Loki the Anti-Hero: The God of Mischief with a Good Side

Loki is widely considered to be one of the greatest villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Yes, it’s true, Loki tried to conquer both Earth and Asgard and also fought the Avengers. However, it would be a mistake to see these deeds as villainy. He must be regarded, instead, as the god of mischief. Loki mainly likes to trick people, almost as a prank and likes to cause trouble, picking up fights, etc. Thor, his brother, often made the mistake of trusting Loki and was stabbed in the back many, many times. The key to understanding Loki’s character is to regard him not as an antagonist, but as more of an anti-hero. An anti-hero is similar to a protagonist but lacks the traits in a typical hero. They aren’t equal to a protagonist or a villain, but somewhere in between. Loki fits the profile of an anti-hero because it wasn’t his entire fault for his crimes. He also sacrificed himself for Thor, and cares a lot for his brother. Furthermore, in all of these actions, Loki demonstrates the capacity for personal growth and redemption befitting an anti-hero. 

Most of Loki’s crimes are purely the protagonists’ fault for trusting Loki. Namely when Thor was still a suspect in SHIELD, Loki visited Thor to tell him that his father, Odin (king of the Asgardians), had died. Loki went even further with the lie to tell Thor that he was to be king now and their mother had forbidden Thor’s return. If Thor hadn’t believed Loki, the events that followed probably would not have happened. For example, when Thor escaped out of SHIELD, he stayed put on Earth, mourning for his father and thinking that he is not worthy to return to Asgard. Thor finally realizes that it was all a lie when Sif, one of his friends, tells him the truth. Thor says to Sif in a bitter tone, “You know I can’t go home. My father is dead because of me, and I must remain in exile.” Sif replies, confused, “Thor, your father still lives.” (Thor). Again, if not for Sif, Thor would’ve stayed on Earth probably for a considerable amount of time. If Thor hadn’t believed Loki, he would have made his way back to Asgard as quickly as he can. 

Let’s not forget that Loki sacrificed himself for Thor when Thanos attacked their ship. This one scene ultimately labels Loki as an anti-hero rather than a villain. Loki definitely despised Thanos, one of the main antagonists in the MCU. Shockingly, Loki once teamed up with Thanos when Loki wanted to conquer Earth. The Other (Thanos’ personal servant) once told Thanos reassuringly, “He [Loki] is ready to lead, and our force, our Chitauri, will follow. The world will be his, the universe will be yours. And the humans, what can they do, but burn?” (The Avengers). This reveals that Thanos and Loki were working together. But despite this, in the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, Loki tried to kill Thanos with daggers in both hands. Even Loki’s last words to Thanos was, “You will never be a god.” (Avengers: Infinity War), which supports even more that Loki hates Thanos. Loki unfortunately stole the Tesseract, a blue glowing cube that protects the space stone and Thanos obtained it. However, Loki’s sacrifice spared Thor, which led to the saving of Earth. 

Even though Loki loves to trick Thor as often as he breathes, Thor and Loki obviously care for each other, even if their intentions are different. It was even Thor that helped Loki make better choices. Loki fought alongside Thor in Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnorak and in Avengers: Infinity War.  Believe it or not, Thor was the one that gave Loki a second chance in Thor: The Dark World, as he was rotting in jail after he tried to invade Earth. Thor said to Loki, “I know you seek vengeance as much as I do. You help me escape Asgard, and I will grant it to you. Vengeance. And afterward, this cell.” Loki then said “You must be truly desperate to come to me for help. What makes you think you can trust me?” Thor replied “…You should know that when we fought each other in the past, I did so with a glimmer of hope that my brother was still in there somewhere. That hope no longer exists to protect you. You betray me, and I will kill you.” Loki says “Hm. When do we start?” Loki annoys Thor and tricks him playfully on their mission as per usual, but he shows his care through the movie by fighting loyally at Thor’s side. Undoubtedly, Loki loves Thor as a brother, and though they sometimes have disagreements, their brotherly relationship will never falter. 


Sources:

https://collider.com/loki-and-thors-brotherly-moments/
https://theportalist.com/loki-quotes-from-the-mcu
https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/movie/thor-movie/quotes/exile
https://time.com/5544534/marvel-tesseract/
https://www.cbr.com/loki-heroic-dubious-acts/
https://the-take.com/watch/why-have-television-audiences-fallen-so-hard-for-the-anti-hero
https://marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Thanos/Quote
https://marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Attack_on_Jotunheim
https://www.denofgeek.com
https://www.google.com/search?q=loki+&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKE
https://www.google.com/search?q=loki+and+thanos&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKE
https://www.google.com/search?q=loki+and+his+brother+fighting+together&tbm=isch&ved=

Crescendo: A Teenager’s Experience With Music

My left hand played with the hem of my dress clothes as I followed the stream of middle schoolers further backstage. We were all dressed similarly, with the boys wearing tuxedos and ties and the girls wearing fancy dresses. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. People were nervously talking to the people beside them, anticipating the concert that was to come. I looked at my clarinet that had accompanied me so faithfully throughout this journey, took a deep breath, and then walked onto the stage. 

I was at the 2023 California All State Music Education Conference, and the past few days had passed in a blur. Despite being in the lower band of two for middle school, I was elated when I had gotten in, and I was even more joyful when I arrived at the site we would be rehearsing in. The sheer number of musicians that I would be rooming with, eating breakfast with, and most importantly, rehearsing hard with over the next few days, was astounding. In our school band, we had only seven clarinetists; in this one, we had thirty two! 

Throughout the four days, we had quickly acclimated to the rehearsals and had gotten to know each other better. Our conductor, a white-haired lady who continued to have a burning passion for music to this day, was especially nice when working with us. I hoped to continue enjoying and playing music to that age as well, even if I couldn’t do so professionally. We had practiced together for hours, fine-tuning every aspect of our performance, and this was the moment when we would show the results of our work to everybody. 

The Saroyan Theater looked huge from the stage. Seats stretched from the stage until they almost disappeared into the darkness, and if that wasn’t enough, there was a balcony as well. Standing on the brightly lit stage, looking towards the sea of tiger moms clamoring to catch a glimpse of their child, I felt like I was a gladiator in the Roman Empire, cornered and afraid, instead of a musician about to perform a piece. The many concerts that I had watched from the back simply hadn’t given me preparation for what was to come, but I had to dutifully continue forwards, following the person in front of me. 

Finding my seat and sitting down, I adjusted the music stand a few times and then put my sleek black folder onto it, taking out the music in concert order. We would start off with “In the Center Ring,” a thrilling rendition of a circus performance, and then continue on to “Kvetchers,” a comedic musical march filled with jokes. After that was “Rippling Watercolors,” a more sentimental and slow piece, and then we would finish off with “Tudor Sketches,” three short movements depicting life in England during the Elizabethan period. I really enjoyed the variety of the pieces and how they made me play outside of my comfort zone. Although we had rehearsed these pieces many times and I had practiced for months beforehand, I couldn’t help but feel nervous at the thought of performing these pieces in front of everyone here. But after our conductor stepped on stage and patted my back before heading to the podium, I started feeling excited for what was to come. 

After the applause had subsided, our conductor lifted her hands, and “In the Center Ring” started off quickly with a bang. I felt thrilled as I played my way through the quick runs that I had practiced. When the entire band quieted down and the clarinets could be heard playing a repeating phrase, I was entirely captivated by the music. Then the chaotic section repeated, and we had a solo by a tall, yellow-haired clarinetist and a young flutist. As they seemingly talked to each other with their anxious playing of a tightrope scene, the notes floating in the air and backed by the quiet and serene “safety net” of the accompaniment, I started thinking about what had brought me on this musical journey. 

My experience with music had started when I was still quite small, perhaps when I was two or three years old. My mom loved playing the “Baby and Music” tapes and I would spend hours in front of the TV, watching as colors and images danced across the screen. But back then, I seemed more interested in the visual aspect than the music, and treated the sounds more as a background. Later on, when I was five, my mom bought a keyboard and eventually, a piano, and she would take me to lessons every week. It seemed a bit tiring and frustrating that I didn’t choose to do any of this but still had to go through with it. I remember that I would watch the toy basket eagerly throughout the lesson, deciding which one to pick when it was over. Music and piano was like a means to an end, and being impatient, I asked my mom many times in the car rides to and from the lessons why I had to play piano. It just didn’t appeal to me at all. I didn’t understand why pressing some notes on a keyboard in the right sequence was so important. I think that if my friend wasn’t there with me, I might not have continued playing. 

But throughout the years, as I grew older and switched between teachers, I realized that sometimes music wasn’t just about playing the right notes at the right times, that maybe there was something more to it. I began to learn the theory behind it, dissecting chords and naming intervals. I took many mock theory tests and played more difficult pieces that involved increased cooperation and coordination among the two hands. I learned about body movement, balance, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics. But most importantly, I learned that music was all about putting your own emotions and feelings into your playing. I learned to think about the composers and their thoughts as they wrote those pieces. And I learned, after struggling with music and piano for years and almost quitting many times, to enjoy the feeling of liberation it gave me when I was playing soulful, tragic pieces by Chopin and Liszt and cheerful, light pieces by Bach and Mozart. 

I was brought back to the present by the ending of the solo. It peacefully quieted down, and anticipation could be felt as it turned into silence. Then, with a crash, we were off again! The piece went through several more twists and turns and even featured a police whistle before culminating in a chaotic fanfare. 

Next was “Kvetchers.” I positioned my clarinet while sneakily taking out a purple slide whistle that I had bought a few days earlier. As we started playing, I quickly put down my clarinet and picked up my slide whistle. The suspense grew as we got closer and closer to our arranged time, and then a few fellow slide whistlers and I blew hard into our instruments, making a shrill glissando that sounded both comical and piercing. Proud of a job well done, we quickly put down our slide whistles and continued playing. 

Our experimentation with this piece had started the day we went to a showcase event and had come back to the rehearsal hall with slide whistles. The shrill sounds could be heard everywhere across the room as we played laughably bad renditions of songs, including an attempt at the Chinese National Anthem and the Titanic theme. Upon hearing this, our conductor told us about an idea she had: we could employ them in “Kvetchers” at a particular section. After multiple failed attempts, we almost scratched the idea, but it finally prevailed, and we ended up doing it on stage. This taught me a lot about thinking of music as an active act of experimentation; that improvements and improvisations could be added to the pieces that I previously thought were only supposed to be played by strictly adhering to the sheet music. I had thought that the composers’ will was final, but it turned out that playing music, even with a concert band instead of a jazz band, was more fluid and creative than I thought. 

We finished up the piece and took out our music for the next piece, “Rippling Watercolors,” a more reflective and emotional piece. But before that, our conductor told all of us who learned how to play our instruments during the pandemic to stand. 

The pandemic was a hard time for us all, and for people learning instruments during the time, it was extremely troublesome. From learning fingerings online to learning embouchures for wind instruments (a French word for the shape a mouth is supposed to make when blowing through an instrument), it might have even seemed impossible to start learning. But through these times, we persevered, and finally made it to where we are today. As I learned through a mix of in-person and online, I couldn’t even fathom how hard it was to learn completely through a screen, essentially self-learning with a video guide. Through this, I felt even more admiration for some of my fellow musicians currently standing.  They were deprived of good conditions in which to learn music, and yet their love for it made them continue. This really showed me how music can bring out the best in people and motivate them to try their hardest. 

And then we started playing. The piece started out slowly with the clarinet section. We breathed in slowly and played as one, and the woody timbre of the notes, when combined, made almost a shimmering, watery sound. The low notes resonated through the concert hall as everybody watched in silence. Then, it picked up, with more and more instruments joining in, making the sound louder but not any less delicate. Finally, it built up into a grand, sweeping melody by the brass, expressing the composer’s love and hope for his children. Then, it sank down, ending with the wistful, held out notes of the clarinets again. 

This beautiful piece featuring the clarinet made me think some more about why and how I chose to play this instrument. The clarinet is a very versatile instrument, being able to play almost four octaves and featured in both jazz and classical music. That and its great timbre appealed to me when I was looking through videos of instruments in the sixth grade when my brother was going to start learning the cello. Unlike those earlier days of attempting to learn how to play the piano, this time, I was really happy to be learning a new instrument. I think this really represents my growth as a musician; the fact that I chose the clarinet myself really shows that I started loving music for what it was. And although this time I still struggled with learning how to play, I chose to keep going and never thought of stopping. In fifth grade, I didn’t fill in band class on my elective form for middle school despite my parents trying their best to convince me, but in seventh grade, I decided to try out for the advanced band of our school, and made it in through the help of my teacher. And although I was last chair in our school band in the beginning of the year, through practicing our school pieces and the pieces my teacher assigned me, and through much mentoring and hard work, I ascended the ranks to eventually become section leader. Through this experience, I learned that practice and hard work paid off greatly, not only in music but in life as well. 

Finally, it was time for our last piece, “Tudor Sketches.” This was our longest and most complicated piece, sporting three parts, each about a different scene in Elizabethan life, from Hampton Court to meeting the Queen to hunting. It featured many of the older instruments such as double reeds, and, oddly, the saxophone as well. “Hampton Court” was regal yet exciting, “Old Queen Bess” was more stately and slow, and “Hunting at Chobham” was lively and full of excitement. Playing these three movements was a lot like being an actor. One moment it would be majestic and the next moment it would be playful. The song picked up its pace as we got through “Hampton Court,” but it slowed down once again to the solemn, awe-filled notes of “Old Queen Bess.” And finally, we were down to the final stretch in the joyful “Hunting at Chobham.” Everybody could feel the joy at having everything they had done until this day pay off. I played, feeling the unity in playing as a group, hearing every instrument at once and also how the seemingly disjoint parts interwove and connected with each other to form the melody that was presented to the audience. Playing in a group was simply unlike anything else. Everything was connected in a way that was awe-inspiring. And playing clarinet allowed me to be a part of the group, working together towards a common goal. In one way, playing in a band was a lot like playing soccer; we passed the ball to each other and worked together to create a stunning finish. And then, we finally ended the piece in a grand, sweeping finale. The audience was silent for a moment, and then we stood up together and bowed to their loud applause. 

After the concert, as I slowly stepped out of the hall and into the bright daylight awaiting me, I could see that my musical journey, which had begun more than ten years ago in front of the TV, was still far from over. From ignoring music, to feeling indifferent about it, to despising it and then finally learning to love it, I had come a long way from these earliest days. I have played pieces more complex than my two-year-old self could have imagined and have learned the joys of the camaraderie felt in playing with a group. Playing music has made me a more motivated and committed person in the things I do. And yet, I know that I still have a long way to go, and much more to learn about the seemingly simple, yet complex art of making noises into melodies known as music. 

9 Hours: Worth Much More

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

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

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

She asked, 

“Why are you here, honey?” 

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

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

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

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

“Would you like some, Linda?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comrade: Part 1

The Comrade… Part I

The murder was timed perfectly. The target had no hope. 

Never call the victim by their name. It personalizes the situation and you will hesitate as you realize what you are doing. The advice seeped into The Comrade’s mind as he threw the knife. It was a perfect hit, like always. The Comrade’s real name was Braydon, but nobody called him that. He had enhanced senses that allowed him to track things easily. 

There was a meaty thunk as the knife passed into the target’s arteries. The Comrade stepped out to end the job. 

The sweet satisfaction of a kill. Especially this one. The target would pay for his arm with her life. 

The Comrade was one of the deadliest bounty hunters on earth. He did not know why the client wanted the target dead. He did not know who the target really was. A good hunter does not ask these questions. A good hunter does not hesitate to finish off the kill. The Comrade had been on many missions before, and it showed. Bullet wounds, knife scars, burns… fruitless attempts of a victim fighting back. There had been one incident where the victim had survived. Once again, now the survivor was no longer. 

Comrade would have been a normal boy, growing up in a normal school in Cornwall, and followed in his dad’s footsteps as a butcher, if not for the war… or the Neutralizer.

15 years earlier in the year 7062… 

Cornwall, The Constipated States of Russia, Formerly Europe

The bombing was ceaseless. Braydon knew he wouldn’t last long. He was huddled next to his mother on the floor of an evacuation shelter. He dreamt of better times and fell asleep with the rhythmic BOOM of the bombs. He awoke to his mother shaking him, the panicked look on her face causing an adrenaline rush. The bunker had been bombed, and now it was a smoking hole. Braydon and his mother rushed out as the rebels started to storm the bunker. He was lucky none of them saw him. 

Suddenly, three rebels popped out of a dark corner and started shooting at him and his mom. He never saw his mother again. 

In the span of about two seconds, the rebels were on the ground, dead. The sound of a jetpack made him snap around to behold the sight of The Neutralizer. He was decked out in full titanium armour with a strong blaster in his hand, a heavy sniper slung across his back, which was one of the newest models. He had a bullet carrier across his chest and leg and a cape across his back. He had an extra titanium jetpack in his hand. The helmet and knives strapped to his legs identified him as part of The Watch. 

The Watch was a mysterious group that existed before the rebels. Nobody knew which side they were on, but now Braydon knew they were going to help. 

There was a rebel sneaking up behind the warrior. Before Braydon could tell him, with alarming and cunning speed the Neutralizer swung around and shot him. The rebel fell to the ground dead. The warrior held out the jetpack to him. 

“Is this for me?” Braydon asked cautiously, the excitement building in him. The Neutralizer said nothing. Must not be a very talkative guy, Braydon thought. He took the jetpack warily, as if it might explode in his hands. He felt the cool metal soothe his skin as he strapped in. The Neutralizer pressed a button on his wrist guard, and suddenly Braydon shot up into the air. The weightlessness made him feel giddy as he landed on top of a building. 

“Come with me. You may call me Commander. Do not try anything or you shall have a terrible fate.” The warrior’s deep voice echoed through his helmet. 

“You mean, kill me?” Braydon stuttered.

“There are worse things than dying,” was the reply as he blasted off. Braydon found the button on the side of the jetpack, popping out a joystick in front of him which he could control. He followed the “Commander” through the bombs of terror. He glanced down and saw the scene he had fled, gazing at the destruction and hollowness.  

As Braydon and the warrior landed in a small dark alleyway, there was the pitter-patter of footsteps, and then a sharp cry of death. They both landed silently. The Neutralizer told him in silent language to stay and be quiet. Braydon watched silently from the corner as he took out his blaster pistol and walked along the hard ground. He looked once, lifted his pistol, and shot. The other enemy shot at the exact same time and the shots bounced off each other multiple times before flying away. They both gave a hearty laugh, embraced, and began to walk away. Braydon started to walk toward them but not before he spotted a small frilly dress rush past him in an alleyway. He thought it must be another refugee. Five minutes later, trailing the two warriors, he had the impression that someone was watching him. He swung around to catch a glimpse once again of a polka dot dress, this time catching a little bit of the girl’s hair. 

“Hey wait! Who are you?” he shouted. He ran to where he had last seen her and just saw her round a corner.

Giggling erupted from somewhere behind a wall. Braydon silently walked toward the sound, a smile spreading on his face. He jumped forward and said, “Gotcha little skunk!” 

The girl smiled and said shyly, “Hi. I’m Marybelle, but you can call me Mary.” 

“Hi, I’m Braydon. Why are you following me?” Braydon asked timidly, helping the girl up. Marybelle looked like she had just woken up from the ground. Her dress was caked with mud, and her hair was messy, sticking to her face which was covered in grime, but held a certain gleam to it which made her look pretty. 

“I was following metal man,” she replied. “He saved me.”

“He saved me too,” Braydon said quietly. “Speaking of which…” The warriors were far away, and both Braydon and Marybelle were out of breath when they caught up. 

“Commander,” huff, “where are you,” huff, “taking us?” asked Braydon.

The Commander and his buddy turned around. “Us?” he questioned. He acknowledged the little girl and said gruffly, “No friends along.” 

“But… she said she was rescued too…” Braydon protested. 

“Oh. That’s my sack. Ahaha,” his buddy “Ex-Commando” explained. 

Marybelle ran up to “Ex-Commando” and hugged him. “Metal man,” she said, pointing to the man.

Braydon gave a small laugh, which sparked giggles out of Marybelle. She was like a little ball of sunshine. She must have been only about five years old. Braydon couldn’t stand to think that people as young as her would be facing this war. 

“Come now, children. You must prepare,” the Commander ordered. Braydon followed him to a door set in a stone wall. He hit it with some sort of pattern, and they waited. About ten seconds later some sort of spyball popped out and viewed all of the customers. The spyball retracted, and a grinding sound emerged from the door as it swung inside. They all walked  though into the hall. The hall was long, with no pictures or paintings, and made out of pure marble. More “metal men” were on the side of the hall, cleaning their weapons. They all stared as Braydon walked though. 

“You found a sapling?” one of the warriors grunted.

“Yeah. The first one too!” Commander boasted. “They’re going to get the best armour.”

The Commander led Braydon away from Marybelle and brought him through a hallway to a metal door. Braydon heard a faint clanging coming from inside. 

“Put these on. Then you might not die,” Commander laughed again. He handed out something that looked like a foil cap with eye coverings. Braydon didn’t know how you would be able to see through them, but he put them on. Suddenly, his vision was enhanced. He could see things with intense clarity, from the texture on the Commander’s helmet to the finest grain of sand on the ground. 

“So… can you see anything?” the Commander asked.

“Y-Y-Yeah.. Everything looks so… pure!” Braydon stammered, looking around. 

“He is the Chosen One…” the Commander said under his breath. Braydon acted like he didn’t hear him. The last thing he wanted was more attention. 

The Commander knocked on the door three times, and the door opened. Inside, Braydon saw an armory. The clanking sound grew louder, and Braydon could see an Armourer hammering a piece of titanium into what looked like a chestpiece. 

“The sapling is here, old one.” The armourer turned around, and Braydon saw her gold helmet. 

“Gooooood,” the Armourer dragged out. “His armour is ready.”

“I believe him to be the Chosen One, Master,” the Commander explained. “He can see through the glasses. 

5 years later…

Braydon was only 14, and yet he already felt his power growing. He could sense people without seeing them, hear things from more than a mile away, and see things in clarity. He had been admitted into the creed of the Watch when they discovered his powers. They had changed his armour to be smaller, so now he could stay safe from enemies. He had been given two blaster pistols as well as a considerably weak sniper which would only damage his target. 

This new mission was the hardest mission yet. He was to assassinate Will Hye, a Russian spy who worked for the Soviet Hye. This would be his first time on an assassination mission.

Braydon had been given the nickname “Comrade” because of how loyal he was to his teammates. This time he had been given the other child in the creed: Marybelle. Marybelle was only 9, but she was still experienced. She was a much better sniper than Braydon was, which made him envy her. She had the same armour as Braydon’s except for the blue design on the front of her helmet and limbs. 

They were camped out on a building very high. Marybelle was to snipe Will Hye, and if the shot missed, Braydon would go down on his jetpack and gun him down with his pistols. This mission was sure to be a success. 

Will Hye had just finished a meeting with another spy, Bill Nye. The two spies had been discussing plans on how to invade the Constipated States. They had decided to discuss these plans with their boss. Little did they know, that meeting wouldn’t happen. 

As Will walked out of the building, he felt like someone had punched him. He stepped back a few steps. People were screaming all around him, but he couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. Then he looked down and saw the blood spilling out. His eyes began to swim, and black spots clouded his vision. The screams grew softer, and he could barely see. Will tried shouting, but no sound came out. He fell down and sunk into black oblivion. 

The mission was complete.

It Might as Well Have Been Winter

The air was cool and the winds were strong. Below me, I could see hues of scarlet and shades of golden, with a handful of orange. Buildings were scattered around, some lights on and some lights off. The sun had barely risen.

It was so frigid outside, it might as well have been winter.

We stood there in silence for a long time, in thick scarves and puffy jackets. 

“Why have you brought me here?” Cersei asked, her voice painted with curiosity. She was in awe of the view, you could see it in the way her eyes glittered as she admired the horizon in front of us.

“I just wanted to talk,” I mumbled.

But really, I didn’t want to talk.

I wanted revenge.

And a tall mountain was the perfect place to take it.

“Talk about what?” she asked. Was she oblivious of everything she’d done to me? Was she completely unaware of the crap I’d put up with all this time?

“Why did you do it?” I asked her flatly. She furrowed her eyebrows and took a deep breath.

“I’m not sure what you mean…” 

I was just about ready to slap her, if that’s what it took to get an answer out of her.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what I mean?! How can you not know what I mean? After everything you’ve done, how can you not know?” I accused, and Cersei gave me a stare that was almost psychotic.

It was like, all of a sudden, the cold air had gotten colder.

“Your money?” she asked, and then she laughed out loud. “It’s all done and over with, why worry now?”

“I will worry now, because it was you who ruined my life! You’ve always ruined my life, Cersei, and I never took note of it!” I exclaimed.

“I want something, I’ll get it, Freya. I don’t think you’re in any place to confront me about what I’ve done. You know how important the money was to me, how desperate I was for it. How can you be so selfish?!” Cersei spat. I inhaled deeply and stood up, Cersei following along.

“You’re right, it is in the past, Cersei! Silly me, I shouldn’t have even brought it up. Let’s enjoy the view,” I said with a smile, and she nodded in satisfaction.

“Good girl.”

I fidgeted with my coat, and looked around quickly.

“I’m queen of the world!” Cersei yelled in joy, and she spun around in front of the view.

This was it.

This was the time.

Do it, Freya.

Do it.

The Medic’s Son

Charles Smith was born in 1898 in Bath, England, and usually went by Charlie. Charlie’s father had died of Tuberculosis by the time Charlie was two. Charlie had very little memory of his father, and although it was an inconvenience to his mother, it never was a terrible inconvenience to Charlie other than his mother taking up whatever extra jobs she could find. Even though she had to work a lot, Mrs. Smith always found time to play with her son and was, overall, a very loving mother.                                                     

Charlie was a very active boy and was always going on adventures around whatever town they were in. He had always wanted to be a knight; rescuing a princess and fighting a dragon all sounded quite fun to him. So by the time The Great War broke out, Charlie had decided that he was going to be a soldier and that was that. The day he turned seventeen, he signed up for the war, and the doctors decided he was in perfect health. 

His mother had admonished the idea and thought that it was very dangerous but could not stop Charlie. 

She knew what wars were like because she had been a medic in the Second Anglo-Boer War and had left Charlie at her mother’s house, and she did not want Charlie to go through a similar experience. She had tried to tell Charlie that she needed him at home to take care of her, but he only responded that he would be home soon enough once he won the war. 

Seeing that he was so optimistic to the point of delusion and that nothing she could say would make any impact whatsoever, she signed up to be a medic, even though it brought back some bad memories, so that she could keep an eye on him. Charlie had no problem with that as he loved his mother dearly and wanted to go to war. He thought she would make a great medic, as she would always clean his wounds when he got hurt on his adventures.

Charlie was made private, was given a gun, taught how to fire it, and was sent off to the trenches.

When Charlie looked around the trenches, he saw that it was not a fairytale. Dirt and mud threatened to overflow the wooden walls; gunshots filled the air; men sat down with weary expressions; blood dripped onto the wooden walls; the sky was a dark grey, even though it was only 3:00; lanterns flickered and shook; and yells pierced the air.

Although Charlie was experiencing horrors, they were nothing compared to the horrors that Mrs. Smith was facing. Bandaged limbs still oozing blood, countless bodies covered with sheets, men begging for death, bombs heard as though they were right outside, and the worry about her son. She would look very closely at every face to make sure that it wasn’t her Charlie. With every gunshot or bomb that she heard, she wondered where Charlie was, and if he was safe.

The next day, Charlie was woken up, or would have been woken up if he had gotten any sleep, by the sound of a bomb crashing nearby. He scrambled out of his bunk and curled up into a ball. 

As soon as he calmed down, he changed back into his smeared uniform and grabbed his gun. As soon as he exited the bunker, he was startled by a large crashing sound called war. He was ordered to go to the wall and “empty his ammo,” or whatever that meant. Charlie started firing into the opposing trench and watched as a soldier fell and did not get back up. A sick feeling filled his gut as he wondered what his mother would say.

His mother, in fact, was charged with being the medic, wandering around the trenches and dragging the bodies back to the bunker. Seeing these horrors and wounds of war made her yearn for news of her son.

Just then, as she gazed out into the patch of light surrounded by smoke which was her sun, a bullet struck her and she dropped to the ground.

She woke up in the very bunker that she was in yesterday, although she felt something was wrong. She looked down and saw that she was bleeding quite heavily from her abdomen. The tray beside her had tongs and a bloody bullet. She could piece together what happened and knew that she didn’t have much longer left. At this moment, she was only thinking of her son, Charlie.

She found a pen and paper lying on the nightstand next to her, for notes on the condition of the patient, and started writing a note to Charlie. 

“My Dearest Charlie,

I am so sorry that I have to leave you in this world all alone. I love you so much, and I hate to leave you. Please try to remain safe, my son. Live your days fully, and enjoy your life, for it ends too shortly. So do not grieve knowing that I am exiting in peace with thoughts of you. Life is too short to be sad. Goodbye, my dearest.

Love,

Mom”

That was how the nurses found her a few hours later, clutching her last words that she had written for someone who she held dear. The nurses took pity on her and sent out that letter to Charlie.

Charlie had just sat down to a game of cards with some of the other fellows when a very tired-looking soldier came up to their table and asked if there was a Charlie Smith among their group. At this, Charlie stood up and replied that he was in fact the boy in question. The man handed him a piece of paper and left the bunker, back out to where the world was tearing itself apart. 

Charlie decided to take the note back to his bunk so he could read the contents in peace. 

As Charlie read his mother’s final words, tears made tracks down his grime-stained face and onto the paper, blotting the page and cleaning his face. He felt numb to the sounds of war. 

His mother, the calming presence that had always kept him safe, was gone, and it was his fault. He had insisted on going to war so he could be like a knight and save some sort of princess and fight monsters. He had been so foolish and childish without any real notion of what the world was like, and he had led his mother to her untimely death which he would pay for for the rest of his life. Charlie started to cry in earnest and buried his head in his pillow and fell asleep.

The next morning, people could sense a visible change in Charlie. He was not the same boy who wanted to rescue princesses and kill dragons; he was a man, in the middle of a war, with no parents, fighting for revenge. 

They stationed him at the wall again, Charlie had a different plan. He and some other men had decided to sprint to the other side to try and kill as many of the Germans as possible and most likely die trying. 

Charlie gave out the signal and they all ran out of the trenches with the other soldiers screaming after them, and charged to the opposing trenches with hate in their eyes. They had gone about three meters when the Germans shot a bomb at them. Charlie had just turned around to see the bomb land near his friends and him before he was blasted back into the bloody grass.

Charlie woke up in the hospital and looked around and only saw crimson flowing from missing limbs as screams of agony mixed with the sounds of gunshots from the trenches filled the air. Charlie looked around at his friends, lying limp with glassy eyes, and watched as the nurses covered them with blankets. Tears ran down his dirty and bloodstained face and dropped onto the grimy cot. Charlie thought of not only his missing legs, but his fellow soldiers, and his beautiful mother who were all gone because of this god-forsaken war. He had been so foolish to do this, he had killed everyone he held dear. His mother and now his friends.

Blood was still oozing out of the bandages that covered the stumps that were now his legs. He knew he would die soon so he just waited for the reaper of death to take him and all of the other lonely souls that were lost because of the war.

When death finally came, as light through the door of the bunker, Charlie saw that it was not a skull figure in a dark hood, but his own loving mother, still wearing her bloodied medic scrubs and her dark brown hair tucked beneath a white cloth, holding out her hand, with a sad smile on her face. Charlie took her hand and she gently carried him away from the war and out of sight.

Uncovered

Chapter 7

School goes on like this for another month. A pair of monstrous Mr. Sulskys, a jolly-like Mr. Smith, and overboard excitement from Mrs. Watkins. The school days drag on, and I find myself behaving like a white person. Jeremy and Matthew are always with me on the bus ride to school and during lunch. So far, they are still my only friends. And I have learned the school better. Apparently, the boys on my basketball team from gym class are known as the bullies in the grade. Of course, they aren’t very bright. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were failing every subject in school. My mind is always wandering during class, thinking about what I’ve been through. I’m technically a normal kid, albeit a kid who is undercover in a white school under the penalty of severe prison time or even death. 

The Mr. Sulskys are very obnoxious. First of all, though they teach different subjects, they act like the same person. Boring, gray, and unenthusiastic. I’ve managed to withstand a solid B in English, yet a healthy A in history. (But then again, an A in history is probably the equivalent of a B in English.) Many of my fellow students have been unlucky. Jeremy makes no secret of his distaste for school, barely managing C’s in every subject. (Except gym, of course, where he has an amazing A+, due to his baseball skills.) I’m sitting at my wooden desk in English class, daydreaming, while Mr. Sulsky is giving a lecture about “the great and influential poets of the twentieth century” when he says something that catches my ears. 

“There will be a poetry contest for this month,” he is saying, and I hear the tiniest sliver of excitement in his voice. “It will last for two weeks, starting from today to October 17th,” he continues.

I look at the other kids. They seem to be extremely bored, while I seem to be the only one excited. 

“The poem may be about anything, except for violence, vulgar language, and inappropriate content.”

This provokes some vulgar language and inappropriate content.

“That is all. Now have a good day,” Mr. Sulsky says, and a second later, the bell rings. The students scatter out of the classroom, while I’m the only kid in the class who pauses to look at the competition details. As I head to History class, I wonder what I should write about for my poem.

I spend the next two weeks writing my poem. I try to think of something happy, as I’m a person who has infiltrated a school, posing as a person who I’m now and surrounded by people who would happily arrest me or worse if they found out who I really was.

In the end, I write the standard happy poem about spring.

I write about all the happy stuff (which wouldn’t be that interesting for my fellow students, but very interesting for the teachers). 

The day before the poem is due is October 16, the Friday before the weekend. In first period English, I hand in my paper to the basket marked “Poems” (which is empty besides my poem). A few students also hand in poems, but they’re all grumbling that their mothers forced them to. 

At the end of the day, when I return to Mr. Sulsky’s class, the basket is barely full, not even a quarter full. As I walk out of the classroom, I hope for good luck and that I win.

On Monday when we return to school, I decide to go to school a few minutes early to see if I won the competition. I enter English class to see a bored-looking Mr. Sulsky glancing at the poems and sipping coffee from a mug that says, “World’s best English teacher.” 

“Ah, Noah,” he says, looking up from his desk even though he couldn’t possibly see me since his back is turned to me. “I wanted to have a little chat with you. It concerns the poem that you wrote for the poem competition.”

“And?” I ask nervously.

“You won,” Mr. Sulsky finishes, with the tone of someone who just had a good breakfast. “Nicely done.” He turns to face me. There’s a trace of a smile on his face.

“I very much enjoyed your poem,” he continues. “In fact, it’s probably one of the best poems one of my students has ever written.”

“Thank you, sir,” I say happily.

“I think I should call your parents and let them know what a nice poem you’ve written.” The smile on his face grows bigger, and it’s the first trace of emotion I’ve seen from him in the last month. 

“Thank you, sir,” I repeat, though I don’t mean it. If Mr. Sulsky looks into the address book, he won’t find my address, as we aren’t in the white community. I force myself to paste on a happy smile, which more looks like a crooked line. Mr. Sulsky seems to not sense it.

“Ok, then,” he says. He lugs out a thick, white, ancient book from out of his desk. It’s coated with dust. Hasn’t been used in a while. He plops it on his desk, which results in a loud slam! He flips through a few pages until he reaches the BE section. Then the BEC. Finally, he narrows it down to the BECKET section. There are only two names. James and Martha Becket, a couple.

He takes out his phone and dials the number besides the names, then calls. I hear the ringing of the phone as he calls. Then I hear the obnoxious beep! as the call is received.

“Hello?” The person on the other end asks.

“Hello, sir.” Mr. Sulsky says. “Are you the Beckets?”

“Yes, we are,” the man replies. “May I ask who you are?”

“I am Fred Sulsky, the teacher at Winters Academy.”

“All right,” the man says. “May I also ask why you are calling?”

“Yes,” Mr. Sulsky states. “It concerns your son, Noah. He’s recently done quite an astounding — ” 

“What?” the man asks, confused. “We don’t have a son named Noah, and he doesn’t go to this school. Have you got the wrong number?”

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Sulsky says, looking a bit suspicious of me now. “Is this 662-693-0492? Becket residence?”

“Yes, it is,” Mr. Becket says. “But we don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“All right, then. I’m terribly sorry for interrupting your day. Please do forgive me.”

“Apology accepted,” Mr. Becket says. “Just be careful about who you call.”

I hear the faint click as the call ends.

Mr. Sulsky looks at me, trying to figure out what’s going on. He thinks for a few moments, and then the spark of realization hits him, dead-on. Even though I’m not a mind-reader, I know what he’s thinking.  He eyes my skin suspiciously, trying to make sense of it. His confused expression goes to a face full of understanding. And then he begins speaking.

Mr. Sulsky looks up from the address book, stunned. His eyes are as big as dinner plates. Then the stunned look on his face quickly turns into a crocodile grin. “Well, well, well,” he snarls devilishly, looking at me the way a lion looks at a baby antelope. Then he cocks back his head like a werewolf and yells, “Hey! This kid’s a — “

Only he doesn’t get to finish the sentence, because I stomp on Mr. Sulsky’s foot and bolt out of the room. 

As I emerge from the hallway, I see puzzled students and teachers approaching me. Though that quickly turns to excitement from the students and panic from the teachers as Mr. Sulsky shouts some words that kids shouldn’t hear. The students hurry to Mr. Sulsky’s room, wanting to see what caused such language. I take advantage of the opportunity and dash towards the stairs, where more students are coming. 

Mr. Sulsky seems to have recovered from the pain of my toe stomp, and he rushes out of the classroom, determined to pound me to pieces. He steps into the hallway, only to be flattened by a mob of students. He screams as a kid steps onto his toes again and then howls as a kid flattens him like a bulldozer on a human pancake. Mr. Sulsky screams again, but I don’t know if it’s out of rage or pain or fear of being run over again. Luck finally seems to be on my side, and I’m just about to emerge when the worst thing imaginable happens. The other Mr. Sulsky is there, hustling through the door with a mug of coffee, which says, “Best Science teacher ever.” He looks up, startled to see me, then his eyes go wide with fear as I bowl over him, scrambling to get to the front door. He screams as the hot black liquid splatters onto him like a caffeine shower. Mr. Sulsky bolts to the bathroom for paper towels (in his haste, he accidentally enters the wrong one, which results in a shriek by the girl inside the bathroom). 

Meanwhile, I’m out of the front door, and the fresh, cold, air hits me like a car. Some school buses are still departing the last students, while some are empty because the drivers needed to take a bathroom break. Without knowing what I’m thinking (or even thinking at all), I leap into an empty bus, commandeer it, step on the gas pedal, 

and drive out of school.

Up until then, I’ve never driven a bus before. Not even a car or any type of vehicle. (Unless you count the rusty, old tractor my grandfather used to own and I drove it for fun on his farm, but even then he didn’t let me drive for fear of headplanting into the barn.) But I figured I could make an exception this time.

I try to head toward home because it’s practically the only area in the city where I’ll be safe. Fortunately, the bus route is pretty simple. I just have to follow the road I’m on and stop left and right occasionally. In the distance, I can hear police sirens roaring at me. I look back to see that they are only a block away from me. I return my attention to the bus, only to find that while I was distracted, I must’ve hit a switch that turned off the steering wheel! Fear suddenly grips me like a terrible nightmare. I can now feel the police cars bumping into the bus. One exceptionally aggressive police officer tries to slam me into pieces. Startled by the hit, I accidentally bump another switch that breaks the steering wheel! Now, I can only go straight. Up ahead, I can see the dot of my house. I’m relieved to see home, but it instantly changes to terror as I realize the river that leads to a waterfall is right ahead as well. The policemen also share my thoughts. I can practically hear the cars screech in terror as they slam onto the brakes. At least they’re safe, but I’m not.

The river grows bigger and bigger as I get closer to my doom. My mind rallies through everything I know about escaping a car that’s about to plunge into a waterfall. Not surprisingly, I barely know anything about the subject. Most spies would’ve had this sort of situation everyday, suavely jumping out and landing into the water. But I wasn’t a spy. My entire espionage experience was watching James Bond movies at Matthew’s house and reenacting scenes on the playground during recess. (At which Jeremy commented that I looked like a frog skydiving.) So when the bus hits the water, I leap out of it like a skydiver. The bus plunges into the water and a gust of water explodes out of the wide river, like a death charge. I doggy paddle toward the shore, also known as my backyard, also known as a patch of weed-infested grass with cheap furniture scattered around like a tornado had organized it. 

With a grunt, I grab onto the yard, leap over the fence (so flimsy a cat could’ve knocked it over), and rush to the back door where my parents are looking at the chaos, aghast. The police cars screech to a halt, inches away from the raging river, where the remnants of the bus are flaming like it’s trying to set the river on fire.

Dead meat.

The Smile of an Idol: Another Story

At our 99th performance in Akihabara, a scout found us. He noticed our performance and approached us for a deal. He invited us to the Akihabara School Idol Company Audition Session. Various school idols from all around the globe will be auditioning for a chance with us, he said. We think you’ll do wonderfully, he said. One condition, he said, only Karin. 

H-huh? What? Has my hearing gone bad or something? I glanced to my side, only to see Karin’s eyes filled with hope and determination. Her eyes were the complete opposite of mine, filled with despair and malice. I looked forward once again, trying to find the trace of a joke on the scout’s face. All I could see was joyful seriousness.

“Wait… REALLY?!” 

Karin started jumping up and down like a bouncy ball. Up and down. She was so animated, I could almost see the sparkles in her eyes. 

“Lynn, this is wonderful! C’mon, let’s go tell Mom!”

I didn’t respond with my usual submissive “alright” or even a simple “okay.” For once in my life, I stayed silent. 

I didn’t even notice that Karin had already left me behind. I was far too busy burning the scout’s business card. I know he gave one to each of us, so it wouldn’t really do anything in the long run, but defiance is defiance. The main lesson I learned from this experience: lighters are surprisingly easy to find on the street. All I had to do was ask some old guy if I could borrow his. He was surprisingly chill about it, but we ended up in a far-too-long conversation about boats. Well, more like he roped me into a far-too-long conversation about boats. 

After burning the scout’s business card, I felt a rush of energy. Is this what defiance feels like? Is this what a rebellion feels like? I never understood what the point of a rebellion was if everything was moderately okay until this point in time. If I were to describe the feeling of rebellion at this point, I would say it’s addicting. Almost like an invisible version of cocaine. And unfortunately, this mental drug has a very long effective time.

That night was the time I had ever not been in the small apartment I shared with my parents and Karin. I left the performance setup in the pouring rain, hoping that it wouldn’t work the next morning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the despair and malice had consumed me whole. I was somehow drowning in a dream that wasn’t mine to begin with. I never even wanted to be an idol in the first place, it was Karin’s idea, so why was I so angry? I somehow managed to sleep through the pounding rain, even in a dirty city alley. Sometimes crying and kicking makes it easier to fall asleep. It seems like it would be counterintuitive, but somehow it always worked like a charm. 

After a week of the same ol’ defiance, I wandered back home. I was reluctant at first, but I figured I had to. I can’t just keep living off of snacks and cheap coffee. My already-small amount of pocket change was running out, and I wasn’t particularly fond of having to starve in some alleyway. 

I sprinted through the pouring rain for 3 miles until I reached our apartment block. I dashed up the creaking stairs, careful to avoid any loose steps. I was at the doorstep, huffing and puffing, even with all of the dance practice. I shakily pulled my index finger up to the doorbell.  My dread and anxiousness were growing along with the movement of my finger. My shaky finger hovered over the doorbell for at least a minute, hoping that no one would notice me at the door. My finger shakily hovered for a few more seconds before it dropped back down to my side. I can’t do this. But before I could selfishly run away, a third party intervened. The door nearly hit me in the face, the already broken hinges almost snapping off. A fairly short girl who looked about my age answered the door. She had navy blue-dyed, short, choppy hair with long bangs covering her eyebrows. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she looked like she hadn’t slept in days. She looked exactly like Karin, but her mannerisms were completely different than usual. She spoke in a quiet, slightly lethargic voice, 

“… Lynn, that you?”

“…”

It was understandable why she might have had second thoughts on who I was. I mean, I looked quite different than before. My clear, porcelain-like skin was covered with dirt and bruises and my long hair that used to match Karin’s was now messy and uneven.

“Yeah… it’s me-”

Before I could get a chance to finish my sentence, Karin shoved me into a tight embrace. I could feel her tears on my shoulder and my eyes widened. I thought she would’ve wanted nothing to do with me by now. It was a while before I brought myself to reciprocate her embrace. But eventually, I gently brought my hands up and returned her hug. I buried my head into her shoulder and soon, we were both sobbing. By now, all of the neighbors and even my parents were staring at us, but we didn’t care. Neither of us even realized how much we missed each other. 

After what felt like hours of sobbing, we finally parted. Karin smirked at me teasingly. She gently shoved me into the apartment. 

“WHOA!” 

I nearly tripped and fell over the little step next to our apartment door. “Nee-hee-hee! That’s what you get for leaving me for a week!” Karin said playfully. 

“Fine, fine! I deserved that.”

“Damn straight!”

“…”

We were both silent for at least a minute until we both bursted out laughing. 

“Who actually says ‘damn straight’ anymore?!” 

“I dunno! Maybe me!”

We were laughing together as if nothing ever happened. The scout never came, I never ran away, and Karin was the same as ever. She was a loud and annoying sister for sure, but she was my loud and annoying sister. I moved my head up and brushed my long hair out of my face. I looked at Karin.

“What did you do to your hair?”

Her cheeks flushed red and she looked flustered for a second. 

“Oh, uh-”

“Not that I don’t like it! Blue suits you well, and I think you look great with short hair!”

“Oh, thank you! Yeah, I felt like I needed something new, hee-hee.”

“It’s a little choppy, though.”

Karin went from fluster to worried in the blink of an eye. 

“Well, I-”

“… Did you cut your hair with craft scissors?”

“Ummmm… maybe?” Karin shrugged. 

I laughed.

“Of course you did. Good to know that you’re still Karin!”

Her worried expression changed to one of joy and happiness, and we smiled together for the first time in years. A real smile. 

I Didn’t Mean to Kill Her

I didn’t mean to kill her…. Tuesday, October 8th, 1963. I woke up that day with a sharp pain in my head. The night before, me and the “gang” hung out. I probably fell or something. Suddenly panic ran through me: I remembered. 

It was now five A.M. I sat up in bed and jumped out. I landed with a thud. I had forgotten I was on a top bunk. I got up then tiptoed to the bathroom. I took my “things” and hid them where they wouldn’t find them. Then I tiptoed back to the beds. As I started to climb up the ladder, I felt someone’s hand on me, then I winced. Emely grabbed my night shirt and pushed me to the ground. I blink away tears. 

She said, “They’re coming soon, be ready and alert. And remember they’re like wolves; if they see a weak link they’ll come for you.” Emely said.

“I know, thanks.” I said.

I sat on the floor for a second, then got up to wash my face again. My lip had started to bleed when I hit the concrete. When I came out, Emely had gotten dressed, and she was sitting against the wall. Emely… I liked to think of her as family. Although we had just met, I felt a bond to her. Then she motioned for me to come over. After all, I was new to all of this.

“You should’ve figured this out by now.” She took a pause.

“When you wake up, wash your face, then come and sit on the wall, no blankets covering you. Just you.” Emely said.

“Sorry. Since I’m new here I just thought that–” I was cut off
“Shh,” Emely said

Then I realized why Emely cut me off. Loud footsteps were coming closer and closer to our door. Then I heard something like a bat hit the door. I flinched then closed my eyes. Emely punched my shoulder. I opened them and saw four large and angry looking people standing right in front of me. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily I didn’t have to do anything, except for cooperate.

“Stand UP!” one of the men said.

So I did. They went into my bunk bed and looked around. Then in Emely’s. I didn’t mind, just as long as they didn’t find the picture. As I expected, they didn’t find it. They left after looking around, and threatening us. Now I know why parents always warn you about not committing crimes, and it’s because of prison. I’ve only been in prison for eighty days, and I’ll be here eighty more years. If I survive, and if I behave. I’m just lucky I didn’t get the death penalty. 

It was only two weeks ago when it happened. Cecelia and I killed Natalie. We had been planning for weeks. Natalie was a drug dealer, we had been buying. She had told us that if we stopped buying, she would tell. I was young then, naive. I hadn’t known that her mother was the chief of police. She was the perfect child in her mom’s eyes, whatever anybody said about her that wasn’t amazing was a lie. 

Cecilia and I snuck into Natalie’s house through her bedroom window. We had tape, a rope, and a knife. Cecilia tied her up, and I taped her mouth shut. I took the blade and touched it to her chest, then her eyes opened. I winced as I saw her mouth try to open but it couldn’t, and instead a slow tear dripped from her eye. I couldn’t deal with watching her suffer. I lifted up the blade and brought it back down to her chest. I felt the blade break through her skin, I saw the blood rush out of her body, I saw the last tear she would ever shed, I saw her eyes shut for the last time.

30 years later…

I realize what I did then was wrong. I will now be paying the price for my actions. 

I waved to the man at the desk behind the glass, he didn’t wave back. I looked down, then I sat in the chair. BZZZZZ 

Emely was let out of prison five years after I had come. We said our goodbyes, she had said that she would write to me everyday, but less and less often the letters came. Cecilia had been killed in a stabbing twenty years after we had gotten to the prison. And finally my one prized possession, my picture, was confiscated. It was a picture of my sister, Katherine. She understood me, and she loved me. Unfortunately the police found my picture in a surprise inspection. 

A Story About a Boy Named Oliver

Oliver was always bored. Oliver was always alone. Oliver was twelve. He went to a public middle school. Oliver never got outstandingly good grades, but never got outstandingly bad ones. Oliver was not outstandingly tall, short, fat, skinny, fast, slow, strong, or weak. To put it simply, Oliver was very average. 

As I mentioned before, Oliver was always alone. He was always alone, but never lonely. Oliver liked being alone. He liked thinking, reading, and watching movies. Oliver went to school one day. That school day was very average, very predictable. Oliver went home from school on that said day, finished homework, finished a book, and went to sleep. This said day was almost every single day for Oliver, minus the weekends. (For almost every weekend Oliver would wake up, watch movies, read, and think along with having meals in between, if you were wondering.) 

One day, Oliver went home to his average house, went upstairs to his average room, only to find a very unaverage thing. That very unaverage thing was a thirty-seven year old man named Jack.

“I am thirty-seven years old and my name is Jack. It is a pleasure to meet you, eleven year old Oliver,” said Jack.

“Hello thirty-seven year old Jack,” said Oliver, “Might I ask how you know my name and age?” he asked.

“I know your name and age simply to tell you that the world is going to end in exactly five minutes and thirty-six seconds, and I want to take you to an alternate dimension to save you.”

“What an odd person,” thought Oliver.

“So how are you going to bring me to this alternate dimension?” Oliver inquired.

Jack pulled out a strange contraption out of a fanny pack that Oliver had not noticed.

“Just press this green button,” Jack instructed, “But not the blue or red button. Never push the yellow button, and only press the orange button on alternating Thursdays and the thirty-first of January.”

Oliver was going to push the green button, but he tripped and pushed the blue button, instantly killing both Oliver and Jack.

“Now look what you’ve done!” exclaimed Jack.

Jack and Oliver were in what seemed to be an endless plane of wheat fields.

“Where are we?” said Oliver.

“Well the afterlife, of course!”

Oliver considered himself an atheist, so he was surprised that the after-life existed.

“So where is God?” asked Oliver

“What is that?” responded Jack.

“It is something people think exist,” said Oliver.

“Well then they’re wrong.” said Jack.

“Are you sure?” questioned Oliver.

Jack stopped and thought about Oliver’s question for a moment before responding with a simple, “No.”

“Jack?”

“Oliver?”

“Didn’t you say that the world was going to end today?”

Jack checked his watch.

“In exactly thirteen point forty-six seconds,” said Jack matter-of-factly.

Exactly thirteen point forty-six seconds after Jack said that, seven point eight billion people along with billions of animals and other organisms spawned into the afterlife. Exactly two point four seconds after the world ended, Jack started to walk off in the midst of the confusion. 

“Where are you going?” asked Oliver, catching up with Jack.

“Well, I’m off to see if this God character is real,” said Jack as if Oliver were to take that for granted.

“Would you mind if I tagged along?”

“Nobody is stopping or forcing you to do anything at all,” said Jack.

And that is where a frightfully unaverage adventure began.

Jack and Oliver walked for about three months, and had grown quite used to each other. The three months they had spent together were very uneventful and dull with little to no conversation—not anything Oliver wasn’t used to. One slightly less uneventful day Jack and Oliver stumbled upon a grand fortress consisting of several gargantuous medieval-style castles surrounded by awesome cobblestone walls that they should have been able to see kilometers away, yet still seemed to appear out of nothingness into somethingness. Oliver would have been flabbergasted but nothing seemed to startle him any longer. Jack and Oliver went to the walls and the entrance of the kingdom to find a doorbell. Oliver rang the doorbell and the gate swung open crashing into Jack and Oliver. When the two got up they were almost surprised to find a muscular child, not much older than Oliver opening the gate.

“Salutations,” said the child, “I am Steven.”

“Why are you so young but so…” began Oliver

“Muscular?” suggested Jack.

“I’ve gotten this body from hundreds of years of training. I do not age because I’m dead, but I can still get stronger,” said Steven, in a seemingly offended tone of voice.

“May we come in?” said Jack

“Absolutely not!” exclaimed Steven.

“Why not?” asked Oliver.

Steven remained silent, staring at Oliver.

“Fine!” Steven shouted, letting Oliver and Jack in.

“What an odd person,” thought Oliver followed by a feeling of deja vu.

Inside the wall, there was an entrance to the first castle. Oliver was about to ring the doorbell to the gate when it swung forward, crashing into Oliver and Jack. Behind the door was another Steven.

“But you were just…” Oliver began.

“I am Steven’s twice-removed great uncle,” said Steven’s twice-removed great uncle.

“But you’re so young!” exclaimed Jack, “And you look exactly the same as Steven.”

“I jumped off a bridge when I was eight, and then my sister went on to marry somebody, and Steven-having been born four months prior to my sister’s wedding became my twice-removed grandnephew,” said Steven’s twice-removed great uncle.

There was a brief moment of silence before Jack and Oliver abruptly dashed into the castle. The castle itself was filled with a grand, rich town with beautiful buildings, awesome towers, and gorgeous citizens.

“Welcome to the Kingdom of Solitude and Ending!” exclaimed Steven’s twice-removed great uncle.

“What a terrible name for such a beautiful town!” thought Oliver.

But as he walked into the town, he could see people’s eyes, filled with boredom and nothingness. He and Jack walked around asking for somebody who knew about any God character for hours on end until one depressed sounding lady suggested asking the King of Solitude, Benjamin The Conqueror.

“Well where do you find this Benjamin guy?” inquired Jack.

The woman simply pointed up.

Oliver could never have explained what happened in the entirety of his death, he could never quite grasp it, but he saw colors that were impossible to see, sounds that were impossible to hear, smelling smells that were impossible to smell, feeling sensations that were impossible to experience. But it was almost like it didn’t happen at all, because after that Oliver still couldn’t quite grasp how he felt, saw, heard, or smelled anything that had happened, but this is all irrelevant, because at this point in the story Jack and Oliver were sitting in front of Benjamin the Conqueror who was currently explaining that he would accompany the two on their way to God.

“There are two paths to get to God. The Road To Imminent Doom, Danger, and Death, or the Everlasting Road.” said Benjamin, “The latter option takes infinite time to travel across to reach God whereas the first option will lead to imminent death to reach God.”

“Both sound equally as terrible and impossible as one another,” remarked Jack.

“Nothing is neither possible nor impossible nowadays,” replied the king dreamily.

“I choose the first option,” said Oliver abruptly.

Jack and Benjamin looked at Oliver surprised.

“Fine by me,” said Jack after a brief pause.

“Ditto,” seconded Benjamin the Conqueror. 

And so the trio went out of the fortress, down to the Road of Imminent Doom, Danger, and Death, in search for a mysterious religious figure named God.

It took about four days until the three reached the road, and about another week until they reached living (if you can really use that word anymore) beings. It was an old merchant. The merchant was sold out. Out of the Road of Imminent Doom, Danger, and Death, out of the afterlife, out of anything really, as long as you brought the Out to God. 

“So God is real?” cried Oliver.

“No, not to my knowledge,” said the merchant, “But others would disagree, claiming he’s just down the road,” said the merchant, gesturing to the seemingly never-ending road, “Others have and will always disagree.” He sighed.

“Well could we purchase an Out?” said Jack.

“Sadly, I’ve sold out. I’m just on my way to replenish my stock,” replied the merchant.

“Well how long will it take for you to return?” asked Benjamin.

“It could take up to infinite years,” said the merchant.

Unfortunately, the three did not have infinite years to spare. So they continued down the Road of Imminent Doom, Danger, and Death. Along the way, Benjamin the Conqueror decided to tell the story of the Road, the Kingdom, and God.

“When I was alive, in a time before records, I had conquered land from Vrehnguard to as far away as Blaqtek and Garn’s Sea.”

Oliver didn’t seem to recognize any of these places, but continued to listen as he had nothing much better to do walking down a road that led to imminent death in search of God. 

“Nothing stood before me besides terminal illnesses which ended my life twenty-three years into my rule. After I passed, I joined fallen brothers and comrades, rebuilding my kingdom, Aapq. Time passed. The living kingdom fell, and the citizens came to join the kingdom, spreading sadness and despair. People began shutting themselves off from the outside world, they began, with lack of a better word, stopping. I forget how it happened, but the kingdom’s name became what you know it as now-the Kingdom of Solitude and Ending. People began seeking what the Kingdom once was. A semi-small group went on a search for God. Eventually, the party split into two groups. One of the groups was almost entirely driven to death, while the second one got lost in Infinity, giving birth to the Road of Imminent Doom, Danger, and Death and the Everlasting Road.”

“That reminds me…” began Benjamin,  “Oh well, would you look at that! A motel!”

There was indeed a motel. The motel was named Imagination, Oliver imagined. The three walked into the motel, and a man welcomed them in.

“Welcome to the motel, Imagination,” Oliver imagined the man exclaimed.

