Pen to the Paper 14: The Announcement
"For awesomeness? Yes, I'm ready, Nick."
"Well good," he replied. "Straighten your bowtie, and get rid of that crease in your jacket."
"Aye, aye, cap'n," I said, exaggerating a salute.
"The show goes on in 5… 4… 3… 2…"
"I didn't realize we were shooting an episode of iCarly. Wait… if you're Freddie…"
The floor beneath me shook lightly. I stumbled forward a bit, then regained my balance as the platform that fit snugly into the ground began to slowly lift upwards.
"That's right," he said with a wink and a big, cheesy grin. "You're Carly."
I stomped my foot on the ground and crossed my arms on my chest. "Hmph. I don't wanna be Carly," I said indignantly.
As I disappeared into the ceiling above me, Nick said, "If you don't cut that attitude, I'm not taking you out for ice cream later, mister!"
Once he finished, the platform fully submerged itself into the ceiling. "Dang it," he said. "Total missed opportunity. I shoulda said 'sister.' "
The Pen to the Paper Arena looked beautiful. It looked like a football stadium, if a football stadium had a roof that never opened, was an actual circle, and--instead of grass--there was an elevated round stage in the center.
Lights danced, music shook the building, and smoke rolled off the stage, settled on the ground below, and slowly dissipated.
As the music reached a crescendo, movement could be seen from the stage: a hole began to open, and more fog rolled onto stage. The crescendo held itself, everyone in the audience leaned forward, popcorn (sold for 50 cents a container because I'm nice like that) spilled. You could feel how everyone was holding their breath.
After toying with the audience's suspense, I finally emerged with a spotlight shining directly on me. The music broke, slowly quieting down as the audience erupted in cheers.
"Thank you," I said into the microphone. "Hard to believe, i'n'it? A year of Pen to the Paper has passed, and we're in season two! Amazing.
"But you're not here to listen to me say that. I mean, you've already heard me say it ten thousand times. Who's ready for the announcements!?"
Cheering erupted once more.
"Awesome! Let's do this. I had an incredibly difficult time deciding tonight! But I believe I can say that without a doubt… third place is… Mystery Man by booklover_2020!!!
"Your entry was spectacular. The descriptions within were absolutely amazing, and the story was great as well.
"In second place is GLD's Used to Believe! It. Was. Amaaazing! Incredibly emotional. And, to quote booklover, 'this hits hard.'
"In first, we have one of the most fantastic veteran Pen to the Paper-ians."
Five minutes passed, and I didn't say a word. I just stood there, as still as a statue. Unblinking.
"My eyes burn. Why have you guys just sat there for five minutes?
"First place is… Sanjana_S! The Summer of Love was sensational! The descriptions and the amount of detail you put into this was outstanding. You are, by far, one of the most bestest writers I know! Thank you so much for contributing to my challenge! Your skill far surpasses the majority of the people on this platform. You, my friend, provide significant proof that writing is an art form.
"But enough fan-girling, I'm sure you guys want to know who the honorable mentions are.
"Scratch77. Question: was hilarious. I absolutely love your sense of humor!
"Same goes for you, Danceinsilence, with your write Directions. You had me laughing pretty good!
"SharondaBriggs, Shadow Walker was beautiful. Thank you for entering!
"How could I forget? HelenaTherese, Boys was pretty funny too. I absolutely loved it!
"Lulit, your work Simulation, I felt, was creative and very intriguing.
"Thank you, one and all, for entering my challenge! I will see all of you in a couple weeks!" Fog erupted on stage, and, hidden from view, the trap door beneath me quickly opened, and I fell a few feet down before landing on the slowly descending platform.
As I emerged into the room far below the stage, Nick stood there, waiting for me.
"How was it?" he asked.
"Man, you had a total missed opportunity earlier. You should have said 'sister' instead of 'mister.' That's all I could think about on stage, man. Totally threw off my game."
Sometimes the first time you do something is the only time you do it. Reasons differ, but it happens. Maybe you got on a roller coaster and wound up getting sick so you promised yourself never again. Maybe you had a peanut butter sandwich and ended up being horribly allergic so you avoid peanuts for your entire life, never to taste them again. Maybe you kiss someone and it’s the worst kiss of your life. You may kiss again but you probably won’t kiss them again.
