A Humble Fantasy
There are things in this world worth exploring. Not the kind of exploration that equates to flipping a page or clicking a button. I want immersive exploration. I want to deep dive into the ocean of what ifs and come out smelling like sea water. I want to wander a trail in a forest, follow breadcrumbs, battle big bad wolves. Let life swallow me whole.
Still, there are days when I wish I had the power of Thanos. With a snap of my fingers, I could bring to myself solace, quietude, nothingness. If the multiverse were at my disposal, I’d befriend a doppelganger, or two, and let them fill in while I check out. If I need a do-over, or a little extra time, there’s someone I can ask. It’s Strange. Reliving moments in time, absorbing things I missed, embracing those I’ve lost - I could linger in the past for lifetimes. But would it be enough?
If I had Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, I could bring forth exactly what I need when I need it. A clever idea, wrapped in silk. A lamp with a bulb that doesn’t flicker. A healthy dose of chocolate (if there is such a thing). Forget Thanos. Mary Poppins had a much more practical power. One snap of her fingers, and my whole house would be clean.
So I suppose mine is a humble fantasy. A clean house, moments of solitude, and a life well lived. On second thought, maybe it isn’t so humble.
I am not a monster
I am not a monster. I used to be a man. A beautiful, desirable, decidedly human man. Broad shouldered. Thick lipped. Smooth voiced. What am I now? I cannot say. Perhaps I should start at the beginning. Better yet, let me start at the middle. On the day I first noticed the changes.
I remember the morning it happened. Well, the morning I noticed it had already happened. Gray skies without, white wisps of warm tea within. I’d singed my tongue sipping too quickly. It tasted bitter that day, no matter how much honey and sugar I put in it. My wife usually made it for me, she had a knack for preparing it just so, but she’d been busy that morning with the children. I’d spilled some tea on the side and began lapping it up with a thick, red tongue. Only, my tongue is normally pink, and normal sized. And I never lapped up anything. I was running late for a zoom call, so I dismissed the anomaly and ambled to my chair. It groaned a bit louder as I sat, but at the time I hardly noticed. As the days went on, I began to notice more and more.
First came the nails. They grew long and sharp, pointed and grey at the tips. I began cutting through my shoes, though I hardly ever wore them anymore. I ruined my favorite slippers. I ordered a second pair, a bit larger, and made a mental note to trim my nails--that never came to fruition.
Next were the itches. My skin began to bloat and peel around the middle, under my arms, and at my back. I’d scritch and scratch until my skin tore. Then came the sweats. Laundry became a nightmare as I soaked through shirt after shirt. My wife began to complain. I was leaving dark, dirty stains and smells that she couldn’t get out. I promised to bathe more frequently.
Things took a turn for the worse when the vines came. They started out small. Little green sprouts at my feet. They tickled my toes as I worked, seemed harmless. But they grew. Longer, thicker, malignant. They soon began to coil around my ankles, my torso, and at times, my throat. I could hardly breathe, hardly move. My wife was busy with the kids, busy with her work, but she came to the office more frequently to help me with the vines. She came with shears, tore the vines, pulled me from my chair, begged me to walk. The vines were vicious, though. They came after me as soon as my wife left, pulling me back down to the chair. Eventually, I got used to them, except when they cut off my air supply. It made zoom calls a bit awkward.
Virtual meetings were bad sometimes, but bedtime was downright humiliating. Dark faeries followed me to the room, born from the bloom of the vines. They didn’t carry the tinny, sweet voices of childhood stories. They screeched as loud as banshees while I slept, and tormented me throughout the night. They crawled and stomped on my face. Sometimes they’d lodge their limbs into my nose and ears and give me quite a shock. My wife would shoo them away at night. She started burning mist to ward off the faeries, but they were relentless. Eventually I was cast out of the bedroom, so at least one of us could sleep.
There’s nothing more disgraceful than sleeping in the guest room of your own house. Though she never said the words out loud, I saw them in my wife’s eyes. More and more, I was becoming a stranger to her. She recoiled at my touch. She shied away when I drew near. Her eyes and shoulders sagged lower every day, weighed down by my peculiar troubles.
More changes came. I became as ravenous as a lion, with an insatiable appetite. Plates could never be full enough, cups ran dry too quickly, and though my body gorged my cravings never ceased. By some dark magic, my food did not, could not, satisfy me. My wife tried different potions and concoctions, some I rather enjoyed, but she could never quite keep up with my demands. So I strayed. I ate things high in deliciousness and dangerously low in nutrition in between regular meal times. I would have made the potions myself, but the vines kept me tied to my chair, and struggling against them left me with so little energy. They cut off the circulation at my feet, and those began to swell. Climbing, walking, moving, standing, they soon became unbearable tasks. So I did those things as infrequently as possible.
I had to order a new chair. Spikes began protruding from my spine. I don’t know when they arrived, but they riddled my chair with holes and mauled the leather. It didn’t stop there. Needle sharp spines shot out of the backs of my hands and chin as well, some the length of my longest finger. About that time, my children grew afraid of me. Fear shone in my wife’s eyes as well, but hers was different.
My voice began to change. It was no longer smooth, but rough as sandpaper. More faeries arrived at night. The vines grew stronger, so strong that at times my wife spent all her strength cutting the one crushing my windpipe, and had none left to cut me free. I take back what I said. There are worse things than sleeping in your guest room. Sleeping in your office chair, immobile and vulnerable, and asking your wife to hold a cup or bottle for you when you can no longer hold in your waste. That is misery.
