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

No Reservations

Steel of the railway glimmered in dry heat. Behind the traveler, reddish brown sand blew in a hot wind that he couldn't feel, but he could see. Swirling drifts of earth perpetually hid centuries-old iron and the nearly petrified wooden cross ties.

He had no idea how long he'd been walking. The sun had long-since bleached out his direction sense, and thoughts were as sluggish as his pace.

Ahead of him, the railroad beckoned. Behind, it disappeared in the baking breeze. One foot followed the other. Onward. He was too tired to think, too scared to stop, and too thirsty to wander.

Hours passed. Wearily, the traveler marched towards the horizon.

It was an improbable building. Seemingly built in the middle of nowhere, a traveler would be likely to think it a mirage.

Desert flatland surrounded the adobe structure. In the distance, it had a plain appearance of an old way station. The remains of a small corral and livery had long since given way to a gas pump and a long, plain bunkhouse that served as a motor court motel. Upon closing the distance to the building, electric lights, almost like an afterthought, could be seen strung between poles over the still-intact antique pump. The naked bulbs glowed day and night, a dim beacon in the sandy, rocky sea.

Tire tracks ran in every cardinal direction parallel to the railway out front of the old station, their worn ruts permanent fixtures in the sandstone, yet no vehicles could be seen.

This place was at a crossroads of steel and street.

The weary traveler wandered through the front door. His lips were parched, his feet were sore, and his skin was reddened by the relentless assault from the uncaring sun. He was met by an interior that was blissfully cool and shady, and the tinkle of a bell sounded as the door opened.

A low L-shaped counter with an antique cash register separated the traveler from the clerk. A rack of crackers and cookies stood to the right on the countertop, and off to the left of the small store's interior was a small chest cooler. "RC Cola" was emblazoned in faded paint on the side of the old machine.

Looking around the room, the traveler noted a small hallway leading to the back of the store before he was addressed by the old timer behind the counter.

"Help yourself to a cold drink, son."

Reaching inside, the tired newcomer retrieved a chilled bottle and opened it using the fixture on the side of the refrigerated cooler.

"I haven't had one of these since I was a kid. I didn't know they sold them anywhere outside the south."

The old man smiled and nodded. "I had some Moonpies, too, but they're out until the next truck comes this way."

Taking a long pull from the heavy glass bottle, the man paused to savor the sweet cola. He put the near-freezing glass against his hot brow.

His thirst slightly slaked, the traveler sighed, "Where am I, sir?"

"The Waystation."

"Like stagecoach, wild west, Pony Express stuff?" He chuckled.

"Kind of like that, yeah. This place has been around for a long, long time, son. But we've kept up with most of the changes." The old man was deeply tanned and lined. He could have been a dark-complected Caucasian, a Native American, Hispanic, or even Asian. It was hard to tell, so dim was the interior and so sun-darkened was his skin. He wore an old-fashioned shop-keeper's apron, a pressed white shirt, dark trousers, and a page-boy hat. His white hair was unruly but not unkempt as it peeked out the sides of his cap. Perfectly straight teeth gleamed brightly as he smiled warmly at his customer.

"What do I owe you for the drink?"

"I'll put it on your tab. Help yourself to another. There's some bottled water there, too. It might help quiet that thirst a little better than the cola."

"Tab?"

"Oh, yessir. You'll be here a bit. No buses or trains will be this way for a while yet. You'll be needing a room."

"How did I get here?" He finished his RC, belching quietly while reaching into the cooler for a water.

"I suppose you walked." Dry laughter accompanied the answer.

"No, I mean, where are we? This looks like Arizona. Or maybe New Mexico. Texas? Hell, the last thing I remember, I fell asleep in my bed, and then I wake up in the desert."

"I have to say, son, you're handling all this pretty calmly."

"I learned a long time ago that panic just gets people killed."

"Your platoon sergeant told you that, didn't he?" Another smile.

"Yeah, how'd you guess that?"

"What you're wearing is a clue."

For the first time, the traveler paid attention to his own outfit.

He was dressed in a Class A uniform, complete with expert marksman medals and silver star. His shoes were dusty and dirty from the walk in the sand, but otherwise, everything was in order.

"The fuck?"

"Language, son."

"Sorry, sir. It's just that...I haven't worn this since before my grand daughter was born. Hell, maybe since my son was born."

"Forty-eight years."

"Right! How did you know that?"

The man continued to smile as he wordlessly handed the soldier a key.

"This is for your room. It's not much to write home about, but it is clean. There's even an air conditioner that works, but you may have to knock it around a little when it makes a funny noise."

"This is all very surreal."

"I think you'll find some answers in your lodgings. Call if you need anything."

Taking the key and leaving with another water, the traveler exited the tiny lobby / store, and went to his motel room.

Stepping into the cool, he flipped on the light switch. A bare bulb hung overhead, illuminating the tiny room. A double bed sat neatly made with a threadbare orange comforter, and an olive-green plastic chair occupied one corner. A small dresser was against the wall opposite the bed, and what looked like a black and white television sat atop it, complete with rabbit ear antenna. The bathroom was immediately to his left, and it was a plain affair decorated in turquoise-blue and white tile with porcelain fixtures that could have come from the thirties.

He stepped into the restroom and saw himself in the hazy, time-worn mirror.

Looking at the reflection, he didn't see the man he knew yesterday.

Staring back at him was the man he used to be, mid-way through his first tour. He didn't even have the little shrapnel scar above his left eye-- a gift for Tet from his friends out of Hanoi.

"I don't understand." With disbelief, he touched his face. Everything felt real, solid. His self-control beginning to waiver, he began unbuttoning his jacket. Shrugging it off, he let it fall to the tile floor. The black tie was ripped off and slung to the side, and one of the buttons of his green shirt was popped in haste. Finally, the white tee shirt was gone, and he stared.

Frazzled, nearing that panic he so recently spoke out against, the man in the mirror looked on with growing fear and anxiety.

The soldier in the mirror was the traveler's 21-year old self.

"I'm...68." His whisper became a mantra. "I'm 68."

Wandering to the bed, he reached for the telephone. Opening the drawer of the nightstand, the Gideon lamp emblazoned on a hardback seemed to shine at him. There was no phonebook, and he didn't know who he'd call, anyway.

Absently, dull shock setting in, he picked up the book that was in the nightstand.

A disembodied voice spoke in the shocked silence.

"Hello, front desk, can I help you, son?"

The man in the store repeated his question. The soldier had forgotten that the phone was in his hand.

"What's happening here?"

"Just take a nap, son. Rest. You've earned it. Your bus will be here before you know."

Numbly, the soldier nodded as he whispered, "Okay, yeah. I'll just nap."

"Relax, read the guidebook in your nightstand, and wait for a bus. You'll be headed north when we gather a few more travelers. Unless you're on the train headed South. But I don't think you will be. Anyway, I don't make the decisions, I just book the travel. I haven't gotten your reservations yet."

Not understanding any of what the clerk was saying, the traveler numbly nodded. "Rest sounds good. Thank you Mr....?" he trailed off, asking the clerk's name.

The voice on the phone replied, "Charon. My name is Charon."

The line went dead.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Ferryman in portal Simon & Schuster
No Reservations
Steel of the railway glimmered in dry heat. Behind the traveler, reddish brown sand blew in a hot wind that he couldn't feel, but he could see. Swirling drifts of earth perpetually hid centuries-old iron and the nearly petrified wooden cross ties.

He had no idea how long he'd been walking. The sun had long-since bleached out his direction sense, and thoughts were as sluggish as his pace.

Ahead of him, the railroad beckoned. Behind, it disappeared in the baking breeze. One foot followed the other. Onward. He was too tired to think, too scared to stop, and too thirsty to wander.

Hours passed. Wearily, the traveler marched towards the horizon.

It was an improbable building. Seemingly built in the middle of nowhere, a traveler would be likely to think it a mirage.

Desert flatland surrounded the adobe structure. In the distance, it had a plain appearance of an old way station. The remains of a small corral and livery had long since given way to a gas pump and a long, plain bunkhouse that served as a motor court motel. Upon closing the distance to the building, electric lights, almost like an afterthought, could be seen strung between poles over the still-intact antique pump. The naked bulbs glowed day and night, a dim beacon in the sandy, rocky sea.

Tire tracks ran in every cardinal direction parallel to the railway out front of the old station, their worn ruts permanent fixtures in the sandstone, yet no vehicles could be seen.

This place was at a crossroads of steel and street.

The weary traveler wandered through the front door. His lips were parched, his feet were sore, and his skin was reddened by the relentless assault from the uncaring sun. He was met by an interior that was blissfully cool and shady, and the tinkle of a bell sounded as the door opened.

A low L-shaped counter with an antique cash register separated the traveler from the clerk. A rack of crackers and cookies stood to the right on the countertop, and off to the left of the small store's interior was a small chest cooler. "RC Cola" was emblazoned in faded paint on the side of the old machine.

Looking around the room, the traveler noted a small hallway leading to the back of the store before he was addressed by the old timer behind the counter.

"Help yourself to a cold drink, son."

Reaching inside, the tired newcomer retrieved a chilled bottle and opened it using the fixture on the side of the refrigerated cooler.

"I haven't had one of these since I was a kid. I didn't know they sold them anywhere outside the south."

The old man smiled and nodded. "I had some Moonpies, too, but they're out until the next truck comes this way."

Taking a long pull from the heavy glass bottle, the man paused to savor the sweet cola. He put the near-freezing glass against his hot brow.

His thirst slightly slaked, the traveler sighed, "Where am I, sir?"

"The Waystation."

"Like stagecoach, wild west, Pony Express stuff?" He chuckled.

"Kind of like that, yeah. This place has been around for a long, long time, son. But we've kept up with most of the changes." The old man was deeply tanned and lined. He could have been a dark-complected Caucasian, a Native American, Hispanic, or even Asian. It was hard to tell, so dim was the interior and so sun-darkened was his skin. He wore an old-fashioned shop-keeper's apron, a pressed white shirt, dark trousers, and a page-boy hat. His white hair was unruly but not unkempt as it peeked out the sides of his cap. Perfectly straight teeth gleamed brightly as he smiled warmly at his customer.

"What do I owe you for the drink?"

"I'll put it on your tab. Help yourself to another. There's some bottled water there, too. It might help quiet that thirst a little better than the cola."

"Tab?"

"Oh, yessir. You'll be here a bit. No buses or trains will be this way for a while yet. You'll be needing a room."

"How did I get here?" He finished his RC, belching quietly while reaching into the cooler for a water.

"I suppose you walked." Dry laughter accompanied the answer.

"No, I mean, where are we? This looks like Arizona. Or maybe New Mexico. Texas? Hell, the last thing I remember, I fell asleep in my bed, and then I wake up in the desert."

"I have to say, son, you're handling all this pretty calmly."

"I learned a long time ago that panic just gets people killed."

"Your platoon sergeant told you that, didn't he?" Another smile.

"Yeah, how'd you guess that?"

"What you're wearing is a clue."

For the first time, the traveler paid attention to his own outfit.

He was dressed in a Class A uniform, complete with expert marksman medals and silver star. His shoes were dusty and dirty from the walk in the sand, but otherwise, everything was in order.

"The fuck?"

"Language, son."

"Sorry, sir. It's just that...I haven't worn this since before my grand daughter was born. Hell, maybe since my son was born."

"Forty-eight years."

"Right! How did you know that?"

The man continued to smile as he wordlessly handed the soldier a key.

"This is for your room. It's not much to write home about, but it is clean. There's even an air conditioner that works, but you may have to knock it around a little when it makes a funny noise."

"This is all very surreal."

"I think you'll find some answers in your lodgings. Call if you need anything."

Taking the key and leaving with another water, the traveler exited the tiny lobby / store, and went to his motel room.

Stepping into the cool, he flipped on the light switch. A bare bulb hung overhead, illuminating the tiny room. A double bed sat neatly made with a threadbare orange comforter, and an olive-green plastic chair occupied one corner. A small dresser was against the wall opposite the bed, and what looked like a black and white television sat atop it, complete with rabbit ear antenna. The bathroom was immediately to his left, and it was a plain affair decorated in turquoise-blue and white tile with porcelain fixtures that could have come from the thirties.

He stepped into the restroom and saw himself in the hazy, time-worn mirror.

Looking at the reflection, he didn't see the man he knew yesterday.

Staring back at him was the man he used to be, mid-way through his first tour. He didn't even have the little shrapnel scar above his left eye-- a gift for Tet from his friends out of Hanoi.

"I don't understand." With disbelief, he touched his face. Everything felt real, solid. His self-control beginning to waiver, he began unbuttoning his jacket. Shrugging it off, he let it fall to the tile floor. The black tie was ripped off and slung to the side, and one of the buttons of his green shirt was popped in haste. Finally, the white tee shirt was gone, and he stared.

Frazzled, nearing that panic he so recently spoke out against, the man in the mirror looked on with growing fear and anxiety.

The soldier in the mirror was the traveler's 21-year old self.

"I'm...68." His whisper became a mantra. "I'm 68."

Wandering to the bed, he reached for the telephone. Opening the drawer of the nightstand, the Gideon lamp emblazoned on a hardback seemed to shine at him. There was no phonebook, and he didn't know who he'd call, anyway.

Absently, dull shock setting in, he picked up the book that was in the nightstand.

A disembodied voice spoke in the shocked silence.

"Hello, front desk, can I help you, son?"

The man in the store repeated his question. The soldier had forgotten that the phone was in his hand.

"What's happening here?"

"Just take a nap, son. Rest. You've earned it. Your bus will be here before you know."

Numbly, the soldier nodded as he whispered, "Okay, yeah. I'll just nap."

"Relax, read the guidebook in your nightstand, and wait for a bus. You'll be headed north when we gather a few more travelers. Unless you're on the train headed South. But I don't think you will be. Anyway, I don't make the decisions, I just book the travel. I haven't gotten your reservations yet."

Not understanding any of what the clerk was saying, the traveler numbly nodded. "Rest sounds good. Thank you Mr....?" he trailed off, asking the clerk's name.

The voice on the phone replied, "Charon. My name is Charon."

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

The Pieces In-Between: A Novel of Anne Boleyn (Prologue)

Anne clasped the tiny silver cross tightly in her hand. She could feel the soft silver drinking in the heat of her sweating palm. She felt as if she was burning up from the inside out, though the morning was still cool and brisk in the shadow of the Tower Yard. She looked out at the sea of faces that stared back at her. For some reason, she could not seem to make out any of the features of the men and women whose affixed on her now.

For half a heartbeat, she thought she saw the smiling face of George looking back at her from one of the back rows, but it was just another blank face that she could not name. 

Her heart caught in her throat.

“Good Christian people,” Anne began, her voice wavering faintly, “I am come hither to die, according to law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it.” The lump in her throat thickened. Her head began to spin. Anne felt the bile rise up within her.

“I come here only to die, and thus yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord.” Henry's face swam in her mind's eye.

Anne imagined the look on his face when he had held princess Elizabeth for the first time, and the time, after the first miscarriage, when he had held her in his arms. Anne saw them, young and hopeful and happy, walking along the Thames and she pictured them in all the little secret places only they had known. Anne’s knees began to shake, but she managed to hold herself upright. They would get the benefit of her death today, but they would not have her dignity from her.

In the crowd, she spotted the grizzled face of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Today, he wore a mask of seeming indifference. The face of his wife beside him was a mirror of his. Standing next to one another, wrapped in their furs and velvets, they looked like a pair of beautifully draped gargoyles, frozen in stone and unhappiness. Anne broke her search and looked up to the crenelated tops of the tower. A small yellow bird lit suddenly from the top of the western wall and flew into the clouded blue sky. Anne took a deep breath.

“I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of this earth…”

It took every ounce of Anne’s strength not to retch over the words. If only they knew the true depth of Henry’s shallow, craven truth. She suspected many of them did know, and even now would not face it. Or worse yet, they were happily complacent in it. It was easier to stand quietly out of the way when the shadow of the axe was upon your enemy.

Anne searched the sky for the little yellow bird.

“If in my life I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone for the same.” She looked out into the audience and locked eyes with the Duke of Suffolk. Why had she never seen that darkness before? It was there, she saw plainly now. Dancing, just beneath the surface.

“I blame not my judges, nor any other manner of person, nor anything save the cruel law of this land by which I die…” she was coming to end of the speech, she knew, but her heart gave a flutter, and she suddenly realised she was not ready to die. Anne was not ready to give up her soul into the keeping of the silence. She wavered, and for a moment, it seemed that she would faint. She heard the intake of breath behind her, as her ladies stepped forward anxiously wary that she should fall.

Suddenly, Anne saw the rose garden before her in her mind, and she could see him there, standing in the warm, golden light of the sun. Her fear evaporated from her. The fire roared in her belly, that great monster unfurling itself one last time in a show of the injustice that broke over her.

“And so I submit to death with good will,” she said loudly, defiantly, “humbly asking pardon of all the world.” This would be her last stand, the last thing people would say of her. As soon as the deed was finished and her blood was sprayed warm across the dusty scaffold, one of theses great lords, perhaps her uncle, would run to Henry and tell him all — down to the last gory detail.

Anne knew that, even now, Henry was off hunting in the field with Mistress Seymour and her brothers. One of the women here in the Tower with her had told her that Jane had already picked out her wedding dress. She had taken everything from Anne, and Henry along with her. They had taken her family, her power, her love. They had taken what little happiness she had. Anne would not let them have this final victory. Drawing herself up tall, her chin raised to the lords of the crowd, she finished her speech.

“If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me. To God I commend my soul.”

