There's a knock on the door.
That's something you usually don't want to hear past midnight around here. I try to convince my sister, Gretchen—well, my step-sister—to leave it alone, to pretend she didn't hear it, but my pleadings fall on deaf ears.
"You know it won't stop them. If they want to enter, they'll enter. I don't want to have to fix a broken-down door on your account."
I gulp, but drop the issue. I know she's right. Plus, there's no way she'd fix the door. That task would fall on me, anyways. Everything always does. It's the only reason they haven't ratted me out yet.
Gretchen shoos me into the space under the floorboards that serves as my shelter whenever unwanted company rolls around—though sometimes I think they invent make-believe intruders, just so they can get me out of the way, occasionally for hours at a time—and hurries her way back to the entrance, each click of her heels sending a small army of dust particles raining down on me.
"Just a second!" Gretchen calls out cordially, her voice high and fake. I snigger sardonically. There's nothing real about her or my other step-sister, Lorelei, from their perfectly powdered faces to their dirndl dresses and modernly-styled hair. They, along with my step-mother, have worked tirelessly for years to rejoin the upper crust of German society, wiping every last smudge from their otherwise pristine family history. Marrying my father, and by relation taking me in, was a mistake in their eyes, a stain on a perfectly white shirt. Even an ocean of the purest of blood can be tainted by a single drop of filth, they often say.
So, why do they keep me? Now that my father has been taken only the devil knows where? Well, someone has to do the dishes. No family of status is complete without ‘hired’ help. But harboring a Jew is as good as a capital crime, nowadays.
Hence the floorboards.
The door opens and I hear two sets of boots make their way into our home. I recognize the boots. Heavy, heel irons, the crinkling sound of well-kept leather. It’s definitely not the neighbors asking for sugar. Not that I’d expect any of the neighbors to venture anywhere near our house.
“Good evening, Herr Fiehler. Please, come in,” Gretchen says, her voice dripping with piety. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence?”
“I was in the neighborhood, Fräulein Shäfer,” he answers, his voice low and even. “I thought I’d drop by and check on your mother. I hardly saw her at the ball last night.”
Karl Fiehler. Reichsleiter Fiehler, to be proper. Second to the Fuhrer alone. A prince to the King of Hell, as it were. In my eyes, simply one of the many heads of the proverbial Hydra that took my father from me. Yesterday night, he was host to a party in Vienna held by the Nazis to honor the fall of France, and when I heard that he would be here, in Austria, I just couldn’t stay home and let the opportunity pass me by.
The opportunity to kill him, that is.
It didn’t end up working out, as you can see.
That night, I unleashed the best of my irresistible charms, one of the few traits I inherited from my mother, and managed to capture his attention for much of the night. Fortune had been smiling on me; I had my forged Aryan papers, the contraband invites to the event, the vial of poison. But when the time came to deliver my venomous blow, Herr Fiehler was abruptly called off by one of his advisors to attend to some urgent business, and the fatal cup of wine was delivered to the sewers instead.
“Oh, I wasn’t aware that you took notice of any of us that night,” I hear Lorelei say as she makes her way gracefully down the stairs. “You seemed occupied with other company.”
“Yes, well. Your mother has always attracted my attention with her…unique tastes.”
I feel like gagging, a product of the dust swirling around my coffin-like confined space and the repulsive sound of Fiehler’s voice. But the tense silence that has fallen on the room is deafening, and any noise I make now would give me away. Finally, after several drawn out moments where I’m almost tempted to lift up the floorboard and peak out to make sure I’m not being pranked again, I hear Gretchen clear her throat and speak.
“Well, mother is away tonight with family, but is there anything we can help you with? Perhaps tea? Please, join us in the living room for a moment.”
“No, that’s alright. We won’t be long.”
I hear them take a few more steps deeper into the house. The door closes behind them, followed by the rustle of a jacket.
“You know, the woman I entertained for much of that night was very interesting, to say the least,” Herr Fiehler continues. “Quite flattering, though she spoke critically of my accomplishments, expressed her views of German politics and the like. An extraordinarily educated woman.”
I smile. I admit, I had my fun with Fiehler before making my attempt on his life. My father was a prominent figure around Vienna before everything, a well known businessman with status and position with the local government. He took pride in ensuring my education was on par with the other boys my age, even exceeding in most cases, and every day at breakfast he would discuss current events with me before heading off to work. That was before my step family. That was before he was taken away.
“She seems lovely,” Lorelei comments, disdain and jealousy saturating her tone.
“Seems. Yes. Quite the foxy minx, as it turns out. See, I had to step out for a moment at one point, and when I returned, she was gone. Disappeared without so much as saying goodbye, but not before leaving this behind.”
My heart freezes. What did I leave behind? Not the vial, surely. I disposed of that in the river on my way home. The wine? I watched them dump it out.
Then, I realize what he must have taken from his pocket, what he’s showing my step-sisters right now, and I feel my stomach drop down to my toes. I touch the necklace resting on my chest as I lie staring up at the dirty planks of wood, already certain of what I’ll find. My father gave me a necklace with a locket attached to it when my mother died. It has a miniature photograph of her inside, one of my most valued possessions and something I keep well out of reach of my step-sisters and well maintained. Though, nowadays, the hinge has come loose, and I’ve been waiting for the cover to accidentally fall off for months now. Sure enough, when I run my finger along the locket, I feel the smooth surface of the tiny photo rather than the cold touch of its metallic cover.
Normally, this wouldn’t bother me. But as it happens, there’s a bright and bold Star of David on the cover. On the cover that Herr Fiehler is currently holding. Herr Fiehler, Prince of Hell. Enemy to the Jews.
I can tell the blood has drained from my step-sisters’ faces, just as it has drained out of mine. All I can hope for is that they don’t make their anxiety too obvious. My life is on the line as much as theirs are.
“Fräuleins, I have to ask. What is a nice German family like yours doing in this part of town? A Jewish Ghetto? You must be quite the minority here.”
“We’ve lived here since before the Great War. Our father built this house himself. We just can’t bring ourselves to leave it.”
“Ah yes, your father. Stefan Shäfer. The war hero.”
There’s another pause, and I’d almost be annoyed with how much time he’s wasting with drama at two in the morning, if I weren’t so utterly terrified.
“You know, he made quite a legacy for the Shäfer family name. Paid the ultimate price. Gave himself for his country, and for his family. It would be a shame if his sacrifice were to go to waste.”
“We try to honor his name,” Gretchen says with a wavering voice. I can tell her jaw is trembling the way it does every time she’s angry or scared.
“Indeed. Then I’m sure you’d be more than happy to help me find the rest of this, wouldn’t you? I would very much like to locate the owner, and I’m sure there’s only one perfect fit for it. I can’t imagine a better place to begin our quest than with the only guests from that night who have your…legacy.”
He knows. He knows about my father, about his heritage, his faith, about the marriage of convenience, about me. Will they give me up now? Or are they so oblivious to Fiehler’s blatant innuendo, his clear attempts at disguising accusation, that they don’t know they’ve been cornered?
“Of course we would. How can we help?” Lorelei asks in a voice little louder than a whisper. I exhale silently, waiting to see how her response will be received. It can’t be enough. Not to convince anyone of their innocence.
“Search the house,” Fiehler finally commands, presumably to the owner of the other set of boots I heard coming in the house.
“No, please!” Gretchen pleads, and I hear her take several urgent steps forward. “It’s late. I’m sure you have other places to be.”
Silence again. I’ve stopped breathing, as I’m sure Gretchen has too. This was obviously the wrong move, most likely a fatal one. If Fiehler had any doubts before coming here tonight, I’m sure they’re gone now. Then, I hear a soft chuckle, a deep, condescending laugh that’s almost a growl, an omen of things to come. His next words hardly come as a surprise.
And that’s when I realize I’ve been a terrible fool. And soon, I’ll be nothing more than ash.
