WRITING MISC Hall of Fame

Discussion in 'SHOWCASING' started by Jorick, Sep 30, 2016.

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  1. This thread exists to record and honor the winners of the Miscellaneous Iwaku Storytelling Contest. Manager's Pick winners were selected by the MISC contest managers; Community Pick winners were voted on by the members of Iwaku.

    MISC #1: A Brush With Death
    MISC #2: A Certain Young Lady
     
    #1 Jorick, Sep 30, 2016
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2016
  2. MISC #1: A Brush With Death
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread

    Manager's Pick Winner: Copper Black by @HerziQuerzi
    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.


    Community Pick Winner #1 (Tied): I'm a Present! by @Nim
    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!"


    Community Pick Winner #2 (Tied): Human by @Verite
    Human

    Human

    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.

    Beep.

    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.​
     
    #2 Jorick, Sep 30, 2016
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2016
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  3. MISC #2: A Certain Young Lady
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread
    Manager's Pick Winner: Reflections by @HerziQuerzi
    Reflections

    Morning



    "Move it, shortstop." Laurel stumbled as she was shoved off the sidewalk and into the slush lining the gutters, the cold slurry splashing up and into her heavy boots. Looking up, she saw Beth and her cronies looking down at her. It was Beth herself who'd shoved her aside, hands shoved angrily into her pockets and glowering down at Laurel, her dark face and messy black hair a heavy contrast to the interchangeable tall pale blondeness of Cynthia, Sally H., and Godwyn, who were gathered cheerfully behind Beth. "People are trying to walk here."

    "S-sorry," Laurel stammered, looking down at her boots.

    "Y-you g-get that st-st-stammer from the thrift store too?" Cynthia - or maybe Sally H. - mocked cruelly. The other two cronies laughed, while Beth only continued to look down at Laurel, mouth working sourly and face unreadable.

    "Sorry," Laurel repeated, quietly. "I'll, uh, w-watch where I'm going next t-time."

    One of the blondes - Godwyn, perhaps - opened her mouth to make another jab, but Beth cut her off. "Yeah, whatever" she said, before giving a heavy yawn. "God, four o'clock and I'm still asleep. Can't believe I used to be a morning person. C'mon, let's grab some coffee or something."

    As they walked off, Laurel heard them asking Beth about her brother, when he'd be back in town, and if he'd have new stuff ready for them when he did. Casually moving on and forgetting Laurel even existed. Sniffling, Laurel wiped her cold nose clean with a colder hand and sat down in a nearby doorway, despondent. She didn't know what she'd done to draw their hate. Her cousins had never been like that, and her parents had taught her to be kind to those around her. Yet high school seemed intent on throwing that back in her face, drowning her in cruelty and pettiness. She missed the peace and safety of being homeschooled. Of laughing and learning in equal parts alongside her family.

    Laurel hunched down lower in the doorway, miserable. This wasn't how she'd thought school would go at all. She'd imagined late night study parties. Meeting close friends for life. Finding love, and kisses shared beneath a starry sky. Wiping her nose with the back of her hand once more, Laurel got to her feet and went to take the long route home, away from Beth and her cronies.

    "Do you want to be something special?"

    Laurel turned to see one of Beth's friends standing behind her. A small, quiet girl she'd never really paid attention to before, with wide blue eyes and a swirling cloud of almost white hair. "S-sorry," Laurel stammered, "what was that?"

    "Do you want to be something special?" the girl repeated, oddly grave. "Do you want to travel between worlds? Help people?"

    Laurel opened her mouth to voice her confusion, but the girls small hands shot out and enveloped her own. Her mouth shut with a jolt as the world seemed to flex for a moment, an afterimage of reality overlaying itself on top of the world, it's hue and saturation subtly wrong. She looked around in shock for a moment before the blonde girl caught her eye. And where the blonde girl's eyes had been, there was now only a gaping abyss. A glimpse into something wide and dark and unknowable. "Who- what are you?"

    "You can call me Shy," the girl answered. "And I am something not quite real. Something from a dream.
    The Dream. Please, will you help? I need your help-"

    "
    Shy!" Down the street, Beth was shoving past her friends, staring at Laurel and Shy. her face angry and yet also oddly afraid. "Shy, get back here! Leave her alone!"

