The Orwellian Future of Reproductive Rights 

Abortion is a controversial topic, with its opponents believing that it equates to murder and its proponents believing that it is a basic human right. There are multiple ways to explain why abortion is necessary, but let us start with this: Women die giving birth to children. The whole process of giving birth is extremely intense and puts an intense amount of strain on the women’s body – enough to kill them – making childbirth extremely dangerous. The act of raising a child is long and expensive, especially in America. Hospital visits can cost tens of thousands of dollars, with or without insurance, not to mention the cost of baby supplies. If a ten-year-old girl wanted to adopt a baby, would you let her do it? No, of course not. This (hypothetical) girl does not have the money to take care of it and she knows nothing about taking care of a newborn baby. But what if she was raped and impregnated? Would you make her carry it to term, only so she could face strain on her body that has killed thousands of full grown women since human existence? Would you cram her head with knowledge of raising a child when she will soon face the academic burden of higher education? At what point does this go too far? Not to mention the stigma surrounding young mothers, teenage mothers, and single mothers? What would people think of that ten-year-old mother? There is no reset button, no undo button to save her now. But this could have been prevented, so many months ago, with one of the most controversial medical procedures today: Abortion. 

 With Roe v. Wade overturned last June, many states have immediately turned to taking advantage of the situation, banning several (if not all) forms of abortion, with little to no exception. But what is Roe v. Wade? In 1973, Norma McCorvey, a mother of two, was pregnant with her third child and wanted an abortion. However, she lived in Texas, where abortion was illegal except to save the mother’s life. With her attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, and under the pseudonym of “Jane Roe,” she won her case over her local district attorney, Henry Wade, stating that Texas’s abortion rules were unconstitutional. Furthermore, in 1973, the Supreme Court issued a decision holding that there is a due “right to privacy,” protecting women’s right to abortion. And so it was, for many years, until last June, when Roe v. Wade was overturned. With many states leaping to take advantage of it, many worry for the future of reproductive rights and compare it to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. From standpoints literary, moral, political, and historical, it is impossible to deny reproductive freedoms for women and other people with uteruses without having unconscionable foundations.  

Passages: 

Offred narrates: “But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.”

Atwood’s dystopian novel depicts a future America, where inalienable rights are taken away and women are objectified and only hold value through their fertility and spouse, and everyone lives under control of Christian extremists. Throughout the novel, there are many aspects of life that are notably oppressive, such as the restriction of several rights, abilities, and freedoms of women. One important thing to note is the obvious: this is a dystopian novel taking place in the U.S., and that the country was taken over by Christian extremists, transforming the country into a strict and cruel civilization shaped with patriarchy, constantly oppressing any who dare speak out against the society, renaming it Gilead, which is shocking, because no one has ever really written about a country as ‘progressive’ as the U.S. in a sort of Orwellian way. Though the novel doesn’t openly advocate abortion, it advocates reproductive rights by showing how women’s bodies are constantly in control by their male counterparts, doctors, and lawmakers. We see this when the main character, Offred, acts as narrator, guiding the readers through the basic “do’s and don’ts” of living. We learn that abortion, along with other procedures relating to women’s bodily anatomy when it comes to pregnancy is not only illegal and banned, but one could go through severe torture and eventually death just for speaking of it. 

Throughout the novel, you start to see where so many basic rights and abilities such as freedom of speech and the ability to use talk with others are taken away, and it makes you realize the power they hold. One of which is the ability to have and use your own name. As described in the novel, the main character’s name, Offred, used to be June, but it was changed when the country was taken over. Similarly, the woman she works for, Serena Joy, was renamed, with her original name being Pam, along with other female characters in the novel – one starts to see how every female character is renamed, but nothing is changed about the men. Our name is a part of who we are and is often the first thing others know about us. Being able to use one’s own name is important and underestimated. 

Additionally, the right to free speech is especially important and easy to forget about, but its absence in the setting of the novel is especially noticeable. Any word heard against the country, legal system, or society would lead to harsh physical punishment, adding to the sort of dystopian, Orwellian theme. Like our country today, both governments have found ways to ban abortion, and many states have gone out of their way to eliminate abortion in its entirety, severely punishing those who go through or assist the procedure more then those who commit much more drastic crimes such as rape or child molestation. According to the New York Times article, “Inside the Extreme Effort to Punish Women for Abortion,” “Even as those in the anti-abortion movement celebrate their nation-changing Supreme Court victory, there are divisions over where to go next. The most extreme, like Mr. Durbin, want to pursue what they call “abortion abolition,” a move to criminalize abortion from conception as homicide, and hold women who have the procedure responsible — a position that in some states could make those women eligible for the death penalty. That position is at odds with the anti-abortion mainstream, which opposes criminalizing women and focuses on prosecuting providers.” Eligible for the death penalty. What if the abortion was utilized because of the high risk of death to the carrier? There are even those who seek miscarriages to be labeled as murder and punishable. Which is more valuable: the life of an unborn child or the life of a fully grown child and adult? 

With people like Durbin placing such high importance and specified personification on fetuses, some people fight back with the argument that if a fetus were to be valued as much as a grown human, they should also have rights and insurance. In the article “If a fetus is a person, it should get child support, due process and citizenship” from the Washington Post, assistant Professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law Carliss Chatman makes points of what possible rights and events could happen if a fetus was viewed as equal as a person.  For instance, take their statement that “When a state grants full personhood to a fetus, should they not apply equally? For example, should child support start at conception? Every state permits the custodial parent — who has primary physical custody of the child and is primarily responsible for his or her day-to-day care — to receive child support from the noncustodial parent. Since a fetus resides in its mother, and receives all nutrition and care from its mother’s body, the mother should be eligible for child support as soon as the fetus is declared a person —” and “And what about deportation? Can a pregnant immigrant who conceived her child in the United States be expelled? Because doing so would require deporting a U.S. citizen.” Elaborating on the topic of deportation, Chatman points out that if one were to determine the citizenship of a fetus, they would have to look to section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which declares that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” She further points out that the term born was not defined by the writers, and that they must have meant the dictionary definition of the word, of which was “to be brought forth by birth.” One’s birthday is celebrated on the yearly anniversary of their being born, as in the day their mother gave birth to them, not the day they were a fetus. “But in states with abortion bans, born takes on a new meaning. Now legislatures assign an arbitrary time during gestation to indicate when life, personhood and, presumably, the rights that accompany these statuses take hold. This grant of natural personhood at a point before birth brings application of the 14th Amendment into question and may thus give a fetus citizenship rights — but only in those states.” Chatman points out yet another detail overlooked by the Supreme Court in their decision to overturn Roe v. Wade; because of the grant of natural personhood (and presumably, the rights that come with it) that a fetus is given by the lawmakers banning abortion, the application of the 14th Amendment comes under question and may possible allow said fetus to have citizenship. A newborn infant born in the U.S. is granted citizenship, but a fetus? This is something without a conscience; something unaware of its very existence. A line has to be drawn deciding when a person is considered a citizen, a line that doesn’t quite exist and is being exploited by lawmakers. 

With lawmakers and citizens seeking to penalize and label miscarriage as murder (even though miscarriages are not preventable and often happen without warning), there is a strikingly similar tone in The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel, old women and infertile women are sent to enclosed states where they handle chemical materials without protective gear, allowing them to die due to the amount of radiation they are exposed to, making it a sort of extended death sentence. Those women are called the Unwomen, and it’s not just the old or infertile that are sent there. If a Handmaid miscarries, she has a chance of becoming an Unwoman, forced out and exposed to radiation. Though the novel was published over 35 years ago in 1985, the eerily similar thought process and beliefs of the religious extremists of the antagonists and location in the United States to the Supreme Court’s turnover of Roe v. Wade and its unfolding aftermath today could be seen as a foreshadowing of what’s next to come for abortion rights. In January of 2020, Britteny Poolaw, a then-19-year-old Native American from Oklahoma, arrived at Comanche County Memorial Hospital after suffering a miscarriage at home a little over 4 months into her term. According to the affidavit given by the detective who had interviewed her, Poolaw told the hospital staff that she had recently used marijuana and methamphetamine, which was then added to the list of factors contributing to the cause of miscarriage, a list which also contained congenital abnormality and placental abruption. She was arrested on account of first degree manslaughter and since she couldn’t afford the $20,000 bail, she had waited over a year and a half for her trial, which took place in October of 2021 and lasted one day. According to the local news station at the court, an expert witness had testified that the use of methamphetamine may not have been the main cause of miscarriage, but after debating for less than three hours, the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to four years of prison.

It is important to recognize the other contributing factors of the abortion, notable ones which were congenital abnormality and placental abruption. According to the World Health Organization, “An estimated 6% of babies worldwide are born with a congenital anomaly, resulting in hundreds of thousands of associated deaths. However, the true number of cases may be much higher because statistics do not often consider terminated pregnancies and stillbirths.” Some congenital abnormalities include heart defects, neural tube defects, and down syndrome, which can impact those who develop them for their entire life. This means that there was a chance that Poolaw could have given birth to a stillborn infant, or an infant which might have a congenital abnormality such as a heart defect, requiring expensive treatments that could put Poolaw in debt or considerably worse financial position, given that she wasn’t able to pay her bail and that healthcare in the U.S. is considerably expensive. Additionally, placental abruption could cause internal bleeding for the mother, sometimes requiring an early birth or resulting in a miscarriage. Infants born too early would need to be incubated, yet another expensive charge for the parent or parents. Infants born after surviving placental abruption have a higher mortality than ones born without abruption, and the impact of abruption extends far beyond the perinatal period. Even if Poolaw were to give birth, her would-be son would face a series of health issues, requiring costly treatments that would put almost anyone in financial burden. But the detective’s affidavit also stated that “when she found out that she was pregnant she didn’t know if she wanted the baby or not. She said she wasn’t familiar with how or where to get an abortion.” Examining this piece of evidence, one would be able to deduce that Poolaw’s entire ordeal could have been avoided if abortion resources and information were available to her. Reproductive healthcare is extremely important for those pregnant, and when it’s not available, the loss of information or spread of misinformation could seriously damage the mother or the fetus, resulting in an unfair imprisonment or punishment that could have been completely avoidable had the resources been present and available. 

It’s also important to recognize how race, stereotypes, and the stigma surrounding young and/or single mothers plays into the topic of prosecution of women miscarrying or having abortions. According to the NCRC, “Based on the 2015-2019 ACS for American Indian and Alaska Native population, the median income of American Indian and Alaska Native households was $43,825 – slightly higher than the median income of African American households, which was $41,935. The Hispanic household income for that same period was $51,811. Altogether, these numbers are substantially lower than White, non-Hispanic household median income of $68,785. In 2015, the average income on reservations was 68% below the US average, about $17,000.” According to an NBC news article, “A 2013 report by NAPW and Fordham University looked at 413 arrests and forced interventions of pregnant women from 1973 to 2005. The analysis showed that 71 percent were considered low income and 59 percent were women of color, with 52 percent identifying as Black.” Just by looking at the statistics, one could observe that women of color, especially those considered to be of low income, were charged more. It is no secret that people of color are often imprisoned far more often and harshly than their white counterparts. But why are women so harshly punished for actions of nature? A healthy birth can never be guaranteed, but it seems that lawmakers can’t decide on where the line should be drawn between nature and intentional terminated pregnancy. 

But this is not the only problem. Many anti-abortion protestors and lawmakers go on to harass those who are pro-choice or seeking abortion, with anti-abortion protestors rallying outside of abortion clinics, harassing those entering or leaving, and harassing pro-choice activists, sending threatening messages or even death threats. According to NARAL Pro Choice America, between 1977 and 2015, anti-choice protestors carried out over 7,200 acts of violence at abortion providers, including over 40 bombings, 185 arson attacks, and thousands of bioterrorism threats, death threats, and assault. Additionally, over 200,000 acts of disruption were reported, including bomb threats and threatening calls. These are criminal acts, punishable by fines, restraining orders, and prison time, and yet they keep happening. An abortion clinic is just like an emergency room, and it saves lives. To barricade an abortion clinic is like barricading a hospital’s ER. The people seeking or wishing to consult an expert about abortion are in a vulnerable state, and sometimes, it’s a matter of saving their life, or helping their financial situation. Childcare in the U.S. is expensive, and the cost of raising and looking after a child is a large burden, especially for working, single, and/or young mothers. What anti-choice believers don’t understand is the impact of children on people who aren’t them. In an article by WNYC about the heated anti-abortion demonstrations outside of abortion clinics, artist, activist, and volunteer clinic escort Wendi Kent shares her story of abortion and teen pregnancy. In 1993, 13 years old and an eighth grader in Texas, Kent found herself in a dire situation: she was pregnant. She visited her local clinic for information about her options, recognizing abortion as the best one for her. In her interview with WNYC, she states that “When I went in, I kind of expected for this option to be given to me, or for someone to tell me that it was an option, because I didn’t want to have to ask… That actually didn’t happen. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I kind of suddenly said, ‘I think I want to have this baby,’ because I didn’t know what else I was supposed to say.” She had hoped that the options would have been laid out for her, so she could choose abortion without stigma, but it didn’t happen. Several months later, at only 14, she gave birth to a baby girl. Having a child at 14 is extremely difficult, and Kent didn’t feel safe with her daughter at her parents house. She asked her boyfriend’s family to take in her daughter, and Kent left her parent’s home, and wound up on the streets.

What both Kent’s and Poolaw’s story can tell us is that the lack of information, access, and option for abortions is dangerous, and can result in events that lead to homelessness or prison time. Now, with abortion rights no longer protected by the Supreme Court’s decision, the need for these resources are more important than ever. 

Bibliography:

“Anti-Abortion Violence.” NARAL Pro-Choice America, 23 Aug. 2021, https://www.prochoiceamerica.org/issue/anti-abortion-violence/. 

“As Supreme Court Weighs Abortion, Christians Challenge What It Means to Be ‘pro-Life’.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 14 Apr. 2022, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-04-14/abortion-evangelical-christians-republican.

Asante-Muhammad, Dedrick. “Racial Wealth Snapshot: Native Americans ” NCRC.” NCRC, 7 Apr. 2022, https://ncrc.org/racial-wealth-snapshot-native-americans/. 

“Birth Defects.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/birth-defects. 

Blake, John. “They Cite the Same Bible and Evoke the Same Jesus. but These Two Christians Are on Opposite Sides of the Abortion Debate.” CNN, Cable News Network, 25 June 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/25/us/abortion-christian-debate-blake-cec/index.html. 

Chatman, Carliss. “Perspective | If a Fetus Is a Person, It Should Get Child Support, Due Process and Citizenship.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 May 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/if-a-fetus-is-a-person-it-should-get-child-support-due-process-and-citizenship/2019/05/17/7280ae30-78ac-11e9-b3f5-5673edf2d127_story.html. 

“Congenital Anomalies.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/health-topics/congenital-anomalies#tab=tab_1. 

Dias, Elizabeth. “Inside the Extreme Effort to Punish Women for Abortion.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 July 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/01/us/abortion-abolitionists.html. 

Goldberg, Michelle. “When a Miscarriage Is Manslaughter.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/18/opinion/poolaw-miscarriage.html. 

J.p. “Child Molestation.” NY Crime Defense Lawyer Stephen Bilkis & Associates, https://criminaldefense.1800nynylaw.com/new-york-child-molestation.html. 

Kilgore, Ed. “Do Republicans Really Want to Punish Women for Having Abortions?” Intelligencer, Intelligencer, 29 Sept. 2022, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/09/republicans-punish-women-abortions.html. 

Levinson-King, Robin. “US Women Are Being Jailed for Having Miscarriages.” BBC News, BBC, 12 Nov. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59214544. 

“Placental Abruptions.” Publications.aap.org, https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/142/2/e20173915/37549/Placental-Abruption-and-Child-Mortality. 

President, Julia Cusick Vice, et al. “Some States Are Ready to Punish Abortion in a Post-Roe World.” Center for American Progress, 23 Sept. 2022, https://www.americanprogress.org/article/some-states-are-ready-to-punish-abortion-in-a-post-roe-world/. 

“Recent Cases on Violence against Reproductive Health Care Providers.” The United States Department of Justice, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.justice.gov/crt/recent-cases-violence-against-reproductive-health-care-providers. 

“Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching.” USCCB, https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/respect-for-unborn-human-life. 

Robertson, Katie. “Facts Were Sparse on an Abortion Case. but That Didn’t Stop the Attacks.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 July 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/14/business/media/10-year-old-girl-ohio-rape.html. 

“Roe v. Wade.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Sept. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roe_v._wade. 

“When Healthcare Comes with Harassment: Photographing Abortion Clinic Protests: The Takeaway.” WNYC Studios, 24 Jan. 2018, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/when-healthcare-comes-harassment-photographing-abortion-clinic-protests. 

“Woman Prosecuted for Miscarriage Highlights Racial Disparity in Similar Cases.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 5 Nov. 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/woman-prosecuted-miscarriage-highlights-racial-disparity-simil ar-cases-rcna4583. 

Old Hallows Eve

The spooky season is upon us like a beast upon its prey

Hallows Eve is 18 away

The fall aromas spread across the land each day

Candles burning, witches yearning to take first flight

A croissant dipped in arsenic so enemies beware

Soon costumed children of all ages with take forth into the night

Fairies, ghosts, princesses and pumpkins

Ghouls jump out at you under the flickering candle light

Stranger things have happened on Old Hallows night

I nearly cannot wait, for all the world to be alight, under the pale moonlight

‘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.

No Emotions

The Sunshine shines on the farm 

The farmer awakes on the alarm 

The birds that chirp, the new crops that were harvested 

The tomatoes and potatoes that got marketed 

The farmer’s emotions disappear

Allowing the new ones to appear 

Which emotions had they been

The ones that were held within, within 

The flowers that bloomed

The people who assumed 

Nothing less or more than last 

Season it was that had just past

The farmer, only one who 

Was indifferent to the new

Amazing new spring’s view 

For the farmer had thought through and through 

For he had no emotions 

For he had no devotions 

To anything but his plants 

His emotions were wrecked as were his pants 

But that all changed over night 

For he had woken up in a fright

What was the emotion he had felt 

For he had never ever felt 

Nothing besides his belt 

That was too small for him 

For he, penniless, lived in hut that was dim

He felt like jumping around 

Up and down on the ground 

For he had no emotions 

For he had no devotions 

The feeling he felt was strong, strong 

He felt like writing a song 

Butterflies in his belly

The girl, her name was Shelly 

As beautiful as the sun

On a sunshiny day that had just begun 

As had his emotions 

For he had never had emotions 

For he had never had devotions 

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. 

Peace

In a hot and loud classroom somewhere in Manhattan

Girl in black stares out the window yearning for peace.

Oblivious teacher in a button-up shirt gestures to an image of the 1960s

Students who never had phones scream about peace.

Boy who only wants to pass this class in the back of the classroom

Mindlessly copies down notes about protests for peace.

Student in a hood, head bent, glancing around every now and then

Holds their phone under the desk, ensuring that they’ll never know peace.

Somebody’s phone, tossed to the bottom of their backpack amongst gum wrappers and quarters

Has burrowed within it, if you know where to look, a passionate rant about peace.

Slightly over budget black car outside, air conditioner whirs and hums

Most likely irreparably damaging the environment but for now bringing peace.

Man whose eyes are not on the road envisions his big break, his retirement savings, his promotion:

His name sitting quietly under a headline proclaiming worldwide peace.

Nearly microscopic ant desperately trying to evade the unforgiving, ever-advancing wheel

Cannot begin to imagine peace.

On a date that maybe exists, so far in the future, my god, so far, 

Maya Wang-Habib’s life might not even change once we have peace.

Family Spirit of Thanksgiving

Cooking fills the table with love. 

Different styles of culture lie on the table. 

The scent of turkey and garlic fill the air.

The smell of food makes me drool.

Rushing waves of voices crash into my ears.

I am like a messenger, giving food to the poor.

I love being thankful. 

Being thankful makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

So does my family. 

Why Nintendo Should Save the 3DS

The Nintendo Switch is having a moment in modern-day gaming. According to GameRant, “It has sold 84.59 million units after just 49 months on the market, making it one of the fastest-selling consoles of all time.” In all the hubbub over the Switch, one could be forgiven for dismissing the 3DS, Nintendo’s previous handheld, as totally outmoded. Although the 3DS might just seem like a similar handheld to its predecessor, the DS, the 3DS was really a technological miracle of its time – one worthy of continued investment from Nintendo. The 3DS is a dual-screen console which natively (meaning: without anything else added on) supports 3D viewing “on” or “off” for most games. This last feature, in particular, was revolutionary because until the invention of the 3DS you needed 3D glasses or a really complicated and bulky system in order to display 3D pictures. That changed with the advent of the 3DS, which crammed this capability into one small portable console. It not only supports the red and blue colors you would see with 3D glasses, but every color on the visible spectrum. Nintendo should continue to invest in gaming compatibility with the 3DS because it has a rich technological legacy, lots of people still enjoy playing on the 3DS, and many others still have not had the chance to try it yet.

Sadly, people are forgetting the importance of the 3DS. Some very memorable games are The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Fire Emblem: Awakening, and Pokemon Sun & Moon. As I write, the number of available games for the 3DS/2DS on the official Nintendo website are rapidly decreasing. In the span of about 3 minutes, I saw the 3DS games go from 1,000 down to just 927! Plus, some of these games are just being hidden on their website, for example if you search for Mario 3DS games, only one result comes up. Super Mario Maker and New Super Mario Bros. 2 are still available for purchase, but don’t come up when you search for them. Whereas the Nintendo switch is getting all the fame, with a current total amount of games at 14,051. (At the time of writing)

This number doesn’t even account for all the separate games in the expansion packs, given to you when getting Nintendo switch online and Nintendo switch online + Expansion pack. There are a lot of separate games available from the NES, SNES, N64, and even Sega Genesis! (And now Gameboy and Gameboy Advance as well.) Taking all this into account, the total games for the Nintendo switch are probably around 15 thousand!

Nintendo has its own reasons for shutting down the 3DS, of course. According to Nintendo life, this turn of events “is part of the natural life cycle for any product line as it becomes less used by consumers over time.” Although this statement has some validity, there are many holes in this argument. Sure, less people are using it than at launch, but people like me, people who have never used it, or got it and use it daily, weekly, even just monthly still have reasons to get it and keep it. By shutting down features of the 3DS, people who love playing, or who have never played, will never get to experience the best of the 3DS, only the mess that Nintendo has now left us with. Essentially it takes away the reasons to buy or use the 3DS from the 3DS. According to the same Nintendo life article, “Online play will also still be available ‘for the foreseeable future’ for any titles you already own, past March 2023.” This means that until March of 2023, games that use online multiplayer are still playable. This doesn’t apply to all games though. Games made by Nintendo like Super Mario Maker, New Super Mario Bros. 2,  or anything needing to be connected to Nintendo’s servers and can’t be played anymore (multiplayer or other functions don’t work, single player usually doesn’t rely on Nintendo servers, so it should work fine). Super Mario Maker broke when Nintendo shut down their servers, since the only thing you can do is play levels. You can’t upload levels anymore.

Although the 3DS might just seem like a similar handheld to its predecessor, the DS2, the 3DS was really a technological miracle worthy of continued investment from Nintendo. It supported a variety of games considering its virtual console, support for other DS games, and its own 3DS games. That’s more than 3 different consoles!1 It also supported a variety of different inputs like the microphone, stylus, or the buttons and Circle Pads (the little circles you move around). This provided a great experience for many different game enthusiasts. This gives no surprise on why many 3DS enthusiasts still love playing the 3DS today, yet with the 3DS servers shutting down, they won’t get to play their favorite games or get to share their experience with others. There are many 3DS lovers, ones who have had the 3DS since its release, but this one joined the party 10 years late! Yet they still loved the 3DS,  “There is something inviting about the 3DS, from the small jingle it plays when it turn it on to the little shopping bag that bows to you at the eshop, to unwrapping your downloads like presents- Just navigating through the menu is full of small sights and sounds, and the 3D effect on the upper screen seems to exist simply because it’s neat and kind of magical.”

Yet there are still many people who have not had the chance to try the 3DS yet. With the 3DS servers shutting down, they will never be able to experience the joy that people had when getting their 3DS for the first time. Just look at what Miyamoto (an important figure at Nintendo) says about the 3DS, “The Nintendo 3DS system is sometimes said to just be a ‘Nintendo DS system with higher specs.’ But it’s really much more than that. It’s a game system with an entirely different charm. That’s why, for the customers who purchase it, I want them to fully enjoy the features of this new machine.” Yet a few years later (actually about 13 years later), they are shutting down the eshop, leaving the 3DS essentially useless, with no online multiplayer, no street pass, a very interesting feature of the 3DS, not even the ability to buy digital 3DS games!

You might be thinking, sure people haven’t gotten the chance to play the 3DS, but video games can be harmfully addicting. And you’d be right, according to Wiliam Siu, who used to be a game developer, “The over-the-top experiences and rewards built into video games can stimulate our brains to release dopamine. Dopamine, the powerful ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, motivates us to seek more of these pleasurable activities.” Although video games can be addictive, if you or your child happen to get an addictive game, then you can either delete it, or you can use the built-in parental controls, which when enabled can limit time on specific games or play time in general. This is shown in Nintendo’s article about 3DS parental controls. The support article notes that, “Parental Controls can be set at any time on Nintendo 3DS family systems. It’s possible to configure these options while setting up the Nintendo 3DS family system for the first time, and then after this point they can be altered via System Settings.”

The 3DS is one of the most technologically advanced hand-helds of its time, and it does not deserve the fate of being forgotten. This phase-out of the 3DS gnaws at me, since I personally never got to play on a 3DS. With Nintendo shutting down the 3DS servers, most of the fun of using a 3DS is fading away as people leave with the servers. It gets rid of what the 3DS lived up to, leaving us only with only a few exclusive features that were built in. This matters to everyone because it means that people who did or didn’t get to experience the amazing features of the 3DS will never get to experience it again. By the 27th of March, 2023, the physical copies of games are going to be the only ones you can buy. Digital games can only be stored on the 3DS for so long. They will reach their expiration dates. These points apply to many other old consoles as well, not just the 3DS. There were many good consoles like the N64, Sega Dreamcast, and PS3 that were very popular in their time that many people would also like to preserve. And soon in the future, this fading out process will apply to the switch, when there will be another more popular console out there, leaving the history it made behind.

Works cited:

Simelane, Smangaliso. “Why Is the Nintendo Switch so Successful?” Game Rant, 14 Jan. 2022, https://gamerant.com/nintendo-switch-success-hardware-versatility-game-sales-pandemic/.

Gray, Kate. “When Does the 3DS and Wii U Eshop Close? Nintendo EShop Closure Guide.” Nintendo Life, Nintendo Life, 27 Mar. 2023, https://www.nintendolife.com/guides/when-does-the-3ds-and-wii-u-eshop-close-nintendo-eshop-closure-guide#:~:text=Here’s%20Nintendo’s%20statement%20on%20the,plenty%20of%20time%20to%20prepare.%22

Hetfeld, Malindy. “Falling in Love with the Nintendo 3DS 10 Years Late.” Eurogamer.net, Eurogamer.net, 27 June 2021, https://www.eurogamer.net/falling-in-love-with-the-nintendo-3ds-ten-years-late

Siu, William. “I Make Video Games. I Won’t Let My Daughters Play Them.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Oct. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/02/opinion/video-game-addiction.html#after-story-ad-2

“Setting Nintendo 3DS Parental Controls.” Nintendo Support, 25 Mar. 2011, https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Support/Parents/Safety/Nintendo-3DS-Parental-Controls/Setting-Nintendo-3DS-Parental-Controls/Setting-Nintendo-3DS-Parental-Controls-907330.html#:~:text=Parental%20Controls%20can%20be%20set,be%20altered%20via%20System%20Settings

Endnotes

1.  An interesting fact is that the 3DS can play two Mario Kart games, namely Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7.

2. Nobody knows what DS stands for, so there are a lot of games that make fun of that.

Flight

Flight is the pounding feeling in my heart when I am onstage, 

about to perform

Flight is the flurry of butterflies in the pit of my stomach when I 

try something new

Flight is the release of the softball as it goes whirling towards 

the batter

Flight is the excitement of my smile as the batter swings and 

misses

Flight is my pencil as it flies across my paper

Flight is the blur of my legs as they run, running faster than ever, 

with my feet pounding on the pavement, my future ahead of me

Poetry by Emily Rose

it’s not christmas anymore

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

make it until morning

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

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

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

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

Hello, what is your wish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the right thing to do? what do you think?

