Donate coins to rh.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by rh in portal Simon & Schuster

daylight/divided

He heard it the moment both his feet landed on the tile floor, the music that drifted through the darkness. Aaron crouched there, letting his eyes adjust and watching the dust swirl through the threads of light that poured their way through rents in thick concrete and brick walls wrought by time’s neglect. He had found an opening in the building through a window outside covered by thin plywood that gave with little effort. There were dozens of hard plastic tables layered with soot, their colors alternating between faded shades of the primary colors and lined up in symmetrical aisles that centered themselves in front of a wide stage set two feet off the ground. This was the school’s cafeteria. He caught the name of the piece that was playing-- Debussy, and horribly out of tune. The felt hammers of the piano fell upon the steel strings in a lazy, uneven, way, ringing along the walls and through the halls of the old Oleander Elementary. The new school had been built five miles south to replace this one years ago after a fire devoured an entire wing of the building, reducing the U shape to an L. Aaron tried not to concern himself with the number of school children and staff. Numbers meant a great deal to the living but not to the dead, and the dead is who he had his business with.

He reached into the cargo net of his backpack and pulled out a flashlight, moving it in slow arcs throughout the room. Aaron knew he was seen already, he could always feel them stare. Not here, he thought, and then began to walk down the center aisle toward the stage. The fire had taken place between breakfast and lunch, there was to be an assembly that day, wood props of trees and homes were set, the crimson colored curtains drawn back. The dust patterns on the stage told him that the curtains had just been pulled. The piano continued to play, verse by verse in that clumsy way; here, Aaron knew, something strong would be laid to rest today. No echoes. Any sound Aaron made was suffocated the moment it escaped by a weight pressing against him in the school, a gravity.

“I’m here to help.” His voice was calm, but still audible. Aaron tried again, “I’m here to help.” This time, only ‘I’m’ and ‘to’ were heard.

I want to help, he said. This time it worked. The curtains and rod fell and landed with a sharp crack that was smothered at once.

Show me where, Aaron said, his voice stolen before it could know the air.

Show me. The school bell began to ring, muted, but still audible.

Thank you, I’ll be quick. Aaron followed the bell out of the cafeteria and into the hall. He crossed the entire length of the first floor, pushing open doors that had been shut for decades and running the tips of his fingers across the rusted desks. Climbing up the steps to the second floor the bell became louder. He took the ascent with care, over the years he had seen much and his recklessness was often punished. Aaron had to be more careful, he was a father now, and over-confidence was no longer on the table. Reaching the top step, the bell became clear. If you were to stand outside, you would never know it was happening. Every step Aaron took was like lens finding focus in the distance. He walked down the second floor hall toward the severed end of the school. A patchwork of tarps had been placed over the exposed roof eaten by flame with the intention of preserving whatever it was inside for history. No one could agree that museum and memorial may as well mean the same thing. 

A storm had blown in the previous night and unbound half the clasps that held the tarp to the roof, leaving the furthest end of the hall exposed to the open air. The bell stopped ringing once Aaron was beneath the rotten and scared roof, but the piano was as loud as ever. No use for the flashlight now, its bulb now a dim flicker.

I want to help, Aaron repeated, each word spilling to another time. There was an anger here and he knew he wouldn’t be breathing soon. No matter how many times he did this, in all the years, he was intoxicated by the cocktail of panic, adrenaline, and excitement that blooms just before let it seize him. The sky was bare but the light seemed to spiral, casting shadows that swirled around him. Colors dulled not by dust or time but by unseen gears that turn silent clocks. It’s a strong one, Aaron thought, and it’s about to get a whole lot stronger. He could hear in the empty rooms the sound of tables sliding across the wooden floor and calm voices that urged everyone to line up in a by the door. The small hammers of the school bell swelled to a fever pitch.

Aaron stood at the building's jagged edge, looking out into the field where what remained of the school rested like charred bones of a great beast. Aaron could no longer breathe. His hands remained still beside his sides while he blinked hard into the open air. The music ceased and with it, Aaron’s heart. He fell forward, one arm spilling over the edge, while his eyes adjusted. The crisp mountain air that rushed in his open mouth soon tasted of smoke and ash. His eyes refocused and saw the heavy billows of smoke traveling through the corridor. He stayed low and began to crawl across the floor, his limbs too weak to do any more. Children hurried passed him with staff members as shepherds. Many of them met his gaze, some even stopped long enough to look upon him with wide curious eyes before being shoved from behind to keep moving. His legs felt stronger. Aaron crawled to the edge of the hallway and used the wall to help him stand. Closer, just a little closer. Fire crawled along the ceiling in small rolling waves and Aaron knew that his time was short.

Where are you? He asked, before turning around and walking back. The only door he found closed was marked 212. Here. The knob was hot to the touch. He pulled one of his sleeves over his hand and quickly gave it a twist. Inside he saw a ring of children, twelve in number and none over the age of seven, gathered in the center of the room with joined hands. At the middle of the circle was a woman slumped on the floor. As Aaron walked into the classroom every pair of round eyes turned look to him.

--You don’t belong here the door is too hot to open we don’t know what happened to her you don’t belong here neither does he it hurts to breathe why did they leave us you don’t belong here help us help us help us is she hurt help you don’t belong here—

It will be over soon, Aaron said. He could feel a heavy breath wash over him as the flame began to eat through the walls and ceiling. The children broke their circle and spread a little wider so that Aaron could join them. He sat crossing his legs before holding up his hands to join them, his large palms engulfing their tiny fists like stones. From here Aaron recognized the woman and saw her leg and hands twitching. Looking at them he said-- Stay with me. Each of you will see a stream and when you do, step into its water. There, you will find your release. Keep your eyes on me. Don’t let go. There they waited while the fire spread across the walls and then, in a violent burst, the air was sucked out of their small mouths and fed the flame that swirled around the room setting all to cinder. They could not scream, but they felt the searing. Neither of them let the other go and the world would never know their courage.

I’m so sorry. Aaron felt the grip on his hands tighten; tiny finger nails digging deep into his flesh, while the fire swept them up off the ground for a moment. This would be what he would remember the most: suspended in the air with joined hands, all eyes on him searching for the river he promised as the fire blackened them to ash. What fell back onto the floor was him and nothing else. Aaron blinked hard again and saw himself rolling on the ground, again on the edge of the severed school. The colors looked a little brighter and the light from beyond the building’s ruin poured over his cold body. 

His heart returned to life with sharp raps against the bone of his chest, stumbling before catching rhythm. He couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. Aaron swatted at his body while rolling around the floor, half-believing he was still on fire. Looking at his palms he could see the small crescent shaped marks of fingernails that did indeed draw blood.

From the edge of the building he spotted his station wagon and the toddler’s car seat strapped into the back. Aaron leaned forward, pressing his head against the cold floor and began to weep. He saw himself in the air, looking into their eyes and wide mouths.

He felt himself being pulled down the hall, away from the building's edge, slow at first and then lifting from the floor altogether. Arrested by grief and disbelief while spinning backwards at a speed gaining in momentum. This isn’t supposed to be happening, Aaron said to himself while sailing across the darkening hall. He spun his floating body around and saw the wall at the hall’s end fast approaching. Closing his eyes he put both hands forward and tried to press against the gravity pulling him. The tiles on the wall fell around him while landing with a thump. Aaron rolled onto his stomach, trying to pick himself up before he was pulled into the air again and hurled down the hall toward the opposite end where there was nothing to stop him.

“Shit.”

The hall grew darker the closer he came to the exposed end of the building. The heavy breath he felt wash over him in the class room now made a sublime kind of sense. Five feet from being flung out into the open air to his death his feet began to drag along the floor. He dug the rubber bottom of his heels and leaned back. Three feet away he slowed further and just before spilling over the edge he stopped, falling backward with his sweat-drenched clothes sticking to his skin. The world around him went black in the way a room appears as you fall into sleep. The building groaned and buckled, as if it would collapse upon itself, then nothing more.

He stood up, his muscles and limbs in knots. He found his backpack halfway down the stairs-- its contents exposed-- which he gathered together while trying to slow his heart down. He fell out of the window he came in, covering his arms and jeans in mud, then carried himself across the tall grass to his car waiting in the old parking lot.

After fishing around his pockets for the car keys he remembered that he had kept them in the bag. Reaching into the backseat he felt the car rock side to side though none of the trees around him swayed. He plucked his keys out of the small zippered pocket at the top of the bag and started the car. The engine stuttered and a white smoke crept out from beneath the hood. Switching the radio off, Aaron drove in silence through the winding country roads that led back to the highway.

37
11
15
Juice
778 reads
Donate coins to rh.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by rh in portal Simon & Schuster
daylight/divided
He heard it the moment both his feet landed on the tile floor, the music that drifted through the darkness. Aaron crouched there, letting his eyes adjust and watching the dust swirl through the threads of light that poured their way through rents in thick concrete and brick walls wrought by time’s neglect. He had found an opening in the building through a window outside covered by thin plywood that gave with little effort. There were dozens of hard plastic tables layered with soot, their colors alternating between faded shades of the primary colors and lined up in symmetrical aisles that centered themselves in front of a wide stage set two feet off the ground. This was the school’s cafeteria. He caught the name of the piece that was playing-- Debussy, and horribly out of tune. The felt hammers of the piano fell upon the steel strings in a lazy, uneven, way, ringing along the walls and through the halls of the old Oleander Elementary. The new school had been built five miles south to replace this one years ago after a fire devoured an entire wing of the building, reducing the U shape to an L. Aaron tried not to concern himself with the number of school children and staff. Numbers meant a great deal to the living but not to the dead, and the dead is who he had his business with.

He reached into the cargo net of his backpack and pulled out a flashlight, moving it in slow arcs throughout the room. Aaron knew he was seen already, he could always feel them stare. Not here, he thought, and then began to walk down the center aisle toward the stage. The fire had taken place between breakfast and lunch, there was to be an assembly that day, wood props of trees and homes were set, the crimson colored curtains drawn back. The dust patterns on the stage told him that the curtains had just been pulled. The piano continued to play, verse by verse in that clumsy way; here, Aaron knew, something strong would be laid to rest today. No echoes. Any sound Aaron made was suffocated the moment it escaped by a weight pressing against him in the school, a gravity.

“I’m here to help.” His voice was calm, but still audible. Aaron tried again, “I’m here to help.” This time, only ‘I’m’ and ‘to’ were heard.
I want to help, he said. This time it worked. The curtains and rod fell and landed with a sharp crack that was smothered at once.
Show me where, Aaron said, his voice stolen before it could know the air.
Show me. The school bell began to ring, muted, but still audible.
Thank you, I’ll be quick. Aaron followed the bell out of the cafeteria and into the hall. He crossed the entire length of the first floor, pushing open doors that had been shut for decades and running the tips of his fingers across the rusted desks. Climbing up the steps to the second floor the bell became louder. He took the ascent with care, over the years he had seen much and his recklessness was often punished. Aaron had to be more careful, he was a father now, and over-confidence was no longer on the table. Reaching the top step, the bell became clear. If you were to stand outside, you would never know it was happening. Every step Aaron took was like lens finding focus in the distance. He walked down the second floor hall toward the severed end of the school. A patchwork of tarps had been placed over the exposed roof eaten by flame with the intention of preserving whatever it was inside for history. No one could agree that museum and memorial may as well mean the same thing. 

A storm had blown in the previous night and unbound half the clasps that held the tarp to the roof, leaving the furthest end of the hall exposed to the open air. The bell stopped ringing once Aaron was beneath the rotten and scared roof, but the piano was as loud as ever. No use for the flashlight now, its bulb now a dim flicker.
I want to help, Aaron repeated, each word spilling to another time. There was an anger here and he knew he wouldn’t be breathing soon. No matter how many times he did this, in all the years, he was intoxicated by the cocktail of panic, adrenaline, and excitement that blooms just before let it seize him. The sky was bare but the light seemed to spiral, casting shadows that swirled around him. Colors dulled not by dust or time but by unseen gears that turn silent clocks. It’s a strong one, Aaron thought, and it’s about to get a whole lot stronger. He could hear in the empty rooms the sound of tables sliding across the wooden floor and calm voices that urged everyone to line up in a by the door. The small hammers of the school bell swelled to a fever pitch.

Aaron stood at the building's jagged edge, looking out into the field where what remained of the school rested like charred bones of a great beast. Aaron could no longer breathe. His hands remained still beside his sides while he blinked hard into the open air. The music ceased and with it, Aaron’s heart. He fell forward, one arm spilling over the edge, while his eyes adjusted. The crisp mountain air that rushed in his open mouth soon tasted of smoke and ash. His eyes refocused and saw the heavy billows of smoke traveling through the corridor. He stayed low and began to crawl across the floor, his limbs too weak to do any more. Children hurried passed him with staff members as shepherds. Many of them met his gaze, some even stopped long enough to look upon him with wide curious eyes before being shoved from behind to keep moving. His legs felt stronger. Aaron crawled to the edge of the hallway and used the wall to help him stand. Closer, just a little closer. Fire crawled along the ceiling in small rolling waves and Aaron knew that his time was short.

Where are you? He asked, before turning around and walking back. The only door he found closed was marked 212. Here. The knob was hot to the touch. He pulled one of his sleeves over his hand and quickly gave it a twist. Inside he saw a ring of children, twelve in number and none over the age of seven, gathered in the center of the room with joined hands. At the middle of the circle was a woman slumped on the floor. As Aaron walked into the classroom every pair of round eyes turned look to him.

--You don’t belong here the door is too hot to open we don’t know what happened to her you don’t belong here neither does he it hurts to breathe why did they leave us you don’t belong here help us help us help us is she hurt help you don’t belong here—

It will be over soon, Aaron said. He could feel a heavy breath wash over him as the flame began to eat through the walls and ceiling. The children broke their circle and spread a little wider so that Aaron could join them. He sat crossing his legs before holding up his hands to join them, his large palms engulfing their tiny fists like stones. From here Aaron recognized the woman and saw her leg and hands twitching. Looking at them he said-- Stay with me. Each of you will see a stream and when you do, step into its water. There, you will find your release. Keep your eyes on me. Don’t let go. There they waited while the fire spread across the walls and then, in a violent burst, the air was sucked out of their small mouths and fed the flame that swirled around the room setting all to cinder. They could not scream, but they felt the searing. Neither of them let the other go and the world would never know their courage.

I’m so sorry. Aaron felt the grip on his hands tighten; tiny finger nails digging deep into his flesh, while the fire swept them up off the ground for a moment. This would be what he would remember the most: suspended in the air with joined hands, all eyes on him searching for the river he promised as the fire blackened them to ash. What fell back onto the floor was him and nothing else. Aaron blinked hard again and saw himself rolling on the ground, again on the edge of the severed school. The colors looked a little brighter and the light from beyond the building’s ruin poured over his cold body. 

His heart returned to life with sharp raps against the bone of his chest, stumbling before catching rhythm. He couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. Aaron swatted at his body while rolling around the floor, half-believing he was still on fire. Looking at his palms he could see the small crescent shaped marks of fingernails that did indeed draw blood.

From the edge of the building he spotted his station wagon and the toddler’s car seat strapped into the back. Aaron leaned forward, pressing his head against the cold floor and began to weep. He saw himself in the air, looking into their eyes and wide mouths.
He felt himself being pulled down the hall, away from the building's edge, slow at first and then lifting from the floor altogether. Arrested by grief and disbelief while spinning backwards at a speed gaining in momentum. This isn’t supposed to be happening, Aaron said to himself while sailing across the darkening hall. He spun his floating body around and saw the wall at the hall’s end fast approaching. Closing his eyes he put both hands forward and tried to press against the gravity pulling him. The tiles on the wall fell around him while landing with a thump. Aaron rolled onto his stomach, trying to pick himself up before he was pulled into the air again and hurled down the hall toward the opposite end where there was nothing to stop him.

“Shit.”

The hall grew darker the closer he came to the exposed end of the building. The heavy breath he felt wash over him in the class room now made a sublime kind of sense. Five feet from being flung out into the open air to his death his feet began to drag along the floor. He dug the rubber bottom of his heels and leaned back. Three feet away he slowed further and just before spilling over the edge he stopped, falling backward with his sweat-drenched clothes sticking to his skin. The world around him went black in the way a room appears as you fall into sleep. The building groaned and buckled, as if it would collapse upon itself, then nothing more.

He stood up, his muscles and limbs in knots. He found his backpack halfway down the stairs-- its contents exposed-- which he gathered together while trying to slow his heart down. He fell out of the window he came in, covering his arms and jeans in mud, then carried himself across the tall grass to his car waiting in the old parking lot.
After fishing around his pockets for the car keys he remembered that he had kept them in the bag. Reaching into the backseat he felt the car rock side to side though none of the trees around him swayed. He plucked his keys out of the small zippered pocket at the top of the bag and started the car. The engine stuttered and a white smoke crept out from beneath the hood. Switching the radio off, Aaron drove in silence through the winding country roads that led back to the highway.
37
11
15
Juice
778 reads
Load 15 Comments
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to awitthohn.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by awitthohn in portal Simon & Schuster

Villa of the Deaf Man

I cannot say whether it was the Basque, midwinter humidity or whether it was some semblance of a spirit that infected my mind that Christmas Eve. After having crossed the border from France and being about a day’s hike from Pamplona I had strayed from my path and wandered into a valley filled with green pastures and low hanging fog. Zugarramurdi was a quiet town settled in the bosom of the hills and it was there that I found a hostel to sleep for the night.

As quickly as I lay down to sleep a storm had rushed in like an unwanted visitor who, banging on my window, demanded entry into the empty hostel. A few times during the night I was startled awake by what sounded like the fists of God pounding against the oak shutters. On the third instance, I leaped up out of bed and landed on my tired legs, weary from days of hiking the Basque country, and flung open the window and its shutters allowing the wind to breathe in and out of the opening. Exhausted and feeling defeated, I sat back onto the bed and stared at the sky awash with dark gray hues. Half asleep, I walked myself down to the front desk where the old woman who had checked me in still sat, stirring a spoon into her tea, reading some untitled tome. Somehow, if only for a moment, I had lost my words and stared deeply into the cup where she made gentle circles, its color like that of the cloudy night outside.

“Zer,” she said, but upon looking up at my confusion switched to Spanish, “que?”

“No puedo dormir.”

She set her book face down on the counter and looking up inquisitively asked, “la tormenta?” I nodded.

Getting up, she motioned for me to follow her behind the counter and lead me through a door into the kitchen. She had a little kerosene camping lantern which she lit, pumping the dull flame into a most singular and poignant point of light. Next, she found her way through the darkness to a step ladder, placing it near the foot a large wooden shelf filled with oddly shaped bottles. As she raised the lantern I could see by its light that each bottle contained herbs or powders, occasionally a liquid elixir gleamed as the lantern light passed over it. She pulled a few bottles off the shelf, set them on the counter, and lit the stove. She took a bottle of what looked like wine from a rack in the corner. Pouring the wine into a pot she heated it to a boil before mixing in measured amounts of whatever she had plucked from the shelf. When she was finished; she turned off the stove, put out her lamp, and handed me a cup of the concoction. It certainly smelled of wine, though, when I tasted the substance my mouth was filled with a bitter, medicinal punch.

My mouth numbed as I lay down. I sunk into the mattress to the clashes of thunder and thundering shutters slammed against my windowsill. I found myself at home. I was splayed out like a buffet on a table except that there were no places set and no candles lit. The empty candelabra next to my mother’s potpourri sent shivers like shocks of electricity down my spine. I had never seen the family heirloom unadorned. I tried to move but could not—paralyzed—whether by fear or by noxious concoction I had no idea. I lay there alone with the darkness closing in around me. Then, from the abyss, emerged my father. His hair had frayed, grown long and gray, while his bulging eyes seemed to dart around the empty unknown where our dining room had been. Now nothing remained but the table, my father, and myself. When his gaze connected with mine I felt a pang of fear in my chest as he bore down on me, a ravenous beast. His pearly white teeth bore into my flesh, his great hands grasped my torso, wrapping all the way around my body, he tore off chunks of raw meat. I watched him devour both an arm and my heart before his mighty jaws came down on my head.

I awoke in a pool of sweat.

Outside, it seemed hours had gone by and the rain had slowed to a gentle drizzle. When I opened the window once more the sky had turned ochre and seemed the hover above the earth like a like a muddy shell. Among the pitter patter of the rain, I began to hear something crescendo in from the landscape. The whining yowls of a banshee came riding in on the breeze.

I closed the windows quickly and resolved to forget the sound. I lay there, eyes wide open, trying to forget. When I knew, I could not simply put that piercing sound from my mind, I stood up again, putting on my boots and a windbreaker. I crept downstairs and slipped out the front door into the elements and down the main avenue. Rain tapped against my back and filled the cracks in the cobblestone, here and there rivulets carried soil downhill. Following the sound out of town, I found myself on top of a steep embankment where a trail cut through the mountainside. The yowling grew louder until I was looking down upon a deep patch of mud. The head of a dog stuck out and struggled to free its body, but the poor creature had been engulfed up to its neck in thick mud. I slid down the embankment, boots caked in brown, and as I did the dog calmed and looked up at me. Its ears pushed back, its gaze was helpless. I loomed over the animal, my shadow cast over it like a judge peering down from his bench, the moon my seal of jurisdiction. Soon enough, I identified where its limbs were, buried my hands into the prison, and pulled slowly and steadily upward until the torso was exposed. From there, I wrapped one arm around the dog’s belly, dug the heels of my boots into the firm soil, and yanked until the creature came free.

I lay there heaving, both of us heaving, covered in mud that was slowly spritzed away by the rain. When I caught my breath, I slung the animal over my shoulders and carried it up the embankment. When I set down the dog it took off in the opposite direction of the town. As I said, I do not know what spirit had taken hold of me as I chased after the hound, dashing into the forest where I was met with a series of switchbacks. Below I spotted the dog through the trees and still further down the slope I saw a hovering light beckon me downward. I snuck up on three elderly women hobbling down the side of the mountain. They chattered to themselves in Basque and I could not understand what they were saying. When the hound overtook them they greeted it by name and the four figures followed the path down into a ravine. There, they were met with a procession of men, women, and children, some hooded and hunched, who all were filtering into the mouth of a large cave. For fear of being discovered, I hid behind tree trunks and boulders as the sounds of drums and chants boomed from the throat of the cavern. Keeping my distance, I crept around the side of the cave to where an overhead window emitted a spear of light out into the black.

Below me the cavern dropped down like the belly of a whale, roaring bonfires lit up the congregation as the last of the procession found their seats. The roar of crowd met with the roar of the fires and the drums and the lyres and the accordions played roaring hymns like I had never heard before. Directly below me, two grizzled men huddled against one another with bowls of soup, the shoveled it, slurping into their skeletal faces. They were only two of around two thousand that blanketed the cave floor. I also saw groups of men huddled together reading from books and stroking their beards. Women laughed at their astute postures, mimicking them behind their backs. At the front sat an altar adorned with an iron eagle. Aside from the crowd stood an old man beside the altar, his hair and beard, long and white. He rested on a cane. Behind him a bald man with a disfigured face shouted into his ear over the crowd as the elder nodded calmly, checking his digital wristwatch.

As the drums grew in volume before dropping away altogether the crowd quickly silenced along with them and a ram was brought forth from out of the crowded and slaughtered upon the altar. I couldn’t help but wince as I watched its throat open and blood spilled down the steps toward the feet of the crowd. They were barbarians. I wanted to run away but instead grasped the cross around my neck and held fast. From the crowd grew a booming cheer and then the sound of stomping feet began like thunder from below as they waved their hands out in front of themselves. The old man lifted the limp body of the animal into the air and flung it into a pit directly behind the altar.

Like a snake from its basket, something huge, white, and hideous rose from that place in a cloud of incense smoke. Straining my eyes to see what had emerged if found myself focused in on the snow-white head of the ram, attached to the shoulders of a pale muscular man. That devil climbed over the altar, arms raised, and was met with a resounding cheer. As quickly as he had come, a hush now swept over the congregation. The he-goat sat down on the steps, cross-legged, and began to preach in a language I could not discern.

For some time, the entire mass commenced in this fashion as they gazed upon the dark figure in pale robes and listened to its teachings. He sat like the Buddha, held his hands like Christ, and spoke in the thundering voice of a father. When finally he stood, he switched to Spanish, “donde esta Judith?” A woman stood waving her hand amidst the crowd and she was ushered down to the front and handed the athame they’d used to open the ram’s throat. “y donde esta Holofernes?” he asked again. He was met only with silence until slowly all heads seemed to turn like a wave until they reached the two men directly below me and I realized the entire congregation was staring directly at me.

My heart dropped into my stomach.

I got up and ran. I ran up the switchbacks and along the embankment. Suddenly, the dog I had saved was running with me but the path had turned to mud and clung to my boots, behind us I could hear the thundering of drums and saw lamps flicker amidst the trees. My breath began to burn, my heart began to pound, I could see the town surfacing in the distance. Somehow I reached the hostel, ran up the stairs, and bolted the door behind me. I didn’t dare to look out the window for fear of what I might see.

In the morning, I was greeted with breakfast by the old woman. She came in early and asked why I had left last night. I told her my story and she laughed.

“I think, too much wine.”

I tried to explain, even lead her to the cave, but no tracks remained, no scorch marks on the floor of the cave, no blood, no scraps of food. I could see the images so clearly on the walls of my mind, that torment, completely contained within a silent home.

8
3
0
Juice
102 reads
Donate coins to awitthohn.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by awitthohn in portal Simon & Schuster
Villa of the Deaf Man
I cannot say whether it was the Basque, midwinter humidity or whether it was some semblance of a spirit that infected my mind that Christmas Eve. After having crossed the border from France and being about a day’s hike from Pamplona I had strayed from my path and wandered into a valley filled with green pastures and low hanging fog. Zugarramurdi was a quiet town settled in the bosom of the hills and it was there that I found a hostel to sleep for the night.

As quickly as I lay down to sleep a storm had rushed in like an unwanted visitor who, banging on my window, demanded entry into the empty hostel. A few times during the night I was startled awake by what sounded like the fists of God pounding against the oak shutters. On the third instance, I leaped up out of bed and landed on my tired legs, weary from days of hiking the Basque country, and flung open the window and its shutters allowing the wind to breathe in and out of the opening. Exhausted and feeling defeated, I sat back onto the bed and stared at the sky awash with dark gray hues. Half asleep, I walked myself down to the front desk where the old woman who had checked me in still sat, stirring a spoon into her tea, reading some untitled tome. Somehow, if only for a moment, I had lost my words and stared deeply into the cup where she made gentle circles, its color like that of the cloudy night outside.

“Zer,” she said, but upon looking up at my confusion switched to Spanish, “que?”

“No puedo dormir.”

She set her book face down on the counter and looking up inquisitively asked, “la tormenta?” I nodded.

Getting up, she motioned for me to follow her behind the counter and lead me through a door into the kitchen. She had a little kerosene camping lantern which she lit, pumping the dull flame into a most singular and poignant point of light. Next, she found her way through the darkness to a step ladder, placing it near the foot a large wooden shelf filled with oddly shaped bottles. As she raised the lantern I could see by its light that each bottle contained herbs or powders, occasionally a liquid elixir gleamed as the lantern light passed over it. She pulled a few bottles off the shelf, set them on the counter, and lit the stove. She took a bottle of what looked like wine from a rack in the corner. Pouring the wine into a pot she heated it to a boil before mixing in measured amounts of whatever she had plucked from the shelf. When she was finished; she turned off the stove, put out her lamp, and handed me a cup of the concoction. It certainly smelled of wine, though, when I tasted the substance my mouth was filled with a bitter, medicinal punch.

My mouth numbed as I lay down. I sunk into the mattress to the clashes of thunder and thundering shutters slammed against my windowsill. I found myself at home. I was splayed out like a buffet on a table except that there were no places set and no candles lit. The empty candelabra next to my mother’s potpourri sent shivers like shocks of electricity down my spine. I had never seen the family heirloom unadorned. I tried to move but could not—paralyzed—whether by fear or by noxious concoction I had no idea. I lay there alone with the darkness closing in around me. Then, from the abyss, emerged my father. His hair had frayed, grown long and gray, while his bulging eyes seemed to dart around the empty unknown where our dining room had been. Now nothing remained but the table, my father, and myself. When his gaze connected with mine I felt a pang of fear in my chest as he bore down on me, a ravenous beast. His pearly white teeth bore into my flesh, his great hands grasped my torso, wrapping all the way around my body, he tore off chunks of raw meat. I watched him devour both an arm and my heart before his mighty jaws came down on my head.

I awoke in a pool of sweat.

Outside, it seemed hours had gone by and the rain had slowed to a gentle drizzle. When I opened the window once more the sky had turned ochre and seemed the hover above the earth like a like a muddy shell. Among the pitter patter of the rain, I began to hear something crescendo in from the landscape. The whining yowls of a banshee came riding in on the breeze.

I closed the windows quickly and resolved to forget the sound. I lay there, eyes wide open, trying to forget. When I knew, I could not simply put that piercing sound from my mind, I stood up again, putting on my boots and a windbreaker. I crept downstairs and slipped out the front door into the elements and down the main avenue. Rain tapped against my back and filled the cracks in the cobblestone, here and there rivulets carried soil downhill. Following the sound out of town, I found myself on top of a steep embankment where a trail cut through the mountainside. The yowling grew louder until I was looking down upon a deep patch of mud. The head of a dog stuck out and struggled to free its body, but the poor creature had been engulfed up to its neck in thick mud. I slid down the embankment, boots caked in brown, and as I did the dog calmed and looked up at me. Its ears pushed back, its gaze was helpless. I loomed over the animal, my shadow cast over it like a judge peering down from his bench, the moon my seal of jurisdiction. Soon enough, I identified where its limbs were, buried my hands into the prison, and pulled slowly and steadily upward until the torso was exposed. From there, I wrapped one arm around the dog’s belly, dug the heels of my boots into the firm soil, and yanked until the creature came free.

I lay there heaving, both of us heaving, covered in mud that was slowly spritzed away by the rain. When I caught my breath, I slung the animal over my shoulders and carried it up the embankment. When I set down the dog it took off in the opposite direction of the town. As I said, I do not know what spirit had taken hold of me as I chased after the hound, dashing into the forest where I was met with a series of switchbacks. Below I spotted the dog through the trees and still further down the slope I saw a hovering light beckon me downward. I snuck up on three elderly women hobbling down the side of the mountain. They chattered to themselves in Basque and I could not understand what they were saying. When the hound overtook them they greeted it by name and the four figures followed the path down into a ravine. There, they were met with a procession of men, women, and children, some hooded and hunched, who all were filtering into the mouth of a large cave. For fear of being discovered, I hid behind tree trunks and boulders as the sounds of drums and chants boomed from the throat of the cavern. Keeping my distance, I crept around the side of the cave to where an overhead window emitted a spear of light out into the black.

Below me the cavern dropped down like the belly of a whale, roaring bonfires lit up the congregation as the last of the procession found their seats. The roar of crowd met with the roar of the fires and the drums and the lyres and the accordions played roaring hymns like I had never heard before. Directly below me, two grizzled men huddled against one another with bowls of soup, the shoveled it, slurping into their skeletal faces. They were only two of around two thousand that blanketed the cave floor. I also saw groups of men huddled together reading from books and stroking their beards. Women laughed at their astute postures, mimicking them behind their backs. At the front sat an altar adorned with an iron eagle. Aside from the crowd stood an old man beside the altar, his hair and beard, long and white. He rested on a cane. Behind him a bald man with a disfigured face shouted into his ear over the crowd as the elder nodded calmly, checking his digital wristwatch.

As the drums grew in volume before dropping away altogether the crowd quickly silenced along with them and a ram was brought forth from out of the crowded and slaughtered upon the altar. I couldn’t help but wince as I watched its throat open and blood spilled down the steps toward the feet of the crowd. They were barbarians. I wanted to run away but instead grasped the cross around my neck and held fast. From the crowd grew a booming cheer and then the sound of stomping feet began like thunder from below as they waved their hands out in front of themselves. The old man lifted the limp body of the animal into the air and flung it into a pit directly behind the altar.

Like a snake from its basket, something huge, white, and hideous rose from that place in a cloud of incense smoke. Straining my eyes to see what had emerged if found myself focused in on the snow-white head of the ram, attached to the shoulders of a pale muscular man. That devil climbed over the altar, arms raised, and was met with a resounding cheer. As quickly as he had come, a hush now swept over the congregation. The he-goat sat down on the steps, cross-legged, and began to preach in a language I could not discern.

For some time, the entire mass commenced in this fashion as they gazed upon the dark figure in pale robes and listened to its teachings. He sat like the Buddha, held his hands like Christ, and spoke in the thundering voice of a father. When finally he stood, he switched to Spanish, “donde esta Judith?” A woman stood waving her hand amidst the crowd and she was ushered down to the front and handed the athame they’d used to open the ram’s throat. “y donde esta Holofernes?” he asked again. He was met only with silence until slowly all heads seemed to turn like a wave until they reached the two men directly below me and I realized the entire congregation was staring directly at me.
My heart dropped into my stomach.

I got up and ran. I ran up the switchbacks and along the embankment. Suddenly, the dog I had saved was running with me but the path had turned to mud and clung to my boots, behind us I could hear the thundering of drums and saw lamps flicker amidst the trees. My breath began to burn, my heart began to pound, I could see the town surfacing in the distance. Somehow I reached the hostel, ran up the stairs, and bolted the door behind me. I didn’t dare to look out the window for fear of what I might see.

In the morning, I was greeted with breakfast by the old woman. She came in early and asked why I had left last night. I told her my story and she laughed.

“I think, too much wine.”

I tried to explain, even lead her to the cave, but no tracks remained, no scorch marks on the floor of the cave, no blood, no scraps of food. I could see the images so clearly on the walls of my mind, that torment, completely contained within a silent home.
8
3
0
Juice
102 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Tbisco.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Tbisco in portal Simon & Schuster

One Night at Giovanni's

Giovanni's Dining hung inconspicuously in a small alley on 4th Avenue in New York City. To a random passerby, it would look like one of those alleys you see in the crime dramas; where the opening scene takes place and someone gets murdered. For the venturous and well-informed, it was an intimate little Italian restaurant with the best foods from every region of Italy.

Marco Eris was a regular. He sat in the far right corner of the restaurant, away from the entrance and opposite to the kitchen. A seat designed for lovers, newlyweds and those hoping to spark up their romance. It was housed in a cocoon of twinkling lights wrapped along faux grape vines with a mural of the Adriatic Sea painted along the walls. For Marco, he took it as his own. A place not of love, but escape.

"Some more, sir?" asked the waiter, holding out a bottle of Brunello. Marco nodded while staring idly at his phone.

There was always something to check. Always someone that would be expecting him to know something or solve this and that problem. Marco earned his life this way and even in his escape, he was bound to it. Like a symbiotic relationship, his work kept his wallet healthy so long as he gave it the attention it needed.

"Your appetizer will be out shortly, sir," the waiter said as he was passing by. Then he paused. "And I hope you won't mind, but tonight the chef wished to do something different. He is wondering if you would mind having all your courses out at once? He feels each dish may enhance the next."

"Yes, sure," muttered Marco as he responded to another inquiry on his phone.

After the waiter left, he put down his phone and scanned the restaurant. There was the usual crowd. The extraordinarily wealthy businessmen, in black suits and shiny bald heads with their trophy women, all at least 20 years younger. Whether they were their wives or mistresses, no one could ever be certain. But this was not a place for questions like that. This was a place to enjoy luxury. To feel like the world was at your fingertips.

Marco's phone vibrated. He picked it up and saw it was his wife, Fiona. She hoped he was having a good night and not to get too rowdy while she was away. As of now, she was in their villa in Mexico. Probably about to get fucked by the pool boy again as she did last night and the night before. Marco saw it on the hidden cameras, but he could not blame her. He was no better.

"And we have the bruschetta topped with grilled prosciutto, sliced parmesan, and tomatoes," said the waiter, placing the first dish in front of Marco. He walked back to the kitchen and brought out a small bowl of soup. "Fresh Italian Wedding with handmade orzo, housemade meatballs."

"Hmph," scuffed Marco. He did not enjoy having soup before a meal. To him, it was a waste of stomach real estate.

"Is everything alright, sir?" the waiter asked.

"Yes, just hurry up with the main dish."

The waiter briskly walked towards the kitchen, ignoring a request for water from a couple along the way. Out he came with a steamy plate, ignoring the couple once again and placed it on the table. It was chicken parmesan and looked like something from any rundown diner in the city.

"Are you fucking kidding me?"

The waiter appeared distraught and stepped away to help another table.

"Hey!" yelled Marco. "You better tell that dickhead chef I'm not paying for this garbage. I don't care how it tastes, this is ridiculous!"

The waiter was finally flagged by the couple needing water and went to the kitchen to retrieve some.

"Really enhance the dish, huh?" Marco muttered to himself. "Yeah, this other stuff might help make up for that shit." And Marco began to eat.

He started with the soup. Despite his disposition, it was incredible. The broth was balanced as if on a tightrope that never teetered too far from the center. Then he crunched into the bruschetta. It sang melodies that brought his taste buds to tears. Finally, there was nothing left to try but the chicken parmesan.

The idea of eating it almost brought pain to Marco's chest. It was almost an insult to fine dining, to all his loyalty to this hidden eatery. He picked up his knife and fork and placed them aggressively on tomato-sauced chicken as if he were a serial killer about to disembowel his victim. As he cut, a blackened sludge from the inside poured out.

Marco sat back, aghast. "What the fuck?" he said loudly, but no one in the restaurant turned their head.

The meat appeared rotten. There was an algae-like fuzz among the black flakes of meat. Marco pushed the meat apart with his fork, separately the pieces of rotten flesh.

"Waiter!" he called. But the waiter kept running his rounds.

"This is ridiculous," said Marco and he tried to stand but his legs wouldn't let him. It was as if he glued in place. No matter how hard he fought, his legs would not lift.

As he pressed himself against the edges of his chair, he watched as the rest of his food began to turn. The bread of the bruschetta grew moldy, the broth of the soup went pale, and the aroma of death began to waft through the air. Even the restaurant began to change.

First went the trellises. The great network of white-painted scaffolds that supported the faux grapes vines through the restaurant began to break apart. Most fell without consequence, but some landed on tables and knocked over glasses. Still, the patrons carried on as if nothing happened. And that was when the place began to crumble.

The walls of the building collapsed, followed by the building on the other side of the alley. Then, the streets lay exposed but continued to run with the hustle and bustle of traffic. Beyond, one by one, the buildings New York fell to the ground. And with nothing left to protect Marco from the elements, the cold winds of the night blew through.

"What the fuck?" cried Marco as he shook in his chair.

His phone vibrated. He checked it. "999 missed messages, 999 missed calls." Marco flipped through and checked each message and call. They all turned up blank. Every message was empty and every missed call had no number. In a bout of desperation, he tried dialing his wife.

The phone rang and rang once more before connecting. It switched immediately to facetime and Marco watched the moaning face of his wife and the pool boy having his way with her. She looked at Marco for a moment and smiled before throwing the phone on the ground. It rested, looking up at the two-headed beast.

Marco threw his phone onto the ground in repulsion. It landed on the concrete, scraping against the light coat of sand that blew along the ground. Through his tears, Marco gazed around at what was once Giovanni's Dining to find a desolate landscape of sand and broken rock. The patrons were reduced to skeletons, yet they still seemed to be smiling.

Marco, broken and alone, cast his head into his hands. He wept like he never had before. He felt the sum of all his parts come to life. For all he planted in life rotted beneath him, for all he neglected to nurture lay withered at his feet. Wrapped in his despair he heard the patter of footsteps.

The waiter stood next to his table with a bottle of Brunello.

"Some more, sir?" he asked.

Marco seemed to awake from his nightmare. He looked around at the restaurant walls and the customers who were happily in conversation with each other. Pavarotti filled the air. On his table, were a set of unused utensils and an empty wine glass.

Did he drink too much? He didn’t know. What he did know was the reflection of his life was not a false cloak of illusion. It was as much a nightmare as it was his reality. Only change could change his fate. Change and the effort to change. He would have to do away with the restaurant, with his job, with his life and start all over again. Everything would have to be different and it scared him.

“Sir?”

Marco gazed up at the open bottle of wine, pausing for a moment. He gave a grave nod.

"Some more."  

11
2
0
Juice
86 reads
Donate coins to Tbisco.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Tbisco in portal Simon & Schuster
One Night at Giovanni's
Giovanni's Dining hung inconspicuously in a small alley on 4th Avenue in New York City. To a random passerby, it would look like one of those alleys you see in the crime dramas; where the opening scene takes place and someone gets murdered. For the venturous and well-informed, it was an intimate little Italian restaurant with the best foods from every region of Italy.

Marco Eris was a regular. He sat in the far right corner of the restaurant, away from the entrance and opposite to the kitchen. A seat designed for lovers, newlyweds and those hoping to spark up their romance. It was housed in a cocoon of twinkling lights wrapped along faux grape vines with a mural of the Adriatic Sea painted along the walls. For Marco, he took it as his own. A place not of love, but escape.

"Some more, sir?" asked the waiter, holding out a bottle of Brunello. Marco nodded while staring idly at his phone.

There was always something to check. Always someone that would be expecting him to know something or solve this and that problem. Marco earned his life this way and even in his escape, he was bound to it. Like a symbiotic relationship, his work kept his wallet healthy so long as he gave it the attention it needed.

"Your appetizer will be out shortly, sir," the waiter said as he was passing by. Then he paused. "And I hope you won't mind, but tonight the chef wished to do something different. He is wondering if you would mind having all your courses out at once? He feels each dish may enhance the next."

"Yes, sure," muttered Marco as he responded to another inquiry on his phone.

After the waiter left, he put down his phone and scanned the restaurant. There was the usual crowd. The extraordinarily wealthy businessmen, in black suits and shiny bald heads with their trophy women, all at least 20 years younger. Whether they were their wives or mistresses, no one could ever be certain. But this was not a place for questions like that. This was a place to enjoy luxury. To feel like the world was at your fingertips.

Marco's phone vibrated. He picked it up and saw it was his wife, Fiona. She hoped he was having a good night and not to get too rowdy while she was away. As of now, she was in their villa in Mexico. Probably about to get fucked by the pool boy again as she did last night and the night before. Marco saw it on the hidden cameras, but he could not blame her. He was no better.

"And we have the bruschetta topped with grilled prosciutto, sliced parmesan, and tomatoes," said the waiter, placing the first dish in front of Marco. He walked back to the kitchen and brought out a small bowl of soup. "Fresh Italian Wedding with handmade orzo, housemade meatballs."

"Hmph," scuffed Marco. He did not enjoy having soup before a meal. To him, it was a waste of stomach real estate.

"Is everything alright, sir?" the waiter asked.

"Yes, just hurry up with the main dish."

The waiter briskly walked towards the kitchen, ignoring a request for water from a couple along the way. Out he came with a steamy plate, ignoring the couple once again and placed it on the table. It was chicken parmesan and looked like something from any rundown diner in the city.

"Are you fucking kidding me?"

The waiter appeared distraught and stepped away to help another table.

"Hey!" yelled Marco. "You better tell that dickhead chef I'm not paying for this garbage. I don't care how it tastes, this is ridiculous!"

The waiter was finally flagged by the couple needing water and went to the kitchen to retrieve some.

"Really enhance the dish, huh?" Marco muttered to himself. "Yeah, this other stuff might help make up for that shit." And Marco began to eat.

He started with the soup. Despite his disposition, it was incredible. The broth was balanced as if on a tightrope that never teetered too far from the center. Then he crunched into the bruschetta. It sang melodies that brought his taste buds to tears. Finally, there was nothing left to try but the chicken parmesan.

The idea of eating it almost brought pain to Marco's chest. It was almost an insult to fine dining, to all his loyalty to this hidden eatery. He picked up his knife and fork and placed them aggressively on tomato-sauced chicken as if he were a serial killer about to disembowel his victim. As he cut, a blackened sludge from the inside poured out.

Marco sat back, aghast. "What the fuck?" he said loudly, but no one in the restaurant turned their head.

The meat appeared rotten. There was an algae-like fuzz among the black flakes of meat. Marco pushed the meat apart with his fork, separately the pieces of rotten flesh.

"Waiter!" he called. But the waiter kept running his rounds.

"This is ridiculous," said Marco and he tried to stand but his legs wouldn't let him. It was as if he glued in place. No matter how hard he fought, his legs would not lift.

As he pressed himself against the edges of his chair, he watched as the rest of his food began to turn. The bread of the bruschetta grew moldy, the broth of the soup went pale, and the aroma of death began to waft through the air. Even the restaurant began to change.

First went the trellises. The great network of white-painted scaffolds that supported the faux grapes vines through the restaurant began to break apart. Most fell without consequence, but some landed on tables and knocked over glasses. Still, the patrons carried on as if nothing happened. And that was when the place began to crumble.

The walls of the building collapsed, followed by the building on the other side of the alley. Then, the streets lay exposed but continued to run with the hustle and bustle of traffic. Beyond, one by one, the buildings New York fell to the ground. And with nothing left to protect Marco from the elements, the cold winds of the night blew through.

"What the fuck?" cried Marco as he shook in his chair.

His phone vibrated. He checked it. "999 missed messages, 999 missed calls." Marco flipped through and checked each message and call. They all turned up blank. Every message was empty and every missed call had no number. In a bout of desperation, he tried dialing his wife.

The phone rang and rang once more before connecting. It switched immediately to facetime and Marco watched the moaning face of his wife and the pool boy having his way with her. She looked at Marco for a moment and smiled before throwing the phone on the ground. It rested, looking up at the two-headed beast.

Marco threw his phone onto the ground in repulsion. It landed on the concrete, scraping against the light coat of sand that blew along the ground. Through his tears, Marco gazed around at what was once Giovanni's Dining to find a desolate landscape of sand and broken rock. The patrons were reduced to skeletons, yet they still seemed to be smiling.

Marco, broken and alone, cast his head into his hands. He wept like he never had before. He felt the sum of all his parts come to life. For all he planted in life rotted beneath him, for all he neglected to nurture lay withered at his feet. Wrapped in his despair he heard the patter of footsteps.

The waiter stood next to his table with a bottle of Brunello.

"Some more, sir?" he asked.

Marco seemed to awake from his nightmare. He looked around at the restaurant walls and the customers who were happily in conversation with each other. Pavarotti filled the air. On his table, were a set of unused utensils and an empty wine glass.

Did he drink too much? He didn’t know. What he did know was the reflection of his life was not a false cloak of illusion. It was as much a nightmare as it was his reality. Only change could change his fate. Change and the effort to change. He would have to do away with the restaurant, with his job, with his life and start all over again. Everything would have to be different and it scared him.

“Sir?”

Marco gazed up at the open bottle of wine, pausing for a moment. He gave a grave nod.

"Some more."  
11
2
0
Juice
86 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Elliwrite.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Elliwrite in portal Simon & Schuster

Dear Laura : Dad and the A-bomb

Prologue –– Freedom

There was only one fact that I knew in the beginning. My dad stood six-foot-two inches tall and weighed eighty pounds when the U. S. Marines rescued him on a beach at Hatmamatsu, Japan in September, 1945.

This is a little-known story that took place during the last time an entire world was at war, in a part of the world that remains a mystery to most Westerners––Indonesia and Japan.

I wouldn’t know the entire story until the year Dad died, and neither would he. I wrapped up the ending to Dad’s story and gave it to him for his 92nd birthday. I’ll never fully comprehend the kind of fortitude, endurance, courage and grace he’d needed to cultivate in order to survive an experience that would crush the souls of most people.

But, he didn’t just survive. He thrived. This book is dedicated to people longing to do the same.

Chapter 1 –– A need for six nails

In July of 1986 at our home perched in the hills of Echo Park in downtown Los Angeles, my brother Mike had joined my husband and I in the celebration of our daughter’s first birthday.

I squatted down on our huge redwood deck to help Candice walk into the house, ridiculously excited to let her loose on her first birthday cake. On the dining room table sat a traditional, German log roll sponge cake topped with two pink candles. I’d continued mom’s tradition of baking the cake and also her tradition of always including a candle to grow-on.

My daughter’s hand in mine, we toddled into the house. Mike glanced at the little wooden bench Candy used to steady herself. A bench my dad had made with her a few months before––another tradition. My brothers, sister and I had all made them with Dad as children. We used them to sit upon while weeding in our garden, or to put things within our reach.

As I lifted my baby into her high chair, Mike pointed to the bench and offhandedly whispered, "Concentration camp bench.”

“What are you talking about?” I said in a hushed tone as if such a thing could shield my baby from the ugly words.

“Ask Dad,” my brother said.

For me, this is where the story begins.

Before my brother whispered those three words on Candice’s first birthday, we’d never spoken of Dad’s WWII experience. I don’t recall when I learned the news for the first time. I seemed to have been born knowing Dad had been a Japanese POW, the fact flowed through my veins as much a part of me as my skin or hair.

After Candy’s birthday and some soul-searching, I wrote Dad a letter asking him to tell me the story about his first wooden bench. This began a decade-long adventure and involve a quest to uncover the truth. To put long-since forgotten pieces of Dad’s life back together again. To do what he’d spent a lifetime trying not to do––remember.

I’d ask questions. Dad would answer. I’ve interviewed many people in my writing career, but the most interesting interview of my life wasn’t with Quentin Tarantino, Christian Bale, the latest up-and-coming actress in Hollywood, or an adrenaline-addicted adventurer. The best and most significant interview of my life took place with my dad over stolen moments during our busy lives.

Dad and I exchanged many letters over the years. He was a good letter writer because he comes from a long line of missionaries. They were famous for writing letters because they lived in far-flung parts of the world and longed for news from home. It’s hard to imagine a world without the Internet and instant communication. In those days, letters were the only way to get the news until an invention called the radio changed the world forever.

I’d like to say that receiving Dad’s letters were like receiving little treasures, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Part of his trauma was to do everything he could to protect himself and his family from experiencing danger ever again––any kind of danger.

So along with the answers to my questions, he sent what I fondly called packages of fear. Manilla envelopes filled with articles and books and documentation about the things I needed to be most afraid of––the coming BIG LA earthquake, financial crisis, water shortage, you get the idea. The fear around the envelopes became so palpable to me, that after a few years I asked my then-husband to open them and let me know what was inside. Tucked away within the packages, among the fear, treasures waited to be discovered and explored. Some begged to see the light of day.

The packages were a metaphor for Dad––fear-filled and joy-filled. Confusion ruled over the truth. Together he and I opened his package of fear and brought its contents into the light. Our exploration together unlocked mysteries over a half a century old that had been sealed tight if not almost completely destroyed by trauma or the fog of war. I wouldn’t know it then, and neither would Dad, but his package was missing something very important––the end.

All I knew was I needed answers. And Dad loved to tell stories. In a way, it didn’t really matter to him what stories he told. He whole-heartedly enjoyed the time we spent together and our correspondence by mail. He loved connection. Along the way, he would say that there was no greater treasure than a package delivered by the postman. It would take years for me to understand why.

To get to the heart of Dad’s story, the real story, he had to be brave enough to let me in. In order to do that, I had to show him the patience he’d shown me while working math problems that brought me to tears, repairing cars I’d destroyed, enduring dating disasters and serious boyfriends, giving me away in marriage, the journey of motherhood, the agony of betrayal and divorce and more. Together we’d talk and laugh and drink tea. I am convinced this story would have never seen the light of day without God, the U.S. Post office, tea, Indonesian food, movies, and Mom’s patience.

I am a romantic. This is my great strength and terrible weakness. As I received my answers and they turned into more questions, the developing narrative evolved into something more epic than a dad answering his daughter’s questions. The story transcended the personal. I was writing history.

I dedicated myself to reigning in romanticism’s role in the research and the form the story took. I surrendered to how the story needed to be told. That the story developed from the primary research of one individual was valid from a research perspective, but I couldn’t follow the breadcrumbs unquestioningly.

I had to verify the facts as we discovered them, use a pick axe and goggles to discover others, and allow for many Acts of God––being in the right place in the right part of the world at the right time; randomly meeting people who knew more about the story than I did, pointing me and the story in the right direction. There is no way this story would have been able to be written without Devine intervention. I state this fact in the interest of full-disclosure.

My journey naively began with the search for the answers to my questions. But the real job was to answer Dad’s and in doing so many more stories came to light. Instead of checking off the questions I had, I found myself creating new lists. Originally tangents of this story, I quickly realized that their answers would best be served in books of their own.

The most dramatic settings of Dad’s stories would be the European and Pacific Theaters of WWII. Not many families found themselves in peril in both theaters of the war, but mine did. Escape from one was lucky, escape from both impossible.

Dad’s first letter came without a package of fear. He’d mailed his letter in his signature white business envelope, a no-nonsense black, rubber-stamped return address in the left-hand corner. A handwritten note inside on blue-lined, ruled paper gave me my answer:

“Dear Laura,

When I was seventeen, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy sailed down into the South China Sea.

Suicide dive bombers flew down the stacks of two British battleships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, and sank them both. This destroyed the Allied Navy in the South Pacific.

Singapore surrendered and the Dutch East Indies followed. The Japanese landed on the island of Java where I lived with my family. I would celebrate my nineteenth birthday in a Japanese prison camp. A men's camp. I was a boy.

Our quarters were made of bamboo and thatched palm fronds. In normal Indonesian fashion, the floor was raised over the ground, and we slept on mats on this floor. The benches became our chairs.

By the time I turned 19, I'd learned to adapt. I found an opportunity to work in the kitchen. The rule was that the kitchen help could eat in the kitchen but not take food out of the kitchen. This way, I was not hungry.

My job was to keep the fires under the drums going with firewood provided. We were given a small axe to split the wood. Between meals I had free time and was able to split certain firewood logs into planks. It took a lot of work and the planks were uneven. The legs were two shorter planks braced by sticks.

The real important part of the bench was the need for six nails. Nails were impossible to get. But the prison camp was surrounded by a six-foot barbed wire fence. The posts were made of bamboo and the barbed wire was nailed into the bamboo post. At times, when the guards were not there, I crept to the fence and pulled nails out, being careful to only pull out nails which did not cause the wire to droop. By my 21st birthday, I had a little side business making benches.”

At this point, there were only two facts that I knew about Dad’s experience as a Japanese POW. One was the story of the bench and the other was that my dad was six-foot-two inches tall and weighed eighty pounds when the U. S. Marines rescued him on a beach at Hatmamatsu, Japan in September, 1945.

I had to know what happened in between.

6
0
0
Juice
91 reads
Donate coins to Elliwrite.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Elliwrite in portal Simon & Schuster
Dear Laura : Dad and the A-bomb
Prologue –– Freedom

There was only one fact that I knew in the beginning. My dad stood six-foot-two inches tall and weighed eighty pounds when the U. S. Marines rescued him on a beach at Hatmamatsu, Japan in September, 1945.

This is a little-known story that took place during the last time an entire world was at war, in a part of the world that remains a mystery to most Westerners––Indonesia and Japan.
I wouldn’t know the entire story until the year Dad died, and neither would he. I wrapped up the ending to Dad’s story and gave it to him for his 92nd birthday. I’ll never fully comprehend the kind of fortitude, endurance, courage and grace he’d needed to cultivate in order to survive an experience that would crush the souls of most people.
But, he didn’t just survive. He thrived. This book is dedicated to people longing to do the same.


Chapter 1 –– A need for six nails

In July of 1986 at our home perched in the hills of Echo Park in downtown Los Angeles, my brother Mike had joined my husband and I in the celebration of our daughter’s first birthday.
I squatted down on our huge redwood deck to help Candice walk into the house, ridiculously excited to let her loose on her first birthday cake. On the dining room table sat a traditional, German log roll sponge cake topped with two pink candles. I’d continued mom’s tradition of baking the cake and also her tradition of always including a candle to grow-on.
My daughter’s hand in mine, we toddled into the house. Mike glanced at the little wooden bench Candy used to steady herself. A bench my dad had made with her a few months before––another tradition. My brothers, sister and I had all made them with Dad as children. We used them to sit upon while weeding in our garden, or to put things within our reach.
As I lifted my baby into her high chair, Mike pointed to the bench and offhandedly whispered, "Concentration camp bench.”
“What are you talking about?” I said in a hushed tone as if such a thing could shield my baby from the ugly words.
“Ask Dad,” my brother said.
For me, this is where the story begins.
Before my brother whispered those three words on Candice’s first birthday, we’d never spoken of Dad’s WWII experience. I don’t recall when I learned the news for the first time. I seemed to have been born knowing Dad had been a Japanese POW, the fact flowed through my veins as much a part of me as my skin or hair.
After Candy’s birthday and some soul-searching, I wrote Dad a letter asking him to tell me the story about his first wooden bench. This began a decade-long adventure and involve a quest to uncover the truth. To put long-since forgotten pieces of Dad’s life back together again. To do what he’d spent a lifetime trying not to do––remember.
I’d ask questions. Dad would answer. I’ve interviewed many people in my writing career, but the most interesting interview of my life wasn’t with Quentin Tarantino, Christian Bale, the latest up-and-coming actress in Hollywood, or an adrenaline-addicted adventurer. The best and most significant interview of my life took place with my dad over stolen moments during our busy lives.
Dad and I exchanged many letters over the years. He was a good letter writer because he comes from a long line of missionaries. They were famous for writing letters because they lived in far-flung parts of the world and longed for news from home. It’s hard to imagine a world without the Internet and instant communication. In those days, letters were the only way to get the news until an invention called the radio changed the world forever.
I’d like to say that receiving Dad’s letters were like receiving little treasures, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Part of his trauma was to do everything he could to protect himself and his family from experiencing danger ever again––any kind of danger.
So along with the answers to my questions, he sent what I fondly called packages of fear. Manilla envelopes filled with articles and books and documentation about the things I needed to be most afraid of––the coming BIG LA earthquake, financial crisis, water shortage, you get the idea. The fear around the envelopes became so palpable to me, that after a few years I asked my then-husband to open them and let me know what was inside. Tucked away within the packages, among the fear, treasures waited to be discovered and explored. Some begged to see the light of day.
The packages were a metaphor for Dad––fear-filled and joy-filled. Confusion ruled over the truth. Together he and I opened his package of fear and brought its contents into the light. Our exploration together unlocked mysteries over a half a century old that had been sealed tight if not almost completely destroyed by trauma or the fog of war. I wouldn’t know it then, and neither would Dad, but his package was missing something very important––the end.
All I knew was I needed answers. And Dad loved to tell stories. In a way, it didn’t really matter to him what stories he told. He whole-heartedly enjoyed the time we spent together and our correspondence by mail. He loved connection. Along the way, he would say that there was no greater treasure than a package delivered by the postman. It would take years for me to understand why.
To get to the heart of Dad’s story, the real story, he had to be brave enough to let me in. In order to do that, I had to show him the patience he’d shown me while working math problems that brought me to tears, repairing cars I’d destroyed, enduring dating disasters and serious boyfriends, giving me away in marriage, the journey of motherhood, the agony of betrayal and divorce and more. Together we’d talk and laugh and drink tea. I am convinced this story would have never seen the light of day without God, the U.S. Post office, tea, Indonesian food, movies, and Mom’s patience.
I am a romantic. This is my great strength and terrible weakness. As I received my answers and they turned into more questions, the developing narrative evolved into something more epic than a dad answering his daughter’s questions. The story transcended the personal. I was writing history.
I dedicated myself to reigning in romanticism’s role in the research and the form the story took. I surrendered to how the story needed to be told. That the story developed from the primary research of one individual was valid from a research perspective, but I couldn’t follow the breadcrumbs unquestioningly.
I had to verify the facts as we discovered them, use a pick axe and goggles to discover others, and allow for many Acts of God––being in the right place in the right part of the world at the right time; randomly meeting people who knew more about the story than I did, pointing me and the story in the right direction. There is no way this story would have been able to be written without Devine intervention. I state this fact in the interest of full-disclosure.
My journey naively began with the search for the answers to my questions. But the real job was to answer Dad’s and in doing so many more stories came to light. Instead of checking off the questions I had, I found myself creating new lists. Originally tangents of this story, I quickly realized that their answers would best be served in books of their own.
The most dramatic settings of Dad’s stories would be the European and Pacific Theaters of WWII. Not many families found themselves in peril in both theaters of the war, but mine did. Escape from one was lucky, escape from both impossible.
Dad’s first letter came without a package of fear. He’d mailed his letter in his signature white business envelope, a no-nonsense black, rubber-stamped return address in the left-hand corner. A handwritten note inside on blue-lined, ruled paper gave me my answer:
“Dear Laura,
When I was seventeen, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy sailed down into the South China Sea.
Suicide dive bombers flew down the stacks of two British battleships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, and sank them both. This destroyed the Allied Navy in the South Pacific.
Singapore surrendered and the Dutch East Indies followed. The Japanese landed on the island of Java where I lived with my family. I would celebrate my nineteenth birthday in a Japanese prison camp. A men's camp. I was a boy.
Our quarters were made of bamboo and thatched palm fronds. In normal Indonesian fashion, the floor was raised over the ground, and we slept on mats on this floor. The benches became our chairs.
By the time I turned 19, I'd learned to adapt. I found an opportunity to work in the kitchen. The rule was that the kitchen help could eat in the kitchen but not take food out of the kitchen. This way, I was not hungry.
My job was to keep the fires under the drums going with firewood provided. We were given a small axe to split the wood. Between meals I had free time and was able to split certain firewood logs into planks. It took a lot of work and the planks were uneven. The legs were two shorter planks braced by sticks.
The real important part of the bench was the need for six nails. Nails were impossible to get. But the prison camp was surrounded by a six-foot barbed wire fence. The posts were made of bamboo and the barbed wire was nailed into the bamboo post. At times, when the guards were not there, I crept to the fence and pulled nails out, being careful to only pull out nails which did not cause the wire to droop. By my 21st birthday, I had a little side business making benches.”
At this point, there were only two facts that I knew about Dad’s experience as a Japanese POW. One was the story of the bench and the other was that my dad was six-foot-two inches tall and weighed eighty pounds when the U. S. Marines rescued him on a beach at Hatmamatsu, Japan in September, 1945.
I had to know what happened in between.

6
0
0
Juice
91 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to OkayOkay.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by OkayOkay in portal Simon & Schuster

The Big Orange

[The following are excerpts from what will be a full volume of essays, poems, and short stories that capture the singular magic and discontents of Los Angeles. This book will be part of a larger series in which each volume is dedicated to a different city.]

L.A. SUN

If L.A. is best known for its promulgation of the moving image, it is ironically, at its core, a celebration of stasis. The sun that rises each day is an identical sun, the same depth and force and heat of the day before.

Other places experience a variety of suns: shy, exuberant, hidden, melancholy, resentful, diffident, gracious, brutal, weak, absentee. If there is only one sun, its understudies are cast with alarming inconsistency.

In L.A., there are no understudies, and the star rarely gets sick. Even the faces, and bodies, in L.A. carry the same celestial sense of stasis. Youth can be seen blossoming to a perpetual age of 27 then hanging there with determinacy until the age of 74 or so, when it is abruptly announced that they were somehow, internally, aging the whole time.

People in other cities sit in the basements of grocery stores while weather and its malcontents rattle the ceiling tiles. They are reminded, and habitually unsurprised, that the world is inconstant. Guarantees strike them as farcical. The pleasure of entitlement is enjoyed, if at all, with a sense of novelty and suspicion, like a free upgrade when renting a car.

THE MIDDLING CLASS

EXT. PARKING LOT - NIGHT

Beneath the cursive neon of the Black Cat Bar, AMAL (42), all cheekbones, plucks a joint from the mouth of MARJORIE (34), an apparent cardigan model who is huffing like an amateur.

MARJORIE

I’m married.

AMAL

I know. Everyone knows.

(indicates her ring)

So where’s the lucky breadwinner?

MARJORIE

Libya.

AMAL

(coquettishly)

He know you’re a sexual turncoat?

MARJORIE

He’s... one of those seven property developers who got kidnapped.

AMAL

And you’re here finding yourself.

(A serious, cruel shift. Marjorie is wounded and appalled.)

MARJORIE

Excuse me? You don’t know me.

AMAL

Oh, I know you. I know dozens of you. You love this sliver of being less boring. But what you’re really hoping for is that he’ll come home, “changed,” find you in the arms of some woman and think that you’ve changed too. But there’s still nothing more to him than a property developer, and there’s nothing more to you than a Brentwood housewife.

(With slow violence, Amal kisses her collarbone, her neck.)

MARJORIE

You hate me; what are you -

AMAL

Ruining our useless lives, stupid.

(A charged moment. Marjorie curls her fist in Amal’s hair.)

DISENCHANTMENT

Los Angeles is a city of barbarians waiting at windows, breath held for the crunch of glass on metal. The logic of collision. Silence and appetite.

From the roof of the Soho House, she glares down onto the sunny 45-degree angle where Phyllis Street meets Sunset, funneling the world’s finest motorcars toward the strip like a trap. She thinks of the valet, an underground athlete, collecting keys like lottery tickets. The owners vanishing into the Bermuda Triangle of Sunset/Phyllis/Cory Avenue, taking the elevator up up up, checking in constantly, rigorously documenting themselves, eager to not disappear.

She flicks her head quickly to the side, a youthful, bemused attempt to displace her sunglasses in one fluid motion. She is unsuccessful. Someone is, of course, amused by this gesture. Someone always is.

- Thomas.

- Marjorie.

She is of course not Marjorie. Marjorie is unbearable, has a half-life of eight hours. She is gratingly witty, and just a soft palate adjustment away from a 1930s London stage accent.

- Are you meeting someone?

- Right this very minute. Aren’t you?

Marjorie/Elizabeth/Eleanor/Skye surveys the universe through peripheral vision, each person a private little infinity. Each doing the same thing, checking to see who’s famous, theatrically not caring.

Imagination, she understands, is electric. The theory of ships passing in the night, of alternate realities, of just missing one another. Of chemistry. Collision. Of saying yes always meaning saying no to a thousand somethings (or someones) else.

Marjorie/etc. drinks affection like water. She knows that you can be all things to all people, but only one at a time.

And that, in the right hands, Los Angeles will crack open your chest into a million fucking little pieces.

9
2
0
Juice
99 reads
Donate coins to OkayOkay.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by OkayOkay in portal Simon & Schuster
The Big Orange
[The following are excerpts from what will be a full volume of essays, poems, and short stories that capture the singular magic and discontents of Los Angeles. This book will be part of a larger series in which each volume is dedicated to a different city.]



L.A. SUN

If L.A. is best known for its promulgation of the moving image, it is ironically, at its core, a celebration of stasis. The sun that rises each day is an identical sun, the same depth and force and heat of the day before.

Other places experience a variety of suns: shy, exuberant, hidden, melancholy, resentful, diffident, gracious, brutal, weak, absentee. If there is only one sun, its understudies are cast with alarming inconsistency.

In L.A., there are no understudies, and the star rarely gets sick. Even the faces, and bodies, in L.A. carry the same celestial sense of stasis. Youth can be seen blossoming to a perpetual age of 27 then hanging there with determinacy until the age of 74 or so, when it is abruptly announced that they were somehow, internally, aging the whole time.

People in other cities sit in the basements of grocery stores while weather and its malcontents rattle the ceiling tiles. They are reminded, and habitually unsurprised, that the world is inconstant. Guarantees strike them as farcical. The pleasure of entitlement is enjoyed, if at all, with a sense of novelty and suspicion, like a free upgrade when renting a car.



THE MIDDLING CLASS

EXT. PARKING LOT - NIGHT

Beneath the cursive neon of the Black Cat Bar, AMAL (42), all cheekbones, plucks a joint from the mouth of MARJORIE (34), an apparent cardigan model who is huffing like an amateur.

MARJORIE
I’m married.

AMAL
I know. Everyone knows.
(indicates her ring)
So where’s the lucky breadwinner?

MARJORIE
Libya.

AMAL
(coquettishly)
He know you’re a sexual turncoat?

MARJORIE
He’s... one of those seven property developers who got kidnapped.

AMAL
And you’re here finding yourself.

(A serious, cruel shift. Marjorie is wounded and appalled.)

MARJORIE
Excuse me? You don’t know me.

AMAL
Oh, I know you. I know dozens of you. You love this sliver of being less boring. But what you’re really hoping for is that he’ll come home, “changed,” find you in the arms of some woman and think that you’ve changed too. But there’s still nothing more to him than a property developer, and there’s nothing more to you than a Brentwood housewife.