Oliver imagined that a series of events unfolded that led up to him getting a room for the night to himself. Oliver couldn’t fall asleep. He got off and wandered throughout the motel getting lost in Imagination. He began to picture lions with several heads, gods with two faces, infinite money, inumerous wonders. Oliver finally wandered so much that he found that he was in a new land. It was tiresome to walk through, he could barely stand it. It was almost as if all the dopamine was drained from his brain. There was blackness, numbers, facts, letters that Oliver couldn’t place together. He wanted to, he needed to break free. But he didn’t know what to break free from. He couldn’t kill himself. He didn’t want to kill himself, but he didn’t know what else to do. He collapsed onto the floor. He was crying. He didn’t know why. There was no point to crying. No point in doing anything. But he still wanted to find God. He didn’t know how it would turn out. Oliver didn’t care. He wanted to see how it would turn out, and if he didn’t like it, he was going to be doomed and die anyways. Dopamine returning to Oliver’s brain, he found himself back in his motel room. It was late morning already.

When he went back into the lobby, he saw Jack.

“Where’s Benjamin?” Oliver imagined he said.

“Oh, he killed himself,” Oliver imagined Jack replied.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

So the duo continued on their perilous journey.

Walking down the road, Jack and Oliver found a very interesting part of it. Various animals were running about the street, selling numerous drugs with absurd names, and Oliver found himself in a manfight. Chickens and dogs betting on which human would kill the other. Seeing this, Oliver tried to escape, but it was futile. Jack and Oliver were thrown into a cage by two large, muscular dogs. The two were about to fight when the chicken police ran into the facility, shooting down all the chickens and dogs. None escaped. Jack and Oliver were released.

“What brings you to the road of Imminent Doom Danger and Death this fine, fine day?” inquired the chief police chicken.

“God,” said Jack.

“Oh… You’re one of those ones.” said the chicken chief.

“Gabriel!” the chicken man shouted.

An insane looking, ragged old man that was a chicken stumbled up to them.

“God!” he squabbled, “God! This way! God!”

“No,” said Jack, repulsed by the disgusting chicken man, “I’m not sure if I believe in God, I just want to see if he exists.”

“Ohhhh, well you shoulda just said that to begin with!” exclaimed the chicken man chief police, “Come right along with me! My name’s Robert, by the way. Nice to meetcha,” he said charismatically, holding out his wing.

“My name’s Jack,” said Jack, shaking Robert’s wing.

“And I’m Oliver.”

Robert brought the two to a police car.

“My police car goes infinitely fast, so we can arrive at the end of the road in infinitely minimal time,” explained Robert.

Oliver, not knowing what else to say, simply said, “Okay.”

And then they were there.

At the end of the road there was a man. The man lead them through infinity and back, reaching the stars, reaching Heaven, coming back to Earth, finally back to the realm of the dead. And then there was God. An old man, completely still, completely silent.

“Are you God?” asked Jack in awe.

The man turned to Jack, who repeated his question.

“I don’t know.” said the old man.

“Does God exist?” asked Oliver.

“I’m not sure.”

“Who are you?” asked Robert.

“I—” but the old man couldn’t finish the sentence, for he collapsed onto the ground, dead.

“I still don’t understand how people die in the afterlife,” remarked Jack, four point sixty-seven seconds before Robert, Oliver, and himself died of abrupt heart attacks.

Do I Really Have to Play Soccer?

“Do I really have to play soccer?” I asked Dad. 

Dad started, “No—”

I couldn’t hear the rest of his words because of Mom’s shouting.

“Yes, absolutely,” Mom cut in. “It’s necessary for your health. You haven’t done anything athletic in years! You’re even having trouble picking up your laptop! If you don’t play soccer, what else are you going to do?”

I thought, sleeping, or reading, or doing anything else rather than play a sport! I still vividly remember baseball, and then said, “I’ll figure it out later. Anything is better than soccer! Remember my first game?”

Thoughts of the game flooded my mind…

It was three weeks ago and my team was on the field, in the middle of our first soccer game. Except for me. And my attention.

I was thinking, honestly, I wish I could be sleeping instead of sitting here in this stuffy uniform with all of these shin guards and stuff—

Wham! Someone from the other team ran straight into me, sending my skinny body soaring through the air and landing on the grassy earth with a thud. Looking back in retrospect, I think I might have flown eight or nine feet through the air.

Well, now I know why I need the shin guards, I realized. I can’t believe I’m playing soccer. Maybe if I fail, my parents will think I’m too bad at soccer to keep playing.

I heard the piercing shrill of a whistle being blown.

“Are you okay, son?” the referee asked.

I looked at the ref and slowly realized that he actually wanted me to answer.

“Yup, I’m all right,” I quickly muttered.

I gathered my dignity and stood up, painstakingly slowly. The ref looked around, then blew the whistle right in my ear, giving me more injury than the guy who plowed through me, and the game resumed. The splitting headache and hearing loss didn’t help things either.

Within a minute, I had the same guy who had floored me earlier bearing down on me with the ball at his feet.

He was coming closer. Time seemed to stop. I was so close I could see his bloodshot eyes, counting the viens. What did George Washington or whoever say? Something about the whites of his eyes. Unfortunately, there were no whites in his eyes to look at.

I had to make a decision. I could feel the flabby muscles in my body tense up and…

No way in heck was I standing in the way of that guy! I dove out of the way and the guy went on to score easily on the goal.

I heard a voice say, “Everyone makes mistakes. I’m sure you’ll improve.”

I was snapped out of the past, back into the middle of the conversation.

Dad commented, “I don’t know. He seemed pretty bad—” Mom cut him off with a glare sharper than daggers.

Dad revised his life goals and stammered, “Oh, you can definitely improve.”

I glumly said, “I don’t think there can be much improvement in that area.”

Mom suggested, “Failure is necessary for improvement. You’ve just got to grit it out.” Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. How many times has my mom said this? A hundred? Two hundred? No, at least a thousand times. Grit, failure is good, success, yada yada yada…boring!

I asked, “Uh huh, sure I can. Just like football and basketball and baseball and lacrosse and—”

Mom sternly informed me, “You only had to quit because you got injured. You were on the cup of improvement. I know it!”

Dad said, “On the bright side, you get along well with the other players on the team.”

The memories of the practice after the game seeped into my consciousness…

I stepped out onto the field, where my team was awaiting the instructor for criticism. The team was sitting around in a circle, just sitting and chatting. I inwardly cringed, ready for the upcoming constant bombardment of complaints and angry comments. What I was met with surprised me.

I stepped out onto the field. The entire team simultaneously stood up. This in itself was weird, but wait! It gets weirder! Instead of being bombarded with negative comments, all of my teammates actually crowded around me, giving me encouragement like “You’ll get ‘em next time!” or “Nice try!”

I was so confused. Instead of acting like, I don’t know, rational people, they were being super nice for no reason! I was just standing there confused until the coach blew his whistle in everyone’s ear and I faded back into reality…

I say, “Not really. They were just being nice because I had failed. They won’t be so nice next time.”

Mom says, “I believe that with just a little more time, you can improve!”

Dad glances at Mom with a skeptical expression and I roll my eyes.

I say, “Sure, Mom. I can definitely improve, especially after the Incident.” I exaggerate the last few words and Mom sighs.

The Incident’s memories revived themselves in my mind…

It was the next soccer game and everyone had encouraged me to do better next time. The game was in full play and I really wasn’t paying much attention. To me, everyone was just running around, chasing a ball on the other side of the field—

“Hey! They’re about to score! What are you doing!” the coach screamed at the team.

I blinked and realized the other team was bearing down on me, reminiscent of the last game. They had somehow gotten halfway across the field!

As I scrambled into position, a teammate to my right yelled, “Here’s your change Dillan! We believe in you!”

I thought, just don’t screw it up. Anything but that.

I sprinted towards the ball, hoping I wouldn’t trip over it.

There was someone dribbling the ball towards the goal and apparently I was doing a good job because he stopped and started to move in a weird, squiggly way after seeing me. Having learned from soccer practice, I moved along with him in the exact same way. I was putting up a great fight and then I saw an opening.

I saw the ball.

I kicked the ball.

And guess where it went? Into my own goal. Whoops.

A stern voice pulled me back into reality.

Mom conceded, “Alright, I admit that was bad, but failure is a way to improve from mistakes. Failure leads to improvement, which leads to success!”

I looked over Mom’s shoulder to see Dad, sitting there, with a spaced look in his eyes. I said, “I really don’t think I can improve. I mean, I scored in my own goal! Right, Dad?” I stress to Dad.

Dad snapped his head up and said, “Yeah! Yeah! Whatever he said!”

Mom sighed and glared at Dad, but then, grudgingly, said the words that I had been straining to hear for weeks, “You don’t have to play soccer anymore.”

Inwardly, I cheered. Finally! I won an argument with my mom! She just says, “Because I told you so,” I thought. I wonder what else I can quit next? Maybe gym class? Extra math? Or… how about piano lessons!

The Day the Moon Fell

It was Friday, May 13th, 2017. The day the moon fell.

I woke up in a cold sweat. Something seemed different. Not better, not worse, just different, quieter. And I didn’t know why. I wouldn’t know why until later, much later.

I got up out of bed and got dressed. That’s when I realized it was darker than it usually was at 6:00 in the morning. There was a strip of light beaming across the corner of my room. It was bright and shaped like a banana and looked like I could jump into it and fall into a pit of nothing.

I put on my NASA t-shirt and some jeans. It was time to start my day or, little did I know, my night.

I went downstairs and sat down at the kitchen table. Normally, Mom makes breakfast for my younger sister and me, but that day she wasn’t downstairs. My sister, Sky, wasn’t up either. Neither was Dad.

I suddenly got really confused, why was no one awake? Did their alarms not go off? Or maybe mine went off early? I looked at the grandfather clock we had in the corner of our dining room. Nope, it was definitely 6:00. Something was wrong.

I went back upstairs and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door. No answer. I slowly turned the knob and crept in, being sure not to make any of the floorboards creak.

My parents were still asleep, but my Mom’s phone alarm wasn’t going off, almost as if she had turned it off. But my mother’s never done that, my mother never will do that. What was going on? I tiptoed over to the bed, once again being sure not to make any noise. That’s when I looked over to where my dad usually sleeps, but nothing was there. My dad was gone.

I started to panic. Maybe he had something to do with the fact that my mom’s alarm never went off. Or why it was so dark outside. No, he couldn’t have done that. Only fairies and wizards and demons do that. And everybody knows, fairies, wizards, and demons don’t exist. Little did I know, I was wrong, very wrong.

“Mom! Mom, wake up!” I yelled as I shook my mother left and right. She was definitely alive, her pulse was racing as if she was really scared. But she was asleep.

“Please, Dad’s in trouble!” She didn’t move a muscle. My mother was normally a really light sleeper. Maybe she was really tired, I thought. Maybe she got home late last night or something. No, no, something was definitely wrong.

I ran into Sky’s room and saw her asleep in her toddler-bed we put together a few weeks ago. She loved that thing. 

“Sky,” I whispered. Whenever someone would yell, Sky would cover her ears and scrunch her eyes and dance around in a circle until they stopped. And with everything that was going on, I was not in the mood for one of her tantrums. But if I had known I would never hear her yell again, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

“Sky, wake up!” I said again, this time a little louder. “Please, Sky, you’re the only one left!”

Nothing happened.

I started to panic even more. My mother and sister weren’t awake, my dad was nowhere to be found, and for some reason everything had changed.

I looked back at the clock. I read somewhere that if you think you are dreaming and you look at a clock twice, the clock time should have significantly changed. But no, it was still 6:00 am. It never crossed my mind that it was still 6:00 am.

I looked around a little, trying to find something, anything, that could help me out a little. Even a spider would have been nice. But no, all the spiders that hung out in my sister’s room were standing still next to their webs.

I finally decided to look outside, hoping someone or something was there that could explain everything. I was not prepared for what I was about to see.

Cats were stopped short. Drunk college kids were standing in the middle of the sidewalk, and a plane was still in the sky. The moon was the only thing that looked normal, twinkling as it usually did, and slowly moving west. The sun hadn’t come up yet. No wonder it was so dark.

I turned away from the window and ran back downstairs, not knowing what to do next. Maybe I could run to the neighbors’ house like my parents always taught me to do “if there was ever to be an emergency.” I was pretty sure this counted as an emergency.

I turned the doorknob to go outside, half expecting it to be bright and sunny, the flowers to be blooming, and the birds to be chirping. Little did I know, I would never see a flower bloom or a bird chirp again. But, like I guessed, it was still dark and all the flowers were doing was standing stick-straight up.

I ran outside and pounded on my neighbors’ door, getting more and more worried. What if no one answered? What if it was just me? Maybe I was going crazy? Maybe I had died and this was the afterlife? I asked myself these questions every time I knocked on another neighbor’s door, just trying to get some answers. I wish I had known that one of those answers turned out to be true.

Eventually, I got to the end of Pickleberry Lane and had to take a breather. It all seemed so, what’s the word, unreal. Everything was frozen, and not frozen like snowy frozen. Frozen

I looked up at the moon. You know that feeling? The one where you just need company even though you don’t want anyone to talk to you, but just their presence makes you feel better? It was like that, except with the moon. It gave me comfort. It was the only thing that had stayed the same throughout all this chaos. I wish I had thought about that more, because if I did maybe I wouldn’t be where I am now.

I walked back home in silence. Literal silence. Nothing was making noise, not even the factory on the other side of town that keeps everyone up at night. Not even the crickets or the wind. But I swore I could hear the moon moving. No, that wasn’t possible. Oh, but it was. It definitely was. 

Suddenly, somewhere within the silence, I heard a scream. It was faint, but it was there.

“Hello?” the voice screeched. “Anybody? Please?” She had an accent, British, I think. I didn’t know what I should do. Should I yell back? What if, somehow, I was dreaming and I ended up yelling in my sleep? Sky would never let me hear the end of that. It could help, though. And so I yelled back.

“Hello?” I screamed as loud as I could. “You still there?”

“Yes, I’m still here,” the voice said, this time a little softer. “What’s your name?”

Jackson. Jackson was my name. But I thought twice about telling her. I mean, I knew nothing about this person. Maybe she was some sort of creep, trying to kill me? Or maybe she was my unconscious, trying to lead me in the right path.

“Jackson,” I yelled, lifting myself up onto my tip-toes. “What’s yours?”

“I’m Luna,” she yelled. “Do you know what’s going on?”

“No,” I said. “Where are you? Maybe we could meet somewhere?” It would have been nice to finally see another person, even if I didn’t know her.

“Bloomsbury,” she said. “Where should we meet?”

Bloomsbury? I’d never heard of it. Maybe it was in the rich part of town or something. There was nothing that could prepare me for what she was about to say.

“Which part of Massachusetts is Bloomsbury in?” I yelled. “I’m in Cambridge.”

“Massachusetts? Bloomsbury’s in London.”

London? So this girl, Luna, is telling me I’m hearing voices from London? 

“How am I hearing you?” I asked.

“They think time has frozen,” Luna said, sounding sad. “They say since all the noise is gone, there isn’t any noise to drown us out.”

“They?” I asked. I was so confused. “Who’s they?”

I wish I had known those would be my last words, because if I did, I would have said literally anything else.

“They’re-”

I heard a thump. Luna must have heard it too, because she suddenly went silent.

I looked up and saw the moon coming closer and closer, like it was falling to the ground.

“Jackson?” Luna yelled. “Jackson, I just want you to know…”

And then it went black.

So, if you’re reading this, please, if anything seems out of the ordinary, tell someone. Anyone. Before it’s too late. Or you could end up where I am now, with them.

Kind regards, 

Jackson

I put down my pencil and went to sleep.

I woke up in a cold sweat. Something seemed different. Not better, not worse, just different. Quieter. And I didn’t know why. I wouldn’t know why until later, much later.

The Dark Room

The cold, empty, dark room. That’s where I am. The room is pitch black, I can’t see myself or anything around me. I don’t even know if my eyes are opened or closed, it’s all just dark. I need to slide my bare palms along the cold, rough surface of the walls and floors to recognize what’s around me, the skin on my knees becoming sore and scraped. Every few minutes I crawl on my hands and knees, feeling to see if something, anything changed. Just in case something appears. There are areas of the wall that change textures, from rough to smooth or dry to damp, but there are always no entrances or exits. I’ve tried calling for someone, banging on the walls, screaming for help, sobbing. But I’m trapped. Trapped in the dark room.

Everything’s quiet apart from my movement and breathing, my beating heart, and shallow breaths. It’s so silent here. I hardly remember anything before this. I remember a life, people around me. I remember sadness. A never-ending river of sadness, despair, and hopelessness. I remember tall walls, barred windows, and paper clothes. I remember eyes, everywhere, watching me. And now there’s just the dark room. A maze with only four walls. I’m scared that if I make it out of the dark room, I’ll go back to that place. Filled with locked doors and judgeful stares. Lies and constant eyes. Staring. Always.

I hear voices calling from all sides. All the time. Crying, screaming, yelling. Sometimes angry, sometimes sad, but they’re always scared. They mask their tones but, underneath, they’re scared. High-pitched, confused voices. Scared teenagers hiding it all in anger. All just teenagers’ words, calling out from the darkness. Sometimes I wonder if they’re mine, but then a furious shout sounds. The voice of a gruff man, commanding, angry. I know that’s not my voice. 

I don’t know what I sound like. My voice disappears into the walls, echoing in the abyss that hides beyond, mixing like a chorus with the rest of them. But I know what the dark room sounds like. I hear noises. Scratching on the walls. Sometimes quiet and soft, other times loud and desperate. But I can’t remember whether or not it was me. I can’t remember why my nails are chipped and broken, sore cracks in them that sting when touched, and bleeding, the feeling of the liquid trickling down my fingertips. Everyday, I move my hands against the cold surface and find the grooves in the walls and floor. But sometimes they’re gone. Replaced by a smooth, flat wall. Still, I know that I hurt the dark room. I know that I made it angry.

I try to claw through the dark room, but whenever I do I hear someone crying. Calling my name between sobs. I’m unsure if its below, above, or next to me. I’m not sure if it’s me. I’m only sure of the dark room.

I’m safe in the dark room. I listen to the yelling, banging, screaming, and crying on the other side of the wall, but I’m safe from them. I’m in the dark room. Whenever I feel along the walls I only feel the cold smoothness of the dark room. There’s no one else. There’s nothing else. There is only the dark room. There is only the metal walls that echo with the pain of others. The metal floor that feels damp with my tears.

No one can hear me when I’m in the dark room. Only the dark room can. No one can see me when I’m in the dark room. Only the dark room can. Only the dark room knows I’m here. The dark room with its cushioned walls and cushioned floor. Its metal door and little window. The dark room where people wait outside. Screaming, yelling, shouting, crying. Some angry, some sad, all scared. But the dark room is where we hide. The dark room is where we scream. The dark room is where we yell. The dark room is where we shout. The dark room is where we cry. The dark room is where we’re angry. The dark room is where we’re sad. The dark room is where we’re scared. The dark room is where we’ll die.


Poem # 3

Blue eyes lost in emerald,

Its edges soft, but not dulled,

Glossed over, her mind becomes lulled,

Blue eyes lost in emerald.


Oceans collide with romantic magenta skies,

Everlasting pinks weave with clouds’ loose ties,

The moon will soon shine, and purplish reds will die,

Oceans collide with romantic magenta skies.


Hearts of gold dazzle depths of teal,

Rosy tones warm their cold metal feel,

Invincible love that no one would dare steal,

Hearts of gold dazzle depths of teal.


Orange velvet stained with royal ink,

Amber threads soaked in a pen’s drink,

Beautiful blues bleed in a blink,

Orange velvet stained with royal ink.


Sapphire salty waters hold reflections of yellow,

Goldens and sunnies, warming bodies of mellow,

Sounds of a wave’s wake and a bird’s bellow,

Sapphire salty waters hold reflections of yellow.


Small moments catch uninspired eyes,

Some details only noticed by the wise,

Beautiful worlds live in disguise,

Small moments catch uninspired eyes.


After Hours

The beautiful color of the blue flowers

They must be happy when there are rain showers

They must be happy after hours

But it’s not true their sadness devours


All of their bad thoughts overpower

The flower’s sadness start to tower

But when the morning comes their sadness scours

Then time works its magic, it happens all over again

and the flowers will once again face the sadness tower.


Sky Demons

There’s an old legend that states that one night a burning star fell from the sky and slammed into a mountain range. It caused a catastrophic explosion, tossing huge hunks of rock and dirt and debris around the mountains for miles. The star disappeared, but it left a gaping hole in the mountains.

According to the legend, my people and our sheep were born from that star. In the morning, my ancestors emerged fully formed after its burning diminished. Together, they all blinked in the harsh light. They looked around at the scorched, rocky ground and the walls of stone on either side. One of their sheep bleated. Then, a cluster of massive shapes dove down towards them. They grasped both sheep and people in cold talons and swooped back up to the sky. They ate their prey. From that moment on, my people have called them sky demons. From that moment on, they have been our enemies.

That’s the legend of how we came to be. I always thought that it was ridiculous, because how could people and sheep come from a falling star? And how could a star not destroy the Earth? Papa thought it was nonsense, too. Mama and Sam didn’t though. They were the dreamers in the family. 

I once told Sam that the legend was utter nonsense. I was eight years old at the time. He was seven.

“No it’s not!” he replied. “The legend is true!” That was the end of our conversation. 

Sam also liked to look at the tufts of green grass that had sprouted up over the years.

“It’s like us, Sophie,” he said to me one day. “The grass is like us. It lives on rock. And,” he paused here, his light brown eyes wide with excitement, “no one would have ever thought that grass could live on rock. But it has. Just like us! No one would have ever thought that humans could live in a rock hole, but we have, too!”

I had laughed and ruffled his soft blond hair. I didn’t care about metaphors between us and grass. All I had ever wanted was to learn about the world. The real world outside of the ashen gray rock walls that surrounded us. Once I learned enough about the world, I reasoned, I would be able to escape the rock. I don’t know what I was thinking. Papa had always wanted to escape. And look where that got him.

***

Sometimes, on clear summer evenings, Papa and Mama and Sam and I would lie on the stone behind our hut. Together, we would watch the sun set. Once Papa tried to explain how it worked, how it wasn’t the sun that was moving, it was actually the Earth. Even I quieted him, though, because sunsets shouldn’t have a scientific explanation. 

We would watch as orange and pink spread their fingers across the sky, pushing away the soft blue-gray of daytime and welcoming the purple of night. We would watch as the purple oozed across the sky, erasing the orange and pink. Once it was completely dark, Papa and Mama would usher Sam and me inside. Sam would go right to sleep on his cot, but I wouldn’t. I would peek out from my window and watch the sky demons cut across the dark, hurrying towards their nests, their bodies like blades against the soft purple. I watched as the adults in our village would crowd in the square, holding spears of wood and stone. I watched as they hurled the spears at the sky demons. Sometimes, a spear would hit its mark, and a sky demon would fall from the sky, shrieking. The next day, we’d have meat at dinner. Sometimes, a sky demon would fly down towards the adults. Sometimes, it would grab one of them in its talons. Sometimes, it would rip the roof off of the sheep barn and steal away the sheep. 

Every morning, we would find blood dribbled on our roofs and splattered in dark stains on the stone. We always worked hard to scrub it away. 

Mama and Papa were the only adults who never took part in sky demon hunting. Papa because he was too busy studying a way to get us out of the hole in the mountains. Mama because she couldn’t bring herself to pick up a spear.

Sam and I used to watch the other children holding little bits of stone, throwing them towards the sky, trying to hit a sky demon. It never worked. The stone would always fall back down before it flew up far enough. It would usually hit one of the other children on the head. Sam and I never threw stones at the sky. 

I used to wonder why the sky demons only ever ate a few of us or our sheep. I used to wonder why they didn’t kill us all. They must have wanted to, I thought, them being such evil beings. I never figured out why they didn’t. I also used to wonder about why, in the legend, when a cluster of sky demons first swooped down, why they didn’t eat all of us. 

I asked Papa why. He told me not to bother with the legend because it was stupid. Then he took me and Sam by the hand and slung a rope over his shoulder. He called for Mama.

“I’m ready,” he told her.

Mama just nodded. I’ve always wondered why Mama didn’t argue, why she didn’t tell Papa not to go.

We walked to the rock face near our hut. Then Papa tried to climb it. He wanted to get to the top. He wanted to see what lay beyond us. He had a long rope and strong arms. He got very far. The whole town gathered to watch. He was almost out of our sight when the rope broke. He flailed for a grip on the stone, but to no avail. He fell, and his body broke on the ground.

We wanted to bury him, but it was impossible to bury anything because our ground was stone. It didn’t matter anyway, because a few hours after Papa fell, while Sam and Mama and I all held each other and sobbed and shook, a sky demon grabbed Papa’s body in its claws and ate it. Then he was gone.

***

One day, about a year after Papa died, a sky demon fell. I was on my knees, scrubbing sheep’s blood from the stone, when it crashed in front of me. I dropped the rag with a strangled yell and launched myself backward, my palms skinning on the wet ground. The sky demon was lying on its side. It didn’t move. 

I thought briefly that perhaps it was shot down by one of our archers, but it had no arrows or spears implanted in its body. 

Once I had caught my breath, I inched forward on my hands and knees. The sky demon showed no reaction as I approached it. I had always been a reckless child, and soon I was a mere foot from its prone body. I stared at it. My whole life, I had always been taught to hate and fear the sky monsters. My whole life, I had never seen one up close. The sky demon was barely larger than I was. It couldn’t have been more than a few months old. It had a gray, downy coat of fluff. Its feet were curled and a soft, wrinkled pink. The sky demon’s talons were pliant, and translucent pink, the color of Sam’s cheeks when he was born. The sky demon’s chest hammered up and down, its heart a pulsing orb pressed against its rib cage. Its wings were skeletal. One was twisted at an unnatural angle. The other one was barely twitching.

I was enthralled. This wasn’t the nightmare that we thought haunted our home. It wasn’t larger than our huts. It didn’t have a black coat of acute feathers pointed in the shape of knives. It didn’t have fine, metallic-like talons large enough to snatch our sheep. I didn’t see a monster; I only saw an infant. 

The sky demon’s eye fluttered open. The iris was a cloudy blue, the color of the dye we made from the berries that grew near our homes. The pupil swam around in the iris, constricting and expanding rapidly. The sky demon gazed at me. It let out a small moan. Then a squeak. Then it made a sound that I could have sworn was a plea. A cry for help.

I reached out a cautious hand, my fingertips brushing its feathery back.

“Sophie!” My name tore through my ears. I looked over my shoulder and saw my mother running toward me, her dress fluttering in the wind.

“Ma — ” I started to say, but before I could finish, she shoved me aside.

I watched my mother. My mother, who baked flat bread for anyone in our village who was hungry; my mother, who had never once thrown a spear at a sky demon; my mother, whose arms trembled so badly that she could no longer she braid her hair. I watched as my mother, with hands steady as stone, pushed her knitting needle into the sky demon’s chest.

What would always stay with me was the sound. The sky demon let out a shriek as the needle pierced its heart. The needle made a wet crack as it punctured the bone. It made a crisp tearing noise as it stabbed through the muscle. 

Blood gushed out of the demon, flowing onto the stone. It swirled around my feet, warm and wet. I stood, paralyzed. I stared at my mother and the dying creature at her feet. She met my gaze, and her eyes were hollow. Empty. 

“Get inside, Sophie,” she finally said. She ducked her hand down. “I’ll clean it up.”

Wordlessly, I ran into our hut, tracking blood on the stone.

***

The next night, my town gathered together in the central square. The sky demon had been defeathered earlier that day. A wooden beam was stabbed through its body, and it hung over a huge bonfire. Fat and grease dripped down and sizzled in the flames.

The adults sat at long, stone tables and laughed and drank jugs of mead. Mama sat with them, her hands folded tightly together. She didn’t drink. She was talking to some women, whom she was friendly with. Her friends were all smiling and talking loudly and cracking jokes as they bit into the flesh of the sky demon and the blood trickled down their chins. Mama had a very small portion of sky demon, which she nibbled on. She smiled and talked and laughed, too, but all her smiles were too wide, and her laughs were too loud, too late, too fake.

The children were happy, too. The smaller ones ran around chasing each other and hiding under tables. The older ones were cheerful. They gnawed on the sky demon’s bones and pushed each other around.

Sam and I sat together on the damp rock, on the edge of the square, in the shadows. I didn’t eat the sky demon, and so neither did Sam. 

“Do you ever wonder, Sophie,” he asked, “where the sky demons came from?”

“No, I don’t, Sam,” I replied, not looking at him, but looking at the darkness beyond the firelight.

“I do,” he said, quietly. “I wonder where they came from.” 

I didn’t answer.

“I think,” he continued, “they came from the star.” I looked at him, and his face was wide and earnest. 

“What did you say?” I asked, my voice quiet, serious. 

“I think they came from the star,” he repeated. “Just like us.”

I snorted and picked at crumbling pieces of rock. “That’s ridiculous, Sam,” I said, and my voice caught a little. 

“It’s not, Sophie!” Sam exclaimed. “If we and our sheep were born from the star, then it only makes sense for the sky demons to have been, too.”

“Why, Sam?” I was angry now, but I didn’t know why. “Why does ‘it make sense’ that the sky demons were born from the star? How does that make sense, Sam?” 

He shrank back. “I just think that we’re not that different,” he said and his voice was soft and quiet.

“Not that different?! They eat our sheep. They kill us!” I gulped down a sob. “And we kill them.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Sam retorted. “We don’t have to kill each other!”

He was wrong, and I told him so. “That’s not true. We do have to kill each other.”

He looked at me disbelievingly. “You can’t honestly believe that, Sophie. You didn’t use to.”

I bit my lip and said harshly, “Well, people change.” I turned away from him and faced the shadows.

It was several minutes before Sam replied.

“I know you didn’t want Mama to kill that demon yesterday,” he whispered. “You tried to stop her.”

I wiped away a tear. “It’s dead now, Sam. It doesn’t matter whether or not I wanted it to be.” I tried to swallow a sob, but it didn’t work. I started crying hysterically.

I could suddenly feel Sam’s small arms wrapping around my shoulders. “It’s okay, Sophie,” he whispered in my ear, his breath tickling my neck. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I cried into his shoulder. “It was my fault, Sam! I should have stopped Mama! I should have saved it!”

“She had pushed you away,” he replied. “There was nothing you could have done. Even if she didn’t kill it, someone else surely would have.”

“And that’s what I hate!” I yelled. A few small children turned to look at us, but no one else heard. I lowered my voice. “I hate how we always have to kill them! I hate how we have to live like this!”

“Me too,” Sam whimpered. “I do, too.” He paused. “I wish we could find another way.” He took a deep breath, then plunged on. “They only kill us when they have to. We kill them because we want to. Their species is obviously just as desperate as we are. I wish there was some way we could work together.”

“Now that’s ridiculous,” I told him, through my cloud of tears.

“I know,” he replied, sounding much more like the ten years he actually was than he’d been sounding like a moment ago. “I know it’s stupid. It just makes me happy to imagine it.”

Then we laughed, just a little.

Soon after that, Mama came over to us, her mouth set in a straight line. The other adults were sharpening spears. “Time to go,” she said.

***

Half a decade later, a sky demon landed in the garden in the back of the hut that my mother, Sam, and I shared. It squatted in the garden; its jagged tail swung, clobbering and toppling a young evergreen tree. It bent its feathered neck and nibbled on the purple thyme. My mother was sleeping on her cot, and Sam was crouched on a stone stool, weaving a scarf. I watched from the back doorway, silently. It didn’t see me.

A voice broke the quiet. “Go away!” our neighbor, Scott, shouted. The sky bird started, its wide, black eyes narrowing. “You hear me?” he yelled again, crossing over to the edge of our garden. He was holding a newly invented weapon in our village: a catar. It was dangerous, more dangerous than arrows or spears. It was made of stone and vine, and held razor-sharp rock knives. Inside of it, vines were woven together into a complicated catapult that could quickly hurl out the knives when the trigger was pulled.

Sam looked up. “Sophie?” he asked.

I glanced at him for a second, then turned around and edged out to the garden.

“Get away!” Scott yelled again, and the sky demon tensed, strands of shredded thyme hanging from its metallic beak. 

“Scott,” I said, quietly, “Stop. It’s not hurting anybody.”

Scott and the sky demon both turned to look at me, equally surprised. 

Scott let out a low sigh. “Look, Sophie,” he said in a much gentler voice than he had been using moments before, “it’s not often that we get one this close.” His hands clenched the catar, a finger nearing the trigger. The sky demon cocked its head and twitched its wings.

“Don’t shoot it.” I began to panic. He wouldn’t listen to me. He would kill it.

Sam stepped outside. At fifteen, he had finally gotten a growth spurt, and he was several inches taller than Scott, but too slim to be intimidating. “Scott,” Sam said. “Drop the catar.”

Scott grunted. 

I felt a pang in my chest. He wasn’t going to listen to Sam either. Sam and my mother and I were known for being different than everyone else in the village. If we had been more average, maybe he wouldn’t have shot. Maybe he would have listened. But we weren’t. We were the odd ones, and we would never be heard.

Scott’s finger locked itself around the trigger. The sky demon had returned to snuffling in the thyme. It didn’t see Scott holding the weapon. It didn’t know that in seconds its life would end. Without thinking, I jumped forward. Just as Scott pulled the trigger. 

As I was in midair, a knife buried itself in my shoulder, and right before I hit the ground, I could see the sky demon taking flight.

***

I woke up the next day in the town infirmary, lying on a cot with a bandaged left shoulder. Pale light streamed through the open window, highlighting Sam and my mother’s faces. They stopped whispering when they saw that I was awake. 

“Sophie,” my mother’s voice was gentle. “How are you feeling?”

It took me a moment to register her question, and another moment to remember what had happened. “The demon,” I gasped. “Is it okay?”

Sam and my mother exchanged a look.

“No,” Sam told me, eyes downcast. “Scott shot it.”

I sank back against the cot. I couldn’t explain why I felt that way, but, for some hopeless reason, I thought that if I could stop Scott from killing the sky demon, I would finally be able to forget about what my mother did.

“But your shoulder,” my mother pressed. “How does it feel?”

I squeezed my eyes shut. My shoulder hurt, but that was nothing compared to the fact that the sky demon was dead. It was dead. Just like the one that Mama killed. “It’s fine,” I told her. 

She frowned, worried.“Are you sure? The medic told us that you might be in pain for a while. You should at least stay here for the night.”

I pushed myself to my feet. It was painful, but I could do it. “I said I was fine! Please, just leave me alone.” I pushed past her and Sam and left the infirmary. I stormed to out hut and sat down in the garden, fuming. I stared at the broken thyme and the imprint of the sky demon’s body. The blood had been washed away. 

I don’t know how long I sat there, but I know that by the time my mother joined me, the sharp pain in my shoulder had receded into an ache. The sun had set, the stars twinkled merrily, and the bright, fat moon was hanging low in the sky. 

She sat down across from me on the dirt. I looked down, ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

She took a long time to respond. When she did, her voice was quiet. “It’s okay, Sophie. I’m sorry.”

I shook my head. “What are you sorry for, Ma?”

She shrugged. “Nothing. Everything.” My mother took a deep breath. “I’m sorry that your father died. I’m sorry that you had to watch.” She paused. “And I’m sorry that I killed that sky demon that time, when you were scrubbing the stone. It was only a baby. And I shouldn’t have done it in front of you.” She tried to suck in a breath, but it caught in her throat. “I’m so sorry, Sophie,” she whispered.

I looked at my mother, really looked at her. For the first time, I saw how fragile she was. For the first time, I realized that she regretted killing the sky demon. For the first time, I realized that my mother made mistakes. “It’s okay,” I told her, and a tear dripped down my face.

We stayed together for the rest of the night — sitting on the stone and holding hands in the moonlight.

***

Anyway, I don’t want to be thinking about any of this now. 

My father died a decade ago. I forgave my mother four years ago. Three months ago, my mother was killed by a panicked sky demon. It had a spear stuck in its wing, and it careened down from the sky and landed on her, hitting her hard enough to snap her neck. 

Two weeks ago, Sam and I were sitting outside the hut that we share, and we watched a group of small children climbing the rock face. They were just doing it for fun, of course, but some of them got pretty high. Then one of them lost his grip. He tumbled down the stone, shrieking and kicking. A sky demon dove down, caught him, and brought him safely to the ground. No one knew quite what to make of it.

It sparked something in me, though. In Sam, too. I guess we thought, or I thought at least, if little kids are trying to climb the rock face, why can’t we? If the town is finally becoming curious enough to wonder what it beyond the rock, why don’t we climb it and see? 

Together, we gathered the unused rope that we wove with Papa when we were little. We added more to it and strengthened it. We practiced climbing parts of the rock face behind our hut. We packed knapsacks with food and water and wool sweaters and blankets. Now, we are ready.

Sam and I woke up early this morning and walked to the rock face. We started to climb. It was difficult at first, and I was so nervous that my muscles tensed, and I started shaking. It got easier, though. We took small breaks throughout the day, sipping cool water and eating sheep’s cheese. 

It is evening now, and we’re still climbing. A group of children have gathered beneath us, shouting words that don’t reach our ears. I think it’s encouragement, though. They jump up and down and run around in circles, heads tilted back, watching us in the fading light. We’re so high up now that the children are barely there. Just little dark shapes beneath us.

Sam and I settle in a small crevice in the rock for the night. We strap ourselves in and lean back, rubbing our exhausted hands. My shoulder healed years ago, but it has started to hurt again, a dull throb. 

“So, what do you think, Sam,” I say. “Do you still believe that the sky demons were born from the same star we were?”

He looks at me, startled. “Of course, Sophie. Of course I do.” He lets out a small laugh. “Do you agree with me yet?”

“Maybe,” I reply, because I still don’t know if I even believe in the legend.

I pull a blanket from my knapsack and wrap it around Sam and my shoulders. We squint our eyes to watch as the parents come to collect their children. It’s hard to see them, but I can just make them out. 

“Look,” Sam points, “a shooting star.”

I look up, not down, and I see it, too. 

Streaking across the black, leaving spurts of silver in its path. I look around at the children and their parents, and me and Sam, and the dark silhouettes of the sky demons circling in the clouds.

The shooting star brightens the sky, and I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but it looks like it’s coming straight towards us. 

And just for an instant, we are all encompassed in light.


I Remember

I remember you, Bubbe Ester.

The smell of your house is what I remember clearly, 

The smell that comes with things that have been loved over time,

That carries so many memories with it.

I remember you

and the stories you told me and Sammy of Mommy,

Of how Mommy had curly hair, and liked gymnastics and shopping,

just like I do.

I remember when you rushed to the house,

when you heard the ambulance came

to rescue me after my hair got stuck in the electric mixer.

You tickled me, made me laugh, made me forget the pain that I felt.

I remember you.

I remember you playing string with Betty, our cat.

You always loved to have her on your lap and pet her so she would purr.

I remember when I was little, you would come to our house 

with lots and lots of clothes and jewelry for me, 

Even though Mommy said not to buy me so much.

But you gave me so much more than things — 

I remember when you lived with us, you sat in the big brown chair and we played school.

I, the teacher, always had fun while you did the math “homework” 

And you, the student, always tried to enjoy it, even though you didn’t really want to practice second grade math. 

I remember we watched TV and played outside, 

You always picked up sticks in the backyard, 

even though we both knew more sticks would come, 

and Mommy would say to let the gardener do it.

You were always trying to make things look nicer, 

and you always did. 

I remember how you loved to watch me dance and sing,

not just at home but on stage in many musical shows.

How you were with us on holidays — even if you didn’t know what holiday it was,

But every day with you felt like a holiday. 

I remember you Bubbe Ester,

I remember the Sundays we visited you.

I remember the walks we took and the afternoons spent sitting outside,

I remember that you loved the sun beaming down on you,

How being warmed up by the sun always put a smile on your face.

I remembered how we listened to the old-fashioned songs you loved,

How we sang along with Bing Crosby and Elvis impersonators with so much glee,

I remember how you genuinely enjoyed those songs, 

how you glowed with joy — perhaps being reminded of time long ago.

I will remember you, always — 

How you were always there for me and everyone you loved.

Even if you aren’t here with us today, 

you will always be in our hearts, forever.


Gone for a Walk

         

Gone for a walk

The sun beaming hot on my back

Trees offer their shade to passersby

The sweet smell of summer in the air

 

The sun beaming hot on my back

Soft breezes soothe me

The smell of summer in the air

The sweet aroma lingers wherever I go

 

Soft breezes soothe me

Like the pleasant chirping of the birds

The sweet aroma lingers wherever I go

I feel like a butterfly in its true habitat

 

Like the pleasant chirping of the birds

I can only hear when I’m quiet myself

I feel like a butterfly in its true habitat

I venture through nature like a bird through the skies

 

I can only hear when I’m quiet myself

Trees offer their shade to passersby

I venture through nature like a bird through the skies

Gone for a walk

 

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

 

Uncontrolled Fury

   

darting through her head, faster

than her hand can keep up with.

She tries

to grasp one before

it disappears, but her hand holds

nothing

except a pen.

The sound of it scratching

against paper fills

the empty silence.

 

And suddenly,

it stops.

Her head is hollow, filled with bits of

useless thoughts.

Her pen stops,

ink the color of the ocean tide

blooming like a navy blue flower

from the tip.

The pristine whiteness of the page

floods with the darkness

of lost ideas.

She lets it fall,

clattering

Against the table.

 

Ruined.

It’s ruined.

The page

crumples in her hand,

ink smudging,

her thoughts dead.

The page

falls from her hand.

It hits the floor with a sound

softer than

a kitten purring,

but louder than

a tiger roaring.

 

She begins again,

puts pen to paper,

writing until she

Decides, again, that it’s not good enough.

It never will be.

Her thoughts are gone,

the thrashing ideas that once filled her

head until it felt like bursting

have disappeared

without a trace.

 

Instead,

she is filled with a

disappointment, a

longing, an

uncontrolled fury.

 

The Vanishing (Excerpt)

     

Prologue

My dad used to tell me that if life throws something bad at you, you just have to live through it and then let it go. He said that you should take into account those bad things, but then, in a way, forget that they ever happened. Well, I hate to tell you, Dad, but sometimes, that’s not really how life works. He was a smart man, and still is, I think, but his vision is limited by his experiences. Most of the time there is no need for one to dwell on things that have no need for dwelling on. Perhaps you may not forget your mistakes, but put them in a part of your brain where they slowly fade into obscurity. Maybe you will begin anew, a new leaf turned over, your past put completely behind. However, there are some things that I cannot let go of, and never will be able to for the rest of my life.

Before, I was not a dweller. I was happy, positive and mostly guilt-free. I lingered on things from time to time, but other than that, I let my mistakes slide right off my back, like mud in a landslide. I acknowledged them, but did not let them get to me. Then, I did not know what a real error, what a true failure was. Well, then the storm came, the ball was dropped, a horrible event occurred. And, let’s say that’s when things changed. I could not even attempt to forgive myself, because how could I forgive myself when I made an absolutely unforgivable mistake? It was a mistake far beyond bad. A mistake that happened because I let it happen. A mistake that has distanced me from the people I love and care about. A mistake that has caused me to fall apart on the inside.

Now, I spend my life in seclusion, slowly wearing away as the days come and go. I used to say more, but now I barely say anything at all. I live in my room, only leaving to use the bathroom and prepare my own food. Sometimes, I don’t even eat at all, for nothing can truly fill the emptiness inside of me. My parents leave me alone, for they know I don’t want to hear “Lilia” being said by another human being ever again. It is too hard for them, and it reminds me too much of what happened to Elodie. Elodie, my best friend as long as I can remember. Elodie, who I have not seen in four years. Elodie, who I will probably never see again. And, it’s all because of me. The night she disappeared, nothing was ever the same again. The night she disappeared, I knew I had changed forever.

 

Chapter One

I am standing on a beach. It is unfamiliar, unlike any place that I have ever been. There is no explanation as to where I am and why, it just seems that I am here. Topaz blue water laps against the shoreline, deepening and darkening its imprint. Under my feet, the sand is warm, its golden grains seeming to emit heat. A flash of vibrant color catches my eye. Birds of every shade imaginable are encircling my head, eyeing me curiously as if trying to figure out what I am. One alights on my shoulder for a brief respite. Its plumage is a striking crimson, the color of a fresh strawberry. It takes off, leading its companions away into the air. And at the center of it all is the sun. Bright and blinding, yet warm and comforting all at once. This is true paradise and nothing less. A swift breeze skims my face, and I breathe. I take in everything, from the birds to the sharp and salty scent of the sea. There is no place I would rather be, for all is calm and undisturbed. But then, I hear something that sounds out of place.

“Lilia!”

“Lilia, wake up!”

There it is again.

“Lilia, come on!”

Where is it coming from?

“Lilia Madeleine Corvington!”

Okay, what’s happening?

My eyes open to my best friend, Elodie, vigorously poking my arm with a pencil.

“Ow, Elodie! What the — ” I begin, still drowsy.

“Shhhh!” she hisses in my ear.

And then through half-asleep eyes, I notice old Mrs. Sheridan pacing around the room in circles. I must have passed out because of having to endure her horrible class. Now, before any judgements are made, I have a perfectly good reason for falling asleep. I just hate hearing her drone about the Battle of Antietam or whatever other crap we’re learning about in her annoying monotone voice.

I sit back in my seat, attempting to blink the sleep away from my eyes. And, oh, I remember my glorious dream.

“I was dreaming about a beach,” I murmur. “It was surreal.”

“That sounds very nice,” Elodie mutters.

“I could feel every grain of sand beneath my feet,” I sigh.

“Good to hear!” she snickers in return.

“Birds were circling around my head, and, and… ” I breathe.

A wave of post-sleep fatigue hits me, and I slump back down in my seat. Running her fingers through her thick, wavy chestnut brown hair, Elodie holds her hands up at me, as if to say, “What the hell am I gonna do with you?”

“Is there something the matter, Miss Hartshorn?” Mrs. Sheridan asks, pushing down her chain glasses and looking down her long, upturned nose at Elodie, who freezes.

Please shut up, Sheridan, the world does not need you to speak.

“Everything is perfectly fine, Mrs. Sheridan,” Elodie replies, a slightly nervous smile plastered on her face.

The Old Battleaxe, or Axey, as I’ve taken to calling her, takes one more look at her, sniffs, and then slowly turns away, not saying a word more about the encounter. Oh, how I hate her.

 

Okay, so, there is more to the story about why I hate Axey so much. Yes, she is so freaking boring, which is very non-motivational, but that’s not all. When I first came to Edgar Allan Poe Middle School last year as a sixth grader, I was totally and completely clueless, not to mention terrified. I stumbled along to my classes five minutes late, barely sure which way I was going. Of course, I had Elodie and some other friends, both old and new, but they weren’t much help, as they were in the same position that I was. One day, I was running late to class yet again. I was speeding down the hallway as fast as I could, and right as I was getting somewhere I ran smack dab into Mrs. Sheridan. I started freaking out and apologized over and over again. A stack of papers she was carrying had gotten everywhere, so I picked every sheet up. And, what did she do? She wrinkled her nose at me and sniffed once sharply, then left without as much as a thank you. And, well, I’ve hated her ever since.

 

Axey clears her throat and pushes her glasses up her nose, signaling that she wants to continue with whatever she was saying before.

“So, class, as you have probably realized, we are nearing the end of our study of the American Civil War,” she says.

The whole class erupts in cheers. Even Elodie, who is a strict rule-follower, lets out a joyous whoop.

But, our moment of glory is cut short, for Axey whips out her death stare, making at least half the class shrink down in their seats. I swear, she could bend telephone poles and wilt ancient trees with that expression. I, frankly, am quite impressed by her ability to do this. But, the way she makes us all feel so small and insignificant when she does this sets me off.

Once she makes sure everyone is bowing at her feet, Axey continues. “All that we really have left to cover are the later battles and the surrender. As you should also remember, we studied… Gettysburg… blah blah blah… yada yada… blah de blah… blah… blah.”

I manage to tune her out with very little effort. Satisfied with my actions, I let my eyes relax into being closed and begin to drift off. I can already see the beach. I want to go back there — who cares about Axey? Oh, the wind…

“…  final test.”

Excuse me, what?

My eyes snap open, and I suddenly feel awake.

I look to my right to try and make eye contact with Elodie, but her eyes are focused right on Axey, as are the eyes of everyone else.

“It is in about three weeks. Which means you will have roughly a week and a half to study, by average standards. However, everyone makes different choices, which means how much time you study will be on you.”

She’s not looking at me, but I can clearly sense the message she’s trying to send. Oh, Axey, don’t even attempt to make it subtle, you’ll just fail miserably. I know I don’t try hard, but that’s mostly your fault. You’ve probably forgotten how you treated me, but I never will for as long as I live. Your presence makes me sick.

And then, like an angel straight from heaven, I hear the most glorious sound that I have ever heard.

Brring!

I am saved by the bell. Literally. Not to mention I have never been so excited for lunch in my life.

I run out the door before Axey can even make a noise. I dash to my locker, shove my books away, and grab my lunch. Once I’m done, I wait for Elodie to meet me. When she does, we start heading in the direction of the cafeteria.

“Did I really doze off in Axey’s class again?” I ask Elodie.

She arches a single perfect eyebrow at me. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know. I might still be delirious because someone interrupted my nap!” I say, arching my own, less perfect eyebrow.

Rolling her eyes, yet trying to conceal a slight smirk, Elodie replies, “It’s the second time it’s happened to you this week, and, hmmm, let’s see, the eighth time it’s happened in three months? It’s a miracle that Mrs. Sheridan hasn’t caught you even once.”

“I wouldn’t care if she caught me anyways,” I say, shrugging. “I’m bored to death all the time — I’m surprised that no one else falls asleep in class.”

“It’s History, Lilz. It’s important,” she responds.

“But it’s boring as hell, especially with Axey,” I groan, rolling my eyes. “You know that I don’t tolerate boredom of any kind.”

“We have that final test coming up, you know,” Elodie reminds me, “if you were even paying attention. And, high schools look at your grades. If you want to go to a good school, you need to get good grades all around.”

“High school’s far away, and don’t worry, I’ll get accepted someplace good, even with a B- in Axey’s class,” I say. “Plus, you know I can pull off an A- with barely any studying.”

“Why not just try? You try in all your other classes, and you get almost straight A’s,” she points out. “How hard can it be to work just as hard with Mrs. Sheridan? I know she was rude to you, but can’t you just be the bigger person?”

“I just don’t care, Dee,” I reply, putting my arm on her shoulders. “Jerks are jerks are jerks, and I won’t do anything for them whatsoever, no matter who they are.”

“Your logic is senseless,” she says, smiling.

We stride into the cafeteria, my arm still slung over Elodie’s shoulders. I slowly let go as we head over to our table, where our friends Maeve, Rina, and Fiona are already sitting. I am not at all surprised to hear somewhat cacophonous noises coming from that direction. Maeve and Rina are debating, like they always do when they get passionate. Poor Fiona is sitting there doing nothing, for what can she do when two fervent people collide? Plus, she’s the quietest out of the five of us, so she has to do more than Elodie or I would have to. Rina and Maeve have argued about a variety of things, from whether capers are good or not to whether cloning should be allowed. It’s really obvious that they like each other — they’re always trying to get on each other’s nerves or get the other person’s attention. And even when they eventually admit that they want to be more than friends, I highly doubt the debates will come to an end. That means that Elodie, Fiona, or I, or sometimes all three of us, will still play peacekeeper. And, I’ll tell you from experience that it’s a pretty hard role to be in.

We arrive at our table. Fiona notices us, and her face lights up in relief as if we are guardian angels.

“They’re out of control,” she says, taking her head in her hands.

Maeve and Rina don’t even notice our presence.

“Water is wet! End of story!” Rina shouts, slamming her palm on the table.

Several heads turn.

“Er, Rina, why don’t you tone it down a little,” Fiona says nervously.

Rina doesn’t seem to hear.

“Water isn’t wet! Wetness is what you feel or experience when you come into contact with water!” Maeve retorts.

“Like hell it is!” Rina snaps. “You feel it as wet, so that’s exactly what it is — wet!”

“No! You feel it as wet because when you touch it or it touches you, it affects your state of being in such a way that makes you feel wet!” Maeve says firmly.

“What kind of world are you living?” Rina demands.

“What kind of world am I living in?” Maeve shoots back. “What kind of world are you living in?”

“Um, excuse me, hello?” I say loudly, barely able to contain my laughter.

They both turn their heads in my direction.

 

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.

 

Soccer Ball

 

Full of stories

Both joyous and bitter

Used to accomplish dreams and goals

 

Rough on the outside

Beaten up and tattered

What’s on the inside?

We might never know

 

To know how you feel we must look at your past

You have stories worth telling

You have a soul that’s been frayed

 

You’ve brought joy to many

You’ve brought sorrow to others

But you always let people use you

So they can achieve their goals

 

The Guest House – Confusion

        

(Inspired by The Guest House by Jelaluddin Rumi)

Hi Confusion,

Although I never expected you to come, I guess you’re welcome, because confusion leads to thought, and thought leads to finally maybe making sense of some chapter of this crazy, twisting, turning, torrentuous story called life. I know that while you’re staying here in my head, I’ll have no idea which direction I should go in or where this chapter of my life will take me, but I know that you’ll make me think. And I’ve been trying to think for weeks, but something keeps jamming my mind.

Maybe it’s the heat from the early arrival of summer,

Maybe it’s the fact that there’s one person who I can’t stop daydreaming about,

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been binging TV shows whenever a thought threatens to creep into my brain,

Maybe,

Maybe,

Maybe.

I can’t think clearly.

Maybe that’s because I’m scared of thinking, because there are thoughts in the back of my brain that I don’t ever want to resurface, that I’m too scared to address because the memories contained in those thoughts make me want to cry and scream and punch a hole in my wall.

And now you’re here, Confusion. You’ve barged into my head unannounced, claiming that you will make things better, but my first instinct is to turn you away. I need Clarity. I need Calm. The last emotion I need in my head right now is Confusion. But I can’t bring myself to turn you away, because I haven’t turned even Hatred or Jealousy away in the past, and if I let such horrible emotions into my head, I would be just as horrible as those emotions if I turned you away. Because really, you’ve never meant me any harm, and after you come and go, Thoughtfulness and Clarity always come to visit my head. And for that, my friend, I am grateful.

Welcome. I hope you enjoy your stay — but please invite Thoughtfulness and Clarity to come soon. I could use the company.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Alas, such are the ways of the clouds…

       

I must serve them because alas, such are the ways of the clouds

I gather worms although alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

Why must I subject myself to your experiments

I adorn thy statues since alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

Please help me, for I drown slowly like a fish

I float merrily while alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

I plead of thee for a breadcrumb, starving while my masters feast

They believe me their mindless servant for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

My parched mouth begs for life-giving water as I flee my masters

They chase me far for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

I cannot run much longer please help me

As I hide in the roots, they pass by because alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

They dump buckets of acid on the lands, smoking me out

I take up the lost dagger and fight them but alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

Beating them back with the almighty shield of sorrow

I fall beneath their power for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

They take my soul, leaving a husk

I continue my eternal servitude and forget my past for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

My flesh and bones evaporating and leave behind a vapor

I am a cloud and I am selfish for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

I lose myself, I forget my roots

I forget my humanity, for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

Now a cloud, I continue as such

Miserable, missing what I cannot remember for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

All I remember is Juliana

Mourning me for alas, such are the ways of the clouds

 

Five Haiku to Clear the Mind

         

I. Terminal Storm

Shrieks of laughter fill the air,

Joyous new leaves flutter,

Clouds roll in to halt it all.

 

II. The Prey

The cheetah’s fur glistens as it stalks prey,

Silent, as it moves.

It bares its teeth with saliva dripping.

 

III. Forest Stories

Leaves crunch under foot.

Beneath the trees, ‘side the shrubs,

All animals stroll.

 

IV. Beach

Waves crash on the rocks,

The once dry sand turns to mud.

Gulls fly overhead.

 

V. Superman

Birds fill the heavens,

Planes’ rumbles cut through the calm.

Hope’s spelled with an “S.”

 

Life’s Library

              

Everyone’s life has a place where it keeps

all the important memories

whether it is a box or a shelf,

A cart or a peanut butter jar,

or even,

a library.

It keeps both good and bad memories on its dusty shelves

If I choose to descend into the lower floors,

I would notice the shadows lurking inside old, rotting books

Looking closer, I would see that the books

Are in fact memories,

Hopes,

Dreams,

Things lost,

And found.

Every experience, stored here within the infinite capacities, of my life’s library.

The further down I go, the harder it is to read the titles.

The books are more worn and dull and dusty.

I reach the bottom floor, and go to the last shelf.

The shelf that is hidden. Blanketed in shadows

Veiled in dust and the utter silence.

I reach out and take the lone book

Sitting there on the dark bottom corner of the shelf.

The cover is made of soft brown paper

That is torn and falling apart,

I sit on the floor, finding that one spot.

Worn down and the only spot in the whole room,

Not covered in dust because I sat there

So many times holding that one memory

But unable

To read it.

I lift up the book,

Flip it open to the first page,

And read.

 

Between

The floor beneath my feet was vibrating as our small, dirty car rolled down the old, dirt road that led toward the city. It was a gloomy morning. Small droplets of rain pattered the window lightly. There was no sunlight because the fog was too thick to let light reach the dirt road. My mother was in the front seat, the place where my father used to sit, squinting to see the road ahead of us.

My mother’s mind was wandering, I could see it in her eyes. She wasn’t in the car, not mentally at least. She was far away somewhere with my father.

The closer we got to the town, the harder the road grew. It was a sign that cars traveled on that road even though all we could see of them was a ghostly, yellow light shining through the mist. Up ahead I saw a shape. A shape stood still in the middle of the wet road. The shape grew larger and larger.

A truck. The brakes slammed down on the wheels. The wheels slid along the wet road but were unable to get enough friction to reach a stop. My mother let out a gasp. She swerved to avoid the truck, though she would have been better off if she didn’t.

The car began to spin on the wet road. Before I could think, the world was upside down. Before I could understand what happened, the car landed on its roof, and gravity pulled my head against the roof. My mother was unusually quiet, and I knew what I would see before I looked down to see my mother.

My mom stared at me with misty eyes, but I knew she couldn’t see me. She would never see me or anything else ever again. At least not in this life anyway. A dark, red liquid was soaking through her chestnut hair, where her head made contact with the car roof, and out of the cut the seatbelt made on her throat, when it pulled tight.

Pain was all I could feel. Pain in my head as I lay trapped in the flipped car, and pain in my heart as I stared at my mother’s lifeless body. The ringing in my ears was blending with the sirens and the truck driver’s shouts to create a deafening cacophony. I felt the mist in my head fogging the world that I had lived in. My mind couldn’t process what I was seeing.

Several pairs of hands slid me out of the car, which was starting to smoke. It was going to explode, leaving my mother’s body to burn in the wreckage. Something was inserted into my arm and began pumping medicine into me. I heard beeping and frantic voices. I was in a hospital. The same hospital I had last seen my father in. The beeps were getting further apart, and I felt the pain threatening to drown me.

