SPECIAL EVENT MISC #1 Voting Thread: A Brush With Death

Discussion in 'ANNOUNCEMENTS & NEWS' started by Jorick, Sep 22, 2016.


Which entry do you like the best?

Poll closed Sep 29, 2016.
  1. Dead Land

  2. We'll Cast Some Light...

  3. I'm a Present!

  4. Entry #4

    0 vote(s)
  5. Child's Best Friend

  6. Repentance

  7. Brush, With Death...

  8. The Death of a Relationship

    0 vote(s)
  9. Encounter with Life

    0 vote(s)
  10. By the Riverside

  11. Last Stand

  12. Double Date

  13. Entry #13

  14. A Death and a Birth

    0 vote(s)
  15. Death Seeker

  16. A Viking Hero

  17. Brush of Death

    0 vote(s)
  18. Life, for a Life; Soul, for a Soul

    0 vote(s)
  19. Human

  20. Isolation

    0 vote(s)
  21. Relic

    0 vote(s)
  22. Copper Black

  23. Descending Raven

  24. She is Pale and Drooping no more

  25. A Coward Does It With A Kiss

  1. Hello, people of Iwaku, and welcome to the first voting thread for the Miscellaneous Iwaku Storytelling Contest. I hope you're all in the mood to read a LOT of stuff, because holy crap do we have a lot of entries. Remember, contest entrants cannot vote for their own entries, and votes will be viewable by everyone. Be careful with your choice, because you cannot change your vote once it is cast. Now, let's get on with the show and get all the informational stuff out of the way quickly so you can get to reading the juicy stuff!

    This Month's Theme: A Brush With Death

    Writing Prompt A: Write about a character's first time dealing with death. This can be death of a loved one, an animal, even a stranger. This can be taken as literally or figuratively as you like.

    Writing Prompt B: Write out a scene including a near-death experience. The character in peril must survive.

    The Prizes

    MISC Managers' Pick: One month of donator status free, a special victory ribbon underneath their avatar for a month, and spot in the MISC Hall of Fame thread to immortalize the win.

    Community Favorite: A special victory ribbon underneath their avatar for a month, and spot in the MISC Hall of Fame thread to immortalize the win.

    Voting Rules
    • All entries will be posted anonymously. Voters will need to make a selection based on the quality of the piece, not the name attached to it.
    • There will be two winners for each month of MISC: the community pick that receives the most votes, and a manager pick that will be decided in secret by the MISC managers. Each will receive separate but similar prizes for their accomplishment.
    • People who have entered the contest can vote, but they can't vote for their own entry or it'll be disqualified. Show some love to your fellow writers or don't vote, whatever feels right to you. Votes will be public knowledge so we can keep track of this.
    • You aren't allowed to tell anyone which entry is yours until AFTER the voting period is over. Doing anything to solicit votes is not allowed and will get you disqualified, and perhaps even banned from MISC altogether. Telling your friends "hey, I entered MISC this month, go read the entries and vote" is fine; telling people "go vote for #4, that's my entry" is not okay.
    • Voters are highly encouraged to read through every entry before voting. We know we can't enforce this, but try to give everyone a chance before picking your favorite.
    • Voters are also highly encouraged to post in the voting thread to explain their choice. Full reviews or critiques of the entries are very welcome, but please keep any criticism constructive and civil. Telling someone that their spelling errors and odd word choice made it hard to read is fine, but telling them that they write like shit is not okay.
    • The MISC managers will select one entry as the Manager's Favorite for the month, to be revealed after the voting period is over. The winning entry will win some sort of prizes and will win a permanent spot in the MISC Hall of Fame thread to record their achievement. On the rare occasion that there is a physical or monetary prize for the month, it will be awarded along with the Manager's Favorite pick to avoid any temptation to pull shenanigans with the votes.
    • The entry with the most votes at the end of the voting period will be declared the Community Favorite for that month. However, if the community makes the same selection as the managers, then the second highest vote recipient will be named Community Favorite; we don't intend to make the vote seem like it's playing second fiddle to our pick, it's just how it has to work so prize distribution makes sense when there are gift certificates or similar to be won, sorry! The winning entry will win fabulous prizes (fabulousness not guaranteed) and will win a permanent spot in the MISC Hall of Fame thread for all eternity (or until Iwaku explodes).

    The Entries

    Just so there's no confusion here, there are no entries marked with a NSFW tag in the title but you may see some things you think deserve it. The NSFW tagging is reserved for graphic sexual content that would need to go in a Redstar/Bluestar area or a tagged spoiler. There may be mentions of sex and violence and other potentially unsavory material in the entries, and there are no content warnings for them unless the author chose to put one in their entry.

    Dead Land
    Vertigo sucked. That was Bayard’s last thought before the world started to spin out of control, right in the middle of a busy street. He could feel his body being hit, but even the pain seemed to be swirling in what he thought was pure agony. And then everything went black.

    “Hey, listen!” He groaned and curled up into a ball.

    “Five more minutes, Mother,” he mumbled.

    “Whoa, who’s that?”

    “Someone wake him up!” Next thing he knew, water was being dumped onto his head. He swore as he got up.

    “I was enjoying that too,” he grumbled, rubbing his eyes and yawning. When he finally blinked his eyes open, the first thing he noticed was that he wasn’t in a hospital. Far from it in fact, he seemed he was in a place filled with dead trees and an expanse of dirt as far as the eye can see. “…Seems I’m not in Kansas anymore.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked around. The second thing he noticed were strange shimmers in the background, with several of them right in front of him. There was also a floating bucket right in front of a shimmer. “What.” There was the sound of giggling and he whirled around to look for the source. “Who’s there?!”

    “Hey, calm down, will ya?” a voice said, causing him to turn around again. The shimmer with the bucket moved closer, until it was finally close enough to knock him lightly on the head with said bucket.

    “What the f-“

    “Hey! Watch your tongue!” the bucket shimmer seemed to say. Squinting at the figure, he could see the outline of a person. It was too faint to tell, but he thought it was a girl because of her voice.

    “I can curse whenever I da- Agh!” The bucket flipped upside down and was slammed down onto his head so that it was inside.

    “No cursing, not while Vivi is here,” he thought he heard a male voice say. Bayard got the bucket off his head and tossed it to the side.

    “Don’t worry, I got it!” a child’s voice said as something moved in his vision, but he couldn’t tell what.

    “What the he-“ He gasped and shuddered when the shimmer who had the bucket thrusted what he assumed to be an arm into his body. It was like ice cold water coursing through his veins and he absolutely hated it.

    “I didn’t know you can do that!” another child’s voice said. Soon it felt like he was being impaled by cold water as the shimmers began to crowd around him and thrust their arms into his body.

    “Hey, kids. Stop that,” one of the older one’s chastised, “Want me to call Simon over?” They immediately backed away from the shivering man.

    “Okay, what’s going on?” he asked, gritting his teeth and wrapping his arms around himself.

    “Well, guess we gotta do the thing. Welcome to Dead Land!” Pause.


    “Artie…” the female sighed before clearing her throat, “But yes, he has a point. This is the land of the dead and you’ve, well, died.” Another flat “What.” The man looked down to see he wasn’t as transparent as the others.

    “Well to be more precise, young man, you’re on the brink of death.” There was a hush as a shimmer moved forward, the others parting to make way for the old man that just spoke.

    “The brink?” The apparition before him nodded.

    “It’s why you still have a more corporeal form, at least, in your eyes. If you were like the rest of the dead, then you would have a much easier time seeing us while losing your own form.” Bayard cracked his neck, feeling a sense of relief that he could still do that.

    “Okay, so I’m nearly dead. How do I get out of here?” he asked.

    “I’m afraid it’s up to the living to save you from the brink,” Simon said, “Perhaps it’s better if we take you to our camp.”

    “Fine then, but don’t expect me to sit on dirt in a friendly powwow.” The shimmers began to move to his right and he tried his best to follow them, they he did stumble into a few of them by accident, causing him to feel that cold sensation again. It was very unpleasant, to put it mildly. The man blinked in surprise when tents appeared into view.

    “Okay, how do you guys still have stuff when there’s only dead trees for miles around? And how come I can see these things but not you guys?”

    “Honestly, we don’t know,” Vivi said as she headed towards a tent, “We found these things as we wander around the place. That also applies to your second question.”

    “Hey, Near Dead Guy, you hungry?” Artie asked. Pause.

    “Near Dead Guy? Really?”

    “Hey, you never gave us your name, so I have to call you something.”

    “It’s Bayard and what are you doing to that tree?” Artie came back with slivers of bark and offered it to Bayard. He recoiled away from it, for the bark smelled like something awful in his opinion. “No thanks.”

    “’Kay then, more for me!” He watched half in awe and half in disgust as the young man ate the bark slivers. “Please tell me that’s not the only thing you can eat here.”

    “Well, considering the fact that finding supplies is rare, that’s pretty much what we have to live on. We also have to drink water too, it’s a good thing there’s a well nearby.”

    “…Being dead must suck,” he deadpanned, earning a bark of laughter, which was followed by the sound of someone being smacked and an “Ow!”

    “Well, it’s how we live, At least you won’t remember anything if you make it back alive,” the other shimmer said, “There’s three kids, three adults, and one old guy here, so having another helping hand would be useful.”

    “There’s got to be a way I can come back,” he mumbled, shaking his head in disbelief.

    “We already told you, that’s up for the living to decide.” Another pause. “Hey, you okay? You look a little pale.”

    “Huh?” He tried to focus on the shimmer but then the feeling of vertigo struck him yet again. “Ugh…”

    “Bayard? You okay?” There were shouts of something as his vision darkened and he fell to the ground. When he woke up, he found himself in a white hospital room, groaning in pain. Yep, he hated vertigo so much.

    We'll Cast Some Light and You'll Be Alright For Now
    Title is a lyric from the song "Crosses" by Jose Gonzalez

    Malka fidgeted in her black dress. At the age of seven, she liked dresses, but not this one. She preferred much brighter colors. Right now, she'd rather be in one of her mother's hand-knit sweaters. Malka once told her mother that she liked to imagine that they were as comfy as her hugs were, and her mother laughed.
    It was Malka's first funeral. Outside of her town's white church, the one where the paint slightly chipped, was where it was taking place. She looked up; today was partially cloudy. 'That means it's mostly sunny' is what her father would say about this weather. She wrinkled her nose. It was mostly cloudy to her.
    Malka's town was small enough that she could recognize her neighbors around her, but in their black attire her neighbors were like strangers to her. One of them stood by her, and she clung onto their black dress. The looks they gave her made her uneasy– like when her friend watched her fall and scrape her knee. They felt sorry for her. She let go of the black dress. Malka decided she didn't like funerals at all, and hoped this was the last one she would go to in her life.
    The caskets were closed. She knew what that was, because once she put her previous pet goldfish, Sally, in one. It wasn't a big, rectangular wooden one like this one, but one of her mother's blue shoe-boxes that she'd decorated with markers and buried in her yard, “Are caskets big shoe boxes you bury people in?” she asked one of her neighbors, a blonde lady.
    “No, they're...” A pause. That same look everyone was giving her, “In a way, yes.”
    Earlier, white flowers were put by the caskets. Malka knew what these flowers were. She asked her mother and she told Malka that they were called 'lilies'. She thought they were pretty, like her mother. Malka shuffled her feet, the lilies giving her the same uncomfortable feeling as everything else.
    Malka wanted to look inside the boxes to make sure. She wanted it to be some really mean joke. They'd open up the boxes– the big shoe boxes– caskets– and it'd turn out no one was inside them, because there didn't need to be. Her father would be behind her, yelling 'Surprise!' like he did for her sixth birthday, and he'd pick her up and pinch her nose. Her mother would be right by them, and then, and then...
    Her knuckles turned white as she gripped her dress.
    They could go home.
    Malka tried to be quiet, but a low whine came from the back of her throat. Her neighbors were talking around her.
    “Poor girl. She's far too young.”
    The last time she saw her parents was a few days ago. They were going out of town.
    “Did she see it happen?”
    They didn't come back.
    “No, she was staying at a friend's house when...”
    Her eyes were red. They became puffy from wiping them so much. Someone put a hand on her shoulder. Her vision was too blurry to make them out, “They're...” his voice was gravely, like an old man's, “They're in a better place now, I'm sure.”
    Malka hiccuped. Was it better than being here with her– In their home – In their neighborhood– With their neighbors in their normal clothes instead of their awful, awful black funeral clothes and 'sorry-for-her' looks?
    Malka knew she would not be coming home.

    I'm a Present!
    The sound of Heavy rain made its presence clear on top of the many umbrellas and people that stood nearby. The trees moved like crazy, as if they were drunk high school students in their prom with no super vision. But here, everyone stood still. Only one man spoke, and his voice reached to everyone.

    "May he always be remembered, and may he rest in peace."

    This caused several people in the group to start crying heavily while others shed tears or supported people. It was a hard time for all of them. But the tallest guy, and one of the three people who stood closest to the grave, simply stared. His entire body was soaking wet, but his pale blue eyes were dry. He had one hand on a woman's back, and another on a man's back, both of them crying hard.

    "Look at me Darren! Come on!"

    That same line kept crossing his mind. The sound of a young, eager and excited voice, constantly seeking the attention of his older brother. Darren kept looking at the grave as the people slowly begun paying their respects to the family and leaving, but he could not hear any of them. The voice of his younger brother haunted him. And he knew that it will be a voice that he is going to hear for the rest of his life.

    "Darren! Stop mowing the lawn and look at me already!"

    If he had only done so earlier, perhaps things would've turned out differently. There were plenty of factors that made this happen, his parents made that clear to him, but it was still hard for him.

    "Look at me, look at me, look at me!"

    Now his parents spoke to him, muttering words, but he barely understood what they told him. A couple of moments later, and he was alone besides the grave. Still staring at it, he dropped to his knees and hugged the gravestone. His eyes watered up quickly and he cried like he never cried before, choking up as he did.

    If he had only looked at his brother earlier, perhaps things could've ended up differently. He could've ran and push his brother from the path of the drunken driver's car.

    But all he did was watch his younger, eager, excited and barely 10 years old brother, in a cardboard box, get hit and sent flying away.

    "Finally Darren! Look!

    I'm a Present!"

    Entry #4
    He threw another look in the mirror. His hair was done and no hair was present or, at least, visible above his lips. Not that he was sure if it was a good idea. From what he knew she liked guys with some facial hair. Then again that was what he had caught from what some other girl had said. And how certain could he be that was valid? Playing it safe was going to be his motto this evening. Or should he phrase that differently? Already he had made his best friend almost cry of laughter when he had explained what his 'game plan' would be this evening.
    As he tidied his jacket and threw another criticising look at his reflection in the mirror the words of his best friend rang through his mind.

    "You know, you worry way too much. You should just relax. Make her laugh and smile, cause that is what you do best."

    While Keith was somebody that Vincent trusted and loved as a brother there was still that little bit of doubt clinging. Perhaps it was because Keith was still away in Canada? Not that the distance had proven itself to be a nuisance for the two friends. They made it work as there were enough these days to keep contact. Skype, facebook and Whatsapp made it all possible that they could enjoy each other's jokes and pranks just like when Keith hadn't been in Canada.
    So when Keith said something like that in a very serious tone Vincent wanted to accept his words. To consider them nothing more than the truth, there was just one little, nasty fact that made it near impossible.

    It had been three whole years.

    Perhaps some would argue that three years wasn't a long time. Vincent, however, found it quite long. He had some 'sort of relationships' over those three years. But those were picking up girls from here or there. Flirting and just having some fun. This was in his opinion different. Dating and just picking up girls from a bar or club were two separate matters. When you were going on a date there is perhaps no anxiety about losing face for your friends who consider you to be smooth with the ladies. That and if you manage to screw up with one girl then there are plenty others that might be interested. On a date? The rules are then way less flexible. You're already set to one girl and if you mess up the chance to make the evening great with picking up another girl was slim. Besides, that was just not done.
    Then there were a few other 'ground rules' that made dating different and it caused Vincent to grow insecure. Biting his lower lip he wondered if he should put off his watch. Just to look a bit more casual? He decided against it, turning around as he would resist spraying more cologne to ensure that he would smell nice. Something that wouldn't bother many at a club as who decided to take a sniff when talking to a person when you were dancing with them or the whole place was filled with sweaty people?

    Exiting his home, he would lock the doors behind him. With his parents gone this weekend, he had also to send them a text. Just so that his mother could wish him good luck on his date. Probably a bit childish, but nobody was aware of that so Vincent didn't mind to do his mother this favour.
    A beep resonated as Vincent would unlock his car. Well, not really his car, but he considered it now his own car as he would be driving it this evening. It was a BMW 144i. Not that Vincent was much of an expert when it came to cars and diverse models. In short, he was just known with some of the typical fancy-smanczy models and that some were nice to drive. And that they, of course, had often four wheels.

    Vincent looked down as his mobile started to vibrate in his pocket. His left hand pulled out the device as he saw who was calling him.
    "Hey, hang on, just one moment. Going to start the car and put you on the loudspeakers. One more second. There!"
    In a relaxed pace, Vincent would get ready to drive away was a feminine voice would speak up.
    "Hey, how are you feeling?"
    "I am doing fine."
    A short pause followed after the rather 'casual' given answer on the question. It was clear that the person on the other side didn't really seem to believe him.
    "Yeah and I am the queen of England. Vincent, you've been stressing about this all week. Don't make me quote you." Was the sarcastic retort.

    A sigh escaped him as he would start to drive away. He briefly looked at the mirror, flashing his teeth to be sure that there wasn't already something between them.
    "Are you checking yourself, again?"
    "No. Okay, maybe." He admitted, grumbling the words.
    "Did Keith already talk with you?" The feminine voice still sounded neutral, which made Vincent slightly irritated as he was certain that she was doing that on purpose.
    "No. At least, not today. I was asked to call him on skype once I got back home. You know, to tell him about how it went."
    He briefly looked at the sides as he was driving out the small village where he lived. Seeing the time of the day it did start to become darker. And people in these parts weren't for some odd reason eager to wear bright clothing so that drivers could spot them easier on their bicycles.
    "Hey, you're going to have some fun. Don't fret yourself too much. And stop checking yourself if you're driving, Vincent."
    Instantly Vincent wanted to say that he wasn't doing that. Driving on the highway - where it wasn't that busy at this time of the day - Vincent had, however, threw already another look in the mirror to see if he wasn't in need to go back home and put on something else.
    "I know, Patrice," Vincent said, a soft sigh escaping his lips. He was aware that she was just trying to make sure he wouldn't stress or worry over stupid matters. In her way it was sweet and he appreciated it as she was just somebody else who was close to him. Only for at the moment she was, much like Keith, not really close.
    "How is Dublin?"
    "You will love it, I promise you. I went to several museums already. The people are also a joy, really. Did you know that there are also these signs where it is stated in English and Irish? Glad that I studied Irish before coming, even though it doesn't have a good name here with the locals from what I have learned."
    "Oh?" Vincent said, genuinely surprised. He threw a look at his left before switching lane to pass a slow driver. As he passed the slow driver Vincent noticed that it was an old man that seemed to be a bit anxious behind the wheel.
    "Yeah. But would you mind to send me a message over Whatsapp when you get home? I want all the details, of course."
    A smile dawned on Vincent's lips as he briefly glanced at his right to switch lanes again.
    "Yes, of course. Also from the movie?"
    "God no, I hate horror. I seriously can't understand that you haven't yet asked to watch another movie. You dislike horror as much as I do."
    He shrugged, even aware that she wasn't able to see that.
    "I know. But I already said back then to her that I don't mind any kind of movie. Find it kinda weak to just request another genre. Besides, she loves it."
    "Know what a girl also loves?"
    "Humour me."
    "A guy who isn't afraid to ask for another genre when he dislikes horror."
    "Patrice," Vincent began as he started to chuckle. He knew she was right and the annoying part was that she also knew she was right. "Next time I will request a change."
    "Good. Now, I am going to let you go. Have fun, Vincent."
    "Thanks, Patrice. Talk to you later."
    "You better."

    With that, the call was ended and the silence that followed wouldn't last long. The radio would start right after the call's end, making Vincent starting to whistle as the song ' Summer On You' would play. The cheerful and relaxing tones did help a bit, though Vincent wondered for a second if he shouldn't plug his phone for his own music to be played. He wasn't much of a fan to listen to the radio as there was just too much talk about matters that didn't concern or interest him, at all. So what that some famous Dutch person had won this or that? Great for them, but Vincent didn't really consider himself interested in those affairs.

    Just as the song ended and Vincent had to switch lanes to get on the right way as a split would come soon, his phone started to vibrate again. This time, he could just answer without messing around with the Bluetooth of the car and phone, which was sometimes a hassle.
    "Yes with Vincent."
    "With Leon, who else?"
    "Hey, sup Leon?"
    "Not much. Was wondering if you were up to go out to pick a few beers." The other person answered.
    Vincent raised his right eyebrow before he answered back. "Leon, I have the date today. I am sorry pal."
    "Wow, wait today? What?"
    "Yeah, it is that girl who I asked to marry me."
    "Oooh, wait, can you repeat that story for me?"
    Vincent shook his head lightly as he would keep on driving. He had to drive a distance just straight ahead and it was really quiet on the road. Perhaps most people decided that this Saturday was best spent with family at home? Probably.
    "It was two weeks ago. During the second day of college, I had to do the crazy 88. You know, that list where all kind of weird things is listed. Such as making a selfie with a guy that has long hair. And one with a person that has stripes on their clothing. Or ask somebody to break an egg on your head."
    "You Dutch people are really messed up," was Leon's amused answer, "But go on."
    "In my defence, that was the first time I ever heard and did something like that. Not really something I think I will do again." Vincent said, pausing for a second. "Anyhow, I kept myself a bit of a distance. Just to observe the people I was with cause I didn't know anybody. Eventually, I was asked to do something off the list. And there was this thing to ask somebody unknown to marry me. So," he said as he heard Leon snicker, "I noticed her there. She was doing her work, raising awareness for some charity work. Those people in the centre of towns who first try to make eye-contact and then approach you."
    "Yeah, I know those people."
    "So I made eye contact and chuckled as she started to smile. As she approached me I came to a halt. She asked if I had some time and I said yes, but I needed to ask something back. She seemed a bit confused, but as I offered my hand she reached out to grab it. Just then I dropped on one knee and asked her to marry me."
    "And then she made the biggest mistake in her life, didn't she?"
    "No, she didn't say yes," Vincent said, growing amused as he could remember how it all had happened. He continued to explain that she could laugh about it and that he did explain to her why he had asked her that weird question.

    "So after that I joked a bit about if she didn't want to marry how a date sounded for her. And I guess you can guess the rest." Vincent ended.
    "Heh, yeah. Well then, have fun mate. I will drink one in your name this evening. Stay safe.~"
    Shaking his head Vincent would end the call. He felt quite confident after the calls of Patrice and Leon, who was also one of his best friends. It wouldn't surprise him much if Patrice had requested Leon to also call him, but for now, he wouldn't spend a moment on pondering about that. Paying attention as he had to drive from the highway Vincent would switch from lanes again.

    Driving slower as he had to pay attention where he had to go wasn't a place he was familiar with. However, he had plotted the route before and was somewhat sure he was driving in the right direction. Eventually, he stopped in front of a home. Glancing through the window at the house he felt uncomfortable. Throwing one last look in the mirror Vincent took a deep breath before getting out of the car. He could do this.

    "So, excited for the movie?" He asked her, throwing a glance at his right. She was dressed in a pair of sneakers, dark blue jeans and a short top. Her blonde hair reached a bit past her shoulders as her blue eyes revealed a glint on his answer.
    "Yeah." She just said, throwing a look back at him.
    "I heard some nice things about the movie. Though, I don't watch much horror." Vincent said, but feeling a twinge of regret.
    "Oh, really? If you don't want to watch horror then we can watch something else. I heard that Sausage party is a fun movie."
    "No, no. I am fine with horror. Am not that easily to be scared, heh." He said, the twinge of regret becoming bigger. Why was he trying to act tough? It wasn't something that suited him, at all!
    "Good to know." She said, her pleasant voice moving through the air before a silence would dawn between them. The silence was actually just Vanessa Carlton singing on the radio an old timer : 'A Thousand Miles'. A more ironic song for this situation couldn't be out there Vincent thought to himself as he glanced at the radio. He wanted to switch it off, but he noticed that she enjoyed it. For a moment Vincent caught himself staring at her soft-looking red lips and the fair pale skin of her cheeks. Slowly the corners of her lips moved up before she spoke.
    "Mind if I change the station?" She asked, causing Vincent to nod quickly.
    The question made Vincent consider and weigh the words of the answer he wanted to give. Throwing a sideways look at her once more, he spoke up.
    "Well, I just wanted to say that you look beautiful this evening, Charlotte."

    The answer of Vincent made Charlotte's smile stay on her lips as she briefly looked away. Raising her right hand to push a few strands of blonde hair behind her right ear she threw another look at Vincent.

    The movie had gone better than expected. Vincent treated them both on soda and they would share a bucket of sweet popcorn together as Charlotte didn't like salty. Once they had found the room in which the movie would play the seats were the next. Vincent did throw a look around and there didn't seem to be many people present. Which was what nonpreferred, seeing that his anxiety, if he could endure a horror movie that lasted for 89 minutes, could survive without a yelp or looking scared.
    Instead of going back right away Charlotte and Vincent shared some drinks, talking about the movie. Then about her hobbies, what kind of music Vincent liked to listened and his hobbies. The minutes became almost hours as they sat in the lobby together for almost two hours even after the movie had ended.

    While he wanted to just sit and keep on talking Vincent eventually suggested that he should bring her home. He wasn't completely sure if he had seen it right but for a moment she seemed disappointed. Getting to the car Charlotte spoke up as she opened the door of the passenger seat.
    "You know, it is Saturday. We live only once, perhaps we should get some drinks? I am sure that my parents won't really mind."
    Vincent thought about it. Personally, he would prefer that, but he knew that it wouldn't give a good impression on her parents. A playful smile crept on his lips as he winked at Charlotte, starting the car.
    "Sounds lovely. I know this great restaurant with some of the best sushi I ever had. Maybe we can go to that place next time." He paused for a second as he considered his next words carefully.
    "If you would like to go out with me on another date, that is."
    Charlotte seemed to ponder about it as she shook her head lightly.
    "No, sorry. You seem like a wonderful, sweet guy. But I wouldn't like to go on a second date with you." She said, an apologetic smile moving on her lips. For a moment Vincent wasn't sure how to reply back. His mind already started to work as fast as it could, trying to find a reason why she wouldn't wish to go on a second date.
    "Kidding! I would love to. Seriously," she said as she started to laugh. Her hands shot up to cover her lips as her eyes shut while she seemed to enjoy her own prank. It took Vincent a moment before he started to smile and shake his head. Putting the car in reverse he would start to move out.
    "You're really weird."
    "I thought you liked weird girls?"

    It became silent as Vincent started to steer the car and would drive to bring her back home. Feeling something at his right hand Vincent looked surprised for a moment. A warm feeling spread through his body as he noticed that she had placed her hand on his. The silence would remain as the radio wasn't even turned on, but that was okay.
    "You know those cliché love songs and movies? Where the girl finally finds the right guy who she thinks is special?" Charlotte asked in a soft voice, though there was a sliver of an amused tone being present.
    He thought about her words, not looking back at her this time. After a moment of considering his words, Vincent spoke back in an amused tone.
    "I might. Is it also where the guy does something stupid as asking the girl at the moment that they met to marry him?"
    "No, nobody does that. That is stupid."
    "Oh. Feelings, Charlotte."
    She started to laugh again. He couldn't get enough of the pleasant sound of her laugh. She didn't talk that much and yet in a way she did. It was in a way enchanting, but he wasn't going to say that. Somewhere he was just afraid that this was too good to be true. And he sure didn't want to be that hopeless romantic guy on the first date. Perhaps on the fourth or fifth? Or maybe when they were married, he thought to himself.

    "Luckily I like stupid. Yeah, special and stupid. You are a great guy, Vincent. Don't change."

    He looked at her, seeing the lips forming a smile. Her blue eyes in the dark showing that faint glint. His heart skipped a beat as he flashed a smile back. Though it was dark in the car, it became lighter. For a moment Vincent found himself 'drowning' as they called it in the beauty of her eyes. Intoxicated by her smile. Then his eyes widened as his lips parted.

    But it was too late.

    Before he could manoeuvre or steer the car away, stop or prevent what happened the world seemed to shake and the silence that was soothing became painful. Violent and scary. As the shaking stopped Vincent tried to realise what just happened. His vision was blurry and there was a warm sensation running down his face and right arm. Groaning as pain shot through his body Vincent's vision started to stabilise. Blinking several times as he couldn't progress if this was real or just his mind playing up, the young man stare for a moment at his right.
    "Shit! Charlotte!"

    His head felt heavy, resting in his hands, as he was leaning forward. The bandage was wrapped tight around his head as his right shoulder and hand. Trying to make sense Vincent went over the story he had told already seven times this evening. There was still something that felt surreal to it. Everything had gone great and fine until an old man that had forgotten his glasses had decided to go for a ride. Only to lose control over his car while he just kept riding around, which resulted that he drove his car straight into the side of Vincent's.
    Remembering the beauty of her smile and eyes, the pleasant and long talk that they had as well the jokes being exchanged. It had to be real, but why did that crash have to happen? Why?
    Her parents and brother had already come to visit. Worried, crying and anxious were words that he would use to describe them. They had asked him what had happened and he had told them everything of the accident. Charlotte's father had thrown an angry look at him, but as the story was confirmed to be true the man muttered an apology as tears kept rolling over the man's cheek. Vincent had only been able to nod, not able to look the man back in the eyes.

    Sitting out front of the door he wasn't sure how late it was. It was probably already Sunday. Not that it mattered much, he thought to himself. He had nothing to do anyways. Nor wanted to do something than just wait until they would allow him inside the room. While he knew that he hadn't been wrong the questions kept haunting him.

    What if he had watched out?
    Should've he gone to drink something with her in town, instead of deciding to bring her back home?
    Would this have happened if he had said or done something different?

    "Luckily I like stupid. Yeah, special and stupid. You are a great guy, Vincent. Don't change."

    Child's Best Friend
    Child’s Best Friend

    The first time Ivy raised a zombie was when she was seven. She had woken up to Carley curled up in bed with her, which wouldn’t have been so unusual, except for the fact that Carley had died the night before, and had been buried in the backyard.

    The thing that stuck out to her the most wasn’t the fact that Carley was now a zombie and in bed with her, but the fact that her clearly decaying flesh didn't smell. Nor did it feel particularly unpleasant as she stroked her little hand down the dead dog’s spine (the bone peeking through in some places, but she made no notice).

    “Carley, why are you here?” She asked the zombie, but the dog just stuck her tongue out at her (the tip was missing - how did that happen?) and barked, her bony stub of a tail wagging so furiously Ivy was worried the bones might detach themselves from the force. “And how did you bark without a throat?”

    Putting aside the questions for later, the solemn seven year old child lifted her covers and swung her feet over the side of the bed, slipping into her slippers and softly padding out of her room and down the hallway. Carley the zombie dog followed her eagerly, the small sounds of her bone paws clicking against the ground not dissimilar to the sound her claws had made on the hardwood floors when she was alive.
    Clutching onto the banister, Ivy made her way down to the kitchen. Obviously Carley didn’t need anything to eat, but Ivy was still a child and it was almost a guarantee that when a child awoke in the middle of the night, they needed a glass of milk. Stretching up onto her tiptoes, she just managed to snag a glass from the cabinet above the sink, sharing a smile with Carley before heading to the refrigerator.

    She got the milk out with minimal difficulty, only spilling a little when she poured it into her glass, and gave a small sigh of relief as she sipped the cold white liquid. Wiping away the small milk moustache left behind, she glanced down at Carley and contemplated the situation with all of the seriousness a seven year old child could muster.

    She couldn’t let her parents know about this. They were already worried about her, since she was so much quieter and more mature than the other children her age. They didn’t like the fact that she wasn’t exac

    tly what they wanted in a child. If she showed them anything else different, they might just give up on her entirely. Ivy loved her parents, but it was the love of a child, and couldn't stand up against the logic of an adult.

    Therefore she had to get rid of Carley before her parents woke up in the morning. A small lump appeared in her throat. She knew she couldn’t keep Carley hidden from them forever. She had to go back. Back into the ground. Tears blurred her eyes but Ivy gave a resolute sniff and refused to let them fall. This had to be done, even she knew that, and at least she knew that Carley wasn’t in pain this time.

    Finishing the last of her milk, she slid out of her chair and softly padded over to the cabinets, opening one with her fingertips and just being able to snag the salt bottle. She knew that salt tended to cancel magic spells (it said so in the books) and she really didn’t know what she was doing, so every little thing helped. Iron was also said to cancel magic, so she hunted around and managed to grab an iron pipe from the entrance to the backyard. It was leftover from one of her dad’s projects.

    Thusly armed, Ivy turned to Carley, who cocked her head inquisitively. “Come on, Carley. Let’s go.” The little girl said, sniffing again as she prepared herself to say goodbye to her beloved friend once again. Shuffling out into the backyard, still wearing her slippers, she made her way over the grass to Carley’s grave, the dirt still disturbed from the small dog clawing its way out earlier in the night.

    “Sit there, Carley.” She ordered, pointing at the overturned dirt with the iron pipe, the zombie dog automatically obeying the commands of its owner. Awkwardly opening the bottle of salt, she dumped the contents of the bottle over the little dog before tapping her on the head with the iron pipe. “Go back.”

    Carley gave her a look that basically read, “Really?”. Ivy flushed but repeated herself, pointing at the grave with the iron pipe. “Go back into the ground Carley! Go on, back!” She could have sworn the little dog rolled its (rotting) eyes before sinking below the ground, the dirt smoothing over as though nothing had happened that night. She stood there for a minute, holding the empty bottle of salt and the pipe, just staring at the grave of her best friend. Then, slowly, she turned back towards the house.

    That was her first brush with death.