    Laurels hands clenched beneath Shy's cool grasp. She was sick of Beth, sick of being pushed around and looked down on. She wanted to be liked, to be someone important. "I-I want to be special," she whispered, voice hoarse with the need for it. "Please, let me h-help. I'll help."

    Beth was only a few metres away now, her footsteps hurried and fists swingly tightly by her side. Her friends didn't even bother to look as she continued to shout, but Shy only smiled and stood, hands still clasping Laurel's. "Thank you," she said, and pulled Laurel forward into the abyss.



    Dusk



    Inside the Dream, it was cold and vast and dark, as it always was. Scenes and people and objects flowed and merged together, as transparent and false as afterimages. These were the worlds of the sleeping, a faint bridge between the real world and the Dream.

    The Dream itself would not begin to take shape until it was acted upon, either by itself or by Laurel and Beth. They were the architects, their struggle giving form the formless.

    For half a year Laurel had been keeping the Dream in check, cutting out its roots before it could drag itself into reality at the cost of those whose dreams bridged the gap. For half a year she'd spent her sleeping hours in here, and it still felt impossibly strange and alien to her.

    Even stoic, private Beth admitted she felt the foreign oppressiveness of it weigh down on her, and she'd been fighting the Dream on her own for a year before Shy had first pulled Laurel in.

    Reigning in her discomfort, Laurel began to give herself form, drawing upon the latent possibility around her to recreate her body. Looking inward, she recalled the feeling of air moving past her body. Faced her imperfections and humbly accepted her strengths. She didn't rush the process, remembering the misshapen messes she had created her first few times. Even after she had learned to make something that looked human, it was weeks before it had actually been her. Once she was finished, not even needing to look to know she had gotten it right, she raised her head and conjured clothes. Where the body was an act of patience and self-reflection, the clothes were an act of improvisation and desire. Light was drawn forth from the abyss and wrapped around her. Revelling in the myriad colours and possibilities represented in that light, she willed it spin around her faster and faster before letting it settle into something solid. An extravagant, weightless blue gown, stretching from the top of her neck down to the base of her feet.

    Satisfied, Laurel raised her hand to the heavens and began to envision an arrow, its shape forming as light inside her forearm itself. She thought of it in movement, its speed and purpose, and it began to hum with tension, her entire arm tingling with its need to fly. With a grin, Laurel let go, and the arrow shot forth from the palm of her hand high into the black sky before bursting into violet light. For a few moments, there was only Laurel and the cascading light amidst the half-formed visions of the sleeping, then the space before her began to warp and out of it stepped Beth.

    Where Laurel chose to dress herself like something from a fairy tale, all frills and lace and extravagance, Beth was far more simple in her choice of apparel. Dressed in simple, low-cut black clothes, with green highlights that traced her curves, she looked at once both more mature and more competent than Laurel. At first that had bothered Laurel, made her feel inferior, but over time she had come to understand they simply approached the same problems in different ways. Neither better nor worse than the other.

    Beth laced her hands above her head and began to stretch, working out nonexistent kinks in her spine. "Ready to get started, then?"

    Nodding, Laurel knelt down on the ground, gown billowing around her, and dug her fingers into the soft surface of the Dream. Slowly exhaling, she let her eyes close and consciousness expand outwards, searching for roots. With people's dreams so indistinct, it was nearly impossible to find where the Dream had planted its roots simply by looking. Beth's solution was to simply begin tearing at the foundation of the Dream, rending it asunder until she encountered resistance. Laurel, however, preferred a more patient approach. Letting herself slip and fade as far into the Dream as she dared until she could feel the pulse of it, find it's energy and trace it to its burgeoning saplings.

    When she finally found a vein, she filled it with light to guide them to its end. Finished, she began withdraw when her mind brushed against another, weaker vein further out. Feeling uneasy, she marked it with light as well before fully pulling back into her imagined body. Above her, Beth was frowning out across the horizon.

    "Which line is it?" she asked, looking between two slithering tendrils in the distance. One strong and bright, the other dull and faltering.