(With slow violence, Amal kisses her collarbone, her neck.)

MARJORIE
You hate me; what are you -

AMAL
Ruining our useless lives, stupid.

(A charged moment. Marjorie curls her fist in Amal’s hair.)



DISENCHANTMENT

Los Angeles is a city of barbarians waiting at windows, breath held for the crunch of glass on metal. The logic of collision. Silence and appetite.

From the roof of the Soho House, she glares down onto the sunny 45-degree angle where Phyllis Street meets Sunset, funneling the world’s finest motorcars toward the strip like a trap. She thinks of the valet, an underground athlete, collecting keys like lottery tickets. The owners vanishing into the Bermuda Triangle of Sunset/Phyllis/Cory Avenue, taking the elevator up up up, checking in constantly, rigorously documenting themselves, eager to not disappear.

She flicks her head quickly to the side, a youthful, bemused attempt to displace her sunglasses in one fluid motion. She is unsuccessful. Someone is, of course, amused by this gesture. Someone always is.

- Thomas.
- Marjorie.

She is of course not Marjorie. Marjorie is unbearable, has a half-life of eight hours. She is gratingly witty, and just a soft palate adjustment away from a 1930s London stage accent.

- Are you meeting someone?
- Right this very minute. Aren’t you?

Marjorie/Elizabeth/Eleanor/Skye surveys the universe through peripheral vision, each person a private little infinity. Each doing the same thing, checking to see who’s famous, theatrically not caring.

Imagination, she understands, is electric. The theory of ships passing in the night, of alternate realities, of just missing one another. Of chemistry. Collision. Of saying yes always meaning saying no to a thousand somethings (or someones) else.

Marjorie/etc. drinks affection like water. She knows that you can be all things to all people, but only one at a time.

And that, in the right hands, Los Angeles will crack open your chest into a million fucking little pieces.
9
2
0
Juice
99 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to lawndarts.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by lawndarts in portal Simon & Schuster

Malice and Magnolias

1. As Always, Good Morning

   If the glares of neighbors were lasers they would have burned holes in him long ago. Rumors of his character and motives swirled and grew around the small southern town like tornados of speculation, accusing him of things like being a communist, a deviant, a hippy, a junky, or just plain mad. Lamentations for the memory and imagined responses of his dear late grandparents served as the catalyst to a revisionist history of a couple whose legend swelled from being merely conservative fixtures to one presenting them as pillars of the community and ardent supporters of traditional values. The haze of time and the desire for confirmation of beliefs and biases allowed such fictions to be accepted as facts.

   The truth in this town, as in many small towns, and even within large cities though there it is confined to communities specific, is that the collective want of conformity, of familiarity, fueled the innate resistance to any noticeable difference, as differences are so easily perceived as threats. Not many would claim to hate the stranger, that is stranger as in one who is strange and not as in one who is unknown, though the border between hate and fear is often crossed without out notice. It could even be argued that a hate of fear is reasonable and so the hate of fear may be applied to the fear itself or likewise to the object of the fear. In other words, to fear is to hate, perhaps the distinction is that fearful hate is applied preemptively without definite cause for grievance.

   Bobby Flynn spotted this wayward son of the town through the café’s front window during the breakfast rush, but the sighting elicited no distinguishable emotion. Bobby felt no animosity for the young man or his collective of eccentrics. For years, as the senior sheriff’s deputy, he had been reassuring the county’s residents that all was well and the threats they imagined were neither monsters nor evil spirits bearing down upon them. He couldn’t remember how many times he had shared the wisdom that sometimes, often even, a bump in the night is simply a bump in the night, with no malicious intent attached. Bobby saw the young man walk into the post office across the street, but he observed it without thought or care.

   Earl Driggs, recently retired from the livestock feed and fertilizer business, was not as unmoved by the sight as his breakfast companion. He hastily set his coffee mug on the table and nodded towards the post office.

   “There goes that commie hippy queer kid. I think he’s out there growing drugs or something on his granddaddy’s land. You ought to lock him up, Bobby. Why haven’t y’all done it yet?”

   Bobby raised his eyebrows slightly as an acknowledgment that he heard the comment, and as a request for a moment to respond as he took a sip of the scalding cheap coffee. He set his cup down and eased into the groove where he kept his overused and ever ready default response.

   “For what? He ain’t done nothing illegal. He ain’t growing no drugs up on his farm neither. The boy may be different but he ain’t bad. He’s just different. Harmless as far as I’m concerned. Sheriff thinks so too.”

   Earl scoffed. “Just look at him. He’s a menace. Hell, look at that truck of his. The damn thing is so vulgar and it’s parked out on a city street. It looks like something a druggy would drive. All those flowers and splotches of color painted all over it. And why is PK painted all over it? What do you suppose that means? Is it some kind of Russian commie sign?” He paused thoughtfully and continued, “It may stand for police killer. Have you thought about that, Bobby? You’re the police. Maybe it’s a threat against you.”

   Bobby looked at Earl quizzically. “It’s the boy’s initials, Earl. Paul Kingsley. PK. Get it?”

   “Oh, yeah. Maybe. But still that truck is a spectacle and it shouldn’t be allowed on these streets. It’s profane. It’s obscene. I bet it’s full of drugs too.”

   “Calm down, Earl. There ain’t nothing obscene about flowers. I admit the truck is mighty ugly. It sure ain’t my taste, but ugly ain’t illegal. You ain’t got no cause to think the boy has drugs in there neither. I don’t think he painted the truck anyway. It’s more likely that one of them artists that live on his farm painted it. They paint on practically everything up there. I seen that even his tractor is painted like that. As far as I know, the boy ain’t no artist. He’s a farmer just like his granddaddy was.”

   “Now you’re dead wrong there. The boy ain’t nothing like his granddaddy was. His granddaddy was a good man and a fine Christian. He’s probably turning round and round in his grave because of all this boy is doing. If he weren’t already dead he’d die of shame cause of that boy.

   “And you talk about them so called artists that live up there on his granddaddy’s farm. They’re the real menace. They’re always making all kinds of racket and putting those travesties they call art beside the road to scare everybody who drives by. I’ve seen them doing devil worshipping dances and acting possessed too up there at that roadside produce stand they have. I don’t know why anyone stops there and buys their produce. It’s probably laced with who-knows-what. I bet they send their money to terrorists or the cartels in Mexico or something like that. The whole thing is a disgrace to this town, this county, and this state. They should be locked up.”

   “They ain’t devil worshippers. They’re odd, but they ain’t devil worshippers. They ain’t terrorists neither. Didn’t you sell seed and whatnot to the boy? You know what he plants.”

   “He always ordered heirloom seeds and he never bought fertilizer or pesticides or herbicides either. He’s a member of the co-op too, but he ain’t like the other farmers. He’d come to the meetings, but he always sat in the back and never said nothing. It’s like he was spying or something. Maybe he’s selling our farming secrets to the communists.”

   “We ain’t got no farming secrets. Wasn’t he pleasant enough in those meetings?”

   “He was always hiding behind that goofy smile of his, but he’s got shifty eyes. It’s like he’s always plotting something. I never trusted him there or in the store either. He always paid in cash too. Said he don’t trust banks or something. That’s how criminals act. Always hiding their money from the government because they’re doing something wrong.”

   “Just yesterday you was telling me how you don’t trust banks and how you think the government’s gotten too high and mighty for its own good. Sounds to me like you and that boy got a lot in common.”

   “Don’t you curse me like that, deputy. Hell, I think the banks are rotten sometimes, but it ain’t like what that boy thinks. I always made sure my taxes were paid, even if I don’t like what they are used for. I’m a patriot. I love what this nation stands for.”

   “Like freedom?”

   “Of course for freedom. That’s what makes this country so great.”

   The deputy chuckled. “But ain’t you wanting to lock that boy and his friends up for being different? What kind of freedom is that?”

   Earl shifted uneasily in his seat and glared at the deputy. “What in the Sam Hill has gotten into you today? You are being just as cantankerous as I’ve ever seen. Now you know me and you know what I’m trying to say here. Why are you trying to twist my words and make it seem like me and that boy is the same?”

   The deputy raised his empty cup to get Claire’s attention as his usual method of requesting a refill and then he returned nonchalantly to the discussion.

   “Because you ain’t thinking about what you’re saying, Earl. Not really. You don’t like the boy because he’s a little different than you. He ain’t hurt you. He ain’t done nothing wrong. He just chose to live on his own terms, which to me shows that he’s got a lot more of his granddaddy in him than you want to give him credit for. That boy’s granddaddy was the mind-your-own-business sort. He fought in the war, and they said he was a tough son-of-a-bitch when it came to killing Nazis, and when he come back to the states he took up farming right where he left off. He was nice enough as I remember, but he sure as hell kept to himself. And he didn’t bother nobody else neither. Just like that boy there.”

   Almost nothing in the town’s small post office had changed in several decades, signifying the virtue of consistency and the comfort, sometimes read as complacency, of it that serves as the lifeblood of the community. In this corner of the world progressive candidates run on platforms that promise to resist change, with the only changes being how resistance is mounted. In a region where tradition is sacred, proposing change is an insult to identity.

   The trusty old bell on the front door clanged, and Inez looked up to greet the morning visitor. He was a regular, so she recognized him instantly, and though she knew others in town were apprehensive about him, she had long since warmed to his congenial ways.

   “Morning, Paul. I just noticed you got a stack of mail waiting on you. Too much to fit into your box, so we got it stacked over here.”

   “Good morning, Inez. Thank you.”

   “You can come around the counter here. Use that flat cart right there to take it to your truck. Careful though, some of those boxes are heavy. What you got in them?”

   As he walked around the counter, Inez reflected briefly on his appearance. For the most part he looked indistinguishable from virtually every other farmer in the county, not so much in feature but in presence. He was muscular, as all who toil in physicality are, and his clothes were clean but showed permanent staining from the task of subduing the earth. His ears were pierced and vibrant tattoos peaked out from beneath his sleeves, but that wasn’t altogether uncommon amongst the young farmers and farm laborers. She noted also the darkened skin and lightened hair that comes from a constant envelopment of the probing rays of the sun.

   “What’s in all those boxes? You know, we deliver, so you wouldn’t have to come pick up your mail if you had it sent to your address.”

   He smiled politely. “I don’t know what all this is. It may be art supplies, or books, or maybe exotic spices and herbs. It’s always a surprise to me.”

   Little effort was exerted as he stacked the packages of different sizes easily on the cart, with spatial acuteness unrivaled by any master of Tetris. He continued speaking, “I used to have the mail delivered, but I had a hard time keeping an intact mailbox. The first two or three times it was destroyed I thought maybe it was because of the way it was painted, so I asked the artists to just leave it as a blank canvas, but it got bashed in then as well. So, no mailbox for me. I don’t mind coming to pick it up anyway.”

   After several decades of working at the post office, Inez was familiar with the scourge of the rural youth and their blood feud and constant attacks on the mailboxes sporadically planted along the sides of small country roads.

7
1
0
Juice
65 reads
Donate coins to lawndarts.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by lawndarts in portal Simon & Schuster
Malice and Magnolias

1. As Always, Good Morning
   If the glares of neighbors were lasers they would have burned holes in him long ago. Rumors of his character and motives swirled and grew around the small southern town like tornados of speculation, accusing him of things like being a communist, a deviant, a hippy, a junky, or just plain mad. Lamentations for the memory and imagined responses of his dear late grandparents served as the catalyst to a revisionist history of a couple whose legend swelled from being merely conservative fixtures to one presenting them as pillars of the community and ardent supporters of traditional values. The haze of time and the desire for confirmation of beliefs and biases allowed such fictions to be accepted as facts.
   The truth in this town, as in many small towns, and even within large cities though there it is confined to communities specific, is that the collective want of conformity, of familiarity, fueled the innate resistance to any noticeable difference, as differences are so easily perceived as threats. Not many would claim to hate the stranger, that is stranger as in one who is strange and not as in one who is unknown, though the border between hate and fear is often crossed without out notice. It could even be argued that a hate of fear is reasonable and so the hate of fear may be applied to the fear itself or likewise to the object of the fear. In other words, to fear is to hate, perhaps the distinction is that fearful hate is applied preemptively without definite cause for grievance.
   Bobby Flynn spotted this wayward son of the town through the café’s front window during the breakfast rush, but the sighting elicited no distinguishable emotion. Bobby felt no animosity for the young man or his collective of eccentrics. For years, as the senior sheriff’s deputy, he had been reassuring the county’s residents that all was well and the threats they imagined were neither monsters nor evil spirits bearing down upon them. He couldn’t remember how many times he had shared the wisdom that sometimes, often even, a bump in the night is simply a bump in the night, with no malicious intent attached. Bobby saw the young man walk into the post office across the street, but he observed it without thought or care.
   Earl Driggs, recently retired from the livestock feed and fertilizer business, was not as unmoved by the sight as his breakfast companion. He hastily set his coffee mug on the table and nodded towards the post office.
   “There goes that commie hippy queer kid. I think he’s out there growing drugs or something on his granddaddy’s land. You ought to lock him up, Bobby. Why haven’t y’all done it yet?”
   Bobby raised his eyebrows slightly as an acknowledgment that he heard the comment, and as a request for a moment to respond as he took a sip of the scalding cheap coffee. He set his cup down and eased into the groove where he kept his overused and ever ready default response.
   “For what? He ain’t done nothing illegal. He ain’t growing no drugs up on his farm neither. The boy may be different but he ain’t bad. He’s just different. Harmless as far as I’m concerned. Sheriff thinks so too.”
   Earl scoffed. “Just look at him. He’s a menace. Hell, look at that truck of his. The damn thing is so vulgar and it’s parked out on a city street. It looks like something a druggy would drive. All those flowers and splotches of color painted all over it. And why is PK painted all over it? What do you suppose that means? Is it some kind of Russian commie sign?” He paused thoughtfully and continued, “It may stand for police killer. Have you thought about that, Bobby? You’re the police. Maybe it’s a threat against you.”
   Bobby looked at Earl quizzically. “It’s the boy’s initials, Earl. Paul Kingsley. PK. Get it?”
   “Oh, yeah. Maybe. But still that truck is a spectacle and it shouldn’t be allowed on these streets. It’s profane. It’s obscene. I bet it’s full of drugs too.”
   “Calm down, Earl. There ain’t nothing obscene about flowers. I admit the truck is mighty ugly. It sure ain’t my taste, but ugly ain’t illegal. You ain’t got no cause to think the boy has drugs in there neither. I don’t think he painted the truck anyway. It’s more likely that one of them artists that live on his farm painted it. They paint on practically everything up there. I seen that even his tractor is painted like that. As far as I know, the boy ain’t no artist. He’s a farmer just like his granddaddy was.”
   “Now you’re dead wrong there. The boy ain’t nothing like his granddaddy was. His granddaddy was a good man and a fine Christian. He’s probably turning round and round in his grave because of all this boy is doing. If he weren’t already dead he’d die of shame cause of that boy.
   “And you talk about them so called artists that live up there on his granddaddy’s farm. They’re the real menace. They’re always making all kinds of racket and putting those travesties they call art beside the road to scare everybody who drives by. I’ve seen them doing devil worshipping dances and acting possessed too up there at that roadside produce stand they have. I don’t know why anyone stops there and buys their produce. It’s probably laced with who-knows-what. I bet they send their money to terrorists or the cartels in Mexico or something like that. The whole thing is a disgrace to this town, this county, and this state. They should be locked up.”
   “They ain’t devil worshippers. They’re odd, but they ain’t devil worshippers. They ain’t terrorists neither. Didn’t you sell seed and whatnot to the boy? You know what he plants.”
   “He always ordered heirloom seeds and he never bought fertilizer or pesticides or herbicides either. He’s a member of the co-op too, but he ain’t like the other farmers. He’d come to the meetings, but he always sat in the back and never said nothing. It’s like he was spying or something. Maybe he’s selling our farming secrets to the communists.”
   “We ain’t got no farming secrets. Wasn’t he pleasant enough in those meetings?”
   “He was always hiding behind that goofy smile of his, but he’s got shifty eyes. It’s like he’s always plotting something. I never trusted him there or in the store either. He always paid in cash too. Said he don’t trust banks or something. That’s how criminals act. Always hiding their money from the government because they’re doing something wrong.”
   “Just yesterday you was telling me how you don’t trust banks and how you think the government’s gotten too high and mighty for its own good. Sounds to me like you and that boy got a lot in common.”
   “Don’t you curse me like that, deputy. Hell, I think the banks are rotten sometimes, but it ain’t like what that boy thinks. I always made sure my taxes were paid, even if I don’t like what they are used for. I’m a patriot. I love what this nation stands for.”
   “Like freedom?”
   “Of course for freedom. That’s what makes this country so great.”
   The deputy chuckled. “But ain’t you wanting to lock that boy and his friends up for being different? What kind of freedom is that?”
   Earl shifted uneasily in his seat and glared at the deputy. “What in the Sam Hill has gotten into you today? You are being just as cantankerous as I’ve ever seen. Now you know me and you know what I’m trying to say here. Why are you trying to twist my words and make it seem like me and that boy is the same?”
   The deputy raised his empty cup to get Claire’s attention as his usual method of requesting a refill and then he returned nonchalantly to the discussion.
   “Because you ain’t thinking about what you’re saying, Earl. Not really. You don’t like the boy because he’s a little different than you. He ain’t hurt you. He ain’t done nothing wrong. He just chose to live on his own terms, which to me shows that he’s got a lot more of his granddaddy in him than you want to give him credit for. That boy’s granddaddy was the mind-your-own-business sort. He fought in the war, and they said he was a tough son-of-a-bitch when it came to killing Nazis, and when he come back to the states he took up farming right where he left off. He was nice enough as I remember, but he sure as hell kept to himself. And he didn’t bother nobody else neither. Just like that boy there.”

   Almost nothing in the town’s small post office had changed in several decades, signifying the virtue of consistency and the comfort, sometimes read as complacency, of it that serves as the lifeblood of the community. In this corner of the world progressive candidates run on platforms that promise to resist change, with the only changes being how resistance is mounted. In a region where tradition is sacred, proposing change is an insult to identity.
   The trusty old bell on the front door clanged, and Inez looked up to greet the morning visitor. He was a regular, so she recognized him instantly, and though she knew others in town were apprehensive about him, she had long since warmed to his congenial ways.
   “Morning, Paul. I just noticed you got a stack of mail waiting on you. Too much to fit into your box, so we got it stacked over here.”
   “Good morning, Inez. Thank you.”
   “You can come around the counter here. Use that flat cart right there to take it to your truck. Careful though, some of those boxes are heavy. What you got in them?”
   As he walked around the counter, Inez reflected briefly on his appearance. For the most part he looked indistinguishable from virtually every other farmer in the county, not so much in feature but in presence. He was muscular, as all who toil in physicality are, and his clothes were clean but showed permanent staining from the task of subduing the earth. His ears were pierced and vibrant tattoos peaked out from beneath his sleeves, but that wasn’t altogether uncommon amongst the young farmers and farm laborers. She noted also the darkened skin and lightened hair that comes from a constant envelopment of the probing rays of the sun.
   “What’s in all those boxes? You know, we deliver, so you wouldn’t have to come pick up your mail if you had it sent to your address.”
   He smiled politely. “I don’t know what all this is. It may be art supplies, or books, or maybe exotic spices and herbs. It’s always a surprise to me.”
   Little effort was exerted as he stacked the packages of different sizes easily on the cart, with spatial acuteness unrivaled by any master of Tetris. He continued speaking, “I used to have the mail delivered, but I had a hard time keeping an intact mailbox. The first two or three times it was destroyed I thought maybe it was because of the way it was painted, so I asked the artists to just leave it as a blank canvas, but it got bashed in then as well. So, no mailbox for me. I don’t mind coming to pick it up anyway.”
   After several decades of working at the post office, Inez was familiar with the scourge of the rural youth and their blood feud and constant attacks on the mailboxes sporadically planted along the sides of small country roads.
7
1
0
Juice
65 reads
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to CRaMcGuirt.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by CRaMcGuirt in portal Simon & Schuster

Chapter excerpts from BLUE COLLAR BALLET: Adventures of a Wrestling Poet

Somewhere in Central Kentucky, 1989

I can taste blood, smell sweat and beer, and hear the catcalls of the small-town crowd, but with my face pressed against the rough and grimy canvas, all I can see is dirty gray. My lungs are screaming for air, and the skin of my chest stings from a series of hard open-band chops. As I push myself to my knees, the faces of the ringside fans swim into focus on the other side of the ropes. Their eyes are slits, their mouths blank holes howling for my bad-guy blood.

I wouldn’t mind resting another few seconds, but there’s a hand in my hair, and before the insistent tug becomes too painful, I allow myself to be pulled to my feet. Gypsy Joe is smiling. As he backs me up against the ropes, my teacher growls: “Ready for the floor, boy?”

Inwardly, I groan. The old bastard has thrown me out two times already, and I’m not looking forward to a repeat performance. But I offer no resistance as he runs me across the ring, and at the right moment, I allow our mutual momentum to hurl me over the top ring rope. During the long trip to the unpadded concrete, I have time enough to wonder just how the hell I got myself into this…

Lesson 1: Welcome to Gypsy Joe’s Wrestling School

The ropes were steel cables covered with ancient green garden hose. Here and there, wicked twists of rusty metal protruded through the cracked and peeling plastic. The mat consisted of warped plywood over steel struts, topped with irregular pieces of rough, dirty-brown carpet. The huge spring beneath the wood was rusted solid, with no give at all. The turnbuckle pads, haphazardly patched over with rags and duct tape, oozed what was left of their stuffing. All of this was claustrophobically enclosed on three sides by the splintered wooden walls of a ramshackle shed, with one side entirely open to the February weather.  

If I was looking for glamour, it damn sure wasn’t here. Yet, I experienced a small but unmistakable thrill as Joe and I climbed though the ropes. Despite its primitive qualities, this wasn’t a simulation of a wrestling ring constructed of clothesline and mismatched wooden posts such as I’d erected in my back yard when I was 12 years old. It was the real thing.

I bounced up and down a few times, testing the give of the plywood floor. There wasn’t much. “So, who owns this house, Joe?”

“This old guy l know.”

That seemed to be the extent of the small talk. I never did find out who lived in the house, what his relationship was to Gypsy, or why he’d allowed Joe to set up this cramped, if functional training ring.

I began pulling my blue “Bike” brand kneepads on over my sweatpants, trying to come over as cool and relaxed, but I was nervous, and it must have showed.

“Relax, brother. We’re not in a hurry.”

There are only three basic ways to fall in wrestling: the forward flip, backward, and face forward. Anything else is just a fancier version of one of these. We began with the basic forward flip-over fall.

Joe got down on his hands and knees. “OK, brother, what you do is run up, put your hands flat on my back, and flip yourself over me. You wanna land on your back with the soles of your feet hitting first, and slap the mat with both hands at the same time. One more thing--unless you wanna break your neck right away, keep your chin tucked in.”

I gave it a try. Everyone has seen this fall a thousand times, if not in wrestling, then in the movies. Some stuntman gets shot on a balcony, bends forward, and flips gracefully over the railing, plunging to the unseen net below. These guys never fall to one knee and roll sideways, or spin around and fall off backward. They always take the smooth, controlled forward-flip.

In this case, my first bump was neither smooth nor graceful. Relying more on main strength than momentum in hurling myself over Joe’s back, I crashed heavily to the only-slightly-yielding plywood, dizzied from the quick mid-air spin, knocking my breath out, banging my unprotected elbows, and forgetting to tuck my chin in far enough, which earned me a sharp, painful rap on the back of the head.

“Feet flat, brother! Arms like this! Otherwise, you’ll break somethin’, and then you’ll be tellin’ everyone that Joe made you hurt yourself!”

I tried again, feeling what was an unnecessary strain as I hurled myself over Gypsy’s broad back with a noise that was half-groan and half martial-arts yell. My main problem, as it would have been for most neophytes, was a lack of relaxation. I was working at the fall, not simply allowing it to happen, and when my tense body hit the mat I felt the full impact. In addition, Joe began to slowly rise to a half-standing position, which gave me a lot further to fly. Most of my crash landings were painful, but a couple of times, I did it almost right, and began to get a vague idea of what I was trying to learn to do. Finally, Joe straightened up so far that I was afraid to try and flip over him. “Damn, Gypsy--it’s too high! I’ll land on my head!”

Joe took my protests in stride, and switched me to the backwards fall. You know, it’s amazing how much the average body just doesn’t want to fall backwards on its shoulders. In a way, this bump was like the old psychology encounter-group exercise of learning trust by allowing yourself to go limp and fall back into someone else’s arms. The important difference is that there was no one to trust but myself.

No! You’re gonna break your damn elbows! Slap with the front of your forearms, brother! And quit tensing up! Just go limp and take the fall!”

I tried, but as before, was working too hard at it, throwing myself down more than letting my body fall backwards under its own weight. Tension led to self-disgust and more tension. I began to feel frustrated, winded, and inept. Joe changed the pace, and began to show me the basic “Collar and Elbow” tie-up which begins most matches.

This hand around the back of my neck! That hand on my arm--no! Don’t shove it in my face! Nobody’s gonna like that, brother! Right--that way. Now…let’s move around. Let’s dance, brother! You know how to dance, don’t you?

Now break the hold! Now! No, don’t hesitate! Break! Good! Now go right back to it!

C’mon--circle around me some, then--lunge! Yeah, that’s right! And look mean, brother--we ain’t playin’ fuckin’ patty cake here!”

We danced the first movement of the Blue Collar Ballet around the splintery, sagging

ring--circling, then lunging to hook up collar-and-elbow, pushing, pulling, being pulled and pushed. For a moment I was exhilarated, and felt I could become the dance--if I relaxed…

Lesson 2: The Wall of Pain

I returned to the practice ring to continue my dance lessons with Gypsy Joe. We went on a little longer than we had previously, and for me, it was a volatile mixture of frustration and encouragement. Ironically, I had learned just enough to know how badly I was actually doing, and could easily imagine Joe rolling his eyes at the thought of my ever becoming a wrestler.

“Let’s work some holds!” barked Gypsy. We locked up, and danced around the ring for a few seconds. I tried to remember to look mean, but was distracted by a slow, creeping, throbbing pain in the muscles of my lower back. It wasn’t a vague ache, nor a sharp glassy stab such as I was used to from my injured L-5 disk. This was a brand-new pain, resulting from my back muscles being tenderized by constant pounding on the unyielding plywood. In addition, I had developed a bitch of a head cold, which stopped up my ears and threw off my equilibrium.

Gypsy gave my upper arm a light squeeze. “Take the Arm Drag!”

The Arm Drag is a flashy but essentially simple maneuver. All you must do is come across with your left arm, hook your opponent under his left bicep, and fall straight back. Your dance partner does the rest, giving up a nice crisp forward flip to the mat. It’s a hard move to screw up, but somehow, I managed.  Through a combination of bad timing and clumsiness, I stumbled sideways and accidentally came down with a knee to Joe’s gut. He shook it off and rolled to his feet. “Whaddaya waitin’ for? Lock up!”

Back to the collar-and-elbow dance. I went for a Top Wristlock, and in my dizzy state, leaned far too heavily on my partner. “Goddamn, brother! If I was that stiff with you, you’d be tellin’ everybody that Joe was mistreatin’ you!”

“Sorry, Joe,” I said sheepishly.

“Don’t be sorry! Just do it right!”

Suddenly Gypsy hooked my arm and fell back. I wasn’t looking for the Arm Drag, and failed to execute the bump. I landed right on top of him. It must have hurt, but he didn’t say a word.

“Lock up!”

We waltzed across the sagging plywood and into the ropes. “Take the Headlock, brother!”

I captured Gypsy in a loose Headlock and spent a few seconds pretending to grind and crush his skull. “Okay, enough of that boring crap! Take me down!”

The Headlock-and-Throw looks brutal, but is no more so than any other basic maneuver, assuming the thrower doesn’t come down too hard on the throwee. I started Joe over my hip, he took the bump perfectly, then I crashed down on his ribs like 200 pounds of clumsy bricks.

I was mortified, and fully expected Gypsy to curse me out thoroughly. Instead, he got up and walked away to the ropes, standing there with his back to me, rubbing his forehead in silent exasperation. I was grateful for his patience, but it would have been less embarrassing if he had screamed at me.

Gypsy shook his head, sighed, and came back to the center of the ring. With a student like me, I felt sorry for the poor old guy--despite my earlier concerns about getting the crap kicked out of me, Joe was the one taking all the damage.

“Lock up!”

Again, we danced. Gypsy grabbed my wrist and went into the dramatic-but-painless Arm Wringer. I sold it with some groans, and, as if the pressure had become too much to bear, decided to take a forward flip. My pain-wracked body and stuffed-up head conspired to cause me to mistime the move; instead of making a complete turn and landing on my back, I came down right on the point of my left shoulder in an explosion of glassy agony.

It was the first time I had really, truly hurt myself badly in practice. I walked back and forth in grim silence, shrugging my shoulder and biting my lip, telling myself it probably wasn’t broken. The rules of macho seemed to call for me to suck it up and go on without complaint, and I tried, but my heart was no longer in it. I also must admit that I was just plain scared of getting hurt again.

“Uh, Gypsy...I’m really sorry, brother, but I think I better stop for now. I got a real bad cold, and my back and shoulder are kinda hurtin’. I know it’s not a big deal, but...”

“Whattaya mean, it ain’t a big deal? It’s your body, brother. You can do whatever the hell you wanna do, but I don’t want you gettin’ hurt.”

So much for macho. Reluctantly, but with relief, I gave it up for the day…

9
1
0
Juice
171 reads
Donate coins to CRaMcGuirt.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by CRaMcGuirt in portal Simon & Schuster
Chapter excerpts from BLUE COLLAR BALLET: Adventures of a Wrestling Poet
Somewhere in Central Kentucky, 1989

I can taste blood, smell sweat and beer, and hear the catcalls of the small-town crowd, but with my face pressed against the rough and grimy canvas, all I can see is dirty gray. My lungs are screaming for air, and the skin of my chest stings from a series of hard open-band chops. As I push myself to my knees, the faces of the ringside fans swim into focus on the other side of the ropes. Their eyes are slits, their mouths blank holes howling for my bad-guy blood.

I wouldn’t mind resting another few seconds, but there’s a hand in my hair, and before the insistent tug becomes too painful, I allow myself to be pulled to my feet. Gypsy Joe is smiling. As he backs me up against the ropes, my teacher growls: “Ready for the floor, boy?”

Inwardly, I groan. The old bastard has thrown me out two times already, and I’m not looking forward to a repeat performance. But I offer no resistance as he runs me across the ring, and at the right moment, I allow our mutual momentum to hurl me over the top ring rope. During the long trip to the unpadded concrete, I have time enough to wonder just how the hell I got myself into this…


Lesson 1: Welcome to Gypsy Joe’s Wrestling School

The ropes were steel cables covered with ancient green garden hose. Here and there, wicked twists of rusty metal protruded through the cracked and peeling plastic. The mat consisted of warped plywood over steel struts, topped with irregular pieces of rough, dirty-brown carpet. The huge spring beneath the wood was rusted solid, with no give at all. The turnbuckle pads, haphazardly patched over with rags and duct tape, oozed what was left of their stuffing. All of this was claustrophobically enclosed on three sides by the splintered wooden walls of a ramshackle shed, with one side entirely open to the February weather.  

If I was looking for glamour, it damn sure wasn’t here. Yet, I experienced a small but unmistakable thrill as Joe and I climbed though the ropes. Despite its primitive qualities, this wasn’t a simulation of a wrestling ring constructed of clothesline and mismatched wooden posts such as I’d erected in my back yard when I was 12 years old. It was the real thing.

I bounced up and down a few times, testing the give of the plywood floor. There wasn’t much. “So, who owns this house, Joe?”
“This old guy l know.”
That seemed to be the extent of the small talk. I never did find out who lived in the house, what his relationship was to Gypsy, or why he’d allowed Joe to set up this cramped, if functional training ring.
I began pulling my blue “Bike” brand kneepads on over my sweatpants, trying to come over as cool and relaxed, but I was nervous, and it must have showed.
“Relax, brother. We’re not in a hurry.”

There are only three basic ways to fall in wrestling: the forward flip, backward, and face forward. Anything else is just a fancier version of one of these. We began with the basic forward flip-over fall.

Joe got down on his hands and knees. “OK, brother, what you do is run up, put your hands flat on my back, and flip yourself over me. You wanna land on your back with the soles of your feet hitting first, and slap the mat with both hands at the same time. One more thing--unless you wanna break your neck right away, keep your chin tucked in.”

I gave it a try. Everyone has seen this fall a thousand times, if not in wrestling, then in the movies. Some stuntman gets shot on a balcony, bends forward, and flips gracefully over the railing, plunging to the unseen net below. These guys never fall to one knee and roll sideways, or spin around and fall off backward. They always take the smooth, controlled forward-flip.

In this case, my first bump was neither smooth nor graceful. Relying more on main strength than momentum in hurling myself over Joe’s back, I crashed heavily to the only-slightly-yielding plywood, dizzied from the quick mid-air spin, knocking my breath out, banging my unprotected elbows, and forgetting to tuck my chin in far enough, which earned me a sharp, painful rap on the back of the head.

“Feet flat, brother! Arms like this! Otherwise, you’ll break somethin’, and then you’ll be tellin’ everyone that Joe made you hurt yourself!”

I tried again, feeling what was an unnecessary strain as I hurled myself over Gypsy’s broad back with a noise that was half-groan and half martial-arts yell. My main problem, as it would have been for most neophytes, was a lack of relaxation. I was working at the fall, not simply allowing it to happen, and when my tense body hit the mat I felt the full impact. In addition, Joe began to slowly rise to a half-standing position, which gave me a lot further to fly. Most of my crash landings were painful, but a couple of times, I did it almost right, and began to get a vague idea of what I was trying to learn to do. Finally, Joe straightened up so far that I was afraid to try and flip over him. “Damn, Gypsy--it’s too high! I’ll land on my head!”

Joe took my protests in stride, and switched me to the backwards fall. You know, it’s amazing how much the average body just doesn’t want to fall backwards on its shoulders. In a way, this bump was like the old psychology encounter-group exercise of learning trust by allowing yourself to go limp and fall back into someone else’s arms. The important difference is that there was no one to trust but myself.

No! You’re gonna break your damn elbows! Slap with the front of your forearms, brother! And quit tensing up! Just go limp and take the fall!”

I tried, but as before, was working too hard at it, throwing myself down more than letting my body fall backwards under its own weight. Tension led to self-disgust and more tension. I began to feel frustrated, winded, and inept. Joe changed the pace, and began to show me the basic “Collar and Elbow” tie-up which begins most matches.

This hand around the back of my neck! That hand on my arm--no! Don’t shove it in my face! Nobody’s gonna like that, brother! Right--that way. Now…let’s move around. Let’s dance, brother! You know how to dance, don’t you?
Now break the hold! Now! No, don’t hesitate! Break! Good! Now go right back to it!
C’mon--circle around me some, then--lunge! Yeah, that’s right! And look mean, brother--we ain’t playin’ fuckin’ patty cake here!”

We danced the first movement of the Blue Collar Ballet around the splintery, sagging
ring--circling, then lunging to hook up collar-and-elbow, pushing, pulling, being pulled and pushed. For a moment I was exhilarated, and felt I could become the dance--if I relaxed…

Lesson 2: The Wall of Pain

I returned to the practice ring to continue my dance lessons with Gypsy Joe. We went on a little longer than we had previously, and for me, it was a volatile mixture of frustration and encouragement. Ironically, I had learned just enough to know how badly I was actually doing, and could easily imagine Joe rolling his eyes at the thought of my ever becoming a wrestler.

“Let’s work some holds!” barked Gypsy. We locked up, and danced around the ring for a few seconds. I tried to remember to look mean, but was distracted by a slow, creeping, throbbing pain in the muscles of my lower back. It wasn’t a vague ache, nor a sharp glassy stab such as I was used to from my injured L-5 disk. This was a brand-new pain, resulting from my back muscles being tenderized by constant pounding on the unyielding plywood. In addition, I had developed a bitch of a head cold, which stopped up my ears and threw off my equilibrium.

Gypsy gave my upper arm a light squeeze. “Take the Arm Drag!”

The Arm Drag is a flashy but essentially simple maneuver. All you must do is come across with your left arm, hook your opponent under his left bicep, and fall straight back. Your dance partner does the rest, giving up a nice crisp forward flip to the mat. It’s a hard move to screw up, but somehow, I managed.  Through a combination of bad timing and clumsiness, I stumbled sideways and accidentally came down with a knee to Joe’s gut. He shook it off and rolled to his feet. “Whaddaya waitin’ for? Lock up!”

Back to the collar-and-elbow dance. I went for a Top Wristlock, and in my dizzy state, leaned far too heavily on my partner. “Goddamn, brother! If I was that stiff with you, you’d be tellin’ everybody that Joe was mistreatin’ you!”
“Sorry, Joe,” I said sheepishly.
“Don’t be sorry! Just do it right!”

Suddenly Gypsy hooked my arm and fell back. I wasn’t looking for the Arm Drag, and failed to execute the bump. I landed right on top of him. It must have hurt, but he didn’t say a word.

“Lock up!”

We waltzed across the sagging plywood and into the ropes. “Take the Headlock, brother!”
I captured Gypsy in a loose Headlock and spent a few seconds pretending to grind and crush his skull. “Okay, enough of that boring crap! Take me down!”

The Headlock-and-Throw looks brutal, but is no more so than any other basic maneuver, assuming the thrower doesn’t come down too hard on the throwee. I started Joe over my hip, he took the bump perfectly, then I crashed down on his ribs like 200 pounds of clumsy bricks.

I was mortified, and fully expected Gypsy to curse me out thoroughly. Instead, he got up and walked away to the ropes, standing there with his back to me, rubbing his forehead in silent exasperation. I was grateful for his patience, but it would have been less embarrassing if he had screamed at me.

Gypsy shook his head, sighed, and came back to the center of the ring. With a student like me, I felt sorry for the poor old guy--despite my earlier concerns about getting the crap kicked out of me, Joe was the one taking all the damage.

“Lock up!”

Again, we danced. Gypsy grabbed my wrist and went into the dramatic-but-painless Arm Wringer. I sold it with some groans, and, as if the pressure had become too much to bear, decided to take a forward flip. My pain-wracked body and stuffed-up head conspired to cause me to mistime the move; instead of making a complete turn and landing on my back, I came down right on the point of my left shoulder in an explosion of glassy agony.

It was the first time I had really, truly hurt myself badly in practice. I walked back and forth in grim silence, shrugging my shoulder and biting my lip, telling myself it probably wasn’t broken. The rules of macho seemed to call for me to suck it up and go on without complaint, and I tried, but my heart was no longer in it. I also must admit that I was just plain scared of getting hurt again.

“Uh, Gypsy...I’m really sorry, brother, but I think I better stop for now. I got a real bad cold, and my back and shoulder are kinda hurtin’. I know it’s not a big deal, but...”
“Whattaya mean, it ain’t a big deal? It’s your body, brother. You can do whatever the hell you wanna do, but I don’t want you gettin’ hurt.”

So much for macho. Reluctantly, but with relief, I gave it up for the day…
9
1
0
Juice
171 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to patwcoffey5.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by patwcoffey5 in portal Simon & Schuster

Changing Habits

Chapter One

Ogden, Utah, 1965, St. Agnes School

One decision, one date, one dead man, and I'm entombed in this place. Exiled far from anyone I know. Coerced by circumstance to dress and live as a nun. My family believes they buried me. My graduate school plans vanished. My life changed because of one stupid encounter! The bell shattered Sophie a.k.a Sister Jude’s thoughts.

She pushed her chair back. Her fifteen-decade rosary attached to her tunic caught a drawer pull. Damn! You’d think I’d get use to this attached chain of beads. I hate the bindings of this outfit. The long medieval wool garb weighs heavy on my shoulders. The wimple cuts into my face and holds my head in place. Quick moments are cumbersome.

Sophie surveyed the playground through square glass and metal paned windows. Where are my little renegades? This banishment keeps me from leaving my classroom to check on my students. Another teacher attends to this joyous time.

The young woman studied the playground. A group of girls played hand-clapping games. They appeared lost in a world of rhyme and rhythm. The children amused themselves in Ogden, Utah with the same playground games I played as a child in Chicago.

"Snap, snap, snap," echoed the sound of the ropes hitting the playground’s asphalt. Agility! I envy their balance and depth perception to skip "Double Dutch."

Her gaze shifted to the north end of the playground. The boys claimed basketball nets to play H-O-R-S-E. She discovered the rest of her class engaged in team selections for "Red Rover." Sophie's heart stung as she recalled her childhood memories. Strong girls always chosen first for their strength to keep the opposing team from breaking through the line. Sophie was small for her age and seen as weak. She felt lucky if she was picked on a team.

Childhood, carefree days of fun and freedom, but not always for the oldest child in a large family. Summer days included swimming. Picnics on the boulevard, playing on the swings, monkey bars, slides, and of course hide and seek at night, but never alone. Never alone, Sophie's brothers or sisters tagged along. School and the classroom offered solitude from her family babysitting responsibilities.

A knock interrupted her thoughts. Sophie turned to see a tall nun standing with her arms folded under her scapular. "Can I help you sister?"

"Am I disturbing your prayer time, Sister Jude?"

It took a few seconds before Sophie recognized the voice.

"Nothing ever stays the same, does it?" answered Special Agent Cheryl Bond.

"I was watching the children on the playground and envying their freedom." Why is Cheryl in a habit?

Agent Bond walked to the windows without speaking. She took a chair from the first desk. Unaccustomed to the habit's yards of material, she struggled to make herself comfortable in the child sized chair.

Sophie paced back and forth. “We aren't scheduled for a 'nature walk' for another two weeks." She squinted her eyes and said, "I hope you brought some news for me. I'm tired of living in exile.” She folded her arms as she asked, "Will I ever have a life, my life? When will I be able to go to graduate school?"

Agent Bond held up her hand. "Stop pacing." The agent pulled out a chair and patted the seat. "Please sit down. I have news for you." Cheryl pulled a letter from her tunic's deep pocket.

"Sit, Sophie, we need to talk. The Agency’s concern for the safety of the sisters, children, and you increased in the last week."

Sophie sighed and sat next to Cheryl. "I thought you had news for me. The Agency reports concern about my safety every time you visit.”

"The bureau is re-examining your case and your safety is the issue. Caruso's case wraps up soon. Once it's put to bed, your status moves forward. I just got off the phone with my supervisor. He wants you to complete this change of status form. Once we finished with Dominic Caruso’s case, we can the transfer you to the U.S. Marshall's permanent witness protection program. This means a new identity, new location, and graduate school.

Sophie sat rigid in her chair. "They’re considering my case? That's wonderful!" The news overwhelmed the fugitive with the warmth of hope and freedom. Her eyes flooded with tears. “I'm grateful to the nuns at Saint Agnes. They took a scared and wounded girl and transformed her into a nun. I'll miss Mother Superior. She taught me how to speak, walk, and take on the mantle of a sister."

The Agent laughed, stretched her legs out in front of her and said, "You didn't mention living in a habit. I don't know about you, but it drives me nuts every time the Agency makes me wear this outfit. I don't wear it often, so when I do, I lay out the pieces one by one to ensure to dress properly. The stiff coif headdress is tight. My chin chafes from the cap used to cover my hair. Placing the white wimple on straight is the trickiest.”

Sophie touched her headgear, "There are days when I wish I could just walk outside without this stuff and feel the wind dance through my hair."

Agent Bond added. "You've lasted longer in this convent than some of my other cases."

"Misplacement of any part of this getup can lead to an uncomfortable day. "Sophie turned, placed her leg on a desk. She pulled her tunic up. "I hate these hideous black cotton stockings." "You're smart to put on the stockings. You'd blow your cover if you didn't wear those ghastly things."

"Yeah, the stockings itch. When the weather is hot, I get a rash on my legs. I need to stay in character, but I'd give anything to run barefoot around the convent. Living here is as confining as this habit. I miss going out to dinner, to a movie, getting a haircut, I don't want to be living like a nun all my life.”

Cheryl looked at the woman who is her longest protection case. “Sophie, are you listening to me? I asked how did you learn to tackle the habit?"

Mother Superior checks me daily. She made me sew some snaps on my tunic and scapular to insure the two articles of clothing stay put."

"The hardest task for me is the veil. Pinning that heavy black wool on the headdress with those dressmaker pins is an artistic trick. Did Mother Superior share a veil trick with you?"

"Yes, I’ll show you. I also pre-tie the rope belt. The knot cinches the belt tight."

"The habit hides someone's identity, but the weight of the garment makes it difficult to run fast. Have you been practicing running in those orthopedic shoes?"

"The habit isn't a problem. It’s these shoes. They make it difficult to run on an uneven surface. The small heel on the shoe changes your weight distribution."

“Let's hope you never need to run in this getup," added her case Agent. "Why do you think I take you for shooting lessons in the nearby woods. Your ability to defend yourself is vital. I hope our target practice sessions soothe your cabin fever. Remember, you must maintain your Sister Jude identity with these women."

Sophie shook her head. "I realize my safety is important, but I can’t shake the sorrow of the events that brought me here. I was shot. Marty is dead. Mom and Dad think they buried me. I'm cloistered in the middle of a forest waiting for the Agency to gather enough evidence. Some days, this doesn't feel real, and other days, it’s scary."

"Well, I admit, this case is unusual. If we keep you safe, the bad guys go to jail for a long time. I hope knowing that the 'good guys' will win gives you satisfaction."

"Yes, but the guilt for leaving my family is my greatest sorrow. They think I'm dead. The realization that I can never speak to any of them without endangering their lives is overwhelming. Why didn't I realize what I was getting into when I agreed to see a movie with Marty Dunhill?"

"You can sit here despairing or you can help fill out this 'change in terms' form for your case," replied her handler.

"Did you say 'change in terms' form?" A bell rang and summoned the end of lunch recess. 

Cheryl slid the form back into her tunic pocket. "We'll do this later."

Sophie walked towards the classroom door, stopped, turned, and faced her protector. “So, are you coming back after school? Or are you staying the night?”

Agent Bond stood from her chair. She smiled, "I’m on my way out on right now. I won’t be spending the night, let's meet tomorrow after breakfast."

Sophie tilted her head and asked, “Let’s make this simple. You want me to stay in the convent and wait for you. Correct?” 

The Agent nodded as she approached Sophie. “Affirmative, tomorrow, after breakfast?

"Tomorrow!" repeated Sophie as she walked out of the room to gather her students. Her heart and future kindled with the possibility of change. She opened the exterior doors and a gust of wind force a chill through her, “Hurry now,” she instructed her students. “That black sky announces a nasty storm. Quickly, get in before the rain starts.”

The last student sauntered in as Sophie struggled with the wind to shut the door. A bolt of lightning pummeled the playground. Her face flushed from its heat. The electrical energy erupted into an earsplitting thunderbolt. Stunned and breathless, Sophie opened her eyes and removed her hands from her ears. “What just happened?” The clouds released rhythmic rain as Sophie evaluated her status.

I’m not scorched, but the heat felt like I was being drawn into a fire. Is this an omen? My babcia (grandma) told me to fear lightning. Her little brother was playing in the field while the family was harvesting hay. Without warning, lightning came from nowhere and killed him. “Módl się wdzięczność, błyskawica jest dziełem diabła.” (Pray granddaughter, lightning is the devil.) She’d cross herself and pray each time the heavens flashed. Are you trying to tell me something babcia? Is the devil near?

Chapter Two

Pre-Dawn, Ogden Convent

"Stay down, for God's sake, stay down." Marty's last words woke Sophie from her fitful sleep. Tortured each night by the same dream, she laid tired on her cot and waited for the convent chimes to announce matins (morning prayers). Each morning I wake feeling pain from my gunshot wound. Marty’s death chills me. I sleep, but awake exhausted.

Today marks my second anniversary of living in suspended animation. How quickly my life evolved into anonymity. Sophie Janisewski no longer exists.

The unwilling fugitive opened her eyes to early morning light. My life is like pre-dawn. It is not dark, but it is filled with unknowns. It is not bright and filled with hope. I wait, protected without brightness. My life remains dusk.

Tears fell from Sophie’s eyes. Today, Mama and papa attended a mass 

remembering me. My family took a trip to the cemetery to place flowers on my grave. My heart languishes because they don’t know I’m not buried there.

The reputation of grandma's rye and pumpernickel breads brought Marty to the bakery. Our first conversation started about bread. If I wasn't covering for my grandmother, my family and I would be celebrating my Master’s Degree. 

The chimes summoned the convent's residents to rise and prepare for matins. Sophie never missed. The calming chants and wisdom of the Divine Office soothed her soul and mind. Praying renewed her hope in the future and life beyond these convent walls.

Tumbling out of her cot-like bed, the cold tile floor jolted her back to reality. Sophie stood in front of the small basin.

13
2
2
Juice
150 reads
Donate coins to patwcoffey5.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by patwcoffey5 in portal Simon & Schuster
Changing Habits
Chapter One
Ogden, Utah, 1965, St. Agnes School

One decision, one date, one dead man, and I'm entombed in this place. Exiled far from anyone I know. Coerced by circumstance to dress and live as a nun. My family believes they buried me. My graduate school plans vanished. My life changed because of one stupid encounter! The bell shattered Sophie a.k.a Sister Jude’s thoughts.

She pushed her chair back. Her fifteen-decade rosary attached to her tunic caught a drawer pull. Damn! You’d think I’d get use to this attached chain of beads. I hate the bindings of this outfit. The long medieval wool garb weighs heavy on my shoulders. The wimple cuts into my face and holds my head in place. Quick moments are cumbersome.

Sophie surveyed the playground through square glass and metal paned windows. Where are my little renegades? This banishment keeps me from leaving my classroom to check on my students. Another teacher attends to this joyous time.

The young woman studied the playground. A group of girls played hand-clapping games. They appeared lost in a world of rhyme and rhythm. The children amused themselves in Ogden, Utah with the same playground games I played as a child in Chicago.

"Snap, snap, snap," echoed the sound of the ropes hitting the playground’s asphalt. Agility! I envy their balance and depth perception to skip "Double Dutch."

Her gaze shifted to the north end of the playground. The boys claimed basketball nets to play H-O-R-S-E. She discovered the rest of her class engaged in team selections for "Red Rover." Sophie's heart stung as she recalled her childhood memories. Strong girls always chosen first for their strength to keep the opposing team from breaking through the line. Sophie was small for her age and seen as weak. She felt lucky if she was picked on a team.

Childhood, carefree days of fun and freedom, but not always for the oldest child in a large family. Summer days included swimming. Picnics on the boulevard, playing on the swings, monkey bars, slides, and of course hide and seek at night, but never alone. Never alone, Sophie's brothers or sisters tagged along. School and the classroom offered solitude from her family babysitting responsibilities.

A knock interrupted her thoughts. Sophie turned to see a tall nun standing with her arms folded under her scapular. "Can I help you sister?"
"Am I disturbing your prayer time, Sister Jude?"

It took a few seconds before Sophie recognized the voice.

"Nothing ever stays the same, does it?" answered Special Agent Cheryl Bond.

"I was watching the children on the playground and envying their freedom." Why is Cheryl in a habit?

Agent Bond walked to the windows without speaking. She took a chair from the first desk. Unaccustomed to the habit's yards of material, she struggled to make herself comfortable in the child sized chair.

Sophie paced back and forth. “We aren't scheduled for a 'nature walk' for another two weeks." She squinted her eyes and said, "I hope you brought some news for me. I'm tired of living in exile.” She folded her arms as she asked, "Will I ever have a life, my life? When will I be able to go to graduate school?"

Agent Bond held up her hand. "Stop pacing." The agent pulled out a chair and patted the seat. "Please sit down. I have news for you." Cheryl pulled a letter from her tunic's deep pocket.

"Sit, Sophie, we need to talk. The Agency’s concern for the safety of the sisters, children, and you increased in the last week."

Sophie sighed and sat next to Cheryl. "I thought you had news for me. The Agency reports concern about my safety every time you visit.”

"The bureau is re-examining your case and your safety is the issue. Caruso's case wraps up soon. Once it's put to bed, your status moves forward. I just got off the phone with my supervisor. He wants you to complete this change of status form. Once we finished with Dominic Caruso’s case, we can the transfer you to the U.S. Marshall's permanent witness protection program. This means a new identity, new location, and graduate school.

Sophie sat rigid in her chair. "They’re considering my case? That's wonderful!" The news overwhelmed the fugitive with the warmth of hope and freedom. Her eyes flooded with tears. “I'm grateful to the nuns at Saint Agnes. They took a scared and wounded girl and transformed her into a nun. I'll miss Mother Superior. She taught me how to speak, walk, and take on the mantle of a sister."

The Agent laughed, stretched her legs out in front of her and said, "You didn't mention living in a habit. I don't know about you, but it drives me nuts every time the Agency makes me wear this outfit. I don't wear it often, so when I do, I lay out the pieces one by one to ensure to dress properly. The stiff coif headdress is tight. My chin chafes from the cap used to cover my hair. Placing the white wimple on straight is the trickiest.”

Sophie touched her headgear, "There are days when I wish I could just walk outside without this stuff and feel the wind dance through my hair."
Agent Bond added. "You've lasted longer in this convent than some of my other cases."

"Misplacement of any part of this getup can lead to an uncomfortable day. "Sophie turned, placed her leg on a desk. She pulled her tunic up. "I hate these hideous black cotton stockings." "You're smart to put on the stockings. You'd blow your cover if you didn't wear those ghastly things."

"Yeah, the stockings itch. When the weather is hot, I get a rash on my legs. I need to stay in character, but I'd give anything to run barefoot around the convent. Living here is as confining as this habit. I miss going out to dinner, to a movie, getting a haircut, I don't want to be living like a nun all my life.”
Cheryl looked at the woman who is her longest protection case. “Sophie, are you listening to me? I asked how did you learn to tackle the habit?"

Mother Superior checks me daily. She made me sew some snaps on my tunic and scapular to insure the two articles of clothing stay put."
"The hardest task for me is the veil. Pinning that heavy black wool on the headdress with those dressmaker pins is an artistic trick. Did Mother Superior share a veil trick with you?"

"Yes, I’ll show you. I also pre-tie the rope belt. The knot cinches the belt tight."
"The habit hides someone's identity, but the weight of the garment makes it difficult to run fast. Have you been practicing running in those orthopedic shoes?"

"The habit isn't a problem. It’s these shoes. They make it difficult to run on an uneven surface. The small heel on the shoe changes your weight distribution."
“Let's hope you never need to run in this getup," added her case Agent. "Why do you think I take you for shooting lessons in the nearby woods. Your ability to defend yourself is vital. I hope our target practice sessions soothe your cabin fever. Remember, you must maintain your Sister Jude identity with these women."

Sophie shook her head. "I realize my safety is important, but I can’t shake the sorrow of the events that brought me here. I was shot. Marty is dead. Mom and Dad think they buried me. I'm cloistered in the middle of a forest waiting for the Agency to gather enough evidence. Some days, this doesn't feel real, and other days, it’s scary."

"Well, I admit, this case is unusual. If we keep you safe, the bad guys go to jail for a long time. I hope knowing that the 'good guys' will win gives you satisfaction."

"Yes, but the guilt for leaving my family is my greatest sorrow. They think I'm dead. The realization that I can never speak to any of them without endangering their lives is overwhelming. Why didn't I realize what I was getting into when I agreed to see a movie with Marty Dunhill?"
"You can sit here despairing or you can help fill out this 'change in terms' form for your case," replied her handler.

"Did you say 'change in terms' form?" A bell rang and summoned the end of lunch recess. 

Cheryl slid the form back into her tunic pocket. "We'll do this later."
Sophie walked towards the classroom door, stopped, turned, and faced her protector. “So, are you coming back after school? Or are you staying the night?”

Agent Bond stood from her chair. She smiled, "I’m on my way out on right now. I won’t be spending the night, let's meet tomorrow after breakfast."
Sophie tilted her head and asked, “Let’s make this simple. You want me to stay in the convent and wait for you. Correct?” 

The Agent nodded as she approached Sophie. “Affirmative, tomorrow, after breakfast?

"Tomorrow!" repeated Sophie as she walked out of the room to gather her students. Her heart and future kindled with the possibility of change. She opened the exterior doors and a gust of wind force a chill through her, “Hurry now,” she instructed her students. “That black sky announces a nasty storm. Quickly, get in before the rain starts.”

The last student sauntered in as Sophie struggled with the wind to shut the door. A bolt of lightning pummeled the playground. Her face flushed from its heat. The electrical energy erupted into an earsplitting thunderbolt. Stunned and breathless, Sophie opened her eyes and removed her hands from her ears. “What just happened?” The clouds released rhythmic rain as Sophie evaluated her status.

I’m not scorched, but the heat felt like I was being drawn into a fire. Is this an omen? My babcia (grandma) told me to fear lightning. Her little brother was playing in the field while the family was harvesting hay. Without warning, lightning came from nowhere and killed him. “Módl się wdzięczność, błyskawica jest dziełem diabła.” (Pray granddaughter, lightning is the devil.) She’d cross herself and pray each time the heavens flashed. Are you trying to tell me something babcia? Is the devil near?

Chapter Two
Pre-Dawn, Ogden Convent
"Stay down, for God's sake, stay down." Marty's last words woke Sophie from her fitful sleep. Tortured each night by the same dream, she laid tired on her cot and waited for the convent chimes to announce matins (morning prayers). Each morning I wake feeling pain from my gunshot wound. Marty’s death chills me. I sleep, but awake exhausted.

Today marks my second anniversary of living in suspended animation. How quickly my life evolved into anonymity. Sophie Janisewski no longer exists.
The unwilling fugitive opened her eyes to early morning light. My life is like pre-dawn. It is not dark, but it is filled with unknowns. It is not bright and filled with hope. I wait, protected without brightness. My life remains dusk.

Tears fell from Sophie’s eyes. Today, Mama and papa attended a mass 
remembering me. My family took a trip to the cemetery to place flowers on my grave. My heart languishes because they don’t know I’m not buried there.

The reputation of grandma's rye and pumpernickel breads brought Marty to the bakery. Our first conversation started about bread. If I wasn't covering for my grandmother, my family and I would be celebrating my Master’s Degree. 

The chimes summoned the convent's residents to rise and prepare for matins. Sophie never missed. The calming chants and wisdom of the Divine Office soothed her soul and mind. Praying renewed her hope in the future and life beyond these convent walls.

Tumbling out of her cot-like bed, the cold tile floor jolted her back to reality. Sophie stood in front of the small basin.
13
2
2
Juice
150 reads
Load 2 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Mel.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Mel in portal Simon & Schuster

Partial chapter of an unfinished manuscript—Moonshine Rd.

I left hell's grounds circa 2010, in search for the waters of Lethe. I had a bag full of clothes and fifty dollars to my name. I paused, let the rain soak me though, as if to cleanse me from the evil of that godforsaken house, before sprinting out into the night. Who could have imagined that the rain was an omen of the days to come. There was nothing left to do but to head west.

The bright lights of a liquor store caught my eye. I ran inside for fear that he was following me. After explaining my situation, the man behind the counter let me make a few calls. Rhazib. I'll never forget his name. It was forty-eight miles to Los Angeles, a cab was not an option. I walked a few miles to the nearest truck-stop. I was able to hitch a ride within minutes. I looked back one last time as we left the dessert suburbs and headed back to my home grounds. I slowly sipped on a cold coffee, compliments of Rhazib, while the trucker, who's name I never got, smoked his cigarette. To my dismay, the coffee was weak and the rain was strong. The trucker respected my wishes, and we rode in silence the entire way. I had forgotten how much I missed the city lights. Downtown looked so beautiful and peaceful at two in the morning.

The heavens showed mercy as the rain subsided into a drizzle. Echo Park was my stop. I got off, and was ever grateful to the trucker for bringing me to what I, at the time, thought would be a safe haven. He dropped me off about five blocks away from the place I grew up in. I walked under the bridge that I used to pass every morning on my way to school as a kid. The memories that I long ago suppressed, hit me like a wave, and and forced themselves down my throat. It was hard to see what the years had done to this place. I wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it with my own eyes. A tourist could easily mistake this as Skid Row. I felt like I belonged. In that moment, in a sense, I too was homeless.

I was terrified, drunk with fatigue, saturated in heaven's tears, and on the verge of a breakdown. I slipped the man huddled up on the ground five bucks in exchange for a couple stoges. He said for another five, he could shoot me to the moon. I saw hope in his eyes, handed him another five, bid him a good night, and kept walking.

My mind played hundreds of scenarios as to how the night would end. One of two would happen. I'd be invited in, or I'd head back under the bridge. I showed up to the house smelling of fear and cigarettes. I dried my feet on the mat at the front doorstep, paced back and forth a few times, held my breath, and finally knocked on the door. I hoped for the best, but expected hell.

47
17
26
Juice
299 reads
Donate coins to Mel.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Mel in portal Simon & Schuster
Partial chapter of an unfinished manuscript—Moonshine Rd.
I left hell's grounds circa 2010, in search for the waters of Lethe. I had a bag full of clothes and fifty dollars to my name. I paused, let the rain soak me though, as if to cleanse me from the evil of that godforsaken house, before sprinting out into the night. Who could have imagined that the rain was an omen of the days to come. There was nothing left to do but to head west.

The bright lights of a liquor store caught my eye. I ran inside for fear that he was following me. After explaining my situation, the man behind the counter let me make a few calls. Rhazib. I'll never forget his name. It was forty-eight miles to Los Angeles, a cab was not an option. I walked a few miles to the nearest truck-stop. I was able to hitch a ride within minutes. I looked back one last time as we left the dessert suburbs and headed back to my home grounds. I slowly sipped on a cold coffee, compliments of Rhazib, while the trucker, who's name I never got, smoked his cigarette. To my dismay, the coffee was weak and the rain was strong. The trucker respected my wishes, and we rode in silence the entire way. I had forgotten how much I missed the city lights. Downtown looked so beautiful and peaceful at two in the morning.

The heavens showed mercy as the rain subsided into a drizzle. Echo Park was my stop. I got off, and was ever grateful to the trucker for bringing me to what I, at the time, thought would be a safe haven. He dropped me off about five blocks away from the place I grew up in. I walked under the bridge that I used to pass every morning on my way to school as a kid. The memories that I long ago suppressed, hit me like a wave, and and forced themselves down my throat. It was hard to see what the years had done to this place. I wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it with my own eyes. A tourist could easily mistake this as Skid Row. I felt like I belonged. In that moment, in a sense, I too was homeless.

I was terrified, drunk with fatigue, saturated in heaven's tears, and on the verge of a breakdown. I slipped the man huddled up on the ground five bucks in exchange for a couple stoges. He said for another five, he could shoot me to the moon. I saw hope in his eyes, handed him another five, bid him a good night, and kept walking.

My mind played hundreds of scenarios as to how the night would end. One of two would happen. I'd be invited in, or I'd head back under the bridge. I showed up to the house smelling of fear and cigarettes. I dried my feet on the mat at the front doorstep, paced back and forth a few times, held my breath, and finally knocked on the door. I hoped for the best, but expected hell.
47
17
26
Juice
299 reads
Load 26 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Harlequin in portal Simon & Schuster

The Burden of Choice

Few professions can boast of promising grandiosity, naivety, transcendence and mental torture, all woven within an unparalleled commitment which, all too often, considers itself too seriously. "There are three types of artists," my father once told me, "the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters."

I paced through the gutted nave of St. Dominik's Chapel, considering his words while my late father's work watched me through the myriad eyes of demons, angels, gods and goddesses alike. Nearly a decade of labor was painted upon the pillars, the arches and ribbed vaulting, on every stone from floor to ceiling. The immortalized masterpiece loomed over the countless pieces on display for Prospero's Virtuoso Festival, one of them being my own. Portraits, paintings, sculptures of stone, glass and wood surrounded me, all of them standing stolid within the safety of their respective genres.

Now that the chapel’s candles had smoldered, darkness deteriorated the details while shadows wreathed my creation in merciful ambiguity. Moonlight was cutting through the numerous stained glass windows to reach the seventy-eight, rectangular silhouettes hanging from the gilded chandelier. Intermittently, the turning tarot deck bloomed in pale turquoise, its pigments and painstaking details discernible before fading again. You could almost hear the strands of thread twisting with each rotation. I massaged the shredded tips of my fingers while I stared at the piece, resenting the stereotypes that my peers had sheltered themselves in, allowing them to suffer far less than I had. I had endeavored to create something compelling. They had sacrificed soulful expression for a hollow representation of mastery in hackneyed mediums. Yet here I was, competing amongst them, damned only to the glory of the black sheep's bottomless anguish.

I felt Clarissa's hands press my shoulders. "It's late," she whispered, "you should rest for tomorrow."

"You can go," I said. It was difficult not to spit my bitterness. This would be the fifth year in which I displayed a piece in the festival. In my experience, each attempt was only another unpalatable failure to fold back upon the others.

“Your works are experimental, Sage. It’s typical for artists to be unappreciated in their time. Not that you aren’t appreciated. There are more than a few Prosperians looking forward to when the doors open tomorrow, specifically to see what you’ve been working on all year.”

“Tell that to my father,” I muttered, needing only to look around to find the rebuke he would have given if he was still alive. Every stone of the chapel glorified his talent while shedding light on my inadequacy. I was competing for menial success within a structure that represented the quintessence of his. “He was appreciated in his time, wasn’t he?” I exclaimed and slammed my foot into a pedestal that displayed a bust of St. Dominik. Ashamed at my outburst, I turned around immediately, aiming to walk out of the chapel and sleep away the night’s frustration. Instead, Clarissa rushed past me with outstretched arms. She grunted as the marble bust toppled over and drove her knees to the ground.

“Help me, for mercy’s sake,” she wheezed. Both St. Dominik and Clarissa glared at me while I stared at the disaster I nearly caused. When I bent to help her, I was amazed she had stopped it from falling at all. After we uprighted the bust, she tucked a lock of pale hair behind her ear, shook her head, and left the chapel with an emphasis on the back of her heels.

“Clarissa, I didn’t mean to—” I began before the oak slabs clanged behind her. But what was the difference? Indulging in her pity, forcing her to understand. She hadn't tangled with inspiration's spiteful hands, hadn't felt the sting of passion's double-edged blade. She could stand alongside me for a lifetime and still not comprehend the bittersweet of art's reluctant offerings.

At the very least, all the preparations had been completed, the last of the deck's cards tied to the chandelier's arms. Amidst the other contesting pieces, I felt I could stand in that chapel until dawn, awaiting the judges' scrutiny, kept awake only from anxiety and expectation.

                                                                    ~

Sleep did little to dissipate the tension, the faltering of Clarissa's patience, made evident in her unwillingness to meet my eyes the following morning. I watched her examine herself in the mirror of our bedroom, fiddling with the folds of her vest, the ruffles of her skirt, the knot of the laces that tightened her collar. The burgundy of our front garments and underlaying black layers matched, down to the silver embellishments on our cuffs. They were the same outfits we had worn last year, and the four years before then. As was tradition, my belt hung with a rapier, the same polished heirloom my father wore to events such as this.

The streets and marketplaces were no longer avenues for the city, instead, they became rivers for tourists and citizens. From the carved stone of mansions to the ramshackle homes, tapestries and banners hung beneath every window, fluttering in the temperate winds over the throngs. Performers lined the streets with their hats set upon the ground, quarreling for the pithy tips of passersby while Clarissa and I found ourselves holding hands for the first time in weeks, just to stay linked while we shoved through the sweaty bodies and ale-muddled laughter towards St. Dominik's Chapel.

Another year, another show of enthusiasm and feigned delight at small talk with bland contemporaries reflecting little besides the cycling motifs already depicted to death. I pretended to be interested as I let a few peers describe to me the delicate process behind their work. Their skin was often flush with health, their voices plodding and eyes calm. Where was the struggle? Where was their dedication? Their anguish? Where were the rings beneath their eyes? Every year, it seemed, I had less in common with them.

"Attempt to look excited, Sage," Clarissa muttered to me after we'd pretended not to watch the panel of judges scrutinize every piece. Now, the four of them were discussing their findings around the altar. "This isn't a funeral you're attending."

