The Case of the Missing Gem

This piece is inspired by the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Conan Arthur Doyle

Chapter One

One day, Sherlock Jr. (Lock) got a text from Watson Jr. (Watts) telling him to come 31st Avenue. Lock rushed out and called a cab. When the cab arrived, Lock told the driver his address, and the cab sped off. When he arrived, Watts told him that the British Museum in London was robbed from the biggest diamond in the world.

The security guards recognized the detectives and waved them over. They walked over and asked the guards, “When did this happen?”

The security told them that it happened this morning. Lock asked the guards if he could go to the room where the diamond was held to do some investigating. When they got to the room, the glass cap that was previously covering the diamond was on the floor, and the diamond was gone. The room was cold but bright, and there were some windows. Watts and Lock looked around the room for fingerprints and clues. There was no one else in the room except for some guards. They found there was a green hat in the corner of the room with the letter M on it. Lock instantly knew that this hat belonged to Moriarty, Sherlock’s (Lock’s dad’s) enemy and also London’s most wanted criminal. He must have left it behind when he was escaping. They came out of the room and told the guards what Lock had found. Then, they walked out to continue their search.

They wanted to track down Moriarty to find the diamond and figure out what he was planning to do with it.

Chapter Two

Lock and Watts walked around the big museum building, looking for ways Moriarty could have escaped without being noticed. They looked around for two hours, but they found nothing. Every corner of the building was clueless.

“He must be one of the world’s greatest criminals to get away like that,” said Lock. “No wonder Dad had so much trouble catching him.”

“Moriarty could have jumped out of a window and ziplined across to some other building.”

After their discussion, Lock and Watts went to a nice cafe where they could get some coffee and discuss the case.

Chapter Three

After their coffee, the detectives went home to get some sleep. The next day, Lock and Watts went out to the nearby buildings to see if Moriarty had ziplined in and out of the museum building. The first building they checked had no signs of Moriarty, but the second house had a broken window which the criminal must have done. The detectives asked the house owners about the broken window, and they said it was not there two days ago, which is when the robbery had happened. Lock looked around and found a piece of some wire under the windowsill with the name 23rd Street Wire Company. Finding this, Lock showed it to Watts. The detectives said thank you to the house owners and walked out.

Chapter Four

The detectives headed towards 23rd Street on their motorcycles to investigate the building. From their past cases, the criminals always used the building of a company of something they’re using or wearing. When they got to the big brown building, it was as dark as night. They looked through the windows. They saw part of a big room where they expected the wire was made, and there was no one there. They entered the building. It was cold and dark. They walked through the hallway and looked through into every room. They got to the stairwell and walked up to the second floor and saw a light.

Chapter Five

The detectives walked towards the bright light. They snuck up to the corner to get a glimpse of who or what was there. At a large, brown, wooden desk sat a fat man with the same hat they found at the museum.

“This guy must be Moriarty. Quick, let’s get out of here before he notices,” Lock whispered to Watts.

“Yeah, we’ll notify the police too,” Watts answered. Suddenly, the man on the desk got up and walked towards them. The detectives ran towards the stairs.

Chapter Six

Dashing down the stairs onto the ground floor, Moriarty was gaining up on them. Luckily, the detectives got onto their motorcycles, and they got away. They rode towards the police station.

When they got to the police station, the detectives told the police to hurry up and follow them before Moriarty could get away. They sped off with five police cars following. Lock told them to circle the building and hide until Moriarty would come out. The detectives waited outside with the police. They waited for one long, cold winter hour.

Chapter Seven

Everyone was starting to fall asleep standing against their cars and motorcycles, when suddenly they heard a scuffling noise. The detectives rose to their feet where they could see the same fat man was walking out with that green M hat. The detectives gestured to the police to wait until he was closer, so they could capture him without him running away. They waited a minute or two. Moriarty started walking their direction. Watts whispered to Lock that the diamond he stole might be in his green backpack.

When the criminal got closer, the police officer said through his blow horn, “Police. Stand still. Don’t move.”

The criminal tried running the other direction when two more police cars came in and circled him. Finally, Moriarty dropped his bag and put his hands up. The officer walked up to him and put handcuffs on his hands. In several minutes, they were cruising down the street towards the police station.

Lock said cheerfully, “Another case well solved.”

The next morning, Moriarty was sent to court.

“Why did you steal the diamond?” asked the judge.

“I wanted to become a better person and sell it to some rich guy and give the money to charity,” answered Moriarty. “But if you want, you could put me in jail. I was just trying to make the world a better place.”

“Okay, I believe you, but you will still go to jail for a year, and if we catch you doing something wrong, you will go to jail for the rest of your life.”

The end

After one year in jail, Moriarty became a really nice and good person and donated a lot of money to charity.

The detectives continued solving mysteries.

The actual end.


The Diary of Evil Chicken Dude

Today, the craziest thing happened. It seemed like an ordinary day, but it wasn’t. I went to the kitchen like I do every day and waited for my mom to make me a hard boiled egg. But when she grabbed the egg, she dropped into a big pot of moldy stew. But I ate the egg anyways.

Soon, I noticed I was pooping out eggs and suddenly craved corn seeds. Then out of nowhere, I grew a beak and feathers. I turned into a human-sized chicken, then I started to do evil mean tricks and pranks. I then came to the conclusion that all my mean tricks and pranks started because of the mean old mold. I went to see the M.O.L.D. doctor for villains, and he told me my theory was true, and the M.O.L.D. doctor also said he’d ask his friends if I could join M.O.L.D..

I started my new life living alone being an evil chicken. Finally, the evil villains of M.O.L.D., which stands for mean, old, lazy dudes, called me, and now I am robbing banks and living a life of crime. I am no longer accepted at my parents’ farm since I robbed my parents of all their chickens, to make mold egg stew. I live at the M.O.L.D. headquarters and bunk with a giant lemon named Pablo.


Disney Breaking Out (Part One)

          

Prologue: Before the Time

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

 

Chapter One: The Journey to the True Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

My dearest parents,

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

Your sweet, loving daughter

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

 

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

 

Chapter Two: True Disaster Eats Mice Cheese

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing happened,” the mysterious witch cited.

“Nothing happened… ” the guard repeated.

“Maleficent is still in prison.”

“Maleficent is still in prison.”

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

“Good, good — good.”

“No! Don’t repeat any more!”

“No — don’t — ”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

 

The Memories

 

Chapter One: The Earthquake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Two: The Boxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Sweetie!

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

Love, me

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

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

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

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

“How was your day?” she asked.

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

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

“Typical Williams.”

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

“I’m sorry about that.”

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

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

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

“Nope.”

“Well, thanks for the support.”

“Anytime.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Three: The Hospital

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

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

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

Patient: Erica Edelman                      .

Gender: Female            .

Age: 14       .

Town of Origin: Paducah, Kentucky                   .

Diagnosis: Severe hearing loss                                    .

Cause of Diagnosis: Broken eardrum                                .

Status of Diagnosis: Permanent?                .

Medication: None                      .

Potential Operations: Cochlear implant?                  .

 

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

 

Chapter Four: The Meeting

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

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

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

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

“I’m April, by the way.”

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

“I think he’s great,” said April.

 

Chapter Five: The Memories

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

 

Chapter Six: The Email

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

To: April

Subject: Hello!

April,

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

Your friend,

forever and always,

Erica

 

Chapter Seven: The Ice Cream

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

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

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

– Thanks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To: Erica

Subject: Greetings!

Erica,

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

Your friend,

Forever and always,

April

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

 

Chapter Eight: The Caterpillar

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

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

 

George

Beep! Beep! Beep!

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

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

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

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

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

He got a cab.

“Where to?” the cab driver asked.

“Fourth and twenty-ninth,” George replied.

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

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

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

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

Accounting never changed lives for the better.

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

 

You, Simply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happier?

Prettier?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down into the deep pits of the midnight zone.

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

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

And dizziness rang in my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Food Chain

    

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boars kept on kicking the human.

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what I’m saying?”

The human nodded.

“Do you have a home?”

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

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

The human shook his head violently.

“What about Spot?”

The human nodded and jumped about.

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

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

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

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

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

That was when it got way, way worse.

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

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

“Just help me, Leonard!” George screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He picked himself up and left in a huff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your name Leonard?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One person yelled, “Animal lover!”

Another yelled, “Farm animal!”

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

I sat down, and the judge began to speak.

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

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She banged her gavel.

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

Was I robbed? Did… did George do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The large chimpanzee spoke in a calm, soothing voice.

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

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

I asked, “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Project Complete

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Breakfast,” I mumbled and ate the cookies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I licked my lips.

 

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

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

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

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

paper and took it. It read:

         Kris Yalgougly,

         Temporary Apartments

         Under Construction

         For those in need

         Head of Public Attention,

         Ashley Nofraih

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

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

 

 

No One’s Safe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Great.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, why?”

“You just seem a little out of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Jack’s here too, by the way.”

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

“Uhh… no thanks, I don’t drink.”

“Okay. Danny, you?”

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

“Lmao okay, two drinks coming right up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m trying to, it just — it just — ”

“It’s right there, Jack! Hurry!”

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why?”

“Jack, just tell me where you were.”

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

“Jack! Where were you?”

“I don’t want to tell you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What — what do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Lost Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hunter would soon become the hunted.

THE END (FOR NOW)

 

What Separates Them All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

Telekinesis Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get on the line,” he barked.

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

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

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

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

One asked, “How did you do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asked me, “Why are you sidestepping?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Animals in Captivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Elite Cat Trainer

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

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

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

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

The world’s first elite cat trainer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Purple Guard

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

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

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

After many long hours, the scanner started to beep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A clear male voice answered him.

“Call me whatever you want to call me.”

“Okay… Then I’ll call you Ray.”

“Okay.”

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

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

“Uhhh… Okay. Well, can I ride you?”

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alice’s Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But… ” the frog prompted.

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

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

“But I might want to go home!”

“Then, go home,” he lifted the door.

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

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

And then Alice was alone again.

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

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

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

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

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

Alice took the chance and stepped into the forest.

 

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.

 

Little Lemon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you so much, sir!” she said.

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

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

 

Damaged World

The light was just coming up while Abby Red crept along the side of the river. The cries of the werewolf echoed in the distance. Glaring out of narrowed eyes, she hid behind a tree as the werewolf slunk past her. Abby breathed out.

“Abby, are we ‘afe?” her little brother Theo whispered, his front toddler teeth still somewhat nonexistent. She was about 15, her little brother about five. He looked up at her with wide brown eyes, his dark curls bouncing in the soft breeze. Abby’s eyes widened as she noticed the movement, grabbing Theo’s hand and pulling him along the path to town. She stopped after a while, licking her finger and holding it up to the breeze. Theo watched her intently.

“It’s going… east. Okay.” Abby glanced down at Theo. “Our scents will be blown to the werewolf, and then where will we be?” Abby looked up and screamed, shoving Theo out of the way. He tumbled to the ground, looking ahead just in time to see Abby get snatched up by the werewolf.

“ABBY!” he yelled.

“Run!” she shouted to him, kicking the werewolf so it would drop her. “Liam, this isn’t you!” she yelled at the werewolf, breathing quickly. “Let me go!” Theo couldn’t look away as the werewolf bit Abby, tearing her up and throwing her to the ground. Theo got up and ran, yelling for help from the other warrior patrols that were stationed out in Foxtail Forest. At last, he got to the Thundersong’s base, unable to get out any words but “dead.” Patrols went out to look, but they didn’t see anything besides a large amount of fur and a huge claw stuck to a tree.

 

Chapter One

I live in a damaged world. My old town, which I can’t remember anymore because I was barely one year old, burned to the ground when a group of pyromaniac elves got hold of Yoli County’s flint and steel supply. My old city’s inhabitants left when the famous Foxtail Forest werewolf, formerly known as Liam Towers, attacked Abby Red and we had to evacuate. Now I live with the Thundersong, a group of amazing people who are all dedicated to defeating evil. My dream in life is to be a warrior of the highest order. To be honored and respected. For people to know my name all over the world.

“Alexa! Are you up?” I look up sharply from my careful writing, accidentally smudging the last word in the paragraph.

“Yes, whoever you are, I am up. I was just finishing the summary of my entire goddamn life.” My little sister Katherine struts into my room, wearing a brand new, stretchy fighting suit. She’s about 11. My mother died just after she was born, so the only memory I really have of my mother is her brown, curly hair. I inherited it. Kathy twirls around, grinning at me, and I raise an eyebrow.

“What do you think?” she asks eagerly.

“Sweet,” I say, shutting the door to my tiny room in the Thundersong base. “Who got that for you?”

“Jacob. He’ll make one for you, too, if you want.” I shake my head, leaning back on my chair and putting my legs up on the desk. My room is one of the bigger ones, with oak paneling and a rug made from wool. I actually have windows to the outside. My bed probably has the best sheets, except for the hospital room. My desk is one of my prized possessions, except for my leather gripped daggers. One of them, which I never use, has a real ruby on its pommel. I’m a skilled knife fighter. It’s my calling card.

To the fighting suit I say, “Nah, that’s fine. Purple isn’t really my color.” Kathy moves my head up a little and ties my dark brown curls up in a ponytail. Most people at the Thundersong northern base have dark hair and dark eyes, skin of all colors, but I’ve never seen somebody with blonde hair and blue eyes up here. I myself have hazel eyes, a healthy mix of brown and green. Different people see different colors, usually — I like to ask.

“Okay, then. He could make one in blue or something,” Kathy says about the suit. She knows better than to press me, on anything, letting the subject drop after the last sentence. “Alexa, did you know that Theodore Red is going to join the Northern Thundersong base? I’ve heard he’s hella dreamy.”

“Theo Red?” I repeat, incredulous. “But… doesn’t he… he has post-traumatic stress disorder. Right? I mean, he saw his sister get bitten by a werewolf only miles from here.”

“I would think he has PTSD, it makes sense. But rumor has it — and this time the rumor is correct — that yes, Theodore Red is coming up North.”

“Wow,” I breathe, exchanging a look with my sister. “That’s actually pretty cool. He’ll have the best room in the base. Ya know, his sister was an honored warrior. And when she got bitten, Theo started training right away, so now he’s a really important person. At least he was, until he moved down to the South base and had to start all over again.”

Kathy finishes with my hair, handing me a mirror she got from one of our friends in the South.

“So, you’ve been working on your writing assignment?” Kathy asks me, peering over my shoulder to see what I’m doing. I nod, handing it to her.

“Yeah. I accidentally smudged the bottom word, but I’ll turn it in anyway. See how I do.”

“It’s a competition, right?”

I roll my eyes.

“Obviously. So apparently I win a training lesson with some really skilled dude. He’s only really skilled if his — ”

Somebody screams from down the hall. I’m on my feet in an instant, grabbing my shotgun and racing down the hall. My sister stops in her room to grab her katana. Adrien Young from the downstairs boys dorms comes sprinting up the stairs as we’re going down, causing a slight collision.

“What’s going on?” I yell, struggling to regain my balance without shooting anyone.

“I don’t know,” Adrien says, breathing heavily. “I just ran out of there. I think it’s a mutant or something.”

“Mutant what?” I demand, grabbing Adrien before he can run out.

“I don’t know!” he wails. I shove him and Kathy, and I run down, out into the main hallway. It’s a mutant, all right. Two huge wolves, no doubt from Foxtail Forest, are circling two of the youngest recruits of Thundersong.

“Eloise and Brianna,” Kathy tells me, looking pretty heroic in her new fighting suit. Her katana has a new handle cover, and it’s pretty awesome. “Hang on guys, we’ll be right with you!” she yells to the other girls. Brynn, Lee, and Josh are already there, trying to figure out a way to distract the wolves. Brynn tosses her black braid, pacing just like the wolves when she sees me. As I mentioned before, I’m a very skilled warrior, if I do say so myself, and I am respected. I worked hard to be where I am today. I started from basically nothing, joining the Thundersong just a little after the Abby Red scandal when I was seven.

“Okay, Alexa, what’s the plan?” Ross asks me, coming beside Kathy and me.

“I’m not sure,” I reply. “I want to try get someone on top of the wolves, and then we can try to stab them. Once one is down, the other one will either run — ”

“And we pursue it and kill it.”

“ — Or we trap it and find out how it got so… big and ugly.” Kathy laughs. Ross nods pensively.

“I think Kathy’s pretty nimble.”

“No, she’s not getting up there,” I say protectively, flinching when I imagine Kathy getting either thrown off the giant wolf or maimed by it.

“Got it. Katherine, run across the room and tell Brynn, Lee, and Josh what the plan is.” Kathy nods, zipping across the room and talking quickly to Brynn.

“Stay!” I yell. “I’ll go up!” I hand my shotgun to Ross. “Throw this to me once I’m up there.” Closing my eyes, I bend my legs and run. I leap on top of one of the wolves, just barely getting onto its back and getting a good grip. Ross hurls the shotgun up, but I miss it, just barely. The wolf howls, bucking wildly, and I yell in spite of myself. “Oh, God,” I mutter. I grab one of its ears, hanging on with my left arm while I try to reach my dagger at my belt. People are yelling, but I can’t focus on what they’re saying. Cursing softly, I grab my dagger and struggle to cut its neck deep enough. It yowls with fury as I score its neck, cutting the skin just barely. Desperately, I sink my knife into the wolf’s neck and surrender to gravity. I land on the floor nimbly, glancing up and feeling almost like I’m in an action movie. People clap, and I smile slyly to myself as I get to my feet. My ankle cries out in protest as I put weight on it, but I ignore it.

“Alexa, what was that?” my sister demands, running over to me furiously. “We all thought you’d fall off. Or die!”

“But I didn’t,” I say easily, brushing off my legs. “Nope, on the contrary, I killed one of the wolves.” Kathy rolls her eyes. “Let’s just focus on the last wolf.” We look up at the other giant wolf. It’s starting to fidget nervously, ticked off by the death of its friend. Brynn and Lee are taking turns slashing its legs and tail. By now, more warriors have arrived, including the heads of the North Thundersong unit, Jack Miller and Liana Beacon. Their son, Matthew, is my age and one of my closest friends.

“Dean, what’s going on?” Jack demands. We’re actually friends outside of battle, but right now he has to call me by my last name. I quickly salute the pair of superiors, explaining the situation with tense terms. The other warriors have caught the wolf and have it tied up in a corner. Matthew, who must have joined the fight, runs up to his parents and me.

“Should we kill it, Miller?” he asks formally, running a hand through his dark brown hair.

“Don’t kill it. We’ll do some experiments on it. But we do have to have it hidden somewhere before Mr. Red comes. I don’t think he would appreciate the sight of a mutant wolf,” Liana interrupts.

“Do we maybe have a spare building we can put it in?”

“We can put it in the empty basement,” I suggest. Liana nods, calling a couple warriors over and giving them orders to drag the wolf away.

“Are we going to try to shrink it down again?” Matthew asks.

“I guess? We’ll figure it out.” Liana and Jack walk away, leaving Matthew and I alone in the middle of the battlefield.

“Hey,” he says, as I start to walk away. “Did you start working on that writing assignment?”

I nod, turning around. “Yeah. What did you write for it?”

“Eh, just some crap about how I’ve lived with the Thundersong all my life. Honestly, I don’t know what they expect from me, that I came from three different villages and six different cities and that I want to be a blacksmith?”

I laugh. “What about you?” I’m about to answer when Matthew answers himself. “Actually, let’s head up to my room.”

“Okay, let me just grab my dagger from that wolf.” I quickly run and grab the dagger from the wolf’s neck, cleaning it off with my sleeve and sticking it in my belt. We walk together up the spiral stone staircase. “So, basically I wrote about how I came to the Thundersong. It’s not that interesting.” We turn left, scouting our way through the boys dorms and coming up to the biggest one. I love Matthew’s room. It has the most amazing bed, with giant windows that open to the forest. He has a dark brown rug with the Thundersong logo on it, a golden eagle with a silver lightning bolt going across it and a silver circle around the whole thing. I have one too, but it’s just a tapestry. I flop onto Matthew’s bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“I’d love to read it sometime,” he says, grabbing my ankle and pulling me off the bed. I flinch as my foot twinges again. He tries to discreetly pull his sword out, testing my reflexes, but my dagger flies out and blocks the sword. Matthew sighs playfully, tossing the sword casually to the side. Its rubber cover makes it bounce harmlessly off the floor.

“En garde,” he says, smirking. I smile, holding my ankle close to my chest.

“I need to go to the hospital room. I banged my ankle when I fell off the wolf.”

Matthew grins.

“Say no more.” He leans over, scoops me up in his arms, and we head down to the medic center. I laugh, hanging out of his embrace. He laughs too, grabbing my dangling arms. Our relationship is so easy because we’re nothing but friends, and probably won’t be anything more.

 

John the Cow, Escape Artist

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

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

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

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

“Cow!” he shouted and started chasing him.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t mind,” said John cheerfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sandy VS The World

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

140 Miles to You (Excerpt)

     

Chapter One: The Blood Test

“This is not how I would like to spend my weekend.” That’s exactly how my best friend,

Isabel Cheston was feeling. Sitting in the doctor’s office one Saturday morning. She actually wasn’t really sitting. She was pacing the large white room while freaking out about her blood test. I could see why — she was getting four vials of blood drawn! Her hands were sweaty and clammy from her worrying. Her short brown hair tangled and knotted from her pulling.

“You’ll be fine, I promise” I said. “They just want to make sure your blood is healthy.”

“That really makes me feel better, Kosette!” Isabel snapped.

Surprised by her icy tone I paused. “At least I’m coming with you on a Saturday. Give me that much!” When Isabel didn’t respond I added, “Your mom is taking a long time parking the car.”

She glanced at me, but before she could respond the doctor opened the door. “Isabel, you may come on back.”

Isabel looked back at me and mouthed “Thank you.” She turned toward the doctor. “Can my friend come back with me?”

The doctor hesitated and looked like she was about to say yes. Then she thought better of it and said to Isabel “How about your friend stays in the waiting room, and you can see her when you come out. You’ll be done in no time and besides, your mom is coming up. See there she is!”

Isabel slowly nodded, her face crumpling up like she was about to cry.

Suddenly, Isabel’s mom hurried in. “I’m sorry I’m late Dr. Blakeman. The parking lot — it’s insanely full!”

“It always is” he agreed. “Isabel, can we come back now that your mom is here?”

Isabel nodded. The doctor took Isabel’s bony shoulders and guided her to the back rooms. Her mom following behind.

“You will do great!” I called. “I will be here when you are done!” I sat back down and sighed. I grabbed a Sports Illustrated magazine but my eyes weren’t reading the words. I couldn’t focus. Isabel’s blood was fine, wasn’t it?

 

A week later I was with Isabel in her backyard. The Florida air playing with our hair. Isabel had emerged from the back of the doctor office last Sunday acting fine. My worries had left… somewhat.

I still couldn’t shake the last few months out of my head. All the times Isabel had seemed okay, but then suddenly not okay.

One time that really worried me was when we were at Daytona Beach together. We were boogie boarding as we always did when we went to the beach. She suddenly looked up and said

“I’m tired, I need a break.”

“What about a few more waves? Then we can take a break and recharge.”

Usually Isabel was as active as me, preferring soccer and basketball to reading and writing. So I was pretty surprised when she strongly replied “No my knees are really hurting. I NEED to stop.”

“Fine” I agreed. “We can hit the ground running this afternoon. Sorry you are not feeling well.”

 

And now we were here. Sitting outside her house braiding each other’s hair. This was also a break from yet another fun activity, soccer.

And yeah, Isabel had been the one to ask for it.

Suddenly her mom ran outside and hurried over to Isabel. I expected her to yell that Isabel and I had left the ball in the street. Despite there being barely any cars on the road. She just looked at the ball without really seeing it.

“Isabel come with me.” Isabel stopped braiding my long brown hair and followed her mom back into the house. She turned around and shrugged as if saying she didn’t know what was going on.

I automatically followed Isabel. Her mom turned and said to me “It would be best if you could just stay here, alright? I need to talk to Isabel about a few things.”

I nodded but of course, being the nosy nine-year-old girl that I was. I had to know what was wrong. As soon as Isabel and her mom disappeared into the house I silently crept to the sliding glass door to listen.

“How?!” Isabel’s response was high-pitched. She always got like that when she didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t either. My heart pounded so hard I thought both of them would hear it. I wanted to stop listening. I couldn’t tear myself from the door. I heard Isabel’s mom reply. Her voice sounded muffled, as if I was underwater. I tried desperately to piece together what I was hearing and only grasped this: Isabel’s blood test from last week came out positive for some type of cancer. She needed the right blood. She needed to go to the hospital to get the wrong blood removed from her system.

 

I slid the door open a crack. I could now hear clearly.

“Isabel it’s called leukemia” Isabel’s mom said slowly.

“What’s that?” Isabel asked. “I don’t understand!”

“Imagine you put gas into a car” Isabel’s mom explained.

“The gas does not react well in the car. It’s the wrong gas. The car becomes sick. The car has to go to the automotive shop to get the right gas put into it. Then the car becomes healed. You have to do the same.”

The doctors will put the right blood into your body. And you’ll get better.”

“When do we leave?” Isabel’s voice cracked like it was on the verge of breaking. When her mom didn’t respond Isabel asked again. “When? When?!”

My heart felt like it would break out of its cage. I anxiously raked my hands down my hair. My fingers running along each strand.

“That’s the thing, Isabel, we have to start treatment quickly,” her mom responded after a long pause. “We leave for the hospital tomorrow.”

 

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 —

 

Tunnel Vision

I was walking along the streets of Georgetown with my friends Jason and Barry, watching the filming of the new Wonder Woman movie. The busy street was filled with all sorts of 80’s cars, and there were cameras everywhere. There was even a movie theater that pretended they were playing 80’s movies like Gremlins.

All of a sudden, I saw a tunnel that looked like a secret passageway. It looked like one of those old dead-end alleyways. I immediately nudged Jason and Barry. We originally thought it was part of the filming, but then we saw it was past the end of the film crew’s roadblocks and looked deserted. There was a door at the end of the tunnel, painted all black, even down to the doorknob. The door itself blended into the tunnel, and we pulled towards it, deciding to check out what was inside. As soon as we were inside, the door slammed shut behind us.

I threw my shoulder against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. We were trapped. I pulled out my phone and dialed my brother’s number, but I didn’t have a signal. I couldn’t see a wall behind me, so I started walking away from the door. After a few steps, I found three tunnels. The first tunnel had a sign on it that said DO, the second tunnel had a sign that said NOT, and the third had a sign that said ENTER. That couldn’t be good.

“Well, this sucks,” Jason sighed loudly.

“The door didn’t move, and I can’t get signal. Why not try a tunnel?” I asked.

Despite suggesting it, I had no idea what tunnel to go through.

Barry then suggested, “How about we split up? If one of us finds the right tunnel, we can all meet up and get out that way.”

I stopped pacing, smiling in disbelief. “You’re joking, right? We can’t do that. What if one of the tunnels goes to a maze or something? We could get lost.”

Jason said, ”Sticking together is definitely the right option.”

Barry then said, “I still think we should split up. More tunnels, less time.”

Jason replied with, “Why in the world should we split up”

“You all want to go home, right?” asked Barry sarcastically.

Jason said, “Well, I am not going to split up.”

Barry said, “Fine, stay here and rot if that suits you.”

“I’m just trying to stay alive, to be honest.”

I took a deep breath. “Look. We have an equal chance of picking a wrong tunnel as we do the right one. Let’s just take the first one.”

Jason and Barry, having no better argument, agreed. When we reached the end of the DO tunnel, it was a dead end, the tunnel filled with nothing but dust.

Barry started humming a bass line.

Jason gave Barry an annoyed look. “Is that one Another One Bites the Dust? Seriously?”

I led us back to where we started and then went into the NOT tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was another door that was completely covered in dust but seemed like it had words on it.

Jason looked skeptical. “You guys willing to trust another door?”

Barry shrugged and wiped the dust off. There was something on the door in a weird language. The words, Omissa spe quae ponitur faciatis, were carved at eye-height. We spent a few minutes trying to figure it out, but seeing as none of us could speak Latin, we were stumped. As we began to walk back to the lobby, a man in a dark robe jumped out of the shadows scaring the crap out of us.

We ran around a bend in the tunnel, but when we stopped, we heard him speak, in a dry, rasping voice.

“Stop! I can translate that for you. I know you don’t trust me, but you’ll want to hear what it says.”

We inched back towards the door and saw the man waving us forward. As we walked towards him, he spoke again.

“The writing on this door says Abandon all hope ye who enters here.

When Jason heard that, he said, “Dang that’s freaky. Let’s just go back to the beginning and wait for someone to break us out.”

The man in the robe then said, “Wait! My name is Bernard. I’ve been trapped here for almost a year. Please. If you’re thinking of going through this door, don’t. When I went in, I barely made it out alive.”

Barry then said, “Well if it is our only way out, we have to try it, right?”

I replied with, “I agree, but if going in there equals death, it isn’t worth it.”

Jason said, “Equals death, seriously?”

I said, “Yeah seriously. And Bernard, what happened when you went in there?”

“They attacked me,” he said.

“Who attacked you?” I asked.

“No doubt we should go in. It is pretty much our only way out.” Barry interrupted.

Bernard looked nervous.

“Bernard, will you come with us for a little while?” I asked.

“No, never will I go back there!”

“Please just once,” I pleaded.

“Please?” asked Barry.

Bernard groaned reluctantly, but placed his hand on the old doorknob.

Barry, Jason, and I all looked at each other hopefully.

Bernard opened the door, and we all went in. It was pitch black in there for about ten seconds until a ginormous red light shined on all of us. A voice, deep and menacing, thundered from all around us.

“WHO IS THERE?”

Jason screamed and inched backwards. I shot out a hand to grab him.

“We just got in here, man!” chuckled Barry. “You can’t freak out on us yet.”

 

“Oh, but he can, and probably should” exclaimed Bernard, looking like he was regretting the decision to stay with me.

“Not helping,” I said.

“I ASKED YOU A QUESTION,” the voice boomed.

I was dying on the inside but found some scrap of my voice. “We were just leaving! Do — do you know where the exit is?”

“DON’T LIE TO ME! I CAN SEE BERNARD UNDER THAT HOOD,” the loud voice said.

“How do you know who I am?” Bernard said, his voice even more filled with nerves.

“TAKE THE HOOD OFF,” the voice snarled, sounding different now. “DO IT OR DIE.”

Bernard, faced with no other option, shook as he slowly took his hood down.

He had somewhat long dark brown hair, a small brown beard, brown eyes, was wearing a black sleeveless shirt, and had black pants. He looked rugged and intimidating, like he fit in this underground situation.

“Bernard?” asked Jason, the anger returning, “Something you wanna tell us, buddy?”

Bernard turned slowly and began to speak.

“I know this place. These are my old friends. We came here years ago, but they have been building incredible things for decades. They were made fun of as kids, and when I stuck up for them, I was made fun of. We wanted to take over the world. I realized it was pure evil, and I decided to turn on them. Using their technology, they stopped me. They brainwashed me. I’ve been under their control for almost a year and just escaped.”

“Sounds like they’re great buddies,” spat Jason.

Barry had the courage to laugh. “Hey, you know? You go out for a round of spelunking with your pals and get brainwashed and trapped trying to stop them from world domination. Sounds like a great Tuesday, am I right?”

“We can help, Bernard. Do you want us to help you kick their butts?” I asked, looking at Bernard, who looked pitiful.

“No, go now and get help. There’s a key under the mat at the end of the ENTER tunnel.”
“You just thought to tell us this now?!” Jason exclaimed in disbelief.

“I just remembered now!” Bernard shouted, pointing at his temple. “Brainwashed, remember?”

“Right.”
He slipped his arms out from his sleeves. “Here, take my robe. It’ll keep you concealed.”

I took the robe and thanked him, not wanting to think about Bernard taking on whomever “they” were by himself. We ran back to the second door, all the way back to the entrance, and sprinted down the ENTER tunnel. The key was right where Bernard had promised it would be.

When I left the tunnel, I felt like a vampire in the sun. We were going to go straight to the police, but then realized they would never believe us. I knew though we couldn’t leave Bernard behind. Barry was in on going back to help Bernard before I even said we should. Jason seemed reluctant but ready.

As soon as got to Barry’s house, we slipped into his garage and began making weapons to do whatever we could to help Bernard. I found a metal baseball bat, Barry made Jason a whip out of hot glue sticks and duct tape, Barry made a mace out of a hard foam ball, tacs, tape, the chain of many key chains, and a mini M&M’s bottle as the handle. We also got three baseballs each.

We were ready. Now the only other thing I wanted was a headband and eye black.

Once we finished, we went back to the tunnel. I thought we must have looked like idiots walking through Georgetown with our makeshift war weapons, but Bernard was in trouble. We tip-toed in and peeked at what was going on inside. We saw two strange looking people sitting at a table looking to their right. There was a third person shackled to a chair, and I could only see half of their face, enough to see a thick brown beard. After that, they pulled out some weird looking sci-fi gun type thing.

Then Jason said, “No! That must be the mind washing machine!”

“What do we do?” I asked.

Barry looked at us like we were stupid. “You idiots! We charge!”

He then let loose a scream and charged like a buffalo who had just robbed a candy store, his M&M-handled mace swinging wildly behind him. Jason and I had no choice but to follow. We ran through the door and threw a few baseballs at them. I ran up to the one in the middle and struck. He pulled up a metal pole and blocked it. Barry went and attempted to hit the one on the left with the mace, but the guy dodged it. We all continued to fight as Jason went and freed Bernard. Bernard then grabbed a hammer and was ready to get in the action. I was having an intense one-on-one battle with my guy, and Barry kept trying to hit his guy but kept missing. Right when I was starting to struggle holding mine off, Bernard came in and whacked the guy in the back of the head, making him crumple. Jason ran to help Barry, whipping the guy Barry was fighting in the back. The man saw that his friend was down. He made a break to a table that had tons of their technology on it. I knew we couldn’t let him get the table, so I ran to guard it. When the man got to the table I smacked him in the forehead and realized why Cabrera must love his job. My bat rang off his forehead and was still shaking by the time the other three got to me.

Bernard got chains that were in the room and tied his now unconscious captors up. After that, he led us out. We were covered in dirt and dust, our hair was all messy, we had rips in our clothes, and and my right shoe was ripped. We all tried to make to through the crowd without getting noticed, but everyone wanted pictures of us because they thought we were extras on set. I had completely forgotten that everyone else in Georgetown was having a normal day. We walked to the police station, and we told them they had to come to the tunnels to arrest the psychos and confiscate the weapons and technology. The police went down the tunnels, arrested them, and took the weapons and technology. They then blocked down the tunnels and returned us to our parents.

“Fun day today, right guys?” Jason laughed when we had all taken showers and were watching a movie at his place.

“Now you’ve got the spirit!” Barry laughed. “We should do this more often.”

“Heck yeah!” I exclaimed.

 

He Doesn’t Even Have a Name

There was a cool spring breeze brushing up against the park trees. The branches danced with their forest-green leaves. Upon a single great oak, there was a boy. He decided that one of the tree’s limbs would be the best spot to enjoy his novel. After thirty pages, the boy looked up from Moby Dick and saw the sun was close to setting. It was time to leave. The boy stood up, and with a slip of his foot, he fell off the oak. The drop must have been at least fifteen feet. As soon as his back hit the ground, ominous darkness aroused.

The boy woke up in a hospital bed. Two doctors and a nurse were staring right at him. The child said nothing. He searched the eerie room for his foster parents, and they were nowhere to be found. His back hurt, and his head throbbed with pain. The nurse opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by one of the doctors.

“Do you remember anything that has happened in the past twenty-four hours? What was the last thing you remember?” asked the doctor. The boy tried to remember. He tried to think of the latest events that occurred but could not. He shook his head.

“The last thing I remember is going to the park to read my book,” said the boy. The doctors frowned.

“Do you know your name?” the nurse questioned. The boy nodded.

“Dick,” he answered.

“What about a last name?” asked the second doctor. “We need to file a report for everyone that comes into the ER.” Dick scanned the area again. It didn’t seem like an emergency room at all.

“I have never had a last name. Being completely truthful, I don’t think Dick is my real name either,” Dick confessed. They all seemed shocked, except for Dick.

He doesn’t even have a name, poor boy, thought the nurse.

***

The streets of New York City were cold during September. All Dick owned were sweatshirts and jeans. The school bus pulled up to his town house. Dick’s new foster parents weren’t even awake to see him go off on his first day of high school. Dick didn’t mind, he never expected much from the Torris. They were just like every family the Foster Care system put him in, no matter if they lived in Texas, Arkansas, Virginia, or New York. They never cared for Dick, so he never cared for any them. Dick didn’t know it, but deep down inside him, he felt a longing for family. It was stronger in Texas, where he first lived. But this desire for a family connection died down after he —

“Sorry, this seat is taken.”

“Oh. Alright, sorry to bother you,” Dick replied. He must have said that five more times, before he found an empty seat. Dick gazed out the bus window. He watched as townhouses passed by, but then they turned into buildings, then into skyscrapers. The massive towers hovered over the puny school bus. Dick could feel their cool shadows brushing against his window. Screech! The bus jerked into a full stop. Everyone started to unload and enter Amsterdam High School. Dick pulled out a piece of paper from his back pocket. He checked his schedule.

First period is math with Mrs. Hether. It’s in room 2037. I have four minutes and 29 seconds until the late bell rings. I should be able to get to class on time, thought Dick. He looked up to find two boys staring across the hallway at a girl. One of them seemed to be drooling. Beauty is an abstract thing that I just don’t understand, Dick thought. He grabbed the railing as he walked up a stairwell. It was cold and rusty. Dick calculated in his head it was made of mostly copper, with a small percentage of zinc and iron. As he was walking, he passed a big clump of people. Everyone in the group seemed to be centered around one person.

“Are you excited for this season, Johnny?”

“Hey, Johnny, are you in any of my classes?”

“Yo, Johnny, do you got a date to HOCO?”

While thinking about Johnny, Dick entered room 2037. Judging by his varsity football jacket, Johnny must be on the football team. He seemed like a popular kid with lots of friends.

“I would like that many friends,” Dick whispered to himself.

“Did you say something?” Mrs. Hether questioned. Dick looked up to meet her gaze and quickly shook his head. “I am Mrs. Hether, and who might you be?”

“My name is Dick,” he answered.

“Oh yes! You are the freshman in my class. I am very impressed with you. This is an honors class for juniors, and you’re taking it as a freshman. You must be a very smart, young man.” Dick forced a smile, but truth be told, he didn’t feel much happiness. Emotion wasn’t very strong in Dick. “Take a seat, class will start soon.” Dick immediately thought she wanted him to take ownership of one of her chairs. After a second of recognition, he normally sat down in the front of the room.

The school day went on, and it didn’t occur to Dick that he was excelling in all his classes. Then, the lunch bell rang, and in the hallway Dick noticed a commotion behind him. He looked back to see Johnny helping a girl pick up her books. At that moment, Dick wanted to be friends with Johnny. Johnny appeared to be a great guy. Dick thought Johnny would be nice enough to not reject him as a friend (like everyone else has). During lunch, Dick found Johnny and all his friends sitting at a table.

Dick approached them and asked, “May I sit here?” The girls looked at each other with disgusted faces. The guys were rolling their eyes and ignoring Dick. Johnny finally broke the silence.

“Get lost, freshman,” Johnny demanded. Dick turned around and walked the other way. He kept his head down and accepted the truth. Nobody wanted to be his friend. Splat! His blue hoodie was ruined by a mash potato cannon ball. Dick kept walking while Johnny and his friends laughed at him. Dick didn’t understand humor or how that was funny. He believed the correct emotion, at the time, was misery. Dick found a quiet corner near room 2037. He ate his lunch there, without any company. He sat in that corner alone during lunch, for the rest of his school year. He never cried though, most likely because he was incapable of such actions.

***

Dick didn’t realize he was excelling in his classes with ease. He has never experienced academic difficulty before. Dick would answer questions the teacher asked and get his papers back with 100 percents. He never tried to show off his intellect. He didn’t think it was a big deal. But in the third week of school, other kids really started to notice.

Mrs. Hether asked the class, “What is the answer to question three?” Naturally, a few kids raised their hands, including Dick. Dick didn’t want to give the answer, but he felt obligated to raise his hand because he had the answer. He already gave Ms. Hether the correct answer to question two. Yet, Ms. Hether chose Dick.

“The answer is 4.39 over pi,” said Dick. Ms. Hether was pleased with his answer. She smiled and wrote 4.39 over pi on the chalkboard. Johnny, on the other hand, was not pleased. After class, Johnny stopped Dick in the hallway. Neither one of them moved. They locked eyes, their toes were a foot apart from each other. Some students stopped walking to see what would happen.

“You’re a freshman taking AP Calculus. We get it, you’re smart. You don’t have to show it off to everybody though!” Johnny growled.

Dick responded, “I only answered three questions.”

“Liar! I’m sick of your $%@&, don’t you ever talk back to me!” Johnny snarled. He pushed Dick onto the floor and walked off. Dick was startled and confused. He didn’t understand what happened. Ms. Hether saw Dick getting up from the floor. She didn’t bother to go near him.

When going home that day, Dick tried to reflect. He knew he was intelligent, but he also knew he still didn’t fully comprehend the world he lived in. He grasped the railing along a staircase. He understood its purpose but didn’t know why some people slide down the railing. It seemed impractical and dangerous. The only reasoning Dick could think of was that it’s “fun.” Dick didn’t know how to define “fun.” He didn’t have much fun in his life either.

“I want to have fun,” Dick said to himself. Hesitantly, he sat on the railing. He scooched along the railing, then began to slide. Bam! Dick fell off the railing and onto the stairs. While he tried to stand up, he tripped and fell down the rest of the stairs.

Dick returned to his foster home that day, with more bruises than intended. His foster parents didn’t pay him much attention. The Torris couldn’t care less if Dick was hurt. They only cared if he needed them to pay for a hospital bill. Dick went into his room and quickly shut the door. He went under his covers and tried to fall asleep. He failed to do so.

***

The bell rang after fourth period. Dick began to make his way to his lunch corner. He scanned the hallway for any potential threats. He saw one. Dick turned and walked in the opposite direction. All of a sudden, Dick was slammed into the wall. He didn’t see Gavin coming. Johnny and Henry walked over to Gavin. They looked down on Dick, as if he were a dead mouse soon to be preyed on by vultures. Johnny cracked his knuckles. Dick looked around, the hallway was empty except for them. This was the last thing Dick wanted.

“Take this smart@$#.” Johnny sent a right jab into Dick’s nose.

“Nerd!” Gavin kicked Dick into the wall.

“Loser!” Henry pushed Dick onto the floor. The three juniors started to kick at Dick’s half-dead body. All Dick could do was lay there. His arms covered his face and his body curled up, in order to protect himself. But it was no good.

