ driveway, my dad yelled, “Have fun at my parents’ house!” 

I swear to God he smirked to himself, knowing the troubles that would soon follow. And they followed sooner than expected.
It should have been a nice, uneventful hour-and-a-half drive. 

It was not. 

Not by anybody’s standards, unless you thought the “standard” was a seven-hour drive, excluding the literal five times we stopped for “gas” or “food” or “water” or “rest.” Why don’t you do all of them at the same time? My grandpa did not move faster than 35 mph on the empty highway we were on the whole time, which had a speed limit of 80 mph! I think Grandpa started a three-hour traffic jam. That is how slow he was. Did I mention that it was a one-lane highway? When we went to a gas station for water – I know! Just water! – Grandpa came back, he got in the seat, and we turned into a huge traffic jam. I mean huge traffic. So, basically, the traffic Grandpa created turned out to be the traffic we were stuck in. Don’t ask me how… No, I know how: even with the car in front of us finally out of view, we had a huge line of cars behind us, inching forward. The only thing stopping them from freedom was a small minivan with somebody too scared to go faster than 20 mph because he did not want to “catch up” with the traffic. That traffic was long gone. You could guess that the people directly behind us were wondering why we were going so slow; eventually, the car behind us went around us by driving in the grass! I think that is illegal.

He parked in the road and got out of his car. We stopped and he told us to speed up, and I looked at my grandpa, just wishing for once he would be “cool.” I could tell he wasn’t. I have been away from cool people for so long. Anything better than my grandpa would be cool to me. Unsurprisingly, Grandpa started talking about his childhood, but I did not expect what he told the guy who stopped us. It sounded personal. It was how his mom (my great-grandmother) once was driving 65 mph on a 50 mph road, and she crashed her car. She was uninjured but traumatized for life. Apparently, it rubbed off on Grandpa, and now he drives slow. Instead of empathy, he responded with a cold, “Shut up, old man.”

To be honest, I was not surprised. He then gave a thumbs up to the car behind us, and then he got in his car and drove off. I do not regret my next actions. When he gave the thumbs up, I knew that hundreds of cars behind us would move around us. So I reached over to my grandpa’s legs and pushed down on one of them. 

Although I was sympathetic to him, I did not want to wait longer than I needed to. The car bolted forward and almost crashed into a fence, and I think I lit a spark in him because soon we were driving steadily at 80 mph. Grandpa was at the wheel, leaving the other cars in the dust. My grandpa must have had some experience with driving fast. My grandma (also known as Jenny) screamed as well. All I will say is that her clothes used to not be brown. 

I think I have told you enough, and around 45 minutes later, we arrived at my grandparents’ farmhouse around ten o’clock at night. And I looked up at what I thought would be a decent barn with a silo for keeping food, and I looked at… nothing.

Yeah. You heard me. Nothing. It was empty. More than empty. It was creepy. Just a few seconds ago, Grandpa was saying it would be big and comfy, and when I looked over at him, he did not have his usual smile. That will happen a lot. 

“So this is the beautiful farm you have been talking about,” I said sarcastically.

Grandpa responded in a sad tone, “But… but it was just here! How could this happen?”

We got our answer pretty quickly. We looked behind us to see a huge pile of wood. I thought I heard a moo from somewhere in the pile, and I put the pieces together pretty quickly.

“Something destroyed the house and moved it to the field over there,” I said matter-of-factly. 

Grandpa sighed. “I knew this was a bad idea, Jenny. You know he has wanted our land for a while now. He probably swooped in when we were not looking.”

Grandma may have known about the scandal, but it was news to me. 

I knew it was a bad time, but I asked, “Why didn’t Grandma stay and watch the farm?”

Grandpa gave me a look that definitely said, Not the time, Robert.

I was about to sit at the edge of the ruins when I heard a far-off rumbling. I looked over, and what I saw in the distance was horrifying. It was an excavator with black and yellow stripes. There was a lot of other machinery in the same style, including a big truck that had a lot of materials, such as metal and brick. House material it was not.

I gave a small glare, and I ran to my grandparents. I shoved them off the road and into a little crevasse in the ruins. Before they asked what I was doing, I covered their mouths while giving the “shush” symbol. They nodded quickly, and Grandpa peeked outside. He looked back at us with a stone face. He said quietly, “We need to stop him.”

“Why don’t you sue him?” I asked quietly.

Grandpa responded in a small voice, “He owns the judges. He owns everything. Well, kind of. He has almost every country’s hands tied.”

“What is his goal?” I asked weakly.

“Nobody knows. He has been taking property all over the country. No… all over the world.”

The bad guy (who I will call Destructo until I learn his name) and the machinery rolled up to what I guess used to be the front porch. I strained my ears to hear anything important, and I realized something. Well, actually, two things. The stakes had gotten a lot higher. This was supposed to be a boring summer at a farm, not a life-or-death situation. The other realization was just as bad. My house could be next. These guys needed to be stopped. I said it was a life or death situation because it likely was. If Destructo was able to have a country’s hands tied, I didn’t doubt that Destructo would kill in an instant. I started to think of my parents, and just then, Grandpa shook me out of my daymares. “Listen!”

I got my wits back and heard Destructo yelling to one of the guys operating the excavator, “That oil won’t dig itself out!”

Suddenly, things started making a lot more sense. I got a sick feeling in my stomach and looked at Grandpa. He looked worse than I felt. Suddenly, I heard Destructo start talking again, this time much softer. All three of us looked at the area where the house used to be and heard, “Durce, we have done this before. I know you don’t like it, but that old gremlin’s family needs to die. We can’t have them getting all suspicious.”

I started to hyperventilate, and the other guy, Durce, responded to Destructo, “When do we go?”

“Not us! I will send somebody else out! I am not going to risk our lives for even the most annoying of people! And for your question, they will be playing a flute in the clouds in less than an hour. They may not open the gate for anybody related to that fool, though.”

I tuned Destructo out. “Call my parents!

Whoever you are, wherever you are, you know that a man can be worried. Especially when their parents are about to die. Grandpa called my parents, and they answered with a slightly slurred, “What the hell was a guy with a revolver doing in the house!?”

A very grim feeling settled in my chest. I tried to keep it down, but the fact that somebody had ordered my parents’ death was pretty uncounterable.

They kept talking. “We are in some guy’s car, driving to your grandparents’ house.”

I answered with surprise, “It’s too dangerous!”

The next thing I heard on the phone made me want to cry all over again.

CRASH! 

“Mom? Dad?”

The phone beeped, dead. Grandma looked at Grandpa, and said quietly, “We need to go back.”

I added weakly, “Can you speed up a little on the way?” 

And so we went.

Chapter 2                  

For Lennon Wright, it was supposed to be a relaxing, no-kid summer with his wife, Kenya Wright. Their son, Robert Wright, had left an hour earlier in a very grumpy mood.  The second Robert left, the party started. 

“Get the cocktails!” Kenya yelled. 

Around an hour later, the people started flooding in. Soon, there were dozens of noisy, drunk adults dancing where Robert had slept just a few hours earlier, and finally, when the Wrights’ friends left, the real fun began. Spoiler alert: it kind of depends on what you think of when somebody says fun.

The Wrights went to bed in a half-drunk haze for a few hours and woke up to the sound of banging in the kitchen. They felt a little better, but they were still stumbling everywhere and were sleep-deprived.

They quietly walked down the stairs, or should I say fell down them, and they saw a guy they remembered letting into the party. Only this time, the guy was holding a revolver and looking into Robert’s room. Kenya almost screamed, but Lennon held her back. They quietly crept out of the room but found a random black car with the words “Durce&Dereck” on the side and their usual blue Subaru Forester in flames. Lennon said somberly, “I heard a noise earlier but I never would have thought it was this.” 

They both looked at the destroyed car, a single tear rolling down Kenya’s cheek. Lennon looked at the horizon. 

“It’s early. Only two or three. No matter.”

“How could this happen?” Kenya asked nobody in particular, choking on every word. They looked at each other and nodded their heads. 

Lennon said almost excitedly, “I call shotgun!” 

And so they went.

Chapter 3

The next few hours were a blur. On one hand, I wanted to kill this guy. On the other hand, I needed to save my parents, so the first hand would have to wait. The first thing I did once the phone died was simply ask, “How are we getting back with Destructo right in front of us?”

The answer came quickly. Destructo walked inside one of his machines. We crept out of the ruins of the house and into the ditch where Grandma had parked the car – thank God it was not in the open. The next step was scary. We could either have just gunned it and hoped we did not get shot or driven slowly as far as the ditch took us and then gunned it. Yeah, we took the second option. The car slowly crept through the ditch and, to our absolute dismay, a huge tree was poking out of the end of the ditch. I wish we had known this before, though, because we were ready to be gunning it and, surprise, we were already gunning it! Grandpa just missed the tree. I wish we had not. Our car shot directly into an upright log. Who puts their logs there? The log flew through the window and into the roof of the car. Grandpa screamed. 

“You okay?” I asked, with more than a touch of panic.

He was not. Besides the glass flying down from the window, there was not much that could’ve hurt him enough to scream like that. It was loud. Grandpa, now with his head flopping on his shoulder, struggling to stay conscious, squeaked out, “My hand… it hurts.”

I looked up in horror as I saw that the log had jammed his wrist between the open car roof and the log, and a sharp piece of roof was sticking out of his palm. I forgot about the whole car thing, and the car suddenly slowed down by 80%, and this is the worst part: it hit a house. Yeah. A normal farmhouse. And let me tell you, it is not fun to go through the wall of a house with eight year-olds playing hide and seek. Especially when your grandpa is dying. The kids yelled for their mommies and jumped out of the way. We rolled to a halt in what used to be a kitchen. 

Yeah, you could say we destroyed the house. Grandma, Grandpa, and I stepped out of the car. There were four kids and two adults staring at us wide-eyed when this clean-shaven, normal guy with slick hair and striped pajamas broke the silence. 

“Do you need medical aid?” I thought he was talking about Grandpa. Likely. Even so, I looked down. I wish I had not. Red pieces of glass of all shapes and sizes. On my body. My body. The body that had managed to live years without a hint of a scar. I fell to the ground, and let’s just say I took a little nap.

I woke up to see Grandma standing over me, and I saw tears in her eyes. I looked down at myself, and I had scabs all over my body and face. I felt sore but not too hurt. I immediately sat up as I realized that it must have been about Grandpa. I ran the possibilities through my head, and then suddenly a figure stood next to my bed. And I was happy to see… You may have guessed it! Drum roll, please… Grandpa! WHOO! He was alive. With his limbs, hopefully. Annnd no. I craned my head (in pain) to look at his hand and deflated. A stump was in its place. I tearfully said, “I am so, so, so sorry.” I gasped for breath, tears falling from the wrong man’s eyes. “This is all my fault. I did this to you.”

He put on a fake smile. “Robert, it is not your fault. It is just a minor roadblock.”

It barely put my worries at ease, but I cooled down for him.

I asked in a small voice, “How long?”

“Four days.”

I leaped out of my bed.

I felt every one of my cuts reopen, days of healing gone in an instant. I fell to the side of my bed. The pain was just that incredible. But even more incredible was the fact that somewhere out there were my parents. I remembered the call vividly. The call where my parents were in a car and then… it was gone. Everything. The point of life. Family. They might have been out there, dying… or already dead. I grabbed my shirt and stuffed it in my mouth, and slowly got up. I wanted to scream in pain and die, but my mouth was stuffed with cloth, so that helped. I crept up, getting flashbacks to when I was a little kid. Everything was so easy. Life was easy. Grades? Non-existent. Running for my life, being worried about dying at every turn? Not a thing. The one thing I never seemed to be able to do was walk. I took my first step at four. You could say that I was a late bloomer. Honestly, I didn’t “bloom” until a few days ago. Not until… you know what, I’m not going to go back into the horror that happened. To start all of this… well, madness really. I just hoped that I could put this all behind me and have a good story to tell to my kids. If I lived that long.

Okay. I will stop fantasizing. Back to where I was. I was bursting in pain, ready to save my parents. It hurt, but it was worth it. I stood up, and came face to face with… the two people I wanted to see most?

Or should I say, Kenya and Lennon Wright.

And so we go.

Chapter 4

Lennon said almost excitedly, “I call shotgun!” 

“This is not a game, honey.”

“We will see about that,” he responded confidently.

Kenya suddenly gasped. 

“What is it, dear?” Lennon said with more than a hint of fear.

What it was, well… a word. A simple word.

“Robert!” they shouted in unison.

They took off, unlike Lennon’s father, at a “little” over the speed limit. Around thirty minutes later, they saw a normal-looking neighborhood, and they knew they were close. All of a sudden, the car phone rang.

“I will get it,” Lennon said. He fumbled through his pockets and took out his old 2009 phone.

“Five minutes,” Kenya said, without taking her eyes off the road.

She stared intently at the horizon, as if it would get her there faster. Lennon brought the phone to his face and turned on his mad voice. 

“What the hell was a guy with a revolver doing in the house!?” Before Robert could respond, Lennon said, “We are in some guy’s car, driving to your grandparents’ house.”

Over the phone, they heard their son’s voice squeal, “It’s too dangerous!”

Kenya rolled her eyes, ready to butt into the conversation, when – CRASH! Their car seemed to flip over for no reason. The now upside-down car flew into the dirt, crushing the phone. They looked around their bodies, and they were both happy to see they were not badly hurt. Kenya and Lennon slowly limped out of the mystery car and did not like what they saw. It turns out that there was a reason for the car’s demise. A fricken rocket launcher had shot at it! This beast had a smooth, gray surface, for the most part. There seemed to be odd buttons sticking out of the front. All of this, on a CAR!  Kenya and Lennon gaped in wonder. This quickly turned into fear. They quickly recovered from their shock, and well, took cover. Despite how dirty they looked, they had capabilities. They ran to a small ditch and crouched. They looked at the rocket-car pointed at them… on a grassy knoll. 

“I don’t like where this is going,” Kenya said while trying furiously to get any lower. They heard the infamous PUSSHHH as the missile launcher depressurized, and well, fired. BOOM! A little too late, Kenya and Lennon realized that they had not helped the situation by jumping into a hole: they had worsened it. 

“Run!” Lennon yelled.

Lennon seemed to forget they were in a ditch. It served its purpose, though, and they leaped out of the small hole and dove into some dirt as if that would help. Luckily, it did… kind of. The explosion shot both into the air, and both fell right on their knees. Ouch. They quickly recovered, believing that no pain was worse than losing Robert, their sweet Robert.

They looked at each other, movie style, and they seemed to make a connection in their minds. They made expressions on their faces, and the little conversation all seemed to resonate: Rush it. When? How about this: tell me if you like it. One… two… three… GO!!! 

They rushed the huge turret. They heard the creak of the launcher being aimed at Kenya. 

“Under!” Lennon yelled quickly.

They both slipped under the tank-like car and looked out just in time to see dirt erupt from the ground, resulting in a volcano-like shower of dirt. It might sting the face, but nothing more, they thought, forgetting one thing: shockwaves. BOOM! 

A flurry of dirt flew around Lennon and Kenya, and the rocket-car seemed to fly off of them, as easy as picking up a usual morning cup of coffee. Except this was not usual. Also, if the shockwave could throw a car like a doll, what could it do to a person weighing 10 times less? The answer came quickly. They got launched 15, maybe 20 feet.

It is said that 20 feet is around that distance where you can break everything from your leg to even your back or neck. It was all good, though, because they landed on a powerline… with no way down. They felt the ground rumble, and they looked down to see a smoking wreckage a few yards away. They could see a foggy view of somebody getting out.

“Damn. It is always the bald guys,” Lennon said.

A tall, maybe six-foot-three man with a bald head and a long scar on his leg walked around, surveying the damage. Lennon looked at Kenya and sighed. 

“Are you thinking what I am thinking?” Lennon asked.

Kenya responded with a weathered sigh, “I will get the switch.”

Years ago, they had done this in a similar fashion when their skydiving didn’t go as planned. Kenya took her “emergency hatchet” out and started hacking away at the rusty metal, sparks flying in all directions into the never-ending horizon, dawn just striking. The metal, lined with old blue paint marks, long since having been redone, started to crack, and then, all of a sudden, broke off. A sizable chunk of metal flew from the bone of the powerline, and they looked inside. 

“Is it the red or the blue?” Kenya asked. 

“The red, I think,” Lennon said. 

Suddenly, the air seemed to drop in temperature, and they found the dots when they stopped hearing the buzzing sound. Kenya looked herself up and down, wondering if she really was going to do this. 

She was. Lennon picked up the hatchet which Kenya had dropped after cutting the wire and started hacking at the powerline wire. After a few very strong throws, the line was being held by just a thread. Kenya and Lennon grabbed onto the strong wire, and with all their trust in it, jumped. The wire broke, and they flew down at breakneck speed, trying to do anything to get higher for fear of skimming their feet on the ground. They flew back up as momentum took over, and they started flying toward a giant powerline. With no brakes.

Chapter 5: The End Is Near…

“How did you get h – ” I got cut off by my dad.

“We are killing that guy.” A new, hard look was on his face. 

I managed to croak out, “Okay…” before blacking out. 

People act like blacking out makes you fall asleep for years, but really, it is a short thing. Two minutes, maybe three, tops. And that is what happened. But it felt much longer. In my dream, my parents and I were in a tiny rowboat, and, suddenly, the water started rippling. The water started to push upwards, and a man seemed to show up out of nowhere. And he walked on water. 

“God?” I asked. No… It was the opposite of God. It was Destructo. I bolted up, panting. My parents were waiting over me, and I got up almost like a robot. We walked to the parking lot, and they directed me to a big car. Our car? 

“We had a little extra time,” they responded. 

I hugged them. They looked as crude as me, but I still held onto their scent, never letting it go, like a watchdog fiercely protecting their leader. 

“I – ” I started.

“Yeah, yeah. We missed you, too. We love you. But right now, we need to kill that guy,” Lennon said, playfully in an unplayful way.

I smiled. “Yeah, let’s go.” 

I limped into the car and surveyed it. Clean cup holders, an undamaged roof, and leather seats. Mom put the car into second gear, and we were off. Apparently, still too cheap for an automatic. 

After an hour of driving, we reached what used to be my grandparents’ house. They were still there. And more. There were hundreds of people drilling into the ground, and still, we stepped out of the car. We had no plan. We ran to the remains of the house, and we dug a little hole into it. I swear, I could still hear the cows mooing. Mom took out her phone. 

“Mom, don’t you think it would be a little disheartening saying your goodbyes now? Right now?” I asked, with a hint of a smile. 

Kenya replied slyly, “I managed to find all the people who Destructo has taken property from. They always seem to show up on the local news, and I tracked them down from there. While you were recovering from getting glass shattered onto your body, I called them up, and they were just happy to help. They should be coming right about… now.” 

Before I could respond, hundreds of cars simultaneously revved. 

“Here they are,” Kenya said, all jolly. I peeked my head out of the makeshift house. My eyes widened as I saw something that I never would have imagined in a million years. Cars lined up for miles. On the good side. People started stepping out of the cars. I was taken aback by the age groups when I saw babies standing strong next to grandparents holding their ground next to their kids. I walked towards them. They all gave us the same sympathetic grin, and we did the same for them. Somebody a little older than me, maybe 16 years old, stepped up. 

“My name is Gerald, and I am fighting for all of our properties. All of our freedom from this horrible curse brought over us.”

“I, too,” said a middle-aged woman.

“My name is Philip, and I have spent eighty-seven years on planet Earth. The last five have been hell. Because of what Putty has done,” said an old man.

“I, too,” said a different man.

“I, too,” said another.

And then all of a sudden, everyone said in unison, “I, too.”

And we marched forward. (Where? No idea.)

I walked next to my mom. “Any idea what ‘Putty’ means?”

“Nope. Nada. But if I had to guess, I would say Destructo or the whole organization of Destructo.”

“Wow… deep,” I responded a tad too casually.

“What’s up, squirt?”

I sighed. “Why did this have to happen? Why are you here? Wait… how are you here?”

“Well, that is a long one. I guess you have no idea where I am starting from, but we are almost there, so I will keep it short. Your father and I are holding on to a power line, I know, no context, and we are about to hit the metal structure holding it up. You know what I am talking about?”

“Um… I guess?”

“Whatever. Anyway, your father and I are about to hit it when… The line breaks. We flew up, still going towards the structure, and then your father saw something. A handlebar that led to the interior of the structure stuck out below. ‘Over there!’ Lennon yelled. We hoped for the best, and we drove all of our bodies to weight for it. We just catch hold onto the bar, and from there, we shimmy our way down to the ground, not before having a few hundred heart attacks.” Kenya seemed really invested in the story, but she suddenly stopped to look forward. “Almost there, honey. I have to speed up.”

“That is fine. I just want to know the basics,” I responded.

“All right. There was this bald guy, and we wanted to sneak away from him, but we couldn’t. He found us and coincidentally took us to a dungeon a block from the hospital you stayed at. I used my bobby pin to escape.”

“Wow… that was a fast ending but really cra – ” I trailed off. 

I kept staring forward, but I wanted to look down. It seemed crazy. I couldn’t help it. I looked down. There was a step down to a sort of basement with no roof, and it was full of weapons. It was so well covered by all the farmland around, and… and… IT WAS FULL OF WEAPONS, GOD DANG IT! Glocks, C-4, rocket launchers, SMGs, everything! And hundreds of them. We all gathered around, taking what looked cool, acting like we knew how to use it, and we lined up. And we marched.

Chapter 6: Survival of the Fittest is True to Every Extent

No, really. We became the fittest. So we survived. This can be seen in so many different cases. If the weakest wins, then they were actually the fittest. A normal person walks into a wall. They feel incredible pain. But if a person with fried nerves walks into the wall, they feel no pain. All odds were against them, and they still won. Let’s see how.

We marched to the battleground in style. Not expected, but it felt good. We filed into a line behind the house. 

“Ready! Set! Go!” I yelled. We walked into view, guns blazing. 

My grandparents walked next to me and crouched down next to me, and my grandfather shouted over the gunfire, “I need to go! I can’t be here, even though I would love to. My hand is infected!”

I wanted to cry for him, but I stepped forward. 

“Whatever you think is best!”

He left, and we stepped up. We encircled the compound, and, suddenly, some of the drillers who had taken cover ran toward us. With nothing. They got behind our lines and pleaded for mercy. We gave them weapons, and they fought for us. And then we closed in. We walked inside and saw Destructo, and we surrounded him.

We put a rope around his head, and attached ropes on every side. 

Victims grabbed onto any available piece of rope. 

“Three! Two! One! Pull!”

And with that, Destructo died. And nobody shed a tear, as he would have wanted.

THE END

I was at home, hundreds of people hovering over me, bright smiles on their faces. It was over. They could have their property back. The monster… the creature that uprooted dozens of families… was dead. I stuffed a cupcake into my mouth, trying to, as most likely everybody was,  forget the pain and suffering that had ensued after the loss of their homes. Mom had combed my hair an hour before and somehow got a fancy suit on me. Grandpa had actually gotten a prosthetic hand after he left the battle. Thank God he did… saved his life. But some of the stolen property was still being run. Durce, well, he was now running the operation much more humanely. No wonder Destructo’s workers turned their backs on him.

I looked around at everybody with great smiles on their faces, filling up with colorful churros – Mom still had kept the recipe secret. She said when my birthday rolled around, she would tell me. She didn’t. I looked at Dad. He was looking around nervously, repeatedly rubbing his hand across his head. “Dad – you ok?”

“Uh… um, yeah, sweety. Just happy everything went well.” 

“Well, me, too,” I responded.

“You should try one of the churros. We bought them extra special!”

I looked at Dad. Bought? Suddenly, hundreds of people fell to the ground. None were moving. And they never moved again. “Dad? Mom?”

They were the only ones standing. They both reached for their faces, and suddenly started peeling their hair off of them. 

“Durce, you said it would be painless!” said a man that I thought was my dad.

“Well, Azerite, you ruined my surprise!” Durce said harshly.

I studied them from head to toe. Definitely bad guys. And I ran.

Settling

Mr. Murphy was a settling man who lived free of companions, but the fact of the matter is this – he was not lonesome. Lonesomeness in his case was silent and unclassified, but he did play around with his own concepts. He sat on the porch of our shack, drowsy and what seemed to be drunk. 

That day was one of the sweltering, and we usually saw dry days in Texas, where Smurf would either go to sleep, or get drunk trying. Bo had stayed in a tent built with his brother, but he was only a tween, so we didn’t have a clue what to make of him. He had tan-ish skin, and we knew he had been living in the sun his whole life, so he could handle a bit of skin peeling. We lived a couple of miles away from the village because there was a river closer by us. Anyway, Smurf and I moved down to the bar, traveling the somewhat dried-up river. 

“Sand is pasty around here,” Smurf had muttered. “It looks safe for hunting, but I didn’t know what the laws were about around here.” We laid a couple of pebbles on the moist sand. 

“Bo’ll be marked for the land,” I guessed. We called the town Lead, and we called it that because we were on the river that narrowly ‘lead’ up to Miller, a gold mining city where the government had installed the Stoker Dam. There wasn’t much of anything around our place, but I had bet we weren’t gonna try to get out of there. We lived in a shack-like structure, with a rusty iron roof and chunky clay bricks. It was dry inside, and didn’t have anything in it, just a burlap-sack bed and a wooden porch. Anyhow, clumsily striding through the riverside, me and Smurf had gotten to the thicker parts of underbrush, where trees and bushes were blocking our paved-out route. 

“Any chance we can stop by… uh… one of the Mo’s today?” he asked. Smurf called auction houses “Mo’s,” half because he liked the word, and half because we all were used to him using the term.  

“What do you need horses for?” 

“One of the Indian folk in Arizona had sent me a letter, showing us a warrant they were trying to get on our claim,” he uttered, while jumping over a log. At that point we had no clue as to what the Navajo were trying to get our land for, as the plain-skinned guy who sold us the land had not informed us. 

Smurf had looked at my troubled expression quizzically, knowing I wasn’t going down easy on our land. I had gotten so much of our profit into mining everything I could get out of our dry and sandy ground. 

Up until the point me and Smurf got out of the underbush, we were unscathed, but as we were walking into the major square of the town, bits of sand started to hit our face by the wind. I had dragged Smurf on over to the town mostly just for poker to get a bit of money into my hands, but he now seemed up for some games. 

We walked up onto the patio of the new bar, which opened a couple of months ago, just to rest for a minute until someone came into view. The bartender, a guy named Vinnie, stepped out of the locked building all tired looking, but he had clearly gotten a new trim for the time being. I didn’t know if he himself wanted to do anything, but almost as soon as I thought this, he quickly trod over to talk to me and Smurf. 

“The landlords had been after you, ya know?” Vinnie said quickly. 

“Since when have the Indians actually won a case?” Smurf responded as he straightened up in his chair. 

“I don’t know, but you guys better get back to Mexico before anyone whips at your asses.”

I got out of my seat to stretch out and run over to a vendor and get a six-pack to calm down Smurf. I kept my own counsel, but I reckoned Smurf was devising a plan to steal some horses and flee cross-country, or something to do with Bo. I then hurried back across to street to pass a beer to Vinnie and maybe one to Smurf. 

“You boys wanna go back home for the night?” Smurf blurted out. 

“Why would I go? My gran’s got a place in Lead,” Vinnie shot back at him. 

“I guess I’m stressed on the whole of it, but any time wasted is just as bad as any time they have to get closer to us.”

“We should head back to get ready,” I pitched in. 

Vinnie sent us on our way and we took a trail back to the land. I knocked on the steel-plated door, and a couple of seconds later it opened up to reveal the face of a little Indian boy.

“Where abouts you come from?” Smurf asked as we walked into the shack. I had noticed the kid didn’t really want to speak, so we just gave him a cup to play with. We sat for a couple of minutes, until Smurf got up to pour beans into the one little stove we had. We sat for a little longer waiting for it to be prepared, the pan sizzling. 

As Smurf stood up from the bare floor to get bowls for us, we heard a knock at the door. Then there was another knock, and another. But they didn’t stop, loud bangs in the numbness of my brain. 

Proposal

They’d been together for six years now. Six years. It still didn’t feel like that long. But today was different. The two weren’t going to the same restaurant for Friday dinner, and they weren’t going out at the same time. The guy had told her beforehand, “Dress nicely,” which made her awfully excited. “Dress nicely” always had more meaning to it. It was always something special. Last time he told her this was when he surprised her with tickets to the concert of her favorite band. Or that time he took her to dinner and gave her a promise ring. He had led her to a new place. The beach. Not that new. But the beach was a very special place for the both of them. It was where they first laid eyes on each other. One special thing about their relationship was that they usually never disagreed except on one thing. How many slices to cut things into. Now, this may seem useless, but, trust me, it isn’t. Every Friday, they alternated between the number of slices they cut the cake into, and today was her choice. She usually chose six. As she was about to cut the cake, he said, “Do eight pieces today.”

“Why?”

“Just do it, please.”

“No, give me a reason.”

“Trust me, okay?”

“Fine.” 

Then she started cutting. Right as she was slicing the fourth piece of cake, the knife hit something. Metal? She took the piece out and there, in the cake, was a piece of metal. Not any type of metal, though. A ring. An engagement ring. 

That’s when he kneeled on the floor and said, “Will you marry me?”

No Second Chances for Your Love

Chaerin walked down the steps of her house, plugging her earbuds into her phone, and pressed play on her music playlist. She was going to the supermarket to buy food. She walked down the dairy aisle, checking the sell-by dates on each container. She heard footsteps approaching, so she moved closer to the freezer to make room for the person, but instead of walking past her, they stopped. At first, Chaerin thought that they must also be looking for milk, but after a while, she could really feel their gaze burning on the back of her head. She sighed, pausing her music and turning to face the person.

“Sorry, can I help y – “

“I missed you,” the person said, cutting her off. They lifted one hand and reached up to cup her cheek. Chaerin blocked their arm, realizing who she was facing. It was no other than Minwoo, her first “love.” He broke off their relationship, but after Chaerin found someone new, he tried to get back with her, even threatening to hurt her and her new lover. That, along with many other red flags, was the reason why Chaerin started avoiding him.

“Right,” she replied nonchalantly.

“No, really.”

“But we haven’t seen each other since…” Chaerin trailed off.

“Since?” Minwoo asked, feigning confusion.

“You know.” She crossed her arms, lifting her chin, daring him to say otherwise or pretend to be innocent.

“Well…” Minwoo scratched the back of his head, smiling nervously.

“Well.” Chaerin uncrossed her arms, turning around to leave. “It was nice seeing you again. Have a nice day.” She left, without giving Minwoo a chance to reply.

The Swan

These were no ordinary pair of scissors. They were my mother’s sewing scissors. They were gold and delicately molded by some craftsman long ago into the shape of an elegant swan in flight. The swan’s wings curled up the round handles, and the long beak was the razor-sharp blade. My mother’s hands guided the shining bird in and out of the seas of many-colored fabrics. She used these scissors to make the most beautiful dresses anyone had ever seen. She worked so hard. We lived in a tiny, cramped cottage with the bed too close to the stove. My bed used to be covered in half-made dresses and silken ribbons. 

Ivo stole the swan. I was asleep on my too-small bed in the too-small house. My mother was at the market. It was late at night, far too late to be awake when the moon was shining above brighter than any candle. I hated Ivo. He was the butcher’s son and about three years older than me. I’d seen him with blood on his hands. He climbed through the too-small window and stepped with his dirty boots on my mother’s beautiful dresses. I didn’t see him take them – I was too busy watching the dreams in my head. I never could have stopped him anyway – I am small, and he is strong. 

When mother came back to see the little house in disarray, she didn’t cry. I think she wanted to, but she was too proud to let me see. She told me that Ivo wanted to melt down the swan and sell the gold. In the early morning of the next day, I saw her counting the coins left in her desk drawer. I peeked out from under my blankets to see her. She lifted each tiny disk from the drawer and held it into a ray of silvery light. I dreamed about the coins when I fell back asleep. 

My mother spent the next morning sewing faster than I’d ever seen her sew before. She used a dull pair of gray scissors that lacked all the grace of the diving swan. My mother’s hands flew over the fabric as she attached a long red cape to a brown dress. She said it was for a very important, noble lady who lived in the big house by the castle. 

“I am going to play in the pond,” I said as I pulled on my favorite dress. The cloth was soft and worn from use. 

“Be careful. And come back before noon – I need you to hang the laundry,” Mother said, pinning my hair back with a spirally iron clasp. 

“I will.”

The front door creaked open. I ran outside, my boots stomping on the wet, slimy grass. I didn’t run toward the pond, though. Instead, I ran into town. The ground changed from brownish green weeds to hoof-pounded dirt to cobblestone that clomped too much with the many feet landing on it. Men and women in fine clothing walked and chatted in huddles. A couple of girls who looked about my age were weaving in and out of the swarms of adults. They had long, blonde hair the color of wheat and fine red dresses splattered with brown mud. 

No one looked at me, but I kept my head down anyway. I cut through a narrow alley. The stairs were cracked and scratched, and the walls were close enough together that I had to stretch both my arms out to feel the rough stone. The wet smell of horses faded in the alley. 

Soon, I reached the landing where two alleys converged into a cross. I turned to the right. The walls were too far apart now. Only one of my hands could feel as the stone softened to worn wood. The second too-wide alley dumped me out into an open noisy street. Wonderful smells, fresh flowers, baked bread, and expensive spices from far away filled the market street. Too many people had shoved themselves in between the tall brown houses to get a look at the vendors’ wares.

I climbed over a tall stack of crates to avoid a cluster of haggling shoppers. A tall man with arms like twigs and a wrinkly nose yelled something at me, but I didn’t hear a word he said. I leaped off the crates and landed on all fours beside a table piled high with sticky sweet buns and bread braided like hair. I scooted along the wall until the sweet smells of the market were contaminated with the ugly, rotten stink of meat and blood. 

The butcher’s shop was a tiny replica of the castle. It had big wooden doors with round door knockers the size of my head. Its charcoal stone walls stretched up higher than all the others and were crenelated. An alley snaked around on both sides of the mini-castle. I swiveled on my heel into it and away from the chattering crowds. This sidewall of the butcher’s shop was old and crumbling. Spiky vines crawled up the bricks. I counted the windows. There were five in total, three shuttered and two open. The fourth window was the only one that mattered, though. 

A pile of crumbled stone formed a lumpy staircase to the fourth window. I carefully climbed upward, trying to keep my feet from getting trapped in a dark hole. The stones were wobbly, and I felt like I was walking across a tightrope in a windstorm. I’d seen Ivo climb up these rocks before. He made it look so easy. When I reached the windowsill, I peered through a slit in the blinds. The crunching sound they made at my touch was deafening. The small room was empty, as I had expected. Ivo was downstairs in the shop with his father. 

It wasn’t a bedroom like John had told me. He said that the butcher lived in luxury. I had imagined a huge, silk bed with embroidered drapes and velvet-smooth cushions like the fancy ladies in the castle. This was not that. The room was small. The threadbare, gray bed took up most of the space. The nails in the walls looked like they had been crying reddish rust. A white apron hung from the door. There was a stack of clothes in the corner with a book on top. I frowned. 

The scissors weren’t under the bed or the pile of clothes. They hadn’t been hidden behind the apron or under the loose floorboards. I made my search as quiet as possible. I picked up the little book and tucked it under my skirt. He didn’t deserve it. The scissors just weren’t here. I cautiously pushed the door open. Its hinges creaked horribly loud. This room was bigger than Ivo’s, with an animal skin carpet and a big writing desk. A woman sat in a nice chair beside the desk. She looked up from her sewing in surprise, but her expression soon softened to a welcoming smile. A red-brown tunic was draped over her knees. Her face was warm and round, freckles scattered like stars across her cheeks. Her long, dark hair hung loosely around her shoulders. 

“Are you one of Ivo’s friends?” she asked. Probably reading the horror on my face, she tilted her head to the side and a cascade of dark waves followed. 

“Yes…” I stammered. “Uh, no. I mean, yes.” I panicked. I scanned her up and down, looking for signs of anger. Instead, my eyes caught on something that glinted in the dusty light. A delicate, golden, shimmering thing was laced between her fingers. She had used them to snip the thread. The swan. Mother’s swan. Our swan. 

I pointed at her hands. She looked confused. 

“The – the scissors.”

She held them up. “These?” 

“Yes, yes!” 

“What about them?” 

I wrinkled my nose. 

“Ivo took them from our house!” I yelled, smashing my boot into the wooden boards. “He stole them!”

“Ivo?” She tilted her head some more. “He stole them from you?” 

“Yes!” I stomped again. “I came to get them back!” 

“He said he found them on the street, along with some coins in a little embroidered purse,” Ivo’s mother said. She fingered the tunic’s hem. 

“He is a liar!” I crumpled my hands into fists. 

“No. He lied. There is a difference.” Her tone had grown building-stone rough. Her smile straightened out into a disapproving line, cutting lines under her eyes. “Sit.” She motioned to the wooden bench by the hearth. I sat, but only because her face looked like my mother’s face when she was mad. 

“You don’t believe me, do you?” I crossed my arms into a stiff X.

“I believe you.” 

“Then give me back the scissors!”

“I want you to understand what Ivo must have been thinking when he stole.” 

“I don’t want to understand! I hate him!” 

“What he did was wrong, yes, and he will be punished, but I need you to understand why he did it.” 

“Why?!” I kicked the bench’s leg. 

“He was hurting. So he wanted to pass that hurting along to someone else.” She sucked a breath in through her freckled nose. “My mother, his grandmother, died last week. The plague.” I imagined the curved beak masks and the black cloaks and the smell of wounds and the screams from the tents. I winced. “You may have known her only as the flower seller.” I remembered a warm smile and fresh crimson blooms. “She and Ivo were very close. It, of course, hurt me, as well, to see her pass. I believe that Ivo thought the scissors would make me feel better.”

I was chewing on the pink insides of my cheek, tapping my toe on a loose nail.

“I’m – uh, I’m sorry.” I looked only down. The fiery anger was somehow nothing but thick smoke clogging up my throat. 

“Take them all back.” She handed me the swan and the little bag embroidered with sloppy roses from my unsteady needle. The coins inside jingled merrily. I took them back and clutched them tight under my arm. “You can go,” she said, pointing at the door. A little smile had come back over her round face. 

I walked with my head down to the door. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. 

“I never got your name.”

I turned. She had returned to her sewing in the nice chair, with a pair of dim, gray scissors. 

“Adelaide,” I said. 

“Jacquette.” 

The little book burned through my skirt with every clunk of boot on stone. I ignored the people chattering and didn’t run my hand along the walls of the alley. I helped my mother hang the laundry, clipping lines to the skinny trees. The book still burned. I put it under my too-small bed and tried to forget it was there. I could feel its smoldering warmth against my back at night. 

Ivo was crying. I ducked back into the market swarms, hiding. I felt the book under my bed burn the little cottage down in a blazing bonfire. It still burns me sometimes, but I don’t want to put it out. It will just sit under the too-small bed in the too-small house. I don’t think I could bear touching it. I want to forget it all.

Aubrey

Editor’s note: This wonderfully creepy story contains violent imagery that may be disturbing to younger readers.

“You guys, I don’t think this is a good idea.” I hate the dark. And the woods. 

“Don’t be so stuck-up, Mae,” Dillan says. “It’s the last week of camp. We’ve got to do something fun before we leave.” 

My friends woke me up in the middle of the night. They told me that one of our camp counselors, Aubrey, had snuck out of our cabin and that we needed to follow her. 

“It’s none of our business. Let’s just stay here,” I told them. Yet they insisted, practically dragging me out of bed. 

“Maybe Mae is right,” Chris says, holding out his flashlight over his feet. 

“Shut up, Chris.” Dillan turns, flashing his light in Chris’ face. 

We spend the next five minutes looking left and right for Aubrey. I’m not sure what they think we’re going to find out. Aubrey plays the guitar and has a peanut allergy. I doubt she has much to hide.

It’s too quiet. We all walk slowly, afraid that if we put too much weight on the ground, it’ll snap beneath us. Suddenly, there’s a squishing noise behind us. We all immediately turn around to face Imani, who’s lifted up her right foot and is gagging. 

“I stepped on something…” she says, covering her mouth. I hear a loud, relieved sigh from Chris. 

***

We walk for another ten minutes before Imani says she’s getting bored. 

“If we don’t find her in five minutes, we can go back to the campsite. Okay?” Chris says. 

The rest of us nod. Suddenly, there’s a light that starts flickering. 

“You guys…?” I say, beginning to shake. We stop and look around. Chris lets out a loud sigh. 

“It’s just my flashlight. I think it’s dying,” he says. 

Dillan rolls his eyes. “You know what? Let’s just go back to the cabin.” 

I groan.

“Finally,” I say, a smile appearing on my face. We start walking back in the direction of the campsite. It seems like it got even darker outside. In a flash, we hear another squishing noise. I don’t think Imani stepped in something this time.

The hairs on the back of my neck stick up. 

“What was that?” Imani whispers. I let out a shaky breath. 

“Do not say anything,” I utter, barely loud enough to be a whisper. I turn around, slowly. 

“Mae – ” Chris begins. I raise my hand to shut him up. I walk towards the continuous squelching, kneeling down to hide myself behind a bush. 

“Oh my God.” I shoot up almost immediately. “We have to leave right now,” I whisper. 

“Why? What is it?” Dillan asks. 

I shake my head in response, a tear slipping down my cheek. Dillan shoves me aside, peeking behind the bush. More tears escape my eyes. He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell I’m not the only one who sees it, because Dillan starts breathing heavily. 

Next thing I know, I’m crying hysterically. I shove my hand against my mouth to stop myself from making noise. 

“Aubrey…” Dillan says, facing the rest of us. He’s crying, too. “Do any of you have your phones?” 

Chris and Imani haven’t seen what we saw, so they are visibly confused, but they check their pockets anyway. 

“No,” Imani says. Chris shakes his head, too. 

I need to calm down. I squeeze my eyes shut, but no matter – I can’t get the image of her limp body out of my head. Her blonde hair was bright red as she lay in a pool of her own blood.

Aubrey was stabbed

“She needs help,” I say quietly. “Someone call for help!” I yell, snapping to my senses. 

There we were. Four teenagers standing before their dead camp counselor, screaming for help. 

Let’s just say this is not how I would spend my summer.

Too

The world had progressed to develop many great things in technology — the self-writing pen, light-weight bulletproof clothing now available in regular day fashion, food production from oxygen, and now this: your very own “fear in a box” — an internet sensation so big, its producer, Mike Hentalburg, had overcome even Jeffrey Bezos. It was advertised only by influencers with the biggest follower counts. I heard they didn’t even get paid — it was all for the chance with the box. 

The box, I guess, was a way to identify your biggest fear, so you could later face and eliminate it. Apparently you just entered this kind of… void where you see it? I don’t know, I wasn’t really interested in all this stuff. Not until one day, when one of them showed up at my door.

I guess I had somehow signed myself up for some sort of giveaway, at least that’s what all the people with the cameras said. I didn’t know what to do with it. Did I really want to use this? How could there be so much in a normal-looking box? The packaging was kind of rough too. 

The thing is, I lived alone — no close friends, just neighbors. No coworkers too. I worked for myself. An introverted little writer, with no friends or immediate family. Seems sad. Well, I liked it, but it didn’t solve the problem of what I should do with this box.

Hmm. Might as well then, right? Could be fun, who knows. I opened the box, and I looked up to see my biggest obstacle. 

It was… myself.

“What? You have got to be kidding me. This is so cliche,” I groaned. 

“Who, me? Oh, I’m not your biggest obstacle,” Myself said with certainty. “That is.” Myself pointed somewhere else. I turned to see what he was pointing at, and I saw… a speck of light in the distance.

“So my biggest obstacle is a little bit of light off to nowhere?” I asked mockingly. Was this a joke? I thought I was going to find out my biggest obstacle, for it only to be a far-off light.

“Oh, no. That’s not it. It’s just really far away,” stated Myself, suddenly intensely eating yogurt. “Mmm, cherry.” He then looked at me in a what-are-you-still-doing-here type of way.

Great, now I had to do cardio.

I started running, wanting to make this quick. I had to stop a few times (chronic back pain).

I finally made it to the light. Why was this so hard?

“I have no idea,” Myself said, calm as always, answering my inner question (I guess he was myself). I still jumped back what seemed forty feet. Great, more running. This time Myself came along with me. “I didn’t mean to scare you like that. To be fair, I also dropped my yogurt from your reaction…” I kept running, ignoring Myself. I needed to find out what this light was.

As I got within fifteen feet of it, I had to go closer because I didn’t bring my glasses. At two feet, I started to make out what it was. I slowed to a light jog. 

“A computer?” I whispered to myself. “What?” I looked back at Myself, and he was looking back at me with the same lightly confused expression, eating what seemed to be a banana yogurt. 

I went to open the laptop a little more. I then squinted as the light from the laptop tried to blind me. Forcing myself, I reached for the brightness button. Thankfully with just one click it adjusted perfectly. 

“It’s just… a Google Doc,” I mumbled to myself, and I guess also to Myself. I looked closer — it only had one word. “And it’s the only tab or anything,” I added. Huh.

“It’s only the word ‘to,’” Myself said to me over my shoulder, intrigued. I furrowed my brow. “‘To’ as in T-O.” I looked at the keyboard and found the pad. 