There was nothing keeping me here in this world full of pain. The beeping sped up, and the doctors let out shouts. They began pumping more chemicals into my arm, but I didn’t want to stay, and they couldn’t make me. The last thing I heard before I left was a beep that was longer than the others.

Then the pain was gone, and I opened my eyes. Everything in the room was blurred except my mother’s tear-streaked face as she sat next to my dead father. I knew I’d see them again, but I could tell by the tears on my mother’s cheeks and the grief-stricken look on my father’s face that my parents hoped it wouldn’t be this soon.

 

Two mortal days later…

The school bell rang through my ears. A soft, September wind blew through the playground of the old, red school building that I used to spend my time in.

School children came running out of the door and into their parents’ loving arms. Seeing the parents waiting to greet their children after the first day of school left an empty feeling in my stomach.

I thought of the perfect way my mother’s wavy, chestnut hair fell onto her shoulders and the dimple in her cheeks. The way my father would pick me up and swing me around. His emerald green eyes that shone whenever he smiled at me. My parents were perfect in every way.

But my peaceful thoughts about my parents were interrupted by horrifying images. Images of my mother’s chestnut hair soaked in blood and a seat belt pulled tight around her neck. Images of light draining out of my dad’s eyes as the wires in his arm failed to keep his heart beating. The disappointed look in his eyes as he burst into light and disappeared, followed shortly by my mother.

Both of them just wanted to see me one more time before they left for somewhere I couldn’t follow. I tried. But I couldn’t.

I didn’t know what was keeping me here. When I left the mortal world, it was easy. I just had to let go. But now I’m trapped between life and death. The middle is meant to be a rest stop. People are only meant to come here to fully let go or wait for tired, loved ones to take the journey with them. Then they could leave. But it’s not that easy.

Anger burned hot inside me as I looked at my parents. My parents told me they would never leave me, and yet they abandoned me in the middle. Maybe they intended for me to follow, but I couldn’t. I needed to let go somehow, but I couldn’t, and bad things happen to the dead that stay in the middle.

That’s what happens to people who stay here. They forget. They lose shape, and they forget who they once were and become a shadow. It’s a fate worse than death. I’ve only met one.

The moment my mom moved on, I felt her tugging at me to leave. I felt myself following with her into the unknown, but something held me back. So I stayed here in this blurred reality where nothing living is clear, and the dead only stay for a short time.

When my parents moved on, and I was left alone in that blurry hospital room, watching the nurses carefully lift my limp body and carry it away, a shadow appeared. Its voice was bland, but slightly higher, which led me to believe that it was once a girl, though now any memories that remained untouched by shadow were trapped inside its hair. Just a shadow of someone whose dying wish was to help the other shadows move on.

Is that what I was destined to? The shadow took me somewhere unseen by the living. It told me to wait. But wait for what? To wait to feel my one living body fade into a shapeless shadow and the memories that I hold closest to my heart glaze over and become inaccessible to my mind, or worse? The memories remain sharp in my mind, but when I try to speak them aloud, the words stop in my throat, unable to reach the outside world as I lose form.

I didn’t stay in the house it left me in. I needed to find what was keeping me before I was lost and unable to join my parents. I traveled around my old neighborhood until I found myself here at the old school building that I had attended until my father died, and the money ran low.

The shadow danced in and out of my mind. What had kept it here for so long. Why was it so content on me remaining in the house. Would she ever manage to fulfill its dying wish.

No. Once you were a shadow, there was no leaving this blurred middle between life and death.

People say that once you move on, you start a new life. One empty of the suffering I had to face when I was alive. But shadows fade, and they fade into nothingness. Not even their souls remain. That horrible fate was getting closer to me, and there was no way around it.

 

The Shadow

The machine hooked up to the little boy on the table began beeping faster as the seven-year-old boy’s heart gave one last, unconscious fight for its life. The machine finished its beeping with one final drawn-out beep. The young boy woke up dead and a part of a world between life and death. A world where people come to forget the mortal life.

I gazed into my five-year-old daughter’s eyes as she faded into a world made for souls who fail to move on to their final resting place. Instead, they find themselves as shadows who are trapped and are forced into eternal suffering. Some shadows are unable to move on because of guilt. Some are trapped because they did something in their mortal life to keep them here, and some people wait here for the people they love and wait too long. Now my daughter, the only one I ever loved, was cursed to that awful fate.

The little boy didn’t say anything once he looked around at his blurred surroundings, that once were his mortal life. His face showed all the emotions he felt. His terror at awakening even after he knew he was dead. He was amazed that the unendurable pain he had felt just moments ago was gone and a touch of curiosity at the place he was now in.

His eyes landed on me, and all emotions washed out of his eyes. All emotions but fear. If I looked like the woman I once was, maybe the young boy, who died too young, wouldn’t be as scared. But my body had lost all shape. My short, shoulder length hair was now just wisps of smoke. My feet no longer fixed solidly to the floor. Where my feet should have been was merely hovering above the floor. I was just a clump of dark, shapeless mist. Known to some as a shadow.

A shadow was a soul that was trapped between life and death. Unable to move on until they traveled to a place home to nothing but horrors. I could have moved on to somewhere better, but then I saw a girl, inducted into this world at a young age, and unable to leave because of the member of her family who she never knew but who she was unwillingly waiting for.

This world is wrong. Children shouldn’t have to stop here, and if they do, they shouldn’t have to stay for someone they never met.

In that last moment, before my soul was fully contaminated beyond repair, I hesitated. In that split second, where I could have moved on, I stared into the young girl’s eyes and thought of how they would look as they faded into the land where my daughter was trapped because she waited for me, and I took too long. I took too long to join her. Then I was a shadow, and there was no going back.

“It’s all right,” I tried to whisper to the poor little boy, because I knew the pain and suffering the boy had been through in his failing fight for his life, but the words were lost in my throat. Shadows’ thoughts had to remain trapped inside their heads as they begin to fade.

I reached out my once-solid hand and beckoned for the boy to follow, but my hand was gone. My time between is running out. Still, the boy seemed to understand what I wanted, and he seemed to know my intentions were pure. He nodded.

Some of the dead think that if they touch a shadow they will be forced into our cursed fate. So shadows are forced to spend their last moments before fading being segregated and avoided by our fellows because some foolish mind thought that death was contagious.

My world was getting darker by the second as the wind began to blow my wispy shape through the ghost land that stretched out in front. I would never make it to the place I left the girl. The ghost land was bare and desolate. Most don’t stay here for long. But I could see the final life of a shadow now, it is crowded with tortured souls that are suffering more than they ever did as a mortal.

I once thought that nothing could be worse than the pain of loss, suffering, and injury that the mortal life brought. But the fate of a shadow is much, much worse.

I saw my reflection in the tiny boy’s eyes. I was nothing more than a few tiny wisps of smoke being blown out of focus by the wind. I was fading quickly.

A girl with chestnut hair came floating down the street just as my wisps of legs disappeared. Her emerald eyes met the young boy’s. The young boy that was left by his parents who didn’t have enough money to pay for both a daughter and a son.

The last thing I saw was the girl, who died in a car crash and the little boy, who died fighting an illness that took so many lives and inherited his mother’s chestnut hair, run into an embrace and disappear with a flash of white light, into the peaceful afterlife they deserved.

Then I faded into the world of darkness and pain. The first thing I saw was my daughter, no older than she was when I last saw her, because you don’t age in the life of a shadow. But you also don’t flourish; the strong, healthy girl I once knew was gone, and instead I saw a sleep-deprived and starved, little girl, with large bags under her eyes. Her bones showing up clearly against her thin, pale skin. It was all worth it, all the pain I endured, because I got to be with her again.

 

Elsu

Elsu woke up, like every morning. Hungry. Living in the winter pit houses during the harshest winter that he had ever experienced. The pit actually proved to be quite warm. He had dug the fifteen-foot pits with his tribe right before the storm hit. He got up and tried to find some food still left from before the storm hit. He found some small birds but nothing much. Unfortunately, the hunters could not find many animals while hunting this winter, so it was a challenging life.

He remembered running through the forest. Shooting his bow at everything that stood in his way. He was so carefree. He never thought that this day would come in his lifetime.

The only food source that they currently had was some soup and bread made from the acorn meal that was stored underground after the last winter. But with the tribe growing bigger, and the food supplies getting shorter, it was no longer a reliable food source. They needed to find food. And fast.

Elsu’s name translates to “flying falcon.” When he was a kid, Elsu was said to be very adventurous. He watched with wonder, as the hunters walked into the forest to hunt deer, black bears, elk, and fowl. The hunters were strong, fast men. Capable of shooting a running elk blindfolded. Just by hearing its footsteps! They used bows and knives to kill the animals. And ran so fast, they were a blur.

While Elsu’s mom was making clothes for the tribe, she remembered Elsu coming up to her and asking if he could hunt with the hunters. Not wanting to disappoint him, his mom gave him a little bow, and some of her friends dressed up as animals and had Elsu shoot them with an arrow that had a stub.

His mom remembered Elsu’s face that day. Filled with excitement, that made her smile.

But now that smile was gone. Replaced with a steely gaze as she fought to keep up with the tribe’s demands for clothing during this winter.

But like a brave falcon, Elsu was determined to save his tribe from this harsh winter.

Like every morning, Elsu woke up and went hunting with the hunters of the tribe. He managed to find a couple of small fowl. But he knew that they wouldn’t satisfy the tribe. He needed to do something about this winter problem. And fast. Elsu recalled an ancient tale about a dragon at the top of the Serra Peak.

This dragon was once a murderous beast. Destroying everything in its path. Until one day, one of the elders, Elsu’s great grandfather, successfully tamed the dragon. He said he would let the dragon be free. On two conditions. The dragon would not destroy their land anymore. The dragon would also warm the earth with its breath, allowing the Miwok tribe to live through the winter. But the dragon had not warmed the earth at all this year. The flowers were withered. The trees’ branches were breaking. Something must be wrong.

Elsu would go and find this great beast. And see why it was not warming the earth like it did every year.

As they were heading back to their tribe, Elsu distracted the hunters by throwing a rock into a nearby pond. Assuming it might have been salmon, the hunters ran to the pond. Hoping to be able to get it before it swam away. Elsu then ran in the opposite direction. He ran through the trees. Hearing his tribe yell for him.

“Elsu! Where are you?” they shouted. “Come back!”

His best friend yelled for him, “Elsu! We need you! Don’t go!”

But Elsu continued to run. The tears started pouring from his eyes. He could not stop. He was on a mission. A mission to save his tribe.

Elsu climbed up the mountain. The once plentiful deer and elk. Gone. All the crops that the Miwok had once thought was a reliable food source. Gone. It had been two days of no food and very little water. If he didn’t find this dragon soon. He, and his tribe, would perish.

But then. He saw it. An opening in a seemingly endless number of trees. Elsu ran for the opening.

At last. He had found the dragon.

A blue-and-green-scaled dragon. As big as a Redwood tree. And probably stronger than one, too.

It seemed… wounded. As if something had attacked it the night prior. It could barely muster a tiny ember. Its life force was faded.

The dragon looked at Elsu. As if to say, “No. Don’t come nearer. It’s too late for me.”

But Elsu wouldn’t listen. He ran towards the dragon. As he was tending to the dragon’s wounds, he heard a low growl come from behind him. He turned around. And his eyes widened.

Standing in front of him. Was a giant black bear. When the elder tamed the dragon, to ensure that he did not harm anyone else unless necessary, he took out the hate in the dragon. And turned it into the form of a black bear. The bear was not as big as the dragon. But Elsu could see why the dragon had lost against it.

Its claws were as sharp as arrowheads. Its fur smooth.

The animals weren’t there because the dragon was suffering. They weren’t there because the bear had eaten all of them!

The bear stood up on his hind legs. And roared. Elsu was about to become this bear’s next snack.

Elsu rolled to the side as the bear swiped at him. Its magnificent claws barely missing Elsu’s chest. Elsu took his makeshift spear and drove it into the bear’s stomach. The bear howled in pain. But didn’t really seem all that fazed. It was going to take more to kill that bear.

The bear turned around and kicked Elsu in the stomach. Knocking the wind out of him and sending him flying into a nearby tree. Elsu’s entire body ached from the impact. But he had to keep fighting.

The bear built up a charge and then attacked. Charging straight for Elsu, but Elsu jumped on the bear’s snout and jumped over the creature.

The bear turned around, confused on Elsu’s current position. So confused, in fact, that the bear ran straight into a tree. It let out a bigger howl than it had before. Elsu had struck a second hit.

The bear turned around. To find Elsu, standing there. Minor scratches and some cuts. But mostly unharmed. The bear let out a deep growl. And charged at Elsu again.

Elsu didn’t dodge in time.

The bear slammed into Elsu’s chest. Knocking the wind out of him and sending him spiralling towards the ground.

Elsu hit the ground with a thud. Unable to put up a fight.

The bear seized his opportunity. And struck at Elsu.

Inches from Elsu’s face, the bear collapsed.

Elsu looked up. And instead of seeing a giant claw. He saw a blue- and green-scaled head. The dragon had come to his aid. Elsu looked up at the creature. It was still bleeding but had just enough strength to let out a giant, red-hot flame.

Elsu tended to the dragon. And in a couple of days, the dragon was back to its old self. One day, the dragon bent over. Allowing Elsu to climb on its back. He knew he had to return to his tribe.

Like his name always suggested, Elsu flew back, like a falcon. The wind in his hair. He felt free. He felt some warmth when before, there was no warmth at all. He was greeted by familiar faces. And instead of seeing anger. He saw pride. Elsu had saved the tribe.

The season continued on as normal. But Elsu felt a little more proud of himself. When all seemed lost, he had saved his tribe.

He wondered if anyone after his tribe was gone would be able to tell this tale…

 

The Stealer

Once there was a butterfly who was named Carl. He lived in the West District of New Yorkie in the United States of Animalerica. Where Carl was from, everybody was an animal. Carl was grumpy and had an open dislike of the world because he could not get the precious Purple Spring Flower Plant. This plant was the most important thing in Carl’s life. It was the only thing that could give him even the slightest bit of happiness. Carl had wanted this flower all his life from the day he first saw it in the Museum of Botany. He was visiting the museum with his mother on a special trip for his fifth birthday. The ironic thing was that the day Carl glimpsed it, the massive Gorilla, Matt, broke in and stole it. Carl realized that the plant would’ve been easily accessible if it weren’t for Matt.

Matt was huge and was made up of pure muscle. He could crush a 50 pound weight with his toe. Like Carl, Matt adored the Purple Spring Flower Plant, and he thought he could protect it and cherish it in all its glory forever. That was, until Carl.

Now, you may be asking why this plant was so precious to some. There was a myth that if you kept the Plant in the perfect amount of heat and sunlight, it would produce an elixir that could give someone immortal life. Carl wanted the plant, not because of the immortal life, although that would be pretty nice if you ask me, but purely because he thought that the Plant was absolutely stunning. Matt the Gorilla only wanted it so he could become immortal and take over the world. Matt had the flower for a long time, waiting for the elixir. But for some reason the Plant did not want to make its elixir for Matt. Carl realized that since the Plant didn’t like Matt, he might have a chance at getting it and taking it for himself.

So he devised a plan to reclaim the Plant and finally receive true happiness. Carl needed to think about three things: Matt the Gorilla, getting in, and the alarms. To deal with Matt, Carl thought that he could sneak in to Matt’s cave in the underground Mines of Zoo. The Mines were created by the moles that used to dig for diamonds there. Carl also needed to deal with the alarms. Carl knew that Matt was an absolute madman and had stolen many various objects and hurt many people in the past. And if he caught Carl, he would rip him to pieces. Carl chose the tunnel entrance to the cave, which was behind the cemetery a couple blocks from the Museum of Botany. The moles had used and made this entrance to get into the mines easily. He would use these mines in his map for his heist. Carl would sneak in through there and then find the room where Matt was hiding the Purple Spring Flower Plant. Even though this would be difficult and frightening, Carl would do anything for the Plant.

The day had finally come. Carl needed to make his move at night so it would be harder for Matt to see him. He had drawn a map and a plan of what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. It was starting to get late in the day, and Carl was still prepping and planning. He put on his robber clothes, a black jacket and black pants, and started sneaking down his street. He snuck past the Museum of Botany and slowly got closer to the Mines. When he got there, he realized that Matt might not be asleep, which could make the job harder, but Carl still went on.

Carl was inside the tunnels when he heard an electrical sound. He turned the corner and saw a full-on laser wall with what looked like over 50 lasers that seemed practically impossible to get past. He hurled a rock from the ground into the lasers, and they cut the rock straight in half. Carl used his flying maneuvering skills he learned at a camp one summer when he was little to get past the lasers. He did kicks and dives and rolls to get past the wall. He almost did it perfectly, but he missed a jump and a little bit of his left wing was cut off. He was in major pain, but he couldn’t even shout because he didn’t want Matt to hear him. He saw he was dripping blood and could feel it trickling down his body and onto the floor but couldn’t do anything about it. So he kept on going.

In the next area, he found a room made up of stepping stones on the floor that had symbols on them. He knew that they needed to be stepped on with a pattern so he thought about what it could be. Then it hit him. What would Matt use as a password to defend the Flower? He’s a dumb gorilla for goodness sakes. He would just use “Flower”! He realized the signs were Roman numerals, so he did the number equivalents of the word “flower” in the alphabet. VI, XII, XV, XXIII, V, XVIII was the pattern, and to Carl’s surprise, it worked! He did it, he had gotten past the steps of doom! Or so he thought….    Carl was elated that he had figured out the passcode but he didn’t notice one thing: the part of his wing that had been lasered off had been dripping blood the whole time and had been activating the silent alarm Matt had set up. Carl didn’t know it at the time, but Matt was being alerted of Carl’s presence at that very moment.

Carl kept moving and finally arrived in a room with many doors. Each door had its own little pattern, and each doorknob was carefully carved with wood. One of the doors had the flower and Matt in it and that one would be the most dangerous. Carl looked in each and every room twice, and none of them had anything in them.

Carl was about to leave when he heard something moving behind him. He felt the hair on his neck stick way up. He slowly turned around and saw the one thing he didn’t want to see. Matt! Carl turned an odd shade of green and felt the need to run. So he did exactly that. He turned and ran.

Even though he knew Matt would probably catch up to him, Carl knew that he was smarter than Matt and could divert him with a distraction of some sort. Carl ran to a crossroads and ripped out some of his wing feather  to distract Matt and make him think he went the other way. Matt, the dumb ape that he was, somehow fell for it. Carl immediately turned around and went searching for the Plant. He could hear Matt’s screams of rage and disarray but kept running.  

Finally, he glimpsed one room and saw the flower out of the corner of his eye. He opened the door and felt amazing as he ran towards it without thinking about anything else. He looked at the flower, and tears started welling up in his eyes. He gently picked up the plant and started running out the door. He heard Matt coming so he ran back into the room and closed the door. He could hear Matt’s heavy breathing. Matt started walking away, so Carl opened the door and ran.

Carl finally found his way to the tunnels and started climbing up one of them which was especially rocky. The footholds were very small and the handholds were even smaller. He heard Matt go into the tunnel room and heard him checking each tunnel. He was getting to Carl’s tunnel when a mouse made a noise that sounded like a footstep, and Matt went over and checked what it was. At that moment, Carl decided to climb as fast as he could. He got to the top and started running as fast as he could and got to his house. He called the police and sat on his couch with an awestruck look. The police answered, and he told them everything and so they came, picked up the Flower, and thanked him profusely. They went off and arrested Matt for thievery of many items including the Plant. Carl knew he would get a good night’s sleep knowing he had done a good deed for society.

It was a day after the taking of the Flower. Carl was inside his home in the living room watching the news about how he, Carl the Butterfly, stole the Purple Spring Flower Plant from Matt the Gorilla. He was still shaking and feeling the excitement over and over in his head. Carl was thinking about how he had sent Matt to jail and how great it felt to give the Flower back to the Museum of Botany, even when he knew he slightly wanted it for himself. He had never been so happy in his life. Carl just sat there smiling while looking out the window at the sunset. He had no idea I’ve been watching him this whole time….

 

Subsequent of the Smoke

I remember that day. I remember the darkness of the smoke, lifting off from the ground, taking my child from me. He had been taken, at only three years old, to some planet called Earth, forced into a normal life. A life in which he wasn’t my son.

Orlon. My husband had given him the name before he left us. It was a grand day; the curtains sparkling, the sweet aroma of flowers filling the air. It was customary, for a boy in Arionian culture, to name the child weeks after they were born. Traditionally, the child was supposed to be granted the name from a high priest, but my husband had wanted to make a statement, and he named him, to my horror. The day was filled with blessings, wishing him the very best, giving him gifts to bring prosperity to the planet. I thought nothing of it when a man, his face barely visible in the ink-black robe, came to my son and sprinkled ash on his forehead. Ash was a sign of rebirth, a new beginning. I thought nothing of it, until later that evening, when I went to check on Orlon, only to see him missing, and pieces of ash were spread in the symbol of the rebellion on his bed frame.

I remember the terror, the scream that erupted from my mouth when I saw the ash. They had taken him, taken my boy, the only thing that I had ever truly loved, they had snatched him away from me. Running to the courtyard, tears stroking down my face, I finally caught a sight of them, for only a moment, the greasy black cloaks of the men. Yelling, screaming, begging them to simply give him back, that I would do anything they asked, only to say goodbye to my son. That I would give up the whole world just to see his face again. That’s when I saw the smoke. Filling up my lungs, dancing along my fingertips, making me want to crumble to the ground. That’s when, through the haze of the pitch black smoke I saw the ship, flying into the clear, starry night, in the direction of the small planet called Earth.

Unlike my son, the smoke never left me. It consumed all of my thoughts, seeming to control me. I was lying on my bed, crying, tears pouring from my eyes as the sun rose. A new beginning, a new start. But this time, I was going to Earth.

***

My husband was dead soon after the incident. I was forced to play the weeping widow, forced to speak like he meant the world to me. Required to cry at the funeral, made to disguise my inner happiness. The man who had seduced me that night, forcing me into his little game, was dead, and I had killed him.

I could still feel the weight of the gun in my glove clad hand, the bullet coming loose from my steel like a grip. Ripped through him, almost like the smoke defeated me. I saw his eyes, widen in that last moment, before I kissed him, rough and haphazardly, before I felt his body grow limp, his blood trickling down my lips. I smiled, joyously, for the first time after my son was taken from me. I felt the blood trickle down my teeth, my lips stained a crimson red. The smell of decay along my senses, the weight of him, the weight of my son being gone, the smoke gone for only a moment.

Curled up against him, the smell of blood around me, I was at peace. His heart, the thumping of his soul, was finally put out. I smiled at him, his glassy eyes staring up at me unmoving before I let out a scream.

The guards came running to me, holding me back as I cried, not for my husband, but for my son. It seemed almost too easy. The smoke had been lifted. I was allowed rest. But I could only see the blood. The feeling of a feeble life being crushed by my own hand, the feeling of cutting someone’s thread to the world overwhelmed me. I needed more, I had to get more.

Blood. The sickeningly sweet liquid, crimson to the touch. The blue veins, pulsing, heart beating, creating life. I was addicted. Addicted to the taste, addicted to the smell, even to the feeling. Being able to unravel the threads of a being’s life, allowing them a release nothing else but death could give them. But a gun, it was too easy, wasn’t it? Too quick, too fast, too permanent. The heart was too fragile for such things. The rest of the body, however, was less febile. The skin, although easily cut, didn’t allow the bearer easy access to the long awaited pleasure of death.

The smoke, I had believed that the smoke had finally left me. At first, it released me for hours, I could see through it, I was fine. Fine. That’s all I was. I was living. I was breathing, therefore, I was fine. I could sleep, the smoke no longer encompassing me, and all my thoughts. I could sleep without a piercing scream waking me. Later, I had learned that the scream that woke me from my nightmares was my own.

The staff thought I was insane. They drugged me, hoping to sedate me. They thought their primitive drugs would work, that they would be safe. But nobody was truly ever safe, not even those of the rebellion headed towards Earth.

Pill after pill, day after day, I was incarcerated in my mind. My body was limp; it was useless, unresponsive. I was cast aside, left for nothing but a shell of a power hungry leader. But the smoke was only thicker, it was all around me, choking me. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, but no one wanted to save me anyways.  

That’s when they left me. The pills, the staff, they all left me for dead. I was alone, left to fend for myself against the smoke. It was seeping into my pores, clogging my airways, soaking into any opening it could. I knew it was going to conquer me. I saw the haze of gray moving closer and closer to my eyes, teasing me. It knew that it was going to kill me. It was smiling at me, the wisps whispering in my ear, asking me to try to fight them. But I didn’t want to fight anymore, I wanted release. Death had found me, smiling in the midst of the night, as the full moon lighting up my glazed eyes. The smoke had finally left me. I was safe from its grasp forever.

 

The Floor is Lava

When I awoke, the TV was beeping like crazy. All the stations were showing the local news channel.

“Do not touch the floor,” they yelled. “It will kill!”

Of course, this made me curious. I threw my shoe at the ground to see what would happen. For a second, my shoe was fine, until it burst into flames. It started at the toe, then it went all the way to the heel. It sort of looked like this spontaneous combustion TV show episode I watched once. They were talking about how there were some gases in the body that when mixed with static could light on fire. After watching the shoe, I wondered why all the furniture wasn’t on fire. I had a new plan, which was to throw a pillow at the ground. When the pillow touched the ground, it didn’t light on fire. Now I knew how to get around. I looked at the clock and saw it was 5:15 P.M.

“Mom! Do you know where scissors and tape are?”

No reply.

“Mom… MOM!”

Still no reply. I realized she wasn’t home.

I need to find her, I thought. I threw a few pillows and the couch cushions so I could walk over to the kitchen. I was still too scared to test if I would go up in flames like my shoe. I found some of my supplies in the cupboard next to the wastebasket. My plan was to tape my feet to a pillow. I really hoped this would work because I would be literal toast if it didn’t. As I took my first steps with my new invention, I was incredibly nervous, but it worked! My new task was to go find my mom and other living people. The local news channel had gone offline.

As I stepped outside, I saw my neighbor on top of her car.

“Ms. Morrison!” I called out.

“Jonathan, what are you doing? You’re going to die!” she replied.

“I taped two pillows to my feet so I won’t burn up,” I said, walking towards her car. “I really need your help. My mom hasn’t come home yet, and I don’t know where she is! Does your car work?”

“I was listening to the radio as I was driving back from the supermarket when I heard the news, so yes, my car does work. However, can you make me one of those foot protector devices?”

“Only if you take me to my mom.”

“Deal.”

Ms. Morrison drove us to the local plant nursery where my mom worked as a landscape architect. They designed gardens for other people. She seemed to always be complaining about rude clients or not having anyone to actually plant the plants. Maybe this would be a good change for her.

Once we arrived, it looked deserted. Nobody was in sight. Our footsteps could be heard from a mile away as we walked into the store. Everything was normal, the plants were all labeled and in the right place, and the power was working, just no one was around.

“AAAHHHHHHH!”

As I turned around, Ms. Morrison had tripped over a vine on the ground. We locked eyes as I reached out my hand to help her up, but it was too late. I watched her burst into bright, orange flames as high as the ceiling, then vanish into only a pile of miniscule, gray, unwanted dust.

I sat on the counter for a good 30 minutes wondering what I should do. I felt like I needed someone to talk me into finding my mom or living my life. But I knew my mom needed me. As I looked down at my feet, the pillows were beginning to disintegrate. Some of the down feathers were falling out and leaving a trail. I either needed to find new pillows soon or I’d have to jump from table to table. If my mom was in the store, she probably would be able to hear me.

“MOOOOOM! WHERE ARE YOU?” I called out.

“Jonathan?” I heard quietly.

“MOMMA, WHERE ARE YOU?” I called out again.

“Help me,” I heard even quieter.

I ran as fast as I could to the backroom where I thought she was. Sure enough, she was there, but in a horrible state. She was crying and her left leg was completely gone.

“Oh my god Mom, what happened?”

“I was walking over to my minifridge to grab a Coke when I felt like my leg was on fire, and it literally was. I jumped on my desk and looked at my wound. My wound was completely closed, no blood, no skin, no pain, just no leg. First I heard Jim scream, then Dave, then Kevin, then Janet, and it just kept going on and on. Do you know what’s happening? How are you fine standing on the ground?”

“I was taking a nap on the couch when our local news station was saying something about the ground being on fire. I threw one of my shoes on the ground and watched it go up in flames. I realized pillows wouldn’t light, so I taped two onto my feet. We should get home soon to fix up our pillow shoes.”

“I can’t drive now because of my leg, so you’re going to have to drive us back home,” she told me.

“Woah, now, Mom, slow down. I’m only 11 years old. I can’t drive. I can barely look over the dashboard,” I stated.

“Jon, list our other options right now.”

“Well… yeah, you’re right, I need to drive.”

I took one of the pillows off my feet and taped it to her only foot. We sort of did a three-legged race to the car, but only with two legs. As we got in the car, she taught me the basics of driving. I had a bunch of trouble turning and almost crashed into a parked car, but since there were no cars on the road, I was fine. I also could barely reach the brakes, but that didn’t cause any problems. Our car did get pooped on by a bird though. It was really funny but, also, really startling. One thing I noticed now, that I hadn’t noticed with Ms. Morrison, was that all the stores were vandalized and looted. Everyone was panicking, the streets were trashed, and nothing was normal. Once we arrived home, our pillows were almost completely degraded. We stepped inside and called everyone we knew. Strangely, no one picked up except for my cousin’s cellphone, but all I heard was a single scream.

“Momma, I think we have some crutches in the closet in my room from when I broke my leg. I’m going to go see if I can find them,” I told her.

Sure enough, there were crutches in the closet. We also needed to repair our pillows. I took some duct tape while my mom grabbed a bunch of our smaller, sturdier pillows. We attached them to our feet using Krazy Glue and some more duct tape. My mom and I decided we would venture outside to find more people.

“This California heat is really getting to me,” I told my mom.

“Yeah, it’s almost 100 degrees out here.”

We heard a man screaming. I saw him running on the street and pointed it out to Mom. As he got closer, we could see that he had a few fingers missing and a huge scar on his face. His legs were covered in what looked like rain ponchos and torn-up cardboard. As he approached us, my mom noticed he had a knife lodged in his belt.

“How are y’all doin’,” he asked.

“What are you doing screaming in the street like that?” Mom questioned.

“I want to take your skin off and wear it as my own.”

“Get outta here, you creep,” I said.

“What’d you say?” he said, taking his knife out of his belt.

My mom swung her crutch at him, barely missing. He started charging at her when I shoved him into the ground. He burst into flames and vanished from sight.

“That was weird and scary,” I said to Mom.

“He seemed like one of those doomsday, end-of-the-world predictors.”

“Did you hear what he was screaming?”

“No, did you?”

“I thought he was saying it’s shaking.”

Right after I said that, the ground began to rumble. An enormous fault line appeared right in front of us. The shaking was too much for my mom, and she fell over and was transformed into worthless dust. I ran back inside and jumped on the couch. I didn’t want to be here anymore. All of my family, my friends, and everyone I knew and cared about was gone. I didn’t have a purpose anymore. I couldn’t take it anymore. I jumped off the couch and disappeared.

 

Ripped Jeans

It’s never comfortable, but I do it anyway. Just because my legs will go numb soon enough. Just because I’m way too stubborn to bring a chair and, honestly, I probably don’t deserve one.

So I sit.

Ripped jeans on rugged rocks ripping into my skin. I actually took some time to count it one day, when I wasn’t doing anything (I usually am), and there were twenty six. Twenty six old scars and new scrapes. Twenty six days I sat at the corner of a beach no one goes to, waiting for a person who, in theory, doesn’t even exist.

Anymore.

Waiting for someone who might not even be on the face of the Earth anymore, and someone who might have never existed in the first place.

It hits me just now that I might be crazy. Like actually “wrap me up and throw me in the loon house, boys, turns out I created an entire person in my mind and wait for her everyday after school for hours” kind of crazy.

Oh, man.

I can feel my palms start sweating at the thought — because that’s super messed up, right? — I could make it on TV or something. Chills.

Dr. Phil, if you’re out there… who am I kidding? Dr. Phil is always out there. Dr. Phil, buddy, you’re perfect, and I love you, and I know you can read my thoughts right now. I know.

Ha… just kidding.

I weigh the pebble I stuffed in my pocket earlier in both hands and choke down a laugh because I really shouldn’t be laughing. I might not think Dr. Phil is secretly monitoring my thoughts now — but you know, if I’m really crazy, I might soon. Or maybe I’m onto something?

I chuck the rock into the sea. Probably not.

Tracing the ripples as they surface with my eyes and my fingertips, I think about the sea, the stars, everything beyond everything. Time and space. Me and Gwen. Dr. Phil and my possible mental delusion, and how beautiful the beach is on winter afternoons. Even in ripped jeans and freezing, I can appreciate beauty.

And this, right here, is beautiful.

It would be more beautiful if it weren’t below fifty degrees, but you know, I’ll take what I can get.

“Hey,” a voice calls out from a couple yards behind me — probably just on the outskirts of the rock cliff I’m on now — and I jump at the sound, my heart all of the sudden interested in a track/cross country combo. “What up, Maxine?”

Ah.

I know that voice.

“Hey, man,” I say, coolly. “Good to see you.”

And it is good to see him. He may be the only person it’s good to see right about now — and I smile — because having someone here will have to put a pause on my existential crisis.  

Jude.  

My best friend.

It really is good to see him.

Hey uh,” he calls out, starting to climb the rocks, pausing to eye one falling down the abyss, “Didn’t see you at school?!”

“That makes sense!”

Then his eyes dart to me, shining. Alive. The color of storm clouds and concrete and steel. His hair, cocoa brown, falls loosely over his olive skin, and his smile beaming brightly at me silently says, go on.

“Didn’t go in today,” I say. “Cici’s sick.”

“Yikes.”

Cici’s my little half sister. She’s cute. Around four or five —  really sweet — my only complaint is that I can recite around three episodes of Danny Phantom and make mass amounts of pizza bagels. Big enough to feed like three grown men. And apparently, one Cici.

He nods. Closer now. Halfway up.

“So, how long you been up here?”

I have to stop and think about it. And when I do, I recognize I have no idea what time it is. I freeze.

“I got here around three?”

“Oh lord.”

“What?”

“It’s eight.”

“No kidding…” I say, taking my phone out of my back pocket. And to really no one’s surprise but my own, it’s eight thirty seven, and I’d magically been here for five hours.

“That sucks.”

He sits beside me, and there’s a faint moment of silence. Remembrance. Grief for all the hours I just wasted sitting on this big rock thinking about famous talk show hosts and the ward.

“So, spider Max… tell me, how’d I know I’d find you here?” he asks.

“Easy.” I say. “You’re super creepy.”

He staggers backward, as if somehow wounded by the thought, and leans against the rock, facing me. Me and only me, and somehow, I know. I know what he’s about to ask.

I say nothing.

“Are you ever going to tell me?”

Nothing.

“I mean,” he catches his tone. “You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.”

Zip.

“But you can trust me.”

Waves.

“If you want.”

You can trust me. I repeat in my mind. You can trust me. I brush my hair behind my ears and rest my head in between my arms, draped at either side. Are you ever going to tell me? My throat chokes up, and I breathe in the sea air. If you want.

I can trust him? Trust him? And tell him what?

My vision super focuses on the sea, straight through him and his questions. The “oh, you poor thing” face I can tell he’s ogling at me. That classic untimely look. Coupled with a ridged brow and a sympathetic half cock of a smile, squinted eyes, pouted lips… he feels bad for me. Or something. I cannot stand it. I cannot stand when people pity me.  

I grit my teeth and ball my hands in fists, tightly squeezing the color out of them. They’re so blue, they’re purple at this point. Everything around me goes blotched and hazy, and I want so badly for the world to just stop for one second. Stop so I can catch my breath. Stop so I can figure out what’s wrong with me.

There’s something wrong with me. I feel like I’m dying.

“Is this what dying feels like?” I say, as I swallow the lump in my throat, and it falls to my chest. Now I’m not about to break down crying, but I feel the exact same.

“Am I still alive?”

Maybe I’m talking to Jude. Or Gwen.

“I think I’m crazy.”

And I do. And I am. Or? Who knows. What.

He sits up, looking at me, looking for my eyes. Which, by the way, are not looking at him. They’re looking at the sea.

“For Gwen,” I say.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see his expression. He’s shock and confusion embodied in a teenage boy. He’s lost. So am I, actually. Haha. I turn to him. I can feel how bland my face must look to him, the numb exterior I’ve put up to the world. No one can touch me now.

His eyes, once strong and fierce and confident, are scared. Full of love that cannot fix me now. The color of loose change, pencil shavings, hair in old age… they look to me in empathy. Screaming silently.

I bite my lip to keep from laughing. I absolutely should not be laughing. Nobody’s laughing. Nothing is funny.

“Hey,” I say, “hey” being the only thing that I can get out of my mouth. “Jude. You said… I can trust you?”

“Yes. Yes, you can. I, uh, are you alright? Maxine?”

“When I was eleven, I used to love swimming.”

“Ah… I’ve never seen you swim. You swim?”

“Not anymore,” I reply.

Not until I know she’s okay.

“It was July or something. I don’t remember.”

“Oh?”

“I came out here with baby Cici and my parents. We sat over there.” I point to a strip of sand to our right. It’s covered in snow now. “And it was one of those, you know, we had another kid but we still love you the same spiel, so they let me do what I wanted. Helped me build sand castles and stuff. You know. Then we went in the water.”

“That sounds… nice.”

“And the tide pulled me away from them. Pushing me under the waves. I couldn’t breathe. No one could get to me. I was in the middle of the ocean. Oh man, I have never been so scared in my entire life.”

“What the hell.”

“Then I was under, and I kept going down. I was going to die there. My life was, like, flashing before my eyes. It was terrible. I was falling under so fast, Jude. I saw fish I’d never seen before. And the sun. It was so far up, I thought I’d never see it again. I was so scared.”

“…Max?”

“It was starting to hurt. The not breathing and stuff. Then…”

“Then?” he asks, putting his right hand on my left shoulder.

“Gwen.”

“Gwen? As in ‘for Gwen?’ That super ominous thing you said a couple minutes ago.”

“Yeah.”

“Go on.”
“She saved my life, broseph.”

“Is that who you’re waiting for? Is she like… a–”

“Mermaid,” I say, tearing my stare away from him and back to the sea, a smile growing on my face as the thought of her surfaces. “It was green… some kind of beautiful, arctic green tail and lavender hair. Tan skin, brown eyes. I saw her face underwater, then I saw it on land. She saved my life. Pulled me up, or something, I don’t know. I don’t know.”  

He doesn’t say anything to that. I get it.

So I go on, “She was… young. Like me. Beautiful. You know. Perfect. And we talked. She told me about mermaids. I told her about people. We talked until it was night, and she said she’d come back one day. Back for me. Then she dived headfirst back into the water.”

“And you wait for her,” he says.

“And I wait for her,” I repeat. “I told my parents.”

“Oh man.”

“They think I’m crazy. That I swam all the way back to the beach somehow and passed out. That Gwen was never here, and I just made her up because I watched The Little Mermaid and couldn’t process the idea of death.”

He presses a fist to my cheek, lovingly imitating a fist to the face.

“Damn.”

The way he says it is breathless. I can almost see his brain trying to process everything. The wheels that must be turning in his head. I kind of feel bad, you know. Usually, he’s thinking about soccer, guys, and video games.

“So,” I say, leaning forward, letting my hair cover my face. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

“Why would I think you’re crazy?” he asks. Like the idea never even crossed his mind and I’m the sanest person in the world. “Of course not. I’m big on the supernatural stuff. You know that! Plus, like, seventy percent of the ocean is unexplored, and y–”

My shoulders heave as tears stream down my face. Like a broken waterfall… the rain.

“Hey…”

His voice sounds apologetic. Like he’d done something wrong, that telling me I’m not crazy is the opposite of what I want to hear, that somehow, getting the biggest secret off of my chest and welcomed with open arms would make me sob. And, okay, I guess he’s right. But I’m not heaving because I’m sad. I’m heaving because this is the best I’ve felt since that same day in July I can’t remember.

“Thanks,” I say, picking up my head and wiping a tear stream off my face. “Thanks, Jude.”

“Of course.”

 

We stayed there the rest of the night, and I told him about Gwen. The stars beamed, ocean rushed, and cherry rose gas station. Vodka kept us warm and safe from the bitter cold. Everything about it was perfect. And after that, I had someone. A secret henchman.  A sidekick.

***

 

Three Years Later: College

Warm conversations and light-hearted small talk escape into my earbuds as I get on my bus home. Lights whizz by. As do people. The only constant being me, my music, and my thoughts. The drip of the air conditioner, the binder in my lap. Everything is at peace.

I feel like this is the end scene of a movie where you drive into the sunset with the girl or guy of your dreams and a tank load of cash in the trunk. Feels just like it.

I smile to myself. A big one, too. Teeth and everything.

I look forward, seeing some of my classmates a couple rows ahead. We usually get off at the same stop and gossip about professors and our futures and what to do with my psych major and what a liberal arts major is, but not today. So I keep to the back and get off a couple stops early.

The beach breeze flows through my red scarf, and as I take it off, I spot him.

“Jude!” I call out, running as fast as I can in ripped skinny jeans and knee high boots.

It’s nice to be so close to him. He’s studying in Greece, I think. Greece or Japan. We text and facetime, but, you know, just being next to someone is unmatchable.

As the night goes on, we rekindle what we used to be. He tells me about a guy named Chris, and I tell him about my evil professor, Mrs. Garfee. It’s so easy talking to him.

“Really?” I ask, shrieking slightly in laughter, trailing on my “y” and turning to face the ocean I used to spend so much time in.

I’m not an artist, but I promise I could paint this from memory any day. Easy. The blues and beiges of the water and sand, and how it mixes in with the dark black of the rock cliff.

“Uhhh, of course? Never in my life have I ever been that disrespected, so of course I hi–” He inhales sharply, and his eyes widen.  

Like he’d just seen a ghost. I know that expression. But not why it’s on him.

“Jude?”

He points to the water, and alas, there she is.

He hadn’t seen a ghost. He saw a mermaid.

“Hey, Maxine.”

 

The End  

 

When the Lights Go Out

Three minutes before total darkness. Three minutes before a killer’s in my house. Three minutes before the lights go out.

And tonight at 9:30 P.M., we will be talking about th-” the spokesman stopped talking as I changed the channel to a random TV show.

“There is absolutely nothing good!” I said as I threw the remote over to the other side of the couch.

Why don’t you want to be my fri-

The TV shut off, as well as the lights. Plunging me into total darkness.

“What! There’s no storm!” I said, whining to myself.

I stood up, and my giant, fluffy ears folded over themselves. I started to walk over to the front door. I reached out to grab the shiny, gold door knob.

Bang. My head shot up, as well as my ears.

“Who’s here?” I whispered under my breath.

BANG!

BANG!

“Where is it coming from!” I shouted, annoyed.

I walked back over to the couch and sat down, crossing my arms over my chest. The TV turned on, and the bright light filled the room. Standing out in the darkness. Commercials were playing, so I ignored them. I sighed and reached over to the remote and tried turning the volume down, but as I turned it down, the TV got louder. I tried turning the volume up, just in case the buttons mixed themselves around. But again, the TV got louder. I screamed as the news turned on. I could hear the spokesperson again.

“So, Linda. Have you heard about the crazed killer?”

“No, George! But how does he attack?”

“He goes to the victim’s house and turns off their power. He then stalks them for hours. And it all ends in a bloodbath.”  

The voices stopped.

“Is that why the powers out?!” I screamed into the darkness of my home. “If so, please don’t?!”

I slammed my hands onto the couch, stood up, and ran over to the stairs. I slid on my feet and felt them fly out from underneath me, and I was lying on the floor. I scrambled up and sprinted up the stairs. I stopped in the hallway to catch my breath. I put my head down, and my hands on my knees. I lifted my head back up only to see a dark figure in the hallway only a few feet away from me. I screamed and stood still. Frozen in fear. Frozen in shock.  Frozen in time.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt dizzy. I was scared. No. I am scared. I don’t  want to die. I want to live my life.

“I-I don’t want to die…” I said in a shaky voice.

“Don’t worry, sweet girl,” the figure said in a demonic sounding voice.

It wasn’t natural. It sounded almost glitchy. I could feel tears well up in my eyes, stinging the corners, wanting to fall. I wanted to lock myself in a room. I ran to the stairs and bolted down them. My feet slipped out from under me, and I screamed as I tumbled. I hit the floor with a loud thud. My ankle was hurting, and I could feel warm, sticky blood trickle down my arm. I pushed myself up with shaky arms. I could feel my tail fall limp at my legs. I stood and looked around.

“Samantha…” the voice called out.

It was coming from all around me. Even if I covered my ears, I could still hear the voice. I started to slowly walk around with my hands in front of me. I screamed as I felt something cold touch my hand. I jerked it back and cradled it. I started to make out the shape in front of me.

“Just some stupid vase,” I whispered to myself, turning around.

I continued to walk around, trying to find a room to hide in. I smiled slightly as I saw a hallway in front of me. I ran down it, thinking of which room to hide in.

“I need to hide. I need somewhere small. The bathroom,” I said thinking aloud to myself.

I ran over to the door and grabbed the handle, turning it. But it didn’t work. I fumbled around with it a bit more, but I soon gave up. I turned around and put my back against the door, sliding down. I could feel tears slip down my cheeks. I pulled my knees up to my chest and buried my head into them.

“Samantha. You better run,” the voice sang.

I shot my head up and wiped the tears away. I slowly stood and looked around. My tail was wrapped around my leg, and my ears were bent to the sides. I was shaking in fear. I didn’t know what to do. I could barely walk, let alone run!

“I-I can’t,” I said, wanting the voice to hear me.

Or not to hear me. I didn’t know what to do anymore. I felt something wet splash onto my leg slightly. I turned my head to the right, to see a bright light. A match, standing out from the darkness. The only source of light. I watched as the person dropped it. A small flame started to fall, spinning in circles. My eyes widened as everything seemed to slow down. I jerked my leg away from the floor and put it behind the other leg. I watched as the match hit the floor, and it all lit up. Flames shot up and started to slip up the walls, making it look like there was a portal right in the middle of the hallway. I screamed as they grew bigger, the orange in the flame dancing around. I turned around, not wanting to see the flames, only to see the shadow. He was forming from the darkness in my home.

“I told you to run, but you didn’t listen,” it said in a monotone voice.

It had an aura with a fiery red glow that seemed to hold sorrow, hate, and fear. Sadness from other souls. Hate from being betrayed. And the fear of death. The aura was familiar. I’ve felt it before, whether it was from my Aunt’s basement, or in my room at my parent’s old house. I know he’s seen me before. I shook my head, getting the thought out of my mind.

“Sammi… You need to run,” it sang.

I could even hear the smirk in its voice. My eyes widened, and I whipped my head around to see the flames disappearing.

“H-how did you do that?!”

“Don’t ask questions. Just run…” The smirk was so big in its voice.

“You just want to torture me for as long as you can,” I spoke, trying not to stutter.

I put my feet behind me. One after the other, backing away slowly. I heard it laugh, the tone was dark and fearful. It seemed to be made of fear. The fears trapped in the house. The fears in my mind.

“You’re made of fear itself,” I paused taking in a shaky breath. “You were created by the fear, hate, and sorrow trapped in the world. You aren’t real unless I want to believe you are,” I stated, trying to not let my fear show.

“Silly, silly Sammi. You couldn’t be further from the truth,” it chuckled under its breath. “Sammi, why won’t you listen to my warnings?” it asked, laughing a bit.

“B-because I know you won’t let me run. You just want me to suffer,” I whispered, making him laugh at me.

“I only give the warnings to the people who shouldn’t suffer more than they already have, but you just won’t listen! I’ve given you three chances!” it started to shout at me angrily.

I could feel tears slide down my cheeks and onto the floor.

“Why do you want me? Why is it me?” I asked clenching my teeth, to stop myself from crying.

“Because your name was picked,” it spoke, coming towards me.

I gasped, my eyes widening. It chuckled, pushing me to the floor.

“What do you mean my name was picked?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying. Why is my name in something to be picked?”

“Because it is.”

“Why is it?”

“Because you were cursed when you were younger!” it yelled, annoyed at me.

But I wanted answers. I didn’t care what happened, no matter how angry he got.

“Why was I cursed?”

“Because you were born on October 13th, and it happened to be a Friday!” it shouted louder.

It leaned over me, and I cowered in fear underneath It. It burst into laughter. I glared and kicked it in the leg. It stopped laughing and growled at me.

“What? Can’t handle being kicked?” I asked, laughing to myself.

He growled louder, and his eyes lit up. They were glowing orange.  I nervously laughed and backed away.

“Big mistake, Sammi!” it growled, leaning closer to me.

I could feel its breath on my face.

“Dude! Get a breath mint!” I yelled pushing his face away, which only caused It to growl at me again.

I yelped as it grabbed my wrist and started to twist it. I was screaming in pain. It was unbearable; it felt like my wrist was on fire. There was a deafening crack. I dropped to the floor and cradled my wrist, crying. It burst into laughter, watching me.

“Shut up!” I screamed, still in tears.

It continued to laugh at me. I lifted up my leg and kicked it in the knee. It stopped laughing and started to snarl at me. The growl kept getting deeper and deeper every second. I stopped crying and wiped away my tears with my good hand. It shot out one of its arms and grabbed me, dragging me across the floor.

“Please stop! I don’t want to die!” I screeched. “Please?!” I begged, wanting him to stop the torture.

CRACK!

I grew silent when I heard a noise. It stopped moving and pushed me in front of itself.

“You should have listened. But you didn’t, so you can come with me and suffer,” it said, stomping on the floor.

I screamed as I realized what it was going to do.

“No, please no!” I shrieked as I watched the walls warp and rip open, revealing a purple mist pouring out of it.

I cried as it began to drag me into the hole. I grabbed onto the wall, trying to hold myself from going in with It. I soon gave up as my wrist was burning from being broken. I let go and was dragged in. Screeching for someone to save me, but all there was… was the darkness in my home.

 

Basketball Should Not Be Done with One-and-Done

In 2006, a rule was implemented that stated that all players picked in the NBA draft must be 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft, and any player, who is not an international player, must be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class. This rule has come to be known as the one-and-done rule. In the 2017 NBA Draft, 10 of the first 11 players drafted were one-and-done players, with the lone exception being an international player, Frank Ntilikina. At 18 years old, Ntilikina was younger than most of the one-and-done players selected. I am a basketball fan who enjoys watching the NBA and the NCAA tournament. I am a Knicks fan, and many of my favorite basketball players are one-and-done players, including Carmelo Anthony and John Wall. NBA players want to be able to declare for the NBA draft right after high school. Many people want these student-athletes to be forced to go to college for more than one year, while others argue for a format similar to the MLB’s, where athletes have the opportunity to declare for the draft after high school. But if they do go to college, they must stay for at least three years. However, I believe that the one-and-done rule should stay the way it is. It gives fans the opportunity to watch players for a year in college and then see them compete at the highest level in the NBA.

Many college basketball observers argue that players need to stay in college for longer than one year because 19-year-old kids are not mature enough to handle millions of dollars. As Jason Clary wrote in a 2009 article for bleacher report, “Go from rags to riches too quickly, and these athletes may not know what to do with their money. Before you know it, they could own a ten bedroom house on Miami Beach with a BMW and Ferrari in the garage. You may say ‘what’s the big deal?’, but both you and I know this is not how money should be spent.” There is also a common belief held among many college basketball fans that the one-and-done rule is bad for college basketball, a point that it is very difficult to counter. They argue that having the best college players leave for the NBA after one year ruins the entertainment value of college basketball, as many fanbases lose their team’s best player each year. Although going one-and-done usually works out for the players, critics of the rule argue that some players have a false sense of confidence and make the costly decision of becoming a one-and-done too early. Jereme Richmond, Tommy Mason-Griffin, Evan Burns, Thomas Hamilton, Jonathan Hargett and Adrian Walton were one-and-done players who were not drafted at all and did not go on to have success in the NBA.

The one-and-done rule may not be the best thing for college basketball. The one-and-done rule ensures that the best young players, who would otherwise be dominating in college basketball, are playing in the NBA. If it wasn’t for the one-and-done rule, players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Myles Turner, Ben Simmons, and Lonzo Ball would still be playing college basketball. But consider the early careers of Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, and Kevin Durant. All were one-and-done players who were also all-stars within the three years after they left college. These players were capable of being NBA all-stars during the years that they would have been in college. Had they stayed until their senior year, they would have missed out on those early chances to prove themselves against the superior competition in the NBA and the resulting increase in the appeal of the game. The best basketball players belong in the NBA, and most one-and-done players are good enough to compete in the NBA after their freshman year. Those players do not belong in college basketball, and they should be in the NBA. Also the NCAA tournament is not any less successful due to one-and-done players. In fact, the 2017 NCAA tournament was one of the most watched NCAA tournaments in history. The one-and-done rule does not ruin the NCAA tournament, it just gives players who are capable of playing in the NBA an opportunity to join the NBA earlier.

Many people believe that 19-year-olds are too immature to handle millions of dollars. Critics argue that 19-year-olds are too immature to handle all of the money they earn and that they will waste it on cars and other expensive things that are not good long term investments.  The NBA should not make a rule to deny every great 18 or 19-year-old college basketball player the ability to secure their future by declaring for the draft just because some of them make bad decisions with the money. Professional athletes can use their money on whatever they want. It is not right to deny them money as a result of things they buy.

The drafting of one-and-done players does not always pan out, but that is largely because one-and-done players often declare for the draft before they are ready, or before they are good enough to be a high draft pick. But not becoming a one-and-done may also hurt a player’s draft stock. Failing to choose the correct option may mess up a player’s career. Ivan Rabb would have been a lottery pick if he had declared for the 2016 NBA draft. Instead, he elected to return to Cal for his sophomore season and was a 2nd round pick in the 2017 draft. He would have been guaranteed a salary of $7,807,100 in his rookie deal had he declared in 2016. Instead he dropped to a second round draft pick, where no contracts are guaranteed. This was a costly decision for him. If a player is going to be a first round pick, he should use the one-and-done rule and declare for the draft rather than risk injury or a bad season, which could derail his career. However if the player is not going to be a high draft pick, it is not a good idea for them to become a one-and-done player. However, each year several players make the decision to leave for the pros too early and are left in a bad position when they are not picked. The one-and-done rule does not cause these problems. The decisions of players who are not that good causes this problem.

The one-and-done rule allows for the best college basketball players to join the NBA. The one-and-done rule is a change that has caused lots of controversy during its 11 year existence. I believe the addition of the one-and-done rule was a positive change for the NBA. The best basketball players in the world belong in the NBA. I’m excited to see all of the one-and-done players from what is supposedly a very promising draft class, and all of the top players in the 2017 draft class are one-and-done. One-and-done players are what the NBA draft is built around. One-and-done players are part of the reason the NBA draft is exciting, and the 2017 NBA draft had 3.4 million viewers. Every year, basketball fans get excited to watch the players who were drafted by their favorite team whenever the team has a high pick in the draft. I am excited to watch Frank Ntilikina, an 18-year-old French point guard, play for the Knicks this season. The best draft picks are usually one-and-done players, and young European players, and they often make for the most exciting rookies.

 

Works Cited

Aaron Dodson, All the NBA Draft’s One-and-Done Lottery Picks: A Scorecard (theundefeated.com, 6/22/17)

National Basketball Players Association Website (http://www.nbpa.com/cba_articles/article-X.php)

Jason Clary, College Vs. Pros: Should Athletes Leave School Early? (bleacherreport.com, 12/13/09)

Kerry Miller, Ranking the Worst 1-and-Done Decisions in College Basketball History (bleacherreport.com, 6/24/14)

2016-2017 NBA Rookie Scale (basketball.realgm.com)

NCAA, 2017 NCAA Tournament is Most-Watched in 24 Years Across Television Through First Sunday, Plus Record-Setting Digital Consumption (ncaa.com, 3/20/17)

 

Home

“Ellie.” The sound of my name jerks me out of a stupor. I’ve been thinking in silence for a while. “Ellie!”

It’s Jason, the guy who is maybe, sort of, kind of my friend. I mean, he’s 15 like me, and he comes to see me a lot.

“Oh, hi!” I say.

He puts a box of pizza in my hands. It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon. He must be out of school, which has only been in session for a month. I’m sitting behind the pizzeria.

“Here,” he says.

I push it back.

“No, you keep it,” I say.

“I’m serious,” he insists. “Take it.”

I give in. It’s a box of pizza. This thing could last me like half a week. If I have two slices per day, I can make this last for four days! I store the box behind the dumpster along with the rest of my meager possessions. This includes a pair of shorts, for when the weather gets hot, and a jacket, for when the weather gets cold.

I’m currently wearing my jeans and a black t-shirt. These are the clothes I wear all of the time. My long jet-black hair is pulled back in a ponytail.

“Oh, and something else.” Jason pulls out a book. I gasp and take it. Since sixth grade, when we met, Jason has always given me the books he’s done with.

This one is very long, and by the description given by Jason, it’s very intense. I’ve never heard about this one. It’s called The Book Thief.

I start to read it an hour later, once Jason has left. It’s amazing. I really hate that I have to do it, but as I read, I grab my money box and my cardboard sign that says, Please help. Need money to live, and plop down on the sidewalk. I hate staring at that little box and just waiting for people to come.

When my growling stomach tears me away from the book, I look up and see the money box has money in it. Not a lot, but for me, every penny counts.

See, ever since I was nine, I’ve had to save money. It all started when I was ten. Dad was never part of the picture, and Mom was all I had. Even before she started coming home later and later, I hated home because it always felt half-empty. First I thought it was work, but then she started drinking. She was out until midnight or later. Until one day, she didn’t come home at all.

They told me it was a car crash. She had been drinking and driving.

I was only ten years old, but I had already lost both of my parents.

They wanted to put me in a children’s home, but I didn’t want to go. Twelve years old is too old for a tantrum, but I threw one that day. I ran away.

New York City was filled with homeless people, so I figured one more wouldn’t make a difference. I hate it, but I have to beg for money.

It’s getting dark, so I grab a slice of pizza out of the box and wolf it down. Then I put on my jacket and settle in behind the dumpster to read more.

Books have always been my one distraction from thinking about things I really don’t want to think about. When I’m reading, it’s like I don’t have to worry about me anymore. Instead, I can worry about the character’s problems. It’s much easier because I know that there’s a solution hidden somewhere in those pages.

After a while, when the only people walking across the streets are people who look somewhat suspicious, I know it’s time to go to sleep. Living behind a pizza place has its benefits. For example, I have a plentitude of empty pizza boxes. Every night, I build a little shelter out of cardboard and hide behind it to sleep.

