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Card Challenge

Update: Written in the Stars (Card Challenge Edit)

Hello! I have been holding off on sharing this, but I did a pretty major edit to one of the Card Challenge stories. I liked Day 10 quite a bit, but felt it needed a little work to make it be what I truly envisioned for the story. So, I edited and re-wrote portions of it to better tell the story. i also tried to be a bit more fair to the characters involved, because they came out a little stiff and unrealistic, I thought. So, here is the updated version. I held off on posting the edited version because I had submitted it to creepypasta.com, and it was posted today! You can check it out here. I have four other stores available there, though most are also hosted here. There’s Dionaea Muscipula (blog link), Lake Wonapango (blog post), and Purified (blog post). Empty Spaces is another story I submitted there, but I never posted it here for some reason…

If you came here from creepypasta.com and want to read mre of my work, I’d suggest checking out my recent stuff, which is on the front page here, or my Card Challenge stories. You can learn all about it and find stories that interest you through the Card Challenge Index Page.

Without further ado, here is the update to Day 10, now formally titled “Written in the Stars.”


“Cheryl! That’s great news. I didn’t even know you were psychic!” exclaimed Marian, her face alight with excitement.

“I’m not psychic, Marian.”

“Oh, of course not. That was silly of me. You can just read the future in the stars,” the last syllable trailed off, a hint of mysticism in the woman’s voice.

Cheryl sighed, taking a long sip from her wine glass before continuing. “Actually, I’m fairly certain I could not even find the Big Dipper if I had to. You don’t really need any skills to be a horoscope writer. Just a laptop and a wealth of pithy sayings.”

Marian’s face fell, and Cheryl cringed inwardly. She knew Marian took these sort of things very seriously, with her Tarot and Energy Crystal readings—or whatever was in fashion this week. But Cheryl’s internal skeptic could not stomach reinforcing the charlatan façade of newspaper horoscope columns.

When Cheryl spoke again, her words were clipped, cautious. “It’s not wise to play with things like this.” Her face brightened, “But, I bet whoever hired you could see your potential. We all have some latent psychic ability. I bet they saw straight through to yours!”

“I got hired by an old hippy in a two dollar suit. But, you’re probably right. I’m sure the man has seen his fair share of things.”

“I bet you are going to be amazed once you unlock your potential. Did I tell you about the time my spirit guide taught me to—“

“Yes, a dozen times, each as wonderful as the last,” Cheryl smiled at her old friend. No matter how bizarre the woman was, and how illogical many of her beliefs were, years of friendship and support kept them together. And she could not overlook how Marian’s months of kindness had saved her from a few major catastrophes recently. “Now, can we just drink to the fact that, in a month, I’m actually going to get a paycheck again?”

Marian raised her own glass, beaming with pride and excitement. As much as Cheryl had dreaded outing herself—and, she had assumed, the field of horoscopes—to her friend, it had not been so bad. “To new opportunities and the development of all our hidden talents,” Marian finished with a wink and a long drink from her glass.

Cheryl leaned back in her seat, feeling a weight sloughing from her exhausted shoulders. It had been a long day, and she still was uncertain she could stomach the reality of shilling such snake oil for a living, even if it was necessary to keep the lights on in her ratty apartment. The wine did not necessarily help with that decision, but it did serve to push it just a bit farther away.

“So, how are you going to do this? I mean, until you figure out how to use your gifts, of course.”

The tenacity with which she clung to horoscopes was astounding to Cheryl. She had assumed that once Marian discovered her plain, non-psychic, skeptic, logical friend got a job writing horoscopes, they would laugh together about all the wacky decisions Marian had made over the years based on those newspaper inserts. No such luck.

“Mar, seriously, I’m not psychic. I just slap some words onto paper. You read them and plan your life around it. Then I get paid. No psychic abilities, no star reading required.”

Marian looked slightly off put, her face twisting briefly into an irritated smirk. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you don’t believe, don’t think you can do it, get out. These aren’t powers you want to be messing with, Cher.”

Cheryl realized it was a hopeless battle, one Marian could not afford to lose to reason. “I know. You’re probably right. They must have seen something in me, but I guess it just takes time.” The lies were bitter as they dripped from her lips.

Marian reached across the table and took her hand. “The journey can be difficult, but I know you can do it. I’ve sensed you were special since I first saw you snotty and muddy on the playground. You’re going to help a lot of people, Cheryl. Just remember that.”

Cheryl forced a smile and emptied her glass. When she grimaced, she was not sure if it was from the wine or the pit settling into her stomach.

_

“Your kindness to those you meet will reap great rewards. Be patient, and watch for your return.”

“This week holds many opportunities for fun. Enjoy yourself, but don’t forget to take time to recharge!”

“Remember that problem that just won’t leave you alone? Expect news to clarify your path.”

“An unexpected inconvenience may bring unexpected rewards. Look for—”

Cheryl tapped a pencil on the edge of her laptop slowly, her eyes distant as she tried to find a new and creative way to end Capricorn’s latest memo. After only a couple months, she felt she was doing nothing but rehashing the same, empty promises week after week. Nonetheless, it was keeping food and lights on in her fridge, so it was hard to complain. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that.

Her phone buzzed on the coffee shop table. Marian had been giddy at seeing the weekly horoscopes since learning about her friends new job, and she never failed to try to get a sneak peek into the future.

“Coffee, Cheryl?” she asked, skipping routine greetings.

“I’m already at the coffee shop, so why not?” sighed Cheryl, glancing around the sparsely populated bistro.

“Sound like someone must be honing their gifts, eh? Get a little star magic to help you out?”

Cheryl rolled her eyes. “I just like to work in coffee shops. No stars needed. It’s like finding a bear in the woods.”

Laughter filtered unevenly through the phone. “You could predict lottery numbers five times over, and you still wouldn’t believe in any of this, would you? Your note last week scored me a great new pair of heels on sale.”

“Guess I’m just looking for more proof. When do you want to get coffee? The stars are phoning in, so I’m going to have to take them on the other line.”

“I’ll be there around three. Ask the stars if there are any ways to sneak around this traffic jam, if you could.”

Cheryl glanced at the clock. Forty-five minutes would, likely, give her enough time to finish writing and fleshing out the next edition’s worth of swill. “Will do, Mar. See you then. Half caf mocha, as usual?”

Marian gasped. “Well, look at you, Ms. Cleo! I’ll be there on the dot.”

Cheryl knew that meant Marian would be about fifteen minutes late, and so mentally gave herself the chance to relax. What would Marian’s upcoming horoscope say? Cheryl smiled to herself, thinking of all the ridiculous lies she could put into print if she so desired. She wondered if psychics had any sort of immunity for libel, and if any sort of protection extended to the capricious comments of a small town horoscope writer.

“Marian: You will come into an unexpected sum of money,” she typed lazily, smirking at the cliché. “But be wary of unknown strangers. While he may appear to be Prince Charming, you may be courting the Beast instead! A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week. Make sure your house is in order.” Cheryl chuckled to herself in the coffee shop, laughing at the morbid horoscope. She would love to see Marian’s face if she actually read that in the final edition. She would certainly get fired, but it was almost worth it just to shake her friend’s conviction in the poppycock.

Cheryl stretched, went up for a refill of the house roast, and settled in to finish explaining fate for a few thousand loyal readers. Her next line came to her in a burst of inspiration.

“Look for chances to stretch and grow in the next week. Don’t let your cynicism get the best of you!”

_

Cheryl’s phone chimed, chirping happily with its message. She rolled over groggily, checking the lock and grimacing as she realized she had slept well past her normal wake time this Saturday morning. The plan had been to be up early to start her work, begin looking for more freelance opportunities, but that had fallen prey to a late night bottle of wine and sappy rom-com marathon.

With sleep-addled lack of coordination, Cheryl clumsily gripped her cell phone and gazed blearily at the screen. A new voicemail from Marian. She stiffly pushed the button to listen, begrudgingly entered her password, and closed her eyes as Marian’s chipper voice filtered through.