I nodded, unable to laugh with her while my cheeks strained to keep up the smile. The air in the chapel was suffocated by fragrances and tidy conversations of artists attempting to appear more thoughtful and articulate than they were. Worse yet, Allan Demoire was approaching us with a smile that already gleamed with the amusement of tactless insults he'd deal under the guise of polite teasing.

"Just breathe," she whispered to me just before he came into earshot.

"Attempting ..."

"Sage Lemange!" he greeted. "You look rather nervous, I must admit," he remarked while Clarissa allowed him the tapping of his lips against either of her cheeks. He, one of my father's closer peers, savored my dying succession, a son's inability to uphold the deteriorating pillars of fame. I folded my hands behind my back and clenched until the knuckles paled. "You're smashing in black. It suits you ... again."

I ignored the last observation. "Is it strange for an artist to be nervous during an exhibition?" I quelled the urge to throttle him by his azure ascot.

Allan checked his pocket watch, nothing less than a pathetic attempt to display his nonexistent importance. “What with your proficiency in divination, I wouldn’t think you’d be trepidatious of the future. That is, unless you knew things didn’t fair well in the end.”

“Now, now, Allan,” Clarissa hummed.

“Oh come on now, it’s all in good humor!” Allan snatched a glass of wine from a passing servant, whom lingered so he could grab two more for us. He didn’t. “Or perhaps you yourself don’t practice the craft, perhaps your, ahum, clients are the ones with a seer’s vision.”

"I have no personal claims with regards to my clients' proposed abilities, as I have stated before. Tarot decks are only my means to an end, Mr. Demoire."

"And what end might that be? Are you catching another glimmer of future prospects, perhaps?"

Just to spite him, I laughed as gaudily as I could before I risked looking as if I actually enjoyed him. “How very perceptive of you. Perhaps my nervousness is for a horror I’ve divined to befall this afternoon. I am glad you enjoyed the piece.” I inclined my head and showed my teeth.

Stunned by my lack of irritation, he stumbled for a reply, and instead settled for silence and a slight bow before taking his leave, massaging his peppered goatee all the while. He'd been too busy crawling under my skin to drag me into a discourse about his own work. I was grateful for that much, at least.

                                                                     ~

The wood for each card had been chopped from a tree by my childhood home, then dried for several years, while I had practiced woodcarving on the side of my daily job of crafting decks for Prospero's divinatory community. Children and traveling gypsies, mostly, were my customers. At the beginning of this year, I set to work on the wood, engraving the details with a knife before applying brush and paint. Carving, sanding, dusting, carving, sanding, dusting ... It was the process as much as the creation itself, conveying the unpredictable machinations of fate even with a determined hand to mark the path's footholds. Each color was applied only after hours of labor, much like the garnering of inspiration before expression.

How fitting, then, to sit beneath the failed piece that had consumed another year of my life, that had brought only squinting eyes and the tentative scratching of heads from judges and observers accustomed to the trite mediums of canvas and oil.

Clarissa had long since left with the others. This time when I had said, "You can go," she trusted that her words would provide little solace.

Five artists had walked away from this year's festival, one of them being Allan, their passions now cradled within the comfort of commissions enlisted from nobility, much like the commission my father had once received for the chapel. A promising, stable future. Respect, the right to declare proficiency and illegitimacy. Names to be made noteworthy in history's ledgers. Above all else, the state of being 'exceptional'.

Night cloaked the chapel once again, and once again, the candle stubs had diffused the acridity of burnt wicks and lost time. I played with the thick spool of twine in my pocket, the one I had retrieved from my home shortly after the victors had been announced.

Footfalls slipped in to break the chapel's silence.

I looked up at Allan Demoire as he sauntered through the nave, his arrogance elated to an almost malicious delight. Again, he examined his pocket watch. "You said you had something for me? Is there any possibility of ending this meeting shortly? There's quite the celebration, and I must be returning soon."

"Of course, I understand. You are revered, after all." The smug twitch of his mustache was revolting. "I have something my father instructed me to give you, if you were ever to be one of the festival's finalists." Allan's expression took on reverence, a disgusting transformation from complete disregard to captivation. He closed the distance between us, outstretching his hand with a childlike expectation.

I unsheathed my father's heirloom, letting the moonlight lick the rapier's blade. Allan reached out for its hilt. With a chuckle, I turned the blade towards him and ran it through before pulling back to thread it again. I cupped my hand over the screams shaking to escape his mouth, and ushered him to the ground.

There are three types of artists in this world: the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters. And mediocrity, I have found, is a fate colder than death. After Allan finished squirming, I gazed back at my art. I had twine, fresh inspiration, and a whole evening to revise my creation. Perhaps tomorrow, after I'd strung his pieces up with mine, someone would find it noteworthy.

28
12
15
Juice
413 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Harlequin in portal Simon & Schuster
The Burden of Choice
Few professions can boast of promising grandiosity, naivety, transcendence and mental torture, all woven within an unparalleled commitment which, all too often, considers itself too seriously. "There are three types of artists," my father once told me, "the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters."

I paced through the gutted nave of St. Dominik's Chapel, considering his words while my late father's work watched me through the myriad eyes of demons, angels, gods and goddesses alike. Nearly a decade of labor was painted upon the pillars, the arches and ribbed vaulting, on every stone from floor to ceiling. The immortalized masterpiece loomed over the countless pieces on display for Prospero's Virtuoso Festival, one of them being my own. Portraits, paintings, sculptures of stone, glass and wood surrounded me, all of them standing stolid within the safety of their respective genres.

Now that the chapel’s candles had smoldered, darkness deteriorated the details while shadows wreathed my creation in merciful ambiguity. Moonlight was cutting through the numerous stained glass windows to reach the seventy-eight, rectangular silhouettes hanging from the gilded chandelier. Intermittently, the turning tarot deck bloomed in pale turquoise, its pigments and painstaking details discernible before fading again. You could almost hear the strands of thread twisting with each rotation. I massaged the shredded tips of my fingers while I stared at the piece, resenting the stereotypes that my peers had sheltered themselves in, allowing them to suffer far less than I had. I had endeavored to create something compelling. They had sacrificed soulful expression for a hollow representation of mastery in hackneyed mediums. Yet here I was, competing amongst them, damned only to the glory of the black sheep's bottomless anguish.

I felt Clarissa's hands press my shoulders. "It's late," she whispered, "you should rest for tomorrow."

"You can go," I said. It was difficult not to spit my bitterness. This would be the fifth year in which I displayed a piece in the festival. In my experience, each attempt was only another unpalatable failure to fold back upon the others.

“Your works are experimental, Sage. It’s typical for artists to be unappreciated in their time. Not that you aren’t appreciated. There are more than a few Prosperians looking forward to when the doors open tomorrow, specifically to see what you’ve been working on all year.”

“Tell that to my father,” I muttered, needing only to look around to find the rebuke he would have given if he was still alive. Every stone of the chapel glorified his talent while shedding light on my inadequacy. I was competing for menial success within a structure that represented the quintessence of his. “He was appreciated in his time, wasn’t he?” I exclaimed and slammed my foot into a pedestal that displayed a bust of St. Dominik. Ashamed at my outburst, I turned around immediately, aiming to walk out of the chapel and sleep away the night’s frustration. Instead, Clarissa rushed past me with outstretched arms. She grunted as the marble bust toppled over and drove her knees to the ground.

“Help me, for mercy’s sake,” she wheezed. Both St. Dominik and Clarissa glared at me while I stared at the disaster I nearly caused. When I bent to help her, I was amazed she had stopped it from falling at all. After we uprighted the bust, she tucked a lock of pale hair behind her ear, shook her head, and left the chapel with an emphasis on the back of her heels.

“Clarissa, I didn’t mean to—” I began before the oak slabs clanged behind her. But what was the difference? Indulging in her pity, forcing her to understand. She hadn't tangled with inspiration's spiteful hands, hadn't felt the sting of passion's double-edged blade. She could stand alongside me for a lifetime and still not comprehend the bittersweet of art's reluctant offerings.

At the very least, all the preparations had been completed, the last of the deck's cards tied to the chandelier's arms. Amidst the other contesting pieces, I felt I could stand in that chapel until dawn, awaiting the judges' scrutiny, kept awake only from anxiety and expectation.

                                                                    ~

Sleep did little to dissipate the tension, the faltering of Clarissa's patience, made evident in her unwillingness to meet my eyes the following morning. I watched her examine herself in the mirror of our bedroom, fiddling with the folds of her vest, the ruffles of her skirt, the knot of the laces that tightened her collar. The burgundy of our front garments and underlaying black layers matched, down to the silver embellishments on our cuffs. They were the same outfits we had worn last year, and the four years before then. As was tradition, my belt hung with a rapier, the same polished heirloom my father wore to events such as this.

The streets and marketplaces were no longer avenues for the city, instead, they became rivers for tourists and citizens. From the carved stone of mansions to the ramshackle homes, tapestries and banners hung beneath every window, fluttering in the temperate winds over the throngs. Performers lined the streets with their hats set upon the ground, quarreling for the pithy tips of passersby while Clarissa and I found ourselves holding hands for the first time in weeks, just to stay linked while we shoved through the sweaty bodies and ale-muddled laughter towards St. Dominik's Chapel.

Another year, another show of enthusiasm and feigned delight at small talk with bland contemporaries reflecting little besides the cycling motifs already depicted to death. I pretended to be interested as I let a few peers describe to me the delicate process behind their work. Their skin was often flush with health, their voices plodding and eyes calm. Where was the struggle? Where was their dedication? Their anguish? Where were the rings beneath their eyes? Every year, it seemed, I had less in common with them.

"Attempt to look excited, Sage," Clarissa muttered to me after we'd pretended not to watch the panel of judges scrutinize every piece. Now, the four of them were discussing their findings around the altar. "This isn't a funeral you're attending."

I nodded, unable to laugh with her while my cheeks strained to keep up the smile. The air in the chapel was suffocated by fragrances and tidy conversations of artists attempting to appear more thoughtful and articulate than they were. Worse yet, Allan Demoire was approaching us with a smile that already gleamed with the amusement of tactless insults he'd deal under the guise of polite teasing.

"Just breathe," she whispered to me just before he came into earshot.

"Attempting ..."

"Sage Lemange!" he greeted. "You look rather nervous, I must admit," he remarked while Clarissa allowed him the tapping of his lips against either of her cheeks. He, one of my father's closer peers, savored my dying succession, a son's inability to uphold the deteriorating pillars of fame. I folded my hands behind my back and clenched until the knuckles paled. "You're smashing in black. It suits you ... again."

I ignored the last observation. "Is it strange for an artist to be nervous during an exhibition?" I quelled the urge to throttle him by his azure ascot.

Allan checked his pocket watch, nothing less than a pathetic attempt to display his nonexistent importance. “What with your proficiency in divination, I wouldn’t think you’d be trepidatious of the future. That is, unless you knew things didn’t fair well in the end.”

“Now, now, Allan,” Clarissa hummed.

“Oh come on now, it’s all in good humor!” Allan snatched a glass of wine from a passing servant, whom lingered so he could grab two more for us. He didn’t. “Or perhaps you yourself don’t practice the craft, perhaps your, ahum, clients are the ones with a seer’s vision.”

"I have no personal claims with regards to my clients' proposed abilities, as I have stated before. Tarot decks are only my means to an end, Mr. Demoire."

"And what end might that be? Are you catching another glimmer of future prospects, perhaps?"

Just to spite him, I laughed as gaudily as I could before I risked looking as if I actually enjoyed him. “How very perceptive of you. Perhaps my nervousness is for a horror I’ve divined to befall this afternoon. I am glad you enjoyed the piece.” I inclined my head and showed my teeth.

Stunned by my lack of irritation, he stumbled for a reply, and instead settled for silence and a slight bow before taking his leave, massaging his peppered goatee all the while. He'd been too busy crawling under my skin to drag me into a discourse about his own work. I was grateful for that much, at least.

                                                                     ~

The wood for each card had been chopped from a tree by my childhood home, then dried for several years, while I had practiced woodcarving on the side of my daily job of crafting decks for Prospero's divinatory community. Children and traveling gypsies, mostly, were my customers. At the beginning of this year, I set to work on the wood, engraving the details with a knife before applying brush and paint. Carving, sanding, dusting, carving, sanding, dusting ... It was the process as much as the creation itself, conveying the unpredictable machinations of fate even with a determined hand to mark the path's footholds. Each color was applied only after hours of labor, much like the garnering of inspiration before expression.

How fitting, then, to sit beneath the failed piece that had consumed another year of my life, that had brought only squinting eyes and the tentative scratching of heads from judges and observers accustomed to the trite mediums of canvas and oil.

Clarissa had long since left with the others. This time when I had said, "You can go," she trusted that her words would provide little solace.

Five artists had walked away from this year's festival, one of them being Allan, their passions now cradled within the comfort of commissions enlisted from nobility, much like the commission my father had once received for the chapel. A promising, stable future. Respect, the right to declare proficiency and illegitimacy. Names to be made noteworthy in history's ledgers. Above all else, the state of being 'exceptional'.

Night cloaked the chapel once again, and once again, the candle stubs had diffused the acridity of burnt wicks and lost time. I played with the thick spool of twine in my pocket, the one I had retrieved from my home shortly after the victors had been announced.

Footfalls slipped in to break the chapel's silence.

I looked up at Allan Demoire as he sauntered through the nave, his arrogance elated to an almost malicious delight. Again, he examined his pocket watch. "You said you had something for me? Is there any possibility of ending this meeting shortly? There's quite the celebration, and I must be returning soon."

"Of course, I understand. You are revered, after all." The smug twitch of his mustache was revolting. "I have something my father instructed me to give you, if you were ever to be one of the festival's finalists." Allan's expression took on reverence, a disgusting transformation from complete disregard to captivation. He closed the distance between us, outstretching his hand with a childlike expectation.

I unsheathed my father's heirloom, letting the moonlight lick the rapier's blade. Allan reached out for its hilt. With a chuckle, I turned the blade towards him and ran it through before pulling back to thread it again. I cupped my hand over the screams shaking to escape his mouth, and ushered him to the ground.

There are three types of artists in this world: the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters. And mediocrity, I have found, is a fate colder than death. After Allan finished squirming, I gazed back at my art. I had twine, fresh inspiration, and a whole evening to revise my creation. Perhaps tomorrow, after I'd strung his pieces up with mine, someone would find it noteworthy.
28
12
15
Juice
413 reads
Load 15 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Taki.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Chapter 2 of River's End
Written by Taki in portal Simon & Schuster

River's End chapter 1: Paranoia and Etiquette are Equally Annoying (pt 1)

Knowledge is the mightiest and most essential weapon.

A sword is worth nothing if you don’t know which end to hold or where to stab. Spears, arrows, shuriken all require some understanding to wield. Explosives demand a certain finesse. Even words can prove lethal if dipped in the right blend of wisdom.

All of these methodologies could be stumbled upon in ignorance, I suppose. Ignorance itself is another deadly weapon.

Knowledge was a commodity on Seallaii, my home, largest of the known inhabited worlds and named by the Eteriq Neerpsrii when he decided it should be conquered and unified. There were many theories—some plausible, some preposterous—explaining why he called the land ‘Second’ in his native tongue, but none could say for certain. Who could know the mind of an Eteriq, a title denoting exceptional genius? True Eteriqs, ones from Seallaii, shared many traits, including the obsessive hording of knowledge.

Eteriqs did not teach.

But we still learned so much from them…through them. I should know; my lessons consisted of quote after quote of these long-dead, socially inept geniuses. Their words had a way of twisting your mind, like a carosella—only when you were well and truly dizzy did it make any sense.

Sometimes I just had to get away from these lessons. Was I supposed to be in the forest, barefoot and stuffing myself with wild berries? No, but it had seemed like a good idea that morning, before anyone had informed me very important guests would arrive in less than a quarter of a ruah.

“You’ll never make it in time!” the messenger called after me as I tore down the path, Fredo at my heels. Fredo was my guard, never far from my side, a head and shoulders taller than me, hair like molten rock, eyes like amethysts. His fine-woven mail was too dark to show any stains, but his ruddy skin was blotched with purple and blue juice where I might have thrown some berries at him. He might have thrown some back, but I didn’t have time to worry about my appearance.

I should have known better; I was always supposed to worry about my appearance.

A slick transport resembling an enormous, white-gold bird fluttered onto the landing platform as I raced up the stone steps, adjusting my scarf to cover the lower half of my face. The cloth was white streaked with shimmering baby blue, soft, a little too warm for easy breathing, and smelled of the forest and berries.

The bird’s three metal feet tapped down as I reached the back of the welcoming party—a scattering of land lords, guards, professional attendants, and the honorable Lokma family, who were partly in charge of my upbringing. Disapproval darkened Lady Lokma’s face as she caught sight of me being ushered to the front of the crowd.

The transport door lowered, steps forming on its inner side. I tripped over my too-long skirt and fell to one knee as my aged father appeared in the doorway. To contrast his olive skin and mellifluous golden robes, Cheallii Mellecallii’s hair was sterling white and had been since birth—rare, resplendent, and often complimented. As with many native to the lands near Menyaza, his eyes were a deep, cherry red and the same shape as my sister’s—top line nearly straight, lower lid swerving to form very sharp corners. My eyes, like my mother’s, were almond-shaped.

Forgive me. Olives, cherries, and almonds: that’s three foreign comparisons. Having studied many worlds, I think it a waste to limit the source of my similes to only my native land, and you know of Eslat, yes? It is my favorite world from which to take descriptions, since my name is also from there. Call it a game.

I remained in my prostrated position in an effort to make it look like I had intended to kneel. I was overly respectful, not clumsy.

My father took forever coming down those five stairs.

“Dear Rosemary,” he greeted, a gentle hand falling atop my head, “I do believe you have grown in the time since I last saw you.”

How can you tell? I’m on my knees! Of course I didn’t say this. It would have belied the respectful image I went for, and who knew, maybe even kneeling I was taller than when he’d last noticed me.

I put on my sweetest voice and grin: “Honored Father, might I inquire-”

My father’s fingers snapped twice, encouraging my sister to hurry down the steps.

Thanks to the unique way Seallaii-nas age, foreigners may have guessed my sister and I to have equal years, but Silvika was many decades older. The length of her coarse curls was a sign of this, fashioning a multifaceted bun before cascading to the ground. Interesting and pretty, but my eyes were stuck on the stranger descending just ahead of her.

He had a round face, stout, humanoid frame draped in a straight tunic with long, tight sleeves and a tall collar, high rank among his people denoted by the lengthy fringe dangling from his shirt and the lace encrusting his pants and shoes. His dark hair would have been child-short for a Seallaii-na and was slicked back, but the ears sticking through it were what confirmed his race—ears conical, stiff, and fuzzy like an Eslat-na wolf’s.

Shlykrii-na.

As the foreigner stopped alongside my father, I scrambled to my feet and shuffled back, eyes darting around for Fredo and not finding him.

My heart leapt into my throat and got stuck there like some drain clog, so when my father introduced me as, “Rosemary, my younger daughter, the one taken because of her special eyes,” I could only give a half-squeak in response, extending my hand for a light peck on the air just above my knuckles.

To preserve our mysterious aura, River Guardians never showed our full faces in public, hence my scarf. We were also not to be touched by non-River Guardians.

My father had blatantly ignored this with his hand-on-my-head gesture, but my father was either an oblivious buffoon or so adept at acting the part no one noticed how much he actually saw. From secret stories I had heard, I suspected the latter, but I didn’t really know him well enough to tell, and regardless, it let him get away with a lot.

The Shlykrii-na’s kiss fell properly short of my skin, though he clutched my fingers, grasp constricting until I retreated another step, hand squirming free of his. He wasn’t even supposed to have reached for me.

“Lafdo feels honored to greet you,” the Shlykrii-na announced. His harsh vowels and r’s grated in my ears, as did his third person reference to himself. It was proper grammar in Laysis, language of Shlykrii, but it sounded too odd in Sishgil.

My father laughed. “Lafdo will stay a guest here for many weeks, and I am certain you will get along wonderfully.”

Was that an invitation for irony or sarcasm?

Why is he here?! I wanted to shout, but my father already walked away, accepting my sister’s aid as they reached the steps leading down into the citadel. The crowd parted and scuttled off. I wanted to follow my father and wring more information from him, but he had implied Lafdo was my guest, and etiquette required I wait for Lafdo to follow my father first.

Etiquette is often annoying.

“Lafdo wonders why you appeared here so filthy and disheveled. You seem old enough to know better.”

I looked down at the mud-splashed hem hiding my bare feet. The formerly white satin of my skirt dragged on the ground when I didn’t hold it up, and the sheer sleeves of my sullied blouse flowed nearly to my knees. Even the ocean blue of my corseted top showed mud splotches, though the berry stains there were not as noticeable as everywhere else. The embroidery of silver swirls traipsing down my left side shimmered in the cool evening light as if they giggled, trying to point out they had somehow remained unsoiled.

Probably not the best choice of garb for berry romping, but Dollii usually had the privilege of selecting my attire since Lady Lokma found me reckless and lacking in this regard. They had likely hoped I would attend all my lessons today.

They didn’t realize that sometimes my lessons got messy, too.

I said nothing. I was muddy, I was old enough to know better, and I didn’t want to talk to him.

Holding up the hand he had squeezed my fingers with, he complained, “You also stained Lafdo.” Some of the dried berry juice had rubbed off on him, a bruised purple smudge against his russet skin.

Go ahead, point out you touched me, I ranted only in my head. Do it again and Fredo will kill you. I still hadn’t spotted Fredo, even with the crowd cleared out, but I knew he lurked nearby. He went into unnoticeable mode when my sister was around, but he wouldn’t abandon me.

“Lafdo wonders what should be asked for in compensation,” the Shlykrii-na mused. “Perhaps a lock of your incredibly colored hair.”

Oh, who cares about etiquette?! I dodged the grope aimed at my head and stomped a muddy foot on his lacy shoe before I spun and strode away.

“Caution, Ambassador.” Fredo’s voice came from behind me. Did Fredo know this was an ambassador? I had assumed, but I didn’t know. Sometimes Fredo assumed things with me.

I probably shouldn’t have stomped on an ambassador...even an ambassador from Shlykrii. Especially an ambassador of Shlykrii.

I looked back over my shoulder, gaze covert through my net-inspired hairdo, but the Shlykrii-na’s eyes were not on me anyway. Fredo stood between us in that nonchalant stance he took when assessing a threat, and the Shlykrii-na stared at him, mouth ajar, surprise dripping from his raised brows.

Well, my guard had appeared out of nowhere. And if the Shlykrii-na had thought my coloring remarkable, it was only because he hadn’t yet seen Fredo. Yes, my hair was red, but it was a washed out shade, like embers peeking through ashes. Fredo’s hair resembled a sky on fire, a deep scarlet sunset pulled into a long, thick braid.

My guard took a step back, following me without taking his eyes off our guest. Facing forward, I descended the steps into the citadel, confident Fredo always had my back.

Kietyn awaited me at the bottom of the staircase, a shadow gliding out of a dark corner. His skin was the color of the mountains at night, hair a perfect coif drawn with glossy ink, eyes a blazing orange. Like Fredo, he wore a fitted suit of obsidian mail and layered strips. My head came level with his weapon-laden belt.

Sarquant,” he addressed me, “your attention please.” As if I could have ignored him standing there like a tree in the middle of the walkway, his whisper retaining a booming quality that sent fear sliding down my spine.

Being called Sarquant often annoyed me, but Kietyn was particular about titles, so I addressed him by his own, same as Fredo’s...sort of. “Yes, Mykta Kietyn?”

He bowed. “I would speak to you in a less conspicuous place.”

Really? It wasn’t like an ambassador followed me or anything.

With an acknowledging nod, I led Kietyn around a corner, not daring a glance behind for Fredo or our guest. Kietyn was my sister’s guard, a part of her entourage, so she knew everything he did. If possible, Fredo would avoid being spotted.

I brushed my fingers along the uneven stones of the wall, and they took on a metallic sheen, waiting to see if I had meant that command.

--continued in chapter 1 pt 2--

18
7
5
Juice
313 reads
Donate coins to Taki.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Chapter 2 of River's End
Written by Taki in portal Simon & Schuster
River's End chapter 1: Paranoia and Etiquette are Equally Annoying (pt 1)
Knowledge is the mightiest and most essential weapon.

A sword is worth nothing if you don’t know which end to hold or where to stab. Spears, arrows, shuriken all require some understanding to wield. Explosives demand a certain finesse. Even words can prove lethal if dipped in the right blend of wisdom.

All of these methodologies could be stumbled upon in ignorance, I suppose. Ignorance itself is another deadly weapon.

Knowledge was a commodity on Seallaii, my home, largest of the known inhabited worlds and named by the Eteriq Neerpsrii when he decided it should be conquered and unified. There were many theories—some plausible, some preposterous—explaining why he called the land ‘Second’ in his native tongue, but none could say for certain. Who could know the mind of an Eteriq, a title denoting exceptional genius? True Eteriqs, ones from Seallaii, shared many traits, including the obsessive hording of knowledge.

Eteriqs did not teach.

But we still learned so much from them…through them. I should know; my lessons consisted of quote after quote of these long-dead, socially inept geniuses. Their words had a way of twisting your mind, like a carosella—only when you were well and truly dizzy did it make any sense.

Sometimes I just had to get away from these lessons. Was I supposed to be in the forest, barefoot and stuffing myself with wild berries? No, but it had seemed like a good idea that morning, before anyone had informed me very important guests would arrive in less than a quarter of a ruah.

“You’ll never make it in time!” the messenger called after me as I tore down the path, Fredo at my heels. Fredo was my guard, never far from my side, a head and shoulders taller than me, hair like molten rock, eyes like amethysts. His fine-woven mail was too dark to show any stains, but his ruddy skin was blotched with purple and blue juice where I might have thrown some berries at him. He might have thrown some back, but I didn’t have time to worry about my appearance.

I should have known better; I was always supposed to worry about my appearance.

A slick transport resembling an enormous, white-gold bird fluttered onto the landing platform as I raced up the stone steps, adjusting my scarf to cover the lower half of my face. The cloth was white streaked with shimmering baby blue, soft, a little too warm for easy breathing, and smelled of the forest and berries.

The bird’s three metal feet tapped down as I reached the back of the welcoming party—a scattering of land lords, guards, professional attendants, and the honorable Lokma family, who were partly in charge of my upbringing. Disapproval darkened Lady Lokma’s face as she caught sight of me being ushered to the front of the crowd.

The transport door lowered, steps forming on its inner side. I tripped over my too-long skirt and fell to one knee as my aged father appeared in the doorway. To contrast his olive skin and mellifluous golden robes, Cheallii Mellecallii’s hair was sterling white and had been since birth—rare, resplendent, and often complimented. As with many native to the lands near Menyaza, his eyes were a deep, cherry red and the same shape as my sister’s—top line nearly straight, lower lid swerving to form very sharp corners. My eyes, like my mother’s, were almond-shaped.

Forgive me. Olives, cherries, and almonds: that’s three foreign comparisons. Having studied many worlds, I think it a waste to limit the source of my similes to only my native land, and you know of Eslat, yes? It is my favorite world from which to take descriptions, since my name is also from there. Call it a game.

I remained in my prostrated position in an effort to make it look like I had intended to kneel. I was overly respectful, not clumsy.

My father took forever coming down those five stairs.

“Dear Rosemary,” he greeted, a gentle hand falling atop my head, “I do believe you have grown in the time since I last saw you.”

How can you tell? I’m on my knees! Of course I didn’t say this. It would have belied the respectful image I went for, and who knew, maybe even kneeling I was taller than when he’d last noticed me.

I put on my sweetest voice and grin: “Honored Father, might I inquire-”

My father’s fingers snapped twice, encouraging my sister to hurry down the steps.

Thanks to the unique way Seallaii-nas age, foreigners may have guessed my sister and I to have equal years, but Silvika was many decades older. The length of her coarse curls was a sign of this, fashioning a multifaceted bun before cascading to the ground. Interesting and pretty, but my eyes were stuck on the stranger descending just ahead of her.

He had a round face, stout, humanoid frame draped in a straight tunic with long, tight sleeves and a tall collar, high rank among his people denoted by the lengthy fringe dangling from his shirt and the lace encrusting his pants and shoes. His dark hair would have been child-short for a Seallaii-na and was slicked back, but the ears sticking through it were what confirmed his race—ears conical, stiff, and fuzzy like an Eslat-na wolf’s.

Shlykrii-na.

As the foreigner stopped alongside my father, I scrambled to my feet and shuffled back, eyes darting around for Fredo and not finding him.

My heart leapt into my throat and got stuck there like some drain clog, so when my father introduced me as, “Rosemary, my younger daughter, the one taken because of her special eyes,” I could only give a half-squeak in response, extending my hand for a light peck on the air just above my knuckles.

To preserve our mysterious aura, River Guardians never showed our full faces in public, hence my scarf. We were also not to be touched by non-River Guardians.

My father had blatantly ignored this with his hand-on-my-head gesture, but my father was either an oblivious buffoon or so adept at acting the part no one noticed how much he actually saw. From secret stories I had heard, I suspected the latter, but I didn’t really know him well enough to tell, and regardless, it let him get away with a lot.

The Shlykrii-na’s kiss fell properly short of my skin, though he clutched my fingers, grasp constricting until I retreated another step, hand squirming free of his. He wasn’t even supposed to have reached for me.

“Lafdo feels honored to greet you,” the Shlykrii-na announced. His harsh vowels and r’s grated in my ears, as did his third person reference to himself. It was proper grammar in Laysis, language of Shlykrii, but it sounded too odd in Sishgil.

My father laughed. “Lafdo will stay a guest here for many weeks, and I am certain you will get along wonderfully.”

Was that an invitation for irony or sarcasm?

Why is he here?! I wanted to shout, but my father already walked away, accepting my sister’s aid as they reached the steps leading down into the citadel. The crowd parted and scuttled off. I wanted to follow my father and wring more information from him, but he had implied Lafdo was my guest, and etiquette required I wait for Lafdo to follow my father first.

Etiquette is often annoying.

“Lafdo wonders why you appeared here so filthy and disheveled. You seem old enough to know better.”

I looked down at the mud-splashed hem hiding my bare feet. The formerly white satin of my skirt dragged on the ground when I didn’t hold it up, and the sheer sleeves of my sullied blouse flowed nearly to my knees. Even the ocean blue of my corseted top showed mud splotches, though the berry stains there were not as noticeable as everywhere else. The embroidery of silver swirls traipsing down my left side shimmered in the cool evening light as if they giggled, trying to point out they had somehow remained unsoiled.

Probably not the best choice of garb for berry romping, but Dollii usually had the privilege of selecting my attire since Lady Lokma found me reckless and lacking in this regard. They had likely hoped I would attend all my lessons today.

They didn’t realize that sometimes my lessons got messy, too.

I said nothing. I was muddy, I was old enough to know better, and I didn’t want to talk to him.

Holding up the hand he had squeezed my fingers with, he complained, “You also stained Lafdo.” Some of the dried berry juice had rubbed off on him, a bruised purple smudge against his russet skin.

Go ahead, point out you touched me, I ranted only in my head. Do it again and Fredo will kill you. I still hadn’t spotted Fredo, even with the crowd cleared out, but I knew he lurked nearby. He went into unnoticeable mode when my sister was around, but he wouldn’t abandon me.

“Lafdo wonders what should be asked for in compensation,” the Shlykrii-na mused. “Perhaps a lock of your incredibly colored hair.”

Oh, who cares about etiquette?! I dodged the grope aimed at my head and stomped a muddy foot on his lacy shoe before I spun and strode away.

“Caution, Ambassador.” Fredo’s voice came from behind me. Did Fredo know this was an ambassador? I had assumed, but I didn’t know. Sometimes Fredo assumed things with me.

I probably shouldn’t have stomped on an ambassador...even an ambassador from Shlykrii. Especially an ambassador of Shlykrii.

I looked back over my shoulder, gaze covert through my net-inspired hairdo, but the Shlykrii-na’s eyes were not on me anyway. Fredo stood between us in that nonchalant stance he took when assessing a threat, and the Shlykrii-na stared at him, mouth ajar, surprise dripping from his raised brows.

Well, my guard had appeared out of nowhere. And if the Shlykrii-na had thought my coloring remarkable, it was only because he hadn’t yet seen Fredo. Yes, my hair was red, but it was a washed out shade, like embers peeking through ashes. Fredo’s hair resembled a sky on fire, a deep scarlet sunset pulled into a long, thick braid.

My guard took a step back, following me without taking his eyes off our guest. Facing forward, I descended the steps into the citadel, confident Fredo always had my back.

Kietyn awaited me at the bottom of the staircase, a shadow gliding out of a dark corner. His skin was the color of the mountains at night, hair a perfect coif drawn with glossy ink, eyes a blazing orange. Like Fredo, he wore a fitted suit of obsidian mail and layered strips. My head came level with his weapon-laden belt.

Sarquant,” he addressed me, “your attention please.” As if I could have ignored him standing there like a tree in the middle of the walkway, his whisper retaining a booming quality that sent fear sliding down my spine.

Being called Sarquant often annoyed me, but Kietyn was particular about titles, so I addressed him by his own, same as Fredo’s...sort of. “Yes, Mykta Kietyn?”

He bowed. “I would speak to you in a less conspicuous place.”

Really? It wasn’t like an ambassador followed me or anything.

With an acknowledging nod, I led Kietyn around a corner, not daring a glance behind for Fredo or our guest. Kietyn was my sister’s guard, a part of her entourage, so she knew everything he did. If possible, Fredo would avoid being spotted.

I brushed my fingers along the uneven stones of the wall, and they took on a metallic sheen, waiting to see if I had meant that command.

--continued in chapter 1 pt 2--
18
7
5
Juice
313 reads
Load 5 Comments
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to Silvia_ODwyer.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Silvia_ODwyer in portal Simon & Schuster

The Intruder Who Played Accordion

    When I was younger, my father and I stood at the edge of Dublin city and gazed at the fence that towered above us. "Whoever crosses the fence is likely an enemy, a hoax, a fake reality," he said, his voice fluttering into the cool air. Even if the mesh crisscrossed over our view of the Irish Sea, and even if there were hundreds of bombs attached to the mesh, he made everything feel moral. Sensible, even. The fence was Ireland's barrier from Europe, our cell wall, our membrane.

   I had often wondered what Europeans looked like. How they'd talk. How they'd sound. In my mind I broke down the fence between us and Europe. My thoughts travelled over the Irish Sea, gliding over the cool, cerulean waves, venturing into the unseen.

   Though I had lived nineteen years on Earth and my mind was still young and malleable, I had never uttered a word to a European. My father had always made sure I stayed in our flat while he arrested the European intruders and took them back to the barracks. He never described what they looked like. They were skulking shadows that danced across my mind, black whirlpools of mystery.

   But the day had finally come. On our nineteenth birthday and after nine years of training, we would have to take our parents’ job. Since Mom left when I was twelve, I could only take my father's job.

   I was about to become a policewoman.

   My father's voice pulled me back to the present. "Annette, you ready?"

   The kitchen materialized around me: cracks ran down walls and our fridge buzzed loudly.

   I searched his blue eyes for consolation. My body was split in two distinct parts; one that wanted to go ahead, and another that didn't. The day had finally come, however, and it was compulsory.

   "I . . . I think I'm ready."

   Nerves entangled with my thoughts, making each tick of the clock a sonorous peal. But soon the clock on the wall dissolved away, and I became the clock instead, thudding, trembling, keeping track of time.

   The tracker on my wrist prickled uncomfortably. It consisted of a circular centerpiece and a strap, much like the bracelets or watches Mom used to own. The only difference was that the circular centerpiece was stamped with a photo of the Irish President, Marianne Auric. Her blonde hair was curled around her face, and she beamed at me. Red marks glowed underneath the circle, it had given me many electric shocks, and I knew there would be more if I messed up the mission.

   Dad leaned against the kitchen's grimy countertop, scrolling through his phone. His wiry glasses were just as thin as his black hair. His hand trembled slightly as he clutched the phone, and his beady eyes read my mission.

   "Here goes," he said, reading a text from his phone. "Your first mission is as follows. Right, so there's a teenage boy playing an . . . accordion on Lynsdale Street."

   "An accordion? Seems a tad strange," I replied. The boy would be European, I knew.

   He continued. "CCTV footage caught him. Rather than have the guards shoot him, we can torture him for information. We need you to lure him in. Bring him to the barracks at Oxley Street. If he puts up a fight, kill him."

   A burst of unknown excitement sputtered like a car's exhaust inside me. It grew and grew until my heart held dazzling skylights and saw children that clung to balloons. But then the fear returned. My European fantasies were not facts, I knew, and eventually the time would come when I had to let them go. Auric’s motto rang in my mind. “Facts are solid, dear Dubliners, but dreams are wisps of unrequited love.” As a result, I never trusted my mind.

   I trusted our fence.

   A smooth gun met my fingertips, and my skin caressed its seductive surface. I became breathless at the thought that my innocent hands could touch the thing that would make me a murderer.

   I looked at Dad. "I will make you proud. I will, Dad. I will."

   I smiled at him. His blue eyes met mine, but they were surrounded by wrinkles of times gone by. Maybe there was fear swirling through them, but I couldn't tell. I didn't blame him for his fear, since the European boy might have a gun.

   He smiled. "You've trained for nine years. At this point, policing is a part of you."

   Facts were safe entities; they might've been rigid and lifeless, but they owned truths. I had nine years under my belt. That fact fuelled me.

   "Well, you better go," he said.

   "Right then, I guess I'll see you . . . later, perhaps?"

   He nodded.

   As I passed the hall's mirror, I caught a glimpse of my reflection, a dark-haired girl on the cusp of nineteen. Her blue eyes were no longer innocent, but those that could lure. Those eyes were mine, and I felt as if they were searching deep inside me, searching for something I could not name.

   When Britain left the EU in 2021, Ireland barricaded itself from Europe. A fence and a lockdown did the job. But I never wanted to be like that, forever cut off from the world.   The fence always soothed me and made me feel safe, but it reminded me of my body. Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt tied down by my own physicality.

   I descended the stairs, and reached the concrete landing, ignoring the round cameras that watched me. I emerged onto the street. Shops with smashed windowpanes lined the cobblestones; their rusty signs creaked as they swung. The street felt like a hall of mirrors, because as I passed each empty windowpane, my cracked reflection looked back at me, skulking silently through rough shards of glass. I saw myself in the echoingly still employment office, in the homeless woman on the street, in the rusty signposts. Dublin and I were made of the same soul. What happened to Dublin happened to me.

   Dad's voice reminded me of one thing: "When you're on duty, act as if you're just a regular citizen. So look into shops. Become one with the people."

   I gazed at the only yellow-windowed establishment on the street; the employment office. A beacon of broken hope, it was the only place still lit up on my street. Its only door was wide open, letting cool air into its small confines.

   Inside, posters adorned its peeling walls and a glossy desk stood at the side. Mothers clung to the hands of their children as they gazed at the job adverts. Their melancholic symphony of voices wafted through the open door. Children rummaged through their pockets, perhaps looking for sweets or coins or something to hold onto. Something to distract them. Another man, clad in dark overalls, pleaded with the receptionist. "Please? Any construction jobs at all?"

   I moved on quickly, as if window shopping.

   Black streetlamps bent over to greet me with their light. Beyond the end of the street lay a white bridge that sailed to Lynsdale Street.

   A single poster was tacked to a streetlamp. The President of Ireland, Marianne Auric, beamed at me. The poster stayed there, rigid, frozen. Immortal. She draped herself across a chair, blonde hair flowing down her shoulders. Under her heavy eyelids, her blue eyes glittered.

   The street's smashed window panes were kaleidoscopic scatterings of her broken promises. Her invisible hand quietly shut the shop's doors forever, meekly painted over their signs, relished in the raucous roars of a nation. She sat oblivious, on that black chair as she beamed upon the world. "President Marianne Auric – Always With You."

   Notes faintly played.

   Soft, gentle notes, pirouetted through the air, entwined around streetlamps. They came from an instrument I never heard before, but the tone was something I could feel swirl inside me. It was a part of me, and yet it was not, a mystery I already knew the answer to. That tone had a rich and golden sound, and I knew its creator was European.

   This was the moment every police officer spoke of. They said their first mission was often a pivotal moment in their career, the one where they finally intersected with a criminal's life. They said it made them want to protect Ireland even more. But I felt the opposite. I wanted to protect the accordion player.

   Beyond me lay a white bridge that extended over the gushing river. We were never allowed to visit other parts of Dublin, only the sector we lived in. But since the European was on Lynsdale Street, I had to cross the bridge.

   This bridge was always banned; crossing over it led to continual electric shocks, thanks to the tracker.

   The sea of notes flooded my ears, dashing through the breezy air to find me. I closed my eyes, imagining myself in the hot sun, where the notes were like blue crystalline water, gently lapping around me.

   The notes danced around me, fireflies I wanted to hold.

   I might've been on the edge of the city, standing on the center of a bridge, but as I looked down the river, a thousand glittering lights shimmered from the horizon, from the Centre. Marianne and her workers were sure to be partying, surrounded by glimmers of gold. Or maybe they were watching my mission.

   Peeling my eyes from the Centre, I descended the bridge and headed for Lynsdale Street. Soon the notes got louder, and the current washed all over me.

   When I stepped off the bridge, the boy flamed into being. He wore a sad smile, looking down at his accordion as if it were the last thing to save him from a distant memory. He was seventeen or eighteen, I thought, gauging by the youth of his skin. His disheveled hair struck me as beautiful.

   His accordion had a little piano running down the side of it, black keys hovering over white keys. He pressed them gently as he looked to the streetlamps, lost in thought.

   My eyes moved toward him, and I wished I were a femme fatale. The street was empty, but only we two humans shared in the notes his accordion created. As I listened, cosmic blue and lavender splashed the sky. Chinks of yellow light dispersed from the tops of the flats into the cold air. It was only then that I realized I was scattered in everything—the broken windowpanes, the golden light, the aquamarine sky.

   He kept playing, slowly moving the accordion in and out, as the notes formed themselves into vivid memories that danced across the night. I tasted stardust and expansive skies, romantic perfume shops, and clocks that pealed sonorously. My old self condensed into an ember of something bright and new.

   He looked at me and smiled. In that instant, I couldn't care about my past nor where I was going. Life moved and swayed, like a painting that suddenly breathed, its grass swaying and rippling out towards the fringes.

   But the fence was behind him, and in the dark the bombs' lights flashed, forming constellations of red pinpricks that painted fear across the dark.

   Eight years ago, my father had murmured softly to my tear-stained face, "Your mother ran off with a European man.”

   I took the gun from my pocket and pointed it at him.

18
8
4
Juice
176 reads
Donate coins to Silvia_ODwyer.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Silvia_ODwyer in portal Simon & Schuster
The Intruder Who Played Accordion
    When I was younger, my father and I stood at the edge of Dublin city and gazed at the fence that towered above us. "Whoever crosses the fence is likely an enemy, a hoax, a fake reality," he said, his voice fluttering into the cool air. Even if the mesh crisscrossed over our view of the Irish Sea, and even if there were hundreds of bombs attached to the mesh, he made everything feel moral. Sensible, even. The fence was Ireland's barrier from Europe, our cell wall, our membrane.
   I had often wondered what Europeans looked like. How they'd talk. How they'd sound. In my mind I broke down the fence between us and Europe. My thoughts travelled over the Irish Sea, gliding over the cool, cerulean waves, venturing into the unseen.
   Though I had lived nineteen years on Earth and my mind was still young and malleable, I had never uttered a word to a European. My father had always made sure I stayed in our flat while he arrested the European intruders and took them back to the barracks. He never described what they looked like. They were skulking shadows that danced across my mind, black whirlpools of mystery.
   But the day had finally come. On our nineteenth birthday and after nine years of training, we would have to take our parents’ job. Since Mom left when I was twelve, I could only take my father's job.
   I was about to become a policewoman.
   My father's voice pulled me back to the present. "Annette, you ready?"
   The kitchen materialized around me: cracks ran down walls and our fridge buzzed loudly.
   I searched his blue eyes for consolation. My body was split in two distinct parts; one that wanted to go ahead, and another that didn't. The day had finally come, however, and it was compulsory.
   "I . . . I think I'm ready."
   Nerves entangled with my thoughts, making each tick of the clock a sonorous peal. But soon the clock on the wall dissolved away, and I became the clock instead, thudding, trembling, keeping track of time.
   The tracker on my wrist prickled uncomfortably. It consisted of a circular centerpiece and a strap, much like the bracelets or watches Mom used to own. The only difference was that the circular centerpiece was stamped with a photo of the Irish President, Marianne Auric. Her blonde hair was curled around her face, and she beamed at me. Red marks glowed underneath the circle, it had given me many electric shocks, and I knew there would be more if I messed up the mission.
   Dad leaned against the kitchen's grimy countertop, scrolling through his phone. His wiry glasses were just as thin as his black hair. His hand trembled slightly as he clutched the phone, and his beady eyes read my mission.
   "Here goes," he said, reading a text from his phone. "Your first mission is as follows. Right, so there's a teenage boy playing an . . . accordion on Lynsdale Street."
   "An accordion? Seems a tad strange," I replied. The boy would be European, I knew.
   He continued. "CCTV footage caught him. Rather than have the guards shoot him, we can torture him for information. We need you to lure him in. Bring him to the barracks at Oxley Street. If he puts up a fight, kill him."
   A burst of unknown excitement sputtered like a car's exhaust inside me. It grew and grew until my heart held dazzling skylights and saw children that clung to balloons. But then the fear returned. My European fantasies were not facts, I knew, and eventually the time would come when I had to let them go. Auric’s motto rang in my mind. “Facts are solid, dear Dubliners, but dreams are wisps of unrequited love.” As a result, I never trusted my mind.
   I trusted our fence.
   A smooth gun met my fingertips, and my skin caressed its seductive surface. I became breathless at the thought that my innocent hands could touch the thing that would make me a murderer.
   I looked at Dad. "I will make you proud. I will, Dad. I will."
   I smiled at him. His blue eyes met mine, but they were surrounded by wrinkles of times gone by. Maybe there was fear swirling through them, but I couldn't tell. I didn't blame him for his fear, since the European boy might have a gun.
   He smiled. "You've trained for nine years. At this point, policing is a part of you."
   Facts were safe entities; they might've been rigid and lifeless, but they owned truths. I had nine years under my belt. That fact fuelled me.
   "Well, you better go," he said.
   "Right then, I guess I'll see you . . . later, perhaps?"
   He nodded.
   As I passed the hall's mirror, I caught a glimpse of my reflection, a dark-haired girl on the cusp of nineteen. Her blue eyes were no longer innocent, but those that could lure. Those eyes were mine, and I felt as if they were searching deep inside me, searching for something I could not name.
   When Britain left the EU in 2021, Ireland barricaded itself from Europe. A fence and a lockdown did the job. But I never wanted to be like that, forever cut off from the world.   The fence always soothed me and made me feel safe, but it reminded me of my body. Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt tied down by my own physicality.
   I descended the stairs, and reached the concrete landing, ignoring the round cameras that watched me. I emerged onto the street. Shops with smashed windowpanes lined the cobblestones; their rusty signs creaked as they swung. The street felt like a hall of mirrors, because as I passed each empty windowpane, my cracked reflection looked back at me, skulking silently through rough shards of glass. I saw myself in the echoingly still employment office, in the homeless woman on the street, in the rusty signposts. Dublin and I were made of the same soul. What happened to Dublin happened to me.
   Dad's voice reminded me of one thing: "When you're on duty, act as if you're just a regular citizen. So look into shops. Become one with the people."
   I gazed at the only yellow-windowed establishment on the street; the employment office. A beacon of broken hope, it was the only place still lit up on my street. Its only door was wide open, letting cool air into its small confines.
   Inside, posters adorned its peeling walls and a glossy desk stood at the side. Mothers clung to the hands of their children as they gazed at the job adverts. Their melancholic symphony of voices wafted through the open door. Children rummaged through their pockets, perhaps looking for sweets or coins or something to hold onto. Something to distract them. Another man, clad in dark overalls, pleaded with the receptionist. "Please? Any construction jobs at all?"
   I moved on quickly, as if window shopping.
   Black streetlamps bent over to greet me with their light. Beyond the end of the street lay a white bridge that sailed to Lynsdale Street.
   A single poster was tacked to a streetlamp. The President of Ireland, Marianne Auric, beamed at me. The poster stayed there, rigid, frozen. Immortal. She draped herself across a chair, blonde hair flowing down her shoulders. Under her heavy eyelids, her blue eyes glittered.
   The street's smashed window panes were kaleidoscopic scatterings of her broken promises. Her invisible hand quietly shut the shop's doors forever, meekly painted over their signs, relished in the raucous roars of a nation. She sat oblivious, on that black chair as she beamed upon the world. "President Marianne Auric – Always With You."
   Notes faintly played.
   Soft, gentle notes, pirouetted through the air, entwined around streetlamps. They came from an instrument I never heard before, but the tone was something I could feel swirl inside me. It was a part of me, and yet it was not, a mystery I already knew the answer to. That tone had a rich and golden sound, and I knew its creator was European.
   This was the moment every police officer spoke of. They said their first mission was often a pivotal moment in their career, the one where they finally intersected with a criminal's life. They said it made them want to protect Ireland even more. But I felt the opposite. I wanted to protect the accordion player.
   Beyond me lay a white bridge that extended over the gushing river. We were never allowed to visit other parts of Dublin, only the sector we lived in. But since the European was on Lynsdale Street, I had to cross the bridge.
   This bridge was always banned; crossing over it led to continual electric shocks, thanks to the tracker.
   The sea of notes flooded my ears, dashing through the breezy air to find me. I closed my eyes, imagining myself in the hot sun, where the notes were like blue crystalline water, gently lapping around me.
   The notes danced around me, fireflies I wanted to hold.
   I might've been on the edge of the city, standing on the center of a bridge, but as I looked down the river, a thousand glittering lights shimmered from the horizon, from the Centre. Marianne and her workers were sure to be partying, surrounded by glimmers of gold. Or maybe they were watching my mission.
   Peeling my eyes from the Centre, I descended the bridge and headed for Lynsdale Street. Soon the notes got louder, and the current washed all over me.
   When I stepped off the bridge, the boy flamed into being. He wore a sad smile, looking down at his accordion as if it were the last thing to save him from a distant memory. He was seventeen or eighteen, I thought, gauging by the youth of his skin. His disheveled hair struck me as beautiful.
   His accordion had a little piano running down the side of it, black keys hovering over white keys. He pressed them gently as he looked to the streetlamps, lost in thought.
   My eyes moved toward him, and I wished I were a femme fatale. The street was empty, but only we two humans shared in the notes his accordion created. As I listened, cosmic blue and lavender splashed the sky. Chinks of yellow light dispersed from the tops of the flats into the cold air. It was only then that I realized I was scattered in everything—the broken windowpanes, the golden light, the aquamarine sky.
   He kept playing, slowly moving the accordion in and out, as the notes formed themselves into vivid memories that danced across the night. I tasted stardust and expansive skies, romantic perfume shops, and clocks that pealed sonorously. My old self condensed into an ember of something bright and new.
   He looked at me and smiled. In that instant, I couldn't care about my past nor where I was going. Life moved and swayed, like a painting that suddenly breathed, its grass swaying and rippling out towards the fringes.
   But the fence was behind him, and in the dark the bombs' lights flashed, forming constellations of red pinpricks that painted fear across the dark.
   Eight years ago, my father had murmured softly to my tear-stained face, "Your mother ran off with a European man.”
   I took the gun from my pocket and pointed it at him.
18
8
4
Juice
176 reads
Load 4 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to bluefeather98.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by bluefeather98 in portal Simon & Schuster

Terra Firma Circuits

Chapter One

Paper Traces

There was a white face in the window.

Eight windows up from ground level.

Frank looked away, down at the sandwich he was eating. He had been lucky today. It wasn’t every day that some rich, hollow man tossed away an untouched sandwich, perhaps displeased by the texture of the deli meat or deterred by a wilted lettuce leaf. Frank didn’t care whether the meat was dry or lettuce was soft or bread was day-old. It was food, and he was hungry.

But he found himself losing his appetite as looked up for the second time at the white face in the eighth-floor window of Alpha Tech headquarters. It was delicate, fragile, like tracing paper. Distinct even from this distance. The face of a frightened woman.

Her fear wasn’t normal fear, and Frank knew what fear was. He was a professional people-watcher. People were full of fear. Fear that the brown spots on their faces were too big, that the creases in their pants were too visible, that their taxes were overdue, that they were going into debt, that they weren’t appreciated or respected or loved enough. He often wondered what it would be like as a dog, being able to physically sense the fear vibrating off of people. Overwhelming, probably. The world had too much input as it was.

But the woman in the window had a different fear. Raw and gristly, the stuff that sinks into someone’s bones and bare existence. Frank was a professional people-watcher who sat in the alleys of San Provino and saw people crying, people hitting each other, and occassionally, people getting run over by cars. Surely a woman’s scared face was nothing out of the norm? But Frank stared, sandwich forgotten.

All he could see was the tracing-paper face. An outline of unspokens. Everything was silent. The cars growling by, taxis squealing, trucks clattering, bicycles ringing, pedestrians talking on the phone, street vendors hawking their goods, seagulls crying and wheeling above him—everything was voiceless now.

And then the face in the window was gone. Whipped away by some force in the same room, some unknown person that Frank could not see from eight floors below and an intersection away.

He leaned back against the cold brick wall behind him, and sat still for a while, listening to a nearby bakery advertising its fresh bread to passerby. He swatted away a mosquito.

The tracing paper face was burned into his mind.

Frank slowly returned to his sandwich, working through a tough piece of meat. Alpha Tech was a strange company. Even after spending thirty years on the streets of San Provino, he still couldn’t figure out any of Alpha Tech’s employees. And he’d gotten quite good at figuring people out. It was fun. Look for red eyes, a haunted stare, a ringless finger, and you had found a recent divorcee. Look for short stature, bubbly laughter, slightly nervous side-eyeing, and a fist closed securely, and you had found a kid who had just found someone else’s lost quarter. Look for telltale signs of restlessless, bags under the eyes, blanched skin, raised shoulders, coffee stain on the shirt, buttons misbuttoned by one, a slight forward lean, and you had yourself an office worker who was always rushing to make deadlines. There were plenty of these, the frantic white-collar workers who practically inhabited the reflective high-rise office complexes in the city. Just one of Frank’s countless people categories.

But Alpha Tech employees—especially the higher-ups—were unreadable. Sure, they had several traits in common: brisk walks and polished shoes, and clean shirts, silver watches, and fearless faces, and polite hahaha laughs with almost always three ha’s each time, the usual. And the mildly repulsed expressions in the rare moments they caught glance of him or some other people-watcher sitting in the alleys. Alpha Tech higher-ups were decidedly in the asshole category.

But the terrified woman was not an Alpha Tech higher-up. She was not an office worker. She was not a factory worker, not a lawyer, not a bartender. Not a healthcare professional, not a mother undergoing a midlife crisis, not a single-parent fighting to get a job.

He had no category for her. She was simply the tracing-paper face.

Frank tossed his sandwich wrapper aside and scratched at the large callus on his left big toe.

It had been a strange week. On Tuesday, Steve, a people-watcher of San Provino in the self-absorbed category, had been found dead at the corner of Ashburn Way. Between the pipe-covered, muddy backsides of the coffee shop and the electronics store. Freshly dead, the others said, still warm with a cloud of mosquitos just starting to lift away from him. Collapsed face-down on top of a couple of empty crates, head lolling off the edge, beer bottle cracked on the ground below his hanging hand with its emptied content staining the cement. No wounds.

Fucking drunkard, the other people-watchers had said.

Drunk himself to death.

Never knew what was good for him.

At least he died happy.

But Frank had hesitated. Steve hadn’t smelled like he had bathed in alcohol—the way he usually smelled. His vacant eyes hadn’t been bloodshot. His face had been incredibly pale, not beer-flushed.

Then the day after Steve’s mystery death, when Frank had watched from a nearby alley as the authorities finally stumbled upon the corpse, the unexpected happened again. He still remembered the authority men’s muted, rapid conversation, their voices an octave higher than usual.

“Over twenty hours since death, and no rigor mortis? Gross, but his blood should have coagulated by now and stiffened him up like a board.”

“And he has no bruises. Motionless blood should pool and cause bruises on his stomach, hands, and feet.”

“Some weird shit.”

They had quickly stuffed Steve and his tangled beard and faded, stained t-shirt and jeans into a bag, into a car, and away from the corner of Ashburn Way between the coffee shop and electronics store. All that remained, and still remained, were the cracked beer bottle and a mosquito crushed underneath it.

Then there had been silence. For the next few days, Frank had listened and watched for the small uproar that a mysterious death would cause in San Provino, but there were no newspaper reports or broadcasted updates, no passerby whispering about dead bodies. Frank had even unsuccessfully stopped a newspaper boy on his bicycle to ask to see the daily. This motionless quiet was not normal. He knew some furtive work had leapt up, rustled, silenced the world, and then slunk down. Some shuffling and hushing of people.

And today, four days later: the tracing-paper face in the eighth-floor window of Alpha Tech headquarters. Nothing was there now, just glassy darkness reflecting the clouds and seagulls and nearby high-rises.

Something stung. Instinctively, Frank slapped a hand on the back of his neck just below his straggly hair, pinned the mosquito between his thumb and index finger, lifted it away from his sun-dried skin. He wiped it against the wall behind him—the backside of the electronics store. A trail of black and little bit of his own blood.

He hated mosquitos.

The bane of the people-watchers.

16
4
1
Juice
168 reads
Donate coins to bluefeather98.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by bluefeather98 in portal Simon & Schuster
Terra Firma Circuits
Chapter One
Paper Traces

There was a white face in the window.

Eight windows up from ground level.

Frank looked away, down at the sandwich he was eating. He had been lucky today. It wasn’t every day that some rich, hollow man tossed away an untouched sandwich, perhaps displeased by the texture of the deli meat or deterred by a wilted lettuce leaf. Frank didn’t care whether the meat was dry or lettuce was soft or bread was day-old. It was food, and he was hungry.

But he found himself losing his appetite as looked up for the second time at the white face in the eighth-floor window of Alpha Tech headquarters. It was delicate, fragile, like tracing paper. Distinct even from this distance. The face of a frightened woman.

Her fear wasn’t normal fear, and Frank knew what fear was. He was a professional people-watcher. People were full of fear. Fear that the brown spots on their faces were too big, that the creases in their pants were too visible, that their taxes were overdue, that they were going into debt, that they weren’t appreciated or respected or loved enough. He often wondered what it would be like as a dog, being able to physically sense the fear vibrating off of people. Overwhelming, probably. The world had too much input as it was.

But the woman in the window had a different fear. Raw and gristly, the stuff that sinks into someone’s bones and bare existence. Frank was a professional people-watcher who sat in the alleys of San Provino and saw people crying, people hitting each other, and occassionally, people getting run over by cars. Surely a woman’s scared face was nothing out of the norm? But Frank stared, sandwich forgotten.

All he could see was the tracing-paper face. An outline of unspokens. Everything was silent. The cars growling by, taxis squealing, trucks clattering, bicycles ringing, pedestrians talking on the phone, street vendors hawking their goods, seagulls crying and wheeling above him—everything was voiceless now.

And then the face in the window was gone. Whipped away by some force in the same room, some unknown person that Frank could not see from eight floors below and an intersection away.

He leaned back against the cold brick wall behind him, and sat still for a while, listening to a nearby bakery advertising its fresh bread to passerby. He swatted away a mosquito.

The tracing paper face was burned into his mind.

Frank slowly returned to his sandwich, working through a tough piece of meat. Alpha Tech was a strange company. Even after spending thirty years on the streets of San Provino, he still couldn’t figure out any of Alpha Tech’s employees. And he’d gotten quite good at figuring people out. It was fun. Look for red eyes, a haunted stare, a ringless finger, and you had found a recent divorcee. Look for short stature, bubbly laughter, slightly nervous side-eyeing, and a fist closed securely, and you had found a kid who had just found someone else’s lost quarter. Look for telltale signs of restlessless, bags under the eyes, blanched skin, raised shoulders, coffee stain on the shirt, buttons misbuttoned by one, a slight forward lean, and you had yourself an office worker who was always rushing to make deadlines. There were plenty of these, the frantic white-collar workers who practically inhabited the reflective high-rise office complexes in the city. Just one of Frank’s countless people categories.

But Alpha Tech employees—especially the higher-ups—were unreadable. Sure, they had several traits in common: brisk walks and polished shoes, and clean shirts, silver watches, and fearless faces, and polite hahaha laughs with almost always three ha’s each time, the usual. And the mildly repulsed expressions in the rare moments they caught glance of him or some other people-watcher sitting in the alleys. Alpha Tech higher-ups were decidedly in the asshole category.

But the terrified woman was not an Alpha Tech higher-up. She was not an office worker. She was not a factory worker, not a lawyer, not a bartender. Not a healthcare professional, not a mother undergoing a midlife crisis, not a single-parent fighting to get a job.

He had no category for her. She was simply the tracing-paper face.

Frank tossed his sandwich wrapper aside and scratched at the large callus on his left big toe.

It had been a strange week. On Tuesday, Steve, a people-watcher of San Provino in the self-absorbed category, had been found dead at the corner of Ashburn Way. Between the pipe-covered, muddy backsides of the coffee shop and the electronics store. Freshly dead, the others said, still warm with a cloud of mosquitos just starting to lift away from him. Collapsed face-down on top of a couple of empty crates, head lolling off the edge, beer bottle cracked on the ground below his hanging hand with its emptied content staining the cement. No wounds.

Fucking drunkard, the other people-watchers had said.

Drunk himself to death.

Never knew what was good for him.

At least he died happy.

But Frank had hesitated. Steve hadn’t smelled like he had bathed in alcohol—the way he usually smelled. His vacant eyes hadn’t been bloodshot. His face had been incredibly pale, not beer-flushed.

Then the day after Steve’s mystery death, when Frank had watched from a nearby alley as the authorities finally stumbled upon the corpse, the unexpected happened again. He still remembered the authority men’s muted, rapid conversation, their voices an octave higher than usual.

“Over twenty hours since death, and no rigor mortis? Gross, but his blood should have coagulated by now and stiffened him up like a board.”

“And he has no bruises. Motionless blood should pool and cause bruises on his stomach, hands, and feet.”

“Some weird shit.”

They had quickly stuffed Steve and his tangled beard and faded, stained t-shirt and jeans into a bag, into a car, and away from the corner of Ashburn Way between the coffee shop and electronics store. All that remained, and still remained, were the cracked beer bottle and a mosquito crushed underneath it.

Then there had been silence. For the next few days, Frank had listened and watched for the small uproar that a mysterious death would cause in San Provino, but there were no newspaper reports or broadcasted updates, no passerby whispering about dead bodies. Frank had even unsuccessfully stopped a newspaper boy on his bicycle to ask to see the daily. This motionless quiet was not normal. He knew some furtive work had leapt up, rustled, silenced the world, and then slunk down. Some shuffling and hushing of people.

And today, four days later: the tracing-paper face in the eighth-floor window of Alpha Tech headquarters. Nothing was there now, just glassy darkness reflecting the clouds and seagulls and nearby high-rises.

Something stung. Instinctively, Frank slapped a hand on the back of his neck just below his straggly hair, pinned the mosquito between his thumb and index finger, lifted it away from his sun-dried skin. He wiped it against the wall behind him—the backside of the electronics store. A trail of black and little bit of his own blood.

He hated mosquitos.