“How can the word ‘to’ be your—I mean, our greatest obstacle?” I slowly moved the cursor towards the “to.” “How — wait.” I clicked the end of the “to.” “Wait, wait!” And I went to press the space button. “WAIT, NO!” 

*Click*

My world imploded.

Too

Just Like Clockwork

Anita didn’t gain consciousness until the inventor’s Abilene was already gone; crippled with grief, the inventor took to improving his clocks. He worked day and night. Anita saw glimpses of the dusty old room, littered with scraps of metal where he worked. She heard stories about Abilene, the inventor’s late wife, and as time went on, Anita took on the personality of Abilene. The inventor made Anita on his honeymoon. On the inside of her lid was a piece of glass webbed with cracks. It showed an image of a young man and woman in a loving embrace in front of the Eiffel Tower. When Abilene died, the inventor, who once explored the seven seas and could never stay in one place, shut himself up in his house at the top of the hill, away from civilization, away from the past. He told himself every day that it was for the best, and eventually, he believed it. He forgot about the things he loved.

Anita set out to change him, make him happier, just like Abilene did. She started out by whispering to the inventor while he slept. He thought he had finally found a way to talk to Abilene, and he was ecstatic. She told the inventor stories about him and Abilene, stories that he once told her as she was being built. She had made a connection. Anita carried on and got the inventor to send a message down to the docks to buy tickets on the next ship. He was going back to Paris. Anita had seen the picture of the couple every day, and she knew that she had to see the Eiffel Tower, and so did he. So the next morning as they left the house, she felt relieved she had accomplished her first mission; she was going to see the places Abilene cared about, the places the inventor cared about.

When they got aboard the ship, it was a whole new world. One full of chaos, yelling, and many people. Anita wasn’t used to so many people — the only sound she had heard for the past eleven years was the ticking. The inventor made his way to a beautiful stateroom, and there was a large porthole that looked out on Nantucket. As the ship slowly pulled away from the coast, a feeling in the bottom of Anita’s gears started to grow. It was nervousness. She had never felt this before, but she liked it. It was new, refreshing compared to the boredom she had felt so far. The ship was far from the coast now, and Anita turned her attention to the inventor. He unpacked one of his bags, and to Anita’s dismay, it was full of metal scraps. Not a stitch of clothing. He had buried himself too deep in his work. Anita took this on as her next stage in the mission: the inventor needed compassion, other people, although this could wait until France.

The boat was lush with life. A whole new social scene that Anita had to become a part of. But while at the beginning it was magical and beautiful, the boat became a mess. After four days on the sea, it became wet and smelly. Children screamed with glee and ran about the deck as frantic parents ran after them and sailors skidded and jumped out of the children’s path. People were less enchanted by the sea as they were at the beginning of the journey. To make matters worse, the only view Anita got anymore from the porthole was people constantly leaning over the side of the boat, so green you could see it in their ears. Anita longed for the rose gardens back at home, the peacefulness of just her and the clocks. It was lonely, but it was controlled. But she made up her mind, there was no going back.

Meanwhile the inventor was still tinkering with scraps of metal. He didn’t know what to do with himself; he had Abilene talking to him back at home, but ever since he had gotten on the ship, he hadn’t heard a peep. What if he was going crazy?! He couldn’t go back to France, it would be too painful. As the boat finally moored on the docks of France, Anita and the inventor stepped off the ship with completely different feelings from each other. Anita was ecstatic but her nervousness was growing, while the inventor was plotting, plotting a way to go home. He had had enough of traveling and ghosts.

They were ushered off the boat and onto the mainland, where the inventor called for a carriage. The carriage was pulled by two beautiful black horses, and Anita was mesmerized. The horses’ coats were shiny and smooth. If Anita’s hands could come off her face, she would stroke them. But the inventor was unimpressed; he just climbed into the carriage and told them to go to the Hotel de Crillon. When Anita saw the horses, she was taken aback, so you can imagine how she was when she saw the Eiffel Tower. The glass on her face fogged up, and the cracks spread, almost impairing her vision. The inventor winced and looked down at his hand where a shred of glass had pricked him, and where Anita lay.

She tried to hold back her feelings, but she was too proud of herself. The tears in the inventor’s eyes told her enough, and as the carriage turned around the corner away from the Eiffel Tower, she sighed. But when Anita opened her eyes, she almost screamed. The inventor was looking at her, really looking at her. He had heard her. Anita went stiff and started to pray under her breath, and the inventor’s eyes widened. He knew it, he was going mad. Anita fumbled over her words, trying to explain herself, getting louder and louder. The chauffeur turned around and asked the inventor who he was talking to. The inventor’s ears went red and he quickly cast his head down.

“Pull over,” the inventor grumbled, “now.” Once the inventor was out and the carriage had left once more to take his luggage to the hotel, he turned back to her. “You can talk.”
For the first time in her life, the chatterbox clock was silent, but not for long. “You can hear me?” Anita’s breath got caught in her gears, making her voice sound deep and gruff.

“Yes, apparently everyone can. I’m guessing you’re the Abilene impersonator. That is why we are here in France. But I don’t understand why or how. Let’s go somewhere private.” They moved across the plaza and into the shade of a tree out of earshot and sight from people walking by.

“I am sorry for tricking you. Your life is just so sad, all your friends left you when you moved up the hill, and you just talk to your clocks, and they don’t talk back. Plus, you used to have an interesting life full of adventure. Yes, I know you are grieving, but you need to get back into the world… ” Anita stopped rambling on when she noticed the inventor’s face. He looked sad, embarrassed. She couldn’t have felt more terrible about herself.

“I have a life,” the inventor said quietly. “I talked to the milkman just last week. Plus, I didn’t know the clocks could hear me. There is nothing for me to do. My only plan of what to do when I got older was derailed when she died.” His words slowly died off, and he looked into the distance, blinking, trying to get rid of his tears. Neither of them expected the trip to go this way, and it was very unsettling. An awkward silence fell upon them, and they just walked. The inventor held Anita by her chain instead of her base like usual, and she tried to stay as still as possible. Finally, after a couple of minutes that felt like hours, they arrived at the hotel.

The Hotel de Crillon was rich with history, and the life around it was still lively and diverse. Even though it was everything Anita had ever dreamed of, she couldn’t help but feel detached from the whole experience. Like she was watching it from afar. The walk to the hotel confused Anita, made her question who she actually was and if this was what she wanted. She wasn’t Abilene, she couldn’t mend the inventor, make him happy, give him purpose. But without Abilene and her mission, who was she?

Meanwhile, the inventor was having his own midlife crisis. He couldn’t help but feel tricked, but he felt like he had been deceived. The whole charade made him feel like Abilene was there again, helping him, but he knew it was fake. The feelings that he buried alongside Abilene rose to the surface — grief, loss, love. He couldn’t give up the opportunity to get closure, to forgive, forget, and move on. As Anita lost her sense of self, the inventor found his, and as he strode out of the hotel room for the first time in eleven years, he didn’t feel lost.

Anita sat on the dresser, forgotten. The inventor had left her there. She tried to think on the bright side. She had made him happy, he had to forgive her sooner or later. Anita’s day was slow, agonizingly slow; the only interesting thing that had happened all day was the luggage being brought up. Anita tried not to worry about the inventor, but when he walked through the door, she felt more emotions than she ever had before. First she felt relief, but anger burst through her before she could even stop herself.

“Where were you?” she screamed. The inventor slowly turned around with a small bag in his hand.

“Buying some accessories, would you like to see?” He slowly pulled out a bracelet and turned it to face Anita. “It’s a wrist watch, they are new in fashion. I needed an upgrade, my old watch was… faulty.”
Anita was furious. She hadn’t changed, he just started to pay attention, and he was going to replace her. The inventor just chuckled to himself and slowly walked towards Anita. He slowly picked her up and dropped her in the hotel trash.

“I have a life, unlike you, and I intend on living it without you,” he said, stalking back to his bed and strapping the monstrosity he called a “watch” on his wrist. Anita tried to stay awake and watch the inventor to make sure he wouldn’t leave again, but once again a new feeling crept up on her: tiredness.

Anita missed the days where she was simply Anita, when she couldn’t feel, couldn’t get hurt. When Anita finally woke up, she was all alone, just as she had suspected and prophesized. Someone knocked on the door, and Anita’s gears skipped a notch.

“Room service!” A maid around the same age as the inventor walked into the room cautiously and looked around. When she was positive no one was home, she quickly made the bed and grabbed the trashcan where Anita lay. The maid looked into the basket and saw Anita and took her out carefully, holding Anita so she wouldn’t get cut by the cracked glass. Anita saw her chance and took it.

“Hello! I’m Anita, and I need your help. Who are you?” The maid screamed and flung Anita across the room. As Anita collided into the wall, she felt the remaining glass shatter and fall off in pieces. “Well, that was rude.”

“Oh my gosh! I am so sorry.” The maid ran over and knelt down to hold Anita. “What are you?” She slowly turned Anita over and opened the lid. Glass sand fell out onto her apron, but she was more taken by the image on Anita’s lid. “Frederic?”

“Who? Do you mean the inventor? Do you know him? Can you take me to him? He is probably at the Eiffel Tower, please… ” Anita was stumbling, words were pouring off her tongue faster than she could think of them. The maid didn’t respond; she just gathered her skirts and pocketed Anita and walked out the room, shutting the door behind her. Together, they practically ran to the Eiffel Tower. They crossed across the Seine, and eventually they arrived.

The inventor wasn’t that hard to spot. He sat on a bench staring at a sketchpad, a charcoal pencil held limply in his hand like an extension of his hand. He was so completely lost in his art that when the maid ran up to him, he didn’t notice. The maid tapped him on the shoulder and when he looked up, recognition flooded his eyes.

“Jeanne.” He quickly stood up, and his papers slowly fell to the ground. He was so caught up in the moment, a flash from the past. Anita, on the other hand, wasn’t as taken by the moment. While she was happy about the inventor, she was fixated by the sketches that lay on the dusty road. They pictured a beautiful statue with her arm raised above her head holding a torch. The inventor had sketched a name at the top of the paper: Lady Liberty. Anita longed for it. She always knew there was more meant for her, she was destined for something more, this was it.

Fredric and Jeanne sat on the bench, hands clasped together as they reminisced about when they were young. When they were in their teens, they fell in love, but it didn’t work out. The inventor fell right back in love. The hole that had eaten away at his heart was filled. He felt complete, truly happy.

***

After a couple years of traveling the world with Jeanne, the inventor proposed, and they moved back to Nantucket where they lived out the rest of their lives as key members of the community, happily in love. Anita got her wish and was built into the Statue of Liberty, where she welcomed people from all over the world into America, and even as hundreds of years passed, she remained a key symbol of freedom and opportunity. As for me, I remained where I had been since the beginning of the story, and where I would stay forever, part of something bigger, no longer the Abilene of this story. But I will always love him, which is why I have been watching my dear husband fall in love, and the impersonator who I can’t help but feel indebted to for making the love of my life happy once more.

Dear Little Ladybug

Editor’s Note: Content warning — Suicide

***

Dear little ladybug, 

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

Sincerely,

Friend 

Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Tuesday awake?” I asked impatiently. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just take the jacket.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you hiding?” 

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

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

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

“Come with me.” 

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

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

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

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

The Senseless Request

“I find a pleasing humor in that fruit bowl. And the hanging lantern. And the — what is that vast… thing… over there?”

The juvenile servant rushed to the rich man’s side. “It is the ocean. Quite beautiful, if I may say?” 

The rich man squinted his eyes, then clenched his fists, resisting the impending irritation. “Well, it was not there yesterday.”

“It was, you just did not perceive its presence.” 

The rich man paced back and forth to the patio door, then to the fence overlooking the ravine. He raised a hand to the sky, feeling the breeze of the ocean against his hand. Bringing it down to his eyeline, he furrowed his eyebrows.

“How greedy of it to consume so much land! I do not like it. Have it removed by sun up tomorrow.” 

The servant sighed, then hesitantly nodded, brushing his fingers against the darkening sky. The rich man turned and left for the house without another word. The servant remained, his wide, nervous eyes motionless. He perched on the wooden rail of the fence and dangled his legs off into the ravine. The only thought in his mind was, How will I go about this? Will I be sent home if I do not follow through with his request?

The servant finally gathered the courage to reenter the home. These long hallways are beginning to nauseate me, he thought as he made his way to the dining room. 

The rich man finished his meal, enjoyed the comforting glow of his fireplace, then made his way to a door in the back of his home. As he slept in his palatial bedroom without a single fret, the young servant crept out of his corridor, pulled on a long jacket and fedora, made his way outside to embark on his journey, and alas, found the sun resting beneath the horizon. 

“Ma’am! Good morning. You seem to have overslept.” 

The sun flicked her eyes open. “I never oversleep! Read me the time, please!”

The servant peeked at his watch, and read a bold 11:00 PM. “It is 11:00 AM,” the servant lied.

“Well, thank you very much. I will begin getting ready so as to not set the entire world into a state of panic. Whatever can I do to repay you?” the sun asked, trembling her fingers as she carefully brushed her golden locks. 

“Well, there is one thing. Would it be too much trouble for you to evaporate the Pacific Ocean?” 

The sun tilted her head in confusion as she tugged a yellow sundress over her head and fixed a sunhat on her head.

“There is an odd request, if I’ve ever heard one! But of course, anything for you.”

The sun guided the servant to the horizon door as she busily attached her earrings and jewelry. Thanking him for coming, she rushed up into the sky as swiftly as possible. Better late than never! she blithely thought.

The servant returned to the rich man’s home and let his eyelids drop as he rested on his metal-wired bed. The sun ascended the sky and took her place next to the moon.

“Thank you for covering the sky for me. I seem to have overslept,” the sun said, graciously shaking the moon’s hand.

The moon had a suspicious look in her eyes. “Is it really 6:30 already?” the moon interrogated. 

“11:00! If you can believe that!” the sun blurted.

The very much confused (but naive) moon bowed her head and descended down the sky below the horizon. 

The rich man awoke at 7:14 AM and consumed his usual breakfast of grilled tomatoes and mushrooms. The young servant eagerly stood in the doorway, concealing the thrilled expression on his face. 

“What is it? Why are you staring?” the man demanded crossly. 

“Have you forgotten? Come take a look outside!”

The man pushed his stool back and followed his servant out to the patio.

“The ocean. Where has it gone? What have you done with it?” the man shrieked shrilly.

“You requested its removal. Remember? Do you?” A smile slowly faded away.

“Look at the land it has left! How barren! Where is the life? The joy? Bring it back now!”

“But I cannot… The sun has taken it. I am afraid it will not return.”

As the days flew by and the sun and moon rose at peculiar times, people in the world were split. A message from God? A punishment from Satan? The Earth falling off its axis? Nobody knew why but some chose to pay no attention. The rich man, for one, did not question the sun and the moon. 

The once beautiful, thriving ocean had gone away, and the rich man began to absorb his surroundings and enjoy every charming aspect of it. Although he consumed his nightly tea while the sun still beamed and enjoyed his usual breakfast as the moon patiently shimmered in the sky, the man could not complain. He made it his moral obligation to not question anything. Not to complain, not a single word. Everything is just heavenly. Oh, just heavenly!

“Look at the ivy growing from the trellis! And the flowers growing from the cracks in the dirt! Oh, how I love the way the aged wood of the railing feels against my fingers and how the clement air touches my face ever so gently! Don’t you just love it?” the rich man howled. “Well, now I will not act on my impulses. There is just too much beauty in everything to want to rid anything!”

The servant just nodded, a broken smile pasted across his face.

Mission Ten

In a world of 7.8 billion people, 5 nonillion germs exist. And many are yet to be discovered. And one was eradicated due to the brave actions of I. Cannabreeve and Jack Hesber. Or so they thought. A year ago they had died trying to subdue a disease; no one knew what, but half a year later they had revived, throwing a mysterious orb to one side. But now, they were all going to be destroyed. Destroyed!

“Doomsday in 10 days, 10 hours, and 10 minutes,” the loudspeaker in the town square announced, causing the 101st flurry of panic that day. 

“Nooooo! Doomsday is one minute closer now!” 

“God save us!” 

“Mummy, I’m scared!” 

Half of the population was at home. No one went to work now. People were buying as much food as they could so they could hunker down at home and eat and play as much as they could before they died, due to a recent collision of the Andromeda Galaxy with a new galaxy called Poseidon TTR-67. This had caused a massive speed-up in the speed of the Andromeda Galaxy, making it at least a billion times faster than before, causing it to arrive 3499999996.5 years ahead of scientists’ original predictions. What was worse was that, due to the massive speed-up, the humongous black hole at the centre had somehow been thrown to one side. It was a bit like a ball on a string that has been swung around a lot of times (centrifugal force). The only thing was that IT WAS THROWN TO THE SIDE THAT IS FACING EARTH. Scientists had predicted that the solar system, along with Earth, would enter its event horizon in ten days, and they had set up a loudspeaker in every city to let the world know. 

I. Cannabreeve, after his revival, trained to be a kung fu master and he had an awful lot of chi, an important life force, and determination in him, causing him to reach that position in 3 years. Meanwhile, Jack Hesber dreamt of E.A.R.T.H. (Earth Anonymous Risk Team Help force) again. “You and I. Cannabreeve have to go through the black hole and collect all ten of The Objects and use them to save the world. You will also need ten other people to help you. Their names are Planeton Block, IT specialist, Adventurista Hey, ex-pilot, Spacerista Hey (twins), writer, Andromedarren Collide, clothing manufacturer, Saverbo Earth, paper manufacturer, Blacn Hole, theoretical physicist, Vacuumeta Travel, astronomer, Hugo Weight, 3-time weight-lifting world champion, Timadeto Ishiguto, watch-maker and horologist, and Drawstuff Air, world-famous artist. You will need objects to collect objects. You may have the dust blower. I shall give you the ability to wish for anything and it will come true. But beware, you cannot use it more than three times, so use it wisely. Now go. You will find them in the town square. When the day comes, the twelve of you must jump into the black hole (called Quiescent) willingly with no doubts or you shall be spaghettified (meaning that when you jump into a black hole, you will be stretched out until you pop) and killed. This is Mission TEN. Now go.” 

Jack Hesber woke up to find that it was already morning. He rushed out of bed and hurriedly dashed to the town square. There, he found I. Cannabreeve standing next to a bunch of people, one that looked humongous and three that just looked plain weak. “Huh. Took you a long time. This E.A.T.E.R. thingummy just told us to go to the town square and whaddayaknow, boom! The huge dude just bumped into me, and after that we fell flat on the face and these bros just fell onto us! Is that crazy or what?” 

“It is E.A.R.T.H.!” one of the weak people corrected, looking exasperated. 

“Jumping into a black hole, eh? To not be spaghettified, and instead get teleported away, there is only one explanation. That black hole must be a wormhole, but that exit can only be accessed by tremendous energy! Which is magic! Yes! To have so many people dreaming of the same thing is already a miracle, and to open the wormhole in the black hole, it must be magic! After all, magic is just science we don’t understand yet! Maybe it is just another form of energy!” 

“Oh yes, I concur, but maybe they don’t need that much energy. If your hypothesis is correct, then magic is a form of energy. The E.A.R.T.H. council might just have to draw energy from the black hole! Quiescent has plenty to spare. It is 100 times bigger than the sun, far bigger than Sagittarius A*, and the amount of Hawking radiation and leaked energy must be amazing!” two of the weak people suggested, looking dead brainy. 

“We don’t even know each other’s names! Wait, we do, but we don’t know who is who. So, can we get that straightened out first?” Jack cut in, slightly annoyed that the only thing he understood from Blacn and Vaccumeta’s lecture was that this black hole was very big. 

One by one they introduced themselves. I. Cannabreeve’s self-introduction was the most exaggerated; he made sure the whole town square could hear him. “I am Inston Cannabreeve, kung fu master!” He paused for added effect, waiting for the applause that never came, so he continued, convinced that they were secretly impressed, “And we, the I. Cannabreeve team, shall jump into Quiescent 5 days from now!” 

He was met with people shouting, “No! You will be killed! Early! It is better to die later than to die early! What are you thinking?” 

“But we won’t get killed!” I. Cannabreeve argued, looking confused. I. Cannnabreeve might have become a kung fu master, but he definitely had not gained any common sense. Jack had enough sense to cover I. Cannabreeve’s mouth before he leaked out anything else, but it was still too late. 

There was one person in the crowd who had heard that they would not be killed, and he happened to be very power hungry, by the name of Hack Ohm, who was extremely good at electronics. He thought, I’ll jump in with them, and then infect them with the disease, and then go out again, and make the people think that only I can survive a black hole! And then they will all want to learn how to survive a black hole and I’ll tell them something made up and they will kill themselves. I am going to die in ten days anyway. At least I should live out my last five days as the king of the world. Oh, this is such a great plan. I’m surprised by my own genius!

However, Hack Ohm had a few associates, whom he could not help but boast to. “Yes, I am clever, aren’t I?” Hack Ohm finally concluded his long-winded explanation with what he thought was flair, but was actually the throw of a toothpick into a bin, missing, and then flying back at him. He assured them, “Don’t worry, I’ll give you a fair share of the loot once I am done with them. OW! That hurts!” he said as the toothpick struck home in his thin arm. And one of them thought that maybe, just maybe, he could finally overthrow Hack Ohm after working for him for 10 years. 

5 days later, Jack met up with the others in spacesuits that Vaccumeta had managed to “borrow” from his lab, and, ignoring the cries of the people, they braced themselves and jumped, only to disappointingly land on the ground again. “Wait, how are we going to get there?” 

“Let me try!” I. Cannabreeve shouted, rolling up his sleeves, not in the least undaunted. He grabbed a nearby stick and took a few steps backward and took a running leap, sticking the stick into the ground with the expertise of a pole vaulter, but chickening out just as he was about to fly, and ended up standing on one leg at the top of the pole, looking much more like a kung fu master now. Adventurista could not help but give the stick a little nudge, attempting to make I. Cannabreeve fall, but I. Cannabreeve’s training had not gone to waste, thank god, and he leapt onto the nearby roof 8 metres away. 

Timadeta suggested, “Maybe you are supposed to use one of the wishes now?” 

Jack thought, Ok, here goes. Please teleport us to the event horizon of the black hole with all our things, like the stick and the dust blower and the spacesuits

Sure enough, the next instant, they were floating in the vast world of endless space. But, in their excitement, they did not realise that they had two stowaways. At the last moment, Hack Ohm had put a finger on Jack’s spacesuit, and Plane Mitchell had put his thumb on Hack Ohm’s spacesuit, and they were all teleported to space along with the others. But since Plane Mitchell was attached to Hack Ohm instead of directly to Jack, the connection was weaker and the teleportation caused a huge strain on his body and caused a cell mutation that turned him into a flying expert and a very, very arrogant person. 

A minute later, Spacerista started to feel a bit stretched out, and he looked down and screamed. “AAAAAH! I’m spaghetti!”  However, the radio transmitter was affected too and all the others heard was “Ha! I spat greatly!” The others were starting to feel the strain too. Slowly, they started to get taller and taller. Drawstuff was now two metres tall… 2.5 metres… 3 metres… 5 metres… but just as they were about to go “pop!” there was a brilliant flash of light and then they shrunk back to their original size and the black hole, like the mouth of a monster, rushed up to swallow them. They rushed through the endless black tunnel and then suddenly a brilliant flash of colour struck each of them like lightning, and they felt squeezed, so tight they could not breathe… and they were out! 

They were wearing their normal clothes again and the stick was lying on the ground. Thump! Boom! They heard the rustle of a bush and a little elk made of licorice emerged, eating the gumball berries growing on a candy cane bush. Seizing this chance, Hack and Plane made a plan and split up. Hack had realized they had no way to go back so they had to develop a new plan. Which meant splitting up.

“Whoa!” Andromedarren exclaimed in surprise. Blacn and Vaccumeta had already got out their scientific equipment that they had snuck into a rucksack and were analyzing all the things they could. 

“This world’s atmosphere is similar to Earth. Oh, if we make it out alive, I am definitely going to bring a sample of the dirt back!” Vaccumeta exclaimed. 

Saverbo and Planeton rushed around exploring. “Look! Hamburger trees! Grass fries! Pizza flowers! Chip leaves! Baguette twigs! Sandwich bushes!” 

Jack joined them and gorged everything in sight. Every plant was different and every bite was delicious. When he was thirsty, he would go to a nearby stream and drink the soda water that ran through, hoping to catch some barbecued fish to go along with it. The lamb and beef were easier to catch. They were made of lamb chops and steak and barbeque, each one hot and flavorful. Chickens and turkeys were grilled to perfection. The others naturally could not resist that and they all stopped what they were doing and scoffed all they could.

They slowly lost all memory of why they were here and how they got here. Only when they were full did I. Cannabreeve say, “Eh? I wonder how we got here. Eh, who cares, I don’t want to le — AAAA! We are late! OH MY GOD WE FORGOT TO COLLECT THE OBJECTS!” 

This got them all to their feet. They immediately stepped on the gas and started packing. Before they left, everybody made sure to stuff their bags with every food they could. They walked forwards, hoping that it would take them somewhere. After a while, it started raining fried rice. 

They entered a thick forest, filled with vines of pasta and noodles and tree trunks made of the cleanest water you had seen. They stood up by themselves instead of sploshing around, and if you punched it, you would get quite a shock as you found that your hand hurt all over and that nothing had happened to the tree. However, if you put your lips to it and sucked, the water would just enter your mouth and the tree would gradually get smaller as you drank more water.

There was a light in front and they rushed to it, but stopped in their tracks when something black rushed around them, so fast it kicked up a huge wind and blew them to their feet. A grim reaper rose from the darkness. It had 2 arms, no head and no legs. It was wearing a cloak and the hood floated as if there was a head. Its arms were wrapped in a broken chain, and a lantern glowed ominously on the cloak. It removed the huge scythe from its back and floated closer to the gang. I. Cannabreeve was not scared and took a step forward, contrary to the rest of the team. 

“You wanna fight, huh?” I. Cannabreeve taunted. He did a right heel kick but the grim reaper opened a wormhole and teleported away. The grim reaper struck out with the scythe from behind, and I. Cannabreeve ducked just in time. He plucked out a surprisingly strong pasta vine, looped it around the scythe and pulled hard. The scythe flew out of the grim reaper’s hand and into I. Cannabreeve’s outstretched arms. However, the grim reaper raised 2 fingers and the scythe caught fire without burning down. It flew around, controlled by the reaper, trying to hit I. Cannabreeve. The reaper decided to take a smarter approach. The scythe flew to the group huddled into a corner, making them huddle even closer to one another. I. Cannabreeve gave a loud cry and half-commanded, half-begged, “Hey, don’t kill them! Kill me instead! You can take my soul! I don’t care as long as you don’t hurt them!“ 

But the reaper did not relent. The scythe went on a merciless journey to the necks of Jack and the rest. 

Saverbo took a deep breath and stepped forward. “If you are going to kill us, kill me first.” 

Suddenly, a hand reached out and grabbed Saverbo. The hulking figure of Hugo appeared from the back of the group. “Me! I am not good at studies, I can’t help with anything.” 

The rest of the group echoed a chorus of “me”s and suddenly the scythe stopped in midswing. 

“You have passed,” the reaper said. 

It stepped back to reveal a large pile of gleaming objects. When they got closer to it, the dust blower also started glowing. Suddenly, the objects stopped glowing. Two figures emerged from the trees, snatched up two objects and hightailed it out. 

“Hey!” I. Cannabreeve yelled, chasing them, jumping from branch to branch. He was gaining ground slowly, but suddenly the forest got denser and he lost sight of them. He returned to the others and forlornly told them that they had escaped. They grabbed all the objects so nobody could take them. 

“Well, at least we got most of it.” Andromedarren said, trying to brighten up the atmosphere. They thanked the reaper and continued on their way. An hour later, I. Cannabreeve, Hugo, Adventurista, and Jack were dragging Blacn, Andromedarren, Drawstuff, Timadeta, Vacuumeta, Planeton, Spacerista, and Saverbo out of the forest. Once they got out, those who were not on the ground already fell onto the ground with a dull thud. The leaves of the forest shook as the wind blew through them, as if mocking them for being so weak. After ten minutes, Timadeta got up. He stretched and announced that he was all refreshed. 

Adventurista snorted, “You should be! You were the first to faint! We had to drag you 34742 steps!” 

“You were counting?” Blacn said in surprise. 

“Welp! Let’s get on our way!” I. Cannabreeve said. He jumped up to his feet but his bag was loose and fell off his shoulders, spilling out the contents. 

“Hey, shouldn’t we see what they do first so we can use them later?” Saverbo suggested.

So they sat on the floor again and started poking around with the objects. 

“These are pretty normal things, ” Hugo observed. 

“Hey, this lamp operates without electricity!” Blacn said. Jack half-expected him to dig out a microscope and examine the lamp but he didn’t. “Eh, you get used to it,” Blacn added, as if reading his mind. Blacn pointed it at the ground and disappointedly said, “That’s all?” 

But a few seconds later, he was proved wrong. The ground suddenly shook, and the circle of light turned into a large hole with the forest and them in it. They all let out gasps and peered into the hole. As they did, the duplicates of themselves did the same. 

“Let’s go in!” I. Cannabreeve said adventurously. They packed up their things and looked at their duplicates pack up their things. Planeton put a stick in and watched it slowly drop. Suddenly, there was a whoosh and a tunnel of purple light that just slowly floated about. Then, they heard a stick drop behind them, and turned around to find that it was the exact stick that Planeton had used. There was the hole of purple light floating in the air. Blacn was so shocked that he accidentally turned off the lamp, and at the same time the hole disappeared with a pop. 

“A wormhole!” Vacuumeta exclaimed. 

Next they tried closing the wormhole while the stick was still inside. The hole disappeared and the stick was gone. They opened the wormhole again, and the stick was still inside. They found some words carved onto the lamp. 

“What does it say?” Jack curiously asked. 

“Dunno. It’s all Greek to me,” Andromedarren replied. 

“That’s because it is Greek!” exclaimed Spacerista as he finally recognised the strange text. 

“You know how to read it?” everyone asked in surprise. He explained that he had learnt it when he went to university as it was in Greece. 

“The long one is ‘i trýpa den tha katastrépsei poté ton idioktíti,’ the hole will never destroy the owner. The second one is ‘o chrónos eínai ousiastikós,’ time is of the essence. Hey!  I know what they mean! The hole will never kill the owner if the owner goes into it, so that means there must be a time limit, which is why there is the second one! But how long is the time limit?” To figure it out, they sent Jack in with the stick and also the lamp as an extra precaution. He jumped into the hole and closed it.

Jack looked around and saw the purple tunnel. The moment the wormhole was closed, he felt a tingling sensation, and a black hole appeared at the end. He felt himself being pulled to it against his will. The stick and lamp were floating around, slowly being attracted to the black hole. He snatched them up and told the lamp, “My friends and I are the owners. My friends and I are the owners and I’d like to keep my stuff, thank you very much.” 

The lamp glowed as it processed the new information. When it was done, it emitted a hum and the pull on Jack and the stick disappeared. Jack slowly counted the seconds, noticing that there was also a tuft of grass, presumably from the first wormhole in the ground. Jack asked the lamp, “Hey, how do you destroy stuff? Can the owners go into the black hole and go out?” 

The lamp glowed, humming and aahing as if it were thinking very hard about it. Then, as if answering his question, Jack saw the tuft of grass get sucked into the black hole, and the lamp emitted a blast of light that formed a word. See? And then, Jack felt that he was being sucked into the black hole. Before he could react, he was inside it, and grass floated in the empty black space before him. For something called a black hole, the interior was relatively bright, since the black hole had absorbed so much light, and even looked comfy. He arranged the grass and found that they stuck together and actually joined up as if they were being magically welded together, which they were. He lay down on his new bed of grass and rested. He thought, Time to go out. Suddenly, a black door popped into existence, and upon opening it, he realized that it led to the tunnel. Another see? popped up from the lamp. He decided to tell the others and opened a wormhole to his friends. 

He climbed out and reported, “It’s super safe, as long as you are the owner. Anyway, you can keep stuff inside forever, as long as you tell the lamp that you want it. By the way, I have something to show you. Come on in!” They hesitantly packed their things and clambered into the hole. “These are my friends and they are owners too. And keep their stuff,” Jack told the lamp, and then addressed the rest of them. “Alright guys, swim to the black hole at the end. That’s how your stuff gets destroyed if you don’t claim it.” 

He led them to the black hole and they stopped, apprehension etched on their faces. Jack assured them that it was safe and led them in. They were very amazed, judging by the fact that their mouths hung down so big that someone could have stuffed a whole egg in with space to spare. I. Cannabreeve recovered the fastest. 

“All right gang! This is a world class boot hole, 5 star, 100 out of 100, the best of the best, the super, the ultimate, the great, the excellent, the superior, the numero uno, the superb, the rad, the tip-top, the up to snuff, the prime, the first-rate, the primo, the premium, the big shot, the big cheese, the platinum choice, the first-class, the sans pareil, the — ” I. Cannabreeve had to cut out his dictionary lecture as he had run out of breath, his face already purple from the effort, and they could have sworn that his head was one round bigger. 

They figured out the rest of the objects were relatively straightforward: the book let you jump into books. The shirt turned the wearer invisible. The unbreakable paper made the stuff you wrote on it appear next to you. The mini drawer and pouch let you put anything into it and it would never run out of space, and as long as you carried the pouch with you, anything you needed that was in the drawer would appear in the pouch. The clock let the person who owned it control time. The pen allowed the owner to draw in midair and the drawing would immediately turn solid. Slowly, under I. Cannabreeve’s fanatic command, 12 beds, 12 recliners, a huge sofa, a wireless WiFi producer and everything you would find in a house appeared in the special area of the black hole. In short, the black hole turned into their house. I. Cannabreeve had even gone to include an Olympic-size pool complete with a water park and wave pool and an ice skating rink. 

Slowly they exited the boot hole hotel and opened a wormhole to “wherever the people who took the objects are.” They emerged behind a bush, and cries of pain and gunshots rang out. They peeked out and saw one of the people who had taken the objects shoot the other with a PKM machine gun. Hack Ohm was killed, and the computer that he had was thrown to the side by an arrogant Plane. He threw the gun into the air and it suddenly turned into a full sized deadly looking spaceship with 20 nuclear thrusters, an on-board nuclear generator, a backup fan generator, and ten missile tubes, and it seemed to be the type of spaceship that had many weapons on board. Saverbo saw his nametag, and informed them that he was called Plane. After he boarded the spaceship, they opened a wormhole to the computer, but instead of hole in the air, it was a hole in the ground, and the computer fell into their waiting arms. The objects glowed again — could they sense that victory was near, could they sense that they only had one last sibling to reunite with? 

They formed a plan. Planeton would stay behind with the computer and hack the spaceship’s onboard computers, making the doors open. Then, the rest of them would rush in and defeat Plane and get the last object.  They jumped out of the wormhole, and the doors of the spaceship opened. Plane was sitting in the cockpit, desperately trying to close the doors, but he was locked out of the system. The others first used the clock and stopped time, and they used the paper and wrote “a really strong rope that nothing can untie or break.” Then, they tied up Plane, and I. Cannabreeve took advantage of the fact that Plane could not move and slapped him as many times as he could, saying, “That will teach you not to mess with us!” 

Then they shrunk down the plane to object size and claimed ownership of it. They started time again, and carried Plane around like a trophy. They grabbed the objects and brought them together. 

They emitted a brilliant flash of golden light and then disappeared. 

“So…that’s it? That’s it?! We did all this just for them to evaporate?” But no sooner had he finished his sentence than they were teleported back to Earth, everything was normal and the Andromeda Galaxy was far away, and no one else remembered what had happened.

The End.

Half Bloods and the Time Traveling Pen

“Catch him!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. My fellow ninjas and I jumped from house to house to catch a villain that is my best friend! His name is Tom, and he used to be in the V.S.C. We used to work together very well.

I think I will introduce myself first. My name is Jerry, and my animal is a wolf. Now, you might be wondering about a lot of things, like why I have an animal and what the V.S.C. is. Take it easy. I will be answering the questions. So, every member in the Villain Slayer Corps (aka. V.S.C.) is a ninja and has an animal and its power. Scientists inject the animal’s blood into our body first. After that, he will seal the blood inside our body, and we can even talk to the animal spirit inside. We can also use the power of the animal, and the spirit can go out of our body and fight along with us.

I also have to tell you about the Ten Sages, which are ten animals that are the strongest among all the animals. The owners of those animals can unleash the energy sage mode. Only when you are really angry will you be able to unleash the energy sage mode. Now, I will tell you my animal’s power. Wolf-White Flame Power, Mist Power, Ice Power, and Power Claws. My animal is in the Ten Sages. After saying so much, now I would like to take you back to catch the villain — my best friend, Tom.

It started to rain, which made it hard to see where Tom was going. Tom became a villain because his parents were accidentally killed by the V.S.C., so he hated the V.S.C., and then he quit. He was so angry with how life treated him, he started to do bad things with his powers. His power is Black Panther-Power Claws and Dark Fire Power. His animals are also in the Ten Sages.

After a long time of chasing and fighting on the roof of houses, Tom was nowhere to be seen. We went back to V.S.C. HQ and declared that we failed the mission. When I got back home, I took out a pen, but it was no ordinary pen. It could time travel! I thought I should go back in time to stop the V.S.C. from killing Tom’s parents. With any luck, history would be changed, and then he would not be a villain.

Just when I was about to enter the black hole produced by the pen to go back in time, my neck was strangled with one hand, and I fell on the floor half conscious, half unconscious. I saw Tom standing in my room. He was the one that had strangled me!

Tom picked up the pen and said joyfully, “Thanks for the pen, Jerry! The V.S.C. members can never catch me! Bye, Jerry!” I went into a coma and did not know what happened later.

When I woke up the next day, I was lying on the floor. I quickly got up and thought about what had happened the night before. Tom took the pen! I wanted to find Tom quickly, but I remembered that I was only able to go out at night, and I had to act like a normal person during the day.

After a long time of waiting, it was finally nighttime. I went to V.S.C. HQ and gathered all the Sage of Ten Path owners. Then, we set out to find Tom. Before finding him, I had to locate where he was, so I used one of my skills that I never introduced you guys to. Spatial Awareness! This helps me to find the person I want to find in an instant. “Jump!” All of us jumped. We saw a big claw-shaped mark on the pavement where we had been standing. “I am going to kill him!” He destroyed my favorite pavement, which is owned by the HQ!

I saw Tom using his power claws, but we were also not weak. Jimmy, who has the power of Gorilla-Power Fists and Rock Power, used his power fists and punched where Tom was at, but Tom moved too fast. We formed a circle to see 360 degrees to find Tom. Ben suddenly saw Tom, and Ben used his power. Ben has the power of Cheetah-Lightning Power, and Speed and Power Claws.

“LIGHTNING POWER! FIRST FORM, ELECTRIC ARROW!” As Ben pointed two fingers at Tom, Ben’s two fingers formed a ball of electricity, and an arrow-like electricity beam shot out and traveled at a blinding speed. When the arrow was about to hit Tom, “DARK FIREPOWER! FOURTH FORM, FIREWALL!” Ben shouted.

The lightning arrow was rebounded back to us! We quickly jumped up, but before we could react — “DARK FIREPOWER! THIRD FORM! FIREBALL” — balls of flames charged at a blinding speed towards us. 

Just when the ball of fire was about to hit us, Chris, who has the power of Polar Bear-Ice Release, Water Release, and Power Palms, said, “WATER POWER, FOURTH FORM, WATER JET!” A jet of water shot out of Chris’s hand and put out the fireballs. We continued to fight against Tom with all our might.

George, who has the power of Rhino-Shield Power and Horn Power, shot out horns which made Tom jump up into the air. Bob — who has the power of Crocodile-Teeth Power and Water Power — and John — who has the power of Shark-Teeth Power and Water Power — shot out sharp teeth at him.

Tom shouted out, “Do not underestimate me! Firewall!” He used the same move this time again, and the teeth rebounded at use, but what he did not know was that while he was using the firewall, Ben was using his speed skill. He sneaked up to Tom’s back and kicked him to the ground.

Jayden, who has the power of Eagle-Feather Power and Air Power, exclaimed, “AIR POWER, FIFTH FORM, CYCLONE!”

As Tom was pushed back to Ben, Ben said, “LIGHTNING POWER, FINAL FORM! DANCE OF THE THUNDERGOD!” Dragon heads started to appear on Ben’s hands, and lightning appeared on the dragon head.

BOOM! Tom was hit by the dragon heads with so much force that Tom made a hole on the ground when he crashed into it. Steven, who has the power of Snake-Venom Release, Poison Gas Release, and Teeth Release, released poison gas at Tom while he was flying onto the floor.

Just when we thought that Tom was dead, Tom jumped out and hit the ground with his dark flame ball. It felt like an earthquake, and the ground started to crack, with a black aura appearing out of the cracks on the ground. “This is a new move I made with Black Panther. Hope you enjoy it!” he said. The dark flame started to erupt from the cracks.

Chris and I put both of our hands on the ground, and we both shouted, “ICE POWER! SIXTH FORM! Freeze!” The ground turned into ice, flames erupted out of the cracks, and heavy smoke appeared. In the smoke, I saw Tom running away. I ran through the smoke, but it was too late. Tom had gotten away with the pen.

The End.

Jackson Opus

Jack sat hunched miserably against the morning wind, which threatened to blow his cap off. He pulled his cap lower, hiding his dark orange eyes. “Who can compete in a basketball competition at seven in the morning?” he grumbled unhappily.

I can, Jackson Dopus.” Benjamin Todds, from the opposing team — Black Panthers — stalked up to Jack and sneered. “Why can’t you? Oh, I just forgot! You guys are weaklings and absolute losers!” Smirking, Benjamin leaned his burly form closer and stared Jack in the eye, saying softly, “Want to know why? Because of you, Dopus.”

Jack glared at him with a molten gaze, feeling his ever-changing eyes turn from orange to deep angry violet, and seethed, “My name is Jackson Opus. And maybe this time around the Thunders will win. We train hard, at least, unlike the Black Panthers, who only rely on size for advantage. I would love to see your face when your team loses!”

Until then, Jack had not realised that Benjamin’s beady eyes had clouded over and a melancholy look had settled on his face. Jack, squirming uncomfortably, pulled his cap down again and growled, “Go away.” Surprisingly, Benjamin did just that. Jack mused over this strange exchange. Why didn’t he continue to taunt Jack as he had always done before every basketball competition? And why did people have that faraway look in their eyes whenever Jack had a conversation with them?

“Opus! Warm up!” His pondering was rudely interrupted by Coach Sean’s impatient bark. Everyone from the Thunders had arrived and Coach Sean, as usual, started bossing them around, yelling orders and regarding them with a disapproving gaze. Perhaps Coach wished he had a better, tougher team to handle, Jack thought. And who could blame him? The entire population of Greenhill Middle School (and probably other schools too) knew that the Thunders had not won a single competition in two years. Not since the Black Panthers came, anyway.

Jack jogged over to join his teammates. However, coach Sean, arms akimbo, stood blocking his way. “Hey kiddo, what do you think you’re doing with that damn cap on? Take. It. Off,” he said commandingly when Jack was about to put up a protest. Jack sighed and took his cap off, making sure to keep his eyes averted to the ground. It was embarrassing being so different. Why couldn’t his eyes keep the same colour like everyone else? Then he wouldn’t need to wear a cap all the time just so others wouldn’t see his eyes. He could try to reason with his teachers, but arguing with the ill-tempered basketball coach? No thank you. Not at all. 

After the warm-up, the two teams went up to the court. The spectators cheered a little. Jack looked over at the spectator stand and spotted his parents. Both of them had smiley-frowny hybrid smiles on their faces. Jack grimaced. The Thunders must have looked puny compared to the burly forms on the other team. It should be the Puny Prey against the Black Panthers. They could probably squash the Thunders with their little pinkie fingers.

In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, it was game on. As always, the Black Panthers managed to score first. The cheering in the stands got louder. The coaches got louder. The thumping of Jack’s heart got louder. His desperation grew too. The score was currently 6-0, in favour of the Black Panthers. Was there even a point in competing? 

The ball bounced from one of the opposing team’s hands and into Benjamin’s. Benjamin, usually the most aggressive player on the court, took the ball in his hands and turned slowly around to shoot it into the hoop. But his movements were almost toddler-like, as if this was the first time he was trying out basketball and was unsure if he would be able to score successfully. Confusion swept like a wave among the spectators, who had noticed him as well. The moment the ball left Benjamin’s hands, Jack knew it was never going to make it. The ball flew in a graceful arc then suddenly dropped onto the ground, missing the net by more than a foot. The Black Panthers’ coach started yelling colourful language at Benjamin, face turning red and purple from the effort. But the match must go on.

During the most intense part of the game, Jack noticed that Benjamin seemed to be avoiding the ball. He was certainly not like his normal self. And where was his aggressiveness? He was playing like a newborn kitten compared to the rest of his Black Panther’s teammates. Recalling the strange exchange before the match, Jack wondered queasily if it was anything to do with him. Or perhaps Benjamin was feeling nervous? Unlikely. The game continued and was nearly reaching the end. Only less than a minute left.

The score was 23-24, in favour of the Thunders.

A loud “ahh” was heard when the Thunders received two penalties. Two, Jack thought bitterly. We were almost winning. Almost! We really need a sharper referee. The opposing team would never miss a free throw. Unless by some chance, the thrower was…? In a twist of fate, the coach did choose Benjamin. Protests were made but the coach stood his ground, reasoning that “my big boy was a little nervous during this match, ain’t got no nothing to worry about.” Jack felt the corner of his lips turning upwards.