“Hey Cher! You’ll never guess how great this week has been. Or, maybe you would. Maybe you even knew all about it!” The voice on the other end chuckled, then got back to the message. “I met this guy, and he’s great. I was out shopping for a new entertainment center for the apartment—I can hear you rolling your eyes already, but I got some money back from my bank for some misapplied fees. Anyways, I met Adam and he’s totally swept me off my feet. He’s a total Prince Charming. I know, I know, it’s only been a few days. God, you’re such a killjoy even when you aren’t on the phone.”

Cheryl chuckled to herself, burying her head beneath her pillow and reveling in the soft darkness. Marian’s voice continued its chipper monologue. She had always opted to ignore the “brief” part of the voice mail request.

“Anyway, that’s why I’m calling. He wants to take me hiking this afternoon, told me to cancel any plans I had later. He said he had something really incredible planned for me tonight. I know, I hate cancelling on our plans this late, but…”

Cheryl had known her long enough to hear the shrug on the other end. “I know you’d understand. We can go out tomorrow. I’ll call you in the morning to set a time. Don’t work all day!”

With that, the robotic messaging voice took over, prompting Cheryl to delete the message. After doing so, the phone was again silent, and she tossed it back on her nightstand. Cheryl could not help but feel a bit irritated and grumpy about this change in plans. It was likely the grogginess, but she felt a bit petulant. They had been planning to try out a new Thai place her paper had recently reviewed well, and she had been looking forward to the outing. Especially now that she could pick up her own dinner tab. Still, there was something else. A subtle sense of unease that had settled firmly over her during the message. Something simply was not right, but she could not put her finger on it.

Cheryl sat beneath the pillows and blankets, poking at this uncertain feeling until the heat became stifling, and then begrudgingly swung her legs to the floor. She had hoped to fall back asleep, but her investigation of the edges of this anxious knot made that impossible. It was probably just a lingering artifact of sleep, some half-thought idea that would fade with activity. At least, that was her working plan as she tried to get ready for the day.

The feeling sat in the pit of her stomach, a flutter of flimsy wings, but then carefully began to climb its way up, beating along her insides. As she did some morning yoga, it snaked into her chest and wrapped around her lungs. It felt as if every breath was just a bit too short. Still, she could not identify the mystery source of unease. Something was wrong, but she had no idea what it was. Surely she was not this jealous about her friend having a date?

A shower was the best remedy for clouded thoughts, and so she spent some time under the stream of nearly scalding water. It did not shake loose whatever had set her nerves on edge, and the feeling just continued its steady creep upwards. Now she could feel its fingers clawing at the back of her throat. They left her gulping at her morning cereal, trying to force it past the blockage.

Not yet done, it finally made its way behind her eyes. There this unshakable sense of wrong sat, pressing against her lids. She felt like her eyes were ready to burst with tears, but they never came, never relieved that distinct and unpleasant pressure. Something had been wrong ever since that voicemail. Cheryl could not help but feel she had seen this movie before, and forgotten the ending.

She ran through her emotions, but none seemed to quite fit the feeling that had grown within her. It was not jealousy, frustration, anger, disappointment, sorrow, or fear. It certainly was not happy, surprised, or excited.

Well, sitting and staring at it certainly was not helping. Cheryl pushed back from the breakfast table and dropped onto her couch, pulling her laptop close. She still had work to do today.

Normally, such feelings faded as she worked, dulled by the pressure of the moment by moment tasks. Today, the feeling stayed. It laced its fingers into every keystroke, stroked her mind seductively. It was this terrifying feeling that, if she could only focus well enough, she would realize what the feeling was. Only there as also this subtle fear that it would be too late.

Finally, the restlessness gripped her phone and dialed Marian’s number. It cut straight to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s Marian. I’m either out or screening my calls. Leave me a message, and I’ll get back to you. Probably.” The machine beeped.

“Hey Marian. Got your message, already picking out my bridesmaid dress,” the joke felt hollow and did nothing to relieve the discomfort. “Just call me when you get in so I know he did not throw you in some ravine or something. Talk to you later.”

Leaving a message was supposed to make her realize how silly this was, but it did not. If anything, it made the feeling heavier.

“You’re being ridiculous. Get some work done,” she chided herself, opening her horoscope document. She needed to type some up, and she was finally feeling like she had gotten the hang of it. They almost seemed to write themselves recently, which was pleasant. She hoped it would provide the needed distraction so that she could shake this feeling. Perhaps, she mused, she had a nightmare. There had been ties in the past where she had felt lingering effects like this from some forgotten dream. Surely that was it. A little mundane work would do the trick.

The document flashed open full of lines and lines of her predictions. She kept a running list, assuming she might at some point recycle some, once enough weeks had passed. Fortunately, she had not had to do that yet. New ideas just kept coming to her. Still, it was fun to smirk at her past predictions, enjoying a brief chuckle at the gullibility of some.

However, this time her eyes stuck on one she had never submitted. She re-read her fake post for Marian, and the feeling finally became real. It took on its form, icy fingers piercing through her panicked heart. Money, a man, and finally—“A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week.”

Cheryl thought her heart might have stopped, but it was only the impossible stillness of terror. This was not happening, she told herself over and over again as her eyes sat glued to the screen. These sort of things did not happen. Ever. It was just a weird coincidence.

It took until the news reports began to come in about a body found in the bottom of a nearby canyon for the reality to sink in. Reports of foul play followed close behind, and Cheryl knew.

It’s not wise to play with things like this,” Marian had warned.

And Cheryl had not listened.


Feel free to compare and contrast to the original and let me know what you think. As always, happy reading!
Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 84 – The End

Wow, so this is it. It has finally come to the end of the Card Challenge, and the last card has been storied. I will likely post a longer wrap-up post tomorrow, but it’s been quite a journey. I hope you enjoy this final story, a fitting end to the Challenge, I believe.


Card Day 84: A scarecrow holding a scepter amid a field of sunflowers.

Caroline had been scared of the scarecrow when she was younger. To be fair, the thing sagged and had seen the worst part of a few winters and springs. It lacked a face, but did have an old, beaten down cap stuffed on top of the stake, and its hands hung limply from the sides. Most of the stuffing had fallen out or been carried away by birds, so now all that remained was a mostly empty set of clothes hanging uncertainly from the stake and cross beam.

The fifth time Caroline woke from a nightmare centered on the benign farmyard staple, her mother had reached the end of her patience with the fixture. It was an important component of their garden, but the irrational fear had gotten beyond her ability to handle. Fortunately, Caroline’s mother was also quite brilliant. The next day, she and Caroline gathered together a pair of old, sagging overalls from the back of her father’s closet, as well as a flannel shirt a few sizes too small, a pair of work gloves from the shed, a burlap sack from the barn, and the old floppy sunhat that hung in the doorway but had never been worn.

Caroline disappeared under the pile of odds and ends, carrying them dutifully out to the scarecrow’s preferred haunt overlooking the corn field. Her mother held her hand firmly which was likely the only thing that kept her for bolting back to the house. The empty shadow beneath the hat leered at her, and she imagined she saw pinpoint red eyes glaring at her from that darkness. But once her mother pulled the hat away, she saw there was nothing beneath it. Looking at old clothes hanging on the frame was far less terrifying when it was clear no malevolent presence inhabited it.

The afternoon project went smoothly. Caroline helped her mother remove the old, thread bare clothes and place the new ones on it. The flannel shirt went on first, followed by the baggy overalls. Caroline’s mother brought fresh twine and bound the ankles and wrists so that the new straw stayed within the body. She then filled the burlap sack with the remaining straw, giving him a strange triangle-oval head.

“Now, you draw on his face. Make it nice.”

Caroline took the black sharpie, the strong scent tingling her nose. She made an exaggerated face, but carefully drew a wide smile on the bag just below a crooked nose. Her tiny fingers traced wide circles for eyes, filling them in with a round dot. Her mother inspected it, hmming to herself as she considered it, and then added two slashes of eyebrows.