    "B-both."

    "Both? It's never grabbed two minds in one night before. Sure you’re not imagining things?"

    "I-I don't know, but I d-definitely felt two of them." Wringing her hands together, Laurel hesitated for a moment before continuing. "Y-you said there used to only be a few a week, right? Then one almost every night? And since I've st-started, there's only been a handful of empty nights."

    Beth worked her mouth sourly. "The Dream's getting stronger, yeah. But now we're going to have to split up to deal with them both." Beth cursed quietly. "Fuck. Fine. I'll take the bright one."

    "T-that's not going to, uh, work though."

    "You've been at this long enough," Beth snapped, "don't tell you can't handle one night on your own."

    "N-no," Laurel stammered, "that's not what I mean. If it's, y'know, getting stronger, we c-can't keep up with it forever."

    "We don't have much choice," Beth retorted. "It's that or let it send our friends and family into comas as it tries to drag itself out of here."

    Laurel swallowed, looking out at the two violet tendrils of light. Where they sunk into the boundary between the Dream and reality, and where they stretched back into the furthest unknown depths. "W-we could go for the source. St-stop it once and for all."

    "Don't be an idiot," Beth said. "Even the roots put up a fight when we destroy them. Imagine what the source would be like." But even as she spoke, she too was looking out to where the veins of light disappeared in the distance, eyes hungry.

    "W-we can do this," Laurel urged, "together."

    "We can do this," Beth muttered, then looked at Laurel, something approaching a smile on her mouth. "Let's do it."


    Afternoon



    "What is it t-that the Dream wants?"

    Shy looked up at Laurel confused. The two of them were sitting in Laurel's room, surrounded by stuffed animals and scattered dolls. Childs toys, but things that Laurel found comforting. From the radio on her desk, light rock played softly, and downstairs Laurel's cousins could be heard stomping around, getting ready for soccer practice. Shy looked Laurel over for a moment, then turned to the window. "Did Beth not say?"

    "B-Beth doesn't, uh, t-talk to me much," Laurel admitted, "l-like, at all. I don't think she w-wants me around."

    "Oh," Shy turned back to Laurel, head tilted and wide eyes both blue and empty at the same time. "It wants to be real. It wants to live and breath and grow, and is willing to drag others back into its prison in order to pull itself free."

    "B-but you're a p-part of the Dream, right? And you're here. Uh, real."

    "No," Shy stated quietly. "I am not. I am only real to you, and to Beth. Everyone else sees me, but even as they look at me, they forget me. Something at the edge of their awareness, slipping even as they try to focus on it."

    "O-oh." Laura awkwardly began fidgeting with the hem of her dress, rubbing it between her fingers. "I'm, uh... I'm s-sorry?"

    "It's not your doing." Shy leaned forward, and as she did, the sunlight filtered through the window became caught in that swirling cloud of hair. Refracted and multiplied into a soft halo around Shy's peaceful, cherub-like face. But even then, those wide eyes continued to bore into Laura, impenetrably deep and ancient. "Just know that as long as you and Beth continue to fight the Dream, you are doing the right thing. That is all I need of you."



    Midnight



    The veins of light had led them further into the Dream than they had ever been before. Above them, the uniform darkness had given way to swirling constellations of stars, pulsating bursts of light that refused to remain still. Sometimes they seemed impossibly distant, further than the furthest galaxies, and other times they seemed to hang heavy over Laurel's head, ready to fall upon her in a cascade of stardust. Beneath their feet, the veins of light had widened into paths, twisting and flowing through each other. Until, eventually, they came to rest at the base of a mighty tree. Every time Laurel blinked, it seemed to take a new shape; at once a willow and a pine, an oak and a birch. It's branches stretched far into the sky, waves of pale blue light coursing beneath the bark. It sparked and thrummed with energy, reminding Laurel of diagrams of nervous systems.

    This far from the boundary between the Dream and reality, there were no afterimages of dreams. Only barren ground and bloated stars, shifting tree and writhing roots. When Laurel turned to Beth, fear and adrenaline holding her heart prisoner, she found Beth looking back at her, face dangerous and determined. There was a purpose to her, a sharp edge. Something that had always rested just beneath her skin, cutting and pressing forward in times of need. Now, in the heart of the Dream, those honed blades began to surface, forming as shards of green light swirling around Beth's hands.

