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Written by Xavril in portal Trident Media Group

Chapter 1 of "//mind.hack"

(This is the first chapter of a book I've been working on. Enjoy!)

-------------------------------------------------------------

Chapter 1

You know that feeling you get when you know a secret that no one else could ever know? How, if you told anyone, your whole social structure would come crumbling down into a heap of distrust and lies? Picture that feeling. Got it? Now picture it on a global scale. That’s how I feel every single day.

Dramatic, I know. “What a way to live,” you must be saying. Nah, not even close. Besides, how can you live when you don’t even know who you are?

Well, it’s actually more of a memory thing. I only know the basics, which I doubt I’d know if it weren’t for the little hospital bracelet looking thing I had on my wrist when I escaped from God knows where. It told me just enough to not feel completely empty. Things like my name and age, blood type and some other medical things I honestly couldn’t care less about. And don’t get me wrong, I tried looking myself up. Public records, social media, everything, But there was nothing. I was either never real, or I was living in my own personal form of hell. Something about it made me uneasy, like I wasn’t supposed to know that I was completely erased from the earth.

Speaking of things that make me uneasy, I also think I’m a fugitive. From what, who knows? I mean, I kinda know what was going on, but most of it was just a blur of lights and pain. I may not remember anything, but I wish I could forget all of that. The stuff I was put through…

“Khit!”

I heard someone yell my name. For the first time in what felt like eons, someone said my name. I looked around to make sure it wasn’t someone else, but I was the only person looking for someone who called out. I searched frantically with my eyes, trying to find whoever it was. The voice sounded familiar, almost like… a friend.

But then I realized that even if it was a friend, I wouldn’t know. They would’ve disappeared along with everything else. I used to wonder if people still thought about me, or wondered where I was. But now I don’t want to know. I stopped looking around and kept on walking, hands in my pockets and head down, like always…

‘THUD!’

And now I was on the ground, wondering what happened as my chest started to feel like it was it by a… bull? No, the mass was too small, it was more like a raging boar if anything. I realized that the “mass” I was referring to was on top of me, and had me wrapped in a hug.

“Ow…” I said as I rubbed my head. ‘What the hell were you thinking dude? You could’ve gotten hur-” I stopped short as I looked down and realized that the ‘dude’ was actually a girl, and she was crying, although it seemed to be like she was happy, not hurt. Quite frankly, I was speechless.

“Hey, are you alright?” I asked calmly.

“Khit,” she said through her tears, “it really is you.”

Again, I was stunned. And then I realized that this was the voice I heard call out before. This was the person I apparently knew before everything happened.

“Alice!” I heard another voice and looked up to see someone charging towards the girl and I.

“Ah, there’s the bull.” I say, which proves to be true considering the size and speed of the man running towards us. Maybe it was her boyfriend? I thought about it for a second as he apologized for running into some random lady and decided that wasn't the case. I could just tell. How? Let's just call it intuition.

“Alice,” he said as he finally made his way over to us, “what the hell was that about?” he said in a slightly scolding tone, but he sounded more worried than anything, which I suppose was a redeeming quality, even though all I knew about this man was that he was big and doesn’t exactly know his own strength. Good thing they aren’t dating.

“Taka” she said while wiping tears away, “look. It’s Khit.”

The guy she called ‘Taka’ gave me a very analytical look after that. Something told me I didn’t look the same as he remembered me.

“Oh my… Khit? Khit Harrington? Is it really you?” he said after about a minute of that. Looks like something about me jogged his memory. Lucky guy.

“Umm... “ I didn’t really know how to answer. If I said yes, then whoopie I had friends again, but I’d have to break their hearts by telling them that I can’t remember them at all. If I said no, then we can all just apologize and move on with our lives. Decisions decisions… Oh I hope I don’t regret this.

“Yeah, it’s really me you guys.” I finally said.

When I tell you that the look these people gave me was like they’d just seen Santa, the Easter bunny, and Saint Patrick all in the same room talking over coffee, I’m not exaggerating. It was actually kind of impressive how amazed they looked.

“Well um, i should probably get going then.” I said as I stood and helped the girl stand up.

“Wait, don’t you remember us?” she asked as I started to walk away. “I mean, I know it’s been a year but… none of us have changed that much.”

I froze. I knew them. This… this is bad. Really, really bad. That year they were talking about… I spent it avoiding situations like this.

“Khit? You still with us?” the guy asked me. What, am I supposed to say something like ‘Oh yeah! I forgot to mention, I got kidnapped and had my memory blocked off so I have no clue who you two are, sorry about that!’

Yeah. No thanks.

I turned back to them to really take in how they looked, to try to see if I could remember them at all. First him, then her. He didn’t make anything happen aside from me feeling short and skinny if I’m being completely honest here. When I looked at her, something in my head felt… off. Like something was tugging at the corners of my memory, something familiar.

They both just gave me an odd look as I just stood there and stared at them for a good minute or two. Like they couldn’t understand why I don’t remember them. Unfortunately for all of us, if i told them why, they still wouldn’t understand, or worse.

Wait, what if i really didn’t know them? What if they’re just here to find me and take me back to god knows where? What if-

“Khit, are you okay?” the girl cut through my thoughts to ask. That was the thing that snapped me back to reality. Who knew a voice could be so sharp?

“Ah well, erm, yeah I’m good no worries here” I awkwardly replied while scratching the back of my neck. I realized how stupid I was being. If these two really were trying to hurt me or something, they would’ve done something already. The people who’re looking for me, they wouldn’t have waited for me to suspect anything.

But that means… I really did know them. These people standing in front of me really were my friends from before. And I can’t remember them.

This is… not good. No, this is just bad. Really, really bad.

“Khit, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but, where have you been all this time?” the girl asked me.

Oh boy.

“Well, um, you see I was just kinda, ya know bumming around and-”

“But we were supposed to start college when you vanished.” the guy spoke up and said. I began to feel nauseous.

“I- I well, I…-” I started stuttering. I couldn’t tell them what happened, at least not here and now. I just wanted to disappear again.

“Khit…? Are you… okay?” she asked again.

I couldn’t bring myself to answer. I began to feel the sensation of pure panic wash over me. Dark tendrils began to appear around the edges of my vision, slowly making their way toward the middle. I could hear them calling my name, but it felt distant, and muffled. All of a sudden my vision went black, and I could feel myself… falling?

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by Xavril in portal Trident Media Group
Chapter 1 of "//mind.hack"
(This is the first chapter of a book I've been working on. Enjoy!)
-------------------------------------------------------------
Chapter 1


You know that feeling you get when you know a secret that no one else could ever know? How, if you told anyone, your whole social structure would come crumbling down into a heap of distrust and lies? Picture that feeling. Got it? Now picture it on a global scale. That’s how I feel every single day.

Dramatic, I know. “What a way to live,” you must be saying. Nah, not even close. Besides, how can you live when you don’t even know who you are?

Well, it’s actually more of a memory thing. I only know the basics, which I doubt I’d know if it weren’t for the little hospital bracelet looking thing I had on my wrist when I escaped from God knows where. It told me just enough to not feel completely empty. Things like my name and age, blood type and some other medical things I honestly couldn’t care less about. And don’t get me wrong, I tried looking myself up. Public records, social media, everything, But there was nothing. I was either never real, or I was living in my own personal form of hell. Something about it made me uneasy, like I wasn’t supposed to know that I was completely erased from the earth.

Speaking of things that make me uneasy, I also think I’m a fugitive. From what, who knows? I mean, I kinda know what was going on, but most of it was just a blur of lights and pain. I may not remember anything, but I wish I could forget all of that. The stuff I was put through…

“Khit!”

I heard someone yell my name. For the first time in what felt like eons, someone said my name. I looked around to make sure it wasn’t someone else, but I was the only person looking for someone who called out. I searched frantically with my eyes, trying to find whoever it was. The voice sounded familiar, almost like… a friend.

But then I realized that even if it was a friend, I wouldn’t know. They would’ve disappeared along with everything else. I used to wonder if people still thought about me, or wondered where I was. But now I don’t want to know. I stopped looking around and kept on walking, hands in my pockets and head down, like always…

‘THUD!’

And now I was on the ground, wondering what happened as my chest started to feel like it was it by a… bull? No, the mass was too small, it was more like a raging boar if anything. I realized that the “mass” I was referring to was on top of me, and had me wrapped in a hug.

“Ow…” I said as I rubbed my head. ‘What the hell were you thinking dude? You could’ve gotten hur-” I stopped short as I looked down and realized that the ‘dude’ was actually a girl, and she was crying, although it seemed to be like she was happy, not hurt. Quite frankly, I was speechless.

“Hey, are you alright?” I asked calmly.

“Khit,” she said through her tears, “it really is you.”

Again, I was stunned. And then I realized that this was the voice I heard call out before. This was the person I apparently knew before everything happened.

“Alice!” I heard another voice and looked up to see someone charging towards the girl and I.

“Ah, there’s the bull.” I say, which proves to be true considering the size and speed of the man running towards us. Maybe it was her boyfriend? I thought about it for a second as he apologized for running into some random lady and decided that wasn't the case. I could just tell. How? Let's just call it intuition.

“Alice,” he said as he finally made his way over to us, “what the hell was that about?” he said in a slightly scolding tone, but he sounded more worried than anything, which I suppose was a redeeming quality, even though all I knew about this man was that he was big and doesn’t exactly know his own strength. Good thing they aren’t dating.

“Taka” she said while wiping tears away, “look. It’s Khit.”

The guy she called ‘Taka’ gave me a very analytical look after that. Something told me I didn’t look the same as he remembered me.

“Oh my… Khit? Khit Harrington? Is it really you?” he said after about a minute of that. Looks like something about me jogged his memory. Lucky guy.

“Umm... “ I didn’t really know how to answer. If I said yes, then whoopie I had friends again, but I’d have to break their hearts by telling them that I can’t remember them at all. If I said no, then we can all just apologize and move on with our lives. Decisions decisions… Oh I hope I don’t regret this.

“Yeah, it’s really me you guys.” I finally said.

When I tell you that the look these people gave me was like they’d just seen Santa, the Easter bunny, and Saint Patrick all in the same room talking over coffee, I’m not exaggerating. It was actually kind of impressive how amazed they looked.

“Well um, i should probably get going then.” I said as I stood and helped the girl stand up.

“Wait, don’t you remember us?” she asked as I started to walk away. “I mean, I know it’s been a year but… none of us have changed that much.”

I froze. I knew them. This… this is bad. Really, really bad. That year they were talking about… I spent it avoiding situations like this.

“Khit? You still with us?” the guy asked me. What, am I supposed to say something like ‘Oh yeah! I forgot to mention, I got kidnapped and had my memory blocked off so I have no clue who you two are, sorry about that!’

Yeah. No thanks.

I turned back to them to really take in how they looked, to try to see if I could remember them at all. First him, then her. He didn’t make anything happen aside from me feeling short and skinny if I’m being completely honest here. When I looked at her, something in my head felt… off. Like something was tugging at the corners of my memory, something familiar.

They both just gave me an odd look as I just stood there and stared at them for a good minute or two. Like they couldn’t understand why I don’t remember them. Unfortunately for all of us, if i told them why, they still wouldn’t understand, or worse.

Wait, what if i really didn’t know them? What if they’re just here to find me and take me back to god knows where? What if-

“Khit, are you okay?” the girl cut through my thoughts to ask. That was the thing that snapped me back to reality. Who knew a voice could be so sharp?

“Ah well, erm, yeah I’m good no worries here” I awkwardly replied while scratching the back of my neck. I realized how stupid I was being. If these two really were trying to hurt me or something, they would’ve done something already. The people who’re looking for me, they wouldn’t have waited for me to suspect anything.

But that means… I really did know them. These people standing in front of me really were my friends from before. And I can’t remember them.

This is… not good. No, this is just bad. Really, really bad.

“Khit, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but, where have you been all this time?” the girl asked me.

Oh boy.

“Well, um, you see I was just kinda, ya know bumming around and-”

“But we were supposed to start college when you vanished.” the guy spoke up and said. I began to feel nauseous.

“I- I well, I…-” I started stuttering. I couldn’t tell them what happened, at least not here and now. I just wanted to disappear again.

“Khit…? Are you… okay?” she asked again.

I couldn’t bring myself to answer. I began to feel the sensation of pure panic wash over me. Dark tendrils began to appear around the edges of my vision, slowly making their way toward the middle. I could hear them calling my name, but it felt distant, and muffled. All of a sudden my vision went black, and I could feel myself… falling?
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Written by Voyager33 in portal Trident Media Group

EIDOLON - Keeper of Swords

CHAPTER ONE - Ashlath (Second draft)

With the light of dawn yet to cross the horizon, Illian had received the order to track down a band of thieves that had stolen from the royal family of Dancall. It would have been a public humiliation if word had spread that Tyron, the crown prince of Dancall, had again been caught with his pants down, stripped of his possessions while expressing his manhood with a commoner.

What kept Dancall a city of power was its mighty army. And the soldiers and citizens of Dancall remained loyal to the city only because of its king. Megatuis was a just king who ruled with a caring heart and powerful hand. A king who was loved by all. Unfortunately, his only son had not inherited his character and preferred to play in the dirt, sullying his family’s name and rejecting his royal duties. Since the Queen’s passing, there had been no one to keep an eye on the prince. And as Megatuis refused to remarry, there would be no other heir to succeed him.

Illian cursed under his breath at the thought of Tyron.

“Concentrate, Illian." River Girl's thought caught him off guard; instead of responding in words, Illian loosened the reigns, patted his trusted friend on the side of her neck, and refocused his thoughts on the chase.

They travelled in silence, struggling to follow the bandits’ trail in the darkness. Illian

had given up on employing his own senses and was relying solely on River Girl, her keen

eyesight, hearing and sense of smell. It was arduous to track anything in the Forest of

Darkness during the day and about impossible at night. Unless, of course, you had one of the bloodline horses.

Illian leaned forward in his saddle. "Quiet now, River Girl. First light will soon find

us,” he whispered, though he could have communicated by thought just as well.

River Girl eased her pace to a walk, her steps becoming a hush. Illian smiled as he

strained his ears to hear when hooves met forest floor. Even a skilled rider of a water-descent bloodline horse found it difficult to discern his horse’s strides.

"You've been practicing,” Illian praised River Girl’s skill.

"That I have. Thank you for noticing, Illian."

Illian's smile lingered for a moment longer. Of all the abilities of a bloodline horse, thought communication was his favorite.

"The campsite is up ahead. I detect smoke."

Illian responded to River Girls' thought immediately and slid from his saddle, rolling to break his fall, and ducked behind the

trunk of a dark-wood tree.

"Move around to the other side of the campsite and wait for my call." Before Illian had finished his thought, River Girl had

already vanished into the darkness of the forest.

Illian unsheathed his sword, glimpsing a ray of morning light that had found its way

through the thick canopy that gave the Forest of Darkness its name. "Just in time." He had

speculated and hoped they had remained close enough to the forest’s edge that the sun might still find them. He'd guessed correctly.

Illian rested the tip of his blade on the ground in front if him, and with his free hand, stroked his thumb along the blade until a trickle of blood ran down its edge. Illian closed his eyes and began his heart meditation.

He spoke the first command, "Release."

Illian’s heartbeat slowed, and a dark blood oozed from the tip of his blade. The viscous liquid moved of its own accord, and instead of bleeding into the soil, began to travel upward, mixing with Illian’s blood and gaining in speed as it did. Half way up the blade, it came alive, in an instant reaching the cut on Illian's thumb. It entered Illian’s body. With deadly speed and determination it cursed through his bloodstream, consuming his heart, searching for more life to devour. But Illian’s meditation was complete.

His heart had stopped beating.

Illian waited for the last of the foreign blood to gather in his heart, before he spoke the second command, "Bind."

Illian's heart began beating again, the dark blood no longer flowing of its own will but

now a part of Illian, streaming through his body and giving him strength. Illian rose to his feet feeling stronger and more aware of his surroundings.

Under his heightened senses, the slim rays of sunlight illuminated the forest in brilliant light as they reflected off fern fronds and rocks, leaves and the forked limbs of trees.

Illian could smell a hint of rain in the air, but it would be awhile before it came - if it came at all. What bothered Illian was the smell of the dying fire and the absence of sound from where the bandits had set up camp. Either they had left, which meant he had further chasing to do, or they were still sleeping, including their watchman, something he highly doubted.

Illian stepped out from behind the dark-wood tree and faced the campsite. He focused more of his blood to flow to his eyes.

“Fly.” Illian said, releasing his eyesight from the restrictions of his body.

Freed, Illian’s sight latched onto the sunbeams, leaping from ray to ray as they

crossed paths, reflecting off a rocky outcrop, a dark-wood tree trunk, then another, and

another, until it came to rest above the campsite. Hidden within the sun's rays Illian's sight could now see it all.

It was a massacre.

Bodies lay scattered throughout the campsite, some in pools of their own blood with deep gashes stretching from their shoulders down to their guts, others without a scratch, their eyes blank and wide open. Even in their lifeless state, the slain bandits seemed to be trying to escape whatever monster had attacked them. Illian’s sight lingered on the deep lacerations, he knew of only one soldier powerful enough to wield a blade with such deadly precision. "But

Korgonians, this far south?" Illian dismissed the thought and scanned the campsite for any signs of life.

But there were no survivors.

He pulled back his sight and quickly covered the remaining distance to the campsite. Illian felt his hair rise up on the back of his neck as he entered the massacre, for what his eyes could not see his body could now feel.

Fear.

Illian sighed, “What horror befell these men that even death could not remove their

fear?”

Then movement.

“Impossible!” Illian breathed, focused on the half dead man whose bloody fingers trembled as he raised them against the wound in his abdomen, trying to staunch the loss of blood that would soon kill him. "How could he have missed him." Illian darted through the bodies, mindful not to disturb the clues left behind by the struggle that had placed them here and knelt beside the dying man.

He was met with an empty stare.

 

(Chapter one continued - first draft)

 

“Your fear has driven you mad stranger. I’ll get no answers from you today or any other day I think. I’ll tend to your wounds and return you to my city. Though I doubt you will live long enough to…”

“He is alive.” The dying man struggled.

Shocked that the man still had the strength left to speak, Illian gently sat him upright.

“He is with them.” The man’s voice longed for something.

“Who is with them? And who are they?” Replied Illian.

“I gave it to him. I told him to hide it!” The man coughed. Blood now spilled from his mouth as he spoke. “He is alive. He has it. And they have him.”

Illian raised his hand against the man’s mouth in an attempt to stop him from saying any more.

“You must calm yourself stranger." Illian pleaded. "Your words will kill you.”

The man’s eyes, stripped of their natural ability by some unknown, stared passed Illian unable to guide his outstretched arm to find its mark. Illian took his hand as the man spoke.

“The boy does not fear the shadow.”

“Why do dying men always speak in riddles?” Illian sighed as he slowly lowered the dead man's hand and lay it to rest on the ground beside him. He quickly raised himself up, gathered his concentration and began hunting for clues. Carefully he moved between the bodies, examining the pattern of footprints left on the ground.  As he memorized the last of the footprints he shut his eyes and crossed his legs as he sat down. He let the images he had created for himself slowly find each other in his mind. One by one, like pieces off a puzzle, he began joining them. Illian used the blood to magnify the images. Bringing them to life. He studied each footprint individually until he could recognize every move made by every man. He played the scene over and over again in his head. Each time becoming clearer. Then finally clear enough to identify the perpetrators of this massacre. Illian focused on the face of a man tucked away behind a hood of a dark cloak. He tried moving around the front of the hooded man but every move he made was countered by the dark stranger.

Illian opened his eyes. "Something is blocking my sight. That is how I mist the dying man." He picked himself up allowing the blood to flow throughout his entire body again.

A snap of a twig and Illian reacted instantaneously jumping forward and turning his body around in mid air to face his enemy. He blocked the first blow of enemy steel just inches above his head leaving his torso exposed. The second attack landed as the feet of the enemy kicked him ground-wards. But before he had time to cushion his fall the third attack had already been made. The enemy’s sword had left his hand the moment Illian had been struck to the ground. All he could do was to shift his body weight to prevent the attack from being a fatal one. The sword lodged into Illian’s shoulder as he hit the ground, his own sword falling out of hands reach. A small built man in a dark hooded cloak landed on top of him with surprising force, grabbed the handle of the sword stuck in Illian’s shoulder and slowly pushed it deeper into his flesh.

“Hello Illian.” His voice was filled with an excitement that made Illian uneasy.

“You know my name.” Groaned Illian.

“I know more than your name, Vian halfbreed.” The man smiled. He forced his sword a little deeper into Illian’s shoulder. Just then Illian increased the blood flow into his shoulder preventing the enemies’ sword from penetrating any further.

“Only a few people know me by that name." Illian confessed. "Who are you?”

The man’s face began to disappear behind a mist in the hood of his cloak that absorbed all light that fell upon it.

“I am Ashlath of the Shadow Born, and you will fear me.” He hissed.

Illian could feel the words entering his body manifesting themselves into physical fear with the sole purpose of controlling him. He closed his eyes remembering the fear that hung over the dead bodies of the thieves that lay all around him.

"Is this fear your weapon then? Is fear what killed those men?" Illian spoke without opening his eyes.

“Closing your eyes will not stop the fear Illian, it will consume you.”

With those words Ashlath pulled the sword out of Illian’s shoulder, held it high above his own head ready to deliver the final blow.

“What a disappointment you are. And to think he sent someone stronger than myself to kill you. You will not save the boy!”

“Now River Girl!” Illian opened his eyes as his trusted friend burst through the trees. His enemies gaze momentarily shifted towards the charging horse.

"Come!" Illian called to his sword as he lifted his hand. It flew through the air, over his body knocking Ashlath’s sword to the ground and finding his own hand. It was now Illian’s turn to strike as he swung his sword aiming for his enemies’ exposed chest. Ashlath leaped backwards into the air to avoid the blow. Illian knew that with his injured shoulder he would not have the speed to land the attack, but he had counted on his enemy dodging it. Ashlath was met with a powerful kick from the hind legs of River Girl as she ran past sending him flying through the air. Immediately Illian pulled himself to his feet, held his sword to his shoulder and called for more blood.

“Release.”

More of the dark blood leaked out the tip of his blade straight into his wound stopping the bleeding. He held his sword ready. Ashlath pulled himself up holding his chest where the horse had kicked him and smiled.

“You look different. You are strong, aren’t you?” He turned his head northwards and whispered. “Kill the boy.”

“Thank you.”

Ashlath looked puzzled at hearing Illian's words.

“Surely not? Are you thanking me for killing the boy?”

Illian smiled. “No, I’m thanking you for directing me to him.”

Ashlath charged, screaming hysterically. Illian took an attacking stance at his unarmed assailant and waited for his moment to strike. He stood steady until his enemy was on top of him. A thick mist swarmed around Illian’s body as he switched to defensive and blocked the hidden sword aimed at his heart. He spun and lowered himself to his knees to avoid the second attack meant for his neck and in the same movement thrust his own sword into the unguarded back of his enemy. Ashlath pulled himself off of Illian’s sword allowing the blood to flow freely from the wound. Taking a few steps backwards he stumbled and collapsed to the floor. He turned to face Illian.

“Impressive, you saw through my little trick. But I am only a soldier with smoke and mist for weapons. You will need to do a lot more to defeat my brothers.” Illian watched on as his enemy laughed out the last of his breath.

CHAPTER TWO - A Boy is Saved

 

(First draft)

Illian had no time to examine the body of this new enemy that had appeared without warning. He had to catch up with Ashlath’s voice before it reached the boy. Illian sheathed his sword keeping its blood in his body to control the bleeding from the wound in his shoulder. He called to his horse as he ran in the direction that the voice had been spoken. River Girl moved alongside Illian and lowered her neck. Grabbing hold of her main with both hands Illian lifted himself up onto her back.

As they sped through the forest Illian strained his eyes for any trail the voice might have left. Just then River Girl lifted her head.

“Illian, there is an unnatural smell on the air.”

“That must be it. Follow that smell.”

A few black scared trees were the first signs that they were heading in the right direction. Then Illian saw it, a haze pushing its way through the air.

“Ride River Girl, we must pass it to see what waits for us up ahead.”

River Girl responded to Illian, as she always did, and found more speed. They overtook the voice and Illian could feel the uneasiness it brought over his friend. He lowered his head and spoke words of courage to her. River Girl neighed loudly and left the Shadow voice in the distance behind her.

They reached an unnatural clearing in the forest - deliberately cleared by men. Illian pulled River Girl to a stop. Just outside the clearing, hidden within the shadows of the trees, the two companions looked on a gathering of soldiers in the centre of the clearing. They were all wrapped in dark robes which made it hard to focus on any single individual, but Illian could make out the symbol of a ship flying a red flag on the shields the men were carrying.

“Those shields bare the symbol of the Korgonians. But what are they doing this far south of their borders?”

River Girl moved nervously.

“Yes my girl, I can feel it getting closer.”

Illian closed his eyes and using the blood’s energy still in his body he pushed his sight forward once again.

"Fly."

He saw the Korgonian captain standing in the centre of the ring which the group had formed around him. He stood slightly taller on a mound of earth, and there beside him was the boy. Illian pulled back his sight to the cries of the Korgonian soldiers.

“Aargh! We’re getting bored of waiting for him. Let’s kill the boy now.” The Korgonian captain grabbed the boy by the back of his shirt and lifted him up so that the entire group could see him.

“Have you already forgotten what the Shadow has promised us if we give him the boy?” He shouted.

Illian's concentration broke as Ashlath’s voice moved over him out of the forest towards the Korgonians. River Girl neighed and reared up ready to speed off after it.

Illian held her back.

“Not yet girl. This could be vital information as to who the Shadow is and what he wants. We wait until the very last moment.”

Illian turned his focus back on what the Korgonian captain was saying.

“If we let the Shadow take the boy then we will get our chance to kill thousands more than we did today.”

The rest of the Korgonians lifted their arms up into the air with approving cheers. River Girl moved forward. Illian held her back once more.

“Not yet...”

“Let the Shadow have this weak, worthless boy. And let us have an army bigger than all the Kingdoms!”

The Korgonians burst out in war cries as the shadow’s voice reached them. It cracked the air above them like thunder.

“Kill the boy!”

The captain of the Korgonians drew his sword, raised it high above his head ready to strike down the boy. His heart filled with rage realising that his master was dead along with the promise of an army.

At that moment another voice cracked above the Korgonians where they stood. This time it was Illian's voice.

“Release the boy!”

All Korgonian eyes turned away from their captain - now focused on the rider approaching them. The Korgonian leader pointed his sword in the direction of Illian. His voice full of anger.

“He has killed the shadow. He is the one that has taken our army away from us. Korgonians! Kill him!”

With those words the rage that was the Korgonian captain’s became the rage of each and every one of his soldiers. All Korgonian swords where unsheathed ready to strike the man who had taken away their one chance for an army.

But Illian was already upon them.

The Korgonians could not brake into formation quick enough to prevent Illian’s attack. Illian had raised himself to his feet as he rode River Girl. They approached with speed as River Girl broke left just in front of where the Korgonians stood. They were to slow to react. Illian, with both hands inside his robe, launched himself off his horse flying through the air over the soldiers towards the Korgonian captain. Pulling out a bag of fire dust in each hand, Illian spread his arms out leaving two trails off fire dust through the Korgonian crowd. As the bags emptied, Illian drew his sword and descended upon the Korgonian leader. The Korgonian threw the boy to the ground and swung his mighty sword in a wide attack on Illian. In one flowing movement Illian knocked the Korgonian and his sword to the ground. He came down on him forcing his own sword deep into the Korgonians chest. Cries of horror filled the air as the remaining Korgonians took a step backwards.

For a moment there was silence.

Illian grabbed the boy and pulled him in closer.

“Stay close on my back if you want to live, boy.”

Once again Illian reached into his robe this time pulling out two greyish stones, one in each hand. He crashed them together, breaking them and creating a shower of falling stars from his hands which fell onto the fire dust on the floor. Two walls of fire immediately rose where the fire dust lay engulfing any Korgonian standing to near. Illian started down the centre of the two walls of fire slashing through the panic stricken Korgonians, sending them to the floor one after the other. Illian felt the tug on his robe as the boy held on struggling to keep up. As Illian broke through the circle, a Korgonian hand grabbed at his ankle bringing him down face first to the ground. Illian spun around onto his back and saw a Korgonian warrior standing above him, sword raised, slowly fall to the floor. Behind stood a small boy with a bloodied sword. Illian jumped to his feet, took hold of the boy and ran calling to his horse. River Girl arrived and Illian lifted the boy onto her back and swung himself up afterwards. Together they rode off un-chased, except for a few angry cries from the confused Korgonians.

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EIDOLON - Keeper of Swords
CHAPTER ONE - Ashlath (Second draft)

With the light of dawn yet to cross the horizon, Illian had received the order to track down a band of thieves that had stolen from the royal family of Dancall. It would have been a public humiliation if word had spread that Tyron, the crown prince of Dancall, had again been caught with his pants down, stripped of his possessions while expressing his manhood with a commoner.
What kept Dancall a city of power was its mighty army. And the soldiers and citizens of Dancall remained loyal to the city only because of its king. Megatuis was a just king who ruled with a caring heart and powerful hand. A king who was loved by all. Unfortunately, his only son had not inherited his character and preferred to play in the dirt, sullying his family’s name and rejecting his royal duties. Since the Queen’s passing, there had been no one to keep an eye on the prince. And as Megatuis refused to remarry, there would be no other heir to succeed him.
Illian cursed under his breath at the thought of Tyron.
“Concentrate, Illian." River Girl's thought caught him off guard; instead of responding in words, Illian loosened the reigns, patted his trusted friend on the side of her neck, and refocused his thoughts on the chase.
They travelled in silence, struggling to follow the bandits’ trail in the darkness. Illian
had given up on employing his own senses and was relying solely on River Girl, her keen
eyesight, hearing and sense of smell. It was arduous to track anything in the Forest of
Darkness during the day and about impossible at night. Unless, of course, you had one of the bloodline horses.
Illian leaned forward in his saddle. "Quiet now, River Girl. First light will soon find
us,” he whispered, though he could have communicated by thought just as well.
River Girl eased her pace to a walk, her steps becoming a hush. Illian smiled as he
strained his ears to hear when hooves met forest floor. Even a skilled rider of a water-descent bloodline horse found it difficult to discern his horse’s strides.
"You've been practicing,” Illian praised River Girl’s skill.
"That I have. Thank you for noticing, Illian."
Illian's smile lingered for a moment longer. Of all the abilities of a bloodline horse, thought communication was his favorite.
"The campsite is up ahead. I detect smoke."
Illian responded to River Girls' thought immediately and slid from his saddle, rolling to break his fall, and ducked behind the
trunk of a dark-wood tree.
"Move around to the other side of the campsite and wait for my call." Before Illian had finished his thought, River Girl had
already vanished into the darkness of the forest.
Illian unsheathed his sword, glimpsing a ray of morning light that had found its way
through the thick canopy that gave the Forest of Darkness its name. "Just in time." He had
speculated and hoped they had remained close enough to the forest’s edge that the sun might still find them. He'd guessed correctly.
Illian rested the tip of his blade on the ground in front if him, and with his free hand, stroked his thumb along the blade until a trickle of blood ran down its edge. Illian closed his eyes and began his heart meditation.
He spoke the first command, "Release."
Illian’s heartbeat slowed, and a dark blood oozed from the tip of his blade. The viscous liquid moved of its own accord, and instead of bleeding into the soil, began to travel upward, mixing with Illian’s blood and gaining in speed as it did. Half way up the blade, it came alive, in an instant reaching the cut on Illian's thumb. It entered Illian’s body. With deadly speed and determination it cursed through his bloodstream, consuming his heart, searching for more life to devour. But Illian’s meditation was complete.
His heart had stopped beating.
Illian waited for the last of the foreign blood to gather in his heart, before he spoke the second command, "Bind."
Illian's heart began beating again, the dark blood no longer flowing of its own will but
now a part of Illian, streaming through his body and giving him strength. Illian rose to his feet feeling stronger and more aware of his surroundings.
Under his heightened senses, the slim rays of sunlight illuminated the forest in brilliant light as they reflected off fern fronds and rocks, leaves and the forked limbs of trees.
Illian could smell a hint of rain in the air, but it would be awhile before it came - if it came at all. What bothered Illian was the smell of the dying fire and the absence of sound from where the bandits had set up camp. Either they had left, which meant he had further chasing to do, or they were still sleeping, including their watchman, something he highly doubted.
Illian stepped out from behind the dark-wood tree and faced the campsite. He focused more of his blood to flow to his eyes.
“Fly.” Illian said, releasing his eyesight from the restrictions of his body.
Freed, Illian’s sight latched onto the sunbeams, leaping from ray to ray as they
crossed paths, reflecting off a rocky outcrop, a dark-wood tree trunk, then another, and
another, until it came to rest above the campsite. Hidden within the sun's rays Illian's sight could now see it all.
It was a massacre.
Bodies lay scattered throughout the campsite, some in pools of their own blood with deep gashes stretching from their shoulders down to their guts, others without a scratch, their eyes blank and wide open. Even in their lifeless state, the slain bandits seemed to be trying to escape whatever monster had attacked them. Illian’s sight lingered on the deep lacerations, he knew of only one soldier powerful enough to wield a blade with such deadly precision. "But
Korgonians, this far south?"
Illian dismissed the thought and scanned the campsite for any signs of life.
But there were no survivors.
He pulled back his sight and quickly covered the remaining distance to the campsite. Illian felt his hair rise up on the back of his neck as he entered the massacre, for what his eyes could not see his body could now feel.
Fear.
Illian sighed, “What horror befell these men that even death could not remove their
fear?”
Then movement.
“Impossible!” Illian breathed, focused on the half dead man whose bloody fingers trembled as he raised them against the wound in his abdomen, trying to staunch the loss of blood that would soon kill him. "How could he have missed him." Illian darted through the bodies, mindful not to disturb the clues left behind by the struggle that had placed them here and knelt beside the dying man.
He was met with an empty stare.
 