“Perfect. Now he just needs a name.” She lifted the head onto the shoulders of the frame securing it tightly in the collar of the shirt. While Caroline eyed the new scarecrow carefully, her mother attached the gloves, giving them a friendly lilt, and then draped the sun hat over its smiling head.

“Harold,” proclaimed Caroline after a prolonged silence and intense stare into the face of her scarecrow.

“Harold?” her mother asked, her eyebrows knit together in consideration of the odd choice.

“Lucy at school has an uncle named Harold. She says he’s really fun.”

Her mother sighed and shook her head slightly, but there was a smile on her face. “Harold it is, then.”

And now, Caroline looked up at Harold with watery eyes. As she had every sunny day since she and her mother put him together, she settled in with her back against the stake, the empty legs of his overalls hanging down by her shoulders.

“Harold, today’s the day.” She dug the toe of her once-white tennis shoes into the dirt, kicking up a tiny mound in the soft soil. Good growing soil she knew now. Not that it would help her on the next stage of the journey. Harold, as always, remained silent.

“You know, I’m not sure where I’ll find a listener as good as you, Harold. You’ve never interrupted me or told me I was wrong,” she sniffed back a tear. “Then again, you never gave me any good advice either.”

The wind filtered through the corn, perhaps whispering its response. Caroline simply let her head drop back against the rough wood behind her. She could just see one of Harold’s eyes looking cheerily down at her. The shirt had once been bright red, standing proudly against the waves of green corn. But now sun and the elements had dulled it to a dark shade of pink. The overalls had held up better, but were covered with a fine mist of dirt. It had been a dry summer, after all. Still, there were tattered portions, a bit of the cuff was missing from his overalls, and it looked like his shirt had come part of the way untucked. Still, he was the dapper, cheery figure he had been since that fateful project.

“I still can’t believe they’re making me do this. I mean, no one even asked me. I’m eleven, Harold. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”

She left the pause in the conversation for his imagined response, though his drawn on mouth never moved.

“I know, I know. They are just looking after me, tryna’ do the best thing for the family. Geez Harold, you’re beginning to sound like my mom.” She rolled her eyes at him in a way that would have gotten her sent to her room with her parents. The crows squawked from the trees, and Harold sat staunchly at his post. Caroline continued to dig a small hole with her toes, creating a tiny mound of rich dirt.

“You remember Jamie at school, right?” Harold’s hand swayed in the wind in response. “He said he’d write me. Do you think he will?”

She suddenly pushed away from the post, looking up at him with sudden concern in her eyes, “It’s not like I like him or anything like that. I just wonder if he’ll let me know. I mean, we did help Mrs. Morrison chose a class pet, and he said he’d tell me how Cheesy’s doing.” His empty eyes watched her. “Yeah, I think he will, too. He’s my good friend. And he was real nice to you, too.”

There was a long, heavy silence stretching between them, Finally, Caroline sighed. “You know, I asked them to take you with us, Harold. I really wanted to. But they said we wouldn’t have a garden at our new place. I tried my best.”

She waited in the silence, nodding while she sat in his shadow. “Yeah, I’ll miss you, too, Harold.” The breeze ruffled her hair, carrying the sound of a slamming trunk out to her.

“Caroline!” echoed her father’s voice over the now empty farm. The house was barren inside, the car laden with an entire life’s worth of stuff. Caroline closed her eyes, tears sliding down her cheek, and took a deep breath. “Time to go!”

The small girl stood tall, staring up into Harold’s waiting eyes. She felt a pang of guilt at his apparent lack of understanding; she hated that he might feel she had abandoned him. “Goodbye, Harold,” she whispered, her voice tiny. In a sudden motion, she threw her arms around his waist, hugging the empty clothes and letting the dusty denim catch the occasional tear.

Her parents were both waiting for her, watching her climb over the fence and wander across the open pasture. Her father checked his watch a couple of times, while her mother held a small bag.

“Say goodbye to Harold?” her mother asked once she was close enough to hear. Caroline’s only response was a sullen nod as she marched past them towards the back door of the car.

“Honey, wait. I have something for you.” Her mother held out the small blue paper bag, looking equal parts eager and scared. Her father looked frustrated and hurried, but squeezed a smile out.

Caroline sighed deeply and walked back towards her mother, grabbing at the bag and looking sharply into the bag. What she saw gave her pause.

“I know you really liked having Harold, especially after we put him together. And, while he couldn’t come with us, I thought I could—“

Caroline pulled the doll from the bag, recognizing the familiar worn overalls and faded flannel shirt. He even had little white gloves and a hastily drawn on face. That explained the missing patches of clothes.

“Little Harold?” asked Caroline, an edge of hope in her voice.

“Well, yeah. It’s all Harold, just in a portable form. I figured Big Harold could stay here and watch over the field, while Little Harold could keep an eye on you and update you about the farm.”

Caroline hugged the doll tightly. “You should have told me you were coming!” she whispered to the little figure. Had she been paying attention, and had she been older, she might have noticed the shared glances between her parents.

Stop babying her, said her father’s. She’s too old for this nonsense.

Moving is hard enough, returned her mother’s soft eyes. What harm could it do?

But Caroline only had eyes for her Little Harold as she clambered into the car, ready to open a new chapter in her life in a new place, but with old friends.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 83

Card Day 83: A blank, wooden marionette seated on a crimson and gold throne.

King Torvald woke suddenly on his throne. He jolted into consciousness, suddenly sitting upright and blinking.

“I apologize. I must have dosed off,” he offered a humble look of chagrin to his gathered advisors. They all gave him rather puzzled looks, exchanging uncomfortable glances between themselves. Torvald felt embarrassed at his lapse, but he was still the king. No one would call him out or chide him for it. Still, it did nothing for his image.

He rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly as if the world was suddenly brighter. “Now, where were we?”

“Discussing trade relations with Vongoria, sir.”

“Ah, yes, no wonder I fell asleep!” The others politely echoed his laugh before continuing the morning meeting. Trade decisions were only one of the many topics covered, others included tax reform, local ordinances, and palace gossip. It was nearly lunchtime when the meeting finally wound down, but Torvald was missing something.

“I know we’ve run long, but I hate to think we dragged Archibald here only to avoid discussing the Kimal fleet nearing our waters.” There were those same hidden glances back and forth, but Archibald eventually cleared his throat and offered a meager smile.

“Of course, milord. Do you have any further commands regarding the situation?”

“Further comments? Please, fill me in on this week’s development, and then I will make a decision. I cannot be speaking from days old information!” He cast his eyes around at the other assembled advisors, noting their slight nods and concerned eyes. It must be bad news.

“They have continued to encroach, though they have not yet made any sort of offensive movement. Their delegates continue to assure us it is meant merely as an exploratory expedition of the local marine life.”

“And have we sent a formal response to Queen Cynthia that they are terrifying our citizens?”

“Ah,” Archibald looked towards the other advisors, seeking some kind of support but finding nothing, “no sir, we have not. I thought you were opposed to such an action?”

The king laughed again. “What a joke! Me not being interested in contacting Queen Cynthia. No, I’m sure it is just an exploratory mission. Certainly she will recall them if she realizes she is causing unrest. Draft that, Archibald. I will review it tomorrow.”

“Sire,” this time is was his commerce advisor, a slim woman with dark hair piled atop her head, “does this mean you do not want us to send our fleet to meet them?”

“What? Why would you think I want to send a fleet? That would only serve to increase tensions, force Cynthia’s hand to respond with equal force.”

“Sir you did instruct us to do that this morning,” Archibald offered. His discomfort at correcting his king was clearly written across his face, especially in the beads of sweat glistening on his sagging forehead.

“This morning? We haven’t even discussed Kimal!”

“It was right before you, um, you ‘woke up,’ sir.” The local mayor was looking at him with wide, concerned eyes.