    With a small nod, Beth signalled for Laurel to back away before turning to face the tree. The shards grew sharper and brighter, increasingly deadly and chaotic as even more were pulled from the void to join the turmoil. The storm grew larger and larger until finally it coalesced into a single massive swarm, directed by Beth's guiding hands. With a shout, she let it loose, the shards cutting into the roots and base of the tree. There was a maddened shriek as the bark split and charred, cords of lightning arcing outwards and gouging rifts along the ground.

    Hurriedly, Laura formed a protective bubble around her and Beth, the lightning coursing around it hungrily. The shriek of the wounded tree grew higher and higher in pitch, reaching far above the normal range of human hearing. But in the Dream, such limitations lost all meaning, and the sound continued to tear at Laurel's ears, sending her to her knees. Then, suddenly, it stopped. The last few sparks of electricity faded away, and the tree was still once more. Beth looked back to Laurel, confused, but Laurel had no answers for her.

    They stood there for a moment, wondering if victory had been so easy, when the tree began to shudder. Pale, gnarled hands began to grow from the wounds left by the shards. Scrabbling, clutching hands that pulled themselves further out, dragging arms and bodies behind them. Dozens of them, one from each cut. When they stood, they were crooked and unsteady things, somewhere between a person and a dried piece of driftwood. Cracked and pale, stiff and hollow. They moved in jerks and bursts, hardly seeming to transition from one position to the next.

    Without hesitation Beth darted forward, already summoning another cloud of green shards to swirl around her fists. Further back, Laurel gathered an arrow of light in her arm before shooting it out towards the furthest of the saprolings, piercing one through the chest before continuing onwards to remove the arm of another. The first collapsed, while the second changed course away from Beth and towards Laurel, apparently unhindered by the smoking stump left of its arm.. A few others nearby did the same, moving surprisingly fast with their jittering movements.

    Raising a series of floating steps, Laurel hopped away from them, shooting arrows back down at them all the while. Beneath her, Beth danced amidst a crowd of saprolings, ducking beneath their blows and shredding apart those who lingered in her presence. But even as they were struck down, others stepped in to take their place, dangerous by sheer volume, and Beth was slowly forced backwards towards the tree.

    Worried, and with the rest of those that had been hounding her struck down, Laurel lowered herself to the ground once more to steady her aim and began picking off those at the edge of the crowd, not wanting to risk hitting Beth by mistake. Together, they began to bring down the saprolings, though those that remained continued to back Beth towards the tree, trying to corner her. No matter how unpredictably she moved or how quickly she dodged, there was always another saproling there to throw itself in her way, regardless of it's own well being. Until at last, with only a handful of saprolings left, Beth went to step backwards only to find the tree at her back. Sensing victory, the saprolings latched onto her tight, forcing her wrists back, their wooden strength too much for Beth to overcome.

    Panicking, Laurel readied another arrow and let loose, her aim dangerously close to Beth. With a burst of violet light, two of the saprolings fell back, leaving only one gripping Beth's wrist. It froze for only a moment before lunging to grab Beth's other wrist, but Beth was faster, whipping her hand around and shoving a green shard into the saproling's featureless face. It staggered back, clutching at the light, before toppling to the ground.

    Sharing a sigh of relief, Laurel and Beth relaxed, the fight won. Around them the saprolings littered the ground, faintly smoking where the weapons of light had cut them. Some still twitched, defeated but not quite dead, long fingers scratching at the ground.

    Beth looked up at Laurel and smiled for a moment, before confusion washed across her face and she looked down at her feett. Following her gaze, Laurel could see the roots of the tree slowly settling around Beth's ankles, holding them tight. The two looked back up at each other in horror, before fresh branches shot out of the trunk and latched onto to Beth, and began to drag her towards it's hungry mass.


    Evening



    "Why d-do you hang out with them?"