“Please stop!” Dick cried. “Leave me alone! I’ve done nothing wrong! PLEASE!” he shouted.

“Shut up, Dick-head!” Johnny ordered. He kicked Dick with enough force to push his back into the wall. Suddenly, Dick’s arms felt immense pain, as if they were sore from over usage.

“C’mon, let’s get out of here. I’m hungry,” Henry said. The boys left Dick alone in the hallway. Then, Dick’s arms felt normal again. He struggled but managed to stand up. Dick went to the nurse’s office for some ice. Dick told the nurse he fell down the stairs. Nobody in Amsterdam High School would believe their beloved quarterback was a school bully. So Dick didn’t bother telling the truth.

Dick was regularly getting bullied now. It seemed almost weekly. Johnny, and maybe a friend or two, would find Dick and verbally and physically harass him. Originally, it was because Johnny was upset about Dick being so smart. Except, after a few times, bullying Dick was just a fun thing for Johnny and his friends. Dick never understood why being smarter was why he was bullied. Dick didn’t want to believe Johnny did it for enjoyment.

The worst part about Dick’s bullies, was that he couldn’t do anything about it. He had no friends to talk to. He didn’t have any trusted adults or anyone that cared about Dick. And it was never a fair fight. He was helpless and, in a way, internally dying.

***

Gym class was also a problem for Dick. He wasn’t very athletic or good at sports. Dick got embarrassed every time he tried to play a sport in PE. The jocks would laugh at him and the other kids would smirk. Dick was always the last pick in team sports. Nobody ever passed him the ball. Dick still tried his best, but he still never played well.

One time after Physical Education, Dick was the last one to leave the locker room. He didn’t mind because it was the last period of the day. When Dick tried to leave, the exit door swung open. Johnny and Gavin barged into the boy’s locker room. Dick tried to run. He just suffered a beating two days ago, so he couldn’t take another. Dick ran into the bathroom. They followed him in and jumped into his stall. Johnny grabbed Dick by his oak-brown hair and thrashed his head into the stall wall. Dick could only see blue for a few seconds, then his vision returned. Gavin slapped Dick across the face, leaving Dick’s cheek bright red. Johnny plunged Dick’s head into the toilet. Dick closed his eyes to avoid (what he thought was) blue liquid, in the toilet. After a few seconds, Johnny yanked Dick out of the toilet water. Dick gasped for air.

“This is why you don’t make me look stupid in class!” Johnny grunted. Dick thought for a second. He recalled correcting Johnny’s answer during science class. The teacher asked for the correct answer, and after Johnny gave his, the teacher asked again. Then, Dick provided the right one.

Gavin dragged Dick back out into the locker room. He held Dick’s arms back in an uncomfortable position, twisting his weak muscles. Johnny sucker-punched Dick in the gut. Dick coughed up a little blood. He was mortified. Johnny hit him with an uppercut, straight up the jaw. An image of a syringe flashed in Dick’s mind. Johnny grabbed Dick’s shoulders. Gavin loosened his grip on Dick. Johnny pulled down Dick’s torso in order to knee Dick in the stomach. More blood. Gavin and Johnny both let go of Dick. He fell to the ground. Dick couldn’t get up. Johnny grinned while Gavin handed him Dick’s backpack. Johnny hurled the book bag at Dick’s motionless body. The impact was painful. He hit Dick in the face, pushing his head back into a locker. This woke Dick up.

“I broke my spine from the fall!” Dick exclaimed. He finally remembered what happened when he fell out of that tree. Johnny looked puzzled. He walked over to Dick and began to swing his foot backwards. Before Johnny could kick Dick, Dick was already off the ground. Pow! Dick landed a punch right in Johnny’s chest. Johnny went flying. He flew all the way into the back wall of the locker room. That wall was ten yards away from Dick. Gavin’s jaw virtually dropped to the floor. Gavin bolted out of the locker room, and so did Johnny. Dick was amazed with this new found strength of his. “Where did this come from?” Dick asked himself. He turned to the wall of lockers behind him. Dick stepped forward with his left foot. He then pushed off his right foot, pivoted on his left foot, and punched a locker. His fist went through the locker door. When Dick pulled back his hand, the door came with it. Dick almost screamed with excitement.

***

The next day, Dick didn’t run into Johnny or any of his friends. In PE, the class had to play basketball. The teacher picked team captains, and customarily Dick was drafted last. Dick’s team was playing Henry’s team. Henry knew about what Dick did to Johnny and didn’t believe it. Johnny did look hurt, and that was what drove Henry in the game. Henry would purposefully dribble near Dick and try to embarrass Dick by exposing his awful defense skills. Eventually, Dick was given the ball. Henry ran across the court to personally guard Dick. That was a mistake. Dick dribbled up to the basket, and using all the strength in his legs, he sprung up five feet to slam dunk the basketball. Dick hung onto the rim for a few seconds then dropped back down. The entire gym was silent. Everyone was in shock. Dick didn’t know what to do, so he too stood there motionless and speechless. Suddenly, the bell rang, and everyone went into the locker rooms. Nobody could speak, but their mouths were still wide open.

The next morning, Dick couldn’t get into room 2037. Johnny, Gavin, Henry, and two other upperclassmen blocked Dick’s way. As usual, there weren’t any people in the hallway. Johnny appeared madder than ever.

“Don’t you dare think you’re better than any of us, you freshman %&#@!” Johnny threatened. The two unknown students stepped forward. Dick knew there was going to be a fight, and he was ready for it. Before they could even swing their arms, Dick sent two right hooks their way. The boys flew back, unconscious. Gavin couldn’t move. He was in shock. He just stared at the unconscious bodies. Henry charged at Dick and tried to tackle him. Dick parried with a body throw. Henry was then also unconscious, but thirty feet down the hallway.

It was just Johnny left. Johnny cracked his knuckles. Dick wasn’t afraid. Dick took a step forward. Johnny threw a punch at Dick, but Dick dodged it. Dick performed a roundhouse kick, but Johnny ducked. While Johnny bounced back up, Dick kicked him in the side. Johnny fell, crying in pain. Dick most likely broke one of Johnny’s ribs.

The hallway quickly became quiet and ominous. Dick felt as if the fight wasn’t over. Except, he didn’t know of any other enemies. He looked around the hallway and found it odd that he didn’t see anyone.

Maybe everyone is in class. I should probably go to first period then, thought Dick. Dick walked by the unconscious bodies of his bullies, his conquered fears. He opened the door to Mrs. Hether’s room. A bright light turned on, blinding Dick. He heard SWAT soldiers surrounding him, yelling formation orders. Three red dots appeared on Dick’s chest. “What’s going on?” Dick yelled. He began to regain his vision.

“GOV test subject 02SHS-A is active! Confirmed bodies outside the room. Causation from 02SHS-A!” shouted a SWAT soldier. Dick was very confused and started to get scared. Then, a radio signal came in.

“Go green, neutralize target over!” The red dots on Dick’s chest turned green. Before he could flinch, Dick was shot dead.

 

Field Trip: An Account of the Earth Invasion (2677)

           

Roughly translated to English

 

The permission slips for this trip took forever to sign, considering that Earth had countless armies and weapons of mass destruction, and there certainly was a chance that my classmates and I would be dead by the end of this field trip. We were an advanced alien elementary school class, after all, not gods. When my dad saw the slip, he immediately began to rant. “Gorp, I remember my first invasion; we did it on the planet Vaksmeeg. Ha, I remember there was this one little girl, she was crying and crying, until she wet her pants. I shot her then — what a way to go, huh? Oh, oh, there was actually this club meeting that me and a couple of my friends stumbled upon, and they were reading one of my favorite books, Microwave Down, translated to Vaksmeegian, of course, and, so me and your uncle #$@#^*&#^^$ decided to have a bit of fun, so we lined all these people up, and we would ask them questions about the book. ‘On which page does the microwave go down?’ You know, stuff like that, and if they answered wrong, we shot them.”

I decided to leave the room at this point. There was no telling how long these things could go, so I had my mom look over the slip. “Oh, is Korg going?” she asked me before signing.

“Of course he is, Mom.” Korg had been my best friend since we were little, and we had been discussing our first invasion for as long as I could remember. He was even more excited than I was, and he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

She finished signing after about an hour, and I was all set. Later that night, just before I was to begin my evening hibernation, I looked out my window and out into the city of Bondex, the place I had grown up in. The sprawling skyscrapers of The Egley district, the low rundown building of The Booga (I’m not allowed down there, because apparently that’s where bad people sell gog). Despite its flaws, Bondex was home, and I was going to miss it during the invasion. I went back to my bed. I had a big day ahead of me after all, and at least from what I’d heard, the overthrowing of a planet required a good night’s sleep.

 

The room of teaching was buzzing the morning of the trip. How could it not be? None of us had ever done this before, and this elated confusion continued to spark between us until we got to the ship, but when it came into view, everything stopped. It seemed as though all noise had been taken from the world, because the great black mass that lay before us seemed to require all the energy that had been in us moments before just to look at it. And then the silence was broken, and we all started to run toward the ship.

I was one of the first people on board, seeing as I was one of the fastest in the class, and I was absolutely shocked when I stepped inside the craft. The space inside was cavernous, and it seemed more like a hangar than a ship itself, seats sprawled evenly, none of them within five feet of each other. It was like each of us had our own world. Korg and I quickly grabbed seats and sat down next to each other (or as close to each other as we could be) and began talking excitedly.

Once all 900 of us had sat down and we had taken to the sky, an automated voice came on. It was soothing and monotonous as it began to talk slowly. “Hello, welcome aboard the vessel. Seeing as this is your first invasion, I’ll be taking you through some safety tips. First, try to kill the scarier humans that have guns while the confusion is still setting in, then move on to the more panicked ones, as they will cause less threat.” I thought about what the voice had said for a moment. I’d never killed anyone before, so the announcement spurred a sort of unease in me, but these feelings quickly became mixed into excitement. The announcement continued, encouraging us to have fun and really “take in” our first invasion, see the sights, relish in the humans’ fear. And also that we should just relax, because Earth has one of the least advanced life in our universe, so as long as we stayed calm, the invasion should be a smooth ride. After the announcement finished, it was quiet for a bit. I supposed that everyone was taking in what we had just heard, when a new voice, that of our teacher, came on.

“All right, kiddos, right now we’re entering the Milky Way galaxy, so if you’d all please stand up walk over to the windows and check it out.” I unlatched my buckle and moved to the giant window in the wall and looked out. Many of my classmates gasped in awe at the sight of the galaxy. I thought it was fine, but I again found myself distracted by the task ahead of me, the massacre I would soon commit, and suddenly I began to feel ill. I rushed back to my seat where I curled up and tried to forget about how sick I was. Korg, who had been reading Microwave Down Pt. 2, Multiple Microwaves Down! turned and saw me.

“Gorp, are you okay?” he asked, worried.

“I’m fine, just a little nervous, I guess.”

Korg wasn’t buying it. “Gorp, an invasion has never, ever failed before, all right?”

“All right.”

“Gorp?”

“Yeah?”

“This is gonna be great, and when we get home, we can tell our parents about it all. Man, you’re gonna love it.”

My stomach pain calmed down, and I felt better right away.

 

I fell asleep eventually but was jolted awake soon after by a final announcement. The lady with the smooth voice came on. “Now that you have landed, suit up, go out there, and have fun.” I looked around to see my classmates freaking out and screaming and rushing towards the battle station. I followed suit, and so I rushed to the small cubicle with Gorp etched on its door. I went in and saw what I had seen so many times in pictures, but I had never been so close to touch: the Bondexian suit, in all its shimmering glory. It was a lightweight titanium thing with a complex helmet piece covered in designs native to my home planet. I then picked up a light rifle and walked back to the seating area where some of my fellow classmates waited. I could feel the craft descending and hear the faint screams outside. Just as Eegee, the last of us to change and the student widely considered the runt of our class, had come out of his dressing room, I felt the jolt of the craft landing.

The screams were loud now outside, and I heard a ripping screech as a car tried to avoid the crash that came moments later, giving off its own terrible noise. We were all instructed to line up horizontally, facing the front of the ship. This took little time, as we had been training for months, and after we had all lined up, there was a sharp hissing sound as the front of the ship fell away, and a ramp extended down towards the ground in its place. We began to march towards the ramp, and as we moved forward, I took in the surroundings of the outside world.

I saw that we were in a metropolistic area, and despite the fact that the sky above was dark, there were thousands of glowing screens mounted to buildings, advertising strange people and things. A man with rosy red cheeks and a flowing white beard with a bottle of brown substance that looked like gog tipped over his mouth, and a dark-skinned lady was staring out of the screen. Under her picture was a name, Be once? When we began to walk down the ramp, all of us in a line, in perfect unison, I could now see real life people standing below us either running in terror or staring at us curiously. Korg leaned over and whispered to me, “The ones that ran, those are the smart ones.” I chuckled at the thought, but all of a sudden, the feeling I had felt before, on the ship, came back, the feeling that my brain was being shredded to pieces, and it seemed as if a wave of guilt had crashed down on me, crushing my body with its power.

But then the feeling passed. I could hear my teacher telling the square of people exactly what we were doing, but not why we were doing it… Why were we doing this? For power is what I had always presumed, but is genocide the best possible way to go about it? I could feel the guilt coming on again, but I was once more jolted back to my senses, this time from the sharp report of a light rifle. Near the front of the crowd a huge human man fell down into a pile of dust.

The invasion had begun.

 

The next hours went by in a blur. We were split off into groups, Korg in mine, luckily enough, and roamed the streets of what I found to be called New York, destroying the buildings around us, watching them crumble like sandcastles, being diminished to dust, just as the man from the crowd had. Before I demolished another building, I looked inside and saw through one of the window a flickering screen mounted on some sort of box. On the screen was a man with a blue suit on and a greasy wad of hair sticking out of his scalp. He seemed to be talking fast and distractedly, and behind him there were pictures of our ship. I knew he was reporting about us, about our invasion. Then the screen abruptly succumbed to static, and so I backed up twenty feet and shot at the building twice, and it was no more.

It almost made me sad, doing all of this. I couldn’t imagine my own home being wrecked like this, everything I had disappearing with a couple shots from a light rifle. I was being too nice; empathy is not the correct invasion mindset for invasion. With that, I looked back in the direction of the ship, almost a mile away now, and I saw what looked like a hallway of flames and ashes against the dark night sky, framing the streets we had walked. I turned back, and I realized how far I was from my group. I began to run towards them, but after I had gone only five steps, I was stopped in my tracks, for I saw a dark shape in the sky, coming towards my own group far ahead of me. It was a dark flying machine, with a spinning wheel on top, and the sharp chopping noise it made jolted me back to my senses. I ran towards it trying to shoot it, and so did my groupmates far ahead, but they seemed to have no effect on the plane, or whatever it was. Then, from the machine was released a bright yellow shape, flying through the air, down towards my friends, and then it reached them.

I was thrown back by the blast, and I skidded across the street like a rag doll. And when I managed to stand up, I realized I was crying. The helicopter flew away, and I could hear similar sounding blasts from far away, the sounds of more of my friends dying. I stood in the middle of the street, petrified, for a very long time. All I could see were flames, from our destruction, and the humans’. I took my helmet off, and I felt the heat on my cheeks; it hurt, but I ignored it. I thought I could make out the mangled bodies of the others in my group, singed arms outstretched in terror, mouths stretched in frozen screams. I thought about what my dad had said the day before, which seemed like so long ago, about the girl he killed who wet her pants. “What a way to go,” he had said. Not with my group mates though, no sir. On a foreign planet, with no warning whatsoever, it was just, snap, and then you were gone.

The street I stood on seemed all of a sudden like a road straight to hell. I thought about how I could get home, if there were, by some miracle, any survivors, and about how Korg and everybody else was never going to get to tell their parents about how fun the field trip had been. How did this happen anyway? Earth isn’t even advanced, so how is it that so many of us are dead? Too many questions.

I realized the aircraft was coming back around, searchlights swooping across the ground in an arc, and unless I hid, I might join my classmates. But why shouldn’t I? What was there for me? I was never going to get home. Who cared, right? So I raised my hands, felt the light pass over me, burn my eyes, and then the plane-type thing landed. I looked towards it, confused. Men without faces, wearing yellow suits, were hustling towards me. Why hadn’t they shot me? The men grabbed my arms and started to drag me toward their ship. I kicked and screamed. Why hadn’t they shot me? I stopped struggling, and they removed the plate of armor on my arm. I suddenly felt a sharp jolt of pain in my arm, and then everything got blurry, then black.

The table I lay on was cold on my back, and the sharp objects that lay around me on racks shined in the empty white light of the room. I could feel my own blood running down my stomach, a lot of it, so I too could feel myself drifting in and out of consciousness. After the invasion had failed, after all my friends had departed, strange men had brought me here, where they proceeded to cut me open, sift through my insides. I didn’t know why I hadn’t died, but no fate was worse than this. At least if I died, I might have been able to see everyone again. At least if I died, I wouldn’t have to think about the fact that I was never going to get back home.

The blood kept on flowing, and I grew tired. I thought I’d just go to sleep.

 

Everything Perfect

                

Name: Meira O’Kane

Biological parents: Ellen O’Kane and Jared O’Kane

Place of birth: Damariscotta, Maine, USA

Date of birth: August 8, 2555 (6:35 AM)

Date of euthanization: February 3, 2655

Biological sex: Female

Gender: Female

Blood type: A-

Handedness: Right

College: NYU

Profession: Criminal defense lawyer

Soulmate: Anna Vargha

 

Meira woke up. It was Saturday, September 29, 2570. She opened the LifeGuide app. In the home page sat her life’s basic information. Some of it hadn’t happened yet — she hadn’t been euthanized (duh, she wasn’t 100 yet), she hadn’t gone to college and become a criminal defense lawyer (she was only 15), and she hadn’t met Anna Vargha. Whatever. The Algorithm had it all figured out. This was her life.

The app told her she should go to Target at 10:07 AM to buy a gift for Jessa’s birthday. She could rest at home before then. She would meet a new friend there. That was exciting.

She hopped out of bed and went downstairs. Her mother had already taken this morning’s food out of the Murchiest.

“I want candy for breakfast,” Meira’s little sister, Mia, was complaining.

Meira rolled her eyes, sitting down at the table. “Stop whining. You’re such a baby. This parfait tastes great.” Meira shoved some in her mouth.

It was strawberry flavored. Meira liked blueberry better, but this was fine.

Mia stuck out her tongue at Meira. “You’re a baby! I want candy! And play with me after breakfast!”

Meira groaned.

“Now, now, Mia,” Mother chided. “You know this is the way things are. The Algorithm — ”

“I want candy!”

“If you eat candy, things won’t turn out well.”

“But I want it!”

Father poked Mia. “C’mon, my little warrior princess, eat the parfait. Didn’t you pay attention to your teacher?”

“‘The Algorithm knows best,’” Mia grumbled.

“Yep.” Father nodded gravely. “457 years ago, the Algorithm was created so that everyone would be safe and happy.”

Mia and Meira rolled their eyes in unison.

Good going, Mia, Meira thought, Now we’re going to get a lecture.

“The Algorithm has predicted the way to make everything turn out well. All we need to do is follow it. None of those big, scary choices. If you don’t follow the Algorithm, then life will get messed up. Understand?”

“I don’t care!” Mia shrieked. “Ugh, I wish the Murchiest didn’t exist!”

Father opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the wallpaper rippled with blue light. The soft, warm female voice of the Algorithm’s warning system, which was contained within the wallpaper, began to speak.

Mia O’Kane, you are to report to the Damariscotta Center at 9:30 AM for reprogramming. A transport will be sent for you shortly.

“Wow,” Father said, raising his eyebrows. “First time!”

Mother sighed. “Oh, Mia. After you finish your parfait, you can go play with your iPad while you wait for the transport to come.”

She kissed Mia on the forehead. Mia whined, sitting down at the table.

“Children,” Father remarked drily. “Though, I’m surprised that her first time is this late. Meira’s first reprogramming was when she was five. Mine was when I was four.”

Mia, sitting sullen at the table, gave Father side-eye.

“I was such a trouble child,” Father continued. “But I’m better now.”

Mother covered her mouth in an attempt to hide her snort.

“I am!” Father protested. “I haven’t gotten reprogrammed since I was 17. Teenagers are pretty troublesome.” He poked Meira. “You were reprogrammed 13 times. I remember I was reprogrammed 12 times. Almost set a world record.”

Mother rolled her eyes. “Please, David. The world record’s 64.”

“Well, I’m above average.” He winked at Mother.

“You’re one reprogram above average.”

“Still above average.”

Mother laughed, shaking her head.

“Mother, Father, I’m going to Target today at 10:07,” Meira said, finishing up her parfait.

“Okay,” Father said.

There was a knock on the door. The robot had come to fetch Mia. Mother stood up and walked Mia over to the door. Meira finished up the last of her parfait, before walking over to the couch and going on her phone. She opened up Temple Run 10.

“Come and talk to me,” Father said, faking a pout. “I’m lonely.”

Meira rolled her eyes. “The Algorithm said I have free time before I go to Target, not torture.”

“Ouch,” Father muttered. “Gemma! Your daughter’s hurting my feelings!”

Mother laughed as she walked back. “Come on, honey, we’re going shopping.”

Meira frowned. “Shouldn’t you be here when Mia gets back? What if you don’t finish shopping in time?”

Father raised his eyebrows.

“Nevermind,” Meira said quickly.

“Reprogramming isn’t that frightening at all,” Father pointed out.

Mother nodded, her eyes flashing for a moment. Then she was all smiles.

“Have fun, my little sugar glider.” Mother said, hugging Meira tightly.

“Mom!” Meira protested. “I’m too old for that! And you made me lose that round!”

“You’re never too old for me to smother you with affection.”

Meira shook her off, but she was unable to resist a smile as she went back to the game. A few seconds later, she heard the sound of the door shutting.

She had beaten her high score in Temple Run 10 when their doorbell rang. Meira ran over to the door. Mia had been escorted back by a robot. Meira waved goodbye to the robot. She nudged Mia.

“Wave goodbye to the robot.”

Mia stared at Meira blankly. “Why?”

Meira frowned. “Mother said it was polite.”

“Okay,” Mia said flatly, walking inside the house.

She got out her iPad and started to placidly play by herself. Meira stared at her.

Who are you and what have you done with my whiny little sister?

“Umm… didn’t you want me to play with you?”

“The Algorithm said I should play by myself.”

Meira swallowed. “Yeah… but… what do you want?”

“The Algorithm said — ”

“Okay, okay, nevermind,” Meira said quickly.

Meira backtracked out of the room and onto the couch. Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was 10:03 AM. Meira had four minutes left. Meira played several more rounds of Temple Run 10, before getting up. Time to go buy a gift for Jessa. She should definitely buy Jessa one of those antique Barbies.

After putting on her neon yellow sneakers, she walked out the door. Meira glanced at the garden as she walked outside their fenced peach-colored house. The organic flowers had died. Mother had decided not to get synthetic flowers, claiming that this way it was more “authentic.” It was for the same reason Meira had agreed not to get the date she would meet her soulmate. Father said it added a sense of excitement to life. Meira supposed not knowing was pretty fun.

She hopped onto a transport and sat down next to an old lady. As the transport began to move, the streets blurred slightly. Finally, when they got to Target, Meira got off. A digital clock on the wall said 10:31. She walked inside the Target.

What was Mia’s mind like right now?

Meira had gotten reprogrammed 13 times, and she didn’t remember how reprogramming happened. She’d tried to hold onto the memories, but she just couldn’t. All she could remember was walking into the reprogramming center, its sterile white walls decorated with beautiful pictures.

Every time after any of her friends got reprogrammed, there was always something off about them. And now… something was off about Mia. Which wasn’t okay. Meira felt a sudden jolt of anger at the Algorithm. Let Mia make choices! Let her be Mia! If she messed up, Mother and Father could help her out. Meira wanted her little sister, not some blank doll.

Her mind was still storming over those thoughts when her body collided with something solid.

“OW!”

Meira stumbled backwards, blinking. She grabbed onto a shelf for support. There was a girl in front of her, looking slightly miffed. There were crimson and purple streaks in her long dark hair. The contents of the girl’s shopping basket were on the floor, but a robot was already cleaning them up.

“I’m so sorry,” Meira gushed.

The girl quickly smiled. “Oh, don’t worry about it. See, the robot’s already got it.” She took her basket from the robot.

“Thank you,” Meira muttered to the robot, feeling slightly guilty it cleaned up a mess she helped cause.

“Why are you thanking it?” the girl asked, tilting her head so that her hair fell to the side, like a curtain.

Meira blushed. “My mother always taught me to thank the robots. She said we should be grateful for them, since they weren’t always around.”

“That’s cute,” the girl said softly. She held out her hand. “I’m Nikitha. You can call me Niki.”

“I’m Meira,” Meira said. “You can call me Meira.”

Niki giggled. “The LifeGuide app said I would meet a friend at Target today. I don’t suppose that’s you?

“I guess so,” Meira said. “I hope I’m up to your expectations.”

“Oh, of course you are,” Niki said, swatting Meira’s arm. “Why are you at Target?”

“To buy a gift for my friend Jessa’s birthday. I’m buying one of those antique Barbie sets that they have for the special back-to-school event. Jessa loves collecting antiques like that. She’s almost got the entire Littlest Pet Shop collection.What about you?”

“Buying a gift and some cards for my grand aunt’s euthanization.”

“Oh. Tell her I said congratulations. It must be exciting.”

“Yeah… ” Niki bit her lip. “Part of me wishes she didn’t have to go, though. She can make the cutest crochet animals. It’s silly, I know. Euthanizations are supposed to be happy.”

Meira shrugged. She walked over to the event stand, Niki trailing behind her.

“Which one should I get?” Meira asked.

“Maybe the Christmas one.” Niki giggled. “Christmas sounds like such a weird thing, huh?”

“Yeah,” Meira agreed. “I mean, isn’t it so much more convenient to have one holiday for the entire world?”

Niki nodded. “Right? My parents came from India, and the transition was totally easy for them. Imagine if Christmas was still around! Then they would have had to adjust to the new holiday customs.”

“It’s insane,” Meira said. She picked up the Christmas Barbie doll box and gave it to a nearby robot to scan, before paying with her credit card. “Life before the Algorithm in general must have been insane.”

“You might have procrastinated on getting Jessa her weird Barbie,” Niki offered.

Meira nodded gravely. “And then we might have never met.”

Niki grinned. “That would be awful. Anyways, where are you going after this? I’m supposed to go to my grandma’s house after resting at home.

“Hey, me too!”

“Looks like we were meant to meet. Do you want to go somewhere else instead of staying at home, though? I’m sure it would be fine by the Algorithm.”

Meira didn’t know if it was such a good idea, going against the Algorithm. Then she thought of Mia, who was off now. She felt another jolt of anger at the Algorithm. Screw it.

“Sure. Where to?”

“I dunno. Do you have any suggestions?”

Meira barely had to think before a location popped up in her head. “The forest.”

“The forest?” Niki asked, scrunching up her nose. It looked kinda cute. “No one I know goes to the forest. Except for you, of course.”

Meira shrugged, turning away and flushing. “I… yeah. I’m kinda weird. I don’t even know when I’m going to meet my soulmate. See, my parents… we talked and decided that it would be more… exciting, I guess?”

Niki smiled gently, tilting her head and looking at Meira, as if to examine her from a new perspective. “It’s interesting. You’re interesting.”

“There are probably other people like me. Umm, you know. Who thank robots and stuff.”

“Yeah… but… ” Niki shrugged. “Nevermind. Let’s go.”

“Okay,” Meira said. “You want to walk over or take a transport?”

“Walk.” Niki’s soft cocoa powder eyes sparkled. “Today’s a day for trying new things.”

The two left the store. Meira moved to drop her bag onto a floating pod so that it could be delivered home. Niki nudged her.

“Why don’t we do this the old-fashioned way and carry them?” Niki suggested, her eyes glinting.

“Wow, we’re really getting rebellious today, huh?” Meira teased.

Niki grinned. The two began to walk towards the forest. When they got there, Meira felt a familiar grin creep across her face. This was her safe place. She led Niki through the woods, until they got to Meira’s kinda-secret grove. Before Niki, the only person other than Meira to come here (that she knew of) was Mother.

Niki glanced around, her eyebrows raised. “The walls in my room can change to look like a more perfect version of this.”

Meira sat down on a thick tree root. Niki dusted off a spot next to Meira, before sitting down next to her.

“Yeah… but… ” Meira shrugged. “It’s kinda like… well, you see, Mother doesn’t use synthetic flowers because she says organic flowers are… alive. She can actually nurture them. It’s authentic. Slightly unpredictable. They… I dunno how to explain it. It’s the same concept with the trees.” Meira blushed, waving her hand. “Oh, nevermind. It doesn’t make sense.”

“No… ” Niki frowned. “It kinda does.” She grinned, looking directly at Meira. “Hey, have you ever been kissed before?”

Meira blushed. “Doesn’t everyone wait for their soulmate?”

Niki shrugged. “Today seems to be a day for going over the boundaries. Besides, I do like-like you. I dunno if I love you, but you’re cute and interesting, so yeah, I like-like you.”

Blushing even redder, Meira leaned back against the tree.

“That’s… wow… ” Meira muttered.

“Am I coming on too strong?”

“No… ” Meira swallowed, unable to say that it was part of what made Niki so charming.

Did she like-like Niki? Niki was… she was vivacious. Alive. She glanced over at the other girl. Despite the confidence, Meira could see a hint of hesitation in her bambi eyes. Meira didn’t know either, but what if they tried? Why not? Besides, it might be better than falling in line with the Algorithm. More real. The Algorithm took the realness out of things. Mia had been annoying before the reprogramming, but she had been Meira’s little ball of annoying.

“Yeah,” Meira muttered, leaning forwards. “I think… that might be nice.”

Niki smiled, cupping Meira’s neck with her hand and going forwards to meet Meira.

Her lips were soft and tasted like strawberry lip gloss. She smelled like the November Rain candles Father would burn when he ran out of Vanilla Cupcake candles. The angle was awkward. Meira shifted, trying to make it better, but the angle was even more awkward. But it could be worse. At least braces didn’t exist anymore — they sounded absolutely horrible. How did people back then who needed braces even kiss people? Then Niki let out a little giggle against Meira’s lips, and Meira melted a little.

The two broke apart, falling against the tree.

“Hey,” Niki said softly.

“Hey,” Meira said back, grinning.

“You wanna come here later?” Niki asked, her eyebrows lifted, a fox-like grin decorating her lips.

Meira suddenly jerked upwards, a horrible realization occuring to her. “W-what about the Algorithm?”

Her heart began to race. People were supposed to be with their soulmates. That was just how things were. The Algorithm had predicted things so that everything would be perfect. Things with her and Niki would get messed up eventually. The kiss wasn’t even that good. Niki’s lips were soft, and she smelled good, but the angle was kind of awkward. It was imperfect, which meant it wasn’t okay. Kissing Anna, who Meira was actually supposed to be with, probably would be better. Yeah.

Niki turned pale. “Oh, gosh… ” She grabbed her hair with her hands.

“Wait!” Something came over Meira, bring along with it a wave of relief. “I remember that Mother said the Algorithm’s warning system is only in the wallpaper because of budget or whatever.”

“Oh, thank God.” Niki let out a nervous laugh. “That’s — yeah.”

“People barely ever come to the forest anyways,” Meira commented.

Niki snorted. “Yeah. Lazy weaklings.”

Meira snorted. She lay back against the tree root, glancing at Niki. Her sleek hair was ruffled.

“Maybe we can even bring my grand aunt here,” Niki remarked.

Meira frowned. “Yeah… but… everyone gets euthanized at 100.”

Niki sighed. “I know. Anyways… ” She paused, glancing at Meira mischievously.

“I… ” Meira chewed her lip anxiously. She could still taste traces of Niki. “Yeah.”

“This was fun, eh?”

“Mhmm. Umm… ”

Meira felt her stomach twist. The kiss was starting to feel like a huge mistake. But she couldn’t just say that, right? That would be totally rude.

“Is… something wrong?” Niki asked, starting to look concerned.

“Huh?” Meira couldn’t help but feel bad.

“Well, your brow was all wrinkled, so… ”

“Oh… umm… it’s just that this Anna Vargha is supposed to be my soulmate.”

“And Dave Greenblum’s supposed to be mine.” Niki’s voice was growing tense.

“Also… we’re supposed to listen to the Algorithm because it knows best.”

Niki narrowed her eyes. “What are you saying?”

Meira stayed silent, looking away. She clenched her fists. Meira swallowed, squeezed her eyes shut, and quickly blurted it out.

“We shouldn’t do this again!”

“What?” Niki’s voice grew harsher, like a vulture. “But… that… ugh, Meira! You make no sense!”

“Wha — why?”

Why?” Niki snorted, her voice wavering. “Are you screwing with me right now? You were the one who was all like… like… ”

“Like what?”

“You wanted to come to the forest! You thanked the robot! You and your organic flowers and… ” Niki swallowed. There was a wetness in her pretty eyes. “You just felt… refreshing. But looks like you’re just like everyone else!”

“Isn’t that supposed to be good?” Meira demanded, the words of her kindergarten and preschool teachers washing over her.

Maybe not, Mother whispered in her head.

“I don’t know!” Niki shrieked, roughly wiping off her tears. “You were the one who gave me the tiny feeling that this could work out! Everyone else was just going along with the Algorithm and I was too! Why are you being so dull now, huh?”

“Because this is too much!” Meira wrung her hands, frustrated. “Those are small things!”

“But… don’t you want big things to be authentic too?” Niki was starting to look betrayed, which made Meira feel like a bad person.

“I — ”

“Just — fine! Whatever!” Niki jumped up. “You’re terrible at kissing anyways!”

Meira looked away, feeling tears creep into her own eyes. Niki marched off, her spine straight and stiff. Sighing, Meira tried to relax. She realized that her nails had dug crescents into her palms. Everything was going to be okay now. Meira just needed to get up, go to her grandma’s, and then go home, where she could go to Mother.

What would Mother say to all of this? Meira wondered if she had been rude to Niki. But the Algorithm was the most important thing, right? That’s what everyone said. It was just… common sense. Or was it?

Sighing, Meira got up and dusted off her pants. She began to walk towards the road. The forest was calming, but the calm made her feel uneasy. She wasn’t supposed to like the organic forest so much, but she still did. Would it be the same thing with Niki? Meira finally reached a small road in the forest that rarely had transports. Meira began to move towards the mini skywalk to cross the road. Suddenly, she noticed a familiar dark head with crimson and purple streaks sitting down next to the skywalk.

Meira ducked her head as she walked, praying that Niki wouldn’t notice her. It would be so freaking awkward. Risking a glance at the other girl, Meira saw that Niki was still wiping tears off her eyes. A feeling of guilt crept over her. She began to walk onto the skywalk.

Niki turned over to her with a grin, probably thinking Meira was a stranger and intending to say hi. Then she saw Meira’s face.

“Ni — ” Meira began, but Niki turned and ran.

“Wait!” Meira yelled, stepping forwards.

She had no clue why she wanted to go after Niki. It was a stupid impulse, gained from watching those rare permitted pre-Algorithm movies too many times. Niki glanced around, giving Meira a pained look, before turning and going onto the road.

Meira stopped, stunned. What was she doing? The skywalk existed for a reason! Niki was running across the road, and then everything happened in a horrible flash.

As she ran, a motorcycle sped up behind Niki. Time stiffened for a moment, and then it felt like everything collided. Niki screamed as she was thrown back from the force of the collision, her voice raw, an unfamiliar voice scream, and Meira screamed, because something was definitely wrong. She had no idea what had just happened, but it was something horrible and dreadful that never would have happened if they’d listen to the Algorithm.

Meira ran over to her, too, collapsing on her knees in front of Niki.

“It hurts… ” Niki whimpered, her eyes glazed.

Meira stared at gasping girl, unsure of what to do. What could she possibly do?

“I’m sorry,” Meira pleaded.

A robot that was probably stored a bit down the road came over and injected something in Niki’s arm. Immediately, Niki’s pained gasps stopped, and her eyes grew soft. He then went off to tend to the motorcycle rider. Meira hadn’t even noticed him in her panic.

“It’s alright,” Niki whispered.

Meira hesitantly reached out to touch Niki’s hair. The robot beeped.

Meira O’Kane, you are to report to the Damariscotta Center at 12:15 PM for reprogramming. A transport will be sent for you shortly.

Nikitha Tamboli, you are to report to the Damariscotta Center at 12:15 PM for healing reprogramming. A transport will be sent for you shortly.

“What does reprogramming mean, anyways?” Niki wondered.

Meira shrugged. “I think it changes you somehow. I never remember what happens during reprogramming.”

“Me neither,” Niki said. She frowned. “Does that mean you’re going to forget this?”

“I hope not,” Meira blurted out.

Niki giggled, her joking voice growing weak. “Well… I hope not. Let’s run away.”

Meira cracked a forced smile. She thought about the tales of how people would die before the Algorithm. Was that going to happen to Niki? She felt fear grow in her stomach. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Meira would never see Niki again. It… it was almost like euthanization, except euthanization was… good? Everything was so horribly confusing now… Meira’s head hurt…

“This never would have happened if we’d never kissed,” Meira said shakily.

Niki looked away. “Meh. But choosing to do that… it was interesting. Y’know, I lied when I said the kiss wasn’t good. The kiss felt… real. The angle was awkward, but… that doesn’t mean it wasn’t… ”

“Yeah,” Meira said, smiling. “It was nice.”

“If we had more time… ” Niki said wistfully.

“We might have messed up eventually,” Meira said. She hesitated. “But… trying… I liked choosing. It felt… authentic. Like the organic flowers.”

Niki grinned. The two sat in silence. Meira could see the transport coming closer.

“I don’t want to get reprogrammed,” Meira blurted out. “I’m scared.”

“Nothing bad ever happens.”

“But what if I come back a different person?” Meira asked. “My little sister — Mia — she came back from the reprogramming and she was… she wasn’t annoying.”

Niki laughed. “Isn’t that good?”

Meira shrugged. “But the annoying… that was part of Mia. She always wanted something before — candy, for me to play with her… the reprogramming made her not do that anymore and I — ” Meira swallowed. “I want to be able to want things. To make choices.

“Then… ” Niki squeezed her eyes shut, looking pained. “Then you should go.”

“Huh?” Meira’s eyes widened. “I… but — what about you?”

“Just go. Don’t… don’t give me time to worry and overanalyze and be scared.”

“O-okay,” Meira stammered, a part of her feeling slightly bad for leaving Niki so easily.

She got up and stumbled backwards, before turning and running into the forest. A part of her was yelling at her to stop, that this was rash and useless, but she wanted to escape the Algorithm. She didn’t want to become off-Meira, like Mia who used to smile more and be more annoying.

A terrified tear slid down her cheek. Meira ran and ran. The tree branches smacked her in the face like some sort of punishment. Her lungs started to burn but she went on. And then she hit a road. Meira backed away into the trees, swallowing. A transport passed by, but she went unnoticed.

“Oh gosh.” Meira tried to bit down a sob, her lungs aching as she gulped in air. “I don’t wanna get reprogrammed.”

Turning back to the forest, she ran back into the safety of the trees. She had to run faster. She had to get away from the road. As she bumbled through the forest, she started to feel like Mia, wailing that she didn’t want to be reprogrammed. She ran blindly, her mind swimming with panic. Everything was such a mess. How was Mia? Would there be any differences after reprogramming? What had the Algorithm done to her little sister’s mind? What had the done to Meira’s mind, all those 13 times before? And what would they do if they caught her?

Her foot connected with a tree root, and she fell to the ground. Meira caught herself with the palms of her hands, hissing at the pricking sting. She sat against a tree. Her face was wet. Meira reached up and wiped away the tears. Looking around, Meira realized she was near the grove. She pushed herself up, instinctively going to the place that had always been safe.

Someone was standing in the grove.

“Mother?” Meira asked.

Mother beamed, opening her arms. Meira immediately darted towards Mother, embracing her tightly. She felt solid and warm and safe, her scent like Meira’s favorite banana bread. The two pulled apart. Meira realized she had gotten Niki’s blood on Mother, but Mother didn’t seem to mind.

“Mother,” Meira gasping, shaking. Mother’s hands stayed on Meira’s arms, steadying her. “Mother… oh gosh, Mother… I’m… I’m scared. A-and… something happened — ”

“I know about Niki,” Mother said, delicately brushing Meira’s face.

Meira let out a feeble laugh. “Wow, mothers really do know everyth — ” Meira broke off, frowning. “Wait, how do you know?”

Mother’s hand reached out to grab Meira. Meira stumbled backwards, but Mother pulled Meira close to her chest, holding Meira tightly to her.

“The transport is coming shortly,” Mother said, not looking at Meira.

“Huh?” Meira choked out. Suddenly, Mother’s arms felt restraining. They had never felt this way before. “Mother! No, don’t — ”

“Please, sweetie. The Algorithm told me they were serving shrimp gumbo tonight. You like that, right? I checked the LifeGuide app. We’re going to the mall tomorrow.”

“But… what if… what if they mess up my mind and I forget about the grove and Niki? And I stop smelling the organic flowers like you told me to? I don’t want to! ? Mother! Just listen! I don’t want… Niki… it was authentic! Weren’t you always talking about how things were best when they were authentic?”

Mother looked at Meira, tears glinting in her soft olive eyes. “They are, darling, they are.”

“Then why — ” Meira broke off.

A transport had settled down outside the grove, pushing aside a few small trees. Two robots got out of the transport and moved towards Meira.

“Because I want to keep safe, darling,” Mother said. “If we listen to the Algorithm, we’ll be safe. It’s got everything all planned out so that you’ll have a nice, perfect life. I heard from the Algorithm that Niki got hurt. If you two had listened to the Algorithm, this never would have happened.”

“But — but — ” Meira floundered as the robots took her away from Mother. “But… ”

“I want to keep you safe, my little sugar glider.”

Meira let out a dry sob. “But what about being happy?”

“You are happy. The Algorithm ensures it.”

“Am I, though?”

“Yes.”

“See? This is the thing!” Meira’s voice was getting more frantic as she was hauled into the transport. “Y’know, maybe I wanna have blueberry parfait instead of strawberry, okay!”

Mother looked at Meira sadly as she rampaged on.

“We’re being told how we’re supposed to be happy, but never once, absolutely never, do we get to choose how to be happy! And that just takes so much out of lif — ”

The robot, its mind controlled by the Algorithm, injected her with its slim, silver needle.

Meira fell silent.

***

Major Glitch #79

Directly involved: Meira O’Kane; Nikitha Tamboli

Indirectly involved: Gemma O’Kane; Alex Burman

All four reprogrammed

Motorcycles and forests to be banned to avoid further incident

Everything perfect.

