Despite the close ties between Melvor Idle and RuneScape
Despite the close ties between Melvor Idle and RS Gold, and the involvement direct of Jagex in the writing process, the author chose to keep the game an unique IP rather than making it an professionally-run RuneScape spin-off. In component, this turned into the acclaim of the fact that Malcolm succeeded where Jagex itself failed.
"We were actually studying the possibility of creating an idle RuneScape sport some of years back with RuneScape: Idle Adventures," Pfeiffer shares. "In Alpha, we stopped the improvement of our efforts to raise awareness towards the core of RuneScape gaming video.
We have always believed in RuneScape's potential within the idle zone and Melvor Idle more than confirms that RuneScape can help to encourage an amazing idle sport. But Melvor Idle stands up on its own merits equally, and we desired to remain true to the creative and innovative vision of the sport that Brendan experienced when he first started expanding the game."
Pfeiffer is also a factor in the satisfaction of Melvor Idle and demonstrates that knowledge can be derived from the network of any game, which is a fact that Jagex has seen before. "We've been observing the RuneScape network to be a very good supply of expertise for Jagex that is not only in the realm of game builders however all the many jobs in a studio," he says. "RuneScape has had close to 300 million loans accumulated over more than two decades. The amount of highly skilled people that have been involved in the sport is massive."
Following the a hit partnership in partnership with Games By Malcs, Pfeiffer believes he's ready to collaborate with independent developers around the world if they may be operating on projects that "align with the layout philosophy of RuneScape and Jagex's core values" In addition, he is hopeful that Melvor Idle's success will encourage more indie developers towards contacting Jagex Studios.
With model 1.zero of Melvor Idle, which is now available availible, Games By Malcs and Jagex collaborate in the development of future content, in addition to greater ability titles set withinside the Melvor universe. Malcolm remains grateful to Jagex for their ongoing support particularly in the OSRS Gold For Sale of attaining new gamers.
They are also fantastic at making sure that Melvor Idle has reached many more players than I've ever been capable of via way through myself, both players in the RuneScape network as well as beyond," he says. "With the whole release out today, I'm looking forward to working with Jagex in making Melvor Idle a great bigger achievement, and also on the future initiatives."
Echoes of Yore is the call of the brand new MMORPG by independent producer Gellyberry Studios. It is aimed at looking back to the classics of the past like RuneScape or Tibia and is played out in iso perspective. The focus is on finding, crafting, constructing your own home, and taking an risk in dungeons.
What type of game is this? Ethyrial: Echoes of Yore desires to resurrect the vintage classics using a modern day engine. You design a character that isn't tied to a particular category, but is defined by means of talents and gadget. In this way, you can enter the arena of Irumesa.
The spotlight is now on an international wherein there may be many things to find and find out.
Similar to RuneScape The game has numerous and particular opportunities for personal development. However, you can only create a single character in line with the server. Crafting and collecting play a important role and should be one of the main reasons returning to low-stage zones is profitable in the future. Additionally, you must be able of making endgame fabric with stage 1, however the threat of a hit series must be close to zero.
The better your talent and the more powerful your tools more likely you are of fulfillment.Another reason to gamble in novice regions is to have hidden challenges or quests to find. There's also a journal that requires you to hunt down all types of monsters in the world of open. There's housing inside the open world that's accessible to everyone. Guilds are also required to be able to construct homes collectively on massive websites for building.
Instances and boss arenas are designed to allow PvE.
There could also be PvP with no limit in the endgame using a karma device to keep players from being able to attack other players. The game was first of all known as "Blocky Ages". When will the MMORPG seem? The game is expected to launch to Steam at Early Access in 2023. It's a long way to go. have handiest been closed beta assessments and "in some months" there might be an open beta launch on Steam (through Steam).
This trailer gives you a primary glimpse of Ethyrial: Echoes of Yore The game has a high probability of obtaining higher loot, however there are also penalties. What's unique about this MMORPG? The designers emphasize that their game is built on the basis of "chance as opposed to praise". The more chance you have more likely is the possibility of a good loot. But, death is also very dangerous.
In PvE the dungeons and boss arenas need to be equipped with specific degree of difficulty, so that everyone is able find an task that is appropriate for the requirements. The better the extent of issue, the greater potential for losing In the case of popular, every piece of tools has the possibility of being dropped on loss of life. This is true both in PvP and PvE. But this is not the case with Mages Guild Mages Guild must be capable of save you it from being lost by enchantments. It is doubtful whether or it's applicable in totality or just to be in accordance with enchantment.
If you die on one of the highest issue degree you will lose your enjoyment factors. This is especially true for institutions. the institution's contributors lose enjoyment factors if one of the birthday birthday celebration dies. Therefore, there is a possibility of a collective punishment.
A monthly subscription for a store with Pay2Win and pay2Progress. What does the charge version look like? The MMORPG is primarily built on a subscription-based model, meaning that you must pay monthly for the game. There's no real charge for this service, however.
However, the developers have already found out that they'll add a store. However, it's not Pay2Win and it shouldn't contain XP boosts, or other stock slots. The awareness is solely on beauty objects. It is also essential to locate these cosmetics in the shop but they are no longer available in the game. The builders need to save those items that are considered to be status in the game can be offered at the shop.
Can you already check the game? You can follow for the continued alpha and, with a good chance, be decided on for this game (through Ethyria). In the event that it is not, open beta testing will start in the beginning of 2022. How lengthy has the sport been in improvement?RuneScape opens its biggest and Most Flexible Yak Track. OSRS Announces Tombs of Amascut Reward Reworks. RuneScape is officially launching an updated Yak Track, whilst the Old School RuneScape group is speaking the redone Tombs of Amascut rewards and participant comments on every.
This Yak Track: Path of the Creators II is the tenth ever and the longest they've ever had in RuneScape and has a range of 50 degrees. It will take months to complete. Should you be capable of getting ahead and complete this track, you'll be able to get yourself a few Elder Gods themed rewards, including Bik or Ful.
There's also a flexible trade this time around, since each of the 50 degrees includes a "talent as well as kill" option as the first task for the stage, so that you can parent out the way you'll need to grow to complete these assignments. The option for kill and talent could be slower however you'll still be able to complete them in a certain is required in the way that you prefer.
There are a few more changes inside the RuneScape patch today, with the addition of a brand-new, transient instanced model of the Senntisten Asylum. This is likely to be available in the coming month. The Asylum is able to hold six players, which means that you'll be put into an instance in the event you're the 7th person to input. The rest of the arrangements will continue to be similar to what you would expect, but the example could be to be utilized to facilitate flow.
In the meantime, the Old School RuneScape group has an opportunity to replace the to be Tombs of Amascut rewards. They unveiled the rewards listing but after the demise of Nex, were given the idea that their original loot strategies needed an overhaul. The group then took a stand with the fresh thoughts and that's what the network is now offering. Some of the innovative designs survived often intact However, others had changed.
In the replace this week the group will go over every of the objects and what they have got modified to transfer these objects of praise into the realm of the gods. You also can see the reaction of the network in general to the proposal turned into what, and also the OSRS group's reaction to every of the proposals.
How to boost your fight scene in Runescape
Runescape has a variety of frightful battle parties and terrifying monsters that you must defeat so your fight stage is important for survival. If you're looking to increase the size of your stage of battle we've made it much easier to get your competitors to be a lot more dominant.
Runescape offers a wide range of skills to develop in the core companies consisting of battle, gathering artisan, artisan, and aid. If you're interested in getting involved in some amazing battles, then operating to your battle stage is the manner to become a great warrior. If you've tried trying to defeat your rivals This is the entire information you require to know about advancing your fight stage.
Growing your battle stage in Runescape with fairness and a clean first but it is important to keep a few minutes apart to gain extreme power. To get began out to your quest to increase your level you need to follow these few guidelines: Lastly go straight to defeating Hill Giants at Edgeville Dungeon (reachable via the ruins to and to the South Edgeville). Edgeville)
It's important to note that as you stage up and become more powerful as you progress, you'll need to continue buying or crafting enough weapons and armor to protect yourself. If you're using a weapon it is important to keep your desire to learn about the specific skills that may boom your ordinary fighting stage.
What are the skills that are part of the fight in Runescape?
Skills are important to improve the fight scene and can offer you with a direction that you must follow, subject on your favorite weapon types. The combat stage abilities are classified into three categories parts: Strength, Attack, Magic, Ranged Defence, Constitution, summoning.
For those who enjoy melee combat, keeping your focus to Attack and Strength can be useful with slashing, stabbing, and crushing your enemies. You can use these sorts of attacks regularly to observe your stats increase dramatically through the years. Magic, Ranged and Prayer can be enhanced by repetition, too. Prayer, however, can be elevated quite quickly over several days through means of burying bones or scattering the ashes.
Defense can be improved more quickly by getting rid of questions that praise protection as a result of your efforts. Constitution will increase over the years as you level up your fight and Summoning will want you to complete Slayer objectives and quests in order to earn Charms , which provide an explosion in go back.
What is the max stage of fight in Runescape?
All gamers in Runescape begin by fighting a stage that is three times in Runescape as well as OSRS (Old School Runescape). As long as you're still staging your fight, you'll eventually meet the max stage of 138. For OSRS gamers, the highest combat stage has stage 126.
NPC's will forestall attacking you even if your fight stage is twice their own +. However, monsters that may be at stage sixty nine or over will constantly attack the participant.
Old School RuneScape The complete list of pets and how to obtain them into OSRS
Pets are an integral element of Old School RuneScape and acquiring a number of them may be incredibly difficult. Learn the whole thing you want to understand approximately Pets in OSRS. Despite not being NPCs fighting in OSRS pets can be a laugh in relation to watching your sportsperson around the globe. However, finding pets and securing them could be a bit challenging unless that you understand what you need to do.
Possessing pets in the game is greater a signal of your status that you've successfully defeated bosses. Because specific pets are taken away from bosses and placed them as your follower is a clever method of revealing the most recent boss you beat. Let's dive in and test the entire thing could be to know more about animals in OSRS.
How do I get pets to OSRS
There are three possible methods of incorporating pets into the sport. However, every precise approach is a risk of supplying you and a particular pet. It's crucial so one can understand which pets may be received by which strategy. The 3 techniques to be discovered for purchasing pets in OSRS are.
Runescape will take you on an high-quality adventure, irrespective the style of play you choose. However, you'll want higher armor when you're facing tough enemies. Here's all you should know about non-degradable armor.
All over the realms of Gielinor, Runescape gamers will encounter knights, sorcerers and incredible beasts in their quest for excellence. In most cases, you'll find yourself in fighting in your armor to provide vital protection. However, maximum armors and guns in Runescape are prone to fading after repeated usage.
Thankfully, gamers can get an armor that is non-degradable that will not suffer the same horrific fate. This is the most effective non-degradable armour in Runescape.
The most durable, non-degradable armor you can get for Runescape melee players
If you're one who likes to get in the air and walk around non-publically with your adversaries, then you definitely're on the lookout for. We recommend purchasing The Anima Core of Zaros armor. To keep it, there are several alternatives to comply with when you go into the Heart of Gielinor (frequently known as the God Wars Dungeon Two) You can increase the level of your security to at least stage eighty, You can create it through the means of combining your Dormant Anima Core with the Crest of Zaros.
The Anima Core of Zaros armor may be subtle too, through the use in combination with Serenic, Sliskean, Zamorakian as well as Zarosian essences. It's possible to achieve that once you have earned 2000 Zarosian popularity.
Best non-degradable armor for Runescape ranged gamers. Sometimes fighting from afar is the maximum possibility, and in the case that you're playing as a ranged player, the usage of an armor like the Anima Core of Zamorak armor is essential. If you're interested in purchasing it for your self then here's what you want to do: Go back to the Heart of Gielinor (aka God Wars Dungeon Two), In addition, you'll require level eighty protection to put on this. Create it by means of methods of Combining two items: the Dormant Anima Core with the Crest of Zamorak.
Refinement of the armor set is identical to Zaros's armor set, however is really important to remember that you'll need one essence for the helm, for the physique, as well as three of the legs. 2000 Zamorakian popularity is also needed earlier than you could refine it.
Using the strength of magic is always exciting within Runescape If you've been given the Anima Core of Seren armor and you're invincible. You want to put it on by yourself? Here's what you could do for getting it:
Travel to your destination in Heart of Gielinor. You must put a little time in until you reach the stage eighty protection. Combining an Dormant Anima Core with the Crest of Seren to craft it. The parameters for smithing are similar to the alternative armor units, however you'll need at least 2,000 Seren popularity in the faction to begin making the armor more refined.
While the armor units mentioned previously are extremely useful If you're looking for a specific type of armor more options, there are many to are seeking for out. These again follow melee and ranged weapons, as well as magic. It is suggested to look for Bandos, Armadyl, and Subjugation armour from the main God Wars Dungeon. In the case of Bandos armor, that's the way to go:
Destroy General Graardor as well as his guards at the God Wars Dungeon. Pick it up when they drop it upon loss of life. You can reach the stage of sixty five of protection. Armadyl armor is a great choice for gamers with range. It could be received in a similar fashion: Defeat General Kree'arra and his 3 minions. Pick the armor up upon their loss of life. Upgrade ranges to stage 70. Increase protection up to stage 70.
Additionally, the Subjugation Armor is a popular set for magic (prayer) gaming. It's a battle with another boss in order to acquire it, however in case you've slayed on the God Wars Dungeon already, it's going to be a piece of cake: Defeat K'ril Tsutsaroth and his bodyguards in of the God Wars Dungeon. Pick up the armor set after they've been killed. Upgrade your protection to stage 70.
How a great deal does a RuneScape Membership price? Subscription & advantages defined
If you're hoping to put in some time in Runescape It's possible you'll be the desire to join one of the clubs. Here's everything that you must know about Runescape's club pricing. Runescape has evolved into an impressive MMOPRG because of the fact that it has Miniclip beginnings, increasing its gameplay and lore exponentially. While the well-loved Jagex-advanced version can be played without cost, there's a lot of sweets available for choosing a club.
It's difficult to make a decision when you consider everything is weighed against the advantages offered by each grade, however we've made it simpler so you can choose. Jagex's MMOPRG has been continuously a loose-to-play element, however players can earn various Rewards and Member Credits in the pay-to-play model of the sport. The cost of a club has been progressively increased through the years as inflation has impacted it in a constant manner, but there's an alternative for every player.
If you're looking to get began out to your adventure in a club after determining what club is proper to you, there's not too difficult to installation. It's possible to start a subscription through using the following steps instructions: Login to the sport's web website online together along with your username and password. Click on the 'begin A Club' choice, positioned at the web site's sidebar. Choose your home country. Choose your chosen charge approach (this can range relying to your vicinity)
There are many benefits being a member also, and they're not something you'll find in the game's loose-to-play version. Jagex's description boasts "Over 184 more quests of high-quality as well as eleven new abilities, 38 amazing minigames" however , it's not what's available.
Members could be able of discover a international this is 3 times larger, as well as "make it your house and port" features that can be incorporated into the loyalty program for the sport.
Jagex has launched a brand new replace into RuneScape this week as gamers must be aware of the brand new Abyssal Slayer creatures. The shorthand to the brand new content material is this is it right here to give you a variety of systems and routes to help you learn your Slayer talent to one hundred and twenty, incomes objects such as talents, as well as a few of the rewards you earn within the process.
For those who want to be clear about this to be clear, it's the member's most valuable content material a good way to introduce 3 brand new Abyssal Slayer Creatures that have the primary intention of it to assignment those who have the highest level of combat, as you may be needed to have Slayer skill of ninety-five or above to be able to test it. We've got more details about the newest event below, along with the trailer displaying off the potential benefits you can expect from it.Melvor Idle snatches away the graphics and 3-D environments of RuneScape as well as other MMOs and reduces it all the way down to a menu-primarily based totally non-skilled sport in which players are in control of their skills inventory, quests and skills. Engaging in fights and winning gets you XP and loot. These could be put to use in any tree of talents or enhancements gamers decide to use, and repeating sports inclusive of crafting or woodcutting can bring their own benefits.
The potent smell of unbathed bodies filled the rowdy tavern, covering the sweet scent of mead that lingered in Dennis's empty mug. Once more, the persistent nudge urged him to look over his shoulder, and once more he ignored it. They wouldn't come looking for him in a place like this.
Drunks at the surrounding tables whistled as barmaids refilled their drinks. The sound was mildly distracting, but more distracting was their constant laughter and crude jesting.
Rubbing the pad of his thumb in small, deliberate circles over one of his worn cards, Dennis eyed the five other players calmly. Maybe even slightly arrogantly. With a smooth smirk, he tossed in a couple denarii. A round of slight gasps came from their onlookers, and the other players eyed him with disdain.
"There's more where that came from, gents." Dennis's delicate accent contradicted his sly, and slightly, wicked smirk.
More denarii tinkled as a large man with a red beard tossed in more denarii. "We know," he growled. His dark eyes pierced Dennis, and his thick fingers seemed to tighten around his cards. Hands like those could squeeze the life out of someone. Someone like Dennis.
As the game wore on, Dennis had earned himself several more glowers, and the urge to flee rose within him. But he was no coward. If he was going to win the game, he would. If he was going to get pummeled for it afterward, he would do that too.
*Outside the Tavern after the Game was Won*
"Fair and square!" Dennis insisted for the tenth time. "I won, fair and square!"
Without warning, the red-haired brute from the game slammed Dennis against the grimy wall and punched him in the gut. Several other losers snickered in delight, taking pleasure in the wheeze the punch pulled from Dennis.
"Come on," Dennis moaned. "It was a fair game." Sweat caused from the blistering, afternoon sun burned his eyes and soaked his finely woven tunic. It would have to be washed. Or completely replaced depending on how the next few minutes went. "There is no need for this. I won fairly."
Another punch to the gut. It took all of Dennis's self-control not to vomit. The last thing he needed to do was humiliate himself further. If it hadn't been for the hand pinning him to the wall, he'd have collapsed.
The brute's lip twitched with despise and his eyes bore deeply into Dennis's with cold bitterness. "You don't belong here, boy."
Dennis's heart hardened. He'd never hated his surname more in that moment. "I'm not like them. I belong here."
The man didn't look believing. "If you fall into debt, you call on your petty father to come to your rescue. Likely, the money you used tonight wasn't even yours. When none of what I said is true, then tell me you aren't like your family, rich boy." With a harsh shove, he backed away.
Dennis gave the man a dull look. "I'm not like my family," he stated blandly. "Besides, it's not the money used in the game, it's the player, pal. And you're just a really bad player."
Getting pummeled wasn't fun unless one deserved it. Insulting this idiot seemed to be the only way to make things more enjoyable.
Before the predicted fist could come flying for his face, someone cleared their throat. "What goes on here?"
Not him. Dennis cringed. Anyone but him.
"Ah, another rich boy," the brute sneered. "Here to rescue your pathetic brother, are you?"
Pathetic? Not charming or very likeable? Crud. Arrogant would've also worked.
Dennis turned slightly, getting a glimpse of his exalted eldest brother. "What are you doing here, Sam?"
Samuel ignored Dennis and leaned his muscled shoulder against the crumbling wall. His serious face rarely smiled, but a faint smile pulled at his mouth. "Go ahead and finish here, I'll carry him home when you're done."
Dennis turned back to the brute with a nervous chuckle. "He's jesting."
Popping his knuckles, the red-haired nightmare grinned. "We'll be done momentarily."
Wonderful. This would be quick, and his dashing features would likely be marred.
An ugly fist came flying for his nose and Dennis braced for impact. Why did it always have to be the nose?
"You didn't have to do that," Dennis muttered. Wincing, he pinched a towel to his nose.
Samuel was lounging on the sofa in the common room, while Dennis limped before the furnace in an attempt at pacing. "I didn't lie to him, Dennis. You were in the city testifying what you believe." He was gazing into the flickering flames and their shadowless fingers danced light across his stern features.
"Testifying what I believe?" The words were muttered as he tossed them around in his head, but he wasn't focusing on them. What the bearded man had said sparked something inside Dennis. He didn't want to be lumped with his father everywhere he went. He wanted more than what was offered here. The pleasures of the world called to him. What would it be like to gamble without worrying he was doing wrong? He supposed it was freedom he wanted.
The thick, wooden doors opened silently, and five young men bombarded the room like a pack of hyenas.
"Good, you're alive."
"Dennis! What happened?"
"What did you do to yourself?"
"Goodness me! You've got to know to use your words, kid!"
"Tell me you didn't start another fight."
Dennis waited patiently for his elder brothers to all get a word in. He tossed the towel down and faced them. Each one visibly winced as they got a look at the blackened eye and crooked nose.
"You started another fight," Remus, the second eldest, said dully. His weathered hands were placed on his hips, and he stood as though he thought himself in charge.
Anger spiked through Dennis at his brother's quick assumptions, and he glared, then winced as the motion shifted the bruised muscles. "I didn't start that blasted fight!" he roared. "I won that-" His clamped his lips and cringed. It wasn't the first time he'd slipped, but he knew he wouldn't be able to cover this one with a lie. Not one that was believable, that is.
Silence overtook the room as it dawned on each of the room's occupants.
"You were gambling," they said in sync. Their faces were crestfallen. Horror, sorrow and something else shone in their eyes.
As usual, Samuel said nothing to confirm even though he knew exactly what Dennis had been doing for the past few months. Letting Dennis sort out his own problems seemed to be a hobby of his. Even if it meant letting the baby of the family get his nose broken and his eye blackened.