The little crucifix seemed to throb in her hand as she stepped back from the edge of the scaffold and positioned herself in the center, amid the fresh pile of sawdust. She knelt slowly, moving as if her entire body were no more than one ornate piece of porcelain. Lady Kingston stepped forward with her other ladies and, slowly, they removed Anne’s fine hood and her jewelry. For just a moment, Anne’s proud main of thick black hair cascaded down her back, and she heard an audible sigh escape the audience at the sight of it. Her ladies worked quickly to fit her head with the plain white linen cap, hastily stuffing the thick waves of her hair beneath it. Anne would have no glory in these final moments. That would be Henry's greatest wish.

Their work done, they stepped back from Anne, and resumed their places behind the stout clergyman who was attending her death. A creak from behind startled her, and Anne turned her head suddenly around, expecting to see the flash of the sword upon her. It was just the headsman, who was walking forward to kneel beside her.

“Do you forgive me?” he whispered to her, the English words rolling awkwardly off his ungainly French tongue. Anne was relieved to detect no hint of drink on his breath. Perhaps this would be painless.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Anne stated back grandly. She quickly handed him the little purse her ladies had put into her hand after removing her fine fur half-cloak. She saw no sword in his hand, as he nodded to her resolutely and slowly rose.

Anne clasped her hands in front of her chest, the tiny silver crucifix concealed inside. She closed her eyes and lowered her face. Please God, have mercy on my soul. Sweet Jesus, please have mercy on my soul. Her lips moved along with the silent mutterings of her hasty prayer. The words of the priest rolled on behind her, her brain straining and tripping suddenly over the familiar latin. Through the fog that filled her brain, she strained for the swish of the sword.

The Tower yard was quiet save for the flapping of the royal standards that flew proudly from the battlements above. Please Christ, have mercy on my soul. Anne could feel the whitening of her knuckles as the blood flowed away from her slender fingers in the desperation of their clasp. Something was wrong, it was taking too long. She opened her eyes, and looked back at the swordsman.

“I told them to keep her facing forward,” she heard the swordsman mutter to himself in French. There was still no sword in his hand. Behind her, one of her ladies started crying. 

It is a little late now for sentiment, she thought wildly. 

Anne snapped her head forward, her eyes scanning the crowd once again. Somewhere, deep inside her, a hopeless, romantic fool was looking for the face of the King in the Crowd. Even now, when she sat knelt in position for her death, she expected Henry to burst forward and rescue her. As he always had.

There was a creak behind her as the swordsman took a step forward, and Anne’s head turned to face him again. Run, another voice said suddenly inside her head. Stand up and run. What if you can make it? What if you can fight them and fly free?

Suddenly, just beyond the audience, a glint of yellow caught her eye.

There, on the top of the imposing White Tower, perched the tiny yellow bird. He was only a small yellow dash against the bright blue of the sky now. His glinting golden shape sat frozen, as if he too were watching, in horror, the unprecedented scene that unfolded within the walls of the Tower. The little bird sat still, like a spark of light in the midst of a nightmare. Anne watched him from atop her scaffold, sitting almost tranquilly along the crenellations. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Dear Lord, please have mercy on my soul, her lips moved silently. A sense of calm washed over her...

                                                                                                    

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by EBJohnson in portal Simon & Schuster
The Pieces In-Between: A Novel of Anne Boleyn (Prologue)
Anne clasped the tiny silver cross tightly in her hand. She could feel the soft silver drinking in the heat of her sweating palm. She felt as if she was burning up from the inside out, though the morning was still cool and brisk in the shadow of the Tower Yard. She looked out at the sea of faces that stared back at her. For some reason, she could not seem to make out any of the features of the men and women whose affixed on her now.
For half a heartbeat, she thought she saw the smiling face of George looking back at her from one of the back rows, but it was just another blank face that she could not name. 

Her heart caught in her throat.

“Good Christian people,” Anne began, her voice wavering faintly, “I am come hither to die, according to law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it.” The lump in her throat thickened. Her head began to spin. Anne felt the bile rise up within her.

“I come here only to die, and thus yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord.” Henry's face swam in her mind's eye.

Anne imagined the look on his face when he had held princess Elizabeth for the first time, and the time, after the first miscarriage, when he had held her in his arms. Anne saw them, young and hopeful and happy, walking along the Thames and she pictured them in all the little secret places only they had known. Anne’s knees began to shake, but she managed to hold herself upright. They would get the benefit of her death today, but they would not have her dignity from her.

In the crowd, she spotted the grizzled face of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Today, he wore a mask of seeming indifference. The face of his wife beside him was a mirror of his. Standing next to one another, wrapped in their furs and velvets, they looked like a pair of beautifully draped gargoyles, frozen in stone and unhappiness. Anne broke her search and looked up to the crenelated tops of the tower. A small yellow bird lit suddenly from the top of the western wall and flew into the clouded blue sky. Anne took a deep breath.

“I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of this earth…”

It took every ounce of Anne’s strength not to retch over the words. If only they knew the true depth of Henry’s shallow, craven truth. She suspected many of them did know, and even now would not face it. Or worse yet, they were happily complacent in it. It was easier to stand quietly out of the way when the shadow of the axe was upon your enemy.

Anne searched the sky for the little yellow bird.

“If in my life I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone for the same.” She looked out into the audience and locked eyes with the Duke of Suffolk. Why had she never seen that darkness before? It was there, she saw plainly now. Dancing, just beneath the surface.

“I blame not my judges, nor any other manner of person, nor anything save the cruel law of this land by which I die…” she was coming to end of the speech, she knew, but her heart gave a flutter, and she suddenly realised she was not ready to die. Anne was not ready to give up her soul into the keeping of the silence. She wavered, and for a moment, it seemed that she would faint. She heard the intake of breath behind her, as her ladies stepped forward anxiously wary that she should fall.

Suddenly, Anne saw the rose garden before her in her mind, and she could see him there, standing in the warm, golden light of the sun. Her fear evaporated from her. The fire roared in her belly, that great monster unfurling itself one last time in a show of the injustice that broke over her.

“And so I submit to death with good will,” she said loudly, defiantly, “humbly asking pardon of all the world.” This would be her last stand, the last thing people would say of her. As soon as the deed was finished and her blood was sprayed warm across the dusty scaffold, one of theses great lords, perhaps her uncle, would run to Henry and tell him all — down to the last gory detail.

Anne knew that, even now, Henry was off hunting in the field with Mistress Seymour and her brothers. One of the women here in the Tower with her had told her that Jane had already picked out her wedding dress. She had taken everything from Anne, and Henry along with her. They had taken her family, her power, her love. They had taken what little happiness she had. Anne would not let them have this final victory. Drawing herself up tall, her chin raised to the lords of the crowd, she finished her speech.

“If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me. To God I commend my soul.”

The little crucifix seemed to throb in her hand as she stepped back from the edge of the scaffold and positioned herself in the center, amid the fresh pile of sawdust. She knelt slowly, moving as if her entire body were no more than one ornate piece of porcelain. Lady Kingston stepped forward with her other ladies and, slowly, they removed Anne’s fine hood and her jewelry. For just a moment, Anne’s proud main of thick black hair cascaded down her back, and she heard an audible sigh escape the audience at the sight of it. Her ladies worked quickly to fit her head with the plain white linen cap, hastily stuffing the thick waves of her hair beneath it. Anne would have no glory in these final moments. That would be Henry's greatest wish.

Their work done, they stepped back from Anne, and resumed their places behind the stout clergyman who was attending her death. A creak from behind startled her, and Anne turned her head suddenly around, expecting to see the flash of the sword upon her. It was just the headsman, who was walking forward to kneel beside her.

“Do you forgive me?” he whispered to her, the English words rolling awkwardly off his ungainly French tongue. Anne was relieved to detect no hint of drink on his breath. Perhaps this would be painless.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Anne stated back grandly. She quickly handed him the little purse her ladies had put into her hand after removing her fine fur half-cloak. She saw no sword in his hand, as he nodded to her resolutely and slowly rose.

Anne clasped her hands in front of her chest, the tiny silver crucifix concealed inside. She closed her eyes and lowered her face. Please God, have mercy on my soul. Sweet Jesus, please have mercy on my soul. Her lips moved along with the silent mutterings of her hasty prayer. The words of the priest rolled on behind her, her brain straining and tripping suddenly over the familiar latin. Through the fog that filled her brain, she strained for the swish of the sword.

The Tower yard was quiet save for the flapping of the royal standards that flew proudly from the battlements above. Please Christ, have mercy on my soul. Anne could feel the whitening of her knuckles as the blood flowed away from her slender fingers in the desperation of their clasp. Something was wrong, it was taking too long. She opened her eyes, and looked back at the swordsman.

“I told them to keep her facing forward,” she heard the swordsman mutter to himself in French. There was still no sword in his hand. Behind her, one of her ladies started crying. 

It is a little late now for sentiment, she thought wildly. 

Anne snapped her head forward, her eyes scanning the crowd once again. Somewhere, deep inside her, a hopeless, romantic fool was looking for the face of the King in the Crowd. Even now, when she sat knelt in position for her death, she expected Henry to burst forward and rescue her. As he always had.

There was a creak behind her as the swordsman took a step forward, and Anne’s head turned to face him again. Run, another voice said suddenly inside her head. Stand up and run. What if you can make it? What if you can fight them and fly free?

Suddenly, just beyond the audience, a glint of yellow caught her eye.

There, on the top of the imposing White Tower, perched the tiny yellow bird. He was only a small yellow dash against the bright blue of the sky now. His glinting golden shape sat frozen, as if he too were watching, in horror, the unprecedented scene that unfolded within the walls of the Tower. The little bird sat still, like a spark of light in the midst of a nightmare. Anne watched him from atop her scaffold, sitting almost tranquilly along the crenellations. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Dear Lord, please have mercy on my soul, her lips moved silently. A sense of calm washed over her...

                                                                                                    

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

Darkest heart (first chapter)

In the deepest depths of the forest live the Sahandran. No man is more powerful than Sahandran. No man is more cursed, yet no man is more blessed. Stronger than the blood of the living and more lifeless than the most forgotten soul.

   That is how Babay’s stories always started. Yan’s mother was a born storyteller. Already he yearned to relive those nights in the smoke-permeated longhouse.

   He sat up, cradled by the top of the nesting tree. Before him, the indomitable forest crawled up the night-blue hills. The half moon above him was accompanied by stars, closer than he’d ever seen them before. This was his land – the land of Darvasi. Here he had once been born in freedom, beyond the fence of the masters. By now, the world outside that enclosure had become alien to him.

   A shiver ran down his spine. Everyone knew that traveling the forests during nighttime could cost people their souls. With an annoyed gesture he shrugged off his fear. Nothing could stop him. He would find the Sahandran. The night crawlers would steal his soul and make him one of theirs, and he would be grateful. He didn’t ask Ay Pitu for wings. No – he asked him for a beautiful death and a new body, which would possess the strength to save his mother and the other members of his family from the masters’ hands. Ay Pitu, the god who never listened and who didn’t pity a single Darvasi.

   All that he knew lay behind him: Babay, his brothers, sisters – many of whom had been drowned in the pool by the masters. Only Anyi was still alive. The souls of his murdered sisters had found their peace once more in the waters of death. The smell of that water was insufficient to throw the bloodhounds off someone’s scent. He took the jar of death flower paste from his bag and rubbed the ointment all over his body from head to toe. For weeks, he’d been toiling to collect the dar-ha-dar blossoms and smother them in lard. The substance turned his dark-brown skin to almost black. The stench was overwhelming. His stomach revolted. He swallowed the spasm back down his throat and breathed through his mouth.

   With long strokes he erased his own scent. He turned to shadow.

   Only a few more hours until sunrise – that was when they’d notice his disappearance. Without delay he started his journey. Skillfully, Yan clambered from tree to tree. The tops of the nesting trees blurred into one. One moment he was climbing, then descending, in order to find the embrace of the next forest giant. A deafening orchestra of cicadas and tjir-tjars filled the air. Beneath him, in the nightly black, certain death awaited him at the slightest misstep. But dying was by far not the worst thing that could happen to him – if Master Rooijbosch ever got his hands on him after this escape attempt, he wouldn’t be allowed to die. Not for a very long time. Although he could already imagine feeling the breath of the bloodhounds burn down his neck, he kept calm and steadied his hands and feet.

   By the time the sun rose behind the hills in a trickle of fiery red, the distance between him and the plantation wasn’t nearly as big as he had hoped. Shielded by the branches of a nesting tree top, he took refuge. If that camouflage proved to be insufficient, running any further would be pointless. Besides, he needed rest.

   He applied a new layer of dar-ha-dar paste to the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands. Afterward, he covered himself with giant leaves to escape the worst heat of the day.

The whip snaked across his skin. A lash echoing through his flesh – a cry without end. The next lash came too soon. The scars that were being erased from his back screamed louder than the living skin he was losing. He looked up at the bright blue sky, beyond the pole that his hands were bound to, and prayed for Ay Pitu to see him. Warm drops of his blood doused the air, like a slow-moving formation of passing turtleneck geese that had lost sight of the sun. The world tinged red. Today, he was going to die. He was sure of it.

Fists no longer clenched. His rigid fingers pointing up at the sky, begging for mercy that wouldn’t be given. The sun burned down on his face and his pulped, shattered skin. The cries of agony had died in his throat a while ago.

   His mother was crying. His sister was beseeching their master.

   Master Strever Rooijbosch rolled up his blood-drenched whip, approached him, and grabbed his hair in one hand. The man pressed up against him. “Can you feel me? How hard you make me? I’m enjoying this. Next time I won’t call back the dogs – I’ll fuck your dead body like I fuck your sister.” His breath stank of sour milk. Blood was splattered across his pale, white skin. Bright blue eyes in a narrow face with thin lips seemed to look right through him. The man pulled his hair, jerking his gaze to another direction. “Look at your mother. Why are you doing this to her? You selfish piece of shit. Just accept your fate.”

   Rooijbosch let go of him and got out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his flushed neck. Shaking his head, he walked away from Yan. With a supple shake of his wrist he unfurled the whip once more and tirelessly resumed his work.

An enormous shadow attacked him out of nowhere. Yan jolted awake, his heart beating in his throat as he failed to remember where he was – high up in the treetops where sleep had wrapped its tentacles around him. He dashed away from the razor-sharp claws of the roqual and tumbled from the crown of the nesting tree. Branches cut into his skin. He wildly sought purchase with his hands like a man drowning in air. A thick branch hit him full in the spine. His body twisted. His hand almost grabbed a branch, but his fingers slipped. Blinded by pain he crashed down onto the ground. Smothering a curse, he lay still and stayed where he was, protected by the undergrowth. He stifled cries of pain while huddling down against the marshy forest soil.

   Pure instinct.

   They were close: his masters – the whiteheads. At least a half dozen men, accompanied by a pack of dogs. Lumbering bodies wading through dense thicket. The panting of man and beast. They stopped dead and watched as the roqual lifted off from the treetops with majestic laziness. The animal looked impressive with a wingspan of more than two grown men – it was the kind of carrion bird that could easily devour a leopard carcass by itself.

Strever Rooijbosch was barking out commands. The whiteheads blamed the ruckus they’d heard in the trees on the giant bird and started hacking away again with their machetes, clearing a path through the obtrusive green.

   Yan’s body gave in. He curled up into a ball and awaited what came next. Fear of the whiteheads coming back and fear of the pain whenever he moved paralyzed him.

By the time he finally risked stirring, the sun had already set. Contrary to the night before, this darkness and all the life in it was shrouded by an almost tangible silence.

   Yan scrambled to his feet. As soon as he was upright, he could feel someone’s gaze burning on him. It took him a while to make out the shape in between the shrubbery. A figure was standing there, grinning at him with stark white teeth that were gleaming in the moonlight. They were sharper than the canines of mongrols and tigers. His skin was darker than a starless, moonless night. He was near invisible – the figure didn’t breathe or move. He just observed Yan with that intense, black stare of his. Yan’s scent camouflage wasn’t fooling him.

   “Sahandran,” Yan stammered. He lowered his head in reverence. All the stories had told him the same thing: you just needed to ask to be made one of them. Reluctantly he also remembered many tales in which death was the only answer given to the one asking.

Petrified, he stared the demon in the bushes. Even the tjir-tjars had grown quiet. Suddenly the figure was gone. Yan spun around and a cold hand grabbed his shoulder. He screamed.

   Ay Pitu gave him wings.

   He hurtled through the thicket until the forest floor suddenly seemed to fall away from under his feet and he tumbled and rolled across the dry earth. His mad ride came to a stop in a clearing between the trees. Heart pounding and breath pumping, he lay there, the surging pain in his back incapacitating him.

   They were everywhere. Scores of them. He wasn’t sure whether they were all Sahandran or some of them were just animals. There was a panther, a screeching-bear and a lahassa. The latter had big ears and bulging eyes and stood on hind legs that were still human. The beastly shapes weren’t the most terrifying ones, though. Specters wrought during the most frightful nightmares huddled around him – creations of Habu, the misshapen god. Their flesh had been punished so much harder than his own whip-marked back. Further in the background he discerned a few human Sahandran, as though they weren’t part of the tribe, with their near-transparent skin and languishing facial expressions. Some were clothed while others were naked like the day they’d been given their new bodies.

   Yan struggled to his knees and sat there on the desiccated mud, the cramp in his back preventing him from fully getting to his feet. Panting with agony, he took the filthy bag off his back and started to take out his gifts, presenting them to the Sahandran. They watched, unmoved. The holy book he’d stolen from the masters… a bag of tobacco. The pages of the book were curling up and the tobacco smelled moldy. Even though he’d treated his bag with wax, it hadn’t been completely waterproof. Not only were his gifts pitiful – they were outright ridiculous.