    *Waring: suicide is a topic in this script*

    ( A rugged looking, suit-wearing man sits on a sleek, leather couch, a whiskey clutched in one hand, his phone, recording, in the other. The setting is a study room with modern design and decoration. It's a dark room, with only one small lamp emitting light.)
    (Heyes speaks quietly into his phone.)
    David Heyes: To whoever this may concern- um, my Mother, I guess. Or my Lawyer. This is my will.
    (Heyes' already sopping eyes begin to fill with more tears, a constant roll of water pouring from his face.)
    Recent events have, well, destroyed my life completely and- to be perfectly honest, I see no reason to go on. My wife, Daliah, my beautiful...
    (A short pause as Heyes wipes the tears from his cheeks, trying to compose himself.)
    My wife she, um, she left me.
    No-no I shouldn't start with that...

    (His voice is louder now, more stern.)
    A year and a half ago I began having an affair with a woman called Alice Rivera. Uh- She worked in my office, we were co-workers, she knew me well...
    (His voice shakes)
    On the last weekend of each month, I would tell D that I was going on a business trip. But, the truth was, I was meeting Rivera in a hotel and we were- uh, um... (Heye's begins to sob uncontrollably, his whole body possessed with sadness.)
    Daliah, and I'm sure everyone else, was unaware of the affair. My kids, my Mother, my Boss. That was, up until, I believe, three weeks ago. My eldest son, L-Logan, found um, (Heyes clears his throat and leans forward on the couch, the whiskey glass in hand.) text messages to Rivera, they were all about our trips. Logan alerted his Mother, but because... (Heyes inhales deeply.) she thought good of everyone, she didn't believe it. She thought it was a mistake and that- that I was better than that. God...
    Uh-This is where it all goes, um, a little fuzzy, you see, I knew things were off; we were arguing and constantly insulting each other. I can't remember about what, exactly, but I knew D was suspicious.
    (Heyes sighs, as if in regret.) D asked me if I was having an affair. (Anger rising) Of course, like the lying scumbag I am, I lied and told her I was just going on business. (Softly) Coward.
    From what D's friend, Nicole, told me, after that, D had gotten increasingly suspicious and had ordered a credit card check, because y-you know, we have different bank accounts. She even hired a private detective, I mean, to be honesty, who wouldn't? Every time, I lied and I lied and- I, I could have stopped it!
    (Heyes cries audibly.)
    (Slow and quiet) Anyway, so, um- D got a hold of some bills for the hotel that we -me and Rivera- were staying at in New York. I guess she called the receptionist and they struck some sisterly deal so that she could be informed if I arrived with another woman.
    The receptionist told D about Rivera and still- still she had faith in me! How could I do that to her? God I fucking hate myself!
    (Crying hard, Heyes slams his glass on the table in front of him and it shatters beneath his palm.)
    (A long pause, Heyes stares down at his hand, bright red blood pouring from the middle of his palm, adding colour to the dark room.)
    Well, I guess I better hurry before I bleed to death. That's not exactly the way I wanna go.

    (Heyes sniffs and shuffles in his seat as he clenches his fist, grimacing.)
    Uh- So I told D that she was crazy and that Rivera was just a friend, I mean it was she was- in a way. The affair; it d-didn't mean anything! But she wasn't satisfied- why couldn't she have just let it go? I would have stopped! Then we wouldn't be in this shit, God D!
    (Shaking head)
    ...D went over to Rivera's place and broke in, whilst I was work; she brought the detective with her. They found pictures -on her laptop- of me and Rivera at dinners and at fancy parties. D was smart then. Finally she set herself free. She knew she couldn't trust my lying, stinking mouth.
    She got back home, printed out the pictures and laid 'em all over the kitchen, ready for me. She packed all the stuff; all the kids stuff, her dresses and her perfumes and her shampoo. Nothing was left of her.
    Before I even got home from work, I got the call. I was at the office, on the roof, smoking when I got the call. "Are you Mr Heyes," they said, "Come right now." They told me nothing. I god damn near had a heart attack. But it was nothing compared to what I felt when I found out what had happened.

    My whole family, gone. A fucking car crash wiped away my three kids and my - my amazing, doting, caring, loving, kind wife. Did I deserve that? Did I? My brain- a-all it does is ask that over and over again. Did D deserve that? It's un-fucking-fair!
    (A short sob and a sharp inhale.)
    Logan was the oldest, fourteen but i guess whoever hears this knows that. He was great. He loved baseball and he had his first girlfriend- (High pitched crying).
    Molly was my little- ( A long, long pause. Heyes voice loses all energy. He sounds as though he's given up.) Molly was just eight. She loved- well, I don't even know what she loved. I was too busy with my own, irrelevant shit!
    And my baby,
    (Heyes is suddenly filled with anger.) MY FUCKING BABY. Harris was two. What kind of God lets that happen? Who-Who-Why did I let that happen?
    At the hospital, they told me they had dental records for everyone but Harris, because he was so young, so I'd have to identify his body.
    (Voice cracks)
    I mean do you have any idea what that was like? The body was- I don't...I can't.
    (Another long pause, sobs interrupting each breath.)
    When I got back the next day, I saw the pictures. D had...taped 'em to the wall and had scribbled cheater on the counters. I mean, it was like I had just been told that their deaths were my fault. I- I can't even describe how ripped apart I feel- I mean it's like all of my organs have turned black and dried up and- it's like my blood just sits in my veins, not moving. It was all my fault. It was me. I killed my family. I destroyed everything, time after fucking time, for what? For my own disgusting selfish fantasies.
    I had everything. And now I have nothing.

    (Heyes voice is controlled and he buries the sobs as best he can.)
    The total amount of my estate and bank will go to the only person left alive that cares about me- my Mother. (A whimper.) I'm sorry mom. I am so sorry. I'm sorry you had to have such a fuck up as a son.
    (The recording ends and Heye's leans forward, a bottle of pills is on the table and he picks it up with swift, angry movements, he face soaked with tears and red with pain. He rubs blood all over the white pill tub as his frantic hands tip the contents into his other hand. Without a word or a whimper, he puts three pills in his mouth and takes a swig of whiskey, straight from the bottle. Then another three, and another, and another until they're all gone and he has nothing left. He picks up the stereo remote control and turns on his music, loud, closing his eyes and waiting for the last sleep to come.)


    (Heyes opens his eyes. He's on a hospital bed. His head throbs with pain and his hand feels like it's been shredded. He looks to the left and sees his Mother outside the room, behind the glass, a tissue held up to her mouth. She looks much older than her 64 years. To the right, he hears rustling.)
    Alice Rivera: (Tears dampen her cheeks, blonde hair sticking to the wetness. She's still in her office clothing, but she's covered partially by a dark blue blanket.) What happened, Dave? They- they said you tried to kill yourself? Wh-what about us?
    David Heyes: (Closing his eyes and sucking in a breath. Heyes begins to cry.) I miss you, D. Thank you.

    Brush, With Death...
    Brush, With Death…
    Jennifer Cranston spent every evening, from eight till eight-fifteen, with her favorite old hair brush. From girl to woman to elderly widow, from brunette to gray to white, that same brush had cared for her hair, been through high-school prom, been through all the children and grandchildren, even her husband’s funeral… everything, with her. Even now, even today, both hair and brush old and worn, she’d never given up. Yes, Jenny and her hairbrush could be considered stubborn. Unwilling to go away. To be replaced.

    But things are not forever. Not people. Not…….

    Jenny looked up, into the mirror, startled a bit. Then she smiled.

    “Hello… been expecting you for some time.”

    Her voice, firm if not sturdy, but still very clear. A flutter in her chest, as she put down her brush. In the mirror? A figure, dark, not quite all there. Flash of blade as it wavered. A slow nod.

    Jenny didn’t turn. Sat, hands folded in her lap, eyes on mirror as she pursed her lips.

    “I saw you when you came for my Benny.”

    Her voice caught a little in her throat, a deeper flutter in her chest, hesitation of breath.

    “Thank you for being so kind.”

    Figure in the mirror wavered, as if a bit startled by this statement. This… thanks. Not many thanked him for his services. Not many… were those tears? He’d seen many tears, but these? Yes, he remembered Benedict Cranston. A very simple transaction, given this man’s condition at the time. Time. Waits for no…….

    “I… I have a favor to ask.”

    The figure sighed. Here it comes.

    Jenny picked up her brush again. Stared at it for a moment. A few more strokes, then, before she stood up, turned… and held out her favorite old brush.

    “I want you to have this. Bring it back with you this time tomorrow. I have one thing I must do before I go… Mary‘s birthday is tomorrow. I would not want to disappoint her.” She smiled. “You know granddaughters….”


    Though he had sighed, this proposal… yes, over the ages, he’d made deals. He only had to look into the Heart, read the Soul before him, to Judge. Freedom of choice existed for every Created being. Even him. So…

    … the Angel of Death held out his warm, glowing hand, and accepted Jennifer Cranston’s gift. Dark cloak slid aside, wings flashed open, and Death vanished. Left behind for one more day, white-haired Jenny smiled, looked up an her ceiling, and waved.

    The Death of a Relationship
    The Death of a Relationship

    This morning, I got a text message from a friend I lost about six months ago. For the record, I’d like it to be known that she walked out on me. Something about how I was a negative influence. It was never my intention. My friends are quite dear to me. I have a limited supply of them, and it can be difficult to form new relationships. You’d think it would be easy; greet each other when you meet, talk about this and that, boom, you now have a new friend. I won’t deny that it does happen like that, but I wouldn’t call those friends with the same meaning of the word. There are friends I can rely on, and there are friends I have drinks with after work. This morning, half an hour ago, one of my best friends sent me a text message.

    Her name is Elena Radic. Growing up together, we were inseparable when we were children, and teenagers. Not her and I, but the four of us. We were a group of best friends. As naive children, we swore an oath to continue striving towards our shared dream of becoming stars in the movie business. Let me sum up events by stating that it hasn’t come to pass. We can leave it at that. Today is about Elena. I have set aside time in my busy schedule, just for her, because her cryptic text message asked that I come as soon as I could. That was all there was to it.

    I slide my finger across the screen of my smartphone, locking it and dropping it in my pocket. I don't feel any deep regret over leaving my bed, thanks to the luxury of heated seats. The high rises of the city grow shorter and shorter, as we travel towards the slum of the city. Houses belonging to the middle-class replace them, then a park where the trees are barren and there are traces of snow on the ground. Spring is a month away. A few more blocks of houses with their own gardens, before the slum is upon us. Run-down terraced houses in rows, which were supposed to be affordable for the poor, but which no one maintains these days.

    “Boss, are you positive this is the street? Serenity Row?” My chauffeur asks, glimpsing at me in the rear-view mirror from under his blue cap. Bert is a handsome man with a moustache, and bushy eyebrows. “You’re going to paint a target on your forehead if you exit the car without a bodyguard.”

    “I have no doubts,” I say, running a white-gloved thumb over the glove of the left hand, smoothing out any creases. “Besides, bodyguards need their beauty sleep too. Lord knows I’m up too early as it is. I wouldn’t want to wake poor Eric.”

    “That’s his job, boss. Even if it is five in the morning, that’s what you pay him for.”

    “And I pay you to drive.” I smile. “How is that going?”

    “Splendid,” he mutters, returning his attention to the road.

    We park a few houses down the street. I straighten my white suit, grab the golden cane, and step outside the limousine to the muttered protests of my driver. He does stay in the car. I suppose I don’t pay him a high enough salary for him to risk his life for me.

    It’s chilly, dark; a grey winter morning like any. Trash litters the street: paper mugs, glass shards, and white plastic bags. I spot a syringe as I saunter up the stairs to the door with the grey number eight. There is no one around, but I can hear a television. I retrieve a napkin from my pocket, and wipe the doorbell before I press it. I’ll have to have the maid wash my gloves.

    “Who is it!?”

    I recognize her hoarse voice, like a childhood memory it brings me relief when adulthood has become too much.

    “Cassidy! May I come in, Elena? I got your message.”

    A moment passes without any response, then the lock of the door clicks. I hesitate, but as she doesn’t do it for me I grasp the handle of the door with the napkin, easing it open. The hallway is small, with a couple of winter shoes on the empty plastic floor and a wooden wardrobe, yet the kitchen appears smaller due to the mess. Pots, pans, spoons, plates are spread across the large table, and on every available surface. Elena has her back against me, standing by the sink, scrubbing the dishes with zeal. She’s wearing pink underwear, and her olive-skinned body has lost some of its toned muscles. Her brown long hair is uncombed. There is a distinct, familiar smell in the room. Does she smoke? No, it is metallic, coppery.

    “I came as soon as I could,” I say, leaning my cane against the wall, which must have had a colourful tapestry once, but it has dulled to a matte beige. “What is the matter? I got the impression you never wanted to see me again. Did you change your mind?”

    “I need a favour,” she says, and rubs her eyes on her right arm. “I had no one else to turn to.”

    “Anything for you, my friend.”

    “I… Uh, I… I think...“ she turns to me. Her right eye, and her chin have bruises. There’s blood on her face, on her bra, and on the garment she’s washing in the sink. “I think I may have killed my boyfriend.”

    “May have?” I ask, with concern in the tone of my voice, as I move closer. “Do you not know? Maybe you’re wrong.”

    “His… his body is in the bedroom, and I woke up… woke up…” she has to force herself to talk, as the tears overwhelm her. “In his blood.”

    “Please, Elena, I’m here for you,” I say, laying my hand on her shoulder. “Whatever this is, I have lawyers working for me. They’re at your disposal. You don’t need to ask.”

    “I just… Why would I do something like that? We had our fair share of arguments, but I would… would never kill someone.”

    “I believe you.” I guide her to one of the chairs, for her to sit and gather her thoughts. “Do you remember anything from last night? Before you fell asleep?”

    “Nothing like what I woke up to,” she says, sitting down, placing her head in her hands. “We watched TV, ate dinner, and went to bed. I had, uh, a dream…”

    “What kind of dream?”

    “Fuzzy, like I can barely recall it. Normally, that’s the kind of dream that would have faded from memory, yet I… I was furious, and there were screams, and pain, argh… My head still hurts.”

    “Was there any blood?”

    “Um, yeah, there probably was. I can’t recall the details. I-”

    “There has to have been a weapon, right? If there’s no weapon, someone else might have done it while you slept, and you had a nightmare! Simple as that! You didn’t grab a knife in your fury, did you?”

    “There was a knife,” she says, looking at the sink. “I cleaned it off. They’d never believe I didn’t do it. Fuck, I don’t believe it myself, but I loved him. I really did. Everyone said I should dump him, but how could they understand what we had?”

    I pull a chair out from the table, and sit, patting her on the back. The table is so filthy that I consider calling a clean-up service for her. Stains which have hardened, and a thin layer of crumbs.

    “You shouldn’t listen to what everyone else says. Trust me, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I’d done that. Still, this is disconcerting. We have to decide what to do, my friend.” I run my thumb along her cheek. “How did you get those bruises? Perhaps there is a chance we could claim self-defence.”

    “What? He didn’t do that. I, um… I hit my head on the cupboard.”

    “Twice?” I poke at it. It isn’t recent.

    "Mhm,” Elena says, twisting her head away from me. “Twice.”

    “In different places?”

    “Yes, Cass. What difference does it make! My boyfriend is dead upstairs, and I… I killed him. I’ve never even struck another person before. I’ve never had any violent urges I couldn’t control. I feel like I fell asleep as one person, and woke up in the skin of someone else.”

    “Sorry, but I would like a clear picture of what may have happened. I care for you. I do.” I am sincere. I want to restore what the four of us had. I’ve been drifting apart from Jessica and Maria since Elena shut me out. "Would you mind if I took a gander in the bedroom?”

    “Actually, I would. Cassidy, I need a favour, and that’s why I called you here. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t go snooping. No offence.”

    “None taken. However, you should get to the point, if that’s the case. What is it that I can do for you?”

    “Can you make this disappear?” She gazes into my eyes. I don’t see the friend I had in those green eyes. I see a soul shattering against rocks, begging me to save her from the depths of the ocean in her mind. Hold me, never let me go.

    “Disappear? How? I can’t undo crimes, or alter the past. If I could, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

    “You have money,” she says, getting back to the bloody garment in the sink. She pours water from the tap, and scrubs it hard, as if that would erase the murder. “It’s better than a time machine. The rich are untouchable. I have a daughter, Cass, you know that. I can’t stand the thought of her growing up without knowing her parents like I did.”

    “Doesn’t she have a father? Where is she? She isn’t here, is she?” I rise as well, not wanting to spend another second by the table. The entire house is in dire need of a proper scrubbing, not just the bloody garment. “Have you tried meat tenderizer? I hear it works wonders on blood stains.”

    “No, she isn’t here. It’s her father’s weekend. Meat tenderizer…?” she asks, then goes around the kitchen, opening the pantry and drawers, in search of it. “How well does it work?”

    “Great, supposedly. As long as it’s not silk or wool. You want to be careful with those.”

    Elena searches for a couple minutes, forcing me into the hallway. She tosses the items in the pantry on the floor when she gets desperate, does the same with the contents of a few drawers, and slams them all shut.

    “I can’t fucking find anything in this mess!”

    “Elena, you are making this situation worse by destroying the evidence anyway. How about you come with me to my office, and I’ll set you up with the best defence attorney my money can buy? My chauffeur is waiting outside in the limousine. We can pick up your daughter too.”

    “A limousine? I’m dirty and sweaty, and I stink, Cass. You recoil at this mess. I would ruin your precious limo!”

    “Yes, well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to have it cleaned. It’s happened that I spilled wine-”

    “Wow, wine? What a disaster!”

    “Elena, I’m trying to aid you. Don’t get on my bad side,” I say, grabbing my cane. “I don’t have to be here. Are you coming with me, or are you going to continue destroying evidence until the cops show?”

    “The cops? Why would they show?”

    “It’s best if we call them as soon as possible. I was going to suggest it when you came to your senses, and agreed to leave this behind.”

    She is angered by that, clenching both of her fists. Elena considers attacking me, a subtle glance at a pan on a shelf, but instead, her shoulders slump.

    “Alright, I will go with you. I need to get dressed though. My clothes are in the bedroom.”

    “Don’t worry about that. The limousine is warm, so you can simply grab your coat. I’ll lend you some clothes when we get to my office.”

    “You’ve thought of everything, huh.”

    “It’s what I do. That is my job. I’m given shitty situations, and I handle them.” I tap the door with the tip of the cane. “Are you coming?”

    “Yes, Cass. I am. Thank you for the offer.”

    She strides past me, grabs an orange coat from the wardrobe, and sticks her feet into a pair of shoes. Elena takes care to button every single button on the coat. It’s not that far between her house, and my limousine, but whatever distracts her from the murder of her boyfriend is welcomed.

    “Can I borrow your phone?” I ask, when she exits the house. “It’ll only be a second. I forgot mine at the office.”

    “It’s on the counter,” she says, walking down the stairs, and jumping into my limousine after I wave at the chauffeur to grant her entrance.

    I shut the door, fish my smartphone out of my pocket, and slide my index finger across the screen to unlock it. I dial my bodyguard’s number. He answers before I’ve had a chance to put the smartphone to my ear, but he was waiting for me to call him.

    “Get to it.”

    “Will do.” He yawns. “Apologies, boss, bad habit.”

    I end the call. There is no reason for me to tell him what to do. He is a professional, and I have to account for the possibility that someone might be listening in on our calls; it’s why we keep it brief, why I discard a smartphone every month.

    I’m content when I get back inside my limousine. Eric will clean the house from top to bottom to eliminate any evidence of the murder, and my presence. Elena scoots over to the other side of the seat, and fastens her seatbelt. I have to pretend that I can’t do anything more for her than provide her with an attorney, but there won’t be a body to find at Serenity Row number eight. It’ll disappear. It’s our kind of magic.

    The limousine rolls away from Elena’s house, away from the abuse she suffered there, but which she was too proud to admit happened. She’s a strong and resilient woman. How would someone dare to do that to her? If I had been told earlier, I could have put a stop to it months ago.

    “Do you think I’ll be allowed at his funeral?” she asks, staring out the window at the terraced houses. “I’ve never been to a funeral, never had anyone die. I was lucky, but my luck had to run out at some point.”

    “It could be worse. You’ve got friends.”

    Nobody hits one of my best friends more than once. I am too powerful to accept that. Some would argue that a warning would have sufficed. Break a man’s kneecaps, and he thinks thrice before committing the same sin. I disagree. I’m not the forgiving type, and second chances would only matter if people changed. They do not.

    Encounter with Life
    Encounter with Life

    When I opened my eyes for the first time I stared into the face of Death and I knew from the knowledge he put into me that he was my creator, my father, and I would replace him when I had learned all that he had. What knowledge he could impart to me before my waking was my purpose and who I was. Though like him, I have no name but Death for that is what we are. We are death and we take the light from the living. This is all I know, for what purpose and to what end I have yet to learn.
    "My daughter" Death calls me, taking my hands and bringing me to my feet. His smile was the first thing I didn't understand as he pulls the cloak around me. "Father" I began, testing my voice for the first time. "Father, why have you made me? I know to take your place one day, but why can you not continue on? Death cannot die" I asked him first. there are many questions I could not yet answer.
    "Even Death yearns for peace as mortals do" He told me, I did not understand then what he meant by this answer. There were many things I did not understand.
    Looking down at myself I saw the cloak he'd fashioned from the same fabric of his own. It covered me completely. Reaching behind me he pulled the deep hood over my head so that my face was shrouded.
    "Why do we hide from the living? They must know that we are here, must know what it is we do" I asked him next. We are death, all we touch fades. All that lives will one day die all that's dead was once alive, except for us.
    "To protect ourselves from pain" he said though I did not understand then the meaning of this. Death does not know pain, does not know the emotions of the living. This was what I knew at that time.

    There was then no more time for talk, in the corner of my eye I saw the first light flickering. "Come daughter" Death bade me follow as he walked the unseen path to the fading flickering light. He brought me to the bedside of an elderly man who had grown ill in his age.
    The old mans family and friends had gathered around him, his eyes were half lidded, his lips parted in silent slow breaths. The light inside of him called out to me, flickering and fading even as I watched.
    My father reached towards the man and laid a hand on his chest. The light within the man came to my father's hand and there faded. The life went out of the old man.
    I heard the mortals cry and wail. I heard one child scream for him to come back, climbing up onto the bed before the mother of the child could pull her off. "Grandpa no!" the girl wailed, tears, the first tears I ever saw, came down her face in streams.
    The mother, who's tears had also begun to fall, pulled her child off and cradled her "It's alright, it's alright, he's at peace now" even as she spoke her voice cracked and tears chocked her words. She carried the weeping girl from the room.
    An older woman, who must of been the wife of the now dead man was silent as she cried. "We never linger" I heard my father say, putting a hand upon my back and pushing me to leave. Reluctantly I follow but there is another light waiting for us.
    The second man I witnessed die was young, newly married. He had crashed his car and lay in the hospital bed. my father took his light and the woman, his wife began to scream. Anger was what I thought it was. "Give him back! you can't take him! It's not fair!" she repeated this words many times before my father ushered me quickly away.
    Many more lights I saw taken, not only of humans but the lights of animals as well. My father only allowed me watch until I learned to take the light at the right time. "The only way to learn is to watch and be silent" He explained, and so I did, I watched and was silent. I watched for many deaths. Never were those that surrounded them willing to part with those who's lights flickered.
    " Can't they see the life we take is calling out to us? If we are hated why do they call?" I asked him "Why do we exist at all. Why shouldn't life just go on living? It seems to me that nobody wanted us around"
    My father looked down at me and smiled that smile I never understood. It had the same look as those who called out to us with those flickering fading lights.
    "My daughter" he said "It's time you see what I once saw and feel what I once felt long before you came to me. I am tired daughter, it's time you understood and time you take my place that I may too rest"
    My father left me in the woods alone that night. "When you're ready" he said "Take off your cloak and see" tenderly he brushed the top of my head "What do you mean father?" I asked of him. "How will I know?" I went on, still confused with so many questions. "You'll know my girl" my father said and smiled once more. He left me then and for the first time since I came to exist to take my father's place, I was alone in the dark shadows of the world that mortal eyes cannot see.
    With no direction or guidance from his experienced hands I wondered and watched. I remembered he once said to never touch what didn't flicker. "it is a delicate balance between life and death and we must ever be cautious not to touch what doesn't flicker" With those words in mind I kept my hands within my dark cloak and strode along winding paths.
    For a long time I walked until I saw it, the flicker to my right. I followed that to a sickly little baby bird fallen from its nest. I reached a hand and touched the fuzz of its back. Before the light went out those tiny eyes looked up at me and then it was gone so quickly.
    Never before had I seen a mortal look right at us, we were unseen to them I thought. Rising from my stooped position and walked on with more questions.
    Then again another light was fading. I dashed to it this time to see if this creature too would see me before the light went out. A rabbit caught in a trap laid by hunters. It's heart I could hear beating a thousand times faster than rain beating against the ground. More slowly I reached but did not touch. The rabbit did not see, did not move. It's breath was choked and labored.
    I touched and at once I felt the heart begin to slow, once more eyes turned their gaze up to me. The heart beat slower, slower. The light fading, flicker, dimmer, dimmer. The eyes still looked at me and in them I saw something like what was in my father's eyes. What was that? Then it was gone, the light went out and the heart ceased to beat.
    Slowly I stood and stared for a long time at the rabbit laying there in the trap. I stood there until I saw another light begin to call to me. I raised my head and quickly followed it's flicker. This time to a doe laying in the grass, it's babe just birthed. The mothers breathing came in shallow gasps. I looked from her to the fawn in the grass.
    I did not reach out my hand this time. Instead I lifted the hood that shrouded my face and looked again to the mother laying on the ground. She looked back up to me, then at her babe. She rose on trembling feet and nudged her baby to stand.
    The flicker began to slow, the light becoming bright. I watched her eyes. There was no hatred there but something else instead.
    Thought the light was strong again I did not go, but did not touch. I stood and watched her teach the fawn to walk, watched as a new bright light swelled within the young creature.
    I stood back and watched the mother graze in the meadow. I watched her feed the youngling. She paused and looked towards me, those big long ears stretched up. She saw me and she did not fear, she did not run. Instead she nodded to me and turned towards the woods and followed the path to the others of her kind.
    I stood again and followed. Why was she not afraid of me? From all I'd seen, mortal beings feared us, hated us, ran from us, yet she invited me to follow and so I would.
    I never spoke a word to them, but when the rains came I held my cloak above them. When they lost their way I lead them back the right way. I watched the fawn grow and the mother nourish. I paid particular attention to the eyes.
    Within those deep brown eyes I thought I began to feel something stir within me. Something unknown and new. Fear perhaps? I knew what that looked like and imagined what it felt like. This wasn't it, not exactly. It was something more than fear, stronger than that.
    Seasons passed and the fawn grew so quickly, he was so strong and so filled with life and power. Something else stirred within me. I had seen what my father called pride. Those who defied us, those who thought themselves better. That's what I had thought pride was. As I looked at the grown dear and he looked back at me, I felt it swell within me. The pride had woken inside of me. Fear and pride were now known to me but they were not bad.
    I looked to the mother and I did something I had never done before. I smiled. Her eyes smiled back at me. She seemed to see the same things that I was feeling and it brought a light to her eyes. Happiness perhaps that was? Something far different than fear yet related.
    I looked to her son once more and I felt the look I had seen in her eyes. Happiness, the light in the eyes of those who lived, it was happiness, joy, fear and pride. All of it was combined and made a sound come out of me. Unbidden I laughed, I didn't know why, maybe it was because I could feel what she felt, I knew what it was then.
    As quickly as the new emotions flooded in all at once they all scrambled away but fear. The loud sound of gunfire. I knew that sound, we often followed that sound. The dear all scattered and I drew up my hood to hide. I looked all around and with horror I saw one buck didn't stir but lay fallen in the grass. Blood poured from the tiny wound to his head. His light was flickering and fading quickly. My eyes were wide and fear had frozen me.
    I had watched him grow, watched him learn as I learned too. The buck was my brother, my friend, my family, now he was going. New feelings emerged stronger and faster than the others had come. Anger, hatred and rage. I had seen those, all of them in the eyes of those who hated us.
    With a yell I did not know was inside me I flung off my cloak and stood between my fallen brother and the human who had shot him.
    What I saw then inside him was different than I expected. Fear is what I thought, anger and hatred just as I was feeling then. It was something else. stronger than mere fear.
    The hunter stumbled back staring up at me, his eyes were wide as he dropped his weapon and stumbled back from me. The terror in his eyes was like nothing I had seen before. It scared me yet I did not back down.
    The hunter fled from me and left my brother laying there. With cloak still shed I turned and fell beside the young buck. His light still flickered barely. There was nothing I could do, my hands only took the light, I could not give it back.
    Tears fell down my cheeks, cold and silent as a wept. This I knew was sadness, it's evidence I had seen before and now I felt it. I felt also that happiness and pride, I felt the fear as well inside. Love I named this combination.
    I looked up to see the mother come, she leaned down her head and nudged her sons head. She fell to the ground beside him and looked at me with pleading eyes. "I cannot give the light" I said with shaking voice. She nodded her head, she knew and understood me. She laid her head down beside her sons.
    I knelt there helpless, watched his ragged breath chocked on blood. It wasn't a long time I knew, but it felt longer to me. With the power to take but not the power to give. Yet I could not do nothing, I could not let him suffer more.
    In that moment I knew that I had more power than I knew. I could not give the light but I could give peace and take away the pain. I reached out a trembling hand and touched my brothers head. He looked at me and in those eyes I saw the very love I felt. "Be at peace now my brother" I spoke to him. Tears came freely as I watched the light fade.
    I did not leave them, I stayed on my knees until the mother looked up at me. There was sadness there, there was fear as well but there was also love. What before I thought was hate, I knew now to be grief for I felt it to. The mother did not hate me, she mourned for her lost son. She longed to be with him.
    Slowly she stretched her neck across her son to touch me but I stood and shook my head. "It's not your time, your light is bright yet. I'll come again to you then mother" I said to her and stood.
    My father came back then and draped my cloak across my shoulders "You have your answers now my daughter?" he asked of me.
    With tears still in my eyes I nodded "Yes I know now why we are here. I know why there is life and death. I know love and I know life" I answered him, I waved farewell to the mother and drew up my hood.
    Though she did not see me, I still watched over her. I watched her heart heal as well did mine, though neither of us forgot. One day I knew the time would come, when her light would flicker, when she would call. I would be there to answer and I would give her peace and calm.

    By the Riverside
    By the Riverside

    “Absolve your sin, seek salvation my brothers and sisters! God is a merciful, oh so merciful creator! We are writhing with sin, sin that has existed with us since our conception in this glorious earth! I see before my eyes the filth our future generations have shrouded themselves in, all of their ungodliness they embrace! They see the world as a pointless affair, wandering through life like lost sheep from the flock! And we know, brothers and sisters, that there are wolves in the woods, preying on our sheep, preying on our children! They see all of these exciting vices, from gambling to the pleasures of flesh, soulless, material taboos and desires that will give them only hellfire! Such an existence is not life, that denies the righteous glory of God, the righteous glory of his creation! Our generations have turned to technology as their savior, becoming more machine than flesh, embracing lines of code over lines of the God’s word! We must stop this transgression of madness, we must hold our burdens and our convictions for the greater good of our flock at any cost for our ascension into the heavenly bliss!”

    The congregation of Mary Street stomped their feet, the crowds of desperate, frighten souls of an era foreign to them clinging to this bombastic claim of tradition and redemption. From the outside of the Gothic cathedral, the moonless night sky hung ominously, neon lights and advertisements shining against the steel silhouettes of unorthodox skyscrapers and monuments. These steel titans snaked their way into the skies as reminders of the terrific and terrifying progress of mankind, a progress forged in constant sacrifice. The streets below huddled around these gigantic structures, the roads themselves convoluting and descending into the earth, as if architecture itself was being utterly baffled by its own principles and guidelines. What few vehicles that passed by the cathedral were a mesh of motorbikes and scooters, painted in a near rainbow of colors, some of them even flashing in accordance to their radio systems. Such lively bikes contrasted the grey and black of steel and concrete, a symbol that even the lowest possible form of human expression still finds a way to survive. These two-wheeled automobiles stood as the kings of the roads now, traditional cars and transports simply obsolete on such narrow, claustrophobic roads.

    As they roared onwards into that technologic night, forsaking nature and her domain, one of the bikers pulled over to the side of the cracked sidewalk. The biker in question planted his feet against the ground, the Takeda bike glaring with the furious colors of scarlet and ebony, accented with erratic dashes and blobs of white. Mist and steam danced around the parked biker, his gloved hands reaching up to take off his pearly full-face helmet, a visible breath of relief escaping his chapped lips. The man in question hung his head back, staring up at a sky he could barely see anymore, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the cracked rearview mirror of his Takeda.

    The man, known simply as the alias “Finton”, stared weakly at disturbed image through the broken yet static glass. He could see his dark, cocoa skin littered with scars and age, forty years having claimed him. A scruffy, black beard coated his face without an ounce of hair on his head, the strongman sneering at his minor insecurity of the whole dilemma. Wrinkles began to show, but for his age, he looked fit and firm, years of personal training and physical prowess buying him a few years. Of course, time marched relentlessly on to the beat of the clock, the days feeling like months, the months feeling like years.

    Aegis had changed so fast, faster than anyone could imagine a city could change, all thanks to the Boom of 88’. Overnight, the expansion of technology grew unchecked, capitalism acting without restraints, innovation leading to the greatest discoveries not meant to be revealed yet. Overnight, men began to engineer their bodies with wires and steel, some out of medical reasons, some to artificially bolster their selfish abilities. Overnight, these “Steelers and Wirelings” patrolled the streets in massive riots around the globe, demanding the rights of any other natural citizen, despite these cyborgs on the verge of becoming full-fledged androids. Overnight, the government shuddered as corporations threaten their sovereignty, massive firms and corporations raided and forced to disband under the paranoia of an oligarchy forming to threaten the republic Overnight, religion was beginning to fade and falter away in the Western world, the few believers left turning into radical efforts to starve off the societal and culture shift away. Overnight, the “Risky Zeroes” ended with a shot heard around the world, the final and lost shot to nature herself with the mumblings of gasoline reserves being finally depleted. Finton was seeing it all unravel before his eyes, the last gasp of a dying era coming to a final close, bringing the world into the unknown, uncertain, and unpromising future of 2100.