    The two of them were sitting around Laurel's kitchen table, working on math homework. The sound of Laurel's father mowing the lawn gently wafted through the open window, while upstairs her mother could be heard softly singing in the shower. Beth, meanwhile, seemed barely conscious, stifling yet another yawn as she looked up. "With who?"

    "Your c-" Laurel only just managed to stop herself before the word 'cronies' left her lips. "Friends. Cynthia, Sally H., Godwyn. T-them. You don't really seem like their type."

    "Their type?" Beth asked warily. "What do you mean by that?"

    "L-like, you're not... outgoing like they are. You don't obsess over makeup or g-gossip about boys or things like that. You're acad-demic and reclusive and... yeah."

    "You have a really childish idea of what my friends are like," Beth muttered, scratching down another answer to her homework. "Is there something you're getting at, with this? Or just shitting on my social life?"

    "W-well," Laurel shuffled some math handouts around as she gathered her thoughts, knowing she was on thin ice and about to step onto thinner. "You said you get them good deals on, uh, m-marijuana because of your brother, right? S-so, don't you worry that they just hang out with you for a ch-cheap high?"

    Beth was silent for a moment, face inscrutable as she studied Laurel before answering. "Whatever. Not your problem."

    "W-what?" Laurel leaned forward, face earnest. "I'm j-just, like, worried. That they're, you know, taking advantage of you. That they d-don't actually care about-"

    "Of
    course they don't fucking care about me," Beth shouted, suddenly on her feet, knuckles white on the edge of the table. "You think I need some fucking princess like you to tell me that? I know they just put up with me to get deals from my brother. I've known since day fucking one. But what am I supposed to do, huh? They're the only ones who will hang out with someone like me, and it's a far sight better than nothing."

    "I-I was just trying to help."

    "I don't want your help," Beth answered hotly. "I don't need it. What do you know about any of this kind of thing anyway? Little miss perfect, with her doting parents and friendly cousins. Sharing laughs and smiles with everyone at school." Beth sat back down, head buried in her hands. "You don't even need to try to win people over. They just... like you," Beth snapped her fingers, "just like that."

    Laurel yearned to reach out and rest a hand on Beth's shoulder. To lend a comforting touch. But even now, after months of sharing the Dream together, Laurel couldn't help but be afraid of Beth. Of her anger and insecurities. "I-I didn't win you over."

    "No," Beth admitted, raising her head and letting her hands fall away, "you didn't." For a moment she looked as if she was going to say more, guilt and resentment both lurking beneath her dark eyes, before she turned away. "I need to leave if I want to have dinner ready for when my mom and dad get off work."

    "Beth, I didn't m-mean to-"

    "I dont want your pity, so please just... stop. I'll see you tonight."



    Dawn



    Slowly, inevitably, the grasping branches began to envelope Beth, pulling her into the tree’s embrace. "Laurel!" she shouted, reaching out desperately with her free hand.

    Stumbling over herself in her haste and darting around the twitching forms of the fallen saprolings, Laurel raced to Beth and grabbing the outstretched arm even as the branches began to pull it back. She dug her heels in the ground, trying to find the purchase needed to drag Beth free, but the tree was patient. Relentless. Its bark began to flow outwards and over Beth, making her a part of itself. Letting go with one hand, Laurel reached out behind her and summoned chains from the ground, ordered them to wrap around her and anchor her. To lash her and Beth's hands together. "I-I got you," Laurel stammered, straining. But even as she worked, the tree sent roots to entangle her chains, worked its implacable will against hers.

    Slowly, Laurel felt Beth's wrist sliding out of her grip. "Please," Beth begged, as branches began to stretch up her neck. A pale and gnarled necklace, pulsing with energy. "Please." Laurel could feel Beth's conscious reaching out to her even as her grip weakened, and Laurel responded in kind, their minds coiling around each other, desperate for purchase. And in their opposites, began to bond. Like the teeth of a zipper, hope found fear. Self-pity found self-hatred; love found loneliness; forgiveness, bitterness; and idealism, realism. All their disparities came together into a unified need for acceptance; for each other. Laurel's violet aura met Beth's green, and the two merged into gold. A gold light that filled them with warmth and with comfort. That washed away their fear and laid to rest their doubts.