   Sahandran craved one thing only and he knew it all too well. Yan took his knife. The blade was just a thumb’s length. The steel was of inferior quality. It was dented and blemished with the onset of rust. He wiped the metal clean with trembling fingers. It wasn’t nearly as sharp as needed. He put the cold blade against his wrist and cut himself – twice, because the first cut wasn’t accurate enough. Tears stung his eyes. His breath was laborious and he painfully swallowed down his cries of anguish. His heart beat frantically at the back of his throat. Bright-red blood beaded on his skin, which was still darker than usual because of the dar-ha-dar paste. He stretched his arm and balled his fist. His blood dripped onto the dried earth. “I hereby give my life. Make me Sahandran. I cast off my human body.” Of course they didn’t refer to themselves as night crawlers – it was the name the Darvasi had thought up for them. He’d heard the sound of their real name somewhere, but he wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. “I beg you, make me like you. Az’vacje?”

   Still they didn’t move. They didn’t even breathe. Their bodies had evolved far beyond such human needs.

   Yan held his breath. Had he offended them with his clumsy request? The black demon came closer. He stayed low, moving forward in a crouch that wasn’t quite walking.   Curiously he contemplated Yan.

   Yan heaved a sigh. Clearly he hadn’t given enough – not even now. He raised the blade to his neck, took a deep breath, looked up at the stars, and slit his throat.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by SophiaDrenth in portal Simon & Schuster
Darkest heart (first chapter)
In the deepest depths of the forest live the Sahandran. No man is more powerful than Sahandran. No man is more cursed, yet no man is more blessed. Stronger than the blood of the living and more lifeless than the most forgotten soul.
   That is how Babay’s stories always started. Yan’s mother was a born storyteller. Already he yearned to relive those nights in the smoke-permeated longhouse.
   He sat up, cradled by the top of the nesting tree. Before him, the indomitable forest crawled up the night-blue hills. The half moon above him was accompanied by stars, closer than he’d ever seen them before. This was his land – the land of Darvasi. Here he had once been born in freedom, beyond the fence of the masters. By now, the world outside that enclosure had become alien to him.
   A shiver ran down his spine. Everyone knew that traveling the forests during nighttime could cost people their souls. With an annoyed gesture he shrugged off his fear. Nothing could stop him. He would find the Sahandran. The night crawlers would steal his soul and make him one of theirs, and he would be grateful. He didn’t ask Ay Pitu for wings. No – he asked him for a beautiful death and a new body, which would possess the strength to save his mother and the other members of his family from the masters’ hands. Ay Pitu, the god who never listened and who didn’t pity a single Darvasi.
   All that he knew lay behind him: Babay, his brothers, sisters – many of whom had been drowned in the pool by the masters. Only Anyi was still alive. The souls of his murdered sisters had found their peace once more in the waters of death. The smell of that water was insufficient to throw the bloodhounds off someone’s scent. He took the jar of death flower paste from his bag and rubbed the ointment all over his body from head to toe. For weeks, he’d been toiling to collect the dar-ha-dar blossoms and smother them in lard. The substance turned his dark-brown skin to almost black. The stench was overwhelming. His stomach revolted. He swallowed the spasm back down his throat and breathed through his mouth.
   With long strokes he erased his own scent. He turned to shadow.
   Only a few more hours until sunrise – that was when they’d notice his disappearance. Without delay he started his journey. Skillfully, Yan clambered from tree to tree. The tops of the nesting trees blurred into one. One moment he was climbing, then descending, in order to find the embrace of the next forest giant. A deafening orchestra of cicadas and tjir-tjars filled the air. Beneath him, in the nightly black, certain death awaited him at the slightest misstep. But dying was by far not the worst thing that could happen to him – if Master Rooijbosch ever got his hands on him after this escape attempt, he wouldn’t be allowed to die. Not for a very long time. Although he could already imagine feeling the breath of the bloodhounds burn down his neck, he kept calm and steadied his hands and feet.
   By the time the sun rose behind the hills in a trickle of fiery red, the distance between him and the plantation wasn’t nearly as big as he had hoped. Shielded by the branches of a nesting tree top, he took refuge. If that camouflage proved to be insufficient, running any further would be pointless. Besides, he needed rest.
   He applied a new layer of dar-ha-dar paste to the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands. Afterward, he covered himself with giant leaves to escape the worst heat of the day.

The whip snaked across his skin. A lash echoing through his flesh – a cry without end. The next lash came too soon. The scars that were being erased from his back screamed louder than the living skin he was losing. He looked up at the bright blue sky, beyond the pole that his hands were bound to, and prayed for Ay Pitu to see him. Warm drops of his blood doused the air, like a slow-moving formation of passing turtleneck geese that had lost sight of the sun. The world tinged red. Today, he was going to die. He was sure of it.
Fists no longer clenched. His rigid fingers pointing up at the sky, begging for mercy that wouldn’t be given. The sun burned down on his face and his pulped, shattered skin. The cries of agony had died in his throat a while ago.
   His mother was crying. His sister was beseeching their master.
   Master Strever Rooijbosch rolled up his blood-drenched whip, approached him, and grabbed his hair in one hand. The man pressed up against him. “Can you feel me? How hard you make me? I’m enjoying this. Next time I won’t call back the dogs – I’ll fuck your dead body like I fuck your sister.” His breath stank of sour milk. Blood was splattered across his pale, white skin. Bright blue eyes in a narrow face with thin lips seemed to look right through him. The man pulled his hair, jerking his gaze to another direction. “Look at your mother. Why are you doing this to her? You selfish piece of shit. Just accept your fate.”
   Rooijbosch let go of him and got out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his flushed neck. Shaking his head, he walked away from Yan. With a supple shake of his wrist he unfurled the whip once more and tirelessly resumed his work.

An enormous shadow attacked him out of nowhere. Yan jolted awake, his heart beating in his throat as he failed to remember where he was – high up in the treetops where sleep had wrapped its tentacles around him. He dashed away from the razor-sharp claws of the roqual and tumbled from the crown of the nesting tree. Branches cut into his skin. He wildly sought purchase with his hands like a man drowning in air. A thick branch hit him full in the spine. His body twisted. His hand almost grabbed a branch, but his fingers slipped. Blinded by pain he crashed down onto the ground. Smothering a curse, he lay still and stayed where he was, protected by the undergrowth. He stifled cries of pain while huddling down against the marshy forest soil.
   Pure instinct.
   They were close: his masters – the whiteheads. At least a half dozen men, accompanied by a pack of dogs. Lumbering bodies wading through dense thicket. The panting of man and beast. They stopped dead and watched as the roqual lifted off from the treetops with majestic laziness. The animal looked impressive with a wingspan of more than two grown men – it was the kind of carrion bird that could easily devour a leopard carcass by itself.
Strever Rooijbosch was barking out commands. The whiteheads blamed the ruckus they’d heard in the trees on the giant bird and started hacking away again with their machetes, clearing a path through the obtrusive green.
   Yan’s body gave in. He curled up into a ball and awaited what came next. Fear of the whiteheads coming back and fear of the pain whenever he moved paralyzed him.

By the time he finally risked stirring, the sun had already set. Contrary to the night before, this darkness and all the life in it was shrouded by an almost tangible silence.
   Yan scrambled to his feet. As soon as he was upright, he could feel someone’s gaze burning on him. It took him a while to make out the shape in between the shrubbery. A figure was standing there, grinning at him with stark white teeth that were gleaming in the moonlight. They were sharper than the canines of mongrols and tigers. His skin was darker than a starless, moonless night. He was near invisible – the figure didn’t breathe or move. He just observed Yan with that intense, black stare of his. Yan’s scent camouflage wasn’t fooling him.
   “Sahandran,” Yan stammered. He lowered his head in reverence. All the stories had told him the same thing: you just needed to ask to be made one of them. Reluctantly he also remembered many tales in which death was the only answer given to the one asking.
Petrified, he stared the demon in the bushes. Even the tjir-tjars had grown quiet. Suddenly the figure was gone. Yan spun around and a cold hand grabbed his shoulder. He screamed.
   Ay Pitu gave him wings.
   He hurtled through the thicket until the forest floor suddenly seemed to fall away from under his feet and he tumbled and rolled across the dry earth. His mad ride came to a stop in a clearing between the trees. Heart pounding and breath pumping, he lay there, the surging pain in his back incapacitating him.
   They were everywhere. Scores of them. He wasn’t sure whether they were all Sahandran or some of them were just animals. There was a panther, a screeching-bear and a lahassa. The latter had big ears and bulging eyes and stood on hind legs that were still human. The beastly shapes weren’t the most terrifying ones, though. Specters wrought during the most frightful nightmares huddled around him – creations of Habu, the misshapen god. Their flesh had been punished so much harder than his own whip-marked back. Further in the background he discerned a few human Sahandran, as though they weren’t part of the tribe, with their near-transparent skin and languishing facial expressions. Some were clothed while others were naked like the day they’d been given their new bodies.
   Yan struggled to his knees and sat there on the desiccated mud, the cramp in his back preventing him from fully getting to his feet. Panting with agony, he took the filthy bag off his back and started to take out his gifts, presenting them to the Sahandran. They watched, unmoved. The holy book he’d stolen from the masters… a bag of tobacco. The pages of the book were curling up and the tobacco smelled moldy. Even though he’d treated his bag with wax, it hadn’t been completely waterproof. Not only were his gifts pitiful – they were outright ridiculous.
   Sahandran craved one thing only and he knew it all too well. Yan took his knife. The blade was just a thumb’s length. The steel was of inferior quality. It was dented and blemished with the onset of rust. He wiped the metal clean with trembling fingers. It wasn’t nearly as sharp as needed. He put the cold blade against his wrist and cut himself – twice, because the first cut wasn’t accurate enough. Tears stung his eyes. His breath was laborious and he painfully swallowed down his cries of anguish. His heart beat frantically at the back of his throat. Bright-red blood beaded on his skin, which was still darker than usual because of the dar-ha-dar paste. He stretched his arm and balled his fist. His blood dripped onto the dried earth. “I hereby give my life. Make me Sahandran. I cast off my human body.” Of course they didn’t refer to themselves as night crawlers – it was the name the Darvasi had thought up for them. He’d heard the sound of their real name somewhere, but he wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. “I beg you, make me like you. Az’vacje?”
   Still they didn’t move. They didn’t even breathe. Their bodies had evolved far beyond such human needs.
   Yan held his breath. Had he offended them with his clumsy request? The black demon came closer. He stayed low, moving forward in a crouch that wasn’t quite walking.   Curiously he contemplated Yan.
   Yan heaved a sigh. Clearly he hadn’t given enough – not even now. He raised the blade to his neck, took a deep breath, looked up at the stars, and slit his throat.
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Written by HBadt in portal Simon & Schuster

A Life to Live and a Name To Be Called By

Chapter 1

Aurora had been given two things as she came into this world: a life to live and a name to be called by. The woman wanted nothing to do with her. The man also wasn't particularly fond of her when he first saw her disfigured face—the face of a newborn who knows what's waiting for it—but he had a feeling she might come in handy. So he ordered the woman to bring her into their hostile home and take care of her until the girl would be old enough to take care of herself. Reluctantly, the woman complied.

Time went by, and the baby turned three. By then, she was old enough to comprehend her misfortune, yet too young to understand the meaning of life, and, more importantly, the meaning of death. Little Aurora was scared all the time, but there was no one to hold her, to stroke her black silky hair, to kiss her, to comfort her and tell her it's all going to be alright. As long as she kept quiet, they didn't bother her too much. The few times she dared to cry, though, had cost her gravely: her food and her one-eyed, one-legged miserable-looking, stained teddy bear. After that horrendous experience, she promised to never cry again or ask for anything as long as they let her keep her Teddy. Even the hunger hadn't bothered her so much when her Teddy wasn't by her side. He was all she had in this world and she couldn't fall asleep without him. When Teddy was away, the complete darkness in her room would take the form of evil monsters, of invisible claws only waiting for her to close her eyes so they could cut her open. But when Teddy was there, lying beside her on the big ripped pillow on the floor and sharing the blanket with her, the darkness was her friend again; its soft layers of blackness stroking her young face, carrying the singing wind and the tenderness of the smiling moon from the open barred window and wiping away the mute secret tears coming out of her eyes. With Teddy, she could see how beautiful the darkness really was; how it swallowed all the noises of the day, all the screaming; how clean everything looked when it was dark, how kind and quiet. Sometimes, she would hold Teddy real tight and ask the darkness, the nice darkness, to take her with him. As far away as possible from this place, from these people.

The house was always dirty, she was always dirty, and she needed it to be clean; she needed to be clean, so badly. Indifference was the answer. Indifference meant survival. That much she knew. It wasn't easy, though. During those long hours, in which she had been sitting somewhere inside the closed small county-side house, hearing them scream at each other, or on the front porch, or even on the dry, yellow grass which stretched from the wooden porch to the steel barred gate, she would practice. She would stare at the filthy soles of her feet and the unattended nails, which made her seem like a small animal rather than the little toddler that she was. She would stare at the junk-covered floor of her room, which was actually their storage room; she would stare at the piles of old newspapers which were scattered on the dusty wall-to-wall brown carpet covering the floor of the small living room; she would stare at the television set, with its sellotaped antennas; she would stare at the peeling yellowish flower-patterned tappet, at the empty bottles of whiskey and beer on the crooked table, at the always full ashtray, and close her eyes. Then, she would concentrate very hard and try to turn them all into nothing in her head. The first stage was to stare at them until they stopped making any sense to her; until they turned into a blurry mixture of images and colors. Then, with a blink of the eye, they would be gone, just like that. Only then, when she was surrounded by beautiful nothingness, could she fill it with trees, flowers, blossoms of all possible colors, skies, birds, sunshine, shimmering flying lights and kind hands, not the evil claws from her nightmares. Hands that would lead her through the house; hands that would follow the exact path of the soft rays of sunlight which somehow managed to penetrate through the closed shutters, guiding her to the locked window, to the open world, waiting for her, outside.

*

Little Aurora’s training had payed off. She was indifferent when the man stamped his big feet; she was indifferent to his shouts, to his threats to kill the woman, to the woman's screams and cries, to seeing the woman being shoved against the kitchen table or wall, over and over again; she was indifferent to the blood streaming down the woman's face, to the dishes which would sometimes be thrown onto the floor, right beside her.

Little Aurora was like a ghost. She had become so good at staring soundlessly at the nothingness she had created, the man and the woman would sometimes forget she was even there. Luckily for her, the man had taken all of his anger out on the woman, but he never laid a hand on Aurora. Neither of them did. She had been spared, for some reason. Although Aurora hated the woman, hated them both, she didn't like seeing the man hit her. Somewhere, deep inside, she felt something that resembled empathy towards the woman; the same woman who had wanted nothing to do with her; the same woman who had told her how much she loathed her when it was just the two of them, blaming Aurora for binding her in an eternal bondage to the man, whom she hated even more than she hated her own daughter.

Not a day went by in which the woman hadn't emitted grunts and snorts, complaining about the hassle involved in caring for such a spoiled, evil girl like Aurora. Not wanting to be in any future debt towards the bitter woman, Aurora had tried her best to grow up as quickly as possible. She wasn't even two years old when she had potty-trained herself after reluctantly observing the man and the woman in the bathroom—they never bothered to close the door. She had no other choice—it was either teaching herself how to use the little plastic toilet in the bathroom or being punished by not having her diapers changed for hours on end, her own stench unbearable to smell.

At the age of three, Aurora started to dress herself, all on her own. She also learned to brush her teeth. She saw it on some commercial in the television—she was peeking at it from under the kitchen table as the two of them sat on the sofa with their cigarettes, watching their shows.

At the age of four, Aurora learned how to wash herself. She had been given permission to wash herself daily as long as she showered in less than five minutes. The thrusting of shoes against the closed door of the bathroom had been the man's subtle way to remind her that shower time was over. He was the one who had to pay the fucking water bills, he called from the sofa, his usual post-workday place. Aurora didn't mind the short shower, though; at least she could now wash herself on a daily basis. That was progress. Before that, when the woman had been in charge, she usually washed her only once in two weeks, and it was very hard staying clean in this house. As far as Aurora could tell, it had never been cleaned.

At the age of five, Aurora learned how to speak. She could understand everything the man and the woman said as early as the age of three or so, but she didn't dare to speak with them. Other than them, there was no one else around, so she never spoke. The first word she had ever learned was “bitch.” This was followed by “fuck” and “whore.” The words “Daddy” and “Mommy” had never been heard in this cursed house, nor did the word “love.” But, somehow, Aurora knew that the words she had thus far heard were bad, were evil. She had known it long before she could fully understand their meaning. She didn't want to hear these words; she didn't want to say them out loud.

The house, which she refused to call her own, was orphaned from books, toys, and games. All there was, were old newspapers, scattered crossword puzzle books, and a television set. Thanks to the television set, the “words and pictures emitter,” Aurora could expand her vocabulary dramatically. Words like “deal,” “best price,” “shop,” and “enjoy,” had become very familiar to her. Every day, she learned new words and these new words, enabled her to classify all of her thoughts and give each image, each notion, each feeling, their own name. At night, she would name in her heart all the good names she had learned thus far, so she won't forget. She would think about the dark skies, silently naming them “high sleep.” She would think about the faraway stars, which had received the name “gold high.” Aurora's moon was “white balloon” and her teddy was “Arturo” or “friend.” But her secret language had been hiding inside of her, never daring to leave her mouth. She didn’t want them to tarnish it. She needed this language to remain all hers, to remain pure and clean. Time and time again, Aurora heard the man and the woman as they mocked her, saying how stupid and slow she was; how she was a useless piece of shit that doesn’t understand a single thing. When they weren't looking, she would allow herself to smile determinedly, reminding herself how important it was for them to continue thinking this way. Her survival relied on her ability to deceit. 