The bane of the people-watchers.
16
4
1
Juice
168 reads
Load 1 Comment
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to title.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by title in portal Simon & Schuster

Title

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the French Doctor Manette imprisoned 18 years in the Bastille in Paris, his release from prison and into life in London with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met, her marriage and the collision between her beloved husband and the people who decades earlier caused her father to be imprisoned.was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season oysician who has been released from the Bastille after an 18-year imprisonfarge and his wife Therese, owners of a wine shop. Mr. Lorry and Lucie find him in a small garret, where he speletter written by Gabelle, one of his uncle's servants who has been imprisoned by the revolutionaries, pleading for the Marquis to help secure his reles in Paris, he is denounced for being an emigrated aristocrat from France and jailed in La Force Prison.[8] Dr. Manette, Lucie, little Lucie, Jerry, and Miss Pross travel to Paris and meet Mr. Lorry to try to free Darnay. A year and three months pass, and Darnay is finallysed, only to be arrested again later that day. A new trial begins on the following day, under new charges brought by the Defarges and a third individual who is soon revealed as Dr Manette. He had written an account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay's father and hidden it in his cell; Defarge found it while searching the cell during the storming of theecognized in public. Carton suddenly steps forward from the shadows and identifies Solomon as Barsad, one of the spies who tried to frame Darnay for treason at his trial in 1780. Jerry remembers that he has seen Solomon with Cly, the other key witness at the trial and that Cly had faked his death to escape England. By threatening to denounce Solomon Defarge had learned Darnay's lineage from Solomon during the latter's visit to the wine shop several years earlier. The letter describes Dr Manette's imprisonment at the hands of Darnay's father and uncle for trying to report their crimes against a peasant family. Darnay's uncle had become infatuated with a girl, whom he had kidnapped and raped; despite Dr. Manette's attempt to save her, she died. The uncle killed her husband by working him to death, and her father died from a heart attack on being informed of what had happened. Before he died defending the family honour, the brother of the raped peasant had hidden the last member of the family, his younger sister. The Evrémonde brothers imprisoned Dr Manette after he refused their offer of a bribe to keep quiet. He concludes his letter by condemning the Evrémondes, "them and their descendants, to the last of their race."[9] Dr. Manette is horrified, but he is not allowed to retract Defarge's wine shop, where he overhears Madame Defarge talking about her plans to have both Lucie and little Lucie condemned. Carton discovers that Madame Defaracrifice, she asks to stay close to him and he agrees. Upon their arrival at the guillotine, Carton comforts her, telling her that their ends will be quick but that there is no Time or Trouble "in the better land where ... [they] will be mercifully sheltered", and she is able to meet her death in peace. Carton's unspoken last thoughts are propheti Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing o life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man [Mr. Lorry], so long their friend, in ten years' time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.ersary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other's soul, than I was in the souls of ho bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering vrom a serialized edition of the story, showing three tricoteuses knitting, with the Vengeance standay (whom she marries) and is the daughter of Dr. Manette. She is the "golden thread" after whom Book the Second is named, so called because she holds her father's and her family's lives together (and because of her blond hair like her mother's). She also ties nearly every character in the book togesgust at the cruelty of his family to the French peasantry, he took on the name "Darnay" (after his mother's maiden name, D'Aulnais) and left France for England.[13] He exhibits an admirable honesty in uses visited on her peasant family by the aristocracy when shree: Revolutionary compatriots of Ernest Defarge. Jacques Three is especially bloodthirsty and serves as a juryman on the Revolutionary Tribun Defarge referred to as her "shadow" and lieutenant, a member of the sisterhood of women revolutionaries in Saint Antoine, and revolutionary zealot. (Many Frenchmen and women did change their names to show their enthusiasm for the Revolution.[14]) Carton predicts that the Ven peasant who later works as a woodsawyer and assists the Defarn elderly manager at Tellson's Bank and a dear friend of Dr. Manette. He serves as a sort of trustee and guardian of the Manette fam Lucie was ten years old. She is fiercely loyal to Lucie and to Erémonde:[15] The cruel uncle of Charles Darnay. Also called "The Younger". He inherited the titlusive powers of his class, the Marquis is out of favor at the royal court at the time of his assassi his wife: The twin brother of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, referred to as "the Elder" (he held the title of Marquis St. Evrémonde at the time of Dr. Manette's arrest), and his wife, who fears him. They are the parents of Charles Darnay. Both are dead by the time the story ber in London and later employed by the Marquis St. Evrémonde. Moving to Paris he takes service as a police spy in Saint Antoine, under the French monarchy. Following the revolution, he becomes an agent for revolutionary France (at which point he must hide his British identity). He is the long-lost brother of Miss Prme is short for either Jeremiah or Gerald; the latter name shares a meaning with the name of Jarvis Lorry.: "After trying it, Stryver, C. J., was satisfied that no plainer case could be."[17] The eventually is found, arrested, ased to refehe historical setting, the basic storyline, and the climax that Dickens used in A Tale of Two Cities.[20] The play was produced while A Tale of Two Cities was being serialized in All the Year Round and led to talk of polution: A History by Thomas Carlyle (especially important for the novel's rhetoric and symbolism);[22] Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton; The Castle Spector by Matthew Lewis; Travels in France by Arthur Young; and Tableau de Paris by Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Dickens also used material from an account of imprisonment during the Terror by Beaumarchais, and records of the trial of a French spy published in The Annual Regis 31 weekly instalments in Dickens's new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers. All but three of Dickens's previouas no legal way to procure cadavers for study at that time).[citation neerection is of course death. Death and resurrection appear often in the novel. Dickens is angered that in France and England, courts hand out death sentences for insignificant crimes. In France, peasants had formerly been put to death without any trial, at the whim of a noble.[36] The Marquis tells Darnay with pleasure that "[I]n the next room (my bedroom), one fellow ... was poniarded on the spot for professing some insolent delicacy respecting his daughter—his d-making workbench by Miss Pross and Mr. Lorry is described as "the burning of the body".[38] It seems clear that this is a rare case where death or destruction (the opposite of resurrection) has a positive connotation since the "burning" helps liberate the doctor from the meongdoings. He even finds God during the last few days of his life, repeating Christ's soothing words, "I am the resurrection and the life".[40] Resurrection is the dominant theme of the last part of the novel.[citation needed] Darnay is rescued at the last moment and recalled to life; Carton chooses death and resurrection to a life better than that which he has ever known: dest sense, at the end of the novel, Dickens foresees a resurrected social order in France, rising from the ashesites that water "is the fundamental symbol of all the energy of the unconscious—an energy that can be dangerous when it overflows its proper limits (a frequent dream sequening anger of the peasant mob, an anger that Dickens sympathizes with to a poi] The poisoning of the well represents the bitter impact of Gaspard's execution on the collective feeling of the peat least) by the Defarges; "As a whirlpool of boiling waters has a centre point, so, all this raging circled around Defarge's wine shop, and every human drop in the cauldron had a tendencyas represented literally by her name; and Madame Defarge is darkness. Darkness represents uncertainty, fear, and peril. It is dark when Mr. Lorry rides to Dover; it is dark in the prisons; dark shadows follow Madame Defarge; dark, gloomy doldrums disturb Dr. Manette; his capture and captivity are shrouded in darork in a factory as a child to help his family. His father, John Dickens, continually lived beyond his means and eventually went to debtors' prison. Charles was forced to leave school and began working ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, earning six shillings a week.[citation ne workings of a mob, in this novel and in Barnaby Rudge, creating believable characters who act differently when the mob mentality takes over. The reasons for revolution by the lower classes are clear, and 

14
3
3
Juice
146 reads
Donate coins to title.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by title in portal Simon & Schuster
Title
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the French Doctor Manette imprisoned 18 years in the Bastille in Paris, his release from prison and into life in London with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met, her marriage and the collision between her beloved husband and the people who decades earlier caused her father to be imprisoned.was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season oysician who has been released from the Bastille after an 18-year imprisonfarge and his wife Therese, owners of a wine shop. Mr. Lorry and Lucie find him in a small garret, where he speletter written by Gabelle, one of his uncle's servants who has been imprisoned by the revolutionaries, pleading for the Marquis to help secure his reles in Paris, he is denounced for being an emigrated aristocrat from France and jailed in La Force Prison.[8] Dr. Manette, Lucie, little Lucie, Jerry, and Miss Pross travel to Paris and meet Mr. Lorry to try to free Darnay. A year and three months pass, and Darnay is finallysed, only to be arrested again later that day. A new trial begins on the following day, under new charges brought by the Defarges and a third individual who is soon revealed as Dr Manette. He had written an account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay's father and hidden it in his cell; Defarge found it while searching the cell during the storming of theecognized in public. Carton suddenly steps forward from the shadows and identifies Solomon as Barsad, one of the spies who tried to frame Darnay for treason at his trial in 1780. Jerry remembers that he has seen Solomon with Cly, the other key witness at the trial and that Cly had faked his death to escape England. By threatening to denounce Solomon Defarge had learned Darnay's lineage from Solomon during the latter's visit to the wine shop several years earlier. The letter describes Dr Manette's imprisonment at the hands of Darnay's father and uncle for trying to report their crimes against a peasant family. Darnay's uncle had become infatuated with a girl, whom he had kidnapped and raped; despite Dr. Manette's attempt to save her, she died. The uncle killed her husband by working him to death, and her father died from a heart attack on being informed of what had happened. Before he died defending the family honour, the brother of the raped peasant had hidden the last member of the family, his younger sister. The Evrémonde brothers imprisoned Dr Manette after he refused their offer of a bribe to keep quiet. He concludes his letter by condemning the Evrémondes, "them and their descendants, to the last of their race."[9] Dr. Manette is horrified, but he is not allowed to retract Defarge's wine shop, where he overhears Madame Defarge talking about her plans to have both Lucie and little Lucie condemned. Carton discovers that Madame Defaracrifice, she asks to stay close to him and he agrees. Upon their arrival at the guillotine, Carton comforts her, telling her that their ends will be quick but that there is no Time or Trouble "in the better land where ... [they] will be mercifully sheltered", and she is able to meet her death in peace. Carton's unspoken last thoughts are propheti Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing o life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man [Mr. Lorry], so long their friend, in ten years' time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.ersary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other's soul, than I was in the souls of ho bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering vrom a serialized edition of the story, showing three tricoteuses knitting, with the Vengeance standay (whom she marries) and is the daughter of Dr. Manette. She is the "golden thread" after whom Book the Second is named, so called because she holds her father's and her family's lives together (and because of her blond hair like her mother's). She also ties nearly every character in the book togesgust at the cruelty of his family to the French peasantry, he took on the name "Darnay" (after his mother's maiden name, D'Aulnais) and left France for England.[13] He exhibits an admirable honesty in uses visited on her peasant family by the aristocracy when shree: Revolutionary compatriots of Ernest Defarge. Jacques Three is especially bloodthirsty and serves as a juryman on the Revolutionary Tribun Defarge referred to as her "shadow" and lieutenant, a member of the sisterhood of women revolutionaries in Saint Antoine, and revolutionary zealot. (Many Frenchmen and women did change their names to show their enthusiasm for the Revolution.[14]) Carton predicts that the Ven peasant who later works as a woodsawyer and assists the Defarn elderly manager at Tellson's Bank and a dear friend of Dr. Manette. He serves as a sort of trustee and guardian of the Manette fam Lucie was ten years old. She is fiercely loyal to Lucie and to Erémonde:[15] The cruel uncle of Charles Darnay. Also called "The Younger". He inherited the titlusive powers of his class, the Marquis is out of favor at the royal court at the time of his assassi his wife: The twin brother of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, referred to as "the Elder" (he held the title of Marquis St. Evrémonde at the time of Dr. Manette's arrest), and his wife, who fears him. They are the parents of Charles Darnay. Both are dead by the time the story ber in London and later employed by the Marquis St. Evrémonde. Moving to Paris he takes service as a police spy in Saint Antoine, under the French monarchy. Following the revolution, he becomes an agent for revolutionary France (at which point he must hide his British identity). He is the long-lost brother of Miss Prme is short for either Jeremiah or Gerald; the latter name shares a meaning with the name of Jarvis Lorry.: "After trying it, Stryver, C. J., was satisfied that no plainer case could be."[17] The eventually is found, arrested, ased to refehe historical setting, the basic storyline, and the climax that Dickens used in A Tale of Two Cities.[20] The play was produced while A Tale of Two Cities was being serialized in All the Year Round and led to talk of polution: A History by Thomas Carlyle (especially important for the novel's rhetoric and symbolism);[22] Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton; The Castle Spector by Matthew Lewis; Travels in France by Arthur Young; and Tableau de Paris by Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Dickens also used material from an account of imprisonment during the Terror by Beaumarchais, and records of the trial of a French spy published in The Annual Regis 31 weekly instalments in Dickens's new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers. All but three of Dickens's previouas no legal way to procure cadavers for study at that time).[citation neerection is of course death. Death and resurrection appear often in the novel. Dickens is angered that in France and England, courts hand out death sentences for insignificant crimes. In France, peasants had formerly been put to death without any trial, at the whim of a noble.[36] The Marquis tells Darnay with pleasure that "[I]n the next room (my bedroom), one fellow ... was poniarded on the spot for professing some insolent delicacy respecting his daughter—his d-making workbench by Miss Pross and Mr. Lorry is described as "the burning of the body".[38] It seems clear that this is a rare case where death or destruction (the opposite of resurrection) has a positive connotation since the "burning" helps liberate the doctor from the meongdoings. He even finds God during the last few days of his life, repeating Christ's soothing words, "I am the resurrection and the life".[40] Resurrection is the dominant theme of the last part of the novel.[citation needed] Darnay is rescued at the last moment and recalled to life; Carton chooses death and resurrection to a life better than that which he has ever known: dest sense, at the end of the novel, Dickens foresees a resurrected social order in France, rising from the ashesites that water "is the fundamental symbol of all the energy of the unconscious—an energy that can be dangerous when it overflows its proper limits (a frequent dream sequening anger of the peasant mob, an anger that Dickens sympathizes with to a poi] The poisoning of the well represents the bitter impact of Gaspard's execution on the collective feeling of the peat least) by the Defarges; "As a whirlpool of boiling waters has a centre point, so, all this raging circled around Defarge's wine shop, and every human drop in the cauldron had a tendencyas represented literally by her name; and Madame Defarge is darkness. Darkness represents uncertainty, fear, and peril. It is dark when Mr. Lorry rides to Dover; it is dark in the prisons; dark shadows follow Madame Defarge; dark, gloomy doldrums disturb Dr. Manette; his capture and captivity are shrouded in darork in a factory as a child to help his family. His father, John Dickens, continually lived beyond his means and eventually went to debtors' prison. Charles was forced to leave school and began working ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, earning six shillings a week.[citation ne workings of a mob, in this novel and in Barnaby Rudge, creating believable characters who act differently when the mob mentality takes over. The reasons for revolution by the lower classes are clear, and 
14
3
3
Juice
146 reads
Load 3 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to RAB.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by RAB in portal Simon & Schuster

The Man Who Lived My Life

Prologue

For almost two years, I lived in the airport hangar, first with Tao, then Maxi. We didn’t live in the actual hangar; we lived in the office attached to the hangar. The twenty by thirty square-foot-space with the painted cement floor, cracked plaster walls, two multi-paned windows facing east and two facing north, and a closet commode. After I realized that Tao and I were destined to spend more than a few nights there, I ventured down to Walmart, a place in which I vowed never to step foot, and purchased a queen-sized air mattress. The mattress took up most of the floor, and Tao, a particularly large German shepherd, took up most of the mattress. During the night, his poorly manicured nails punctured little holes in the fabric. I woke to the incessant Tucson sun shining through the dusty, time-glazed glass windows and an intractable hardness beneath me. I bought some repair adhesive at the local sporting store and had to read through the unintelligible instructions several times. As one week turned into two, three, four weeks, and weeks leached into months, I started ordering large quantities of the adhesive online. Finally, I had to invest in a new air mattress. By then, the Walmart greeters knew me. And to think, for over two decades I had been a respected, practicing, board-certified neurosurgeon and even owned a hospital.

One thing the hangar taught me is the power of bare walls. They decimate all vestiges of well-being. They are the reason prison inmates hang posters and sometimes themselves. When an email advertising a sale on photos landed in my inbox, I quickly ordered an enlarged canvas photo of my three children. It so brightened the space that I decided to stretch my Social Security income and order a second one. My favorite always will be the photo of my daughter Elyse at ten years old, flanked by my sons, five-year-old Michael and baby Josh. It was taken when they still smiled at me every day. The other photo was of the three of them at Elyse’s wedding, an event I did not attend because I was not invited.

Living in the hangar was terribly frustrating. No, I take that back. It was horribly, gut-wrenchingly frustrating and lonely. The photos alleviated only a modicum of the loneliness and sometimes heightened it. I finally concluded that I could either wallow in melancholia or participate in life in a new way. For the first time since moving to Tucson thirty years earlier, I made an effort to meet my neighbors. When I was a neurosurgeon, I was busy removing brain tumors, repairing spines, designing and testing robotic neurosurgical lasers, serving as a medical expert, doing charity medical work, and keeping up with car clubs and most importantly, interacting with my immediate and extended family. Who had time to become acquainted with neighbors? I’d arrive late to neighborhood parties, drink a Coke, kibbitz with a few folks, then leave. I’d wave to people walking through the neighborhoods or working in their yards, but if I encountered them in the supermarket or at the gas pump, I most likely didn’t recognize them. But Tao and I, well, we had plenty of hours and days get to know folks in the airpark, to listen to their stories of what was and what might have been, and reciprocate in kind.

I was supposed to move to Israel, not to La Cholla Airpark. I’ve been trying to become a permanent resident of Israel since 1967 when I first visited the Holy Land and felt compelled to volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces. At the time, my relatives in Israel convinced me to return to the States and complete my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. Better to earn a degree that I could offer Israel, they said, rather than take from Israel. I reluctantly returned to Chicago with the dream of making Aliyah and later becoming a research scientist at the world-renowned Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Of course, that never happened, though during my medical career, I did collaborate with Israeli scientists at LASER Industries, Ltd. in Tel Aviv to develop a microslad used during laser surgeries. It was cutting edge technology, the first of its kind in the world.

Forty-five years after my first visit, I thought I was Israel-bound for good. I had everything in place. I no longer owned any of my residences. Three Gorillas Moving and Storage Company was scheduled to pack my belongings, transport everything fifteen miles to the hangar, and unload. I had earmarked the boxes that needed to be shipped to Israel. I instructed Michael and Josh to take what items they wanted from the hangar and dispose of the rest, either by distributing to relatives or donating to charity. I emailed Elyse and told her that the concert grand player piano was hers, as well as anything else she wished to have. I watched Three Gorillas load my belongings onto their semi-trailers. I took off before them and drove to the hangar where I proceeded to wait and wait and wait. Nothing arrived. Not one box. Not my Ferrari or other cars that I had watched being carefully flat bedded. Not my Judaica. Not my family memorabilia. Fifty years and over four million dollars of accumulated belongings vanished. All I had in my possession were the clothes on my back, Tao, my laptop, cell phone, daily prayer book and tallit, and the old family Suburban.

12
1
1
Juice
95 reads
Donate coins to RAB.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by RAB in portal Simon & Schuster
The Man Who Lived My Life
Prologue

For almost two years, I lived in the airport hangar, first with Tao, then Maxi. We didn’t live in the actual hangar; we lived in the office attached to the hangar. The twenty by thirty square-foot-space with the painted cement floor, cracked plaster walls, two multi-paned windows facing east and two facing north, and a closet commode. After I realized that Tao and I were destined to spend more than a few nights there, I ventured down to Walmart, a place in which I vowed never to step foot, and purchased a queen-sized air mattress. The mattress took up most of the floor, and Tao, a particularly large German shepherd, took up most of the mattress. During the night, his poorly manicured nails punctured little holes in the fabric. I woke to the incessant Tucson sun shining through the dusty, time-glazed glass windows and an intractable hardness beneath me. I bought some repair adhesive at the local sporting store and had to read through the unintelligible instructions several times. As one week turned into two, three, four weeks, and weeks leached into months, I started ordering large quantities of the adhesive online. Finally, I had to invest in a new air mattress. By then, the Walmart greeters knew me. And to think, for over two decades I had been a respected, practicing, board-certified neurosurgeon and even owned a hospital.

One thing the hangar taught me is the power of bare walls. They decimate all vestiges of well-being. They are the reason prison inmates hang posters and sometimes themselves. When an email advertising a sale on photos landed in my inbox, I quickly ordered an enlarged canvas photo of my three children. It so brightened the space that I decided to stretch my Social Security income and order a second one. My favorite always will be the photo of my daughter Elyse at ten years old, flanked by my sons, five-year-old Michael and baby Josh. It was taken when they still smiled at me every day. The other photo was of the three of them at Elyse’s wedding, an event I did not attend because I was not invited.

Living in the hangar was terribly frustrating. No, I take that back. It was horribly, gut-wrenchingly frustrating and lonely. The photos alleviated only a modicum of the loneliness and sometimes heightened it. I finally concluded that I could either wallow in melancholia or participate in life in a new way. For the first time since moving to Tucson thirty years earlier, I made an effort to meet my neighbors. When I was a neurosurgeon, I was busy removing brain tumors, repairing spines, designing and testing robotic neurosurgical lasers, serving as a medical expert, doing charity medical work, and keeping up with car clubs and most importantly, interacting with my immediate and extended family. Who had time to become acquainted with neighbors? I’d arrive late to neighborhood parties, drink a Coke, kibbitz with a few folks, then leave. I’d wave to people walking through the neighborhoods or working in their yards, but if I encountered them in the supermarket or at the gas pump, I most likely didn’t recognize them. But Tao and I, well, we had plenty of hours and days get to know folks in the airpark, to listen to their stories of what was and what might have been, and reciprocate in kind.

I was supposed to move to Israel, not to La Cholla Airpark. I’ve been trying to become a permanent resident of Israel since 1967 when I first visited the Holy Land and felt compelled to volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces. At the time, my relatives in Israel convinced me to return to the States and complete my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. Better to earn a degree that I could offer Israel, they said, rather than take from Israel. I reluctantly returned to Chicago with the dream of making Aliyah and later becoming a research scientist at the world-renowned Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Of course, that never happened, though during my medical career, I did collaborate with Israeli scientists at LASER Industries, Ltd. in Tel Aviv to develop a microslad used during laser surgeries. It was cutting edge technology, the first of its kind in the world.

Forty-five years after my first visit, I thought I was Israel-bound for good. I had everything in place. I no longer owned any of my residences. Three Gorillas Moving and Storage Company was scheduled to pack my belongings, transport everything fifteen miles to the hangar, and unload. I had earmarked the boxes that needed to be shipped to Israel. I instructed Michael and Josh to take what items they wanted from the hangar and dispose of the rest, either by distributing to relatives or donating to charity. I emailed Elyse and told her that the concert grand player piano was hers, as well as anything else she wished to have. I watched Three Gorillas load my belongings onto their semi-trailers. I took off before them and drove to the hangar where I proceeded to wait and wait and wait. Nothing arrived. Not one box. Not my Ferrari or other cars that I had watched being carefully flat bedded. Not my Judaica. Not my family memorabilia. Fifty years and over four million dollars of accumulated belongings vanished. All I had in my possession were the clothes on my back, Tao, my laptop, cell phone, daily prayer book and tallit, and the old family Suburban.

12
1
1
Juice
95 reads
Load 1 Comment
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to bjneblett.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by bjneblett in portal Simon & Schuster

Seven Seconds

BJ Neblett

© 2006, 2012

4:38:03 PM

He placed the cold steel barrel to his temple, feeling it press against bone. The scarred right wrist was steady, the shoulder relaxed, as he’d been trained. Standing in front of the mirror, his dry brown eyes burned with concentration. The muscles of his right hand contracted. The trigger began to move. His cracked lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile so many girls and women found appealing.

A muffled thump startled him from his sleep. Rubbing his eyes, the boy slipped from his bed and wandered into his parent’s bedroom. His father lay on the floor clutching at his chest. Sweat beaded his strained forehead. The man looked up at his young son.

“Get your mother,” he moaned through contorted gasps for breath. “Hurry…”

The boy stood there in his cotton pajamas smiling affectionately at his father. At last he turned and started down the hallway. Pausing on the carpeted stairs, he returned to his room and flicked the light switch.

“Daddy gets mad when I leave the lights on,” he reminded himself.

He made his way through the living and dining rooms of the modern split level home. In the kitchen, the boy stopped to look in the refrigerator but changed his mind. Silently he padded down the six steps to the paneled den.

His mother looked up from her reading. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“You should be in bed… it’s late.”

The black and white TV set flickered. Two men faced each other in the middle of a dusty street. Spitting tobacco into the dirt, one man made a sudden move with his hand. The other, wearing a white hat and a silver, star shaped badge, deftly slipped the Colt Peacemaker from its leather holster, thumbing back the hammer. In one swift, lethal motion he pointed the pearl handled revolver and pulled the trigger. Twenty paces away the first man jerked back a step. This time he spat blood, then fell forward.

The boy smiled.

“Did you hear me?”

“Daddy said he needs you.”

“What does he want?”

Still smiling, the boy looked up from the TV to his mother. “I don’t know.”

When his mother reached the bedroom it was too late.

That was the first time he killed.

4:38:04 PM

A warm shaft of sunlight filtered in through the open window. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle. He squeezed the trigger tighter, feeling the tension on his index finger.

“Bang, bang!”

“You missed me, stupid.”

“I did not, you’re dead!”

The ten-year-old pointed his index finger at his friend. He cocked his thumb back. “You couldn’t shoot straight if your life depended on it, Chris.”

The one named Chris laughed aloud then took off running across the spacious back yard.

“Bang, bang!”

His friend took off after him.

The two boys chased each other through the swing set, around the plastic above ground pool, over a metal jungle gym. Still laughing, Chris scrambled up a tall old oak tree, followed closely by the other boy.

Fifteen feet up, Chris spun around and shimmied backwards, onto a long, sturdy branch.

“You can’t kill me,” he taunted.

The other boy watched his friend move further away. Chris’ right ankle came to rest inches beneath an electrical power line.

“Don’t move!”

Chris froze in place, “Why not?”

A warm shaft of sunlight filtered through the leaves. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle.

A crooked half smile crept across the boy’s face, “Because… there’s a snake crawling up your right leg.”

Chris jumped.

The arc of white light blinded the ten-year-old momentarily. When his vision returned, he saw Chris’ face twisted in pain. The mouth was frozen open in a silent scream.

The acrid scent of ozone filled his lungs. He thought it smelled like burnt chocolate.

4:38:05 PM

He was fixated on the image in the mirror. The odd juxtaposition of chrome and flesh fascinated him. Intently staring at the reflection caused his eyes to begin to water. A single drop rolled down his cheek, landing on his bare chest.

The cold, unexpected drops of water brought chill bumps to his tanned skin. Startled, the teen jumped from the blanket which lay sprawled under a friendly shade tree.

“Why you…”

Jenny giggled and side stepped his lumbering grasp. She continued to laugh at the prank, her young, firm breasts straining the material of her two-piece swim suit. This time he managed to get a muscular arm around her tiny waist.

“What am I gonna do with you?” he said, pulling her close.

“That’s what you get for falling asleep on me. I thought we came out here for some fun.”

Sun bleached locks trailed down her back like fine Spanish moss. He ran his fingers through them. He loved the way she felt in his arms. “So… fun is what you want, huh? Ok…”

Pushing at his taut stomach, she laughed again and broke free of his embrace. “Not your kind of fun,” she teased.

He watched as she ran to the edge of the lake. Pausing only long enough to turn and stick her tongue out at him, she splashed a few steps into the water, then jumped and dove in head first.

The teen waited. Seconds passed. Where was she?

The surface of the water erupted. A tangle of arms and screams and matted blonde hair shattered the tranquil summer day.

Something was wrong.

Jenny continued to flail about. He saw her slip beneath the surface. She popped up again, her mouth and eyes wide.

He was a strong swimmer.

He didn’t move.

Fifty feet away Jenny continued to struggle. She repeatedly sank and surfaced. Panic flashed in her pretty blue eyes.

She is beautiful, he thought.

Again, she sank. A single hand clutched at the air. Each time she remained under longer.

As he watched, she came up again. Jenny’s expression was pained and puzzled. Her mouth opened for oxygen. Or to scream, he wondered which.

At last she disappeared, the cold beryl water folding over her like a shroud.

4:38:06 PM

A fly buzzed his vision. It distracted him. His grip relaxed. Cursing, he drew a deep breath, releasing it slowly…

… slowly.

He adjusted his hold on the pistol and began to move his finger again.

The flies were almost unbearable. A small squad of men shuffled restlessly in the hip deep swamp. They swiped at the pests, trying to remain as quiet as possible, all except for their leader. The stoic sergeant seemed immune to the insects that buzzed about his face. His eyes were fixed on a path which ran out of a nearby clearing and skirted the swamp.

He didn’t want to be drafted. He was having too much fun playing college ball, drinking beer and barely passing his courses. But then his grades sank even lower from too many parties and too few attended classes. He lost his deferment and his number came up.

During basic, he surprised himself at how readily he took to weapons and hand to hand training.

On the path something moved in the half moonlight. He raised an arm. His men quieted and settled. A line of Vietcong snaked out of the clearing towards his position. His squad was to remain hidden until the enemy passed. Two squads were deployed up ahead. They would ambush the VC from either side of the trail. His orders were to wait. They’d attack only if the enemy began to fall back.

He hated his orders.

The black clad Vietcong slinked past. Each carried a deadly Russian made automatic weapon. A large spotted fly landed on the sergeant’s cheek. This time he swatted at it viciously.

The sound of the slap broke the evening. Two dozen VC turned weapons at the ready. The sergeant gave a loud shout and opened fire. Then all hell broke loose.

Startled, the two squads rushed down the trail. By the time they arrived the fighting was fierce, often man to man. In the end only two of the enemy remained alive. The young sergeant counted nine confirmed kills of his own. But the combined US and ARVN forces suffered heavy losses.

With the area secure, the sergeant marched the two bound prisoners deep into the jungle. Twenty minutes later he returned.

Alone.

In Saigon he received a promotion and a bronze star for the valuable information on enemy installations he gleaned from the captured soldiers.

4:38:07 PM

He squinted to clear his eyes. He watched as the hammer crept back further. The stiff mechanism squeaked in his ear.

The squeaking continued.

It came from the rear of the comfortable single story ranch house. Returning home early from his job at the tractor supply store, he stood in the entry way listening.

He knew that sound.

He smiled. A sly, crooked half smile.

Retrieving the Winchester from the coat closet, he made his way silently down the hall. The squeaking grew louder. It was now accompanied by muffled laughter. It came from the master bedroom.

He kicked savagely.

Two naked bodies twisted in the pale light as the locked door flew off its hinges. A dark haired man rolled off the bed, landing clumsily on the floor.

“No!” the woman screamed as the rifle was leveled.

Two shots split the early afternoon.

After his wife’s tearful testimony, a Texas grand jury refused to bring charges.

Two months later they divorced.

4:38:08 PM

His tightening hand began to tremble from the tension. The hammer continued to retreat. The cylinder started to rotate. He licked his parched lips. They tasted of salt.

The salt rimmed, over-sized shot glass left a ring. He threw back his head, draining the Adobe Gold tequila, bit into a wedge of lime and then turned the spent glass upside down. It and fourteen others formed a perfect glass pyramid on the bar.

Almost falling, he staggered off the stool and through the flapping half doors of the tiny border town cantina. Fumbling with his keys, he managed to start the old brown pick-up. Dust and gravel spat from the rear tires as he barreled out onto the narrow two-lane. Three miles later he was doing sixty. The truck swerved and lurched, weaving across the center line.

At the top of a rise it met a sedan head on.

The force of the impact knocked both doors open. He flew from the truck to the soft grass shoulder. The vehicles, locked together, skidded sideways. They violently flipped, rolling several times before coming to rest in a ditch.

Dragging his bruised body up, he watched the wreck explode in flames. The vacationing

family of five never had a chance.

4:38:09 PM

The last of his breath escaped through clenched teeth. He blinked as the hammer snapped into position.

Click!

He stood motionless, sweating, the gun still pressed to his head. He looked down. The tightly clinched left fist opened, revealing six .38 caliber bullets.

His lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile. Slowly he raised his hand and began to laugh.

13
3
3
Juice
298 reads
Donate coins to bjneblett.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by bjneblett in portal Simon & Schuster
Seven Seconds
BJ Neblett
© 2006, 2012

4:38:03 PM
He placed the cold steel barrel to his temple, feeling it press against bone. The scarred right wrist was steady, the shoulder relaxed, as he’d been trained. Standing in front of the mirror, his dry brown eyes burned with concentration. The muscles of his right hand contracted. The trigger began to move. His cracked lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile so many girls and women found appealing.
A muffled thump startled him from his sleep. Rubbing his eyes, the boy slipped from his bed and wandered into his parent’s bedroom. His father lay on the floor clutching at his chest. Sweat beaded his strained forehead. The man looked up at his young son.
“Get your mother,” he moaned through contorted gasps for breath. “Hurry…”
The boy stood there in his cotton pajamas smiling affectionately at his father. At last he turned and started down the hallway. Pausing on the carpeted stairs, he returned to his room and flicked the light switch.
“Daddy gets mad when I leave the lights on,” he reminded himself.
He made his way through the living and dining rooms of the modern split level home. In the kitchen, the boy stopped to look in the refrigerator but changed his mind. Silently he padded down the six steps to the paneled den.
His mother looked up from her reading. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You should be in bed… it’s late.”
The black and white TV set flickered. Two men faced each other in the middle of a dusty street. Spitting tobacco into the dirt, one man made a sudden move with his hand. The other, wearing a white hat and a silver, star shaped badge, deftly slipped the Colt Peacemaker from its leather holster, thumbing back the hammer. In one swift, lethal motion he pointed the pearl handled revolver and pulled the trigger. Twenty paces away the first man jerked back a step. This time he spat blood, then fell forward.
The boy smiled.
“Did you hear me?”
“Daddy said he needs you.”
“What does he want?”
Still smiling, the boy looked up from the TV to his mother. “I don’t know.”
When his mother reached the bedroom it was too late.
That was the first time he killed.

4:38:04 PM
A warm shaft of sunlight filtered in through the open window. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle. He squeezed the trigger tighter, feeling the tension on his index finger.
“Bang, bang!”
“You missed me, stupid.”
“I did not, you’re dead!”
The ten-year-old pointed his index finger at his friend. He cocked his thumb back. “You couldn’t shoot straight if your life depended on it, Chris.”
The one named Chris laughed aloud then took off running across the spacious back yard.
“Bang, bang!”
His friend took off after him.
The two boys chased each other through the swing set, around the plastic above ground pool, over a metal jungle gym. Still laughing, Chris scrambled up a tall old oak tree, followed closely by the other boy.
Fifteen feet up, Chris spun around and shimmied backwards, onto a long, sturdy branch.
“You can’t kill me,” he taunted.
The other boy watched his friend move further away. Chris’ right ankle came to rest inches beneath an electrical power line.
“Don’t move!”
Chris froze in place, “Why not?”
A warm shaft of sunlight filtered through the leaves. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle.
A crooked half smile crept across the boy’s face, “Because… there’s a snake crawling up your right leg.”
Chris jumped.
The arc of white light blinded the ten-year-old momentarily. When his vision returned, he saw Chris’ face twisted in pain. The mouth was frozen open in a silent scream.
The acrid scent of ozone filled his lungs. He thought it smelled like burnt chocolate.

4:38:05 PM
He was fixated on the image in the mirror. The odd juxtaposition of chrome and flesh fascinated him. Intently staring at the reflection caused his eyes to begin to water. A single drop rolled down his cheek, landing on his bare chest.
The cold, unexpected drops of water brought chill bumps to his tanned skin. Startled, the teen jumped from the blanket which lay sprawled under a friendly shade tree.
“Why you…”
Jenny giggled and side stepped his lumbering grasp. She continued to laugh at the prank, her young, firm breasts straining the material of her two-piece swim suit. This time he managed to get a muscular arm around her tiny waist.
“What am I gonna do with you?” he said, pulling her close.
“That’s what you get for falling asleep on me. I thought we came out here for some fun.”
Sun bleached locks trailed down her back like fine Spanish moss. He ran his fingers through them. He loved the way she felt in his arms. “So… fun is what you want, huh? Ok…”
Pushing at his taut stomach, she laughed again and broke free of his embrace. “Not your kind of fun,” she teased.
He watched as she ran to the edge of the lake. Pausing only long enough to turn and stick her tongue out at him, she splashed a few steps into the water, then jumped and dove in head first.
The teen waited. Seconds passed. Where was she?
The surface of the water erupted. A tangle of arms and screams and matted blonde hair shattered the tranquil summer day.
Something was wrong.
Jenny continued to flail about. He saw her slip beneath the surface. She popped up again, her mouth and eyes wide.
He was a strong swimmer.
He didn’t move.
Fifty feet away Jenny continued to struggle. She repeatedly sank and surfaced. Panic flashed in her pretty blue eyes.
She is beautiful, he thought.
Again, she sank. A single hand clutched at the air. Each time she remained under longer.
As he watched, she came up again. Jenny’s expression was pained and puzzled. Her mouth opened for oxygen. Or to scream, he wondered which.
At last she disappeared, the cold beryl water folding over her like a shroud.

4:38:06 PM
A fly buzzed his vision. It distracted him. His grip relaxed. Cursing, he drew a deep breath, releasing it slowly…
… slowly.
He adjusted his hold on the pistol and began to move his finger again.
The flies were almost unbearable. A small squad of men shuffled restlessly in the hip deep swamp. They swiped at the pests, trying to remain as quiet as possible, all except for their leader. The stoic sergeant seemed immune to the insects that buzzed about his face. His eyes were fixed on a path which ran out of a nearby clearing and skirted the swamp.
He didn’t want to be drafted. He was having too much fun playing college ball, drinking beer and barely passing his courses. But then his grades sank even lower from too many parties and too few attended classes. He lost his deferment and his number came up.
During basic, he surprised himself at how readily he took to weapons and hand to hand training.
On the path something moved in the half moonlight. He raised an arm. His men quieted and settled. A line of Vietcong snaked out of the clearing towards his position. His squad was to remain hidden until the enemy passed. Two squads were deployed up ahead. They would ambush the VC from either side of the trail. His orders were to wait. They’d attack only if the enemy began to fall back.
He hated his orders.
The black clad Vietcong slinked past. Each carried a deadly Russian made automatic weapon. A large spotted fly landed on the sergeant’s cheek. This time he swatted at it viciously.
The sound of the slap broke the evening. Two dozen VC turned weapons at the ready. The sergeant gave a loud shout and opened fire. Then all hell broke loose.
Startled, the two squads rushed down the trail. By the time they arrived the fighting was fierce, often man to man. In the end only two of the enemy remained alive. The young sergeant counted nine confirmed kills of his own. But the combined US and ARVN forces suffered heavy losses.
With the area secure, the sergeant marched the two bound prisoners deep into the jungle. Twenty minutes later he returned.
Alone.
In Saigon he received a promotion and a bronze star for the valuable information on enemy installations he gleaned from the captured soldiers.

4:38:07 PM
He squinted to clear his eyes. He watched as the hammer crept back further. The stiff mechanism squeaked in his ear.
The squeaking continued.
It came from the rear of the comfortable single story ranch house. Returning home early from his job at the tractor supply store, he stood in the entry way listening.
He knew that sound.
He smiled. A sly, crooked half smile.
Retrieving the Winchester from the coat closet, he made his way silently down the hall. The squeaking grew louder. It was now accompanied by muffled laughter. It came from the master bedroom.
He kicked savagely.
Two naked bodies twisted in the pale light as the locked door flew off its hinges. A dark haired man rolled off the bed, landing clumsily on the floor.
“No!” the woman screamed as the rifle was leveled.
Two shots split the early afternoon.
After his wife’s tearful testimony, a Texas grand jury refused to bring charges.
Two months later they divorced.

4:38:08 PM
His tightening hand began to tremble from the tension. The hammer continued to retreat. The cylinder started to rotate. He licked his parched lips. They tasted of salt.
The salt rimmed, over-sized shot glass left a ring. He threw back his head, draining the Adobe Gold tequila, bit into a wedge of lime and then turned the spent glass upside down. It and fourteen others formed a perfect glass pyramid on the bar.
Almost falling, he staggered off the stool and through the flapping half doors of the tiny border town cantina. Fumbling with his keys, he managed to start the old brown pick-up. Dust and gravel spat from the rear tires as he barreled out onto the narrow two-lane. Three miles later he was doing sixty. The truck swerved and lurched, weaving across the center line.
At the top of a rise it met a sedan head on.
The force of the impact knocked both doors open. He flew from the truck to the soft grass shoulder. The vehicles, locked together, skidded sideways. They violently flipped, rolling several times before coming to rest in a ditch.
Dragging his bruised body up, he watched the wreck explode in flames. The vacationing
family of five never had a chance.

4:38:09 PM
The last of his breath escaped through clenched teeth. He blinked as the hammer snapped into position.
Click!
He stood motionless, sweating, the gun still pressed to his head. He looked down. The tightly clinched left fist opened, revealing six .38 caliber bullets.
His lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile. Slowly he raised his hand and began to laugh.


13
3
3
Juice
298 reads
Load 3 Comments
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to Rayraytacos.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Rayraytacos in portal Simon & Schuster

Meet Me in the Woods

Logan breathed deeply, letting the autumn air flood his lungs. The hillside on which he stood was alight-bursts of red, yellow, and orange leaves coated the landscape, one of Maine’s primary tourist draws. Pacing up and down a small stretch of the secluded hiking trail he had selected as their meeting place, Logan waited for Emma.

He had slept for only an hour or two in a clearing not far from the trail last night, unwilling to venture back to town in the dark. Emma had agreed to meet him here at dawn, close to the main road but far enough into the tree line for them to not be seen by curious eyes in passing vehicles.

Unlike Logan, she wasn’t familiar with the forest; having only arrived Buckner, Maine, a few weeks ago, Emma had not yet shown an interest in the wilderness.

As a breeze shifted the leaves around his feet, he shuddered and pulled his thick flannel jacket tighter around his shoulders. Although he had spent all twenty-two years of his life in northern Maine, Logan had never truly embraced the cold.

His childhood here had been uneventful. His parents, owners of a local bed and breakfast, had provided him with a pleasant enough youth and sufficient attention. He had kept out of trouble in school, with average grades and a clean disciplinary record. He was the type of student that his teachers would have forgotten before the next school year had even begun.

Nothing in his simple, peaceful childhood had prepared him for the past few weeks; nothing could have ever prepared him for meeting Emma. It had been just another night spent at the bar in town, downing a beer and making polite conversation with the bartender. At least, until she walked through the door. Everything stopped.

She had strolled casually up to the bar, sliding onto the stool beside Logan. Purple eye shadow framed her deep green eyes, and her long black hair hung loose and windblown around her shoulders.

“Jack and coke.” She slid an obviously fake Georgia driver’s license toward the bartender with the confidence of a professional poker player. The bartender took a good long look at the cleavage she was so artfully showing, and pushed the ID back to her without another word.

Logan hadn’t stopped staring. The young woman turned to look at him as the bartender poured her drink and handed it to her. “What’s your name, handsome?”

His heart was pounding. “Logan.”

“Emma.” She took a long pull of her Jack and coke. “If I had to guess, I’d say you’re from around here.”

He didn’t bother denying it.

“I’m from Florida.” Logan wondered what the Georgia ID was for. She continued, “I bet you’re wondering why I’m here.” Another long pull on her drink, then, “I guess you could say for work. But maybe a little pleasure, too.”

She laughed as his cheeks reddened. Emma, like most other girls who had ever interacted with Logan, mistook that as a sign of weakness.

***

Feeling more nervous by the minute, Logan began to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt. It was a habit that that had driven his mother crazy when he was younger; occasionally he would get so nervous that he would wear out a button and lose it. The shirt he was wearing was now missing two buttons.

Hearing a sound in the branches behind him, he spun on one heel to face the trail head. A crow burst from the leaves not ten feet away, signaling the approach of a man and dog from the main road.

He looked about sixty-five years old, slightly stooped and walking slowly with the golden retriever beside him. Logan thought he recognized him from town. The man gave him a nod as he approached, and Logan tried hard to dig up a polite smile.

“Morning.” The man stopped directly in front of Logan, the dog curiously sniffing around his heavy boots. Logan merely nodded in return. “You hear about that bear attack last night? Gotta be careful out here alone.”

Logan kept his voice steady. “No, sir. Hadn’t heard about any attack.”

He kept his ice blue eyes level with the old man’s. “Well, they found a guy not too far from here this morning, they think a bear must’ve got him. I wouldn’t be out hiking today without Arthur here.” He said, indicating the dog.

Logan nodded. “Well thanks for the tip, sir. I’ll be careful.” The dog had begun to growl quietly in the direction of his boots, and it was all Logan could do to keep still and look calm.

The man gave him a last wary glance, nodded in return, and continued up the trail with Arthur reluctantly in tow. Logan raked his hands through his hair, and checked his watch for the thirty-sixth time. Emma was now over an hour late.

***

It had been a few years since Dr. Mark Lewis had seen such a brutal case. He had worked as the coroner in Buckner for over twenty years, yet had only very rarely encountered cases involving bear attacks. Luckily for him, and the general public, the city had done a good job of educating tourists about the dangers of hiking in the woods. The few incidents he had dealt with had all been rough, but something seemed different with this one.

As if the bear attack victim wasn’t enough, Dr. Lewis had another body in the morgue this morning. The young woman had been brought in around 5am, an obvious drug overdose. The sheriff had walked into Dr. Lewis’s office as he was starting the paperwork for her autopsy.

Sheriff Lincoln Peters, like Dr. Lewis, was a lifelong resident of Buckner. He had also seen some tough cases, but had been enjoying the sleepy town’s lack of crime as he crept toward retirement.

Things were changing, though; in just the last few months, people had been showing up from down south. The sheriff had watched helplessly as life in Buckner had slowly gone downhill.

Drugs like heroin and meth had been popping up in the local high schools, and concerned residents had informed him that a small group of individuals had been dealing out of the town’s main bar. He had been doing everything he could to stem the flow, but the girl in the morgue wasn’t the first to overdose in the last few weeks.

“Busy day, Mark.” Sheriff Peters sat down in a chair across from the cold metal desk. The coroner nodded solemnly at his old friend.

“I was just getting started on the paperwork. Come on, we can head in and go over all the details.” They walked into the morgue, toward two tables bearing white-sheeted figures.

“The first one here is the young woman. Don’t know if you recognize her, her wallet was found with her but her ID is an obvious fake. We’re still working on identity.”

The sheriff picked up the flimsy ID with a Georgia peach stamped on it. “I doubt her name really is Peachy Keane.” He pulled back the sheet to reveal her face. The girl’s eyes were closed, lids darkened by purple eye shadow. Glossy black hair spilled around her pale shoulders.

“She does look familiar. I might’ve seen her in town a few times, but I couldn’t tell you her real name. I’ll start asking around as soon as I get back to the station.”

Dr. Lewis nodded, and pulled the sheet up to cover her face again. “It was heroin. They found her back behind the bar, needle still in her arm.”

He paused before looking over at the second slab. “Now this one, you’d better prepare yourself a little more.”

He slowly and carefully pulled the sheet down to the man’s waist, revealing a chest covered in deep gashes. It took Sheriff Peters a moment, but he soon noticed the detail that had caught the coroner’s eye.

The man, who looked to be about thirty, had been bound at the wrists. The raw rope burns around his arms were visible through the numerous cuts.

“He was found in a clearing near the trail just above town. No wallet, just shreds of clothing.”

“I know this one- Tate Samuels. He isn’t a local, but he’s been around the bar a fair bit. Once I start asking around I’ll see if I can find out who his next of kin is, and why he might’ve been in the woods last night.”

“Alright, Sheriff. Keep me in the loop.” They shook hands and exchanged tired glances as Sheriff Peters walked out of the room. Dr. Lewis pulled the sheet back over the man and closed the door.

***

Logan was pacing on the trail as the sun passed the highest point in the sky. He had gone over what he would say to Emma dozens of times in his head, but he was struggling to think of a reason why she would be late.

He had done exactly as she had told him to. Tate Samuels never saw what hit him; Logan had hidden in the underbrush at the meeting location, waiting for Samuels to arrive. He had been right on schedule, with the cash as promised.

If Tate had seen Logan before being bashed on the head, he would’ve noticed that Logan had not brought the heroin bricks that Samuels was supposed to be collecting from him.

Logan had not felt like explaining. He had left the man tied up and unconscious in a moonlit meadow about a mile off the trail.

It was now, as he paced and scanned the trail for Emma, that what the old man had told him began to sink in. A bear attack; a man tied up in the woods would have been an easy target.

As the wind began to pick up, Logan decided he couldn’t wait for Emma any longer. Leaves swirled around his legs as he ran for his truck, parked near the tree line at the trail head. He took one last long look at the hillside before slamming the door shut and starting the engine.

An hour later, he was approaching the Canadian border. Next to him on the passenger seat sat a backpack full of clothing, a paper bag filled with food and supplies, and a leather wallet.

Logan removed Tate Samuels’ ID card from the wallet as he sat in line of cars, and carefully put the wallet and the $10,000 it contained in the glove compartment. He was whistling cheerfully along with the radio as he rolled down his window for the border agent.

10
0
0
Juice
56 reads
Donate coins to Rayraytacos.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Rayraytacos in portal Simon & Schuster
Meet Me in the Woods
Logan breathed deeply, letting the autumn air flood his lungs. The hillside on which he stood was alight-bursts of red, yellow, and orange leaves coated the landscape, one of Maine’s primary tourist draws. Pacing up and down a small stretch of the secluded hiking trail he had selected as their meeting place, Logan waited for Emma.

He had slept for only an hour or two in a clearing not far from the trail last night, unwilling to venture back to town in the dark. Emma had agreed to meet him here at dawn, close to the main road but far enough into the tree line for them to not be seen by curious eyes in passing vehicles.

Unlike Logan, she wasn’t familiar with the forest; having only arrived Buckner, Maine, a few weeks ago, Emma had not yet shown an interest in the wilderness.

As a breeze shifted the leaves around his feet, he shuddered and pulled his thick flannel jacket tighter around his shoulders. Although he had spent all twenty-two years of his life in northern Maine, Logan had never truly embraced the cold.

His childhood here had been uneventful. His parents, owners of a local bed and breakfast, had provided him with a pleasant enough youth and sufficient attention. He had kept out of trouble in school, with average grades and a clean disciplinary record. He was the type of student that his teachers would have forgotten before the next school year had even begun.

Nothing in his simple, peaceful childhood had prepared him for the past few weeks; nothing could have ever prepared him for meeting Emma. It had been just another night spent at the bar in town, downing a beer and making polite conversation with the bartender. At least, until she walked through the door. Everything stopped.

She had strolled casually up to the bar, sliding onto the stool beside Logan. Purple eye shadow framed her deep green eyes, and her long black hair hung loose and windblown around her shoulders.

“Jack and coke.” She slid an obviously fake Georgia driver’s license toward the bartender with the confidence of a professional poker player. The bartender took a good long look at the cleavage she was so artfully showing, and pushed the ID back to her without another word.

Logan hadn’t stopped staring. The young woman turned to look at him as the bartender poured her drink and handed it to her. “What’s your name, handsome?”

His heart was pounding. “Logan.”

“Emma.” She took a long pull of her Jack and coke. “If I had to guess, I’d say you’re from around here.”

He didn’t bother denying it.

“I’m from Florida.” Logan wondered what the Georgia ID was for. She continued, “I bet you’re wondering why I’m here.” Another long pull on her drink, then, “I guess you could say for work. But maybe a little pleasure, too.”

She laughed as his cheeks reddened. Emma, like most other girls who had ever interacted with Logan, mistook that as a sign of weakness.

***

Feeling more nervous by the minute, Logan began to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt. It was a habit that that had driven his mother crazy when he was younger; occasionally he would get so nervous that he would wear out a button and lose it. The shirt he was wearing was now missing two buttons.

Hearing a sound in the branches behind him, he spun on one heel to face the trail head. A crow burst from the leaves not ten feet away, signaling the approach of a man and dog from the main road.

He looked about sixty-five years old, slightly stooped and walking slowly with the golden retriever beside him. Logan thought he recognized him from town. The man gave him a nod as he approached, and Logan tried hard to dig up a polite smile.

“Morning.” The man stopped directly in front of Logan, the dog curiously sniffing around his heavy boots. Logan merely nodded in return. “You hear about that bear attack last night? Gotta be careful out here alone.”

Logan kept his voice steady. “No, sir. Hadn’t heard about any attack.”

He kept his ice blue eyes level with the old man’s. “Well, they found a guy not too far from here this morning, they think a bear must’ve got him. I wouldn’t be out hiking today without Arthur here.” He said, indicating the dog.

Logan nodded. “Well thanks for the tip, sir. I’ll be careful.” The dog had begun to growl quietly in the direction of his boots, and it was all Logan could do to keep still and look calm.

The man gave him a last wary glance, nodded in return, and continued up the trail with Arthur reluctantly in tow. Logan raked his hands through his hair, and checked his watch for the thirty-sixth time. Emma was now over an hour late.

***

It had been a few years since Dr. Mark Lewis had seen such a brutal case. He had worked as the coroner in Buckner for over twenty years, yet had only very rarely encountered cases involving bear attacks. Luckily for him, and the general public, the city had done a good job of educating tourists about the dangers of hiking in the woods. The few incidents he had dealt with had all been rough, but something seemed different with this one.

As if the bear attack victim wasn’t enough, Dr. Lewis had another body in the morgue this morning. The young woman had been brought in around 5am, an obvious drug overdose. The sheriff had walked into Dr. Lewis’s office as he was starting the paperwork for her autopsy.

Sheriff Lincoln Peters, like Dr. Lewis, was a lifelong resident of Buckner. He had also seen some tough cases, but had been enjoying the sleepy town’s lack of crime as he crept toward retirement.

Things were changing, though; in just the last few months, people had been showing up from down south. The sheriff had watched helplessly as life in Buckner had slowly gone downhill.

Drugs like heroin and meth had been popping up in the local high schools, and concerned residents had informed him that a small group of individuals had been dealing out of the town’s main bar. He had been doing everything he could to stem the flow, but the girl in the morgue wasn’t the first to overdose in the last few weeks.

“Busy day, Mark.” Sheriff Peters sat down in a chair across from the cold metal desk. The coroner nodded solemnly at his old friend.

“I was just getting started on the paperwork. Come on, we can head in and go over all the details.” They walked into the morgue, toward two tables bearing white-sheeted figures.
“The first one here is the young woman. Don’t know if you recognize her, her wallet was found with her but her ID is an obvious fake. We’re still working on identity.”

The sheriff picked up the flimsy ID with a Georgia peach stamped on it. “I doubt her name really is Peachy Keane.” He pulled back the sheet to reveal her face. The girl’s eyes were closed, lids darkened by purple eye shadow. Glossy black hair spilled around her pale shoulders.

“She does look familiar. I might’ve seen her in town a few times, but I couldn’t tell you her real name. I’ll start asking around as soon as I get back to the station.”

Dr. Lewis nodded, and pulled the sheet up to cover her face again. “It was heroin. They found her back behind the bar, needle still in her arm.”

He paused before looking over at the second slab. “Now this one, you’d better prepare yourself a little more.”

He slowly and carefully pulled the sheet down to the man’s waist, revealing a chest covered in deep gashes. It took Sheriff Peters a moment, but he soon noticed the detail that had caught the coroner’s eye.

The man, who looked to be about thirty, had been bound at the wrists. The raw rope burns around his arms were visible through the numerous cuts.

“He was found in a clearing near the trail just above town. No wallet, just shreds of clothing.”

“I know this one- Tate Samuels. He isn’t a local, but he’s been around the bar a fair bit. Once I start asking around I’ll see if I can find out who his next of kin is, and why he might’ve been in the woods last night.”

“Alright, Sheriff. Keep me in the loop.” They shook hands and exchanged tired glances as Sheriff Peters walked out of the room. Dr. Lewis pulled the sheet back over the man and closed the door.

***

Logan was pacing on the trail as the sun passed the highest point in the sky. He had gone over what he would say to Emma dozens of times in his head, but he was struggling to think of a reason why she would be late.

He had done exactly as she had told him to. Tate Samuels never saw what hit him; Logan had hidden in the underbrush at the meeting location, waiting for Samuels to arrive. He had been right on schedule, with the cash as promised.

If Tate had seen Logan before being bashed on the head, he would’ve noticed that Logan had not brought the heroin bricks that Samuels was supposed to be collecting from him.
Logan had not felt like explaining. He had left the man tied up and unconscious in a moonlit meadow about a mile off the trail.

It was now, as he paced and scanned the trail for Emma, that what the old man had told him began to sink in. A bear attack; a man tied up in the woods would have been an easy target.

As the wind began to pick up, Logan decided he couldn’t wait for Emma any longer. Leaves swirled around his legs as he ran for his truck, parked near the tree line at the trail head. He took one last long look at the hillside before slamming the door shut and starting the engine.

An hour later, he was approaching the Canadian border. Next to him on the passenger seat sat a backpack full of clothing, a paper bag filled with food and supplies, and a leather wallet.

Logan removed Tate Samuels’ ID card from the wallet as he sat in line of cars, and carefully put the wallet and the $10,000 it contained in the glove compartment. He was whistling cheerfully along with the radio as he rolled down his window for the border agent.

10
0
0
Juice
56 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to MinervaMing.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by MinervaMing in portal Simon & Schuster

The Steel Crown - excerpt

I wake to the cold of the ground against my cheek. My head swims, and I sit up. Slowly, I remember: the sounds of gunshots ringing off stone. The tang of powder. Blood, and Ricci slumped on the docks, staring at nothing.

I stare at my hands. Regret will come later. For now, the ink and dirt and - yes, dried blood - soaked into my palms holds me. I blink and focus on them until the world stops spinning. Then I lift my head - standing will come later, too - and look to the ceiling, where light spills in through the bars of my prison.

I remember now. Ricci and me were doing a job down in the harbor. We got caught. Now I’m here. And Ricci’s dead. It’s his blood on my hands.

Anger wells up slowly, replacing the chill in my cheeks with a hot blush. It never happens this way. It isn’t supposed to be this way. Ricci was one of our best smokes. If he died - if I am here, in chains - it means someone tipped us off to the guard. Someone in the guild.

You see, Ricci and I are part of the Raven Guild. As the greatest assassins this city knows, we are feared. Hated. And as the greatest assassins this city knows, we are also the hardest to kill. Only someone of an assassin’s nature would know how to murder an assassin.

The job last night, moreover, was an important one. Father Gidalfa sent us out to set a ship on fire - a ship filled with explosives. All it would’ve taken was a single match in the hold to set the whole rig alight, but the trouble is, this ship belonged to Arcanzo Malfiere. Arcanzo is the patriarch of the Malfiere family, and the Malfieres are one of the richest - and most powerful - families in Sante Pieta, perhaps in the entire country. They have men, their own and the Guard's, posted around every last thing they own - which, given their wealth, is half of Sante Pieta. This ship was no exception.

Nevertheless, it was important to destroy that ship and risk angering the Malfieres, because tomorrow it sails on the Perfidas, their rivals, and our patrons, who have paid us most well, if not most loyally.

So - given how important last night’s job was, how well it would pay - we kept it most secret. No one outside our guild could have known.

No one outside our guild knew. Everyone in our guild swears an oath by Sante Pieta herself to keep secret what is secret, or they themselves may die. Yet last night, someone broke that oath.

What is worse than that - worse than the guilt of knowing Ricci is dead, that I will soon be dead - worse even than knowing that our pay on behalf of the Perfidas will not come now - is that Father Gidalfa trusted us with that job. He thought we could do it. He expected us to do it. If he knows Ricci is dead and I am here, in a cell, likely to be hanged in the morning - if I do not exact revenge for this, not only will the Father be disappointed in me, I will never run another job again. Even if I escape here, alive.

I shut my eyes and try to think of who might have snitched on us.

We, the Raven Guild, have no blood with the other gangs and criminals in this place. That is not because we have no enemies, but because no enemy would dare be fool enough to try and take us down. We know every gang in this town, and every gang’s member; we know where every one of them lives. A smoke like Ricci could be in and out of a gang’s place before morning light and bomb the whole place out, and no one would ever know who did it. Only that the smoke belonged to us.

So nobody from another gang would be fool enough to provoke us, which is all that foisting our job yesterday - killing Ricci, and leaving me in chains - would do. Only someone who wants to make allies by killing for an outside power - like one of the wealthy holders who live in town, like the man our job was meant to hurt - would have done this. Only someone who is not in a guild at all, or someone from our own guild, someone we would never suspect, looking to kill our business from within.

This makes sense with what I had thought earlier. Either a man of our own guild tipped the Guard off to last night’s job, and fought us too, or he had help from someone very skilled, but unguilded - even with the Guard having surprised us at the ship we were meant to husk last night, we would have gotten away, if not for that.

Because last night, despite the fog of Ricci’s bombs and the flash and bang of the Guardsmen’s rifles, I am sure I saw something else for an instant, a shadow in the smoke and flame. I am sure that for the barest instant, between one shot and the next, a silhouette appeared at the end of the dock, hand glowing, and reached out and touched poor Ricci, and he took a step back from the bomb he’d been setting and slumped right down, and a trickle of blood ran from the edge of his mouth, and before I had time to get to him, he was gone, the shape of a deadly hand branded bright, a living tattoo of his murderer, on the still-smoking cloth over his chest.

I didn’t stop for him; of course I didn’t. But before the guards caught me I managed to swipe some of that blood off his chin. Blood is important. If someone with magic has harmed you, they must give their blood in their attack. If they touch you, their blood becomes part of yours. So it is my hope that the blood Ricci drooled when he died, the blood I have on my hands, has some of the taint of the blood of his killer’s, too.

It may not be much, and any mage I bring this to will not be happy, but I was not given much to work with. Backstabbing always leaves you half-blind and groping for purchase, literally and figuratively. Personally I am quite proud that I've got this much.

My head has stopped ringing now; I am always more clearheaded when I’ve spent a little time thinking. I am less angry, too, and the sickness in my stomach has gotten better. I stand up carefully and brace myself against the cold stone wall, and at last I see clearly the door before me, etched with a brand in the form of a lion strangling an eagle, surrounded by thorny vines. The crest of the Guard. Yes, the anger that swirled in my stomach has disappeared now; now all I feel is a cold, murderous resolve to hunt down whoever did this to me - and to exact vengeance on Arcanzo Malfiere, and on the Guardsmen who surely were bribed to protect his holdings against the likes of my guild last night.

But before I can move, the door before me shivers with the distant echo of a shout.

I step away from the wall instantly. My instincts kick in and I settle into a crouch, my right hand flashing to my side, my left held in a fist before me.

But my blade is not at my hip.

The feeling of knowing I am unarmed hits me like a blow to the gut. Suddenly I am disoriented. I feel naked without my blades, and, for the first time, weak. Where did they take my knives? What will they do with them? What have those dogs done?

Think, Pelha, I tell myself, and relax, but my head spins now, worse than before. If Father Gidalfa were here he would reach out and give my shoulders a shake, he’d tell me to stop this and think, but Father Gidalfa is not here now. I am alone and Ricci is dead, and soon I will die too. And my knives, my precious knives, will be gone. Crow and Raven and Jackdaw.

And when my blades are gone, melted down or, worse, in the hands of the King’s despicable dogs, then I’ll truly be gone -

The shout comes closer now. Think, Pelha. I take a step back again and I breathe, in and out, in and out, just as Father Gidalfa taught me to. I order myself to listen. And I do.

The shout is loud and heavy, unafraid, and I know at once the guards are coming. I tense and hear their footsteps now, running lightly along the stone at my feet. I shut my eyes and hear the thunk of their spears on the floor and the shout of the commander’s voice. And I know they are coming for me.

I open my eyes and suck in a breath, and I am staring at the lion and the eagle on the door, their all-knowing gazes burning into mine.

Then the door shivers again. Outside, I hear the guards. They are opening the door now. They are going to bring me out.

But when they put me here, they did not shackle me - perhaps they thought they did not need to, since I’m just a girl, short and slight with unremarkable features - and perhaps they have forgotten that I am, after all, someone who has killed before, and who will kill again.

There is another shiver at the door. I hear the men talking to each other. And, deep down, even though I know it is no use to fight, something animal awakens in me.

Father Gidalfa has taught me, over and over again, to work with what I am given. I am trapped in this cell, with no way out, the only door filled to the brim with guards on the other side. I have no blades. Only the shirt on my back - well, my trousers and tunic too.

I look wildly around and see only the bare walls of the cell. And then I remember the bars above me.

And I know what to do.

You see, when the guards did not shackle me, they made a mistake. I may be only one girl, but I am a girl who has something the King’s dogs do not: wits.

The door shivers, one last time. Outside, the guard shouts, “Stand back, in the name of the King!” And then the lion and the eagle are swinging out toward me.

As the door opens, I run against it, bracing my bare feet on the crest, leaping lightly and fluidly back, and I twist and flail for a moment until my hands reach the bars above me. I cling to the cool metal. I took off my tunic before I moved, and now I clench it between my teeth. The chill of the bars pulses in my hands with every beat of my heart.

The door is nearly open now. I have time to see a startled glimpse of the guards, who stare stupidly into the chamber, before I swing out with both legs. My feet connect with the face of the guard nearest me and he has barely time to cry out before I break his nose. As he crumples, I drop to the floor and roll forward, shoving my head into the guard in front of me and my elbows into the guards at my sides. I hear their breath leave their stomachs, and my heart roars.

Now is the time for blood.

9
0
0
Juice
81 reads
Donate coins to MinervaMing.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by MinervaMing in portal Simon & Schuster
The Steel Crown - excerpt
I wake to the cold of the ground against my cheek. My head swims, and I sit up. Slowly, I remember: the sounds of gunshots ringing off stone. The tang of powder. Blood, and Ricci slumped on the docks, staring at nothing.

I stare at my hands. Regret will come later. For now, the ink and dirt and - yes, dried blood - soaked into my palms holds me. I blink and focus on them until the world stops spinning. Then I lift my head - standing will come later, too - and look to the ceiling, where light spills in through the bars of my prison.

I remember now. Ricci and me were doing a job down in the harbor. We got caught. Now I’m here. And Ricci’s dead. It’s his blood on my hands.

Anger wells up slowly, replacing the chill in my cheeks with a hot blush. It never happens this way. It isn’t supposed to be this way. Ricci was one of our best smokes. If he died - if I am here, in chains - it means someone tipped us off to the guard. Someone in the guild.

You see, Ricci and I are part of the Raven Guild. As the greatest assassins this city knows, we are feared. Hated. And as the greatest assassins this city knows, we are also the hardest to kill. Only someone of an assassin’s nature would know how to murder an assassin.

The job last night, moreover, was an important one. Father Gidalfa sent us out to set a ship on fire - a ship filled with explosives. All it would’ve taken was a single match in the hold to set the whole rig alight, but the trouble is, this ship belonged to Arcanzo Malfiere. Arcanzo is the patriarch of the Malfiere family, and the Malfieres are one of the richest - and most powerful - families in Sante Pieta, perhaps in the entire country. They have men, their own and the Guard's, posted around every last thing they own - which, given their wealth, is half of Sante Pieta. This ship was no exception.

Nevertheless, it was important to destroy that ship and risk angering the Malfieres, because tomorrow it sails on the Perfidas, their rivals, and our patrons, who have paid us most well, if not most loyally.

So - given how important last night’s job was, how well it would pay - we kept it most secret. No one outside our guild could have known.

No one outside our guild knew. Everyone in our guild swears an oath by Sante Pieta herself to keep secret what is secret, or they themselves may die. Yet last night, someone broke that oath.

What is worse than that - worse than the guilt of knowing Ricci is dead, that I will soon be dead - worse even than knowing that our pay on behalf of the Perfidas will not come now - is that Father Gidalfa trusted us with that job. He thought we could do it. He expected us to do it. If he knows Ricci is dead and I am here, in a cell, likely to be hanged in the morning - if I do not exact revenge for this, not only will the Father be disappointed in me, I will never run another job again. Even if I escape here, alive.

I shut my eyes and try to think of who might have snitched on us.

We, the Raven Guild, have no blood with the other gangs and criminals in this place. That is not because we have no enemies, but because no enemy would dare be fool enough to try and take us down. We know every gang in this town, and every gang’s member; we know where every one of them lives. A smoke like Ricci could be in and out of a gang’s place before morning light and bomb the whole place out, and no one would ever know who did it. Only that the smoke belonged to us.

So nobody from another gang would be fool enough to provoke us, which is all that foisting our job yesterday - killing Ricci, and leaving me in chains - would do. Only someone who wants to make allies by killing for an outside power - like one of the wealthy holders who live in town, like the man our job was meant to hurt - would have done this. Only someone who is not in a guild at all, or someone from our own guild, someone we would never suspect, looking to kill our business from within.

This makes sense with what I had thought earlier. Either a man of our own guild tipped the Guard off to last night’s job, and fought us too, or he had help from someone very skilled, but unguilded - even with the Guard having surprised us at the ship we were meant to husk last night, we would have gotten away, if not for that.

Because last night, despite the fog of Ricci’s bombs and the flash and bang of the Guardsmen’s rifles, I am sure I saw something else for an instant, a shadow in the smoke and flame. I am sure that for the barest instant, between one shot and the next, a silhouette appeared at the end of the dock, hand glowing, and reached out and touched poor Ricci, and he took a step back from the bomb he’d been setting and slumped right down, and a trickle of blood ran from the edge of his mouth, and before I had time to get to him, he was gone, the shape of a deadly hand branded bright, a living tattoo of his murderer, on the still-smoking cloth over his chest.

I didn’t stop for him; of course I didn’t. But before the guards caught me I managed to swipe some of that blood off his chin. Blood is important. If someone with magic has harmed you, they must give their blood in their attack. If they touch you, their blood becomes part of yours. So it is my hope that the blood Ricci drooled when he died, the blood I have on my hands, has some of the taint of the blood of his killer’s, too.

It may not be much, and any mage I bring this to will not be happy, but I was not given much to work with. Backstabbing always leaves you half-blind and groping for purchase, literally and figuratively. Personally I am quite proud that I've got this much.

My head has stopped ringing now; I am always more clearheaded when I’ve spent a little time thinking. I am less angry, too, and the sickness in my stomach has gotten better. I stand up carefully and brace myself against the cold stone wall, and at last I see clearly the door before me, etched with a brand in the form of a lion strangling an eagle, surrounded by thorny vines. The crest of the Guard. Yes, the anger that swirled in my stomach has disappeared now; now all I feel is a cold, murderous resolve to hunt down whoever did this to me - and to exact vengeance on Arcanzo Malfiere, and on the Guardsmen who surely were bribed to protect his holdings against the likes of my guild last night.

But before I can move, the door before me shivers with the distant echo of a shout.

I step away from the wall instantly. My instincts kick in and I settle into a crouch, my right hand flashing to my side, my left held in a fist before me.

But my blade is not at my hip.

The feeling of knowing I am unarmed hits me like a blow to the gut. Suddenly I am disoriented. I feel naked without my blades, and, for the first time, weak. Where did they take my knives? What will they do with them? What have those dogs done?

Think, Pelha, I tell myself, and relax, but my head spins now, worse than before. If Father Gidalfa were here he would reach out and give my shoulders a shake, he’d tell me to stop this and think, but Father Gidalfa is not here now. I am alone and Ricci is dead, and soon I will die too. And my knives, my precious knives, will be gone. Crow and Raven and Jackdaw.

And when my blades are gone, melted down or, worse, in the hands of the King’s despicable dogs, then I’ll truly be gone -

The shout comes closer now. Think, Pelha. I take a step back again and I breathe, in and out, in and out, just as Father Gidalfa taught me to. I order myself to listen. And I do.

The shout is loud and heavy, unafraid, and I know at once the guards are coming. I tense and hear their footsteps now, running lightly along the stone at my feet. I shut my eyes and hear the thunk of their spears on the floor and the shout of the commander’s voice. And I know they are coming for me.

I open my eyes and suck in a breath, and I am staring at the lion and the eagle on the door, their all-knowing gazes burning into mine.

Then the door shivers again. Outside, I hear the guards. They are opening the door now. They are going to bring me out.

But when they put me here, they did not shackle me - perhaps they thought they did not need to, since I’m just a girl, short and slight with unremarkable features - and perhaps they have forgotten that I am, after all, someone who has killed before, and who will kill again.

There is another shiver at the door. I hear the men talking to each other. And, deep down, even though I know it is no use to fight, something animal awakens in me.

Father Gidalfa has taught me, over and over again, to work with what I am given. I am trapped in this cell, with no way out, the only door filled to the brim with guards on the other side. I have no blades. Only the shirt on my back - well, my trousers and tunic too.