 

Second Chances

               

Angie

We moved to a smaller town in New Mexico on July first. It was a smaller house, with more land to get lost in. By the time Bill and I had finished unpacking, I was ready to take a walk. “I’ll be back soon, Bill. I’m going to explore the neighborhood, okay?” I called, hoping that he would come with me.

“No problem, honey. See you then.” I heard the TV turn on before I stepped out onto the front step into a new life.

The houses were lined along the street next to each other. Each home had a similar structure, but each was unique. I passed a blue house, then a yellow one, then green, then red. But I had only been walking for ten minutes when I came to a dead end. Just past the road was a forest. I thought it might have been nice to journey into the woods on the path, so that’s what I did. I forgot sometimes — well, that was exactly the problem, I forgot. I was not as young as I used to be, so I may have wandered a little far into the forest, forgetting to turn around before my old body got too tired.

Winded, I ended up having to sit down. I chose a large rock next to a tree to rest on. I heard a noise — at first, I thought it was a bird or deer or some other animal, but then it came again.

Bam!

Curious, I stood up and strolled over to where the sound came from. “Huh?” It wasn’t an animal, for sure. Glinting in the sunlight was a strange kind of sword. I noticed a symbol on the handle. It looked like an anchor inside of a space helmet. I recognized it…

I started to get nervous, because who or whatever had this sword could still be out there.

After a few minutes of waiting on the rock to make sure no one came to claim it, I decided to take the sword and hide it under my clothing until I got home. “Bill?” I yelled.

“In here.”

I entered the living room to find my husband on the couch catching up on the news. “I have something to show you,” I told him.

“What is it?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the screen.

“Bill,” I said, “it’s important.”

He looked up at me, concerned, reached for the remote, and turned off the TV.

“Okay, so I walked into the forest — ”

“You what? We just moved here, Angie, you don’t know what could be in there. Why didn’t you just walk around the neighborhood?”

“Relax, Bill, I’m fine. I followed a path,” I continued. “Anyway, I found something.” I pulled out the sword.

His eyes widened. “What — ” he started.

“Bill, before you say anything, I found it after hearing a crashing noise and waited a few minutes to make sure nothing was out there,” I told him.

“That doesn’t help!” he cried. “You don’t just go picking up weird swords in weird places with weird sounds! What were you thinking?”

“It doesn’t matter! Look closer!” I said. I watched his reaction as he leaned in to see the symbol on the sword’s handle.

Bill’s expression was blank, speechless. He slowly leaned back into the couch, staring straight ahead. “The metal… ”

“I know,” I said.

The month before, we had visited the house for the second time before deciding to buy it. This time in the garage, there was a large metal plate of sorts with the same anchor/helmet symbol on it. I had asked about it, but the realtor dismissed my curiosity, saying, “It’s just old junk that we found right outside. Don’t worry, it’ll be cleaned out by the time you move in, if you like the house, of course.”

“What does it mean?” Bill asked, lying down on the couch.

“I don’t know, but I want to find out.”

Throughout the month, I researched anything I could find that might have been linked to the symbol. Bill helped me every so often, and together we thought we could solve our mystery.

We couldn’t.

That is, until Izzy showed up. It was early August, and the pale, blue-haired teen knocked on our door rapidly. “I’ll get it,” Bill said. We had just finished breakfast and were cleaning up the dishes.

“Hello,” I heard Bill say. “How can I help you?”

“Hi,” said the girl. “I know this seems strange, but may I come in? It’s kind of urgent.”

“I don’t know, miss. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here first?” Bill said. At that point, I began to get worried. I went to stand in the doorway.

“I don’t expect you to understand, but maybe this will change your mind,” the girl said. She took her jacket off and pointed to the symbol on her T- shirt. Bill and I exchanged a glance.

“Come in,” I said.

“Thank you,” said the girl once we were inside. “I’m Izzy.”

 

***

 

“So, let me get this straight. You’re a space pirate?” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” said Izzy calmly. Her yellow green cat-like eyes were enormous.

“And you want us to pretend to be your grandparents?” Bill said, shocked.

“Yes.”

“But why? And where are your parents?” I asked.

“They died. I tried to save them, but my enemies in space killed them. I was too late,” said Izzy, looking down.

“Oh.” Bill and I looked at each other, and I was hoping that we were both thinking the same thing: I knew she was a stranger, but she was an orphan. We had to take her in. Plus, she could help us figure out why that scrap of metal was in the garage and why the sword was in the woods. Bill asked the question before I could.

“Why us?”

Izzy looked at him. “I know you’ve seen the symbol. Why else would I show it to you before I came in?”

“But why were the objects with the symbol on them near our house? How did they get there?” Bill asked.

She took a deep breath before beginning. “After my parents escaped, the ones who killed them tried to kidnap me in their spaceship. They were flying back to their headquarters, but the ship hit a comet near Earth. It crashed, but I jumped off before it hit the ground.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s, um… ”

“A lot,” Bill finished. I shot a glance at him. He continued anyway. “A lot, not just to take in, but a lot for a teenage girl to go through.”

“Oh, it’s okay, I’m actually in my 500s,” Izzy responded quickly.

“What? 500s?” I said.

“Yes, aliens age much slower than human beings,” she explained. “I think in earth years I’m… sixteen?”

“Huh,” Bill said, taking in the information. He seemed a bit skeptical. So was I, but I wanted to find out more.

“Wait, so you escaped, we know that, but you didn’t tell us how the metal and sword got here,” I said, craving answers.

“Right,” said Izzy. “When the ship hit Earth’s atmosphere, it started slowly falling apart. The metal was a piece of the ship that fell off, and the sword was mine. It fell out of the opening in the ship that the fallen metal created. I made a mental note — which is an actual note in my mind, I think that’s different for you humans — about the location the objects fell in. These things are harder to explain, because our brains work differently from yours. Mental notes, locations, and some other minor things.” She must have seen the shock on our faces, because she said, “Don’t worry about it.” Izzy’s face was impassive, untroubled, calm. “Anyway, I figured you two would either believe me because you had seen the objects, or you know too much, disagree with me, and I need to erase your memory.” We were speechless and transfixed listening to her. “So which will it be? Please don’t let that comment about erasing your memories influence your decision.”

There were a few moments of silence before Bill or I gathered the courage to speak. Finally, I spoke up.

“Bill, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Yeah,” he said, staring at Izzy with a blank look before standing up.

We walked into the kitchen.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked.

“I have no idea. It’s just, it was a lot of stuff — ” he said.

“I know. But we have to make a decision,” I said, then paused. “I think we should do it.”

“You mean, let her stay with us? Be her fake grandparents? Embrace all that crazy stuff we just heard about?”

“Yes. I know it’s crazy, but she’s a child,” I pleaded. “She needs a home.”

“She’s not a child, she’s flipping 500 and who knows how many more years old!”

“Still,” I said. “Isn’t there a part of you that wants to help her? A part that wants someone to take care of, even if it’s not our biological grandchild?”

He sighed. “Of course there is, but we don’t know her.”

“You’re right, we don’t. But we’ve just retired, we don’t have any grandchildren — ”

Bill put his arm around me. “We don’t know how much taking care of she needs. But… ”

“But?”

“Let’s do it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, of course. She needs help,” he said. “And we can help her.”

We walked back into the living room.

“Izzy,” I started.

“We’ll be your fake grandparents,” Bill announced. “That’s a sentence I never thought I‘d say,” he muttered.

“Oh, that’s great! I was starting to get worried, especially since I can’t actually erase your memories. I just wanted you to say yes — but thank you,” said Izzy.

I smiled. This should be fun.

 

The next morning, I woke up at 7:45. I got up, trying not to wake Bill, and headed downstairs to find Izzy.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Wha — oh.”

I almost forgot what happened yesterday. But here she was, a girl I had to somehow learn to take care of.

“Bye!” said Izzy as she walked toward the front door.

“Now, wait a minute. Where are you off to this early?”

“School,” she responded. “It’d raise too many questions if the new girl in town didn’t go to school.”

“I didn’t think about that,” I said, sitting down for breakfast as Izzy left.

What did I get myself into? Raising a 500-year-old alien/girl? She seemed pretty normal, I guess, minus the blue hair and space pirate thing. I would just have to wait and see. It could be hard, but it might be easier than I thought. It could be the worst thing I’d ever have to do; or it could be the best thing to happen to me.

I went outside to work on my new garden. Bill and I loved our new house, but gardening was one of my hobbies, so I decided to put in a garden in our backyard. It took a lot of work, but I was doing it a little bit at a time. Just as I started to rake the dirt, I heard a voice.

“Good morning,” said Bill. “I thought I’d find you at here.”

I laughed. “Good morning.”

“Where’s the girl?” he asked. “I thought we should talk about her. I know it’s been hard to be around kids since — ”

“Ray wasn’t a kid, Bill,” I said. “He was 22 and finishing college.”

“I know, I know.”

I took a moment to think about our son before speaking again.

“Izzy will be different,” I said unconvincingly. “We’ll keep her safe.”

“Of course we will, Angie. I just wanted to make sure you’re feeling okay about all this.”

“I am,” I snapped. I took a deep breath. “I’m okay,” I assured him.

Bill walked back inside, and I finished my garden work for the day.

It was 4:00. Izzy wasn’t home, and I realized that she should have been by now. I was pretty sure high school got out at 3:30ish. I started to worry. What if she was taken? What if her space enemies found her? Anything could have happened to her!

She was a girl in high school; sure, anything could have happened, but maybe she was just exploring town or hanging out at the pizza place or something. I could call her and ask her where she is, but she didn’t have a phone. I should have gotten her a phone! I had to know she was okay.

“Bill, I’m going into town!” I called.

“Okay, don’t be too long,” he yelled from the kitchen.

I rushed out the door and walked toward the pizza place first. I saw the two teenagers who help their parents run the place, Mario and Luisa. When you’re a local in the town of Arcaea, you know almost everyone’s name, whether you know the person well or not.

“Have either of you seen a teenage girl in here? Pale? Blue hair?” I asked them.

“Nah, sorry,” said Mario.

I exited the store without replying. Next stop was the arcade. I didn’t love it in there because of the lights and teenagers gaming and the noise, but it was the kind of place an alien might find interesting.

I walked into the building, noticing the Arcaea Arcade sign in neon lights. I saw Izzy standing next to one of the goth kids in the back next to the game Space Invaders. Of course she would like that game.

Watching her, I realized I shouldn’t take her home. No one wanted their “grandma” embarrassing them in front of their new friends. Instead, I went back home. I’d order Izzy a phone later.

 

***

 

On Saturday mornings, I always went grocery shopping.

“Okay, I’ll be back later,” I said to Bill.

“Where are you going?” said a voice from the stairs. I turned around to see Izzy.

“Shopping,” I said slowly. “Do you need anything? Hold on,” I turned back to Bill. “Before I forget, remind me later to look up why my tulips aren’t growing.”

Izzy looks at me peculiarly, tilting her head to the side.

“I don’t need anything,” she said, but stayed put on the stairs.

“Okay.”

When I got back home, the first thing I did was check the garden. I knew flowers didn’t grow over an hour, but a small part of me wished the tulips had sprouted while I was gone.

I was astonished to see that my wish came true! The flowers had not only sprouted but were in full bloom.

“Aren’t they pretty?” said Izzy, walking toward me.

“Did you do this?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

“How — ” I started.

“I’m part alien, part pirate. I can do a lot of thing that’d surprise you,” she answered.

I started to tear up, remembering the times I needed help with my old garden.

“Oh no, don’t cry,” Izzy said worriedly.

“I’m sorry, it’s just,” I tried not to burst. “This was so nice of you, and I can remember the last time someone helped me garden… ” I stopped to calm myself down.

“Who?” Izzy asked curiously.

I decided I should tell her. She deserved to know a little about my past since I knew a little about hers. I looked her in the eye.

“Ray,” I paused. “My son.”

“What happened to him?”

“He died about 20 years ago. Car crash.” I fought back tears. I’d gotten past the event, but it was still hard to talk about.

“Oh.” There was a moment of silence before either of us said or did anything.

“I know what it’s like to lose someone,” Izzy said.

“Right, your parents. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She looked at me with a small, sad smile on her face. “It’s okay.” I smiled back.

“Come on,” I said, and we walked into our house, side by side.

 

Days passed, then weeks. Izzy helped Bill and I around the house with her various powers. She could pick up objects with her mind and clean anything up without using her hands at all! She still went to school and hung out with her friends, but she had a phone now to text us if she had plans. By October, she felt like a real granddaughter.

It was a Monday, so Izzy was at school. I got a text from her asking me to pick her up after school. Bill offered to drive.

We were on our way to pick her up when I heard a distant, high-pitched scream ahead. Several more cries followed. They sounded like kids.

“What was that?” I said, frightened.

“It might not be anything serious, don’t worry. And if it is, well, we’ll probably find out soon,” Bill replied.

He kept his eyes on the road. The further we drove, the louder the yells became, until they stopped completely.

As we pulled up to the school, I was shocked at what I saw. A huge UFO as tall as the school and as wide as a sixteen wheeler hovered over the parking lot. A couple hundred teenagers crowded the front of the school, some clinging to their friends, some frozen still, afraid, all terrified for their lives. I got out of the car, followed by Bill, and tried to spot Izzy in the crowd, but I didn’t see her.

“Bill? Do you think — ”

“Izzy’s — ” he was cut off by the loud, painful sound of a microphone screeching. Then, a low, robotic voice came out of the spaceship. It was unclear if the voice was human, alien, or robot.

“Where. Is. The. Girl?” it said. “We. Need. The. Girl.”

“No,” I whispered. But Izzy appeared, now standing in front of the ship. Bill looked at me.

“What are we supposed to do?” he said, not really asking, but stating that there was nothing we could do.

“There has to be something,” I said, but the voice in the spaceship spoke before I could say anything else.

“YOU. Our leader. Must have. A sacrifice. You have deceived. Our kind. You. Must. Come.”

“No!” I screamed. “Please, no!”

Many confused, scared students turned their heads. So did Izzy. There was a murmuring among the students.

“Who are you. To speak to us?” said the voice.

“Angie — ” said Bill, a hint of fear in his voice.

“It’s okay,” I told him. I was afraid, but confident. I knew what I had to do.

I walked toward Izzy. Bill followed. “Angie!” he pleaded. I ignored it. I didn’t know where to look when talking, so I just stared up at the spacecraft.

“I’m Angie,” I yelled. “Her grandmother!” I put my hand on Izzy’s shoulder.

“You don’t have to do this,” she tried to say. “They want me, it’s okay, don’t do this!”

Izzy and Bill both looked at me with fear in their eyes and pleading looks on their faces. I turned to look at both of them.

“Listen. Izzy, you have so much life left to live,” I started. A tear ran down her cheek. “It’s okay,” I continued. “I’m not young like you. I can do this, it’s okay. Bill, take care of her.”

“No, Angie, I’ll go, you stay,” Bill said, tearing up. But I knew he wasn’t prepared to do what I was about to do. He wasn’t prepared to let go.

“I love you,” I said. I turned back to the spaceship.

The voice said, “I suppose. Any sacrifice. Will suffice.”

And with that, a long ramp was released from the ship.

“Come. Our master. Will. Kill you. Himself.”

I took one last look around. The trees, the sky, the grass — it was all so beautiful. Sometimes you forgot to notice the little things in life. I smiled at Bill and Izzy.

“Goodbye,” I said, and I walked up the ramp.

The End

 

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.

 

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.

Prologue to Hectorbla

            

Prologue

The winter snow brings freezing and death. In the land of Itha, freezing and death were the only things that the 4th grand army of the Glass Imperium knew. You see, Itha is a land divided by war and conquest. A supercontinent in the center of the Crimson Sea, Itha had been home to technological advancements and cultural exchange unparalleled in the entire world. However, things soon turned bad.

In the year 1813, a man named Hector Blighting completed work on his airship, the Hectorbla. Hector was an inventor, but one who had discovered too much. Hector delved into knowledge perhaps meant for man to stay ignorant of, knowledge of terrifying implication. Wielding this knowledge, Hector formed a cult, known as the Cult of Hector. With ingenuity and scientific competence, the Cult of Hector synthesized new gases and metals perfect for the creation of airships. With this, Hector created a navy of the air, which swiftly blitzed every major city in Itha, taking countries by surprise. Massive behemoths of metal and gas rumbled across the skies. Massive guns thundered throughout the night. However, Hector’s villainous campaign was not without challenge.

Every country in Itha banded together and struck deep in the heart of Hector’s ever expanding empire of iron and steam. The headquarters of Hector’s campaign were surrounded, and heavy fighting ensued, resulting in the death of Hector. With the knowledge of airships, steam tanks, trains without rails, bioengineering, energy weapons, and massive tanks now in the hands of every nation in Itha, bickering was bound to occur.

This brings us to the 4th grand army of the Glass Imperium. The Glass Imperium is a moderately sized country (though the rulers and inhabitants would prefer the term empire), hellbent on the conquest of Slavingcordia, a country to the north. Slavingcordia, though smaller in men and weapons, was not undefended. A massive mountain range, named Blackheart Ridge, separates the two countries, one that must be passed if any country was to attack the other with speed.

The Glass Imperium had finally decided to bite the bullet and invade. Seventy-five thousand man, all dressed in the traditional blue on green Imperium uniform, marched across Blackheart ridge with the intent of capturing the Slavcordian city of Deizenburgen. But luck was not on the side of the Glass Imperium. Marching upwards in the bitter cold snow, air getting thinner with every step taken. This was the hell that faced the 4th Army. Ten thousand soldiers met their end in the cold, alone and unable to move. Dreadnaughts of the sky flew overhead, but where there was no comfort to the soldiers, they huddled together for warmth. But the situation was about to get worse.

It was on the 6th of November, 1867, that Col. Williams spotted the first Slavcordian soldier. This was only the beginning of a bloody campaign that would leave millions dead, and release secrets and evils forever to haunt the human heart.

Josef awoke to the sound of shouting. His eyes still adjusting to the light, Josef squinted as he forced on his boots. Inside of his small green tent, he could not see anything but the blinding sun being reflected into the his tent. Using his left hand to wipe off his uniform, Josef slowly began to wake up. His stubble had grown worse, and his body odor unbearable. Lamenting these facts, Josef began to open the tent, when suddenly he heard gunfire. Grabbing his rifle, Josef bolted out of his tent, adrenaline pumping. Dead men lay in the snow, blood staining the ice. The gunfire continued, men shouting orders, soldiers scrambling to get out of bed and to grab their guns. A bullet whizzed by. Josef hit the floor. Lying beside one of his fallen comrades, Josef saw the Slavcordian men firing upon his division. Rolling behind the fresh corpse, Josef propped up his rifle and began to fire.

The smell of gunpowder spread through the air, muzzle flash appearing from places unexpected. An unfortunate Slavcordian soldier engaged Josef at point blank range, hitting Josef’s cover, but being hit by a lead riparte, fired from Josef’s rifle. Josef pulled the trigger and aimed his gun again at the ghastly silhouettes of enemy soldiers running to and from cover, sometimes revealing their true selves by illuminating the area with the flash of gunpowder. However, when Josef pulled the trigger for another time, his gun did not fire.

Desperately searching every pocket and crevice for bullets proved useless. Josef knew what he had to do. Throwing his rifle aside, Josef gripped the cold body of the bloodstained soldier and took the dead man’s rifle from his cold hands. A bullet hit the soldier. An eruption of blood blinded Josef. Wiping it off, Josef continued. Emptying the remaining bullets with futility into the seemingly impervious cover of the Slavcordian soldier harassing Josef, seemed a laughable waste of ammunition, but a cost that Josef knew must be paid in order to pin his adversary. Now out of ammunition again, Josef ran with the corpse down a small ledge. This time he found ammunition, but looked more. The massive shadow of a sky dreadnaught passed over, launching shells into enemy positions. Though not a decisive attack, it was satisfying to see the bloodstained brown uniforms of the Slavcordians fly into the air.

A fellow soldier passed by Josef, hurrying to defensive positions. “Ai! Dirty gravedigging sonofabitch!” Josef wanted badly to respond and tell the soldier that he wasn’t looting the body of a fallen comrade, but there were more important things at hand. A small mecha ran by, its metallic legs galloping across the snow, firing small shells, until it vanished behind the snow. The smoke of battle machines began to rise. Josef decided his best most move would be to continue behind the mecha. Following the tracks, Josef ran, and ran. Being shot at by what felt like five people, powder exploding at his feet. A bullet ripped across Josef’s back, though not injuring too much flesh, it hurt like hell. The warm blood perhaps was a blessing in disguise. Josef was beginning to go numb. Though his body heat was up, it was barely holding him together. The warm blood soothed his back.

Finally, Josef caught up with the mecha, the pilot obviously struggling with a dug in machine gun. Stuck between a machine gun and infantry, Josef knew that the mecha needed help. Josef attacked the flank of the infantry. The shouting in foreign languages disturbed Josef. He did not know the orders of the commander. Josef fired everything and got into a rhythm. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. Fire. Cock. The sputtering riposte of the infernal Slavcordian rounds dissuaded Josef from continuing his assault and forced him to fall back. Running blindly in a direction were he would be temporarily safe from enemy fire, Josef found himself far to the left flank of the Slavcordian rear.

Boots getting wet, limbs stiffening. Josef began to pant as he slowly trudged back to where he believed his company was. Some Slavcordian men noticed him in the distance. They fired off several rounds at Josef, but at the distance between them, they would have been lucky if the explosion of powdery snow came within a foot of Josef.

Josef stopped. He saw a tower of smoke rising from the ridge ahead. The roar of treads. The Glass Imperium had no tanks in the mountains. They deemed them too visible. The mechas used by the Glass Imperium had a much smaller profile (or at least the smaller ones). That strategy had proven useful until the first Slavcordian attack. Now, without steam tanks or bio tanks, or any form of calvary that was not exclusively anti infantry, Josef was filled with anger and disappointment. But that was irrelevant. Josef had a duty. Heaving and panting, Josef prepared for what could very well be his final offensive.

The rectangular bottom of the tank carried several machine guns. The rusted white metal reminded Josef of a bridge burnt into hell. The gray treads and silver gears gave the tank an almost aluminum look. Then, there was the turret. A massive chimney spurted out smoke. An 85 caliber heavy cannon slowly shifted around, looking for targets. Josef breathed in. His now bloodstained uniform was a fitting cloth to be buried in. Josef leapt into the powdery snow. Josef now recognized the tank as a HF-3 “Mountain Goat.” Josef gripped his rifle and screamed like never before. Josef was prepared to die.

End of prologue.

 

The Haunted House

                 

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Two

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

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

“Run!” said Max.

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

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

The dad did not believe the kids.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Three

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

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

The ghost said, “Stay. I am nice.”

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

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

“But why?”

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

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

“Oh okay. Was that Aunt Marry?”

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

“No, I didn’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They said, “Are you okay?”

And he replied, “Don’t talk to me.”

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

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

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

 

The Secret Life Of A Squirrel

              

Section One

“Alright everybody. Up, up, up!” said Professor Dun as he slid a chair across the scratched, brown stage. Every time someone drags a chair or a table, a new scratch appears. Everyone just sat slumped in their seat, minds blank. “What’s the matta with ya folks?” he asked.

No one moved.

“We still have to block act 2, scene 7! This scene is where Jason and Tara kiss!” Professor Dun had to drag all the squirrels onto the stage of Westchester Elementary. “Okay. Everybody except Jason and Tara get off the stage. If I so see the tip of your tail touch this thing, I will call Principal Tuxie. Now, let’s do a rough run through the scene. Do not, I say do not actually kiss. For all I know, you guys don’t know how to anyway.”

 

“You can’t leave me now!” cried Tara.

“Oh, but sweetie I have to. It’s two minutes past my curfew,” said Jason.

“No but — ” said Tara.

“I must go,” Jason said.

“You can’t leave because you haven’t returned my sacred picnic basket from your gentle hands,” exclaimed Tara

“Oh crap. Sorry,” mumbled Jason.

 

“CUT!” yelled Professor Dun. “Man we have a lot to work on. I can’t even take anymore of this. Be back tomorrow at 3:02 sharp!”

 

Section Two: Lucy

My name is not actually Tara. It’s Lucy. Don’t you love Professor Dun? He loves me at least because he gave me the main female role in the school play. Anyhow, I live in NYC. I never go hungry because there’s millions of food trucks that drop hot dogs, bananas, opened Gatorade, nuts from a Nuts4Nuts truck, and many other things that you humans find disgusting. But let me get this straight. All humans have this idea that every single squirrel likes nuts. They always crave nuts. They will do anything to eat nuts. That is totally not true because I hate them. I hate the crunch that you hear when you chew on them. My teeth are very precious to me, and I don’t want them to break because of an ugly, miserable nut.

Now, if humans found out that we could talk, they would go berserk. It would be on the front page of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Reporters from CNN, NBC, and Fox News would report on it. So, when we talk, all it sounds like to humans is, “kakakakakakaka.”

 

Section Three: Liam

My name is not actually Jason. It’s Liam. I am definitely not a theater dork. My friend Casey signed me up without asking me. He sent in an audio of me singing the song “Come Alive.” I don’t know how he obtained that audio. He most likely hacked into my computer. I made that audio three and a half years ago. Now, I’m stuck every day in a four hour rehearsal in a hot, sweaty theater that’s the size of the human thumb. The worst part is, I have to kiss a random girl. I swear I’m going to kill Casey. I want my first kiss to be with someone that I like. Not a fake, energetic squirrel that thinks she’s the best. I also don’t want my first kiss to be in front of 12,000 squirrels. So far, I’ve been to three rehearsals. How can I get out of it? I can’t pretend to like someone and to like theatre. I feel awful. God, get me out of this.

 

Section Four: Lucy

Liam can be so negative at times. Does he even want to be in theater? I try to cheer him up, but it’s no use. How did he get the role? Anyhow, in show biz, you have to be able to work with anybody. So, in order to be a good role model, I’m going to have to just cope with him. But it seems as if he hates theater, so why is he still here?

 

Section Five

“Alright, everybody, time’s a wastin!” yelled Professor Dun. Everyone always wondered how he was raised because he was always overly enthusiastic.

“Liam, I know that you may not love this show. But when I heard that audio — your voice is so elegant and graceful. You should really take advantage of that. So, why don’t you try. Maybe if you try hard enough, you’ll learn to like it.”

The words that Professor Dun said stuck to everyone’s head. Liam just stood there silent.

“Okay, so let’s go from the top. Next Tuesday is our first show!”

They ran through the whole show, but Liam was still acting the same. He didn’t project his voice and stood slumped like an old man.

 

Section Six: Liam

That’s it. I need to find a a way to get out of this. I only kept going to see my friend Casey because I hardly ever see him during the day. I do want to kill him, but he’s my friend, so I can’t. I need to make a plan. How can I get the show to be canceled? That way, my mom won’t make me go to any more rehearsals or cast parties or any shows! Hmmmm. I saw the set design builders screw the background to the back of the stage. Maybe if I unscrew the screw, the set will go crashing. They said we don’t have enough money to get any other sets so, without a set, there’s no show! I’m a genius.

 

Section Seven: Lucy

Liam had been acting unusually happy lately. Did he listen to what Professor Dun said?

 

A little later…

 

O-M-G! I just found out that in the show, I have to eat a nut. I’m so scared because the last time I ate a nut was seven years ago, and I broke my tooth. I think I’m having a panic attack right now. Oh jeez. What am I going to do?

 

Section Eight: Liam

We’re having a 10 minute break right now. This is the perfect time to complete my plan. Thank God there’s no security cameras in the theater. I brought a screwdriver from home and now, I’m less than ten feet away from the set backstage. There’s five screws. I’ll have to make this quick. I just unscrewed four. Man, I’m good at this. There. Whew! Now all I have to do is a slight push.

“STEP BACK, YOU NASTY CREATURE!!”

 

Section Nine

“What the heck, Lucy,” said Liam.

“I saw what you were doing,” answered Lucy.

“What?” asked Liam.

“Don’t play dumb with me. I know you were trying to sabotage the show.”

“Wow you are smart,” said Liam slyly.

“You can try and cancel the show, but the power of show biz is too strong. It will put a magnetic force against you and blow you millions of planets away!” shouted Lucy.

“I’m terrible at science, but I do know that’s scientifically incorrect for many reasons.”

“Maybe you should take up science instead,” said Lucy. “Why are you here anyway?”

“I’m only here to see Casey. He’s been my best friend for a long time. I kept going to see him. I never see him during the school day,” answered Liam.

“I have a question. Why do you hate theater?” asked Lucy.

“Because-be-be-be-because, it’s scary!” yelled Liam.

“What?” said Lucy.

“You have to pretend to be someone you’re not, and while doing that in front of billions of squirrels. How do you call that fun?” asked Liam.

“It’s called acting. That’s the only time you act like someone you’re not. You bring a character from a script alive. While some squirrels enjoy being in front of other squirrels, others don’t. That’s called stage fright. It’s when you’re scared of being seen on a stage. That can make some squirrels not like theater, but if they get over that fear, they’ll learn to like it. So, here is the oldest trick in the book. Picture all of the squirrels in the audience chewing nuts and spitting them at you. It’s the weirdest thing, but it worked for every single squirrel that ever had stage fright. So why don’t you try it.”

Liam just sat there trying to take it all in. What he was about to say stunned everyone, and it went down in history for Westchester Elementary.

“I’ll give it a shot,” said Liam.

 

Section Ten

Lucy

My problem is solved!!! I talked to Professor Dun, and he said I could eat a brown jelly bean in the play instead of a peanut. I was able to talk myself out of it. Not only that, but I got Liam to give theater a chance!!! I’m so good at convincing squirrels, it’s pretty ridiculous. The show is tomorrow, and I’m having another panic attack. Actually, it’s more like an excitement attack. Thankfully, I screwed the set back together, so it didn’t collapse.

 

Section Eleven

Act 2, Scene 7

 

“Don’t leave me now!” cried Tara.

“Oh, but sweetie I have to. It’s two minutes past my curfew!” cried Jason. (Before, Liam was saying it like he didn’t care, but this time he acted like he meant it.)

“No but — ” said Tara.

“I must go,” Jason said sternly.

“You can’t leave because you haven’t returned my sacred basket from your gentle hands,” exclaimed Tara.

“Oh crap, sorry,” said Jason as he handed her the basket.

They kissed. Everyone clapped and threw flowers. Everyone left.

 

Section Twelve

When the squirrels started leaving the theater, they were surrounded by a group of human reporters.

“How are you guys able to talk?” said one.

“This is going on the front page of the newspaper!” said another.

“My grandma would love this!” said one.

All of the reporters were shocked. Liam simply answered, “There is so much to be seen in the world. So much to explore and figure out. Don’t assume something is impossible unless there’s evidence to prove it. Just because no one has seen something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just because something hasn’t been explored before, doesn’t mean it can’t be explored. And finally, just because something is very, very difficult, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

Liam then just walked away with Lucy, feeling more confident than before. Theater really can change you.

 

THE END

 

Key Lime Pie

I wake up, and I feel nothing. Not really nothing, but… it’s hard to explain. There’s clearly something else here, or I wouldn’t feel this chill down my spine. I can’t breathe, because there’s a pressure on my stomach. I can only move my head, so I look up. The room is dark, but suddenly, I know what I’m looking at. This feeling of emptiness but heaviness… it’s her.

She’s lying there, her skull cracked, her vacant, rotting eyes staring at me. It was fresh, at first. The stump of her leg used to bleed, leaving stains on the carpet, but now there’s a brown, crusty hunk of dried blood hanging from it. Her right arm, bent at a gruesome angle, has started to turn a grisly green color. The exposed bone on her chest has started to weather away, leaving holes and hanging chunks. I’ve memorized her corpse.

“Hey! Wake up!” I can hear my fiancée. Oh god, this has never happened before. She can’t come up. Not now. She’ll turn out like me. It’s how her — the other her — started haunting my nights.

My mother had “her” too, but it wasn’t her. It was me, hanging from the ceiling, staring straight at her — at least, that’s what she told me. These were called “night terrors,” but ours weren’t normal. If someone sees it haunting someone else, it can trigger at any point in their life, usually as a dead or wounded loved one. In some rare cases, these terrors have been thought to physically manifest (which probably isn’t true), but that hasn’t happened to me… yet.

After I met my girlfriend, it started happening to me too. Right now, we’re engaged, but it’s hard to spend time with the person you love when you see them dead each night.

“I made your favorite, so come on down!” Oh no. She usually comes up if she thinks I’m asleep. My worst fear isn’t if she comes up. It’s me having to explain this to her. Could she catch the terror too? I hate this. I hate it so much.

***

I made my fiance key lime pie. He usually comes right down when he smells that stuff. I wonder what’s wrong? Suddenly, I can’t move. The stairs are in front of me, but I smell something. And it’s not key lime pie.

Slowly, I force myself into our room. Opening the door, I see… no. This can’t be real. I’m seeing… I see him. But it can’t be him. He would never do this, not now! But… I see my husband-to-be, lying in bed with blood soaking the covers. There’s a knife skewered in his chest, making him look like a human shish-kebab. I run to the bathroom to vomit… and when I come back ready to call the police, the body’s gone.

***

My fiancée is standing in the door, but she’s not my fiancée, not really. I don’t know why, but she’s different. She looks like a twisted, warped version of herself, like a bad drawing. Is the terror doing this? Will it not allow different versions of the same person to be in the room? Is it just messing with me, to make me think she’s really gone? One thing’s for sure — she sees something. And she’s ran away, leaving me to stare at her corpse. Alone, again.

***

I knew he was there. The image was burnt in my mind, him with the blade buried in his chest, the sheets clinging onto his corpse. What made me run was when he turned his head to look at me. Did he somehow crawl away? No, the carpet looks fine… wait. There’s a trail of blood towards me. I feel a hand on my shoulder, holding me in place. It feels cold as a corpse.

***

“Please!” I beg her. “You can do anything to me, but don’t touch her!” She looks at me and smiles, a wave of blood gushing out of her mouth onto my fiancée’s shoulder. She puts a rotting hand on her neck, me shaking my head with tears streaming down my face. The love of my life is dragged away by her own corpse. I’m alone again. There’s been a nagging feeling in my gut all along that something like this would happen. I thought it was harmless, thought it was just a vision. But now I’ve paid the price for keeping it a secret, and that price… is the worst price of all.

***

I feel cold, so cold. It’s like a numbness, like I’ve descended into the depths of the earth. My eyes see nothing but him. He’s standing in front of me, smiling. As soon as I first saw that smile, I knew this wasn’t him — the real him. It may sound crazy, but it’s true. His smile was warm and sweet, like a mug of hot cocoa. This… thing’s smile felt mocking, taunting, as if saying, “You’re mine now.” Nothing is right about this grin. And if I do know something about this ordeal, it’s that I can’t escape.

***

My visions have come back, but she’s changed. She knows she no longer needs to be wounded to torture me. She opens the door, fresh faced and smiling, bringing me pictures of my fiancée, bruised and battered. Every time I beg for her to stop, save her, but each time, with malicious glee, she shakes her head. It’s like she relishes my fear, savoring every bit of it like a delicacy. The torture has gone too far, too fast. I need to take action.

***

It feels like it’s been days, months, years since I’ve been trapped in this place. The cold still bites my bones. The thing still burns my eyes. It left for stretches of time, hauling its mangled body away. When it came back, though, was when the worst of this living hell manifested. It brought newspapers, reports on my search, pictures of the house, and worst of all… my husband-to-be, staring into nothingness, with a look in his eyes that was so hollow, so pained. Agony. Sheer agony is the only way to describe this feeling spreading throughout my body.

***

This night, when she comes, I’m prepared. I have a tripwire rigged on the door with exposed floor underneath. As soon as she comes sauntering in, the wire trips her. She lands headfirst, cracking her skull. As soon as that happens, I realize what I’ve done. The screaming sounds just like her, prompting me to rush over, but I’m trapped in bed. The wounded abomination finally stands up, still smiling, blood coating the right side of its face. It wipes the blood away, grinning from ear-to-ear. That wound. It was the one I saw each night, the one that tortured me for so long… I made that wound.

***

Please, can someone help. Please, can someone help. I need help. Please, can someone help. I need help. Come help. Please, can someone help. I need help. Come help. Help. Can someone help. I need help. Need help. Help. Someone help. I need help. Need help. Help. Help. Need help. Come help. Help. Help. Help. Come help. Help. Help. Help. Pain. Agony. Cold. Thing. Bruise. Fiance. Smile. Help. Help. Help. Help…

***

She doesn’t come as much anymore, but when she does, she’s standing against the wall. At first it wasn’t much. She stared a little, winked a bit, nothing as bad as before. But after about the third night of docility, it decided to up the ante. Slumping down, the wounds from before formed at an accelerated rate, her “corpse” rotting, turning into a pile of snow-white bones. But eventually, after a few hours, a familiar, terrifying scent filled the room. It was the smell of key lime pie.

***

i can feel him                    coming

           doesn’t matter                cold my finger is gone

                       lonely so lonely what will he bring now

more pictures       why is he          stop don’t come

          leave me alone             don’t care if i’m lonely

                            help me    please

  need you            miss you       love you

                             did you eat the pie?

FREEZINGFREEZINGFREEZINGFREEZINGFREEZINGFREEZINGFREEZINGFREEZING.

crap                  i lost my finger i can’t make pie now

***

Since I felt down, I decided to paint the room. I haven’t been focusing on my waking life lately because of the night terrors. The garage was filled with cobwebs because I usually biked everywhere. I brushed away the dust, choking a little at the thick film of dirt and water on the painting supplies. The only thing in usable shape was the paint scraper, so I decided to go to Tool House for more paint. Maybe I could get a little dust off the car, which we never use anyway. Starting up the old Karavan, I drove to the store to get a roller and some paint.

***

i can  almost              taste it

             the thing                   said it would

                          get me         some

                                                                 oatmeal…

i don’t like oatmeal…

***

I’ve finally finished the trip, procuring some mild-colored yellow paint (called Sleepy Lemon), and a paint roller. As I get out my slightly rusty paint scraper, I reflect on what’s happened up to now. Okay, let’s do this…

    THINGS I KNOW

 

  • The thing has taken my fiancée.

 

  • The thing can somehow take pictures/make images of my fiancée.
  • The thing has her in a chair.
  • I am somehow making the wounds that were on the thing.
  • If the thing appears with my fiancée, the fiancée’s appearance is slightly warped.
  • Oh, what’s this?

I see a door above my head. An attic… is this real? I creak the door open, and a blast of cold, musty air hits my face, making me gag.

***

someone

here

is

below

***

I’ll go downstairs to get a flashlight. I walk down and hear something in the kitchen. What… it’s the thing. I can’t move. It looks just like her, with even her head bobs the same, but there’s one thing that’s different — no humming. Instead, silence. It’s never appeared during the day. I let out a small squeak, and as it whips around, the boiling pot (is that oatmeal?!) spills on the thing’s apron. I hear a hissing sound, internally flinching, but since I can’t move, I’m forced to watch the clothes and flesh melt off of the thing’s chest, leaving a bloody and exposed rib bone.

***

i can hear myself scream. what’s going on? it’s not me. at least, i don’t think it’s me…

***

It’s leaving. I need to get the flashlight and run. I take the light, run up, and kick the door open.

***

what is that? i see light flooding out from under a door. the thing doesn’t use a flashlight…

***

That’s a lot of doors. I should explore. I open one and see something that makes me terrified. It’s a room that looks almost industrial, with exposed concrete walls and fluorescent lights. The one thing that scares me is the bloody handprints on the walls. They looked like they were gripping onto something, with some of them dragging down to the bottom of the room. Then I look down. The floor is almost pulsating, and I instantly know what had happened. I don’t take a closer look, slamming the door. What the hell is this place?

***

Closing my eyes, I try to process what happened. It looked normal, but inside it wasn’t. I’ve got to get out of here… but I can’t. The attic door is gone, and I only see solid floor. The only way out must be behind one of these doors, none of which I want to open. What should I do?

***

no… don’t…

***

I decide to open the door next to the one I opened… and saw my childhood bedroom. What? Why is this here? I look around, and everything is exactly the same. Everything but the little boy outside my window. I’m distressed, not knowing what to do… so I open the window. Big mistake. There’s a black space outside my window that feels unnervingly empty. I look behind me, and my room is burning, falling apart just like it did in the fire. I run to the door, closing it behind me as a rafter crashes down from the ceiling. This place doesn’t just mess with your life. It messes with your mind.

***

leave. if i’m going to die, i want you to be safe. please. listen, i love you. that’s the reason i said yes to your proposal. you’re a kind, brave, and selfless person who would do anything for me. but this time, you can’t. this isn’t a rip current or an angry parent. this is supernatural. if you die… i won’t ever be able to be happy again. so for once, let me handle this on my own.

***

I feel her. I don’t know how, but I feel her. My fiancée is in here somewhere. Is this where the thing hid here? Is she okay?! I need to save her. I open the door… and see what I would describe as a lounge. Beanie chairs and pillows are everywhere, with Chinese lanterns floating around. There’s music playing, with a soft lilting feel to it. I know there’s something behind this, so I toss my flashlight into the room. Then, I notice the music speeding up. I plug my ears, and the flashlight explodes, leaving a small pile of ash.

***

what’s that noise? i hear a small explosion. is he okay?

***

Wow. The worst thing about it is that I’m in the dark now. I decide to open the fourth door, and I can’t see anything. “Hello?” My voice echoes. It seems to be pretty small, so I tentatively step in. I feel a pounding beat, which makes it so that I can’t stand well. It echoes throughout the room as I make my way towards the wall. As I put my hand on the wall, it feels… spongy. I touch it, and it bounces back slightly. In disgusted horror, I realize what’s on the walls — human flesh.

***

oh no

***

I hightail it out of there, ready to vomit. Where did it even come from?! I hesitate to open the last door and see ice. It’s everywhere, coating the room — no, it is the room. As I slide through the room, looking back at the door, a terrifyingly familiar feeling fills the pit of my stomach. I run, but as soon as I make a couple steps, I can’t move anymore. The thing is behind me. Is this really happening? Is it going to kill me?

***

i can see him, with the thing trying to deliver the killing blow. with the last of my voice, i scream.

***

She’s here. The thing took her, stole her from me. It stole the love of my life. And as the unbridled rage fills me, I turn my head to look at the thing and whisper, “You’re dead.” I stand up and prepare to fight. As the thing rushes towards me, I slide out of the way, the momentum carrying me towards the wall, and see her, a huge window shining behind her. She’s staring at me, looking near-frozen. The thing is darting around, screeching hysterically.

***

he’s fighting it. he’s doing this for me. i can feel tears welling up in my eyes, but they freeze, so i just sob.

***

I grab the thing’s shoulders, sliding forward toward the window, past the ice, past my fiancée, and into the pane of glass. It shatters the glass, falling into the void below. I held onto a chunk of ice, feeling nearly unconscious. My fiancée looks at me, sobbing, and we’re back in my room, on the floor, together.