*

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Written by HBadt in portal Simon & Schuster
A Life to Live and a Name To Be Called By
Chapter 1

Aurora had been given two things as she came into this world: a life to live and a name to be called by. The woman wanted nothing to do with her. The man also wasn't particularly fond of her when he first saw her disfigured face—the face of a newborn who knows what's waiting for it—but he had a feeling she might come in handy. So he ordered the woman to bring her into their hostile home and take care of her until the girl would be old enough to take care of herself. Reluctantly, the woman complied.

Time went by, and the baby turned three. By then, she was old enough to comprehend her misfortune, yet too young to understand the meaning of life, and, more importantly, the meaning of death. Little Aurora was scared all the time, but there was no one to hold her, to stroke her black silky hair, to kiss her, to comfort her and tell her it's all going to be alright. As long as she kept quiet, they didn't bother her too much. The few times she dared to cry, though, had cost her gravely: her food and her one-eyed, one-legged miserable-looking, stained teddy bear. After that horrendous experience, she promised to never cry again or ask for anything as long as they let her keep her Teddy. Even the hunger hadn't bothered her so much when her Teddy wasn't by her side. He was all she had in this world and she couldn't fall asleep without him. When Teddy was away, the complete darkness in her room would take the form of evil monsters, of invisible claws only waiting for her to close her eyes so they could cut her open. But when Teddy was there, lying beside her on the big ripped pillow on the floor and sharing the blanket with her, the darkness was her friend again; its soft layers of blackness stroking her young face, carrying the singing wind and the tenderness of the smiling moon from the open barred window and wiping away the mute secret tears coming out of her eyes. With Teddy, she could see how beautiful the darkness really was; how it swallowed all the noises of the day, all the screaming; how clean everything looked when it was dark, how kind and quiet. Sometimes, she would hold Teddy real tight and ask the darkness, the nice darkness, to take her with him. As far away as possible from this place, from these people.

The house was always dirty, she was always dirty, and she needed it to be clean; she needed to be clean, so badly. Indifference was the answer. Indifference meant survival. That much she knew. It wasn't easy, though. During those long hours, in which she had been sitting somewhere inside the closed small county-side house, hearing them scream at each other, or on the front porch, or even on the dry, yellow grass which stretched from the wooden porch to the steel barred gate, she would practice. She would stare at the filthy soles of her feet and the unattended nails, which made her seem like a small animal rather than the little toddler that she was. She would stare at the junk-covered floor of her room, which was actually their storage room; she would stare at the piles of old newspapers which were scattered on the dusty wall-to-wall brown carpet covering the floor of the small living room; she would stare at the television set, with its sellotaped antennas; she would stare at the peeling yellowish flower-patterned tappet, at the empty bottles of whiskey and beer on the crooked table, at the always full ashtray, and close her eyes. Then, she would concentrate very hard and try to turn them all into nothing in her head. The first stage was to stare at them until they stopped making any sense to her; until they turned into a blurry mixture of images and colors. Then, with a blink of the eye, they would be gone, just like that. Only then, when she was surrounded by beautiful nothingness, could she fill it with trees, flowers, blossoms of all possible colors, skies, birds, sunshine, shimmering flying lights and kind hands, not the evil claws from her nightmares. Hands that would lead her through the house; hands that would follow the exact path of the soft rays of sunlight which somehow managed to penetrate through the closed shutters, guiding her to the locked window, to the open world, waiting for her, outside.
*
Little Aurora’s training had payed off. She was indifferent when the man stamped his big feet; she was indifferent to his shouts, to his threats to kill the woman, to the woman's screams and cries, to seeing the woman being shoved against the kitchen table or wall, over and over again; she was indifferent to the blood streaming down the woman's face, to the dishes which would sometimes be thrown onto the floor, right beside her.

Little Aurora was like a ghost. She had become so good at staring soundlessly at the nothingness she had created, the man and the woman would sometimes forget she was even there. Luckily for her, the man had taken all of his anger out on the woman, but he never laid a hand on Aurora. Neither of them did. She had been spared, for some reason. Although Aurora hated the woman, hated them both, she didn't like seeing the man hit her. Somewhere, deep inside, she felt something that resembled empathy towards the woman; the same woman who had wanted nothing to do with her; the same woman who had told her how much she loathed her when it was just the two of them, blaming Aurora for binding her in an eternal bondage to the man, whom she hated even more than she hated her own daughter.

Not a day went by in which the woman hadn't emitted grunts and snorts, complaining about the hassle involved in caring for such a spoiled, evil girl like Aurora. Not wanting to be in any future debt towards the bitter woman, Aurora had tried her best to grow up as quickly as possible. She wasn't even two years old when she had potty-trained herself after reluctantly observing the man and the woman in the bathroom—they never bothered to close the door. She had no other choice—it was either teaching herself how to use the little plastic toilet in the bathroom or being punished by not having her diapers changed for hours on end, her own stench unbearable to smell.

At the age of three, Aurora started to dress herself, all on her own. She also learned to brush her teeth. She saw it on some commercial in the television—she was peeking at it from under the kitchen table as the two of them sat on the sofa with their cigarettes, watching their shows.

At the age of four, Aurora learned how to wash herself. She had been given permission to wash herself daily as long as she showered in less than five minutes. The thrusting of shoes against the closed door of the bathroom had been the man's subtle way to remind her that shower time was over. He was the one who had to pay the fucking water bills, he called from the sofa, his usual post-workday place. Aurora didn't mind the short shower, though; at least she could now wash herself on a daily basis. That was progress. Before that, when the woman had been in charge, she usually washed her only once in two weeks, and it was very hard staying clean in this house. As far as Aurora could tell, it had never been cleaned.

At the age of five, Aurora learned how to speak. She could understand everything the man and the woman said as early as the age of three or so, but she didn't dare to speak with them. Other than them, there was no one else around, so she never spoke. The first word she had ever learned was “bitch.” This was followed by “fuck” and “whore.” The words “Daddy” and “Mommy” had never been heard in this cursed house, nor did the word “love.” But, somehow, Aurora knew that the words she had thus far heard were bad, were evil. She had known it long before she could fully understand their meaning. She didn't want to hear these words; she didn't want to say them out loud.

The house, which she refused to call her own, was orphaned from books, toys, and games. All there was, were old newspapers, scattered crossword puzzle books, and a television set. Thanks to the television set, the “words and pictures emitter,” Aurora could expand her vocabulary dramatically. Words like “deal,” “best price,” “shop,” and “enjoy,” had become very familiar to her. Every day, she learned new words and these new words, enabled her to classify all of her thoughts and give each image, each notion, each feeling, their own name. At night, she would name in her heart all the good names she had learned thus far, so she won't forget. She would think about the dark skies, silently naming them “high sleep.” She would think about the faraway stars, which had received the name “gold high.” Aurora's moon was “white balloon” and her teddy was “Arturo” or “friend.” But her secret language had been hiding inside of her, never daring to leave her mouth. She didn’t want them to tarnish it. She needed this language to remain all hers, to remain pure and clean. Time and time again, Aurora heard the man and the woman as they mocked her, saying how stupid and slow she was; how she was a useless piece of shit that doesn’t understand a single thing. When they weren't looking, she would allow herself to smile determinedly, reminding herself how important it was for them to continue thinking this way. Her survival relied on her ability to deceit. 
*
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Written by wordybee in portal Simon & Schuster

Floral Eden

I could tell by the way he’d accepted my offer for tea that he didn’t really want it. He’d said, Yes, fine, to me and followed me into the kitchen – not his first act of boorishness, but perhaps the clearest sign that he had been raised without regard to the proper handling of things. Decency states that the guest remains seated while the hostess prepares tea. Here I thought everyone knew that bumbling into a kitchen after a woman of quality as she attempted to perform entertaining duties was known to be rude. Evidently, I was wrong.

Do you take sugar in your tea? I asked, as was polite, and tried my best not to look put off by his presence in my kitchen. He held up a hand with five dingy fingers splayed outward – five lumps of sugar, really? I decided to brew the cheap stuff. If he wasn’t going to drink tea pure, I wasn’t going to provide good tea. I set the sugar bowl on my tea tray with, I thought, a remarkable degree of good-mannered acceptance.

He did not suit my house. His calloused, soiled hands did not look right as they pulled my fine china teacups from the cabinet. I could see the dirt beneath is fingernails, ten brown crescents that made my skin crawl, their filthiness contrasting with the vivid beauty of the tea set’s painted flowers and gold accents. He fiddled with them, fiddled with the sugar, fiddled with everything in the kitchen until I couldn’t stand it anymore, imagining the grungy fingerprints he was leaving behind on every surface. I told him twice to wash his hands, as tactfully as possible, but he ignored me.

No use now, he said, with his filthy hands clutched around the handles of my best tea tray. No use, indeed.

Please have a seat in the salon, I told him. Manners were, after all, the most obvious sign of civility.

That is where we are sitting now as I stir my tea and he stirs his. I added one chunk of high-quality, raw sugar to my tea – a reasonable amount, I believe – because the cheap tea is no good without, no matter how perfectly I brew it.

With his ill-fitting jacket and poor posture, he looks no better in the salon than he did in the kitchen. He’s slouched against my floral sofa, probably smudging grime into the fabric, and I must remember to inform the maid to pay special attention to the sofa when she cleans in the morning. There is a scar that slits across his left eyebrow and his face is ruddy with too much sun, or too much drink, or too much time in disreputable establishments. His hands, I notice now, have the tell-tale signs of a recent fight on the knuckles – a day or so ago, perhaps. There is an absolute brute, a barely-tamed animal, drinking tea in my salon, and the look of him against the beauty of my home is striking. I want to make him disappear.

“Would you like anything to eat?” I ask him, swallowing a mouthful of tea and congratulating myself on adhering to the laws of polite society, unlike the slouching monstrosity across from me.

He doesn’t bother with politeness. He just laughs through his nose and keeps stirring his tea. He’s been stirring since he sat down and the clink, clink, clink of the spoon against the china has my nerves on end. I can feel a warm, simmering feeling of irritation rising in my chest and heating my face. I breathe deeply, sipping my tea in an effort to keep my emotions at bay.

“Is there anything else you would like, then?” Why are you here, is what I’m asking, and what do I need to give you to get you to leave?

There’s a smirk on his face and he sets his teacup and saucer down on the low coffee table before him. I see that he has sloshed tea into the saucer, and can barely draw breath past my irritation.

“I understand you knew him,” he says.

The question catches me off guard and I practically cough, “I’m sorry?”

I’m not faking ignorance. I truly don’t understand what he means.

“It was easier than I thought to kill a man,” he says, as casually as one would remark on the possibility of rain or a recent trip to the grocery store for half-priced tomatoes. But those words on his chapped lips, in his coarse voice, are the only things he’s said which have suited him, in all the time he’s been here.

I do not say anything in response. I take another, nervous sip of my tea. He stares into the middle distance before him, stares back in time to when he—

“—wrapped a scarf around his throat and just pulled. It was done in moments, but I kept pulling – to make sure, you see. He deserved it, of course – terrible man. But you knew that, didn’t you? Yes, yes, that’s all old news to you. And how did you manage to get to know him?”

His voice is pointed, more here than it had been before, when he’d been answering nothing questions about tea. His eyes are still focused on the past as he gazes beyond me, and through my own stark realization – the flushing heat that crawls up my limbs in itching, burning trails – I recognize something like resolution in his faraway gaze. It’s the look of a man who understands his actions and would never feel the need to apologize for them.

I cannot speak. I am not sure what I would say if I could.

“Of course, it didn’t take long for me to figure it out,” he is saying. His voice echoes inside my skull, wraps itself around my head, fills my salon and my house and the whole of my world. It dances through the air and flirts with the wafting lace of my fine, white curtains, and I can see beams of gloriously gold afternoon light striking my honey-colored hardwood floors in the most luscious way. Everything is so much brighter, isn’t it?

My tongue is swelling.

“A moron like that?” He is still talking. I wish I could shut my eyes, because the brightness of the room around me has become too much to bear and I can feel them watering. And because his eyes have begun to focus on the present again. They lock on me – piercing blue, and so terrible. “I knew he had to be working for someone. Someone to give him orders, to tell him who to kill… How to kill them… How best to taunt the surviving family…”

I’ve dropped my teacup. I hope that it won’t stain.

“So, yes – easier than I thought, killing a man.”

I do not see where my cup has fallen. My vision has tunneled so that he is all I can see, a vignette of wrath and vengeance feigning calmness framed by the striped pattern of my antique rose wallpaper. He truly does not belong.

He smiles, and it’s a cruel smile. “I do think killing a woman has been even easier, though.”

He rises from the sofa as I fall back in my chair. My hands vainly clutch at my throat, as if I could draw the poison from myself with a light massage.

“She was mine,” says a voice, the voice of a brutish and ill-mannered man I can no longer see. The entire world is black splotched with bright white, and then there is his voice – his calm fury adds color. I can feel, in the most nebulous sense, a hand on my shoulder, a feigned mimicry of a comforting gesture. “You had no right to take her from me.”

There is a part of me that respects him for this. Poisoning me in my own house, with my own tea! Truly, no other human being would have the nerve.

I know he leaves, but I do not hear him.

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Written by wordybee in portal Simon & Schuster
Floral Eden
I could tell by the way he’d accepted my offer for tea that he didn’t really want it. He’d said, Yes, fine, to me and followed me into the kitchen – not his first act of boorishness, but perhaps the clearest sign that he had been raised without regard to the proper handling of things. Decency states that the guest remains seated while the hostess prepares tea. Here I thought everyone knew that bumbling into a kitchen after a woman of quality as she attempted to perform entertaining duties was known to be rude. Evidently, I was wrong.

Do you take sugar in your tea? I asked, as was polite, and tried my best not to look put off by his presence in my kitchen. He held up a hand with five dingy fingers splayed outward – five lumps of sugar, really? I decided to brew the cheap stuff. If he wasn’t going to drink tea pure, I wasn’t going to provide good tea. I set the sugar bowl on my tea tray with, I thought, a remarkable degree of good-mannered acceptance.

He did not suit my house. His calloused, soiled hands did not look right as they pulled my fine china teacups from the cabinet. I could see the dirt beneath is fingernails, ten brown crescents that made my skin crawl, their filthiness contrasting with the vivid beauty of the tea set’s painted flowers and gold accents. He fiddled with them, fiddled with the sugar, fiddled with everything in the kitchen until I couldn’t stand it anymore, imagining the grungy fingerprints he was leaving behind on every surface. I told him twice to wash his hands, as tactfully as possible, but he ignored me.

No use now, he said, with his filthy hands clutched around the handles of my best tea tray. No use, indeed.

Please have a seat in the salon, I told him. Manners were, after all, the most obvious sign of civility.

That is where we are sitting now as I stir my tea and he stirs his. I added one chunk of high-quality, raw sugar to my tea – a reasonable amount, I believe – because the cheap tea is no good without, no matter how perfectly I brew it.

With his ill-fitting jacket and poor posture, he looks no better in the salon than he did in the kitchen. He’s slouched against my floral sofa, probably smudging grime into the fabric, and I must remember to inform the maid to pay special attention to the sofa when she cleans in the morning. There is a scar that slits across his left eyebrow and his face is ruddy with too much sun, or too much drink, or too much time in disreputable establishments. His hands, I notice now, have the tell-tale signs of a recent fight on the knuckles – a day or so ago, perhaps. There is an absolute brute, a barely-tamed animal, drinking tea in my salon, and the look of him against the beauty of my home is striking. I want to make him disappear.

“Would you like anything to eat?” I ask him, swallowing a mouthful of tea and congratulating myself on adhering to the laws of polite society, unlike the slouching monstrosity across from me.

He doesn’t bother with politeness. He just laughs through his nose and keeps stirring his tea. He’s been stirring since he sat down and the clink, clink, clink of the spoon against the china has my nerves on end. I can feel a warm, simmering feeling of irritation rising in my chest and heating my face. I breathe deeply, sipping my tea in an effort to keep my emotions at bay.

“Is there anything else you would like, then?” Why are you here, is what I’m asking, and what do I need to give you to get you to leave?

There’s a smirk on his face and he sets his teacup and saucer down on the low coffee table before him. I see that he has sloshed tea into the saucer, and can barely draw breath past my irritation.

“I understand you knew him,” he says.

The question catches me off guard and I practically cough, “I’m sorry?”

I’m not faking ignorance. I truly don’t understand what he means.

“It was easier than I thought to kill a man,” he says, as casually as one would remark on the possibility of rain or a recent trip to the grocery store for half-priced tomatoes. But those words on his chapped lips, in his coarse voice, are the only things he’s said which have suited him, in all the time he’s been here.

I do not say anything in response. I take another, nervous sip of my tea. He stares into the middle distance before him, stares back in time to when he—

“—wrapped a scarf around his throat and just pulled. It was done in moments, but I kept pulling – to make sure, you see. He deserved it, of course – terrible man. But you knew that, didn’t you? Yes, yes, that’s all old news to you. And how did you manage to get to know him?”

His voice is pointed, more here than it had been before, when he’d been answering nothing questions about tea. His eyes are still focused on the past as he gazes beyond me, and through my own stark realization – the flushing heat that crawls up my limbs in itching, burning trails – I recognize something like resolution in his faraway gaze. It’s the look of a man who understands his actions and would never feel the need to apologize for them.

I cannot speak. I am not sure what I would say if I could.

“Of course, it didn’t take long for me to figure it out,” he is saying. His voice echoes inside my skull, wraps itself around my head, fills my salon and my house and the whole of my world. It dances through the air and flirts with the wafting lace of my fine, white curtains, and I can see beams of gloriously gold afternoon light striking my honey-colored hardwood floors in the most luscious way. Everything is so much brighter, isn’t it?

My tongue is swelling.