    Biting down on his lip, the American awaited by the sidewalk, tapping his foot impatiently as his hazel eyes darted frantically about. Finton, despite his grizzled and rough appearance, was but that of a gentle giant, socially inept and unnaturally anxious. His late grandmother Shanelia had sneered that the boy could lift mountains but dare not touch a caterpillar in fears of hurting it. All of his scars and marks on his face and body were a reminder of his normally gentle nature, his faithful service never forcing him to forsake his moral codes. Growing distant with his gaze, the snapping of a steel door caught his attention, little feet hastily ascending a flight of stone stairs. Revving up the Takeda, Finton growled lowly to himself, a familiar child running towards him in the darkness, a duffel bag thrown over her shoulders that was frankly bigger than the five-foot preteen.

    “Gogo! No time to ‘xplain!” the girl spoke in thick, broken Korean accent, her voice frantic and carrying a robotic undertone. Gazing at the alleyway that the thief had emerged from, Finton could barely make out shadowy outlines of people running towards the strange duo, the biker nearly freezing at the sight of it. “Fuckin’ hell Iseul…” he scowled the child under his breath, feeling the hefty duffel bag thrown over his own shoulders. “Hang on, kid!” he barked, waiting for the fellow criminal too ready herself. Plopping on his pearly face-helmet, the Takeda sped off in a blur of colors, the distant ringing of shoddy guns rattling behind the infamous duo as they descended into an underground tunnel. Swerving and darting as whizzes of gunfire crashed into the earth and ricocheted about, the shooting stopped nearly as fast as it started. Hearing only the roar of the Takeda, the duo rode in silence through the winding streets of Aegis, seeing the patrolling, militarized officers of the Aegis Police Department and the mass demonstrations still raging about equality for cyborgs and androids alike. Eventually pulling over to one of the few neighborhoods that still existed within the city, rather than being located in the suburbia cities plopped around the metropolis of Aegis, Finton haphazardly tossed the bag onto the sidewalk, glancing briefly at the road sign that read "RIVERSIDE" in bold, white text. The stench of aging wood and smoke lingered in the miasma, perforating an aroma of dread and urban decay.

    “The hell is the matter with you?!” he barked, snatching the preteen straight out of the bike by the collar of her olive jean-jacket hoodie. “Don’t you scare the shit out of me like that, you went off the comms the moment you went in that church. You know how much I worried about you?! What is even in that bag, how did you get those two men after you?!” Finton scowled harshly, dropping the frighten cybernetic girl onto her feet, the short, nimble, roguish thief darting lowly away. A moment of hesitation resonated in Finton’s aggressiveness, seeing the petite girl skulk lowly underneath her olive-green hoodie with strips of duct-tape plastered on the ripping fabrics, the ironic insignia of a smiling, cutesy white bunny etched across bosom area of the upperwear. From her saggy grey jeans in utter shambles to the bits and pieces of mechanical parts and wiring from Iseul’s face down to her legs, the girl looked like a mesh of modern engineering accented with the fading of innocence. Her tiny, pale face narrowed together, indicative of Caucasian and Asian heritage by the more medically-inclined, her left eye glowing a neon-green, matched by the deep forest of the biological right. The confrontation stance lingered between the two, Finton’s fists lowering themselves slowly, the gentle-tempered adult sighing as he ran a hand through his scruffy beard.

    “Look, shortstuff. I j-“

    “You what? G’et worry ‘bout me ‘cause I am only twelve?” the fiery child retorted back venomously, standing up fully instead of lowly scrambled on the shattered concrete. “I live’ on Riverside years before you found me! I’m not stu’pid! Those guys only saw me when I left, I coulda handled ‘em anyways!” she raised her voice, taking a few steps closer, the man recoiling back at the fury. Over the years the man had sworn to become Iseul’s guardian, finding the streetrat buried in mountains of trash and used narcotics in some shanty alleyway, the Korean-American started to recede back into her former, reckless independence. More and more she insisted on being an accompanying member of Finton’s operations for Riverside as a whole, desiring both the adventure and award of Finton’s thuggish yet necessary lifestyle. Finton didn’t want Iseul to follow in his footsteps, knowing the neighborhoods and their respectful Landlords were becoming increasingly violent to one another, creating this covert, warring underbelly of Aegis. In a perfect, ideal world, Iseul could go get an education, a loving wife or husband, and settle down somewhere far, far from here. But, just as Finton was alone in his life with a college degree that meant little more than a piece of paper and a family that has either succumbed to death or systematic jailing, the world has proven time and time again of incompetency even as it is facing the death of an era.

    “Ise! Please, girl, just listen to m-…” Finton softly spoke, crouching down on one knee. In the corner of the man’s eyes, he could see some of the curious denizens of Riverside poking their heads out from the alleyways and ruined shacks of the neighborhood, timid and afraid to show their face what with the neighborhood’s Landlord missing. Riverside had never been a prominent neighborhood like the others, doing most of their activities in complete secrecy to avoid crackdowns by rivalling “neighborhood-states” and the APD. Even then, Finton knew most of them were the sick, the elderly, and the outcasts of Aegis, fleeing from the unrest and discord that the rest of the metropolis underwent to a daily basis. For most people, this was but a fleeting sanctuary, a moment to breath before trying to decide how to reach solace, wherever nook and cranny that might be.

    Glancing around frantically, Finton hesitated as he bit his lower lip, the revelation dawning of how much of a scene the duo was invoking. Indeed, Finton knew his people, and likewise, they knew him back- they did not welcome Iseul, not all of them anyways, seeing her as a threat to their safety and sanctuary. Peering at the crumbling buildings and the faces peering through shattered windows, the gentle man winced as he abruptly felt a stack of paper thrown at him, realizing hastily that it was bundles of dollars tied together by strings. In the past, it would have been a gold mine, but as the bills were violently chucked at him by the enraged preteen, they wouldn’t even add up to buy a motorcycle. Shielding his hands in front of him, the American flinched, hearing the slurs and flurries of insults from the disobedient, rebellious young girl.

    “No! You listen to me, Fin! You never listen to me! Well here! Have yer fuc’kin money! That is all you care about, huh?! I did one good thing for you and th’is is how you treat me! Like some imb…imbeli…imbeclie!” Iseul openly declared, accusing the man of his selfish behavior, believing himself to be some moral and wise superiority. Among all the things thrown at Finton, one caught his eye- a holy book. Falling onto his knees, scrambling, ignoring the bouts of money being thrown at him, the driver snatched the book hastily. Iseul, in her confusion, backed off, her teeth baring, watching some citizens of Riverside run of their homes, snatching at the bundles of money before scrambling off like frighten animals. Slamming the emptied duffel bag on the cement, Iseul coiled her hands together, her emerald gaze burning into the hazel eyes of Finton.

    “I-Iseul…where did you find this?”

    “Where the h’ell you think?! On Mary Street when you picked me up, by myself, thank you!!” the child arrogantly boasted of her success, having turned a mere scouting mission to thievery and burglary, reaping what she believed the spoils of this lowly war. Meanwhile, Finton scrambled his hands at the text, flipping through the decrypted pages, eventually ripping out one of them fiercely. Bewildered, Iseul nearly gasped in shock, feeling as if she was being disrespected once more. However, that all changed when the man held in his hands a garble of miniature wires and paper, tucked in the unusually thick pages of the revered word of God. Holding up the rows of wires, stationed along them tiny sensors, Finton’s hazel eyes looked at Iseul, a heavy breath escaping the driver’s face, cold sweat running down the man’s head. The cyborg, frozen still in her stance, shuddered, her once mighty voice shrinking to that of a child, rasping out only one tiny word…


    The eerie roar of engines filled the distant air, the inhabitants of Riverside yelling and moving about frantically in their homes, terrified screams and authoritative shouts bustling and booming throughout the neighborhood. From the hazy, industrial mist the outlines of a biker could be seen, followed by another biker, and another biker after that, and soon a swarm of them approached on the horizon. Fanning out to blockade the narrow street with their cruisers, Finton stood upright, the cybernetic girl flanking his legs, hiding underneath her guardian’s tall form. From the filth and grime of Aegis they emerged in full sight, twenty of the white-jacketed paladins resting on their frightening Lionhearts, old school Harleys renowned for their distinct white-and-gold paintjobs accented with twisted, malformed versions of well-known religious symbols depicted on them. Clinging to their dying ways, most of them were denounced by their peers as radicals, but even so they carried out their crusades, trying to starve off the tide of unwelcome change to not only their beliefs but to the very structure of society. Finton had heard the horror stories of these bikers, from Landlords stoned in the streets to entire neighborhoods razed to the earth and the earth salted to never grow “heresy and sacrilege”. Taking one deep breath, Finton looked down at Iseul, uttering one simple, firm command.


    In an instance, the twenty “Angels” roared their engines once more, galloping down the streets of Riverside. The duo darted side-by-side, Finton behind Iseul, down one of the many cramp and dirty alleyways of Riverside. Fire danced behind them as cocktails were thrown in their direction and at the homes of Riverside, destruction and the reign of anarchy advancing steadily on. In mere moments, the neighborhood they called home started to burn, people running out of their homes only to be viciously gunned down by the followers, if not already set ablaze. Gunpowder screamed and boomed from both sides, the few fighters of Riverside using ancient hunting rifles against the modern riot shotguns and six shooters the motorized paladins wielded. It is said that doctrines of peace are written in blood, not ink, and so these pious crusaders carry on, their methods just, their mission holy, their very course of life sanctimonious. In underneath an hour, paradise burned underneath a flaming sword, the cinders and ash stretching into the moonless sky, illuminating against the stillness of the wide yet largely shallow Whispering Creek.
    “Go kid, keep going, keep going! Don’t stop!” Finton urged and urged, running and weaving through the narrow, dark corridors, coughing and hacking to the stench of ash. Each cry boiled the man’s boil, each scream made the now frantic Iseul jump in fear, the poor girl’s independence taking a sharp descent into genuine terror. Tears felt as if they were forming in the gentle giant’s eyes, Finton having not even had time to say a proper goodbye to his home, the world reduced to this constant flight from the decay of social wellbeing. The sirens sung on the horizon, like the charge of bold cavalry to cut down the enemy at the gates, but Finton knew that the hussars and brigades of the Aegis Police Department would only be greeted with cinders, bones, and blood by the time they arrived. Climbing a chain-link fence after nearly throwing Iseul over it, the protective man gazed ahead, seeing the artificial flicker of highway lights on the horizon, the flowing waters of Whispering Creek greeting the two outcasts, a lowly, crumbling bridge connecting the small gap of land and water.

    “C’mon Ise, c’mon shortstuff keep movin’, we’re almost there! Don’t look back kid, don’t look ba-!“

    A huff of air escaped the American’s lips, a great weight pushing his dark body against the steel confines of a dumpster. An uneasy cough escaped the bloodied lips of the forty-year-old man, his toned muscles tightening, one eye firmly shut, looking weakly up at the aggressor. From the confines of some abandoned apartment complex, one of those suited up crusaders had slipped off his steed, zipping and zooming through buildings to intercept the two. He could not see anything underneath that tinted helmet, seeing only the gold cross branded across his white bomber jacket, some shiny dirk resting in his right hand. With no emotion or apathy, the zealot raised his weapon, to dash the sin out of the man, to show that their way of life was not dying like the old Romans or Norse when their faiths were on the verge of collapsing.


    The decisive blow never came, only the shattered bits of glass and the gloriously horrific dashing of crimson against the grey and bleak walls. Gore and viscera danced alike as one, the madman’s artistic flare of pink, white, and red coming all together as the paladin fell to the earth. Limply the enigma dropped his weapon, the faceless aggressor’s existence coming to a close in a mere millisecond, whatever wishes, hopes, desires, dreams, and fears forever dashed away. In horror, Finton stared at the display, his heart nearly stopping, gasps of desperate air exhaling from the kindly soul’s lungs. The people of Riverside may have died, they may have suffered awful and painful deaths, but in a sadistic sense Finton had not witnesses the horror directly, only the echoes of familiar phantoms. It pained him, it would forever haunt him, but the stern man knew he would eventually move on as all humans do. This? There was no escaping the reality, no delusion the mind can conjure- only the harsh, brutal, uncanny inhumane act of humanity.

    Slowly, the aged giant looked to his left, and lo, Iseul stood at the exit of the labyrinth of corridors. Two shaky hands fumbled at a Russian Makarov, the Korean’s shriveled face a mesh of tears, blood and steel. She watched in her ungodly horror as the bullet whizzed out of the barrel, forced to play her hand in the act of murdering a man, no matter how evil or misguided he may have been. All forms of rebellious, adventurous youth crumbled, the vigorous spirit withered into sobbing and choked gasps. In complete disarray Iseul tore at her hair, the Makarov still held in a deathlock grasp, openly wailing in her angst. Taking two steps back, the child tried to form words, but could not bring herself to conjure them together. Inevitably collapsing underneath her burdensome weight, the preteen sat in self-pity, haphazardly tossing away the gun. Falling on her back, the child wept, crying for home, for mother and papa, for forgiveness, for some divine assurance that she was not some horrible, arrogant cybernetic monstrosity with no sense of empathy anymore.

    With Finton’s ears ringing, the forty-year-old man huffed, staring in blank horror at the corpse of the zealot. Emerging from the alleyway, his shell-shocked glance looked about the highway connecting Riverside, seeing the flow of Whispering Creek in the darkness. Below him, he could see Iseul slowly trying to get on her feet, staring up at the man, the only person she had left in her world. Leaning against him, the desperate preteen gazed up, her world in anarchy and her sense of humanity feeling usurped by machine and monsters. Arms extended, Finton scooped the weeping girl into his arms, holding her tight to his chest, feeling her legs wrap around his waist. A pause resonated in the surrogate guardian, patting down Iseul’s head, cooing to the closest person he could call a “daughter”. Struggling with his words, Finton tried his best to ease the orphan, doing his best to reassure some ephemeral hope. Wiping off her bloody face with a gloved hand, brushing away the tears, the man rasped slowly out.

    “Babygirl, i-it..it is okay. You are f-fine, I-I’m fine…shh, shh…let it out. C’mon Ise, you’re a big girl, a big strong girl, we’ll go down to the ice cream parlor you love by Pineyforest, okay? Don’t look, just don’t look, y-you did what you h-had to do. It w-wasn’t your fault; you know babygirl if I was in your shoes I w-would have done the same f-for you. Shh…just rest Iseul, just rest babygirl…”


    On the soft streams of Whispering Creek, Finton rode on a small metal-sheet raft. With the distraught child resting on his chest, her mechanical face a fiery red and her small form trembling in uneasiness, the American watched as Riverside glared with an uneasy aura of crimson light. Seeing the flash of the zealot murdered in his eyes, never knowing the man’s name, Finton ran his fingers through his companion’s hair. Smiling sadly at the girl, the man hummed a soft melody, one that his grandmother used to sing him when she visited her in the elder’s old country abode.

    “Past the gardens and by the streams
    Down the creak and by the low woods
    Men alike love to dream
    That one day they’ll be on Broadway

    Past the gardens and by the streams
    Those woods don’t look the same no’more
    Men no longa’ have time to dream
    They be too busy fighting wars

    Past the gardens and by the streams
    I miss my ol’ home and my friends
    These days are scary, sometimes I wish,
    I still had a house by the Riverside…”

    Last Stand
    Last Stand

    There we stood, hundreds of us, facing the long wooden platform of death as he was brought, no, pushed forward. There really was no need for that sort of action; he was almost marching as it were. His hands were bound behind his back, his head covered with a sack. I was glad to see that they had at the very least allowed him to wear clothes.

    My mouth dried and my eyes prickled as the guard that had been leading him pulled the sack off of his head. I didn't want to see him, yet my eyes betrayed me, forcing me to look straight at him. I was shocked with what I saw. His usual dreamy face, lips in a perpetual half-smile, hazel eyes still twinkling. He looked over at the platform and then at the steps leading to his doom.

    “Ah, I see,” he murmured. “I reckon thanks are in order. Had my eyes been covered, I would have surely fallen over my feet, thus prolonging the inevitable.” A soft laugh escaped his lips. “And how crass it would be of you people not to allow me a final look at this pit of a world I shall be leaving.”

    “Quiet!” The guard was obviously not pleased that his prisoner was being so mouthy. The prisoner was pushed forward yet again, though he didn’t make a sound of anger. It seemed to me as if he thought this was all just a game. And maybe to him, it was. The pawn sacrificing himself to further the cause of the king. Which king, he knew best.

    I looked away from him, feeling my dry throat beginning to hurt. It was very odd that I, a prison guard for the last ten years, should feel this way. I had watched too many unjust hangings, too many undeserving deaths for this to mean anything to me. Was this his doing then? The weaver of tales had woven himself deep into my heart, it seemed. There was nothing I could do now.

    My eyes returned to him. He was now up on the platform, stepping onto the block of wood that would soon be kicked from below his feet. As he came to a standstill, I found his eyes travelling over the crowd, a smile still on his face as his eyes finally landed on me. It was only then I realized that the burning in my eyes was because of the salty water leaking from them.

    His smile softened, kindness and understanding crossing his face. How was it that even at the brink of death, this man was offering comfort to someone who was not even his comrade? For the umpteenth time since I met him, I wondered why I couldn’t be as strong as he had learnt to become.

    “I am not afraid of digging my own grave because I am in the right." It was as if he was speaking to himself, though his eyes were locked onto mine. “Only a coward runs away from the truth when faced with the threat of death. And I, well, I no longer wish to be a coward.”

    I wanted to tell him that he wasn't a coward. I was. My hands curled into fists as a soft and ragged breath escaped me. How can I just let him die? He didn't deserve it! I knew this, I had known it from the beginning. The ones who deserved to die were those protected, too high for the common people to even see.

    It was as if I was in a dream, yet I wasn't. Even if I try, I don't believe I can remember when I unsheathed my sword. Yet there I was, racing toward the platform, hilt of my sword held in a tight grip as I plunged it through the other guard's back. The most dishonourable way of killing a person, perhaps, but was there even any honour left in this world? I highly doubted it.

    The feeling of pain hit me from many different angles. It was to be expected. I looked down and saw multiple arrows sticking out of me, and I was sure there were quite a few littering my back as well. Knowing death was upon me, I fell to my knees, unable to keep myself standing.

    "Take the prisoner back to his cell!" The order was barked out as the sound of chaos filled my ears.

    I couldn't help but smile as I felt the life draining from me. My mother and father would not be proud. I would be called a traitor, a dishonourable man who killed someone by stabbing them in the back.

    "Why?" I heard the weaver of tales' voice, grief-stricken as he was led away. He had escaped his fate, at least for now.

    The smile remained on my face as my eyes shut for the last time. He knew the answer already.

    I didn't want to be a coward. That's why.​

    Double Date
    Do I remember my first time?” A woman’s voice: youthful, and chipper, and full of a certain energy. “Yeah, I suppose I do.” She said, looking up at the swinging lamplight that dimly lit the tiny little concrete square she occupied. The space was no more than five paces across each way. In the middle, a wooden table and two plastic deck chairs; cheap and salvaged. On one wall, a large sheet of reflective plastic. The other three were made of concrete, with one being marred by the presence of a steel door. In the middle, of course, was that lamp. Still hanging like a dim little mockery of sunlight in the middle of the otherwise dark room.

    So where do I start?” She said, the young girl reaching up to scratch her chin. In the dim light, it was easy to see the abuse in her hands. Dirt was buried deep into the cracked enamel of her fingernails, and a number of small cuts and burns lay on her palms. One particularly harsh looking circle lay on the back of her right thumb; a perfect replica for an ash-tray. “The world’s shit out there. Raiders, and ruins, and monsters, and all that good stuff. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones, born inside a cushy city, or nothing. My mom and I got captured when I was barely eight. We were sold to the nearby thugs when I was ten. From there? Things got…uncomfortable.

    Slowly, the voice rose from her seat, stretching her limbs with the satisfying ‘pop’ of a predator, easing itself into comfort. She was scrawny and short; barely past childhood. Her face was pretty-enough, in a girly kind of way. Parts of her skin were covered in dirt, but her face and hands were wiped clean. Hints of an Asian heritage could be seen in the tone of her skin, and the shape of her eyes, and the angular nature of her face. “My mom and I, we were prizes. You don’t find many like us around here, apparently. Some sick prick wanted us for his ‘collection.’ At first, he kept my mom and me together. She’d disappear every couple of days; come back with a fresh cut here, or a fresh bruise there. I didn’t notice much, because I just tried to stay hidden. That was the best way to not get hit, y’know? If they didn’t see you, they didn’t step on your fingers, or kick your ribs, or spit at you, or…” She paused, looking down at her hands. They gripped the side of the table with a white-knuckled death grip. If she didn’t look so frail and dainty, you’d think she were about to rip a chunk out of it. “But still, I got to see her for the most part. She was so pretty, y’know? She had such pretty long hair, and pretty eyes, too. They were brown; but not like…mud-brown. No, more like coffee, or chocolate; y’know?” She said, her grip loosening for a moment as a smile spread across her face.

    But anyway, back to my first. My mom was amazing. She managed to make the place seem less like hell; just by being there. She taught me stuff, like counting, and speaking, and she taught other people too. Even in a place like that, she tried to make people’s lives better. She was just so…full of life, y’know?” She said, her smile growing deeper and deeper; spreading like an ember of passion into the starts of a forest fire. Then, in an instant, the smile snuffed itself.

    About a half-year ago though, they took her away. We were staying in these ruins; a couple of burnt down buildings, patched together with wooden planks and metal sheets…All except one building. That was where the Raider-boss lived. It was made of nothing but stone, and it didn’t have any patches or nothing. They took her there one day, like they normally did, but she never came back again.” The young girl sat down on the chair again, pulling her knees up to her chest. She shied away from the dim-lamplight, seemingly afraid of it. “It got harder then. The others didn’t care about some little kid, and no one ever stopped the guards from doing whatever they want. I can’t blame them or nothing, but still. They were scared, and I was an easy target for the guards. They didn’t let me hide, so they’d stamp on my fingers, or they’d feed me less, or they’d do whatever they wanted; not like I could stop them. I was small and they were big.

    But then you guys came. You came with your big cars, and your guns, and you made the Raiders scared. One of the guards was with me, when the alarm went off. He started swearing, and he moved so quick; he didn’t even remember to put me back in the cages. I was alone, and there were no locks, and no cages, and all the guards were distracted by something…by you.” She looked past the light; towards the occupant of the other chair. “So I thought that now would be my best time to get out; y’know? I didn’t want to stay anymore, and so I decided to break out. I snuck out of the Raider’s room, and I looked at the place, and then I saw the big-building that wasn’t made of anything but stone. I could have ran away; I really could have…but I wanted to rescue my mom as well.” Her chin dipped again as she recalled the rest of the story.

    It was pretty easy to break in. The door was unlocked, because everyone was leaving in a hurry. There weren’t any guards, so I snuck in and made my way to the big-Raider-boss’ room. I’d been there a few times before, so I remembered where I was going. It was easy, y’know?” She said, nodding so as to answer her own question.

    I…I think I must have kind of known what had happened. Why else would she not have come back? Still, I had to know. I had to like…see her.” She said, her eyes glazing over with memory.

    I found her in his room. She wasn’t tied up or anything, and she was still breathing. Real slow, shallow breaths. She had…so many bruises on her, too. Her arms, her legs, her…” She stopped herself from saying anything else; shaking her head. “…The worst thing was her eyes though. Her eyes were so…hollow. They didn’t look like coffee anymore. They were shit. I couldn’t look at them. I didn’t want to remember her looking like that. I didn’t want to see her like that; barely moving, barely breathing, barely existing. She wasn’t her anymore. She was already dead…In here, y’know?” She said, tapping her chest with a shaky right hand. Tears settled at the bottom of her eyes, but she pawed at the weakness with the base of her palms; wiping them away.

    It didn’t hurt her. I’d never hurt her. I just…I grabbed a pillow, and I just let her fall asleep.” She said, biting the inside of her cheek as she looked over at the occupant in the other chair. “I’d tried to shake her, and see if she’d react, but she didn’t. I couldn’t leave her there, not after what they’d done to her, so…

    After a moment of silence, she looked up though. Her eyes took on a different hue; hardening as she stared at the chair. “Something bubbled up in me though. Something hateful that I’d never felt before. I’d always known how to hate people, because you either hate people like that, or you fear them. I wasn’t afraid of them anymore, after they took her away. I wanted to take something from them away, so I didn’t run. I looked around the room, and I looked for anything I could find. It was easy, y’know? I found a knife eventually. Not a proper knife, but one I think he used to cut meat. It was a little sharp; but not very.” A flicker of a smirk creased her sad visage for a second when she said that. “I waited. Waited for him to come back. It didn’t take long. The bed was warm anyway. It reeked of sweat, and stank of him. I knew he’d come back. He’d probably come and check on her, before he dealt with whatever was making all the noise outside. He ran in, and started shaking her. She wasn’t moving anymore, but I was. Quiet as a speck of dust, I moved behind him. Then, I stabbed…” The smirk grew for a moment. “…and I stabbed…” She was smiling, looking past the figure. “…and I stabbed…” She paused for a moment, a big grin on her face for half a second before…she stopped. She blinked a couple times, looking around the room and then settling her gaze on the stranger opposite her. “…and I don’t remember stopping. At least, not until you guys came.

    She paused, looking up at the figure, then at the lamplight, and then back at the figure. “Am I in trouble?

    Entry #13
    Have you ever noticed how the worst things in your life happen on perfectly beautiful days? Well that's the way it's been for me anyway. It leaves me at a disadvantage because I'm never prepared. I like to be prepared. It makes me feel safer, more secure. It's probably not true but I like the crutch.

    Well today was like any other day. I had to get the kids off to school and clean up the kitchen. You know normal mom stuff that makes everyday life grand. Well not exactly normal, because we have eight children, not exactly the regular amount. I heard the phone ring and knew it would be my husband, Scott.

    "Hey there, beautiful!" he said, as always. Funny how that still made me blush after all these years. "I'm on my way home. My flight arrives at nine and I'll me home around ten tonight."

    "Ok," I replied as I always did, "I'll be waiting."

    "I have a special present for you, Hon, can't wait to see you in it," he said as he made that old lecher sound that really made me blush.

    "Is that so?" I answered teasing, "Think you'll be up to it after such a long day, do you?"

    "Aha! A challenge!" he snorted laughing, "You better take a nap, Hon, you're gonna need it!"

    "Yeah right!" I teased.

    "Just you wait..." he started, "Sorry Hon, they're calling my flight...I love you! See ya tonight, and take that nap!"

    "Love you too," I said absently, "I miss you!"

    "Me too, Hon, see ya later," he hurried, "Have to run...bye!"

    And with that he was gone. I knew the way it was, always rushing from one city to another and one hotel to another, from one meeting to another. Scott was always in such a hurry to get home after one of these long trips. The hotel life would really get to him after a while and he'd do whatever it took to get home for a night's rest in his own bed. I worried about him a lot but always put the fears aside where they couldn't rule my thoughts.

    I stayed busy all that day doing the things I always do, laundry, dusting, cleaning, and making dinner. The kids came home at the normal time and did their homework like they always did. We planted flowers in the front yard and had a great time together. These were the things I felt Scott always missed out on, the little joys of everyday life. But this was another thing that I set aside as a useless argument, not worth the battle. There were just too many of us for him to slow down he'd say, as if the kids and I were the reason he was killing himself. I didn't understand, and that was the absolute truth. I'd have rather had fewer things and more of my husband, but he couldn't understand THAT, so we always deadlocked over it and eventually I gave up. I didn't want to spend the little time we DID have arguing.

    The kids had their baths and showers like every other day, never suspecting that their whole world was about to change forever. None of us did. I guess no one ever does. I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner and sat down to read one of my favorite novels again. I listened as the kids got ready for bed upstairs and smiled to myself as I heard them argue over the little irritations of life in a big family. Hogging the bathroom, leaving the toothpaste lid off, taking someone's shirt: they were all normal every day reminders of the blessings in my life. I kept telling myself they were blessings to avoid a killing spree when things were bad. Don't get me wrong I love my kids, but every family has its own level of stress, and every mother has her threshold. This is the point when middle and last names are used for identification. Amazing what using a child's full name will do for their obedience level. But this night was mild and soon quieted down to the peace of children at rest.

    I continued to read my novel devouring the pages as I always did. Some books were just good no matter how many times you read them and this was one of them. I was so involved in the book that I didn't notice the time until 11:45. I remember thinking the flight had been delayed. That had happened so many times I had lost count. So I continued to read undisturbed.

    I was startled by a loud knock on the door at about 12:30 in the morning. I saw two police officers when I opened the door. I immediately thought of my oldest son who wasn't home from work yet. I frantically asked if anything had happened to my son. They said no and I breathed a sigh of relief. They then proceeded to tell me that they were very sorry but that they needed me to come with them because there had been an accident. My mind raced. Ok, I thought, I can go. I just need to wake one of the older kids to sit up and wait for me to get back. Yes that would work. I asked them to wait for me while I did so, and they did.

    Just when I was about to leave my oldest son Alex arrived home from work. He wanted to know what was going on, of course, and I told him. He wanted to come with me, I said no, but the officers said that was a good idea. I wondered why. I was on auto-pilot. Moving but not experiencing. It was a very odd feeling. A purely defensive reaction designed to keep me from falling to pieces in front of my son.

    The two officers didn't take us to the hospital as I expected. We drove right past. That's when my son's hand clamped around mine, tight. He knew exactly what was happening but I didn't. I was in a dazed stupor, blissfully ignorant of my pending reality. We arrived at our destination and were led into a long cold room. There were square doors all along one wall. I remember thinking that they looked like the little freezers in the good humor trucks. Another defense mechanism.

    I looked at the two officers. I'm sure I had a puzzled look on my face. That's when the other man opened one of the doors and pulled out what appeared to be a tray. When he removed the white sheet that covered the man lying there, I made myself look at him. Even then I was convinced that there was some sort of mistake. That was no one I knew. Alex's arm came around me for support as I saw the battered and bloody face of my husband. I had no voice, no thoughts, and no air. I heard Alex say that the man was indeed his father.

    He tried to turn me away from the sight of Scott, but I wouldn't let him. I had to see him. My eyes craved the sight of him. I'm not sure why, but I had to touch him. I watched my hand stretch forward and push the hair back from his forehead. I ran them down his arm and clasped his cold hand. The cold was what finally penetrated the haze. I felt my eyes fill with tears and my throat constrict.

    I don't remember anything else about the rest of that night, not how I got home, not one word I said, not one paper I signed. I know I arrived home and I was told that I signed papers and that I spoke, I just don't remember anything. This must be what people who drink too much feel like, lost and out of control. I only remember being as alone as I've ever been in my life.

    We had a lovely service for Scott. Friends from church, community, and work attended. Everyone was very supportive and sympathetic. I appreciated their sentiments and their affection, I really did, but none of it touched me. I felt nothing. There was an iceberg inside me and it was quite impenetrable. Watching the coffin lower into the ground I thought...it's almost over...it's almost over. Little did I know, it was all about to bury me just as thoroughly as Scott.

    There are times when you are grateful for the blessing of oblivion. I looked at the little pill that had been helping me cope with the overwhelming darkness and shuddered. Time to stop. Hiding myself away from life was not going to help anyone, not me and certainly not the kids. I knew what would happen if I didn't take this pill though. I'd feel. I'd ache. I'd cry like I've never cried in my life and I'd hate it all.

    I know that may sound silly, but I like to be happy, and if I'm not I feel that I have somehow failed. Probably crazy but it's me. This was a very hard time for me because if that. I would look at one of the kids and just start to bawl, because I'd see Scott's walk, or his smile, or his sense of humor. Trying to deal with the floods of emotion was exhausting to me. I wanted to turn it all off and become frozen, to exist but be immune to the pain. I tried, but the kids would thaw me and drag me back to that hellish existence of complete hopelessness.

    They needed to talk about their dad, remember him, and love him. I understood that in my mind but my heart was too achy to care. And so I surrendered to the numbing escape those little pills afforded and avoided dealing with the reality of my new life. Every time I took one I felt like a coward, but I couldn't fight the despair. I felt like I was in a black cold hole that was collapsing in on me and the harder I tried to climb out the faster it buried me. Experiencing that kind of helplessness was so foreign to me that I had no coping mechanism in place for dealing with it.

    Now was the time to stop though. I had to make myself cope. Looking out the window from the kitchen sink I saw the kids playing in the yard, I felt the rush of pain and the tears and for the first time welcomed them. It's ok to feel this I told myself. You won't die. Maybe you'll be a better person because of it. I brutally forced myself to feel it all. This is the only way to heal, somehow I was realizing that fact but God how I feared it.

    As I watched my children play, I saw my five year old come tearing toward the house. The back door flew open, and my baby ran over to me is eyes big as saucers and threw his arms around my legs. I asked him what was wrong and he just started to bawl. My heart was just breaking so I knelt down and hugged him close until he was done, brushed the hair back from his face and asked again.

    "Honey," I said softly, "what's wrong?"

    "My ants are dead!" he howled and started another round of crying.

    "Oh honey..." I crooned and hugged and rocked until he was done again, "Let's go see, ok?"

    He nodded and we walked out to the back yard where he had made a little sand pile. Looking very closely I could see a few black ants walking around the pile very slowly. I glanced over at my little boy's tear streaked face and smiled.

    "Look Jakey," I said, "They aren't dead. They're just tired from all that hard work. Building a house is very hard when you're that small, you know."

    "REALLY?!!!" He beamed, and that smile could've lit the world. I watched that sweet face burst into joy and my heart just exploded. How could I resist this little boy's shining eyes and oh so wide smile? It was impossible, and I knew it was time to stop trying.

    After that, I began my journey back, one black lonely minute at a time. That's how you have to do it, one minute became too big at times and I'd have to just take it by seconds. When it got too hard I'd find one of the kids and just hug the stuffing out of them till it passed. I kept telling myself that they needed me to do this and that made it easier for me. Thank God I had the kids. I know I would have surrendered to the darkness if not for them.

    I slowly became able to remember the love that Scott and I had shared. There were so many great things to cling to, our trip to the Pocono’s for an anniversary surprise, seeing him hold our first baby just after he was born, that light in his eyes, the day he shyly asked me to marry him. The good things were crowding my mind and it was good. Thinking of them helped me to be grateful for the time we had, some people never got even that much in this life. Even though it was getting easier, I could tell that I was locking the woman I was away. The one who had loved and lost and was sure she'd never love again.

