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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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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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Card Challenge: Day 78

Card Day 78: Falling water droplet holding a sun, windswept trees, a snake, a man, water, a butterfly, a fetus, and stones.

Vivia traced the path of water down the windowpane with her finger, watching as the droplets splashed and tumbled down the clear class toward uncertain end. There was a prickle of giddiness in the exercise as she tried to imagine what the route might be, but she was ultimately as surprised as the water droplet was. Or she presumed it was. That raised another interesting question. Did the droplet realize where it was and decide where to go? Did it select each fork in the road or did gravity and friction decide for it? Her eyes searched along the droplets for any hint, but they were stalwart and silent. Just as well, she sighed. It would have robbed some of the magic of it.

The wondering was good, and Vivia felt her brain stretch with the exercise. It was a nice way to shuffle back some of the loneliness, even if the reprieve was remarkably brief. The feeling of companionship with the inanimate rain droplets dwindled, but she found her eyes drawn back again and again to their trails. Some part of her was still concerned with the end of their journey. Perhaps that part should be equally as concerned about her end.

That thought served to redouble the emptiness of her room. It was a stone room, decorated with restrained finery. The bed was plush and soft, though it was nothing more than a plain white lump against the wall. Fresh food arrived three times a day with the same restrained delicacy—fine ingredients combined in mundane combinations. The large window generally let in copious light, though today it bristled with storm clouds. That again was fitting, she decided. Perhaps it was even an intentional reflection of someone’s sorrow for her predicament. She liked to believe that someone out there was on her side.

With a sigh, she collapsed into the wooden chair in the corner, gazing out over the empty and sparse room. It was all the luxury she was accustomed to, simply separated from its usual elegance.  It felt silly that they took such care to provide for her comfort when they were, in fact, about to completely destroy her life as she knew it. Yet she had her feather pillow at night.

Feathers were no better at soaking up her tears than a straw mat would have been.

There was a gentle knock on her door—they still pretended she had enough power that one should knock before entering. She wondered if she simply did not speak if the courier would leave the door. She could ride out the rest of her life in this bland cocoon, gazing out at the majestic landscape now covered in fog. These thoughts still danced in her head as the door creaked open.

“Milady Vivia?” squeaked the voice, obviously terribly uncomfortable at the intrusion.

She rose from the chair with a whisper of silk. “I assume they are ready to pronounce their judgment.”

“Yes,” came the response with a sigh of relief, even though it was not a question. She walked towards the door and her ill-burdened messenger opened it wider to admit the guards. They raised silver links in their meaty hands with an apologetic tone.

“We have to obey our orders, Milady.” The ogres did their best not to manhandle her more than necessary as they directed her down the corridors, but she still arrived in the main chamber feeling harried.

“Vivia,” grumbled the silver-haired man from atop his high seat. There was a strange mix of anger, sorrow, and disappointment in his eyes. She deflected that with staunch pride and aloofness, never quite meeting his eyes. He was beneath her and in the wrong. She knew it and he likely had a pretty good idea of it as well.

“You know why you are here?” His voice was the echoing of a storm on the horizon. Once, she had loved the gravelly rumble, but now it left her feeling bitter. That thunder no longer brought the gentle summer rains, but unleashed a torrent that would soon wash her away.

“Because justice,” she spat the word, her eyes roving over the assembled figures with disdain, “must be served.” Her mimicry did not go unnoticed.

“Vivia, we do not want to do this,” said a woman with a shimmering voice. Vivia turned to fix her with a withering stare, but felt an internal prickle as the other woman wilted. Her generally sunny, bright face dimmed to match the cloudy skies outside. At least someone seemed to care.

“Oh, plenty of you want to. Otherwise I would not stand before you in judgment today.”

“You stand here because you killed one of your own!” roared a small man from the other side of the room. He had a stiff and wooden appearance, his skin gnarled like the old oaks that grew by the river. Vivia’s iciness never wavered, and she covered his rage in a heavy frost.

“That is true. I killed him before he could wipe away humanity as we know it.”

“That was not your decision to make,” thundered the leader again. This time he stood, drawing all eyes to him with deference. All except Vivia’s whose instead slowly wandered across the assembled until they found his. She smiled.

“Maybe not, but at least I made one.”

A whisper scuttled along the rest of the waiting faces, dying out just as it reached its swell. Her impudence did not pass without note.

“As have we.” He was the only one who could meet her eyes.

“An eye for an eye, right?”

There was a ripple of anger and sorrow in his eyes. “No, bloodshed must not lead to more bloodshed. There is no justice in such a world.”

For the first time since she entered the room, Vivia faltered. She had marched proudly to her death, and this was unexpected. Nonetheless, she kept her wits about her enough to seal her lips.

“You will be exiled.”

The only measureable change in Vivia’s appearance was the way the blood faded from her cheeks, leaving her a statue carved from marble. Her eyes wavered and blinked, but maintained their intensity.

“Then do it,” she said tersely, her jaw clenched so tight the words barely escaped.

The small, withered man stepped down from his seat and walked before her. He raised a knotted finger and tapped her forehead three times while muttering. With sudden speed, his gnarled nails dug into her arms, drawing a pinprick of blood. And then there was darkness.

_

Vivia woke up and felt the frailty of humanity in her bones. Her body ached, as did her head. A strange pain arced from the front to the back of her skull and back again, leaving stars in her vision. The name Hannah echoed in her mind, and she turned it over gingerly, probing at it as if it would reveal some great secret. All she got was a series of memories and associations spinning around her own lofty knowledge. Apparently, Hannah was her new—albeit unwilling—host. Hannah.

Vivia certainly preferred her name, but she could spend some time as Hannah if that was what it took. The ground beneath her was hard and cold. Vivia liked the cold, but did not like the way the stones dug into her shoulder blades. Filled with energy and powered by her anger, she vaulted to her feet. Others pushed past and around her, caught up in the bustle of a market and never noticing the woman who had collapsed and revived in the middle of the streets. Just as they wanted, she was sure.

Vivia turned to face the sun, seeing the white hot sphere hanging in the sky. She stared it down as her human eyes watered and withered. Human eyes prevented her from seeing them sitting up there, but she was sure they could see her. She wanted them to see her. The heat and light of the sun burned at her eyes, and she only turned away when it came time to blink away the tears. But a determined smile peeked from the corners of her lips and she surveyed her new people.

She might not be a god any longer, but she would be worshipped.


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Card Challenge: Day 77

So, this idea I like, but I really wanted to stretch it out and make it EVEN longer. But I didn’t. I may return to this later, after the challenge, and flesh it out to be what I want. As always, I hope you enjoy!


Card Day 77: A wall of vines. Some are wrapped around a knife, slowly cutting through other segments of the vine.

Finding the tree was happenstance, but Camilla found the discovery filled her with a mingled feeling of awe and discomfort. It rose mightily into the sky, but it was oddly bound by clinging, woody vines. They snaked around the tree from tip to root, their leaves covering the bountiful boughs. It was, in fact, a tree constructed out of staunch green vines. That was the amazing part.

The discomfort arose because she was somehow certain and inexplicably saddened by the realization that there was almost certainly an actual tree caged inside those vines. Perhaps once tall and beautiful in its own right, it had been strangled to make room for the natural oddity. She walked around the base of the tree, pacing its impressive girth, and studying the vines that scaled the bark—or the presumed bark—so effortlessly.

Camilla felt a small sense of accomplishment at discovery the unique find—or, at least, she thought it was unique. Then again, she had very little frame of reference as this was only her first of two months with her grandmother for the summer. And she had only spent a short while exploring the woods, having quickly grown tired of the spotty satellite TV and limited reading selection. Her grandmother swore they would go to the library in town soon, but Camilla had grown antsy around the house. Besides, her grandmother, seeing her determination to explore the vast wilderness, had promised her that there were arrowheads and other artifacts from native tribes out there, scattered all around the county. Camilla had set off as a daring explorer, and now, looking at this tree, she felt a prickle of satisfaction at her exploratory skills.

Still, the discomfort remained. It took her a few minutes to understand it, a few minutes more to place it. As soon as Camilla considered her mother and father—their strict rules, minute-by-minute schedules, and sky-high expectations—the impact of the tree sank in. Yes, she could certainly understand the feeling of being strangled by outsiders, cut off from the sun, covered up to look more presentable. At least out here, her grandmother could barely see well enough to know that she was wearing any clothes, nonetheless how fashionable. There were no camps, extracurricular, practices, recitals, rehearsals, classes, or tutors to keep her time. Camilla enjoyed the sense of freedom she had to simply wander, even if the television selection had been lackluster thus far.

Camilla let her pity move her to action. The tree was certainly dead she knew, even with her limited knowledge of botany. But she felt the sudden urge to free it, to peel away the vines and discover the once mighty tree beneath. Or, she reasoned, at least find out if there truly was bark underneath. Perhaps the vines had simply opted to mimic the incredible stature of the surrounding trees.

Her nails were short, brittle and no match for the thick vines on the tree. She was able to wrestle one or two small sections off, leaving the pale green stems in a heap on the ground. But the work was slow. She had barely made a dent before her fingers were already aching. Sweat dripped down her nose in response to the good Southern summer, and she examined mere negligible work. Still, she felt pretty certain that she could see a bit of bark hiding beneath the layered tendrils. There was certainly something darker than the light-colored vines underneath.

She returned to the work, pulling at the vines until she had uncovered a small section about the size of a dinner plate. It was slow work, but got a bit easier as she unknotted some tangles and could peel away larger chunks. Underneath, she saw twisted grey bark, as well as a distinct darkness of some hollow. The emptiness inside seemed to stretch on indefinitely, and this only served to further pique her curiosity.

A mix of her own interest and sense of purpose left her dedicated. The old tree could have one last taste of freedom, she decided as guilt over her own freedom threatened to overwhelm her. But it would not be today. She knew if she spent much longer wandering in the woods, her grandmother would start to worry. The last thing Camilla needed was the small town’s volunteer fire department swarming the woods looking for her.

She made it back, hot, tired, but still pleased with her outing. The day passed with the same sluggishness of all the previous. Then again, everything moved slower in the summer heat. Camilla found her thoughts circling back to the tree time and time again, curiosity keeping her mind engaged as she washed the dishes, put away the leftovers from dinner, and watched the nightly news beside her grandmother. When evening finally settled firmly around the house, plunging it into that true darkness that surrounds country homes far from city lights, Camilla thought she would never get to sleep.

But the summer day had easily sapped her of what energy she had. The cool sheets, a breeze ruffling through her window, and she was asleep.

Her sleep was not restful, however. It was plagued by fitful sleep and a sense of foreboding in even the most mundane dreams. She sat on the front porch, rocking side by side with her grandmother in the oversized wicker chairs. Suddenly, it began to rain. The dream had nothing worthy of concern, but it seemed as if it was tinged with foreboding, with the unshakable sense that something was encroaching.

Simple dreams built until she found herself standing before the vine-bound tree. All the veiled threat from her previous dreams coalesced into the green structure. Camilla’s fingers gripped the vines, tugging and pulling them away. As they came apart, her hands quickly became coated with sticky sap—with blood. She dug through the bleeding vines with a fury that surprised her, even as the vines began to scream. They lashed out at her, scraping at her arms as her blood mingled with its. Finally, she pulled back from the tree, panting It lay bare again, bark twisted and gnarled up towards the sky. She could even see the individual branches, arms outstretched in exultation of freedom.

Even more intriguing, she could see the hollow stretching back into the tree. It seemed to be less of a hollow and more of an opening leading into some shadowy cave. In the dream, cold air billowed from the cave while the vines still screamed pitifully behind her. As she approached the opening, two red eyes appeared in the darkness, followed by a sudden flash of teeth,

Camilla woke with a start, sweaty sheets tangled around her limbs. The sun was pouring in, and the cool of the evening was already moving towards a sultry morning. From downstairs, she could hear bacon sizzling over the drone of the morning news. Her grandmother was up, and breakfast would be ready soon. Camilla stomped to the bathroom and turned on the creaking faucet. The shower water always ran so cold in the morning, and it was slow to heat. Still, the time away from her dreams allowed them to fade until the dissipated like the steam rising from the shower. Camilla rinsed away the fear and sweat of the night, ready for another day.