(Chapter one continued - first draft)
 
“Your fear has driven you mad stranger. I’ll get no answers from you today or any other day I think. I’ll tend to your wounds and return you to my city. Though I doubt you will live long enough to…”
“He is alive.” The dying man struggled.
Shocked that the man still had the strength left to speak, Illian gently sat him upright.
“He is with them.” The man’s voice longed for something.
“Who is with them? And who are they?” Replied Illian.
“I gave it to him. I told him to hide it!” The man coughed. Blood now spilled from his mouth as he spoke. “He is alive. He has it. And they have him.”
Illian raised his hand against the man’s mouth in an attempt to stop him from saying any more.
“You must calm yourself stranger." Illian pleaded. "Your words will kill you.”
The man’s eyes, stripped of their natural ability by some unknown, stared passed Illian unable to guide his outstretched arm to find its mark. Illian took his hand as the man spoke.
“The boy does not fear the shadow.”
“Why do dying men always speak in riddles?” Illian sighed as he slowly lowered the dead man's hand and lay it to rest on the ground beside him. He quickly raised himself up, gathered his concentration and began hunting for clues. Carefully he moved between the bodies, examining the pattern of footprints left on the ground.  As he memorized the last of the footprints he shut his eyes and crossed his legs as he sat down. He let the images he had created for himself slowly find each other in his mind. One by one, like pieces off a puzzle, he began joining them. Illian used the blood to magnify the images. Bringing them to life. He studied each footprint individually until he could recognize every move made by every man. He played the scene over and over again in his head. Each time becoming clearer. Then finally clear enough to identify the perpetrators of this massacre. Illian focused on the face of a man tucked away behind a hood of a dark cloak. He tried moving around the front of the hooded man but every move he made was countered by the dark stranger.
Illian opened his eyes. "Something is blocking my sight. That is how I mist the dying man." He picked himself up allowing the blood to flow throughout his entire body again.
A snap of a twig and Illian reacted instantaneously jumping forward and turning his body around in mid air to face his enemy. He blocked the first blow of enemy steel just inches above his head leaving his torso exposed. The second attack landed as the feet of the enemy kicked him ground-wards. But before he had time to cushion his fall the third attack had already been made. The enemy’s sword had left his hand the moment Illian had been struck to the ground. All he could do was to shift his body weight to prevent the attack from being a fatal one. The sword lodged into Illian’s shoulder as he hit the ground, his own sword falling out of hands reach. A small built man in a dark hooded cloak landed on top of him with surprising force, grabbed the handle of the sword stuck in Illian’s shoulder and slowly pushed it deeper into his flesh.
“Hello Illian.” His voice was filled with an excitement that made Illian uneasy.
“You know my name.” Groaned Illian.
“I know more than your name, Vian halfbreed.” The man smiled. He forced his sword a little deeper into Illian’s shoulder. Just then Illian increased the blood flow into his shoulder preventing the enemies’ sword from penetrating any further.
“Only a few people know me by that name." Illian confessed. "Who are you?”
The man’s face began to disappear behind a mist in the hood of his cloak that absorbed all light that fell upon it.
“I am Ashlath of the Shadow Born, and you will fear me.” He hissed.
Illian could feel the words entering his body manifesting themselves into physical fear with the sole purpose of controlling him. He closed his eyes remembering the fear that hung over the dead bodies of the thieves that lay all around him.
"Is this fear your weapon then? Is fear what killed those men?" Illian spoke without opening his eyes.
“Closing your eyes will not stop the fear Illian, it will consume you.”
With those words Ashlath pulled the sword out of Illian’s shoulder, held it high above his own head ready to deliver the final blow.
“What a disappointment you are. And to think he sent someone stronger than myself to kill you. You will not save the boy!”
“Now River Girl!” Illian opened his eyes as his trusted friend burst through the trees. His enemies gaze momentarily shifted towards the charging horse.
"Come!" Illian called to his sword as he lifted his hand. It flew through the air, over his body knocking Ashlath’s sword to the ground and finding his own hand. It was now Illian’s turn to strike as he swung his sword aiming for his enemies’ exposed chest. Ashlath leaped backwards into the air to avoid the blow. Illian knew that with his injured shoulder he would not have the speed to land the attack, but he had counted on his enemy dodging it. Ashlath was met with a powerful kick from the hind legs of River Girl as she ran past sending him flying through the air. Immediately Illian pulled himself to his feet, held his sword to his shoulder and called for more blood.
“Release.”
More of the dark blood leaked out the tip of his blade straight into his wound stopping the bleeding. He held his sword ready. Ashlath pulled himself up holding his chest where the horse had kicked him and smiled.
“You look different. You are strong, aren’t you?” He turned his head northwards and whispered. “Kill the boy.”
“Thank you.”
Ashlath looked puzzled at hearing Illian's words.
“Surely not? Are you thanking me for killing the boy?”
Illian smiled. “No, I’m thanking you for directing me to him.”
Ashlath charged, screaming hysterically. Illian took an attacking stance at his unarmed assailant and waited for his moment to strike. He stood steady until his enemy was on top of him. A thick mist swarmed around Illian’s body as he switched to defensive and blocked the hidden sword aimed at his heart. He spun and lowered himself to his knees to avoid the second attack meant for his neck and in the same movement thrust his own sword into the unguarded back of his enemy. Ashlath pulled himself off of Illian’s sword allowing the blood to flow freely from the wound. Taking a few steps backwards he stumbled and collapsed to the floor. He turned to face Illian.
“Impressive, you saw through my little trick. But I am only a soldier with smoke and mist for weapons. You will need to do a lot more to defeat my brothers.” Illian watched on as his enemy laughed out the last of his breath.


CHAPTER TWO - A Boy is Saved
 
(First draft)

Illian had no time to examine the body of this new enemy that had appeared without warning. He had to catch up with Ashlath’s voice before it reached the boy. Illian sheathed his sword keeping its blood in his body to control the bleeding from the wound in his shoulder. He called to his horse as he ran in the direction that the voice had been spoken. River Girl moved alongside Illian and lowered her neck. Grabbing hold of her main with both hands Illian lifted himself up onto her back.
As they sped through the forest Illian strained his eyes for any trail the voice might have left. Just then River Girl lifted her head.
“Illian, there is an unnatural smell on the air.”
“That must be it. Follow that smell.”
A few black scared trees were the first signs that they were heading in the right direction. Then Illian saw it, a haze pushing its way through the air.
“Ride River Girl, we must pass it to see what waits for us up ahead.”
River Girl responded to Illian, as she always did, and found more speed. They overtook the voice and Illian could feel the uneasiness it brought over his friend. He lowered his head and spoke words of courage to her. River Girl neighed loudly and left the Shadow voice in the distance behind her.
They reached an unnatural clearing in the forest - deliberately cleared by men. Illian pulled River Girl to a stop. Just outside the clearing, hidden within the shadows of the trees, the two companions looked on a gathering of soldiers in the centre of the clearing. They were all wrapped in dark robes which made it hard to focus on any single individual, but Illian could make out the symbol of a ship flying a red flag on the shields the men were carrying.
“Those shields bare the symbol of the Korgonians. But what are they doing this far south of their borders?”
River Girl moved nervously.
“Yes my girl, I can feel it getting closer.”
Illian closed his eyes and using the blood’s energy still in his body he pushed his sight forward once again.
"Fly."
He saw the Korgonian captain standing in the centre of the ring which the group had formed around him. He stood slightly taller on a mound of earth, and there beside him was the boy. Illian pulled back his sight to the cries of the Korgonian soldiers.
“Aargh! We’re getting bored of waiting for him. Let’s kill the boy now.” The Korgonian captain grabbed the boy by the back of his shirt and lifted him up so that the entire group could see him.
“Have you already forgotten what the Shadow has promised us if we give him the boy?” He shouted.
Illian's concentration broke as Ashlath’s voice moved over him out of the forest towards the Korgonians. River Girl neighed and reared up ready to speed off after it.
Illian held her back.
“Not yet girl. This could be vital information as to who the Shadow is and what he wants. We wait until the very last moment.”
Illian turned his focus back on what the Korgonian captain was saying.
“If we let the Shadow take the boy then we will get our chance to kill thousands more than we did today.”
The rest of the Korgonians lifted their arms up into the air with approving cheers. River Girl moved forward. Illian held her back once more.
“Not yet...”
“Let the Shadow have this weak, worthless boy. And let us have an army bigger than all the Kingdoms!”
The Korgonians burst out in war cries as the shadow’s voice reached them. It cracked the air above them like thunder.
“Kill the boy!”
The captain of the Korgonians drew his sword, raised it high above his head ready to strike down the boy. His heart filled with rage realising that his master was dead along with the promise of an army.
At that moment another voice cracked above the Korgonians where they stood. This time it was Illian's voice.
“Release the boy!”
All Korgonian eyes turned away from their captain - now focused on the rider approaching them. The Korgonian leader pointed his sword in the direction of Illian. His voice full of anger.
“He has killed the shadow. He is the one that has taken our army away from us. Korgonians! Kill him!”
With those words the rage that was the Korgonian captain’s became the rage of each and every one of his soldiers. All Korgonian swords where unsheathed ready to strike the man who had taken away their one chance for an army.
But Illian was already upon them.
The Korgonians could not brake into formation quick enough to prevent Illian’s attack. Illian had raised himself to his feet as he rode River Girl. They approached with speed as River Girl broke left just in front of where the Korgonians stood. They were to slow to react. Illian, with both hands inside his robe, launched himself off his horse flying through the air over the soldiers towards the Korgonian captain. Pulling out a bag of fire dust in each hand, Illian spread his arms out leaving two trails off fire dust through the Korgonian crowd. As the bags emptied, Illian drew his sword and descended upon the Korgonian leader. The Korgonian threw the boy to the ground and swung his mighty sword in a wide attack on Illian. In one flowing movement Illian knocked the Korgonian and his sword to the ground. He came down on him forcing his own sword deep into the Korgonians chest. Cries of horror filled the air as the remaining Korgonians took a step backwards.
For a moment there was silence.
Illian grabbed the boy and pulled him in closer.
“Stay close on my back if you want to live, boy.”
Once again Illian reached into his robe this time pulling out two greyish stones, one in each hand. He crashed them together, breaking them and creating a shower of falling stars from his hands which fell onto the fire dust on the floor. Two walls of fire immediately rose where the fire dust lay engulfing any Korgonian standing to near. Illian started down the centre of the two walls of fire slashing through the panic stricken Korgonians, sending them to the floor one after the other. Illian felt the tug on his robe as the boy held on struggling to keep up. As Illian broke through the circle, a Korgonian hand grabbed at his ankle bringing him down face first to the ground. Illian spun around onto his back and saw a Korgonian warrior standing above him, sword raised, slowly fall to the floor. Behind stood a small boy with a bloodied sword. Illian jumped to his feet, took hold of the boy and ran calling to his horse. River Girl arrived and Illian lifted the boy onto her back and swung himself up afterwards. Together they rode off un-chased, except for a few angry cries from the confused Korgonians.
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Written by SSkorkowsky in portal Trident Media Group

Ashes of Onyx

Chapter 1

A PINHOLE IN A PARADE FLOAT

The locked display in Claudio Vegner's Baltimore office contained several Outer World artifacts. Careful not to let her breath fog the tempered glass, Kate leaned closer to inspect a Hollit globe, a jeweled orb not much larger than a softball. Etched bands of red and whitish metal wove between the multicolored stones along its surface.

She'd seen a half-dozen such puzzle spheres. Albeit smaller, Vegner's was superb in its craftsmanship. It was definitely the crown jewel of this collection, the other artifacts were quite banal – a Dhevin gallows mask, a slender ivory ladle cut from the horn of some strange animal, and a bronze ring bearing an angular coat of arms she didn't recognize.

None of them were magical, she could sense. But Vegner would be a fool to display magical artifacts near a tempting window, even here on the nineteenth floor. No, Kate decided, these artifacts were here for her. That explained why he was late to this appointment, allowing her to explore his office alone, and see for herself that he truly was a collector. Kate didn't care one way or the other – as long as the money was good.

One of the oaken doors opened and Claudio Vegner stepped inside, a waft of expensive-smelling cologne swirling in his wake."I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Rossdale." He extended a manicured hand, its square nails buffed to a high gloss.

"No problem at all," Kate said, delivering her lines in this needless play. She accepted the hand. "I was just admiring your collection."

He nodded his thanks. "Please sit."

Kate lowered herself into one of the two leather chairs opposite Vegner's desk, its inlaid surface preserved beneath a plate of beveled glass.

Vegner took his seat. His thick blond hair was combed back, giving an impression of speed, disrupted only by the prominently jutting ears. The strong jaw and deeply clefted chin were something movie stars would envy. His build was that of a former athlete, a softening that still told of the muscles beneath. "I trust you are doing well."

"I am," she said.

"Good." He gave a hollow businessman's smile. "I've had the opportunity to add to my collection, a particular piece of some value. But before I complete the transaction I wanted someone of your particular skill to authenticate it."

"Of course." Kate set her hands across her lap to calm their trembling. It had been two months since her last job. She needed money for food and a fix worse than she ever had. Money hadn't been an issue at first. She'd had plenty after Master Boyer's death, but time and bad decisions had whittled that away. "You know my fee."

"Of course," he said with a smile of very white teeth. Vegner withdrew a stack of crisp twenty dollar bills from his drawer and set it on the desk. "Two thousand in advance. We can't have expectation of the answer muddle our incentive to pay, can we?" He placed a small glass vial of red crystals, like crimson rice, atop the bills. "And this is a little gift. Consider it a tip."

Kate's hands tightened, but she maintained her impassive smile. Fuck you. She'd hoped her… dalliance wasn't widely known. "Thank you." She cleared her throat. "And the artifact?"

Vegner was still smiling, the mean victory gleaming in his shit brown eyes. "Of course." He pressed a button on his desk phone. "You may send him in, Jodie."

The second door into Vegner's office opened. A gray-haired woman in a flowy blouse stepped inside, a bald man with wild eyebrows and a navy suit behind her.

A loathsome dread settled in Kate's stomach. Terrance Dalton. Shit.

"Miss Rossdale," Dalton said. "It has been a while." His eyes flicked to the glass vial and his lip curled. "Keeping yourself busy, I see. Claudio, why is she here?"

"I've hired Miss Rossdale as my private authenticator."

He snorted. "Claudio, if you wish for authentication there are several impartial towers that I could recommend."

"No," Vegner said. "Too many back deals and alliances between towers. Covens bring their own baggage. Muddy things up. Miss Rossdale has no such loyalties and that is the reputation I've hired. But if you wish to soil her unbias, please, continue talking."

Dalton swallowed and sat down in the chair beside Kate's. "If this is your wish, so be it. I've no doubt Miss Rossdale will verify what I've said."

Kate forced a courteous nod. Lack of loyalties also required she not rock the boat. The Amber Tower held a lot of influence, not just in Maryland, but the east coast. The subtle glyph on Dalton's pinky ring showed that he'd achieved the rank of Magister Lex. Her equal now, though with a different focus. He could make life very difficult for her if she didn't play nice.

Dalton opened a briefcase and removed a flat, black-lacquered box. He slid an ornate bronze pin from the latch and held the box before her. Kate accepted it. It weighed more than she'd expected. Her face reflected in the shiny surface like a polished obsidian scrying mirror. Vegner watched her with passive intensity, his fingers laced before him as she set it onto the desk and carefully opened the lid.

An elaborate medallion of greenish gold rested inside atop burgundy velvet. A pale blue gem, as large as a quarter, crowned its center, nested in weaving bands of metal. The ceiling fluorescents hadn't even gleamed off its cut facets before Kate had determined there was no magic in it. But such news couldn't be delivered right away. Simply declaring it roused questions of competence. She had to at least pretend it was difficult to see.

Gently, she lifted the amulet from its cushion, drawing the long chain out from a hidden pocket. "Torban gold," she mumbled as if to herself. The artifact was definitely not of this realm. She couldn't identify the stone, but gemology had never been her forte. Most likely, it too, came from Torba, but no different than any ordinary stone of its kind. Tiny glyphs ran the lengths of the golden ribbons, so small she could barely make them out. She opened her attaché and removed a folding loupe. Peering through the lens, she followed the intricate symbols around the gem, each one warping into full clarity under magnification before sliding away. The glyphs revealed this to be a ward, banishing elementals and lower hexes. The craftsmanship was superb, each tiny symbol crisp and precisely placed. Yet it didn't work. There had to be a – There!

Hidden beneath the stone, she spotted a single symbol like a curved V, but the glyph was inverted. That one error, a half-millimeter engraving had made an imperfect seal, allowing the power to escape.

"It's authentic," she said, closing the loupe. "Torban, excellent quality, but…" she shook her head, "there is no magic in it."

"What?" Dalton laughed.

Vegner seemed unmoved.

"Claudio, she's mistaken."

"Are you mistaken, Miss Rossdale?" Vegner asked.

"No," Kate said.

Dalton huffed, still looking at Vegner. "Magus Eli Gregor learned the spell from that very amulet. That would be impossible if it wasn't enchanted."

Vegner opened his hand to Kate, asking for an explanation.

"I'm sure he did," she said. "It likely held the enchantment for years, but an imperfection in the spell's binding allowed it to escape. Slowly, like a pinhole in a parade float. But it's gone now."

The muscles in Dalton's jaw rippled. "Claudio, I assure you that the amulet is the real thing. You can't take this woman's word for truth. Her own Master died from her incomp–"

"Don't you speak of him," Kate growled, her face growing hot.

"Or what? You have no tower, no powers. Everyone knows that the once great Kate Rossdale, Magister Arcanus, is nothing but a worthless blood duster."

Kate shot to her feet, fist clenched, and attaché falling to the floor. "You don't know shit, asshole!"

"That's enough," Vegner said, flicking his hand up. "Miss Rossdale, I'm satisfied with your findings. You've earned your fee. Thank you," these last two words delivered in the same tone another man might say fuck off.

Kate opened her mouth, ready to tell Mister Terrance Dalton exactly what he could do with his amulet, but stopped. She released a breath, rage cooling.

Dalton was grinning at her, the corners of his ugly-ass eyebrows upturned, obviously anxious for whatever she planned to say.

Forcing down her anger, she slid the spilled books back into her fallen attaché, scooped the vial and money off the desk, and shoved them into her purse. "Thank you, Mister Vegner."

"Good day, Miss Rossdale."

Dalton was glaring at her, an expression that said, This isn't over, but Kate was already moving toward the door.

"So, Mister Dalton," Vegner was already saying, "I'm no longer interested."

"Claudio, please."

"And it seems that you owe me two thousand dollars."

She shut the door behind her, missing whatever came next. The secretary, Jodie, looked up from her computer, a muted click closing what Kate assumed was a game screen. Heart still pounding, Kate gave her a perfunctory smile and made her way out of Claudio Vegner's office suite.

The mixture of anger, self-loathing, joy of cock-blocking Dalton's sale, and getting paid stoked her growing need for a fix. She stopped on the third floor and located a bathroom. There, tucked into a stall, she tamped a few of the tiny red crystals onto a compact mirror and crushed them under a credit card until they were a chalky pink. With the help of a rolled, fresh twenty-dollar bill Kate snorted a bump up each nostril.

The blood dust burned, a sweet honey smell, undercut with roses and a bitter metallic tang. Warm tingles spread out from the space between her eyebrows, coursing down her veins with the electric hum of magic, a long absent friend. She licked the last traces of powder off her mirror and card, her tongue going numb with the bitter taste she now loved. Her back popped as she rose from her seat, the tension fleeing her muscles with a dramatic crackle of vertebrae. She opened and closed her hands, sensing the unseen power arcing between her fingers. It wasn't more than what a simple Initiate wielded, but to her it was a quenching river coursing through a desert. Teeth singing in their sockets, Kate emerged from the stall, the mounting high taking hold.

*****

She forwent beating the traffic home, deciding instead to visit Whittaker's. The bar itself had operated for nearly two-hundred years, taking a short vacation under the name Lee's during the Prohibition Era. But that was only the front part. The upper floor, the real Whittaker's, had gone unchanged that entire time. It hadn't been a speakeasy. Those were secret with pass phrases and hidden doors. The tavern itself continued on with the absolute certainty that it was safe from discovery by anyone that didn't meet the qualifications. The businesses on either side had burned during the '68 Riots. The first floor had been looted, but even rioters hadn't braved the stairs. Probably never noticed them.

Still riding the buzz from her first bumps, their numbing taste dripping down her throat, Kate stepped inside. Giant mirrors, dingy with decades of cigarette smoke, covered two walls, making the narrow room appear far larger than it really was. No one had smoked here in years, but Kate always imagined the haze and stink of tobacco, a memory, but not hers. The bar's memory. A few people nursed their afternoon drinks, eyes transfixed on the televisions near the ceiling or on their phones. A pair of women in business attire whispered conspiratorially as they sipped colorful martinis. Kate nodded to the barman, a skinny guy she didn't recognize, strode to the back, down the narrow hall past the bathrooms, and headed upstairs.

The tingles started the moment she mounted the first step, like invisible spiders scuttling up her spine. The old wards hadn't faded with age, but Kate had never been able to determine where exactly they were hidden. There were eleven of them, but that was all she could tell.

The familiar smells of sage and old wood greeted her as she pushed open the door at the top of the steps. A half-dozen patrons occupied the second floor –two at the bar, three chatting in the old wingbacks near a window, and Mister Lacroix reading by himself in the same corner as always.

"Well what do we have here?" a woman with thick, tortoise glasses and faded purple hair asked from behind the counter. "Long time, no see."

"Hey Tisha." Kate slid onto one of the stools, resting her feet on the old brass bar rail. "Glenlivet. Double."

"Oh," Tisha said, one eyebrow cocking above the thick frames. "Appears you intend to catch up for lost times."

Kate sniffed. "It's been a great day."

"Evidently." Tisha plucked the bottle from the shelf behind her and began pouring the drink. "So what have you been up to the last few months?"

"Whole lot of nothing." Kate dropped a twenty on the faded bar top, branded with a thousand interlocking rings from wet glasses. "How's it been here?"

"You know how it goes. More of the same. Few new faces wandered in. Few more forgot where the door was."

Kate sipped her scotch, the warmth blooming in her stomach like her temporary magic. Whittaker's was a haven, a magical sanctuary where deals were struck and contacts established, only noticeable to those receptive enough to see the door. Most were young, their minds still flexible and hungry. As age hardened their elasticity, many forgot about it, or felt the discomfort that the wards emitted to those not attuned. The result was that a regular surge of youth kept the place from getting too codgy. She'd wandered in herself, on her twenty-first birthday, wide-eyed and desperate to learn. Much had changed in the seventeen years since.

Tisha leaned close. "Bit of rumblings in the Amber Tower, I hear."

"Really?"

"Mm-hmm. Too many chiefs. Sounds like they might actually split."

"They've been saying that for years. Master Boyer said it had been that way since he was an Initiate."

"Yeah, but they sound serious this time. Dissolution of the Onyx Tower pushed a lot of people under one roof."

Kate hid her frown behind another sip. Onyx hadn't dissolved. It had shattered, the leadership wiped out in a single night. She'd been one of the only two survivors of that failed excursion, and the blame landed squarely on her. It had been her Magus test, after all. Many reasoned her resulting disability was cosmic justice. Some went independent afterward. Others moved away, joining different towers. The rest had gone to Amber. It appeared the shockwaves from that night were still sounding. "Well, best luck to them. They have an Ipsissimus?"

"They'd have to, but no one knows who, of course." Tisha glanced at the two men drinking at the edge of bar and whispered, "There's about to be a lot of power shuffling. So you might want to keep your head low."

"They can't do more to me than has already been done."

"Believe it or not, girl, you've had a lot of influential friends in Amber that have kept you protected after everything. If they lose their flock, the next leadership might not be so forgiving."

Kate snorted. "Little late now."

Tisha cocked her head. "What's that mean?"

"Well." Kate lifted he glass before her. "You're talking to the girl that just humiliated Terrance Dalton and probably cost him two grand." She knocked it back.

"What?"

"True story," Kate coughed. She clacked the empty glass back onto the bar. "Just half an hour ago. Called him an asshole, too. It was great."

"Really?" Tisha asked, not seeming to appreciate the joy. "You show up after three months of hiding out and the first thing you do is kick Dalton in the nuts?"

Kate shrugged. "It's my gift. I'll take another."

"How did this happen?" Tisha refilled the glass.

"I got a call from that collector, Vegner. He wanted me to authenticate some amulet. Ends up it was a piece Dalton was selling. Something that used to be Magus Gregor's. I told Vegner the amulet had no power. Words were exchanged. Now I'm here."

"So they're selling off Gregor's effects now?"

"It has been a year since anyone saw him," Kate said.

"You mean since the Spire got him."

Kate scratched her nose. "Doesn't have to be witch hunters. Maybe he just realized he was surrounded by assholes and ran off. Can't blame him." She turned to the wall of photos beside the bar, some so old they were printed on glass, their names long forgotten. Magus Gregor stood in the middle of a group shot on the upper right, probably taken in the Seventies judging by their hair. She toasted the long-absent sorcerer.

Tisha rolled her eyes. "And the two grand?"

Kate sipped her drink. Maybe it was the blood dust, but the first glass was already taking effect. "That was my fee for ruining the sale. Sounded like Vegner was going to make Dalton pay for it."

Tisha shook her head. "You know why he was selling Gregor's effects, right?"

"Pay for an eyebrow wax?"

"No," she whispered. "Because they're getting money to fund a new tower. Now they have even less than they did before you came strutting in."

"It's not my fault he was selling a broken artifact." Kate sniffed again. "It was just a job."

"And where do you think their anger is going to…" Tisha leaned close, her magnified green eyes peering into Kate's. "Why do you keep sniffing?"

"I'm not." Right on cue she did it again, a Freudian sniff.

"Are you dusted?" Tisha hissed.

"What?" Kate laughed.

"Your pupils. They're big as plates and you're too damned happy for this conversation."

"Relax," Kate said. "I'm celebrating, and don't act like you've never enjoyed it."

"Don't you even try to pull that card with me. I've talked to you about this. Everyone already calls you a blood duster without you pissing off a tower and then strolling in here high."

Kate sighed. Christ, she'd just wanted a drink and her old friend. Why the hell was Tisha pissing on this? "Fine. I'm sorry. But I need this."

"Uh-huh."

"I'm serious. I need it. I don't give a shit about the rush or the buzz, I need it to feel the magic. Do you have any idea what it's like to lose that, to lose everything that I was? It's like… like I'm paralyzed and every day I see joggers running past my window, ones I trained, and I can't even walk. I need it to feel human again."

Tisha's scowl softened a little at the corners, but her eyes remained hard, pinning her in that judging glare.

"I'm not like one of those mundies that learn a bit and leave. They're lucky. They forget about magic. I can't."

Tisha shook her head. "I don't like where this could take you. Remember Jess?" She pointed without looking at one pictures on the wall beside the bar. There, Jessica Chadwell, a hefty girl with straight black hair sat grinning at a table, glass lifted in an eternal toast. "She used to justify it, too. Help her through the pain after Onyx."

Kate swallowed. Last time she'd seen Jess, the woman's skin had looked like tissue, mottled with yellow bruises and that beautiful hair was coming out in clumps. Not that Jess had to see that. The veins in her eyes had blown leaving her blind. She'd died weighing under ninety pounds. "It's different," Kate said.

"How?"

"She did it to escape emotional pain. I'm not." Kate looked at her glass. Why would she bring up Jess? It was Kate's fault Onyx broke and that made Jess' fall on her too. "Look, oxygen gets people high. They have bars for it. But if you see some grandpa with an oxygen tank you don't accuse them of being a junkie. I don't enjoy having to do this, but I need it. Please." She meant it. Every word. The smidge of magic it gave her was barely enough to levitate the glass to her hand, maybe light the Scotch on fire, but that would use it up. Truth was, knowing she could, that feeling of being a sorceress again, no matter how brief, was worth the comedown.

Tisha let a long low breath. "I don't want you doing that shit here."

"I won't. I promise."

"Alright then. But you be careful."

Chapter 2

COLLECTIONS

It was near midnight before Kate left the haven to head home. The amphetamine of the blood dust had made her a little horny and she decided that it was best to extract herself from that situation before hormones and alcohol tricked her into making another regrettable decision. Keeping her promise to Tisha, she waited until after she left before tooting another bump behind a furniture store and then caught the bus back to Highlandtown.

The renewed drip began at the back of her throat. Kate sniffed.

A skinny woman with wild curls of dark hair looked up at her from across the aisle, a feral hunger beneath probing eyes.

Paranoid, Kate turned toward the window, watching the city lights glide past. Sniffles outside of winter was like blood in the water for drug users. Might as well throw up a sign announcing, "I have cocaine." She probably shouldn't have taken that last hit. She was going to be up all night now. Might as well get some cleaning done.