 

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” I say back.

“Want some pie?”

 

Born to Die (Young)

There’s a glock in my hands, and I look at it. I weigh it, shifting it from one hand to the other, letting them crack under the pressure and fall as the gun swivels each time whatever Drake song is playing drops a beat. It might be “God’s Plan” or something. I’m not sure. Even though that came out in January, back when I was in Quebec City skiing with my friends and I didn’t have a semi-automatic pistol made to kill in my hands.

But things change. Oh well, whatever.

I lay the pistol flat on the square ends of the marble sink and stare at myself in the mirror, running my hands through blue hair and pining for July to be over. The tattooed letters on my fingers and rose on my cheek stare back at me, and if those didn’t tell you I think I’m something, the electric blue hair I’m kicking definitely should. It’s fake, obviously. So it doesn’t fade or anything. It’s just there, draping down to my ribcage in strands, as blue as it was two weeks ago when I swapped the pink out for something different.

I look… I place my fingers to my temples and lock hazel eyes with myself, daring to finish that thought. I look rough. I wouldn’t have been caught dead like this four years ago. It’s just some black ripped jeans, a camisole, and high tops. It’s a fine outfit. But it’s just that. It’s just fine. Fame does some crazy things to you, man. Some part of me shakes thinking a paparazzi is going to find me in this bathroom at a random party and post an article about how I’m “letting myself go.”

I look at the gun. I’m doing a lot of things — I shift my gaze to the tiled ceiling and lick my lips — but letting myself go is not one of them. If only they knew. Haha. I can’t imagine how many articles they’d write on my “questionable role model status.”

BREAKING NEWS: 23-Year-Old Singer, Jolee Theodora Ortiz, Stage Name: Common Daisy, Charged With Illegal Possession Of Firearm, Sentencing Awaits.

And then they’d have two or so pictures of me bent on a cop car with cuffs being snapped on. If that ever happens, I have to smile. For the camera. Or stick my tongue out, you know, something dumb like that — no matter what I’m going down for. I made a dare with Leslie a million years ago, and I do what I say I’m going to do. My strategy so far has just been to not get arrested.

I’m not doing so good at that now, though. I wince, realizing my problems definitely wouldn’t just end at being caught. I put my body weight into my arms and push off the counter, leaning into the closed toilet behind me, taking up as much space as physically possible. Usually I just wait for someone to knock or something. I’m not all that eager to leave anyway.

In the meantime I close my eyes and listen to the music. I’m so far, and yet it’s still so, so loud. But it sounds exactly how party music from a bathroom should sound. That’s familiar to me by now. Like home. It’s kind of calming — I mean I’ve been going to parties like these since I was thirteen. I can’t tell if they’ve gotten worse or better since then. The more I grow up, the more those lines become blurred.

Quickly I realize it’s “Nice For What.” As popular and played out as it is, it’s still a great song.

A woody thud echos in an empty room.

The door shakes as someone bangs on it ridiculously hard. My heart drops to my stomach — oh god, I think to myself before moving, if they break it down right now, I’m infinitely done for. There’s a gun — an illegal gun — that is not my gun, out right there on the sink, and here I am just sitting waiting to be caught and rot in prison.

I scramble to stand up, put the gun behind my belt, and open the door in one motion. My entire body shakes all over as I do so.

Parting my lips and widening my eyes, to say “Heyyy you scared me haha” or “could you hit it any harder,” or “sorry,” or any variation of that, I frown when I realize who it actually is. My best friend. My best friend trying to scare me, because we’re best friends, and because he thrives off of other people’s discomfort and milliseconds of fear right after he yells behind them in a staircase.

The best way I can describe the awful grin he has on his face right now is :). But evil. >:).

“HEY,” he says cupping his mouth to amplify that nothing word, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

Everything in parties is always in caps.

I think. What am I doing here. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” I redirect. I am left answerless.

“LOOKING FOR YOU!”

“YOU’RE WEIRDDDDD,” I say stretching out the the end to make it stand out.

YOU’RE WEIRD!”

“HOW?”

“HIDING ALONE. IN A PARTY. THAT’S WEIRD.”

“STALKING ME IN A PARTY IS WEIRDER.”

“NO IT ISN’T.”

“YEAH. IT IS.”

His eyebrows furrow down at me. If I wasn’t craning my head back at a 90° angle, I’d be staring right at the rose print on his left breast pocket. I’m not even short. In fact I’m kind of tall for a girl, I’m 5’7”, but Leslie is just something else. Standing at a hard 6’3” on an easy day, him and his pale skin and shaggy bleached hair tower over me. If I didn’t grow up with him and watch him go through every inch below what he’s at now, I’d almost be scared of him. He’s not a scary dude, just tall and cocky. But it works.

He grabs my wrist. His chipped black nail polish and the orange gels I got yesterday almost go nicely together, despite the infinite differences. “LETS GO?”

I shrug, and he starts taking me through the party, doing the hard parts for me. He pushes past moshes of bodies, people who should be here and people who shouldn’t. Guys and girls. Tall people. Short people. Mediums. I see some people I know, occasionally I wave or do a peace sign or something, but most of them aren’t looking my way or at me. I see the guy I got the gun from. I should have thanked him more. He could be taller than Leslie, and he’s a big body — just… I can tell he lifts. I picked up that it probably isn’t just a hobby. It’s not like he has tear drops or anything, but I mean I just texted him asking for a gun, and he was like, got u. He didn’t even ask what for. Just said he was coming here, and I was like same, and then he was like meet me in the back, and I was like okay, and now I have a gun.

I promised myself I wouldn’t get mixed up with guys like that in high school. But he isn’t bad. I’m sure he made that same promise to himself when he was fourteen or so. You realize something as you grow up, though. Most of the bad guys you’re scared of aren’t really bad. I don’t believe anyone is just wholly bad. Some of them are born into it, or don’t have a choice — sometimes that’s just the way things are, and some of them just did it because everyone else was doing it.

I look away from him and listen to the music for a second.

“I understand, you got a hunnid bands

You got a baby Benz, you got some bad friends

High school pics, you was even bad then”

I don’t really think I’m interpreting that right, but that’s the thing about good artists. Their songs become yours. That’s the type I always wanted to be. My lyrics become what you’ve been trying to say your whole life.

Whether or not the artist originally meant bad as in bad, I took it that way. I think eventually you have to stop and think about whether you have bad friends, or if you just have friends. If you go at it long enough, things change.

“You either die a hero… ”

Anyway, he has olive skin, and his hair’s orange or something. He’s a nice guy. I think he’s got some songs out too, we could collab or something.

If I live to see it that is.

My sweaty hands trace the phone in my pocket, suddenly remembering why I have metal pressed against my hip and met him in the first place. I’ve never been more scared in my life, and nobody knows it.

And nobody knows it.

God, I don’t know how Leslie’s acting fine. I know he’s scared. How could you not be? If I could fake feelings that good, I’d never have the media on me. But I can’t. And that’s why I do.

All. The. Time.

You never see anything about Leslie Dean Gustav in the news. Even if you did, they’d probably use his stage name, anyway. “The Wraithe.” I think it’s ‘cause the whole world likes him more. But I don’t have beef with him for that. He deserves it, and I know it.

Nausea in my stomach bubbles. My heartbeat starts to hurt. I don’t want him to die. He’s too good for this world, man. I know if he dies or I die or Olivia or the-guy-with-the-orange-hair dies, to the world it’ll just be another young, trash rapper who got what they deserved. Because we’re dangerous, right? Because we chose the wrong people and made the wrong decisions and set ourselves up to die young, and it’s our fault, and we got what we deserved, and you’re not sorry, and it was called for.

I wonder if they’d even investigate our deaths. It’s like… just because we’re not perfect, we’re not people. Like, I’m sorry your kid likes my songs with cusses in it. I’m sorry I do drugs and go to parties. I’m sorry you don’t think me and my friends are worthy of living in your world.

It wouldn’t matter so much if it was just me. But we’re all treated like this. My friends are good people… but nobody cares because we have tattoos, and they don’t like our music. Ugh.

I wonder how many other people got the text. I grit my teeth. I wonder how many other people I love are in danger.

Nobody deserves to die like that.

It taunts my mind. I wish the fact it was only a text made it less scary, but it doesn’t.

“I promise one of you will die tonight.”

I feel like crying and screaming and throwing myself on the floor, preaching how none of us asked to live the lives we live, and this is what we get… I want to point out how everyone in this room is under thirty, and any one of them could be in danger right now, with their life threatened. I want to be treated like a person. I want to do so much, but I can’t. If I tried to make a difference no one would care anyway. Ouch.

Leslie pulls me in front of Olivia, forcing me to smile — not because I’m being fake or anything. I just like Olivia. She’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, even if she’s at this party. Even though she’s just like me and the red-headed boy.

“HEYYYYYYYY!” she screams, flashing her perfect smile and using her her yellow gel nails to push back hair that falls on her shoulder tattoos. “I MISSED YOU.” I was gone for like… ten minutes.

I pull her into a hug. She could have been texted too. She could die tonight.

She smells like watermelon, and her breath tastes like ice cream. She’s soft. No matter how much she talks and how big she tries to come off as, she’s just soft and pretty and nice, and I love her. Everyone who’s ever really met her, loves her too.

“I MISSED YOU TOO,” I say, and I did. She pulls away, and in front of me the two people I care about most in the world stand, flashing in blue and red, smiling at me. God, if he towers over me, I can’t even explain what standing next to her looks like. Olivia is 5’3”. I tower over her. He is a foot taller than her.

And yet despite their differences, they still get along. Neither one of them wants the other dead because they’re different. Wild…

Leslie does the circle-hand thing we used to do in middle school from under his waist and catches her, and lightly taps her in the shoulder. She uses every cuss in the book after that. She is angry and vengeful, yet still somehow beautiful.

“UGHHHHHHH!” she exclaims. I pull her close to me and put an arm around her, catching Leslie with the hand to that arm. I move her to the side, and jump, attempting to hit him in the face as hard as I possibly can. But I don’t do fight classes or anything, so he blocks it easy, and then we’re just roughhousing.

Olivia smiles and pets our heads. I can tell she’s about to go somewhere else. We’re all close, but in a different kind of way. She respects that. Just another reason why she’s perfect. “WELL, I’LL SEE YOU GUYS LATER, OKAY?”

“SEE YOU,” Leslie and I say simultaneously. Because this is just a party. When it ends, everyone will group off with their actual friends and fall asleep in lofts and stuff. We will see her later.

And then I remember. Will I see her later?

I can feel myself start to get sick again. I wonder if other people can tell — do I look green? Or gray or white? Am I losing my color? Do I look like I’m about to break down, I mean, can people tell that I’m about to break down.

I think Leslie can. When I look from the floor up, I see his expression. It’s full of love and fear and empathy and compassion.

“HEY.” He pulls me up — not to eye level of course, but we almost were for a second. Almost.

“HEY.”

“LET’S GO OUTSIDE?”

That’s why we’re best friends. I smile to the floor and nod, the universal “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” and start to follow him. He grabs his flannel zipper hoodie, the one I steal in the winter, off the racks, and throws the door open. He could take me anywhere. Even though he’s just taking me to the dumpsters to talk or something, he could take me anywhere, and I’d let him. I trust him with my life. I would do anything for him. Anything, anything, anything.

Going down we stay close, but we’re mostly quiet, ‘cause there’s still a lot of people right outside the door and stuff. That must suck for whoever lives near here. Is that why people would let us die? Because we throw a lot of parties?

I guess I’ll never know.

The cool sting of the air hits me, and he throws his hoodie my way. Oh. He brought it for me.

“You’re my best friend… ” I say wondrously, deciding not to cage my thoughts for a second.

He smiles, sitting outside the exit door and motioning for me to sit down next to him.

“I know.”

He’s looking ahead of me, probably lost in thought too, and for a second I wonder if he really does know or not. I feel like “best friend” isn’t even a good enough title for what he is to me. More like… platonic soulmates. My soulmate. We’ve been through everything together, and if we hadn’t, I don’t think I’d be alive right now. I never say it, but I think he knows it. He’s just never cocky where it counts, you know? I love that about him.

It only makes sense we’d get our lives threatened by the same people together, too. Sad but true. Sad.

True.

I frown. “Hey man… ” He looks over and nods, his blue eyes piercing through me — but in a good way. A safe way. Somehow he makes blue eyes seem softer than they are. “Bro, I have a gun on me right now.”

His eyes kind of “gasp” if that makes sense. “No kidding…”

I clench my hands together. He doesn’t really have the right to be all that shocked or anything, considering our lives are in danger, so his reaction is lackluster. But it still hurts. I would consider it out of character for me, I know he does, but more and more I question that. Maybe I just changed characters. Maybe I’m the person I wouldn’t be in high school.

I purse my lips together and nod, feeling tears swell and choke me, knowing I won’t be able to say any other smart thing tonight. He pulls my head to his chest. We just sit for a while like that.

I cry, and then I stop. Everything is blotched. Nothing exists but us. I try my best to stop thinking about everything wrong with the world and focus on the good that surrounds me right here in this moment, but even when I do that, I just think about him dying. Us dying.

I notice he hasn’t stopped looking forward since we got here, so with his arm around me I pull away. I look where he’s looking. And then I see the billboard in spotlights.

I look back to him. He says nothing. His jaw is gritted, and his body around me is tense, though. I know that he’s lost in thought about now. I bury my head in the crook of his neck. Issa Kilman-West. He goes by Logan now. His fans know him as Logan.

But his best friends know him as “fake.”

It wasn’t just Leslie and I growing up. It wasn’t just Leslie and I till fairly recently, actually. That hurt for awhile. I’m lying. It still hurts now.

But I’d never let Leslie or Issa know that, because I can’t. I have one person now. And we have Olivia. But that’s different.

No matter how many of my childhood and teen or young adult memories are tainted with a human being I loved and love no longer, I have Leslie now, and that’s enough.

He really is in a lot of memories, though… just us three.

We got our first bad scrapes the same day together when we were ten and found a scooter. We slowly learned together that we lived in a bad place with bad families watching sitcoms, and Disney channel. We realized how different things were there. They were really different.

Issa and I were there every day Leslie got bullied — it got out he had kissed a boy, and we stood up for him. We tried. We were both scrawny and stupid and self-conscious, but we stood up for him. We loved him, and supported him. We were there when that boy broke his heart. Leslie and I helped Issa through addiction, and they shared taking me in when I couldn’t stay with my mom and the string of boyfriends I had to call dad, anymore. There will never be another person like Issa to me. Or to either of us.

But one day, he looked in the mirror and decided he just had friends. He didn’t want to be bad anymore. I didn’t think he was bad. Then.

But he hated the scrapes on his face and chains on his neck. So he left. And along with whether or not I thought he was bad, everything else changed too.

It was an unspoken thing, but back then, him and Issa were closer than us. It has to be harder on him. I hold him closer. He doesn’t react.

“I don’t think you’re bad,” I say into his chest, wondering if he can even hear me. “I’m sorry.”

My apology is on Issa’s behalf. He never said sorry, so I say it all the time.

And so we’re in silence again. Sometimes crying, sometimes not. And then I hear it. A gunshot.

A ricochet to the sidewalk. Loud. Booming. Terrifying and horrible, I realize that no one upstairs could hear us over Drake, and no one around here is up. One of us is going to die. One of us is going to die.

I hope it’s me.

It was stupid of us to come out here. It was stupid to think we had the privilege of being safe on a sidewalk. I reach for the gun, but my hands are shaking, and I was too scared some five hours ago to realize I don’t even know how to use it. But I can try. Or I can give it to him. Or I can just collapse into a ball and ready myself for whatever Hell I’m going to.

He pulls me up immediately, placing me behind him as he takes the glock from me and leans on the wall. That’s as much as I can describe. Everything after that is nothing. It’s too loud and too fast, and I want to cry too much, but I can’t. I can’t even breathe. I think Olivia comes. And someone else, maybe… does it matter? But the next thing I know I’m holding my best friend in my arms backwards, and he’s alive, but his blood makes my camisole red.

Olivia’s face is an inch from mine when I look up. She isn’t smiling anymore. She’s covered in blood. Her mascara is dripping off her cheeks, and she presses her cold hand to my forehead. She’s saying something, but I can’t hear her. I can’t even tell if there’s a ringing in my ears or not. I can’t hear anything. I can just see… God I can see, everything.

She uses both her hands to comb my hair behind my ears, and she motions for me to stand up. But I can’t. So whatever male figure is behind her puts his phone away, picks Leslie up, and takes his shirt off. He starts ripping it into little pieces, focusing on one area close to his left shoulder but not quite.

Oh. He’s trying to stop blood circulation. Because my best friend was shot. And they don’t want him to die. Leslie and I watched Grey’s Anatomy together. I know that. Most of the time there are two patients in every episode, and one of them dies. I can’t feel my body anymore. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

The red-headed boy with my gun in his back pocket looks to me, then to Olivia, and he says something I can’t hear. I think he asked for help. I think his name is Darryl. Olivia leaves my side. I would crawl over, too, if I wanted to see what my bloodied up in pain or unconscious best friend looks like. But I don’t. So I sit, and I stare blankly in his hoodie.

I can’t swallow anymore. Leslie isn’t a kid. He’s twenty-four. He failed Spanish four years in a row and barely graduated. But he isn’t stupid. He tried in school. I watched him for fourteen years. Try.

He had freckles growing up, and his hair was corn yellow. He gets sunburnt and not tanned. He falls in love too easily. He’s never satisfied with the music he makes. Clothes don’t make him happy. The fame didn’t change him. He’s not a bad person. He’s not a bad person.

Bad people get shot. Bad people get shot by bad people, and they die. Usually. Most of the time.

But Leslie isn’t a bad person. Leslie isn’t a bad person. He’s my soulmate. He’s my best friend. But Leslie just got shot.

They won’t use his name in the articles. They’ll use “Wraith,” and call him a mumble rapper with a few hit songs, and they’ll say, “died young.” They might even call him a druggie. Or a thug. They won’t talk about how he lights up when he smiles, or how he wants to save kids from killing themselves the way he wanted to growing up. They won’t talk about me. Or Issa. They’ll ask us for one sentence, and then in a year, everyone will forget, but the people who actually loved him will remember.

I watch them take him in the ambulance. Part of me is furious they didn’t ask me to go with him, but I couldn’t. I have a feeling they’re sending another one for me or something. I don’t think I was hurt. If someone was rating me physically, I’d probably be a ten.

But sitting on the cold cement, leaning on a brick wall, I feel anything but fine. I don’t even think I have a feeling. I’m not crying, I’m not screaming, I’m not angry, I’m not sad. I’m not thinking about my bleeding friend. I can’t remember what happened. I realize I’m probably in shock. Olivia and the redhead boy drive away in the same direction as the ambulance, and they leave me there.

Why am I alone? Why did they leave me here?

I don’t care. I would put myself in a ball right now, with my head in my knees, but I can’t use my body. So I just sit. I hope I die here.

I feel tires screech against the road. Almost annoyed, I look to the left and see black Vans and black pants. They’re ripped, but skinny fit and almost formal. I look up a bit. A black tee shirt, and black hair. Black eyes. Issa.

There’s the man I hate most in the world, right in front of me, but all at once I don’t want to cuss him out. I don’t hate him. He looks a lot cleaner now… but he looks a lot more broken. A line of tears falls down his steady face. Guess he knows. I look up at him, and my eyes say everything I can’t.

“What are you doing here?”

Anyone else in the world would check to make sure I’m okay or ask me a million questions that I can’t hear… or apologize. Try to fix things. I haven’t seen him since we were twenty-one.

But without saying anything, he picks me up and pulls me to his chest. He’s 6’0’. I almost reach his neck.

That’s what best friends do. They know what you need more than yourself.

He feels like home. He smells like he did when we were ten, and I thought I got married and then got divorced to Jack from school in the same day, and when I was sixteen and had to move out, and suddenly I’m not angry at him. Not even just not surface angry, but deep in my soul, in my heart, in my being, I’m not angry at him. I’m not hurt by him. I even hope he doesn’t feel guilty. He wanted to fix himself, and I understand that. For the first time, I realized he probably missed us as much as we unspokenly missed him. He loves us.

If Leslie dies, he’ll die angry at Issa. That’s so much weight to carry. I hold him tighter, using my body. I wish I could tell him that Leslie still loved him. Deep down I still loved him too. I can’t say I was ever really, really mad… and then I repeat that. If Leslie dies. If Leslie dies. If Leslie dies if Leslie dies if Leslie dies if Leslie dies if Leslie dies.

Immediately I miss not having any emotions. I can feel the heat build up in my stomach, and tears start hitting his shirt before I even know I’m crying. Then I’m not crying, I’m sobbing. Wailing. Holding him as tight as I can, I’m happy I can’t hear myself. All I can do is scream and cry and put all my body weight into him, so he supports me up. If he got shot, Leslie and I would be right there, too. If he ever called us, we’d be there. He almost lost both of us.

I have never cried so deeply in my life. I can’t stop, I can’t breathe, I can’t feel the tears forming. I can feel my ugly crying noises shake my body, and I can feel his tears hit the top of my head, too. Even through the fake blue. I pound his chest with my knuckles.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair it’s not fair it’s not fair it’s not fair.

I struggle for air. I think I hear Issa say he’s sorry. I run my hands through his dreads.

It’s okay.”

I open my eyes, and all I see is darkness. And all I feel is cold and soaked. I promise, I think to myself, and if I could speak, I would say it — I promise the world will rue this day. I promise I’m going to do everything in my power and use every ounce of influence I have to make everybody know that everybody is worthy of life. I’ll fight for it. I will die for it.

The world is cold but not this cold. Something has to change. Snot runs down from my nose.

I purse my lips together. Issa and Leslie and I. We’re gonna change this world.

They won’t use his name in the articles. But I’ll use it in mine.

Nobody deserves to die like that.

 

Morty’s

There were many documented experiences of people who survived the voyage from Germany and other war-affected countries to America, but this is one that truly stood out. This is the story of a six-year-old boy named Yanek Levine, who journeyed to America by boat at the age of 10…

 

It all started the day Mother insisted that we wore bands with a star on our arms and pins on our school uniforms. Mother told me that it meant that I was extra special and not to ever take it off. My three best friends whose fathers were often picking up their tailored suits at my father’s shop no longer talked to me. While I was inside reading a book with my papa, my friends Louis, Leon, and Noah were with their fathers on the street corner, monitoring our neighborhood where everybody wore an arm band. Except for them.

In the coming weeks, even more stiff soldiers with red armbands began lining our streets. Every time we passed them, Papa squeezed my hand extra tight, and I did the same to him because I thought it was a game. When I went to Papa’s tailor shop with him, the same soldiers walked in to pick up their uniforms, but Papa did not seem to take any money like he usually did with other customers, and he didn’t smile either.

The tension really started picking up when Papa and Mama were making latkes for our neighbor’s Bar Mitzvah. As I was getting ready for bed, we received a knock on our door from our neighbor, Henrike. He muttered something in Hebrew to my father. Immediately afterward, Father pulled his yarmulke off of his head and clutched it in his fist, close to his heart. I slowly stepped back into my room, and all that I could hear was the wailing sounds of the sirens and the piercing sounds of bombs cascading through the sky and falling around us. Moments later, stern German words from angry Nazi soldiers invaded my home. I wondered if they were the same Nazis that watched our every move. As I was hiding in the closet of my room, the voices became louder and louder. I could see the tip of a rifle poking my belongings. From the kitchen I could hear my mother screaming my father’s name in Polish —

“Wake up! Wake up!”

Then a bang suddenly silenced her too.

 

When there were no more polished boots shuffling around my flat, I climbed out of the broken window and onto the street where the smell of fire filled the air and ash trickled down from the sky. Giant trucks drove past me loaded with frightened people anxiously wondering where they were headed. I knew my mother told me never to take the armband off, but I felt the need to. I ran past Papa’s tailor shop, but found that it had been destroyed. I stood motionless, staring at what was left of his humble business, until I heard loud men screaming in German and dogs barking rabidly. I ran and ran until I reached the Baltic Sea, which was several miles away from my home. I sat near the edge of the ocean and from my pocket I pulled out a latke that my mama had given me before I went to my room. I began to eat it. With every bite, I thought of her more, and my heart felt heavy with memories. In the haze and confusion of the night, I fell asleep.

I was abruptly woken up by the sound of a man yelling from a boat. I quickly got up and almost ran in the opposite direction because I thought the soldiers were coming after me, but the man threw a blanket in my direction, so I sensed he was nice. I was still a little uneasy, so I slowly walked over to him. All of a sudden out of nowhere a little kid appeared from behind him. He was speaking German. I couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but I grabbed the blanket as the father reached his hand out toward me and pulled me onto the boat. On the boat, I studied the little boy and noticed that he looked about my age and had blonde hair and blue eyes unlike me. My curly brown hair fell just above my green eyes. The boy, Abe, motioned me downstairs to the bottom of the boat where other Jewish families were quietly huddled together. We arrived at nearby location where we picked up another woman. The lady grabbed Abe and gave him a kiss. His eyes lit up, and I could sense she was his mom. I saw their warm exchange and felt a sense of jealousy because I yearned for the safety of my mom’s arms. The kind man docked the boat in front of a small stone house. He aided everyone get off the boat. We all walked up a pathway where the mom took everyone else into a bunker and told Abe to bring me inside their home. Abe initially just looked at me but did not respond.

The mom became firm and said again in German, “Take him in the house now!”

Once we arrived in the house, they set me up in Abe’s room with him.

That night as we ate dinner around the table, the mom in a soft voice said, “You are one of us now too.”

As the dad looked over, he stopped eating his mashed potatoes and rustled my hair and smiled.

After one year of finally settling into my new life, news got out that the Nazis were starting to invade nearby towns. Fearing that we were in danger, we got back onto the boat with the other families who had been staying in the bunker. As we set sail, the water became choppy, and ships started coming our way. One ship came too close and overturned our small boat. Before we knew it, we were tied up to a post on the larger German ship. The ship quickly docked and brought us to a camp that I now know was constructed to work us to death. We were separated by men, women, and children. My curly hair fell at my feet as my hair was shaved off. They took my clothes and gave me an oversized prisoner’s uniform, which had blue and white stripes on it. I was beaten every time I stepped out of line or did not finish my work details. I was given broth and hard bread to eat which made it very hard to function since it was my only meal for the entire day. What scarred me the most though was watching the other prisoners get tortured to death especially, Abe.

This monotonous pattern of my day to day life lasted nearly three years. On May 8, 1945, the guards had woken us up early and shuffled us out of the camps as far as they could. All of a sudden, they brought us to a halt and forced us to kneel down, and they started executing random prisoners, but in the midst of all of this chaos planes flew from overhead, and shots were fired not at us this time but at the guards. We all looked at each other trembling in both fear and jubilation. Moments later, the area was surrounded by French soldiers who took us to a displaced persons camp in Austria.

The conditions were far better than what I had experienced in the Dachau, concentration camp, north of Berlin but were still rather challenging. For example, we were provided clothes and food, but it was difficult to recuperate. Many suffered from malnutrition and other diseases that they acquired at their camps, and nearly everyone was suffering from posttraumatic stress. One of the French soldiers named Abrial who oversaw the camp took a special interest in me and helped me find distant family in America.

During the war, only 16,000 individuals were allowed into the America. However, after the war, under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, I along with 205,000 DP’s and 17,000 orphans were permitted entry into the United States. I was brought before a board in Hamburg, Germany where I was screened to make sure that I was suitable for entering the country. I suppose I passed the interview because a few weeks later I boarded a C-4 Troopship headed toward America. The voyage was estimated to take ten days. The mood on the ship was bittersweet. Many were aware that they were leaving their country where they were raised as well as a very dark past. Yet we looked forward to starting a new life.

On the tenth day we arrived in America, I was greeted by my aunt and all of my distant relatives. The only time they had seen me was in pictures before the war had begun. As I looked deep into her eyes I could see my mother’s reflection, and I knew that I was going to be okay.

My new life in Pennsylvania was exactly what I needed to recuperate. I was able to lean on the sewing skills that my papa had taught me as a young child back in Poland. Sewing helped me block out the bad memories of the war and brought me closer to Papa. Sewing indirectly saved my life at Dachau too because the soldiers’ uniforms often needed mending. After graduating high school in Pennsylvania, I met the love of my life, Linda. We moved to New York City where I opened up my own tailor shop which I called Morty’s in honor of my father. Soon after Linda and I settled into our new life together, we had our first child — a boy, whom we named Abe. Abe Levine’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and kind heart will forever connect me to the Abe Müller that helped me persevere through one of the hardest times of my life.

 

Too Many Mistakes Made

“Hey,” I said on the phone. “Can I come over today?”

“You really should not. I’m sick as hell. I think I’m coming down with the flu, and I don’t want to infect you,” said my boyfriend on the other line of the phone as he quickly hung up.

 

That was completely weird. He usually wouldn’t hang up the phone like that but whatever. I took my wallet and my car keys. I drove to Walmart and bought some over-the-counter medicine for the flu. I drove to Ryan’s house. His house front door would always be open, I was used to just walking in as if it was my own house.

 

I looked for Ryan all over the first floor. I couldn’t find him. I went upstairs to his room. He was probably in bed since he was sick. I entered, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Yes, he was cheating. I just couldn’t believe he was screwing my cousin. I just laughed at the whole situation. They separated and looked at me in a way you could tell they were really scared for their lives. I did not go crazy or anything.

 

I just pulled my thumb up and said, “So much for being sick.”

 

I left the house and got into my car. Instantly as I got in the car, I slammed my face into the steering wheel and screamed out. I drove off to Kiara’s house. I found myself in the basement my best friend had made into her room. I threw myself into her bed.

 

“Oh no, trouble in paradise. What happened between you and Ryan?” asked Kiara. You could tell in her voice she was so over me and Ryan’s bullshit. She sounded so sarcastic and annoyed.

“Nothing too serious, I just found him having sex with Lilly,” I answered sarcastically.

“Oh shit,” exclaimed Kiara in surprise. “But I thought she was your cousin.”

“Well, you thought right! Hell yeah she is my cousin, but she didn’t think of that before getting into bed with my now ex-boyfriend,” I said very angrily.

 

I kept quiet after. The silence in the room was so intense you could hear a needle falling to the floor but, I liked it that way. I don’t know how to feel or if I should feel anything at all. Am I crazy for not feeling hurt? I just feel empty inside. I should be mad and crying. It is the normal thing to feel in a moment like this one, but I don’t feel anything at all.

 

“Listen. It’s okay. Your cousin didn’t take much from you,” said Kiara as she was trying to seem calm, but her body language snitched on her. Anybody could tell she was worried, as her hands started to fidget, and she looked frightened.

“I’m good, don’t worry,” I said so calm that it was concerning due to what happened.

 

I just wondered why would he do that to me. If he wanted out, he could have said so. It’s like Lilly had half of me, and she was not even half of me. I mean, she totally is the opposite of my personality. She knew he was my boyfriend. She fucking knew, but she couldn’t keep her legs closed. Even your own family betrays you. I tried to keep calm and not cry, but I couldn’t. I ended up crying. I tried to be strong. I just couldn’t. In this moment, I felt so exposed. I usually wouldn’t cry in front of anybody. I didn’t want to be looked as weak, but goddammit I deserved this cry. Kiara looked at me, frozen. She didn’t know what to do. She won’t be the type of person that would be good to comfort you, but she will always be there, even if it meant only her presence.

 

“Calm down,” I said. “I’ll get over this. He is not the only guy in the world.”

 

I spent the rest of the day with Kiara. After just getting cheated on, I could still crack jokes with my best friend. I didn’t want to be alone, but I would have to leave at any moment. As I got home, I went right away to sleep, just to avoid thinking.

 

The next day I went to school. I wasn’t really excited to show up to school and see Ryan’s face. I made my way through the school, and to be honest, I was trying to avoid Ryan. I found Kiara, and I felt relieved.

 

“Can you make it less obvious that you are trying to avoid somebody?” asked Kiara as she laughed at me.

“Good morning to you too, asshole,” I said to my best friend.

 

Our other friends came, and we just stood there talking, waiting for first period to start. I plugged my headphones in, since I really didn’t feel like talking anymore. I was really concentrated into listening to The Chainsmokers until I felt Kiara poking me to death with her elbow.

 

“Oh my god! What do you want?” I asked Kiara as I angrily took my headphones off. “You know better, when I have my headphones on that means nobody talk to me.”

 

Kiara just pointed with her forehead. I looked at the direction she pointed, just to see Ryan’s stupid self walking towards us. I just looked away and laughed. Yeah, now everything is a joke. Ignoring his presence completely, I just plugged my headphones back in. Until I felt somebody’s arm around me.

 

“Excuse me,” I said, turning around to see Ryan’s face.

“Hello, baby cakes,” he said as he soundfully kissed my cheek.

“Now you got some nerve!” I yelled, catching a lot of people’s attention. “How can you just come here, kiss me on the cheek, and call me baby cakes when yesterday you were between my cousin’s legs? And get the hell away from me before I smack you.”

“You don’t have to act up, you overreacting,” he said while removing his arms off me.

“Boy, you were having sex with my cousin, and you got the nerve to say I’m overreacting. You must be out of your goddamn mind!” After I said this, Ryan just left, which I appreciate very much.

“So much for avoiding,” said Kiara while she laughed, and I laughed with her even though I was so mad steam could come out of my ears.

 

Months went by, and I just made myself busy, focused on my school work and going out with Kiara to the volleyball court, and I also found myself talking to Ryan’s friend. I know, you don’t have to go on and on about how bad of an idea this is. Kiara is making sure of it.

 

“I’m just saying if you are stupid enough to continue with that decision, go ahead, but you are being stupid,” said Kiara for the 400th time in one hour.

“It’s not like I’m marrying the guy, I’m just having a little fun. You need to loosen up a little bit,” I said to Kiara.

“Okay, you are not marrying him, but still you are leading him on, and he is Ryan’s friend. That is just plain stupid, and just because you got cheated on, doesn’t mean you get to play with somebody else.”

“I’m playing him or leading him on,” I lied.

“Are you planning on having something serious with him?” asked Kiara while giving me a death stare.

“Chill chica, if looks could kill, and I don’t want nothing serious with him, are you crazy?” I laughed.

“Then you are so leading him on!” Kiara yelled at me. “You know how it feels to be played. Don’t do that to the guy. He is really nice, unlike Ryan. He doesn’t deserve it,” said Kiara while grabbing my phone and blocking Ryan’s friend’s number.

“You didn’t have to block Anthony! At least you could let me give the guy an explanation of why I’m not talking to him,” I complained.

“Any talking you want to do, you could do it in front of me, so I know you’re going to end this and not lead him on anymore, and by the way, Ryan is calling.” She passed my phone, but I looked at it ring until the call ended. “Why didn’t you answer?”

“Do I look like I want to talk to the bastard that cheated on me with my cousin? I don’t want to hear his lame excuses. There are a lot of girls willing to forgive, but I’m not one of them,” I said angrily.

“You see, that is one decision I support,” said Kiara.

 

We left the volleyball court since it was about to close. As soon as I got home, I unblocked Anthony and texted him.

Me: Hey there

Anthony: Hey, you finally out?

Me: Yeah, the court was about to close, so we had to go home

Anthony: Can I come over?

Me: Don’t

Anthony: Why

Me: I’m going to take a shower and then I’m heading off to sleep

Anthony: But it’s early, don’t go to sleep

Me: It’s 11 o’clock, get it together Anthony LOL, go to sleep

Anthony: Fine, TTYL.

 

After taking a shower, I can assure that I didn’t go to sleep. I ordered some pizza and watched Grey’s Anatomy. I got so lost watching the TV show, every time I said I would go to sleep, I ended up watching one more episode. It happened like 20 times, but when I was finally going to sleep, my alarm went off. I stayed up all night watching Grey’s Anatomy, and I had a geometry test today!

I rushed out of my house, regretting the decision I made last night. I should have gone to sleep!

 

I was already in a bad mood since I didn’t get to sleep, now add a geometry test to that. My stress level was as high as it would have ever been. During the test I couldn’t concentrate, every sound irritated me, and the teacher’s voice irritated me more than the usual. I couldn’t remember any formulas, so I failed this test. I know I failed because I fell asleep halfway through the test. My teacher woke me up by slamming his hand on my desk, which didn’t contribute to my humor. I got out of the classroom to find Kiara, I couldn’t find her anywhere, so I decided to text her

 

Me: Where are you?

Me: ?

Me: Answer

Kiara: I’m by the library

Me: I’m on my way there

Kiara: K.

 

I made my way through the school, and to be completely honest with you guys, I am so in love with the structure of the school. I loved the detailed spiral columns we had, and I loved the detailed white flowers in the corners of the ceiling and the beige walls! The place seems so magnificent to be a school. It gives you the vibe of an old museum. I admired the details in the building as I made my way through school to the library. As I got to the library, I could see Kiara hanging outside of the library.

 

“Can you come over here?” I yelled at Kiara. I really didn’t feel like walking anymore. My feet were killing me, my back hurt like it never did before, and the classroom tables were not the comfiest place to sleep on.

“You look like total crap,” said Kiara as soon as she got to me. “Why didn’t you sleep last night?”

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I’ve known you for a long time, don’t you think I know almost every aspect of you? Now answer, why didn’t you sleep last night?” asked Kiara again.

“I stayed up watching Grey’s Anatomy,” I answered shamefully.

“Quick question, have you gotten over what happened with Ryan? You haven’t talked about it ever since it happened,” Kiara looked at me with intrigue.

 

I really couldn’t give an answer. I wasn’t over it. In fact, I was still hurting on the inside. Trying to distracting myself didn’t work. My mind would always make its way back to that damn day. I tried to forgive him. Maybe he did it because of something I lacked, but it wasn’t a good enough reason. I tried to forgive Lilly. She is my cousin, but in my eyes she is just a whore.

 

“I don’t know how I got over everything so easily,” I answered to Kiara, even though I wasn’t really over everything that had happened. I couldn’t see myself confessing. I was still hurt.

 

I quickly walked the streets in Manhattan, rushing to get home. I was excited. My mother finally came home from vacation. Well, it wasn’t a vacation. It was for three days, but they were the longest three days of my life!

As soon as I walked in, I could hear the merengue blasting in the speakers, and I could smell the Sancocho my mother was making in the kitchen. I missed my mother so much! It’s hard not having her around.

“Bendicion, Mom,” I said as I walked in the kitchen. Asking for your parents’ blessing was something Dominicans do.

“Dios te bendiga mija,” answered my mother while hugging me. “Listen, get ready. Food is almost ready, and your uncles and cousins are coming over to eat.”

When my mother said that, I just stood frozen. I was so frozen that I could actually take Princess Elsa’s part in the movie Frozen. What does she mean? My cousins are coming over? She must be kidding me! She better be! If that’s the case, it means Lilly will be here, and I don’t have the means to deal with her. I mean isn’t it ironic that she is named Lilly, when Lilly means purity, and she was screwing my boyfriend. So pure! As my mind comes back to earth, I could hear my mom calling my name like crazy.

 

“Amelia, muchacha, I’m talking to you,” said my mother very angrily. “Ese noviesito of yours is really having you acting stupid.”

“Actually, me and him are not dating anymore mom,” I said, and as soon as I said that, my mother hugged me. “I found him cheating on me.”

 

I saved the detail that he cheated on me with my cousin, I didn’t to bring any drama to the family, but if I knew that summer night was going to end up with Lilly getting with Ryan, I would never have invited her to our camping trip.

 

Rewind…

 

I decided to bring my cousin to a camping trip that my friends and I planned. I mean, she was going to be in my school next year. This would be a great opportunity for her to meet people and make friends. But she was more of a loner. She stayed by herself. As we began to light some wood on fire, my boyfriend came, late as always. He came up to me and kissed me, but I rushed him to introduce him to my cousin.

 

“So this is my cousin,” I said while I grabbed her by the arm. She looked kind of weird, but she was a shy person, so I didn’t pay much attention.

“What’s your name?” Ryan asked her, but she just kept quiet and stood frozen.

“Her name is Lilly. Excuse her, she tends to be really shy,” I said as Ryan and I walked away from her.

 

Present time…

 

I kept reliving the memory in my head. I stayed in my room. My mom didn’t bother me on going downstairs. I know she felt like I was going to break at any moment. But I wasn’t. I can’t deny that the betrayal from both parties made me feel downhearted, but I wasn’t going to let them break me.

 

I spent most of the evening hiding in my room. I knew Lilly was downstairs since I heard her voice. She really got some nerve coming here. If I was in her position, I would never show up to the girl’s house whose boyfriend I screwed.

 

Lilly’s POV…

 

I was really nervous, facing Amelia? After what I’ve done? That’s signing my own death certificate. I am hundred percent sure she is going to beat my ass. My mother insisted on me coming over since Amelia’s mom called with the chisme that Ryan cheated on her. She thought I could make her feel better. Apparently Amelia saved to herself that I was the girl she found Ryan with. Amelia didn’t come out of her room. Mother insisted on me going to her room, but I was ashamed.

 

“Go hang out with Amelia. You could really make her feel better,” said my mother.

“Quit insisting. If she hasn’t come out, that means she wants to be alone,” I quickly lied. I know I am the last person she wants to see right now.

“I’m not going to repeat myself, Lilly,” said my mother as she grabbed my arm and dragged me to my cousin’s room. She knocked the door.

My cousin said, “Come in!”

Mother doesn’t know that she is inventing a new kind of stupid right now.

“Mija, I told Lilly to come cheer you up, you know since what happened,” said my mother as she quickly pushed me into my cousin’s room. She just led me to my own death!

Amelia just looked at me like, “Really bitch?”

I am actually scared. My mother just left me alone with my murderer. I looked everywhere. I looked to the corner where a little trash can is, looked at the pink walls where she used to have some pictures of her and Ryan. She took them off. The last time I was here, before getting caught by Amelia, she had them. I looked at the ceiling. I looked at everything but her. I didn’t have the nerve to look at her or say anything.

“Why did you do it?” asked Amelia in her voice. You could hear a little bit of disappointment, but she was trying to seem calm. I didn’t have an answer, at least not a valid one.

 

Rewind…

 

My cousin insisted on bringing me here. I didn’t want to come, but if I didn’t, I would have to stay all by myself, so I decided to come along. I was pretty bored. The place was nice. The tall trees and the smell of the soil were fantastic, and the campfire was beautiful. We could see everybody around it sharing some s’mores. The only thing that sucked was the mosquitoes.