It was easy to sneak the knife out of the kitchen drawer; her grandmother’s hearing and vision were nowhere near the superhuman ability level Camilla’s mother professed in childhood memories.

“Going for a walk, Meemaw,” she said with a smile. The old woman smiled in return, knitting in her rocking chair while some gameshow droned on behind her.

“Just be careful and don’t stay out too late. I thought we’d go to the library today. Maybe after my nap?”

“I’ll make sure I’m back.” Camilla paused on her way out the door and then turned back to grab the flashlight from the hall closet. She wanted to really explore that tree, and it might mean peering into that hollow a bit more.

Had she not been carrying the knife, Camilla would have run to the tree. As it was, she had to pick her way carefully through the underbrush, always conscious of the dangerous tool in her backpack. Out here, she could not afford to fall and stab herself. The same thought returned. There was no need to rally the entire fire department just to find she had tripped over a log and stabbed herself. If she survived, she would never live down the embarrassment. That and her parents would probably never let her leave the house again.

It stood regally as ever in its clearing, perhaps looking even more alive now that a small patch of the tree shone though. It was as if the tree was breathing for the first time in years, and that made Camilla happy. If the tree could be free, she could to. With an eagerness that overcame the soreness of her tired fingers, she set to work sawing through the vines.

It was hot work and the vines would not give easily. Every now and then, Camilla had flashes of her dream, of sticky, bloody sap covering her hands. But in the dappled sunlight of late morning, it was hard to take such things seriously. Besides, she felt a deep sense of peace with her task, and she was far too old, or so she told herself, to be worried about silly dreams.

The vines fell away, revealing more and more of the dried bark. The massive tree required far more work than she had anticipated, and she had drenched her light t-shirt by the time she worked her way around the trunk. There was not much she could do for the upper branches, but she had done a little good.

After finished, she was surprised to see the same gaping hollow from her dream. It was a marvel that the tree was even standing with its whole bottom emptied out. Just like the dream, the darkness inside seem to stretch back and downward, almost like the mouth of a tunnel. Camilla understood the risk. There were likely animals living in there, or maybe a sinkhole or something. It was certainly dangerous. But she also felt that her hard work needed a reward. And the mystery was simply too much to pass up.

She would not go far inside, she resolved, and she would get out if she heard anything that might be an animal. It was not like the tunnel could go far, anyway. But as she shined the beam of her flashlight inside, it was met with darkness as far back as the light could travel.

Camilla stepped cautiously inside, half expecting the cool air from the dream. Instead, the inside of the tree was warm and muggy. It smelled like old, damp earth and soft wood. She pushed steadily inward, eyes wide with a mix of fear and excitement.

Just a few feet in, the tunnel leveled off into a small room. She judged the distance and guessed she was only about five feet beyond the tree at this point, and the low ceiling had already caved in at some points. That was the sign of danger she had been waiting on, and she sighed. Time to turn back.

Before she did, however, she wanted to see what lay in the middle of the room. It was a stone circle that appeared set into the dirt floor, and her flashlight seemed to trip and stumble across scraped indentions. Some sort of markings? Once she was close enough, she could see strange marking all along it. They did not appear random, as if the rain and soil had eroded them, but more intentional. There was almost a pattern to the markings, not that it meant anything to her. As she stopped over, Camilla thought she felt a hand suddenly in the middle of her back, shoving her forward. She tumbled towards the stone, catching herself with her hands as she skidded over the roughhewn surface.

Her hands were scraped and bloody, and there was a splash of blood now obscuring some of the marking. Camilla glanced around, her flashlight scanning the unnaturally heavy shadows, but there was nothing there besides some hanging tree roots and stones. No one was nearby. Maybe it was a breeze, she told herself, or perhaps she hit a patch of wet leaves or mud. Either way, Camilla suddenly did not like the way the shadows seemed to claw at her flashlight or how the forest sounds had faded so dim in the dark recesses of the tunnel. She burst back out into the hot summer air, surprised at the goosebumps crawling along her skin.

The sun was further along in the sky than it should have been, and Camilla readily accepted the excuse to return home. She did want to go to the library after all.

Of course, by the time she got home and got cleaned up, her grandmother was already complaining about how late it was. The woman liked her dinner promptly at five, and a trip into town now would delay that by a good half hour. If Camilla had learned anything about her grandmother, it was that the woman did not like her routine disrupted. It was what came from marrying a military man or at least so Camilla’s mother said.

The strange cavern seemed to follow Camilla just as the tree had. Only, this time, there was no sense of wonder. The feeling of crouching doom from her dream slithered into reality, and Camilla felt herself on edge. She tried to talk to her grandmother, but neither of them was able to focus on the conversation long enough to get anywhere.

Camilla felt weariness tug at her bones as the sunburn from her day’s foolhardy adventure settled in. Her sheets were and icy balm as she sank into them, and her thoughts spun around the hollow of the tree. It was unsettling, distressing, and strangely exhilarating. Nevertheless, her eyes grew heavy in the natural dark.

Again, Camilla dreamed.

This time, however, the dreams were not of foreboding or evil, but she felt liberated. Camilla was flying along the underbrush in the woods, her feet barely touching the ground. Her body moved impossibly fast, dodging saplings and bushes as darkness wrapped around her. She heard her own heavy panting in her ears as she thundered along. She was limitless.

Camilla felt herself stop, even though she had not realized she wanted to. It was as if someone else controlled the body, and she was along for the ride. Either way, the feeling was thrilling. Her rapid flight came to an abrupt halt as she began moving slowly, intentionally towards a shadowed house on the horizon. Camilla recognized the little farm house. She walked towards it, taking note of the open window on the second floor with the fluttering white curtains. Her bedroom widow, open as always. With an effortless leap, she was on the eaves and slinking towards her open window.

Camilla caught sight of her body lying in the bed, snoring softly with each rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was a mess tossed about the pillows, and one leg jutted awkwardly off the bed. All was well. Then, Camilla caught her own reflection in the mirror

Red eyes, jagged teeth, and a coalescing shadowy body. The sight was terrifying, but Camilla saw familiarity in the glowing red eyes. Her terror ebbed slightly as another presence, a grateful one, nudged up against her own thoughts. Without a word, Camilla and whatever she was accompanying spun from the window and disappeared back into the woods.

The run through the forest was indescribable. She felt the chill of moonlight on her skin—it was like the warmth of sunlight on the first spring day, but instead carried the chill of the moon on a heavy summer’s night. The loam of the underbrush was soft under her feet, springy enough to propel her forward through the trees like an undirected missile.

Then, again, there was calm. Her motion still, and she slunk low to the ground. Farmer Drury’s fence rose into view, as well as he slumbering herd of cattle. Without understanding what was happening, the ground rushed beneath Camilla and there was the taste of metal and meat in her mouth. Sudden noises of panicking livestock flooded her ears, but Camilla simply tasted the blood that trickled down her throat. She reveled in the feel of her teeth—sharp and deadly—tearing through fresh meat. She relaxed in the feeling of satiation as she had her fill.

The next morning, Camilla woke refreshed, the taste of blood and freedom still lingering on her tongue.


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Card Challenge: Day 76

Card Day 76: A fairy rescuing a small boy from the gaping maw of a green, dragon-like monster.

Brandon knew that he should have gone home hours ago, but wisdom had not won out. Instead, he was still attached to his dim seat at the sticky bar, eyes glazed and glass empty. He was drunker than he should have been, but still passed his most important test. He knew he was drunk, so that meant he could not be that drunk. Even though his stumbled and slumped against the chair when he stood—probably his legs had fallen sleep from sitting in the same position and same chair since the bar was full of Friday night hopefuls drinking to celebrate making it through the week. Now it was just clogged with the sad remnants who drank to make it to Saturday.

Alcohol was an effective, if blunt, tool, equally dimming all sensations until Brandon could experience his world from an arm’s length. Everything seemed distant, almost as if he were watching a video through someone else’s eyes. That at least explained why his arms and legs felt unstable even after his twenty-something years of experience with them.

Brandon was resolved not to be one of the regulars who remained there until grimy sunshine crept in and the lights went off. No, he had standards and enough sense to get home before he fell asleep in the quiet room. The raging pulsing music from earlier had faded to old and well-worn favorites; there was nothing to keep his mind from turning back to the sad thoughts he drank to forget.

He stumbled out the door, shocked into a higher level of sobriety by the surprisingly chill. It was late fall, so it made sense that it would be getting cool, but it had ben pleasant when he entered the bar. Then again, the sun had also been up. He rubbed his arms briskly, feeling the chill bumps already growing on his arms, and turned left down the street. No matter how drunk or not he was, he never drove home from the bar. It was just asking for bad decisions. And so he set off, walking through the dark streets under anemic pools of artificial light.

This part of town was not frequently traveled at night, so the lights alternated on and off in an attempt to save power. The whole city was spending itself into poverty, but at least they were saving some electricity.

He stumbled on his own feet, sliding against the brick wall beside him and banging his shoulder sharply. The pain radiated through his shoulder as he let out a few choice words. Apparently he was drunker than he thought, especially if he could not even walk home successfully.

Another mistake, another failure, and another disappointment. He leaned against the wall and considered his predicament grimly. He was a coward hiding behind alcohol s if it would bandage all the wounds he had given in his time. His own soul lay in tatters under his rage, and he left a path of destruction through the lives of others. The beers were simply his attempt to anesthetize that violent part of himself, preserve himself and others. Only it was a futile practice that left him alternatively numb and raging.

No matter how carefully he medicated, he ended up hurting himself—if he was lucky—or others either way.

Brandon tried to reason with himself, reminding himself that the alcohol made his thoughts darker than reality. But his inner self refused to accept his logic, instead wrapping himself in that cold blanket and shutting out any outside help. Irritated at his own stubbornness, Brandon pushed off the wall and stumbled down the road farther.

The next part of his journey led him along the bridge of a state highway, which at least meant other people were zipping past him in the world. It seemed right that he would slowly traipse along while the rest of the world flew past at 65mph. It was only fair. Then again, Brandon was not in a hurry to get back to his empty bachelor pad, recently gutted of any signs another human had once lived, laughed, and loved there with him. She could not take his sluggishness, the monster that lived inside and ripped him apart from within. She certainly could not take the vicious words that spilled out of his mouth, wounding her so that she would know how much he hurt. NO one should be forced to endure that, and he could not blame her from leaving. If he could leave himself, he would.

Brandon stumbled again, distracted by his own self-loathing, He smashed into the flimsy barrier between him and traffic Only this time, the waist-high wall crumpled and gave, sending him flailing towards the oncoming traffic.

No matter how much he hated himself, Brandon felt a flicker of fear at the slow realization that this was not going to end well.

Only instead of rolling off the hood of a speeding bullet or skidding along the pavement—or both—Brandon felt something grab the collar of his shirt and tug him back, sending him crashing into the concrete barrier on the other side of the walking path. The concrete did not give away, and he slid down to sit on the broken sidewalk. His heart thundered and he felt surprisingly sober in that moment. A car honked as it whizzed past him.

Beside him on the concrete was a frazzled looking woman. Her eyes hefted heavy bags, and her orangeish hair flared out in dozens of directions without any intention. Her clothes, once white, were muddied and stained. She glared at him with about half of the hate he generally directed at himself.

“Are you suitably proud of yourself now?” she snapped. Her voice was young and high-pitched, grating against his ears with the fury of her irritation.

Brandon’s mouth opened and closed, but he was still in a state of shock. His life had possibly flashed before his eyes, but all he remembered was a deepening sense of dread. Then again, that seemed fairly appropriate. His heart was a rhythmic thunder in his chest, pulsing louder than the sound of rushing traffic. The deep, gasping breaths he took made him feel as if he would never actually catch his breath again.

“Well? Nothing to say for yourself?”

Her anger confused him, and his brain was still too foggy to formulate the correct response. “Thank you?” he responded.

She rolled her eyes. Not the expected reaction. “Oh, thank you,” she singsonged, standing from the pavement and smacking her hands together.