Sometimes, there are things you can only do once; these things are not choices but are things that are impossible to do more than once. Losing your virginity, going through puberty, and...dying. All things that are first and last experiences. My most recent experience was one I was far too young for.
No surprise there, right? The thing that nobody tells you about death is that it’s a peaceful torment. You watch as others go though life, experiencing all the firsts there are to experience. It’s bittersweet to watch those you left behind getting to experience all the things you never did and all the things that you loved.
I never would have guessed that watching my daughter grow up without me would make me happy. She was the cutest little thing when she was born. Gazing down at her in my arms, I never imgained I’d be leaving her so soon. I was given three years. And they were glorious. The first time she laughed, the first time she crawled, and then her first steps. These were all things I got to experience while I was breathing and they were magical moments. Even now, though, eighteen years later, she is still glorious.
Her high school graduation with her father sitting as close as he could manage, leaning forward until he was practically breathing on the guy in front of him. The single tear that rolled down his face before falling from his chin was both beautiful and torturous. I knew, that that tear would have meant something very different if I had been there, breathing, with them. I could see it all on his face as he watched out baby girl cross the stage and receive the diploma she had worked so hard for. He was wondering why I coulnd’t have been there with them, but what he didn’t know was that I was. Of course I was. I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.
I was even prouder, when she crossed the stage a second time, to the roaring applause of her peers, receiving the degree she had literally shed blood, sweat, and tears for. The degree that would get her one step closer to her goal, medicine. She wanted to be an OBGYN. This time, the tear that ran down her father’s face hurt even more. He had not yet moved on, and I wasn’t sure if he ever would.
You see, the day I died, I wasn't the only one my husband lost. I had been carrying our son when I was rushed to the operating room for an emergency cesarean. Neither of us made it out. He died inside me and I died on the table. The opportunity to raise a son had been stolen from both my husband and myself. An experience that would never be. A first time that would never come to pass.
There are some on this side that say it will be impossible for me to move on to the next place after lingering here for so long. I disagree. I'm only waiting for one thing. My husband. This instance of separation will be the last. Never again will we spend such a time apart. And when he finally joins me, in many, many years, it will be the best first I will have ever been lucky enough to experience.
If I Had Known
I didn’t want to go that Friday. I was angry with my life and arguing with my husband. I was feeling sorry for myself and not in any mood to be helpful to anyone else. When I walked in she was slouched over to one side, unable to pull herself back up. I took a deep breath and walked over to the bed. She had a look of relief on her face when she saw me. I propped her back up and positioned pillows under her arm so she wouldn‘t fall over again. She was so far from the strong sturdy woman who took care of her family on her own when she couldn’t bare the mess she was in anymore. She stood against society to take that stand. She was the one who told me not to cry to force me into reality as a young child. Now, she was so humbled and totally dependent on others.
I reminded her of the new body she would have one day because of her profession of faith. I oftened teased her about dancing a jig on streets of gold. We sat and discussed the end for a few moments. What would happen the day she took her last breath and came into the presence of the LORD. Just then the doctor walked in. He reported her tests looked good and she was improving.
Lunch would be served shortly. She would need someone to cut it up and help her eat. Just as the food arrived another visitor came. I was relieved that someone else was there to help and I could just go home. I gave her a kiss and promised to come after the weekend.
Early Sunday morning I got the call. I heard the words but couldn’t understand. The doctor said she was improving. I listened with unbelief. I was told Saturday morning she decided to remove all support. She said she was tired and wanted to go “home”. She had outlived her siblings and buried two of her own children. The doctor made sure she understood the repercussions of her decision. She did. She held on all day into early Sunday morning while family surrounded her.
Why wasn’t I called? Why didn’t they tell me? I was the closest one to her! She shared intimate things with me that she never spoke to anyone else. People who barely gave her the time of day and said unkind things behind her back were there.
But it didn’t matter. It was too late. She was gone. I wasn’t there to comfort her or say goodbye. I wasn’t there to make jokes and see her smile. I wasn’t there to reassure her that we would see each other again one day or tell her that everything was going to be ok. If I had known it was the last time, I would have told her how brave I thought she was and how much I looked up to her for the woman she was. If I had known it was the last time, I would have told her how much she meant to me, how much I loved her and regretted any disagreements we ever had. I would’ve told her I was sorry for my selfishness and wanted to spend more time with her. If I had only known it was the last time.