    The tree began to writhe and shudder, the branches that held Beth catching aflame. Curling and turning ashen beneath the golden light, their hungry grip crumbled, and Beth tumbled out from the tree and into Laurel's waiting arms. Pieces of charred bark fell harmless from her skin. They clutched at each other, sobbing with relief, as above them the fire spread. Against the combined truth of all their pieces, their strengths and flaws, the falseness of the Dream was helpless. Clouds of blue and black ash flowed up into the void, blotting out the heavy stars. The branches cracked and twisted backwards upon themselves, sending thunderous shudders through the ground. And as the fire turned to an inferno, the entire tree began to collapse, folding inwards and downwards until all that was left was a hunched, smoldering form. A girl, with wide hurt eyes and a swirling cloud of sparks for hair.

    Laurel looked on with horror as Shy straightened uneasily amidst the ash, coals burning beneath her flesh, skin peeling back from the heat. "I'm sorry," Shy gasped, sparks drifting from her mouth. "I'm sorry. I only wanted to be real." She took a tottering step forward, reaching out towards Laurel and Beth, blackening face twisted with envy. "I wanted... this," with every pained word her voice grew quieter, more strained. One finger from her outstretched hand fell to the ground and shattered, scattering coal and ash. "I wanted you. I wanted-" With her next step, her leg collapsed, sparks flung forward as her body tumbled to the ground and crumbled, leaving nothing but a dark mound and a cloud of soot.

    Laurel clasped a hand to her mouth, fighting the urge to be sick. Beside her, Beth shuddered once before climbing to her feet. "We have to go," she muttered, half-dragging Laurel behind her. "We need to leave... this."

    Nodding mutely, Laurel let herself be dragged alone. The two of them followed the tendrils of light back to the boundary, puffs of soot drifting from them with each step. Their skin was dark and coarse from it, their noses clogged with the smell of burnt wood and burnt flesh. Beneath, the golden light still glowed softly, strongest where Beth gripped Laurel with ferocious strength.

    So weary was Laurel, that she didn't even notice when they reached the boundary, only looking up when Beth lowered her to her knees and forced her hands into the ground. "Let's go home," she said. "Let's go home."


    Community Pick Winner: Pew, pew! by @Pahndæmonium
    Pew, pew!

    Pew, pew!



    Simona hated working night shifts. The small convenience store was bordering the outskirts of the town, too far for most public transport -- which meant the young clerk had to walk a few miles after dropping off the closest bus stop. Glen’s Stop-By was a popular store for night owls, those who drove through the night between their town and the bigger city half a dozen miles away. They were usually two clerks at night, “just in case”, but tonight Simona’s coworker had called in sick and no one else had been able to take his place on such short notice. She wasn’t too worried though, as things were nearly always quiet, and for all the night shifts she had worked, not once had there been enough commotion to warrant for two night shifters.

    Winter was already closing up on them, and tonight was no exception. Glen’s Stop-By was in the middle of a whirlwind of snow, with its buddy building Frankendiner, which was also still open, a few yards away. The owner’s daughter, Ginny, came over once every couple nights to hang out with them and probably just to eat candy. Loyal to her habit, the little girl came dashing through the door, sounding the doorbell loudly.

    “Simoooona!” The cheeky little pest grinned at the clerk, her two front teeth missing. Her boots were untied and her coat was already unzipped by the time Simona stepped out from behind the counter.

    “Hey there Ginny! It’s just me tonight, Petrov is sick.” The woman’s voice was gruff and deep, and didn’t match her appearance at all. Ginny was probably the only person in the world who didn’t think this was odd. “I brought the movie Princess Bride if you wanna watch something.” A warm smile spread on the woman’s tired face, even reaching her eyes.

    The little girl clapped her hands and ran off to grab a chocolate milk bottle. Her father always paid her “tab” at the end of the week, something Simona thought was rather endearing. She pulled out her ratty laptop and pushed the DVD in, and within a few minutes Ginny was sitting comfortably on a case of soda cans, wrapped in a warm blanket. Simona sat next to her, before pulling the girl on her lap, and began brushing her hair. It was thick and black, resonating with the girl’s African-American heritage, but the clerk had the delicacy and dexterity to properly braid it. Ginny’s father was a widower, and he didn’t often have the time to do those little things with his daughter -- especially since she was one of five siblings.