 

That’s when I saw him. The first thing I noticed about him was his eyes. Oh look at those eyes… The deep brown of his eyes made me feel completely helpless. His black, long hair pulled into a ponytail, his light skin, oh god! Every detail about him was so perfect. I tried to catch him just giving me a glance, but I saw him walking towards my cousin, and when he kissed her, my heart crushed. It exploded. My cousin approached me. He followed her. She told him I was her cousin. He asked my name, but his presence made me forget it. Why out of all the boys, I had to like the one that my cousin is dating? I can assure you I won’t be happy.

 

Present time…

 

“So, why did you do it? Why out of all the boys it had to be Ryan?” she asked.

“I am so sorry for any distress I’ve caused,” I apologized.

“Do you think you feeling sorry is going to fix anything? The damage is already done! It is hard to listen to you apologizing with a straight face,” she almost yelled at me, but I knew she didn’t want to draw any attention to what is happening in this room. If she was to beat me up, I would accept that ass whooping. I deserved it. She walked towards me. I really thought I was through, but she just walked out. I don’t know why, but I followed her to the living room.

“Why are you following me?” she yelled at me. “I don’t want you near me, don’t you get that?

“Okay, what is going on?” asked my aunt. “Don’t be yelling at your cousin like that, she haven’t done anything to you!”

“She haven’t done anything to me?” she questioned her as she turned around to look at her mother. “You don’t know anything. You don’t know that Lilly is the girl that I found Ryan with. I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to be the one that brought drama into the family, but there you go. Please let it be know that my cousin is a putita.”

 

It suddenly hit me. How could I have done this? She is my cousin, and I love her more than anything. How could I let my emotions get the best of me? I should have stood by. I am truly sorry for causing any distress in her relationship. I wish we could have been more discreet, but I am not sorry for wanting him like I did. My mother rushed me out of Amelia’s house. I looked at her. In her face you could see how embarrassed she was. She couldn’t even look at me in the eyes. As soon as I got home, I locked myself in my room and closed my curtains. I laid in my bed.

 

I wasn’t really happy in my own relationship. I really wasn’t. I wouldn’t let my own boyfriend see the pictures on my phone, but I did let her boyfriend see them. It’s not like I’m saying that what we had was special, since it really wasn’t, but it was something rare. I truly regret every problem I’ve caused in his relationship. I wish we could have been more discreet. I’m not sorry for wanting him like I did. At the end of the day, I had to call him, text him, or end the night kissing his lips. Even with Amelia right beside me, he looked at me in a way that revealed every single detail between us. He will always be there for me, even if it meant risking his own relationship. Every moment we shared I felt this fake happiness, because after all, he only loved his girlfriend. He would go on about how he didn’t want to lose her and how we should end this for the better. His heart was completely hers, but looking pathetic, I asked him to stay. When she left him, it killed him. He made mistakes, and I was one of them. Even when he had his arms around me while we lay in the couch, I could tell Amelia was the only thing in his mind. None of this really matters anymore. I’m going to move one, as suprinsly as that sounds. I will move on but not completely, as I will always carry a picture of us in my phone.

 

Central Park

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Stand By Me: Part One

             

Vicki

Little Miss Misunderstood

 

Chapter One

Vicki opened her vibrant dark brown eyes and saw black. It was as if she hadn’t opened her eyes at all. She checked with her smooth hands to make sure her eyes really were open. The sensation of nothing was thrilling yet horrifying when only seeing black with no ending.

Suddenly, seeing no end to the darkness, she let out a high-pitched, teeth-curling screech as she spied a swift tunnel stirring in the night. As she stared and shifted around her unfamiliar bedroom, a faint gold outline read 1:27. But as she moved around her room, there was no light again. Just the swirling tunnel ahead of her. The fearsome tunnel shone dark purple, with a thousand fireflies lighting the way for Vicki. Truth is, the current of mystery could carry her down. The bright purple edged her on towards it as if whispering, Do it, or suffer the never ending darkness from now and forever! She got up onto her knees and dove in.

While staying airborne, thoughts crashed into each other one by one. She was running against the currents of sand on a desert peak, now climbing up a steep cliff. Soon, she was leaping through the jungle or swimming in the deepest ocean. All thrilling, making her imagination set sail. But while coming to her last stop of motions, she face-planted into a big sea monster and felt a huge bruise form on her head. She stared down, barely able to see her hands, and touched her forehead lightly. “Ouch!” she cried out. She slipped over to one of her drawers to find a flashlight.

As it turned out, Victoria had climbed up her bunk bed ladder, running through her piles of neatly stacked stuffed animals, swung on the boards of her bed, and slid on her stomach through the stuffed animals that she had just knocked over, and bumped her head into her beanbag.

Vicki squirmed repeatedly on her beanbag, scared of the thought of going to school in the morning. Victoria or “Vicki” was adopted by her parents. Vicki smiled, imagining the many times when her mom would tell her how they had chosen her. When your mom gives birth to you, they are stuck with you. But if you are adopted, they chose you. Vicki liked to think that the word “chose” had a better ring to it than being stuck with something. Victoria tried to remember the comfortable feeling when she sat down in her mother’s lap as the story rang with truth out of her mom’s mouth. This story was the one thought, the one inspiration, that she had once been wanted.

Vicki’s dad knew she was different. Everyone knew that she was different. Her dad was just the one to say it to her face. Finally, he was fed up and left. No one really knows what happened to him after he left the house. The car was left there. His phone was left there. And most sadly, so was his family.

Ever since preschool, Vicki was homeschooled. Ever since preschool, everywhere she went, people knew that Vicki Saunders was different.

***

Vicki went to her first day of preschool very happy. New friends, new teachers, and new experiences awaited. That is if the teacher hadn’t greeted her the way she had…

“Now, Vicki. Say pleases and thank-yous! Make a good first impression. I will pick you up at three,” Mrs. Saunders said, straightening Victoria’s collar.

Vicki stared at the hands on the clock for a moment. “In seven hours, you mean.”

“Yes… wait… where have you learned to read a clock?” Vicki smiled mischievously at her.

“At the library.” Victoria smiled innocently.

“Well, okay, you little mathematician! Go ahead, and have a fun day. Blend in, but stand out, okay?”

“But isn’t that physically impossible? Not mentally but physically?” Mrs. Saunders ignored her. Victoria skipped in. Vicki’s eyes went big when she saw what the class was doing. The girls were dressing curly-haired Barbies up in bright pink. The boys were crashing race cars into each other, chipping the cheap paint. She skipped over to the boys, on the path to the teacher’s desk where she sat.

“You know,” she piped, “it would be better to buy metal race cars with real paint, instead of plastic cars. Besides, the result is atrocious with what you are doing to those cars!” The boys complained, dumbfounded that a girl was talking to a boy, especially with such big words. “Maybe hold the car like this instead.” She took the car and found a thicker part of the car. “There!”

“Ewww!! A girl touched something of a boy’s! Awww!” the girls moaned. “The new girl now has boy cooties!” Vicki rolled her eyes at the immaturity of the other children.

“You know,” she said to the closest girl before reaching the desk, “this building really needs some earthquake resistant tools. Like that bookshelf really needs that heaviest stuff on it. I would recommend talking to the boss! And look, please just hear me out.” The girl gave her a bored look. “I haven’t seen any cross braces or a mass damper here. Now, mass dampers and cross braces are expensive, but you need to start somewhere!” The girl gave her another rude look. “I am done with my advice, okay! Geesh!” She continued past the impudent girl and to the teacher’s desk.

Her desk had a huge, blue sheet of paper wrapped around it reading, “Mrs. Morton.” She had a tight brown bun wrapped around the top of her head. Her desk had different apples scattered everywhere and friendly notes scribbled down on colors. Black was Vicki’s favorite color. She liked the darkness. It was the stars, actually, that made her feel like she had friends. When every one of them sparkled and winked down at her, she felt at home with the darkness and light scattered here and there.

She thought of herself as a star. The darkness was the majority of the world. The normal people. But the stars were special. The stars were unique with different interests and hobbies. It wasn’t bad to be a star…

She continued to the teacher’s desk and cleared her throat. The teacher was apparently hard of hearing or needed new glasses, neither good, because she didn’t hear or see the little preschooler. Victoria cleared her threat again, holding the paper out to her new teacher.

“Hi, my name is Victoria Saunders. I love to write, read, engineer, garden, and research new biography and history matters found from ancient or biblical times. I also love to research the most recent illnesses so that I can stay healthy! I live at 1253, Morton Drive, 90773. I am four years old and know my mom’s, dad’s, brother’s, and the police’s phone numbers. Would you like me to recite them?” Victoria asked. Instead, she received another dumbfounded look of the smarts. “You know, Mrs. Morton, you are the third person to give me that look today… what’s it mean?”

Mrs. Morton said nothing and took hold of Vicki’s neatly written biography of herself. Vicki sat down by a cubby of cold, crinkly, old mats and dug her nose into her most recent book series, Disaster.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Saunders, Vicki’s mom, peeked her nose into the brightly decorated room. She had just witnessessed her daughter pointing out how to improve the quality of toy cars. So much for fitting in… she thought. Vicki’s mom hesitantly spied her daughter reading her book in the corner. She felt envious of the other girls and boys getting along and playing with each other. “Normal” was not a word known by Mrs. Saunders.

Mrs. Saunders sighed and decided to let Vicki travel through her day on her own. Right as she left the door, Mrs. Morton gave Vicki back her paper. It had a 100% on it. “Have you ever tried fifth grade?” she asked.

Vicki smiled gleefully. My first test! A 100%! What a way to start the — But she wasn’t able to finish her thought because she didn’t see any other girls or boys get a good grade or even a grade at all, now that she thought of it.

She leaned over to the closest girl and asked, “What did you get?” Vicki held her paper up proudly to the girl.

“The normal kids didn’t do it, ya dodo. Normal kids play Barbies!” She held her pink dressed Barbie with bright blonde hair up proudly. Then, she added, “Just like normal kids don’t read.” Vicki looked at her quizzically. “Now, can you please help me put Barbie’s skirt on her? She looks bad without it.” She pointed to the book. Vicki was on the verge of tears. The girl tried so hard to get the Barbie into the skirt that it ripped, like Vicki’s heart.

Soon enough, recess or “outside time” occurred, and Vicki grabbed her book. Mrs. Morton eyed her warily. As the class lined up into a mob, Vicki stood quietly waiting for the teacher to lead the class outside. The fact that a preschooler would rather read a book than go run around was hard to imagine.

As the class headed out the doorway, Vicki trailed behind, admiring the author that wrote her thick book. She longed to have friends like the girls in her book. She longed to be normal and to be wanted.

Outside, the girls played a game called, “Girls chase the boys,” and Vicki again rolled her eyes at their immaturity. She read her book. She loved to read because when she read, it was as if she was a character, diving into the disasters and bravely fighting crime.

Soon, recess was over, and Vicki got up to leave, but a big group of girls surrounded her in a chant. “Vicki the fifth grader! Vicki the fifth grader! The new girl is an overachiever — what a weirdo.” Then, they started again until it was too hard to bear. Then, Vicki did the one thing that she knew she could and would do best. She ran, book tight against her chest. Mrs. Morton ran after her. Now, Mrs. Morton, not being the most fit, more like stumbled quickly after her.

Vicki was very small for the age of four. Mrs. Morton chased after her, and right when Vicki was about to leave campus, she saw her teacher, sweat dripping down her forehead and hands out in ambush. Young Vicki instead rounded a corner so that she wouldn’t be running right in the open. She squeezed past a garbage bin and hid there. Mrs Morton, seeing no Vicki, counted to five. “If you don’t come out right now, you get a time-out.” Now, normally that would have worked, but Vicki, being no ordinary child and knowing that adults just said that and didn’t mean it if they couldn’t see you, stayed hidden, giggling like mad.

Mrs. Morton left, assuming that Vicki had found a way back to the classroom. Vicki stayed there for a while until she got hungry. She then got up and hurried to the lunch tables where her class was. “I won! No one could find me!”

All the little girls went up in a mad chorus: “Well you never said to,” “I secretly knew where you were!” “You can’t trick me,” “Ya, me definitely know!” “You are just sayin’ that!”

On and on and on it went until Mrs. Morton yelled, “Enough!” and everyone sat down angrily. Vicki, by herself, sat at a lonely table farthest from any insults able to be thrown at her.

It was clear that the other children had their groups. There was one fivesome braiding hair. The others with knotted hair picked at their nails, and the boys all just kind of blobbed together playing “ruff” or “tackle.” Then, there was Vicki. Poor Vicki! She wasn’t a girly girl. She didn’t like to get all rough and play sports. She didn’t like to play tackle. She was just different. Just different… she liked to write, study, and she even learned to read the newspaper at a very young age. She even explained some topics, including science and biology, to her brother a month ago when deciding on which middle school he should attend.

She enjoyed being as smart as the teacher. She didn’t know it at this young age, but she shouldn’t know things that would get you into a private middle school on an academic scholarship. It worried her neighbors. It worried her mother. But most of all, it worried her father.

After they finished lunch and the mumble of Vicki’s unusual attraction to reading and medicine were discussed by all, Mrs. Morton led the children back to the door and into the classroom. Vicki trailed behind, not wanting to draw too much attention to herself.

Now, this entire day that Vicki has been in preschool has been a fragment of Vicki’s recap of what happened many years ago. And yet, it felt like yesterday. This was another unusual fact about her: her memory. It is one thing to remember only the treacherous times of childhood, but to remember anything and everything…

After lunch, the class laid down on the moldy, flat mats. Vicki stood there stuttering, “Do we have to lay down?” Mrs. Morton nodded impatiently. “Really?!”

Yes, you must, Miss Victoria,” the teacher drawled.

“Victoria or Vicki is fine. I don’t like being called “Miss.” It sounds too proper. Besides I am not a teacher.”

Mrs. Morton cleared her throat angrily. “Vicki, enough of being a smart aleck! I have had enough of you being an overachiever!”

“But… but… ” Vicki looked on the verge of tears. “I read about an illness!” She whined, “I don’t want to get it. You get it by sharing breathing areas! We could also get influenza!” Then, she piped in a high-pitched, squeaky voice, “More commonly known as the flu!”

“Fine,” said the teacher, grudgingly. “But you must at least sit on it. You don’t have to lie down. Okay?” Vicki stumbled over to the mat and scrunched her nose of the putrid smell and germs that the mat carried. She sat with her back straight and nothing but her shorts and legs touching the mat. “I will now read you a story. A little girl — ”

“Why not boys? Why do the stories always have to be girls?” a boy named Leo piped,  annoyingly.

“I wasn’t the one to write this book!” the teacher said. “Anyway… a girl hopped down the road and found a place to build her house. She got her hammer out and went to work. Cluck cluck cluck went the hammer against the wood.”

She flipped the first page. “What sound did the hammer make?” Blank faces stared up at her. Vicki knew the answer but thought the book so stupid it wasn’t worth her voice. The teacher skipped the question and went on to the next page. “She got some paint. Swoosh swoosh swoosh went the brush against the fresh wood. What sound did the paint brush make?” She waited a couple moments. “Anyone?”

She sighed and continued, “Then the little girl found more wood and built the roof. Clunk clunk clunk the hammer went. What sound did the hammer make?” She looked directly at Vicki. “Not even you, Victoria?

Vicki sighed. “First of all, this is a waste of my time. This book is so babyish! I miss my mystery novels. I have a question. When do we start our literature and book reports? Probably never at this rate… ” She took a deep breath and continued, “And besides! A hammer doesn’t even make that sound! It makes more like a boom, boom, boom!”

“Are you done yet?” Tamara, the leader of the sassy girls, said impatiently. Out of all of the girls, she was the most mature, which was saying something, because none of them were mature. She wore her hair in long braids that went to her lower back. She also had a bright pink headband. Her shirt said, “Not sassy just have some sass.” “Besides, Vicki,” she teased when she said Vicki’s name, “no one wants you here. You are too smart for your own good.”

The teacher continued, “Then they lived happily ever after!” Ugh! What about the hardships?

But one of the girls thought of hardships… “Wait,” Lily said, a girl not much better than Tamara. “What about the prince. A prince must take her to the castle!” All of the girls started to giggle.

“Ummm… ” the teacher groped. “Nevermind. Let me just get this over with.” The teacher quickly read the rest of the story, “Then, a deer came and kissed the girl on the cheek.”

“No deer!” Vicki shrieked. “Deers carry ticks. Ticks carry Lyme disease. If you have Lyme disease too long… ” Eyes glared at Vicki, signaling her enough.

That was Vicki’s breaking point. She was tired of little stories filled with nonsense and questions that no one knew the answers to. She wanted to be rid of the teasing and the putrid smelling mats. She was done with all the old Barbie dolls overflowing in the bin. She was done. She wanted to go home to where she was loved by her whole family well, at least she thought she was.

Vicki hid behind the trash can for a couple hours until the sun started to set. She knew it was just moments till her mom would pick her up, so she crouched behind a bush. Her long jeans got muddy. Her hands poked with seeds and whatever else fell from the sky. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, and her eyes were puffy from crying. She had no idea how long she was there and got the idea that her teacher, Mrs. Morton, and the sassy girl, Tamara, wouldn’t be looking for her. They were probably glad she was missing. Seconds passed, then minutes, until she heard her mom call for her. “Vicki, are you there? I heard about what happened today. I won’t make you go to school ever again until college if you want… ”

“Ever?” A tiny voice that belonged to Vicki asked, behind the bushes.

“Ever. Until you want to, of course.”

Vicki got out from the bushes and took her hand. Her mom had a worried expression on her face. When they got home, Vicki realized that she had let her mom down. I didn’t fit in! she thought. I failed my mom! What is wrong with me? She ripped different facts about medicine and biology out of her journal She cursed how foolish she was to have written a big biography about herself. “All I wanted was for people to like me!” she moaned and growled at her bedroom.

She didn’t talk during dinner about her improvements she made on her hypothesis about volcanoes and the magma plume. She also didn’t share how her horrible day at school went. Her father looked scared of her the entire time. She cried before going to bed. She moaned in her restless sleep. She heard her mom go to bed late that night, probably trying to figure out what to do with their overachieving daughter. Vicki hated herself for who she was.

While sleeping, she felt a cool breeze brush on her. She woke up with her window open. My mom probably wanted me to have some fresh air, she thought. That morning, she woke up, still in her bad mood. She got out of bed and poured her Lucky Charms. Every bag, Vicki wished for the prize inside. This prize just isn’t made for abnormal people. She wept even more for the strange girl she was becoming. “I can’t stop my brain!” she murmured repeatedly to herself. None of it made a difference.

She knew that she would never, ever, ever want to go back to preschool. Or what she called, the lazy game. Vicki deserved better. A place where talent can be seen. A place where she isn’t blowing the other kids’ minds with her speech and smarts. She realized this as she awoke, staring at the white ceiling. That was when she noticed the empiness beside her…

After finishing her unsuccessful hunt for a prize in her cereal, her mom walked to the doorway, tears streaked repeatedly down her cheeks.

“What is it, Mother?”

Her mom shook her head, long, dark hair with blonde tips swaying.

Her dad was gone.

 

Up and Back Again

       

Dedicated to Izzy, Sophia, Sammie, and Rachel Barclay who helped me along my wonderful and winding journey of writing

Twelve-year-old Andrea opened her eyes groggily and looked at her bedside clock. 8:15! Andrea screamed in her head. She was supposed to be at school, Harker Middle, fifteen minutes ago. She quickly got changed into her blue and tan uniform, then swept her light brown hair back into a ponytail. Andrea grabbed her backpack and shoved her binder inside, then looked around her blue painted room at her bed, dresser, cabinets, and desk to see if there was anything else she needed. Andrea quickly grabbed her pencil case, then sprinted downstairs.

“Mom! Dad!” Andrea yelled. “I’m late! You guys didn’t wake me up.” No one answered. “Hello?” Andrea said again as she approached the table. A note was there.

Dearest Andrea,

I’m sorry we had to leave without telling you. Your mother hit the floor, and the doctors do not yet know what happened. This was at 5:00. I hope you are fine. I’m letting you skip school today. I just left the hospital to write this note. Now, I must hurry back. Don’t you worry, Andrea. Your mother will be fine. She’s as strong as you. I will be back at 9:00 to tell you the news.

Be strong,

Dad

Andrea sucked in a breath and dropped her backpack. She read over the note again, not believing her eyes. She picked up the note and squeezed it so hard that it crumpled under her hands. Then, Andrea threw the note back onto the table and imagined her mom having a heart attack or a stroke — or worse.

Andrea felt lightheaded and gripped a wooden chair. She looked around the room, at the wooden table in the middle of the room, the stove and fridge in the front, and some cabinets in the corner. They started to blur. She shook her head and walked into the next room to take a seat on the comfy, tan couches. Andrea put her feet on a dark oak coffee table in front of her and turned on the TV. Just forty more minutes until Dad comes home, Andrea told herself. Only forty minutes until I hear about Mom.

Time slipped away as Andrea half-heartedly watched her favorite movie, Wonder. Finally, she heard the door rattle.

“Dad!” Andrea shouted. Her dad burst into the room panting and brushing New York snow off of his coat.

“Dad! Dad! What happened?” Andrea asked, tugging on his sleeve.

“The doctors said that they haven’t seen anything like it. They said it couldn’t have been of natural causes, which is scary. I don’t know what it would be of. Anyways, I was not awake to see what happened. All I know is that no one entered this house all night.”

“Really?” Andrea said, worried. “Is she okay?”

“I don’t know, Andrea. I don’t know,” her dad said, pinching the bridge of his nose. Andrea hugged him.

“We have to head back to the hospital now. Put your coat, boots, and gloves on.”

Andrea nodded, a tear slipping down her face.

In the car, Andrea twiddled her thumbs and bit her lip. Mom… I wish I knew if you were okay. Please be okay. Please let her be okay.

Her dad, Mr. Wilson, gripped the steering wheel hard, turning his knuckles white. He drove into the driveway of the hospital and parked.

Soon, Andrea and her dad were in the waiting room.

“Mr. Wilson?” a voice called. Andrea’s dad stood up and walked into a room where a blonde lady was calling. Andrea followed. The lady shut the door behind them and motioned for them to sit down into comfy, blue chairs.

Sitting in one herself behind a wood desk, the lady spoke.

“Hello, Mr. Wilson. I’m Victoria. As the doctors have informed you, this was not from a natural cause. We looked over your wife and saw that something happened around her head. There was some type of dispositioning of her brain cells, and right now, it’s going to be very hard to fix this. I am very sorry. As you can probably figure out, her brain has stopped working. Therefore, the doctors put her in hospice. She will make it a few hours.” Andrea couldn’t imagine living without her mom. She burst into tears and buried her face in her father’s shoulder. Mr. Wilson let tears fall freely down his face. Victoria left the room, and Andrea wailed and squeezed her father.

Andrea and her father knelt down before Andrea’s mother and said their hearts out. Andrea told her mom about all the good times they’d had together — about how much she loved her. Her mother couldn’t hear them or anything, but Andrea spoke anyway, with tears soaking her neck. Mr. Wilson whispered in Mrs. Wilson’s ear for a long time.

Andrea was there holding Mrs. Wilson’s hand as her mother moved on to a better place. The next few months were rough. Mr. Wilson was not the same. He was never as happy as before. He didn’t laugh or smile like he used to.

Andrea and her dad lived differently. Andrea started to cook, do the laundry, and help out around the house. Her father was helpful also, but not as joyful as usual.

Finally, on Andrea’s thirteenth birthday, the doctors had a present for her. Andrea and her father drove to the hospital. They were taken into a room with many images on the projector and spewing across a table.

“I’m Victoria. You might remember me,” the familiar lady stated. “After your mother’s death, the doctors found something surprising. And it wasn’t in her brain. A long time ago, your mother tore her arm. When a doctor gave her surgery, a very bad virus was inserted in her. Well, it wasn’t very bad at the time. That morning when she lost consciousness, a virus trigger was released into the house that never should have been. That means,” Victoria paused, “I think it was someone who was either with the doctor at the time, or it was the doctor himself. I do not know why they would pick that time though to set off such a deadly trigger. And, how could they release it into your house?”

Andrea and Mr. Wilson shook their heads in disgust.

“What’s a virus trigger?” Andrea asked.

“Well, we’re not sure, but it might be an invisible gas or something that makes the virus become harmful. But the question still remains — why? And how?”

“We don’t know. We really don’t know.”

Mr. Wilson got up to leave, but Andrea stayed sitting in the chair. “Who was it? Who was it?” she asked.

“We don’t know yet, which is embarrassing on our part because we have no record of your mom’s surgery. Maybe it was lost, or worse, destroyed by the doctor because he didn’t want anyone to see.”

“Don’t you know about the surgery though? Like… when was it? Can’t you ask the doctors?”

“Andrea! It’s time to go,” Mr. Wilson leapt in. He grabbed Andrea’s arm and pulled her out of the room.

“Dad!” Andrea said in the hallway. “I want to know what happened! I bet she knows some information — what if we can even figure out what happened ourselves?”

Andrea’s dad shook his head, and they walked out of the waiting room.

“Now, Andrea, these doctors are very experienced. They know much better than we.”

Andrea mumbled under her breath as her dad led her out of the building, into the car, and all the way back home.

Andrea went back to school in the next month. The doctors were still figuring out what had happened, and Andrea was asking as many questions as she could. So much that her dad at one point left her in the waiting room. (He soon noted that that wasn’t such a great idea.)

Andrea walked into the school building crowded with kids. She was looking for one person — Harper. Harper was her only friend that wouldn’t tease her about her horrible grades.

Finally, Andrea found her in an upstairs hallway and told her about her mom. Harper gasped as they walked into their homeroom.

“Andrea! That’s horrible! I don’t know what I’d do if that happened to me,” Harper exclaimed.

“It’s okay. It’s really not a big deal,” Andrea lied straight to her friend’s face. Harper raised her eyebrow knowing that it was a huge deal but didn’t say anything.

Andrea and Harper sat down at their desks next to each other.

“Oh no,” Andrea whispered as her teacher, Ms. Addison, walked over.

“Andrea, I’m very, very sorry. I heard from your father. I’ll excuse you from all your missing work, okay? But I need you to work hard,” Ms. Addison bent down and whispered to Andrea, “Because of your grades, all right?” Ms. Addison gave Andrea a knowing look, then walked back to the front of the class to teach. Andrea shook her head looking down, knowing that she had F’s in every class except for art. Painting was the only thing she ever cared about. Harper understood, because she liked art just the same. However, Harper was also very smart and got A’s all the time. Andrea’s only ‘A’ was in art.

“‘A’ for Art!” Andrea used to say to her parents when they received her report card. Of course, they were never very happy.

Andrea shoved the subject of her parents away and finally heard her teacher dismiss them for first period.

“Finally,” Andrea muttered under her breath, making Harper elbow her. “What? I hate school. I just can’t wait for art!”

“Andrea, you need to get better grades! Your par — ” Harper caught herself and took a sharp breath. Andrea sighed and shrugged.

“I guess,” she said, walking quicker to math.

The rest of the day flew by in a breeze, Andrea not paying attention to math, science, or history. Finally, it was time for art. Andrea burst into the art room with Harper and filled her lungs with the familiar smell of paint and wood.

“Oh! Andrea! I totally forgot to tell you. We have a new art teacher. Meet Mrs. Grace. Mrs. Grace, this is Andrea,” Harper explained. Andrea stood horror-struck. A new teacher?! But she loved Miss Alia! She plastered a fake smile on her face and shook hands with Mrs. Grace.

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Grace! Very nice. What happened to Miss Alia?”

“Oh. Well. She moved on to a better job that was more important than her students.” Mrs. Grace rolled her eyes. Andrea stood with a disgusted look on her face. She went to her seat and quietly sat down.

That day at art was awkward and quiet. No one talked or laughed like they used to.

Finally, it was the end of class, and Andrea was walking out the door.

“Andrea! Can I come hang out tonight?” Harper asked.

“Harper, remember? My mom? My dad can’t handle us right now,” Andrea said. Suddenly, she heard Mrs. Grace swivel around in her chair to face her.

“Mrs. Grace?” Andrea asked, turning around to face her teacher.

“Andrea — are you? Andrea Wilson?” Mrs. Grace declared. Andrea nodded. Just then, the classroom walkie-talkie on the teacher’s desk called Andrea’s name to go home.

“Sorry Mrs. Grace, but I gotta go,” Andrea said, eager to get away from her new art teacher.

“Andrea, wait!” Mrs. Grace said, getting up from her seat. But Andrea had already strolled out of the doorway and down the hall.

Andrea left school with a straight face. A new teacher, bad grades, more homework — could it get any worse? She walked down the road, seeing her small house in the distance.

That night at home, she was greeted with a surprise.

“Andrea, dear! Want to come watch TV with me?” her father asked. Andrea walked over to the couch, surprised that her father was in such a good mood because personally, she wasn’t. She sat down on the couch and started looking at the big football players thundering across the field. They were almost to the end zone. The player finally made it and threw the football on the ground with celebration.

“TOUCHDOWN!!!” Andrea’s father screamed. He scrambled to his feet and gave Andrea a high-five. She half-heartedly high-fived him back.

“Andrea, dear? Why the long face?” He asked, knowingly.

“How — how are you so happy right now?!” Andrea asked, losing it. “Nothing is going right today! Nothing ever goes right! How come all of a sudden you are happy?”

“Do you want to know? It’s because I realized that there is no point in getting sad anymore. What happened will not change. Like, don’t cry over spilt milk. It already happened. So you fix it. And since we cannot fix her death, the best way to mend our hurt is to smile and say, what has happened has happened, and I might as well be happy.”

Andrea stood dumbfounded at her father’s words.

Impressive coming from him, she thought. Then she smiled, and slowly, it made sense. He was right. No matter what happened, it was no use getting mad over.

As her father smiled back, Andrea forgot about her mother. About school. About all her worries. Andrea let her father wrap her in a big bear hug.

However, the next morning Andrea woke up from a nightmare about her mom. She sighed and got dressed for school. As Andrea walked down the stairs to make her breakfast, she already smelled the scent of waffles wafting from the kitchen. She looked over the railing and saw her father flipping waffles on the waffle iron. Andrea laughed to herself, knowing that she usually had to wake her dad up in the morning because he always slept in.

Mr. Wilson motioned for Andrea to hurry and come down the stairs. Andrea did and saw a big plate of strawberry and syrup covered waffles waiting for her. She grinned and gave her dad a big hug.

After eating her scrumptious breakfast, she kissed her dad goodbye and walked to school. Andrea entered the building to find Harper waiting for her there.

“Hi, Harper.” Andrea smiled.

“Andrea! Mrs. Grace wants to talk to you,” Harper replied. Andrea frowned and crossed her arms.

She walked up the stairs to the art room. She no longer enjoyed the wood and paint smell.
“Ah! Andrea. Harper told you right?” Mrs. Grace said, pacing around the room.

“Yeah,” Andrea said, standing by the door.

“Come sit, come sit,” Mrs. Grace commanded, pulling out a chair from one of the art tables. She moved it in front of her, and Andrea sat down, uncomfortable. Mrs. Grace hesitated, then kept pacing the room.

“Why did you want me?” Andrea asked, getting impatient. Mrs. Grace finally pulled up a chair and sat down in front of Andrea.

“Andrea, don’t get too worked up, but, I know something about your mother.”

Andrea’s eyes widened, and she gripped the sides of her chair.

“What?” she whispered.

“I was the doctor’s assistant,” Mrs. Grace said. Andrea’s face started to twist into anger.

“Now, before you get all mad, let me explain. That doctor, Doctor Richard, gave me the

file on your mom’s surgery along with a note.” Mrs. Grace took an unsealed envelope out of her pocket and handed it to Andrea. Andrea’s hands trembled as she took it. Suddenly, they trembled in anger.

“Why didn’t you report him?! How could you keep quiet?!” Andrea yelled. Mrs. Grace shook her head. Andrea glared at Mrs. Grace, then looked up at the clock.

“It’s first period. See you,” Andrea turned to walk out of the room. Mrs. Grace pushed her seat back and got up.

“Read the note!” Mrs. Grace yelled after Andrea.

Andrea sat down at study hall, fingering the note. This class, third period, was the only one she did not have with Harper. Finally, Andrea gathered up the courage to open the envelope. She raised the flap and reached inside — she felt a small piece of paper in the envelope and pulled it out. She unfolded it and read:

Andrea,

I am terribly sorry. I have lost the surgery file. If you are mad, I don’t blame you. But here, I have the note from Doctor Richard. Please understand.

There was a second note in the envelope too — the note that Doctor Richard wrote. Andrea hesitated to look at it. This note would change reality. She looked around the room at everyone studying quietly. Then, she unfolded the other note:

Lynna Grace,

This is for your eyes only. When Zaria Wilson tore her arm, I did surgery on her. You are my most trusted friend. This is a secret between you me, and if you ever see the Wilsons, them too. I am quitting my job as a doctor. It is no use anymore. But anyway, I was operating on Zaria when I found a virus in her arm through her bloodwork. It was deadly. I knew she would die soon, so I did the only thing I could. I tried to remove it, but I couldn’t. Instead, I damaged the virus so that it would only grow back on a certain day and kill her. By now, I’m sure that it has grown back, but I am long gone in a different part of the country. I pray for her family.

Your friend,

Dakota Richard

Andrea read the note twice and stood up in her chair. The teacher looked at her.

“Are you okay?! You look awfully pale,” the teacher commented.

“I — I’m not feeling so well,” Andrea replied.

“Why don’t you go lie down in the office, hon,” the teacher said, worried. Andrea nodded, packed up her stuff, and headed out of the classroom and down to the office.

The office called her dad, and he came and picked her up.

In the car, Andrea burst into tears from all this pressure about her mom. Her dad comforted her and said they would talk at home. Finally, they arrived at the house and sat at the dinner table.

“So, dear Andrea, what is bothering you?” Mr. Wilson asked. Andrea didn’t need to talk. She just handed the note to her father. Mr. Wilson read the note over, his face getting more and more ghost-like at every word. Finally, he finished reading and looked up at Andrea, his mouth in a tight, white line. He just looked at the paper, then at Andrea, then back at the paper again. Finally, after a lot of looking back and forth, Mr. Wilson pushed his chair back and stood up. He motioned for Andrea to follow him. They both got into the car and drove to the hospital in silence. Finally, they arrived and walked to the waiting room.

“Mr. Wilson? Andrea?” the familiar voice of Victoria called. Andrea and her father walked into Victoria’s office.

“So, what is this emergency meeting about?” Victoria asked.

“It’s about this,” Andrea said, handing the envelope to Victoria. “Mrs. Grace is my art teacher at school now.”

Victoria opened the envelope, took out the letter, and read silently. Her eyes grew wide, and she looked up at Mr. Wilson and Andrea. Andrea nodded. Victoria was lost for words, but she waved at them to leave. She had all the information she needed, and Andrea was finally feeling accomplished.

The next day, Victoria scheduled another appointment with Andrea and Mr. Wilson. The group of three sat together in Victoria’s office.

“Mr. Wilson, we’ve found the location of Dakota Richard. He’s in Rhode Island. We’ve been trying to contact him to pay you guys for not telling us anything. He’s paying a lot of money — some for this hospital and some for you.” Victoria looked really annoyed at Dr. Richard.

“No, no, no, no, no, no. He did a good deed for Zaria. Without him, Zaria would have died way before this. Please. We don’t want his money,” Mr. Wilson stated. Victoria looked like she wanted to say something, but she kept quiet.

“All right then,” Victoria said. “I guess now we don’t have any more to do with this. Thank you so much for all your help.” She got up and tucked her chair in behind her desk. She dismissed Andrea and her father.

Andrea skipped out of the hospital, content.

The next week at school, Andrea came home and jumped into her father’s arms.

“Father! Father! I aced my math test!” And Mr. Wilson smiled so big that his mouth hurt.

So, that’s how it was for the the Wilsons. Happy. Andrea went on to high school, having been on the Honor Roll twice.

Andrea and her father lived in that same house for the rest of their lives, no longer grieving over Mrs. Wilson, but thinking that she would be more happy if they were happy. Those were the words the Wilsons lived by.

Happy plus a Sad does not equal another Happy. But Andrea, dear, if we are happy, then your mother will be, too.

 

Epilogue

Andrea relaxed in the backseat of her dad’s white van, wanting to know how long it would be until they got to the beach. The sun shined brightly up above — it was almost noon. She looked over to her father, bouncing around to the music while driving. She smiled, knowing that everything was all right now. Then, she looked to the passenger’s seat where her grandma sat with perfect posture. Andrea’s grandma was an uptight woman, always yapping about something. Her grey-streaked hair was neatly pulled back into a bun. Andrea never saw a time where her grandma was not wearing a sweater, like a turtleneck, bell sleeve, or even a choker sweater. She was always wearing something like that!

“How much longer, Daddy?” Andrea asked for the fifth time.

“Not too much longer, dear,” Mr. Wilson answered back.

“You said that last time,” Andrea groaned, slouching down, but with a small smile on her face.

“Now, Andrea! You sit up like a lady! That’s how your Grampa Joe hurt his back,” Grandma stated. Andrea rolled her eyes with a smirk and sat up straight.

“Now, what do you say?” Grandma asked.

“Yes, Grandma,” Andrea strained.

“Good. And look! What a way to kill the time! We’ve arrived.”

Mr. Wilson pulled over into a busy parking lot.

“We’re here, we’re here,” he sang to himself, turning off the music. The family got out of the car and stepped onto the sandy road.

“What a lovely day!” Andrea’s dad stated, making Grandma glare at him.

“Now, now, you know the sun’s UV rays could hurt you. Put on some sunscreen!”

“We’ve already put on two layers like you told us to,” Andrea laughed. Grandma grumbled under her breath, adding another layer of sunscreen herself, even though her skin was already ghostly white.

“Andrea! Be careful getting that basket out of the trunk! You’ve probably already strained your back enough for a week! Don’t let me see you slouching one more time today, young lady or I’ll — ” Grandma stopped herself and looked around. She had announced this loudly, like she wanted everyone in the parking lot to stare at her. She again went back to grumbling, and the onlookers went back to their own business.

Finally, after a lot of Grandma’s comments, Andrea, Mr. Wilson, and Grandma made it down onto the sandy beach. Andrea immediately raced for the water, collecting seashells that the waves brought in. Mr. Wilson and Grandma set up a beach towel and the umbrella. Grandma stayed under the umbrella reading a book called Safety in the Cruel World. Mr. Wilson sat watching Andrea running around chasing seagulls. He had tried to get Grandma out of the Safety Zone before, but it didn’t work.

Finally, he called Andrea to come eat lunch with them. They all sat together on the red and white checkered mat, under the blue umbrella. The blue umbrella was under the scorching sun, and the scorching sun was under the white angels. Among the white angels was Andrea’s mother, looking down and smiling at the small family eating, Grandma not even reading her book.

 

The Overlord

The town was in complete and utter chaos. Monsters pillaged and wrecked everything in their path. Innocent villagers panicked and fled, and not all of them got away. The air was filled with screams of pure terror.

In other words, it was a good day for me.

I am Overlord Kane, and I have no delusions about my morals. With a name like that, what would you expect? I understand that I’m evil, and I embrace it. My goal is to overthrow King Basilius and take the kingdom for myself. I am the big bad, the evil emperor, the bête noire, the VILLAIN. Ah, it’s good to be bad.

So, what is an Overlord? It’s just a title given to the most prized demonic servant of Azrael, god of death, master of the Inferno, fourth horseman of the apocalypse, damn His name forever. Of course, it comes with some nice benefits. I get the three Unholy Treasures: the Dragon Sword, the Demon Armor, and the Crown of Azrael. I also get to destroy any heroes that get in my way. Do they defeat me? Sure, sometimes, but evil always comes back.

Anyway, the attack was almost over. As much as I like watching my minions destroy everything in their path, I can’t take over a kingdom that’s burned down. They had already broken into the mayor’s house and kidnapped his daughter, so I had what I came for. “Fireball!” I exclaimed, launching a burst of flames into the sky. It exploded, signalling the retreat, and I led my army back to Fort Gehennom.

A few hours later, I was sitting in my throne room when my trusted lieutenant Draco came in.

“How did the attack go, my lord?” Draco asked, blowing a puff of smoke. (He’s half dragon and has the flame breath to go with it. The other half is… I want to say dark elf, but even I don’t really know.)

“As well as always. We’ve got plenty of hostages, so I trust the dark elves can take care of them?” I asked.

“They’re requesting some hot irons and a copy of The Eye of Xenon,” said Draco.

“I’ll get it down to them. Any prisoners of note, aside from the girl?” I asked.

“The town bartender, a catfolk. He’s knocked out at the moment,” said Draco.

“We’ve got a catatonic cat o’ tonic on our hands,” I said.

“Otherwise, ah… nothing. I’m just not used to being out of the action. I hope a new hero comes in soon, so we can start fresh,” said Draco.

“We’ll take the usual protocol from here. You deal with the prisoners, and I’ll take care of the minions. It’s pizza night, and we just had an influx of trolls, so I need as many chefs as we can get,” I said. Draco flew away, and I emerged onto the balcony, looking down upon my subjects.

I took a second to scan the crowd. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s the diversity of my minions. Most villages just have the usual mix of humans, dwarves, elves, halflings, and gnomes, but I have a little of everything. Goblins and kobolds were the most numerous by far. Then, there were the orcs and trolls, my shock troops. (If you can’t tell an orc apart from a troll, slap it. An orc will punch you across the room, a troll will regenerate and then punch you across the room.) Dark elves emerged from the prison chamber, their necromancers bringing an assortment of undead with them. Even the occasional dragon was flying in from above.

“Welcome back, everyone! What did I miss?”

Cheers erupted from the minions below the balcony. The uninitiated often think that I mistreat my minions, but the first rule of villainy is pragmatism. Treat your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valley, as they say.

“We have captured the mayor’s daughter! That’s another village driven under the greatest heel of all!” I said. There were more cheers, and a few chuckles from the more comedically versed. “I prepared for this, of course. To celebrate our victory, live music will be provided at dinner!”

Suddenly, a goblin ran up to me, out of breath.

“What is it, Jerry?” I asked, mildly irritated.

“Your evilness, the mathematicians have news! As of tomorrow, the odds will be in favor of the arrival of… a hero!”

The crowd fell silent. No one really knew how to react. None of my minions ever know how to react when news like this is announced. All sorts of folks are against me, but not every one of them is a true hero.

I, on the other hand, was most pleased. “Excellent! We’d better start preparing! Jerry, tell Cal the performance will have to be postponed a few hours. Everyone else, initiate the usual operations! If you’re unsure of what to do, there’s some goblins in the east wing who can help!” I stepped down from the balcony.

Draco was already in my throne room. “The dark elves have the prisoners under control. What happened out there?”

“The math team says a hero is supposed to show up tomorrow,” I said. A smile spread across Draco’s scaly face. I walked over to the file cabinet.

“Let’s see here… Do I have it under G for gambling or H for hero? Ah, here it is,” I said, pulling out a sheet of paper with an assortment of charts on it. “The current stakes are four thousand gold pieces. So, what’s your bet? Warrior? Mage? I’m going with warrior.”