Things have been this way for nearly a year now. I fear that whatever has taken hold of me will soon devour me entirely. At times, I pray the end would come. I no longer wish to be a burden on my family. I can’t remember the last time I held my children. The last time I embraced my wife. The last time I felt the warmth of human touch.
Here comes my wife now, with another round of potion. Bless her, but she seems tired. Dark circles mar the caramel skin below her eyes, but she’s still beautiful. Her clothes are mismatched. Red shirt, green and yellow yoga pants, sharp toenails sticking out of one blue and one green sock . . . Sharp toenails. I look up at my wife again. She runs a hand through her mop of dark curls as she waits for me to finish my potion. I take my time, examining her from top to bottom. She’s altered, somewhat. Heavier, yes. With signs of sweat at the armpits of her shirt. She sits in a chair, next to mine. Apprehension creeps up my spine as bright green stems creep along her ankles.
No. Not her.
She closes her exhausted eyes, and the vines continue their advance. I send out a cry of warning, but the vines that lock me to my chair squeeze and grow. They twist around me, tighter and tighter, spinning and coiling around my throat, squeezing my chest, collapsing my lungs, robbing me of breath. I drop my potion and the cup shatters on the ground. My wife’s eyes fly open, and she turns to me in horror. The vines surrounding her wrap around her ankles, but they’re too thin and weak to hold her. They break with a snap, and she grabs the shears, tearing at the green monstrosities until my throat is free. She continues her work, but her image clouds in my head. I blink and she’s gone. In a moment, everything disappears.
I am not a monster. I am a man. A man who ate too much and exercised too little. A man whose sedentary lifestyle took over his life. Inactivity, apnea, obesity, edema, arrhythmia. Slow killers, lurking in the shadows. Benign at first and hardly noticeable. Until they’ve wrapped their coils around you and made widows and orphans of your wife and children.
Perhaps I am a monster. But you don’t have to be a monster to be like me.
My hand trembles as I write this. I wonder what you’ll think of me. But I have to do this, don’t I? I’ve spent so many years of our life together pretending to be happy. Pretending I didn’t hurt when I was bleeding inside. Pretending not to shiver in the cold distance between us.
It’s minute six now. He’ll be home soon, I hope. I keep writing.
I know it isn’t fair to tell you now. Perhaps, if there’s time, we can talk things over. But you’re likely underground by now. By the time you get home, it may be too late.
I wish we’d never met. I wish we’d never married. I wish we hadn’t made so many promises to each other. We were too young and selfish. Then we had kids, and I wasn’t able to be selfish anymore. I had to change. But you didn’t. So I sacrificed myself and watched you thank me for it. I’ve hated you for that for a long time now.
I know it isn’t fair to say these things now. I should have been more honest. I shouldn’t have told you I was fine. I shouldn’t have blamed my feelings on fatigue. I should have blamed your apathy. I should have blamed your ignorance. I don’t regret blaming your mother.
I can’t go on. It’s minute thirteen now. Wet drops smear the “m” in mother and I wipe my eyes. I can’t write this. I crumple the paper and toss it into the fireplace. I grab a fresh sheet and start again.
Thank you for a wonderful life.
I look at the clock. Minutes tick by. Sixteen, seventeen. I shake my head. No more lies. No more pretending. I stare at the eight words on the paper in front of me. I cross them all out before shredding the paper into bits. This is harder than I thought it would be.
But I start anew.
If I could go back in time to the day we met, I would have set my alarm properly. I would not have overslept and missed the 8 o’clock train. I wouldn’t have gotten coffee at the cart close to my job instead of taking my usual detour to the French café up the street. I wouldn’t have spilled my coffee when the cheap cup folded in my hand. I wouldn’t have gone to the ER for third-degree burns. I wouldn’t have met you on the way out as you were coming in, bleeding from the hand because you sliced off your finger. I would not have forgiven your cheesy pick-up line about the “hands of fate,” because I would not have heard it. I would not have taken your number, fallen in love, and married. I would not have chosen you at all.
I swallow the bile in my throat. Thoughts that only ever swirled in my head look so cold and cruel on paper. I don’t feel any release when I read them. They don’t feel quite right. I glance at the clock. Minute thirty. The halfway mark. I’m running out of time.
I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if I had never met you, never married you. Would I be fulfilling all of my dreams? Would I be happy? Would I feel accomplished? I was so much prettier before. And thinner.
I stare at our family portrait on the wall. My husband, our two daughters, and me. Smiles and missing teeth and hidden frustrations, suspended in a moment.
What if I had never met you? Instead of waiting at home for you as you attended classes that I begged you not to take, I might have been dancing with my friends. Instead of carrying all of our financial burdens as you waited for “just the right opportunity,” I might have been taking a trip to some exotic place, or experiencing good food and music.
Were I not married to you, I am sure I would have taken better care of myself. Still…
I sniff and wipe my face. Sip some water. Fend off a panic attack. Sniff some more. Suck in a haggard breath. Try again.
Still… I wonder if I would have been happy. Would I have been satisfied with a quiet, empty house? A worry-free life? Would I have missed the sweet kisses from our daughters if I never knew them to begin with? Would I be satisfied with the sounds of the night, instead of the sounds of you snoring beside me?