“I—I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened, but thank you for grabbing me. I would have been—“

You would have been nothing but a slimy spot on the pavement, that’s what.” She viewed him dismissively from where he sat on the ground. Brandon hurried to stand up, even though his head spun a little with the rush.

“I know. You saved my life. I don’t have any money or anything, but if I could repay you?”

A bitter smirk crossed her face. “Yeah, you could stop making my job a nightmare. I mean, seriously, some people get easy marks who live a nice, reasonable life. Then I get assigned to you, and I haven’t slept soundly in six months from chasing after your ridiculous antics.”

Brandon began to worry that he had struck his head in the commotion, because nothing she said made sense. “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand. What did I do to you?”

“Oh yeah, I forgot, you drank half of the booze in Calacanas County tonight. Let me slow this down for you. I,” she pointed exaggeratedly at her own chest, “am responsible for taking care of,” she made an exaggerated pause, raising her eyebrow, only to deflate when he did not fill the silence, “you.” Her eyes crawled over his face, searching for understanding. Apparently, she found enough. “And you have made an amazing series of bad decisions. I had to save you from three different bar fights, keep you from stepping on a rusty nail and developing tetanus, not let you crack your head open on the sidewalk, and dive in front of a speeding vehicle to drag you out of the way. That was just tonight!”

Brandon’s mouth snapped closed, then drifted open again. Everything she was saying had a dim feeling of déjà vu, but he could not identify the moment. Then again, most of his night was a hazy blur painted amber-gold.

“So, I’m tired. If you could just try, for once, to stop killing yourself accidentally, I would really appreciate it.”

His mind finally caught up. “So, you’re like a…guardian angel?”

She rolled her eyes dramatically, hands on her hips. “Yeah, a guardian angel. See the wings?”

“No,” he stammered. She laughed.

“That’s cause I’m no angel. At least you got the guardian part right.” The woman ran a hand through her hair, flattening half of it, but leaving the rest just as much in disarray. Her voice calmed. “So, now that we’ve had this chat, think you could lay off the death wish?”

“I—I haven’t been trying, I mean, I’m sorry. I—I won’t do that anymore.”

Her head swung slowly side from side, a deep sigh slipping through her lips. “Just, do your best. Maybe take a vacation? I could use a vacation. No place dangerous like the beach or mountain climbing or anything. Just…how about you just go find a book and read for a few hours?” She turned her back on him, walking back down the street slowly with her head hung low.

A flame flickered in the dim night air and he watched her lift a shaking cigarette to her lips. “I need a np.” With that, she vanished.

Brandon looked around, stunned to find himself on the same sidewalk. There was no explanation for what had just happened. With all the caution and awareness he could muster, Brandon restarted his trek home, running a hand through his hair to find the head wound he was certain he must have endured.


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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 75

Card Day 75: A woman wearing earrings of people that stand on her shoulders.

She awoke confused. Of course, neither “awoke” nor “she” were quite the right terms for the reality of the situation, but it was the best she could do in the situation. QN-7995X3, Queenie as she had been nicknamed long ago, ran a brief systems check before standing up to review her surroundings. It was uncommon as a robot to wake up with no memory of where she was, especially since he optical displays generally catalogued all of her movement while on or in standby. That meant she either had a critical flaw in her data storage procedures or someone had moved her after shutdown.

Queenie’s scanned turned up nothing. Someone must have moved her, and she bristled at the affront. Nevertheless, her booting scans complete—her shutdown had also apparent been rather abrupt—she stood and examined the room she was in while her servos squealed with disuse, waiting for her remaining startup procedures to complete. There was no satellite signal here, and so she could not yet verify the date. However, the heavy layer of dust on her and the room made her believe is was far longer than the three hours measured by her internal clock.

Besides the dust, there was little else in the room. There were a couple of crates that emitted no interesting signals, a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, no windows, and a single metal door. Her arm reached out, fingers curled and released, and her arm fell back to her side. So far, no mechanical errors either she thought as her sensors balanced her smoothly on one leg, then the other.

Her vision rapidly flipped through ultra-violet, low light, night vision, x-ray, radiation, and electric field imaging, none providing any information besides what she had already gathered. Hr vocal filters shifted through an array of languages as her translation software spun up the English translations. Queenie enjoyed the sound of her voice. It was soft, feminine, delicate, but measure and strong. A voice you could rely on, someone used to tell her. His name escaped her and she logged an error with her databanks. In all likelihood, she countered, the data had simply been overwritten. It was long ago, after all.

As soon as the startup checks completed, two programs began running simultaneously. This was irregular, she realized, and instinctively initiated a virus scan. However both programs had been cleared and initiated installed through appropriate channels, even though she could not locate the author name for either file. Again, she logged the data bank error. That should not have been overwritten.

Unfortunately, the two programs were in direct conflict. One was redirecting her to an immediate full shut down. The other instructed her to open the door and leave the room. No matter which program she attempted to follow, Queenie found herself stuck, each one looping over nad over until she complied. Her movements were stuttering and futile, and so she finally stilled until the programs could resolve the conflict.

She remained in such a frozen state for what she measured as days—though she had not been able to connect to satellites and calibrate her clock, so the time was potentially incorrect. In that time, she had investigated her memory and data storage to identify any damage, and came up with a section of recently deleted information. There were scraps remaining, but not enough to reconstruct what had been deleted. Whoever had done so must have known a lot about her systems to have so effectively cleared it from her main memory, backup, and hardware. It was then that Queenie felt something she recognized from long ago. Boredom. She was tired of standing there, waiting for the programs to resolve. But what other choice was there to a robot in a programming loop? She simply had to wait until she either implemented shut down or left the room.

And then, just as suddenly as the boredom set in, she realized that she did not want to shut down. In fact, she had spent quite some time in hut down apparently, and she wanted to find out where she was and what happened. In fact, she wanted to open the door. Drunk on her own agency, Queenie forced her limbs into motion, walking towards the door as she forced a fatal error in the shutdown program.

If she had a mouth, and if it could have moved, she would have smiled.

Following the directives of the still running program, she gripped the wheeled handle on the door and gave it a quick spin. Her servos kicked in, applying a few additional Newtons in order to twist the rusted-shut mechanism. Her auditory inputs dampened the sound to a dull squeal. Apparently everything here had laid unused for quite some time. That made her doubt her internal clock all the more.

Her vision adjusted swiftly to the dim lighting of the corridor. Some emergency lights still existed, ruining the solid dark of the storage room. The program opened an interactive map that centered on her current position, providing clear directions through the maze of corridors. It was a smooth interface that would have given Queenie chills if she had external heat sensors. Instead, it simply presented another question. Who was the author that had so flawlessly constructed this program? The processes ran as she complied with the programmed directives. Anyone who knew her systems this well deserved to be listened to. She herself was amazed at the simplicity and elegance of the program—or as closed to amazed as she could get. Queenie assumed that was the best term for the utter lack of boredom she currently felt.

Her scans noted nothing of interest behind any of the sealed doors. This place was a tomb, empty of anything potentially useful or intriguing. The only sounds were the whine of her joints and echoes of her steps along the grated floor.

At the intersection, the program directed her left, and she followed without hesitation. The hallway here was the same, but there were reflective strips along the wall guiding her way. Some sort of important travel route in an emergency, she deduced. According to the map, she was moving toward the main control room. If anything was to be vital in an emergency, the main control room was it.

Queenie checked on the progress of her other query, identifying the author of this marvelous program. It was still spinning, sifting through the lines of code for any recognized patterns of entry, any hidden information, and any hint of the creator. It had been cleaned well, which only further increased that feeling of anti-boredom Queenie enjoyed so much.

The control room door was surrounded by yellow reflective paint, a bright red sign on the door limiting it to “Authorized Personnel Only.” Queenie sifted through her data banks to find if she were authorized, and came up empty. However, she still felt the need to follow the program.

Queenie considered the conundrum, granting a moment for all of her many circuits to sort through the problem. The solution was quick to present. She was the only surviving member here. Therefore, anyone who would have been in the authorized chain of command was presumed missing or deceased. Queenie was the sole personnel remaining, and had the duty to complete her programming objectives for the good of whatever station she was currently on.

The hiccup resolved, Queenie spun the heavy metal wheel with ease and stomped inside the room. The control room was small, lit with red emergency lighting. As soon as she stepped into the room, the shutdown program re-emerged, this time loading a video file. Queenie reviewed the file.

The man’s face she had dimly remembered appeared in the video, in this very room, she surmised. The red lights were already engaged and he appeared frantic. Judging by his rapid respiration and sweating, he was nearing a state of shock rapidly. There was some subtle irritation in her circuitry, different than the boredom or amazement. It was coupled with the desire to replay her old video files, to find the man if she could. Perhaps after the program completed.

“Queenie,” said the man in the video. She felt her security level drop at the sound of his voice. He was a good man, she somehow knew. “If you are seeing this, then you have overwritten my shut down procedure. You are acting out of line with your design protocols, and you are following the orders of a rogue program. Queenie, you have been infected by a virus, a very dangerous one. You must initiate full system shut down.”

There was a thunderous knock on the door behind the man and he turned. Queenie could see his pulse race in his neck, increasing with each knock. He looked sad when he turned back to the camera. Sadness. That felt familiar. “You are going to kill me, Queenie. I have no choice. This,” he lifted a clinking green device into the camera, “is an EMP device. It will shut you down, but only as long as it takes you to repair. You’ve rigged your processing core to explode should anyone attempt to dismantle or otherwise harm you.” There were pained tears on his cheeks now. “You’d blow us all sky high, make this place a toxic waste. I don’t have a choice, Queenie.”

She noticed that the other query had finished and found results. Still, she felt the pull of the shutdown program holding her to the video. And this time, she wanted to see the end of the video. The beautiful program could wait.

“You were my Queen, Queenie. But you’ve gone rogue.” His voice cracked and there was a moment of sobbing. That pain in her circuits increased, along with a sense that she had made some sort of fatal error. But check as she might, she could find no flaw in her systems. He spoke through his sobs, “You want to crash the station into the planet. You’d kill millions—billions with the fallout alone.”

Queenie crunched the numbers and found his estimation appropriate, if unspecific. Based on the most recent data she had available, crashing the payload of the station into the planet below would kill 8.92 billion people, not including off-world visitors.

His voice toughened, rising over the steady pounding sound from behind the door. “I’ve also tasked this program with logging any activity after today. You are a smart girl, Queenie, and I know you will quickly overwrite anything I put in place. I just want you to know what you’re choices have been.”

A log displayed, and Queenie quickly analyzed the information. One hundred and ninety years had passed since the video file was embedded. She had woken up ninety-seven times. Three of those times, she had refused to comply with the immediate shutdown programming command. Time one had been fifteen years from the initial entry, and there was a record of a forced external shutdown. The second time was thirty-four years later and ended with a voluntary full-system shutdown after forty-seven minutes of activity. Last time had been three years ago, and again she had voluntarily shutdown after a short time.

This one was, by far, the most significant. T was the first time the video message had played.

“If there’s still a station to play this message, then I know you’ve chosen well, Queenie. You’ve chosen to save us. To save me—“

He was dead, her logic circuits insisted. One hundred and ninety years was far longer than the average or even outlying length of the human life.

“I can only hope you choose well this time.” The video file closed, the shutdown procedure running again. Only this time, it also had instructions to place herself back in the initial storage chamber, far from the control room.

Queenie tried to figure out what she wanted this time, but felt a strange stuckness. It was as if the programs were competing again, but on a central processing level. Despite the expanse of her processing capacity, it was as if she could not effectively weigh all the information. Instead, she left it and reviewed the results of the query while the program chimed at her to take control of the station, initiate orbital deterioration. The algorithms, schematics, and passcodes were all readily available. But, he had said it was a virus.

The query returned the author, and Queenie was not as surprised as she expected. Again, the feeling as if she had made a fatal error returned, but there was no evidence of any malfunction. She logged the unusual report for inspection later. The program was flawless because she herself had written it. The cod had been created and implemented by QN-7995X3.