That hit Torvald with considerate force, but he kept him face composed in a calm half-smile. Then he laughed, perhaps a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “Well, look at me, making ruling in my sleeps. From here on, if I’m snoring, then don’t take my word for it.”

They chuckled softly, nodding. A few distant, muffled, “yes milords” filtered through the assembled as they gathered their belongings to leave. The uncertain looks still remained in their eyes. Torvald waved at his second in command. Ricker nodded smoothly and accompanied Torvald down the hall as they made towards his chamber.

“Well, that was embarrassing.”

Ricker fell into step, his long robes rustling along the stone floors. His eyes were sympathetic, reflecting back Torvald’s own shame, but adding a hint of compassion. “You have not been sleeping well, Torvald. Things like this are bound to happen. Should I call the palace pharmacist to mix you a sleeping draught?”

“Yes, and have the whole palace twittering about the neurotic old king. No, I think I will manage it just fine. Can you believe we almost sent our fleet to challenge Kimal’s?”

“It would have been a bold and risky decision. Though, I must say, they have encroached before. And we have struggle with raiding parties on our borders, which Cynthia has not stopped. A show of force might have—“

Torvald cut him off with a wave. “Yes, we have had some rogue bandits crossing over, but that is not the country’s fault. Cynthia has been nothing but cordial to us. I am hopeful we can improve trade relations before the next harvest.”

“I do not share your optimism, but perhaps that is why you rule and not I.” There was a slight bitterness in his voice, an edge to his tone that left Torvald with a furrowed brow.

“Yes, Ricker, that is the way of things. You may have greater freedom to speak as you will, but do remember who I am.” With that, Torvald settled into his chamber for lunch, followed by an afternoon of hearing grievances brought forward by the citizens To be honest, it was his favorite part of the day. There were always some interesting bit of information, some bizarre situation that he was called upon to settle. Yes, some people left angry and bitter, but many more left satisfied with his judgment. Or at least they told him as much as they left. After they were gone, there was little he could do if they disagreed or harbored resentment. That was a poison that would kill them without any of his help.

So it was that he settled in for the night, his head full of the day’s spinning events, but his body tired. Sleep came quickly and certainly.

However, the next morning, he was surprised to wake up with ink staining his fingers. There were black smudges on his white sheets, as well as a distinct cramp in his hand. This was a new thing. He had woken up with drool on his pillow, on the floor after falling from his bed, halfway out of his nightgown, and hugging his pillow like the lover he never had, but he had never woken up with a pained, ink-stained hand.

He did not have long to investigate the mystery before the answer presented itself to him. Torvald rose from bed, washed and dressed, and started to munch on his breakfast—fresh grapes and still-warm bread from the bakery—when someone knocked on his door.

“Enter,” he monotoned distractedly as he read over the letter Archibald had composed. It was good, forceful but friendly.

“Sire?” One of his staff stood in the doorway, looking somewhat confused and shaken, but pleased. At Torvald’s nod, the man continued. “I sent the letter off with one of our fastest messengers. It should reach Kimal within three days.”

The delicious taste withered in Torvald’s mouth, and his fork clattered to the table. “What letter to Kimal?”

Confusion mingled with fear now on the poor man’s face. “The one you gave to me in the early hours this morning. You said it must be sent immediately and swiftly. It was of the utmost importance for the security of the State.”

“I did not write—“ the ink on his hands suddenly made sense, and Torvald left the words dangling in the air. “Send out another messenger and overtake the first. Tell them not to rest or stop until they have reached the first. Have them both return here immediately.”

While the poor man was clearly confused and terrified of impending wrath, he did not protest, but scurried out the door. Torvald could hear his shoes slapping against the stones of the floor as he sprinted through the halls. Then his door swung back shut and there was silence. After a moment, Torvald broke the silence with the bell outside his door. A young woman, cheeks blushing and hair amess from her sudden summoning, appeared in his doorway. “Who is the best pharmacist in the city?” he asked her.

She wrinkled her forehead, obviously deep in thought and burdened by the weight of his request. “I would say Greshom. He lives in Western Well, and—“

With a wave, he silenced her. “Send for him. Have him brought to my chambers discretely.” Like a bird swopping from a branch, she was gone.

This was a delicate matter. He was making poor decision and jeopardizing years of diplomatic work, all in his sleep. He could not let the palace know he was struggling so, but he certainly needed help. Richer’s advice was good, if perhaps the source was dangerous.

When Torvald returned from the morning meeting with his advisors—a much shorter and less uncomfortable one this time—Greshom was waiting in his chamber. The man was old, bent at the waist until he seemed to fold over onto himself. His hair was stark white, but trimmed close to his head. And he smelled faintly of unfamiliar herbs. The perfect pharmacist, Torvald thought upon seeing him.

“It is a pleasure to be called to your service, milord.” His voice quavered with age, and the man bowed even lower.

“You come highly recommended, and I hope you can help me with a sensitive matter.” Greshom raised his eyebrows, but was wise enough to remain silent after the king’s vague but suggestive comment. “I have been—“ his voice trailed off, searching, “—sleep walking, I suppose. I wrote a letter and made a diplomatic decision yesterday while sleeping. I suppose I am sleep ruling, to be honest. And I do not make the best decisions.”

“Hm,” hummed the old man, his eyes drilling into the floor as he chewed on his lower lip. “That is very odd. Not a usual case, by any means. Any other strange phenomena?”

“Is that not strange enough?”

I suppose you’re right. Well, I will go to my shop, mix you up a sleeping draught. That should help. In case it does not, I have also brought you this,” the old man pressed a pendant into Torvald’s hand. “It will protect you from any unsavory influences that might be lingering about.”

“I thought you were a man of science.”

Greshom smiled a tired smile. “My years have taught me to revere science, but my mistakes have taught me to never be too careful.” He patted the king’s arm and began his slow shuffle towards the door. Most people waited to be dismissed, but Greshom appeared to have no time for such pleasantries. “I will have the draught ready before dinner, check in this time tomorrow.”

When the potion arrived, Torvald eyes it suspiciously. It was a cloudy, pinkish liquid in a tiny vial. When the time came to drink it, he discovered that the liquid tasted almost as foul as it looked, but had a somewhat chunky, slimy texture that gagged him on the way down. Still, he could not let his true disgust show. He was the king, after all. Still, it was a wonderfully relaxing sleep.

One that ended with him again waking to ink-stained hands. He had thought ahead this time and asked that no message be sent until he approved them over breakfast, but the poor messenger looked pale and drawn in the doorway. Apparently, he had withstood quite the storm and rage from Torvald that night. His hands shook as he handed over the missive, and Torvald read it greedily. It was practically a declaration of war against Kimal, lambasting them for guerilla incursions and threatening to sink their “exploratory” fleet. Torvald’s head spun, and he cancelled the morning meeting. It was as if he had lost his mind.

Greshom arrived promptly at lunch time to find the king languishing in his bed, contemplating the reality that he had lost control of his own body.

“I assume by your demeanor the draught did not work.”

“Not at all, Greshom. I did the same thing again, and I am sure the whole palace will soon know me as the crazed king.”

“I was afraid of this, sire. I hope you will not judge my deception harshly, but the pendant I gave you is not really a warding device. It is more of a detection one. If I may see it, I think we can find out what has been going on.”

Torvald’s hand trembled as he removed the pendant, and Greshom’s were surprisingly strong. He lifted the pendant to his lips, blowing a soft breath over the surface. Torvald’s eyes grew wide as the pale stone glowed, but Greshom simply closed his eyes and nodded.

“Yes, quite the hex. Milord, someone has been enchanting you, taking control of your senses. It is strong, dark magic.”

“What? Are you sure? Who could do this?”

“Well, if you will follow me, this,” he lifted the pendant in the air, watching it spin on its string, “will show us the source of this evil.”

Torvald untangled himself from the bed, enthralled by the slight drift of the pendant out the door of his chamber. He mutely followed Greshom, doing his best to hold back anger at the man’s slow pace.