Would I notice how little I spoke if I weren’t nagging you about the dishes, the laundry, the garbage? Another date night at the movies? Another spill in the car because someone forgot to use a sippy cup? Would my heart ache when I passed by a mother and her child, or would I shrug and be content? Am I being too harsh? If I had never met you, would I still hate my life?
I toss this version of my truth as well. According to the clock, I have seventeen minutes left. A fresh sheet and several tissues later, I try again.
Once upon a time, there was a shy little girl who wanted everything but was too afraid to ask for anything. One day, a sweet boy came to her and offered her his heart. She took it gladly and gave the boy her heart as well. The boy’s love pulled the shy little girl out of her shell and helped her to grow. She became more confident and bold. She began to feel as though she deserved everything she wanted. So she began to ask for it. But the boy did not give her everything. Whether he could not or would not is hard to know, but eventually, his sweet, childlike love was not enough for her. She felt unhappy, but she also felt guilty. Had it not been for the boy’s love, she would not have thought she deserved anything better. She felt both grateful and resentful. It left her feeling stuck. Then, one day, a fairy came to the girl and told her she had come to the end of her life. She had but an hour to live and should say her goodbyes.
The girl was very angry. There was so much more she wanted to do and be and feel. She decided to write a letter to the boy. He should know that he was to blame for her unhappiness. But as she wrote the letter, she began to feel differently. The closer her life inched towards the end, the more her thoughts cleared. She thought less and less of the places and food and career she had wanted. She thought of the night her mother died. How ugly she looked as she wept. How sweetly the boy had kissed away her tears and held her. She thought of the day her daughter was in the hospital sick, and how the boy’s hand had never left hers. She thought about the family vacation that went horribly wrong, and how they had all laughed and laughed in spite of it. More than the thrill of exotic food, she would miss the hard, bitter taste of her daughter’s first batch of biscuits made from scratch. The spaces between her teeth as she grinned proudly. The sweet notes left in books and on dressers that reminded her that she was loved unconditionally. Just because. Suddenly, the sweet boy’s sweet love didn’t seem so insignificant anymore. And her life didn’t feel like such a waste after all.
I read the words again and again. This is the one. Five minutes left. I fold the letter and place it on the desk while I look for an envelope. I wish we had organized the office supplies. Too many precious seconds are wasted looking for the small, note sized envelopes we send thank you cards in. I return to the letter and place it in the envelope, sealing it with a kiss. I pace nervously in front of the fireplace as the minutes tick by. Why isn’t he here yet? Will I get to see him one last time?
The door clicks, and I drop the letter. The fire pops and singes the envelope, but I don’t notice it. Only him. The clock begins to chime. Seven seconds. No time. I stare at my husband as the letter burns. He smiles and tosses his coat over a chair. Five seconds. This is it. Three seconds. My mind goes blank, and I blurt the first thing that comes to mind.
“Hang up your coat.”
Terror and Wave
“I’ll bet you four days’ laundry you won’t do it.”
Adden slid his fingers across the sand, ignoring his brother. Adden and Derben shared the same sea green eyes and brown, scruffy hair, but their similarities ended there. Adden took after his mum. He was short and stocky, with round features and a healthy dose of impishness. Derben was the golden boy, charming and tall like their da.
Adden was the fool, but he preferred it that way. Made him stand out in his family full of practicals. They had a brood of nine, including their mum and da, and keeping everyone clothed and fed required more discipline than Adden cared for. Chores seemed endless some days, but the boys always found a little time for fun.
Tenek lua Ben rested at the bottom of a long-dead volcano. It was lush with forests and farmland and protected on both sides by tall, shale black cliffs. The cliffs stretched out along the sides of their island before narrowing into a channel. At the edge of Tenek lay a sandy beach and clear blue cove. The cove was a deep, teardrop shaped pool formed from the ebb and flow of currents pushing through the channel from the ocean beyond. The channel tapered as you traveled away from Tenek, making travel difficult for man and sea creature alike.
They saw a variety of tropical fish here in Tenek, and an assortment of clams and crustaceans, but not much else. This made the arrival of a shylark all the more exciting for the children playing in the cove.
Shylarks were sea creatures with long flat backs and bulbous underbellies. They had two large fins on both sides of their bodies and wide, fan shaped tails. They were good eating, but extremely rare. One poor shylark had floated into the cove and gotten stuck in a small pond by the shore. Once the children noticed, they set out to trap it, setting up a fishing gate at the end of the pond.
They guessed the shylark was around six or seven feet long. Adden ventured it was big enough to ride on, and Derben had pounced on the idea.
“Well?” Derben waited for Adden’s response. It was a silly bet. Shylarks had slippery bodies. And very sharp teeth.
“Four days of laundry hardly seems worth it,” Adden shrugged. “Lots of teeth on that shylark.”
“Yeah, but I bet the fearless Adden could ride that shylark for, oh, say a count of fifty?” Derben’s eyes danced with mirth. “I’ll double the days.”
Adden eyed the shylark warily. Derben could tease him if he wanted, but even Adden wasn’t fool enough to ride it. No one would, so Derben could go sail a ship.