My profile pic is actually a logo I made up myself. My initials are JH, which I worked into the base, and my writing is mostly sci-fi, hence the object in orbit. Plus, as an unintended result, it ends up looking kind of like a backwards pilcrow.
The Apathy of Time
A gentle lattice of rain trickles down the carriage’s windows, a living, liquid curtain that distorts the stunning view of Scotland’s pastoral countryside. The West Coast Main Line is outstandingly beautiful, as is typical this time of year, yet my mood is marred by the nagging anxiety that I harbor in the back of my mind, a product of overwhelming uncertainty and the most ghastly fog to which I awoke in London this morning. The whole town reeked of rotted eggs, and something about the air made one feel as though one’s lungs were being crushed in. Not that anyone needs any help feeling that way, as of late. Talk about a year for the rubbish bin. It all started with the destruction of Cairo by fire, followed promptly by the passing of our beloved King George—God rest his soul. Take all that and add it to the Polio epidemic, that dreadful disease running rampant across the Empire—or what’s left of it—ravaging our children, no less. And if that weren’t enough to signal the end of the world, let’s cap it all off with the design and detonation of our first Atomic Bomb; why we’ve decided to follow the example of our wayward cousins across the Atlantic, I’ll never know.
And still, we carry on, as we always do. Be it into the jaws of hell or to the end of life as we know it, that remains to be seen.
“We’re coming up on Glasgow. You might want to start pulling your head out of the clouds,” says my traveling companion, Charles, from his seat beside me. He stands up and grabs the most grotesque-looking tweed briefcase from the storage overhead, something I’d never be caught dead carrying in public.
Charles is the Special Programs Advisor to the Secretary of State for War and, as such, the primary liaison in charge of financing my project. It also so happens we grew up in the East End together, a fact that certainly doesn’t hurt my chances of continued funding, though I’ve never been one to place all my eggs in one basket. This project must be able to stand on its own merit, independent of whatever personal history I may have.
“You look nervous,” he says, leaning on his seat with one arm.
I pull my attention from the window and grab my coat from the back of my own seat. “Perhaps I am,” I admit.
“What’s got you so upset, then?”
I sigh, letting my exhale carry the weight of my anxiety. “I’d be a fool not to know what this extended timeline is doing to you and your office. If we fail today, it may take years to seek out the bugs and rectify our formulas, and I'm guessing you can only divert funds for so long without people asking questions.”
There’s a pause where the only sound comes from the small number of other travelers in the carriage and the steady cachunk, cachunk of the wheels as they pass along the rails.
“Yes, well,” he says with a strained look, clearly concealing the fact that he, too, shares my concerns. “Let’s hope this is a smashing success, then.”
I give a weak smile in response and look back out the window. The stars are just beginning to peek out from behind the rainclouds, despite the fact that it’s barely four o’clock. It gets dreadfully dark up here in the winter—not that London is much better—though there’s something about the heavens at night that have always enchanted me. Most of the rest of the world seems to be perpetually focused on terrestrial matters—taxes, politics, moving borders a foot this way or that—truly something that baffles me to no end. Why would anyone be so engrossed in the matters of this war-torn, plague-ridden planet? Why would anyone be content to remain tethered to our small fleck of a home, our grain of sand in a sea of stars and galaxies? Personally, I find the most solace outside our thin blue atmosphere, up beyond the reach of the insignificant and inconsequential.
Well, in any case, the only ones who seem to agree with me are the Russians, albeit their intentions tend to lean on the viler side, a most unfortunate reality. Though, perhaps the American beast will be wakened at the threat of Russian dominance, as pride-driven as they are. But, the Empire cannot wait upon her prodigal son to stand as defender of the world, not again. We must take our future into our own hands, which is why it’s so crucial that my work succeeds, and that it succeeds quickly.
The train pulls into the station, and a small herd of us are ushered unceremoniously out of the carriage. Pockets of families wish each other well and give their final loving goodbyes, an emotional rabble that peppers the platform with sentimental trifle. I feel a tinge of guilt for seeming so heartless in my thoughts, but held within the frame of what I know we mean to attempt, it all seems rather trivial. Not that I blame them. The people of Glasgow never truly felt the sting of the war like those of us in London did. They never had to rush to cover their windows when the dreaded siren sounded to herald in the Blitz, nor were they forced to watch in dreaded awe as rockets rained down upon helpless civilians faster than the speed of sound itself. So why on Earth would they feel the same level of urgency that’s been so deeply impressed upon me? Why should they feel that same fire to never again become subject to the dominance of fear or any of her allies.
Anyways, the war has passed, and now we’ve turned our swords into plowshares. We fight a war of the mind rather than one of might—a cold war, to quote George Orwell, if you will. Wernher von Braun, the German-American scientist who developed the V-2, now talks about using his tool to send humanity to Mars. It seems mad, right? Using those lethal weapons, the very embodiment of Vengeance itself, to blast something, someone, off this planet, all in the name of science. But a weapon capable of flattening a city in a single strike seemed like fiction, too, before it became fact. And now, our charge, and the charge of any freedom-loving scientist, is to prevent the Red Menace from attempting to reshape the proverbial plow back into a weapon of unimaginable consequence. We must always stay one step ahead, if not more.
Von Braun purposes to build a platform in our planet’s orbit, a space station that we might use to launch ourselves to the Moon and beyond. The Russians and the Americans may soon accomplish such a feat, but we must be prepared, as the British Nation, to dominate well beyond the influence of Ares. That is where my research comes into play. The journey to realms beyond our inner Solar System may take a considerable amount of time, time that our physiology and biology do not allow. Therefore, the use of cryogenics is key to success when suggesting an expedition farther than the Asteroid Belt.
Today, I will be taking a frozen nap, as it were, just for a month, long enough to chemically analyze my cellular response and measure the aging process while I’m under. I could indeed have someone else take my spot, but I wouldn’t dare trust anyone else. Not with how close we are. If my test is successful, we could be sending people to the outer reaches of our Solar System in a matter of years. And the possibilities from there are endless.
The journey to the research facility just beyond the outskirts of Glasgow is uneventful, if not comfortable, in the unmarked government vehicle. Charles and I exchange no more than a few small words about the passing weather, and by the time we’ve arrived, my mind is quite thoroughly focused on the upcoming test. We pass quickly through the security checkpoints and end up within the familiar walls of my laboratory, which I’ve been using for a host of research experiments these past several years.
My assistants have ensured that everything is waiting and ready ahead of our arrival, and after everyone has settled into the viewing area, I give a few brief words describing the demonstration, then settle into the cryogenic chamber. It’s all rather quick, compared to the seven hour journey here from London, but I prefer it that way. I’m sure I should be nervous as one of my assistants closes the top to the chamber, but honestly, I’m too tired and too mentally strained to be nervous.
There’s a hiss as nitrous fills the chamber, and within moments my vision goes dark.
“Doctor Martin, sir, can you hear me? Can you hear my voice?”
I groan and open my eyes, only to have them instantly overwhelmed by a flood of light. Has the test run its course? Has it already been a month? It feels like only a few seconds have passed, not anywhere near the planned twenty-nine days. Regardless of how long it's been, I’m shivering uncontrollably, and I notice that my skin is an unrecognizable shade of purple.
It takes several minutes of blinking and rubbing before I can make out the blurred image of two figures standing in front of me. One of them is a rather tall woman with dark hair and a slender form, the other a sturdily built man with a cleanly shaved head and a thin layer of scruff on his face. Neither of them appear to be members of my research team, nor do they appear, well, for lack of a better word…normal. They have the strangest clothing on, though they do seem to be official looking—what with sidearms strapped to their chests and wearing what could technically pass as business attire.
“Who are you? Why did the test stop?” I grumble, shocked by the trembling roughness of my own voice. A slew of physicians appear at my side and begin fussing around my body, but I beat them off, and they retreat behind the man with the scruff.