Benjamin lumbered onto the court and held the ball stiffly to his chest. He threw the ball, but it was almost as if the ball threw him. He landed on his face and the ball landed a few feet away from him. The crowd booed. The coach grew purple again. The Thunders all did a little victory dance. Benjamin did it in a similar fashion on the second throw. The Black Panthers spewed expletives at everyone and anyone. However, the numbers on the scoreboard didn’t change and would never lie.

26-23. The Thunders had triumphed.

When the spectators and players were filing out, Benjamin walked up to Jack and scowled fiercely, then said monotonously, “This is how my face would look like when my team loses.” He turned and walked away. Jack stared, utterly confused and perplexed, not to mention pretty freaked out as well.

***

At the feast Coach Sean had prepared, everyone was having a great time. Except for Jack. He sat in the corner of Coach Sean’s yard, munching on a slice of pizza that tasted like sand. This wasn’t a fair game. Something’s up with Benjamin, and I think I may be the cause. It was not an honourable victory. Something had been nudging at the back of his mind since the match. Jack couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was something important. Just out of reach yet very close. A memory? Then an avalanche of scenes bombarded his head. A split-second decision which he had made, running onto the road while a bus was driving towards him. The immense relief he had felt when the bus didn’t run over him. A tingling sensation when Jack made eye contact with the bus driver to tell him to drive faster in order for him and his best friend, Tommy, to reach school on time. And the mad charge-through-the-red-lights and don’t-stop-at-any-other-stop drive the driver had given that allowed him and Tommy to reach school on time. Was there something wrong with Jack? Why did things go haywire in his presence, yet allow him to achieve a miracle that was seemingly impossible?

Just at this moment, his shoulder was encased in an iron grip. A narrow man’s face loomed into view: a sharp, long nose, a tuft of jet-black hair, black suit, black shoes, a pale complexion, and finally, piercing frosty blue eyes that bored into his. Jack was so startled that he dropped his slice of pizza onto the grass. Who is he? Why is he here? What does he want with me? Why… Before he could think much further, he felt a familiar tingling sensation from the back of his eyes. The strange man’s eyes were focused on his own. Jack suddenly felt a surge of anger. What right did a stranger have to come in the middle of a celebration to mess with him? He glared right back at the man, feeling his eyes turn from calm green (his usual eye colour) to nervous dark orange, then to stormy grey, and finally, to angry deep violet. He was about to give this weirdo a piece of his mind when the man said in a calm and reassuring voice, “You are very calm and relaxed.” I am not calm or relaxed! How can I be… But the man’s voice was so convincing, so strong and powerful. Jack’s mind numbed. Of course, I’m calm and relaxed. Of course. Wait, why? I still don’t know who this stranger is…

“I am your friend, and you feel happy with me.”

Jack frowned. No! He is not my friend! A stranger only… Right?

“You are feeling very content.” 

Hmm, I am content. Why am I trying to fight with him? He is my friend, isn’t he? Or is he? 

Suddenly, the strange man closed his eyes. Jack lurched out of his trance-like state, gasping and panting for air like a drowning man. The man opened one eye and introduced himself to a very disoriented Jack. “I’m Dr. Mako, founder of the Institute of Hypnotism. I have devoted my whole life to building the Institute. Today, I came here especially to tell you that these skills are those that you possess.” Dr. Mako smiled very slightly and pointed a sharp finger at Jack’s face. “Yes. You. In fact, you come from one of the greatest Bender bloodlines. The Opuses. There weren’t any Benders in this family line for a few centuries due to some unexplainable medical or otherwise natural complications. You are more powerful than you realise. It is a great honour for me to have a match with you just now. And, of course, you would be welcomed into the Institute. There, instructors — or me, to be exact — would hone your skills in hypnotism. Then, once you are powerful enough, we will put that skill to good use. How does that sound?” Totally bewildered by the information overload, Jack stared blankly at the psycho in front of him. Seriously? Hypnotism? What was this self-proclaimed “Doctor” talking about? Did he know that Hypnotism doesn’t exist? He probably just escaped from a mental hospital. Jack chuckled at his own joke. And this “Doctor” even went as far as saying that he, Jackson Opus, came from a great line of Benders (whatever that was)! Jack didn’t want to sound rude, of course, but he had to say something.

“Umm, Dr. Mako, I think you found the wrong person. That man over there,” Jack gestured in the direction of a random stranger walking his dog, “is probably the person you are looking for. I am certain…” Before he could finish, Jack already realised that he himself was indeed the very person “Dr. Mako” was looking for. Because, why else would “Dr. Mako” know his name? And surname. 

Dr. Mako, who seemed to have read his mind, said smoothly, “No worries, Jackson, I know this may sound wild and made-up to you, but it is true. My fellow employees and I myself have searched high and low for decades for a single Bender in the Opus family. You would receive the utmost respect from us, the Benders at the Institute, without a doubt. And I would personally make sure you do not undergo any stress during your training sessions.”

Jack bit his lip. Maybe Dr. Mako was really mentally ill. He might have just heard someone call him his full name just now. No way was there an “Institute of Hypnotism.” No way was there a search for an Opus. No way. Nuh-uh. Nada.

But, Dr. Mako, having seen Jack’s expression, heaved a sigh and said, almost exasperated, “Well, how do you explain what happened just now? When I tried Bending you, you almost gave in. In other words, you were almost hypnotised by me. I understand this must be very hard for you to accept, so what about going home and asking your father about your ancestry? Jackson, I am sure there are some hidden facts you do not know yet. I’ve kept an eye open and, just like you, witnessed the strange happenings. They were simply a result of Bending some people unintentionally. So, yes. When you have found out more about your family line, come to 5th Avenue 110th Street, and there, you will not miss my magnificent Institute. I would issue someone to see to that.” 

Dr. Mako, who had a habit of communicating in large chunks of authoritative speech, regarded Jack expectantly. Jack, once again flustered by information overload, said, “What?” 

Dr. Mako exhaled deeply and walked away, handing Jack a business card at the last minute, and said, “We also need to work on your hearing skills, I’m afraid.” 

Jack surveyed the business card. Fancy Chopin Script font was printed all over the small 3.5 inches by 2 inches piece of paper. Surprisingly, the name was simply Dr. Mako, without a first name nor a middle name. The description read “Dr. Mako has devoted his whole life to the making of the unparalleled Institute. This world-class academy has educated many generations of young people and taught them the moral ways to handle their special skills.” How old is he? Many generations of young people? That must have been decades. Does that mean that by the time the Institute was established, Dr. Mako was already after me? He said his employees and he himself searched for decades. Was the Institute founded for the sake of trying to find this very member of the Opus family? It was a creepy notion for sure, sending chills down Jack’s spine. This whole business sounded more like an unhealthy obsession. Jack didn’t want anything to do with hawk-like Dr. Mako. But he was intrigued by his ancestry. He could actually hypnotise people? This thought was so outlandish that it was impossible to believe, but what if it was true? That must be why Benjamin and that bus driver had acted so weirdly. There was only one way to find out. He walked purposefully toward home, in the meantime forgetting to inform the partying basketball team that he was leaving.

***

“Well, Son, I’m not sure why you ask, but,” Jack’s father cleared his throat and pursed his lips, “you see, my parents were, uh, very… persuasive people. Extremely eloquent and convincing. They could make you think white was black if they wanted to.” Jack narrowed his eyes. It did sound like his father knew something but wasn’t comfortable talking about it. And I wonder why. Jack took a deep breath and recounted what happened, from the strange incidents to the run-in with the mysterious Dr. Mako. Jack’s father listened, eyes growing wide, lips twitching intermittently. Jack handed him the business card as well.

After Jack had finished, his father said threadily, “I don’t have it, and I thought you would be spared the hokey-pokey too.” 

Just at this moment, Jack’s mother entered the living room and announced sternly, “Jack, it’s past your bedtime. Although your team won, it’s no excuse to break the household rules. To bed. Now.” Jack stood up slowly and made his way to his room, but not before narrowing his eyes at his father, a warning to not tell his mother.

The next morning, as Jack plodded down the stairs, overly-cheerful voices echoed down the hallway. Curious, he hid behind the wall that separated the dining room and hall and peered into the dining room from behind the wall. A horrifyingly ghastly sight met his sleep-blurred eyes. The black suit, the black hair, the black shoes, the sharp, long nose, the pale, vampire-like complexion, and finally, the very same piercing blue eyes that had once stared ominously into his.

Dr. Mako.

What is he doing here?! It is creepy how he knows so much about me. My name and surname. The strange happenings that he would never know of unless he was there himself. The place I would be after the basketball match. And now, intruding into my home? Jack looked on in dismay as his mother said, unusually friendly and with a magazine-cover smile, “It’s really nice to meet you Dr. Mako. I’m so glad you were able to make it today. Yesterday, Jack came home with your business card and told his father a little about you and your Institute. I think it’s a good idea if he can attend classes there since, you know, these special skills would really come in handy if he, uh, knows how to use them! We live close to 5th avenue, so I’m sure Jack can make it on time after school!” So, Jack’s father told his mother. And Dr. Mako was not intruding. 

“My parents actually invited him. Why? Why? Why? Mom and Dad, don’t you realise how much Dr. Mako is like a stalker? And I don’t want to have anything to do with hypnotism or his dreadful Institute on 5th street or whatnot,” Jack moaned miserably as he tiptoed back to his room, hands covering his ears. He hated it when his parents made decisions for him without notifying him first. But nothing, absolutely nothing, was stopping them when they had made up their minds. Well, since a stubborn streak did run in the Opus family, maybe Jack also had a trick or two up his sleeve.

Soon enough, Jack’s mother climbed up the stairs to Jack’s room, only to see him sleeping peacefully. Or so she thought. She “woke” him up and nagged at him to hurry up. Jack pretended to be groggy and washed and changed, then cautiously proceeded down to the dining room for breakfast. Was Dr. Mako still there? Fortunately, he had already left. While Jack was eating his breakfast, consisting of stale commercial orange juice and over-cooked bacon, his parents sat themselves down at the table. Jack noted with annoyance that they looked almost… relieved. Then, a fake smile that his mother always used when she wanted to tell him something that she believed was good news but knew he would not like was plastered onto her face. Jack called that particular smile “Falsehood in Childhood of poor Jack” (FCJ). That being said, his mother had many different smiles that she used on different occasions, some of them more deceiving than the others. However, this time around, Jack knew what was coming up. And he was not the most eager about it.

“Well, honey, we have a little surprise for you this morning! Guess what?” 

Jack looked at his mother vacantly while he counted to three silently in his head and continued stuffing dry bacon into his mouth, mumbling, “I don’t want to know.”

The FCJ smile on Jack’s mother’s face wavered a little. However, if she was feeling sorry for Jack, she did not show it. “So, last night, your dad told me about Dr. Mako and how you had hypnotism skills! It is really amazing! I’m sure you would find useful purposes for it! So that’s why we decided to sign you up for The Institute’s classes with Dr. Mako!” She then flashed a thumbs up and grinned, showcasing her two rows of perfect white teeth. Jack cringed inwardly at his mother’s forced cheeriness. She knew he hated it. Jack thought, Step one, Plan A. 

He took his time eating one of the two pieces of bacon left on his plate, put down his fork and knife, wiped his mouth on a napkin, and said pitifully, “Maybe you signed me up ’cause both of you think I’m just a burden in the house.” Jack’s mom’s smile disappeared and was replaced by an exasperated frown.

“Jack, you are old enough to know that that’s not the reason. I know you hate enrichment classes of any sort, but maybe it’s time for you to grow up and face the world. It’s good to acquire skills, and you cannot always shy away from what you do not like.” Jack’s mother glared at her husband, who sat leaning weakly against the table, not taking any sides in the argument.

“Or maybe it’s because you all think I’m too dumb and don’t have any skills.” Jack said mournfully, standing up and pushing the plate with a single piece of untouched bacon as far as he could toward the other end of the table. Jack’s father gulped and looked ready to run away. His mother, on the other hand, glared at Jack and bit her lip, as if trying to figure out another way to torture him as a punishment for disagreeing. She said firmly in a tone that did not allow for protests, “We invited Dr. Mako over this morning and have already arranged your lessons at the Institute for you. You should be grateful. Dr. Mako devoted his whole life to the making of the unparalleled Institute. This world-class Institute has educated many generations of young people and taught them the moral ways to handle their special skills. Be a little more appreciative, Jackson. We signed you up for your own good. Go to your room. You still have homework to do.” Jack pondered what his mother said. Did she just recite word for word what the business card read?

He pretended to walk towards the stairs, defeated and utterly flattened by his mother’s perfectly “logical” argument. When he was sure his mother was not looking at him but was still within earshot, he said, “Well, what does Mom know? I signed up for my school’s Photography Club to pick up some skills like she advised me to. But all I received was a tongue lashing and another program at the Institute. I suppose it is useless trying to please her, or Dad, for that matter. All I ever will be to them is a skill-less and useless son.” Jack was sure his mother heard him loud and clear. He really hoped Plan A worked, or he would have to turn to Plan B, which might not work and should only be tried as a last resort. Then, he purposely stormed up the stairs to his room and slammed the door shut. For even better effects, he switched on his computer and found a video on YouTube: a 15-minute long audio track of someone sobbing. Jack made sure that the audio on the computer was turned all the way up and clicked play. Jack’s mother would now know that Jack was very upset indeed! 

At the other end of the house, Jack’s father lay slumped on the couch, listening to Jack’s “cries.” His son really was upset. But it was for his own good! Couldn’t he see? Dr. Mako’s Institute of Hypnotism was definitely the most elite one in the whole country! And sending him there wasn’t even cheap. The Bentley dealership Jack’s father worked at was not faring very well recently, and that resulted in a pay cut. However, sending Jack there certainly was not a mistake. Dr. Mako must be a great instructor!

After the 15 minutes long audio track, Jack was surprised that neither of his parents came to comfort him or at least reason with him. His mother might be out of the question since she was always stubborn as a mule, but what about his father? He was always a bit softer than Mom! What’s wrong with him today? He would usually give in to whatever my choice is after seeing that I’m upset. He was about as soft as mom was strict. 

Hatred

There was this cube. This specific cube that almost ended the universe. Well, if it could destroy the whole mighty universe, it was no ordinary cube. Believe me, not ordinary. You may ask, who was the owner? Here’s the thing, it didn’t have any. Maybe it did, but the owner did not know it. It was just an ordinary Rubix cube to normal people. See, I said normal people, so, there were, of course, not-normal humans. One really specific one was Johnny, Johnny the “King.” He was feared by not only humans but half the universe, the half that was still not conquered by him. He had learned dark magic. The ability to breathe a type of gas was one of the powers. Another was to hate. He hated all human beings, infecting all living things, even though he himself was a human. He was already the master of half the universe, but he wasn’t satisfied, not nearly satisfied. Not nearly. 

Learning that the cube was the key to his success, the King charged into the owner’s house and snatched the cube. Holding up a cube for a moment, nothing happened. Nothing. Just as Johnny started to believe he had gone after the wrong cube, the cube shook. It shook. Believe me, it really shook. Now, if the “King” of the universe couldn’t hold it, nobody could. The cube rose rapidly towards the sun. Nearing the horizon, it glowed. Without warning, it opened up what looked like eyes and spit out a laser ray. With a horrible-looking hole in the middle of the Earth, Johnny laughed. He laughed like a savage man. He was laughing at his own home. Floating towards the cube, it landed comfortably in his strong hands. Johnny had dark power. Really, really dark power. After he ran away from Earth, he was the faithful student of a powerful wizard — an alien. When I say faithful, he was really faithful. He stayed until his Sensei’s death. Actually, he caused the death, however without an ounce of remorse in his heart. Just because of a trivial matter, he killed his teacher. This was Johnny, the King, and the mad, savage man. With a single tap on the cube, the Earth exploded, exploding into nothing. However, before he could react, a sudden streak of light blinded him. Floating in the middle of the debris of the destroyed planet was a man, a tall bulky man with milky white blazing eyes. Hands on fire, feet frozen, mouth spitting venom, eyes shooting lightning. This was the human brother of the cube. Although similar, the brother was weaker, much weaker than the cube. The only advantage he had now was that he had a heart, a real one. 

This man, the only survivor, wanted, yearned for revenge. He yearned for it. Johnny had destroyed all, all of his loved ones, his friends, even his children. His home, the home he loved the most, was also reduced to nothing but dust. He could not accept seeing Johnny taking another half of the universe. With the determination of love, he set off with a fatal mission of taking down Johnny the King, the King…

Standing, still staring right at Johnny, both men were still, but their hearts thumped furiously, however, for different reasons. If you thought they were going to fight right there and then, well, you are wrong. Now, the man who lived, named Cooper, was smart. Not like normal smart, but overpowering smart. The genius cells speeding around in his huge brain, he decided to hide first, then fight. Johnny was already starting towards him. One step at a time, the radiation of the cube became stronger and stronger. With a silent snap, Cooper disappeared into thin air, leaving Johnny looking wild, twitching his head, eyes swirling around, searching for the man who lived. Well, of course, it was to no avail. The cube had already fallen deadly silent, not moving, not making a noise. Neither did it glow nor send out heat waves. It was just like an ordinary cube, waiting for someone smart enough to turn it vigorously to its original 6 brilliant colours. 

Letting out a loud groan, Johnny flew away with a heavy heart. Without speaking to that mysterious man, he knew. He had a weird feeling that he was an enemy — not a normal enemy like the rest of the universe but an enemy that he needed to put up a fight to conquer. He sat on his jewel throne, face ashen, hand still gripping the Rubix cube like it was his life string. Well, as you can see, it was kind of like his life string. 

Meanwhile, at the very corner of the universe, Cooper landed soundlessly onto a planet, not a centimeter touched by Johnny. Don’t ask me how I know, ask Cooper. He had all the power you could want. He would know how I know that it wasn’t touched yet. Yet. Snapping his finger once more, Cooper was nothing. Nothing as in “invisible.” Not only invisible but also “untouchable.” He was just air, floating around the place. 

It was like a futuristic world with all the cool technology. It was a small world, very small indeed — it was the size of the moon. (Well, don’t ask me how I know how big Earth 01 was. I told you Cooper was the brother of the magic cube.) Walking around, minding their own business, were human-like beings, maybe real humans. Looking just like everyone else, nobody noticed him. Of course, nobody could — he was invisible and “untouchable.”

 Eyes zooming around the place, Cooper noticed something, something worth talking about. It was an alien world after all; everything was strange, even fascinating. The buildings were tiny but big. Let me explain. The building seemed only two times taller than Cooper himself. Once he stepped in, it turned out to be the biggest shopping mall he had ever seen. With each store as big as a land property’s total area, there were at least thousands of shops. Looking straight, Cooper could not see the end. Better still, that small world seemed to be money-free. The natives took things and left, without even going to the cashier. There wasn’t even a cashier. Basically, it was just like a buffet without the expensive prices. Well, maybe then there would be no thieves. Sure enough, there were plenty of buffets, and of course with no price. Piling in a long neat row were billions and billions of different foods, all looking better than the ones on Earth. Well, even a superhuman could not resist this. Mouth watering like a fountain, he teleported from place to place, snatching up things, gulping down delicious food, even sometimes stopping to visit the casino.

After all these surprises and shocks, the death of the world started to slip out of his mind. Bit by bit, piece by piece, they started to disappear, disappear into thin air. With another gulp of food, one bit was gone. With another new piece of clothing on, one piece was gone. Soon enough, only a tiny, mini section of the scene and memory was left. Fatigue started growing into his bones. Exhaustion loomed over him. Eyelids starting to droop, Cooper finally, finally decided to teleport out of the massive shopping mall. The moment his feet touched the cold damp ground, a weird, dreadful, painful feeling smashed into him, giving him a vigorous shiver. Eyes looking around blankly, the little segment of memory burned in his brain. 

“Cooper Grandsir! There you are enjoying yourself while the universe’s fate is at risk! It’s fate is in your hands! In your hands! You better start training, yes?! You need to kill Johnny. Kill him. Kill him! Kill him! Kill him! Your children died, you can still save them. Your friends died, you still can bring them back. Your wife died, do you not want to serve justice?!” A shrill voice screamed, really screamed the life out of Cooper. With that, he fell to the ground, of course soundless, falling into a deep coma.

Magical things happened. Still laying there, unconscious, the little piece of memory started to grow. It glowed golden light, filling up his whole head. It was a memory, right, so it should replay the past. Like a film, every moment Cooper spent with his three dearest sons was shown before his eyes. Before Cooper even knew he had the power, he was a free man. Playing with his sons every day, laughing and cackling. Next came his wife. Every night he spent his free time watching movies with her. Every morning, he woke up extra early to finish all the household chores before rushing to work just to save his beloved wife’s energy. 

Next came his two best friends, always driving to work together, always buying lunch for each other, always, always lending out a helping hand to each other in times of need. His life was packed full of love, fun, excitement, until — there was always this until, always — until he acknowledged his powers. His luck was not bad. He learned his powers at the exact moment the Earth exploded, just enough to get him out of the debris safe and sound. 

Now, you are probably shouting at this paper, screaming why I am still talking about Cooper. Where’s Johnny? Now, I am going to hop right into the opposite end of the universe now. Come on, stop grabbing your hand, fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. 

Ability to teleport is one thing; riding on a pegasus, flying seven times faster than light is another thing. Now, even if you couldn’t really see the horse in motion, let me tell you, it was extraordinarily beautiful, more beautiful than you can imagine. You can guess that ugly King was riding on that glorious pony, trying his best to look more handsome. It was quite a ride, quite a ride. Now, he didn’t have seat belts, not like you guys, so he was thrown off plenty of times. Screaming at the top of his lungs, arms flailing like jelly sticks, he was like a huge block of dirt striking across the cosmos; whenever you thought it was going to crash, boom, something would catch him, throw him straight back onto the whining pegasus’s back. Wait, how are you supposed to see all this? He was faster than light. No, no, no, you know what, you all just picture this scene in your mind. Now that was Johnny’s one little activity to spend his time. Fun? 

The rest of the day was filled with this kind of activity, this kind… Did he give food to his people? Nope. Did he follow the rules? No. Did he try to rule the planets that were his? No. Did he go around doing crazy stuff and try to get himself killed? Yes. Only on some days, some days as in once a month, he would do something useful — not useful to others, but really essential to him. Battle. 

No, he didn’t charge into battle like a mental person, no; he sat, eating McDonald’s on a chair, shouting at his army through a huge speaker. A huge one. Not only was it huge, but the voice that came out of it was even more gigantic. That itself would kill half the enemy. Now, you are going to ask, how did his army not die? Easy, they all were robots — no eyes, no brain, no heart. Only a pair of ears and the ability to fight was installed into the human-like robots. Now their ears wouldn’t break, at least not that easily. I must say, Johnny’s method was pretty impressive, able to conjure, destroy ten planets at the same moment.  

But there was something that always bothered Johnny. Every time before battle, a deep wild voice would warn him in his ears.

“Johnny, be careful, stop and think. Do you really think killing so many aliens is fun? Stop your war and return back to your Sensei. Come on, Johnny.” The voice sounded dangerously like the Sensei that Johnny had murdered. Most importantly, after asking all his generals, Johnny confirmed that only he could hear that annoying instructing voice. Even before he set his heart on the magic cube, the voice alerted him to think twice. But, of course, he didn’t listen to a thing the scary voice said. Shaking his head vigorously, Johnny screamed in his head to ask the voice to leave. Every time was similar. However, every time, it just got more serious and harder to get rid of. This was the sole thing that kept Johnny from perfectly killing all the aliens.

Now, where was the cube? Of course in his clumsy hands, glowing, showing off, duh. One special occasion, when he got a bit tired of spectating aliens’ heads, getting brutally chopped off, or getting run through by a shotgun, he just gave the glorious cube a little shake. As silent as nothing, another hundred planets were gone. Let me stop for a moment because you guys probably have questions again. Right? Why did Johnny destroy the planets? I thought he wanted to take over the world and be king? Is that your question? Now, I forgot to tell you that his cube, the cube again, already sucked all the jewels to his gloomy castle. So now that he was rich, why would he want the useless planets? He only left behind the beautiful ones. That’s it. That was Johnny. Basically a planet killer. 

Riding his winged horse, Johnny shuddered. At that precise moment, he became an absolute genius. The brain cells swam around the head faster than he was flying, having 0.00001-second meetings here and there, discussing an idea, an absolute genius idea: to take over the world in less than 1 hour. Good thinking, right? Good idea, right? It would totally work, right? To him, an absolute yes. To you, I hope it’s a yes. If now you are thinking no, and your name is Johnny, switch your brain right now, this very instance. Go! Now the rest of you, please, please keep your pure brain with you.  

After rewarding himself with another ten hours of speed flying, he was tired, alright. Throwing himself onto his sofa, he called for his generals. All of them came in unison, speaking in unison, taking action in unison. 

“Master, how can we help?” Imagine ten similar voices speaking in an enclosed toilet, that’s how Johnny liked it. Weird? Do I still need to answer that question?! 

“Destroy any planet at will. Destroy everything in one hour. Go. If you fail me, well, we have plenty of hungry Johnnys here, they will love to eat you.” With that, the echoes of steps rang in the room, but of course still at the same frequency, at the same time. None of the generals dare to defy the King, not even showing the slightest displeasure. 

Still in his room, Johnny switched on the television. Itching with eagerness, Johnny was twitching and spinning on the cushions, waiting to watch his favorite movie: chopping off aliens’ heads. Fist clenching and unclenching, he tried to suppress his thirst. Finally, with a deafening bang, the great battle began. Robots charged into the cities, catching the aliens by surprise. Chopping off every head that came into vision, even ten at a time, the army advanced. One by one, the planets fell. One by one, the planets disappeared. One by one, the universe was becoming Johnny’s. Laughing his stomach out was Johnny on his sofa, tearing up (of joy, not any other reason) at the scene of innocent aliens screaming halfway.

That was a huge break from Cooper. Let’s go back to Cooper, shall we?

Gliding through the universe as a group of mist, he visited every planet that was still active, still alive, not destroyed by… him. You know who “him” is. Every planet was different, very different. Some were small, others were big. Some were inhabited by robots, others inhabited by aliens. Some were glorious, developed, others rundown, rural. So on and so forth. However, there was one similarity, just one single factor: all were quiet, all were dead-like. Anxiety hung in the air. Guns, lasers, bombs, rockets were lined up every few kilometers. All planets, no matter good or bad, small or big, poor or rich, were preparing for battle. 

After at least half an hour of gliding, inspecting all the depressing planets, Cooper reached his home. His long-lost home. His favourite home. His only home. Looking at the unknown debris, floating around pointlessly. Just as he wanted to reach out and feel the leftovers of his home, with a dangerous flash, a knife swung towards Cooper’s neck to cut cleanly through it. Head sliding off his shoulders, Cooper froze for a split second, then as quickly as the knife came, he dissipated into nothing. 

With a sharp, uncertain breath, Cooper lifted his head slowly, eyes still fixed on the orb. Letting out a second shaky breath, he was in deep thought, cells spinning faster than Johnny was flying.  

“It seems this will be a really tough century. This student is a bit of trouble.” Exclaiming to himself, Cooper paced around the room, eyes focused on the ceiling, hands behind his back. Even the greatest wizard was having trouble handling this boy called Johnny. 

Twelve years have passed. 

His shabby clothes flagging behind him, Cooper journeyed towards Johnny’s comfortable sofa. Entering “Mr. King’s” house rudely, he passed right through the still blaring television, always screaming painful dreadful shouts of terror. 

“Sensei? I thought you were dead. I killed you. You should be in hell!” With eyes three times larger than usual, Johnny exclaimed, still lying on his leather sofa. 

“Allow me to trespass upon your hospitality for a while more. I came here for just one thing. Please listen to me. It is crucial to you, and only you. Listen up Johnny.” Without stopping to wait for a response, Cooper continued rambling in his deep, dangerous tone. “Do you remember the curse you placed on everybody? Anyone who spills blood will die a pitiful death. I am sorry, and grateful at the same time, that you have accidentally placed it on yourself too. And I daresay you have not only spilt one person’s blood but millions. Now Johnny, I will give you one more chance to stop all you are doing and come back with me. You will be a great leader, respected by all, if you allow me to purify your heart. The curse still can be lifted. This is your final chance. Do you realise every time you wanted to start a war, a voice would ring in your head? The voice was mine. I was a teacher, and now a guide, in the future even a partner. I always wanted to guide you back to the right path. But it seems that I have failed to do so. Even I cannot do so. This is your terminal, ultimate chance to clean your heart. Please, Johnny. I promise you you would be more respected, more loved and more happy, more powerful than this present state. I will give you one ending minute.”  

Sneering at his long-ago teacher, Johnny kicked the stool nearby, shooting straight up, coming to the same height as his Sensei. 

“You really think I would listen to all your rubbish. I hate the human world. They never treated me well. So why should I be good to them? You are no longer my teacher, just like you said. I am the king of the universe. Nobody gives me advice. Vacancy is sweet, indeed. All my hate is helping me. I will conjure the world before you even leave here — that is, if you even ever set foot out in the open again.” These words trailed out from Johnny’s mouth like a snake, smooth but surely venomous. Drawing out a blazing silver sword, he got ready to strike. 

“Let me say one last word before you leave; the world you have been destroying was a fake one that I created just for you. I hoped and expected you to change, to return to the good side. You would be a great help to humankind, to all living things in the real universe. Now you have missed your last chance, you will disappear. I am sincerely sorry for not being able to help you more. Johnny, always remember this. Your hatred has overwhelmed you. Never let the hatred control, always control it. That was our very first lesson together. I hope you will remember…” Tears started pouring from his shriveled eyes as Johnny started to fade, so did the rest of the universe. With a bellow, Johnny disappeared, swallowed by his own curse, wasting his whole life, his powerful magic on destroying the fake universe, totally conjured by the hatred to mankind.

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.

Tender

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

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

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

“Dine in or take out?” he said. 

“Dine in,” replied Jac. 

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

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

“Fine by me,” said Jac. 

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

“Alright.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like it?” asked the butcher.

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

“Fresh is the key really.”

“I’m sure.”

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

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

“Agreed,” said Jac as he swallowed.

“Say, do you know about vegans?”

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

“Right.”

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

“Like what?”

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

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

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

The butcher leaned towards him.

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

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

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

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

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!”

Our Customized Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hair color?”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Liam Gardner, what an interesting name.”

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

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

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

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

“Instructions? For what?”

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

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

* * *

Mary stormed into their home. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Gardner,

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

Sincerely, 

The Inspectors

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“Come in!” said Liam.

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

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

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

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

That’s where this story concludes. 

It was Him

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

ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE

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

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

***

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

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

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

FOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you met this man before?”

“No.”

“Do you suspect there are other people involved?”

“Um, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIX

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

“Mom, please unlock the car.” 

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

“How’d it go, hon?”

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

***

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

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

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

time for. 

SEVEN

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

EIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most meaningful words I have ever heard. 

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

NINE

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

At this, my parents nod. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEN

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsey clears her throat and wipes her eyes.

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

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

The Passenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help me what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” she blurts out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess that’s how the world works sometimes… 

Huh.

Why You Should Love Your Kids More than Your Hat

“Passports.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, yes,” Siddarth huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, yes,” Meena said determinately. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I guess then you have nothing.

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

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

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

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

Data Log 0003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>End of Data Log 0003

Gateway to Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I smell humans. Top grade humans.”

“There are no humans here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A much smarter friend,” he joked.

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

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

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

“Take the lantern, Emma.”

“Where are we going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go. We have to keep moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you savor it?” I laughed.

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

 I shrugged, “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superhero Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Breakfast’s ready!” my mom yells. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You excited?” Jordan asks. 

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

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

“Thank god!” 

Bob the Doofus

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

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

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

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

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

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

The skeletons immediately caught fire and turned into ash. 

Dystopian Utopia Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

Terms and Pronunciation: 

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

Shampenk – (sham-pen-kh)

Gem – (sh-em)

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

There are two solstices every year

Failed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YOU WILL FAIL!” she screamed. 

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

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

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

“GPA?” an agent asked. 

“4.9,” Jane said. 

“That’s impossible.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Comrade: Part 1

The Comrade… Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 years earlier in the year 7062… 

Cornwall, The Constipated States of Russia, Formerly Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean, kill me?” Braydon stuttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 years later…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mission was complete.

Whatever Happens In The Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes ma’am,” we all chorused. 

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

We all jumped. 

“We’re off!” Ms. Harper said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma started crying. “Please!” 

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

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

I gasped and covered my own mouth. 

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

“Let us go!” Sammi cried. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahh, there really was nothing sweeter than the darkness.

The Otherworld, Book IX: The Shadow Legion

Trigger Warnings

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

Prologue

“Producat in flamma.” 

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

“Junge currum suum fortitudinem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Altzeroil!” Hana cried, looking horrified.

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

Hana immediately vanished as well and all her vines disappeared.

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

“If you destroy me,” corrected Divino.

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

“TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH, ZADUS!” Clufa yelled.

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

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

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

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

“WHAT DID YOU DO?!” cried Clufa. “HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1

That was the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, you’ve probably read a bunch of other stories about stuff like heroes saving their world from some kind of big threat that’s going to cause catastrophe, and the heroes are flawless and perfect snowflakes who are never questioned and always save the day.

And you probably find that annoying, don’t you?

Well, if you do, I have good news for you! I’m not biased towards the winning side. If you really want to know why books are always so biased towards the heroes, it’s because they’re the ones who won. But here I am, someone who lost, with no hint of bias towards those who’ve won!

Why?

Because, as you can guess, I’m a little irritated with how my life has turned out!!!

You know, trapped in my house, forced to give anyone who wanders here some blessed magic powers so that they can think they’re some precious little snowflake who has done no wrong.

But anyway, enough of that. I did my research, I stalked the limbo realm… and I know about the Shadow Legion. And I can tell you about them because I’m sure you’re wondering: what exactly happened to them? And is there any chance that they could come back?

In short, they were trapped in limbo to keep them from becoming titans and remaking the Fantiverse, and yes, there’s a very good chance that they’ll come back because a magical connection was severely altered in another world.

If you want a more detailed explanation of what’s happened, well, that’s what I’m here for.

So yeah. The Shadow Legion.

Clufa, Altzeroil, and Hana started by redecorating the limbo realm, at least the part of it they were imprisoned in. I guess they figured if they were going to be imprisoned there, they might as well make it just a little bit hospitable.

They each stuck to their own corner most of the time (except Hana, who had literally no regard for personal space, and honestly, I respect her for that) but had meetings in the center and often could temporarily break the connection between their plane of existence and the physical realm by communicating with those below.

Yes, limbo is above the physical realm. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea.

Anyway, so a couple of things happened in the million years they were imprisoned — namely that they did a LOT of manipulating.

And I mean, A LOT. All of them, even the temperamental Clufa, were pretty much experts by the end.

Perhaps I should give a couple of examples?

Well, here’s one.

(Please pardon the way it’s written, I was just taking notes on what was happening, so it’s written in script form.)

FREIZA

Daemones magnanime nomini tuo me benedicite mihi scientiam.

A large pile of smoke appears, and from it, a shadow that is shaped like CLUFA appears. The shadow is orange, with a redhead and yellow limbs.

CLUFA

Greetings, young wizard, and thank you for communicating with us. It’s been so long since we’ve had contact with those from the world below.

FREIZA

It’s an honor to meet you, master of the flame.

CLUFA

The flame is an art anyone can learn, but it is true that I am the creator of it.

CLUFA bounces around a couple of flames in her shadow form to show what she’s doing.

FREIZA

I’ve summoned you to ask: how may I topple the Wizarding Committee?

CLUFA

(scoffs) So there’s a wizarding committee now? Love that these pathetic humans pretend they’re the ones in control of the magic and try to hide that they have primordial wizards lurking over them right now.

FREIZA

Indeed; I wish to topple them, and take control of this world.

CLUFA

I can help you, and I’d rather you than the Wizarding Committee rule. But may I ask just why do you think you’re worthy of this?

FREIZA

Because I’ve studied magic for far longer than they have, and I work hard to learn it for myself rather than greedily taking it from others.

CLUFA

You’d be a step up from them, I’ll give you that, little cat. Just what kind of animal are you?

FREIZA

Tiger, technically, though most just call me a cat.

CLUFA

Yes, I can see that.

HANA

OH MY GOSH, THERE’S A CAT???!!!

CLUFA

Hana, shhh, I’m TALKING to someone, and we have to make a good IMPRESSION. PLEASE go back to your corner and… play with plants or something.

HANA

But… but it’s a CAT!

CLUFA

Just summon a cat of your own! Can’t you do that?

HANA

No…

CLUFA

Well… can’t you make a sculpture of one?

HANA

I’VE ALREADY MADE NINETEEN THOUSAND FIVE-HUNDRED SEVENTY-SIX, I WANT TO SEE A REAL CAT!

CLUFA

Ugh, fine, come on.

HANA’s shadow appears in the smoke. Her’s is green all over with a few lighter shades of green in her limbs and head.

HANA

OH MY GOSH HIII!!!

FREIZA

Um… hello I guess.

CLUFA

Okay, you saw the cat, now please go. 

CLUFA pushes HANA away, and her smoke disappears.

CLUFA

Hi. Sorry. My sister’s crazy about cats. Runs in the family, I guess, since cats are one of the only species my brother doesn’t like torturing.

FREIZA

That is… um… quite alright. ANYWAY. I’ve been told that you can bless others with your power.

CLUFA

You’ve been told correctly.

FREIZA

Well, I want to know if you can do that. If you can give me that power.

CLUFA

Can I? Yes. Will I? Maybe. It depends on what you do for me.

FREIZA

What can I do for you?

CLUFA

I am currently in the limbo realm, and I need an external force to help me escape. That’s where you come in.

FREIZA

Oh?

CLUFA

Yes. You must alter the balance of magic so that the barrier between limbo and the physical realm is shattered — only for a brief moment, mind you — but enough for three demigods to escape.

FREIZA

You’re demigods?

CLUFA

Well, we call ourselves that, but, technically we weren’t born to a god or a human, so… JUST LISTEN TO ME!

FREIZA

Yes, of course, um, sorry.

CLUFA

Now, I will bless you with some of my flames, and you may be my host. With this power, you must destroy the Wizarding Committee.

FREIZA

Hold up, hold up, what do you mean, ‘host’?

CLUFA

I mean, the Shadow Legion can use any willing sorcerer as their host if they’re in limbo, to shatter the barrier between worlds. That is what I plan on doing with you, but I need two others.

FREIZA

Fortunately, I know where to find two others. But why should we believe you?

CLUFA

How else do you plan on getting this power?

FREIZA

Hmm. Very well. Grant me your strength.

So yeah.

That’s all I remember from that scene because a bunch of humans came and asked for a bit of magic, and of course, I had no choice but to say yes because of this ANNOYING CURSE THAT KEEPS ME HERE FOR ETERNITY.

Anyway, I suppose that leads into a little of what happened, right? Clufa eventually possessed Freiza and used her to start creating havoc in the Wizarding World (the planet in which that was located).

But there is a lot more to this story. Why? Because many unexpected things happened on the journey.

For one thing, the Wizarding Committee was, in fact, toppled, but not because of Clufa or Freiza. It was because of the citizens of Tulgey Wood, who waged a massive attack, allying with Gnome and Cat Island in order to achieve this. It resulted in two major casualties (not counting the Wizarding Lord, whose death was the goal).

As you can imagine, it caused some shaking of the realms, but not enough.

It wouldn’t be until several weeks later that a true shaking would occur…

Chapter 2

Ah. You again.

You certainly are hungry for more information?

Greedy human.

Assuming you’re human, of course. I really don’t know at this point. Last week I heard that a strange creature with purple eyes and black fur was the one who struck down the Wizarding Lord at the cost of his own life.

Guess that means more than just humans have large intelligence now?

Not that humans are very smart, of course.

Anyway, I won’t jump to any conclusions, and I’ll just give you what you came for.

So a few things happened in the three weeks before they were released. Some external things involving Clufa manipulating her way into getting out with her siblings, but I must say, much to my surprise, observing these demons actually turned out to be a really interesting character study!

I almost feel like I’m watching a movie when I’m watching Clufa, Altzeroil, and Hana all together (maybe a horror drama sitcom? I don’t know), because their interactions and clashing personalities are just delightful.

Take one night, for instance.

Clufa was conjuring some kind of magic aura that was causing tension in limbo. Guess she thought that would lead to some magic misconnections, but if she actually read the books like her brother did, she’d know that would be pointless, as nothing that happened in limbo impacted the world below.

As she was doing this, she was suddenly interrupted by a large bush that took the shape of a cat, that suddenly pounced on Clufa, and bounced off her, destroying her incantation.

Clufa growled in frustration.

“Sorry!” cried Hana, running by Clufa, chasing after the cat. “Lost pet!”

“Hana, what did you do?!” Clufa barked.

“I finally learned how to bring things to live!” Hana answered enthusiastically. “I created a cat, made of leaves! He’s now my best friend ever and for all eternity!”

“Well, can you please just take it away from here?” demanded Clufa. “I’m trying to cause balance shifts from here!”

“You realize that’s pointless?” Altzeroil questioned sassily. “Nothing that happens here impacts the physical realm. We can cause an earthquake, and the physical realm will be untouched.”

“Well, it’s worth a shot, since no one else is trying anything!” Clufa responded irritably. “Now, WAIT.” She closed her eyes and spread her arms out. “Omnis virtus mea, et adducere magicae.”  A yellow string appeared between Clufa’s hands. She began circling her hands around each other, as the string began vibrating. “Utere ea ut conteram nos.” She began levitating, and when she opened her eyes, they were glowing. She looked down and brought her hands inches apart. The string turned into a ball. “Claustra perrumpere!”

Clufa threw the magic ball down the limbo barrier, but it simply bounced off and hit Clufa in the head as though it was a basketball. Clufa fell down, clutching her head, as the ball evaporated. Her eyes stopped glowing.

“Clufa!” yelped Hana, hopping over to her sister. “Are you alright?”

“I’m… I’m fine,” Clufa answered, shaking off the pain in her forehead.

“As I said,” muttered Altzeroil, levitating down, “that was pointless. It got you hurt, and it could have gotten one of us hurt.”

“What have you been doing?” Clufa demanded, getting up. “I’ve been trying to get us all out of here, you’ve just been floating around your precious ice palace and reading stuff, being a nerd!”

“That’s a compliment,” Altzeroil replied with a sly smile.

“IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO BE!” Clufa roared, losing her temper again, and a bunch of fire erupted around her. She levitated into the air, glaring sharply at Altzeroil.

“Clufa, calm down,” Altzeroil told her. “You’ll burn Hana’s things, which isn’t very polite.”

Clufa muttered as she levitated down and the fire died away. Clufa walked away to sulk her magma fortress.

“Um… was it something I said?” asked Hana, nervously clutching her cat.

“No, dear,” replied Altzeroil, floating back to his ice palace. “It’s no one’s fault.”

Fun, right?

Clufa was constantly throwing temper tantrums, yet at the same time was the most productive of them all, Hana had the IQ of a rat while she was probably the nicest of them all (not saying much), and Altzeroil was the sassy best friend who thinks he’s better and more chill (get it?) than everyone.

It was almost like being in limbo brought the best out of these people, which is interesting, because personally, I became a lot more insane while in this prison. I used to be much more level-headed, I guess you could say (though the people who imprisoned me here will probably tell you otherwise). Now, I’m pretty chaotic, so yay. They’ve gotten a lot closer and developed more antics. I guess not being alone definitely served a role in it.

Anyway, guess you’re done with all this “FUN FUN” stuff and want to get to the actual interesting stuff.

Fine, you cranky person.

Later, though. I need to get my sleep. Goodbye.

Solaris

Alabaster metal met obsidian with a clang that resonated throughout the courtyard, early morning light striking the pale blade in such a way that it seemed to glow from within. The trimmed maze of shrubs snaked around the two figures as they danced over and under in a deadly tango of reflex and skill. To a casual observer, it would seem that the pair were evenly matched, accustomed to each other’s fighting styles over years of practice. Yet a sharper eye might notice a slight misstep, a strike just off mark, a parry almost a second too late. 

“Watch out, Princess,” Emity smirked as her blade barely missed her opponent’s arm.

Adhara narrowed her eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”

“Once you get this move right,” the woman shot back. Adhara’s only warning was a flash of dark silver before she found herself stumbling backward, the sound of her sword clattering to the ground ringing in her ears. Emity bowed down in an overly low curtsy. “I believe that I’ve won, Your Highness.”

Adhara pursed her lips in a failed attempt to keep from smiling. “Manners don’t look good on you, you know.”

“Nor do they look good on you.” Emity grinned, straightening up as she tossed an auburn braid over her shoulder.

“Nope, they don’t,” the princess agreed as she picked her sword up from the ground, her dark eyes twinkling. “Why don’t I prove it to you? Ready to lose?”

“Oh, you’re on. I admire your — ”

“Princess Adhara,” a nasal voice bellowed. “Just what are you doing?”

Adhara spun around and couldn’t help the frown that sprang to her face. Before her stood a middle-aged man dressed head to toe in blue velvet robes embroidered with gold. A matching feather hat sat atop his meticulously coiffed hair. Adhara rolled her eyes. The royal advisor had the uncanny ability to appear at the worst of times. “Does it matter? I can do whatever I want. It’s my castle.”