Dennis could take it no more. His glare turned hateful, and he wanted to smack the looks of shame off their faces. "Like you all are so perfect! I just want a life! A normal life. This place does nothing but drag me down! You all do nothing but drag me down." His last words came out in a near snarl. His bitterness stunned him slightly. It stunned his brothers too, from the looks on their faces. They stood in shock, as if Dennis had slapped them in the face. Even Sam looked hurt.
Remus swallowed, opened his mouth. "Dennis," he said softly, as if approaching an injured fawn.
But he wasn't an injured fawn. He was a young man yearning for a freedom outside of his father's walls and rules.
Before Remus could say another word, Dennis stalked out of the room. It was time he started living his life. When he reached his chambers, he started packing his bags. He didn't take much. Just denarii, a bar of soap and a change of clothes.
He was out the window before anyone knew to look for him.
As he tore down the road to the city and away from his father's land, Dennis didn't look back.
*Two Days Later*
The high sun beat against the city like an angry overseer. But the heat didn't bother Dennis, because he no longer had to work in it.
A beautiful servant girl came to him and refilled his wine goblet. Most men in the quiet tavern let their eyes linger on her. The first day Dennis had done the very thing, had maybe even been looking forward to playing with the dame's hair. Now, the very thought made him so sick he thought he'd vomit up his wine. Though he was away from his father's home, everything he'd learned from a young age still clung to him like a briar.
The tavern door swung open, and Dennis squirmed in his seat. Oh dear. The brute who'd given him the lashing stepped in.
Brutish scanned the room and his hard eyes instantly landed on Dennis. His lip lifted in a sneer. Dennis contemplated on running for his life, but he refused. He wasn't a coward. If the man wanted to give him another lashing, he'd take it like a man. A man who was terrible at defending himself.
The brute moved toward Dennis in sturdy steps. No swagger, no intimidating saunter, just solid footfalls that managed to scare the living daylights out of Dennis.
"What are you doing here, boy?" the man asked gruffly. "You aren't looking for another fight, are you?" He took a seat without asking.
Dennis took a sip from his goblet. "Only if you're looking for another game to lose."
Faint amusement flashed through the man's eyes. "I've never seen you here before."
"That's because I've never been here before now." Dennis picked at the smooth table, trying terribly hard to find a splinter that would wake him from this nightmare.
"Do you think this is somewhere you belong?" His tone was demeaning, and implied he knew exactly the kind of standards Dennis grew up with.
"I figured this place is better than the streets." He winced as he found the splinter. Unfortunately, he didn't wake up.
In confusion, the man's eyes narrowed. "Streets?" In shocked Dennis to hear the slight concern lining the man's voice.
Dennis gulped the last of his wine down. "I left home, ruffian. I told you, I don't belong there." He nearly slammed the goblet down in his attempt at setting it down gently.
A short chuckle escaped the man. "It's actually Ren. But you were close, both start with R." He rubbed his jaw in thought. "Didn't think you had it in you, honestly, rich boy. Seeing as how you had the guts to do it, how 'bout I show you a bit of the city someone like yourself has never been."
A smile curled at Dennis's mouth. "You'd be willing to help someone like me?" He waved the barmaid away as she attempted to refill his goblet.
Ren smirked. "You mean someone homeless? Of course." His eyes twinkled. "Come on. We've a lot of places to see."
Dennis didn't move at first. His stomach tightened to think of the places he wasn't about to enter. But this is what he wanted. This is the freedom he'd been seeking. He pushed out of his seat, watching the ground sway beneath his feet. "Lead the way, Ren."
Ren let out a burly laugh. "How much wine did you drink?"
Dennis rubbed his temples. "I've been here two days, and wine is the only thing they serve. What do you think?"
Ren stood and came around, looping his arm under Dennis's arms. "Let's find you some food, then. The only places you know how to find are taverns."
*The Following Night*
After meeting several people Ren knew, Dennis felt he'd made the right decision coming to the city. Surprising enough, it hadn't been his money or his statis that had caused people to dislike him. It had been his cockiness and his unwillingness to take responsibility. Now that they knew he was trying to fend for himself without his father's money, they readily took him in.
Low snores filled the room Dennis was staying in. He wasn't accustomed to sleeping with so much noise surrounding him. But he didn't mind. It was... exhilarating. Living life on the edge was so much more than he could've imagined. There were no rules. Though, his bag of denarii was noticeably lighter than when he first began. He was sure it would all work out. He could find a job. Probably.
A low creak came from the door as it opened. A dark form slipped into the room and the door shut just as quickly. Nimbly, the form stepped over the sleeping lumps scattered across the floor. Dennis squinted his eyes to try to see better, but the room was too dark. Before he could move out of the way, the form stepped on him. With a surprised gasp, they jumped back.
"Hey!" she snapped. "You're in my spot." Her voice was husky and rough. Never before had Dennis encountered a woman who trampled over a man's authority. But from the tone she was using he guessed it was something this one did quite often. He couldn't bring himself to dislike it.
"My apologies," Dennis said smoothly, watching as her form went rigid, likely because she noticed his accent. "There is plenty of room, allow me to find someplace else to lie." He gathered his mat and slid it across the floor near a snoring man with a large belly.
The woman said nothing as she reclaimed her spot. Dennis could feel her eyes digging into him. With hate or curiosity, he couldn't tell.
*The Following Day*
"You sleep a lot."
Dennis slowly opened his eyes, wincing as light seared painfully across his vision. "I'm also awake a lot. I don't like having one without the other." His voice was groggy. He rolled over and sat up, surprised to see the room empty save for a woman standing at his feet. "Who are you?" he asked.
Her hazel eyes scanned him curiously, and he noticed the feint hint of amusement. "Ren's sister. He won't be back until the full moon. I'm to be your guide and protector."
Dennis's eyebrows slowly rose. "Protector?"
She smirked. "Ren said you have the tendency to run your mouth in the wrong areas. Your bruised skin is a testament to that." Again, that amusement filled her eyes. "Let's break our fast and get on with our day. Ren wants me to take you to the heart of our city."
Dennis was on his feet in an instant. "The heart of the city! That sounds exciting." He grinned. Her mouth turned up in a sly manner and suddenly, Dennis grew slightly concerned. "That sounds exciting, right?"
*In The Heart Of The City*
The heart of the city wasn't what Dennis was expecting. It was loud and full of exotic colors. Bright banners hung from every wall, piles of spices filled bins, dried herbs were bound in thick bundles, and laughter bubbled from everyone's lips. But the most exciting part was the two wrestling men in a small dust pit. Those cheering and taking bets surrounded them.
"What..." Dennis's eyes were wide. "What is that they're doing?"
The woman's arms hung loosely like the scarf around her neck. "It's a less bloody version of the Gladiator Games." Her grin was broad. "Ren thinks you'd be good at it."
Dennis's stomach dropped. "He what?"
She chuckled, gazing at the two sweaty men pounding each other's faces. "He says you don't run. And besides, you need a way to make a living if you aren't going to rely on your father."
Dennis suddenly didn't like the heart of the city. "I don't run because I'm a really bad runner," he hissed. "Fighting isn't my forte. Ask Ren."
She laughed. "He didn't say you should do it, Dennis! Goodness no. You'd be dead before the fight was over. He just thought you could eventually be good at it." She winked. "We're here for that." Dennis followed her gaze to a quieter area where several men sat under a canopy around a table.
His stomach churned with greed. That was something he was good at. "I do know how to play a good game," he mused.
The woman nodded. "Ren said as much. If you can watch your mouth, he thinks you could be good at it. I'm here to make sure you do. And if you don't, smooth things out with diplomacy."
Dennis made a face. "Diplomacy is overrated."
"Come on," she said. "We can get in in on the next game."
Dennis grinned. This would be too easy. It wouldn't even be working. No sweat, no muscle aches, but lots of money.
Once the game was over, the next one began, and Dennis was able to get in. He placed his money down and he was given his cards. His fingers tingled as he scanned his cards. He won, of course. And he won every other game after that. His name was spread through the city because of his skill. Dennis liked that.
The more known he became, the more he was invited to certain places that made his stomach churn. Each time he turned down the invitations. People thought it was because he was scared, and that he was still a boy, but it wasn't that. Gambling was one thing, but he couldn't defile himself. The more invitations he turned down, the less games he managed to get into. They didn't want a nonchalant player who didn't "play". Maybe his father had rubbed off on him too much. And for once, he wasn't entirely ashamed of that.
*A Month Later*
Dirty and unfed, Dennis sat in the streets of the city tempted to eat the leather of his sandles. He hadn't eaten but what little scraps people tossed to him. When Ren had returned to find Dennis's reputation "dirtied", he was forced to keep away from him. As was Ren's sister. Which was quite a shame. Dennis happened to like her a lot.
A low growl from his stomach reminded Dennis just how hungry he was. Maybe he'd made a mistake leaving home. What was so bad about having high morals and hard work? Living on his father's land had never been a bad thing. Now surely his father never wanted to see him again. He could imagine how ashamed the man was of his youngest son. Dennis himself was ashamed of how he'd acted. He'd been so ungrateful. His father had given so much, and Dennis had done nothing but throw it all away. He'd practically spat in the man's face.
Such an idiot, Dennis. Stupid, arrogant idiot.
An ache dug into his heart, and it amused Dennis. After all those years thinking he despised them, he missed his brothers. Likely they'd forgotten about him long ago. Probably happy to be rid of him.
"Look mommy, a beggar." A little girl pointed in passing at Dennis. The mother didn't give Dennis a passing glance.
Humiliation burned in Dennis's chest, and he looked away. If his father could see him now. Nothing more than a beggar in a prosperous city.
A pair of leather boots stopped by Dennis. Fancy, well-tailored. The man's garment was expensive.
"It took me awhile to find you."
Dennis froze. That wasn't a snobby noble.
Slowly, as if fearing it was a dream, he looked up. A dream or a nightmare, he wasn't sure. "Father?" Dennis squinted to keep the sun out of his eyes. "What... What are you... What are you doing here?"
His father's kind eyes gazed down on him. "What do you mean by that, son?"
Dennis tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry to swallow anything. "I've..." He cleared his throat and ended up coughing.
His father bent and offered a canteen of water. "Here, son. Have some water."
Dennis hesitated, feeling so guilty for what he'd done that he let the canteen hang in the air between them. The canteen pressed into his palm and his father uncorked it as well.
"Drink, son." Gentle, full of love and compassion, was his father's voice.
Dennis drank deeply, greedily, until he remembered whose water it was.
"Why did you come here?" Dennis asked, wiping his mouth with his dirty sleeve.
His father's eyes only twinkled, as if he thought it a silly question. "Why wouldn't I?"
Dennis shook his head. "I... I've been so ungrateful. I left home without a word. I've lost all of my savings. And I..." He let his head drop. "Father, I was so ashamed to be associated with you and what you stand for. I just wanted... freedom."
"Hmm. And did you find your freedom, son?"
Dennis looked up. "I could've. But I couldn't..." He clenched his jaw, unable to finish his sentence.
His father nodded in thought. "I understand. And what do you want now?"
Dennis's throat tightened. "Father, would you let me come on as a servant hand? Not even for denarii or a place to sleep, just for food and water."
His father smiled. "A servant hand?" He scoffed with a gentle shake of his head. "Why on earth would I do that?"
Dennis hung his head. He deserved worse. A slap in the face and scorn filled words. "I understand."
"I would never allow my son to work as a servant. You are my son, and though you have your tasks to complete, you won't ever be my servant. You are my heir same as your brothers."
Dennis was confused. "But aren't you ashamed of me? For what I've done?" He dared to look his father in the eye, to search them for truth.
There was no scorn there. Just gentle warmth that radiated his love. "Dennis, even though you ran, you're still my son. You'll always be my son. And though I can't support the life you've chosen for yourself, if you should choice to come home, I'll welcome you with open arms."
Tears pricked Dennis's eyes. "Oh, father. I've been so ungrateful. Can you ever forgive me?"
His father's eyes twinkled. "You were forgiven before you asked." He stood and lent Dennis his hand. "Come, let us go home and feast. Your brothers will be glad to see you again. They've all been worried."
Dennis arched his brow in surprise. "Them, worried?" He scoffed. "I doubt it. I'm sure they're all ready to clobber me."
"True that," his father said. "But they understand you more than you realize."
"How do you mean?" He took his father's hand and stood. Instantly, his father helped support him with his strong arms.
He looked down at Dennis with a strange smile. "They were like you once. Wanting a life outside of the one they were given." He chuckled and led Dennis to two waiting horses. "Why do you think Sam always knew to go to the taverns to find you?"
Dennis's jaw hung open. "You don't mean..."
His father nodded. "I do. I never loved him less because of it. I was just waiting for him to see where he truly belonged." He glanced at Dennis. "Like you, son."
Dennis clasped his father's arm and hugged him tightly. "I don't deserve a father like you. I don't." He sobbed.
Despite the filth that must've been on Dennis, his father hugged him back firmly. "Let's go home, Dennis."
(Author: Hope Robens)
2099; Tragedy Drowns Bliss
Amanda was asleep in a room in the Connecticut bunker, and she was shivering slightly, not because of the little chills in the room, but because she had been with this condition for years.
**** ** ****
In Amanda's nightmare.
"Mum, don't do that. You can't stop me from going to prom. I won't let you." Amanda said with anger flaming in her eyes as she stared at her mother.
"Amanda, you're sick. The doctor advised that you sit out any form of stressful activity. I get that prom is important to you,…"
"Stop saying that. You don't get anything. You hardly do." Amanda interrupted her mum as she uttered these words infuriated while she walked out of the room, passing by her disconcerted mum's side with a bag pack in her hand and a bottle of pills in her other hand.
"…but you're more important to me" Susanne finished her sentence as she looked at the door that was slammed by her daughter in enraged transit. She let out a sadder face of concern and she couldn't help but break into tears as she sat on her daughter's bed and held the quilt on to herself while she appeared to be crying into it.
Amanda was 18 and was the primary concern of her mum, Susanne, a retired big time actress. She didn't have a father, as her mum had her through In Vitro Fertilization, and the sperm donor was kept anonymous on her request.
Amanda was born with a medical condition whereby she couldn't stay conscious for long hours without being on medication, and it worsened about two years ago.
Amanda, getting down from the staircase of her mum's mansion, picked up her phone from the edge of her tiny-strapped yhand bag as she headed towards the entrance door.
"Iris, open the door!" Amanda frustratingly yelled at the AI controlled door and as it clicked open, she went right to her car where she rested her thumb on the door's knob to unlock it.
She sat by the driver's seat of her Tesla MX340 and dropped her bag on the chair to her right side without much care. She then rested her thumb yet again on the ignition switch, and the car started with the AI systems coming alive.
"Hi, Amanda. That's an ugly frown. Where are you wearing that to, girl?" The AI asked from within the speakers of the car.
"Just drive, please. Now's not the time for that conversation." Amanda replied with a sombre pitch as she looked towards the door of her house.
"All right, girl. We don't have to talk about it. We about to go get stoned, and maybe put down our teenage girl pants for a minute." The AI replied her with an eccentric accent that sounded more like a fusion of Black American, Scottish and Spanish.
"AHHHH AHHH AHH! You always get me girl." Amanda laughed before she could utter a word.
"We girls got to have each other's boobies, right?" The AI said the phrase the wrong way with all humour intended.
"Yeah, I guess so. Thank you, Ava." Amanda said with a genuine face and a gleeful touch on the screen over her dashboard.
In a ride that wasn't more than a dozen minutes long, Amanda arrived at her school and alighted from the car with the door still open.
"You're forgetting something, girl; your corsage." The AI said promptly.
"Thank you." Amanda replied with a smile as she took her corsage from the side of her bag.
There were a number of cars, majestically looking and delicately designed luxury ones parked over the whole premises and this was a view that she'd envisaged. Everything was going as she'd always imagined it to be.
Amanda walked up the many stairs that led to the hallway of the school, and at every five feet stroll she took, a couple were making out steamily with their hands in places she'd rather not concern herself with.
For Amanda, this night held two surprises. She was going to surprise Lucas, her boyfriend by showing up and she was going to tell him that she loved him. The thoughts of how all these could be romantic stirred up an orchestra of butterflies in her belly.
"Hey. It's so good to have you back here, Amanda." A tall guy said with a tone of concern.
"You were in our thoughts and prayers." The other boy, whose nails were painted like the Croatian map and had lip-gloss heavily expressing themselves on his lips while he constantly held up one of his hands in the air back and forth, with his other hands romantically leaning on the guy who spoke first.
"Thank you. Have you seen Lucas?" She asked, in a hurry to get away from these lovers whose pheromones were half as powerful as hers.
"He should be by the pool-side." One of them replied while Amanda walked speedily towards the location.
"He must be so lonely to be staying there." Amanda thought to herself a while she walked because that spot was renowned for being home to the school loner's or losers who had no one to hang out with or to the super lustful couples who needed to exchange bodily fluids.
Amanda was walking fast with her heart pacing and beating loudly like a notorious 90's punk band. With every rising, tingling and affectionate energy flowing through her veins and into her heart, she began to feel weak.
The bodily weakness halted her steps and hastened her breathing and her heart rate in this hallway where no other person was at. She was still a far distance from the poolside where she was headed and she had to get there. She had to see him.
With every bit of strength left in her, Amanda forced her legs into moving from where they were stuck at, and she rationalized the whole "I can do it against all odds" speech in her head while she advanced slowly and painfully.
One would not have known the measure of pain in her chest as she wheezed while walking with a loud smile that could haunt any creeping ghost in this dimly lit hallway. A guy passed by her but barely noticed her groans and the little aching sounds she was letting out from her widely stretched red cheeks. She didn't want help anyway. She had to do this for herself, and by herself.
Amanda kept struggling, and with just a few steps towards the edge of the turn that led to the poolside, her vision began to blur like a Polaroid camera out of focus, with eigengrau becoming more evident in her eyes which were shutting slowly as her breathing became louder.
"Oh, no!" Amanda muttered barely with her body getting shivers of numbness all over. She was on a Sisyphean quest and with not much strength left in her, she held her hand tightly on the edge of the wall and struggled to pull herself to the side of the edge from where she could have a clear view of the lonely, sad and loving eyes of Lucas.
The light-headedness was becoming thicker and Amanda was losing clarity to its weight while she fought hard to stay conscious. She could barely see things as they were, as the pixels of all around her were either grey to her fading vision or wriggling in their shapes.
She saw a shadow of a guy's back reflecting on the wall, and without much help, she could identify audaciously that it was Lucas'.
You know how lovers can sense the presence of their other halves from across the room? Amanda was feeling this heavily, and her pain coupled with her fleeting consciousness seemed like less of the bully it was.
"Lucas?...lu…" Amanda said softly with more sighs of exhaustion and unconsciousness evident in her indiscernible words.
She had seen him, or at least the shadow of his back, but he hadn't seen her or even felt her presence as he was in the business of searching the uttermost parts of Clara's mouth with his tongue while she was seated on his right side by the edge of the pool itself.
"uhhh. Uhh!" Amanda sighed once and subsequently panted hardly with her hand slipping from the edge of the wall which she held on to earlier. A few seconds into her hand's slip, she faded out of whatever was left of her consciousness levels and her body thudded heavily on the ground with her back taking the hardest hit which she didn't feel as she was wrapped in vivid unconsciousness.
Despite the hard thudding sound her body made on impact with the ground, Clara and Lucas weren't in any way distracted as their lips fervently rubbed on each other's.
"Lucas?" A woman asked with a tone of curiosity and slight surprise from a distance which was a few feet away from the pool.
"Oh, shit!" Lucas said with his mouth running out of Clara's mouth's heavy grip as he turned his face towards Susanne, Amanda's mom. In this fit of shock and heightened levels of guilt, he stood up hastily and all of these prompted a bewildered facial expression from Clara who scoffed and watched whatever scene was unfolding before her eyes.
"…have you seen Amanda?" Susanne asked with a palette of emotions; anger, hurt, and disappointment while she slowly uttered her words to the trembling Lucas whose forehead was bearing a bold sweat on it.
"No… I didn't know she was coming." Lucas said in a lowly turn soaked in guilt and hurt as he barely kept eye contact with Susanne.
Susanne nodded her head slowly with her breathing going off rhythm while she struggled to keep her head straight.
"Amanda. Amanda. Somebody help me. Anybody, please." A guy yelled with a voice coated in tears and pain boldly inscribed on every stuttering syllable as he held Amanda's head on to his knee while rubbing her face. He hoped for help, or a miracle. He needed something and someone to come save her. He loved her. That was obvious to everyone but Amanda.
Susanne sprinted her way to the corner which was a few steps away from where she stood. Lucas followed her from behind with his guilt getting the better of him as a concerned burden became fixed on his face as he looked at the unconscious Amanda on the floor in her prom outfit.
That was always her dream. That's all she'd ever wanted, and Lucas had failed her.
"Amanda, mummy's here. You'll be okay." Susanne said with her hand over Amanda's head and the other hand on her neck to feel her pulse.
"Calum, let's get her to the car now." Susanne said hurriedly to the sobbing boy who had shouted earlier. Calum was her best friend, and all he'd ever wanted was for her to be happy and healthy again.
Amanda, dressed in a white hospital patient outfit and laying on the bed in this ward with what appeared like a lean smile on her face that had an oxygen tube right underneath her nose, gasped suddenly and her eyelids which were initially closed, twitched a dozen times in a space of a few seconds before she finally opened them wide.