“Doctor Martin, I’m Agent Ford and this is Agent Knight. We're with Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service, and we’re here to debrief you and make sure that you’re doing okay,” the woman says carefully, as if speaking to a young child that’s just been injured. Her tone is laced with a hint of, what is it…pity?
“Debrief me? Are you with Charles? Did he send you? I need to start running analysis right away—”
I make a move to stand up, but Agent Knight holds out his hand authoritatively, and I pause.
“Sir, I think you should take it slow,” Agent Ford says with an intentional dose of serenity in her voice. “There are a few things we need to tell you that might come as quite a shock.”
I take notice of the laboratory for the first time since waking up, and my blood instantly chills about ten degrees. The whole room is a wreck—bottles and beakers smashed everywhere, bullet holes riddling the walls, light fixtures hanging precariously from the ceiling, and skeletons, everywhere. Bodies upon bodies, obviously left abandoned for decades, if not more. And among them, over in the viewing area, is Charles’ trademark tweed briefcase, popped open and hanging by one hinge next to one of the bodies. My chest clenches as panic threatens to overcome me.
“What happened? What’s going on?”
Agent Ford furrows her brow in sympathy and takes a step forward, offering out her hand.
“You’ve been asleep for more than sixty-five years, sir. It’s the year twenty-nineteen.”
I look around at the bustling morning crowds mulling about Buchanan Street, all headed into unfamiliar shops or dining in any number of foreign-inspired restaurants. Much of what I see is a strange conglomerate of futuristic architecture, a city I’d hardly recognize if it weren’t for the familiar icons such as St Mary’s, Central Station, or the City Chambers. In spite of the madness happening in my life right now, though, I have to admit the smells pull my mind away from it all, tantalizing my appetite, and I realize that I’m insufferably hungry. I mean, why shouldn’t I be? I haven’t eaten in over half a century.
“You wouldn’t mind if we popped into one of those little caffs, do you?” I ask, taking every effort to keep the drool in my mouth.
Agent Ford smiles and nods. “Don’t worry, sir. That’s why we’re here.”
I put my hands in my jacket, temporarily consoled, and look across the way at an old-style church tucked between two towering residential blocks. It’s almost comically out of place, but admittedly soothing for some reason, as if it were placed there just for me, reminding me that even things wizened by time still have their place in this unfamiliar modern era.
“What happened?” I ask Agent Ford earnestly. “With the lab, that is. What went wrong?”
Agent Ford seems reluctant to answer, but eventually she caves in—despite a warning look from Agent Knight. “Your program was quite the black operation, Doctor Martin. As it happens, your friend Charles Baker was the only one in the government who knew about it. The day of your demonstration, there were several undercover Soviet agents present that took advantage of his secretive trip to witness your project, and they assassinated him, along with everyone else present. With no record of where he went or what his undisclosed plans were, his disappearance remained a mystery until just recently.”
“How did you find out, then? How did you find me?” I ask, still struggling to process everything she’s saying.
“The Russians recently declassified a batch of documents from the fifties—from your time, I mean. One of them was a set of hypothetical simulations that involved the assasination of high-level targets on British soil. Turns out, one of the simulations was based on an actual event, the one I’ve been describing to you. We ran it by the Russian Consulate, and while they didn’t explicitly acknowledge their involvement, it was clear we were on the right track with our speculations.”
“Russian Consulate? Are the Soviets friends, then?”
“Friends? Oh, no. Not exactly,” she chuckles. “But let’s say we’re in-between tensions at the moment.”
I nod, confused, but unwilling to press it further.
My mind quickly drifts to the flood of distractions vying for my attention, and I turn my head from side to side in an effort to soak everything in.
“So, tell me, Agent Ford, what did I miss? What’s the world been up to while I’ve been frozen away in the middle of Scotland?”
“Aha, not much, probably,” she says with an infectious smile. “You missed the Vietnam War, the Troubles in Ireland, the War in Iraq, Afghanistan, the dissolution of almost every British colony and territory, the rise of international terrorism, the destruction of our environment, Brexit.”
“Brexit?” I ask, confused.
“Nevermind. Don’t worry about that.”
“And of course,” Agent Knight cuts in, speaking for the first time, “England hasn’t medalled in the World Cup since hosting it in 1966.”
“Excuse me,” Agent Ford says, her face awash with disapproval, “but the women took bronze in 2015.”
“Ah, there’s a women’s World Cup, then?” I say, surprised.
Agent Ford nods and nudges Agent Knight in the side. “Sure is, and I have to say, our girls are playing much better than the guys right now.”
I concede a small chuckle, but internally, my stomach rejects the thought of laughing at anything Agent Ford has just said. Discouragement runs rampant inside my heart, and I scramble to recover the pieces of my spirit that are crumbling before my eyes. What kind of world did I wake up to? Perhaps it was naive of me, but I would have expected there to be huge strides forward in democracy, in unity, the end of war, the birth of human exploration on a cosmic scale. What I see now is frankly rather apathetic, superficial even, a demonstration of humanity at its most basal form. I give credit to the inhabitants of Earth for not annihilating themselves with atomic weapons, but it seems they’ve done everything short of it.
We turn into a cafe, and Agent Ford tells us to find a seat while she gets breakfast for us, something that dramatically halts my downward emotional spiral. There’s a mix of all sorts of smells in the air, and I can almost taste the sausage, the eggs and beans, a side of tomatoes, toast, and—most importantly—tea. A few minutes later, Agent Ford returns to our table and plops what looks like a glazed turd down in front of me.
“What in the hell is this?” I say, affronted by the gingham paper-wrapped ‘breakfast’ before me.
“It’s a donut,” she explains, oblivious to my offense as she takes a bite of her own turd.
“A donut? Where’s the sausage? Where’s the tea?”
Agent Ford looks up from her donut and wipes her mouth with a paper napkin. “Oh, I could get some tea if you want.”
She begins to stand but I wave her off and grab the pastry with sad disappointment. “No, no, it’s too late. What has happened to your generation? What happened to the sanctity of a proper British meal? This makes me feel like I’m back in Ethiopia getting my tinned rations, except instead of the Italians, I’m battling indigestion.”
Agent Knight actually chuckles a little, and Agent Ford gives an apologetic shrug. “It’s an American thing, I think.”
I scoff. “Makes sense. Leave it to the Americans to find a way to ruin even a good meal.” As we eat, my curiosity begins to get the better of me, and I gain the confidence to ask more questions, despite my initial discouragement. “What about space travel? Have we made it to Mars? Farther?”
“Well, we made it to the Moon,” Agent Ford says. “The Americans, that is. We haven’t quite made it there ourselves. Though I heard there might be some cooperation for a possible return, and we might even get to Mars within the next decade or two.”
With that, I fall silent and keep to myself for the remainder of the meal.
My work was supposed to enable the human race to break the bonds keeping us on Earth. The whole reason I went under in the first place was to advance science in the hope that future generations might use it to better themselves. To know, now, that it was all in vain, that humanity chose a path completely foreign to my reasoning, well, it puts me in a very bad place, indeed.
After World War II, humanity swore to unify, to never again let any issue come between us. Sure, it wasn’t long before that vision of utopia faded, but there was at least the hope of globalized harmony. From what I see, though, that hope has shifted, or become lost in the noise of everyday life. We could have probably gone further in science and in exploration, but we’ve watered down our dreams with things like ICBMs, politics, Keeping up with the Kardashians, and something called kale chips, I believe.
Still, I guess the world didn’t end, as I might have predicted before going under. No matter how bad things seem to get, Earth keeps spinning. We overcome. We adapt. We thrive. Because that’s what we do. Because we far prefer evolution, however small, to its alternative.
The Power of Writing
To answer this question, it's important to first ask another:
What is the essence of writing?