“Now, now, Your Highness. That’s where you’re wrong. This castle belongs to the Astel Dynasty, to the benevolent rulers of Cordin. It belongs to the King and Queen, and afterwards, it shall go to the Prince, which means you must follow their rules, and that starts with ceasing these… activities.” He wrinkled his nose as he waved his hand in Emity’s direction. The woman glared daggers at the man but said nothing.

“Too scared to come up with a comeback?” he sneered.

Emity set her jaw. “No, I just don’t want to get fired.”

“No one’s getting fired,” Adhara cut in, trying to ignore the sudden flurry of butterflies that had risen in her chest. “Your commands hardly have any weight to them, you know, especially with that awful hat. Honestly, where in the world did you find that thing?”

The man’s face turned scarlet — either from embarrassment or anger, Adhara could not tell. “As the official advisor to the King and Queen, I refuse to accept this type of behavior. Now you are to return indoors for your lessons right this instant.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

Something in the advisor’s eyes darkened dangerously. “Oh, I’m not telling you.” He moved to the side, and almost reflexively, any sign of emotion dropped from Adhara’s face.

The King of Cordin had always been taller than average. Once upon a time, Adhara had been convinced that her father could touch the Sun itself. She knew better now, but the way he was towering before was formidable, to say the least. He frowned as he took in the scene; the silence was palpable, Adhara’s face a carefully composed mask, Emity’s bold features a display of uncharacteristic fear.

“I looked out at the sunrise this fine morning, and what do I see but two shadows staining my gardens. Shadows,” he repeated. “Like dirt on ivory walls, tar on white marble, blood,” he took a step forward, “on silk tablecloth.”

It took Adhara a surprising amount of energy to keep from rolling her eyes a second time.

“It’s impudence,” the King continued. “Outright disobedience. It’s rebellion, which will lead to Darkness. Light must eliminate Darkness by all means possible. Whatever it takes to keep the flame burning. Hence, I have made a decision. This was by no means an easy decision, but it must be done. I regret to inform you,” he turned to Emity, “that you are no longer a part of the royal army, no longer part of this castle. Never were, it seems, if this has been going on for as long as I think it has.”

Yet another clang sounded throughout the courtyard as the black blade tumbled from trembling fingers. “I — w-what?”

“No!” Adhara cried. “You can’t do this. It was… it was my idea! I dragged her into this. Please, it’s not fair.”

The King ignored them. “Adhara, I won’t have you contaminating Light. Never let me catch you with this sort of peasantry again.” With that, he turned on his heel and left, the royal advisor scurrying after him like the weasel he was.

Adhara couldn’t hold back any longer, and she rushed towards Emity. Her vision was blurring — tears, she later realized — yet somehow, paths intersected, and the two friends found themselves stumbling into a wordless embrace. Seconds stretched into minutes, and for once, Adhara was grateful for it.

It was Emity who pulled away. She tried for a small smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I should — ” she drew a shaky breath. “I should probably go now.”

Adhara had never thought that the combination of these five words could render her speechless, particularly not when spoken by the person before her. A thousand possible replies tumbled through her head, and a thousand of them all seemed wrong. All she could do was look up at her friend, memorizing every detail for the final time. Brown met blue, and though they were very different colors, in that moment they shined with the same light.

Emity swallowed hard. “The sword,” she managed, gesturing to the obsidian black blade on the ground. “Take care of her for me.”

Adhara cleared her throat, blinking hard. “It’ll be here the next time you dare to challenge me. R-ready to lose?”

The former guard wiped her eyes and gave a small smile. “I admire your confidence,” she replied, voice trembling only slightly.

If beginnings were celebrated with fanfare, perhaps it was only fitting that this was an ending in silence. Adhara gazed at the courtyard gates long after Emity had passed through them. How strange it was that not long ago, adrenaline had coursed through her veins, her movements quick and deliberate when now, she didn’t want to take another step. The hedge around her hardly reached her waist, but the maze seemed infinite, twisting around her like vines that crawled up her arms and stole the breath right out of her chest. They created a labyrinth with her at the center.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, rose gold receded to cerulean, and the morning mist drew away. But the tears still remained. Soon the courtyard was flooded with light, void of all shadows.

* * *

Night was the best time to brood. As the sun sank below the horizon, the darkness deepened so that it was almost tangible, velvety drapes that wrapped one in perfect silence. The princess silently cursed the wide windows of her room that ensured that it would never be completely void of light. The full moon tonight was unusually comforting, though, its wide face non-judgmental as it shined down upon the sleeping kingdom below. Starlight illuminated the tears on Adhara’s cheeks, turning them silver as they fell through the air before disappearing into the stone of the windowsill as though they’d never existed in the first place. From the East Tower, a sea of trees stretched out before her, curving around the edges of the kingdom in a delicate embrace. If she squinted hard enough, Adhara could see the tips of a distant mountain range between the line where the land blurred into sky. The cool night air caressed her cheeks, drying her tears for the time being. Adhara sighed. Her breath curled into gossamer mist that sailed out across the moonlight before disappearing completely. Not even the night bothered to preserve any sign of her sorrow. 

And suddenly there was fury, blazing white-hot from within. 

The constant darkness seemed to mock her, taunting her with the way that it sat still, unmoving, unchanging. Adhara wanted to shatter it all, tear the solid sheet of moonlight into shreds, rip every star one by one from the sky, destroy the night and show everyone her pain. She wanted to scream and shatter the darkness, make them all suffer like she was. 

And then she’d laugh. Laugh at the pleasure of watching such destruction, smile at their fear as she waltzed through the kingdom, and reveled in the look of betrayal painted on every person that, no matter the face, would be one and the same.

I admire your confidence.

For a space in time, her heart seemed to stop. Adhara could imagine her friend’s face, jaw set, ready in a fighting stance, but in her eyes — shards of a broken mirror. Haunted. Haunting. In an instant, the fire evaporated. Neither smoke nor ashes remained, just suffocating emptiness.

She was hollow.

Adhara pinched herself. Who was she becoming? How could she let this happen? Why?

The final question echoed in her mind. The ground seemed to tilt until it was rushing closer. The walls were caving in, the darkness heavy, and she couldn’t breathe.

She was falling, falling, falling… spiraling downward, inward forever… 

And then there was a scream.

Adhara’s first instinct was to clap a hand over her mouth before common sense kicked in. Her throat didn’t feel raw from the sheer volume of producing such a noise, and there were no frantic servants or family members crashing through the door. The scream had really sounded far away, too far to have been coming from her. Surely her mind and heart weren’t so far apart? 

Maybe you’re losing it, a voice in Adhara’s mind said helpfully.

The princess frowned; it didn’t help that some part of her brain was actually considering that possibility. She closed her eyes against the breeze and attempted to mimic a sense of serenity… and there was the sound again, piercing the night.

It was really a chorus of sounds, closer to yells than screams, that clamored over one another like waves crashing against the coast. Her eyes shot open, and she found herself searching for the source of the sound. It wasn’t difficult to find. A spot of brilliant red-gold hovered before the steps of the castle. The shouts ricocheted off of cobblestone streets and granite pillars, twisting around wrought iron lamp posts with shrieks that clashed with the hum of steel blades. Torches seemed to set the swords aglow, blazing in the night, the fire too bright to be warm as it lit the faces of commoners and guards alike.

And yet, as Adhara glanced at the finery of her bedroom, the colors seemed muted, the sounds muffled as though she was watching the scene unfold through a veil. Three stories up above it all, the distance was palpable. She turned away from the window, the din fading into nothingness. Perhaps she just needed to sleep.

My Bright Blue Dreams

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

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

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

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

I mumble, “I — ”

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

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

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

It’s unavoidable.

Chapter Five

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

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

Chapter Eight

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

The End

Why the World’s Population is Only 7.8 Billion

This book is dedicated to my breakfast bagel.

Prologue

The Dictatorship of America, 3789 A.D.

The following letter has been retrieved from an archive and is believed to have been written by Jim Nlocnil.

Palermo, Sicily, 1915 A.D.

Bed

There was a suitcase. There was a bed. What was it doing there? The bed was the first bed that the legendary bedmaker would make. Now, the bedmaker would prefer if his name was not mentioned in this book, though it perplexes me, for he is already quite famous indeed. But from here on out, I will call the legendary bedmaker “Gustavo.” Gustavo was not always famous, for he grew up in a humble cottage on an island in the Sardinian sea. This island was called Sicily, and it was quite a magnificent island indeed, for tourism and commercialization had not found the island yet, letting the locals live a happy life with no one to disturb them. 

Gustavo had a father named Monee, who, despite the name, was a very poor bedmaker. One day, Monee stumbled across a stream. He looked into the stream. He then walked away. Another day, he ran into a beautiful untouched beach, and when he put his hand into the pristine crystal waters, it was a pleasant temperature — refreshingly cool but not uncomfortable. He took off his hat and filled it with the water and took the hat full of water home. Now, Monee was quite a forgetful man, and he forgot to show the fresh, pure water to his family. The next morning, to his surprise, the water was still the same perfect temperature it had been when he first discovered it. He was intrigued but not frightened by this discovery, for he was still curious about this liquid. He went back to the beach, and, sure enough, the water was exactly the same temperature it had been the afternoon he had found it. Monee’s mind instantly whirred into action, thinking about the possibilities of making this water into a product he could sell.

The first thing I should do, he thought, is tell Gustavo. As soon as Gustavo had heard about this “cool water,” he got some leather, sewed together a water-tight bed, and filled the bed with the water. And, though Monee and Gustavo did not know it, they had just created the first water bed. Monee gathered his savings, and soon, they patented this water bed, though they did not mention this, for they wanted to keep the water a secret.

Suitcase

Nazi Controlled Poland, 1941

Jakub sighed. He and his best friend, Filip, had made a secret organization for boys like them. They had “special powers,” though they were more like a curse. They could do “amazing things” like climb up brick walls and shoot energy from their fingers. This did nothing against the tanks, soldiers, machine guns, and other terrible things that the Nazis used to invade. But because of these “special powers,” they were targeted by soldiers, who were ordered to execute any boy who used “magic.” Jakub probably had the worst power of all. He could see and hear through any solid object. What use was seeing through a tank when it was about to shoot a shell at you? The other boys were younger than him but were far more powerful. They respected him, though, for he was the leader. 

“Quick!” Filip screamed. 

The soldiers! Jakub and the other boys dove behind a bush as Filip started making hand signs to release an energy shield. Another boy closed his eyes and opened them, although this time his eyes were red. He looked at a soldier and instantly paralyzed him. 

“Jakub, help! My shield is going down!” Filip screamed. 

  Filip only had enough energy to sustain the energy shield for a few minutes, which, until now, had been plenty enough time. It seemed that the soldiers heard Filip too because they instantly rushed his way.

  “No!” Jakub yelled.

They had Filip. Without his shield, he was helpless, and one of them was dragging Filip onto the Jeep while the other one held a rifle to his head. 

“You can’t do this!” Jakub screamed.

By then, the Jeep had driven off to the forest, and the only person who could see and hear Filip was Jakub. The last words that Filip uttered before he passed out were: “under the bench.”

Palermo, Sicily, 1924 A.D.

Bed

Meanwhile, Gustavo and Monee were raking in the profits from their successful bed-making business. The beach still looked untouched, and Monee suspected, though they had drained many gallons of liquid from it, that the beach would still make more.

“Gustavo,” Monee said, “when I die, you have the choice to lead the company. Will you continue the family legacy?”

“Of course I will!” Gustavo exclaimed. “But I hope that I do not take it over soon.”

Kepler-443b, circa 5.55 billion years ago

“Rumor has it that there is a habitable planet only 2,500 light-years away!” Bob said. 

Bob and his family lived on a planet called Logic, and it was about to explode. It was rumbling violently, and they needed to get off it as soon as possible. They first considered moving to the puny moon, Ableton, or the dwarf planet, FL Studio, which was circa 600 light-years away. But then they discovered that the planet would make such a shockwave that all of the habitable planets and moons would be terminated. The scientists of their colony searched desperately for a habitable planet, and it seemed that they had found one. 

 “Quick!!!” Martha (the mother) screamed. “The spaceship is going in 10 minutes!!!”

“Okay, Mom. My UltraBomb is not going with me, right?” Tommy said.

“Of course it is! Now come on!” Martha said.

The UltraBomb was a safety device that some scientists had discovered in the Renaissance Period. They had discovered many things, but the UltraBomb was by far the coolest. A child, if threatened, could deploy this UltraBomb and vaporize every living thing except itself for a 1,000-mile radius. To trigger it, you needed to pour a special type of liquid onto a compressed plasma ball. It would then kill everything around it except for the child itself. The Logic government-issued UltraBombs to every kid colonizing Earth, but they were strictly told to only use it if necessary. Tommy thought they went overboard on the liquid, though. They brought more than a thousand gallons!!!

“Watch your step, little guy,” a crew member said.

Tommy sat down in his seat and prepared himself for this new adventure.

The Dictatorship of America, 3789 A.D.

The following snippet has been retrieved from an archive and is believed to have been an advertisement from “Palermo Daily.”

Palermo, Sicily, 1956 A.D.

Bed

Gustavo flopped down on one of his many waterbeds and cried. His father had died the day before today, and he was sad. Even worse, he had to give a speech at the funeral, and his words were unrecognizable from his sobs. But he had to move on and keep the family legacy.

One month later

Stress. SO much stress. Gustavo had reformed the waterbed, spreading business outside of Sicily, and it was spreading quickly. He had also put advertisements in newspapers all around the world, and his company had gone public. (NASDAQ, GWB ^1.27%,1598.7) The Mariott had replaced all of their beds with Gustavo’s, and his business was doing well. Gustavo was having a good life.

Suitcase

Nazi Controlled Poland, 1942

Under the bench, under the bench, under the bench. Jakub kept rolling this around in his head. What? He had checked under every bench he had seen for the past year. Unless… The stone bench!!! Filip had chiseled a miniature stone bench for Jakub, but before he could snatch it, Filip had thrown it way off into the woods to tease Jakub. Jakub thought that Filip had thrown it in a random direction, but Filip was very precise with his arm, so Jakub now knew that this was not the case. Jakub searched for hours and hours in the dark woods until he finally found the bench. He dug the soil under it and found a mysterious ball of light.

Suitcase & Bed

Warsaw, Poland, Marriott hotel, 1963

Filip was dead. Who cared about him anyway? Jakub had been trying to sell this weird ball of light to museums, but they said it was just some lights in a glass ball. He slammed the suitcase (containing the ball) onto the bed. The waterbed burst, and the suitcase cracked open. The ball bounced out and fell into the liquid.

The Dictatorship of America, 3789 A.D.

The following letter has been retrieved from an archive, and is now known to have been written by “Zadinsky.”

Revenge of the Ankle Bully

Have you ever heard of the ankle bully? The old people say he stalks all the basketball courts in Harlem looking for easy prey. I even heard Ms. Jerry from the 4th floor saying he was born with the appetite for ankles, she thinks he eats them. Some say he is a myth, a story told to kids at campfires, but actually his name is ZRC which stands for Zahir’s Ridiculous Crossover and he’s from the Bronx. 

It’s 5pm, friends Zee and Kele meet at 135th street off the 2 Train. They are going to play basketball.

“What’s up bro?” Zee asked. “I got your text.”

 “Nothing much,” Kele said, “I was just thinking about going to the park on 145 and Lenox, we always beat those kids.” Zee shook his head. 

“Nah man. We should go to the Cage to get worthy opponents.”

 Cool! Let’s go!

When they got there, they saw a figure making people fall and cameras recording him. Kele is a big man with locks and Zee is a shooting guard that can shoot, dribble, pass, and dunk. Kele is a big man that can dunk and make flashy passes, but can’t shoot or dribble. They walked up and they got a clearer image of the ankle breaker guy and they saw he was light skinned and was about 6’3. He was fast and had a galaxy headband that made people look at the stars when he crossed them and he got into a lot of fights because people’s homies were getting crossed. 

They walked up to the sign up for the tournament and the guard asked,

“Are you guys signing up or spectating?” The friends said they were playing and they put their names on the sign up sheet. After signing up they noticed signs around the park that said “WARNING: The ankle bully is here and you’re going to play against him. When you play him, he will embarrass you and it will be recorded.”

“Yo Zee I can take him I’ll just post him up I see all handle no skill. 

“I know but he could just shoot your eyes out and cross you up without you touching the ball. 

“I know but he’s probably just a fake ankle bully, one of those imposters AMONG US.  

“Let’s just see.”

They went inside the cage and saw all types of people sitting, cheering on bleachers. chairs, etc. It was so loud in there it sounded like if 10 speakers were on blast in one room. Every time someone scored, people started cheering. 

“We got next for the duo tourney.” 

And everyone got hyped and started placing bets because the duo tournament was about to start. The first two teams were these two tall guys versus a tall guy and a point guard.

The first people to score were the tall team because they just kept posting up, but when they lost the ball game they just got flat out embarrassed and they raged, cursing, fighting, throwing balls at people. Someone even pulled out a gun before they were removed. Zee and Kele were up.

They were up against a team with two small forwards and they could both dunk. Looked like one was a park player. The other was a high school prospect that could dunk like he was doing in the warm ups and shoot. He was the real problem. His teammate was a park ball player. They came on the court and started hyping  people up and getting the ball ready for tip off to see who got the ball first, even though it was half court. They tipped it and Kele kinda has hops, but not that much. Their big man, the park player, is a pro dunker so obviously he won. They got the ball and the high school prospect, HP, shot the ball from deep mid range and scored 1-0. They’re going to 10 soon. The dunker got the ball, jumped over Kele, and dunked it. The score was 3-0. For the bonus dunk they had to come back. The dunker went up for a dunk and when Kele went up to get it, he changed his position and tried windmilling it, but Kele head hit the ball with his big head and they got it. Finally, a chance, but of course they knew what to do. Zee got the ball, drove to the basket, went up for the lay then kicked it out to Kele for the drive layup, but instead he went with his weakness and shot the three and missed like always but Zee was there for the rebound. He drove back out, did his little in and out behind the back snatch back and shot it. He almost missed, but Kele tipped it in and it counted as a point for Zee. They got it and Kele threw an oop to Zee and Zee threw it back in the air for a slam dunk. A double oop that gave them extra points and the score was 4 to 3. Kele and Zee were up. Kele wanted to make himself seen because right now he looked kinda dog outta water. So he skyrocketed for a dunk and tried jumping over the dunker, but he flipped over and threw the ball in the air and out of luck, it went in. 

Zee stared at Kele and said,

“That was a horrible shot. If you take that shot again, I will hit you with the 300 Mac truck deluxe ReSpEcTfULLy! Then you’ll really be feeling like a dog straight out of water.”  Kele knew he was wrong and said,

“Sorry, I’m rusty Zee.”

“Yeah okay buddy. Just don’t sell.” They got the ball and Kele went for the easy lay, but the dunker was not having it and he blocked Kele and then passed it out to the HP. He swished the 3 and said “All net.” The game was 5 to 5 and if someone made a half court shot they got five points, full court is automatically a win. The HP scored two easy buckets. One was a dunk, the other a mid range pull up. They were losing 7 to 5. The dunker got the ball at half court and did the iconic Jordan dunk over Kele and he got two points and it was game point with a three or a cool finish. The HP brung the ball up the court and sauced up Kele and put it behind Zee’s back. Then he went for the layup, but Kele blocked it, brought it back, and shot the 3 and it did a swirl around the net and finally went in. The score was 7-9. Zee brought the ball up, did a professor move, and then bounced it off the dunker’s head. He pulled back, shot a half court, and looked away looking like Curry. He made it, but it bounced out and went to the top of the backboard and then went in and everyone went crazy, even his own teammate.

“I told you dont sell! If they come back I’m quitting and I’ll be mad at you.” 

“Sorry I just got overwhelmed and did the wrong thing.”

“This is the game plan. Steal the ball, pass it to me, and I’ll fake shoot and dish it in for the easy dish.”

They got back on the court and took the shot. They missed. Zee got the rebound instead of Kele and passed it out to Kele. Kele took the fake shot and passed it to Zee inside, except Zee was on the outside and he passed to the HP and he took the dunk and started celebrating, but then remembered you have to take the ball out and by that time the friends Kele and Zee were trotting away with a win, waiting for the next round. They watched the round for a little, then went to go get a drink and bumped into a 6’5 guy that was dribbling a ball while walking. He had a neon hoodie with a galaxy headband and was kinda buff, but everyone was backed up because they did not want their ankles broke. Anyone that was near him when he was dribbling was now on the floor in shame or holding their ankle. 

Kele walked up to him and said,

“Hey, you that ankle bully guy?”

“Yeah,” said AB.

“I’m bout to put you on the menu when I pull up to the court and end you.”

“I don’t think so but we’ll see because you don’t know me and I don’t know you. I’ve never had an unknown person challenge me sooo. I crossed up LeBron James, that’s what got him motivated to be the best. I taught LeBron and now you’ll see the resemblance.”

With that, they got on the court and AB and his little sister who was 10 and bad at basketball were on a team while Kele and Zee were on a team. They battled it out and until the last points, it started getting interesting. They were going back and forth, both Kele and Zee glowing blue while AB was glowing red. They made a force field that was so big and their energy was so high that they broke the building around them and then Kele went for the dunk. AB tried to steal it, but tipped the ball instead. Zee caught it, passed it to Kele at three, and Kele spawned the three so hard it made the Splash Brothers look like a desert and he baca with the ocean and the ankle bully started fading away and with every other follower. He passed out and became a normal human and said,

 “Where am I? How’d I get here?”

Opal Shore

“You’re going to be late for work!” 

I pull up my swim trunks and pat my hair, as if that will keep it down. I’d hardly call my job at the Opal Shore Beach Club a job at all. I’ve been a member since before I can remember. Our family has been members for decades. Generations. My grandfather obtained one of their ultra-exclusive memberships back in the 60’s. He passed it along to my parents in the 90’s. One day, probably within the next ten years, my dad will pass grandpa’s membership to me and my siblings, and we’ll continue going with our children. So on and so forth.

Today, I work as a lifeguard, but rarely act like one. I basically get paid to sit in a high chair, get tan, and ogle girls in bikinis.

My mother’s in the kitchen wearing an apron. Her cheeks upturn into a radiant smile when she sees me coming down the stairs. I grab the lunch she made for me, kissing her on the left cheek, as it glows like a sunbeam. 

“Don’t forget your pendant,” says mom, as I leave the house on another sun-splashed day for work.
 

But first, I untuck the chain from my shirt so mom can see it. The gold cross is an unofficial uniform at the club.  Opal Shore is all white and Christian. I kid you not. And, my town is equally segregated. Sure, private clubs can choose to accept and reject anyone they want, but it’s odd that every member of Opal Shore is a rich, white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. Just saying.

So, I get in my car, and drive out of my garage onto a street lined with identical houses with spacious, elegant lawns. My car was gifted to me a year ago on my 16th birthday. What’s even more cliche is that every family on my street lives in carbon copy homes, with carbon copy cars, kids, even dogs. I pull into a parking lot chock full of luxury cars, many sporting MAGA and NRA stickers. Opal Shore wasn’t the Hamptons, but we’re pretty close; albeit seventy or so miles west. And, the people in both communities act the same I guess, except for my mom. Today at Opal begins like any other. I make my way down to the shore, drop my stuff at the lifeguard tower, say hi to my boss, and flex at some girls. Working at Opal has gotten me a nice tan. Plus, I need to stay fit for football season, which starts in a month. Everyone at the club knows one another, and, like me, the other lifeguards play on the football team. A few have graduated from high school and attend college.

I watch the waves crash through my sunglasses, while working on my tan. I can tell the members apart since I’ve been an Opel member all my life. However, if you were new to the club, everyone looked the same. The male members sit in lounge chairs by the ocean drinking beer, while the women gossip. Young children build sandcastles or swim in the ocean. Honestly, this job is pretty boring. I’ve only “saved” one person the whole time I’ve worked here, and they weren’t even drowning. To pass the time, I usually ogle the pretty girls when there aren’t many people in the ocean. Yeah, OK, maybe this sounds a bit cliche, but what else can I do? 

Everything was same old same old until I noticed a girl I never saw before. She’s wearing a polka dot, two-piece with frills tied at the sides. She’s striking, with long black hair that coils up, bouncing when she walks. To get a better look, I lower my sunglasses to the bridge of my nose. Club members were staring at her and her family. I was pretty pleased by the sight, but no one else seemed to be. The drunken laughter and gossiping from the adults completely stopped, with all eyes on this girl and her family. They weren’t actually on Opal’s property, but on the fringes of the club adjacent to ours.  Honestly, I don’t get why everyone was giving them the stink eye. They were just enjoying the beach like everyone else.

Boss drives up on his beach motorcycle seconds later, a vein popping from his forehead. Someone must have called him, and he hates getting called. He walks up to the lifeguard’s chair. 

Although I wasn’t the youngest lifeguard at Opal, Boss and the older lifeguards still call me “Junior.” When I was 14 and started lifeguard training, I was short, scrawny, and willing to do anything asked of me. I was naive and went with the flow. My mother always told me to form my own opinions, but the moniker stuck.  So, unfortunately, I’m still Junior. 

“Hey, Junior. Do you see those people over there?” Boss Langdon says, his voice low and scratchy. 

Mr. Langdon moved to our little town on Long Island from Manhattan, and his uptight accent stuck. He points to the family having fun and minding their own business.

“Them being here is going to be a problem, Junior.” 

I didn’t really understand, so I just nodded. I didn’t want to get fired. Boss grips his lanyard, while disgust strains his face. 

“These Jews come around here, disrespecting the Lord’s name, wearing them damn six- pointed Jew-stars around their necks.” 

Boss’ voice grows louder. He doesn’t care that others overhear him. A couple of white guys with beer bellies within earshot mutter anti-Semitic slurs. It’s not like I haven’t heard them before in jokes, just never directed at people. 

I notice the riptide pulling this family closer to our shores. This was actually fine, as the law clearly states that the ocean is everyone’s property. So, Opal Shore doesn’t own it; just the sand on our beachfront. Even so, our members aren’t happy. The more this family drifts toward us, the angrier our members get.

The striking girl with the polka dot bikini, as well as her mom and dad exit the water, while a little boy, whom I assume is her brother, remains in the surf. He’s scrawny, and his swim trunks are several sizes too large. And, while I don’t think it’s smart leaving him alone in an ocean with a splash of riptide, I say and do nothing.

A little later the surf gets rougher.  Opal members take their children out of the water. But, the scrawny little boy remains.  By now, the tide has pulled him in front of my chair.  For a moment, I doze off, having nothing important to do, or girls to ogle.

Suddenly, I’m awakened by the voice of a screaming child. 

“Hey, mommy look, look!” 

I perk my head up to see what’s happening. I spot the little boy, the riptide pulling him farther out than moments before. He’s clearly struggling, with arms flailing. I look for his family, finding them tanning and chatting. His mother is walking in the opposite direction.  I look at our club members. They should be helping, but no one is moving. They’re ignoring him! I realize my time as a lifeguard has come. But, for some reason, I freeze. All my training has led to this
moment. My swim trunks remain glued to the lifeguard’s chair. 

A beach motorcycle rides up behind me. Great timing. 

“Junior, tell me why I got another call?” 

Boss puts his hand on his forehead, casting a shadow over his eyes. 

“Junior, that’s the Jew kid, right?” he says while squinting into the sun.

“You have no obligation to get him, Junior.” 

He puts his hand on my shoulder. I swivel toward him, surprised and aghast. On the one hand, I knew I didn’t have to save anyone who wasn’t a member of our club. On the other, wasn’t it basic human decency to save any drowning person, be they a stupid member or not? 

“Junior, you look like you’re about to stand up, don’t even think about it.”  His grip on my shoulder tightens.

I look back out, scanning the ocean. The young boy appears and disappears, bobbing up and down beneath the waves. His tiny lungs prevent his screams from reaching the shore. I once again look at our club members. They’re listless, uncaring, unbothered, disinterested, and heartless.

Boss glares at me. Everything is happening lightning fast, but to me, it’s all in slow
motion.

My hand holds the rescue buoy without feeling it. My brain frantically races from the drowning boy, to my heartless Boss, the other lifeguards, club members, football, school, home, and my mom —

My mom. She always saw the best in this job, and in me. She was so proud I’d be saving
people, even though I saw lifeguarding as an excuse to get tan and watch girls. Mom would want
me to do what’s right. Still, if I lost this job she’d be so disappointed.  We didn’t need the money,
but it wasn’t about that.

Screw it!

I grab the buoy and stand up. 

“Junior! If you go out there, you come back without a job!” 

I throw my sunglasses in Boss’ chest. 

“God, will you please shut the hell up?” 

I run, dive into the water, and swim out to the boy. His head pops up less often, as the riptide pushes me away. I keep swimming until I reach him. 

“Grab onto this, buddy,” I say, as I push the buoy into his hands.

The boy’s grip is weak, but he holds on while coughing up a ton of water. 

Towing the boy, I swim back to shore, ignoring the piercing, furious stares of my Boss and Opal Club members. The kid’s family thanks me profusely.  I dismiss it, patting the kid on the shoulder. I’ve never seen the Boss so mad. 

“You’re fired, Junior. I’ll be sure to tell your mother about this.” 

“Fine,” I respond.  “But, know I’d rather lose my job than disappoint my mom, and myself
by letting someone drown. Isn’t that what lifeguards are supposed to do?”

I return the buoy, grab my shirt, and start walking toward my car. 

“Yeah, keep walking, leave the club, and don’t come back,” members murmur amongst themselves. 

So, I drive out of the club’s parking lot, likely for the last time. Of course, I’m scared what my mom will say when she learns I got fired. But, I have a feeling she’ll understand. No one else would, of course. Mom was always the exception. I turn on the radio, flipping the control until I hear a song everyone my age was listening to. 

I suddenly relax and smile as I drive home in my generic car, past the generic houses and lawns, with the generic adults, kids, and dogs. 

I smile, because my mom is no longer the one exception in town.

The Eve of Eve

It was the morning of Christmas Eve as Eve woke up. A cold breeze tickled her face and her eyes fluttered open. Outside her window, snow as white as her bedsheets covered the ground, causing Eve to smile and jump out of bed. It was 6:00 A.M., so Eve knew no one would be awake. She tiptoed down the stairs to the kitchen and started making breakfast. Eve was amazing at cooking, so she had her own recipes. She decided on making gingerbread pancakes for herself and her family. 

As she flipped through the book to find the ingredients, another recipe caught her eye, elf sugar cookies, and Eve saved the page with a bookmark. She got out all the ingredients, and started to bake. Around 6:52, she finished making breakfast and decided to make hot chocolate and coffee. She made two hot chocolates and two coffees. She put the food on four different trays and started up the stairs with her parents’ breakfast. She put the trays on their bed and shook them awake.

They almost yelled at her, but then smelled the delicious aroma of gingerbread and swiveled their heads around. They saw the pancakes and hugged Eve and proceeded to scarf down the pancakes. Eve then decided to wait a bit longer to wake her older sister, she hadn’t gotten enough sleep lately since she was studying. She walked back to the kitchen and cleaned everything up, and made sure Julia’s breakfast was on the table. Then she scarfed down some pancakes as well, feeling satisfied with her cooking. 

She ran back up the stairs and skipped to her bedroom. She laid out some comfy clothes and ran into her bathroom. Eve turned on the hot water and let it run for a bit until getting into the shower. When she was done, Eve went to her desk and did her makeup, seeing as a lot of people were coming to her house later for dinner. She ditched the comfy clothes and got out her favorite dress, it was a satin red dress with spaghetti straps.

Her parents were cooking dinner by the time she got downstairs, and it was only 7:36 A.M.! “Why are you guys already cooking?” Eve asked her parents, confused. 

“We need to prepare since we are having a lot of people over, and we’re cooking a lot!” her dad told her as he put the chicken into the oven. Eve’s mother was preparing all the vegetables and dicing them into a salad. 

“Can I bake dessert?” she asked her parents.

 “Yep,” her parents said at the same time, completely focused on the food they were preparing. Eve opened the cupboard with all of her baking supplies and reached for her cookbook. She flipped through until she found a gingerbread spice cake. She gathered all the ingredients needed, scouring the kitchen for some extra nutmeg. She started by mixing the dry ingredients, then the wet ingredients. She then put everything in her family’s black KitchenAid mixer and added spices while mixing.

When her batter was done, she poured it into three circular stainless steel pans, and slid them into the heated oven. She put a timer on for twenty minutes, and ran up the stairs to her room.

Once she got to her room, she sat down at her desk/vanity, and started getting ready. She styled her hair into a braided bun, weaving a red and white ribbon in the braid before pinning it up. Once she had perfected the bun she got out her makeup bag, her other passion. She started with a bit of foundation, bronzer, blush, and highlighter. She made sure to match her skin tone to look natural. She got out some red and white eyeshadow, and did a fade-out from red to white on her eyelids. She topped everything off with some black eyeliner. 

Eve ran down and checked on the timer, two more minutes! She decided to start preparing the frosting. In the middle of gathering ingredients, the cake was done! She checked to make sure the cake was fully baked through, and then put it in the refrigerator to chill. She checked up on the frosting ingredients and started mixing them all together. She decided to keep the frosting white but took a bit to color red and green, for some decorating. 

The cakes were ready to be decorated, and Eve started right away. She did a crumb coat to catch the crumbs, then chilled that, and then slathered on some frosting and smoothed it out. She got the piping bags ready for her red and green frosting. She piped some swirls onto the top and finished decorating. Her parents came over, looked at the cake, and complimented her, and then took it to be put on a tray, saved for tonight.

Eve’s parents told her they had invited her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, and some other family members. She was really excited to see her cousins, especially her cousin, Riley. Riley was her favorite cousin, and she had a lot of cousins. Riley was just super fun to be around, it was like she had positive energy surrounding her everywhere she went. Riley and Eve had a lot of sleepovers in the past, and still do have a lot. They shared a lot of common interests, like makeup and baking. Obviously, Eve was a bit better at baking, but Riley was better at makeup so they were equal.

Eve went upstairs to her room to get everything ready. Once everything in her room was organized, and not a speck of dust remained, Eve got to work. She started vacuuming the whole top floor, her sister doing the bottom. They decided to both clean everything other than the kitchen, since her parents had that covered. Eve left no spot untouched, except for her parents’ closet. It was so disorganized it gave her the creeps whenever she saw it. It wasn’t like anyone was even going to go into their bedroom anyway.

Once Eve was done, her sister was just finishing up. The whole house was super clean, even her little brother’s room, which is surprising since it was usually overflowing with garbage and random toys. Her sister’s room was clean, it was usually just a little disorganized so it wasn’t much of a difference. Eve’s room could be super messy, or super clean, depending on her mood. Her parents were still cooking so Eve had a little free time, so she went into her sister’s room. Her sister was there sitting on her bed, so Eve sat down as well. They both just chilled there for a while, not saying a word to each other. They were just on their phones.

At 2:00 P.M., their parents finished the majority of the cooking, now only making sauce for the turkey. Both sisters had to take out the trash. They got up unwillingly and trudged towards the trash bags they had to take out, and walked out the door towards the “bigger trash cans” as Eve called them. After they did that, they got back inside and their parents started ordering them to do all sorts of things like setting the table, putting even more Christmas decorations up, and other random things. 

Eve’s parents were sure they had finished the food and made it delicious. Eve’s dad let her try some of the turkey… and it was revolting. The turkey had molded or something! She started gagging and almost threw up. Her dad was very surprised by this and tried the turkey himself, he had the same reaction. The turkey had been cooked for three hours! How would they redo their turkey with only two hours until the guests came?! 

“What’s wrong with it?!” her mom yelled frantically.

  “It tastes moldy,” Eve said.

“What do you mean, moldy?! We spent hours on that turkey!” her mom yelled as she grabbed the fork from Eve and tried some. She vomited in the kitchen sink.

“Do you guys still have the turkey packaging?” Eve asked her dad.

  “Yeah, I think we do, it’s right there.” 

He pointed at the counter, the packaging said it hadn’t gone bad.

“It hasn’t gone bad, now what?” Eve grumbled. “Wait a second…” Eve peeled off the label, and underneath, there was another which indicated it had gone bad two days before.  

“What kind of joke is this?!” Eve’s mom yelled, frustrated. 

“Maybe the store made a mistake?” Eve said, trying to appease her mother. 

“Yes, there had to be a mistake,” her father soothed quickly, catching on to Eve. Her mother did not calm down, so she left the room. Eve and her dad knew they had to do something but didn’t know what they could do. 

“Wait, can’t we just get a chicken since sometimes they take shorter to cook?” Eve asked her dad.

 “Good idea! Tell everyone I’m going to the store.” With that, her dad ran out of the kitchen to go to the store.

Eve knew she had to do something while her dad was out, so she got a good chicken recipe, and started making the sauce for it. Her dad came home a few minutes after she was done, and the oven had been heated. They exchanged very few words, just working hard to make a good chicken since their family was coming in an hour. Once the chicken was in the oven, she and her dad just high-fived and cleaned up. Eve called her mom downstairs.

Her mom moped down the stairs, clearly thinking they didn’t have the best news. As she walked into the kitchen, her eyes lit up and a smile formed across her face. “You guys got more food ready?! When was this? How did you manage?!” Her mom bombarded them with questions, Eve and her dad smirking at each other. 

They all decided to try a bit of the chicken to make sure it was fine. Her dad took the first bite and he put a thumbs up, indicating it was good. Her mom then decided to take a bite to try it too, Eve didn’t wanna already be full so she passed on the offer. About 20 minutes later, her mom rushed to the bathroom, clutching her stomach. Seconds later they heard retching noises, and possibly vomit. Eve and her dad rushed to her mom’s aid, not expecting to just see her projectile vomiting.

Eve and her dad didn’t know what was going on, until her dad ran to one of the other bathrooms, sick too. It was clear to Eve that this was food poisoning, but she didn’t wanna get near any of her parents cause she has emetophobia. Eve sprinted towards the medicine cabinet in her parents’ master bedroom, trying to find the right one. One time, her mom had gotten food poisoning and her dad gave her a pill and she was fine in about 30 minutes! Eve had searched the cabinet for a solid 3 minutes, but then on the way back, she saw the little container. 

She grabbed the little pill container and ran downstairs, getting two glasses of water for the pill. She ran to her mom and gave her one while trying not to look. Her mom took it and gulped it down in a matter of seconds. Eve then ran as fast as she could while holding a glass of water, and gave her dad a pill and the water, almost getting sick herself from the sight of vomit. She then got to the kitchen and gulped down some water so she wouldn’t get sick. Her sister came running down the stairs, “What happened?!” her sister shrieked as she caught sight of some vomit. 

“The chicken apparently wasn’t good enough,” Eve said, pinching the bridge of her nose. 

“What happened to the turkey?” 

“It was expired.” 

“Can’t we just order Chinese food?” 

“Why would we do that?!” Eve huffed on edge. 

“Well everyone is coming in about… 40 minutes.” 

“OK, YEAH, LET’S GO ORDER IT!” Eve yelled sliding towards her laptop.

 “Ok, we need a lot, 4 white rices, 3 basic noodles, 2 fried rices, 3 serving of spring rolls, and some shrimp?” Eve’s sister listed. “I’m gonna add some spicy chicken, and a serving of some normal chicken.” 

Eve shut her laptop right as they finished paying. “When are they coming?” Eve asked, turning her head towards Julia.

“In about fifty minutes I would say, not quite sure though” Her sister replied, tilting her head. 

“Ok I guess that’s enough,” Eve said, nodding her head. 

“I’m gonna go clean my room some more, you should do the same,” her sister yelled from halfway up the stairs, Eve just nodded knowing her room was perfectly clean. The food was supposed to be arriving in about twenty minutes, enough time to get here before all of their relatives. Eve could hear her sister trying to speed clean, since they didn’t have a lot of time.

Eve was sitting on the couch when the doorbell rang, she rushed to get it crossing her fingers that it was just the food, and not every relative she had. She opened the door already not sure who was outside. Thank God. It was only the delivery guy with three bags of Chinese food for them. She took the bags inside the kitchen and heaved them all up onto the counter. Her sister was already at the bottom stair running to come help. The two of them worked together to get everything plated on platters. Eve got her cake and put it in the fridge so it would still be fresh when they ate it for dessert. Eve’s parents came into the kitchen, feeling better, and helped them set everything up. 

Everything was ready and Eve’s mom started making some pasta for her little brother because he didn’t like Chinese food. After a few minutes, the doorbell rang again, and her parents went to get the door. They were greeted by hugs from everyone, and everyone was there. They all just chatted until it was time to eat, and everyone seemed to like Chinese food. The night ended up being amazing and everyone complimented Eve’s cake. Christmas Eve was Eve’s favorite time of the year because she got to be with her family. 

The Facility

Blurb

John has always been a curious person but now he has gone off the rails. Follow John and his two friends, Ash and Echo, into the world of horror…

John

*Crack* Twigs snap under my feet, lightning cuts through the sky, rain pours down, drenching me in water. My friends, Ash and Echo, stand under a tree. John, Echo, and Ash have known each other for years and will stick together no matter what, or so it would seem… 

“Are you sure about this?” says Ash. 

“It could be cursed… ” says Echo. 

“*Pfft*, it can’t be cursed, I’m sure that it was a glowing red crystal,” I say, annoyed. 

“Yeah, bu — ”

“No buts, ands, or whos,” I say, frowning.

“Alright, let’s just do this fast, okay?” squeaks Echo as we walk into the cave. The stalactites make the cave look like a monster with big fangs. I walk in first and inside is a gleaming crystal. 

“Wow!” I say, shocked. I walk over to it gingerly, almost as if it can disappear. I touch it… 

Suddenly, I hear voices, my body starts to shake violently, and my mind goes blank… 

Echo

“J-John, are you okay??” I say, frightened.

“The John you know is dead and now I am born anew,” says John, the crystal now implanted in his chest. “HAHAHAHA,” laughs John menacingly, and as quickly as it all started, John lunges forward with such inhuman speed. Ash doesn’t even have time to scream. John grabs Ash by the legs and pulls him farther into the soot-black cave as the screams of Ash slowly fade away…

I stand, frozen in place in pure horror… I blink and I go sprinting down the cave.

Ash

“Ughhh…” Why does my body hurt so much!!! I open my eyes. I am in some kind of large tube and in front of me is John.

 “John, why are you doing this!!!” I yell. He does not reply. 

Instead, he says, “In a few seconds, I will fill that tube with liquid nitrogen and you will slowly freeze to death or drown. I wish your insignificant friend luck for he will not make it far, HAHAHA!!!” The liquid nitrogen slowly fills up the tube until it gets to my waist…

Echo

*Huff* huff* Where is he?! I think, wildly running down the hall. I turn the corner and the walls are a stark white like a hospital or a facility… I slowed. Why is there a facility here in a cave?! I think, confused. I start running again, then I come into a room full of these big tube thingamabobs (Thing-a-ma-bobs) and there is Ash in the biggest one! He is banging on the glass and yelling something but it’s muffled but I can tell it’s something bad because his face is all scrunched up. “Don’t worry, Ash, I’ll get you out of there in no time!!” I say, more sure than I feel. I look at the keyboard next to the tube.

 “Uhhhh… ” I push a big red button in the center and suddenly a hole opens up in his tube and he gets sucked in. “ASH!!!” I yell, but a hole opens up in the ceiling and he falls on top of me. 

 “Oof!” says Ash. 

“You’re okay!” I say happily 

“You should not have done that,” says Ash.

“What?!!” I say, mind blown. 

“Because Johns here… ” Ash says, pointing out a shattered glass window at a glowing red light around the corner of the hall, slowly getting closer. “Quick, hide!” says Ash as we hide under the table. 

Ash

My heart is pounding so hard you can probably hear it from a mile away. John opens his hand and a giant sledgehammer appears in it with a smaller crystal in it. “You cannot hide!!!” John says like a psychopath. He brings down the sledgehammer to the table with such strength that it shatters like glass… time seems to slow, shards of wood cut through my clothes and into my skin, then it comes down on my head, the sledgehammer, and my mind goes blank…

Echo

My body hurts so much and my vision has become blurry, but then I focus. I see Ash crumpled on the floor, a puddle of blood getting larger around him. I turn to see John. He smiles so evilly, the corners of his lips almost reach his ears. I stare, horrified, as he laughs deeply and coldly. 

“What has happened to you, J-Jo?” I can’t even say his name anymore after what just happened.

 “I will spare you for now,” he says, then walks away. I slowly crawl out from under the rubble. I look at what remains of Ash. 

I will finish this, I think with a sudden feeling of power… I yell out a name, John.

Echo

I run down the seemingly endless corridors. “Which way is the exit?!” I say aloud, my voice echoing down the halls, but then I see the unforgettable cave entrance where it all started. It has only felt like a couple of minutes but with the golden light of day beaming through the teeth-like opening.

I sprint at full speed. I run and run with all my memories gushing past me — John, Ash, and me playing basketball in the park. I run all the way home. I kick open the door but then when I open it, there is only the cave. I run in, not looking around and when I do I realized I am trapped in, looking behind me as the mouth-like cave entrance closes, shutting me in. Then I see the glowing red light of a crystal as the thing that John once was brings the hammer careening down onto my skull as everything goes black. 