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

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.

Where I Am From

I am from the heat of my village

And the blizzard of a New York winter

I can feel my sweat freeze

I am from my grandmothers who were child brides

And the daughter of a woman with a PhD

My family tree is a banyan

With long branches and deep roots in its land 

I am from my ancestors

That don’t speak the same language as me

I am from the land of the “goras” 

Colder than the mountains of Nepal

Where Badi Dadi came from at 13

I am the farthest from my village

That I could ever be

Yet the most at home when I am there

I am from culture shock

And joining the great American melting pot 

Come with your culture

And leave with theirs

That’s the price to pay

For paved roads and clean air

I can talk like them

Dress like them

Even look like them

But I will never be them 

No matter how hard I try

I am from lying to myself

Inside

Feeling like a fraud

Not knowing what is my culture and what is theirs

I am from shopping at Khan Market

I can smell the designer perfume 

Street food

And poverty 

The elites escape from a developing country 

Visiting the Mall 

With its shiny western products

On the flawless white models 

Viewed by millions of brown skin Indians 

Walks in Lodi garden 

I can hear the monkeys

Chattering at me

I am from the spoiled little girl 

Who lived five years

And never made her own bed

To the girl who can walk on the streets alone

And my brother’s late-night conversations 

And his gentle protection 

Calms my temper 

Like pouring ice on fire

I am from playing Ludo with Dadi

Getting printouts from Nana

And the hugs from Nani

I am from looking in the mirror and seeing nothing but flaws

Feeling like I am worth nothing at all

I am from my dog nuzzling through my arms and licking away my tears

I can feel my fears vanish

I am from my parents’ determination

To protect me

Help me

And raise me

Higher than I could ever reach on my own

I am from the midnight dreams

And the happy screams

And everything in between

I am where I can go

And everyone I know

I am my family

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?”

Penguins

Penguins are better than people. They are the most loyal animals, staying with their friends forever. When penguins find a partner, they never leave; they are together for life. What if we were all penguins? We would always stick by one another. No being betrayed or being left behind. Never thinking about if a friendship is real or not. Knowing you can trust the people you want. Not having to doubt who’s real or fake. 

When penguins are cold, they huddle together. When we are cold, our first instinct is to put on a jacket. Penguins cuddle together and puff out their feathers to keep warm. They rely on each other for warmth and other aspects of survival. If I needed something as a penguin, I would ask a friend (who I would keep for life) and they would help me. In life people do things independently. If I need a pencil, I look around for a while, check my backpack and then I would ask for help. Penguins aren’t afraid of help. For them, asking for help isn’t an embarrassing thing that shows a lack of knowledge.

Many people think that penguins can’t fly, but, technically, that is incorrect. Penguins are seen as animals of cuteness, not personality. Penguins are underestimated. Penguins fly underwater. They fly in the way that any other bird would, but they do it underwater. They are seen as a flightless, stupid birds, but they are more. There is more to them than people would expect. If we had that point of view in life, it would be so much easier. People would not judge by first glance. You could be who you want; I could walk outside in yellow pants, and nobody would think of it. People would ask me why I wore those pants and not just assume I have bad clothing. People would be so much better to each other if we were penguins. 

There are four types of Antarctic penguins: Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor and Gentoo. People really only know about Emperor penguins because they are the most popular. If you go to a zoo you will see Emperor penguins. Chinstrap penguins are smaller and have a black “strap” on their chin. Adélie penguins’ beaks look like Kylie Jenner’s lips. Their beaks are thick and look almost like human lips. They are also the smallest. Gentoo penguins have a half orange beak and white spots above their eyes. People only ever pay attention to Emperor penguins when the other ones are just as good. Adélie and Chinstrap penguins are aggressive but only to protect themselves from predators. Penguins don’t hate each other for small things they say or do; penguins care about survival. 

Gentoo penguins are actually the nicest and the least commonly known. “Gentoo penguin” is fun to say. When words end with “oo,” it makes the word better. Especially when the rest of the word doesn’t start with a stutter letter. I have a stutter that I don’t love. G is not a letter I stutter on. I like Gentoo penguins.

 Penguins are nice to humans, something that even we cannot seem to accomplish. We hate each other so much and that seems natural in our minds. When you see a pigeon on the sidewalk, you kick it away because the bird is not you. When penguins encounter humans, they are extremely nice. Why can’t we be like penguins?  Yeah, sure, we can hate people for their opinions and what they say. And if I’m being honest, I do that exact thing every day. Penguins don’t. They only hate if they are in danger.

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.

To Be Blocked

Diving off a racing block into a swimming pool. The anxiety – would I mess up? Would my goggles fall down? Would I publicly humiliate myself in front of my teammates? The swirl of thoughts going through my mind was endless. Water dripped off my back. I glanced behind me to see the other teammates giving me looks of encouragement. Glancing forward again, I saw the clear blue water with tiled lines in the middle of the lane. The clock ticked on as the person before me started heading back across the pool. I had to get ready. I adjusted my goggles onto my eyes and put my hands on the block. My teammate behind me was going to tell me to go so I went at the right moment. 

The dive itself was decent. My goggles luckily didn’t fall down, and I was able to gain some speed to push my team to second place. As my teammates high-fived me when I got out of the pool, I realized something. I wasn’t scared of messing up the dive itself. Well, I was, but the main reason was because I didn’t want to disappoint my teammates. Whenever a team doesn’t win, people want a reason. Someone to blame. I did not want to be that person. I didn’t want that responsibility of not winning to be placed on me. In the end, after the last person swam, we didn’t even win. Which was okay. At least it wasn’t my fault. But even if it was, it couldn’t be that bad, could it? My goggles would fall down. We would lose. No one would talk about the race to my face. They would have talked about it while I was swimming. List all things that I did wrong. Talk about me negatively. And the worst part is, when I came out, they wouldn’t say anything to me. But even if that did happen, I would survive. It would be fine. I would keep practicing and get better at my dive. And I wouldn’t be so nervous knowing the possibilities of what would happen. And it most likely will happen. Sometime in the future, once, if not many times.

Feeling Colors

Dear Blue

Dear Blue,

I hope you’re doing well.

But recently I heard you are doing quite bad.

I hope to meet today, by the morning bell.

So you can explain to me why you are feeling so sad.

Was it Red? Did he tease you again?

Or was it Yellow? Did he boast his intellect?

Did someone visit you at your den?

Please tell me, I have a suspect.

I think it was me!

I told you who I wanted you to be. 

I want you to know: that wasn’t me.

Feel better soon,

Your friend, Maroon.

Dear Maroon

Dear Maroon,

Thanks for checking in.

I hope you don’t think I’m mad.

Or in the loony bin.

When I say I’m not feeling bad. 

The truth is, I ran away from you.

Your constant blabbering of speech.

You say so many things I know aren’t true. 

So please, the next time you screech.

Don’t say what you want to be.

Because I’m really tired of you pretending to be like me.

I want you to know: you aren’t me.

I’m through with you,

See ya, Blue.

Dear Brown

Dear Brown, 

I have no idea what to do. 

The Rainbow Dance is coming up.

And I don’t know if I should ask Pink or Blue?

If they want to take my offer up.

To dance… with me. 

Pink is really cute. 

But Blue is beautiful as far as the eye can see.

It’s like two sides of my brain are in dispute.

So please, help me out.

So I no longer have to strut about,

Worrying about who to ask out.

I’ll promise I’ll pay,

For the advice, Gray.

Dear Gray

Dear Gray,

The choice is obvious.

I don’t mean to be mean.

But I’m just saying, you’re kind of oblivious.

I know exactly why you’d be keen.

I know I would.

The color is just perfect for you.

I promise, I know you should.

So don’t ask either Pink or Blue.

I’d very much like it if you asked me.

No pressure, but I can see,

That you clearly want to be with me.

So stop acting so down,

I’ll see you at the dance, Brown.

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? 

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. 

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 Negative Side of Stereotypes

When I was in eighth grade, I was on the phone with a friend and she was telling me about a seventh grader who took an eighth grade honors math class. This shocked me for two reasons: one, because of how smart he was, and second, because he was not Asian and did not fit into that “smart” stereotype. The “smart” stereotype that a certain group of people were smarter than others had gotten in my head and almost brainwashed me into thinking and believing that. Stereotypes are used all over the world and can cause many conflicts. It can negatively affect someone because stereotypes can cause unwanted failure and can refrain someone from being their best self. 

There are many outcomes of stereotyping, and a big one is that stereotypes can cause a lack of success. They have high and/or low standards and society expects people to reach and accomplish that standard. For example, a stereotype could be that boys excel at sports. This sets up a standard and an expectation that everyone expects from all boys. However, if a girl becomes good at a sport and is better than a boy, people are shocked. If a boy isn’t good at sports, he may feel defeated and disappointed that he could not reach that standard or expectation. On the flip side, if the standards of stereotypes are too low, it does not push the person to try harder or to be better.

Furthermore, stereotypes can refrain someone from being their best self. An example would be a stereotype threat. According to the article, “The Good, the Bad, and the What of Stereotypes”, a stereotype threat is defined as, “People who face a stereotype threat are always in fear of doing something that could potentially confirm a negative stereotype.” People have trouble truly being themselves due to the anxiety or fear that they might fit into a disliked stereotype. On the contrary, if you do fit into a stereotype, people expect you to only be that stereotype. For example, as written in “The Good, the Bad, and the What of Stereotypes”, if you are a class clown, people always expect you to be funny. So, if you are upset, people expect you to hide it because you are the class clown. Additionally, a physiological source, “What is Stereotype Threat,” gives evidence stating that, “Keller and Dauenheimer (2003) showed that girls’ reports of frustration, disappointment, and sadness accounted for poor math performance under stereotype threat.” This is all because of stereotypes and the “level” the person must reach because they are a certain race or gender.

Although some people may agree with this, others would say if you fail to reach people’s expectations, it can help the person learn and try again. This is a valid point, however, if you disappoint someone’s expectations, it can cause indifference and cause them to stop trying to meet everyone’s expectations. Another opinion about stereotypes is that there are some positive and uplifting stereotypes. For example, the “all Asians are smart” stereotype. While this stereotype may seem positive, if there is an Asian who may not be as intelligent, it would make them feel unacceptable to society. Also, stereotypes could be biased to a group. The other people who aren’t included in the stereotype can become overlooked or feel like they’re being left out.

All in all, the negative effects of stereotyping could include failure and can cause one to hide who they truly are. The high standards of stereotype leaves people with unwelcomed frustration and disappointment. People do not show their real personality because they are afraid that they will be wrongly categorized into a stereotype. Meanwhile, some may think that some stereotypes are positive, but it is most likely only positive to a certain group causing the others to feel unwanted. The day I called that friend and figured out about the seventh grader made me realize the powerful effect of stereotypes. Hopefully, the future generations will ignore all different stereotypes and prevent them from being used so that they won’t have a similar situation as I did.

Bibliography 

Prince, Karen. “The Good, the Bad, and the What of Stereotypes.” Taylor’s College 14 

May 2020 https://college.taylors.edu.my/en/life-at-taylors/news-events/news/the-good-the-bad-and-the-what-of-stereotypes.html

Stroessner, Steve and Good, Catherine. “What is Stereotype Threat.” Adapted by R. Rhys 

reducingstereotypethreat.org pp.10 

https://diversity.arizona.edu/sites/default/files/stereotype_threat_overview.pdf

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

My Deep, Dark Secret

RANDY

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

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

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

RANDY (CONT’D)

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

RANDY waddles to a stool on the stage.

RANDY (CONT’D)

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

(Lowers his voice; breath shaking.)

 I still love you.

(He lets out a little penguin cry.)

RANDY (CONT’D)

(At a whisper.)

Wenk.

BLACKOUT

The Summer Breeze

The summer breeze whistles through my hair 

It swims through the grass and trees

Makes the gleaming sun looks like a gem, so rare

And dances on the waves in the seas

Down on the beach, umbrellas shake

Knocking over ice cream, as if it wants the treat

And in the valley, wind darts across the lake 

Water splashes as the wind dances to the beat

But the summer breeze must transform

Another wind must interfere 

The draft still enters, but more like a storm

For fall, at last, has finally appeared

Thank You, 1844!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Excused

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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.

The Goose is the Garden

The goose is the garden

Is becoming overgrown we need to trim the weeds

Take over the driveway

Is really falling apart

From you I can’t seem to think 

About the mountains outside the window

Casts a shadow on the ground

Is made of water 

Reflects the clouds

Are shaped like a wolf chasing sheep

Escaped again the German shepherd 

Is so cute though how can you blame

Me every single time 

I see the milky way I think of all the milk I’ve spilled

The beans

For dinner do you mind if we have them again this week

Has been weird without you

I am nothing.

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

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.

Creation

(Italics are Jesse’s out loud thoughts while reading the essay.)

(Bold is the stage directions.)

Jesse is writing their college essay to the admissions officers of their dream college. They’re sitting on the campus of the college they’re hoping to get into called UCLA. They’re typing on their computer that is set up on the grassy dirt.

JESSE

From the start, I didn’t know where the hell I belonged. I probably should delete “hell.” I don’t think the admissions officers would appreciate my steller word choice. From the start, I didn’t know where I belonged. Now the sentence is bland, but I’m not using any cuss words just in case the officer reading my essay is ultra-Catholic or something. 

(Jesse stands up with their laptop clutched to their chest and starts to type more aggressively as they stand on the grass.)

I kept walking back and forth over this invisible line from the girls, who at that time were all obsessed with colored powder and sticky stuff you put on your lips for fun, which I never understood; and the boys, who would do very repulsive things like punch each other until one of them bled, and tackle each other over an oddly shaped ball (which I later found out was a football). I never understood that because if you liked someone and wanted to hang out with them, why would you want them to bleed? Why would you want to see them hurt? 

(Jesse starts pacing around the field/campus, still with the laptop clutched against their chest.)

Not everyone at my school was like this, but the people that would catch your eye in the hallway did those things and persuaded everyone around them to follow their lead and be part of their clique. I won’t name names since I’m not using this essay to tattletale. Rather, there was one person that led the clique with not an iron, but a gold fist. He or she, because it was only he or she, I guess loved to be and act old fashioned since all he or she wanted was “normalcy.” The last four years I’ve been asking, what’s normal? What is normal? I’m genuinely curious to see if anybody or anyone has an answer to this. A legitimate answer. If our teachers were really trying to teach us that everyone is different, then how come the word “normal” even exists? If everyone said that they were a genderless blob, would that be considered “normal”?

(Jesse stops pacing.)

 To be clear, practically all of my grade was one big clique of people that dressed in clothing I couldn’t afford and acted in a repulsive manner. They just didn’t seem to have any care about the people that didn’t fit their “ideal style,” whatever that meant. I spent most of high school pretending I was talking to some friends on the phone, reading numerous gender studies books like In Their Shoes by Jamie Windust, and desperately trying to find clothes that wouldn’t make me look like a girly girl or a jock. In my school at least, there was no in-between. The in-between was something I was trying to create, but no one was joining me because my bet was that they were scared of everything besides the status quo. 

(Jesse’s voice gets louder with more passion to it and they put down their laptop and walk to a nearby rock that’s on the field/campus and climb on top of it.)

I knew I had to do something. Not for me, not for my friends, but for the people out there who had similar feelings as me. Who had similar thoughts and desperately wanted change. On the very last day before spring break, (I’m currently writing this during break), I stood on the wobbly cafeteria table and asked the question to everyone who would listen, “Who am I?” One responded that I was a loner, one said genius, one said try-hard, yet no one said I was a man or a woman. I took note of that and responded, “No one here has said I am a man or a woman. I was expecting someone to mention what my gender or sex might be but no. 

(Jesse’s voice gets even stronger and louder with more passion and they start pointing at the invisible people in the crowd from the rock they’re standing on.)

None of you said anything about that. I was expecting someone to say I’m a guy for the way I dress or I’m a girl for my hobbies and interests. I believe the reason none of you mentioned that is because deep down you all know that everyone deserves to define themselves how they want to. Everybody. Every BODY. Who you are is who YOU are and not who somebody else is. Someone else is a woman, someone else is a man, some go by she/her/hers, some go by he/him/his, and you want to know who I am; what I go by? They/their/theirs, I am them. Respect that and I’ll respect you.” 

(Jesse walks back to their computer, stretches their hands and back, takes a big sigh, and sits down comfortably. Jesse’s voice softens.)

The amount of love and relief I felt afterward was tremendous. I felt more relieved than after I took the PSAT! One single moment I’ll forever remember and cherish is when that person with the gold fist looked up to me, smiled, nodded, and clapped along with everybody else. I knew right then and there I made at least some change, a good change. I didn’t fix the world, I didn’t fix everything, but what I did do was make a small yet huge improvement in my community that will very much spread to other communities and places around the globe. 

(Louder typing sounds.)

To whoever is reading this essay, thank you. Truly from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Whether I get into UCLA or not is honestly not my number one priority. My forever number one priority is inclusivity of every single body. Thank you.

Jesse hits the submit button on their laptop and gives themselves a round of applause as they stand up and take a deep breath. They did it. 

How To Persevere

Perseverance is something that everyone should want or have. It helps us reach our goals. But it’s not that easy to just start to persevere. In this short article, I hope I can teach you more about perseverance and how to implement it into your life. 

First, what does it mean to persevere? Who perseveres and how? According to Dictionary.com, perseverance means to have a “steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.” It is a quality that most “winners” and successful people must have. For example, let’s say you are taking a really hard test in school, and you forgot to study the day before. You keep going and keep trying even though your work isn’t great and you will ultimately fail the test. You keep on going and trying your best, even though the test might be challenging. You try to keep away your thoughts of how you will do on the test, and just keep trying and not giving up. 

Frontline workers, especially now, must persevere a lot through their work. If they do something wrong or if they are treating a challenging patient, they must persevere and not quit during the most challenging events. They need lots of motivation and perseverance to do their jobs. As previously mentioned, it is a quality that most “winners” and successful people must have. The most successful people such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, etc., also need lots of perseverance in their jobs, too. If something went wrong, or if something was challenging, they didn’t just end and quit there. They kept working towards their dreams, towards what they wanted, and never gave up. If they simply gave up, they would never be the famous successful people they are today. 

Now, let’s answer the question you all were waiting for. How do we teach ourselves to persevere? How do we implement the ability to persevere in our lives? First, you should encourage yourself. One of the cancers of progress is negative thoughts and negative self-talk. Negativity wants you to feel sorry for yourself and doubt your abilities to succeed. Think of yourself and your work positively. Never follow the path of, “If I failed one part, I failed the entire thing.” Nothing will ever get done on this path. Another piece of advice I can give you is to identify your goal or your “why.” Know why you are going for this goal and how it benefits you or others. Make sure the goal is meaningful to whatever you are doing. When starting a new project, know what you will do, what your intentions are for this, what you want to finish, etc. Finally, and this kind of goes along with negative thoughts and self-talk, don’t think negatively of the past or the future. Don’t let your past mistakes stop what you’re doing now. Live in the present. Try not to think of the future as a bad thing, too. Don’t get attached to what you do. This makes you have a greater fear of losing it and makes you doubt yourself more. 

All in all, perseverance is a very important quality to have and also may open up new opportunities. It might be hard to persevere at first, but I hope these few tips helped you to teach yourself what perseverance is and how to use it.

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.”

Hopes and Dreams

We, the successors of this country

Are grateful for being born in a country

Where there is freedom and democracy 

Where anybody can become president

Where you can be

My hopes and dreams are to become a president

Of a free country

Where you can say what you think

This country is not perfect of polished

This country is not striving

But is moving forward blindly

I hope this country will 

Accept people from different countries and cultures

People with different backgrounds and beliefs

We still have miles to go

Before we are perfect

But we are not trying to be perfect

Nothing is perfect

We should welcome people

But right now we aren’t

We have to start a new chapter in our lives

We have to treat everyone like Americans

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

On the Multi Regional Theory of Human Evolution

Nowadays, researching is a walk in the park compared to what it used to be like. Instead of having to go all the way to a library to find books with limited information on a subject, the seemingly endless expanse of information on the internet is at our fingertips. However, researching online still can be difficult, especially if you don’t really know what you are doing. A ton of things can go wrong, from using an unreliable source to not being able to access files, to just not asking the right questions. Personally, I think I am decent at finding information online — I generally check the sources I am using and I can make my questions specific enough to get fruitful results — but sometimes, I can get downright stumped on a topic; for example, when I tried to understand the Multiregional Theory of Human Evolution (MRE).

I tried to research MRE to write an essay about it (and, of course, because I was curious to know what it was). I could have chosen literally anything in the world and I decided to choose something that I knew absolutely nothing about. This obviously made the topic all the more irresistible to me, though. I had originally thought about writing the essay on ancient China, as ancient civilizations are just so fascinating. During my research into this topic, I stumbled upon the mention of a small ancient primate found relatively recently in China that gave some evidence for a theory of regional evolution (which could very well be different from MRE), and somehow found that the most interesting factoid in the article (again, probably because I knew nothing about it), after which I decided I would write about this rather than ancient China. I am sure that, even though there would be more articles with more information than MRE, a paper on ancient China would have been very involved and confusing too. The idea of a different theory on the evolution and migration of modern humans was intriguing to me. Of course, I understood that there were multiple theories on the topic (as there are on every topic) but I hadn’t ever explored an alternative to the Out of Africa Theory of Human Evolution (OOA). The OOA was taught at least every year of the three years of middle school, if not more, at the very beginning of the social studies curriculum, and is the generally accepted theory. I find it’s important to keep an open mind to new theories and ideas, as our understanding of the natural world can drastically change at any time. It also allows us to expand our thinking, keeping us away from the mental box that contracts thought saying, “This is the only way.” Keeping an open mind could lead to new, more accurate hypotheses, furthering scientific knowledge in general. Keeping an open mind in everyday life is also important. One must be able to try to understand and accept different viewpoints and opinions, even if they don’t match up with one’s own ideas of the world. Learning about MRE would increase my boundaries of understanding human evolution, and science in general.

Based on my understanding, MRE is an alternative theory to the evolution and migration of modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) to the more widely accepted OOA. It originally stated that humans (including archaic, meaning old, hominids and modern humans) did have some common ancestor, but evolution into modern humans existed when they were separated in various regions of the world. In other words, different groups of hominids evolved into modern humans simultaneously. In this theory, Africa had no specific role in human evolution. This theory was revised several times, eventually, agreeing with the Out of Africa Theory that Africa indeed did have an important role in human evolution and that Homo erectus (an earlier version of H. sapiens) evolved in Africa, migrated to various areas of the Earth, and then the various groups evolved into modern humans simultaneously. While OOA has the most support and evidence of these kinds of theories, MRE has an increasing amount of fossil and genomic data as supporting evidence.

Finding this much information was not exceedingly difficult, but diving deeper into the topic proved much harder. The only source that gave extensive information about MRE that I could actually understand was Wikipedia, and that isn’t really a great source. Anyone can post on Wikipedia, and, while it is good for getting the general idea of a topic, it’s not an appropriate source to cite for an essay or project. However, Wikipedia does give a useful place for sources, but those that I found from the multiregional theory page were hard for me to use. Some were books that one had to purchase and look through, some were PDFs with extremely small writing, and some were just too complicated for me to understand. Other sources were limited and were also hard to understand. In addition, I was often unsure if I was reading outdated or untrue information. MRE had been revised several times in the past, and I wasn’t quite sure how the theory had gradually evolved (even though I did know the general starting and ending ideas). I had also read in an article of complaints that science reporters had misinterpreted MRE when it had originally come out, so that furthered my skepticism of the articles I was reading. Because my grasp of the concept was so limited, I couldn’t know if I could trust what I was reading in the articles.

I should have known that attacking this difficult concept would be challenging, possibly too challenging because of the way I attempted to understand it. The easiest way, and possibly the only way, to learn something new and complex is to utilize the ever-useful method of reductionism. Reductionism is basically taking apart a complex idea or machine, learning how the smaller parts work, and then putting the smaller parts together to understand the larger concept/machine. Instead of using this method to understand MRE, I tried to figure it out all at once, which spelled disaster from the very beginning. First, I should have elaborated on what I already was relatively familiar with: OOA. As previously mentioned, this theory is the more accepted theory explaining human evolution and migration and is taught in schools. I would have to understand evolutionary genetics enough to understand the “Mitochondrial Eve,” a common female ancestor of almost all of humanity. She is hypothesized by scientists to understand the similarity of human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). I would have to understand morphological and osteological differences among hominids, primarily between modern humans and other hominids. I would have to understand different archaic and modern hominids (not in very much detail, just what they generally looked like, where they lived, and how they interacted with humans). Of course, to understand all of this I would have to go through more reductionism for each topic, which would take a lot of time and effort. To get a better understanding of what each theory actually is or isn’t, I would have to get at least a basic understanding of multiple theories, including MRE, OOA, the hybridization model, and the assimilation model. To the average onlooker, these models may seem more or less 99% the same, and, to be honest, some of them are very similar. However, even knowing all of these things would not give me all the information there is to know about MRE and other theories on the same topic.

I was unable to understand MRE to the extent that I wanted to, but I don’t regret trying. Staying curious allows one to be open to new ideas, which is beneficial to both the scientific world and the world in general. Gaining knowledge opens us up to more areas of the world and allows us to make connections among things. Being able to properly research something is an important skill that everyone should be able to use, especially in this day and age. In addition to the multitudes of factual information found on the internet, there is probably an equal amount of incorrect information. Knowing when to be skeptical of and when to trust a source prevents one from believing untrue things. From attempting to research MRE, I learned the hard way that you can’t just understand a topic, particularly a hard one, if you don’t know its basics and that you should be prepared to put a lot of time and effort into learning about it.

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.

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.

He Laughed like the Ocean

        

The tide pulled the water closer to my feet

He threw his head back

And bellowed

He laughed like the ocean

I sifted the sand through my fingers

Knowing what would happen if

I too

Did not laugh

He tries

I think he does

I know he does

I hope he does

But his heart was as cold as the Hudson River

Maybe even colder

I chuckled

There was no joke

I, like a child;

Asked to go into the water

The sun was setting

Every movie ever told me this was supposed to be romantic

But it’s not

He nods and and I jump up

Slowly walk towards the water

A woman stares at my scars

And all the ways he marked me

He tries

I think he does

I know he does

I hope he does

So I started running

Farther away from him

And closer to God

Or what I hope was God

I ran till my feet could no longer touch the sand

I kept swimming out into pinkness

That water was deeper than snow

Not colder

Just deeper

 

What Separates Them All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

The Bathroom Mirror (Excerpt)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Michael (Excerpt)

   

Chapter One

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Telekinesis Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get on the line,” he barked.

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

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

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

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

One asked, “How did you do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asked me, “Why are you sidestepping?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Animals in Captivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Purple Guard

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

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

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

After many long hours, the scanner started to beep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A clear male voice answered him.

“Call me whatever you want to call me.”

“Okay… Then I’ll call you Ray.”

“Okay.”

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

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

“Uhhh… Okay. Well, can I ride you?”

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alice’s Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But… ” the frog prompted.

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

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

“But I might want to go home!”

“Then, go home,” he lifted the door.

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

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

And then Alice was alone again.

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

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

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

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

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

Alice took the chance and stepped into the forest.

 

Germany

       

“Why can’t we leave this place?” Michael said.

“Why would you ever want to leave East Berlin? You have everything here. Food, school, medicine. Why would you ever want to leave?” his parents responded.

“I want to see the outside world!”

“Outside world? Pfft. Now go to bed before the Stasi comes to whip you!”

He went to bed without questioning it. He had seen people get whipped to the point of bleeding and get beheaded for more serious crimes on top of a platform that was right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where the scandalous West Germans over the wall as well as the public could see it happening. These people were people who tried to escape through the wall or tried to steal something and survived but got beheaded (head melted off with a very powerful laser) on a daily basis. After he thought of this idea, he got up quietly and got on his computer. He searched on Deutschesuche and searched how to leave Germany. His computer started freaking out and spewed warning messages saying, Warning. Leaving Berlin will result in death or severe punishment. Do not attempt to do so. You have been warned.

He hoped the government wouldn’t find out what he searched, but they controlled the Internet, so he thought they might have already known and would come to arrest him the next day. He heard footsteps and instinctively fell on the bed to pretend he was sleeping. The door opened with a creak behind him, and he heard his mom whisper, “I think he is asleep,” and closed the door behind her.