But the idea of being alone didn't sound much fun. She still felt the itch. Maybe she could call Scott. He was about as dumb as rocks and about as mundie as they got, but he was always good as a distraction. He didn't know her past and didn't care.

Knowing it was a bad idea, she pulled the phone from her purse. Four missed calls. She'd put it on silent before her meeting with Vegner. Not that anyone called her, but if they were going to it would have been then.

All of them were from a blocked number. No messages. Probably a collector.

Sighing, she turned the ringtone back on and dropped the phone back into her bag, Scott forgotten. Tisha's right. I need to get my shit straight.

Six blocks later the bus let Kate off at her exit. The hungry-eyed woman stayed on, thank God, and with a pneumatic hiss the door shut, leaving Kate alone on the nighttime streets. Soft wind coursed down the trench between brick row houses. It stank of exhaust, soured garbage, and the faintest hint of burnt bread. Music thrummed from the open window, yelling voices from somewhere far away, and the rumble of tires on shitty asphalt. Kate barely registered all of this as she followed the sidewalk past miniature trees.

A muffled rendition of Joan Jett's Bad Reputation erupted from her purse. She drew the phone and checked the number.

Blocked number.

Shit. It was near midnight. Wasn't there some law against collectors calling so late? Kate pressed Ignore.

She turned right at a grease-caked dumpster and entered a narrow alley, just wide enough for a single car. During her time as Magister Arcanus in the Onyx Tower, she'd practically lived at Master Boyer's palatial Guilford home. Her final four months, preparing for the ultimately doomed test for Magus Goetia, she'd made it official, commandeering one of the guest rooms. After the incident, and her funds dwindling down far faster than she'd anticipated, Kate's current residence was a renovated basement. It didn't even have a number and her mail simply went to Missus Cecilia Knorr who rented the two story house above. It was the sort of place for transients, former convicts, and those who had fallen between the cracks.

Her phone chimed with an incoming text. Not slowing her pace, Kate lifted the phone still in her hand.

Blocked Number. "You're in danger."

Kate froze. The paranoia that comes with blood dust started running rampant. She glanced over her shoulder. The alley was empty. Danger? From who? Dalton? Surely he wasn't going to actually do anything.

She typed, "Who is this?" but deleted it. Dalton wouldn't do anything, nothing that could come back on him, but she wouldn't put crank calls beyond him. Kate replied, "Wrong number," And dropped the phone back into her purse. Asshole.

Near the middle of the alley Kate tucked behind a plastic trashcan and descended the steps. Her phone chimed again as she unlocked her door.

"Leave me alone, asshole," Kate mumbled stepping inside. A faint pressure washed over her as she crossed the elemental ward she'd inscribed into the frame while dusted. If Dalton or someone was going to mess with her, they'd summon something to do it for them. She was safe here.

And that was her assumption right up to the moment when the wooden floor creaked behind her.

END SAMPLE

___________________________

Title: Ashes of Onyx

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Age Range: 18+

Word Count: 110,000

Author: Seth Skorkowsky

Why Is It A Good Fit: Trident represents some great fantasy

Hook/Synopsis: Kate Rossdale was once the most gifted sorceress to rise in Onyx Tower, Baltimore's greatest coven. Then a murderous betrayal left her stripped of her magic, friendless, and on the downward spiral of addiction.

But all of that is about to change when she's hired for dangerous job by a man she doesn't trust. The payment: Restoration of her magical powers. The Job: Murder. As enemies close from all sides, Kate races across the globe and across worlds, venturing into exotic realms of forbidden dreams as she hunts her target – the magic-thief who robbed her of everything.

Target Audience: Adult readers, likely fans of King's "Dark Tower," Barker's "Imagica."

Bio: Raised in the swamps and pine forests of East Texas, Seth Skorkowsky gravitated to the darker sides of fantasy, preferring horror and pulp heroes over knights in shining armor.

His debut novel, Dämoren, was published in 2014 as book #1 in the Valducan series; it was followed by Hounacier in 2015, and Ibenus in 2016. Seth has also released two sword-and-sorcery rogue collections with his Tales of the Black Raven series.

When not writing, Seth enjoys cheesy movies, tabletop role-playing games, and traveling the world with his wife.

Experience: My publishing experience includes the four novel Valducan series and the two volume Tales of the Black Raven series published through Ragnarok Publications as well as many short stories. I am a two-time Audie Award finalist for Best Paranormal Audiobook and also a SFWA member.

Platform

website - www.skorkowsky.com 

Twitter - @SSkorkowsky

YouTube - www.youtube.com/c/SethSkorkowskyAuthor

Goodreads -  www.goodreads.com/author/show/4088554.Seth_Skorkowsky

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Written by SSkorkowsky in portal Trident Media Group
Ashes of Onyx
Chapter 1
A PINHOLE IN A PARADE FLOAT

The locked display in Claudio Vegner's Baltimore office contained several Outer World artifacts. Careful not to let her breath fog the tempered glass, Kate leaned closer to inspect a Hollit globe, a jeweled orb not much larger than a softball. Etched bands of red and whitish metal wove between the multicolored stones along its surface.
She'd seen a half-dozen such puzzle spheres. Albeit smaller, Vegner's was superb in its craftsmanship. It was definitely the crown jewel of this collection, the other artifacts were quite banal – a Dhevin gallows mask, a slender ivory ladle cut from the horn of some strange animal, and a bronze ring bearing an angular coat of arms she didn't recognize.
None of them were magical, she could sense. But Vegner would be a fool to display magical artifacts near a tempting window, even here on the nineteenth floor. No, Kate decided, these artifacts were here for her. That explained why he was late to this appointment, allowing her to explore his office alone, and see for herself that he truly was a collector. Kate didn't care one way or the other – as long as the money was good.
One of the oaken doors opened and Claudio Vegner stepped inside, a waft of expensive-smelling cologne swirling in his wake."I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Rossdale." He extended a manicured hand, its square nails buffed to a high gloss.
"No problem at all," Kate said, delivering her lines in this needless play. She accepted the hand. "I was just admiring your collection."
He nodded his thanks. "Please sit."
Kate lowered herself into one of the two leather chairs opposite Vegner's desk, its inlaid surface preserved beneath a plate of beveled glass.
Vegner took his seat. His thick blond hair was combed back, giving an impression of speed, disrupted only by the prominently jutting ears. The strong jaw and deeply clefted chin were something movie stars would envy. His build was that of a former athlete, a softening that still told of the muscles beneath. "I trust you are doing well."
"I am," she said.
"Good." He gave a hollow businessman's smile. "I've had the opportunity to add to my collection, a particular piece of some value. But before I complete the transaction I wanted someone of your particular skill to authenticate it."
"Of course." Kate set her hands across her lap to calm their trembling. It had been two months since her last job. She needed money for food and a fix worse than she ever had. Money hadn't been an issue at first. She'd had plenty after Master Boyer's death, but time and bad decisions had whittled that away. "You know my fee."
"Of course," he said with a smile of very white teeth. Vegner withdrew a stack of crisp twenty dollar bills from his drawer and set it on the desk. "Two thousand in advance. We can't have expectation of the answer muddle our incentive to pay, can we?" He placed a small glass vial of red crystals, like crimson rice, atop the bills. "And this is a little gift. Consider it a tip."
Kate's hands tightened, but she maintained her impassive smile. Fuck you. She'd hoped her… dalliance wasn't widely known. "Thank you." She cleared her throat. "And the artifact?"
Vegner was still smiling, the mean victory gleaming in his shit brown eyes. "Of course." He pressed a button on his desk phone. "You may send him in, Jodie."
The second door into Vegner's office opened. A gray-haired woman in a flowy blouse stepped inside, a bald man with wild eyebrows and a navy suit behind her.
A loathsome dread settled in Kate's stomach. Terrance Dalton. Shit.
"Miss Rossdale," Dalton said. "It has been a while." His eyes flicked to the glass vial and his lip curled. "Keeping yourself busy, I see. Claudio, why is she here?"
"I've hired Miss Rossdale as my private authenticator."
He snorted. "Claudio, if you wish for authentication there are several impartial towers that I could recommend."
"No," Vegner said. "Too many back deals and alliances between towers. Covens bring their own baggage. Muddy things up. Miss Rossdale has no such loyalties and that is the reputation I've hired. But if you wish to soil her unbias, please, continue talking."
Dalton swallowed and sat down in the chair beside Kate's. "If this is your wish, so be it. I've no doubt Miss Rossdale will verify what I've said."
Kate forced a courteous nod. Lack of loyalties also required she not rock the boat. The Amber Tower held a lot of influence, not just in Maryland, but the east coast. The subtle glyph on Dalton's pinky ring showed that he'd achieved the rank of Magister Lex. Her equal now, though with a different focus. He could make life very difficult for her if she didn't play nice.
Dalton opened a briefcase and removed a flat, black-lacquered box. He slid an ornate bronze pin from the latch and held the box before her. Kate accepted it. It weighed more than she'd expected. Her face reflected in the shiny surface like a polished obsidian scrying mirror. Vegner watched her with passive intensity, his fingers laced before him as she set it onto the desk and carefully opened the lid.
An elaborate medallion of greenish gold rested inside atop burgundy velvet. A pale blue gem, as large as a quarter, crowned its center, nested in weaving bands of metal. The ceiling fluorescents hadn't even gleamed off its cut facets before Kate had determined there was no magic in it. But such news couldn't be delivered right away. Simply declaring it roused questions of competence. She had to at least pretend it was difficult to see.
Gently, she lifted the amulet from its cushion, drawing the long chain out from a hidden pocket. "Torban gold," she mumbled as if to herself. The artifact was definitely not of this realm. She couldn't identify the stone, but gemology had never been her forte. Most likely, it too, came from Torba, but no different than any ordinary stone of its kind. Tiny glyphs ran the lengths of the golden ribbons, so small she could barely make them out. She opened her attaché and removed a folding loupe. Peering through the lens, she followed the intricate symbols around the gem, each one warping into full clarity under magnification before sliding away. The glyphs revealed this to be a ward, banishing elementals and lower hexes. The craftsmanship was superb, each tiny symbol crisp and precisely placed. Yet it didn't work. There had to be a – There!
Hidden beneath the stone, she spotted a single symbol like a curved V, but the glyph was inverted. That one error, a half-millimeter engraving had made an imperfect seal, allowing the power to escape.
"It's authentic," she said, closing the loupe. "Torban, excellent quality, but…" she shook her head, "there is no magic in it."
"What?" Dalton laughed.
Vegner seemed unmoved.
"Claudio, she's mistaken."
"Are you mistaken, Miss Rossdale?" Vegner asked.
"No," Kate said.
Dalton huffed, still looking at Vegner. "Magus Eli Gregor learned the spell from that very amulet. That would be impossible if it wasn't enchanted."
Vegner opened his hand to Kate, asking for an explanation.
"I'm sure he did," she said. "It likely held the enchantment for years, but an imperfection in the spell's binding allowed it to escape. Slowly, like a pinhole in a parade float. But it's gone now."
The muscles in Dalton's jaw rippled. "Claudio, I assure you that the amulet is the real thing. You can't take this woman's word for truth. Her own Master died from her incomp–"
"Don't you speak of him," Kate growled, her face growing hot.
"Or what? You have no tower, no powers. Everyone knows that the once great Kate Rossdale, Magister Arcanus, is nothing but a worthless blood duster."
Kate shot to her feet, fist clenched, and attaché falling to the floor. "You don't know shit, asshole!"
"That's enough," Vegner said, flicking his hand up. "Miss Rossdale, I'm satisfied with your findings. You've earned your fee. Thank you," these last two words delivered in the same tone another man might say fuck off.
Kate opened her mouth, ready to tell Mister Terrance Dalton exactly what he could do with his amulet, but stopped. She released a breath, rage cooling.
Dalton was grinning at her, the corners of his ugly-ass eyebrows upturned, obviously anxious for whatever she planned to say.
Forcing down her anger, she slid the spilled books back into her fallen attaché, scooped the vial and money off the desk, and shoved them into her purse. "Thank you, Mister Vegner."
"Good day, Miss Rossdale."
Dalton was glaring at her, an expression that said, This isn't over, but Kate was already moving toward the door.
"So, Mister Dalton," Vegner was already saying, "I'm no longer interested."
"Claudio, please."
"And it seems that you owe me two thousand dollars."
She shut the door behind her, missing whatever came next. The secretary, Jodie, looked up from her computer, a muted click closing what Kate assumed was a game screen. Heart still pounding, Kate gave her a perfunctory smile and made her way out of Claudio Vegner's office suite.
The mixture of anger, self-loathing, joy of cock-blocking Dalton's sale, and getting paid stoked her growing need for a fix. She stopped on the third floor and located a bathroom. There, tucked into a stall, she tamped a few of the tiny red crystals onto a compact mirror and crushed them under a credit card until they were a chalky pink. With the help of a rolled, fresh twenty-dollar bill Kate snorted a bump up each nostril.
The blood dust burned, a sweet honey smell, undercut with roses and a bitter metallic tang. Warm tingles spread out from the space between her eyebrows, coursing down her veins with the electric hum of magic, a long absent friend. She licked the last traces of powder off her mirror and card, her tongue going numb with the bitter taste she now loved. Her back popped as she rose from her seat, the tension fleeing her muscles with a dramatic crackle of vertebrae. She opened and closed her hands, sensing the unseen power arcing between her fingers. It wasn't more than what a simple Initiate wielded, but to her it was a quenching river coursing through a desert. Teeth singing in their sockets, Kate emerged from the stall, the mounting high taking hold.
*****
She forwent beating the traffic home, deciding instead to visit Whittaker's. The bar itself had operated for nearly two-hundred years, taking a short vacation under the name Lee's during the Prohibition Era. But that was only the front part. The upper floor, the real Whittaker's, had gone unchanged that entire time. It hadn't been a speakeasy. Those were secret with pass phrases and hidden doors. The tavern itself continued on with the absolute certainty that it was safe from discovery by anyone that didn't meet the qualifications. The businesses on either side had burned during the '68 Riots. The first floor had been looted, but even rioters hadn't braved the stairs. Probably never noticed them.
Still riding the buzz from her first bumps, their numbing taste dripping down her throat, Kate stepped inside. Giant mirrors, dingy with decades of cigarette smoke, covered two walls, making the narrow room appear far larger than it really was. No one had smoked here in years, but Kate always imagined the haze and stink of tobacco, a memory, but not hers. The bar's memory. A few people nursed their afternoon drinks, eyes transfixed on the televisions near the ceiling or on their phones. A pair of women in business attire whispered conspiratorially as they sipped colorful martinis. Kate nodded to the barman, a skinny guy she didn't recognize, strode to the back, down the narrow hall past the bathrooms, and headed upstairs.
The tingles started the moment she mounted the first step, like invisible spiders scuttling up her spine. The old wards hadn't faded with age, but Kate had never been able to determine where exactly they were hidden. There were eleven of them, but that was all she could tell.
The familiar smells of sage and old wood greeted her as she pushed open the door at the top of the steps. A half-dozen patrons occupied the second floor –two at the bar, three chatting in the old wingbacks near a window, and Mister Lacroix reading by himself in the same corner as always.
"Well what do we have here?" a woman with thick, tortoise glasses and faded purple hair asked from behind the counter. "Long time, no see."
"Hey Tisha." Kate slid onto one of the stools, resting her feet on the old brass bar rail. "Glenlivet. Double."
"Oh," Tisha said, one eyebrow cocking above the thick frames. "Appears you intend to catch up for lost times."
Kate sniffed. "It's been a great day."
"Evidently." Tisha plucked the bottle from the shelf behind her and began pouring the drink. "So what have you been up to the last few months?"
"Whole lot of nothing." Kate dropped a twenty on the faded bar top, branded with a thousand interlocking rings from wet glasses. "How's it been here?"
"You know how it goes. More of the same. Few new faces wandered in. Few more forgot where the door was."
Kate sipped her scotch, the warmth blooming in her stomach like her temporary magic. Whittaker's was a haven, a magical sanctuary where deals were struck and contacts established, only noticeable to those receptive enough to see the door. Most were young, their minds still flexible and hungry. As age hardened their elasticity, many forgot about it, or felt the discomfort that the wards emitted to those not attuned. The result was that a regular surge of youth kept the place from getting too codgy. She'd wandered in herself, on her twenty-first birthday, wide-eyed and desperate to learn. Much had changed in the seventeen years since.
Tisha leaned close. "Bit of rumblings in the Amber Tower, I hear."
"Really?"
"Mm-hmm. Too many chiefs. Sounds like they might actually split."
"They've been saying that for years. Master Boyer said it had been that way since he was an Initiate."
"Yeah, but they sound serious this time. Dissolution of the Onyx Tower pushed a lot of people under one roof."
Kate hid her frown behind another sip. Onyx hadn't dissolved. It had shattered, the leadership wiped out in a single night. She'd been one of the only two survivors of that failed excursion, and the blame landed squarely on her. It had been her Magus test, after all. Many reasoned her resulting disability was cosmic justice. Some went independent afterward. Others moved away, joining different towers. The rest had gone to Amber. It appeared the shockwaves from that night were still sounding. "Well, best luck to them. They have an Ipsissimus?"
"They'd have to, but no one knows who, of course." Tisha glanced at the two men drinking at the edge of bar and whispered, "There's about to be a lot of power shuffling. So you might want to keep your head low."
"They can't do more to me than has already been done."
"Believe it or not, girl, you've had a lot of influential friends in Amber that have kept you protected after everything. If they lose their flock, the next leadership might not be so forgiving."
Kate snorted. "Little late now."
Tisha cocked her head. "What's that mean?"
"Well." Kate lifted he glass before her. "You're talking to the girl that just humiliated Terrance Dalton and probably cost him two grand." She knocked it back.
"What?"
"True story," Kate coughed. She clacked the empty glass back onto the bar. "Just half an hour ago. Called him an asshole, too. It was great."
"Really?" Tisha asked, not seeming to appreciate the joy. "You show up after three months of hiding out and the first thing you do is kick Dalton in the nuts?"
Kate shrugged. "It's my gift. I'll take another."
"How did this happen?" Tisha refilled the glass.
"I got a call from that collector, Vegner. He wanted me to authenticate some amulet. Ends up it was a piece Dalton was selling. Something that used to be Magus Gregor's. I told Vegner the amulet had no power. Words were exchanged. Now I'm here."
"So they're selling off Gregor's effects now?"
"It has been a year since anyone saw him," Kate said.
"You mean since the Spire got him."
Kate scratched her nose. "Doesn't have to be witch hunters. Maybe he just realized he was surrounded by assholes and ran off. Can't blame him." She turned to the wall of photos beside the bar, some so old they were printed on glass, their names long forgotten. Magus Gregor stood in the middle of a group shot on the upper right, probably taken in the Seventies judging by their hair. She toasted the long-absent sorcerer.
Tisha rolled her eyes. "And the two grand?"
Kate sipped her drink. Maybe it was the blood dust, but the first glass was already taking effect. "That was my fee for ruining the sale. Sounded like Vegner was going to make Dalton pay for it."
Tisha shook her head. "You know why he was selling Gregor's effects, right?"
"Pay for an eyebrow wax?"
"No," she whispered. "Because they're getting money to fund a new tower. Now they have even less than they did before you came strutting in."
"It's not my fault he was selling a broken artifact." Kate sniffed again. "It was just a job."
"And where do you think their anger is going to…" Tisha leaned close, her magnified green eyes peering into Kate's. "Why do you keep sniffing?"
"I'm not." Right on cue she did it again, a Freudian sniff.
"Are you dusted?" Tisha hissed.
"What?" Kate laughed.
"Your pupils. They're big as plates and you're too damned happy for this conversation."
"Relax," Kate said. "I'm celebrating, and don't act like you've never enjoyed it."
"Don't you even try to pull that card with me. I've talked to you about this. Everyone already calls you a blood duster without you pissing off a tower and then strolling in here high."
Kate sighed. Christ, she'd just wanted a drink and her old friend. Why the hell was Tisha pissing on this? "Fine. I'm sorry. But I need this."
"Uh-huh."
"I'm serious. I need it. I don't give a shit about the rush or the buzz, I need it to feel the magic. Do you have any idea what it's like to lose that, to lose everything that I was? It's like… like I'm paralyzed and every day I see joggers running past my window, ones I trained, and I can't even walk. I need it to feel human again."
Tisha's scowl softened a little at the corners, but her eyes remained hard, pinning her in that judging glare.
"I'm not like one of those mundies that learn a bit and leave. They're lucky. They forget about magic. I can't."
Tisha shook her head. "I don't like where this could take you. Remember Jess?" She pointed without looking at one pictures on the wall beside the bar. There, Jessica Chadwell, a hefty girl with straight black hair sat grinning at a table, glass lifted in an eternal toast. "She used to justify it, too. Help her through the pain after Onyx."
Kate swallowed. Last time she'd seen Jess, the woman's skin had looked like tissue, mottled with yellow bruises and that beautiful hair was coming out in clumps. Not that Jess had to see that. The veins in her eyes had blown leaving her blind. She'd died weighing under ninety pounds. "It's different," Kate said.
"How?"
"She did it to escape emotional pain. I'm not." Kate looked at her glass. Why would she bring up Jess? It was Kate's fault Onyx broke and that made Jess' fall on her too. "Look, oxygen gets people high. They have bars for it. But if you see some grandpa with an oxygen tank you don't accuse them of being a junkie. I don't enjoy having to do this, but I need it. Please." She meant it. Every word. The smidge of magic it gave her was barely enough to levitate the glass to her hand, maybe light the Scotch on fire, but that would use it up. Truth was, knowing she could, that feeling of being a sorceress again, no matter how brief, was worth the comedown.
Tisha let a long low breath. "I don't want you doing that shit here."
"I won't. I promise."
"Alright then. But you be careful."

Chapter 2
COLLECTIONS

It was near midnight before Kate left the haven to head home. The amphetamine of the blood dust had made her a little horny and she decided that it was best to extract herself from that situation before hormones and alcohol tricked her into making another regrettable decision. Keeping her promise to Tisha, she waited until after she left before tooting another bump behind a furniture store and then caught the bus back to Highlandtown.
The renewed drip began at the back of her throat. Kate sniffed.
A skinny woman with wild curls of dark hair looked up at her from across the aisle, a feral hunger beneath probing eyes.
Paranoid, Kate turned toward the window, watching the city lights glide past. Sniffles outside of winter was like blood in the water for drug users. Might as well throw up a sign announcing, "I have cocaine." She probably shouldn't have taken that last hit. She was going to be up all night now. Might as well get some cleaning done.
But the idea of being alone didn't sound much fun. She still felt the itch. Maybe she could call Scott. He was about as dumb as rocks and about as mundie as they got, but he was always good as a distraction. He didn't know her past and didn't care.
Knowing it was a bad idea, she pulled the phone from her purse. Four missed calls. She'd put it on silent before her meeting with Vegner. Not that anyone called her, but if they were going to it would have been then.
All of them were from a blocked number. No messages. Probably a collector.
Sighing, she turned the ringtone back on and dropped the phone back into her bag, Scott forgotten. Tisha's right. I need to get my shit straight.
Six blocks later the bus let Kate off at her exit. The hungry-eyed woman stayed on, thank God, and with a pneumatic hiss the door shut, leaving Kate alone on the nighttime streets. Soft wind coursed down the trench between brick row houses. It stank of exhaust, soured garbage, and the faintest hint of burnt bread. Music thrummed from the open window, yelling voices from somewhere far away, and the rumble of tires on shitty asphalt. Kate barely registered all of this as she followed the sidewalk past miniature trees.
A muffled rendition of Joan Jett's Bad Reputation erupted from her purse. She drew the phone and checked the number.
Blocked number.
Shit. It was near midnight. Wasn't there some law against collectors calling so late? Kate pressed Ignore.
She turned right at a grease-caked dumpster and entered a narrow alley, just wide enough for a single car. During her time as Magister Arcanus in the Onyx Tower, she'd practically lived at Master Boyer's palatial Guilford home. Her final four months, preparing for the ultimately doomed test for Magus Goetia, she'd made it official, commandeering one of the guest rooms. After the incident, and her funds dwindling down far faster than she'd anticipated, Kate's current residence was a renovated basement. It didn't even have a number and her mail simply went to Missus Cecilia Knorr who rented the two story house above. It was the sort of place for transients, former convicts, and those who had fallen between the cracks.
Her phone chimed with an incoming text. Not slowing her pace, Kate lifted the phone still in her hand.
Blocked Number. "You're in danger."
Kate froze. The paranoia that comes with blood dust started running rampant. She glanced over her shoulder. The alley was empty. Danger? From who? Dalton? Surely he wasn't going to actually do anything.
She typed, "Who is this?" but deleted it. Dalton wouldn't do anything, nothing that could come back on him, but she wouldn't put crank calls beyond him. Kate replied, "Wrong number," And dropped the phone back into her purse. Asshole.
Near the middle of the alley Kate tucked behind a plastic trashcan and descended the steps. Her phone chimed again as she unlocked her door.
"Leave me alone, asshole," Kate mumbled stepping inside. A faint pressure washed over her as she crossed the elemental ward she'd inscribed into the frame while dusted. If Dalton or someone was going to mess with her, they'd summon something to do it for them. She was safe here.
And that was her assumption right up to the moment when the wooden floor creaked behind her.

END SAMPLE
___________________________


Title: Ashes of Onyx
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Age Range: 18+
Word Count: 110,000
Author: Seth Skorkowsky
Why Is It A Good Fit: Trident represents some great fantasy
Hook/Synopsis: Kate Rossdale was once the most gifted sorceress to rise in Onyx Tower, Baltimore's greatest coven. Then a murderous betrayal left her stripped of her magic, friendless, and on the downward spiral of addiction.
But all of that is about to change when she's hired for dangerous job by a man she doesn't trust. The payment: Restoration of her magical powers. The Job: Murder. As enemies close from all sides, Kate races across the globe and across worlds, venturing into exotic realms of forbidden dreams as she hunts her target – the magic-thief who robbed her of everything.

Target Audience: Adult readers, likely fans of King's "Dark Tower," Barker's "Imagica."
Bio: Raised in the swamps and pine forests of East Texas, Seth Skorkowsky gravitated to the darker sides of fantasy, preferring horror and pulp heroes over knights in shining armor.
His debut novel, Dämoren, was published in 2014 as book #1 in the Valducan series; it was followed by Hounacier in 2015, and Ibenus in 2016. Seth has also released two sword-and-sorcery rogue collections with his Tales of the Black Raven series.
When not writing, Seth enjoys cheesy movies, tabletop role-playing games, and traveling the world with his wife.

Experience: My publishing experience includes the four novel Valducan series and the two volume Tales of the Black Raven series published through Ragnarok Publications as well as many short stories. I am a two-time Audie Award finalist for Best Paranormal Audiobook and also a SFWA member.
Platform
website - www.skorkowsky.com 
Twitter - @SSkorkowsky
YouTube - www.youtube.com/c/SethSkorkowskyAuthor
Goodreads -  www.goodreads.com/author/show/4088554.Seth_Skorkowsky


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Pretty

*This is a short story I wrote that inspired a novel by the same name.*

Daddy used to tell me I was the prettiest princess he had ever seen, and right now I believed it. I held onto the watch so I wouldn’t lose it. It was so pretty. Its numbers sparkled like a princess’s crown.

I wish I was as pretty as the watch.

Mommy never tells me I’m pretty. She just cries.

But she wasn't crying tonight. She was smiling.

“Thank you for the watch,” Mommy had given it to Daddy for Christmas, and he wore it everyday until someone named Whore gave him a new one.

“You’re welcome, Mandy. Are you sure you don’t want to put it with the rest of Daddy’s stuff?” She pointed to the fire, and I watched as his plaid shirt turned black, mixing with everything else that had turned black as soon as she lit it. The air was thick, and warm, like Daddy’s hugs. I missed him. The plaid shirt was his favorite.

“No, it’s too pretty,” I said, looking at the watch again. She frowned. “What’s wrong, Mommy? Don’t you like it?” Maybe she had changed her mind and wanted it back.

“I don’t like that it belonged to him.” She watched the fire. It was so big. I felt so small.

“Why did Daddy leave? Is it because of Whore?” 


“Don’t say that word. And he left because he doesn’t want us anymore.” Her voice was soft, like when she told me a bedtime story.

“Why not?”

She looked sad. “He just doesn’t.”

And then I remembered. What if it was my fault? “Is it because I didn’t go to bed on time last week?

“No, sweet girl. It’s not because of you.”

“Oh. Why didn’t he want his stuff? Is it for the same reason he didn’t want us?”

“He wanted his stuff. But what he did was really mean, Mandy. And every mean thing has consequences. Do you understand?"

“Like when I do something bad and you take my toys away?”

“Exactly.” She hugged me. “You’re so smart."

“But you always give my toys back.”

“You’ve never done anything this bad. But you know what will make it better?”

I shook my head. She reached behind her chair and grabbed a bag of marshmallows and two sticks. “We can roast marshmallows.” She sounded happy again, and that made me smile.

“How do you do that?”

She took the clip off the bag. “It’s easy. Here.” She handed me a stick with a marshmallow on the end. She put a marshmallow on her stick, too, then stuck it in the fire.

My eyes grew wide as I watched her marshmallow turn black. It looked like Daddy’s shirt. I was suddenly afraid. The fire was so big. “Go on.” She guided my hand, until my marshmallow was in the fire, too. She pulled hers out, then blew on the small flame.

“It’s like a birthday candle.” I smiled.

“That’s right. Make a wish,” she said, as I pulled mine out and we both blew it out together.

“I wish Daddy would come back.”

“Wish for something that will actually happen.” She pulled her marshmallow off the stick and put it in her mouth. I did, too.

It was so yummy! The marshmallow was crispy, and sweet. It stuck to my teeth like candy, but I didn’t mind. “I wish for another marshmallow,” I said, smiling.

“That, I can do.”

***

There was paper all over the table. It looked like a mountain. My eyes lit up, and I could imagine the pictures I would draw. “Mommy?”

“What Mandy? Mommy’s busy.” Her head was in her hands.

“Can I have that paper?” I reached up to grab a sheet of it off the table.

“Stop it.” She pushed my hand away. “Don’t touch these, okay: It’s grown up stuff.”

“But I wanted to draw you a pretty picture. Please?”

“No, okay? Why don’t you go do something useful like play outside?”

My stuck my lower lip out, and I crossed my arms. “But I want to draw!”

“Not with this. There’s probably a notebook around here somewhere. Go draw on that.”

I stood there, watching Mommy write stuff on that grown up paper. I watched her face turn angry.

“Mommy?”

“What Amanda?” It was her not-happy voice.

“Why are you mad at the paper?”

“Because they’re bills I can’t pay.”

“What are bills?”

“Don’t worry about it. This is my problem. I’ll find a way to fix it, since your no-good Dad decided to leave us with all this debt. Just go do something. I need to figure this out.”

I didn’t know what bills were, but I knew they were bad. They had to be, if they made Mommy so upset. I didn’t want anything to do with them. They were mean, and didn’t deserve to have pretty pictures on them. So, I left and went to go find the notebook.

But I couldn’t find the notebook, and I really, really wanted to make Mommy a picture. It would make her happy, and she would forget about the bad bills.

Then I remembered all the other pictures on the wall Mommy always hung up. It was perfect. I could give her a picture, too! So I let my crayons swirl on the wall. It was so much better than a notebook, so big and my colors looked so pretty against it. I smiled, a big, wide smile. And I knew Mommy would smile, too, because it was the best picture I had ever done and she could keep it forever, just like all the others.