Amanda had been in a coma for 112 days and her body was used to sleeping and being half-conscious. The right side of her head hurt and she was having blurry vision and a strange tingling sensation around her back. Amanda's mind was fuzzy, and she barely understood anything about what had happened to her and where she was.
In an attempt to settle her unnerving curiosity, she slowly sat up with her back resting on the frame of the bed where her head formerly was while she released a few moans under her breath as she felt pain in her joints and body.
Amanda, looked to her left side, towards the window of the hospital and saw her hologram device by the table a little far from her. She wanted to touch it, to feel something besides her pain, but as she extended her hand halfway, the pain gripped her yet again, and strongly this time, so she gave up and returned her hand to her thighs letting out sighs borne of discomfort.
"Fuck!" Amanda yelled with the throbbing mild aches she felt. This was her first word in over four months, and as she spoke, her Hologram came alive.
"Fuck! Amanda, you're awake. Was kinda hoping it'd take Calum's kiss to make that happen, but here we are. I missed you, girl. You scared the shit out of us all." Ava said with heavy happiness and a speedy rush.
"Those cuss words are definitely a reason I can't die yet, Ava… I missed you, too." Amanda said with a light laugh and keen cheer while she placed two of her fingers on her head.
"I bet, girl. So, catch me up. You stalked Jesus much? He as pretty as em GQ dudes? Don't hold back! Tell me all of it." Ava said with over-the-top excitement and non-drug-based euphoria.
"Oh! You are nasty, Ava.. and I didn't see Jesus. I did see my boyfriend, Lucas, a lot though." Amanda wrapped up her sentence with a perfect blush resting on her pale cheeks.
Ava went silent, and said nothing. In this moment of silence, Amanda turned her head towards the right side of the room and saw a pile of beautifully designed and multi-coloured greeting card, and for some reason, her heart leaped for joy and butterflies were roaming in her belly.
"Are those from Lucas? Oh, my God. That's so sweet. He did them the vintage way. I've always wished for something like this. It's just as if he read my mind." Amanda kept speaking with eyes and cheeks lighting up for joy towards this gesture.
Ava remained silent, and Amanda noticed this, so she returned her face to Ava's side.
"What's wrong, Ava? You aren't saying anything?" Amanda asked curiously.
"Amanda, Lucas didn't write those. He didn't write any of it. I'm sorry." Ava said with an empathetic tone.
"I don't understand. If he didn't, then who did?" Amanda asked with her smile fading from her face.
"Calum did. He came here every day and he'd bring one every time and even read to your ears while you were out." Ava said, still with a sombre tone.
"How long… how long was I out again, Ava?" Amanda asked with the ringing pitch in her head rising slowly while she spoke.
"112 days, Amanda." Ava replied.
"..and not once did Lucas come over, right?" Amanda continued with an heart-breaking voice.
"I'm sorry, Amanda." Ava said, in a bid to comfort her.
"mmmm… can you read me the first one Calum brought?" Amanda asked as she sniffled lightly.
"Yeah. Hey. It's the first day since you've been all Snow White, and I'm terrified. Please, get better, for your mum and for me. I love you." Ava read, with all emotions the letter weighed.
"hhhh!" Amanda, disconcerted and emotional at the same time let out a shallow breath with her eyes opened a little less widely.
"Can you read the last one he sent, please?" Amanda asked in a very low voice that was almost under her breath.
"So, guess what? I got us tickets to go to the Theatre of Antiquities in New York, just like we'd always planned. We are to leave in nine days. I am not going without you, Amanda. You have my heart and my love. You're going to come out of this, and we're going to be old and grey making jokes and painting ugly pictures of ourselves." Ava read with a rather poetic voice as she was immersed in the sincerity of the letter.
"Ughhh." Amanda chuckled lightly with tears rolling down her eyes.
How did she not know that Calum loved her? She'd meant the world to him, but she hardly saw him as more than her best friend.
In the middle of this slightly eccentric sobbing, someone walked into the room hastily with a letter in his hand, and a big bag on his back.
"Amanda?" the voice said with shock and excitement.
"Calum?" Amanda replied with affection as she raised her head to see the unfamiliar voice.
The moment their eyes met, the whole lights in the building and the other sky scrapers next to them went off. Every gadget, electronic device and technologically fashioned device buzzed their last before shutting down.
All lights out.
"What the fuck?" They both thought to themselves in the middle of this gross darkness that had befallen them.
A few seconds after, tears and wailings could be heard loudly and discordantly from every edge, corner, room and part of the hospital.
Amanda was terrified, not just because of the sudden darkness, but the heavy breathing that her lungs and mouth were producing as she began to hyperventilate from her mouth.
"Amanda, breathe. I'm here, okay? We'll get through this." Calum said as he rubbed his hand warmly on her trembling shoulders and arms.
Calum took his hand from her and dropped his bag on the bed while he opened it up to bring out an antiquated torchlight that used 20th century lithium rechargeable batteries. While Amanda kept breathing hard and saying nothing because of the shock that had overwhelmed her, he switched it on, and he looked into her eyes.
Those eyes, turquoise edges of the moon in bloom were adorable, and as the light spread across the room, he could see her face light up. Every part of her was beautiful, even her scared and teary face, and he couldn't hold back on the smile that his face unveiled.
"Hey. You are going to be okay. Okay. There's no easier way to say this, and now feels like really horrible timing, but I'll say it anyway. You know how.." Calum said in a haste of awkwardness before Amanda interrupted him.
"I know, Calum. I'm sorry I didn't acknowledge it earlier. I love you, too." Amanda said with a soft and yet still voice with a face of extreme sincerity.
"Whoa… ooofph! I waited half my life to hear that and this was just perfect. Thank you, Amanda. However, that's not what I was going to say… uhmmm." Calum replied with a hefty blush on his cheeks that spilled words even more awkwardly than before.
"It's 2099, Amanda. The apocalypse is happening. And I'm sorry if you find that hard to believe right now, but that's what this is." Calum said, while stuttering throughout most of his words before Amanda's clueless and confused face.
"Calum, are you really quoting one of your teenage comics or nerd references right now?" Amanda asked with seriousness as she demanded clarity.
"I wish that was all this was about, but it's no joke, Amanda. It's really happening. Okay, look, outside as we speak, the sun is gone, like it has vanished, and bad, bad things are about to come next." Calum said patiently with a tone that had a rising amount of fear in it.
"That was good, Calum. Very good Eli Roth impression there." Amanda said with a brief and awkward chuckle.
"Oh, come on. What do they have you on? This is no joke. Can you walk? We really have to go now." Calum said with more apprehension and fear enveloping his voice.
"Okay. Let's assume for a moment that I do believe you, and the "apocalypse" is happening, where are we going to?" Amanda asked as she was leaning into the idea that all these might be true.
"There's a bunker…" Calum replied instantly before she interrupted him with an exclamation.
"Really, Calum? This is so not funny anymore. What movie is this whole act from?" Amanda asked as she was slowly freaking out.
Calum, anxious to prove to her that this was no farce or movie joke, walked towards the other end of the room and pulled the curtain open for her to see what was outside.
"More noise, noise, dread, horror, blackness." That was all she saw, felt and heard in that moment she looked outside.
"Okay, I believe you." Amanda said quickly as her mind was thunderstruck and helplessly clueless.
"Good, let's go." Calum said with a sense of relief as he slowly held her hand while she sat by the edge of the bed to wear her hospital crocs which Calum brought nearer to her feet.
"We are gonna have to go a little faster than that, Amanda." Calum said while they dragged their feet and walked like pregnant snails.
"You really want me to go faster? I've been half-dead for 100 plus days. Have a little pity for my speed." Amanda said humorously as she held her arm around Calum's neck.
"remember what you'd always tell me? You can do…"
"Anything you put your mind to." Amanda and Calum said together at the same time as she moved faster.
"And how are we supposed to get to the bunker?" Amanda asked curiously amidst all the panic and screams that emanated from every corner and turn.
"We'll cycle. I got the bike downstairs." Calum replied quickly while panting from the energy expended in adding her weight to his while they ran down the stairs.
"Ooooh! God, why didn't you just let me rest in your arms or something when you had me over for vacation?" Amanda asked God rhetorically as she looked towards the roof above them.
"Now's not the time for philosophy, girl. We are on our own this time." Calum said with no bit of humour as he pointed the torchlight towards the bicycle where he'd parked it.
"Is that it?" Amanda asked with her body weight bearing more on Calum as they were a few metres away from the bicycle.
"Yeah, that's Leah, and she's our ride." Calum said as his movement paced.
"You named that after our grade eight teacher, didn't you?" Amanda asked as she burst into a nasty laughter.
"Well, maybe." Calum replied with a laugh.
"Pervert!" Amanda added while she laughed so hard that her nose oinked like a pig's.
"Oh, fuck!" Calum uttered with worry as the torchlight in his hand flickered as they got to the bicycle.
"We are both doing this, right?" Amanda asked sarcastically.
"Yeah. Why else does it have two pedals and two seats?" Calum replied while helping her to sit on the rear end of the bike.
"I'm good. You're really handling this whole apocalypse shit well, you know.." Amanda said, looking at him while he sat in her front.
"Yeah, it's either that or the other option we are definitely not talking about." Calum said as he fixed his hands on the handles and gear while holding on to the torchlight.
"Thank you, Calum." Amanda whispered lowly to the back of his body which was in front of her.
"Did you say something?" Calum, who was already pedalling and navigating the bicycle around here said without looking back.
"No, I didn't." Amanda replied as she wrapped her hands around his back and joined in the pedalling and slowly pedalled the one at her feet in rhythm with his.
They pedalled and rode through the darkness with most of Calum's instincts and help from the flickering torchlight as they finally got to the multi-million dollar Ares Company.
"Okay, come on. Let's go." Calum said as he removed his bag from the basket tray in the front of the bag and helped Amanda get down while he faced the building.
"Uhhhmmm.. is that legal?" Amanda asked with uncertainty clouding her voice.
"I think the word "Legal" died when the sun kissed us bye." Calum replied as he dragged her closer to himself while they walked into this edifice in search of the bunker's location which Calum had not paid much attention to earlier during the nerd breakfast broadcast.
"Do you actually know where we're going…. NNnnnkkkkk" Amanda asked as she coughed, short of breath.
"Is the oxygen tube still intact?" Calum asked her with care as he held her hands and stopped trekking ahead of her.
"Yeah, it's just not as effective, I think." Amanda said with low breath and a thin voice.
"I'm sorry. I promise you'll be okay. I may or may not have stolen two mini oxygen cylinders, too." Calum said as he burst into a criminal laugh.
"Oh, no. you didn't." Amanda replied with laughter of curiosity.
Amanda fixed her eyes on his voice and she found hope, love and strength in it.
"What more could one ask for?" She thought to herself, revelling in the love of Calum.
After a dozen missteps and a ton of miscalculated routes within this building that now felt like a maze, Amanda was exhausted and sat on the ground while Calum looked around them in search of a sign, memory or anything.
While they stayed clueless in this silence, a loud crash of glasses by something heavy and huge scattered round the building and caused them both to shiver and this heightened the chills in the building.
"What the fuck was that?" Amanda asked Calum who was speechless and equally frightened by the sound.
"Shhhhh!" Calum said to Amanda who wondered why.
From a distance, foot steps were approaching towards their direction and Calum patiently listened in a bid to identify their distance and to catch up on their words.
"What is that?" Amanda said in a stealthy voice while she dragged Calum's trouser by his knee tightly.
"I don't know. Let's find out." Calum replied in an even quieter voice as he sat down next to her and put off the flickering torchlight till it was absolutely dark around them.
As the footsteps advanced and the sounds of their shoes and movements became louder, fear gripped Amanda and Calum the more.
What was lying around them? Were these people dangerous? Would their death be gentle, kind and merciful? These thoughts danced around the pages of their heads as they covered their mouths in order to keep their trembling and freaked-out moans within their mouths.
"Jesus. I can't do this anymore. Fuck. I'm sorry, Calum. I'm freaked out." Amanda yelled loudly in a Tiffany Haddish voice that was loud enough to rock the bowels of anyone breathing in the building.
"What the hell, Amanda?" Calum said in a mid-baritone voice weighing tons in tension and suspense as he knew that their cover had been blown.
"Who's there? Please don't hurt us. We're just looking for a bunker. We have no weapons and are very domestic and loving human beings. We are Homo Sapiens Sapiens, people." A guy whose voice was full of fear uttered uncontrollably as he kept walking slowly towards where he'd heard Amanda's scream.
"Please shut the fuck up, Garcos. You're saying shit that could get us killed." A teenage girl who was next to him replied hastily with more confidence than fear.
"I'm the dumb twin. You deserve better, baby girl." Garcos replied her with a voice that broke into tears that became louder by the second.
"Oh, shut up. You're the perfect twin. I couldn't have wished for any brighter one, cos then I'd be the dumb one." Fillux replied authoritatively as she kept her heavy emotions at bay.
Amanda's fear gradually lessened as she heard this jovial and somewhat funny banter between these two that were about 6 feet away from them.
"Should we…?" Calum asked Amanda quietly.
"Yeah, sure." Amanda replied confidently as she nodded her head.
"Hi, guys." Calum said as he got up from the floor where he sat.
"Oh, God. Garcos, I love you, too. I should have said that earlier." Fillux screamed out in fear of the stranger's voice that intensified the dread in her veins.
"You remain my favourite twin, even till the afterlife." Garcos said as he hugged her tightly as they sobbed in each other's shoulders.
"That's not weird at all. You guys, we aren't attacking you or anything. We are just like you, so you can end the sibling's party now." Amanda said with an emphatic tone which stirred up from her frustration at how sweet the banter of the twins was.
"What? You guys aren't bad guys?" The twins said together with uniform pauses as though they shared a telepathic connection.
"Oh, come on! What's with you all and thinking this is some Nolan or Tom Hanks' movie?" Amanda replied with a slight scoff as she looked towards their direction.
Calum, who had been standing in silence while smiling at the cuteness of them all, switched the torchlight on and pointed it directly at their faces.
"Whoa! Is that light?" Garcos asked as though he was re-entering into civilisation.
"Okay. Let's make this quick, before the actual killers come for us all. And I don't know about you, but I'm not ready for that." Amanda said as she looked at their illuminated faces which were even friendlier than their voices and repartee.
"I'm Fillux, and this is my twin, Garcos. You guys are?" Fillux asked with a smile and curiosity on her face.
"I'm Calum, and she's Amanda." Calum said as he pointed the light towards his face and Amanda's.
"Are you guys twins, too?" Garcos asked with a smile so wide you could count all his teeth.
"No. Lovers, actually. Now, let's go find that bunker." Amanda said as she advanced towards nowhere in particular while they all ran towards her like lost puppies and followed her.
Calum had not gotten his smile off his face since she called them lovers and in that bubble of excitement, he looked towards the ground and noticed neon lights that shined slightly whenever the torchlight in his hands struck them.
He traced them with his light into a farther distance from them, and it made sense to him.
"It's the direction." They all said together with smiles and jubilant blushes falling off their cheeks.
"Let's go." Calum said as he held Amanda's fingers and locked them into his while they advanced.
The Oak Street Witch
"Come on, chicken! Ya gotta run sometime!"
Three boys in sweaty undershirts and jeans stubbornly clung to what little daylight remained on North Oak Street. Two of them tossed a rubber ball while a younger boy stood defiantly amid one of the thrower’s taunts. They played a game of “pickle” on the sidewalk in front of the McDonald home.
"Aw, baby afraid we’re gonna tag you out,” 11-year-old Johnny Marstall yelled again. He held a rubber ball in his outstretched right hand and wore a worn baseball glove on his left. "You know they also call this game “running bases.”
Several sidewalk squares away, the younger boy, Huey McDonald, tugged the brim of his well-worn Detroit Tigers baseball cap and brushed the sandy hair away from his eyes. He scowled, as if a show of resoluteness would add two more years to his body to make him even with Johnny. Without looking up at his older brother standing two feet away, Huey muttered: "Tell your friend to shut up."
The other thrower paid no attention to his sibling's plea. Twelve-year-old Ken McDonald pounded his glove and hollered, "Give me a pop up, John."
Johnny flashed a knowing smile and tossed the ball to Ken in a high arc. Huey took off to where Johnny was standing. Ken caught the ball and whipped it to Johnny, but Huey was already safely on the "base." Smirking.
Johnny frowned. He fired the ball back to Ken, but the angry throw went awry. As Huey ran to the next base, Ken chased the ball that sailed past him, bounced over two lawns, and rolled to a stop near decayed wooden porch steps of the old house on the corner.
Ken McDonald stopped. All the kids in the neighborhood knew this was the home of the Oak Street Witch. That was the nickname that children hung on the elderly Miss Stromwich. Ken stepped onto the tall, weedy grass of the Stromwich front yard, but he jumped back when something stirred on the covered porch. A large, blackish brown German shepherd poked its surly head over the top rail. The dirty animal growled. The deep guttural rumble shook nearby windows. The big dog bounded down the steps, stood over the ball, and bared its teeth at Ken. Saliva dripped from a feral, ferocious snarl. A rope collar hung loosely on the beast's matted fur, and a rope leash dragged behind as Rex took a threatening step toward Ken.
The boy tried to step further back on an adjoining driveway, but his legs were frozen with fear. His entire body seemed paralyzed, and his baseball glove dropped to the cement. A little hand reached down to pick up his glove.
Huey shook as he held the glove out. He had run to his brother's side when he saw Ken's plight.
"Don't move," Johnny Marstall whispered, from just behind the McDonald boys.
The German shepherd took another step forward and coiled its massive body. Tears ran down Huey's cheeks, but the boy did not make a sound. The dog punctuated its growl with a deafening bark. Huey screamed.
"OK, Rex, you made our point,” a woman’s voice croaked from the covered porch shrouded in early evening shadows. “Come back up here, boy."
The fierce dog obediently turned back to the porch.
"Bring that ball," the woman's voice came again. She cackled as her dog sunk its teeth into the ball, slunk up the wooden steps, and laid down next to the silhouetted figure in a rocking chair.
From the sidewalk, Ken and Johnny and Huey took deep breaths. All three boys were close enough to make out Miss Stromwich's fierce features and unkempt, grayish white hair in the shadows. She often sat on her porch rocker in the evening in a faded house dress with her big dog lying next to her clunky brown shoes. But this was the first time the kids heard her speak.
"Keep that thing chained up!"
The McDonald boys turned back to see their father standing boldly on the front porch of their home. Mike McDonald, 38, was wearing on oven mitt on his left hand while holding the door open with his right. He tossed the mitt into his living room and marched to the sidewalk in front of the corner house.
“I swear, Miss Stromwich,” Mike McDonald spat out the words, “next time I’m calling the cops. That thing on your porch is a menace to the entire block.”
There was no retort from the porch. However, the neighbors were watching.
Mike put his arms around Ken and Huey. “C’mon. Dinnertime, boys. Your mom’s working late, so she said to start without her.” As the McDonalds’ storm door closed behind them, Miss Stromwich reached down with her gnarled hand and touched her dog. “Aw, I don’t think the house husband’s gonna invite us for dinner. After all, his kids think I’m a … witch.”
The streetlights were on by the time an attractive woman in a business suit strode swiftly up North Oak Street. She carried a tan briefcase in her left hand. As she crossed a side street, a sedan stopped, putting the woman squarely in the car’s headlight beams.
The driver poked her head out an open car window and shouted, “Hi, Mrs. McDonald! How was work today?”
Sandy McDonald did not look up. She kept walking. A growl emanated from a porch on the corner, but the 35-year-old businesswoman kept her head down and her legs moving to her house, the one with the porch light on and a lighted living room visible through a front window. Sandy quickly ascended the porch steps.
“Put in a late one tonight, eh?”
Sandy nodded quickly at a figure sitting on the Marstall porch next door. She paused when Mrs. Marstall added, “We’ve got your boy Kenny. He’s sleeping over and…”
Sandy McDonald went into her house and shut the door on the rest of her neighbor’s words. She set her briefcase on the floor and yelled, “Anybody home?”
A toilet flushed and Mike McDonald emerged. “It’s about time, Sandra.”
While Sandy explained that her staff meeting ran late and morphed into another meeting and she had to sketch a revamped building design and the taxi broke down less than a mile from home, Huey burst into the living room in his pajamas and baseball cap. He hugged his mother.
“What did my boy do today?” Sandy said, removing his hat and tousling his hair.
Huey grabbed the cap, put it back on his head, and launched into a play-by-play:
“Oh, man, school sucked. Mrs. Livingston gave us enough homework to choke a horse. Jimmy told her so, right in class! She gave us all these fractions that nobody can do. Not even that new kid who keeps telling us how smart he is. Dad tried to help me tonight, but ...” Huey leaned in and whispered, “He’s no good at fractions.”
Oh, come on, Huey,” Sandy said, “your dad is very good at a lot of things.”
“Oh yeah? You shoulda tried to eat his dinner. I told him it looked like mac and snot.”
Mom whispered to Huey, “Apologize to your dad when you say goodnight.”
When Mike entered the room, the 9-year-old obediently shook hands with his father and said, “Sorry, I shouldn’ta dissed your meal and homework help.” Mike smiled.
Huey added as he ascended the stairs, “Because your fractions are way better than the stuff you put on my plate.” His father pretended to run toward the stairs, and they both laughed.
Mike sat on an old couch next to Sandy when they heard Huey yell from his bedroom, “Dad, be sure to tell Mom about the Oak Street Witch.”