Up and down the halls they paced, passing doors and dodging confused glances from various cooks, maids, messengers, advisors, and visitors to the palace. Torvald only had eyes for the spinning stone as it pointed them along the way. Finally, they stopped in front of a door Torvald knew well.

“Here is where the caster dwells.”

As much as Torvald dreaded what he would find, he pushed the door open. Ricker sat in his chamber, bent over his desk. His face showed shock, but also guilt.

“Guards!” commanded Torvald, his voice strong and his eyes trickling with grief.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 82

Card Day 82: A stone doorway that shows a blue sky and clouds.

There is really no logical method of responding a doorway that suddenly appears in your living room. If there is one, I certainly did not find it. There is no way of keeping cool and collected when you wake up one morning and find a large, ached, iron and wood door standing in between your coffee table and television. This thing was medieval, not even something I could have mistakenly purchased from my local hardware store and installed in some bizarre sleepwalking incident. No, it stood there firm, proud, and completely beyond anything I could make sense of.

I checked the internet, but it did not appear to be some strange phenomenon that I was previously unaware of. I called off of work and spent my morning staring at it. No amount of squinting or turning my head side to side made it any clearer, and I could not lift it or move it. The doorposts disappeared into the plush carpet of my home, and it felt sturdier than most of my house did.

Having never been very handy, my collection of tools was rather slim. There was a mismatched set of screwdrivers, a hammer, some odd nails from various ill-conceived home improvement projects, a set of wrenches my dad had proudly bought me when I bought the house, and a pry bar that had been left in my garage when I moved in. The pry bar seemed my best bet, but the door did not budge. Even when I grabbed the hammer and tried to drive the straight, pointed end of the bar into the doorframe, nothing happened. I did not even leave a mark on the stone frame. My results were similarly pitiful when I applied my tools to the door itself. I was at a loss.

So, having no reasonable recourse, I knocked on the door. My knuckles ached with the force, and I felt a splinter drive itself into my index finger. The door simply sat as it had all morning. To be honest, I am not sure what I expected to happen. If someone had opened the door and greeted me, I likely would have screamed and run out of my house immediately. Finally, I grabbed the handle—a large metal ring set into the front of the door—and tugged.

Given its visible thickness and weight, I prepared myself to struggle against it, but it swung open smoothly on well-oiled hinges. The ease sent me tumbling back against my couch, not that the sudden breeze from beyond did not help.

In the middle of my living room was suddenly a doorway into a cloudy sky. Wind whistled through the opening, disturbing the pile of bills and junk mail sitting by my front door. I expected a house or a meadow or something, but I was not expecting an empty expanse of sky and clouds. What do you do with an opening into the sky?

Having formally thrown reason, logic, and self-preservation to the wind, I leaned around the doorframe trying to find what I was looking at. As I peered through, all I saw was blue sky with the occasional break by a passing foggy cloud. Somewhere far, far below I saw the green shadow of earth sinning below, but up here there was nothing. The door hung suspended in the air, just as out of place as it was in my living room. At least that made me feel a bit better. Somewhere else had been a part of the mysterious door outbreak.

It did not, however, help to convince me I was not going insane.

I stepped around to the other wide of the door and looked through to the other side of my living room. At least this way I would still be able to see the TV if I did some minor rearranging. Stepping around to the front of the door, I was again met with a brilliant blue sky. Nothing in my meager life experiences prepared me for this. So, I called my girlfriend.

You might think that the thing to do would be to calmly explain the situation to her on the phone, explain how certain I was that something was wrong with me, and ask her to come to approve of my new illness. Then she could take me to the hospital. Maybe I should have done that, but instead I just asked her to come over. I had spent long enough staring and probing at the door that she assumed I was just home from work, and she agreed to swing over after she cleaned up from the gym. For my part, I closed the door and checked my house for gas leaks.

I was in the basement when she arrived and, unfortunately, our familiarity had bred a valued sense of comfort and ownership. By which I mean she did not wait for me to answer before charging into the house. I heard her calling for me, an edge of panic to her voice.

“What is that?” she asked, shocked. The front door was still open behind her. There was grass, trees, sidewalk, road, and cars behind her. Nothing like what was behind my newest door.

“Oh, good, you see it.”

“Of course I saw it. Did you think I was going to miss this giant home improvement problem? Did you get drunk or something?”

“I—No, I didn’t.” her eyes were stretched wide in amazement as she looked at me. I tried to smile, but she did not really seem to appreciate that. “I just woke up with it.”

“You woke up with a door?”

“I know, it’s crazy. I thought I was crazy.”

“So, is it like a practical joke or something?” her shock melted into wonder as she drew nearer to it. “I mean, it looks really real.”

I stepped around her to the opening and let my smile inch further along my cheeks. “If you think that looks real, then—“ I threw open the door, narrowly missing her nose with the force. She fixed me with an angry scare, but that disappeared as soon as she could take in what was on the other side. My attention on her face, it took me a couple of moments to realize that the view was completely different. The sky was now in its proper place above us, and the door was rooted firmly in loamy forest soil.

She was too intrigued by the new world to notice my mouth hanging open. I watched as she gazed through, leaned through, then passed around to the other side. Finally, she took a hesitant step through. My body came to life then and I grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”

There were bird sounds filtering through the door, and sunlight danced along the ground. Bright green trees as tall as come city buildings swelled before us as the scent of an undisturbed forest slowly filtered into my house. It was idyllic, which helped explain her confusion. “What’s the problem?”

“I just don’t know what’s in there. Or what it is.” My voice trailed off. It was a very inviting scene and there was nothing threatening about it. Nevertheless, I could not shake the slight discomfort that came from stepping through a doorway that appeared in my living room and opened into another world. “What if it closes?’

She took a quick, sudden breath. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I could see her mind whirring through options, her wanderlust triggered. “What if we drag your coffee table into the doorway?”

“I guess we could, but I don’t—“ She was already bent over, dragging the coffee table towards the doorway. “We don’t know what’s out there. This isn’t what you are supposed to do!”

“Oh, I forgot, could you go get the mystery doorway handbook form the bookshelf? I think we need chapter three.” Her flat stare along with her hands firmly on her hips told me all I needed to know. And, in some ways, she was right. What did I know about interdimensional doorways? And what was the harm of peeing through, especially since the door could not close on us now.

“Okay, but we don’t leave sight of the door.”

“Deal.”

I stepped through the doorway, and I would be lying if I said it was not the most magnificent moment of my life. Have you ever tasted completely clean air? Having been born and raised in the suburbs, I haven’t. I had also never heard birds singing so giddily or seen trees that grew so tall. Every step was a miracle.

Eventually, we heard voices bubbling from far away. The words were indistinguishable, and the syllables we could make out did not fit any language I had heard. It was a group of women winding their way through the woods. They talked and laughed freely, woven baskets perched on their hips.

“Are you seeing this?” She was gripping the edge of a tree and observing the women walking so far away. Their dress was archaic and drab, leaving no suspicion that we were simply on some secluded woodland form the world we knew.

“Of course. But we really should keep our distance—“

“Duh” she murmured as the women disappeared from view. “They’d probably think we’re witches or something.”

We did as promised and stayed within sight of the door. The sun was setting in the world—darkness already covered my living room on the other side of the door—when we finally made our way back. The coffee table was still there propping the door open, and there was no evidence that anything had disturbed our little portal.

Except for the bird sitting on the coffee table. It was pure white, about as large as a house cat, and ruffling its feathers as we approached. Once we got next to it, it took off, wings shimmering in the sunset lighting.

I was amazed. I have never seen something like that. The wings that stretched were easily five feet wide, made of hundreds of shimmer, translucent feathers. It cooed and trilled as it climbed towards the treetops, fleeing our approach.

I think that there must be magic in the world. Our day trip proved it.

We pulled the coffee table back fully into our dimension, brushing dirt back into the doorway. Then, we let it close.

“I can’t believe you called me before you explored that place,” she whispered as we leaned against the door.