In my opinion as a novice writer, writing is a tool by which an individual documents and communicates something—a feeling, an emotion, a fantasy, a world, an idea, an inspiration, something that has the power to change another individual's mindset or their mood. Just as a copper wire conducts physical power from a source to a receiver, writing conducts an emotional power from an artist to someone whom that artist means to influence. The efficacy of a wire is determined by how well it conducts power, how much power it can conserve en route and deliver to its intended recipient. The efficacy of writing can be similarly determined.
Now, to get to the original question: what does it mean to be a good writer? Essentially, a good writer is someone who knows how to properly use writing to conduct their thoughts and feelings, a literary electrician, as it were. The better the writer is able to use these tools, the more their readers are able to peer into the writer's heart, into the writer's mind, and in turn be changed and energized by the ethereal power of a good story or a passionate argument. Writing, just like any physical vessel, is of course an imperfect conductor; however, the aim of any good writer is to continuously strive for better tools, better conductors that can deliver a larger share of that power.
I'd like to take issue with how the second question is posed. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that the two sides are binary or mutually exclusive; rather, good writing does not necessarily stand in opposition to social media. Like any tool, there is a proper way and an improper way to use such tools. Granted, the majority of society does not use modern day tools in a proper literary fashion. But good writers have rarely been in the majority. More often than not, good writers are born from the minority, a rarer breed than your everyday internet troll. Contemporary writers have the powerful opportunity to use social media (Prose. is an additional example of such a tool) in an elevated manner and influence their peers in a way that's unprecedented in human history.
Ashes. Rubble. Twigs where mighty redwoods stood only weeks before.
I stand in the middle of a patch of charcoal that was once my room and stare at our melted mailbox, the painted images of flowers and our family name distorted by the sheer heat that consumed it. Over by the spot where my bed used to be—or at least where I estimate it used to be—there's a crumpled, rusted heap of steel that I think must have been one of my shelves. I kept a rock collection there, all sorts of cool little samples—gems, fossils, interesting little bits with folded striations. My favorite one was a tiger's eye sample that my science teacher in high school gave me. It would be impossible to discern sample from rubble now, of course, and I'm sure my collection will be whisked away to some dump when FEMA finally clears our lot.
I make my way to the living room—recognizable only by the perfectly intact chimney still standing there, seemingly untouched—listening and wincing as my shoes crunch bits and pieces of the roof as I walk. I think how beautiful the floor here used to be, a gorgeous latticework of walnut, cherry, and oak wood. We bought the house pretty cheap for the area, a real fixer-upper, and we didn't have the money for real hardwood, so my dad went to the hardware store and gathered up all the bits they didn't want. You know, those samples? The scraps that people take home to match with chairs and walls and whatever? Yeah, he made those things look like premium flooring. And it was free.
Now it's ash.
There was a piano in the corner by the window; I was the only one in the family that played it. It was given to me by my parents, actually, because they knew I loved playing. It was a baby grand, one of the real ones, a rare commodity in a house stocked full of off-brand and garage sale items. Every Christmas, my parents would set off a yuletide bomb in this room, with every inch covered by garland, lights, wreaths, stockings (for the whole family plus two dogs), and I would spend hours in that corner playing hymn after hymn, sometimes with others singing along, sometimes on my own just waiting for the sun to go down. It wasn't much, but it was mine, and I loved it.
Something catches my eye. I look down and see a charred sheet of music. The edges are singed and browned, but you can still see the title, notes, and everything. Claire de Lune. One of my favorites. Funny, though. This piece of music survived the blaze of over two thousand degrees, and yet the granite kitchen countertop exploded into a million pieces. I pick up the music and hold it close to my chest like a life preserver, the last shred of evidence of all my memories before the fire. All the home videos of my childhood, all of the photos, every trinket, toy, and trophy, all vaporized in twenty minutes.
Beyond the borders of our lot—it's weird calling it a lot now, no longer a house or a home—lies a field of devastation, hardly recognizable for what it once was. I had trouble finding my way here, to my own home, that's how unfamiliar it is. It's like a nuclear weapon has gone off, flattening everything in sight. Five thousand homes, gone, turned to smoke in just a couple hours. It's amazing to me how quick it all was. I was off at college, but my parents were still here. They woke up to the sound of the dog door flapping in the violent wind, stepped outside, and saw their neighbor's house on fire. They had minutes to escape, only enough time to grab the pups and one car each. My dad's car caught fire as they were fleeing, forcing my mom to turn around and rescue him before barely making it to my sister's house in the next town over. I think about the others who weren't so lucky, the ones who didn't wake up in time.
There were more than twenty of them. Their bodies are still out there. Mingled with the debris.
I drop to my knees and cry, my tears mixing with the ash and creating a dark gray paste on the ground. I don't know why I'm crying, really. My parents are safe, insurance will cover the rebuild, most of the things I cared about I took with me to college. And yet, I'm left with an empty feeling. A dark and ominous sense of loss. I stay kneeling for several minutes, my mother watching me mournfully from the car, somehow less affected than I thought she'd be.
Finally, I pick myself up and am about to return when one last thing snags my attention. In the back yard there's a small patch of green, a flamboyant contrast to the murky shades of brown and gray all around. I walk over to it and gently handle a single white flower that has bloomed by the back wall. We had a few different plants back here—bananas, figs, palms—most of which got cooked by the fire, and yet, somehow, despite the destruction all around us, this one plant made it through. The leaves are gone and many of the stems have been blasted away, but this one flower has made it through. For some reason that comforts me, more than anything else so far, more than the words of my family or friends or random strangers sending me their condolences.
I chuckle silently to myself and grin. I suppose if this tiny little plant can go through the very wrath of hell itself and still find a way to bloom prettier than ever, well then, just maybe I could do the same. I give the petals one last gentle tap, then turn and leave my home.
Tubbs fire - 2017
♫ Dear Devil,
Look at this, look where I am, way
Down, down, down.
Never thought I’d end up here after I
Drowned, drowned, drowned.
Mr. Devil, sir, now why’ve you got such a
Frown, frown, frown?
Didn’t ya know, sir, all along I was a
Hound, hound, hound?
Well, here I am, take me if you must,
But I don’t think you will.
Ah, I see, you didn’t think I’d
Show, show, show,
After getting tossed right off that cliff,
No, no, no.
Thought those demons had enough of my
Show, show, show.
Dun’ made sure I’d never again play my
Banjo, jo, jo.
Well here I am, yes I’m still here,
Today, day, day,
With a song in heart, I’ll be here to
Stay, stay, stay.
So, unless you want me forever to
Play, play, play,
You’d best be sure to kneel right now and
Pray, pray, pray.
You’ll let me go.
You’ll let me free.
Or else you’re sure to see,
My banjo and I,
with my songs divine,
And fingers on the strings.
So, here I am, take me if you must,
But I don’t think you will. Why?
Even you can’t take it, Mr Devil, sir.
Just send me up to the sky.
Are you ready?
Have you ever met Death?
She’s quite nice. Oh yes, and she is a she. Before I met her, I always imagined Death to be some sort of scary looking thing with a cloak—not quite human, not quite monster. Death is actually quite beautiful, to be honest. Nothing to be afraid of in the least; on the contrary, I imagine people wouldn’t dread the actual event itself if they knew Death. It’s not the first time I’ve met her—right now, that is. I’ve caught glimpses of her passing by a few times during my career; I’m a fireman, you see. I saw her carry away a heartbreaking number of people over the years, those who were broken beyond my healing hands, and I even saw her come for me once or twice. Hazards of the trade and all that.
She’s here now, of course. Don’t worry. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I welcome her as she comes and lowers herself to sit beside me, taking the time to settle herself in before looking out at the forest beyond. What would you do with the last hour of your life? Me personally, I would rather be nowhere else than the redwood forests of Sonoma county. They have a certain way of making you feel...small. In a good way. Like there’s something majestic watching over you.
“Good to see you again, ma’am.”