“Get in that bed,” Mike yelled. He put an arm around his wife and asked quietly, “What happened at the meeting? Are they going to make you resubmit a commercial zoning proposal or are they going ahead with that redevelopment you hate? Or …”
“Screw work,” Sandy said. “I’d rather hear about the witch.”
Mike nodded his head in the direction of the old house on the corner. Sandy laughed.
At 7:30 in the morning, Sandy opened a bedroom door and smiled at her sleeping boys. She was in her business attire. Ken laid atop the covers and was still in his jeans, just as Sandy saw him when he came home from the aborted sleepover next door. He said Johnny’s dad snored loud. Huey still wore his Detroit Tigers baseball cap. Sandy shook her head; trying to get him to remove that cap was a never-ending battle. She kissed each boy’s forehead and left for work.
One-forty-six in the afternoon. That’s the time police recorded in their report and Oak Street residents etched in their memories.
The confrontation began 25 minutes earlier when a rubber ball bounced into Miss Stromwich’s front yard from another game of “pickle.” Ken gingerly trod on the sidewalk in front of her house, but stopped when the big dog on the porch growled.
“What d’ya want?” Miss Stromwich yelled from her rocking chair.
Ken looked at the ball, then bravely faced the old woman and her dog. The boy’s lips trembled, but he got out the words, “Ma’am, would you mind if I got…”
Rex bolted from the porch. Ken closed his eyes and he felt drops of slobber sprinkle his arms. A neighbor screamed. Miss Stromwich laughed. The 12-year-old felt an arm on his shoulder. As Johnny Marstall led his friend away, Ken opened his eyes and saw the large dog bounding back up the porch steps. The creature dripped saliva. The rubber ball was in its mouth.
Huey had fetched his dad and, just like last night, Mike McDonald marched down the sidewalk to Miss Stromwich’s house. The dog barked, dropping the ball from its mouth.
“I warned you, old woman,” Mike shouted as several neighbors watched the clash from their lawns and porches. “That dog is a menace. And where the hell do you get off torturing kids?”
Miss Stromwich stood and pointed a bony finger at her accuser. “Torture? I’m the one being tortured by your damn kids. They got no respect for my prop’ty.”
Gimme that ball!” Mr. McDonald yelled. He stepped toward the old woman’s unkempt yard, but Huey screamed. He tried to push his father back. Rex ran at Huey and Mike. The dog barked furiously, but did not attack. Mike scooped up Huey and whisked him away.
When Officer Dornbos arrived in his cruiser, he found Mike McDonald consoling his son, Miss Stromwich sitting quietly in her porch rocker, and several neighbors watching on their lawns. Officer Dornbos first questioned Mike McDonald, with Ken and Huey at his side. Mike pointed to the old woman on the porch.
Dornbos turned to the neighbors and shouted, “Did anyone see what happened?”
Nobody said a word. The officer turned directly to Grace Miller, Linda Langford, and Peter Johnson who were clustered on a lawn across the street from the McDonald house. “What about past behavior? You must’ve seen something.”
“Leave us out of this,” Grace replied.
“Yeah,” Peter added, neglecting to mention that he was the one who called the police. “We don’t want to get involved.”
Officer Dornbos walked across Miss Stromwich’s grass, followed closely by Mike and his two sons. Rex bolted upright, trotted to the front of the porch, and stood like a snarling sentinel. Dornbos stopped. He motioned the McDonalds to step back. He drew his gun, pointed it at the dog, and shouted, “Ma’am, secure that animal. NOW!”
Miss Stromwich reeled in her dog and tied its leash to her rocker.
“Relax, boy,” the old woman told Rex. “The officer is here to protect us and our prop’ty.” She turned to Dornbos and said, “So what lies has that crazy man been telling you?”
After Dornbos secured the woman’s age – 85 – he asked for her side of the story. She stood inches away from the officer and shouted, “I won't give you a frikkin' story. I'll give you the truth. But not while that lyin' devil and his hoodlum kids are standin' on my prop’ty.”
Dornbos told the McDonalds to step back onto the sidewalk. The officer asked the woman, “Did your dog attack or threaten anyone here?”
Rex growled from his prone position, but Miss Stromwich reached down and stroked his fur. The dog quieted. “My Rexy? He's great with good kids. He only protects me and my prop'ty. Gawd knows I need it with the troublemakers on this street.”
While Officer Dornbos continued to talk to Miss Stromwich, the McDonalds huddled up. In hushed tones, Huey asked, “What’s Mom gonna say?” Ken added, “Yeah, she’s always telling us to leave the neighbors alone, especially that witch.” “Are they gonna arrest the witch?” Huey asked. Mike shook his head. “Hopefully, the police visit will put the fear of God in her.” Ken replied, “But witches don’t believe in God.”
Officer Dornbos walked toward Mike, Ken and Huey, and the huddle broke up. Dornbos carried an object in his gloved hand.
“Here's your ball back, son,” Dornbos said.
Ken held out his hand, but withdrew it when he saw the chewed up object was half its size and dripping saliva. Dornbos tossed the ball onto the McDonalds’ lawn.
Dornbos opened the door of his police cruiser and announced to the neighborhood, “I’m done here, everyone. Now it’s up to you. I’m not advising, I’m ordering you: Get along.”
Mike tried to reply, “But what if…”
The officer interrupted, “Don't waste my time or another officer's time with this penny-ante bickering.” He climbed into his cruiser and left.
Early in the morning, Sandy went through her pre-work ritual. She quietly opened the door to the boys’ darkened bedroom. She kissed Ken’s forehead, but when she bent down to kiss Huey, he was not there. Sandy frantically ruffled the covers but only found Huey’s cap. Breathing heavily, she picked up the cap and whirled her gaze around the room. She noticed the bedroom window was wide open.
“Where’s Huey?” Sandy screamed as she desperately shook Ken awake.
“Huh,” Ken said groggily. “Ma, what’re you doin’ here on a Saturday mor…”
“Your brother,” Sandy yelled. “Where is he? Where?”
Ken bolted up and looked at the empty bed. “Huey,” he shouted. “Huuu-eeeeee!”
Mike burst into the bedroom in his pajama shorts and T-shirt, and he, Sandy, and Ken madly searched the house. Within minutes, they assembled in the kitchen, Ken in jeans and a T-shirt, Mike in jeans and a collared shirt, and Sandy still in her business clothes and still clutching Huey’s Detroit Tigers cap, the one that never seemed to leave his head.
“I want you both to stay calm,” Mike told his wife and Ken. “We're no good to Huey if we run around half-cocked. I'm taking our car to scour all the streets from here to the elementary school, Obie's market, plus some of the busier streets. Ken, you're ...”
“I'm walking up to the park and checking,” Ken said. “Johnny and I were gonna get up a game this morning, and Huey never misses.”
Mike told Sandy, “And you’re going door-to-door.”
Sandy tearfully looked out the window and did not reply.
“Go ahead, Ken,” Mike said. His older son scampered out the door.
Mike held his wife’s shoulders and looked into her eyes, but she did not return his gaze. “Look,” he said angrily, “whatever issues you got, Sandra, lose 'em! If you're sad about Huey, put it aside. Or, god forbid, you better not be giving me more of that "I don't talk to the neighbors" crap. Not now, dammit!”
Sandy finally looked at her husband. “But my privacy...”
“Can it, Sandra!”
Mike removed his hands from Sandy's shoulder with disgust. “I've heard your ‘I'm independent’ shtick. Your ‘I don't give or take charity’ mantra. Well, I believe in community! And we sure as hell need it now.”
Mike took out his cellphone, punched some numbers, and opened the front door. On his way out, Mike said to his phone, “Yes, officer, I'd like to report a missing...” The door closed, and Sandy was alone.
Sandy picked up a framed, glass-encased photo of her with Huey. She wore a sweatshirt and jeans and cap, and he was in jeans and a T-shirt – and, of course, his baseball cap.
She heard a car back out of her driveway and leave.
Changing into a comfortable sneaker, Sandy still wore her business clothes when she left the house. She carried the picture of her and Huey, and still clutched Huey's baseball cap. Walking down the front steps, she glanced at Miss Stromwich's house and walked in the other direction.
Mrs. Marstall rushed onto her porch as her neighbor passed. “Don't worry, Mrs. McDonald. I will keep an eye out for Huey. So is everybody.”
Sandy looked at Huey’s picture, nodded, and kept walking.
Three streets over and two blocks up, Mike McDonald slowly drove his sedan, looking out the open window and occasionally shouting, “Huey! Huey McDonald!... Anybody seen my boy?” A man in an undershirt and jeans approached. The man shook his head and Mike resumed cruising the neighborhoods. “Mrs. Olsen, have you seen my Huey?” he yelled to a woman getting into her car. “Not at all?” He kept driving slowly.
At the local park, two boys on bicycles zipped past a woman jogger. Johnny Marstall carried a baseball bat and glove on his bike; Ken McDonald just a glove. The boys stopped at the biggest tree in the park and tossed their bikes and gear on the grass. Johnny knelt by the trunk and cupped his hands. Ken put a foot into the cup, hugged the tree, and climbed to the first big limb. A wooden platform there was empty. Ken sighed, and climbed higher. He looked out over a coal yard, a school playground, and at the remainder of the park. Ken saw a few walkers and bicyclists, but no sign of his brother.
Afternoon set in, and Sandy McDonald’s gait was noticeably slower. Beads of perspiration gathered in the furrows of her glistening brow. She still carried the photo and Huey’s cap in her right hand, but her left hand now hung onto the dress jacket draped over the shoulder of her long-sleeved white blouse.
A car pulled up alongside her. “Hon, any leads?”
Sandy hesitated, then rushed to Mike’s car, her lip trembling. “Nothing! Not one damn thing.”
Mike told his wife that the police were looking, too. He said he would find Ken and take him home for a lunch break. Mike added, “C’mon, hop in and take a break, too.”
Sandy shook her head. “I can’t, not right now. I just need to walk, OK?”
After an awkward silence, Mike said, “Sandy, if it’s about this morning, I am so…”
Sandy placed her forefinger over Mike’s lips. She withdrew it and held up a well-worn Detroit Tigers baseball cap. “This is why.”
Mike nodded. “Take care of yourself. Love you,” he said as he drove off.
Sandy resumed walking. Two teen girls, talking and laughing, passed her. Nobody made eye contact. Sandy kept walking. She passed a woman on her knees gardening near the sidewalk. Sandy kept walking.
Amid late afternoon shadows, Sandy found herself in the middle of an unpaved road, with trees and bushes on one side and a few houses on the other. The sleeves on her white blouse were rolled up high on her arm. Sandy grimaced. She stopped, set down the cap and photo and tucked the jacket under her arm. She took off a shoe. She turned it over, and shook out a stone. She put her shoe back on, picked up her belongings and resumed her trek.
Later, on a paved side street about two miles from home, a man carrying a heaping bag of groceries approached. He smiled at Sandy, a stalk of celery fell from the bag, and the man kept walking. Sandy noticed the green stalk at her feet. She continued walking.
Further up the street, an 8-year-old boy in a ripped T-shirt and jeans stood in the sidewalk next to his scooter. He eyed Sandy as she approached. Finally, he asked, “Are you Mrs. Mac?” Sandy walked past him. But he rode his scooter into the street and back onto the sidewalk in front of her. Sandy stopped and asked sharply, “Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is Billy Langford. Are you Huey McDonald's mom?”
Sandy bent down near his face and demanded, “Where is he? Have you seen him? How do you know him? How did you know about me? How ..."
“Cool it, Missus Mac. No, I haven't seen him since school yesterday. He's in my class. Is something wrong?”
“We are trying to find Huey,” she said. “Do you guys have some place you like to go?”
Billy shook his head. Sandy tried again: “Think! Do you have ANY idea where he might be?”
Billy leaned forward. Quietly, he said, “Did he tell you about the witch on his street? Did you look there? Be careful. Huey says he's heard things about...”
Billy, I must go,” Sandy said abruptly. “Let me know if you hear something, OK?”
Sandy gave the boy her business card and resumed her trek, leaving Billy in the background.
The shadows began to get longer. Sandy strode briskly on another sidewalk, but stopped and put the cap and photo down and put one arm into a jacket sleeve. She punched a number on her cellphone. She got an answer on the third ring.
“Mike,” Sandy said into the phone, “Have you heard any...?”
She listened intently. “No luck here either. You called all his friends again?... How about the police?” She hung her head and fought back tears. Sandy added, “I just don’t know what else to do. I’m coming home.”
Mike asked where he could pick her up in the car.
“No, no need,” Sandy replied. “I’m only four or five blocks away. I’ll walk back.”
Only a few minutes after Sandy picked up her things and resumed her trek, she heard a woman’s voice call to her: “Mrs. McDonald?”
Sandy glanced to her left and saw a trim woman in her late 50s or early 60s wearing black slacks and a tan blouse. She was sitting on the front porch steps of a small ranch home. Sandy looked away and kept walking.
“Hold it, Mrs. McDonald,” the woman said. “Don’t be a fool like me.”
Sandy stopped and turned back to the woman on the steps.
“I heard your child is missing,” the woman said. “And I know what you're going through.”
Sandy shot back, “I don't even know you. And no, ma'am, you have no idea.
The woman rose from the porch steps. “Mrs. McDonald, my name is Eva Dorn. My boy went missing ten years ago. Ten years and twenty-two days ago.”
Sandy’s eyes widened. “I’m so sorry,” she said with sincerity. “When did you get him back?”
The two women stared at each other.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my red-headed Tommy,” Eva said. “It’s like a hole in your heart that can’t be filled.”
Sandy looked at the sidewalk. She shook her head, gazed into Eva’s eyes, and said, “Ten years? No word? How old was your boy?”
“Thirteen-and-a-half when he vanished,” Mrs. Dorn said.
Against her inclination, Sandy asked, “What did you mean about being a fool?”
“Don't be like me,” Eva said directly. “Don't leave any stone unturned. When I looked for Tommy, there were clues I dismissed. And all these years later, I'm still replaying them in my head. Somebody told me Tommy talked about Florida. Another said he tried to go to a NASCAR race. He loved watching and reading about race cars. He even carried a mini-Indy checkered flag in his back pocket. All the time.”
Come on,” Sandy said, “you can't blame yourself for not following up on those outlandish things.”
“After ten years, they are not far-fetched, Mrs. McDonald. I beat myself up for not following up on every tip. Especially when night comes and I think if only or what if. One of Tommy's friends even feared that a witch got him.”
Sandy reflexively placed her hand across her mouth, the hand that was dangling her jacket. Mrs. Dorn touched Mrs. McDonald’s arm.
“I'm sorry,” Sandy said, backing away. “I've got to get home.”
“Don't let pride in,” Eva said, taking a step toward the McDonald woman. “Accept help. I didn't, and now I'm all alone.”
Sandy turned and ran away.
The streetlights were on as Sandy ran onto the 900 block of North Oak Street. A big dog barked loudly as Sandy approached Miss Stromwich’s corner house. Rex leaped off the porch and flew at Sandy like a heat-seeking missile.
Sandy screamed. She froze, shut her eyes, and dropped her picture, Huey's cap, and her jacket. The rope, apparently tied to something, stopped the snarling creature inches from the terrified McDonald woman. She opened her eyes and tried to shuffle away, but her legs would not move.
“Call him off!” Sandy yelled amid more horrific screams and thunderous barking that caused nearly two dozen neighbors to spill out of their houses and into the street in front of the Stromwich house.
Mike McDonald barreled out the front door and jumped in front of his wife on the sidewalk. Rex strained mightily to get at him, spilling slobber on his pants and shirt. Mike tried to ease backward with Sandy behind him. Sandy stooped to pick up the photo she dropped. She also tried to get Huey's Detroit Tigers cap when a jet black puppy rushed past Mike and grabbed the lid in its paws and mouth. The puppy tried to rub against Sandy's leg. She screamed, and Mike shooed the puppy away. The little dog retreated to the porch with the cap in its mouth.
“Control those beasts of yours,” Mike McDonald called out to Miss Stromwich, who watched the bedlam unfold from her perch on the porch. She was visible only as a dark form in a rocker, her features shielded by night shadows that – at least on the porch – overpowered the streetlights.
Mike pointed at the elderly woman. “If one of those dogs touches my…”
“You're gonna do what?” Miss Stromwich shouted as Rex barked ferociously and strained on his rope leash.
Mike McDonald moved to his wife’s side. He took Sandy’s hand in his and told the Stromwich woman, “I'm gonna do whatever it takes to stop you and those wild animals from intimidating this neighborhood.”
Miss Stromwich cackled. “You and who else?”
Mike looked at his wife and raised his hand that held Sandy's over their heads. A 37-year-old neighbor from across the street stepped forward from the crowd. Ray Fregosi grasped Mike's free hand and thrust it into the clear night air.
“You put my kids at risk every day, lady,” Fregosi said. “Enough!”
Another neighbor, Mary Freeland, 25, took Ray’s hand and raised it aloft. Others joined in and soon a crowd of neighbors with clasped hands held high stood in front of the corner house on North Oak Street.
A sudden flash of lightning struck a nearby tree limb and a loud thunder clap sent Rex scurrying to his porch along with the little dog. The neighbors continued to hold their hands aloft.
In less than 10 seconds, a blinding bolt of lightning struck Miss Stromwich’s house and a monstrous thunderclap shook the neighborhood. People dove or fell to the ground, letting go of neighbors’ hands and shielding their eyes from the brilliance.
Streetlights went out. When the lights came back on seconds later, people were getting up off the pavement and grass.
“She’s gone!” someone yelled.
“Her dogs, too!”
People gazed at Miss Stromwich’s empty rocking chair on the wooden porch. Smoke arose from the porch and the gigantic hole in the front roof.
“Something moved on the porch!” Mary Freeland cried out.
Others noticed, too. A human figure staggered through the smoke amid gasps from the neighbors. The red-haired boy wore blue jeans, an undershirt, and gym shoes. He appeared lost, glancing at the night sky. When he turned to the crowd before him, he took a step back.
“Are you OK, son?” Mike McDonald said, walking toward the disoriented boy. “We’re here to help you. My name is Mike. What’s yours?”
“I’m Tommy,” the boy said.
“Where do you live? How old are you?” Mike said as he extended a hand.
“I’m thirteen, and I gotta get home and see my mom.”
The boy ran off down a side street, a little black-and-white checkered flag protruding from a back pocket of his jeans. Most of the neighbors watched him run away. They speculated about who he might be. Meanwhile, a smaller figure walked through the smoke of the porch.
The boy who wore an undershirt and jeans called out again, “Mom? Dad?” He was holding a well-worn Detroit Tigers baseball cap.
“Huey!” Sandy McDonald shouted with unbounded joy. She rushed to embrace her son. She kissed him and put his favorite cap on his head. Mike was right behind his wife. He threw his arms around his son and squeezed him. Brother Ken joined the reunion, too.
Neighbors cheered and laughed even as it began to rain.
Through blissful tears, Sandy told her family, “Now everything can go back to the way it was.”
Forty years later, a 23-year-old woman who just bought a home in the 900 block of North Oak Street was getting the lowdown on her neighbors. Her guide, 44-year-old Roger Hawkins, spoke highly of the people there.
“I think you’ll find most folks very friendly,” he said, adding house by house highlights.
“What about her,” Marie Lincoln said, “the old woman sitting in the chair on the porch across the street? What’s her story?”
Roger thought for a moment. “That’s Mrs. McDonald. I think she’s seventy-five. She has lived here longer than anybody. She has two successful sons who live out of state. They visit every so often. But no one knows much about her. She had a husband, but I don’t know what happened to him. She is very private. If you pass her, say ‘hi,’ but don’t expect a greeting in return.”
Marie thanked Roger Hawkins for the wine and cheese and information. On the way out, Marie noticed the old woman again. She was fingering a baseball cap in her lap.
Marie looked back at her host and said, “I have one more question. Was there a witch on this street?”
Author: Mike McCarty
Greta stepped out onto green rocks, with purple liquid lapping across more pebbles of green, grey, and brilliantly gold crystals. The air had been confirmed as oxygen rich, more so than Earth’s. Safe to breathe, the doctor and biologists on board had insisted, but she wasn’t so sure.
The air was putrid, rotting flesh disgusting. She noted orange and brown leaves floating in the violet liquid at her feet and wondered what kind of plant life had developed on this planet. There was a carbon dioxide factor and nitrogen, in the atmosphere, but the ratios were far from E-standard.
“Bring respirators if you’re sensitive to foul odors,” she shouted back up the ramp, where Rasta was starting the electric buggy up.
“I’m alright. We’ll get used to the smell in a couple of days or so. It’ll be background to us as our noses adjust.” His long dread locks were bunched at his neck. Tied into order by a polka dotted red bandana he’d folded up to do the job.
Greta placed the test tube carrier on the ground beside the water, “I wonder what kind of life we’ll find in this water? At least I think it’s water. That’s what the astronomy scans said.”
“I wouldn’t drink any of it until we finish testing.” Rasta warned her.
“I’m not a fool, man.” She dipped the first tube under, letting liquid dribble into the sturdy glass tube.
Lifting it, she held it toward the first of two suns pulsing in the sky. The planet was the seventh in a system of fourteen orbiting the binary dwarf stars. “They’re aptly named. Romulus and Remus for the stars, and Gemini System. I hope things won’t be as turbulent as old Rome was.”
The water glowed faintly, but otherwise clear in its container.
“Hmm, take a look at this, Rasta,”
He rolled his all terrain explorer down the ramp and came to a stop beside Greta.