“Paladin. It’s a long shot, but I’ve got a good feeling about it,” said Draco.

“We have a deal. Anything else?” I asked.

“The battle plan, my lord. You’ll be off fighting the hero, so I have to command the troops,” said Draco.

“Ah, of course. My tacticians have a new plan specifically tailored to armies with heroes among them. They’ve sent it down to your room for review,” I said.

“I’ll check that out, then. Good luck, my lord,” said Draco, flying out the window.

“And the same for you,” I replied. I pulled a hidden lever, causing the throne to move back and reveal the staircase underneath. Walking down to bed, I grinned at how neatly everything was falling into place. Then, as per the second rule of villainy, I let out an evil laugh.

 

Eight in the Evening

He walked in with the lights hot on his face. He strode through the sea of chanting, churning people at almost a skip, eyes rapidly flipping back and forth in the apprehensive version of the steady, slow moving gaze that panned the audience with cool confidence. The subtle discrepancy was unnoticeable. Yet it did not matter who knew, save one person: the person he employed his frenetic technique to locate. The Hornet.

The Grand Champion, also known as the Hornet, was unbeaten. The number eight, having fallen from second slowly and showing no signs of slowing his age-precipitated decline, had challenged the Hornet as a final flail before his career dipped below ten, went into free fall, and spiraled into the vaguely terrifying world of retirement.

The number eight continued his stride, trying a few jabs followed by a powerful cross. That cross used to be his most powerful weapon. But during the smack, as it was widely accepted to be called, the vitality behind the swing was drained. Nothing in the physical punch was wrong, but the audience didn’t seem to care, letting loose a great roar because of his quick training. As the ropes grew bigger, approaching too quickly for the number eight’s taste, he felt the desperate need for the boost of the audience’s cheer once more. He let loose a grand flurry of punches, danced back and forth while the cheer swelled, and drove it to a crescendo with an aggressive uppercut. While it probably lacked in technique, the uppercut had no rival for showmanship. Here was the ring, and now was the time where his natural instincts of fear must be forcibly silenced. He nodded to his trainer, who smiled and opened a gap between the ropes. Number Eight leapt with a huff onto the side of the ring and immediately dove through the ropes with effortless ease, landing in a leopard-like position. The man, with boxer trunks of a leopard glancing predatorily over long tendrils of grass, held the crowd in the palm of his hand. He sprang to his feet and pulled his muscles taut by stretching his arms in a long, nearly complete oval ending below his waist. He roared.

The crowd went wild.

They loved the design. They loved the passion. They loved the persona. They loved the effort. They loved the performance. They would be disappointed to learn how much Number Eight’s shoulder hurt from the leopard pose. It was then that Number Eight saw Number One, The Hornet, known only by his family as Walter Frederickson, hiding in the dark of the tunnel preceding the long walk out to the ring. The Hornet cracked his knuckles unsteadily and blinked hard.

He stared him down, knowing the only chance against the twenty-three-year-old champion was to psych him out, so that he would doubt his superior abilities. Perhaps if he could get the Hornet to crawl wounded back into his hive, his seemingly magical powers would follow.

“The battlefield is where you make it,” his wife had said to him once. It is not always the ring.

Well, it will be his brain this fine evening, thought the man. Early victories will be key to this match. I simply need to make him forget that he could beat me by running away and exhausting my strength through avoidance.

“A victory before the game is as early as they come.” That one was from his first trainer, and it was good advice. Leaping upon the Hornet’s brief hesitation to prepare himself before the match, Number Eight motioned to him with a stuck-out and trembling lower lip to come to the ring. It was a perfect gesture. The crowd roared with laughter, and the Hornet reddened visibly at the barb. But that was not the best part. Number Eight allowed a cruel, crooked bending of the end of his lip in a scarily jagged smile. The Hornet’s eyes widened and then narrowed as he realized it too.

Coming out after that insult would be to do exactly what had been ordered, overtly revealing weakness. Hesitating would confirm the insult that he was scared to come out of the tunnel. Number Eight had been plotting this opening for weeks, and if age came packaged with one thing to desire, it was knowledge. The Hornet took the only acceptable course and charged out with his shoulders thrown back. A slight tremor shook his frame, but while it originated near the peaks of his broad shoulders, it never made it past the compact abdomen. The Hornet, in a somewhat desperate attempt to mimic the showmanship displayed by his adversary, tossed his robe into the audience with a grandiose air, revealing the well-defined muscles hidden underneath. He arrived at his corner hastily, the crowd providing ample applause as befitted the national champion, yet none compared to the raucous cheers issued to the man who now donned a ferocious, black mouthguard decorated with sharp teeth. A simple, black mouthguard was handed to the man in the black and yellow boxing trunks.

Walter Frederickson had a small, chiseled face that might have been a half-moon if it were not so ovalish. He also sported a short crop of auburn hair that was just long enough to give the hairdresser enough hope to aggressively attempt to smooth it back. The Hornet was a strange case, a strange type for a boxer. His short form and subsequently minimal reach, and that his body was just lithe enough that one might have considered him a weight class down from heavyweight, made him quite an unlikely prospect for a boxing champion. He had not been scouted particularly early. He came out of nowhere, relatively, his first major match being against the number twenty-seven in the country. It was an easy victory. So easy that he shot up to challenging twenty, then nineteen. Nineteen, in fact, was a knockout later in the rounds. After that it was fourteen, a very easy victory, and then fending off a few challenges of his own. Sixteenth in the country was nothing to sniff at, but it took a hard-fought, nailbiter victory in the Olympics to really be taken seriously. He took home gold in the light heavyweight after going the whole match just trading blows with some upstart Australian boxer. It came down to the wire, but the Hornet, as he was now known, had won his twentieth professional match right after that victory, challenging the number ten. The Hornet never got too ahead of himself, though. Someone on the internet eventually realized he had only ever challenged someone four places above his own rank, and he earned a reputation for his dogged and modest attitude.

He was also known for his unique fighting style. As previously mentioned, his was not the body type that most naturally befitted a boxer. He had molded his entire style around one thing: reflexes. He had catlike reflexes, could practically anticipate a blow before the thought formed in his opponent’s mind. Based off of that one skill, his coaches had built a machine. It was all in the variety of attack, really. No one could ever land a blow on Walter Frederickson, and whenever they overstepped their bounds, Walter Frederickson would be in and out of their defenses leaving only a cripple. They folded after a strong series of punches, never too long and never was the attack pressed, but just a select few jabs and perhaps a cross. Then, he resumed his stance as if nothing had happened.This was why he was knighted the Hornet.

Number Eight hoped beyond hope that the weeks of rigorous training would pay off. And he needed them to. Boxing was the only thing he knew how to do in life, it being necessary in that craft to dedicate the entirety of one’s time to the endeavor. People do not wonder nearly often enough about the life of an athlete not as successful as Michael Jordan or Arnold Palmer post-career, thought he. And the boxers have the worst of it, perhaps behind football. Retirement is early, so you dither about, unsure of what to do with your money and refusing to allow yourself to take a nostalgic and longing glance into the past, until those years are wasted and you find yourself in the dangerous lands of a midlife crisis. Then your money is gone, your relationship is ruined, and you settle for a mediocrity that is not only depressing in its essence, but also jarringly melancholy as a juxtaposition to your former status. Number Eight’s head spun. He had taken the mental journey into the future that can be as dangerous as a foray into the past. Number Eight also then realized he had been holding his face in a rigid sort of mocking smile for some time. He disguised a brief massaging of his face in the similar but more quotidien gesture of stroking the stubble that was the beginning of a beard that Number Eight sternly refused to allow to come into being.

Walter Frederickson pranced about in his corner, looking a bit nervous, and very childlike as a result. The announcer began the spiel so familiar to boxing fans, announcing the contestants with zest that demanded some sort of accentuation, which ended up scattered arbitrarily.

“And in the BLUE corner, weighing in at TWO hundred and SEVEN pounds, COMING from New YORK, winner of twenty- matches, FIFTEEN by knockout and famous for his FEROCIOUS attack, HEAVYWEIGHT champion of THE world, The HORRRRRRRNET!” The crowd erupted into cacophonous cheers and the energy behind the words. The words were of less importance.

“And IN the red corner, weighing in at two HUNDRED and thirty-two POUNDS, coming ALL THE WAY from AR-I-ZONA, former NUMBER two in the WORLD for Heavyweight…”

The stadium spun violently and Number Eight forcibly stopped the whirlpool that might suck him into the depths of memory.

“…Winner of forty matches…”

He was pulled down into the fathoms of nostalgia to his twenty-first win. That one had been his twenty-first straight. He had felt very proud of it. Then his streak had been abruptly broken by a loss. Out of the four matches following that tenth loss, he had lost two. It was a grand disillusionment for Number Eight. Even though he grew higher and higher in the ranks, nobody believed he would top the lists anymore. And he didn’t.

“…With thirteen by KNOCKOUT and a paltry eight losses…”

But he looked to the side to see his wife, Linda. She was cheering wildly, and when she saw him looking at her for support, she adjusted her expression to flow confidence into him like a tributary. She had always been supportive of his career. He always came home to Linda smiling, a messy bun flopping as she set about making dinner. She held her own job as well, and it was a nice one. She had a Ph.D from Princeton, and had studied for a long while to earn it. As a result, she taught at the University of Phoenix. Number Eight and Linda would relax after a long day, have dinner while discussing the events of that day. Sometimes they would watch a movie. Sometimes they would play a board game. After that, they would go to bed in a beautiful bedroom. It was decorated with polished wood that appeared to be holding up the ceiling. It gave the room a homey ambience.

Linda, thirty-three, and Number Eight, thirty-four, had wanted children for a long time. The duo had learned a few weeks ago of the existence of a baby girl. Linda wanted Melinda. Number Eight disagreed. They would both laugh after each playful altercation. There was no visible bump yet.

Number Eight and Linda were equal breadwinners, at this point. Linda had wanted a job, wanted to do something with her Ph.D. When Number Eight met Linda, he had just lost two out of the last four matches. She took a job at the University of Phoenix soon after.

Walter Frederickson turned to look at the crowd. His glance was intercepted by the coach. Walter looked at the coach hopefully. He received a steely acknowledgement.

“…MI-chael Ca-RU-so!”

Number Eight came to the middle with Walter Frederickson. The referee recited the timeworn list of precepts. “I want a good, clean fight…” Number Eight stared at Walter Fredrickson. Walter Frederickson blinked hard. Then he began blinking very quickly, very copiously. His muscles rippled. His skin looked smooth and young. He blinked again. He checked the audience for any sign of recognition. A nice portion of people cheered. A handful crowed at how few cheered. The heavyweight champion bit his lip. Number Eight smacked the gloves of Walter Frederickson, and the latter’s gloves held firm. Walter Frederickson seemed to find some resolve. Number Eight felt a twang of fear.

Michael Caruso turned back to Linda and Melinda. He beamed at them and dropped his arms.

“Fight!”

 

The (Rather Unfair) Life of a Housefly

             

SPIDER’S ISLAND

MONDAY

Spider snot! Stupid spider snot! Excuse my language. I am so sorry. Let me introduce myself before I explain why I launched into a fury so hard it could break walls. My name is Fly. Yes, just Fly. I am, as you could tell on the cover of my — cough cough — best-selling book — cough cough — , I am a housefly. I live in a small crack in the wall of a big house. The big house isn’t mine. It belongs to some humans. Disgusting animals who fart every five seconds and laugh at the planet Uranus. HAHAHAHA. Sorry, I just got the joke.

Anyways, time for an explanation. I’m angry because my mom’s stupid boyfriend Derek (who’s a spider, by the way) booked us a “family” trip to Spider’s Island. Okay, I bet there are tons of things racing around your minds right now. You’re probably thinking he’s doing it to be nice. He knows I hate spiders. My mom is too wowed by him to care. He said he knows a lot of people there, including a spider that has a son who is the leader of a posse. He also showed us pictures, and every picture has about a million spiders in it. Not exaggerating. I’ve heard rumors about Spider’s Island from Sticky (who’s a stick insect) that they wrap their prey in webs and devour them in one gulp. My mom told me to pack all my stuff at once because the flight is tomorrow. So, I’m here in my room with an empty suitcase on one side and all my bottled acid on the other side. I’m probably going to stuff all of it in my suitcase tomorrow. Anyways, I’m going to bed.

 

TUESDAY MORNING

Day of the flight… 

Hello? You still there? This is Professor Fly, and I’m about to board the flight to the dreaded Spider’s Island. I had to sneak my diary into the suitcase because Derek said I was getting “too old.” Nothing’s too old for Professor Fly, investigator of the unknown. I’ll fill you in later when I’m on the flight.

Okay, I’m on. It’s just me, Fly, not Professor Fly. He’ll come back when we’re on Spider’s Island. Anyways, we’re on the plane. It’s been about two hours since I’ve been on. The chairs don’t recline, and there’s no snack service. It’s seven hours of this torture. I’ve noticed that the air’s gotten much grayer. There’s also a lot of spiders on the seats. Derek’s already asleep, and Mom is looking through the images again. Okay, I’ll come back when we’re there.

Okay, hi. We arrived in Spider’s Island. The sky is still gray, and there’s a lot of tall, rocky mountains. We arrived at the den that we were staying in. We’re sharing rooms with one of Derek’s thug friends, the guy who has the son in a posse. When we arrived, the son was talking to a bunch of his friends.

“Oi, Dale, where’s your dad?” Derek asked.

“Don’t know. Guess he went out to gamble,” Dale replied. Derek and Mom went to find him. As soon as they left, Dale and the others all stared at me.

“So it’s true, eh? There’s a fly in Spider’s Island,” Dale sneered. All of his posse laughed evilly.

“Okay, fly. You think you can just walk around this place like it’s all yours? This is our island,” Dale said.

“P — please. I don’t have any hassle with you or your island. I want to get out of here as much as you want me out,” I replied. Dale grabbed me by the wing.

“Stay out of our way, or you’re in for a punishment,” he muttered.

He hung me on a branch that was sticking out of the cave. Then, he and his friends went away. Yep, that was how my morning started. I decided that since I was going to be staying here for a week, I should probably know my way around. I went outside the cave and slipped through a small crack in the mountain. I was horrified! In the center, there were hundreds and hundreds of spiders, who were gambling, making webs, stealing food, and drooling all over everything.

I bent my head low and pretended I wasn’t there. I was so small that they probably wouldn’t see me even if I went right in front of them. I spotted Dale, and my rage bubbled up. I really didn’t like that kid. I saw him walk over to a shop and while the owner wasn’t looking, he stole a whole bottle of spider whiskey. Did he drink? I didn’t really think about it much.

Dale and I were already on the say-something-bad-and-you’ll-instantly-regret-it scale. As I walked past, I noticed something else that was strange. Something smelled delicious! I mean, this is Spider’s Island. The only thing I thought they ate were bugs covered in webs. I followed the scent, and it led to a small market where a spider with a beard was selling some pies.

“Three, please!” I said. I gave him some spider cash I stole from Derek’s bag. He gave me some pies, and I stuffed them all in my mouth.

Chomp — “These are delicious! What’s in these?” I asked.

“Oh, just fly meat,” he replied. I stopped chewing at once.

“W — what?” I asked.

“Fly meat,” he replied. I spat everything out and ran over to the sea.

“EW EW EW EW EW EW,” I yelled out. This place was crazy! I couldn’t stay here anymore!

Eventually, I entered the cave. Mom was sleeping deeply, and Dale and Derek were out doing who knows what. I entered my bed, and just as I was about to fall asleep…

CHOMP!

I jumped out of my bed. Something just bit me! I grabbed my covers and pulled them off. Inside of my bed was a snake! It hissed and leaned in for another bite. I grabbed my pillow, but it bit right through it. I ran over to the door and grabbed a branch. I threw it at the snake, but the snake devoured it in one gulp. What? Not even Professor Fly had ever encountered a snake like this. Speaking of Prof. F, he could have really been of use. The snake jumped out of the bed like a piece of rogue spaghetti. I jumped out of the way, and it hit the wall. It turned its head in a full 180 degrees towards me.

“HISSSSSS!”

I took that as a warning. I flew into the bathroom at once. Big mistake. The bathroom was super tiny with no space to dodge the snake. Speaking of the devil, it bit its way through the door and into the bathroom. I grabbed the shower handle and turned it on. As soon as a drop of water touched the snake, it fled out of the cave in a nanosecond. I wiped the sweat off my forehead. As I flew out of the bathroom, I found Dale asleep and Derek looking at me as if he wanted to crush me in his fist and do it three times for fun.

“CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY THE CAVE IS A MESS!” he yelled out. I wanted to yell that Dale did it right at his stupid, ugly, and hairy face, but I had no proof and even if I did, Dale was still asleep, all innocent.

“Listen, Fly. You’re on very thin ice here, and if you keep going on like this, you won’t like me by the end of this holiday,” he whispered. I mean, it wasn’t like he had won best man of the year, but I think he meant that he was probably going to turn worse than he already was. He gave me another look, then went to bed and stuffed all his bags on my bed. I sighed and lay down on the floor. I was so tired, nothing could have woken me up.

 

WEDNESDAY 5:00 (IN THE MORNING)

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!!!

That was the sound of the alarm that woke me up. I thought that since we were on holiday, we wouldn’t have to wake up early, but that wasn’t the case.

“WAKE UP!” Derek yelled.

Dale got out of bed and accidentally-on-purpose kicked me. “Oops, sorry.” He smirked, and he, Derek, and Dale’s dad walked outside with Mom. I sighed and walked outside.

Millions of spiders were running to the mountain market. Weird. It seemed like they all woke up at the exact same time as us. Dale and his gang were hauling ten bags of bottles. Was that the spider whiskey? I snuck behind a bush and followed them to the mountain market. When he arrived, he set up a table and filled the spider whiskey with… bugs?! He was spiking the spider whiskey!

“Spider whiskey! Get your 20 spider dollars spider whiskey!” he yelled out. A bunch of spiders walked over and got a glass. As they drank it, their eyes became wider.

“BUGS! MORE BUGS!” they yelled, slamming cash on Dale’s table. He saw me and smirked. Oh no. I backed away slowly. Then, I remembered I could fly, so I did. This place was a nightmare, and I hadn’t seen anything yet. Just keep reading. I figured I might as well find a spot that no spider went to to be my private thinking spot. I found a nice area next to a pond and some trees. I started pondering the things that went wrong in the trip.

  1. Dale. Dale makes it up to the top of my list, no contest.
  2. Derek. Derek knows this place like the back of his hand. Not useful for me.
  3. The market. The center of the island, every spider went there, and they sold the most disgusting things.
  4. Snakes. On the bright side, I knew their weakness!

 

I had to decide my plan carefully if I was going to survive this island. Luckily, someone was already ready for the job, and his name was Agent Fly.

Hey, everybody. It’s Agent Fly. I was asked to make a plan to survive, so let’s hit the facts. Dale and his gang always head to the spider market to sell their spider whiskey at 5:00. Then, they go steal other people’s belongings. As long as I stay away from the market between 5:00 and 1:00, I’ll be fine. Derek isn’t a problem. He just goes to gamble with his friends all day. He returns at 9:00, and I have to be in bed by then. For snakes, I’ll just keep a glass of water next to me at all times. Just follow this plan, and you’ll be fine. Agent Fly, out!

Phew, thanks AF. With my new plan written out in front of me, I knew where to go at what time. I grabbed the paper and flew out. It was about 12:00, so I had an hour before Dale would come out of the shop and torment me. One thing AF and I couldn’t figure out was why every spider was outside at 9:00. Maybe this place was really organized, but I still thought it was kind of strange. They all woke up at the same time, did whatever they wanted, stayed up at the same time, and then went to bed. I decided that Agent Fly would go out, and Prof. Fly would stay back and analyze the results.

Okay, what’s up. Agent Fly here. I’m outside right now. It’s 8:59, and I can see some spiders leaving the market. I can spot Derek, Dale, and that dude who sold the fly meat. A secret agent always comes on time. I’ll wait here for a minute and tell you what happened.

Oh My Gosh! Agent Fly back again. I saw the craziest thing! It was precisely 9:00, and every spider was lined up, chanting. I felt the island shake, and then it started to rise! It didn’t take a genius to figure this out. Spider’s Island is a giant spider! It growled, and all the spiders bowed down. Derek walked in front and whispered something in (I guess) its ear. The spider growled again, and every spider backed away quickly. Then, Dale walked in front holding his spiked spider whiskey. The spider growled again, and he smiled. Every spider, besides Derek, looked frightened. Then, the spider went back down, and every spider crawled back to their caves. I have to report to Professor Fly!

Hi, Professor Fly reporting. I found out the spider was a giant spiked sea spider. Also, I translated the growls:

Growl one: WELCOME! DEREK, GIVE ME YOUR REPORT.

Growl two: YOU HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING?!

Growl three: GOOD JOB, DALE. KEEP WORKING ON YOUR PART.

I don’t know what he was talking about. It all sounds strange. I’m sure it all fits together, but to what? Why was he asking about a report? Why did he congratulate Dale, and why did he complain about Derek not doing anything? Everything just didn’t make sense! Well, I’ll report to Fly now.

Okay, I just got news from AF and Prof. Fly that Spider’s Island is a giant spider! How am I supposed to stay here for a week? I’m so scared. Hold on, Derek and Dale just came back. I’m pretending to go to sleep. See you tomorrow, guys!

 

THURSDAY 5:00

You guessed it, the morning.

I was so tired from last night’s investigation that when I got up, I immediately went back to sleep. Derek shouted at me, and we all went outside to the usual routine. I — I mean — AF, Prof. Fly, and I had decided to call the plan Operation Expose. We had to find out more and leak the secrets of this place. I was a lot more careful when I went outside, knowing that I was hovering above a giant spider. Anyways, I’m going to let Prof. Fly take the floor for now.

Hey there! Okay, so our next big plan is to find out what the spider was talking about. I have a few guesses, but I can’t be precisely accurate until I find some concrete evidence. Since I haven’t really found anything yet, I’ll just end my words here.

Okay, Fly back here. I kinda have some explaining to do. Prof. Fly ran into Derek this afternoon.

He said, “Stop doing your stupid games, Fly.”

You might be confused. Well, Prof. Fly, Agent Fly, and others that might come in after aren’t relatives, twins, brothers, friends, or any of that. They’re just… me, the weirdo Fly with a bunch of secret identities because he’s not happy about who he is. Even if you do wanna walk away now, stay for this next bit. It’s the one everyone’s been waiting for.

 

7:00 (AT NIGHT)

My mom walked towards me. She explained the biggest reason she wanted to come to Spider’s Island was to see… my dad. I looked up. What? My dad had never been a subject at my house. Derek seemed to hate him and said he was an unemployed loser who died by trying to fly in a paper airplane. My mom just kept quiet. I got up and followed her.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure everybody knew we weren’t going to literally see him. You guessed it, we went to the cemetery. We stood in front of his grave.

“Derek lied. He wasn’t unemployed, or a loser, or died by a paper airplane accident. He was a hero of war,” she said. I kept looking at his grave.

 

Frank Fly

2018-2018

Died from the great revolution and was swatted by a human. He was a great hero and will always be remembered for his actions.

 

I felt a tear trickling down my face. My dad. A hero of war. Everyone had made fun of me for the story that Derek had told everyone.

“He was also a hero to our family. His grave was put on Spider’s Island because nobody remembered him for what he did,” my mom replied.

I stared into my reflection in the water. For a second, I saw myself as my dad. A uniform, badges, waiting to enter battle. He had done it all for us. The family. No matter how weird everyone may think I am, me, Prof. Fly and Agent Fly are going to solve Operation Expose. Not for the fame or to rub it into Derek’s face, but for my dad and my family. I raced off to my hideout. Then, I spotted Dale, and he spotted me. I didn’t run away. I didn’t hide. I flew right towards him. Let me just say, this is one of my favorite parts…

“Well, well, well. Loser Fly has come to spread his disease,” Dale smirked. I stepped in front of him.

“How do you think the Federal Insect Prison will react when they find out you’re illegally spiking spider whiskey without a license? And last time I checked, selling spider whiskey without a license and being younger than 30 is five years of prison,” I told him.

“Aww, and where’s your proof?” Dale asked, mocking me. “I’ve been spiking and selling since I was four.”

I brought out a key chain. “This happens to be a recorder, Dale. Let’s see, four years, that’s about eight years in prison,” I said, clicking the button and skipped ahead. I’ve been spiking and selling since I was four.  “There’s my proof. You just unleashed a powerful demon, and that demon can send you to prison or a lot of places that are even worse. So, what’s it gonna be, Dale?”

He looked like he wanted to punch me, but then he and his posse walked away. I almost felt like breakdancing right there. I did it! I never stood up to anybody before. (Well, unless you count the school bully Bane, the Desert Scarab, but if you’ve read The (Rather Unfair) Life of a Housefly: Story Swap, then you’ll probably know that it didn’t end well.) I realized I should have used my brains instead of my imaginary muscles and probably saved myself a lot of pain.

Suddenly, as I flew towards the cave, the island shook. I knew what it meant. Gigantic spider freak island was rising up. It stared me straight in the eyes. It growled, but I’m pretty sure it meant: “YOU’LL PAY!”

I stared at it. I didn’t move. I wasn’t going to try and fight it. Then, I held up an air horn. BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM!

Millions of sergeants from the FIP or Area 62 (Area 51 for Insects) flew towards the spider. They shot thousands and thousands of darts until it fell to the ground.

“Thanks for the tip, kid,” one agent said.

“Don’t forget my price,” I mentioned. He gave me a shiny badge. Agent Fly was officially in business with his own agent tag! Then, I ran into Derek. He looked even angrier than the spider.

“I’M GONNA KILL YOU!” he yelled.

To be continued…

 

A Day in the Life

        

Chapter One

Scritch… Scratch… Scribble… The sound of graphite scraping across a sheet of plain paper filled my head. I zeroed in on the story I was writing, for that was all that was important. Ms. Carter’s lecture of something or other slithered in one ear and out the other. I crouched down over the paper, letting my writing spill out over the page…

“Chase!”

The voice pierced through my wall of words, and I jerked my head up. The entire class was staring in my direction, and Ms. Carter was looking at me expectantly. I shuffled my work so that my math notebook covered the sheet of paper with the short story.

“Um… what was the question again?” I asked nervously.

“Weren’t you listening?” piped up Jake.

Ms. Carter shot him a reprimanding look but turned back to face me. “Fifty-seven divided by three. We were working on Katherine’s problem, remember?”

“It’s Kate!” shouted Kate, defensively.

Shooting Kate a sympathetic look, Ms. Carter said, “Okay, sorry. Chase, we were working on Kath — err, Kate’s problem — ”

“Nineteen,” I blurted.

“Huh?” Ms Carter asked. A genuine look of surprise fell upon her face — she didn’t think I could do it. I could tell. A couple other kids, too, stared at me in shock.

“The answer. Uh — fifty-seven divided by three. It’s nineteen.”

A wide grin slowly settled on Ms. Carter’s face. “Yes, that is correct. Now, who can tell me where nineteen fits into… ”

Her words morphed into senseless babble, and I became enveloped in my story again. Thankfully, Ms. Carter ignored me for the long rest of the period, and I had jotted down ten pages of my messy handwriting by the time the bell rang.

Our bell was the old-fashioned ring, and by seventh grade, it had become a primal instinct to jump up as soon as you heard it. That’s exactly what happened, and the second the sound fell upon our ears, the class jumped up and ran out the room. But since I was a neat freak, I took five minutes to get ready because I had to put my writing in the folder, put the folder in my bag, and swing the bag over my shoulder.

I was just walking out when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

Ms. Carter said, “I’m going to let you doodle in class, just… try to pay attention, okay?” I nodded and continued my jog to the door.

Once outside, I had to run down two floors and turn a couple corners to get to ELA and was late once again. The door was open; the class was already inside. I sighed. The teacher, Mr. Williams, handed me a small slip of paper as I walked in. As soon as I had settled down in my usual seat, I briefly glanced at it at it. In a bold print it read:

It Is Your Duty To Be On Time! This Is A Warning — Next Time You Will Get Detention!

This was a new system Mr. Williams had put into play. I vaguely remembered him going over it last class. I sighed again and stuffed the slip deep in my bag where it would never be seen again.

“Who can tell me what a noun is?” I looked up to see Mr. Williams pretending to look around the room but actually looking directly at me.

I bit my lip to keep from retorting. Everyone knew what a noun was! We had covered it in fourth grade! He must be doing this to make me look like an idiot. Well, I would prove him wrong. My anger seemed to drown out the rest of the world as I answered.

“A per — ” I started, but Jake, sitting right across from me, interrupted saying, “A person, place, or thing, Mr. Williams.”

Confused, I looked at Jake, then back to Mr. Williams. “I asked Jake,” he explained, seeming annoyed. Jake smirked at me and then went back to explaining what a noun was. I gritted my teeth and reached in my bag for the writing folder, pulled my current story out, and started writing. I wasn’t that far into the story when someone spoke. “So… what did you get as your answer?”

I whipped my head around to find Emma, a classmate, staring at me expectantly. Her smooth, lush brown hair was swept over her shoulder, and her a picture is worth 100 words shirt blew in the gentle breeze that came from Mr. Williams huge, black fan that he kept in the corner.

“Umm… it’s… er… ” I trailed off, not knowing what to say.

Emma bit her lip. “Your answer. For, you know, the question… ?”

I breathed slowly. “I dunno,” I started. “What… what did you get?”

Emma narrowed her eyes and swept her hair back over her shoulder. “C’mon, Chase. Didn’t you hear him? He said list five examples of a noun. What are your five examples?”

Right then, Mr. Williams walked by our table. I quickly copied everyone else at the table and flipped open my ELA notebook. He leaned over, eying everybody’s work, and whether he noticed that the writing on the open page was from last month or not, he said nothing. Relief clouded my thoughts.

Suddenly, Mr. Williams turned back, his red beard and hair seeming especially menacing. He spoke in a disappointed tone. “Chase… I strongly advise you to see me after school for extra help.” He then continued his slow walk by the tables.

Next to me, Emma’s eyes widened. “Damn. What d’you think you did?”

I shrugged. “I dunno.”

Ant that wasn’t a lie. I was actually doing decently in his class, with a 90 average — which was more than I could say about my other subjects. Maybe, he had seen my work, or lack thereof. Or he just disliked me.

For the rest of the period, I just sat still and tried to listen to what Mr. Williams was saying. But it was hard — I just wanted to write, to zoom out from the rest of the world, and to focus on the worlds that I created.

That was all I wanted to do.

This time, I was prepared for the bell. The boy on my other side, John, had so much work sprawled out on the table that I put my own supplies away early and acted like John’s work was actually mine. Then when the bell did rang, I was ready and leaped out of my seat and bolted out of the room, ahead of everybody else.

Our homeroom was another three floors up, so I didn’t take my time. Once I was about halfway there, another kid, Mason, caught up with me and elbowed me in the ribs gently. “Yo, what’s up? What was that about?”

“What do ya mean? From the warning slip Williams handed me, or Jake the Jerk, or the extra help that I was ‘encouraged to go to?’” I asked sarcastically.

Mason choked on air. “Dude — an after-school extra help? Damn. Are you failing or somethin’?”

“Nope. I’m cruisin’ with, like, a ninety average. He just hates me,” I said, sighing.

There was a creak as Mason pushed open one of the large double doors that separated the stairwell from the hall.

“So… what’s up with your crush?” Mason asked excitedly.

“Not again, Mason.”

“No — Emma is legit your crush! You can’t hide it!”

“No. I refuse to admit something that’s not true!”

“Seriously, Chase; don’t try to hide it. I bet — I bet she knows it!”

I sighed and gave in. “Don’t you dare tell her.”

“Whatever. I swear, though, the second you let me, it’ll be in the newspaper.”

“Oh, sure — your private newspaper.”

Our conversation was brought to a halt when we reached our homeroom. Our science teacher, Mr. Lee, was standing outside the door to our class, talking to one of his students. Mason and I were first to line up behind Mr. Lee, but the 28 other members of our class soon walked up behind us.

Mr. Lee motioned for us to walk in without a glance. We did so. Then it occured to me to ask Mason for the extra help. He was an honors kid and probably knew what to do.

“Hey — about that detention… ?”

Mason, currently in the middle of throwing some books into his locker, looked at me. “Skip it.”

This caught me off guard. “Wait — skip it?”

“Dude, yeah. He was probably, like, joking or something,” Mason replied.

I slowly shook my head. “No… I don’t think so. I think he meant it… ”

Mason shrugged. “Whatever. I’ll go bash some stormtroopers on my own then.”

“Face it, dude — we both know you can’t even survive that game on your own.”

“I’ll try,” Mason insisted, shoving some books into his old Flash backpack. “And if I succeed, then I have the bragging rights.”

I thought for a moment, then said, “Nah. I’ll skip it. You’re probably right anyway, he just despises me.”

He was probably right. My best guess was that Mr Williams would just going to lecture me about being responsible and doing my work — and boy, had I heard that lecture too many times.

The bell rang again, bringing me back to my senses. I swung my backpack over my shoulder and followed the rest of the class out of the classroom, down three floors, and to the entrance of the school.

As I was being pushed out by the rush of students struggling to get out the main door, I saw Mr. Williams walking and caught his eye for a split second. He gave me a disappointed look. I turned away, but a feeling that seemed like guilt seemed to weigh me down.

“So, explain to me again — how do you become a hero in Battlefront?” Mason asked, coming up next to me.

I rolled my eyes and said, “Do you seriously still not know? Even, like, my sister knows!”

It went on like this until Mason and I had arrived at my house, when we waved, vowed revenge in Battlefront, and I spent a while fidgeting with my keys and unlocking the door. Once I succeeded, I walked inside slowly.

“Chase? You there?” a voice — my mom — called.

I kicked off my shoes and threw my backpack on the floor.

“Yeah, I’m home.”

 

The Rebirth Cycle

It started again, the rebirth cycle. Once a month, I change into another person. Different age, different height, different me. Now, I am a girl, Maria, sixteen years old and living in Ohio. My high school is called something like New Ohio High School. I’m scared. Whatever happens, love or friendships, after a month, it’ll all go away. What did I do to deserve this? Anyway, I’m tired of this cycle. It has ruined my life in every way. I have to go and start this new life of mine.

On the way to school, I try to avoid everyone. I look down and never look up at anyone. I pull my hoodie over my head and sit down silent and invisible. Feeling invisible felt good, no friendships and no love ruining my life.

“Hey, are you new?” asks someone over my shoulder. The voice sounds sarcastic and scratchy. I turn around, and all I see is a body full of glitter. The earrings, clothes, and lip gloss are all covered in glitter. I lay my head back in the fold my arms are in. I sit there, not moving until she asks me again in an angry voice. I lift my head, trying my best to keep my anger down and not let my anger get my magic out of control. The lights go out, and the teacher locks the door, assuming this was some lockdown. But I know it was my powers that turned off the lights. After my anger fled away, the lights started to flicker back on. I look up, acting surprised, so that no one assumes it was me.

We all go back to our seats. Ms. Johnson points to the board and starts to gabble about science and chemistry. I look back because I felt something hit my head. I hear snorts and giggles from Ms. Glitter Girl. I look behind me and see lined paper crumpled up in a perfect, round ball. I open it up and there, written in pretty, pink cursive is, “Don’t think I don’t know it was you who made these lights go pitch black. Have a bad day. Sincerely, The Best.” I rip it up and throw it into the trash can.

This boy walks over to her. I notice his beautiful, short, curly black hair. His brown eyes matched his precious smile. I look down at my hands, fidgeting on my desk, as I overhear his sweet angel voice say, “Why would you do that? I know what you wrote. You don’t even know her!” I quickly turn my head, trying to hide my smile, as the girl gives me this ugly face and rolls her eyes at me. The boy whispers something so quiet that I can’t hear. When he finishes, he looks at me. I wanted that moment to last forever, the moment that our eyes met. He smiled. I smiled back. It felt special and unique. There are so many words I can put into this moment.

Ring! Ring! I stand up, and so does everyone else. I grab my stuff as I quickly run to my locker. I shove all of my chemistry books into it before they fall out. I have to get home before anyone sees me. I go outside and hide behind the thin pole at the far corner of the school. I open my backpack and whisper into it, “Bring me home.”

As I start to fade, I overhear his voice again saying, “You dropped your — ” He stops and stares at me as I start to fade more. I close my eyes and hope that he will forget about this by tomorrow.

As the next day begins, I want to forget him. I hope he will forget me too. I look down and pull my hoodie over my head. I go to my classes and glance at the normies on the way. I can’t help but stop and stare at him one more time. I try to avoid any questions from anybody that comes my way. I go into class, put my bag down, and look around. Everyone is staring at me and the boy’s empty seat. I’m scared and shocked, but I don’t let it show. Halfway into class, he comes rushing in and stares at me, not talking. I stare back into his dreamy eyes. In every class from that day onward, I can’t help but daydream about some unrealistic fantasy. Days and classes go by, and I miss him for some odd reason. I think about him all the time.

Science class: glass shattering and terrible smells spreading around the room. Students screaming in laughter, girls checking their nails and me. I am doing the task written on the board, my blue goggles tightly strapped onto me, and my oversized white lab coat with my name printed over the top left pocket.

“Ms. Nervig, please report to the principal’s office now.” I hear the cutting beep at the end of the message, the light click of a button. Everyone stares at me, and I hear “Ooh’s” around the lab. My teacher looks at me as if I have done something brutal. I drop my things, throw the thin, blue gloves into the trash bin, and walk out of class. The cold air from the hallway glides past me in a rush. I have questions flying in my mind like paper airplanes. Why am I going to the principal’s office? I stop, everything stops moving, and one question shoots me hard, Have they found out?

I don’t even have to question it. I already know what it meant. Have they found out my secret? The secret that my family has kept for years, that nobody else knows, and that nobody else should ever know, Have they found out? I take a deep breath and push the heavy glass door out of my way.

I see Ms. Lynch setting up boxes and boxes of tissues all around her desk. I am startled, and everything begins to slow down. She looks at me. She isn’t mad or upset with me. She is sad for me. I sit down with my legs crossed and my hands tied. She looks up at me and offers a box of tissues. I kindly decline. She looks up at the ceiling, wipes her tears, looks down at me, and says, “Ms. Nervig, your uncle. Your uncle has um… Has uh… ” I can see in her voice and eyes that this is hard for her.

I hold her hand and say, “What is it?”

She looks up at me and whispers, “Your uncle passed away.”

My mouth drops, and I take a tissue box. Tears go pouring down, and sooner or later, the ground will be flooded with my dreadful tears. I kindly say, “Thank you for the information, Ms. Lynch. I have to get back to class.” I stand up to leave. I clench my fists and yell. The lights on the ceiling flicker, and the ground moves slightly. I wipe my tears as I run out of school and to my house. The tree of my mother was weeping, and the house was darker and smaller. It was silent, and the echo was spreading more. I begin to sulk and cry. The tears were weak.

I am Andhera, Andhera Hacke. I am at the park four blocks away with an old, dusty notebook laying flat on my ripped, black jeans. My thick, dyed black hair is in a tight, squished bun, and my leather jacket gleamed from the sun’s heat. I am lost, scared, alone. There’s a pigeon under the bench munching on my leftovers. Life is filled with different things and animals that people don’t see. The pigeon’s eyes are so precious and glowy. When its feet start to lift up and its light, delicate wings start to flap, the beak is so sharp yet so small. The wings spread wider and wider, and the eyes stare over the skyline as it soars like a sharp feather. I look back down at my father’s book that was left over. I put the diary in my black, ripped bag and pull down my hair to let the breeze flow through it. I tiptoed further into the forest to the abandoned cottage I saw on the way to school. I put on my gloves before I hurt anything or anyone.

Bump! I look up and see a reflection of me, eyes of a stressful past, holding a s’mores frappuccino that is half empty.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” I hear her say. She’s annoyed, and she pushes me to the side and walks ahead. I suddenly realize that I always back down, that I am always worrying about what I say. It was the same when I was in a car crash at the age of six.

I was in the backseat holding my old, sticky stuffed animal. We were on a bridge alone. My mother was in the front seat yelling at me. I could replay those moments on a loop. I had therapy for ten years, and I still struggle with PTSD. That was the last day I saw any family member of mine, and the last words that my mother spoke were, “You are a disgrace to everyone! As soon as we get there, I will — ” Then, we tipped and fell.

“Hey! I didn’t bump into you! You went into my path, bitch!” She slowly turns around, throws off her bag, looks over at me, and says, “What did you just say?” with an evil eye.

I immediately regret what I just said. That wasn’t me at all! I shake my head and quietly say, “Nothing, sorry.” I try to back away, but she turns me around and smiles. I’m confused. I didn’t expect this. As she smiles and shakes my hand, I shake hers back.

I walk back to the bench after school, and I see that pigeon again. I forget to put on my protection gloves and without realizing, I reach out my hands. I bend down and pet the pigeon’s feather wings, and suddenly its eyes turn white and then black and then it falls down. I put my two fingers against its precious neck, and I can’t feel a pulse. I put on my gloves, open my diary, and write, “Accidental Death #563, pigeon dead by touch of wing, time of death: 5:18 p.m. under bench.” I draw a small heart in the corner, lock it back up, and put it in my bag. I put the pigeon in a dark, red, lacy box and dig a hole underneath the tree. I say, “I’m sorry,” as tears pour down my face. I feel so guilty about how my first day in this new place went. I just bounced right back.

***

I tremble further and further into the tunnel underneath the forest. Andhera is crouching and holding tightly onto her bag. Her combat boots are loose, and they make the leaves rustle. “Are you sure about this?” I can see that Andhera immediately regrets this, and she is too afraid to move another step forward.

I sit down in the tunnel and look at her. I say, “Yes, I am completely sure, and we aren’t backing out now.” Andhera looks up, down, left, and right. Then, she looks at me with guilt. I roll my eyes, trying to avoid making eye contact with her puppy eyes as I yell, “Don’t make me regret doing this for us. We have come all this way to finally face this man! Since the day you made me think that you were a stalker, I knew that you could help me and that I could help you to find out who the heck cursed us! So, yes! I am sure about this and whatever you say I will — Andhera?” I can see that she wants to say something, but her mouth is open with no sound coming out. I move closer to her and whisper, “What is it?” She shakes her head and says nothing like it was… nothing. I knew that there was something. She pulls out a piece of paper from her bag, ripped, burned, and with thick ink written all over it. I turn around. The rustling of the leaves stops and everything stays still, pure silence. Tears pour down her face, and suddenly the tunnel is a flood filled with her tears. I read the paper out loud since she handed it to me. It is rusty and old, and it smells like blood.