The next day at school, he asked around with the teachers and students about how to leave Berlin. It was like the word “leave” didn’t ring a bell in their head. Besides the one or two people who whispered to him about how people got punished and beheaded for trying, the rest just stared at him blankly and said, “What?”

When he asked his friend Fritz, he said, “Shhh!! Don’t ever say that in public! If the Stasi gets wind of that, they’ll kill you and your parents at Brandenburg gate! No questions asked.”

He thought he might have already alerted the Stasi that he wanted to escape because he had basically asked everyone in the school. People had been known to rat out their friends and family so they would get a reward or a promotion in school or work. He couldn’t even trust his friends or parents. They could have easily turned him in and not blinked an eye. One lead he could follow was an old baker, a friend of his when he was little, who owned a bakery down the street and had tons of books in a secret closet. He used to read Western stories to him. But when he escaped through a tunnel that he built under the shop, which only he knew about, he found that the bakery was abandoned along with the books and the tunnel. He had not visited the place since.

A few blocks down the road was the bakery, an old building around when the cruel Nazis were around. The third and second floors were bombed out and boarded over the sign and the windows. He went to the back of the building and opened a dusty door, which creaked. He walked down the stairs to the basement. If you looked at the basement, there was nothing wrong with it. There was a pile of boxes in one corner and three sacks of flower in the other. But he knew there was a small tunnel just behind the pile of boxes. He moved the boxes with some effort and stared down the long, damp, and low tunnel. He crouched and moved forward. It felt like forever, but finally he made it to the end of the long tunnel. He came out in an old building’s basement. He could tell it was a basement because of all of the house junk that was lying around. He climbed up a hatch and got onto the street.

He heard, “Hello.” He understood that was English. He had made it.

 

Summer Bod: An Analysis of Body Image and its Impact on Young Women

Marilyn Monroe once said, “To all the girls that think you’re fat because you’re not a size zero, you’re the beautiful one. It’s society who’s ugly.” In the cruel environment we live in today, society’s wrath of a constant strive for perfection gets intentionally strung and tightened on the necks of so many young women. The media take a condescending pull at the puppet strings that control our lives, teaching people to not love and appreciate themselves but to instead strive for an image that a nonexistent monster (named society) created. Because of this horrible creature, self-esteem is threatened through advertisement, lack of representation in entertainment, and social media.

The dominance of the advertising industry uses a force-feeding strategy to commercialize a product by first demonstrating the idea that there truly is a problem to begin with. This mainly exists cosmetically with a constant strive to be “beautiful.” This endorsement approach not only sets unrealistic expectations, due to constant photo editing, but can even cause eating disorders for many young women. During a February 2018 photoshoot with a Riverdale star, Lili Reinhart, pictures of Reinhart were taken and photoshopped for Cosmopolitan Philippines’ monthly issue. Not only did this action bring outrage to the star herself, it also brought many unrealistic expectations for young girls across the country. With expectations being labeled as what makes you cosmetically “beautiful,” people often look to products the advertisers are trying to sell on the ads, even if there was never a true problem to begin with.

A lack of diversity and rendition in the categories of race, economic standing, and sexuality also leads to an overall decline in self-esteem. According to the Thrive Global website, “[A] lack of representation is isolating — it causes one to perceive themself as ‘different’ and unusual. Minorities and marginalized groups need to know they are included and celebrated as a regular part of the world.” (Thrive Global). In addition to this existing in the entertainment industry, social quarantine exists in the cosmetic industry. When selling foundations, many makeup companies across the world lack specific or even any darker toned products. When Rihanna’s Fenty beauty foundations were released, the darker shades, which were in a greater and more specific scale, sold out everywhere on the first day. This amazing accomplishment proved how more cosmetic diversity was needed but also how wrong beauty companies who believed that darker tones wouldn’t sell were.

Lastly, social media and its constant grind for attention has taken a toll on self-esteem in its own way. With each notification scientifically designed to release a chemical called dopamine, the system of followers, likes, and comments strikes a yearning to receive attention through “likes.” So, many people today constantly compare themselves to others with more likes or followers, which often leaves them with a feeling of worthlessness and a decline in self-appreciation. According to The Huffington Post, “60% of people using social media reported that it has impacted their self-esteem in a negative way” (HuffPost). In addition to this impact, social media also leaves people at a strong reliance on approval from others, even if it is through a screen.

Society’s wrath on so many young women creates a hankering to be superficially beautiful. Through objectifying ads, not enough delineation, and Instagram’s (and other networking sites’) hierarchical platform based on how many taps your photo received, my generation’s obsession with being prepossessing and personable has come to a high point in time. If we continue on this route, it will soon become impossible to see the true beauty in ourselves and in others.

 

Works Cited

https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/the-influence-of-the-advertisement-industry-on-childr  en-and-eating-disorders

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d

http://time.com/4459153/social-media-body-image/

 

Little Lemon

Once upon a time, in the village of sugar lemons, Momma and Poppa Lemon had just announced the arrival of Lester the Lemon. Even from miles away, you could still hear Lester crying while his parents were celebrating. Sugar Lemon Land is all yellow and happy. There are positive quotes everywhere. The water is bright blue and sparkling. Everyone knows everyone.

“Lester, sweetie, don’t cry,” said Momma Lemon. Sweet lemons normally learn to speak right when they are born, so Momma could tell something was wrong. Speaking was an important aspect in sweet lemon life, because they need to communicate if they lose a sugar crystal or if a drop of juice gets squeezed out of them. If any of those problems occur, they will be taken to Sugar Sweet Lemon Rescue Center and get fixed, and if they don’t get fixed, they could have a permanent scar or injury forever. At day care, Lester was the only lemon who could not speak, and the teachers couldn’t give him what he needed. Ten different teachers came, and not one of them could teach Lester to speak. On Lester’s first birthday, a big surprise appeared. Lester spoke, and his first words were…

“When can I eat the sugar cake?” Momma and Poppa were overjoyed. At day care, Lester started making friends now that he could say “hi” or “what’s your name.” Lester was about to turn two when another obstacle came along.

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday… ” sung Lester’s friends. At that moment, Lester realized something. He saw that all his friends were sugared, and he was the only lemon that was sour. He suddenly felt so alone, so different. He ran into his room and shut the door. Back in the living room, Momma and Poppa were deciding whether they should talk to Lester or leave him be.

“I can’t believe he found out this way!” exclaimed Momma.

“I know, on his birthday as well. Let’s get him a sugar suit!” said Poppa.

“Are you crazy?! That would make Lester feel even worse!” said Momma. Up in Lester’s room, he was lying in his bright yellow bed, reading The Yellow Book: Volume Two. Then suddenly he thought, It’s okay that I am different. It means that I am special. I will prove that I am the same, maybe better than those sugar lemons! And with that, Lester jumped out of bed and opened the door. He looked at the better picture.

Even though sometimes Lester was left out, he also didn’t have to deal with problems like losing a sugar crystal. But Lester wanted to enjoy sugar lemon activities. He wanted to play Don’t Lose Sugar Hopscotch and Sugar Swimming Class. His friends included him as much as they could, but sometimes they just couldn’t. His parents tried to sugar him, but the sugar fell right off. There was also one problem. Lester couldn’t smile. He was sour. He wanted to, but he always had a bitter, mean look on his face which gave him a threatening appearance, even though he had a kind heart.

So for a few more years, life went on in the same way. He graduated from middle school, high school, and college. He got a job as a chef making banana pie and other yellow foods. Then one day, Lester did something unforgettable. He saved someone from going to Sugar Sweet Lemon Rescue Center. So here’s the story. It was a normal day, and Lester was taking a walk along Lemon Lane, and he saw a little lemon eating ice cream. Suddenly, he saw a sugar crystal fall off of her from the lemon peel. It was like in slow motion. He jumped and caught the crystal and put it back on her.

“Thank you so much, sir!” she said.

“You’re welcome. Make sure that doesn’t happen again!”

Soon, every lemon knew. News spreads fast like a busy bee. Lester became famous. He received huge amounts of money, which he donated to charities to help find new cures for illnesses, such as rotton sugar disease and such. He got the Sugar Award for saving a little lemon and when he got the reward, he smiled. A big, fat, non-sour smile.

 

John the Cow, Escape Artist

The cow was named John. He loved to play with his master named Ron. Ron was a good master because he could be playful like when he patted John on his head, but he was sometimes bossy. Ron would also whip John. John was brown with white spots. One day, John was thinking about running away. He knew his master would know that he ran away by morning, but that would give him at least five hours to run. So that night, John started to escape. He ran and ran until it became dawn. He was so far away from his home that he did not know where he was. It was still countryside, which told him that he still was not away from his master. He continued to roam around until he stopped at a small village. He was curious because he had never been to one before. He walked up and down the street until he felt tired. He went to one of the alleyways and fell asleep.

Sleeping in the alleyway was dark and cold. John was used to the warmth of the barn. When he woke up, he was in a truck. Had his master found him? Where was he going? These questions scared him, so he tried not to think about them. When the car stopped, he could make out the word Slaughterhouse. He was going to get killed. He had to find a way to escape. When John clomped out of the truck, two men grabbed him and dragged him to the slaughterhouse. He got put in a locked cell, so he could not escape. He guessed that he had 24 hours to escape before he got slaughtered for meat. He had to come up with a plan, and quickly, for his life. Just then, a person shot a tranquilizer dart in his body, and he fell to the ground.

While John was sleeping, he had a dream about a plan that would get him out of the slaughterhouse. He would break the door of his cell open with all his might, then when the security came, he would go out the back entrance where there was no security because that was where the food got loaded up and shipped to markets in the country. He would run to the nearest ranch where he could blend in and sleep for the night, and maybe even make a friend to help him in his journey of running, though he would not give help to them after they ran with him. He had the perfect plan, all he needed to do was execute it.

At midnight, John broke the chain of his cell and started for the back entrance. He was met with security at the back end to his surprise. He tried to back away, but one of the men saw him.

“Cow!” he shouted and started chasing him.

John’s only chance to escape was to go through the main entrance which was heavily guarded. At least the guards at the front did not know what was happening. He had the element of surprise. John ran at full speed toward the gate which shocked the guards. At the last possible second, he jumped the fence and ran away from the slaughterhouse.

John started to roam around, trying to find a barn to stay at. He wanted to find a cow who would help him in his travels. At 9:00 P.M., he finally found a small barn to sleep in. It was a little smaller than his original barn, but it would do fine. Quietly, John crept into the barn. After he lay down, sleep overcame him, and he dozed off. In the morning, John woke up and looked at the other cows. When he talked to some of them, nobody wanted to run away with him. Saddened by this, John skipped breakfast and headed on his way. As he walked and enjoyed himself, he started to wonder what he was going to do now that he was free. All he wanted to do was to live in peace and not get captured. Suddenly, another cow came down the road. She was white with brown spots, and she was pretty.

She asked, “What are you doing out here?”

John said, “I am on a mission to stay away from captivity.”

“I hate being stuck in a barn. Mind if I join you?”

“I don’t mind,” said John cheerfully.

“I escaped by jumping the fence because I was curious what you were doing,” said Stephanie.

John and his friend Stephanie began talking about their lives and how they got to this point in life.

“I was born on a farm that was very small. My master’s name was Shawn. He was a well-caring man because he would always give me enough food to eat. He would tend to me every time I mooed, and I liked him. One day I mooed, and he did not come. This was strange because it was nearly noon, and Shawn should have been awake. Then, an ambulance showed up. I heard the sirens like it was my master calling. I figured out that the ambulance had taken my master to the hospital. I loved Shawn, and I didn’t want him to die.”

Stephanie told John that she had been living in the barn for five years and had never seen the real world. Stephanie and John decided that they wanted to live together, so John got a job killing weeds. He saved up five hundred dollars to buy a big shack.

John was living in a big shack with his wife Stephanie in Oklahoma.

“I don’t want to live in the small room,” said John. “I am bigger than you Stephanie.”

“But I want to be in the bigger room,” replied Stephanie angrily. “I’m staying here and that’s final.”

“You are being more bossy than Ron,” replied John angrily. He just wanted to get over it. “Fine. I’ll let you have the bigger room.”

“Thank you.” Stephanie put her hoof around his head and gave him a hug.

“I remember the old days when I hated my life. Those days are over now, and I have a new future ahead of me that I am waiting for us to explore together.”

 

Sandy VS The World

It was a cold, windy day in December. Sandy was huddled into the corner of the barn. The barn was empty except for her. The owners did not keep it very tidy, as there was hay scattered all around, and her deer poop was also scattered. The roof was crumbling, and the paint was coming off the walls. It was pouring outside, with thunder and lightning that made Sandy scared. She tried to make herself comfortable, but she couldn’t. She kept shivering, her teeth chattering. She wished she wasn’t alone. She wished there was someone, anyone, to hold her close and tell her it would be okay. Sandy knew that it wasn’t. Something was off, something happened, something was wrong. The owners did not like other animals, they only liked deer. The owners were not like any other owner Sandy knew. Sure, they fed Sandy and took care of her, but they weren’t the same. For one thing, the owners did not like other animals, only deer. They also rarely went outside of their property, only to buy groceries and other things like that. On top of that, they treated Sandy like a dog, which in some ways was good. Sandy learned how to be civilized and stay calm while someone pet you. She learned how to eat dog food, much to her dismay. The only thing that wasn’t like a dog was that she lived in a barn. She figured this was because the owners did not have much space in the house. She was used to this and was not ready to leave her home and be a normal deer like everyone else.

***

When Sandy awoke, the air was clean and bright, almost like last night didn’t even happen. The sky was blue, clouds were white, Sandy was calm. She walked to the front of the barn and used her nose to push the door open. The ground was wet and when Sandy took each step, the water flew up into the air like a bird. She walked towards the house. Her head was held high, trying to keep positive. She again pushed the door open with her nose. The owners always kept the door mostly open so Sandy could get in. They didn’t fear that she would run away. She pushed it open and saw her owners. At first, Sandy thought they were sleeping but when she stepped closer, she saw the owners’ face, their eyes fully closed, not wanting to open ever again. Their fingers were cold when Sandy put her head on them. Their faces were wrinkled but looked even more wrinkled than the last time she saw them. Then, Sandy started hearing rain. Then, thunder and lightning. Sandy jumped onto the bed with her dead owners and cuddled, wishing they were still alive. She stayed there for a little while, not knowing how long. Then, she got up and walked out of the room and onto the first floor. She walked out of the house and into the barn. She cuddled in the corner just like last night.

A few hours later, Sandy saw a stick pushing at her body. She looked up and saw a man with sunglasses and a blue uniform. He stopped pushing the stick into Sandy’s body when he saw that she “woke” up. The man was moving his mouth, but Sandy didn’t understand what he was saying. Then, he pointed outside of the barn. Sandy stayed still. The man pointed again. She stayed where she was. Then, the man took the stick and slapped it onto Sandy’s back. Sandy whimpered quietly. She stood up and slowly walked out of the barn. The man growled and left too. Then, he closed the barn door and locked it. Sandy saw yellow tape around the house, her house. She started running towards the house, but another man in a blue uniform stopped her. He also pointed her away, so Sandy left. She walked into the forest and kicked the sticks off the ground. The leaves fell on her face when she walked. Sandy sat down on a rock. Soon, it started to rain. She didn’t move under the tree. She let the rain drip on her skin. The rain moved down her back and onto the floor. Sandy just stayed there, not moving. She was scared, sad, and angry. When she finally did move, she wandered around the forest looking for food, any food, so that she could survive. Soon she saw some berries hanging from the trees. She lifted her head up and ate the berries. They were a little raw, but good enough for her to eat. She ate more berries until she was full. The berries made her a little drowsy, but she powered through and looked for water. She found a lake nearby where she was. She started licking the lake rapidly, leaning more and more forward. She was becoming careless, and soon enough, she fell headfirst into the lake.

Sandy couldn’t swim. She had tried to learn in the small river near the house. It resulted in her almost drowning and a wet house. Now she tried to remember the weird motions her owners had made to tell her how to swim. There was one that made a motion like scooping ice cream. Sandy tried that one now, and realized her limbs were too short to make the motion. Then, she remembered one where you made your hands go up and down frantically. She liked that one more. But soon she was too tired to do that one, and the lake was moving too fast. Sandy worried what would be beyond the river or if it went forever. She hoped it would be a big rock that would stop Sandy from moving and would allow her to go to shore. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When she came to the end of the lake, she saw that there was a waterfall. As she got closer and closer, she frantically tried to hold onto shore or at least not fall into the waterfall. Her hand fell on a piece of grub, and she managed to pull herself mostly up from the water. As she was about to step her foot on the land, a large wave washed her back and under the water. When she finally did get up from the water, she saw the waterfall just a few feet ahead of her. She knew she was doomed, so she closed her eyes and waited.

When she fell off the waterfall, her body was a mess. Her arms were frozen from the water, and her legs were cut from a rock in the bottom of the lake. Her body was soaked, her face scratched up. When she hit the water, her whole body slapped on it, hard. She was suppressed under the weight of the water. She pulled herself up and was very relieved to see land in front of her. She walked onto the land, bruises and all. At least she wasn’t dead. She found a leaf to cover her bleeding. She took it and laid it on top of her body. She let the blood ooze out of her leg and onto the leaf. Sandy ripped some of the leaf off and with some sap from the tree next to her, she put it onto her leg. Her owners did this to her when she got hurt, which was a lot. Sandy slowly stood up and walked, or rather limped, to the edge of the forest. She didn’t care what the man in the blue uniform had done to her. She wanted to be home and safe. She sneaked around the house and into the back door. She knew that the men wouldn’t know to come in this way since it was covered in moss and grass. When Sandy walked in, she saw men all over the house. She didn’t care though. She was done with the forest. She stayed low and avoided them as much as she could. She walked up the stairs where they were all huddled around the fire. Sandy went up to the owners’ room. The owners were not there. Sandy wished they were there, sleeping in their bed with Sandy between them, just like it was when Sandy was a baby.

A sudden knock jolted Sandy awake. Sandy quickly moved under the bed. Through the blankets she saw another person with a blue uniform, this time a woman. She heard moans and things that she couldn’t make out. Then, the officer started walking around the room, almost looking like she was looking for someone or something. The officer was getting closer and closer to Sandy until she was at the bed. Sandy’s body was shaking uncontrollably, The officer’s head slowly moved downward until it saw Sandy. Sandy jumped, and her head hit the bottom of the bed. Her body felt lifeless for a second until the officer grabbed her and carried her out of the room. Sandy was strung over the officer’s shoulder and carried outside of the door. The officer laid Sandy down on the pavement. She pet Sandy’s head softly. The officer took out a first aid kit and took out a bandage. She softly put it on Sandy’s head to stop the bleeding. For a while, the officer sat there beside Sandy until she had enough strength to stand up and go back into the forest.

***

Sandy was wet, cold, hungry, but most of all, alone. She didn’t want to be in the forest, but no matter what she did, she always ended up there. It was like the forest wanted her forever. Sandy knew she wasn’t meant to be in the forest. She was meant to be in the barn or in a house! Sandy was walking around the forest, perhaps to get some exercise, or to clear her brain of the horrible things that had happened to her. Her feet scratched the dirt down below. She focused on the different footprints. Large, small, large, ahh! Sandy had bumped into something. She looked up and saw herself? No, it wasn’t herself. It was another deer? It had brown marks on its nose and blueish eyes. The deer had the same color fur as Sandy but instead of having white spots in the back, it had a fully brown coat. Its ears were much bigger than Sandy’s but had the same shape. The nose was also bigger than Sandy’s but had the same color. The other deer grunted and brushed past Sandy, but as it did, Sandy tripped on a small rock and fell on top of the other deer. The deer grunted again. Sandy sheepishly stood up and shook the leaves off of her body, but instead of the leaves falling on the ground, it fell on the other deer. The deer grunted. Sandy saw a tree nearby with berries that she could store for the winter. The deer was watching her as she opened her mouth and started to bite the berries. Just then, the other deer pushed her away from the tree and shook its head. Sandy understood, she wasn’t supposed to eat that berry. The other deer took the berry and held it in its hoof. Sandy stepped forward. The other deer pointed to some black spots on the berry. Sandy nodded. The deer signaled to follow. Sandy followed. The other deer walked to the middle of the forest. Sandy saw a hole in the ground. She assumed it was his barn. The other deer jumped into the hole and disappeared. Sandy stood still for a moment, and then she too jumped into the hole. The hole was dark and only lasted a moment until she came to the deer’s barn. The barn was dark and wasn’t especially cozy. It had some moss in the corner, probably for sleeping. Another hole was there for going up. When Sandy looked up, she saw the ground, nothing more. The other deer lay down on the moss and closed its eyes. Sandy stayed where she was and sat down. She thought of her owners, how they held her close when she was scared, how they made her feel warm and cozy inside, how they taught her everything she knew which apparently didn’t help her in the wild. Sandy decided to wake up the other deer since she was bored. Sandy lightly tapped the other deer on the shoulder. The other deer jolted awake and groaned. It looked up at Sandy who was looking down at it. It slowly stood up until it was fully standing on the floor, then it started to move across the barn and up the ladder. Sandy followed, but the other deer stopped her, almost to get rid of her. Sandy waited until it was fully up the ladder and couldn’t stop her. Then, she too went up the ladder. The other deer was drinking water on the lake. Sandy was thirsty too, so she got some water too. She was again becoming careless, just caring about water. Then, it happened again. She fell in, but she didn’t. The other deer had stopped her. It had grabbed Sandy’s leg and pulled her up to land. Phew! Sandy knew she needed a protector, but she didn’t want one, so she just left. Into the wild.

Sandy shivered in the cold. She saw a man in green and white carrying a weapon of some sort. She had seen it on the owners’ wall. Sandy tried to hide from the man but soon enough, the man saw her. He quickly pushed something that made a bullet fly past Sandy’s face. Sandy’s face went pale when she saw it make a hole in the tree behind her. She couldn’t even see it anymore, only the hole that it had made. She wondered what would happen if it had hit her instead. She didn’t want to know. Soon another bullet was shot, Sandy ran as fast as she could. She didn’t want to run, but she had to. Her legs started moving as soon as the second bullet was shot. She soon was out of breath and had to stop. More bullets kept coming. Sandy shivered again but not because she was cold. The man came closer and closer, his weapon slowing him down. Sandy whimpered when she saw the gun aimed right at her face. She waited for the moment, but it didn’t happen. She looked down and saw what had stopped it.

The other deer had sacrificed its life for Sandy. Blood oozed out of the deer’s chest. Sandy felt a tear trickle down her cheek. She took a leaf and sap even though she knew there was no hope. Sandy looked up and saw the hunter. He aimed at Sandy, and Sandy realized he wanted the other deer for himself. Sandy ran away in fear, although she would miss the other deer a lot. She ran out of the forest and still saw the yellow tape and blue uniforms. She saw the woman policeman that had taken care of her and walked over to her. The woman smiled as Sandy put her head on her neck. The woman then looked at Sandy seriously and started to carry her through the streets. Sandy didn’t feel alone anymore. She felt welcomed and loved. The officer stopped at a house labeled 491. Sandy had learned to read from her owners. Endless hours and hours of letters and words finally paid off. The street was dirty mostly. She saw some stray dog near the trash can. She saw dirt on a lot of the houses which somehow made Sandy feel more welcome. The officer obviously didn’t have a lot of money, but Sandy liked that better. The officer opened the door and stepped inside. The officer started to write something on a piece of paper. The officer held it up for Sandy to see. It read welcome home.

 

19 minutes

I woke up in the morning to realize that my alarm clock hadn’t even gone off yet. It was only four in the morning. Meh, who cared? I would be early for work. Plus, I was the head of the company, no one could get mad at me for being early — right?

Wrong. My assistant publisher was always screaming at me, like, “Grant! Don’t forget your meeting at ten o’clock sharp!” Blah blah blah. Now, I know that I talked about her as if she were annoying, and don’t get me wrong, she was; but she was a real lifesaver.

One time, I had planned a meeting with the president of France, and I totally forgot about it. But thanks to her screaming, I didn’t miss it. Today though, I’m not here to tell you about how dumb I could be sometimes, because today I’m going to the Amazon rainforest. I was flying to a lab where they tested on plants — or, that’s what they said. I was here to find out if that’s what they really did.

Nine hours later, I was at the Harper Labs Plant Experimentation Center. First of all, the place was huge. I don’t mean like the White House huge, I mean like if the Empire State fell over huge. I was twenty-three, and I was the most famous reporter in the world. That meant I’d seen a lot of things, but never something like this. They had hundreds of thousands of plants everywhere. If they were trying to hide something, it was one hell of a cover story. Dean — the man who scheduled all of my interviews — broke me out of my daydream.

“Grant, Grant!”

“Huh,” I replied like an idiot.

“Your interview is in a half hour, so pull yourself together!”

“Sure, dude,” I replied. Dean acted all tough, but on the inside he was a total softie. I’d actually known Dean since I was 15. He was 17 at the time, but we were — and still are — best friends. Dean told me that the name of the man who was going to give us a tour of the lab was Jaden William Smith. When he came to give us the tour, I was quite surprised to find that Jaden was actually a man in his mid-thirties, tall (about six foot one), with light blond hair and green eyes.

“Welcome to Harper Labs. My name is Jaden Smith, but you can just call me Jaden.”

“Thank you for having us,” I replied, slightly in awe.

“So, you ready for that tour?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Please, just call me Jaden.”

“Okay,” I replied.

 

After about a half day of the tour we, ended like this.

“This is the experimentation room,” Jaden said, pointing to a room on the right, “and finally, this is the testing room.”

“What are all those rooms?” I asked, wondering why he hadn’t shown us those rooms.

“Oh, just boiler rooms,” he replied.

I wasn’t convinced, so I said, “Why do you have so many?”

“It’s a big building.”

“Ah I see,” still suspicious.

“Dean,” I said, “can I have a word”

“Sure, wassup?”

“Well, you know the boiler room?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, I don’t think they’re boiler rooms.”

“Why?” he asked curiously.

“Well, why do they need so many boiler rooms in the Amazon?” I told him.

“Big building,” he suggested.

“I don’t think so, let’s check.” I walked up to the door and turned the knob.

“Damn, it’s locked. Dean?”

“On it,” he replied. What most people didn’t know about Dean is that he studied in the police force. Nobody knew why he became my interview assistant. If anybody asked him why, he would just say that he didn’t want to talk about it. Thanks to his experience though, he knew how to open locked doors.

We couldn’t be seen, so I told Dean to stop. I went over to Jaden and asked him where the bathroom was. “Two hallways to the left,” he said. I thanked him and called Dean to come. When we got to where he said the bathroom was, we kept walking until we got to a boiler room. Dean worked his magic, and the door clicked. The first thing I noticed was that it was freezing in there. This was no boiler room. The next thing I saw were shelves, thousands of them, lined with a purple liquid. The room was huge, as if it took up half of the lab, but how could that be? We had already seen two-thirds of it. Then, I realized that this room was far bigger than that. It stretched about four floors down. I looked at Dean to see him staring at everything through slitted eyes.

“Dean,” I whispered. “This can’t be a la –”

Beep! Beep! Beep! A loud alarm went off, and then we heard a voice over the speaker. “Evacuate the premises quickly. We have had a leak in sector 1382 C.”

“What the… ” I was confused. What was sector 1382 C? What type of leak? I checked my watch, and it was 6:22. Then, I was reminded of the evacuation. Dean and I dashed out of the place and into the hallway. It was chaotic. People were running everywhere, but as a reporter, my job was to find out what was happening. I started running against the tide, Dean on my back, until bam! I lost consciousness for a moment. When I came to my senses, Dean was standing in front of me with a woman. She resembled my sister Claire. Wait. It was my sister Claire. She helped me up and told me to follow her. She led us into a strange room with lots of strange looking animal statues.

“Claire! What are you doing here?”

“Hi, brother. I work here.”

“What! You told me you were a travel agent.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not. We need to get out of here.”

“No. Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

“Ugh. Fine. This isn’t a lab for plant experimentation.”

“Yeah, I realized that,” I interrupted.

She continued, “It’s actually an animal mutation center.”

“What do you mean? What about the purple liquid. Is it — ”

“You saw that?”

“Of course, it’s my job to see what people don’t want me to see.”

“I knew it was a bad idea bringing you here. You find things out too quickly.”