Adden caught a flash of red from the corner of his eye and turned toward the Jacaranda groves. High up in one of the trees he spotted Tamarin. She was always nearby, but never joined the other children. She was hard to miss with her dark skin and crimson red, curly hair, always tied in a bun on top of her head. Her eyes were as golden as the sun, unlike the green of the other villagers, but her mum had been a foreigner. She was a couple of rotations younger than Adden and rarely spoke. She was watching them. Huh.
“I’ll do a hundred count. And make it a whole phase.”
Adden smiled up at Tamarin and gave her a wave, but he couldn’t tell if she’d seen it or not. She hadn’t moved. Derben slapped Adden on the back, grinning ear to ear.
“Alright, a whole phase it is! Mork, keep time! The rest of you help me lure the shylark closer to the sand.”
The children splashed their feet in the water, sending the shylark closer to the beach. Adden stood near the edge, trying to remember how many teeth a shylark had. It was one hundred, wasn’t it? Or maybe one thousand? His sister trudged up to the cove with a scowl.
“What are you boys doing?” she eyed them suspiciously, hands on her hips. All the girls took after mum. Long brown hair, short plump figures, and a bossy disposition.
“Nothing that concerns you,” Derben scowled. “Run along now.”
“Adden’s gonna ride a shylark!” one of the children blurted.
“Whose idea was this?” She turned to Derben, whose face gave it away. “Really, Derben?” Derben tried to match her gaze, but faltered and looked away. “You don’t need to do this,” she turned back to Adden, placing her hand on his shoulder. “He’s just trying to mess with you.” Adden scowled and shrugged it off.
“I don’t need you to baby me, Raina.”
She sighed and held up her hands in surrender.
“Adden, you’re a fool! And Derben you know better!” Raina stalked off, but not too far. She’d probably tell mum, but not before all the excitement ended.
The shylark wasn’t moving as much now, having worn itself out. If he grabbed it just behind the fins, he should be able to get a good grip. He’d have to be quick, though.
“Ready?” Derben smirked. Adden nodded, determined to wipe the smug look off his brother’s face.
“Good luck, Adden!” Griella called out. She was Adden’s age and a close neighbor. His sister seemed to think she had a crush on him, but he didn’t pay either girl any mind. Still, he nodded politely to her. And then he hopped on.
Tamarin had spent most of her morning in the trees, studying and taking notes. Tenek was home to a dozen different types, with groves growing from the base of the mountain all the way up to Verek Lua Ben. Verek was the other village on their island, built on the mouth of the volcano. It was home to mainly sheep farmers, but over time, Verek had also developed a thriving merchant’s hub.
Verek was a vital source of meat and other raw materials for the people of Tenek. In turn, Tenek was a vital source of grain and fish. There was regular travel between the two villages for trade, and Tamarin’s father, Forn, visited Verek every three or four phases.
Forn had grown up in Tenek. His grandfather had been a physician and passed his knowledge on to his son, who in turn, passed his knowledge on to Forn. As the only real physician on the island, Forn felt it his duty to serve the people of both Verek and Tenek. Tamarin found ways to help Forn whenever she could, and by her sixth rotation, she was a capable apprentice. Forn taught her how to make ointments, wrap wounds, and set dozens of broken bones.
Sometimes he would let her go with him on house calls, but not usually. The other children always shied away when she was around, so she spent most of her time with Forn in the infirmary. When he was away, she made it her duty to study the things he taught her and commit them to memory. Today she was in the trees, sampling fruits, studying leaves and saps, gathering flowers and pods, and doing her best to memorize the medicinal purpose for each one.
The Jacaranda trees were her favorite. Their scent was strong and sweet, with soft, purple flowers that bloomed for nine out of twelve phases every rotation. They were good for treating wounds and illnesses and made the smell of the infirmary more tolerable.
Tamarin looked out at the cove, noting the commotion on the beach. Normally she wouldn’t bother with whatever sport the village children were playing, but they’d managed to trap a shylark. She’d never seen one up close. Maybe they’d catch it and she’d be able to get a good look before they took it to the fishermen. They didn’t seem like they were interested in catching it, though.
Adden was looking up at the Jacaranda trees, smiling like an idiot. Was he smiling at her? Most of the children didn’t speak to her, let alone offer anything as friendly as a smile. Tamarin learned very early on that she wasn’t like the other children. Beyond the stares and the whispers, there were signs all around her.
Some of the farmers had deep tans, but their skin was shades away from hers. Even the kindest Tenekians had trouble looking at her without shuddering. Her golden eyes were a stark contrast from the shades of green that were the norm in Tenek, and people found it unsettling. Yes, she was the only golden eyed, bloody haired, dark child on this whole rock. Things might have been different if her mother had lived, but as it stood, she was all alone.
Tamarin narrowed her eyes as she watched the children in the cove. What was that fool doing? Adden was positioning his legs around either side of the shylark. Idiot. Tamarin glanced in her bag, pulling some moss and a few dressing leaves to the top. These would probably come in handy. She swung down from the tree and headed towards the cove.
Terror and Wave is the story of two inseparable children navigating the trials of youth on their secluded island home, until their world is torn apart by the acts of an evil Empress.
This YA fantasy project is finished at roughly 80,000 words.