I close my eyes and drift into nothingness.

When I wake up the next morning, there are three people there. Not one of them is Jason. I can see them through the cracks in the cardboard.

“Why is there a pile of pizza boxes out here?” one of them says. It’s a man. He’s a little bit, uh, heavy, and he has brown hair.

“Dad,” a girl says. This one looks a little older than me. She has long brown hair and does not take after her father in body type. “I think there’s a person in there.”

The third person, a little boy with brown hair, pipes up. “Why is there a person in there?”

“They must be homeless, Ben,” the girl says. Ben ponders this.

“Can we see?” Ben asks. I sit there, frozen, not daring to move.

“Sure, Ben,” the man says, “but be careful.”

I close my eyes again and pretend to be asleep as they carefully remove the cardboard to reveal me.

“Hey,” the girl says. “Hey, kid,” she shakes me.

“Huh?” I say groggily, pretending to wake up. “Who are you?”

“I’m Sienna,” she says, “This is my father, Tony, and my little brother, Ben. We own the pizza place.”

“I’m Ellie,” I say.

So these are the people who have, unknowingly, been letting me sleep behind their store.

“Nice to meet you, Ellie,” Sienna says. “Why don’t you come inside? We can have a more proper introduction.”

“Okay,” I say suspiciously, getting up. I still am not sure if they won’t report me to a foster home.

Inside, it is deliciously warm. Nothing like the crisp, autumn air I’m accustomed to in the alley.

“So,” Tony says, once the four of us are seated at a table.

“So,” I repeat.

“How long have you been living behind there?” Sienna asks me, getting straight to the point.

“About five months,” I admit sheepishly.

“Five months?” Tony exclaims. “How have we never noticed you before?”

“Well,” I say, “I spend a lot of time behind that cardboard… thing… you saw.”

“Impressive,” Sienna remarks. “Well, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you can’t live there forever.”

“Why not?” I ask, even though I know the answer.

“Ellie, you’re, what, thirteen?” Sienna asks. I nod. “So, you’ve got to be smart enough to know why you can’t live there forever.”

“I know that, but I’ve been doing pretty well on my own,” I say, “and, besides, there’s nothing to go back to anyway!”

That last part just slipped out.

“Ellie, what exactly happened to make you homeless at twelve years old?” Sienna asks.

I clam up. I slide down in my seat a little, even though it’s babyish. I fold my arms.

Sienna raises her right eyebrow.

“Ellie, you’re not a baby. You can’t stay homeless forever. I bet you’re not even going to school. You can’t grow up without an education. You probably live off of pizza, if anything, which can’t be healthy.” Sienna starts throwing these at me, while Tony just sits watching, and Ben is off somewhere doing who-knows-what. “I have to give you somewhere more permanent to live.”

I stare at her, not exactly knowing what this means.

* * *

A couple hours later, I am sitting on a bed in a room in The Kellerman Children’s Home.

So much for living behind Tony’s Pizzeria.          

Sienna gave me a backpack to put my extra stuff in, but when I got here, I shoved all of it in the little dresser they gave me. Except for The Book Thief. I keep that on my bedside table.

The bed’s really comfortable. Well, I haven’t slept in a bed for a year, so anything is comfortable. It has a blue blanket and a pillow with a white pillowcase.

I’m still sitting there when another person comes into the room. She looks around my age, with curly, brown hair and the biggest brown eyes I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She’s wearing a black tank top and a flowy, pink skirt.

“Hi,” she says, sticking out her hand. “I’m your roommate, Liv!”

“Hey,” I reply, shaking her hand. It’s been awhile since I was around other girls my age. This is going to take some getting used to.

She sits on her bed and hugs her pillow, which is identical to mine.

“It’s been so long since I’ve had a roommate,” Liv exclaims. “This is going to be fun!”

“Yeah,” I say. “Fun.”

At The Kellerman Children’s Home, everyone from the crying babies to the moody teenagers eats in one big room, which is extremely unpleasant. There are so many tables and a buffet with food that is worse than the food I got when I was homeless. It smells disgusting. The air is filled with quiet chatter and occasionally a wailing baby. That night, I eat dinner as fast as I possibly can and rush back to my room.

I grab The Book Thief and suddenly a thought floods back to me. Jason. He doesn’t know where I am. Tomorrow, he’ll probably come to that little alleyway and find nothing. Just a bunch of cardboard. I guess he’ll think I’m gone for good. I stare at the cover of the book and let my thoughts crash through me like a tidal wave. I stare at the cover of that one finger pushing over a domino. That’s how the world works, I guess. When one thing happens, it sets off another thing, which sets off another, which sets off another, and it keeps going. When I was a little kid, my dad left, and that set off my mom’s drinking problem. That set off that horrible night where I waited anxiously for her to come home, and she never did. That caused me to run away, which caused me to be homeless, which meant I lived behind a pizza store. It all eventually led to Sienna discovering me, and putting me here.

And now, here I am.

When Liv eventually comes back into our room, she finds me lying face down under the covers. She is obviously able to take a hint and leaves me alone.

Good.

***

I live in The Kellerman Children’s Home for two weeks. In those two weeks, I become steadily more horrible to be around. Liv leaves me alone for the most part, and I think she really does try not to hate me, although I wouldn’t blame her if she did.

They enroll me in seventh grade at the school near here. I only missed the last two months of sixth grade and the first month of seventh grade so I’m pretty much all caught up.

I spend most of the school days absentmindedly staring out the window. The leaves on the trees have turned the most spectacular shades of orange, and yellow, and red, and I love looking at them. I occasionally break out of my trance to do actual schoolwork or write something down. I take as long as I can to get back to the Home, because I hate being there and having the freedom of walking from school is luxurious. All the kids get the option to either take the bus or walk, and I chose the latter eagerly.

Today, I take the long way, like usual. I’m walking around, looking around, not exactly looking where I’m going, when I realize where I am. I must have taken a wrong turn a couple blocks back, because I’m standing… right in front of Tony’s Pizza.

I stop short. There it is, that little alleyway where I hid for all those months. I decide that it can’t hurt to look at it again. I cross the street and walk into the alley. It’s like I never left. The cardboard structure is intact. That last box of pizza Jason brought me is sitting there. The pizza is gone, though. Rats must have gotten to it. I slide under the cardboard and I’m back to when I lived here.

All of a sudden, pizza boxes are ripped off of me, and I’m staring into Sienna’s face, angrier than I’ve ever seen it.

“I knew it,” she hisses. “I knew you would come back.”  

“I wasn’t coming back to stay, I just — ” I protest, but she cuts me off.

“Inside. Now.”

I get to my feet, and we go into the store. This is just like last time, except this time, it’s only Sienna, and she’s fuming. Meanwhile, just like last time, I’m terrified.

Once we’re sitting, I say, “I wasn’t coming back to stay, I was walking past on the way back from school, and I just wanted to be back here again!”

“Why?” Sienna asks. “Here you had nothing. There you’re taken care of.”

“Please don’t make me go back!” I sort-of yell. “I’m miserable there. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I just want to be back where I know what my life is and how it goes!”

“I’m taking you back there,” Sienna insists, despite my desperate plea.

A lump materializes in my throat, but I swallow it down.

***

I’m back at The Kellerman Children’s Home. By now, Liv must be bewildered. I’ve spent most of my time here moping. I haven’t talked to her at all.

I am curled in a ball under my covers when Liv pokes me.

“Ellie?”

“Go away, Liv,” I say.

“It’s not Liv,” whoever she is says. I poke my head out of the covers. Long, blonde hair and green eyes. Sienna. I pull my head back.

“Ellie, I understand why you’d be mad at me.”

“Go away.”

“I would be mad at me, too!” she continues, ignoring me.

“Go away,”  I say it louder this time. Sienna keeps talking.

“So I’m making it up to you.”

I slide my head out. “How?”

“After talking with my dad and Ben, we’ve all decided that the only option is to let you come live with us.”

“What?” I pinch myself. When it is definitely not a dream, I jump out of bed.

“Yeah!” Sienna tells me. “And technically, my boyfriend and I would be your legal guardians.”

I can hardly believe my luck.

A week later, I move out. It’s the happiest day of my whole life.

“Hi, Ellie.” A man with black hair wearing jeans and a sweatshirt introduces himself. He’s Sienna’s boyfriend. “I’m Josh.” Following this are so many jokes that I can’t remember all of them. By the end of it, I am rolling on the floor.                

I will have no problem living with him.      

***

So it started with my mom. Then homelessness. Then Sienna and Tony and Ben. Then The Kellerman Children’s Home. Now this.

And somehow, this crazy, messed-up, life of mine ended up okay.

 

Time Wears Gloves

     

Time wears gloves on its hands.

It tiptoes past us,

Cautious of alerting us to its shadowy presence.

We only notice its movement once it has gone.

 

It tiptoes past us,

The absence echoes other absences, stolen and loved.

We only notice its movement once it has gone.

Ghosts coat all our rooms in dust, the fixtures in dust.

 

The absence echoes other absences, stolen and loved.

Plucking memories without a trace

Ghosts coat all our rooms in dust, the fixtures in dust.

My mind used to be so much more.

 

Plucking memories without a trace

I feel empty

My mind used to be so much more

I long for the beach. I want to feel the sand tickle my toes

 

I feel empty

Time wears gloves on its hands.

I long for the beach. I want to feel the sand tickle my toes

Cautious of alerting us to its shadowy presence.

 

Peeled Away

     

A layer of skin has been peeled away

Revealing what lies beneath me

Secrets exposing themselves

In the burning light

 

Revealing what lies beneath me

A heart like a broken clock

In the burning light

The timing of feelings is always slightly off

 

A heart like a broken clock

Our face like its display

The timing of feelings is always slightly off

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

 

Our face like its display

Hands covering the eyes, the expression of the lips

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

Only safe from such piercing, cold indifference

 

Hands covering the eyes, the expression of the lips

A layer of skin has been peeled away

It’s imperfect, but not needing to be perfect

Secrets exposing themselves

 

Anger and Fear

    

Anger and fear are very similar

they both lead to death

fear: the most powerful spark in history

anger: a flame that burns faster

 

They both lead to death

crossing a high, wooden bridge

anger: a flame that burns faster

plunging us unwillingly into the waters below

 

Crossing a high, wooden bridge

chasing our hopes for love, for glory, for honor

plunging us unwillingly into the waters below

where rapids pummel our limbs

 

Chasing our hopes for love, for glory, for honor

swimming against the tides of time

where rapids pummel our limbs

shoving us towards the shores of death.

 

Swimming against the tides of time

anger and fear are very similar

shoving us towards the shores of death.

fear: the most powerful spark in history

 

My Road to London

My palms were sweating. My head was shaking as I walked into the room. I was holding my violin in my hand and my bow in the other. I knew I had to make this perfect. It was my one shot. The camera was on, the lights were blazing, and the piano was loud and clear. I sniffed and played my first note with absolute confidence. My fingers swirled down the neck of the violin, pressing on the metal strings. I focused on my vibrato (the vibration created by my fingers) and tried to make it as loud and clear as possible, while trying to make it as smooth as possible. Three minutes went by, and I played my last note and made it echo across the room. I walked off the stage.

Now I could only wait to see my fate.

Let me explain what was going on. I was signed up for a competition where if I won first place, I got to perform at Royal Albert Hall in London. If I won second place, I got to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York. If I won third, I didn’t get anything. I waited for three days until my mom came with the letter. I took a huge deep breath and opened the letter.

I read:

Dear Andre Tsou,

Congratulations you have won 1st prize in the Grand Virtuoso Competition!

I was so excited that I couldn’t even contain myself! I was, as British people would say, “full of beans.” But then came the long, long, wait.

Three weeks later, I was packing clothes, dress shoes, belts, hair gel, and of course, my violin. I was headed for London.

As we got to JFK airport, we realized that there was a huge traffic jam. We thought nothing of it because JFK always had some sort of traffic jam. But after thirty minutes, we rolled up to a police officer and asked him what happened. He told us someone thought he or she heard a gunshot, and the airport was shut down. Two hours later, we were in the airport, but it was not over yet. There was a person at a gate telling people that some flights would be cancelled.

I was so nervous. Would the biggest moment of my life be cancelled because some idiot thought someone shot a gun? Sweat ran down my head. I was biting my nails, and the person announced, “Flights to be cancelled: All flights to China, France, Argentina, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia will be cancelled.” London was not announced. I was so relieved. The best part was the majority of people had their flights cancelled, so the lines were short. We got onto our flight in about twenty minutes, and as soon as I sat down on the seat, I looked at my brother. I looked at my TV, and then I passed out.

When I woke up, I looked around, and I suddenly realized that everyone except my family was getting their luggage. My mom was sound asleep, my brother was in another world, my grandma was snoring, and I was barely awake. I shook my mom and my brother up, and we went on our way to London. Once we got a taxi, we checked out our hotel and relaxed. The next morning, we went out for some breakfast. I ordered toffee and some fish and chips. After breakfast, we went back to our hotel and decided where we wanted to go next. We decided to go to the dungeon. That’s where prisoners of war were tortured and killed. We went on a ride there. There were zombies and headless people inside a dark tunnel. When I got out, I was traumatized for about thirty minutes. We didn’t do much else in London until one day, we went to Hyde Park where there was a carnival. I had such a good time there. It felt like I was in heaven… until my mom told me that I had to get ready for my rehearsal with my pianist.

When we got there, we found out our original pianist got injured, and they found a different pianist who also got injured on the same day! So we waited for an hour and a half for a pianist who did not even know my piece! He ended up having to sight read and learn my piece during my rehearsal. I was very worried about the next day.

I woke up feeling numb all over. There was a deathly silence that was so quiet, but so loud. I got changed and made myself some ramen. When my mom, grandma, and brother woke up, they were immediately fussing with things like “you better look sharp” or “don’t mess up!” I wished I had not woken up. After breakfast, I was sent to go change, put on hair gel, put on my belt, and put on dress shoes. Then I went to practice my piece. After all that, we were outside and on our way. The walk was thirty minutes long! My hair and my body language weren’t so sharp anymore when we got there, but, boy, was it when I saw the huge building! As we got inside, we were escorted by guards to the hall. I was so excited. The excitement lasted for about five minutes until I realized we were performing in a small reception room that had a velvet red wall covering, a sink in the corner, and a small stage. So much for a violin competition…

First, there was a rehearsal. What I was wondering was why were they making everyone perform if all the parents were sitting there. Wouldn’t that be it? Okay, everyone you heard what you had to hear, so yup, goodbye! But no. When I went on, people were all on their phones — so much for my self-esteem. I was cruising right along with my piece, until my pianist stopped. He had fumbled. There was complete silence except for the sound of my violin. I was so nervous, but I carried on. Then he suddenly found his part, and we were right along, cruising again.

Once I had finished, I sat down next to my mom and took a deep breath. The concert was about to begin. I was number fifteen on the program, and I felt more and more nervous every time a person finished. But then the host announced that I would be switched to number ten because our pianist had to leave. I was literally going crazy! My mind was not prepared for this. I was trying to mentally prepare myself when the announcer said “Next, Andre TsAAo.” Yeah, of course she pronounced my name wrong. People these days. I mean, I spend hundreds of dollars to go into your completely unorganized competition and had to fly all the way here with a pianist who didn’t know my piece, and YOU COULDN’T EVEN FIGURE OUT HOW TO PRONOUNCE MY NAME?! I mean, DUDE! Come on! But those last five steps would decide my fate after all of this work.

As my pianist was playing his intro, I was thinking, Pianist, please don’t mess up. Please, and Andre, don’t mess up either. Then it was my moment to shine. I played my first note. I didn’t mess up, but I stumbled a little bit. The piece was doing okay, and I was strolling. Until my pianist started to rush! I was frightened and started playing faster too! My knees were buckling, my fingers were becoming tense, when suddenly my pianist slowed down. I was also caught by surprise on that one, but I was glad to be in rhythm again. As I kept playing, I started to get really self concious about my surroundings. A baby started wailing, kids were playing on their phones, laughing quietly. It also didn’t help that their mothers were talking to them. Then I switched onto the final three lines The music was ringing in my ears, my mind was racing, my knees almost buckled, but I felt comfortable where I was. The momentum building up, my pianist playing louder, I played my last chord and shot my bow across the strings, and the sound echoed more than it ever did before. I was done.

When I finally was ready to go back home, I felt like I was floating. My legs were numb and light all the way back. As I walked through my door, my mom hugged me. I felt so good. Then I remembered my audition, my mom yelling at me for not practicing. The blood, sweat, and tears were all worth it. I then realized that through all that, I was just an ordinary eleven-year-old kid.

 

Melt Away

                

You watched your grandfather die.

I believe you were 7 years old at the time

But the strangest thing was even though he wasn’t blind

he refused to acknowledge your face.

 

It was strange; he acted like it was a game

He would just close his eyes when they fell on your frame

Even when you were trying to keep him away

From the trance he was making his grave.

 

You could tell his mind was dying

while his shrink was simply trying

to keep the thoughts clumped in his brain

from falling right out of his head

 

But his childish actions receded

As the doctor, he then treated

him with a little too much of the drug

that started his demise.

 

He seemed to have a moment,

“The Surge,” I think they call it

during which his eyes were full of

such a sudden recognition!

 

“Please, grandson,” he called out, desperate,

and you rushed; your eyes, they met his

but he simply held your gaze

unlike anything before.

 

“I will leave this Earth in sadness

and in hatred of my madness

for I have stopped myself

from seeing your beautiful face.”

 

And with that, his vitals worsened

a stench filled around his person

and you could tell by his face

his soul had left while incomplete.

 

Maturity

              

Earbuds vibrating inside my head

A barrier from those who leave me dead

They park their hearse outside my weary skull

Emotions bubble but my face remains dull

 

The hearse takes out a coffin so grandiose

It takes my childhood and starts to close

Wonder swells from within its closed walls

I try to defend, but the noise made me fall

 

The feelings start to invade

and the hearse, it drives away

with his soul

 

It was life; I could not deny that fact,

But something sacred persuaded me to act,

So I began to conquer the edges of my mind,

I could tell it was hiding something deep behind

 

My attack reigned,

new thoughts reclaimed

I could make them

happy again

 

And then I noticed

a bit of cold

as a cave dared to unfold


I saw within it

a strange glow

the cold increased

as I went to go

 

And then I saw

with tearing eyes

a gun held up to my pride

 

My attack reigned,

new thoughts reclaimed

I could make them

happy again

 

And then I noticed

a bit of cold

as a cave dared to unfold


I saw within it

a strange glow

the cold increased

as I went to go

 

And then I saw

with tearing eyes

a gun held up to my pride

 

Within the cave I saw a face

reflected from this creature

it was mine

 

Earbuds vibrating inside my head

as I try to clean up what I have just bled

my doubt of myself has ended its decline

I have confronted it; now I can climb

 

My derelict soul then sees the truth

naivety seeps from us

as we live

 

Houses on May 28th

Mary went upstairs later that night to check on Jamie. She knocked on his door quietly.

“Jamie… are you there? It’s Mommy.” Mary jiggled the handle and the door was locked.

There was no sound. “Jamie… I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier.”

Still, no reply came.

“Jamie, listen. How about we go to the arcade? You and Lisa would have much more fun there than picking out a toy from a store.”

Mary went downstairs and got the emergency key they kept in case somebody accidentally locked themselves in a room. She unlocked the door and the room was empty. Everything was completely untouched. Peter’s books were all in order by genre on his shelf and the globe he got for his birthday was in its regular spot.

“Peter!” Mary yelled.

Peter came running up the stairs.

“Mary, what’s wrong?” Peter was out of breath, although lately he’d been trying to work out more.

“Jamie’s gone! He’s not in his room!”

“I’m sure he’s in the house somewhere. You check the bathrooms and I’ll check Lisa’s room.”

Minutes later, Peter and Mary met up again in front of Jamie’s room.

“He’s not in the bathrooms!”

“Lisa’s gone too!”

“Where do you think they went?” Mary asked.

“The arcade!” Peter replied quickly.

“No, you ass! They wouldn’t be able to get to the arcade by foot.”

“Maybe they went exploring. You know how much Jamie loves exploring. And how courageous Lisa is.”

“You get the car keys and I’ll get some flashlights and we’ll go!” Mary said.

Together, they left to find their children.

 

***

“Jamie, are you sure this is a good idea?” Lisa asked.

They were walking in the woods behind their house, and it was about half past one. A slight breeze blew through the air and the sky was clear.

“I think it’s a great idea.” Jamie answered.

“We’re gonna get in trouble.”

“No, we’ll be home before Mom and Dad wake up.”

“Are you sure,  Jamie?”

Jamie paused. Lisa’s flashlight was flickering. The bushes were rustling and a small figure stepped out from behind them.

“Good morning, kiddos.” It was a boy about eleven years old, the same age as Jamie. He had blue eyes like the ocean and chocolate colored hair.

“I’m the same age as you, Scott,” Jamie said.

Scott laughed. “It’s a figure of speech.”

Lisa looked grumpy. She reminded Jamie of the floating rainclouds over grouchy people’s heads in cartoons.

“Why the long face, Lisa?” Scott teased.

“Scott, I’m eight years old. Don’t call me kiddo.”

“Alright. If it really bothers you guys that much, I won’t do it.”

“Scott, where are we even going?” Jamie asked.

Scott smiled and his eyes lit up.

“It’s this old house that I live next to. It’s really cool and I wanted to explore it with you guys.”

“I’ve got two water bottles, my flashlight, a pack of batteries I stole from the kitchen cabinet, and a box of Girl Scout cookies.”

“Yep, that’s everything we need to survive,” Jamie said sarcastically.

“What kind are they?” Scott asked.

Lisa looked inside her yellow backpack.

“Shortbreads,” she said.

“Goddamnit. I wish they were Thin Mints.”

The kids continued walking to the house. They approached train tracks that smelled of rust after rain, which was strange because it hadn’t rained that night or the day before.

“Jamie, please don’t go on the train tracks,” Lisa said.

“Why not?” Jamie said.

“I don’t want anything to happen. I have a really bad feeling.”

“What do you think, Scott?”

Scott froze. “I think you should listen to your sister. For some reason I think she’s right.”

“Are you really sure, Lisa?”

“Yes.”

Jamie got off the tracks and they continued to walk along them. It had been about five minutes when Lisa turned around and they noticed a light in the distance.

“Jamie, do you see that?” Lisa asked.

“What?” Jamie said and then turned around. He saw the light.

Scott saw it too. “It’s a train. And it’s getting faster.”

Scott was right. The kids could hear the sound of the train huffing and puffing. The train whisked by them.

“Lisa, if I had stayed on those train tracks, I don’t even want to think about what would have happened,” Jamie said.

“You made a good call,” Scott said.

“Are there trains on this track often?” Jamie asked.

“Not usually… ” Scott said, and trailed off.

The house was the size of a mansion with tiles coming off the roof and a mailbox practically grasping to hang onto its pole. It was covered with vines and the bushes were overgrown. On the porch was a cracked light and a wooden rocking chair. There was also a small driveway, which was strange, because the house was in the middle of the woods.

“This looks like a shack,” Lisa said.

“Scott. What. Is. This?” Jamie asked.

“A house.”  

“You know, I never really noticed that.”

“Are we gonna go in or what?” Lisa said.
Together they walked onto the porch, and Scott opened the door. The first thing they saw were crimson colored stairs.

“Where do you guys wanna go?” Scott asked, with a grin.

“Let’s go into the bedrooms,” Jamie said.

Scott led them upstairs and there were three bedrooms. The first one they entered seemed to be a guest bedroom. It was pretty bare and simple with only a bed and a dresser. The second room was a child’s room. There was a small bed with pale, pink blankets and pale, yellow pillows. There was a shelf with books, dolls, and records. Jamie reached up and picked one up off the shelf.

“Scott, do these still work?”

“When I found this place two weeks ago they did.”

Jamie went up to the record player on a table and put on a record. It was jazz music with a man singing about how he missed somebody.

Scott picked up one of the dolls. It had a crack in its cheek. The doll had green eyes and brown hair. It had on a dark blue dress with lace falling off. Its eyes seemed to glint in the flashlight’s beam. He shuddered.

Lisa looked at the books on the shelf. A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan. Lisa looked around, and she got a sickening feeling.

“Let’s go into another room,” Lisa said. They went into the next bedroom, which must have been the parent’s bedroom. There was a bed with green covers and white pillows. There was a table with old makeup products, and the mirror above was chipped. There was also a large wardrobe with a drawer hanging open.

“Hey, guys. Look at this,” Jamie said, and pulled out a large book from the drawer.

Scott frowned. “That’s strange. When I was here, that drawer wasn’t open.”

Scott hesitantly sat down next to Jamie and Lisa did the same. The book happened to be a photo album. The first picture was of a young man and woman smiling. The man was a sailor. The next photo was with the same man and woman, but she was kissing his cheek. Another photo was their wedding and there were many photos of what must have been aunts and uncles and cousins. Another photo was the house. The next one was the couple sitting by the fireplace in the living room, and the woman had a rounded belly. The photo after was a baby. The next photo was the couple playing with a female toddler. There were no other photos after that.

“You know what’s weird?” Lisa asked.

“What?” Jamie said.

“None of the pictures are labeled,” Lisa said.
“This is really creepy,” Scott said.

Lisa looked at the mirror, her eyes widened in fear.

“Lisa, what’s wrong?!” Jamie cried.

“Did you turn the record player off?” Lisa asked.

“No. Why?”

“Because it stopped playing.”

They all went silent.

“We should leave,” Lisa said.

“Yeah. Make sure you have all your stuff,” Jamie said.  

Together, the kids got up and closed the door behind them. They quietly walked down the hall as though they were trying not to disturb a sleeping dragon.

Suddenly, there was a thumping sound coming from the child’s room. It was getting louder and louder.

“Guys. Quick. Go!” Scott cried. They ran as fast as they could. The thumping sound got louder. When Jamie and Lisa got out of the house and into the woods, they stopped to relax.

“Where’s Scott?” Jamie asked.

“Scott! Scott! Where are you?!” Lisa yelled. But no matter how loud they yelled and how far they searched, Scott was nowhere to be found.

 

***

“Where’s Mom and Dad?” Lisa’s quivering voice came from upstairs.

Jamie and Lisa had arrived home after running all the way through the forest, back to their house. As soon as they got to their lawn, Lisa was filled with a burst of energy and she ran through the door, all the way upstairs. She quickly realized that her parents weren’t there.

“I don’t know!” Jamie said. “Maybe they went shopping?”

“Why would they go shopping at five in the morning?” Lisa asked.

“Right. Alright,” Jamie said, trying to calm himself down.

The front door flew open loudly and in came their mom and dad.

“Jamie! Lisa! Thank God. We’ve been looking for you for hours!” Peter said.

Mary hugged both of her kids. “What were you doing out this early in the morning? We were going to call the police!”

“Mommy, Scott’s gone!” Lisa cried.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked.

Jamie began to explain. He talked about his plan to go exploring with Scott and the house he took them into. He described the fright they got and how they left Scott. Jamie hung his head low.

“I’ll call the cops,” said their dad. “He’s probably still stuck in there.”

Jamie and Lisa were sent to their rooms as a punishment. They fell asleep with hope in their heart because they knew their dear friend would be found.

 

***

The police went and searched the house, but they found nothing. Scott’s parents were devastated. So were Jamie and Lisa. A giant search was led to find Scott. They searched for five months. At the end of the fifth month, a scrap of paper was found in the house which was believed to be in Scott’s handwriting. It said: May 28th. Nobody could figure what that meant.

A funeral was held in Scott’s name in November. Jamie and Lisa thought that the date meant something, and that Scott was still alive somewhere. They kept this between themselves.

 

Going up the Stairs

                   

Going up the stairs. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Foot up foot forward foot down. Take a breath. Then you’re at the top but uh oh you fell down. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Foot up again foot forward again foot down again. Take a breath again. Then you’re at the top but uh oh you fell down again. But then you remember that you didn’t leave your dentures upstairs you left them downstairs. So you go downstairs but uh oh you fell upstairs. At this point you go in the kitchen and eat chicken soup without the chicken because you don’t have your dentures to chew it. You walk into the dining room but uh oh on your way there you fall down the stairs again. You are now laying in a pool of chicken soup without the chicken and at this point you’re fed up with life and decide to never move again. You lay there marinating in the chicken soup without the chicken.

 

Art is Dead

“Oh, and in this cool anime, I watch… ” Jessica droned on.

Simon had stopped listening a while ago, but there was no point in ruining Jessica’s perfect Valentine’s Day. Simon was less interested in the painfully boring play-by-play commentary on his girlfriend’s day and more interested in a pink sock lying in the middle of a patch of grass.

The crisp green was glazed over with residue from the morning chill, looking comparable to a skinnier Guy Fieri with more personality. Unlike the grass, the sock was neither ice-tipped nor crisp; it was soggy and dull, like Guy Fieri’s god-awful hor d’oeuvres.

It was out of place, like bacon covered in various lukewarm food items. “Bacon covered in various lukewarm food items” also happened to be the hors d’oeuvre that Jessica had ordered for Simon without his consent.

Jessica stared keenly into Simon’s soul as he took his first glance at the atrocity. She scanned for any sign of dislike that she could capitalize on to release the tropical storm of the century — her overall view of their relationship onto the barren tundra that was Simon’s innocent perception of their seven-month adventure.

“I knew it.”

“Knew what, exactly?” Simon replied, a pinch of fear in his voice.

“All of it. You hate me. You despise me. When you look at me, you can’t hold back your gag reflex. I’m the worst! This relationship is over!” Jessica stormed out of the small, cozy cafe, knocking over the wooden stool she was sitting on.

As per usual, Simon wasn’t listening. He had now cast his gaze on a wilted rose that was sprawled on the sidewalk, a seemingly meticulously placed metaphor that concludes a fictional, contrived story.

 

Learning to Respect

When I was eleven and younger, my mom and dad were always the “parents” in my life. They were always telling me what to do and frustrating me. So, when I decided it was time for me to become a young lady, I wanted respect from my parents, as well as my siblings. Soon, I realized that I needed to respect my parents first, or they would not respect me; because, as the golden rule stated, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” In time, my parents would become more like best friends than  “annoying parents.”

For a couple months, I had been watching my family interact with each other, and I realized that we hadn’t been respecting each other like we should. For example, when I visited my relatives in December, my aunts, uncles, and grandparents all had great respect for each other because if they did not respect each other, their relationship would not be strong, and they might not see their loved ones very often. So first, if I wanted to start respecting my parents and siblings, I needed to learn what respect really was.

So, what is respect? Well, according to Merriam-Webster, respect means to “express high or special regard.” But, I believe that respect is treating a sibling or parent how you would treat a friend: comfortably, but giving them personal space, physically and mentally. Now that I knew what respecting was, I needed to put my respecting attitude in action. So, I told my parents about it one morning and asked them to try to respect me too; they agreed. That day went pretty well, until I disagreed with my mom about something, and I did what had been my habit for my whole life: grumble a bit and run off. So, my mom treated me like she usually would, by approaching me and telling me that I had to get back to school. But, I refused and went to my favorite thinking place, our tree house in our backyard.

After climbing into the treehouse, I thought hard, in the fresh air, about what my parents did when they did not agree with my aunt, my uncle, or grandparents: they talked about it in an orderly fashion, tried not to talk for too long when it was their turn to talk, kept the discussion at a mature level, and talked calmly about the issue. So, I ran back inside and talked the issue out with my mom. Now, respecting others was not always easy-peasy; in fact, it was hard, always thinking about others and your actions. But, if you want to have good relationships, then you need to respect the other people in those relationships. If you are having trouble respecting others, think about how you felt when someone did not respect you and your feelings.

This event matured me greatly, and it prepared me for when I go away from home and need to form strong relationships with people. So, to respect your parents is to obey them because they have lived longer than you and know much more than you. If you disagree with your parents, you need to talk to them about what is upsetting you in a mature manner. Respecting people is essential for any type of relationship, even a relationship with a young child, or your own child.

 

Getting a Pet

Living your life without responsibility makes your life unorganized. A pet provides comfort, love, humor, responsibility, and an adorable face. A pet will be there when you are sad, and any pet, from a fish to a cow, can be all out hilarious. So, in your life, should you get a pet?

I believe that yes, you should get a pet. I have had a hamster and four guppies in my lifetime. Their survival was actually my responsibility. The hamster died after a year, in the middle of a very busy time. I neglected her by forgetting to clean her cage, and she died. Now, I learned a very important lesson because my hamster’s life was in my hands, and I failed. Having a pet showed me the importance of responsibility and the importance of life.

Pets are actually good for your health. For example, petting a rabbit reduces stress, which is a considerable problem in our everyday lives. Having a dog strongly encourages walking, and even a short five minute walk can impact your health. Any pet can be a best friend for you to talk to or cuddle with. A pet will love you no matter what. The best conversation starter is a pet. A dog, cat, fish, bunny, or lizard can help start a conversation and break the tension when you are with a stranger. Also, pets are so silly. Something that might be normal to them might make you fall on the floor, laughing your head off.

Pets make you think. Pets do interesting things — they have interesting behaviors, and they have intriguing textures. Most pets don’t have hands, so they have to use other alternatives to pick up things, feed themselves, and clean themselves. Some pets use their mouths to pick up things, but others use their trunks, legs or arms, and tongues. Humans use hands, forks, spoons, and knives to eat, but most pets skip that step and use their tongues and teeth to transfer their food to their mouths. The textures on pets can have the oddest feeling in the world — they could be rough, scaly, fluffy, smooth, soft, or bare — dogs would be soft and fluffy, snakes would be scaly, a hairless cat or dog would have a bare texture, and an Angora rabbit would be very fluffy.

Although pets can be awesome, some people are allergic to pets, or some people are not allowed to have a pet. In that case, they could buy an exotic or neat plant to take care of. I think pets are very fun and silly, but you do have to take care of them and you do have to change your schedule sometimes because of your pet, but that should not stop you from finding a pet to have. Pets have so many upsides and benefits. I strongly suggest you look into getting a pet. I have had about 13 pets in my house, throughout all my life, and they have all been big blessings to me and my family. So, when you have the chance, get a pet.

 

The True Horrors of Online Dating

Ever since I was a youngling, I have always wanted to be loved by others. Besides my parents and friends, that is. What I’m talking about is relationships and “mating”. Sure, I did have many lovers in my life, but, after a while, I realized the people in Billings— no, not just Billings— people in the whole state of Montana are not… appetizing to me. They all seem like one, ugly female, and that bothers me. Why can’t I find someone that I truly love? People my age are having kids already, and I, twenty-seven-year-old Rick Doherty, am still single.

That’s why I tried online dating. I hoped I could find someone who truly appealed to me. But, all I saw were either people who looked hideous, or hot chicks who were already in relationships.

I desperately posted a really sexy picture of myself in hopes of attracting someone. That, at first, attracted even more monstrous creations. There was a girl with two warts on her mouth and an overuse of makeup, constantly sending me chat requests. I declined chatting with her, but she just kept on sending me requests. After a while, I got sick of all of this, accepted one of her requests, and said I wasn’t interested in her. She never sent me another request. In fact, she deleted her profile. A small victory for me, but I wondered if I was too harsh on her.

To be honest, I was ready to delete my profile at that point, too, until, a month into this website, I struck gold.

Jackie Martha LeGree was really pretty, without excess makeup. Her blonde hair weaved down her tan skin, and her green eyes were like emeralds in a cave of rock. She seemed attracted to me too, since, when I accepted her request, she texted me, “You look hot.”

We started texting constantly— right when I woke up, on my way to work, at work, on my way back home, and while I ate. I learned that she was from Greensboro, North Carolina, and that she was twenty-seven too. She was an outdoors lover, and, when she could, she would sit outside and enjoy nature at its finest. She worked for a nature preserve, and she enjoyed helping the environment grow. She bragged that her nature preserve was the best in the country.

I also used this opportunity to brag about myself. I said I was a programmer for a game (didn’t say which), a really smart and buff guy (partially true), and a kind community worker (which is surprisingly true). Jackie seemed to love the “altruistic ” side of me, and she also loved video games and smart people, which made me feel warm inside. We seemed to have so many similarities, making us a match made for heaven. By then, we officially became online boyfriend and girlfriend. My heart was racing every time she texted me, knowing that all she would do was shower me with praise, in which I would do the same to her.

A year passed. Despite being in contact with her, I hadn’t met Jackie in person yet. I asked her if she could meet up, but she said that she was too busy working in the nature preserve. I kept bugging her until, one day, Jackie texted me that she was given a week off, and she was going to Billings to visit me. I told her to meet with me at Rainbow Bar. What I didn’t tell her, though, is that I bought her a Blue Diamond ring so I could propose to her. I was ready to become a husband, and I hoped she was ready to become my spouse, too.

The day came. I brought my ring to the bar and waited for a long time. I looked at every girl that came in, hoping that it was the blonde-haired, green-eyed girl that would become my future wife.

I fiddled with my ring as I wondered if her flight was cancelled, or if she was lost in the city. I was pondering to go search for her when my phone rang.

It was Jackie. She texted that she was going to arrive in a few minutes.

My heart was ready to run a marathon. Finally, I was going to meet her in person, then hope she would marry me. My body was filled with so much adrenaline, I didn’t realize that a taxi car drove in. I spotted an old, dark-haired lady with a crooked nose and broken brown eyes that I had never seen before. Was she a newcomer? I thought. I never saw someone so hideous. She can’t be my date… wait! It struck me then that I never knew what her voice sounded like, nor did I see other pictures of her. Oh, shit

My heart flipped as the old woman spotted me. A really creepy and crooked smile appeared on her face as she walked towards me. Oh, no no no!

“Hi,” She croaked. “You must be Rick.”

Noooooo!

“Uh, yes, I… uh, I am Rick,” I managed to say, unable to cover my surprise and fear.

“Hehe. Yes, I’m Jackie. And that must be a ring you’re holding. You want to marry me?”

When I didn’t reply, she continued. “No one has wanted to marry me. Ever. This is my first proposal. You know I’ll definitely say yes, right?”

“You said that you were twenty-seven…” I said in a small voice. “Your profile picture…”

“Yeah, that’s a picture I managed to Photoshop,” She said. “And I’m actually sixty-eight.”

“But…” I stammered. “Why did you lie to me all this time?”

“I have always loved younger men,” She said. “I was attracted to you once I saw you. I knew you wouldn’t love an old, ugly woman, so I put that picture together to attract you. I hoped that when you learned what I was inside, you would love me no matter what.”

She stared at me. Her brown eyes made me sink into my chair, wishing that someone could just kill me.

She snatched the ring from me and was about to put it on when I smacked it out of her hand. Her eyes widened as the ring flew across the room into someone’s beer.

“No,” I said. I was scared to the core, but I was beginning to feel really angry. “You lied to me! You made yourself seem younger so I would become your boyfriend. No! No! No! I’m not going to marry you.”

Jackie was speechless, her scary eyes staring at me. Finally, she smiled her creepy smile and said, “Well, of course you want to marry me. Come here and give me a kiss.” She closed her eyes, puckered her lips and moved closer towards me.

Before she made contact with me, I swiftly leapt out of my chair and sprinted out the door of the bar, fear and anger fueling me to go faster. I heard her gag as she realized she had accidentally kissed my chair. By now, people were giving us weird looks.

“Wait!” She screamed out the door. “Come back! I promise I’ll be a great wife! Please, my love!”

“I never loved you!”

I ran into my car and immediately sped away from the bar. I looked back and hoped that she wasn’t following me. The street was completely devoid of humans, which made me sigh with relief. I drove home, locked the door, and the first thing I did was delete my dating profile, ignoring all the messages Jackie had sent me while I was running away from her. I was still in disbelief that I had wasted a whole year dating what I had thought was the perfect woman, when the whole time it was a pedophile, manipulating inexperienced men like me into loving her.

It’s sad that there are a lot of evil people trying to harm innocent, kind people like me. I mean, a community worker doesn’t deserve the devil, right? I remembered that hideous girl with the warts and excess makeup. Was I evil in her eyes when I harshly rejected her? Was she feeling what I’m going through right now? How did she recover from it? For the first time, I wondered if there truly was someone that is a perfect match for me.

The next day, I looked out my window. Jackie was nowhere to be seen. Good, she didn’t find my address. As I drove my car to the train station, ready for work, I drove past the Hilton Hotel Jackie had said she was staying in. Feeling myself becoming numb, I decided to go another route when I realized she was nowhere in sight. Odd. She said that she loved to sit outdoors. Did she leave? I parked my car and went into the hotel. I asked the clerk if Jackie LeGree was checked in.

“She left last night. Pretty shaken up and sad. I kinda felt sorry for her, but she was hideous.” I sighed in relief, thankful that she had given up on me. I thanked the Lord that I had averted a disaster, then noticed that the clerk was staring back at me.

“Hey…” She said. “I’m getting off topic but, you want to, uh, hang out sometime?”

Her brunette hair was tied back into pigtails, and her sapphire blue eyes glimmered across her smooth face. She looked kinda cute.

“Uh… sure,” I said, feeling my luck change. “You want to meet at Rainbow Bar this afternoon?”

Nuclear Fusion: Persuasive Document

Nuclear fusion is one of the best and most promising forms of sustainable energy. It offers enormous amounts of power and produces no greenhouse gases. It does not use radioactive materials like uranium, which nuclear fission uses. Instead it uses hydrogen, the most abundant and simple atom in the universe, so it has a potentially unlimited supply. There is no danger like there is in nuclear fission. In the worst case scenario the atoms would just revert to their stable and safe form. Over 30 countries have started to compete for this energy source and have created multi-country consortiums. These consortiums have built machines to try to create this form of energy, and eventually, with enough funding and resources, someone will succeed. Someone will harness the power that drives our stars.

Currently, our main sources of energy are fossil fuels, which are nonrenewable and harmful. Mining for these fossil fuels damages the environment and using them does too. They produce smoke and carbon dioxide, which go into the atmosphere, swell the oceans and pollute the sky. This exposes humans to harmful ultraviolet rays, and raises the level of acidity in several oceans. This source of energy generates about 85% of the world’s electricity. Clearly the world needs a new source of energy. Nuclear fusion is our best bet.

Nuclear fusion produces energy by combining atoms. When two small atoms come together in the right conditions and the right time, they will fuse, creating a larger one. In this process, the atoms lose mass, which then turns into energy. How does this happen? Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 explains that energy is really mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. So when atoms lose that mass, they are actually releasing energy. Now the speed of light is a very big number— 299 792 458 m/s to be exact. The speed of light squared is even larger. So even though the atoms are losing just a tiny bit of mass, they are actually giving up a great amount of energy. The most tremendous amount of fusion in our solar system is our sun, where quadrillions of hydrogen atoms combine to make quadrillions of helium atoms. The total mass of four hydrogen atoms is a little more than a helium atom, so when the sun combines atoms, they release mass in the form of energy.

Scientists have been working for years on how to collide atoms and have developed some very good ways of doing so. There exist many different ways to achieve fusion, but the most successful reactors either use inertial confinement fusion or magnetic confinement fusion, both of which are discussed next.

Inertial confinement fusion uses a hohlraum, a type of cylindrical pod, to contain two simple hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. To force these atoms to join, they have to heat them to a very high temperature, 200 million kelvins to be precise. In order to heat the atoms, scientists have also developed many sophisticated ways, two of which will be described in the passages below.

In California at the National Ignition Facility, NIF, scientists heat the atoms by pointing high energy beams of laser light at the hohlraum, which then explodes, sending shock waves through the atoms and making them combine. A different kind of inertial confinement is a Z pinch. The largest machine that uses this type of fusion is the Z-machine. It passes electricity through incredibly thin strands of wire and turn them into plasma. To do this, 26 million amps have to pass through them, each one about the diameter of 1/10 of a human hair. These wires get destroyed and turned into plasma. Even though the wires are destroyed, for a fraction of a second the magnetic field created by them remains. The ions in the plasma are affected by the magnetic field and they are all propelled towards it. During this process some of the ions stop, but since they were going so fast with so much energy they produce X-rays. These X-rays shoot in all directions and some hit a hohlraum containing the isotopes deuterium and tritium. The hohlraum containing these atoms is destroyed but the X-rays keep on advancing. They quickly meet the two isotopes and force them closer and closer. The force that repels these isotopes is called the electrostatic force but when they become close enough, another force takes over. This one is called the strong nuclear force. When the atoms come within two femtometers, the strong nuclear force takes over and brings the atoms together, which releases energy in the process. These methods for inertial confinement fusion have been successful in creating energy, but still prove incapable of using it. The miniature suns created by these high heats are just like the ones in space, giving enough light to see a new and powerful world, in this case the world of fusion.

The second method, magnetic confinement fusion, uses magnetic fields to suspend the plasma in the air, and then raise the temperature. This energizes the atoms in the plasma, and they move around so much that they collide. Two types of reactors are usually used for this method of fusion, the tokamak and the stellarator. The high heats required to energize the atoms are a vital part of the fusion process. However, since no known material can withstand a heat of 100 million Celsius, building reactors for fusion on earth requires a different approach. Luckily, someone had the smart idea to use magnetism. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) says, “The most effective magnetic configuration is toroidal, shaped like a doughnut, in which the magnetic field is curved around to form a closed loop.” This is because the magnetic field has to be infinite, allowing the atoms time to bond, which requires a closed circular magnetic field. Both the tokamak and the stellarator use a closed loop to suspend the near thermonuclear plasmas. All these reactors have contributed greatly to fusion research, and will probably contribute even more in the future.

The name tokamak is Russian for “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils’.’ The toroidal chamber is enclosed by several superconducting magnets that loop around sections of the reactor. The enormous magnets have to be generated both inside and outside to allow stable operation, but even so currents of moving particles move in different directions, destabilising the plasma. These are relatively easy to build on the scale of reactors, but the disadvantages are that the magnetic field is stronger on the inside, pushing positively charged particles upward and negative ones downward, so that there is an unstable flow in the plasma. All this is happening in the heart of the tokamak, a vacuum chamber. The stellarator, however, solves this problem. It uses an asymmetric magnetic field to ensure every plasma particle feels the same force. Supercomputer simulations show that this will allow for a continuous and stable operation. These reactors overlap in certain aspects and differ in others, but in the end they are all trying to achieve fusion.

Following the discovery of nuclear fusion, different countries joined together to combine their power and form scientific research organizations. Together these consortiums built machines they could not make on their own. These reactors include ITER, DEMO, Wendelstein 7-X and more. Each will be described in detail and explained next.

ITER originally stood for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, but later the project leaders decided that the words thermonuclear, experimental and reactor linked in one sentence might scare the public. Fortunately, ITER also meant “the way” in Latin. Therefore ITER is the way to nuclear fusion. ITER is a tokamak, the biggest in the world. It has a toroidal shape and inside it is a vacuum. Inside the vacuum, under the influence of extreme heat and pressure, gassy hydrogen becomes a plasma. When the atoms join, they release energy which comes out partly as heat. This heat is then absorbed into ITER’s walls and transformed into steam. This steam is used to turn a turbine and produce electricity. As shown, the complex steps to capture the energy are challenging, but all of them are necessary.  

ITER is an enormous machine with several parts that allow it to function. To keep the plasma in place ITER uses superconducting magnets, but the only way these magnets will function is if they are cooled to a temperature of -269℃. Two main questions can be asked here, why do the magnets need to be kept at such a low temperature, and how do ITER’s scientists achieve this? To answer the first question is simple. At regular temperatures the magnets are normal, meaning they are not superconducting. Why does the temperature affect the magnet? All magnets are made up of atoms. At normal temperatures, the atoms move between the poles at random, and align to produce magnetism. At a lower temperature, the atoms move less randomly and much slower. This creates a more controlled alignment of the atoms that produce magnetism, and therefore a stronger magnetic field. Now that it is understood why the magnets need to be kept cold, how does ITER do it? They simply keep them in a vacuum chamber called the cryostat. The cryostat is an enormous vacuum chamber that houses the magnets. Thirty meters wide and nearly as many in height, the chamber is enormous. It is perfectly designed, with everything from bellows for thermal contraction to auxiliary heating, and is one of the marvels of the scientific world.

Even though the magnets do a very good job of controlling the plasma, high energy neutrons still escape. Fortunately, ITER uses this to its advantage. ITER captures them by surrounding the walls of the tokamak with a blanket of lithium about one meter thick. This blanket is made up of about 440 smaller pieces, each heavier than a car. The high energy neutrons that escape the fusion reaction are caught there, and collected by a water coolant. Without this ITER would not get any energy, so this is an essential piece of the tokamak.

Now for the last main part of the ITER tokamak- the divertor. ITER says that the main use of this component, located at the bottom of the cryostat, is to “[extract] heat and ash produced by the fusion reaction, [minimize] plasma contamination, and [protect] the surrounding walls from thermal and neutronic loads.” Basically the divertor pulls the bad stuff out of the plasma, meaning the things that might lower the temperature, speed or density, and it also protects the walls from harm. These are the main parts of the tokamak, and together they make ITER.

DEMO is another monster of a machine. While ITER and the Z-machine have not yet been able to create a reliable energy source, DEMO is intended to bring us one step closer to nuclear fusion as a commercially viable source of energy. It plans to walk in the footsteps of ITER, and use ITER’s discoveries for a more reliable power source. DEMO will be the first commercial fusion power plant, and will use ITER’s technology to make a demonstration power plant that can supply the world with the energy it needs. DEMO will hopefully  produce 2-4 gigawatts of electricity, which is more than 7,000 times an average American uses per year. It will produce about 25 times the amount of energy put in, and have the shape of a tokamak.

Another kind of reactor is called the stellarator. These complex machines have a curving magnetic field, which allows all plasma particles to feel the same force. So far the biggest stellarator is Wendelstein 7-X, built in Germany and finished in the fall of 2015. Its curved magnetic field also allows for a stable flow in the plasma, which can then run for up to 30 minutes straight. New Scientist magazine says that when comparing the two reactors “ [You’re] balancing the physics advantages of the stellarator over the engineering advantages of the tokamak.” Stellarators have been called the “black horse” in the physics community because of the notoriously difficult process to build them. Stellarators and tokamaks are all very good when it comes down to the scientific reasons behind fusion, but the opinion of the public is a different matter.

Like every energy source, nuclear fusion has its advantages and disadvantages. As said before, the advantages of nuclear fusion are numerous. No greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, so no smoke or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It has virtually limitless fuel because deuterium can be found in every 6420 atoms of sea water, the reactor only needs a few, and tritium can be bred in the reactor by energizing the neutrons in lithium-6, which occurs naturally. Another advantage is that there is perfect safety. It is much easier to control than nuclear fission. Also it is very easy to stop. The last, and perhaps greatest advantage, is the amount of energy produced. With just 40 litres of seawater and 5 grams of lithium the same amount of energy can be produced as 40 tons of coal. On the other hand no one has yet actually produced energy with nuclear fusion and it is still a theoretical source of energy. There is also a matter of cost. The expensive machinery in a reactor costs billions of dollars, and research is also costly. Why spend all this money on an unproven energy source when the world could spend it on renewables like solar or wind instead? As shown, there are many controversial opinions, some based in fact and others not. However, if someone could achieve an energy source using nuclear fusion, the entire world would benefit.

How could nuclear fusion affect the world? The enormous idea and concept of nuclear fusion can change the world in ways both large and small. The price of energy would go down tremendously, and electricity and fuel would be commonplace. The ozone layer, damaged by fossil fuels, would stop deteriorating and the sea levels and fish inside them will once again be safe. More ambitious technological and scientific experiments will not only take place but they will succeed, and extensive space travel could be conducted. The growing population of the world will meet its energy demands, and developing countries can advance to a better place more quickly. The extensive amount of energy could be used to build more buildings and houses, transportation would produce no smoke, and electricity bills would drop tenfold. Our planet would be sufficient and clean, sustainable and plentiful, for a golden age of prosperity will have fallen over the world.

Nuclear fusion is one of the best sources of energy for the world. All on its own, nuclear fusion can save our planet from climate change, and help us live in a world where cheap and reliable energy is found everyday, everywhere. I personally believe that this energy source is the doorstep to a new world, a world so exquisite and perfect that we have only just begun to comprehend it.

The Raven in the Window

Outside the rain is pouring, each drop splattering as it hits the ground. Inside, an old man sits on a cushioned pew, his frail back bent forwards and his hands cupped to his face. Completely alone in the cavernous church, he is undisturbed. Rows of empty, dust-covered pews line the church behind him, in front of him stands only the altar. Besides slight creeks in the floorboards, the church remains silent, a place of tranquility in an ever-changing, fast-paced world. The old man stands and walks towards the side of the church. With each measured step, his weary legs bring him closer to a beautiful stained glass window. It is a picture of a woman standing in a field full of color, next to a tree. A streetlight outside casts rays of light through the panes of glass revealing the artistic wonders within the window. All of the colors instantly become brighter and the translucent picture is illuminated. Looking up at the tree branches, the old man is entranced by the vibrant hues. Filled to the brink with colorful birds, the branches are quite a sight to see. As he marvels in their elegance, the old man’s eyes flitter between each bird’s vivid set of feathers. Alone on another branch sits a raven, its jet black beak and wings stand out, anomalies among the rows of birds. The old man immediately recognizes this symbol of misfortune. It is a bad omen. Just then, the doors at the back of the church fly open. A man walks in looking disheveled, his collared shirt ripped and untucked, his pants bedraggled. Lifting a gun, the intruder points it at the old man’s head.

“You, you did this!” he shouts, pulling the trigger. The bullet pierces through the old man’s forehead, lodging in his skull. As his knees buckle, his legs give way, and his lifeless body falls to the floor. Outside, the rain continues to pour. Inside, the man’s blood spreads slowly across the floor.

Lucky

“Hey, what the hell, Connor!?”

“Alex, I didn’t mean to. It was an accident,” I plead hopelessly.

“Come on, Connor. Why did you pull the stupid home goalie!” he yells back.

“Alex, it’s just a game!” I respond, probably a bit too loud.

“Shut up, you two!” My dad yells from upstairs. Then we stop. After all, it was just a stupid X-Box game, and no one wanted to be yelled at by Dad, especially over NHL ‘14. I turn off the console and ask if Alex wants to throw a football.  

***

It is September 17th 2015, the day before my birthday. I am almost twelve, living with my eight-year-old brother and our parents. I like school, but I hate the work. I go to Yorktown Middle School, or YMS for short. Seventh grade at YMS is like being in hell. My social studies teacher is crazy and my Spanish teacher makes us sing songs with a bird called Pepito. So, there’s already a lot to overcome this year, but I feel I will need to overcome worse things.

Baseball season is ending, and skiing is beginning. December is around the corner, and in December a lot of things happen: Chanukah, skiing and vacation to Mexico! Holiday break is tomorrow, and during 8th period Ms. Filner (my social studies teacher) gives the class a homefun packet. Homefun is homework, except better (apparently). Personally, the name doesn’t make a difference –– I HATE IT!!! I hate homework in general, and it makes me feel sick inside knowing that I have to go home and actually continue school for another hour and a half… Even if it’s homefun.  

***

My first day skiing, ahh! Finally I am able to hit the slopes of Mt. Mohawk once again. I go up on the lift and start on a blue square. My brother and dad start on a green circle right next to it.  

“Now, you be careful,” my dad says. Then I’m off! I go racing down the slopes at 40 miles per hour when I see a ski shack getting closer and closer.

WHAM!!!  THUD!!! My skis go flying and I wipe out, unconscious of what is going to happen to me next.

***

“Connor, Connor, CONNOR!!!” someone whom I don’t know yells.

“Who are you? And who is Connor?” I ask.

“Stop playing games with us,” another mysterious person states.

“I’m not playing games, who are you!” I yell.

A third voice joins, a doctor this time, “Your name is Connor Allison, you are thirteen years old, you like to play baseball, and your parents tell me you have a ––”

“A thirst for knowledge! That’s the only thing I can remember about me.”

The voice that yelled “my name” earlier first says, “I am Bonnie, your mom, and the man standing right next to me is John, your dad.”

“I’m guessing this is my little brother right here,” I say, touching the boy’s head next to me.

“Yes, his name is Alex,” ‘my dad’ states.

“Doctor, what has happened to our boy?” ‘my mom’ asks.

The doctor says, “He has amnesia, but he can recover from it.”

***

We, as a family reunited (I memorized everyone’s name), walk out of the hospital. We are walking down 5th Street to get to our car when a boy that had walked by us dropped his books all over the pavement. I stood there for a second, analyzing the situation, and when I was sure I hadn’t known the boy before my accident I went to go help him pick up his books. After we had picked up all of his books he introduced himself.

“Hi, I am Aidan, what is your name?”

“My name is Connor, but I don’t remember anything.”

“Oh yeah, you’re the kid on the news with amnesia!”

I turn around then said, “Wait, Mom, it’s on the news?”

“Umm… yes, it is on the news,” she says.

“Why did you hide that from me?” I ask.

“We thought it would anger you, buddy. We’re sorry,” my dad interjects.

***

One hour later, when we get home, I walk in the house and see two tiny furry monsters at our doorstep.  

“AHHH!!!” I yell.

My dad comes in, “Connor, what is it?”

“These two furry monsters!” I cry.

My mom says that they are just kittens and won’t hurt anyone. So, I agree, feeling a little suspicious, as I walk out of the kitchen to my room… whichever one that is. It takes me three tries but I find it. I climb into bed, but don’t go to sleep; I think about what will happen to me, and how I will get all of my knowledge back. Then, once I figure out the answer, I go to sleep.  

***

“Connor, wake up!” My mom says.

I get up and look at all of the books strewn across my floor. My textbooks and my pleasure reading. I might have sleep read, if there is such thing. After eating breakfast, I get on the bus heading to school. At the high school stop, I get out of the bus. My bus driver, Nancy, asks where I was going and I say to school. She tells me this is the high school and I walk back on the bus.  

At the middle school stop, I get off of the bus and I see Aidan. I go over to him and say, “Hi.”  

“Hey, what’s up! How is your head?”

“Getting better,” I say, “How are things around here?”

“Okay… you know it is school, though.”

***

I have Spanish first period, and when I walk in, Seniora Peterson says,”Hola clase, tu tienes un examen hoy.”

I go up to her and say, “Seniora ––”

“Tu necesitas sentarme ahora. Tu tienes un examen.”

So I sit down and study the test. I have forgotten everything! This unit test is a total of 100 points! I am so screwed. It is all writing, so I cannot guess.

***

The same thing happened during eighth period. I forgot everything and got a perfect 0.0!!

Anyway, at the end of the day, when you walk to the buses you have to walk across the street. Aidan and I were walking together when, HONK HONK!!! WHAM! UGHH! CRRRUNCH!! AHHH!

Then silence.