“Well, can you explain to me what’s going on please?”

“Okay. Umm, so the purple serum is called a SeurgaGene Serum, and it’s supposed to help us speak to animals. The leak that you heard about over the speakerphone is referring to the serum.”

“Okay, so what’s the problem?”

“The serum is still in the testing phase, so there is no telling what it will do to the animals in the rainforest.” Just then, a huge bang hit the other side of the wall. I checked the door window. A huge jaguar was walking down the hallway. There was blood everywhere. The large animal was carrying two humans — dead humans. A man and a woman. Horrified, I noticed that the the man was Dr. Jaden Smith. He had blood on his neck and looked like he had died terrified. The woman I did not recognize, but I could tell that she had been a very good-looking woman, no more than twenty eight.

I checked my watch. 6:41. It had been 19 minutes since the leak, and the animals had already started to react. I ran to my sister and said, “Wha — ” She covered my mouth with her hand. I looked into her eyes and saw her fear. She removed her hand from my mouth and shushed me. By now, I realized that the animal has heard us. Claire showed us a secret exit, and we ran. I heard glass shatter, and I realized that the jaguar was following us. I turned to see the jaguar leap at me, and then I screamed. I closed my eyes and wondered why I was not dead. I opened my eyes and saw that the animal was on the ground.

“Is it — dead?” I ask, horrified.

“No, it’ll just be too weak to do anything for a few minutes. Now, let’s get moving,” my sister said, like it was obvious. We followed her outside, and that’s when we saw about forty animals waiting in front of the lab. They immediately noticed us, and Claire shot darts until she ran out of ammo. Crap, we were screwed.

“Run!” Claire shouted. If the other animals hadn’t noticed us earlier, they definitely noticed us now.

We ran through the jungle until we ran into a nest of anacondas. “SSSSSSStttttooooooo pp,” I heard a voice in my head.

“What? Who said that,” I said out loud.

“You are looking at us,” replied the voice in my head. I looked at the anacondas.

“How can you talk to me?” I asked.

“Yessss, now I suggest you run before I kill you.” He didn’t even answer my question.

“Come on, let’s go,” Claire shouted.

“Okay,” I replied. We started running. I looked back to realize to my horror that the anacondas were slithering after us. My sister stopped.

“Why did you stop?” I looked at her, panicking as I realized that the snakes were closing in.

I looked at what my sister was looking at, and I realized that we were on the edge of a cliff. A huge waterfall hit the bottom into a river. Jump. It was our only option. I breathed deeply and told my sister, “Follow me.” She looked at me confused, and then I jumped. I hit the water, and then I saw nothing.

 

Change It Now

I was walking home from school on a normal Wednesday afternoon. I woke up, ate a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast, walked to school, and had a great day. I had aced my spelling test, and someone gave me a Fruit Roll-Up during lunch. My life as a second grader couldn’t be better. My mom said she would buy me ice cream after school because she was so proud of me, so we were on our way there. I thought nothing could ruin my perfect mood. But then, in front of me, I saw an evil man. He had a gray beard and a hunchback. He was wearing a long black coat that looked a size too big for him. He had just finished his milkshake, and he threw his cup on the sidewalk! I couldn’t believe it! There was a garbage can at the end of the block he was on, but he still threw it on the ground. How selfish of him! Now over my seven years of life I had seen people do this time and time again, and I always thought that I couldn’t do anything about it because I was just a little girl, but there was something about today that felt different. Maybe it was the fact that I had a little extra sugar from the Fruit Roll-Up, or a little extra confidence from acing my test, but I decided to go confront him.

I sprinted away from my mom, despite her screaming at me to stop. I stopped right behind this man and poked his back. He looked at me over his shoulder, and for the first time, I saw his full face. He had small brown eyes and chapped lips. He squinted at me, turned around, and mumbled, “What do you want.”

“Hello sir,” I said, trying to mask my fear. He squinted at me again. “Well, I saw you dropped your milkshake cup on the floor, and I was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind possibly picking it up?”

“Okay, I guess I’ll do it next time.” He rolled his eyes and began to walk away, but I knew he was lying to me. So, I walked in front of him and stopped him again.

“What do you want now,” he said.

“I don’t believe you. I don’t think you are going to do it next time.”

“So? Why do you care? It’s not my job. There’s other people who can do that. Now let me walk home.”

I knew he was a stranger, and I knew I shouldn’t have even talked to him in the first place, but I felt the anger boiling up inside of me. This happened to me a lot. I would become furious at people like this all the time. Usually, I just ignored it, but instead, I exploded.

“No! You just don’t get it.” I was almost screaming by now. “It is nobody’s job but your own! You know that polar bears and penguins and even dolphins are dying because of you!”

“Whatever,” he mumbled. “Get out of my way, you little brat.” I was mad. I was really, really mad, but this man was scary, with his wrinkled hands that looked like they could knock me out in a second and his creepy squinting eyes. I decided to let him go. I walked back to my mom.

“Mommy! That man threw his cup on the ground and didn’t pick it up, even though I reminded him to!” My mom gave me this look that I got a lot. A pitiful smile, sad eyes. She looked at me like I was some crazy kid who didn’t understand the world. I hated it.

“Honey, it’s okay. He’ll throw it out next time. Also, what did I tell you about talking to strangers! It’s not safe. You’re just a little girl.”

She said it. Those words that I had heard time and time again. They made me so mad. I knew I was smarter than every grown-up who had said this to me, but there was nothing I could do about it.

“Okay, Mommy. I understand.” Suddenly, my day wasn’t so great anymore. I didn’t want ice cream. I walked the rest of the way home with a slump in my back that was almost as big as the evil man’s was.

I got home, went straight to my room, and plopped down onto my bed.

I wish I was older, I thought. Then, people would take me seriously.

Later that night as I was laying in bed, I was unable to fall asleep because I was consumed by my thoughts. I imagined what my life would be like if I was just a little bit older. Even just today would have been different. I bet that old grouch would have listened to me if I was a grown-up or even just a teenager. Sure, I might not get to eat Fruit Roll-Ups as much, and I might not get ice cream just for acing a spelling test, but that wouldn’t matter to me if people actually listened to me. But I knew I was still stuck as a second grader.

The next morning, I woke up, ate my Cheerios, and walked to school again. It was raining, but I didn’t have an umbrella, so when I got to school, I was soaking wet. School was fine. No Fruit Roll-Ups, though. I walked home with my mom, got home, and plopped down on my bed again. I lay there for a little while and thought. Then, I did what I usually did when I felt hopeless or upset, I talked to my sister. I walked to her bedroom and knocked on her door.

“Come in,” she said. “Hi, how’s it going?”

“Not great,” I admitted. “Can I talk to you about something?”

“Of course.”

I lay down next to her on her bed and sighed.

“What’s going on?” I wanted to talk to her, I needed to talk to her, but I thought she wouldn’t understand. She was in high school, almost a grown-up. People took her seriously, people didn’t ignore her. I decided to stay quiet.

“I bet I can help. I was seven once too.”

“Fine, but you might not understand. It’s just that nobody takes me seriously! They think that since I’m a little girl, I don’t know anything.” She looked at me for a moment.

“That’s not true,” she said. “People take you seriously! I know I do and — ”

“No, you don’t get it! It happens constantly. Like yesterday, I was walking down the street, and I saw this old freaky man throw his cup on the ground, so I told him to pick it up, but he didn’t! He just called me a brat and walked away!”

“Okay, so you might be right. People don’t take you seriously ‘cause you’re a kid. But that’s okay, you can just wait until you’re older, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. You’re seven! Have fun and make it last.”

“Fine. I guess you’re right.” I began to walk out of the room, but paused mid step.

“I have one more thing to say… ”

“What is it?” My sister walked back to my bed and lay down next to me again. I took a deep breath.

“Well, it’s just that, I think actually… um, I might be afraid of growing up… ”

“What? You just told me you wanted to be an adult so people can trust you to change the world or whatever.”

“I know, and I have been telling myself that. I thought that all of my problems would go away if I grew up, but that’s kind of why I’m afraid of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what if when I do grow up, people still don’t take me seriously? I try to help people do the right thing, and they still say that I don’t know anything or that I’m just being stupid.”

“I don’t think that will happen. You’re so smart. I know it, you know it, and the rest of the world will know it soon enough.”

“Yes, I know I’m smart. And I’ve always thought that it was a good thing that I am determined, but Mommy has told me that sometimes I don’t know when to stop, and I don’t think that will change with age.”

“I think it’s great that you’re so perseverant. Sure it annoys some people, like that old grouch, but not me.”

“You have to say that ‘cause you’re my sister. If even my own mommy thinks it’s annoying, then it probably is. So maybe I just use my age as an excuse, because really I am insecure.”

“Well, I don’t know if you can say that for sure, and — ”

“No, I think I can. I haven’t told anyone before. I’ve barely even admitted it to myself. But you’re my sister, you know me better than anyone in the world. So tell me, will this ever change?”

“Well, I guess it kind of doesn’t. But it’s not just for you, it’s not just because you’re so smart and determined, it’s true for everyone. Whenever someone disagrees with you, they won’t listen. Sadly, there’s nothing you can do about that.”

“I think you can always do something about any situation. I’ve always thought that I don’t have to try to make a change yet, because it will be easier when I’m older, but now that I’ve realized that it might never get easier, I might have to do something now.”

“Okay, I guess you might be right, but what can you do?” There was a moment of silence Then, my face lit up. I had an idea.

“Well, even if I can’t make other people pick up their garbage, I can just do it for them. Maybe I can go and pick up all that garbage from the streets myself! I’ve been waiting for so long to help solve this issue, and I thought I’d have to wait till I was an adult, but maybe I can start now. I know people might not listen to me, but I can still make a change. I’m going to save all the polar bears and penguins and dolphins!”

“Alright, have fun! You can do it!” I was ready to begin. I didn’t care that it was raining. In fact, that just made me want to do it more. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a bunch of garbage bags. I went into the closet and put on a pair of stained yellow gloves that were a bit too big, because they were meant for Mommy. Then, I went back into my room and grabbed my swimming goggles just in case anything happened. I put on a rain jacket and rain boots, and sprinted out the door.

“I’ll be back soon!” I yelled. The door closed behind be with a slam. I stepped into the rain, I took a deep breath, and began.

There was hardly anyone on the street since it was pouring out, which made this much easier. I kind of got into a zone. Pick up garbage, put in bag, drag bag forwards. Over and over again. It might sound boring, but I actually had lots of fun. I imagined that each piece of garbage I picked up was a polar bear, or penguin, or dolphin that I was saving. I had no sense of time, because it was already dark out from the rain, but after a while my mom came out and told me it was time for dinner. I told my family about what I had done.

“I picked up garbage off the streets, and now all of the animals won’t die anymore.”

“That’s great, honey,” my mom said. She still gave me the look, but I didn’t care. I knew I was making a change no matter what.

That night, I fell asleep much happier than I had in a very long time.

The next morning was Friday, my favorite day of the week. Mommy always made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, so I had that instead of another bowl of Cheerios. It was still raining, but I was okay with that. And it was someone’s birthday at school, so we all got cupcakes!

When Mommy picked me up, she offered to get me ice cream since we never got it the day before, but I told her I wanted to go home since I was so excited! I had been looking forward to this all day. Again, I grabbed the garbage bag, the gloves, the goggles, and my rain jacket and rain boots. As I was running out the door, my sister stopped me.

“Wait! Can I come with you?”

“Of course! Yay!”

She grabbed her own pair of gloves, goggles, and rainboots. She threw on her jacket.

“We’ll be back soon!” she yelled, and we ran out the door.

We decided to go to a slightly different neighborhood today, just a few minutes from ours. We rode our bikes there, got off, and got to work.

It was great. We were soaked from head to toe, but we didn’t care. I told her about imagining each piece of garbage as an animal, and she laughed at me at first, but then realized that it was actually quite fun.

I looked around and realized how great this was. I was no longer making excuses, but instead making a change. I looked around. I saw the clean streets that almost looked like they sparkled. It was dark and gloomy, but still, I thought the neighborhood had never looked better.

 

Emery’s Revenge

Emery woke up in the morning with a yawn. Emery lived in a very small cabin near a mountain. He was the son of King Timothy, one of the strongest kings that were alive today. But he was only strong because of one stone that carried strength. He desperately wanted the stone, and he was jealous of King Timothy. King Timothy kept the stone in a mountain that had the strongest gusts of wind that would blow anyone off to their death. Emery hated his dad a lot, because he was weak.

“How can you not even lift an apple up? You should be ashamed of yourself, Emery. You’re a disgrace to our family!”

Emery was disgusted at how King Timothy insulted him every time he saw him. He wanted revenge, and he wanted to show who was stronger. But Emery first needed to know how he couldn’t lift something up that was really light, like an apple.

 

Emery trained hard so that he could reach the cave on the mountain to snatch the stone of strength. He knew hundreds of people died from climbing the mountain, so he needed to train hard and be the strongest he could be. Emery then could carry horses, and tables, with only one hand. But he knew he wasn’t as strong as his dad. The next day, Emery decided to start his journey to the stone. He knew he was strong enough for the journey. The tiring and dangerous trip to the cave was going to be two days, and Emery packed enough food and water for his trip. The journey had just begun.

 

Emery walked on a bridge over the river and saw a stranger standing on the bridge. He turned his head and saw Emery step on top of the bridge.

“Now who do we have here? Emery Farman, you really think you can climb this wall? Pffff. Loser. I heard you couldn’t even carry an apple! HAHAHAHAHA!” said the stranger.

“Who are you?” asked Emery.

“You’re as stupid as you look, Farman. I’m also here to get the stone, and nothing can stop me. Can someone weak like Emery Farman beat me in a fight? No?!”

“Then why don’t we fight here now?” challenged Emery.

Emery then took out his sword, and the stranger took out his sword too. Emery and the stranger then started to fight each other hard. The stranger then went for Emery’s legs. Emery blocked it and then kicked the stranger in the face. The stranger couldn’t keep his balance and fell to the ground. Emery then decided to kick him off the bridge.

“Bye bye!” Emery said.

The stranger then fell to his death. It was a good start for Emery Farman.

 

Emery saw the big mountain he was going to climb. There was a big amount of snow on top of the mountain. He then saw a small sparkle on top of the mountain inside the cave.

It’s the stone, Emery thought. Emery then stepped on the mountain, and he decided to take a path with a bunch of rocks and sand around it. Emery walked and walked. His legs were sore and heavy. Then, there was fog and mist everywhere. Emery then got hit by a gust of wind.

 

Emery was freaking out. His hand was on a piece of sandy rock. He was dangling off the mountain like a Christmas tree ornament. He took a few deep breaths.

“AHHHH!” Emery screamed.

Emery was tired and sore in every muscle of his body. He was back on the mountain. He then faced the same stranger right in front of him.

“Y-y-you’re not dead?!”

“What else did you think, Farman? Now I really want to kill you!”

The stranger then tried to kick Emery off the mountain. Emery then tripped the stranger, and put his arm around the stranger’s neck. This was Emery’s chance to finally kill the stranger. But then, the stranger disappeared out of sight.

 

The stranger was now making Emery furious. Surely there was another way to get rid of the stranger, Emery thought. Emery then decided to forget about what had just happened, and he just continued his journey. Emery was sure that the stranger was going to come back. He knew that the stranger wouldn’t just give up for the stone. Emery then felt drowsy. He knew he needed rest, so Emery made himself a sleeping spot and slept.

 

Emery dreamt of all the insults he heard from his father in his childhood. He also dreamt of all the misery he went through. He then dreamt of him getting kicked out of his father’s kingdom and of how he was really weak. He then woke up with sweat dripping all over his face. This dream was basically a nightmare for Emery. Not only did he wake up with sweat dripping all over his face, he was basically on the edge of the mountain.

“GAHH!” Emery screamed.

Emery took a few deep breaths and stood up and acted like nothing just happened. After that, Emery hiked and walked, and he felt the strongest glow ever in his life. He felt a loud buzz against his skin, and he also felt warmth. When he looked to his left, there it was, the stone of strength.

“Finally! Now I can show father who’s stronger.”

Emery ran up to the stone until a dark shadow appeared out of nowhere. I bet you can guess who it is. The man who annoyed Emery’s journey. The stranger.

“Hey, Farman! You should’ve seen the face you made when I disappeared. It was so funny!”

“What?! How can you not die!” Emery shouted.

The stranger then formed into the man Emery hated all his life. His father.

“Now Emery, you’re not going anywhere near my stone. You better get out now before I shred you into pieces.”

“Well, I’m not leaving until I get the stone,” Emery said.

Emery took out his sword and put it on his father’s neck.

“So, you still want to kill me?” his father asked.

“Yeah,” Emery answered.

He then used all his strength to slice his father’s head off. Instead, King Timothy stabbed Emery in the stomach. The sword stuck through Emery’s stomach. Blood dripped everywhere.

“Goodbye, Emery,” his father said.

 

His father then left Emery’s dead body and disappeared. Emery groaned and groaned. He knew he would die in just seconds. He saw the stone of strength on top of a rock. It was glowing on a piece of rock. Emery realized that he could retrieve the stone in time before he died. Emery crawled with all his strength. His shirt was already soaked with blood. Emery then knocked the piece of rock down, so then he could catch the stone of strength in the air. It seemed like everything was in slow-motion now. Emery then extended his arm out with his final amount of strength…

 

The stone twirled around and around. The stone then fell between Emery’s fingers. Boom! The cave exploded in bright yellow. After the explosion, Emery realized that he was not dead. He felt stronger and more powerful. Emery then jumped off the mountain and brought the stone with him so that no one could ever keep the stone and retrieve the strength and power he had. Emery jumped off the mountain and landed in no sweat. Emery was ready, and now all he had to do was kill his father.

 

Emery entered the kingdom. People gasped and spit at him. They shouted insults and said that Emery was not welcome to his father’s kingdom. Emery murdered the people who insulted him in one second. People backed off and ran away and were scared of the new Emery. Emery then stormed into his father’s room and saw his father reading a book. His father gasped and was surprised to see Emery alive.

“Uh, uh, I-I am sur-sur-prised to see you a-alive, E-E-Emery,” King Timothy said.

“Hello, Father. Now I have one more thing to do. Kill you,” Emery said.

Emery then struck his father in one punch. Crack! His father collapsed, and his eyes turned white.

“You made my life miserable,” Emery said.

Emery then spit at his dead father’s body.

 

Losing or Letting Go?

 

Scene 1

(Open on the dining room. MOM and ALEX sit at opposite ends of the table. MOM is speaking passionately)

 

ALEX

(Slams cup on table) MOM, C’MON, PLEASE!?

 

MOM

WHAT?

 

ALEX

(he takes a deep breath) I don’t want to get into yet another fight with you, let’s just-

 

MOM

(interrupting) We’re not fighting.

 

ALEX

Then what are we doing?

 

MOM

We’re have a civil discussion.

 

ALEX

But what you’re saying is hurtful mom.

 

MOM

I’m not talking specifically about your stories, it’s CNN’s stories…you know, generally.

 

ALEX

It doesn’t matter. Everytime we talk you bring it up.

 

MOM

If you don’t want to talk with me, stop coming to our Wednesday dinners, I don’t care.

 

ALEX

Mom, (he groans) that’s not what I mean.

 

MOM

I just don’t see why you are making this such a big deal.

 

(MOM picks up the plates and walks offstage. MOM continue talking to him from the kitchen offstage)

 

ALEX
Because mom, you do this all the time.

 

MOM

It’s only because I don’t see why you need to work for that place, I thought I raised you differently.

(ALEX doesn’t respond)

 

MOM (cont.)

This would all stop if you just found another job, someplace more sensible. I really think you’d be a good lawyer.

(Silence)

I’m ashamed when I talk to my friends and tell them you work for CNN. It’s embarrassing.

 

ALEX

PLEASE JUST SHUT UP

 

MOM

(Pause. She walks out of the kitchen and stands over ALEX) If you can’t be respectful and…and civil, just leave, okay?

 

ALEX

Are you kidding? You’re gonna lecture me about respect.

 

MOM

I’m just…baffled, I mean, I would never ever tell my mother, or anyone for that matter, to shut up.

 

ALEX

You see how ironic that is, right? Because I would never tell my OWN SON THAT I’M ASHAMED OF HIS JOB.

 

MOM

I’m your mother, I’m supposed to help guide you away from bad decisions.

 

ALEX

I can make my own decisions mom, just lay off me a little.

 

MOM

Really? And what about when you wanted to marry that girl? A few years ago?

 

ALEX

That was-

 

MOM

(interrupting) You came to me for advice. So then you tell me you don’t need me.

 

ALEX

(pause) You know, I really should just go.

 

MOM

Fine, go.

 

ALEX

I’m just done fighting with you over stupid things.

 

MOM

So you agree that it’s stupid for you to get angry at me over this, because it really is.

 

ALEX

(he takes a deep breath) Okay, I’m gonna go now.

 

MOM

Do you? Answer me, do you agree that its stupid?

 

ALEX

SHUT UP, SERIOUSLY.

 

MOM

Don’t speak to me that way, not again. It’s your fathers fault you’re so disrespectful, I would never have raised you to talk that way.

 

ALEX
You don’t know where to stop mom.

 

MOM
I’m just saying, those weekends you spent at his place ruined you. I don’t understand why you had to-

 

ALEX

(interrupting) Why do you always have to bring that up?  

 

MOM

Because, I really think he had a bad effect on you, always cursing, and drinking and gambling.

 

ALEX

(pause. He smiles) You know, mom, I was actually thinking of flying out to Las Vegas to go see dad soon.

 

MOM

Don’t make empty threats.

 

ALEX
It’s not an empty threat, the flights are cheap and I’ve been wanting to see him again lately.

 

MOM
He’s reckless honey. I’m telling you as a bystander, not as your parent, thats a bad idea. Don’t you remember when dad told you to skip school that one time and come to see him, and you got suspended. He’ll…he’ll get you into gambling and you’re just-

 

ALEX

(interrupting) Again, mom, I can make my own decisions.

 

MOM
You’re not gonna do it, I know you won’t.

 

ALEX
No mom, I will do it, I’ll do it right now, right in front of you.

 

MOM

(pause. She turns around and walks to the kitchen. She continues doing dishes) Well, I honestly don’t care. I mean, you’re right it is your decision, so, if you want to go then you can go.

 

(ALEX sits back down at the table and pulls out his computer, starts looking at something)

 

MOM (cont.)

I’m just telling you, a few weeks with him out there and you’re gonna come back as a gambler and-

 

ALEX
(interrupting) I got it.

 

MOM

I’m just warning you honey, he’s changed since you were a kid. Back then he just drank, but, you know, he went to jail a few years ago.

 

ALEX

But I’m looking right now, one of the flights, leaving Saturday and returning the 18th is only 200 dollars round trip, that’s a bargain. All I would need to do is tell my boss that I’m taking my vacation days for the next two weeks.  

 

MOM

Okay, do it, go ahead.

 

ALEX

Okay, then I guess I’ll just get this one.

 

MOM

Wait! What’s the airline?

 

ALEX

Southwest.

 

MOM
Oh…well, if I were you…and again you can make your own decisions, but if I were you, I wouldn’t take southwest. It’s a little, how do I put it…downmarket?

 

ALEX

You know, I think I’m okay.

 

MOM

You sure? I have a pretty funny story about Southwest.

 

ALEX

Okay….?

 

MOM

So once, when I was about your age, I took one of the flights, and guess what?

 

ALEX

What?

 

MOM

They lost my luggage. (she chuckles fakely) Isn’t that just hilarious?

 

ALEX
Yeah, I guess.

 

MOM

I vowed I’d never take southwest again.

 

ALEX

Okay mom. I’m just gonna go ahead. I’m gonna book it, okay?

 

MOM

(she runs out of the kitchen)  WAIT! WAIT!

 

ALEX
Oh my god, what mom?

 

MOM
I just really think it’s a bad idea, please, please, please, just don’t go, I’m begging you, please, please…

(she is out of breath)

 

ALEX
Okay mom, okay, just sit down

 

MOM

(she sits down) I just…I don’t understand why you’re doing this, I just don’t understand.

 

ALEX
Mom, somethings obviously wrong, just tell me, why do you care so much?

 

MOM

I just don’t want you to go see him, I really don’t. I promise you, I won’t ever talk about the politics or your job ever again, I promise you, just don’t go.

 

ALEX

Why mom, really?

 

MOM

I don’t know, I guess I’m just jealous of him, you know that. You always came back from your weekend visits and said how fun it was…

 

ALEX

But…I deserve to see my own father.

 

MOM

No, no, of course-

 

ALEX

(interrupting) So, I’ll just go ahead

 

MOM

No, please Alex.

 

ALEX
MOM, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

 

MOM

You can’t go, I’m sorry, I won’t let you. (she slams his computer shut)

 

ALEX

WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? I’M DONE HERE!

 

MOM
Wait, wait, stay, let’s just talk about something else. I heard there was a big win for the cavaliers last night.

 

ALEX

(he grabs his computer and his bag) See you in a few weeks mom, love you.

 

MOM
Wait…just…

 

(ALEX walks out the door, slamming it behind him. Blackout)

 

Scene 2

(Open on MOM sitting at the dining room table. She is on the phone, talking to her mom)

 

MOM

…and he just left. And I tried to call him later that night, and he didn’t pick up. I left four voicemails, FOUR! Right? So then yesterday, I get a text from him saying, “please stop calling.”

(pause)

No, mom, he’s being overdramatic and…and stubborn.

(pause)

Mom, I’m not at fault here. Why do you always take the other person’s side?

(pause)

I know mom… I’m just jealous of his father, he would come home from his weekend visits and talk about how fun they were. I can’t lose him.

(pause)

No, I’m not afraid of losing him.

(pause)

No mom.

(pause)

Mom, I’m not the one at fault here-

(pause)

That’s the problem mom. I know that I have to let him go, but I don’t want to.

(pause)

No, but I haven’t done anything wrong, I just love him, maybe too much.

(pause. She chuckles)

Yea, I do remember my rebellious phase.

(pause)

I guess so, but that was a different thing, you weren’t letting me live my life and…and always judging my decisions.

(pause)

I know that mom. Obviously, at some point, I will have to let him live his life…without me looking over his shoulder…oh my god, maybe you’re right mom.

(pause)

I just want to keep my eye on him…because, I don’t know, I guess I know that if I do, I won’t lose him.

(pause)

No, mom, I can’t let him go to Las Vegas, I can’t.

(pause)

Because, I don’t want to lose him to his own father. Maybe he’d start drinking and gambling, Maybe he’d never come back, I mean, he could go to jail or…I don’t know. Out there, who knows what could happen.

(pause)

I know you’re right mom, I’m afraid of losing him.

(pause)

And he’s not speaking to me. I…I’ve already lost him, on my own terms.

(pause)

What should I do mom?

(pause)

No mom, I can’t…I can’t.

(pause)

Wait, don’t go yet.

(pause)

Okay mom…love you.

(pause)

Bye.

(she hangs up the phone. She takes a deep breath. And then picks it up again and dials a number)

Hey Alex, I’ll buy you the tickets to Las Vegas…call me back when you get this.

 

The Path of the Soul

       

“Dargos and Herga. Rise. You are now one with the soul of nature.” Tapping them on the shoulder with his knarlwood cane, the cleric’s green and white robes fold as he ends the short and sweet indoctrination ceremony. Bowing to each other and the cleric, Dargos and Herga swiftly leave the auditorium of the city-tree.

“We are now servants of nature,” Dargos whispers excitedly to Herga, “and we have a place in this great city tree. The Forgag will provide us with everything we need. As one of them, we will have the chance to serve the soul of nature. I am so proud, and I can’t wait.” Entering the assignment center, Dargos and Herga rush to the desk of the old sage seated in the room.

“Welcome, Dargos and Herga. Your first assignment will be guarding against the Rogar. You must defend our enclave of nature against their advance. Their so-called progress encroaches on our land. As members of the Forgag, it is your responsibility to protect all of nature. Pick up your weapons and meet the rest of your patrol squad in an hour,” the sage softly speaks.

Bowing to the sage, Dargos rubs his hand against the soft wood of the room, feeling the pulse of the tree’s life. Turning around, Herga leans into a small knot in the tree. “Hlegor leg. Hlegor leg. Hlegor leg. Great soul of the tree, provide us with weapons,” she chants. Two swords of wood form out of the tree, and Dargos and Herga grab them both.