To Be Continued… 

Fast Forward

One day, there was a little boy who was playing computer games with his brother. He saw a clock on the computer, and he said, “What’s this?”

His brother said, “I don’t know, you should press it.”

He pressed it and the computer started glowing. When their mom said, “Thing 1 and Thing 2, the food’s ready,” they said,

“Coming, Mom.”

They ate and they were eager to get back to the computer to figure out why it was glowing. When they got back upstairs, they saw a glowing beam that had numbers on it. He looked at the computer and saw a timer. He and his brother saw 10, what is this?! 9, what’s going on?! 8, 7, oh no! I don’t like this. 6, 5. “Make it stop!” his brother pleaded. This is cool, he thought. What if it puts us in the game or something? 4, 3, 2, 1. There was a big boom and their whole room and everything inside of it was floating including them!

They yelled for their mom, no answer. They noticed a globe and it showed their mom and them playing video games but on their watches and phone it said 10:00AM but the globe said it was 1:00AM so they thought, how could this be? Either we’re in a dream or we’re in the future. They were very confused. 

The brothers were arguing over what happened and who was responsible for the time warp. The boys went to their phones and they checked where they were on Google Maps. They were in Australia! Their family didn’t live anywhere near Australia; they lived in the United States. The older brother said, “What if we got transported to a different state?” Both checked their calendars. It wasn’t 2021 anymore, it was 3031! They freaked out and then calmed down and said, 

“We need to get back.”

Drew, the younger brother said to CJ, the older brother, “this is so cool!”

CJ was trying to act cool and stuff so they tried to get in a glass prism but it did not work. They tried kicking the glass, punching, breaking the globe, but nothing worked until the floor started to crack from all the jumping! Both looked down. Once they realized what they were falling into, they were as still as a dead mouse! CJ said, “Don’t move a muscle.” But then the glass was still breaking slowly. The glass could not hold their weight any longer. 

Praying and hoping it was not what they saw, they were falling into a big pile of lava!!! They were screaming, “Mommy!” All of a sudden, they heard a very loud noise and then saw an Air Force plane, what a miracle! The plane picked them up and dropped grenades into the lava. 

At the moment the brothers wondered what they were doing, a lava monster named Corrupt was going to war with a supernatural lava monster. So far, he’d done a lot of damage. He blew up a few towns and flooded a bunch with lava. So far, those were the towns that he’d tried attacking. Some towns were surrendering. That was why the lava monster wanted to rebuild his community. 

The plane landed and they hopped out and said, “Gentlemen, please state your position.”

The brothers said, “We were doing fine.” 

The soldier asked them to confirm their division. The bros said, “We are from Division 1.”

They said, “Oh, so you guys are from the O.G. Division? You are so young,” the soldier said in a daring but cautious tone. 

The bros said, “We are from the past and we’re 30 years old. The O.G. Division made a time travel machine to stop the lava monster. Trial tests showed that it worked.” 

The soldiers allowed the boys to pass. The boys finally located their house and went to it, but when they got there, their house was one of the houses that had been burned down and destroyed and the only thing left was the bro’s room, a tv, a couch, and a couple more pieces of furniture and accessories. They stared in shock as they watched the lava monster burn and destroy another house. 

K was the first bro and J was the second and their last names were Day. Together, they were K.J. Day. The lava monster was at least 30 feet high and had lava spitting out of him.

When the monster tried speaking, he sounded like a swerving car. The lava monster was so strong and powerful that he lured 13 men and women army people and he himself killed them all but left one to live so he could tell the tale. That night, he went to his house and burned the building down.  

They went to their couch and sat down and tried thinking about their house, and slowly things started appearing so they thought harder and everything was there. They heard their mom yell, “Kids, time for dinner.”

Shocked, they could hear C.J. Day stutter and yell, “C-c-c-o-oming.”

Later that day, their alarm went off and they said they did not set alarms. What’s going on? 

“The alarm said it’s your gaming time!”

They responded, “Okay, hold on. Are we back home?” To confirm, they checked the time. They were in 2021 and back home. 

The next day, they saw some of their friends looking at them weirdly like they should not be there. They said, “What’s going on? What happened? You guys are not supposed to be here.” 

They whispered, “You got into a car crash the other day and are supposed to be in the hospital recovering.” 

After school, their friends went to show them their room and they saw people who looked exactly like them and everything. They thought they were cloned in 3030. When they approached, their clones turned into 2 small lava monster pets! They wondered if they started the lava monster war! Then they heard them saying some weird words that sounded like: sacrifice the hot water! Sacrifice the hot water!

The bros saw something red start to come out of the bed and there was a portal that looked like it was from the future. Lava monster was in his cave attacking just like in 3030. What if the monsters were from the future? Running to their house, they started game planning. While planning, they started getting off track and playing video games. Their access line was suddenly cut off! The United Forces came on the screen and said, “Evacuation is mandatory! Leave the city immediately! We will compensate everyone for everything they have lost in the evacuation. You can’t bring anything but family and friends.”

Storytime with Beanie — Halloween Edition!

          Welcome to the first story of Storytime with Beanie, this story is: HALLOWEEN EDITION!!! The way things work in Storytime with Beanie is I’ll read some stories from my storybook that I wrote and you can pick some you want to read, (or you can read all of them ;)). BEWARE, these are all real and you can come sit down on the couch if you dare to have a chill down your spine… >:)

1.  Night of the Living Grogush 

This story begins on a happy sunny day. A comedy duo was playing at the town hall, they were the best of the best, Gary and Grogush. Gary was a well-known man who had a fun, bubbly sense of humor. Or so people thought. Grogush was an unappreciated doll who people thought was controlled by Gary. Gary used Grogush to earn money and fame. Grogush was a living doll who was plotting his revenge day by day. At Gary and Grogush’s performance, they began to do their famous ventriloquist act. Things were going well until the end. 

“What do you call an ugly animal?”

“You!” Grogush responded.

They did a few more jokes and got a lot more laughs. Gary tried to take Grogush off his sweaty hands to take a bow, but he wouldn’t come off. Gary tugged and pulled. 

“HEHEHEHEHEHEHE!!! YOU STUPID STUPID PEOPLE!!!” Grogush screamed, his terrible noise bouncing off the walls in an echo. “SOOOOOO STUPID.” 

Gary tugged some more. “CAN’T YOU SEE THIS GUY IS ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY???!!!” 

“Dhfgfcvhhljvnmhgfd!!!!” Gary wailed, now jerking his hand like a lunatic. He fell into a ladder and bonked his head, finally letting go of Grogush. The audience was terrified and this probably ruined their experience in a theater. Grogush sat on the wooden stage in the empty auditorium rocking his legs back and forth. 

“This is only the beginning.” he whispered to himself, adding a slight chuckle. 

A police investigation has begun on Grogush to find where he is, and what he’s doing. We think he now spies on people to get information, he usually spies on people who don’t appreciate their children, then he steals them and feasts on them. Here is a letter from a recent victim. He claims to have bought an action figure for his little boy. 

HeLlo HuMAn, IF YoU ARe WORryInG aBouT YoUR SON, doN’T WoRrY, hE Is GOnE NoW, I HoPE YOu ArE HaPPy, A FeW DAyS AGo YoU WErE COmPlAINIng ABoUt HoW TiMOthY WAs SuCh A HANdFuL, SO  I SUcKed HIs  BlOoD ANd FrOZe HiS vAinS UnTiL ThEy WeRE COld AS IcE. I DId ThE JOb FOr YoU. IF YoU wAnT ME To dO IT tO VeRONIcA I WoULd Be HApPY To, TImOThY WaS a FEaSt, WhO KNEw tHE KiD HAd sO MuCh FaT!

YOU’Re WeLcOMe, 

ArOGUsH

Oooooh, wasn’t that spooky? It wasn’t? Well then, maybe this one will be better.

2. Twisted

On May of 2018, I was 11 and a half years old when this all started, IT started. Oops, I almost forgot to introduce myself — hi, I’m Amanda McDiggarty and I live with my mom in a tiny home. My dad left when I was 4 and I don’t exactly remember what he was like. Mom says that’s a good thing. My best friend is Martha-Anne Scuerts who bosses me around and acts like she is the superior. But she stands up for me and supports me when I need it, so I call her my best friend. One day, she was acting, strange. Stranger than she usually is. When I went to school, she was quiet. She didn’t shout out any answers like she usually does. She didn’t sit at our regular lunch table, she didn’t sit with me on the bus, and she didn’t BOSS ME AROUND. Something was fishy. After school, I followed her home, for good and curious reasons. She went into her backyard and I went into the bushes to sneak a peek at what she was doing. She. Was. Summoning. Something. What? I have no clue. She drew some random symbols in the sand and took out a book from her backpack. She then put three shiny crystals down and read from the book. This was the first time I’ve heard her speak all day, and it sounded weary and raspy. 

“Come out, come out, oh mighty lord, from wherever you’re hiding or have been stored! THE PEBBLES ROCK MIGHT SKID THE WATER!! KILL THE SHEEP FROM THE SLAUGHTER!!!” 

What was she talking about? She sounded like she got those lines from a nursery school. Well, I guess it worked because the next second was me looking at my life flashing before my eyes. When I opened my eyes, everything was the same. Well, I thought everything was the same. There was fog everywhere and Martha’s high ponytail and big Crocs had been turned into revolting creature. It twisted and turned with its body, the color of my aunt Tina’s pea soup. She had bags over her sleepy eyes like she had not slept for years. 

“IM FREEEEEEEE!!!” screamed this mushy, yucky, DiSGuStiNg thing!!! That was not my friend!!!

I looked out the bushes finally and saw a bright light sucking up this monster into the clouds. I ran towards it after the monster had been sucked up already and hopped on. I felt light and free like a feather. I felt like I had no worries and that everything was going to be alright. I fell asleep… 

I woke up after a few minutes realizing I HAD A MISSION. I walked weirdly to what seemed like their base and opened the door. I was amazed at what I saw next, millions of buttons lined on walls and at the center of it all, Martha-Anne Scuerts. She was frozen in an ice chamber. Martha had wires connecting to the buttons. Each of the buttons said a simple task and under, it said: “under construction.” I wanted to run to the ice chamber and hug it when I heard a voice. I quickly scurried underneath the table. I heard a bunch of gibberish and nonsense from these walking jellies. “Adddfghjkiuygtfdsxcfghjkjhgfdsfghjikoiuhygfdsxdfghjklkjhgfc,” they confidently stated. Martha’s monster form walked into the room and dropped Martha’s backpack near the table I was sitting under. I grabbed the backpack to my chest and held it tightly. The three alien monsters jiggled away. When I felt they were gone, I grabbed the plastic table and tried smashing it into the glass-ice chamber. The glass was resistant and held up. I put the table on the floor and started looking at the buttons. There was nothing that said self-destruct or open the ice chamber. I looked at the wires next and found a wall in the alien base that was uneven. I pulled the square out and found the button to open the ice chamber. I pressed it and saw some dramatic fog come out of the chamber. Martha’s eyes flew open. “Oh, hi.”

 I hugged her. 

“Listen,” she said. “I have a lot of things to tell you.”  

“I met a girl at summer camp, she was funny and sweet and we became friends. Her name was Mia. A few months ago, I had a sleepover at her house and found her talking to her parents. They turned into jiggly monsters and I screamed very loudly. They made an agreement to have me never speak of them and they wouldn’t hurt my friends, family, and me. Long story short, they thought I would snitch on them and took over my body anyway.” 

“You, Martha, have done a lot of weird, funky things in your life but I was surprised to hear that you made a deal with literal demons!” I whisper-screamed. 

“Hey, it was either: don’t tell anyone about us or die. Take your pick.”  

“Good point,” I said. 

“Okay, enough bickering, we need to find a way to defeat these alien people,” Martha said with her determined face on. I could always never tell if she had a determined face on or if something really stank. 

So she said, “I know the aliens’ worst enemy, fear. It sounds weird, but if we scare them out of their pants they wo — ”

“Orrrrrr… We can cast a reverse spell in the book I have.” 

“Hmmph, I guess that could work, too…”

“Great! Now we just need to cast the spell.”

I grabbed the book out of Martha’s Alien’s bright red bag and heaved it out onto the floor of the “lab”. I checked for the reverse spell and found it quickly. I pulled the table I threw onto the floor before and hid under the cloth again with Martha. I took a deep breath. 

“WHEN THE MOON GOES DOWN, THE SUN COMES UP, LET THIS BE REVERSED — ” I heard the aliens running to the room to see what all of this commotion was about. 

“Keep going!!” Martha said. 

“LET’S NOT CALL THIS DAY HARMONY, REMOVE THIS ONGOING CURSE!!!” My eyes glowed wide open with my eyeballs forming a pitch black hole as if you were seeing into the mysteries of the universe. My body levitated into the air and wind started forming around me, I could see a glimpse of Martha, and the aliens’ eyes wide open, afraid of what I had just done. I felt like I could see into every moment of the past until everything stopped. I was placed into time and saw Martha running towards me. I felt like something important had just happened to me but I wondered what. It was as if a memory had been plucked right out of my head. 

Martha finally said, “Do you believe in aliens? I don’t.”

What, what! Didn’t think that was going to happen, did yo — okay, I’ll stop. But I have to warn you, the next one is a looooooonnnnnnnggggg one. 

3. Little Dead Riding Hood

You might recall the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The story of the sweet little girl who was about to deliver goodies to her grandmother. She was stopped by a greedy wolf who wanted the goodies all to himself. He dressed up as the grandmother to eat the goodies, he locked the grandmother in the closet while he ate, and he was about to eat the grandmother too, when a man with an axe came to save the day! He saved the grandmother and the sweet little girl, and they lived happily ever after. This story has many versions, and this is one of them. In the real little Red Riding story, it wasn’t a happy ever after.

I’ll tell you the real Little Red Riding story, here it goes. Beware, this story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Once upon a time, there was a bratty little girl named Mary, who was a rebel. But despite her reputation, she lived in a tiny little cottage house in a tiny town called Once Upon a Time town with her mum, who worked tirelessly to take care of her daughter. But Mary had no pity for her poor mother.  She never listened to her and always stayed up late. One fine morning, she was going to deliver her sick grandmother her special, homemade, burnt biscuits. 

“They look worse than ever today,” she confirmed. 

There, she went into the edgy woods, all alone. No matter what time of the day it was, the woods were always dark, with only a little sunlight poking through the trees. The animals were peacefully resting in the woods, well, until Mary came. She started kicking pebbles and the animals started to flee. She soon bumped into a wolf lounging on a tree, almost like he was waiting for her the whole time. 

“So I hear you’re a rebel, Mary,” the wolf said with a small grin. 

“Yes, I am,” Mary said happily. Finally, someone understood her. 

“Come this way to deliver bissssccuits, the quickest way,” the wolf said intently. He put his head in the basket and sniffed the burnt biscuits while licking his lips. 

For once, she actually doubted herself. Should I really be trusting a wolf? She thought about her cousin James who passed away because he was being mischievous, and pranked the village a few times but then he really did get eaten by a wolf and no one was there to help him. She also thought about the three little pigs who almost got eaten by that terrifying wolf, but then her instinct kicked in. Wait a minute, why should I be afraid of a silly little wolf? I’m a rebel, and rebels can do anything they want to do.

“Okkkkkaaaayyy?” Mary said, her eyes darted from left to right. She then skipped down the way. The wolf told her to and started kicking pebbles again. 

The animals whispered to each other, “Only the dumbest would go that way.” 

A few minutes, and what felt like hours to Mary later, she arrived at her grandmother’s house. She dearly loved her grandmother but she needed to keep her reputation of being a rebel. 

“Hello, dear grandmo — ” Mary dropped her burnt biscuits. She took a good look at her grandmother, who was sitting in her plaid white and pink bed. “Wh… What big e… eyes y… you h… h… have.” She was shaking and trembling.

  “To look at my beautiful granddaughter with.” 

“Wh… what a… a b… big n… n… nose y… you h… a… ve.”

“To sniff my wonderful garden outside my house.”

  “W… what a… a… a big m… m… o… uth y… you h… a… ve.”

“To eat my Granddaughter’s wonderful burnt biscuits with.”

Mary took a good look at her “grandmother.” There was something so strangely familiar about her grandmother but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “Um,” Mary said. Her “grandmother” was sweating intensely. 

“I’ll help you pick out your clothes.” 

Her “grandmother” took a sigh of relief. So, she was about to open the closet when, “Don’t open it!” She was walking away from it when she realized her grandma wasn’t the boss of her. Her body, her rules. She then yanked the closet door open. 

“NOOOOOO!!!” Her “grandmother” screamed. 

Mary stood there in disbelief, she was looking at her grandmother, her real grandmother, who was suffocated by ropes in the closet. She was dead. Was it because of how long it took to figure out that the lady there wasn’t her real grandmother? But then Mary realized something, if that wasn’t her real grandmother then who was tha — 

She turned around to the bed where her “grandmother” was sleeping. No one was there — of course, the wolf! How could she have been so dumb this whole time! She ran outside her dead grandmother’s house and tried to find him, but he was already there in her grandmother’s, ready to pounce. She saw the wolf, and the wolf saw her. Mary ran, faster than she ever ran before. Mary didn’t care about her reputation anymore, all she cared about was running for her life. She was running and running and running. So was the wolf. He wanted supper and she wanted to go home. She just wanted to be in her safe little cottage with her mum. 

She screamed, “HELP HELP!! A WOLF IS CHASING ME!!!” 

A lumberjack heard her nearby and attempted to throw his axe at the wolf, but he missed, hitting Mary. Blood splattered on the pathway. The wolf really did have supper and ate well that night, as for Mary’s mum, she searched everywhere for her daughter. Even though Mary might not have been a good person, she was still family to her mum, and the only family she had left. So that was the story. Please don’t be alarmed, but unfortunately the wolf went unharmed, so though it was dark, it was hard and true that the wolf that night had Red Riding Hood stew. 

4. Mary, Mary.

Mary Mary was a talking doll. Much like Grogush from the 1st story, she lured her victims in. 

I ran with my mommy to the toy shop and found a baby doll!! She had wide eyes and curly hair, and the minute you pulled a string, she blinked her eyes and said, “Mary Mary wants to play with you!” 

The Cashier had a slight smile on his face as I ran out of the store with Mary Mary. When I got home, I put Mary Mary on the counter. We ate dinner and I looked for Mary Mary. She wasn’t on the counter anymore, she was in my bed. “Awwww,” I said. Mary Mary wants to go to sleep! I slept for about 5 hours when I heard a noise. I couldn’t make out what it was. I usually don’t like danger and often run away from it, who wouldn’t! But this time, my curiosity led me walking down to find what this peculiar noise was. I walked and walked through the apartment until I could hear it clearly. I heard a soft female voice singing, “Ring around the rosie.” I kept walking through the empty dark hallways of our apartment building, until I got to the courtyard. It constantly felt like someone was whispering this eerie song in my ear. I walked through the patches of grass covering my ears. Then I saw it. I saw her. Mary Mary sat there feeling the blade of the knife through her tiny hands. She kept singing. I felt like running, but for some reason, I did not. 

“Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes.”

She grabbed me and pulled me toward her blade. I could feel her tiny hands holding my neck hostage as I tried to squirm away. 

“We all — fall — DOWN!” 

She sliced my head off.

Narrator: The next day, this young lady’s family tried to find her. When they walked in the courtyard, they found the poor girl with her head chopped off. They also found a bloody knife and a note that said, “Mary Mary wants to play with you… ”

That one was probably inspired by Gabby Gabby from Toy Story 4. Except creepier. (And maybe a bit of Coralline :D.)

I hope you enjoyed Storytime with Beanie — Halloween edition! I had a really fun time coming up with these spooky stories and trying to make them a bit ridiculous too! I hope you have lots of questions and a bunch of conspiracy theories but the real question is…

What did we learn today!? Uhhhh, I have no idea! 

The Candy Fairy’s Skateboard

My life story, or at least the part of my life story you’d be interested in, begins where a tragic story might end — with the digging of several holes. Before we continue, I will assure you that this story is nothing like that, but if you’re looking for a story with that kind of drama and sadness, please ask your librarian to refer you to the tragedy section. With that out of the way, let’s get back to the story: I ran frantically around our miniature backyard, waving and digging with my plastic shovel like a maniac, my brain bubbling full of hatred and loathing for my older brother. Although this may seem like a funny anecdote from your end, I can promise you that it was a horrendous experience, for me, at least. A week ago, Ben, my older (and devious) brother, told me that if I buried my candy in the ground and dug it up again a week later, a majestic candy fairy would exchange it for money. I thought this was an extremely clever plan and did exactly what Ben told me to do. I even put a card in the hole to tell the fairy how much I charged for the licorice. However, after I dug the loot back up, all I found was the card. On the back, in my brother’s handwriting, read:

Sorry, but I’m not very liquid right now, but tHAnks for tHe cAndy! – C.F 

Now, after completely destroying the backyard, I finally had to accept the truth: the whole thing was a huge scam! I sat down on the now ruined lawn and began to cry. Like a guardian angel, who can sense sadness and despair, my mother came flying out the back door to comfort me. It was only until she dried my tears that she noticed the wrecked backyard. 

“Goodness me, Marley! What in heaven’s name happened to the backyard?” she exclaimed, as she scanned the destruction. The flowerbed was half crushed, the grass was nearly all torn up, and the cherry tree in the corner, the only nice thing in the entire neighborhood of bleak houses and cheap grocery stores, had a groove in its trunk, most likely from my shovel. 

“Ben happened!” I pouted, waving my shovel and breathing heavily in the humid summer air. I told my mom about the whole ordeal, expecting her to grow angry at Ben for teasing me, and unleash her whole sympathetic lecture about how her older siblings teased her when she was a kid. However, to my astonishment as well as disgust, she started laughing. At first it was a small snort, then a giggle, and all of a sudden she was laughing so hard that she pressed her hands to her stomach and doubled over, giddy tears streaming down her face.

“Mom!” I exclaimed, shocked and feeling extremely betrayed.

“I’m sorry, honey, but you have to admit, it was kind of funny.”

“What???” I said, in complete disbelief, “I thought you were on my side!”

“I am, Mars. Here.” She reached for my hand. “I’ll prove it.”  

She grabbed my hand and helped me stand up. 

“Where’s Ben now?” she asked.

“At the pizza place with his skateboard,” I said, “He was going to head to the park afterwards.” 

“Good,” she said. “Let’s catch him there before he goes to the skateboard rink.” 

I followed my mom with a new bounce in my step. As we walked through the neighborhood, I thought of the ways Ben would get punished. Maybe he’ll get grounded, I thought hopefully. Or no candy for him for a whole month! The pizza place was probably the nicest thing around our neighborhood, besides the park. And even then, that was saying a lot. By the looks of the paint job and the dirty tile floor on the inside of the shop, you could tell it hadn’t been cleaned in years. When we got to the pizza place, instead of finding Ben prancing around eating pizza, we saw him sitting dejectedly at one of the tables, his arms wrapped around his skateboard, his pizza to the side, forgotten. When he looked up at us, I saw something in his eyes that I had never seen before. Tears. My mom rushed over.

“Sweetie, what happened?”

Ben wiped the tears from his eyes, “My skateboard,” he said, holding it out to us. “It broke.”  

My body was shaking with rage. Mom had promised that she would punish Ben for using me, but now she was comforting him, drying his tears. The only thing that stopped me from throwing a full on tantrum was the skateboard. I loved fixing things, and recently I had been breaking things on purpose to put them back together. (The last time I did this was on the vacuum cleaner, and I lost the airbag, so now we don’t have a vacuum cleaner anymore, as well as something for me to fix.) My curiosity took hold of me, and before I knew it, I was bending down to have a closer look. I winced. One of the wheels was almost torn off, hanging by one measly nail and a whole lot of hope. 

“Dad would have been able to fix it,” Ben spluttered. “He made it himself, but now he’s gone… ”

“It’s okay,” my mom tried. “We can get a new one–”

“No! This is all I have left of him, I won’t throw it out, broken or working.” Ben hugged the skateboard to his chest, still crying. I felt like I had just been punched in the gut. What was I even doing? Would Dad want me and Ben to fight each other?  I looked down at my feet. 2 minutes ago, I was all for seeing Ben down in the dumps, but now I could see that he was just like me. He missed Dad as much as I did… 

  “I-I think I can fix it,” I said, surprising myself. I always had the innate ability to fix things, and in the hot summer days it was hard getting through all of the boredom. My only friends were the nuts and bolts in my toolbox. When Dad was still alive, I spent a lot of time with him in the workshop, and hopefully I learned enough to get the wheel back in place. After walking home to our run-down neighborhood, I thought about the tools I would need. I thought of it as what Dad would have done. Though as I slowly made progress on the skateboard, I later had to begrudgingly admit that it had been fun. A day later, I handed the cherished skateboard back to Ben, grins on both of our faces. Ben took the skateboard gingerly, turning it over in his hands. Then he looked back up at me. 

“I have a thank you gift,” he said, looking back down at his feet. 

“You do?” I said, my heart pounding. Maybe he’ll apologize. Or he could buy me a slice of pizza. Or he could let me have a go at his gaming computer!

“Your licorice was delicious,” Ben said with a smirk. “I have to go meet my friends at the park sooooooo… bye!!!” And with that, he retrieved a bunch of black licorice wrappers, stuffed them in my hands, and ran out the front door before I could even react. I stumbled back into my room, numb with anger. I felt like punching Ben in the face. After all I did for him, and he couldn’t even give me a simple thank you? Throwing the useless wrappers into the trash can, I turned around to collapse on my bed. But I couldn’t, because there was already something on it. A kit to build your own bicycle. To the left was a note.

I staShed my emergency supply of licOrice in your desk dRawer: you aRe going to need a lot of energY to build this thing – C.F 

P.S  AND did you know THAt if you doN’t rub your Knee a thouSand times your nose will fall off? 

Before this story ends, I would like to inform any youngsters who are reading this that if you don’t rub your knee a thousand times, your nose will not fall off. However, I will point out that burying money instead of candy will grow a money tree, which will give you far more profits than exchanging candy for money. With that said:

THE END

It Might as Well Have Been Winter

The air was cool and the winds were strong. Below me, I could see hues of scarlet and shades of golden, with a handful of orange. Buildings were scattered around, some lights on and some lights off. The sun had barely risen.

It was so frigid outside, it might as well have been winter.

We stood there in silence for a long time, in thick scarves and puffy jackets. 

“Why have you brought me here?” Cersei asked, her voice painted with curiosity. She was in awe of the view, you could see it in the way her eyes glittered as she admired the horizon in front of us.

“I just wanted to talk,” I mumbled.

But really, I didn’t want to talk.

I wanted revenge.

And a tall mountain was the perfect place to take it.

“Talk about what?” she asked. Was she oblivious of everything she’d done to me? Was she completely unaware of the crap I’d put up with all this time?

“Why did you do it?” I asked her flatly. She furrowed her eyebrows and took a deep breath.

“I’m not sure what you mean…” 

I was just about ready to slap her, if that’s what it took to get an answer out of her.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what I mean?! How can you not know what I mean? After everything you’ve done, how can you not know?” I accused, and Cersei gave me a stare that was almost psychotic.

It was like, all of a sudden, the cold air had gotten colder.

“Your money?” she asked, and then she laughed out loud. “It’s all done and over with, why worry now?”

“I will worry now, because it was you who ruined my life! You’ve always ruined my life, Cersei, and I never took note of it!” I exclaimed.

“I want something, I’ll get it, Freya. I don’t think you’re in any place to confront me about what I’ve done. You know how important the money was to me, how desperate I was for it. How can you be so selfish?!” Cersei spat. I inhaled deeply and stood up, Cersei following along.

“You’re right, it is in the past, Cersei! Silly me, I shouldn’t have even brought it up. Let’s enjoy the view,” I said with a smile, and she nodded in satisfaction.

“Good girl.”

I fidgeted with my coat, and looked around quickly.

“I’m queen of the world!” Cersei yelled in joy, and she spun around in front of the view.

This was it.

This was the time.

Do it, Freya.

Do it.

The Medic’s Son

Charles Smith was born in 1898 in Bath, England, and usually went by Charlie. Charlie’s father had died of Tuberculosis by the time Charlie was two. Charlie had very little memory of his father, and although it was an inconvenience to his mother, it never was a terrible inconvenience to Charlie other than his mother taking up whatever extra jobs she could find. Even though she had to work a lot, Mrs. Smith always found time to play with her son and was, overall, a very loving mother.                                                     

Charlie was a very active boy and was always going on adventures around whatever town they were in. He had always wanted to be a knight; rescuing a princess and fighting a dragon all sounded quite fun to him. So by the time The Great War broke out, Charlie had decided that he was going to be a soldier and that was that. The day he turned seventeen, he signed up for the war, and the doctors decided he was in perfect health. 

His mother had admonished the idea and thought that it was very dangerous but could not stop Charlie. 

She knew what wars were like because she had been a medic in the Second Anglo-Boer War and had left Charlie at her mother’s house, and she did not want Charlie to go through a similar experience. She had tried to tell Charlie that she needed him at home to take care of her, but he only responded that he would be home soon enough once he won the war. 

Seeing that he was so optimistic to the point of delusion and that nothing she could say would make any impact whatsoever, she signed up to be a medic, even though it brought back some bad memories, so that she could keep an eye on him. Charlie had no problem with that as he loved his mother dearly and wanted to go to war. He thought she would make a great medic, as she would always clean his wounds when he got hurt on his adventures.

Charlie was made private, was given a gun, taught how to fire it, and was sent off to the trenches.

When Charlie looked around the trenches, he saw that it was not a fairytale. Dirt and mud threatened to overflow the wooden walls; gunshots filled the air; men sat down with weary expressions; blood dripped onto the wooden walls; the sky was a dark grey, even though it was only 3:00; lanterns flickered and shook; and yells pierced the air.

Although Charlie was experiencing horrors, they were nothing compared to the horrors that Mrs. Smith was facing. Bandaged limbs still oozing blood, countless bodies covered with sheets, men begging for death, bombs heard as though they were right outside, and the worry about her son. She would look very closely at every face to make sure that it wasn’t her Charlie. With every gunshot or bomb that she heard, she wondered where Charlie was, and if he was safe.

The next day, Charlie was woken up, or would have been woken up if he had gotten any sleep, by the sound of a bomb crashing nearby. He scrambled out of his bunk and curled up into a ball. 

As soon as he calmed down, he changed back into his smeared uniform and grabbed his gun. As soon as he exited the bunker, he was startled by a large crashing sound called war. He was ordered to go to the wall and “empty his ammo,” or whatever that meant. Charlie started firing into the opposing trench and watched as a soldier fell and did not get back up. A sick feeling filled his gut as he wondered what his mother would say.

His mother, in fact, was charged with being the medic, wandering around the trenches and dragging the bodies back to the bunker. Seeing these horrors and wounds of war made her yearn for news of her son.

Just then, as she gazed out into the patch of light surrounded by smoke which was her sun, a bullet struck her and she dropped to the ground.

She woke up in the very bunker that she was in yesterday, although she felt something was wrong. She looked down and saw that she was bleeding quite heavily from her abdomen. The tray beside her had tongs and a bloody bullet. She could piece together what happened and knew that she didn’t have much longer left. At this moment, she was only thinking of her son, Charlie.

She found a pen and paper lying on the nightstand next to her, for notes on the condition of the patient, and started writing a note to Charlie. 

“My Dearest Charlie,

I am so sorry that I have to leave you in this world all alone. I love you so much, and I hate to leave you. Please try to remain safe, my son. Live your days fully, and enjoy your life, for it ends too shortly. So do not grieve knowing that I am exiting in peace with thoughts of you. Life is too short to be sad. Goodbye, my dearest.

Love,

Mom”

That was how the nurses found her a few hours later, clutching her last words that she had written for someone who she held dear. The nurses took pity on her and sent out that letter to Charlie.

Charlie had just sat down to a game of cards with some of the other fellows when a very tired-looking soldier came up to their table and asked if there was a Charlie Smith among their group. At this, Charlie stood up and replied that he was in fact the boy in question. The man handed him a piece of paper and left the bunker, back out to where the world was tearing itself apart. 

Charlie decided to take the note back to his bunk so he could read the contents in peace. 

As Charlie read his mother’s final words, tears made tracks down his grime-stained face and onto the paper, blotting the page and cleaning his face. He felt numb to the sounds of war. 

His mother, the calming presence that had always kept him safe, was gone, and it was his fault. He had insisted on going to war so he could be like a knight and save some sort of princess and fight monsters. He had been so foolish and childish without any real notion of what the world was like, and he had led his mother to her untimely death which he would pay for for the rest of his life. Charlie started to cry in earnest and buried his head in his pillow and fell asleep.

The next morning, people could sense a visible change in Charlie. He was not the same boy who wanted to rescue princesses and kill dragons; he was a man, in the middle of a war, with no parents, fighting for revenge. 

They stationed him at the wall again, Charlie had a different plan. He and some other men had decided to sprint to the other side to try and kill as many of the Germans as possible and most likely die trying. 

Charlie gave out the signal and they all ran out of the trenches with the other soldiers screaming after them, and charged to the opposing trenches with hate in their eyes. They had gone about three meters when the Germans shot a bomb at them. Charlie had just turned around to see the bomb land near his friends and him before he was blasted back into the bloody grass.

Charlie woke up in the hospital and looked around and only saw crimson flowing from missing limbs as screams of agony mixed with the sounds of gunshots from the trenches filled the air. Charlie looked around at his friends, lying limp with glassy eyes, and watched as the nurses covered them with blankets. Tears ran down his dirty and bloodstained face and dropped onto the grimy cot. Charlie thought of not only his missing legs, but his fellow soldiers, and his beautiful mother who were all gone because of this god-forsaken war. He had been so foolish to do this, he had killed everyone he held dear. His mother and now his friends.

Blood was still oozing out of the bandages that covered the stumps that were now his legs. He knew he would die soon so he just waited for the reaper of death to take him and all of the other lonely souls that were lost because of the war.

When death finally came, as light through the door of the bunker, Charlie saw that it was not a skull figure in a dark hood, but his own loving mother, still wearing her bloodied medic scrubs and her dark brown hair tucked beneath a white cloth, holding out her hand, with a sad smile on her face. Charlie took her hand and she gently carried him away from the war and out of sight.

Dubsy

If there were a choice that could decide the fate of your loved ones, and whether or not you were put in jail for the rest of your life, would you take it? Of course you would, without hesitation, or at least I did. My name is Evner Dubs. Fourteen years ago I was put in prison for the murder of my girlfriend, Lea, and my best friend, Dexter. We were a merry band of friends. Well, three of us were. I was always the dour one but the others were happy. Lea was the ever-loving sunshine of my life; Dexter was quieter but he laughed when it counted. Of course, the last member of our party whom I have not mentioned yet is Felix. He was always the happy to my morose, loquacious to my taciturn, energetic to my indolent. On top of all this, he was Irish, meaning he had the creative cursing skills of a drunk pirate. I had not been out long before I went to see him.

It was a stormy evening, and, as the moon rose, I shouldered my way past the heavy front door of the “Osrí ar Meisce.” This was the bar Felix owned; apparently, the name of the pub was “The Drunken Oyster,” but seeing as I didn’t know Gaelic and I was too lazy to learn, I had always taken Felix’s word for it. 

As I crossed the threshold, I was warmly greeted by the smells and sights of this familiar place. It smelled of good beer and fresh velvet. The tables all had chairs lying face down on top of them, and the booths lining the sides were just as I had remembered. Each had a different member of The Beatles on a poster under glass table tops, all surrounded by iconic settings from their songs. Strawberry Fields, Abbey Road, an entirely yellow submarine, and a church, (presumably the one where Eleanor Rigby was buried). I had never been able to tell, but I don’t know what else in their songs it could be referencing. It had to be said, Felix certainly did have a taste for decoration. 

Behind the bar was the man himself, Felix Gallagher. He was using a rag to clean out glasses, methodically holding the rag up to the inside of the glass and twisting until it had gone the circumference of the glass three times over. The rhythmic squeaking from the inside of the glass was almost a testament to how many times Felix had performed this action over the seventeen years he had owned this place.

“We’re closed. Go home.” He did not look up from his action for about thirty seconds. When he realized he hadn’t yet heard the door open and close a second time, he looked at the offender. “Oh… Dubsy, I would think you’ll be needing a drink.” He smiled with that patented Gallagher smile. I could still remember the first time I saw that smile. It had been when Dexter first introduced us.

“Evner, never heard that one before,” he had said. “Does anyone call you Dubsy?” I shook my head. “Great, I’ll be the first.” Then, he flashed that smile. He had called me Dubsy ever since, and that smile never got old.

Felix stopped his robotic cleaning and poured me a tall pint. He knew what I wanted.

“Do you think I did the right thing under the circumstances, taking the plea bargain?”

“I think it was the only thing you could’ve done. Nothing would bring them back, and that was the simplest way to minimize further damage.”

“I was just trying to do something good for once; to be a hero for someone.”

“Oh, Evner,” he sighed. I realized that this was the first time in a long time he had called me by my first name—he didn’t use it lightly. “There are no heroes, Evner. There are only people. You should know that.”

“I suppose I should.”

We sat in silence. Both of us knew I hadn’t killed Lea and Dexter, and now that I was finished paying for a crime I didn’t commit, we could finally be honest about it. Ironically, now that we could talk, we said nothing. What was there to be said? We lived happy lives, he and I, and stayed friends through all of it. I gave a eulogy at his funeral, and when I die, I like to think I’ll get to see him again, one last time.

Here lies the mortal remains of Evner Leroy Dubs

1923-2000

Thought to have killed his best friend and girlfriend, new evidence comes to light after his death that suggests the perpetrator was in fact a man currently on death row for numerous other crimes. This is just one of the new charges surfacing against him.

Dubsy will be missed.

The Terror

One day, a terror was arising in the city of Flow. The city was being attacked by bandits. The bandits took control of the food and the water supply and tripled the cost so people had to pay more for water and food than usual. 

Le said as he sat on his couch practicing his speech to the world in sign language, “Hi, my name is Le. I have been living in the city all my life. The city is my home. I am very disappointed whenever the city is in trouble like now. It is a troubling time, and they need a hero, and they have one — everyone, give it up for Super Le! 

“Okay, that’s not going to work, I need to be the best hero.

“Oh, by the way, I can see through walls and I have one of the best superpowers ever in my opinion — I have telekinesis, the power of fire and the best appearances on camera. I need to be the next superman — oh, I got it! I know my superhero name is Le Pow. So far, I have a butler and my dad’s rich because of me. I saved the mayor and everyone important in the city from dying from a bomb. I’ve known my job is to try and save the city from this terror. I’m going to try to fulfill my dream and be a hero to my city.” 

He walked outside. Le was a joke person and he liked to joke around and sometimes at the wrong time. While Le was outside, he saw his guy, Sammy. He called Sammy and came over and Sammy said, “I can’t talk now, my mom is expecting me home.”

“What, you’re never home early! When did that change? I feel like you’re lying.”

“I would never lie.”

“Let me see the text that says so.” 

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

 Le had enough. He raised the phone up with his telekinesis and saw a message that said, “Meet you at Bob’s at 10:00 for the party.”

 “You’re going to a party! So you lied! Now I’ve had enough! Let’s fight!”

 Sam said, “Okay, let’s go.”

 Le said, “Just kidding. I wanna come.”

But by that time Sam was mad and he was running full speed at Le. Le went flying. See what I mean? Le is a jokester at the wrong time. He walked away bruised up, went upstairs, got cleaned up, and looked for crime to fight. 

Suddenly, he bumped into his brother — a bandit! He said, “Why did you turn on us? Why?” 

His brother just walked away, saying it was for the best no one liked Le. Le changed then his assistant drove him around the city when he saw bandits robbing a store and he got out and lifted them all up then threw them against the wall. He got the bags of jewelry and he hand-signed his assistant to say the thing and he said, “Looks like you had trouble shopping. Good thing I was here to help you.”

They went home but they got stopped by a press conference and his assistant said, “We’re only taking 5 questions.”

“What were you thinking going up against 5 bandits?” 

“We thought we were doing the city a favor and doing that is one step in the right direction.”

“When are you going to fix the city of the bandits?”

“We will do the best with maintaining the little stores, next we are going to try and take the water supplies back.”

So then he said that the bandits had control over the radios and that Le would not be doing that because he was a threat to the new community.

“I will have to take force.”

Two choppers pulled up and started shooting and almost hit Le when he used his telekinesis to bring the chopper down and he set it on fire. They hopped out. He lifted them up and went full rage mode and tried to speak but he could not. He then realized why he couldn’t speak —  he was afraid of things he might say wrong. He tried speaking again but it did not work so he too threw the bandits out of town but there were still hundreds of bandits to fight.

He went home and saw on the news it said, “We may have a cure for these sickening bandits then: TINY. Tiny is a small person, about 5”5, and has the power to make explosions with his mind. He is a heartless person that only likes to conquer cities. He is white and his henchmen carry him. He has about five cities under his control and is bald. Tiny took over the city.”

Tiny came on and said, “Le, if you’re out there, you don’t have a voice so just back down. You can’t speak so just save yourself from a lot of hospital bills and suffering and surrender this city by this time.”
He could hear everyone in the city going crazy, seeing if their savior was going to back down. He said, “No,” and his assistant said,

“Hello, is someone there? Le, get here now, we need to leave here.

Le said, “You leave, I’ll stay here and blow them up. I’m getting angry.”

His assistant said, “Did you just speak or did I imagine that or was that actually you, sir?”

“It’s me.”

“Le, you can speak now, but how?”

“Just get out of here. Meet you at the warehouse, send me the addi.”

The bandits came bursting through the doors as Tiny came with two henchmen and he made everything explode near him and Le was trapped. Le said, “Flamio, hot men!” then jumped out the window and used his fire to push him up and tear the place apart and kill 30 of Tiny’s henchmen. 

Tiny jumped off the window and rolled onto an airship and yelled, “I’ll get you one day.” 

Le was on his way home when he started to get dizzy and his head was hurting then he realized he had metal from the explosion in his body that was slowing him down. I think the whole purpose of the attack was to poison me but how did they poison me with metal? Yes, I guess every superhero has weaknesses so this is my weakness. With that, he passed out. A few hours later, he woke up to Bob, his assistant, bending down to see if he was still alive. 

Bob then gave Le water and Le took a bath and went to his map of the city. It was showing a bunch of criminal activity near the bay. He dressed up and his assistant drove him over and he got out and he made a big firebomb and blew up the bay and the bandits were not there, it was just a big explosive that went booooooom and obliterated the whole bay. He was kinda sad but he remembered that he blew up the bandits’ supply — their weapons and their food money. 

Le went home and saw there were more evil warehouses but these had people. He got excited because this was his first good jump, and if he got lucky, he could take down Tiny and he could take back the city so he would be the famous hero that took down Tiny the conqueror of cities. 

He jumped into his suit and told his butler aka assistant to drive him to Hartfield Park and bring the bombs. When they got there, they saw that there was no base there but they heard yelling and machines. He thought maybe they could be underground. I don’t see them here or above me, the only other choice is underground. So he tore the field open with his telekinesis and found an elevator and he hopped on top of the elevator so he would not be seen and let it go down and saw this was their headquarters. Tiny had to be here so Le mad a fireball and blew up the base, making it impossible to escape, and searched for Tiny. When he found Tiny, he was climbing up the elevator cord escaping and the elevator cord was about to snap.

Le yelled, “Tiny, come down, you’re going to fall and hurt yourself!”

But Tiny did not listen. Then the cord snapped and he fell 50 feet. He was about to hit the ground when Le had a moment and he caught Tiny, and in a swift moment, put him in a headlock and made him promise to never do any form of evil as long as he lived. Le put him in handcuffs then Le said, “Tell your men to stand down. You’ve lost.”

A few months later, Le had the whole city number so with one call, they got saved. Le was on a vacation with his new family, his wife, his kids, and they had a great time at Disney and a hotel off the beach. At Disney, they were going on rides and met the infamous Mickey Mouse. 

THE END

Uncovered

Chapter 7

School goes on like this for another month. A pair of monstrous Mr. Sulskys, a jolly-like Mr. Smith, and overboard excitement from Mrs. Watkins. The school days drag on, and I find myself behaving like a white person. Jeremy and Matthew are always with me on the bus ride to school and during lunch. So far, they are still my only friends. And I have learned the school better. Apparently, the boys on my basketball team from gym class are known as the bullies in the grade. Of course, they aren’t very bright. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were failing every subject in school. My mind is always wandering during class, thinking about what I’ve been through. I’m technically a normal kid, albeit a kid who is undercover in a white school under the penalty of severe prison time or even death. 

The Mr. Sulskys are very obnoxious. First of all, though they teach different subjects, they act like the same person. Boring, gray, and unenthusiastic. I’ve managed to withstand a solid B in English, yet a healthy A in history. (But then again, an A in history is probably the equivalent of a B in English.) Many of my fellow students have been unlucky. Jeremy makes no secret of his distaste for school, barely managing C’s in every subject. (Except gym, of course, where he has an amazing A+, due to his baseball skills.) I’m sitting at my wooden desk in English class, daydreaming, while Mr. Sulsky is giving a lecture about “the great and influential poets of the twentieth century” when he says something that catches my ears. 

“There will be a poetry contest for this month,” he is saying, and I hear the tiniest sliver of excitement in his voice. “It will last for two weeks, starting from today to October 17th,” he continues.