But she didn’t smile.

“Look, Mommy!" I said, as she walked in the room. "It’s me and you roasting marshmallows after Daddy left.” I grabbed her hand, swinging it in the space between us, my fingers warm and safe in hers.

She stared, her face blank. And I beamed, because she was so excited.

Then her face turned mad. “What have you done? Can you not go five minutes without getting in trouble?” She closed her eyes and pulled away from my hand.

That’s when I saw it: The fire was too big, bigger than the people. When we had been there for real, the fire had been smaller. That’s why she didn’t like it. It was wrong.

“I can fix it,” I said. She didn’t even look at me.

“Don’t you ever touch this wall again, do you hear me? Ever. I have so much to do, Amanda. I don’t have time for this right now.”

“The fire is too big. Sorry.”

“There shouldn’t even be a fire on the wall! What you did was bad. Very bad.”

I hung my head because she was right. It was bad. The picture was so ugly.

“I can make it prettier.” I said, but she didn’t give me a chance. She took the crayons and put them on a tall shelf, and then I had to go to my room. Mommy must want to fix it herself.

But a few minutes later, I peeked my head out, to see if she had made the picture pretty. It was the same, though and all Mommy was doing was staring at it, her hand touching the ugly fire, like she was thinking, the way I did before I decided which Barbie I wanted to play with. It looked more important, though, like grown up thinking.

She must be deciding how to fix it. I went back to my room, sad that I had drawn something so ugly.

***

I was sitting at the table, fingers flat out in front of me. I was a big girl now. Only babies messed up their nail polish. Right now it was perfect, and it was going to stay that way.

Mommy brushed her hand too close to the bottle of remover, causing the purple liquid to spill across the table, drip onto the tile floor.

I gasped, starting to hop up to grab a rag like she had always told me to do if something spilled. But I couldn’t. Big girls didn’t mess up their nail polish.

That’s when I noticed Mom wasn’t going to get a towel, but was instead on the other side of the kitchen, staring at the picture I had drawn yesterday. I had redrawn the picture I had put on the wall, since Mommy wiped it off. I watched the remover drip. Maybe she didn’t know she had knocked something over.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, dear?” A small smile reached her lips.

“It spilled.” Very carefully, I pointed to the puddle on the table.

“Oh, that’s okay. It’s not a big deal.” She held up the picture. “This is so pretty Mandy.

You’re such a good little artist.

She liked the picture when it wasn’t on the wall. “I’m not little anymore, Mommy. Remember, I’m five now.”

“That’s right, you’re my big girl!” She dropped down on her knees next to me still holding the picture. “And you know what big girls get to do?”

My eyes lit up. “What?”

“They get to keep secrets.”

“Secrets!” She nodded. “You’ve never told me a secret before. I really am a big girl!”

“Yes, you are, sweetie. Now, here’s the secret, okay. It’s really important.” I sat up straighter. I wanted to be the best secret-keeper ever. “You see this pretty picture in my hand?” I nodded. “Now, I’m going to lay it down, but if anyone asks you say that you put it down, okay? You were holding it, and you laid it down. That’s all you have to say.”

“Why?” That was the secret? “Mommy, that’s a silly secret. Tell me a better one.”

“No, baby, this is a super-duper big secret. I know it doesn’t make sense, but you’ll just have to trust me, okay? It’s a big, big secret. Bigger than me not telling you what I get you for Christmas.”

“Wow. Okay. I won’t tell.” I paused. “But Mommy, why can’t I lay it down?”

“Because I don’t want you to get close to the stove. It’s hot right now. Remember what happened the last time you got too close to the stove when it was hot?”

I nodded, and looked at the scar on my pinkie. After I touched the stove, Daddy had held me on his lap while I cried. He kept telling me that even with my hurt finger, I was still a pretty princess.” Since Daddy left, Mommy hadn’t told me I was pretty. Maybe I was only pretty when Daddy was around, and when he left he took my pretty with him. Maybe he gave it to Whore.

Then I thought about what she had asked me to say, “but I’m not supposed to lie. That’s bad.”

“You’re right, Mandy, lying is bad. But this isn’t lying. Not really. You’re just telling someone a story. It’s like how I always tell you a bedtime story. Those aren’t real, but I’m not lying. Lying hurts people. This is helping Mommy. Can you do that? Can you keep this secret?”

“Yes! I promise! I’ll never, ever, tell!” Without thinking, I hugged her and then pulled my hands back. Tears pricked my eyes when I saw the smudge on my pinky nail. “Oops.” But then I remembered. I have a secret. A really big secret. Nothing makes me more of a big girl than that.

Without another word she got up, and put the picture down next to the pot on the stove.

“Who laid this down, Mandy?” She said, pointing to the picture.

“I did.” I smile wide, proud that I’ve kept the secret so far.

“I love you, Mandy.”

“I love you, too, Mommy.”

That’s when I noticed the dark spot on the paper, spreading into the picture of the house I drew. It grew. Getting darker. And larger. Like the puddle of remover still dripping.

I listened to the dripping for a few seconds. And then saw a flame on the paper. My pretty picture was on fire. My eyes grew wide, and I tried to scream, but I stopped, because it was so pretty, like a birthday candle. It smelled like roasted marshmallows. The fire was so orange and bright. I decided right then that fire was my favorite color. I hated the color pink, now.

“Mommy?” I asked, just in case this wasn’t okay. It wasn’t my birthday. That wasn’t a candle. I hoped she would let the fire stay, because it was so pretty.

The fire stayed, but we didn’t. She took my hand and quickly led me out the door, far away from the pretty colors. My nails were messed up, but I didn’t care. Next time I wanted to paint them the color of fire.

We were standing by the curve--the place Mommy always taught me to go if something bad happened--when I remembered Daddy’s watch.

It was laying on my dresser, next to my bed. I couldn’t leave it! It was so pretty, the fire would make it ugly. And Daddy would be mad if he knew I had left it. I couldn’t leave the watch like he had left us.

I ran back toward the house. Mommy was screaming, but I barely heard her. I could hear the wind in my ears though. I was going so fast I felt like I was flying. I flew through the door, only thinking about the watch. But then I stopped.

It was so pretty. I watched as the fire got bigger. It spread, like it was running. It was faster than me. It went down the cabinet. Across the floor. Toward me.

“Amanda!” Mommy yelled then held her arms out when she saw me. I stepped away, finally remembering why I was here. I opened my mouth to tell her that I was going to my room, but those words never came.

The fire and the dripping collided. Mommy screamed again for me from across the room. She sounded scared, like I did when I got lost in the grocery store once. But I couldn’t answer. Those words I wanted to speak turned into a scream. There was heat. There was a bigger fire, bigger than I’d ever seen. There was burning as the fire and dripping collided with me.

Then there was blackness.

***

Before I was a big girl, I thought there was a monster hiding under my bed. I didn’t know I would turn into the monster, but now my face is pink (and not Barbie pink, an ugly pink), and it stings like the time I touched the stove. But worse.

Now, I look like the monster.

Mommy brings me a new stuffed animal everyday at the hospital. Most of them are pink. I hate the color pink. I’ve even stopped using all the pink crayons in the box.

I don’t draw fire anymore. I hate fire.

And I don’t care that the watch is still sitting beside my bed. If Whore had not given Daddy that watch, maybe he would still be here. Then I wouldn’t have gone back into the house, and I would still be that pretty princess. But princesses don’t have scars on their faces. Maybe their pinkies, but not their faces.

I hate scars. And I hate Daddy for taking my “pretty.”

Title: Pretty

Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Age range: 14+

Word count: 2,556

Author: Taylor Neal

Good fit: This story offers the unique perspective of a five-year-old thrust into the center of very adult problems, while still appealing to young adults with a darker layer of how desperation can turn disastrous.

Hook: A brokenhearted child. A mother's breakdown. Dire consequences.

Synopsis: Her name was Whore, and now  Daddy was gone because he didn’t like Mommy or her anymore. That was the story five-year-old Amanda got when her father left. Struggling to deal with the aftermath amidst her mother’s unhinged emotions, she finds herself entangled in emotional scars of her own. As the pressures and bills mount, Amanda’s mother makes a choice with dire consequences, leaving Amanda to now grapple with more than one type of scar.

Target Audience: Readers 14-25 with interests in psychology, the impact of relationship conflicts on emotions, and unique character perspectives.

Bio: Taylor is an aspiring novelist who enjoys planning her next adventures outside of Greenbrier, Arkansas and trying to talk herself out of adopting every stray animal. When getting her B.A. in both Psychology and Creative Writing, Taylor had a wide range of interests from studying abroad to judging poetry for her university’s literary magazine. Taylor was published in the Vortex Magazine of Literature and Art in both her poetry and short stories. She then went on to obtain her Master's in Counseling and now enjoys working with kids. Taylor loves to create eloquent pieces with a darker, psychological twist showcasing the resiliency of humanity and the emotional connections created through tragedy.

Platform: Taylor is passionate about rescuing animals and encouraging emotional health while erasing the stigma of mental illness.

Personality: Taylor may come in a small package, but is mixed with determination, compassion, a plethora of random facts, and a tiny bit of sarcasm (okay, a lot of sarcasm).

Please note: This short story is the inspiration for a novel I am writing by the same name. The novel includes three different perspectives (including Amanda's) with each character dealing with tragedies connected in an unsuspecting way.

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by TaylorElyse in portal Trident Media Group
Pretty
*This is a short story I wrote that inspired a novel by the same name.*

Daddy used to tell me I was the prettiest princess he had ever seen, and right now I believed it. I held onto the watch so I wouldn’t lose it. It was so pretty. Its numbers sparkled like a princess’s crown.

I wish I was as pretty as the watch.

Mommy never tells me I’m pretty. She just cries.

But she wasn't crying tonight. She was smiling.

“Thank you for the watch,” Mommy had given it to Daddy for Christmas, and he wore it everyday until someone named Whore gave him a new one.

“You’re welcome, Mandy. Are you sure you don’t want to put it with the rest of Daddy’s stuff?” She pointed to the fire, and I watched as his plaid shirt turned black, mixing with everything else that had turned black as soon as she lit it. The air was thick, and warm, like Daddy’s hugs. I missed him. The plaid shirt was his favorite.

“No, it’s too pretty,” I said, looking at the watch again. She frowned. “What’s wrong, Mommy? Don’t you like it?” Maybe she had changed her mind and wanted it back.

“I don’t like that it belonged to him.” She watched the fire. It was so big. I felt so small.

“Why did Daddy leave? Is it because of Whore?” 


“Don’t say that word. And he left because he doesn’t want us anymore.” Her voice was soft, like when she told me a bedtime story.

“Why not?”

She looked sad. “He just doesn’t.”

And then I remembered. What if it was my fault? “Is it because I didn’t go to bed on time last week?

“No, sweet girl. It’s not because of you.”

“Oh. Why didn’t he want his stuff? Is it for the same reason he didn’t want us?”

“He wanted his stuff. But what he did was really mean, Mandy. And every mean thing has consequences. Do you understand?"

“Like when I do something bad and you take my toys away?”

“Exactly.” She hugged me. “You’re so smart."

“But you always give my toys back.”

“You’ve never done anything this bad. But you know what will make it better?”

I shook my head. She reached behind her chair and grabbed a bag of marshmallows and two sticks. “We can roast marshmallows.” She sounded happy again, and that made me smile.

“How do you do that?”

She took the clip off the bag. “It’s easy. Here.” She handed me a stick with a marshmallow on the end. She put a marshmallow on her stick, too, then stuck it in the fire.

My eyes grew wide as I watched her marshmallow turn black. It looked like Daddy’s shirt. I was suddenly afraid. The fire was so big. “Go on.” She guided my hand, until my marshmallow was in the fire, too. She pulled hers out, then blew on the small flame.

“It’s like a birthday candle.” I smiled.

“That’s right. Make a wish,” she said, as I pulled mine out and we both blew it out together.

“I wish Daddy would come back.”

“Wish for something that will actually happen.” She pulled her marshmallow off the stick and put it in her mouth. I did, too.

It was so yummy! The marshmallow was crispy, and sweet. It stuck to my teeth like candy, but I didn’t mind. “I wish for another marshmallow,” I said, smiling.

“That, I can do.”

***

There was paper all over the table. It looked like a mountain. My eyes lit up, and I could imagine the pictures I would draw. “Mommy?”

“What Mandy? Mommy’s busy.” Her head was in her hands.

“Can I have that paper?” I reached up to grab a sheet of it off the table.

“Stop it.” She pushed my hand away. “Don’t touch these, okay: It’s grown up stuff.”

“But I wanted to draw you a pretty picture. Please?”

“No, okay? Why don’t you go do something useful like play outside?”

My stuck my lower lip out, and I crossed my arms. “But I want to draw!”

“Not with this. There’s probably a notebook around here somewhere. Go draw on that.”
I stood there, watching Mommy write stuff on that grown up paper. I watched her face turn angry.

“Mommy?”
“What Amanda?” It was her not-happy voice.

“Why are you mad at the paper?”

“Because they’re bills I can’t pay.”

“What are bills?”

“Don’t worry about it. This is my problem. I’ll find a way to fix it, since your no-good Dad decided to leave us with all this debt. Just go do something. I need to figure this out.”

I didn’t know what bills were, but I knew they were bad. They had to be, if they made Mommy so upset. I didn’t want anything to do with them. They were mean, and didn’t deserve to have pretty pictures on them. So, I left and went to go find the notebook.

But I couldn’t find the notebook, and I really, really wanted to make Mommy a picture. It would make her happy, and she would forget about the bad bills.

Then I remembered all the other pictures on the wall Mommy always hung up. It was perfect. I could give her a picture, too! So I let my crayons swirl on the wall. It was so much better than a notebook, so big and my colors looked so pretty against it. I smiled, a big, wide smile. And I knew Mommy would smile, too, because it was the best picture I had ever done and she could keep it forever, just like all the others.

But she didn’t smile.

“Look, Mommy!" I said, as she walked in the room. "It’s me and you roasting marshmallows after Daddy left.” I grabbed her hand, swinging it in the space between us, my fingers warm and safe in hers.

She stared, her face blank. And I beamed, because she was so excited.

Then her face turned mad. “What have you done? Can you not go five minutes without getting in trouble?” She closed her eyes and pulled away from my hand.

That’s when I saw it: The fire was too big, bigger than the people. When we had been there for real, the fire had been smaller. That’s why she didn’t like it. It was wrong.

“I can fix it,” I said. She didn’t even look at me.

“Don’t you ever touch this wall again, do you hear me? Ever. I have so much to do, Amanda. I don’t have time for this right now.”

“The fire is too big. Sorry.”

“There shouldn’t even be a fire on the wall! What you did was bad. Very bad.”

I hung my head because she was right. It was bad. The picture was so ugly.

“I can make it prettier.” I said, but she didn’t give me a chance. She took the crayons and put them on a tall shelf, and then I had to go to my room. Mommy must want to fix it herself.

But a few minutes later, I peeked my head out, to see if she had made the picture pretty. It was the same, though and all Mommy was doing was staring at it, her hand touching the ugly fire, like she was thinking, the way I did before I decided which Barbie I wanted to play with. It looked more important, though, like grown up thinking.

She must be deciding how to fix it. I went back to my room, sad that I had drawn something so ugly.

***

I was sitting at the table, fingers flat out in front of me. I was a big girl now. Only babies messed up their nail polish. Right now it was perfect, and it was going to stay that way.

Mommy brushed her hand too close to the bottle of remover, causing the purple liquid to spill across the table, drip onto the tile floor.

I gasped, starting to hop up to grab a rag like she had always told me to do if something spilled. But I couldn’t. Big girls didn’t mess up their nail polish.

That’s when I noticed Mom wasn’t going to get a towel, but was instead on the other side of the kitchen, staring at the picture I had drawn yesterday. I had redrawn the picture I had put on the wall, since Mommy wiped it off. I watched the remover drip. Maybe she didn’t know she had knocked something over.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, dear?” A small smile reached her lips.

“It spilled.” Very carefully, I pointed to the puddle on the table.

“Oh, that’s okay. It’s not a big deal.” She held up the picture. “This is so pretty Mandy.
You’re such a good little artist.

She liked the picture when it wasn’t on the wall. “I’m not little anymore, Mommy. Remember, I’m five now.”

“That’s right, you’re my big girl!” She dropped down on her knees next to me still holding the picture. “And you know what big girls get to do?”

My eyes lit up. “What?”

“They get to keep secrets.”

“Secrets!” She nodded. “You’ve never told me a secret before. I really am a big girl!”

“Yes, you are, sweetie. Now, here’s the secret, okay. It’s really important.” I sat up straighter. I wanted to be the best secret-keeper ever. “You see this pretty picture in my hand?” I nodded. “Now, I’m going to lay it down, but if anyone asks you say that you put it down, okay? You were holding it, and you laid it down. That’s all you have to say.”

“Why?” That was the secret? “Mommy, that’s a silly secret. Tell me a better one.”

“No, baby, this is a super-duper big secret. I know it doesn’t make sense, but you’ll just have to trust me, okay? It’s a big, big secret. Bigger than me not telling you what I get you for Christmas.”

“Wow. Okay. I won’t tell.” I paused. “But Mommy, why can’t I lay it down?”

“Because I don’t want you to get close to the stove. It’s hot right now. Remember what happened the last time you got too close to the stove when it was hot?”

I nodded, and looked at the scar on my pinkie. After I touched the stove, Daddy had held me on his lap while I cried. He kept telling me that even with my hurt finger, I was still a pretty princess.” Since Daddy left, Mommy hadn’t told me I was pretty. Maybe I was only pretty when Daddy was around, and when he left he took my pretty with him. Maybe he gave it to Whore.

Then I thought about what she had asked me to say, “but I’m not supposed to lie. That’s bad.”

“You’re right, Mandy, lying is bad. But this isn’t lying. Not really. You’re just telling someone a story. It’s like how I always tell you a bedtime story. Those aren’t real, but I’m not lying. Lying hurts people. This is helping Mommy. Can you do that? Can you keep this secret?”

“Yes! I promise! I’ll never, ever, tell!” Without thinking, I hugged her and then pulled my hands back. Tears pricked my eyes when I saw the smudge on my pinky nail. “Oops.” But then I remembered. I have a secret. A really big secret. Nothing makes me more of a big girl than that.

Without another word she got up, and put the picture down next to the pot on the stove.

“Who laid this down, Mandy?” She said, pointing to the picture.

“I did.” I smile wide, proud that I’ve kept the secret so far.

“I love you, Mandy.”

“I love you, too, Mommy.”

That’s when I noticed the dark spot on the paper, spreading into the picture of the house I drew. It grew. Getting darker. And larger. Like the puddle of remover still dripping.

I listened to the dripping for a few seconds. And then saw a flame on the paper. My pretty picture was on fire. My eyes grew wide, and I tried to scream, but I stopped, because it was so pretty, like a birthday candle. It smelled like roasted marshmallows. The fire was so orange and bright. I decided right then that fire was my favorite color. I hated the color pink, now.

“Mommy?” I asked, just in case this wasn’t okay. It wasn’t my birthday. That wasn’t a candle. I hoped she would let the fire stay, because it was so pretty.

The fire stayed, but we didn’t. She took my hand and quickly led me out the door, far away from the pretty colors. My nails were messed up, but I didn’t care. Next time I wanted to paint them the color of fire.
We were standing by the curve--the place Mommy always taught me to go if something bad happened--when I remembered Daddy’s watch.

It was laying on my dresser, next to my bed. I couldn’t leave it! It was so pretty, the fire would make it ugly. And Daddy would be mad if he knew I had left it. I couldn’t leave the watch like he had left us.

I ran back toward the house. Mommy was screaming, but I barely heard her. I could hear the wind in my ears though. I was going so fast I felt like I was flying. I flew through the door, only thinking about the watch. But then I stopped.

It was so pretty. I watched as the fire got bigger. It spread, like it was running. It was faster than me. It went down the cabinet. Across the floor. Toward me.

“Amanda!” Mommy yelled then held her arms out when she saw me. I stepped away, finally remembering why I was here. I opened my mouth to tell her that I was going to my room, but those words never came.

The fire and the dripping collided. Mommy screamed again for me from across the room. She sounded scared, like I did when I got lost in the grocery store once. But I couldn’t answer. Those words I wanted to speak turned into a scream. There was heat. There was a bigger fire, bigger than I’d ever seen. There was burning as the fire and dripping collided with me.

Then there was blackness.

***

Before I was a big girl, I thought there was a monster hiding under my bed. I didn’t know I would turn into the monster, but now my face is pink (and not Barbie pink, an ugly pink), and it stings like the time I touched the stove. But worse.

Now, I look like the monster.

Mommy brings me a new stuffed animal everyday at the hospital. Most of them are pink. I hate the color pink. I’ve even stopped using all the pink crayons in the box.
I don’t draw fire anymore. I hate fire.

And I don’t care that the watch is still sitting beside my bed. If Whore had not given Daddy that watch, maybe he would still be here. Then I wouldn’t have gone back into the house, and I would still be that pretty princess. But princesses don’t have scars on their faces. Maybe their pinkies, but not their faces.

I hate scars. And I hate Daddy for taking my “pretty.”


Title: Pretty
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Age range: 14+
Word count: 2,556
Author: Taylor Neal
Good fit: This story offers the unique perspective of a five-year-old thrust into the center of very adult problems, while still appealing to young adults with a darker layer of how desperation can turn disastrous.
Hook: A brokenhearted child. A mother's breakdown. Dire consequences.
Synopsis: Her name was Whore, and now  Daddy was gone because he didn’t like Mommy or her anymore. That was the story five-year-old Amanda got when her father left. Struggling to deal with the aftermath amidst her mother’s unhinged emotions, she finds herself entangled in emotional scars of her own. As the pressures and bills mount, Amanda’s mother makes a choice with dire consequences, leaving Amanda to now grapple with more than one type of scar.
Target Audience: Readers 14-25 with interests in psychology, the impact of relationship conflicts on emotions, and unique character perspectives.
Bio: Taylor is an aspiring novelist who enjoys planning her next adventures outside of Greenbrier, Arkansas and trying to talk herself out of adopting every stray animal. When getting her B.A. in both Psychology and Creative Writing, Taylor had a wide range of interests from studying abroad to judging poetry for her university’s literary magazine. Taylor was published in the Vortex Magazine of Literature and Art in both her poetry and short stories. She then went on to obtain her Master's in Counseling and now enjoys working with kids. Taylor loves to create eloquent pieces with a darker, psychological twist showcasing the resiliency of humanity and the emotional connections created through tragedy.
Platform: Taylor is passionate about rescuing animals and encouraging emotional health while erasing the stigma of mental illness.
Personality: Taylor may come in a small package, but is mixed with determination, compassion, a plethora of random facts, and a tiny bit of sarcasm (okay, a lot of sarcasm).
Please note: This short story is the inspiration for a novel I am writing by the same name. The novel includes three different perspectives (including Amanda's) with each character dealing with tragedies connected in an unsuspecting way.
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Problems in a Time of Peace

Problems In a Time of Peace

By

Scott Bryan

The trees beyond the fence that marked Caleb’s backyard grew up toward the sky like they were reaching for the sun. They defied the laws of ground and air, gravity, and logic. They were thin but hard, and they seemed to have purpose in their height. They were far enough away from each other that Caleb and Sammie could run between them, effortlessly dodging the spindly white trunks as they looked over their shoulders for invading spacemen or gangsters or Native Braves in pursuit on horseback.

“Wait for me, Caleb,” Sammie would whine as she fell behind him. She was round in all the wrong places. Her feet were puffy and tilted out at the arches. Her belly was plump and it stuck out even more when she pouted, which was a lot of the time. Her bottom lip followed her tummy’s lead and her eyes- great peering orbs that demystified her thoughts in an instant- looked longingly for a kind movement from Caleb.

He picked up the pace just to see if he could outrun her pleas. He was no stallion either, an awkward little hellion who was prone to fits of anger when playtime was over, but here he was in control. He dictated the games played and length of time spent in each fantasy. He told her when he did not want to run anymore. He pushed her on the swing, a great heavy tire fastened to a rope that hung from the increasingly strained branch of one of the otherwise inclined trees. Then he would, at his leisure, heave his lumpy body onto the grass to stare at the sky or run to sit on the fence at the edge of his yard.

Now they were out beyond the fence. The moment he felt his lungs start to burn, Caleb collapsed on the leaf covered turf of the forest floor. A runner he was not. A few moments later, Sammie emerged from the brush, her arms flapping at her sides and her hot breath bordering on a wheeze.

“Cay-lub,” she said his name like her mouth was full of marbles. “You never wait for me.”

Caleb ignored her and looked up through the trees at the dimming, late-afternoon sky. The air was calm and the leaves, those that still clung to their posts, bustled only enough to calm the animals that perked up at the sound of stillness. Caleb put his hands behind his head and hoped Sammie would see how completely he was relaxing. It would be a miracle if she did not pester him.

Sammie sloshed clumsily down next to him and looked up. She tried to see what he was seeing. Her breath hitched and she began to cough. She tried to stop the fit, but the dust from the ground only made everything more difficult. She was not concerned about her form-fitting blue pants. She had a million of them. If she came back dirty, her dad would probably be relieved that she hadn’t spent the entire afternoon inside in front of the flat screen.

Caleb was thinking about video games. He was obsessed with the latest ‘jump and grab’ affair that his mom had deemed appropriate for his age. Caleb did not daydream about great deeds or riches. He thought mostly about ascending to the next level of his game. There was no one to shoot or defeat, and no one was after you. Really, there weren’t even puzzles to figure out. He would mash the controller and wander around, escaping his own body and inhabiting the persona of whatever character he had unlocked. He would pick up rings or orbs, and eventually reach the next level. Caleb liked games that didn’t make him compete against other characters.

“Let’s go back. It’s dirty out here,” Sammie picked at puffy white skin on one of her fingers. It was a blister that had popped. Now that skin was hard and callused. White like a fried egg, crispy like a grain of rice.

Caleb looked at her with a childhood version of disdain. “Go ahead, I’m going to stay until it’s dark and my mom has to come.”

“She’ll be mad.”

“I don’t care,” Caleb said with as much defiance as he could muster. He thought of his mother coming out into the woods and finding him. He would be asleep in the grass and she would cradle him in her arms and tell him how she worried and how much she loved him. “She’s stupid anyway.”

“I don’t like my dad either,” Sammie said in solidarity.

CLICK

I have a gun in my black gym bag, and the gun is just big enough to be scary when I pull it out. I’ve never pulled it out in public, but I think today is the day. This city is so overrun with idiots that today has to be the day.

I started carrying the gun a couple days ago, bought it a week before that. I just can’t see any other way for me to make a point anymore. Everyone is so obsessed with hearing themselves talk that they don’t listen to people who are smarter than they are. I know this because no one ever listens to me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to speak in a way that helps them understand. That’s why I have the gun.

This coffee shop is just like any coffee shop that you’ve ever been to. Everyone in line gets to the front and suddenly they have no idea what coffee is, how to use money, or how to talk to a teenager in an apron.

“Yeah, it’s a white beamer,” the guy in front of me tells the girl at the register. Then he laughs. It’s one of those ‘guy laughs’ that kind of sounds mocking in some way. Like he’s laughing at his own good fortune. It could also easily be mistaken for a cough.

Look at this preppy college jerk. He’s trying to flirt with this girl. Yeah, right, idiot. Oh, what’s that? You drive a white BMW? Well, whoopee! Your parents are rich, so you must be worth more than everyone behind you in this line. Mention your car two or three more times. I bet this girl is just going to quit her job right now and go home with you. Maybe you should take out your wallet and pay for the drink you still haven’t ordered so the rest of us can get on with this abysmal day. Show her how much cash you carry.

I start to think this guy might be the one. He might start the spree. I guess this counts as ‘pre-meditation’ on my part. That would make any crime I carry out worthy of more severe punishment. And I’m pretty sure once I get going it will turn into a spree. I won’t be able to stop at just this one revolting example of the human experience gone wrong. I know there are other people in here who would be easy, justifiable targets. That, or they’d make themselves into a target after I started shooting. They’d do something dumb. So, you know, this guy is a reasonable sacrifice to the larger point, but maybe he isn’t worth whatever the rest of my life would be reduced to if I were to pull out a gun and end him.

Eventually, he moves along. He isn’t brave enough for bold action in the line at the coffee shop. My guess is that he’d love to ask that girl for her number. I bet he’ll be thinking about her all day. Maybe he’ll slowly become a regular in the shop, kind of creepily but not too creepily only come in when she’s working, talk to her enough to build their customer/barista relationship into a point of contact that she remembers the next time he comes in, take certain calculated actions to build upon that experience until a quasi-friendship occurs; then he’ll contact her on social media, chat with her, eventually get up the nerve to ask her to hang out, become one of her better friends, watch her go through a string of stupid boyfriends that he doesn’t approve of and tries to undermine for his own purposes. All of this will happen over about a year’s time. He’ll buy her expensive gifts that reinforce his single selling point but actually kind of make her uncomfortable. Then, when he finally gets up the nerve to make a move on her, he’ll get the rejection and he won’t know why. He will fail to recognize that she was always merely a passive participant in the entire dance. That he was easier to tolerate than he was to put off. But that will change when his real intentions become known. The minute he asks anything of her, he’ll be served the rejection he could have right now if he had the guts. Why doesn’t he ask her for her number and let her shoot him down right now?

Fear. That’s why. Fear, and some misguided hope that all of that other nonsense would change the fact that she is not interested in a guy in a collared shirt who makes a big deal about having lots of cash that he didn’t earn. Why doesn’t he just move along and find someone to date-rape instead of causing me to witness all of this potential human tragedy? Maybe I should do him a favor and pull out the gun after all.

“HELLO?”

Sammie finally talked Caleb into going back. They were taking turns on the tire swing before the sun began to disappear behind the tree-lined horizon. The swing was within the official barriers of the backyard. A small picket fence marked the line. These boards, made from the wood of trees that had given their lives to the rule of the natural world, were a shield against the wild world beyond. Sammie felt as though she could lower her guard, at least somewhat, when she and Caleb played within the wobbly cube of the actual yard. Out beyond the fence, where Caleb preferred to roam, were animals and dangers and the unknown. Sammie much preferred the calculated enjoyment of the treehouse and the tire swing.

She looked out at the horizon as she broke free from the ground. She knew that she was heading in the opposite direction of the sun. She kicked her awkward legs out in front of her as if they gave the swing any added momentum, and she felt her stomach drop as she rose away from the earth.

Now came the best part. She recoiled, the pendulum of the swing reacted to gravity and the rope creaked as the wind whipped her hair around her face. She let herself fall backward past Caleb on the ground. She looked at him until the swing lost its thrust. She hung in the air for a moment, a blob of blossoming feelings encased in a rubber donut. 

She was 10 feet off the ground, looking down from heaven, observing Caleb and wondering why her insides felt like a hurricane when she saw him. Then, as she passed him again, the swing coming to the lowest point, the long ancient rope perpendicular to the grass plane below, Caleb’s hand graced her back and pushed her forward.

When he touched her, Sammie felt a shock of emotion and energy that made her clench her teeth. This surge mixed with the feeling of flight and she rose again back toward the heavens, this time looking up at the sky. There was no other action in the world. Sammie closed her eyes.