Tamarin is a shy, intelligent girl being brought up by her father. Her foreign features stand out in the village of Tenek lua Ben, leaving her isolated. She has only one friend - Adden, a boy as wild as the sea with a heart twice as big. Drawn together by a disastrous shylark riding incident, their friendship deepens with each perilous adventure they face together.
Tamarin longs for a connection to her mother’s past and people, but the heritage of her once warrior mother, Tara, is shrouded in secrecy. When foreigners arrive with tales of magic and the warring Terrors of the Northlands, the children get a glimpse of the world beyond Tenek lua Ben. As Tamarin and Adden seek out the secrets of the Northland Terrors and the promise of the waves, an evil Empress turns the world upside down in search of the last remaining Terror. Surviving will prove to be the most dangerous adventure of all.
Me in a nutshell? Faith, family, laundry. Not always in that order. I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Biblical Studies and Theology, and a resume full of jobs that have nothing to do with that. I'm looking for opportunities to grow beyond my comfort zone, and I welcome feedback! I have stories to tell, and I’m ready to tell them.
The Trials of We
Eleven pairs of eyes stared at me. Some angry, some resigned. All tired. I met each pair. Their right hands were raised in unison, tall trees of judgment with angry, tired limbs. They looked at my hands, rested firmly on the table, and finally lowered theirs.
I looked at Janet, to my left. She was the most agreeable, but my stubbornness had tested the limits of her charity. Her mouth twitched in aggravation. As she lowered her hand, she bumped elbows with Tracey. His dark skin was a stark contrast to the creamy whites and light browns in the room. He was the foreman, and he wore the title well. A known and respected small business owner himself, the other jurors were inclined to follow his lead. Though there were twelve of us, Janet and Tracey were the two I needed most. But their patience was wearing thin. This was our third vote in as many days.
Well, our third vote today.
We were tired. Tired of passing through metal detectors, tired of eating takeout, tired of sitting in chairs, tired of arguing. The boy was guilty. Everyone said so. At first, even I had fallen for the neatly packaged tale spun by the prosecutor. A store was robbed at gunpoint by a hooded, black figure. The owner was killed. The boy lived nearby and was seen with the same color hoodie. He had a history of petty theft. He’d argued that same day with the store owner over the price of… what was it again? I could never remember.
Tracey rubbed his temples. “It looks like we have a hung jury. If we can’t agree, we’ve got to call it.”
Tracey’s eyes were weary, but he hadn’t given up entirely. He was willing to indulge me one more time. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
“Let’s go over everything one more time…” My suggestion was met with a flurry of expletives.
“Enough!” Jerry grumbled. “We’ve been over every scrap of evidence a hundred times already! What’s left to look at?”
“There are holes in the story on both sides. They never found the murder weapon. The boy had traces of GSR on his hands, but he claimed he never touched a gun. The owner was shot at close range, but there were no traces of blood on the boy’s hoodie.”
“The boy was caught lying twice during his testimony!” Jerry wasn’t enthusiastic at all about my idea. It stung a little, but I pressed on.
“Okay, let’s talk about that. The first lie was about where he was that day. On the police report he originally told them he was at home during the time of the shooting, but during his testimony on the stand, he said he was at his girlfriend’s house.”
“Which is five miles further. How convenient.”
“Okay. So he either lied or misspoke.”
I really wished Jerry would shut it.
“Okay, Jerry. Thanks. If he lied, why did he lie?”
“Because if he was at his girlfriend’s house, he couldn’t have been at the store when the owner was shot.”
Jerry was killing me.
“Maybe. But according to his testimony on the stand, his grandmother was with him during the first interrogation.”
“You don’t think that made a difference?”
“No. And what about the GSR?”
“I was going to talk about that next. Where are the reports?”
“Here.” Janet handed me the reports. Her eye was twitching now. I started reading the report out loud. Bad move. I lost them three minutes in. Foreman Tracey finally called it at minute seven.
“Let’s take a break, everyone. Take a walk, order some dinner, then put it to one final vote. If we can’t all agree, we’re a hung jury.”
“But that doesn’t help the boy, that just means a new trial.”
Tracey shrugged. “Everyone okay with Chinese?”
I watched them all scatter. Eleven tired bodies. They were ready to go home. The holes didn’t matter to them. Going back to their lives mattered. It wasn’t about the boy anymore, or the store owner. But maybe it never was. We were all looking at the trial through the lens of our own experiences, our own values. I had to appeal to that. Facts weren’t enough. I needed to engage their feelings. I looked at Janet and Tracey. If I could somehow convince those two that the boy was innocent, the others would follow. Tracey was a tough nut to crack.
I started with Janet first.
“Hey Janet! Love your shoes!” I thought it was a great opening, but Janet saw right through it.
“He’s guilty, and I want to go home. Also, thanks. They are nice shoes.”
“Okay, Janet. You caught me. But listen-”
“No, I don’t want to listen! I want to go home! We’ve been at this for three days! I miss my husband and my kids and my comfy couch!”
“Of course. You’ve got two kids, right? Ages seven and… thirteen months?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” Janet gave a little smile as she pulled out her phone. “My husband sent me this while we were voting. See her little tooth?”
“Man, that’s something.” All I saw was drool. Gross, gross, gross. I had one shot at this, though. “And the seven-year-old? That’s Brunson, right?”
“Named after my dad. He passed away when I was a teenager.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. How did he die?”
“That really sucks.”