I look at the other kids. They seem to be extremely bored, while I seem to be the only one excited. 

“The poem may be about anything, except for violence, vulgar language, and inappropriate content.”

This provokes some vulgar language and inappropriate content.

“That is all. Now have a good day,” Mr. Sulsky says, and a second later, the bell rings. The students scatter out of the classroom, while I’m the only kid in the class who pauses to look at the competition details. As I head to History class, I wonder what I should write about for my poem.

I spend the next two weeks writing my poem. I try to think of something happy, as I’m a person who has infiltrated a school, posing as a person who I’m now and surrounded by people who would happily arrest me or worse if they found out who I really was.

In the end, I write the standard happy poem about spring.

I write about all the happy stuff (which wouldn’t be that interesting for my fellow students, but very interesting for the teachers). 

The day before the poem is due is October 16, the Friday before the weekend. In first period English, I hand in my paper to the basket marked “Poems” (which is empty besides my poem). A few students also hand in poems, but they’re all grumbling that their mothers forced them to. 

At the end of the day, when I return to Mr. Sulsky’s class, the basket is barely full, not even a quarter full. As I walk out of the classroom, I hope for good luck and that I win.

On Monday when we return to school, I decide to go to school a few minutes early to see if I won the competition. I enter English class to see a bored-looking Mr. Sulsky glancing at the poems and sipping coffee from a mug that says, “World’s best English teacher.” 

“Ah, Noah,” he says, looking up from his desk even though he couldn’t possibly see me since his back is turned to me. “I wanted to have a little chat with you. It concerns the poem that you wrote for the poem competition.”

“And?” I ask nervously.

“You won,” Mr. Sulsky finishes, with the tone of someone who just had a good breakfast. “Nicely done.” He turns to face me. There’s a trace of a smile on his face.

“I very much enjoyed your poem,” he continues. “In fact, it’s probably one of the best poems one of my students has ever written.”

“Thank you, sir,” I say happily.

“I think I should call your parents and let them know what a nice poem you’ve written.” The smile on his face grows bigger, and it’s the first trace of emotion I’ve seen from him in the last month. 

“Thank you, sir,” I repeat, though I don’t mean it. If Mr. Sulsky looks into the address book, he won’t find my address, as we aren’t in the white community. I force myself to paste on a happy smile, which more looks like a crooked line. Mr. Sulsky seems to not sense it.

“Ok, then,” he says. He lugs out a thick, white, ancient book from out of his desk. It’s coated with dust. Hasn’t been used in a while. He plops it on his desk, which results in a loud slam! He flips through a few pages until he reaches the BE section. Then the BEC. Finally, he narrows it down to the BECKET section. There are only two names. James and Martha Becket, a couple.

He takes out his phone and dials the number besides the names, then calls. I hear the ringing of the phone as he calls. Then I hear the obnoxious beep! as the call is received.

“Hello?” The person on the other end asks.

“Hello, sir.” Mr. Sulsky says. “Are you the Beckets?”

“Yes, we are,” the man replies. “May I ask who you are?”

“I am Fred Sulsky, the teacher at Winters Academy.”

“All right,” the man says. “May I also ask why you are calling?”

“Yes,” Mr. Sulsky states. “It concerns your son, Noah. He’s recently done quite an astounding — ” 

“What?” the man asks, confused. “We don’t have a son named Noah, and he doesn’t go to this school. Have you got the wrong number?”

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Sulsky says, looking a bit suspicious of me now. “Is this 662-693-0492? Becket residence?”

“Yes, it is,” Mr. Becket says. “But we don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“All right, then. I’m terribly sorry for interrupting your day. Please do forgive me.”

“Apology accepted,” Mr. Becket says. “Just be careful about who you call.”

I hear the faint click as the call ends.

Mr. Sulsky looks at me, trying to figure out what’s going on. He thinks for a few moments, and then the spark of realization hits him, dead-on. Even though I’m not a mind-reader, I know what he’s thinking.  He eyes my skin suspiciously, trying to make sense of it. His confused expression goes to a face full of understanding. And then he begins speaking.

Mr. Sulsky looks up from the address book, stunned. His eyes are as big as dinner plates. Then the stunned look on his face quickly turns into a crocodile grin. “Well, well, well,” he snarls devilishly, looking at me the way a lion looks at a baby antelope. Then he cocks back his head like a werewolf and yells, “Hey! This kid’s a — “

Only he doesn’t get to finish the sentence, because I stomp on Mr. Sulsky’s foot and bolt out of the room. 

As I emerge from the hallway, I see puzzled students and teachers approaching me. Though that quickly turns to excitement from the students and panic from the teachers as Mr. Sulsky shouts some words that kids shouldn’t hear. The students hurry to Mr. Sulsky’s room, wanting to see what caused such language. I take advantage of the opportunity and dash towards the stairs, where more students are coming. 

Mr. Sulsky seems to have recovered from the pain of my toe stomp, and he rushes out of the classroom, determined to pound me to pieces. He steps into the hallway, only to be flattened by a mob of students. He screams as a kid steps onto his toes again and then howls as a kid flattens him like a bulldozer on a human pancake. Mr. Sulsky screams again, but I don’t know if it’s out of rage or pain or fear of being run over again. Luck finally seems to be on my side, and I’m just about to emerge when the worst thing imaginable happens. The other Mr. Sulsky is there, hustling through the door with a mug of coffee, which says, “Best Science teacher ever.” He looks up, startled to see me, then his eyes go wide with fear as I bowl over him, scrambling to get to the front door. He screams as the hot black liquid splatters onto him like a caffeine shower. Mr. Sulsky bolts to the bathroom for paper towels (in his haste, he accidentally enters the wrong one, which results in a shriek by the girl inside the bathroom). 

Meanwhile, I’m out of the front door, and the fresh, cold, air hits me like a car. Some school buses are still departing the last students, while some are empty because the drivers needed to take a bathroom break. Without knowing what I’m thinking (or even thinking at all), I leap into an empty bus, commandeer it, step on the gas pedal, 

and drive out of school.

Up until then, I’ve never driven a bus before. Not even a car or any type of vehicle. (Unless you count the rusty, old tractor my grandfather used to own and I drove it for fun on his farm, but even then he didn’t let me drive for fear of headplanting into the barn.) But I figured I could make an exception this time.

I try to head toward home because it’s practically the only area in the city where I’ll be safe. Fortunately, the bus route is pretty simple. I just have to follow the road I’m on and stop left and right occasionally. In the distance, I can hear police sirens roaring at me. I look back to see that they are only a block away from me. I return my attention to the bus, only to find that while I was distracted, I must’ve hit a switch that turned off the steering wheel! Fear suddenly grips me like a terrible nightmare. I can now feel the police cars bumping into the bus. One exceptionally aggressive police officer tries to slam me into pieces. Startled by the hit, I accidentally bump another switch that breaks the steering wheel! Now, I can only go straight. Up ahead, I can see the dot of my house. I’m relieved to see home, but it instantly changes to terror as I realize the river that leads to a waterfall is right ahead as well. The policemen also share my thoughts. I can practically hear the cars screech in terror as they slam onto the brakes. At least they’re safe, but I’m not.

The river grows bigger and bigger as I get closer to my doom. My mind rallies through everything I know about escaping a car that’s about to plunge into a waterfall. Not surprisingly, I barely know anything about the subject. Most spies would’ve had this sort of situation everyday, suavely jumping out and landing into the water. But I wasn’t a spy. My entire espionage experience was watching James Bond movies at Matthew’s house and reenacting scenes on the playground during recess. (At which Jeremy commented that I looked like a frog skydiving.) So when the bus hits the water, I leap out of it like a skydiver. The bus plunges into the water and a gust of water explodes out of the wide river, like a death charge. I doggy paddle toward the shore, also known as my backyard, also known as a patch of weed-infested grass with cheap furniture scattered around like a tornado had organized it. 

With a grunt, I grab onto the yard, leap over the fence (so flimsy a cat could’ve knocked it over), and rush to the back door where my parents are looking at the chaos, aghast. The police cars screech to a halt, inches away from the raging river, where the remnants of the bus are flaming like it’s trying to set the river on fire.

Dead meat.

After PBJ

Hi. So this is what happened AFTER I finished making my PB&J sandwich. Okay, I bet you have NO idea what I’m talking about, so let me tell you EVERYTHING. Okay, so anyway, I love PB&J sandwiches. And last year, I wanted to make one. And it was super hard because someone stole my peanut butter, and I lost my jelly and bread, AND I didn’t have a knife! So I had to go get a computer and find the person who stole my peanut butter, eat a bug so the cops would get out of my way, go to a murder scene to get a knife, and get locked in a trash can to find the jelly. 

ANYWAY, I found the person who stole it and I took it from them. And they got REALLY mad, like actually REALLY mad. They came to my house and they started yelling at me, but THEY were the one who stole it FIRST! So I don’t know what their problem was. Anyway, I just shooed them off my lawn and went back to sleep. But, when I woke up, I SAW HIM STANDING RIGHT ABOVE ME, AND HE WAS SMILING LIKE A CREEPY CLOWN. I’m now wondering how long he stood there, smiling at me sleeping. Anyway. 

Right next to me was my leftover sandwich, so I took one last delicious bite, and then THREW the sandwich at him. Then he was like, “Blah blah blah, you got peanut butter on my shirt!” And he stormed out.

Then, a few hours later, he was back, and this time he had a shovel, and he started digging my lawn. Like, who does that?! Who digs out someone’s lawn!? And so I went up to him and I said, “Sir, this is my property, get out now.” And then he said, 

“Well, that’s my peanut butter, so give it back now!” And I just shooed him off again. 

And THEN he came back because the door was accidentally unlocked since I was binge-watching anime and didn’t have time to think about the door. And when he came back, he quickly put a sack on my head. And maybe he’s a pro or something, because in like two seconds, he trapped me in the sack! So that’s where I am right now, in a sack. So I heard some rustling going on around me, and I’m pretty sure he was looking through my stuff to find the peanut butter. And then I chuckled, I would NEVER leave my peanut butter out in the open after what happened last year. The peanut butter was actually in my pocket.  

TO BE CONTINUED…

Villainous

Prologue

It was 8:00 pm. The sun had already set, and cool shadows masked what was happening below. They stood there, in the shadows of the bridge, watching something happen below. 

 A small rowboat, with one young man standing in the center, slowly drifted to the middle of the big waterway. The man’s shoulders were shaking slightly. He was sobbing, fighting back tears. As if he were afraid of something, someone. 

He continued to row down towards the city. His feet were chained down to the bottom of the boat, the metal glimmering in the faint moonlight. In the back was a large metal irregularly shaped sphere, and it brought down the back of the boat by a great amount. He reached the city. The figures watched from the distance as he slowly picked up the heavy-looking object and held it to his chest. Looking back once more at the two on the bridge, he outstretched his arms, tears streaming down his face, though a calm look present, as if he had accepted his fate. The sphere blew up into fire and smoke and pieces of metal flew everywhere. The sound of the explosion seemed to go off after it blew up, but it screamed in their ears, even from the distance. The railing vibrated uncontrollably. A large chunk of metal flew from somewhere in the dark smoke and clanged against one of the stilts of the bridge. The explosion from the bomb in his hands had covered most of the city, and London blew up and perished in black smoke and fire and heat. The taller of the two on the bridge grinned. He turned around and leaned on the rail. He took out a knife and started carving a stick. 

“And that’s how you do it, brother.” The shorter brother stood stiffly, staring into the black smoke. There were faint screams and sirens. The sky turned into an orange-red color with dark clouds rising into it which blended nicely with the color of the destruction happening below. The taller paused his carving and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. He shrugged it off and left him. He seemed uncomfortable. The taller brother sighed, shook his head, and continued to carve his stick. When he finished, he dropped it in the water and left the bridge too, going after his brother.

In the water sank the articulately carved stick. It wasn’t actually a stick, it was two sticks that had been bonded together. It had four sharp ends and cuts that made it look like some sort of symbol. It was shaped like a plus sign, but wasn’t exactly a cross. There were sharp lines and edges, but through it all, you could see the two distinct letters. R//V. It fell to the bottom of the waterway, and folded into the darkness.

The Watchers in the Shadows

Chapter Three of The Watchers in the Shadows

Will slammed the locker door. My head felt like hot iron rods were searing into my brain. 

“Will,” I groaned. “Do you have to be so loud?” 

He grinned and he ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s not my fault that you’re hungover. You know we aren’t supposed to drink when we are on a mission.” 

I massaged my temples. “It’s been five months. That’s like five years of intense agony for even a high functioning alcoholic like me.” My stomach lurched as I reached for my hairbrush. I ran toward the trash can and started puking my insides out. My throat was covered in what felt like liquid fire. 

“Good, get all that poison out of your body before our shift starts,” Will called out from the lockers. “Nova, you know this is a good lesson for you. It’s better just to not drink at all than feel horrible in the morning.” 

I wiped my mouth and rolled my eyes. “Well, not everyone is a goody two-shoes like you. Just because you are allergic to fun doesn’t mean everyone else is.” 

Will grasped his heart, pretending to be hurt. “I have fun. Like work is fun, the kids are fun… I have fun!” 

I snorted. “That doesn’t count. Plus, you really think this is fun? We have been on standby for months now. Everyone else gets fun assignments, and we are stuck babysitting a cold case.” 

I buttoned my uniform and reached into my locker for my gun. 

“Maybe, if you followed the rules more, then we would get a cooler assignment,” Will replied, tying his boots. 

I raised an eyebrow. “Following the rules is boring. Plus, you do it all the time and you still got this crummy assignment.” 

Will sighed. “Yeah, I guess that’s true, but they wouldn’t have given us this mission if it wasn’t important.” 

I checked my watch, 12:31 A.M. “Hurry up. Our shift started a minute ago.” Will stood next to the door. 

“I’m waiting for you, not the other way around.” Will grinned as I playfully punched him. 

“Come on, loser. Let’s get to work”. 

We walked out of the locker room and made a beeline for the entry corridor. The sounds of our footsteps echo off the smooth white walls. Before we even turn the corner, I could smell the distinct scent of her watermelon bubble gum. Great, it’s Kair and Reynolds. 

Will shot me a quick grin. I frowned and mentally prepared myself for our shift. If there was one thing I couldn’t stand, it was those two. 

As we turned the corner, Reynolds grinned, her bubbly pink hair ending in spikes. “Hiya! It’s been too long since we’ve had a shift together. Aren’t you pumped?” 

“Not long enough,” I muttered under my breath. 

Reynolds tilted her head toward me. “Didn’t catch that but I’m sure you’re as excited as I am!” 

I winced. Her high pitched voice was hell on my hangover. Kair stood in the corner, one fist clenched and the other right above his holster. 

“Will you shut up for once in your life, Reynolds?” Kair snapped. His permanent frown deepened.  

Reynolds let out a high pitched giggle. “Sorry about him,” she pointed at Kair. “Someone didn’t get their morning coffee.” 

False. They were always like this. Reynolds’s high energy levels matched with her bubbly personality was a bad match with Kair’s anger issues and introverted personality. How these two ever became partners was a miracle to me.

Kair slammed the wall. “I told you to SHUT UP!” 

Reynolds looked concerned. “Are you okay, Kair? It looks like you need a hug.” She reached her arms around him, and then he smacked them away. 

Will laughed. How he could find this entertaining was beside me. It was just plain annoying.  

“AHem.” I turned around to see The Lady standing there. Her face stretched out thin, like paper. She tapped her clipboard with her pencil. “Kair, Corrin; and Reynolds, Nemphis, your break is over, prepare for your second shift.” She turned her gaze toward me and Will. “Thorn, Nova; and Porter, Will, your first shift starts now.” She then proceeded to stiffly walk down the same hallway, her high heels tapping softly. 

Reynolds rested her arm around my shoulders. “Yay! Time to work!” Her voice was tinged with that signature excitement of hers. Her bubble gum scent was even stronger now. The artificial, sweet watermelon was starting to give me a headache. 

 I peeled her arm off of me. “Alright, let’s not do that again.” 

She grinned. “‘Kay!” She skipped off into the front. 

We walked off to the staff door in a group. Our footsteps and Reynolds’s constant streams of excitement echoed through the normally eerie quiet. My headache soon died down to a constant, numb pain, and finally, I could think clearly. Time to get to work.

“Uh, hey, Reynolds, did they ever figure out what happened to that redhead girl?” I slipped in casually, keeping the tone nonchalant. 

She stopped for a second to think. “Hmm. I don’t think so. Oh god, I haven’t thought of her in a while. Hope she’s okay! Oh, and you can call me Nemphis! No need to be formal all the time.” She flashed me a quick thumbs up and went ahead, skipping down the hallway. 

Will shot me a nasty glare, and shook his head slightly. I opened my mouth to argue. Will pointed his chin slightly toward Kair. He looked more aware than usual, his eyes though, still pointed toward the ground. 

I clenched my jaw. We would finish this conversation later. 

We reached the staff door, a large hulking slab of grated metal. Reynolds was waiting patiently; well, that was an overstatement. More like she was doing this awkward little jiggle. Better than her usual racket, but still as annoying as ever. I looked over my shoulder at the others. 

“So um, who has the key?” I asked. Reynolds popped her gum loudly. Will twirled the keychain around his finger. “I do, cause unlike someone, I remember my responsibilities,” Will replied. 

I crossed my arms and rolled my eyes. “Oh whatever, just open the door.” 

He walked over and the door opened with a click. We walked through the doorway and entered a long hallway. 

“So, who wants the southside and the northside?” Reynolds asked, her big, doll-like, blue eyes sparkling with excitement. 

Will’s eyes met mine. “Uh, we’ll take the southside, if that’s okay with you guys,” I spoke up. 

Kair shrugged and Reynolds gave me a toothy smile. She clapped her hands with excitement. “Excellent! We’ll meet you after dinner. Have a nice day!” She then proceeded to skip down the hallway. Kair slouched and followed her. 

I massaged my temples. God, those two were insufferable. 

Will chuckled. “Those two are great.” 

My left eye twitched. “Are you kidding me? Those two are the most annoying human beings to ever exist.” 

Will laughed. “They truly are the best.” 

We turned the corner. This was one of the new hallways. 3sw, if I wasn’t mistaken. 

“So how many renovations do you think there’s going to be? I mean, it’s been at least three in the past week,” I asked.

Will turned to face me. “I’m not sure, but I think they’re planning something big.” 

“Why’s that?” Odd of Will to do this type of thinking. He was more one for thinking in the moment. 

Will raised an eyebrow. “There’ve been 16 big renovations in the last month, 32 minor renovations, fewer and fewer kids are being brought in. How could something big not be coming?” 

I shrugged. He wasn’t wrong, of course, but it was just hard to believe that something around here was actually going to happen. 

We turned the next corner. Oh, it’s her. In front of us stood the girl. Her blond locks were as pristine as ever. Those cold, dead, blue eyes seemed to stare into my soul. 

She quickly tucked something into her blazer as she saw us approach. She smiled, not an actual one. It didn’t reach her eyes, the type that only she could pull off. 

“Hello there, can I help you?” Her motions were stiff, as if her joints and bones were made out of metal. Creepy. 

Will cleared his throat with a sudden cough. “No need, we are just passing through. Carry on.” 

 She relaxed her smile, a look of relief washing over before she could contain it. She walked swiftly past us, her shiny blonde curls bouncing behind her. 

I shivered. Something was off about that girl. She may look normal to the glance, but that was just an act. She lacked qualities that made someone human. Her eyes dead-looking, her motions always calculated, never reactive, and, of course, never a hair out of place. A husk of a person. 

Will shook my shoulder. “Hey, come on, let’s get out of here.” 

I snapped back into reality. “Oh… yeah. It’s just that girl… there’s just something off about her,” I stuttered. 

Will snorted. “You know you say this every time you see her. Every single damn time. And I’ll tell you again, the same thing I tell you every time. Stop it. You’re freaking me out.”

I relaxed as a tightness left my chest. I squeezed my palms. “Alright, let’s go. But I’m seriously considering investigating that girl. 

Will muttered under his breath, “Every single damn time.”

I elbowed him. 

He laughed.  

Approximately three minutes later, we reached our destination. I locked the door as we walked into the common room. I leaned against the door as Will cleared the cabinets. 

“Weird. The books aren’t in the same order as I left them.” Will pointed to a stack of books in the corner. 

“One of the kids probably shuffled it up when they were looking for some light reading,” I responded. Will gets like this sometimes. His detective mood, as I like to call it. He gets overly cautious or suspicious over the smallest of details. Never leads to anything, but it is entertaining at the very least. 

“That’s what I thought too, but none of the books are missing.” Will scratched his cheek, deep in thought. 

I shrugged. “So? Maybe they just didn’t find anything good to read.” 

“Hmm. I guess so,” Will mumbled. He didn’t look convinced. I tugged his sleeve to get him back on track. 

“Hurry up before someone wonders what we’re doing here.” He nodded quickly, and started to carefully remove the rest of the clutter. 

There it was, glued to the cabinet panel. The shining yellow button, right out of grandma’s sewing kit. Will pressed down on it, and with a click, the trapdoor opened. 

Below the keypad, the screen displayed today’s motto: Only the strongest prevail. 

I winced. Why this one?

Will clenched his jaw. His face stiffened and cast hard shadows. He quickly typed in the answer: Auckerman.  

Should I talk to him about it? No, we had more important things to worry about right now. 

Will crawled through and leaped down into the tunnel below. I followed after him. We walked in silence, our footsteps echoing through the dark tunnel. I twiddled my fingers nervously. Will looked okay, for the most part. He wasn’t talking or anything, but he wasn’t having a meltdown either. 

We turned the corner and I reached for the metal wall. 

Will grabbed my wrist. “Wait, someone’s been here.” He pointed at a scrap of paper on the floor. Will reached for the slip of paper, and read its contents. 

“Meet me in the attic, 12:00 P.M. Don’t be late.” He crumbled it up and slipped it into his pocket. 

Wait, what? Why would someone make contact now? Especially now? More importantly, who? 

Will looked equally as shell shocked as I was. Five months. That was how long it took for this assignment to get interesting. If this were a mountain, this would be the peak. And well, it would only go downhill from here. 

Will looked deep in thought, his eyes glazed over as he muttered something unintelligible under his breath. 

I waved my hand in front of his face. “Hey, snap out of it. Let’s get into the lab first, before you start doing any deep thinking.” 

He nodded in response and stepped back. 

I took a deep breath and focused. A deep tingling shot through my left arm, and my right arm numbed. I bent my left arm’s fingers to test it out. Power coursed through my veins. Excellent! I dug my hand underneath the metal plate, the pads of my fingertips pushed against the width of the metal. I flexed my fingers, the metal slab driving effortlessly into the groove above. 

I flashed a smile at Will. “After you.” I gestured to the now revealed room. 

Will mocked a bow. “Of course my lady,” he said with fake graciousness. He walked into the room.

 I giggled. Will could be fun when he wanted to be. I shook the tingles from my left arm, my right one regaining movement. 

I walked into the lab. Various handbooks were stacked in the corner, and two well-worn swivel chairs were placed in front of a long desk and monitors, some relaying information, others just displaying camera feeds. A lit lantern hung from the ceiling, and our gear was piled in a corner. 

Will sat down on his chair, his eyes glued to the communications monitor. 

“Something wrong?” I asked. Will usually wasn’t this attached to communications, mostly because he didn’t really have any friends, at least none that he was particularly close to. 

“Uh, no. But that’s just the thing. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing about this new message sender,” Will replied, he sounded utterly confused. 

“Should we tell HQ about the message?” I said. I mean, I had no idea what to do. Surely, HQ would have answers.  

Will paused for a second, thinking. “No, I don’t think so, if this was an enemy then why wouldn’t they just stake it out and ambush us. But it also doesn’t make sense that HQ didn’t tell us about it either,” he said thoughtfully.

“Maybe,” I started dramatically, “someone’s gone rogue.” 

“Actually, that would make sense. I mean, it’s simply obscure for someone who doesn’t already know about this place to find it. Plus, there’s the passcode at the trapdoor. They obviously either couldn’t open the last door, or didn’t know there was more,” Will replied, taking my response seriously. 

I checked my watch, 12:30 We would have to hurry up here before someone noticed we were missing.

“Hey.” I nudged Will’s foot. He looked up from the monitor. I tapped my watch. “Dude. hurry up, we gotta go do our job.” He nodded, and quickly sent a message. 

“What did you send?” I asked. 

“Just asked HQ to send a message to make sure our receiving systems are working. Just to confirm this mysterious note leaver isn’t working on HQ’s orders.” 

  “Oh, okay,” I replied. “Are you ready to go?” He nodded again. 

We walked out of the room, and with a gentle nudge, the metal wall came crashing down. 

I inspected it for a moment, looking for any signs of strain or cracks. As perfect as ever. I flashed a thumbs-up to Will. He turned away, and started walking back up the tunnel. 

I grabbed his shoulder. “Hey, wait, we never finished talking about what happened back there with Kair.” 

He looked disgruntled. “You already know why I reacted that way. Do I really have to elaborate?” 

I balled up my fist and gritted my teeth. “Actually yes, do tell me why what I did was so wrong.” 

Will opened his mouth, “One, this is a reconnaissance type two mission, we aren’t permitted to investigate. Second, we are to report any unusual activities, which we did. HQ didn’t permit us to move forward with anything. Third, I’m in charge, not you. Fourth, on top of breaking the rules, you jeopardized our position by asking such blunt questions. If it was anyone but Reynolds we’d probably be captured, found out, or worse.” Will raised an eyebrow. “Explain to me how your actions weren’t wrong.”  

“But… but I just know there’s something deeper to this! I don’t care what HQ said, this is important,” I replied in protest. 

I mean, how could he just let an opportunity like this slide? A girl mysteriously disappeared from a virtually inescapable house. Any sane person would want to know what happened to her. Even if it did break some stupid rules. 

“Hey!” Will raised his voice, the tone angry. “We were given orders and we will follow them. Even if it goes against your hunch. Understood?” 

I looked at my feet. “Understood.” 

We walked in silence through the tunnel. The rest of the day passed at a snail’s pace. My nerves increased the closer it grew to 12. 

11:00. 

11:30. 

11:40

11:45 

I looked over my shoulder at Will. He was standing in the corner fiddling with his gun. I tapped my watch slowly. 

He looked up at me. “You know there’s no use obsessing over the time. All we can do is wait.” 

“Well, we could get a headstart, scout out the attic, maybe a little bit of investigating. What’s the point of just sitting here, let’s put our time to use, even if at the end of all of this it turns out to be pointless,” I suggested. 

Will shook his head. “No, if this mystery person was smart enough to find the tunnel, they wouldn’t be careless enough to leave anything to chance,” he replied, deep in thought. 

“Alright, if you say so.” I wasn’t convinced, but I trusted Will’s judgment. It has saved me plenty of times before, and I’ll count on it again. 

11:50

I tapped my watch again. Will was walking down the hallway before I could say a word. 

I speed-walked after him. “Hey, at least give me some warning next time,” I whispered into his ear. 

“Oh, um, yeah, sorry about that. Just had a thought though,” Will started. “Well, what if this mystery person slipped in recently? That would explain why we haven’t had any contact before. And, well, do you remember what Reynolds said at lunch today?” 

I blanked. “Uh, no. I tend to tune out whenever she starts talking.” 

Will ignored my comment. “Well, she mentioned this new kid, about 17. He was brought in earlier in the morning, before our shift.” 

It started to click in my head. “Wait… isn’t fieldwork permitted at 16? It could make sense that he would be the mystery person we are looking for.”

Will grinned. “That’s what I’m thinking! It didn’t click until now, but when Reynolds told me his name, I thought it sounded familiar.” 

“What’s his name?” I asked. 

Will smiled again. 

“Braylon Kramer.”

Lost at Sea


Prologue 

Hiding from that terrible woman was what we did every day. Hiding in a pocket of darkness, wrapped around each other. I would say something stupid, she would giggle, and I would use her silky, pinkish-tinted blond hair to cover my red face. She didn’t mind, it would only cause us to become more entangled in one another. That was our thing. Our daily routine, you could call it. 

Being in the foster home for as long as we had, it was hard to feel loved, so when you had a friend, you would never let go. But we were different. We were closer than just best friends, choosing each other over getting chosen. 

In an orphanage, Emy would be the obvious choice. She was tall, blond, pretty, and shy to the bare eye. Once you got to know her, she would reveal her feistiness and confident nature to you. 

I reach out my hand and sweep the precious strawberry golden locks out of Emy’s soft, olive, freckled skin and prompt her chin up. She shyly looks down at the base canoe and giggles to herself. When she looks back up at me, I smile to let her know that she is safe with me. She bites her lip and for a second, I regret making the first move until she smiles back at me with the warmest smile I’ve ever seen. The crystal clear sea sparkles with manta rays and dolphins swirl around us as we lean in.  

Her soft lips gently press against mine as the warmth from the sun makes it seem like we will float on the playful waves forever, as her tongue brushes against my teeth and slips in as she puts her hands on my neck and pulls me closer to the point where I can feel her heart race. I grab her waist as she tugs tenderly at my collar, she wraps her legs around my body and I sit down, still holding her waist with one hand but put the other hand on the bench so I don’t fall over. We sit there with the sparkling waters, kissing as we continue to melt into the sunset.

Chapter One 

Emy pulls away and gazes into my eyes only a few inches away from my face as I take a breather. I only half get my breath back before she runs her fingers down my short, deep brown hair and places her hands back on my neck, she pulls me off the ledge I was sitting on, to the bottom of the canoe. I look up at her as she slowly squats down. Our eyes are locked as she sits in a W stance on my lap. In this moment, she looks so beautiful that I can’t move or even breathe. She slowly pushes me down with her palm in the middle of my chest. In a movement, she now has her hands on both sides of my head, she leans forward, hopping onto her knees, coming into an adapted plank. 

In that moment, as we stare into each other’s eyes, and our body heat keeps us warm under the ever-darkening sky above, I am glued to the ground, and her arms locked in place. 

Until she does move. And yet again I am scared she has begun to regret this. She then starts laughing, and I feel relieved, but then concerned. Finally, I realize how strange this situation is, and how stupid my face must look. I also loosen up, and begin to laugh with her.

Emy lowers herself to kiss my cheek, and I pull her into a hug to safely plop her down next to me. We giggle, and look up at the stars. As Emy tries to point out constellations, I think about my life. Better yet my future — with Emy of course, she is my life. I think about this moment. When we go back, will we forget this? If we go back, will we be transported back in time, to before we had experienced this feeling? Do we have to go back?

Of course, we do. I’m not stupid, we don’t know anything about the real world. We would completely start over, a clean slate, you could say. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Starting over. A life with her. Nothing could be more perfect. Nothing.

I quickly shove the idea out of my mind, and try to think of the present. And what I can do to make clear to her that this date isn’t an experiment, or a summer fling, and that she is my everything, and I want to be her everything. Before I can think of what to say next, my heart has beat me to it. I sit up, and Emy looks at me, a tad bit confused.

“Emy,” I say, barely a whisper. Emy senses something off, so she also sits up. I look away, embarrassed, and I almost can’t continue. She puts one hand on my shoulder and uses the other to hold my hand that I am not leaning on. We lock eyes and share a small smile. The warmth flows in from her kind touch, and I now don’t see a reason to not say it. 

“I love you, Emy. I have for as long as I can remember. And not just as friends or family, my love for you goes deeper than that. You are my life and have been, always.” She releases from me, and looks shocked. She seems like she is about to say something, but I guess I will never know. Because right there and then, the canoe is flipped over, and I hit the water with a smack.

~ ~

The water isn’t clear anymore, the tide seems high when it is only deeper from an essence, pushing the sand around, so it is blurry and there is a shadow cast around us. 

Wait, us? Where is she? I open my eyes wider, the burning sensation where sand and saltwater mix up in your eyes covering up the feeling of something coming up behind me. 

There is a minute where I see her with her precious golden locks floating in the water, and her eyes are closed while sharks circle around her, giving me only a few glances at her. All of a sudden, she opens her eyes. The sharks dash away, as I look closer, I see she is looking slightly over my shoulder with a blank expression other than a slight look of anger, and a bit of evil in her eyes. I flinch, and a little bit of air escapes me, but I stay calm. I look closer, her eyes normally ivy green are now a deep magenta, I rub my eyes, not believing what I’m seeing. I open my eyes, hoping that it was just a mind trick because of all the sand and seawater, and that she would be her normal self again, but when I open my eyes, I don’t see her. I look all around but I can’t find her anywhere. 

Where could she have gone? Suddenly, something warm and furry brushes my neck. Could Emy be playing a trick on me? I turn around, hoping to laugh it off, pull us up and figure out what happened. 

The smile fades from my face as I see a slimy tentacle that is connected to a much bigger, bulging figure with rows and rows of jagged, rusting, moldy teeth that has deep, red blood gushing out of its mouth, making the water around me darken as the blood flow starts to pull me towards the monster. It takes me a second to figure out what I am going to do, but when I figure it out, my petrified state only leaves me spazzing out. 

Without warning, the tentacle latches itself to me and squeezes almost all the air out of my lungs, its nails claw at my bare skin, leaving bloody bruises all over me. 

I still can’t see Emy, so with the last of my breath, I yell for her. Still no sign of her, and that is the last bit of oxygen inside of me. With the water filling my lungs and pumping the last bit of air out of my system, I go limp, and my world starts to blacken…

Chapter Two

I awake with a squeak. Sitting up, looking in all directions, not knowing where I am, my familiar den with dark purple curtains on the moldy window that looks out into a brick wall (beautiful view) has been replaced with dim crystals and rocks to create a shaded cave which I am in. I have been washed up in this cave, it is clear to see, the only question is… how?

Clearly, I came in somehow, but where could I have come from? I look around, seeing no obvious exit, and wonder if there was no exit where I could have entered. I slowly put my shaking hands on the ground and push myself up, removing some of the excess dirt and sand from my clothes that smell heavily of seawater. I touch my fingertips to the edge of the wall that I am closest to, and start walking around the perimeter of the spacious cave, feeling all around to make sure a hidden door is somewhere around here.

Halfway through, I start to get really bad headaches, they start getting so bad that I collapse to the floor, hands clenching my head, screaming so loudly that some crystals fall off the ceiling, but I can’t hear, having this migraine hurts so bad that I can’t hear anything. It starts getting so bad that I keep starting to blackout, but have it pass just as I start to faint. Then, as fast as it comes, the brain-crushing headache finally passes for good. I let out a sigh of relief and unclench my hands from my head revealing blood, (yikes). I quickly wipe that on my shirt and get up and cautiously start tracing the walls with my fingertips again. Soon after that, I fall unconscious as memories flood back. I start to remember what happened on the previous night, the ride, the kiss, and the monster. I now also remember small memory clips of how I got here. I see myself rising and then falling, and then another clip where I scream, and then the echo of my voice causes rocks to rain on me. That’s probably why I fell asleep. I look on the ground, yep, these are the rocks that hit my head. I look back up, must have been a nasty fall, sharp boulders, and slimy moss surround the opening of the cave which would make the attempt of my escape fairly brutal.

  Once, twice, five times, I try. There are blisters, bruises, and cuts all over my body, making the purpose of climbing halfway up and then falling down because my arms are about as thick as a stick, then brushing myself off and giving myself a pep talk, saying that I am going to get all the way up and that I am not going to give up halfway, but of course, I would manage to give up.

On the sixth try, I hear a neutral-toned voice say, “Oh, you should probably give up, you’re never going to get out anyway.”

“Well, I think I will with love as my determination,” I manage to grunt as I pull myself up to a rock that I didn’t see before.

“Well, it’s your fault we’re in here,” she snarls. For some reason, that freaks me out and I fall to the ground. Brushing myself off (again!). 

“C’mon, man, I was farther than I ever went before!” I mutter, still not turning around. “I mean, I was right there, I could have reached up and — ”

“Carna,” she whispers. The only person who calls me by my real name is Emy. I whip my head so fast around that my neck starts to hurt.

Chapter Three

“E-Emy? It’s really you? Oh, Emy, are you okay?” I exclaim. ”I’m so sorry,” I whisper, coming closer to her. I reach both my hands behind her neck and pull her even closer for a kiss. Only for her to push me away and flash her magenta eyes at me and say, 

“Stop being so nice like you were to my mom when she didn’t expect you to be gay.” Her eyes look into my soul. It is that moment when something inside of me sinks. Just then, the ceiling comes crumbling down. 

“Emy, what’s going on!?!” I breathlessly scream through the pile of deadly sharp boulders that have come down and just barely missed me. The rock rises and scatters across the walls and the empty space that used to be the ceiling. “E-emy. Emy, please, j-j-just tell me what’s g-going on,” I whimper. She just makes a half-hearted attempt of laughter.

“Hahaha, ha. That’s like what your mother said to me when you didn’t have the guts to tell her that you were lesbian, instead, you ran off like a little baby and hid in some shelter or some crap like that, leaving me to lie to your helpless mom, making me seem like the bad guy when you’re just sitting around doing who knows what, having me do all your dirty work,” she screeches in my ear with a look of either pure disgust, or pure hatred, maybe both.

“Em, I — ” I say with all intentions of apologizing, until she cuts me off.

“Oh don’t ‘Em’ me,” she scoffs as the rocks that I totally forget are there start flying across the cave with a flick of her wrist. “You are the one who convinced me to steal my dead parents’ boat just to have it flung around in the open ocean.” Then, as if I were mad at her, I yell back at her, hopping around trying to avoid the flying rocks.

“You did not steal the boat, you borrowed it.” Realizing how wrong I am with every word I say, I hesitate, allowing one of the rocks to knock me off my feet.

“Oh really, taking it against my mother’s command and then trashing it would not be considered stealing?” she squeaked, her hand now throbbing back and forth, sending boulders smashing into the walls, making everything fall on us.

“Emy, you’re right, I shouldn’t have done that, or anything else. I shouldn’t have been a baby, and hideaway, I should have come clean to my mother and told her I was gay, but that doesn’t mean you should make this whole cave come down on us.” Emy doesn’t stop. 

“Emy, please, I-I-I love you.” Emy falls to the ground and the rocks drop. “Emy, are you back?” I whisper, shaking as I carefully step forward. She rocks back and forth and starts shrieking. While the color drains from her face, a ghost-like figure starts to separate from her face, but just as the demon is about to leave, it gets sucked back in her, giving the color back to her face.

“No!!! Emy will never come back! She is mine forever. She willingly gave me her body,” The demon snorts. “And now I will destroy you.” Emy’s body starts glowing brighter and brighter until she is blinding me. I close my eyes as the cave goes down.

Chapter Four

As soon as I open my eyes, I see that I survived another rock attack, by jumping in a crevice right before the walls come down on me, but what about Emy? Sure a demon that wants to kill me is possessing her, but I still care about her. Would a human body survive if a demon is possessing it? I don’t need the answer ‘cause little do I know I will be finding out soon enough. It starts with a low rumble, and as it gets louder, the rocks start shaking, Then it starts to get to the point where the noise becomes screeching, and the rocks fall out of place. Soon, the location where I am standing becomes discovered by the demon, and the treacherous sea monster waiting to feast on my flesh.

“Hi?” I whisper stupidly, hoping to make up with the monsters. For a second, nothing happens and I think that it is over. “Oh good, I thought I was going to die for a sec — ” 

First, I feel it, another burning sensation, except it is on the outside, then I see it, the flaming red fireball melting anything around us (even the rocks). I panic as my skin starts peeling upwards and the ground starts to suck me in.

“Ahhh!!!” I yell as I jump away from a drop of boiling rock liquid from the raging fire that makes holes in the ground bigger than me and Emy combined. What to do when standing in the middle of a burning fire under a pile of melting boulders? Then I see it, the small opening created by the screeching noise would be the perfect hideout. I crawl through only to remember that is the only way out, and the only way for the fireball to get in, so I am going towards the threat with my near red skin that is still on fire… oh well, can’t go back now, the fire still in there has melted the rocks over the hole and now has solidified. Great.

Before I know what to do, I am whisked up into the clouds by the easily recognizable barf-colored tentacle. Only this time, if I don’t get out soon, my ribs will probably crack. “Please don’t do this. Please don’t kill me, I know that I have been a terrible person while I have been trying to keep my life together, Emy has helped me see the error of my ways, and I hope to change for her and for the better of me.” The monster’s grip on me loosens. I try to shoot a hopeful glance at Emy, but she has disappeared. I look at the creature’s black shadow of a body, and stare dead into its beady red eyes as its glow fades slightly. “Please, I don’t want to die here, I want to be at home with Emy by my side when I finally nod off. Don’t you?” The last thing I see before I fall to my death is the red glow coming back to its eyes.

When I open my eyes again, I am in Emy’s bruised arms at a nook in the still-standing section of the cave, the crystals shine against Emy’s soft smile, forgetting whatever demon was inside her for a moment or two.

“How long was I out for?” I whisper, brushing a golden lock out of her scared face.

“For only a few seconds,” she replies, holding my hand to her face. I pull her into a tight hug. Realizing that I just fell from the sky, I panic and pull back.

“What’s wrong?” Emy asks, loosening her grip on me.

“How am I not dead? Am I dead?” I yell.

“What? No, you’re not dead, why?” she questions, looking concerned.

“The fall. When I fell, wait, did you catch me?” I exclaim. She smiles at me warmly. “Wait! What about the demon, did it leave you alone? Did you defeat it?” I ask, hope in my eyes, while also pushing away as far as I can still being in her arms.

“Well, not — ” Emy cuts herself off, 

“Exactly,” the demon voice finishes. She falls, dropping me. She holds her head in a circling motion.

“Emy, pull yourself together!” the demon voice inside her screeches, making her shiver uncontrollably.

“No! I will not give in to you!” Emy yells, trying to separate herself from the demon. Seeing this, and not knowing what to do, makes me hate myself, it is horrible watching this, but I can’t just leave her to fend for herself, what type of heartless monster would do that?

With this destruction, whooshing noise becomes louder from a small section of the cave, but I don’t turn because I am too busy trying to figure out what to do.

Then, something starts illuminating the same dark and damp part of the cave that is not destroyed by the demon. Abruptly, white flames erupt from the illuminating section of the cave, blowing up the whole place and leaving rusty white spots in that area. Ouch, that must hurt insanely. From the dust comes the terrorist sea monster, which has a look of hunger in its eyes. I guess it has come to take my soul, too. 

I watch, petrified, in fact too much so I can’t even hear the constant battle between Emy and the demon. I look down, sensing a tickle that is constantly getting worse. I realize that the fire has gotten to me and my skin has been rotting for at least five seconds because the fire has some sort of acid chemical reaction that is eating at my skin. If I didn’t feel it before, I definitely feel it now, the pain of it tearing through my skin, even muscle is too much for me to handle, even with it slowing down, it is eating at me pretty quickly. With some muscles gone, standing is not an option, I fall back, hitting my head, hard.

“Uhhnn!” I moan, rubbing my head. “Ahhhhhhhhh!!!” I scream, the pain of my muscles overwhelm me with absolute and utter pain! If that isn’t enough, the Kraken-like creature is now charging at me. I try to get up, but all I can do is sit still. Sitting stiller than stone, wondering what to do with my seemingly last few moments on Earth. I build up the courage to say my last words. 

“Through everything we have gone through, we have stayed together. I have always loved you Emy, even before I knew I did. Through thick and through thin, you have always been there for me, and I love you for that but I’m just sorry that I have not been the best to you these past few years, and I’ll understand if you don’t forgive me for that, but I just wanted to let you know that I love you!” I cry as life fades away from me. With that, I close my eyes, hoping my death will be an easy transition to Heaven or, more likely, Hell. Lying, running away from home, and making my girlfriend do all my bidding for me will not get me into Heaven.

Chapter Five

Thump thump, thump thump.

Is all I hear.

 My heart beating, everything else is silent.

 Scared to open my eyes. Cold all around me, I shiver. 

Scared to open my eyes… I do anyway.

Chapter Six

Slowly, my eyelids open to see my bare, scarred feet, drenched with blood. Confused, I quickly look up and see the same cave I was just in but only, the creature is leaving the cave, looking satisfied. Maybe the shot did hit me and I’m dead. That would make a lot of sense, and why is Emy sleeping? Nothing really made sense. If I’m not alive I wouldn’t get the honor of Emy in my living Hell, unless I got into Heaven. (But we all know what the chances of that would be after all that I’ve done.) On the other hand, I would still doubt that sleeping is the last thing she would be doing while she tried to battle the demon. 

I walk over to her, and look down, seeing a big tear of fabric near her torso. I feel my jaw drop when I can see deeper than just her skin, but before any sounds can come out, I feel the warm, heavy breathing of something behind me. The moistness, and height of where it came from make me freeze. I gather up courage and slowly turn around.

The Kraken thing looks at me as if it were grinning. I feel as if there were something building up inside of me. To my surprise, it doesn’t feel like fear, it feels more like anger. A deep rage burns hotter and hotter inside my soul. Suddenly, I do not think that Emy is sleeping anymore. I don’t feel like she is safe.

And I have a strong feeling it has something to do with the Kraken. I feel it with each heave of its breath, and every time a basketball-sized glob of drool falls to the stone floor we are both standing on. I sense that it knows something I don’t.

In the moment of stillness, the Kraken suddenly gets impatient for a reaction, and it swings at me. Somehow, I manage to dodge the attack as if I know it will happen ahead of time, and with even more anger fueling my actions, I charge at the oceanic beast, and manage to throw it across the cave in one fell swoop. 