Rushing downstairs to the plaza where they’re going to meet their squad, Dargos looks out a window of sap. “Just look at the beauty. The perfection,” he says in awe.

Herga joins in with a, “And I can’t wait to crush Rogar scum.”

Dargos nods, but a shadow of doubt begins to creep into his mind. All he’s ever known is what the clerics have told him. “But not everything in the Forgag is perfect. You haven’t seen the prison blocks like I have. Maybe the Rogar aren’t as bad as were told,” he mumbles.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“We’ve trained all our lives for the moment. I can’t wait.”

“Herga, can I let you in on a secret?”

“Always. What is it?”

“In the prison blocks, they torture the Rogar prisoners. Everyone of them captured is encased into the tree and slowly crushed to death while being ripped apart. That’s how the tree gets nutrients. There isn’t really a point, since the tree can get nutrients from the sun. It just likes the torture.”

“Good. The Rogar have it coming.”

Dargos bites his lip as they exit into the plaza. “Attention, guards. You two will be joining the assault team. Over there. After the rogar burned down our catapults, we’re going to destroy their labs in revenge. Two wolf mounts are waiting for you,” a brightly dressed officer shouts.

Hurrying over to the rest of the assault team, Dargos whispers to Herga “We weren’t told anything about an attack. Aren’t we supposed to just be guarding?”

“I, for one, am excited to attack. Let’s go kill some Rogar scum.”

Dargos just nods, biting his lip so it bleeds. The two mount the wolves as the commander begins to address the squad. “We are about to attack the Rogar, and I need to make sure you know what to do. What do the Rogar prize most?”

“Knowledge, sir!”

“What do you do if you see a Rogar?”

“Kill or capture, sir!”

“Good. Very good. Now, none of us have ever attacked the Rogar before. But knowledge gained when the last squad died… Oops. Anyway, information gathered from several secret, hidden, nondescript, and unknown sources tells us that their buildings are armed with fire shooting cannons that can burn straight through a wolf. Be strong and decisive in your attack. The Rogar are armed with strange and unrighteous mechanical devices. In order to beat them, half of our wolf riders will go straight into their compound as bait, while the other half will dismount and destroy their labs. But those who are bait, don’t worry. The soul of nature will protect you. Does everyone understand?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good. Then we strike at once. Onward!”

Rushing out of the gates of the tree, Dargos feels the wind blowing through his hair and the soft touch of the wolf’s fur against his skin. Tightly grasping onto the reins, Dargos confides in his wolf.

“Hey, boy. Listen up, okay? Did you hear what the commandant said about the Rogar compound? How did they get all that information? I feel like this isn’t the first attack, or there’s something they’re not telling us. Anyway, thanks for listening.”

As the squad crosses the bridge leading out of Forgag territory, they look at the horizon. The area right in front of their noses is a deserted wasteland, ruined by centuries of war. Scorched bodies of wolves, clerics and warriors in the traditional Forgag robes, Rogar creations, and Rogar agents litter the ground. The earth is scorched to a crisp. All around, houses are crushed to the ground. All that can be seen left standing are the waves of tombstones seemingly stretching endlessly. Dargos leans closer into one, reading the words on a single tombstone out of the many, bearing neither the Rogar nor Forgag emblems.

“Morie Yehar. C.E.730-C.E.738. Killed in a Forgag prison, for healing wounded Rogar soldiers. May she rest in peace for all the people she healed by such a young age. She will never be forgotten as long as we tread this land.”

Pulling away the vines covering the tombstone, a shudder goes down Dargos’ spine. He looks down at his wolf. A single tear rolls down his cheek, but it’s wiped away by the wind. Looking down at the Forgag emblem on his robe, it no longer stirs up the same pride in him.

As his squad slowly passes through the wastelands, Dargos drops to the back of the pack. He is no longer excited to be part of the Forgag. Pulling up to talk to Herga, at the front of the pack, Dargos leans over and begins to speak. “Hey, Herga! Listen up! Do you see those tombstones?”

“How could I miss them?”

“A lot of them were probably killed by the Forgag.”

“I bet a lot were killed by the Rogar too. Definitely more.”

Clenching his hand into a fist, frustrated by Herga’s blind devotion to the Forgag, Dargos falls to the back of the pack, yet again.

 

“Halt!” the commander shouts, “We are right in front of the gates to the Rogar lands. Once in there, everyone is an enemy. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good. The compound is about a mile into Rogar lands. There is one town along the way. We will stop there for the night and — ” The commander raises his fingers for air quotes. “ — respectfully mingle with the enemy citizenry. If you, um, acquire any objects while respectfully mingling with the enemy citizenry and/or cause immense destruction and pain to them, you will be pardoned of all of your crimes while fighting these heretic infidels who do not honor the soul of nature.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Then let us begin.”

The commander unhooks his equipment from the wolf’s saddle and puts it on. Throwing a barbed vine up to the roof of the gate house, the commander pulls it taught. Climbing up the vine, sword in hand, the commander quickly scales up to the roof and silently slices off the guard’s heads, and he wipes the blood on the dead mens’ robes. Beckoning for two more men to come up, the commander pulls a little vial out of the pouch pocket.

“Now this here is a very potent sap-based acid. Just a drop or two on anything made of nature, like our wooden swords, will make them strong enough to cut through a roof or wall,” the commander whispers.

Crouching down, he smears a little bit of the liquid all over his sword, plunges it through the roof silently in the corner, and almost cuts out a whole circle, leaving it holding onto the roof by a little bit. Pulling out his sword in one hand, the commander slams through the roof, sword in hand, and spins 360 degrees. Killing all the guards in one clean stroke, he beckons for the other men to come down and sheaths his sword. The three men pull up the gate, and the squad goes through.

Riding along the countryside, the Forgag soldiers slice up the Rogar creations tending to the fields as they go along, and sow weeds into the ground. Collecting whatever supplies the Rogar had and breaking them, they ride into the Rogar town like kings. Dismounting, they quickly kill the local Rogar garrison with the loss of only two men and begin to sack and pillage the town. Knocking down houses, destroying equipment in items, looting valuables, pillaging, shops, murdering the local inhabitants, and just generally causing destruction. Staying for the night, they begin to turn into harsher, more crueler versions of themselves. Dargos runs around, desperately trying to find Herga.

“Arrg!” Herga yells, stabbing a local family through the chest.

“One second of cruelty, four lives ended.” Dargos mentions casually, but with a serious tone in his voice.

“They deserved it.”

“But you just killed two innocent children!”

“They must pay for the crimes of their parents.”

A fire begins to burn in Herga’s eyes.

“How does that justify killing? What makes their lives worth less than ours?”

“Because they’re Rogar,” Herga replies, with more than shadow of malice and cruelty in her voice. Beginning to hollar, Herga yells, “All Rogar deserve to die! I granted them mercy with a painless death.”

“Herga, snap out of it!!”

Getting down on his knees and begging with Herga, Dargos began to plead.

“Make it stop! All this bloodshed, for nothing. We have been taught from a very young age that all of nature is valuable. What makes the Rogar any less? What?!”

“Everything.”

Herga twists her heel, kicking dust into Dargos’ face and spits on the ground.

“You deserved that for even questioning the Forgag.”

“Enough with the looting and pillaging! It’s time to make camp for the night. In the name of the soul of nature, I hereby declare this town thoroughly destroyed and pardon you all. We set off tomorrow at four in the morning, sharp.”

“Yes, sir!”

Pulling the bedroll off his wolf, Dargos quickly sets up camp. Dropping it onto the ground, he clears the bloodstained dirt. Collapsing, he looks up at the bright starry night. Scooting over to let his wolf lie down next to him, he begins to whisper to it.

“Just look at the sky. It’s probably the only place here free from the blood. Why do we have to fight? They’re not so different from us. Underneath, we are all sort of the same. While there may be some differences, it’s not worth all this fighting. Who decided to divide the world into Forgag and Rogar anyway? Just look at this massacre. The little town here isn’t that different from the ones we saw in Forgag territory. There doesn’t always have to be a them and an us, a Forgag and a Rogar. Why can’t there just be people?”

Turning over, Dargos falls soundly asleep, dreaming of a world where there isn’t so much bloodshed.

“Rise and shine! It’s time to move out. Just leave the bedrolls. You won’t need them. We leave in five minutes! Five minutes!” the commander shouts. Shaking his head and slowly standing up, Dargos sees Herga towering over him.

“It’s our first battle! I can’t wait.”

“I can. This isn’t what I trained for, you know? A cleric’s supposed to heal people, not kill them. They had us sign an oath never to take lives. Now they send me into battle?”

“So you can heal people. Duh. You should no better than to question the Forgag.”

Sneering at Dargos, Herga spits in the dirt. Stomping off, Dargos climbs onto his wolf, leaning in.

“What’s the matter with her? Can’t she see what is happening? Urrg. At least you understand, boy.”

Pulling out his sword, Dargos sticks it into the ground and snaps it under his foot.

“I won’t be needing that.”

“Let’s move out! Everybody, we’re going!” the commander shouts and then hops onto his wolf. Riding out, the squad all mount their wolves and ride out towards the Rogar compound. “The right half of the company here will go straight in as bait, and I will lead you. Left half, you’ll be commanded by our loyal and faithful Herga. Praise the soul of nature!”

“Praise the soul of nature!”

Veering off to the left, Dargos charges forward with the rest of the pack, dismounts, and rushes into the Rogar laboratory. Pulling out the same bottle the commander had earlier, one of the Forgag soldiers smears it all over his sword, cutting through the wall into a Rogar lab. Nocking an arrow, another Forgag soldier shoots the two Rogar agents in the room, and they sweep into the building. Glass flying everywhere, they smash Rogar petri dishes, break beakers, and crack vials. Charging forward, the Forgag team rushes further into the building, wrecking as the go. Dargos, however, stays behind.

Raising his staff over two dying Rogar agents, Dargos begins to utter a powerful life saving incantation. “Alhost nep. Alhost nep. Alhost nep. Save these two agents.”

“Thank you. You are a very good man. But why are you helping us, since you are Forgag?”

“I’m not Forgag. I’m not Rogar. I’m just a human, and so are you,” Dargos declares, helping them up from the ground.

“Now, this special tree grows incredibly fast. Plant this seed anywhere, and it will go straight up through anything. Plant it below this Rogar laboratory. Dargos has a special spell to blow through the floor. Where is he? You two. Over there. Go find him,” Herga orders. “We can’t get down to the basement to plant the seed until Dargos gets here, unless we cut through. You two. Start cutting. I hope they find Dargos.”

Panting, Dargos frantically searches for a Rogar officer.

“Rogar officer! Somebody! Anybody! You need to listen! The Forgag are going to destroy your labs! The other team is bait! It’s a trap!”

Hwap! A blindfold and gag are thrown over Dargos’ head. He blacks out.

 

A blinding light shines into Dargos’ eyes.

“You betrayed the Forgag!” Herga yells into Dargos’ face. “Your petty warnings were worthless. We cut through the floor and destroyed the Rogar labs. You failed. Dargos, you are a disgrace to the Forgag. I pity you.”

Herga turns around and spits on the floor.

“Where are we?”

“In a house in the wastelands. You were so interested and horrified at the wasteland graves, we decided to have you join them. Goodbye Dargos.”

Herga sneers.

“I thought you were my friend. We’ve been raised together since we were born.” Dargos cries, tears gushing like rivers and flowing down his robe, pulling out the dye. Pools of now green tears form on the floor, flooding the half-destroyed house.

“We’ve never been friends. Merely accomplices in serving the soul of nature.”

Pulling out her sword, high above his head, Herga touches the sword onto Dargos’ chest. Heartbroken, Dargos’ eyes drop. He falls onto the floor. He sinks slowly into the pool of his own tears. His arms droop. His head falls onto his chest.

“Why? Why, Herga? Why?” Dargos chokes out through the tears.

“Because the soul of nature is above all, and you are a traitor. Goodbye, Dargos.”

Herga picks up her sword, brandishing the wood. Dargos looks up to see any hint of remorse in her eyes. All he sees is cold, hard hatred. Herga raises the sword high above her head and —

 

The Bower

        

She assumes for all she’s gladdened,

her mouth sugared and her frock patched with clementine stain

That her world is ripe joy.

 

We do not talk,

for the joy is hers alone.

 

Indulged by untimely dusk, she clutches JACK KEROUAC by the spine,

pages snapping into the silence.

 

The bridal moon turns a natural eye to the wild pools of sunflowers,

the bloodshot summerhouses and discarded Cola cans

and the air strokes like heaviest satin.

 

Ambling three slim fingers through her hair, champagne and tangled,

She does not discern me any more than the low cicada hum,

 

and I must consider if she is at all

 

Envy and Murder

Sweat trickles down my neck. Why am I here? How did it come to this? I stand over the body and let the moment sink in. I look at my hand and see a gun. I drop it. It clanks against the floor, echoing for what feels like forever. I turn to the shattered mirror and see the monster I have turned into. My usually neutral face is red with fury, in stark contrast to my pale body. My neat red hair is tangled and appears as if I have blood on my head. Maybe I do. My green eyes are so small and frightened, I almost can’t see the evil that rumbles beneath. I start to hear her dog bark.

My confusion is replaced by the fear that seems to seep through every bone. I pick up the gun and put it in the pocket. I pull down my shirt to cover the handle. I look at the body. The eyes are still open from the shock of my killing. I quickly turn and stumble to the bathroom. I wash my hands and turn back. My body tenses up as I walk closer to the body. I close the eyes of the murdered. The green eyes, so similar to mine. I thought killing someone would bring justice, but it doesn’t, it just brings regret. I look at the pool of blood. Betrayal is written all over it. But I am the one to be seen as crazy and unfair. What justice was I expecting? I pick up the body and carry it to the bathtub. My muscles are tense, and I feel the bones on my hands. I let the body sink into the bathtub, and I fill it up with water. I let the body get clean, and then I refill the tub. My hands shaking as I close the door. I take the dog as I leave because I don’t want the risk of anyone knowing what I just did.

The dog whimpers as I put the collar on him. I pick him up and let him see who I am. His eyes go wide because he knows me and knows what I did. Not many people kill their sister. I get him on a leash and walk out the back door. I sprint to the neighbor’s yard, and as I do, I hear a scream. I think of it being directed toward me, and I turn to run. My heart is beating in my chest, matching the beating of my feet on the sidewalk. I run to the corner and pull out my phone.

“Hello?”

“911, what’s the emergency?” says a lighthearted woman.

“My dog owner seems to not be opening the door, and I heard a scream.”

“Where?”

“Gerland Lane, house 67.”

“Thank you. And what is your name?”

“Phoebe.”

“We are sending people over now.”

I put my phone back in my pocket, but I realize it doesn’t fit. Oh no, I still have my gun. How suspicious would that be. I shudder and feel the sidewalk start to sway. I feel myself heave as I proceed to throw up on the hard gravel beneath me. I look at the ground, astonished, and the floor continues to sway. The dog starts to run and bark in circles. I pick him up as I wobble toward the nearest trash can. Since it is quiet and dark now, most people could hear the dog bark, but everyone seems to be asleep. I throw the gun in the trash. Not in my possession, not my problem. I’ll pick it up after the police leave. I glance around to make sure no one saw me, but since it is very late at night, no one is awake. Hopefully no one heard me. A chill shoots through my spine because I realize that the shot of a gun is very audible. I shake my head because that doesn’t point the murder to me. I don’t have the gun anymore. The police arrive about five minutes after I called them, and by then it is pitch black, except for the lights from one house half a block away and a single lamppost.

A single police car pulls up. I nod and walk over to them. A cop with a gray mustache steps out of the driver seat. The red and blue lights from the car show his face. He is obviously not happy to be here. I mean, who would be? It’s like 12:30 in the morning. I see his wrinkled face. His uniform is quite sloppy, and his badge is definitely used and old. The regular shine is lost. He must really know how to do his job. I try to calm myself down while talking to him because I don’t want to seem suspicious.

“Which house is the dog owner’s?”

“Well, actually, she is also my sister. I just did not mention that to the dispatcher. Sorry, I am just really worried.”

“Okay.” His brow furrowed when I said that.

“I just really care about her.”

He interrupts me and says, “Can I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure.”

“No, in the police station.”

“Oh, okay,” is all that I am able to squeak out.

He turns away from me to walk toward the house. I am silent, just letting my mind race with fears. He turns around and motions for me to go ahead of him. I swallow my fear and let my feet take me toward the police officer. He knocks on the door. No one answers. I knock this time. Again, no answer. I put on my mask of worry and knock one more time. He takes out a single key. Unlocking the door, I feel my heart beat for what feels like a thousand beats per minute. I hope he can’t hear it. We open the door, and it creaks. I step in first.
“Hello?” I shout. My words feel dull and fake as they hit the walls and echo so softly. He takes out a flashlight and looks for the light switch. I point to the wall, and he hits the switch. He scouts the first floor and finds nothing. I follow behind him and put on the emotion of fear and worry. He keeps glancing back. Does he suspect me? He finally reaches the stairs and starts to walk up.

“Should I follow you?”

“Yes,” he replies in a gruff voice.

I nod and continue to walk with him. We get to the top of the stairs, and I glance around the room and see that I left nothing suspicious around. I start to look around the room, and I hear a gasp. He saw the body. I rush to where I hear the sound and see him in the bathtub next to my sister. I open my mouth and realize there is a way to get out of his questions. I faint. I hold my breath, and my face goes red. My legs shake, and I drop. My head hits the floor. I’m…

I wake up on a hard bed almost worse than the floor. My eyelids flutter as I slowly get up. I see the cop that wanted to interrogate me. He looks at me as I yawn. I see him start to come my way. I debate fainting again but don’t have the chance.

“You up?”

“Yeah.”

And silence falls like a wet blanket.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Your sister was shot.”

“Oh my gosh.” I decide to put on the face of horror with a hint of despair.

My mouth drops, and my eyes get big as I command my face to become pale.

“We have a few leads,” he says.

“Really, who?”

“Well, first we must ask a few questions about you and your sister’s relationship.”

“Of course.”

He takes my arm and drags me to another hallway. I see a group of teenagers arguing in a room. I feel the fluorescent lights shining on me. I feel watched as I glance around. We walk for a good amount of time. Enough to make me not know how to get back to that bed. I see a room at the end, and it’s empty, and I realize I’m about to be interrogated. I suddenly remember, where is the dog? Oh well, never liked that mutt anyway. He opens the door with ease and motions for me to go before him. For the first time, I see his badge, and well, he is Officer Crumpy. What type of name is that? I step toward the chair. I suddenly see the chair buzz and fill with sparks. The room goes black. I blink, and it’s back to normal. What the hell?? I know I am going to have to sit in that chair. As I walk, my feet feel like they are going through slime. I go slow, and I feel my knees wobble. I reach the chair and sit down, and I block the image of me dying here.

He stands in front of me and walks around me as I just paint the face of confusion. He looks at me, and his brown eyes are deep and full of mystery. I just can’t tell what he is thinking. He asks, “Were you and your sister close?”

“Yes. We used to be closer, but we still talk very often.”

“Are your parents dead?”

“Yeah.”

“For how long?”

“Like two years. It is still a fresh wound.”

“Why did you call her your dog owner on the phone?”

“Because I thought if I said sister they would think I am overreacting. I honestly thought that is better to explain.”

“You had the dog for how long before you decide to call the police.”

“Like an hour.”

“Did you call her phone?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay. Did you notice any other weird people around her?” he questions.

“Yeah, she has a boyfriend who is very sketchy.”

“Okay, well, thank you, and I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” I say.

I walk out, and he brings me to the exit. I smile. I could smell my freedom. Maybe I can get justice for what she did and what she always had done. What my parents couldn’t see. What my friends couldn’t see. What my own lover couldn’t see. She always gets what she wants. It was time to end that vicious cycle.

***

I knocked on her door. I saw the doorknob move, and she opened the door. Her strawberry blonde hair glistened in the sun. Her teeth shined so brightly, and her skin seemed to be glowing.

“Sister! How are you? I’ve missed you so much.”

“Me too,” I said with a small smile.

“I mean, so much has happened! I got the promotion, and now I found the absolute man of my dreams. He has brown hair with little curls. His eyes are green. It is so beautiful.” She giggled while saying this. I felt my face flush, and my hands curled with envy. I pushed down the emotions and just decided to be happy for her.

***

It was a buildup. I love my sister. She just always gets lucky and takes everything, and that was my life. I wasn’t Phoebe. I was Bridget’s little sister. That wannabe. She always got the friends. Once they met her, they liked her more. Same with boyfriends. The final straw was when our parents died.

***

We were in the living room. She was dripping with tears. I was numb. Why didn’t I feel anything? What was this? I looked at her at her worst. Her face puffy, and I felt jealousy. Why didn’t I feel something? I painted my face to be as sad as possible. She looked at me and said, “It just feels so surreal. I mean, they aren’t even old, they don’t deserve death.”

“I totally agree.” I gulped down a smile. Why did I feed off her sadness?

“I’ll miss Mom’s cookies and Dad’s hugs. And how every time I was sad, they comforted me,” she said in between sobs.

“How they always believed in me even though they never said so,” I said.

“They cooked mac and cheese for us, my favorite,” she said while smiling.

“I always hated mac and cheese,” I said with fury.

“You did?”

“Yeah, they just liked you more,” I said with sadness.

“No they didn’t. I just needed more attention,” she argued.

I sighed. She just didn’t understand that I was not the favorite. I stood up from the couch and left her to cry. I went to the kitchen and got a glass of water. I flicked the water onto my eyes. Note to self, learn how to cry. I came back into the living room and hugged my sister maybe a bit too tight as we sat in silence. All I heard were the sobs of Bridget. I loved her sadness, but I also envied it. What was wrong with me?

***

I feel the wind seep into my room. The window is open. I wonder why. I pull out my phone, and I see it says 3.00 a.m.. Only a day since my interrogation. Let’s hope they already closed the case. I pull out my computer and log in. My screen’s background is still a photo of my sister and me. I freeze from the shock. My computer falls from my lap onto the floor. The screen cracks through the middle. One side has my sister, and the other side is darker. It’s me. I see myself in chains, crying. I turn away and look back, and all I see is a cracked screen. I close my computer and pull the covers to my shoulders. I let the window stay open, letting in the cold from the outside to match the my heart. I drift off to sleep. I don’t dream, only fall into a deeper darkness.

Beeeeeep. I hear the alarm while it shakes, and then I slam my hand against it. It turns off. I look outside. Birds chirp outside. I feel a warmth come from within me. I don’t know how I feel about it, but it definitely feels good. Is this happiness? I smile, and this time, it isn’t from someone else’s sadness. I stretch and hear a dog bark in the living room. I go to it, expecting kissing and love. Nothing is there. I shake the feeling of guilt off of me. I go into the kitchen and prepare toast. I put a bit of butter and jam. I bite into it and feel the warmth spread through me again. My eyes flicker through the room, and I see strawberry blonde hair appear on the corner of my eye. What is my sister doing here? I feel more guilt rise in me, and again I push it down into the pit where all my rare emotions go. I quickly throw on a red blouse and some ripped jeans. I look in the mirror. I look like a normal, happy girl. A little like my sister. I run out from my apartment as if I’m leaving behind that thought. I run down the stairs until I get outside. I take a deep breath and punch into the side of the building. Even when dead, I compete with my sister. I look at my hand, and there are bruises on my knuckles and cuts on my hand from where I slammed down my alarm. With these cuts are my own wounds… But they are more mental. I decide to go for a walk, to clear my head. I walk around and just take in my surroundings. The houses are so perfect, so neat. The blocks are the exact amount of distance apart, with a trash can at the end of each block. It hits me. The gun. I start to pick up the pace. My fingerprints are on that gun. That gun is still in the trash can.

All the blood from my face seems to leave from my face into my legs. They start to wobble, and I slowly lose my senses. My eyes focus on the floor. I see the little bits of shiny rock between the bland gray. My legs regain their balance. My eyes drift up, and I see the house of my sister. How am I here? I blink, and I look down to see I am in the same place. I still have walking to do. What are these illusions? Am I going crazy? I start to run. Letting the wind pick up my hair as it falls behind me. I let my life be carried away by the wind. I let my feet hit the sidewalk. It is not fair! I close my eyes and feel my feet hit the sidewalk harder each time. My head lifts, and I open my eyes. I’ve reached the block. I can just feel how the air seems denser. Without my sister here, it seems dead. I feel like a trespasser. I look around me. The garbage truck. It’s right behind me. I sprint to the trash can and start to rummage around it. A glint of metal shines in my eye. The gun. I grab the gun. It feels heavy in my hand. It is a harsh memory. One I wish to forget. I pick it up and wipe it on my shirt. No more fingerprints. I scream. The man comes out from the garbage truck. He rushes over to me. I feel my face take on the emotion of horror. My mouth wide open.

“What is a gun doing in the trash?” I say.

“What gun?” he says.

“Look!” I say.

He looks in the trash and sees nothing. Nothing is there.

“What?” I scream.

Right there. I grab the metal object and out comes a water bottle.

“Are you okay, miss?”

“I think. I just need to breathe.” I look past the garbage truck man and see a group of police who seem to be interviewing people. My face flushes, and I turn away so they can’t see my face. I am going crazy.

“I am sorry for your loss,” I hear behind me, as I just walk away. My feet feel like they have bricks strapped onto them. Do they already have the gun?

***

I opened the screen door to the back. The sun beat down on me. I smiled even though it seemed a bit forced. My dad was just humming a song as my sister happily walked around picking up flowers. I closed the screen and noticed the swings were still, with no one on them. I galloped to the swings and let my face create a smile. I hopped on the swing and let my legs pump me to the point of flying. A warmth flowed in me. I almost never had this feeling. The first time I remember having it was when I turned seven, and my sister was in the hospital for breaking a bone. All my friends were singing me “Happy Birthday.” My parents were there, and they were paying attention to me. It was my day. If only every day was my birthday. It had been two years, and I’d felt it about ten times. It felt like a fire was starting from within you but a good fire. Not the kind that destroys. My memory was shattered from my sister’s talking.

“How are you going so high?” she said with her little ten-year-old voice.

“I just let my legs do the work,” I said.

“I’m so jealous,” she whispered.

I smiled so hard it felt as if my face were to fall off. This was the strongest warmth ever. I felt happy.

***

My phone buzzes against my skin. I pick it up.

“Hello?” I say.

“You left your dog here,” says the the cop.

“Oh, thank you,” I say. Relief falls from within me because I was expecting them to find the gun.

“Okay bye, come pick him up — ”

“ — Are there any leads?” I quickly say.

“No, we didn’t even find a weapon near the house,” he says. I hear him sigh.

“Ugh!” I start to mutter gibberish.

“Come pick your dog up soon!”

“Of course! Thank you,” I say, even though he already hung up on me. I smile. It seems like my sister might get what she deserves.

 

A Teacher’s Aid

 

Cast:

TEACHER: Jacqueline

ANGIE: Sara

FRIEND 1 and STUDENT 1: Lane

FRIEND 2: Storm

PARENT 1 and STUDENT 2: Annabel

PARENT 2: Arlen

MOM: Anushka

ADAM: Belinda

 

SCENE 1

Lights up on students leaving room and TEACHER. Blackboard in the back with a teacher’s desk. Bell rings.

TEACHER: Angie, can you meet me at my desk before you leave?

ANGIE: Ugh, Ms. Smith is calling me again. Gimme a second, guys. I’ll meet you at lunch.

FRIEND 1: Okay, Ang.

ANGIE walks up to TEACHER’s desk reluctantly.

TEACHER: Angie, I’d like to talk to you about your essay grade.

ANGIE: I know, I know already. It sucked. I’ll work harder next time…

TEACHER: No no, that’s not it. Your essay was actually amazing. The passion you put in it made it brilliant. You got an A+.

ANGIE’s face lights up.

ANGIE: Really? It was good?

TEACHER: Yes! The way you analyzed the relationship between Anne and Helen was amazing, perfectly showing the importance of Anne’s aid.

ANGIE: Thanks! Are you messing with me though? Because that wouldn’t be funny.

TEACHER: No, I’m not messing with you, but there has been something bothering me recently, and I believe this problem can be fixed.

ANGIE: Oh god, you’re not gonna mention my studying habits are you?

TEACHER: Listen, Angie. You have so much potential. Seeing how well you wrote your essay… I can’t let your talent go to waste like that. You should choose a career path that involves writing.