    “Hey, Simona?” The girl’s voice was quiet, as though she didn’t want to disturb the people talking in the movie.

    “Yeah?”

    Ginny shifted uncomfortably. “Why do some customers call you “sir”? You’re a girl!” The annoyance and indignation were crystal clear in her voice, which caused Simona to smile despite herself.

    “Some people are mean, or don’t understand those who are different. It’s all right, you don’t need to worry about me, little star.” She fussed with her braids again, before slipping the small girl back on the boxes.

    “Pfft! If they’re meanies, I’ll just pew pew them!” Ginny made a pouty face, but it didn’t last long once she saw Simona giggling and shaking her head. Her shoulders untensed and with a playful shrug, she went back to the movie.

    In truth, every time something like this happened, it etched a mark on Simona’s confidence. She was a woman for fuck’s sake and no one would ever be able to rob her of that. It hadn’t come to her attention that Ginny had been aware of those comments, and in truth it tore her to know the kid was worried about her. Those were not matters for a child to be upset about, and once again Simona had after-thoughts about letting her hang out here in the backstore… But she couldn’t bring herself to ever refuse to let the kid hang out here. All that was needed was a little bit more backbone, and perhaps a softer voice and a more delicate face… Simona shook her head. No, she couldn’t let herself think like this.

    For the next hour or so, while Ginny was laughing and watching one of the best movies ever, Simona cleaned up the store. First step was sweeping the floors (which felt quite futile considering how half of it was wet and dirty from the snow), followed by a good mopping. Those were her regular chores -- their manager had insisted she work mostly in the backstore, and do the majority of the cleaning. Sometimes the woman wondered if anyone else ever washed those damn floors; they were always so grimy, and spots she KNEW had been cleaned when her shift ended at 8 AM were somehow covered with badly wiped soda. She had an idea or two as to why this was happening, but she refused to give in to their torments.

    The movie was over a bit before Simona finished washing the bathroom. She could hear the young girl repeat some of the catch phrases, and it made her grin again. The little pest was beyond adorable, and it warmed her heart to have the chance to spend time with her. She was any babysitter’s dream.

    “Simona, the movie’s done! Can I play a game now?” Her braided head peeked out from the doorway, but she couldn’t find the clerk right away. “Hide-and-seek then!!” She shouted with renewed pep in her step. Just as she got to the front of the store, the bell jingled and a pair of older men walked in. They looked like truckers, or maybe just fat mechanics, but they certainly didn’t look like they were in a peppy mood like the young girl.

    The taller man eyed the little black girl. “Where’s yer dad, lil ‘un?” He was slurring badly, and Ginny recognized the smell of liquor, or whatever it was they served at her dad’s restaurant to older people. She took a step back and eyed the backstore.

    “Um, my dad doesn’t work here. Simona works here. SI-MO-NAAA!” She yelled for her friend, and just a few seconds later, the clerk popped out from the bathroom and made her way behind the counter. She ushered Ginny to follow her and smiled politely at the two drunk-looking men. “Welcome to Glen’s Stop-By!”

    “Hah! That’s yer dad, innit?” The second man replied, and both of them laughed throatily and without reserve. Ginny frowned and looked up at Simona, expecting her to tell them off. But she couldn’t – they were customers.

    “Ha-ha, funny, sir. I’ll be here if you need me.” Her eyes nervously watched the inebriated men as they headed for the alcohol section. The clock reminded her they had about twenty minutes left before she had to lock down the booze.

    Simona regretted her previous musings about how she didn’t need a second clerk with her at night. Those men were terrifying her, and she had to think of little Ginny whose mouth wouldn’t remain shut at the worst of times. “They’re being meanies, Simona. I’m gonna have to pew pew them.” The clerk shook her head and brought a finger to her lips, signaling Ginny to keep quiet. In return, a pout spread across her childish face, her dark eyes strangely focusing right through Simona. Those same dark eyes drifted away slowly in direct of the two men, who were still being loud and the taller one even broke a bottle, earning rocky laughter from his mate.