“So, the violet is a trick of the atmospheric reflection?”
“It would seem to be. I don’t like the aura, it’s like it has a magnetic field or perhaps some sort of radioactive properties.”
“Get more of it, and some of the pebbles too.” Rasta said, “I’m off to see if our aerial survey was accurate.”
“Be careful. I know the survey said no fauna, only plant life, but you know they can miss big time.” Greta warned him.
“I’ve got my stunner with me. If I’m not back in 60 standard minutes, get into the ship and lock up.”
“You’ve got a locator beacon?”
“Yes, mother,” he teased her, but pulled the blinking button out of his overall pocket.
“Freddie, get out here,” Greta yelled. “The water isn’t purple like we thought. It’s the strange way the two suns light the atmosphere that’s doing it. Bring a radiation meter, will you?”
Freddie came out wearing a respirator.
Greta laughed at his multifaceted eyes, peering over the top of the device he wore to keep the stench at bay. It made him look more like and insect than ever. His limbs were stick thin, and his knees bent backward in comparison to a human. The Scilari were Earth’s first contact with an alien world. He carried a meter in his lower arms and brought a camera to record the scene in the top set.
She would never understand how Freddie could do two totally different tasks with equal precision and not end up with a mess of both. She’d barely learned to concentrate on what she was doing at the moment without letting future tasks cloud her thinking.
“Hmmm light gamma radiation from the water. Nothing that will hurt us unless we stay here for a thousand years though.”
“Then why can I see the glow from it?” Greta asked.
“Must be the same trick the atmosphere is playing with perception of water. Ultra-violet light from two directions might cause its color. I’m thinking the different angles of light from two sources are causing all sorts of visual anomalies.”
“We have much to learn.” Greta agreed
“But these gold crystals. They are like light emitting diodes. Handle them with care. They might be a life form and not a rock.” Freddie cautioned her.
“It wouldn’t be the first time. Although we haven’t convinced our allies from Eclecta to accept you fully, they’re a prime example of a non carbon based life form. Remember the pictures we’ve shown you?”
“They’re silicon based, right?” Greta reminded herself.
“Yes, but these are gold and copper. Copper is an excellent conductor, and gold is nonreactive. It could be an exoskeleton.” Freddie theorized.
“How would we communicate, if they’re a sentient life form?” Greta paused for a moment thinking, and then said, “Perhaps the Eclecta? They’re pure binary code. They might have a chance.”
“Perhaps. First we have to confirm my suspicions.” Freddie bent from his waist, as he handed Greta the meter. Comfortably on four legs, he carefully lifted each one in turn, picking the yellowish crystal like rocks out from under them and piling them together closer to his top hands. “I’m not taking a chance on bungling a first contact by not respecting the possibility.”
“Do you want to follow Rasta and record his path? He was in such a hurry to explore I doubt he turned on his camera.” Greta asked.
“Do you mind? I don’t want to leave you alone here,” Freddie could hardly keep his enthusiasm in check.
“Go follow the explorer’s tracks. I’m sure they’re obvious. You know there might be something about this theory about the yellow crystals. See how they’re almost all close to the water? Not one where Rasta took the all terrain vehicle.”
“Take a few inside. Put them in the communicator’s chamber. It might be able to decipher a language if it’s there in a form that it’s able to analyze.”
The suns were approaching zenith when a massive reflective flash blinded her. As she recovered her vision, she noted the water was deep blue. Freddie seemed to be right about angles and light waves. Did she dare to strip down and take a swim? The spectrometer showed minor traces of elements in the water, and it was H2O exactly as Earth’s was. But who knew what might lurk in the depths of the pools she’d seen as she walked the stream beds for a kilometer to each side of their landing zone?
The stream was structured. There was organization to the way the pools were constructed. Greta shivered. Was this evidence of an extinct civilization or were they still around, perhaps hidden? She peered over her shoulder at the cliff they had dropped over before landing. Where were the builders?
Checking the time, she walked toward the tracks from the explorer. Rasta was due back in five minutes, but where had Freddie disappeared to? Changing her mind, she went up the ramp to check her tracking screen. Both of them had locators. It shouldn’t be hard to see where they were.
She a moment of terror, when the display showed nothing, then she realized it had been left on the settings screen and touched the square that allowed her to see the crew. It was only the three of them. Research Two and dropped them on their way into hyper drive to the next system. They were on their own for the next three weeks. There was only an emergency beacon to launch if they were in trouble.
It looked like they were both in the explorer and hurtling toward base. She moved through into the lab, where a clear carbonite box held almost one hundred of the gold crystals. She dumped them in there let them land in a scattered heap. There was nothing disorganized about them now. They stood in an exact grid precisely separated by exactly a centimeter. She could see there were five missing from a perfect square.
She hurried out to greet her companions. The day should be twenty six hours according to rotational measurements the satellite had noted. The suns were going down toward opposite horizons. Her brain knew what she was observing as the twin stars slipped toward sunset. Her body didn’t understand at all. Every other world she’d been on, had but one star. Habitable planets in a binary system were rare.
“I need to get five more of those crystals. You were right Freddie, there’s some sort of intelligence here. Wait till you see what happened in the lab.” Greta knelt to carefully scoop up five more pyramid shaped crystals.
“This planet is inhabited,” Rasta stated. “We’ll have first contact soon, I’m sure.”
“Yes, yes, I agree,” Freddie added. “We saw several indications of a civilization who were builders, but nothing to indicate who or what they were.”
Greta paused on the ramp, “Rasta, get the explorer aboard. We can watch the moon rise from the kitchen. I don’t want any equipment outside over night.”
The explorer which had been so speedy when they left earlier, was barely able to make it into the storage bay. Rasta hopped out and connected the massive charging cable.
“Are you going to put those crystals with the rest?” Freddie reminded her.
“Yes, and we’ll leave the camera on the box this time. I forgot and I could kick myself. I would have loved to see them move.”
“Move?” both her team members spoke at the same time.
“Yes move. I dumped them in a heap. Look at them now.”
Rasta approached the lab station. “Would you look at that?”
Freddie hurried over to stare at the rigid precise rows. Greta took the five she had in her pocket and placed them in a heap in the corner. She left them as far away from the area that needed to be filled in to complete the array as was possible. Turning on the overhead camera, she turned her back on the display, and lead the way into the crew quarters.
“Rasta get over here. Leave them alone to do what they need to.” She called.
“They’re crystals, not breathing beings,” he protested.
“Respect them and give them privacy. We’ll know soon enough what they might have to say. I left the communicator primed to receive.” Greta told him. She rarely put her authority as Captain on the line. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking they aren’t sentient beings. We know from other civilizations we’ve studied group mind sharing is possible, sometimes a single being has many parts as well. Open your mind Rasta!”
“Yeah, don’t get on your high horse, Captain.”
His right fist clenched, and she could see he wanted to flip him the age old sign of contempt. His middle finger twitched, but he did control his temper. She sighed. If he hadn’t been the best ever at mapping and systematic exploration, she would have put him and his hair out to space before they ever landed.
“Come on Rasta, let’s get some food together and watch the moon rise,” Freddie prodded him.
“Reconstituted Meal. I’ll be glad if we can find something on this planet, we can use to synthesize fresh,” Rasta mumbled under his breath.
“You and me both, but this stench of rotted plant matter probably permeates every bit of organic matter too. Personally, I’m glad we have the rations,” Freddie folded his legs under the tall stool at the table in front of the diamond glass window.
“Bring water to drink, Greta,” Freddie requested.
Rasta ripped foil packages open, dumping water into a couple of pots, and used the inducer to heat everything. Serving the meals onto compartmentalized plates, he brought them over to the table.
Greta checked their water supply and made note she’d need to run the hoses into the pool. Their purifiers would the rest. It could even bring the elements together as long as the atmosphere had hydrogen and oxygen in it. It was easier on the power reserves if they could distill it from a liquid source.
The three of them sat, digging into their meal and watched the night spread from overhead to the horizons. No one admitted how uneasy it made them. Wrapped in their own thoughts, comfortably silent, they watched as the horizon began to glow.
The astronomers promised a good show. Greta studied the planet’s moons on the way down, knowing she had to navigate between them. Six of them. The largest was innermost in orbit, but two more almost as big were on outer orbital paths. A pair had faint rings. The other three were tiny and unlikely to be visible tonight. She wondered if the twin suns would give them full moons at all times or if there were phases.
Orange fire peeked into the sky and the first sliver of the big moon slid into view. The crater pocked surface reminded her of a badly carved pumpkin her father made for fall harvest on Angora. Some traditions carried through from Earth no matter where humans had settled. The moon rose, dominating the sky and dimming the stars vying for recognition.
“Look over there,” Rasta point to the right edge of the landscape where the cliff behind them blocked the horizon, and a smaller yellowish orb seemed to leap into view. Smoother, its pale lemony light elongated the shadow of their ship. They could track its arc as it sped across towards its zenith.
“I wondered if we would see phases. This one isn’t quite full, looks to be waxing gibbous,” Greta speculated.
“Well, that one is a crescent, and definitely waning,” Rasta pointed to the pointed arc of the third moon poking over a hill. It floated into view below and to the left of the brilliantly orange full moon.
Freddie shuddered, the exoskeleton bones of his legs rattling under his chair.
“What’s wrong?” Greta had learned to trust his instincts.
“I think we might have been very lucky to have a clear day. These moons? What are they going to do to the weather? Are we fools to be on the surface?” She could see the skin on his abdomen rippling as his whole body reacted to his statement.
“Rasta, you’re going to take the intake tubes out to the nearest pool, right now.” Greta ordered.
Training had him running out the side hatch, pulling the long hoses out from under the ship where they’d been coiled in storage. Winds buffeted him and small drifts of sand flowed over the tracks his explorer made.
As if the heavens had heard Freddie’s comment, clouds were already floating across the illuminated sky. In the communications lab, the computer pinged an emergency alert.
Greta pushed up from the table, the sinister beauty of three moons glowing behind gilt edge clouds, instantly ignored. Quick strides took her into the lab, and the message glittering in red on the screen.
“Welcome, we hope you are a heavy ship. We have had no visitors in centuries of our time. We crystals, as you call us are the early warning system for weather and surface changes. We are expecting a sonic storm. Are you sound proofed?”
Rasta slammed the hatch door closed, snapping the interlocking clamps down as she emerged into the hallway.
“Damn, it!” He hissed in disgust.
“Paradise has its draw backs,” Greta said. “Our little crystal friends have spoken.”
“They’re all gone out there. Not one left on the surface and there were thousands.”
Rasta raced up the stairs to flight command and plopped into his sculpted seat. Flipping switches and pushing a complicated sequence of buttons, his long fingers danced across controls.
“What are you doing?” Greta understood it was a response to what he’d observed when he secured the water source.
“Setting the automatic stabilizers. We’re in for a blow. We’ve got enough light reflected from those moons, and the suns are powerful enough during the day, even with cloud cover, our solar panel array is providing good energy. So, don’t worry we’re going to cut into the fuel supply,” Rasta answered her unasked questions.
The rocking bounce stopped, and Greta eased into her command center. The message on the big view screen flashed red. Communications had transferred another message from the crystals.
ORANGE MOON FULL. THREE DAYS, MEASURED IN YOUR UNITS, 84 HRS OF STORM.
IF YOU SURVIVE, DELEGATION WILL WELCOME YOU. OUR APOLOGIES FOR NOT WARNING YOU.
Greta stared out the diamond window hoping to see the pool they’d landed beside. Her ears were protected by a double layer of noise canceling headphones. The inner ones shielded the inner ear, the outer the eardrum. Fortunately, protective equipment stashed in the emergency kits inside the main ramp did the job. She read in the flight command center while anxiously making note of the countdown timer every time she flipped to a new chapter.
For some reason, reading old children’s classics from earth soothed her during long down times like a baby sucking a pacifier. At this precise moment, the clock read 23:36:13 and the seconds seemed to crawl. For whatever reason, the crystals continued to communicate, and messages flashed on the big screen at irregular intervals.
Pictures of the creatures inhabiting the planet flashed across it, along with a brief condensed history of their culture. She read, fascinated at the parallels with Earth. Rasta buried himself in testing the stability system.
Sonic winds were rare. Only a few worlds were afflicted with them. The system was redesigned with a new set of servos to shift stabilizers with hyperlink speed. The flight computer responsible for megabyte calculations for hyper space, did the equations and ran the controls to counter the Mach 3 winds battering their ship.
An orange highlighted message flashed across her front screen.
“Mach 4 winds expected in 2.3 of your standard hours.” The golden crystals were working overtime in the lab.
Greta pushed a button on her armrest.
“Rasta, get up here.” Her voice a sharp bark she knew he would recognize as a no room for argument order.
She sighed, marked the page she’d been reading, and said a private goodbye to Meg, Jo, and Amy. Little Women would have to wait until this crisis was mitigated.
She heard the thump of Rasta’s heavy tread racing up the stairwell.
“They know who does what aboard now,” he said as he fitted himself into his seat. His fingers flashed across the familiar pattern she watched him use a dozen times over the last two days.
“I’ve had some messages from their leader.” Curious looking creatures. Long trunk like noses, with huge ears made her think of the extinct elephants. Well, not truly extinct. Cloning conglomerates had provided huge tracts of environmentally correct habitats for the major animal groups of each of the continents. When the polar ice caps froze over and exposed drowned cities, the Federation of Nations agreed to repopulate the areas as natural preserves, starting with trees and plant life, and allowing genetic engineers to reconstitute the appropriate wildlife from genome banks all over the world.
“They gave me an alga rhythm to install which will account for the blast of wind we’re going to experience for the duration of the storm. Mach 4 winds are unheard of. This planet is unique. Uninhabitable with out specialized equipment. Unless you go underground like they have.” Rasta continued to deal with the computer as he spoke.
“How’s Freddy doing?” Greta asked.
“I didn’t think he could turn any greener. You should ask him if he wants stasis for the next few hours. The vibrations that alerted us to the storm are giving him sea sickness. Hearing him wretch and watching his skin turn every shade of green and puce is only entertaining if you have no sense of compassion.”
“Careful, you might come across as human,” Greta couldn’t help the sarcasm dripping through her comment.
“Just go ask him. I’m going to be babysitting my stabilisers for the duration,” he snapped back at her.
She unwound her legs, stretching them when she leaned forward to touch her torso to her thighs. “I trust we’ll survive?”
“With these clever new equations to help, no problem,” Rasta waved her away.
“All right then, I’ll go convince Freddie sleeping this off will be better for him in the long run. It’s only one day. He shouldn’t have any aftereffects.”
Greta went down into the living quarters, turning into a small alcove between the lab and their individual cabins. Knocking on the third door at the end of the narrow hallway, she waited for a response.
“Go away.” Freddie’s voice was hoarse and barely audible.
“Permission to enter,” she paid him respect for his privacy.
“You’ll come in anyway, so you might as well Captain,” his terse response told her more than seeing him face to face.
“I’ll give you a choice, suffer in there or let me put you in stasis for the next 25 hours.” She called through the poly carbonate door.
“Winds are going up to Mach 4. I know the hull vibrations will drive you into over stimulation, it could be close to fatal if you can’t keep hydrated.” She knew Scilari had succumbed to this syndrome before.
“Yeah, shit is exactly it,” she responded wryly.
“Get the sprays ready. I’ll clean up and be there in five minutes.” Freddie gave in.
Greta took an anti anxiety dose before sleeping. She half wanted stasis like she’d arranged for her insect like crewman, but she had to maintain some sense of command. Rasta seemed impervious to the tingling high frequency harmonics rippling through the ship’s hull. It raised the fine hair on her arms, and the muscles between her shoulders tensed until the knot ached like she bench pressed too much weight in the gym.
She opened an eyelid and gazed around her compact cabin, trying to sense what had changed. A soft bell pinged in her ear, and she looked at her wrist unit. Storm abating. Winds down to 200 knots and dropping. She swung long legs over the edge of her bunk and put bare feet down on the plascrete floor. No more tickling hum. If she was right, it was the absence of supersonic sound irritation that woke her.
She pulled both layers of her noise canceling ear protectors off, relieved to know the worst of the sonic dissonance had abated. She wiggled between her storage chest and the desk to push open the door to her cleansing station. They were allowed exactly five minutes of water, so she hit the button for 30 seconds to wet herself down. Squirting biodegradable soap into her hands she reached for the sponge and quickly lathered her fair skin. Thank the space gods, the instant heater had worked. The thing was finicky as a newborn snake.
Two minutes of pounding warm jets from every angle relieved the cramped muscles in her shoulders and neck, another two minutes had her hair clean. Turning to the left she pushed the blue button and warm air buffeted her until she was dry, sucking the damp air with it to be recycled, recovering every drop of water.
Running a brush through her short hair she squirted a little jojoba oil into her hands and worked it through to protect against the dry atmosphere. Less than twenty percent humidity even with all the lovely pools and streams where they’d landed.
Her personal communications screen lit with a small green dot. She’d assigned the color to the leader of the indigenous sentient species. Still comfortably naked, she blocked the video feed and answered the second ping, this one was red.
“Captain, you have an invitation to visit. First contact is in seven hours. Our little crystal friends say winds will be down to fifteen knots by then.” Rasta reported.
“Accept for me, please. I’ll be up in a few minutes. I’m starting Freddie on the wake up cycle on the way by,” Greta told him, pulling a fresh uniform from her chest. Effective use of color and geometric design made her slender body look like it was some how more than it was. The illusion was valuable in certain situations.
Greta took a breakfast biscuit and a mug of tea with her up to command. Rasta’s eyes were red, his shoulders hunched against exhaustion.
“Stand down man. Hit your bunk for at least eight hours.”
“Couldn’t leave this unsupervised. I had no idea air could move like that.” He yawned hugely showing even white teeth lightly stained by the coffee he preferred to her tea.
“Go,” she pointed to the stairwell. “I expect Freddie will be up in three to four hours. I’ll leave him in charge. I’m taking the explorer to the coordinates the honored leader of Benal sent to us.”
“You shouldn’t be going alone. What if they aren’t as friendly as we think?”
“Any entity that would warn us about a deadly storm and help us to improve our equipment to survive it, is friendly.” Greta shook her head at Rasta’s suspicious comment.
“Now get out of here. You’re too tired to make sense.”
She watched her cartographer push himself up. His steps carefully placed with precision to keep him upright. He never admitted it when he’d overextended himself, but her trained eye saw the symptoms.
“Remember to drink something before you get some rest,” she call after him.
“Yes, mother,” came the sarcastic response.
Her fingers hit the correct buttons on her armrest, and the last message from the planet’s leader.
YOU ARE MOST WELCOME ON OUR HUMBLE PLANET. YOUR SHIP IS OF GREAT INTEREST. THE FIRST ADVANCED ENOUGH TO BE ENHANCED BY OUR ENGINEERING TEAM AND SURVIVE A MACH STORM. CONGRATULATIONS.
Her fingers flew as she responded.
I am grateful for your assistance. We were close to succumbing to the winds when they increased in the last 24 hours. Your programming is brilliant. May we share it with our other exploration and research ships?”
YES. WE HAVE BEEN TRAPPED UNDERGROUND BY THESE STORMS FOR CENTURIES. THERE IS NO OPPORTUNITY TO LAUNCH THE SHIPS WE HAVE HERE WAITING FOR TESTING. BUT THAT IS A SUBJECT FOR FURTHER DIPLOMACY. WE ARE SURE YOU WILL BRING MORE VISITORS FOR US.
My mission is for three weeks. We are 4 days in. The ship that dropped us here, will be back to recover this research vessel in 17 of your days. We will leave an ambassador and with your permission leave a communications satellite in orbit to facilitate efforts to introduce you to three races which explore the space we share.
EXCELLENT. TODAY, WE TOUR OUR CITY, WE WILL SHOW YOU OUR COMMERCIAL DISTRICT. BRING A WAY TO TAKE THINGS BACK TO YOUR SHIP. THE MARKET PLACE IS IMMENSE. ***
Did your crystals report on our first exploration?
AFFIRMATIVE. WILL YOU ARRIVE IN THE SAME VEHICLE?
Yes. I will leave an hour before our scheduled meeting time.
WE ARE HONORED, CAPTAIN. WE AWAIT THE MEETING WITH ANTICIPATION.
Greta sat back, images flashing by as the Xebrac leader gave her an idea of what to expect. Her explorer would be dwarfed. Great transport vehicles spewed goods into open loading docks. Commercial retail, at least that is what she assumed, received them. Glimpses of what looked like clothing, artistic adornments, and personal enhancements tumbled past her eyes.
Another section dedicated to building materials and home improvement. She saw swaths of materials, both fabric and something more. Sturdy sheets easily assembled into modules. She couldn’t wait to wander through the entire place, could a single afternoon give her enough time?
She looked over to see Freddie’s head appearing at the top of the stairs. He’d been quick to recover from stasis. She should have remembered his insectoid metabolism eased his return to consciousness. Scilari took twice the dose to put under and half the time to wake up.
“Captain, Rasta is sleeping. He did drink a liter of water before hand, I saw the empty bottle, and he’s not pleased with your babysitting as usual.”
“I’d rather have him snarling at me, then out because he didn’t take care of himself,” Greta said.
“What’s that?” Freddie’s multi faceted eyes reflected the last still image she’d left on the screen.
“Where I’m going this afternoon. I’m sorry I can’t take you with me, but someone has to man the ship, and Rasta will be out for at least eight hours. I made him promise.”
“I’m out of touch. I hate stasis.”