“A moron like that?” He is still talking. I wish I could shut my eyes, because the brightness of the room around me has become too much to bear and I can feel them watering. And because his eyes have begun to focus on the present again. They lock on me – piercing blue, and so terrible. “I knew he had to be working for someone. Someone to give him orders, to tell him who to kill… How to kill them… How best to taunt the surviving family…”

I’ve dropped my teacup. I hope that it won’t stain.

“So, yes – easier than I thought, killing a man.”

I do not see where my cup has fallen. My vision has tunneled so that he is all I can see, a vignette of wrath and vengeance feigning calmness framed by the striped pattern of my antique rose wallpaper. He truly does not belong.

He smiles, and it’s a cruel smile. “I do think killing a woman has been even easier, though.”

He rises from the sofa as I fall back in my chair. My hands vainly clutch at my throat, as if I could draw the poison from myself with a light massage.

“She was mine,” says a voice, the voice of a brutish and ill-mannered man I can no longer see. The entire world is black splotched with bright white, and then there is his voice – his calm fury adds color. I can feel, in the most nebulous sense, a hand on my shoulder, a feigned mimicry of a comforting gesture. “You had no right to take her from me.”

There is a part of me that respects him for this. Poisoning me in my own house, with my own tea! Truly, no other human being would have the nerve.

I know he leaves, but I do not hear him.
#fiction 
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Written by JGSiminski in portal Simon & Schuster

Falling Water (A Chapter from "You are Here" by j.g. siminski)

When he was younger, in his twenties, the forty-five minute drive to the ocean was never given a thought. He did it almost every Saturday in the summer months and would spend hours on the beach, perhaps reading, but mostly just watching the people, the bodies more precisely, of those that appealed to his sexual appetite. But it wasn’t just that, it was searching for someone that would take away the loneliness that plagued him since he was a small boy. It was a wound that wouldn’t heal, leaving him in an endless longing so desperate that it was beyond difficult for him to concentrate on much anything else. And in one way, he was lucky; he was smart enough to get by in just about anything he did, but his loneliness stopped him from really succeeding at the thing he would be doing at any given time. A job was rarely a career. It was a means to an end and it swallowed up hours that he would otherwise have spent in loneliness.

It was forty years on now and the ocean was flat and grey and the beach was deserted. The chill in the damp air felt right. The vacant beach felt right. The sand supported those feelings in him. The millions and millions of grains, like he himself, like the people in the world, only seemed to mean something as one big whole. He knew he was only significant in that way as one grain of sand.

He was never that crazy about the ocean. Sometimes he liked looking at it, but he couldn’t swim so if it brought up any emotion in him, it was mostly fear. He did really love looking out at the sea in a storm and he loved the beaches of Cape Cod and the wind-bent wooden fences that meandered along the sand and beach grass. When he thinks of it now, it reminds him of happier days of his youth, when his brother was still alive, and his sister, and his parents.

His sister, Veronica, was much older than him. In fact, if she had been just a few years older, she would have been old enough to be Dominic’s mother, the age spread among the siblings was that great. It was when Dominic was about eight that early one summer morning she asked him if he would like to drive over into Canada and spend the day at the beach. So they set out with Veronica’s boyfriend, Hugh, and made their way across the Peace Bridge on that warm and humid, overcast Saturday. Even so, Hugh had the top down on his baby blue, Rambler 440 convertible. On Saturday mornings in the summer months, young people would gather on the beach in their cars as the main attraction was that you could drive right onto the mostly hard lakeshore sand. It was thrilling for Dominic to see all these shiny cars out on the foggy beach.

More than anything it was the lasting memory of seeing his sister smiling and confident in her being, the way she perceived the world around her, the relaxed way in which she flicked her hair back over her shoulder. In his mind now, it was like looking at a Super 8 movie clip, foggy like the beach that day, ethereal and muted around the edges. As he beheld the gray beach before him today, other memories came rushing in like the cresting waves before him; rushing in and then ebbing away.

Throughout his early youth he remembered pool days with one of his older brothers, the one closest to him in age. Michael loved climbing up the high diving board and jumping in. He had been learning how to dive and in keeping with the innate sense of perfection he carried, Dominic watched in awe as his brother placed on his nose clip and then thrust himself into the air with the grace of a diving swan. He remembered the smell of the lilacs that surrounded their park pool and the smell of suntan lotion on fresh young skin, all gone now to decades-old memories, that can no longer be shared, but only imagined by those who weren’t there. He thought about how often he heard people say today, “at our age one gets used to people dying,” but he got used to it when he was only a child. It was always there, walking hand in hand with life.

Dominic unsnapped the large outer pocket on his loose denim coat and pulled out the plastic bag with baby’s ashes in it. The decision to spread her ashes had taken him more than a decade. He loved all his cats, but baby was unique and stirred at his soul like a sage. She had lived 18 years and had saved him from death even after she was physically gone.

He looked at the ashes through the clear plastic and could feel through it with his fingers larger, harder bits that he imagined were bits of bone. It reminded him in some odd way of how small she was for a cat and of her ragged voice, which made her meow sound like she was the cub of a mountain lion. He remembered the first time he saw her at the weekend pet adoption at the local pet store, how she was off from the other cats, but when she saw him she made a raspy cry in his direction and pushed her tiny paw between the wires of the cage and tried to touch him. She was so, so tiny.

Some years ago, about a year after her death, Dominic had become seriously ill and as things go sometimes, he didn’t realize that with each passing hour he was moving precipitously closer to death. He was quite aware that he was sick, but it was so sudden, his mind wasn’t prepared for the gravity of what he was facing and so he kept believing he would be better in the morning.

Before dawn he opened his eyes to see baby curled up on his chest. She was talking to him telepathically. She said to Dominic, “If you go to the hospital right now, you will live.” And he did.

He thought about that first day he and Edward brought baby home. He brought her up on the bed away from the other cats so they could be introduced slowly, and he wanted her to know that their home was a safe and loving and comfortable place. And when he looked at her, she seemed to be smiling out from her kitten’s body, but really she was just happy to be peeing.

He saw so much of himself in baby. That loneliness that is so hard to fill. That not belonging. He wanted her to know, to experience the filling of that void and the best way he knew how to do that was through love and touch, because he knew that’s what he always longed for.

Dominic looked down at the plastic bag and then out to the sea. He knew baby was no longer the ashes in that bag. He knew that her body was only his way of connecting her to the world in a tactile way. He knew that when she died in his arms and her golden eyes turned a milky gray. In a wisp of air her soul was released from gravity. But yet he couldn’t seem to let those ashes go. He couldn’t watch the molecules, the atoms that were left of her, dissolve into that vast grayness in front of him. And he knew it was because he himself was still flesh and blood, a physical composite of those same atoms, bound to earth and struggling to hold on to the only thing he knew as life.

He turned and looked back at the hills rising above the shoreline. He could hear the speeding of cars, the impatient horns, but suddenly he realized that the roar of the ocean was consistently drowning them out. The power of water even evident in its sound, minimizing anything we think humanly important. Telling us it’s not. Dominic stood looking forward, then backwards and then down to the sand and his feet and his place in between.

Since he was a young boy he had dreamed of moving to Hollywood and the life he would create. Of the important person he would become, a celebrity in his own right, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Not that it couldn’t have for he was, back then, full of rebellion and brio. But after years of not having anyone to guide him through his then young life, he found he could only really listen to himself, a dangerously naive path. And he learned that sometimes heeding the advice of a stranger can mean the difference between finding oneself well beyond the fork in the road and miles down a tragically wrong path.

At twenty, he received an unexpected invitation to take a Caribbean cruise, by a friend who was playing in a band on an ocean liner. It was winter break and Dominic had just finished up a year at Boston University. In January he would be heading to London to attend a year abroad. In some ways he had planned his year away quite well, but in others it was ill-conceived. It was yet another way in which he would realize, years later, that his lack of parental guidance had put him at a great disadvantage.

It was New Year’s Eve and the boat had made a stop in Nassau. New passengers boarded the ship and one of them was a British woman, a regular passenger on the ship and known to the crew as a person with an uncanny gift for seeing into the future. She was also friendly with Dominic’s musician friend and so it happened that they all spent the evening celebrating the New Year together. But Dominic would find her staring at him. It unsettled him and he did his best to keep a safe distance between them. As Dominic stood out on the deck looking out over the moon and stars reflecting on the sea, Penelope, the woman, was suddenly by his side.

“I know you’re about to do something that you think will make your life better,” she said, “but I can only say, don’t do it. If you go, you will experience terrible things, terrible things, beyond anything you imagine. It will set you back years. I know you’re willful and stubborn and I know you don’t know me, but I’m compelled to try and stop you from making this mistake.”

She ended by saying something about a card, but it was so vague he wasn’t quite sure what she was on about.

That night, as he lay in bed, her words kept floating in an out of his head with the deep, slow sway of the ship on the open water. He was rattled by them, but by morning he had dismissed them as the words of a woman who had too many flutes of champagne.

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Written by JGSiminski in portal Simon & Schuster
Falling Water (A Chapter from "You are Here" by j.g. siminski)
When he was younger, in his twenties, the forty-five minute drive to the ocean was never given a thought. He did it almost every Saturday in the summer months and would spend hours on the beach, perhaps reading, but mostly just watching the people, the bodies more precisely, of those that appealed to his sexual appetite. But it wasn’t just that, it was searching for someone that would take away the loneliness that plagued him since he was a small boy. It was a wound that wouldn’t heal, leaving him in an endless longing so desperate that it was beyond difficult for him to concentrate on much anything else. And in one way, he was lucky; he was smart enough to get by in just about anything he did, but his loneliness stopped him from really succeeding at the thing he would be doing at any given time. A job was rarely a career. It was a means to an end and it swallowed up hours that he would otherwise have spent in loneliness.

It was forty years on now and the ocean was flat and grey and the beach was deserted. The chill in the damp air felt right. The vacant beach felt right. The sand supported those feelings in him. The millions and millions of grains, like he himself, like the people in the world, only seemed to mean something as one big whole. He knew he was only significant in that way as one grain of sand.

He was never that crazy about the ocean. Sometimes he liked looking at it, but he couldn’t swim so if it brought up any emotion in him, it was mostly fear. He did really love looking out at the sea in a storm and he loved the beaches of Cape Cod and the wind-bent wooden fences that meandered along the sand and beach grass. When he thinks of it now, it reminds him of happier days of his youth, when his brother was still alive, and his sister, and his parents.

His sister, Veronica, was much older than him. In fact, if she had been just a few years older, she would have been old enough to be Dominic’s mother, the age spread among the siblings was that great. It was when Dominic was about eight that early one summer morning she asked him if he would like to drive over into Canada and spend the day at the beach. So they set out with Veronica’s boyfriend, Hugh, and made their way across the Peace Bridge on that warm and humid, overcast Saturday. Even so, Hugh had the top down on his baby blue, Rambler 440 convertible. On Saturday mornings in the summer months, young people would gather on the beach in their cars as the main attraction was that you could drive right onto the mostly hard lakeshore sand. It was thrilling for Dominic to see all these shiny cars out on the foggy beach.
More than anything it was the lasting memory of seeing his sister smiling and confident in her being, the way she perceived the world around her, the relaxed way in which she flicked her hair back over her shoulder. In his mind now, it was like looking at a Super 8 movie clip, foggy like the beach that day, ethereal and muted around the edges. As he beheld the gray beach before him today, other memories came rushing in like the cresting waves before him; rushing in and then ebbing away.

Throughout his early youth he remembered pool days with one of his older brothers, the one closest to him in age. Michael loved climbing up the high diving board and jumping in. He had been learning how to dive and in keeping with the innate sense of perfection he carried, Dominic watched in awe as his brother placed on his nose clip and then thrust himself into the air with the grace of a diving swan. He remembered the smell of the lilacs that surrounded their park pool and the smell of suntan lotion on fresh young skin, all gone now to decades-old memories, that can no longer be shared, but only imagined by those who weren’t there. He thought about how often he heard people say today, “at our age one gets used to people dying,” but he got used to it when he was only a child. It was always there, walking hand in hand with life.

Dominic unsnapped the large outer pocket on his loose denim coat and pulled out the plastic bag with baby’s ashes in it. The decision to spread her ashes had taken him more than a decade. He loved all his cats, but baby was unique and stirred at his soul like a sage. She had lived 18 years and had saved him from death even after she was physically gone.

He looked at the ashes through the clear plastic and could feel through it with his fingers larger, harder bits that he imagined were bits of bone. It reminded him in some odd way of how small she was for a cat and of her ragged voice, which made her meow sound like she was the cub of a mountain lion. He remembered the first time he saw her at the weekend pet adoption at the local pet store, how she was off from the other cats, but when she saw him she made a raspy cry in his direction and pushed her tiny paw between the wires of the cage and tried to touch him. She was so, so tiny.

Some years ago, about a year after her death, Dominic had become seriously ill and as things go sometimes, he didn’t realize that with each passing hour he was moving precipitously closer to death. He was quite aware that he was sick, but it was so sudden, his mind wasn’t prepared for the gravity of what he was facing and so he kept believing he would be better in the morning.

Before dawn he opened his eyes to see baby curled up on his chest. She was talking to him telepathically. She said to Dominic, “If you go to the hospital right now, you will live.” And he did.

He thought about that first day he and Edward brought baby home. He brought her up on the bed away from the other cats so they could be introduced slowly, and he wanted her to know that their home was a safe and loving and comfortable place. And when he looked at her, she seemed to be smiling out from her kitten’s body, but really she was just happy to be peeing.

He saw so much of himself in baby. That loneliness that is so hard to fill. That not belonging. He wanted her to know, to experience the filling of that void and the best way he knew how to do that was through love and touch, because he knew that’s what he always longed for.

Dominic looked down at the plastic bag and then out to the sea. He knew baby was no longer the ashes in that bag. He knew that her body was only his way of connecting her to the world in a tactile way. He knew that when she died in his arms and her golden eyes turned a milky gray. In a wisp of air her soul was released from gravity. But yet he couldn’t seem to let those ashes go. He couldn’t watch the molecules, the atoms that were left of her, dissolve into that vast grayness in front of him. And he knew it was because he himself was still flesh and blood, a physical composite of those same atoms, bound to earth and struggling to hold on to the only thing he knew as life.

He turned and looked back at the hills rising above the shoreline. He could hear the speeding of cars, the impatient horns, but suddenly he realized that the roar of the ocean was consistently drowning them out. The power of water even evident in its sound, minimizing anything we think humanly important. Telling us it’s not. Dominic stood looking forward, then backwards and then down to the sand and his feet and his place in between.

Since he was a young boy he had dreamed of moving to Hollywood and the life he would create. Of the important person he would become, a celebrity in his own right, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Not that it couldn’t have for he was, back then, full of rebellion and brio. But after years of not having anyone to guide him through his then young life, he found he could only really listen to himself, a dangerously naive path. And he learned that sometimes heeding the advice of a stranger can mean the difference between finding oneself well beyond the fork in the road and miles down a tragically wrong path.

At twenty, he received an unexpected invitation to take a Caribbean cruise, by a friend who was playing in a band on an ocean liner. It was winter break and Dominic had just finished up a year at Boston University. In January he would be heading to London to attend a year abroad. In some ways he had planned his year away quite well, but in others it was ill-conceived. It was yet another way in which he would realize, years later, that his lack of parental guidance had put him at a great disadvantage.

It was New Year’s Eve and the boat had made a stop in Nassau. New passengers boarded the ship and one of them was a British woman, a regular passenger on the ship and known to the crew as a person with an uncanny gift for seeing into the future. She was also friendly with Dominic’s musician friend and so it happened that they all spent the evening celebrating the New Year together. But Dominic would find her staring at him. It unsettled him and he did his best to keep a safe distance between them. As Dominic stood out on the deck looking out over the moon and stars reflecting on the sea, Penelope, the woman, was suddenly by his side.

“I know you’re about to do something that you think will make your life better,” she said, “but I can only say, don’t do it. If you go, you will experience terrible things, terrible things, beyond anything you imagine. It will set you back years. I know you’re willful and stubborn and I know you don’t know me, but I’m compelled to try and stop you from making this mistake.”

She ended by saying something about a card, but it was so vague he wasn’t quite sure what she was on about.

That night, as he lay in bed, her words kept floating in an out of his head with the deep, slow sway of the ship on the open water. He was rattled by them, but by morning he had dismissed them as the words of a woman who had too many flutes of champagne.
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Written by Voice_Indiana in portal Simon & Schuster

The Divine Armor (Mystery): Chapter One + Synopsis

You would know me if you knew a bit about the epic, The Mahabharata. Even if you haven’t read it, you have perhaps heard mythological stories told to you by elders. I am Karna, son of Surya, the Sun-god. But this story is not about me; it is about Vasu Sen. If you have followed him since his childhood, as I have done, you would know him as my alter ego. He has just set out on a quest to find my Kavach-Kundal, the very same set of armor that was taken away from me by Lord Indra, 5000 years ago.

Yes, I am mighty proud of Vasu, and he prides himself too, for having grown in my likeness and addresses me as Mahapurush – the great man.

I have been traversing in this era – Vasu says it’s the beginning of the twenty-first century – to find a man who could quell my intrigue, who could get me a glimpse of my Kavach-Kundal. I needed to find a person sterling in character, resolute in pursuit, unflinching in the face of adversity, unbiased in reasoning, scientific in thinking, measured in actions, and compassionate to the human cause. Only such a person could deserve to find the Kavach-Kundal. Vasu seemed to measure up to my expectations.