I look wildly around and see only the bare walls of the cell. And then I remember the bars above me.

And I know what to do.

You see, when the guards did not shackle me, they made a mistake. I may be only one girl, but I am a girl who has something the King’s dogs do not: wits.

The door shivers, one last time. Outside, the guard shouts, “Stand back, in the name of the King!” And then the lion and the eagle are swinging out toward me.

As the door opens, I run against it, bracing my bare feet on the crest, leaping lightly and fluidly back, and I twist and flail for a moment until my hands reach the bars above me. I cling to the cool metal. I took off my tunic before I moved, and now I clench it between my teeth. The chill of the bars pulses in my hands with every beat of my heart.

The door is nearly open now. I have time to see a startled glimpse of the guards, who stare stupidly into the chamber, before I swing out with both legs. My feet connect with the face of the guard nearest me and he has barely time to cry out before I break his nose. As he crumples, I drop to the floor and roll forward, shoving my head into the guard in front of me and my elbows into the guards at my sides. I hear their breath leave their stomachs, and my heart roars.

Now is the time for blood.
9
0
0
Juice
81 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to CLThomas.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by CLThomas in portal Simon & Schuster

The Trunk

The trunk was hardly bigger than a large suitcase, and old. The floral covering had faded from age, certainly not from light, it had been in mother’s attic for decades.

Cassie had put off its opening until she was ready. It was not that she was afraid of what she would find; she assumed it was full of interesting, but relatively unimportant, old treasures. Perhaps there is enough there to piece together some inkling of what was really important to mother, deep down or maybe conjuring a story or two.

There were, after all, other demands on her time. She had put her own writing projects on hold and the "celebration of life” was behind her. Now her attention focused on estate priorities and deadlines, answering all the condolences, receiving the visiting relatives and close friends; not to mention one’s own grieving.

Mother was to be buried in the family area of Old Memorial Cemetery in Cambridge. For her final act of defiance she had chosen cremation. Cassie guessed that she wanted to give her mother one last spin in her grave, father would not have cared.

Cassie was not completely sure why she and her mother had so many lasting issues. Grandmother had passed away eons ago, yet mother seemed still to have wounds that festered from time-to-time. Perhaps Saint Peter has assigned them to different clouds, if they took the upward path, just to keep order, she thought.

Mother also had said, several times, that cremation was far more sensible and easier on everyone. It is a good deal cheaper too.

Cassie had spent mother’s last days with her, talking, remembering. She could feel mother’s life ending. Mother was beyond reconciled to it, she was welcoming, ready. She prepared Cassie as best she could, not enough of course.

They were holding hands, listening to music on an old vinyl record, when mother’s eyes closed, their vivid blue gone forever. Cassie sat there gently cupping mother’s hands between hers, in a timeless, peaceful place, eyes closed, feeling the warmth of her spirit slip away.

She called the paramedics, who, in turn, called the police. Cassie had been told all this was necessary. While she waited she thought of all the things mother had seen. When she was small horses and carriages were the principle conveyance in America. During her life she had witnessed many wars, genocides, persecutions, and prejudices; the worst side of humankind. She had also seen humans take wings, conquer diseases, extend their lives, create and advance all forms of art, walk on the moon, and invent technologies once only imagined by science fiction writers. What a time to be alive, she thought.

Mother had meant a lot to so many people. Besides friends and associates, her "family," as she called them, readers really, were legion and truly felt close to her. They loved her for the pleasure her thoughtful stories had brought them and seemed to be deeply saddened to lose her and the promise of more of her.

Her last book, "Benson Creek Wisdom," or “forty-nine” as she called it, had been released only a few weeks before she passed. It seemed as if she had put off dying to see it finished and in her “family’s” hands. They loved it and it seemed to be bringing lots of new people into the fold.

Forty-nine, “a good number” mother said, had entered the world on the “Best Seller” list, thanks to prepublication orders and some effective publicity. Mother’s advanced age limited her promotional work to a few television appearances and special events. Her remaining obligations were cancelled.

Her publisher had been told, in no uncertain terms, to treat her passing with appropriate dignity and restraint. “This is not to be exploited,” mother decreed through Cassie, “let sales be what they may.” The publisher had completely agreed and promised to comply; they also quietly ordered an immediate second printing.

Thousands of beautiful thoughts and remembrances filled the cards and letters that overflowed from the grey canvas mail bags the post office had delivered. It had taken months. Cassie had cried over their words and wrote personal note to each of them. Her mother would have liked that; no, insisted on it.

Thousands more had posted their feelings on mother’s Facebook page and in emails to her published address. These were answered with a Facebook post or an automated reply email expressing the family’s gratitude.

Mother loved real paper and thoughtful well constructed prose. To her, writing with forced brevity on a machine and somehow sending it through an unknown nothingness, were void of both and, surely, a lesser craft. She would have appreciated the thought, however, and probably realized that this is the reality of 2007 and beyond. “At least they are writing,” she would mutter.

The last group of accolades and condolences Cassie personally acknowledged came from the powerful and famous; the President, various heads of state, the political elite, noted scholars, captains of industry, celebrities and the like. They came last because mother wanted it that way; she had made that clear to Cassie. “Family first,” was her mantra and she included kinfolk, close friends, and her “family” of readers in that grouping. So the “big shots” would just have to wait.

The Challenges of being both mother’s only heir and the executor of her estate are numerous and complex. A mountain of legal matters, business affairs, and financial obligations had been conquered and, while not completed, had been turned over to the professionals; lawyers, judges, and accountants. Cassie’s activities as executor and trustee had reduced to waiting for the next progress report, court action, new or forgotten signature requests, or bills needing to be paid.

There seemed to be no end to the parade of paper that crossed her desk. It had blurred into a stream with no origin nor end, just the relentless flow passing by, with an occasional leaf or bug, capturing her interest for a moment, then disappearing with the current. She had gotten numb to it. If the envelope was addressed to Cassandra Louise Thomas, she assumed is was part of the stream.

Cassie, however, was experienced in such matters. Her husband of thirty years, William Scott Thomas had suffered a fatal heart attack in 2004. He and Cassie were on an airplane to London when it happened. William’s affairs were a mess and took several years for Cassie to settle them. Mother’s were easy by comparison.

Last month, January 2008, Cassie moved from her apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan back home to mother’s in Brooklyn Heights. This house had been in the family for almost a century.

The neighborhood, Remsen Street, near Columbia Heights, was old and historic. It was quite grand and fashionable in 1900 when the house was built. Like other parts of Brooklyn Heights, it had gone through phases of diminished grandeur and, as did the Phoenix Bird, had risen again.

When Cassie’s grandfather bought it, in 1925, his plan was to move both his business, publishing, and the family residence from Boston to New York City. For reasons unknown to Cassie, the move did not happen and Boston remained home.

The house was kept for family use when visiting the city and as a base of operations for her grandfather’s frequent business visits. Mother made it her permanent, lifelong residence in 1931, two years after grandfather passed away.

The original living area included five stories plus a full, finished basement. During one of the several remodelings, an elevator was added. The last renovation was in 2000, mother’s gift to he house on its 100th birthday. It took almost six months, which she spent in Tuscany, writing.

Mother did not use the entire fifth floor. During the last remodeling she had the windows removed and replaced with a facade that looked like windows from the outside but were actually solid walls. Enhancing security was her reasoning. The fifth floor is now referred to as the “attic” and used as such. The original attic seems to have lost its identity.

Having settled in her old room, Cassie had decided to leave mother’s suite, the entire fourth floor, alone for now. Baby steps, she reckoned.

Now, at last, there is time to start the process of going through mother’s things; starting with what looks to be the oldest of the trunks in the attic. The one marked “1929,” ten years before Cassie was born.

The basement room she had made her office was chilly; her morning coffee seemed to be more steamy than usual. Holding the cup felt good, warming. She sat in her chair, both hands clutching it close. Brought down by the movers, she stared at the chest, imagining the contents, anticipating the discoveries to come, learning of mother’s youth, and touching her objects, her memories.

“Well, let’s see what Emma Louise Harden thought important enough to keep for almost eight decades,” she said to no one as she put her cup on the desk, rising to confront he mystery of the trunk.

Locked, the circular lock was closed and there was no key in place. She tried to pull the lock open with her fingers, it would not budge.

“Where is the damn key,” Cassie thought. The only keys she had found were in an old cotton bag, with a drawstring, and the word “Keys” hand printed on it in black ink. There were lots of keys inside, but none fit this old lock. Prying it open with knife or a screwdriver crossed her mind.

Before she could decide what to do something caught her eye; a small, almost invisible lever was protruding from the side of the circular lock. She gently pushed it inward. The latch popped open with unexpected ease.

Cassie bent down and slowly opened the hinged lid with her left hand. In her right she raised a section of yesterday's Times, rolled and ready to strike. If there were spiders or other creatures awaiting freedom, today would not be their liberation day.

But creatures were not the first surprise. What struck Cassie was the neatness before her. It was as if there was a specific order of discovery that mother had in mind. Yes she was always neat and organized, as Cassie had observed growing up, but this was clear evidence that it was lifelong.

In the center of the neatly labeled and wrapped packages and boxes, there was a bundle of envelopes tied with a ribbon. Cassie felt her mother’s direction — "look at this first," mother seemed to be saying.

Each envelope had a date neatly written, where a stamp would go, in now faded black ink. This was obviously well planned and precisely executed. Uniform envelopes, dated with amazing similarity, about a month apart.

The first date was March 23, 1929. Cassie carefully opened the unsealed envelope and took out the neatly folded letter. The brittle papers came open with a fragile reluctance, cautioning her.

Emotions swirled, an anticipation both fearful and exciting, like the feeling she had when the restraint bar of a roller-coaster tightened against her lap and she felt the first jolt of movement. As the writing appeared, a sudden emptiness, a feeling of profound loss, overtook her. Struggling to focus, she began reading through the unexpected tears.

“My dearest children,” mother wrote, and Cassie’s ride had begun.

_____________________________________________________________________

Note: This is the opening of a novel in progress. The working title is Emma Lou's Letters. This is not the first draft but should be considered "in process." CLThomas.

© 2017 CLThomas

12
4
1
Juice
97 reads
Donate coins to CLThomas.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by CLThomas in portal Simon & Schuster
The Trunk
The trunk was hardly bigger than a large suitcase, and old. The floral covering had faded from age, certainly not from light, it had been in mother’s attic for decades.

Cassie had put off its opening until she was ready. It was not that she was afraid of what she would find; she assumed it was full of interesting, but relatively unimportant, old treasures. Perhaps there is enough there to piece together some inkling of what was really important to mother, deep down or maybe conjuring a story or two.

There were, after all, other demands on her time. She had put her own writing projects on hold and the "celebration of life” was behind her. Now her attention focused on estate priorities and deadlines, answering all the condolences, receiving the visiting relatives and close friends; not to mention one’s own grieving.

Mother was to be buried in the family area of Old Memorial Cemetery in Cambridge. For her final act of defiance she had chosen cremation. Cassie guessed that she wanted to give her mother one last spin in her grave, father would not have cared.

Cassie was not completely sure why she and her mother had so many lasting issues. Grandmother had passed away eons ago, yet mother seemed still to have wounds that festered from time-to-time. Perhaps Saint Peter has assigned them to different clouds, if they took the upward path, just to keep order, she thought.

Mother also had said, several times, that cremation was far more sensible and easier on everyone. It is a good deal cheaper too.

Cassie had spent mother’s last days with her, talking, remembering. She could feel mother’s life ending. Mother was beyond reconciled to it, she was welcoming, ready. She prepared Cassie as best she could, not enough of course.

They were holding hands, listening to music on an old vinyl record, when mother’s eyes closed, their vivid blue gone forever. Cassie sat there gently cupping mother’s hands between hers, in a timeless, peaceful place, eyes closed, feeling the warmth of her spirit slip away.

She called the paramedics, who, in turn, called the police. Cassie had been told all this was necessary. While she waited she thought of all the things mother had seen. When she was small horses and carriages were the principle conveyance in America. During her life she had witnessed many wars, genocides, persecutions, and prejudices; the worst side of humankind. She had also seen humans take wings, conquer diseases, extend their lives, create and advance all forms of art, walk on the moon, and invent technologies once only imagined by science fiction writers. What a time to be alive, she thought.

Mother had meant a lot to so many people. Besides friends and associates, her "family," as she called them, readers really, were legion and truly felt close to her. They loved her for the pleasure her thoughtful stories had brought them and seemed to be deeply saddened to lose her and the promise of more of her.

Her last book, "Benson Creek Wisdom," or “forty-nine” as she called it, had been released only a few weeks before she passed. It seemed as if she had put off dying to see it finished and in her “family’s” hands. They loved it and it seemed to be bringing lots of new people into the fold.

Forty-nine, “a good number” mother said, had entered the world on the “Best Seller” list, thanks to prepublication orders and some effective publicity. Mother’s advanced age limited her promotional work to a few television appearances and special events. Her remaining obligations were cancelled.

Her publisher had been told, in no uncertain terms, to treat her passing with appropriate dignity and restraint. “This is not to be exploited,” mother decreed through Cassie, “let sales be what they may.” The publisher had completely agreed and promised to comply; they also quietly ordered an immediate second printing.

Thousands of beautiful thoughts and remembrances filled the cards and letters that overflowed from the grey canvas mail bags the post office had delivered. It had taken months. Cassie had cried over their words and wrote personal note to each of them. Her mother would have liked that; no, insisted on it.

Thousands more had posted their feelings on mother’s Facebook page and in emails to her published address. These were answered with a Facebook post or an automated reply email expressing the family’s gratitude.

Mother loved real paper and thoughtful well constructed prose. To her, writing with forced brevity on a machine and somehow sending it through an unknown nothingness, were void of both and, surely, a lesser craft. She would have appreciated the thought, however, and probably realized that this is the reality of 2007 and beyond. “At least they are writing,” she would mutter.

The last group of accolades and condolences Cassie personally acknowledged came from the powerful and famous; the President, various heads of state, the political elite, noted scholars, captains of industry, celebrities and the like. They came last because mother wanted it that way; she had made that clear to Cassie. “Family first,” was her mantra and she included kinfolk, close friends, and her “family” of readers in that grouping. So the “big shots” would just have to wait.

The Challenges of being both mother’s only heir and the executor of her estate are numerous and complex. A mountain of legal matters, business affairs, and financial obligations had been conquered and, while not completed, had been turned over to the professionals; lawyers, judges, and accountants. Cassie’s activities as executor and trustee had reduced to waiting for the next progress report, court action, new or forgotten signature requests, or bills needing to be paid.

There seemed to be no end to the parade of paper that crossed her desk. It had blurred into a stream with no origin nor end, just the relentless flow passing by, with an occasional leaf or bug, capturing her interest for a moment, then disappearing with the current. She had gotten numb to it. If the envelope was addressed to Cassandra Louise Thomas, she assumed is was part of the stream.

Cassie, however, was experienced in such matters. Her husband of thirty years, William Scott Thomas had suffered a fatal heart attack in 2004. He and Cassie were on an airplane to London when it happened. William’s affairs were a mess and took several years for Cassie to settle them. Mother’s were easy by comparison.

Last month, January 2008, Cassie moved from her apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan back home to mother’s in Brooklyn Heights. This house had been in the family for almost a century.

The neighborhood, Remsen Street, near Columbia Heights, was old and historic. It was quite grand and fashionable in 1900 when the house was built. Like other parts of Brooklyn Heights, it had gone through phases of diminished grandeur and, as did the Phoenix Bird, had risen again.

When Cassie’s grandfather bought it, in 1925, his plan was to move both his business, publishing, and the family residence from Boston to New York City. For reasons unknown to Cassie, the move did not happen and Boston remained home.

The house was kept for family use when visiting the city and as a base of operations for her grandfather’s frequent business visits. Mother made it her permanent, lifelong residence in 1931, two years after grandfather passed away.

The original living area included five stories plus a full, finished basement. During one of the several remodelings, an elevator was added. The last renovation was in 2000, mother’s gift to he house on its 100th birthday. It took almost six months, which she spent in Tuscany, writing.

Mother did not use the entire fifth floor. During the last remodeling she had the windows removed and replaced with a facade that looked like windows from the outside but were actually solid walls. Enhancing security was her reasoning. The fifth floor is now referred to as the “attic” and used as such. The original attic seems to have lost its identity.

Having settled in her old room, Cassie had decided to leave mother’s suite, the entire fourth floor, alone for now. Baby steps, she reckoned.

Now, at last, there is time to start the process of going through mother’s things; starting with what looks to be the oldest of the trunks in the attic. The one marked “1929,” ten years before Cassie was born.

The basement room she had made her office was chilly; her morning coffee seemed to be more steamy than usual. Holding the cup felt good, warming. She sat in her chair, both hands clutching it close. Brought down by the movers, she stared at the chest, imagining the contents, anticipating the discoveries to come, learning of mother’s youth, and touching her objects, her memories.

“Well, let’s see what Emma Louise Harden thought important enough to keep for almost eight decades,” she said to no one as she put her cup on the desk, rising to confront he mystery of the trunk.

Locked, the circular lock was closed and there was no key in place. She tried to pull the lock open with her fingers, it would not budge.

“Where is the damn key,” Cassie thought. The only keys she had found were in an old cotton bag, with a drawstring, and the word “Keys” hand printed on it in black ink. There were lots of keys inside, but none fit this old lock. Prying it open with knife or a screwdriver crossed her mind.

Before she could decide what to do something caught her eye; a small, almost invisible lever was protruding from the side of the circular lock. She gently pushed it inward. The latch popped open with unexpected ease.

Cassie bent down and slowly opened the hinged lid with her left hand. In her right she raised a section of yesterday's Times, rolled and ready to strike. If there were spiders or other creatures awaiting freedom, today would not be their liberation day.

But creatures were not the first surprise. What struck Cassie was the neatness before her. It was as if there was a specific order of discovery that mother had in mind. Yes she was always neat and organized, as Cassie had observed growing up, but this was clear evidence that it was lifelong.

In the center of the neatly labeled and wrapped packages and boxes, there was a bundle of envelopes tied with a ribbon. Cassie felt her mother’s direction — "look at this first," mother seemed to be saying.

Each envelope had a date neatly written, where a stamp would go, in now faded black ink. This was obviously well planned and precisely executed. Uniform envelopes, dated with amazing similarity, about a month apart.

The first date was March 23, 1929. Cassie carefully opened the unsealed envelope and took out the neatly folded letter. The brittle papers came open with a fragile reluctance, cautioning her.

Emotions swirled, an anticipation both fearful and exciting, like the feeling she had when the restraint bar of a roller-coaster tightened against her lap and she felt the first jolt of movement. As the writing appeared, a sudden emptiness, a feeling of profound loss, overtook her. Struggling to focus, she began reading through the unexpected tears.

“My dearest children,” mother wrote, and Cassie’s ride had begun.
_____________________________________________________________________
Note: This is the opening of a novel in progress. The working title is Emma Lou's Letters. This is not the first draft but should be considered "in process." CLThomas.

© 2017 CLThomas
12
4
1
Juice
97 reads
Load 1 Comment
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Victor.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Victor in portal Simon & Schuster

AN ISLE IN THE SKY

Chapter 1

Warsaw, January 7, 1943

Some memories are better left untouched.

Warsaw, a lighthearted place pre-war, greeted Georg with the eyesores of damaged buildings in place of former architectural masterpieces. Dirty snow covered the ruins in a pathetic attempt to camouflage the sweeping transformation, all in vain, for the gloomy faces of Poles said it loud and clear: welcome to the devastation of war.

The chilly draft found its way to his neck through the closed windows of the limousine. Georg raised the collar of his overcoat. “Hans. Slow down, please. I want to see this building,” he told the driver.

The Hotel European, Enrico Marconi’s Neo-Renaissance tour de force, came into view on the right-hand side. Undamaged. An unexpected pleasure rush rippled through Georg’s veins, warming his heart. Five years after he and Rachel had won the Under-eighteen International Ballroom competition, the European’s grand edifice stood as a monument to the Austerlitz of his youth. At least one place had remained intact for an unrushed visit down nostalgia lane.

“I don’t know why you care about those buildings, because all of this,” Hans made a circle in the air with his index finger, “will be razed. The new Warsaw will be erected according to the Fuhrer’s vision. The Aryan landmarks will be preserved, of course. Governor Fischer has a model of the German city of Warsaw in his office, if you want to see it.”

“That’s the dumbest idea,” Georg muttered under his breath.

“What did you say, Herr Hauptmann?”

“Thanks for the tour, Hans. Let’s go back. You can turn right on Jerusalem Avenue.”

“Where?”

“Here.” Georg pointed at the intersection.

Hans hit the brakes. The Opel Admiral limousine voiced its disgust with a high-pitched screech, jolted, and slid sideways on the snow-covered cobblestones of New World Avenue. Hans cursed. “This is Bahnhof Strasse. I don’t know these Polish names you mention, Herr Hauptmann. Do you know where you want to go?”

Georg wasn’t in the mood to argue with the Bavarian about proper names for Warsaw streets. “We’re going to Café Adria. You need to turn right on Marszalkowska at the next intersection.”

“Marschall Strasse?” Hans asked.

“Yes, Marschall Strasse.”

The Opel passed a streetcar and stopped at the intersection, awaiting a signal from a traffic guard wearing a Luftwaffe blue-gray wool overcoat, the uniform identical to Georg’s, except for rank insignia: the plain epaulettes and the sleeve chevron of an Airman in place of Georg’s Captain patch. What is he doing conducting city traffic? Georg marveled at the absurdity of Wehrmacht bureaucracy that reassigned an airfield soldier to traffic duties.

The boxy building of Warsaw’s Central Railway Station ahead reminded Georg of his ill-fated foray four days ago. He had no one to blame but himself for slipping on the icy platform of the station and turning his trip to buy cigarettes into a hospital stay. Doctor Mauch said his ankle wound would have reopened anyway because of the infection. Poor consolation. In a few more hours, he would have been home in Breslau, infection or no infection.

Across Marszalkowska, twenty or so gray figures in rags labored at a pile of rubble in the far corner of the vast space that used to be the old Central Railway Station. Two Polish policemen in blue uniforms supervised the cleaning operation.

A figure wearing pants a few inches too short caught Georg’s eyes. Wide swaths of mottled, bluish skin above the ankles screamed frostbite. The sleeves of the figure's overcoat were also too short, ending just below the elbows, but the sewn-on, mismatched additions reached to the fingers. Displayed above the additions was a yellow Star of David, which also marked the sleeves of the other workers.

"Jews. From the ghetto." Hans too noticed the work party. "Jews are like cockroaches. They’re everywhere. You can go to a most remote place in any country on Earth, knock on a door of the finest house there, and pull out a Jew.

Georg couldn’t contain his laughter. The Bavarian from a village near Oberammergau had not even been to Munich, let alone Berlin or any foreign lands, and yet he knew everything there was to know about the Jews and the world, thanks to the “wisdom” he acquired listening to that idiot, Doctor Goebbels.

Hans misinterpreted Georg’s laughter for a sign of approval and chuckled along. Georg began to regret getting in the car with the dim-witted Bavarian.

The traffic guard must’ve forgotten about them, undoubtedly one of the clueless rookies assigned to a task without any proper training. Georg checked the rearview mirror. Behind the limousine, a long line of carriages and automobiles patiently waited for the guard’s signal. Georg smiled at his reflection. He was going to have a good time at the lunch with Governor Fischer, who’d been kind enough to send his personal driver to bring Georg to their rendezvous at Café Adria. Tomorrow, he would press Doctor Mauch to let him take a train home if he made it on his own through the day. There were plenty of military hospitals in Breslau.

Across the street, the Jewish figure turned, revealing the face of a boy who had outgrown his clothes years ago. The youth passed a large block of cement to a girl wearing a colorful folk shawl with floral motifs wrapped around her head. The heavy block slipped through her fingers; she tried to catch it, but the block rolled down her legs and hit the ground. The Jews broke the line to help the girl, who was bent over, rubbing her knee. With kicks and shoves, the policemen goaded the laborers back into line.

The Opel finally turned onto Marszalkowska. The girl straightened, and Georg got a good look at her. He jumped up, hitting his head against the roof of the limousine. Rachel!

"Stop the car, please," Georg said.

Hans gingerly applied the brakes and pulled over.

Georg bolted out. Immediately, a gust of cold air slapped him in the face. He turned sideways and braced himself against the wind.

Using his cane, Georg limped down the street as fast as his leg allowed. What good fortune to stumble upon her like this. He hadn’t thought he would see her again when she and her family moved east after the Kristallnacht pogroms. How ironic to find her in Warsaw of all places: the city where they’d triumphed, the city where they’d fallen in love.

The chilly air biting into his lungs, Georg slowed down to catch his breath. An elderly Jew behind Rachel spotted him first and stopped working, which drew attention from the other Jews and the two policemen. Rachel too lifted her head, and Georg saw that she recognized him. She’d aged in the four years since he’d last seen her, but her beautiful chestnut eyes remained intact, measuring him, assessing the situation. Poor thing, she’d lost a lot of weight. At least she’d managed to stay alive. How was her family? Her mother had always liked him. Her father—not so much. Oh, what did it matter now?

Georg came closer. "Rachel, it’s me."

Something flickered in those eyes. She swiveled her head around as if looking for somewhere to put the block of cement she held.

Georg took the block from her hands. "Do you recognize me?"

She remained silent, still looking around. No one was coming to the rescue, as the stunned Jews and their guards stayed frozen, their mouths agape, venting plumes of white steam.

"Rachel, don't be afraid." Georg lowered his voice. “I can help you. This time will be different, you’ll see.”

"Ah...I'm not afraid. It's just...I'm not your Rachel."

A policeman came to life. He shuffled closer, vacillated, retreated half a step to a safe distance, and then plucked up his courage to address Georg. "What can we assist, Herr Officer?" he said in broken German.

Georg handed him the block of cement.

"You don't recognize me, Rachel?"

“Ah...I'm afraid you're mistaken, Herr Officer. My name is Sulamif,” she said.

Nothing changed in her expression.

Georg shifted from foot to foot, forgetting about his injury and the cane. His left ankle didn't like the maneuver. Georg waited out the pain, his mind stuck on the icy reception. For some strange reason, he burned to tell her about his discovery of an intact Hotel European. But she already knew that.

After a hard swallow, he found his voice. “Where are you from, Sulamif?” He immediately cursed himself inwardly. What a dumb question.

“Here. Warsaw.”

“Really? Your German is very good. Where did you learn to speak like this?”

“Jagiellonian University in Cracow.”

“Sure.” Georg was losing his patience. Enough of the games.

She stared at him. The familiar cold glint of her irises—the implacable stubbornness that he knew so well—was now accentuated by the dark circles under her eyes. Time and starvation had sharpened her delicate features, but Georg had no doubt it was her. If only he knew what to do or how to confront her. Should he even try under the circumstances? Maybe she was too embarrassed to face him in her current humiliation, dressed in rags and doing slave labor for the victors. Georg’s heart rent. His proud girl was reduced to a forced laborer. What a torture the ghetto life must have been for her.

Cane in hand, Georg opened his arms to hug her. “Rachel, my dear, I’ll get you out.”

She recoiled in fright as if some deranged lunatic was attacking her. Georg’s arms fell down by his sides.

She got a hold of herself, took the block of cement from the guard’s hands and passed it to the old man. She’d always taken the initiative, and this seemed no different. Four years had passed, and their lives had clearly changed, yet in her current untenable situation, she was not in a hurry to take his helping hand. Why?

The line of Jews returned to work. The policemen backed off, leaving Georg to his confusion. He grasped for a suitable course of action, some clever response to regain control. His brain emptied. All he craved was a glance, a sign that she may change her mind or at least give him a chance to explain. Had she grown bitter after years of misery and were taking revenge on him for all the sufferings she had endured? Was she showing him that she had never forgiven him for the way they had parted?

Georg shifted his weight from his good leg to the cane. To hell with formalities. Go, hug and kiss her. His mind prompted him to move, but his body would not obey. A long forgotten sense of loss pierced his heart. Standing only an arm length away from her would not bridge the gap between them, and just as four years ago, he could do nothing about it.

The only initiative Georg could undertake was to shamble back to the limousine, carrying the burden of humiliation on his shoulders. Halfway there, he slipped and would most likely have fallen if not for Hans, who had come over to help him the rest of the way to the car.

Blood boiling, Georg dropped onto the squeaky seat. “Let’s go,” he barked to the driver.

In the distance, Rachel and the Jews stared in his direction, which somehow offended him even more. The elderly Jew put his arm around Rachel’s shoulder, unheeded by the two Polish policemen, and rested his stubbly grey cheek against her colorful shawl. Shipwrecked and miserable, Georg averted his gaze. It should’ve been him. What a cruel fate to find and lose her at the same time.

11
1
4
Juice
160 reads
Donate coins to Victor.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Victor in portal Simon & Schuster
AN ISLE IN THE SKY
Chapter 1
Warsaw, January 7, 1943
Some memories are better left untouched.
Warsaw, a lighthearted place pre-war, greeted Georg with the eyesores of damaged buildings in place of former architectural masterpieces. Dirty snow covered the ruins in a pathetic attempt to camouflage the sweeping transformation, all in vain, for the gloomy faces of Poles said it loud and clear: welcome to the devastation of war.
The chilly draft found its way to his neck through the closed windows of the limousine. Georg raised the collar of his overcoat. “Hans. Slow down, please. I want to see this building,” he told the driver.
The Hotel European, Enrico Marconi’s Neo-Renaissance tour de force, came into view on the right-hand side. Undamaged. An unexpected pleasure rush rippled through Georg’s veins, warming his heart. Five years after he and Rachel had won the Under-eighteen International Ballroom competition, the European’s grand edifice stood as a monument to the Austerlitz of his youth. At least one place had remained intact for an unrushed visit down nostalgia lane.
“I don’t know why you care about those buildings, because all of this,” Hans made a circle in the air with his index finger, “will be razed. The new Warsaw will be erected according to the Fuhrer’s vision. The Aryan landmarks will be preserved, of course. Governor Fischer has a model of the German city of Warsaw in his office, if you want to see it.”
“That’s the dumbest idea,” Georg muttered under his breath.
“What did you say, Herr Hauptmann?”
“Thanks for the tour, Hans. Let’s go back. You can turn right on Jerusalem Avenue.”
“Where?”
“Here.” Georg pointed at the intersection.
Hans hit the brakes. The Opel Admiral limousine voiced its disgust with a high-pitched screech, jolted, and slid sideways on the snow-covered cobblestones of New World Avenue. Hans cursed. “This is Bahnhof Strasse. I don’t know these Polish names you mention, Herr Hauptmann. Do you know where you want to go?”
Georg wasn’t in the mood to argue with the Bavarian about proper names for Warsaw streets. “We’re going to Café Adria. You need to turn right on Marszalkowska at the next intersection.”
“Marschall Strasse?” Hans asked.
“Yes, Marschall Strasse.”
The Opel passed a streetcar and stopped at the intersection, awaiting a signal from a traffic guard wearing a Luftwaffe blue-gray wool overcoat, the uniform identical to Georg’s, except for rank insignia: the plain epaulettes and the sleeve chevron of an Airman in place of Georg’s Captain patch. What is he doing conducting city traffic? Georg marveled at the absurdity of Wehrmacht bureaucracy that reassigned an airfield soldier to traffic duties.
The boxy building of Warsaw’s Central Railway Station ahead reminded Georg of his ill-fated foray four days ago. He had no one to blame but himself for slipping on the icy platform of the station and turning his trip to buy cigarettes into a hospital stay. Doctor Mauch said his ankle wound would have reopened anyway because of the infection. Poor consolation. In a few more hours, he would have been home in Breslau, infection or no infection.
Across Marszalkowska, twenty or so gray figures in rags labored at a pile of rubble in the far corner of the vast space that used to be the old Central Railway Station. Two Polish policemen in blue uniforms supervised the cleaning operation.
A figure wearing pants a few inches too short caught Georg’s eyes. Wide swaths of mottled, bluish skin above the ankles screamed frostbite. The sleeves of the figure's overcoat were also too short, ending just below the elbows, but the sewn-on, mismatched additions reached to the fingers. Displayed above the additions was a yellow Star of David, which also marked the sleeves of the other workers.
"Jews. From the ghetto." Hans too noticed the work party. "Jews are like cockroaches. They’re everywhere. You can go to a most remote place in any country on Earth, knock on a door of the finest house there, and pull out a Jew.
Georg couldn’t contain his laughter. The Bavarian from a village near Oberammergau had not even been to Munich, let alone Berlin or any foreign lands, and yet he knew everything there was to know about the Jews and the world, thanks to the “wisdom” he acquired listening to that idiot, Doctor Goebbels.
Hans misinterpreted Georg’s laughter for a sign of approval and chuckled along. Georg began to regret getting in the car with the dim-witted Bavarian.
The traffic guard must’ve forgotten about them, undoubtedly one of the clueless rookies assigned to a task without any proper training. Georg checked the rearview mirror. Behind the limousine, a long line of carriages and automobiles patiently waited for the guard’s signal. Georg smiled at his reflection. He was going to have a good time at the lunch with Governor Fischer, who’d been kind enough to send his personal driver to bring Georg to their rendezvous at Café Adria. Tomorrow, he would press Doctor Mauch to let him take a train home if he made it on his own through the day. There were plenty of military hospitals in Breslau.
Across the street, the Jewish figure turned, revealing the face of a boy who had outgrown his clothes years ago. The youth passed a large block of cement to a girl wearing a colorful folk shawl with floral motifs wrapped around her head. The heavy block slipped through her fingers; she tried to catch it, but the block rolled down her legs and hit the ground. The Jews broke the line to help the girl, who was bent over, rubbing her knee. With kicks and shoves, the policemen goaded the laborers back into line.
The Opel finally turned onto Marszalkowska. The girl straightened, and Georg got a good look at her. He jumped up, hitting his head against the roof of the limousine. Rachel!
"Stop the car, please," Georg said.
Hans gingerly applied the brakes and pulled over.
Georg bolted out. Immediately, a gust of cold air slapped him in the face. He turned sideways and braced himself against the wind.
Using his cane, Georg limped down the street as fast as his leg allowed. What good fortune to stumble upon her like this. He hadn’t thought he would see her again when she and her family moved east after the Kristallnacht pogroms. How ironic to find her in Warsaw of all places: the city where they’d triumphed, the city where they’d fallen in love.
The chilly air biting into his lungs, Georg slowed down to catch his breath. An elderly Jew behind Rachel spotted him first and stopped working, which drew attention from the other Jews and the two policemen. Rachel too lifted her head, and Georg saw that she recognized him. She’d aged in the four years since he’d last seen her, but her beautiful chestnut eyes remained intact, measuring him, assessing the situation. Poor thing, she’d lost a lot of weight. At least she’d managed to stay alive. How was her family? Her mother had always liked him. Her father—not so much. Oh, what did it matter now?
Georg came closer. "Rachel, it’s me."
Something flickered in those eyes. She swiveled her head around as if looking for somewhere to put the block of cement she held.
Georg took the block from her hands. "Do you recognize me?"
She remained silent, still looking around. No one was coming to the rescue, as the stunned Jews and their guards stayed frozen, their mouths agape, venting plumes of white steam.
"Rachel, don't be afraid." Georg lowered his voice. “I can help you. This time will be different, you’ll see.”
"Ah...I'm not afraid. It's just...I'm not your Rachel."
A policeman came to life. He shuffled closer, vacillated, retreated half a step to a safe distance, and then plucked up his courage to address Georg. "What can we assist, Herr Officer?" he said in broken German.
Georg handed him the block of cement.
"You don't recognize me, Rachel?"
“Ah...I'm afraid you're mistaken, Herr Officer. My name is Sulamif,” she said.
Nothing changed in her expression.
Georg shifted from foot to foot, forgetting about his injury and the cane. His left ankle didn't like the maneuver. Georg waited out the pain, his mind stuck on the icy reception. For some strange reason, he burned to tell her about his discovery of an intact Hotel European. But she already knew that.
After a hard swallow, he found his voice. “Where are you from, Sulamif?” He immediately cursed himself inwardly. What a dumb question.
“Here. Warsaw.”
“Really? Your German is very good. Where did you learn to speak like this?”
“Jagiellonian University in Cracow.”
“Sure.” Georg was losing his patience. Enough of the games.
She stared at him. The familiar cold glint of her irises—the implacable stubbornness that he knew so well—was now accentuated by the dark circles under her eyes. Time and starvation had sharpened her delicate features, but Georg had no doubt it was her. If only he knew what to do or how to confront her. Should he even try under the circumstances? Maybe she was too embarrassed to face him in her current humiliation, dressed in rags and doing slave labor for the victors. Georg’s heart rent. His proud girl was reduced to a forced laborer. What a torture the ghetto life must have been for her.
Cane in hand, Georg opened his arms to hug her. “Rachel, my dear, I’ll get you out.”
She recoiled in fright as if some deranged lunatic was attacking her. Georg’s arms fell down by his sides.
She got a hold of herself, took the block of cement from the guard’s hands and passed it to the old man. She’d always taken the initiative, and this seemed no different. Four years had passed, and their lives had clearly changed, yet in her current untenable situation, she was not in a hurry to take his helping hand. Why?
The line of Jews returned to work. The policemen backed off, leaving Georg to his confusion. He grasped for a suitable course of action, some clever response to regain control. His brain emptied. All he craved was a glance, a sign that she may change her mind or at least give him a chance to explain. Had she grown bitter after years of misery and were taking revenge on him for all the sufferings she had endured? Was she showing him that she had never forgiven him for the way they had parted?
Georg shifted his weight from his good leg to the cane. To hell with formalities. Go, hug and kiss her. His mind prompted him to move, but his body would not obey. A long forgotten sense of loss pierced his heart. Standing only an arm length away from her would not bridge the gap between them, and just as four years ago, he could do nothing about it.
The only initiative Georg could undertake was to shamble back to the limousine, carrying the burden of humiliation on his shoulders. Halfway there, he slipped and would most likely have fallen if not for Hans, who had come over to help him the rest of the way to the car.
Blood boiling, Georg dropped onto the squeaky seat. “Let’s go,” he barked to the driver.
In the distance, Rachel and the Jews stared in his direction, which somehow offended him even more. The elderly Jew put his arm around Rachel’s shoulder, unheeded by the two Polish policemen, and rested his stubbly grey cheek against her colorful shawl. Shipwrecked and miserable, Georg averted his gaze. It should’ve been him. What a cruel fate to find and lose her at the same time.
11
1
4
Juice
160 reads
Load 4 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to 88.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by 88 in portal Simon & Schuster

ORACLES

A spectacular Armageddon it was as slumbering souls tranced within the confines of a wrong world. Guardians who swore with brine and betrayal in the presence of the heavens and a harem fled with Treasures older than their beats and words thicker than blood when they marched into misery. Yanked from the roots by dear hands that knew better and gluttonous hearts that journeyed over The Alps to offer the Apple of many eyes for sudden sufficiency and silver shillings. Coins that cut into their finger-bones as each shiny reflection captured the waxing watch in the big bright of the night, hitting them like bullseye through a fog of war which rolled along their terrains; hunting and haunting them. Graces of the grave itself grieved for them as they peeled the virulent vines of regret off their faces until the vinegar of rotting remorse spilled down their lungs, their lamentations falling onto the deaf ears of their dumb-drunk deities who sermoned with muted mouths. For crystal Crones had foretold with a hundred hemlocks a dawn of dues bathing with brimming ballistae under the phases of that lunation.

Before this dawn drew, days were when they lofted on garish heights with marked masters of sloven miscreants and slack-jawed jesters. Their sneering smiles widening below swine eyes, watching revolving doors of death that clip-clapped in harmony as they dined on dreams and wined on woes, shunning that they are but a small cog in the machine of their own malevolent machinations, even as the rusts of rewards adhered to their skin with a stench they could not wash away nor wake from their paper thin too-late-beds until it vaporized skywards into an opacus. It was those Cimmerian cloudlands that gathered a thundering of wire, water, gravel, and glass, into a harbinger halo which domed upon all that functioned and flourished in their homestead. It gathered until their tongues frothed with saccharine and satisfaction and their lips drooled of honey and happiness from mouthfuls of savagery and strength. It gathered, as the flame-cloths of their iniquities piled high and hazardous. It gathered still, as the sour strips of prevarications they chewed cheerily clamored to lodge in the burrows of their sodden skins, caving into the chatterings of atonement to defrocked demons who shied from their sides even as nails of flippant fright mauled the disheveled scales of their doting dragons, and teeth of lost labor tore the sins off their mediocre mercenaries to carve damned diagrams for the little lords in their basement shrines and barren tabernacles of dudgeon and dishonor.

Then, did a tormenting tempest reign upon them: subtly leaking through their roofs, tapping steadily onto their hateful heads, an unfamiliar entity noosing wreaths of wailing around their necks, as unfamiliar as the avarice that tugged their footprints into the dark at the end of the tunnel of trials they could not stand its test and truth. They laid shackled and hooked to strings of wandering wraiths clicked onto their conscience like cursed collars, twisted into the knotted cameos of exhumed effigies until the shallow ends of their nostrils clamped shut and the hollow sides of their eyelids filled with inferno. Banishing disquietude blew their disembodied breaths onto sepulchral sigils that branded holes not big enough to swallow their misplaced missteps. The skies shouted strongly as crackling limbs struck, serving portioned punishments onto their tarred tongues, and there laced and locked was the lethal lime of absolute, brewed with pungent permanence: a permanent cleansing that salted those accursed grounds with their blood and maligned their spirits with the very pinpoints that nailed hills of tender tales like tapestries onto iron walls. Through the crumbling cracks of those same walls, their screams slipped into their ill-makings. Their deeds drowned in the gallows of their turpitudes. Their sounds scattered behind the forgotten doors of silence.

When the Sun bled for a Rainbow-

Manifestations of signs beheld her praying to the Supreme for bestowing the privilege to have found him in this lifetime, too. As reverential on knees and anointing of feet romanced the priceless prizes within prurient pleasures that would wring the worth of all possible pang from parting praise: plump plucking lounged on porcelain platters as spilled oil of essences saturated white roses with hues, mirroring the very sheen of one he crafted around his ribs and named after her. Rising incenses licked red poppies kissing as their silky opium stems swam in a vase of liquid lure and light, illuminating the threshold which separated sanctuary and service. He tucked a rose into her temple with owning eyes of green gratitudes, their aquamarine outlines as lustrous as the edge waves clashing with gray matters, that which saw the dark and the divine of much that she was as each battling blink dropped starlights into her glassy eyes. So honest with care and covenant. So deep in the bonding solace springing into a Godspeed, for now, my beloved. A solitude serenade that linked itself to the substance of her serenity, found with the art of agonies, nestled in the atoms of awkward age. She vented her visions to surround him closer, capturing the love in longings to come and to be conquered, knowing he could never rewind the flushed garlands of her submission, nor refuse the girl in her smile, nor resist the goddess on his shadow as her mouth tucked him firm and full to the brim, draining minutes from the hallowed hour striking fate and free-will in its magnanimity.

She held fast the saline streams pleading to gather into lingering lust as pelvic pound throat through blunt lips of bare ink burnt with desires and distress. The crude in naked openness and the grit in ravish and relish; bending with forcible to brave the crucible of foresight. Her head fell onto his shaking lap to wrap voice and vessel around his legs, strumming to the seconds that saw him placing her upon his chest as she mimed the melodies of his heart: the depth of fulfilling flow when their love entwined her soul with his sage as valiant honor tangled them in the brilliance of thorns. Verily, when her pearl dips into the enchantment of his embrace, she will seize eight straining minutes to share eight sterling words, pumping the heartbeats of pledges. Verily, it is his platinum head that will sprawl upon her blushed breasts with paean, caroling his last mortal "Mine", as it escapes into the passages of her pussy and onto the pyres of pain. The precious pain.

His: as his Others cradled in her womb and his Orders crooned in an urn. His: as she leaps stepping-stones of rousing rituals through decennial seasons. His: in thrashing throes of craving cries when her heart hurts and humbles and heals. His: the stigmata and the sacredness of all that she was-is-to be. His: walking through the craquelure of tomorrows' paintings, with pigments and fragments, with nothing and everything. His: as the russet runes of devotion crush the obstacles of hope. His: to fall into the ashes and fly through the aether of remembrance. His: sinking to rise to the surface, swim-slicing through the chaotic currents, for only the ones with will and measure can cross those tumultuous tides of life. His: when "Mine" strokes through radiant realms and the wonders of Elysian fields. His: as the lambency of passionate prospects esteem the mantle of veiled wishes. His: with the forgings of fortitude and courage charging through the dims. His: for her services and sacrifices were far from done.

Not a creature stirred as Magic moaned-

Moments clung to a paladin post pinned onto the archives of the past, like an anchoring, for that is where the mighty steps of those forward feet take leading tips. A memoriter of decrees spinning at shocking speed, punching hellish and hard to plant healing into the drought-drained dirt that drew breath and birth in its first blow. And there she crouched, in an audacious and voracious face-off between knuckles choking sands on the steady line and the unforgiving bruise to the bone of bowed knees, until the pain was nothing but fleeting gossamers of illusion. Charged emotions tumbled into the principal parts of a warrior's heart, of weak faith, in a worn body. Patience and perseverance became a powerful pair that knocked rapturously upon the gates of, "Escape from doubting bondage!" A most tangible Twain for the tranquil Twin that called him forth with prodigal pliancy. Stepping out from showers of suns, a shroud of moons, and shield of constellations: Oracle of orphans. Word of warriors. Miracles of moments. Goodness in odd things. Greatness in little ones. In his hands, chain-links of golden goblets and fathom feeding. In his trail, harp and harpsichord aired the sweet sirening of the Maidens of the seven seas and the Muses of nine; a conjuring communion of bloodlines’ breed.

He came when burning notes of numb murmured into his ears. He came when her fears hit him like tons of troubling and his palm caught a turbulent tear as it speared the flesh through. He came, alleviated her wounded and wasted, arrested her shattered and shamed; nuking all notions in the nobility of languor till her whole essence awoke to a meritorious clan that loved with lips of storms, and sunshine, sacrament, and songs. He fed her clues, mysteries she swallowed and settled inside as warmth and wisdom: like Phoenix and a pendant - a lamp and a map - clay and cowries - miracles and motion.

A transformative motion; the meaningful movements to keen the blunt balls of calloused soles from that secure stance, as renewed earth became alluring rivers of dancing blooms, even as sharp frost annihilated with white noises that faded to sheer, through the gentleness of wafting breeze from a silhouette shore tuning in calm witness: a sure contradiction to the embers now flaring into blazing diamond beasts in her eyes, as the summoning roared into a carnal centering primed for purpose. It begins.

Caressing like a lover’s leather lashing; sweeping sanguine-soaked flutterings as rivulets ran like wanton water to quench her parched pelt. Passion dripped from hair locks turned flame-fibers flailing wild and alive with abandon, whipping to commands in rapid rhythms that shot seductive spells from skin to spine. Vital and visceral. Intense and infinite. Core coating stunning in undulation. It was soothing and sublime, a solemn sauntering that swayed with celestial compositions and lifted by the eyelashes to raise her above the frore.

Her psyche began a fragmentation as unencumbered senses soared freely in what could be most likened to floating in the ethical creation of an apothecary, seasoned in the dialing doses of every drug ever god-grown or man-mixed, stripping away the unrepentant garment of burdens and adorning with a casting of bare electricity and elements of natural bent, until her pores opened into spectacles of glow. So wide open, fingers of force fields slid through layers of lush to seduce uncharted cells that pulsed at primordial pressure. Reverberating breathes ceased and released until the bold lines between inhale, and exhale bubbled and blurred. An emergence of lightness as prominent particles morphed into a solid thrust, the fluid ferocious fucking of wanting maestro and willing masterpiece; a compelling of combative climaxes that flogged with comfort and conflict in the same sequence. That which floods with an ardent ache, an insatiable intoxication and, a higher hunger past the proximities of primal. She was winds with flesh and soul of fire. Tornado and Thunder. Arisen ancient stronger than metal and shinier than magnet mating like the magical madness of shooting sparks from star-crossed significants. Ignited wings spreading in magnificent ascension into the extraordinary: for none in her was ordinary. Nothing else will bend and nothing less will yield for the triumphant tomorrows - Revelations in the geneses of freedom and flight into the future.

12
3
0
Juice
166 reads
Donate coins to 88.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by 88 in portal Simon & Schuster
ORACLES
A spectacular Armageddon it was as slumbering souls tranced within the confines of a wrong world. Guardians who swore with brine and betrayal in the presence of the heavens and a harem fled with Treasures older than their beats and words thicker than blood when they marched into misery. Yanked from the roots by dear hands that knew better and gluttonous hearts that journeyed over The Alps to offer the Apple of many eyes for sudden sufficiency and silver shillings. Coins that cut into their finger-bones as each shiny reflection captured the waxing watch in the big bright of the night, hitting them like bullseye through a fog of war which rolled along their terrains; hunting and haunting them. Graces of the grave itself grieved for them as they peeled the virulent vines of regret off their faces until the vinegar of rotting remorse spilled down their lungs, their lamentations falling onto the deaf ears of their dumb-drunk deities who sermoned with muted mouths. For crystal Crones had foretold with a hundred hemlocks a dawn of dues bathing with brimming ballistae under the phases of that lunation.

Before this dawn drew, days were when they lofted on garish heights with marked masters of sloven miscreants and slack-jawed jesters. Their sneering smiles widening below swine eyes, watching revolving doors of death that clip-clapped in harmony as they dined on dreams and wined on woes, shunning that they are but a small cog in the machine of their own malevolent machinations, even as the rusts of rewards adhered to their skin with a stench they could not wash away nor wake from their paper thin too-late-beds until it vaporized skywards into an opacus. It was those Cimmerian cloudlands that gathered a thundering of wire, water, gravel, and glass, into a harbinger halo which domed upon all that functioned and flourished in their homestead. It gathered until their tongues frothed with saccharine and satisfaction and their lips drooled of honey and happiness from mouthfuls of savagery and strength. It gathered, as the flame-cloths of their iniquities piled high and hazardous. It gathered still, as the sour strips of prevarications they chewed cheerily clamored to lodge in the burrows of their sodden skins, caving into the chatterings of atonement to defrocked demons who shied from their sides even as nails of flippant fright mauled the disheveled scales of their doting dragons, and teeth of lost labor tore the sins off their mediocre mercenaries to carve damned diagrams for the little lords in their basement shrines and barren tabernacles of dudgeon and dishonor.

Then, did a tormenting tempest reign upon them: subtly leaking through their roofs, tapping steadily onto their hateful heads, an unfamiliar entity noosing wreaths of wailing around their necks, as unfamiliar as the avarice that tugged their footprints into the dark at the end of the tunnel of trials they could not stand its test and truth. They laid shackled and hooked to strings of wandering wraiths clicked onto their conscience like cursed collars, twisted into the knotted cameos of exhumed effigies until the shallow ends of their nostrils clamped shut and the hollow sides of their eyelids filled with inferno. Banishing disquietude blew their disembodied breaths onto sepulchral sigils that branded holes not big enough to swallow their misplaced missteps. The skies shouted strongly as crackling limbs struck, serving portioned punishments onto their tarred tongues, and there laced and locked was the lethal lime of absolute, brewed with pungent permanence: a permanent cleansing that salted those accursed grounds with their blood and maligned their spirits with the very pinpoints that nailed hills of tender tales like tapestries onto iron walls. Through the crumbling cracks of those same walls, their screams slipped into their ill-makings. Their deeds drowned in the gallows of their turpitudes. Their sounds scattered behind the forgotten doors of silence.

When the Sun bled for a Rainbow-

Manifestations of signs beheld her praying to the Supreme for bestowing the privilege to have found him in this lifetime, too. As reverential on knees and anointing of feet romanced the priceless prizes within prurient pleasures that would wring the worth of all possible pang from parting praise: plump plucking lounged on porcelain platters as spilled oil of essences saturated white roses with hues, mirroring the very sheen of one he crafted around his ribs and named after her. Rising incenses licked red poppies kissing as their silky opium stems swam in a vase of liquid lure and light, illuminating the threshold which separated sanctuary and service. He tucked a rose into her temple with owning eyes of green gratitudes, their aquamarine outlines as lustrous as the edge waves clashing with gray matters, that which saw the dark and the divine of much that she was as each battling blink dropped starlights into her glassy eyes. So honest with care and covenant. So deep in the bonding solace springing into a Godspeed, for now, my beloved. A solitude serenade that linked itself to the substance of her serenity, found with the art of agonies, nestled in the atoms of awkward age. She vented her visions to surround him closer, capturing the love in longings to come and to be conquered, knowing he could never rewind the flushed garlands of her submission, nor refuse the girl in her smile, nor resist the goddess on his shadow as her mouth tucked him firm and full to the brim, draining minutes from the hallowed hour striking fate and free-will in its magnanimity.

She held fast the saline streams pleading to gather into lingering lust as pelvic pound throat through blunt lips of bare ink burnt with desires and distress. The crude in naked openness and the grit in ravish and relish; bending with forcible to brave the crucible of foresight. Her head fell onto his shaking lap to wrap voice and vessel around his legs, strumming to the seconds that saw him placing her upon his chest as she mimed the melodies of his heart: the depth of fulfilling flow when their love entwined her soul with his sage as valiant honor tangled them in the brilliance of thorns. Verily, when her pearl dips into the enchantment of his embrace, she will seize eight straining minutes to share eight sterling words, pumping the heartbeats of pledges. Verily, it is his platinum head that will sprawl upon her blushed breasts with paean, caroling his last mortal "Mine", as it escapes into the passages of her pussy and onto the pyres of pain. The precious pain.

His: as his Others cradled in her womb and his Orders crooned in an urn. His: as she leaps stepping-stones of rousing rituals through decennial seasons. His: in thrashing throes of craving cries when her heart hurts and humbles and heals. His: the stigmata and the sacredness of all that she was-is-to be. His: walking through the craquelure of tomorrows' paintings, with pigments and fragments, with nothing and everything. His: as the russet runes of devotion crush the obstacles of hope. His: to fall into the ashes and fly through the aether of remembrance. His: sinking to rise to the surface, swim-slicing through the chaotic currents, for only the ones with will and measure can cross those tumultuous tides of life. His: when "Mine" strokes through radiant realms and the wonders of Elysian fields. His: as the lambency of passionate prospects esteem the mantle of veiled wishes. His: with the forgings of fortitude and courage charging through the dims. His: for her services and sacrifices were far from done.

Not a creature stirred as Magic moaned-

Moments clung to a paladin post pinned onto the archives of the past, like an anchoring, for that is where the mighty steps of those forward feet take leading tips. A memoriter of decrees spinning at shocking speed, punching hellish and hard to plant healing into the drought-drained dirt that drew breath and birth in its first blow. And there she crouched, in an audacious and voracious face-off between knuckles choking sands on the steady line and the unforgiving bruise to the bone of bowed knees, until the pain was nothing but fleeting gossamers of illusion. Charged emotions tumbled into the principal parts of a warrior's heart, of weak faith, in a worn body. Patience and perseverance became a powerful pair that knocked rapturously upon the gates of, "Escape from doubting bondage!" A most tangible Twain for the tranquil Twin that called him forth with prodigal pliancy. Stepping out from showers of suns, a shroud of moons, and shield of constellations: Oracle of orphans. Word of warriors. Miracles of moments. Goodness in odd things. Greatness in little ones. In his hands, chain-links of golden goblets and fathom feeding. In his trail, harp and harpsichord aired the sweet sirening of the Maidens of the seven seas and the Muses of nine; a conjuring communion of bloodlines’ breed.

He came when burning notes of numb murmured into his ears. He came when her fears hit him like tons of troubling and his palm caught a turbulent tear as it speared the flesh through. He came, alleviated her wounded and wasted, arrested her shattered and shamed; nuking all notions in the nobility of languor till her whole essence awoke to a meritorious clan that loved with lips of storms, and sunshine, sacrament, and songs. He fed her clues, mysteries she swallowed and settled inside as warmth and wisdom: like Phoenix and a pendant - a lamp and a map - clay and cowries - miracles and motion.

A transformative motion; the meaningful movements to keen the blunt balls of calloused soles from that secure stance, as renewed earth became alluring rivers of dancing blooms, even as sharp frost annihilated with white noises that faded to sheer, through the gentleness of wafting breeze from a silhouette shore tuning in calm witness: a sure contradiction to the embers now flaring into blazing diamond beasts in her eyes, as the summoning roared into a carnal centering primed for purpose. It begins.

Caressing like a lover’s leather lashing; sweeping sanguine-soaked flutterings as rivulets ran like wanton water to quench her parched pelt. Passion dripped from hair locks turned flame-fibers flailing wild and alive with abandon, whipping to commands in rapid rhythms that shot seductive spells from skin to spine. Vital and visceral. Intense and infinite. Core coating stunning in undulation. It was soothing and sublime, a solemn sauntering that swayed with celestial compositions and lifted by the eyelashes to raise her above the frore.

Her psyche began a fragmentation as unencumbered senses soared freely in what could be most likened to floating in the ethical creation of an apothecary, seasoned in the dialing doses of every drug ever god-grown or man-mixed, stripping away the unrepentant garment of burdens and adorning with a casting of bare electricity and elements of natural bent, until her pores opened into spectacles of glow. So wide open, fingers of force fields slid through layers of lush to seduce uncharted cells that pulsed at primordial pressure. Reverberating breathes ceased and released until the bold lines between inhale, and exhale bubbled and blurred. An emergence of lightness as prominent particles morphed into a solid thrust, the fluid ferocious fucking of wanting maestro and willing masterpiece; a compelling of combative climaxes that flogged with comfort and conflict in the same sequence. That which floods with an ardent ache, an insatiable intoxication and, a higher hunger past the proximities of primal. She was winds with flesh and soul of fire. Tornado and Thunder. Arisen ancient stronger than metal and shinier than magnet mating like the magical madness of shooting sparks from star-crossed significants. Ignited wings spreading in magnificent ascension into the extraordinary: for none in her was ordinary. Nothing else will bend and nothing less will yield for the triumphant tomorrows - Revelations in the geneses of freedom and flight into the future.
12
3
0
Juice
166 reads
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to ErrBane.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ErrBane in portal Simon & Schuster

The Black Orchid

Ch 1: A Seed is Planted

Blackened reeds bow to a gentle breeze. An emerald sky, rife with dark clouds, looms above. The stench of dried blood clings to the air—the hill is going to get another sacrifice, and it is glad.

The Dark Hill sits on the outskirts of the city of Arcana, its once vibrant veldt now a dreary shell of its former self: weeds choke the life from every tree and shrub, withering them away to nothing more than feeble stumps; blood spilled upon its once fertile soil has seeped into the ground, staining the grass black and the earth red; the melodious ditty of a hundred woodland creatures has been snuffed away and replaced by the faint shrieking of restless souls.

Along the crest of this dark, dreary hill is a very decrepit house, Mildred Manor, a thing made in the old Victorian style with broken shutters and crumbling steeples. From that home, that magnet of the macabre, comes most of the Dark Hill’s fetid food, the crimson elixir that smirches its once pristine grounds. Over the years, the house, cursed as it is, has become a nexus for grisly actions, each more gruesome and sinister than the last.

Every night, as the sun surrenders the skies to the moon, warbled screams, like some terrible lullaby, escape from the awful house. Many believe the sound to be a desperate call from the lonely manor, a dreadful bugle call only those with ill intent in their hearts can decipher.

On this terrible night, lonely and cold, as the sun’s final rays retreat into the horizon, one such soul heeds that call.

Cloaked in tatters as black as the grass upon which he walks, he carries a large bundle wrapped in dirty, yellowed sheets. This bundle, tightly wound, contours around a very human shape.

Up and up and up the hill he goes, coming to a stop in front of the mold filled door of the manor. He looks up at the broken steeples and the shattered windows. He takes a professional interest on the mark above the front door, the mark of Everything You Touch, the sign of the curse that plagues Mildred’s Manor—a decrepit, hovering hand with jagged lines radiating from it, and covering the whole exterior of the house.

With undue brutality, he kicks the front door, shattering it. Splinters fly in all directions. Upon entering, he staggers momentarily, as the cursed floor slants awkwardly to the left. Regaining his footing, he moves towards a vast, empty room on his right.

Awkward angles fill the room as the doorframe, fireplace, and windows are all slightly crooked. On the ceiling hangs a gangly, crooked mess of speckled bronze, a chandelier. Plumes of dust erupt every time the man takes a step.

Disgusted by the thing he carries, the man drops the bundle at his feet. From his pocket he removes a crystal vial, the liquid contents of which are suspended one over the other, orange and black, like water over oil. He shakes the vial until the contents fuse together. A bubbling sludge forms within the vial, and this the man pours over the top end of the bundle. Bubbles quiver and explode, others percolate through the dirty cloth. The man waits for some moments, making sure that the whole mixture soaks into the grimy sheets. When this is done, he exits the room.Ancient planks groan as he steps out of the room and throws away the vial in his hand. With a loud crash, it shatters upon a wall.

Once outside, the man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gem in the shape of a tiny lion. With the gem in hand, he starts to swing his wrist, like a cowboy about to rope cattle. With each revolution, the gem fills with a dim, silver glow. The man raises his arm over his head and, with a snap of his hand, causes a flurry of silver flames to erupt from the crystal. The flames do not burn the mildewed wood of Mildred’s Manor—instead, the silver sparks seep into every wall, every window of the house.

The man flinches as silver flames make the crystal vibrate in his hands, breaking with an audible snap. He begins to massage his hurt hand, but he quickly forgets his pain. He takes a few steps back to survey his work.

Like a shattering clock revealing all its gears, the house creaks and cracks, its bricks, wood, and glass all suspended in the air. Each of its pieces begin to shuffle around in a blur of motion. The house seems to breathe as all the debris expands inward and outward. Suddenly, as though nothing has happened, each segment falls back into place. Every piece lays peacefully at rest for some moments. But as the man begins to walk away, the house once more splits into its component parts, caught in a never ending loop.

Inside the shifting walls of the house, the bundle begins to move. The dirty sheets peel back to reveal a naked man. Save for the fact that his eyes are missing, there is nothing to indicate that the man is dead. Indeed, the squirming in his throat, making his head move as though he were having a nightmare, gives a distinct impression of a man asleep. Only when his mouth peels back, revealing his chattering teeth, does anything appear to be amiss. With incredible force, the teeth, like tiny, white bullets, begin to shoot out one by one, as gray roots erupt from the man’s throat.

Like some great, molting insect, the man’s skin adapts a grey hue and starts to dry up and slip from his body. His veins, no longer red, look like pulsing rivers of lava, orange and hot. The veins convulse violently, their contents gush out and leak into the mildewed floor.

CRACK.

The man’s jaw breaks as a large plant slithers out of his mouth. Five stygian petals, like the limbs of a man, bob up and down. The black flower dances upon the chest of the dead man and the Dark Hill, after months of starvation, is finally satiated.

13
2
0
Juice
124 reads
Donate coins to ErrBane.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ErrBane in portal Simon & Schuster
The Black Orchid
Ch 1: A Seed is Planted

Blackened reeds bow to a gentle breeze. An emerald sky, rife with dark clouds, looms above. The stench of dried blood clings to the air—the hill is going to get another sacrifice, and it is glad.

The Dark Hill sits on the outskirts of the city of Arcana, its once vibrant veldt now a dreary shell of its former self: weeds choke the life from every tree and shrub, withering them away to nothing more than feeble stumps; blood spilled upon its once fertile soil has seeped into the ground, staining the grass black and the earth red; the melodious ditty of a hundred woodland creatures has been snuffed away and replaced by the faint shrieking of restless souls.

Along the crest of this dark, dreary hill is a very decrepit house, Mildred Manor, a thing made in the old Victorian style with broken shutters and crumbling steeples. From that home, that magnet of the macabre, comes most of the Dark Hill’s fetid food, the crimson elixir that smirches its once pristine grounds. Over the years, the house, cursed as it is, has become a nexus for grisly actions, each more gruesome and sinister than the last.
Every night, as the sun surrenders the skies to the moon, warbled screams, like some terrible lullaby, escape from the awful house. Many believe the sound to be a desperate call from the lonely manor, a dreadful bugle call only those with ill intent in their hearts can decipher.

On this terrible night, lonely and cold, as the sun’s final rays retreat into the horizon, one such soul heeds that call.

Cloaked in tatters as black as the grass upon which he walks, he carries a large bundle wrapped in dirty, yellowed sheets. This bundle, tightly wound, contours around a very human shape.

Up and up and up the hill he goes, coming to a stop in front of the mold filled door of the manor. He looks up at the broken steeples and the shattered windows. He takes a professional interest on the mark above the front door, the mark of Everything You Touch, the sign of the curse that plagues Mildred’s Manor—a decrepit, hovering hand with jagged lines radiating from it, and covering the whole exterior of the house.
With undue brutality, he kicks the front door, shattering it. Splinters fly in all directions. Upon entering, he staggers momentarily, as the cursed floor slants awkwardly to the left. Regaining his footing, he moves towards a vast, empty room on his right.
Awkward angles fill the room as the doorframe, fireplace, and windows are all slightly crooked. On the ceiling hangs a gangly, crooked mess of speckled bronze, a chandelier. Plumes of dust erupt every time the man takes a step.

Disgusted by the thing he carries, the man drops the bundle at his feet. From his pocket he removes a crystal vial, the liquid contents of which are suspended one over the other, orange and black, like water over oil. He shakes the vial until the contents fuse together. A bubbling sludge forms within the vial, and this the man pours over the top end of the bundle. Bubbles quiver and explode, others percolate through the dirty cloth. The man waits for some moments, making sure that the whole mixture soaks into the grimy sheets. When this is done, he exits the room.Ancient planks groan as he steps out of the room and throws away the vial in his hand. With a loud crash, it shatters upon a wall.

Once outside, the man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gem in the shape of a tiny lion. With the gem in hand, he starts to swing his wrist, like a cowboy about to rope cattle. With each revolution, the gem fills with a dim, silver glow. The man raises his arm over his head and, with a snap of his hand, causes a flurry of silver flames to erupt from the crystal. The flames do not burn the mildewed wood of Mildred’s Manor—instead, the silver sparks seep into every wall, every window of the house.

The man flinches as silver flames make the crystal vibrate in his hands, breaking with an audible snap. He begins to massage his hurt hand, but he quickly forgets his pain. He takes a few steps back to survey his work.

Like a shattering clock revealing all its gears, the house creaks and cracks, its bricks, wood, and glass all suspended in the air. Each of its pieces begin to shuffle around in a blur of motion. The house seems to breathe as all the debris expands inward and outward. Suddenly, as though nothing has happened, each segment falls back into place. Every piece lays peacefully at rest for some moments. But as the man begins to walk away, the house once more splits into its component parts, caught in a never ending loop.

Inside the shifting walls of the house, the bundle begins to move. The dirty sheets peel back to reveal a naked man. Save for the fact that his eyes are missing, there is nothing to indicate that the man is dead. Indeed, the squirming in his throat, making his head move as though he were having a nightmare, gives a distinct impression of a man asleep. Only when his mouth peels back, revealing his chattering teeth, does anything appear to be amiss. With incredible force, the teeth, like tiny, white bullets, begin to shoot out one by one, as gray roots erupt from the man’s throat.

Like some great, molting insect, the man’s skin adapts a grey hue and starts to dry up and slip from his body. His veins, no longer red, look like pulsing rivers of lava, orange and hot. The veins convulse violently, their contents gush out and leak into the mildewed floor.

CRACK.

The man’s jaw breaks as a large plant slithers out of his mouth. Five stygian petals, like the limbs of a man, bob up and down. The black flower dances upon the chest of the dead man and the Dark Hill, after months of starvation, is finally satiated.
13
2
0
Juice
124 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Lorelei54.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Lorelei54 in portal Simon & Schuster

All is Vanity

     I’m what they call a lapsed Catholic. Hyperbolically redundant, maybe, but when you’re an Irish Catholic preteen girl in mid-century New York City, and a Kelly green Dodge Sportsman van pulls up outside P.S. 66, horn honking and driver gesticulating in your direction, it’s not unusual for your first thoughts to tend towards the persecutory.

     OhmyGodJesusMaryandJosephwhatdidIdotodeservethis?