    So, slowly I began to emerge, knowing that I wasn't the same. I could tell that much was true. I was functioning but I felt like I was very far away. I was happy with that, I wasn't all that important anyway. At least not in my mind I wasn't. Everyone else had to come first now. That's how I handled it. I've been told this was very unhealthy for me emotionally, but you do what you have to do to survive. So I did. I could handle that, at least I hoped so.

    A Death and a Birth
    “A Death and a Birth”
    Extract (Book 1, Ch 1, Pg 34-40) from
    “Ann – The Destroyer of the Dark Lords”
    By Ryie Niuti

    It started when Dariya received the news that a Dark Army breached the borders and was heading towards the county. The King quickly summoned troops, but it was obvious that the battle would take place inside the county boundaries. Lord Hadie, the count, knew that that meant he would need to rise and lead a levy. But he spent as little money on military matters, using the funds to gather expensive art and could rise only a few hundred men at best, while only two decades ago his father risen four thousand to put down a rebel duke. If Hadie couldn’t raise at least half of that number he would become the laughing stock of the kingdom’s aristocracy. Using emergency founds Hadie managed to get some mercenaries, enough to increase his troops to a thousand and half. To get more he decided to make every orphan older then sixteen serve as well as to recruit farmers with the lure of money. Thus Hadie had his reached his goal. Little he knew that the campaign would turn into a disaster.

    Amongst the roughly three hundred recruited orphans Aennie “Ann” Ledui would appear as anything but suitable for war. After all Ann was just a week older then sixteen, only five feet tall, looked like she would barely be able to lift a spear and was so skinny that it would be easy to think that she was malnutritioned. Still Hadie’s men had their orders and Ann was added to the “soldiers” of Dariya.

    Ann and all the “soldiers” were walking towards the arranged meeting place with the king’s army. At least Hadie’s men had some sense and organized the orphans to keep those who knew each other together. So Ann was surrounded by people that she knew. “Mat”, a one year older boy, was to Ann’s right. He was quiet until now, but he could no longer keep quiet and asked: “So Ann do you think we will be in any danger or what?” “I doubt it. If I understood Sir Kedch that good-for-nothing Hadie will try hellishly hard to be in the rearguard. Our greatest opponent will probably be boredom.” “That is, if the Dark Army is not stronger the ours or has a trick in their sleeve,” Ann though and then finished: “Now quiet down and march.” With that the short talk ended.

    A bit before noon, after climbing one last hill, Hadie’s “soldiers”, lead by the Lord himself were casted their eyes upon Hadyich hill, a twelve hundred feet tall hill that commanded over the path that the Dark Army had to take to reach Dariya. But instead of a large campsite of the king’s army waiting for their arrival what they saw was a sight of utter despair. Where once twenty thousand men stood now there was only some two holding the crest of the hill, the rest had been turned to gruesome and lifeless objects littering the hill and its slopes. The deed was done by a massive Dark Army, no by a countless horde of darkness that reached as far as the eye could see. On that day the realms known to men were for the first time not attacked by a raiding Dark Lord, they were invaded by all the Dark Lords. Dark magic hid most of the horde, luring out a significant, yet not total, force of the kingdom and the Dark Lords were planning to repeat this until the kingdom’s military was on its knees. But this would only work as long as no human was left to alive to report what happened. So when the Demons noticed Hadie’s “soldiers”, which was pretty much as soon as they showed up, forty hundreds separated from the horde to deal with the men from Dariya. Hadie quickly weighted his options and decided to leave six hundred men to slow the pursuit of the Demons while the rest would ran back to the walls of Dariya. The five hundred to stay behind were the conscripted orphans and the farmers lured by gold plus a hundred of actual soldiers to give them orders as well as to keep them from running away.

    Ann couldn’t believe it. Not only was the Dark Army winning, they also had many times the number of solider of the kingdom’s forces. And then before she could even process all that was going on Hadyich hill four thousand split of the Dark Army and charged towards them. And while panic was spreading over the Dariyan men a order came, a order that made sense but which was basically telling Ann, her friends and some fifty dozen people to stay and sacrifice themselves for that good-for-nothing Hadie. She was to complain, but one look from Sir Kedch and she knew that if anyone tried to complain or leave they would die. Their only choice was to die. Morale plummeted as the six hundred saw the rest split off and rush to safety. Pressed between death and death Ann decided to try her best to motivate them before the enemy reached here, just like she done many times as they were about to fight with other orphanages or gangs of street children. She raised her voice loudly, a lot more then one could believe it would be possible by just looking at her: “We have been left behind to buy time for a coward to escape, threatened by death should we run away. Yet all that …” Sir Kedch approached Ann, probably to stop her, but a single word form Sir Nawa, his superior, stopped him, allowing Ann’s speech to continue:“… awaits us should we stay is to die. Well if death is all that we can chose then I say we at least should go down fighting. So a thousand years from now all mankind can say they own their survival to us. Fight, not for Hadie, not for survival, but to save all that you love! Death to the Dark Army! For Dariya!” First the orphans from her own unit shouted “For Dariya!” and like a giant ripple the shout spread trough the six hundred on the hill.

    One hour later the Dark Horde finished killing the last of the kingdom’s forces, but sounds of battle still could be heard on Hadyich hill. But they came from a smaller hill a mille to the south, where the six hundred Dariyans were left to die an hour ago. Yet they still held on, despite a hundred or so human corpses littering the hill, but for each human corpse there were at least two or three from the Dark Army. General Häryú couldn’t believe this since after the initial four thousand that attacked that hill were joined by an additional five only a dozen or so minutes after the battle started. And yet despite being outnumbered fifteen to one the humans held on and were still fighting hard. But it is only a matter of time Häryú concluded. Humans grow tired both physically and mentally as they fight, but the soldiers of the Dark Army didn’t feel fatigue of any kind.

    Ann has been fighting for an hour, slaying dark-clad figures with her spear left and right. She had little time to count how many fallen before her thrusts, but Mat counted for her. When she had to stop, some five minutes ago, to find a replacement spear when the tip of hers broke, Mat said she killed nineteen and wounded at least ten. After finding a spear she returned to her post and returned to stabbing her spear into any Dark Army solider that entered her range.

    The fighting went for one more hour, then two, then three. As each hour passed the Sun came closer to the western end of the horizon. As each hour passed the humans accumulated more fatigue and casualties. But still after four hours twenty or so dozens of humans still held on the top of the hill. For every human that stood on the hill there was at leas ten dead in the Dark Army. This made General Häryú very angry as all the careful planning that he and the Dark Lords made was useless. Not only humans found out about the Dark Horde, but a small group of those barbarians was daring to hold his army for hours. He decided to deal with this as swiftly as possible and ordered all of the Dark Horde to attack the humans on the hill and eradicate them.

    After over five hours of fighting Ann’s mind was numb, mechanically piercing anyone dark-clothed that entered her spear’s reach. Finally warning bells rung trough her head as she saw that all of the forces the Dark Army had here were now moving towards the hill. The survivors saw that to but Ann shouted: “Don’t be afraid! This means more of them to kill! After all we who are already dead can only drag as many of our enemies with us! Or if you believe in afterlife then use their bodies as a ticket to heaven! So don’t waver! The more the kill the better! For Dariya!” This time there was no delay, all on the hill shouted “For Dariya” together with Ann.

    The fight was still going on as the Sun’s disk touched the western horizon. Ann was surrounded by some sixty humans; a dozen or so orphans, a single farmer and the rest were the knight of Dariya. Only Ann was without cuts and even she had a nasty bruise from being hit by the length of a spear. Mat had died fifteen or so minutes ago, torn in half by a monster of the Dark Army. More people Ann knew also died. Nicole was stabbed by twenty spears a hour ago, her face still smiling. Tari, the eternal prank-doer, was stabbed in the heart by a Dark Army officer but still made one last strike and took the officer’s head down. Ilenya, the quite book-loving girl, used her body to shield Sir Nawa from a rain of arrows, casting one final spell and exploding herself and at least a dozen enemies. Rai, Kado, Yuia, Adei… so many of her friends and acquaintances. But it was to late now, Ann and leftover survivors already knew that all that awaited them was death. But then all of their enemies stopped attacking and took distance, but still remained to encircle them. A single voice could be heard from the enemies: “My name is Jürál, I am a Major in the Dark Army. Against the orders of my superior I talk to you! We have seen your bravery and your willingness to sacrifice yourselves. You have completed your duties! Stand down and we will have mercy! Lay your weapons and we will let you leave!” All eyes of the Dariyans turned to Ann, like they were asking what to do. An looked to Nawa and asked: “Sir Nawa what were our orders?” Nawa answered: “Hold the hill. Buy as much time as possible. Don’t even consider to surrender or run.” Ann let out a short: “You heard him. Niki please tell him our answer.” Ann asked of one of the few survivors from her orphanage, a boy of a particularly nasty tongue and he happily obliged: “F**k you feces-sucking Dark Army bug! I would rather eat a cockroach’s shit then surrender to your gathering of whores and bullies! Also tell your c**k-sucking superior that his mother was not worth even a tenth of that bronze coin! Now would you b***hes be stupid enough to charge again so we can continue to penetrate your bodies with our juice-covered weapons?!” At that roars of anger resounded from the Dark Army and they resumed their attack.

    The sun had almost set down; only a bit of its disk still peaked from the western edge of the horizon when Ann was left the last Dariyan on the hill when Sir Nawa fell as he took that Major Jürál from before, only to be cut to pieces by half a dozen swords and axes. For the fifteen minutes Ann was more dogging her enemies then killing them, but still from time to time her spear found a careless target to skewer. Being the last one alive she quickly tossed aside her spear and took a sword from the ground, as the shorter weapon was more manageable. Even while doing this she didn’t notice that her mental damn which was holding back all the bad things that happened today begun to crack and finally, two minutes after Nawa died, broke. Ann let out shriek and started to shout while slashing in mad rage: “You killed them! Die! Die! Die! My friends are dead! Die! Die! Die! I will kill you all! DieDieDie!” Her psychotic rage lasted for ten minutes in which she took twenty two more heads. With that done she fell still and silent for a moment, puzzling all her enemies and then started to hum a melody and went back to killing. Twenty minutes of humming and death went by before Ann’s mind started to return to some semblance of normality, signalized by the end of her humming. But before she could even focus on the metal damage she took her body started to complain about the accumulated fatigue. Still it continued moving on adrenaline, giving Ann more minutes of life. Finally elite forces of the Dark Army, the demons, came forth to deal with the crazy human that was still spreading chaos. Demons were so powerful and rare that only a single hundred were present in this army of fifty thousand. If someone could finally end Häryú’s troubles it was them. The first Demon managed to cut off Ann’s left arm, but Ann’s sword cut into his chest and destroyed his demon core in return. The second didn’t manage to do anything as he was stunned at a human killing one of his own and had his demon core pierced too. The next cut up Ann’s other hand just as it driven the sword into his chest. Jet Ann was still up and wasted no time. She took a dagger from the floor into her mouth and tackled another demon while stabbing the dagger into his chest. The last demon that fell to her had his bones broken with precise strikes with Ann’s legs, then his chest was ripped apart by Ann’s teeth and the demon orb then crushed with her mouth. And then Aennie “Ann” Ledui fell into blissful darkness after singlehandedly killing more demons then anyone ever did…

    But when Ann woke up she was not in heaven or any other form of afterlife. She was still amongst the living, her cut-off arms and other wounds treated. Yet she was chained by heavy chains in the tent of General Häryú who now stood on his seat some forty feet from her. Häryú spoke: “So you are the little beast that gave me so much trouble and which took down five demons. Now I also find out that you were the one giving morale to the rest of you crazy animals. Usually I would have you killed as soon as possible, but one of the Dark Lords had a brilliant idea what to do with you. He suggested that we recruit you into our army. That would not be usually possible, but since we managed to recover the destroyed demon cores and combine them into a single whole one we can. Of course we would need a way for you to behave little beast. Usually that would be an oath, but I doubt you would give us one. That leaves three options, each pretty bad for you. First is a curse of absolute obedience. Second is brainwashing. Third is to exchange your soul with a loyal one. Since the second is not reliable and the third would have no meaning I will use the first one. But that is if you don’t decide to give an oath. I give you twenty four hours to think as we move towards Dariya. Guards put her into a cage.” With those words Ann was put into a cage on a carriage. Soon she and the Demon Army headed for Dariya.

    It was deep night, just an hour after the moon had set to the west, robbing the night of moonlight and thus living Ann in the darkness. She tried to sleep, but simply could not knowing that tomorrow at this time she would be feasting on the bodies, and souls, of countless humans. The thought itself repulsed her to the depths of her being and all that she could do was to try her best to fight the nausea building up in her stomach. Then a sound different from the wheels of the carriage or the steps of the beast pulling it entered her ears, sound of footsteps growing nearer. She prepared her tongue, remembering the most poisonous of Niki’s words to throw as daggers at her captors. Then she heard a voice whisper: “Miss please don’t start shouting, we want to help you.” Ann was baffled, not expecting someone to offer her help. Her mind warned her about it being a possible trap, but could not find any logical explanation why would Häryú need to do this so she answered: “Okay I will listen.” The voice answered: “Well it is actually simple. I and several friends have managed to get the demon core. All you need is to swallow it and if you are not rejected it would fuse with you. Then you could use your new body to escape.” Ann almost felt insulted at the idea, to give up her own humanity to escape! If this person wanted to help her he or she would have brought her a means of killing herself not a demon core. “No. Never. I will not give up my humanity,” Ann said. “Miss if you don’t you will just become a tool in the hands of Häryú. One that will be used to slaughter Dariya. Think about this.” Ann fell silent for a while, actually for a long while. Yet the person waited until she spoke again: “Okay, but just answer me one question, why are you and your helpers doing this?” The whisper answered: “Because we were once humans. We were in a similar situation as you were. We abandoned our humanity, but never forgot about it. Miss even if you become a demon you will still be you. But unlike us you will be free, without any chains, oaths and curses holding you down. And after what you did today you deserve to be free.” Ann could hear various emotions in the voice and faintly see a hand reaching into the cage, holding something. She took that something, a round ball that was called a demon core. It was so small yet it held such power. “Go and thank you,” Ann said to the voice. She put the demon core into her mouth and swallowed. Then heat blasted trough her body as the energies of the core reached in every corner and part of her body. Ann held beck her screams of agony and ecstasy at the same time. As the feelings intensified she kept repeating in her mind “I am Aennie “Ann” Ledui. I am Aennie “Ann” Ledui. I am …” so she remains herself at all times. Yet it was a futile fight as she felt her consciousness slip away.

    When the demon which was just recently the human Aennie “Ann” Ledui woke up an hour or so later the first thing she did was to bend the bars of the cage and step out of it. The second was to take a big, long yawn. The third is to create a mental list of things that she ought to do. At first place she put “Killing General Häryú”, then “Killing Lord Adlis Hadie” after that, as a general goal, she put “Make this world a bit better.” The fourth thing was to decide that her new name was to be Änniyá “Ann” Lëydís. With that she flapped her new wings just for theatrical effect and soared into the night.

    General Häryú was having fun with two female attendants when Ann landed on the front of his carriage. With a twist of her fingers Ann turned the cover of the carriage to cinders and looked at Häryú with a cold gaze. The General shouted: “Gua…” but before he could finish Ann was next to him, her hand on his throat. “Mercy please, I will … gukrgh ...”, he begged but Ann stopped him by squeezing his throat and said: “No. I am a demon now. Demons ain’t supposed to have mercy. So sorry all can I give you is a slow and painful death.” Ann breathed into his ear, whispering words and suddenly the General started to whine in pain. Ann looked at the two attendants but finding no reason to hurt them just sent them a quick “boo” at which the two run away as fast as possible. “Now enjoy your agony General. It will be with you for a while,” Ann said and took to the skies once again. Once Ann was high enough she took a look at the Dark Army bellow her and started to whisper in the ancient language of the demons, destroying all spells that the Dark Lords had placed to control the numerous creatures that made the Dark Army. It would also prevent any future use of those spells on those present. The result was absolute chaos as demons, werebeasts and other creatures took opportunity to get revenge of free themselves. Ann smiled and hoped that not too many innocents would die in the chaos as she flew towards Dariya as the Sun appeared on the eastern horizon.

    Ann’s destination was obvious, the Lord’s room in Dariya’s keep, which she entered trough the window, after ripping trough the iron net that served to prohibit birds from entering. Naturally the Lord tried to call guards but all that exited was silence as Ann’s hand grabbed his throat and quieted him by force. Ann smiled and said: “You see Sir I had much to think about while I flew here and I decided that you will do something for me before you died. No it is nothing scary it is just you singing a single piece of paper. Here you go.” Ann put a paper in front of Lord Hadie and innocently smiled. The paper was his confession to all the things he did trough the years with the money that was supposed to go into economical and military improvements. It was also an apology to the people of Dariya as well as a renunciation of House Hadie’s lordship over Dariya. Hadie wanted to speak something. Ann noticed this and said: “Okay, but no calling guards.” Hadie nodded and Ann lifted the spell allowing the Lord to say: “What about Belya my daughter? She is innocent of my taint. Please let Belya inherit Dariya. She is a good girl just like her mother was a good woman. With proper guidance she will be a good lord. And who the hell are you in the first place?” Ann though about that for a moment and then said: “I guess that I can’t judge her for your deeds. As for who am I? Just a orphan that survived hell and beyond.” Hadie’s eyes opened wide in disbelief but all that he could do is observe as Ann created another version of the document in which he gave lordship to Belya under regency. He signed the document and asked one last thing: “Why?” “Because you could have left the soldiers, whose job was to protect your ass. Because if you did a proper job as a lord some things might have gone differently, but what is done is done. I already punished the one that send the soldiers that killed my friends and all those good men. Now I will kill the one who left the behind to die. At least your death will be a less painful one,” Ann said and snapped her fingers. A quarter of an hour later Lord Adlis Hadie was found hanged in his room, a document resting on his work desk.

    Death Seeker
    They say the natural state of Humanity is that of conflict. The act of constant, never-ceasing struggles against any and all we raise our hands against. Every breath becomes a shaken fist against the grim reaper, from birth to final end. Every day we open our eyes is a gauntlet thrown to our eventual fate. Nowhere is that more obvious then the easiest state we find ourselves in most.

    The act of War.

    I forgot the name of the planet in which I find myself now. At one point, the continent I find myself on was renowned for its beautiful jungles and pristine waterfalls. Now every underbrush may hide an ambush, every patch of ground a pitfall or a snare for me and my comrades. I'm a Multiversal Emergency Unit member. An attachment to the SWORD division group I find myself with here; the monster expert, the man they turn to when the nightmares are unleashed. Unfortunately, I'm not the right sort they were expecting. They wanted someone who can warp creation, instead they got the discount Van Helsing.

    Its hot and humid. The sweat feels like I'm drowning on dry land and the local pests are beginning to swarm us. But we press on. We have no choice in the matter, not after what happened. Not after the ambush. We were sloppy. Exhausted. We were part of a supply convo, heading to our main camp. Cargo was weapons, civilian experts and a contingent of construction mechs for the main camp. Around afternoon, we were ambushed by the enemy. Lasfire took out our driver, then as we fired in every direction the monsters came. Those nights sending those creatures out to harry us, making us lose sleep? They weren't just methods of attack. They were upgrading them, till they finally did something that could come at us by day. We lost Jaina first- One moment she was standing there firing at its face. The next, it had swiped at her and off went her entire upper body.

    Ciezo was next. Crazy Rodian. He told me his name meant 'Curious'. Said it was because he was forever poking his nose wherever he wanted as a kid. He was priming a grenade and they shot him between the eyes. The head flew to pieces and then the grenade splattered the rest of his body everywhere. I couldn't do a damn thing about it- All I had was the same weapons and armor as the rest. What additional I had were limited and from experience, would only make it mad. I couldn't do my job. If I stayed, I died.

    All I could do was yell at my unit to run. Eight of us per unit. At least five units were watching the Caravan that day. About almost every one of us perished, the mage's first and then those who continued to fight. We ran into the jungle- Four out of eight and watched helplessly as our comrades were slaughtered like pigs. I was less then useless, I couldn't even do the job they put me in. We watched them take away our resources, they took no prisoners. And as they did, I came to a decision. I couldn't do the job they gave me. Not with what I had now.

    "You got that look upon your face sir."

    "Not your commanding officer." I mutter automatically as I regard my comrade-in-arms. Stoic and respectful, Connor Duchannes was something of an oddity to me. For one, like I said he was respectful. Always treated me decent, even knowing I couldn't do magic in the way they expected. He just kept his mouth shut and shot every enemy that came our way- Handsome man too. Shaved his head to a topknot, had some tribal ink that resembled native american symbols but I never asked about them. But where he really excelled was the jungle. That man could climb and swing like a monkey and had a way with a knife I'd hardly seen in a man before.

    "No. Our commanding officer is back there- Chewed to bits and pieces like all the rest-!"

    "Gally, do us a favor and shut the hell up already."

    Gally. Never knew if he had any other name. He was always just 'Gally.' Suspicious kid, he made the tinfoil-wearing conspiracy theorists look trusting. He was great in terms of ambush warning, except obviously for this time. Short temper as well- As his fists balled up and he glared at our last unit survivor, I stepped forward but paused at the look she gave me.

    Katniss. No rifle, unlike us. Just a compound bow and a number of various trick arrows- She liked to play to her specialty and we used to make a game of her deadshot aim. My knives versus her arrows, but only a fool would dismiss the muscles she had built up, pulling back that bow of hers. A fool like Gally who swung at her.
    She slammed him to the ground hard and got in his face as she snarled.

    "Gally! Look at me- LOOK AT ME!" He stopped struggling and me and Connor were instantly wary, looking out at the jungle for enemies. That was a loud tone of voice she suddenly took on and hopefully, it was lost in the ambiance of the jungle. It did the trick though as Gally seemed to calm down and finally muttered.
    "Get off me. I'm good." Katniss nodded and slowly, moved off and helped him to his feet. Connor, practical as always looked at me as did the others. When it became abundantly clear they weren't staring at the commanding officer I was hoping to magically appear behind me out of nowhere, I groaned inwardly and sighed aloud.

    "Alright then. First things first- Connor. You lead Katniss and Gally back to camp. Avoid patrols. I'll return by nightfall if possible, morning at the latest." This apparently did not sit well with either, Connor getting a certain set to his jaw that while impassive on anyone else, was the equivalent of bulging eyes and a burst artery from him. Katniss was much more vocal.

    "Not a chance! We're a team, all that's left of it. If you think we're going to let you just go and play in the jungle without us, you got another thing coming!" Gully said nothing, but his silence told me more then any amount of words. He wouldn't go against the majority, but as it was... I sighed again.

    "You stubborn, pair of jackasses."

    Katniss grinned winningly. Connors mouth took on a hint of a smirk. Gully groaned aloud and I began to strip. It certainly got a reaction, Connors eyebrow rising up and Katniss blushing hard as she turned around. Gully spat out in confusion.

    "The hell are you doing?!"

    "Lightening my load. Speed is going to be needed." The vest, the helmet comes off. As do the additional layers till I'm just in my pants and my cameo t-shirt. Around my neck, my cross and dog tags are slipped beneath it and out of the equipment I take only what I need. A single knife and a water purifier bottle, alongside a first aid kit. The comm earpiece is slipped into a waterproof sealed packet and I'm ready. I notice the others have taken similar measures. Gully, is reluctantly taking off his helmet when I stop him.

    "We're going to need someone to head to camp, to warn them. Once you've done so with the comm's, go. Quick as you can. You stand a better chance alone to avoid the patrols." His relief is palpable and he nods, before shifting from foot to foot.

    "You all be careful. Don't wanna break in new Shanks." Katniss is lacing up her boots again, making them good and tight as she snorts. "Don't be getting mushy on us Gully."

    "Shuck it, Mockingbird." They exchange smiles and Connor says quietly. "We must go. While we still have time." I nod and move to pick Katniss up, who squeaks and clutches around my neck.

    "...You need to lay off the MREs." My reward is a fist to the chest and a glare worthy of a demon. And then we're off, flying through the trees. I'm.... Different from most. Among those differences is a higher rate of strength and agility, which allows me to carry someone like Katniss and move like Tarzan through the canopy. But I'm more impressed with Connor. He swings through the trees like he was born to them, free-running in a way without anything like I have. We make wonderful time- nobody ever thinks to look up though its still dusk by the time we come to the enemy camp. Almost time before they release the monsters.
    In the dark, my eyes see perfectly the entire layout from our treetop view. We've nothing reflective and the heat of the jungle should stymie any heat seeking sensors. The supplies are all laid out the air ripples, the distinctive signs of twisted magic clear even in the night air. Their pet sorcerers will be done soon. It would be too dangerous to approach now. Not while they're doing that sort of magic. Get it wrong, best you can hope is that whatever appears will eat you.

    "Alright, here's the plan. We get closer, wait for them to finish summoning. We'll then sneak around the storage areas, find some explosives from our convoy and blow it all up. Sounds good?" Connor nods once. Katniss hisses quietly, seeing something in the camp. Curious, I turn as well to see whats going on. Another summon? No- The sorcerers are busy. The guards are rushing forward to the spot. And unless the standards for monsters had gone downhill of late, I'm pretty sure the pink-haired girl screaming in fear as she teleported in isn't going to be attacking anytime soon. They're going to kill her.

    New plan. I look at Katniss and gesture meaningfully at the Summoning Circle.

    "Think you can make the shot?" She gives me a cool look of disdain and slips an arrow from her quiver, pulling back the bow as she stands up on the branch. A moment later, me and Connor are watching as it flies invisible in the air before demolishing an important looking guys upper body as he collapses to the shock of his fellows. Explosive tip.

    And on cue, the magic goes awry.

    And the monsters come to play.

    While the camp is in an uproar, me and Connor rush down to the camp. More are coming and the Sorcerers near the circle are being ripped apart. The guards fire their weapons, but get mowed down like grass to the blade. Connor slings the girl over his shoulder, Katniss snipes our way clear. A storage container explodes as a monster crashes into it and somewhere in that time as me and Connor run for the jungle, I notice the shrapnel protruding through my chest.

    Oh. Well.

    That's a thing.

    When did that happen? There's no pain, at least none that registers to me immediately. Its the adrenaline my mind insists; all those fight-or-flight chemicals blocking it out. Oh my conscious brain goes, that makes perfect sense. With that explanation I attempt to keep running.

    I make it about ten feet out the gate, before I fall to the ground. There's a rushing sound in my ears and a dull throb- My heartbeat. I almost giggle inanely at that. I have a heartbeat- Isn't that kinda funny? Its the most hilarious joke I could think of right now, bar my current situation. I know why I was here. I know why I didn't turn in the paperwork to get me out of this battlefield. There were loads of other places the Coalition could have used me. But I chose to stay here, in a hell like this. Because among the death, among the monsters- Among the cries and the blood-fed plants and the traps?

    I felt most at home. For all my life, I had fought wars and monsters; peace was a foreign conception to me and seemed more then a little hypocritical where I was concerned. If peace was a reality, why was I born? If there was such a thing as karma, why did I survive and my friends and family die? They didn't train as I did, live in the life I chose. It seemed manifestly unfair that they perished before their time and I alone survived. A living repository of their names and the fact that they were people, that they did live. And when I finally die, their memory will die with me without so much as a headstone to indicate they were once living, breathing people.

    I hear screaming and the sounds of explosives sound in my ears as I close my eyes and embrace the darkness.

    Immediately the sound of silence greets me. My chest feels fine, my hand moves to pat the wound and feels only good, clean cloth. I recognize my outfit, one I had adopted long after I no longer needed to. The jungle is gone, replaced by a flat, cool expanse where I stand all alone in the dark. Is this death? For all my faith, is this where I ended up? A feeling of disappointment strikes me and I sigh.

    "Hello sweetheart. We really have to stop meeting like this."

    I turn and where I swear no one was standing before, was a young woman with a lantern in one hand and an umbrella in the other. She looked like a young lady, a punk rocker or an exceedingly cheerful goth. Her smile was perky and bright and I confess, I was compelled to return it by virtue of it alone. But she was as human as I was- If her pale, chalk-white skin wasn't a clear indication, her eyes certainly were. They were ancient eyes, but not as the years are measured. They were as old as starlight and fire and reflected the light of both as she cocked her head.

    I hesitated and she laughed, spinning her umbrella slowly as she walked closer and placed the lantern down by her feet.

    "You have a shiny trinket." She nodded towards my chest and I automatically grab it- The silver cross I had always had felt comfortingly physical in my grip and she smiled knowingly, reaching for her bosom. I nearly choked and did a neat, about face to avoid staring. My reward was her laughter as she teased; "aren't you the gentleman! Relax, I wanted to show you this." I turned my head and still red, stared at a silver emblem, similar to mine.

    "Do you know what this is?"

    I nod slowly. Seemingly unsatisfied with my answer, she raises an eyebrow and like a schoolboy caught slacking I clear my throat and continue. "Its an ankh. An Egyptian religious emblem of rebirth....And Death." Slowly, I began to understand just who it was I was talking to and she nodded with a more sympathetic grin.


    "Oh indeed, Lucy- Can I call you Lucy? Saying your full name seems a little...Indulgent to me."
    "What do you mean?" Perhaps a little cheeky, but as I was dead I felt that I was owed a question or two and she smiled, with that same sympathetic grin once more. "What do you think I mean? I'm talking about that baggage you carry everywhere. That innate sense that you are a sinner, reminded every time you look in a mirror. That lingering feeling when someone says your name."

    I clench my jaw and lie to Death.

    "I don't know what you're talking about."

    "Oh dear heart. Brave, sweet, stupid man." She crosses her arms and continues to look me in the eye. "We've met more then once, because of the person you are. You feel that peace is a gift for others. You wonder why if God exists, that he fashioned you into a monster. You wonder if a monster, could ever become a man. And because you doubt it, you seek me out on every chance you get."

    "I don't remember seeing you before."

    "No, you don't do you?" She smiles warmly and winks once before she sighs out and begins to circle around, her footfall silent as the grave. In hindsight, perhaps a more fitting choice of words then I thought as she continues. "And now, its time to make a choice."

    She turns to me and looks at me from head to toe. I shift slightly, uncomfortable just a bit beneath her gaze.
    "Your friends are seeking to revive you. Along with your comrades- The girl you lot saved? She teleported you all to your camp. Completely by accident, if you could believe it. Wink." She doesn't just wink, she actually says it. The smile on her face as she sighs out and extends her hand to me.

    "You can go back...Or, you can go on. The choice is yours, as its been many times over." My breath quickens as I realize what she offers and I stare at her hand. Its tempting and the look in her eyes is nothing but understanding. I speak quietly as I remain fixated on her hand.

    "What will happen if I accept?"

    "That, not even I can say. But I think I can bet safely on there being a good reception."

    I swallow and force myself to ask. "....And if I go back?" Death smiles as though she had expected that. "You go back to hardship and pain. To uncertainty and nightmares. All in the service of others, until you return and I take you back for good." I consider again...And make my choice. I take the hand of the Death...And kiss her fingertips before letting go. I shake my head and she smiles warmly, as though she knew what I was going to do beforehand.

    The light from the lantern begins to fade as she picks it up. I call out one last time.

    "Wait! This place, you....Is it all real? Or am I simply imagining it?" Death laughs merrily and opens her umbrella, the silver glint of her ankh shining bright against the paleness of her skin and the black of her clothing. Its the last thing I see as I hear her words.

    "Of course you're imagining it all. But who's to say its not real at all?"

    And with that, she blows out the lantern.

    And I wake up to pain. The shrapnel is removed, my shirt has been stripped away and bandages are wrapped tightly around my chest. The smell of antiseptic and drugs linger and mingle with the humid air. I'm on a cot, covered in a thin blanket and by my side sleeping on a chair is Katniss. Shes holding my cross and I smile sadly, lying back as I stare at the tent ceiling. The memory of my hallucinations are fading, my breathing is difficult but that will pass with blood and time. Mostly, I ponder my life.

    Conflict has been my natural state for years. From teenager to adult, I had known violence and fear. I had known pain and war, but in all those times I had never let it dominate me. I had never let it be the master of me or my spirit. Because I had always known a secret- something that had long sustained me, in those dark times. I was a priest, once. I close my eyes and recall a passage of scripture.

    For in much wisdom is much grief. And he that increaseth in knowledge, increaseth in sorrow.

    Eecclesiastes one: eighteen was never about the evils of knowledge as some interpreted for their own ends. It was about accountability. Once you gained knowledge about the world and how it was, you could no longer cite ignorance as an excuse. You had to make a choice. Did you close your eyes to its suffering....Or did you stand against its evils, alone if need be and despised by all? For me, there was no choice at all. I will continue to fight. I will continue to stand against those who would attempt to murder, pillage and twist morals for their own gain. From now, until the day I died.... But until that time? I tried to sit up.

    Katniss stirred and blinked, sitting upright as she called frantically for my team seeing I was awake. And as they came in, I smiled broadly.

    Until that time, I will continue to fight.


    A Viking Hero
    Sven’s obsession with the Vikings started when he was seven when his father told him that Sven was a good, strong Viking name. Having, at that point in time, no clue who exactly these Vikings might be, Sven found himself enthralled by the stories his father went on the share about these wondrous figures. Warriors. Sailors. The ones who actually discovered America. Berserkers from Scandinavia who came to conquer the British Isles and then sailed all the way to Baghdad. Within a few months Sven had found his favourite stories and had his dad repeat them again and again. Gunnar Hamundarson with his incredible speed. Volund the Smith who made rings for a living. And endless tales of Norse mythology with Thor and Loki and Odin and many more. Within a year he was reading tales about them by himself. After that he would beg his parents for a holiday in Norway for that truly must be the best place to visit. That was where all his heroes came from. Or Denmark. Denmark was fine too.

    But living in Wales, Denmark was far away. Norway possibly further. Though that depended on the place in Norway that you wanted to visit. In his room he had a map of Britain and Scandinavia and he would imagine what sailing on those seas would be like in one of those typical longboats that the Vikings used to have. Dragonhead at the helm, sails striped white and red. His dad had told him that such a journey took days, weeks, but Sven was sure that it wasn’t so bad. Besides, they could go by plane. Traveling was really easy now.

    But it wasn’t to happen.

    Not until he was eleven.