“It was awful. God, I was a wreck. I don’t know how my mom put up with me during those days. I don’t know how she survived most of my teenage years. I have no idea what I’m gonna do when Brunson is a teenager. I don’t want to think about it. He’s such a sweet kid. I hope he never changes.”
“He’s adorable. And you seem like you turned out okay.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Must have been tough, losing your dad, being raised with one parent?”
“Well, my mom remarried about a year later.”
“Yeah. I hated her for that. And I made sure she knew. But I was just a dumb kid, you know?”
I nodded, seeing my opening. “So it’s safe to say you weren’t a saint as a teenager?”
She laughed. “Not even close!”
I shrugged. “I guess, in a way, you can relate to the boy. Except, he lost both of his parents and was living with his grandmother.”
“I never killed anybody!”
Janet shrugged. “Once or twice.”
“Were you ever caught? Arrested? Sent to juvie?”
“Once I was caught, but they gave me a warning.”
Time to dig in.
“Listen, Janet. I know you’re tired and ready to be home with Brunson, but try to imagine, for a few moments, that our suspect was your son. That twelve really tired people held his life in their hands. Twelve strangers who don’t know him like you do, don’t understand him like you do, who make snap judgments about him without knowing much about him. He’s a dumb kid with no parents who’s made some mistakes. Maybe he did this. But what if he didn’t? If he’s found guilty, they are going to put him away for the rest of his life. The least we can do is make sure we’ve looked at all the evidence, at all the facts, and come to no other conclusion than that he’s guilty.”
I shrugged and walked away quickly. Janet didn’t follow me, but I didn’t think she would. I needed to talk to Tracey next. He was checking with the deputy about our food delivery. He saw me coming and he frowned. It stung a little.
“Food should be here in ten. But I’m guessing you aren’t looking for food?”
“You caught me. You’re a smart man, Tracey. You like to read?”
“What kind of books?”
“A little of everything, but I love biographies and histories.”
“I’m a history buff myself. Do you remember the Central Park 5? The boys who were falsely accused of raping a woman in Central Park?”
“Pretty hard to forget. Why do you bring it up?” I was on thin ice. So I skated a little further out.
“Well, I was recently reading up on Matias Reyes. Do you know who that is?”
“Name sounds familiar.”
“Matias Reyes was the man who confessed to the woman’s rape.”
“Oh yeah. I remember now.”
“Do you know how many other women he attacked?”
Tracey raised his eyebrows. “No. Should I?”
“He attacked nine women total. Five of them were attacked after the Central Park jogger. One of them was murdered.” Tracey’s wheels were turning. I was pretty sure I heard them.
“You know -probably better than most of us - that bias and cultural differences make it harder for people like this kid to get a fair shake. I saw your face when we were talking about how he lied on the stand. Jerry doesn’t understand why he’d lie in front of his grandmother about where he was that night, but you understood where he was coming from.”
“Doesn’t make it right. He shouldn’t have lied to the police.”
“So he’s a liar. That doesn’t make him a murderer. And if he didn’t do this, that means the person who did is still out there. You live in this community. You have a small business. What happened here shouldn’t have happened. But if we’ve got the wrong guy, odds are it’s gonna happen again. What if the next time it’s you?” Tracey sighed, but he didn’t walk away.
“Why do you think he’s innocent?”
“The surveillance tape. I just can’t see how he shot the owner from that close without getting a single trace of blood on his clothes.” My phone buzzed and I checked my messages. I smiled. “And this.” I showed Tracey the message.
He glanced at it, then at me.
“What am I looking at here?”
“I asked a buddy of mine to find out what causes GSR residue other than guns.”
“Do you remember what the kid said he was doing at his girlfriend’s house that night?”
Tracey sighed again, but he indulged me.
“Setting off fireworks.”
“Take a look at the list again. What do you see on that list?”
“Fireworks…” Tracey rubbed his chin. “Hey, that’s what the kid and the store owner were arguing about. The price of fireworks.”
“Exactly! So the kid wants to set off some fireworks. He goes to the store, but they’re too expensive there. He complains about it, he and the store owner get into a screaming match, whatever. He leaves, comes back an hour later, demands money, shoots the guy and… doesn’t take a single firework with him?”
“He could have been lying about the fireworks.”
“He is a liar. But I don’t think he was lying about that.”
“But we have no proof, other than his testimony.”
“And the GSR. That could have come from the fireworks.”
“Or the murder weapon.”
“…or the fireworks.”
I shrugged and walked away. Our food came and we sat down to eat. Janet fiddled with her fork for a while before clearing her throat.
“Before we take another vote, I think we should look at all the evidence again.” She got a few stares, but nobody swore at her. Everybody liked Janet. They saved their swears for me. That stung a little, but I tried not to let it show. Jerry shot daggers my way. I used them to cut my kung pao chicken.
“What could we have possibly missed?” Jerry asked.
Tracey took that as an opening.
“We missed a few things, Jerry.” Tracey looked at me. “And we’re not leaving this room until we get them sorted out.”
I nodded in thanks.
Time to dig in.
buds bloom and bees fly-
Expecting Beauty. Growth. Change.
Shaming barren trees.
Thus ends my haiku of spring.
Shaky legs. Clammy hands. Cotton mouth.
Stage fright and graduation speeches.
Club leader, but socially awkward.
Woefully out of touch, but earnestly so.