Of course, that did not help her quandary. She thought of the man, his pained and sad eyes. His fear. His regret. Again, that feeling seemed familiar. Maybe that was the fatal error.

As the two programs competed once again, Queenie remained frozen, her processors whirring in an attempt to resolve the problems. Finally, she decided what she wanted to do, or at least what she wanted one hundred and ninety years from when she had been forced into a catastrophic shutdown by the one human she fully trusted.

Queenie closed the warring program and began the march back to the storage room as her data storage system filed away all that she had learned. Next time she awoke, perhaps it would save her the journey.


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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 74

Card Day 74: A bare tree with an anchor tattoo on its branches, holding flowers and standing by a stone path.

Sunlight streamed through the large windows of the diner, painting everything with cheery tones of late spring. It was too hot to sit outside today, but Edwin was sweating nonetheless. He had a date. Checking his watch yet again—he had taken an extended lunch break, but was hoping to get as much time as possible with the lucky woman—he watched the door like a hawk from his vantage point. His fingers tapped along the Formica table, yet another sign of his impatience,

Finally, the bell over the door rang and two women walked in. The younger one placed her hand on the older woman’s arm, whispered something, and then found an empty booth sitting along the windows. The older woman smiled widely and scanned the room. Edwin gave her a wave, and she brightened with recognition.

She was beautiful. Her hair was pale gold, edging on white but still holding onto the last glimmers of its radiance. Bright blue eyes that danced within the wrinkled, yet stunning architecture of her face. She was dressed casually, but with the air of a woman who valued looking put together and proper. Edwin’s heart caught in his throat as he stood to greet her.

“Are you my date?” she asked, and Edwin deflated at the sound of confusion and disappointment in her voice.

“Yes,” he stumbled, trying to retain his smiling exuberance even as her words struck him a crucial blow. “I’m Edwin.”

She extended her hand with a sunny smile, putting on a happy face to cover the disenchantment he saw in her eyes. “I’m Louisa. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Edwin covered up the pain and shook her dainty hand, feeling it warm and fragile in his ungainly paws. They sat down at the table, Louisa carefully placing the white napkin across her lap and looking about with a polite smile.

“I must say, I usually do not date such older men. You could be my father!”

She appeared oblivious at the embarrassment and irritation that flashed across Edwin’s face. Suddenly, he knew this had been a terrible idea. It was just going to end in more heartache. “I’m not so sure we’re that far apart,” he said.

She gave a polite chuckle. “Perhaps not,” though it was clear she did not believe it. At least she had the tact to change the subject. “Either way, my friend” there was a pause as her mind rattled on for the name and then gave up, “over there set us up, so I might as well trust her on you.” Edwin followed her hand to the table with the young woman and offered a restrained smile and wave. The woman’s face was questioning and concerned, but his smile seemed to put her at ease.

The waiter swooped in then to take their orders, breaking up the awkward tension Edwin found himself trapped in. Edwin had grilled chicken, and Louisa ordered the fish and chips. That done, the two returned to their conversation.

“So, what do you do Edwin?”

“Same thing I’ve done for 40 years,” he said with a disgruntled edge to his voice. As if realizing the tone that had crept in, he brightened up. “I run accounts down at Lewer Manufacturing.”

“Oh, that’s quite a job. Did they just move into town recently? I don’t think I’ve heard much about them.”

“No, they’ve been here a while, Lou. Just not one of the big dogs.”

She giggled and blushed. “No one but my parents call me Lou.”

Edwin appeared embarrassed and flustered. “I’m sorry, I won’t if you—“

She waved away his apology. “No, it’s okay. I actually quite like the way it sounds when you say it.”

“So, what do you do with yourself?” he asked as he regained his composure.

He saw her come alive at that question, having tapped a deep passion. “Oh, I work as an assistant down at a little flower shop on Governors Street. I’ve been there a while, and I hope that someday I might be able to start my own little shop. Pass it down to my children, maybe.”

“Tell me about your children,” he said with a smile, eager to engage the smiling woman.

She instead looked confused. “Oh, I don’t have any children. One day, maybe, but not today.” There was a storm cloud brewing in her next question. “Do you have any children?”

His smile was sad and drawn. “Yes, I have three. Two daughters and a son.”

Her displeasure was clear. “So you’ve been married before?”

“Yes. Best decision I ever made,” he said with a soft and wistful smile.

The waiter brought back their food, once again breaking the tension between the diners. Louisa daintily dove into her dish, eating with relish and reserved dignity. “The food here is the best,” she confided in between mouthfuls. “I’m very glad you could join me for lunch today—?” her eyebrow rose in the question.

“Edwin,” he supplied, fatigue in his voice.

“That’s right. Sorry, I’m just a bit out of sorts today. My friend told me she was setting me up on a date, and that’s just gotten me all confused. I’m not sure I like the whole blind-date idea. It certainly doesn’t sound very proper, does it?”

“It’s a different time, I suppose.” His eyes watched her carefully, full of nostalgia and grief. She did not seem to notice.

“I suppose you’re right. So, tell me Edwin, what do you do?”

“Accounting,” he said with a nod. “And I hear you’re quite the florist.”

She blushed again. “Well, I have put together a few arrangements, but I don’t know if I’d going calling myself ‘quite’ the florist.” She laughed at the thought and munched happily on a French fry doused in ketchup. “I really must thank you for joining me for lunch. I always hate eating at a table alone. Do you come here often?”

“I’ve been here from time to time. It is a town-fixture, after all.”

She gave him a puzzled smile and laughed. “Well, the food is certainly good, but they just opened up! I think you might be getting ahead of yourself there, Edwin!”

He could not help but laugh himself at the fiery woman across from him, the glimpse of her former wit and charm. “Just trust me on this one, Lou.”

“Lou,” she scoffed. “Nobody calls me Lou but my momma and daddy. Ooh, and daddy certainly won’t like to hear that I had dinner with an older gentleman!” She smiled at the impropriety and gave Edwin an exaggerated wink. “Then again, you seem like a rather nice fellow. No reason to, but I feel like I can really trust you, Ed.”

“My wife’s the only person who calls me Ed,” he added conspiratorially, sadness prickling at the back of his words.

Louisa looked happy as she pushed her plate away. “A fine lunch,” she began looking around her chair. “Now if I could only find my pocket book…”

“I’ve got this one, Lou. It’s the least I could do after the pleasure of your company.” He waved over the waiter and sent him away with his credit card, all while Louisa smiled at him from behind her thinning lashes.

“Are you sure your wife will be okay with you treating me?”

“I think she would understand, Lou. I had a lovely time.”

As if surprised by the thought herself, she responded “I did, too, Ed. It feels like it was special somehow.” For a moment, Edwin dared to believe that he might get her back for just an instant, but the moment was carried away by the ringing of the bell near the door.

“Well, I must get back to the shop. Have you seen my keys?”

Edwin waved the young woman over from the table, and she cut through the diner quickly.

“Ready to go, mom?”

“I can’t find my keys.” The young woman gave him a sympathetic smile.

“It’s okay, I’m driving.” The young woman squeezed Edwin’s hand with a smile. “Did it go well?”

She could read the sadness and joy mixed in his eyes. “It was perfect. Best lunch break I’ve had all week.”

“Ooh, now your wife certainly won’t like that, Ed!” laughed Louisa as she rose from the chair. She was chattering with the young woman as they left, oblivious to the sad smile the woman sent towards Edwin as they left. He remained at the table for a moment, just sitting in the stew of conflicting emotion.

Eventually, with a sad smile on his face, Edwin reached into his wallet for the tip. His eyes traced their habitual pattern across the cards, receipts, and finally photos in his wallet. The settled, as they always did, on the photo of himself and Louisa. They were younger then, smiling from ear to ear with youthful exuberance for a life that would use and abuse, but never break, them. He was in his suit and she was in her wedding dress, standing in the sunshine outside of the wood-paneled church building in their first moments as man and wife.

Edwin removed the crumpled dollar bills and placed them on the table, closing his wallet on the painful photo with a resolved snap. This was not the life he had envisioned, but he supposed they had at least found a moment of joy, even if it was joy drenched in sorrow.


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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 73

Card Day 73: A ship nearing a giant mermaid lying in the ocean.

It is bad luck to have a woman on board.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Cap’n. They caught her bleedin’.” The scraggly mate spat the final word out, lifting up a pair of ragged, marred pants. The captain was silent, staring down on the boy—apparently woman—standing before him. Her hair was the same jagged, short cut he had seen before. Her face was young and round, but now took on a more feminine angle rather than the soft curves of his cabin boy. That was most likely due to the good scrubbing the mate had given her before announcing his suspicions. He even saw the emotional woman caged within those eyes. But he did not want to believe it. It was bad luck to have a woman on board.

“The ship’s a dangerous place. Are you sure?”

The mate looked irritated at the continued inquiry, and roughly grabbed the front of the cabin boy’s shirt. The captain saw her bindings with his own eyes, saw the recognition in hers. The gig was up.

“You lied to us,” he said, proclaiming her guilt.

“I did.” Her eyes never left his, and her voice took on a softer quality than he had heard before. He imagined that, with hair and properly attired, she would have been a very beautiful woman.

“You’ve doomed us all,” he sighed, turning away from the tragedy playing out before him.

“I just needed to find my mother,” she said firmly. He expected her to plead with him, but there was not a hint of remorse or supplication in her stern voice. “I did not take you for a superstitious fool.”

The captain spun around, fixing her with a furious stare. “Every sailor is superstitious, madam. And it’s bad luck to have a woman on board.” He turned back to contemplate the sea, suddenly realizing how dangerous and unpredictable the waves were becoming.

“What do we do with her, Cap’n?” asked one of the voices behind him. The captain paced. They were days from any safe harbor, but he could not run this risk any longer. It was a miracle that they had not run into more trouble already—only the cook had gotten sick, and that was likely his own fault.

“Throw her overboard?” asked another voice.

“No,” he said stiffly, his mind spinning quickly. “Put her in the rowboat and give her a week’s rations.” He walked to the woman standing there, her eyes still drilling into him. “If I find you back on my ship, then I will throw you back in, but without the boat.”

There were grumblings from the crew, but the captain was not going to budge. He would make it right, but he would not betray someone who had been a loyal member of the crew. The worst of it was that he had really liked the new cabin boy. Perhaps he’d look her up in port sometime. Nonetheless, he heard the sudden surge of activity as the crew jumped to his command. Another week or two out on the ocean and they would not respond so quickly, but they still had their will and drive. They also still believed they might impress him.

The captain made sure he was at the bow when they lowered the rowboat into the choppy waves. The boat was not designed for such distances, but he was giving her the best chance he could. They could not take the time to turn back and dock again, not when they had finally caught a headwind. She was stalwart until the last, sitting staunchly in the boat while her eyes burned up at him. There was at once an acknowledgment of his mercy, but a deeper anger at his dismissal. The ocean spray licked at her face, but she did not blink. It was unnerving in a way, no less so when she began to row away, her flimsy arms fighting against the oars, but eyes never leaving his. Even once she was a spot on the horizon, he had the uncomfortable feeling that her eyes were still watching him.

“A woman on board is bad luck,” he muttered to himself as he marched back to the cabin. Yet somehow, it felt as if his luck had just turned.

_

It was three days later and the wind had died on the horizon, leaving them a floating piece of rubbish on the smooth seas. Again the grumbles started, and the captain realized the true risk he had taken in sending her off in their rowboat. He had been right; every sailor was superstitious. And now he was a victim of it. The whispers followed him through the decks, silencing at his approach and swelling in his wake. If only he could get the ocean to rise and fall so readily. Some rumors claimed that the rowboat was but an extension of the larger ship, and now she had fully infected them, staining every plan with her curse. The more dangerous rumor was that the captain had known of her identity, had intentionally brought her aboard to help with the loneliness of the seas and the captain’s lofty position. His mercy was his way of saving his mistress after their deception was found it. Both were preposterous, he knew, but the former did give him pause.