    When he was eleven his father told him that this year they would be going to a foreign country during summer holiday. Upon Sven’s excited exclamation of “Norway?” he, however, shook his head. Sven’s excitement fell. No, his father told him, they were not going to Norway, but they were going to a place that had a lot to do with Vikings nevertheless. And it was a country that was a little bit closer than Norway.

    They were going to Ireland.

    They were going to Dublin.

    Of course, Sven knew about Dublin. Dublin was basically right across the Irish Sea from where he lived. It was supposedly a pretty big city, capital of Ireland, but more interestingly it had been founded by the Vikings in the Middle Ages. He had read a book about that. It said that you could see one of those typical houses the Vikings lived in. And there was a museum with Viking artefacts.

    Suffice to say, Sven was interested. Even more, he was excited. Really excited.

    Summer came quickly that year and before he knew it Sven, his mom, dad, and little sister, where on the boat to Dublin. Just like the Vikings. Only this was a modern boat with restaurants, and cinemas, and games. There was no rowing on this boat and everyone just remained inside most of the time. No one wore any helmets or had any swords at their sides. Honestly, it was kind of lame. Yet, as Sven stood on the deck, his father at his side, and felt the wind pull on his hair he could imagine sailing the seas for real. Above him the gulls were trying to get a bite of his ham sandwich. He gave them a couple of crumbs which only attracted more of the hungry beasts. Below him the sea crashed against the hull, the water forced apart by the passing boat. Surely this must be kind of how the Vikings had experienced their journeys.

    It didn’t take long for Dublin to come in sight and it didn’t take long for them to step of the ship and set foot on Irish land.

    The first day they didn’t do anything remotely interesting. It was already pretty late when they arrived and they had to look for their hotel and find a place to eat, which proved quite a hassle for some reason. Something to do with busses in town. Sven found himself not caring. He did find out that the Irish spoke a strange kind of English. It was not really the words - though there were some really strange sayings going around. It was more the way they said things just different from how he would say it. Also, somehow they knew that he was from Wales just by hearing him speak. It was strange.

    The next day though, the next day was all about Vikings. They went to the remains of the real Viking house. There was a woman there who explained them how the people had lived, how they had slept, how they had cooked. The house was really big, but a lot of people had lived in there which was kind of a weird thought. Sven liked having his own bed. Sharing his sleeping space with his parents, and, moreover, his sister was not something he really wanted. He could sleep by himself just fine. No longer was he that scared little boy who needed his parents when the night got a bit too dark, he was over that.

    The second half of the day would have them go to the Archaeology section of the National Museum of Ireland. Sven bounced ahead of his parents across the streets.

    “Careful!” he heard his mom yell when he edged too close to the side of the pavement. She was walking about five paces behind him, his sister’s hand in hers. His dad trudged next to the pair, his hands in his pockets like he always did.

    “I am!” he yelled back. He shot a look at the map he was holding. The woman at the Tourist Office had given one to him when he had said that he wanted to visit the museum. With a pen she had put a careful circle around a building on the map and then had drawn him an exact route to walk. It wasn’t that hard and it wasn’t really far. Currently they were walking past a park, which was a big green square on the map, so it would just be a left turn and then they would be in the right street. Eager he pushed through the crowd that had gathered at the traffic light and turned left.

    Somehow he had expected to see something immediately, but it was just a normal street with extremely normal looking buildings. A bookshop. A bank. A flat. But according to the map it was in the middle of Kildare Street so it should be fine.

    And it was fine.

    Before long Sven could see the sign. He halted and waved to his family, pointing to the building across the street. A large, sand coloured building with pillars guarding the round entrance. Like a good son, he waited until his parents had caught up and then crossed the street together with them. Then it was through a gate, and then through the large door, and then they were inside.

    His father pulled him back as he charged off into the foyer. “Remember Sven,” he told the boy. “No running in the museum, also no yelling. And you can’t touch the things that are displayed, okay?”

    Sven nodded with a serious face. He knew that, of course, his father had told him before. Museums held objects from the past that weren’t always as strong anymore as they were back in the day. You couldn’t touch them. They might fall apart.

    “Shall we have an adventure then?” his dad asked and a smile appeared on Sven’s face.

    The first room was full of gold. Gold necklaces, gold coins. Sven looked around for a clue that his was the place he needed to be. As if he had given some kind of sign his sister came skipping over to him and pushed a piece of paper in his hand with an outline of the museum. It took him a moment to figure out how to read it and where he was now.

    “Second-” A stern look from his father made him lower his tone. “Second floor, dad,” he whispered.

    He rushed through the gold. His sister long forgotten. His father tried to tell him titbits of information left and right, but Sven’s attention had already run ahead of him. Up the stairs it had gone, past the special exhibition on the Battle of Clontarf with the replica wooden ship and the little videos that were softly mumbling against those who stopped to listen. Past the books and past the swords - though it paused there for a second because swords were always cool to look at and these were real old swords - until he came to another entrance to another room that read ‘Vikings’ on the sign next to it. Darkness stared at him from that room.

    Sven halted on the threshold, suddenly unsure of his eager footsteps. The previous exhibition had been bathing in light, but now before him lay a room shrouded in shadows as if it was containing something that the day shouldn’t touch. The only illumination came from little lamps within the many showcases that littered the room. One of those cases was right ahead. A low one, but with an edge that was just high enough so that Sven couldn’t see what was inside.

    He hadn’t stepped into the room yet.

    From the left he could hear someone speaking. People were walking past him to the sound where they took place on chairs and looked at something that was shrouded from his view. A documentary of some sort explaining the significance of the Vikings to the Irish trade.

    His father appeared next to him. “There we go,” he said. Without wasting another word he walked inside.

    Sven followed.

    They walked to the showcase before them. It was covered by a glass lit, but the content was bathing in a soft light. Swords maybe? Or axes? According to the pictures he had seen Vikings had a lot of axes and they looked really cool. Or maybe it were shields? Or one of those fancy helmets. Not the one with horns, because everyone knew that Vikings had never actually worn helmets with horns on them.

    Finding his courage in his excited thoughts Sven rushed to the first case, but as his hands touched the edge and he peeked through the glass he suddenly stilled.

    There was no axe in there. Nor a shield. Nor any type of other fancy artefact. No gold. No stonework.

    There were bones in there.

    Sven had seen pictures of a skeleton before. He had seen people dress up like a skeleton for Halloween. It was a thing you saw a lot when you just went about your normal business in life.

    But this was an actual skeleton.

    An actually skeleton, made of actual bones.

    Or at least he assumed it was. Things is museums were always real, right?

    “Dad…” Sven asked without taking his eyes of the thing inside the case. He wanted to make sure. Next to him his dad was reading the little card that lay just before to the blackened remains.


    “… was this a real person?”

    His father looked up to him and then bent through his knees so that he was about the same height as Sven himself.
    “Yes,” he said slowly. “This was a man they found buried in Islandbridge here in Dublin. He lived a long time ago, in the ninth century. So that is almost 1200 years ago. And he was a great warrior.”

    Sven looked up. “How do they know?”

    His father gestured to the sword that was displayed next to the bones. “If you were a good warrior in Viking times, they would bury you with your sword. And, do you see this?” His father’s hand moved to the other piece of metal in the showcase.

    Sven nodded.

    “That is a spearhead, the top of a spear. So this warrior was both a sword fighter and a spear fighter. So he was probably a really good warrior.”

    Sven looked at the spearhead and at the sword and then back to the bones. The fingers, the arm, the ribcage. There were not many ribs and the skeleton was missing his other hand. His feet were also weird. But most of all Sven found himself staring at the head. The blackened skull stared straight ahead with dark, empty eye sockets. Another black hole was the nose. And then there were teeth. Not all of them. On both jaws there were empty slots that were just as dark as the missing eyes.

    Nothing seemed to be whole about this skeleton. No bone was complete, no part completely placed right.

    And this was a Viking warrior.

    This had been a real Viking warrior. Someone who had been on a Viking ship, dressed in Viking clothes. Someone who had sailed to Dublin all the way from Norway. Or Denmark. Denmark was fine too. Either way, someone who had wielded a sword, that sword that was laying there. Someone who had fought against other people and had undoubtedly won sometimes. And then he had died. Probably while fighting. And then he had been buried with his most important treasures.

    That should be a really cool story. That would be a story he would read about.

    But it didn’t feel so cool when staring at the broken, brittle frame lying before him.

    It just felt dead.

    And suddenly he wasn’t sure if he liked this. In his mind Vikings were big, strong men. They were fighters. They were sailors. They were cool. But most of all they were very much alive. His Vikings didn’t die. Of course, in the stories they sometimes died, but they died gloriously. They died fighting. They died sailing. They died really cool. And in their deaths they went to Valhalla where they could keep fighting.

    They weren’t skeletons.

    They weren’t broken skeletons in a glass case.

    But now they were.

    He left the museum in a rather dejected mood. There had been a lot of other stuff to see. There had been swords and axes and all those things. Shields. More spearheads. The documentary was nice, though a kind of boring and a bit hard to understand. But his mind had kept coming back to the bones. To the skeleton. And he wasn’t sure what to do with it. They said it was really exciting to meet your heroes, but there was nothing exciting about seeing that showcase. There was nothing exciting about seeing an actual dead man, an actual dead Viking.


    They spent the rest of their holiday going around Dublin and it was good fun. Back home though Sven found himself reading through his favourite Viking tales once more. Lying on his tummy on his bed he flipped through the pages that he had seen countless times. He hadn’t forgotten the skeleton and he could see the thing again when he was watching the pictures in his book. On the ship back home his father had walked up to him and had asked him if he was okay.

    Sven had asked him if the heroes in his books were now skeletons too. Were they laying somewhere in a museum, in some unmarked tomb, or on the bottom of the sea in a sunken ship?

    His father had shook his head.

    “No,” he had said. “Your heroes are still in your books.”

    Strangely enough that was true. Leaving through the pages now, Sven knew that the tales were still there. He could read the words and still be excited to see them again. So he decided on something. He decided that there were two kinds of Vikings. One of them was in the museum. That one was the skeleton. And the other one was in his book. That one would never be a skeleton.

    For now he liked that last one better.

    Brush of Death
    "Brush of Death"​

    Words fly through the stuffy air as young hearts spew every curse known to man.

    “We’re finished! Through! You got it! You fucking burnt out piece of shit!” She shrieks from the apartment doorway; frames shake with the shrill notes of pure aggravation. Her red cheeks flash across the dank room, signaling to the paint splattered man.

    The lone figure slumps against the beaten couch; dirty nails claw at the torn faux leather from his college days. Silence overwhelms the dingy space as the new ex races down the concrete steps outside, leaving the shadow alone with gnawing thoughts and an empty heart.


    “Calvin, when will you be working again?” inquires the shadow’s mother as she spoons fresh tteokbokki onto a platter. Curled hair whips around in the spring breeze, flowing in from the cracked open window, as the housewife nonchalantly prances around her lavished kitchen.

    “Soon, soon, mom. The advertising market is just…” He trails off with fingers drumming along the stained kitchen table set.

    “Yes, yes, very competitive. I know.” She turns with a perfectly manicured smile. Worried eyes dance as she surveys her melancholic sun play with the fake fruit centerpiece. “You’re our oldest. I’m sure you won’t disappoint us.” She finishes before swiping a stray white thread from his ratty, formerly black sweat shirt.

    “Of course, mom. I’d never do that,” he proclaims with a gleaming smile. The platter gently slid onto a placemat as his mother sits beside him.

    She smooths his unruly bangs with swift precision and undeniable tenderness. “I know you won’t.” She whispers, that fake smile never quite leaving her countenance. A swirling pit gnaws at the boy’s gut as his mother gives her affirmations and futile comfort.


    A storm of rejected sketches and storylines litter the degraded, grey carpet as the pen flies across more crinkled sheets. Tears and sweat dots the trash as overgrown bangs curl atop desperate eyes. Countless webpages and unfinished projects clutter desktops and brain cells as the youth grasps at straws for any minuscule amount of brilliance that his pathetic mind could possibly harbor.

    Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

    Inspiration evaporates into a cloud of hopeless insignificance, and the boy curls atop the couch. Music of no particular genre blasts into his mind, trying to block out the negative white noise resounding in his skull. Demons crawl into the safe crevices of his young psyche as the music block their voices from further destroying his ego.

    If only I was free.

    A discarded, painted peeks out from a canvas laying against the trash can and shriveled, potted plant. A dove spreads its wings into the peaceful, blue sky, soaring to unknown destinations. It’s bright eyes cut through the dank darkness like a beacon from another world.

    Yes, if only I was free like that bird. In the air, without a care in the world…


    “ Cal? Calvin!? Hello? Are you there?,” breathes the exasperated woman. “It’s your mother. Please pick up, I need to talk to you about the last few weeks. Call me back soon, ok? Bye. We love you.”

    The answering machines monotonous tone resounds through the stuffed room before a grating beep cuts through the noise. Take out boxes and more rejects veil the disgusting, frayed carpet, turning the space into a commercial junkyard of dead dreams and clogged arteries.

    A sigh passes parched lips as sunken eyes stare blankly at the cobwebs. The strands cease to sway in the stagnant air, leaving the shadow completely alone in a void of time. His thoughts accelerate and cease at the drop of a dime as the days turn to weeks and the weeks turn to months.

    Another tone sounds. “Hey, it’s Monica. I’m sorry about what I said and all. Call back if you want.” She pauses, he could imagine her biting her lower lip, “You can get through this.” She finally murmurs before quickly ending the recording.


    Nothing more.

    A stomach growls while a scrawny hand reaches out to the coffee table to push aside overdue bills and failed creations for a crusty beer bottle. A castle of stained glass surrounds the tattered couch, throne to the king of the dead kingdom.

    Chicken scratch veils the crinkled notebook paper, covered in cross outs and tears.

    Good Bye - CM.

    It read, sitting alone beneath a beer bottle. Wind roars around as the summer air whips the parchment and the shadow’s clothes into a dynamic dance.

    A man, whose wings have been clipped long ago, stands at the building’s ledge surveying the coming sunrise. A small smile tugs at his nonexistent lips, curving the path of his tears. Toes tip and he embarks on an accelerating flight to the underworld.


    The concrete greets the man with a horrific crunch. Too late to fly away. A woman screams as she hysterically cries into her mobile.

    Darkness engulfs the boy as he shakes himself awake from the lead like weight gluing his limbs to the nonexistent floor. No chill or heat or wind enter as the man stood, naked in a corridor. He spins on his bare heels, searching for an escape from the suffocating , noiseless void. The void sucks his away like the deep, unforgiving vacuum of space as he calls for the few patrons of his past life.

    A brilliant, white light peeks through the blackness, yearning for the man’s presence. It’s sweet, silent voice prods him to its blinding luminescence. His feet slide across an invisible floor, like a doll being dragged across a dollhouse. The light blinds him with increasing intensity as air returns to his lungs and the lump lifts from his throat. Soon, the youth finds himself in a grand hall, surrounded by individuals suited up in pristine, white blazers. A man stood at the head of the hall with unnaturally pale hands clasping together atop a marble tabletop. His sculpted, silver hair melts into the light of the impossibly, pearly white chamber.

    “Alright, Calvin Myers, correct” inquires the overly lax ringleader, slouching in his boy band esque white suit. Purely black eyes, that seemed to descend into some indescribable abyss, scrutinize the naked, young man before him.

    Unsure, Calvin nodded, covering his unmentionables. “Cal, actually.” he murmurs, glancing to the lifeless corpses surrounding him. Two rows of jury boxes line either side of the hall, filled to the brim with blank faced patrons, that frankly resembled zombies more than people, all of whom examined him.

    The assumed leader chuckles before sitting back in the black office chair behind him. A slew of papers laid before him in an organized pile. “Suicide, eh? Took a nice dive to the underworld and everything. Just got to be dramatic, don’t you?” he scoffs, patting the pages with perfect fingertips.

    “Umm, excuse me… sir?” Cal murmurs, “ but where exactly am I?”

    “Oh yes,” laughs the black eyed albino. “You mortals don’t know of this. Alright, here’s the rundown. This is the afterlife. You’re dead. Poof! Done! You punched your own ticket!” He says with nonchalant amusement and lazy hand motions that only mirrored his casual expression. A sigh escapes his lips, and he readjusts in the rolling chair. Every movement echoes, reverberating vibrations against the stale walls. “Anyways” He breathes, “Time for the good old ‘Judgement’.” He pulls up a red piece of paper that had a notch cut into the upper right corner. The paper sways between his fingers as he skims the mundane information. “Alright, born in good old ’92. Wow, a bit young to kick it, don’t you think? Let’s see. Cause of death, severed spinal cord plus multiple fractures to the skull. Blah, blah, blah. 24 at death. Abnormal brain chemistry near and at time of death. Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. Aha, Reason for death: suicidal thoughts. Right there in nice permanent ink. Well that resolves things. You’re sentenced to 250 years of reaper duty. Any objections?” Only silence meets the inquiry as those dead eyes continue to stare at Calvin. “None? Alright. Good” The young looking man stands from his mismatched seat with a sly smile spreading across his nonexistent lips. A single snap rings inside Calvin’s head and darkness overcomes him once again.


    The world returns with the pestering sound of a drill sergeant breathing atop Calvin’s cheek. His vision blurs as the tan woman before him barks, “Calvin Myers, I presume” Cal blinks a few times and the petite woman comes into focus. He nods slowly, his eyes following the woman while she circles him. Her chocolate eyes scrutinized his figure, now dressed in the clothes from his death with blood trailing the back collar, with baby crow’s feet sprouting from her round eyes. “I guess you’ll do. I’m curious what you’re instrument you got though.”

    He cocks an eyebrow before swiveling in the black office chair, nearly checking her in the hip. “Instrument? I-I’m sorry miss, but what is going on?” He stammers.

    The strong, doll like woman freezes, avoiding the impact. Her well sculpted thigh stops the chair from attempting another attack. “Oh right, I guess I better explain how things go around here in the underworld” she murmurs under her breath, with her rear comfortably nuzzling against the papers scattered across the tarnished, white stone desk. Thin arms cross over her voluptuous chest before stating, “Alright, newbie, here’s the drill. I am your supervisor and this is the Reaper Association Branch 45K. The name’s Farah Hawthorne but just call me by my first name, got it?” She breathes and he just blinks. “Alright. Any who, for your sentence, you must be on reaper duty for … what was it?” The papers to her side flutter as she purposefully pushes them around from under her night gown, searching for the desired red parchment. The paper comes out with an audible swoosh as she brought it up to her view, shifting closer to her unaided eyes. “Alright, you’ve 250 years in this hole, huh? That’s actually not that bad considering what others got, but still…”

    “Um, miss? I still don’t understand.”

    She raises her eyes from the print and gives him a nonchalant glance. “Don’t be so hasty, kid. You’ll be getting to work eventually.” Eyes scan the parchment once again as silence consumes the small, suffocating office space. “Alright, you’ll be in Block A next to a Rosalie Pearson. Have fun with that one. Anyways, let’s get to the real meat of this conversation.” The paper dangles atop her lap as she reaches into a basket sitting adjacent to her. A plastic baggy with a brush pen and a tattered journal emerge from the black, urn like box. All eyes curiously examine the baggy. “Aren’t you artsy” she comments, swinging the plastic in the air.
    “What’s that for? Am I to do draw for this ‘Reaper Association’?” He inquires with air quotes included.
    She chuckles and throws the bag at him, the spiral binding jabbing him in the stomach. “You wish, kiddo. Nope, these are your instruments for the next 250 years so you better get used to them.” She finishes with a smug smile, displaying the attitude that has gotten her through the last fifty eight years of her lonely sentence.

    “Instrument? For what exactly?”

    “You still haven’t figured it out yet? Thought the name would kind of give it away.” she mocks with a tilted head that barely shifted her mountain of black, bouncy curls. “To do the deed and welcome the dead into the Judgement chamber. In other words, you’re ‘cutting their red thread’. You’re going to finalize deaths for two and a half centuries. What fun, right?” She curtly puts it, incrementally nearing his face with every sarcastic syllable.

    “Wait, what?” he whispers through exasperated breath. The chair rattles across the smooth floor. Clammy hands drop the art supplies as the dated woman only furrows her brows with an apologetic, cocked smile.


    I can’t kill someone…

    Converse and bare feet tap against smooth floors behind a row of bored individuals all in different states of disarray. Farah leads a shocked Calvin pass one suicidal after the next until they reached an empty seat amidst the endless sea of lost souls. “This will be your station for the next two centuries, so play nice” Farah comments before handing Calvin the journal and brush pen. She points to the boundless screen that occupied the hall’s far wall. “That will be your window into the world of the living. Your job is simple, watch your subject and take down his details and then sign that person’s name at the bottom of the page” She explains, tapping the journal’s leather cover. She sighs and pulls out a paper from the bouncing against her hip. “This is your first project, Kristopher Hale Holt. Aged 17. He should be going in about a month or two.”

    A knot fastens within Cal’s gut as he glimpses at the teen’s green speckled eyes and dirty blonde waves. The child’s bored expression stares back at Cal as he tenderly holds the document as if it would lighten the boy’s fate.

    I can’t do this… Not to a kid.

    The tanned woman hands him a sparse profile of the teen before heading down the immeasurable hall. The rolling chair creaks as Calvin’s weight settles into black foam. A side glance reveals his seat partner, a peculiar girl with bleached blonde hair and striped arm warmers. The girl glances away from her diary and ball point pen with a mischievous smile stretching her bare lips. Mascara ridden eyes scan him as she swivels around.
    “Jumped off a building, didn’t you?” She muses, straightening one of her low pigtails to match the other. He nods. “Knew it. My last neighbor was a jumper to, you know. Anyways, I won’t ask why. Newbies tend to be kind of touchy. You’re not all anal, are you? Please tell me that you aren’t. We don’t need another Farah around here.” She finishes with a thumb pointing behind her. Luckily the broad had long disappeared down the impossible passage.

    He sits silently, merely staring at the punk girl, eyes wide open and jaw, unknowingly, hanging. He thought he saw teenage angst and attitude back in high school, but this girl took snark to a new level. Must be American is what he thought.

    She giggles before straightening her airy black skirt. “Anyways, the name is Rose, not ‘Rosalie’. Anything but that old fashioned thing my dad gave me.” She sticks out her tongue at her birth name before continuing. “Personally, I’ve been here about three or four years so I guess I know what I’m doing. It’s not hard. You just watch TV then write a name in your little book with whatever the hell that is that you have in your hand. Touch the paper and watch the screen. That’s all there is to it.” She summarizes with goofy hand gestures. Her ears pique and a glint enters her amber eyes. “Oh here, I’ll show you.” She swivels back to the screen with a hand on the ballpoint and the other on Cal’s forearm.

    An image materializes atop the charcoal screen. A middle aged man sits at a desk, his gut pushing into the oak as he taps away at a slim laptop. Four cups of coffee and a full vial of heart medication accompany his side as the tapping echoes within the dead duo’s ears.

    “Just few more minutes” whispers the Mina wannabe. The tapping slows slightly and the man pants, pushing against the confines of his Polo shirt and leather belt. Heavy breaths replace the monotonous beats against the plastic keys, and the rolling chair topples. The balding man crashes to the floor clutching his chest with clenched eyes. Rose’s covered arms covet her journal and ball point as the man’s convulsion cease. “And that’s all she wrote” whisper innocent lips as she seals the man’s fate with inconspicuous blue ink.

    “Wait, is he -“

    “Dead? Oh yeah. He’s probably heading down to judgment as we speak” She explains before ripping the page from the journal and throwing it into a moving cart.

    Cal jumps from the rolling chair, freeing himself from the young girl’s grasp. The image disappears like a ripple in water, leaving the man’s petrified eyes glued in Cal’s memory. “How can you be so calm?” he breathes.


    She sighs, giving a pitying glance to the new reaper. “Look, I didn’t kill the guy, if that’s what you’re thinking. He was going to die anyways. I just made it official” she states with a bored air, waving her chewed up ballpoint like a baton. Plus it’s better if we do it here and now instead of them being trapped there. She ponders, never glancing away from the exasperated soul in front of her.

    “How can you just accept that?” He squeaks.

    Her eyes shrink into slits. “Because it’s our job, now sit down and get to work. You have an assignment, and, trust me, you do not want to piss off Death.” She hisses. Her pigtails flop as she returns to the stack of folders by her side, scanning a new profile and carefully watching the screen.

    Heavy hearted, Cal glances at Kristopher Hale Holt’s portfolio. A bored teen stares back at him with cold, mermaid like, blue-green eyes. Dirty blonde hair obstructs the majority of his face as the picture suffocates the new reaper.

    Why does it have to be a kid…

    He has, had, should have a whole life ahead of him.

    “Standing there won’t keep him from dying. It will only save a worse fate for the poor guy” Rose remarks, refusing to looking away from the seemingly blank monitor. “Just sit down and do it, or end up in the true pediatrics.” Killing younger children? How could that possibly be moral? How could a life end before it truly began? But so is the world, and there’s nothing much to be done about postpartum and natural causes.
    The artist’s pen and journal glare at the failed artisan, yearning for him to record the adolescent’s life's (or rather death’s) story. The pen drips small droplets onto the tattered cover, and Cal gives in to its hypnotic vibe.
    The chair swivels out.

    “Good boy” She praises with an unmistakable smirk.

    A bony ass nuzzles into the ancient leather and nearly flat cushioning.

    “ It gets easier after the first time, trust me.” She assures, still not leaving her screen.

    I can’t do this. Not to a kid.

    His pale hands rest upon the driver’s license picture, and an image forms against the screen.


    Four teens lean against the graffitied, sheet metal backing of a warehouse, red flowers blooming in front of their mouths as they joke with each other in the twilight hours. The dirty blonde sticks out from the sea of brunettes and dye as he manages their small flame with a nearby metal rod. His flannel tangles beneath him as a girl vies for his attention. The bright eyes fail to linger away from the dancing flame before him. The attention hungry, child presses against her broad boyfriend as Kristopher continues to play with the blaze.
    The sapphire haired girl gazes at the coal haired boy sitting across from her. Blood rumbles as the voluptuous brunette cuddles with her tall honey. The brunette’s gaze goes unnoticed as the boy’s dark chocolate eyes scrutinize the blonde, aware of her girl’s coy gestures towards him.

    The lopsided love triangles sit comfortably in complete bliss, unaware of the hellish concoction brewing in their teenage lives. If only the punk knew of the boy’s undying affection for the wandering ditz sitting beside him. If only Kristopher could see the attractions shifting in his never changing friend group. If only, if only, but it won’t.

    He’s only seventeen. How could I … No, how could anyone cut this life so short? He’s a normal, stupid kid dabbling in shit he shouldn’t be in. Normal. Pretty normal. I think…

    Daylight comes. The blue haired girl chats with Kristopher at his locker, two joints crushing in her pocket. Smiles spread as they sneak off to the adjacent undeveloped area, only to find the splitting couple playing tonsil hockey behind an oak. Blue hair suppresses her gritting teeth, pasting on a teasing smile. Her slender, ringed fingers play with the rolled weed that is slowly coming apart in the tight fabric.

    “Oh Kyle, Amy” she sings, circling the sizable trunk with playful steps sinking into the dewy ground. “Isn’t it a bit early to be getting intimate.”

    “Ava, let them have their privacy” Kristopher remarks, back turned to the whole affair. PDA wasn’t on his to - watch list.

    Amy sneaks to Kristopher’s side, a pretty grin stretching her messed up lipstick. “Awe, are you embarrassed Krissy?” she teases, leaning ever closer to him. Her breasts pushing against her snug polo as she crosses her arms. Strawberry perfume suffocates the blonde as he glances away from the aged wood.

    Kyle leans against his own tree, arms crossed against his chest. Chipped teeth gnash together as Amy goggles at the blond. His ears turn rosy red as the brunette turns her charm o meter to ten above max.

    “Jealous?” Ava chimes in, alarm bells ringing behind her pretty blue eyes.

    “Of course not. It’s just the way she is. I know that” he huffs.

    “Well you know what has been going around the mill house, don’t you” She whispers, now firmly glued to his side. He raises an eyebrow. “Well, I heard that they were alone for quite sometime at that party the other week. You know the one. The one at the Abernathy twins’ place. Well, I hate to spread rumors, but this is a bit important. I heard that someone else heard moaning from the room they were in.” A sly smile spreads across her balm encased lips as the brute tenses with her every word.

    Kyle glances past the side of the tree. Amy continues to push herself closer to the reluctant blonde, and rage bubbles in the teen’s gut.

    More lips fly as the blue head yammers on in the halls, on the net, on anything so long as it had an audience. Her charade creates new stories to accompany the new gossip. The malevolent stew of whispers and murmurs only boils and grows with strategic disturbances from the love blinded girl.

    Typical teenagers. Typical, stupid teenagers. Playing stupid games just to tear each other's hearts before graduation.

    Back to the warehouse where bottles and blunts litter the weed infested earth. Twigs and debris cling to the teen’s clothes as they bullshit about teachers, classmates, and parents alike. A stupor falls upon the four adolescents, slurring their words and muddying judgement.

    “Oh Kris!” laughs Amy who falls into the teen’s lap with well planned clumsiness. She playfully twirls her curly locks and adjusts her tight fitting, low cut tank top as Kris downs another beer, virtually ignoring the curvy girl atop him.

    Smart kid.

    Dying leaves crunch beneath Ava as she inches closer to her own target. Kyle’s pit like eyes fail to recognize the girl’s sneaky maneuvers; they only follow his girlfriend’s provocative gestures. His hormones yearning for that attention.

    “Hey Amy” He slurs, pointing with his beer bottle.

    “Yes?” she hiccups, furrowed brows obstructing her otherwise jolly expression.

    “Let off the poor guy. You’re probably giving him a hard one over there. Anyways, I wanted to have a chat with my pal.”

    Amy puffs her cheeks but relents. Her curvy figure slides off of Kris’ slim one, leaving a wink behind. The girls huddle against the cold as the boys venture away from the secure warmth and light of the trash can fire.
    Lax walks hide the building aggression in the pre summer air.

    “What did you want to talk about” Kris inquires, putting out his blunt with a firm twist of his all stars.

    Oh shit… How long has it been already?


    Cortisol courses through Cal as the movie esque scene unfolds. His eyes constantly track his future victim, trying to think of any possible rescue plans. Any deus ex machinas. Anything to save the delinquent youth. Thoughts continuously cloud his mind as the time quickly zips by on a bullet train towards the kid’s death.

    “How’s it going newbie? I see that you’re still on your first assignment” Farah comments, circling around Cal and Rose’s cubicles.

    “A fight is about to break out” Cal whispers, turning away from the monitor. Clammy hands cling to the page and pen. Farah looks him and slides over the adjacent seat.

    “Look, I know this is hard for you and all considering your first is a kid, but, trust me, it will get easier. And usually the assignments are crusty old hoots who are older than dirt.” She places a cracked hand atop his knee, urging him to connect with her deep, chocolate eyes. “It does” she affirms before pushing off and disappearing down the corridor.

    “The boss is right.” Rose murmurs, eyes still glued to the blank screen. “The first is horrible. It is for everyone, unless you’re some deprived serial killer who never let out their urges”

    “But have me kill a kid? He has his whole life before him. He could go to college, change the world, make a lot of people happy.” His trembling words grow more pathetic as visions from his own hopeful, adolescent floods his mind. “He doesn’t even get a chance.” He sobs, wiping nonexistent tears from his cheek.

    The teen sighs, and glances at her sniveling neighbor. “It’s what Death decided. Everything happens for a reason and there’s nothing really we can do about it. Plus, if you don’t sign the name then that kid is going to end up with a fate worse than death, got it?” she scowls before immersing herself back into the world of the living like some addicting melodrama or housewives rerun. Admittedly the girl’s target had a rather robust social life, the closest thing she’ll get to actually entertaining TV.

    He’s only seventeen. It’s so soon. I was twenty-four. That’s too young to. Oh shit, what have I done? What have I gotten myself into? What am I about to do?


    Kris casually leans against a tree, smiling at his fuming best friend. Kyle pounds a fist against the bark, embedding a few strands of blonde hair into the crevice ridden wood. Mermaid eyes widen while black holes narrow.

    “What the hell.” Kyle whispers, adrenaline quivering his voice.

    “I heard some rumors”

    “R-Rumors? Of what?”

    “Don’t you fucking fool with me” He snarls, tightening fist and tangling more fine fibers into the timber.
    The flannel snags on the splinters as Kristopher straightens out, coming chest to chest with the jealousy driven brute.

    “I have no damn idea what you’re talking about!” Kris whispers, alcohol and weed mixing around in their shared air.

    “I think you do” he growls with the breath of a red eyed bull.

    Kris pushes into the broad chest before him. “I don’t know what shit you’re on, but I haven’t done a damn thing!”

    Kyle’s nostril flairs as his hands easily slip around Kris’ slim neck. The blonde claws at wrists and arms, but his fleeting strength fails him as the boy slowly lifts him off the ground. Chucks aim for a money spot, any spot really, but only move air as the boy’s features become disturbingly close to Kris’. “Don’t go lying to me, you faggot. Now tell me what you did with my girl!” He hisses, shaking Kris like an oversized rag doll for good measure.

    Kris manages a minute shake of his head. The black holes widen and teeth gnash as Kyle throws the teen across the clearing into another tree.

    “What do you mean ‘no’!” He screams with boiling cheeks. Fists perpetually clenched by his sides.

    Oh no….. No, no, no, no, no, no…

    Two squeals thrust through the foliage, clamoring to the scene. Mouths gape as the incident sinks in through the dreamy fog of alcohol and THC. Painted nails click at their mobile as the other lays out the blonde across the debris and weeds while the victorious giant goggles at his handiwork, motionless; jis devilish eyes softening to a more human light, now blurred by guilty tears.

    No, not like this… It can’t end like this. It’s too soon.

    Doctors’ heads shake as they examine the barely battered teen.
    “Severed spinal chord”
    “…blunt force trauma”
    “…charges …pressed”
    Blue uniforms interview the trio of past friends, only to find three tortured souls trying to navigate personal labyrinths. Their senses coming back from shock and recreation only to be thrown back into the hell known as reality.


    Calvin jumps from his seat, his fake stomach lurching. Nausea refuses to come, leaving him to continue watching the melancholic scene unfold. His own body, surrounded by sobbing relatives, flashes across his mind. His knees knock against the desk and a scar ridden arm steadies him.