DARKNESS

“I really like what you’ve done here, Cameron,” I am thankful that these guys have stopped talking politics. How would I have possibly been seen as the bad guy if I gunned down two supporters of this ignorant, insane, Cro-Magnon, power-mad president? They have just been talking about how this idiot with the hair who wears the suit with the American flag pin was going to save the coal industry. Holy cow. But now they were switching gears.

I was supposed to go into the office after I got my coffee, but I just couldn’t force myself. The human garbage show is too intense and someone needs to monitor it. These people are all repurposed waste, masquerading as fine art.

They are now bent over a small canvas. The older guy seems to be a professor of sorts. Of what, I’m not sure. I don’t see how anyone in education could possibly support this president. They are inspecting the canvas, a crappy piece of student art that Cameron, the younger of the two, brought along to showcase in front of his prof.

“Your use of color and space, the symbolism of the imagery- it’s interesting.”

“Yeah, I like the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas within the same space,” Cameron twitters incoherently. That’s it! It has to be now. ‘Juxtaposition?!’ What a worthless word. Doesn’t Cameron know that the word ‘juxtaposition’ is only used by college kids who are describing the genius of their own work or critiquing the work of classmates? This word doesn’t exist in the real world. It only works as a calling card for know-it-all college students. If you use it, the rest of the educated world knows you’re kind of green. Juxtaposers are worthless. If that word appears in a sentence, it is cause for evacuation from the conversation. But still, the Prof sits there and indulges this creep. This confident, overpraised fool.

Cameron should not be allowed to reach fruition. His teacher should not be allowed to encourage the continued pampering of lesser minds. Why do people always get a gold star nowadays? I never did. Why doesn’t anyone love me?

“Do you need anything else, Mister?” another kid in a visor and an apron, probably about the same age as Cameron, but less educated, is standing next to me. He has one of those little brown tubs that restaurants use to gather dishes for the wash. It is full of trash and discarded cups and napkins. His face is pimpled and pocked. His eyes are dead. His life is worthless, or so I would assume.

I look at his nametag. “No, thank you… Sammy.”

Sammy rolls his eyes at me and walks away. The juxtaposers continue with their little art show and the coffee shop employee, who isn’t even competent enough to wrangle one of the endlessly available barista positions, walks away from me like I’m some worthless, needy customer without any feelings or thoughts of my own. How could he think that of me when I think it of him?

PULL

The kids sat on a cross-piece of the fence where two of the picketed boards had been knocked out. Caleb talked about video games and Sammie watched the sun dip into the land in the distance. Sammie liked how the sunset seemed to light the world on fire, the flames of some distant blaze just over the curve of the earth sending trundles of red light billowing up into the sky. It was gorgeous.

“It’s pretty easy, you know,” Caleb exclaimed of his conquest in the digital world. “You just run around and smash up blocks and these stars appear and…”

Sammie and Caleb dangled their legs over the tall grass that grew wildly on the outer side of the fence. The line of trimmed, manicured lawn went right up to the fence line. This border ran directly under where the children now sat. The world seemed so easy to explain when Sammie looked at grass lines and sunsets. The good guys always won, beauty always prevailed. Sammy smiled and reached over for Caleb’s hand.

She didn’t think about her move, her body acted almost of its own accord, as if it was simply giving into the ancient and old laws of nature. She moved her hand along the painted wood and grasped Caleb’s. It was electric, just like the feeling she enjoyed when his hand grazed her back to propel her forward on the swing.

Caleb stopped talking and looked down at their joined hands. For a moment he just stared, but in another instant, he reacted. Before he moved his hand at all, Sammie could feel the anger surge through him.

He jerked his hand away from her and her hurt was instantaneous. Her mouth curled down into a grimace and she braced for his reaction.

But Caleb simply hopped down off the fence and landed with his back to her. It was as if he really wanted to make sure this moment was not wasted, so he stood in silent contemplation before he spoke.

“I think that you’re ugly,” he said calmly, coldly.

GO

It is time. My coffee is drained down to the sugary bottom, that last horrid drink where the cup lets you know what a glutton you have been. I usually don’t drink this last drink. I don’t want a reminder of how wasteful I am. I rise, hoist the bag up onto the table and move my hand to the zipper.

Suddenly, however, before I can pull the piece out of the bag, Cameron begins to choke. He starts slow, trying to play it off like it’s no big deal, hoping that whatever is lodged in his throat will make its way down into his guts without further inconvenience to the important discussion of his artistic triumph. His hope is not granted. He coughs and retches. He grabs violently at his neck and tries to stand. Apparently, Mr. Juxtaposition-of-color-and-images never learned to chew his biscotti effectively. His professor stares at him as their coffees and the canvas are knocked asunder. Cameron clutches his throat. All of the idiots in visors and aprons look on helplessly or, even worse, apathetically. Some of the other customers actually just look down at their cups or napkins. They mind their business. They are worthless, selfish fools. They have no stake in this.

One other guy, the college coward, starts to move toward Cameron, perhaps hoping his heroics will catch the attention of his fantasy barista, thus accelerating the chain of events that will lead to his evisceration at her hands. I had not even noticed that he lingered, but for some reason, I react faster.

I leave my bag unopened. There is no spree. There is no sporadic fire and no one dies, not even Cameron. I am behind him quickly and my hands are locked into fists on his abdomen. His professor reaches up as if to help and I wish I was holding the gun instead of this educated nincompoop. I jerk upward and, in one try, I pop a little piece of food out of his windpipe. The windpipe of Cameron, the visual artist.

SNAP

Sammie is down off the fence faster than her lumpy body would suggest was possible. Frenetic action drives her now. She is in the present tense as she picks up a board from the ground. It is a tree that has a sad story. It was cut and cut and cut and cut down and painted and nailed and neglected, and now it rests in her hand. A rusty nail jaggedly punctured through holds court at the opposite summit of the stick. She grips her end so tightly that she feels splinters nearly jump into her hands. Her picked blister sends a rush of fire up her arm. Her fury is uncontrollable, unexplainable. She does not hate Caleb, she loves him. She loves him so much.

POP

The college guy slunk away in past tense. He was defeated. He had not acted, twice.

I dropped to the floor for a moment, my act of compassion had exhausted me and I wanted to cry. Suddenly, and with some surprise, I am. I was. I wept as if I have been unexpectedly smacked by my father like he used to do. Backhanded, the hard coil of metal on his pinky clunking against my eye socket and telling me I will never be loved. He died in a hotel room with a prostitute, my father did. I brought my hand to my face and cried into it and realized that everyone in the coffee shop wanted to join me. They wanted to cry. We all wanted to cry. Some of them loved me because I was crying. We all have fathers and sad stories and shame and pain, and we feel it while we are alone. We are almost always alone. If I had taken my gun out of my bag in this moment, we could have all been together, I guess. But I didn’t, because I loved them back.

“BYE?”

Sammie swings the plank only once and strikes Caleb in the temple. He wretches as if he is belching. His tongue waggles out of his mouth and he tries to scream, but the belch noise only increases. He drops as Sammie releases the stick from her hands. She screams- the pain of the planet is rising though her chubby limbs. She screams for Jesus, she screams for her mother and Caleb’s father. She screams for herself. She clutches at her face as her faculties return to her. Her vision returns, the memory of the tire swing returns, the memory of the swing of the plank returns, the rejection flees and she is alone.

NO, HELLO

Someone touched my shoulder as if to comfort me. They wanted to say ‘thanks’ or ‘it’s okay’ or ‘are you okay?’ but instead someone just touched me and I jolted back into form. I rose to my feet and ran from the shop. I left my bag sitting on the table. I knew I didn’t need it anymore. I needed something else. I wanted to reach for the sky as if there was something up there, reach inside the sky and pull out the answers, but I didn’t know how. All I knew how to do was run away, so I did. I did not talk to anyone. I did not scream or cry anymore, after someone touched me.

I ran out of the coffee shop in search of the world. I ran down the pavement and I weaved in and out of the people there. We did not touch each other. I looked behind me, expecting to see the horsemen of the apocalypse or a tidal wave or a picket fence. Something running me down, trying to overtake me, to make me cry again. Something there that would let me know that we all want to cry.

I ran right into a tree.

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Written by Skot in portal Trident Media Group
Problems in a Time of Peace
Problems In a Time of Peace
By
Scott Bryan


The trees beyond the fence that marked Caleb’s backyard grew up toward the sky like they were reaching for the sun. They defied the laws of ground and air, gravity, and logic. They were thin but hard, and they seemed to have purpose in their height. They were far enough away from each other that Caleb and Sammie could run between them, effortlessly dodging the spindly white trunks as they looked over their shoulders for invading spacemen or gangsters or Native Braves in pursuit on horseback.

“Wait for me, Caleb,” Sammie would whine as she fell behind him. She was round in all the wrong places. Her feet were puffy and tilted out at the arches. Her belly was plump and it stuck out even more when she pouted, which was a lot of the time. Her bottom lip followed her tummy’s lead and her eyes- great peering orbs that demystified her thoughts in an instant- looked longingly for a kind movement from Caleb.

He picked up the pace just to see if he could outrun her pleas. He was no stallion either, an awkward little hellion who was prone to fits of anger when playtime was over, but here he was in control. He dictated the games played and length of time spent in each fantasy. He told her when he did not want to run anymore. He pushed her on the swing, a great heavy tire fastened to a rope that hung from the increasingly strained branch of one of the otherwise inclined trees. Then he would, at his leisure, heave his lumpy body onto the grass to stare at the sky or run to sit on the fence at the edge of his yard.

Now they were out beyond the fence. The moment he felt his lungs start to burn, Caleb collapsed on the leaf covered turf of the forest floor. A runner he was not. A few moments later, Sammie emerged from the brush, her arms flapping at her sides and her hot breath bordering on a wheeze.

“Cay-lub,” she said his name like her mouth was full of marbles. “You never wait for me.”
Caleb ignored her and looked up through the trees at the dimming, late-afternoon sky. The air was calm and the leaves, those that still clung to their posts, bustled only enough to calm the animals that perked up at the sound of stillness. Caleb put his hands behind his head and hoped Sammie would see how completely he was relaxing. It would be a miracle if she did not pester him.

Sammie sloshed clumsily down next to him and looked up. She tried to see what he was seeing. Her breath hitched and she began to cough. She tried to stop the fit, but the dust from the ground only made everything more difficult. She was not concerned about her form-fitting blue pants. She had a million of them. If she came back dirty, her dad would probably be relieved that she hadn’t spent the entire afternoon inside in front of the flat screen.

Caleb was thinking about video games. He was obsessed with the latest ‘jump and grab’ affair that his mom had deemed appropriate for his age. Caleb did not daydream about great deeds or riches. He thought mostly about ascending to the next level of his game. There was no one to shoot or defeat, and no one was after you. Really, there weren’t even puzzles to figure out. He would mash the controller and wander around, escaping his own body and inhabiting the persona of whatever character he had unlocked. He would pick up rings or orbs, and eventually reach the next level. Caleb liked games that didn’t make him compete against other characters.

“Let’s go back. It’s dirty out here,” Sammie picked at puffy white skin on one of her fingers. It was a blister that had popped. Now that skin was hard and callused. White like a fried egg, crispy like a grain of rice.

Caleb looked at her with a childhood version of disdain. “Go ahead, I’m going to stay until it’s dark and my mom has to come.”

“She’ll be mad.”

“I don’t care,” Caleb said with as much defiance as he could muster. He thought of his mother coming out into the woods and finding him. He would be asleep in the grass and she would cradle him in her arms and tell him how she worried and how much she loved him. “She’s stupid anyway.”

“I don’t like my dad either,” Sammie said in solidarity.

CLICK

I have a gun in my black gym bag, and the gun is just big enough to be scary when I pull it out. I’ve never pulled it out in public, but I think today is the day. This city is so overrun with idiots that today has to be the day.

I started carrying the gun a couple days ago, bought it a week before that. I just can’t see any other way for me to make a point anymore. Everyone is so obsessed with hearing themselves talk that they don’t listen to people who are smarter than they are. I know this because no one ever listens to me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to speak in a way that helps them understand. That’s why I have the gun.

This coffee shop is just like any coffee shop that you’ve ever been to. Everyone in line gets to the front and suddenly they have no idea what coffee is, how to use money, or how to talk to a teenager in an apron.

“Yeah, it’s a white beamer,” the guy in front of me tells the girl at the register. Then he laughs. It’s one of those ‘guy laughs’ that kind of sounds mocking in some way. Like he’s laughing at his own good fortune. It could also easily be mistaken for a cough.

Look at this preppy college jerk. He’s trying to flirt with this girl. Yeah, right, idiot. Oh, what’s that? You drive a white BMW? Well, whoopee! Your parents are rich, so you must be worth more than everyone behind you in this line. Mention your car two or three more times. I bet this girl is just going to quit her job right now and go home with you. Maybe you should take out your wallet and pay for the drink you still haven’t ordered so the rest of us can get on with this abysmal day. Show her how much cash you carry.

I start to think this guy might be the one. He might start the spree. I guess this counts as ‘pre-meditation’ on my part. That would make any crime I carry out worthy of more severe punishment. And I’m pretty sure once I get going it will turn into a spree. I won’t be able to stop at just this one revolting example of the human experience gone wrong. I know there are other people in here who would be easy, justifiable targets. That, or they’d make themselves into a target after I started shooting. They’d do something dumb. So, you know, this guy is a reasonable sacrifice to the larger point, but maybe he isn’t worth whatever the rest of my life would be reduced to if I were to pull out a gun and end him.

Eventually, he moves along. He isn’t brave enough for bold action in the line at the coffee shop. My guess is that he’d love to ask that girl for her number. I bet he’ll be thinking about her all day. Maybe he’ll slowly become a regular in the shop, kind of creepily but not too creepily only come in when she’s working, talk to her enough to build their customer/barista relationship into a point of contact that she remembers the next time he comes in, take certain calculated actions to build upon that experience until a quasi-friendship occurs; then he’ll contact her on social media, chat with her, eventually get up the nerve to ask her to hang out, become one of her better friends, watch her go through a string of stupid boyfriends that he doesn’t approve of and tries to undermine for his own purposes. All of this will happen over about a year’s time. He’ll buy her expensive gifts that reinforce his single selling point but actually kind of make her uncomfortable. Then, when he finally gets up the nerve to make a move on her, he’ll get the rejection and he won’t know why. He will fail to recognize that she was always merely a passive participant in the entire dance. That he was easier to tolerate than he was to put off. But that will change when his real intentions become known. The minute he asks anything of her, he’ll be served the rejection he could have right now if he had the guts. Why doesn’t he ask her for her number and let her shoot him down right now?

Fear. That’s why. Fear, and some misguided hope that all of that other nonsense would change the fact that she is not interested in a guy in a collared shirt who makes a big deal about having lots of cash that he didn’t earn. Why doesn’t he just move along and find someone to date-rape instead of causing me to witness all of this potential human tragedy? Maybe I should do him a favor and pull out the gun after all.

“HELLO?”

Sammie finally talked Caleb into going back. They were taking turns on the tire swing before the sun began to disappear behind the tree-lined horizon. The swing was within the official barriers of the backyard. A small picket fence marked the line. These boards, made from the wood of trees that had given their lives to the rule of the natural world, were a shield against the wild world beyond. Sammie felt as though she could lower her guard, at least somewhat, when she and Caleb played within the wobbly cube of the actual yard. Out beyond the fence, where Caleb preferred to roam, were animals and dangers and the unknown. Sammie much preferred the calculated enjoyment of the treehouse and the tire swing.

She looked out at the horizon as she broke free from the ground. She knew that she was heading in the opposite direction of the sun. She kicked her awkward legs out in front of her as if they gave the swing any added momentum, and she felt her stomach drop as she rose away from the earth.

Now came the best part. She recoiled, the pendulum of the swing reacted to gravity and the rope creaked as the wind whipped her hair around her face. She let herself fall backward past Caleb on the ground. She looked at him until the swing lost its thrust. She hung in the air for a moment, a blob of blossoming feelings encased in a rubber donut. 

She was 10 feet off the ground, looking down from heaven, observing Caleb and wondering why her insides felt like a hurricane when she saw him. Then, as she passed him again, the swing coming to the lowest point, the long ancient rope perpendicular to the grass plane below, Caleb’s hand graced her back and pushed her forward.

When he touched her, Sammie felt a shock of emotion and energy that made her clench her teeth. This surge mixed with the feeling of flight and she rose again back toward the heavens, this time looking up at the sky. There was no other action in the world. Sammie closed her eyes.

DARKNESS

“I really like what you’ve done here, Cameron,” I am thankful that these guys have stopped talking politics. How would I have possibly been seen as the bad guy if I gunned down two supporters of this ignorant, insane, Cro-Magnon, power-mad president? They have just been talking about how this idiot with the hair who wears the suit with the American flag pin was going to save the coal industry. Holy cow. But now they were switching gears.

I was supposed to go into the office after I got my coffee, but I just couldn’t force myself. The human garbage show is too intense and someone needs to monitor it. These people are all repurposed waste, masquerading as fine art.

They are now bent over a small canvas. The older guy seems to be a professor of sorts. Of what, I’m not sure. I don’t see how anyone in education could possibly support this president. They are inspecting the canvas, a crappy piece of student art that Cameron, the younger of the two, brought along to showcase in front of his prof.

“Your use of color and space, the symbolism of the imagery- it’s interesting.”

“Yeah, I like the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas within the same space,” Cameron twitters incoherently. That’s it! It has to be now. ‘Juxtaposition?!’ What a worthless word. Doesn’t Cameron know that the word ‘juxtaposition’ is only used by college kids who are describing the genius of their own work or critiquing the work of classmates? This word doesn’t exist in the real world. It only works as a calling card for know-it-all college students. If you use it, the rest of the educated world knows you’re kind of green. Juxtaposers are worthless. If that word appears in a sentence, it is cause for evacuation from the conversation. But still, the Prof sits there and indulges this creep. This confident, overpraised fool.

Cameron should not be allowed to reach fruition. His teacher should not be allowed to encourage the continued pampering of lesser minds. Why do people always get a gold star nowadays? I never did. Why doesn’t anyone love me?

“Do you need anything else, Mister?” another kid in a visor and an apron, probably about the same age as Cameron, but less educated, is standing next to me. He has one of those little brown tubs that restaurants use to gather dishes for the wash. It is full of trash and discarded cups and napkins. His face is pimpled and pocked. His eyes are dead. His life is worthless, or so I would assume.

I look at his nametag. “No, thank you… Sammy.”

Sammy rolls his eyes at me and walks away. The juxtaposers continue with their little art show and the coffee shop employee, who isn’t even competent enough to wrangle one of the endlessly available barista positions, walks away from me like I’m some worthless, needy customer without any feelings or thoughts of my own. How could he think that of me when I think it of him?

PULL

The kids sat on a cross-piece of the fence where two of the picketed boards had been knocked out. Caleb talked about video games and Sammie watched the sun dip into the land in the distance. Sammie liked how the sunset seemed to light the world on fire, the flames of some distant blaze just over the curve of the earth sending trundles of red light billowing up into the sky. It was gorgeous.

“It’s pretty easy, you know,” Caleb exclaimed of his conquest in the digital world. “You just run around and smash up blocks and these stars appear and…”

Sammie and Caleb dangled their legs over the tall grass that grew wildly on the outer side of the fence. The line of trimmed, manicured lawn went right up to the fence line. This border ran directly under where the children now sat. The world seemed so easy to explain when Sammie looked at grass lines and sunsets. The good guys always won, beauty always prevailed. Sammy smiled and reached over for Caleb’s hand.

She didn’t think about her move, her body acted almost of its own accord, as if it was simply giving into the ancient and old laws of nature. She moved her hand along the painted wood and grasped Caleb’s. It was electric, just like the feeling she enjoyed when his hand grazed her back to propel her forward on the swing.

Caleb stopped talking and looked down at their joined hands. For a moment he just stared, but in another instant, he reacted. Before he moved his hand at all, Sammie could feel the anger surge through him.

He jerked his hand away from her and her hurt was instantaneous. Her mouth curled down into a grimace and she braced for his reaction.

But Caleb simply hopped down off the fence and landed with his back to her. It was as if he really wanted to make sure this moment was not wasted, so he stood in silent contemplation before he spoke.

“I think that you’re ugly,” he said calmly, coldly.

GO

It is time. My coffee is drained down to the sugary bottom, that last horrid drink where the cup lets you know what a glutton you have been. I usually don’t drink this last drink. I don’t want a reminder of how wasteful I am. I rise, hoist the bag up onto the table and move my hand to the zipper.

Suddenly, however, before I can pull the piece out of the bag, Cameron begins to choke. He starts slow, trying to play it off like it’s no big deal, hoping that whatever is lodged in his throat will make its way down into his guts without further inconvenience to the important discussion of his artistic triumph. His hope is not granted. He coughs and retches. He grabs violently at his neck and tries to stand. Apparently, Mr. Juxtaposition-of-color-and-images never learned to chew his biscotti effectively. His professor stares at him as their coffees and the canvas are knocked asunder. Cameron clutches his throat. All of the idiots in visors and aprons look on helplessly or, even worse, apathetically. Some of the other customers actually just look down at their cups or napkins. They mind their business. They are worthless, selfish fools. They have no stake in this.

One other guy, the college coward, starts to move toward Cameron, perhaps hoping his heroics will catch the attention of his fantasy barista, thus accelerating the chain of events that will lead to his evisceration at her hands. I had not even noticed that he lingered, but for some reason, I react faster.

I leave my bag unopened. There is no spree. There is no sporadic fire and no one dies, not even Cameron. I am behind him quickly and my hands are locked into fists on his abdomen. His professor reaches up as if to help and I wish I was holding the gun instead of this educated nincompoop. I jerk upward and, in one try, I pop a little piece of food out of his windpipe. The windpipe of Cameron, the visual artist.

SNAP

Sammie is down off the fence faster than her lumpy body would suggest was possible. Frenetic action drives her now. She is in the present tense as she picks up a board from the ground. It is a tree that has a sad story. It was cut and cut and cut and cut down and painted and nailed and neglected, and now it rests in her hand. A rusty nail jaggedly punctured through holds court at the opposite summit of the stick. She grips her end so tightly that she feels splinters nearly jump into her hands. Her picked blister sends a rush of fire up her arm. Her fury is uncontrollable, unexplainable. She does not hate Caleb, she loves him. She loves him so much.

POP

The college guy slunk away in past tense. He was defeated. He had not acted, twice.
I dropped to the floor for a moment, my act of compassion had exhausted me and I wanted to cry. Suddenly, and with some surprise, I am. I was. I wept as if I have been unexpectedly smacked by my father like he used to do. Backhanded, the hard coil of metal on his pinky clunking against my eye socket and telling me I will never be loved. He died in a hotel room with a prostitute, my father did. I brought my hand to my face and cried into it and realized that everyone in the coffee shop wanted to join me. They wanted to cry. We all wanted to cry. Some of them loved me because I was crying. We all have fathers and sad stories and shame and pain, and we feel it while we are alone. We are almost always alone. If I had taken my gun out of my bag in this moment, we could have all been together, I guess. But I didn’t, because I loved them back.

“BYE?”

Sammie swings the plank only once and strikes Caleb in the temple. He wretches as if he is belching. His tongue waggles out of his mouth and he tries to scream, but the belch noise only increases. He drops as Sammie releases the stick from her hands. She screams- the pain of the planet is rising though her chubby limbs. She screams for Jesus, she screams for her mother and Caleb’s father. She screams for herself. She clutches at her face as her faculties return to her. Her vision returns, the memory of the tire swing returns, the memory of the swing of the plank returns, the rejection flees and she is alone.

NO, HELLO

Someone touched my shoulder as if to comfort me. They wanted to say ‘thanks’ or ‘it’s okay’ or ‘are you okay?’ but instead someone just touched me and I jolted back into form. I rose to my feet and ran from the shop. I left my bag sitting on the table. I knew I didn’t need it anymore. I needed something else. I wanted to reach for the sky as if there was something up there, reach inside the sky and pull out the answers, but I didn’t know how. All I knew how to do was run away, so I did. I did not talk to anyone. I did not scream or cry anymore, after someone touched me.

I ran out of the coffee shop in search of the world. I ran down the pavement and I weaved in and out of the people there. We did not touch each other. I looked behind me, expecting to see the horsemen of the apocalypse or a tidal wave or a picket fence. Something running me down, trying to overtake me, to make me cry again. Something there that would let me know that we all want to cry.

I ran right into a tree.
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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by pendulah in portal Trident Media Group

Still Places to Go

     Tipped back in a hard, wooden chair at Barnes and Noble, I sit facing the second-floor window, coccyx numb, boots on the sill, killing time, waiting for my phone to ring. It is Sunday night, so were it to ring, it would either be my mother on the line, or it would be the hospital calling me to come in and help save someone who has fallen victim to accident or illness. Someone who now waits, chilly and under too-bright lights, completely vulnerable to the chance trifecta of fate, science, and human competence.   Today has been an uneventful day in the life of this nurse, with only one trip to the operating room to fix a broken hip. A dear old woman slipped on the ice on her daily trip to the mailbox. She had forgotten that today is Sunday.

     It is dark outside now, and I can see beyond the glass a hologram of myself sitting here, alternately reading and looking at myself reading. I am in my favorite row of chairs, slightly off-the-beaten-path, in front of a stack which cradles atlases juxtaposed with books on the craft of writing. Not just books about books, or books about how to publish books, but books about how to think up and put down in words the stuff that makes a book a book. Words about words. Then, there are the atlases. Brilliantly colored compilations of maps, multilayered, exquisitely detailed charts, lined and shaded renderings, current and historic, of places on Earth and beyond. Topography, hydrography, political boundaries, forest cover, geothermal activity, migration routes, roads, trails, canyons. X’s marking spots. Maps are proof that there are still places to go, even when you are positive that you have reached the end of the only, last, lonely road. An atlas is an entire world packaged in an oversized book, there to be slid off the shelf and seriously studied, splayed open on a big table and wonderingly pondered, or gripped, still standing, and frantically flipped through, each page a door to a chute that leads to an abyss of colorful, swirling updrafts of opportunity. I sit at the apex of the triangular prism formed by these two genres, hoping to absorb the combined message that the world is vast, that I am free to live stories and devour those of others, and that even I, a Dummy, can write about such adventures, both real and pretend. I would do that now, if I weren’t waiting for my phone to ring.

     My stomach is emitting clusters of volcanic rumbles, most likely from the toxic fish sandwich I ate earlier, so everyone must be able to hear and is thinking, “The fuck was that noise?” Sneaking looks sideways to see if anyone is staring, I stand up and stretch, relieved when my rickety chair groans in the manner of my tortured belly, exonerating my bowels of blame. I move closer to the window, look down through the windshield of a beefy red pickup truck, and notice a small white dog in the driver's seat, standing on its hind legs, both paws on the steering wheel. There is a woman sitting in the passenger seat, texting, as if there is nothing odd about her dog posing as her chauffeur. I picture the dog turning the key, looking over his shoulder, backing out, driving away, his lady continuing to text. My hologram smiles back from beyond the glass, startling me.

     The big table I have been eyeing becomes available and I hurry to claim it, opening my laptop and spreading the contents of my bag to form the boundaries of my work zone. I grab a few atlases and place them next to my stuff, opening one to Ireland, and skewing the angles of the others to make them appear to be in use. I’m going to use them to plan my epic walkabout, right after I walk over to Fiction to see if Wally Lamb’s new book is out. I get up and head toward the southeast corner of the store. It is physically impossible for me not to walk across the carpet to the beat of the music that blares overhead. I cannot avoid this compulsion to go, stop, walk, walk, stop. Turn head, pause, turn head, stop, go, stop, and so on, to the rhythm, not missing a beat, not on purpose. I cannot control this compulsion while pushing my cart through the grocery store, nor while flipping through shirts on a TJMaxx rack, and definitely not here, in Barnes & Noble, beneath their signature surround-sound spectacular of sonic schworls of spiced up, sexed up, minced music pie. Right now, I am on a schizophrenic Barnes and Noble magic carpet of a musical journey. The sound is agro-Indian-jazz-funk-elevator, a woman yeowling in Hindi, melody all over the place, a groovy clacking rhythm pulsing in the background. Was that a marimba? The polyphonic frenzied forte makes my heart beat faster, my eyes open wider and dart from book spine to book spine like a jonesing junkie. I lift a fresh paperback from the shelf and rub my hand across the smooth matte cover, glance around before sneaking a sniff of delicious ink, flip to a random page, being careful not to crack the glue, and skim a sentence or two to see if I get sucked in. Some people have foot fetishes. I can’t help but do these three things to brand new books. I bet he does the same thing, I think, noticing an attractive middle-aged man perusing the classics through blocky, tortoise shell frames. He is wearing an outfit composed of fleece, flannel, canvas, and Gore-Tex. I am intrigued by this guy’s ability to pull off intellectual-alpinist-shitkicker chic, a look that screams professor of English literature by day, off-the-grid yurt dweller by night. I imagine that this man can cook a mean risotto flavored with hand-picked morel mushrooms, split and stack a perfect cord of wood, and never let his Jotul burn out on a wintry Vermont night. This man can scale Himalayan peaks, teach orphans in Africa to read, effortlessly maintain the status of Greatest Uncle Ever, and give a soul-shifting shiatsu. Right now, the music having morphed into Turkish-snake-charmer-samba-laced-bossa-lounge, I wish that I was wearing hip-slung silk pants, a bedazzled belt and a swingy-fringed bra. I wish that I had a flat belly with which to belly dance, grotesquely long eyelashes with which to blink, blink, and a genie ponytail to flick and flip, so that I could hypnotize Professor Lumber-Lit and lure him into the inner sanctum of my shimmering aura.

     Is that AC/DC? Yes, it is “Back In Black,” with wild violins and chopping, slicing cellos. I am musically confused, as the song morphs into “Highway to Hell.” It is a symphonious rock medley. Captivating. I shuffle back to my seat and it is occupied by a young man talking loudly on his cell phone, facing outward, slouching, feet splayed, huge grin on his face. Clearly, he is talking to a woman. “Aww, put him on the phone,” he says. “Oh, Barley. Hi, Barley! Who’s a good boy? Yeah. Who’s a good boy? You are. Yes, you...” He is talking to a dog. I stand directly in front of him and stare. He looks up at me. I flick my eyes toward my belongings and raise my chin as if to say, “Hey.”

     “Oh, sorry, Dude.” He says, getting up and scuffling away, yakking, his voice audible all the way to the music section.

     Dude? Who calls a woman Dude? And, who talks to a dog on the phone in public? What is wrong with people? I plop down onto my hard wooden chair and it is warm. I am insulted and judging.

     I smell something resembling a pile of elderly sweet potatoes. Then, I hear the too-loud voice. A greasy man, roughly nineteen or twenty years old, wearing a moth-eaten wool beanie, a filthy, oversized Army coat, loose jeans and clomping black boots with tongues wagging free, emerges from the atlas aisle, followed by his shorter, rounder, bespectacled friend. The friend is carrying a book about traveling in Spain, and is clearly trying to escape the verbal diarrhea that Greasy Guy is spewing, in sparsely punctuated speech, about the socioeconomic state of modern day Spain and the historic events that led to the country’s tragic state of disrepair.

     “I’m only looking for a decent hostel to stay in,” said the friend, timidly annoyed.

I can read Chubby Friend’s thoughts. He is thinking about how his roommate, Greasy Guy, has been so unpredictable lately, staying up all night, pacing, or not coming back to the dorm at all. He hasn’t showered or changed his clothes in days, and he will not shut the hell up. Ever. He thinks he should call the kid’s parents, then talk to the school about switching rooms.