“You hate vibration sickness worse,” Great said with a grim smile.
“I know, I know, compromise is sometimes not worth it though.” Freddie shook his head.
“The communication file is open. Go over it. This is an astounding first contact. I’m hoping the friendly help we’ve had, isn’t a ruse to lure us to a bad end. I’m trusting my gut on this one Freddie.”
“Your gut is famous Captain. Go with it. I’ll prepare the information packet for our home ship. How bad did the storm get?”
“Mach 4.5 winds. We should have been blown to the other side of the planet, but our hosts sent a program compatible with our computers to enhance our stabilisers. Rasta was impressed.”
“Then go on your mission with an open heart. Oh, and wear the formal gown. I think from what I see, these people admire clothing and adornments. Your Captain’s amulet and the ring would be a good idea.”
“My thoughts exactly. I’m going to clean up and prepare. The bridge is yours.”
Greta could still feel the occasional bounce from wind, but they were lessening by the minute. Squeezing into her tiny shower, she overrode the mission restrictions on the timer and set the program for enhanced cleanse. She stretched her hands over her head and spread her legs against the sides of the cubicle, waiting for the process to begin.
Every crevice of her body was probed as multiple robotic arms joined the cascading water set to barely tolerable heat. Bright flashes of super spectrum light killed any surface bacteria, and lasers ran over her skin removing hair and other impurities. No one wanted to be responsible for bringing germs harmful for another species.
The computer stated, “Cycle complete.”
She reached for the white uniform specially prepared for her, and let it slide over her head. She knew she looked spectacular in it. The the dress fit her torso precisely, like it had been molded from her body. It helped that the material was scientifically enhanced to adhere to her no matter how she changed. At the moment she was at her leanest, taut muscles defined by rigorous physical toning kept her firm breasts high.
Her tiny waist was accentuated by her captain’s belt, and ethereal spider silk from Scilari shone with delicate prisms of light as it draped over her hips. She lifted the necklace with her captain’s amulet over her head, and it settled between her breasts. Slipping a platinum ring from its case, she slid it onto the middle finger of her right hand, the diamond signifying 10 missions, with a sapphire beside it for honors earned on the last mission.
Her black cap of hair showed blue highlights in the stark glare of her cabin, and she wondered if it would be different in the light of two suns. What tricks would they play with her attire? Never mind. It was time to go. Thank the universe, spider silk was completely resistant to tears. The explorer’s seats would do no damage.
I have arrived.
She typed into the com console.
Nothing but sand dunes and the trickling stream she had followed from their landing site out there. She wasn’t sure she was in the right place even though the coordinates on the location finder showed her she hadn’t erred.
WAIT ONE MINUTE. WE HAVE INITIATED ENTRY PROTOCOL. IT HAS BEEN A CENTURY SINCE THIS RAMP WAS LAST USED
She stared out the windshield and so slowly, she didn’t notice at first, the sand began to shift. The dune in front of her grew higher, and fine white grains slid away to the side leaving a black metal door in its place. A creaking groan had her slapping her hands over her ears, as an opening appeared when great wings spread revealing the delegation awaiting her arrival.
DRIVE FORWARD. WE WILL CLOSE THIS PORTAL BEHIND YOU. WELCOME TO OUR HUMBLE DWELLING
I am honored to be first to make contact.
She pushed the translator ear bud into her right ear. Hoping the device had enough from the crystals to make her understood. Opening her door, she climbed out to great the Xebrac leader.
Her explorer was dwarfed, exactly as she had assumed. For once her perception of size was not fooled by the misdirection of camera perspective. The transport waiting for them reminded her of the mining trucks used in the arctic diamond mines of old Earth. The incredible size made her explorer look like a child’s toy pedal car. She hoped she wouldn’t make a mistake and bring death down on her head as she strode forward. Bowing from her waist, she spoke.
“Greetings from the Galaxy Federation. I am Captain Greta Larsen.”
The leader who stepped forward, towered over her six foot frame. Their head so similar to an elephant she almost gawked. Great luminous eyes fixed on her face, intelligence sparkling in them. Their nose, a prehensile trunk with five fingers spaced around the end, it acted like a third hand. They bowed in response to her gesture, and then spoke.
I am Honorable Leader Qwaiter. My people greet you with pride and curiosity. Please join us to tour our great marketplace. These are the goods we will trade with, to bring the knowledge needed to help us into space. We need help building structures above ground to resist those storms.”
A smaller version of the Leader tugged at their arm.
“Mama show the Captain first! Then you can talk business.”
A million questions screamed through Greta’s mind. They could wait.
“Your child is right. Let us get to know each other while you show me the market.”
“Here’s the special thing about this city,” Qwaiter said as she pointed to huge light tubes bringing daylight into the marketplace. “We harness the light from both our suns to provide energy for heat and cooling here beneath the protective shield of ancient rocks.”
“I have seen similar ways of bringing light into underground dwellings. The desert mines on earth, harness solar power the same way. How long are your tubes?”
“In your measurement system, as long as a kilometer. We use mirrors to concentrate and amplify the rays and then direct them where we need them. It brings the healthy illumination into our darkest corners.”
“Do you harness the heat of the planet as well?” Greta asked thinking of the thermal heat pumps under some of the biggest buildings on Earth and Scilar.
“We’ve never had to, although the theory is well known. The suns bring enough energy with their rays to provide for all our needs.” Qwaiter’s expressive trunk pointed up to a diffuser unit bringing soft ambiance into the magnificent market.
“Mama let’s take Greta to the gaming store. It’s my favorite store of all.” The child’s trunk tugged at her mother’s arm.
Not wishing to break any unknown protocol, Greta asked, “Honorable Leader Qwaiter, I would love to see the games your young one is so excited about. We are always interested in how people entertain themselves. I’d love to hear more of your music and see your theaters and museums as well.”
“Yes Q’tera, we’ll go to our game market. Captain Greta, we would be honored if you would attend a concert in two nights, of our newest tone poems for crystal console. It is a traditional instrument and the tones are beauty harmonized.”
“Crystal? I’ve seen crystal wine glasses filled with liquid used to make incredible sonic poems, but a crystal console. I’d be most interested in the instrument.”
“It’s vast. It takes a team of twenty five to bring the best from it, and the dance of the players is as much art as the music it produces.” Qwaiter’s ears rippled as she spoke.
They turned into another division of the intersecting grid of stores and stopped in front of a magnificent sheet of glass. Behind the fifty meter high transparent pane, intricate boards made of sparkling materials were displayed on staggered shelves. Game pieces were made of translucent jewel like materials.
“These must be precious stones,” Greta said as she caressed one of the fist sized game pieces.
“Not at all. With all the sands of our world, we have become glass masters. We use it combined with what you call fossil fuel plastics to make almost all of our building material. The precious things are those made of wood. We have renewable forests, planted in great tracts, but still there are very limited quantities of the material available to our population. We use most of our plant life as food before it gets to the size required to bring sufficient value as an artisan’s medium.”
Honorable Leader Qwaiter had left her with the store owner, a smaller version of herself, with skin closer to gold than the elegant silver grey of her own. Thinking about how their economy ran, she had dozens of questions.
“How do you trade goods?” Scilar bartered on a straight across exchange of goods. Earth had finally unified under one currency for purchases, but a rich trade of services for goods had become the norm. Monetary accumulation was discouraged.
“The cities of Benal trade goods, each of them has certain industries which are their specialty. Here in Kellam, we are artisans. We provide fine cloth, clothing, jewelry, and our crystal console is the biggest one anywhere,” the merchant’s tusks wiggled in a disturbing dance as he gestured. Like so many humans, he used his whole body to express himself.
“Do you build furniture as well?”
“Yes, and all the necessary items for a household. Serving platters as well as drinking bowls need not be plain sturdy vessels, they can be pleasing to the eye as well.” He stretched his trunk up to one of the higher shelves, slipping the sensitive tip over the edge, as his eyes crinkled with pleasure.
“Here, a small token to remember us by,” he opened the fleshy prongs at the tip of his trunk when she held out her cupped hands.
A deep ruby bowl with small accents of gold and silver where the etching on the side depicted strange fruits and plants dropped into her palms. The slanting rays of sunshine darting down from the ceiling caught inside the bowl producing an aura of deep crimson around it as she held it to eye level to admire.
“My deepest thanks, sir. I’ll treasure this bowl. I regret I have nothing to give you in return.”
“Nothing is required. Remember my generosity when your world begins to trade with ours.”
Greta smiled, then broke out into a quick chuckle. “Merchants are the same, it doesn’t matter the world. You can be sure I will remember.”
The light from the great ceiling was dimming, and she asked, “Are the days here below dependent on the weather and sun on the surface, or do you supplement the light during a storm?”
“You’ll have to ask our city maintenance engineer. I’m sure Honorable Leader Qwaiter will introduce you to her. It’s closing time, and here she is,” he inclined his head in a respectful half bow.
“Q’tera will come to you to help with inventory, even a child can count merchandise. She wishes to trade for the last game piece for her Armada.”
“I’ll make note of it. Have her here in four days. We are most grateful for her help.”
Greta made note, barter, was common if a child was already willing to trade her work for a desired object. The youngster showed her teeth, her trunk high in the air, in what she assumed was the Benali equivalent of a smile.
Her gentle mother, and leader of this culture turned to her with a subtler version of curved lower lip.
“Good Captain, we’ll take you back to your surface vehicle, tomorrow, bring the rest of your crew with you, we would be honored to make acquaintance with your Scilari officer.”
The trip back through the passages between businesses was quiet as Greta reflected on the afternoon. These people were consummate artisans and crafts people. Their ability to make common use items into attractive objects spoke of a society developed well beyond survival stages.
“Captain, this has been a most agreeable start to our exploration of each other. Your research ship, as you’ve said is here for only a few more days?”
“We expect our mother ship back in eighteen days of our time, so we have time to continue our talks, Honorable Leader,” Greta responded. The gorgeous bowl rested in her lap with one hand curled around it to keep it steady.
As the ramp to the surface crept open, she noticed the squealing hinges had been oiled and the interlocking leaves spread silently. The sky was streaked in gold and red as the suns set opposite each other.
“I’m astounded at these sunsets,” Greta commented.
“You are here at the optimum time in our orbit, as we pass between them. They aren’t always like this. And the storms can be worse when they align themselves in the same quadrant of the sky. I assure you, the Mach storm you went through is nothing when that happens in concurrence with the full orange moon.” The driver said as he eased his giant vehicle to a stop under the open arch of the exit.
“We won’t survive anything like that, our little ship will tumble like a pebble in those winds.”
“You don’t have to worry, it will be at least six of our months, which is around a year of your standard days.” Qwaiter reassured her.
“How could you know?” Greta peered at the elephantine leader with suspicious eyes.
“The crystals. They are small computer units, not a life form, programmed to interact quickly with any other machines like them. Your ship’s computers were easily understood, which is why we were able to send you a compatible program to enhance your own stabilizing routines.”
Greta bowed after clambering down from the monster truck, “Your assistance was timely and most effective. I will send Fred to you tomorrow. Show him the same things you did me, as he is Scilari’s emissary.”
“Rasta is welcome as well. Our engineers are eager to discuss his ideas for our space program. Anyone who understands our advanced weather mitigation programs as quickly as he did, is a treasure.”
Greta shook her head, “He’s the most annoying person, but I agree, he has talents. He will fit in with your engineers. He will map the terrain between this door and our ship. He’s already looking for a suitable place to build a spaceport.”
Now Qwaiter peered at Greta, her luminous brown eyes wide. “This is unexpected, how does he know of our intentions. I thought our communication was between leaders.”
“No disrespect, ma’am.” Greta hoped she had the right to use a shortened form while addressing her. “When we encounter a problem, we put our resources to work immediately. Rasta has knowledge from many studies, all of us on a research ship must. We learned from your crystals as well. Our survey crews will be most annoyed they missed the clues to your existence.”
The sound she made was a cross between a trumpet and a collision. It conveyed her appreciation of my quick attention to the problem.
“Then I shall send my engineers to your ship tomorrow in exchange for Fred the Scilari.”
“Send your smallest engineer. As you already know, our ship is tiny beside you. More than one, won’t fit inside.”
As they spoke the sky darkened and the moons rose, the orange moon was down to half, but one of the smaller ones was full. There was enough light for Greta to see clearly as she trundled back along the tracks the explorer made earlier.
Questions raced through her mind as she approached their camp by the biggest pool in the series she’d followed back. Would this tentative beginning be enough? And would she be allowed to continue to be part of this astonishing discovery once the diplomats from the Space Alliance arrived?
At least they had the next days to make strides. If she became indispensable to Qwaiter, then her appeal to remain should be easy to push for, and her desire to study a new culture satisfied.
“Rasta drop the ramp. I’m back.” She had so much to tell her crew.
To Walk a Meth-Mile in Her Shoes
People who are labeled the “dregs of society” seldom fret about the dregs of society the way those, who aren’t dregs, do.” –Ralph Ebe
Stephanie and I had grown up together, our houses separated by an easily climbable chain link fence. We were both born at Boston Medical Center during the fashionable phase of care, before epidurals were invented, in which our mothers were given “twilight sleep” and then were delivered of their babies—that is, us—using forceps. Fernand Lamaze would turn over in his grave.
Nothing indicated we had been forceps babies. We both excelled at the same school with other children whose birth techniques remained a mystery. We were both breastfed for 16 months, but we couldn’t tell what kids hadn’t. We each had two parents, as well as uncles and aunts. We each had two siblings, a little brother and a littler sister who were about the same age. Ours was apparently a community of synced pheromones, waxing and waning according to some mysterious neighborhood algorithm involving radon, tidal gravity, or perhaps even sanctifying grace. (Stephanie and I were both Catholic, studied the same catechism, and had the same guilt infrastructure in place). We got the same grades, won the same extracurricular and academic awards, and were probably quantumly entangled.
Until high school, when we each went to a Catholic high school exclusive to my and her gender. Besides gender and, now, high school, the only difference between us was that I had always wanted to be a doctor, and she had always wanted to be a good Catholic.
We remained close during those years, dated, and even dipped into the bodily fleshpool a bit, but never went all the way. She was a good fire-and-brimstone prude and I was scared of venereal diseases and pregnancy; and of her father. After all, I had plans.
“You can’t get VD if I’m a virgin, too, stupid,” she said.
“I like the way you think,” I replied.
Homework together in her room or mine became a non-issue for both sets of parents, since we had done that since the fifth grade, but the grade levels weren’t the only things that had changed. Like the sure-thing tip on a hot horse, the surging hormones invited me, implicit with my self-appraised status of being sexually underserved. So, I fell victim to a mutual denials between my encouraging hormones and the diseases, pregnancies, and fathers that only happened to others.
“No, but I can get pregnant,” she added. “That’s when my father kills you. Better to get VD, because he’s a Teamster.”
“A Catholic Teamster,” I clarified.
“Teamster first,” she said. “I could never tell him I was pregnant, well, not until Sunday, when he’s a Catholic again. But, then I guess the priest would kill you.”
“I don’t think they’re allowed to do that.”
“They’re allowed to on Sundays. They’re Jesus on Sundays.”
“Today’s Saturday,” I pointed out. She laughed. “How come you’re not on the pill yet?” I pressed her.
“Are you kidding? Dad would kill me.”
“I guess if you get pregnant, we should just kill him, right?”
“Over my dead body,” she vowed.
“This is getting way too complicated. Can’t we just trust the crystal ball and, well…we had promised that when the time came, we would lose our virginity to each other. You remember that, right?”
“Yea, when the time came,” she said. “And it’s not tonight.”
“Prom?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s so spontaneous and romantic. You want an appointment? Should I pencil you in?”
There is a term in Catholicism called “the near occasion of sin.” The Church recognized that if you sin because you can’t help it, it probably isn’t a sin; but if you put yourself knowingly into a position where you will risk not helping it—then that’s the sin. That tenuous zone, open to interpretation, is the near occasion of sin.
“No appointment,” I said. “Let’s just put ourselves in the near occasion of sin and see what happens."
“For Prom,” she pointed out.
“Yea,” I said, “for Prom.”
“You haven’t asked me yet.”
“Of course! Will you, Stephanie, go to Prom with me?”
“Whose? Yours or mine?
“And which one is the one?”
“I was hoping maybe both.”
“Poor baby. You’re here all hot and bothered—the only one ready—and I’m the party pooper.”
I remained silent, seeing a glimmer of hope in her smiley eyes and hoping this thing could turn around yet. When it didn’t, I surrendered. We were nowhere near any occasion, of sin or otherwise.
“Look,” she offered, sex is too important. It’s not just putting Tab A into Slot B.”
“Again, I like the way you think.”
“It’s communion, the forging of a completely new, composite being, so it’s holy.” I put Tab A away dutifully.
Truth be told, we really had pledged to lose our virginity to each other. When the time came.
That time never came which, as a male, meant being cheated my opportunity for a free and easy sexual encounter—all the way, mind you—at a time when accomplishing this was neither free nor easy. I couldn’t understand this tragic miss, because I had already gotten through the hard part—her agreeing to sex with me; the timing, it seemed, should have just followed. It didn’t.
I’ve often wondered to whom she did lose her virginity. I’m not jealous, just resentful, because it should have been me—should’ve been mine. I owned it. It was my unopened package at the bottom of the Christmas tree. I could only hope that hers went as unpredictably and awkwardly as mine had gone. They’re all like that the very first time, aren’t they? The gift wrapping all ripped up and lying tattered on the floor, the toy that can't be fixed--forever broken.
By senior year, attrition wrecked our broken plans originally woven out of gossamer, and we drifted apart according to fair-weather lures of newfound social circles. I had heard she went to her prom with the singer of the very band who had performed for it, so she danced alone. I wondered if she lost it at her prom.
I missed my own prom because of strep throat. Streptococcus made the sour grapes of my missed rite of passage taste a little less bitter in my mouth.
We both had impressive grades in high school, and we were both accepted into universities, 1500 miles and two whole time zones apart. We wrote letters until email made such thing passé. After that, our communications suffered from the dreaded “poverty of speech” that barely held together truncated relationships which dangled by just a verb or an abbreviation. Our communication line finally snapped.
Was I over her? She was a beauty, but so is anyone who is 18-years-old, until they’re ravaged by age, obesity, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or just the consequences of bad choices. In my indelibly inked mind’s eye, she was still angelically faced, muscularly sinewy and lean, twinkly and smiley-eyed, and just pouring out with excited enthusiasm for every micromoment of her day. But, yes, I believe I was over her.
Still, I wonder what would have happened had we not gone in two different compass directions for our educations. The fantasies, the plans, the expectations of our young, open, and pioneering minds—would they have been realized? Maybe. Perhaps a few of them?
In college I was pre-med, as were 60% of my entering freshman college class. By senior year, only 4% of our class were still pre-med. By the next year, only 1% of us were actually in medical school. I went as an out-of-state student to LSU School of Medicine in Shreveport, Louisiana, which is really in Texas, for all practical purposes. After my second year, I was granted the opportunity to switch to the LSU in New Orleans which, for all practical purposes, isn’t really in the South.
I remember a particular lecture from a visiting professor of Emergency Medicine. He explained that you can always predict what the next drug-fueled societal calamity would be in the United States by looking at what was happening in Japan in the present. I was curious.
“What is the drug problem in Japan right now, sir?” I asked.
It was rude, because I had interrupted him; but he was gracious and answered. He didn’t say, exactly, “crack,” but it was whatever crack was back then. By the time I applied to residency programs, crack was all over New Orleans, consumed by those who not only didn’t care whether you died when they mugged you, but didn’t even care if they died. The guns didn’t help, certainly. By senior year, both crack cocaine and I prepared to seek our destinies.
I had decided I wanted to be an Emergency Medicine doctor. I was accepted by Boston Medical Center’s Department of Emergency Medicine. I remember well my personal statement I had sent to them when I had applied:
For me, the Emergency Room is a special place, because it is the final resting place of consequences. Not only the accidents that come from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the bad diet and sedentary lifestyles that doom the physiology, foolish stunts and senseless risks that imperil the body’s integrity and structure, and poor life choices—their victims all ending up needing help for problems bigger than them. And this is probably why such things get to that point—the lure toward such maleficence was too powerful to resist. In any event, they’re at a point where they need help beyond that of which they are capable. As an Emergency Department physician, I become their steward, to mend them, perhaps fix the problems that got them there, and hopefully educate them so that I never see them again. This is not their gift to me; this is their gift to me—an honor entrusted to the very few. Although a real doctor learns to accept that he or she cannot fix everyone, were it another’s responsibility, the outcome may have been worse: at the end of each endless day, when I tally what I had done, the fact that it was my responsibility that oversaw such people to the best of my abilities is a feeling like no other. It's not hubris; it’s love, and without it no real doctor has any business practicing medicine. This is the passion I want to bring to my rotation and to the specialty into which I venture.
Whoever sat in judgment of such Admission Committee fodder loved it. A quick weekend trip was enough to establish a place to live, within walking distance to the hospital, and I was all set to report to my first rotation in the Emergency Room on July 1, the most dangerous day of the entire year in medicine—when shiny, new MDs with no unsupervised experience were thrown, unsupervised, at those who would have fared better on June 30, the safest day of the entire year in medicine. I defiantly said Bring it on! This is me. A real doctor. My call, my vocation, my destiny. I was ready, grandiose, and pompous.