No, I didn’t teach him all those traits. He turned himself into such a persona on the fiery lathe of life. Now, as I strolled in the lawn of his house, he reclining in stupor in his garden swing that swayed slowly in the morning breeze, I noticed how much he had grown physically, mentally, and spiritually, in the last three and half decades. Five years in the Army had made good what he once lacked in physique as a boy. As a matter of fact, at 47 he was brawny like the sportsperson that he was. A short mustache and combed back hair gave him the elegant look of a high-ranking officer of a corporate, which again, he was.

I replayed in my mind all those testing times Vasu has been through – born illegitimate, brought up in abject living conditions, being an object of ridicule during his formative years, his first love mocking him and forsaking him, he losing his job for telling a lie, he unearthing a treasure trove but someone else claiming it, he narrowly missing a medal in an international sports event, he getting superseded for promotion. All these pitfalls, which were not very different from those I had been through, had turned him into a resolute man with a balanced view of life. His circumstances had molded him into a confident and capable man, until finally, I must admit, he surpassed me in goodness and accomplishment. Whereas I had humiliated Draupadi with derogatory speech, Vasu took as wife a dishonored woman, and whereas I had gone down fighting Arjuna in the final battle of my life, Vasu emerged victorious in a life-and-death fight against terrorists. All these you would know if you have read the account of Vasu’s early life recorded in Karna’s Alter Ego.

I did nothing to make him what he is today. I merely walked beside him when he needed me, stood by him whenever he called me to. In reality, I was always beside him, though most times unseen, to see him fare through multitudes of tests that life threw at him. It took him 35 years to reach these lofty standards, and I must say I am impressed.

His question to me, when he was still in school, rang in my ears. “Mahapurush, did it hurt when you wrenched out the Kavach-Kundal from your body?”

“A bit,” I had assured the concerned little Vasu. But the pain had been far more than ‘a bit’. It was quite like skinning myself, tearing off the outer covering that had grown on me since my birth. I bled all over, but Indra also cured me. The scars were gone, but the Kavach-Kundal remained imprinted on my soul which no one could ever erase.

Vasu perceived my presence and opened his eyes. I could no longer contain my intrigue. I disclosed my millennia old curiosity to him: “Where has my Kavach-Kundal vanished, Vasu?”

He stood transfixed, staring at me and my bright white robe with adoration, as one does before a deity. He looked me up from foot to head and at each limb sent out a prayer. My bare feet, he bowed and touched; he took my hands and touched them to his forehead; at the mark of rising sun on my forehead he fixed his gaze and sent out a prayer unto Surya. He peered at the conch shell that hung by a sash from my shoulders. Through my locks of hair, he noticed my earlobes that should have been adorned with Kundals, and finally, underneath my silken shawl, he visualized my bare torso where the Kavach should have been.

Mahapurush, I thought you always knew where it went after Lord Indra took it away from you.”

From his tenor, I could make out that he was plunged into the intrigue, as deep as I was. He yearned, as much I did, to set out on a quest for the Kavach-Kundal. But we had no idea where to begin our search from. Neither I nor anyone else, but Indra, ever got to know where the armor went. Indra hid it in some corner of the earth, never to be found. I told Vasu that I had made discreet inquiries. “Indra couldn’t carry it with him to Swarga, the Heaven. Before he could reach the gates of Amaravati, Surya, annoyed with him for divesting me of his gift, shone on him and irradiated the Kavach-Kundal that he was carrying concealed. So radiant was the effulgence from the set that everyone came to know what Indra was carrying wrapped in satin sheets. Brahma and several gods appeared there and asked him not to defile the heavens. ‘What you are carrying, O Indra, despite all its divine powers, is still a human body part, grossly lacking in sanctity to enter the heavens,’ advised Brahma. Lord Indra had to turn back from the gates of his kingdom.”

“Did he then dig deep and push it into Patala, the Underworld?” asked Vasu.

“He wouldn’t be so foolish. If the demons of the Underworld found it, they would let hell loose on heavens, divest Indra of his throne and rule over the gods.”

It only meant that the Kavach-Kundal was stashed away on earth, in some spot known only to Indra. The secret location has remained a matter of speculation in all the worlds: the world of gods, of humans, of rakshasas, of gandharvas, of pitris. Indra has taken every measure to keep his secret, even from gods, forever protective of his throne that he is. He has even dispelled thoughts of it from his consciousness lest someone read his mind.

“But why do we need to find it now, Mahapurush? Let it rest where it lies.”

That was just the kind of question I expected from a rational, reasoning mind. Vasu should be right in his thinking. Why disturb the potent armament that has been lying peacefully for so many millennia? But he lacked the ability to foresee the future. The human world was nearing self-destruction. Weapons no less in potency than the Brahmastra proliferated in the hands of unwise despots. Such weapons could only be deterred by more such weapons, which they called nuclear missiles. In my time, powerful celestial arms remained with the gods and only the deserving, who had earned the merit, could invoke them for one-time use, after which the weapons returned to the gods.

*****

SYNOPSIS

This is a story of the quest for the Kavach-Kundal (set of armor and earrings) worn by the legendary warrior Karna in the Mahabharata. The action unfolds in the present time, but the story premise is rooted in a legend from the epic. The armor had celestial powers had provided invincibility to Karna. God Indra had tricked him and taken away the divine set; that’s how Karna lost his final battle against Arjuna. It is not known what Indra did with that set afterward.

(Does one need to be acquainted with the Indian Epic MAHABHARATA to follow this novel? NO. The above paragraph is all that one needs to know. The story is a mystery – a quest for an ancient, all-powerful armor – set in the present time.)

Vasu, the protagonist, sets off to find the set, donning which he should be able to bring peace on earth by fighting terrorists. The spirit of Karna (who is the narrator) guides Vasu through the search. The quest leads Vasu to the Himalayas where he comes across a friendly guide named Chhetri, who helps him in mountaineering. Later, he finds a Yeti who is believed to be holding an ancient treasure, possibly the Kavach-Kundal. After considerable battle of wits, he manages to get it, but it turns out to be only one earring instead of the whole set of armor. It appears Indra had separated the components and had hidden them in four different sites. (Unknown to Vasu, he is not the only one who has an interest in this quest.) With a clue from the Yeti, Vasu heads south to Rameshwaram, where he gets to know that a great scientist has already found the other piece of the earrings. Soon enough, the scientist is kidnapped by a gang. It turns out that the gang leader is none other than Chhetri. The ransom is the pair of earrings plus a considerable sum of money. Vasu joins hands with the police in a covert operation and rescues the scientist, who then hands him over his piece of the earring.

The next leg of his mission takes Vasu to Dwarka on the west coast. He traces out a sunken city off the Gujarat coast, where he locates the back-plate of the armor, guarded by mermaids, but not before he subdues a gang of underwater swimmers who have managed to follow him there. That leaves Vasu to find the final and the most important component, the breastplate. He reaches the famous Sun Temple at Konark on the east coast. The 760-year-old ruins of the exquisitely carved monument intrigue Vasu – Why was there never a deity in such a majestic temple? Why did no worship ever begin in the shrine? Why was it not restored when it collapsed? Did the king construct the temple to bury a secret treasure? Chhetri is back; he tempts Vasu with a box full of gold, power and physical pleasures, to trade with the components of the Kavach-Kundal he has unearthed so far.

It transpires, towards the end, that Chhetri is not truly an antagonist, but a spiritual master deputed by Lord Indra to impose hurdles and temptations on the path of Vasu. The underlying rationale here is that a true seeker will find the Kavach-Kundal, while bounty hunters not pure of heart will fall by the wayside.

There is an element of mysticism throughout the story. In every successive step of the search, Vasu transcends a notch in spirituality, such that on the final leg of his quest, when he discovers the breastplate, he is so transformed that he would rather let the armor rest there as it has done for five millennia than disturb it. In the end, it is not exactly about finding an armor hidden somewhere, but about locating it within oneself. The discerning reader should be able to spot the monomyth in my hero’s journey.

THE CELESTIAL ARMOR is somewhat comparable to Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE, in that both are quests by a modern day protagonist for a divine object said to hold infinite powers, and that the antagonists initially appear to be helpful but are intent on grabbing the object for themselves.

****

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Written by Voice_Indiana in portal Simon & Schuster
The Divine Armor (Mystery): Chapter One + Synopsis
You would know me if you knew a bit about the epic, The Mahabharata. Even if you haven’t read it, you have perhaps heard mythological stories told to you by elders. I am Karna, son of Surya, the Sun-god. But this story is not about me; it is about Vasu Sen. If you have followed him since his childhood, as I have done, you would know him as my alter ego. He has just set out on a quest to find my Kavach-Kundal, the very same set of armor that was taken away from me by Lord Indra, 5000 years ago.

Yes, I am mighty proud of Vasu, and he prides himself too, for having grown in my likeness and addresses me as Mahapurush – the great man.

I have been traversing in this era – Vasu says it’s the beginning of the twenty-first century – to find a man who could quell my intrigue, who could get me a glimpse of my Kavach-Kundal. I needed to find a person sterling in character, resolute in pursuit, unflinching in the face of adversity, unbiased in reasoning, scientific in thinking, measured in actions, and compassionate to the human cause. Only such a person could deserve to find the Kavach-Kundal. Vasu seemed to measure up to my expectations.

No, I didn’t teach him all those traits. He turned himself into such a persona on the fiery lathe of life. Now, as I strolled in the lawn of his house, he reclining in stupor in his garden swing that swayed slowly in the morning breeze, I noticed how much he had grown physically, mentally, and spiritually, in the last three and half decades. Five years in the Army had made good what he once lacked in physique as a boy. As a matter of fact, at 47 he was brawny like the sportsperson that he was. A short mustache and combed back hair gave him the elegant look of a high-ranking officer of a corporate, which again, he was.

I replayed in my mind all those testing times Vasu has been through – born illegitimate, brought up in abject living conditions, being an object of ridicule during his formative years, his first love mocking him and forsaking him, he losing his job for telling a lie, he unearthing a treasure trove but someone else claiming it, he narrowly missing a medal in an international sports event, he getting superseded for promotion. All these pitfalls, which were not very different from those I had been through, had turned him into a resolute man with a balanced view of life. His circumstances had molded him into a confident and capable man, until finally, I must admit, he surpassed me in goodness and accomplishment. Whereas I had humiliated Draupadi with derogatory speech, Vasu took as wife a dishonored woman, and whereas I had gone down fighting Arjuna in the final battle of my life, Vasu emerged victorious in a life-and-death fight against terrorists. All these you would know if you have read the account of Vasu’s early life recorded in Karna’s Alter Ego.

I did nothing to make him what he is today. I merely walked beside him when he needed me, stood by him whenever he called me to. In reality, I was always beside him, though most times unseen, to see him fare through multitudes of tests that life threw at him. It took him 35 years to reach these lofty standards, and I must say I am impressed.

His question to me, when he was still in school, rang in my ears. “Mahapurush, did it hurt when you wrenched out the Kavach-Kundal from your body?”

“A bit,” I had assured the concerned little Vasu. But the pain had been far more than ‘a bit’. It was quite like skinning myself, tearing off the outer covering that had grown on me since my birth. I bled all over, but Indra also cured me. The scars were gone, but the Kavach-Kundal remained imprinted on my soul which no one could ever erase.

Vasu perceived my presence and opened his eyes. I could no longer contain my intrigue. I disclosed my millennia old curiosity to him: “Where has my Kavach-Kundal vanished, Vasu?”

He stood transfixed, staring at me and my bright white robe with adoration, as one does before a deity. He looked me up from foot to head and at each limb sent out a prayer. My bare feet, he bowed and touched; he took my hands and touched them to his forehead; at the mark of rising sun on my forehead he fixed his gaze and sent out a prayer unto Surya. He peered at the conch shell that hung by a sash from my shoulders. Through my locks of hair, he noticed my earlobes that should have been adorned with Kundals, and finally, underneath my silken shawl, he visualized my bare torso where the Kavach should have been.

Mahapurush, I thought you always knew where it went after Lord Indra took it away from you.”

From his tenor, I could make out that he was plunged into the intrigue, as deep as I was. He yearned, as much I did, to set out on a quest for the Kavach-Kundal. But we had no idea where to begin our search from. Neither I nor anyone else, but Indra, ever got to know where the armor went. Indra hid it in some corner of the earth, never to be found. I told Vasu that I had made discreet inquiries. “Indra couldn’t carry it with him to Swarga, the Heaven. Before he could reach the gates of Amaravati, Surya, annoyed with him for divesting me of his gift, shone on him and irradiated the Kavach-Kundal that he was carrying concealed. So radiant was the effulgence from the set that everyone came to know what Indra was carrying wrapped in satin sheets. Brahma and several gods appeared there and asked him not to defile the heavens. ‘What you are carrying, O Indra, despite all its divine powers, is still a human body part, grossly lacking in sanctity to enter the heavens,’ advised Brahma. Lord Indra had to turn back from the gates of his kingdom.”

“Did he then dig deep and push it into Patala, the Underworld?” asked Vasu.

“He wouldn’t be so foolish. If the demons of the Underworld found it, they would let hell loose on heavens, divest Indra of his throne and rule over the gods.”

It only meant that the Kavach-Kundal was stashed away on earth, in some spot known only to Indra. The secret location has remained a matter of speculation in all the worlds: the world of gods, of humans, of rakshasas, of gandharvas, of pitris. Indra has taken every measure to keep his secret, even from gods, forever protective of his throne that he is. He has even dispelled thoughts of it from his consciousness lest someone read his mind.

“But why do we need to find it now, Mahapurush? Let it rest where it lies.”

That was just the kind of question I expected from a rational, reasoning mind. Vasu should be right in his thinking. Why disturb the potent armament that has been lying peacefully for so many millennia? But he lacked the ability to foresee the future. The human world was nearing self-destruction. Weapons no less in potency than the Brahmastra proliferated in the hands of unwise despots. Such weapons could only be deterred by more such weapons, which they called nuclear missiles. In my time, powerful celestial arms remained with the gods and only the deserving, who had earned the merit, could invoke them for one-time use, after which the weapons returned to the gods.

*****

SYNOPSIS

This is a story of the quest for the Kavach-Kundal (set of armor and earrings) worn by the legendary warrior Karna in the Mahabharata. The action unfolds in the present time, but the story premise is rooted in a legend from the epic. The armor had celestial powers had provided invincibility to Karna. God Indra had tricked him and taken away the divine set; that’s how Karna lost his final battle against Arjuna. It is not known what Indra did with that set afterward.

(Does one need to be acquainted with the Indian Epic MAHABHARATA to follow this novel? NO. The above paragraph is all that one needs to know. The story is a mystery – a quest for an ancient, all-powerful armor – set in the present time.)

Vasu, the protagonist, sets off to find the set, donning which he should be able to bring peace on earth by fighting terrorists. The spirit of Karna (who is the narrator) guides Vasu through the search. The quest leads Vasu to the Himalayas where he comes across a friendly guide named Chhetri, who helps him in mountaineering. Later, he finds a Yeti who is believed to be holding an ancient treasure, possibly the Kavach-Kundal. After considerable battle of wits, he manages to get it, but it turns out to be only one earring instead of the whole set of armor. It appears Indra had separated the components and had hidden them in four different sites. (Unknown to Vasu, he is not the only one who has an interest in this quest.) With a clue from the Yeti, Vasu heads south to Rameshwaram, where he gets to know that a great scientist has already found the other piece of the earrings. Soon enough, the scientist is kidnapped by a gang. It turns out that the gang leader is none other than Chhetri. The ransom is the pair of earrings plus a considerable sum of money. Vasu joins hands with the police in a covert operation and rescues the scientist, who then hands him over his piece of the earring.

The next leg of his mission takes Vasu to Dwarka on the west coast. He traces out a sunken city off the Gujarat coast, where he locates the back-plate of the armor, guarded by mermaids, but not before he subdues a gang of underwater swimmers who have managed to follow him there. That leaves Vasu to find the final and the most important component, the breastplate. He reaches the famous Sun Temple at Konark on the east coast. The 760-year-old ruins of the exquisitely carved monument intrigue Vasu – Why was there never a deity in such a majestic temple? Why did no worship ever begin in the shrine? Why was it not restored when it collapsed? Did the king construct the temple to bury a secret treasure? Chhetri is back; he tempts Vasu with a box full of gold, power and physical pleasures, to trade with the components of the Kavach-Kundal he has unearthed so far.

It transpires, towards the end, that Chhetri is not truly an antagonist, but a spiritual master deputed by Lord Indra to impose hurdles and temptations on the path of Vasu. The underlying rationale here is that a true seeker will find the Kavach-Kundal, while bounty hunters not pure of heart will fall by the wayside.

There is an element of mysticism throughout the story. In every successive step of the search, Vasu transcends a notch in spirituality, such that on the final leg of his quest, when he discovers the breastplate, he is so transformed that he would rather let the armor rest there as it has done for five millennia than disturb it. In the end, it is not exactly about finding an armor hidden somewhere, but about locating it within oneself. The discerning reader should be able to spot the monomyth in my hero’s journey.

THE CELESTIAL ARMOR is somewhat comparable to Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE, in that both are quests by a modern day protagonist for a divine object said to hold infinite powers, and that the antagonists initially appear to be helpful but are intent on grabbing the object for themselves.

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Written by MayFlower in portal Simon & Schuster

Through the Absence

Shadows. Technically, the absence of light. Metaphorically, something bad or looming. Superstitiously, a spirit or mischievous side of a person. Personally, a way to see people's desires.

I don't mean this figuratively. I mean this quite literally. In people's shadows, I see more than just their figure, blocking light. I see ballerinas and painters, musicians and engineers. I see what people want most in life. Whether they wish to go back to a time of youth or happiness or if they have a dream career - which occurs most often - I see these images in their shadows.

Today, as I walk down the road, I watch the shadows, like always. The brisk autumn morning provides a nice breeze and a satisfying view of red, orange, and golden leaves. Of course, the leaves aren't my main focus.