ANGIE: Go to waste? You think how I’m choosing to live my life is a waste? You have no place to tell me something like that. You don’t even know me.

TEACHER: I may not know you, but I can tell what kind of person you are when you don’t have a strong mindset regarding your future.

ANGIE: No you can’t! My future is my future, not yours to worry about. I’m sick of teachers telling me what to do and what will make me happy. Living for the future is such a sham. In the present, I’m much happier, and I know things will turn out good. Adam makes me happy, I don’t need any after school assignment to mess that up.

ANGIE realizes what she’s said and runs out of the room embarrassed.

 

SCENE 2

TEACHER: Come in, come in, students. I hope you all turned in your The Miracle Worker analysis homework last night!

Students fill in, empty chair where ANGIE sits — TEACHER doesn’t notice.

TEACHER: Alright, let’s do attendance, shall we?

TEACHER grabs paper and points at each student as she reads the list.

TEACHER: Mark, Julien, Kelly, Angi — Does anyone know where Angie is today? No? No one has seen her?

FRIEND 1 whispers to FRIEND 2.

FRIEND 1: I would skip Ms. Smith’s class if she was on my tail everyday, too.

FRIEND 2: Obviously. I heard that she tried to talk to Ang about Adam yesterday!

TEACHER overhears and walks to the other side, avoiding the friends.

FRIEND 1: Are you kidding me? Next thing we know, she’ll ask her about her dad!

FRIEND 1 and 2 laughs as TEACHER continues teaching without noticing.

 

SCENE 3

Room is dimly lighted at night.

TEACHER: Thank you so much for your time. Julien is a great kid, and I’d love to see more participation in my class.

TEACHER shakes parents’ hands.

PARENT 1: Yes of course, we’ll get right on it. Thanks for the feedback!

Parents leave the room as TEACHER greets the next person outside.

TEACHER: I’d like to see Angie’s parents, please?

Young man in late 20’s gets up and walks into room.

TEACHER: Hello, and you are?

ADAM: Oh, my name’s Adam, I’m filling in for Angie’s parents today.

TEACHER: Oh, I’m sorry that they couldn’t make it. Do… you know what happened to them?

ADAM: Nah, she doesn’t really like talking about it, sorry.

TEACHER: I’m sorry, then what is your relationship to Angie? Are you a trusted adult?

ADAM: Yeah, yeah, I’m just here ‘cause someone had to be.

TEACHER is visibly thrown off and at a loss for words.

TEACHER: Alright then… well… I’d like to talk about her grades.

ADAM: Alright, can you make it quick though? I got something after this.

TEACHER: Well, I’d really prefer to see where her mother and father are, because this will take a while.

ADAM: I already told you, that won’t be happening. We don’t talk to her mom anymore, understand?

TEACHER: But surely her father could come, so we can have actual discussions about Angie’s future, and not a quick meeting before you go off back to your own world.

ADAM: No, I already told you. Her parents couldn’t come, I’m an adult, so I’m here tonight because she’s forced to send someone to listen to whatever thing you are required to “help” her with, okay?

TEACHER is silent.

ADAM: So? Is she doing well? Do you have anything to tell me, or can we go now?

TEACHER: We? Is she here? May you please just bring her in, I have serious things to discuss with her.

ADAM: You know what, whatever it takes for you to leave me alone. Angie! Can you come in, and we can get this over with?

ANGIE walks in confused.

TEACHER: Is this person your parental guardian? Where is your father? I believe he would be better suited for me to talk to today.

ADAM: Babe, don’t bother with her. We did what we were supposed to, and now the school will stop emailing us. So let’s go, already.

ANGIE doesn’t acknowledge ADAM and focuses her attention on the TEACHER.

ANGIE: My father? You think you’d have a better discussion with my father? Well, he’s not here right now. He hasn’t been since I was nine. So please, for the love of God, stop bothering me about my life and leave us alone.

TEACHER gasps.

TEACHER: My goodness, I really am so sorry.

ADAM: Alright, let’s go Ang.

ADAM grabs ahold of ANGIE and walks her out the room as the TEACHER turns to her desk with a puzzled look on her face.

TEACHER walks back and sits while showing the audience a picture of her dad on her desk.

TEACHER grabs phone and dials.

TEACHER: … Mom?

Voiceover/offstage.

MOM: Honey, what’s the issue? Why do you sound so distraught?

TEACHER: I need to talk about Dad… Something’s been on my mind lately.

MOM: I thought you and I promised we’d push him out of our thoughts… Alice, it’s been ten years. Why are you thinking about him again?

TEACHER: I’m not thinking about him. I’m thinking about me right now.

MOM: What about you? I know you did some bad things to him, but you know he deserved it. You shouldn’t feel sorry for what you did, after all the damage he left on you. Why is this on your mind so much?

TEACHER: No, I’m not talking about that either! I’m talking about my future, Mom! What I could’ve become.

MOM: Oh, you sound crazy right now. Calm down, you and I both know what you did was the best for you. Now look at you, a happy teacher who teaches a beautiful group of kids. What more did you want?

TEACHER: I wanted to write. I wanted to write whatever I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. I wanted people to read my books and be inspired, I wanted to change people’s lives! Now, I can’t even help someone one-on-one. Dad leaving made my outlook on life completely change… I didn’t even graduate college.

MOM: Please, honey, don’t ever put yourself down like this. Your life right now is nothing to complain about, and I know you can touch the heart of anyone you wish to. You have me, someone to watch over you. You’re lucky to have my support.

TEACHER: You’re right. I am blessed to have you, and not everyone is lucky enough to say that. Thanks, Mom. Love you. I know what I have to do now.

TEACHER hangs up.

Knock on door.

PARENT 2: I don’t mean to interrupt, but am I in the right room? I’ve been waiting a while, but I didn’t want to bother you…

TEACHER: Oh yes! Yes! I am so sorry, come sit, come sit.

 

SCENE 4

Lights up on classroom. ANGIE walks in with friends.

TEACHER: Angie, I’m glad to see you again! Hey, can I talk to you for a second?

ANGIE: Oh my God.

ANGIE turns to friends.

ANGIE: I swear, this better be the last time she talks to me. If not, I’ll make it the last time.

TEACHER: So I’m starting a support group for people who… have some family issues. Surely you would like to join? Maybe it can help you steer in the right direction away from negative people.

ANGIE: For the last time! I don’t need your help! I’m not joining your stupid support group, and I’m not developing a stupid little “friendship” with you. I’m here to take your stupid class so my Mom doesn’t get emailed. Other than that, I’m just a regular student to you. Understand?

TEACHER’s face flushes.

TEACHER: Alright. Alright. I apologize. Please, go to your seat.

ANGIE hides her frown and heads to seat.

 

SCENE 5

Lights up on hallway with lockers.

ANGIE: Did you guys hear about Ms. Smith’s support group? Apparently she’s starting one… Weird, huh?

FRIEND 1: It’s probably because she has her own issues with her dad. My mom overheard a conversation with her and her mom… something about her dad leaving and messing up her education or something? I don’t really know.

FRIEND 2: Ew, why can’t she just let it go? She was in school like, a century ago.

Friends laugh.

ANGIE: I’m sorry, what? Her dad left her?

FRIEND 1: I don’t know, probably. She went on this sob story about how she wanted to be a writer. Kinda like you a couple years ago, Ang.

ANGIE: Yeah… well you guys go. I’m gonna head to my locker, I need to get my books.

FRIEND 2: Alright, see you.

ANGIE walks by TEACHER’s room and observes it, then walks away with a frown.

 

SCENE 6

(Time skip) Lights up on classroom with desks organized in a circle and students walking in.

TEACHER: Hello, hello, don’t be shy. This is a support group, this is your safe space.

Students get in the chairs,

TEACHER: So, third time around, are we all getting the hang of this?

Students nod in agreement.

TEACHER: Okay, who wants to start off first, today?

STUDENT 1: Well, I’m glad to say that I’m developing a way better relationship with my mom! We finally talked about the problems with my sister, and she’s also talking more with my mom about her anger issues. She’s really going on the right path right now.

TEACHER: That’s amazing, Evan! I know how much stress your sister put you through. Now you can take this time to heal together.

STUDENT 1: Yeah, I guess so!

TEACHER: Who’d like to speak next?

ANGIE shows up on side of stage and observes the classroom, but turns around doubtingly.

STUDENT 2 whispers to STUDENT 1.

STUDENT 2: Angie’s here… probably to talk about her boyfriend. Poor thing just got broken up with.

STUDENT 1: Oh, Adam? But they were so cute together.

TEACHER: Are you guys talking about Angie? Have any of you spoken to her recently? It’s been months since we’ve spoken…

STUDENT 1: Yeah, sorry to disrupt, though. We’ll be quiet now.

TEACHER looks at door and sees ANGIE walking away.

TEACHER: Would you give me a second, guys? So sorry, just one second.

TEACHER walks out of class.

TEACHER: Angie? Did you want to join our group? It’s really a safe space, trust me.

ANGIE: No, no… I don’t feel comfortable sharing…

TEACHER: Then just come and sit. You don’t have to share. Just come, and you’ll be welcomed. I want to help you, don’t you realize that?

ANGIE: Just because your dad left as well doesn’t mean you have this obligation to help me. Don’t think you’re the miracle worker or something.

TEACHER: How did you know that? And now that you do, can’t you see that I understand what you’re going through as well?

ANGIE: Yeah… but I’m not in the right place to join right now. There’s too much on my plate

TEACHER: Look, I heard about Adam. I know how much stress has been put on you. Having someone break up with you is hard. Your parents or another person in your family is your best bet to go and stay with. Trust me.

ANGIE: What? Adam didn’t breakup with me, I broke up with him. I’m done with all his crap, I’m heading in my own direction now. But… I just don’t know exactly what direction that is.

TEACHER: Did you try going back to your mother’s house? I don’t know exactly what happened, but she must be some form of help to you.

ANGIE: Not yet. To be honest, I’m scared. I don’t know if she’ll welcome me back in. I’ve been staying at my friends’ houses, and it’s been good, but I’m starting to get on their parents nerves… soon I might not have a place to stay. I really don’t know what to do.

TEACHER: Hey. Don’t speak like that. You and I, with the help of this support group, will get you on a better track with your mom. Trust me, I’ve been there. You’ll know what to do.

ANGIE: You think so? But there’s so many people. I don’t know how you could have time to help me with all of this.

TEACHER: It’s not going to be just me. It’s all of us. This support group is the best thing I’ve created, and it will be the best thing for you, too. These people are just like you. They are your peers, and they went through the same things you did. Now, they are all on a path to recovery while also helping each other on their journeys. This group would be perfect for you. Just join us. We’ll help, trust me.

ANGIE: Okay. I’ll join.

TEACHER: Hooray! Don’t be shy, just walk on in. These people are going to be your family now.

ANGIE smiles, and they walk in together.

Off stage you hear her introducing ANGIE to everyone.

 

Dull Blue Dresses

One Sunday morning, my mind felt like a cloud of haze and dust. I had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before, and I felt myself strapped to the covers, unable to rise out of bed. However, I was supposed to attend a dance party later that day at a dance hall, between 11:00 AM and 12:00 PM; my best friend, Renee, had sent an invite via Facebook Messenger to which I could RSVP, and told me that the cost of purchasing tickets was expensive. However, she didn’t send me a link to where I could purchase tickets. Therefore, I didn’t buy them to get into the dance. I also didn’t have an outfit picked out; should I wear a dress or a skirt? If I was going to wear a dress, should it be flowy and long or a pencil skirt dress? Oh well, I decided not to worry about that issue until an hour before I had to leave.

After thirty minutes of resting in bed and gazing up at the ceiling, I finally lifted myself up, slipped into my slippers, and walked out into the cold air of my kitchen, where a box of pancake mix enticed me and awaited for my mouth to devour it. I propped open the lid, turned on the stove to medium heat, put a seared pan on top, and gathered sugar, milk, eggs, etc. in order to make the batter. Once I finished whipping up all of the ingredients in one deep bowl, I poured the batter onto the butter-seared pan; the dripping of the batter was like a slow waterfall, dropping onto the pan and making a sizzling sound that was piercing throughout the kitchen. The sizzling sound kept ringing and ringing out until I used up all of the batter and made seven pancakes; I was ready to devour those moist cakes! However, you can’t have pancakes without the sticky and sweet goodness of maple syrup and the creaminess of butter! As I was pouring maple syrup onto the mountain of pancakes, my mouth started salivating and drooling, just like a dog. The last ingredient that I had to put on those pancakes was butter; I pulled out a stick of butter from my bare-to-the-bones fridge, cut it in half, and smeared it across the surface of the top pancake in the mountain that I had made. Now, the pancakes were ready to be devoured! I took one bite and was immediately in heaven; the sweetness of the maple syrup and the creaminess of the butter combined with the moistness of the pancakes was the perfect breakfast food for today.

I don’t really like to eat with other people because I don’t want to see them staring at me while I eat my own meals. I would rather just eat alone in the quiet space of my kitchen, mindlessly chewing and humming along to myself.

Ugh, why did I eat so many freaking pancakes? What was my reasoning behind this decision? Was I truly ravenous, or was I eating in order to bury deeply rooted negative emotions? I came to understand that I wasn’t starving after all; instead, the pancakes were filling an emotional void.

I checked my watch and realized that it was time to pick out a dress for the dance that I was going to in exactly thirty minutes. I looked through my closet, and I found three dull blue dresses, all of which were long and flowy; I felt insecure about drawing attention from strangers by wearing a shiny dress even though I desperately wanted to, so the dullness of the dresses exposed me less.

Did I really want to try on each of the blue dresses, though? The immediate thought of trying them on filled me with dread and agony. What if I didn’t like the person I saw in the mirror reflected back at me? I was afraid of confronting my own body in the mirror.

When I finally mustered up the courage to try on all three of the dull blue dresses, I realized that I didn’t like how they looked on me because of my figure. The dresses made me look like an overweight pig. To be honest, I didn’t want to go to the dance because I felt self-conscious about having random strangers stare at me; even though I was wearing a dull blue dress, people would still have noticed that I was there and would have judged how I looked in that dress. I especially didn’t want to see anyone I knew because then I would have felt more exposed and vulnerable. At the same time, I wanted to feel good in my own body and to be able to look like a goddess in a glittery dress that highlights my figure, and to have people compliment me on my looks, but I felt too insecure to show myself off.

I asked myself this question: Should I arrive late, or should I arrive on time? If I arrived late, I wouldn’t have to spend as much time at the dreadful dance. However, if one of my friends saw me, she would most likely accuse me of being late, and then I would have to deal with that internal guilt for the rest of the time. If I didn’t go to the dance, Renee would text me, asking me where I was. Ugh, I really, really just wanted to block the world out. Maybe I could just disappear from reality under my covers, in the exact same position as when I woke up.

Even though I wanted to hide under my covers, I realized that it was not healthy to isolate yourself. The real question was: Should I call Renee to tell her that I’m not going to the dance party? If I called her, she might or might not be angry at me for calling at the last minute. After a few moments, I mustered up the courage to make that phone call.

“Hey Renee, how’s it going? I’m calling you because I really, really, really don’t want to go to this dance party you’ve invited me to,” I said with my heart beating in my chest, feeling nervous about how Renee was going to respond.

“Why don’t you want to go?” Renee asked with a concerned tone.

“I’m just feeling extremely insecure about having people stare at me and judge me based off of my appearance. I know that this is a last minute call, but I sincerely hope you aren’t pissed off at me,” I replied with sweat beads forming on my forehead and my internal body heating up like an oven preheating.

“Of course I’m not mad at you. I understand that sometimes, crowds can be fear-inducing for many people. Just know that I’m here for you whenever you need someone to talk to.”

Upon hearing those magical words, I exhaled loudly, sighing with relief; the weight of the world had just been lifted off my shoulders.

“After the party ends, I would like to spend time with you. Do you want to get together with me?” I asked, with anticipation in my voice and hoping that she would accept my offer.

“Umm, I would love nothing more than to spend time with you, Annie! Do you want to go have lunch with me?” Renee asked.

“Let’s go get coffee instead. I’m still stuffed from breakfast this morning,” I said.

“Ah, okay. Let’s meet up at 12:30 PM! So excited to spend one-on-one time with you!” Renee excitedly replied.

I was excited to spend one-on-one time with her too.

 

Attack of the Potatoes

                     

Prologue

There once was a man named Bob, who was a homeless man in New York City, and he lived in a cardboard box in an alleyway. You might think he was a sad man, but he was perfectly happy with his life. Most of the time, he had two to three meals a day.

 

Story

I was walking in New York City. It was a nice and sunny day. There were lots of clouds in the sky, and it was 87 degrees with cool breezes, the perfect day. I looked around. Everything seemed normal, the buildings tall and bustling with people, and the subway stations were crowded. Everything seemed normal until I was walking close to the Empire State Building. People seemed to be frantically running away from it. I looked around, and I didn’t see anything. I went up to someone to ask if they knew what was happening.

“Excuse me, sir, but do you know why people are running away from there?”

“Yes,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “People are running away because there are tons of potatoes attacking people in the Empire State Building!”

“What?! That doesn’t even make sense!”

He must be lying, I thought. Potatoes are something you eat, not something alive! Since I didn’t believe that man one bit, I continued walking down Fifth Avenue. I was seven blocks away. Everything looked perfectly fine except for the people running away and shrieking. One person even tried to get me to turn around and run away, but I just brushed her off.

I was six blocks away.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” some man in a business suit holding a briefcase said. “THERE ARE GIANT POTATOES ATTACKING!”

Now I was as baffled as ever. Another person said the same thing! I wanted to confirm that it was 100 percent true, so I went up to another person.

“Excuse me, miss,” I asked. “Why are people running away fr — ”

“RUUUNNNNNNNN!!!” the woman screamed.

“But why are people running!?” I repeated.

She just ignored me and continued to run. I’m just going to go there and figure out what is wrong, I thought. I continued on my way, a half a block away, and I heard tires screeching. I turned around, and I saw big military Jeeps and FBI bulletproof trucks speeding towards the Empire State Building. I jumped out of the way and heard some man on the Jeep shout “Get out of here! This is a really dangerous area.”

“Okay, sir,” I replied.

I turned around and walked the other way for 30 seconds and then continued towards the building when I couldn’t see the army trucks anymore. There were no more people running away. They all left. The streets looked deserted like a ghost town. There were some phones on the floor, so I decided to take one. After all, it’s not like they would come back and get it. I heard my stomach grumble. I needed some food before I continued. Luckily, there was an abandoned hot dog cart with hot dogs sizzling on it. I also took a bottle of Gatorade for when I would be thirsty. I took a hot dog with a bun and spritzed some mustard and ketchup and sprinkled some relish on it. I turned off the stove so nothing would burn and continued on my way. I was two blocks away from the Empire State Building. I could hear booms and explosions and shots being fired. It sounded dangerous. But I didn’t worry that much. I’m a curious person, so I really wanted to see it.

Being curious is what got me fired from my job. I used to work for a restaurant, and the owner once asked me to drive his car back home. My boss had a Lamborghini, so I agreed right away. I got in his car. It was a green Lamborghini. I started up the car and went zooming down the road. While I was driving, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a red button. I love red buttons, so I decided to push it… and the car all of a sudden stopped. Everything went flying, including my boss’s favorite glass cups, drinks, and all sorts of food. Two cars bumped into the back of the car, and inside the airbags came out, and everything was a mess. The seats were stained with all sorts of food and drinks, the trunk was smoking, and the glass on most of the windows was cracked. I knew I was going to get scolded for hours by my boss, so I did what my instincts thought I should do. I ran out of the car and never went back to my job. As a matter of a fact, I saw a billboard on top of a building asking where I was. It read, Ten thousand dollar reward if anyone finds this man! and it showed a picture of me. I always felt really guilty for breaking the car and not owning up to my actions.

I was on the block of the Empire State Building, and I almost passed out… They were right! Potatoes were attacking the Empire State Building. Some potatoes were eating the bricks of the building, some were standing outside of it doing nothing, and some were shooting the building with some laser gun! I hid behind a trash can and watched them in horror. Then, I heard something behind me. It was like someone was panting…

“AAAHHHHHHH!” I screamed. There was a huge potato that was 15 feet tall and had branches sticking out like it was a month old.

Then, the potato said in a deep voice, “Hello, puny human, we have come from the planet আলু ভাজা. We have come to take over Earth because our planet’s resources have been depleted. We have been studying humans for 567 years, and we learned everything about you. Now it is time for your death.”

“Please don’t eat me!” I begged. “I just wanted to see why people were running away from here.”

“I don’t care, I do not have emot — ”

All of a sudden, the potato fell down, and I saw why. There was a man with a big machine gun that shot it!

“GET OUT RIGHT NOW!” screamed the man who looked like he was from the army. “IF YOU DON’T LEAVE, I WILL HAVE TO STUN YOU.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. I will leave,” I replied.

I ran as fast as I could away from the war between humans versus potatoes. I got to East 32nd street. I turned off of Fifth Avenue and went towards Sixth Avenue. I still wasn’t done exploring and figuring out exactly what was happening. I made a turn onto Sixth Avenue and went back to the commotion. I saw a Forever 21 store with nobody inside. Clothes were spewed everywhere. I should get some new clothes. I haven’t gotten a new T-shirt and pants for a few years. I went inside the store, and I took a new striped shirt and blue jeans and put them on. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a gun, like the one the man had when he shot the potato. I went over to the gun, and then I almost passed out. There was a man who looked like someone had taken a bite out of his leg. There was blood gushing everywhere. I felt his heart for a heartbeat, but sadly, there wasn’t one.

I grabbed the gun and went on my way. Then, I heard some footsteps, and I quickly ran behind a clothing shelf. I heard panting, just like the previous potato who tried to kill me. That must have been the potato who killed the man! Chills went down my spine. I heard the potato getting closer and closer, and then… I jumped out and shot it. The potato fell to the ground, and I saw what it looked like. It had small legs, like a cartoon character, and it didn’t have any arms. It must have some type of telepathic powers that allow it to carry things, I thought. It was a small potato, a few inches taller than me. Then, I thought of a genius idea. I would carve a hole for me to fit in, and I’ll sneak into the Empire State Building. I looked around, scanning my surroundings and making sure nobody was near me. I took my trusty Swiss Army knife and went to carving. The inside of the potato looked extremely unusual. It didn’t have any insides that would possibly allow it to breathe or speak. It was like magic! All the insides of the potato consisted of some whitish mush like in a normal potato. After 45 minutes of carving, I was done. I crawled inside the potato and filled the hole back up. I made sure to make it small hole, so it would be easy to fill up. I made some eye holes and a small hole near my mouth and nose, so I could breathe. I walked outside and continued my way towards the war.

After a few minutes, I saw the Empire State Building in sight. That must be their headquarters, I thought. There were approximately 20 potatoes with things that looked like guns from the movie The Fifth Element. The guns in The Fifth Element look long and tall, and they have all sorts of buttons and levers on the bottom. It also has different bullets/weapons that you could shoot. I need to think of a good excuse to get into the building… I know! I need a new gun. I think I saw some potatoes run in there without a gun and come out with one.

I walked to the Empire State Building, and a pickle walked up to me, and he asked, “Why are you coming in here? It looks like you need a gun.”

“Yes I do,” I replied in a gruff voice, trying to sound like one of them.

“Follow me.”

I followed him down the lobby, and we turned in to another hallway. I looked around. There were potatoes walking everywhere. I had sweat all over me. I was shaking, hoping that they wouldn’t find out the truth about me. If they did, I probably would die instantly. Everyone around me had a gun. After 30 seconds of walking down the hallway, we reach a room with two potatoes guarding it. The potato escorting me told the pickles something and brought me into the room. I was amazed. There were all kinds of things, like guns that had some blue substance inside a tube. There was even a rocket launcher! The weapon that caught my eye was a sword that looked exactly like a lightsaber.

Then, the potato asked me, “What weapon do you want?”

“I’ll take the rocket launcher,” I replied. I took it off the shelf and started walking out.

“Hey! Do you know how to use that weapon?”

“Ummm, yes,” I replied. “You just click the trigger.”

“Okay, you know how to use it. Now go outside and fight for our leader, মাস্টার আলু.”

“I will fight as hard as I can.” Then, I thought, Why don’t I kill him and walk out and try to kill the leader. The leader would probably be upstairs… I quickly grabbed the sword weapon and sliced the potato in half before he could say anything. I hid the two halves of the potato behind a shelf, and I walked out. I walked back to the main lobby, and I stood around, trying to look as casual as possible guarding the building. Why don’t I ask someone if they know where the leader is? I’ll say I need to tell the leader something important, and I can go find him and kill him. I once read in a book where they killed the alien leader, and all the aliens died. Maybe it will be the same in this situation.

I continued to pretend to guard, and then I saw a human. He looked like he was part of the army, and he had a small pistol like from Star Wars.

Then, the potato next to me screamed, “KILL THAT HUMAN!”

I didn’t know what to do. I could kill my own kind, and then I would die because they would think I was a human, or I could shoot him, and I wouldn’t die, but I would always regret it.

“C’mon! Shoot the dude!”

“Okay, Okay,” I replied. I decided I would shoot him. I pulled the trigger and closed my eyes.

Boom, the man turned into smithereens. I hope I don’t get arrested after the war… if we win…

“Good job. Next time, don’t wait, just shoot,” a random pickle said.

I still wasn’t sure what to use as an excuse to see the leader. I was so tired I could barely stand up, this costume was itching, and it felt like it was a million degrees in here. But I persisted. I knew that I had to continue if I wanted to help save Earth from this attack. I felt extremely regretful for killing that poor, poor man. If I ever met his family, I would give them whatever they wanted to make up for it. But it was a sacrifice for a worthy cause, saving the world. After 40 minutes of doing nothing, I thought of the perfect excuse. I needed to tell the leader, মাস্টার আলু (I remembered his name!) that I had an amazing way to defeat the humans. I would tell him that humans cannot live if they don’t have water and that the potatoes should steal it. It was a genius plan!

I walked back into the building, and then a voice behind me said, “Hey, stop! Get back here! You have to guard the tall structure.”

“I’m going to the leader, I need to tell him a genius plan I thought of to get rid of the humans,” I responded.

“Okay, you can go, just take the box cart that goes up and take it to the 42nd floor. If you do anything weird, we will kill you.”

Yes! I thought. I can finish my plan! These aliens are so dumb! I went to the elevator, and I got on with another potato. The potato looked at me suspiciously. He clicked floor 32. I wonder what’s on that floor. Then, at the worst time possible, the hand of my potato costume fell off. The potato in the elevator gasped.

“YOU’RE NOT REAL!” he shrieked.

I quickly pulled out my lightsaber, I was just kidding about putting it back. I stole it. I stabbed the potato, and I clicked the 34th floor and hoped nobody would be there. I ran out of the elevator, my whole body shaking. Phew, there wasn’t anybody there. I got out of my costume and hid the dead potato under a desk. It’s extremely weird when potatoes die. Their insides turn green almost seconds after they die, and they become lighter than a feather. I found some towels on the desk, and I dried up the inside of my potato costume. It smelled like the worst B.O. ever. After 20 minutes of cleaning, I got back inside. I was about to go to the elevator, but then I heard a bump. Oh no! Some potato probably saw me! Then, I heard a bump coming from across the room. I walked over to where I heard the noise, and I saw there was a human hiding in a closet!

“Please!” he begged. “Don’t kill me. I have a family! All I want to do is make money to feed and support my family.”

I felt so guilty, so I told him the truth.

“I’m not really a potato,” I whispered. I peeked my head out to show him that I wasn’t. The man breathed a sigh of relief.

“Just hide here. I’ll come back and get you when the potatoes are gone,” I advised and walked into the elevator… hoping that I won’t ever have to have an encounter like that again.

I was in the elevator, I clicked the 42nd floor, and it went zooming up. I took out my sword getting ready. There were probably around five to ten potatoes up there guarding their leader. I will go up to the leader and tell him the “amazing strategy” and then stab him with my sword. I tried to look as casual as possible, even though I was shaking and sweating like I just sprinted a 24 mile run. The door opened, and I saw a potato… but instead of being big like the other potatoes, it was small. It was an average size potato, like one that you would buy in the supermarket. It also floated, and it didn’t have any arms. Around the potato, there were five big potatoes, like from downstairs. They were holding a long staff that had some knife at the end. Around the knife at the end, it had lines of blue things that looked like electricity.