As soon as it hits the ground, it vanishes in a cloud of dust. I don’t even take the time to process how in a flurry of wrath, I have not just lifted, but thrown the foul creature who had probably weighed about a ton all the way across the cave.

Not even a little bit. The first thing I do is check on Emy. Being able to take a closer look, I realize how much damage was actually done.

Chapter Seven

“God! Emy, this is bad. This is really bad!” I panic. She then wakes up, and looks at me with a sad smile, as if she has already accepted that there is no hope. 

“But…” I speed up, trying to put on a brave face. “If we get you home now, we can patch you all up, and we will be alright! I-I-I mean you will be alright.” 

I start to pick her up, but I stop when I realize she feels very limp in my arms as if she were barely even there, but she is there. All the way there, so I try again. This time, I try to ignore the emptiness within her and get her out of there as soon as I can.

I stop when I feel her small, stone-cold, hand against my arm. I look down to see her warm eyes politely asking me to put her back on the ground, so I do. How can I deny my dying girlfriend’s request even if it means a zero percent chance of her survival?

NO! There is no way she would have me stop trying to save her. She knows what would happen to me if she stops breathing, she knows how much she means to me… but does she? 

What am I even thinking? Of course she knows. She also knows what I could do to save her. That’s why she stopped me, she has a better way to save herself, a faster way to secure her survival.

“Okay, so what do you want me to do?” I ask, energized. She looks at me as if I had asked her if she wanted to do jumping jacks while fighting a bear. “You know… to save you and all?” I feel my voice get all scratchy, and I swallow hard to push down the bad feeling that has started to arise. She opens her mouth to say something, but without even realizing it, I cover her mouth.

I have just asked a question, but I don’t let her answer. I don’t even know why.

Yes, I do. I don’t want to hear what she has to say. I know it will be something bad. I KNEW IT THE WHOLE TIME! Ever since I saw her there, I’ve known she is losing to the universe, I’ve known she is slipping away, I’ve known she is almost gone, I know…

… she is almost dead.

Chapter Eight

Her eyes are wide but understanding as I release her mouth from my tight grip. My hands go up to my face and I rub my eyes. Hard. It hurts, but I hope I will see a different image when my eyes defog.

“Hey!” Emy tries to yell, but fails due to lack of breath support. Her failed attempt causes another wave of emotion that blows through me. I can see her readjust as she looks at the pain on my ever dampening cheeks.

“Hey,” Emy whispers this time. “Don’t do that.” She gives me a partially disapproving look. I look at her, confused, and she removes my hands from my eye region. I sigh, a bit relieved knowing that she still cares about me even during what could be her final moments. She also sighs, and brings my trembling hands to her face. I restabilize, as her warm breath slowly comes in, and out, from her subtly parted lips, onto the backs of my hands. Which she has placed on her cheeks to which her slightly pointed nose pokes out in the gap between them. It is slightly uncomfortable, but I don’t really notice. How am I going to get through her eventual departure?

“Carna?” she whispers into my hand.

After this, Emy and Carna share a moment where Emy tells Carna that she loves her but that she has to go on without her and, with that, Emy dies. Carna then finds some wood on the beach that she pulls together and puts a sail on and has to find her way home from being on this island in the middle of nowhere. I guess you could say that she was lost at sea 😉

Ott: Part One

Chapter 1

Lunging, leaping over logs and trees, the pitter-patter of light footfalls was eerily absorbed by the misshapen flora. Something was running. A huge noise sounded behind the runner, a noise reminding the four-legged runner of the danger. A huge golem-like pillar of stone and crystal, quickly folding its form into a shape that’s strange, and yet relatable to a tiger. The runner was interested, and yet terrified. The runner then made a decision. Veering from its path, it went to an area. Here, the trees seemed to take all hope from most creatures, and the area was forever coated in a thick, sickly green mist. He had spotted it earlier, and had quickly sketched a design on a special medallion that all tribe members took as a precaution. It looked akin to a piece of amber, its center now shining. The golem creature stopped on the edge of this patch of woods. Its bright eyes blazed, a beacon of golden light, with a hint of aqua blue and red, before it padded its way back into the woods.

Ott, for that was the four-legged runner’s name, stopped on the far side of this evil patch and thought about his life. Before he became a fully fledged member of his tribe, the Amberpatch tribe, he had thought of its scout option as perilous, but thrilling. Ott loved what he did, of course, but things certainly weren’t easy. Especially for his species. They were the kornads, and, while very much sentient and intelligent, they sometimes felt out of place. Were the small, weak kornads really supposed to be here? Ott often pondered this question. Now his primary thought was, What was evolution thinking! (Of course, he didn’t think in English. It would be silly to believe that kornads, a species from another world, would think in a language they had not ever heard of. No, the kornads thought ((and spoke)) in the aptly named language kornadin, which will be translated.) His second thought was, I need to get back to the grus (village). Indeed, he did, for he was in uncharted waters, so to speak, and was in serious trouble unless he could get back to the Amberpatch village (grus). Ott knew this full well, and began to navigate homeward.

The sky was pale blue and had a fluffy aspect, and judging by the cloudless sky, nobody would have guessed that the day could have taken any bad turns. A pale orange was peeking over a now purple sky when Ott finally settled down. Climbing up a now not so foreboding evergreen, he thought on the events of the previous week. They were tracking a malfunctioning shape golem. These creatures were ‘tamed,’ so to speak, by the Amberpatch village, by feeding them a magical amber-like substance they called ‘thren.’ This put them into a state of pacification, which was mutually enjoyed. The shape golems loved thren, and could develop bonds with the Amberpatch tribe, and the Amberpatch tribe loved the comforting presence of the giant pillars of earth, and could also bond with golems. The comfort of the golems was normally understandable. The bonds between golems and Amberpatch were often so strong, that they would defend each other with their lives (or for golems, spirits), thus it was obviously comforting to have a friendly, extremely powerful, ever-shifting, mound of minerals and stone, from ages gone by in the bowels of the earth. There were, however, exceptions, occuring before the bonding of golem and kornad. One such exception fled from the Amberpatch village, into the woods. The elders of the village (as well as the inhabitants formed a democratic/oligarchy hybrid government) turned from hope that the golem went to a watchportal (a rift usually leading to the Deren mountains) or ran across a boundary bordering a neighboring village’s territory, to fear of the golem that replaced the peace. Ott and the other master scouts had been sent to monitor the golem. In his nook in the evergreen, Ott now wished he had his golem. Understand that golems are not comforting for no reason. All respectable full members of the tribe had golems, and they are extremely strong, capable of deadlifting over 300 times the weight of the evergreen that Ott was now sitting in. They are only truly destroyed if their heart of thren is removed, this being the reason that they consume so much. The bigger the heart, the stronger the golem (an interesting tidbit could, and will, be inserted here: if a golem reaches a certain age, possesses certain traits, and has a big enough heart, it can ‘ascend.’ This turns the golem a bright amber color, with a tinge of color based on the traits that it ascended with. Only two cases have ever occured where a golem has ascended). Also, their heart can only be accessible if the golem’s body is utterly destroyed, and its traits are somehow reversed. Anyhow, Ott was wishing for an incredibly fast mount and companion, and this was ideal for his golem. Called Goran, Ott’s golem preferred (remember, they are shape golems, they can be whatever shape they are inclined to be, but everybody has their favorites, and golems are no different) to be a huge bird, incredibly quick with the ability to send an electric pulse (Goran was made of a special electrical ore found deep underground) into things he pierced with his talons or formidable beak. He was always shining with a comforting glow, which was, though Ott was denying it, very vital. He was not afraid of the dark. 

This, however… this is nothing natural, he thought somewhat wryly, on an occasion when he almost succumbed to this dark, halfway through the night. He was far too close to the evil, hope-sucking glade. Touching his amber necklace, a gift from his family, he drew hope from it, even as it grew warm and started to glow. His thoughts unclouding, he shook the last strands of drowsiness. He began moving away from the glade, back toward his village. The darkness drew back, surprised that its prey had not succumbed, and realizing that it never would. Then that malicious presence fled back to the evil places of the world, having come to the conclusion that it had no power over Ott. Ott realized, as the presence was lifted, that he had won a small victory. He also realized, somewhat discouragingly, that he had still not attained complete safety. Complete safety would only be attained when he made it back to his village. Poor golem, he thought, remembering the chase that led him into the glade. What a great honor it had attained, but so lost. He remembered its coloring. It let me go. I know it’s an ascendant, it let me go.

Chapter 2

Thinking about the rank of the golem, he suddenly felt saddened. Based on studies of golems, he agreed with most of the Amberpatch scientists that an ascendant golem with no kornad bonded to it was incredibly sorrowful, and as shown by its behavior, would flee, becoming aggressive toward all creatures. It only wanted kindness, but when finding none or little, it became enraged. Ott, once or twice in the night, thought he faintly saw a golden glow, and a glint of aqua blue eyes. He had already thought about bonding with it, however, it was very rare that anyone could have 2 bonds. They were called the golem-loved, and by the nobles of the kornads, were thought of as greedy. Nobody really thought of the nobles well, as eventually most of their golems turned orange with an access of exposure to its master’s powerful greed. However, the nobles somehow managed to retain power, and often doubled as famous merchants. This was most likely why they were tolerated, thought Ott, as the sun began to glimmer through the dew laden forest. His kornad eyes noticed the beauty of the sight, and he made a decision. He drew out a large portion of thren from a nearby crystal using a pick that all scouts needed in order to provide for their, in this case nonpresent, golems. He delicately broke the slightly cylindrical golden substance in two, then cut (yes, cut, with a knife he had on him for precaution, thren is of the consistency of gold, and can be cut) it into smaller pieces, spending hours carving them into snowflakes, and leaves and drops of water as well as other nature related objects he could recall from memory. This was for two reasons. One, golems perceive time and effort, as well as emotion, as caring and happiness. Two, golems always want a specific shape. This is a way they learn, and there will always be at least one emotion (or element, the two are interchangeable when it comes to the heart of golems) that the golems will have at any one point, and they enjoy canceling it out, as it gives them peace. Ott carved an access of snowflakes and mini fires. He did this for a reason, too. He felt that anger and sadness could be combated with ice and fire. He faced toward the last position he had seen the ascendant golem, and layed out the pieces, making sure to put the fires in the back. He didn’t need an ascendant following him that was angry. After laying them out, he continued his journey picking up a few more bars of thren (thren, unlike gold, is very light. Also, if you were thinking he was foolish to add weight to his pack, then hush yourself. Remember, Ott is a professional. If you ever doubt him, try not to, as there is an equal chance for you to be wrong as to be right).

Over Ott’s next few nights, he felt the golem following him even more closely. He kept feeding it and he began to feel its anger lessening. As he neared the mountains (Ott was too far away from his village in order to go back the way he came, and therefore, went to the mountains in hopes of finding a watchportal), he felt the air becoming frigid, and a layer of frost began to coat the rocks and the wind started to pick up. He now had a requirement for fire.

On one of his firewood-gathering expeditions, he saw something gold glint in the trees. He went stiff, not sure whether to expect caring or another chase. The ascendant golem walked close to him. Unsure whether to run, he put an extra bar of thren in front of the tiger-like golem, the golem merely nudged it back to him with it’s tiger-like head. Returning to his senses, and realizing it did not mean harm, he drew a few large snowflake shaped pieces of thren. He had spent an entire day on it, ending up leaving behind only two. It nudged his hand and his hand tingled with heat, and an electrical feeling filled them. He fed the thren carefully to the huge tiger of earth and a sound not too different from purring rumbled from its throat. He wondered if his doubts about forming a bond with two golems were well-founded. From that point forward, the golden golem came closer and closer to his campsite, and by the time he reached the base of the huge mountain, covered in dark green forest that faded to a pearly white snow, with blotches of orange and brown from the softly curving rock formations lining the peaks, the golem was staying in his campsite. He fed it thren, and whenever he fell asleep he could feel the now calming warmth of the ascendant golem, and a soft buzzing filled the air (akin to bees, but not quite as violent). This humming and waves of heat coming from the pines and sturdy aspen (though not of the species of earth, mind. Remember – different planet, different plants, you get the idea) around his fire and shelter. Also, Ott excelled at shelter building in the wild, only using natural resources. Here is a description of a more long term one. He took a piece of a crystal (not thren, and yes, the crystal was on the ground, and the base is only shale, a fairly brittle rock, and easily broken) and flintknapped (to put it primitively, banged rocks together to make sharp rocks) a long slice out of the sturdy crystal (called yunzite) and cut (with his knife, the knife is very well made) wedges out of the slice, and attached it to a stick, making a saw. Then he cut down the aspen (different genus!) nearby to make the base of his structure. Then he laid more logs on the base (he pounded the base in upright) to make an elevated structure to which he added fern walls and a roof. He headed along the base of the mountain range until he figured he was in the middle. He then made a more elaborate structure, a small log cabin, using tools he made out of kunzite. He was, however, worried. Extremely dangerous things that had no name, or were too dangerous for their name to be used casually. Things that could easily tear through 12 feet of metal, much less 10 inches (or 30.48 centimeters, or 18 olges, which is the form of measurement in Ott’s world) of wood. At least, he thought, I have a golem around my campsite, and an ascendant golem, no less

On the 7th night into his wait for a watchportal, he heard an unearthly gurgling outside his cabin. A rumble shook the structure. Ott went outside through the back door, and as he prepared to peer around the side, another gurgle came from whatever was outside and a snort, a short ragged one. When his eyes almost peeked around the wall, he heard another snort and was pinned to the ground. A nameless fear overtook him as a giant shape slithered out and distinct fangs began to draw closer to him. He surely would have been finished if not for one factor. A golden glow began to shine, quickly coming closer, and the dark shape turned and lunged at the light. The light grew almost blinding and Ott could make out the shape of a golden tiger, or something that looked like one at least, slashing at the dark shape. An unearthly howl arose from where those awful fangs were and the shape went limp as it was blasted across the campsite. Ott, reeling from the light, approached the dead creature. He had a vague memory of seeing one before. It had killed the golem it was attacking. It was one of the few things that could truly kill a golem. This golem defeated something that nothing is meant to defeat.

In the next few days, he allowed himself to be outside at night, recognizing the danger was removed. This allowed him to gradually improve his shelter, until the point where it felt like a cabin in the woods. He made a small shelter near the edge of his camp, which was now well defined, and used it as a place to make and store food for the golem that was always nearby. It occurred to him on the 12th night that the golem was developing a bond with him. He did not feel bad about it. His other golem, Goran, back in the Amberpatch village, was of an accepting type, and as he began to discover traits of the ascendant, he learned that they were similar in more ways than he first thought. Goran and the ascendant would be close friends, that much was apparent. In the evening of that day, he heard the humming associated with watchportals. The ascendant golem’s golden ears (or what looked like ears) perked up and he bounded forward, curious. Ott followed him. When Ott caught up, they began a small hike to the source of the humming. As they passed through the trees, Ott thought it would be alright to tell the golem about Goran. As they came closer to the humming, Ott realized something. 

“I just now realized something,” he said curiously. “I’ve never asked what your name was.” 

Gradually, the golem responded, “Roont.” 

The golem said this cautiously, as if these were his first words. 

“Roont,” Ott responded, trying to hide his moderate astonishment. He was not too surprised, as he already suspected strongly that he had bonded to Roont. However, only golems with bonds can speak, and only with the kornad they had bonded to. This was his final proof that Roont had bonded to him. Coming upon the watchportal, he noticed something strange about it. The land beyond it looked unfamiliar. Putting this off as simply distortion, he walked through, Roont trailing behind him.

To Be Continued…

Some Dumb Stuff I Made Up

Once there was a 21-year-old dude named Jamie and he really wanted to go to the movies with his friends, but his dog AJ ripped up all of his money. This wasn’t something AJ usually did, but it was bad timing because that morning, Jamie and his friends were going to go to the movies. 

So he had to go ask some random dudes on the street for some cash. 

“Could you spare a dollar?” he asked every person who walked by. 

They all gave him a dollar each so he had 15 dollars and the ticket cost 17 dollars.

Just then, it started thundering outside. Jamie tried to come up with a strategy to come up with those extra two dollars. His favorite video game was GTA 5, which gave him an idea. He had to rob a bank, and steal two dollars. 

So he went home and got his airsoft gun and he went to Wells Fargo. He was really nervous because he was afraid to get caught, but the bank was practically empty when he got there so there wasn’t a lot to worry about. He robbed the two dollars from the bank. He ran home because they were going to see the movie at 6:30 and it was only 2:30 so he needed to kill some time before the movie. 

He fed AJ and gave him some water when he got home. He forgave him because he knew the dog didn’t know any better. 

Then he met his friends Johnny, Billy, and Timmy at the movie theater in Manhattan. And then he realized that before he robbed the bank, he texted his friends and already told them that he didn’t have enough money, so Johnny said that he would pay for his ticket, and that was when he knew, he got a free ticket. “Thanks, my boy,” Jamie said.

“No problem, my g.” 

The banker was so shocked that Jamie robbed the bank for only two dollars that he didn’t even do anything about it. Jamie learned to be patient and not be in a rush all the time.

Ally and the Broken Wing

Ally is a bird. Ally wants to fly, but her wing is broken.

For almost all her life, Ally has tried to fly but fell each time she tried. One day, she felt like she would never be able to fly again. On that day, she decided never to practice flying ever again. A week later, Ally saw a boy whose legs were paralyzed, trying to walk across the Beluga Bridge, which is as long as a real beluga!

That’s impossible! Ally thought. He can’t do that. His legs are paralyzed!

Ally was curious about what was going to happen next, so she continued to watch. The boy started walking, but fell on his third step. He hurt his face and was about to cry. But something changed. He looked different. He looked determined. He continued walking across the bridge. Even though he fell and was as slow as a turtle, he still kept walking.

Why does he continue to walk? Ally thought.

Once he got to the end of the bridge, a crowd of people hugged him and told him, “Great job.”

When they were praising him, a woman said, “Why did you do this? We thought you couldn’t!”

The boy replied, “At first, I thought the same thing. I fell every time I tried to walk, and it felt like I couldn’t do it. But then I noticed a quote in my hospital room. It said: never give up. I read the quote and decided not to give up on walking. Then, I read in a magazine about the Beluga Bridge, and decided to walk across the bridge. The first time I fell, I felt like crying and giving up. But then I remembered the quote. That quote was the reason I got through and was able to cross the bridge.”

Never give up, Ally thought. That day, Ally walked away with that quote in her mind. The next day, she decided to practice flying again. She practiced and practiced until her red wings became so wet. While she was practicing, a veterinarian saw Ally. The vet thought, That bird has a broken wing! I should fix it! And so the vet did! Ally was so happy that she cried tears of happiness!

“Thank you so much!” Ally said with her fixed-wing. And for the first time, Ally flew faster and higher than the other birds.

Leslie for President

I was made for this moment. Two days ago, I never would have thought that I would have the guts to do this. Just the thought of all my classmates staring at me sent shivers down my spine. The announcer called out, “Leslie Gellerstien, please come up to the podium.” I stood up, clutching my paper, and marched up to the front of the room. I can do this, I thought. 

Walking up to the stage, I saw Emma out of the corner of my eye. She waved and gave me an encouraging smile. Actually, she was the reason I was here in the first place. I made a tiny wave back.

Running for student president was a big move for me. I was known as the quiet girl who got good grades on tests, but not in participation. My competitors’ faces faded away and I floated up the steps to the stage. I could do this!

What happened next was extremely random and weird. First, the ground started shaking. Then, everybody started freaking out because it was actually a very big tremor. Outside, we also heard people panicking and cars beeping their horns. Suddenly, part of the roof fell down into the top balconies and a creature with a lion head and the body of a bird came crashing through the ceiling. It was very bizarre, and for a moment everybody was frozen in shock. Then the thing roared and everybody started jumping out of their seats and pushing each other to head towards the exit. 

I, however, stayed in one place and stared at the creature as if he were a misbehaved kitty wrecking a glass vase. Eventually, he met my eyes with his own. They were gold and red with little orange specks all over them. I made my gaze fiercer and fiercer. On the other hand, his gaze seemed to be getting weaker and weaker. I kept wearing him down like that until he slowly started to back away. With my eyes, I tried to communicate to him to go or else. I didn’t know what would happen if he didn’t go, but I was assuming it wouldn’t be good for me so I kept staring him down. Suddenly, he opened his yellow wings and flew away into the sky. From then on, I wasn’t known as the quiet girl anymore. I was the girl who saved everybody’s lives.

PENGUIN

I woke up to find Otis staring at me.  “Are you ready for your ‘check in’ today?” Otis’ simplistically announced reminder rendered me a little startled, for I had forgotten the events of the day. “Perhaps you will be granted your surgery today,” he pointed out. “Then you’ll be better once again.” 

I was supposed to go to the hospital to have a, what they labeled for the more timid kids, “check in.” On these monthly dates, my school schedule remained unchanged, per usual. The minor difference of where I would go after school was the only change that took place.

“It’s hardly frightening,” I said.

“Shall I go down for breakfast, or are we not hungry this morning?” Otis asked.

“I don’t think I wish to eat this morning, but of course you have the bowl,” I said while pointing towards the golden bowl, which was originally room decor but was now filled with chocolate Easter bunnies that Otis had brought with him and eaten when he did not share a meal with me. He now rummaged through the bowl, looking for the one that first drew his attention. I finished dressing for school while he did this, putting on a pair of light wash jeans. I added a belt I received from my mother yesterday, which was new and just unwrapped from its packaging. Once I slid the belt through the last loop, put on my usual black high top sneakers with penguin socks, brushed my hair, and grabbed my also penguin-themed backpack and lunchbox, I helped Otis get ready for school. I grabbed his black backpack and metallic lunchbox. Today I packed him a chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookie so he wouldn’t squirm under the irresistible want of cookies when they were just laying on the kitchen counter. I could hear them rattling in their foil wrappers, stuck inside the metallic prison. While they rattled, I let the box fall into his backpack, empty except for a chocolate bunny he had grabbed just now, his mustard yellow backup beanie and a folded piece of paper that appeared to be garbage, although this one was folded into a perfect square.

Otis and I left the large brick house and admired the reflective dew placed on the petal of each flower in our front yard. Our gravel path from the house to the sidewalk was wet, and disagreeable weeds were bursting through exposed patches. Gravel was dispersed across our grassy yard, usually of a vibrant green color in the sunlight. Otis didn’t arrive with shoes, and standard pairs don’t come in ovalular shapes. Therefore, Otis now suffered the painful task of trudging barefoot down the path in question. My father was in the car already, prepared for his daily task of driving Otis and me to school. We approached the silver Toyota and could already hear the music my father practically professed love to. While he played his favorite songs, I announced that Otis and I were, as my father liked to say, “buckled up and ready to go,” and we drove off to school.

School days tended to be normal, though the first school day I shared with Otis was of an opposite atmosphere. My teachers and peers had been notified of my penguin friend, or what they referred to as my “situation.” That day I was stared at by all. Even by the group of seven year olds that claimed they didn’t care about any matter except for those relating to them personally. My teacher’s attitudes shifted drastically and were overbearing and tentative, the qualities a worrying mother holds. I sat in the back of the class due to the shyness that emerged whenever I had to sit in the front row of a classroom. The teacher that morning had created a scene while dragging a heavy desk and letting it rest beside mine. This seat had been established as Otis’ seat. Periods of learning were seemingly normal, but the interactions between the beginnings of classes were displeasing. During recess I received countless invitations to partake in lunch and activities with kids who had the word pity clearly written on their eyes and face. I refused the forced offers with a stern, “No thank you.”

 I sat with Otis at a green table adjacent to the sandbox, which I soon hoped to introduce to the penguin. Once I flaunted the magical sandbox to Otis, we quietly gazed at the individual grains of sand, and watched them fall from shovel to bucket. The 40 minutes of time permitted for recess ceased eventually and academics resumed. My father and mother accompanied Otis and me on the car ride home that day. During the meager five minutes we spent waiting for them, he and I sat on an artificial patch of overly green grass, under a weak and small tree, and we stayed silent, but in an enjoyable way.

Today my father insisted on playing his music throughout the ten minute journey to school. The roads had small chunks of ice placed on curves and street corners, and most of them were half dirt and sewer water. The view was unpleasant, but the car was warm, filled with music, and smelled of cinnamon and hot chocolate. Otis and I sat in the back of the car on the grey cushion that was home to stains of brown, green, and purple. Now I felt free to talk to either Otis or my father whenever the opportunity pleased me, however I was rarely in a talkative frenzy. On the ride to school today nothing varied in my usual manner, so I thought about the “check in” and possible surgery. I could picture my calendar, existent for only a month, with very few dates marked and holidays yet to be acknowledged. I knew, though, that I had marked this date as the day of surgery, and I trusted the permanence of the black sharpie I used would rub off on my chances of surgery today. My head then manifested certain ideas, such as images of sharp metal tools poking at my brain, like how a curious child would use a stick to poke a dead squirrel. While thoughts of such things were present in my mind, the car had pulled up next to the new strip of sidewalk separating school and vehicles. I felt no rush as I slung my bag onto my back and helped Otis do the same. “Thanks dad,” I blurted out after I had already swung the heavy car door open and, with Otis, stepped onto the ice cold pavement. 

We walked confidently, or maybe it should be described as a walk that didn’t show any signs of fear, for confidently was far too strong and adjective to apply with such ease. I watched the parking lot of the Jones School, which we had now managed to reach, stab Otis’ unarmored feet. I also perceived that his face was still pleased and his current disposition unchanged. I then brought my gaze to the American flag on our school’s rusting pole, thrusted around by a strong and sudden wind. There was no urgent need to describe the school day today, for as I mentioned previously, even on a day involving hospital matters, school remained quite bland and redundant. Even the presentation I looked forward to had been postponed 24 hours. Until Wednesday I would have to wait to give the gift of my eloquent speech, and surely my audience would have to wait for me. For every normally scheduled class, Otis and I took our seats, as each student must do. During recess, Otis and I enjoyed the presence of each other in the sandbox. Previously, Otis had thanked me for the cookies that had been rattling in his lunch box all day, and he finished them both shortly and without creating any crumbs. We had lessons about our universe and solar system during the period assigned to science. I knew that I would never wish to traverse the vast Milky Way but instead wished the teacher knew that not all students have a vocation to be an astronomer or astronaut. Most periods consisted of this same pattern: a lesson taught and aspects of said lesson thought of as useless or uninformed. My criticisms may seem harsh, and they truly are compared to the fact I originally endured each lesson with a fake smile plastered on my face. But to argue in favor of myself, humans evolve, and therefore I have acted knowing that it was a mere repercussion of that piece of information. 

After I saw the silver Toyota emerge from the street corner, I felt apprehensive. Otis placed his wing on my clammy and sweating disaster of a hand while I gazed at the vehicle that could possibly be driving me to my death. If I failed to mention before, the surgery had a high fatality rate and therefore a low percentage of survival. During the time they announced all statistics to my already rotting brain, I hadn’t had the option to save them for later use. While I fretted, a playful pair of siblings were horsing around on their way to their car, their mother joking with her two strong and healthy offsprings. Superstition has no home in my heart, but maybe this meant I was to leave the hospital, surgery accomplished, ready to horse around with Otis (I had no siblings to do so). I was sure that I was just irrational, for I had never seemed so close to insanity than I was then. The Toyota slowly glided into the spot right in front of me, and stopped driving. Otis glanced at my entire body and turned his head down to look straight at my face. I took a step closer to his body, emitting warmth and kindness from its large figure. I wrapped my arms around him as far as they could reach, my fingers never meeting each other, and Otis and I molded into one. I leaned on the supporting figure while he employed his strength to push me towards the open car door. I slid into the backseat with cold feet, in the figurative way while it was also true in literal terms. I let Otis plop, which was the best word to describe the bounce he applied to each move, into the seat beside me. “Hi,” I said, addressing my parents and their phony, drawn on, smiles.

Pediatric wing hospital rooms don’t change. Yes, the peculiarly placed cartoons differ in rooms, but the idea of a stereotypical pink image plastered on one wall and some form of action movie hero or machine on the opposite wall remained the same throughout. It would be strange for any child to announce that they have a fondness for room 310 yet not room 306, due to the fact that each room was an unexciting replica of the other. I sat now in room 316, staring at a much too large image of Batman in the middle of realizing this action was wasteful and frankly dissatisfying. I turned away from the agitating sight, knowing very well I didn’t want to turn the other way just to see another particularly galling image displayed of a perky cartoon princess, who apparently had a dress code that stated they must wear a pink gown on all occasions. You could already see a dilemma had arisen and was now inducing inactivity, therefore I let every part of my anatomy fall into the slightly comfortable hospital bed. I had become accustomed to the features present in each hospital room, so I rolled over, after only being bored for a modest time of five seconds, and seized a long black remote control. I then turned to Otis, sitting in the region of chairs designated for family members of the sick patient, and asked him, “SpongeBob?”

“Whatever you feel suits this situation,” replied a happy, and faintly smiling, Otis. I communicated my wants to the television, hung up next to cobwebs on the corner of the right wall, and it flickered from black to an underwater reality where sponges may speak if they wish. 

I watched SpongeBob for the timelapse of an hour, not including the intrusions and disturbances, which caused me to pause on several occasions. These occurrences were commonly periods of five or 45 delaying minutes, and consisted of obtrusions by my parents or doctors coming in or my departures for various medical tests. Otis, however, always remained seated in the room while I was about and speaking to the adults that currently dictated my life. I attended to his needs while doctors tended to mine. Dr. Roberts would come in and demand my presence, and for me to cease my current activity. I was prepared to do so, but then I would hear Otis utter words such as, “If you leave the show playing while you leave, I will be much obliged.” I would then repeat his words to Dr. Roberts, and he would either agree to the simple request, or on other occasions he might claim he didn’t wish for any energy to be wasted by the continually running television. These moments of argument, obtrusions, and departures plainly summed up every aspect of a “check in.” The only part to ever be frightened of was if your doctor affirmed that the tests showed no progression, meaning that your sickness had worsened. In my experience that day and in the past “check ins,”  the situation in question had never been mine. 

It had been a three hour “check in” that day, most likely due to the fact that I might be rushed into surgery the second I was noticed again, and therefore the tests done on me needed to be extensive and certain about my capability to have the surgery. The night sky was darkening rapidly, and the sun was falling like a large and fiery stress ball from its high point in the sky. The hospital room was almost completely engulfed by darkness, and I was only partially sure that the surgeons had enough light to operate during this dark hour. The sound effects of SpongeBob were likely quite audible to the patients of the rooms near mine, yet I refused to turn down the volume of my distraction. I had pestered my mother about five minutes earlier to fetch some chocolate items and drinks from the vending machine down the eerie looking hall. She would squarely refuse each time I begged.

“Please mom, I’m sure it won’t harshly influence my health!” I had pleaded. My father, a less overbearing parental figure, announced that he would bring me a singular chocolate bar for me to feast on. I didn’t bother to request one for Otis because I knew he always had  a chocolate bunny, or even one in bar form, at hand. My mother accompanied my father on the short journey even though it required only one being, but still I had been left in the dark room with Otis. The flickering TV was the only light shining on our complexions, for none of us took the liberty to turn on one of the lamps on the Ikea nightstand. I had not seen Otis rest yet, but he stood beside me for quite some time, proving his steadfast loyalty. He still stood, unwavering. 

My father and mother returned with a pea sized chocolate almond, a large disappointment compared to my hopes of a king-sized Hershey bar. I scowled at their failure to meet my needs until I noticed three other people making an entrance. One was Dr. Roberts, and it wasn’t a very shocking sight for he came and went as he pleased, but he was accompanied by two other young and quite timid looking doctors. I could now understand that my parents had been bombarded on their way to the vending machine by these doctors, and I could see that they knew further into my future than I did. They had a faltering smile on their tired out faces, and I recoiled from the disgust of the fake happiness they put on display just for my benefit. Otis had backed away into a chair without me noticing his movement, and he sat there now, staring at the scene that unfolded in front of him. 

“Am I having the surgery today?” I asked while quivering, just so I could get the thought out of my head and into the room. I was somewhat annoyed that these grown adults chose not to disclose this information yet, allowing it to be much more awkward for the child in the room.

“You are, Bella, but don’t freak out kiddo,” Dr. Roberts said while attempting to be humorous. He clearly did not know my prior hatred of the degrading word “kiddo,” but I let him continue. 

“We don’t think you’re going to die Bella, I mean we can’t promise life of course,” he continued while I thought, So he’s basically assuring my death. I suppose I was just indignant that he mentioned that he couldn’t promise life to an eight year old girl. Of course she was going to interpret that she was going to die. I hardly listened to what he half told me and half told my parents about the way the surgery would work, and the confusing and unpronounceable medical terms. I now stared back at Otis, noting earlier that he had still been staring at me. He got up, unnoticed by the adults of course, and handed me a chocolate bunny, similar to the time I had first been in his presence. I was in no mood to eat, so I rested the bunny on my nightstand, ready to eat and enjoy it with Otis, post-surgery. For now I let the muffled noises of speaking be mere background noises, and I stared at the TV that was still, now quietly, playing season one episode three of SpongeBob.

Shortly after the time spent talking over the surgery, I was to prepare for the event itself. If I am to speak candidly, I had still not quite accepted the fact that I would soon be the dead squirrel poked by a stick, but I supposed at least the poker knew what they were doing. The two young doctors did not seem like highly competent surgeons. They were both much too clumsy, and shuffled reluctantly to my side. They began a painful and maddening process so I could go into surgery shortly. I felt like the turkey on Thanksgiving day, being prepped and touched by others. I was handled and medicated, and grabbed and poked, and I was stared at by my blood relations, and by my penguin friend. A rather embarrassing thing for them to do in this scenario. My mother and father stared and yelled lines of what they thought of as encouragement. If you compared them and Otis, Otis would seem quiet and bad tempered. However he was quite the opposite. My parents constantly repeated things such as, “It’s ok honey!” and, “You got this, it will be alright,” but Otis knew to sympathize, not encourage, and to do so whenever I flinched or quivered. He would then say cooly, “I understand it’s frightening.” I wished for him to embrace me once again, but he hadn’t the chance for I was now being lifted, similar to the first scene in the Lion King movie, by the three doctors in the room. I strained my neck to glance back at the TV which no one had turned off. I didn’t wish to lose my spot in the show. While I did so, Dr. Roberts practically let me fall onto a new and uncomfortably hard cot. My parents dared not to hold back their tears, and they looked as if they were already mourning my death. Otis stood unharmed by any trauma, and he just stared with sympathy as they rolled me away from him. 

“Bye,” I whispered to Otis, hoping to make it out of the surgery to see him once again. I then turned to the humans who created me. Our loving family, I could tell, would likely not be complete without me to look after. “I love you both very much,” I cooed, calming my parents down instead of the opposite. I had now officially been rolled out of my hospital room, and I felt dizzy while I stared down at the moving nauseating green tiles of a long hall. I tried to look back, to see Otis, to hear the ending credits of SpongeBob, to see how dark the room had gotten, to eat the chocolate almond, to hug a penguin. I was slipping away from the friend that cared about me the most, and I nearly screamed. The doctors pacing in front of me burst open a set of double doors, the same dramatic way they did it in TV shows. My parents were pushed back, not allowed to go any further into the sterilized room where my mind would be opened up to the world. I hoped my thoughts of contempt against the doctors stealing me from Otis would not escape in my weak moment and reach their ears. I eagerly wished to see if Otis was there, right next to my parents, wishing me luck. I was quite indignant at that moment and wanted to yell at the doctors, but instead I was instructed to count back from ten, “nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three…” I trailed off. That is all I remember.

I was extremely warm. My mind immediately asked the question if I was being eaten up by a raging fire or being burned by a dying out candle. To find the answer I had to see what was happening to my body. That’s why I opened my eyes. Contrary to my predictions, I was under three layers of heavy blankets, and I felt like the bottom layer of a piece of lasagna. I wasn’t sure what to do with my limbs, and I felt uncoordinated as I tried to move and failed in the process. My legs had been immobilized from the pressure of these blankets, and my tongue had never been so dry, and my eyes never so heavy. I tried to open my eyes, to rest them on the world, without using my fingers to prevent my eyelids from falling and hiding my sight. I gazed around as long as my exhaustion would permit. I let myself feel numb and morose for yet another moment, until my slow-moving mind undertook the reality of the situation. I was briefly paralized by the shock surging through my now profusely sweating body. I was alive, and from what I could tell, I was also healthy. I had the inclination to burst from my restraining sheets, but It was doubtless that there was certain medical equipment attached to my body. I imagined I had survived my brain being removed and then placed again in my head. To be frank, I knew that was most likely not the case. However, I could still claim I had survived a surgery, counting on the fact I wasn’t dreaming of life in this current moment. My face now swelled with pride. I was beaming, a fact I knew without needing a mirror. I soon thought of not myself but my loved ones. I could let myself relax now that I could keep the promise I made of eating that final chocolate bunny with Otis. I gave myself the courage to finally cease the resting of my limbs and to move around. I suppose I had been quiet while I pondered my mortality, for I now noticed my mother and father sitting in a chair, simply staring at their brown shoes. The awkward moment refused to pass, therefore leaving me to start a conversation. “Hi,” I croaked with my raspy voice. 

As basic and cheesy as it sounds, my parents looked as if they had seen a ghost in their presence instead of their once sickly child. My mother had a thing for the dramatics, and her reaction proved this statement far better than I could. She choked on tears as they rapidly streamed down her face, and she contorted her face during this period of carrying out and what I thought of as a celebration. My father simply swallowed, in a very exaggerated way, and tapped his foot repeatedly on the tiles beneath him. Shortly after I spoke, my parents both tightened their arms around my fragile and weak waist. I flinched for a moment before I enjoyed their loving embrace of affection. I too hugged them with the best of my ability, for my hands were too small and their bodies too large. We sat for moments of tranquility, until my mother felt the need to explain the fact that I was still alive. 


“The surgery went great!” she boasted, “You’ve gone from a pale ghoul to my lovely daughter.” Yes, that was a truly kind sentiment for my mother to speak, however no tears rose to my tired eyes just yet. After the strong feelings of reunitement subsided, I longed to meet Otis once again. I hadn’t been able to scan the room for the presence of the perpetually quiet penguin. I did so now, and returned with frustrating results. Otis did not appear to be in the white hospital room currently, an odd occurrence for the clingy penguin. 

“Do you happen to know Otis’ location?” I asked my euphoric mother. She bit her lip as if it wasn’t obvious for me to take that as a sign of worry. “Mom,” I said flatly and quite frustratingly. I thrashed around my bedding for some time until I was able to free my puny arms. I panted like a dog in hot weather after my draining struggle. Next I looked on the fragile nightstand for the Easter bunny chocolate I had left behind, part of my promise to Otis. I threw my head from side to side,with my eyes now wide open but still glazed over. I looked at each parent as they avoided my gaze. “Is this the same room I had before?” I quickly spat. They took quite a while to submit a valid response, but my mother answered with the short word, “Yes.”  

“Did they throw away the chocolate by chance?” I asked with the hope I could still indulge in eating. My father chose to chime in this time, with another one syllable, depleting word.

“No,” He murmured. 

I meditated for minutes trying to figure out how the chocolate did not sit before me and where Otis might be. During this exasperating period, Dr. Roberts chose to make his entrance. Poorly timed, but crucial. He entered with a lively attitude and did a strange and horribly executed dance on his way towards my bed. 

“There’s my number one patient!” he squealed like a schoolgirl. “How are you feeling today Bella? I’m sure your parents announced that we removed all tumors and you should be strong and healthy in no time.”

“I’m feeling fine Dr. Roberts,” I replied, contradicting his happy demeanour with my sullen one. “Yes, I have been notified about my current state of being.”

He then proceeded to flip through what I have identified as my chart, ask a few more questions, and speak to my emotional parents. They, like most times, left the room during this conversation. They all soon re-entered, coming back to my side clearly not as high-spirited as they were a mere one minute ago. 

“What?” I said in an angry tone, but with a slight quiver in my voice. 

“We were just wondering if Otis has interacted with you this morning,” Dr. Roberts said, addressing me, yet looking at my parents. He most likely intended the question to be smooth and calm. This dear doctor failed in that case. He scratched his head and couldn’t keep his sight in one direction for more than a moment. 

“I haven’t seen him yet,” I answered quite indignantly towards my nervous doctor. Dr. Roberts apparently felt no need to respond to my snappy remark, and he tripped towards the wide-open door. My parents took whatever signal he had made, and sat next to me. I wished they hadn’t. For the bed was too small for a group of three. 

“Bella, we’re really sorry…” my mother began but could not complete. She had unplugged whatever was keeping the dam together, and the tears appeared once again. 

“Honey,” my dad cooed, taking over for my saddening mother. I felt the redness in my cheeks, and from my current state of feeling I could tell they were the same shade as a ripe tomato. My nose soon became a peach-like color, and rain from my fading blue eyes watered the peach and tomatoes. “We don’t think Otis is here, anymore.” my dad finally finished. I watched as my statuesque father let rain onto his face as well. It was surely a rainy day for the Court family. I was no idiot, and I could easily put two and two together. I would not protest Otis’ disappearance. I would not argue with my father and mother, for I had no case. Calm, collected, accepting. These words did not describe my presence. The drizzling rain turned into a flood, and the dam was crushed into pieces. I forced my hand to reach the nightstand. My uncut nails yelled while they were pushed into the chipping paint, and they tried to grasp the form of an abandoned bunny. My beady eyes saw no presence of a black backpack and metallic lunchbox, no beanie left in the hallway, and no penguin asking for SpongeBob. My parents backed away, and now they really saw a ghost in me. I screamed for my neighbors to hear, for them to feel my pain. I thrashed around, pulling my hair, until the loudspeaker announced my room number. Blackness. 

I was Bella Court. Today I turned nine, and my mother bought me red wallpaper.

The Woman in the Moon

Some dare to love the night. They wax poetic on the velvet warmth of the air wrapping around them, write odes to the nightingale and to the bright stars that twinkle and provide only a smudge of light

—a lit candle in a yawning abyss—

—a campfire that casts as many shadows as light—

—a crystal sewn into a wedding gown’s silk for color—

Light. But swallowed up by darkness.

Of course, you wouldn’t find those kinds of people around here. And of course, I am not one of those people. I wish I were back in bed right now, but instead, I am stumbling through the woods at midnight. 

I squeeze the stone The Goodmother gave me at dinner.

—well dinner is a bit of a stretch isn’t it—

—but The Goodmother knows best—

Normally, I’d take dinner with the other acolytes in the Hall’s dining room; this last week, I have been cloistered in a room of my own, carrying out traditional penance and Purgatory, preparing for tomorrow. 

I found the stone tucked underneath the pannikin of gray mush on my dinner tray. On it is a painted map of the Hall of Golden Fire and its surrounding woods. I could smell the ground charcoal, still fresh, in the ink tracing my path to the lake in a nearby forest clearing, and could easily detect The Goodmother’s strong, forceful handwriting, present in all my textbooks, in the strokes of the one character painted on the stone: you must seek

My thin cotton dress snags on a spearlike tree branch. I huff and jerk away from the offending branch, wincing as the fabric rips free: The Goodmother may be censuring this voyage, but she will not approve of sloppiness. 

Serves her right, though. Only the heroines in fairy stories ever actually trip over their dresses, get stuck on a low-hanging vine, and such. I am hardly the type of person who would make a good adventuress, and yet here I am, in the middle of the night, stumbling my way through a dense forest in hopes I’ll find the place to practice my magic. 

My toe, encased in a rather feeble cloth slipper, stubs on a thick root, and I bite my lip to swallow my yelp of pain. Most definitely not a good adventuress.

—what am I thinking I’ll be mauled to death by a bear—

It’s been a long time since I actually read a fairy tale, or any kind of storybook for that matter. What I can remember is the memory of what The Goodmother told me in my first lesson as a fresh acolyte in the Hall: people like us are not heroines. We were not born golden-haired and apple-cheeked with flowers and silver spoons in our mouths. No, The Goddess chose us to act on the sidelines as witches. 

Maybe as the evil witch who decorates apples with poison. Hopefully as a good witch, who provides an invisibility cloak with which to spy on the twelve princesses who revel ceaselessly through the night. Perhaps both. 

A pretty picture, a pretty story. I smooth a curl of black hair out of my eye. I remember sitting at the feet of The Goodmother, one fist clenched on a cloth bundle of clothes that I suppose my parents gave me before abandoning me on the Hall steps. 

The Goodmother’s eyes twinkled kindly at me as she asked, “Do you understand why you are here, dear?” I nodded, jiggling my chin as fast as I could, to show her just how much I understood. I wanted to be that romantic, shadowy figure hovering around the edges of a story, the most talented kind of weaver who could smooth out the rumples of life. If being a witch only required determination, I would have been inducted that very day.

A breath of wind curls around me, its fingers stabbing my shoulder blades and massaging them into a shiver. I again wish for my bed, and my soft blankets, far more comfortable than a mantle of night air. But I am out of time.

When I was younger, I watched The Goodmother and the other mistresses command air with a deft twitch of the fingers, fling fire onto faraway candles with a bronzed flash of their eyes, and coax water to envelop them in skirts of blue sheets by casually waving a hand. It’s been ten years, and I cannot do the same. 

Maybe this is Anli’s gentle nudge to quash my hope and find some other job outside of the Hall before I am expelled. Expulsion would make me a pariah. I can sew beautifully, and I know all the secret recipes for the vividest dyes, but expulsion would steal any future I have. 