     It was 1972 P.M. (Pre-Minivan), at least a decade before Lee Iacocca developed what would become the catalyst of many a midlife crisis. My father was in the driver’s seat after picking up the green behemoth from the dealership earlier that day. We didn’t have a lot of money, my father was a lieutenant in the NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Unit and there were four of us Dowd kids, so the purchase of our first new car ever was understandably quite the event. Dad was very proud of his Irish heritage and that pride was reflected in his color selection for The Van. I, however, didn’t share in his belief that our County Sligo roots should be represented by what I thought looked like a big, rolling, ball of snot.

     As if The Van’s color wasn’t distinguishing enough, my father had thought it prudent to add our last name to the driver’s and passenger’s side doors, using those lovely gold and black stick-on letters, ubiquitous to rural neighborhood mailboxes, but not exactly common on motor vehicles in Queens. I’m still not sure why he did it. Maybe it was to make it easier to differentiate ours from all the other Kelly green Dodge Sportsman vans one found in Richmond Hill, Queens, in the early seventies, but as I stood outside my elementary school on the verge of entering junior high school and looking puberty square in the acne-prone face, I was sure it was to embarrass the hell out of me and make my life miserable.

     Much like me at that moment, The Van had no options, and my father had to reach across the passenger seat to roll down the window and call me over. Apparently, he thought I’d have trouble locating my ride home among the other sedately-hued sedans and station wagons that lined the curb. Head bowed, I made a run for it, and immediately ducked down below window level once I got in and slammed the door behind me. With no carpeting, floor mats, or interior coverage of any kind to absorb the resulting noise, my actions produced a wave of sound and self-consciousness within that steel cylinder that resonates to this day.

     Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but The Van made quite the impression. I couldn’t prove it, but for the longest time I was positive The Van was the reason I didn’t have a date until I was a senior in high school. We were the Richmond Hillbillies, sans moonshine still and rocking chair, both of which I’m sure my father would have loved to bring along on his ecto-urban excursions if he could have found the room.

     Eventually Dad “finished” the interior with lovely particle board paneling; the thin, faux wood-grained segments, screwed in place on The Van’s side and back doors, reminiscent of Mike Brady’s den. Afflicted with adult ADD, my father either lost interest in the project or couldn’t figure out how to attach said panels to the ceiling without piercing the roof and turning The Van into a colander, so that’s how the van’s interior remained: an ode to a campy 1970s sitcom.

     No amount of refinishing could alter the placement of the engine, though, which sat between the driver’s and front passenger’s seats like so much gas-powered headland. I guess the Dodge engineers had yet to figure out that whole “force versus object” thing, because any frontal collision could have sent the plastic-hooded peninsula hurtling backwards, through two bench seats and the four children occupying them. And since the use of seatbelts was mere suggestion, their buckles and straps eventually disappeared into the seats’ sticky depths.

     The Van played a major role in every Dowd vacation following its purchase, and would be part of our family until I was out of college. We traveled en masse, the six of us “making good time” as my dad would say, by rising before dawn and hitting the road with us kids in our pajamas until we reached the first roadside rest stop, where we would change and have breakfast. These stops weren’t the monuments to modernity you now find along the interstate, and often consisted of a group of weathered picnic tables decorated by the local avian contingent, an anorectic brochure rack, and an outbuilding with a few utilitarian restrooms.

     After an appetizing trip to the facilities it was time for dining van fresco. Funds were always tight and there weren’t many fast food drive-thrus in the 60s and 70s, so we carried all our food in coolers and boxes which my mom would replenish as needed. I don’t know how she did it. Two weeks, feeding six people, from a cooler on the side of the road or a camp stove in front of a tent sounds like the secular definition of Hell to me. My mother was a magician and The Van was the top hat from which she produced nightly dinner.

     Motel stays weren’t financially feasible and Google had yet to become a verb, so our sites were campsites and our vacations planned with the help of the annual Rand McNally Campground Guide. Fueled by self-preservation and flashbacks of noxious near-misses, my siblings and I quickly learned the lingo and steered our parents away from the campgrounds boasting pit toilets as an amenity or offering “environmentally-friendly” showers-- camping code for putting quarters in a slot for five minutes of hot water while standing in a cement-floored, cinder block shower stall. Dowd Family Fun at its best; a dubious tradition which had actually begun before The Van entered our lives.

     On one pre-Van summer trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, my father parked our battered Chevy station wagon, pitched our tent on the shores of beautiful Lake Winnipesaukee, and my mother set up her transient kitchen, cooked dinner, cleaned up, and got us kids ready to roast marshmallows. I was one of three Dowd kids, then, who were six, almost five, and three years old and not exactly adept at handling sticks attached to flaming confections, so it shouldn’t have surprised either of my parents when my brother turned around and had a smoldering compress of molten sugar affixed to his left cheek.

     A flurry of adrenaline- and fear-fueled activity ensued, culminating in my brother being dunked in the cold waters of the lake, followed by the elaborate post-panic application of just about everything that came in a Johnson and Johnson First Aid kit, circa 1965. To look at the pictures of his smiling, gauze-swathed face, you’d think my brother was practicing for a Halloween stint as a mummy, rather than recovering from a lakeside baptism due to marshmallow-related fire.

     My mother was seven months pregnant at the time. In a tent, in the woods, with three kids under the age of six and a husband who, despite his Brooklyn roots, yearned to be the original Urban Cowboy; with a dash of Jack Kerouac, a soupcon of Jacques Cousteau, and a touch of The Great Santini thrown in for good measure.

     Consistent with my father’s Mitty-esque fantasies, The Van sailed the Bay of Fundy from Maine to Nova Scotia aboard a ferry called The Bluenose, a trip forever ingrained in my memory as my first time using a travel sickness bag. As if eight hours bobbing like a titanic cork on rough northern Atlantic waters weren’t bad enough, the experience was exacerbated by a breakfast of fried eggs and tomato juice. I just wish my mother had told me to open the bag before using it. After getting a handful of breakfast I decided to just cut out the middle man and hung my head over the rail for the rest of the trip.

     On the opposite end of both the geographic and the meteorological spectrums, The Van traversed the country to The Badlands, The Black Hills, and Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota. This we did in August. On vinyl seats. Without air conditioning, and with two parents who smoked, in the back of a van with side windows that only pushed out at the bottom to form slender acute triangles of ventilation, perfect for a dog to stick its snout through, but problematic for human children at risk of suffocation and secondhand smoke.

     I saw most of Custer State Park’s buffalo, bison, and wild donkeys from a horizontal perspective, stuck to one of The Van’s bench seats in the fetal position, after developing a kidney infection that wouldn’t find relief until my parents finally took me to a clinic in the Wisconsin Dells, about 600 miles away. It was a week before the vinyl seat’s cross-hatch pattern finally faded from my pale, sweaty, gasping face. Add the heat from the omnipresent engine and an AM radio augmented with a CB (pervasive in the pre-cell phone era of The Convoy) and I think I’ve found the impetus behind my PTSD and the reason I avoid saunas and eschew trendy technology.

     By then we’d moved-up from the tent and were pulling a Coleman pop-up camper and sometimes had a rowboat perched on The Van’s roof. On our way out west, my father had a momentary lapse and forgot the financial ramifications of fast food, so we pulled into a Bob’s Big Boy somewhere in Iowa. Unfortunately, he also forgot about the boat.

The banshee-like sound of its fiberglass hull making contact with the large pendant light fixture which hung from the drive-in’s cantilevered roof was followed by a shower of milk-colored glass, reminding my father of the vessel’s existence. After paying for the damages we left without eating, and he used the incident for years as justification not to eat out on family trips; as if the episode was a Dickensian harbinger of Vacation Mishaps Yet-To-Come.

     There were many other trips in The Van that didn’t involve property damage. We negotiated the Great Smoky Mountains en route to pre-Dollywood Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, circumnavigated both sides of Niagara Falls, and explored Amish country—more for its proximity to Hershey and its chocolate than for the cultural and educational experiences.

     Somewhere along the way the DOWD kids grew up. The Van ran out of gas and usefulness sometime in the ‘80s and eventually became a permanent fixture on the side of my parents’ house once they moved to rural Connecticut. While in college, The Van was the first thing I saw whenever I pulled up the driveway for a visit. Melanomas of rust and Bondo dotted his exterior and a family of chipmunks had taken up residence inside. I asked my father why he didn’t just junk the thing and he said he would get around to it eventually, and he did. On my first trip home after The Van’s demise I found I was a little unsettled to see it gone, and stared at the loamy, naked patch of driveway edged with burnt grass and metal flakes. The Van hadn’t gone quietly and I admired its tenacity.

     I realize now that no matter how much The Van had been an incidental bane of my pubertal existence, it represented something much deeper to my dad. As a cop, he’d spent five nights a week on the streets for twenty-three years and had missed most of what happened at home after 4:30 P.M. When he looked at The Van he saw his family’s history. He saw scenes of our collective childhood that he could relate to, and in which he had played a major role. The Van was a souvenir of all those trips we took together, before life intervened and the four DOWD kids went on to travels of their own.

12
3
2
Juice
151 reads
Donate coins to Lorelei54.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Lorelei54 in portal Simon & Schuster
All is Vanity
     I’m what they call a lapsed Catholic. Hyperbolically redundant, maybe, but when you’re an Irish Catholic preteen girl in mid-century New York City, and a Kelly green Dodge Sportsman van pulls up outside P.S. 66, horn honking and driver gesticulating in your direction, it’s not unusual for your first thoughts to tend towards the persecutory.
     OhmyGodJesusMaryandJosephwhatdidIdotodeservethis?
     It was 1972 P.M. (Pre-Minivan), at least a decade before Lee Iacocca developed what would become the catalyst of many a midlife crisis. My father was in the driver’s seat after picking up the green behemoth from the dealership earlier that day. We didn’t have a lot of money, my father was a lieutenant in the NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Unit and there were four of us Dowd kids, so the purchase of our first new car ever was understandably quite the event. Dad was very proud of his Irish heritage and that pride was reflected in his color selection for The Van. I, however, didn’t share in his belief that our County Sligo roots should be represented by what I thought looked like a big, rolling, ball of snot.
     As if The Van’s color wasn’t distinguishing enough, my father had thought it prudent to add our last name to the driver’s and passenger’s side doors, using those lovely gold and black stick-on letters, ubiquitous to rural neighborhood mailboxes, but not exactly common on motor vehicles in Queens. I’m still not sure why he did it. Maybe it was to make it easier to differentiate ours from all the other Kelly green Dodge Sportsman vans one found in Richmond Hill, Queens, in the early seventies, but as I stood outside my elementary school on the verge of entering junior high school and looking puberty square in the acne-prone face, I was sure it was to embarrass the hell out of me and make my life miserable.
     Much like me at that moment, The Van had no options, and my father had to reach across the passenger seat to roll down the window and call me over. Apparently, he thought I’d have trouble locating my ride home among the other sedately-hued sedans and station wagons that lined the curb. Head bowed, I made a run for it, and immediately ducked down below window level once I got in and slammed the door behind me. With no carpeting, floor mats, or interior coverage of any kind to absorb the resulting noise, my actions produced a wave of sound and self-consciousness within that steel cylinder that resonates to this day.
     Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but The Van made quite the impression. I couldn’t prove it, but for the longest time I was positive The Van was the reason I didn’t have a date until I was a senior in high school. We were the Richmond Hillbillies, sans moonshine still and rocking chair, both of which I’m sure my father would have loved to bring along on his ecto-urban excursions if he could have found the room.
     Eventually Dad “finished” the interior with lovely particle board paneling; the thin, faux wood-grained segments, screwed in place on The Van’s side and back doors, reminiscent of Mike Brady’s den. Afflicted with adult ADD, my father either lost interest in the project or couldn’t figure out how to attach said panels to the ceiling without piercing the roof and turning The Van into a colander, so that’s how the van’s interior remained: an ode to a campy 1970s sitcom.
     No amount of refinishing could alter the placement of the engine, though, which sat between the driver’s and front passenger’s seats like so much gas-powered headland. I guess the Dodge engineers had yet to figure out that whole “force versus object” thing, because any frontal collision could have sent the plastic-hooded peninsula hurtling backwards, through two bench seats and the four children occupying them. And since the use of seatbelts was mere suggestion, their buckles and straps eventually disappeared into the seats’ sticky depths.
     The Van played a major role in every Dowd vacation following its purchase, and would be part of our family until I was out of college. We traveled en masse, the six of us “making good time” as my dad would say, by rising before dawn and hitting the road with us kids in our pajamas until we reached the first roadside rest stop, where we would change and have breakfast. These stops weren’t the monuments to modernity you now find along the interstate, and often consisted of a group of weathered picnic tables decorated by the local avian contingent, an anorectic brochure rack, and an outbuilding with a few utilitarian restrooms.
     After an appetizing trip to the facilities it was time for dining van fresco. Funds were always tight and there weren’t many fast food drive-thrus in the 60s and 70s, so we carried all our food in coolers and boxes which my mom would replenish as needed. I don’t know how she did it. Two weeks, feeding six people, from a cooler on the side of the road or a camp stove in front of a tent sounds like the secular definition of Hell to me. My mother was a magician and The Van was the top hat from which she produced nightly dinner.
     Motel stays weren’t financially feasible and Google had yet to become a verb, so our sites were campsites and our vacations planned with the help of the annual Rand McNally Campground Guide. Fueled by self-preservation and flashbacks of noxious near-misses, my siblings and I quickly learned the lingo and steered our parents away from the campgrounds boasting pit toilets as an amenity or offering “environmentally-friendly” showers-- camping code for putting quarters in a slot for five minutes of hot water while standing in a cement-floored, cinder block shower stall. Dowd Family Fun at its best; a dubious tradition which had actually begun before The Van entered our lives.
     On one pre-Van summer trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, my father parked our battered Chevy station wagon, pitched our tent on the shores of beautiful Lake Winnipesaukee, and my mother set up her transient kitchen, cooked dinner, cleaned up, and got us kids ready to roast marshmallows. I was one of three Dowd kids, then, who were six, almost five, and three years old and not exactly adept at handling sticks attached to flaming confections, so it shouldn’t have surprised either of my parents when my brother turned around and had a smoldering compress of molten sugar affixed to his left cheek.
     A flurry of adrenaline- and fear-fueled activity ensued, culminating in my brother being dunked in the cold waters of the lake, followed by the elaborate post-panic application of just about everything that came in a Johnson and Johnson First Aid kit, circa 1965. To look at the pictures of his smiling, gauze-swathed face, you’d think my brother was practicing for a Halloween stint as a mummy, rather than recovering from a lakeside baptism due to marshmallow-related fire.
     My mother was seven months pregnant at the time. In a tent, in the woods, with three kids under the age of six and a husband who, despite his Brooklyn roots, yearned to be the original Urban Cowboy; with a dash of Jack Kerouac, a soupcon of Jacques Cousteau, and a touch of The Great Santini thrown in for good measure.
     Consistent with my father’s Mitty-esque fantasies, The Van sailed the Bay of Fundy from Maine to Nova Scotia aboard a ferry called The Bluenose, a trip forever ingrained in my memory as my first time using a travel sickness bag. As if eight hours bobbing like a titanic cork on rough northern Atlantic waters weren’t bad enough, the experience was exacerbated by a breakfast of fried eggs and tomato juice. I just wish my mother had told me to open the bag before using it. After getting a handful of breakfast I decided to just cut out the middle man and hung my head over the rail for the rest of the trip.
     On the opposite end of both the geographic and the meteorological spectrums, The Van traversed the country to The Badlands, The Black Hills, and Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota. This we did in August. On vinyl seats. Without air conditioning, and with two parents who smoked, in the back of a van with side windows that only pushed out at the bottom to form slender acute triangles of ventilation, perfect for a dog to stick its snout through, but problematic for human children at risk of suffocation and secondhand smoke.
     I saw most of Custer State Park’s buffalo, bison, and wild donkeys from a horizontal perspective, stuck to one of The Van’s bench seats in the fetal position, after developing a kidney infection that wouldn’t find relief until my parents finally took me to a clinic in the Wisconsin Dells, about 600 miles away. It was a week before the vinyl seat’s cross-hatch pattern finally faded from my pale, sweaty, gasping face. Add the heat from the omnipresent engine and an AM radio augmented with a CB (pervasive in the pre-cell phone era of The Convoy) and I think I’ve found the impetus behind my PTSD and the reason I avoid saunas and eschew trendy technology.
     By then we’d moved-up from the tent and were pulling a Coleman pop-up camper and sometimes had a rowboat perched on The Van’s roof. On our way out west, my father had a momentary lapse and forgot the financial ramifications of fast food, so we pulled into a Bob’s Big Boy somewhere in Iowa. Unfortunately, he also forgot about the boat.
The banshee-like sound of its fiberglass hull making contact with the large pendant light fixture which hung from the drive-in’s cantilevered roof was followed by a shower of milk-colored glass, reminding my father of the vessel’s existence. After paying for the damages we left without eating, and he used the incident for years as justification not to eat out on family trips; as if the episode was a Dickensian harbinger of Vacation Mishaps Yet-To-Come.
     There were many other trips in The Van that didn’t involve property damage. We negotiated the Great Smoky Mountains en route to pre-Dollywood Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, circumnavigated both sides of Niagara Falls, and explored Amish country—more for its proximity to Hershey and its chocolate than for the cultural and educational experiences.
     Somewhere along the way the DOWD kids grew up. The Van ran out of gas and usefulness sometime in the ‘80s and eventually became a permanent fixture on the side of my parents’ house once they moved to rural Connecticut. While in college, The Van was the first thing I saw whenever I pulled up the driveway for a visit. Melanomas of rust and Bondo dotted his exterior and a family of chipmunks had taken up residence inside. I asked my father why he didn’t just junk the thing and he said he would get around to it eventually, and he did. On my first trip home after The Van’s demise I found I was a little unsettled to see it gone, and stared at the loamy, naked patch of driveway edged with burnt grass and metal flakes. The Van hadn’t gone quietly and I admired its tenacity.
     I realize now that no matter how much The Van had been an incidental bane of my pubertal existence, it represented something much deeper to my dad. As a cop, he’d spent five nights a week on the streets for twenty-three years and had missed most of what happened at home after 4:30 P.M. When he looked at The Van he saw his family’s history. He saw scenes of our collective childhood that he could relate to, and in which he had played a major role. The Van was a souvenir of all those trips we took together, before life intervened and the four DOWD kids went on to travels of their own.
12
3
2
Juice
151 reads
Load 2 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to alesper.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by alesper in portal Simon & Schuster

Ouroboricisms

I.

The ouroboros is an ancient symbol of a dragon, or serpent, eating its own tail. With origins in Egyptian iconography, it has been adopted by many cultures, most notably in alchemy. It is a strange, persistent image. It continues, in today’s modern magical and mystical culture, to symbolize eternity, reincarnation, the eternal return; it is a continual never-ending recreation.

The snake consumes its own body.

I have found a funny sort of mimesis in the ouroboros, in the serpent – that continuous hunger. For me, the body of the snake is a traumatized body. It is the uncontrollable, unstoppable compulsion to digest one’s own past, the need to consume our own bodies. That exhaustive circling, that thoughtless shape of memory. There is a temporal space constructed by trauma and therefore understood only by those who have experienced it that is simultaneously physical, emotional, and spiritual. This space is generated through a particularly circular mode of remembering and re-structuring of memory itself. The life lived after trauma ceases to be linear – spanning simply from birth to death – and instead becomes ouroboric.

Were the serpent ever to succeed and consume himself, a decreation would take place. But it never does.

I look to the mystics.

I write a paper about Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic who, on her deathbed, dreams that she recreates Christ’s wounds on her own body. Julian is 31 when she becomes ill and lies feverish on her bed, waiting to die. In her fever dreams, she sees Christ – graphic images of his crucifixion and death. She calls them “showings”; they restore her health. I ask questions about her mystical experience, her closeness to death. I ask: What happens when your traumatic life experience is death? What would a mimetic return to death look like?

I write a paper about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Bronte’s narrative is a loop: different chronological spaces overlap and encroach on one another. Wuthering Heights, the house, the structure exists as a traumatized body full of ghosts. Everything is a loop: the two Katherines, the two timelines, the ghosts themselves. What is a ghost but a body that cannot help but replay its own suffering? Anne Carson writes “The Glass Essay” in which the narrator-body translates her own trauma through an exegesis of Bronte’s novel. Carson writes, “time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now.” She writes, “I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë, my lonely life around me like a moor.” She writes, “What was this cage, invisible to us, which she felt herself to be confined in?”

I write my thesis about Margery Kempe, another medieval mystic, who refers to herself only as “the creature” and cries uncontrollably in the streets. Her visions of Christ’s suffering consume her body and her mind like a possession. She doesn’t eat, she denies pleasures of the flesh; she has no body or self, there is only “the creature”. She meditates on suffering.

I write about Flannery O’Connor, that modern mystic, whose characters loved God so much they became mutilated, disfigured, and deformed. Flannery O’Connor writes, “in some medieval paintings…the martyr’s limbs are being sawed off and his expression says he is being deprived of nothing essential.” Flannery, who walks around on her farm among the peacocks, metal braces supporting her body, she writes, “I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

What is it like to disregard the body? How do we get around ourselves when we are always in the way? I wonder how badly the serpent wants the loop to end, to consume himself until the flesh is gone. Is that possible? What would that look like, that nothing-space? To complete the autocannibalism of revisiting one’s own trauma, for it to be over?

II.

Where do we find the secondary image of the ouroboros: at its center. Because while the serpent is so busy trying to consume itself, the empty circle it creates is there, containing nothing. The serpent creates a nothing-space and it makes me wonder if his desperate circling is an attempt to reach it. But there is no reaching the nothing-space, because if the serpent reaches it – thus disrupting the circle of its body – then that space is destroyed. It – the serpent – can only ever be nothing-space adjacent: circling, circling, circling. We want the nothing-space so bad, that circle, that hole. What happens there? Nothing! This is the place where the body doesn’t exist. It is so seductive, tantalizing. The eroticism of forgetting.

To the mystics again: In 1310, before being burned at the stake in Paris, Marguerite Porete writes A Mirror of Simple Souls. It signs her death warrant. Porete tells us that we can make ourselves so small that we disappear into the divine; she tells us that there is a union with God that destroys the self. She tells us about nothingness, how to get beyond ourselves. Her book is an instruction manual for getting around ourselves when we are in the way. I think about what is must have been like. Her body must have burned so slowly.

In New York City, Anne Carson teaches Maggie Nelson to leave a space empty so that God can rush in, a hole for the divine. In a different space, she writes about Porete, “He has burned me out of myself / absolutely.” In my room alone, I feel Flannery’s frustration: “Please, help me to push myself aside!”

III.

Six hundred years ago, Christ was a woman.

Julian, she knew this. Christ, who she called, “Our tender mother Jesus”. Julian lived her life sitting frail and cold in a tiny cell; Julian was enclosed. She had a little window, just wide enough to see the altar of the Church, and wide enough to confess. Across from that window was another, even smaller, from which she preached to the townspeople of Norwich. Julian, our mother, Julian who knew the truth.

God the Father, he punishes; Christ the mother nurtures and comforts. “And our savior is our one true mother…by whom we shall always be enclosed.” Julian, what is it like to be enclosed? Did you reach it – that nothing-space? Is it Christ, our tender mother, chasing his own tail, or is that absurd? I wish so badly that it were, but I’m afraid that I find the serpent more comforting – more relatable.

Nevertheless, the shape of the ouroboros is there in Julian, in her Revelations; it persists. Julian, reliving her near-death like her own personal rapture.

That stupid, silly snake circling ‘round and ‘round, so hungry. Why do I love to think about it turning when it sits so still on the page? Why do I write myself in circles? The truth of the matter is that I find comfort in the stories of medieval heretics, those fiery devout women, even though I have never received revelation and cannot feel the flames. Those women whose visions make lesser men flinch. Julian understood better than Caravaggio what it meant for Thomas to press the tip of his finger into Christ’s open seething wound, that warm sensual flesh. “Then…our Lord looked into his side, and gazed, rejoicing: and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s” – that’s Julian, our creature-mother – “understanding through the same wound into his side.” She puts her whole self into his wound! While the rest of us are condemned to simply circle around it!

I keep circling, myself (circling myself). I am so aware of that space I create, that nothingness, that possible solution or relief. The food of my own body is a circle of images and I keep eating and eating. I read Marguerite so that she can teach me to annihilate myself; I ask Julian where the flesh opens; I beg Flannery: “teach me how to push myself aside.” The serpent grins, always biting down.

References:

(In order)

Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God, Anne Carson

The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery Kempe

The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor

A Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor (ed. Sally Fitzgerald)

Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite Porete

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Decreation, Anne Carson

The Incredulity of St. Thomas (painting), Caravaggio

15
3
1
Juice
189 reads
Donate coins to alesper.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by alesper in portal Simon & Schuster
Ouroboricisms
I.

The ouroboros is an ancient symbol of a dragon, or serpent, eating its own tail. With origins in Egyptian iconography, it has been adopted by many cultures, most notably in alchemy. It is a strange, persistent image. It continues, in today’s modern magical and mystical culture, to symbolize eternity, reincarnation, the eternal return; it is a continual never-ending recreation.

The snake consumes its own body.

I have found a funny sort of mimesis in the ouroboros, in the serpent – that continuous hunger. For me, the body of the snake is a traumatized body. It is the uncontrollable, unstoppable compulsion to digest one’s own past, the need to consume our own bodies. That exhaustive circling, that thoughtless shape of memory. There is a temporal space constructed by trauma and therefore understood only by those who have experienced it that is simultaneously physical, emotional, and spiritual. This space is generated through a particularly circular mode of remembering and re-structuring of memory itself. The life lived after trauma ceases to be linear – spanning simply from birth to death – and instead becomes ouroboric.

Were the serpent ever to succeed and consume himself, a decreation would take place. But it never does.

I look to the mystics.

I write a paper about Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic who, on her deathbed, dreams that she recreates Christ’s wounds on her own body. Julian is 31 when she becomes ill and lies feverish on her bed, waiting to die. In her fever dreams, she sees Christ – graphic images of his crucifixion and death. She calls them “showings”; they restore her health. I ask questions about her mystical experience, her closeness to death. I ask: What happens when your traumatic life experience is death? What would a mimetic return to death look like?

I write a paper about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Bronte’s narrative is a loop: different chronological spaces overlap and encroach on one another. Wuthering Heights, the house, the structure exists as a traumatized body full of ghosts. Everything is a loop: the two Katherines, the two timelines, the ghosts themselves. What is a ghost but a body that cannot help but replay its own suffering? Anne Carson writes “The Glass Essay” in which the narrator-body translates her own trauma through an exegesis of Bronte’s novel. Carson writes, “time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now.” She writes, “I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë, my lonely life around me like a moor.” She writes, “What was this cage, invisible to us, which she felt herself to be confined in?”

I write my thesis about Margery Kempe, another medieval mystic, who refers to herself only as “the creature” and cries uncontrollably in the streets. Her visions of Christ’s suffering consume her body and her mind like a possession. She doesn’t eat, she denies pleasures of the flesh; she has no body or self, there is only “the creature”. She meditates on suffering.

I write about Flannery O’Connor, that modern mystic, whose characters loved God so much they became mutilated, disfigured, and deformed. Flannery O’Connor writes, “in some medieval paintings…the martyr’s limbs are being sawed off and his expression says he is being deprived of nothing essential.” Flannery, who walks around on her farm among the peacocks, metal braces supporting her body, she writes, “I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

What is it like to disregard the body? How do we get around ourselves when we are always in the way? I wonder how badly the serpent wants the loop to end, to consume himself until the flesh is gone. Is that possible? What would that look like, that nothing-space? To complete the autocannibalism of revisiting one’s own trauma, for it to be over?



II.

Where do we find the secondary image of the ouroboros: at its center. Because while the serpent is so busy trying to consume itself, the empty circle it creates is there, containing nothing. The serpent creates a nothing-space and it makes me wonder if his desperate circling is an attempt to reach it. But there is no reaching the nothing-space, because if the serpent reaches it – thus disrupting the circle of its body – then that space is destroyed. It – the serpent – can only ever be nothing-space adjacent: circling, circling, circling. We want the nothing-space so bad, that circle, that hole. What happens there? Nothing! This is the place where the body doesn’t exist. It is so seductive, tantalizing. The eroticism of forgetting.

To the mystics again: In 1310, before being burned at the stake in Paris, Marguerite Porete writes A Mirror of Simple Souls. It signs her death warrant. Porete tells us that we can make ourselves so small that we disappear into the divine; she tells us that there is a union with God that destroys the self. She tells us about nothingness, how to get beyond ourselves. Her book is an instruction manual for getting around ourselves when we are in the way. I think about what is must have been like. Her body must have burned so slowly.

In New York City, Anne Carson teaches Maggie Nelson to leave a space empty so that God can rush in, a hole for the divine. In a different space, she writes about Porete, “He has burned me out of myself / absolutely.” In my room alone, I feel Flannery’s frustration: “Please, help me to push myself aside!”



III.

Six hundred years ago, Christ was a woman.

Julian, she knew this. Christ, who she called, “Our tender mother Jesus”. Julian lived her life sitting frail and cold in a tiny cell; Julian was enclosed. She had a little window, just wide enough to see the altar of the Church, and wide enough to confess. Across from that window was another, even smaller, from which she preached to the townspeople of Norwich. Julian, our mother, Julian who knew the truth.

God the Father, he punishes; Christ the mother nurtures and comforts. “And our savior is our one true mother…by whom we shall always be enclosed.” Julian, what is it like to be enclosed? Did you reach it – that nothing-space? Is it Christ, our tender mother, chasing his own tail, or is that absurd? I wish so badly that it were, but I’m afraid that I find the serpent more comforting – more relatable.

Nevertheless, the shape of the ouroboros is there in Julian, in her Revelations; it persists. Julian, reliving her near-death like her own personal rapture.

That stupid, silly snake circling ‘round and ‘round, so hungry. Why do I love to think about it turning when it sits so still on the page? Why do I write myself in circles? The truth of the matter is that I find comfort in the stories of medieval heretics, those fiery devout women, even though I have never received revelation and cannot feel the flames. Those women whose visions make lesser men flinch. Julian understood better than Caravaggio what it meant for Thomas to press the tip of his finger into Christ’s open seething wound, that warm sensual flesh. “Then…our Lord looked into his side, and gazed, rejoicing: and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s” – that’s Julian, our creature-mother – “understanding through the same wound into his side.” She puts her whole self into his wound! While the rest of us are condemned to simply circle around it!

I keep circling, myself (circling myself). I am so aware of that space I create, that nothingness, that possible solution or relief. The food of my own body is a circle of images and I keep eating and eating. I read Marguerite so that she can teach me to annihilate myself; I ask Julian where the flesh opens; I beg Flannery: “teach me how to push myself aside.” The serpent grins, always biting down.



References:

(In order)

Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God, Anne Carson

The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery Kempe

The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor

A Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor (ed. Sally Fitzgerald)

Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite Porete

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Decreation, Anne Carson

The Incredulity of St. Thomas (painting), Caravaggio
15
3
1
Juice
189 reads
Load 1 Comment
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to DrSemicolon.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Chapter 4 of The Life and Times of Climax Johnson and other Stories
Written by DrSemicolon in portal Simon & Schuster

Diamond Dog

It seemed that dying was not such a dreadful thing anymore, because David Bowie had died. She was not supposed to outlive Bowie. He was too important to her to go first. She claimed she had been to every live performance over five decades. She even claimed she had had sex with him in her groupie days. She had every one of his albums. Actually, she had two copies of each one, one to play, another shrink-wrapped virgin vinyl, unopened, she was keeping to pass on to her children and grandchildren. She didn't have any progeny, however. Being obsessed with Bowie meant that venturing into other social interactions was simply not on her list. She had recorded every TV performance, now collected on a shelf of VHS tapes she could only play on an obsolete machine she finally had found at Good Will.

Anna could see herself going out, fading away, with Bowie. It lent a romantic respite from the toxic melancholy that had tormented her since she had heard her diagnosis. A diagnosis like his. Coincidence? Their connection was strong. Among her phases of denial, anger, pleading, and acceptance, romance sneaked in right at the end, courtesy of her absentee man who had sold the world. Yes, I can go out with my David, she mused. When she ate, drank, slept, and breathed her disease and mortality every waking and sleeping moment since her bad news, it was easy, even comforting to imagine that the disappearance of Bowie had a fateful relationship with her own pending disappearance. Let the world do without the both of us, she thought. A small black Pug jumped onto her lap.

“I won’t leave you, though” she promised the small dog. “No, we’re a package deal, huh?” She continued her conversation with the Pug who barked his responses. “I should have named you Diamond, right, Elvis?” she said to Elvis, what she had really named him. “Or Major Tom, or even…Ziggy! Yes, Ziggy!” Elvis yipped in agreement to the happy chirpy sounds of her voice. “So, what do you think about all these ch-ch-changes to my health?" she asked, and laughed, and Elvis laughed with her. "Did you even know who David Bowie was? I guess not, sweetie.” She made exaggerated smooching noises all around his head as Elvis licked her face.

“I guess I should feel deserted,” she said to him. “My life is leaving me now but my David has left me first. He was unfaithful.” Elvis jammed his snout firmly into her belly and snorted and sniffed rapidly. He could smell her disease, her scary monster. He had smelled it long before any biopsies, scans, or even suspicions had hinted of it. “But you’re not leaving me. Not you. You would never do that, would you?”

She knew that to Elvis, she was his Bowie, his ultimate destination, his million points of light. She was his hopes and dreams, even when his time was to come, his own eternal rest, because dogs were not supposed to outlive their masters. He had never heard Bowie, even as often as it played throughout the house, because he never listened any further than Anna's voice. He had never even seen the stars because he had never looked any higher than her face. Just as Man had reached for the stars, Elvis had reached for her. His small canine brain saw himself as much a part of her as her own arms and legs and tumor. When she suffered, he suffered. When she would grab her lower abdomen and groan in pain, Elvis would slink toward her, his legs all double-jointed and his tail down. It did not matter to Elvis that Bowie was gone; it only mattered to him that Anna was still here. But as small as his mind was, it sensed her coming departure from his world.

She thought of it often, but she never spoke of it with him. She knew some things dogs understand without knowing any words except for treat, vet, bath or his name. Anna was fond of saying that dogs were a gift from God, and truly their dedication—total, loving, even ridiculous—could only have come from God.

She also had a cat that she seldom saw. It was an outside cat, living a cat people life that was interrupted only for a visit to the milk bowl on her step. She knew that the cat knew there were no more Bowie, but that it simply didn’t care. Cats knew almost everything, but cared about almost none of it. They were survivors and would do just fine dealing with the loss of Bowie or anything else. But she also knew a cat would have no clue of the rot inside her that doomed her and threatened the milk supply.

Elvis knew that no dog should outlive his master. It just wasn't allowed. It was just the way it was. A law. His small canine mind couldn’t use a vocabulary to put it into words, but somewhere among his simple synapses he could sense the train wreck coming and that his stars, his ultimate destination, and his million points of light would soon be gone. He knew, then, that he would be gone soon, too, and first, according to the law.

He cried at night, even if Anna didn’t know why. He cried for both of them, even if Anna didn't know how.

She labeled Elvis her comfort dog, insisting he accompany her to the grocery, to the mall, even to her doctor’s office. Old Dr. Burgess saw her in his office when she had kept her follow-up appointment. She sat in a chair and settled in, as he looked with disapproval of the dog on her lap. He raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t even start. He’s my comfort animal.”

“Comfort, hmmm…You shouldn’t have canceled your chemotherapy appointments or refused your radiation if you wanted comfort. In fact, you have refused to discuss further any remedy at all.”

“Remedy? Is that what those things are? They’re remedies? They will fix me?”

“Anna, you know what I mean. I agree that the survival rate—”

“My rate? I’m going to have a rate of survival?” Elvis picked up on the sarcasm and yipped a high-pitched bark that hurt Dr. Burgess’ ears. The doctor flinched.

“Enough to make you deaf!” he complained.

"Deaf-er, you mean."

“No reconsideration, Anna?” She sighed.

“No, not for me.”

“Why do you keep refusing?” he asked.

“Again, you ask me? Again, Dr. B., I ask you back, did you know that Bowie was gone?”

“Oh, that. Yes, I have. And again I ask, how does that figure into a decision to not do what’s best for you?”

“Dr. B., I've had radiation all my life. Cosmic rays, X-rays, gamma rays—all from the stars. And the day Bowie left us is the day you gave me my diagnosis. Advanced this or advanced that.”

“Advanced mixed muellerian carcinosarcoma.”

“If you say so.”

“Well, then,” he said with a mischievous smile, “maybe all that radiation kept your cancer away. More reason to consider it now since you’re on your own.”

“Funny, Doc, real funny,” she said. “A 10% survival rate with your man-made radiation?”

“Yea, I know.” He understood. She knew he understood. “You have to try,” he urged her, having to try.

“No, I really don’t. Look, all I know is that I came from dust and to dust I will return. With or without radiation.”

“You came from the dust of stars,” Dr. Burgess added. "Just like all the radiation you were talking about. And the the iron that sits in your hemoglobin, even though you're anemic; the oxygen you breathe, even though you're short of breath; the stuff that makes your bacteria—both the good and the bad, although in you the bad seem to be overpowering the good. The hydrogen, the nitrogen, the magnesium, the sodium, the potassium—all of these things came from the stars. You came from them."

“I stand corrected,” she said. "Not dust to dust. Stardust to stardust." She laughed to herself, but then suddenly became sad. "My dust—my dust is supposed to go back into the stars, but I guess that's impossible right now because it has to go into the Earth first, and it won't be back into the stars until the Earth falls into the stars. When will that happen, Dr. B.?"

"Not for another five billion years or so."

"Oh, I'll be long gone by then. But I guess I'll finally be home. But for now, my dust will be parked. It will be worthless. It will be wasted.”

"What about David Bowie's dust? Is that wasted?" he asked.

"Oh, Dr. B., that is good dust."

“Well, don’t throw away your dust just yet, Anna. It’s good dust, too.” He paused. "David would have thought so." He paused again. "Ziggy would have thought so."

“Shame,” she said with a sincere smile that in some way expressed some finality. As she began to rise from the chair, Elvis jumped down. She left with Elvis prancing behind her. To a dog, life was good.

There weren't many days left for her--for them--but during the few they shared, Anna and Elvis were happy. Even when Anna was more sarcoma than she was Anna. No dog should outlive his master, Elvis kept gestalting in his limited dog brain way, without words. So when Anna finally left Elvis' world, he felt very un-dogly about himself. She had deserted him. She had been unfaithful to the law. To him. She had Bowied him in infidelity.

It was against the law.

There was a celebration of life at her house the evening of the funeral. Dr. Burgess was there. The pastor who presided over the burial was there, too. It wasn't important to Elvis that there was no one else present, because dogs do not keep score. They only count to two, and now he had an equation with no sum. He left the kitchen through the doggy door and walked into the backyard. The feral cat hissed at him, but he didn't care. He saw her on the fence, and she was stunned that he didn't care. His eyes didn't stop there. He continued to look up, and he reached a point where he could see twinkling, sparkly dots of light strewn across the sky. He listened to the music coming out of the house. It was Bowie. He knew the words by heart.

Oh no love! You're not alone

You're watching yourself but you're too unfair

You got your head all tangled up

But if I could only make you care

Oh no love! You're not alone

7
2
0
Juice
222 reads
Donate coins to DrSemicolon.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Chapter 4 of The Life and Times of Climax Johnson and other Stories
Written by DrSemicolon in portal Simon & Schuster
Diamond Dog
It seemed that dying was not such a dreadful thing anymore, because David Bowie had died. She was not supposed to outlive Bowie. He was too important to her to go first. She claimed she had been to every live performance over five decades. She even claimed she had had sex with him in her groupie days. She had every one of his albums. Actually, she had two copies of each one, one to play, another shrink-wrapped virgin vinyl, unopened, she was keeping to pass on to her children and grandchildren. She didn't have any progeny, however. Being obsessed with Bowie meant that venturing into other social interactions was simply not on her list. She had recorded every TV performance, now collected on a shelf of VHS tapes she could only play on an obsolete machine she finally had found at Good Will.

Anna could see herself going out, fading away, with Bowie. It lent a romantic respite from the toxic melancholy that had tormented her since she had heard her diagnosis. A diagnosis like his. Coincidence? Their connection was strong. Among her phases of denial, anger, pleading, and acceptance, romance sneaked in right at the end, courtesy of her absentee man who had sold the world. Yes, I can go out with my David, she mused. When she ate, drank, slept, and breathed her disease and mortality every waking and sleeping moment since her bad news, it was easy, even comforting to imagine that the disappearance of Bowie had a fateful relationship with her own pending disappearance. Let the world do without the both of us, she thought. A small black Pug jumped onto her lap.

“I won’t leave you, though” she promised the small dog. “No, we’re a package deal, huh?” She continued her conversation with the Pug who barked his responses. “I should have named you Diamond, right, Elvis?” she said to Elvis, what she had really named him. “Or Major Tom, or even…Ziggy! Yes, Ziggy!” Elvis yipped in agreement to the happy chirpy sounds of her voice. “So, what do you think about all these ch-ch-changes to my health?" she asked, and laughed, and Elvis laughed with her. "Did you even know who David Bowie was? I guess not, sweetie.” She made exaggerated smooching noises all around his head as Elvis licked her face.

“I guess I should feel deserted,” she said to him. “My life is leaving me now but my David has left me first. He was unfaithful.” Elvis jammed his snout firmly into her belly and snorted and sniffed rapidly. He could smell her disease, her scary monster. He had smelled it long before any biopsies, scans, or even suspicions had hinted of it. “But you’re not leaving me. Not you. You would never do that, would you?”

She knew that to Elvis, she was his Bowie, his ultimate destination, his million points of light. She was his hopes and dreams, even when his time was to come, his own eternal rest, because dogs were not supposed to outlive their masters. He had never heard Bowie, even as often as it played throughout the house, because he never listened any further than Anna's voice. He had never even seen the stars because he had never looked any higher than her face. Just as Man had reached for the stars, Elvis had reached for her. His small canine brain saw himself as much a part of her as her own arms and legs and tumor. When she suffered, he suffered. When she would grab her lower abdomen and groan in pain, Elvis would slink toward her, his legs all double-jointed and his tail down. It did not matter to Elvis that Bowie was gone; it only mattered to him that Anna was still here. But as small as his mind was, it sensed her coming departure from his world.

She thought of it often, but she never spoke of it with him. She knew some things dogs understand without knowing any words except for treat, vet, bath or his name. Anna was fond of saying that dogs were a gift from God, and truly their dedication—total, loving, even ridiculous—could only have come from God.

She also had a cat that she seldom saw. It was an outside cat, living a cat people life that was interrupted only for a visit to the milk bowl on her step. She knew that the cat knew there were no more Bowie, but that it simply didn’t care. Cats knew almost everything, but cared about almost none of it. They were survivors and would do just fine dealing with the loss of Bowie or anything else. But she also knew a cat would have no clue of the rot inside her that doomed her and threatened the milk supply.

Elvis knew that no dog should outlive his master. It just wasn't allowed. It was just the way it was. A law. His small canine mind couldn’t use a vocabulary to put it into words, but somewhere among his simple synapses he could sense the train wreck coming and that his stars, his ultimate destination, and his million points of light would soon be gone. He knew, then, that he would be gone soon, too, and first, according to the law.

He cried at night, even if Anna didn’t know why. He cried for both of them, even if Anna didn't know how.

She labeled Elvis her comfort dog, insisting he accompany her to the grocery, to the mall, even to her doctor’s office. Old Dr. Burgess saw her in his office when she had kept her follow-up appointment. She sat in a chair and settled in, as he looked with disapproval of the dog on her lap. He raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t even start. He’s my comfort animal.”

“Comfort, hmmm…You shouldn’t have canceled your chemotherapy appointments or refused your radiation if you wanted comfort. In fact, you have refused to discuss further any remedy at all.”

“Remedy? Is that what those things are? They’re remedies? They will fix me?”

“Anna, you know what I mean. I agree that the survival rate—”

“My rate? I’m going to have a rate of survival?” Elvis picked up on the sarcasm and yipped a high-pitched bark that hurt Dr. Burgess’ ears. The doctor flinched.

“Enough to make you deaf!” he complained.

"Deaf-er, you mean."

“No reconsideration, Anna?” She sighed.

“No, not for me.”

“Why do you keep refusing?” he asked.

“Again, you ask me? Again, Dr. B., I ask you back, did you know that Bowie was gone?”

“Oh, that. Yes, I have. And again I ask, how does that figure into a decision to not do what’s best for you?”

“Dr. B., I've had radiation all my life. Cosmic rays, X-rays, gamma rays—all from the stars. And the day Bowie left us is the day you gave me my diagnosis. Advanced this or advanced that.”

“Advanced mixed muellerian carcinosarcoma.”

“If you say so.”

“Well, then,” he said with a mischievous smile, “maybe all that radiation kept your cancer away. More reason to consider it now since you’re on your own.”

“Funny, Doc, real funny,” she said. “A 10% survival rate with your man-made radiation?”

“Yea, I know.” He understood. She knew he understood. “You have to try,” he urged her, having to try.

“No, I really don’t. Look, all I know is that I came from dust and to dust I will return. With or without radiation.”

“You came from the dust of stars,” Dr. Burgess added. "Just like all the radiation you were talking about. And the the iron that sits in your hemoglobin, even though you're anemic; the oxygen you breathe, even though you're short of breath; the stuff that makes your bacteria—both the good and the bad, although in you the bad seem to be overpowering the good. The hydrogen, the nitrogen, the magnesium, the sodium, the potassium—all of these things came from the stars. You came from them."

“I stand corrected,” she said. "Not dust to dust. Stardust to stardust." She laughed to herself, but then suddenly became sad. "My dust—my dust is supposed to go back into the stars, but I guess that's impossible right now because it has to go into the Earth first, and it won't be back into the stars until the Earth falls into the stars. When will that happen, Dr. B.?"

"Not for another five billion years or so."

"Oh, I'll be long gone by then. But I guess I'll finally be home. But for now, my dust will be parked. It will be worthless. It will be wasted.”

"What about David Bowie's dust? Is that wasted?" he asked.

"Oh, Dr. B., that is good dust."

“Well, don’t throw away your dust just yet, Anna. It’s good dust, too.” He paused. "David would have thought so." He paused again. "Ziggy would have thought so."

“Shame,” she said with a sincere smile that in some way expressed some finality. As she began to rise from the chair, Elvis jumped down. She left with Elvis prancing behind her. To a dog, life was good.

There weren't many days left for her--for them--but during the few they shared, Anna and Elvis were happy. Even when Anna was more sarcoma than she was Anna. No dog should outlive his master, Elvis kept gestalting in his limited dog brain way, without words. So when Anna finally left Elvis' world, he felt very un-dogly about himself. She had deserted him. She had been unfaithful to the law. To him. She had Bowied him in infidelity.

It was against the law.

There was a celebration of life at her house the evening of the funeral. Dr. Burgess was there. The pastor who presided over the burial was there, too. It wasn't important to Elvis that there was no one else present, because dogs do not keep score. They only count to two, and now he had an equation with no sum. He left the kitchen through the doggy door and walked into the backyard. The feral cat hissed at him, but he didn't care. He saw her on the fence, and she was stunned that he didn't care. His eyes didn't stop there. He continued to look up, and he reached a point where he could see twinkling, sparkly dots of light strewn across the sky. He listened to the music coming out of the house. It was Bowie. He knew the words by heart.

Oh no love! You're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up
But if I could only make you care
Oh no love! You're not alone
7
2
0
Juice
222 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to pyrrhic.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by pyrrhic in portal Simon & Schuster

Breathe.

    Breathe. Stretch. Begin. Roll the head. A single hand reaches. It doesn’t grasp anything. The head tilts. Blinks. Two arms pushing upward. Chest forward, legs buckling to catch the body. Up, up, til the legs can support the rest without the arms. Look forward, blankly. Nothing there. Shake the head irritably, dislodge those pesky thoughts. Like gnats, buzzing in the brain.

    Push outward. Hit something. Bars. This is a cage. The only out is in front. Walk toward it. A white light, white noise, fills the area. Can’t think, only breathe. Silence everywhere. There is an ocean, waves crashing noisily. Don’t hear anything. Feet push forward, relentlessly.

    Water lapping hungrily at toes, pulling inward. Powerless to escape, cages surround. Pursuing freedom. Reach forward, nothing there. Crash to knees, bow the head. Arms pull together, clutching at air. A single tear rolls down, tracing an invisible path.

    The tide get higher, waves crashing against bloody knees, stinging when the salt seeps in. Pounding on bruises yellowed with time, a stomach too hollow to do anything but ache dully. It would be easy, so easy to just end it now. Nothing and no one left to say goodbye to.

    One last desperate gesture, stand up. Futile, meaningless. Stare out with defiance against the ocean. Don’t keep going forward. Pound on the bars of the cage, look for an escape. There is none to be found. Keep trying. Useless.

    Who locked this cage? Who created it? Does it matter? Not anymore.

    The tide continues to roll in, almost at chest level. Old scars itch when they get wet. Give up, give in. No point in fighting what can not be controlled. Might as well embrace it. Take one step forward, two. Don’t fall down, just keep walking. The water reaches the chin, the tightly shut mouth. A scream is building up, tugging on the last few wisps of air stuck in tired lungs. But when the mouth opens, only water flows in. The scream dies a silent death, broken by the sea.

    Without air, without hope, the body starts to crumple. Fists clutch at the sandy floor, hoping that by holding on to something they might... survive? The surface is only a few feet away, but each foot is a mile down here. Brain starts to become fuzzy, desperate for something it can’t have. Lungs are crying out for relief, feet are pounding, the whole body seems to be fighting with a terrible defiance.

    Except for the heart. The lonely heart, content, calm to pursue this path to its inevitable closure. Peaceful, perhaps overly so. The heart has never fit in, never got along with anyone or anything. Always searching for... something. Never finding it.

    It has finally been found.

    The ocean crashes again. Somehow, the fists are dislodged, the body sent surging upward toward the surface by pure chance. Air seeps into the nose, and the lungs are almost confused as to what to do with this new life. A gasp, a scream, a shout into the abyss. The heart is the only thing that does not rejoice at this sudden second chance.

Arms thrash instinctively, pulling toward the now distant shore. The ocean is both a help and a hinderance, pushing the body forward, and then pulling back again. Mocking. Almost there, almost to land, and then back into the sea again.

    At last! Feet touch down, finally on the ground again. Almost there, almost free. The cage is still there, still surrounding. But it is no longer locked, sealed shut.

Push against the cage. It swings open on an invisible hinge, crumbling into nothing but dust and broken dreams. Take the first step outward, into that terrible unknown which all secretly fear. A second step, and then a third. Completely free of the cage.

    This is a strange freedom, turned sour with fear and bitter with longing. Break into a run, flee the cage, howl in anger at the unjustness of it all. There is nowhere to run to.

Alone, alone on this beach, alone in this world. Where is everyone else? Is there anyone else anymore? Such a lonely, lonely place to be.

    Turn back. Stand still. The sun is setting, bleeding red into the sea. Pinks and oranges shimmer in the sky, but the eyes are only willing to see the red, bloody and hateful. The heart beats angrily, to the tune of the setting sun.

    Come back, come back. Embrace this end, accept it. Already did, once before. Surely the second time around it will actually end.

    Snarl, break the bonds. Face away from the ocean, toward the emptiness, toward the loneliness, toward life and all of its horrifying failures. Hands clenched into furious fists, toes curling with hatred. This world is undeserving, unwelcoming, unloving. Why stay?

    There is a freedom offered, by both paths. One is calling sweetly, promises of eternal peace dripping with honied words. The other is a snarling beast, honest in its chaos, unapologetic in its fury. All too often, the most beautiful beginnings end in misery. At least the miserable beginnings are honest.

    A smile twitches, pulling up the corners of chapped lips. Choose, one way or the other. Follow it. To its end, bitter and sweet, terrifying and beautiful, hot with fury and cold with longing. Escape the cage, find the freedom that never was and never will be.

    Breathe.

8
1
0
Juice
156 reads
Donate coins to pyrrhic.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by pyrrhic in portal Simon & Schuster
Breathe.
    Breathe. Stretch. Begin. Roll the head. A single hand reaches. It doesn’t grasp anything. The head tilts. Blinks. Two arms pushing upward. Chest forward, legs buckling to catch the body. Up, up, til the legs can support the rest without the arms. Look forward, blankly. Nothing there. Shake the head irritably, dislodge those pesky thoughts. Like gnats, buzzing in the brain.
    Push outward. Hit something. Bars. This is a cage. The only out is in front. Walk toward it. A white light, white noise, fills the area. Can’t think, only breathe. Silence everywhere. There is an ocean, waves crashing noisily. Don’t hear anything. Feet push forward, relentlessly.
    Water lapping hungrily at toes, pulling inward. Powerless to escape, cages surround. Pursuing freedom. Reach forward, nothing there. Crash to knees, bow the head. Arms pull together, clutching at air. A single tear rolls down, tracing an invisible path.
    The tide get higher, waves crashing against bloody knees, stinging when the salt seeps in. Pounding on bruises yellowed with time, a stomach too hollow to do anything but ache dully. It would be easy, so easy to just end it now. Nothing and no one left to say goodbye to.
    One last desperate gesture, stand up. Futile, meaningless. Stare out with defiance against the ocean. Don’t keep going forward. Pound on the bars of the cage, look for an escape. There is none to be found. Keep trying. Useless.
    Who locked this cage? Who created it? Does it matter? Not anymore.
    The tide continues to roll in, almost at chest level. Old scars itch when they get wet. Give up, give in. No point in fighting what can not be controlled. Might as well embrace it. Take one step forward, two. Don’t fall down, just keep walking. The water reaches the chin, the tightly shut mouth. A scream is building up, tugging on the last few wisps of air stuck in tired lungs. But when the mouth opens, only water flows in. The scream dies a silent death, broken by the sea.
    Without air, without hope, the body starts to crumple. Fists clutch at the sandy floor, hoping that by holding on to something they might... survive? The surface is only a few feet away, but each foot is a mile down here. Brain starts to become fuzzy, desperate for something it can’t have. Lungs are crying out for relief, feet are pounding, the whole body seems to be fighting with a terrible defiance.
    Except for the heart. The lonely heart, content, calm to pursue this path to its inevitable closure. Peaceful, perhaps overly so. The heart has never fit in, never got along with anyone or anything. Always searching for... something. Never finding it.
    It has finally been found.
    The ocean crashes again. Somehow, the fists are dislodged, the body sent surging upward toward the surface by pure chance. Air seeps into the nose, and the lungs are almost confused as to what to do with this new life. A gasp, a scream, a shout into the abyss. The heart is the only thing that does not rejoice at this sudden second chance.
Arms thrash instinctively, pulling toward the now distant shore. The ocean is both a help and a hinderance, pushing the body forward, and then pulling back again. Mocking. Almost there, almost to land, and then back into the sea again.
    At last! Feet touch down, finally on the ground again. Almost there, almost free. The cage is still there, still surrounding. But it is no longer locked, sealed shut.
Push against the cage. It swings open on an invisible hinge, crumbling into nothing but dust and broken dreams. Take the first step outward, into that terrible unknown which all secretly fear. A second step, and then a third. Completely free of the cage.
    This is a strange freedom, turned sour with fear and bitter with longing. Break into a run, flee the cage, howl in anger at the unjustness of it all. There is nowhere to run to.
Alone, alone on this beach, alone in this world. Where is everyone else? Is there anyone else anymore? Such a lonely, lonely place to be.
    Turn back. Stand still. The sun is setting, bleeding red into the sea. Pinks and oranges shimmer in the sky, but the eyes are only willing to see the red, bloody and hateful. The heart beats angrily, to the tune of the setting sun.
    Come back, come back. Embrace this end, accept it. Already did, once before. Surely the second time around it will actually end.
    Snarl, break the bonds. Face away from the ocean, toward the emptiness, toward the loneliness, toward life and all of its horrifying failures. Hands clenched into furious fists, toes curling with hatred. This world is undeserving, unwelcoming, unloving. Why stay?
    There is a freedom offered, by both paths. One is calling sweetly, promises of eternal peace dripping with honied words. The other is a snarling beast, honest in its chaos, unapologetic in its fury. All too often, the most beautiful beginnings end in misery. At least the miserable beginnings are honest.
    A smile twitches, pulling up the corners of chapped lips. Choose, one way or the other. Follow it. To its end, bitter and sweet, terrifying and beautiful, hot with fury and cold with longing. Escape the cage, find the freedom that never was and never will be.
    Breathe.


8
1
0
Juice
156 reads
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to GCannes.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by GCannes in portal Simon & Schuster

When Death Writes a Sonnet

Chapter 1: The Heir

Death is the color of sunlight at high noon. Even as nonsensical memories cartwheel about my mind and then are whisked away to some far and mysterious unknown, that color—that thought—keeps coming back as persistently as tides searching for shore. I lay there in a pool of stale blood, incapable of nothing but staring at the ceiling with its old flakes of drywall somehow defying gravity.

The scent of lavender and aged paper wafts by like a derailed train streaking through a thirsting desert and placates me in ways I cannot understand. I wrestle blindly with an invisible force to keep it, but the scent evaporates as if it was but a raindrop on the smoldering summer ground.

A second later and I can't even remember what it was about.

A little girl appears and disappears before I can discern the color of her eyes or the texture of her hair. Others, too, come and go, taking whatever connections I have with them into oblivion. As my thoughts continue to fade faster, I'm forced to mourn memories I don't remember making—smiles I can't place onto a face, laughter that has lost its reason, bruises and scars without stories, rage I can't understand, books and purple flowers without names.

It’s almost as if the world has forsaken me. Or perhaps, it was I—whoever I am—who has forsaken the world. And this is my punishment—to be trapped in a place where everything collides and nothingness begins—a place where reason fails to understand.

Half of me wants to escape and be relieved from the suffocating emptiness rushing faster from all sides. The other half has surrendered and waits paralyzed, as if to say, “You deserve this.”

Just as I'm about to step over the ledge of that dangerous precipice into insanity, I notice a painting on the nearest wall. It was of daffodils with bright petals composed of delicate strokes not only of yellows but also browns and purples and reds and oranges. As absurd as it sounds, I'm envious of that painting, of its colors that will remain even as I fade into an empty canvas.

Then, that envy, too, is gone. My churning thoughts still like an ocean after a hurricane. Waves stop forming. I try to protect that sunlight color, tucking it against a safe corner in my head, but it too disappears, never to return again.

I feel as frail and hollow as bubble ready to burst. The ceiling blurs in and out of focus for a few minutes before returning in absolute clarity. I blink once—twice, trice.

"Well that was dramatic."

The man's voice is deep enough to fill the confines of the room. My body, too, drowns in it. My eyes crawl to the side in search of him only to discover that I'm in a kitchen, one on the verge of collapse if not for sheer effort put into cleaning it. From the sink shining as brightly as its rusted surface would allow to the mismatched set of china arranged on lopsided cabinets, everything but me had its place.

Then, in the farthest corner, I spot it—a winking shine catching pieces of moonlight. For once, a semblance of feeling—of control—surges outward. I begin to name my hands and feet. My boundaries that had been undefinable not long ago are suddenly as fine as the edges of a line.

A figure steps forward wearing a face of death that forces me lucid. His skeletal mask has high cheekbones, which would look beautiful had flesh filled it out. A hooded cloak of inky and webby gossamer cascades around his entire body in waves, and on his back is a polished scythe as white as alabaster. The muscles at the back of my throat contract and tighten like the taut string of a bow ready to fire.

There are no footsteps, just the hushed rustling of cloth. It's the sound of death approaching steadily, surely, inevitably, and almost undetectably.

I should have felt terror, and I do but only for mere moments. Inexplicably, my mind sorts through every flutter of movement and every word Death has just spoken and leaves only one thing: instinct. Lackluster embers rush to life all along my arms and legs, and my confusion recedes in an orderly fashion I would have found bizarre had I a chance to contemplate it.

I wait until I spy the edges of his robes a few feet away before surging my legs upwards to strike him in the torso. Death steps back in time, jumps over my leg sweep, and lands with all the grace of a trained predator.

“That’s not very nice,” he says, tilting his head. “We had an agreement.”

"I've never met you," I say, and from the soft pitch of my voice, I realize I'm female. "Stay the hell away from me."

The curtains billow, slamming against the cracked windows, but the breeze against my skin is light, delicate, and almost nonexistent. I wasn't cold or hot. I wasn't anything, my body numb from all sensation. I glimpse by hand and notice something different, something that has to be abnormal. Like a fool, I shift my attention away from Death.

There is a sharp, shaking shriek I soon realize is me. I lift a hand I scarcely believe to be mine, scrutinizing every bizarre detail. The edge between darkness and the stream of moonlight from the window is visible behind it. "Why am I transparent? What did you do to me?" The accusation is there, turning my questions sour.

A pregnant silence follows, and it's frightening how much it has in common with my own mind. I can't find anything—not my name, my childhood, my family, or the events that led up to this. My head is only for show.

"You really don't remember?" he finally asks.

"Cut the cryptic bull. What don't I remember?"

"Everything."

"What did you do to me?" I ask the question again, louder than I prefer to be.

"Wasn't me," he answers. His mask, cloak, and scythe begin to shimmer black before disintegrating into shreds of black ash. Each one spirals around him before finally settling around his right bicep, creating a thin tattoo comprised of swirling characters I can't read. And now, standing before me is Death unmasked and appearing mundanely and solidly human with hair dusted in light and eyes flecked with greens and browns. "It was you."

“So—” I swallow the oversized lump of disbelief stuck halfway down my throat. I stagger back, unbalanced, but my hand goes through the subway tiles of the counter when I attempt to steady myself. There is a chalk outline of a body around the bloody pool, which is now brown and crusty save for its center that refuses to ripple no matter how much wind blows its way. “—I’m dead.”

“You’re almost correct. See, you’re not just dead—”

“I’m not?”

"Nope. Since you signed the contract, you're a special kind of dead. You're deader than dead. Congratulations, little lady, You are now first in line to be grim reaper of the United States—my heir so to speak. Your prize is an eternity of servitude." There are no flaws to his speech despite the speed of his delivery, and his expression maintains a charismatic levity I find unnerving.

As I rush to process the information, he snaps his finger. There is a cooling sensation coming from my left bicep where a tattoo identical to his glows black.

"Wha-What is this? What are you doing?" Then, the markings peels off into tiny flakes that spin like a tornado with me at its eye. It spirals faster and faster, my white dress whipping to and fro and my hair fanning out above my head. "Stop," I scream.

As if heeding my words, the specks stop, stilling midair. They linger around like fine dust refusing to settle before coalescing into a new shape. A parchment more ghostly than real presents itself to me, written in letters similar to that of the tattoo.

"You signed this. Just fifteen minutes ago," Death says, pointing to the bottom where a blurred signature lies. I rub my eyes, wondering if my vision has gone bad. "You're not allowed to view your name," he says as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.

"That’s rather convenient for you," I say. "It's my name. I have a right to know it."

"No, you don't. You used it as payment."

"Payment?" I ask, backtracking as far as I’m able to, but my earliest memory is his voice speaking to me minutes earlier.

He smirks, the kind that's uneven and imperfect and yet somehow still beautiful. My patience snaps in two, and I grab Death by the collar and shove him against the wall, my elbow to his throat.

"Stop waffling. You better start making sense soon or—"

He meets my heated gaze with his muted one "Or what? You'll kill a grim reaper? That's hilarious but original. I like it."

"Just start talking," I say, pressing deeper into his throat.

He doesn't blink. "You know, this is no way to treat your lord."

"You are not my anything."

"Contract says otherwise, sweetheart," he says, "You were chosen just like me. You paid the price with your name and memories. The moment you signed the contract, you sold your soul. You will never reincarnate and be human ever again."

"That sounds like a stupid contract to sign," I say.

"Yes," he says, "and like me, you we're stupid enough to sign it."

"What sort of nonsense is this?" I say, "Am I supposed to believe you without any proof? That I would voluntarily enter such a reckless contract?"

He snaps his finger again, and the parchment scatters. Its pieces take aim and land on my bicep with accuracy, and I resist the urge to scrub my arm clean knowing that it will only leave it chafed and scarred, if that's even possible for spirits.

Which I apparently am.

Somehow.

"No one can force you to sign the contract. You did so of your own volition despite knowing all the consequences. The proof is that tattoo on your arm. The proof is the irrefutable truth that you can't remember a thing about your life," he answers. "You know I'm not lying. You are my heir."

Grinding my teeth, I release my hold on him. The ground is stained by two more pools of blood, each with their own chalk bodies. My attention lingers on the drawn hand that appears to stretch for my own outline, and I'm left wondering what I would be feeling had I not forfeited my memories. I must have had a good reason to, right?

"And the other two? What became of them?"

Death shakes his head just once, a finality to it that has my insides burning, if I have any insides. "Anything from your former life is forbidden knowledge."

"So I'm just supposed to give it up?" I say.

"Yes," he says, "The contract is irreversible. From today onwards, you are forevermore heir Nightingale of the United States. Nothing more. Nothing less. Get used to it, and if not, you have an eternity to adjust." He holds out his hand. "I'm River, by the way. Lord River," he corrects himself. "Current grim reaper of the United States."

I drop my gaze but make no move to shake his hand.

"Oh, come on. You've already made the worst deal you could ever make. Shaking my hand can't be any worse."

"And if it is?"

As an answer, he just takes my hand in his and grasps it firmly. "Pleased to meet you, Nightingale. I hope you like that name. I thought it was pretty."

"You gave it to me?"

"Of course. Who else would name you?" River asks.

"My parents."

"Touché."

Just like that, I become a servant of Death for a reason kept hidden, secure, and always out of reach.

6
1
0
Juice
68 reads
Donate coins to GCannes.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by GCannes in portal Simon & Schuster
When Death Writes a Sonnet
Chapter 1: The Heir

Death is the color of sunlight at high noon. Even as nonsensical memories cartwheel about my mind and then are whisked away to some far and mysterious unknown, that color—that thought—keeps coming back as persistently as tides searching for shore. I lay there in a pool of stale blood, incapable of nothing but staring at the ceiling with its old flakes of drywall somehow defying gravity.

The scent of lavender and aged paper wafts by like a derailed train streaking through a thirsting desert and placates me in ways I cannot understand. I wrestle blindly with an invisible force to keep it, but the scent evaporates as if it was but a raindrop on the smoldering summer ground.

A second later and I can't even remember what it was about.

A little girl appears and disappears before I can discern the color of her eyes or the texture of her hair. Others, too, come and go, taking whatever connections I have with them into oblivion. As my thoughts continue to fade faster, I'm forced to mourn memories I don't remember making—smiles I can't place onto a face, laughter that has lost its reason, bruises and scars without stories, rage I can't understand, books and purple flowers without names.

It’s almost as if the world has forsaken me. Or perhaps, it was I—whoever I am—who has forsaken the world. And this is my punishment—to be trapped in a place where everything collides and nothingness begins—a place where reason fails to understand.

Half of me wants to escape and be relieved from the suffocating emptiness rushing faster from all sides. The other half has surrendered and waits paralyzed, as if to say, “You deserve this.”

Just as I'm about to step over the ledge of that dangerous precipice into insanity, I notice a painting on the nearest wall. It was of daffodils with bright petals composed of delicate strokes not only of yellows but also browns and purples and reds and oranges. As absurd as it sounds, I'm envious of that painting, of its colors that will remain even as I fade into an empty canvas.

Then, that envy, too, is gone. My churning thoughts still like an ocean after a hurricane. Waves stop forming. I try to protect that sunlight color, tucking it against a safe corner in my head, but it too disappears, never to return again.

I feel as frail and hollow as bubble ready to burst. The ceiling blurs in and out of focus for a few minutes before returning in absolute clarity. I blink once—twice, trice.

"Well that was dramatic."

The man's voice is deep enough to fill the confines of the room. My body, too, drowns in it. My eyes crawl to the side in search of him only to discover that I'm in a kitchen, one on the verge of collapse if not for sheer effort put into cleaning it. From the sink shining as brightly as its rusted surface would allow to the mismatched set of china arranged on lopsided cabinets, everything but me had its place.