One potato asked me, “What do you want?”

“I know a weakness that the humans have. We can use it to defeat them,” I replied.

“Tell me, my fellow potato.”

Shaking and sweating, I walked over to the leader’s desk and told him the plan, “The humans need water to survive. If we take all of their clean water, they will all die out.”

“What a smart idea!” exclaimed the leader. “We will send our ships to steal the water.” The leader clicked some button on his desk and said, “জল ধরুন.”

“I would like to show my gratitude for helping us take over this planet by promo — ”

I grabbed the potato and ate it.

*Gulp.*

It tasted pretty good. After eating the potato, all of the other potatoes fell to ground, and their hands and feet disappeared, and they shrank to a normal size.

 

Epilogue

I heard cheering outside. I got out of my costume, and I looked out the window. There were tons of people cheering and clapping. I went back to the floor where the man was hiding and told him the good news. He started crying in happiness and hugged me. I went downstairs with the man, and everyone started pointing at the man who I found on the 34th floor.

I asked the man, “Who are you? Why is everyone pointing at you?”

Embarrassed for some reason, he replied, saying, “I’m really a senator for New York. I should have told you earlier.” Then, the senator found a couch and stood on it and started to speak, “I would like to thank this man for saving me and our whole planet.”

Everyone started clapping and cheering. I was so excited! I was going to be acknowledged for what I did! Soon, the police came and tried to control the crowd. Then, the news trucks came and started taking pictures and tried to get over to me and talk. Luckily, the police helped me from getting crushed by journalists. At the end, someone wrote a book about me, I got a job as a police officer, and I got a really special medal and five million dollars. But still, I will never be happy because I killed that man.

 

A few weeks later…

In Bob’s brand new penthouse on the top of a skyscraper in Manhattan, (which the president gave him as a gift), he was watching television, and he heard something that shocked him.

“Breaking news: one of NASA’s satellite dishes in Hawaii got an unusual radio wave that was not from a star, a planet, nor even from a black hole. It was from something that must have been intelligent. NASA turned the Hubble Space Telescope towards the radio frequency, and what they saw was astonishing. There was a ship, and it was coming straight towards Earth. While the spaceship was flying towards Earth, it went in a weird pattern that spelled the letters P, O, T, A, T, O. Scientists say it will reach Earth in approximately 666 years.”

I looked out the window and saw that the big screen in Time Square also was playing that same message. Oh no! There must be more potatoes coming to attack us!

The End (For now… )

 

A Love Letter to Myself

As my being develops and evolves in the world, so does my sense of self. The different layers that shape my identity each tell a different story, and looking back at my past experiences, I am not ashamed of who I have become despite the ever so present obstacles that face me and the countless other people that look like me.

My parents gave me the name Eliwa, having a strong significance in their native Gabonese language: Pongwe. This name signifying two elements, firstly the kingdom of God and secondly, lake. It is not a name that I cherished or valued at first. I thought best to keep my name Mirya-Anne, best to say I was Austrian if people asked me where I was from. I did not want to be reminded that I was black, that my roots were neither from Europe nor from the U.S but the motherland itself. Soon enough, I was correcting people as nicely as I could on how to say it or spell it. My anger towards this was masked by politeness.

At a young age, European ideals invaded my mind, and therefore unconsciously, my anti-blackness began to show. At night, I would dream for lighter skin and straighter hair. It seemed I was too dark for everything, that the hue of my skin was still not deemed acceptable in the 21st century. My ten-year-old self could not comprehend this, and I asked myself continuously if there was truly something wrong with me. Looking back at my younger self, a feeling of sadness floods my whole being, simply knowing the unhappiness that I felt towards being black. This is not something that I particularly mentioned to my parents or even my older siblings. It stayed hidden. This obsession with eurocentric beauty standards never surfaced or became apparent either. There was nothing I could really do or say to change it. This name, this history, this culture was ingrained in me permanently.

 

I remember being a small child in my predominantly white school, having been asked why my skin looked the way it was. Children shouted at my skin in the playground, deeming it ugly. I could not answer. My skin was seen as an anomaly for along time. Because somehow I was just so different from everyone else. I remember being the only black girl in my nursery room calling for my mom, hoping she wasn’t too far away. I think it was the feeling of being such an outsider that my younger self could not cope with. I didn’t speak. I didn’t play. My siblings who attended the same school tried to comfort me, but I was hopeless. Nothing could soothe me.

 

The first time I saw a black person die on my TV screen, I was 11 going on 12. His name was Trayvon Martin, and he was the same age I was right now, seventeen years old, ready to enter an unknown future, not knowing the tragic ending that would follow. Trayvon had a bright future. He was passionate about aviation and was loved deeply by his family and friends. My mother and I turned on CNN everyday waiting for the verdict that would determine everything. The day the verdict was released, I turned on the TV and saw in big bold letters, Not guilty. My head spun, and I thought to myself, This isn’t normal. He should be in jail. He killed an unarmed young man. I started to fear for my older brother and father. I thought to myself what if something happened to them eventually. Morbid thoughts entered my head once again, and it was a difficult task to try to block them out once more. The future seemed bleak for Black America. Trayvon wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of names followed: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland etc. My naivety led me to believe that black women weren’t facing the same problems as black men, police men and women wouldn’t hunt us down, except they did. Sandra Bland wasn’t the first nor will she be the last.

 

Somewhere in my early teens, I had an awakening which I can largely accredit to social media and the manner in which they uplifted people like me as well as my older brother, the intellectual 22-year-old at the time who pushed me to read more about my history. Not only that, but after having visited the continent of Africa more frequently, I found a new appreciation for the country and its culture and most importantly the people. My parents made it known that we should always be proud of our black skin and our native country. The hole in me that I could not fill seemed to be filling by itself. My real roots were in Gabon (Ga-bon): the small country of one million people located on the western coast of Central Africa. Having attended the SDLC conference or the student diversity leadership conference, in December of 2015 I had been overcome with emotion. I had discovered my inner voice as well as a deeper connection to my community. I felt strongly about racism, and I felt strongly about white privilege as well as acknowledging my own privileges, such as my parents being able to afford my private school tuition. This was something I was thankful and grateful for.

 

Due to my passion for social change and social activism, I decided to pursue a career in law. This self-rejuvenation that had occurred had changed me for the better. Although I believe the process of the decolonization of these beliefs does not happen immediately, I felt this pride and peace in my own skin that I had never felt before. These recent events as well as my past experiences have sparked something in me, that I have never felt before, a want and a desire to involve myself, as a public servant. I have been described as someone with a heart of gold and an insurmountable amount of patience. I only hope I can put these qualities to good use.

 

Recently, I was sitting in the train on my way to school, when a young man approached me wanting to sit next to me. At first, I was apprehensive and felt uneasy. He asked if he could sit next to me and as soon as he sat down, he started talking to me about everything and anything, mostly about Africa and black people. He asked me where I was from, and I told him Gabon. He told me that he thought Africa was wonderful and I was lucky to be from there.

He then proceeded to compliment my skin color. He even delivered an interesting fact on the resistance of darker skin hues in today’s environment. I listened patiently to his words. This man that I had first judged as probably homeless. I soon started to regret my words.

He told me his name was Unique. I smiled. He said he was from Harlem, and as he left, I shook his hand, and he told me I was very beautiful. Hearing someone who had the same features call me beautiful, was unequivocally reassuring. Vanity was not something I necessarily prescribed myself with, but compliments about the physical appearance have a way of uplifting certain people, especially the downtrodden ones. As I sat back down to continue my journey, I thought how odd that this happened to me on this particular day. A man by the name of Unique had enormously contributed to my new state of mind. He represented for me this sort of guardian angel that you meet only once in a lifetime, having no relevant information on them except their name and destination. As he left to descend on Harlem, a smile crept upon my face once more reminding myself that I was enough.

 

Mercy

It was dark outside. Her blood and bones ceaselessly begged her to go back to sleep, but that’s about the only thing they seemed willing to do. She felt as though she needed a cup of coffee to give herself the will to get up and make coffee.

Iris Adley woke up.

 

“It is our collective goal to send our students into the world on a foundation of knowledge and character.”

 

She took a pod of coffee out of the box. Her grandmother taught her how to make a pot of coffee when she was five years old. Her grandmother had a bright pink drip coffee maker, and her coffee was strong and highly caffeinated and never watered down.

Iris started drinking coffee on her seventh birthday.

She had a coffee maker that produced a single cup of coffee, because she lived alone, and she made a single cup of coffee roughly twenty times a day. Her coffee was black and strong and forced her to stay awake.

 

“For it is my belief that the most important gift provided by this institution is not the education you are given, but the strength of character that you earn through your diligence.”

 

She slammed down the top of the coffee maker. The last time Iris saw her grandmother, neither could remember the other’s name, and they smoked cigarettes together and talked about God.

The next day, one of them died and the other disappeared.

 

Iris Adley was exceptionally good at disappearing. On the night of her high school graduation, she vanished, leaving her cap and gown in a pile in the parking lot. It seemed as though she had turned to dust and floated away. On the night her grandmother died, she disappeared again. She ran out of a hospital, grasping onto a glass vial and thinking about ghosts.

Both disappearances felt like escape acts.

 

She went back to bed and finished her coffee while staring at the single streetlight at the end of the road. Her house was at the end of a long winding road. There were two windows in Iris’ house, and you could see the streetlight from both of them.

It was much too early to be awake. Iris’s mug was emptied, and she continued to stare out the window.

 

“We are proud to send out students who do not run to keep up with the world, but instead inspire the world to follow them.”

 

Iris Adley never managed to eat breakfast. There was always the intention, often the desire, but never the will. She drank her coffee and watched her streetlight turn off and awaited the sun.

 

Back before Iris’ first disappearance, when they were apt to remember each other’s names, Iris Adley and her grandmother would sit on the back porch of an old house and talk about the sunrise.

They could never see the sunrise, but they talked about it as if it were there.

 

“Our students will not be passive in their view of the world.”

 

Iris was seventeen years old on the night of her graduation. Her birthday determined that she was always nearly a year younger than her peers. She was good at math and science and following rules. Her teachers liked to talk of potential. Iris held all of her potential in her hands, like it was tangible before disappearing.

She chose to disappear.

 

Another cup of coffee was filled and emptied in an inevitable way, and the sun began to rise. Iris closed the curtains over her two windows.

 

After her first disappearance, Iris became well-versed in the art of being forgotten. Her siblings and parents grew too far apart and away to be expected to remember anything. Her friends had become convinced of her turning to dust before becoming different people all together.

Her grandmother was the last to forget her; she was forgetting everything by then.

Iris was also trying to forget everything, but that was never one of her skills.

 

“It is our goal not to provide you a list of things you once learned, but to leave you with the education that you will carry throughout your life.”

 

Iris opened her heavy wooden door and walked outside. The air was crisp and light and cool, and it felt like the morning. The long winding road was painted with the golden glow of the sunrise. Iris could not see the sunrise from her house, but she thought about it as though it was there. The morning was bitterly cold and pleasantly warm at the same time, like the day hadn’t yet decided what it wanted to make of itself.

 

She was well-acquainted with cold days. She could remember the night of her grandmother’s death, running from a hospital. She remembered the sound of her feet on the frozen pavement, like ghosts tapping on window panes, and her labored breaths showing white in the frigid air like wraiths and cigarette smoke before they dispersed and vanished. She grasped onto her empty vial and thought that if she crushed it to dust, it would be inclined to disperse and disappear as well.

The vial, like most things, was never as good at disappearing as Iris Adley was.

 

“Because leading is not a matter of being the easiest and loudest voice to hear but instead being the truest and sometimes most difficult voice to listen to.”

 

Iris walked away from her house, mindlessly and deliberately wandering. Her destination was as clear as it was ambiguous. It was as real as running away from hospitals and as real as turning to dust, but really she wasn’t going anywhere.

 

On the night of her graduation, Iris Adley ran away because she wanted to be anyone. She wanted to be pulled away to dance and disperse like dust in streetlights. She wanted to be ambiguous and enigmatic, both real and pretend. She ran away because she loved escape acts. She ran away because she was young, and she was careless, and it seemed exciting. She was called a free spirit. She was called full of potential. She drank coffee. She got a job. She didn’t know what she was going to be. She wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Iris Adley walked toward a lone streetlight at the end of the road.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, they sat outside of a hospital smoking cigarettes and talking about God. Iris did not smoke cigarettes. There were long summer days of sitting on her grandmother’s back porch while packs of Marlboros appeared and disappeared in inevitable ways scattered throughout her childhood. She remembered her grandmother warning through lungfuls of smoke that her habit would kill her.

Iris did not smoke.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she smoked a cigarette because her grandmother didn’t know who she was, so it was like she could be anyone.

They were talking about God, but really they were talking about mercy.

 

It was the first time she had seen a family member since vanishing from high school, and she didn’t know how to act around people who once knew her but didn’t anymore. All she had done in her life was disappear, and that’s what she knew how to do.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she held a vial of something clear and deadly. Iris was good at disappearing, and it felt like mercy, like making the tough choice for someone who was weak.

The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she was thinking it was better to be gone than to be a ghost. The last time Iris saw her grandmother, she was smoking a cigarette even though it might have killed her.

 

She was thinking of a mercy kill, but really she wasn’t thinking.

 

“And a leader must take actions, even when they seem difficult, and a leader must make choices, even when choosing seems impossible. And a leader must be strong, even when they are weak.”

 

She ran down the street holding a glass vial. She had disappeared and reappeared, and she was a ghost. She was guilty, but she was a ghost. It was a terrible act of mercy, and there was no mercy left.

So, she disappeared.

 

Iris Adley walked toward a lone streetlight at the end of the road. She was thinking about making the unchoosable choices in life, and she was thinking about being a leader. She was thinking about running and forcing the world to catch up with her.

 

When she was young, she would sit on her grandmother’s porch for endless summer days. Potential was squandered. Desires were abandoned. Peace was not sought out, it was inevitable. Cigarettes were burned. Coffee was made. Months would pass. There was nothing to do, but there was nothing that needed doing. It was perfect.

Summers would end, and Iris would go home to her parents.

 

Her parents liked to talk of the future: caps and gowns and colleges. They always seemed to know what was happening and what to do.

Iris was never interested in such things.

But still, the summers would end.

 

She walked toward a streetlight.

 

When she graduated high school, she was walking away from everything. She was convinced that she could outrun death and despair and graduation speeches by performing escape acts in the parking lot. She was convinced that she could outrun the ending of summer by never acknowledging that it had started.

She didn’t want to make a choice. She chose to run away.

She chose to make a ghost.

She chose to walk toward a streetlight as the sun rose around her.

 

It felt as thought the world was catching up.

She was thinking. She was thinking about ghosts and cigarette smoke and light and dust. Dispersing, becoming nothing, running away. She was thinking about light.

 

The streetlight wasn’t on, but it felt like it was. She was drawn toward it. It pulled her toward the end of the long winding road. She was thinking about dust swirling around in the halo of the streetlight like it was being pulled to a single source.

 

She was thinking about mercy. The light drew her further from her house. She was thinking of endless summer days, but summers have to end.

It was impossible to outrun.

 

On the night of her grandmother’s death, Iris Adley became a ghost, but she was not the one who died. It was a terrible act of mercy, but it was a choice that she made.

She chose mercy, and she was forgiven.

 

“So march fearlessly into the word, today is the beginning of your future.”

 

The sun had fully risen, and the air became warm.

Iris Adley woke up.

 

The Art of Kidnapping

     

Before

Why do rainy days always bring trouble? Keira Keegan certainly didn’t know. She was just five. And reading War and Peace, of course, as beads of water dripped down the window of her room, splattering on the moist grass below. Her green eyes scanned the page as her short black hair fell across her face. Suddenly, she heard a piercing scream. Keira’s book dropped to the floor, and she pressed her face on the glass. A woman ran on the other side of the street, clutching a briefcase to her chest. A man chased after her, clearly trying to catch up to the fleet-footed lady. Keira realized that the man had produced the scream. Talk about an interruption, she thought and went back to her novel. But she still memorized her brief image of the speedy thief in her photographic memory, just in case. Keira was that type of person.

 

Quite a few years later…

Keira woke up on a certain Sunday in April to rain panging on the roof of 765 Haren Road at seven o’clock in the morning. “Darn you, sleep cycle,” she grumbled. But she resisted the urge to nap until noon and did her morning routine. As the droplets poured down, she remembered that day many years ago, with the woman and the man and the briefcase. Keira went downstairs and switched on the TV.

“We have breaking news,” Chuck Chuckerly, lead reporter on Channel 8 News said. “The famous artist Willam Magrotte has gone missing.”

Keira stood there, frozen in shock. “Welp,” she said, throwing up her hands suddenly. “Another thing that no one will be able to solve, just like all the robberies and murders before.”

An idea formed in her mind, though. Then I’ll solve this myself.

 

A Day Just a While Before

Willam Magrotte was working in his quarters. His apron was splattered with paint, and his immaculate mustache had a couple of specks of white on it. Another masterpiece was being born. He was just finishing up the tail of the animal on his new painting, La Vie du Chat, The Cat’s Life, when something fell in the workshop. Willam turned. The door was ajar. He saw a figure in the corner. In an instant, the artist had fallen and was bound to a chair, blindfolded and gagged.

 

Mondays

Mrs. Jane Ellison was a stickler for rules. Obviously, she resented the reckless Keira Keegan. Keira was always getting into trouble, with her tendency to talk back. Mondays were always the worst. All of Mrs. Ellison’s seventh grade students were snippy from the early times they had to wake up, a change from the lazy weekends when they didn’t have to hit the snooze button until noon. But especially Keira.

The 8 a.m. school bell rang, and Mrs. Ellison began to take attendance. “Aaronson, Addie. Abrams, Genevieve. Barnhart, Hunter… ” all the way up to “Kaye, Theodore” and “Keegan, Kei — oh, it seems that Miss Keegan is not here with us today,” the teacher said with a smile. But at that moment, Keira walked in.

“Ah, Miss Keegan. You’re here,” Mrs. Ellison said slowly. “I was just about to print an absentee report for you. However, I guess we’ll just have to settle for a tardy slip.”

“Well, you didn’t finish saying my name, therefore I didn’t have to say ‘here,’” Keira quipped, provoking laughter from her classmates. Mrs. Ellison turned red.

“Keira Keegan,” Mrs. Ellison snapped. “Take that back this instant!”

Keira didn’t though, because the PA system crackled. “Keira Keegan, please report to the janitor’s closet. Keira Keegan, please report to the janitor’s closet. Thank you.”

 

Trapped

“Well then, Miss Keegan. Take the hall pass. I trust you won’t be straying off anywhere?” Mrs. Ellison said.

Keira obeyed and set off to the closet, wondering why she was needed there.

The closet door was painted a drab gray shade. There was a grate on the bottom, with metal slats that provided ventilation. “That’s weird,” she mumbled to herself. “These weren’t here on Friday.” She noticed the jagged edges of the vent. A hasty job, she thought. She opened the door and stepped inside.

“Hello?” Keira called. Her voice echoed off the dirty walls. She heard a click and turned around. The door. She shook the knob. It didn’t budge. She was trapped.

 

A Sound

Willam Magrotte heard a sound. It was more than one, really. First, the opening of the door. It startled him. The only sounds he had heard since he woke up here were the noises of a school. It was definitely a school he was in, for the loud chatters and stomping of feet and creak of lockers opening and closing and the occasional shout from a teacher were unmistakable. But back to the sounds. Willam’s enhanced hearing allowed him to detect the slightest sounds, all the way down here in what he believed was a basement. He heard a small voice ask who was there. Then, a sudden shaking noise was heard. The artist knew there was someone there, someone that wasn’t his captor. He shouted out, desperate for help.

 

Got to Go

Mrs. Ellison was in the middle of teaching social studies when she seemed to receive a message on her smartwatch. The students stared, wide-eyed, at their teacher when the tinging beep blared around the classroom. Mrs. Ellison checked it quickly and put her assistant in charge of the class. “Urgent business,” she explained. “I’ll be back soon.” She left in a hurry.

 

The Captor

Keira leaned against the door, scratching herself on the jagged outline of the metal grate. What am I going to do? Mrs. Ellison is going to be reeeaaaalllyyy mad if I don’t get back soon, she thought. A shout interrupted her musings. “Aidez-moi! Je suis pris au piège dans ce sous-sol sale. Ce n’est pas un endroit pour un artiste!”

“What?” Keira asked, confused. But then she remembered the contents of a French dictionary she’d read in first grade. “Help. I am trapped in this dirty basement. This is no place for an artist,” she translated. An artist. Wait, so — the artist Magrotte went missing a few days ago. This person says he’s an artist. Magrotte is French. This guy is French. Yep. It has to be him.

“Are you Willam Magrotte?” she called to the direction of the plea. When she didn’t get a response, she resaid it in French. “Êtes-vous Willam Magrotte?”

“Oui!”

“Je vais vous sortir de là!” I’ll get you out of there.

Keira rushed to find where the voice had come from. Eventually, she found a door. It was rusty but looked strong. She tried the knob. No luck. But she felt a small rectangle above it. It seemed to be a small box that was painted to blend in with the door. She undid the lock and lifted the lid. It had a keypad inside. “One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more,” Keira read out loud.

“Not so fast,” someone said behind her.

 

Revelations

“Little Miss Keegan. Did you really think you could free my captive?” a figure shrouded in black said. The voice was quite familiar — Keira was certain she knew the kidnapper. But she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t say it here, you know.”

“Well, I know your code. I’ll free Magrotte.”

“Ugh, I forgot about that photographic memory. But my codes are unbreakable, you should know that. So I’ll let you go on your way. I have to be somewhere too.”

“Oh-kay?” Keira walked back to class, looking unnaturally calm. But on the inside, she was severely shaken by her encounter.

When she arrived back to class, Mrs. Ellison was waiting. But she seemed rushed. Her elaborate hair was disheveled, and her clothes were rumpled, a change from the neat creases that were the result of excessive ironing. “Nice of you to join us,” Mrs. Ellison said. Her glasses were lopsided.

“Well, considering that I was trapped inside a closet with a kidnapper… I think I made pretty good time,” Keira retorted. The class laughed uneasily. She slipped into her seat without waiting for a response.

 

Figure it Out

“Y’know,” Keira’s best friend, Raina, whispered to her. “Mrs. Ellison left the classroom just a few minutes after you did.”

“Really? That’s weird,” Keira said. She could always count on Raina to give her the truth, though.

All through her classes, Keira tried to make sense of the riddle she’d seen in the closet. One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more. One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more. One plus two plus three plus four… she repeated in her head. It definitely had something to do with math. That wasn’t a problem. She knew how to do calculus. She’d learned it when she was seven. But the math in this problem was easy. Too easy. One plus two plus three plus four was ten. But… what about the next line? Multiply by what? She had to find out.

“Hey, Raina, I need your help,” Keira requested at lunch as they sat down together to eat. “I have a riddle, and I think you can figure it out.”

“Sure, what is it?” Raina asked. She was a petite girl, with long blond hair.

“‘One plus two plus three plus four. Multiply and wait for more.’”

“Well, one, two, three, and four add up to ten… Wait, in the second line, is it the number ‘four?’”

“No, it’s f-o-r,” Keira explained, spelling the word out.

“Hmmm… oh, I think I got it!” Raina jumped in excitement. “What if the ‘for’ in the second line is actually a number? So you have to multiply by the number four. That’s forty!”

Keira’s eyes widened. That’s it! I have the answer! she thought. She hugged Raina hard. “Thank you so so so so so so so much!”

“You’re welcome. But sheesh, you don’t have to be this excited, Keira, it’s only a riddle… ”

 

After School

As soon as the clock struck three, Keira rushed back to the janitor’s closet with her keys for a just-in-case weapon and a hairpin to unlock a door, if needed. She also included a small pen. Always be prepared. That was her mantra. Her parents wouldn’t mind if she came home late. They arrived back even later. As suspected, the room was locked. She stuck the pin in and jimmied it. It opened silently, and she stepped inside, immediately going over to the keypad. She entered the code four-zero in, and the door swung open with a hiss.

 

Another Sound

Willam made like an ice cube and froze when he heard the basement door open. Another sound had been heard. But was it his captor, or the French-speaker from this morning? He didn’t know, but he stayed silent just in case.

 

Lost and Then Found

Keira walked down the stairs to find an expansive room with nothing in it. Nothing but a person. A person that was strapped to a chair. A chair that was bound to the person with thick ropes. Ropes that were accompanied by a blindfold and a gag that had fallen onto the floor. Willam Magrotte.

She stepped towards him. “Monsieur Magrotte?”

“Oui?”

“I’ve come to save you,” she said in French. “Stay calm.”

“Je vais.” I will.

She untied the knots holding the artist to the chair and took off his blindfold. “How are you feeling?”

“Pas trés bien.” Not very well.

“Come with me. We have to go upstairs.”

“Wha-what happened to me?” he asked in broken English.

“It’s a long story. Just know that you have been saved.”

“Are you sure about that, Miss Keegan?” a new voice broke in.

 

Whodunit?

Miss Keegan. Miss Keegan. Miss Keegan. It echoed through her head. Only one person ever called her “Miss Keegan.”

“Mrs. Ellison? Is that you?” Keira said as she stepped back. She whispered a command to Willam. “Montez à l’étage du bureau du directeur. Dites-lui d’alerter la police de venir dans le placard du concierge.” Go upstairs to the principal’s office. Tell him to alert the police to come into the janitor’s closet.

“Why, yes. I’m not surprised that you figured out my identity. But it would provide me a great convenience to tell me how,” her teacher replied. Keira noticed that Willam had managed to sneak past the distracted kidnapper.

“Well, someone called me ‘Miss Keegan’ this morning in the closet. And then Raina told me that you left the classroom after I did. And you called me ‘Miss Keegan’ again just now. So that’s how I know whodunit. But I do have one question: Who called me to this closet in the first place?”

“Very good, Miss Keegan,” Mrs. Ellison nodded. “Very good. That idiot the janitor must have done it. He was supposed to be my accomplice. I guess he’s gone rogue. He’ll be my next victim, after you, of course.”

 

Taped

Click. Keira pressed the top of her pen. A red light stopped blinking.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Ellison, you’ve been taped. I have your whole villainous monologue on this pen.”

“Give that to me this instant!” Mrs. Ellison reached for the writing utensil in Keira’s hand. Keira dodged and ran up the stairs past the teacher to ground level, Mrs. Ellison close behind, just as the cavalry arrived.

“Put your hands up!” the chief yelled. Mrs. Ellison didn’t obey.

“You really think you can best me? You have no evidence, other than that dratted pen this little girl has in her hand… ” Her voice faltered, for Keira was replaying Mrs. Ellison’s explanation.

“‘He’ll be my next victim, after you, of course.’” the crackly recording wrapped up.

The police arrested Mrs. Ellison immediately, reading her rights. “You have the right to remain silent. If you do say anything, what you say can be used against you… ”

 

A Good Job

“Kid, you did a good job today,” one of the officers said to Keira. “Mr. Magrotte told us everything that happened. You’ll provide some more evidence too, right?”

“Yes sir, I’ve got a photographic memory, and I’m not afraid to use it,” she replied.

“Good.” He clapped her on the back.

“Keira?” someone else said. It was the janitor, Steven, who had worked at her school for years. As the former accomplice of Mrs. Ellison, he was there to give some insight into what caused her to kidnap Magrotte. Of course, it was for the ransom money.

Steven seemed changed, though, as he led Keira to a corner. He’d lost his mustache. Well, he could’ve shaved, Keira thought. His voice was different. Well, people’s voices can change. The color of his eyes were brown instead of green. Well — she couldn’t think of an explanation for that.

“Keira, I’m not actually Steven, you know. The name’s Kingston, Ricky Kingston. How would you like a job in the spy business?”

“Well, sure. Just leave me a day or so to get prepared,” Keira said. She smiled.

 

The End

 

Twinkles

Once upon a time, there was a Mom. The Mom saw beauty in the tiny moments of life. Little glimmers of hope, of humanity. She called these moments twinkles. She said they were like tiny Christmas lights, each one beautiful on its own, but dazzling when on a string. She said they covered the evergreen of life with sensational, stunning sparkles. There was also a Dad. He called these same moments everyday miracles, or the small things of beauty. But he didn’t really care for the twinkles, and only followed them because of his adoration for the Mom. The Mom would point out every twinkle she saw to the little Girl, and they would light up haer chubby toddler face with joy. When the older gentleman on the subway helped a complete stranger, a teen, struggling with his tie, that would be a twinkle. When the local coffee shop gave all their leftover pastries to the homeless, that was a twinkle. The Mom said that when the little Girl saw a twinkle, her scattering of freckles would light up, like the Christmas lights, but tiny and random.