It was almost Christmas. I was pregnant with my first child. My dad was more excited than anyone. He had been asking for a grandchild since my wedding day two years prior. When you gonna give me a grandson? I see a fishing buddy in my future. When we finally did get pregnant, I wasn’t ready, but things don’t always happen when you’re ready. They happen when they are meant to.
Although my husband and I lived in Philadelphia where I was a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, classes were done and I had gone to New York to visit my family for the day. Trying to fit in visits to both my dad and my favorite great-aunt, I had decided it would be easier to cancel my lunch date with my dad (he worked in Brooklyn) to spend time with my 89-year-old great-aunt who lived a few blocks from my dad’s apartment. I figured I would surprise him when he got home from work.
When he got home, I was hiding in the kitchen while my stepmother went to the door. He came into the apartment, slowly, shuffling his feet. He said in a despondent voice, “She didn’t come. I told everyone in the office she was coming…”
In that fraction of a second, my heart broke for having hurt him. I hadn’t factored in the possibility of disappointment at my cancelling without saying I would see him later. As a mother now, I realize he had wanted to show off his beautiful baby, pregnant with her own, to his colleagues. I didn’t get it in the moment, though. I figured seeing me would be enough.
As he turned the corner to enter the kitchen, I jumped out and yelled “Surprise,” hoping that would suffice. I think he was thrilled. I tell myself his eyes lit up when he saw me. I can almost see them as well as his smile that only sometimes reached his eyes, but were always full of love.
I don’t remember what we talked about that evening. I wish I could remember the words. I know he rubbed my little belly a lot. He was so happy he was finally going to be a grandpa. I wish I could remember how tightly he held me when I kissed him goodbye and made my way home. I know it was a pleasant moment we shared. I just wish I had known it would be our last.
I was on bedrest within two weeks. Within two months, my dad was retired on disability at age 47 and hospitalized– his body finally succumbing to decades of alcoholism. Four months after that holiday visit, two days before my son entered the world, my father left it.
He never got to meet his fishing buddy.
We never got to say good bye.
“Is she safe?”
This is the first thought that comes to mind when I wake up. From what, I’m not certain. I don’t recall having gone to sleep in the first place.
I scan my surroundings. I see people on a sidewalk, staring at something past me. They are looking past me at something else, it seems. I see many shocked expressions among them. I can see others pulling out their phones and shouting into them for an ambulance.
I turn around, and am startled when I see the front of a large SUV directly in front of me. Backing away to create distance between me and the vehicle, a body lying on the ground in front of the SUV makes me bite back a scream.
I hear whimpering noises next to me. I turn and notice a girl that looks about twelve. An adult comes by to comfort her, pulling her towards the sidewalk away from the scene.
“What happened?” I hear one person say.
“He saved her,” says another.
I wave of relief suddenly comes over me. Now I remember.
“She’s safe,” I say to myself.
Twist of fate
It was like fate had twisted us into a whole new world. I could remember that last day many eons ago. I was the prince of thieves and Jasmine a true princess. I think of those crazy nights we had and remember what fun it used to be. Now I’m in an endless void of an eternity of indentured servitude. If it weren’t for that Damned Jafar and Iago I would’ve married the princess and became the Sultan. Yet here I am years later answering to foolish masters.. people used to worship genies. Now we are just second rate citizens. I hate that people made new technology. I mean what was so wrong with rubbing a damn lamp and getting three wishes? Now everyone can access a genie no problem because of these things called mobile phones. And what’s worst yet is that they got around the whole three wish thing because they created this new thing called the internet and it lets you download an app to skim more wishes off the top. My master currently is snooty rich kid who uses my wishes to torment poor children. And the only way for me to change masters is if their phone ends up being stolen or they say that they’ve been satisfied . I have been trying to get rid of this kid for the past three weeks!
“Brandon, my master, are you not pleased with the wishes I have granted you this far?” I’m trying to trick him into some sort of satisfactory affirmation.
“No! Now stop asking me that Aladdin. Or should I say Al-Dim! I’ll tell you when I will be satisfied and that won’t be until phones can talk for themselves”
Man is this kid stupid or what?! I am finally free of this idiot.
“So you’re saying once phones can talk I am free is that correct master ?”
Brandon looks at me haughtily and says
“ Yes and only then will I be satisfied”
I look at him and grin.