A small girl walks past. I see the silhouette of an astronaut, and I smile to myself. So many small children want to do more than see the stars; they want to be among them. The thought prompts me to look upward, despite the early morning sun and lack of stars.

What a lovely age to be, what a lovely time it is when you're young. Anything is possible. We aspire to be so many things. We reach for the stars - literally. But in the end, dreams don't always work out.

What was my dream? What is my dream? I have no idea. I see nothing in my shadow. I see only the absence of light. I see no dancers or firemen. I see no farmers or singers. I just see me. And that scares me immensely.

Do I even have a dream? Will I be working at a café forever? Will I never find my desire?

I don't know. And that is the scariest part - the absence of knowledge.

So, I continue walking. A small child - policeman. A teenager - someone holding a sign, but it's a silhouette; I don't know what it says. An elderly woman - the figure of someone very young.

Stray leaves blow across the sidewalk. As people step, the leaves crunch and crumble into little brown pieces which are blown away by the breeze. I watch as the pieces blow by a man, and I look at his shadow. His shadow is much slimmer than he; he wants to lose weight maybe.

I look back to the leaves beneath my feet, and I sigh. Slowly I've begun to feel like I will never find a dream, a desire, anything I want. Did that mean I was happy the way things were? I don't feel happy, but I don't know what would make me happy.

Any person could come to me and I could tell them what they want, but I can't tell myself. Things don't feel correct, but I have no notion as to what could fix it.

I know nothing is there, but still, I glance back at my shadow every once in a while. Maybe one day I will see something. Maybe one day I will know what I want. Maybe one day I will be able to see past that absence of light and see something more.

But for now, I will just keep seeing the shadows of others. I will keep watching other people's dreams.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by MayFlower in portal Simon & Schuster
Through the Absence
Shadows. Technically, the absence of light. Metaphorically, something bad or looming. Superstitiously, a spirit or mischievous side of a person. Personally, a way to see people's desires.

I don't mean this figuratively. I mean this quite literally. In people's shadows, I see more than just their figure, blocking light. I see ballerinas and painters, musicians and engineers. I see what people want most in life. Whether they wish to go back to a time of youth or happiness or if they have a dream career - which occurs most often - I see these images in their shadows.

Today, as I walk down the road, I watch the shadows, like always. The brisk autumn morning provides a nice breeze and a satisfying view of red, orange, and golden leaves. Of course, the leaves aren't my main focus.

A small girl walks past. I see the silhouette of an astronaut, and I smile to myself. So many small children want to do more than see the stars; they want to be among them. The thought prompts me to look upward, despite the early morning sun and lack of stars.

What a lovely age to be, what a lovely time it is when you're young. Anything is possible. We aspire to be so many things. We reach for the stars - literally. But in the end, dreams don't always work out.

What was my dream? What is my dream? I have no idea. I see nothing in my shadow. I see only the absence of light. I see no dancers or firemen. I see no farmers or singers. I just see me. And that scares me immensely.

Do I even have a dream? Will I be working at a café forever? Will I never find my desire?

I don't know. And that is the scariest part - the absence of knowledge.

So, I continue walking. A small child - policeman. A teenager - someone holding a sign, but it's a silhouette; I don't know what it says. An elderly woman - the figure of someone very young.

Stray leaves blow across the sidewalk. As people step, the leaves crunch and crumble into little brown pieces which are blown away by the breeze. I watch as the pieces blow by a man, and I look at his shadow. His shadow is much slimmer than he; he wants to lose weight maybe.

I look back to the leaves beneath my feet, and I sigh. Slowly I've begun to feel like I will never find a dream, a desire, anything I want. Did that mean I was happy the way things were? I don't feel happy, but I don't know what would make me happy.

Any person could come to me and I could tell them what they want, but I can't tell myself. Things don't feel correct, but I have no notion as to what could fix it.

I know nothing is there, but still, I glance back at my shadow every once in a while. Maybe one day I will see something. Maybe one day I will know what I want. Maybe one day I will be able to see past that absence of light and see something more.

But for now, I will just keep seeing the shadows of others. I will keep watching other people's dreams.
12
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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ttwardz in portal Simon & Schuster

And I Feel Fine

A great growing, whining, whooshing rhythm permeates the window glass like the underwater sound of a wave, a-thump-thump-thump-thump-thumping rapidly, heavily, so rapidly that it blends into a single pitch and when I focus on it, booming unbearably, vibrating the barstools and glasses, it shakes my brain inside my head and vibrates my eyeballs.

I take a swig and fall off of the worn shaking stool in that late afternoon sunlight.

What’s a bar for? Go pretend to feel death at your own place, it’s cheaper. I’m here, though, too, on the corner of Main and 2nd. Idiot. I shouldn’t forgive myself. The bartender knows my drink is empty, and she saw me see her see it that way ten minutes ago.

The news is on above her head and I don’t think they’ve shown a single commercial in the last half hour. For that only do I forgive the earthquake that thirty-five minutes ago soaked my lap with beer and made such a ruckus of smashing glasses and tumbling patrons. Ah, memories. Twenty-nine is too old to be making new ones.

Arthur is a tall man on the stool next to me, in a green henley, jeans, faux leather boots, sunglasses resting on his short hair, white wristband on left wrist and stainless steel watch on right, face facing inside of hairy arm, sweat under armpit, top of head frizzy from hat. He's angled toward me, trying hard. Only twenty-five percent of the eight red wobbly stools are filled after that little quake emptied the place and he decides that I want company. I think I actually heard his breath quicken, when he came through the door a little while ago, at the thought of talking to me about the quake and himself and issues, as he is currently still doing.

He started by telling me about the power being out at his house, so he’d come here to watch the news, and why is it that the bar has better electrical infrastructure than the residential areas of the city? and how can our governor ignore the seismologists and pass a budget that doesn’t include funds for earthquake reinforcement measures? and isn’t it a shame that the new president doesn’t even believe in earthquakes and stuff like that because he says the science is being falsified by foreign governments trying to sabotage the national economy? and many more of the wrong questions.

What’s the right question?

What exactly is happening now, right now, and is it survivable?

The sun is halfway set and the streetlights flash on around the intersection. Arthur’s telling me now that he’s a Rather-Right-Wing Registered Democrat—and for a half-second I think he’s telling me what position he plays on a soccer team—though, yes, a Millennial, (and also a Virgo and single), but one who voted for so-and-so last November because don’t you think such-and-such-other was just a dishonest liar even though he had the most experience, and leaned the most left, but obviously leaning one way and tilting your head and squinting your eyes still doesn’t change a liar? plus I’m Rather-Right-Wing, so not really my type, and who did you vote for?

He’s asking me who I voted for. If I want strange people to know that information, I’ll post it online.

Mickey Mouse is my answer.

He’s only a few years younger than me, I think, but he has such energy. His eyes almost roll at my answer, but he catches himself and breathes a single laugh into his glass as he quickly sips. My glass is still empty. I think about pushing it off of the counter but the bartender would only sweep it into the small pile she’s been slowly forming against the wall and leave me thirsty.

Time for a refill, he says to me, and therefore to no one, as the windows rattle softly and the television flickers.

Before the gentle rumbling even stops, the bright banner under the lead anchor changes from WYOMING EARTHQUAKE! to AFTERSHOCKS INCREASING. The bar should've been closed for the holiday but Kate opened it up at four. No sin in a little extra income. Not everyone wants to spend a day alone at home. Customers had trickled in and out until the shaking when everyone left. Then it lulled and the curious came to talk to each other. When it picked up even worse than before they scattered. And I landed on the floor.

—I’m a Democrat, Arthur says, but I’m actually more conservative than my friends (hence his elaborate title, I deduce through extremely complex logical processes), so, you know, I don’t really mind guns. I mean, I guess they’re bad sometimes, yeah, but I’m not going to vote to ban them. Cops should have them. Some people should have, I mean… I kind of want one, even though I don’t have anything to—

—Wait—I stop him—don't you mean the other way around?

—Other way around what?

—You're pro-guns so you fall into the conservative category.

—Well it's not exactly pro-guns, I mean they exist whether you like them or not.

—No, I— yeah— yes, they exist, but owning one, ownership, you're pro-ownership.

—Right, some people should have them, I don't need one but it'd be fun to try a firing range.

—So—

—So do you have one?

—What, no I don't have one.

—What do you think about people having them?

—I think it's stupid.

—So we need to change that?

—Somebody does, not me.

—Well I disagree and there's nothing wrong with that, you know? I’m a conservative Democrat, so I don’t vote against guns. It's not like there's some checklist that Democrats have to vote for all of these things and Republicans have to vote for all of these things.

—Yes, I say, but that's exactly what you're saying, you vote for the right to own a gun because you call yourself a conservative.

—Yeah.

The stupidity is frothing thickly from his mouth and the smell is so repulsive that I crinkle my nose against it and when that doesn’t work I put my face over the rim of my glass to smell the leftover bubbles.

Then I laugh once to soften my reaction because maybe my expression has insulted him and some masochistic part of my brain desires to continue this conversation.

—So you vote conservative because that’s what you call yourself.

—It’s my duty as a voter, he says.

He is still talking to the side of my face although I’ve finished listening and locked my eyes on the television. The sound is on now because the bartender, Kyla, is watching too (she finally filled my glass with the wrong beer and spent about ten minutes wiping one booth table while just-washed glasses still lay broken where they fell off of the end of the bar) but the incorrect subtitles still scroll over the fiery breaking news banner:

……AWAY FRO MMAJOR METORPOLITAN AREAS. BUT THE AFTERSHOCKS A RE SPREADING MORE POWERFULY AWA YFROM THE EPICENTER THROUG HOUT WYOOMING……………STRANGE ACTIVITY FOR EARTHQUEAKES……

WE GO NOW TO OU RSTUDIO IN CHEYENNE.

[THEME MUSIC]

Screen black. I look outside to escape the sound of Arthur's voice and the nonsense on the television and the stuffy air in the bar and notice that the sky looks strange. The shaking returns but stronger now and with it, screaming loudness. From my seat at the bar, through the windows, between the old Paradise Cinema and the bakery, along the downward slope of the street, over the low hills, far, far in the distance I see light rising as if the sun had swung around and begun to hoist itself back up over the horizon. Then the tall windows shatter and the ground leaps under my seat.

The chill outside leaks through the window spaces, whose glass in shards carpets the tiled floor. Sweat cools on my forehead while I stand where the window once divided out from in, with Arthur on my right and on my left, Kyla, sweeping glass into a bin. I gulp the bottom gulp of my flat beer and watch fire paint the sky in the frame of the door. The dusk blushes around that violent burst, that shoot of flame that in the distance blooms. The atmosphere sinks, heavy, under the heat and seems to gallop outward in a gyre. The streets are peopled, now, and every place becomes a vantage to behold the fire. Black clouds brew deeply round its stem and terror is the face the beast assumes.

It is difficult to stand but we watch from the open wall. I finally ask what the hell is that? My body feels like it’s shaking inside but I realize it’s shaking outside, visibly, my hands around my glass, my knees, my teeth. It’s not fear, I’m too stunned to fear anything; in fact I feel kind of invincible staring this immense death in the face from the edge of the sidewalk in front of a bar and being the single person to have broken the spell. But my body is telling me to run. I definitely should. Go. Escape, my instincts willing my muscles into action, flee, now, away from death.

So I turn from the cold air blowing in, and so does Arthur; we leave the empty windows, return to the bar. The shaking dulls. Kyla ignores the new piles of glass gathered on the floor. She ignores us, our empty glasses, the mess of the room, the rising panic in the street, the two ladies who approach the bar timidly, stop on the sidewalk to consider, to weigh their options amid the glass, then finally walk around the damage and through the door, and lock their eyes on the television without sitting. Kyla is also watching. Arthur is tapping his foot rapidly and it’s rattling the loose bar of metal on which mine rests.

—It’s Yellowstone, he repeats after the anchor.

—What? I say, and it’s a stupid thing to say because I heard him and the anchor and I know what it means and he ignores me anyway or doesn’t hear and so it doesn’t matter.

Erupting. They always said it would. I’m looking back outside. The video on the television shows the details of the gigantic rupture in the Earth spewing fire above the clouds but outside, through the window, it is terrifying, a tiny geyser, a paralyzing horror.

—That’s hundreds of miles away, Kyla says, and I can see it from here.

We should go. Descend, like the Commander in Chief who doesn’t believe, into a closet two hundred feet below the roads and houses and cars. Is there time?

I sip my beer and Kyla pours her own, and the ladies leave, and Arthur complains about the pathetic government and his solutions to the issues of importance. The idiot spills his beer when the shaking reintensifies and he curses the glass and the Earth. And the Earth ignores him and me and spills great rivers of fire out of its heart like a second flood.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ttwardz in portal Simon & Schuster
And I Feel Fine
A great growing, whining, whooshing rhythm permeates the window glass like the underwater sound of a wave, a-thump-thump-thump-thump-thumping rapidly, heavily, so rapidly that it blends into a single pitch and when I focus on it, booming unbearably, vibrating the barstools and glasses, it shakes my brain inside my head and vibrates my eyeballs.

I take a swig and fall off of the worn shaking stool in that late afternoon sunlight.



What’s a bar for? Go pretend to feel death at your own place, it’s cheaper. I’m here, though, too, on the corner of Main and 2nd. Idiot. I shouldn’t forgive myself. The bartender knows my drink is empty, and she saw me see her see it that way ten minutes ago.

The news is on above her head and I don’t think they’ve shown a single commercial in the last half hour. For that only do I forgive the earthquake that thirty-five minutes ago soaked my lap with beer and made such a ruckus of smashing glasses and tumbling patrons. Ah, memories. Twenty-nine is too old to be making new ones.



Arthur is a tall man on the stool next to me, in a green henley, jeans, faux leather boots, sunglasses resting on his short hair, white wristband on left wrist and stainless steel watch on right, face facing inside of hairy arm, sweat under armpit, top of head frizzy from hat. He's angled toward me, trying hard. Only twenty-five percent of the eight red wobbly stools are filled after that little quake emptied the place and he decides that I want company. I think I actually heard his breath quicken, when he came through the door a little while ago, at the thought of talking to me about the quake and himself and issues, as he is currently still doing.

He started by telling me about the power being out at his house, so he’d come here to watch the news, and why is it that the bar has better electrical infrastructure than the residential areas of the city? and how can our governor ignore the seismologists and pass a budget that doesn’t include funds for earthquake reinforcement measures? and isn’t it a shame that the new president doesn’t even believe in earthquakes and stuff like that because he says the science is being falsified by foreign governments trying to sabotage the national economy? and many more of the wrong questions.

What’s the right question?

What exactly is happening now, right now, and is it survivable?



The sun is halfway set and the streetlights flash on around the intersection. Arthur’s telling me now that he’s a Rather-Right-Wing Registered Democrat—and for a half-second I think he’s telling me what position he plays on a soccer team—though, yes, a Millennial, (and also a Virgo and single), but one who voted for so-and-so last November because don’t you think such-and-such-other was just a dishonest liar even though he had the most experience, and leaned the most left, but obviously leaning one way and tilting your head and squinting your eyes still doesn’t change a liar? plus I’m Rather-Right-Wing, so not really my type, and who did you vote for?

He’s asking me who I voted for. If I want strange people to know that information, I’ll post it online.

Mickey Mouse is my answer.

He’s only a few years younger than me, I think, but he has such energy. His eyes almost roll at my answer, but he catches himself and breathes a single laugh into his glass as he quickly sips. My glass is still empty. I think about pushing it off of the counter but the bartender would only sweep it into the small pile she’s been slowly forming against the wall and leave me thirsty.



Time for a refill, he says to me, and therefore to no one, as the windows rattle softly and the television flickers.

Before the gentle rumbling even stops, the bright banner under the lead anchor changes from WYOMING EARTHQUAKE! to AFTERSHOCKS INCREASING. The bar should've been closed for the holiday but Kate opened it up at four. No sin in a little extra income. Not everyone wants to spend a day alone at home. Customers had trickled in and out until the shaking when everyone left. Then it lulled and the curious came to talk to each other. When it picked up even worse than before they scattered. And I landed on the floor.

—I’m a Democrat, Arthur says, but I’m actually more conservative than my friends (hence his elaborate title, I deduce through extremely complex logical processes), so, you know, I don’t really mind guns. I mean, I guess they’re bad sometimes, yeah, but I’m not going to vote to ban them. Cops should have them. Some people should have, I mean… I kind of want one, even though I don’t have anything to—

—Wait—I stop him—don't you mean the other way around?

—Other way around what?

—You're pro-guns so you fall into the conservative category.

—Well it's not exactly pro-guns, I mean they exist whether you like them or not.

—No, I— yeah— yes, they exist, but owning one, ownership, you're pro-ownership.

—Right, some people should have them, I don't need one but it'd be fun to try a firing range.

—So—

—So do you have one?

—What, no I don't have one.

—What do you think about people having them?

—I think it's stupid.

—So we need to change that?

—Somebody does, not me.

—Well I disagree and there's nothing wrong with that, you know? I’m a conservative Democrat, so I don’t vote against guns. It's not like there's some checklist that Democrats have to vote for all of these things and Republicans have to vote for all of these things.

—Yes, I say, but that's exactly what you're saying, you vote for the right to own a gun because you call yourself a conservative.

—Yeah.

The stupidity is frothing thickly from his mouth and the smell is so repulsive that I crinkle my nose against it and when that doesn’t work I put my face over the rim of my glass to smell the leftover bubbles.

Then I laugh once to soften my reaction because maybe my expression has insulted him and some masochistic part of my brain desires to continue this conversation.

—So you vote conservative because that’s what you call yourself.

—It’s my duty as a voter, he says.