When the little Girl turned six, she decided that she wanted to create her own twinkles. She remembered how proud the Mom looked when the little Girl boldly walked up to her, Mr. Snuffles in hand and a glittery tutu around her waist, and stated her decision. The family made their first twinkle the next day. After buying practically every lemon in the supermarket and making a fool of themselves as they talked in high, foofy voices, they made lemonade. The little Girl was truly happy, smearing sugar and lemon zest on their faces and drinking half of what they made. Then the Dad came out and set up the old table from their closet while the little Girl made a sign: Lemonade! One cup for only a smile. The sight of people on their way to work using the smile that the little Girl could tell they rarely used was priceless.

I pulled the hood of my navy parka over my thick brown hair, shivering from the early March chill. Staring at my feet, I tried to shut out the dirty New York City streets around me as I made my way home from school. It was one of those days that could be called drab, dreary, dull or another derogatory adjective starting in a “d.” The winter lingered like a wet blanket, getting pulled away and then flung back on your head with sudden icy rain. School was okay, I guess. I used to like challenging myself, being an overachiever. Now it was just a boring routine that, no matter how many times I whined about, wouldn’t go away.

I tried to shut out the mundane world. I stared at my shoes. Black Vans with a white stripe. Used-to-be-white shoelaces, now grayed and fraying. A worn patch on the right side of the left foot, where a toe ring I used to wear rubbed it thin. I stepped hard into the sidewalk. Each footstep thumped. Just then, I heard my phone buzz. I pulled it out, rubbing the marble-patterned plastic case out of habit. It was my dad. His awkward, trying-too-hard-to-look-cool, selfie flashed on my screen. I picked up.

“Why can’t you text like any other person in the 21st century?”

“Hello there to you too, honey,” he responded, a hint of laughter in his voice.

“What is it,” I replied, not willing to submit to his perpetual cheeriness.

“Well, honey, I’ll have to work late again tonight. I took on another client,” he said slowly, articulating each word like he always does.

“Did you have to take on this person when you already work seven days a week?”

“I’m sorry, Ayah. I’m doing my best.” He says that a lot. I’m doing my best. “You are going to have to make your own dinner again. I’m sorry, honey. Ayah, please forgive me.”

“Fine. Fine. Fine. It’s not like I made my own dinner every day this week. But of course I’ll do it.”

“I knew you would understand,” he responded, completely missing the sarcasm. I hung up.

Once upon a time, three years ago to be exact, the Mom died. The Girl was ten years old. The Dad didn’t fall into a state of insanity, like in movies. He didn’t wear a bathrobe or bunny slippers, and he didn’t go through five boxes of tissues a day. In fact, once upon a time, the Dad didn’t fall into grief at all. He fell into work. Every day, he would be in the office until even after the janitor had left. He would work extra shifts, and every second of his time at home was spent doing paperwork. Once upon a time, one might have thought that the family was short on money. But although the Mom liked living a simple life, the family was always very comfortable.

I kept walking, wanting to get home and away from this cold Monday, yet dreading the pile of homework our teachers had dumped on us. “Happy is the heart that still feels pain. Darkness drains and light will come again. Swing open up your chest and let it in, just let the love love love begin.” I sang silently, playing the Ingrid Michaelson song “Everybody” that was stuck in my head.

Once upon a time, when the Mom died, the Dad turned to work. The Girl, not so little anymore, turned to music. Once upon a time the Girl used to sing for the Mom. She let her voice carry, and then made it soft and delicate. The Mom would listen, swaying subtly. To her own beat, not the rhythm of the music. She would wait a few seconds after the Girl had finished her song to open her eyes. But when she did, they would glisten with tears, bringing out the crystalline blue color everyone envied.

Once upon a time, the Girl, not so little, couldn’t find her voice. She did, however, find the clarinet. The Girl loved everything she could do with it, from soft jazzy tunes to quick, dancing melodies, like pixies in a field of flowers.

As I continued my walk home, I passed Sparrow Cafe. It was a beautiful, small business that was cherished by everyone in our neighborhood. The owners, a pair of seventy-year-old identical twins named Mary and Darla Sparrow, knew me well. Suddenly, I felt someone brush against my shoulder, forcefully. It was Lily.

“Hi, Ayah,” she said, her voice dripping with fake friendliness.

“Hi, Lily,” I replied, staring at her shoes. Pristine gold and white Adidas, the laces tied in a tight bow.

“Uh, did you, like, forget? It’s Lilyah,” she responded, a condescending smile stretching from ear to ear. Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot the stuck up girl named Lily forced everyone to call her ‘Lilyah.’ She said the name had more class, just like her. “Well, I guess I’ll, like, see you around,” she said. No way.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Lily. Lily was best-friends-till-death-we-shall-never-part with the little Girl. They spent every waking hour together. The year the Mom died, a few more girls joined ‘the group.’ But Lily and the Girl still remained best friends, although they began to broaden their horizons to other people. Or so the Girl thought. Once upon a time, the Girl had to call Lily. That night, that fatal night. The Girl could barely get a word out, barely explain that she had lost her soulmate. She could barely explain how much love and help she needed, now that her mother was gone. But instead of finishing the Girl’s sentences, rushing over to her house, Lily was polite and formal: “I’m sorry for your loss. It’s such a shame,” she said. All of a sudden, Lily had transformed into a stranger. The Girl would never know exactly what had happened. Maybe Lily felt uncomfortable with someone who lost their parent? Maybe Lily couldn’t handle dealing with someone who was going through such intense grief? Although the Girl could never truly know, she did know one thing for sure: once upon a time, Lily was no longer a best friend. Lily was now a jerk.

I stood outside the Sparrow Cafe for a moment, staring at the shoes of the people who passed. My phone buzzed again. I lifted the screen to see another call from Dad. I picked up.

“What is it this time?”

“Sweetie, I would really appreciate if you could be more kind when answering — ” I cut him off.

“Come on, Dad. Seriously?”

“Where is my blue-eyed princess, the one who would find the everyday miracles? Where did she go?”

“There are no more miracles,” I said, not even trying to deny that the glitter in my blue eyes disappeared.

“Yes there are.” Hearing the silence, he continued. “Well anyways, the reason why I called you is because of your grandma.”

“My grandma?” I was genuinely confused. Dad’s mom died before I was born, and Mom’s mom… she didn’t have the best relationship with our family. Mom had some huge fight with her, something Mom said she would tell me when I was older. I never met my grandma, except for a brief sighting of a woman in black at Mom’s funeral. Dad always said it was for the best. So what now?

“Well,” Dad paused and cleared his throat. I could almost see his Adam’s apple bobbing, “I thought it’s time for you to get to know your grandma. So I got in touch with her — ”

“You spoke to her? How? What?” He ignored me.

“She said she would like to meet. I was thinking we could go to a nice dinner sometime next week, and meet her there.”

“I can’t do that. No way. I’m sorry, but no.”

“I don’t understand? Don’t you want to know your grandma?”
“It’s betraying Mom. And it’s terrible. It seems like this grandma lady is suddenly swooping in. Maybe she’s glad that Mom is dead.”

“Come on, Miracle.” He had crossed a line. Only Mom was allowed to call me that. Only Mom. I hung up, angrily pressing the screen, missing the red button the first few times, as I wiped away a tear.

Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman who were deeply in love. They desperately wanted a baby, especially a baby girl. But everytime they tried, it didn’t work. The doctors brought them the terrible news that they could never have a baby. Then, one day, the woman got pregnant. The doctors said it was a miracle the baby was in the Mom’s stomach, and an even bigger miracle it survived. So naturally, the Mom and the Dad named the baby Miracle in Arabic. To the Mom and Dad’s delight, they got pregnant again. Then something went wrong. The little Girl never knew what happened. They said she was too young, too fragile, too sad. All she remembers were the sirens, then flashing lights, red like the blood on the cold bathroom floor. All she remembers were the deep wrinkles in the doctor’s face, almost as deep as the pools of sadness that sank her. The little Girl was no longer so little.

I decided to enter into the Sparrow Cafe. I sometimes treated myself to their rich hot chocolate and light buttery chocolate croissant. Mom would say that the Sparrow Cafe’s hot chocolate was angel’s nectar. She always took me there when I had had a bad day at school, or was just feeling lousy. I added the croissant to the tradition after she died. The day of her death, I was sitting in the Sparrow Cafe. When I left, Darla handed me a croissant. “Give it to your Mom for me. From Mary and Darla.” Of course, Mom never got it.

As I opened the door, the warm air invited me inside. My ears were filled with the gentle hum of people conversing. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the delicate smells wafting from the kitchen. I could almost taste the flakes of sweet pastry, melting on my tongue.

“Hi, Mary,” I said, walking up to the counter.

“The usual, dear?” she responded, already getting out the little brown bag with which to package the croissant and setting it on the counter.

“Yes, please,” I responded

“Anything else, dear?”

“That will be all. Besides the hot chocolate, of course.” She started to prepare the hot chocolate, pouring the rich liquid in a paper cup decorated with drawings of sparrows. “Darla will ring you up, dearie.” I stepped down the counter to the vintage, blue cash register.

“Well, hello there, Ayah! Are you feeling alright today?” Darla said, peering at the wet streak on my cheek through her round, gold spectacles.

“Yeah. Thanks for asking.” I stared at the feet of the next person in line. A young woman, wearing slightly worn but still clean running shoes. Pink and blue Skechers with black laces. I took out my wallet to pay. Just as I handed her the bills, I noticed a tattered pink Post-it fall to the ground. Stooping down to pick it up, I could already tell it was Mom’s handwriting. Probably something stupid, like a shopping list. I stuffed it in my pocket as I went to a nearby table to wait for my order. I started thinking. How could Dad just betray Mom like that? Why are there no more miracles? Why are there no more twinkles? It’s not fair. I can’t do it anymore. No NO NO! By now, I was screaming in my head, clenching my fists with anger. I could see the bubblegum-sneakers lady looking at me. I’m done. I don’t care anymore. The twinkle lights went out. The tree is black.

My thoughts were interrupted by a tap on my shoulder.

“Oh, hi. Ms. Woodworth.” I stared at her shoes. Olive-green-gray heels, but not too high. Her foot, encased in tan pantyhose, was held down with an olive green strap and a gold buckle.

“Ayah! Fancy seeing you here!” Her gray ringlets shook as she patted my shoulder, and her soft pink sweater rubbed against my arm.

“Yeah, sure,” I groaned.

“What was that, Ayah?” She took a sip of the cup in her hand, wrapping the string of the chamomile tea bag around her finger.

“Uhh, I said ‘great coincidence!’” It was so easy for me to lie now. Mom used to say I was the most honest person she knew, but now, lying was part of my everyday life. Anyway, I didn’t care if she actually heard what Dad would call ‘my snarky remark.’

Once upon a time, the Girl’s Mom died. The school knew it would be hard on the Girl. They had their guidance counselor, Ms. Woodworth, help the Girl. She said, “You can talk to me whenever you need to. I’m always here.” She meant her office, a cozy nook in the otherwise chaotic public school building, filled with her snowglobe collection and a pot of tea always on the tiny stove. So the Girl went to her every day. But they never talked about that night with the sirens, or the hollow hole in the Girl’s heart. They just talked about everyday life. Like new shoes, or books. The Girl used to talk about this with the Mom. But now she wasn’t there. So Ms. Woodworth was the replacement. Once upon a time, the Girl went to Ms.Woodworth. It was a normal visit. The Girl wanted to talk about Lily, why she was being a jerk. But Ms. Woodworth didn’t let her stay. “Come back when you have a real issue. When you are actually dealing with the grief,” she said. “Other kids have more important things, rather than chit chatting about daily life.”

Thankfully, Ms. Woodworth now walked away, chuckling to herself as she went. I craned my neck to look at the counter. Where was my order? How hard is it to warm a croissant? Well, I might as well read the Post-it while I’m waiting. I pulled the now even more crumpled paper out of my pocket and carefully laid it on the blue mosaic table. I smoothed it out, running my thin fingers on the creases. It was a hastily scribbled haiku, definitely written by Mom.

Don’t drag yourself down,

With self-pity and anger

Remember twinkles

Darla called my name. “Ayah, your order is ready! Have a nice day, dear!” Rushing outside, I stuffed the Post-it in my pocket and grabbed the delicate paper bag and hot chocolate cup. I ran out of the cafe, shutting the door as I went with a slam that surprised even me, and was met by the rush of cold air. I started walking fast. Faster. Now I was almost running. Tears welled up in my eyes, but didn’t run down my face because of how fast I was going. I stared at the floor, shoes blurring past me. Teal Converse, white laces. Black loafers with a tangled thread. Gray sneakers with a lime green sole. Black high heels with arctic blue soles. Candy-apple-red wedges with a gold button. Ripped, unrecognizable shoes, one with only a sole. Panting, I stopped. I looked at the person in those shoes.

He was sitting on a greasy, old pizza carton, a threadbare, gray blanket on his lap. Why doesn’t he use the blanket? It’s freezing outside, I thought. Then, I saw it move. The homeless man carefully lifted the blanket to comfort a wailing baby, her small, red face streaked with soot. He held her up to his chest and gently patted the scrap of grimey bubblegum-pink swaddle that was wrapped around her, almost as if he were afraid to touch her, for she might break. “It’s alright. It’s alright.” He comforted her softly. His scratchy, hoarse voice barely made a sound. The baby’s wails only intensified. The homeless man looked up at me, making eye contact. His glassy green eyes were helpless, filling with tears that spilled over, dripping down his face. They drew a line of clean, exposing his weathered skin, washing away a stripe of dirt. Instead of looking away, like my parents always told me to, I stared straight at him. Suddenly, I knew why that haiku was in my pocket. It was fate. It was time, finally time, for me to create my own twinkle. I bent down, and carefully placed the steaming cup of hot chocolate on the ground in front of him. I held out the butter-stained brown bag with the croissant. He shook his head.

“Take it. Please,” I said, staring clearly, steadily at him, looking into his glassy eyes. He slowly reached up his hand, a filthy, torn glove almost falling off, and I closed the distance. Once the bag was in his hands, I started to run away, only stopping for a moment at the streetlight. I turned my head back and looked at him. His eyes were filled with a gratitude I had never seen before. He ripped a small piece of the still-warm croissant from the bag. A string of melted chocolate dripped from the pastry. He handed it to his baby. The cries dwindled. I called to him.

“Enjoy.”

 

An Attempted Rescue

The rocket stood there on the purple soil, black steam spiraling out from the top. It was night on the planet. It was always night there. Hundreds of stars hovered in the dark sky. They shined in Captain Powell’s eyes. Captain Powell and his men stepped out onto the mysterious territory.

“Where have we landed, Navigator Edwards?” Powell asked.

“Some planet,” said Edwards, looking around. “I think it’s uncharted.”

“Did we go to another solar system?” Powell said, confused.

“No, same one, it’s just we’re so far away from the Sun,” Edwards stated.

The planet looked isolated, with neglected mountains and a silent, purple lake that looked like grape soda. The only thing you could hear was the soft wind that would whisper to you and your very own echoes.

“I see something!” a crew member cried.

He was standing on a hill. He had a circular, large glass dome around his head. He also wore a big, white suit and boots. One of his legs was bruised and beaten. It was bleeding. What once was a pink, plump man was now pale and withered. However, his face was colored with excitement. He limped from the hill to them.

“Oh, thank you so much!” he cried. He then looked towards the shadows in the area. He called them. “Crew, people have come to rescue us!”

Four other men stepped out of the shadows, all in the same condition as the man.

“Who are you, and why are you here?” Powell questioned.

“I,” he explained, “am Douglas Williams of Earth, and this is my crew. We were supposed to land on Mars, but we crashed here back in 2050. We’ve been stranded here for years, and you have come to rescue us!”

Even time is different here, thought Powell. 2050 was a long time ago. These men are supposed to be dead. Maybe the planet freezes time for these people. Powell had a lot of questions.

“Well,” Edwards began, “our rocket crashed here, but we still have some fuel to take you back home! Tomorrow, it’ll be ready.”

“Thank you, thank you!” Williams turned to his crew. “We’re going home!”

They all cheered and clapped and laughed and joked. They felt alive for the first time in years. Now, they will finally be seeing their families and friends who thought they were dead.

“Is anyone else here?” Powell said.

Williams shot a frightened glance at his crew.

“Nope! No one here at all! Just us, ha, ha!”

“Okay.” Powell looked around the area.

 

***

 

Edwards went hiking through the planet, searching for new rocks and minerals while everyone was asleep. He went to a cave, and that’s when something happened. He felt someone touch his hand and say.

“Hello.”

He quickly turned around and was ready to fight, only to find a weak, injured astronaut.

“You must be new here,” the astronaut chuckled. “What planet did you try to go on. I’m Samuel Brooks and — ”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” interjected Edwards, “and you should know, you’re part of Williams’ crew who we’re bringing with us.”

Brooks turned red. “You bring Williams with you as you escape?!”

“Yeah, I — ”

“Don’t bring him. He’s an idiot, and he’ll do you no good!”

“But — ”

“He’s insane,” Brooks blurted out.

Edwards quickly turned his opinion. “Really?”

“Yes, isolation made him start to become aggressive with my crew. Bring my expedition, we tried to go to Jupiter in 2080, but we failed,” Brooks stated.

“Okay, meet us tomorrow morning at our rocket, I’ll tell the captain. We can only have one other crew on the trip, so it’ll be you.”

“Wonderful.”

 

***

 

The day finally came, the day to go back home. Brooks saw the rocket, and he and his men started to walk along the silver ramp.

“Hey!” a voice shouted. It was Williams, and he was angry. “Get off, Brooks. This rocket isn’t for you!”

“Yes, it is, we deserve it more!” Brooks said.

Williams tackled Brooks. “That escape is ours.” He gritted his teeth.

The men on Brooks’ and Williams’ teams started to fight each other.

But word spread around quickly. Waves of failed crews and expeditions of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter came and saw the rocket. They hit, kicked, scratched, and bit each other for it.

Edwards, Powell, and the workers were in the rocket.

“Which one should we pick?”

“I don’t know!”

A man entered the crowd. He held a grenade.

“Hey, Williams! Hey, Brooks!” He threw it.

It spun in the air, but accidentally headed towards the rocket.

“Don’t,” Powell cried.

Boom.

Powell, Edwards, their workers, and the rocket were gone. Their dead bodies were in the rubble. The planet’s residents stood there, stunned. They didn’t speak for five minutes.

They had trouble sleeping that night.

Robot Battle League

       

OOH, and Silo goes in the air as Wrecking Ball slams him again. Silo has difficulty getting back up, and Wrecking Ball smashes him down. Silo isn’t moving. It’s time for the five second countdown!

Five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

AND Wrecking Ball WINS THE ROUND! Good game, Silo, but it looks like you and your creator will have to wait until the next round!” the commentator boomed. Dianna and her best friend Luke walked towards the arena of the Robot Battle League, a fighting sport for robots, to pick up Dianna’s now broken robot.

“Don’t feel bad. It was a good design. You just need… tweaks,” Luke said, trying to cheer

her up.

“You say that every round, Luke. I’ve never won a round of the RBL, and with the championships coming up, there’s going to be thousands of people competing. Silo and I won’t stand a chance!” Dianna told him. They walked back towards the workshop. A Retina scan indicated that Dianna and Luke had returned. The gate opened, revealing small helper bots that were carrying around spare pieces of metal. Dianna placed Silo on the robot hand truck, where she started replacing his broken parts with fresh, new pieces of metal.

 

Dianna had always wanted to win an RBL tournament. It was the most popular sport, and from her window she could see giant, neon bulletin boards displaying the champions. She dreamt of being up there, representing her city in even bigger tournaments. Being the champion of —

 

“DIANNA!” Luke yelled. She opened her eyes. Silo was all powered up, and his light blue eyes flickered as they turned on.

“Hello, creator. Hello, best friend Luke,” Silo said in a calm, echoing voice.

“Silo, you can just call me Dianna. I told you a million times,” she said, chuckling.

“My apologies. Every robot’s programming requires them to call their makers ‘master’ or ‘creator,’” Silo said. He slowly walked out of the hand truck and rummaged through the boxes.

“What are you doing?” Dianna asked.

“Upgrade. Upgrade. Requiring USB database,” Silo beeped repetitively.

“Oh right,” Dianna said. She went into her pockets and plugged in a blue USB drive with

gray writing saying, Silo database. Every once in a while, robots required updates to refresh their memories. Dianna turned to Luke, who was asking a helper bot for a lemonade.

“Hey Luke, why don’t you enter the RBL too? It could be fun!” Dianna asked.

“No thanks. I’m not an engineer. Besides, I wouldn’t want to go against you,” Luke answered. Dianna nodded. Suddenly, a hovering, lime green oval shaped bot floated into the room. A recording of Dianna’s mom came out of the robot.

“Dianna! Time for dinner!” it said.

“Gotta go. Cya Luke!” she said, powering Silo down and placing him on the hand truck, before running up the stairs. Luke waved and walked towards his house.

 

When 10:00 hit, the arena opened for its late night battles. It was only one or two, just to test out the strength of your robot. Wrecking Ball was walking behind his creator, a snarky, arrogant kid named Sam. Sam spotted a masked cyberpunk leaning against the wall. Aside from his mask, he was only wearing black. His mask was metal and had two yellow pixelated eyes. Beside him was a small robot. It was smaller than any other robot in the RBL. Sam couldn’t resist the opportunity to crack an insult against him.

“Hey, robot face! Too scared to show yourself? Bet you’re real ugly. Hey, where did your robot come from, preschool?” he said, laughing. The cyberpunk lifted his head and looked straight at Sam.

The commentator started yelling out. “Sam and Wrecking Ball vs Korben and the Exterminator!” he yelled out. Sam laughed.

“The exterminator? Bet the only thing you ever fought was a bug, and you still lost!” Sam yelled, laughing. They both sat down and grabbed their controllers. Korben’s yellow eyes turned red.

“Exterminate,” he muttered. The Exterminator grew much higher. His right hand was

replaced by a gun, and his left hand became a sword. Sam stopped laughing. Within seconds, Wrecking Ball was destroyed. Or rather, Exterminated.

THE EXTERMINATOR WINS! Better luck next time, Wrecking Ball!” the commentator

yelled. Sam grabbed Wrecking Ball and looked at Korben, who was already walking away. Exterminator turned back towards Wrecking Ball.

“Target exterminated,” he said and went back to walking.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep! Slam!

 

Dianna hit her alarm and got out of bed in a flash. Today was the sign-up for the championships! She had to get there nice and early. Downstairs, she was greeted by a warm hello from Silo and a bowl of cereal, which she devoured in seconds. She grabbed Silo, and they ran out of the house towards Luke’s. She knocked on the door, and in a few minutes, Luke was there. It looked like he had changed from his pajamas recently, but he was still looking sleepy.

“Dianna, what time is it?” he asked, yawning.

“5:00. The sign-ups start at 6:00. Come on!” she replied, grabbing his arm and dragging

him outside, as he moaned for his bed.

 

They quickly arrived at the front of the arena. Thousands of people were already lining up.

“Dang it. I’ll never sign up!” Dianna complained. Luke grabbed her and Silo.

“Okay Silo, play along,” he whispered. He started yelling.

“Excuse me! This robot has a virus! The only way to cure it is to sign up for the championships!” Luke yelled.

“Yes. I have a virus. I am very sick and need to sign up,” Silo said. Dianna wrote her name in the paper. Everyone cheered. Dianna smiled. She was in!

Suddenly, Korben shoved Silo out of the way. Everyone moved, whispering and pointing.

“Silo, scan the man and the bot,” Dianna whispered. Silo’s eyes turned green, then back

to blue.

“Name: Korben. Age: 37. Bio: Never lost a round,” Silo said. His eyes became green again, then returned to normal. “Bot name: Exterminator. Bio: Destroyed every robot in his way,” Silo read out. Korben wrote his name on the paper. As Korben and the Exterminator walked back, everyone backed away in fear of being the next target.

“Okay. It’s okay. All we have is a… RBL champion with the most dangerous robot in the tournaments. Think of winning. Think of winning,” Dianna said. Suddenly, a helper bot put

up the list of who was fighting who. Dianna saw she was against Jonathan and his robot “Red Zone.” She felt confident. Everyone took their copies of the paper and walked back to their homes.

 

In the workshop, Dianna was still staring at the paper.

“Hey. Dianna! You’ve been staring at the paper for an hour. Let’s go play gravity throw or something,” Luke said.

“I can’t. This is the biggest tournament I’ve ever been in! I’ve got to upgrade Silo as much as possible. I’m thinking rocket boosters, laser cannons, plasma bombs, virus gas, anything!” she said. She grabbed some boxes and started rummaging through them.

“Do not worry, creator Dianna. I will download all the features myself. Go play gravity throw with best friend Luke,” Silo said. Dianna sighed and walked outside with Luke.

 

The next day, Dianna, Luke, and Silo were rushing towards the arena. People were already starting to sit down, and the fighters were preparing their remotes and their bots. Luke went to find a seat, and Dianna grabbed her remote control.

 

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, PLEASE WELCOME… THE CITY’S CREATOR AND HOST OF THE RBL… THE OVERLORD!” the commentator said. A giant screen with a face appeared. It smiled.

“Let the RBL begin!” it said. After a few rounds, Dianna’s turn came up. She sat down

and activated Silo’s “fight mode.” Red Zone jumped and landed on Silo. Silo got thrown backwards and hit the wall.

“Come on, Silo, where are your upgrades?” Dianna muttered. Silo got back up and

attempted to punch Red Zone, but Red Zone grabbed his arm and threw him against the floor. Silo got back up again. Red Zone punched, but Silo ducked. Red Zone tried punching again, but Silo still dodged it. When Red Zone attempted a third punch, Silo punched him in the face. Red Zone slammed against the wall. Suddenly, Silo’s eyes became dark.

“Upgrade. Upgrade. Requiring USB database,” he said.

“Nonononono!” Dianna yelled. Red Zone saw his opportunity and knocked Silo off his

feet.

Dianna looked at Luke, who had the USB drive in his hand. Luke tossed it to her. Suddenly, Silo was thrown up in the air, and Red Zone kicked him above Dianna. Everything moved in slow motion. Dianna’s hand went up and plugged the USB drive onto Silo’s back. Just before Silo hit the stands, his eyes opened, and he jumped back into the arena. A few people cheered. Red Zone ran towards Silo, but Silo grabbed him and slammed him on the ground.

“Let the countdown begin!

Five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

AND SILO WINS! Red Zone IS ELIMINATED FROM THE COMPETITION! SILO MOVES ON TO THE NEXT ROUND!

Dianna stood there with her mouth wide open. She… had… won! She won for the first time in the RBL! She ran towards the arena where Silo was standing. She quickly deactivated “fight mode” and hugged him.

“WE WON SILO! WE WON!” she yelled.

 

After a relaxing period of watching the rest of the competitors fight, (Dianna’s favorite besides her win was Mega Mech vs Pyro, but Luke’s was definitely Rocket vs Blast-a-tron) Dianna, Luke, and Silo walked back towards Dianna’s workshop. Dianna powered Silo down, plugged him in, and put him on the hand truck. Luke went back home, and Dianna went to bed.

 

In the city’s central building, the Overlord was connected to millions of wires that were connected to millions of plugs. The Overlord controlled every part of the city. His pixelated face appeared on the giant screen. He watched the replays of the RBL rounds. He stopped as the beginning of Silo vs Red Zone. He watched as Dianna plugged the USB drive. He watched as Silo beat Red Zone.

“Interesting,” he said. A smaller screen went in front of him, and a camera view of

Dianna’s workshop shot into view. He looked at Silo’s powered down body.

“Nobody knows the true nature of the RBL. I believe that young fighter will soon find out my secret,” he muttered. The screen lifted, and a door opened revealing a smooth titanium robot. “Soon. Very soon,” he said. He laughed, and his face disappeared from the screen.

 

Saturday was Dianna’s favorite day of the week. She had all day to work on Silo, and not to mention, her parents always went out all day, so she had the whole house to herself. Luke couldn’t come, as he and his parents were going shopping. Dianna was disappointed, but she just went