“Hey, Siri why is Brandon an idiot”
“I can’t answer that because my processor system can’t handle stupidity”
Brandon widens his eyes as he realizes he fucked up. I flick him off as I’m sucked into the computer codes and data of the world and float across the cosmos to my next master. Man I hope it’s someone clever this time.
Leslie methodically painted her toenails while she thought about the no good, lousy things her neighbor screeched at her this morning.
The Kids of Burrow Street
We're standing at the corner, Pepper and me. He's selling newsclips for a dime, hollerin' like a do-right fog horn.
The crowd is barreling on by, and I adjust my cap cause it's too big and it's sliding over my eyes. Pop said I shouldn't wear it, 'specially cause it's his.
"Sticks, ya gonna do somethin' with yourself other than watch me work?" Pepper says while adjusting an overall strap.
I just squint at him. He thinks just cause he's eleven he can boss me around, but Pop told me ten-year-olds are big enough to handle themselves.
I look back at the morning market and try to push my braid back under Pop's cap. "You know I work just as hard as you."
Pepper gives me a cheeky grin and waves a fistfull of his newsclips at me. "I ain't seen you out there yet, and I already been making a near dollar!" Pepper taps a finger to his pocket, and I can hear the clink of his coins.
"Jiminy, I'm going, ok?" I flash Pepper a sweet smile. "How do I look?"
Pepper looks at my cuffed pants, patched-up vest, and dirty face. "Like a do-right rat, that's how," he told me, bursting into laughter.
I step up to him to give him a fair swat on the arm, but he darts away from me, cackling and waving his newsclips.
"Just ten cents, now, ladies and gents!" Pepper yells from within the crowd.
I can't see him, but I follow his voice, running through the street and squeezing through adults. Pepper plays it clever today, he ran right through a couple of swaddled nobles, and I start to follow. But I know my part.
I run right into one.
"Ooof!" The woman I bumped into makes a noise like when you fall into a pile of dirt. She's wearing a long purple cloak and a shiny, shiny necklace. Her face is long and pinched and looks very disapproving of me.
I look up at her with a sheepish smile. "Beg pardon, ma'am. I'a been chasing my friend down there, didn't see where I'a been runnin'."
The woman totted, "Foul children, running around these streets!"
"Real sorry, ma'am, honest!" I say with a quick bow. Then, I scurry away, lookin' up at the buildings to see where I am now.
We'd run down the length of Burrow street already, and I'd made a few snatches, 'nough for the morning. Can't go around takin' everything, Pop always says. Gettin' greedy gets ya caught!
I round the corner to Dock street and run straight-away past the snake charmer. Pepper and me planned to meet right past him.
But I don't see Pepper nowhere. Instead, somebody grabs my arm, swings me around.
A burly woman with missing teeth says loudly, "Whaddya doin' round here, kid?"
I knock her hand off me and say clearly, "I sell the newsclips 'ere, ma'am." She narrows her eyes at me, and I plant my feet. "Just a dime, for one, ma'am."
"You be lookin' like a filtcher, ya little street thief!"
The woman reaches at me again, but I start a-runnin'.
Only get three steps afore I get caught again.
A man grabs me. "Where you off to so fast?" he says in a gravelly voice.
"That's me sister, sir! I'm awful glad you found 'er. Jolly thanks, sir."
I turn my head and see Pepper with his salesman smile. He puffs out his chest and puts his thumbs through his overall straps, just like Pop likes to do.
The man crinkles his already crinkly brow at the two of us, but it's enough to allow me to slip away from him.
But Pepper and me aren't free of the adults yet. The burly woman looms over us. "You kids 'ave a home? I'll report yous as stealin' if I see you round 'ere again!"
Pepper grabs my arm and pulls me behind him. "Yes, ma'am. We live right on Burrow street, sellin' the newsclips. Ten cents if you ever need one! Ta-ta!" Then Pepper pulls me so hard Pop's cap near flies off my head, and we start runnin' through the streets again, an honest run this time, me right at his heels.
We run far enough to near reach the opposite side of the market. Pepper stops in the shade of a building, and I near collapse next to him. Both of us breathe heavily from runnin' so much.
"I thought I was done for, Pepper! I really did!" I say, still holding Pop's cap on my head.
Pepper takes a deep breath and grins mischievously. "No worryin', Sticks. You might be a brat, but you know I'll be a-lookin' after you. No matter what."