    “I take it, that it’s time.” Rose whispers, empathy tinging her words as she surveys her own client. “Finish it quick, before he starts wandering. It’ll be hard for Death to process him after that.”

    “Wandering?” Calvin murmurs.

    “Hello?” inquires a new voice resounding inside his skull. Only the boy’s lonely body occupies the screen, but the ghastly voice continuously echoes within the crevices of Calvin’s skull. “Where am I? What is all this? … What the hell! Is that me?!” It yelps. “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Am I dead?” The monitor continues to beat against Calvin’s conscious. “No! Mom! Mommy! Where are you?” A tired, young woman collapses against the bed, holding her son’s hand. “Mom! I’m here! Can you hear me? Please, mom. Please answer me.” Kris pleas, his mother responding only with wild wails and useless prayers.

    “He’ll continue to see her like this if you don’t file that paper” Rose breaths. “He’ll only wander around, not knowing how to get to Judgement. Never being able to reach reincarnation. He’ll be cursed to watch his mother die, never being able to communicate with her or anything.”

    “Mom?” Kris sobs, “I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

    Cal swallows, and readies his pen. “I understand.” The indian ink sinks into parchment as Kristopher Hale Holt permanently stains the reddening document. “I’m sorry” Cal whispers as the voice disappears and the heart monitors let’s out a monotonous squeal into the hospital.

    Life, for a Life; Soul, for a Soul
    Stark against the rime, specks of blood caught Kodora's eye. Trudging closer through the snow, he saw a deep furrow leading off into the trees—too large to be from a goat's body. The forester hefted his heavy woodcutting axe to his shoulder, its sharp head weighing as heavy as his heart in his chest.

    If that had indeed been Haruki's cry, he doubted the boy still lived.

    Uncertainty, however, was not something that long lingered in Kodora's mind.

    Taking the path lain before him in crimson, he charged forward into the trees. Beneath branches laden with snow, it was dark—but the man was not foreign to trekking the woods in the dark. With the snow heaved to either side by the beast earlier passage, it was also not difficult for him to follow.

    Though he had only glimpsed them once or twice in the past, Kodora knew of the beast's habits. Asashimo, ever the scholar, had shared long nights telling him of the ways of nature. With the snow acting as cover, it would have stalked the herd unseen—pouncing upon its prey from a distance of twenty feet, before going for the kill at the neck. It would not eat out in the open, instead dragging its prey back to the heart of its territory.

    It was there that he would find his own prey.

    The sun had already passed into twilight when Kodora heard the sounds of a great body moving. Knowing its ears to be the most acute of its senses, he slowed down—though it made enough noise to cover the footsteps already muffled by the snow, he would not dare take any such risks up close.

    He could feel his heart beating heavily as he brought the axe down to be held between two hands, muscles tensed for a swing. The forester slid up against a thick tree trunk, and finally glanced into the clearing.

    Much of the snow had been pushed aside—what remained was stained with blood, some fresh. Torn remains of a couples goats were strewn throughout, but what caught his eye was the beast.

    Standing almost four feet above the half-eaten remnants of his nephew, he could swear the beast was as thick as a bull, its otherwise white fur marred only by streaks of black and jowls stained red. Though he pushed the emotions bubbling aside in preparation for his next move, awe momentarily stood at the forefront of his mind.

    It was truly a beautiful beast.

    Without a sound, Kodora rushed out from behind the tree, his feet leaping through the snow, axe held high.

    Engrossed in its meal, the tiger only turned its head towards him moments before the axe found its way deep into its shoulder.

    Growling in pain, it was only moments before it twisted its body and slammed into him, one great paw dragging him to the ground.

    Kodora's scream was cut short as the tiger's paw cracked through his ribs, collapsing one of his lungs. The pressure did not last long, however; the leg through which the tiger crushed the man found itself unable to support the beast's weight for long. Though the axe-head had missed the spine, it had had no difficulty embedding itself to the bone. The tiger collapsed across him, panting laboriously as it nurtured its wound.

    Kodora too panted, weakly, as his body tried desperately to bring enough air through one lung while the other filled with blood. He expected he didn't have long to live—his legacy, he hoped, would be a tiger too wounded to fight back once his kinsmen came upon it.

    What he had not hoped was that the first eyes to pierce through the trees to see him dying would be those of his wife. As the tiger shifted beside him, wary of the new threat, the small woman whispered words too soft to make out, her pupils contracting into sharp points despite the darkness.

    With sudden lethargy, the tiger slumped back into the snow.

    Asashimo stepped lightly into the clearing, her prior calm and poise fraying as she took in Koroda's condition.

    She knelt down beside him, now barely choking back her tears as she laid her hands on his chest. He mouthed the word "no", but she paid it no heed, her hands glowing as she poured energy into his body.

    Kodora coughed up more blood as his body struggled to heal over his cracked ribs.

    The glow stopped as Asashimo pulled back her hands in horror—he had already accepted it himself; now she too faced the inevitability of his death. Any attempts at healing him would only delay it, and bring him more pain.

    He tried to smile, tried to tell her it was okay—he was ready.

    But in her eyes, he only saw fear. She trembled with increasing vigour; despite the frost now creeping over his body, he knew it was not the cold that afflicted her.

    He felt himself drifting, his mind fading as his body failed. She brought a hand to cup his cheek. He leaned into it, closing his eyes to the warm touch.

    Moments later, an overwhelming chill gripped him by the heart.

    His eyes shot open, but no sight graced them. Though his body was numb, pain shot through him, striking deeper than the flesh. Where before he was grounded, he now floated anchor-less, as if drowing in an ocean colder than ice.

    He had been ready for death—but this was no afterlife.

    Icy hooks pierced the edges of his consciousness, tightening as they dragged him back through the chill. Surfacing from the ocean deep, he felt the pain wash away.

    Again, he could feel his flesh.

    At first, he felt only warmth. Moments later, agony, as his shoulder throbbed to the beat of his heart.


    The voice crept into his mind soundlessly, prodding his mind gently but with a distinct need. He scrunched up his face, trying to shut himself off from it, to make sense of the foggy mess that was his mind.

    Kodora, please. Wake up.

    He opened his eyes, blinking at the light. A warm touch upon his shoulder, and the pain lightened; he turned to face the source of the touch, and saw Asashimo staring back at him, hope barely peeking through her tearstained eyes.

    He tried to speak—little more than a growl was coughed out. The voice prodded his mind once more.

    Is it you?


    "Thank the spirits," she muttered, smiling. "You're back."

    What happened?

    "You died." her smile faltered. "But now…"

    He tried to push himself up from the snow, but found his limbs reluctant to move as he commanded.

    "Your body…"

    Rolling onto his belly, he felt something heavy dislodge from his shoulder, falling to the snow below. He struggled to put his hands and feet below him.

    "… I could only save you. Sacrifice…"

    With a final push, he rose on his hands and knees, looking below him at the clearing.

    Like a mirror lying beneath him, Kodora's eyes stared back at him, vacant in a pale bloody face. Horror shook him, and he looked back at Asashima.

    "Such magic is forbidden by the ronin, but…"

    Ashi, what have you done?

    She reached out a hand to his face, her touch ticklish against the tiger's whiskers. Tears continued to stream down her face, catching at the edges of a pained smile. "I can't—Not without you, Koda," she sobbed. "I only did what I had to."


    A young, suicidal man muses on his beliefs and views, views that others might classify as delusions. After a failed suicide attempt, we read into his thoughts.

    - - -

    A myth I hear here and there about depression – a myth I'm sure made by people who don't have depression – is that being depressed basically means you're just sad all the time.

    But the reality isn't really like that at all.

    You don't feel sad. Generally, you just feel empty.

    It's the emptiness, the complete lack of feeling, that hurts more. The absence of feeling is what hurts more than any feeling. Being sad shows that you're alive. It shows that you're active enough to react to your situation. But being depressed... You can't even bother to react. You're just so defeated that you can't bring yourself to react to it anymore.

    Of course, this prompts someone to ask; what keeps you going then? Why haven't you gone ahead and tried to end it all already? Assuming that that someone isn't too afraid to ask, because I'm sure that some people avoid the topic because when it gets to that spot, they wouldn't want to ask that question, maybe because they don't want to accidentally give a person the incentive to just end it all right there like “Wow, you're right, good idea! I didn't think about that! I'll go end it all now!”

    It's a little annoying that people feel the need to walk on eggshells with that, because it feels like they see those kinds of people as dumb or not thinking things through.

    The only people that know about my death drive include this one guy I hang out with sometimes (just because no one else is willing to be in close proximity to me for a period of time) who likes to wear all black, has long bangs in his hair, bags under his eyes, and plays a disturbing amount of hunting games on his phone, and a “secret therapist,” who is really just this random girl from class who thinks she's a professional therapist and prides herself in her work because she aced AP Psychology back in High School.

    The former, I'm expecting to get a text from any day now that just ominously says “Don't come to class today,” and the latter, I'm expecting will drop out of college upon realizing that her intended psychology major is worthless and will just end up waiting tables the rest of her life.

    People always did say that I was overly pessimistic and generally negative, but that's just what I honestly felt. There is nothing positive to say about those people, and there is nothing positive to say about me.

    We are all disgusting inside.

    After I woke up from my failed suicide attempt, I realized it. It is human nature. To be disgusting. There is no flawless human being. No sinless human. Because that was it; to be a human was to be a sinner. Now, I'm not even any authority on religion, so I use the word “sin” a little loosely, but I think the point still stands. It's amazing what you can find out when you walk close enough to the abyss, and risk falling inside. For example, I used to wonder what made people so uncomfortable about talking about death, or my attitude toward it in general. And the thing is, in this youthful age in which most people have the rest of their lives ahead of them, they become uncomfortable when talking about death in general, or when they even notice my attitude towards it.

    I was never afraid of death, having always seen it as just a natural force. As natural and beautiful as air, gravity, light, darkness, and of course, life. I couldn't possibly find anything natural to be scary like that at all.

    Unless we're talking about bees, because I stay the hell away from those.

    The “secret therapist” once classified me as a low-functioning sociopath, I guess in contrast to a high-functioning one, though even then, I have to question the accuracy of that. Then again, I could never be bothered to look up what makes a person like that, so who knows? Though... I mean, I guess it's not completely out of the realm of possibility. I can easily say I just take what I want if I want it, but I mean, most of the things I want would be illegal to just take, like a video game or a ticket to a movie, and that'd be inconvenient for me.

    As in, I “lose.”

    In that regard, I think that's why I never did anything so crazy to make someone want to murder me. After all, as someone with a great death drive, wouldn't it have been best to just do something like that? Think about it. A lot of people plan their own suicides, but hardly their own murders. Unless you deliberately want it otherwise, the case is usually open and shut. You get murdered, your killer is convicted (or maybe not), and that's that. It was out of your control. Rather, it was in the control of someone else. Your life was in the hands of someone else, and they made a choice with your own life. I think, in that regard, because of that, I would hate to be murdered.

    Being murdered, again, would imply that I would “lose.” And call me a sore loser, but I would absolutely hate it if I were remembered as someone who died because I “lost” against someone in the struggle of life. It's different from dying in an accident, like a car accident or something else that also involves another person, because while it may not have been in your control, it wasn't in their deliberate control either. It was just a blunder that couldn't have been helped.

    That's why I think suicide is the most beautiful form of death.

    Even to the end, you remain responsible for your own fate. You are the one who stays in control to the very end.

    Well, that is, if you succeed.

    Because if you lose, then everything's different from there.

    And unfortunately, I lost.

    I attempted the end of my life on a day like any other, on a complete whim. I don't really know what the trigger is. I just woke up that day and thought to myself, “I should just kill myself.” Well, that's not necessarily true, actually. If it was, then I'd be going against my word and proving right those people who ask “Why don't you just do it already if you say you're suicidal?” I think it's that there wasn't any one definite trigger, it was a number of many factors that just gradually beat on me until I lost my willpower, such as the stress of student loans, older sister always asking for money, dad's still not around for anything, the girl I liked turned out to already have a boyfriend, and perhaps most tragically, this one video game I'd been waiting for like, ever, got delayed again. So with all that riding on me, I eventually just decided “You know, nothing good ever happens in life. Why should I have to keep going through this life full of pain with no payoff? I may as well just cut to the chase already.”

    And so, I did end my life that day. Or at least, I tried.

    The way I tried it, admittedly, was sort of flimsy to begin with, but not without its merit. See, I wanted to die quickly. I may have a death drive, but I'm not masochistic. I like death, not pain. Big difference, y'know?

    But at the same time, while wanting it quick, I also wanted it to be known that it was something that I did by my own choice. A snap decision that would instantly end it all. Not like overdosing on pills and sleeping on it, heart beating all night long, wondering if you made the right choice, or tying a nice little noose around your neck and feeling the tension build up, not just around your neck, but around your situation.

    So what method did I use? Why, the most elegant of them all.

    I jumped into traffic.

    Specifically, right in front of a speeding car. Even more specifically, one that I had hoped was going so fast on this road that he couldn't stop in time, but at the same time, one that I also was far away enough that people knew it was my choice.

    Looking back, I think that was an impossible feat.

    But I mean, it's too late to regret it now.

    I made the mistake of picking a driver who had quick reflexes, as he'd managed to barely stop in time. I mean, I still got hit pretty bad, enough to fracture a rib or two and knock me unconscious right then and there (or was it my head hitting the ground that knocked me out?). It hurt like holy hell, and I immediately regretted it. I distinctly remember the .07 seconds in which my mind had realized I screwed up. Of course, to clarify, I didn't regret choosing to attempt suicide. I just regretted not going about it the right way.

    Again, I don't like pain.

    Being knocked out was a strange sensation. I guess someone could say that calling it strange was just like calling “sleeping” strange, but sleeping was kinda weird too. Being asleep or otherwise unconscious is basically just being dead for a temporary amount of time.

    See, the thing about being unconscious is that you don't even really realize you're unconscious. In fact, you don't realize anything. Your mind is unable to comprehend even the simplest of thoughts, let alone its inactivity. Maybe every now and then you'll get a muddled feeling of consciousness that'd either be drowned out by your own unconsciousness or realized into full consciousness, waking you up before you knew it.

    But the thing is, I always saw death has just being asleep or unconscious, but of course, you don't wake up. I've heard many people also say stuff like that, but I think they only mean that in the superficial sense, like “Oh, everything's probably black forever.” That kind of depth-less thinking that never gets anyone anywhere. Not that I really consider myself a particularly deep thinker or anything, because that would just be pretentious, and I am the shining opposite of that, of course.

    To elaborate on what I was talking about earlier though, think about it. Try to imagine what it's like to be asleep. Try to replicate the complete black within your comprehension. No murky dreams or anything. Just the dark. But there's nothing to be afraid of in this dark. You aren't even conscious enough to be scared of anything, but even if you were, you could easily escape by willing yourself to wake up. But for death, it's different. There is no waking up from it. You're left to sleep forever, for as long as you want, and even longer than that. You're trapped inside your own mind, unable to break out and wake up, unable to even reach anywhere near the level of consciousness needed to wake up, unable to even be scared that you can no longer move, that you're forever bound inside the deepest trenches of your mind.

    After all, you're dead.

    That kind of description of death had always been what relaxed me the most about it. It's like sleeping, but nothing will ever bother you again. I couldn't possibly be scared of that. Not when I wouldn't realize that I'd be a bit lonely all by myself. Not when I wouldn't realize that it's all over.

    Of course, the tragedy was, I wasn't dead in reality. I was just unconscious. And needed to be hospitalized. I was unfortunately awakened and bothered by the affairs of the real world before me, with its dumb, real consequences and its stupid real pain.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    When I came to, I was in a hospital bed, wearing one of those embarrassingly revealing hospital gowns (though thankfully, I was obscured by a blanket above), attached to all sorts of weird, random machines, most notably the little do-hickey that measured my pulse. The constant beeping was an annoying, almost mocking reminder that I was unfortunately still alive.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    Oh, my god. Shut up. Stop it. Stop making fun of me. Cut that shit out. I get it. I get it already. I'm alive. Quit it.

    My thoughts angrily, frantically cycle through stuff like that as the heart monitor continues incessantly beeping, driving me into madness quickly. At this point, it was gonna try to make me kill myself again by hanging myself with the machine's goddamned cords or something. It's even more annoying to listen to than that one guy I knew back in high school whose voice sounded like Gilbert Gottfried, except not endearing and funny, so it was just annoying.

    Point being that in this inactive body in which I could barely move, probably doped up on a bunch of drugs and whatever so I didn't wake up screaming my head off, it felt like real hell.

    Living again made me want to die even more.

    That's another myth I've heard be thrown around. That people who fail trying to kill themselves end up waking up relieved that they're alive. But it wasn't until then and there, after just missing the cold brush of death, that I was even more depressed than before. And it wasn't even just because of the heart monitor's noise drumming in my head. I wasn't even sad because of some misplaced sense of shame that I had betrayed the trust of others or whatever. It was just that... I lost.

    I ended up failing at what I set out to do. There is nothing more humiliating than knowing that you tried something you so desperately wanted to succeed at, before realizing by the end that you had failed instead.

    Of course, like I said, I'm not really in a position to retry. So all I can do is just sit here in mental agony, writhing in my own pathetic pool of self-pity, until someone comes in and realizes that I'm awake. For the next several minutes, that's all I did. I sat in my bed, stared aimlessly at the ceiling, all the while trying to drown out the sound of the heart monitor.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    An hour passes. I get a little hungry. The nurse shows up. She's cute. She's happy to see that I'm finally awake. Probably because she gets paid more if I'm alive, I bet. She probably doesn't even really care about me in reality. Two can play at that game. I'm happy to see a cute face. Probably because it's the kind that I can think about later. I probably wouldn't actually like her if I got to know her. She tells me of my condition. Two broken ribs. Could have been way worse. I wish it were way worse. Not that I'm masochistic or anything. I swear. I quickly request some food. She fetches me soup. It feels strangely satisfying for her to feed me. Like she's my own personal maid. It tastes like shit. I eat it up anyway. Hunger is the best spice after all. Besides, I can't say no to a cute girl.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    Eventually, the drugs wear off and I can move well enough in no time. I decide to feed myself the soup to assert my independence. It's a little pathetic. I'm embarrassed of myself, but at least she doesn't know the intent behind my actions. She starts talking about me. I guess she thinks I'll feel inclined to pay her more if she's nice to me. It's not like she's a waitress or anything though, nor is she a working girl. I'll pay my bill, and then leave. I hope she doesn't expect a tip from me or anything. Even if I did want to, I'm too poor. I can barely afford student loans. I find a funny twist of irony in that statement and I start laughing aloud by accident. She laughs with me. God, she's so fake. She's not even laughing with me. She's probably laughing at me.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    I get a little pissed off. I can't even tell myself it's probably nothing. No one has ever been nice to me without a condition my entire life. The condition here, of course, is money. Nurses get paid handsomely after all. Not once does it occur to me that maybe I'm just going crazy. Or rather, I was always crazy. These drugs probably haven't really worn off, but instead made their way deeper into my system and giving me side effects. I hope one of them is death. Wouldn't that be a hell of a medicine? On one hand, you might die if you take this, but on the up side, your bad cough will stop.

    Jingle jingle. Jingle. Jingle jingle.

    My ringtone starts playing. Looks like they played my phone. The ringtone is “Stayin' Alive” by the Bee Gees. I can't even be embarrassed by it when the nurse giggles about it. She's so clearly faking being into this conversation. It's a bad joke. I can't even laugh at how bad it is. Shit. I just want to die. Let me end it all already. The nurse talks with the caller, my mother as I would eventually find out later, and she tells her that she'll be on her way to see me soon. She hangs up. She stays with me while we wait. I don't know what the hell she wants from me, but what I want from her is to leave me the hell alone.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    Please. Just leave me alone already. Stop trying to be my friend or whatever.


    She eventually leaves me the hell alone. I'm by myself again. I managed to shut out the noise of the heart monitor. My peaceful solitude is quickly interrupted when my mother walks in. She's concerned, but relieved that I'm alive. She doesn't seem aware. Looks like they all thought it was an accident. Guess that makes sense.

    She asks me standard questions. Predictable ones. Ones that are to be expected. How are you? What exactly happened? How did it happen? Will you be alright? Of course, I can't bring myself to really believe she cares. After all, it'd be better if I died, right? She's getting old. Soon, she'll be too old to work. The wrinkles on her face have been there for a while, but only now have I started to see her hair starting to gray. She may as well take this chance to collect life insurance from my corpse. That'd be the smart thing to do, right? The logical way to think. But I don't dwell on it. What she does won't be my concern when I'm dead. Nothing would be my concern.

    Oh, mother. Mom, mom, mom. What to say about you?

    There are two types of people who are raised Christian. Everyone goes to church, prays a lot, and hopes to be blessed with many fortunes in life, only to discover that the fortune in of itself was the gift of life. But what separates them is how they react to that kind of discovery. There are those who maintain their faith and accept that miracle in all of its glory, and there are those who are disappointed that there is no “real” fortune, and perhaps break away from the faith. I'm the latter, as you might have guessed from my beliefs, but my mother was always firmly the former.

    As such, her thoughts on death are a bit predictable. She knows that death is inevitable, and that it's the one thing people are equal in, though she wouldn't really say it like that. Still, it's ultimately simple. Be good, go to heaven. Be bad, go to hell. However, for all she says that death is unavoidable, that we shouldn't be scared of it, that our time will come when God says so, that it's simply the next stage of existence, I can easily peg her as the kind of person who will cling, tooth and nail, to life and a life or death situation, no matter how hopeless it might actually be for her.

    But I want her to think otherwise. I want her to know the truth.

    After all, that's human nature. We're not gods. We're monsters. We're savage creatures. We're beasts.

    I want to shatter that safe way of thinking. I have to. It's for her own good. I'm doing this out of the goodness of my own heart. I want to repay her for all that she's done for me while I was growing up by freeing her from this flawed, hypocritical way of thinking. That life was inherently the greatest thing ever, that it was inherently the gift given by God.

    It felt like something I absolutely had to do.

    We talk, but it's awkward. We haven't talked in a while. There isn't much to talk about. We never had that much in common. Our experiences, our mileage in life, were different and varied.

    So without any smooth transition to soften the blow or break the ice, I do it.

    I tell my mother the truth.

    In a horrible, monstrous, sickening, sociopathic, unredeemable, repulsive way, it feels good. It feels good to see her react. Me, her precious son whom she had brought into this world, wished for a way out. I tell her how long I've felt this, the truth behind the ordeal with the car, why I felt this (or rather, what I at least believed was why I felt this way), all of it.

    You see, mother, we are only human. And humans are fundamentally flawed creatures. We are arrogant beasts that think we can reach the sun, but really, we're only just beasts that learned to tell stories. But I'm done with stories. I want to close my book already.

    That's what I tell her.

    Initially, she's speechless. Shocked. All that jazz. I expected nothing less.

    But then. Something unprecedented for happens. She recovers. She starts talking. She refutes me. She goes against me.

    She tells me words that make me raise an eyebrow. Life was never inherently the gift, she tells me. It is not what you are given that matters, she says, but rather, what we do with them.

    Before she leaves, she apologizes to me. She's sorry that I had to feel this way. She feels sorry for me. She pities me. She looks down upon me. I want to clench my fist, but for some reason, I can't even get angry at her for pitying me. She finishes off by telling me that we don't live to vie for the sun. We live to vie to understand each other. But I could never understand anyone, much less myself.

    I don't know what to say. Now, I'm the speechless one. I'm too surprised to be embarrassed. But she has more resolve than me. Her perception of me has changed. Maybe her world has been shaken. But all she does is simply looks at me and leave me. She can't stand to be near me anymore.

    Now I really am alone. Loneliness had always been a bittersweet feeling to me, emphasis on the “sweet,” but now... the bitterness of it is emphasized. The piercing silence cuts into my ear like a wave, still deafening out the sound of the heart monitor. Life really is what you make of it, huh? Too bad I never did have a good poker face, or else I would have done something absolutely wild with the hand I was dealt.

    Now, I wonder if anything or anyone could ever help me.

    Especially since I can't do it myself.​


    Morning broke through the blinds of Abby's apartment. The first day of summer, it had always been her favourite. She'd always be the first person up that morning, even Christmas didn't have as much excitement to her as the arrival of a bright and beautiful season returning. She hated the winter, she always found it to be so depressing, yet even through her dislike of the cold weather she found joy. making snow angels and forts, hot cocoa by the fire, enjoying the comfort of being surrounded by family. Her life was perfect, from childhood almost to adulthood. When she turned twenty five things started to change in Abigail's life, she began shutting people out. Somehow she convinced herself that 'the demons were after her', but nobody, not even her brother Tyler who she'd been close to, knew what was going on. That morning Tyler went to her apartment, the day that they were supposed to celebrate the first day of summer, was the day his joy had drained. Nobody had seen this coming, she looked so peaceful. Like she'd dozed off on the bay window looking out into the garden she'd spent years tending to. It was her pride and joy, she always spent her mornings enjoying a cup of coffee and admiring her work. But Abby wasn't sleeping, she wasn't dreaming and she wasn't pensive. Abby was gone, and there was nothing that Tyler could do but curse his inability to see the full picture.

    That was the memory he was so deep in thought with as he headed for the memorial. The church promised to be packed full of all the lives that Abigail Graham had touched in some way. From coworkers to friends to family and people she helped, out of all those people not a single one saw this coming. 'But how, Abby? How did nobody see this? How did I not see it? Please help me to understand,' a rather tall beefy man pleaded in his mind as he walked up those steps. His feet felt like iron, as if every step was too much for him. She was in there; his baby sister was in there before he was. Only, she'd never be walking out of there again to spread her joy and laughter again. No more jokes, no more fun celebrations. he felt so....alone. But it was more than just loneliness, it was pure isolation. Among the hundreds of people that had shown up for this teenager's memorial, he never felt so small. People started to file in and sit where they could, he couldn't bear to sit anywhere near the front. He didn't want to see her picture, see that damn smile again. The smile that would never grant him a better day, a smile that would never let him know again how much she adored life. As the songs began and people stood, his legs just felt like jelly. Was he here? Was this really happening? This had to be a dream. How could he have lost someone? How could he tell this was real if it never happened before? These kind of things never happened to him, they always happened to others. Before he knew it, everyone was leaving, a few looking back at him. He hardly even felt people patting his shoulder or giving him some awkward hug. Once everyone was gone, he forced his legs to work. One foot in front of the other, he focused hard on not collapsing right in the hallway to the picture of Abby. She was smiling, it'd been her senior picture. Leaning against a tree, her make up seemed to make her smile glow. It was summer time, the sun made the picture seem so happy. That outfit she chose that day Tyler swore he'd never forget; she used to really love the idea of cosplaying as a 1950 style girl. She was wearing a pink poodle skirt and a white top, she looked fantastic. Yet still had that childish expression to her, it suited her in the best of ways. Finally, he stopped in front of her, looking at his feet. "You know, I always thought that we could talk. I've spent the last few days wondering why...why Abby? Why didn't you call me? I am here, I was always here," he looked up as tears fell down his face and anger rose. He felt like kicking or just destroying the picture, he couldn't stand to see her smile. "How could you be so selfish? I spent hours talking with you when Dawn broke up with you. When your cat Louis died...when did we become so distant? When did we start splitting apart? Help me, please Abigail, please help me to understand why." He fell to his knees sobbing, running his hands through his hair he gripped it tightly until pain shot through his scalp.

    After a while of crying, Tyler finally got back to his feet. He hadn't even noticed his mother standing at the door, her hand over her mouth. She must have been there for the entire conversation, his break down. In fact she'd come back to scold him for not saying a word...now she knew why. He had been doing all of what he could to hold himself together, no longer was Tyler that strong, sturdy boy she'd raised. The man that stood, face as red as a sunburn staring at her like a corpse or a man that grew to old age in one day, staring at her, didn't even look like her son. The soft sobs of his mother urged Tyler's feet to instinctively got to her. Wrapping his arms around her, he held his mother. Somehow this felt very much like how she held him as a child after a heartbreak, his mother seemed so old now. Sobbing into her son's chest, she was thankful for one of her children still able to hold her. Comfort her.

    Tyler didn't feel so alone anymore.


    And here's the brush
    with which my orange-haired wife combed the hair
    of my daughter -- did we have
    a daughter? I loved Lily's Sarah so much
    I remember her as mine.

    Sarah's hair was orange,
    too, or at least it grew
    into River's color, when she found
    how her mother -- sorry, how my wife,
    so long the years have drawn -- caught the eyes
    of many fighting men. I'm sure you've judged
    alike, remembering the wall
    which River's radiant face graces
    like an icon. They say a woman
    whose hair is orange looks
    like heaven, while a man
    with the same is a troll --

    see, Sarah's father, too, had orange hair,
    but all natural. He died
    long before Sarah'd grown, having left
    for his profession war -- and if he'd lived,
    Lily would not have come to me

    with her black hair ways and white lead face
    that looks so much like mother but for eyes
    that shine like sun. No, Lily only cares for me
    as if I were her child -- she was the one
    who ordered me encase the brush's head
    in lead, the bristles in fine bronze:
    convert it to a relic, prize of loss. Yes, River died
    some years ago -- her last act was to comb
    the hair of her Amish doll, her daughter,
    with that brush. Why had she
    refused to lay with me while we were young,
    one, fertile? Did she think
    her ragged self were child enough? Did she fear
    to birth an orange-haired troll so much? Or did she see
    herself a saint, and I
    merely an adorer --

    Shall we move on? Yes, even from this window, you may view
    the sea-light which had drawn you to my home. No, it casts
    only a shadow now: its Fresnel lens
    became too weary to maintain. I remember
    River saw that tower as a sun --

    Copper Black
    Copper Black

    She paced back and forth in the small circle of dirt allotted for her, guards stiffening every time she drew close. Six of them, forming a loose circle around her. Each well armoured, and hands holding tight to the hilts of their swords. Sheathed for the moment, but still a harsh reminder not to do anything stupid. At the edge of her vision, the light of the rising sun pricked at her, glanced off the copper discs hanging from her neck. Morning mist kept close to the ground, eddying around her scuffed boots.

    A short stone's throw away, a man leaned casually upon the hilt of his long steel, the accompanying short steel still sheathed at his waist. His eyes tracked her as she paced, an easy grin on his clean-shaven face, brown hair rolling down in carefully maintained waves to his shoulders. Unlike her, no circle of guards kept him under watch. A free, Cauldish man.

    Around them, people jostled each other upon the stands, eager for a better view. Nobles, dressed in vibrant colours off to one side, and commoners in drab greys and brown to the other. All kept at bay by a wooden fence, thirty paces across from one end to another. Inside, nothing but a circle of dirt, carefully flattened. Here and there, darker patches could be seen, a faint red tinge to them. Left over from yesterday's fights, fallen from broken noses and split lips during the Ladder of Swords. Soon, Sera knew, there would be fresh patches in the dirt.

    Far more, for while blunted blades had been used in yesterday's duels, the steel held now was keen and sharp. A proper fight, rather than a mere recreation.

    The crowds quieted and grew still as a figure stepped forward upon the raised dais in the heart of the noble's stands. A lavish gold and red cape draped the man's shoulders, and a diamond encrusted crown rested upon his head. King Visserine of Daeland, the famed mediator and proponent of peace. A wave spread around the circle, as those present knelt as well as they could, crowded together as they were. All except Sera and the Cauldish man opposite her.

    She, because defiance was all that was left to her.

    He, because Visserine was not his king.

    King Visserine looked out over the crowd, a look of mild distaste upon his soft face. As though the entire affair was an unfortunate annoyance he'd rather do without. "All may rise," he said, voice carefully neutral. He waited, as the crowds present rose with a loud rustling. "We are gathered here to bear witness to a trial by combat. Issued by Sera of Coppercove-" the guards around Sera stepped back, to better reveal her to the crowd, "-against Prince Beren of Caulder, represented by his champion Ser Lorel." The Cauldish man gave an extravagant bow to the crowd, to shouts of approval and scorn, depending on the individual's class and loyalties..

    Working his mouth sourly, the king moved as if to speak again before shaking his head and sinking back into his chair, an enameled and opulent affair. Beside Sera, one of the guards stepped forward and offered Sera her sword, belt strap wrapped around the sheath. Sera grabbed the hilt, felt the familiar grooves in the leather hilt, the hard core underneath. Calloused fingers tightened, flush as an old glove, and pulled the sword free, leaving the sheath in the guard's hand. She'd have no need of it here.

    Across the ring, Ser Lorel finished basking in the nobles’ praise and drew his own twin swords, their ornate blades making Sera's sword a cumbersome hunk of dull steel in comparison. With one final flourish, Lorel bowed to someone amongst the crowd. Following his gaze, Sera saw Prince Beren - the lecherous bastard, she thought bitterly - looking on with eager bloodlust, nose crooked and bruised where she had planted her boot last night.

    As one, the guards pulled away and left her alone in the ring with Ser Lorel, who was already walking towards her. Strolling even, his movements arrogant and languid. His blades hung loose in his hands, the tip of his long steel only barely kept above the dirt. Sera gritted her teeth, pride flaring at his carefree attitude. With a shout, she hefted her heavy sword and charged. When she was only a few strides away, she twisted, throwing her entire body behind the cleaving weight of her sword.

    But Lorel smoothly ducked underneath the blow, his short steel lashing out in reply. Sera shouldn't have been surprised to see a sword coming at her. She had seen plenty yesterday, during her success in the Ladder of Swords, and moreso had been anticipating this moment since she issued the challenge yesterday evening. Yet still, the glinting sharpness of the blade shook her, so clearly deadlier than the blunted blades she was familiar with. She lurched a pace back, and the steel flicked past her, skidding across the chain of copper discs around her neck.

    Behind it, Lorel's long steel came swinging around, Sera only just getting her own sword in the way in time. Before the shock of their blades meeting had even finished travelling up her arm, Lorel was spinning around, continuing the attack. Sera diverted one strike into the ground, the next into the air, and stabbed forward into the opening left in their midst. But the Cauldish champion danced past it, and nicked Sera in the leg with his long steel as he passed.

    Stumbling back, the roars of the crowed crashed over Sera, their excitement fueled by the sight of blood. Commoners, hoping to see her take the nobles down a notch. Cauldish dignitaries, eager to see her lowborn blood spilled. Hate, hope, support, scorn; all heaped upon her simply because of a brief brawl with the drunk prince of a foreign nation.