The Earth Sighed Seven Times
The earth sighed seven times.
The first morning she heaved – oceans of garbage flooded beaches like tourists, never resting until the seas were emptied of every human relic ever tossed off a ship, every wine cork long forgotten after empty smiles and shallow promises, every distorted piece of plastic that brought momentary ease, fleeting joy, or a bit of convenience- then she sighed.
My dog barked seven times that day. No more, no less.
I hoped it was over, but then came the second morning. A guttural cough rumbled under my feet, and the world erupted. Every dormant volcano came alive with fire, and steam, and spirals of smoke. The seas began to boil and rage and roar, and then I feared it was the end. But it wasn’t. The earth sighed a second time.
My dog barked six times that day. No more, no less.
The third morning, the earth burbled and burped until every human corpse was lifted from its resting place. On land, they rolled out of the ground onto perfectly landscaped yards and gardens and ruined the mood for many a party. This one felt personal. My old dog was buried in the back. His resting place lay undisturbed while bloated bodies bobbed alongside buoys in oceans, and lakes, and rivers, and oh, what a stink! That night she sighed again, and I thought I heard mirth in the sound of it.
Five barks from my dog that day. No more, no less.
The fourth morning the earth groaned and the ground ruptured and fractured – consuming governments, and swallowing civilizations, and splitting countries, and families, and even hairs. Well, I only guessed that last part. Then the earth sighed a fourth time.
My dog barked four times after I fetched her out of the rubble. No more, no less.
The fifth morning the earth sang – through warbling birds and whistling trees, through the bellows of whales and the humming of bees – and it was beautiful! The song was full of hope and new beginnings. But many could not hear her song, though the sound was deafening. Men cleaved to their old ways, licking honey from thorns that split their tongues and numbed their senses, and the poison – oh the poison! Millions died because of it, and it seeped back into the earth. That night the earth was silent. Perhaps she was thinking. The quiet unnerved me as I bolted my doors, listening for earth’s song but only hearing the sounds of booted men patrolling streets, and cocking guns, and shuttered blinds, and whirring blades from aircraft overhead. Finally, the earth sighed a weary sigh.
Three barks that night. Three damning barks. No more, no less.
I awoke the sixth morning with a start as the earth shrieked. I covered my ears, and my cheeks flushed with heat at the pain in her voice. Her cries were desperate. They were horrifying. They were accusing. And they were powerful. Earth’s protective ozone shattered, and my skin blistered and cracked under the heat of the sun. I barricaded myself in the cellar as the top of my roof melted away into nothing. As night fell, the earth sighed a sixth time.
My dog barked twice. No more, no less.
I knew the seventh morning was our last, for the earth laughed. It was bitter and full of sorrow. It summoned the heavens forward, and they came. Meteors, and floating ice, and blazing stars struck the earth so violently they sent chunks of her spinning, spinning everywhere. They ripped her clothes and tore her flesh, but her response was laughter. Crazed, terrifying laughter. And then she sighed. Our beautiful, broken earth sighed. One final, mournful, dreadful sigh.
My dog barked once that morning. Now she lay mute in my lap as I pet her. I know she has no more barks for me. I close my eyes and take one last breath.
No more, no less.
The True Life Chronicles of Awkward Divine
Name: Octavia Sierra Divine. The prats at Sylvan High call me "awkward."
Genre: Preteen Lit
The year is 2062. California is gone, detached and lost at sea after the Great earthquake of ’32. The polar ice caps melted at an accelerated rate as the ozone layer protecting us from the sun continued to thin. The melting caps resulted in a significant rise in sea levels. The added pressure on our earth’s crust caused a massive shift of tectonic plates and set off a chain reaction of catastrophic events.
The Great earthquake was actually a series of earthquakes, and it was only the beginning. Hurricanes ravaged the southeast coasts of the United States. Canada became an ice box, along with DC and every state above it. The Dakotas, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, they may as well be the North Pole now. A massive tsunami wiped out most of the population on the eastern states. My great grandmother fled North Carolina, as did everyone from both the eastern and western coasts. People flooded the central states in search of refuge, but the central states were no more safe than any other place. Tornados ravaged Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arkansas, while sandstorms plagued Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. The earthquake was followed by a long drought that dried up crops in the western half of the US. We weren’t the only ones affected.
Nuclear bombs in North Korea, China, and Japan were set off by the Great earthquake, killing millions and poisoning the water supply of billions in Asia. Japan is now submerged in the Pacific. Taiwan, Laos, the Philippines and other islands are only found in old maps. Russia and half of Europe is frozen. The other half of Europe is underwater. The earthquake in Africa was so violent it broke the continent into three separate land masses. England and Ireland were lost at sea. Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea were strangely unaffected.
The US government collapsed, and what’s left are twelve territories. We live in what is called New Texas now, a small territory a stone’s throw away from the easternmost end of the T Wall. I travel the length of the T Wall from one end of the territory to the other end every day. It’s about a mile, each way. The T Wall was built in my great grandmother’s time to keep migrants from entering the country. It’s 60 feet high, twenty feet deep, and five feet thick. A massive undertaking, the wall spanned from Arizona to Texas. The Governor of California at that time rejected the Federal government’s authority to build the wall. He was later assassinated, but litigation over the wall had already begun, halting progress for decades. When they finally began construction there, the Great earthquake destroyed any progress made.