     The pair enters my space and my hackles go up, whatever hackles are. My stomach feels sicker from the boiled onion stench of body odor, and its contents bubble as my irritation gauge rises. Standing right next to my big table, Greasy Guy is eyeing my atlases and continuing to speak, with absolute confidence in his expertise, about the plight of the Spanish conquistadors. He stops talking long enough to blow his nose, an action long overdue, on a grayish handkerchief. I am flabbergasted when he plants both palms on my table, leans for a moment, then grabs an atlas that is right next to the one I am looking at and spins it around with a visibly soiled palm. I had turned the page of my atlas to Spain when I could no longer think through all the loud talking. I wonder if he will notice. His quiet friend notices me and is retreating in increments. He shrugs apologetically with his eyes. Not looking at me, Greasy Guy flips open the atlas and lands on New Zealand.

     “Have you ever been to New Zealand?” he asks his friend.

     “No,” says Chubby Friend, flatly, now almost out of ear shot.

     “I want to go there,” Greasy Guy continues without coming up for air. “I’m going this summer. People think that the Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand but they are not. There were previous civilizations, fair-skinned people, there before the Maoris immigrated from Polynesia.” He continues on. I am annoyed, but also bored, and so intrigued, but I know that to engage would mean entrapment. Part of me is worried about the kid because his mannerisms are reminding me of my nephew, Jim, who is bipolar. Jim was the same age as this boy when his life sprang away from him and he was flung into an altered state of too fast, too slow, too fast, too slow by the click of an unknown trigger. I am certain that Greasy Guy is off his meds, or this might even be his first episode of mania. The compassionate part of me wishes I could to talk to his parents, explain what I’ve seen, tell them about my nephew, but then that idea goes away. Right now, I just want him to move his stinky self away from me, because I am dangerously nauseous. So, I go for it.

     “Excuse me, Sir,” I say to Greasy Guy. His eyes click back and forth before landing on mine. I feel a pierce. “I was looking at that atlas.”

     “No, you weren’t,” he insists. “It was on the table. You were looking at that one.” He points. “You were looking at Spain. Were you eavesdropping on me?” He moves closer, and my big table vibrates with his agitation.

     “It was in my pile.” I say. Crap. Now I’m in.

     “This is a bookstore. It is all a pile. It is the store’s pile. Everything is a pile of something. You will get up and leave all of these atlases here and someone will put your pile back in the bigger pile. So, theoretically, it is my pile too,” he says.

     The kid has a point. I could get sucked into this. Mess with him a little. He is coming closer and is becoming more agitated. Chubby Friend is looking out the window, perhaps monitoring this interaction in the reflection. Greasy Guy is clearly infectious, fresh snot creeping out of both nostrils, covering the crust of the old snot. The jaded nurse in me no longer gives a shit about his mental illness. I just want him to leave.

     “You are right,” I say, firmly. “That is your atlas now. Take the whole pile. Please take it to that big table, though.” I say, pointing across the room. “I am trying to concentrate.”

He isn’t listening to me. He is standing, flipping, swaying, sniffling, brain clicking, eyes clacking like Felix the Cat’s tail on the wall clock I had as a kid. His friend has retreated to the Mad Lib display, occasionally tossing a nervous glance over his shoulder. Greasy Guy sits, no longer acknowledging my presence, spreads the pages of his atlas, grabs another off my pile, and opens that one, too. Ignoring. Lost again in the tornado of thoughts that is swirling inside his skull. He leans on his elbows and drops his head closer to the page. The kid looks exhausted. Here comes that empathy again. Damned innate human kindness and a nursing degree.

     “Sir,” I try again, assertively, but not harshly. “This is my space for now. Obviously, I have claimed it. I know. It is Barnes and Noble’s space, your space, the whole world’s space, but, right now, you are invading my current space, and I am asking you, kindly, to move.”

     His bloodshot eyes flip to mine, snapping on as if my eyes are the blue Legos and his are the green Legos. “Listen, Lady. You are not fooling me. I know you are one of them. I know you have been following me. I do not have the information you are looking for. I am not the guy!”

     I nod, relaxing any hint of emotion in my face. I imagine myself as one of them.

     “I am not the guy you are looking for!” Louder now, his voice breaking a little. Did his eyes just tear up, or is the wetness that is teetering on the edge of his lower eyelids the cold virus finally wearing him down?

     I grow up for a moment. I am the adult here. “I know,” I say, surprised by my calmness with a hint of gentle. “It’s okay. Really, it’s okay.”

     He exhales. Quiet. Nearly deflated. Drained. One wary eye keeps track of me as he traces the border between Bhutan and India with his grubby finger. Chubby Friend looks over with concern and starts to walk toward our big table.

     “Excuse me,” I say, pulling my phone out of my bag, pretending I had heard it buzz.

     “Hey, Claudette,” I say, looking at Greasy Guy and talking into the phone. I pause, fake listening. “A C-spine fracture? Poor kid. Okay, I’ll see you in a few.”

     I put the phone away and gather my things. I leave the atlases in a pile in front of Greasy Guy. His pile now. He is quiet, struggling to breathe through his congested face.

     “Enjoy Zimbabwe,” I offer him, glancing at the page he is on, and I turn to walk away.

     He looks up at me, sniffs, then returns his eyes to the map. I hesitate, then turn my head. I make eye contact with Chubby Friend and say to Greasy Guy over my shoulder, “Hey, get some rest, okay?”

     I walk away, grooving through Fiction to the bossa-nova-cool-jazz beat of “Girl from Impanema” embattled in a brilliant mash up with a piano-driven rendition of “Yesterday.” The handsome professor has moved on to some other section, perhaps Cooking, or How-To's. As I leave Barnes and Noble behind for the night, I notice the seamless transition of the string section into “Every Breath You Take.”

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Still Places to Go
     Tipped back in a hard, wooden chair at Barnes and Noble, I sit facing the second-floor window, coccyx numb, boots on the sill, killing time, waiting for my phone to ring. It is Sunday night, so were it to ring, it would either be my mother on the line, or it would be the hospital calling me to come in and help save someone who has fallen victim to accident or illness. Someone who now waits, chilly and under too-bright lights, completely vulnerable to the chance trifecta of fate, science, and human competence.   Today has been an uneventful day in the life of this nurse, with only one trip to the operating room to fix a broken hip. A dear old woman slipped on the ice on her daily trip to the mailbox. She had forgotten that today is Sunday.
     It is dark outside now, and I can see beyond the glass a hologram of myself sitting here, alternately reading and looking at myself reading. I am in my favorite row of chairs, slightly off-the-beaten-path, in front of a stack which cradles atlases juxtaposed with books on the craft of writing. Not just books about books, or books about how to publish books, but books about how to think up and put down in words the stuff that makes a book a book. Words about words. Then, there are the atlases. Brilliantly colored compilations of maps, multilayered, exquisitely detailed charts, lined and shaded renderings, current and historic, of places on Earth and beyond. Topography, hydrography, political boundaries, forest cover, geothermal activity, migration routes, roads, trails, canyons. X’s marking spots. Maps are proof that there are still places to go, even when you are positive that you have reached the end of the only, last, lonely road. An atlas is an entire world packaged in an oversized book, there to be slid off the shelf and seriously studied, splayed open on a big table and wonderingly pondered, or gripped, still standing, and frantically flipped through, each page a door to a chute that leads to an abyss of colorful, swirling updrafts of opportunity. I sit at the apex of the triangular prism formed by these two genres, hoping to absorb the combined message that the world is vast, that I am free to live stories and devour those of others, and that even I, a Dummy, can write about such adventures, both real and pretend. I would do that now, if I weren’t waiting for my phone to ring.
     My stomach is emitting clusters of volcanic rumbles, most likely from the toxic fish sandwich I ate earlier, so everyone must be able to hear and is thinking, “The fuck was that noise?” Sneaking looks sideways to see if anyone is staring, I stand up and stretch, relieved when my rickety chair groans in the manner of my tortured belly, exonerating my bowels of blame. I move closer to the window, look down through the windshield of a beefy red pickup truck, and notice a small white dog in the driver's seat, standing on its hind legs, both paws on the steering wheel. There is a woman sitting in the passenger seat, texting, as if there is nothing odd about her dog posing as her chauffeur. I picture the dog turning the key, looking over his shoulder, backing out, driving away, his lady continuing to text. My hologram smiles back from beyond the glass, startling me.
     The big table I have been eyeing becomes available and I hurry to claim it, opening my laptop and spreading the contents of my bag to form the boundaries of my work zone. I grab a few atlases and place them next to my stuff, opening one to Ireland, and skewing the angles of the others to make them appear to be in use. I’m going to use them to plan my epic walkabout, right after I walk over to Fiction to see if Wally Lamb’s new book is out. I get up and head toward the southeast corner of the store. It is physically impossible for me not to walk across the carpet to the beat of the music that blares overhead. I cannot avoid this compulsion to go, stop, walk, walk, stop. Turn head, pause, turn head, stop, go, stop, and so on, to the rhythm, not missing a beat, not on purpose. I cannot control this compulsion while pushing my cart through the grocery store, nor while flipping through shirts on a TJMaxx rack, and definitely not here, in Barnes & Noble, beneath their signature surround-sound spectacular of sonic schworls of spiced up, sexed up, minced music pie. Right now, I am on a schizophrenic Barnes and Noble magic carpet of a musical journey. The sound is agro-Indian-jazz-funk-elevator, a woman yeowling in Hindi, melody all over the place, a groovy clacking rhythm pulsing in the background. Was that a marimba? The polyphonic frenzied forte makes my heart beat faster, my eyes open wider and dart from book spine to book spine like a jonesing junkie. I lift a fresh paperback from the shelf and rub my hand across the smooth matte cover, glance around before sneaking a sniff of delicious ink, flip to a random page, being careful not to crack the glue, and skim a sentence or two to see if I get sucked in. Some people have foot fetishes. I can’t help but do these three things to brand new books. I bet he does the same thing, I think, noticing an attractive middle-aged man perusing the classics through blocky, tortoise shell frames. He is wearing an outfit composed of fleece, flannel, canvas, and Gore-Tex. I am intrigued by this guy’s ability to pull off intellectual-alpinist-shitkicker chic, a look that screams professor of English literature by day, off-the-grid yurt dweller by night. I imagine that this man can cook a mean risotto flavored with hand-picked morel mushrooms, split and stack a perfect cord of wood, and never let his Jotul burn out on a wintry Vermont night. This man can scale Himalayan peaks, teach orphans in Africa to read, effortlessly maintain the status of Greatest Uncle Ever, and give a soul-shifting shiatsu. Right now, the music having morphed into Turkish-snake-charmer-samba-laced-bossa-lounge, I wish that I was wearing hip-slung silk pants, a bedazzled belt and a swingy-fringed bra. I wish that I had a flat belly with which to belly dance, grotesquely long eyelashes with which to blink, blink, and a genie ponytail to flick and flip, so that I could hypnotize Professor Lumber-Lit and lure him into the inner sanctum of my shimmering aura.
     Is that AC/DC? Yes, it is “Back In Black,” with wild violins and chopping, slicing cellos. I am musically confused, as the song morphs into “Highway to Hell.” It is a symphonious rock medley. Captivating. I shuffle back to my seat and it is occupied by a young man talking loudly on his cell phone, facing outward, slouching, feet splayed, huge grin on his face. Clearly, he is talking to a woman. “Aww, put him on the phone,” he says. “Oh, Barley. Hi, Barley! Who’s a good boy? Yeah. Who’s a good boy? You are. Yes, you...” He is talking to a dog. I stand directly in front of him and stare. He looks up at me. I flick my eyes toward my belongings and raise my chin as if to say, “Hey.”
     “Oh, sorry, Dude.” He says, getting up and scuffling away, yakking, his voice audible all the way to the music section.
     Dude? Who calls a woman Dude? And, who talks to a dog on the phone in public? What is wrong with people? I plop down onto my hard wooden chair and it is warm. I am insulted and judging.
     I smell something resembling a pile of elderly sweet potatoes. Then, I hear the too-loud voice. A greasy man, roughly nineteen or twenty years old, wearing a moth-eaten wool beanie, a filthy, oversized Army coat, loose jeans and clomping black boots with tongues wagging free, emerges from the atlas aisle, followed by his shorter, rounder, bespectacled friend. The friend is carrying a book about traveling in Spain, and is clearly trying to escape the verbal diarrhea that Greasy Guy is spewing, in sparsely punctuated speech, about the socioeconomic state of modern day Spain and the historic events that led to the country’s tragic state of disrepair.
     “I’m only looking for a decent hostel to stay in,” said the friend, timidly annoyed.
I can read Chubby Friend’s thoughts. He is thinking about how his roommate, Greasy Guy, has been so unpredictable lately, staying up all night, pacing, or not coming back to the dorm at all. He hasn’t showered or changed his clothes in days, and he will not shut the hell up. Ever. He thinks he should call the kid’s parents, then talk to the school about switching rooms.
     The pair enters my space and my hackles go up, whatever hackles are. My stomach feels sicker from the boiled onion stench of body odor, and its contents bubble as my irritation gauge rises. Standing right next to my big table, Greasy Guy is eyeing my atlases and continuing to speak, with absolute confidence in his expertise, about the plight of the Spanish conquistadors. He stops talking long enough to blow his nose, an action long overdue, on a grayish handkerchief. I am flabbergasted when he plants both palms on my table, leans for a moment, then grabs an atlas that is right next to the one I am looking at and spins it around with a visibly soiled palm. I had turned the page of my atlas to Spain when I could no longer think through all the loud talking. I wonder if he will notice. His quiet friend notices me and is retreating in increments. He shrugs apologetically with his eyes. Not looking at me, Greasy Guy flips open the atlas and lands on New Zealand.
     “Have you ever been to New Zealand?” he asks his friend.
     “No,” says Chubby Friend, flatly, now almost out of ear shot.
     “I want to go there,” Greasy Guy continues without coming up for air. “I’m going this summer. People think that the Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand but they are not. There were previous civilizations, fair-skinned people, there before the Maoris immigrated from Polynesia.” He continues on. I am annoyed, but also bored, and so intrigued, but I know that to engage would mean entrapment. Part of me is worried about the kid because his mannerisms are reminding me of my nephew, Jim, who is bipolar. Jim was the same age as this boy when his life sprang away from him and he was flung into an altered state of too fast, too slow, too fast, too slow by the click of an unknown trigger. I am certain that Greasy Guy is off his meds, or this might even be his first episode of mania. The compassionate part of me wishes I could to talk to his parents, explain what I’ve seen, tell them about my nephew, but then that idea goes away. Right now, I just want him to move his stinky self away from me, because I am dangerously nauseous. So, I go for it.
     “Excuse me, Sir,” I say to Greasy Guy. His eyes click back and forth before landing on mine. I feel a pierce. “I was looking at that atlas.”
     “No, you weren’t,” he insists. “It was on the table. You were looking at that one.” He points. “You were looking at Spain. Were you eavesdropping on me?” He moves closer, and my big table vibrates with his agitation.
     “It was in my pile.” I say. Crap. Now I’m in.
     “This is a bookstore. It is all a pile. It is the store’s pile. Everything is a pile of something. You will get up and leave all of these atlases here and someone will put your pile back in the bigger pile. So, theoretically, it is my pile too,” he says.
     The kid has a point. I could get sucked into this. Mess with him a little. He is coming closer and is becoming more agitated. Chubby Friend is looking out the window, perhaps monitoring this interaction in the reflection. Greasy Guy is clearly infectious, fresh snot creeping out of both nostrils, covering the crust of the old snot. The jaded nurse in me no longer gives a shit about his mental illness. I just want him to leave.
     “You are right,” I say, firmly. “That is your atlas now. Take the whole pile. Please take it to that big table, though.” I say, pointing across the room. “I am trying to concentrate.”
He isn’t listening to me. He is standing, flipping, swaying, sniffling, brain clicking, eyes clacking like Felix the Cat’s tail on the wall clock I had as a kid. His friend has retreated to the Mad Lib display, occasionally tossing a nervous glance over his shoulder. Greasy Guy sits, no longer acknowledging my presence, spreads the pages of his atlas, grabs another off my pile, and opens that one, too. Ignoring. Lost again in the tornado of thoughts that is swirling inside his skull. He leans on his elbows and drops his head closer to the page. The kid looks exhausted. Here comes that empathy again. Damned innate human kindness and a nursing degree.
     “Sir,” I try again, assertively, but not harshly. “This is my space for now. Obviously, I have claimed it. I know. It is Barnes and Noble’s space, your space, the whole world’s space, but, right now, you are invading my current space, and I am asking you, kindly, to move.”
     His bloodshot eyes flip to mine, snapping on as if my eyes are the blue Legos and his are the green Legos. “Listen, Lady. You are not fooling me. I know you are one of them. I know you have been following me. I do not have the information you are looking for. I am not the guy!”
     I nod, relaxing any hint of emotion in my face. I imagine myself as one of them.
     “I am not the guy you are looking for!” Louder now, his voice breaking a little. Did his eyes just tear up, or is the wetness that is teetering on the edge of his lower eyelids the cold virus finally wearing him down?
     I grow up for a moment. I am the adult here. “I know,” I say, surprised by my calmness with a hint of gentle. “It’s okay. Really, it’s okay.”
     He exhales. Quiet. Nearly deflated. Drained. One wary eye keeps track of me as he traces the border between Bhutan and India with his grubby finger. Chubby Friend looks over with concern and starts to walk toward our big table.
     “Excuse me,” I say, pulling my phone out of my bag, pretending I had heard it buzz.
     “Hey, Claudette,” I say, looking at Greasy Guy and talking into the phone. I pause, fake listening. “A C-spine fracture? Poor kid. Okay, I’ll see you in a few.”
     I put the phone away and gather my things. I leave the atlases in a pile in front of Greasy Guy. His pile now. He is quiet, struggling to breathe through his congested face.
     “Enjoy Zimbabwe,” I offer him, glancing at the page he is on, and I turn to walk away.
     He looks up at me, sniffs, then returns his eyes to the map. I hesitate, then turn my head. I make eye contact with Chubby Friend and say to Greasy Guy over my shoulder, “Hey, get some rest, okay?”
     I walk away, grooving through Fiction to the bossa-nova-cool-jazz beat of “Girl from Impanema” embattled in a brilliant mash up with a piano-driven rendition of “Yesterday.” The handsome professor has moved on to some other section, perhaps Cooking, or How-To's. As I leave Barnes and Noble behind for the night, I notice the seamless transition of the string section into “Every Breath You Take.”
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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by LoganCraine in portal Trident Media Group

"How many more are left?" Chris yelled back at the others, scooping the child up and swinging him onto her back.

Gunshots resounded down the hall, getting closer. She glanced back and saw Logan charging after them, occasionally turning back to fire at the Scientists who weren't far behind. Indigo was behind her, laughing like a maniac as she took most of their shots.

The boy whimpered in her ear. "It's ok," she muttered between breaths. Chrys never had much stamina and was still wondering how she got stuck with the kid. "There's a van waiting. We're getting you out of here."

"I'm out!" Logan shouted, shoving her pistols back into their holsters. "Last one's yours, Indigo!"

Indigo stopped and took a sweeping bow while the last Scientist caught up. "Gladly," she said, in a tone that made Chrys imagine that she was smirking under her mask. Chrys rolled her eyes and tried to remember which hall to turn down to get to the exit. Logan passed her and took the lead.

"Do we have to keep running?" Chrys huffed. "I mean, it's just us now, right?"

Logan turned back and took the child from her. "We don't stop running," she said sternly. "We never stop running. Never think you know what's coming next." She hoisted the child onto her hip and started down the hall again. "That's my job!"

Rolling her eyes, Chrys caught her breath before chasing after them. She could hear Indigo not far behind, and she was determined to not be the last one out.

Logan was holding open the large door when she finally caught up. "Go," she commanded. "You're in the front. I think there's still one out here, so you need to get in fast."

Chrys nodded and did as she was told, sprinting to the black van and nearly throwing herself into the front passenger seat. Phil had the engine running. He smiled nervously, as if that was all he could think to do.

Logan threw open the back doors and jumped in the back with the child. She sat on her knees, watching for the Scientist she thought she heard. Instead, Indigo came barrelling out. She crashed into the back and Logan pulled the doors closed, right as Phil slammed on the gas and took off.

Indigo sat with her head pressed to the wall, laughing and holding her side. "You were wrong," she told Logan. "There was-"

"Another one?" Logan interrupted. "I thought he was outside. Did you take care of him?"

"Oh yeah, of course I did. It's just, a little heads up would have been nice." She laughed again. Logan looked out the back window to make sure no one was following.

"Where...where are we going?" the child asked quietly.

"Somewhere safe," Logan replied without looking away from the window.

"It's a secret," Indigo whispered in a funny voice. The kid didn't respond.

"How old are you?" she asked.

The boy was staring at his shoes. "Eight."

"And what-what's your name?" She looked down at the hand on her side, which had blood on it.

"What happened?" Logan asked. Indigo shushed her.

"My name's Ant," he said. "Are you ok?"

Indigo shook her head. "I'm fine, it'll go away." She took a shaky breath. "It usually goes away a lot faster though."

"I don't think you're fine," Logan said. "You need to tell me exactly what happened."

"Nothing unusual," Indigo answered. "That last Scientist, he got a hit. That's all."

"Uh, I think I may know..." the child started to say but was interrupted.

"A hit with what?"

"I dunno, something sharp!"

"Hey!" Chrys turned around in her seat. "The kid's trying to say something."

Logan turned toward him. "Well, what is it?"

"Logan be nice," Indigo said softly. She gripped her side tighter.

"Um, well, they had me there 'cause of what I do, 'cause they wanted me to help but I don't think it was helping anybody," Ant said.

"What do you do?" Logan snapped.

Ant flinched. "I...well, I..."

Indigo raised her free hand at Logan. "It's ok, kid." she said.

"They said I make people's powers go away," he finished quietly.

Indigo chuckled. "Yeah, that makes sense, kid."

Logan climbed so that she was closer to the front. "Stop the van," she commanded.

"What? But they might still be-"

"I said, stop the van!"

Phil pulled over into the trees, trying his best to hide the van. Logan pulled Indigo out of the back.

"You are not ok," she said, supporting Indigo with her shoulder. "You're bleeding out. Look, you've left a puddle."

Indigo gave a small laugh. "I believe you."

Logan nearly had to drag her away from the van. As they got farther, Indigo had more strength. Logan helped her sit against a tree and then sat next to her.

"Thanks," Indigo said quietly after a while.

"I'm not going to lose you again," Logan said quietly, so quietly it was almost to herself.

Indigo sighed. "Is it even worth asking what you mean?"

She laughed. "Not really."

"Do they know?"

"No, It's just me."

"Please don't tell them. I can't explain it right now but it's so incredibly important that to them, I'm just Indigo."

"I'm not going to say anything." Logan sighed. "But you do know how badly they're hurting. You saw it. Maybe go a little bit easier on them?"

Indigo was silent.

"Will they ever find out?"

Silence again.

"Tony, you've got to-"

"Yeah, they're going to find out," she finally answered. "They're going to find out, and it's going to be hard. Really hard. On all of us." She turned to look at Logan. "I promise, they'll find out. But look, you probably won't like the way I do it. You've got to promise me that you won't say anything to them, ok? Will you promise?"

Logan looked at her lost friend and nodded. "Of course. You can trust me. You know that."

Indigo sighed and leaned her head back against the tree. "Guess we should get going then."

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by LoganCraine in portal Trident Media Group
"How many more are left?" Chris yelled back at the others, scooping the child up and swinging him onto her back.

Gunshots resounded down the hall, getting closer. She glanced back and saw Logan charging after them, occasionally turning back to fire at the Scientists who weren't far behind. Indigo was behind her, laughing like a maniac as she took most of their shots.

The boy whimpered in her ear. "It's ok," she muttered between breaths. Chrys never had much stamina and was still wondering how she got stuck with the kid. "There's a van waiting. We're getting you out of here."

"I'm out!" Logan shouted, shoving her pistols back into their holsters. "Last one's yours, Indigo!"

Indigo stopped and took a sweeping bow while the last Scientist caught up. "Gladly," she said, in a tone that made Chrys imagine that she was smirking under her mask. Chrys rolled her eyes and tried to remember which hall to turn down to get to the exit. Logan passed her and took the lead.

"Do we have to keep running?" Chrys huffed. "I mean, it's just us now, right?"

Logan turned back and took the child from her. "We don't stop running," she said sternly. "We never stop running. Never think you know what's coming next." She hoisted the child onto her hip and started down the hall again. "That's my job!"

Rolling her eyes, Chrys caught her breath before chasing after them. She could hear Indigo not far behind, and she was determined to not be the last one out.

Logan was holding open the large door when she finally caught up. "Go," she commanded. "You're in the front. I think there's still one out here, so you need to get in fast."

Chrys nodded and did as she was told, sprinting to the black van and nearly throwing herself into the front passenger seat. Phil had the engine running. He smiled nervously, as if that was all he could think to do.

Logan threw open the back doors and jumped in the back with the child. She sat on her knees, watching for the Scientist she thought she heard. Instead, Indigo came barrelling out. She crashed into the back and Logan pulled the doors closed, right as Phil slammed on the gas and took off.

Indigo sat with her head pressed to the wall, laughing and holding her side. "You were wrong," she told Logan. "There was-"

"Another one?" Logan interrupted. "I thought he was outside. Did you take care of him?"

"Oh yeah, of course I did. It's just, a little heads up would have been nice." She laughed again. Logan looked out the back window to make sure no one was following.

"Where...where are we going?" the child asked quietly.

"Somewhere safe," Logan replied without looking away from the window.

"It's a secret," Indigo whispered in a funny voice. The kid didn't respond.

"How old are you?" she asked.

The boy was staring at his shoes. "Eight."

"And what-what's your name?" She looked down at the hand on her side, which had blood on it.

"What happened?" Logan asked. Indigo shushed her.

"My name's Ant," he said. "Are you ok?"

Indigo shook her head. "I'm fine, it'll go away." She took a shaky breath. "It usually goes away a lot faster though."

"I don't think you're fine," Logan said. "You need to tell me exactly what happened."

"Nothing unusual," Indigo answered. "That last Scientist, he got a hit. That's all."

"Uh, I think I may know..." the child started to say but was interrupted.

"A hit with what?"

"I dunno, something sharp!"

"Hey!" Chrys turned around in her seat. "The kid's trying to say something."

Logan turned toward him. "Well, what is it?"

"Logan be nice," Indigo said softly. She gripped her side tighter.

"Um, well, they had me there 'cause of what I do, 'cause they wanted me to help but I don't think it was helping anybody," Ant said.

"What do you do?" Logan snapped.

Ant flinched. "I...well, I..."

Indigo raised her free hand at Logan. "It's ok, kid." she said.

"They said I make people's powers go away," he finished quietly.

Indigo chuckled. "Yeah, that makes sense, kid."

Logan climbed so that she was closer to the front. "Stop the van," she commanded.

"What? But they might still be-"

"I said, stop the van!"

Phil pulled over into the trees, trying his best to hide the van. Logan pulled Indigo out of the back.

"You are not ok," she said, supporting Indigo with her shoulder. "You're bleeding out. Look, you've left a puddle."

Indigo gave a small laugh. "I believe you."

Logan nearly had to drag her away from the van. As they got farther, Indigo had more strength. Logan helped her sit against a tree and then sat next to her.

"Thanks," Indigo said quietly after a while.

"I'm not going to lose you again," Logan said quietly, so quietly it was almost to herself.

Indigo sighed. "Is it even worth asking what you mean?"

She laughed. "Not really."

"Do they know?"

"No, It's just me."

"Please don't tell them. I can't explain it right now but it's so incredibly important that to them, I'm just Indigo."

"I'm not going to say anything." Logan sighed. "But you do know how badly they're hurting. You saw it. Maybe go a little bit easier on them?"

Indigo was silent.

"Will they ever find out?"

Silence again.

"Tony, you've got to-"

"Yeah, they're going to find out," she finally answered. "They're going to find out, and it's going to be hard. Really hard. On all of us." She turned to look at Logan. "I promise, they'll find out. But look, you probably won't like the way I do it. You've got to promise me that you won't say anything to them, ok? Will you promise?"

Logan looked at her lost friend and nodded. "Of course. You can trust me. You know that."

Indigo sighed and leaned her head back against the tree. "Guess we should get going then."




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Levi's Folly

These are the first couple chapters of a novel I'm currently writing. I hope you enjoy.

 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

1

----

     Cackling. The sound my half-present friends make every Saturday under the overpass. Just outside town, we meet beneath the overgrown birdsnest that must once have held the weight of hundreds of cars and trucks in the hustle and bustle of rush hour traffic. No longer. Now it stands as a crumbling aftershadow and a place to hide our illegal escapades. As my friends cackle, I watch. Their faces morph into grotesque figures reminiscent of innocence and void of sorrow. Yet, through these artificial veneers, eyes don’t lie. Their eyes will speak for them when their faces won’t. Jason, a boy I call my friend. While his face is contorted into a cheshire cat smile, his eyes are yelling. His mother swims in her bottle and his father won’t stand off the couch. Stephen, a boy I call my friend. Even when his body shakes with the tremors of his laughter, the windows into his soul cry out. He can’t live up to his Princeton parents and Yale sister with his C+ average. Everyone here is the same, but me. These boys whom I call friends all share the same tale, hidden behind drug-induced facades, their eyes all share a harrowing account; but I am an outsider. What is my troubling narrative? What awful circumstance have I lived through to belong among these gentlemen? I can safely say thank God there isn’t one. Am I alone then? Perhaps I am lucky, I can sit here and judge my friends, but it is lonely on this high pedestal. I sometimes envy them. They can live without regret, buying into the off-the-shelf ecstasy. I cannot take part, I can only observe. I’m almost amused by their pain. They so wish to be rid of it, they try anything to forget.

     (They never can.)

     I ask myself often why these are my only friends. These unlucky few who devote themselves to the church of fraudulent joy are the only people I call friends. I have no buddies, no chums, no comrades outside of this select group. Only in the recent past have I come to realize why: it’s easy, it’s simple. With these boys, I can rely on them without any fees. No matter what I do, so long as I come to the weekly conference, they will happily sing their drunken chanties alongside me. I have no obligation to confide in them my secrets, no need to share with them my feelings, beliefs, emotions. I show up, and they do too. If one of them were to die a tragic death, though, would I cry? Would any of the others cry? I never answer this question. To answer would call into question my entire existence, and that would be too complicated. So I remain, perhaps friendless, perhaps alone, but not forgotten. Not yet.

     “Such kind people.” What all the teachers and all the classmates and all the friends say after meeting them. I don’t disagree. They are indeed kind people. Interesting word choice, though. There is a difference between person and parent. I, for instance, am a kind person, but would without a doubt make an awful father. Such are my parents. I don’t fault them for effort, they try hard enough, but if all was measured in effort, the fools and the ignorant would be emperors.

     It seems, though, that they have given up on their attempts to parent. I get a brief “afternoon” when I walk in the door and maybe a “have a nice day” in the morning. Then I tread up to my room and seldom do we speak again. I pretend not to care, but that my own parents have forgotten me is a bright neon sign flashing I am worthless; even they who bore and raised me seem not to care enough to try anymore. Granted, much of it was my fault not theirs. Before, they were always enthusiastic, too enthusiastic. It was strained. After the twentieth or so time I screamed for nothing at their blank, unknowing faces, they lost hope. At that point, I guess I did too.