    As she struggled to ward off several more of Lorel's blows, Sera could already feel weariness beginning to set in. The bruises and batterings she had taken in yesterday's events piled on top of a night rendered sleepless by worry, and the heavy length of steel in her arm dragged her down, and down, and down. With each laboured breath, the weight of copper crushed her chest. Choked her.

    Once more the short steel lashed out, catching Sera's sword and dragging it to the side, the long steel swinging in through the gap. Sera closed her eyes against the blow, and felt it strike her in her left shoulder, set her spinning to the ground. She waited for the agony, gathered herself for it as she dragged herself onto her hands and knees. But when she opened her eyes, there was no blood. Lorel had struck her with the flat of his blade. Was making a game of it, of her. Even now, he strutted around the ring, shaking his steels at the crowd. Urging them to cheer harder, shout louder. He was making a fool of her. Nobody makes a fool of me.

    Anger boiled in her chest, pounded in her heart. Anger pushed her to her feet, brought strength back into her arms. Noticing her, Lorel smirked and faced her once more, turning his back on the surging crowd. Over his shoulder, Sera could see Prince Beren leering down at her, face mottled red and purple from passion and bruises.

    Refusing to let Lorel continue to dictate the pace of the fight, Sera leaped forward, blade swinging upwards to split the man from hip to shoulder. Yet once more, he casually shifted out of the way. The short steel retaliated once, twice, opening cuts on Sera's cheek and shoulder. Shouting, screaming, Sera let go of her sword with one hand and grabbed Lorel by the collar. Dragged him close and slammed her face into his.

    Once, twice.

    A sharp pain shot through Sera's side, and Lorel tore away, his short steel red with her blood. Gasping, Sera staggered back, clutching at the wound in her stomach. There was a glint of light, and Lorel's long steel caught Sera above the eye, continued past and removed the top of her ear. She managed to catch the next blow on her sword, only for his fist to crack her in the jaw, send her fumbling to one knee.

    Lorel was no longer smiling, as one eye swelled shut and blood dripped from his broken lips. His heavy boot caught Sera in the ribs, sent her sprawling on her back, sword falling from numb fingers. More kicks caught her in the shoulder, her stomach, her hand. Sera curled tight around the blows, face sticky with blood, limbs numbs, the wound in her side turning cold. Above her, she was dimly aware of Ser Lorel stomping around her. Shouting at her. Berating her, as her hand scrabbled for her dropped sword. Cursed her, as she rolling herself over and onto her knees. Goaded her, as the cold spread across her body. Challenged her, and upon receiving no response, raised his sword to deliver the finishing blow.

    But when he brought it down, it found Sera's sword held steady in it's way, a wailing shriek echoing out across the ring as the blades slid across each other. They stood there, frozen for a moment, both straining, muscles taut and pink-stained teeth bared, before Lorel found himself pushed back and away, stumbling. Then stumbling some more, as Sera’s heavy blade stabbed forward and left a shallow cut down the side of his chest.

    Before him, Sera rose to her feet, dangling like a loose marionette. Her head drooped forwards, tangled black hair hiding her dark face. Blood stained her tunic, soaked her hose, dripping from her chin. Her hands held her sword close, cradled it against her chest, one hand twisted and broken from Lorel's boot. And for a few moments, she stood there, silently swaying.

    Lorel began to raise his steels, and like that, the spell was broken. Sera's body grew rigid, and her head snapped up, teeth locked in a rictus of fury. Screaming, laughing, crying, her blade danced forward, it’s heavy weight forgotten in her rage. Screamed against Lorel's blades, tore through flesh and skin, left half a dozen cuts and then came back for more. The crowd had fallen dead silent, enraptured. Horrified.

    Inside, Sera's body was a battleground of it's own. Excruciating fire and numbing cold swirled and surged through her veins in turn, the world reduced to a blur of red and grey. An opportune strike from Lorel struck her in the shoulder, scraped against the bone, before she wrenched away, the pain quelled beneath her fury. Her need to unleash the fire within. To strike back after years of being spat on, overlooked, put aside, and left behind. Years that had left her stronger, harder, but brittle too. And now she had cracked, been shattered by the open wounds in her flesh, and the burning within surged out, scorching the world to ash. The morning light seared white-hot patterns through her eyes and branded her skull as the cold silhouette of Lorel danced and flickered, drew away.

    "Come on, you coward!" She screamed, her voice steel scraping against stone. Her spit flung like sparks from an anvil. "Finish what you started!" Her sword cleaved downwards at the grey shadow of Lorel, but it faded away and her steel shattered through the wooden fence, the sea of cowards behind it scrambling over themselves to get away. A line of fire flared up across the small of her back, and she whirled around, her steel returning the favour and catching Lorel in the shoulder, wind cleaving through fog. Triumphant, the blade lumbered back for more, impossibly hungry. Insatiable. The short steel came down to meet it, but too slow. Ever too slow. Sera's sword cut through Lorel's forearm with the sound of shattered bones and tortured metal.

    Confusion reached Lorel's face far before the pain, his gaze dull and jaw slack as he stared at his arm, at the thin cords of meat and gristle that left his hand uselessly dangling. Befuddled, frozen, he did not even react as Sera's blade curved back once more, and sheared off the top of his head at a sharp angle, one eye still staring downwards while the other soared into the sky, reproachful. Almost peacefully, it tumbled through the air and fell lost amidst the stands.

    Sera and Lorel collapsed as one, fell forward into each other’s arms, both their strings slit in a single practiced motion. The fire in her bones turned to ash, the ice in her veins to blood. Pain seeped back into Sera's consciousness, body too weak to scream, or even whimper. She simply lay there, gasping, as the searing light in her eyes faded away, and the grey shadows swelled to take their place.

    The last thing she heard, before she lost consciousness all together, was a single piercing scream from the crowd where Lorel’s lost head had sailed. The last thing she saw, a familiar worried face surrounded by a nimbus of blond hair leaning over her.

    Descending Raven
    The crunch of shale beneath heavy boots and the occasional grunt of exertion; the clack of rock striking rock or the rustle of foliage as a body brushed past. These were the sounds of the small perimeter patrol as it maneuvered through wooded terrain. This mountainous area was difficult to navigate, and they all carried climbing gear to allow for the possibility that they would need to rappel down a cliff-face or scale a canyon wall.

    Their leader was a young but hard-faced man with a ragged black braid and eyes of pale silver, armed with a Stoner Rifle-25. He paused, lifting a hand to alert the others behind him. When these men moved, they did so as silently as they could, rarely speaking. A moment later, the leader made a lateral gesture with one fist: move out. They followed, fanning outward as they did so.

    A slight tang of smoke filled the air, a stink not often detected in these days after the bombs. It was an odor or burning fuel and metal, spun through with the stink of burning flesh. Finally, some distance from the leader, a flare went up. One of the team had located the crash site. A Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk had come down hard, though the craft was mostly intact. Aware that he could face attack from almost any quarter, the leader of the patrol moved forward, his Stoner at the ready.

    The main door of the Pave Hawk was angled upward. Egress from the helo would have proven very difficult. One man, severely injured, had made it out but had fallen face-down in the mud. His body had melted into the icy ground and then frozen in position. He wore a grey uniform with the Cross of St. James emblazoned upon an arm band upon the left arm, white over a blue background. Beneath this image were the initials CSJ.

    "You were right, milord," one of the men said. "Confederacy of the Scepter of Judah. What do we do? What if the King was aboard?"

    "Clear the helo." The leader's voice was deep, the timbre melodic, but the accent the harshness of Northern Ireland. "If His Majesty is not there and dead, we presume he is alive and incapacitated, and bein' moved by these scum. Joliette, Akers—I want you ready with your gatin' crystals. I'll take Akers, Brannigan and Tranh. The rest of you, fan out. We have to find them before it either starts snowin' again or they kill him." He fixed each of them with a long stare, his eyes like moonlight on drawn steel. "Move out. No mistakes. Mistakes, an' we have Princess Afshideh as Queen far before her time, with Fereshteh as Regent, like a mad cat from losin' her husband. And that's not the New Sonora I want to live in." He was answered by nods, and a few murmurs of 'Aye-aye, sir'. And then the team of thirteen set out.

    Things began to go wrong at once.

    There was a grating sound of metal scraping over rock, and the helicopter began to slide down the slope. Before the squad leader could shout a warning, the Pave Hawk picked up speed, now rolling and slewing from side to side. In an instant, Akers and two other men were pinned between the helo's bulk. Even had they not been crushed, they would have been beyond saving. Sparks caught fumes from the helo's ruptured fuel tank, and there was a violent explosion. Sheer luck meant that the leader of the party was behind a stand of Ponderosa pine. The others were too close. The expanding fireball took many, and a rockslide buried the others. A piece of metal shrapnel came down, shearing through the copse of trees, and its ragged edge caught the patrol captain's outer left thigh, both ripping and searing his flesh. With a snarl of pain, he went to his knees, hands grasping at the wound, his rifle clattering to the ground beside him.

    He was alone, badly injured, with potential enemies all round him, and with the weather about to turn. Donlan Cross knew he could not remain where he was, but even moving would worsen his injury. Grabbing at the rough bark of a nearby sapling, he dragged himself to his feet, feeling the warm spill of blood from his wound beginning to clot against his flesh. He had never felt so cold. With a strength born of desperation, he drew a machete from its sheath at his side and slashed at the trunk of the sapling, leaving the bottom tip sharp to gouge into the ground. He lopped off the top so it could be used as a makeshift walking stick. As quickly as he could, he began to navigate downhill, knowing the flames would tend to spread upward.

    He slid as much as moved at his own volition. The shale on the hillside would have made movement treacherous under even the best of circumstances. Injured as he was, Cross had little control, only able to use his staff and uninjured leg to slow his progress to the bottom of the ravine. Now and again, further explosions from the downed Pave Hawk shook the mountainside, sending scree and shale pattering down onto him. Finally, unable to go further, he hunched into a small cavern, barely more than a slot recessed back from the rest of the slope. Shouldering back, Cross closed his eyes and prayed.

    As though to mock his desperation, there was a shudder in the ground. Cross could see boulders and smaller rocks thundering down the slope, so close to him that he could have reached out to let them brush his fingers as they passed. One especially large stone slid as much as fell, and it lodged itself over the mouth of the tiny cavern, its weight and uneven shape holding it in place. The scant light from the three-quarters moon was snuffed out like a candle-flame beneath some great hand. The darkness was so complete as to feel as though it were a miasma that could be inhaled, cloying and toxic. Cross screamed, more from anger and desperation than true fear. If he couldn't reach his sovereign, King Julian would face certain death, possibly with torture ahead of it.

    The Confederacy of the Scepter of Judah was a Christian Identity group that had assumed control of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. There had been continual border skirmishes between their forces and those of New Sonora. Finally, in an attempt to gain a cease-fire, the King had arranged a meeting in neutral territory: the ruins of the Four Corners Monument where New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado met one another. Rather than a peaceful encounter, the CSJ broke the parlay and attacked King Julian, injuring him and taking him hostage. They had then overflown the city of Tucson, the capital of New Sonora, and attempted to have Julian command a surrender. Julian had given a speech that sounded incoherent to those that did not know him. But, to men like Donlan Cross, who was the captain of the Descending Ravens, the King's Royal Elite Guard, it had been a call to action. The helo had been targeted and damaged by one of the last surface-to-air missiles, and had come down on Mount Lemmon. The attempt to retrieve Julian had led to this disastrous mission, which threatened an incalculable loss for the kingdom.

    And Donlan Dexter Faolán Cross could do absolutely nothing to affect the outcome.

    The complete darkness made the walls of the cavern seem to press inward. He had a small penlight, but wished to save its battery. Cross cursed himself for not bringing a larger hand-crank light. There was nothing for it, however; he needed to attempt to cleanse and stitch his wound. With every movement, slow blood oozed forth. Although the ragged tear in his flesh had missed striking any major arteries, he knew he could still bleed out if it were deep enough. He found the flashlight and powered it on, and then took his first aid kit out of the small pack he carried. In it was a suture kit and alcohol to use to sterilize a wound site. Cross cut the leg of his trousers away from the wound and began to clean it, growling and hissing with pain. Because he was at an awkward angle, the stitches were crude. However, they did slow the bleeding to a slow ooze. He applied a dressing and turned the penlight off. Cross remained still after wrapping himself in a mylar emergency blanket. The dark closed around him, its oppression causing the silence in the cavern to roar.

    He had nothing to do other than ruminate on the desperation he felt. Although he would quickly be missed, he was not as high a priority as the King, and rightly so. He could only hope that whatever search party was formed to find him would contain a telepath, and that he would survive long enough for them to locate him. He had no food and little water. The thought of a slow death from dehydration and starvation was a horror, and he pushed aside the desire to either turn his penlight back on or take a drink from his canteen. Cross closed his eyes. As uncomfortable as he was, his exhaustion and blood loss caused him to fall into a fitful sleep.

    When he awakened, his body was stiff. It felt like every inch of his skin was livid with bruises, and he realized he had cracked ribs as well as the gash in his thigh. Cross debated with himself, and finally decided to use his light to check the condition of his wound. When he did so, he found himself wishing he had not. The ragged lips of the tear in his flesh were puffed and red, and swelling had caused several of the stitches to tear his skin. Cross was unsure whether pain or fear caused his stomach to roll. He fought his gorge and turned the penlight off. Even the smother of darkness was better than looking at the injury. He consoled himself with taking three small swallows of water from his canteen and reclined once again. This time, the pain would not allow him to drift off again.

    Terrible imaginings plagued him, along with the cold. He became feverish, and delirium made his thoughts take on the characteristics of a film playing to an audience of one. King Julian was more than just his monarch: he was his best friend. Cross saw him tortured in ever more agonizing ways: flayed strip by strip, methodically beaten to death, savaged by dogs, burned alive. All of these were real fears: all of them were methods of interrogation and execution known to be in active use by the CSJ. Queen Fereshteh and Princess Afshideh were both capable, but the Queen had a violent temper and the Princess, though brilliant, was only thirteen. Without Julian and Cross himself, they would have great difficulty in maintaining a continuity of regime. All that New Sonora had gained stood to fall.

    Some time later, Donlan stirred again, a spike of lucidity piercing the haze of pain and darkness. As he moved, a wave of agony washed over him, and he bit back a scream. This time, he lost the battle with his nausea and heaved a small amount of foamy bile onto the rocky floor of the cavern. Tears spattered beside it; Cross hated to vomit more than he could express. Despite being a former Real IRA operative and the commander of the Descending Ravens, he always cried when it happened. This time, the tears continued after the dry-heaving abated. There was no one to twit him over them this time, and he feared that he would never see another human face. Despair rose up in a suffocating wash, making him gasp for air. Cross drew in a great whoop of breath and released it in a scream. Over and over, the small space rang with his sobs and cries, until finally pain and exhaustion sent him into the chilly solace of unconsciousness once more.

    Upon his next awakening, Cross was only able to open eyes that were useless in the darkness. His mouth was so dry that his tongue had cracked. He fumbled for his canteen, weak; as he uncapped it, the canteen fell from his hands, and the sound of its water gurgling out was like a mocking laugh. He wanted to scream, but could not. Wanted to draw his boot-knife to open his wrists rather than perish from dehydration, but lacked the strength. He could feel death dancing close, her beckoning arms like the gesture of a dark courtesan of finality. He closed his eyes and waited for her to come to him, unable to pursue her. As consciousness faded yet again, he heard a rasping sound. He thought it to be the sound of his own laboring respirations and allowed the dark to swallow him once more.

    Cross dreamed.

    This dream was not a dream of the torment of his most-cherished friend, nor was it one of watching the kingdom he had helped to build be torn apart by the loss of its King. He dreamed of light, cold and pain—more pain than he had ever felt in his life. Enervated, the strength within him was not enough to allow for so much as a moan, though he longed to give voice to his agony. Then, that torment was washed away, disappearing under a flood of bliss. Surely, this was death come to him at last—the light, that of the final sight seen by many earthly eyes as one made the journey beyond the veil. Cross attempted to move his hands, to speak, to make protest—he felt unready. But hands restrained his, and a familiar voice, rich and deep, filled his ears.

    "Sei ruhig. I'm here. I'm here and you are going to survive, Donlan. Don't try to move. They're sending a Stokes stretcher down for you. I don't want to try and lift us both with my abilities."

    The King. The voice was that of Julian, and full wakefulness caused his eyes to fly open at last.

    "...how?" The single croaked word did duty for 'How did you find me?', 'How did you survive the helo crash?' and 'How did you move the stone from the mouth of the cavern?'. Julian caught the stretcher and swung it down, carefully placing Cross into it and buckling him in. There would be time enough for the whole of the tale later on.

    "I heard you call my name. Not with your voice, but with your heart. Come, my Raven. Shall we go home?"

    She is Pale and Drooping no more
    She is Pale and Drooping no more

    The man side-walks along the marbled floor at Grand Central, slipping in and out of the cracks that open and closes among the infinite crowd. It’s obvious the man has done this for years, as moving among the unmerciful New York crowd with grace and ease takes a special skill, more so if there a little one grasping at your hand.

    The boy was not yet of school age but he would be in a few months and the man was anxious about it. But not as anxious as the Mother who he had noticed over the years, since the boy's birth, that the circles under her eyes had grown darker and her hair had become thinner instead of the lush, thick beautiful hair it once was. He noticed that as the boy got closer and closer to school age she would hug him tighter and tighter and for slightly longer times. She had been gone for a week at California for work and she would be back late tonight. How would she look? He wondered. Would her hair be so thin it looked transparent? Would the circles under her eyes be so dark that it looked like grease paint? How long would she hug their boy with him staring blankly ahead, being too young to understand such maternal feelings? And how long would the Man hold her and kiss her when the boy had gone to bed and their dinner was prepared? Oh how he wanted to run his fingers through her thinning hair and kiss those bags under her eyes. How he wanted to wrap his arms around her waist and be close to her again. And oh how he couldn't wait for school to start for the boy! So that his mother may relax and her thick hair return and those deep dark circles begin to fade away.

    The boy knew he would be starting school. For the man reminded him everyday and asked him what he thought about that. The boy had never been to school so he couldn't form an opinion about such things. Which is what he told the man, whom he called “
    Daa”. For his first word had indeed been “DaDa” as it is with many children. However at that point in the boy's life, “DaDa” was too much for him to say constantly so he just went with one resounding “Daa” and even when he learned more words and his tongue began to loosen, he still always called the man “Daa”.

    The two reached the door to the outside and the man began to walk slowly but with large steps, which the boy struggled to keep up with. The man looked down at the boy.
    “Do you want me to pick you up?”
    “No, I want to walk.”
    “Your feet may get sore.”
    “Will you pick me up then?”
    “Yes, I will today, but not every day.”
    “If you cannot pick me up, can we sit down?”
    Today we can, but not everyday.”
    “Someday you may have to walk for a long time and I won't be able to pick you up and you won't be able to sit down.”
    “What do I do if my feet are sore?”
    “You have to keep walking.”

    The Boy was silent for a moment as they walked before suddenly letting out “okay”. The man's hand wrapped tightly around the boy's and pulled him closer for a moment before loosening and letting the boy trail slightly behind him. The boy's thoughts wandered to the multitude of people they passed; thinking them far more intimidating than the skyscrapers, which the boy barely gave a second thought. But the people the boy thought were like trees in a jungle whom without the man he would be lost. He squeezed the man's hand and tried to walk closer to him. But even though the man walked slow, his steps were long and the boy wouldn't stay close for long before he trailed behind again, meekly holding his hand.
    Daa, can you slow down?”
    and he shortened his pace and the boy walked alongside him.
    “Do we have to get there fast?” asked the boy.
    “No, we can take our time.”
    “I want to be next to you.”
    “You were next to me.”
    “No I was behind you.”
    “And I wanted to be next to you.”
    “I want to be close.”

    The man squeezed the boy's hand tightly. He wanted to wrap his arm around the boy. But he had learned from dating the boy's mother years ago that hugging and walking proved to be more awkward than anything else.

    The two reached the entrance to the subway and walked down its concrete steps to the underground. The boy liked going underground, he always thought it was an adventure. Their train wouldn't arrive for another ten minutes so the man took the boy to one of the benches and sat down. The man put his arm around the boy's shoulder and the boy leaned into him, feeling the man's breath reverberate throughout his stomach and chest.

    “Are we heading home?” asked the boy, for he did not recognize any of the train numbers that led back to the apartment.
    Not yet, we're heading to my old college.”
    “Do you want to go home?”
    “Will we see Mommy when we go home?”
    “We'll still get home before she does. But she'll be home tonight.”

    Do you miss Mommy?”
    “Me too.”

    The man wrapped his arms around the boy and after a minute or so had it around the boy's head. Pretending to squeeze him til he popped. The man made silly grunting noises and the boy laughed loudly. The man put his other hand on the boy's belly to feel the laughter. Finally the train arrived and the man stood up and looked down at the boy.
    “Do you want me to pick you up?”
    “No, I'm fine Daa”

    He took the boy's hand and led him to the subway, which still hadn't come to a full stop. When the doors finally opened a rush of people poured out and crashed into the people piling in. The boy held the man's hand tighter than before, afraid that he would be lost in a flood of giant arms, legs and faces. The man, once again, with grace and ease slipped among the crowds and led the boy safely to the train and found vacant seats before the mob of people got to them.

    When the doors finally closed the man put his hand on the boy's shoulder and eased his eyes by watching the monotonous wall of tunnels pass him by. The boy though, was staring at a man who had long, thick dreads that reached far below the shoulder. The boy turned and asked the man quietly how someone could have hair like that, but the man only lazily mumbled something incomprehensible so the boy just began to stare at the dreads. Trying to figure out how the hair seem to wrap around itself and still stay together. The black man noticed the boy looking at him and began to make subtle faces simply with his eyebrows and then got more and more complex. Using his mouth, eyes and tongue. As if he was trying to introduce to the boy every face that could be made in the world with only a time span of a thirty minute subway ride.

    The man heard their stop next. He ruffled the boy's hair and took his hand and led him out of the doors. The boy took one last look at the man, who made one final face, and the boy giggled.
    When the two emerged from the subway, the boy was greeted a view of the city he had never experienced before: new sights, new sounds, new smells, new thoughts. They all embraced his brain and never let go.

    “Where are we?” asked the boy.
    “Near my old college, I used to live here.”
    “What is a college?”
    “It's a school, but for adults.”
    “Will I go to college?”
    “Your Mother and I would like it if you did.”
    “Will I go to this college?”
    “You could. But there are many colleges you can go to.”
    “How many are there?”
    “Hundreds upon hundreds.”
    Said the man and the boy's eyes widened for such a concept that large seemed to much to be believable.
    “Are your feet sore?” asked the man.

    The boy looked at the buildings; they were considerably smaller and shabbier than the ones from before. And the people weren't dressed as nice as before and they had a look in them that frightened the boy. He looked up at the man and squeezed his hand. The man had a nostalgic gleam in his eyes, remembering the hovel he used to live in while in school.

    They turned a corner and the school suddenly seemed to tower among everything else in the area with its gorgeous brown brick buildings and a bell-tower that was the tallest building in the school. The boy wondered how someone could get up that high and ring it, or why someone would want to.

    When the two passed the sleepy security guard and walked for a few moments among the pavements, passing by slouching students with heavy backpacks, the boy began to gaze at the greenery that was slowly appearing out of the corner. For the center of the campus was a field almost too green and and too large for the boy to process. On each corner of the field was a large tree as tall as the buildings that provided shade to the lounging students. With two paved paths that were made on each side of the field and formed an X when they crossed.

    The man took the boy and walked him along the path slowly. He wanted him to take in all the people and the buildings and the grass and the trees and the sky that covered it all like a warm blanket. When the two reached the center, the man impulsively scooped up the boy with one arm and the boy instinctively wrapped up his arms around the man's neck and looked at him with surprise.

    “Daa, my feet weren't sore.”
    “I know. I just want to hold you”

    The man took his other hand and placed it on the back of the boy's head. He leaned in and kissed his cheek. The boy smiled and giggled lightly as he tried to squirm away saying “No Daa No” the man laughed as he kissed the boy on the forehead and then walked off, still holding him.

    He walks all around the campus, pointing out to the boy all the buildings he went to classes in and what they were and what they were about. He took the boy inside these buildings and if the rooms were empty he showed him exactly where he had sat. The boy, his arms still clasped around the man, did not understand much of what the man said, even with all the questions he asked. But he did not care too much about that. For the man was happy and the boy liked that and he leaned his head against the man's shoulder.
    Finally when they saw all that they could see the boy looked up at the man

    “Daa, are we going home now?”
    “Not yet, I have one more place left to go.”
    “Is it far?”
    “We have to go on the subway, but it is a short ride.”
    “Then can we go home and see mommy?”
    “Will you carry me to the train?”

    The man rose and held the boy close to his chest and walked to the train, where the boy soon fell asleep.
    The two emerged from the subway, now the boy was back on his feet, holding the mans hand while his other hand was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

    “Daa, where are we going?”
    “A cemetery”
    “That's where dead people go right?”
    “That seems scary”
    “Some cemeteries are scary. But this one isn't. This one is nice.”
    “A place for dead people doesn't sound nice.”
    “We make it nice for them, so they have a nice place to be.”
    “Where do they put dead people?”
    “They bury them under the ground and then put a stone with where the person was buried with their name on it.”
    “So we know who died and where they are.”
    “Where are they after they die?”
    “I don't know.”

    The two were silent for a while for a while as they passed through the brass gates. The boy had never heard the man say he didn't know. He thought he knew everything.
    “It's okay” said the boy meekly, “If you don't know.”

    The man squeezed the boy's hand and led him throughout the cemetery. To the boy it seemed like another jungle, but not as frightening. For all the gravestones were shorter than him and they never moved. Which oddly enough made it look like there were more gravestones than people in the city. This jungle seemed thicker.
    The man then turned and leading the boy, walked down a row of graves. Each one seemed to give its owner quite a bit of space for their final resting place. The boy tried to read the names carved into the stone but they passed him by too quickly.

    Finally the man stopped at one grave and blankly stared at it and the boy followed suite. The grave had the name of a woman on it.
    “Who was this Daa?”
    “My Mother.”
    Oh, I'm sorry.”

    “She died when you just a baby. She always said she wanted to be cremated, but she decided to be buried here at the last minute.”
    “What is cremated?”
    “Where the body is burned away instead of buried.”

    The man sat down on the grass in front of the grave and grabbed the boy and placed him in his lap and the boy leaned his back against the man.

    “She was in the hospital with me when you were born. She was sick even then but she insisted she come. When the doctors let us in the first thing I did was kiss your mother and then I held you all bundled up. You were rather tiny and I remember my mother beaming at you and for the first time I saw life come back to her pale face. A week later we came to visit her and that was the first time she held you and once again I saw life flush over her.”

    The Boy listened and breathed silently. The man was more talking to himself than the boy but he still had his arms wrapped tightly around his little body.
    And I loved her so much and she loved me even more. She loved me in such a way that I could not comprehend for the longest time and throughout her life we fought and screamed at each other and I said things that she forgave me for. But she said things I could never forgive her for. And even after she died I never forgave her because I chose to forget instead to forgive.”

    The wind came suddenly and the boy shivered but the man only drew the boy even closer to him.
    “And the last time I saw her I had put you into her arms because I wanted to see life in her face and you were the only one who could do that. I remember she told me 'when he is just a bit older bring him to me and hold him for me. I want to see how he has grown'.”

    The boy stared at the gravestone and stirred in his seat.
    And you shall not remember her the same way I do not remember my grandmother. For our mothers seem to die before their grandchildren can remember their love. Oh but she loved you, she remembers you just as you remember me. And she hugged you just as she hugged me.”

    The man leaned over and kissed the back of the boy's head and quietly sang a song, and even though the man could not remember all the lyrics and he miffed others. The boy would remember it til the end of his days.

    Let us pause in Life's pleasures
    and count its many tears
    there's a song that will linger
    forever in our ears
    Hard times come again no more.
    I will see mirth and beauty
    and music light and gay
    they are frail forms fainting at the door
    though their voices are silent
    their pleading looks will say
    Oh hard times come again no more.

    A Coward Does It With A Kiss

    (somewhere in rural Vermont…)

    My lover’s eyes gleamed with tears and murderous fury as they slammed me against the cabin wall once more.

    “Blue, I know. I hurt you. I love you. I’m sorry. Please stop…” I gasped between assaults.

    Even though I was being manhandled mercilessly, their beauty never failed to spike a haze of unsanctified desire. Pale, deceptively slender arms, long silky hair the color of ripe wheat, a sculpted face that turned heads everywhere, and the soul of a poet.

    A berserk poet.

    I was in pain where the back of my head had hit some protrusion in the wall but it didn’t abate my inclinations. I wanted to tear off their ragged jeans and ugly t-shirt, throw them down on the ancient beige couch, and ravish them until they screamed in ecstasy, their flawless face contorting as they shot past heaven, eyes blindly rolling back in their head, back arching, hands clawing at me as I drove them to a new impossibility.

    Lust is a pain in the ass, isn’t it?
    And Love – Love is the real killer. I had to remind myself of The Plan.

    I had broken up with Blue the day before (via text of course) and evaded their frantic calls.

    Then, callously and deliberately, I paraded my hot new lover, Ess, at the party last night in front of all our acquaintances. (Ess? You know the type. Leather, piercings, tattoos, tiny skirt, tight ass, perky tits, boyish hairdo on a sensual face that screamed with attitude. I couldn’t stand her, but I expect I deserved the punishment.) I knew our friends’ cell phones would do the dirty work.

    Now I was in a remote location, a rustic hideaway I inherited a year ago. Here my jilted lover had followed me – either expecting to catch me in the act or simply to find me alone and kick the shit out of me. Justifiable since we had sworn eternal love to each other only last week.

    A remote location which I had lured Blue to, in order to hijack their life as they had hijacked mine. Because I'm a mess. Because I just can’t walk away from something unfinished. May heaven or hell or something in between have mercy on me.


    People dream of love, don’t they? Before the world crushes us, grinds our hopes to so much pigshit, laughs in our face and throws us upon the jagged edge of the stinking abyss, where we dangle, impaled upon our own longing, torn between despair and destruction for so long that those of us that can break free, crawl away forever damaged and broken.

    At the age of seven, I stopped believing in love, any kind of love – it took me longer to stop believing in magic and fairy tales. Yeah, I was a bit naïve. Or okay, call me plain old stupid, I deserve that. I was smarter when I was seven.


    Skip the childhood backstory. Fast forward to age sixteen – a pretty package of walking misery: Trey Dalton. Misfit, outcast, intelligent enough, but not smart enough to make it through the system. A face scowling, coldly impassive, or sunk in bleak misery. A scarecrow with pale skin, a fall of dark hair and gray-blue eyes, the color of a cold stormy sky.

    There were some who tried to make it through the storm, to touch what might be the soft sands of shore, but they found themselves cast up on rocks instead, battered and mauled. Doe-eyed girls full of do-gooder sympathy for a dark-souled loner; swaggering lotharios and lotharinas looking to make an easy score; straight-laced types looking for their first taste of something on the wild side, student counselors…

    Trey Dalton didn’t fall for that crap.

    No, Trey Dalton walked alone, right?

    And when Trey Dalton fell through the decayed and rotten weave of the fabric of society, he hit the streets with an ugly forsaken crash.

    What happened then is a story thousands can tell you. There were food stamps and then there were days without food stamps. Begging for spare change, shoplifting cold cuts, working any kind of crap job I could get my hands on, finding a few like souls that weren’t out to jump my bones--sleeping on someone’s floor.

    More than that you don’t need to hear.


    By the first stroke of luck in my miserable life, a few years later, I fell in with an artsy-crafty, hippy-dippy older crowd who worked street fairs and lived in a haphazard commune, half of them secretly trust babies that choose to live like nomads. I was the token teenage misfit they took under their wing and trust me, by then the “he walks alone” shtick had been torn to shreds. I grabbed the brass ring, while trying to play it cool, figure out what they wanted and how to make it work for me.

    Many highs later…and after being exposed to a lot of naked butts (not a sex thing, though I guess that might have been welcome if I was into it, but naw, it was just a lot of clothes-optional freaks), I rekindled a long-abandoned flair for art, drifting from elder to elder, auditing their craft: soft-spoken, massively-bearded Rob who made little stained glass plaques for housewives to hang in their kitchens; sexy Suz who specialized in erotic Japanese pen and ink drawings; tiny, fierce Feathers who gladdened the hearts of Rennies everywhere with her ornately crafted daggers and her taciturn partner Bones, who created scrolled leather sheathes for them.

    Eventually, (after another four or five other crafts had been solemnly introduced to me and discarded), I worked my way up to Victoria. A conceited harsh bit of crumpet, the only one of the group that was a COMPLETE bitch, but she knew her stuff. Oil painting, that was her gig. I was completely hooked. The worse fucking teacher in the world, I swear.

    She didn’t want to spend time teaching me, but the others pushed her into it. Pissed off about it all, she would tell me next to nothing, give me a “project” to do, and then insult the hell out of it without giving me any clues for what I should have done better.

    I could have let her run me off. But something in me wouldn’t quit. Eventually, I got better. More than that, my new friends (minus Victoria) really liked my work!

    So at the next street fair, I had the nerve to come out of hiding from the world, enough to nervously place just five miniature canvases for sale, shyly letting Rob handle interactions with the crowd. I was an odd figure in that placid tourist town, full of ladies in bright sundresses, moms with strollers, men that should have known better in plaid shorts and shirts that barely buttoned over their bellies. Me – a brooding crow, all in black on a sunny day, jeans and leather, battered shades.

    My paintings sold immediately.

    Rob scratched his head after the fifth one was sold.

    “Trey, that’s damn amazing,” he rumbled to me in his deep bear-like voice. “Think we ain’t charging enough money. They got sold before we even got a steady stream of looky-loos. Let’s double the price on the next batch. You got more in the back of the van, right?”

    Rob was a Harvard grad, but he loved to talk like some kind of backwoods character with his “ain’ts” and “looky-loos.” Mostly, I didn’t understand these people, but I liked them as much as my shriveled heart allowed. Rob was one of my favorites of the group, though the essential oil “cologne” he always wore made my nose pucker. Feathers, who did a sideline of essential oil perfumes, described it to me once as a combination of creosote, Spanish moss, chocolate, and leather. (Sometimes I tried to hold my breath around him.)