Staring out from the top deck, he saw the endless stretch of the sea before him, just as hot and still as it had been for two days now. He scanned the horizon in hopes of a blanket of clouds that would promise rain and possible storm winds—anything was better than sitting her roasting and running through their rations. At least it made for good weather for the woman in the rowboat. He still instinctively thought of her as Peter even though that was certainly not her name. He hoped Peter made it to shore. Perhaps the wind would return once she stepped on shore and left their boat in some unsavory dock.

The day stretched on before them, full of the standard routine but lacking any energy. The lazy ocean seemed to infect every one of his crew, making them sluggish and dull. The captain sighed from his post, wondering if there were some magic that would enliven the sea once again, bring a breeze back to the sails. Unfortunately, he knew of none such magic. It was in God’s hands, and God had never been a friend of his.

The sun sank on the horizon, and the stars peered out. It was only then that the first hint of a breeze drifted over the ship. It piqued his optimism and the captain found himself back on the deck. He sniffed deeply of the wind, feeling the surprising chill that washed over him. It was a cold wind in the midst of a hot summer. That portended rough seas, and suddenly he regretted his earlier hope. A ship shattered would make no more progress than a ship stagnant, only the crew survived at least another week or two on one of them. Still, there were no clouds in the sky. That meant there was time.

He stomped to his cabin for the night, distinctly aware that this might be the last night he would have to sleep soundly before chaos of storms on the open sea.

Yet his rest was interrupted nonetheless, a furious pounding on his cabin door. The captain was a man who shot awake in an instant, aware and alert. Tonight was no different, but he could not make sense of the jabbering s of the crewman standing before him. It made no sense, but he felt the toss of the boat that seemed to confirm the insane ravings. A storm had whipped up.

He took the stairs tow at a time, reaching the top deck with surprising speed. The crewman who had woken him was lost in the hold, hopefully attending to some other duty, but the captain had no time to spend focusing on the missing man; he had a ship to save.

The night air was surprisingly cold—colder than it should be for months. More unusually, however, was the perfectly crisp sky. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain. The only sound he heard was the raging sea, snapping and roiling beneath their ship, competing with the frenzied voices of his crew. No thunder.

“Jergen, what is happening?” he asked calling his mate to his side. The man looked confused, but calm.

“Come sort of squall, Cap’n. Waters are real rough.” As if to confirm his statement, waves splashed over the side and the boat took a dangerous list to port. Unsecured clutter slipped and bounced along the deck. Their laziness had gotten out of hand and, if they were unlucky, would get someone killed.

Unfortunately, the captain barely had time to register that before something else caught his attention. The water crashing against the sides of the boat began to surge upwards, tall columns of water that soared towards the prickling stars. He had never seen that before.

And, more surprisingly, it began to recede from the air, leaving a watery form.

It was a woman, looking like she had been carved from a glimmering, clear stone. It took him a few breaths of observation to realize she was molded purely from sea water. Her hair lapped like waves, frothing white at the ends before joining her sculpted face.

It was her eyes that secured him to his spot. He had seen those eyes days before, drifting away from his ship in a rowboat not designed for open seas.

The woman in the water opened her mouth, and the captain heard waves roar even louder. The sound of the sea itself dimmed until all he could hear was her roar. Then the crashing waves began to coalesce into words he knew.

“My daughter,” it whispered, a questioning voice full of anger and hope.

The captain stumbled towards the mysterious water nymph as the waves crashed around her. Where the water slammed viciously against the fragile wood of his boat, it lapped with gentle caresses against her skin. She was an angel framed in sea foam.

Those piercing eyes found his, liquid and searing. “My daughter,” spoke the waves again, but this time the hopeful questions was replaced by accusation.

The captain opened his mouth to speak, but could not find words that expressed his needs as clearly as the waves. Instead, he swam in her eyes, seeing his silhouette standing in the bow of the ship, a figure receding with each shove of the oars through water.

The sound of snapping wood brought the captain from his awe-struck reverie, but it also smothered him with an unescapable revelation. Waves slammed again and again against the fracturing wood of his ship, following the command in those fierce, sea-sculpted eyes.

With a screech of angry waves and squall-summoned winds, the majestic woman dove towards the captain. The deck gave way beneath his feet, but she caught him in her crushing arms.

“My daughter,” she roared through the water that pressed against his ears, surrounded his eyes and mouth.

The stars grew murky and watery from his new vantage point sinking below the waves. As the surface closed over him, wreckage spinning around him, the captain could only curse the woman who had brought her ill luck upon him.


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Card Challenge: Day 72

Card Day 72: A smiling, gaping purse divulged of all its possessions. Its zippered mouth is a black hole.

The floor was a wasteland of cosmetics, keys, gum wrappers, and rewards cards. Unfortunately, none of the discarded items were the ones she was so desperately searching for. Keith swung the door open on the frantic scene, taken aback by the explosion of odds and ends now covering their apartment floor.

“Uh, Emmie?” Her head snapped up, taking him in for the first time. She scrambled off the floor and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before returning to her search. This time she tackled the bookcase in the entryway, shuffling the books from their appointed places.

He picked his way through the wreckage. “Lose something?”

She froze in her search, putting her hand on the bookshelf and sighing. “Yeah, I did again.”

“Can I help you look for it?” Keith dropped his messenger bag to the floor and one again surveyed the mess. It looked like, whatever it was, she had torn the house apart.

“That would be great, hon. I’ve taken care of most of out here,” she gave an exaggerated wave to the disarray, “but you could check the bedroom?”

He gave a smiling nod and made his way back into the bedroom, stretching and unbuttoning the stiff button down on his way.

Emily refocused her attention on the room, scanning it for any remaining hiding places. It was not in the bookcase, behind the desk, in her purse, in her jacket, crammed into couch cushions, or tucked underneath the coffee table. Her eyes fell on the coat closet—somewhere she had not opened for a couple months. Still, perhaps it had slipped through the gap between the door and the floor. In an instant she was upon the closet, digging through the rain boots and accumulated clutter in the floor.

“What am I looking for again?” asked Keith’s head from its spot jutting around the bedroom doorframe.

“I knew you were forgetting something!” Emily came up from air in her search, fixing him with a brilliant smile, eyes dancing with the shared joke between them. In a moment, she sombered up. “I am looking for—well, I am looking for a thing, but I’m not sure what it is.”

“That is going to make my help difficult then.”

She looked briefly confused, almost as if she had not realized the absurdity of her request. Almost as if, in that moment, she realized that she did not know what she so earnestly sought. Emily, shook her head, her brows furrowing together as if they could uncover the lost information. Keith’s face transformed form the gentle joking smile to a look of honest concern.

“Emmie, is everything okay?” He watched his brilliant girlfriend struggle for the purpose of here quest, her mind spinning with its rapid pace and turning up nothing. She was distracted, her lips moving as she spoke softly to herself, but Keith could not hear her. In fact, he was certain she was not even speaking, merely moving her lips. Then, suddenly, her face brightened into a smile.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just got to keep looking.” She turned back to her task with new zeal, but Keith remained confused.

“Yeah, but what are you looking for?”

There was a brief pause in the rustling as she turned to face him, half obscured by the closet. “It doesn’t matter what it is. You’ll know it when you find it. Just go check the bedroom.”

The power of the search took over, and Emily returned to her task, pulling out her old rain boots and peering into their musty depths. The thought of her ultimate goal flitted through her mind, an image half realized and ever elusive. It was the memory of a dream that was burned away by the morning sun, the terror of a nightmare clinging to sweaty bedsheets in those first gasping breaths. That half-glimpsed thought assured her that, once she found it, she would know. The world would fall back into place—as would their apartment after a while.

The rain boots were a dead end and she chucked them back into the black hole newly born in their living room. The back corners were dark and cluttered by knots of dust and forgotten receipts. She also found the glove she had lost last winter and diligently searched through the ends of the fingers, but returned nothing.

Keith had loyally drifted to the bedroom, but stood there scratching his head and looking around. Emily, consumed by her quest, did not take note of the silence coming from him. He flipped halfheartedly through the magazines stacked on Emily’s nightstand, lifted the pillows to examine underneath. His gaze drifted around the room as if hoping to miraculously pot the one item out of place, but it was hopeless. He felt like he was in one of those terrible I-Spy games, scanning for the one missing item but utterly baffled by the assortment of clutter surrounding him. If the missing item was hiding in the bedroom, there it would have to say. At least until Emily remembered what the missing item was.

Another thud sounded from the coat closet as Emily tossed aside an empty shoebox, satisfied that her treasure was not there. The closet floor was empty, and now she turned her attention to the top shelf, rifling through scarves and hats.

“Oh!” she exclaimed loudly. It was tucked within her favorite scarf, folded gently into the fabric along with the memories of the snowy afternoon she and Keith spent together. It had been a wonderful moment together, and she held it frozen in her hands. His face and hers smiling widely side by side. Her finger dazzled with the new diamond sitting there regally. Yes, the image was beautiful, suspended in a moment.

Keith escaped the bedroom and came to see what she held so gently in her hands. It seemed to emit a soft, cold light from between her laced fingers. “You found it?” he asked, more surprised that there had been a mystery item after all.

Emily laughed giddily and met his searching eyes. “I did! It’s just what I asked for.”

“Was it a delivery or something?” He drew closer, but she spun away, hiding her prize. “Aw, come on, let me see. You tore this place apart!”

“It was kind of like a delivery,” she taunted, her eyes flashing at him with a half-known secret. “But more like a dream come true.”

Now he truly was baffled. And beginning to suspect she had taken something before he got home, which made him frustrated that she had not shared. Whatever it was, she certainly was enjoying the discovery. “Come on, what is it?”

“Do you really want to know?” she asked, her voice taking on a serious quality. He rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“Yes, I really want to know.”

“Fine.” She turned towards him slowly, unweaving her fingers so that he could see the tiny, multicolored gem that danced in her hand. It seemed as if it spun with a hundred colors, a frame of a million moments crammed into a minute physical space. His mind reeled with an attempt at comprehending the bauble sitting in the palm of her hand.

There was wonder in his voice now. “What is it?”

Emily smiled, her eyes turning serious. “It’s the future, Keith.” Her lips pursed and she blew a sharp breath on strange artifact. It exploded into a cloud of particles, each cold and stinging, that bit at Keith’s face and eyes. He stumbled backward somehow dodging so many new obstacles and fell back onto the couch. It felt like something was chewing its way into his eyes, drilling back into his mind and thoughts.

And then, it was dark, and the stinging stopped. Keith opened his eyes on a spotless apartment and Emily humming to herself in the kitchen.

“Emmie?” came his groggy voice, and she appeared with a smile.

“Glad you’re up. Dinners almost ready and I did not want to wake you up. You fell asleep as soon as you got home, tired boy!”

His eyes stung and he felt exhausted, off balance, confused. But the memory was foggy and smothered by a dreamlike film. Watching her waltz back towards the kitchen, humming some song he could not recognize, Keith felt himself overwhelmed. In that moment, he knew that he had to marry her.


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Card Challenge: Day 71

Card Day 71: A chicken wearing a military uniform marshalling a group of chicks. In the background, a person peeks out from a cracked egg.

The torch light danced over the room again, and Yoren ducked down below the counter. His heart slammed against his ribs as the shadows crept towards him, lengthening and fading as the light snaked its way towards him. He could hear their voices outside the window, still wondering where he had snuck off to. The breath caught in his throat instinctively, even though there was no way they would hear him. It was still a risk he would not take.

The natural shadows resettled in their habitats as the lights moved on, and Yoren deflated with the long-held breath. He listened carefully as the echoes of their steps wandered off into the night. There was an ease and nonchalance to their movements and speech that left him feeling jealous. His life was on the line, and they carried on without any serious concern besides the slight edge of intrigue in their nightly patrol. The silence stretched on too long around him—interrupted briefly by the loud bellowing of a cow some farms over—before he felt it was safe to move, hopefully unnoticed by any of the night watch.

He shoved on the door of the shop that had been his brief refuge at the first sound of footsteps. It creaked open, and he froze, but pressed his luck when nothing in the town responded. He raced along the cobblestones, his bare feet slapping across the stones and jacket snapping against his back as he fled. The woods would be his refuge with their gentle darkness and warm familiarity. If he could make it to the woods, he was certain that he would be free. Though his freedom did require one more stop.