No one would want me. 

But try as I might, I cannot summon my power. Tomorrow is the capstone of my Purgatory. My eighteenth birthday, my Ceremony. I’m not sure what it requires, but it is my final chance to prove I have some calling in magic and some—any!—ability. So here I am, practicing at midnight. 

I shove my shoulder through the final barrier of stubborn brush and burst into the clearing, Lake Anli lying ahead of me. I suppose it’s foolish to name a lake after the sun Goddess when water is the domain of her brother, Azyan. But after all the trouble I’ve taken to sneak out and practice my spells for the Ceremony, I’m counting on any luck I can find, even if it’s simply finding a lake named after the One who is supposed to fuel my magic. 

Any scrap of luck.

—this is pathetic Su-enna, you’re more rational than this—

—you could run away, already halfway—

The lake looks astonishingly peaceful; I expected more pesky possums to be frolicking around. The moon looms large and heavy in the sky.

—shards waiting to break—

—a giant pearl weighting the center of a necklace—

—a pregnant belly, cradled and treasured for the potential inside—

—a compass? a wheel of time—

—a spinning wheel creaking above and below the water—

The moonlight sings strong and bright over the entire clearing. I wade knee-deep into the water. My nightgown flows out in tendrils, like the hair of a mermaid, and sends ripples across the lake, fractures the moon’s image into vaguely circular waves and enjambed parts.

—shards—

I wade purposefully, if such a thing is possible when water pushes against me and whispers to slow down, toward the moon floating restlessly on the surface. Just a few hours siphoning its energy should be enough—morphing a toad or two into doves, healing the pinkish scar on my knee. All very easy, beginner’s magic that I probably should have performed years ago. I know the technique, at least. 

Strengthen my core. Dip my head forward in reverence. Gather power by thrusting my hand into the image of the sun . . . well, the moon will have to do. It is a disrespect to Anli, but

—one celestial object is so like another—

—no time to worry, I’ll pray forgiveness later—

Surely The Goodmother would not have aided me if she did not allow me this indiscretion. My fingers tremble, an inch away from the surface of the lake. I take the plunge before my thoughts can hunt me down.

And the yellow moon, so invariably round, disappears, dissolves through the cracks and calluses of my fingers. 

—yellow stardust—

—is this magic?—

My palm fills with golden powder. 

—did I just scoop it out of the water?—

The moon glows, alight with fire, above me. 

—a paper lantern, finally lit—

The scar on my knee seals itself. Was it ever there?

—this is magic—

The air seems to quiver around me, to glow with the light of midday. And the glow snakes in, coils around my insides.

—magic is a drink of silken water after wandering for years in the desert—

—a tree that has burst from an acorn—

—a blinding light after days of slumber—

—it is me, I am magic—

It is terrible. Who am I? 

—magic—

I gasp and cry the tears I stored inside when I 

—summoned no spark of power at any end-of-year examination—

—was shooed away from the seamstresses’ hall with flicks of their glowing fingers—

—couldn’t succeed—

Well, I am no longer a failure. The Goodmother will be proud when she sees my performance tomorrow.

—or will she?—

A crack echoes, jerking me out of my stupor. It’s the unmistakable noise of a person stepping on a twig, which means someone is here, not fifty paces away from me.

Me, as in I, I who am breaking a law and a handful of Hall rules by cavorting in the darkness—the ultimate disrespect to Anli.

The warmth that was inside me just a few blinks ago fades into a whisper, waiting but out of reach. I can’t possibly expect to escape—it’s nearly as bright as day. We have learned about the perpetually full moon, but never had the chance to see it. No moonlight filters through the gaps between the walls’ bricks. 

—no sunlight either—

—heavens above I have to hide—

I have nowhere to hide. As I turn in the water, running critical eyes over my surroundings, a figure marches out of the trees, gently coaxing a fussy horse. Its back is turned to better administer to the horse, giving me a few precious seconds to send up a prayer to Azyan and dive underwater before I’m seen.

Bubbles rush around me and fill my nose. I paddle backwards with frenzied, weak flaps of my hands toward the other side of the lake. My feet scrabble the ground for footholds, but the mud is soft and cloudy and doesn’t provide much to push off of. 

It’s a small lake, barely larger than a pond. Something thick and solid bumps against my back—I’ve reached the opposite shore. I plant a hand behind me and turn to face the earth, digging my toes into the slightly-less-soft mud here and shooting up to the surface with a bounce of my knees. Air sticks to my face, and I suck it in with eager pulls. That’s when I look across the lake and see the figure brought friends.  

The gods are well and truly laughing at me: after all my careful rule-following and toeing the line, my one night of adventure teeters on implosion. I will be expelled. I will be thrown into prison for an amazingly long time for my crimes. I will have no future. No future, and no life. What starts as a yawn, a gap in my chest, races into my throat as a sob.

—but there’s no one to cry for—

—no one to see and no one to care—

—not a person worth caring for—

I am mourning my own death, and realizing I have not had a life. 

A voice cuts across the clearing; I squint, and guess that it belongs to the first person, with the horse. “Did you all get the plan?” It’s a husky voice, with a slight magnetic pull. The timbre of charisma—I’ve heard it in The Goodmother’s voice. 

And it’s a man’s voice. It must be. At least, I think so, I wouldn’t know. If The Goodmother were here, she would sniff and say, “and a good thing, too.” No boys allowed in the Hall of Golden Fire, because none have ability anyway.

Some of the other figures must be men, too. I hear more than one deep voice in their collective response. The first figure—the leader? I wonder—steps back and brandishes a club in the air. “We ride tonight, Shadows! We fight the powers that be!” 

A raucous cheer explodes out of his followers. I compress my shoulders and flatten my palms against the bank of the lake, making myself smaller around their noise, which will surely have them caught and thrown in cells before long. The Goodmother will know, and she will come find them. 

These rebels, or whatever they are, are not my problem. They are so wrapped up in their own sacrilegious mutterings they might not notice me.

—little old me—

This same time tomorrow, I may well find myself in the same woods with nothing but the clothes on my back, never mind any kind of future. But for now, at least, I have a home to go back to. 

I hoist myself out of the water so that I’m sitting with my feet in the water and begin charting a route home in my head. The moon has almost set: when I called my power it was directly overhead, shining clearly onto the lake, but now it is sunken and pale as it sinks in the west. If I’m careful, I might be able to circle the clearing all the way to their side before going back through the woods to the Hall. 

Mindful of the moon shining on the left side of the lake, I creep into the trees on my right, holding my breath to make less noise

—any scrap of luck—

and dart from tree to tree, pressing myself into each trunk and inhaling the moss and rough bark for a full ten counts while I peer at the group, checking that it remains oblivious to my presence.

I’m only a few paces from the trail The Goodmother indicated to me when two hands clamp onto my left and right shoulder. My reflexes kick in—hand-to-hand combat was one of the few classes at the academy that I could do just fine in, without adding a magical component. From the angles of the hand on each shoulder, I figure that I have two attackers. I place my arms diagonally across my chest, pinky to shoulder and other thumb to hip, and whip them around in the way I was taught. One arm coils back to my hip, my elbow jutting behind me. The person on my right lets go of me with a quick huff of pain. I don’t have time to dwell on my victory, once  I break free of these people, I’ll have to rush back to the hall if I can hope to attend my Ceremony in time. I swing my left arm down and strike my fist against a tender pressure point on the side of my other attacker’s leg. But he or she does not let go. Instead, I’m pulled back into the clearing and forced to face a dozen moonlit, weathered faces, wearing a range of emotions, from shock to anxiety to sour hostility. 

I exhale shakily. “Let me go. We can forget this ever happened.” 

The Shadows’ leader steps forward. “You know of our existence now, maybe even our plans. You’re coming with us.”

I raise my hands and pray for strength, for a miracle, for some kind of shield. None comes. I stare at my stupid, powerless, pointless hands, clench them

—it is not too much to ask, to be loved—

and I think of the moon,

—glowing bright and soft and hot—

—hot, hot, hot, I feel it—

feel the moon. And my hands flame. The light illuminates the Shadow leader’s green eyes, etches his fearful expression with shadows. He stares. “You’re one of the witches.”

I nod impatiently and creep toward the trees. 

He bars his teeth. “Then we’ll return you to the Hall, poor lost lamb.” 

As if I would ever give help to rebels. But the sky is turning rosy, meaning I need to be back in bed right now. I send up another prayer of forgiveness to Anli,

—lots of praying tonight—

and lift myself onto a horse, imagining all of The Goodmother’s disapproving expressions. 

But when the Shadows dump me on the front steps, no surprise or disappointment flits across her face. The Goodmother is as old as she is wise, with snowy white hair hanging down her back and her fingers warped by arthritis from years at the loom. Her face is a map of wrinkles: here is a dimple, showing only in true smiles, and there is where her jaw clenches when she is angry. Lines revealed when she worries, fumes, or laughs. As I stagger up to the door, she doesn’t blink—merely says, “Ah, Su-enna. We shall ready you for the Ceremony.” 

I bathe with hot water, a luxury required to purify me to the Sun’s exacting standards. Then I dress in pure white and stick buttercups in my hair, bursts of sunlight in my dark tresses. Two sisters ride with me to the River Azure, which cleaves our country in half, and force me to the very center. 

I’m trembling now. The Ceremony is a mystery, as unknown to me as men’s voices. I do not know if I will be flayed alive or asked to display my power. I lift my chin and wait for The Goodmother to explain. I see the image of my trembling fingers in the water, and I clench them out of sight, into fists. 

“To please Anli and be accepted as a sister in the Hall of Golden Fire, you must prove your worth.” The Goodmother’s voice is high and clear and keen. “The water will wash away any sins you carry. To balance water is his sister, fire, and She will test you.” 

—wait what—

She cups her hands over her mouth and hurls a bloom of fire at me. 

—too late to close my eyes—

—death by a bear would have been mercy—

I am not burned. The fire spreads over me, sliding butter in a pan. My hair is burning away in a thousand pinpricks, the buttercups wilting. But my face feels no warmer than a blush. My fists flame. I welcome the fire, but what now?

—banish the orange beast—

—do something—

—the moon—

My closed lids flash soothing yellow. The fire dies. I feel my scalp prickle in relief.

Then I feel The Goodmother’s slap. “Foolish girl! Irreverent girl!”

—well what should I have done—

“What did I do, Goodmother?” I lower my eyes. 

“You should have waited,” she snaps, “for the fire’s color. Black for evil magic. White for Anli’s approval. But for you . . .

“neither.” 

My heart clenches. “But I am magic!”

“Such audacity!” she squawks. “Magic is divine. You may receive the gift, that is all. And your magic . . .” She straightens. “Impure. You worship the moon, not the sun. Ultimate betrayal! You are dark. You—” her withered lungs wheeze. She points across the river, away from the Hall. “are not wanted here.” 

“Where can I go, Goodmother,” I plead, “If I’m unwanted?” 

She shrugs. “Join the rebels? They’re so desperate for any leverage, they’ll harvest you and your power happily.” She climbs out of the river with a splash. 

—the slap of rejection—

I sink onto my knees and stay there. My face wavers in the water. When the tears come, it’s so easy to turn them loose, after years of suppressing emotion. They drip down my face and into River Azure’s steady current, a cycle returning to the water, where the salty drops instantly melt into a home. 

—o to be gathered up as efficiently, lovingly—

It’s so easy to stay there, swaying in the river, curled over to keep my heart inside my chest. It’s so easy to accept this fate. I’ve always felt 

—unwanted. 

Eventually, my hair dries; so does my face, sticky but warm. When my stomach rumbles, I finally climb out and walk, finding some berry bushes. 

The sun is setting when I hear the clop of hooves along the bank. I peer out from behind the bush I’d picked to sleep under and see a band of people dressed in black, led by a familiar green-eyed man. 

The Shadows. 

—I’m desperate and cold and aimless—

“Wait!” I implore with an outstretched hand, stumbling forward. “I can help you!” 

The leader halts, signaling the others to do the same with a jerk of his head. “Explain.” 

I’m in too deep now.

—jumped off this cliff a while ago—

“Whatever you’re trying to do . . . ” I pause. “My magic can help. I can summon rain, wind, fire—make plants grow, anything.” 

—nothing left to lose—

“You want to overthrow the government? I can burn it all down,” I rasp. 

The leader frowns. He turns to a fair woman just behind him and whispers hurriedly. She nods eagerly, casting hungry eyes over me. Finally: 

“We can use you. My name is Kai, and that’s Rafiya.” A nod toward the blond woman. “Welcome to the Shadows.” Rafiya helps me onto her horse, settles behind me, and whips us into a gallop. 

We ride north, hugging the river, for most of the night. I don’t know where I am going, and I don’t care. The grim black sky and stinging wind blind me

—and my judgment—

but I keep up with the group. I’m wanted here, maybe for all the wrong reasons, and it is enough. They promise me a roof and a bed, companions to chase away my loneliness, so I’ll do anything they ask. 

—morality has stolen too much of my life for me to heed it now—

When the sun rises, it does so over a ramshackle village and, not too far off, a large, tall building of white stone, boasting turrets capped with gold. Clueless about any geography outside of the Hall, I raise my eyebrows at Rafiya. 

“It’s the Governor’s palace.” She leans closer and whispers, “You’ll kill her. We have a few things to teach you first, but if you do this for us, we will officially accept you as a Shadow.” I’m dazed but weary, so I nod. 

The Shadows have been scouting the palace of the current Governor, Nette Flysalle, for weeks. Their planted agent lets me into the kitchen through the palace’s back door, along with the local baker when he makes his daily bread delivery. He whispers hurried instructions to me as he stirs onion soup—how many lefts and rights I must make to reach Nette’s receiving room, where she will be alone and ready to receive petitioners. He slips me a maid’s uniform, which I pull over yesterday’s white robes. 

I’m counting my left turns as I scurry down the plush carpeted corridors when someone pokes me in the shoulder. Whirling around, I see Rafiya in a costume similar to mine. She presses a finger to her lips and taps her dagger at her hip, mouthing just in case as she follows me. I contemplate whether the dagger is for Nette or for me as I race around the last turn and ease open the waiting red door

—why is the goodmother here?—

“Where is the Governor?” I scan the room frantically, noting possible escapes: there are no windows. There is a skylight, but the ceiling’s too high to reach. 

The Goodmother laughs. “There is no Governor. We at the Hall are blessed by Anli Herself. Heaven would not want any other ruler of this country.” She steps toward me, poised and calculating. “I’m only telling you all this because you’ll soon have no one to tell except your fellow inmates in Hell.” 

I press a shoulder against the doorframe and gesture with my hidden hand to Rafiya. I hope I correctly make the shape she taught me a few hours ago: a warning to hang back, and get help. “You’re sure I’m going to Hell?” I toss out, listening for Rafiya’s footsteps to fade away. 

“I have sensed something off about you since your childhood. As you grew, that manifested as a nocturnal sleep cycle, a fascination with the library’s moon myths. An irreverence for Anli, and for my authority. Oh yes, you tried to hide it! But I knew you failed your magic classes because you had the wrong kind of magic.” 

Maybe before I would have cared. Now her words are rote, targeting the approval-seeking person that has slipped farther and farther away from my consciousness. I walk toward her and snarl, “If I can’t kill you, maybe they will.”

With beautiful timing, Rafiya, Kai, and the other Shadows appear in the doorway, knives gleaming in different parts of their clothing. “Finish it now!” I hear someone crow.

The old woman changes tactics. “You know you want to belong. Come home. Only I understand you. These rebels only want to use you—I sent you to them so you could realize this. Kill these rebels to show your loyalty, and we can overlook your taint.” 

She has set up this whole situation—my encounter with the rebels in the woods, my flee to them after the Ceremony, my presence here to kill a nonexistent Governor. 

—the most skilled weaver—

—engineering us all into place—

I turn to the rebels. Kai says impatiently, “It’s not true. You’d rather be with us than this manipulator. We don’t believe in rejection. Now kill her.” But his eyes are wide, and Rafiya’s knuckles are white. They fear me. 

I step back, so I can see both sides at once. My heart squeezes and prompts me to imagine, just once, what life as a Hall inductee would be like. I’d finally be able to join in on games like flip the coin, where one had to do so only by controlling the air around the coin. I could live and die cushioned inside that community. 

—they would never accept me—

—even with the Goodmother’s sanction, all of them will always distrust my power—

What about life with the rebels? With one killing blow, I’d win their approval. They have already welcomed me. I could put my fighting skills to good use, help them end the Hall’s iron-fisted reign over the land. We might go hungry, but always together. I may not grow old, living in such danger, but I would live fully. A hardscrabble life softened by company. 

—if I were powerless they would eat me for breakfast—

—they don’t even know my name—

If I kill the Goodmother, I choose the Shadows. If I kill the Shadows, I choose the Goodmother. The thought spins in my head.

—simple math—

“I choose the good and righteous side. For all that I’ve railed on morality, it still lives inside of me,” I say, as much to myself as to my audience. “I’ll kill nobody.” 

—the shadows aren’t heroes, nor is the goodmother—

—my life is not black and white—

—my life is not a fairytale—

—my life is Mine.—

I stop speaking, but my thoughts are pounding-loud, reverberating in my head. 

I choose my side. I don’t care if I’m alone. My conscience can keep me company. And I choose not to be lonely, but happy.

“I choose myself.”

The skylight glass shatters, revealing the pale dawn sky. The moon and the sun twinkle in tandem, in this intermediary between night and day. The forever-full moon calls to me once more.

I let myself answer.

I dissolve out of my worldly body and reach the moon.

And that’s why the moon has phases. 

Oh, did I skip ahead again?

And that’s why people see a man in the moon. It’s actually me. The moon seems a cold place, but it’s quite warm up here. Perhaps a bit pale and empty, but it’s not so lonely. 

I am not unwanted either—rather, quite in demand. The witches distrusted my power, while the rebels lusted for it. Either way, they urged me to hoard it and hide it. But the ordinary people, the ones who seek a pinch of magic in small miracles—

I help them. My magic melts off the moon in small bits and pieces. Every time my territory melts away completely, their faith in the power of the moon—

—light in the darkness—

Restores it. Mortals are a thankful lot, even for the little help I can give them: in puzzle pieces with corners broken off, in small drops of magic swirling down different drains, in wrinkles ironed out. In broken shards reformed into souls.

And these souls may grow old and grey, but they will always understand the Moon. And me, Su-enna. I will be here for them. I will still be here for the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren, who have heard the stories. 

Now I watch. I wait. I feel. 

—I give myself away.—

Drifting Apart

The only place where I felt truly safe was at the beach. If it was raining, it didn’t matter. There’s a blizzard, you say? Then we would still go to the beach. I know it’s odd, but my grandma and I, ever since I was a child, had always gone there when we needed to talk, I mean really talk. But today was different, I knew that after I told Grandma what I had done, she wouldn’t love me the same.

“Grandma, can I ask you something?” I asked, trembling.

She looked worried, as she should have been. “A-anything, Jessica. What’s the matter?”

“Well, there isn’t any easy way to say this, but I might have done something to betray Sam’s trust.”

Samantha was my best friend, we’d known each other since nursery school and we had never gotten in a fight, ever. After my parents got divorced, I started spending a lot of my time with my grandma. She really understood me, in a way that no one else did. 

She really had to think about this. “Samantha, your friend from nursery school?”

“Yes, she asked me to keep a secret and I told the teacher. She doesn’t know, though.”

“What — what was the… nevermind. Well, you have to tell her at some point. If you tell her what you did, at least she will know. If you don’t tell her and she finds out one way or another, it won’t go down well, trust me.” 

She was suspicious, I understood why, but I wasn’t going to tell her the secret, it wasn’t any of her business.

“But I’ve known her all my life,” I said, sighing. I knew she was right, but I still didn’t want to face the truth. I held on to my hat, the wind was aggressive this afternoon. It was as if the wind were trying to tell me something. Sam was my best friend. If she found out that I had lied to her, I might not have a best friend anymore.

“It’ll be ok, I promise. If you ever want to talk about anything, I’m here, sweetheart.”

“I know.” 

That night, I couldn’t sleep, although my eyes were heavy and I was all snug in my bed. What if Sam hates me, what if she never wants to talk to me again? No. I have to tell her, just like Grandma said, she will find out one way or another. All the secret was was that she had copied off someone’s paper during our geometry quiz. That’s no big deal… right? My mind was racing, I couldn’t stop shaking. I heard my heart beating, I thought there was a chance that it would jump out of my chest. The palms of my hands were sweating, I tried to wipe the sweat off on my pants but the sweat somehow just kept crawling back to my fingertips. 

Maybe about one hour later, I somehow drifted off to sleep. 

Buzz, buzz. My alarm went off. Ugh, time for school. My eighth grade teacher, Ms. Summer, was so sweet and cared for everyone and I say this truthfully, the only reason I told Ms. Summer Sam’s secret was because I knew Sam was beyond capable of doing the test all by herself. Without cheating.

Mom dropped me off at school that morning and when I arrived, I saw her. She was looking so happy, which only made me feel worse. How could I tell her what I’ve done. It will ruin her day. 

“Heeeey, Sam,” I said awkwardly, as if I had never talked to her before in my life.

“Hi! What’s up, you seem a bit… tense.”

“Hehe, do I?” What was that, Jessica, “Do I?” Ugh.

She looked confused. “Um, yeah, you do. I know you pretty darn well, what’s up?”
“The sky?” Jessica, are you serious right now? Just come clean, you’ll feel better.

“Fine then, don’t tell me.” She huffed off in a hurry.

Well, I might have just missed my only chance to tell her what happened, no big deal… no big deal.

We got to our first period class, and of course, our assigned seats were right next to each other, great, just what I needed. 

“Good morning, class!” Ms. Summer said, almost singing the words.

“Good morning, Ms. Summer,” the class chanted back to her.

I nudged Sam. “Can we talk after class?”

She didn’t answer. Her eyes didn’t even move off of the chalkboard.

“Sam?” Ms. Summer asked as she came closer to our table. “Can I see you for a minute? Privately,” she said, looking directly at me, almost through me.

My heartbeat quickened instantaneously, I started to pant. I couldn’t see clearly, my head was pounding. What was she telling Sam? Was she going to tell her what I had done? Was she going to hate me?

Only a couple of seconds later, the door opened, and I was suddenly very confused. Sam was smiling like she had just won the lottery. What had Ms. Summer said? I wanted to ask her but that would be impolite. I looked over at Ms. Summer, and she smiled and gave me a wink. I was almost frustrated now, I didn’t know what had happened in the hallway, I probably still had to tell Sam that I told her secret. This was a complete disaster. 

After school ended, I walked over to my best friend and I gave her a look saying, “We need to talk.” She nodded her head silently, and we sat down at a bench near the school’s entrance. 

“I need to tell you something and I don’t want you to get mad, can you promise me?” I pleaded.

She giggled.  “Well, when you put it that way, I can’t promise anything!”

I sighed. “Fine. I-I-I don’t like what you’re wearing today.”

You could imagine what happened next, she was confused, I was confused, and then we both went home wondering what had just happened!

When I got home, I plopped myself on the couch, propped my elbows on the edge of my legs, and my hands covered my face. The tears burned my eyes, I couldn’t tell if it was sad or angry tears. Maybe it was a bit of both.

I was currently living with my mom in this small apartment in Ohio, so there wasn’t really any way I could hide from her.

“Honey, what’s wrong? I know a sad face when I see one.” She looked at me and gave me a sad smile.

I wiped my tears off my face with the back of my sleeve. “It’s a long story.”

“Well it’s only 4:00. I’ve got time.”

“I want to talk to Grandma.”

She looked disappointed. “Oh, ok, I can drive you to the beach if you want.”

I texted Grandma, and I’m not kidding, within 15 seconds, she responded! I met her at the beach, it was windy again but I didn’t mind.

“Hey, sweetheart. What’s bugging you?” She gave me an empathetic smile.

I stared blankly at the ocean, the waves crashing against the golden sand. 

I told her how Ms. Summer took Sam out into the hallway and she came back to the classroom smiling. And I told her that I hadn’t told Sam yet. And that I didn’t know why I had so much trouble telling her.

She looked disappointed, but not at me, at what I had done. “Maybe if you tell me what the secret was, I can understand the situation better.”

I knew I was going to have to tell her at some point, I just didn’t want to. I thought that was a perfectly good reason not to tell her, I just didn’t want to. But I knew that wasn’t really an option so I took a deep breath, “She cheated during a geometry quiz. I told the teacher because I knew she was very capable of doing the test without looking at someone’s paper.” In my head, it just sounded like a jumble of words, but I could tell that Grandma understood. The truth was I actually felt a lot better saying it out loud. Maybe it wasn’t too late to tell Sam what had really happened.

“Oh.” She looked like she had been expecting something worse. “That isn’t so bad, is it?”

“No, but if I tell her the truth, I’m afraid she isn’t going to want to be my friend anymore.” I blinked at least a dozen times in a row to stop the tears from escaping.

She looked perplexed. “Are you sure this is about being afraid of not having a friend? I think that maybe you’re afraid that you’re not going to have as tight a bond as you have had your entire life.”

Those were true words of wisdom that I had never actually thought about before until now. Maybe she was right. Maybe we would still be friends, but would it be the same?

“I don’t know.”

“And you have the right not to know. But we will figure it out, Jess. I know we will. Your mom said that she’ll be here in a bit. Do you want me to stay here with you until she gets here?”

“No, it’s ok. You can go. I’ll see you later.”

“Ok, good luck.” She walked towards the parking lot near the beach and she was soon out of sight.

I gave a shy smile to myself. I have a secret. Sam copied off my geometry quiz. I could have stopped her, but I didn’t. I’m the one to blame. I told the teacher because I wanted to get back at her. I wanted to get back at her because she had been avoiding me for the longest time. I know I should have talked to her but our relationship doesn’t really work like that. I wanted to tell her the whole story but she would have wanted to hurt me. I mean if I was her and she had done that to me and then she told me everything she had done all at once, I wouldn’t know what to say. Or feel. I was also worried about how Ms. Summer had taken Sam out into the hallway, I didn’t know what she was saying. I thought she was revealing my secret. I shouldn’t have told her. I shouldn’t have told anyone. I was angry and I wanted revenge. I didn’t think about what I was doing until after I did it. I am going to tell Sam about this.

That night, I tried extra hard to let my mind relax. For the longest time, I’d had trouble falling asleep. It isn’t the slightest bit fun because being tired and not being able to sleep are one of the most frustrating things ever. 

When I woke up the next morning, I realized that Grandma was the only person I actually trusted. It was quite a sad thought so I didn’t spend much time thinking about it or else I would have started bawling. I ate my breakfast cereal so slowly it became soggy and mushy, disgusting! My mom drove me to school as always because her job was never in the morning as an interior designer. 

“Have a great day, sweetie!” She blew me an air kiss from the car window and I, unenthusiastically, pretended to catch it.

I felt like a nobody, knowing that the only person I had to talk to was my grandma. That’s pretty pathetic, if you ask me! I had a huge unsolved problem, no friends except for Sam. The only problem with being friends with her at the moment was that we were on no speaking terms. I wouldn’t exactly call that a friend… 

When it was math class, I decided I needed to have a talk with Ms. Summer, I mean, she was a big factor in my anxiety right now.

I sat down next to Sam and I gave her the biggest smile I could possibly give without looking like I was up to something.

“Good morning, class,” Ms. Summer said, partially sitting on her desk.

This time, I didn’t say good morning back, because it wasn’t a good morning at all.

Ms. Summer, quiet as a mouse, crept up to our table, again! Are you kidding me, this seriously can’t be happening.

“Ms. Davis.” 

My head perked up, she had never said my last name before.

“Yes, Ms. Summer.”

“Can I see you in the hallway please?” She didn’t look mad, she just didn’t look like her usual bright and cheerful self.

I nodded.

“What is up with you, Jessica? You’ve been acting very strange lately. First, you tell me that Sam cheated and then you don’t say good morning. I don’t want to even start to talk about the grades you’ve been receiving from my class. Could you explain to me why all of this happened, just out of nowhere?”

“Um, sure. You know, Sam and I have been friends forever and lately she’s been avoiding me so I wanted to get back at her, she cheated on my test.” I sighed, I couldn’t take it back now, “I could have told her not to but I didn’t. I told you because I wanted to get her in trouble. I know it seems really bad but I had good intentions.”

She covered her mouth with her hand. “Those don’t seem like good intentions, Jessica.”

“I know. I knew she could do the test without cheating so I told on her.”

“Then which one is it? You let her cheat on purpose or you told me because you knew she could do the test without cheating?”

“Take a guess.”

She looked really disappointed in me. I’ve never seen a teacher look this way before.

“Let’s go back into the classroom, shall we?”

“One more thing, Ms. Summer.” She turned around intrigued by my words, “I know it’s none of my business but what exactly did you tell Sam yesterday that made her so happy?”

She giggled. “You’re right, it isn’t any of your business at all. But I will tell you that I won’t tell your little secret, you have something special, kiddo. Don’t let this one time get the best of you. Everyone has a downfall at some point, you’re lucky that you have a friend as good as Sam.”

“But then why does she keep ignoring me?”

She looked like she knew something that I didn’t. “Try talking to her again, see what happens. If it doesn’t go as planned, I’m here. Okay?”
I looked down at my feet. “Okay. I’m sorry for everything.”

She didn’t say anything after that, I was kind of hoping that she would have told me what had happened in the hallway, but I still had hope that Sam and I would continue our friendship.

That afternoon, while I was working on my math homework, a lightbulb went off in my mind. I suddenly had a brilliant thought and I didn’t know why I had never thought about it before. It was so simple, yet it made so much sense. I could still be friends with Sam, but friends drift apart and then new people come into our lives. Maybe someone new would come into my life. I’m not saying I wanted to get rid of Sam, I’m just saying, maybe I could make some new friends. I felt so smart, but not because I was doing math homework, because I was actually making sense to myself. 

“Hi, Sam, I know we haven’t been speaking much but — no, that doesn’t sound right.” I kept trying to write my little “I’m sorry” speech, but I couldn’t get it to sound right. 

“Hi, Sam, I have something big to tell you. No, that’s a little obvious.” I sighed, I’m never going to be able to do this. But I have to. Just stick to the plan and you’ll be fine.

When I got to school, I was confident, but when I saw Sam, my confidence level went down a few notches. You’ve got this, you can do it.

“Hi, Sam, can we please talk?”

She shrugged.

I took that as a yes. “First of all I want to say I’m sorry. I’ve been a really bad friend lately and I need to tell you the whole story. This time you can get mad, you probably will get mad. I completely understand if you do.” Get to the point, Jessica. “First of all, when you copied off my math test, I didn’t tell you not to and I told Ms. Summer about it. I did it without thinking, I wanted to get you in trouble. Only because you had been avoiding me and I was mad at you.” 

And then I told her about how I was so nervous when Ms. Summer took her out into the hallway. After I finished speaking, she looked shocked. 

She gulped. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this sooner? I would have explained myself.”

“Well, I hope it’s not too late. Can you explain yourself now?” 

“First of all, there was a flood in my house and we had to move out this week, of course, all of our stuff was damaged so we didn’t really have anything to move in with. That is what Ms. Summer was talking to me about, she was offering my family some new clothes and bed sheets and stuff like that.”

How had I not known about this? “I’m so, so sorry. I had no idea. I would have done the same, I still can.”

“My parents said I shouldn’t tell any of my friends about it because they didn’t want you to be worried. I think you’re worried now, so I think that was a good call. I’ve been avoiding you because I wanted to tell you about it so badly but I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

“You shouldn’t be the one apologizing. You actually had a good reason for doing what you did. I didn’t. I want to still be friends with you of course but… maybe we could take a break from each other for a little while?”

“That sounds good.”

“And one last thing, we need to promise each other that if we make new friends, we won’t be too jealous,” I said even though I didn’t think I would be making new friends very soon. But it was nice to know that Sam was there if I needed someone. I didn’t only have Grandma now, I had Samantha as well.

I wanted to go to the beach one last time this week, but I couldn’t go by myself.

“Grandma, can I ask you something?” I asked, grinning.

She smiled. “Anything, Jessica. What’s the matter?”

Here I was, sitting calmly on the warm sand next to my favorite person in the entire world, at the only place where I felt truly safe. I was having one of many heart-to-hearts with my grandma, she really understood me, in a way that no one else did. My rosey cheeks were warm to the touch and my eyes were a hazel brown with a hint of blue from the waves that I was watching in the distance. I have known Samantha since nursery school, I thought quietly to myself, but that won’t stop me from making new friends. I stared into my grandma’s beautiful eyes, wanting every single inch of me to be exactly like her when I grew up. 

Luca’s Timer

Luca rubbed the timer imprinted on his wrist. It was currently April 7th. 

312h

It was stuck at 312 hours. 312 hours. In 312 hours, it was his birthday. So what was this timer, you may ask? Well, this timer was not for his birthday, that’s for sure. This timer actually had nothing to do with Luca at all. This timer was for his soulmate. Kai White. But don’t tell him about the timer. He can’t know about that yet.

Luca was completely aware that Kai was his soulmate. The only problem was that Luca didn’t love Kai. Luca loved someone else. But that can’t be, you might be thinking. Soulmates are soulmates forever, through thick and thin, and life and death! That’s what you were told, at least. Luca Davis is in love with another person. Will King stole his heart. Or, he thought so.

Will was his favorite person to be around. Not so much anymore though, but I’ll get into that later. They spent many long, beautiful nights together under the stars and shared many important moments. Luca used to not care about Kai in the slightest. Or before, if he did, he showed no sign and put it in the back of his head to where the thoughts he had about Kai could get lost forever in the hormonal world of his mind.

***

Kai was suffering from one-sided love. He knew Luca would never love him back, and he gave up trying. 

753,360h 

You might question the fact that the timers on each other’s wrists were so different. The reason for that is quite simple. But I’ll leave you to figure that one out. Because the reason is vital to the ending of the story, and I can guarantee it will not be a good one. These boys are very different, but oh so similar in so many ways. Kai just loves to stare at Luca during class, when the teacher is distracted, he can get into the foreign jungle of tangled daydreams about him and his soulmate. 

This whole soulmate thing is a sick and twisted ideal. Especially when your soulmate loves someone else. Kai’s heart aches whenever Luca shows affection towards Will. He feels like a piece is missing. But he tries to not let it affect Luca’s relationship. Because if Luca’s happy, he’s happy. 

***

311h

Luca noticed the time on the timer was suddenly different. This is not the first time this happened, as Luca has had this timer on his arm since he was little. It was always counting down, and he could do nothing but wait until time’s up. It seemed an hour had passed since he last checked. It was the only mysterious thing about his explosive personality. He took it upon himself to google it.

What happens in 311 hours? 

The answers he got were no help at all. They were things like, ‘Dial 311 for NYC tax service!’ or, ‘The state of New York, 311’. Besides his birthday, he really couldn’t think of anything at all. Luca called Will in hopes of the redhead being in some help to this mystery. Alas, that was not the case.

“What happens in 311 hours, babe?”

“I don’t know, what happens in 311 hours?”

“Do you think this is a joke?”

“Is it?”

“No, I’m dead serious. What happens in 311 hours?”

“Oh. I don’t know. I can look it up for you.”

“I tried that already.”

“Why is 311 so important?”

“It just is. Nevermind.”

“Alright. I love you, Luc.”

“I love you too.” Saying that felt weird to Luca. It felt forced, like he no longer meant it but he had been doing it for so long that he couldn’t stop. Like a drug almost, except without the feel-good part. Luca hung up the phone and sighed. He loved his boyfriend, yes, but recently he seemed to have… fallen out of love? 

Is that the right mix of words?

***

Kai noticed sometimes that Luca likes to tuck a strand of hair behind his ears. Kai wonders how that is even possible, considering Luca’s hair was short. Kai knows that even though Luca will probably end up getting a soulmate reassignment, he’ll probably never find another soulmate. Or maybe he will, but the chances of that are really slim. Especially since he lost the love of his life so young, he is 16 years old. But just seeing that Will can put a smile on Luca’s face makes his heart drop to his feet. It’s been picking away at him slowly. It’s unclear how much more of it he can take. He doesn’t worry though, he knows everyone will have a happily ever after. But that’s not how life works. Everything can change. His whole life could turn upside down, and he’ll never be the same Kai and he knows it. But fate chose not to do that to him yet. So he’ll just have to wait everything out and see what happens.

To be continued…

Shoes

As I looked out the window, the 6 train was getting close to my stop, 77th street, with the usual EEEEE OOOOO sound. Getting off the train always made my heart race because I thought of it as the “critical moment.” In order to be ready to go to the main world, I looked at myself in the mosaic-built number: 77, and smoothened my hair down. Next, I gently tucked in my shirt, so that the coffee stain was not visible, and again flattened my messy, morning hair. “Decent,” I whispered under my breath, and walked up the subway stairs onto the sidewalk. Walking on 77th street always feels like paradise. As I look into the stores’ windows, I see shiny coats, bright-colored lipsticks, pants with big fancy logos, and many other flashy, Upper East Side items. I always dreamed of having a fancy wardrobe, I would be a whole different person, I would feel different, but as I walked closer and looked inside the window my jaw dropped. 

“$203.99 for a pair of shoes?” my inner voice exclaimed.

Looking at my watch, I realized that it is already 8:15, school started in 5 minutes and I had 6 more blocks to walk! I rushed up East End Avenue and ran as fast as I could possibly run, not letting anything around me make me stop. In the corner of my eye, I saw a big black van, it did a sharp turn my way. Looking up, I saw a red street light, my vision started to blur and blood started rushing to my brain, I suddenly lost control of my body and didn’t know where I was. “Probably will be marked late,” I thought.

I woke up to a loud beeping noise, it hurt my ears, so I tried getting up, but I couldn’t, because I couldn’t feel a single part of my left rib cage. I looked around.

“Where am I?” I called out. 

Managing to turn my head, I saw my mother and father sitting on a bench next to me. I had never seen them like this before. Mom’s face was swollen up and her eyes were red, like they were when grandma had died. Dad was holding mom’s hand, and as manly as he was, I also saw a worried look on his face.

“There’s been an accident, Kiki. Are you feeling alright?” said my dad in a soft and gentle voice.

“Thank God you woke up!” exclaimed mom, crossing her hands over her chest.

Suddenly, I started remembering: the black van, the red light, the shoes, East End Avenue. It was as if the puzzle pieces were somehow coming together to create a picture, a memory. I  laid back down onto the pillows. The pain in my side started to grow again. Through the glass door, I saw a man in blue scrubs and a white doctor’s jacket. He seemed very busy and sleepy, but once he opened the door into my room, he put a bright smile on his face.

“Kiara, how are you feeling?” inquired the doctor.

“Fine,” I answered as energetically as I could.

“You did great in the rib cage repair surgery this morning! The nurse will check on you again tonight, but it looks like you can be discharged soon!”

Surgery!? Ribcage repair!? I suddenly felt trapped. 

Get me out of here! I yelled inside my head, knowing that if I actually yelled, I would probably be brought to the psych wing of Lenox Hill instead of being discharged. Again, I started to feel weak, and giving up on my thoughts and worries, I closed my eyes. 

It was a normal morning, I was sitting in the kitchen biting into my morning toast (slightly hot with melty butter). 

“Time to get going, Kiki!” said my mother, sitting down at the kitchen table, putting down my jacket and my backpack on the chair next to me.

“I’m not 6 anymore, but thanks, Mom,” I responded, picking up my bag and jacket. 

Like always, I walked on the dirty, gum-covered sidewalk of 34th street and entered the smelly, underground world in which I traveled every day to get to school. There I sat, thinking about nothing at all because, well, it was the morning and I am NOT a morning person. When I arrived at 77th Street,  I quickly looked into the numbers, checking out how I looked today. I was my usual morning self, my curly hair poofing out of my head, my eyes still sleepy. I quickly fixed that up and began trotting to the place I was intending to go.

I opened the heavy, early 20th century doors of my school, entering the massive building embellished by a green sign, Chapin.

“Hi, Kiki,” said my friend Lili, greeting me in the lobby.

“Hey,”  I responded, stepping closer to Lili and walking up the stairs to the 5th floor with her. As usual, it was torture, because we weren’t allowed to take the elevator, and it was even worse in the morning, I was never up for this physical challenge. As we entered the 5th floor I saw the usual group of girls talking by their lockers, in other words, my friends. We smiled at each other, because even though it was morning, we were always glad to see each other.

“Where did you get that shirt? It’s super cute,” asked my friend, Sammy.

“Well, sorry, I don’t reveal my secrets,” replied Lili, making all of us laugh.

I lifted my head from the laughter and was ready to go to class. I looked around to say bye to my friends, and to my surprise, saw Sammy making a weird face. She was looking somewhere near me and seeming as if she just ate the grossest thing in the world.

“Ewww, Kiki, what is that on your shirt!” she exclaimed, pointing down to my waist.

Shoot! I completely forgot about my stain! What was I thinking?!

“Ewww,” agreed Lilly.

The other girls joined in and laughed, pointing at me as if I were a circus animal.

I wished that I disappeared. How was I not paying attention in the subway?! 

Suddenly, my vision started to blur and I saw the black van, the red light…

I woke up breathing hard and sweating. I still heard their “ewws” echoing in my head.

“Is everything alright, honey?” asked my mom gently, leaning towards my hospital bed and touching my hand as she would always do when there is something going on. 

I was not in the mood for talking, but I was glad that there was someone to comfort me after the nightmare. The thoughts of it still couldn’t come out of my head though. I couldn’t bear that feeling of shock, of being scared of nothing, when there were actual things to worry about. The pain in my side was like sticking a knife in my body every time I took a breath. I tried to take shorter breaths, but that only made it hurt more. 

As the doctor planned before, the nurse came in and checked on me.

“How is everything going?” asked the nurse politely, leaning over my hospital bed.

“She has been in a lot of pain,” replied my father, worrisomely.

The nurse gently touched the area around my left lung. I grunted from the pain. It was as if there were a million guns in there, shooting me.

“Don’t worry, everything will be fine, I will just quickly get Dr. Firn, who was on your case from the very beginning,” the kind nurse assured us.

Dr. Firn came into my room and examined me yet another time. After a while of feeling different spots, and asking me where it hurt, it seemed as if something was on his mind.

“Kiara, unfortunately, I have to tell you that there was a complication from the surgery. Since you had a severe rib injury, now you have developed pulmonary contusion,” said the doctor, informing my parents and me. He seemed very nervous and unhappy to break us the news. The clipboard he was holding was shaking the slightest bit and he began to bite his lip. I always thought being a doctor was hard. How hard is it to tell your patient that something is terribly wrong with them, that they are going to die?

I cried out, but that caused me a lot of pain. “There is no way this is happening to me,” I thought, “this is all a dream.”  But unfortunately, this was nothing like a dream, it was reality, I had a pulmonary contusion. What on Earth even is that? Beside me, Mom was on the verge of crying. I knew she didn’t want me to see her weak, to see her in pain too, but she couldn’t help but let some tears out.

“I know this is very hard to hear,” said Dr. Firn compassionately. “Since Kiara’s condition is basically a bruise in her left lung, right now, all we will do is wait for it to heal, and in the worst-case scenario, use a ventilator if she is short of breath,” he informed us.

“About when will it heal, doctor?” inquired my dad in a slightly shaky voice.

“It depends on how the process will go, but your daughter will probably recover in 5-7 days,” he replied, handing me a bright red lollipop. I know the doctor was trying to make me feel better, but, I’m sorry, that was the least I needed right then, especially with this lung thing I had. 

I felt like an animal in this hospital, all I did was sleep, grunt, listen, and eat nothing but strawberry flavored Jell-O. My parents always wanted me to be a good student, to be wise academically, and in life, right then I felt like I was doing the opposite. I felt useless! I understand now why everyone was feeling so bad for me, maybe I should have even felt bad for myself.

At the hospital, time seemed to pass very fast. My theory is that if all you do is eat Jell-O, take painkillers, and sleep, time is nonexistent: no worries, just lying down in a stupid hospital bed. 

5 days later, a different nurse came in. This time she was not so smiley and gentle, but after examining my lung, she concluded that I could be discharged. Even though I still had some pains in my side from time to time, I still wanted to end my long visit at this zoo. I could finally go back to normal! Go back to the place I was raised in, the place I belong!

Riding home from Lenox Hill gave me extreme deja vu. It seemed as if I had already been on that specific train, and sat in that specific seat. I was creeped out by how visually it reminded me of somewhere I’ve definitely been, and the spooky part was that I didn’t know if I actually had been there.

When I entered my apartment, I could already smell the scent of spices and carpets. Even though it usually didn’t occur to me as the best smell in the whole world, right now it was what made me happy.

“Kiara, since we know there has been a lot going on, your father and I have bought you a surprise,” said my mom, taking my hand and bringing me into the living room. What could it be? I thought to myself. I was intrigued, but knowing that my parents usually get me lame stuff like books and pencil cases, I didn’t keep my hopes too high.

On the couch in the living room, lay a box. It was neatly packed and lined with a fancy red rope.

“Thanks, Mom and Dad! You really didn’t have to do that,” I thanked them before opening the box. They smiled, and I was glad that I made them happy. I gently untied the rope and opened the box. My breath stopped. Inside lay something I didn’t expect at all, the reason for my injuries. I couldn’t stand on my feet anymore, and collapsed onto the couch. “The shoes,” I whispered.