    Five minutes before she would have to lock up the alcohol.

    Okay, if they wanted an additional minute, she would not legally be allowed to sell them their booze. Hoping they would not berate her, the woman called out at them. “Um, sorry sir, county law says I have to stop alcohol sale in a minute. Let’s pay those first and you can continue shopping after!” Her deep voice felt like a stranger’s, entirely unrepresentative of what Simona looked and felt like. It was perhaps the most difficult aspect of her transition to accept, but there is was – the lady with a manly voice. Their raucous laughter reached the front of the store and soon enough they were dropping bottles and snacks on the counter.

    “Yer a pretty lady. Gotta show later ‘night?” More mocking laughs.

    “Yeah, yer as hot as my wife! Ha ha ha!” The two men were laughing so hard, tears were peeking out from the corner of their eyes. Simona forced a smile and began scanning their items, looking down and towards Ginny once in a while. The girl had taken out her little plastic gun, and was muttering Pew, pew, pew which managed to warm the clerk even just a tiny bit.

    “The total will be $40.50.” The items were placed in bags rapidly but the men seemed to be lazing around with their payment.

    “Y’know what tranny, I think we’re good here. Sure you can pay this off for us.”

    “Yeah, what he said.”

    Ginny knew that was a bad word, a terrible word. Her father had explained what it meant, and that mean people used it to hurt a trans person. With a frown, she got up from her hiding spot behind the counter and pointed her pink gun at the impolite drunkards.

    “That’s a BAD word! Say you’re sorry, mister!” Her voice was loud and unmistakably childish. The men peered over the counter at her and exploded in even more laughter. Simona’s eyes widened and she tried to hush the girl back, trying to grab the toy gun away.

    “Oh man, he even has a n***** daughter! Disgusting!”

    Simona’s cheeks turned bright red, but not because she felt embarrassed. She was fucking pissed now.

    “Look sir, either give me the money you owe, or get the fuck out.”

    “Ohh look at him getting all pissy! He’s a pussy a’ight!”

    Ginny gritted her teeth and slipped between the older woman’s arms to confront the two men. “SHUT UP! Pew pew!” She finger-gunned them angrily, her teeth baring and her other hand trying to reach for her toy gun.

    The girl was picked up by Simona again and she pushed her away this time. “Get out or I call the cops.”

    “Fucking she-man, crossdresser piece of shit! Ha ha ha! With his black bastard daughter, playing mommy!” The taller man chuckled but handed out his money, while the other man kept laughing and holding his sides, as though he was having the greatest time of his life. “Ne’er comin’ back here, unless it’s to take a piece o’that little black bitch.”

    Before his friend could reply something else, Simona’s fist met with his nose and everyone could hear the loud crunch. Blood splashed everywhere and the man yelled in pain, dropping his bags and clutching his face. The other one looked at Simona, and she could see how pissed off and slightly scared he was. “Fucking crazy bastard! Let’s get out of here!”

    “That’ll be crazy bitch, thank you. If I ever see you here again, the gun won’t be a pink toy!” She yelled back at them as they hurried out the door, leaving a trail of red on the freshly cleaned floor. “Fuck…” Simona shook her hand, the adrenaline probably taking care of her soon-to-bruise joints, and she looked at Ginny, preparing an apology. Kids shouldn’t hear or see that kind of crap.

    “L-look, Ginny, I’m so—“

    “OH MY GOD! SIMONA! THAT WAS SO COOL! WOW!” Her face was erased from any kind of anger or fright, instead replaced with admiration and excitement. “YOU WERE SO BADASS!! OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE HIS FACE?!” The little girl was jumping up and down, clapping her hands madly.

    “N-no, that was me losing my temper, Ginny. Grownups don’t do that.”

    “YES they DO! Those men were meanies and you TAUGHT THEM GOOD!” Her smile was so sincere, so innocent, that Simona let her shoulders drop and she sighed, hands on her hips and shaking her head.

    “We have a mess to clean up now. C’mon, little miss badass.”

     
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