I say in a low, deep voice, “Dear Andhera, my sweet daughter. I have fought and lost for you. Your mother said that I shouldn’t come home again because of my dangerous uncontrollable powers. I put this note in my old bag because I knew that one day you would be at Southside Racket Forest, looking for me. I gave you this power because I knew that one day you would want to find me. I have to go darling. I love you.”

I realize that we’re at the end of the tunnel. I stand up, and Andhera comes after me. We look at the sign pole, and there are arrows and signs everywhere with names of places. We look high up on the pole, and it says in thick black marker, “You are now at Southside Racket Forest.” We look at each other and then back down at the letter. We can blindly see a small cottage behind all the oak trees and a bloody sign saying, “Welcome to Hacke’s studio.” Andhera runs forward, and I grab her hand.

I tell her honestly, “Your father could be the murderer of mine. Your father gave you this terrible curse, your father made people forget about me after a month, your father — ”

She lets go and screams, “But what if he is actually a good person. That’s what I wanna know!” She lets go as she runs to the cottage. I am now standing here, still afraid for Andhera. I have no hope for her father. I slowly creep behind the cottage, looking through the back broken glass pane window. I see an elderly man hiding next to the door, waiting for an arrival. He looks nothing like Andhera, and he is sliced open on the neck, the blood still dripping, and the bone sliced in half as if it was broken. A knife on the floor, clean as a window wiper. I can hear Andhera screaming. I get out my bow and arrow and drop everything else as I run in. I see another elderly man holding Andhera by the throat with a gun to her head. I can see Andhera struggling to get loose. I try to calm him down, but I am afraid to move to close to the gun. Unfortunately, I am too late. I hear a gunshot, and Andhera’s heart stops beating while my heart turns cold. The only person I understand is gone. I go down to the floor and pull the bow and arrow out of her bag.

I stand back up and scream, “Back off, bitch! Now you live in my world!” Then, he punches me in the face, and the world blacks out. The sounds of an open breeze and the feel of a warm buzzing head on scratchy wooden floors. My eyes are frozen cold and shut closed; the sight of pitch black and the feeling of being unable to move. The voice yelling help and the warm soft feeling of a hand holding mine. And the empty silence of no one coming. And the silent cries of a loved one…

 

Solitude

        

Part One: My Secret

 

Chapter One

I am different than the others. It is just the way I am. I’m used to the insults, the bullies, and the segregation. But, there is one thing keeping me going: the fact that I am unique. My name is Tor, and I am a lion. With wings. I know, I know. It’s weird, but I was just born that way. Even though I cannot fly yet, my wings are very helpful.

They help with keeping my temperature in check, fending off enemies, and jumping higher. In a way, I am grateful for my wings, but part of me just wants to be… normal.

***

“He did not!” she says. I laugh first, and then all the others join me. Cerla is our comedian. She knows how and when to tell jokes. I have a small gang of five friends: Cerla, Tou, Yero, Talika, and me. They are the only ones who admire my wings, although they don’t have any. I really do not want to lose them. I feel the wind blowing in my shallow mane as we make our way home.

“Oh, yes he did,” says Talika. “He just walked up to him, smacked him in the face, claws unsheathed, and before you know it, he gets reported to Taren.”

We all drop our jaws involuntarily. Talika and Cerla bring us daily news. We are used to surprises, so we always expect something new. They’ve always been the first ones to know everything that occurs within the pride. We walk in unison on the dusty, red sanded trail leading to our pride. It is early evening, and we should have dinner ready for us in a few hours. When we arrive, we are greeted by a loud roar from my father, the leader of our pride.

He trots over to us and growls, “You are late, my son.”

“Late for what?” I say, sounding childish.

“You are late for… your mother’s… funeral.”

His words sting me, and my soul collapses to the ground. I shut my eyes and let the tears flow silently. She is gone. Lost forever. It becomes hard to breathe as I walk to her den. I spend the rest of the day there. At daybreak, I am the only one awake. I still feel sad about my mother. But now, on top of that, I feel angry about something. I decide to go hunting and spot a herd of zebras down by the river. I trot toward them until I get into earshot. I stay as low as possible in the tall grass. I slowly crawl through the grass. I keep my wings hidden so that I do not reveal my location to my prey. But my wings are too large, and I startle the herd. I growl at myself, and I feel embarrassed. I return to the pride. I lie in my den for hours before I decide that it is time. Time to fly.

I find a nice, flat area and spread my wings. They are longer and larger than my body, nose to tail tip. I flap them in synchrony, and I lift off the ground. Judging by my results, I will be able to fly. I flap them more times, and I hover off the ground. I am naturally able to move around. I begin to increase my altitude.

“Uhh… Tor? What are you doing up there?” The voice belongs to Talika.

“Uh — I can explain,” I say.

“No explanation needed,” she says, softly.

Her grace distracts me, and I fall out of the sky and land on my back. “Ow,” I say, blandly.

She walks over to me. “You okay?” she asks, genuinely.

“Yeah, I think so,” I reply. I get up and shake off the dirt. “How did you know I was out here?” I ask her.

“I — felt it,” she says. Her fur blows in the breeze. No, wind. It grows stronger. And stronger.

“Oh no,” I say. “Not this again.”

***

“Tor, my son, Talika, thank you for reporting this. Both of you head for the shelter. I will take it from here.”

We immediately follow my father’s instructions. We sprint across our territory to the shelter. I look behind us and see a large storm cloud and a funnel descending toward the ground. We finally reach the shelter. Once inside, we cuddle up next to each other.

“Do you think this one could be the worst one so far?” Talika asks, with genuine fear.

“Possibly,” I reply.

The column of death still rages on. I am even more afraid now, and I can feel Talika shaking. She closes her eyes. I consider doing the same, but I choose not to. I hear a terrifying noise. Two trees have fallen in front of the shelter’s entrance. How convenient, I think. I can still hear howling winds above us. I can feel my heart sinking as I remember how my mother died. About a quarter season ago, a weaker storm hit us. A warning went out, but my mother and a few other lionesses were out hunting. They heard the tornado and came running back to assist us. But, they arrived too late. They were at least a mile away when they noticed the storm. They had arrived just when the storm hit. The other lionesses escaped danger with minor injuries, but my mother… got… impaled by a piece of sharp rock. We managed to keep her alive for a while, but the wound soon got infected, and even though we had adequate resources to save her, she had told my father these exact words, “Stop. Stop wasting your resources on me. I won’t get much better than I already am. Just let go. Let go.” That was two days ago.

***

So much damage has been done. Everywhere we look, there are toppled trees and torn up land, but what is most horrifying to us are the dead lions and lionesses everywhere. We trot around our territory, and we find something terrifying.

“Oh no. Please no. Father. Wake up. WAKE UP!!!

My father had been impaled, just like my mother, only he won’t walk away from this one. I realize my wailing is useless, and I pull myself together. I look beside me and see Talika. Staring. At my father’s body. No. There is a lioness behind him. Talika’s mother. I watch her as she sheds a single tear and walks away slowly. I cough, noticing all the dust around. But, another frightening thing strikes me. We are the only ones left. Our friends, our family, it’s all gone now. I summon all the power in my voice and let out a single roar. It lasts about half a minute, and I take a breath and roar again. This time, Talika joins me. We only have each other now. Only each other.

 

Chapter Two

“We’ll be fine, Talika,” I say, trying and failing to see any bright side to this.

We are in my old den, as it was the least damaged one. Talika has been crying for a while now. I have been providing her with food, what little water is around, and another thing. Love. I am thinking about confessing my feelings to her, but this is definitely not the right time. I have had a small (that’s a lie) crush on her for the past three cycles. I have been very confused about why I had these feelings. At first, I just wanted us to be friends. Anyway…

“How can you be sure about that, Tor?” she says.

“I’m not.” And I mean it. I don’t know what will happen to us.

“Tor, you’re always so honest,” she whispers to me. “And kind. And brave.” I must admit, I was not expecting her to say that. “I love you, Tor.” Now, I’m really confused.

“I… I… ” I consider all things I could say. I could confess right now or wait for a better moment. I make my decision immediately. “That gives my something to think about,” I say.

***

We’ve been staying in this place for twelve cycles. We’ve been feeding off the dead carcass of a buffalo, which has kept and is keeping us fed. I have also been having peculiar outbursts of anger. I try to keep them to myself, but sometimes I can’t contain it, and I leave the den for a destructive walk. Seriously, you should see the paths of destruction I make on these walks; I have very few paths to walk along and destroy now. Anyway, now I’ve voluntarily taken on the role of scouting for a better place to stay. We cannot venture out in the open very often; there are creatures that could easily have us for dinner. I look around the barren landscape, still scattered with lion remains. I shudder at the sight and decide to focus elsewhere. I venture further away from our “den” and find nothing. I sprint back to the den, everything around me becoming a blur of nature. I eventually reach it and shake my head at Talika. Her response surprises me, “That’s fine!”

***

Everything seems to be spinning now. I feel dizzy all the time, but Talika doesn’t, which I find strange. I don’t tell her, but I have had sleepless nights since the day of destruction. I keep waking up at night and roaring at the heavens, cursing at them for causing us so much pain.

***

I feel so alone. I have the power of flight… sort of… but I am hesitant to use it.

***

We have stayed in the same place for — well — I kind of lost track of how long, but I know that it is time to get moving. We eventually have to escape this dark, moist, cold place. I have had plenty of time to practice basic flying, though.

 

Part Two: Flight

 

Chapter Three

“Okay, okay. Don’t worry. I’ve got this!” I yell down to her. “I can do this!” As soon as I jinx it, a flock of vultures head my way, and I freeze in place as the images become larger and larger. “Oh, sh — ” I say, or start to say, as they come crashing into me. I fall to the ground and finish what I was going to say. “… it,” I finish unnecessarily. I see her triumphant face lingering over me.

“You were saying?” she says, before helping me up.

Our relationship became somewhat competitive since we started, well, you know. I feel like a huge burden that I have been carrying for a long time has finally been lifted. The burden being our feelings for each other. I shake the dust and dirt from my pelt as soon as I rise.

We decided that we would become nomadic for a while, moving from place to place. Sometimes we see vast open plains with scarcely any trees, and sometimes we see plant life everywhere. I don’t even think we’ve been to the same place twice.

 

Realities

           

Protologue

EARTH 65

DIMENSION THREE

LOCATION: NOWHERE

It wasn’t long. My friends finally defeated Crugo using the Particle Accelerator on Earth One in Dimension Two. I hope that the rest of the team is alright. The minute I came to this place, it was in a flash of red. After that, it was just darkness. Where I am is a mystery. All I know is that this place is wonderful, and what I’ve been through is a great part of my life. Here’s the story.

 

Chapter One: Beginning of the End

EARTH ONE

DIMENSION THREE

LOCATION: WALL STREET

It all started when I was eleven. Some wizards and witches came and blew a hole into the atmosphere, and magic came out and spread everywhere like a virus until three weeks later it stopped. My name is Kelvin, and the world was under Savage’s command. We were slaves doing the trash that he could’ve done. You see, the world has changed. Many things can happen… in a lightspeed, a flash, slow, or even go through mirrors and earths?

Yes, earths. We aren’t the only world that exists with its own solar system. There are many worlds. Some can even travel to them by breaking the speed of light and the dimensional barrier, creating a wormhole called a breach. Those are called breachers. Breachers create breaches that can travel through time and space. That’s where most of our problems came from. They had a breacher named Geo. He recently died to spare our lives. He was a good hero. So yeah, why did he spare our lives? Well, no one knows why. He told us to run. I know he was serious, so we ran. Being on the run makes me feel like an outlaw. It’s terrible. There’s really nothing to do but run. The best thing to do is to trust yourself. There is no one you can trust when the world is fighting for power.

Twenty years later…

I’ve gotten used to this world. Newcomers come to us every night. What do I mean by “we?” Well, a few years back, I met up with my former survivors. We split up the minute we were running. Figured it was for the best. Josh and Jade went north. I went east. Kelly and Norah went south. We met up where we all split up.

“I know this might be weird but… I found this cool place in the east side. There’s this cave full of materials. I think other survivors were here before us.”

So we all decided that we should check it out. We gathered our stuff that we gathered over 30 years ago and went off.

A few minutes later…

“Here it is.”

We entered the cave. It wasn’t light out, so I used sticks and created a mini torch. At the end of the cave, there was a small box. A journal was found and also some materials to build a min five-person spaceship. The journal was all burned though, but there was a name left…

“Alex Lucas?”

“Who’s Alex Lucas?”

We went on to build the spaceship and went off. Thinking about the mysterious person named Alex Lucas was interesting. There were definitely more survivors out there. We just needed to find them.

 

Chapter Two: Location: Dead Zone

We reached the Dead Zone. This place was radioactive and also contained a beast named The Reaper Leviathan. One page was saved in the journal. It said that the Reaper Leviathan carries a stone. There’s also a small picture of the stone.

“Hey, that’s one of the stones! See… ”

The moment I went into the escape pod to get off earth, I found a page on the sidewalk showing all the stones. This was one of them. All of them grant power of any kind but only have a limited number of uses.

Location: Earth One Dimension Four

“It’s almost out of juice!” yelled Josh.

“What?!” I answered.

“Yeah, it’s about to die on us. We better get moving fast before we get stuck here,” answered Josh.

“Okay, let’s go everyone.”

It had been four years since we found the first stone. We found an archaeologist that also managed to escape earth. Later, he helped us learn how to use it… but the “The Core” found him and grabbed him off the dead side of the moon, and we never saw him again. Well, we’d been using this stone for four years, and now it’s about to die on us. This could be the end…

“Need any help?”

“Uhh… ”

In my head, I was like, Who are you… ?

“Name’s Bart. I’m one of you.”

“One of… us?”

“Yeah, one of you guys. A metagene,” said Bart.

“Metagene… ?”

“Here… ” Bart handed a piece of paper to Josh.

“Metagene… a person with special abilities created by mixing different genes together,” I read out loud.

“Wait wait. Hold up… you’re saying that we didn’t get our powers from the Particle Accelerator?”

“Afraid so… ” answered Bart.

“You’ve got your powers from magic,” said Bart.

A few years later…

The door creaked.

“So… this is Star Labs.”

“OH GOD!” screamed Josh.

“What? What?”

“Is… is… that a body?”

“Oh god… it is… ”

Both Josh and Kelvin threw up.

“Aww no… c’mon. Why here?”

“So, how do your powers work again?” asked Jade.

“So, my vibe comes from energy, and it kinda relates to age as well.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it uses energy, so if I’m old, my energy would go lower, and if I run out of energy, I’ll run out of vibe.”

“Basically in short, I need energy for my vibe powers.”

“Would you guys hurry up and stop talking?”

“Alright, Jade.”

We were sent on a recon mission to find some news. Some said that the Triceratops recently found a new stone and were currently mining it out. They were right. They weren’t even close to getting it. The sensor said the stone was 567 meters deep. Only we had the tech to drill it down. We were heading back to headquarters until Josh sneezed so loud.

“Shhh.”

“Sorry… I had a runny nose.”

“HEY! GET THEM!” yelled a Triceraton miner.

“RUN!”

We ran through the caves like mad men, dodging every single laser they fired at us. With the help of Jade’s sonic chi bouncing every corner into bits, everything turned into dust. We were gasping every turn we took, running for our lives, feeling the wind getting colder and colder as we slowly got closer to the light. You know those movie scenes when the main characters are in a chase scene and they are so close until they get trapped. Well, that was what happened but… plot twist!

“Hey, Josh. A hand?”

“Right.” Josh teleported everyone out.

“Thanks.”

“No prob.”

Josh helped us teleport out of that situation, and after that, we ran, ran as fast as we could. We didn’t want to be part of that any longer. We reported back to HQ, and we were sent out to get that stone. Bart stayed back so he could be “tested” and “researched,” so we knew more about his powers. We packed up and went back.

“So Josh, are you… and Jade… ”

“Woah, woah, hold up… me and Jade are just friends,” said Josh.

“Ahh!” yelled Jade.

“Jade!” yelled Josh.

Josh grabbed hold of Jade’s hands, with the help of Kelvin.

“Hold on!”

“Okay… ”

Both Josh and Kelvin lifted Jade up to safety. Josh and Jade hugged.

“Just friends, huh?”

“Yeah, okay. You got me.”

After the accident, we headed out with more focus than ever. Jade kept an eye out, just in case she fell again.

 

Chapter Three: Moments later…

We spotted the mining sight we barely escaped before. I felt the shiver sliding down my spine. Even the look of the place gave me the creeps. I hated that place. Not because we nearly died. It was because… my brother was there. Crugo, he was obsessed with power. The Triceratons offered him that if he would kill me and our parents. He couldn’t do it, so they pushed him aside and killed my parents. I guess I was lucky. They took him from me and used him as a slave.

“We’re here,” said Jade.

“Alright, here’s the plan.”

“You guys got it?”

“Yeah,” both Jade and Josh said at the same time.

“JINX!”

“DOUBLE JINX!”

“TRIP — ”

“Alright, alright. You guys are acting like teenagers.”

“Okay fine… stop being a party pooper.”

“Let’s just go.”

We entered the mine, and the first thing we saw was a big, bright light. It was the crystal. We ran to the spot and found out that they had finished digging it out.

“Let’s go… ”

We went on with the plan, fighting and blasting every Triceraton out of our way. I was so angry that I nearly smashed the crystal itself! We grabbed the stone and went off.

“Hand it over,” said a mysterious person.

“Crugo.”

“Yes, brother. Hand the stone over, and we can end this peacefully. Or we could do it the hard way.”

“I vote for the hard way.”

“No… ” said Josh.

“What?!”

“Here… ”

Before Josh handed over the stone, he teleported a cyclops in front of us.

“Woah!”

“Adiós,” said Josh.

Josh teleported us out of there.

“Thanks.”

“Again, what are you guys gonna do without me?” said Josh.

“Uhh, we’ll be fine… ” said Jade.

No you won’t,” said Josh.

“Yeah, you’re right,” said Jade. She chuckled.

“Hey Kelv, are you still mad that we were playing around, or it is it because of that Crugo guy?”

Kelvin dozed off.

“Kelv!”

“Oh, sorry. Yeah, it was the guy… ” I answered.

“So, who was he?” asked Josh.

“His name is Crugo. He was my brother, until he became obsessed with power. The Triceratons offered him loads of power if he showed them his loyalty by killing my parents and me. He couldn’t do it, so they did it. I managed to hide, and they never found me during that accident. I saw them take him. He was treated like a slave until he finally got brainwashed by a witch of some sort from Earth Three in Dimension Seven. He was never the same man that I knew.”

“Woah. Tough story, dude,” said Josh.

“Yeah, are you sure you can face him?” asked Jade.

“Yeah, I’ll be alright.”

We carried on with the mission. We got back to HQ and delivered the stone for research. Our specialties from Earth Three in Dimension Seven are wizards and witches. They are experts of these stones because they were the ones who created these stones. They sent them off to different dimensions and earths, so no one could use them for evil. Remember the first stone that was almost dry dead? Well, they recovered it, and now it’s full back in power. Still, Parallax wants it because of its immense power.

“So, what is it?”

“It’s one of the stones,” said one of the witches.

“It’s not just one of them. It’s the first one!” said another.

“There were numbers for these?” I questioned.

“Yeah, meet Alpha One,” said a wizard.

“Wait, hold up. There’s more than one Alpha?” said Josh.

“Yeah, one alpha for each cube. Also, we need all eighteen stones. We’ve only got two. We still need to move on.”

“Speaking of stones, I have an idea of where the rest are,” said Bart.

“So… where?”

“I found this map when I was being tested with my powers. I was breaching through different Dimensions and Realms, and I found this on a dead moon,” said Josh.

“So what? This is a map of all the stones?”

“Yeah,” said Josh.

“How do you know?”

“Look, see this. It’s written by Alex Lucas. The same person who wrote about the stones,” said Josh.

“This guy, Alex Lucas. Who is he?”

“You want to know?” said a wizard.

“Yeah, maybe he could help us.”

 

Chapter Four: Alex

A long, long time ago, about a century, we wizards and witches learned a magical spell that grants powers of the imaginable. For the greater good, we used the power to banish the evil that corrupted our world, for the power was too strong that it could easily corrupt anyone who wanted more. So, we gathered and used all of our might to form the great, mystic power into eighteen stones and kept it away in the three cubes. We gave each of the cubes to three trustworthy people. One of which is Alex Lucas. He was a great man. Until one night, the evil who once struck upon us had returned. Monstruct. He led an army into Alex’s house and invaded his property. Alex managed to escape, but he left an important message saying that he fled to Earth Seven for safety. The message was sealed away in a hidden room only we could find. He said the only way to keep the cube safe was to not follow him. The message was the last thing that belongs to him. As a memory. We managed to banish Monstruct to another realm, hoping that he wouldn’t survive for more than a few months. The realm that we banished him to was the realm of Jotunheim, the land of the giants. Giants were fierce and unstoppable. Only the great gods and goddesses can deal with them.

Moments later…

We were sent on another recon mission to find the third stone. On our way there, we came across this weird spacecraft of some sort. We went to check it out, but then we got invaded.

“Step away from the spacecraft. This is the Triceratons. Step away from the space — hey, it’s those guys from before. Get them!”

Yeah, we were seen. This turned from a good and strategic recon mission to a got-to-get-out-of-here-before-we-get-blasted mission. I felt the wind in my hair blowing as the lasers came flying by, I knew this was going to end well. We ran and ran for a hiding place. Every path we took ended up with a scar or a burn. Every path except one. It was where the spacecraft was. By the look of it, it looked like it had pads that sucked up energy. So we went over and behind it. It worked. The lasers just got sucked up, but they wouldn’t give up.

“Hey, Jade. A hand?”

Jade threw a mini shock cannon. All the Triceratons flew back like some WWE wrestler slammed on the ground knocking everyone out. Then, Bart came out of nowhere and scared the life out of me.

“Jesus Christ, would you please stop doing that?”

“I’ll work on my entrances later, but now you got to go,” said Bart.

“Not without this.”

“What is that?” asked Bart.

“This is what they’re after, apparently.”

“Then let’s go,” said Bart.

We all got vibed out of that situation and immediately reported back to HQ. We brought the spacecraft back to them. You know what they all did. They all looked at it like it was a new popular kid’s TV show from the 1800s.

“Uhm, so any clue what this is and why the Triceratons are after it?”

“Okay, yeah. Right,” said a witch.

“Okay, let’s do some testing,” said a wizard.

“Wait, shouldn’t we take the guy out first.”

“Right,” said a witch.

When we took the cockpit off, we were all surprised for who we found. It was Alex Lucas. He survived the long years since his departure. He was in a state where his body was dissolved, but his mind said he was alive. So the wizards used a spell to move his brain to a body that was made of robotics. Thanks to the wizards and witches, Alex could now tell everything we needed to know to find the rest of the stones. Now you know that we have the data to find the stones. We’re not going to go through all of that. Instead, we’re going to skip a few years or so.

A few years later…

Okay, we’ve gotten all of the stones. On one of our trips, we stumbled across Crugo again. He told us that he got Josh, and if we didn’t hand the stones over, he was going to die. If you didn’t know, Josh was captured, and we thought he died already. We also met two new wizards named Kell and Norah. They’d been useful ever since. We followed Crugo’s plans. Crugo said we would meet at a certain coordinate on a certain date with all the stones. Today was the day. We landed on the dead side of the moon. We had all of the stones in a container. Crugo and his army slowly showed their faces. Then, we saw Josh all beaten like he’d spilled his guts out. Jade was terrified. I mean, her closest friend was nearly dead and was just lying there around 10-15 feet away from us. This was about to get messy. I could tell from the looks of Crugo’s face that there was going to be a 95% chance of punching and kicking ass.

 

Chapter Five: The End of Beginnings

We marched to Crugo, and we both handed the things we promised. We got Josh back, and they got the stones. I was regretting every moment I walked up to Crugo and handed all the stones to him. Once we turned back on each other, I got hit in my waist by a laser.

“I knew I couldn’t trust you!” I yelled in pain.

“Of course not. Why just leave without any fun?” said Crugo.

In a blink of a second, the whole dead side of the moon was brightened with flashing lights as we all used our powers to knock each and every Triceraton down. Then, there was a loud…

“ENOUGH!” yelled a mysterious being.

When we turned our heads facing towards the sky, we saw Parallax, but this was different. His face was all peeled and dissolved. When he miraculously peeled his face off, what we saw was unimaginable. It was Monstruct. He has been planning this all along. Turns out, he was not dead after all.

“Monstruct, how did you survive Jotunheim?” said Norah.

“Well my dear, I happen to use some magic to deal with those stupid giants. You know that gods and goddesses aren’t the only ones who can deal with them. A bit of some Asgardian magic did the job,” said Monstruct.

“Wait, you’re telling me that Asgardians helped you defeat those giants?” said Kelly.

“Yeah, the way I tricked them to help me was telling them that the only way to stop those frost giants is to start a war. You know how Asgardians love wars?” said Monstruct. “Oh, I happen to have brought some frost giants with me as souvenirs. I got lonely on my way back here.”

Then, a portal opened behind him filling the air with a cold breeze, and at least 500, maybe more, frost giants came out.

“It was easy to bargain with them to help me destroy you,” said Monstruct.

Looking back at this in my head, there was an 85% chance of us dying. We all started to fight the frost giants as much as we could. They kept coming and coming. Luckily, we had some magic people on our team. Norah and Kelly and the rest of the wizards and witches held back the frost giants while Josh, Jade, and I beat down the Triceratons to try to get the stones back. Yeah, I know that we should’ve not given them the stones, but we were trying to get Josh back, and also to stop Jade from crying all the time. It was worth it, maybe. At least we got to kick butt and use more of our powers. When we were fighting our way through, I spotted a person behind a rock. I went over there and guess what, he was a survivor from earth. His name was Leo.

“I know what they are planning to do with the stones,” said Leo.

“Uhm, using them for power and maybe killing us all?”

“No, Crugo, your brother… ” said Leo.

“Wait, how did you know he was my brother?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter right now. So Crugo is planning to absorb all of the stones’ power and give it to himself and him alone. With Monstruct by his side, they both can rule the entire multiverse, and maybe destroy half of it,” said Leo.

“Well, I guess we should get moving.”

“We?” asked Leo.

“Yeah, we. Do you know how to use a laser gun?”

“I can try… ” said Leo.

“Okay, here.”

I handed him the laser gun that I grabbed just in case, and from the look of things, I think he knew how to use it perfectly. For some reason, my waist kept hurting whenever I ran. I checked under my shirt, and the part where I got shot at was slowly chipping off. This was bad. We were in mid fight with all of these frost giants and Triceratons and magic going on. I couldn’t risk telling everyone. Although it hurt really bad, I kept on going. Leo ran out of ammo, so I killed this Triceraton and gave Leo another gun to use. This repeated many times until I found this laser gun that ran on magic. Since the whole world was covered by magic because of the accident the wizards and witches caused, everywhere was magic. Norah and Kelly summoned cyclopes and other giants to help us. The ground started to shake with every step the giants and cyclopes took while crackling the moon in half.

As I tried to keep in pace with my team, I saw Josh about to die again. I couldn’t let that happen, and plus I was like half dead, so I ran in front of the gun that the Triceraton was pointed at Josh with. In the moment that he pulled the trigger, I was disintegrated, and I left my team without their leader. This gave Josh the anger to give a walloping punch to a Triceraton in the guts.

***

“Kelvin!” I yelled.

I was in rage when I saw Kelvin die in front of me. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Everyone was in shock. The Triceraton that killed him, I gave him what he deserved, a punch in the guts. I couldn’t stand this anymore. I ran through, teleporting every Triceraton into a molten lava volcano. Almost half of the Triceratons we were fighting were gone. The rest of the team got rid of them. Now it was time to get to Crugo and defeat him and finally go home. We entered Monstruct’s ship and what we saw was a big, bright light. We saw Crugo transfering all the stones’ powers into him.

“Crugo, NO!”

“What?! Why? I want more power. Why should I listen to you?” said Crugo.

“Because your brother, Kelvin, saved my life, and in doing so, lost his.”

“He’s a fool. Save you and kill himself. He should have just let you die, but anyways, thanks Leo, for bringing them here,” said Crugo.

“What? Leo you, you traitor.”

“I was really never on your side. He promised me power if I brought you guys here and especially Kelvin,” said Leo.

“Oh about that, there’s only one thing you’re missing, Leo. I guess you won’t being having any power except death,” said Crugo.

As we saw a big flash of light, Leo was turned into dust. We now saw what the stones’ true powers were. After that, Crugo also killed Monstruct saying that only one can rule the multiverse. Crugo flew off and started to go after earth. That’s where our next plan went in phase. You see, Kelvin knew Leo was a mole from the minute Leo said Crugo is Kelvin’s brother because only we knew. So late at night, Kelvin gathered all of us except for Leo and made Plan A and Plan B. Plan A was to act all innocent and pretend to not know Leo was the mole. Plan B was to use the Particle Accelerator to teleport Crugo all the way to the realm of Niflheim which is the coldest realm out of all nine. It would be too cold for Crugo to survive since the stones grant him power, not vulnerability. Crugo is still “human,” not a god.

So, we traveled to earth, and we went back to Star Labs and prepared the Particle Accelerator. We found Crugo’s location by tracking loads of energy signatures, and it all led to Hudson Bay all the way in Canada. Apparently, Crugo wanted to take over Canada first. So we pinpointed his location, and we used our satellite and launched the Particle Accelerator. The energy from the accelerator transferred to the satellite with the help of Norah and Kelly’s magic, and we finally teleported Crugo to Niflheim. We all cheered happily. The world was saved, and the multiverse could rest easily.

Chapter Six: Family

All was good after we defeated Crugo, but we were missing somebody. Kelvin was our leader, our friend, and is part of our family. We might not have grown up in the same house or went to the same schools, but we all knew him as a brother. We all respected him. We went to his funeral to repay him for saving everyone’s life, including mine. He may have not joined us in the final battle, but he was a part of it. Without him, this all could have ended really bad.

Goblins and giants, elves or Triceratons, we all knew him. This world has changed because of magic. Magic has changed all of us. Now we all befriended giants, elves, dragons, and even some frost giants. I was awarded for being the hero who saved the world. No one knows that Kelvin saved me. If it wasn’t for him, I would have been toast.

“I am proud to be the hero, but I am not. This award goes to my best pal, Kelvin. He saved me, and in doing so, he lost his own life. Without him, I would not be here, standing here with my mom and dad and all of you guys. Kelvin helped this team and even me go through tough times. I could not thank him enough, so I would proudly give this award to my fallen brother Kelvin. I wish he could see all of you guys here alive and well, and I know for a fact that he is in a wonderful place, up high. I just wanna say, thank you, and I love you all.”

So, I gave this speech about Kelvin. As for the award, it’s in the Museum of Fallen Heroes. It was built for all the fallen heroes known in history. One of them is Kelvin. We all learned a lesson from Kelvin’s death. We learned that home and family are what we fight for. We always come home to our family and friends. That’s what makes us unified. It’s our sense of humanity.

In loving memory of Kelvin Hollenbeck [My main character]

 

Next Door Robbery

It was 9:00 in the morning when I had woken up, and it was a usual day, but it really wasn’t when my landlord came by to check on the house. But the moment the landlord knocked on the door rapidly, I knew that was really weird because he always looks in through the window. Then, he demanded I “open up.”

When I opened the door, he entered and gasped saying, “Call 911 this moment.”

Then, he pushed me toward the telephone, pushed me out of the way, and pressed the buttons rapidly. Then, I looked at his face, and his face was in terror with his red, sweaty forehead. I even thought his little hair on his forehead was turning red, too.

Then, I asked what was going on, and he replied, “There’s a robbery next door.”

And at that moment, my heart felt like it fell into my stomach. Then, the landlord finally got on the line with a 911 responder, and the landlord said, quickly cutting off the responder, “There’s a robbery on 258 Elm Street.”

The woman said, “We will be there.”

Then, out of nowhere, I heard the noise of glass shatter, and the next thing I saw was the cord break. I looked back, and I saw a man in a black ski mask, and then he quickly lifted up the bag full of jewelry and chuckled. Then, he left in seconds. The landlord and I looked at each other and sat nervously and waited for the cops to come. Then when they came, they asked what happened.

I said, “I don’t know.”

When the landlord and I were all alone, he said, “I was behind the robbery. That man that you saw in the ski mask, that was my brother, and you want to know why I called the cops. Because I will be last person they come to. I trust you so much I am telling you this now, and for you to be hush-hush, I am splitting the money with you. Okay?”

“I’ll take the deal,” I replied.

Then he said, “Okay.”

Though I did wonder why he robbed that place.

 

Silent Love

The radio played a soft ukulele tune in the background, shadowed by carefully placed piano chords. We lay atop my bed together, looking at the ceiling that glittered with fake, painted stars. One of my arms was on my chest, one of his was on the cover, and we each held the other’s hand. The pastel aqua and melon theme that was patterned in the bedroom added another feeling of peace. The radio crackled, the song ended, and it began to play a slightly calmer, aesthetic song with electronic beats. He shifted his position on the bed, and so did I, following his lead, so we both sat with our backs to the walls, sitting on top of the blanket. Our love was a quiet, delicate thing. It involved aimlessly lying on beds while playing warming music and looking up to our imaginary sky. We always painted the ceiling, so one time the sky could be dark and littered with small glow-in-the-dark stars, and other times it could be mixes of reds and yellows, imitating a sunset. But all that really mattered was that the two of us were there, together.

 

Dog Party

Another day at the Supermall USA, the mall of all malls, the supermarket of all supermarkets. And why are we (or in this case, why am I) here? We are here to get 13 small but important items for the party. It may take a while. It looks like I might be here for hours and hours just for the food aisle! I enter the supermall.

“Oh my god,” I whisper to myself under my breath. “This mall is huge! You could fit my apartment 40 times in here and still have space! This is going to be like finding a needle in a haystack,” I say to myself, staring at the promotional poster that shows a literal needle in a haystack in a supermall with the quote beneath it saying: “Try finding a needle in a haystack in SUPERMALL USA!!!”

I have three hours until the party. If I don’t get this done, I don’t know what I am going to do. Poor Joe will be so let down. Okay, let’s start by heading to the dairy aisle, aisle 52. Okay, cheese after cheese after cheese after milk after milk! Aha! That’s what I need. Milk. That’s one thing off the list, and now I have to go all the way back to the start for the zip lock bag aisle. I grab a bag not even looking at it and then run back to the back of the store. I do this for hours. Finally, I got all the items, and I look in my cart and realize half of them are open and tampered with. I scream out loud because I have been in here for at least an hour. People stare at me and run, some even filming me.

Embarrassed, I continue shopping like a normal person, taking all those old items and putting them wherever I desire. I continue my shopping, carefully examining items once I pick them up. It’s been another hour, and I have all the items that are on my shopping list. All the items are perfectly functional, and I realize I have not gotten a single gift. Not one gift has made its way into my cart. I quickly run back to grab a teddy bear and rubber chicken, run back in line, and wait. In the time I left and ran back, 30 more people got in line. The one time I leave and come back, the one time I go shopping in this mall, 30 more people… get in line… and take my spot… I am never going to this mall again, unless I am in true need of it. One and a half hours have passed. I sit in line, and I wait, trying to make small talk with the person in front of me while some young lady is talking very loudly on the phone behind me.

“O-M-G! That is so cool. I totally like that. As a matter of fact, I might like like that like now! Like it’s so like what’s the word oh it’s like cool,” she tells her phone.

I can’t take it anymore. It’s too much stupidity. This person, nothing she says makes sense.

“Can you like shut up!” I say, mocking her awful accent and speech.

She gives me a dirty look and turns and faces the other direction, continuing her conversation, this time talking about me and how “crazzzzy” I am. This time, instead of saying something, I ignore her, knowing that I am fighting a losing battle. I continue to wait in line for the checkout, finally reaching it after another 15 minutes.

“Cash or credit?” the cashier questions.

I respond with, “Credit.”

“There is no balance on your card,” he responds.

I reach into my wallet for cash, hoping there will be enough money in it. Today is not my lucky day, so I do not expect much, but surprisingly, I have enough. I make my way outside with my items and my near empty wallet and start driving home, looking at my gas tank. I realize by the time I reach home it will be empty. I take a quick stop to refill on gas. Joe’s friends will be home soon. I have to hurry. I look right and see some reckless idiot smoking a cigarette right next to a pump. What an idiot. I feel the need to approach him, the need to tell him the hazard of smoking near a gas pump and what it can do to him and others around him! So I do.

“You listen here, idiot. You don’t smoke near gas pumps because you can kill people like that!” I yell at him.

He quickly puts it away whilst saying, “Sorry, mom!”

I don’t know why he said “sorry mom,” but I don’t have time to question it. I head back home in the car. I approach the door with my keys in hand and only five minutes to spare. All of my friends will be here soon. I enter.

“Hey there, Joe!” I exclaim.

“Bark bark,” he barks.

Joe is a dog, a little Chihuahua. I hear a knock at the door. All my friends are here with their dogs ready for Joe the dog’s fifth birthday. Bark on, barkster.

 

Routine

Wake up – It’s hard to face the world. Hard to leave the safety of your bed and enter the pain the world holds.

Get dressed – Does it really matter what you wear. People will judge you either way. You keep glancing back at your bed, just wishing you could crawl back to safety. The only thing your outfit needs is long sleeves.

Have breakfast – Or don’t. Food is just empty calories that won’t help your diet.

Listen to the radio – People try to speak about the happiness in the world just to cover up all that’s wrong.

School – The teachers’ words enter your brain, then leave without a trace. They don’t leave any information, and you walk out of each classroom wondering what the teacher was talking about because you can’t ask for clarification. You don’t want people to think you’re stupid.

Lunch – A time when you sit with someone because you don’t want people to come up to you and ask if you’re okay. You hear them talking but feel distant from them. You struggle to keep your eyes open as you drift off into your own tortured thoughts.

More school – Just more time to think. More time trapped in the thoughts that are starting to scare you because you don’t rinse them. More time just waiting for the day to be over.

Sports – Fresh air, a breeze. You dread sports, but in reality, they help you cope with the thoughts that aren’t your own.

Home – You get home and get ready for a nap. A nap that you can’t have because the minute you lie down, you’re no longer tired, so you lie there just thinking.

Unspeakable things – Your thoughts convince you that it will help the pain. That it will make the voices go away. You drowning in your own petrifying thoughts as you stand over the sink, silver blade shining in the dim light. Blood runs down the drain until you finally stop the flow.

Dinner – More calories that you will pay for later but still consume.

Bed – You finally get to go to sleep. Peaceful, your mind at rest, banishing all memories of the day and just snuggling up and wishing you never had to leave.

Repeat – Do it all again, exactly the same.

And again, and again, and again, until you can’t take it anymore. Until you can’t handle spending your days waiting for the end of each day. Until the world seems to be spinning. You can’t take it anymore, and a thought crosses your mind. A thought of leaving the routine forever.

Away you go, away from the routine. People grieve until they forget, and they go on with their routines, not remembering you, the person who left.

But, it doesn’t need to be that way. So, you stay. You stay and change your routine. When you wake up, you no longer wish to go back to sleep. You see your food as something delicious and not as calories. You enjoy discovering the wonders of the world during each of your classes. You return from school full of energy, never feeling the need for a knife. You still love to sleep, but now you dream.

You choose to overcome the difficulties that the routine brings. You choose not to focus on the pain. You focus instead on the happy things in each day.

It doesn’t have to be something big. It could be something small. A snowflake landing on a window. The light shining through the trees in the perfect way. A funny photo. Anything that will change your day, make you smile for the first time in months.

Your grades improve. You social life improves. You appetite improves, but most of all, your life improves.

 

The Biggest Game of my Life

          

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

 

The Vindicators (Chapter One)

       

Prologue

The date is April 25, 2030. The planet has been flooded with criminals and chaos, the government has been overthrown, and all known superheroes have either been killed or have gone into hiding. The citizens of Earth now obey the criminals and supervillians that threaten them. They survive through each day with hope, hope that the heroes might rise again to restore the world to its former glory.

 

Chapter One

In a subterranean base deep underground, a not-entirely-human in a spacesuit is working on an android. His suit is a mix of green, gray, and black, made mostly of metal. A beam of blue light emanates from the spot in his helmet where his eyes would be. He wears the suit to protect what is held inside, a being made of pure, unstable energy. The suit shields Guardian from Earth’s air, which is toxic to his body. A cure to his condition is still elusive despite his intelligence. The suit is his only way of living on Earth.

The white room that he is working in is filled with gadgets and tools, strewn about in a seemingly random fashion. A pile of scrap metal sits in the corner, overflowing with junk: a broken radio, half of a computer, even a couple damaged airplane parts. He currently sits at a desk working on the upper body of a robot, one of his numerous projects.

The room is Guardian’s personal laboratory, and he uses it to build technology for his boss and teammate, Minion. The project that he is currently working on, titled Apetura, is an android designed to be an assistant to Guardian. It will have all of his technical prowess and limitless intelligence. Its purpose is to assist Guardian with a far more complex task: building a more advanced robot from scratch that can match the martial abilities of Minion, a necessary requirement for any member of his team. The robot will be named Namaste and will be a member of Minion’s team of superheroes, The Vindicators. Their goal is to save the world from the evil that runs unchallenged throughout Earth. Minion walks into the room, the reds and blues of his super suit shining in the light. He has a smile on his face and appears to be very excited, practically jumping with every step.

“How goes the project, my friend? I will require Namaste to be ready in a week’s time so that I can properly assess his abilities,” Minion inquires. Guardian looks up and hesitates for a second before speaking.

“Well… there’s a slight problem. To create an android from scratch in that amount of time I will require an assistant, which I am creating now. She will be specifically designed for this task and will hopefully prove to be a valuable asset to my lab. But Namaste should be ready by next week if all goes well, sir,” Guardian replies.

Minion smiles and leaves the room. He walks through the main floor of the base and into the elevator, a stainless steel contraption with an array of floor buttons, much more than any regular elevator. Minion inserts his key card into a slot on the bottom of the button panel and presses the lowest floor in the entire complex. The elevator descends rapidly and soon reaches the bottom, dinging with every floor passed. The doors open into the portal room, a room created for only one purpose: teleportation. A large portal-making device sits in the very center of this room. It looks like a metallic, circular frame, but nothing currently sits in the frame. A terminal slides out of the wall with Minion’s arrival, and an interface is brought up to his hand. He inputs the exact coordinates of his destination, and the terminal slides silently back into the wall. The portal machine emits a low humming noise, and a portal fills the frame, showing a glimpse of the other world. Minion enters into the darkness of the portal and is teleported away. The portal closes behind him.