    I sighed. Yeah, I had loaded some other canvases in the van, just for the heck of it, but I was reluctant to let them go. These were … less traditional, more personal. I felt like I would be selling myself. (Hell, that wouldn’t be a first.) “

    “Yeah, let’s do it, Rob,” I replied. “Put the price up WAY high.” I named a figure, actually hoping that they wouldn’t get sold. A compromise between my personal desires and what reality demanded of me. As usual.

    Rob looks at me with raised brows when he hears the price, but he’s a cool dude and just does it. The rest of our “family” is fluttering about while keeping an eye on their stuff, giving me strokes for the sales, except for Victoria who’s looking pissed as hell. She starts giving me the talk, cutting me down, telling me I just got lucky with some ignorant tourists that don’t know anything about art and how I better lower my prices. Because my stuff is crap, right? (And none of her big-ass paintings have sold yet.)

    A few hours go by and we have plenty of looky-loos, as Rob would say, but my paintings DON’T sell, and actually I’m really happy about that, leaning against the van and playing some dumb kiddy game on Feather’s cell phone, until HE walks up, scrutinizing my stuff like a bank teller looking for counterfeit bills.

    This guy: Tall, thin, kind of old, and haggard – not bad-looking, but different. Dressed casual, but somehow unique – like expensive unique. Like, someone that’s Somebody. You kick around long enough and you get a whiff of that. I figure him to be some rich dude slumming maybe or an uppity professor checking out what the common people are doing. You know, that kind of vibe.

    Then Sick-toria gasps and turns pale and practically RUNS over to him.

    I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was obviously she was sucking up to him, big-time. Rob was standing nearby and I could tell he was listening in. Had a funny expression on his face. Rob casually detaches himself from the vicinity and strolls back over to me.

    “Well little buddy,” he began, giving me a weird look that I couldn’t place.

    “Jaysus, Rob, my name’s not Gilligan,” I sighed. “What’s up with Victoria? She looks like she’s going to lay an egg.”

    “She’d lay more than that, if she could,” Rob replied. “That guy – the one looking at your stuff?” I waved a hand in a come-on motion, like yeah, yeah, I got that.

    “Wow, Trey.” He just stopped and looked at me, like he had never really seen me before.

    What the fuck?

    “Come ON, Rob, spit it out!” I commanded. Now I was getting a little nervous. Admittedly, my work was on the dark side, but artistic license right? I was a legal adult now and they couldn’t haul me in for …. Or could they? “What?” I asked. “Is this guy some kind of art cop? Am I going to jail?” Admittedly, most of the paintings I saw at street fairs stuck to pictures of flowers, arranged fruit, puppies -- that kind of sunshiney crap.

    Rob burst into a big smile as if I had said something profoundly funny. “No, Trey,” he said gently, seeing I was getting agitated. “That’s Quentin Kensall, one of THE big names in the art world. He’s … wow,” Rob paused for a second as if he couldn’t quite take it in. “He likes your work. Hell, he wants to buy it. All of it. And he wants to meet you.”

    I gulped, instantly nervous. Even I had heard of Quentin Kensall.

    I don’t LIKE wanting to impress people. But there it was. A famous artist. Who liked MY work. And he wanted to meet me. My first impulse was to run. My second was to smooth my hair and straighten my jacket superfast before this important dude could turn around and catch me doing it. Then I tried to find a cool expression to put on my face and was having a hell of a time with it, when he turned around as Victoria (as if in great pain) gestured towards me. He met my eyes and his face went from tentative to pleased, instantly.

    He looked like …. Like someone that’s agreed to adopt a dog, but hasn’t seen it yet, and has been wondering if it’s an ugly, snarling mutt he’s gonna get or some pretty little ball of fluff.

    I ain’t no ball of fluff, but I know what I read on his face. I felt kind of mixed up at that and not so nervous anymore about impressing him, but obviously something good might come out of this meeting, right? So I took my best manners (which aren’t too shabby now that the Callipygous Crew had taken me in hand) and flung them at this world-class artist, a guy that embodied more than I could ever aspire to be.


    And that’s how a street rat like me hooked up with Quentin Kensall.

    You know how to connect the dots, right?

    He liked what he saw – not just my paintings. I had no objections. Sure, I LIKED him, I just wasn’t in love with him. I’d been with a guy before, as well as girls, had never fallen in love (well not since third grade). So. What the hell? He was good-looking for an older dude, kept himself fit, not too demanding in bed, smart, funny, famous, rich. Smelled okay. Treated me like something special. Yeah, it was a bit much, but we got along well and once I became his protégé, my whole world changed.

    Yup, it was good for Trey – (don’t you hate people who talk in the third person?) but something in me kept a distance from it all. I could never really commit to Quentin.

    Lots of reasons, but for one thing, Quentin had secrets. I KNEW he did. I could smell it. Most of the time I just put it down to an age thing – heck, I’d never live long enough to ferret out all the secrets Quentin might have accumulated in his long life. The affairs, the scandals, the backstabbing of the art world. I was sure he cheated on his taxes. And I knew at any time our relationship could blow up in my face. So I never pushed.

    In the meantime, I worked hard to be a better artist and took advantage of everything his world offered me – connections, knowledge, better drugs…. Though, I was pretty much starting to shy away from the drugs – Quentin had people following him all the time, fans, yeah, okay – but sometimes I smelled cop, which freaked me out. There was no way in hell I would survive in jail. Plus, I didn’t like working when I was high, and I started working a lot. Even started to get my own following, I guess you would call them.

    After several months of this unbelievable whirlwind of a new life, Quentin surprised me the hell out of me.

    We were painting outside one of his many getaways – this time a lakeside cabin in Vermont. Remote, isolated, just the way I like it, truth be told. It was good to get away from all the social bullshit, which had gotten old faster than I could have guessed. I turned off my cell phone after getting some shit text from one of Quentin’s airhead friends, saying they had heard Quentin dumped me and was I free for dinner? Jaysus.

    I just wanted to have some peace and quiet. It was nice here. The air was turning crisp, with winter trying to slither its fingers up autumn’s skirts and failing. Geese were honking urgently, somewhere further down the lake, like they were having some kind of group crisis. (I learned that they always played that.) Quentin’s canvas showed a beautiful fall scene, perfectly executed. Mine reflected none of that – you would have thought we were on two different planets.

    Quentin turned to me all of a sudden with sad hound-dog eyes and softly said something unexpected. “I love you, Trey. I really love you.”

    Inside, I jumped out of my skin with panic. Outside, I schooled my expression to something I hoped looked fairly pleasant and attentive. He looked at me with that look that said he KNEW I didn’t feel the same way and didn’t blame me. Well fuck me sideways with a 2x4, what the hell do you say to that? I was searching for words, something nice, but not too honest, when he found words for me.

    “I know you don’t feel the same way and I never expected it,” he continued softly, “though it would have been … nice. But maybe it’s better this way. More sensible. More sane.”

    He watched my face for reactions as he spoke. “Of course. I’d like you to stay with me. Forever. But I realize you might not want to do that. However, there’s something I want to show you that might encourage you to -- think about it at least?”

    He gestured towards the cabin and we went inside. Just to have something to do with my hands, I grabbed a drink as we passed through the tiny kitchen, gulping it mindlessly, and tried to quell the urge to bolt.

    “I’ve made a new will,” Quentin said, “I want you to have this cottage after I’m gone, as well as a few other things.” He slid an envelope from a shelf and withdrew an official-looking document. “Here, I want you to have a copy.”

    I pushed back his hand holding the document he was dangling at me.

    “What the HELL, Quentin. You’re not … dying, are you? Are you – sick?” (“And is it contagious?” would be the next question, but I let it pass as too tacky.) I stared at him, trying to get a new take on the situation. Something was definitely off, but I couldn’t figure out what. I had let my street rat skills get rusty with all this plush living.

    Quentin laughed softly, ruefully. “No, I’m not sick. But no one lives forever. I just want you to know I’m sincere. That I’m not toying with you. And maybe – I’m hoping you will come to feel the same way.”

    “OKAY, Quentin,” I exploded, perhaps unreasonably. “I can understand that, but you don’t have to give me STUFF. You give me plenty already.”

    “DAMN IT!’ Quentin yelled back at me. “Let me do SOMETHING, make some – meaningful gesture. Something with a little longevity!”

    I felt guilty then at the look in his eyes, but didn’t know what direction to drive my emotions in.

    He laid a gentle hand on my arm. “At least let me share something else important with you – if not this cottage – then something else that means a lot to me? The preliminary drafts of all my best-known pieces.” He looked both shy and proud. “What the world has called my masterpieces.” He jerked his head towards the space that served as an attic.

    I knew he hadn’t produced a big hit in a long time and it was eating at him. I mean, a “big fall-down and have an orgasm on the church floor” kind of hit – his internationally famous masterpieces. His most acclaimed work had always been character studies, a series of paintings starring one person. And then a few years later another series of someone else. Many of them frankly erotic. Kind of like painting the Mona Lisa twelve times, I guess. Still, I didn’t want to hurt his pride and I could probably learn something from these.

    “Quentin, I’d be honored to see them,” I said reassuringly.

    He gave me a sad faraway look. Did he think I was lying?

    The attic had some kind of antique pull-down ladder. Quentin went up first – he said things were a mess and he didn’t want me to trip coming up or anything to fall on me. Then he called for me to climb up. I had just poked my head through the top of the attic opening and it was amazing. There were canvases everywhere and woah, bondage gear and a narrow bed. This might be more fun than I thought. Quentin had been kind of vanilla up until now.

    I reached for the handgrips to pull myself up the rest of the way, when something hit me hard on the head, and things went grey. I whimpered in shock, and felt Quentin grab me and drag me onto the attic floor. I was thankful he saved me, didn’t let me fall, but I was unable to speak yet. I felt him carry me over to the bed and start fussing with my wrists. I assumed he was taking my pulse--my thoughts were fuzzy but active critters, trying to push their way through to the surface.

    Then I felt my hands being fastened over my head. My vision and mind cleared and panic set in. “What the hell, Quentin!” I shouted. “I am SO not in the mood.”

    Quentin smiled then. Such a strange sick smile that it made every hair on my body go to full alert.

    “Oh but I am, my beloved boy,” he cooed. “It’s been years, three years since the last time. But now the magic is back. You brought it back. With your ivory skin and your raven eyes, and lips like …”

    “FUCK THAT SHIT, QUENTIN!” I screamed at him. “Let me go NOW!” I struggled ineffectually at the metal that held me prisoner. I got it now. I got what my old street rat self had been screaming at me, but I had become too spoiled and soft to hear.

    Quentin didn’t blink an eye, but calmly proceeded to arrange what looked like medical equipment next to a blank canvas that had been prepped and was sitting on an easel. Also a very large black knife was in prominent display, which especially made my spidey senses tingle.

    “You have the magic for me, Trey. I didn’t think I would ever be in love again. That my glory days were over,” mused Quentin as he fussed over his toys. “You see this brush?” He waved a mahogany-handled brush in my face as I stared at him bug-eyed. “This is the brush of dreams, of immortality. This brush has been dipped in the blood of my beloveds. For I have been shown a way to make sure they live forever!” An ecstatic smile lit his face.

    I collapsed a moment, taking it in. “Aw shit,” I groaned. “Please tell me this is a joke and you’re not a homicidal maniac.”

    “Of course, I’m not insane, my beautiful boy,” sniffed Quentin, seemingly hurt. “It’s not like that.”

    “Then tell me what it IS like,” I begged, hoping to keep him talking.

    In the meantime, my ears strained -- hoping to hear the sound of a car; fans and friends followed Quentin everywhere, we were used to being surrounded by people; but of course, this cottage was off any main road, connected to some forgotten little byway by a winding dirt road that gave the traveler no hint that a cabin was hidden here. Still, surely he had entertained here before – SOMEONE would come by.

    “You can stop looking like that,” Quentin chuckled. “I only bring my beloveds here.”

    Then it suddenly, most awfully, it hit me. “Your beloveds? You mean every masterpiece you have ever created? They were actual people? Did you kill them all?” In my panic, I couldn’t control my words, they burst out of me like stupid honking geese.

    Quentin paused dreamily. “Yes, my beloveds. All of them. Are still here with me.”

    My eyes swept the attic, peering for decayed corpses and bones. Quentin snickered at my expression.

    “Not up here, silly boy. Their earthly bodies are down below, where they can rest. Not important. Only clay and “bits”. But up here, their immortal beauty, as illuminated by the fire of Prometheus, lives on forever!”

    The lake, I thought. Where we had often gone for a dip. Dead bodies, wrapped and weighed down with stones. I convulsed in a shudder at the mental image of my own corpse moldering inside Hefty recycled plastic. Quentin was very eco-friendly.

    “Quentin, you don’t need to kill me to make a masterpiece. You’re the best artist in the whole world,” I lied. “I promise I will never tell anyone about this and – we’ll get married!” I continued in a burst of inspiration. “So you know you can trust me.”

    Quentin chuckled and shook his head. “Trust you? I’m afraid not, Trey. Need to kill you? I’m afraid so. You see, there is one tiny detail….” He looked embarrassed for a moment. “I’m afraid my talent isn’t God-given.” There was a pocket of silence while I tried to find the next puzzle piece in his words.

    “Uhhh. Where DO you think your talent comes from?” I was reluctant to ask, but did so anyways. I was pretty sure I knew what he was going to say.

    Quentin sat down on the edge of the old bed, the tired mattress sagging momentously with his weight, and he began haphazardly cutting off my shirt with the knife, running his fingers over me greedily. There went my hopes that maybe the black knife was a rubber Halloween toy.

    “I’m rather a traditionalist,” he smiled, with a hint of pride. “Like so many of my ilk, I made a deal with the Devil a long time ago.”

    I groaned internally and tried to angle my body away from Quentin’s seeking hands. Crazy as a fucking screaming squirrel. How was I going to survive this?!

    “The best thing was, I didn’t have to give up my soul. Just paint my beloveds in their own blood. That’s all He asked. Using this very brush,” he gestured to the mahogany-handled brush that evidently seen a lot of wear and tear. “And his knife, Trey.” He drew it down my cheek gently. I could see it was a gothic wet dream of a knife. “This magic knife, that the Dark One himself gifted to me. Speaking the magic words. Tradition and ritual is important.”

    His eyes grew luminous as he bent close to my face. “Magic, Trey. Blood magic. And you’ll be immortalized forever.”

    He grasped the knife and delicately drew a thin line of blood across my bare stomach. “Let me show you.”

    “Wait! Wait, wait, wait!” I yelled. “If you killed all those people over the years – your, your … beloveds – and painted their pictures and displayed them… the cops would be on you by now like white on rice, pal! How do you explain that?! This is all just bullshit!”

    “Dear boy. I’m not an idiot,” he tsked at me, standing up and looking down at me fondly. “Of course, I had to alter their coloring in my paintings. It was a terrible wrench to do so, but …” He shrugged. “It had to be done. As I will do with you. Maybe red hair for black, freckles, give you sky blue eyes.” He pondered over my appearance thoughtfully.

    Just perfect, I thought bitterly. Gone without a trace.

    “I like you like this, you know,” he murmured, his attention on the small open wound he had created on me, smearing the blood over me like finger art. “Completely available to me in every way.”

    It became increasingly apparent (at my eye level) that he had other things on his mind besides painting.

    “You’ve always played a little hard to get, Trey. Kept something of yourself at a distance. I’ve had to handle you carefully. But no more. I think we’re going to have a very good time, you and I, before I’m done with your portraits. It’s wonderful you’re young and strong -- it will take quite some time before I use you up.”

    I opened my mouth to scream and curse at him, but he quickly wrestled a gag into it before I got more than a few sentences out. Of course. He’d had years of practice, and was prepared for every reaction of his prisoners by now. He began stripping off his clothes in a haste he’d never shown before, lust written heavy in every line on his face.

    I was just thinking that I hoped to god he used lube (is that weird?), when a face popped up the ladder with an arm and a gun attached. I couldn’t see most of the details.

    “Hands over your head!” screamed the face. “Now!” Or something like that. I had a lot on my mind at the time and my head still hurt like hell. Quentin swiveled and --

    There was this pause where the whole universe seemed to halt. Then in what seemed like slow motion to me, Quentin grabbed the big knife and raised it.

    (I’m not quite sure of what went down. I usually have a hell of a memory, but they told me I had a slight concussion after they checked me out in medical. )

    Did they think Quentin was going to stab me then? Or that he would go after the guy with the gun? I heard a gun fire, saw Quentin plunge the knife into himself and then he was falling heavily and messily on me, jerking spasmodically in his death throes. Sometimes it seems like I dreamed it.

    Fortunately, for me, the FBI (that’s who it turned out to be, they’d been checking him out for quite some while) stopped firing once Quentin’s body laid across mine.

    I was really messed up after that. I was asked questions over and over again by the feds until I just couldn’t handle it any more. Like I might be a conspirator with Quentin in his bloodthirsty craziness! Lucky for me I wasn’t even born yet, when the first of his victims bit the dust.

    They found bodies everywhere. A few in the lake, half a mile away. Some buried in the neighbor’s woods. I guess Quentin liked to spread his love around.

    One thing remained a mystery – though they pawed through everything, the Feds couldn’t find the ritual knife that Quentin had stabbed himself with - now that was major weird. It was like it had vanished… Of course, I didn’t buy that bullshit about the devil and blood magic. But how the hell could the knife that was STUCK IN HIS BODY disappear?! The Feds gave me the hairy eyeball about that, as if I had done some slight of hand, but hey! My hands had been manacled and chained over my head at the time. Houdini, I’m not.

    After the dust settled, Quentin’s lawyer said the will was all right and tight and I now owned the cottage, one of Quentin’s cars, plus Quentin’s townhouse in the city, as well as inheriting a substantial chunk of change. You would have thought I would sell everything and run a hundred miles away. But you know me. I’m - as you uncouth rabble might put it – majorly fucked up. I didn’t want to talk to anyone (had to get restraining orders for several reporters).

    So I stayed at the cottage. Yeah, weird, huh? But it was like this huge black hole in the universe, my own personal hell, was centered right there. And if I didn’t find a way to get past it, it would follow me everywhere. I don’t like things messing with my head. I was determined I was going to beat this. I drifted from moment to moment, often muttering to myself, sometimes maniacally energetic and then doing nothing for days, usually unshaven and eating a strange assortment of food.

    After about six or eight weeks of this (I lost track of time), I felt like I was finally starting to pull myself back together.

    And then things got ... very out of control. Oh man.

    I went back up to that fucking attic determined to finally confront any ghost or emotional demon and get it the hell out of my system -- and THERE was the knife, freshly bloodied -- lying in the middle of the bed.

    I whirled around, chills down my spine, expecting to see Quentin. Yeah, really. (Crazy, I know.) But it was the room was empty and quiet. Dead quiet. I didn’t even hear a goose honk.

    I stared at the knife again, my stomach sick and my heart strangling inside me, knowing that I might really be insane. Or was some bastard playing a trick on me? Had someone snuck inside here and planted it? But, none of that made sense. I shook my head and like a sleepwalker, reached out and picked it up, grasping the ornate hilt that was engraved with serpents and occult symbols, holding the knife at arm’s length, watching the blood run down the blade and drip on the floor.

    Then – this idea possessed me.

    I mean. What if what Quentin said was all true – not discounting that he was a crazy murderous asshole. What if magic was involved? (My mind shied away from notions of the devil – that was all bullshit, yeah?) I had to know. Really, really had to know.

    A blank canvas was still sitting there where Quentin had left it the day he died. There was the brush, and paints, and other tools of the craft, patiently waiting. I didn’t know anything about magic words and rituals. And I hadn’t loved Quentin. But…

    This was just an experiment, I told myself. Nothing happens, then I’m cleaning up this room, throwing the knife into the middle of the lake, and selling this haunted ratshit dump. Or maybe hiring someone to burn it to the ground.

    I put the knife back onto the bed, onto the bloody spot where I picked it up from. I grabbed the brush that Quentin had pointed out before he died, and tentatively swirled it over a small reservoir of blood, loading the bristles. I paused and took a deep breath, holding it, before I touched the brush to the canvas. Of course, nothing burst into flames. Imps of hell didn’t cavort before me. Nothing.

    I exhaled and almost smiled with relief. It WAS all bullshit. Someone found the knife and the bastard was pranking me with it, and yeah, I would catch the sucker and pound their skull, but it wasn't a priority. I could put this all behind me now and get on with my life.

    But having a brush in my hand was second nature to me now and without mulling it over I executed a few strokes outlining Quentin’s face, as if I was signing a letter goodbye.

    Over and done with. Time to leave this insanity and get back to something real. I felt good. Strong and clear. I looked at my work critically as always, envisioning Quentin’s face back when I first met. Before this sad business began. I put the brush down.

    Then the canvas – oh hell. I saw it pulse; pulse and start to fill with color.

    I backed away and started to scream, only to feel myself bump up against a massive body standing behind me. I screamed louder, unable to control myself and scrabbled forward to get away from whatever it was, I didn’t want to LOOK at whatever horror was there.

    But two impossibly strong hands gripped my shoulders holding me in a place, a deep rumbling laugh issued forth from the being behind me, and I smelled a scent that was once described to me as creosote, Spanish moss, chocolate, and leather. My knees sagged with relief. “Rob?” I asked hesitantly, hopefully, almost prayfully.

    I was spun around and there was my mentor from my days with the hippie crew, good old Rob, grinning at me.

    “Christ, Rob!” I shouted, “What are you doing here? You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

    Rob winced as if in pain, “Such language. And sorry, kid. I don’t want you to cash in your chips, yet.”

    I was happy to see him, but there was something different about him. As if he had shrugged off some ill-fitting coat. That didn’t make any sense. I already seen the guy in the buff plenty of times. I didn’t like what was coming to mind.

    Rob smiled hugely. “Oh yes. You’re starting to get it, aren’t you?”

    “No, no I’m not,” I denied vigorously, scrambling backwards a bit and bumping into things, “I don’t know how you got here and or what’s going on.”

    Rob opened his arms wide. “Embrace me, Trey. Embrace your destiny. I know you want to leave your lousy past behind and become a famous artist.” He lowered his voice to a mocking whisper, “And wouldn’t that just about KILL Sick-toria? Eh?”

    I stared at him in shock. “What the hell, Rob. Are you telling me that you’re the …. No way, dude, cut it out!”

    Rob wagged his finger at me, “See you already know. Deep down, you already know. Now let me show you what you’ve created already. Or what you will have the power to create. An advance preview, shall we say?”

    Quicker than thought, he grabbed me and turned me to face the canvas. What I saw there amazed me. I would be like the next Picasso. The world would beg to kiss my fingertips. I would be the best of the best. No!

    I stared at it dumbfounded, but found the strength of will to say, “I’m – not – doing it, Rob. I’m not a murderer and I’m not worshipping the devil and practicing magic. Fuck that shit.”

    “Well, of course you’re not,” cooed Rob, wrapping his arms around me as I continued to face the painting, slightly rocking me. “Quentin lost his marbles. Never that stable to begin with. I never asked him to do ANY of that. That was his own crap and of course he tried to put it on me, the little pissant. Frankly, I’m sorry we ever hooked up, because he turned out to be really really boring.”

    He sighed heavily. “I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m not making you kill ANYONE. Man up, Trey, and smell the coffee. Life sucks. I’m offering you a way to skip all the agony and do what you really love. Some people want the man or woman of their dreams. Some people want money. But for you, this is the biggest high you’ll ever know. Be honest with yourself.”

    I squirmed and tried to pull away, but he held me fast.

    “Look,” said Rob coaxingly (Rob? The devil? Whatever the hell.) “Special for you, little buddy, I’ll give you a year to think it over. No strings attached. No arm-twisting. If it doesn’t work for you, we can just forget the whole thing.”


    It was not quite a year later that I met Blue. It was the stupidest thing, but I fell in love after a few minutes of simple conversation over coffee. This stranger, Blue, laughed and it made my insides tremble. I wanted to keep my feelings locked down, but couldn’t. I knew that love was the worst thing that could happen to a person like me, but I was powerless to stop it.

    We started a wild affair and things got more serious from there. It was amazing that one touch of their fingertip set me ablaze and made me weak at the same time. It was agonizing. The part of me that had swore NEVER to let another human being have that much control over me again was livid with anger. The other part of me just wanted to be in Blue’s presence day and night.

    Things were moving fast with us, but then one night, when I finished working on a project early, I took myself out for a drink and saw Blue out with someone else. It damn well looked like romance to me. It pitched me into such agony and despair that I wanted to kill my rival, or kill Blue, or myself, I don’t know which. I was in a dark place that night. I felt I had broken my old pledge to myself by being with Blue. And now was paying the price.

    We had a terrible fight when Blue came home that night. Blue swore it was just an old friend. We yelled at each, we wept, and of course, wound up in bed, swearing true love vows.

    The morning, while Blue went out to get bagels and lox, I made coffee for us and thought hard. I knew didn’t want to be jacked about by love or by Blue. But that was how love worked. It was like a terminal illness that I didn’t have drugs for. I would always feel pain and always be out of control because I loved someone and had no idea how to deal with it or how to trust or even if I should TRY to trust.

    It was time to grow up, Trey, I told myself. The promise to myself not to fall in love was a child’s promise. Blue deserves better. Fucking get your game on! I’ll go to a shrink if I have to, I thought grimly. I loved Blue and trusted Blue and they meant the world to me. Nothing else mattered.

    And if “Rob” came poking around – checking where I stood on his proposed deal (since the year he had given me was almost up) – I would kick his ass out the door, because there was no way in hell I would let him anywhere near Blue, my love, my heart of hearts. Blue must be protected!

    Rob had been entirely absent this entire time and I couldn’t be happier about THAT. I couldn’t believe he had forgotten about me, but I hoped.

    At that moment, my lover came back from shopping, interrupting my musings, and I smiled like an idiot and teared up to see them after a mere 20 minutes of absence. I was a goner!

    Blue put the bag down, and snuggled into my arms with a blissful sigh. I leaned into them, embracing all that was beautiful and sane in the world. As I begin to kiss their neck, promising myself I’d make a fresh pot of coffee for us later, I inhaled the scent there sharply. Unmistakable. Creosote, Spanish moss, chocolate, and leather….

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  2. Well I mean, if you insist...
    • Nice execution! x 2
    • Like x 1
    • Love x 1
    • Useful x 1
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  3. Note: I score things as though 5 was perfectly neutral. So a 6 isn't a poor grade, it means I overall liked it.

    Also Note: I'm not very good at picking out things to praise. Mostly the best sign that something is being done well is that I don't even notice it. Thus, the following is going to sound far more negative than I'd like.

    Dead Land: 3/10
    • Clunky dialogue
    • Poor pacing/transitions, especially in the first few paragraphs
    • Seems more like a veneer for pure exposition than an actual story

    We'll Cast Some Light and You'll Be Alright For Now: 4/10
    • Good descriptive writing
    • Flow between sentences and ideas could use some improvement

    I'm a Present!: 4/10
    • Some unintuitive similes drew me out of the story
    • Ditto for certain grammatical errors (such as certain verbs being in the wrong tense

    Entry #4: 2/10
    • Switches to conditional future tense (he would lock the door) at some points, for some reason?
    • Try to vary up word choice and sentence structure a bit; having too much of the same of either in close proximity makes it all start to blur together
    • Dialogue sounds unrealistic + sometimes you have the narration accompanying a line of dialogue in the same paragraph and sometimes you have it on a seperate line
    • Story meanders for quite awhile before actually getting to the meat of the plot
    • Subnote: Vincent's distance from his friends wasn't really relevant in the end, and you don't need three seperate conversations to establish that he's going on a date​

    Child's Best Friend: 6/10
    • Nice flow throughout
    • Character actually feels like a child
    • Last line is a bit on the nose, don't you think?

    Repentance: 3/10
    • Though I understand the reasoning behind the unorthodox formatting, I feel it could've been handled better. There were enough physical actions thrown in that it ended up being some weird hybrid between a recording transcript and normal narration
    • Also due to the heavy dialogue reliance, the train of thought leading from one mood swing to another remained hidden, leaving the character feeling inconsistant
    • Subnote: The mood swings in and of themselves would be fine and make sense for an emotionally distraut man, but without narration to guide them they feel disjointed​

    Brush, With Death...: 4/10
    • Pacing is flat, lacks a rise or fall
    • Neither character is noticably defined (Death, in particular, is humanized just enough for this to be an issue)

    The Death of a Relationship: 6/10
    • Train of thought narration leads to some solid flow at times, but also to occasional confusion (due to logic leaps) and/or clunky transitions (due to forcing the wandering train back on track)
    • First few paragraphs seem like a different character; rambling and lost instead of the later calm and collected
    • Decent reveal at the end gives the story a pay off

    Encounter with Life: 3/10
    • Very jarring beginning. While that may have been intentional, to match the character's sudden birth, it falls on the wrong side of conveying that it's jarring, and actually being jarring to read
    • Here and there a phrase will be repeated - by accident, as far as I can tell - one sentence after another
    •Note: The most noticeable example is definitely "The hunter stumbled back staring up at me, his eyes were wide as he dropped his weapon and stumbled back from me."​

    By the Riverside: 4/10
    • Prose is positively purple at times
    • Exposition paragraph is heavy handed. When possible, weave that kind of thing naturally into the narration
    • Pacing is lurching, moments of tension lasting a paragraph or less, surrounded by several paragraphs of description and inner monologues

    Last Stand: 5/10
    • Motifs generally end up feeling forced when done in close proximity; which means they should be handled carefully in short stories (basically, an 'impactful' closing line loses a lot of it's strength when the thing it's referencing is half a page above it)
    • Good job relaying context naturally

    Double Date: 6/10
    • Some of the narration messes with immersion when you remember the girl is talking to someone who also lives in the world rather than to us
    • Dialogue actually sounds like dialogue. Nice

    I'll do the rest + vote tomorrow. Gotta get that sleep, son.
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  4. Ooh, now I wanna do ratings! I think maybe every piece starts out with 100 points, then for every spelling error, syntactical what?, and stylistic ick, five points will be lost, with anything going negative automatically out of consideration. I mean, we did all have a month, after all....>:D
    • Like Like x 1
  5. Keep in mind that reviews should be constructive in their criticism. Just pointing out a ton of flaws would be a dick move.

    Also, for anyone who entered the contest and would like to also review all the entries, make sure to include a review of your own work to remain anonymous. :D
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  6. Duck moves are my specialty; that's why they call me a quack. xD
    • Like Like x 1
    • Nice execution! Nice execution! x 1
  7. So many entries O_O
    • Like Like x 1
  8. These are awesome stories.
    • Bucket of Rainbows Bucket of Rainbows x 1
  9. It's sure going to be hard to pick one story. They're all so nicely written, I'm impressed!
  10. Thanks for your criticism! (Not going to mention which one is mine though. :P)

    The last comment is pretty much how I'm feeling right now. There are just too many stories for me to read in a row! (And they're all pretty good so my hopes are sinking...)
    • Love Love x 1
  11. I look forward to reading each and every entry!

    I hope reviews reflect the spirit of this community (friendly) and are constructive. I would hate to see people get stomped on simply because they participated in something to entertain everyone here (thus ensuring that less and less people will participate in the future). I hope no one will be discouraged from writing again and I applaud everyone that entered, simply for the act of doing so. Good on ya!
    #11 Ravenfrost, Sep 22, 2016
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2016
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  12. As someone, like all of you, who has an active hobby of writing, I cannot express my personal gratitude for the event, those that have participated, and those that organized it. Short stories like this with a relative limited time-span compared to how long published short stories and such can take is extremely difficult, often having to go through several drafts and drafts. I see this less as a competition but more as a public forum for us to better another and maybe to have a few bragging rights, just kidding <3.

    But seriously, I'll read through these today and try to offer some bits of constructive criticism. Knowing me it'll probably be sometime like in the later rounds but...ah well~
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  13. ty pls
    • Love Love x 1
  14. I spent the 1.5 hour drive to work reading through the stories. ^_^

    Eventually, I had to pick I'm a Present as my choice. There were grammatical errors, but the story in itself was an easy read, concise, and I felt delivered the right sentiment. It certainly caused me to feel the 'feels'.
    #14 Greenie, Sep 22, 2016
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2016
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  15. I personally liked all the entries. They were all great and I was torn between three( Human, The Deathseeker She is Pale and dropping no more), but I went with Human. There is something about it that is beautiful and scary. It manages to portray suicide in both lights and refutes the narrator's thoughts so well. It's just so damn complex, yet so simple. Kudos to whoever wrote it.
    • Like Like x 1
  16. So... Can we have a happier theme next round? I've read four stories so far, and I'm getting depressed (not medically, mind you, just that feeling you get from reading a lot of sad stories :P). Then again, if this will go anything like it went back at the Guild's WOTM contest, people will find a way to make even the most cheerful topic horribly grim and dark, so eh XD.
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  17. I make no promises for tone of future themes, but I suspect you are right about the grimdark leanings no matter the theme. :P
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  18. To be honest, making a subject grim or dark is actually rather easy. I think the real test is to write something light-hearted but also appealing and interesting to the readers.
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  19. After reading them all (and more than one made my eyes a little moister, I'm such a softy!), I did not pick the most flawlessly-executed one (i.e. there was at least one writer that should think about writing professionally, if not more than one!). I was tempted to vote for a certain story because the writing was sooo good.

    However, I didn't press the voting button. I asked myself why I hesitated to vote for this one (or others that were well written) - and the reason was that the story's focus did not feel (to me) to be primarily on the topic that was assigned. Secondary, yes, but not the main focus.

    I beat myself up a little over that - trying to see if I could dislodge my inclination, but I couldn't -- as I felt the test of skill in writing about a particular subject was important. That was the challenge.

    So - my vote went to a story that yes, had typos, and yes, was not constructed perfectly and I had to be patient, mining for the gold. But I felt the writer's passion for their tale with almost every sentence. It drove the story. They made themselves understood. They honored the theme. I felt it was original (though honestly I don't watch enough t.v., movies, etc. to know if that's true). But they reached me. And that is the true gift.

    I'd be very interested in seeing what this writer can do with a little more polish. A diamond in the rough.

    I don't think it's fair to say which story it is at this point. XD
    • Like Like x 1
  20. Oh, god, Double Date... ...Why is this place so dusty? TT_TT
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