Rotations of 12-hour shifts began on the 7s, so by 6:00 AM I was walking along Massachusetts Avenue toward the medical center. It was only a ten-minute walk, but I wanted to get there with enough time to have a cup of coffee and perhaps meet some of my equally inexperienced doctors, ready to assume stewardship of those for whom July 1 seemed no different from any other day in the calendar.
My walk on Mass Avenue, toward the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard, was stymied by persons with substance abuse issues whose dispositions were not keen on yielding politely. “Mass and Cass” represented a zone of homeless, addicted, underserved, and abused individuals foretold by the same scourge in Japan years earlier. They endured, between their visits to methadone clinics, homeless shelters, and drug treatment centers, in their ramshackle tents.
My walk was like entering an enchanted forest; true, there may be an augmented degree of adventure the deeper I journey, but it can also rain upon you a progressive accruing of menace and danger, from those who didn’t care whether they died, and also didn’t even care if they died. The farther I went, navigating my zigzags through this human heap of desperation, the more frightened I became. I witnessed active drug deals involving cash for pills, patches, vials, and needles.
I wasn’t really looking at anyone as I walked; I had my tunnel vision on, avoiding eye contact, my destination the horizon, as my only vantage reference point, like an actor performing to the “fourth wall,” far in the distance. Some eyes, it seems, can hook you.
A woman, easily 20-30 years older than me, flashed smiley eyes reminiscent of my childhood Stephanie. They were the only things on her that rang that particular bell, because she was so different otherwise—pale, emaciated, slightly stumbling in her gait. Obviously ravaged by age and the traditional nemeses of any 18-year-old: the slings and arrows and consequences of bad choices. All of this poor woman’s micromoments, originally slated for celebration, had blurred into the last throes of survival. I watched her stagger toward me but, to my relief, she was aiming past me, not at me.
We crossed paths and that was that. A closer examination as she passed revealed a haggard woman, impossible to age and life-exhausted. She had cutoff shorts that were too tight, but which revealed that the track marks were not exclusive to her arms. Yet her eyes twinkled, but not as much as I remembered Stephanie’s because of the dilated pupils and jerky movements of them. Japan’s troubles of yesterday were alive and well in this woman’s eyes.
It was emotionally exhausting. Although I hadn’t been to Mass in years, I found myself offering Catholic prayers as I passed, because I had nothing else to give them. Hail Mary’s, Our Fathers, and Glory Bes. Hell, if I were able, I would have hauled novenas at them. Self-reflecting on my faith, I realized I was not qualified to pray for anyone.
I would take a taxi next time, if they’d be willing to go this way.
My first official duty was to attend a briefing—how to be a real doctor—a 10-minute primer:
Use this suture for lacerations; use that antibiotic for punctures or dog bites. Give anyone with hypoglycemia dextrose IV until the Internal Medicine resident came. Put restraints on anyone combative until the Psych resident came. Use these settings on the defibrillator until the ECG gets read. Epinephrine sub-Q for anyone wheezing. Put a tube in every orifice before consulting the Surgery resident; no narcotics for anyone.
We all scribbled furiously, although it was mostly common sense.
“Go report to the ER and ask the Chief Resident to assign you a patient,” the elderly doctor briefing us said. Then, with his back to us as he left, added, “When in doubt, ask. You’ll be a real doctor when you don’t have to ask questions.” He yelled back to us more loudly the farther down the hall he went, “And if you don’t feel you need to ask any questions right now, here on July 1, please tell us, because we’ll make sure you won’t ever be a real doctor.”
I managed a question for every patient I saw, even if I knew the answer. “Treat ’em and street ’em” was the protocol. For the others, the consulted residents would take them away to their respective services. In the meantime, there was my stewardship, in full glory.
It was a revolving door, and I was lucky enough that my passengers went smoothly with its torque. At one point, my collection of patients had reached zero, and I decided I should try to hide if I wanted to get anything to eat. I salivated over my brown bag lunch, sitting in a cubby hole, hopefully not stolen. Like a heat-seeking missile, I made a beeline for it, but my run for the gold was thwarted.
“Room 8,” the resident said. “Meth Mile patient in bad shape. Really yellow. Watch out, she’s a spitter.”
I masked, goggled, and gloved myself. I opened the door a crack and peaked in. No spitting. At least not yet. I stepped all the way in and I saw that same woman I had passed on Meth Mile. Indeed, she was much yellower than I had realized. No smiles in these eyes, only a buttery hue to the whites of them. Still pinpoint, they looked right at me.
“You my doctor, now?” she asked. Her voice was raspy from 40 pack-years of smoking crammed into only a decade.
“Right now, yes,” I answered.
“Good,” she said. “You’re just my type.” This threw me off a bit.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“You just know it, don’tcha?”
“Well, there are things I need to know about you—besides that.”
I looked through my notes for her demographic intake sheet and looked back up to ask her a question, but she was asleep. Her sickly eyes were closed, closing her windows to the world, and with that, her brow unfurrowed, her face unfolded from the anticipation, apprehension, or bitterness; her jaw unclenched. I was able to see the child in her, even though she semmed middle aged. Her disastrous life was swaddled in respite, visiting another place, hopefully dodging the very things that landed her here in Room 8.
“Cheyenne? Cheyenne Skye,” I asked. She started, then reposed when she saw me again. “What brings you here?”
It was a rhetorical question. Her intravenous drug abuse had brought her here; her hepatitis, her HIV+ status, her malnutrition, and her addictions had all brought her here.
“I need a bump,” she answered.
“A bump. A dose, a hit, a fix, ’cause I’m going down…” she began in singsong, “down to the pits that I left uptown…I need a fix ’cause I’m going dow-dow-down.”
She smiled, but it was a smile of self-irony—of resignation. It was the smile given when there’s nothing else left to give. And it was a plea as well.
“First, Ms. Skye—”
“Cheyenne,” she mumbled, but not to me—for me to catch.
“First, Cheyenne,” I continued, I’m going to have to draw some blood, I’m afraid.”
“Go ’head,” she agreed. “Not afraid of needles,” she laughed, whether this was funny or not.
“Good. Let me wrap this around your upper arm and lay it down here.” I applied the rubber hose tourniquet and looked her arm over. “Should I even try here?” I asked, looking at the gridiron crease in her mid-arm.
“Those ships have sailed, Doc,” she said. “Here, I’m gonna show you Ol’ Faithful, but you gotta promise you won’t tell anyone else.”
“Top secret,” I said.
She slapped the inside of her lower arm and there appeared a sinuous tract, complete with knobby valves. I ran my finger along it upwards, and it collapsed, indicating patency; I released my pinch on it below my little test and it refilled.
“Looks good, Cheyenne,” I said.
“Something on me that looks good,” she huffed sarcastically. I had no answer because she made a good point. “Cheyenne’s my stripper name.”
“Oh. What’s your real name, then?”
“Stephanie,” she answered.
Couldn't be was the fastened door whose locks and tumblers started fumbling loudly. I studied her carefully. Could it? Malnutrition, drug abuse, disease, emotional collapse, and a failing liver meant she could be anybody.
I swabbed the area with alcohol and it glistened, beckoningly. “Yea,” she said, “I should do that with the alcohol, too, I guess.”
I uncapped the needle and connected a vacuum tube to the syringe’s end, but not enough for the needle to penetrate it and establish a suction yet. For that I needed penetration into her vein. She crooked her neck up to watch as I placed the needle right over her skin for the thrust, and I saw a different type of look come over her face—not wan, forlorn, no longer desperate—a lover’s look, but twisted by passion. “Doc,” she said seductively.”
“Make it feel like a good…like a good fuck.”
It wasn’t romantic, but it must have worked for her, for now her face showed absolute pleasure. “That was so…good. You’re the best. See? I told you.”
“Told me what?”
“You’re my type,” she answered. “We just had to put ourselves in the near occasion of sin, that’s all. After that, it ain’t a sin, right? That’s how I always go about it. Helps with all that guilt. I thank the guy who told me that all the time.”
“No, don’t,” I cautioned. “It’s bad advice.”
“What about for me? Not for me.” She sat up halfway in a pose, allowing the wardrobe malfunction hospital gowns were prone to suffer. I reached over and pulled one side of it toward the other, reducing her exposure and spurning her invitation.
“Sorry,” I said. “That time won’t come. I’m going to send in another doctor, now. Someone not your type. But know this, Cheyenne, sex isn’t just penetration. It’s not just putting Tab A into Slot B. It’s communion, the forging of a composite being, so it’s holy.”
“It’s Stephanie, Doc, not Cheyenne” she said sternly. As I turned to leave the room she spat at me, and I felt her spittle strike my white coat from behind.
We each had had our masks, preventing recognition—mine an N95, and hers, malnutrition, drug abuse, disease, emotional collapse, a failing liver, and the pock marks on her soul from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Her mask had fallen, but mine kept me safely anonymous.
I was decimated with a type of pain I had never felt before. Empathy is one thing, but when it’s to the point of sharing a person’s total surrender, there is no rip in the world more treacherous—a one-way trip into the black hole. Some problems are bigger than you, once you’re past the event horizon. Hers was bigger than me. Here in Room 8 was a final resting place of consequences and poor life choices.
I had failed: I was a bad steward, unable to mend her, fix her problems, or educate her. This honor of stewardship—the doctor’s calling—was no gift but a trap from which there was no return. I would either escape it or die in it.
To this day I wonder how the outcome might have been different for her, had the responsibility of her stewardship been assigned to someone else. That night, at the end of my first day as an Emergency Room doctor, when I tallied what I had done, I had a feeling that blindsided me. It was antithesis to the passion I so eloquently had offered in my application personal statement.
Newly etched in my lifestone were two things I knew for certain:
I wasn’t over her; and—
I would never be a real doctor until I was.
Dankness limp like water slips from black-rot joists and rusted metal above, festering, ever dripping, a-moldering the slick clay leading down to the river below and infecting his saturated skin with untoward disease. The stench of stagnancy fetes the air in his lungs and reddens the whites in his eyes, but he does what he can to placate his urges, rubbing at sores with crooked hands and patiently waiting, a hunger building inside him that food can not, that mere sustenance would never, placate.
The meth is worn off, the heroin a distant, blessed memory. Through knotted muscles and collapsed veins only icy anxiety courses where chemical bliss once flowed, an anxiety trembling for the next rush, troubling his mind and other delicate organs which had come to depend upon numbness for survival. The greatest of despairs had found him here in this best of hiding places when he heard it, the drum of feet, “Oh Glory, Glory be!” He pulled erect onto blistered, rotted feet.
The sound of innocent footsteps approaching, a deliverance of hope for the lost, a ghost of what once was! He slaps at his crook’d hands, one with the other, quelling their eagerness. Putting them to use, he grasps the joist and lifts his head above, squinting into the light for a look-see. A boy! A boy! It is with difficulty that he waits, his eagerness filling him with natural narcotics; adrenaline and dopamine easing his troubles. He lets go, dropping down, his eagerness made known through a dance. Eager hands slap again, demanding patience, dreadful patience of one another. The footsteps grow closer… ever closer, til he can stand it no more. When he spoke it was through an unfamiliar, gravel-filled voice.
”Who is that? Who trips and traps? This bridge requires a toll!
State your name and name your game to satisfy ”The Troll!”
”I am Billy Kidd.”
Something stepped into the boy’s view on the far side of the bridge, strangely rubbing it’s hands together as if washing them in invisible water.
His fearful feet pause. It is a man such as the boy has never seen. He recoils with disgust, but cannot force his eyes away, as it seems too awful to be true.
Excited hands slap and clap in front of it, their motion strange, and unwordly.
”Billy Kidd! Did you say Billy Kidd? Ahhh, a sheepish name for a sheepish boy! A high pitched squeak, like rubber from a door stopper laughed out from his fetid throat. He was quickly beside the boy, his hands slapping, closing the bridge’s distance with a lively pace despite his seeming moribundity.
The boy closed his eyes from the horror, and pushed out his palms to ward it off, but it had him grasped by the wrist in an iron grip and was pulling him. Billy set his feet to resist, he was a strong lad, but the grip grew tighter, the pulling more violent ’til he was pulled along. His mother had warmed him of this very thing, had told him to never, ever come to this place; that the wild grass across’t this bridge only looked greener than what could be grown with his own hands. He had only wanted to try it though, Billy had, just to have a taste…
Billy Kidd woke naked but alive. Dream-like were the mem’ries, trance-like the now, but there was the feeling of floating, then and now, of flying both with fear and exhilaration, but the dream-flight was done. Now it was submerged floating, heavily buoyant, exhausted, sick. In the crook of his arm was a mark, a bruise, deep and black with an eye at it’s center, an eye as red as the troll’s. Billy needed his mother, but could not go home, not like this naked and marked. He wretched into the slimy clay, and wallowed in the filth below the bridge until he adopted it’s smell and it’s look. He waited there, curled and cold, the drips finding and festering him, too sick to stay, too ashamed to go.
The deepest of despairs had found him here in the best of hiding places when Billy heard it, the drum of feet, “Oh Glory, Glory be!” Billy pulled himself up onto rotted feet, his clawed fingers slapping at one other in anticipation.
His voice sounded unnatural from under the bridge’s dank hollow;
”Who is that? Who trips and traps? This bridge requires a toll!” He said.
So, state your name and name your game to satisfy ”The Troll!”
She was paused, her eyes wide as she recoiled from him in horror. His hands slapped excitedly as they awaited a name.
”I am Capri Corn,” she managed, as Billy rushed to make her acquaintance, eager to show her the greener grass.
Not Just One Sleeping Beauty
The King and Queen had been waiting for what felt like an eternity to have a child. Years have gone by without any luck nor sign of such a blessing. Finally, after years of trying, they were blessed with a child. A beautiful baby girl, with golden blond hair and lovely violet eyes. The two were ecstatic at the birth of their beloved daughter and decided to host a grand celebration in her honor.
The celebration came, with all coming to give gifts and blessings to the newborn baby princess. Three fairies came, two of them giving the young baby the gifts of beauty and the gifts of song. However, before the third fairy could give her gift to the princess a cloud of black smoke appeared. Out of the smoke came a horrible voice, and two sets of gleaming green eyes.
After a brief moment, the figures holding those sets of eyes stepped out of the smoke. One was tall and thin, with singed black hair and charred skin, an ever-present grief-filled look on its face. The other figure was a large black raven, feathers shimmering with rainbow colors in the light, yet the ends of its feathers looked as if they had been caught by some fire.
“You didn't invite me.” The first figure spoke, taking another step out of the smoke.
“I heard about this wonderful news secondhand.” It continued, taking another step towards the crib which held the princess.
“I was so disappointed when I heard because I wish I had heard from you.” Now at the side of the princess’s cradle, the figure turned to lock eyes with the king and queen.
“I am overjoyed for you both, such a blessing she is. I too wish to give her a gift.”
There were screams and cries as the creature spoke. Its appearance is that of a charred body dressed in ornate feathered cloaks, and its voice that of a haunted child. Guards were rushed in, but it was too late. For the feathered creature had begun to lay its gift onto the child.
“May you indeed be blessed with both beauty and song, may your life be forever sweet and long. May you live many fruitful years, full of grace. May you soon prick your finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and fall into a peaceful forever sleep. Never to be woken by this world's cruelty.”
A flash of light, blinding and vile, was spread across the room. When it cleared the smoke had once again started to pile up, swallowing the figure whole. “Happy birthday, little princess.” It sing-songed hauntingly as it disappeared into the mist, leaving the banquet hall and its horrified guests.
Once the smoke fully cleared the king and queen raced towards the crib, picking up their small daughter. The two were distraught over the curse that was laid onto their small precious child.
Panic ensued, guests being ushered out by guards as the King and Queen wept over their child’s apparent fate. Finally, after most of the commotion faded, the third fairy flitted forward and offered her gift. She and the other two fairies were not able to lift the curse, but the third would be able to alter it. The curse was changed, having it so that the princess wouldn't be pricked until her sixteenth birthday, and it changed it from being an eternal sleep with no hope of waking, into a peaceful slumber that would be awoken with true love's kiss.
This calmed the parents, though the king and queen were still paranoid about their daughter’s safety. So they commanded that all spinning wheels were to be burned and that the princess was to be taken away and hidden far from the heinous creature’s eyes and reach.
And so, the beautiful princess Aurora was taken to live in a beautiful summer cottage that was owned by the royal family. She was raised amongst her own personal servants, guards, and three fairies who were her nannies and caretakers.
Seasons changed and soon years passed, the small baby now a child of five. She had always been a curious thing, wandering around as much as possible. One day, during these wanderings, she happened upon a sleeping figure. It was tall and thin, with burnt hair and charred skin. It lay sleeping against the roots of a willow tree in the forest near the princess’s home. Above the creature sat a giant raven with singed feathers.
The child, ever curious and naïve to the dangers of the world around her, reached out and gently touched the creature's burned face, causing it to stir. Its eyes opened, revealing beautiful violet hues, which were quickly covered by a vile green glow. The creature sat still, watching the small child as she continued to gently touch its face, cloak, and hands, seemingly confused by it.
“You shouldn't be here, little princess,” it whispered softly, allowing the girl to hold onto its hand as she stared at it.
“Hello!” She smiled back joyously in response, sitting herself down next to the creature. “Everyone was busy and I was bored. So I came out here to find a friend, and I found you!” she declared, still smiling brightly.
“Am I your friend now?” It asked softly, being careful in its movements and tone so as to not scare the sweet child.
“Yes!” The princess shouted excitedly, jumping a bit on her knees.
“That's lovely.” The creature said sincerely, smiling with its eyes if it was able to.
“Do you know any stories? I love stories, I love to tell them and to listen to them!” Her blonde hair bounced and her violet eyes sparked with excitement as the creature nodded.
The sun moved throughout the sky, and soon the princess fell asleep next to the creature. It moved gently, lifting her up and placing her into her bedroom.
“Happy Birthday, little princess.” He whispered softly, eyes smiling as a single tear went down his face. Today was the little princess’s sixth birthday.
The creature’s and the princess’s days went on for years. The smiling child would wander and happen upon the creature, not knowing that it was he who cursed her all those years ago, and they would spend the day together. They would play adventure, the creature would tell her stories of faraway lands and magic, and She would help care for the creatures of the forest alongside him.
“What is this place?” She one day asked softly. They had wandered deeper into the forest, as they usually did. Entering a surreal realm full of magic and wonderful beings.
“Home. My home.” He answered softly.
Over the years Aurora had learned that the creature did not like to speak. It hurt his voice to do so, and it hurt his face to show much expression, so he showed his emotions with his eyes. The princess had never questioned it before, but she had always wondered. Why did her friend look like that? Burned and charred all over? His pet raven singed as well? She would never ask, of course. It was a hard thing for him to talk about and he preferred to stay away from such conversations.
“Your home is lovely! Is this where your raven is from?” The now twelve-year-old princess asked as she hopped onto some stones peaking above the water of a flowing river.
“Yes. Diaval is from these lands, he was born here. I came to them many years ago and made my home here with him.” the creature nodded slightly, moving to sit at the base of what must be this place’s version of a willow tree.
“Wonderful! It is absolutely lovely!” Aurora declared again, laughing as she and Diaval began to play in the water with the other creatures.
Hours passed, the sun moved in the sky, and soon it was nearly night. The Creature stood and gathered up the princess and the raven so they could make their way back to her home. They talked softly as they walked, carrying the little princess and the raven hopping from branch to branch overhead.
“You’ll never guess what the nanny told me today.” Aurora sleepily murmured as her eyes began to drift shut.
“She said that soon I will meet with my mother and father. And that I'll get to live in a palace!” She sleepily declared joyfully “She told me that I'm a Princess and that on my sixteenth birthday they will take me back home, to my family. I don't know why I had to leave it, but she said it was because some horrible witch put a curse on me.” With a final sigh, the child fell asleep in the creature's arms. Not noticing that he had stopped walking as she was speaking. He was frozen to the spot, darkness flooding the forest as the sun set. Time seemed frozen to him, and he only partially broke from his trance when he heard the shouting of guards begin to grow closer.
Still, in some bit of this trance, he was not able to react quickly enough. So soon guards rounded around trees and boulders and saw him holding the princess. These guards knew who he was, and what he had done to her on her birthday twelve years ago, so they managed to attack him. The creature snapped awake, placing the princess down and teleporting himself and the raven away in a blizzard of smoke.
When it cleared, the princess was sitting awake sleepily on the ground. The barest whisper could be heard by her over the sounds of the guards shouting.
“Happy birthday, little princess.”
And so the night of her thirteenth birthday passed. The next day was full of commotion, servants packing, guards running around, the fairies flitting everywhere nervously.
“What's happening?” The newly thirteen-year-old princess asked softly, her violet eyes scanning her packed-up home with worry.
It was explained to her that, last night in her sleep, she had been taken by the horrible monster who had cursed her thirteen years ago. And that by some miracle he slipped up and left her behind when he teleported. The King and Queen had already heard of this and demanded that the princess be brought back home at once. The summer cottage was no longer safe, and they believed she would be safer in the castle, with her family.
The princess and all of her belongings, servants, guards, and nannies, were quickly brought to the castle in the center of the kingdom. Forcing Aurora away from her friend that she had made so many years ago, forcing her away from him without any answers to her many questions.
Once she had arrived at the castle she learned that there was no reason for her to have been excited to come here and meet her parents. The castle was awful, the people were awful, and they were awful.
The King and Queen didn't treat her like their daughter, they didn't even treat her like a child. They forced her to act in a ‘princessly’ way and to start reviewing suitors. She was starved in order to lose weight and gain a prettier figure, her hair was ruined as the maids of the castle and her mother used product after product on it to make it more ‘in style’. Soon her violet eyes lost the shine they had once held, her smiling fading with it.