***

I am dressed in all black for an occasion: the departure of my new friend Aidan. He pushed me out of the way of a car, and sacrificed his life for mine.  

On the bright side, my grades have improved and I have gotten my memory back. It turns out that you don’t need a lucky charm to have a good life.

 

  

 

A Sketch of a Morning Walk in Late Summer

It’s early, only 7:30, but my mother and sister are awake and talking quietly in the kitchen. I ask if I may go for a walk around the street. With permission, I tiptoe to the door. Why am I tiptoeing? Everyone at home is awake. My father is already at work, and my brother is away for the summer. So why am I tiptoeing? It feels like the right thing to do today, on this bright early morning.

I open the large white wooden door. It slowly creaks open. The screen door awaits. I reach to open it –– but, oh, then I remember, I forgot my sandals. I tip-toe to the shoe rack and strap on my sky-blue sandals. Now I’m really ready to go. It will not be a long walk, just around our street and the neighboring one.

I open the screen door and close it carefully, so it won’t slam and wake the neighbors. I don’t tiptoe anymore, as I start my little walk, but merely walk quietly, slowly, to best take in the beautiful surroundings and fresh air. It’s a little bit on the cold side, but it’s August, and in a month summer will be over and gone. I’m not ready for summer to end yet. I still want to go to the pool and learn how to do a dive off the diving board. I still want to experiment with our new ice cream machine and learn how to make mint chocolate ice cream that doesn’t taste like toothpaste. There’s still a lot to be done this summer, and I’m glad because of it. But I think that when summer ends, it will end peacefully, yielding to the bright red and gold autumn. I can never decide what color matches summer best. Blue, like the water in the pool? Light brown, like an ice cream cone? What should it be?

I reach the end of our street and turn onto the other street. I see the house that two years ago had been white. A year ago, a tree was blown onto that house’s roof, and the house was damaged. But now, the house looks great! It’s a medium blue. When our neighbors hired someone to repair it, they also decided to have the house expanded. Now that they have two children, they decided to add a few more rooms to the house. All the construction work is done. Their house is beautiful.

I have now reached the end of the street, a dead end, I turn around to go back to our street. All the way back, I daydream, unaware of my surroundings. Suddenly, I snap out of my daydream, and I can’t even remember what I was dreaming about. I realize that I’ve already reached my house. I hesitate before walking inside. I hear my sister, practicing the piano. I smell oatmeal with cinnamon cooking from the kitchen. I decide to go inside. It was a lovely walk, but now my day awaits me. I’m ready to jump into it, refreshed from my morning walk in late summer.

Theater

When most people think about theater, they think of a bunch of kids coming together and just performing a show, but when I think of it, it means so much more. I have practically grown up on stage, and performing is just a part of my life now. I was in my first show when I was five, so I have been in theater for seven years. Something about it just amazed me: how a group of totally different strangers could come together and in a span of  a few months could go on to perform something amazing.

My connection to performing has always been a special thing in my life. When you’re on stage, you transform. You’re not yourself in the theater anymore, you’re someone else, somewhere else. It is an escape. You forget about getting a 70% on that test. You forget about that kid making fun of you in the hallway. You forget about the argument you and your friend got into. Reality seems to halt, giving you a chance to be someone else and not worry about what is “actually” happening. I’m not the best at being confident when I first meet people. I’m usually pretty shy the first few times I talk to them, but when I get on that stage, none of that seems to matter.

Growing up with theater has taught me so many things: you don’t always get the parts you want, you are going to have to listen to authority if you want it to turn out right, six to eight hours of rehearsal really isn’t that much time, your friends are going to have to wait until hell week is over, and no matter how much you hate makeup, it’s makeup or being a ghost. No matter how big the cast is, you will always come together as a big family during the several hour dress rehearsals, tech rehearsals, and performances. You can be yourself when you’re there, and there’s always something to talk about, like that annoying kid at your school that no one else has met because none of them go to your school, but they all hate for you. You make so many friends of different ages doing so many different things like helping a little kid learn their lines, or an older kid helping you with your makeup. You always seem to find your group of friends. No one is quick to judge, and if you need help with your lines, there’s always someone to help you. Everyone helps each other, and there is no better feeling than a show going perfectly after hours and hours of rehearsals and non-stop work.

What goes on behind the curtain is one of the most important things in creating the magic and moving between settings. The stage crew doesn’t get enough credit for all of the things they do to help the production come to life. So many of the things that appear on stage are made possible by the stage crew’s endless work. So many people are involved in so many ways behind the scenes:  lighting crew, spotlights, sound crew, stage managers—and that’s just during a show. There are also set painters, costume designers, choreographers, directors, and so many more people who help put the show together.  

Though I’m almost always on stage, I also help behind the scenes. I’ll meet for several hours to paint the set, and usually my whole family will be there too. Many people don’t notice the backstage crew, and I guess they aren’t meant to be noticed, but they play a huge part in shows.  They change sets, manage props, and help with quick changes. Quick changes are basically what they sound like, but what they really mean is like ten second changes. Usually the characters with quick changes wear a leotard or something under their costume so they can make it easier. The stage crew or some cast member will wait in the wings with the costumes, and when the actor walks off, the crew helps her/him take off their costume and into their new costume before they usually walk back on.

There are some things that people who never do theater don’t understand, like the excitement and nerves of opening night. They don’t understand how many times you have to make up the words as you’ve gone along because you’ve forgotten them. The bond you all develop at the last few rehearsals. The anticipation during the director’s speech. Trying to stay quiet backstage, but ending up laughing at least once. Growing up in theater, you form a special kind of relationship with the people around you. You’re always joking around, singing Broadway show tunes, or talking about those times when you made a mistake on stage, like tripping over a chair, falling off a table, or making your friends laugh and break character. The crew and cast fooling around backstage during scenes. The frantic quick changes. Rushing to the other side of the stage after a scene for another entrance. Hurrying to put the finishing touches on your hair and makeup when they call “five minutes!” Learning the words and dances to songs you’re not in. Singing in your dressing room while changing costumes. Calling each other by your character name. And during the last show, you’re probably going to end up in tears at least once. At the last performance of one of the shows I was in, I had to carry makeup wipes in my pocket in case anybody had mascara dripping down their face.

If you grow up performing, you find comfort in being on stage or involved in productions. There are so many things that being a “theater kid” has taught me, like to never stop working and to do my best no matter what part I get, or to keep on pushing through, even if it feels like something will never end. So many people think theater kids are stuck-up and only care about how they look, their voice, and what parts they get, and that they stress over the tiniest details for their auditions, but those are the stereotypes. There are a few kids like that, but the majority of us are the opposite. We find comfort in being on stage, not stress. We don’t care what we look like when we show up to rehearsals, as long as we are wearing something we can dance in and have our hair out of our faces, and we don’t care what parts we get, as long as we’re part of the show. As much as we complain, we all love the stage, the costumes, the makeup, and everything about being a part of a show.

The Master of Water

 

They said he could make water fall from the sky. He, in fact, could control the entire water cycle, where he could make sure that water was where it was needed and use it to fight evil when he wanted to. I should know because I am him. My name is Andy something-or-whatever, and I am the master of water. I just haven’t mastered it… yet.

I live in the mountains all by myself in a nice, little cabin in the forest up top. I grow my own fruit every day and take them down to the desert to sell. I am a vegetarian, so I can’t use the money to buy meat. Instead, I use it to buy little trinkets and sheets. I also like sand. It feels so weird to touch. But I got a guy. His name is Kermit the frog, and he’s a frog. After I buy my stuff, I eat my fruit and go to bed. I also spend a few hours training my water skills, but no dice. This is gonna take more time. But really, what’s my purpose? All I do every day is sell fruit and buy trinkets. Then, the next day, I sell fruit and buy trinkets. Then, again, and again.

Okay, so let me tell you about the desert. It is the worst place you have ever seen. It’s hot, there’s no water, and there are lots of killings. You can’t walk fifteen feet without seeing a dead guy. Why does all this killing happen? I’ll give you one word: gangs. Each gang runs its own business. I sell my fruit to all the gangs and do my buying. But how do all the other gangs get what they want? Raids. They all hate each other, so they’re not just gonna give others what they need and let peace be among the desert. I don’t like to buy trinkets anymore because I really hate Jym, the leader of the gang who controls it. I heard she also took control of the weaponry business, so now, she can pretty much kill whoever she wants.

***

Kermit had been raided. That was the first thing I saw when I went to sell fruits today.

“What happened!?” I asked in shock.

“It’s Jym!” he replied. “She stole all my sand! And my money!”

“Oh, she sucks. This is why I don’t buy stuff from her anymore! Do you know she has control over the sword business?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. Ya know what? Someone should teach her a lesson!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Tonight, we should totally raid her. You’ll get your stuff back, and I’ll get a new sword. Or maybe, I’ll sell swords I steal from her.”

“So tonight, we steal-raid her and get our stuff back and then some.”

“But we’re only two people,” I replied.

“We’ll sneak in.”

It was set. That night we’d raid Jym.

***

“Oh, my god!” I said. “We’re gonna raid Jym! This is gonna be so fun!”

“Quiet,” said Kermit. “We don’t want her to know we’re here. If we get caught, it’s all over. And I’m selling you out.”

“Fair,” I said. We entered her gang town. Everything was pretty quiet. We saw a temple. “This is where she must be. Let’s go.”

“I don’t get it,” said Kermit. “I haven’t seen a single sword since we got in here.”

“They probably got them in the temple,” I said. We ran towards the temple. It was locked. “Gosh darn it, it’s locked!”

“A bone is very good lock pick,” said a voice.

“Oh hey, it’s Monk,” said Kermit. “He’s my master.”

“You have a master?” I asked.

“Yup,” said Kermit.

Monk opened the lock. “I just escaped,” he said. The temple was just one big room with a throne. It was vacant.

“No one’s here,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“No,” said Kermit. “We’re not leaving without my stuff! C’mon.”

Suddenly, the temple began to shake. The floor began to reel in towards the throne! Blackness was all we saw below. We all fell.

“GAAAAAAHHH!” we all yelled. We fell into a net. We heard laughing.

“HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!” It was Jym! “Trapped like rats!” The entire gang stepped out from behind the darkness! I saw something else. This gang had an overabundance of water. Water was something everyone desperately needed. They must have been hiding it!

“Show yourself!” Kermit demanded. She did. She had black hair and was only three feet tall! I heard she was 15. She was holding two swords.

“What should we do with them?” asked a man.

“We could all take turns stabbing them,” said Jym. I thought that was a horrible idea.

“We want answers!” said Kermit. “Where’s my sand!”

“You mean our sand!” said someone. “If we take something, it’s ours! We have done nothing illegal at all.”

“That’s what sucks about this place,” I said. “There is no law, or any organization of any kind! If there was, there wouldn’t be this much killing! And you wouldn’t be able to hide water from the other gangs!”

“That’s another reason to kill you!” said Jym. “You know our little secret.”

“If you kill us,” I said, “who’s gonna buy your little trinkets that I keep in my cabin.”

“Not my problem,” she replied. “Have at them!” I closed my eyes. They slowly came closer to us. Suddenly, I felt a raindrop. Then, another. All of a sudden, it started raining.

“No!” said Jym. “Not our clouds that we made. There are only a few of those every year! Get ‘em!”

“Stop right there!” said a voice. It was female. A little girl stepped out of the darkness.

“Koli!” she said. “Get her, too!”  

Koli took out a sword, which she used to cut us free. “Take these!” she said. She threw each of the three of us a sword.

“That’s nice and all,” I said, “but how do we get out of here!”

“I have a glider!” she said. “It can hold up to four people. Get on.” We all jumped on. She ran through the crowd and took off.

“Close the gate!” yelled Jym. The gate began to close. We went up.

“We gotta go faster!” said Kermit.

“Working on it!” said Koli. She increased her speed. The top was getting thinner. We had three, two, one, and it was closed.

We made it!

“Yes!” I said.

“We have to get back to Ama!” Koli said. “She’ll be thrilled to hear this!” We flew off.

Ama’s gang town was really nice. There was no temple, but everyone lived in huts. Ama’s hut was just the largest. There appeared to be a celebration of some sort. Koli flew down.

“We need to speak to Ama,” she told one of the guards. “This is important.” The guard opened the door.

“Come in,” said Ama. She appeared to be the gang leader. I think this gang specialized in tools. They were running low.

“This is shocking,” said Monk. “There is water in the temple of Jym’s gang. They have an underground base. Now they have control over all the weapons.”

“If they have the oasis, they’ll be unstoppable,” said Koli.

“What?” I asked.

“Water is the source most needed in this desert,” said Ama. “People would kill for it. Our forefathers were torn apart by it. That’s why there are gangs. Jym’s gang is evil. They won’t stop until they have control over all the gangs in the desert. And now they have all the weapons they want. If they have control over the oasis, they will be able to control all the gangs, even ours.”

“Why?” Kermit asked.

“Because this water is so desirable, all who seek it must serve the one who has it. That person must do anything he or she says for it. It’s actually the rule created by the water itself.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I said. “We can have peace. I am the master of water. I made it rain inside their temple.”

“You controlled the Jym cloud?” asked Koli.

“Yes,” I said. “At least I think I did.”

“Good,” said Ama. “We know the location of the oasis. Tonight, you will stay here, for tomorrow, we will journey to the oasis, and save this land. Another rule is that all voyages and long walks must start at dawn here.”

“Okay,” I said.

The three of us made sure we had a head start the next morning. We climbed the mountain. Wait. This was my mountain. I came down here every day.

“God, I just hope we’re going up this mountain early enough,” I said.

“Why is it we have a head start?” asked Kermit the frog.

“Because,” said his master. “I’m a monk. I sense something is fishy with them. Well, sort of. I just wanna keep an eye out. After all, they’re a gang too. They also have to fend for themselves.”

“But they want me on their side,” I said. “They want to bring peace to the world. There will be no more war, no more dead guys lying on the sand everywhere you look.”

“And that’s why I want to keep us ahead,” he replied. “To make sure that we do accomplish what you want.”

“Okay,” I said. “But let’s go. If they get to the oasis before we do, they’ll be all powerful.” We continued on. Soon, we would be at my cabin. We only had a few more miles to go. I just hoped to god they weren’t up ahead.

“How ya doing down there?” I yelled.

“Good!” Ama yelled.

***

My cabin in the forest. The summit wasn’t far.

“Hang on,” I said. “I have to get a few things from my cabin. I’ll be back soon. Just stay here.” I entered my cabin. I grabbed my pickaxe and rope. Then, a guy jumped out of the cabin and tried to strike me. Then, two other guys jumped out at me. I avoided them.

“Hey guys,” I said. “I gotta go.” I ran for the door.

“Oh no, you don’t,” one said. “Jym sent us to slow you down.”

“I know what you’re up to,” I said. “You plan to take control of the desert by getting to the oasis before we do.” I ran outside. “Guys! We gotta move! If we don’t get up top before them, we’ll be slaves! Well, I won’t. I don’t care for that stupid water!” I started climbing again.

“After them!” yelled a gang person.

“We have to go faster!” said Monk. “I have a plan. Climb sideways!” So we did. So did they. They climbed and climbed until they got to a ledge. They took a rest.

“Yes!” said Kermit. “See ya!” There was no way off.

“There’s no time to lose!” I said. “Keep climbing!”

We reached the top. The oasis was beautiful. “Yes!” I said. “We did it! Let’s wait. I’ll work on controlling the water.” I tried for five minutes. Come on, come on… nothing. “I can’t do it.”

“We only beat you by an hour and five minutes.” It was Jym.

“Were you waiting for five minutes to say that?” asked Kermit.

“Yes,” she replied. “I knew you were incapable of controlling the water. Push ‘em down.”

“Guys!” said Monk. “We need your help! Bring the giant bucket up, and we’ll fill it.”

“They won’t be able to help you!” said Jym. “We have weapons and trinkets. You have nothing. Prepare to die! Also, take care of them!”

“Protect the bucket,” said Koli. “We’ll take care of the rest. Attack!” Two gangs charged at each other. We took out our swords and buckets.

“Let’s fill this oasis,” I said.

“Get the buckets!” yelled Jym. Two guards grabbed our buckets and continued filling their main bucket. “Once this bucket is filled, it will provide infinite water.”

“No!” I yelled.

Ama and Koli arrived with the big bucket.

“Yes!”

They were charged at, but they were taking it pretty well. Jym had a duel with Ama.  

I think Jym said, “This is our water!”

“No,” Ama replied. “It is not. The thing is, that when I have the water, I will be all powerful and will rule the desert forever!”

“What?!” said Monk. “You’ve gotta be kidding me! Now, you want the water for yourself?! No. It’s what you’ve wanted all along!”

“Okay!” said Ama. “Yes! I want it!”

“But why?” asked the monk. All the fighting came to a stop.

“I don’t feel like explaining anything to you!” said Jym. “We are taking this water, and all who crave it shall fall under my control!”

“I can’t believe this!” I said. “This is too much. I’m sick of this! I am done trying to restore peace to this desert!”

“That’s why we can’t share the water!” said Ama. “We hate each other! We hate all the other gangs in this desert! Even if it were possible to restore peace, why the hell would we want to?”

“Because our forefathers were torn apart by it!” yelled Monk. “Water is all something we will have in common! We won’t be hiding it at the bottom of underground cellars and what not!”

“Are we gonna listen to this?!” asked Jym. “Because I’m done!” The bucket was full.

“Give me that bucket!” yelled Ama. “I want to be all powerful!” They both took hold of it.

I had had enough!

“Enough!!!” I yelled. I was able to pull the water up from the bucket. “Since neither of you gangs are worthy of it, none of you should have it!”

“Yes!” said Kermit. “Destroy the water! I mean, throw it away!” Jym’s guards rammed into me. I dropped the water.

“No!” said Monk. Jym took the bucket.

“Now, let’s get out of here!” she said. They vanished without a trace.

“No, no, no!” yelled Ama. “Now look what you’ve done!”

“You’re right,” I said. “I was going to throw the water away, but then Jym’s idiot guards fricking rammed into me!”

“Cut him some slack!” yelled Monk. “My gut told me you weren’t being honest! I should’ve trusted my gut!”

“Oh, go die in a hole!” yelled Ama. “We shouldn’t have peace! It will only get us into boring lives where everyone is equal and treated equally!”

“That would be perfect!” I cut in.

“You three understand something!” she yelled. “Peace will never be able to happen! And now, Jym and her gang will control the entire desert!”

“No, they won’t,” I said with determination. “I have a plan, but you have to trust me! Okay?! Look. I’m probably the last person you want to listen to, but this could work!”

“Okay,” she said. “I want power, but if peace means stopping Jym, then not having it is okay.”

“We’re gonna make it rain, and expose her water.”

“We can fill the grand well,” said Kermit.

“I’m in,” said Koli. “Let’s do it!”

“Okay.” Monk asked, “How are we gonna pull this off?”

“If they don’t need the oasis water, they won’t have to be under the control of Jym and her gang. What we have to do is expose the water she has and dump it into the grand well. Then, we have to take the oasis water and dump it into the grand well.”

I could see Jym’s village. They were assembling everyone into the center of their town. It was now or never.

“Get on!” I said. We jumped on the glider and headed for her temple. Kermit shot a bunch of arrows. “Why’d ya do that?”

“I sent all villages a message. We would reveal a big secret at Jym’s village. We have to get there before she completes the ceremony and assembles everyone in the village. She will show one jug of water, and it’s all over.” Ama’s gang was in their village, preparing for war. They were making weapons.

An arrow was shot at our glider. It hit us.

“We’re gonna crash!” said Monk.

“We have three parachutes!” said Kermit. We all put them on and jumped. The glider crashed. We opened them and floated down to Percy’s village. (They make really good wheels. You should try ‘em.)

We got on a carriage. “To Jym’s village, and step on it!” I yelled.

“My senses tell me Ama’s gang is already there,” said Monk. We took off.

“Take us through the back,” said Kermit. Monk knew of this entrance to the temple. We went in. I looked up. The Jym cloud was above us. I made it rain a bit. Then, I heard cheering.

“Yes!” Jym yelled. “Now I have control over all the gangs in this desert.” We were too late. “Now, destroy all the other water,”  she said to a guard. “We have no use for it.” The temple pit opened. We fell in, but this time landed on our feet. No net there.

“Grab all the water possible and find a way out,” said Monk. Jym jumped down.

“Not so fast,” she said. “You’re too late. I am now all powerful!”

We grabbed all the water we could and made a run for it. Guards came after us. They destroyed all the other water kegs in sight. I dropped one. No! Jym threw an axe at me. I dropped all the water I had while trying to avoid the axe.  So did everyone else on my side. We needed a new plan. There was light.We ran up a slanted hallway to the outside world. We were exposed. We saw Ama’s gang fighting everyone. They could not do it alone.

“Get them!” said Jym. We ran and fought. Then, we scattered.

I ran through the streets with a mob of people chasing after me. I was then cornered in an alley. I tried to climb, but I couldn’t. Suddenly, I was shot up. A streak of water was coming out of both my hands. I went to the top of the building. I needed the giant bucket. I could now control small streaks of water freely, but not too much. Jym was with the bucket. I used water to fly to her, but I was struck down by a guy on a glider. Ama went up to the water bucket on the temple to fight Jym. They started dueling. Now was my chance. I shot up there and grabbed the bucket. I was wide open, however, and everyone started charging at me. I shot water at a few of them, but all it did was slow them down. I tried to lift the bucket with my powers but it was too strong. Kermit and Monk helped me carry it and we hopped buildings. I could use my power to keep us in the air, but that’s it.

“What’s your plan?” asked Kermit.

“I need to get the keg to the well, fast.” I replied. There was a way down. We needed Ama’s army to protect us or we weren’t gonna get very far. Jym still had power over the water and there for over everyone else (besides us). Ama’s army agreed to hold them back so we could get out of town. Ama and Koli followed us. We turned all the corners and were almost to the exit when suddenly it was blocked.

“Did you really think that we would just let you leave?” asked Jym. “I was working on something big. It’s called a flying vehicle.” It was so impressive, when I saw it. It was made of wood, it had a real propellor, and it was powered by people peddling in a cockpit. “Get in! All of you!” We took off. “Well, you’ve officially lost. I loaded the keg in the trunk, so you won’t have the chance to join me. You will die. Throw them out, when we get to high enough altitude.”

“Don’t do this,” said Ama. “A few hours ago, I was just like you, but now I have opened my eyes thanks to these three fine, young gentlemen. I have to thank you three for this, even though we won’t get what we want, I owe you a lot. Thank you.”

“Okay,” said Jym. “Let’s cut the small talk. Out ya go.” The door opened.

“Enough,” I said. The plane then tilted sideways. “You fell for it.”

“What?” asked one of Jym’s guards. “

“This,” said Monk. The oasis water broke through the trunk and fell out…

Right into the grand well.

“Yes!” I said. “Bullseye! The water doesn’t belong to you anymore. Any oasis water that is in the well is to be shared by all. It’s one of the rules of the oasis.”

“Right on target,” said Koli.

“No! No! No!” said Jym. “This isn’t over! I can still control the well and veto that law! It’s the law! Get out, all five of you!” She held a sword to my face.

“Okay,” I said. I grabbed the five of us, and we jumped. It was like skydiving, but without the parachute. We fell right into the well! That’s not everything. It rained across the entire desert. The water lifted us out. We went back to Jym’s town. Everyone was cured.

“How did you do it?” asked someone.

“Easy,” I said. “I controlled the water and took us to the well, so I could dump it there. I actually gave away my powers to form clouds and make it rain way more frequently. Soon there will be rivers, and lakes, and streams. Now Jym can’t control the well!”

Jym came down. “I’m really sorry.” she told Ama. “We should be friends and share everything instead of being forced to raid others.”

“You’re right,” she replied. “Let’s celebrate our bringing peace to the desert and our acceptance for each other!”

Everyone cheered. Yay!

I decided I would move to the desert and sell fruits there more easily. After all, it’s the best place you’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, there’s lots of water, and there’s no killing. Why? I’ll give you one word: No gangs. So it’s two, but you get it. I’ll stop copying what I said earlier and say this is a world I can live in.

The Phoenix’s Death

I, Leera Fenikk, was a simple girl with a simple life, and honestly, I wished for nothing else. But much to my dismay, everything flipped upside down when Illu dropped into my life. Literally.

“AAAAAAUUUUGGGH!!!”

I heard a loud scream and turned around. “What on Earth…” A strangely-clothed boy had fallen into a pile of hay behind me. “…Happened?” I finished lamely.

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Why are you here?” we both asked in rapid-fire fashion.

“Fine, fine, I’ll go first,” I said. “My name’s Leera, and I live here, on a normal farm in normal Montana. And I also have normal clothes. So, who are you?”

The boy grumbled something and slowly stood up. “The name’s, uh, Skull, um, SkullCrusher!” he said excitedly.

I rolled my eyes. That was obviously a fake name. “So now, what clothes are you wearing?”

He looked over his apparel: a long black robe, a grey fedora, and some odd looking shoes. “There’s nothing wrong with me! What’s wrong with you?”

I had no words for him. “Well, explain that,” I said, pointing to the object in his hand, a huge tree branch with an unnatural curve. In his other hand, he was clutching a small mirror.

“Okay. So, this is my staff. Um, a little strange looking, to you at least, but that’s kinda understandable, considering that nothing is going right today. Where are you even from? A different world?”

I shrugged. I had no clue. “This is Montana. You know. America? And what’s this junk about another world?”

“And this is my divination mirror. Want me to read your future?” he asked, completely ignoring me.

I just gave him a nasty look (after I considered sighing, facepalming, and punching him in the face). “Thanks for trying to scam me out of my living. But no one, and I repeat no one, will ever get my money. I need it to help someone close to me.”

“Oh, do you want me to read their future? I bet I could show you a good outlook, or junk. Wanna bet?”

“No. Now leave. And get some actual clothes.” This was the most dignified answer I could come up with in a short time.

“I can’t go back. I have to wait for the spell to recharge.”

I laughed. “You kidding me? This is nuts. Magic doesn’t exist here! Magic is just from fairy tales and movies and the crud Disney shows us. Leave,” I demanded, still incredibly confused.

He shook his head. “Not now. I’ve told you that I can’t. So, I might as well show you your future or something. For free. Here, sit down,” he said, gesturing to a nearby log.

“I have work to do, alright? So no, I can’t sit down and listen to your ramblings about odd magic and going insane.”

But this SkullCrusher dude was already sitting down, staring intently at his cloudy mirror. Wait… cloudy? “Your mirror wasn’t cloudy five seconds ago! Get out!” I demanded.

I lived on a farm, and at this point in time, it wasn’t even open. This guy was nuts — clearly we needed to up our security measures.

He started mumbling a long string of chants that didn’t sound like English, or any known language. “What language are you—”

A huge flash blinded me for a second, and when I looked at SkullCrusher again, I was astounded to see his eyes had turned green. Hadn’t they been blue just a second ago? And why was his mirror’s face glowing?

“What’re you doing? Why are you still here? And for Pete’s sake, please dim the light from your mirror!”

“Your future is a dark one, and so is that of your loved one. You might not live to see the end of this year. You will get fatal wounds, fight monsters, almost die, and see some fantastic sights, while also meeting some pretty strange people.”

His voice sounded like a deep imitation of another voice. “Morgan Freeman?” I asked, but SkullCrusher started talking again.

“You must be careful, because sometimes people harm more than they can help…”

SkullCrusher’s eyes turned blue again. “So, how was that? For free, too! A bit cryptic, maybe, but surely you can’t get that close to the future and your destiny. Now, how was it? Dire, beautiful, maybe even filled with romance?” he joked.

I just shook my head in disbelief, trying to dismiss him. “No way. This stuff doesn’t even exist. Why are you here? Maybe this is just a really, really, really realistic dream!” I punched my left arm. “Okay, no, this is definitely real,” I murmured, rubbing my now sore arm.

“And now that I’ve told you your future, I can give you my name.”

Finally. I wouldn’t have to call him by that stupid fake name anymore.

He started fumbling around with something in his robe, and finally pulled out a dirty-looking business card. “Illu, wizard in training.”

I woke up a couple hours later. Oy. My head hurts. Everything’s been going haywire.

“I’m assuming I passed out,” I mumbled, shakily trying to get up.

“Hey, pal,” Illu said, ruining my “I’m sane” fantasy.

“This is not happening to me. This is not happening to me…” These crazy things weren’t actually happening. “Oh, you again. Why are you still here?” I asked groggily, still trying to figure out why this was my life and not some other poor unfortunate soul’s.

“Well, my master said that the spell to get back takes only five years to recharge! Is that a long time?”

It was my turn to facepalm and finally know something.

“Nah, five years is only…” I attempted to do the math in my head. “One thousand eight hundred and twenty-five days,” I announced proudly. Yes! I could math!

“Oh… that’s a lot longer than I initially thought. Well, Master is always good with these kinds of things. She can fix this.”

I shook my head, laughing internally about how clueless this Illu guy really was. “I’m pretty sure she ditched you.”

“Did not! She would never do that to me!”

“How can you justify that? Have you ever done something stupid to make her not like you?

“She’s my sister!”

Oh. That changed everything.

My brother died when I was little. He went to war in some country to help fight, and he died when an enemy soldier shot him. I didn’t really know what was going on then, but I cried when I knew he wasn’t coming back.

Now, all I had left was my sickly little sister.

She had some weird disease that almost no one had heard of before. Once, we found someone who actually knew someone who got the disease. He even gave it a name: Phoenix’s Death.

But the end was horrible.

The diseased person had died and their body had turned to ash instantly, almost like a phoenix. But this phoenix would never be reborn. Rather, they died too soon, in agony. It sounded otherworldly and extremely obscure, like something out of the fairy tale Illu probably jumped out of.

There were five stages:

First, the victim got these weird spots on their skin, like bug bites. No actual bugs caused these bites, but that was the closest thing we could compare them to.

Second, the person fell into an extreme depression and lost all will to live. They would be almost impossible to sway back to living.

Third, they hallucinated. Their words never made any sense, and were usually garbled by their dream-like nightmares.

Fourth, they felt extreme agony and yelled at random points in time.

Finally, the Burning, as the relative of the man with the disease had so ominously called it. The diseased person felt as if their body was on fire for twenty-four hours until they died of dehydration, no matter what was done to help give them fluids. And right now, my sister was on stage three, morphing into stage four. She was going to die in ashes like the phoenix this disease was so aptly named after.

Yeah, I used “sickly” a little loosely.

“Tell me how to fix this!” I demanded.

Illu snapped in my face, and I was finally out of my stupor. “What? Fix what?” he asked, annoyed.

I sighed. “My sister.”

After explaining the disease to Illu, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you could do. Have you tried putting her directly into water?”

Well, that was stupid of my family not to figure out. That seemed pretty obvious, like something we’d try as soon as we realized it was called the Phoenix’s Death and included a stage known as the Burning.

“ThanksalotIllugottagotellmyparents,” I was able to say, quickly, before dashing out of the room, turning wildly into a hallway and running into my parents’ room.

“MOM! DAD! I KNOW HOW TO SAVE ZURUKA!” I shrieked. My dad instantly sat up, and my mom yelled from the bathroom, “YOU’RE NOT KIDDING, ARE YOU?”

After explaining the plan, I gently scooped up Zuruka’s limp form. “You’ll be okay, little sis. You’ll be okay,” I murmured, more to myself than to my sister.

She didn’t open her eyes or anything, not even when we dropped her body into the nearby lake and pulled her back up, but something crazy happened.

My sister’s blonde hair turned cerulean blue, and her closed eyes opened to show that her brown irises were now ice blue. Even her naturally tanned skin turned extremely pale, pale enough to rival a vampire’s.

“WHAT DID THAT DARNED WIZARD DO?” I yelled in fear.

Her entire body emitted a blue light, and when the light was gone, her clothes changed into navy blue jeans, a royal blue hoodie, and cobalt blue sneakers with white laces and golden phoenix insignias on the backs.

“YOU’RE DEAD, ILLU! WHAT EVEN HAPPENED HERE?” I screeched, infuriated.

To be Continued…

My Movie is as Red as the Devil

Movies. They were my life. My life was based on movies; it was how I made a living. In fact, I was quite famous. Why? Movies, obviously.

“And the nominees for the best comedy are…” The announcer said. Then my mind clicked. I squirmed in the plush red velvet seat. This was what I’d been waiting for all night.

“Anabel! It’s almost time!” I whispered.

“The LOL movie!” Applause. Wow. What an original name. All I can infer is that it’s really funny. But really, how funny is it?

“Adultified Sesame Street!” Applause. Ew. How can you make Sesame Street for adults?

“The People Movie!” Applause. Well, you can tell so much about the movie from this name. All movies are about people.

“My Life is as Red as a Devil!” Applause. That’s my movie! Yay!

“The Zinczinczinc movie!” applause. Zinczinczinc? What type of name is that? What is this about? I wouldn’t want to watch this. I guess it’s fun to say.

“These all sound like really good movies. It’s going to be really hard to choose,” Anabel told me. I sighed.

“Even The People Movie?” I asked.

“Lilly, give each movie a chance!” Anabel reasoned, “Have you seen any of these movies besides your own?”

“No…” I trailed off.

“Lilly…” Anabel sighed.

“Ooh! They’re announcing it!” I whispered.

“And the Oscar award for the best comedy goes to…” the announcer went on, “My Life is as Red as a Devil!!!”

I gasped. Anabel and I silently screamed. That’s me! I just won the award! Well, that was unexpected. I went up to go say my speech.

“Slay the speech, Lilly!” Anabel told me, and gave a thumbs up.

Why am I so nervous? I am seen all the time online as a movie director, so why should I be nervous? Maybe it’s because I’m so young. I’m 20 at the moment, so I’m probably the youngest director here. This is also my first time here.

Lilly Bucuar, you are not a scaredy cat. You can do this.

I stepped up onstage. I cleared my throat.

“Hi,” I said into the microphone, “It’s a wonderful honor just to be here today. Thank you all who supported me. First, mom and dad –– you have inspired me so much, and told me never to give up on my dreams. To my friend, Anabel –– you always supported my work. And finally to the whole cast of my Life is as Red as a Devil- you al—”

I started coughing. Choking. Where was the water? I kept coughing.

“Water please,” I managed to croak out between coughs. Didn’t they have common sense? When someone is choking, you get them water! You don’t just leave them there to choke and get sent to the hospital because they’ve been coughing for so long!

“Oh! Sure! Ms. Bucuar!” One of the people on stage said.

While they were getting me water, apparently I fainted. AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH! Help! Now I’ll be known as weak and afraid. Well, I’m not! The crowd gasped. I have no idea what happened in the five minutes I was out.

Suddenly, a splash of cold water hit my face.

“Oh!” I said, surprised, “It’s cold!” Maybe I said it a little too loudly. The crowd snorted, trying not to laugh. Well, it is the Oscar for the best comedy, but I’M NOT COMIC RELIEF!! I’m a movie director. Or I was last time I checked, which happened to be ten minutes ago.

I stood up. My dress was soaked, and sticking to me. The crowd burst out laughing. My face got red. Tomato red.

I ran offstage to cry in a corner. No more movie directing for me until I can speak in public. Even if I get nominated for an Oscar again, my face will hopefully not be as red as the devil onstage the second time around.

Day by Day

I put my suitcase on the bed and look around the room. I peer behind the curtains to make sure that there are no hot pink hearses in the parking lot. When I do, I find multiple hot pink hearses, which means I am being followed. I don’t know by whom or why, but I know that my life’s in danger.  

***

It all started when my girlfriend Taylor was murdered. The night she was murdered, we were partying and drinking. She had taken me back to her place on 21 Wall Street, which was close to mine. One nightcap led to another, and before we knew it, we were both very drunk, and we passed out on the floor for a little while.

I heard her get up. “Where are you going?” I asked.

“Urghh. Have to get into bed,” she said.  

I must have opened the window to let in some fresh air, because the next thing I knew, I had been pushed out the window onto the street.

“Taylor!” I whimpered groggily. I heard no response. I wasn’t quite sure where I was at that moment because I was too drunk to even stand up, but I was worried about Taylor.  

I looked up and found a man standing in the window staring at me.  He was wearing all black so I couldn’t see his face all too well. I blinked, and he was gone. I used all of the strength I had left to stand up and figure out how to get back into Taylor’s.

The door was surprisingly unlocked, and there was no sight of Taylor or the man in the window.

“Taylor! Taylor, where are you?” I found some mud on the stairs leading up to Taylor’s bedroom, which was not there when we first walked in the door.  I didn’t know what to do, but at least I wasn’t as drunk as I was 30 minutes ago. I walked up the stairs and went to bed, not knowing where Taylor or the man at the window was.

When I woke up, I was in the kitchen, dazed and confused. The fridge was open and there was a glass of water right next to it. I started to think how I got down there, but I still had no recollection of going to the kitchen.  

When I went back upstairs to Taylor’s bedroom, I put on all of my clothes, ready to leave, not knowing what time it was or what had happened last night. For some reason, I didn’t just leave. I turned on her bed side light, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After I turned the light off and on about three or four times, I just couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. What the hell happened in this house?

Taylor was covered in stab marks, and blood was everywhere. I mean everywhere.

And now I am here in a cheap motel on the outskirts of Miami, and a fleet of pink hearses are following me. How has my life come to this? The world had been at our fingertips. I was a young lion on Wall Street, and so was Taylor.

I sit on the bed, trying to fight back the tears. I was a coward — I had just driven to the airport and hopped on the first available flight to Miami. A normal person would have called the police. An innocent person wouldn’t have run. I am innocent, aren’t I? I couldn’t have killed Taylor.

The crowd we run with on Wall Street works hard and parties hard. You had to keep up, but I had started blacking out on occasion, whole periods of evenings wiped from my memory. I didn’t know what I was capable of. And so, I ran.

I grabbed my keys and left Taylor’s house as fast as I could because I didn’t want to be a part of something I may or may not have done. Just before I left her house, I looked for any possible murder weapons around the bed and in the kitchen, but couldn’t find anything. I got in my BMW and drove back to my apartment, where everything was quiet and peaceful.  

But I couldn’t rest. I grabbed my suitcase and started dumping my clothes in it. My phone beeped, letting me know I had a voice message. It was from Taylor.

“I just want you to know, the answer is yes!”

Yes to what? Yes to coming to my parents for Thanksgiving? Yes to a movie on Saturday night? Or had I proposed? It was all too little, too late. I shook off all of my feelings, closed my suitcase, and left my apartment.

It wasn’t until I got to Miami that I suspected I was being followed, and not just by the police. Pink hearses…

***

I can’t run anymore right now. I lie back on the crappy motel bed and turn on the TV, flipping around stations until I see a picture of Taylor.

Taylor had very blonde hair even though she dyed it, and she was very thin, about 150 pounds and stood 5’9” tall. She was wearing her favorite white dress when she got killed — just like the picture.  I turn up the volume.

“Funeral home heiress and financier, Taylor McCormack, was found murdered yesterday in her home on Wall Street. She was last seen at a bar with her boyfriend, John Flynn. People at the bar said that they witnessed a beautiful proposal, but that they hadn’t heard her say the magic word, “yes,” although she was indeed wearing an engagement ring when she was found. No witnesses were on the scene on 21 Wall Street, but the police have been searching for John.”

Then, a big picture of yours truly appears on the screen. It wasn’t my favorite black suit with my red tie, but I still looked dashing in it. I look dashing in every suit, with my brown hair and brown eyes. I do have some gray hairs coming in, so I use “Just for Men,” which gets rid of the grays, but not permanently.

“We’re at the home of her father, Mr. McCormack, owner of thirty funeral homes in the tri-state area. Mr. McCormack would like to make a statement.”

The large, round face of Taylor’s dad appears on the screen. “John,” he said. “If you are watching this, please come home. We know that you didn’t do it. And for anybody else with any information on John’s whereabouts or anything at all regarding my sweet Taylor’s murder, I am offering a 250,000 dollar reward.”

I start to think about the pink hearses out my window and Taylor’s father. I then wonder why they are pink instead of black, like a normal hearse should look like. Maybe I am not being followed by Taylor’s father, but by someone else. I then hear a knock on the door and nearly shit myself, I’m so scared.

“Who is it?” I say quietly.

All I hear is, “Open up.”

I don’t know what to do. I have no weapons, no hiding spot, and no escape route.

The knocking grows louder. “Coming!” I say in a high pitched voice, trying to sound more feminine, trying to throw whoever is on the other side of that door off.

I close my eyes and focus on the breathing techniques I had learned back in college when I maintained my black belt in mixed martial arts. Since I’ve been on Wall Street, I’ve been practicing less and am a little rusty, but I’m hoping that I can find my fighting skills again if I need to.

The knocking is relentless, so what do I do? Mr. MMA Fighter cowers in the bathroom. This is the end, goodbye world…

But I finally walk over to the door and pull it open, as if it’s a bandaid I need to pull off really quickly. There, I find three armed men and one woman smoking right in front of them. They all have the yin and yang symbol on their leather jackets, so I think they must be part of some gang or something like that.

“Who are you?” I ask.

The woman smoking takes a long look at me, and I squirm. “I am Li Na which means “elegant,” and this is Liu Wei which means “great,” Wang Lei which means “rock pile,” and Li Jun which means “army.” We are part of the Chinese mafia. We need you to help us.”

“With what?”

Li Na blew a smoke ring in my face. “You’ll find out if you come with me.”

What the hell do I do? I can’t take all of them down, especially Wang Lei because he is the muscle of the group.  

Just man up and take them down. You took four years of MMA, you know how to fight.

I start for every single one of them by sending flying kicks and punches to the kidneys, while being punched and kicked harder from all of them. I take Li Na’s cigarette and use it as a weapon by putting it on the men’s skin and hear the sizzle of their skin being burnt.

When did I become so good at fighting so many people at the same time? After having all of the men on the floor in pain, Li Na isn’t in sight, which is worrying. The next thing I know, I’m in what must be a hearse, handcuffed to a seat with everyone squished in. They have put a sack over my head so that I can’t tell anyone where we are going, or who any of them are.

I ask Li Na, “What the fuck am I doing handcuffed to a seat?”

“If I were you,” Li Na snarls. “I would shut your fat American mouth before the boss comes.”

I almost roll my eyes. This can’t be serious — it’s almost as if I am in some cheesy gangster movie. Okay, I better shut up, so I don’t die. But now I can’t stop thinking about Taylor — she’s gone, she’s really gone. Then, my thoughts turn to her father.

***

I had met Taylor’s father about five times, and each of those times, he had always said to Taylor, “Why him? Why him? You could have picked any other guy, and you picked him. Why?”

Taylor always said, “Dad, stay of my life. I just brought John here so that you would get to know him, and maybe even like him.”

Every time Taylor and I left and went home to talk about what happened, she’d always say angrily, “Don’t worry about my father.” And I would completely ignore her and go to bed.

Back at the Chinese mafia HQ, I’m tied to a chair with the bag still over my head. I hear loud footsteps coming directly at me.  At this moment, I don’t know if I’m going to die or if “the boss” is coming to talk to me.

The bag is ripped off of my head, and I see a very fat man, most likely the boss, in front of me.

“Do you know who I am?” the fat man says.

“No, and what the fuck do you want with me?” I reply harshly.

“I am Greg McCormack.”

How is this happening? How did Taylor’s father find me? How is he involved with the Chinese mafia? These are all reasonable questions that would probably never be answered.

I then say in the calmest voice possible, “Mr. McCormack, I am truly sorry for your loss. I know Taylor meant the world to you, and she did to me as well. That’s why I couldn’t have killed her. Please don’t kill me! I still have a life to live for.”

“John, I know that you didn’t kill Taylor,” Mr. McCormack says and pauses dramatically, “even though your fingerprints were everywhere at the crime scene. You were gonna be my son-in-law, but I knew that you would run away because you were always afraid of me. So I sent all of my hot pink hearses after you in every possible state that you could have gone to.”

I want say something, but then, Greg stops me before I can even get a word out of my mouth.

“All I need you for is to help me find Taylor’s killer.” I breathe a sigh of relief, but then a feeling of dread follows. How am I supposed to know who killed her? I watch McCormack as he opens a tool box and pulls out a hammer. What’s that for?

“And I also need to interrogate you, or I beat you until you die.  Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” I say in the most secure voice I can.

“Ok, let’s start. Where were you the night Taylor died?”

“Taylor and I met downtown at a restaurant.”

“What was it called?” McCormack asks.

“I can’t remember right now because Taylor picked the restaurant.”

“Where did you and Taylor go after dinner?”

“To her house,” I said.

“What did you do at her house?”

“We drank a lot, watched TV, drank more, and then, we were both passed out on the floor. About 20 minutes later, we woke up, and she went up to her room, and I was looking out the window to get some fresh air.”

“What happened next?”

“I’m getting there!” I yell. “Okay, so I was looking out the window for a couple of minutes, still drunk, when I was suddenly shoved out the window. I landed on the ground really hard. When I looked up, all I saw was a dark male figure looking at me, and when I blinked, he was gone.”

“John, what happened to Taylor?”

“So, I was looking around the street for ten minutes trying to find where I was. I then realized I was still at Taylor’s place, and the door was unlocked, so I walked in and looked for her. I went upstairs and went to bed. After that, I woke up in the kitchen, and I didn’t have any idea how or why I was in the kitchen. I then went upstairs to check on Taylor, and she was covered in stab wounds, and I ran as far away as I could. And that’s my story, Mr. McCormack. Please, don’t beat me to death.”

“Okay John,” he says. Thank you for sharing your story. I won’t kill you or hurt you. Now, I need your help to find Taylor’s killer. Are you with me?”

I have no choice, but to say yes because if I say no, I’ll be hammered to death. So I say, ‘’Yes!”

“John.”

“Yes.”

“I need to ask you a few personal questions about Taylor and what you know about her. Okay?”

“Yup, that’s okay,” I reply.

Now McCormack is pacing the room in front of me. It makes me even more nervous. My wrists still really hurt from the handcuffs, but I don’t dare to ask to have them taken off.

“Do you know what Taylor did for a living?”

“Yeah, she was a financial advisor, just like me.”

“Okay. Did she ever mention side jobs?”

I frown. “No, she was just as busy as me. There was no way she had any time for another job.”

“Did she ever mention anything about a younger brother?”

“No,” I said, frowning deeper. They must not have been close. “But why? Is he important?”

“Listen John, Taylor was next in line to take over all of my funeral homes. Her younger brother, Greg McCormack Jr., wanted the business so bad. He always begged me and begged me to be in front of Taylor. He said that it wasn’t fair, that Taylor was always my favorite and that she got everything. Blah, blah, blah. Kids,” he chuckles. “They never stop being kids, do they?”

“Taylor never told me. Wait, do you think your own son could have killed his sister?” I ask. What kind of family had I gotten myself involved with?

“That’s why I need you to talk to him and interrogate him, just like I did to you.”

I don’t like this idea at all. I just want to move somewhere very, very far away and drink myself into oblivion.

“Hold on,” I start to protest. “You never said anything about finding someone and interrogating someone; all you said was to help you find Taylor’s killer.”

“John, this is helping me find Taylor’s killer. He’s a possible suspect. He needs to be thrown off guard. You can’t be a nice guy here. You are the grieving boyfriend. Don’t you care about Taylor? I need your help, or you die.”

Just as he says “or you die,” I hear a gun being cocked back, and I nearly shit myself.

“Oookaaay,” I say. “I’ll help you, but only if you promise never to hurt me or kill me. Deal?”

“Deal,” says McCormack.

“And get these goddamned handcuffs off me.”

We fly back to New York on a hot pink jet. I ask McCormack, “Why all the hot pink?”

He chuckles again. This guy either chuckles or uses a hammer in stressful situations. I am glad I have him chuckling.

“Hot pink is a manly color.”

“Okay then,” I reply and stare out of the window.

The flight is about two and half hours, so I decide to sleep the whole way in order to rejuvenate myself to find Taylor’s younger brother, the possible killer.

“It’s time to wake up, Sleeping Beauty, we have a long day ahead of us,” I hear Greg say.

I scream at him, “I’m getting up.” I get really cranky if I don’t wake up naturally.

“Pipe down, Princess.” Greg glares at me.

When we get off the private jet, it’s about seven o’clock — three days after the murder.  I am still dreaming about holding Taylor’s hand and being with her all the time, like we did when she was still alive. Oh how I miss Taylor. She was so beautiful.

A hot pink limo is waiting for us, which is probably the nicest limo I’ve ever been in, even though it is hot pink.  

Greg is talking to all of his mafia friends in Chinese so I can’t understand what he’s saying, which really bothers me because he could be talking about me the entire time, and I would have no clue what he is saying.

Then, a thought occurs to me. “What about the police? What are they doing about this investigation? Aren’t they coming after me?”

“Yes John, but I told them I would handle everything since there was no evidence that you killed her,” McCormack tells me in a reassuring voice.

“Oh well, that clears everything up about the police then.” The cops must be really dirty.

We’re at Greg McCormack Jr.’s house, which is pretty big, I have to say, for him being the only person who lives there. It’s in a really nice neighborhood; I think it’s the Upper East Side or something like that, but there’s definitely a lot of nice houses and apartments.

“What’s your son’s job?” I ask.

“He works in real estate.”

“Then why would he want to possibly kill Taylor?” I ask again.

“Because all of those funeral homes have great value, real estate-wise.”

“Well now, it all makes sense,” I say, getting out of the car. I press the buzzer for Greg Jr.’s apartment.

“Come in.” Seems like a nice guy. How could he commit a murder?

I know that everyone else is downstairs waiting in the limo or hiding right outside of the apartment, so I start talking.

“Hi, I’m John Flynn, and you must be Greg McCormack.”

“Yes, how do you know who I am?”

“I know your father very, very well,” I try to speak in the creepiest voice possible. I’ve never tried to intimidate anyone before. “I’m Taylor’s boyfriend, John.”

Greg turns paler than he already is. “What do you need or want with me?”

“I need to ask you a few questions, is that okay?” I ask, noting that he looks nothing like Taylor. He’s short and fat, just like his father, while Taylor was willowy and blonde.

“I guess so. Would you like to come in?” Greg Jr. gestures to the couches in his grand living room with floor to ceiling windows and a view of of the East River. Why does he want more than his fair share of what he already has?

I don’t sit down. I need to keep the upper hand. “Okay then, where were you the night that Taylor was murdered?”

“I was downtown at a bar.”

We were at a bar downtown as well. Had he been following us?

“Were you alone at the bar?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Where did you go after that?”

“I went up to Wall Street to look around.”

Oh shit! He was at Wall Street, and so were we. Things are getting a little creepy.

“My ex-wife is planning on moving there with my kid, and I wanted to see the building she is moving into.”

“What building is that?”

He takes a deep breath. “21 Wall Street.”

“Did you know that was Taylor’s building?”

“No,” Greg said in a really high pitched voice. “Not then!”

All of a sudden, glass is breaking, and Greg McCormack Jr. has just jumped out a window and landed on the limo. I really hope they caught him.  

“YOLO,”  I scream and jump out the window to chase after him. I feel like Batman. I know that Greg Jr. must have taken some fighting classes because his dad is in the mafia, so he must know something about fighting.  

Since he’s short and fat, I catch up to him really fast, and I mean really fast.  

I scream, “It’s over. Greg, it’s over! Stop running, you’re screwed either way.”

“Catch me if you can,” he says sprinting away. For a fat dude he can sure move it.

But then, I’m right next to him, and I tackle him so hard that he lands on the ground, and I hear a crack. All I see is blood coming out of both of us. I don’t know where at the time because I’m in shock that I actually tackled him, and that I won. I really, really, won.  

I hear loud moans from Greg Jr. and I’m just lying on the ground face up, thinking back to what I’ve done with myself these past few days.

I then look over to Greg, and he isn’t there anymore. That’s when I start to fear for my life.  I see a shadowy figure that looks just like the man in the windows.

That’s when I know Greg McCormack Jr. killed his sister, just for real estate purposes.  

“This is the end for you, John Flynn. Man up and fight me, and we’ll see who really deserves to die today,” I hear Greg say.

“Is that what you want, a fight? You shall receive the beating of your life!” I exclaim.

We are both in ready-position, trying to psych the other person out, but it would not work, whatsoever.  

“Come at me. Or, are you a pussy?”

I almost laugh. My life has gotten so ridiculous that someone is calling me stupid names.  

“No one calls me a pussy,” and that’s when I go all ape shit on his ass, and give him the beating he deserves.

Punch, kick, punch, kick, punch, kick, is all that happens for a while, until he blocks one of my kicks and throws me in the air like a rag doll. I land with a thump and hear a crack on my left shoulder. He’s broken my shoulder; he really has no mercy.  But since my uncle is a doctor, he taught me how to reset a shoulder back in place, and that’s exactly what I do.

“Is that all you got, Mr. Flynn?”

“No, I’m just getting started!” I exclaim.

The pain is unbearable, but I know that I have to take down Taylor’s killer because that’s what she would have wanted. I just have to think of killing him, and the pain starts to go away.

I get up and try to be like Batman, and start to fight just like him: catching and blocking all of the punches and kicks, throwing him on the ground over and over again, hearing cracks upon cracks, taking all of his fingers and breaking them one by one, and snapping his arms, legs, feet, and toes.  

Just when I start to punch him again, I hear a voice say, “Have mercy John, have mercy.” That voice is Greg’s.

“For you Greg McCormack Jr. you get no mercy.”

I start to punch his face, both sides, until he’s bleeding and about to pass out. Then, just as I’m about to snap his neck, I scream,“Any last words, you son of a bitch?”

“Fuck you, John Flynn, fuck you, and everyone in the world.”

I then say, “Goodbye, Greg McCormack Jr.”

Right after that, I take his head, bang it on the ground gently, and then snap his neck so hard that I could spin his head around like an owl. I have such a great feeling inside of me, a feeling of relief, that I am able to avenge Taylor by killing her killer. I hear the sound of hot pink limos and hearses pulling up to see what is going on. I tell Greg exactly what happened.

He is crying. “I’m disappointed that you killed my son, but you did what you had to do. So I forgive you.”

“Thank you, sir. Thank you so much for understanding.”

I see Li Na again, and I notice that she is a very sexy Chinese woman.

Li Na says, “Nice job killing the boss’s son. I never liked him anyways.”

“Thanks, I guess… It took a lot of work to actually kill him, but it was totally worth it.”

“True, true” she says.

I take her hands in mine and look into her eyes. They are a deep brown, just like mine. I take a deep breath.  

“Li Na, do you wanna come live with me and be together forever?”

“Ummm,” she says. “Let me think… Of course, a million times yes!”

I am so happy to know that she really likes me and that we can be together forever.

I then look again at the voice mail that Taylor sent me… “Yes.”

I remember the news reporter said that the witnesses said that the man proposed, but they didn’t hear a “yes” or “no.”  Then, I think the answer must have been yes. I did propose to her, and she said yes. Well that’s good to know, but she’s dead.  Now, I have Li Na to spend the rest of my life with.  

Somehow, one of the mafia members finds my BMW and brings it to me. Li Na and I drive off into the sunset back to my apartment.

A few days later, I return to work after the news clears everything up. Everyone is so happy to see me and tells me, “Sorry for your loss.”

It may sound stone cold, but I haven’t lose anything. I’ve gained confidence in myself and a badass new girlfriend. Everything is back to normal, just how I like it.

 

Basketball

As the clock winds down, Jake’s teammates look up at the scoreboard with anticipation. Leading the Wolves by two points with just thirty-eight seconds to go, Jake and the Sharks are looking to seal the win. Jake passes to Chris who looks for a way to get to the basket. Just one bucket would be enough for the Sharks to win tonight. Just one bucket and the game would be over.

As Chris drives to the basket, the opposing team’s players all crash on him. He would have to get rid of the ball or it would be forcefully turned over. With a quick prayer, Chris tosses the ball behind him, just as the other team’s players surround him. A Wolves player gets a hand on the ball, stealing it and dribbling up the court. He is completely open, nobody stands between him and the basket. He takes a few more steps and completes his layup, scoring two points. The score is even, 64-64.

The Sharks inbound the ball to Jake, and he lets the clock tick as he slowly dribbles up the court. With the game in his hands, he knows what he has to do, and everybody on his team is counting on him to do it. Standing just in front of the midcourt line, Jake watches the clock. …15, 14, 13… His heart is beating with anticipation and his blood is filled with adrenaline. …11, 10, 9…. Feinting left, Jake sprints up the court, leaving his defender reeling. As he dribbles towards the paint, other defenders launch towards him trying to get in his way. …6, 5… Jake immediately stops in his tracks and jumps up. Nine faces on the court look up at Jake as his feet leave the ground. Letting go of the ball, Jake watches as it soars through the air, rotating slowly. …3, 2… The ball swishes through the hoop followed by an emphatic cheer. …1…

As the buzzer sounds, Jake is swarmed by his teammates. Like every other night, Jake becomes a hero for the Sharks, a star who is able to lead his team to victory regardless of the opponent. Scanning the crowd, Jacob sees familiar faces. Parents of his teammates smile proudly, clapping and cheering. Jake sees the parents of the losing team, their faces shrouded in disappointment. A few scouts sit in the stands, each with a clipboard or laptop in hand. Their attire, dark blazers and nice shirts, stand out amongst the other fans. Although the stands are overflowing with spectators, Jake is completely undaunted. Nobody in the stands today is someone that Jake wants to see him play. Nowhere among the large crowd is his mother.

White

 

  White is a color that shines like the moon.

White is a color that breaks through the gloom.

White is so pale that it bleaches the dark.

White is the fog and the mist bright and stark.

White is the cotton balls, clouds, and the snow.

White is sharp diamonds and fangs just for show.

White is the truth and white is a lie,

white is the drab and the blank hazy sky.

White is the rough waters only just forming,

but white is the pure note that brings the dove’s mourning.

White could be thicker, and white could be fuller,

but let’s face it, white’s just the absence of color.

Bloody Sunday

She mistakes blood for love,

which is why each time

his hands ache from

the punches or

her stomach is

smeared red,

her eyes gloss over

starry-eyed.

This, she thinks,

is what her mother meant

by “an endless honeymoon.”

 

She mistakes blood for love,

which is why when she looks

at her bony knees,

scabbed and dyed purple,

she smiles.

Her hands trace the

coarse surface,

each bump a love letter

typed in bangs and cracks.

This, she thinks,

is what her mother meant

by “modern romance.”

 

She mistakes blood for love,

which is why when he

comes home at 12:27 a.m.

on valentine’s day,

drunk on cheap liquor

and stale cigarettes,

she glows.

“Would you turn that down?”

he says,

“it’s too damn bright.”

She’s confused.

She thought he liked it

when her open wounds

glistened in the moonlight.

 

She mistakes blood for love,

which is why when he

approaches her,

eyes shaded a darker blue,

she does not cower.

His fingers wrap

around her neck.

This necklace is

the present no one

asked for.