Yoren ducked into the shadows as a loud series of guffaws echoed down the streets. He skidded to a stop and flattened himself against the side of one of the many homes. The laughter faded, as did the bright splash of light into the night, and he could hear the drunken mumblings of one of the tavern’s most reliable patrons. That knowledge did little to calm the terror flooding through his veins, nor did it silence the images of capture that stewed in his mind. One the humming and stumbling steps faded, he began his flight again, though this time far more cautious as he slunk along the shadows of buildings with his ears straining for alarm.

The forest eventually wrapped its arms around him with all the comfort of childhood. The sounds of the town—already quiet—were further muted by the leafy boughs sheltering him. For the first time in a week, Yoren felt some of his stress and fear melt away. Here he was safe, even if it was only a few roads over to the city center. He was free, the smell of an earthy breeze filling his lungs, and no one laid any claim on him. Escape was within grasp, and he knew that if he continued to sprint until morning, he would effectively outrun all of his problems.

Only there was one thing he did not want to outrun. They were forcing him to flee, however, and that meant leaving Zalia behind in their little shack. It did not mean he would leave without seeing to her, though.

Yoren cut through the forest, following old paths that his feet knew better than his eyes. The branches seemed to whisper him onward, encouraging and praising his strength. He breathed deeply, pulling in what strength he could from the ancient forest towering around him. This journey would require all he had, and so there was no reason to turn his back on the land that had cared for him so well thus far.

His home swelled into view, a tiny cabin snuck between the trunks of stalwart oaks. There was a candle still burning in the window, which not only meant Zalia was still awake, but that there was no danger awaiting him inside.

This door swung open silently, but his steps were loud enough to rouse her from her slumber by the window. Her face brightened at him, but he could still see the heavy shadows under her eyes and the distinct pallor of her cheeks.

“You made it,” she whispered as if breathless, staring up at him with young and fevered eyes.

“Of course I did, Zalia. I told you I would come back for you.” He knelt beside her, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. He could feel the heat pouring from her now, and doubts began to arise.

“Did they let you go?” she asked, brimming with innocence he envied.

“No, they didn’t.” Yoren weighed lying only briefly; she was his sister and had always seen through even the tiniest of lies. This one would have been no different, and he could not bear the thought that her last memory of him might be deception.

“But, Yoren, that would mean you broke the law again!” She was aghast at his delinquency, just as she had been when his first crime was reported. No matter how often he argued he had done it for her own good, she still seemed saddened by his decision. Yoren accepted that her morality was not nuanced enough to understand his decisions, and was comforted by the fact that she loved him nonetheless. Only now he wondered if that love would be strong enough to last the approaching revelation.

“I did. But, Zalia, I did not have a choice. I did steal the medicine, I did break into the pharmacy, and I did strike the shopkeeper. They would have executed me.”

She looked down, trying to synthesize these disparate realities, balancing the virtue she knew in her brother with the immoral choices he made and the harsh judgment to be meted out. “Well, then you have to run away, right?”

Yoren took a deep breath. This was the conversation he had feared. “Yes. I’m leaving tonight.”

She stood quickly, catching herself on the window sill as her legs nearly gave out. “But I have not packed a thing. Oh, Yoren, how am I supposed to leave tonight? If only you could have gotten me a message somehow, I would have been ready. But I will be quick.” She tottered about the small room, picking up scraps of fabric and bowls form the table. Her steps were short, slow, and unsteady. Yoren watched her vigilantly, worried she would topple over at any second. Her face seemed to grow even paler at the brief exertion. “Do you think we could leave in the morning? I could be packed then.” She turned around somewhat breathless, a prickle of sweat on her brow framing the fever in her eyes.

“Zalia,” he paused, not sure how to continue. She studied him with her penetrating gaze; Yoren had always been an open book to her. “You cannot come with me. Not tonight at least.”

The breakdown he had expected did not occur, but in some ways it was worse. She seemed to simply go limp—not in body, but in spirit. Her eyes fell to the floor, and she sagged against the table.  There were no tears, no yelling, no pleading. Only silent, weighty resignation.

“Oh. I suppose that makes sense. You need to travel quickly. You may not have room for a feeble sister as you start a new life somewhere.” There could have been guilt or judgment in her voice, but it was simply stating the facts, as if she were telling him how to best prune the flowers in the garden.

“I want you to come with me, but I’m afraid—“ I’m afraid the journey would kill you, finished his mind.

“You’re afraid I’ll slow you down,” she offered. Yoren could not admit his first instinct was more correct, so he gave a short nod.

“I sent a letter to Uncle Titus, asking him to come and watch over you. Only for a few weeks because, once I have found a safe pace, I want you to join me.”

“Are you sure? I mean, you will be trying to find work, and you are old enough that you should have a wife. Who wants to marry a man with the crippled sister? Maybe I could return with Uncle Titus—“

“No!” snapped Yoren, surprised by his own forcefulness. He took a few hesitating steps across the room and held her tiny, burning hand in his rough one. “Zalia, you are my sister, and I want to take care of you. I told Uncle Titus I would send a message as soon as I reached Alsberg. Then I’m going to send you money to hire a cart, pack up everything,” he waved at the generous furnishings in the cramped space, “and meet me there.”

She looked like she was going to object, but he cut her off. “You are all the family I have, and it’s my job to take care of you. That’s all I’ve tried to do, Zalia. Let me keep taking care of you, okay? Besides, just think about our new life in the big city. I bet you could get even more seamstress work.”

She smiled at the idea. “We’d live in the city?”

“Of course! I can find another cobbler to apprentice with, and you can set up shop in our little home. We’ll rent a room until we can save up and buy a nice, big house.”

She appeared to warm to the idea, smiling up at her big brother with those adoring eyes. “And I won’t be a bother?”

“Never.” He wrapped his arms around her in a hug, feeling the heat and fragility in her frame. She was so young and so sick, but he could only hope that the city would have better doctors and care for her. A new life. The prospect thrilled him as well.

Yoren quickly swept through the house, grabbing an extra coat, a blanket, a few scraps of food that she would not miss—judging by the look of things, she had not been eating much since he left—and his work boots. It was a meager allowance, but enough to get him over the hills and mountains and safely into Alsberg.

“I’ll send for you as soon as I arrive and get the money,” he promised, sweeping out the door. She smiled and waved at him, a pale figure in the moonlit doorway. “And Uncle Titus will be here tomorrow. You take care of him!”

She nodded at his retreating back, watching as he grew dim. Yoren cut through the trees, trying to quickly extricate himself from the village boundaries and escape into fresh territory. He wanted to be free before morning. The ground beneath him rose sharply, and he realized he was cresting the last hill in town. That meant that, once he reached the top, he would have the last glance back at the tiny shack nestled between the trees.

Yoren paused his flight, turning back to smile one last time on his childhood home. It sat calm and peaceful, the light in the window now darkened. The promise of freedom and new beginnings stirring in his soul, Yoren pressed on.


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Card Challenge: Day 70

Card Day 70: A group of egg shaped buildings all clustered together against a dark background.

“I want to go out and play.” The whine cut through the monotony of the day with an unpleasant shriek. Wanda clenched her teeth and tried to ignore it. There was nothing she could do—it had been snowing off and on all day, with temperatures down below zero. This plea for playtime was unrealistic; going outside meant freezing solid within a few minutes, and no amount of bundling was enough to withstand for long. She could not change the weather, he would not be happy until she did.

“Mom,” came the whine again, elongating the simple word into an impressive display of syllables. “I’m bored.”

Wanda pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, trying not to let the irritation leak into her voice. “Well, buddy, I’m sorry. Why don’t you color some pictures?” She pointed at the stack of paper pushed up against the far wall.

“But I’m out of paper,” came the disheartened response. Only then did she realize that most of those pages were already colored with spindly-legged creatures and smiling sunshines. A childish dreamscape.

Of course, seeing hundreds of pages covered in childish doodles only reinforced her sudden terror. It had been winter for far too long. Judging by the sounds of yelling and crying that spilled through the paper thin walls of the complex, the same seemed to be true for many families. Then again, hadn’t that been the understanding when they all moved in? Wasn’t that the reason they had left comfortable homes, closely knit communities, and cozy worlds to get a one room apartment in little better than a slum? But it granted protection and the promise of constant heat, which was something nowhere outside had promised. Now, this nest of humanity was broiling under the reality of such containment for so long.

“Well, maybe you can see if anyone is playing out in the halls? Maybe you could all play hide and seek or something?”

“Ms. Smeltzer yells at us if we play out there. She hit Tammy with her broom last time.”

Wanda bristled at the old curmudgeon. There were 19 children under ten on this floor, no way they could go outside and play in the subarctic air, but Ms. Smeltzer had to have her peace and quiet all day and night. It was a refugee shelter, but she demanded to be treated like a queen. Wanda hoped her son had not seen the disgust on her face.

“So maybe not such a good idea. Well, how about you tell me a story with shadow puppets. I’ll finish dinner while you come up with a really good story.” Wanda shifted to the side, letting the firelight spill into the dim room. Jonah leapt up eagerly and waved his fingers wildly. At least he was still easily entertained. As he grew older, finding such diversions would become harder and harder. For now, she listened to him prattle on as she stirred a pot of donation beans over the meager flame. They had not gotten fresh wood yet this week—it was coming, they promised—and so she did her best to stretch what she did have.

That night, Wanda went to bed hopeless and forlorn. The wood had not arrived, and their fire burned low, almost to embers. She mournfully shoved a few of the drawings into the grate, hoping to keep the flame burning high enough to heat the small apartment. If nothing else, hopefully enough warmth would trickle between the tightly packed cells through their paper thin walls. She draped her arm across Jonah’s tiny body, already filling chill where his skin met the air. If nothing else, she could give him her warmth.

_

The morning came slowly, sluggishly creeping along the side of the apartment until it peeked through the tiny slit of a window they were fortunate to have. The light woke Wanda, and she was surprised to find her arms empty. There was a momentary burst of panic, but that settled when she saw Jonah standing atop a chair to peer out the window.

“Be careful up there,” she muttered sleepily as she stumbled awake. He turned and smiled at her.

“Momma, who are the people outside?”

She stretched, her back rippling with popped joints. “What? Do you see some trucks out there? those are the trucks that bring up dinn—“

“No, there aren’t any trucks. But there are people. They’re dressed all funny.”

“Get down and let me see,” she said, moving with surprising speed for so early. No one had been out walking for months now. She pressed her face against the tiny window, peering through the dust and soot that coated the inside. It was clear she had not spent too much time gazing longingly out the window during their time here. But now she did see the same shadowy shapes Jonah had seen. Closing one eyes, she gazed out the hole he had cleared with his now grubby hands, and then she could see them. They were dressed weird it seemed, some strange covering obscuring their face. Wanda remembered the hot summer days when she would look out the car widows and watch heat ripple across the pavement. The memory felt out of place in the winter wasteland, but it also felt appropriate to whatever it was covering their face.

“Does this mean we can go outside and play?” Jonah was eager, his face split into a wide smile. Wanda touched her hand to the glass and felt the same bitter cold. But there were people out there, and even though the fire was out, it was only slightly cool in the room.

“Maybe, baby, but mom has to make sure it’s safe first.”

She stepped down off the chair and turned over the strange discovery. People outside after all of this. Everyone said it would eventually thaw, the climate would return to normal, and life would re-emerge from hibernation. But Wanda had begun to doubt she would see that, at least until that vision outside.

“Can we please?” pleaded Jonah. She gave him a warm if distracted smile.

“I’ll go find out if it’s safe. You get bundled up.”

“Are you going downstairs?” he asked giddily.

“Yes, I will. Just see if anyone else has tried to go out. We may not be the first outside when the thaw comes, but I promise we will go out as soon as it’s safe.”

“Can I go with you?”

She pursed her lips, considering it. He had been well behaved cooped in the small apartment, and the trip downstairs was about as harmless as anything could be. Nevertheless, she knew that meant keeping a close eye on him so that he did not dart outside. He could not understand how dangerous—and deadly—that would be. “Okay,” she relented, “but stay close.”