“Oh, well that can’t be the truth,” she says with a sweet chuckle. I laugh and take her by the arm, coughing as I do so.
“So, it’s for real this time, is it?”
“I’ll be honest, I always told myself I was ready for you. But now that we’re here, I admit I’m a bit afraid.”
Death sighs and puts her head on my shoulder. It’s silent, like the air around me has already died.
“Well, I’m here. I won’t let you go.”
I laugh again. “That’s a phrase most people would tremble at, coming from you.”
She smiles and holds me tight.
“I suppose. You’re not like most people though.”
I nod and fall silent once more. The trees sway ever so gently, soothingly almost, like a pendulum inside a grandiose grandfather clock. And yet, they tower above us indifferently, their agedness transcending the minutia of mortals like me, each human life but a blip of time held against the millennia that they’ve ruled this land.
“Did you ever fall in love with that one girl? The one you were with the last time I saw you?”
I smile wide, the joy hardly containable at the thought of my now wife.
“Tawni? Oh yes. Head over heels. Fell in love, started a family—three kids you know—got my white picket fence-home and all that. It’s been a fairy tale, to say the least. I wouldn’t have planned it any other way, even if I could.”
“Oh, that makes me so happy. I have to say, I could have predicted it. They way I saw her look at you...”
“Well, I had just saved a man from choking to death, forgive the phrase. I imagine that helped woo her over, lucky me.”
Death laughs again, and I feel a wave of warmth rush through me, a comforting blanket in a time that seems so cold.
“What about you?” I ask, honestly curious. “Have you ever fallen in love?”
A sparkle flits across her eyes, and her face lights up like it’s her favorite topic. “I fall in love every day, Paul. Everyone I meet. Not very many people know it, but I love you all so much; it’s why I do my job, in fact. I can’t stand to see a single one of you suffer for very long, so when your time comes, I’m there to take you to somewhere pain can’t find you ever again.”
My heart skips a beat at the thought, and a dark shadow passes over my face. Death must see it, because she looks over and nudges me in the side, giving me a questioning look. I take in a deep breath and train my eyes on the murky horizon. “Where is that? The place, I mean, where there’s no pain.”
Death pauses for a moment, and I can see she’s considering her next words carefully. Then, she releases my arm and brings her knees up to her chest.
“White shores. An endless field, ever upward, ever onward. A kingdom. An adventure. It’s different for everyone. It’ll be different for you. But one thing I know is that you won’t be disappointed.”
“Have you seen it? For me, that is?”
“Is it hard to get there? Is it hard to die?”
“Oh, no, love,” she says, placing her hand on my back. “I’ll be with you the whole way. You have nothing to fear.”
A tear runs down my cheek, my worries now somewhat abated. My thoughts turn to my family and to what they’ll soon be put through. I almost feel bad that it’ll be so easy, over so quickly, at least as Death so advertises, while they struggle with the inevitable challenge of losing a loved one. I can’t imagine what this will do to them. My oldest barely turned nine a few months ago. It’s not fair. But since when is life ever fair?
“Will they be there with me? Eventually, I mean?”
“Oh yes,” she answers, knowing to whom I’m referring, “but not yet. Don’t worry. They’ll be taken care of.”
We fall silent again, and I take the remaining time to dwell on Tawny and the kids. At least we’ll be together again, some day. That much gives me comfort.
A few more minutes pass, and soon I begin coughing more forcefully. It’s unbearable. The smoke is overwhelming, a suffocating pool of acrid air surrounding me on all sides. I can almost feel the oxygen fleeing from my lungs. Moments later, I see the wall of flame coming over the ridge, galloping down the hillside to greet me, faster than a freight train, just like all the others I’ve seen over the years, except this time I’m the one cornered on all sides. Panic suddenly clenches my chest, and I consider running for a moment, but I know it won’t do any good. I had hope the rescue team would find me in time, but the instant I saw Death, I knew it wasn’t meant to be.
I pull out my emergency fire shelter, already knowing it won’t do any good with how hot this fire is burning; but Death stops my arm before I can deploy it. She nods solemnly and I drop the shelter, taking her outstretched hand.
“Are you ready?”
I close my eyes, squeezing out the last few tears from my eyes, feeling my hands shake uncontrollably as the moisture instantly evaporates from off my cheeks.
Incognito (Part 1)
“I’m giving you an opportunity to become a patriot, Mr. Harris, a chance to be remembered by the world long after you’re gone. Isn’t that what anyone really wants in the end?”
I avoid the persistent gaze of the European Alliance officer and stare instead at the bowl of apples resting on his desk. Who puts apples out? It’s not like it’s a snack you can just pop in your mouth.
I look up, despite myself, and sigh. “Right. And what is it you want me to do?”
“I’m sure you’re aware of the attacks on E.A. convoys passing through Denver?” he says smoothly, as if informing me of a change in the weather.
“Then I’m sure you can suspect why we’ve called you in today.”
I stop breathing and look into the dark eyes of the officer. He can’t possibly imagine I had anything to do with those attacks. I’m just a college student. Though, I suppose, the resistance recruits members younger than me.
I’m about to open my mouth to respond, but he presses on before I can say anything.
“We know who’s carrying them out and why, but we can’t for the life of us figure out how.”
I exhale deeply out of relief.
“Of course, this conversation is all confidential, but we need your help,” he continues. “From what I understand, you’re at the top of your class at the University of Colorado, studying Software Development and Engineering? Already applying for grad school when your peers haven’t even graduated high school?”
“That’s correct,” I answer. I’m not sure where he’s going with this, but I listen on.
“You created and sold around twenty different applications before the liberation, valued at almost seventy-five million Panamerican Dollars?”
I resist the urge to snicker at his use of the word liberation. It’s been a year since the E.A. invaded Panamerica and occupied our eastern territories, and we’re more oppressed now than at any other time in our bloody history. The Mandarins, our main allies, are fighting in the northern part of the continent, but the European Alliance is repelling them back to Asia, and it’s beginning to look less hopeful that the world will ever be free again.
I clear my throat and continue. “Yes, but what does that have to do with anything? You can’t make me give you my money.”
The officer laughs and waves his hand.
“Of course we could. But that’s beside the point. We don’t want your money. We want your mind.”
I shift uncomfortably in my seat and look questioningly at him.
“Yes, Mr. Harris, your mind. We need to track down these attacks before they begin, and in order to do that, a lot of pieces have to fall into just the right place. The good news is that we already have most of the pieces—surveillance equipment, analysts, counterinsurgent teams—but the biggest issue is that there’s just too much data for our systems to sift through. It seems, nowadays, the whole country is what the computer would define as dissident, as it were, but hardly anyone demonstrates markers for violent tendencies, markers that you would expect from these saboteurs. All of the attackers were nothing but model citizens before their fateful hour. What we need is a system that can connect the dots. We need to know how they’re being contacted and recruited. We need to know how the resistance is getting their intelligence. Specifically, we need an AI powerful enough to sort through our surveillance and tell us how we can nip this senseless murder in the bud, and we need you to develop it.”
I look back down at my hands. Red scratch marks are etched across my dark skin from where I’ve been wringing them. It’s been a nervous habit of mine ever since I was little.
“I don’t know, sir…”
“Look, kid. We can pay you generously,” he offers. “It wouldn’t be as much as your other jobs, I’m sure—”
“I don’t need the money,” I spit back, an insulted look on my face. “If word got out I was doing this for you, I’d be killed.”
The officer stands and makes his way to the near side of the desk, taking a seat on top of it.
“Mr. Harris, the world is at war. That means the old rules go out the window and that we all live by an entirely different charter. Your people don’t realize it yet, but we’re here to revolutionize your country, to bring peace, order, equality. In the meanwhile, though, like a parent guiding a child, you all need discipline, persuasion. The Mandarins want you to believe that they’re on your side, that they're in it to preserve your way of life, but they want power too, just like everyone else.”