Then, in the farthest corner, I spot it—a winking shine catching pieces of moonlight. For once, a semblance of feeling—of control—surges outward. I begin to name my hands and feet. My boundaries that had been undefinable not long ago are suddenly as fine as the edges of a line.

A figure steps forward wearing a face of death that forces me lucid. His skeletal mask has high cheekbones, which would look beautiful had flesh filled it out. A hooded cloak of inky and webby gossamer cascades around his entire body in waves, and on his back is a polished scythe as white as alabaster. The muscles at the back of my throat contract and tighten like the taut string of a bow ready to fire.

There are no footsteps, just the hushed rustling of cloth. It's the sound of death approaching steadily, surely, inevitably, and almost undetectably.

I should have felt terror, and I do but only for mere moments. Inexplicably, my mind sorts through every flutter of movement and every word Death has just spoken and leaves only one thing: instinct. Lackluster embers rush to life all along my arms and legs, and my confusion recedes in an orderly fashion I would have found bizarre had I a chance to contemplate it.

I wait until I spy the edges of his robes a few feet away before surging my legs upwards to strike him in the torso. Death steps back in time, jumps over my leg sweep, and lands with all the grace of a trained predator.

“That’s not very nice,” he says, tilting his head. “We had an agreement.”

"I've never met you," I say, and from the soft pitch of my voice, I realize I'm female. "Stay the hell away from me."

The curtains billow, slamming against the cracked windows, but the breeze against my skin is light, delicate, and almost nonexistent. I wasn't cold or hot. I wasn't anything, my body numb from all sensation. I glimpse by hand and notice something different, something that has to be abnormal. Like a fool, I shift my attention away from Death.

There is a sharp, shaking shriek I soon realize is me. I lift a hand I scarcely believe to be mine, scrutinizing every bizarre detail. The edge between darkness and the stream of moonlight from the window is visible behind it. "Why am I transparent? What did you do to me?" The accusation is there, turning my questions sour.

A pregnant silence follows, and it's frightening how much it has in common with my own mind. I can't find anything—not my name, my childhood, my family, or the events that led up to this. My head is only for show.

"You really don't remember?" he finally asks.

"Cut the cryptic bull. What don't I remember?"

"Everything."

"What did you do to me?" I ask the question again, louder than I prefer to be.

"Wasn't me," he answers. His mask, cloak, and scythe begin to shimmer black before disintegrating into shreds of black ash. Each one spirals around him before finally settling around his right bicep, creating a thin tattoo comprised of swirling characters I can't read. And now, standing before me is Death unmasked and appearing mundanely and solidly human with hair dusted in light and eyes flecked with greens and browns. "It was you."

“So—” I swallow the oversized lump of disbelief stuck halfway down my throat. I stagger back, unbalanced, but my hand goes through the subway tiles of the counter when I attempt to steady myself. There is a chalk outline of a body around the bloody pool, which is now brown and crusty save for its center that refuses to ripple no matter how much wind blows its way. “—I’m dead.”

“You’re almost correct. See, you’re not just dead—”

“I’m not?”

"Nope. Since you signed the contract, you're a special kind of dead. You're deader than dead. Congratulations, little lady, You are now first in line to be grim reaper of the United States—my heir so to speak. Your prize is an eternity of servitude." There are no flaws to his speech despite the speed of his delivery, and his expression maintains a charismatic levity I find unnerving.

As I rush to process the information, he snaps his finger. There is a cooling sensation coming from my left bicep where a tattoo identical to his glows black.

"Wha-What is this? What are you doing?" Then, the markings peels off into tiny flakes that spin like a tornado with me at its eye. It spirals faster and faster, my white dress whipping to and fro and my hair fanning out above my head. "Stop," I scream.

As if heeding my words, the specks stop, stilling midair. They linger around like fine dust refusing to settle before coalescing into a new shape. A parchment more ghostly than real presents itself to me, written in letters similar to that of the tattoo.

"You signed this. Just fifteen minutes ago," Death says, pointing to the bottom where a blurred signature lies. I rub my eyes, wondering if my vision has gone bad. "You're not allowed to view your name," he says as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.

"That’s rather convenient for you," I say. "It's my name. I have a right to know it."

"No, you don't. You used it as payment."

"Payment?" I ask, backtracking as far as I’m able to, but my earliest memory is his voice speaking to me minutes earlier.

He smirks, the kind that's uneven and imperfect and yet somehow still beautiful. My patience snaps in two, and I grab Death by the collar and shove him against the wall, my elbow to his throat.

"Stop waffling. You better start making sense soon or—"

He meets my heated gaze with his muted one "Or what? You'll kill a grim reaper? That's hilarious but original. I like it."

"Just start talking," I say, pressing deeper into his throat.

He doesn't blink. "You know, this is no way to treat your lord."

"You are not my anything."

"Contract says otherwise, sweetheart," he says, "You were chosen just like me. You paid the price with your name and memories. The moment you signed the contract, you sold your soul. You will never reincarnate and be human ever again."

"That sounds like a stupid contract to sign," I say.

"Yes," he says, "and like me, you we're stupid enough to sign it."

"What sort of nonsense is this?" I say, "Am I supposed to believe you without any proof? That I would voluntarily enter such a reckless contract?"

He snaps his finger again, and the parchment scatters. Its pieces take aim and land on my bicep with accuracy, and I resist the urge to scrub my arm clean knowing that it will only leave it chafed and scarred, if that's even possible for spirits.

Which I apparently am.

Somehow.

"No one can force you to sign the contract. You did so of your own volition despite knowing all the consequences. The proof is that tattoo on your arm. The proof is the irrefutable truth that you can't remember a thing about your life," he answers. "You know I'm not lying. You are my heir."

Grinding my teeth, I release my hold on him. The ground is stained by two more pools of blood, each with their own chalk bodies. My attention lingers on the drawn hand that appears to stretch for my own outline, and I'm left wondering what I would be feeling had I not forfeited my memories. I must have had a good reason to, right?

"And the other two? What became of them?"

Death shakes his head just once, a finality to it that has my insides burning, if I have any insides. "Anything from your former life is forbidden knowledge."

"So I'm just supposed to give it up?" I say.

"Yes," he says, "The contract is irreversible. From today onwards, you are forevermore heir Nightingale of the United States. Nothing more. Nothing less. Get used to it, and if not, you have an eternity to adjust." He holds out his hand. "I'm River, by the way. Lord River," he corrects himself. "Current grim reaper of the United States."

I drop my gaze but make no move to shake his hand.

"Oh, come on. You've already made the worst deal you could ever make. Shaking my hand can't be any worse."

"And if it is?"

As an answer, he just takes my hand in his and grasps it firmly. "Pleased to meet you, Nightingale. I hope you like that name. I thought it was pretty."

"You gave it to me?"

"Of course. Who else would name you?" River asks.

"My parents."

"Touché."

Just like that, I become a servant of Death for a reason kept hidden, secure, and always out of reach.

6
1
0
Juice
68 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to JeffTurner.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by JeffTurner in portal Simon & Schuster

Mary 13

Chapter 1

It was a rare day of activity for Medical Room 19, a stark bright room on the 25th Level of Tower 1. Its encompassing light had no single perceptible source, but came from everywhere at once: walls, floor, and ceiling. There were no shadows. The room produced no sound, no smell, no air movement, and its temperature was a breathtaking 50 degrees. A nearly invisible medical air table seemed to hover in the center of the room; a smaller tray table of the same material hovered next to it. A young woman, healthy and fair, lay naked on the table covered to the neck by a thin white sheet. Her striking blue eyes, soft pink lips and golden hair interrupted the solid white of the room. Against her ivory skin, and inside the colorless room, those eyes jumped out like two patches of summer sky between the clouds. A sky she had only ever seen through her window. Her one window.

Mary 13 used her favorite concentration technique from the meditation programs to try and stay calm in these new elements. She deduced the feeling she was experiencing was cold. Having never actually felt it before, she remembered a program she helped code that dealt with the conditioning of body and mind against possible elemental changes should the towers ever experience power shortages, which they never had. Her steady breathing provided the only air movement and sound. Her silken skin had developed strange little bumps from her toes to her scalp and the smallest hairs on her arms and neck stood up and quivered. At first, she assumed this was a reaction to the cold. But it wasn’t from the cold. She was quivering in anticipation. She was truly excited for the operation, and for what lay beyond this new room.

Mary 13 was not thinking about what she would be leaving behind. Habitation Room 198, Level 54, Tower 2. The room that had raised her, taught her, and held her for an entire life. The room that reacted to her every thought, mood, sensation, and command. They had built a life together, this room and her, one of comfort and collaboration. It had consoled her during the bad times, and nursed her during the sick times. Her every experience had happened in her room, including her birth. A sensor screen, skin and hair rejuvenators, and life extending pills were made available to all tower habitants. She had put in many years of work for the tower to earn the life chair and cloud bed, both specifically engineered just for her. Next had come thought-controlled accommodators, an auto nurse and dentist, energy healers, muscle pulsers, various learning programs and, of course, the pleasure devices. The pleasure devices she had only recently acquired, and they had opened up a whole new world of stimulation and joy for her. And now she was leaving it all, forever. She wasn’t thinking of how she would miss her hard won comforts. She wasn’t focusing her energy on what this new room lacked. Or what her new life would be without. She was thinking about the new sensations she was feeling lying on that table. The flittering in her stomach, the dryness in her mouth. She was struggling, even with her mastery of breathing and meditation, to control her pulse. For the first time in her life she would be in the same room as a man. While struggling to comprehend how to interact with him, or even how to place these new feelings, a door in the wall of light opened and closed, and he walked in.

Luke 4 carried himself with the bearing of a wise man. A man of average height and build, he seemed to be in excellent shape for his advancing years. His thick black hair was shorter and curled more than Mary’s. His black, bushy eyebrows moved with his expressive face and complimented his dark eyes. He always seemed to be contemplating something, and his expressions betrayed this. His skin had a curious reddish hue, prominent against the white of a doctor’s suit, and his lips looked almost chapped.

“Hello Mary 13, my name is Luke 4. I am very happy to meet you. I will be your guide on this adventure. I understand that all of this is new to you, and difficult to process. Don’t worry; you may advance at your own pace after the procedure. For now, just try and relax, this won’t take long or cause you any pain.”

Luke 4 had stood by the wall as he spoke, aware of her shock at human contact, carefully timing his approach. He took 3 strides towards her making sure to take deliberate steps with no added or sharp movements. He blushed slightly as he examined his patient and noticed the bumps on her skin, the rising of her chest as she drew in a sharp breath, and hardening of her nipples as he came to stand within a step of her.

“I apologize for the cold, it is required to slow your blood flow before the operation.” His eyes shined watching her struggle to continue her steady breathing. “You are doing an excellent job of using Calmcentric Breathing to control your pulse and heart rate. If you want to speak, please do so now. You won’t be able to once we get started. No pressure, I understand if you don’t want to converse yet.”

Her mind raced at the thought of a conversation with this man. Her senses filled by his smell, his voice, his movements, the kindness in his eyes. She reverted to the safety of analytical thinking to ask a question she hoped wouldn’t betray her excitement. “Hello Luke 4.” She paused to reflect on her first words to another person and decided her voice was steady enough to keep going. “How did you know I was using Calmcentric Breathing? There are so many programs…”

His smile now showed wrinkles at the corners of his brown eyes, and included his mouth to show a perfect set of white teeth. Her teeth were the same, but she had no wrinkles. He gave a short laugh - the greatest sound of her life. “I wrote that program, I’m honored to see you using it. I used the same technique when I had my life needles removed. I believe this is a good sign. Keep using it; you will be just fine.” He took the final step and began.

Mary shivered slightly, but otherwise made no move or sound. Her cheeks flushed as she became aware of her aroused nipples and how they pressed against the white sheet. Luckily, he was concentrating on her head where it seemed he would start. She had made eye contact as he came in the door, but now, with his breath so close to hers, it was far too stressful. She closed her eyes harder than she needed to. He smiled and spoke again, this time using soft, hypnotic tones as he started his work. She said a silent thank you for the soothing sound.

“Mary 13, what I’m doing now is displaying the laser point map of all the life needles in your body. As you know, the life needles are built and inserted into the arteries of every Tower habitant to ensure longer life and give our advanced health programs an inner look into the bloodstream of every person. This room has been specifically built and equipped with a very elaborate program to monitor, change, and if needed, remove these special needles. For example, the walls, floor and ceiling are fully lit so that no matter where I move I will have perfect vision. As you may also know, I was the first person to have my life needles successfully removed. In doing so I’ve learned the formula for success. I won’t bore you with all of the details of the operation, but I will tell you that I have to work quickly and keep the same pace throughout the procedure. I will start at your head and systematically extract your life needles from your blood stream. As you have already been informed, there is some risk involved, but if you stay still and all needles come out as they should, you will safely transition to the decompression procedure. After decompression we will start your training and you will be able to begin your new life. Don’t worry and keep breathing, I will be by your side during this process.” And then he smiled again as the tension around her eyes lessened.

He didn’t wait for a response as he picked up magnetic tweezers in his right hand and let his left hand hover over her forehead. The brisk confidence in his voice and movements filled her with a sense of protection. He stood over her with a smell she had never experienced. Somehow she knew he smelled like a man. She silently reprimanded herself for exotic thoughts that might spike her blood flow and ruin this opportunity. Fighting the greatest feeling of anticipation in her life she managed to resume her steady breathing. She wasn’t worried about the procedure. There was no grief for the loss of her former life, her room, or her possessions. No self-pity for losing 300 more years of life in comfort. She didn’t wonder about how long her new life span would be. Be it a century, or a year, it was no concern to her. Her mind raced faster than any thought expander could push it. A sensor screen had never held her attention like this. No pleasure device produced this level of arousal. Her entire naked body felt ready to float towards the promise of one single moment. The man reached down to place his left hand on the skin of her face. This would be the first time she was touched in her entire life.

Mary 13 was one hundred years old.

6
1
0
Juice
56 reads
Donate coins to JeffTurner.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by JeffTurner in portal Simon & Schuster
Mary 13


Chapter 1

It was a rare day of activity for Medical Room 19, a stark bright room on the 25th Level of Tower 1. Its encompassing light had no single perceptible source, but came from everywhere at once: walls, floor, and ceiling. There were no shadows. The room produced no sound, no smell, no air movement, and its temperature was a breathtaking 50 degrees. A nearly invisible medical air table seemed to hover in the center of the room; a smaller tray table of the same material hovered next to it. A young woman, healthy and fair, lay naked on the table covered to the neck by a thin white sheet. Her striking blue eyes, soft pink lips and golden hair interrupted the solid white of the room. Against her ivory skin, and inside the colorless room, those eyes jumped out like two patches of summer sky between the clouds. A sky she had only ever seen through her window. Her one window.

Mary 13 used her favorite concentration technique from the meditation programs to try and stay calm in these new elements. She deduced the feeling she was experiencing was cold. Having never actually felt it before, she remembered a program she helped code that dealt with the conditioning of body and mind against possible elemental changes should the towers ever experience power shortages, which they never had. Her steady breathing provided the only air movement and sound. Her silken skin had developed strange little bumps from her toes to her scalp and the smallest hairs on her arms and neck stood up and quivered. At first, she assumed this was a reaction to the cold. But it wasn’t from the cold. She was quivering in anticipation. She was truly excited for the operation, and for what lay beyond this new room.

Mary 13 was not thinking about what she would be leaving behind. Habitation Room 198, Level 54, Tower 2. The room that had raised her, taught her, and held her for an entire life. The room that reacted to her every thought, mood, sensation, and command. They had built a life together, this room and her, one of comfort and collaboration. It had consoled her during the bad times, and nursed her during the sick times. Her every experience had happened in her room, including her birth. A sensor screen, skin and hair rejuvenators, and life extending pills were made available to all tower habitants. She had put in many years of work for the tower to earn the life chair and cloud bed, both specifically engineered just for her. Next had come thought-controlled accommodators, an auto nurse and dentist, energy healers, muscle pulsers, various learning programs and, of course, the pleasure devices. The pleasure devices she had only recently acquired, and they had opened up a whole new world of stimulation and joy for her. And now she was leaving it all, forever. She wasn’t thinking of how she would miss her hard won comforts. She wasn’t focusing her energy on what this new room lacked. Or what her new life would be without. She was thinking about the new sensations she was feeling lying on that table. The flittering in her stomach, the dryness in her mouth. She was struggling, even with her mastery of breathing and meditation, to control her pulse. For the first time in her life she would be in the same room as a man. While struggling to comprehend how to interact with him, or even how to place these new feelings, a door in the wall of light opened and closed, and he walked in.

Luke 4 carried himself with the bearing of a wise man. A man of average height and build, he seemed to be in excellent shape for his advancing years. His thick black hair was shorter and curled more than Mary’s. His black, bushy eyebrows moved with his expressive face and complimented his dark eyes. He always seemed to be contemplating something, and his expressions betrayed this. His skin had a curious reddish hue, prominent against the white of a doctor’s suit, and his lips looked almost chapped.

“Hello Mary 13, my name is Luke 4. I am very happy to meet you. I will be your guide on this adventure. I understand that all of this is new to you, and difficult to process. Don’t worry; you may advance at your own pace after the procedure. For now, just try and relax, this won’t take long or cause you any pain.”

Luke 4 had stood by the wall as he spoke, aware of her shock at human contact, carefully timing his approach. He took 3 strides towards her making sure to take deliberate steps with no added or sharp movements. He blushed slightly as he examined his patient and noticed the bumps on her skin, the rising of her chest as she drew in a sharp breath, and hardening of her nipples as he came to stand within a step of her.

“I apologize for the cold, it is required to slow your blood flow before the operation.” His eyes shined watching her struggle to continue her steady breathing. “You are doing an excellent job of using Calmcentric Breathing to control your pulse and heart rate. If you want to speak, please do so now. You won’t be able to once we get started. No pressure, I understand if you don’t want to converse yet.”

Her mind raced at the thought of a conversation with this man. Her senses filled by his smell, his voice, his movements, the kindness in his eyes. She reverted to the safety of analytical thinking to ask a question she hoped wouldn’t betray her excitement. “Hello Luke 4.” She paused to reflect on her first words to another person and decided her voice was steady enough to keep going. “How did you know I was using Calmcentric Breathing? There are so many programs…”

His smile now showed wrinkles at the corners of his brown eyes, and included his mouth to show a perfect set of white teeth. Her teeth were the same, but she had no wrinkles. He gave a short laugh - the greatest sound of her life. “I wrote that program, I’m honored to see you using it. I used the same technique when I had my life needles removed. I believe this is a good sign. Keep using it; you will be just fine.” He took the final step and began.

Mary shivered slightly, but otherwise made no move or sound. Her cheeks flushed as she became aware of her aroused nipples and how they pressed against the white sheet. Luckily, he was concentrating on her head where it seemed he would start. She had made eye contact as he came in the door, but now, with his breath so close to hers, it was far too stressful. She closed her eyes harder than she needed to. He smiled and spoke again, this time using soft, hypnotic tones as he started his work. She said a silent thank you for the soothing sound.

“Mary 13, what I’m doing now is displaying the laser point map of all the life needles in your body. As you know, the life needles are built and inserted into the arteries of every Tower habitant to ensure longer life and give our advanced health programs an inner look into the bloodstream of every person. This room has been specifically built and equipped with a very elaborate program to monitor, change, and if needed, remove these special needles. For example, the walls, floor and ceiling are fully lit so that no matter where I move I will have perfect vision. As you may also know, I was the first person to have my life needles successfully removed. In doing so I’ve learned the formula for success. I won’t bore you with all of the details of the operation, but I will tell you that I have to work quickly and keep the same pace throughout the procedure. I will start at your head and systematically extract your life needles from your blood stream. As you have already been informed, there is some risk involved, but if you stay still and all needles come out as they should, you will safely transition to the decompression procedure. After decompression we will start your training and you will be able to begin your new life. Don’t worry and keep breathing, I will be by your side during this process.” And then he smiled again as the tension around her eyes lessened.

He didn’t wait for a response as he picked up magnetic tweezers in his right hand and let his left hand hover over her forehead. The brisk confidence in his voice and movements filled her with a sense of protection. He stood over her with a smell she had never experienced. Somehow she knew he smelled like a man. She silently reprimanded herself for exotic thoughts that might spike her blood flow and ruin this opportunity. Fighting the greatest feeling of anticipation in her life she managed to resume her steady breathing. She wasn’t worried about the procedure. There was no grief for the loss of her former life, her room, or her possessions. No self-pity for losing 300 more years of life in comfort. She didn’t wonder about how long her new life span would be. Be it a century, or a year, it was no concern to her. Her mind raced faster than any thought expander could push it. A sensor screen had never held her attention like this. No pleasure device produced this level of arousal. Her entire naked body felt ready to float towards the promise of one single moment. The man reached down to place his left hand on the skin of her face. This would be the first time she was touched in her entire life.

Mary 13 was one hundred years old.

6
1
0
Juice
56 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to ttwardz.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ttwardz in portal Simon & Schuster

And I Feel Fine

A great growing, whining, whooshing rhythm permeates the window glass like the underwater sound of a wave, a-thump-thump-thump-thump-thumping rapidly, heavily, so rapidly that it blends into a single pitch and when I focus on it, booming unbearably, vibrating the barstools and glasses, it shakes my brain inside my head and vibrates my eyeballs.

I take a swig and fall off of the worn shaking stool in that late afternoon sunlight.

What’s a bar for? Go pretend to feel death at your own place, it’s cheaper. I’m here, though, too, on the corner of Main and 2nd. Idiot. I shouldn’t forgive myself. The bartender knows my drink is empty, and she saw me see her see it that way ten minutes ago.

The news is on above her head and I don’t think they’ve shown a single commercial in the last half hour. For that only do I forgive the earthquake that thirty-five minutes ago soaked my lap with beer and made such a ruckus of smashing glasses and tumbling patrons. Ah, memories. Twenty-nine is too old to be making new ones.

Arthur is a tall man on the stool next to me, in a green henley, jeans, faux leather boots, sunglasses resting on his short hair, white wristband on left wrist and stainless steel watch on right, face facing inside of hairy arm, sweat under armpit, top of head frizzy from hat. He's angled toward me, trying hard. Only twenty-five percent of the eight red wobbly stools are filled after that little quake emptied the place and he decides that I want company. I think I actually heard his breath quicken, when he came through the door a little while ago, at the thought of talking to me about the quake and himself and issues, as he is currently still doing.

He started by telling me about the power being out at his house, so he’d come here to watch the news, and why is it that the bar has better electrical infrastructure than the residential areas of the city? and how can our governor ignore the seismologists and pass a budget that doesn’t include funds for earthquake reinforcement measures? and isn’t it a shame that the new president doesn’t even believe in earthquakes and stuff like that because he says the science is being falsified by foreign governments trying to sabotage the national economy? and many more of the wrong questions.

What’s the right question?

What exactly is happening now, right now, and is it survivable?

The sun is halfway set and the streetlights flash on around the intersection. Arthur’s telling me now that he’s a Rather-Right-Wing Registered Democrat—and for a half-second I think he’s telling me what position he plays on a soccer team—though, yes, a Millennial, (and also a Virgo and single), but one who voted for so-and-so last November because don’t you think such-and-such-other was just a dishonest liar even though he had the most experience, and leaned the most left, but obviously leaning one way and tilting your head and squinting your eyes still doesn’t change a liar? plus I’m Rather-Right-Wing, so not really my type, and who did you vote for?

He’s asking me who I voted for. If I want strange people to know that information, I’ll post it online.

Mickey Mouse is my answer.

He’s only a few years younger than me, I think, but he has such energy. His eyes almost roll at my answer, but he catches himself and breathes a single laugh into his glass as he quickly sips. My glass is still empty. I think about pushing it off of the counter but the bartender would only sweep it into the small pile she’s been slowly forming against the wall and leave me thirsty.

Time for a refill, he says to me, and therefore to no one, as the windows rattle softly and the television flickers.

Before the gentle rumbling even stops, the bright banner under the lead anchor changes from WYOMING EARTHQUAKE! to AFTERSHOCKS INCREASING. The bar should've been closed for the holiday but Kate opened it up at four. No sin in a little extra income. Not everyone wants to spend a day alone at home. Customers had trickled in and out until the shaking when everyone left. Then it lulled and the curious came to talk to each other. When it picked up even worse than before they scattered. And I landed on the floor.

—I’m a Democrat, Arthur says, but I’m actually more conservative than my friends (hence his elaborate title, I deduce through extremely complex logical processes), so, you know, I don’t really mind guns. I mean, I guess they’re bad sometimes, yeah, but I’m not going to vote to ban them. Cops should have them. Some people should have, I mean… I kind of want one, even though I don’t have anything to—

—Wait—I stop him—don't you mean the other way around?

—Other way around what?

—You're pro-guns so you fall into the conservative category.

—Well it's not exactly pro-guns, I mean they exist whether you like them or not.

—No, I— yeah— yes, they exist, but owning one, ownership, you're pro-ownership.

—Right, some people should have them, I don't need one but it'd be fun to try a firing range.

—So—

—So do you have one?

—What, no I don't have one.

—What do you think about people having them?

—I think it's stupid.

—So we need to change that?

—Somebody does, not me.

—Well I disagree and there's nothing wrong with that, you know? I’m a conservative Democrat, so I don’t vote against guns. It's not like there's some checklist that Democrats have to vote for all of these things and Republicans have to vote for all of these things.

—Yes, I say, but that's exactly what you're saying, you vote for the right to own a gun because you call yourself a conservative.

—Yeah.

The stupidity is frothing thickly from his mouth and the smell is so repulsive that I crinkle my nose against it and when that doesn’t work I put my face over the rim of my glass to smell the leftover bubbles.

Then I laugh once to soften my reaction because maybe my expression has insulted him and some masochistic part of my brain desires to continue this conversation.

—So you vote conservative because that’s what you call yourself.

—It’s my duty as a voter, he says.

He is still talking to the side of my face although I’ve finished listening and locked my eyes on the television. The sound is on now because the bartender, Kyla, is watching too (she finally filled my glass with the wrong beer and spent about ten minutes wiping one booth table while just-washed glasses still lay broken where they fell off of the end of the bar) but the incorrect subtitles still scroll over the fiery breaking news banner:

……AWAY FRO MMAJOR METORPOLITAN AREAS. BUT THE AFTERSHOCKS A RE SPREADING MORE POWERFULY AWA YFROM THE EPICENTER THROUG HOUT WYOOMING……………STRANGE ACTIVITY FOR EARTHQUEAKES……

WE GO NOW TO OU RSTUDIO IN CHEYENNE.

[THEME MUSIC]

Screen black. I look outside to escape the sound of Arthur's voice and the nonsense on the television and the stuffy air in the bar and notice that the sky looks strange. The shaking returns but stronger now and with it, screaming loudness. From my seat at the bar, through the windows, between the old Paradise Cinema and the bakery, along the downward slope of the street, over the low hills, far, far in the distance I see light rising as if the sun had swung around and begun to hoist itself back up over the horizon. Then the tall windows shatter and the ground leaps under my seat.

The chill outside leaks through the window spaces, whose glass in shards carpets the tiled floor. Sweat cools on my forehead while I stand where the window once divided out from in, with Arthur on my right and on my left, Kyla, sweeping glass into a bin. I gulp the bottom gulp of my flat beer and watch fire paint the sky in the frame of the door. The dusk blushes around that violent burst, that shoot of flame that in the distance blooms. The atmosphere sinks, heavy, under the heat and seems to gallop outward in a gyre. The streets are peopled, now, and every place becomes a vantage to behold the fire. Black clouds brew deeply round its stem and terror is the face the beast assumes.

It is difficult to stand but we watch from the open wall. I finally ask what the hell is that? My body feels like it’s shaking inside but I realize it’s shaking outside, visibly, my hands around my glass, my knees, my teeth. It’s not fear, I’m too stunned to fear anything; in fact I feel kind of invincible staring this immense death in the face from the edge of the sidewalk in front of a bar and being the single person to have broken the spell. But my body is telling me to run. I definitely should. Go. Escape, my instincts willing my muscles into action, flee, now, away from death.

So I turn from the cold air blowing in, and so does Arthur; we leave the empty windows, return to the bar. The shaking dulls. Kyla ignores the new piles of glass gathered on the floor. She ignores us, our empty glasses, the mess of the room, the rising panic in the street, the two ladies who approach the bar timidly, stop on the sidewalk to consider, to weigh their options amid the glass, then finally walk around the damage and through the door, and lock their eyes on the television without sitting. Kyla is also watching. Arthur is tapping his foot rapidly and it’s rattling the loose bar of metal on which mine rests.

—It’s Yellowstone, he repeats after the anchor.

—What? I say, and it’s a stupid thing to say because I heard him and the anchor and I know what it means and he ignores me anyway or doesn’t hear and so it doesn’t matter.

Erupting. They always said it would. I’m looking back outside. The video on the television shows the details of the gigantic rupture in the Earth spewing fire above the clouds but outside, through the window, it is terrifying, a tiny geyser, a paralyzing horror.

—That’s hundreds of miles away, Kyla says, and I can see it from here.

We should go. Descend, like the Commander in Chief who doesn’t believe, into a closet two hundred feet below the roads and houses and cars. Is there time?

I sip my beer and Kyla pours her own, and the ladies leave, and Arthur complains about the pathetic government and his solutions to the issues of importance. The idiot spills his beer when the shaking reintensifies and he curses the glass and the Earth. And the Earth ignores him and me and spills great rivers of fire out of its heart like a second flood.

6
2
0
Juice
72 reads
Donate coins to ttwardz.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ttwardz in portal Simon & Schuster
And I Feel Fine
A great growing, whining, whooshing rhythm permeates the window glass like the underwater sound of a wave, a-thump-thump-thump-thump-thumping rapidly, heavily, so rapidly that it blends into a single pitch and when I focus on it, booming unbearably, vibrating the barstools and glasses, it shakes my brain inside my head and vibrates my eyeballs.

I take a swig and fall off of the worn shaking stool in that late afternoon sunlight.



What’s a bar for? Go pretend to feel death at your own place, it’s cheaper. I’m here, though, too, on the corner of Main and 2nd. Idiot. I shouldn’t forgive myself. The bartender knows my drink is empty, and she saw me see her see it that way ten minutes ago.

The news is on above her head and I don’t think they’ve shown a single commercial in the last half hour. For that only do I forgive the earthquake that thirty-five minutes ago soaked my lap with beer and made such a ruckus of smashing glasses and tumbling patrons. Ah, memories. Twenty-nine is too old to be making new ones.



Arthur is a tall man on the stool next to me, in a green henley, jeans, faux leather boots, sunglasses resting on his short hair, white wristband on left wrist and stainless steel watch on right, face facing inside of hairy arm, sweat under armpit, top of head frizzy from hat. He's angled toward me, trying hard. Only twenty-five percent of the eight red wobbly stools are filled after that little quake emptied the place and he decides that I want company. I think I actually heard his breath quicken, when he came through the door a little while ago, at the thought of talking to me about the quake and himself and issues, as he is currently still doing.

He started by telling me about the power being out at his house, so he’d come here to watch the news, and why is it that the bar has better electrical infrastructure than the residential areas of the city? and how can our governor ignore the seismologists and pass a budget that doesn’t include funds for earthquake reinforcement measures? and isn’t it a shame that the new president doesn’t even believe in earthquakes and stuff like that because he says the science is being falsified by foreign governments trying to sabotage the national economy? and many more of the wrong questions.

What’s the right question?

What exactly is happening now, right now, and is it survivable?



The sun is halfway set and the streetlights flash on around the intersection. Arthur’s telling me now that he’s a Rather-Right-Wing Registered Democrat—and for a half-second I think he’s telling me what position he plays on a soccer team—though, yes, a Millennial, (and also a Virgo and single), but one who voted for so-and-so last November because don’t you think such-and-such-other was just a dishonest liar even though he had the most experience, and leaned the most left, but obviously leaning one way and tilting your head and squinting your eyes still doesn’t change a liar? plus I’m Rather-Right-Wing, so not really my type, and who did you vote for?

He’s asking me who I voted for. If I want strange people to know that information, I’ll post it online.

Mickey Mouse is my answer.

He’s only a few years younger than me, I think, but he has such energy. His eyes almost roll at my answer, but he catches himself and breathes a single laugh into his glass as he quickly sips. My glass is still empty. I think about pushing it off of the counter but the bartender would only sweep it into the small pile she’s been slowly forming against the wall and leave me thirsty.



Time for a refill, he says to me, and therefore to no one, as the windows rattle softly and the television flickers.

Before the gentle rumbling even stops, the bright banner under the lead anchor changes from WYOMING EARTHQUAKE! to AFTERSHOCKS INCREASING. The bar should've been closed for the holiday but Kate opened it up at four. No sin in a little extra income. Not everyone wants to spend a day alone at home. Customers had trickled in and out until the shaking when everyone left. Then it lulled and the curious came to talk to each other. When it picked up even worse than before they scattered. And I landed on the floor.

—I’m a Democrat, Arthur says, but I’m actually more conservative than my friends (hence his elaborate title, I deduce through extremely complex logical processes), so, you know, I don’t really mind guns. I mean, I guess they’re bad sometimes, yeah, but I’m not going to vote to ban them. Cops should have them. Some people should have, I mean… I kind of want one, even though I don’t have anything to—

—Wait—I stop him—don't you mean the other way around?

—Other way around what?

—You're pro-guns so you fall into the conservative category.

—Well it's not exactly pro-guns, I mean they exist whether you like them or not.

—No, I— yeah— yes, they exist, but owning one, ownership, you're pro-ownership.

—Right, some people should have them, I don't need one but it'd be fun to try a firing range.

—So—

—So do you have one?

—What, no I don't have one.

—What do you think about people having them?

—I think it's stupid.

—So we need to change that?

—Somebody does, not me.

—Well I disagree and there's nothing wrong with that, you know? I’m a conservative Democrat, so I don’t vote against guns. It's not like there's some checklist that Democrats have to vote for all of these things and Republicans have to vote for all of these things.

—Yes, I say, but that's exactly what you're saying, you vote for the right to own a gun because you call yourself a conservative.

—Yeah.

The stupidity is frothing thickly from his mouth and the smell is so repulsive that I crinkle my nose against it and when that doesn’t work I put my face over the rim of my glass to smell the leftover bubbles.

Then I laugh once to soften my reaction because maybe my expression has insulted him and some masochistic part of my brain desires to continue this conversation.

—So you vote conservative because that’s what you call yourself.

—It’s my duty as a voter, he says.



He is still talking to the side of my face although I’ve finished listening and locked my eyes on the television. The sound is on now because the bartender, Kyla, is watching too (she finally filled my glass with the wrong beer and spent about ten minutes wiping one booth table while just-washed glasses still lay broken where they fell off of the end of the bar) but the incorrect subtitles still scroll over the fiery breaking news banner:

……AWAY FRO MMAJOR METORPOLITAN AREAS. BUT THE AFTERSHOCKS A RE SPREADING MORE POWERFULY AWA YFROM THE EPICENTER THROUG HOUT WYOOMING……………STRANGE ACTIVITY FOR EARTHQUEAKES……

WE GO NOW TO OU RSTUDIO IN CHEYENNE.

[THEME MUSIC]

Screen black. I look outside to escape the sound of Arthur's voice and the nonsense on the television and the stuffy air in the bar and notice that the sky looks strange. The shaking returns but stronger now and with it, screaming loudness. From my seat at the bar, through the windows, between the old Paradise Cinema and the bakery, along the downward slope of the street, over the low hills, far, far in the distance I see light rising as if the sun had swung around and begun to hoist itself back up over the horizon. Then the tall windows shatter and the ground leaps under my seat.

The chill outside leaks through the window spaces, whose glass in shards carpets the tiled floor. Sweat cools on my forehead while I stand where the window once divided out from in, with Arthur on my right and on my left, Kyla, sweeping glass into a bin. I gulp the bottom gulp of my flat beer and watch fire paint the sky in the frame of the door. The dusk blushes around that violent burst, that shoot of flame that in the distance blooms. The atmosphere sinks, heavy, under the heat and seems to gallop outward in a gyre. The streets are peopled, now, and every place becomes a vantage to behold the fire. Black clouds brew deeply round its stem and terror is the face the beast assumes.

It is difficult to stand but we watch from the open wall. I finally ask what the hell is that? My body feels like it’s shaking inside but I realize it’s shaking outside, visibly, my hands around my glass, my knees, my teeth. It’s not fear, I’m too stunned to fear anything; in fact I feel kind of invincible staring this immense death in the face from the edge of the sidewalk in front of a bar and being the single person to have broken the spell. But my body is telling me to run. I definitely should. Go. Escape, my instincts willing my muscles into action, flee, now, away from death.

So I turn from the cold air blowing in, and so does Arthur; we leave the empty windows, return to the bar. The shaking dulls. Kyla ignores the new piles of glass gathered on the floor. She ignores us, our empty glasses, the mess of the room, the rising panic in the street, the two ladies who approach the bar timidly, stop on the sidewalk to consider, to weigh their options amid the glass, then finally walk around the damage and through the door, and lock their eyes on the television without sitting. Kyla is also watching. Arthur is tapping his foot rapidly and it’s rattling the loose bar of metal on which mine rests.

—It’s Yellowstone, he repeats after the anchor.

—What? I say, and it’s a stupid thing to say because I heard him and the anchor and I know what it means and he ignores me anyway or doesn’t hear and so it doesn’t matter.
Erupting. They always said it would. I’m looking back outside. The video on the television shows the details of the gigantic rupture in the Earth spewing fire above the clouds but outside, through the window, it is terrifying, a tiny geyser, a paralyzing horror.

—That’s hundreds of miles away, Kyla says, and I can see it from here.

We should go. Descend, like the Commander in Chief who doesn’t believe, into a closet two hundred feet below the roads and houses and cars. Is there time?

I sip my beer and Kyla pours her own, and the ladies leave, and Arthur complains about the pathetic government and his solutions to the issues of importance. The idiot spills his beer when the shaking reintensifies and he curses the glass and the Earth. And the Earth ignores him and me and spills great rivers of fire out of its heart like a second flood.
6
2
0
Juice
72 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to JGSiminski.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by JGSiminski in portal Simon & Schuster

Falling Water (A Chapter from "You are Here" by j.g. siminski)

When he was younger, in his twenties, the forty-five minute drive to the ocean was never given a thought. He did it almost every Saturday in the summer months and would spend hours on the beach, perhaps reading, but mostly just watching the people, the bodies more precisely, of those that appealed to his sexual appetite. But it wasn’t just that, it was searching for someone that would take away the loneliness that plagued him since he was a small boy. It was a wound that wouldn’t heal, leaving him in an endless longing so desperate that it was beyond difficult for him to concentrate on much anything else. And in one way, he was lucky; he was smart enough to get by in just about anything he did, but his loneliness stopped him from really succeeding at the thing he would be doing at any given time. A job was rarely a career. It was a means to an end and it swallowed up hours that he would otherwise have spent in loneliness.

It was forty years on now and the ocean was flat and grey and the beach was deserted. The chill in the damp air felt right. The vacant beach felt right. The sand supported those feelings in him. The millions and millions of grains, like he himself, like the people in the world, only seemed to mean something as one big whole. He knew he was only significant in that way as one grain of sand.

He was never that crazy about the ocean. Sometimes he liked looking at it, but he couldn’t swim so if it brought up any emotion in him, it was mostly fear. He did really love looking out at the sea in a storm and he loved the beaches of Cape Cod and the wind-bent wooden fences that meandered along the sand and beach grass. When he thinks of it now, it reminds him of happier days of his youth, when his brother was still alive, and his sister, and his parents.

His sister, Veronica, was much older than him. In fact, if she had been just a few years older, she would have been old enough to be Dominic’s mother, the age spread among the siblings was that great. It was when Dominic was about eight that early one summer morning she asked him if he would like to drive over into Canada and spend the day at the beach. So they set out with Veronica’s boyfriend, Hugh, and made their way across the Peace Bridge on that warm and humid, overcast Saturday. Even so, Hugh had the top down on his baby blue, Rambler 440 convertible. On Saturday mornings in the summer months, young people would gather on the beach in their cars as the main attraction was that you could drive right onto the mostly hard lakeshore sand. It was thrilling for Dominic to see all these shiny cars out on the foggy beach.

More than anything it was the lasting memory of seeing his sister smiling and confident in her being, the way she perceived the world around her, the relaxed way in which she flicked her hair back over her shoulder. In his mind now, it was like looking at a Super 8 movie clip, foggy like the beach that day, ethereal and muted around the edges. As he beheld the gray beach before him today, other memories came rushing in like the cresting waves before him; rushing in and then ebbing away.

Throughout his early youth he remembered pool days with one of his older brothers, the one closest to him in age. Michael loved climbing up the high diving board and jumping in. He had been learning how to dive and in keeping with the innate sense of perfection he carried, Dominic watched in awe as his brother placed on his nose clip and then thrust himself into the air with the grace of a diving swan. He remembered the smell of the lilacs that surrounded their park pool and the smell of suntan lotion on fresh young skin, all gone now to decades-old memories, that can no longer be shared, but only imagined by those who weren’t there. He thought about how often he heard people say today, “at our age one gets used to people dying,” but he got used to it when he was only a child. It was always there, walking hand in hand with life.

Dominic unsnapped the large outer pocket on his loose denim coat and pulled out the plastic bag with baby’s ashes in it. The decision to spread her ashes had taken him more than a decade. He loved all his cats, but baby was unique and stirred at his soul like a sage. She had lived 18 years and had saved him from death even after she was physically gone.

He looked at the ashes through the clear plastic and could feel through it with his fingers larger, harder bits that he imagined were bits of bone. It reminded him in some odd way of how small she was for a cat and of her ragged voice, which made her meow sound like she was the cub of a mountain lion. He remembered the first time he saw her at the weekend pet adoption at the local pet store, how she was off from the other cats, but when she saw him she made a raspy cry in his direction and pushed her tiny paw between the wires of the cage and tried to touch him. She was so, so tiny.

Some years ago, about a year after her death, Dominic had become seriously ill and as things go sometimes, he didn’t realize that with each passing hour he was moving precipitously closer to death. He was quite aware that he was sick, but it was so sudden, his mind wasn’t prepared for the gravity of what he was facing and so he kept believing he would be better in the morning.

Before dawn he opened his eyes to see baby curled up on his chest. She was talking to him telepathically. She said to Dominic, “If you go to the hospital right now, you will live.” And he did.

He thought about that first day he and Edward brought baby home. He brought her up on the bed away from the other cats so they could be introduced slowly, and he wanted her to know that their home was a safe and loving and comfortable place. And when he looked at her, she seemed to be smiling out from her kitten’s body, but really she was just happy to be peeing.

He saw so much of himself in baby. That loneliness that is so hard to fill. That not belonging. He wanted her to know, to experience the filling of that void and the best way he knew how to do that was through love and touch, because he knew that’s what he always longed for.

Dominic looked down at the plastic bag and then out to the sea. He knew baby was no longer the ashes in that bag. He knew that her body was only his way of connecting her to the world in a tactile way. He knew that when she died in his arms and her golden eyes turned a milky gray. In a wisp of air her soul was released from gravity. But yet he couldn’t seem to let those ashes go. He couldn’t watch the molecules, the atoms that were left of her, dissolve into that vast grayness in front of him. And he knew it was because he himself was still flesh and blood, a physical composite of those same atoms, bound to earth and struggling to hold on to the only thing he knew as life.

He turned and looked back at the hills rising above the shoreline. He could hear the speeding of cars, the impatient horns, but suddenly he realized that the roar of the ocean was consistently drowning them out. The power of water even evident in its sound, minimizing anything we think humanly important. Telling us it’s not. Dominic stood looking forward, then backwards and then down to the sand and his feet and his place in between.

Since he was a young boy he had dreamed of moving to Hollywood and the life he would create. Of the important person he would become, a celebrity in his own right, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Not that it couldn’t have for he was, back then, full of rebellion and brio. But after years of not having anyone to guide him through his then young life, he found he could only really listen to himself, a dangerously naive path. And he learned that sometimes heeding the advice of a stranger can mean the difference between finding oneself well beyond the fork in the road and miles down a tragically wrong path.

At twenty, he received an unexpected invitation to take a Caribbean cruise, by a friend who was playing in a band on an ocean liner. It was winter break and Dominic had just finished up a year at Boston University. In January he would be heading to London to attend a year abroad. In some ways he had planned his year away quite well, but in others it was ill-conceived. It was yet another way in which he would realize, years later, that his lack of parental guidance had put him at a great disadvantage.

It was New Year’s Eve and the boat had made a stop in Nassau. New passengers boarded the ship and one of them was a British woman, a regular passenger on the ship and known to the crew as a person with an uncanny gift for seeing into the future. She was also friendly with Dominic’s musician friend and so it happened that they all spent the evening celebrating the New Year together. But Dominic would find her staring at him. It unsettled him and he did his best to keep a safe distance between them. As Dominic stood out on the deck looking out over the moon and stars reflecting on the sea, Penelope, the woman, was suddenly by his side.

“I know you’re about to do something that you think will make your life better,” she said, “but I can only say, don’t do it. If you go, you will experience terrible things, terrible things, beyond anything you imagine. It will set you back years. I know you’re willful and stubborn and I know you don’t know me, but I’m compelled to try and stop you from making this mistake.”

She ended by saying something about a card, but it was so vague he wasn’t quite sure what she was on about.

That night, as he lay in bed, her words kept floating in an out of his head with the deep, slow sway of the ship on the open water. He was rattled by them, but by morning he had dismissed them as the words of a woman who had too many flutes of champagne.

7
2
0
Juice
132 reads
Donate coins to JGSiminski.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by JGSiminski in portal Simon & Schuster
Falling Water (A Chapter from "You are Here" by j.g. siminski)
When he was younger, in his twenties, the forty-five minute drive to the ocean was never given a thought. He did it almost every Saturday in the summer months and would spend hours on the beach, perhaps reading, but mostly just watching the people, the bodies more precisely, of those that appealed to his sexual appetite. But it wasn’t just that, it was searching for someone that would take away the loneliness that plagued him since he was a small boy. It was a wound that wouldn’t heal, leaving him in an endless longing so desperate that it was beyond difficult for him to concentrate on much anything else. And in one way, he was lucky; he was smart enough to get by in just about anything he did, but his loneliness stopped him from really succeeding at the thing he would be doing at any given time. A job was rarely a career. It was a means to an end and it swallowed up hours that he would otherwise have spent in loneliness.

It was forty years on now and the ocean was flat and grey and the beach was deserted. The chill in the damp air felt right. The vacant beach felt right. The sand supported those feelings in him. The millions and millions of grains, like he himself, like the people in the world, only seemed to mean something as one big whole. He knew he was only significant in that way as one grain of sand.

He was never that crazy about the ocean. Sometimes he liked looking at it, but he couldn’t swim so if it brought up any emotion in him, it was mostly fear. He did really love looking out at the sea in a storm and he loved the beaches of Cape Cod and the wind-bent wooden fences that meandered along the sand and beach grass. When he thinks of it now, it reminds him of happier days of his youth, when his brother was still alive, and his sister, and his parents.

His sister, Veronica, was much older than him. In fact, if she had been just a few years older, she would have been old enough to be Dominic’s mother, the age spread among the siblings was that great. It was when Dominic was about eight that early one summer morning she asked him if he would like to drive over into Canada and spend the day at the beach. So they set out with Veronica’s boyfriend, Hugh, and made their way across the Peace Bridge on that warm and humid, overcast Saturday. Even so, Hugh had the top down on his baby blue, Rambler 440 convertible. On Saturday mornings in the summer months, young people would gather on the beach in their cars as the main attraction was that you could drive right onto the mostly hard lakeshore sand. It was thrilling for Dominic to see all these shiny cars out on the foggy beach.
More than anything it was the lasting memory of seeing his sister smiling and confident in her being, the way she perceived the world around her, the relaxed way in which she flicked her hair back over her shoulder. In his mind now, it was like looking at a Super 8 movie clip, foggy like the beach that day, ethereal and muted around the edges. As he beheld the gray beach before him today, other memories came rushing in like the cresting waves before him; rushing in and then ebbing away.

Throughout his early youth he remembered pool days with one of his older brothers, the one closest to him in age. Michael loved climbing up the high diving board and jumping in. He had been learning how to dive and in keeping with the innate sense of perfection he carried, Dominic watched in awe as his brother placed on his nose clip and then thrust himself into the air with the grace of a diving swan. He remembered the smell of the lilacs that surrounded their park pool and the smell of suntan lotion on fresh young skin, all gone now to decades-old memories, that can no longer be shared, but only imagined by those who weren’t there. He thought about how often he heard people say today, “at our age one gets used to people dying,” but he got used to it when he was only a child. It was always there, walking hand in hand with life.

Dominic unsnapped the large outer pocket on his loose denim coat and pulled out the plastic bag with baby’s ashes in it. The decision to spread her ashes had taken him more than a decade. He loved all his cats, but baby was unique and stirred at his soul like a sage. She had lived 18 years and had saved him from death even after she was physically gone.

He looked at the ashes through the clear plastic and could feel through it with his fingers larger, harder bits that he imagined were bits of bone. It reminded him in some odd way of how small she was for a cat and of her ragged voice, which made her meow sound like she was the cub of a mountain lion. He remembered the first time he saw her at the weekend pet adoption at the local pet store, how she was off from the other cats, but when she saw him she made a raspy cry in his direction and pushed her tiny paw between the wires of the cage and tried to touch him. She was so, so tiny.

Some years ago, about a year after her death, Dominic had become seriously ill and as things go sometimes, he didn’t realize that with each passing hour he was moving precipitously closer to death. He was quite aware that he was sick, but it was so sudden, his mind wasn’t prepared for the gravity of what he was facing and so he kept believing he would be better in the morning.

Before dawn he opened his eyes to see baby curled up on his chest. She was talking to him telepathically. She said to Dominic, “If you go to the hospital right now, you will live.” And he did.

He thought about that first day he and Edward brought baby home. He brought her up on the bed away from the other cats so they could be introduced slowly, and he wanted her to know that their home was a safe and loving and comfortable place. And when he looked at her, she seemed to be smiling out from her kitten’s body, but really she was just happy to be peeing.

He saw so much of himself in baby. That loneliness that is so hard to fill. That not belonging. He wanted her to know, to experience the filling of that void and the best way he knew how to do that was through love and touch, because he knew that’s what he always longed for.

Dominic looked down at the plastic bag and then out to the sea. He knew baby was no longer the ashes in that bag. He knew that her body was only his way of connecting her to the world in a tactile way. He knew that when she died in his arms and her golden eyes turned a milky gray. In a wisp of air her soul was released from gravity. But yet he couldn’t seem to let those ashes go. He couldn’t watch the molecules, the atoms that were left of her, dissolve into that vast grayness in front of him. And he knew it was because he himself was still flesh and blood, a physical composite of those same atoms, bound to earth and struggling to hold on to the only thing he knew as life.

He turned and looked back at the hills rising above the shoreline. He could hear the speeding of cars, the impatient horns, but suddenly he realized that the roar of the ocean was consistently drowning them out. The power of water even evident in its sound, minimizing anything we think humanly important. Telling us it’s not. Dominic stood looking forward, then backwards and then down to the sand and his feet and his place in between.

Since he was a young boy he had dreamed of moving to Hollywood and the life he would create. Of the important person he would become, a celebrity in his own right, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Not that it couldn’t have for he was, back then, full of rebellion and brio. But after years of not having anyone to guide him through his then young life, he found he could only really listen to himself, a dangerously naive path. And he learned that sometimes heeding the advice of a stranger can mean the difference between finding oneself well beyond the fork in the road and miles down a tragically wrong path.

At twenty, he received an unexpected invitation to take a Caribbean cruise, by a friend who was playing in a band on an ocean liner. It was winter break and Dominic had just finished up a year at Boston University. In January he would be heading to London to attend a year abroad. In some ways he had planned his year away quite well, but in others it was ill-conceived. It was yet another way in which he would realize, years later, that his lack of parental guidance had put him at a great disadvantage.

It was New Year’s Eve and the boat had made a stop in Nassau. New passengers boarded the ship and one of them was a British woman, a regular passenger on the ship and known to the crew as a person with an uncanny gift for seeing into the future. She was also friendly with Dominic’s musician friend and so it happened that they all spent the evening celebrating the New Year together. But Dominic would find her staring at him. It unsettled him and he did his best to keep a safe distance between them. As Dominic stood out on the deck looking out over the moon and stars reflecting on the sea, Penelope, the woman, was suddenly by his side.

“I know you’re about to do something that you think will make your life better,” she said, “but I can only say, don’t do it. If you go, you will experience terrible things, terrible things, beyond anything you imagine. It will set you back years. I know you’re willful and stubborn and I know you don’t know me, but I’m compelled to try and stop you from making this mistake.”

She ended by saying something about a card, but it was so vague he wasn’t quite sure what she was on about.

That night, as he lay in bed, her words kept floating in an out of his head with the deep, slow sway of the ship on the open water. He was rattled by them, but by morning he had dismissed them as the words of a woman who had too many flutes of champagne.
7
2
0
Juice
132 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to CherieMitchell.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by CherieMitchell in portal Simon & Schuster

Outrageous Fortune

September 4, 2010, 4.35 am, Christchurch, New Zealand. On this day, as the clock ticked a few seconds past the 35-minute mark, forces beneath the earth conspired to cause above-ground havoc the like of which this Antipodean city had never seen before. At this moment, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake was unleashed, an earthquake which changed the lives of everyone who experienced it.

Rachel’s feet hit the floor before her eyes were properly open. The shaking and noise were unlike anything she had experienced previously, but she knew without a doubt that it was an earthquake. Her brain argued for a brief moment, insisting the sound was a freight train approaching from the northwest side of the house, a runaway, speeding train on a collision course with her bed. Her mouth disagreed, shouting “Earthquake” in a voice unfamiliar to her.

Her partner, Matt, was slightly delayed in his reaction. As the house shuddered and creaked, and the floorboards rocked and rolled beneath her feet, Rachel watched Matt, as if in slow motion, push back the covers and climb out of bed to stand, naked and disorientated, beside the door.

“Get under the door frame,” she shouted, a long forgotten memory of a schoolyard earthquake drill resurfacing, as the earthquake continued to rumble and shake around them, above them, below them. In every direction she could hear the sounds of things falling, breaking, crashing, and rolling.

The movement stopped as abruptly as it had started. Shocked and dazed, Rachel and Matt clung to each other and gazed wide-eyed at the destruction. Somewhere, a heavy object fell to the ground, its final surrender to gravity curiously postponed until after the shaking had stopped. “What was that?” Matt still seemed to be half asleep, struggling to comprehend.

“Earthquake.” Rachel said again. She grabbed for first her robe and then her mobile phone. She pressed the button to light up the screen. “There’s no service.”

Matt was moving as if under water, slowly pulling his jeans on and searching for his sweatshirt. Rachel felt a contrasting mixture of annoyance and exhilaration, irritated by Matt’s seeming lack of action yet electrified and stimulated by the suddenness and power of the earthquake. She had to move her body. Quickly, she ran up the hallway, past the now-fallen photographs and pictures, hopping nimbly over the broken glass which lay strewn across the carpet. She switched on the light in the kitchen. No power.

“Matt?” Rachel squinted her eyes in the dim light. Sun-up was still hours away. “Where are the matches? I want to light some candles.” She heard his footsteps as he walked up the hall, the crunch of glass shards beneath his shoes, and then he was standing beside her.

They found the matches and lit a couple of candles, ineffectual little tea-lights which struggled to properly illuminate the chaos around them. The entire pantry was scattered across the floor, the sticky contents of broken jam jars mixing erratically with spilled flour, sauce bottles, and dented tins of beans. The dishwasher had jumped out of its alcove under the bench and stood strangely in the middle of the floor. The toaster was dangling from the bench, supported by the bungee-line of its electric cord, still plugged into the wall. Drawers and cupboards hung open, disgorging cutlery and broken crockery across the bench top and floor. “Shit.” It was the first word Matt had spoken.

Rachel took a cautious step towards the lounge room, holding one of the small candles in front of her. A sudden ominous sound, a low rumble, prefaced another earthquake as the room began to shake and buck. Rachel grabbed for Matt as their surroundings swayed with the impact of another tremor.

“Jesus. I didn’t know that earthquakes came in twos.” The words had barely left her lips when yet another earthquake, long and shuddering, rippled through the house.

“I’ll find the radio. I think it’s got batteries in it.” Matt gently unloosened Rachel’s grip on his arm and picked his way through the mess on the floor. Rachel stood still, waiting and listening. Were there more earthquakes coming?

Matt returned with the old paint-splattered radio. He placed it on the bench and swivelled a few knobs. Every station was either playing music or emitting the crackle of static. Matt dropped his hands by his side. “Nothing. I can’t find a station where people are actually talking. We have to find out what’s happening. Is your phone working yet?”

Rachel checked the screen again. No service. She shook her head. “Should we drive to Mum’s house? We should check on her.”

Matt was already at the door. Rachel bent her head and quickly blew out the candles. “I won’t get dressed. Come on, let’s go before another earthquake hits.”

Outside, the sky was starless and inky black. Something was different. Rachel looked around. The street lights. There were no street lights. She looked towards the Port Hills, the guardians of the city, always covered by tiny pinpricks of lights from the faraway houses nestling the slopes. For the first time in her living memory the hills were dark and unlit, now merely large hulking shadows against the inky skyline. “Matt, look at the Port Hills.” Her voice sounded too loud in the eerie stillness of the early morning.

“I can’t get the garage door open.” Matt was struggling with the fold-down door. “I think it’s buckled. It won’t shift.”

Rachel didn’t answer. She heard voices out on the street. She walked the short distance down the drive, pulling her robe tightly around her. The asphalt was rough and cold beneath her bare feet. Groups of neighbors stood about, their voices tense with shock, fear, and excitement. Annie, the young mother from the house next door, stood by her letterbox, her blanket-covered baby held tightly in her arms. “Are you ok, Annie?”

The young woman stared at her, her eyes wide. “It was awful! I thought it was a train. I’m too scared to go back inside. Mick is away at the moment. My phone isn’t working. I can’t get hold of him.”

Rachel turned back to look up the drive. Matt was still pulling at the door. She could hear his curses from here. She smiled at Annie reassuringly. “Do you want to come and sit with us?”

Annie sniffed and nodded, rocking her whimpering baby gently. “Ok.”

The women walked back up towards the house. Matt stood watching them, his arms crossed. “I don’t know how we’re going to get the car out,” he said. “I can’t even get into the garage to get to the tools I need to open the door.”

“Don’t worry. We can’t do anything much until it’s daylight. Maybe once the sun is up Annie can drive you to the hardware store.” Rachel fleetingly wondered if the rising of the sun would bring any normality to the city.

Over the few days, the government of New Zealand scrambled to create order among the chaos. They announced to the people of Christchurch that damage to their houses and properties would be covered by payments from the Earthquake Commission (EQC), an entity established in 1945 to cover natural disasters. The EQC was funded, and continues to be funded, by levies paid by insurance policy holders.

Damage sustained to houses and properties varied considerably, with many houses rendered immediately unlivable. Other home owners were lucky to escape with only minor damages. However, underneath all the turmoil and fear and uncertainty, a small undercurrent of avarice was forming. It did not take people long to realize that they were required to provide very little evidence of damage in order to make a claim.

The EQC, overwhelmed by the sudden deluge of claims, some on a massive scale, struggled to cope. The process of making a claim was simplified to the process of the homeowner compiling a list and assigning a value to each item lost or irrevocably damaged, and by supplying a photograph of the claimed-for item.

A few weeks after the September 4 earthquake Rachel joined a few of her co-workers at the lunch room table. As always, talk was centered on earthquake news. She sat down quietly, not wishing to interrupt the discussion, and opened her lunch bag.

“Kathy used the same photo. She got her check in the mail yesterday. I guess she will be TV shopping this weekend.” Samantha was finishing her story.

Everyone at the table laughed. Rachel looked around the group. “What’s this about?”

“The TV photo which everyone is using. No-one at the EQC is questioning it. They’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Rachel unwrapped her sandwich. “What TV photo?”

John leaned forward. “Was your television damaged during the earthquake?”

Rachel shook her head. “No, the TV was fine. Which is surprising. It moved a couple of inches on the TV cabinet, but it didn’t fall over.” She took a bite of her sandwich.

“Is it one of those older, solid TVs? Not one of the new slim-line LEDs?” John had a knowing look on his face.

“Hell no. It’s an old thing. I kind of wish it had fallen off the table and broken. It would have been nice to get a new TV.”

“Kathy’s old television didn’t fall over either. Most of us have those old, heavy TVs that didn’t fall over and break.” Samantha looked at Rachel steadily, waiting for her words to sink in.

Rachel stopped still, her sandwich held in mid-air. “So you mean that Kathy used a photo of someone else’s broken TV in her claim? That’s cunning! Who would’ve thought of doing such a thing?”

John sat back in his chair and crossed his legs at the ankle. “A lot of people,” he said. “The same photo has been used by at least six people that I personally know of.” He winked. “Seven, if you count me.”

Rachel put her uneaten sandwich down on the paper bag. She looked around the table. “Are you all serious?”

Samantha shrugged. She screwed up her sandwich wrapping and stood up. “Depends how you look at it. We’ve all been paying into the EQC for years without making a claim.” 

She threw the balled-up paper into the rubbish bin and sauntered out of the kitchen.

February 22, 2011. At 12.51 pm, as the citizens of Christchurch rushed through their busy lunch hours, the city was once again rocked by a large earthquake, this one measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. This time, the earth was not quite so forgiving. 185 people lost their lives and several thousand more were injured. The city recoiled and huddled in shock. Many of the remaining historic buildings fell to their knees or were rendered repairable. The once noble city and modern of Christchurch was a virtual ruin.

Over the coming weeks, as the city counted its dead and assessed what remained of its buildings, the citizens re-evaluated their lives. It was a terrible time. However, through it all, the matter of how simple it was to acquire a new television set continued to hold sway, the knowledge a small win for the shell-shocked citizens.

Rachel sat at her desk and laughed as she read the nation’s foremost current affairs website. She looked up from her laptop. “Hey Matt, listen to this. According to the latest figures, after the February 2011 earthquake new television sales in Christchurch increased by 80%.” She looked at him, then glanced over at their new 55 inch LED television. It was anchored to the wall by a small silver chain, a tactic to provide security and prevent toppling in case of another ‘quake. Closing her computer, Rachel got up and walked across the room to join Matt on the sofa in front of the telly.

5
1
0
Juice
79 reads
Donate coins to CherieMitchell.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by CherieMitchell in portal Simon & Schuster
Outrageous Fortune
September 4, 2010, 4.35 am, Christchurch, New Zealand. On this day, as the clock ticked a few seconds past the 35-minute mark, forces beneath the earth conspired to cause above-ground havoc the like of which this Antipodean city had never seen before. At this moment, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake was unleashed, an earthquake which changed the lives of everyone who experienced it.

Rachel’s feet hit the floor before her eyes were properly open. The shaking and noise were unlike anything she had experienced previously, but she knew without a doubt that it was an earthquake. Her brain argued for a brief moment, insisting the sound was a freight train approaching from the northwest side of the house, a runaway, speeding train on a collision course with her bed. Her mouth disagreed, shouting “Earthquake” in a voice unfamiliar to her.

Her partner, Matt, was slightly delayed in his reaction. As the house shuddered and creaked, and the floorboards rocked and rolled beneath her feet, Rachel watched Matt, as if in slow motion, push back the covers and climb out of bed to stand, naked and disorientated, beside the door.

“Get under the door frame,” she shouted, a long forgotten memory of a schoolyard earthquake drill resurfacing, as the earthquake continued to rumble and shake around them, above them, below them. In every direction she could hear the sounds of things falling, breaking, crashing, and rolling.

The movement stopped as abruptly as it had started. Shocked and dazed, Rachel and Matt clung to each other and gazed wide-eyed at the destruction. Somewhere, a heavy object fell to the ground, its final surrender to gravity curiously postponed until after the shaking had stopped. “What was that?” Matt still seemed to be half asleep, struggling to comprehend.

“Earthquake.” Rachel said again. She grabbed for first her robe and then her mobile phone. She pressed the button to light up the screen. “There’s no service.”

Matt was moving as if under water, slowly pulling his jeans on and searching for his sweatshirt. Rachel felt a contrasting mixture of annoyance and exhilaration, irritated by Matt’s seeming lack of action yet electrified and stimulated by the suddenness and power of the earthquake. She had to move her body. Quickly, she ran up the hallway, past the now-fallen photographs and pictures, hopping nimbly over the broken glass which lay strewn across the carpet. She switched on the light in the kitchen. No power.

“Matt?” Rachel squinted her eyes in the dim light. Sun-up was still hours away. “Where are the matches? I want to light some candles.” She heard his footsteps as he walked up the hall, the crunch of glass shards beneath his shoes, and then he was standing beside her.

They found the matches and lit a couple of candles, ineffectual little tea-lights which struggled to properly illuminate the chaos around them. The entire pantry was scattered across the floor, the sticky contents of broken jam jars mixing erratically with spilled flour, sauce bottles, and dented tins of beans. The dishwasher had jumped out of its alcove under the bench and stood strangely in the middle of the floor. The toaster was dangling from the bench, supported by the bungee-line of its electric cord, still plugged into the wall. Drawers and cupboards hung open, disgorging cutlery and broken crockery across the bench top and floor. “Shit.” It was the first word Matt had spoken.

Rachel took a cautious step towards the lounge room, holding one of the small candles in front of her. A sudden ominous sound, a low rumble, prefaced another earthquake as the room began to shake and buck. Rachel grabbed for Matt as their surroundings swayed with the impact of another tremor.

“Jesus. I didn’t know that earthquakes came in twos.” The words had barely left her lips when yet another earthquake, long and shuddering, rippled through the house.
“I’ll find the radio. I think it’s got batteries in it.” Matt gently unloosened Rachel’s grip on his arm and picked his way through the mess on the floor. Rachel stood still, waiting and listening. Were there more earthquakes coming?

Matt returned with the old paint-splattered radio. He placed it on the bench and swivelled a few knobs. Every station was either playing music or emitting the crackle of static. Matt dropped his hands by his side. “Nothing. I can’t find a station where people are actually talking. We have to find out what’s happening. Is your phone working yet?”

Rachel checked the screen again. No service. She shook her head. “Should we drive to Mum’s house? We should check on her.”

Matt was already at the door. Rachel bent her head and quickly blew out the candles. “I won’t get dressed. Come on, let’s go before another earthquake hits.”

Outside, the sky was starless and inky black. Something was different. Rachel looked around. The street lights. There were no street lights. She looked towards the Port Hills, the guardians of the city, always covered by tiny pinpricks of lights from the faraway houses nestling the slopes. For the first time in her living memory the hills were dark and unlit, now merely large hulking shadows against the inky skyline. “Matt, look at the Port Hills.” Her voice sounded too loud in the eerie stillness of the early morning.

“I can’t get the garage door open.” Matt was struggling with the fold-down door. “I think it’s buckled. It won’t shift.”

Rachel didn’t answer. She heard voices out on the street. She walked the short distance down the drive, pulling her robe tightly around her. The asphalt was rough and cold beneath her bare feet. Groups of neighbors stood about, their voices tense with shock, fear, and excitement. Annie, the young mother from the house next door, stood by her letterbox, her blanket-covered baby held tightly in her arms. “Are you ok, Annie?”

The young woman stared at her, her eyes wide. “It was awful! I thought it was a train. I’m too scared to go back inside. Mick is away at the moment. My phone isn’t working. I can’t get hold of him.”

Rachel turned back to look up the drive. Matt was still pulling at the door. She could hear his curses from here. She smiled at Annie reassuringly. “Do you want to come and sit with us?”

Annie sniffed and nodded, rocking her whimpering baby gently. “Ok.”

The women walked back up towards the house. Matt stood watching them, his arms crossed. “I don’t know how we’re going to get the car out,” he said. “I can’t even get into the garage to get to the tools I need to open the door.”

“Don’t worry. We can’t do anything much until it’s daylight. Maybe once the sun is up Annie can drive you to the hardware store.” Rachel fleetingly wondered if the rising of the sun would bring any normality to the city.