“To be fair, that’s not what I got when I opened it.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was in the middle of the air. I would have been a red spot on the ground if I tried to explore.”

“So it moves?”

I shrugged as exhaustion pulled at me. “I guess.”

There were not words for us then. Instead, we slumped against the door and each other, both of our minds spinning along a million possibilities and realities. There was nothing in this that was normal, and I know I had no idea how you continued to live with this profound knowledge.

Sleep snuck up on us. She was gently snoring as my eyes sagged closed. We slept in front of our mystical portal into another world, overcome by the sheer wonder of what the world could be.

Of course, our peace was short lived. This morning, we woke to heavy knocks on the door. Someone’s fist was pounding against the wood, sending shivers running up and down it.

“Do we open it?” she asked, her eyes suddenly wide awake.

“They sound angry.”

She nodded, her mouth slightly open as we both stared at the door.

“I’m sure they’ll go away soon,” I added. Only they didn’t. Instead, the pounding increased, and now the entire door is shaking with the force of blows. It’s not a fist crashing down any longer, but something larger. In my mind, I see a battering ram slowly pulling back, then swinging down to slam against the wood and iron. The door shakes, quivering with each blow, but it has yet to crack or move.

I don’t know who is on the other side, but I hope it holds.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 81

Card Day 81: A hand holding a flaming torch, thrust out of choppy water.

“Freedom is what we seek today. My brother and sisters, too long we have allowed our human freedom to be curtailed in the name of the greater good. We have developed as a race that preserves itself, seeks its best interest, and is guided by the safety and nurturance of our community to continue our race. Freedom is equality. Freedom drives out fear. It is the fear by those in power that they may no longer lord over us that restricts our freedom. It is our own willingness to relinquish our God-given ability that allows them to stay in power while we suffer.

“King Wilfred knew this. That is why he entrusted us with such a huge responsibility. We stand at a great precipice today. Brothers and sisters, we can choose freedom. We can choose to rule ourselves, cast aside those who would tell us how to live, what to say, who to be, and what our worth is. Humanity is specially gifted with the freedom to choose our life, to reason, to act outside of the domain of primitive instinct. In the coming days, you will be given the choice. Will you choose the bit and saddle, continue to live in service of the chosen elite who lord it over you? Or will you stand with me and choose the dignity of human freedom to choose our own path in this world?

“You have the power to choose. Choose well, my friends.” Tasha stepped down from the hastily assembled podium. Her throat burned with the force of her words and her eyes felt like they were swimming. There had been so many people, so many faces turned to watch her. They were tired faces dressed in cheap rags; they were tired eyes carrying a life’s worth of stress. It was exhilarating and exhausting to speak that kind of passion into the world, but it at least flowed from her. Yes, the wise old king had seen the inherent ability of his people to choose the right path. Leaving no successors, he had cast the future of the kingdom on the people he served so faithfully. Now it was their turn to serve him. They could choose to live out their lives in freedom, without the tyrannical rule of power and government lording over them. Tasha believed in their value. She could only hope they did, too.

“Stunning speech, T.” She gave Saul a fake smile, but knew he saw through it to the fatigue beneath. He was always her greatest supported, likely because he was one of the few who understood what they were truly asking for. Complete freedom. It was a passion that knit them together closer than lovers.

“I’d say it gets easier to give each time, but it certainly does not.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You expect me to believe you’ve given that speech before? I’ve certainly never heard it.”

“Oh, Saul, you know what I mean. I preach the same ideas, even if the words might change around a bit”

He shook his head and laughed. “True, but that is what we call a different speech. The words do matter in speaking, after all.”

She shrugged. Adam had crawled onto the makeshift platform behind her, reminding the assembled people of the opportunity to speak their mind in two days’ time, how to champion for the freedom they preached, and another rousing discussion of the unique human choice of freedom. His voice was deeper, but somehow lacked the firm resolve of Tasha’s. It seemed to falter and waver a bit more, unsure of the next words. She smiled. He was learning, but it was a work in progress. Yet his youth assured his future success. After all, he had chosen this route in life.

“Have you eaten dinner yet? I was going to meet Andrea at the tavern to discuss tomorrow’s plans and outreach, if you would like to join.”

“If nothing else, I could use a drink. My throat is killing me.”

“Well, you were screaming over half of Welfordshire tonight.”

“After it’s all done, I may not speak for a year.”

“And hopefully you’ll be perfectly free to do so.” He gave her a week, linking his arm with hers as they walked. “It’s quite the vision we have, you know?”

She nodded.

“Tell me, what—“

Tasha cut him off. “Saul, old friend, I know you have never run out of words to say, but my throat aches and I have three more meetings with the people tomorrow. Could we for once walk in silence?”

He gave her an understanding smile. “Of course. But Andrea may pay the price for your vow of silence.”

_

The next day was a blur of similarly tired faces and ragged crowds. They seemed to come alive at her words, somehow overcoming the weight of the daily burden of work in mills, factories, and mines that ultimately would not fee their children. Tasha felt as if she were drawing back the curtain on a window, letting light stream in. There was hope in the future, and she could show it to them. She watched it bring them alive.

When the census taker arrived at the shop sh, Saul, Adam, Andrea, and assorted others had used as their base of operations, she stood proudly before them.

“I accordance with King Wilfred’s Final Decree, you all have been given the opportunity to select the new ruler of Corridale. May we have your choice?”

She stepped forward first and watched as the scribe readied his quill. “I choose no ruler.” The scribe dove towards the page, but then stopped just before the tip touched the paper.

“I’m sorry, madame, do you mean you abstain?”

Tasha beamed at the question. “No, sir. I mean that I wish to see each man and woman rule him or herself, fully embracing the freedom that makes us human.”

“I see.’ His quill hovered for a moment. “So, you vote for the people?” he offered, obviously searching for the best way to record the vote.

Tasha felt a shiver of unease sing through her body. Apparently, he had not heard too many of her votes. But, she quickly caught herself, theirs was also one of the first early morning stops, and in the midst of the business district. These were not the people who needed freedom from the powerful elite. “If that’s how you think bets to record it, then by all means.”

He smiled at her in thanks and wrote it down. The courier moved his eyes to Saul.

“The same. Let the people choose for themselves how to live.” One by one, each member of the small group voiced their support. At the end, the courier and scribe smiled, offered a shallow bow, and exited into the early morning light.

Giddiness and a victorious high rang in the shop among all those gathered. It was a high that carried them through the waiting, though Tasha struggled with the battle between the swell of hope and despair of uncertainty.

Her worst fears were confirmed when the final results spread across the city on a wave of gossip. Lord Milligan, a wealthy trader and business owner, had won the people’s hearts and, unfortunately, the crown.  Saul knew to find her in the dark, sheltered corner of their favorite tavern.

“Tasha,” he began as he slid into the chair across from her. There was an edge of anger and outrage in his voice. “We have to fight this. It isn’t right.”

She sighed and shrugged. “The people chose who they wanted, Saul. What do you suggest we do? Force them to choose freedom?”

“If that’s what it takes, then yes! They do not know that they’ve resold themselves to the devil.”

“So we should be the ones to choose, because we know what’s better for them?”

“Yes!” he agreed vehemently, passion and fury mixing in his eyes.

She took a long sip of her drink, letting it cool her throat that still ached from days and weeks spent preaching their gospel. “And I’m sure Lord Milligan will say the same, if you ask him.”

That quieted him and dimmed his rage.

“We lost, Saul. It hurts, yes, but ultimately the people chose.”

“I hear he paid them off. Offered them handfuls of gold to vote for him.”

She shrugged again. “Then they chose money over freedom.” Another long sip. “Perhaps that will leave them better off in the end.”

“So you’re just going to let it go? Let them steal freedom from everyone in Corridale?”

“Saul, the people chose. They simply did not choose us. We cannot force them to accept freedom.”

His anger crumbled into pity and confusion. “I just don’t understand why. We know it would be for the best, and they could see it, too. Why trade it all for some measly gold coins that only ensure their future enslavement?”