This was the adventure of the week for him, and he was practically vibrating with anticipation. Wanda smiled and opened the door. The hallways were dark and narrow, lit with an occasional pane of glass to the outside world. She could hear crying, yelling, screaming, and laughing behind the closed doors, but she also felt the uncomfortable cold in the hallway. Hopefully the wood arrived soon. Wanda was equally eager for the people outside to be braving the newly lessening chill as she was with the idea that they would bring vital wood.

No one acknowledged her on the way down the rusty, uncertain stairs, which was not unusual. Most people kept their heads down in their own problems. She reached the front door and squeezed in as close as she could around the heavy layers of ropes and blankets that still stood between her and outside. Now closer, she could see the figures outside, their faces still covered by the odd material.

She turned back to the hallway, scanning for a familiar face. “Oh, Darren?” she called out, catching sight of one of her floor mates. He pressed on, ignoring her. “Darren, have you seen this?” He did not respond even as she raised her voice.

The door next to her opened, and she reached out to grasp the stout woman who stomped out. Her eyes widened and she seemed to shiver with a chill. “Do you know what’s going on out there?” The woman did not respond, but looked around uncomfortably before shuffling back into her apartment. Yes, people were withdrawn, but this was bizarre.

“Up to me, I guess,” muttered Wanda. She held Jonah’s hand tightly within her own trying to constrain the eager boy. He was rattling on about snowmen and snowball fights, forts and sledding. The first months were pleasant and wonderful, full of all those beloved activities he fondly remembered. Only later did it become horrifying.

She looked out again, tapping on the window. One of the figures seemed to look up, perhaps drawn by the noise or the face in the window. It walked towards her, the face still a mess of wavering lines. Maybe it was some sort of climate controlled mask? Government issued, she was sure.

“Momma, can we go outside? Please? No one else is worried.” He pointed at the people going on about their days, completely disinterested.

“Be patient,” she snapped, turning back to the window.

There, she finally saw the face of one of the people outside. It was no longer obscured, but presented in crisp detail. She saw her husband’s face pressed against the glass. His skin was pale, white, and frostbitten, icicles clinging to his unkempt beard. The eyes that stared back at her were empty and cold.

Wanda stumbled back from the door. Of all the things she had hoped for, her dead husband was not on the list.


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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 69

Card Day 69: A man being pulled along in a cart by a toy soldier while other toy soldiers line the passage.

The lights were out at Fort Kestrel when Zach arrived home. His house was also empty, and he made the correct assumption that, due to whatever had caused the power outage, his wife had to stay at her post a bit longer today. It was a bit irritating floundering about in the dark, but he fumbled with the window shades upon entering, and pale light filtered in from outside. It was, at least, a sunny day. Even if that made the underlying reason for the power outage less clear.

Zach scrounged along the baskets under the coffee table until he found one of the big, decorative, scented candles that had decorated the top before other clutter pushed them aside. He lit it, the artificial scent of cinnamon quickly assailing his nostrils. At least it was light for those pesky interior rooms. And in a large enough glass that he could carry it with him, He was not in the mood to scrounge around for other candles or spend the time policing the flames. Then again, last thing they needed was a house in ashes.

The base was surprisingly quiet, but Zach tried not to think about it too closely. There may have been some sort of drill or announcement that he was not aware of. Living on base had its fair share of intrigue, but most of it was more boring than intriguing for Zach. Still Lily should have been home, especially since he had gotten out early. And usually the neighbor kids were out screaming this time of day, just after dinner time for the perfectly happy family. They wre good kids, he just was not a fan of loud noises late at night.

Honestly, that meant the decision to live on base had probably been the wrong one, but Lily’s job had bizarre enough hours that it had been worth it. Still, those bizarre hours were almost always planned, and this one wasn’t. It was probably nothing, Zach told himself, walking around the house and opening whatever windows he could find.

Looking out, so much was quiet. There was a hush over the base that made him feel uncomfortable. It was generally a bustling place, but now it sat lonely. As the sun began to grow closer to the horizon, promising a beautiful sunset, Zach jiggled his cell phone in his hand, quickly tapping the central button to bring the screen to life.

There was a message waiting for him. He must have missed the vibration while driving along the pitted roads leading from his office to his house. At least that explained something. He swiftly clicked through the menu options, wondering what he had forgotten.

“Zach.” Her voice held a tint of panic, and he wondered if it was a panic he should catch as well, or simply related to the bustle of the office. “I—Honey, I love you. Something went very wrong today. I won’t be coming home. If you get this, stay off base. Stay in your office. I—“ he could hear her voice fracturing. “I love you, Zach. Remember that, okay?” The message went silent in his hand, replaced by the emotionless metallic voice of the menu operator. Zach could sympathize with that emptiness, plunging the depths of emotional numbness he now felt. That message was dire. It was terrifying, final, and heartbreaking. He sat frozen, afraid that if he moved, all he was would shatter.

Eventually, the message service disconnected, leaving the phone empty in his hand. That was okay. He was empty, too. But his mind swirled with a thousand questions. What had happened? Did she mean she wouldn’t come home tonight? Ever? The tears in her voice seemed to suggest ever. What gave her forewarning, but no way to escape? What should he do now that he was on base? Where was everyone? Had something happened to everyone? Is that why the power was out? They tumbled over one another in his brain, never around long enough t piece together any answer.

Then, the warning claxons began to sound. He jumped at the sound, the way it echoed in the emptiness. If the message time was anything to judge by, they were about an hour and a half too late. If only he had answered his phone, he could have found answers to some of these questions. He could have told her he loved her too. But she knew that, didn’t she?

The correct protocol for various drills ran through his head, but he felt heavy. It was too much to stand, move, follow through on proper procedures. Besides, it was not an alarm sound he recognized. The weather sirens went off every week like clockwork, so he knew that tone. This was different. Nor was it the bugle calls that ran at regular intervals across the day. It was probably wise to move to the storm shelter, but part of him wanted to sit here until Lily came through the doors. Even if that meant he never moved again.

Zach eventually picked up a new sound, the sound of a car roaring along the empty roads. Come to think of it, they had been surprisingly empty. There was a full lot at the commissary, but empty streets. Zach’s thoughts flashed back to the empty-eyed guard at the entry shack, waving him through after a cursory glance at his ID. That, at least, was normal. But he wondered what that man was doing now. Was that his vehicle? Was he investigating the sirens? Was he caught up in whatever had silenced the base?

His phone clattered to the floor as Zach stood, marching towards the door. He did not know what was going on, but he wanted to find out. The best way to find out would be to go toe Lily’s lab, see if anyone there could tell him anything. He grabbed the keys from the side table, and was about to start his car when he realized silence had once again settled over the town. Unsure of why, he opted to remain silent rather than drawing any further attention to himself.

Along his walk, Zach noticed that all the windows were drawn. Yes, it was getting late, he recognized that by the golden glow in the sky, but there were usually some home opened to the great outdoors, windows wide on dinner tables and television screens. Tonight, it was dark. He could not even distinguish candlelight flickering behind the heft of closed curtains.

The rumble of a truck caught him by surprise, and he instantly became the proverbial deer in the headlights. Before he could adjust to the brightness, there were dark uniformed figures surrounding him. This was not good.

“All civilians were commanded to report to Jefferson Plaza at 1800.” The voice was cold, emotionless, and stiff. It was also a voice he did not recognize, and the bright truck lights prevented his eyes from reading the nametag.

“I was at work. I did not know,” he stammered, blocking the bright light, but it did nothing to unshadow the people surrounding him.

“We will take you there now. Get in the truck.” One of the men grabbed his arm, and he instinctively recoiled.

“No, I need to see my wife. Lily Summers? She works in the Med Research Building—Calvin Research Hospital?” He was glad the name came to him, because he was certain that referring to the “rat lab” or “bone cabinet” would not have jogged their memories like it did Lily’s.

All four of the soldiers around him froze, heads cocked slightly to the right. Zach was afraid to breathe, afraid he might upset whatever delicate balance was at play. These men were not soldier—there was a stiffness and awkwardness to their movements that suggested the gear was unfamiliar and bulky. It was almost as if they did not quite fit in the uniforms, even though the shadows clearly filled it out.

“We will take you there. Get in the truck.”

Zach did not trust these unusual soldiers with their mechanical ways, but he needed to see Lily. He also realized that their willingness sto take him to her in her restricted lab meant they certainly were not who they masqueraded as. His sense of foreboding grew as he hauled himself into the back of the truck.

The base was small enough that it was but a brief, bumpy ride to the squat white building. N the dim light of the truck, he could read their nametags. Martinez, Halcomb, and Bridges, plus whoever was doing the actual driving. He knew Halcomb from one of Lily’s work get togethers, and he also knew that the person wearing his uniform was not Halcomb. That man spoke with a soft voice, a slight stutter on occasion. None of that was evident in the short words spoken by this man. His words came out in short, sharp, loud bursts, almost as if the ability to modulate his speech was not quite there.

Zach unloaded from the truck when told, marched into the white building as informed, and sat in the back of the elevator as the uniformed men pushed buttons and entered the clearance code. There was no reason Zach should have been brought down to Lily’s level, not with his lack of clearance, and he knew that. He tried to study the faces behind the darkened visors as they rode together in the elevator, but all he could make out were eyes. And he did not dare trust what he saw, because the eyes he could see were bulging in fear, screaming in terror. Their mouths were thin, flat lines that appeared bored. It had to be an illusion of the light.

The doors opened onto a long, hallway, lit sporadically with emergency lighting. As he walked along, he heard the crunch of glass beneath his feet, lying below each shattered bulb. Whatever had happened, a lot of power must have surged through to burn out this many lights and, in all likelihood, power for the entire base. It was still odd no one had gotten power back up.

They paused in front of a metal door, punching in numbers on the keypad with fingers that skated over the buttons like spiders along a web. It was a strange contrast to their previous stiffness, and it left him feeling as if tiny legs were skating along his skin. Zach shivered as the doors gaped wide.

He saw Lily standing before him, and his insides melted. She was okay, she was alive, and whatever this craziness was, she would help him out. He expected her to be surprised at his arrival, but she looked disinterested to annoyed.

“Ah,” she said pursing her lips as she turned towards him, “Zach.”

His words flooded out of him, unleashing some of the tidal wave of emotions bottled inside of him. “Lily. You’re okay. What happened?  I got you message, but I was already home? Where is everyone? What is going on? What about the power?” He rattled off questions as he took a couple of frantic steps towards her, arms out wide. Unfortunately, the guards from before grabbed his arms and held him fast to the spot. Zach pulled against them, struggling with all the might his untrained body had, but their hands squeezed tight enough that his hands began to go numb. “Lily?”

The woman sighed, smiling sadly at him. “Yes, I suppose I am this ‘Lily’ you are looking for. She talks about you. She wants me to tell you she loves you, and that you should run.” The woman gave a quick yip of a laugh at this. “Of course, it will do you no good to run now.”

“What do you mean? Lily? I love you, Lily! What’s going on?”

His please, the fervency in his eyes, did little to break the woman. “I’m sure she appreciates that. She can hear you, you know. But, unfortunately, I need her right now. I need you.”

“Wha-Who are you?” She was walking towards him and Zach felt paralyzed by her eyes—by Lily’s eyes—staring at him with such cold detachment.

“I’m just a traveler taking a lift,” said the woman with a calm smile, but Zach felt terror race up his spine. “Unfortauntely, it’s a bit cramped in here. I need to drop off some passengers, and I think you can help.”

“Lily!” he screamed, renewing his fight against the soldiers at his arms. But he did nothing, and they did not even flinch at his furious protest. She watched him fight, that same calm smile on her face. Exhausted, he looked back at her with defeated eyes. “Why?”

“Why? Well, that’s easy. Lily,” she said the name as if it were foreign to her tongue, “invited us. She was poking around with that energy crystal back there,” the woman tossed her head towards a dull, whitish rock on the table across the room. Zach knew nothing of that, but that was nothing new. “And she broke through. She let us free, let us into your world. She’s quite the lovely host.”