When the dust settled the earth’s surface was drastically changed. It used to take earth about 24 hours to rotate around its axis. Now it takes closer to 16.
This all happened before I was born, and life in New Texas is all I know. We go to school from age 3 to 7 to learn the basics: How to survive a sandstorm, what to do if a snake bites you, how to remove a bullet if you get too close to the border. Oh, did I tell you? They don’t like it when you cross over into other territories. They’ve got armed guards at the borders, and only authorized traders are allowed to pass. Food is scarce, and there are rumors that a famine is wiping out the northern territories. We get our information about other territories from the traders, so I can’t vouch for how reliable this information is.
A few more places I haven't mentioned. On the other side of the T Wall is Mexico. Further down is South America. They were hit pretty badly by the Great earthquake. Much of the Caribbean is gone, save the Citadel of Haiti. There was severe coastal flooding in South America. Argentina, Peru and Chile were completely submerged, but the rest of the continent quickly recovered. Their leaders joined forces and are now the United States of South America, or USSA. They’re the biggest superpower on the planet now, and they grow most of the world’s food. Mexico is the second biggest, with the largest naval fleet. Due to the ravaged coasts, many of the remaining countries have no way of exporting food by boat, and airports are ghost towns, so they rely on Mexico for, well, everything.
“I’ve always wanted to see Mexico.”
I looked up from my journal. My great grandmother sat in her rocking chair, eyes staring at nothing, face painted with deep, dark lines that curved with the bones of her face. She sighed a deep sigh and I stared at her a moment before returning to my writing.
I’m writing all this down now, so I won’t forget the reason why I’m doing this. Why it has to be me.
My great grandmother began to whimper and cry and I closed my journal. I made my way over to her, squeezed her hand, and spoke in a soft, reassuring tone.
“It’s alright, great grandma. I’m here.”
“No, no, no!” she cried again. Her grief-filled cries were hard to watch. She had these episodes more often now. I tried to comfort her by cooing and speaking softly. Her sobs quieted, but her grief never left her eyes.
“You were so little, Samaya! I just wanted to keep you safe!” My great grandmother looked up at me, pleading for understanding.
“I’m not Samaya, great grandma. I’m Soira.” She looked at me, confused.
“Where is Samaya?” she asked. “Did I lose you again, my child?”
“No, great grandma. She is gone to the store. She will be back soon.” The lie felt hollow, but my mother told me it was the only way to calm her down. She was right. My great grandmother visibly relaxed. Samaya was my great grandmother’s youngest daughter. She was lost during the tsunami that struck the eastern states. She’d been around my age, I think. My great grandmother kept a picture of her in her dress pocket. We looked almost identical.
“Samaya should be careful,” my grandmother spoke softly. “The air is strange outside. Colder than usual.” I nodded and turned to leave, but my grandmother held my hand fast.
“I knew something was wrong. I could feel it in my bones. But there was so much wrong in the world, and I was so tired. I didn’t think I could do anything about it, anyway.” She was back to herself, now. Her episodes came and went, and conversations often floated between the past and present.
“About what?” I asked.
“The wall. The ice. The government. They all were so big, and I was so small. What could one person do? And I had Samaya and Janessa. They were all the world I could handle.”
“It’s okay, great grandma.”
“No, no, no! You live in a three mile cage, Soira! You’ve never seen a mountain, or tasted ice cream. You wear a mask to go outside. This isn't right! I should have done… I should have done…” she searched for words. I waited as she repeated herself again and again.
“More?” I whispered the word, but she heard me. Her eyes glistened with tears and she nodded.
“Yes. I should have done more, but now it’s too late.” She shook her head in grief.
“What more could you do?” I tried to comfort her without judgment, but to be honest, I often wondered. Was the world fated for this? Were these things always meant to happen? Or was it the result of people’s actions, or inaction? Of ignored opportunities to do the hard thing? To do the right thing?
“Promise me, Soira,” my grandmother looked at me with an intensity I felt to my core. “Promise me, if you see wrong in the world, you will fight it. If you can do good, you’ll do it! Promise me!”
My great grandmother knew nothing of the hole I’d found in the T Wall, or the letters from a girl from Mexico named Consuela. She had sent the same letter every day with the same words, hoping someone would find it and respond. They were tied to the back of a tiny electronic beetle. The beetle was programmed to crawl the five feet through the hole, eject the letter, and wait 14 hours. Afterwards it would retreat back to the other side of the wall.
I’d found the letter on the ground one day during my walk.
Hello from Mexico.
I thought it was a joke and tossed the paper away, but kept finding the letter in the same spot every day for a week. I eventually found the hole and the beetle. It took me several days of observation to catch it in the act, and several more to figure out how to send a reply.
Over time, I learned that Consuela’s father was the President of Mexico. I did not believe her at first, and I had a lot of questions, but the beetle could only hold a tiny paper, and the messages had to be short. She said her father tried to send drones, but they were shot down. They were bringing down the T-Wall, and soon. The demolition would be by missile and if we didn’t evacuate, New Texas and all its inhabitants would be destroyed. She sent me twelve letters. The final came with a warning.
You have ten days. Good luck.
That was two days ago.
I looked at my great grandmother. She was still staring at me, eyes full of fire and regret. I nodded my head. This would not be another opportunity lost.