A bouquet of

violet irises

and pale blue bellflowers

sprout from her throat.

 

He lets go.

So does she.

 

“There,”

he says to

her limp body

now glowing a different way,

“A little color to remind you

of my arrow.”

Broken Wings Way

#1, Broken Wings Way

Celia had always started her days the same way, even after she moved in with Mike. She would wake up at 7:00 and rush to whatever kitchen was in her reach at the time. With eyes that were only half open, Celia would make coffee and sit by an open window, trying to breathe in the dewy air. It was a simple start to the day.

Mike always slept through it, maybe even snored through it. He never saw the way Celia leaned back against the wall, would never know the way her eyes opened, really opened, for the first time every day. If he had seen it, he would have smiled silently, not interrupting her early-morning peace.

When they were both awake, they sat on the patio of their small home. That tradition had only started when they moved into this studio in the lot. Slowly, more houses were built, more people moved in. Many left, but Mike and Celia stayed. They welcomed new families and people. They weren’t the owners, but the leaders, of the little lot. The original fighters.

They thought of it as a refugee camp. They all did. Everyone there came from different wars, different fights, and hid in the little gray huts off of Route 9.

Celia and Mike didn’t work anymore.They cut the grass, went for walks. They brought cookies to the neighboring families, read books. Simple.

They’d both been searching for simple for quite some time.

When they had met each other, their lives were each their own separate chaoses. They told themselves, and soon, each other, that they were happy in the storms of their lives. But soon the gales tore down their houses, and they had to move out.

Move out into this little home, just at the entrance of the quiet Broken Wings Way.

It was Mike’s idea to change the name. “Something more fitting,” he called it. Much better shaped than Flyer’s Road. Celia had been the driving force, though, not stopping at changing the name on the sign, but calling the mayor’s office to get it officially replaced.

And maybe they were kidding themselves, but they could have sworn that this name brought in new patrons, brought in new stories and new tires bumping over the gravel driveway.

‘Broken wings’ was a simpler, easier-to-be-digested term for the marks on their veins that only they saw. Sweet synonyms for the withdrawal and screams they tried to escape by moving into #1, Broken Wings Way.

 

#2, Broken Wings Way

It always felt like a full-body sigh of relief when he rolled past the street sign and onto the gravel road, a homey crunching filling his ears. As if nothing could reach him past the invisible walls of the little neighborhood.

Cael had not been expecting a community when he first rolled past the then-ominous street sign. He was expecting to be questioned, asked for papers that he could not produce, then reported to the police. It was far, far from his mind to be accepted into their little family.

But he soon realized that he was not the only one missing something. Even something just as trivial as a typed validity of his nation. Some were missing children, families, hope. But those losses came to a collection of small gains; a tire swing hung in front of one of the houses, carpooling to school on misty Monday mornings, a garage sale on a warm Saturday afternoon.

And soon after his easy move (where no papers had been discussed at all), he had found his niche. He had quickly discovered that every person could produce a small part for the community. Cael had always loved to work with his hands. When he was a child, he had built little homes out of wood bricks, feeling a pang of guilt every time he had to take the constructions down to make room for new ideas.

When Mike had posted a flyer about needing a volunteer to repair the window of house #3, Cael didn’t respond for four days. But every time he passed the billboard, he felt a pang of guilt. As if he was letting down the occupants of #3, and the rest of the little alliance that had been so kind to him. He told himself that he needed to stay under the radar, even here. But, finally, he knocked softly on Celia and Mike’s door, and told them that he would fix the window (and install a tire-swing for a coming family with children) happily, as long as no one else had already taken the job.

Celia had invited him in, gave him cups filled with strong coffee, and told him that she had hoped he would take the job, seeing as he had that “lovely” toolbox sitting on his window.

Soon, the flyers didn’t go up on the billboard, and were just slipped under Cael’s door. He picked them up swiftly, a small smile forming after seeing the simple tasks that needed to be completed. They needed him to complete them.

Two years into Cael’s residence in Broken Wings Way, Mike confided that he, of course, knew that Cael was undocumented. He had known since the first time he had met him, how nervous he was every time he was handed another paper. Mike’s breath dripped with the sloppy-warm scent of the peppermint alcohol that was being served at that year’s Christmas party, and Cael knew he wouldn’t have revealed this had it been a normal day.

But Cael was glad they knew, that he didn’t have to keep the secret anymore. Slowly, Cael became a little more talkative, and he smiled at people as he walked on the road, his road.

Things started to feel more relaxed for Cael. He thought, just maybe, Broken Wings Way could be the final building block house, one he did not have to break down or wipe out.

 

#3, Broken Wings Way

The car had been buckling under the pressure of the bags it was carrying since half way into the drive. It sputtered as it pulled onto the gravel road, almost out of fumes to run on.

Amelia could hear her kids laughing in the back, unaware of what was happening around them. Their toys, though slightly broken and very used, continued playing without pause. Neither child realized that they had finally reached home.

The gravel turned to dirt under the worn tires, and they soon passed the first house of the road. “Broken Wings Way” was painted on a little board next to it. Amelia pulled the car to a stop a little ways down, allowing her head to finally lean against the seat, sighing with relief. Giggles erupted from the back.

She was almost glad the car was breaking down, sputtering as she slowly pulled the keys out of the ignition. Amelia knew she wouldn’t find the money to fix it for months, but perhaps it was for the best that she wouldn’t be able to drive far away from here.

Looking into the mirror of the sun visor, applying more concealer just below her eye where the tender bruise still lay, she reviewed the information that the caretakers of these homes had told her on the phone just last week.

Amelia had to call from a payphone across the street from her children’s school. She didn’t dare call from the phone in her house, and she was afraid he might look at her recent call list on her cell phone.

She spoke to Mike first, his soft-spoken words soothing her ears. He described the community with such care and spoke so excitedly when Amelia talked about her kids, that she decided immediately to move in.

Next, Mike handed the phone over to his wife, who shamelessly asked what it was that Amelia was escaping, explaining that everyone was escaping something in Broken Wings. Hesitantly, Amelia whispered that her kids weren’t safe around her husband. She was embarrassed by the shake in her voice and tears on her bruised cheeks when the woman asked if Amelia was safe herself. After she hung up the phone, she sat next to the payphone and wiped the stream of tears from her eyes.

Soon enough, her older son noticed the car had stopped, and pointed to the tire swing hanging from the tree on the third house down. They threw questions into the front, squirming in their car seats.

Amelia took a deep breath, pushed away the stained mirror, and hopped out of the car, ready to get settled into house #3, Broken Wings Way.

 

#4, Broken Wings Way

The fourth house was empty. But it had been occupied so fully and so recently that Mike could not bring himself to spread word about a vacancy.

There hadn’t even been time to sweep up the broken glass on the kitchen floor.

Perhaps, it had nothing to do with time at all. Celia told Mike that the energy of the house was too strong, that he was still in there. Mike told his neighbors that he needed to allow the house to rest before they let anyone else fill it up. The neighbors told each other that they didn’t want it active either.

Everyone had known Tim. Everyone knew Tim’s flannels, his soft voice, his stories. The way he quietly turned down drinks at parties. The way he set up those parties so eagerly, always trying to bring the community together.

Mike softly wondered who would organize those parties now.

Everyone knew how Tim had come to need the little corner off the busy road. How he had battled with alcohol for all his life, and could only find escape in this quiet isolation, only leaving Broken Wings for his job as a substitute teacher.

Money had never been the cause of his patronage, and although all the neighbors knew he didn’t have the funds, Tim quickly volunteered to pay for food, for a generator during a particularly harsh storm one winter, for anything he could think of to help the others.

Celia didn’t voice her worries about who would make the community feel so whole if Tim wasn’t there to keep it from cracking down the middle.

No one had seen Tim all day, and they assumed he was at his job, or maybe even visiting a friend, finally branching out instead of closing in.

He’d gotten a call just that morning, from his father, sitting in a hospital waiting room, but his neighbors didn’t know that. His father hadn’t bothered to call before the heart monitor attached to his mother’s slowly heaving chest came to a beeping halt. Tim wondered if he had purposefully been called after her death, because his dad was too ashamed of his own son to let her see him before she died. He concluded that he didn’t care what his father’s intentions were, or even that his mom was gone.

When he twisted the key in the ignition of his car, he told himself he just needed to drive around and cool off, that’s all. When he parked, he told himself that he had enough control to feel the atmosphere of the buzzing bar without feeling the sting of whiskey sliding down his throat.

But by the time he’d downed his third glass, he had nothing left to say to himself at all. He could taste the shame of his parents, of himself, and the chaser to the vodka.

The bar wasn’t far from Broken Wings. He told himself he could drive. He stopped along the way to pick up another few bottles at a dimly lit liquor store. He opened one of them sloppily as he swerved through the night air, not waiting until he got home to start to forget.

Tim couldn’t bring himself to look at the street sign that greeted him as he turned onto the gravel road. He wished he didn’t have to imagine the shame of Celia and Mike if they saw him the next day.

But somewhere, deep in the back of his fogged mind, Tim was aware that there was no tomorrow. At least, for him, anyway.

He pushed open the door, stumbling through the frame. After more poison entered his veins,  he couldn’t remember if it was a bottle or a window that lay broken on the floor. He didn’t want to remember anymore. He didn’t want to think at all.

 

#5, Broken Wings Way

It was Celia’s turn to drive Layla to school. Layla opened the front door slowly to find Celia holding out a cup, steam rising slowly from the top. Celia admitted that coffee would be bad for a growing girl like Layla, but it might help her for those tests she had today, and she’d just brewed a new type.

Layla smiled, and took the coffee from Celia’s hands. The two of them walked down the steps together, their feet moving in perfect unison.

Layla secretly loved when Celia was the one to drive her. Celia always shared stories from her past, never showing shame for the mistakes she had made.

It had been Celia’s idea, and that, of course made Layla feel more at home with her, as well. When Layla’s parents had driven away into the night, leaving their only daughter behind, Celia asked the neighbors not to call anyone, not yet.

Celia had been through the foster care process, and winced at the word “orphan.” She did not want sweet Layla — who left flowers on her neighbors’ doorsteps and sold lemonade by herself — to go through the same thing.

Mike had, of course, tried to convince Celia to at least call someone anonymously. But she had her ways, and no calls were made. By anyone.

Soon, all the neighbors were in on it; making Layla warm dinners, asking her to stay at their houses. Amelia even hired Layla to babysit her kids, although she had nowhere to go or money to pay, her broken-down car still rotting in the driveway.

They hadn’t wanted Layla to sleep in the house alone, but she argued that she was ten and her parents had left her by her lonesome before. So Celia and Mike waived the rent for her little studio, and organized a chart to share the duty of making her meals.

She hadn’t spoken about her parents before or since. Mike had tried to bring them up, but the blanket of sadness-cloaked-in-numbness that passed over her face told him that she wasn’t ready.

Layla never asked friends to come to her house, but she hadn’t before. She didn’t want to deal with her mother’s drunkenness and the needles spread across the coffee table like magazines. Instead she told her friends that she would rather meet up somewhere or maybe go to their houses. Now, she covered up the fact that nothing was there, no food in the refrigerator, no parents in the bedroom, no empty bottles rolling out from under couches. Nothing there to embarrass her, nothing there at all.

Cael wasn’t sure if he agreed with Celia’s approach. He was often tempted to call Protective Services, the police, someone. But his neighbors had agreed so swiftly and Layla had helped him paint once, so he stayed quiet, volunteering to drive her more than the others did.

They all had quiet reactions, just loud enough for others to hear when they noticed that the car had been gone for far longer than ever before. All of their own experiences and views combined to a mass of new shelterers. But no one could see what Layla was thinking, because although they all checked in on her, asked her how her day was going, she didn’t let anyone close enough to see.

Layla refused to miss them. How illogical it would be — and Layla was always one for logic — to miss the ones that she had wished away after years of hiding when they stumbled in after parties. But she did not want them gone. She did not want to be the one to cause community meetings or to need rides to school.  

Layla hadn’t even cried. Not when she found the bedroom empty and the car gone one morning when she woke up. Not when Celia told her that she could remain in the home at the far corner of the lot. Not even when she got a postcard from Miami, an ironic message of “Wish You Were Here” sprawled across a flowing, photoshopped sunset. With no words on the back.

And on that day, Layla did not want her neighbors to discover the x across her calendar. She was 12, as of just a few hours ago. Layla was quiet on the ride to school, not wanting to bring it up or let the date slip from her lips. And she thought to herself that she had kept the secret well.

Layla floated through the day as she normally did. Her mind was swinging on the tire that hung from house #3. Her fingers traced the crooked hem of the thrift store skirt she had worn, dressing nice for the special day, even if no one knew why.

As she stood outside, waiting for Celia and Mike to pick her up, she wondered if her parents regretted what “today” was, what she was. She told herself they wouldn’t even remember her birthday, much less be conscious enough to feel remorse — stifling the smoky ember of hope before it grew into a fire and her parents could drown it in their watery absence themselves.

Layla was quiet on the ride home, sitting in the back with her bag stuffed between her knees. She noticed a glimmer in Mike’s eye as he looked at her through the rearview mirror. The embers lit in her stomach, but this time it warmed her chilly bones, even as she told herself that Mike always had something to smirk about.

She did her homework as quickly as she could, not admitting that she wanted to make time for the dinner Cael had invited her to.

When she walked in, she found herself feigning surprise at the cheaply cut poster hanging from the window and the homemade cake on the table. She laughed as Amelia’s son asked if he could eat the whole cake.

She had fought back the emotions all night. Layla had been so numb for so long that she didn’t even know what to name the feeling spreading through her bloodstream, like how the alcohol probably spread in her mother’s. She had not expected cakes, or posters or the single card that Celia handed Layla before she left.

We’re so happy that it took this village to raise you, Layla read to herself as she closed the door behind her.

The tears on her cheeks, slipping through her eyes covered by hands, warmed her to spite the nip in the night air.

It took her village, her family to bring the tears that had fogged her vision for almost a year now. To mend the sore bone that kept her from flying, that kept them all from soaring. The quiet community off of Route 9, their refugee camp. Broken Wings Way.

The Night Manager

We get a lot of strange folks up here, but nothing like her.

Pleased to meet you. I’m Art Walker, and I’m the night manager here at The Royal Suites hotel. Don’t let the name fool you, there is nothing royal at all about this place. It’s really run down, plus it’s in the middle of nowhere. We have a staff of one day manager, one night manager, one cook, and one housekeeper. And one boss, of course. We have about 100 rooms, but usually we only manage to fill about half. It’s not exactly my (or anyone else’s) dream job, but it pays the bills well enough. And like I said, we get a lot of strange folks up here. She was the strangest of them all.

As cliche as it sounds, it was a dark and stormy night. It was mid-October, and the wind was howling something fierce. She practically stumbled in, and her appearance suggested that she had been walking for many miles in the storm. She wore a flimsy yellow raincoat, and was dragging a black suitcase behind her. She flicked her wet hair out of her eyes, then walked over to my desk.

“How much for a room?” she asked me.

“Fifty bucks,” I said.

“That’s not too bad.”

“Yeah, well, you aren’t paying for much.”

She laughed a little. “You’re a funny guy. What are you doing in a dump like this?”

“Speak for yourself, lady.”

She laughed again. “Touche.”

I handed her the room key. Most hotels nowadays had key cards, but The Royal Suites, in all its quaintness, had never made the switch. “You’re in room 27 on the second floor,” I told her. “Don’t use the soap. It gives people rashes.”

“Good to know,” she said, and without another word, she swept out of the lobby. I could hear her boots all the way up the dingy staircase, and, not for the last time, I wondered what brought her here.

***

At around 9 o’clock the following night, I saw her leave the building. When she came back an hour later, she was holding two bottles of cheap wine. “Here.” She passed one to me across the desk. “Drink.”

“I can’t drink on the job,” I told her.

“Come on, how many people are there even in this hotel, ten?”

“Twelve.” It was a particularly slow week.

“Right. Drink up.”

“Can you at least tell me your name?”

She paused for a second. “Philomena.”

I unscrewed the cap and took a sip. To tell the truth, I don’t like wine too much. It burns going down my throat. I pulled out the chair next to me behind the desk, and she jumped over the desk and sat down with surprising agility.

“Wow,” I said. “How’d you do that?”

She grinned and said, “Magic.” Then she raised the bottle to her lips, and took a huge gulp of the stuff, and when she swallowed, a trickle of it ran down her chin. She wiped it away with her sleeve. Then she took another gulp.

She carried on in this fashion until half of the bottle was gone. Then she turned to me and asked, “What am I doing here?”

“You tell me,” I said. I hadn’t had that much to drink.

“I mean, I should be on top of the world. I can do things no one else can do, I’m one of the most powerful people in the world, and where am I?” She made a noise in between a laugh and a sob. “Nowhere, USA, drinking away my sorrows.”

“I’m sorry,” I told her. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I felt sorry for her. She sounded so profoundly sad.

“Don’t be,” she told me. “You’re not part of this. You just got caught in the crossfire.”

“Okay,” I said, and she resumed sucking the life out of her bottle. I took another cautious sip.

 

Without warning, another person busted into the hotel. A rather tall man stood in the lobby, with a long, billowing coat and prematurely gray hair. I hastily hid my bottle, but his eyes didn’t even turn to me. They were fixated on her.

“Philomena,” he spoke her name as if it were something rancid on his tongue. “Still living in the gutter, I see.”

“Marcus,” she spat his name out equally hatefully. “Still going places you have no business being.”

“Oh, come off it, sweetie. You’re dying here. Your whole operation’s dying. You’ll never bring back the old ways. It’s time you just accept it.”

Philomena stood up. “Don’t you dare call me that.”

He grinned. “Or what? What are you going to do?”

“This.”

She snapped her fingers, and, as if by some invisible force, Marcus was thrown across the room, and hit the wall. He winced in pain, but his eyes still held a malicious glint.

“You can perform all the party tricks you want, sweetie. Still won’t matter. The Crucible will still come for you.”

She slammed him against the wall again. “Or how about you just tell me where The Crucible is so I can find it and destroy it?”

He laughed. “Even if I knew where it was, I’d go to my grave before I told you.” He started to pick himself up.

“I’ll see myself out,” he said. “Have fun drinking away your sorrows with your pal here.” He swept out the door.

“Ugh,” said Philomena. She took another sip of her wine.

I looked at her, questions bubbling in my mind. The first that came out was, “ Who was that guy?”

“Just a grunt,” she said. “Nothing more. Probably sent to see how much of my power I still retain. I’m proud to say they haven’t drained me of all of it yet.”

“How’d you do that?” I asked her. “How’d you slam him against the wall like that?”

“Magic,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, trying to wrap my head around the concept.

“I better get going,” she said. “Now that they know for sure I’m here, there’ll be more.” She grabbed her bottle of wine, and waved her hand in front of my face.

I blinked, confused. “What was that?” She looked at her hand. Then she waved it in front of my face again. “What are you doing? Stop,” I said.

She stomped her foot, almost like a petulant toddler.

“Goddamned Crucible – can’t even do a memory wipe. Ah well. Just try to repress what happened tonight,” she said. “You people are pretty good at that.” She started walking away.

“Were you trying to wipe my memory?” I called after her.

“Don’t take it personally,” she called back.

She was gone the next night when I came back to work. When I asked the day manager about her he said she had left at about 7:30 in the morning. I don’t know where she is now, or really anything. I’m just a night manager, who got caught in the crossfire.

Ansel

A newspaper, cast carelessly on the ground, sang a tune of despair. It hummed in A minor, sang in subdominant and dominant chords, but always led back to the tonic.

Car Crash in New Hemingway – 2 Dead, 3 Wounded.

The tragedy of May 12, 2002 will forever be remembered by all of us. Claire and Stephen Larkin, aged 35 and 36, as well as their two sons, Enoch and Ansel, aged 4 and 7, were the victims of a drunk driving incident. The driver, Maxwell Gregerson, was driving a red flatbed truck and is currently in critical care. He was allegedly involved in a hit-and-run five minutes prior, but no hard evidence points to this.

Hemingway Police reports that Claire Larkin, the driver, was killed on impact. Stephen and his children were all sitting in the back. The cane Stephen needed after a leg injury he sustained during his time served in the military, pierced Ansel’s upper thigh, and he died from blood loss shortly after. It is unclear as to how Enoch received the number of bruises he did, as the only injury he should have sustained was a broken wrist. Nevertheless, he sustained heavy bruising on his left side. He was conscious when paramedics arrived, and kept asking for his brother.

The rest of the newspaper was torn off, crumpled. It was clenched in Stephen’s hand, who sat against the back of the wooden door. He had drawn up his knees to his chest, and his chest was shuddering. Huge wracking sobs had seized his upper body.

He had to pull himself together. Enoch was coming home in a few minutes. He gripped the new wooden cane the hospital had given him, and heaved himself off the floor. He limped his way over to the bathroom, and stared at the blotchy face that trembled in the mirror. He turned the tap on and allowed cold water to overflow out of his cupped palms for a few minutes.

After washing his face, he pulled out a packet of macaroni and cheese for Enoch. It was his favorite.

And Ansel’s.

He had just poured the cheese powder into the broth of hot milk and noodles when the doorbell rang three times in quick succession. Enoch. He made his way to the door, glad to have a son but dreading the questions to come.

Enoch bounded into the house and straight into his father’s waiting arms. They embraced for a long time, not speaking anything for several minutes. Finally, Enoch piped up. “Hey, Daddy? Where’s Ansel?”

Stephen let loose a small sigh. “Wherever you’d like him to be, Enoch. Always.”

***

Cold, soothing rain streams down the sides of the little glass hummingbird. The pale blue wings are streaked with tiny rivulets of the ocean.

“There was just so much traveling involved, you know? For these itsy-bitsy little drops to clump. Hey, I bet they come from different places. Just like us, Ansel. Some of them mighta started out in the ocean, and then others were ice on top of the biggest iceberg you can imagine. But now they’re all together. Forced into one. D’you think they care about it very much? Maybe some of them came from the water kings, and you have water princesses and water barons and water scholars. But then you have water peasants and water farmers. Maybe the water nobles don’t care. Maybe they do. Hey, Ansel, what’d you think? Ansel?”

***

Enoch sits down on the the poorly painted steps inscribed with chalk. The air smells like woodsmoke, and he wears a puffy jacket that makes him feel like a marshmallow.

“Maybe the blue blocks shouldn’t have to only fit on the greenies. Miss Hamel says you can’t twist the blocks so that they just fit onto the red blocks. It’s not fair, Ansel. It’s also not fair that only the girls get to play house. Ansel, what makes the girls better than us? I bet it’s because they get to wear those little braids. The braids must be their secret sign that they’re royalty. I bet they’re secretly queens that run around and… and…

“But being a boy is fun too. You don’t have to wear skirts. I guess. I wonder how they feel. Hey, Ansel, do you think that Daddy will let us try on skirts? He’d probably say no.”

***

Enoch’s doing addition problems outside now, catching onto the problems easily. He’s not the best, but he’s ahead of the curve by a dash. The air is warm and humid, curling his hair.

“I like math. It’s all the same. I bet it’s the same everywhere, and even aliens do the same math we do. Math is dependable. It’s always there. Apparently, without math, you couldn’t have cakes or birthdays or comfy beds or trampolines! That’s awful. Ansel, not everyone likes math. Sometimes they look at me funny. I tell them that they need math, but they don’t agree. Am I weird? Maybe I’m an alien. I think they do the same math as us.

“Hey Ansel, what if you could do math with more than numbers? I mean, I know that you can add oranges and buttons and stuffed animals, but those have numbers. What if you could add letters to get a ‘superletter?’ Maybe that’s what ‘w’ secretly is. Or if you added time, instead of getting more time, you actually jumped ahead in time. You added two minutes to two minutes, and then you’re automatically four minutes into the future. Or, if you do the subtraction thingy, you subtract a time from a time. What if you could subtract moments in time, Ansel? Imagine how we would be different if we’d never gone to Julian’s birthday party, or if we didn’t drink that one cup of water. It’d be cool, wouldn’t it?


“But I wouldn’t try it, Ansel. I like who I am very much. Even though people thi –– I think I’m an alien for liking math. But who knows, Ansel? Not me.”

***

Enoch bolts outside the house, slightly out of breath. Sweat trickles down the middle of his spine.

“Hey, Ansel, why is Daddy always so sad when he’s alone? He smiles all the time when I’m with him. Do ya think he’s lonely? Maybe I should go to him now, Ansel, so he’s not lonely. But he’s reading something, I think. The words didn’t look like they do when the computer writes them, but they also don’t look how I write them. They look more like Mrs. Sanese’s writing, ya know? I wanna write like her, with the tall loops.

 “Ansel, I think Daddy was crying. D’you think I should go back? Maybe I should get rid of the book. Ansel, I’ve never seen Daddy cry. I was so scared, Ansel, I –– I still am, Ansel. Daddies are strong and constant and always there. I –– I…”

Enoch’s voice catches, his breath hitches. The cool wind that has been whipping his cheeks blows colder on the tears trickling down his face. He stands up shakily, rubs his eyes, and goes back inside.

***

Years and inches have grown in similar directions for Enoch. His hair is longer and curlier, but his face is still sprinkled with freckles that sing with innocence. He’s not as lonely anymore, but he still tries to remember to talk to Ansel. Granted, he doesn’t always remember, but he tells himself that nobody’s perfect.

“Daniel says it’s not really a great thing to say. He wants to know why you can’t try, if there’s something wrong with perfection. But Ansel, perfect is a weird word. One person’s perfect might not be someone else’s perfect. Perfect can’t have one distinct meaning for everyone. This older guy, with the purple tee with an eye on it, says that nothing is perfect. It only becomes perfect when you acknowledge its flaws and learn to love it regardless.

“I don’t know, Ansel. The word perfect is used so freely when it’s not a word of levity. It’s not a song to sing lightly, but somehow it is. It ends up going like that for a lot of things, Ansel. I keep seeing people saying hard things in the worstest ways.

“I guess the word used on packets of chocolate can sum it up easily, Ansel. Bittersweet.”

***

His voice is trembling. It is May 12, 2022. His hands shake, and he stuffs them into his jean pockets, the blue material encasing the melancholy despair he feels. He hasn’t spoken to Ansel in years. He stands alone in front of the tombstone that hasn’t come to haunt him a long time.

“H-Hey, Ansel. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? The doctors said it was natural, my way of dealing with the pain. It still helps. I’ve… missed you.

“I’m thankful for the times we’ve had together, even though you weren’t really there. If you were ever next to me, or grew with me, there’d be so much that would be different. I’d be different. Sometimes, I wonder if that would be for the better.

“But I like who I am. I like that I have an industrial engineering major and a potential job interview soon. I love that I’m a nerd for outer space, and that I have unnecessary knowledge about butterflies. I like that I like spending days with Dad when it’s a little overcast and going for walks. I like that I like colorful organized notes and dimpled smiles and people who laugh while telling jokes. I like that I know the perfect hot chocolate recipe and its Brazilian origins. I’m just a compilation of experiences and I couldn’t be happier.  

“Ansel, I’m planning on proposing to my girlfriend. Her name is Eloise. You’d have liked her. She has emerald eyes and is just amazing in every way. She plays the saxophone, like you used to.”

He smiles, feeling the sense of unease finally slipping off his shoulders. “It’s been fun, Ansel. I’ll see you later, I guess. But not too soon.”

He raises a hand in farewell, and turns and trudges back to his car. He gets into his car, and the little glass hummingbird swings from the mirror as he drives away.

Snowglobe

The room was cold. They liked it that way. They used to talk about living in a snowglobe.

“Maybe you should talk to him, Mike.” Sarah’s back was pressed against the thin plaster wall, her knees curled into her chest, her cherry hair tangled beyond hope, her eyes sunken like stones. “Maybe you should hear his side of the story.”

Mike scoffed. His position, perched on the windowsill like an owl, cast his body in faint darkness, until Sarah could only see a black silhouette where pale skin and hazel eyes used to be. He faced the outdoors, nose pressed against the foggy glass, breathing onto the chilled surface and watching little clouds of his dirty exhalations form.

“I’d rather jump out this window,” he muttered, peering at the bustling city street below. There were yellow umbrellas down there. Yellow like the sun, like caution signs, like dead skin. Like her dead skin. “And become a flat little pancake.” He almost laughed, thinking about how the ants below would shriek and crowd around him, wanting to know why he’d done it. Tyson, he would’ve said. Ask him.

“Then go ahead.” Sarah’s voice was biting, venomous. Her eyes widened as soon as the words escaped her lips. She was always the pacifist, but just look at what the world was doing to her.

Mike turned around and she could now see his face. His eyes were sunken, too, and he grimaced. “Harsh, Sarah.”

She looked down at her bare feet, at the way her mangled toes curled on top of one another, making her cracked nails the least of her problems. She usually wore socks, but today, being raw felt comfortable.

“It’s not a bad idea,” she whispered, clenching and unclenching her toes. “It might do some good.”

Mike rolled his neck, then turned back to the window and the lifeless people below. “What, killing myself?” There goes an ambulance, he thought. Someone else is dying. But an ambulance isn’t a hospital, and paramedics can’t do shit. It’s all too slow. They’re probably already dead.

“No!” Sarah was too loud; her ears rung. “Talking to him. He deserves to hear what you have to say.”

Mike scowled. “That son of a bitch deserves nothing.”

The people below were frantic now. The cars were still; the ambulance couldn’t get through. Too slow, too slow, too slow. Mike imagined the line going flat, the steady beep that told him she was gone, piercing through their shrieks like a child’s scream. Then a punch was thrown, and Tyson was knocked to the ground, and Mike’s knuckles were bloody, and she was still gone. All because he was too slow.

But this ambulance didn’t have his sister in it. This was someone else’s doom.

“You can’t ignore him forever.” Sarah pulled her arms around her, goosebumps suddenly prickling her skin. “He didn’t know Jo was gonna take too much. None of us did.”

Mike whipped around now, gripping the edge of the windowsill like a lifeline. Sarah tried to shrink against the wall. Smaller, she thought. She wanted to be smaller.

“He fucking well knew she was going to take too much,” Mike hissed, his heart thumping. “And when she did, he did nothing.” His eyes were red, ablaze like candle flames and fresh blood. Sarah turned away.

“Did you ever think maybe it wasn’t just his fault?” Sarah asked, stroking the wall against her back. The plaster was scratched and flaking. A delicate pastry, like the ones Mike used to buy her when they pretended they lived in a snowglobe. “That maybe we all had something to do with it?”

“Are you saying I killed my sister?” Mike turned back to the window. He pressed his nose against the glass and breathed out, one drawn-out sigh escaping his lips. “That’s pretty fucking screwed up, Sarah.”

“I don’t know. I was just thinking. Maybe we were all just blind.”

“Blind?” Mike watched as the people below bustled through the streets, yellow umbrellas twirling and feet moving faster than cars. The ambulance had turned its siren off. Mike knew what that meant. He looked at the cracked watch on his right wrist. Time of death: 12:01.

“Yeah. Like, we all just kind of ignored her,” Sarah’s words were fast, fast and quiet, like quick breaths in the absence of oxygen. “We knew something was wrong, but you and I just lived in our fucking snowglobe, while Tyson kept her pain going. Until it was too late.”

“And then we were too slow,” Mike whispered. The cars started to move again, and the ambulance with the dead girl disappeared around a corner, heading to the hospital. Next comes the calls, Mike thought. Then the fighting. Then the funeral and the blame and the numbness that falls over a widowed family like a noose. That’s when you know your snowglobe is shattered. That’s when the water starts leaking out, and you suffocate, and there’s nothing you can do but watch and wait and try to breathe.

Mike suddenly turned around, eyes wide. “Why is it so cold?”

Sarah shrugged. “We used to like it this way.”

Theft

One day, a man was reading the newspaper when he learned that there was an exhibit in the museum on maximum security. It was displaying a huge bag of gold. He felt the sudden urge to have it.

That night, with his child still at home, he hacked into the security system and broke into the museum. He got all the way to the dinosaur model before there was a loud whirring sound, and the dinosaur’s tail whipped around and created a crack in the wall. Tiny dinosaurs the size of his hand came pouring out of the wall. They bit all over him: his legs, his arms, his head, etc. He was about to give up when his son’s voice crackled through the speaker at his ear. “All clear. The dinosaurs will go away as soon as I tell them to.”

“What are you waiting for? Send them away!”

“I would, but I thought maybe they could be your honor guard. You know, all the DC villains have cool technology or catch phrases. You don’t have anything.”

The frequency of the bites increased. “Don’t be ridiculous! Just call them off!”

The dinosaurs went back into the wall, which automatically healed itself.

The man was so scared that he considered retreating, but then he looked at the brochure again and reconsidered.

He got all the way to the gold before he realized that the gold was surrounded by a huge glass wall and numerous of guards. He explained the situation to his son.

“I knew it! I knew you should have kept those tiny dinosaurs!”

He smiled and took out a small taser. He pointed and pulled the trigger. Every one of the guards writhed on the ground for a moment, then went still.

He stepped over them and made his way to the gold. He grabbed it and felt something in it move.

That’s weird, he thought. After a while, he convinced himself that it was just his imagination. He made his way to the entrance, and then felt it writhe in his hands again. He opened the bag, and to his horror, spiders were crawling out of it. They bit him everywhere, just like the dinosaurs, but this time, he couldn’t see anything. He felt as if they were injecting fire into him, and, with a start, he realized that they were poisonous.

As his life stole away from him, he heard his son say, “Don’t open the bag! Turns out it’s full of spiders! I just realized.” But it was too late. He was gone.

Tightrope

   

If I could balance on a tightrope,

if my bare toes could grip the sides of the string,

I’d walk over a rain forest.

 

I used to imagine that the water in these places

couldn’t even reach the ground

because of how close together the leaves are.

 

I could stand there, the rain

–– usually so strong ––

not even mighty enough

to penetrate the green,

or knock me off my rope.

 

Maybe I would hear the birds singing

over the loud thunder,

or maybe it would be silent.

 

Except for the patter of the rain against the leaves,

still trying to reach the ground.

 

Or perhaps I would stroll across a fire.

I could watch the destruction

and the beauty,

without letting anything reach me,

especially the smoke.

 

I would be so high up,

my legs stiff and light.

The blaze of the flames might dance

and make shadows on my cheeks,

but it wouldn’t burn my eyes.

 

I could stare until the embers died away,

and I had to find my next destination.

 

If I could balance on a tightrope,

I might walk,

overlooking all the people I’d put in front of me.

 

Then I could say I was simply above them.

Over them.

Then I’d be even,

balanced.

 

I would walk over my house.

I would look through the chimney,

and watch my family talk without me.

 

Sometimes,

I like to listen to them speak

and drown in their sentences,

without saying a word.

 

Sometimes,

I hide out,

just like when I was little

and wanted someone to find me.

 

Or, perhaps,

I would walk through a valley of stars.

I’d look at the moon,

and try to tell Frank Sinatra that no kiss could ever compare

to the white rock spinning before me.

 

My best friend and

I like to talk about the universe

late at night.

 

Our legs and minds

entangled with

bodies and fears,

 

shaky voices asking questions

we know can’t be answered.

 

If I went further into the open,

I could go back and tell her that

the infinity we were so afraid of

could envelop a person,  

 

and maybe it wouldn’t feel so far away

from home.

 

If I could balance on a tightrope,

I would take a rest over a mountain-

 

I would be tired from all the adventures

I’ve already planned.

 

Maybe I’d let my feet hang off the side.

 

Maybe I’d try to touch the peak,

the lightly-oxygenated winds

making me feel dizzy.

 

I’d watch as the climbers struggled

to find the top,

maybe find something else.

 

I would giggle,

trying to whisper to them

to merely find a tightrope.

 

My words would be drowned out,

though,

by the swinging winds.

 

But my inner-ears

have always been

a little bit off.

 

I’m not the most stable.

 

Sometimes,

I trip.

 

And although I’ve never

been afraid of heights,

 

I can’t see myself

balancing

on a tightrope.

 

No matter how much

  I would like to explore

 

with a bird’s eye view.

 

So, I guess I’m stuck here,

my feet on the earth.

 

Maybe it’ll keep me humble.

 

Grounded.

 

White Gown

The first time I saw her, she was in her white gown staring at me in the hospital bed –– not in a bad way, a good way, a way that I never thought anyone would ever look at me. Reading this you probably don’t believe me, but I promise. I promise that she was standing right there at the foot of my bed watching me. I had been in agony, but as she was watching over me I could feel no pain –– not one single hurt. She must have had a magical vibe.

That first time, she turned away from me to see a little girl –– a miniature version of herself –– in a white dress.  She was so… so graceful in every way, delicate. She stroked the girl’s fair hair as she whispered to her. Synchronized looks in my direction, I saw both of their pale blue eyes as they stared into mine.

When they walked away it felt as if they had healed me, so I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it again.

I am Elise Miller. I am nineteenyears old and I have been diagnosed with lung cancer from the asbestos in our old apartment. They told me that I had a fifteen percent chance of living. But ever since my first surgery, I have been semi-okay. After that, my mom and I moved to a small apartment in San Francisco, California.

I am in the hospital again –– my third time this week. She’s back at the foot of my bed, yet this time she has more glow and is trying to speak to me. I listen intently, hearing her soft, faint voice. “Help me, help me, please. I need you.

And then a red coated man comes and takes her hand and carries her away.

I wanted to help her, this magical being who had saved me from my pain.

She doesn’t come back until the next day. But this time when she appears, she is tied up to a chair, in chains, the red coated man walking around her.

“She’s mine,” he says. “Don’t even think of trying to take her back.”  He has a deep, dark voice. It’s easy to sense his evil and mischievousness.

I don’t go to school anymore and it has given me lots of time to think about these characters I have made. I want one wish. That wish is to be able to talk back to these characters. I want to know how they feel, how they think.

I am back in the hospital, this time for testing. When I stare at the end of the bed, that same woman is trapped in a room with no windows, no door. Only a chair, a rope, duct tape tied to her and the red-coated man walking around her.

He’s saying something to her, something like, “I just want to know where he is and why he is doing this so I can stop him.” The red-coated man seems really demanding.

The woman keeps fighting back. “I would never tell you. Over my dead body.”

“Your husband cannot be trusted any longer. If you join me we could take over his power and do good to the world.”

“You will never see me support you, even if our world was turned upside down.”

Then I glimpse another man walking around. He is tall and wears all black. This man is looking for something, and I wonder if he is the man they were talking about. Then the white-gowned woman walks up to him. She is in a panic.

“He is after you,” she says with fear in her voice.

“But he will never find me, because he is not welcome here,” the man says.

She has no response to this, but I can tell she could say millions of things to him.   

When I finally leave the hospital from this round of testing, my mother and I get into a terrible car accident coming out of the parking lot. Everything goes pitch black. I only have a small cut on my arm but my mom has a broken thumb. Back to the hospital we go! This time I’m not the patient –– my mom is, with her broken finger.

A few days later we find out that the guy that crashed into us has been paralyzed from the waist down. He had rammed into the side of our car in great speed trying to cut a red light.   

And then the test results show that the cancer is coming back. I will never be done with hospital visits. I see her every time and become more of a witness to her story. This time, from my bed I see that there is another character. He walks up to the man in black, and looks around. “We need to stop her from her plan.”

“What is this so-called plan?!” I scream in my sleep. “What are you going to do? Don’t kill her, I need her!”

“Elise, are you okay?” my mother asks.

“I am not okay mom, she might die!” I yell at her. My mom runs to the door and I hear her pleading for help as I continue to scream in terror. I hear people rushing to my room and I feel the breeze against me as we rush to another room, the dreadful, terrible, “black hole” of San Francisco: the Emergency Room. Then my vision blurs and my mind is frozen.

When I wake, I instantly see the back of her white gown. But she isn’t just walking away, she is running away. Running down an endless road in the dark, where there are no lights, all the other characters running after her. She has gone into a small alley where she stands behind a gate. The other characters sneak up behind her and take her away.

“I have to go Elise, I’ll see you in the morning.” Is that my mom? I don’t respond because I am too tired.

Her white gown drags across the sidewalk as she walks in her elegant way, handcuffed.

The moon played a part in this story. He glistened his shining light on her gown and grinned. I awake after that, and out my window the moon grins at me. I grin back. As I look at the moon I see someone sitting on top of it. Her white gown crept off the side of the moon. She winks at me and…

Elise was gone too soon. She could not continue on her story, but sometimes we have to accept that some stories just cannot be finished.

The Bear Rap

Yesterday, my principal became a pear.

Little did I know that she was friends with a bear!

I saw the pear on the table –– I chewed it up.

The bear came and threw me –– into a cup.

The cup turned out to be a trashcan.

I was thrown into the junkyard, by the Trash Man.

I swam out of the junkyard and saw my mom.

I yelled but she was busy on Facebook.com!

I eventually got out and took a bath.

So when I see that bear

he will, FACE MY WRATH!

Trich

10:00 p.m. I should probably be going to bed.

I turn on my lamp and turn off the main light, plunging myself into bed. I prop my leg up on my nightstand, right in the lamplight. The light illuminates my leg, revealing stout and short hairs. They dance in the light. They sing to me. Pick me, pick me. I lick my lips.

I pluck my tweezer from the drawer on my nightstand. I click it a few times, listening to the clank of metal on metal. Slowly, I bring the tweezer to my leg. I grasp a hair. Pull it out. Savor the delicious spark it creates in my nerves. I crave it. I crave more.

I pull, hair after hair, from my leg. The tweezer does an elaborate dance across my skin, biting my prey and swallowing it. I can feel the little hair vanishing from my leg, pulled up by its roots, like a child picking a flower. I have been waiting all day for this, for the quiet time before bed when I can pull at my luxury, aided by the tweezer.

While picking at my leg, I think about my day. I think about how hard it is to pull with just my nails, with the prying eyes of teachers and classmates. I remember them asking what I was doing, assuming I was peeling my skin, and turning away in disgust. But it’s worth it. Each pull brings a sting that feels like beauty in the form of what most people call pain.

I tire of plucking my right leg and move to my left leg. It feels just as good, just as worth the time. When I finish, I stick my foot on the table and scour it for hairs. I pick at a mound of skin that holds an ingrown hair. It bursts open and the hair leaps out, wriggling around, glad for freedom. I take it. I pull it. The nerves send the feeling to my brain. I do another one.

I do the other foot. The logical part of my head screams for me to drop the tweezers, to turn off the lamp, to lie down and charge up for school tomorrow. I don’t listen. I can’t listen. I don’t care. I climb up my body. Legs again. Thighs. I savor the delicious feast of removing hair.

Next, I do the stubby, prickly hairs in my pubic area. I open my underwear and look down, selecting the thick, black hairs to rip out.

Armpits. Hands. Fingers. I slowly become full from my feast. Slowly.

Upper lip. Nostrils. The tweezers go everywhere I need them to go, sliding out hairs like drawers slide out of cabinets.

I lay the tweezer down. Some hairs stick out of it, but most litter the nightstand and the carpet in between the nightstand and the bed. Still, my body begs for more. It wants the stress-relieving reap of the harvest. But I can’t do more. I need to sleep.

11:00 p.m. I turn off the lamp.

I am ashamed. I could have gone to bed early. I should have. But I chose not to. Instead, I pulled. The logical part of my brain yells at me. I need to control myself. Everyday, I promise myself that next time I will go straight to bed. Everyday, I break that promise.

 

It seems that I will always be a trichotillomaniac.

Non-Existence

Blue sky, black birds, and fresh warm air. I stand up in the crazing atmosphere and find myself standing in the center of technicolor. Why am I here? And where is ‘here’? Now snow is twinkling from the beautiful clear sky. This must be a dream. I have to wake myself up from this crazy and obnoxious dream. I have to get out of my bed and go to school before my mom kills me. But, I can’t wake up. So I pinch myself. Harder. Stronger. Nothing happens. Pain doesn’t even exist. From a distance, I see a person coming towards me. I can see that it’s a girl based on her long, silky, and beautiful brunette hair. She is wearing a white gown. Miles apart from her, I can see a tall man with another woman, holding each other’s hands. I can see their bare feet and their ghostly, pale-white skin. What a peaceful dream. Maybe it would be better if I don’t wake up. Suddenly, the girl wearing the white gown approaches my right side and quietly whispers, “This is real, this isn’t real, this is real….”

 

“So Marina, why did Dr. Kepler write this love poem based on his vision of photography instead of the first woman he met?” Mr.West asks me, carefully. I am in English class. Did I really just fall asleep — so long that I had a dream? What a shame.

“Um… because — uh… oh photography… yeah because umm…” I never struggle to answer questions — especially in English — where my focus is so strong that I get straight A’s all the way. I can feel everyone’s eyes and faces on me like bees stinging on my skin.

I never want to or even think of disappointing Mr.West. He is the best teacher. In fact, he is more than just a teacher to me. He is the reason I bother to get up and go to school. His hysterical sense of humor always brightens my day.

“Well… Marina, would you like give it another try?” He looks at me — I can tell he is worried. I am worried too.

“Yeah — I uh… I think — ’’

“Looks like you lost track of our reading session. Why?” he shrugs and forces himself to grin. “It seems a little too boring for you?” he teases.

I hear a laugh coming from behind me. Gossip from fangirls and skinny cheerleaders; I’m screwed.

“Mr. West… I — I didn’t mean to — ”

“Atta girl, take a joke now will you? And save those daydreams for later.” He winks at me and then walks away in silence, a sign of tranquility but also disgrace.

“Anyone else like to give it a try?”

“Me! Mr. West, I would love to correct Ms. Marina with her sweet dreams,” Stella Maxwell says. Of course she would be the one to correct someone like me at this moment with that filthy attitude.

“Alright Stella to the max, let’s see what you’ve got.” Did Mr. West seriously just call her “Stella to the max”? Or is he just messing around? I hope he’s not getting flirty with her the way she always sends blossoms to him.

“Thank you, Mr. West. Dr. Kepler didn’t intend to write this poem based on photography, but instead to theorize the retrospective of life and death in order to visualize his past life as well as human reincarnation, shown, in general, from the hidden messages in such photos, especially those from the 1800s.”

“Good, Stella! I don’t think there is any other better way to put that in a sentence. Nice job.” He patted her on shoulder.

Oh, I wish this was still a dream.

 

I walk into the girl’s bathroom. Swearing with middle-finger drawings and other gang symbols on the wall, an ugly scent, and thank god — empty stalls! No one would have to hear my irritable, god-made, yellow-nurtured liquid flowing in between my legs.

“You can’t carry that shit around!” a girl yells as she slams the door to the bathroom. Great. An angry cat fight. “And you can’t be in here!” Is she talking to me?

“Why you gotta be like that?” a guy’s voice. Arrogant. I quickly try to grab toilet paper until I feel emptiness; the little white leftover spots are all that is sticking on to the finished roll of cardboard. I just close my eyes and cross my fingers, hoping for teleportation to exist.

“You carrying that around is going to get you kicked out of school for good.”

I hold my breath and pray that they don’t notice my bright pink ugly shoes that my blind step-grandmother bought me last week. I appreciate her affection toward me, even though I’m not her real granddaughter, but I hate all the things that she buys me (especially since she thinks of me as her ‘little princess’). I feel the sweat of hopelessness all over my body. I close my eyes tighter, as if I’m ready to die. They are arguing like crazy and I assume he’s carrying a gun. I barely listen to the conversation — all I can really hear is the two calling each other names like stupid little kids.

“Put that thing down, you asshole!”

“Don’t you ever try to tell me what to do. Do you think I’m scared to blow this whole stupid school up, huh? ‘Cause that’s what I’ma do if you don’t shut the hell up!”

“YOU STUPID SCHOOL TERROR — ” The girl stops talking; the guy has covered his hand over her mouth so she won’t talk back. The moment I hear a gunshot is a moment of such extreme hatred and anger that all I can do was disappear.

 

Green grass. I look around and remember that I’ve been here before, not so long ago. I’m right; the light blue sky and the aroma of crisp morning air — I am dreaming again. How-how am I dreaming? The last thing I remember is sitting on the toilet in one of the stalls in the girls bathroom. Did I get too tired and bored from their conversations? No, that can’t possibly be the reason — I was in this same dream 15 minutes ago in English class. Nothing makes sense now and this can’t just be a ‘dream.’ It feels so realistic: the birds — I even hear the birds chirping peacefully, the babies crying for food. I start to walk toward the chirping sounds and touch the tall grass, feeling comfort at last. I close my eyes, knowing this is a good time for me to feel restful and free. Maybe the only time. My body moves through space with grace and wonder until —

I fall down, not knowing what bumped me. I lie all the way down and I still don’t feel pain so I wait. I wait until I can wake up again but this time sitting on the toilet, my pants not on yet and listening to the cat fuss. But I don’t wake up. I still sense the fresh air, the warm comfort around me, and the sound of birds chirping remains. I open my eyes. I’m lying on the tall green grass and suddenly feel pain.

Somewhere on my body hurts so much, it’s as if a tiger just tore me in half. I touch my face and feel a slight bump on my forehead. I see a dark brown, rough plank of wood standing on its own, from about a mile away. Is that what caused the pain? I get a closer look and realize how stupid and insipid my observation and thoughts were — a plank of wood can’t just stand on its own; it’s obviously a tree. As I walk closer to the tree, step by step, I feel something strange and bumpy from beneath my feet. I look down and see the hard roots of the tree sticking out heavily like green veins popping out on a person’s skin, especially when they work out like a monster. It looks scary, though it is better than witnessing someone get shot and feeling helpless. (Is that what I saw? Or what I heard? Or what I felt?)

Then I see the bright green leaves hanging on like clothes to the naked branches, making the whole thing look like a tree. The naked branches somewhat remind me of myself while the green leaves represent hope that surrounds me. I wonder what happens when the wind blows off all the leaves — will I then be left hopeless? I feel the roughness of the branches and remember all the sorrow and despair I went through in the past when one car accident left my whole family behind except for me.

I step back as the memories invade my body and soul. Why didn’t I die in peace with my family? Why did I make that attempt to escape? I regret every second of that moment even if my parents wouldn’t feel the same way, since they would probably want me alive. But maybe being alive isn’t the solution to everything.

I go back to the chirping sounds and see a bird fly off from its nest. The bird is as black as the midnight sky, and reminds me of the girl in the white gown I saw in my other dream. It flies around in circles above me, and I wonder why it’s dancing around at the same spot repeatedly. I walk away from the spot to see if it’ll still stay at the same place. It follows me and then flies off about a half mile away. It stops again and seems as if it’s waiting for me to walk towards the same spot. I think I get it now; the bird is leading to my waking life.

Next thing I know, crispy bacon is all I smell.

 

I wake up. Not in the bathroom, but in my room — on my bed. My alarm is still on, making loud drum sounds. 6:00 a.m., Saturday, March 18th. Gosh, why did I set my alarm clock to six in the morning on a weekend?

“Marina, are you awake yet? I made you some good old bacon!” That’s where the crispy scent came from. Wait, did my step grandmother just say she made bacon? Oh no, I’m going to die — we’re all going to die!

“Gran, are you crazy?!” I hear her footsteps on the stairs and by my door. I sit up in bed and look down to see that I am wearing a white gown. I don’t have time to think about it. “You don’t have any eyes — Gran, you’re blind!” Gran pushes open my door. “Can you see me — are you okay? Did you forget your memory — do you have Alzheimer’s — ?” What am I doing? I can’t say that to an 80-year-old woman! Gosh, am I crazy? “Gran I — I’m sorry — ”

She is holding a plate of bacon in her hand. “You know I learned it from the Maple Store down the road. You know there’s a club there every Thursday for blind people to learn the basic things normal people can do, you silly goose. I got the hang of it and now I can turn on the stove, the T.V., and even go to the bathroom by myself, just like the good old days.” She laughs and passes me the plate of burnt bacon.

“Thanks Granny. My, it looks delicious! I can’t wait to dive into this plate — should I pretend to be a dog and eat it with my bare hands for your humor, Ms. I-Know-How-to-Do-Everything?” I give an exaggerated voice, hoping for her to catch that.

“Huh? Oh, right, I’m sorry, the fork — I know I put it here somewhere….” She starts to pat her apron.

“Gran!” Suddenly, I smell something really intense and bad — something like smoke or fire. I lurch out of bed and run down the stairs and the kitchen is on fire.

“Gran — Gran, hurry up — get outside!” The fire spreads across the kitchen rapidly and is now blocking the front door. I run back up the stairs to get her.

“Gran — watch out!”

 

“Like a fire spreading its flames, life and death has its own frame.” Mr. West? Was that the last sentence of the poem? Wait — what happened to the fire — and Granny?

“As you guys can see from the poetic and passionate flow in his poem, Dr. Kepler had a high interest in photography for a specific reason.” He looks at me and I know what is coming after that.

“So Marina, why did Dr. Kepler write this love poem based on his vision of photography instead of the first woman he met?” This time, I’m lucky. I don’t have to feel stings on my skin, nor worry about disappointing Mr. West.

“Of course, Dr. Kepler didn’t intend to write this poem based on photography but instead to theorize the retrospective of life and death in order to visualize his past life — and oh as well as human reincarnation, in general, from the hidden messages and secrets in such photos, and especially those from the 1800s.”

“Wow, that — I don’t think — ” Mr. West starts.

“I know, there is no other better way to put that in a formal sentence, thank you,” I finish his sentence. Mr. West stares at me for a moment with a strange look on his face that is both amused and shocked.

“Wha — how — ? I mean, yes, that was amazing! Good — good Marina, great job.” He pats me on the shoulder, the same way he did to Stella before. This really makes me feel like a superhero or simply a cool smartass. I can see Stella’s surprised face too as she turns around.

I have to go to the bathroom again. Just as I did before. As I walk out the door, the fire alarm starts pounding through the hallways and I cover my ears. This did not happen before, did it?

“Everyone get out, now!” Mr. West yells. “Hurry, there’s no time for yapping, get your butts out of here!”

“Hey! Marina, you don’t really have time to go to the bathroom,” Mr. West says.

“I’ll be quick, I promise!” I say as I slip in.  

I walk into the girls bathroom for the second time. The third stall was where I hid out before — listening to a fight held by both a girl and a guy I still don’t know. Of course, this time I did my business quickly, but then I found myself morbidly waiting in the stall to see if they would come. But no one came. Was it the fire drill? Could that have altered reality? I sneak out the bathroom door and find an empty hallway, but I smell smoke and run out of the closest exit, panting, running — I can’t see — is everyone across the street?

My legs don’t know what’s good for them and start crossing the street — I see the car coming but I can’t move — my stupid legs crumple from the impact.

 

Snowy evening. My parents pull the car up to the curb in front of the high school — the music is still at its highest volume. I am wearing a beautiful white gown that shines through the dark.

“So how was it?” my dad asks as I open the door to the back seat. “Why did you want to leave so early?”

“Did you have fun?” says a voice so faint and surreal. My mom looks at me with those hazel eyes, concerned by my expression.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I can’t speak — I’m finally seeing my parents for the first time since that accident and now I know what’s going to happen in a few minutes or so. Or is everything going to be different, is this a second chance?

“Nothing. I-I’m okay, I’m fine. It was fun. I’m just tired. Thank you for coming to get me.” I don’t know what to do. What if I just drive and let my parents sit in the back seat? “Can I drive?”

“Oh honey, it’s dark and icy — I don’t think it’s a good idea,” my dad said. Or should I just tell them everything? Will they even believe a word I say?

Maybe it’s better if I don’t tell them — maybe something will change. I look out the window and see snow falling more heavily, the darkness roaring like thunder, and our car is the only light visible.

“I bought something for you.” My mom reaches her hand into the backseat next to me, searching for the thing she had bought me, the thing that will ultimately take them away from me.

I should tell them that I don’t need whatever it is, but I have a morbid curiosity as “it” has been destroyed in the accident. Things will change, won’t they? All I need to do is to stop my father from reaching back.

“You bought it, but I picked it out. Picking the right thing is important, you know,” my dad  says, as happy and cheerful as he has ever been. His smile shows so much affection; it just tears me up to think that this might be the last smile I can ever see in my whole life — not just any smile, but a smile from my dad.

“Haha, that’s absolutely right,” my mother says, still reaching and knocking things on the floor. “Your father is pretty good at picking the style of the outfit. Wonder why he didn’t become a fashion designer.”

“Nah,” Dad responds quickly. “Besides if I did, I probably would have never met you.” They are still so in love.

Should I offer to get “it” for them? What is “it”? I realize that they have just told me — “it” must have been as insignificant as an article of clothing.

“Honey, where’d you hide it?” My mom must have kept it in a secret place to surprise me. Dad can never keep a secret.

“It’s just right around in the left side corner inside the — ”

Before I can stop him, Dad’s hand is reaching around his seat. “Oh, I found it!” As soon as Dad finds it, he loses it, hits a patch of ice, and loses control of the wheel. Nothing has changed, nothing can change. Everything is in slow motion — literally. There, I see a truck coming closer and closer — every second — to our car. Is this a test or a choice that I have to make? No, it can’t be — saving my parents is not an option, it is an automatic response. But I can’t do anything to save them — it is already too late.  

“Jump out of the car!” my dad screams. My door is unlocked and before, I had jumped out and saved my own life. I now know that my parents can’t jump out — their doors are locked. I won’t leave them again, just in case I can do something. But what can I do? It is already almost too late. Or maybe I shouldn’t — maybe I should just stay here with them. That would make the three of us die instead of only two, but at the same time it will allow me to see and stay with my parents forever. The truck is about a foot away from touching our car. I just wait and feel the impact of the aggressive onslaught of metal. This is and will be the best and final choice in my life. My parents will be able to share smiles and funny stories again, just like the old times. They can also give me the present once we are back together. Or maybe this — this death that we are sharing — is the real present….

 

Nothing. No tall green grass, no birds, and no trees. Just plain nothing — nothing except a girl and two other people. There I see the girl wearing a white gown coming towards me, closer every step. On the opposite side I see the beautiful and innocent eyes of a man and woman coming towards the girl. When they reach each other, the three hold each other’s hands — so tight — almost like glue.

The Ten Sailors

  

There once was a grand old man

who was trying to get a tan.

He was having a great day

sailing away

until he fell down and drowned.

 

There now was a new sailor,

his name was Taylor.

He lived on a floating trailer.

He was eating bark

when he got bit by a huge shark.

 

There now was a new sailor.

His name was Dan.

He was friends with the grand old man

and was trying to get a tan.

He was eating poison pie

while looking at the sky,

then he realized he was about to die.

 

There now was a new sailor.

His name was Peter.

He was a big reader,

but when someone stole a book

and threw it in the ocean,

he took a hook and fished for the book.

But when he hooked a dolphin he fell in

and grabbed its fin and was never to be found again.

 

There now was a new sailor.

His name was Andy.

He loved candy.

When he ate a lot his teeth would rot,

a dentist would would come in handy

But since no one cared

he died from despair

and now there is no Andy.