“I won’t lie to you. It’s true. But we seek power to elevate humanity to its next great potential, to bring your people to their next great potential.”
I turn to the side, shaking my head, and remain silently defiant in my seat.
“The question you need to ask yourself, Mr. Harris,” he continues, “is which master are you going to serve? Which one will give you the best chance of surviving this war? You could save lives, you know. Not just E.A. lives, but the lives of your own people. Stop their needless deaths. The system you develop could be just what it takes to dissuade anyone else from embarking on these suicidal endeavors. Wouldn’t it be wrong not to develop it?”
I exit the convention center and look back at the large blue banners hanging down from the walls. Their marine color is broken only by a single white falcon grasping bushels of arrows in its talons, its beak open in an aggressive posture. I went to a comic festival here a little over a year ago, but ever since the occupation, the building has been serving as the temporary headquarters for the E.A. military in the American theater.
There are about fifteen tanks parked in the grassy fields on the other side of the road, and surface-to-air missile launchers sit nestled inside bombed-out buildings that have been fortified and transformed into bunkers. Pedestrians line the sidewalks, despite the late hour; many are coming out from a playhouse where a show has just ended, but their faces look tired and uninspired, void of the energy that used to define the population here. It’s only been a year, but even so, the occupation has transformed Denver into something almost entirely unrecognizable, a mere fraction of the city it used to be.
I don’t know what to think of the offer, the one the European officer just gave me. Maybe he's right. Maybe I should just embrace the inevitable and get on the good side of the sure-to-be victors. No one else has to know; I could keep the development a secret, only work on it on my own personal servers. It wouldn’t be hard.
I shake my head and continue crossing the road towards my car parked on the other side. No. I still can’t, in good conscience, justify working with these people. They’ve ripped their way across our country, committing unspeakable crimes, ravaging our land, and no matter how vehemently they try to suggest otherwise, they really are nothing more than an organized mob.
My thoughts are suddenly broken by an uneasy, almost queasy feeling that has nothing to do with my conversation with the officer. I pause and look down the road.
Everything has stopped.
Like, paused. It’s as if the entire Earth has stopped moving.
I squint through the darkness at the theatergoers, all of who are motionless, some still in the middle of conversations or taking steps down the stairs.
“What the hell…?”
I turn my head from side to side. Is this like a flashmob or something? Even the vehicles in the street have all paused, some in the middle of the intersection. I frown and look at a woman walking her dog. The dog appears to be halfway through peeing on a patch of grass by a tree, standing immobile on three of its paws.
I turn around and yelp, then fall down flat on my back.
Right in front of me, nearly on top of me, is a city bus. Was I really that lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice it there? I look at the driver who’s staring at me with a panicked grimace on his face, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. I move my head from side to side and realize he’s frozen too, as are all of the occupants of the bus; most look like they’re bracing themselves or leaning far forward, some up off their seats. Seems like I was pretty close to becoming a stain on the road. Lucky thing for me that this…thing has happened, whatever it is.
But what is it? Is this some sort of European weapon? Some new atrocity they’ve imagined up? A freeze burst or something like that? But what purpose would that serve? And why am I not frozen? Maybe I was made immune so I could work on the AI code?
A thought occurs to me, so I hurry back into the convention center and make my way through the hallways, back towards the officer’s room, passing frozen soldiers and administrators along the way. I burst through the door and look over at the officer, who is presently in the middle of drinking a glass of Colorado whiskey—probably stolen from some Denver family’s home during a raid or accountability check. In any case, there he is, just as frozen as everyone else I’ve seen. Maybe it’s not an E.A. weapon, then, if it affects their own people, too. I walk over to where he's leaned against his desk and inspect him from all angles. I look for some sort of sign that he’s acting or posing, but it’s like every muscle in his body has locked up. I take the glass from his hand and swirl the liquid around. At least that’s still moving.
I stare at him for a moment, skeptically observant of his features as he stands with his hand elevated midair in cupping shape.
“BAH!” I yell, jumping forward at him, but he doesn’t even twitch. No reaction at all.
I leave the building and slowly wander back to my car. I’m starting to get a little freaked out now. Maybe it's a Mandarin weapon? But that doesn’t make sense. The front line is thousands of miles away from here, and there's no evidence of any kind of weapon having gone off. And again, why would I be singled out?
I pull away from the curb and follow the city roads onto the highway, weaving in between the immobilized vehicles.
This is crazy. This is just crazy. I try to control my breathing, but the farther I drive—and the more I see that this strange effect isn’t localized—the harder I find it is to defer my panic. About halfway along the highway, I see the flashing lights of a police officer’s car along the side of the road, so I step on the brakes and pull over. Once out of my vehicle I hurry over to the cop, who's in the middle of berating the person he's pulled over, and tap him on the shoulder.
“Hey, sir, would you mind…”
My heart sinks as I look at his expression; he's as motionless as the rest of the city. I shake his shoulder in desperation.
“Please, sir. Wake up.”
I shake him a few more times, but it’s fruitless. Nothing is working. I look at the sidearm strapped to his waist, and a desperate plan pops into my head.
I undo the lock on his holster and draw the weapon, then I raise it high above my head and pull the trigger, releasing three rounds with an ear shattering chain of bangs. I almost smile, despite my panic; I’ve never fired a gun before, but I like it. Still, the cop remains as void of life as before. Not even the blast of a gunshot will wake him.
I drop to the pavement beneath my feet and lean against the pulled over car with a sigh. This is all so strange, I can hardly piece together what is happening. It seems too out of this world to be real. Is it something wrong with me? Am I going crazy, or something like that? I don’t feel crazy, unless that’s not how it works.
In the end, I take a few deep breaths and decide to stay my fears for the time being. There’s nothing I can do, as I’ve clearly demonstrated, short of waiting and seeing what comes of all of this. I stare at the gun still gripped in my hand.
Well, maybe there's something I could do….
See the rest and other free sci-fi bites on jaredhammer.com/sci-fi-bites (updated every Friday)
@ authorjchammer (FB/IG/T)
One Man’s Curse
Back to school sucks. Especially this year. Normally you can numb the pain by catching up with friends or by getting back into sports. But not now. It’s only classes this year, nothing fun, everyone separated by sheets of plexiglass like we’re at a bank or something.
And back to school sales? They always make it seem so joyous with posters of smiling, anthropomorphic pencils and apples that for some reason are just so damn happy to see you. Total BS. Everyone wears masks at the store now, but I know exactly what faces they’re all wearing—the same, dull, mildly annoyed expression that says “shut up and let me get my pencil sharpener and notebooks so that I can leave.”
I look anxiously down the road for any sign of the bus, but the street remains painfully empty. I told my aunt I was going to the store to get some school supplies, which I did, but I may have taken a detour through the skate park along the way. I can still make it back in time for the stupid dance classes she’s signed me up for—apparently, she doesn’t think skating is a good enough hobby for someone of my, you know, gender—but there won’t be enough time if I skate back. The bus is my only option at this point.
Finally, I hear the glorious sound of a diesel engine, and the big, blue city bus pops into view from around the corner. As it pulls up to the curb, I shoulder my bag—now full of colored pencils and erasers that I will never use—and am about to head up the steps when I feel someone push past me and cut their way to the pay station.
“Hey, watch it jagweed!” I call out angrily. I recognize the boy. He was in a couple of my classes at school last year, but I don’t really know his name. He’s super quiet most of the time and keeps mostly to himself. I let out an annoyed sigh as he disappears into the mass of people standing in the aisle, and I climb into the bus with angry steps.
“Sorry, ma’am. We’re at capacity. You’ll have to take the next one,” the bus driver says apathetically.
“No! Seriously? Just let me through, I’m small.”
The driver shrugs and covers the receiver on the pay station. “Sorry.”
With poison in my glare, I tug my mask down, stick out my tongue, and bound back down the steps, kicking the side of the bus as I disembark.