***

The world that Minion enters is pitch black, except for the light coming from the portal behind him. But the light disappears almost immediately with the closing of the portal. The planet is named Ragnarok, after the doomsday story in which the sun itself is eaten and the world is plunged into darkness, a very fitting name for a place devoid of light. Minion takes a pair of night vision goggles out from his belt, puts them on, and starts walking down a meticulous path with the aid of his now clear vision. His surroundings aren’t much, just black spires of rock and the occasional hole, but the night vision helps to distinguish them from the rest of the darkness.

Without light, this planet is incapable of sustaining life, except for the person that Minion is looking for. The planet was once great. Its surface was vibrant, its animals happy and peaceful. But that was before the planet’s sun exploded. Everything went downhill from there. Soon, Minion reaches a steep ravine, the bottom nowhere in sight. He grabs onto the end of a tall pole that rests against his side of the gap, as if it was placed there on purpose. Minion vaults across the ravine with practiced ease and leaves the pole resting against the side of the ravine that he now stands upon. He takes a series of complicated turns and reaches another ravine, albeit with less distance between both sides. A metal bridge has been built here by someone, to allow Minion passage across to the other side. He is careful to avoid the tripwire placed between the second and third steps. At the end of the bridge, he reaches a large cocoon made of pure darkness, the lair of the person he is seeking.

The door opens eerily as Minion approaches the cocoon. He enters the lair of darkness and spots the only inhabitant of Ragnarok: Lady Death. She is a creature of shadows, specializing in the magic of darkness and necromancy. She used to be the daughter of a wealthy human family, but the reason for the sudden shift from her past self to her present self is unknown. Lady Death rarely talks about her past. She is currently sitting in a chair made of darkness, lazily playing with a wisp of darkness in one hand.

A scene plays out between the darkness, a battle between two contenders. Two stick figures wielding swords exchange blows silently. One lunges at the other, but the sword is knocked away by the second, a clearly better fighter. The better fighter holds up his sword to the other figure’s throat. The swordless fighter, clearly defeated, puts his hands above his head. The fighter with the sword gives the swordless fighter his sword back, and they shake hands.

Minion stands in the doorway patiently, knowing not to disturb her. Lady Death lets him wait for a second before letting the darkness dissipate and turning around to face Minion, intrigue in her eyes.

“What kind of project do you want me to work on this time? It’s always projects with you, no fun.” Lady Death makes a fake pouty face. “You’ll owe me a favor, of course, for my compliance. You won’t know when or where, but it’ll come sooner or later,” Lady Death says slyly, a grin spreading across her face. Minion’s expression falls.

“I thought you would let me off the hook given our history. Especially because of that last favor you wanted. That one took a lot of resources, especially from Guardian.”

“I insist,” Lady Death replies. Minion thinks for a couple moments and reluctantly comes to a conclusion.

“Fine,” Minion mumbles. Lady Death winks and pulls her cloak across her body, disappearing into the darkness and teleporting to Minion’s base. Minion rolls his eyes and sighs.

“Of course she’d just leave me here,” he says exasperatedly. “I’ll have to walk all the way back now.” Minion mumbles as he walks back down the long and boring route to his portal.

***

Minion passes through the portal back into his lair, entering the room with a satisfying swoosh. The darkness of Ragnarok crawls into the room for a moment but is sucked out when the portal closes. Lady Death sits in a conjured chair of darkness in the corner, pretending to be asleep. She pretends to wake up suddenly, as if Minion’s entrance was loud enough to disrupt her sleep.

“Ah, you’ve finally arrived. I’ve been waiting here forever. I wondered if you would even return at all,” Lady Death drawls. Minion rolls his eyes, clearly not appreciating the sarcasm.

“The project is this way, follow me,” Minion says forcefully. He walks into the elevator room and turns left into a small room, Lady Death following right behind him. The room is painted white with nothing but a skeleton made of metal in the center. The skeleton slightly resembles that of a bat, with an elongated face and winglike bone structure where ears would be. Minion walks directly towards the skeleton, while Lady Death keeps her distance and fidgets with her hands.

“Don’t be scared, it doesn’t bite!” Minion says jokingly, beckoning her forward.

“I… have an aversion to metal,” Lady Death says hesitantly, only inching forward a small amount. Minion nods slightly, respecting her wishes and making a mental note of this occasion, so as to not repeat it in the future.

“This is my project, or at least part of it. I want to create an intelligent creature from scratch, made of darkness and water. I want it to be like a human, but enhanced. I need the darkness from you. I can provide everything else,” Minion says. Lady Death reluctantly inches a little closer to the metal skeleton and begins to collect a ball of darkness in her hands. She closes her eyes, concentrating on the darkness, and it soon grows boulder sized. Lady Death opens her eyes and launches the darkness at the skeleton, covering the skeleton completely and then some. She rushes to the darkness covered skeleton and begins to sculpt the blob into a figure. She starts at the bottom, giving the being sturdy feet. Lady Death moves to the legs, sculpting stocky upper and lower legs for balance. The torso is slim and feminine, with small breasts and narrow shoulders. Her arms are thin with small but strong hands. Lady Death stands back, admiring her handiwork for a moment, and moves upward to the head. She sculpts a human face with slight batlike features, small winglike ears at the back of the head and a prominent nose. She steps back again.

Minion raises his right arm and forms a gauntlet made of water. He walks up to the creature and infuses water into her body. The creature’s chest glows blue for a moment before fading. Minion’s water gauntlet then turns white with light as he gives his project her final necessary component, life. Her body lifts into the air, and her eyes open wide, revealing blue irises. Minion steps back as the creature touches the floor. She bends down on one knee and bows her head, waiting for Minion to name her.

“Chiroptera, rise and protect the citizens of Earth! Help me save the world!” Minion exclaims. Chiroptera stands up tall and tests out her water abilities, creating shoulder pads and knee pads effortlessly, the magical abilities coming to her naturally. She then creates a sword out of water, takes a few practice swings, and lets the sword’s form coalesce into a sphere of water. She turns it to ice, then back to water. The water is absorbed into her body, and she looks up at Minion.

“I am ready to serve,” she says. Minion looks at Lady Death, smiles, and looks back at Chiroptera.

“Welcome to my base of operations,” he exclaims proudly. Minion hears a gasp behind him and turns around quickly. Lady Death’s black gloves are on the floor, and she is clutching her hands, which are turning white and skeletal from the palms to the wrists. The rest of her hands have already been turned white. Flesh drips off her hands, forming a small puddle at her feet. She bites her lip, trying to hide the obvious pain that the process is causing her.

“What’s happening to you?!” Minion asks concernedly. Lady Death gasps before responding.

“It’s from using too much magic… The darkness is corrupting me… eating through my skin. I can’t use that much darkness at once or it’ll… consume me entirely… This has happened before, it’s the cost of my abilities… ” Her flesh stops melting, and Lady Death straightens her body, her arrogant air materializing again. She puts her gloves back on and tries to pretend like nothing happened, acting as if the process never happened.

“Are you alright?!” Minion asks worriedly.

“I’m fine,” Lady Death says angrily. She rolls her eyes and teleports back to her lair.

 

Shine Bright Like a Diamond

       

Chapter One: Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy

I had the dream dance class… at least that’s what I thought. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. It all started three months ago when we were in dance class, and Mrs. Allen came in the room to post the cast for The Nutcracker and guess what… I got the lead part: Clara. It said it there in big bold letters. Danielle Rosewood… Clara. I was so excited that I jumped up and down, so I caught most people’s attention.

I said, “I got Clara!”

But, some people weren’t so happy.

My friends Harper and Aubrey got the ensemble, and Evelyn got Uncle Drosselmeyer. They looked as if they envied me. When I saw them looking at me like that, they rolled their eyes and turned away.

I walked over to where they were standing and said, “Why are you guys mad?”

“We just really wanted to get the part,” said Evelyn.

“Don’t worry. I’m gonna make sure that you get the understudy.”

I looked back at the sheet to see who was my understudy. It was my archenemy, Skylar. Perfect.

Skylar and I used to be best friends, but ever since I moved from L.A. to Beverly Hills because of my dad’s job, she made her friends, and I made mine. When I came back to L.A., she was already in a clique. Skylar was very angry because she felt like I betrayed her. She wanted to switch roles with somebody else, but Ms. Allen wouldn’t let her.

“But please, you don’t understand! She’s evil,” Skylar squawked.

“I said no, and that’s the end of this conversation,” said Mrs. Allen.

“Ugh, fine,” said Skylar.

She walked back over to where we were standing and said, “I’m so excited to be your understudy.”

I said, “At least that’s the first few words you said to me all year.”

She crossed her arms and said, “Hmph.”

It’s never a dull day when Skylar’s mad.

 

Chapter Two: Restless, Rehearsals, Revenge

Skylar tried everything she could to get revenge on me. Even before the auditions for the parts for the show, Skylar was practicing for the part of Clara. Now that she was the understudy, she hated my guts. It was the rehearsal, and we still didn’t have the dance memorized. Mrs. Allen was yelling like crazy.

“Girls, you have to straighten your backs. Danielle, please point your toes.”

“Mrs. Allen, I can coach Danielle with her moves,” said Skylar.

“Umm…” I said.

“Wonderful. This is perfect because you two are the prima ballerinas in this class.”

“Ugh,” I exclaimed.

I already knew that Skylar was trying to sabotage me for getting the part.

Later that day…

Skylar came two hours late. She even had the nerve to say that she was doing homework, and her mom wouldn’t let her come until she finished, but I know she never does her homework. Oh, I forgot to tell you, Skylar and I are in the same class in school, unfortunately.

“So you should point your toes more,” Skylar said, while fixing her nails.

“You’re not helping. You know that, right?”

“You’re so ungrateful. Whatever, I’m leaving.”

She “accidentally” knocked over her bag, spilled some makeup, and cleaned it up. Little did I know that she snuck butter under the rug that I would later move to do my dance.

“Hope the door doesn’t hit you on the way out.”

She turned around. I “accidentally” slapped her with my wooden front door.

“Oops.”

Skylar left, storming.

The next day…

Since my mom and Skylar’s mom are really close friends, when Skylar told me that I was driving her to school, I was very annoyed. The whole ride there we were silent while my mom was blasting her favorite song through our car windows. Skylar was just looking out one window the whole time, and I was looking out the other.

As soon as we got to school, Skylar jumped out of the car without even saying thank-you.

My mom asked me, “Hey, what’s up with Skylar?”

I said, “Nothing, nothing. We’re just having a grand old time! Haha… bye!”

She cluelessly said, “Okay!”

During Mathematics 101, Skylar told Brandon, Joey, and Lucia to pass me a note. So, without Mr. Kerry seeing, they started down the line. When it ended up at me, I opened the note, and it had a picture of me with devil horns on my head with the devil staff.

After, when we were on our independent time, I went up to Mr. Kerry with the note in my hand pretending to ask a question.

I asked him, “Can I go to the principal’s office? This has been happening every single day.”

He said, “Okay. Class, class please settle down!”

As soon as I went into the principal’s office, I showed him the notes. He called Skylar into his office, and she gave me an evil glance, and I stuck my tongue out at her. Then again, this was my revenge for her trying to get revenge on me. After today, I will have victory and justice, and she’ll never get the lead part. I got it fair and square, and she cannot be mad. After today, she got suspended and because her mom was so mad at her, she wouldn’t let her go to dance. And I faked sick because there was nobody to be my understudy since Skylar was gone.

I chose Evelyn to be my understudy, and Skylar would have to be Uncle Drosselmeyer. This was all part of my plan.

Three days later…

Skylar walked into the dance studio saying, “Let’s rehearse this thing since I’m the understudy, and I say what has to be done.”

Mrs. Allen came into the dance studio and said, “Actually, since you weren’t here the day that Danielle was sick, we changed your position to Uncle Drosselmeyer, and Evelyn became the new understudy.”

“That’s just my way of getting revenge,” I whispered in her ear.

She growled.

 

Chapter Three: Practice, Practice Makes Perfect

Okay, so I gave you a flashback of my last three months which were a living heck, but Skylar got a perfect part to express her anger … just kidding. He is a good person in The Nutcracker. Now, every day since that moment, Skylar has tried to get her part back. Anyway, back to dancing. I have one week to make sure that I know the dance (even though I practiced one million times).

At home…

“Step, turn, step, chasse. Man, I need to work harder. Especially if I want to be better than Skylar.” I kept dancing until I rolled my ankle. Ouch. I was so mad. Hold up, why is the floor so slippery? I moved the rug to find a small yet noticeable packet of butter and a strand of hair that was an ombre of black to gray. My mind immediately went straight to the black-ombre devil herself.

Bad conscience: Come on, let her have it!

Good conscience: No, that’s only going to make matters worse.

You know what? I’m just going to leave it alone because I don’t feel like getting into any more messes.

Bad conscience and good conscience in sync: What are you going to do about Mrs. Allen? For sure you’re going to be kicked off the dance team.

Okay, I’ll just not perform in the dance, so Evelyn can have a turn. I’m happy that she’s getting a chance. I’ll call her now.

Ringing…

“Hey, Evelyn. Are you going to the dress rehearsal tomorrow?”

“No, I can’t. My cousins are coming over from Paris, so I am leaving from school early and not going to dance.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Mrs. Allen would kill me if I wasn’t at practice since I am the lead role, and the show is in less than a week. I just hope that nobody sees my foot.

The next day…

I strolled into dance like nothing happened the day before. It’s going to be hard to pull it off because I have a limp now. If anyone finds out about my foot, I could be kicked out of the dance. Man … these are going to be a long few days. What am I going to do?

We all went to the auditorium (it was freezing), and Mrs. Allen was waiting for us. We start dancing. My moves are a little sloppy because of my ankle. At least Mrs. Allen didn’t see me. I didn’t know that someone was watching me.

After dance class, Mrs. Allen stopped me in the hallway to tell me that Skylar told her that I was limping during practice. Unfortunately, I had no socks or shoes on, so she was able to see that I had a giant bruise on my foot.

“IF YOUR FOOT CAN’T BE HEALED BY THE OPENING NIGHT, YOU WILL BE KICKED OFF THE SHOW!!!”

She shoved me with her shoulder as she walked past. (She literally gave me the cold shoulder). As soon as I went home, I slammed the front door, stomped up to my room (which really hurt), slammed my bedroom door as hard as I could, and cried into Mr. Fluffernutter, my fluffy, usually emotionless cat.

“Why did I have to fall. I have such bad luck.” I sighed. “I know what to do!”

I grabbed my makeup case and ran into the bathroom. When I came out, it looked like the day before yesterday never happened.

 

Chapter Four: Opening Night

I strolled into the auditorium looking like a “non-injured” queen.

I went right up to Mrs. Allen and said, “I’m here and ready to dance.”

“Great. Go change into your costume.”

In my dressing room…

“First, let’s do my costume, makeup, and then my hair.”

An hour later…

“Finally, I’m done.”

I’m going to find Harper and Aubrey, so we can practice our solo. We got so lost in dancing that we did not even hear the five minute call.

“Places in five… four… three… two… ”

“WE HAVE TO GO ON STAGE.”

“Run before the curtains open,” said Harper.

We got on just in the nick of time. Mrs. Allen was not very happy. The dance was going so well. I always get so wrapped up in the music. I didn’t even realize that the dance was ending, and it was time for my solo. Step, turn, step, chasse, grand jet… “OWW!”

“Someone call the ambulance!!” said Harper.

I was in so much pain that I couldn’t move or speak. This has got to be the worst week ever.

 

Chapter Five: The Hospital

“Where am I? What happened?”

“Hi, Danielle. I’m Dr. Taylor. You are in the hospital.”

“What happened?”

“You were in a dance show and fell, sprained your ankle, got a slight case of amnesia, and sustained a severe head injury.”

“Will I get my memory back?”

“With enough rest, your memory should come back in the next 48 hours!”

“Thank you. Can you get my mom and dad, please.”

“Of course.”

My mom and dad, Lilianna and Derick, walked in the room.

“Hey, Mom and Dad.”

“Hi, sweetheart,” my mom said.

“What is going to happen when I go back to dance?”

“We don’t know. All we have to do is wait,” said Dad.

Two days later…

Cough. “Mrs. Allen… ”

“Please pack your things, and leave my studio”

“What? Why?”

“Because you lied to me, and you know I hate liars.”

A few hours later…

“She kicked me out,” I said to Harper, Aubrey, and Evelyn.

“It’s okay. Maybe you can find a new studio nearby,” said Evelyn.

“You don’t understand. I’m not going to see you guys anymore,” I said.

“We’ll be here with you every step of the way,” Harper said.

The next day after school…

On the bus ride back from school, it was already filled up, so Skylar had to sit next to me. She sat down looking like she had read the funniest text ever. Today is not the day for this.

“How is it having so much free time on your hands?” Skylar smirked.

“What’s your problem? You got what you wanted,” I said.

“My problem is you’re still in this town. Why can’t you just pack your things and move?”

Why can’t she just leave me alone? The bus dropped me off at my house.

Skylar yelled, “See you never, loser!”

That was when I got a brilliant idea. I walked in the front door to my mom sitting on a stool in the kitchen, typing up a storm. She was too busy to notice me.

“Ma, can we get out of this town? It’s so boring, it’s so annoying, and I’m tired of seeing Skylar’s and Mrs. Allen’s faces.”

“What? Why? I thought you liked Skylar. I thought you guys were best friends.” She closed her computer and turned around.

“She stopped talking to me after we moved back. Can we leave? She just keeps making fun of me and bullying me at school. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want it to get out of hand.”

“Sure. I’ll tell your father. We can arrange to move back into our old house,” she said calmly.

I was very happy about the decision.

A week later, we said our goodbyes and were on the road.

 

Chapter Six: A New Beginning

I just moved to my new house. It feels so empty… I feel so empty. I lay on the floor with my arms spread out just thinking about how things would’ve gone if I hadn’t rolled my ankle last month. I went to the bathroom to wash my face, and I looked up in the mirror and saw that my mascara was smudging because I was crying so much. I washed my face and put my hair back in a perfect bun. I was so happy but also so sad. I wish I was never kicked out of the dance studio, even though my new studio is so much better. I miss dancing with my friends. I went up the stairs to my nonexistent bedroom, and I lay on my nonexistent bed. I saw my moving boxes perched against the bright white wall. I went into my box labeled “decorations” and took out the photo of me and my friends dancing in our first performance and laid it on my nonexistent table.

I guess I should start unpacking.

A few hours later…

“And that’s the last of it! Finally,” I said.

I lay on my now existent bed. I felt more at home. I had my corkboard with all of my pictures on it in front of my desk, which was on the right side of my bed. On the left side of my bed was my nightstand with my picture and lamp on it. On the other side of the room was my walk-in closet. And I couldn’t forget my faux fur beanbag. I only felt like one thing was missing… my friends.

If I called them, would they be mad at me? If I didn’t call them, would they get more mad? I’ll call them now.

Phone ringing.

“Hello?” I said.

“O-M-G, hey!” said Evelyn.

“I can’t believe I’m really talking to you,” Harper said enthusiastically.

“How’s your new home?” Aubrey exclaimed.

“It’s great. I miss you guys so much.”

“Open your front door,” Evelyn stated.

“Okay?”

I went downstairs and opened the door. I saw Aubrey, Evelyn, and Harper reaching out for a group hug. I saw Evelyn’s mom’s car in the driveway.

“Oh my gosh. It’s really you!” I gave them the tightest hug ever.

“So, who are you dancing for now?” Evelyn asked.

“Don’t get mad at me, but I’m dancing for Energii now.”

“What? Why? You know they’re our rivals!” Harper yelled.

“They were the only ones who would accept me.”

“I respect your decision.” Evelyn smiled.

“I love you guys so much!”

They all said, “We love you, too!”

THE END

 

Hawaiian Vacation

         

Chapter One: Crazy Problems

Three minutes before my family moved to Hawaii, I was so scared. I felt sick to my stomach. I had never flown anywhere. Well, except for going to Florida and California. Now, you might be thinking, why are you going to Hawaii? Well, I’m going because my family and I got hit by an avalanche. Well, our house did. I was skiing in Pennsylvania, and I forgot to say I live in Ohio, so we could get there kind of quickly. That didn’t really help because our car had broke down, and our grandfather was at work, and we couldn’t call him because the power went out. This was the worst day of my life. When I thought things were starting to turn around, they got worse. I was scared of flying, and I had not packed anything. One good thing did happen: We changed the flight, so we could go there in two weeks. Well, my dad called someone. Yay! I had to pack because the movers came a week before we left. We had to stay in a hotel all week. I finally packed! The hotel was okay but only because we swam in the pool every day.

Two weeks later…

So now my family and I were going through security. The way there was not bad. We made it! So, now we had to fill our water bottles. Nothing bad happened except that the water fountains were not working. My family did not have to buy water bottles because my dad knew that our flight was not for two hours, but we got there early just in case. We had to take a red-eye, but at least it was Tuesday because the restaurant that is there had a pasta buffet. I do not like pasta, but I like meatballs with sauce which they did have. The food was filling because I did not have breakfast (as always). By the time we finished, the water fountain was fixed. Then, we filled our water bottles, and then we got onto the airplane…

 

Chapter Two: Plane Problems

If things were not bad enough, as I said earlier, flying makes me scared. What should I do? Help me!! Then, the very nice flight attendant told me to buckle my seatbelt. At least there were no problems with the seatbelt. When I sat down, I forgot that we were in first class. After we were allowed to take off our seatbelts, I waited until the flight attendant came by with drinks and food. I got a bagel and a ginger ale. Aloha, Texas! When I got off the plane, I was not scared of flying because I just thought I was scared. I was glad that I was not scared because that flight was only three hours, and my next flight was in nine hours. So that gave me time to figure out what to do on the i ka hora ‘iwawa, which means nine hour flight in Hawaiian. I figured out that maybe I could just sleep through it because Hawaii is six hours behind. I forgot about the time change so if my flight left at 10:00 and Hawaii is six hours behind, then it would be 4:00 A.M.. I might as well sleep a tiny bit. It was very hard for me to fall asleep, so I would watch a few movies and binge-watch TV. I was not sure what TV show but whatever it was, this would be really fun (hopefully). But if I do not like the show, it will not be fun for me. Now it was time for my family and I to go to Hawaii. We got on the plane with no problems. The flight was boring.

 

Chapter Three: Aloha, Hawaii

When I first got there, I was so excited to find out where our house was that I forgot that it was on the big island, and I was on Oahu which means, “the gathering place.” I guess the name fit what I was doing because I was gathering some of my things. Tonight, my family and I were staying at a hotel. Tomorrow, I would get to see my new house because we were taking another flight. Then, I was done flying for a while which was a good thing because flying is expensive, the long flights get boring, and the time change is super different.

The next morning…

When I woke up, I was very excited because this was my last flight for a while, (hopefully for my family too because my dad was going to try to get a job at the Polynesian Cultural Center which sounds like a really cool place). We were at the airport, and my family and I were now on the plane. Lift off! The flight was only 30 minutes, so now there were 15 minutes left. The flight attendant came by with drinks that were in pineapples. My family was in first class, so the really cool drinks were free. But the people in coach had to pay if they wanted the drinks. Now we were about to land, and I was so surprised that nothing bad happened. My family and I took a bus to the hotel that was really close to where our new house was.

When I saw our house, I was so surprised because the house was three floors. My dad also said that there was a pool in the back. Everyone in my family got their own room, but my parents shared a bed. Also, everyone in my family got their own bathroom with a tub and a shower. As soon as I got in, I saw boxes everywhere. When I saw my bed, I thought that the bed fit in perfectly and that the room was for me.

 

Chapter Four: The Pool

As soon as I got in my room after looking around, I changed into a swimsuit, and my brothers did too. I looked inside their rooms. It looked like both of my brothers belonged in those rooms. Then, my mom took a picture of me and my brothers jumping that would become a part of our Christmas card. It was summer (well, people were in school, but our parents did not want us to start school in the middle of the year) so I didn’t have to worry about trying to make new friends. I also did not have to worry about homework because there was no break homework. Ia! That means yay in Hawaiian. People were on break for one more day. So now I could spend the rest of my time playing in the pool and having fun.

The pool was amazing. It came with a slide which made it super fun and cool. Our family also had a bunch of inflatables and pool noodles. My best friend FaceTimed me, and it was so great to see her face. It was May, so she was almost done with school. Her house did not get smashed by the volcano because she lived far away from school. I was not sure why. I really thought she would like the pool. I hoped she would like the shaved ice and malasada, the Hawaiian doughnut. My dad said he really likes his job. My mom just started working there too, so my older brother who is 14 was in charge, but he was nice. My new life was going well for me and my family. My parents made a lot of money. They also said their jobs were fun and easy, so it was a win-win. The house also came with two golf carts, and my parents got everyone big hammocks that were so comfortable. I could sit on a hammock all day long crafting, except it gets too hot.

 

Chapter Five: Seeing My Friend

I was so excited to see my friend from Ohio because I had not seen her in so long that it felt like a year. When she got here, she and her family put all their bags down, and then they came over to our house. When she got there, we start doing all sorts of crafts, talking, and asking all kinds of questions like ones about school or what the ride over was like. We had so much fun! Her two brothers and her sister were all looking over at us because we were making leis. Then, we let them and my two brothers make them. My friend and I went to my room and then into the na mala li’ili’i, which means little garden. We picked a bunch of beautiful flowers because there were five people who wanted real flower leis. Her family had not got any at the airport because it was very expensive. Then, my family took my friend’s family to the Polynesian Cultural Center for free because my dad worked there. They loved it. The next day, we took them to the King’s Hawaiian Roll Factory, and the rolls were good like they always were. On the last day of her visiting, we made friendships bracelets because she said that I was still her favorite best friend. When she left, it was so sad. The good part was that she just got a phone, so I could FaceTime and text her. My friend’s flight got delayed, and she did not want to stay at an airport, so she had to stay at our house because there were no available rooms at any hotels near the airport. That was fine with me. We could have our own sleepover. It would be so fun.

 

Chapter Six: The Sleepover

My friend and I were so excited. No problem here. We stayed up until ten o’clock, crafting and drawing. Then, we got to swim in the pool for thirty minutes. It was 10:30, so we went back into my room and then went to my room past the garden, by where all the hammocks were. My hammock was purple and covered in lights that I turned on. But my family made a rule: If we had friends over, we had to ask to use another person’s hammock. I had to ask my mom to use her hammock, because it was next to mine and moving a hammock is very hard. My friend said that this was the best night ever, better even than her birthday, which is always very fun. We used my family’s telescope to look up at the sky. It was so beautiful. Her mom came out and said they were going to stay for an extra week. We both yelled, “Yay!” We were so excited. Then, we actually had to go back to bed, but it was okay because we still had fun. We spent the next day in the pool. It was awesome. I almost forgot about the street fair the next day. My friend had not been to a street fair in months, so she was excited when I told her. When we were in the pool and not looking at the house, my brother jumped in, and I was so scared! Then, I spent the rest of the day in the pool going down the slide. I think that this was one of the best days in my life.

 

Chapter Seven: The Fair and Fun

This fair was not one of the typical street fairs you would see in Ohio. Yes, there were cotton candy, games, and shops, but there was also a huge luau. There were some really great fire dancers like my dad, who was teaching my brothers all the tricks. My mom and I danced in the luau which was always fun. My friend really liked it. The next day, I got to teach her how to do a traditional dance. She really liked doing the hula. She thought it was hard, but then she got the hang of it. Then, we put on a show for our mothers, and they loved it. There were five more days left until my friend left. They would be packed with fun and awesome things. The next day, we spent the day at a water park, which was amazing. We were tall enough to go on all the rides, even though we didn’t. I was screaming half the time with joy and laughter but mostly because I was just scared because the rides were so big. But after going, it was not that scary at all. In fact, it was fun. My friend also won a huge inflatable ball that was red. When we got home, we played with the ball for the rest of the day, but before sunset it started to rain. So we went inside and played hide-and-seek until sunset, and then we fell asleep. It was still raining the next day, so we went to the arcade and played all day and had so much fun. It felt as if we never had to leave, but we did because my dad said that the storm was getting worse. So on the way back, my family got some batteries while my friend’s family stayed in the car. When we got back, we were fine until…

 

Chapter Eight: The Storm and More

So, the power went out, and now we couldn’t call, text, or play games. What would be so bad about that, right? I mean, maybe not having electronics would not be the worst thing because I could play games and talk to people more than I usually would. So first, we played Just Dance where one person from each family would compete against each other, and my family won. Yay! Next, we played family vs. family Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader which was fun because my friend and I were in fifth grade before the avalanche. Next, we taught my friend’s family a simple luau dance which was super cool because it was fun to watch a luau even if you were not in it. We got all the flashlights in the house and used them for the luau. Soon after the luau, we all went to bed. Then the next morning, it finally stopped raining. But then the power company said that they could not get the power on until the next day, which was fine because another day without electronics would kind of be fun. For the first half of the day, we just laid on the hammocks talking. Then, we had lunch by the pool and then just played in the pool for the rest of the day. The next day there was power, but we barely used it because we learned our lesson when the storm was here: you don’t need electronics to have fun. My friend was leaving in a few days so no time to waste, right? But, it didn’t matter if we didn’t do everything because she would come back very soon.

 

Chapter Nine: Almost Bye…

I was going to have to say bye to my friend the next day, but once again they postponed it, so I had three more days with her. Awesomeness was in view. So the next day, we planned to go to the luau at my new school where the eighth grade girls did a special dance, and the boys played with fire. We got to the luau with one minute to spare. The luau was great. As soon as it finished, the principal took me and my friend on a tour. The building was not that big, but it smelled amazing for some reason. The girls were super kind, so I wasn’t worried about making new friends. After all of that, I was so tired. The next morning, everyone in our house woke up at 10:00 which was very late for me. So to wake myself up, I went for a swim in the pool, and soon after, everyone else joined. It was so fun because I felt like it was the best pool party ever. We all played until 11:00 when the parents had to work. All of the parents had to leave, but all of the kids stayed in the pool until 12:00 when we had lunch, which was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I made. After that, we watched a tiny bit of TV. Next, soon after the TV, we played Just Dance which was super fun and tiring. Next, we played hide-and-seek, and I scared my little brother for fun. After that exhausting day, we laid on the hammocks reading books. When my parents came home, they gave me and my two brothers each a fish. I knew why: because I had a fish but my brothers don’t. I was excited to have a second one because maybe my fish could be friends through the glass. They were both a rustic, purple, bluish color.

 

Chapter Ten: Bye for Real

Having to leave my friend was hard, but she was coming back in a month, and I was starting school which would get my mind off of her. Since we were both starting new schools, we would text each other about our difficulties if we had any, but hopefully we wouldn’t. The next day when I woke up, it was time to take my friend to the airport where she would go to Texas and then to Pennsylvania, where she and her family would begin the drive to Ohio. When we were in the car, I gave her a picture of us in Hawaii that says “friend” on top. I gave her sister a magnet and her brother a keychain to remember Hawaii. They all thanked me, and I was happy that they liked it. It was almost time to leave when one of the bags in the back opened up, and this trip was about to turn into a disaster. They had gotten to the airport two hours early though, so they had time to put everything back in the bag and even fold the clothes. So now, time for the hardest part, saying goodbye without crying. Here we go. I said goodbye and told her thanks for coming. She also said bye and said thank you too. I said the same things to her mom, brother, and sister. They went into the airport and then onto the plane. We saw it taking off, and we waved even though they probably could not see us. I think it was a sad and happy day.

 

Vera

Three days later, she found herself on the riverbank. Thin breaths huddled in her chest and emerged at unpredictable intervals. Perhaps she was saving heat. The early March grass, pale and sickly, was bent a final few degrees beneath her feet. The water would have been a perfect pale blue, but it was dirtied by too many sticks and garbage and polluted snowmelt. A breath of wind, as small as her own exhalations came by, and it threatened to freeze the water in the river and on her face with all the force of a puppy playing at ferociousness. She stayed still as the smallest fraction of a smile bloomed inside her and withered a moment later, and she listened to the empty air ringing in her ears.

Vera, in her own quiet way, had always been as proud as a cat. She never claimed superiority, never went around with a stiffly straightened back, but like a cat, she always licked her wounds in secret and never let anyone know she was injured.

The winter descended on Vera late, and as she thought about it on the riverbank, she was as grateful as she could be, given everything. The first snow had been in November, but it hadn’t reached in and hushed up her soul for a good month. Even so, it had been too long. Each day she looked for some new tool or trick. Each time she seemed to be out of ideas, she summoned up enough cunning for just one more.

Still, none of them had worked (and the last one had worked least of all), and now, with the crocuses still in bloom, all she had was her own breath and a scrap of hope. The second, when she looked for it, was absent as often as it was there. Vera still held onto it like a child’s blanket, because what else was there? Sometimes she was almost glad of its absence, the breathless wanting that broke through the hush a little bit. She was always glad of its presence. Mostly the cycle, the soar and the crash, had tired her out. Still she was a little glad, because what else was there?

It was with this little bit of hope and little bit of gladness that Vera waited on the riverbank and worried a little. What if the late arrival meant a late departure? What if there was no departure at all, and the turning inside her was separate from the seasons? (This last one was too likely for comfort, and Vera tried to think of the rivers’ currents instead, the empty twisting things.)

***

Three days ago, the sky had been an over-bright, perfectly clear blue, as if trying and failing to make up for the below-zero temperature. Vera had gone outside, at the urging of her mother, and not just to the river a bit behind her house. She had got in the car, for the first time since the break began, and bit back a grimace at the fumes. She always imagined them creeping through her lungs and turning her insides charcoal gray, but the reality was that they were mostly just gross. Someone who avoided the car like her would probably be fine.

The seat of the car looked the same way it smelled: dirty, old, and slightly wrong. It was the sort of smell that infused the places where terrible things happened. She was being overdramatic, she knew that. She could ignore the smell. It faded into the background if she waited long enough and looked at the trees, looking empty without their leaves. Or at the road, watching the dashes blur into an unbroken line of white paint and seeing the barriers on the side of the road crash into each other noiselessly. Her gaze shifted in continual disappointment. The sun was out, the sky was doing its best to pretend it was summer, but everything was sallow, like the light was slacking off.

The trees looked like dust plumes now. Vera’s mother hadn’t said anything yet. Vera had barely noticed her get in the car and start driving. Something hard weighed in her chest.

“How long have you been driving?”

“Uh, five minutes or so.” Her mom looked a little surprised, and Vera wondered why, until she remembered that she had barely spoken in the last few days. “We’ll be there soon.”

Which meant anywhere from five minutes to an hour. Although, she had been to this store before. She really should have been able to remember. “Okay. Thanks.”

The white line kept bleeding into itself. Everything that could be seen on the side of the road hurried away from the direction Vera was heading. What were they, so desperate to get away and so good at it too? For a moment the car was stationary, she and her mom sitting passively in it, doing nothing but twitching and breathing. The earth roared past, and the air hissed along the car. Then, her perspective flipped right back, and it was once more the car racing down the highway while the trees fumbled a little in the wind. Vera sat still, breathless, disturbed. Was it any different? She still did nothing; only the car moved her. Could she even move? Vera willed herself to pick up her arm. It didn’t move, but that was to be expected. She hadn’t wanted it enough.

Some thick tangle of emotion engulfed her. She looked through the gaps, doing her best to ignore it and waiting for time and oxygen to take it away, even as it was about to stop her throat from beneath. “Mom?” she said.

“Yeah?”

“The play you went to last week, what was that about?” Might as well distract herself.

“Oh, I don’t really remember. Adultery or something?” Vera’s mom didn’t look at her. Of course she couldn’t, she was driving, but she had drilled into Vera the importance of looking people in the face.

“What do you mean, adultery?”

“Like, people cheating on each other.”

“No, I know what adultery means. I mean what else happened in the play? Lots of plays are about adultery.”

“Exactly.” A corner of her mom’s mouth flicked upward, just for a second. “Can’t keep them apart.”

“Hm.” Vera didn’t see the point in seeing a play you couldn’t remember, but she decided to shut up about it. “Was it good?”

Her mom shrugged. “It was like the rest of them.”

A sense of déjà vu struck her; she could have sworn she’d had this conversation. Only it wasn’t déjà vu at all: she had said these things before, or close enough to them, and her mom had just gone on seeing the same plays. Her stomach turned, and the smell of exhaust that she had ignored till now flooded it. “Then why did you see them?” she demanded. Her voice had an edge of anger in it that made her mother flinch.

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

Vera sulked and didn’t stop until her mom pulled into the parking lot, where the endless concrete was too overwhelming to really do anything but look at it. Something compressed her chest; she could hardly breathe. The buildings were not concrete, but they were the same color, or else a bleached beige totally devoid of personality. All the local colors had been drained out and stuffed into a handful of logos. Minus the sky. The sky was the same oversaturated blue, and at that moment Vera couldn’t imagine it ever changing. She would simply have to live out her life stalked by that sky, leeching all the color out of the landscape.

It was with — not gladness, but something close enough to it that Vera slipped out from under the sky and entered the store, following her mother blindly. The place was lightly crowded. That should have been easy enough to get around, but no one here could move at all, and Vera found herself bumping into person after person. Scowling, she retreated into a corner. Her mom could do the shopping herself.

The corner she found herself in was not a corner, exactly. That is to say, it was not a place where two walls met. It was a place where they collided as if thrown together by some frustrated god of retail, with any adherence to the laws of physics or aesthetics entirely accidental. The cement was rough enough to almost hurt when she leaned against it, and the caulk was filled with dirt. Had anyone, she wondered, ever taken care of this place? Or was it one of those permanently untended patches of civilization, built to keep out the wind and nothing more?

Something flickering by her nose surprised her, and when she traced the light back to its source, she found she was eye to eye with a dragonfly. It dragged itself up the caulk over bits of dirt that must have seemed to it as large as boulders, staring at her with glittering compound eyes; she scarcely breathed for fear of disturbing it. It drank in the empty light with its whole body and converted it, casual as anything, into iridescence: this must have been what made the alchemists think that they could transmute lead into gold.

“Vera?”

The sound of her mom’s voice made the dragonfly take off. Vera tracked the blue and green glimmers for the moment it was still in sight, then reluctantly turned around. “Coming!” she shouted, then winced at the sound of her own voice. The store was the same as it had been a few minutes ago. The lights flattened the linoleum floor into a featureless expanse, and everywhere, bright packages and conversation blurred into a meaningless haze. The place smelled overwhelming, but it was an unplaceable scent, the smell of hundreds of processed foodstuffs. She thought of the dragonfly, how for a moment the sight of it had carved into her the desire to simply watch it. Forever, if she could get that.

But this was the real world. It was shallow and chaotic, and she couldn’t sit and want. Can’t sit and want. It was a message she would do well to gouge into a wall somewhere, but of course, nothing was that permanent or that simple. She would have to remember it. Perhaps she should leave a note for her future self, telling her not to empty herself out, to let the tides of the supermarket and the car trips wash over her and fill her. For the time being.

 

This is Called a Ransom Note

Dear Janice,

You may have recently noticed that your dear semi-aquatic turtle named Henry has gone missing. Please do not call the police. If you do, they won’t believe you and won’t do anything to help you no matter how much you plead. Resistance is futile. There is no way out this time, Janice. Henry is in good health, and his tank water is kept at a constant 27.7778 degrees Celsius. I feed him every morning and every night. But in order for him to continue on in his joyous state, I will need you to place exactly $53.94 in a sealed envelope underneath the Ford-Gleedon library mailbox, located on the corner of Ford and Gleedon. I will use the money to buy Henry a jumbo sized container of freeze-dried krill every other month. You have a whole year to create a plan to infiltrate my facility. If you can find it. Good luck.

Sincerely,

Your dear Henry’s captor

P.S. I forgot to mention this in the letter, and I’ve gotten this far, and I’m not redoing this again. Just so you know, I need the money by Thursday.

 

Dear Daniel,

It has come to my attention that you have turtlenapped my semi-aquatic turtle named Henry. I know it was you. You have always loved Henry, and I saw you running out of my apartment building with Henry’s transportation tank while I was parking after my brunch with Janet. I know where you live, so there’s no reason for me to call the police anyway. Henry is a “she,” and you can always adopt a very similar turtle from your local shelter. Thank you for taking care of my turtle. I will be picking her up at 8:12 A.M. Eastern Standard Time tomorrow. Should you fail to hand over my dear Henry, you will be met with the brute force of a turtle mother. You have been warned.

With much frustration,

Janice

 

Dear Janice,

It has come to my attention that you have unmasked my identity. With much joy, I shall inform you of my plans this weekend. This upcoming Friday, I will be leaving the country with Henry and won’t look back. That’s right. I’m leaving. Over the weekend, we will take a cruise along the coast of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and end in Greece. I have already bought a house for myself and Henry. We will live in a small cottage there and be adopted into the Grecian society. Henry will have HER own room with all of her supplies and toys. Until then, you have a slight window of time before we leave on our one-way trip to the sweet, sweet country Greece. Just so you know, yes, I have gotten a turtle license to have Henry with me on the plane to France. Farewell, Janice!

With much joy,

Daniel

 

Dear Daniel,

If it means that much to you, then I suppose you may take Henry on the cruise, but you can’t stay in Greece with her forever. You can’t even stay in Greece forever. I have heard it’s beautiful there, though. Perhaps I will meet you in Greece. After all, we haven’t talked in a while. It will be nice to see you. We could go to some museums and parks or gardens! Anyway, tell Henry that Mommy’s coming.

Janice

 

Dear Janice,

I appreciate you allowing me to take Henry on the adventure of her 20-30 year life. It would be nice to meet up in Greece. I told my turtle that her psychotic stalker was coming to get her, and she looked pretty scared. Great job at being a mom. Today, Henry took a walk around the block in her new rolly cart transporter! It’s a small cart that comes with a tank strapped onto it. You can take your aquatic friends on a walk anywhere you are willing to walk to. Henry seemed to have liked it a lot. I plan to take her on more rolly cart transporter trips. All is well otherwise, and I hope to see you in Greece. Or maybe not. Because then you might try to take Henry away from me. It would be very unfortunate if that were to happen. Well, we’ll see.

Sincerely,

Daniel

 

Sonnet of the Feline

           

The worst gray haired creatures to roam the earth,

They leave and scrounge for rats and mice alike,

And they are even worse while giving birth,

Do not cross their paths whilst on a hike,

 

Do not pet them because, beware, they’ll bite,

On bed or shoes, wherever they may lay,

Tread on the tail, and prepare for a fight.

Inside or stray, please stay out of their way.

 

Their retractable claws will leave a mark

That won’t simply wash away with some soap.

Run away and they will dive in an arc,

Tis a slip’ry slope, farewell to your hope.

 

A kitten’s life is like a sharp descent,

Clearly, dogs are better, that’s what I meant.

 

Weird Dream

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

 

Potatoes to Apples

        

“Just a small town girl

Livin’ in a lonely world

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t look convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m from Detroit.”

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

“I’m a singer. I have connections with some friends in Brooklyn, and they said they’d book me a gig at their bar.” She brushes her hair behind