 

There now was a new sailor.

His name was Tom.

He was mad at his mom.

His mom got sick and threw a rock at his favorite brother Nick.

The rock missed and hit Tom’s fist

and broke all his bones.

 

There now was a new sailor.

His name was Bob.

He got a job as a sailor.

He was having a great day sailing away hitting the nae nae.

He hit the whip and cracked his lip.

 

There now was a new sailor.

His name was Jack.

He was born in a sack.

He was having a great day sailing away

Until a bale of hay hit his back

He fell down and never came back.

 

There now was a new sailor.

His name was Noah.

He loved to eat only one type of nut.

He also had a big butt

He died from choking on a nut.

 

There once was a man named Chuck.

He lived on a floating duck.

He was rowing all day

Working away

Until he passed away.

 

Anyone else want to become a sailor?

judas is crying now

 the old me was exuberant

she was small and confident

her cheeks shone yellow like the sun

she could jump on flowers

use the petals as landing pads

and if she stepped on a worm

she shrugged her shoulders and kept running

 

that old me died in an explosion that burned bright in the night

the flames billowed like sheets hung out to dry, caressed by the wind

i couldn’t tell you why or where it was

but i could hear the boom of timbers breaking

i could feel the stirring in my soul of a simple melody gone gravely wrong

i could feel a piece i had no idea existed fall out of my chest and splinter on the pavement with an almost musical melancholy sigh

 

i was called to the funeral, and i wore a yellow dress

to commemorate the color of her cheeks

 

i realized my mistake when i saw that

everyone else was wrapped in black and frowning at me

 

after the services someone pulled out a radio

rusted with blue nostalgia

they put on her favorite song and asked me if i would dance to it

for i looked just like her

 

i tried to match the steps but

the music got faster and the dancing more twisted my foot struck the edge

of the radio i hopped in pain the radio stopped and

i fell and they kept frowning and

i started crying and holding my foot and wishing

for something

wishing to be something

that wasn’t her

all i felt was one word ringing through the pathways of my body as if i was standing

on a huge bell

impostor

impostor

impostor

Summer Break

  

When your chains are on for long enough

They start to become part of your body.

When you shed the chains,

It is like losing a part of you,

And you are free.

 

But the knowledge that one day

The chains will return

Seizes your liberty.


The pseudo-carte blanche

Put in place by a totalitarian regime

Takes control of its subjects

In the most vicious of ways.

 

With no second option to turn to,

We, the victims, turn to our moments of indulgence

To liberate us from the constraints that bind us

To an entity that has no mercy,

Gives no purpose,

And only takes.

 

The only thing we have to lose is our shackles.

Immortality

I smile at the nice lady holding up the two lollipops.

“Which one do you want?”

I take both.

The first day of school is the most important day of school because you have to make a good first impression on the people around you, and your teacher because the teacher is the most important person in that classroom except for yourself so, go in there and have some fun because that’s what you need to do. What in the hell do I do with this wooden stick in my hands.

After all of the words and letters and numbers and letters and names and places I go and I leave and I go out into the sun. Gotta get that vitamin D, imperative for bone and overall growth and bone marrow and growth of bone marrow.

I go and have some fun, because that’s how it works.

I look up and see a bear. I scream and yell but nothing happens. People around me are laughing at a joke so I start laughing too. We all start laughing harder, and it’s ok because the bear took off its head and it’s also laughing. What was the joke guys, I bet it was really funny because y’all are laughing so hard, and I really want to hear it please…?

Because after all. We all need something to calm our nerves.

We all start typing away, writing a paper or article or essay so we can pass this course and graduate from college and graduate from graduate school and get a nice and cushy job and retire in southern France with vines all over the walls. I print out my paper to my professor’s watch, where he can then access it manually or have the ScanMan™ grade it along with the others. The professor gives me a small, sad smile as I run out of lecture hall and into the sunlight.

 

After all. We all need a release from our bodies once in awhile.

 

Where did the time go?  After all these years, all I have is a giant stuffed bear that says “Go Big Reds!” emblazoned on the top its forehead and it’s looking at me funny and oh sorry but I have to go and go color in circles with sticks.

I stand at the door of the researcher and he looks at me in pity and fear and worry and surprise and hope and sorrow. I smile winningly at him but the muscles in my face hurt so I stop and then the jackhammer in my chest breaks through and it’s okay though because I am the first.

But really. It’s okay. I’m okay.

He asks me if I want to call someone because he has to.

I smile.

I sit.

I close my eyes and take the lollipops and throw them onto the ground because all of the words make sense.

I won’t be the last.

The Girl With No Name

She wakes up and realizes that she is lying on the side of a road in a city. She doesn’t know which one. She pushes herself off the ground and onto her bare feet. The girl feels her head, which is covered with tangled, thick black hair. Her eyes glance around as she looks at the tall buildings around her small self. The girl then realizes her olive skin is covered with dirt. She wears a pair of baggy jeans that don’t belong to her and a red tee with the words “Susie’s Cafe” on it.

The girl has no memories of what had happened that put her in this place. All she remembers are the basic things like how to breathe, how to tie her shoelaces, how to read and write, and how to walk and talk. But she doesn’t remember her family or friends or if she has any at all. She doesn’t know where she’s from or where or when she was born. She doesn’t even remember her name.

The girl walks a few blocks and wonders where the cafe on her shirt is. Overwhelmed by all the confusion that faces her right now, she decides to ask someone to help her. She walks into the nearest building, which is a coffee shop, and walks over to the counter. But before she can reach it, a waiter accidentally pours a steaming cup of hot coffee on the girl. With a burning sensation on her torso, she screams in pain. The waiter apologizes to her and offers her a clean napkin to wipe off the scorching coffee on her tee. The liquid slowly falls down onto her bare feet. So the boy brings her to the restroom and helps her clean herself.

“I’m so sorry, miss,” the boy says to her as she splashes water onto her face.

“It’s okay,” she says.

“What can I do to repay you?” he asks her generously.

“I need directions. I’m kind of lost,” she says.

“No problem,” he says. “Where do you need to go?” He puts the coffee soaked napkins in the nearest trash can.

“Susie’s Cafe,” she says. The girl takes a deep breath and is afraid to ask the next question that rambles in her mind. “I also need to know where I am?” 

The boy looks at her like she is a loon but he answers her question anyway. “You’re in Carrie’s Coffeehouse.”

“I mean what city?” she asks, afraid he might run away because of the unknown girl’s cluelessness.

“Oh honey, you’re in New York City,” he says, “If you want a more specific answer, you’re in Manhattan.”

All she says is, “Huh.”

“I figure you’re lost and all, but are you alright? Like, do you know where exactly you are going?” he asks.

“No I don’t,” the girl with no name says. “I don’t know anything about myself. I don’t know how I got here or why and I don’t remember if I have any family or friends. I don’t even know my own goddamn name.”

“Oh my god,” he says. “Let me show you the way to Susie’s.”

“Thank you so much, sir,” the girl says.

“I’m twenty-one, don’t call me ‘sir,’” the boy says. “My name is Vic, and my shift is almost over so I can take you to Susie’s right now.” He takes a deep breath. “There’s also an available apartment right across the hall from mine. It’s yours if you want.”

“But I don’t have any money.”

“I’ll pay for everything,” Vic says with a sweet and welcoming smile.

The girl is very delighted at the news of her being sheltered, but she is hesitant of Vic. She thinks of the fact that Vic might be a serial killer or an ax murderer. But she’s in desperate need of finding a place to stay so she decides to ignore those possibilities. The girl nods her head to Vic and they go off on their way to find Susie’s Cafe.

They find the cafe in no time. At the counter, she meets Susie, an old woman with graying hair and a scary look on her face. The girl asks Susie if she knows anything about her. Susie tells them that the girl will have to come back in a year to learn the truth.

Naturally, the girl is upset, but she goes off with Vic.

***

A year later, the girl and Vic are now much closer, best friends, even. They arrive at the cafe once again to see Susie about her old life.

“Come into the alley with me, children,” she says. They followed her into the alley.  “I’ll tell you about your past, Honey,” Susie begins.

“Okay, tell me already,” she says impatiently.

“But on one condition,” Susie says.

“Which is?”

“I get to kill him.” She points Vic with her wrinkly finger.

Vic and the girl exchange a look. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I need my food, Honey,” Susie says with a rasp in her sickening voice. “You see sweeties, I’m a Vorago. One who needs humans to live. I prey on the weak, but strong-hearted. There are not many of those in this world.” She gave them an uneasy smile.

The girl puts her arm in front of Vic and says, “Never.”

“Fine, it’s your choice.” Susie stood there, and suddenly the petite, elderly woman grows fangs, like a vampire, and her face turns more wrinkly than before. Behind her back, Susie holds a knife. She runs towards Vic and attempts to stab him anyway. But before Susie can reach him, the girl grabs the knife from her hand and runs it into Susie instead. Her scream is ear-splitting. Her old body is lit on fire by a mysterious force and she burns to ashes right in front of them.

The girl hugs Vic and says, “I will never let anyone hurt you.”

He hugs her back and says, “Same here.”

She lets go of him and wipes some stray tears off of her cheek. “I guess I will never know who I really am.”

“You already know who you are,” Vic says to her. “You don’t need your past to make your future. Your future is what you make of it right now in the present.”

“But I don’t even have a name,” she says letting a tear fall from her eye.

“I can give you one.”

“Really?” she asks as she and Vic make their way out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. “What are you thinking of?”

“I was thinking you could take my last name, Madison.”

“I like that,” she says. “What about the first name?”

“Well everybody calls you Honey, so why not?”

“I love it!” she says. Honey leans over to Vic and gives him a kiss on the cheek. “My name is Honey Madison.”

So the girl who had no name a year ago and didn’t even know who she was, is now with a name and living across the hall from her best friend-turned-boyfriend, Vic Madison. But don’t worry, Honey eventually learned about her past by meeting someone from her past. So for now, the girl with no name is no more.

 

One year later…

She walks down the New York City street as if it is a normal day. She holds hands with her boyfriend, Vic, and glances over to him once in awhile thinking to herself how lucky she is to have him. His caramel-colored hair is being whipped around by the wind and the sunlight shining in his big brown eyes. It fills Honey with more joy than anyone could ever imagine.

Many people pass by them, big, small, short, tall and they all seem normal. But there is one woman who stands out. Her long, curly, strawberry blonde hair bounces up and down while the sunlight gracefully dances along her snow white skin. She wears a big smile on her face. Her pearly white teeth sparkle while her rosy red lips are shaped like a heart. Her outfit consists of a simple long-sleeve black tee with tight leather pants, black combat boots, and a black heart-shaped purse slung across her shoulder. The woman’s brown eyes linger over to Honey and Vic. She stops in her place and begins to quickly walk over to them.

Honey and Vic keep walking while trying to ignore the woman, making no eye contact with her. But something doesn’t feel right. The blonde woman seems very familiar to her. There’s something different about this girl that strikes her. She can hear the clicking of the woman’s heels plopping up and down. Honey grips Vic’s hand a bit tighter, showing fear. The woman gets closer. It seems like she is running now. Honey wonders who this woman is and what she wants.

“Mara!” the woman shouts over the roar of the trains above them. Honey and Vic continue walking as if the woman had never said anything. The trains are gone and again the woman shouts, “Mara!”

Honey begins to slow down but Vic keeps going at the same rate. “Stop,” she whispers to him as she stands still in the middle of the sidewalk. Vic, a foot ahead of her, looks back at her confused.

“Honey, come on,” he says hoarsely.

She just shakes her head and whips around, standing face to face with the woman. The woman stops in awe, trying to catch her breath. Vic walks over to the two women, bewildered by what’s happening. Honey stares at the girl, feeling a strange sense of familiarity.

The blonde woman smiles a bit and throws her arms around Honey. For some reason, she hugs her back. The woman releases her from her grasp and smiles again. A single tear slithers down her face, smearing her mascara. Both Honey and Vic are muddled. Honey shows no sign of emotion as she stares at the awestruck woman.

“What’s wrong?” the woman questions. Honey notices her English accent now that she’s talking to her. Her deep brown eyes were filled with mystery and something else that Honey couldn’t put her finger on.

“I don’t know,” she answers quietly, but loud enough so the woman could hear. “Do I know you?”

The woman looks hurt. Her eyes sadden and her shoulders, which were once high with excitement, fall. Her smile turns into a frown. Honey knows this is her imagination, but she thinks she can hear a heart beating quickly. A heartbeat that is not her own.

“What tricks are you playing on me this time?” the woman asks with annoyance in her voice.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t know who you are.”

The woman doesn’t look confused at all. She just looks sad and worried. Thoughts race through Honey’s head. Does this woman hold the answers to her past? How, in all of New York City, does she find the woman that knew her before she became Honey Madison, two years exactly after she woke up in that  alley?

“Do you remember anything about yourself?” the woman asks. Honey shakes her head. “Do you even know your name?” She shakes her head again. The woman sighs. “Do you know who I am?” She shakes her head. The woman closes her eyes in frustration.

“What have you been calling yourself for the past two years, then?” she asks.

“Honey Madison, and this is Vic.”

“Well, that’s stupid,” she says with grin.

“Hey,” Vic pipes up. “I happened to think that is a wonderful and very creative name.”

The woman turns, scans him, and says, “I’m going to assume that you came up with it, then.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Vic questions, offended.

She lifts her brows and grins. “If her name is so stupid, then may I ask what yours is?” Vic asks annoyed.

“Cass Blackwood,” the woman says. There’s something in that name that wants to spark a fire in her mind. Vic doesn’t say a word. Cass rolls her eyes and faces Honey again.

“I know you don’t have any idea who I am, but trust me,” Cass kindly says. “I will restore your memories and get you back where you truly belong.”

“And where’s that?” Honey asks.

Cass wraps her long white fingers around Honey’s skinny wrists and whispers, “Home.”

Cass, Honey, and Vic agree to meet at Carrie’s Coffeehouse at seven that night. Vic isn’t too happy about meeting with a stranger from his girlfriend’s past. He wonders if her past is something that will make her leave him. He doesn’t want that to happen, so he tries to talk Honey out of meeting with Cass tonight.

“What if she’s just a con artist trying to take your money?” Vic asks Honey in her apartment later that day.

“What money?” Honey fires back. “Vic, I’m a waitress working at a crappy cafe. I don’t think Cass wants to rob a girl who can barely afford a nice dress.”

“I just have a bad feeling about her,” he says nervously.

She sighs. “Vic, you have to trust me on this. Cass Blackwood is from my past. I don’t know how, I can just feel it.”

“How?”

“I don’t know,” she softly says, “but you have to trust me.” She grins, throws on her dark purple jacket and leaves.

Vic wonders. She doesn’t know what she’s getting into.

Honey arrives at the coffeehouse in a matter of minutes. She walks through the front door and spots Cass reading a book. Cass notices Honey and ushers her over to her table. Honey is nervous, but, still in doubt, saunters over to Cass. She plasters a fake smile on her face. Cass smiles back and pulls a chair out for her. Honey sits down. Cass picks up a glass of water and puts it up to her mouth.

“First things first,” Honey begins, “you’d better not be a serial killer or some kind of con artist or my boyfriend will find you and make you pay.”

Cass spits out the water in her mouth and laughs. “Funny.”

“I wasn’t trying to be,” she admits.

Cass puts the glass down and wipes her mouth on her sleeve. “That Madison boy is your boyfriend?” Honey nods. “No offense, but that boy is not going to make me pay.”

“He’s stronger than he looks,” Honey defends.

“Well,” Cass says, “so am I.”

Honey scans Cass. She’s tall, taller than Honey, but frail-looking. She has skinny arms and legs, and, honestly, she looks fifteen.

“What did you mean,” Honey begins, changing the subject, “when you said you can restore my memories?”

Cass takes a deep breath. “Well, I can’t do it myself. I don’t have that kind of power, but I have friends that can.”

“Then take me to them,” she demands.

“Slow down,” Cass says. “First, we have to prove that you’re worth restoring.”

“Worth restoring?” Honey asks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Witches and Warlocks can be picky when it comes to favors,” Cass explains. “They only want to work with ‘pure’ customers. I’ve already been deemed pure by the Warlocks’ Council.” She pulls up her sleeve, revealing a burn that looks like a W with a vertical line straight down the middle.

“Warlocks? Witches?” Honey asks, baffled. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh,” she begins, “you really don’t know anything about the Immortal World.”

“I’m sorry, but you’re mad,” Honey says. She gets up from her chair and starts to walk away, leaving Cass behind.

But when Honey arrives outside, the world is frozen. Not winter frozen, or the Disney film, but frozen in time. Moving cars stop in the middle of traffic. Birds stand still overhead, wings spread out. People with one foot in the air, trapped in conversation, glued to their phones. Honey is the only one still moving.

A hand grasps her shoulder. She gasps, and spins around. Cass stands there staring at her.

“What did you do?” she asks, muddled. “More importantly, how did you do that? And don’t say ‘magic.’”

She huffs. “I’m part an order of half-human, half-demon warriors that fight to protect mortals from evil. Personally, I am half-Gorgon from my mother’s side. Instead of turning people into stone, I can freeze the Mortal World in time,” she explains. “Got a problem with that?”

She stays silent.

“I thought so,” Cass says.

“So you’re half-demon?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Cass says. “And so are you.”

“What?”

“There are things you need to know,” she says. “But I can’t explain everything right now.” Her voice rises. “The entire Mortal World is frozen, and I can hear footsteps coming here. Fast.”

“What do we do?” Honey asks, as the sound of footsteps grows louder.

“What I always do,” she says. “Run.”

Cass unfreezes the Mortal World, and they run as fast as they can through the streets of Brooklyn. Honey’s heart races as her feet pound against the pavement, and she takes short, quick breaths to stabilize her jittery body. Cass is much faster than her, and it pains Honey to run faster than she has ever before. Cass makes a turn into an alley, and Honey follows her, not knowing what she’s doing. She pulls out a phone, dials a number, and puts it up to her ear.

“Monroe?” she says into the speaker. “Yeah, it’s me, Cass. I found Mara. Yes, I’m sure it’s her. There’s someone following us. I need backup. Come with the Idrises. Yes, immediately.”

Cass ends the call, and looks down the street. She gasps. She runs towards the end of the alley, and sprints up a wobbly, rusty ladder. As she approaches the top, she yells something that Honey assumes it’s an invitation to hurry up. Honey runs and hops onto the ladder. She climbs as fast as she can, but Cass is much quicker than her. Honey pulls herself onto the roof of the building and sees Cass looking up, not down like Honey would assume she would.

“What are you looking at?” she asks. Suddenly, a roaring sound of flapping pervades her ears. “Cass, what is that sound?”

“Backup,” she says.

Honey looks at the sky and sees four creatures flying towards them. As they approach closer, she recognizes the flying beings as horses. Horses with wings. The four black stallions flap their large, long, dark wings up and down, and it looks like they’re carrying people: two young women and two young men. The horses land gracefully on the roof of the building. They hop off and tie their reins on an antenna sticking out from the brick. The riders’ eyes widen when they see Honey. She wonders why they’re staring at her, but she just walks over to Cass.

“Why are they staring at me?” she asks.

“They’re surprised to see you,” she says as she leads Honey over to them.

As they approach them, Honey grows nervous. They look at her as though they’ve known her forever. She has an uneasy, familiar feeling about these people. She then notices they carry swords in their scabbards except for one of the women, she carries no weapon. The short woman with no weapon has short dark hair cut to her neck, flawless alabaster skin, deep brown eyes, and wears dark jeans, a black tank top, and a red leather jacket.

Cass points to the woman and says, “This is Brielle Idris.” She points to the other woman, who has long dark purple hair, tied in a ponytail, alabaster skin, hazel eyes, and wears almost the same thing as Brielle, but has a black leather jacket and blue jeans. Cass directs her hand to the shorter man with shaggy blond hair, brown eyes, alabaster skin, and wears ripped jeans, and a t-shirt. “These are the Idris twins, Garvin and Lilith.” Then Cass nods to the muscular man with the scars running down his face, who wears black jeans, a navy t-shirt, and combat boots with dark hair, dark skin, and brown eyes. “And this Kellen Monroe.”

Lilith is the one who speaks first. “Where have you been for the last two years?”

“I believe that a demon might’ve stolen her memories,” Cass says. “She doesn’t know any of us or anything of the Immortal World.”

“Dammit,” Garvin mumbles.

“Are you all like Cass?” Honey innocently asks.

“Everyone, except for Brielle,” Monroe says. “She’s a Witch.”

“Oh,” is all she can say.

“We can’t deal with this right now,” Cass says. “There’s a group of Voragines coming up the street right now, and I bet by all six of our demon blood and the pegasi, that they can smell us and will come up here. So I suggest we be prepared.” She takes a deep breath. “Arm Mara with a sword, and be ready.”

Garvin, Lilith, and Monroe pull their swords from their scabbards and raise them in a defensive position. Monroe tosses Cass another sword from his second scabbard, and she catches it. Garvin walks over to Honey and holds out a silver sword.

“Take this,” he says to her. “You will know what to do.” He smiles and places the sword in her hands. Honey can feel something when his skin touch hers, another spark of fire, but she still cannot find the substance that lights it.

“What’s my name? My real name?” she asks him, looking into his eyes.

“Your name is Mara Blackwood,” Garvin says. “You’re like me, a Champion of the Immortal World.”

“Blackwood?” she asks. “Like Cass?”

“She didn’t tell you?” he asks. “She’s your sister.”

Honey’s mind races, but she knows that this isn’t the time to take all of this in. All she knows is that she needs to help these people defend themselves from Voragines, the bloodsucking monsters that tried to kill Vic and her a year ago. These last two years are all she remembers. She wonders what life she must have had back when she was Mara Blackwood. Whoever she was, she is not that girl anymore. Through the deprivation of her memories, she has been reborn. Honey holds the silver sword in her hands, a sword engraved with beautiful symbols. She wonders if they mean something special to someone. She can feel the power in her dainty hands. The power coursing through her blood.

She knows now who she is, who she will always be.

She looks up at Garvin and sees him staring at her. She gives him a smile of reassurance and grasps the sword in her hands. She raises the sword up between her and Garvin.

“I don’t know who you are, Garvin,” she begins. “I might’ve long ago, but not anymore. I have many questions, but little answers. I do not need them right now because I know what I am, what I will always be: a warrior.”

She lowers the sword and walks away. She approaches the others and raises her sword like they do. Cass looks over to her.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

About two dozen Voragines scale the building, their sharp teeth snarling and their razor-edged nails digging into the brick. They are pale beings with murderous eyes. Her muscles tighten and her heart beat quickens. She tightens her grip on the sword as they grow closer. She backs away from the edge. Cass and the others stay where they are, ready for battle. But she thinks she can defend herself by standing back.

Lilith swings her bronze sword and slices off the head of an ugly Vorago. Her stomach twists at the sight of the headless body, the severed head, and the sprayed blood all over. She wonders how no one on the streets can see the horror above their heads. Monroe impales another and it falls to the ground. In Brielle’s hands, a ball of fire forms, growing bigger and bigger. She throws it at a Vorago, and its body is consumed by the flames. He burns and plummets to the Earth. Cass slashes a Vorago, and Garvin slits another’s throat.

Strangely, she has no trouble believing that this chaos is her world.

Another Vorago sprints towards the girl and snarls his teeth at her. She raises her sword, and swings the blade straight through his heart. He falls to the ground. Blood spills everywhere. It feels so natural, the killing of demons. Her heartbeat quickens and the blood in her veins boils. Another attacks her, and she slices off its head. Energy rushes down her spine, an odd place where power would emerge. She slashes one Vorago, two Voragines, three Voragines. It’s so easy.

After so many Voragines dead, the warriors finally stop and lower their weapons. All eyes turn to the girl. Her clothes are covered in blood, her hair thrown all about because of fighting, and her body weakening right in front of them. She trudges over to the edge and looks down. The people keep walking. They don’t even notice the battle that roared above them moments ago.

Tears burn in her eyes and her knees buckle. If Cass is right, she is demon, but she is also human. That bit of human lingering in her body, her soul, keeping her bound to this Earth, this world.

Suddenly, the others are yelling at her, warning her. They’re telling her to turn around. She spins as quickly as she can, but it’s too late. The last growling Vorago is running toward her at what it seems like light speed. He pushes her, and it knocks her off the roof.

It’s very slow actually, contrary to what most people might think falling to your own death feels like. The wind rushes against her face, flapping her hair and her blood-sprayed clothes. There’s a scream, multiple actually, coming from above. She spreads her arms out like a bird and shuts her eyes. She is prepared to face the Grim Reaper. She doesn’t know why, but death feels natural, normal even.

There is another burst of energy emerging from her spine. She doesn’t know what it is, but she knows that there is something familiar about the power. A great pain spikes out from her back, and she opens her eyes. Instead of plummeting straight to her death, she swoops back up into the air, miraculously. She doesn’t know what is happening. It’s as if her weight disintegrates and she becomes as light as a feather. The wind gusts against her body. The buildings pass by her in a split second as she heads towards the sky.

She’s rising like the break of dawn, and the Earth is bowing down to her.

She stops and rises above every building in New York. She looks down and sees the roof she fell off of. Cass and the others are staring at her as if she is an impossibility. But their stares tell her everything that she needs to know. They aren’t goggling at her. They are gaping at what’s on her back.

Glorious, pure, white-feathered wings sprout from her spine and sprawl out like a newborn bird ready to take flight. They flap back and forth gracefully, but powerfully. Her breathing grows harder and her heart leaps into her throat. She kicks her legs in the air, trying to fly back to the roof. It doesn’t do much good.

Then, she realizes that the power isn’t in her legs, it’s her wings. An impossible saying in her mind. She pushes the energy from her feet to her spine. She screams in agony trying to bring herself to the force the vitality to take her home. Her blood boils and her heart feels like it is on fire. She shuts her eyes and pushes her wings. She can feel the world still shifting beneath her feet. She can feel herself advancing, but does not know where.

She opens her eyes and can see herself growing closer to them. She grins and pushes herself closer towards the roof. She kicks until the soles of her shoes touch the brick. Cass and Garvin reach out to bring her in, and once she firmly planted on the roof, the wings are sucked into her back. She reaches over to touch it and feels the holes in her clothes from the winged birth. Still such a strange phrase. “Her wings.”

Cass embraces her and smacks her lips on her forehead. She hugs her sister back and laughs.

“Are you okay?” Cass asks.

“Not completely,” she says as she releases Cass. “But when I get my memory back, I’m sure it’ll be alright.”

“I can help with that,” Brielle pipes up. “When we arrive at the Bureau, I can concoct a memory recovery potion, but we have to stop off at the Council first to have you deemed pure.”

“What’s the Bureau?” she asks.

“Champions’ base of operations,” Monroe says. “It’s where we eat, sleep, and plan missions.” He pauses. “Now we know what your mother is, Mara.”

“An angel?” she asks.

Monroe nods. “A rarity among Champions. Angels don’t spend much time in the Mortal World, and most of them believe anything with human blood is a disgrace. But I guess your father must’ve been something special.”

“I wish I knew,” she mumbles.

“It’s going to be alright, Mara,” Cass says.

The girl looks up to the sky, and wonders. Wonders what will be her fate. Wonders who she was, who she is, who she will be. She was once the girl with no name. A girl who woke up in an alley, and was found by a boy she truly loves, and he loves her back the same way. Someone who didn’t know anything about the real world, the cruel and unforgiving world. She is, and always will be, the girl who flew, flew in the sky with the wings of an angel. She was once the girl dying on the Earth, but now she is the girl in the sky, so very much alive.

give and take

 

 I take

3 hard candies in my hand and

slip them out of their plastic shells.

I pop each one into my mouth

with a quick movement,

So no one can see what I’ve done.

 

I take

pictures of leaves and flowers and hands

and then delete them.

I hide them so well

That they’re never found,

And I shake my head when

People see my camera

And ask if I take any good pictures.

 

I take

insults

And warp them until they’re

All I can hold onto.

Subtle, teasing comments

That shouldn’t mean anything.

 

I take

Tests and lose my sanity

For 44 minutes.  

 

I give

hesitant hugs and lemon drops with smiles that taste just as sour.   

 

I give

Averted glances and

Tired, trembling high fives.   

 

I’ve given

until my hands are so empty and raw that they hurt too much to take.

 

I can’t take from others

Because I know how hard it is to give.   

We’re still kids with

Sticky fingers,

Stuck to rapacity and red life savers.  

 

I take

books and fall asleep with them so the pages are crumpled where I finished reading.

 

I take

water and let it slip through the cracks between each finger,

Long showers that lull

My environmentalist mind to sleep.   

 

I take

Deep breaths

Between giggles or sobs ––

It makes no difference.   

 

I take

a dictionary and shake it hard

so the words have new meanings.   

 

I take

walks.  

I take

my friends’ hands when we walk through cemeteries

because it’s scary and cold,

But their fingers aren’t.   

 

I take

Minutes to myself.  

Sunday mornings where I lay under a snowy white mountain of blankets,

The sun creeping in through my window;

I take

her in with open arms.  

 

I take for myself,

From myself.  

 

I take

3 hard candies

And rip them out of their plastic shells,

So everyone knows that I’m here

And ready to take.

 

The Story of Autumn

   

Bouncing piles of leaves radiate riveting reds and yellows.

Orange sunlight seems a little less bright than the thousands of leaves around you.

 

With the cool wind tickling your neck, it feels like you could stay here forever,

prancing in the forest of your backyard, seeming so much bigger now that it’s full.

 

Strangely, a small brown leaf with crinkled edges sits in a small clearing as if on purpose.

You dismiss the event as the fun of the season continues to invade your mind.

 

As you plan to make a leaf pile, a work of childish creation, the brown leaf sits at the edge of your vision. You put it at the top. Quite strange, how sending it to its imminent toppling seems to be a nice gesture.

 

Unfortunately, as many have said, everything comes to an end.

 

As the brisk air sharpens, reds and yellows turn to dirty browns.

 

Standing outside, you try to cram in the last bit of fun on one of the sunnier mornings,

but nothing has the right color or quality, and your efforts turn into a depressing way to start the day.

 

Reluctantly helping along, you and your family put the leaves in bags, tossing everything away,

just reminding you further that this incredible season is coming to an end.

 

A process taking minutes stretches to hours in your mind

as each and every leaf becomes a tidbit of sadness building inside you.

 

You can almost feel the fall wind being sucked away by the same vacuum

that seemed to suck away the spirit of the season.

 

As your family finishes up, one leaf remains. A small brown leaf with crinkled edges.

As a crystal of white lands on it and melts on its surface, you know his time is over.

Moonlight

  

I crawl into bed and put my sheets on.

“Good night Shimmer,” I murmur to my dog.

My eyes close and I drift to sleep.

A few hours later I open them and it’s still night.

It should have been morning by now.

 

I look outside to a strange sight.

The

moon

  is

falling.

I jump out of bed and run outside.

The moon lands in the stream

near my house causing it to glow

a sparkly moonlight.

The light goes down the stream

past other houses. I run by the side

of the stream to see how far it goes.

It starts heading towards a waterfall.

As it goes down

the waterfall,

lt starts to sparkle more!

The waterfall leads to the ocean.

The moonlight starts filling the ocean.

I sit by the water and reach

a finger out to touch it.

As I touch it, my skin starts

to glow the bright moonlight.

I glow more and more

and start flying toward the sky.

 

The next thing I know,

I am in bed again,

looking out the window

and the moon is back in the sky.

 

I think it was just a dream,

but it’s hard to know for sure

 

My skin is still slightly glowing.

birds singing

  

the birds sang your song best when I first fell into you

When you first tickled my palm

On those warm july mornings

 

the serum of their melody

like cough syrup

dwindling down the cavity of my chasm

–– oh!

what a hymn!

the climax of something

of everything

of the in between

of the organ as the keys quake my small steeple

Slicing away at the foundation

I thank god

For his divine intervention that brought your song to me

as I scratch at your hand

trying to get used to the elevation

 

the birds sighed your stolen song most begrudgingly right after you left

To kiss another’s cheek

On those icy December mornings

like Satan himself

whispering velvet into my ear about how you’re not here

licking mocks of your blessings on my wrist

–– ah!

it’s blasphemy

the kiss of sweet sacrilege

molten saliva dripping down my jaw

all around me is black

except for your old tee shirt ––

as my stars

–– but you’re lightyears away with a galaxy named after a different sun

 

the birds still sing your beaten-up song

When she broke your heart

And you flew back to me

But I grew tired of hearing it

My Body Is a Temple

 My body is a temple

Anyone may walk

Through my propylaia

Who needs to pray.

I lay brick upon brick

On top of my

Concaving shoulders:

Being their Atlas.

My columns bear

The weight of their troubles;

I am crumbling

But I still stand.

 

My body is a temple.

I am stagnant.

I serve others

But receive nothing

In return.

Not because it

Isn’t offered

But because I

Am my own Caryatids.

 

My body is a temple.

I am given thanks

But sometimes taken

For granted.

Everyone’s names

Have been carved

Into my skin:

A permanent reminder

Of who I buttressed.

No stone quite fits

The piece of me they removed.

 

My body is a temple.

Extroversion is mixed

In my mortar.

Human interaction is

What holds me together.

 

My body is a temple.

I am ever-changing

My presence in their life

My cellas hold unique meanings

to each individual.

 

My body is a temple.

Though vandalized,

Every mark left behind

On my frieze tells a story

and helps me grow.

My own experiences

Improve my ability to aid.

 

My body is a temple

And I feel blessed everyday.

Angst Declassified: Teen Survival Guide

So, you just turned 15, and like many other teen girls out there, you feel sad. Misunderstood. Like a bialy on a plate of bagels. You feel like you might be depressed but you don’t want to say anything because, well, you saw what happened to the last girl who said anything. Logically, you have one question: How do I hide this? Look no further! By following these simple steps, you can shame your sadness into that dark, decrepit part of your brain we like to call The Subconscious.

Step 1: Add “lol” to the end of every sharp utterance to seem cool, casual, and unaffected, kind of like a comatose cucumber. For example, the phrase “I wanna die” becomes so much funnier as “I wanna die, lol.” If you can laugh at sadness, perhaps you can distance yourself from it.

Step 2: Take mental health days, but hide them under the pseudonyms of obscure illnesses with multisyllabic Latin names. You don’t come to work because you have a touch of “situs inversus” and you miss your AP biology final because your “lymphatic filariasis” is acting up. Everyone will extend thinly veiled sympathy towards you. You’ll mistake their platitudes for care and start showing up for life again.

Step 3: Exonerate your worries through a fad diet. Juice cleanses are the most effective, but the Paleo diet has had moderate success when coupled with binge drinking. Busy your mind with how many calories are in 8.5 ounces of distilled carrot juice and drown your fears in unfiltered antibiotics. Side effects include hallucinations and extreme irritability, but you’ll be 7 pounds lighter and unburdened of heavy demons.

Step 4: Get a boyfriend. Break up with him. Get another boyfriend. Break up with that one, too. Repeat the process until all the people-shaped holes in your heart are plastered over with the memory of you having the upper hand.

Step 5: Buy yourself really extravagant gifts like hoverboards, commissioned busts of worthless dignitaries, and tickets to shows you’ve never heard of and think sound pretentious anyway. Take yourself on the worst dates. Spoil yourself until you’re a rotten peach. Yes, things are not the key to happiness. But they’re so damn fun, aren’t they?

Step 6: Bleach your hair and then dye it red, or blue, or any color but brown for Christ’s sake. Watching your hair turn into limp, rainbow-colored straws guarantees weeks of enough nail-biting excitement that you’ll stop writing cryptic tweets. Then, in the aftermath, you’ll be too be preoccupied with covering up your bald spots that maybe, just maybe, you won’t wonder if he still likes you.

Step 7: Find yourself a good corset, one with lace and enough underwire to compress your sadness until it whittles down into nothing. A 25-inch waist can’t possibly bear the weight of an existential crisis. Why do you think models always look (emaciated) and happy? Their bone structure isn’t conducive to depression.

Step 8: Develop an online alias with a sexy name like Eliza, Brandy, or Candi. Give her a rom-com profession, such as artisanal baker or heiress to Dad’s paper clip throne. Then, proceed to catfish as many guys as possible. This will give you tons of practice at lying. You’ll be doing a lot of that soon.

Step 9: Take your coffee black and when people ask why, tell them, “It’s because it matches my soul.” They’ll mistake this as a cry for help and maybe it is. There’s nothing more polarizing than an unsweetened existence or a person who’s too “real” for artificial sugar. These people will ask concerned questions about your life and your feelings and you. You’ll probably like this whole being the center of the galaxy kind of thing. Perhaps it will center you.

Step 10: Hit things, not people. Punch pillows, smash trophies, and burn pictures. Turn every worldly possession you have into scraps of abstract art. Nothing matters when it’s in pieces. Nothing matters, anyway. We’re all just projections floating on a sphere in space. Money is just a man-made concept. So is time. The sooner you realize all of this, the less sad you’ll feel because feelings don’t matter, obviously.

Step 11:  Yell a lot. Text in all caps. Shout in libraries. Scream in movie theaters. Loud sounds are cathartic. That’s why wolves never stop howling, I think.

Step 12: When all else fails, take these meds: Prozac. Klonopin. Xanax. Robitussin. Advil Extra Strength. Dry swallow them until your throat feels scratchy and your stomach is bloated with cure-alls. Your brain won’t know what direction is up, but it won’t know what direction is down either. This isn’t quite sadness or melancholy. It’s a new feeling: confusion. You’re going to love it. It’s less blissful than ignorance but it does a good enough job distracting Depression and Loneliness. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to think.

Pearls

 

As I watch

The cattails blowing

in the wind

It begins to rain

Perfect drops

Falling from the sky

Each one

As luminous as a pearl

Falling

on the leaves

the water

the grass

Each drop

Glides

Down each leaf

Akin to a glass bead

And as I watch

Wanting

to see more

Yearning

For the cold

Slippery

Feel

On my skin.

Perfect.

I want so

So

So

Much more.

But now

It’s gone.

In Search Of

 you find it

at the bottom of a beer can.

wince

as cold metal pokes at your knuckles.

fingers grasp

at the paint-chipped edges:

red lead.

it’s a throw-away toy,

the kind you find

in a cereal box

or at your next orthodontist appointment.

“Purpose”

this rubix cube-shaped puzzle calls itself.

you don’t have instructions

and brain teasers are for the cerebral.

who needs a mind

when you’ve got hands like a roman emperor?

you throw away the plaything,

buy another 40 ounce,

and chuckle while your friends mock

your disappointment

when there’s no reward

for guzzling tinted nothing.

 

you find it next

in the voice of a millennial

you’ve been fucking

for the past month.

she talks about her old friend,

Purpose,

while you wrap a loose arm

around her waist.

the gods paint a psychedelic watercolor

on your window.

she misses Purpose more

than she’ll ever want you.

misses her petite hand

pulling her in a northward direction,

towards infinity,

while you blather

about the improbabilities of quantum physics.

you don’t mind.

tell her to keep your shirt.

pay for her cab.

wonder if stalking her is synonymous

with stalking Purpose.

 

you find it later

in the aura of a nightclub.

it’s the dark blue light

that makes everything enticing.

it’s the sweat on your brow

from trying not to think about

the implications of being twenty eight

and here on a wednesday.

mostly, it’s the name of the new dj,

Purpose,

who spins all your favorite tracks.

he adds a new bassline.

it thumps louder than the hum

you’re used to.

demands attention.

you think it’s a calling

but you’re not sure for what.

you have all that you want, right?

hands that can build

an entire army

and a home.

you leave the club

and amble directionless.

 

you find it last

in the timbre

of your alcoholics anonymous’ mantra.

it falls in between the platitudes

you know are placebos

but work

like ground up adderall.

it squeaks its way into your morning jog,

helps you count the steps

away from the unemployment office

and into your new cubicle.

it’s small

but you like the sound

your fingers make when they tap the keyboard.

it’s an awful lot like

Purpose.

One Year Later

They haven’t spoken since the unspeakable happened, and here they are again.

The one with the darker hair and luminescent hazel eyes calls first. His voice is a little gravelly, and there’s an unmistakable tightness in his throat that he tries his best not to let out. They mumble to each other awkwardly, trying to create small talk. The man with the amber eyes and reddish hair is doing alright. He’s two years into his engineering program, and he lives in the city now. He mutters a lame joke about engineers and railroads, and the man with the eyes of a pond that’s still and reflects the trees that tower above laughs. It’s a soft, lilting laugh that hasn’t changed at all, and the man with eyes of fire feels his heart twist into knots. He proposes coffee, and the man with the eyes the color of light flowing through an emerald stained glass window almost drops the phone, but agrees. They set up a time and date and hang up simultaneously. The man with the eyes of a phoenix ablaze counts down from three, just like they used to, and he can hear the smile in the man with the apple green eyes flecked with goldenrod as he whispers a goodbye. The man with the eyes of burning foliage in fall slides down against the kitchen counter and onto the cool tile floor, the groceries he was bringing in forgotten.

 ***

A day later, they meet at the arranged shop. The man with the amber eyes can’t help but marvel at how much his old… colleague has grown in the last year. His darkened hair has grown a little longer, down to his chin. He wears a bright green flannel and dark jeans. He’s filled out into the shirt, the man with the amber eyes notes.

The man with the hazel eyes is too busy studying the ground to notice his… partner standing near him. His eyes analyze the tile patterns, and to keep his mind from wandering, he tries to count the number of tiles on the floor in the room. He hears the man with the amber eyes say um, and he’s so startled that the first words he says face to face to someone for whom he once spent nights sobbing into his hands, sitting on his bed next to the bloodied bathtub of his nightmares, are the following: 

“Three hundred and eighty six.”

The man with the hazel eyes ducks his head back down, a warm rose blush spreading over his cheeks. He thinks he’s really messed it up now, mumbling an apology that was mainly composed of ums and sorrys rather than anything else. But the man with hints of muted scarlet in his eyes just lets a quiet chuckle –– more a giggle than anything else –– pulls out the metal stool and heaves himself onto the cool, shining seat. He allows his eyes to make contact with his former ally, the only person he could have ever trusted in that darkened abyss of cynical laughter and unreciprocated deals. He remembers flickering lights and desperately grasping at the man with the hazel eyes’s hand, sweaty and terrified of the occurrences outside of the closet they were concealed in.

He blinks his eyes, startled from his unpleasant reverie when the man sitting across from him says his name for what could have been the first or fiftieth time. They make eye contact, and the man with the hazel eyes allows himself a smile. He asks again, “Do you still take your coffee black?”

“I allow myself a Splenda once in awhile. Do you still hate the taste of coffee?”

“You’d think a year in medical school would have taught me something, but no.”

“Don’t tell me you got hot chocolate. Please.”

Their drinks arrive, and the man with the hazel eyes curls his fingers around the mug and draws it near. The black sharpie has his name horrifically spelled wrong, but has an unmistakable HC scrawled onto the side. He grins. “Guilty as charged. So, uh, how’s Aveline?”

“She’s doing better. In a few weeks, she’s going to college.”

“Really? Which one?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.” The man with the hazel eyes lifts his steaming drink to his lips. The gentle taste of chocolate floods his mouth, and he tips his head back, savoring the flavor.

“In a few weeks, she’s flying out to Cornell.”

The man with the hazel eyes almost chokes on his drink. He leans forwards, eyes wide and an uncontrollable smile on his face. “Really?”

“Yeah. When we got the letter, she almost cried. I gave her a high five at first, being a cool older brother, but

“You started crying too.”

The man with the amber eyes points a finger gun at his companion. “Bingo.”

The man with the hazel eyes tips back in his chair, still smiling. “Aveline. Cornell. That’s incredible, Ezra. Who’d’ve thought?”

“After the… incident, Sanjay, I wasn’t sure. But she made it. She sure did.”

Ezra knew he would be the one who would bring it up. He had paced in front of his mirror, coaching himself on lines to practice, things that would pale before the elephant in the room. But the beast had reared its head and released the damn word. Incident.

Sanjay let his eyes meet the floor, partially relieved that the source of the tension had been meet, and partially terrified for the same reason. His throat tightens, phrases echoing around his brain with no route for escape. He analyzes the pattern of the tiles this time, if the mortar between forms parallel lines. He briefly considers pulling out a protractor to determine if a pair of angles is supplementary, but Ezra speaks up again, his voice soft.

“I, uh, got out of therapy a few days ago.”

Silence. A few moments of background babble fills the space that their conversation before had left vacant, but then Sanjay picks it up. “My last week’s coming up, but to be perfectly honest I doubt I’m ready for it.”

“I’ve taken up piano again. It helps in that you don’t always need to let your mind wander, ya know? Sometimes I immerse myself in a –– oh, I don’t know –– some Chopin sonata, and all I really have to think about is the progression, the dynamics, the flow. But other times, I can let my hands go across the keys and think. It’s weird. Sometimes I just stare into the hallway adjacent to the piano, and when I played in Aveline’s house, my head just drifted to where the hallway would be. There’s a sort of liberation with some pieces it’s called a rubato. Essentially, the tempo ebbs and flows, going faster at some points and slowing down at others. I just… oh, I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I’ve, uh, gone on for too lo

“Nonsense.” Hazel eyes become rust again. We’ve mastered the art of awkward eye contact, Ezra muses.

Awkward eye contact when they first saw each other in the coffee shop. Awkward eye contact when they first met outside the inferno, the blaze that took down the hotel single handedly. Awkward eye contact when neither of them knew how to proceed, which door to knock on first with the scent of old house lingering in the air. Awkward side eye when listening to something they realized too late they shouldn’t have, awkward eye contact when the woman who was in front of them had a breakdown, calling for someone neither of them knew but recognized from a headstone. Awkward eye contact that led to so many things –– gentle, bright laughter to stinging tears brimming in bloodshot eyes. Damp sweaty hands entwining, sprinting away from something unknown but emitting waves of terror.

 

Ezra tried to talk, but there was something stuck in his throat. Something made of angst, something birthed from trauma, something that he felt when he woke up from the nightmares and something that has shaped who he was, something that made him stand out from the person he once was.

Sanjay let his hand settle over Ezra’s. Hazel eyes met amber eyes. Eyes the color of rust, the color of dried blood, eyes that glistened with tears, eyes that had seen the unspeakable met eyes of a mix of colors, of muted green and caramel, eyes that crinkled at the sides when he smiled and eyes that couldn’t process certain stimuli but were forced to eventually.

Ezra cleared his throat. He dropped his gaze from his old friend, someone who could’ve been more than a friend, but too much had settled between them. They hadn’t spoken, and while they both regretted the radio silence, it was most likely for the best. They had too much emotion, too much raw unfiltered grief and a single day that scarred their minds forever. They had nightmare fuel to keep them in the terrors of the atmosphere, but slowly, slowly, they began to fall back down. And by now, they were halfway down to a comforting, familiar Earth.

They hadn’t spoken since the unspeakable happened, yet there they were again.

Brighter

A month before I moved, someone I used to like told me that I was blocking the world out. He said that at this point the world could end and I’d be so manic with the need to block it out that I wouldn’t even register it. He said that he was worried about me and that I shouldn’t go away on my own because he didn’t know how far my obsession with pretending that it’s all okay would go.

But that doesn’t really matter anyway.

Right now, I’d say I’m going through the best period of my life. What I’d have to say I’m happiest about is that things aren’t how they used to be anymore. The place I am in my life right now… it’s like utopia. Both metaphorically and literally, that is. Everything’s been going uphill for almost a year now. I moved a few months ago, from the cramped city where I’d been raised to a town I’d never heard of, a few hours’ drive over. I’d say that helped a lot. Maybe I needed a change of scenery.

But what really changed my mood was not letting things get to me anymore. I guess I’d just had enough, and that’s what my friends told me to do, at first. And that really made everything so much better. After about a month I’d done it so much that it became automatic. People started saying that I was blocking too much out, but I didn’t let that bother me. I stopped talking to people who were bringing me down. I realized there were a lot of things that I hadn’t noticed were making me feel worse – there’s a lot I don’t do anymore. But I’ll be alright. I’m doing it for my own good, after all.

There’s not much I miss about my “old life.” I don’t like to think about it, really, because I have trouble thinking about the good things without connecting them to the bad. So I try to move on with all of it. I wouldn’t want to remember things that make me feel badly, anyway.

I realize I’ve been lying in the same place for nearly an hour. I didn’t get all that much sleep last night – I had a nightmare. Every now and then images and words and pictures all flood into my head during a dream, snippets where I’m fighting with a friend I’d stopped talking to before I moved, or where I accidentally step on my computer and break it into two. I don’t know why it happens, but it unsettles me every time. Last night was one of the worst I can remember. Everything was on fire and there was so much screaming. I woke up terrified and oddly warm, like I’d gone to sleep in a jacket. I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning.

I stretch and stand up. I’m not sure what time it is but based off of the yellow glow coming through the windows, I’d say it’s late morning. It’s brighter than most days, though. I can’t help but wonder why that is.

I change and go into the kitchen, but I don’t grab anything to eat. I think I’d rather walk down to the coffee shop and get a pastry or something there. The walk’s short, only about five minutes, so I put on shoes and head to the door. I almost reach for a jacket, but stop when I remember how hot it is outside. It would just make me look ridiculous.

I open the door.

It feels like all the energy’s been sapped from me the second I can see outside. I don’t have any idea why, but I crumple to the ground – the only thing stopping me from entirely falling is my grip on the doorknob. I get up immediately, confused. Why had I fallen? I regain strength in my limbs and shut the door behind me. It’s probably just how tired I am, considering how little sleep I got last night. Maybe I need that coffee more than I thought.

As I walk I can’t help but think back to how many things I’ve done to stop dreams like these from coming. They’re the only things that block the path to me finally being happy and I can’t stand it. Every night that I look out my window and see the stars in the sky and the shiny skyscrapers on the horizon and finally think to myself that everything is alright, I wake up at 3:00 with my heart pounding in my throat.

I clench my fist, then unclench it. One day the dreams’ll stop. They have to. I’ll forget all about my old life and about when things weren’t the way there are now and when that’s out of my head, the dreams will be too. Maybe then I’ll be happy.

I look up into the sky as I walk. The sun is hovering on the outer edge of my vision, and I’m reminded of how much that used to annoy me. I used to look up into the sky and see fire. Now all I see is sunshine.

I pass by rows of apartment buildings. Today they look… shinier than usual. I’d describe it like plastic. I don’t pay much attention to it, of course. It would just bother me all day. What I don’t want to do is let the post-nightmare days trip up my mood. Those can be the days where I forget to keep a handle on my emotions. Days when I look at things and worry that they’re not the same as they were when I last saw them. Shoes that I’d remembered being in perfect condition suddenly muddy and worn, two emails I’d never seen before that the computer marked as “read.” They’re always the worst days, a confusing jumble of anxiety and uneasiness.

I notice someone sitting on the steps to a building, but they just look through me. I’m not surprised, but not bothered either. Of course people don’t know me very well. I don’t go out very often, and when I do, I’m not usually one for starting up conversations. People are always so insistent to talk about unhappy things. I can’t imagine that talking to people would make you feel much better about anything.

Nothing that a friend has ever said me has ever made anything better.

I’ve still never been able to get those words out of my head – that I’m blocking the world out. Somehow the three sentences he managed to get out before I walked out of the room have bothered me more than anything else. It plays on an infinite loop in the background of my nightmares. It’s mixed in with the crackling of the fire and the sounds of buildings collapsing, quiet, but enough to drive me insane on its own.

I reach the coffee shop and my train of thought is broken. I still can’t help but notice the shininess of the perfect-looking world I’m in. Everything is a little bit blurry, a little bit off-looking. I have difficulty focusing on anyone’s face. It makes me wonder if I need glasses, or if I’m bleary-eyed from lack of sleep.

No one looks like they’re at all affected by today’s heat. Most are even wearing light jackets… which would usually be totally appropriate for fall, but on a day like this it just surprises me. Am I getting a fever or something? Usually fevers don’t feel like this, but it’s the only explanation I can think of.

Everything feels wrong. I don’t know how to explain.

I’m walking towards the shop when I trip on something. I land flat on what feels like a sharp rock, and pain shoots through my face. I don’t feel any blood when I reach up to touch it, but it’s clearly a pretty bad wound. Strange, this is the first injury I can remember getting in months.

I slowly stand up, in pain. When I look down I become a bit nauseated for a second. I blink and I think I see what looks like a gigantic, jagged piece of rubble, but when I blink again it’s gone and all there is, is flat sidewalk. No one seems to have noticed my fall, either.

I start to wonder if I’m going crazy. It’s somehow a worse fear than anything I could’ve imagined a few minutes ago. I think that maybe my friend was right. Maybe I’m in that place he worried I’d go.

I get up and immediately trip on something I can’t see again.

I lie there in place for minutes on end with my eyes closed, trying to tell myself that everything is okay. But this is the first time that I can’t get it to sink in. Something just feels so awfully, awfully wrong and I can’t put my finger on it. I feel like I’m on fire and the air smells like chemicals and the clouds are the color of ash. But of course every time I open my eyes I see this disgusting bright blue color above me and I’m breathing in fresh air that makes me want to vomit.

And then, after what I’m convinced was an eternity, I open my eyes and see something else.

The first thing I notice is the sky. It’s orange smeared with blood, far too bright and far too cheerful, like the color you’d see if you took a first step into hell. I can’t look at it without my eyes feeling like they’ve been doused in gasoline and lit with a match. The sun is radioactive yellow. The air smells toxic and the inside of my mouth tastes like acid.

The second thing I notice is the fallen, crumbling buildings. Most of them are still on fire. There’s a burning piece of wood only a few feet away from me. There isn’t a single living person in my vicinity. Emphasis on “living.”

I guess all the smoke is why I’ve been so hot today.

I stand up again. I can see the rubble I hit my head on. I can’t tell if it’s the remains of the coffee shop or of a building that used to surround it. I take this all in slowly. I reach my hand, already black with ash, up to touch the spot of my face where I’d fallen and when I look at my fingers they’re dripping with blood. The gash reaches from immediately under my left eye to the front of my chin. The vision there is flickering and painted red.

I sink to my knees and the sidewalk is burning.

A month before I moved, someone I used to like told me that I was blocking the world out. He said that at this point the world could end and I’d be so manic with the need to block it out that I wouldn’t even register it. He said that he was worried about me and that I shouldn’t go away on my own because he didn’t know how far my obsession with pretending that it’s all okay would go.

I always thought he’d been exaggerating.

Cactus Blooms

As I write to you,

the echinopsis flowers have begun

their petal game of peek-a-boo,

the crested caracara flies

high in the dusty sky,

and I am slowly suffocating.

 

Every day

breathing gets harder.

The oppressive hot air

scrapes the inside of my nostrils.

Swallowing is painful,

prickly sand dots my throat.

 

You brought me here

to this mysterious place

filled with natural wonders.

 

My choice was yours,

because living together

meant moving together,

and I didn’t argue.

 

At first,

the sparkling sand

and shining sun

charmed me.

You were happy

and I was content.

 

But I realized that it was all a mirage.

 

This morning,

my broken dreams suddenly

appeared in my cupped hands.

They were the quills of a cactus

and my blood was theirs too.

 

I realized that we are sun and sand.

I reflected your radiance,

but then was stomped on.

Your neglect left deep bootprints.

 

I realized that I was foolish.

I am still foolish.

Foolish powder that wishes to be glass.

 

I thought I saw opportunity on the horizon,

beckoning with flaring gestures

and brilliant colors.

But that was just the sunset,

and it wasn’t as pretty as I had hoped.

 

My dreams are wider than the landscape.

My ideas, more sporadic than tumbleweeds.

You and I both know that I will fail,

but I’m no longer afraid of taking chances.

 

So when you receive this

letter of surrender,

flying white from the hand of the mailman,

I will receive my freedom,

And I do not care for a reply.

The Sweetest Dreams

I kind of want you in my bloodstream,

like a thick caramel serum.

 

I want to inhale your scent,

like I’m in a powdered sugar delirium.

 

I really want to suck on you,

like a lollipop with succulent swirls.

 

I need to let the remnants of soda pop on your lips

roll around my mouth in luscious twirls.

 

I’ve been searching for a sugar high,

in this twisted candy land.

 

I’m left drowning in fields of gumdrops

and suffocating on cotton candy strands.

 

I’m knee-deep in ample puddles of marshmallows

oozing and tearing with each step.

 

I’m trying to keep up with you on a trembling tundra

of crushed snow cones, dribbled with flavorings that’ve bled.

 

I hate the winding roads of broken gingerbread

you’ve carelessly constructed.

 

From the mountains of cake to each iced layer,

all the sugar-coated froufrou of a daydream

 

makes me cringe and leave you forgotten,

 

and led me to this sickening realization

that sweetness turns bitter and bitter, rotten.

The grass grew slowly here

The grass grew slowly here, popping out of the ground already browned from the heat of the sun. There were fields of dry land everywhere you looked, lining every dirt road you could rumble over in your pickup truck, framing every run down house for miles, and crawling over the endless abandoned farm land. But the one place you could bank on never seeing a stray sprout of anything but perfection was the high school football field. It had taken them years to build the stadium, agonizing over each row of the stainless steel bleachers and each speck of turf that took its place on the floor. It was ironic really, considering the fact that the pure purpose of the field was to be abused by aggressive teenage boys. That was the dream though, to be one of those bodies filling the sweat covered and dirt stained nylon uniforms. And the children of the static town were never allowed to forget it.

 

From a young age, the dream was planted in their minds after being packed into the bed of the family pick up truck, full of blankets and barbeque for the tailgate, as they winded down the dirt roads towards the stadium. And upon arrival they would scramble out, knocking over endless condiments in the process, as their dirt coated bare feet padded over the dried grass. There were over a hundred of them, it seemed as all the little boys formed their own premature game of football to pass the time before the real fun started. You could see it in their eyes; the aching hunger to follow in the footsteps of their older brothers, cousins, fathers, and even grandfather’s. With each pass that flew from the spindly fingers of the chosen pseudo quarterback for that day, the children fell into step with the rest of the town. Building themselves around something that was for sure to never fall, or so they thought. As the adults gathered around the growing peewee game, their faces contorted into eyebrow raises while they shared knowing glances, whispering and pointing. Already, these boys had no chance. No chance to escape the future that had been laid out for them, the one in which they were forced to carry on the legacy of the otherwise good-for-nothing town.

 

And slowly, the large crowd dwindled down to a couple of stragglers and empty beer cans strewn around the pick up trucks that were parked scattering the field. That was when the roar of the crowd began, and really it wasn’t even a crowd; it was the town, the entire *** town. All the stores and restaurants boarded up reading, “gone to game,” in red block letters, just as if you squinted hard enough you could see a dust bunny make its way down the main boulevard.