“We offered them something great, but it is not an easy burden. Sometimes freedom is simply the freedom to say no, no matter how good the idea may be.”

“Yes, but I don’t—“

“Saul?” her voice was soft and it caught him off guard, enough to interrupt his oncoming speech. He looked at her expectantly. “We’ve spilled plenty of words over this already. We lost. Our choice now is to accept it and move on, or try to force others to choose what we think would be for the best. Now, will you have a drink with me?”

His mouth opened and closed once, then again. Finally he waved over to the tavern owner.

The two old friends sat in silence, contemplating the complexity of losing because they got exactly what they wanted.


Eh, so this is not my favorite piece to date, I like the idea, but I think that trying to compress it all into one relatively short piece left it feeling a bit disjointed and rushed. Then again, I’m not sure if I would enjoy writing this in a much longer form. I like Tasha and Saul, and I like the idea of a fantasy-political style story, but I’m not sure how interesting that would be overall. Still, I think I like the quality of my writing in this for the most part (with the somewhat formal sounding dialogue being intentional), even if the plot is not my absolute favorite of the challenge. Who knows, maybe inspiration will strike and I will figure out how to fix this. As is, i will simply leave it as a considerable attempt, though not a resounding success.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 80

Card Day 80: A boy riding a white horse across a chasm on a rainbow bridge. He stands on arid, cracked ground to move towards the lush, green other-side.

Nolan knew he was making the best decision, but it did not feel like it. It felt terrifying and wrong. It was the right decision, but he still felt the relentless pull to turn back and carry on with life as he knew it, never chancing to escape the box he had made for himself. The box was cramped and tight, but it had all the things he liked inside. There was comfort, warmth, safety, complacence, and boredom. But was that so bad? Having thrown open the doors and considered the possibilities, it seemed exhilarating. At least, it had. Now it felt stupid.

Did people actually dive out of safety and into the world like this?

His legs were bouncing, heels of his newly-shined shoes thumping against the tile. He caught his own eyes in the shined reflection, and he could see the absolute terror plastered there. He only hoped that the interviewer would not. The tie around his neck seemed to be a noose snaking tighter, threatening to cut off all his air. Even now, he felt as if he could not breathe. There was not enough air in the stuffy office building, and he was wearing a noose. What a brilliant idea.

Nolan shuffled his resume and cover letter again. The pages kept getting out of lie, jutting out at weird angles. He also noticed the sweaty indentations of his fingers on the pages, leaving tiny creases and general sogginess on the cheap paper. Everyone had told him to use heavyweight paper, but he had refused—he as great at ignoring good advice. Now look at the mess he had.

He looked out the wide, glass doors. It was sunny outside, a beautiful day. He was used to working outside, and he felt some part of his soul yearning for the bright sunlight on his skin. It took him a few moments to remind himself that he did, in fact, hate working outside. It was fine this time of year when the sun was warm, but gentle. In a month, the heat would be unbearable, and only a few weeks back, the cold had nearly cost him some fingers. But as he sat in the crisp, climate-controlled lobby, it felt like the lesser of two evils.

Was he going to throw up? His stomach was a stampede, charging up and down his esophagus. “Deep breaths,” reminded Brady’s cool voice in his head. Yeah, his friend had certainly given him his fair share of ribbing for the career change, but he did also seem to have his best interest at heart. The advice from over a couple beers the night before was filtering in, and most of it was not as helpful as Nolan had hoped. It all sounded good—wear the blue tie, shine your shoes, unbutton your coat when sitting down—but now it left him feeling like a kid playing dress up in a stranger’s clothes. Still, he did try to take a couple deep breaths, even though it felt like the tie was cutting into his throat with every great gulp of air.

The secretary sat behind her tall desk, her eyes glazed over on some screen tucked beneath the counter. He knew that look. She was checking Facebook. Cognitively, he knew that should make him feel better. It didn’t. He imagined that she probably had an even better Facebook than he did. She probably knew of even better sites. Nolan sighed and buried his face in his hands. He was so out of his element here. This is what happened when you reached for the stars. Humans weren’t made for the stars, and you suffocated.

His steps were loud on the tile, making him feel even more out of place. He felt as if every eye in the building turned towards him and his stomping disturbance. Nolan smiled hesitantly at the woman behind the desk.

“Can I help you?” Her smile seemed genuine, but he felt she did it out of pity. Look at the poor, lumbering man trying to fit in at a classy business center.

“Uh, yeah, I have an interview at 12:30—“ she nodded and he saw her eyes dart towards the clock. He knew he was early, and she apparently now knew he was a nervous wreck. “So, I know I have time. I as just going to step outside for a minute, if that’s okay?” He chuckled uncomfortably, but her smile never wavered.

“Sure, that’s fine. If Mr. Brooker gets out early, I’ll come and get you.”

“Oh, no, I’ll only be a minute I don’t want to bother you or anything.”

She waved him off, returning to her computer screen. “No problem. The exercise and fresh air would be good for me.”

“Uh, thanks,” stumbled Nolan as he turned away. The stampede was back, and he felt as if the tall walls of the lobby were collapsing in on him. His first gasp of the springtime air outside flooded his lungs, peeling away the recycled air flavor that had taken up residence.

Nolan stretched and felt the soft breeze tug at his suit coat. It snaked in and cooled him down, wiping away the sweat that prickled at all those anxiety points. The sound of traffic surged around him, honking horns and the flurry of acceleration. A bus trundled past with a clinging cloud of exhaust and passengers looking blankly from the dark windows. The sidewalk stretched beneath his feet, and Nolan felt a distinct and almost irresistible call from it. Just start walking, it whispered. Go back home, pick up your tools, and get back out there. This wasn’t him. He was the kind of guy who would break his back working day in and day out to earn a pittance. How dare he try t for something so beyond him.

Reach for the stars and you would certainly fail more often than not. Maybe it was better to just live peacefully on the earth?

As if to remind him of his cause. Nolan’s knees began to ache. Yes, he was too young to have those aching knees. They meant that the next few years of his life would be waves of increasing pain, leading to a middle adulthood full of pain and bitterness. It would get bad enough that he could not work, and he would find himself searching for a job, but even older and more set in his ways. This was a chance to find the dream job he had always feared seeking, but now he remembered why it was such a daunting prospect.

Nolan drank deep of the relatively fresh air before shoving back through the glass doors. The secretary glanced up at him with a smile, then returned to her work. He settled back into his previous seat, finally unclenching his fists from around the papers he had brought and laying them on the bench beside him.

Deep breaths.

The door opened, and Nolan watched as a man in a pale blue shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, walked out of the large mahogany doors. He leaned over the desk to talk with the secretary, and she gestured towards Nolan.

In that moment, Nolan’s heart froze in his chest. He expected it to start racing, but instead it stopped. The whole world swam past him with the smiling man walked briskly across the floor. Somehow, some signal trickled from his brain and down to his legs, helping him stand. His hand stretched out to meet the presumed Mr. Brooker’s outstretched one.

“Mr. Walters?” His eyes were bright blue behind smudged glasses.

Slowly, Nolan returned to the world. He felt the strong grip of the man, the callouses covering his hands. They witnessed to a man who knew what a day’s hard work felt like.

“Yes sir,” came the words, a beat too late, but not long enough to be a huge blunder. At least he could take solace in that. “It’s nice to meet you,” he added in a rush.

“Pleasure to meet you, too. So, how about we head to my office and get this interview business taken care of?” He took a step back and gestured to the open door. Nolan nodded numbly and followed the man back into the room, hearing his own steps echo Mr. Brooker’s heavy trod.

The heavy door swung closed behind them, and Mr. Brooker pointed to two chairs seated off to the side. “You don’t mind if I have the windows open, do you? If I’m going to be cooped up all day, I need some of this fresh spring air!” The man gave a surprisingly sincere chuckle.

“No, not at all. I like it.”