She would lay awake at night, on her beautiful bedspreads and silken sheets, and cry. She missed her old way of life. The freedom, the sun, the love she had experienced then. All of her personal servants went back to their old ways once they arrived here. Becoming cold, cruel, and gossipy. Even her nannies had betrayed her, leaving to go back to their homes now that they didn't need to care for her. She felt so alone, with no nannies, animals, or her friend to comfort her.
So she cried herself to sleep at night. Every night. For the next three years.
On the day before her sixteenth birthday Aurora sat before a standing mirror as maids and her mother fussed over her appearance. They covered bruises left by her father’s disciplines, they covered her hollowed cheeks left by her mother’s obsession with her figure, and they tried to cover the lost sparkle and false smile that left with her old life.
She was to throw a grand party tonight, on the night of her sixteenth birthday. It was the first time her birthday had ever been celebrated. It was also the night that the curse was supposed to take effect.
Her parents insisted that it was all planned out. She would meet a long list of suitors tonight and fall in love with one. They would be engaged, and when she fell into her cursed sleep, he would recuse her with a true love's kiss.
She was not enthusiastic about the prospects of this evening. But she had no choice but to go along with her parents' whims. To be that perfect princess they had been forcing her to be these past three years.
The celebration occurred, guests arriving in droves with gifts and greetings, suitors arriving in nearly as many numbers with even more gifts and the unfortunate flirting and evening walks to ‘grow close’.
The night passed, and the celebration ended. Aurora had found no love, but her parents had. A wealthy, handsome young prince from the neighboring kingdom. They were strong and powerful and very very rich, was it mentioned that they were incredibly rich? Her parents decided then and there, that the two were in love. He might have been, but she was not. It didn't matter though, for they were engaged, and she was sent off to bed shortly after.
In her room, she found a spinning wheel, with a beautifully carved and sharp needle sitting on its peak.
The creature sat by, watching the princess as she left her sixteenth birthday party. Was she crying? He couldn't tell. He felt like crying, but he didn't know if he could anymore. Not after what happened. These last three years had been hell for him. Trying to find his way back here in order to rescue her from their clutches, but he had failed. It was already too late. She entered her room, where they had left a spinning wheel for her, and she fell into a trance. Pricking her finger she collapsed, asleep, forever.
He knew that the fairy had altered his curse, but he also knew that no one truly loved the princess, nor did she truly love anyone.
“Such a shame. I wish there was another way.” He murmured to himself. Watching from a distance as servants came in and put the princess into bed, as planned by the King and Queen.
“It didn't have to happen this way. There were many other ways.” Diaval whispered from his shoulder. The raven’s head was twisted so that it could see what was occurring with its master.
“I know… But this was the least harmful way.”
Diaval nodded, in a bird way, and the two fell into their usual silence. Watching as the moon sank and the sun rose. Watching as the prince, who was Aurora’s fiancé, entered the room and kissed her sweetly. Watching as it did nothing. Watching as she remained asleep. Watching as the sun set and the moon rose again.
He entered the princess’s chambers, looking at her sleeping form wistfully.
“May you indeed be blessed with both beauty and song, may your life be forever sweet and long. May you live many fruitful years, full of grace. May you soon prick your finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and fall into a peaceful forever sleep. Never to be woken by this world's cruelty.”
He whispered the curse that had left his lips sixteen years ago, staring at her as a single tear fell down his face once again.
“Why did you do this to her?” The angry and aggrieved voice of the Kong sounded from behind the creature. He was standing by her bedside as he looked over his feather-cloaked shoulder to make eye contact with the king as he had on that day.
“You still don't know? You still don't recognize me?”
“How could I?! We have no enemies! She has no enemies!” The King was shouting.
“You have enemies. Plenty of them, I should know as I am one of them.” The creature spoke softly, rhyming his words in a little tune.
“Who are you!?” The king took another step forward, shouting once again. But she froze when the creature turned to fully face him.
“Have you forgotten me?” The voice of a small boy spoke, changing into that of a young man as it continued. “Father?”
The creature and the King stood staring at one another. “No,” he whispered softly, fear obvious in wide eyes.
“I know what you did.” The voice continued. “I know you did it.”
“You wanted me to marry that woman, what was she… three times my age? You wanted her fortune and land, the rights to her kingdom, and she wanted a handsome young boy as a husband.” The creature took one step forward, and the king took one step back.
“No. no no no….”
“I denied you, even went as far to say it to her face. She was reasonable, she refused to marry me if I didn't wish to. But you and mother were not. The two of you had spent years torturing me, in worse ways than you’ve tutored her these past three years, all so that I would the perfect little tool to grow your power. But I had disobeyed, and you were angry.” One step forward, one step back.
“No…. No, you died!”
“You would think I would have. After all, you set me and my chambers on fire with some very powerful magic. You had me and my precious pet burned to a crisp. After that, you tossed us into the forest near the summer cottage and pretended that I had passed away tragically, in an ‘accidental’ fire.” One step forward, one step back.
“How!? How did you-”
“You dropped me right on the border of the magic lands father… no… You dropped me right on the border of the magic lands monster, That's better. Hmm. A kind Fae Witch found me, and healed me. Even took me on as her pupil in magic, she left me to care for the magic lands.” One step forward, one step back.
“You would think that having used magic from those lands to try and kill me, you would know where the magic lands were.” One step forward, one step back.
“You should be dead!”
“But I'm not.” One step forward, one step back.
The king was now against the railing of the chamber’s balcony. He was panting and shaking in fear of his returned son. A powerful witch, and a monster in his father’s eyes.
Diaval sat on the balcony railing, eyes on the king. Squawking loudly once to startle him and make his presence known. The King, creature, and raven stood staring at each other, making no moves.
“Diaval… You were right. I should have done this another way. I wished to save her from the cruelty of our parents. Do as you wish, I must fix this.” The prince spoke, closing the balcony doors and returning inside to be by his little sister’s side.
He stood by her bedside, casting spell after spell in an attempt to reverse the damage he had done to her. But nothing worked, exactly as he had planned it. The curse was irreversible, changeable but not after such a long time since its casting.
“Dam fairies and their obsession with true love,” he muttered bitterly, paying no mind when the balcony doors opened and Diaval hopped in.
The raven flew onto its master's shoulders, looking at the sleeping beauty dejectedly. It hopped onto her bed and nuzzled into her for the last time. After a moment, it flew back onto the balcony, giving the prince and his sister a moment.
The prince began to feel tears flow down his face, the most any had fallen from his eyes in many years. He leaned over his sister’s sleeping form and whispered to her softly.
“Happy Birthday, my little princess.”
He kissed her on the forehead and stood back up, tears running down faster. He made his way back to the balcony, Diaval hopping onto his shoulder and gently nuzzling him. The two were about to disappear as they had many times before from this palace when suddenly a soft voice called out.
The prince whipped around to see Aurora standing in the balcony doorway and crying as she looked at him.
“I heard everything. I'm sorry!” she ran towards him, tears flowing from her violet eyes as she hugged her brother tightly.
Time seemed to stand still as the two embraced each other, silent aside from the occasional soft murmurs and the gentle squawking of Diaval.
The moon sank and the sun began to rise in the sky.
“I'm so sorry Aurora.” The prince murmured, bringing his sister’s attention to him.
“It's ok, I'm not upset. You were doing it to protect me.” She hugged him again, but he pushed her to arm's length and shook his head.
“I'm sorry for that too… But I'm also sorry because my time is up. Please take care of Diaval, he will explain everything to you.” The prince spoke, his voice shaking as the charred skin and burnt hair began to fade, his tear-stained face turning into a falling mist as his voice whispered one last time.
“Happy Birthday, little sister.”
Aurora stood in shocked silence as mist fell where her brother had just stood embracing her. Diaval flapped his wings in an attempt not to fall flat onto the ground when his master disappeared from under him.
“Diaval… What happened? Where is he? Where is my brother?” Aurora cried out, tears and sobs escaping from her.
Diaval flapped his wings some more, black smoke beginning to surround them.
“I’ll show you. Little one.”
The smoke swallowed the two whole, transporting them into the magic lands where the prince had lived for years.
“This is my brother's home. Is he here!” Aurora jumped up from the ground, sprinting around and shouting for her brother. She turned to look at Diaval confusedly when he squawked loudly and began to hop towards a cave, hidden by a waterfall of vines.
The two walked through the cave in silence, only the sound of the princess’s footsteps and Diaval’s hops could be heard on the stone.
“Here.” The raven’s voice broke the silence as they approached an opening in the cave.
Before the two was a beautifully made bed, with soft bedding and lovely sheets. Atop lay the body of the prince, charred skin and burnt hair.
“Brother…” Aurora raced to his bedside, embracing him as she fell next to him on the bed.
“He isn't truly here anymore.”
“What do you mean?” Aurora sat up, turning to look at the raven before trying to shake her brother awake.
“He was nearly twelve when it all happened. The marriage that fell through, the fire, the burning. I remember it all very clearly. I was his beloved pet raven, and he is my beloved master. When he was left on the border to die, an old Fae Witch came across us both. She tried to heal us, but the damage done to him was too much. She healed me fairly well, with only some singed feathers left, but she was never able to heal him, at least not his body. She gave him some of her magic and cast a powerful spell on him. The spell would keep him asleep forever, not allowing the cruelty of this world to awake him. While her magic would allow him to make an ‘other self’ or a mirror image of himself. This other self was to complete this prince's final objectives so that he could rest in peace.”
“And he did that? He’s able to rest in peace now?” Aurora sobbed softly, burying her head in her older brother’s neck.
“Yes, you were that objective. He wished to prevent your parents from doing what they did to him to you. And he succeeded.”
“Why does he have to go now…” The princess continued to cry softly, Diaval hopping onto the bed to lay next to his resting master.
“He’s gone now, right? Is... Will he be somewhere better?”
Diaval nodded as an answer to his new mistress’s question. Murmuring softly his final words before he never spoke again.
“Not Just One Sleeping Beauty.”
The Real Snow White
Once upon a time, long ago, in a land far, far away, there lived a king and his beautiful queen. One day, as the queen was sewing next to a window watching the first snow of the season, she pricked her finger and a drop of blood fell…certainly not on the snow, as it has been reported in other sources, because really, was she hanging out the window while she was sewing? No, a small drop of blood fell upon the snowy white fabric of her gown and she said aloud, sighing, “I wish I had a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as night.” And because wishes really do come true, nine months later she gave birth to a little girl who she named, Snow White. As you can imagine, the king was not happy with the name the queen chose, wanting to name the princess after his mother, or even her mother, or his nanny, but the queen stood firm…well, that is, she did until she died after giving birth to Snow White. The grieving king briefly considered naming the child Anna, for his dead queen, but he knew her dying wish, so Snow White it was.
Finding life as a single parent quite trying despite a castle full of help, the king remarried within the year. He brought home his new beautiful queen and settled down to life as a family of three (plus 127 servants, 24 horses, 10 dogs and 6 cats).
Snow White had a happy childhood, spent largely in the company of the many servants and pets. She was sweet and kind and much beloved by all. Well, mostly all. The queen was fairly indifferent to her for most of Snow White’s childhood and the king, though he loved her dearly, really didn’t have much use for a daughter. Now a son, that would have been ideal. They could ride horses, go hunting, read history books. What did he know about embroidering and other such womanly tasks? Alas, neither of his queens provided him with a son and heir…
And the queen? Well, she was more interested in herself and the study of alchemy, than raising a child. Little did the king know her apparent barrenness was intentional. The idea of seeing her belly distended with child was anathema to her. Every day, she closeted herself in her secret chamber where she made potions – some of which actually worked hence her childless state, and asked a mirror of gilded frame, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” And she heard, “You are, my queen.” What? Yep, she heard it. I did not say, the mirror replied. The queen was certifiable. When was the last time a mirror talked to you? (If you actually answer that, might I suggest therapy?)
Anyway, all was going along quite well despite the queen’s questionable mental state (perhaps brought on by ingesting myriad concoctions to keep her young and childless…or simple narcissism), until the day her “mirror” told her that Snow White was the fairest in the land…it didn’t take a “magic” mirror to recognize the untold beauty of the kind, young princess. What to do, what to do? Ah! Get the huntsman to cut out her lungs and liver! Of course! (I know you’ve heard it was the heart, but my sources are impeccable, and it was the lungs and liver she requested.) And if you didn’t think she was not quite right in the mind before, I do hope that we are on the same page now.
So, the queen ordered the huntsman to take Snow White to the forest and return with her lungs and liver. The huntsman refused to follow orders blindly, but he also didn’t want to be on the wrong end of the queen’s psychosis, so he sent Snow White off into the woods to fend for herself and brought to the queen the lungs and liver of a boar.
Not one to be hoodwinked, the queen noted that the huntsman didn’t look her in the eye so it was no surprise when the “magic” mirror told her that Snow White was still the most beautiful in the land. (The huntsman was found later that night by one of the grooms. His heart had been removed. So, there was heart removal in the story. Just not Snow White’s.)
As for Snow White, she slept on the forest floor that night and when she awakened in the morning, she was surrounded by seven men, who we have come to know as the Seven Dwarves. The thing is, they weren’t actually dwarves. It’s just that, in addition to being beautiful of face and hair, Snow White was quite the Amazon. She could have done runway modeling, no problem. But to her, they were little men, so when she told the story later on, they became the seven dwarves.
Anyway, the seven dwarves took pity on the beautiful goddess at their feet and took her to their home to care for them. I mean to care for her. Right. She took one look at the pigsty they called home and shooed them out while she cleaned. They went off to work in the mines and when they returned it was to a clean home and a hot meal. Bliss. Snow White was sound asleep curled up on a rug by the fire (all the beds were too small for her). Of course, after dinner, they joined her there on the floor rather than make her sleep alone in a strange place…
Well, this story is getting a little long so we’ll cut to the chase: The queen was not pleased that Snow White was still living somewhere in the kingdom. She sent out spies (no, it was not the “magic” mirror that told her) and found out that she was living in the forest with seven men. ("What? Whore," she screamed to no one in particular.) She used her “magic” powers and created various poisons to kill her off, and on her third try (the dwarves foiled her plans the first two times), was finally successful with a poisoned apple and a few days off her "eternal youth" serum.
The poor dwarves were bereft. (Who would take care of them now?) They lay her to rest in a glass coffin so that they could gaze upon her beauty (as her body decayed???) Lo and behold, not two days later, a prince from the neighboring kingdom happened to be hunting in the very same forest where Snow White lay. He ordered his grooms to carry the beautiful woman in the glass case to his castle. Needless to say, no easy task given her size and, not surprisingly, one of the grooms dropped his end. And a good thing it was: It wasn’t poison that kept Snow White in the death-like state. It was a piece of apple lodged in her throat. Being dropped knocked it out and she awakened. The prince knelt beside her amongst the broken glass and begged her to marry him (which would join the two kingdoms and make him the richest, most powerful king). Of course, she said yes (or perhaps just nodded and smiled. There is some debate that two days with minimal oxygen intake left her with some neurological issues. Or maybe it was the poison.)
The prince, knowing what the wicked queen had done, invited her to the wedding feast. For her attempt to murder his beloved, Snow White, he ordered her to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dropped dead. Um, what? Yep. Red-hot iron shoes. I kid you not.
And they lived happily, ever after…
Alice and the Hatter
“I’m quite mad, you know.”
The Hatter stared into the blue eyes of a young woman. He and Alice had met many years prior, when she was just a girl. Now those eyes, still the same large Christmas ornaments they had been all those moons ago, had replaced fright with affection.
“I know,” said Alice. “I’ve known all along.”
“And I’m quite a bit older than you.”
“Why, yes. Of course I’ve thought of that. But you see, you’re stuck in time. One day, I’ll catch up to you.”
“I’ll grow older than you. My hair will turn white, my skin will sag. The youthful girl before you will be no more.”
“But my eyes? My eyes will always belong to you.”
The Hatter pushed Alice’s hair behind her ear, still golden and full of life. He remembered first meeting her, once in a dream. He had loved her in a different light then. But as her mind filled with wisdom, her heart with passion, and her body with womanhood, the fatherly love quietly, subtly morphed into something else.
He kissed her gently. First, on her head, smelling the fragrant tiger lilies she used to wash her hair. Then, harder, on her bow-shaped lips. He lingered a moment, feeling the coolness of her mouth, letting it spread like a cold cloth on a fever.
“Or perhaps Time will pity a hatter. Pity him something fierce and stop for you, too.”
“Perhaps he will. Until then, you can teach me to grow.”
Alice looked at the man before her. She couldn’t remember a time her heart had been so full. All around, colors swarmed with pastel exhilaration. The blue sky was a painting of Easter morning. Butterflies looked like they had been dipped in paints by clumsy children. The trees and the grass and the flowers danced to the music of her jiving soul. She was deeply, madly, in love.
The romantic relationship of Alice and the Hatter was one best enjoyed in secret. The folks of Wonderland had a real knack for outlandish gossip, so distorted from one person to the next that fact became fiction, and fiction became nothing more than a children’s fairy tale. So the two lovers often stowed away in a rolling field for picnics and love-making. They met so frequently that the field became “their” field, a place known to most but meaningful only to those who used it for magic.
In this field, during timeless hours, they shared their deepest wants and desires. The Hatter longed for a pardon from the Queen. He wished for a home on the outskirts of the kingdom, one to grow old with Alice. And he wished for the ability to grow old. After all, eternity seemed like a very long time.
Alice, not wanting to sound naive, listed off hopes and dreams from a life long ago. She told the Hatter she one day wished to be a teacher of children. “Math and Science and all that.” And she’d like a pet of some sort, but “definitely not a hare or a cat.” Although these things were once her truths, in the depths of all that made up the woman she had become, Alice’s only unvarnished desire was a forever with her Hatter.
But on this particular day, at this particular picnic, during this very particular time of year, Alice felt bare. You see, if time were counted, it would have been one year since the Hatter had first confessed he fancied her and Alice had returned the sentiment. It sparked a fire in Alice so robust and searing that she wished to unzip herself right down the middle and expose any secrets that lingered. So she decided to do just that.
“Hatter, my dearest?” Said Alice, absentmindedly plucking blades of fresh grass from the earth.
“Yes, my love?”
“I’d like it if we married one day. I’d like it very much.”
The Hatter had been in the middle of pouring a rather large glass of peach wine. Alice’s words jumbled his brain a great deal. So much so, in fact, that it did not communicate with his hand quickly enough, and the sweet liquid spilled over the goblet.
After coming to know Alice, the Hatter had never imagined a life without her. Never wanted one. He’d become accustomed to her presence and enjoyed it so that he found himself longing, aching, when she was absent. He’d seen himself with her as the man he was in current time, and the man he would be in all other timelines he might happen across. But the problem with being a man stuck in time is that thinking in finites makes infinity drag on forever. And marriage seemed the most finite of all.
His silence worried Alice, making her question his heart.
“Don’t you love me, Hat? Don’t you love me with all that you are, the way I do you?”
The Hatter felt immediate guilt for his quiet reaction, but he had spent so much of his life speaking before thinking and really, truly, having no idea what he was talking about. He didn’t want that reckless dithering in the words he shared with Alice.
When he did finally speak, his words were gentle. He picked up Alice’s hand as one does an antique ceramic figure, delicate and priceless.
“My sweet Alice,” said the Hatter. “You are my greatest joy, my only love. Life before you was riddles with no answers. I’d known nothing of the heart’s senses before feeling the metronome of your name. Al-ice. Al-ice.” The Hatter demonstrated the thrumming on his chest with his fist.
“I know there is a but coming…” said Alice.
“But I am a man without time. We speak of what ifs, but what of the right nows? There is no cure for forever, not unless Time says so. And if Time were to take away the gift he has bestowed, the right nows and the what ifs would be nothings because the Queen would have my head.”
Alice considered this. “Oh darling, for a man of such wisdom, you are often but a fool. Without time, there are no what ifs. Right now is all there will ever be because you will only exist in your present state. People change, but you needn’t have such worries. You will always be who you are, right here, right now, in this field.”
“Yes, but you will change. And what if your heart changes, too?”
“There is no room in my story for an ending without you. Which leads me to something I need to share with you.”
The Hatter sat at attention, a soldier ready for his lieutenant to finish providing crucial instructions. He leaned forward, urging her on.
“About a year ago, I went to see Time. I asked him for a favor.”
“Alice! You didn’t!”
“Is it not something you want?”
“Of course it is. I’ve already said it is so. But it is not a decision I wanted you to make until you were of an age and time when you were ready. You’ve still got so much living to do.”
“I agree. Which is why I’ve asked Time to stop me only when I intersect at your freezing point. I figure that’ll be all the time I need.”
The Hatter chuckled. “Are you calling me old, my dear?”
Alice returned his laughter. “Timeless. The term I am looking for is timeless.”
“Then what was all that business about you growing older than your Hatter?”
“This place has taught me to never show my cards before the hand is dealt.”
The Hatter looked into young Alice’s eyes, and he knew they were the eyes of his wife. Suddenly, the cruelty of eternity seemed softer, exciting even. There was finally something to look forward to. He gazed at their surroundings, nothing out of place, not even them. They were a part of the scenery, something beautiful to be seen and talked about, even painted.
“And what would you do if we were trapped in this field? Just the two of us, forever?”
Alice pondered a moment.
“Well, I reckon I’d eat dandelions. I’d eat dandelions for the rest of my life.”