Well crap. I’m definitely going to be late now. I look at the rear of the bus just as it’s pulling away, and before my mind even knows what my body is doing, I drop my skateboard under my feet and grab a hold of the back bumper, just like in Back to the Future. I duck down low as the bus pulls me forward, adrenaline surging through my veins.
I laugh, shocked at myself. I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff before, but this has to be at the top of the charts. If my aunt saw me right now, I’d be in so much trouble. Shoot, if a cop saw me right now I’d be in so much trouble. There are a few pedestrians on the street, but no one seems to have seen me yet. My hands turn sweaty as the wheels of my board vibrate dangerously against the uneven pavement, and I consider letting go and forgetting the whole thing before we get going too fast, but a battle rages in my mind between my desire to avoid the wrath of my aunt and my natural sense of self-preservation.
If I could only turn invisible.
Then, just like that. I am.
I almost let go, that’s how surprised I am. In fact, at first I think I have let go when I look down and see nothing connecting me to the bumper. My arms, legs, clothes—shoot, even my board is invisible.
What in the actual hell?
My first instinct is to panic, but I’m too amazed and too excited about the endless possibilities to stay that way for long. Imagine all the places I could go skating that are usually off limits, all the movies I could see for free—whenever theaters open again, that is. This is nuts!
A few stops later, I’m scrolling through a mental list of ways to exploit this new development when I see the boy get off the bus and walk towards a patch of trees a ways off, his steps slow and his head held low. I wonder what he’s doing out here. This part of town is notoriously sketchy, and most of it is just abandoned warehouses and train tracks anyways. What this kid could be up to is beyond me.
I’m so distracted by this weirdo that I don’t even realize the bus is pulling away again, and I suddenly lose my grip. I rush to grab the bumper again, but it’s too late. The bus is already moving too fast. I cus internally and slam my board against the street. This fricken boy. That’s twice now he’s caused me some sort of delay in getting home.
He turns around at the sound of the board clattering along the street, and I pause as he looks directly at me, but then his eyes move on, unaware of my presence, and he continues walking.
Well, so much for making it home in time. As long as I’m stuck here, then, I might as well put my invisibility to good use. A fiendish thought crosses my mind, and I decide it’s about time to deliver some sweet justice to this kid. I’ll just scare him a little, just enough to make him piss his pants. I follow him into the trees, making sure to soften my steps as I walk, and trace his path through the loosely packed woods. We continue on for several minutes, with nothing but the trees and an occasional squirrel to keep us company, and soon the minutes begin piling up to an uncomfortable level. There’s a weakly defined dirt path, but certainly nothing trodden enough to indicate that it’s frequently used. I begin to worry that he’s headed somewhere weird or creepy. I don’t want to know what this guy does deep in the forest.
I’m about to head back and forget the whole thing when the trees clear and we emerge alongside an old, rusted railway bridge that spans the length of a canyon. It has to be hundreds of feet deep, with a small river curving lazily around a series of bends, its water green and brackish. What could he possibly be doing here?
I follow him to the edge of the bridge but I draw the line there. I’m terrified of heights. To my horror, he jumps up onto the rails and continues along the side of the bridge, making his way toward the other side. There are bits and pieces missing from the planks below the rails, and he’s forced to hop over certain sections, something he does with complete fearlessness.
This kid’s psycho, I think to myself.
Then, when he reaches the rough mid-point, I see him take a deep breath and climb up the barrier along the side until he’s practically standing at the very top. He closes his eyes and stretches out his hands, and I feel my heart stop, suddenly realizing what he’s about to do.
“WAIT!” I yell, practically flying up onto the bridge by instinct alone, my panic overriding my fear of heights. The boy lowers his arms and looks around frantically, but clearly he still can’t see me.
“Who’s there? Who are you?” he shouts, still scanning the edge of the forest. I run the final steps to where he’s perched on the ledge and take a second to grab my breath, a little unsure of how to respond. He turns back and looks down at the river again, and I can tell he’s about to proceed, so I force my mind to work harder than it ever has before in its life and spit out a quick response.
“Your angel! Yeah, your angel!” I say breathlessly. Crap, I need to work out more.
“My angel? Now?” He turns his head skyward, an enraged expression carved onto his face, and he begins shouting. “You know how long I’ve prayed for an angel, and you decide to send one now? I’ve been praying for miracles, I’ve been praying just to be seen, and now, after years of silence, right when I’m about to remedy my pain on my own, you send an angel, now? For what? To stop me? You want me to continue living like this? What kind of sick god are you?”
He takes one final step up onto the railing and leans forward, but I hurry and grab his jeans with every last bit of energy I have. He stumbles as I pull him back, hitting his chest and head against the cold, rusted steel before collapsing to the ground on top of me. I let out a strained wheeze and shove him off onto the space between the rails and the barrier along the side.
I look over and see him staring through the holes in the barrier, blood spilling from a gash on his forehead and tears rolling down his cheeks. I almost feel bad, but then again, I did just save his life. Then, without warning, he gets up and begins climbing again. With an exasperated groan, I grab him by the shirt this time and pull him into a bear hug, squeezing him so tight that he can no longer use his arms. After a couple minutes of a struggle, he gives up and slumps back down to the ground. Sobs penetrate the peaceful air, and he buries his head in his hands.
I sit down next to him, my mind alight with all sorts of questions, and I try to decide how to react next. I can’t really leave him here, can I? But what can I do? He doesn’t even think I exist; I’m invisible for heaven’s sake.
I’d guess probably a half-hour slips by quietly. His sobs stop after a while, but his head remains firmly fixed to the insides of his arms. I don’t want to abandon him, but I’m beginning to worry about what my aunt will think if I don’t show up soon. Still, I can’t leave him to do something stupid. I could drag him, maybe? But I don’t know, he might think it’s the devil or something, seeing as he’s religious and all.
“Please don’t make me go back to school. Please.”
“What?” I ask, surprised by the sudden break in silence. He lifts his head up and stares past me.
“Why didn’t you send an angel earlier? When I needed you?”
“Well,” I begin, making crap up as I go along. “I’m here now, yeah?”
“Can you make me normal?”
“Normal! Can you make me normal? Like everyone else?”
I feel like throwing up, and guilt suddenly rocks my chest.
“Hey, no one’s normal, kid.”
“More normal, I mean.”
I’m silent. For once, I don’t have a witty remark or a throwback, and even if I did, now probably wouldn’t be the time. He shakes his head, seemingly taking my silence as a rejection.
“How about making someone see me? I don’t need much. Just something to let me know I’m not invisible.”
A tear rolls down my cheek as I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the intimate dive into this boy’s heart. I can hear the pain infused into his words, his longing pouring out of his eyes with each tear. Funny, how all I wanted earlier was to be invisible, and it turns out that’s this kid’s living nightmare. I stare at him through my clouded eyes, feeling more powerless than I ever have before.
“Why don’t you go talk to someone or something? You know. I’m sure people just need the chance to get to know you.”
“No! I can’t! If you’re my angel, then you should have been listening to my prayers! I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I just can’t. I try, but I can’t. It’s like something takes my voice and I stand there looking stupid!”
“Well, you seem to be talking to me just fine.”
He lets out a tired sigh and puts his head in his hands, kicking a broken piece of wood with his toe.
“That’s different. You’re an angel.”
His words make me feel all fuzzy for a hot moment, but then the guilt returns, guilt for not noticing this kid before, for stalking him through the woods, for impersonating deity. Deity? Are angels deity? I don’t know, I never really went to church. Regardless, whatever they are, I’m not it.
“Okay, here’s the deal. You give me one more day, yeah? And I’ll see what I can do. Just go home for now, get yourself to class tomorrow, and I promise I’ll help you out. Deal?”