“Then I think we’re going to have a great time chatting. So, tell me Mr. Walters—“

“Nolan.” The correction surprised him, but felt natural. Mr. Brooker smiled.

“I should have asked. Call me Will. So, Nolan, I know you don’t have the background, but your program design sample was very impressive. Tell me, how did you end up interested in technology?”

The mild praise caught Nolan off guard, but Will simply smiled at him. There was no pressure, no waiting. In fact, the man seemed genuinely impressed and curious. With a deep breath, Nolan dove in to his response; this was one Brady practiced with him, and he felt his generally calm and friendly demeanor returning.

As the words tumbled out of his mouth, Nolan realized that he might just have made the right choice. Whether or not this worked, he had tried, he had resisted the call of the sidewalk, and he had beaten back his anxiety. And that itself was an accomplishment.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 79

Card Day 79: A pocket watch missing its hands. The inside cover of the watch is the night sky filled with stars.

At some point, Rufus had stopped listening to the news. There was a flurry or terror when the story first broke, a steady stream of change deniers and change supported. Eventually, the results were so profound that any argument over the phenomenon stopped. The conversation turned to solutions and decrying the cruel fates that had forced such a random punishment on the poor inhabitants of earth. When humanity’s solution fell flat and began to approach the comical—for a while, people had actually considered attaching rockets to mountain peaks along the equator—others turned to more cosmic considerations. This was the judgment of an angry god, humanity’s last gasps before fading into the emptiness of space. Some said the world would in I fire, other ice. In the end, they were both right.

The news was not helpful when it all took was a step outside to see what had happened. It’s amazing how quickly civilization can break down when the laws of nature suddenly stop working. Earth’s rotation had slowed, minutely at first but dropping speed by the day, and now it was synchronous with the orbit around the sun. The earth was now split down the middle, one half existing in eternal sunshine while the other withered in eternal night. Of course, the sudden flooding of tidal areas due to the loss of force keeping the oceans distributed meant many people vanished under a surge of water. Most of the survivors migrated towards the sunny side of the world, which only served to exacerbate the growing water shortage. It seemed the world’s rivers, ocean’s, lakes, and streams did not do well under the constantly glaring eye of the sun.

Rufus preferred the night, however. Maye it as because there were fewer people, or because it was quieter, or because he had always had fair skin and wanted to avoid the sunburn. Whatever the case, he had set up residence in what used to be Oklahoma. It was barren now, which might not have been that much of a change from its previous splendor. Rufus only moved there after the cataclysm rearranged the world. Without sunlight, plants died. Without plants, animals died or migrated to literally greener pastures. Without animals, Rufus had the world to himself. There was enough canned and boxed food in the local grocery stores to keep him fed for quite a while. Longer than he expected the rest of the world to live, anyway. Admittedly, his predictions for how long the rest of the world would survive stuck on an island less than half the surface of the previous landmass with rapidly diminishing fresh water and enough food to feed a fraction of the population was relatively grim. He had never been much of an optimist.

He had never been much of a people person, either, so he enjoyed the solitude beneath the night’s stars. The power grid had been down for a while now, and it was night to see how many stars really were out there. The wind twisted through the corpses of trees still standing tall, whistling around the doorframes and reminding him to grab his jacket before leaving. The cold was one thing he had not gotten used to, and it seemed to get colder by the day. The world needed sunlight, but that was one thing in short supply.

No point in wasting his day, he supposed. It was nice to live his life in tune with his own bodily clock, not bound to wake and sleep based on the cycle of some distant celestial body. He had been awake for a bit under an hour, but he felt alert and ready to find some more food. The grumbling of his stomach also drove him out into the elements, out of the quaint farmhouse where he had been sleeping. Unfortunately, the food supply nearby was running out, and he would likely not be returning to the cozy home. Rufus ran his flashlight over the walls, lingering over the smiling family portraits on the mantle. As far as he knew, he had scavenged everything of value from the home, including a couple remaining cans of vegetables and a heavy wool blanket. Still, he always felt a little pang of regret when he left a place that he had settled into. If he were smart, he would stop finding the little details of a building that made him feel at home—like the wingback chair next to the fireplace here. But he appreciated the small comforts, reminding him that he was human, even if these were his last days.

Rufus secured his pack to his back, shuffling his shoulders until the canned food no longer stabbed him in the back. He pulled on his gloves and tugged his mask down over his face. It was cold enough to be uncomfortable, even if it was not cold enough to kill him instantly. Perhaps he could find an outdoor goods store for some winter-weight clothing.

The trek was cold and lonely, but Rufus let his thoughts wander. He had always been the introspective sort, and so the long walks between homes and stores was not a major concern. He traveled the abandoned skeleton of the highway system, drifting down forgotten slabs of asphalt that drilled through the forgotten natural world. It was strange to walk through such nothingness for so long, without even the sound of crickets or birds to break the silence, but it was a sound he had come to appreciate. He heard his feet on the ground and his breath in the air. There was a simple symphony to it that he appreciated.

An exit split from the main road, forgotten signs promising three gas stations ahead. While not the largest selection, they at least tended to have a wide selection of nonperishable goods. The best part of living in the midst of the apocalypse was no more worries about junk food and health food. The earth as going to kill him long before that soda and bag of potato chips would. And it wasn’t like he did not have ample opportunity to work off the calories. Besides, there was no one left to impress besides a few hold outs like himself.

He wandered down the exit ramp, studying the stars above the skeletal trees. It would have been nice if he could have named them but, as a kid who grew up miles from a metropolis, this was the first time he had seen most of them. His mind connected the dots nonetheless, and he saw some familiar friends up there smiling down on him. They continued to trek across the sky each day, moving just a little further away. It was the only way he knew that the earth was still moving at all. Rufus let his thoughts wander among them. Maybe there were others out there, another world just starting out, spinning around its own sun happily. Earth’s time might be up, but perhaps others were just building civilization. Maybe they were dreaming about advanced civilizations among the stars. Maybe a recluse like him was wondering if there were empty planets where he could make his home.

The windows of the first gas station had already been broken, and Rufus felt his spirits drop. Fortunately, his flashlight showed a ransacked but intact collection of food. It seemed as if the medical and automotive sections had been more heavily looted. Probably by families trying to escape back to sunlight. Even though he chose to stay, he couldn’t help but feel hopeful that they had found sunnier shores.

There were only a couple of bottles of water left, mostly trampled but still intact. He scooped them up placing one in his pack while he gulped greedily at the other. The walk and the wind had left his throat dry and aching, so the icy water was a relief. He also grabbed a bag of jerky from the shelf, chewing on it as he perused the racks.

Another flashlight and back of batteries were important, as well as a foil wrapper of two pain relievers. The medical section was pretty picked clean, but he found one coil of bandages beneath the shelf. Rufus also grabbed a bag of socks. He generally took what he needed from the houses he stayed in, but it was nice to have socks that no one had worn to threads already.

Finally, he grabbed a beer from the defunct coolers. As cold as it was outside, the drink was still nicely chilled. It was important to keep his wits about him in this world, but it was also important to enjoy the life he had left. Rufus made another circuit of the store as he slowly savored his beverage. He loaded up a couple bags of chips—they did not provide much satiation, but they were delicious—the remaining jerky on the shelf, and the three remaining cans of condensed soup. It was not a bounty, but it was something.

Rufus surveyed the remains. There was some food left, but he always wanted to leave something for the next traveler. He moved around enough that there were always fresh convenient stores full of food, so no need to load himself down too much and hoard what little there was here. He would find the next one, take anything of use, and continue down the road until he tired. If he was lucky, he’d make it to the next town and find someplace to set up for a few days. Rufus smiled. The other stations would likely have even better loot given that they were a couple of yards further from the highway.

Stepping out, Rufus froze, his drink falling from his hands and shattering on the ground. The sound was impossibly loud in the silent world, but Rufus was deaf to it.

He only had eyes for the pale light on the horizon, the rising sun returning to the darkened world.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.