 

It wasn’t much of a town to begin with, but on Friday nights, there was no town besides the football field. The only witness to the blinding lights and the enormous roars of the crowd was the darkening sky that twinkled above the town that some would call blessed.

 

Supernovas

I never should have been in a courtroom. Not without him.

 

“If you could be a kid again, would you, Steph?” Justin was lying on his back, making “snow” angels in the comforter of the half-broken hotel bed. We were both high.

 

“Miss Rose? Are you paying attention?” the judge taps his microphone, and the heavy silence of the room is interrupted by the methodic click of nail on metal. I gulp, nodding quickly and brushing a lock of curly hair behind my ear. “Good,” he continues. “We’ll proceed, then.”

 

“That’s a weird question, Justin,” I said. I crawled off of the armchair I was perched on, making my way to Justin’s side. When I reached him I put my head on his shoulder, leaning against him until my nose touched his neck. His skin was smooth. Like silk.

 

I nod again, glance around the room. There’s the jury on the right – a collection of fifteen or so middle aged men and women clad in professional attire, attempting to look poised, though god knows they’d rather be anywhere else in the world right now. I make eye contact with a girl in a black dress, seated in the front row. She gives me a curt nod, then goes back to staring at her fingers and all the different ways they can intertwine. For a brief second I wish I was her — bored, detached, calm. Instead, I’m falling to pieces.

Beside me is my lawyer, a shadow of a man with a hooked nose and beady eyes — birdlike. He told me earlier to say my lines like we rehearsed them; without a tremor in my voice. Without letting on. I don’t know if I can do that.

 

“I would. Want to be a kid again, I mean,” Justin said, eyes trained on the ceiling.

“With or without your broken childhood?” I smiled slyly.

“Fuck off, Steph,” Justin said, rolling his eyes. His tone was sharp, though his words should have been playful. I winced. “It’s your turn.”

 

“You are here under accusation of the murder of Justin Moore on February twenty-ninth at roughly 3 A.M. Is this correct?”

“Yes,” I whisper, staring at my dirty sneakers, not daring to make eye contact.

“Excuse me?”

“Yes,” I repeat, louder. “Yes, but I didn’t — ” the judge cuts me off with a wave of his hand.

“Not quite yet, Miss Rose.”

 

“It’s a stupid question,” I said, ignoring his demeanor and returning to our banter. The ceiling is supposed to be white, I thought, but it’s covered with years of water stains and other patches of color that I don’t want to know about. Now it’s closer to grey. Maybe one day it’ll be black.

“Why is it a stupid question?” Justin moved a few inches away from me as we lay there on our backs, the comforter wrinkling between us, forming little hills with roads and moats and castles.

“Because I already had my childhood and you already had yours,” I said. Justin rolled his eyes. It was always that way — Justin was eccentric. A dreamer. I had to reel him in, and then I was the bad one.

“I wish I didn’t. It screwed everything up.”

 

“Our first witness,” the prosecutor begins, motioning for someone to rise. A state-appointed lawyer, he’s not much better than mine. Behind me a small hispanic woman stands from her seat on the edge of a bench. She walks to the podium, swaying as if a gentle breeze would knock her over. I cast my eyes to the floor again, not wanting to look at her face.

“Miss Ramirez,” the prosecutor begins. “You were the housekeeper assigned to the hotel room under a pseudonym by Miss Rose.”

“Yes,” she says curtly, nodding quickly. “Noisy. Very loud.”

“Could you identify the source of the noise?” the prosecutor tilts his head, contemplating. I try to see into him — who is he, besides the only person, aside from me, that cares about Justin’s life? — until Miss Ramirez speaks again.

“Screaming.”

 

We went on like that, talking about our pasts for a while, reminiscing in the hazy glow that came with old memories and moments we had tried so hard to forget. I decided I wanted another hit, and got the coke from my bag. I felt a rush at the sight of that white powder, and my fingers shook as I pushed it into a line and snorted. I could feel Justin staring at me — he wanted more, too.

“You already had your share,” I said, turning my back to him and preparing another line. He didn’t like that.

“I paid for half that shit!”

I sighed. “You paid for a third. You already had a third. The rest is mine.”

Then the shouting began. I wouldn’t have called it screaming, but to Miss Ramirez, we were two crazy addicts fighting over a bag of shitty coke. To her, and to the world, we were worthless.

But to us we were the height of passion. We called ourselves Bonnie and Clyde. We had escaped our pasts — Justin’s drunken father, my cracked family — and ran away. We didn’t let each other look back.

 

I miss him. God, do I miss him. Tears froth at the corners of my eyes. It was never meant to be this way. I was never meant to be without him.

“And what did you do then, Miss Ramirez?” the prosecutor asks. I squint, trying to focus, but everything is swimming from the tears and the quick thump-thump-thump of my heart. I’ve been like this since that night — confused, like I’m half-drowning, half-flying, like the hardest thing in the world is to stay in the here and now.

“Knocked on the door. Then they went quiet, but I could hear them whispering. There were other noises, too. Like they were throwing things.”

 

“Someone just knocked on the door,” Justin stared at me with wide eyes. His whole body was quivering, vibrating up and down and up and down. I could feel my bones shaking beneath my skin, and my thoughts were speeding up, as if someone had slammed on the accelerator. Now I could hear it — a steady thrum against the wooden paneling of the door. “Jesus Christ, Steph, someone’s knocking on the door.”

I looked around the room. A bag of coke on the bed. A metal tray on the table with leftover white powder, surrounded by little mounds of mismatched pills. A stolen credit card by the lamp. A rusty knife on the dresser.

“What if it’s the police?” Justin ran his hands through his hair. He was pacing now, and I could almost see his heart beating outside of his chest. I ran over to him, grabbed his shaking hands. “I’m not going back to rehab, Steph, I’m not fucking going.”

“No. You’re not going. We stay together. Always,” I whispered, and I ran to the table, hastily picking up anything incriminating. Justin closed the blinds, out of paranoia or habit I wasn’t quite sure. He took the bag of coke from the bed and hastily snorted a line. I didn’t notice at the time. Two seconds later he dropped the bag in my hands and I shoved it into a backpack, zipped it up, and hid it behind the cracked leather of the armchair.

The knocking had stopped.

 

“What happened after that?” the prosecutor asks, clearing his throat.

Miss Ramirez blinks a few times, her eyebrows furrowing. “Well, I left.”

 

“That was your fucking fault!” Justin hissed at me, striding to my position behind the armchair. “You were reckless, shouting like that!”

His words were daggers in my back. It wasn’t usually this tumultuous; I could ignore his spitting insults if he tamed his paranoia to a manageable state of pain. Yes, we were a turbulent storm. But we always had each other to hold close when the eye drifted over us and brought a few seconds of peace.

Yet in this moment I wasn’t sure if he was on my side at all.

“Hey, Justin, calm down, sweetheart — ” I put a hand out, trying to hold his shoulder. He swatted it away, then turned his back on me. His body was vibrating, his entire being pulsing up and down, the way it always did after a hit.

I stood and narrowed my eyes. “Did you steal from my stash?”

Justin didn’t answer. He began to pace, his walk quick and uneven. “You always do this, Steph. You get us into all kinds of shit.”

“Did you steal from my stash?” I repeated, louder this time. Justin kept pacing. “Hey! Look at me!” Justin finally stopped, and when he turned his eyes were crimson, the color of sunsets and cherries and blood.

“Yeah, I had a hit, Steph. I had a fucking hit and now the goddamn police are gonna take us both away!” He motioned to the door, and in a second he was pacing again. “You and your fucking rules, your fucking shouting and nagging and bitching. You always do this!”

It was as if the breath was knocked right out of my chest. Everything was too much — his words that pierced my skin like knives, the knock on the door, his greed and cruelty and blame. I was always the pacifist. But this time I fought back.

“Oh yeah? You — you’re the screwup, Justin Moore. And you can’t talk to me like that.” I crossed my arms, attempting to look fierce, but I was shorter than him and smaller in every way. He was a pulsing collection of radioactive elements, a tornado that destroyed everything in its path. I was the waves of the sea, wise and cloudy and still. Only meant for a gentle storm.

His eyes were no longer serene, no longer the hue of my ocean. He was blue fire, razor blades, torn skin. “Fucking bitch,” he said. “Fucking good-for-nothing bitch.”

 

“Thank you,” the prosecutor says. “That will be all.” Miss Ramirez nods and goes back to her seat.

“Anything else, Mr. Simmons?” the judge asks, idly cracking his knuckles.

“Yes, sir. I would like to call upon the accused herself; Miss Rose, would you please rise?”

Suddenly everything is too bright. The lights drill into my skull, making my knees weak. I’m lightheaded, but not the good lightheaded, and I want to run. Run away, never look back, never turn to a pillar of salt or rot in a tomblike cell. But Justin isn’t here to help me.

I stand and walk to the podium. Everything is shaking – my body, my vision, the world around me. I hear Justin whispering in my ear, something about being a kid again and not wanting to go back to that past, but wanting a new one. He was always saying things like that.

“Let us restate what happened before the police arrived on the night of the 29th, shall we?” the prosecutor says, circling me like a hawk circling its half-dead prey. I nod. “You and Justin were arguing, were you not?”

“We were.”

“And why was that?” the prosecutor smiles, clearly pleased with his work.

“I don’t remember.” I don’t remember, I repeat to myself. If I say it enough maybe it’ll be true.

 

“I’m the bitch?” I asked in disbelief. I took a step toward Justin. “I’m the bitch? At least that’s better than being the product of a whore and a drunk! What does that make you?”

Justin turned away from me and began pacing the room, cracking his knuckles and rolling his neck. I could see the vein popping beneath his skin, matching his tensed muscles as every inch of him burst to the extreme.

My heart was a hammer pounding against my ribcage — so loud I was sure Justin could hear its nervous tremor. But his words were a knife held against the raw skin of my neck, pushing deeper and deeper until my windpipe was split and crimson rain leaked onto my shoes.

He’d gone too far.

“What does that make you?” I asked again. “That’s right. An unloved bastard, no better than your piece-of-shit father.”

Justin’s eyes were that of a rabid animal as he lunged for my throat.

 

“You don’t remember?” the prosecutor asks again, straightening his tie. A bead of sweat began to percolate on his temple. “Was that because you were high, Miss Rose? On cocaine?”

 

His fingers found my skin and we crashed to the floor. My head hit the hardwood with a loud thud and my breath escaped my body in a quick exhale. Justin was on top of me, legs wrapped around my torso, nails clawing at my throat as I struggled for a gulp of oxygen. Every limb felt cold and numb and detached. My vision started to fade, but Justin’s bloodshot eyes were piercing the strengthening darkness and they were feral and rampaging and hurt.

 

The lights drill into my skull. Say something, Stephanie. Speak.

“Yes.”

“You were using illegal drugs that night?” the prosecutor smiles.

“We both were,” and now I’m getting lightheaded and I find it hard to breath. My lawyer drops his head in defeat.

 

I gasped for breath, but Justin’s fingers were tightening around my windpipe. My arms were stretched out to my sides and I looked like Justin making snow angels in the comforter. I looked like I was a real angel. I looked like I was about to die.

Some instinct kicked my arms into motion and I flung them beneath Justin’s chest. Using every ounce of strength I had left, I pushed Justin up and to the side. His head smacked the ground and I scrambled to my feet, chest heaving and blood sighing as fresh air seeped into my lungs.

 

“So you testify that you were both using cocaine,” the prosecutor says. I nod. “And you were arguing. At some point during the night, Justin was killed. Could you tell us what happened, Miss Rose?”

 

My face was sticky from sweat and tears. My entire body shook.

Justin held his head in both hands as he lay on the ground, rocking back and forth. And suddenly he looked like a child, a confused and broken child. But then I remembered his sharp words and fingers like daggers against my neck, and he’s Justin again, with spiked hair and dirty skin and a crooked mouth with a razor for a tongue.

Behind me was the dresser. I backed up against it, the tail of my spine touching uneven wood. My hand grazed the surface and hit something odd; a smooth handle followed by cold metal. The rusty knife.

 

“He — he attacked me,” I start, my voice barely more than a whisper. Say the lines. Nothing more than reading from a script. “It was self-defense.”

But the prosecutor looks at me and a faint smile creeps onto his lips. He sees through my cracks, sees through my broken facade and shaking skin. Though he’s barely adequate at his job and has more nervous tics than I, he sees me, and I know I am finished.

 

Justin slowly got on his knees, then one foot was on the ground and the other was beneath him and he stood. He turned to face me, hands balled into fists. There was a trickle of blood slowly swimming down the side of his head, the same color as his eyes.

“Get away from me,” I croaked, my throat scorched. “Don’t you dare come any closer.”

Justin licked his lips, and a slow laugh emanated from the back of his throat — more choking than giggling. He took a step closer and I felt my fingers tighten around the hilt of the blade. “Or you’ll do what, Steph?” his voice was lilting up and down, robbed of all stability. “You’ll do what, huh? You can’t do anything.”

Now my hand was firmly around the handle. Justin crept closer.

“You know what, Justin?” I said, every word a struggle to get out. “You’re sick. You’re sick and miserable and hopeless,” Justin rolled his neck, preparing to lurch at me again. I gripped the knife harder. “You say I’m the bitch. I’m at fault, right?” he was four feet away, utterly wild in his manner, limping as blood percolated on his neck. He licked his lips again. My heart pounded. “You blame it all on me, don’t you?”

Justin had become another being. He was not the man I fell for, the boy I met when we were reckless and alive. He was not the soul who gave me my first hit or the child who told me about his father. He was not loving, because he was not capable of being loved.

Or maybe he was who he had always been. Maybe he was just Justin, wild and feral and childlike in his wishes. Maybe he had always been broken. Maybe I found him that way, and he tore at the seams bit by bit until tonight when he finally snapped.

 

“How can that be? The blade marks show he wasn’t charging at you, Miss Rose. You charged at him.”

 

“You can’t take back the past, Justin!” I was screaming now. I didn’t care if anyone heard. Justin clamped a hand to his ear at the sound of my shriek. “You can’t change a goddamn thing!”

“Shut the hell up, you fucking cunt!” Justin shouted, the veins on his neck popping. “Just shut up! Shut up! Shut your fucking mouth for once in your life!” Justin’s finger was pointing at my chest, his eyes scarlet and crazed.

 

“Perhaps the fight provoked you, Miss Rose. Perhaps you were sick of hearing what Justin Moore had to say. So you killed him,” the prosecutor smiles again. My gaze drops to my feet and I squeeze my eyes shut. Darkness overwhelms my vision but I’m brought no sense of calm. Justin’s words echo in my head, growing louder and louder with each passing moment.

 

Justin let his hand fall to his side, and his hair was a bird’s nest, his skin a mix of blood and tears. His eyes locked on mine and we were silent for a moment. It could have ended like that. He could have stopped talking and I could have loosened my grip on the knife and we could have gone our separate ways, both trying to forget and daring to remember. But it didn’t.

 

“Do you maintain your statement, Miss Rose? ‘Self-defense?’”

 

And then Justin opened his mouth and his tongue was a razor again. “At least I have a reason for being this way, Stephanie Rose,” his voice was low and broken, like the edges of cracked glass. “I had a drunk father and a slut for a mother who killed herself as soon as she could. But you? You’re just a girl who likes darkness,” he knew his words were slitting my skin, and he smiled. “You’re just a failure who destroyed whatever was left of me to make you feel better about your pathetic little self,” he turned away from me then, and though I couldn’t see his face I knew he was satisfied.

I wasn’t going to let him be satisfied.

In one swift motion, the knife broken through the back of his skull and found the center of his brain. He let out a soft groan and fell to the floor, head smacking wood as a pool of red surrounded him. It was over as soon as it began.

My breath came in fast heaves and there were tears in my eyes as I spoke. “You can’t take back the past, Justin. And you can’t blame it on me.”

Through the sea of adrenaline and tears I heard a sound. Sirens.

 

“Yes,” I whisper, tears now cascading down my cheeks. “Self-defense.”

Someday the Sky Will Fall

Curtains hang, great slabs of grey cement over crystal portals. My mind is blank, a sheet of nothingness. I want to keep it this way.

My phone dings, breaking through my imaginary walls. Like thin layers of glass. They don’t do a very good job.

Do u wnt to get something to eat? : )

Daren. Boyfriend. Friend. Acquaintance. Whatever. I don’t know who he is anymore.

I tug at the blue ribbon strung around my neck. It digs. Cutting, holding Mama’s wedding band. My wedding band — now at least.

No I think, but my fingers don’t listen. They never do.

Sure! I type.

I’m not sure of anything, nothing I do has any exclamation points anymore. Those had faded away long, long ago.

I get up anyway, like I always do. My room is a mess, but I don’t clean it. I just shut the door behind me — hoping it will all be good when I come back.

Of course my room can’t be fooled. It is a very smart room or I am just a very stupid person.

My mind begins going round and round.  It often does this. Goes around and around and around, like one of those rides at the amusement park. I don’t go to those anymore. I did when I was younger — but not now. Too much food. Just too much of everything these days.

***

The floorboards creak loudly as I pass our outdated kitchen. “Ours” as in mine and dad’s. If I could call him dad anymore. He is so lost now, wading his way through the swamps of his memories.

I hold my head straight and my eyes cast forward. I refuse to look at the refrigerator. The whole kitchen is my personal monster. The cupboards. Everything. My very own personal black hole.

I pass the doorway safely and I let out the breath I always hold. My body rarely listens to my brain, but today I am safe. For once.

I grab four pieces of gum, stuff them into my mouth as if they are all that matters in the world. And they kind of are. For me at least.

Chew. Chew. Chew.

I am hungry.

No you’re not.

Yes I am.

My brain does this a lot. I never listen to the behaved side of me. Never. That bad little voice worms it way. Corrupting.

Hungryhungryhungryhungry.

My monster is always the same, I can never stop it. I am ashamed and disgusted.  Always.

I’ve gotten used to it.

Hungryhungryhungry.

***

Life is just a bunch of steps.

Wake up

Try to muffle the angry hunger growing in the pit of your stomach,

Go to school.

Eat something. Just try.

Get home.

Run. Like your life depends on it.

Try to sleep. It never comes.

Wake up…

Life is just a procedure you have to complete. That is all.

***

I pull into the tiny parking lot of Samson’s. A badly renovated diner, with a badly paved parking lot. Everything about this shitty little town is bad.

Even the people who live in it, like me.

I get out and don’t see. That great old-fashioned diner. Not like other people. I can never see things the way they are. The way they are supposed to be.

Everything is just so distorted. Even the cracked up pavement is frowning at me. At my bloated legs.

My life is just so cracked up.

You are fat and ugly. No one cares. Fatfatfatfatuglyuglyugly. No one cares about you.

Fat.

There I go again.

Around and around and around.

I spot Daren. He’s standing there trying to look for me. I want to turn around and not go to that cursed diner.

Full of food. Food that has calories. That make you fat.

But I walk and slap a *** smile on my *** face. At least I try, and it works. Because Daren believes me. Like always.

“Vivian!” Daren is waving at me. Always so happy. We are polar opposites.

“Hi,” I say.

We stand there awkwardly until he gives me a hug. One of those I want us to be more type of hugs. I ignore it.

“Let’s go in.” He says. And we do.

We are seated at a small booth tucked in a corner. I play with my napkin. Crumpling and uncrumpling. A little white ball.

Daren orders a burger. Hungryhungryhungryhungry.

“What are you going to get?” He looks over at me.

I pretend to glance at the menu. “I’ll have some tea.”

There’s silence after that. Daren starts tapping his finger. “I thought you were hungry?”

The little voice inside my head leaps at the opportunity. Yes Yes Yes!

“I’m not.” I smile apologetically. “Just ate.”

“Oh.”

And the silence continues.

Our food comes — well his food does. I try not to look as I sip my hot tea. Hot is good. It wakes me up.

But food is bad, I remind myself. Very, very bad.

“What have you been doing these days?” I try to forge on. And my glass walls tried to stop me. It can’t.

“Oh, ya know the regular.”

I don’t know, but I nod anyway.

I check my watch. I don’t have to be home for an hour, but I stand up anyway. “I have to go,” I say.

Daren stands up too. Hugs me. Again. “I’ll see you in school.”

“Yeah.”

Leans down. Kisses me, as if we’re together.

We’re not, but I smile. Even though I’m so confused, messed up. I kiss him back.

He likes that.

***

I’m starved. Famished. Ravenous. Empty. Hollow. All those words. Words that can’t get fat.

I want to pull over. To stuff my face.

Chips. Soda. Pizza. Ice cream. Cartons of ice cream. Pretzels. Chocolate. Food.

My head says no — of course. It always does. But then I’m pulling off at the next exit. Driving. Just driving.

Nononononono. I don’t listen. My foot presses the gas pedal, turning into the convenience store. The one that’s all run down. With the broken down truck. And the crumbling curb.

Leave and drive back home! That was behaved Vivian. I ignore her, like always. She is nothing compared to the other me. The one that shouts.

Hungryhungryhungry.

I get out of the car. I move like  a robot, not in control of my body. As if I am standing and watching outside on the cracked up sidewalk. Watching Vivian get fat.

Fatfatfatfatfatfatfat.

I can’t stop. I never can when it gets like this.

My cart fills up up up. Heaping. I can’t listen to myself. It’s impossible. And my money goes down down down.

I sit in my car. In the front seat. Eating. Not thinking.

No more chips or soda or pretzels or ice cream. All gone down the drain.

Afterward I wait. Wait for the guilt that always comes crashing. Big waves that suffocate. Choke me to tears.

And like always, I cry on the way home. And it overflows my car. I am teetering on the top of a mountain.

Guilty of a crime. Very very guilty.

***

I fall to the bathroom floor. Those disgusting chartreuse tiles.

Shove two fingers down my throat until everything is gone. I am just so ashamed. Ashamed of myself. Ashamed and disgusted. Like always.

And I lie there– for what feels like forever, until that guilt goes away. Fades away to nothingness.

I close my eyes.

But instead I see the stark white hospital. White walls. White floors. And then a quivering white lump, on the tiny hospital bed. Small mama. Small me.

She presses the ring–her ring into the palm of my hand. “Keep it, darling … my Vivian.” Mama’s voice croaks. Like a frog. A sick frog. She closes her eyes. Then opens them. “Some day the sky will fall,” she whispers.

Then she is gone. A wisp of air, blown away. Gone.

I’ve never told anyone that. What had she meant, when she said those haunted words?

Someday the sky will fall.

The memory has become wrinkled around the edges. Old. Sepia. But it stays tucked away. Hidden, strung on a blue ribbon.

***

Dad is home. I am in my room again. Looking at the grey slab curtains. I hear him tromping up the stairs.

Sometimes I dread our little talks.

He comes in without knocking, bringing the smell of wet rain clinging to his untucked shirt. I pretend I don’t know. Pretending to read. My whole life I pretend in front of him.

“Vivian!” He acts all excited when he says my name.

“Dad.” His smile slides off his face. Like it is made of water.

Maybe he really is trying. Like Ms. Freeman says. Dad sits on the corner of my rolly desk chair.

“You need to clean your room Vivian.” As if I don’t know.

“Yeah.”

Dad stares at me as if I have two heads. And maybe I do.

“I’m worried about you, Vivian.”

I am too I think, but I don’t answer. Just wait.

“I don’t want to go through this again.”

I don’t either.

Silence. The space between us stretches for a long time. A stretch of air.

“Have you been eating?”

I want to throw my lamp at his head. I want to cry and wail. Say that he doesn’t understand me. That food is the enemy. My eroding flaming monster.

But instead, all I say is, “Yeah.”

Dad tries to get up but doesn’t move.

Maybe it’s that thick stretch of air that we made. Dad and I.

“I’m going to talk to a doctor, Vivian. You don’t look well.” Another stop. A halting breath. “I’m doing this because I love you honey.”

Yeah right. You love mom. Who hasn’t been here. For a long long time.

But, “Ok,” is all that leaves my lips.

Finally Dad leaves, the smell of loneliness leaving with him.

Nothing is ever ok.

It is dark — my room. The moon is gone, hiding behind my depressing curtains. I should get rid of them I think.

Dad is asleep, probably–but I’m not. I never am. Even if I try.

The moon peeks at me as I open my door.

Then slam it shut wishing the moon would take care of the mess.

***

Our treadmill is big and black. Bulky. Hulking piece of metal. It helps though–with the guilt. The moon watches as I sweat into the night.

My body stings. Aches. Screams.  But I don’t care. All I care about is Burning. Off. Those. ***ed. Calories.

***

Dad is sitting at the kitchen table when I come down the next morning.

He is sitting, so I sit too. The cereal box is open. I  tell myself that I’m ok without it.

But really I’m not.

The refrigerator is scowling at me. I ignore it, along with everything else.

Dad’s lips move, but I don’t understand what he is saying. I don’t understand anything these days. Not myself. Not dad.

The kitchen isn’t my only monster. My body is my monster too.

I shake my head. Don’t know what I’m doing that for. Shaking my head to life probably.

“Vivian!”

Oh, there it is — sound. The dishwasher whirs too. I never realized it was so loud.

“Are you alright?”

No. Dad sounds worried.

“Yes,” I say. I am lying. And he knows it too.

“You’re lying,” he says. Dad’s right. For once at least.

“Yes.”

Dad is worried even more now. Always worried, that seven letter word that can’t get fat.

You’re fat and ugly. Fatfatfatfatfatuglyuglyuglyugly.

Maybe I can drown myself in these bad words.

Maybe words are my monster too.

“Vivian!”

Did I answer? Probably not. I don’t remember anymore. I never remember — just keep my mind blank.

Nothingness.

Hungryhungryhungryhungry.

***

Mom always told me that being pretty was everything. People will like you. Always want to be your friend. She had explained this as she stood, staring into the floor length mirror, adjusting the straps of that tight black dress she had always loved.

“Why?” I had asked. I had stared too. Worshipping her. Mama’s every move. I hadn’t understood.

“You’ll know when you’re older.” Mama had waved a hand. Dismissively.

She was right. I understand now. As much as I ever have.

***

Coldness is being splashed on my face.

Maybe I’m in heaven–but I am not. I know I’m not.

The first thing I see is the cracked up ceiling. Chartreuse too. Like the bathroom tiles. Tiles I know too well. Could I call them friends? Definitely not.

I think I am going crazy. True — 110% true.

Water — that’s what this coldness is. Not heaven, just water.

That’s too bad.

“Vivian! I’m taking you to the hospital!”

No! Hospitals are clean. The type of clean that clogs your nose. Teasing. Like words. With fat nurses. Who would feed me food. Daemon food. Looming monsters. Fire. Licking. Food. I tremble…

Get up.

Put hands on counter.

Slap. a. ***ed. smile. on your. ***ed. face.

Just follow the steps. And I do. Just like living in this shitty world.

***

Fine:

I tell dad I’m fine. I don’t think he believes me. I tell him I’m fine. Again. Always. The type of fine that translates to I am never fine but I’m just saying I am.

He doesn’t believe me.

But I have convinced myself that I am fine. Which I’m not.

I’m always not — fine that is.

***

God:

I don’t think I believe in god. If he was real he would help me. If he is out there, he’s an idiot.

For not helping me.

Ms. Freemen–my counselor, the shrink. Whatever. Says I’m making progress.

By admitting I need help.

But I’m not admitting I need help. I am admitting god needs help.

My counselor is an idiot too.

Like god.

***

Dad leaves. Finally, looking at me all weird. But he leaves.

He swears he will call a doctor.

This time he sounds serious. But I still doubt it.

I am worried. Just like him.

I go back to my room. Have to go past the kitchen.

Hold my head straight. Feel the cupboards looking.

Pass it. Safe. Again.

My stomach rumbles.

HungryHungryhungryhungry.

When I get upstairs I find my room still a mess — sadly. The moon didn’t do a very good job.

I decide to tear the slab grey curtains off my windows. There, all better.

But I’m not better. My room is but I am not. It’s a start though.

I collapse on my bed, thinking how sad my life really is.

Slab grey curtains. Daemon food. Eroding fire monster. I lie there until it is time to run again.

***

¨Vivian Mince, please report to Ms. Freeman’s office.¨

It is school again. Monday. I have no hope today. Usually I do. To be pretty. Skinny. But today I am a hollowed-out tree trunk, with no heart. No soul.

I go down the stairs, seeing the walls. A light blue. People jostle me.

¨Sorry,¨ they say. And I smile and nod. All just pretending. Wearing a mask that is not me. But now that I think about it — I have been pretending for a long long time, so far back that I can´t remember. Always.

It’s always been my way of hiding.

***

I raise my hand to knock on the flimsy door. All the doors are flimsy in our school. My life is flimsy too. Just like the doors.

¨Come in.¨ Ms. Freeman says. So I do, although I don’t want to. It is never a choice I want to make.

She sits, my counselor does, and smiles. I don’t smile back.  All I can think about is god. And how he is an idiot just like her.

¨Have a seat.¨

I sit on that nasty yellow couch. Lumpy.

It is silent for what seems to be a very long time. All I hear is the clock ticking.

Ms. Freeman shuffles some papers. I clear my throat.

“So … Vivian.” My name again. She says it with so much power. Entitlement — like that.

She thinks she is something to me. She isn’t. Of course.

“Your dad called me.” I pretend not to be interested. But I am. Definitely.

I don’t answer. I cross my legs instead. The clock keeps ticking.

“He’s worried, Vivian.” I do not want to look at her. But I do. I always do.

“Stop,” I say.

“What?”

“Saying my name like that.”

“… Oh.”

I smile, because she faltered. Ms. Freeman has never done that. Ever.

“He’s worried,” she repeated.

“Yeah.” And that is it. Just yeah.

“I called you here to discuss some … options”

Options for what? My life? Or just me. I sit up straighter on that lumpy couch.

“Like what?” Be calm. Let nothing show. Nothing.

“He says you’re … struggling.”

I close my eyes. Angry. Angry and shaking. *** you Ms. Freemen! *** you. Don’t you get it? I’m always struggling. Always. Always. Always.

But “You spoke to my dad?” is all I say.

“Well yes — and we’ve both decided that you need help. A Lot of help.”

God needs help. I think.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Vivian. So many young adults like you go through this — and it’s hard work to heal but … ”

I stand up.

And put a hand on the door knob.

Go. Run. And never come back.

I follow the steps, like always. I follow the steps because I am tired. And hungry. My brain is rattling inside my skull. But also because she said my name.

She said my name. Like mama did.

When dad and me were still a family. When mama was still in the picture.

***

The bathroom is small. Though, so am I. It smells too, like disinfectant. I sit on the toilet seat, curl up in a little ball and tuck my head between my knees.

So I can’t see anything. Just the way I like it.

Sometimes I feel like I want to cry. My throat gets all sticky. It’s hard to swallow when it gets like that. Hard to breathe. But I can’t cry. There are no tears left. I am empty.

I sit there for a long time. So long that everything just blurs into nothing.  Girls go in and out.

Whispers following them, like phantom voices.

The door bangs. And I stay.

Sometime later, someone thumps a fist against the stall door, pulls me out of the vortex that I had created for myself.

I needed help. I just didn’t want to face it.

***

Then, I am outside. Where the wind is strong. Ms. Freeman is there too. Maybe she was the one that pulled me out of the tornado I had made. I feel for mama’s necklace. The one on a blue ribbon. But it isn’t there.

It isn’t there!

My body wobbles. So does my heart. My blue ribbon could be anywhere, mama would be disappointed.

I fall to my knees, bare hands digging in the muddy snow. My necklace, my necklace, My necklace. A whirlwind of thoughts. Spinning Spinning Spinning forever. Spiraling downward.

I have a headache.

A pounding headache.

But then there is a hand on my shoulder. Ms. Freeman’s hand, a dark chocolate next to a pale white cloud. That’s me and her.

“What’s the matter?” She asks.

“It’s my necklace,” I say. Just like that. As if it were that simple.

She unfurls her hand. A flower budding. New. Fresh. Untouched. With a coil of ribbon hidden within.

“I have it,” she says. Maybe, she whispered. I’m too relieved to know. Mama is still strung on my blue ribbon.

“It fell off, Vivian.” She says my name. This time quietly, as if her tongue were testing out a new word. “I wanted to give it back … it seemed like it was very important to you.”

“Yes.” My voice is quiet. Just like hers.

“Want to talk about it?”

I sit on the curb. Ms. Freemen sits too. We’re on even ground now.

“Mama gave it to me,” is all I say. “In the hospital right before she died.”

Ms. Freemen doesn’t say anything. Just listens.

“I was her world … Vivian … it — it means lively. Well, that’s what she always told me. Mama said I was the happiest baby she ever saw.”

I don’t think my body is hollow any more, because tears are welling in my eyes. Salty. Wet. I smile through the iridescent drops. I was happy then, but not anymore.

“Dad doesn’t know I have it … he — he wasn’t there that night and … ” I gulp. Catch my breath. ”I know he blames me. I could have done something! I ***ing could have fixed her!”

The wind scratches at my face. And I let it. I deserve it.

My blue ribbon is still in Ms. Freeman’s hand. She tries to give it to me. I don’t take it. It just hurts too ***ed bad.

She studies me, then pulls me to my feet. I let her, even though I don’t know where she’s taking me.

“Come,” she says. And I do, because I have no where else to go.

***

We are at the ocean. She took me there in her banged up Volkswagen. The waves lick my toes. They are cold. In a good way though.

“Why are we here?” I ask. But all Ms. Freeman does is smile.

She hands me the necklace. My necklace. Mama’s necklace.

“Throw it.” She says.

“Why?”

Ms. Freemen doesn’t answer, just looks out in the distance. But I know she heard me.

I look out in the distance too, mama’s heart dangling between my fingers.

A moment passes, another vast stretch of air.

And just like that I throw it. No thought. No nothing. And it feels like a gigantic weight had slid off my shoulders, as the foam and salt grab it all away. As if my blue ribbon had never been around my neck.

Ms. Freemen turns to look at me. She has a small smile playing about her lips.

“How do you feel?” She says it all serious.

But instead I laugh. Laugh at my shitty life, and the shitty diner and the shitty necklace. For making me feel so alone. Making me so helpless.

“Think of this as throwing away all the bad memories. The bad ones can get washed away, the good ones — no matter what, will stay with you forever.” Ms. Freeman’s voice has gone all soft. Testing out the waters. The waters of me and her.

“Yeah.” I say. And that’s it. Just yeah.

***

My phone dings. Daren again.

Want to talk? : ) with a little smily face.

I look at it, with no more mama to stop me. To hold me back.

Sure, I text back. And this time I really am — sure that is.

 

The End

Penny Lane

… Meanwhile Back in Penny Lane…

“In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs, of every head he’s had the pleasure to know. And all the people that come and go, stop and say hello…”

Track 1

The street corner is bustling with people of all ages. An old man wearing large oxfords stomps down the sidewalk. A little girl with pink ribbons tied in her pigtails holds her mother’s hand. Schoolboys looking smart in their uniforms run and shove down the street, playing foolish games. It’s raining, which is normal for England. I would know; I’ve lived here my whole life. But this street corner is unfamiliar.

Just a minute ago, I had slammed my bedroom door and flopped onto my bed in frustration over yet another confrontation with my Granddad. Following my routine, I popped in my earbuds to calm myself down, and began to listen to The Beatles album I chose for tonight’s insomnia playlist.  So why do I now find myself wide awake on a busy street? I am surprised to see that I am no longer wearing my pajamas, but am dressed in a yellow gingham dress that I have never seen before. It has puffed short sleeves, a long cotton skirt, and a brown belt. I lift the foreign skirt between two fingers as if it is fragile china. It looks like something an old-fashioned paper doll would wear. My earbuds are still in and the Beatles album is still playing. I pause the song and tuck my iPod and buds into the convenient dress pocket for safekeeping.

I have suffered from insomnia ever since my Mum died. When I first started having sleepless nights, my father didn’t know what to do. I would come into his room and lay down on Mum’s side, which didn’t help the empty feeling in my chest, much less my sleep. The kids at school would tease and call me “Ruby Raccoon” because of the dark circles I had under my eyes. Actually, even now, without bags under my eyes, my classmates still tease me. We went to three different therapists, each prescribing different medications and solutions, which either nearly rendered me comatose or had no effect at all. It took four different paint jobs for us to figure out that changing the color of my bedroom was not helping or hurting my sleep patterns.

One night I finally discovered my cure. I had a funny song stuck in my head that Mum always used to hum. Obla-di Obla-da, life goes on… brah! I downloaded it on iTunes, synced it with my iPod and the next thing I knew, light was peeking through my thick “light absorbing” curtains.

It is music that lets me fall asleep. I guess it calms me because it reminds me of my Mum. When she was alive, she was always humming a tune, dancing in the supermarket to the Muzak, or playing her endless CD collection on our family room’s big stereo system. Morning and night that old clunky stereo was blasting rock ’n’ roll, bopping smooth jazz, or shrieking pop music. She even played it when no one was home as she said it was the best way to ward off burglars.

But she’s not alive anymore and I’m not at home. I’m on a strange street corner in who knows where, and I am still upset from the quarrel that I had with my Granddad at supper. My Grandmum had cooked her special shepherd’s pie and we all sat down to eat when Dad got home from work. From across the table, I watched my Granddad sulk and play with his food, making tiny mountains out of mashed potatoes, and rolling the peas around the plate. Even though this was his typical dinner-table behavior, it still bothered me how childish he acted. This was my Grandmum’s special dish, her own recipe, and she had spent all afternoon preparing it.

I continued reading the newspaper. It’s my habit and my prerogative to read while I eat. I call it “reating.” Although some people think it’s rude, no one really ever talks at my dinner table. I was reading the front-page story of The Guardian, when my Dad reprimanded me:

“Rube, put that away, we’re eating,” he said sternly, looking pointedly at the paper.

“But Dad, this is serious!” I protested. “Eighteen people were killed in a freak fire on the 4th story-”

Ruby, put that away!” My grandfather pounded his fist on the table causing the peas to jump off his plate. He glared at me with burning eyes.

“Why can’t we just talk about it? It’s so tragic! Why not? Why can’t we talk about anything serious?” I asked.

It was always the same, I would try to bring something controversial or difficult up and then someone would chastise me and tell me to change the topic. Especially if it was about my Mum.

It has been nine years since Mum died. Yet there was still an unspoken rule; a boundary that I needed to stay within of “not talking about Mum’s death,” or anything related to it for that matter. There were only a few safe topics – the weather, school, sports, and Royal Family gossip. Everything else was censored.

I pushed back my chair with a screech, grabbed The Guardian, and stormed out of the room.

 

Track 2

Weeeooowww, weeeooowww!

I am broken out of my trance by the siren of a fire lorry speeding out of the station. I watch it turn left and squeal down the street. The lorry looks too old to still be operating. There’s a ladder leaning over the top and the firemen are seated in uncovered open seats. On the side in gold letters it says, “Liverpool Community Fire Station.”  I spy a bench and sit down, trying to get my bearings. I am in a suburban neighbourhood with several shops including a fire station, a bank, a barbershop, and a bus station. It appears to be a typical neighbourhood, except that everything looks dated.

A Rolls Royce pulls up a few feet in front of me and a man in a tuxedo with long coattails strolls out and into the bank. Nobody seems surprised to see the fancy black car, even though it looks like it just rode out of a James Bond film.

The sky is filled with foreboding clouds and the rain is starting to pick up. The street is long with one end turning off onto another avenue, and the other ending in a roundabout. Why am I here? I wonder for the hundredth time since arriving. I scan the street for clues. Am I dreaming or is this real? It seems pretty real…

I’m afraid to ask anyone where I am or when I am, as I know I would receive strange looks. I stand up and begin to walk past the shops. Just then a couple approaches me, the man dressed in grey trousers and a striped sweater, and the woman in a short-sleeved white sweater and long blue skirt. They stop in front of me and say, “Hello!” and “G’day!” Then they keep walking, but my feet are frozen in place. Huh. That was really… nice. No one usually stops just to say hello.

I pause beside the swirling red, white, and blue column outside the barbershop and peer in at the calendar on the wall. November 11, 1955.

1955?!

“Ey love! Why doncha step inside for a minute? It’s raining bloody buckets outside!” I turn and see a portly middle-aged man looking at me with kind, crinkled eyes. He beckons to me and I oblige, stepping into the shop and stomping off my wet shoes.

A line of black-cushioned chairs stand in front of a long mirror, all occupied by men and women getting a trim or shave. Each station is outfitted with a comb, a bottle of Brylcreem hair gel, curlers, scissors, hairspray, shaving cream and a brush. On the far side of the shop, I see women in curlers chatting and reading magazines while their hair is being dried under hooded salon dryers.

All of a sudden the woman under the middle drier lifts off the hood and winks at me, then lowers it back. I blink my eyes hard. That was weird. I recognize her… I turn away slowly and see a whole wall covered with a mosaic of black-and-white portrait photos of customers all modeling their new “do’s.” I take in the rows of pictures, two per person, one showing the front of their head, and one showing the back.

“Y’alright?” asks the man.

“I was just admiring your wall of photos.”

“Ah yes, these are the heads of all the customers that I’ve had the pleasure to know. Here at Pepper’s Hair, after you get your first cut, everyone always gets a picture taken. It’s one of our unique offerings. Allow me to introduce myself.  I’m Mr. Pepper, owner and main barber of this fine establishment.” Mr. Pepper is wearing a crisp white jacket, black bowtie and grey houndstooth pants. It is quite ironic that he owns a hair salon, for his hair is a shiny shade of bald. He gives me a firm handshake.

“And you are?”

“Ruby. Ruby Whittington.”

“I’ve never seen you before, and I know everyone in town! Are you from the area?”

“No, well, not exactly…” I look back at the wall of photographs, desperate to change the topic. It is then I see him. At the top right corner, there is picture of a man that looks just like my grandfather… well, a much younger version.  His light blonde hair is coiffed and gelled in a side part.

“Who is that?” I ask Mr. Pepper.

“That young man, Ms. Ruby, is one of our best and brightest. He’s a fireman for our local station and he recently saved the lives of 30 people in a collapsing building. I’ve heard that he keeps a portrait of the Queen with him. He’s our town hero.”

“What’s his name?”

“His name is Michael Beckett.”

Beckett. Beckett is my Mother’s maiden name. Beckett is my Grandmum’s married name. Beckett is my Granddad’s last name.

I lean closer and notice the dimple in his left cheek; the one thing that we have in common. Could he be my grandfather? I start to shiver.

“Ruby, are you alright? You’ve gone stark white, child! Let me fetch you a cup of water.”

I need to leave. I need fresh air. Yes, fresh air would do me a lot of good… I feel sorry leaving Mr. Pepper, but I can’t stay there a moment longer. I hurry out the door.  My grandfather, a hero? It can’t be him, it simply can’t!

The Granddad Mike I know is the opposite of a hero. He is a lazy curmudgeon who refuses to do anything except bum around the house all day, watching Antique Roadshow, soccer matches, and Wheel of Fortune. Although, I can still remember a time when Granddad was kind and fun to be around. We used to play “Pattycake” and compare the size of our hands, go on long walks by the river, and he would always read me bedtime stories.

I need time to think this through.

 

Track 3

“Poppies! Poppies for vet-rans! Buy a flower for the man in your life that made an invaluable sacrifice!” The rain has let up and a petite young woman in her mid-20s is standing in the middle of the roundabout.  She is wearing a Red Cross uniform and selling poppies from a tray.

“They’re our fathers, our mothers, do them a favor and give thanks today.” She trills. The way her silky dark hair curls under her white hat reminds me of – no it couldn’t possibly be. As I approach her, I notice that she looks a lot like my Grandmum.

Grandmum?

Grandmum grew up in Liverpool, in a two-story apartment house. Her whole family had a hand in the Allied war effort; her mother was a nurse, her father was a doctor, and her brother served and died in France. She was born in 1938, right before the start of the war and lived the first seven years of her life wrapped up in wartime turmoil. At the same time she was learning her ABCs, she was learning about food rations. She grew up accustomed to the sound of a blaring air raid siren in the middle of the night. My Mum told me that wherever there was an opportunity, she would volunteer, whether it was collecting supplies to send to troops, helping plant victory gardens, or writing letters to soldiers. When she was finally old enough, my Grandmum dove in headfirst. She joined the Red Cross.

“Dearie, do you have a brother, or an uncle, or a father that served our country?” The nurse looks at me inquisitively. “Well, no – not exactly, I mean –”

“Buy some poppies for them then!” she says cheerily, “All proceeds go to the Red Cross.”

She seems so kind, and I find myself drawn to her.  Maybe this nurse can help me figure out why I am here.

“Um, no thank you! But could I help you sell them? The poppies? You look like you could use some help and I’ve, uh, always wanted to volunteer.”

“Of course! Thank you! Here, how about you put this on…” She takes her white peaked cap with a red cross on the front and places it on my head. “There, now you look the part.” She smiles and I swear that she resembles my Grandmum.

I murmur a thank you and assume position – next to a random girl on a random street in England selling flowers for Remembrance Day.

“So, what’s your name?” she asks me in between shouts.

“Ruby.”

“Oh, I love that name! If I was ever going to have a daughter, I would name her Ruby.” she flashes me a bright, full-toothed smile, “I’m Beth. Not as lovely as Ruby, but I like it. I want to be an actress, but it’s hard to make it in the acting world.”

I nod, but my head is spinning. My Grandmum was an actress and her name is Beth. I look at her out of the corner of my eye. What is going on here?

Right then a beautiful woman walks up to us. Beth asks her if she would like to purchase some flowers, but the woman looks directly at me and says, “Yes, I’ll take two please.” She is angelic and I am gobsmacked. She has bright green eyes and dark brown hair, just like me. I fumble with the flowers.

“Here you go.” I say. She hands me the money, but I feel a lump between the bills. I separate them and find my earbuds curled up in a nice ball. When I look up again the woman is nowhere to be seen.

“Do you know her?” asks Beth. I don’t answer. I am in shock. I realize too late that this woman was the same one that winked at me in Pepper’s Hair. I feel in my pocket for my earbuds but they aren’t there. I must have dropped them when I hurried out of the shop. I close my eyes and picture her face again. I see the face of my mother.

 

Track 4

“Poppies! Buy some poppies for a loved one! Hello Michael, would you like to buy some poppies?” A tall, handsome young fireman stands in front of us and she grins at him from underneath her eyelashes.  I suck in my breath. My Granddad, or future Granddad, is standing inches away from me.

“Sorry Beth, I have to run.  I just heard about a fire across town. Apparently it’s a house fire and the family has three kids. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose someone you love, especially a child. I’ll come by later.” He gives her an apologetic smile and then rushes off. As he runs towards the fire station, he pulls a rectangular object out of his coat and kisses it, then tucks it back into his pocket.

“Go save some lives!” yells Beth. The next minute, the fire lorry roars by.

“That’s Michael. He’s really sweet.” She says, gazing after the red truck turning the corner.

“You like him, don’t you?” I blurt, then almost clap my hand over my mouth, astounded at what I just uttered.

“Yes, I do,” she giggles.  “It’s hard not to. He’s always saving lives and helping others. Did you see what he did? He was kissing a portrait of the Queen. Isn’t that lovely? It’s his good luck charm. In fact, when he comes back, I’m sure he’ll buy us out of poppies. That’s the kind of chap he is.”

At this point I have no idea what to do.  My Granddad is a town hero, my Grandmum sells flowers for vet’rans and my mother keeps making guest appearances.

“Thank you so much.  This has been great, but I really need to go home.  Can you please show me where the bus station is?”

 

Track 5

On our walk to the station, I feel my mind slowly begin to slip into the past. Or from this past to the later past…  I begin to think about my mother and how much I miss her.

My mother had only just turned 40 when she was killed in a house fire.  Our house fire, and it was my fault.  

I was six years old and my mother was cooking her own birthday dinner. Mum insisted that she cook because no one could make her favorite meal of Beef Wellington and Fried Potatoes as well as she could. My grandparents were over to celebrate, but my father wasn’t home yet. I was upstairs in my room, playing with my “wacky sounds” keyboard, and entertaining my teddy bear, who was wearing my “blankie” as a royal robe. I was bored and lonely. I had no siblings – and not many friends – so this was, and is, a common occurrence. I tried to get someone’s attention by banging on the keyboard, but the potatoes kept frying and my grandparents kept laughing and talking. I put my keyboard on dinosaur mode and hit a couple notes, but the roaring didn’t get their attention either. So I started to cry.

Finally I heard Mummy coming up the stairs, “I’m coming Rubes, don’t worry.” She appeared behind the childproof gate and walked me down the stairs and into the living room where my grandparents were talking and reading the newspaper. My Mum left the room to go back to cooking, but moments later I realized that I left my “blankie” upstairs. I started to cry again, “My blankie!”

Mummy heard me and immediately went upstairs to retrieve it.

Several minutes passed. She came back down and handed me my “blankie.”

“There you go sweet pea.” Those were her last words. What came after is a bit blurry.

My Mum had gone back into the kitchen, unaware that a towel near the splattering potatoes had caught fire and had spread flames to the ceiling. I suppose she thought she could put it out herself, because I don’t recall hearing her yell for help.  I remember my Granddad hustling us all out of the house and ordering us to stay put while he went back in for her.  We watched in horror as the flames jumped out of the kitchen window. Those were the longest minutes and the worst day of my life. My Granddad couldn’t save my mother. It was too late.

 

Track 6

From the bus, I watch Beth wave from the sidewalk, growing smaller and smaller. I retrieve my earbuds, put them back in my ears and am surprised to find that the same song is playing, even though I definitely remember hitting pause.  I quickly turn around in my seat and look back at the street. “Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to know…” My eyes dart to the swirling barber’s pole outside the shop. Mr. Pepper!

“Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray…” Oh my god, Grandmum!

Just then, the fire lorry zooms past, “And the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain, very strange…” Granddad!

“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies. Penny Lane.”

I turn back around and close my eyes.

Thanks Mum.

 

Track 7

I open my eyes and I am back in my own bed. The room is dark and I look at the glowing face of my alarm clock. 6:30PM, only ten minutes have passed since I left the dinner table. I hear footsteps outside my door and the doorknob turns. My Grandfather walks in, looking more tired than usual, but wearing a surprisingly cheerful expression. He sits down on my bed.

“Ruby, I …” he pauses and still hasn’t looked at me. His face looks sunken, the wrinkles on his cheeks looks like the ripples in water after you’ve thrown in a pebble. And yet, he looks different, better, as if he’s resolved something.

“Your mother, she was a very special person. When she died, you were very young and didn’t fully understand. I want to explain…”

I raise my eyebrows. What is going on? Why now?

“I haven’t been able to forgive myself for not being able to save her.  She was the reason that I retired. After that, I knew I could not continue. When she died, a little piece of me, of all of us, died with her.

“No, no Granddad. It was my fault.  If she hadn’t gone upstairs to get my blanket then none of this would have happened.”

He finally looks up at me in earnest. “Ruby, dearie, it seems that we share the same burden.  But you are not to blame.  It was my fault. I was the fireman and her father. Why wasn’t I able to save her?” He looks pained. “Well Rube, I’ll tell you why. Do you know how many years I was in fire department?”

“No, I don’t Granddad.”

“45 years. 45 years I fought fires, battled blazes, attacked the heat. In most cases, we saved everyone, no fatalities. But there were times when the people didn’t make it.” Granddad’s eyes suddenly became glazed over, as if he was reliving the past. “Dogs burned alive, sons burned alive, mothers burned alive! And every time we were left staring at a crumbling building, family members and friends sitting crying on the sidewalk, their hair streaked with ash. And, do you know what I was always thinking? ‘What if that was me?’ What if someone I loved was hurt and I was powerless to save them? That was my greatest fear.” His gruff voice was getting wobbly and his hands were starting to shake.

“So when I went to get your mother out of that burning kitchen, I was suddenly paralyzed. I couldn’t move beyond the doorway. Couldn’t move my feet.  My worst nightmare was coming true, happening right in front of my eyes. I was so scared Ruby.

“There is a rule that we follow in the fire department, after six minutes if you haven’t already gone in, then you should just stay out. I stood there for way more than six minutes. I was so cowardly, Ruby. She was my daughter. It was only when the fire started to spread towards me that I was broken out of my trance. I was way too late.”

His eyes are wet, but I can tell that a great weight has been lifted off of him in revealing this to me. I really don’t know what to say. But he does.

“I’m so sorry for the way that I’ve behaved these past several years. How I refused to cope with this and lived in denial. The way I ignored you. You are so, so precious,” he says.

We are quiet for a long time after that; each lost in our sadness.  Finally I know what to say.

“Granddad?”

“Yes Ruby?”

“When you were a fireman for the station in Liverpool, did you carry a portrait of the Queen in your pocket?”

He looks at me curiously, and I see a twinkle of young Michael Beckett in his eyes, the shared dimple in his cheek. He rises from the bed, and then returns moments later. He hands me a small frame with a black-and-white photo of a young woman wearing a dazzling crown.

“I used to take it with me wherever I went. I wanted to remember that I was serving our country. Why did you ask?”

“Oh, I just wanted to know,” I say, smiling up at him.

I raise my hand, fingers outstretched, palm facing out and he does the same. We put our palms together, and I see that his is still much larger than mine; bigger, stronger, protecting.

 

The End

 

The Detective, Jack, and the Grand Central Bombing Attack

The bag was just left unattended by the clock in Grand Central for hours…The police should have caught it. But they didn’t. The officers on duty said they just hadn’t noticed it, while dozens of travelers said that they remembered the briefcase being there even hours before the tragedy. The stories just didn’t add up. The date was December 9, 1954. The best detectives of the decade were brought in, but no one understood how the bomb had gone unnoticed. An explosive in the briefcase had killed seven commuters near the clock in the main concourse. Three had been injured, all of whom remained in critical condition in a nearby hospital. Eyewitness accounts described an explosion of sorts. Despite hundreds of witnesses, nobody interviewed seemed to know who had put the bomb under the clock in Grand Central.

 

Jack Thomas, a tall and lanky boy of 23, was an apprentice to Detective Flynn O’Brien. The detective was a big man with no hair, but had an incredibly large moustache. He was known throughout the city as the best detective around, and Jack, a schoolboy, had only been able to get an apprenticeship because their fathers had been friends as boys. Jack was a smart fellow who had what many called a knack for trouble. Talking to people came easy to him; he had spent much of his childhood convincing people that they should allow him to bend the rules. Although he was becoming a more serious with age, his mind worked like a trickster’s and he could always tell when somebody wasn’t telling the truth. When Jack answered Detective O’Brien’s telephone in the late morning on Thursday, he was expecting a call from the detective’s wife, as she always called around that time.

 

11:14 am
Thursday December 9, 1954

42nd Street Precinct

“Hello, you’ve reached the office of Detective Flynn O’Brien, Jack Thomas speaking, how may I help you?”

“Good morning Jack, it’s Mr. O’Connor from Grand Central’s security department.”

“Hello Mr. O’Connor, what can I do for you?”

“Put me on with Mr. O’Brien, please? Something has happened at the station.”

“Yes sir, please hold on one minute.”

 

Jack’s instincts told him that something was very wrong. He packed the detective’s bag of tools and gadgets, and got his boss’ coat ready. Detective O’Brien hung up the phone, snatched his bowler hat off the rack, put on the coat, and told Jack that they had to hurry.

In the taxi, Detective O’Brien filled Jack in on what he knew about the case. When they arrived at the terminal, Jack stared at the main concourse, transfixed by the sheer size of the place. The only noises were whispers of NYPD officers and the wail of ambulance sirens from the emergency vehicles parked on the street. He had been there a dozen times, but this was the first time that he had seen it empty.  He had little time to gaze at the sight, however, for Detective O’Brien nudged him to descend the stairs. Where the famed clock had once stood, rubble, body parts, and cracked marble floor remained.

Jack’s heart began beating twice as fast as normal. What had happened? He wanted to know.

Detective O’Brien walked briskly to where ten police officers were huddled, whispering. Each man stood up straighter and smoothed his tie at the sight of the famed detective. Mr. O’Connor stepped forward and shook Detective O’Brien’s hand. They walked over to the bodies, saying things inaudible from Jack’s distance. He watched, thinking of what the old Jack would have done. The old Jack would’ve marched right up to the bodies and done his own investigation- dropping the detective’s jacket to the floor, checking out the bodies, ruthlessly questioning victims, not taking no for an answer. However, the new Jack held himself to a higher standard. Today’s Jack stood, holding the coat and assuring himself that the detective would ask him for input if he saw fit. Although Jack’s new personality was quite a relief to his mother and father, he missed the the thrill of being a troublemaker. It took every ounce of self-control Jack possessed to stop himself from returning to his old ways as he waited patiently for an order from his boss.

“Jack, take notes on this meeting,” Detective O’Brien instructed.

“Yes, sir,” he replied, reaching into his messenger bag for a notepad and pen. He scribbled away as the two men discussed the situation.

“At exactly 10:42 a.m. today, an explosion took place right here. The victims closest to the bomb were killed within minutes, and three critically injured survivors were rushed to the hospital. Each body that you see here hasn’t been so much as touched since the explosion. We have a list of witnesses and would be happy to show you said list for any questioning you might do. All trains have been stopped and the premise has been cleared. No one remains but the officials you see in this room” said Mr. O’Connor. Little did he know that one very important person still remained on the premise. As Detective O’Brien and Jack left Grand Central, a memory stirred inside the apprentice’s head. The crime scene oddly reminded him of something he had read a few years earlier.

11:25 a.m., Thursday, December 9, 1954

Hiding in the bathrooms, a man named Greg Mallite chuckled as he heard Mr. O’Connor say that no one remained on the premises. Without a sound, George left the men’s room, exited that terminal from the back, and walked onto the sunlit, busy street. He parted his teeth into a sickening smile, and for the first time in ages, he wasn’t frowning. The “Mad Bomber” had just completed his first killing.

 

42nd Street Precinct

5:32 pm

Thursday December 9, 1954

Jack walked out of the detective’s office and on to the street, his warm coat wrapped tightly to keep out the cold. He would normally head back to Connecticut on the train at this time, but Grand Central remained closed. Instead, he walked to the New York Public Library to follow a hunch that had been nagging at him since visiting the crime scene. He asked the librarian where he could find newspaper articles about New York City bombings from the last fifteen years. Jack did this because he remembered reading about similar bombings all over the city when he was still in school. The article from his memory had mentioned that one man was probably responsible for all of the bombings, nicknamed the “Mad Bomber”. Jack had an idea that maybe the Mad Bomber was responsible for this attack.

 

9:03 a.m.,  Friday December 10, 1954

“Good morning, Detective O’Brien,” Jack said cheerfully to his boss on Friday morning.

“‘Morning, Jack. How are you today?”

“Not great, sir, something had been bothering me. It’s about the Grand Central case.”

“Go on.”

“Well,” Jack explained, “when we went to the crime scene yesterday, it really reminded me of something I had read a while back in the newspaper. The crim