School starts tomorrow, so maybe I can find him or alert someone or something. I don’t know, it’s a long shot. Hopefully I’m visible by then again. I’ll go home and see if I can reverse what I did earlier and wish my invisibility away or whatever. There’s a stab to my heart as I realize that’s what this kid has been trying to do, for years apparently, and to no success.
He turns his head to look in the direction of my voice, his cheeks stained by the dirt tracks where his tears cut into his face, and he gives me a small nod.
I stand on top of my board, looking above the crowd of students milling about before the beginning of class, taking care to look out for teachers as I do so. Turns out this invisibility thing only lasts a day, for me at least. So, one less thing to worry about.
The bell’s about to ring and I haven’t seen the kid yet. I looked him up in the school directory by his picture, and, as luck would have it, we have our first class together again this year, but I’m by the door to the classroom and he hasn’t shown up yet. The seconds tick away the final minute on the clock across the hallway, and each flick of the little red hand sends my blood pressure spiking even higher, my breaths quickening with each moment. What if he broke his deal? What if he went back to the bridge and flung himself off? The thought brings the threat of tears back to my face, and I’m a fraction of an instant away from breaking down when I see him.
He’s over by the stairs to the second floor, curled up and hugging his backpack, staring at the linoleum floor as the masses flow around him, all oblivious to his presence as they rush to their first class. I jump off my board and cut across the hallway, ignoring the insults hurled my way as I bump into people. Then, my good sense makes a presence and I slow to a casual walk, not wanting to appear weird and creepy for running up to him.
He looks up when I stop beside him and I lower my mask to give him a friendly smile.
“Hey! How’s it going? You were in my class last year, right? I think we’re in the same boat this year, too.”
He lowers his own mask. A smile passes his face, and I wonder if he recognizes my voice. I reach my hand out to help him up and he takes it.
“Sorry, I never really got to know you. My name’s Tess, what’s yours?”
“Wyatt,” he says shyly. It’s probably the first time I’ve heard him say anything inside school boundaries. I smile wider and take him by the hand back across the hall.
“Well, come on Wyatt. Don’t want to be late for class on the first day.”
As we’re crossing the threshold into the the room, the chiming of the bell echoes loudly across the campus from one end to the other.
Just in time.
Grassroots (Part 1)
Back cover description: In the middle of a raging war in Europe is orphaned Siani, adopted by a family who was once her enemy. Years pass, and she quickly finds her place in her new countryside community, but the time inevitably comes for her to leave home and start her own life. When she ventures outside her little village, however, she finds that the rest of the nation isn't as accepting of her as her adoptive family was. If she can't be seen as an equal, as one of them, maybe it's time to start acting like the enemy she was born to be...
Smoke is a funny thing. You can't just have smoke; something has to burn for it to exist. Like wood or oil. Smoke can be a good thing, sometimes. Like, for example, you get the best flavor from salmon or jerky when it's smoked, you can clear out nasty bugs with a bunch of smoke, smoke is how people stranded on islands are rescued. In cases like those, smoke is made intentionally, for a good purpose. But then there are other times where smoke is an accident, a result of some sort of mistake, and those cases are usually bad, like forest fires, or a car accident, or even a volcano eruption.
And then there’s a third scenario, those times when smoke is intentional, and it’s created for purposes so bad, it doesn't even deserve a place on the chart with these other things.
I sit in the middle of the road and watch the smoke curl up from the remains of what was once my home, my eyes following its fingers as the cool morning breeze gently shapes it, twisting it into grotesque shapes. The fire's been out for several hours now, but I've been rooted to this spot, unable to leave, unsure where to go, lost and in shock. No one else in the neighborhood dares approach me. They're too scared—scared of the ones that started to fire, of the ones that come in the night.
They keep order, so they say. More like keep their order. Anyone who steps out of line or objects to the liberation is sentenced to the same fate as my parents. They turn to smoke.
"Hey, are you okay?"
My mind almost doesn't register the voice at first, but then I feel a hand on my shoulder and I whip around with a startle.
"Woah, sorry hon!"
A woman in iron-gray urban battle fatigues is standing behind me. She retracts her hand and takes a step back.
"LT, forget about her. We're due back in an hour. Curfew is getting lifted in like five minutes."
"Shut up, Grant," the woman snaps to a soldier standing off to the side. She turns back to me and kneels down. I inch backwards but the woman makes no attempt to approach any farther. "Is that your home, sweet? Are you on your own?"
I don't know what it is—maybe the way she phrased it, or the fact that this is the first person I've seen since the fire brigade left—but the empty expression I've worn all night finally collapses, and a torrent of tears cascades down my cheeks. My sobs shake my body and I fall forward with my face buried in the ground. The dull smell of wet pavement fills my nostrils and washes out the acrid smell of smoke—not the smoke that comes from campfires or barbeques, but the industrial, unnatural smell of a burning building.
I feel the woman's hand on my shoulder again, but this time I don't pull away. She may be the enemy, but something about my broken spirit is starved for human contact, regardless of the source.
The soldier takes me in her arms and rocks me back and forth as I continue to pour out every last bit of hurt and anger onto the marine-blue flag patch on her shoulder. I watch the bright white of the falcon turn a light gray as my tears saturate the fabric. It makes me want to throw up. I nearly do.
Eight years later
"The Chancellor of Northeastern Europe has rejected renewed calls for his resignation and trial for war crimes by American President Harrington earlier this week after his plans to posture Coalition troops along the borders of Scotland were made public."
The image on the screen in the corner of the room switches to video of a thin, graying gentleman standing with his hands on a podium bearing the white falcon crest of the Northern European Coalition.
"President Ellie Harrington clearly has no clue what she is talking about, something that has remained consistent throughout her troubled term in office. She should focus on stabilizing her own nation before pointing an accusing finger at the legitimate affairs of others. The American people should take a deep look at their recent bloody history and question if their experiment of freedom has worked out the way they were envisioning, then they can come to us and tell us if they have a better plan. Perhaps it's time for a change."
The image changes to scenes of protesters in streets waving signs and yelling chants in front of the iconic pillars of the Capitol building in Washington. A few seconds pass, then a scene appears of a mob of individuals breaking the windows of an armored vehicle and lighting it on fire. Lines of riot police march down a wide avenue tossing tear gas in front of them and firing blue tipped rifles filled with pellet ammunition. They're met by an equally vicious show of force by rioters dressed in homemade armor and wielding improvised weapons.
"The Chancellor's inflammatory counterattacks only add to the recent rising tensions between the two superpowers, most notably the sinking of the USS Doris Miller that led to the death of almost two hundred American sailors. This comes at a crucial time for the western hemisphere as many countries, including Panamerica, struggle with widespread riots protesting the perceived corruption in representative governments and the deterioration of the democratic system."
"Have you ever wondered how he picks his nose?"
"What the hell?" I say, turning a twisted smile to Ren, my adoptive brother. He looks at the screen—which has now changed back to images of the Chancellor walking across the palace gardens with a gaggle of dignitaries—with his nose wrinkled up in thought.
"Look at it. There's so much flippin' hair coming out of it. I mean, where does it all go?"
I laugh and place my face in my hand. It feels good to laugh; it takes some of the tension away. That's always been one of Ren's strengths, ever since that first day we met, when Eloise—my adoptive mother—brought me home with her from Wales to their cottage just outside of Breteil, France. I was a wreck; I was scared, lost, confused. I didn’t speak the language, and everything I had ever known was taken from me or burned to the ground. Then, Ren poked his head through the front door and, to my astonishment, tossed me a squirt gun before running away into the artichoke fields. My first day in my oppressor's homeland was spent playing games with them. One of the darkest days in my life became one of my most cherished memories, all because of Ren.
The door to the office behind us opens, and Eloise steps out into the waiting room with a sturdily built mahogany-skinned gentleman in his forties or so, with a bald head and a roughly managed beard.
"Alright, ma choupette. We're ready for you," Eloise says, gesturing to the office.
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