Over the few days, the government of New Zealand scrambled to create order among the chaos. They announced to the people of Christchurch that damage to their houses and properties would be covered by payments from the Earthquake Commission (EQC), an entity established in 1945 to cover natural disasters. The EQC was funded, and continues to be funded, by levies paid by insurance policy holders.

Damage sustained to houses and properties varied considerably, with many houses rendered immediately unlivable. Other home owners were lucky to escape with only minor damages. However, underneath all the turmoil and fear and uncertainty, a small undercurrent of avarice was forming. It did not take people long to realize that they were required to provide very little evidence of damage in order to make a claim.

The EQC, overwhelmed by the sudden deluge of claims, some on a massive scale, struggled to cope. The process of making a claim was simplified to the process of the homeowner compiling a list and assigning a value to each item lost or irrevocably damaged, and by supplying a photograph of the claimed-for item.

A few weeks after the September 4 earthquake Rachel joined a few of her co-workers at the lunch room table. As always, talk was centered on earthquake news. She sat down quietly, not wishing to interrupt the discussion, and opened her lunch bag.

“Kathy used the same photo. She got her check in the mail yesterday. I guess she will be TV shopping this weekend.” Samantha was finishing her story.

Everyone at the table laughed. Rachel looked around the group. “What’s this about?”

“The TV photo which everyone is using. No-one at the EQC is questioning it. They’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Rachel unwrapped her sandwich. “What TV photo?”

John leaned forward. “Was your television damaged during the earthquake?”

Rachel shook her head. “No, the TV was fine. Which is surprising. It moved a couple of inches on the TV cabinet, but it didn’t fall over.” She took a bite of her sandwich.

“Is it one of those older, solid TVs? Not one of the new slim-line LEDs?” John had a knowing look on his face.

“Hell no. It’s an old thing. I kind of wish it had fallen off the table and broken. It would have been nice to get a new TV.”

“Kathy’s old television didn’t fall over either. Most of us have those old, heavy TVs that didn’t fall over and break.” Samantha looked at Rachel steadily, waiting for her words to sink in.

Rachel stopped still, her sandwich held in mid-air. “So you mean that Kathy used a photo of someone else’s broken TV in her claim? That’s cunning! Who would’ve thought of doing such a thing?”

John sat back in his chair and crossed his legs at the ankle. “A lot of people,” he said. “The same photo has been used by at least six people that I personally know of.” He winked. “Seven, if you count me.”

Rachel put her uneaten sandwich down on the paper bag. She looked around the table. “Are you all serious?”

Samantha shrugged. She screwed up her sandwich wrapping and stood up. “Depends how you look at it. We’ve all been paying into the EQC for years without making a claim.” 

She threw the balled-up paper into the rubbish bin and sauntered out of the kitchen.
February 22, 2011. At 12.51 pm, as the citizens of Christchurch rushed through their busy lunch hours, the city was once again rocked by a large earthquake, this one measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. This time, the earth was not quite so forgiving. 185 people lost their lives and several thousand more were injured. The city recoiled and huddled in shock. Many of the remaining historic buildings fell to their knees or were rendered repairable. The once noble city and modern of Christchurch was a virtual ruin.

Over the coming weeks, as the city counted its dead and assessed what remained of its buildings, the citizens re-evaluated their lives. It was a terrible time. However, through it all, the matter of how simple it was to acquire a new television set continued to hold sway, the knowledge a small win for the shell-shocked citizens.

Rachel sat at her desk and laughed as she read the nation’s foremost current affairs website. She looked up from her laptop. “Hey Matt, listen to this. According to the latest figures, after the February 2011 earthquake new television sales in Christchurch increased by 80%.” She looked at him, then glanced over at their new 55 inch LED television. It was anchored to the wall by a small silver chain, a tactic to provide security and prevent toppling in case of another ‘quake. Closing her computer, Rachel got up and walked across the room to join Matt on the sofa in front of the telly.


5
1
0
Juice
79 reads
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to Alan_MacRaffen.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Alan_MacRaffen in portal Simon & Schuster

A Correspondence with the New World

Dearest Brother,

I hope that this letter finds you well, and that your journey to the New World was a safe one. I understand that the trip is long, and that the hardships and unpredictability of travel by sail over such a distance can be substantial. Still, it has been nearly three months; surely by now you must have reached your destination. I shall refuse to contemplate any other alternative for my dear brother.

Please write back to me! I so desperately wish to hear tales of that faraway land. I understand that the flora and fauna are remarkable, both in their disparities and similarities to our own. Even more so, I am eager to hear of your sightings of the native savages. Please take care if you should see one, though. I have heard that they can be quite brutal. Susanna has told me many stories of their barbaric attacks with bows and arrows, and of their use of all manner of wicked axes and knives, to the point that I was forced to beg her to stop, lest I burst into tears for your safety.

I would tell you more of events here at home, but little has changed in London in the past season. The flowers are blooming nicely in the garden, and father has begun his horseback riding again, which surely must mean that the ailment which plagued his poor back all winter has passed. It gladdens me greatly to see him enjoying himself outdoors as he used to.

I look forward to your letters with eager anticipation. Please spare no details—I wish to know everything!

P.S. Is it true that the Sun which circles the New World is of a different hue than our own?

Your loving sister,

Eleanor

—————————————

Dear Eleanor

I am sorry for the shortness of this letter. I promised you that I would write as soon as I made port, but things have been more harried and distracting than I ever anticipated. I must tell you, first of all, of the wondrous passage to the New World.

Upon leaving port in London we traveled by sail, as is customary. However, after circling Westward and passing the Westernmost shores of Ireland, we proceeded most swiftly across the water, the currents and winds blowing ever more forcefully as we approached the boundary of the Terrestrial Disk. It was with no small amount of terror that I beheld the jagged rocks and crashing surf that marked the Edge of the World. However, the navigator was quite adept and had no trouble at all directing our passage toward a gap in that ancient and colossal wall. Here, we passed out along the flow of water, leaving behind entirely the cradling support of Our World. The waters of the Empyrean Flow do not simply fall after passing beyond the Terminus of the World, as some manner of Natural Force appears to be in effect between Our World and the distant New World, drawing it back and forth in opposing streams.

Before I departed England, you asked me to observe and report back to you about the denizens of the New World, as we see so few imported to Our Own World. You will be pleased to know that there are indeed a great many Natives working, trading, and living right here in the city! It is quite remarkable to observe them in such great profusion. They are widely varied in their appearance as you know, but I am sad to say that they are, for the most part, dressed as any typical servant or dockworker one would find in the poorer parts of London. Your dream of seeing them decked in their dramatic furs and flamboyantly archaic trappings seems to be for naught, at least here in port.

Physically, though, they are most extraordinary. I know that you have seen several of the smaller-statured varieties in London as house servants and dockworkers, and we are all familiar with the beauty of the Host, but there are varieties here that are quite different than those I have seen previously.

I observed one of them lifting an entire stack of loaded crates from the ship when we arrived. He was tremendously tall, at least double my own height, and he possessed an unusual proportion of limbs; elongate and quite sturdy, like the beams of a house. He had great curling Horns upon his head, Eleanor! It was not a headdress, though I took it to be at first glance. They grew out of his thick mane like those of a ram. And his voice was stunningly deep and resonant. It sounded rather like your friend Richard’s bass cello. The ship’s mate Angus informed me that he was an Ogre, though I heard him rumble a word under his breath in response, which sounded more like “howgra.” I understand that the denizens of the New World speak a plethora of languages, and I wonder if perhaps that is what his people call themselves. I shall have to undertake to learn more about them, as all varieties seem to abound in and around the city, both above and below the cliffs of the great waterfall.

I apologize for cutting my letter short—there is so much more to tell!—but I must return to my work. His Lordship’s duties are quite demanding, but the Dweomer will not mine itself (would that it could!) and the Service of the Crown is its own reward, as he so often reminds us.

Love always,

John

—————————————

My Dear Jonathan,

I was so enthralled by your description of the Empyrean Passage and that bestial ogre! You simply must find the time to tell me more. I do hope that you wrote the words “his people” in jest. It is important that we do not ascribe to them the qualities of humanity which we alone possess. We must strive to keep them separate in our minds so as not to become confused or fall prey to the clever similarity of their forms. Susanna says that the Natives are not to be trusted no matter how well-behaved they may seem, as they are not endowed with souls and so may act freely as animals in all matters, satisfying the desires of the moment without fear of punishment, as they are without an afterlife. I must confess that while I am eager for more descriptions of the exotic species surrounding you, I also remain fearful for your safety. Do not trust them, Jonathan. Even the very small ones are clever, as a fox is clever in a hen house.

I am also greatly curious to learn more about Lord Langley’s great project to extract Dweomer from the very earth. It is so strange, to think that such a miraculously powerful substance could simply be mined from the stones of the New World. It remains so potent and versatile after so long a journey and any number of years of storage! Even now, I write this letter by its light channeled through my lamp, and the street outside the gate is lit in much the same fashion. How does it appear when it is in the ground? I know that you are not directly involved in the operation of Lord Langley’s mine, but I do not know who better to ask. Is it anything like the vaporous fluid with which we are familiar? And in what manner can it be efficiently mined from the Earth? Is it even proper to refer to the ground of the New World as Earth? Being an entirely different World may require the concoction of new terms and words. “The Atlantean Disk” perhaps? “Xenographia Planus?” I think I am not the one to decide it!

I am sad to say that father is unwell again. His knee is now the culprit, and I suspect that it shall vex him into the Autumn and throughout the Winter. Nevertheless, his back remains sound, and I hold hope that his troublesome knee will not cause him the same degree of unhappiness as his back did last winter. Include him in your prayers, and we may yet see him recover.

Your ever-curious Sister,

Eleanor

—————————————

Dear Eleanor

I apologize for the great length of time since last I wrote. I fear that matters in the New World are not at all as we imagined in our youth. My friend Bhanush has counseled me not to become involved, and not to even trouble my family by writing any of this to you. He is wise, and obviously concerned for my safety, as is his nature. The Haugra are not Ogres. They are not fiends as you or your friend Susanna would depict them. Nor are the Ardu, or Vosen, or even the Brakkan. Bhanush has explained much to me, and I feel as if the scales have dropped from my eyes.

Where is the Dweomer going, Eleanor? It does not see much use here. They keep it in small quantities and restrict its use greatly. Nearly all of it is shipped back to the Old World and the Empire. I am glad that you enjoy its safe light. Yet why is it that even here, a portion of the city inhabited mostly by Hovthar, Empisi and lower-class human workers was nearly burned off of the cliffs last week when a fire spread out of control? It was an oil lamp, they tell us, dropped in a barn. Why should we live by oil-light when Dweomer light is so plentiful, near at hand, and burns cool to the touch?

There is a stigma at work here. There are plans and designs of which none of us are informed. They fear the use of the Dweomer by the denizens of this land. I have seen the mines. They will not employ Volkahsi! They are constantly telling us “The Dwarves are born to dig holes!” and “The others get their metals from the Dwarves!” Why then, are they afraid to employ the Volkahsi in Langley’s mine? They know something. They know something that the Volkahsi know, and they fear it. I must learn more!

I fear for the peoples of the New World, sister. They are indeed people, and I use that word knowingly and unabashedly. I speak not from ignorance, nor from foolishness. The sentiment is not uncommon here, where we live and work together with so many of them. But King George’s servants look on the rest of us with a cold eye. There is indeed a stigma at work, but I have yet to fully comprehend it, I think. I fear for these wondrous peoples. They are beautiful, but I think that they may have suffered a great misfortune to meet us. Had we never discovered the Empyrean Passage, I think that we would have spared them much danger. We would be engaged in the tragic harassment of the peaceful inhabitants of some undiscovered island or continent, I am certain. But we would at least have confined our schemes to our own world and people.

I fear that the more I uncover, the less I will be able to tell you. For your own safety, and Father’s as well, you may not hear from me for some time. Remember that I love you both immeasurably. Be careful, and be silent. I do not wish for my moral outrage to endanger my dear family. It would be best if you burn this letter, lest they seek to pry from you answers which you do not possess.

John

—————————————

Your Royal Majesty,

I regret to inform you of the interception of the enclosed letters from the Bristol Estate. As has been surmised previously, there is a growing trend of insubordination which I fear may progress into full-fledged insurrection.

I humbly request an Audience with Your Royal Majesty at the earliest possible convenience, to address the problem.

With utmost Loyalty and Devotion to the Crown,

V.S.C.

4
1
0
Juice
216 reads
Donate coins to Alan_MacRaffen.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Alan_MacRaffen in portal Simon & Schuster
A Correspondence with the New World
Dearest Brother,

I hope that this letter finds you well, and that your journey to the New World was a safe one. I understand that the trip is long, and that the hardships and unpredictability of travel by sail over such a distance can be substantial. Still, it has been nearly three months; surely by now you must have reached your destination. I shall refuse to contemplate any other alternative for my dear brother.

Please write back to me! I so desperately wish to hear tales of that faraway land. I understand that the flora and fauna are remarkable, both in their disparities and similarities to our own. Even more so, I am eager to hear of your sightings of the native savages. Please take care if you should see one, though. I have heard that they can be quite brutal. Susanna has told me many stories of their barbaric attacks with bows and arrows, and of their use of all manner of wicked axes and knives, to the point that I was forced to beg her to stop, lest I burst into tears for your safety.

I would tell you more of events here at home, but little has changed in London in the past season. The flowers are blooming nicely in the garden, and father has begun his horseback riding again, which surely must mean that the ailment which plagued his poor back all winter has passed. It gladdens me greatly to see him enjoying himself outdoors as he used to.

I look forward to your letters with eager anticipation. Please spare no details—I wish to know everything!

P.S. Is it true that the Sun which circles the New World is of a different hue than our own?

Your loving sister,
Eleanor

—————————————

Dear Eleanor

I am sorry for the shortness of this letter. I promised you that I would write as soon as I made port, but things have been more harried and distracting than I ever anticipated. I must tell you, first of all, of the wondrous passage to the New World.

Upon leaving port in London we traveled by sail, as is customary. However, after circling Westward and passing the Westernmost shores of Ireland, we proceeded most swiftly across the water, the currents and winds blowing ever more forcefully as we approached the boundary of the Terrestrial Disk. It was with no small amount of terror that I beheld the jagged rocks and crashing surf that marked the Edge of the World. However, the navigator was quite adept and had no trouble at all directing our passage toward a gap in that ancient and colossal wall. Here, we passed out along the flow of water, leaving behind entirely the cradling support of Our World. The waters of the Empyrean Flow do not simply fall after passing beyond the Terminus of the World, as some manner of Natural Force appears to be in effect between Our World and the distant New World, drawing it back and forth in opposing streams.

Before I departed England, you asked me to observe and report back to you about the denizens of the New World, as we see so few imported to Our Own World. You will be pleased to know that there are indeed a great many Natives working, trading, and living right here in the city! It is quite remarkable to observe them in such great profusion. They are widely varied in their appearance as you know, but I am sad to say that they are, for the most part, dressed as any typical servant or dockworker one would find in the poorer parts of London. Your dream of seeing them decked in their dramatic furs and flamboyantly archaic trappings seems to be for naught, at least here in port.

Physically, though, they are most extraordinary. I know that you have seen several of the smaller-statured varieties in London as house servants and dockworkers, and we are all familiar with the beauty of the Host, but there are varieties here that are quite different than those I have seen previously.

I observed one of them lifting an entire stack of loaded crates from the ship when we arrived. He was tremendously tall, at least double my own height, and he possessed an unusual proportion of limbs; elongate and quite sturdy, like the beams of a house. He had great curling Horns upon his head, Eleanor! It was not a headdress, though I took it to be at first glance. They grew out of his thick mane like those of a ram. And his voice was stunningly deep and resonant. It sounded rather like your friend Richard’s bass cello. The ship’s mate Angus informed me that he was an Ogre, though I heard him rumble a word under his breath in response, which sounded more like “howgra.” I understand that the denizens of the New World speak a plethora of languages, and I wonder if perhaps that is what his people call themselves. I shall have to undertake to learn more about them, as all varieties seem to abound in and around the city, both above and below the cliffs of the great waterfall.

I apologize for cutting my letter short—there is so much more to tell!—but I must return to my work. His Lordship’s duties are quite demanding, but the Dweomer will not mine itself (would that it could!) and the Service of the Crown is its own reward, as he so often reminds us.

Love always,
John

—————————————

My Dear Jonathan,

I was so enthralled by your description of the Empyrean Passage and that bestial ogre! You simply must find the time to tell me more. I do hope that you wrote the words “his people” in jest. It is important that we do not ascribe to them the qualities of humanity which we alone possess. We must strive to keep them separate in our minds so as not to become confused or fall prey to the clever similarity of their forms. Susanna says that the Natives are not to be trusted no matter how well-behaved they may seem, as they are not endowed with souls and so may act freely as animals in all matters, satisfying the desires of the moment without fear of punishment, as they are without an afterlife. I must confess that while I am eager for more descriptions of the exotic species surrounding you, I also remain fearful for your safety. Do not trust them, Jonathan. Even the very small ones are clever, as a fox is clever in a hen house.

I am also greatly curious to learn more about Lord Langley’s great project to extract Dweomer from the very earth. It is so strange, to think that such a miraculously powerful substance could simply be mined from the stones of the New World. It remains so potent and versatile after so long a journey and any number of years of storage! Even now, I write this letter by its light channeled through my lamp, and the street outside the gate is lit in much the same fashion. How does it appear when it is in the ground? I know that you are not directly involved in the operation of Lord Langley’s mine, but I do not know who better to ask. Is it anything like the vaporous fluid with which we are familiar? And in what manner can it be efficiently mined from the Earth? Is it even proper to refer to the ground of the New World as Earth? Being an entirely different World may require the concoction of new terms and words. “The Atlantean Disk” perhaps? “Xenographia Planus?” I think I am not the one to decide it!

I am sad to say that father is unwell again. His knee is now the culprit, and I suspect that it shall vex him into the Autumn and throughout the Winter. Nevertheless, his back remains sound, and I hold hope that his troublesome knee will not cause him the same degree of unhappiness as his back did last winter. Include him in your prayers, and we may yet see him recover.

Your ever-curious Sister,
Eleanor

—————————————

Dear Eleanor

I apologize for the great length of time since last I wrote. I fear that matters in the New World are not at all as we imagined in our youth. My friend Bhanush has counseled me not to become involved, and not to even trouble my family by writing any of this to you. He is wise, and obviously concerned for my safety, as is his nature. The Haugra are not Ogres. They are not fiends as you or your friend Susanna would depict them. Nor are the Ardu, or Vosen, or even the Brakkan. Bhanush has explained much to me, and I feel as if the scales have dropped from my eyes.

Where is the Dweomer going, Eleanor? It does not see much use here. They keep it in small quantities and restrict its use greatly. Nearly all of it is shipped back to the Old World and the Empire. I am glad that you enjoy its safe light. Yet why is it that even here, a portion of the city inhabited mostly by Hovthar, Empisi and lower-class human workers was nearly burned off of the cliffs last week when a fire spread out of control? It was an oil lamp, they tell us, dropped in a barn. Why should we live by oil-light when Dweomer light is so plentiful, near at hand, and burns cool to the touch?

There is a stigma at work here. There are plans and designs of which none of us are informed. They fear the use of the Dweomer by the denizens of this land. I have seen the mines. They will not employ Volkahsi! They are constantly telling us “The Dwarves are born to dig holes!” and “The others get their metals from the Dwarves!” Why then, are they afraid to employ the Volkahsi in Langley’s mine? They know something. They know something that the Volkahsi know, and they fear it. I must learn more!

I fear for the peoples of the New World, sister. They are indeed people, and I use that word knowingly and unabashedly. I speak not from ignorance, nor from foolishness. The sentiment is not uncommon here, where we live and work together with so many of them. But King George’s servants look on the rest of us with a cold eye. There is indeed a stigma at work, but I have yet to fully comprehend it, I think. I fear for these wondrous peoples. They are beautiful, but I think that they may have suffered a great misfortune to meet us. Had we never discovered the Empyrean Passage, I think that we would have spared them much danger. We would be engaged in the tragic harassment of the peaceful inhabitants of some undiscovered island or continent, I am certain. But we would at least have confined our schemes to our own world and people.

I fear that the more I uncover, the less I will be able to tell you. For your own safety, and Father’s as well, you may not hear from me for some time. Remember that I love you both immeasurably. Be careful, and be silent. I do not wish for my moral outrage to endanger my dear family. It would be best if you burn this letter, lest they seek to pry from you answers which you do not possess.

John

—————————————

Your Royal Majesty,

I regret to inform you of the interception of the enclosed letters from the Bristol Estate. As has been surmised previously, there is a growing trend of insubordination which I fear may progress into full-fledged insurrection.

I humbly request an Audience with Your Royal Majesty at the earliest possible convenience, to address the problem.

With utmost Loyalty and Devotion to the Crown,
V.S.C.
4
1
0
Juice
216 reads
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to defyme.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by defyme in portal Simon & Schuster

Under the Skin (Excerpt)

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” 

― Abraham Lincoln

THERE IS BLOOD on the walls.

Not human blood, unfortunately, but cow blood. While the texture is similar, it still does not meet your needs as it does not reciprocate the deep red color you had originally wanted. Alas, the town was rather crowded and breaking into the hospital again seemed such like a hassle so you grabbed the first cow you could find, slaughtered it, stored its meat, and took three buckets of its blood. It was quite savagery (you even admit) but at the same time, it was dreadfully necessary. For a cause like the one you were fighting for, some innocent deaths were inevitable. Save for in the end, it would be the guilty that would pay the most.

A sly smile danced on your lips at the thought. You had waited too long for this. Countless nights spent plotting, planning, making certain that every ploy was not to fail and now, it was all going to pay off. You let your eyelids fall as you played out scenarios in your head that would most likely happen. You knew that they – the people you planned to trap – would immediately assume it was a game they were playing. Much like chess, they would think that they would make one move and you would make yours.

Albeit a good assumption, there was one little thing wrong: it wasn’t a game at all.

It was an illusion.

For what is a game if the opponent is the architect that designed the board, assigned the players, created the obstacles, and already decided the ending? What is a game if the opponent has already won? No, it wasn’t a game. Not for you, at least. Instead, for you, it was a movie. You had spent countless nights planning each scene, writing out the conflict, the setting, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the resolution and now, at last, you would be able to see it all acted out. You would be able to see your designated actors run across the stage, trying to make sense of the plot, taking decisive steps thinking it would lead them out of their situation only to later discover that no, it was never their plan after all. It was all yours. You were the initiator, the mastermind, the puppet master.

And they were just puppeteers.

Starring in your movie, playing your game, working to your planned finale.

You opened your eyes. The devious smile on your lips broadened as the thought settled around you. A feeling of omniscience rushed through your body as your grip on the paintbrush dipped in cow blood tightened. With agility, you continued writing out the message on the walls. The strokes were harsh and callous and by the end of it, the belly of your paint brush was in disarray. Not that it mattered, though—you wouldn’t use the brush anymore anyways. A tired sigh left your lips as you stepped back to admire your handiwork. You were done. At last, you were done and at last, you could lie down and watch the movie.

Correction: your movie.

And it had just begun.

5
1
2
Juice
79 reads
Donate coins to defyme.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by defyme in portal Simon & Schuster
Under the Skin (Excerpt)
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” 
― Abraham Lincoln



THERE IS BLOOD on the walls.

Not human blood, unfortunately, but cow blood. While the texture is similar, it still does not meet your needs as it does not reciprocate the deep red color you had originally wanted. Alas, the town was rather crowded and breaking into the hospital again seemed such like a hassle so you grabbed the first cow you could find, slaughtered it, stored its meat, and took three buckets of its blood. It was quite savagery (you even admit) but at the same time, it was dreadfully necessary. For a cause like the one you were fighting for, some innocent deaths were inevitable. Save for in the end, it would be the guilty that would pay the most.

A sly smile danced on your lips at the thought. You had waited too long for this. Countless nights spent plotting, planning, making certain that every ploy was not to fail and now, it was all going to pay off. You let your eyelids fall as you played out scenarios in your head that would most likely happen. You knew that they – the people you planned to trap – would immediately assume it was a game they were playing. Much like chess, they would think that they would make one move and you would make yours.

Albeit a good assumption, there was one little thing wrong: it wasn’t a game at all.

It was an illusion.

For what is a game if the opponent is the architect that designed the board, assigned the players, created the obstacles, and already decided the ending? What is a game if the opponent has already won? No, it wasn’t a game. Not for you, at least. Instead, for you, it was a movie. You had spent countless nights planning each scene, writing out the conflict, the setting, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the resolution and now, at last, you would be able to see it all acted out. You would be able to see your designated actors run across the stage, trying to make sense of the plot, taking decisive steps thinking it would lead them out of their situation only to later discover that no, it was never their plan after all. It was all yours. You were the initiator, the mastermind, the puppet master.

And they were just puppeteers.

Starring in your movie, playing your game, working to your planned finale.

You opened your eyes. The devious smile on your lips broadened as the thought settled around you. A feeling of omniscience rushed through your body as your grip on the paintbrush dipped in cow blood tightened. With agility, you continued writing out the message on the walls. The strokes were harsh and callous and by the end of it, the belly of your paint brush was in disarray. Not that it mattered, though—you wouldn’t use the brush anymore anyways. A tired sigh left your lips as you stepped back to admire your handiwork. You were done. At last, you were done and at last, you could lie down and watch the movie.

Correction: your movie.

And it had just begun.
5
1
2
Juice
79 reads
Load 2 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Jumotki.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Jumotki in portal Simon & Schuster

Here the World is Quiet (Chapter 1)

The man was still caught in the rose bushes.

Mari watched from the windows of what had once been the library lobby, the view of the gardens distorted from smears of dirt and blood on the glass. The figure in the distance slumped forward in a web of barbed branches, spread-eagled—a crucified ragdoll.

As she watched, the man jerked with a renewed spasm of strength.

Mari had spent a sleepless night thinking about the man, alone in the dark, with the many teeth of his prison sinking deeper into his body. Although she avoided windows at night, guilt propelled her to turn on the emergency flashlight, which flickered with dying battery life, and squint into the complete darkness. In the early hours of the morning, she ran to the window to see if the man was still there.

She was lying to herself—none of the other ones had been able to extricate their bodies from the thorns. Mari hated herself for hesitating, for clinging to the safety of the library.

The man in the rose bushes threw his head back and gaped at the sky, mouth opening and closing mutely. He collapsed backwards, heavily, into the thorns.

He would stay there until he died, like the other one.

The others were out already. They wandered like spectres in the gray dawn and tripped over the grass-covered sidewalks and parking lot. None of them made any move to help the struggling man.

Ryan, the maintenance guy, swayed by the side of the building. A man stared at a tree, open robe flapping over the shrunken skin folds of his stomach. And there on the steps, head on her knees, crouched the old woman she had cut from the bushes only a week ago.

Those who got caught avoided the bushes afterwards, an observation Mari found vaguely hopeful: it suggested that the Senseless, if nothing else, had the ability to learn.

Her footsteps sounded too loud in the emptiness of the library. She opened the door a crack and peered outside. An eye stared back at her, bloodshot and unblinking.

“Excuse me, Janice,” Mari said, gently pushing the woman out of the way.

Janice put both of her hands on the library doors like she was being frisked. She turned her head sideways to watch her, with only a shadow of the former intensity she had when she interviewed Mari two years before.

Mari was uneasy about the unlocked door. The entrance doors were heavy and the pull motion seemed beyond their comprehension. Leaving the door locked meant she would struggle with getting back in, and those extra seconds were crucial if something were to come after her.

And Sam, who was different, who had somehow stayed hidden in the library for hours without her knowing, was out there somewhere.

The gash on her forehead sent threads of pain through her body as she walked down the steps. Around her head were makeshift bandages torn from a discarded shirt and disinfected with the contents of an expired bottle of hydrogen peroxide. The same strips of cloth were wound around both of her hands.

At the bottom of the steps, Mari looked around. She felt, as she often did, like she was floating underwater. The Senseless drifted slowly past her, pausing to gaze at a rock, a tree, a passing bird. Some eyes tracked her, but nothing else did.

“Weeds are nature's way of reminding us who’s really in charge,” Janice had told her once, in her customary wide-brimmed hat and dirty jeans. Under her management, the garden grew spectacularly bright roses in aligned rows throughout the rectangular lawn. Now the rows of bushes entwined into a furious tangle of blooms, vines, and thorned branches like spiked clubs.

Mari waded shoulder-high through the brambles, cutting a passage through an overgrown path with her office scissors, last used to repair worn book covers. Thorns, bright orange and red, some several inches long, snagged her jeans and long-sleeved shirt, and pulled her hair.

The ensnared man tilted his head to look at her. He wore the remnants of what had been an expensive suit, with gray slacks and button-down blue shirt. Branches pulled these clothes in all directions.

As Mari approached, the man panicked again and thrashed wildly; she could see the thorns catch his skin and break it open, blood on his face and the exposed patches of his arms. Another wave of guilt swept over her. 

I should have cut him out sooner.

She sawed the brambles with her stupidly small scissors and plucked thorns from his skin. The man’s face was stubbled and raw, and his eyes were wet—his eyes were pieces of sky—and he made a sudden spasming movement; shoving her backwards into the thorns.

 

She screamed as the thorns clawed through her clothes and into her back.

The man screamed the way the Senseless do—silently, mouth gaping, a wash of saliva flooding his chin.

And he lurched free.

He tottered away, branches trailing from his pants and his shirt.

After the first rescue, when she had to strip a woman who had been caught at the edge of the gardens, Mari attempted to shape each bush with her limited gardening experience. She hacked at the roses with increasingly blunt scissors, trying to regain the sense of beauty and precision which had once been a dependable fixture of the library.

The next day, there had been an older gentleman who stood patiently, docile as a fawn, while she cut around him. And the day after, a teenager, who whipped her body around and foamed at the mouth like something rabid. She was the youngest Mari had seen so far.

After the teen had fought her rescue attempts, landing several painful whacks on her face, Mari used a small trowel (bought once for an ambitious gardening display) in a desperate attempt to dig out the rose bushes. She couldn't hack through the dense network of root and vine.

She was tired, so tired. Every part of her felt bruised and torn; her head pounded at the temples and her back was on fire. She was sick of these rescues, sick of cutting the Senseless loose from this hellish snare of thorns, sick of their primitive fear jumping out at her like a wild animal.

Mari struggled from the bushes and stumbled back inside the library to collect the tools needed to exact her final solution, as the Senseless wandered in aimless circles.

She doused the bushes with flammable liquids—everything she could find in her foraging, all the acetonic hair spray, hand sanitizer, nail polish remover—and set fire to the first bush. Thick black smoke appeared and she choked on the acrid smell, like foul incense, pouring into her lungs. A rose, the size of her hand, burned like paper. As the flames spread to each rose bush, and the dense undergrowth of vines and grasses, she envisioned the library burning like wildfire. Closing her eyes, feeling the heat against her face, she almost wished it would happen. Mari could see the books she had fought so hard to protect imploding like little suns. She and the Senseless, human torches, running in the dark.

No more traps. No more fear.

The smoke swirled around her. She cried out when she felt something brush against her and whirled around. Janice looked back at her and sat abruptly in the dirt, too close to the flames. The fire lit her empty face.

Mari grabbed Janice under her scrawny arms and dragged her to the library steps. They sat together and watched the fire rise in waves. Things burst with loud pops. Covered in dirt and sweat, her head split open and bleeding, Mari watched the approaching inferno. 

And she waited.

113
31
93
Juice
895 reads
Donate coins to Jumotki.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Jumotki in portal Simon & Schuster
Here the World is Quiet (Chapter 1)
The man was still caught in the rose bushes.

Mari watched from the windows of what had once been the library lobby, the view of the gardens distorted from smears of dirt and blood on the glass. The figure in the distance slumped forward in a web of barbed branches, spread-eagled—a crucified ragdoll.

As she watched, the man jerked with a renewed spasm of strength.

Mari had spent a sleepless night thinking about the man, alone in the dark, with the many teeth of his prison sinking deeper into his body. Although she avoided windows at night, guilt propelled her to turn on the emergency flashlight, which flickered with dying battery life, and squint into the complete darkness. In the early hours of the morning, she ran to the window to see if the man was still there.

She was lying to herself—none of the other ones had been able to extricate their bodies from the thorns. Mari hated herself for hesitating, for clinging to the safety of the library.

The man in the rose bushes threw his head back and gaped at the sky, mouth opening and closing mutely. He collapsed backwards, heavily, into the thorns.

He would stay there until he died, like the other one.

The others were out already. They wandered like spectres in the gray dawn and tripped over the grass-covered sidewalks and parking lot. None of them made any move to help the struggling man.

Ryan, the maintenance guy, swayed by the side of the building. A man stared at a tree, open robe flapping over the shrunken skin folds of his stomach. And there on the steps, head on her knees, crouched the old woman she had cut from the bushes only a week ago.

Those who got caught avoided the bushes afterwards, an observation Mari found vaguely hopeful: it suggested that the Senseless, if nothing else, had the ability to learn.

Her footsteps sounded too loud in the emptiness of the library. She opened the door a crack and peered outside. An eye stared back at her, bloodshot and unblinking.

“Excuse me, Janice,” Mari said, gently pushing the woman out of the way.

Janice put both of her hands on the library doors like she was being frisked. She turned her head sideways to watch her, with only a shadow of the former intensity she had when she interviewed Mari two years before.

Mari was uneasy about the unlocked door. The entrance doors were heavy and the pull motion seemed beyond their comprehension. Leaving the door locked meant she would struggle with getting back in, and those extra seconds were crucial if something were to come after her.

And Sam, who was different, who had somehow stayed hidden in the library for hours without her knowing, was out there somewhere.

The gash on her forehead sent threads of pain through her body as she walked down the steps. Around her head were makeshift bandages torn from a discarded shirt and disinfected with the contents of an expired bottle of hydrogen peroxide. The same strips of cloth were wound around both of her hands.

At the bottom of the steps, Mari looked around. She felt, as she often did, like she was floating underwater. The Senseless drifted slowly past her, pausing to gaze at a rock, a tree, a passing bird. Some eyes tracked her, but nothing else did.

“Weeds are nature's way of reminding us who’s really in charge,” Janice had told her once, in her customary wide-brimmed hat and dirty jeans. Under her management, the garden grew spectacularly bright roses in aligned rows throughout the rectangular lawn. Now the rows of bushes entwined into a furious tangle of blooms, vines, and thorned branches like spiked clubs.

Mari waded shoulder-high through the brambles, cutting a passage through an overgrown path with her office scissors, last used to repair worn book covers. Thorns, bright orange and red, some several inches long, snagged her jeans and long-sleeved shirt, and pulled her hair.

The ensnared man tilted his head to look at her. He wore the remnants of what had been an expensive suit, with gray slacks and button-down blue shirt. Branches pulled these clothes in all directions.

As Mari approached, the man panicked again and thrashed wildly; she could see the thorns catch his skin and break it open, blood on his face and the exposed patches of his arms. Another wave of guilt swept over her. 

I should have cut him out sooner.

She sawed the brambles with her stupidly small scissors and plucked thorns from his skin. The man’s face was stubbled and raw, and his eyes were wet—his eyes were pieces of sky—and he made a sudden spasming movement; shoving her backwards into the thorns.
 
She screamed as the thorns clawed through her clothes and into her back.

The man screamed the way the Senseless do—silently, mouth gaping, a wash of saliva flooding his chin.

And he lurched free.

He tottered away, branches trailing from his pants and his shirt.

After the first rescue, when she had to strip a woman who had been caught at the edge of the gardens, Mari attempted to shape each bush with her limited gardening experience. She hacked at the roses with increasingly blunt scissors, trying to regain the sense of beauty and precision which had once been a dependable fixture of the library.

The next day, there had been an older gentleman who stood patiently, docile as a fawn, while she cut around him. And the day after, a teenager, who whipped her body around and foamed at the mouth like something rabid. She was the youngest Mari had seen so far.

After the teen had fought her rescue attempts, landing several painful whacks on her face, Mari used a small trowel (bought once for an ambitious gardening display) in a desperate attempt to dig out the rose bushes. She couldn't hack through the dense network of root and vine.

She was tired, so tired. Every part of her felt bruised and torn; her head pounded at the temples and her back was on fire. She was sick of these rescues, sick of cutting the Senseless loose from this hellish snare of thorns, sick of their primitive fear jumping out at her like a wild animal.

Mari struggled from the bushes and stumbled back inside the library to collect the tools needed to exact her final solution, as the Senseless wandered in aimless circles.

She doused the bushes with flammable liquids—everything she could find in her foraging, all the acetonic hair spray, hand sanitizer, nail polish remover—and set fire to the first bush. Thick black smoke appeared and she choked on the acrid smell, like foul incense, pouring into her lungs. A rose, the size of her hand, burned like paper. As the flames spread to each rose bush, and the dense undergrowth of vines and grasses, she envisioned the library burning like wildfire. Closing her eyes, feeling the heat against her face, she almost wished it would happen. Mari could see the books she had fought so hard to protect imploding like little suns. She and the Senseless, human torches, running in the dark.

No more traps. No more fear.

The smoke swirled around her. She cried out when she felt something brush against her and whirled around. Janice looked back at her and sat abruptly in the dirt, too close to the flames. The fire lit her empty face.

Mari grabbed Janice under her scrawny arms and dragged her to the library steps. They sat together and watched the fire rise in waves. Things burst with loud pops. Covered in dirt and sweat, her head split open and bleeding, Mari watched the approaching inferno. 

And she waited.
113
31
93
Juice
895 reads
Load 93 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to desmondwrite.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by desmondwrite in portal Simon & Schuster

The Opening Pages of "Iron Abbie"

A bird landed on the sill and cheeped. It was a pretty thing, mostly brown with a few blue and yellow feathers like scales on a fish. Abigail sat very still and peered over, not wanting to startle it, and noticed that the poor bird had a padlock stuck on its head—the metal hook, like a curled finger, wrapped around its neck. The padlock was small and silver and it gave the bird a noble look, but it was obvious the bird was suffering. Perhaps it had come to her for help?

"Don't move," said Abigail, and she ran about the house, finally returning with a coterie of keys. The bird stood patiently while she applied the metals, but none fit. Not the one to mother's jewelry-box, not the one that looked like a skeletal finger, not the golden one for the shelf beneath the peering glass, not the one to father's desk. Finally, Abigail went down into the foyer and with some hesitation pulled the key to the front door from her father's spare coat. It was shaped like an F and it fit into the padlock. Liberated, the bird flew out the window, soaring over bowler hats and stone heads to the park across the road. From a branch it looked back, then was gone.

Any euphoria Abigail might have felt quickly dwindled as she realized she was alone again. She scooped up the keys and returned them to their places. Her excitement returned when she thought about telling mother, but then what if father found out? She could imagine him now: plopped on the dining chair, black rings under his eyes, his traveling cloak unfurled over the furniture and his necktie hanging like a beaten snake. And that voice, hissing: “What if the bird had flown off with the key, tossing our spare to strangers?” Then he’d look to mother: “She gets this from you, you know.”

Abigail kicked the closet door hiding Dolly, and went back to her sill—

—to find the bird had returned. Then it was gone, zipping to a lamp post, before it came back and cheeped. Abigial was well acquainted with fairy tales and this seemed a particularly obvious invitation. But should she follow? The parents would be home in a few hours and Dolly might tell. Besides, Abigail would have preferred deserts and duels, dust devils and dragons, although one cannot be picky about childhood adventures.

Down below, a golem – painted yellow to indicate a schoolteacher – led a retinue of children along the fence. Each child was licking a lump of candy-fire crackling in their hands, getting sugary ash around their mouths. They must have visited the carnival. Abigail sighed. She was forbidden to go into the yard. By extension, she was forbidden the street and the park across it. Unless she did something, this was going to be another day spent in her bedroom.

“Well,” said Abigail, clenching a fist around the padlock. “It was the key to the front door.”

* * *

It’s not that Abigail Rollins did not like watching golems. They were an interesting lot to spy on from the security of a high window. Regular people walked hunched over with cloaks and coats thrown over them. Hiding identities, purposes. They looked like passing shadows. But amidst their turbulent wake were golems, animated boulders carved into the likeness of men, expressionless but alive. They came in all shapes and sizes, some painted, some intricately carved. While man confined himself to dark materials, his creations abounded.

She had her own golem, a doll with real hair. It was also her sitter. While her parents worked, Dolly kept house. But she wasn’t good with children. Whenever Abigail wanted to play cowboys and warlocks, Dolly would hide in the closet. Dolly didn’t like Abigail that much.

Neither did father. He didn’t care for a daughter who wanted to be a cowboy. For now, she needed tutorship and manners and fashionable clothes like those worn by ladies in the Arcade. Father’s intentions were never hidden. Politics crept even into bedtime stories, where brave princesses raised their families' statuses by marrying corpulent princes. Abigail would catch his eye when she was old enough to be used in the Court. She would be involved.

But for now, Abigail enjoyed some independence in the house. Too old for nurseries, too young for university or betrothal, she would sit and ponder passerby, or if she was really bored, the trees in the park across the road. Or she’d read the pennybacks mother would give her. They were westerns with titles like Lightfroth Mountain Trail and A Fistful of Soulgems. Stories about princesses turned into swans bored her—she preferred daring escapes from lynch mobs and prairie children kidnapped by shapeshifting natives. Father considered these novels so beneath him to the point of not considering them, but maybe he should have, for they were influencing her ambitions. Already she'd decided she'd someday be Iron Abbie, exploring the Unmade Plains with a six-shooter named Rusty and a horse named Steve.

Until then, she watched, sitting up whenever she saw someone in leathers or grime-brown wools, or wearing a zandy hat with a pinched front, to wonder if they were visitors from the West. Once she saw a golem in a white duster, carrying four pistols with pearl grips. He rode a horse ponderously, looking back and forth at the houses. Mostly the streets were a swish of dark coats, silk dresses, parasols, and golems with plates as colorful as stained glass. The West only peered into the city. Like her, it did not belong.

But today, she would explore.

Abigail made her fists into guns. “Show yourself!” she called from the stairs. “I know you’re down there, Dangerous Doll McGrew.”

“Abigail, I’m busy,” a voice replied, followed by quick steps and the shutting of a door.

Abigail listened to the silence, then went down into the foyer.

* * *

From her window, there was order to the street currents, but down here the wrapped gentry and carriages whisked and rattled and tromped, delivering a panache of smells – garbage, factory smoke, fungus, mint, and salt. A moment’s hesitation, a lost footing, and she’d be shipped to the docks or clattered against cobblestones.

The bird flew across the road. Abigail wondered – no, reckoned, that was a better word for a cowboy – if it was leading her to the park.

“Out of my way!” she shouted, barreling into the crowd. She slipped ahead of pewter cherubs carrying chalices lined with red stones, and in front of chatting and laughing women, their eyes sliding over her quickly. A driver shouted at her when he had to pull his stone spider to an abrupt halt, the cart almost shattering against spinnerets, and distracted, Abigail smacked into a golem.

“Sorry, Jack!” she said, getting up. The golem glanced up and down the street, then picked her up gently and put her down by the park.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said, but it was gone.

The park fence was comprised of iron-blue bars choked by twisting yellow vines. Trees tall as smokestacks and just as dirty loomed overhead. Not seeing a gate, Abigail slipped through the fence and tread down a footpath. She'd been here many times with mother and wasn't afraid of being lost, but she did not want to lose sight of the bird, even if she had some doubts about whether it was truly summoning her. Perhaps all of this adventure was the fault of her imagination – that faculty her father called a ruinous power.

The trees ended and she entered a field of dead grass. The bird hopped onto a bough nearby and looked about, as if unsure of where to go. Ahead, on a small hill, was a sleeping giant – a plainstone golem sitting against a blue boulder.

"Is this where you meant to bring me?" asked Abigail. The bird looked at her. She was sure that if birds could shrug, this one's wings would pop off. "Well, I'm investigating anyway."

Iron Abbie approached the golem, finger pistols drawn. The golem had its head down as if it were sleeping, a bright yellow star painted on its chest. Nearby, a sack’s stomach had exploded, spilling a collection of empty liquor bottles.

A light flickered in the golem’s eye for a moment, before going out.

“Hands to the sky!” Abbie shouted when she was near enough. The golem sat up, sputtering.

“Huh? What?”

“What were you doing?” said Abbie, sticking Rusty right into its painted chest.

“Taking a nap,” said the golem. Its two eyes, lit like candles, pointed directly toward her. The golem slowly put its hands up in mock surrender.

“But golems can’t sleep.”

“Well, I didn’t know that.”

Abbie put Rusty down. “Seriously, what’s your deal, Jack?”

“The name’s not Jack.”

“But every golem’s name is Jack. There's cityjacks, housejacks, warjacks... Or are you a doll?"

“The name’s Loon,” it said.

“That’s a stupid name,” Abigail thought aloud.

“I agree,” said the golem. “It’s loony.”

“Oh, you’re like a person!" said Abigail. She was liking the personality of this one far more than her timid housekeeper or the faceless guards that protected father. It was clever, and funny, like how she imagined an older brother would be. "Can I keep you?”

The golem rubbed the back of its neck, suddenly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t make a very good pet,” he said delicately.

“Why not?” asked Abigail.

“I’m not house trained.”

Abigail laughed again. "You are well-named, Jack." Then she had had an idea. “Play oracles and outlaws with me! Or summoners and scoundrels.”

“Gunslingers and goblins?” suggested the golem.

“I dub thee Deputy Starchest,” said Abbie. “I’m a Marshall, see? Been hunting a dragon rider who’s been breathing trains from here to Lincoln, New Mexico.”

“Deputy Starchest,” said Loon. “The slowest gun in the west.” He sluggishly held up his hand, fingers pointing like a gun, and after a long, dramatic pause, said, “Pew.”

“Whoa, partner,” said Abbie. “Easy with that pistol."

"Good thing my bullets take an hour to leave their barrel.”

And that’s how they played while the sun rolled gently down the sky. Just as it was blurring into pinks and oranges, a woman stood on top of the boulder – a woman with fizzy brown hair like a bottle opened too quickly, and brown skin, and black eyes, and black rings under those eyes. She had – Abigail noticed excitedly – a blue bandanna and a trim frock coat.

The golem stopped, his hands dropping to his sides. “What is it?”

“What do you think?” said the woman. “I need booze. Something aged in a barrel. My head feels like it’s been punched through by artillery.”

“You ever think a little less alcohol might help with that?”

She gave him a look. “You know why I need it.” She nodded at Abigail and leaped off the rock, disappearing from view.

“Who was that?” asked Abigail excitedly. “Was that a warlock?”

“You should go home,” said the golem. He stared in the direction where his companion had gone, then turned back to Abigail. “You should not come back.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?” asked Abigail.

“Y-yes,” the golem admitted.

“Then I’ll be back.”

“At least do one thing for me.” The golem’s tone was serious, and Abigail quieted down. “Cael and I are not exactly on good terms with the people in this city. Keep us a secret, and you and I can play... for now. But tell anybody, even your parents, and we won’t be around anymore.” The golem’s glowing eyes peered into hers, and she nodded, affecting as mature a face as she could muster.

“I swear by the lonesome gods,” she said. “Your secret is safe.” Abigail didn't feel that was enough, that it sounded too much like the characters they'd been playing, so she added: "I promise."

62
19
37
Juice
500 reads
Donate coins to desmondwrite.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by desmondwrite in portal Simon & Schuster
The Opening Pages of "Iron Abbie"
A bird landed on the sill and cheeped. It was a pretty thing, mostly brown with a few blue and yellow feathers like scales on a fish. Abigail sat very still and peered over, not wanting to startle it, and noticed that the poor bird had a padlock stuck on its head—the metal hook, like a curled finger, wrapped around its neck. The padlock was small and silver and it gave the bird a noble look, but it was obvious the bird was suffering. Perhaps it had come to her for help?

"Don't move," said Abigail, and she ran about the house, finally returning with a coterie of keys. The bird stood patiently while she applied the metals, but none fit. Not the one to mother's jewelry-box, not the one that looked like a skeletal finger, not the golden one for the shelf beneath the peering glass, not the one to father's desk. Finally, Abigail went down into the foyer and with some hesitation pulled the key to the front door from her father's spare coat. It was shaped like an F and it fit into the padlock. Liberated, the bird flew out the window, soaring over bowler hats and stone heads to the park across the road. From a branch it looked back, then was gone.

Any euphoria Abigail might have felt quickly dwindled as she realized she was alone again. She scooped up the keys and returned them to their places. Her excitement returned when she thought about telling mother, but then what if father found out? She could imagine him now: plopped on the dining chair, black rings under his eyes, his traveling cloak unfurled over the furniture and his necktie hanging like a beaten snake. And that voice, hissing: “What if the bird had flown off with the key, tossing our spare to strangers?” Then he’d look to mother: “She gets this from you, you know.”

Abigail kicked the closet door hiding Dolly, and went back to her sill—

—to find the bird had returned. Then it was gone, zipping to a lamp post, before it came back and cheeped. Abigial was well acquainted with fairy tales and this seemed a particularly obvious invitation. But should she follow? The parents would be home in a few hours and Dolly might tell. Besides, Abigail would have preferred deserts and duels, dust devils and dragons, although one cannot be picky about childhood adventures.

Down below, a golem – painted yellow to indicate a schoolteacher – led a retinue of children along the fence. Each child was licking a lump of candy-fire crackling in their hands, getting sugary ash around their mouths. They must have visited the carnival. Abigail sighed. She was forbidden to go into the yard. By extension, she was forbidden the street and the park across it. Unless she did something, this was going to be another day spent in her bedroom.

“Well,” said Abigail, clenching a fist around the padlock. “It was the key to the front door.”

* * *

It’s not that Abigail Rollins did not like watching golems. They were an interesting lot to spy on from the security of a high window. Regular people walked hunched over with cloaks and coats thrown over them. Hiding identities, purposes. They looked like passing shadows. But amidst their turbulent wake were golems, animated boulders carved into the likeness of men, expressionless but alive. They came in all shapes and sizes, some painted, some intricately carved. While man confined himself to dark materials, his creations abounded.

She had her own golem, a doll with real hair. It was also her sitter. While her parents worked, Dolly kept house. But she wasn’t good with children. Whenever Abigail wanted to play cowboys and warlocks, Dolly would hide in the closet. Dolly didn’t like Abigail that much.

Neither did father. He didn’t care for a daughter who wanted to be a cowboy. For now, she needed tutorship and manners and fashionable clothes like those worn by ladies in the Arcade. Father’s intentions were never hidden. Politics crept even into bedtime stories, where brave princesses raised their families' statuses by marrying corpulent princes. Abigail would catch his eye when she was old enough to be used in the Court. She would be involved.

But for now, Abigail enjoyed some independence in the house. Too old for nurseries, too young for university or betrothal, she would sit and ponder passerby, or if she was really bored, the trees in the park across the road. Or she’d read the pennybacks mother would give her. They were westerns with titles like Lightfroth Mountain Trail and A Fistful of Soulgems. Stories about princesses turned into swans bored her—she preferred daring escapes from lynch mobs and prairie children kidnapped by shapeshifting natives. Father considered these novels so beneath him to the point of not considering them, but maybe he should have, for they were influencing her ambitions. Already she'd decided she'd someday be Iron Abbie, exploring the Unmade Plains with a six-shooter named Rusty and a horse named Steve.

Until then, she watched, sitting up whenever she saw someone in leathers or grime-brown wools, or wearing a zandy hat with a pinched front, to wonder if they were visitors from the West. Once she saw a golem in a white duster, carrying four pistols with pearl grips. He rode a horse ponderously, looking back and forth at the houses. Mostly the streets were a swish of dark coats, silk dresses, parasols, and golems with plates as colorful as stained glass. The West only peered into the city. Like her, it did not belong.

But today, she would explore.

Abigail made her fists into guns. “Show yourself!” she called from the stairs. “I know you’re down there, Dangerous Doll McGrew.”

“Abigail, I’m busy,” a voice replied, followed by quick steps and the shutting of a door.

Abigail listened to the silence, then went down into the foyer.

* * *

From her window, there was order to the street currents, but down here the wrapped gentry and carriages whisked and rattled and tromped, delivering a panache of smells – garbage, factory smoke, fungus, mint, and salt. A moment’s hesitation, a lost footing, and she’d be shipped to the docks or clattered against cobblestones.

The bird flew across the road. Abigail wondered – no, reckoned, that was a better word for a cowboy – if it was leading her to the park.

“Out of my way!” she shouted, barreling into the crowd. She slipped ahead of pewter cherubs carrying chalices lined with red stones, and in front of chatting and laughing women, their eyes sliding over her quickly. A driver shouted at her when he had to pull his stone spider to an abrupt halt, the cart almost shattering against spinnerets, and distracted, Abigail smacked into a golem.

“Sorry, Jack!” she said, getting up. The golem glanced up and down the street, then picked her up gently and put her down by the park.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said, but it was gone.

The park fence was comprised of iron-blue bars choked by twisting yellow vines. Trees tall as smokestacks and just as dirty loomed overhead. Not seeing a gate, Abigail slipped through the fence and tread down a footpath. She'd been here many times with mother and wasn't afraid of being lost, but she did not want to lose sight of the bird, even if she had some doubts about whether it was truly summoning her. Perhaps all of this adventure was the fault of her imagination – that faculty her father called a ruinous power.

The trees ended and she entered a field of dead grass. The bird hopped onto a bough nearby and looked about, as if unsure of where to go. Ahead, on a small hill, was a sleeping giant – a plainstone golem sitting against a blue boulder.

"Is this where you meant to bring me?" asked Abigail. The bird looked at her. She was sure that if birds could shrug, this one's wings would pop off. "Well, I'm investigating anyway."

Iron Abbie approached the golem, finger pistols drawn. The golem had its head down as if it were sleeping, a bright yellow star painted on its chest. Nearby, a sack’s stomach had exploded, spilling a collection of empty liquor bottles.

A light flickered in the golem’s eye for a moment, before going out.

“Hands to the sky!” Abbie shouted when she was near enough. The golem sat up, sputtering.

“Huh? What?”

“What were you doing?” said Abbie, sticking Rusty right into its painted chest.

“Taking a nap,” said the golem. Its two eyes, lit like candles, pointed directly toward her. The golem slowly put its hands up in mock surrender.

“But golems can’t sleep.”

“Well, I didn’t know that.”

Abbie put Rusty down. “Seriously, what’s your deal, Jack?”

“The name’s not Jack.”

“But every golem’s name is Jack. There's cityjacks, housejacks, warjacks... Or are you a doll?"

“The name’s Loon,” it said.

“That’s a stupid name,” Abigail thought aloud.

“I agree,” said the golem. “It’s loony.”

“Oh, you’re like a person!" said Abigail. She was liking the personality of this one far more than her timid housekeeper or the faceless guards that protected father. It was clever, and funny, like how she imagined an older brother would be. "Can I keep you?”

The golem rubbed the back of its neck, suddenly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t make a very good pet,” he said delicately.

“Why not?” asked Abigail.

“I’m not house trained.”

Abigail laughed again. "You are well-named, Jack." Then she had had an idea. “Play oracles and outlaws with me! Or summoners and scoundrels.”

“Gunslingers and goblins?” suggested the golem.

“I dub thee Deputy Starchest,” said Abbie. “I’m a Marshall, see? Been hunting a dragon rider who’s been breathing trains from here to Lincoln, New Mexico.”

“Deputy Starchest,” said Loon. “The slowest gun in the west.” He sluggishly held up his hand, fingers pointing like a gun, and after a long, dramatic pause, said, “Pew.”

“Whoa, partner,” said Abbie. “Easy with that pistol."

"Good thing my bullets take an hour to leave their barrel.”

And that’s how they played while the sun rolled gently down the sky. Just as it was blurring into pinks and oranges, a woman stood on top of the boulder – a woman with fizzy brown hair like a bottle opened too quickly, and brown skin, and black eyes, and black rings under those eyes. She had – Abigail noticed excitedly – a blue bandanna and a trim frock coat.

The golem stopped, his hands dropping to his sides. “What is it?”

“What do you think?” said the woman. “I need booze. Something aged in a barrel. My head feels like it’s been punched through by artillery.”

“You ever think a little less alcohol might help with that?”

She gave him a look. “You know why I need it.” She nodded at Abigail and leaped off the rock, disappearing from view.

“Who was that?” asked Abigail excitedly. “Was that a warlock?”

“You should go home,” said the golem. He stared in the direction where his companion had gone, then turned back to Abigail. “You should not come back.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?” asked Abigail.

“Y-yes,” the golem admitted.

“Then I’ll be back.”

“At least do one thing for me.” The golem’s tone was serious, and Abigail quieted down. “Cael and I are not exactly on good terms with the people in this city. Keep us a secret, and you and I can play... for now. But tell anybody, even your parents, and we won’t be around anymore.” The golem’s glowing eyes peered into hers, and she nodded, affecting as mature a face as she could muster.

“I swear by the lonesome gods,” she said. “Your secret is safe.” Abigail didn't feel that was enough, that it sounded too much like the characters they'd been playing, so she added: "I promise."


62
19
37
Juice
500 reads
Load 37 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to SophiaDrenth.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by SophiaDrenth in portal Simon & Schuster

Darkest heart (first chapter)

In the deepest depths of the forest live the Sahandran. No man is more powerful than Sahandran. No man is more cursed, yet no man is more blessed. Stronger than the blood of the living and more lifeless than the most forgotten soul.

   That is how Babay’s stories always started. Yan’s mother was a born storyteller. Already he yearned to relive those nights in the smoke-permeated longhouse.

   He sat up, cradled by the top of the nesting tree. Before him, the indomitable forest crawled up the night-blue hills. The half moon above him was accompanied by stars, closer than he’d ever seen them before. This was his land – the land of Darvasi. Here he had once been born in freedom, beyond the fence of the masters. By now, the world outside that enclosure had become alien to him.

   A shiver ran down his spine. Everyone knew that traveling the forests during nighttime could cost people their souls. With an annoyed gesture he shrugged off his fear. Nothing could stop him. He would find the Sahandran. The night crawlers would steal his soul and make him one of theirs, and he would be grateful. He didn’t ask Ay Pitu for wings. No – he asked him for a beautiful death and a new body, which would possess the strength to save his mother and the other members of his family from the masters’ hands. Ay Pitu, the god who never listened and who didn’t pity a single Darvasi.

   All that he knew lay behind him: Babay, his brothers, sisters – many of whom had been drowned in the pool by the masters. Only Anyi was still alive. The souls of his murdered sisters had found their peace once more in the waters of death. The smell of that water was insufficient to throw the bloodhounds off someone’s scent. He took the jar of death flower paste from his bag and rubbed the ointment all over his body from head to toe. For weeks, he’d been toiling to collect the dar-ha-dar blossoms and smother them in lard. The substance turned his dark-brown skin to almost black. The stench was overwhelming. His stomach revolted. He swallowed the spasm back down his throat and breathed through his mouth.

   With long strokes he erased his own scent. He turned to shadow.

   Only a few more hours until sunrise – that was when they’d notice his disappearance. Without delay he started his journey. Skillfully, Yan clambered from tree to tree. The tops of the nesting trees blurred into one. One moment he was climbing, then descending, in order to find the embrace of the next forest giant. A deafening orchestra of cicadas and tjir-tjars filled the air. Beneath him, in the nightly black, certain death awaited him at the slightest misstep. But dying was by far not the worst thing that could happen to him – if Master Rooijbosch ever got his hands on him after this escape attempt, he wouldn’t be allowed to die. Not for a very long time. Although he could already imagine feeling the breath of the bloodhounds burn down his neck, he kept calm and steadied his hands and feet.

   By the time the sun rose behind the hills in a trickle of fiery red, the distance between him and the plantation wasn’t nearly as big as he had hoped. Shielded by the branches of a nesting tree top, he took refuge. If that camouflage proved to be insufficient, running any further would be pointless. Besides, he needed rest.

   He applied a new layer of dar-ha-dar paste to the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands. Afterward, he covered himself with giant leaves to escape the worst heat of the day.

The whip snaked across his skin. A lash echoing through his flesh – a cry without end. The next lash came too soon. The scars that were being erased from his back screamed louder than the living skin he was losing. He looked up at the bright blue sky, beyond the pole that his hands were bound to, and prayed for Ay Pitu to see him. Warm drops of his blood doused the air, like a slow-moving formation of passing turtleneck geese that had lost sight of the sun. The world tinged red. Today, he was going to die. He was sure of it.

Fists no longer clenched. His rigid fingers pointing up at the sky, begging for mercy that wouldn’t be given. The sun burned down on his face and his pulped, shattered skin. The cries of agony had died in his throat a while ago.

   His mother was crying. His sister was beseeching their master.

   Master Strever Rooijbosch rolled up his blood-drenched whip, approached him, and grabbed his hair in one hand. The man pressed up against him. “Can you feel me? How hard you make me? I’m enjoying this. Next time I won’t call back the dogs – I’ll fuck your dead body like I fuck your sister.” His breath stank of sour milk. Blood was splattered across his pale, white skin. Bright blue eyes in a narrow face with thin lips seemed to look right through him. The man pulled his hair, jerking his gaze to another direction. “Look at your mother. Why are you doing this to her? You selfish piece of shit. Just accept your fate.”

   Rooijbosch let go of him and got out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his flushed neck. Shaking his head, he walked away from Yan. With a supple shake of his wrist he unfurled the whip once more and tirelessly resumed his work.

An enormous shadow attacked him out of nowhere. Yan jolted awake, his heart beating in his throat as he failed to remember where he was – high up in the treetops where sleep had wrapped its tentacles around him. He dashed away from the razor-sharp claws of the roqual and tumbled from the crown of the nesting tree. Branches cut into his skin. He wildly sought purchase with his hands like a man drowning in air. A thick branch hit him full in the spine. His body twisted. His hand almost grabbed a branch, but his fingers slipped. Blinded by pain he crashed down onto the ground. Smothering a curse, he lay still and stayed where he was, protected by the undergrowth. He stifled cries of pain while huddling down against the marshy forest soil.

   Pure instinct.

   They were close: his masters – the whiteheads. At least a half dozen men, accompanied by a pack of dogs. Lumbering bodies wading through dense thicket. The panting of man and beast. They stopped dead and watched as the roqual lifted off from the treetops with majestic laziness. The animal looked impressive with a wingspan of more than two grown men – it was the kind of carrion bird that could easily devour a leopard carcass by itself.

Strever Rooijbosch was barking out commands. The whiteheads blamed the ruckus they’d heard in the trees on the giant bird and started hacking away again with their machetes, clearing a path through the obtrusive green.

   Yan’s body gave in. He curled up into a ball and awaited what came next. Fear of the whiteheads coming back and fear of the pain whenever he moved paralyzed him.

By the time he finally risked stirring, the sun had already set. Contrary to the night before, this darkness and all the life in it was shrouded by an almost tangible silence.

   Yan scrambled to his feet. As soon as he was upright, he could feel someone’s gaze burning on him. It took him a while to make out the shape in between the shrubbery. A figure was standing there, grinning at him with stark white teeth that were gleaming in the moonlight. They were sharper than the canines of mongrols and tigers. His skin was darker than a starless, moonless night. He was near invisible – the figure didn’t breathe or move. He just observed Yan with that intense, black stare of his. Yan’s scent camouflage wasn’t fooling him.

   “Sahandran,” Yan stammered. He lowered his head in reverence. All the stories had told him the same thing: you just needed to ask to be made one of them. Reluctantly he also remembered many tales in which death was the only answer given to the one asking.

Petrified, he stared the demon in the bushes. Even the tjir-tjars had grown quiet. Suddenly the figure was gone. Yan spun around and a cold hand grabbed his shoulder. He screamed.

   Ay Pitu gave him wings.

   He hurtled through the thicket until the forest floor suddenly seemed to fall away from under his feet and he tumbled and rolled across the dry earth. His mad ride came to a stop in a clearing between the trees. Heart pounding and breath pumping, he lay there, the surging pain in his back incapacitating him.

   They were everywhere. Scores of them. He wasn’t sure whether they were all Sahandran or some of them were just animals. There was a panther, a screeching-bear and a lahassa. The latter had big ears and bulging eyes and stood on hind legs that were still human. The beastly shapes weren’t the most terrifying ones, though. Specters wrought during the most frightful nightmares huddled around him – creations of Habu, the misshapen god. Their flesh had been punished so much harder than his own whip-marked back. Further in the background he discerned a few human Sahandran, as though they weren’t part of the tribe, with their near-transparent skin and languishing facial expressions. Some were clothed while others were naked like the day they’d been given their new bodies.

   Yan struggled to his knees and sat there on the desiccated mud, the cramp in his back preventing him from fully getting to his feet. Panting with agony, he took the filthy bag off his back and started to take out his gifts, presenting them to the Sahandran. They watched, unmoved. The holy book he’d stolen from the masters… a bag of tobacco. The pages of the book were curling up and the tobacco smelled moldy. Even though he’d treated his bag with wax, it hadn’t been completely waterproof. Not only were his gifts pitiful – they were outright ridiculous.

   Sahandran craved one thing only and he knew it all too well. Yan took his knife. The blade was just a thumb’s length. The steel was of inferior quality. It was dented and blemished with the onset of rust. He wiped the metal clean with trembling fingers. It wasn’t nearly as sharp as needed. He put the cold blade against his wrist and cut himself – twice, because the first cut wasn’t accurate enough. Tears stung his eyes. His breath was laborious and he painfully swallowed down his cries of anguish. His heart beat frantically at the back of his throat. Bright-red blood beaded on his skin, which was still darker than usual because of the dar-ha-dar paste. He stretched his arm and balled his fist. His blood dripped onto the dried earth. “I hereby give my life. Make me Sahandran. I cast off my human body.” Of course they didn’t refer to themselves as night crawlers – it was the name the Darvasi had thought up for them. He’d heard the sound of their real name somewhere, but he wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. “I beg you, make me like you. Az’vacje?”

   Still they didn’t move. They didn’t even breathe. Their bodies had evolved far beyond such human needs.

   Yan held his breath. Had he offended them with his clumsy request? The black demon came closer. He stayed low, moving forward in a crouch that wasn’t quite walking.   Curiously he contemplated Yan.

   Yan heaved a sigh. Clearly he hadn’t given enough – not even now. He raised the blade to his neck, took a deep breath, looked up at the stars, and slit his throat.

32
7
2
Juice
632 reads
Donate coins to SophiaDrenth.
Juice
Cancel
Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by SophiaDrenth in portal Simon & Schuster
Darkest heart (first chapter)
In the deepest depths of the forest live the Sahandran. No man is more powerful than Sahandran. No man is more cursed, yet no man is more blessed. Stronger than the blood of the living and more lifeless than the most forgotten soul.
   That is how Babay’s stories always started. Yan’s mother was a born storyteller. Already he yearned to relive those nights in the smoke-permeated longhouse.
   He sat up, cradled by the top of the nesting tree. Before him, the indomitable forest crawled up the night-blue hills. The half moon above him was accompanied by stars, closer than he’d ever seen them before. This was his land – the land of Darvasi. Here he had once been born in freedom, beyond the fence of the masters. By now, the world outside that enclosure had become alien to him.
   A shiver ran down his spine. Everyone knew that traveling the forests during nighttime could cost people their souls. With an annoyed gesture he shrugged off his fear. Nothing could stop him. He would find the Sahandran. The night crawlers would steal his soul and make him one of theirs, and he would be grateful. He didn’t ask Ay Pitu for wings. No – he asked him for a beautiful death and a new body, which would possess the strength to save his mother and the other members of his family from the masters’ hands. Ay Pitu, the god who never listened and who didn’t pity a single Darvasi.
   All that he knew lay behind him: Babay, his brothers, sisters – many of whom had been drowned in the pool by the masters. Only Anyi was still alive. The souls of his murdered sisters had found their peace once more in the waters of death. The smell of that water was insufficient to throw the bloodhounds off someone’s scent. He took the jar of death flower paste from his bag and rubbed the ointment all over his body from head to toe. For weeks, he’d been toiling to collect the dar-ha-dar blossoms and smother them in lard. The substance turned his dark-brown skin to almost black. The stench was overwhelming. His stomach revolted. He swallowed the spasm back down his throat and breathed through his mouth.
   With long strokes he erased his own scent. He turned to shadow.
   Only a few more hours until sunrise – that was when