     My friends are simple. I’m too tired of complex and difficult, I just want easy. My pothead friends smile at everything, so I smile with them. It’s fake, but it’s sincere in its falsehood.

     I fell asleep once under the overpass. I woke up to smell of cigarette smoke coming from the back of the gentlemen’s club behind me. Such gentlemen there. I stood up on weak legs with a sore neck and looked at the early morning surroundings. The stars were hiding as they always do, averting their faces from us on low, as if disgusted by us; they have a right to be.

     My friends deserted me, perhaps they saw me sleeping and felt it best to leave me at peace, but more likely, they forgot I was even there or never knew in the first place. The smell of skunk still lingered in the air even hours after the source fled. I walked around the block and observed. The mailman making his rounds. The hooker finishing her last shift. The bakers placing their carefully crafted dough in the just-lit ovens. The piercing morning air chilled my nose and throat. It was an awful and refreshing feeling. I walked the two miles home in the cold with no coat, my friend Robbie was my ride. But like I said, he didn’t want to disturb my sleep.

 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

2

----

     I’ve always wanted to be the hero. The underdog who beats the infamous gunslinger to the draw, and rides off into the sunset with the strikingly kind and beautiful damsel on the back of my horse. But I realized, what makes a hero isn’t honour and protein powder (well, maybe a little bit of the latter). It’s performing one outrageously stupid act, and succeeding.

     Seems simple enough.

     Sometimes, when I walk past children playing and hear their shrieks of joy, I can’t help but notice how similar such screaming is to that of panic. I hear a young girl screaming. Is she just having fun with her friends, or reaching for help? It came from the darkened alley next to me, so I have to assume her peril.

Whenever I watch a horror movie, it’s so clear that all the fear and anguish and death could so easily be avoided if the main characters didn’t walk into that house, decided it was disrespectful to piss on that Indian burial ground, stayed their urges to have sex in that graveyard, or just remained generally not stupid. But here I am, judging their idiotic mistakes as I run into that darkened alley, a set I’m sure has been used for a horror movie.

     I was right, she screamed from fear.

     My teachers always tell me “details, details.” Apparently I have good ideas but I need to flesh them out more. So, details. It must’ve been right before a storm. How ominous. I was walking home from school, so it wasn’t too late, but the alley was lightless. All I could see in the darkness was the silhouettes of a dumpster here, a pothole there. Actually, the pothole I didn’t see. It’s a cruel prank God enjoys playing. Tricks us into believing a solid ground has been laid for us to tread, but no. So, with the most terrifying jolt of fear and dread for what’s to soon come, my foot landed on nothingness. Then the cement, just four inches too low, broke its fall with a painful solidity. I stood up and kept running, ignoring the twinge in each step and the limp it caused.

     I finally found the source of the screams. It was a girl, maybe my age or a little bit younger. I would describe her in the detail my teachers request, but I couldn’t see behind the three men surrounding her, so I’ll save the description for later.

Who should we blame for the abhorrence of man? Is God guilty for our mistakes? Murder exists because of His creation, as does theft and adultery. The ten commandments seem like a bandaid on a brain tumour. But what if we are free of will? Are we so awful a species that we commit these crimes without guilt or remorse, and keep repeating them? Such wicked transgressions we execute. Murdering a brother over a will. Blowing up a family because of ideology. Raping a girl just for fun.

     To say the least, this was a new experience for me. Maybe that’s a good thing, my parents have been trying to get me to try new things, explore my interests.

     It’s not a good thing.

     I was left with only what I knew from television and movies. I knew the pleasantries of the streets.

     “Hey. What the fuck’re you doin’?”

     That got their attention. They turned around, more confused than angry. That very quickly changed. As they shifted toward me, I could see a glimpse of the girl. Rather, a glimpse of her torn clothing.

     The preamble to a fight is such an interesting presentation. There is a moment, a no-man’s-land, where both parties must decide whether to fight or flee. To decide, we share insults and challenges with each other, testing strength and resolve.

     “Who the fuck do you think you are?” They would ask.

     “I’m the guy who’s gonna fuck you up unless you run,” would be my response. They laughed at that one.

     “You motherfucker. You’d best run along home to your mommy before I fuck her too,” the bald one replied.

     “I doubt she’d go for you, she’s not really into the whole balding thing.” I thought that was a clever one, but it made him angry. Probably wasn’t the best of ideas since I want to keep my health insurance premium low.

     Back and forth banter. A pissing contest. The vikings would recite poetry at each other during this type of preamble. After a few shared poems, the three men knew their final decision.

     I seem to have a miraculous gift to annoy and anger. It wasn’t so helpful today.

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by JohnLinden in portal Trident Media Group
Levi's Folly
These are the first couple chapters of a novel I'm currently writing. I hope you enjoy.
 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


1
----
     Cackling. The sound my half-present friends make every Saturday under the overpass. Just outside town, we meet beneath the overgrown birdsnest that must once have held the weight of hundreds of cars and trucks in the hustle and bustle of rush hour traffic. No longer. Now it stands as a crumbling aftershadow and a place to hide our illegal escapades. As my friends cackle, I watch. Their faces morph into grotesque figures reminiscent of innocence and void of sorrow. Yet, through these artificial veneers, eyes don’t lie. Their eyes will speak for them when their faces won’t. Jason, a boy I call my friend. While his face is contorted into a cheshire cat smile, his eyes are yelling. His mother swims in her bottle and his father won’t stand off the couch. Stephen, a boy I call my friend. Even when his body shakes with the tremors of his laughter, the windows into his soul cry out. He can’t live up to his Princeton parents and Yale sister with his C+ average. Everyone here is the same, but me. These boys whom I call friends all share the same tale, hidden behind drug-induced facades, their eyes all share a harrowing account; but I am an outsider. What is my troubling narrative? What awful circumstance have I lived through to belong among these gentlemen? I can safely say thank God there isn’t one. Am I alone then? Perhaps I am lucky, I can sit here and judge my friends, but it is lonely on this high pedestal. I sometimes envy them. They can live without regret, buying into the off-the-shelf ecstasy. I cannot take part, I can only observe. I’m almost amused by their pain. They so wish to be rid of it, they try anything to forget.
     (They never can.)
     I ask myself often why these are my only friends. These unlucky few who devote themselves to the church of fraudulent joy are the only people I call friends. I have no buddies, no chums, no comrades outside of this select group. Only in the recent past have I come to realize why: it’s easy, it’s simple. With these boys, I can rely on them without any fees. No matter what I do, so long as I come to the weekly conference, they will happily sing their drunken chanties alongside me. I have no obligation to confide in them my secrets, no need to share with them my feelings, beliefs, emotions. I show up, and they do too. If one of them were to die a tragic death, though, would I cry? Would any of the others cry? I never answer this question. To answer would call into question my entire existence, and that would be too complicated. So I remain, perhaps friendless, perhaps alone, but not forgotten. Not yet.

     “Such kind people.” What all the teachers and all the classmates and all the friends say after meeting them. I don’t disagree. They are indeed kind people. Interesting word choice, though. There is a difference between person and parent. I, for instance, am a kind person, but would without a doubt make an awful father. Such are my parents. I don’t fault them for effort, they try hard enough, but if all was measured in effort, the fools and the ignorant would be emperors.
     It seems, though, that they have given up on their attempts to parent. I get a brief “afternoon” when I walk in the door and maybe a “have a nice day” in the morning. Then I tread up to my room and seldom do we speak again. I pretend not to care, but that my own parents have forgotten me is a bright neon sign flashing I am worthless; even they who bore and raised me seem not to care enough to try anymore. Granted, much of it was my fault not theirs. Before, they were always enthusiastic, too enthusiastic. It was strained. After the twentieth or so time I screamed for nothing at their blank, unknowing faces, they lost hope. At that point, I guess I did too.
     My friends are simple. I’m too tired of complex and difficult, I just want easy. My pothead friends smile at everything, so I smile with them. It’s fake, but it’s sincere in its falsehood.

     I fell asleep once under the overpass. I woke up to smell of cigarette smoke coming from the back of the gentlemen’s club behind me. Such gentlemen there. I stood up on weak legs with a sore neck and looked at the early morning surroundings. The stars were hiding as they always do, averting their faces from us on low, as if disgusted by us; they have a right to be.
     My friends deserted me, perhaps they saw me sleeping and felt it best to leave me at peace, but more likely, they forgot I was even there or never knew in the first place. The smell of skunk still lingered in the air even hours after the source fled. I walked around the block and observed. The mailman making his rounds. The hooker finishing her last shift. The bakers placing their carefully crafted dough in the just-lit ovens. The piercing morning air chilled my nose and throat. It was an awful and refreshing feeling. I walked the two miles home in the cold with no coat, my friend Robbie was my ride. But like I said, he didn’t want to disturb my sleep.
 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


2
----
     I’ve always wanted to be the hero. The underdog who beats the infamous gunslinger to the draw, and rides off into the sunset with the strikingly kind and beautiful damsel on the back of my horse. But I realized, what makes a hero isn’t honour and protein powder (well, maybe a little bit of the latter). It’s performing one outrageously stupid act, and succeeding.
     Seems simple enough.

     Sometimes, when I walk past children playing and hear their shrieks of joy, I can’t help but notice how similar such screaming is to that of panic. I hear a young girl screaming. Is she just having fun with her friends, or reaching for help? It came from the darkened alley next to me, so I have to assume her peril.
Whenever I watch a horror movie, it’s so clear that all the fear and anguish and death could so easily be avoided if the main characters didn’t walk into that house, decided it was disrespectful to piss on that Indian burial ground, stayed their urges to have sex in that graveyard, or just remained generally not stupid. But here I am, judging their idiotic mistakes as I run into that darkened alley, a set I’m sure has been used for a horror movie.
     I was right, she screamed from fear.

     My teachers always tell me “details, details.” Apparently I have good ideas but I need to flesh them out more. So, details. It must’ve been right before a storm. How ominous. I was walking home from school, so it wasn’t too late, but the alley was lightless. All I could see in the darkness was the silhouettes of a dumpster here, a pothole there. Actually, the pothole I didn’t see. It’s a cruel prank God enjoys playing. Tricks us into believing a solid ground has been laid for us to tread, but no. So, with the most terrifying jolt of fear and dread for what’s to soon come, my foot landed on nothingness. Then the cement, just four inches too low, broke its fall with a painful solidity. I stood up and kept running, ignoring the twinge in each step and the limp it caused.
     I finally found the source of the screams. It was a girl, maybe my age or a little bit younger. I would describe her in the detail my teachers request, but I couldn’t see behind the three men surrounding her, so I’ll save the description for later.
Who should we blame for the abhorrence of man? Is God guilty for our mistakes? Murder exists because of His creation, as does theft and adultery. The ten commandments seem like a bandaid on a brain tumour. But what if we are free of will? Are we so awful a species that we commit these crimes without guilt or remorse, and keep repeating them? Such wicked transgressions we execute. Murdering a brother over a will. Blowing up a family because of ideology. Raping a girl just for fun.
     To say the least, this was a new experience for me. Maybe that’s a good thing, my parents have been trying to get me to try new things, explore my interests.
     It’s not a good thing.
     I was left with only what I knew from television and movies. I knew the pleasantries of the streets.
     “Hey. What the fuck’re you doin’?”
     That got their attention. They turned around, more confused than angry. That very quickly changed. As they shifted toward me, I could see a glimpse of the girl. Rather, a glimpse of her torn clothing.
     The preamble to a fight is such an interesting presentation. There is a moment, a no-man’s-land, where both parties must decide whether to fight or flee. To decide, we share insults and challenges with each other, testing strength and resolve.
     “Who the fuck do you think you are?” They would ask.
     “I’m the guy who’s gonna fuck you up unless you run,” would be my response. They laughed at that one.
     “You motherfucker. You’d best run along home to your mommy before I fuck her too,” the bald one replied.
     “I doubt she’d go for you, she’s not really into the whole balding thing.” I thought that was a clever one, but it made him angry. Probably wasn’t the best of ideas since I want to keep my health insurance premium low.
     Back and forth banter. A pissing contest. The vikings would recite poetry at each other during this type of preamble. After a few shared poems, the three men knew their final decision.
     I seem to have a miraculous gift to annoy and anger. It wasn’t so helpful today.
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Written by LilacMaroon in portal Trident Media Group

The Marvelous Chaos

In a time before men, which scholars call the mirandum inordinationem (ie. the Marvelous Chaos), beasts and monsters of modern mythology roamed the earth. It is believed these creatures existed upwards of twelve million years before the first records of human life occurred. Astrological and archeological research verifies that all creatures of this time were internally linked to the utilities of the universe; a network existed conjoining time, space, and creation of life. This unseen force could, at that time, be manipulated by each individual creature – the conceptualization has been identified as magic.

Demik S. Ostager’s Encyclopedia Antiquis Volume IV contains exhaustive research of all living organisms up to ten thousand years before the historic Siani invasion [BSi]. Within the Encyclopedia Antiquis is an entry for magum maleficus (1024.2.2), the earliest identified and genealogically-closest ascendants of the human species. The earliest records date circa 8900 BSi.

The creation or evolution of the species magum maleficus is the topic of unlimited debate and speculation today. Some suggest the ancestral human species evolved from another intelligent antediluvian genus; however, the exact origin species is unknown and little evidence exists supporting any unambiguous claim at present.

Others speculate that the magum maleficus were conjured using magic in two prototypes – male and female – with the intention of serving the dominant species, but reproduced at such an alarming rate that they soon staggeringly outnumbered many other primordial species.

A popular belief amongst the religion of Old Sian, however, propagates that “man was created in the image of the almighty and omnipotent Divinity, and the lady created to complement His likeness as a gesture of altruism for the good and righteous man” (Siors 1:17). Many plebians, unexposed to academia or broad critical thinking, categorically accepted the Old Siani explanation of the creation of man without scruples, primarily due to the strict enforcements imposed on all denizens subject to the strict oligarchic rule of the Siani Hierarchy and royal family.

This frequently begets the question; how can our research be unequivocally objective if it was conducted under the pervasive rule of Old Siani oligarchs? This can be answered with a bit of history; prior to the first uprising in 1274 Si led by Tomos “Trahaerne” Sion aep Cyntafdynion, the Siani Hierarchy allowed unrestricted research in all fields amongst all scholastic institutions, private and public. Following the 1274 Si uprising, the Siani Federal Guard unconditionally incinerated every institution not founded in the name of the Holy Savior, and placed manacles on any research conducted by sanctimoniously-devoted institutions, making publishing any work illegal without receiving the consent and authorization of the Siani Hierarchy. Research in any field investigating historic paganism, heresy, or “nefarious” folklore that defied the Siani religion was punishable by death. In order to maintain discretion, I, Andrej W. Martin, along with thirteen other professors listed in this publication’s appendage, buried all allegedly “blasphemous” data collected by our colleagues from the Academy of Old Sian with my deceased daughter, Analinda aep Andrej y Linette, who fell fatally ill during the Mandrega Plague of 1271 Si. Because of this contemptible but necessary decision, we, the Department of Historic Legends and Folklore, are able to present to you this lecture series which unearths much of the undistinguished and clandestine history of this great continent.

Such works as Clayvin Dornwinter’s Account of the Hobgoblins, Siors Listerfield’s Apparitions of the End; An Acute Analysis of Sudice’s Prophecy, and various publications by Demik S. Ostager have been cross-referenced and used to support our findings. This series will explain the history of mankind, expound the notorious apocalyptic prophecy of the acclaimed Seeress Sudice, interpret the exile and restitution of beasts and monsters, and unburden many more of the questions consuming the pedagogic community of New Sian.

We will begin our lecture circuit by addressing the most commonly asked question; What caused the utter eradication of magic in humans?

Professor Andrej W. Martin

Lectures of Historic Sian; Popular Pagan Legends and Folktales

1322 Si

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter I: The Second Chance

“You’ve a visitor.”

The prisoner peered up at the gaelor at his cell door, the light of the torch flickering and revealing the dents and dirt lodged in the guard’s worn armor. A thick, opaque layer coated the air, or perhaps just his eyes; the dungeon had collected matter since its construction nearly five hundred years ago, much of which was the remains of those who had perished in the establishment since that time. He’d been taken prisoner there before, held in this exact cell, in fact – the last time it had been for engaging in “extra-marital activity” with the ealderman’s unwed daughter. He received a flogging courtesy of the ealdorman himself, who’d taken no reserves in expressing his disdain and left the offender with seventy-seven new scars on his back, nineteen of which were cut so deep they required stitches. At the time, he swore he’d never lay with another woman as long as he lived; a vow broken subsequently that very evening. This time, he wouldn’t have that chance to break false promises.

The visitor shuffled from behind the guard, revealing a small hooded figure. The visitor asked something quietly to the guard, and in return the guard grunted, “Fine. But any harm to befall you’s at yer own expense” and jingled the keys by the rusted lock until the door unhinged. The mysterious figure nodded and entered the cell.

“Beinn Puma.”

He glared up at the unfamiliar woman who’d greeted him. Her face was hidden beneath the hood, but more of her characteristics became discernible: her cloak was worn and fraying at the left sleeve; her shoes, crusted with muck, had clearly known a previous life of hard labor and stood perilously close to utter collapse; her fists were unclothed, noting (as if the previous observations were not sufficient) she likely was not of nobility, nor the recipient of any particular wealth or status. Another peasant woman, he thought. He took no further interest in her, now only wondering how long the meeting would transpire.

He didn’t look at her as she knelt beside him, instead rubbing the dirt in his fingernails from within his wrist binds and contemplating what would become of his body following the execution.

“That cut will become infected if you continue to fondle grime.”

Her voice, soft despite the echoing nature of the chamber, had a strange, unnatural lilt. She referred to a cut on his palm, received upon arrest just a few hours before. He continued to re-open it as he passed the time.

She reached for something beneath the cloak. From the peripheral of his gaze he noticed her stealthily reveal a tightly-wrapped scroll, tied with filth-colored twine. She slid the twine off, sending it to the floor as she silently unraveled the contents of the scroll. It revealed an etching; more precisely, a “wanted” placard of his own face, albeit the dead eyes of the etching did not accurately capture the fire that burned true in his.

“This is you?”

He offered no response, keeping his eyes focused on his binds.

He could hear her breathe. “That one was from Glasbhin. And this,” she dropped another unraveled “wanted” placard at his feet, “is from Scydondvale. I’ve several, each from another town with a bounty on your head.”

He glanced uninterestedly at the various parchments re-curling on the dirt floor. “Not often a man can learn the value of his life,” he leered at a particular etching that offered a hundred and fifty gold pieces dead or alive.

“Many would prefer not to have one,” she replied.

He felt her stare and refused to meet it. Peasant women – along with many of various ranks and wealth – frequently took interest in him, and for good reason; he was a strapping lad, and his face bore the scars and tribulations of his perilous lifestyle, which apparently increased his attraction. Assuming the typical handsome masculinity found in a square jaw and lean build, he also maintained shoulder-length hair the color of damp tree bark, commonly tied away from his coarse scruff that adjoined his muscular neck. He lacked common facial expressivity, appearing unfeeling; but despite the constant stoicism cemented on his face, his eyes remained actively enraged with wild amber fire.

She continued, undeterred by his evident disinterest. “I’ve come to retain your services.”

At this his face twitched with irritation. And how’s that, hm? How shall I serve you once I hang by sunrise? His palm stung as he absently wrung his hands in frustration.

“You shall serve as our escort, destination New Siandinas. Seeing as this is the second time I’ve saved you, I will not take refusal.”

At last he met her gaze, eyes ablaze.

Saved me?”

“Quiet,” she hissed, tilting her head away to listen for the guard. He’d wandered away to harass another prisoner a few cells down. Turning back, she met his gaze. He could still barely make out any of her facial features aside from a triangular chin and light eyes that seemed to shine despite the darkness.

“Yes, I’m going to save your life for a second time.”

“When the bloody fuck was the first time?” He hissed, exhuming her face with his furious gaze.

“In Vsero.”

He wordlessly recalled his most recent time in Vsero, nearly three years past. The town was a few days ride from the lakeside port of Aber Pentref, his intended destination. His memory of the time was understandably bleak; aside from the eons that had passed since then, he was, at that time, frequently intoxicated via alcohol or some hazy opioids, or sometimes both. Due to the inability to recollect, he grew irater with the demanding visitor.

“Haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re on about, but I-”

“We lose more time as you protest,” she whispered, receiving his flaming amber eyes with her own steady cold gaze. The guard had abandoned his activity, returning his attention to the noisy visitation. “You want to live? The choice is yours. I’ve left you the tools you need to free yourself. If you’d rather leave your fate to the temper of the ealdorman, well, that’s your decision. But should you choose freedom, you will be in my service upon liberation.” She quickly swept the parchment pieces and twine toward him, attempting to hide their visibility from the guard.

“’Ey, wench, high time ya bid yer farewells to this one,” the guard called, pulling the gate of the cell open once more. In the passing flicker of the guard’s torch, the prisoner, scowling at the rubbish she’d left all over his cell floor, caught a very quick glimpse of a glimmer in the heap. As the guard’s focus fell away from the cell, the bound man silently grasped around the dirt floor, careful not to rustle the parchment pile. He felt the smooth, hard shard of glass and slid it in his palm. Noiselessy, he sawed the wrist binds with the sharpest edges, taking excruciating measures to avoid any sound disturbance as his hands cramped from the awkward position. The guard stood a mere six paces from his seat on the ground; at any moment, he could catch sight of his attempted escape and he would be executed on the spot.

It took him six minutes to cut through the wrist binds. It took three minutes to realize the filth-colored twine scattered on the floor wasn’t twine at all, but threaded steel.

It took him thirteen minutes to lure the guard into the cell to examine the rubbish, strangle him with the threaded steel, and set fire to the body – along with the rolled “wanted” placards – after confiscating the fallen guard’s uniform, keys, and weaponry. It took him less than a minute to open the cell door. It also took him less than a minute to convince the other prisoners that should they choose to alert the guards before his departure, they’d meet a fate worse than that of the fire. And the other inmates were inclined to believe him after watching him plunge his sword down the throat of a prisoner who had tried to scream despite the warning.

By nightfall, Beinn Puma was twenty furlongs away from the smoking embers that were once the Roerdun dungeon, furiously spurring a stolen chestnut mare, and fantasizing about what he could afford with the cremated guard’s money in the red light district en route to Darn Calon. And completely oblivious of the girl who had now saved him twice.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Title (of the novel): Eastern Spire

Genre: Fantasy

Age Range: Young Adult - Adult

Word Count: 2081 words

The Hook: Why did humans lose the ability of magic?  Why were beasts and monsters exiled?  Who is the mystery visitor and how did she save Beinn Puma the first time?

Synopsis: Follow the entwined journey of a run-away storyteller, a degenerate debt-collector, and a mentally-damaged child-soldier as they navigate the lands of the "peaceful" mother-country, Sian, ravaged by famine, corruption, misogyny, and misery.  The excerpt documentation published well after the events of this adventure may provide further insight.

Target Audience: Thrill-seekers, mystery-sleuths, and fantasy-enthusiasts welcome

Author: Lindsey P. Lightman

Bio: I'm a recent grad seeking employment or a miracle, whichever is first.

Platform: MS Word, Prose., Wordpress, GoogleDoc, hell even iPhone Notes

Education: University of Delaware, BA English & BA Political Science

Experience: None in publishing

Style: Direct, Precise, and occasionally Satirical

Interests: oil painting, eating anything, and playing with my Chiweenie puppy Lola

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

Age: 22

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The Marvelous Chaos
In a time before men, which scholars call the mirandum inordinationem (ie. the Marvelous Chaos), beasts and monsters of modern mythology roamed the earth. It is believed these creatures existed upwards of twelve million years before the first records of human life occurred. Astrological and archeological research verifies that all creatures of this time were internally linked to the utilities of the universe; a network existed conjoining time, space, and creation of life. This unseen force could, at that time, be manipulated by each individual creature – the conceptualization has been identified as magic.

Demik S. Ostager’s Encyclopedia Antiquis Volume IV contains exhaustive research of all living organisms up to ten thousand years before the historic Siani invasion [BSi]. Within the Encyclopedia Antiquis is an entry for magum maleficus (1024.2.2), the earliest identified and genealogically-closest ascendants of the human species. The earliest records date circa 8900 BSi.

The creation or evolution of the species magum maleficus is the topic of unlimited debate and speculation today. Some suggest the ancestral human species evolved from another intelligent antediluvian genus; however, the exact origin species is unknown and little evidence exists supporting any unambiguous claim at present.

Others speculate that the magum maleficus were conjured using magic in two prototypes – male and female – with the intention of serving the dominant species, but reproduced at such an alarming rate that they soon staggeringly outnumbered many other primordial species.

A popular belief amongst the religion of Old Sian, however, propagates that “man was created in the image of the almighty and omnipotent Divinity, and the lady created to complement His likeness as a gesture of altruism for the good and righteous man” (Siors 1:17). Many plebians, unexposed to academia or broad critical thinking, categorically accepted the Old Siani explanation of the creation of man without scruples, primarily due to the strict enforcements imposed on all denizens subject to the strict oligarchic rule of the Siani Hierarchy and royal family.

This frequently begets the question; how can our research be unequivocally objective if it was conducted under the pervasive rule of Old Siani oligarchs? This can be answered with a bit of history; prior to the first uprising in 1274 Si led by Tomos “Trahaerne” Sion aep Cyntafdynion, the Siani Hierarchy allowed unrestricted research in all fields amongst all scholastic institutions, private and public. Following the 1274 Si uprising, the Siani Federal Guard unconditionally incinerated every institution not founded in the name of the Holy Savior, and placed manacles on any research conducted by sanctimoniously-devoted institutions, making publishing any work illegal without receiving the consent and authorization of the Siani Hierarchy. Research in any field investigating historic paganism, heresy, or “nefarious” folklore that defied the Siani religion was punishable by death. In order to maintain discretion, I, Andrej W. Martin, along with thirteen other professors listed in this publication’s appendage, buried all allegedly “blasphemous” data collected by our colleagues from the Academy of Old Sian with my deceased daughter, Analinda aep Andrej y Linette, who fell fatally ill during the Mandrega Plague of 1271 Si. Because of this contemptible but necessary decision, we, the Department of Historic Legends and Folklore, are able to present to you this lecture series which unearths much of the undistinguished and clandestine history of this great continent.

Such works as Clayvin Dornwinter’s Account of the Hobgoblins, Siors Listerfield’s Apparitions of the End; An Acute Analysis of Sudice’s Prophecy, and various publications by Demik S. Ostager have been cross-referenced and used to support our findings. This series will explain the history of mankind, expound the notorious apocalyptic prophecy of the acclaimed Seeress Sudice, interpret the exile and restitution of beasts and monsters, and unburden many more of the questions consuming the pedagogic community of New Sian.

We will begin our lecture circuit by addressing the most commonly asked question; What caused the utter eradication of magic in humans?

Professor Andrej W. Martin
Lectures of Historic Sian; Popular Pagan Legends and Folktales
1322 Si
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter I: The Second Chance
“You’ve a visitor.”

The prisoner peered up at the gaelor at his cell door, the light of the torch flickering and revealing the dents and dirt lodged in the guard’s worn armor. A thick, opaque layer coated the air, or perhaps just his eyes; the dungeon had collected matter since its construction nearly five hundred years ago, much of which was the remains of those who had perished in the establishment since that time. He’d been taken prisoner there before, held in this exact cell, in fact – the last time it had been for engaging in “extra-marital activity” with the ealderman’s unwed daughter. He received a flogging courtesy of the ealdorman himself, who’d taken no reserves in expressing his disdain and left the offender with seventy-seven new scars on his back, nineteen of which were cut so deep they required stitches. At the time, he swore he’d never lay with another woman as long as he lived; a vow broken subsequently that very evening. This time, he wouldn’t have that chance to break false promises.

The visitor shuffled from behind the guard, revealing a small hooded figure. The visitor asked something quietly to the guard, and in return the guard grunted, “Fine. But any harm to befall you’s at yer own expense” and jingled the keys by the rusted lock until the door unhinged. The mysterious figure nodded and entered the cell.

“Beinn Puma.”

He glared up at the unfamiliar woman who’d greeted him. Her face was hidden beneath the hood, but more of her characteristics became discernible: her cloak was worn and fraying at the left sleeve; her shoes, crusted with muck, had clearly known a previous life of hard labor and stood perilously close to utter collapse; her fists were unclothed, noting (as if the previous observations were not sufficient) she likely was not of nobility, nor the recipient of any particular wealth or status. Another peasant woman, he thought. He took no further interest in her, now only wondering how long the meeting would transpire.

He didn’t look at her as she knelt beside him, instead rubbing the dirt in his fingernails from within his wrist binds and contemplating what would become of his body following the execution.

“That cut will become infected if you continue to fondle grime.”

Her voice, soft despite the echoing nature of the chamber, had a strange, unnatural lilt. She referred to a cut on his palm, received upon arrest just a few hours before. He continued to re-open it as he passed the time.

She reached for something beneath the cloak. From the peripheral of his gaze he noticed her stealthily reveal a tightly-wrapped scroll, tied with filth-colored twine. She slid the twine off, sending it to the floor as she silently unraveled the contents of the scroll. It revealed an etching; more precisely, a “wanted” placard of his own face, albeit the dead eyes of the etching did not accurately capture the fire that burned true in his.
“This is you?”

He offered no response, keeping his eyes focused on his binds.

He could hear her breathe. “That one was from Glasbhin. And this,” she dropped another unraveled “wanted” placard at his feet, “is from Scydondvale. I’ve several, each from another town with a bounty on your head.”

He glanced uninterestedly at the various parchments re-curling on the dirt floor. “Not often a man can learn the value of his life,” he leered at a particular etching that offered a hundred and fifty gold pieces dead or alive.

“Many would prefer not to have one,” she replied.

He felt her stare and refused to meet it. Peasant women – along with many of various ranks and wealth – frequently took interest in him, and for good reason; he was a strapping lad, and his face bore the scars and tribulations of his perilous lifestyle, which apparently increased his attraction. Assuming the typical handsome masculinity found in a square jaw and lean build, he also maintained shoulder-length hair the color of damp tree bark, commonly tied away from his coarse scruff that adjoined his muscular neck. He lacked common facial expressivity, appearing unfeeling; but despite the constant stoicism cemented on his face, his eyes remained actively enraged with wild amber fire.

She continued, undeterred by his evident disinterest. “I’ve come to retain your services.”

At this his face twitched with irritation. And how’s that, hm? How shall I serve you once I hang by sunrise? His palm stung as he absently wrung his hands in frustration.

“You shall serve as our escort, destination New Siandinas. Seeing as this is the second time I’ve saved you, I will not take refusal.”

At last he met her gaze, eyes ablaze.

Saved me?”

“Quiet,” she hissed, tilting her head away to listen for the guard. He’d wandered away to harass another prisoner a few cells down. Turning back, she met his gaze. He could still barely make out any of her facial features aside from a triangular chin and light eyes that seemed to shine despite the darkness.

“Yes, I’m going to save your life for a second time.”

“When the bloody fuck was the first time?” He hissed, exhuming her face with his furious gaze.

“In Vsero.”

He wordlessly recalled his most recent time in Vsero, nearly three years past. The town was a few days ride from the lakeside port of Aber Pentref, his intended destination. His memory of the time was understandably bleak; aside from the eons that had passed since then, he was, at that time, frequently intoxicated via alcohol or some hazy opioids, or sometimes both. Due to the inability to recollect, he grew irater with the demanding visitor.

“Haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re on about, but I-”

“We lose more time as you protest,” she whispered, receiving his flaming amber eyes with her own steady cold gaze. The guard had abandoned his activity, returning his attention to the noisy visitation. “You want to live? The choice is yours. I’ve left you the tools you need to free yourself. If you’d rather leave your fate to the temper of the ealdorman, well, that’s your decision. But should you choose freedom, you will be in my service upon liberation.” She quickly swept the parchment pieces and twine toward him, attempting to hide their visibility from the guard.

“’Ey, wench, high time ya bid yer farewells to this one,” the guard called, pulling the gate of the cell open once more. In the passing flicker of the guard’s torch, the prisoner, scowling at the rubbish she’d left all over his cell floor, caught a very quick glimpse of a glimmer in the heap. As the guard’s focus fell away from the cell, the bound man silently grasped around the dirt floor, careful not to rustle the parchment pile. He felt the smooth, hard shard of glass and slid it in his palm. Noiselessy, he sawed the wrist binds with the sharpest edges, taking excruciating measures to avoid any sound disturbance as his hands cramped from the awkward position. The guard stood a mere six paces from his seat on the ground; at any moment, he could catch sight of his attempted escape and he would be executed on the spot.

It took him six minutes to cut through the wrist binds. It took three minutes to realize the filth-colored twine scattered on the floor wasn’t twine at all, but threaded steel.

It took him thirteen minutes to lure the guard into the cell to examine the rubbish, strangle him with the threaded steel, and set fire to the body – along with the rolled “wanted” placards – after confiscating the fallen guard’s uniform, keys, and weaponry. It took him less than a minute to open the cell door. It also took him less than a minute to convince the other prisoners that should they choose to alert the guards before his departure, they’d meet a fate worse than that of the fire. And the other inmates were inclined to believe him after watching him plunge his sword down the throat of a prisoner who had tried to scream despite the warning.

By nightfall, Beinn Puma was twenty furlongs away from the smoking embers that were once the Roerdun dungeon, furiously spurring a stolen chestnut mare, and fantasizing about what he could afford with the cremated guard’s money in the red light district en route to Darn Calon. And completely oblivious of the girl who had now saved him twice.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Title (of the novel): Eastern Spire
Genre: Fantasy
Age Range: Young Adult - Adult
Word Count: 2081 words

The Hook: Why did humans lose the ability of magic?  Why were beasts and monsters exiled?  Who is the mystery visitor and how did she save Beinn Puma the first time?
Synopsis: Follow the entwined journey of a run-away storyteller, a degenerate debt-collector, and a mentally-damaged child-soldier as they navigate the lands of the "peaceful" mother-country, Sian, ravaged by famine, corruption, misogyny, and misery.  The excerpt documentation published well after the events of this adventure may provide further insight.
Target Audience: Thrill-seekers, mystery-sleuths, and fantasy-enthusiasts welcome

Author: Lindsey P. Lightman
Bio: I'm a recent grad seeking employment or a miracle, whichever is first.
Platform: MS Word, Prose., Wordpress, GoogleDoc, hell even iPhone Notes
Education: University of Delaware, BA English & BA Political Science
Experience: None in publishing
Style: Direct, Precise, and occasionally Satirical
Interests: oil painting, eating anything, and playing with my Chiweenie puppy Lola
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Age: 22
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My Life of Crime

After the late shows let out we always had a rush, and working alone, I scrambled to pump gas and wash windshields. Occasionally someone who'd won at the tables would tip me a couple singles or a five. Except we didn't call them tips, but tokes or comps: "You see that old bat in the pink T-Bird? She toked me five."

There'd be another smaller rush when the dancers, musicians, and stagehands started home. They were nice, but seldom tipped unless I'd done a quick repair or jumped a dead battery.

But it was a decent job for a high-school kid, better than digging ditches or hanging drywall in the heat of the desert day. That was my last summer there, working from midnight 'til 8 AM. During the school term, I'd worked afternoons and evenings, saving for college. I was a good student, but not outstanding, and wasn't sure I'd earn a scholarship.

My Mom lost the ranch a few years back, after Dad died when his pickup rolled off a dirt road, to a couple generations of mounting debt. After paying off the debt, she got almost nothing from the sale and we ended up in Vegas. I never got used to the heat.

I remember riding my motorcycle to work a graveyard shift when the time-and-temperature sign on top of the Sahara Hotel read 11:42PM/102°. Summer days could reach 120° (in the shade) and I preferred the nights. At least you never had to walk out from under the canopy over the gas pumps and feel that sun slamming down on your head, like the door of a trap.

From about 3:00 am 'til dawn was quietest and coolest. Then, above the neon dazzle, the sky lit up and the mountains rose from their pediments, dark purple, then oceanic blue, like a strange new world, before dulling down to their daytime grey and umber. Morning traffic filled the air with dust, that turned to floating gold as the first sun struck through.

That was when Tammy showed up at the station, on foot, mascara running down her cheeks with the tears. She didn't have her bag, which was a bad sign. All the hookers had big shoulderbags, loaded with their essentials.

Tammy was upset: besides crying, she had marks on her brow and cheek and a bruise on her forearm.  "My last trick rolled me," she said. "Took my bag. All my cash and keys. My car's in the Caesar's lot. Could you break into it?"

"Can't leave. I'm alone."

"Christ, you gotta. My dog Blackie's locked in the car. Windows are up."

I looked at the white tangle of light edging over the peaks, and felt the first sudden heat on my face. Locked in a car under that sun, a dog would be dead in an hour, tops.

Dreading the consequences, I hung the little sign with the clockface on the inside of the window, shut off the pumps, and locked up. The morning rush was about to start. If the boss came by I'd be in a world of hurt, but not as bad off as Tammy's dog, that was for sure.

I snagged my toolkit and drove her down in the tow truck, so the cops would know we weren't stealing the car. Not that it was worth stealing: it was a baby-blue Mercury Comet with dented hubcaps, grimy from the drive from LA. As I shut off the truck I could hear barking.

It was already warm— the sun promised our daily whipping. She went over and started trying to comfort her dog— Blackie— through the window while he yammered. I flexed the spring-steel jimmy and slid it between the glass and the rubber gasket, hooked the button, and bingo! I opened the door, feeling strong, brave, true— all the good stuff.

Blackie jumped out and she caught him up as he licked her face, taking off the streaked mascara. Ugh, I thought. It was already hot in the car, so I cranked down the windows and poured water on my bandanna and handed to her.

"Put this over his head— cool down his brain. Or put it on his belly— that works, too."

He was panting, but didn't look heatsick. "I think he's okay," she said, pouring some water into his bowl as he lapped it up.

"Could you drive me to my room so I can get my spare keys?"

"Like to, but I'd get fired. But I'll get the car started so you can drive." Another little device from my kit, plink-twist, and the engine sputtered into life. "I need this back. And your car needs a tune-up. Bring it in, okay?"

"Jeez, thanks. I owe you. Really— I won't forget."

How many times had I heard that? On the Strip, people were always promising something or other. But I liked Tammy. She was pretty and seemed soft, for a hooker: not physically, but in her way of looking at me and talking. Some people can have hard lives without being hard, suffer bad luck without becoming bad. We'd talked a bit, when she stopped for gas. She'd tried to give me her cards, but I wouldn't take them.

"I don't do that," I said, and she took the cards back and rather than cuss me out, like most hookers would have done, she said she understood.

It was common practice for gas pump jockeys to get questions from the customers: "Where can a guy find some fun in this place?"

"Here's a number you can call."

Your initials on a card would get you a five or a ten, your toke, your juice, when the girls or their pimps made the rounds at the end of the month. I had school friends who started with small rackets early on, and were involved in heavy lifting by their senior year, and it scared me. Vegas seemed like a big, shiny trap, and I didn't want to get caught.

I watched her pull out of the lot onto Vegas Boulevard and then climbed back into the truck and drove to the station. There were cars lined up at the pumps, honking. An emergency call, I explained, twenty or thirty times. By the time I got off, at 8:00, I was soaked in sweat. It felt good to hop on my motorcycle and run up the gears, roaring onto I-15, making my own breeze.

By my last year working nights on the Strip, I was in some ways tough. I could sort the tourists—players and gawkers— from the locals: food service folks, housekeepers, cocktail waitresses and bartenders, dealers, stagehands, performers, hustlers, pimps, and petty crooks. I could spot a punk casing the station, planning to rob the till, and I had a routine. There was a huge chrome wrench, a one-and-a-half-inch box/open end, that was long as my forearm and heavy as a Viking sword. I'd carry it out under the canopy fluorescents and flip it, up with my right hand, spinning as it chopped the light into warnings, and catch it with my left. Flip it up, catch it behind my back, and then stare the punk down. I'd never been robbed or even threatened.

In other ways, I was way too innocent to be there, in the bright-lit jungle, among the beasts of prey.

I didn't have much social life. Didn't go out for sports or go to dances, or go cruising on weekend nights, like my classmates did. I missed the ranch so badly it ached. I went to school, studied, worked, and slept. I also did most of the cooking and nearly all the housework, because my Mom, who'd been a staunch, dedicated ranch woman until I was in my early teens, had pretty much fallen apart.

She missed my Dad more than she could stand. She managed a bingo parlor, hated it. Hated the old, weird people who doted on bingo, and came home from her shift sick and coughing from the cigarette smoke. I'd cook her something from my limited repertoire—fried eggs, bacon, potatoes, frozen fish sticks, hamburgers, canned corn or peas, a basic salad— and she'd hole up in her room with the TV and vodka tonics. She'd taped aluminum foil over the windows so she could sleep days. Even in summer, when I'd have to sleep in the afternoon, I could never bring myself to do that: wrap myself like a TV dinner, shutting out the light.

She pushed me hard to get out of Vegas and go to college. But I worried about what might happen to her when I was gone. Remembering the days when she taught me to ride and fix fence and recognize when a cow was sick or about to calve, I knew how sad she felt to be trapped in her present life.

Knowing her, knowing that, gave me a tenderness towards women in general.

When I went on a rare date and got excited and the girl said I was hurting her, I stopped. I dreamed and lusted and was terrified by it. It got to the point where I was almost afraid to kiss anyone. So by my senior summer, I was still a virgin, which was not a word that guys used back then. Girls were virgins.

Or, like the girls I met at work, hookers. My last year at high school I knew way more hookers than I did cheerleaders. But I was cautious, maybe frightened by the hookers (who knew things about sex I could only imagine) while I lusted after the cheerleaders, and what they represented, not just sex but respectability and status and. . . America, dammit.

But America had some drawbacks. Johnson was bearing down in Vietnam and the coffins were coming back to haunt us. The hero of our block, Larson, went over there and got killed right away. At his funeral the casket was closed and the word was that there was barely enough left to identify. It hurt all of us. His dad grabbed a bottle and never let go. We'd hear yelling and things breaking over there. We never called the cops, but someone did. A year on his parents divorced. The next summer, I saw his kid sister Dar, who'd been one my my first crushes, out on the Strip with a short, fat guy: hooking.

Night is when things happen out there, and they did. A carful of drunks sheered off a signpost, pulling into the station, and poked a hole in their radiator. I called the cops. One of the guys threatened me and I showed him the wrench and made them get back in their steaming car and wait. They said they'd be back to teach me a lesson, and I hoped they'd reconsider when they got sober.

An old guy who drove a pearl-white T-Bird and dressed in womens' clothes tried to pick me up. I turned him down, as gently as I could, and he pounded the dash of his car and then started crying. After five minutes that seemed like forever, I pulled a bunch of blue windshield wipes out of the dispenser and tapped on his window. He took the towels, cleaned himself up, and drove off before it registered with me that he hadn't paid for his gas. I wrote it on my charge sheet, swearing under my breath.

A really drunk woman barfed and passed out in the restroom and her husband was too drunk to retrieve her, let alone drive, so I had to call the cops a second time that week.

By Friday I'd forgotten about Tammy and her dog, when the ratty blue Comet rolled up to the pump about half-past midnight, with Blackie doing flips on the passenger seat. She rolled down the window and he stuck his head out and licked my hand.

"You're his hero," she said. "Mine, too."

I blushed, and went for the gas cap. "Fill it?"

"Yeah. I've got a proposition for you," she said. "Not that."

"So— what?" Working nights out there had given me a healthy suspicion. Quite a few of the guys I worked with had gotten into trouble in various ways.

"Could you, like, take care of Blackie tonight? I've got a dog chain and a bowl for water. His blankie. You can tie him behind that wall out back and just check on him every once in a while."

"I don't know. The boss is on the warpath about. . . you know." A couple guys on swing shift had been trading batteries and tires to hookers in return for professional services. One guy's wife had stormed in demanding his paycheck and the boss had to show her his charge sheet: sets of tires, batteries, shocks, tanks of gas. He actually owed for the month.

Tammy got an upset-girl expression. "I can't leave him in my room— he chewed the drapes last time. And I'm scared to leave him in the car. After. . ."

Should I wait for the tears?

"Okay. But let's not make it a habit. Check?"

She gave me a kiss on the cheek. She smelled clean. I wondered how long she could hold onto that.

Blackie barked the first few times I checked on him, then settled down and snoozed on his folded blanket. At dawn there were crickets in his water dish, so I refilled it. Tammy showed up about six-thirty and loaded him into the car. She said thanks, no kiss, and in a businesslike way pulled a twenty from her bag.

"Half a night's wages," I said. "Too much."

"Not compared to what I make," she said.

Saturday she came by again, and Blackie camped under the stars. You could actually see stars from the shadow behind the wall, which blacked out the leaping neon glare of the casinos. I collected another twenty. Easier, the second time. Tammy drove up from LA to hook each weekend, renting a motel room and making more than she did in a week at her straight job, some drab office gig.

Next Friday she brought another LA girl along, Ginger, a tall redhead who said she worked as a receptionist for Universal Studios, with Sport, a terrier-looking frazzle of grey hair. Snarly. I tied him far enough from Blackie that they wouldn't get into a fight. When I checked on him, he growled, but was no trouble, really. Forty bucks, Saturday morning. Same again Sunday.

Damn! I had a racket.

It started out as a favor, but as word got around other working girls begged me to babysit their dogs, and I found it hard to turn them down. The gas station was set back from the street, with the huge parking lot for Caesar's Palace on the south and a vacant patch of desert on the north. Out back, to the west, it was dark and empty with the roar of I-15 a quarter-mile or so away. I cleared away the heaps of tumbleweed and windblown trash behind the pierced block wall, to make room. If a dog barked too much or tried to start a fight, that was it. I wouldn't take them again. I cleaned up all the dog crap before I went off shift. I couldn't risk complaints.

Before, after cleaning the service bays and the restrooms, I'd lolled between cars, passing the night hours with made-up games. The big neon signs for the hotels cycled up and down, and I'd try to keep count of the nearest two: Caesar's and the Dunes. Now, instead of counting, I'd go out to check on the dogs.

Weeknights, I might have two or three dogs out back, pets of the local girls. Weekends, there were more: ten or twelve, at the height of the season. I made about forty bucks a shift in wages and commissions, and a few hundred dogsitting. Some weeks I banked five or six hundred.

Pretty soon, I had enough for tuition and living expenses for a year, then two. I was acutely aware that the money I was banking had been earned through prostitution, which was a criminal offense in Clark County. But since when had dog-sitting been a crime? It seemed to me that I was doing something good, keeping the dogs, who were by any reckoning innocent, safe and fairly happy. What their owners were up to was not my lookout.

I never knew who tipped off the boss. When he busted me, at 3:15 AM on a Sunday morning, there were eight dogs tied out there. One hundred and sixty dollars worth. He pulled in, got out of his car, and walked out back, just like that. No questions.

He came back and said that it had to stop.

When I explained how it got started, he raised an eyebrow. "I know about Harry and the other guys, loading up their charge sheets, stealing from the till. One reason I trust you here alone is you don't do that."

I offered him a cut. Vig. Juice. Vegas runs on juice. Caesar's Shell Doggie Parking: a business opportunity. Bad move: he gave me a disappointed glance and shrugged it off.

"When you're here, you work for me. And I'm not in the business of providing an open-air kennel for ladies of the evening. Understood?"

He was a Mormon and didn't use words like hooker or pimp.

"Sure. Got it. I'm really sorry." I said, even though I wasn't.

He went out back again and leaned over the wall to look at the dogs. They woke up and peered at him and didn't bark, bless their hearts. I joined him.

"I've got nothing against the poor dogs. You've been really good at your job and I'm not firing you. But— no more dogs."

He patted my shoulder and drove off—a decent guy— to catch a few more hours of sleep, have breakfast, and then go to church, I guess: a normal life. God, I envied that.

The office was locked at night, so I went into the stockroom and leaned on the sink and cried, quietly, watching my tears make wiggly tracks toward the drain. Then the bell dinged as a car pulled up to the pumps. I doused my face and dried myself with blue paper towels before going out.

"Evening, sir. Fill it up? Super? Check the oil?" The blue towel squeaked on the windshield as I polished it, lifting the wipers one by one.

Then I stood in the burnt-smelling night air and counted the ups and downs of the neon signs, into the hundreds before I lost track. The streets were almost empty but the signs stayed on until sunup. It was crazy.

Meanwhile, the mountains loomed out of the dark like watching faces, ragged, harsh, perfect: everything the signs were not.

All the dogs were asleep, just before dawn, when the blue Comet rolled in.

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by EmmaKat in portal Trident Media Group
My Life of Crime
After the late shows let out we always had a rush, and working alone, I scrambled to pump gas and wash windshields. Occasionally someone who'd won at the tables would tip me a couple singles or a five. Except we didn't call them tips, but tokes or comps: "You see that old bat in the pink T-Bird? She toked me five."

There'd be another smaller rush when the dancers, musicians, and stagehands started home. They were nice, but seldom tipped unless I'd done a quick repair or jumped a dead battery.

But it was a decent job for a high-school kid, better than digging ditches or hanging drywall in the heat of the desert day. That was my last summer there, working from midnight 'til 8 AM. During the school term, I'd worked afternoons and evenings, saving for college. I was a good student, but not outstanding, and wasn't sure I'd earn a scholarship.

My Mom lost the ranch a few years back, after Dad died when his pickup rolled off a dirt road, to a couple generations of mounting debt. After paying off the debt, she got almost nothing from the sale and we ended up in Vegas. I never got used to the heat.
I remember riding my motorcycle to work a graveyard shift when the time-and-temperature sign on top of the Sahara Hotel read 11:42PM/102°. Summer days could reach 120° (in the shade) and I preferred the nights. At least you never had to walk out from under the canopy over the gas pumps and feel that sun slamming down on your head, like the door of a trap.

From about 3:00 am 'til dawn was quietest and coolest. Then, above the neon dazzle, the sky lit up and the mountains rose from their pediments, dark purple, then oceanic blue, like a strange new world, before dulling down to their daytime grey and umber. Morning traffic filled the air with dust, that turned to floating gold as the first sun struck through.
That was when Tammy showed up at the station, on foot, mascara running down her cheeks with the tears. She didn't have her bag, which was a bad sign. All the hookers had big shoulderbags, loaded with their essentials.

Tammy was upset: besides crying, she had marks on her brow and cheek and a bruise on her forearm.  "My last trick rolled me," she said. "Took my bag. All my cash and keys. My car's in the Caesar's lot. Could you break into it?"

"Can't leave. I'm alone."

"Christ, you gotta. My dog Blackie's locked in the car. Windows are up."

I looked at the white tangle of light edging over the peaks, and felt the first sudden heat on my face. Locked in a car under that sun, a dog would be dead in an hour, tops.
Dreading the consequences, I hung the little sign with the clockface on the inside of the window, shut off the pumps, and locked up. The morning rush was about to start. If the boss came by I'd be in a world of hurt, but not as bad off as Tammy's dog, that was for sure.

I snagged my toolkit and drove her down in the tow truck, so the cops would know we weren't stealing the car. Not that it was worth stealing: it was a baby-blue Mercury Comet with dented hubcaps, grimy from the drive from LA. As I shut off the truck I could hear barking.

It was already warm— the sun promised our daily whipping. She went over and started trying to comfort her dog— Blackie— through the window while he yammered. I flexed the spring-steel jimmy and slid it between the glass and the rubber gasket, hooked the button, and bingo! I opened the door, feeling strong, brave, true— all the good stuff.
Blackie jumped out and she caught him up as he licked her face, taking off the streaked mascara. Ugh, I thought. It was already hot in the car, so I cranked down the windows and poured water on my bandanna and handed to her.

"Put this over his head— cool down his brain. Or put it on his belly— that works, too."
He was panting, but didn't look heatsick. "I think he's okay," she said, pouring some water into his bowl as he lapped it up.

"Could you drive me to my room so I can get my spare keys?"

"Like to, but I'd get fired. But I'll get the car started so you can drive." Another little device from my kit, plink-twist, and the engine sputtered into life. "I need this back. And your car needs a tune-up. Bring it in, okay?"

"Jeez, thanks. I owe you. Really— I won't forget."

How many times had I heard that? On the Strip, people were always promising something or other. But I liked Tammy. She was pretty and seemed soft, for a hooker: not physically, but in her way of looking at me and talking. Some people can have hard lives without being hard, suffer bad luck without becoming bad. We'd talked a bit, when she stopped for gas. She'd tried to give me her cards, but I wouldn't take them.

"I don't do that," I said, and she took the cards back and rather than cuss me out, like most hookers would have done, she said she understood.

It was common practice for gas pump jockeys to get questions from the customers: "Where can a guy find some fun in this place?"

"Here's a number you can call."

Your initials on a card would get you a five or a ten, your toke, your juice, when the girls or their pimps made the rounds at the end of the month. I had school friends who started with small rackets early on, and were involved in heavy lifting by their senior year, and it scared me. Vegas seemed like a big, shiny trap, and I didn't want to get caught.

I watched her pull out of the lot onto Vegas Boulevard and then climbed back into the truck and drove to the station. There were cars lined up at the pumps, honking. An emergency call, I explained, twenty or thirty times. By the time I got off, at 8:00, I was soaked in sweat. It felt good to hop on my motorcycle and run up the gears, roaring onto I-15, making my own breeze.

By my last year working nights on the Strip, I was in some ways tough. I could sort the tourists—players and gawkers— from the locals: food service folks, housekeepers, cocktail waitresses and bartenders, dealers, stagehands, performers, hustlers, pimps, and petty crooks. I could spot a punk casing the station, planning to rob the till, and I had a routine. There was a huge chrome wrench, a one-and-a-half-inch box/open end, that was long as my forearm and heavy as a Viking sword. I'd carry it out under the canopy fluorescents and flip it, up with my right hand, spinning as it chopped the light into warnings, and catch it with my left. Flip it up, catch it behind my back, and then stare the punk down. I'd never been robbed or even threatened.

In other ways, I was way too innocent to be there, in the bright-lit jungle, among the beasts of prey.

I didn't have much social life. Didn't go out for sports or go to dances, or go cruising on weekend nights, like my classmates did. I missed the ranch so badly it ached. I went to school, studied, worked, and slept. I also did most of the cooking and nearly all the housework, because my Mom, who'd been a staunch, dedicated ranch woman until I was in my early teens, had pretty much fallen apart.

She missed my Dad more than she could stand. She managed a bingo parlor, hated it. Hated the old, weird people who doted on bingo, and came home from her shift sick and coughing from the cigarette smoke. I'd cook her something from my limited repertoire—fried eggs, bacon, potatoes, frozen fish sticks, hamburgers, canned corn or peas, a basic salad— and she'd hole up in her room with the TV and vodka tonics. She'd taped aluminum foil over the windows so she could sleep days. Even in summer, when I'd have to sleep in the afternoon, I could never bring myself to do that: wrap myself like a TV dinner, shutting out the light.

She pushed me hard to get out of Vegas and go to college. But I worried about what might happen to her when I was gone. Remembering the days when she taught me to ride and fix fence and recognize when a cow was sick or about to calve, I knew how sad she felt to be trapped in her present life.

Knowing her, knowing that, gave me a tenderness towards women in general.
When I went on a rare date and got excited and the girl said I was hurting her, I stopped. I dreamed and lusted and was terrified by it. It got to the point where I was almost afraid to kiss anyone. So by my senior summer, I was still a virgin, which was not a word that guys used back then. Girls were virgins.

Or, like the girls I met at work, hookers. My last year at high school I knew way more hookers than I did cheerleaders. But I was cautious, maybe frightened by the hookers (who knew things about sex I could only imagine) while I lusted after the cheerleaders, and what they represented, not just sex but respectability and status and. . . America, dammit.

But America had some drawbacks. Johnson was bearing down in Vietnam and the coffins were coming back to haunt us. The hero of our block, Larson, went over there and got killed right away. At his funeral the casket was closed and the word was that there was barely enough left to identify. It hurt all of us. His dad grabbed a bottle and never let go. We'd hear yelling and things breaking over there. We never called the cops, but someone did. A year on his parents divorced. The next summer, I saw his kid sister Dar, who'd been one my my first crushes, out on the Strip with a short, fat guy: hooking.

Night is when things happen out there, and they did. A carful of drunks sheered off a signpost, pulling into the station, and poked a hole in their radiator. I called the cops. One of the guys threatened me and I showed him the wrench and made them get back in their steaming car and wait. They said they'd be back to teach me a lesson, and I hoped they'd reconsider when they got sober.

An old guy who drove a pearl-white T-Bird and dressed in womens' clothes tried to pick me up. I turned him down, as gently as I could, and he pounded the dash of his car and then started crying. After five minutes that seemed like forever, I pulled a bunch of blue windshield wipes out of the dispenser and tapped on his window. He took the towels, cleaned himself up, and drove off before it registered with me that he hadn't paid for his gas. I wrote it on my charge sheet, swearing under my breath.

A really drunk woman barfed and passed out in the restroom and her husband was too drunk to retrieve her, let alone drive, so I had to call the cops a second time that week.
By Friday I'd forgotten about Tammy and her dog, when the ratty blue Comet rolled up to the pump about half-past midnight, with Blackie doing flips on the passenger seat. She rolled down the window and he stuck his head out and licked my hand.

"You're his hero," she said. "Mine, too."

I blushed, and went for the gas cap. "Fill it?"

"Yeah. I've got a proposition for you," she said. "Not that."

"So— what?" Working nights out there had given me a healthy suspicion. Quite a few of the guys I worked with had gotten into trouble in various ways.

"Could you, like, take care of Blackie tonight? I've got a dog chain and a bowl for water. His blankie. You can tie him behind that wall out back and just check on him every once in a while."

"I don't know. The boss is on the warpath about. . . you know." A couple guys on swing shift had been trading batteries and tires to hookers in return for professional services. One guy's wife had stormed in demanding his paycheck and the boss had to show her his charge sheet: sets of tires, batteries, shocks, tanks of gas. He actually owed for the month.
Tammy got an upset-girl expression. "I can't leave him in my room— he chewed the drapes last time. And I'm scared to leave him in the car. After. . ."

Should I wait for the tears?

"Okay. But let's not make it a habit. Check?"

She gave me a kiss on the cheek. She smelled clean. I wondered how long she could hold onto that.

Blackie barked the first few times I checked on him, then settled down and snoozed on his folded blanket. At dawn there were crickets in his water dish, so I refilled it. Tammy showed up about six-thirty and loaded him into the car. She said thanks, no kiss, and in a businesslike way pulled a twenty from her bag.

"Half a night's wages," I said. "Too much."

"Not compared to what I make," she said.

Saturday she came by again, and Blackie camped under the stars. You could actually see stars from the shadow behind the wall, which blacked out the leaping neon glare of the casinos. I collected another twenty. Easier, the second time. Tammy drove up from LA to hook each weekend, renting a motel room and making more than she did in a week at her straight job, some drab office gig.

Next Friday she brought another LA girl along, Ginger, a tall redhead who said she worked as a receptionist for Universal Studios, with Sport, a terrier-looking frazzle of grey hair. Snarly. I tied him far enough from Blackie that they wouldn't get into a fight. When I checked on him, he growled, but was no trouble, really. Forty bucks, Saturday morning. Same again Sunday.

Damn! I had a racket.

It started out as a favor, but as word got around other working girls begged me to babysit their dogs, and I found it hard to turn them down. The gas station was set back from the street, with the huge parking lot for Caesar's Palace on the south and a vacant patch of desert on the north. Out back, to the west, it was dark and empty with the roar of I-15 a quarter-mile or so away. I cleared away the heaps of tumbleweed and windblown trash behind the pierced block wall, to make room. If a dog barked too much or tried to start a fight, that was it. I wouldn't take them again. I cleaned up all the dog crap before I went off shift. I couldn't risk complaints.

Before, after cleaning the service bays and the restrooms, I'd lolled between cars, passing the night hours with made-up games. The big neon signs for the hotels cycled up and down, and I'd try to keep count of the nearest two: Caesar's and the Dunes. Now, instead of counting, I'd go out to check on the dogs.

Weeknights, I might have two or three dogs out back, pets of the local girls. Weekends, there were more: ten or twelve, at the height of the season. I made about forty bucks a shift in wages and commissions, and a few hundred dogsitting. Some weeks I banked five or six hundred.

Pretty soon, I had enough for tuition and living expenses for a year, then two. I was acutely aware that the money I was banking had been earned through prostitution, which was a criminal offense in Clark County. But since when had dog-sitting been a crime? It seemed to me that I was doing something good, keeping the dogs, who were by any reckoning innocent, safe and fairly happy. What their owners were up to was not my lookout.

I never knew who tipped off the boss. When he busted me, at 3:15 AM on a Sunday morning, there were eight dogs tied out there. One hundred and sixty dollars worth. He pulled in, got out of his car, and walked out back, just like that. No questions.
He came back and said that it had to stop.

When I explained how it got started, he raised an eyebrow. "I know about Harry and the other guys, loading up their charge sheets, stealing from the till. One reason I trust you here alone is you don't do that."

I offered him a cut. Vig. Juice. Vegas runs on juice. Caesar's Shell Doggie Parking: a business opportunity. Bad move: he gave me a disappointed glance and shrugged it off.
"When you're here, you work for me. And I'm not in the business of providing an open-air kennel for ladies of the evening. Understood?"

He was a Mormon and didn't use words like hooker or pimp.

"Sure. Got it. I'm really sorry." I said, even though I wasn't.

He went out back again and leaned over the wall to look at the dogs. They woke up and peered at him and didn't bark, bless their hearts. I joined him.

"I've got nothing against the poor dogs. You've been really good at your job and I'm not firing you. But— no more dogs."

He patted my shoulder and drove off—a decent guy— to catch a few more hours of sleep, have breakfast, and then go to church, I guess: a normal life. God, I envied that.

The office was locked at night, so I went into the stockroom and leaned on the sink and cried, quietly, watching my tears make wiggly tracks toward the drain. Then the bell dinged as a car pulled up to the pumps. I doused my face and dried myself with blue paper towels before going out.

"Evening, sir. Fill it up? Super? Check the oil?" The blue towel squeaked on the windshield as I polished it, lifting the wipers one by one.

Then I stood in the burnt-smelling night air and counted the ups and downs of the neon signs, into the hundreds before I lost track. The streets were almost empty but the signs stayed on until sunup. It was crazy.

Meanwhile, the mountains loomed out of the dark like watching faces, ragged, harsh, perfect: everything the signs were not.

All the dogs were asleep, just before dawn, when the blue Comet rolled in.
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Juice
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