I smile at Pepper but I scrunch up my nose too. Then, real quiet, I ask, "You wanna see what I stole off that rich lady?"
Pepper's smile widens. "Let's see it!"
A stark silence engulfed the dimly lit theatre. Nothing moved, and yet, the feeling of anticipation lay thick in the air. Rows and rows of empty seats, all lined in soft, red velvet, stood waiting for the doors to open and the crowd to enter. It was almost time.
In the past, thousands of individuals had traversed this very room. If one were to look closely, they would witness fleeting images of a number of characters spanning centuries coming alive in this space. People from all places, beliefs, and customs were all gathered together for an experience they would never forget.
Tonight, however, was infinitely more significant than any other. It would be the night where boundaries would break, minds would warp, and challenges would be met.
The audience of that dark afternoon did not expect to witness the ingenious tragedy of this new masquerade as they filed into their seats. In hindsight, it is unclear to say if they were amazed or frightened. Maybe it was a little of both.
Regardless of their views, the show had no intention to cease its twisted mission. It had subjects to entrance and was not going to wait for permission.
This act, though new, was meticulously orchestrated so that there were no faults. The curtains would rise, and, though they wouldn’t know it at first, each person in those velvet lined seats would not be allowed escape.
Fire, acrobats, and all sorts of wonderous spectacles entranced the unassuming spectators. They assumed that this was the theatre’s true mission, to mystify and delight, but it was not. The miraculous goings-on onstage were simply distractions from the performers’ real aim.
These performers were sights to behold indeed. Dressed in outlandish costumes of bright and contrasting colors, their makeup matching their garb, they would eventually make their way off of the stage into the audience.
At first, the innocents would feel amazed at this interactive twist. Then, the screams would begin.
The first would echo through the closed off space, and the others would follow soon after, creating an unpracticed symphony of pure terror. A place which once felt full of possibility would transform into a dark coffin, constricting and suffocating each victim’s hopeful air.
The performers had to feed, and, urged on by the maddening energy of the theatre itself, their appetites were satisfied quite well indeed.
There is a town on the edge of nowhere the locals call Freedom, though you will not find its name on any map. There are small homes that line the streets, each one just like the others. The residents don't get many visitors, but those who do come are quick to remark upon how "quaint" the town is, like something out of a fairytale. Children play in perfectly manicured lawns, quietly gathering the wildflowers that grow on the outskirts of town. Mothers hang the laundry and fathers tend the grill, each person with a subtle smile across their face. Perfect. Serene. The children do not cry or shout. There are no arguments in this town, only murmured pleasantries. The visitors, as enamored as they may be by the towns character never seem to stay long. If you ask they will tell you they left early because urgent matters presented themselves at home, but such excuses are rarely true. In reality as they spent more time in this town certain aspects begin to seem... odd. Each family has two children. Each house has three tulips in its flower bed, never more and certainly never less. The children leave their homes at the exact same time each day and enter a quaint schoolroom in unison. Everything is calculated. Precise. Perfect... and deeply disturbing.
In the neighboring city rumors began to circulate, and visitors to the odd town dwindle. As is policy, the city police department sends an agent to the town to disprove the foolish fantasies that have captured the minds of so many of their citizens.
The agent doesn't mind the assignment, it's rather like a vacation. There is nothing wrong with this little piece of paradise. He makes his rounds of the town, stopping when he notices a young girl kneeling by the road.
"Darling, are you alright?" He kneels beside her, resting a gentle hand on her back. She can't be more than six, but when she turns her teary eyes to him there is more pain behind them than he had ever seen. He murmurs soothing things in the girls ear, slipping his cell phone out of a back pocket to call the town's child services office. Before he can dial she slaps the phone out of his hand fiercely.
"No. You can't. They'll find me," she whispers, trembling in his arms.
"Who are you talking about?" For the first time since entering this town a tendril of fear tightens around the agents spine.
"Oh. Too late," the child whispers, turning to the street behind them. Twenty doors open in unison, and mothers with flowery dresses step onto the street, whispering something under their breaths.
Everything goes dark.
Later, the agent will wake, and fear will no longer course through his veins. He will live in one of the identical pastel houses, a perfect copy of everyone else. He will no longer be flawed, but rather at peace, another prisoner of a town called Freedom.