He is still talking to the side of my face although I’ve finished listening and locked my eyes on the television. The sound is on now because the bartender, Kyla, is watching too (she finally filled my glass with the wrong beer and spent about ten minutes wiping one booth table while just-washed glasses still lay broken where they fell off of the end of the bar) but the incorrect subtitles still scroll over the fiery breaking news banner:

……AWAY FRO MMAJOR METORPOLITAN AREAS. BUT THE AFTERSHOCKS A RE SPREADING MORE POWERFULY AWA YFROM THE EPICENTER THROUG HOUT WYOOMING……………STRANGE ACTIVITY FOR EARTHQUEAKES……

WE GO NOW TO OU RSTUDIO IN CHEYENNE.

[THEME MUSIC]

Screen black. I look outside to escape the sound of Arthur's voice and the nonsense on the television and the stuffy air in the bar and notice that the sky looks strange. The shaking returns but stronger now and with it, screaming loudness. From my seat at the bar, through the windows, between the old Paradise Cinema and the bakery, along the downward slope of the street, over the low hills, far, far in the distance I see light rising as if the sun had swung around and begun to hoist itself back up over the horizon. Then the tall windows shatter and the ground leaps under my seat.

The chill outside leaks through the window spaces, whose glass in shards carpets the tiled floor. Sweat cools on my forehead while I stand where the window once divided out from in, with Arthur on my right and on my left, Kyla, sweeping glass into a bin. I gulp the bottom gulp of my flat beer and watch fire paint the sky in the frame of the door. The dusk blushes around that violent burst, that shoot of flame that in the distance blooms. The atmosphere sinks, heavy, under the heat and seems to gallop outward in a gyre. The streets are peopled, now, and every place becomes a vantage to behold the fire. Black clouds brew deeply round its stem and terror is the face the beast assumes.

It is difficult to stand but we watch from the open wall. I finally ask what the hell is that? My body feels like it’s shaking inside but I realize it’s shaking outside, visibly, my hands around my glass, my knees, my teeth. It’s not fear, I’m too stunned to fear anything; in fact I feel kind of invincible staring this immense death in the face from the edge of the sidewalk in front of a bar and being the single person to have broken the spell. But my body is telling me to run. I definitely should. Go. Escape, my instincts willing my muscles into action, flee, now, away from death.

So I turn from the cold air blowing in, and so does Arthur; we leave the empty windows, return to the bar. The shaking dulls. Kyla ignores the new piles of glass gathered on the floor. She ignores us, our empty glasses, the mess of the room, the rising panic in the street, the two ladies who approach the bar timidly, stop on the sidewalk to consider, to weigh their options amid the glass, then finally walk around the damage and through the door, and lock their eyes on the television without sitting. Kyla is also watching. Arthur is tapping his foot rapidly and it’s rattling the loose bar of metal on which mine rests.

—It’s Yellowstone, he repeats after the anchor.

—What? I say, and it’s a stupid thing to say because I heard him and the anchor and I know what it means and he ignores me anyway or doesn’t hear and so it doesn’t matter.
Erupting. They always said it would. I’m looking back outside. The video on the television shows the details of the gigantic rupture in the Earth spewing fire above the clouds but outside, through the window, it is terrifying, a tiny geyser, a paralyzing horror.

—That’s hundreds of miles away, Kyla says, and I can see it from here.

We should go. Descend, like the Commander in Chief who doesn’t believe, into a closet two hundred feet below the roads and houses and cars. Is there time?

I sip my beer and Kyla pours her own, and the ladies leave, and Arthur complains about the pathetic government and his solutions to the issues of importance. The idiot spills his beer when the shaking reintensifies and he curses the glass and the Earth. And the Earth ignores him and me and spills great rivers of fire out of its heart like a second flood.
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Written by JeffTurner in portal Simon & Schuster

Mary 13

Chapter 1

It was a rare day of activity for Medical Room 19, a stark bright room on the 25th Level of Tower 1. Its encompassing light had no single perceptible source, but came from everywhere at once: walls, floor, and ceiling. There were no shadows. The room produced no sound, no smell, no air movement, and its temperature was a breathtaking 50 degrees. A nearly invisible medical air table seemed to hover in the center of the room; a smaller tray table of the same material hovered next to it. A young woman, healthy and fair, lay naked on the table covered to the neck by a thin white sheet. Her striking blue eyes, soft pink lips and golden hair interrupted the solid white of the room. Against her ivory skin, and inside the colorless room, those eyes jumped out like two patches of summer sky between the clouds. A sky she had only ever seen through her window. Her one window.

Mary 13 used her favorite concentration technique from the meditation programs to try and stay calm in these new elements. She deduced the feeling she was experiencing was cold. Having never actually felt it before, she remembered a program she helped code that dealt with the conditioning of body and mind against possible elemental changes should the towers ever experience power shortages, which they never had. Her steady breathing provided the only air movement and sound. Her silken skin had developed strange little bumps from her toes to her scalp and the smallest hairs on her arms and neck stood up and quivered. At first, she assumed this was a reaction to the cold. But it wasn’t from the cold. She was quivering in anticipation. She was truly excited for the operation, and for what lay beyond this new room.

Mary 13 was not thinking about what she would be leaving behind. Habitation Room 198, Level 54, Tower 2. The room that had raised her, taught her, and held her for an entire life. The room that reacted to her every thought, mood, sensation, and command. They had built a life together, this room and her, one of comfort and collaboration. It had consoled her during the bad times, and nursed her during the sick times. Her every experience had happened in her room, including her birth. A sensor screen, skin and hair rejuvenators, and life extending pills were made available to all tower habitants. She had put in many years of work for the tower to earn the life chair and cloud bed, both specifically engineered just for her. Next had come thought-controlled accommodators, an auto nurse and dentist, energy healers, muscle pulsers, various learning programs and, of course, the pleasure devices. The pleasure devices she had only recently acquired, and they had opened up a whole new world of stimulation and joy for her. And now she was leaving it all, forever. She wasn’t thinking of how she would miss her hard won comforts. She wasn’t focusing her energy on what this new room lacked. Or what her new life would be without. She was thinking about the new sensations she was feeling lying on that table. The flittering in her stomach, the dryness in her mouth. She was struggling, even with her mastery of breathing and meditation, to control her pulse. For the first time in her life she would be in the same room as a man. While struggling to comprehend how to interact with him, or even how to place these new feelings, a door in the wall of light opened and closed, and he walked in.

Luke 4 carried himself with the bearing of a wise man. A man of average height and build, he seemed to be in excellent shape for his advancing years. His thick black hair was shorter and curled more than Mary’s. His black, bushy eyebrows moved with his expressive face and complimented his dark eyes. He always seemed to be contemplating something, and his expressions betrayed this. His skin had a curious reddish hue, prominent against the white of a doctor’s suit, and his lips looked almost chapped.

“Hello Mary 13, my name is Luke 4. I am very happy to meet you. I will be your guide on this adventure. I understand that all of this is new to you, and difficult to process. Don’t worry; you may advance at your own pace after the procedure. For now, just try and relax, this won’t take long or cause you any pain.”

Luke 4 had stood by the wall as he spoke, aware of her shock at human contact, carefully timing his approach. He took 3 strides towards her making sure to take deliberate steps with no added or sharp movements. He blushed slightly as he examined his patient and noticed the bumps on her skin, the rising of her chest as she drew in a sharp breath, and hardening of her nipples as he came to stand within a step of her.

“I apologize for the cold, it is required to slow your blood flow before the operation.” His eyes shined watching her struggle to continue her steady breathing. “You are doing an excellent job of using Calmcentric Breathing to control your pulse and heart rate. If you want to speak, please do so now. You won’t be able to once we get started. No pressure, I understand if you don’t want to converse yet.”

Her mind raced at the thought of a conversation with this man. Her senses filled by his smell, his voice, his movements, the kindness in his eyes. She reverted to the safety of analytical thinking to ask a question she hoped wouldn’t betray her excitement. “Hello Luke 4.” She paused to reflect on her first words to another person and decided her voice was steady enough to keep going. “How did you know I was using Calmcentric Breathing? There are so many programs…”

His smile now showed wrinkles at the corners of his brown eyes, and included his mouth to show a perfect set of white teeth. Her teeth were the same, but she had no wrinkles. He gave a short laugh - the greatest sound of her life. “I wrote that program, I’m honored to see you using it. I used the same technique when I had my life needles removed. I believe this is a good sign. Keep using it; you will be just fine.” He took the final step and began.

Mary shivered slightly, but otherwise made no move or sound. Her cheeks flushed as she became aware of her aroused nipples and how they pressed against the white sheet. Luckily, he was concentrating on her head where it seemed he would start. She had made eye contact as he came in the door, but now, with his breath so close to hers, it was far too stressful. She closed her eyes harder than she needed to. He smiled and spoke again, this time using soft, hypnotic tones as he started his work. She said a silent thank you for the soothing sound.

“Mary 13, what I’m doing now is displaying the laser point map of all the life needles in your body. As you know, the life needles are built and inserted into the arteries of every Tower habitant to ensure longer life and give our advanced health programs an inner look into the bloodstream of every person. This room has been specifically built and equipped with a very elaborate program to monitor, change, and if needed, remove these special needles. For example, the walls, floor and ceiling are fully lit so that no matter where I move I will have perfect vision. As you may also know, I was the first person to have my life needles successfully removed. In doing so I’ve learned the formula for success. I won’t bore you with all of the details of the operation, but I will tell you that I have to work quickly and keep the same pace throughout the procedure. I will start at your head and systematically extract your life needles from your blood stream. As you have already been informed, there is some risk involved, but if you stay still and all needles come out as they should, you will safely transition to the decompression procedure. After decompression we will start your training and you will be able to begin your new life. Don’t worry and keep breathing, I will be by your side during this process.” And then he smiled again as the tension around her eyes lessened.

He didn’t wait for a response as he picked up magnetic tweezers in his right hand and let his left hand hover over her forehead. The brisk confidence in his voice and movements filled her with a sense of protection. He stood over her with a smell she had never experienced. Somehow she knew he smelled like a man. She silently reprimanded herself for exotic thoughts that might spike her blood flow and ruin this opportunity. Fighting the greatest feeling of anticipation in her life she managed to resume her steady breathing. She wasn’t worried about the procedure. There was no grief for the loss of her former life, her room, or her possessions. No self-pity for losing 300 more years of life in comfort. She didn’t wonder about how long her new life span would be. Be it a century, or a year, it was no concern to her. Her mind raced faster than any thought expander could push it. A sensor screen had never held her attention like this. No pleasure device produced this level of arousal. Her entire naked body felt ready to float towards the promise of one single moment. The man reached down to place his left hand on the skin of her face. This would be the first time she was touched in her entire life.

Mary 13 was one hundred years old.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by JeffTurner in portal Simon & Schuster
Mary 13


Chapter 1

It was a rare day of activity for Medical Room 19, a stark bright room on the 25th Level of Tower 1. Its encompassing light had no single perceptible source, but came from everywhere at once: walls, floor, and ceiling. There were no shadows. The room produced no sound, no smell, no air movement, and its temperature was a breathtaking 50 degrees. A nearly invisible medical air table seemed to hover in the center of the room; a smaller tray table of the same material hovered next to it. A young woman, healthy and fair, lay naked on the table covered to the neck by a thin white sheet. Her striking blue eyes, soft pink lips and golden hair interrupted the solid white of the room. Against her ivory skin, and inside the colorless room, those eyes jumped out like two patches of summer sky between the clouds. A sky she had only ever seen through her window. Her one window.

Mary 13 used her favorite concentration technique from the meditation programs to try and stay calm in these new elements. She deduced the feeling she was experiencing was cold. Having never actually felt it before, she remembered a program she helped code that dealt with the conditioning of body and mind against possible elemental changes should the towers ever experience power shortages, which they never had. Her steady breathing provided the only air movement and sound. Her silken skin had developed strange little bumps from her toes to her scalp and the smallest hairs on her arms and neck stood up and quivered. At first, she assumed this was a reaction to the cold. But it wasn’t from the cold. She was quivering in anticipation. She was truly excited for the operation, and for what lay beyond this new room.

Mary 13 was not thinking about what she would be leaving behind. Habitation Room 198, Level 54, Tower 2. The room that had raised her, taught her, and held her for an entire life. The room that reacted to her every thought, mood, sensation, and command. They had built a life together, this room and her, one of comfort and collaboration. It had consoled her during the bad times, and nursed her during the sick times. Her every experience had happened in her room, including her birth. A sensor screen, skin and hair rejuvenators, and life extending pills were made available to all tower habitants. She had put in many years of work for the tower to earn the life chair and cloud bed, both specifically engineered just for her. Next had come thought-controlled accommodators, an auto nurse and dentist, energy healers, muscle pulsers, various learning programs and, of course, the pleasure devices. The pleasure devices she had only recently acquired, and they had opened up a whole new world of stimulation and joy for her. And now she was leaving it all, forever. She wasn’t thinking of how she would miss her hard won comforts. She wasn’t focusing her energy on what this new room lacked. Or what her new life would be without. She was thinking about the new sensations she was feeling lying on that table. The flittering in her stomach, the dryness in her mouth. She was struggling, even with her mastery of breathing and meditation, to control her pulse. For the first time in her life she would be in the same room as a man. While struggling to comprehend how to interact with him, or even how to place these new feelings, a door in the wall of light opened and closed, and he walked in.

Luke 4 carried himself with the bearing of a wise man. A man of average height and build, he seemed to be in excellent shape for his advancing years. His thick black hair was shorter and curled more than Mary’s. His black, bushy eyebrows moved with his expressive face and complimented his dark eyes. He always seemed to be contemplating something, and his expressions betrayed this. His skin had a curious reddish hue, prominent against the white of a doctor’s suit, and his lips looked almost chapped.

“Hello Mary 13, my name is Luke 4. I am very happy to meet you. I will be your guide on this adventure. I understand that all of this is new to you, and difficult to process. Don’t worry; you may advance at your own pace after the procedure. For now, just try and relax, this won’t take long or cause you any pain.”

Luke 4 had stood by the wall as he spoke, aware of her shock at human contact, carefully timing his approach. He took 3 strides towards her making sure to take deliberate steps with no added or sharp movements. He blushed slightly as he examined his patient and noticed the bumps on her skin, the rising of her chest as she drew in a sharp breath, and hardening of her nipples as he came to stand within a step of her.

“I apologize for the cold, it is required to slow your blood flow before the operation.” His eyes shined watching her struggle to continue her steady breathing. “You are doing an excellent job of using Calmcentric Breathing to control your pulse and heart rate. If you want to speak, please do so now. You won’t be able to once we get started. No pressure, I understand if you don’t want to converse yet.”

Her mind raced at the thought of a conversation with this man. Her senses filled by his smell, his voice, his movements, the kindness in his eyes. She reverted to the safety of analytical thinking to ask a question she hoped wouldn’t betray her excitement. “Hello Luke 4.” She paused to reflect on her first words to another person and decided her voice was steady enough to keep going. “How did you know I was using Calmcentric Breathing? There are so many programs…”

His smile now showed wrinkles at the corners of his brown eyes, and included his mouth to show a perfect set of white teeth. Her teeth were the same, but she had no wrinkles. He gave a short laugh - the greatest sound of her life. “I wrote that program, I’m honored to see you using it. I used the same technique when I had my life needles removed. I believe this is a good sign. Keep using it; you will be just fine.” He took the final step and began.

Mary shivered slightly, but otherwise made no move or sound. Her cheeks flushed as she became aware of her aroused nipples and how they pressed against the white sheet. Luckily, he was concentrating on her head where it seemed he would start. She had made eye contact as he came in the door, but now, with his breath so close to hers, it was far too stressful. She closed her eyes harder than she needed to. He smiled and spoke again, this time using soft, hypnotic tones as he started his work. She said a silent thank you for the soothing sound.

“Mary 13, what I’m doing now is displaying the laser point map of all the life needles in your body. As you know, the life needles are built and inserted into the arteries of every Tower habitant to ensure longer life and give our advanced health programs an inner look into the bloodstream of every person. This room has been specifically built and equipped with a very elaborate program to monitor, change, and if needed, remove these special needles. For example, the walls, floor and ceiling are fully lit so that no matter where I move I will have perfect vision. As you may also know, I was the first person to have my life needles successfully removed. In doing so I’ve learned the formula for success. I won’t bore you with all of the details of the operation, but I will tell you that I have to work quickly and keep the same pace throughout the procedure. I will start at your head and systematically extract your life needles from your blood stream. As you have already been informed, there is some risk involved, but if you stay still and all needles come out as they should, you will safely transition to the decompression procedure. After decompression we will start your training and you will be able to begin your new life. Don’t worry and keep breathing, I will be by your side during this process.” And then he smiled again as the tension around her eyes lessened.

He didn’t wait for a response as he picked up magnetic tweezers in his right hand and let his left hand hover over her forehead. The brisk confidence in his voice and movements filled her with a sense of protection. He stood over her with a smell she had never experienced. Somehow she knew he smelled like a man. She silently reprimanded herself for exotic thoughts that might spike her blood flow and ruin this opportunity. Fighting the greatest feeling of anticipation in her life she managed to resume her steady breathing. She wasn’t worried about the procedure. There was no grief for the loss of her former life, her room, or her possessions. No self-pity for losing 300 more years of life in comfort. She didn’t wonder about how long her new life span would be. Be it a century, or a year, it was no concern to her. Her mind raced faster than any thought expander could push it. A sensor screen had never held her attention like this. No pleasure device produced this level of arousal. Her entire naked body felt ready to float towards the promise of one single moment. The man reached down to place his left hand on the skin of her face. This would be the first time she was touched in her entire life.

Mary 13 was one hundred years old.

6
1
0
Juice
24 reads
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