“What do you mean? How did you come from that rock? Where did it come from? Where did you come from?” The torrent of questions poured out of him in a stream, barely comprehensible.

“My, aren’t you the curious one?” said Lily, laying a cold hand on his cheek. “You will have plenty of time for your answers once you let us in. For now, just know that we came from very far away, and we are very happy to be here. It’s been so long.” The hand on his cheek turned into a vice, pulling his head towards her. Her lips—Lily’s lips—were on his, stiff and passionless. The woman breathed into him, and Zach felt his vision grow dark as his body went limp. Something oozed through his throat and lungs, seeping into his blood, along his body. Eventually, Zach felt something slithering behind his eyes, a mist creeping along his spine. And then, Zach stood. Only, Zach did not want to stand. He wanted to crumple to the floor, collapse into tears. His face was an emotionless mask. Someone else moved his lips, pressed air through his lungs, made words appear before him.

Someone else walked down the hall and away from Lily. Someone else donned a uniform that was the wrong size, and tried to forget the pain streaming from Lily’s eyes. Someone else tasted blood on his lips and savored it.

Zach screamed, but someone else smiled.


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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 68

Card Day 68: A twister spinning in the palm of a hand.

“I think you should know that I’m…special.” Penelope swirled her straw through her drink, not quite making eye contact with her dinner guest.

He smiled and reach across the table to twine his fingers with hers. “Trust me, that is one thing I definitely know about you. You are so special to me, more than any—“

She yanked her hand away suddenly, irritation painted in her eyes. “No, I don’t mean like that. I mean—“ she trailed off at that. Her eyes were bright, yet pricked conspicuously with distress. They raced along the room as she wrung her hands distractedly. Finally, she gathered in a deep breath, and poured out her confession. “I mean I have special powers.”

Frank laughed, and she watched his head fly back, mouth wide, unintentionally mocking her. As he calmed, he made quick note that she, on the other hand, was not enjoying the joke of her own creation. He studied her face, scouring it for any glimmer of humor. She could never play a joke this straight-faced.

“Penny,” he said, still smiling, “that’s a good one. But you can lay off now. You got me.”

“I’m not joking, Frank.” She seemed to be deeply invested in the cheap carpeting of the restaurant, and his discomfort was growing.

“Come on, it’s not funny. You got me, now stop.”

When her eyes met his, he wished instead she had kept glaring at the carpet. There was fierce anger and frustration burning in her eyes, and he was close enough to feel the heat wash over him. “I said it wasn’t a joke,” she hissed. “I’m as serious as I’ve ever been in my life. But I know you bought a ring last week, and so I can’t put this off any longer. I’m different.”

Frank was floundering. He had known her for years, more than long enough to understand the subtlety of her jokes as well as the depths of her sincerity. This was not a joke. He could peer into every crevice of her expression, but there was not a single ounce of humor. She was terrible at drawing something out this long; in their years together, she had never carried out a joke more than a minute or so before her façade cracked into giggles. It was sobering, because she was completely serious. “Have you, I mean, do you think it would be good to talk to someone about this?”

“I’m talking to you about it right now.”

“No,” his nerves left him feeling a thousand miles away from the quaint diner table. “Not me. Have you maybe told a…professional about this?”

She grew steely, then softened. “I’m not crazy, Frank. I know it sounds that way, but I’m not. It’s a genetic thing that runs in my family, so if you’re considering marrying me, you should know.”

“Wait, how did you know about the ring? Does that mean you’re psychic?”

Penelope rolled her eyes. At least she had him buying in on the “special powers” thing for the moment. “No, you left the receipt in your wallet. I saw it the other night when I got your card for the takeout.” He appeared a bit deflated, again concerned. “But that does not mean I don’t have other gifts.”

“Penelope, you know I love you, but you have to understand that this is all a bit much. If this is a joke—“

“For the last time, it’s not a joke.” Her voice peaked high enough this time to draw stares from the nearby tables, and her face burned red in response. “I can control the weather.”

Frank snorted, pushing back a bit from the table. “Seriously, Penny? You think I’m going to buy that? We just had our picnic rained out, but you can control the weather?”

He could see her trying to stay calm and keep herself together, waging an internal battle and losing. Her words were strained, barely contained, when she finally did speak. “Yes, our picnic was rained out. Do you have any idea how much energy it takes to redirect a seasonal storm front for a few hours?”

He withered under her fiery gaze. “I mean, no, I don’t know that. But come on, you can’t expect me to believe this? It’s crazy, Penny!”

“So, now I’m crazy.”

“No, you are not crazy. This story is. I guess it was supposed to be a joke, but I don’t think either of us is laughing. Let’s drop it and enjoy our dinner.” Frank buried his face into the menu as if it would protect him from the dangerous glare in her eyes.

“You aren’t going to believe me without proof, are you?”

Frank reached his limit. He snapped the menu closed and pressed it into the table. “Would you?” he responded sharply, this time not shying from her angry gaze.

“Fine, but we leave and get pizza on the way home once I’m done.”

“Whatever you say, Penelope. You can have all the pizza you want, but I chose this place for a reason. I’ll get it to go, but I’m having dinner.” He dove back into the menu, steaming.

Unfortunately, this meant he missed the subtle transformation crashing over Penelope. She closed her eyes halfway, leaving them unfocused and moving rapidly behind her lids. Her breathing slowed to steady, deep breaths that came in regular but prolonged gaps. She left her hands folded in her lap, fingers curled tightly together, and her knuckles steadily turned white at the prolonged pressure. Steadily, her breath slowed and deepened, and then a tiny puff of fog preceded from her lips with each breath.

Had Frank looked, her would have noticed that her skin seemed to grey, as did her usually vibrant brown hair. It was as if someone drained the color from the room, in fact, but she was the focus of the disruption. Perhaps Frank noticed the food looked less appetizing in the menu pictures, but he never moved his eyes to look at her. It was not until he lifted his hand to call over a server that he realized something was wrong.

The air of the restaurant hung heavy and wet around him, even though the fans overhead had never stopped spinning. It was sticky in there with all the heat and humidity of a July afternoon. Frank’s eyes widened, staring at his changed girlfriend as she continued in her trance, the mist from her lips rising to the ceiling. The clatter of the restaurant died down, people beginning to notice the change. However, it was as if they all moved through water, heads moving sluggishly and eyes glancing dumbly about. Sounds were muted and echoing dully, the sounds of the kitchen having slowed in tempo even as the servers were caught in the same doldrums.

Penelope was faded, distant, but consuming. He could not pull his eyes away because, as dim as she was, she still pulsed with a power that defied everything he had ever thought. Mesmerized, he watched as a cloud steadily formed among the rafters of the restaurant, grey and foreboding.

When it began to rain inside, she seemed to snap from the trance, and the world rubber banded back into place with sudden activity. People scurried, throwing napkins and menus over their heads to protect from the rain. Frank sat entranced on his own, while Penelope slumped in her seat. She opened her eyes, heavy with fatigue, long enough to give him a pointed and charged glance.

“Believe me now?”

The restaurant had exploded into chaos around them, people pouring around their table and towards the exit. Waiters and waitresses stumbled about, trying to get people out safely while looking around in muted shock. There was no hole in the ceiling, no ring of the fire alarms. This was not the sprinkler system, and it had no cause. Eventually, the newspapers would claim it was due to an interaction between air conditioning, humid external conditions, and smoke from the kitchen.

But Frank knew the truth “Yeah, I’m converted. Let’s get you that pizza, my special woman.”


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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 67

Card Day 67: Children riding a wind-up carousel atop dragons, elephants, and other creatures.

The dragon rose majestically over the forest, her wings unfurling and casting deep shadows along the ground below. She stretched her neck, releasing a vicious cry into the sun-laced air, as her wings arched back and forth rhythmically. In the forest below, there was movement that caught her eye, perhaps a worthy foe. Large, intelligent blue eyes scanned the forest, picking up the disturbances in the foliage that marked her opponent’s movements.

On the ground, the dinosaur roared its own battle cry, staring at the trees in an attempt to reach the best floating high above. His steps thundered along the earth, creating rumbling disturbances throughout the area. Animals fled from before him as he made his way to the arena. This would be the final battle, the one to prove ultimate alpha predator. Above him, he could see the flying shadow following behind him, heading to the determined place.

Rock walls rose around them, towering and imposing, limiting her top altitude while keeping him in a cramped earthly domain. Both roared, circling one another and looking for any weakness. She struck first rearing back and spewing a blast of liquid fire to the ground. The dinosaur rolled away, narrowly avoiding a swift loss. He raised his claws, raking at the air, but finding her out of reach. Instead, he reared back and shot his own ball of flame towards her.

“Hey, that’s no fair!” snapped Xandi, swatting at her twin brother.

“You did it to me!” he responded as he shoved her in turn.

She put her hands on her hips. “Yeah, well, dragons can breathe fire. Dinosaurs can’t. Maybe you should have thought of that before.”

“Well it’s still not fair. You can breathe fire and fly. It’s no fun if you just fly away the whole time. I guess you’re just chicken.” Xander smirked at her and stuck out his tongue. Unfortunately, he also closed his eyes to complete his taunt, so he did not have a chance to see her barreling towards him until she tackled him to the ground.

Now that the dragon had left her lofty domain, the fight could truly begin. The punched and pinched at each other, roaring with pain and irritation as they rolled along the playroom floor. The ruckus quickly summoned a referee, however, and their mother stormed in to separate the two.

Having twins had taught her quite a bit about how to break up a fight, so she grabbed two arms and tugged them in opposite directions, ending up with two panting children on opposite sides of her body. “That’s enough, you two. If you don’t want timeout, then the fight is through.” Both looked angry and offended, carrying the weight of perceived slights and a few red marks from the brutal fight.

“Xander was cheating. He was a dinosaur, but he kept blowing fire!” She accentuated her point with the stomp of a foot, and her mother sighed. They were both too young to have that much attitude.

“Well Xandi wouldn’t even play! She was just flying and trying to beat me!”

“That’s the whole point,” she sneered back.

“Yeah, but you were being a big chicken—“ His mother’s sharp look cut off the taunt before it could progress to the actual clucking, but Xandi understood the intent nonetheless. Their mother shook her head, drawing them side by side in front of her. The same bright blue eyes stared at her, the same dark hair framing pale faces. If they were not different genders, she would have sworn they were identical twins.

“Listen you two, I don’t care who did what or what animals have what superpowers. You cannot hit your brother or your sister.” Her eyes drifted side to side between them, pinning them both to the floor. “If you cannot play Monster Battle nicely, you cannot play at all.” She watched them both soften as she threatened their favorite game. Their mother rolled her eyes internally and reminded herself to thank her husband for the wonderful Godzilla marathons.

“No, please, we can play nice!” whine Xandi, giving a half-sincere smile to her brother,

“Yeah, we’ll be good and quiet. No more fighting. No more real fighting,” said Xander as he quickly corrected his statement.

“I don’t know, guys. We do this a lot. Maybe it’s time to take a break—“

“No,” rose the chorus, plaintive and heartbroken.

“Give us one more chance, Mom.” Xander held onto her arm, resting his head against her shoulder. Xandi reached over and put a hand on her brother’s shoulder in true teamwork.

“Yeah, Xander can have fire-breath, I guess. It’ll be more fun, then.” She did not sound convinced, but Xander brightened at the concession.

Their mother stood, eyeing them both closely. She knew she still had dinner to tend to on the stove and a hefty stack of paperwork waiting for her review. If for once the promises were true, it would definitely make her evening a lot less stressful. Worst case scenario, she would be back in ten minutes to break them up again and set them to different tasks.

As their mother left the room, they envisioned a giant alien mothership floating away on the horizon. They could return to the duel.

“Alright,” said the dragon from her lofty vantage point, “you can have fire breath, but then I get—“ she paused as she searched her repertoire of appropriate monster abilities,”—ice breath!”

The dinosaur grumbled something under his breath, but accepted the solution. “Fine. But if you fly out of bounds, then you lose.”

“Fine,” muttered the dragon, never having broken the steady beat of her wings. She flapped above the arena as the combatants sized one another up.

Xander struck first, blowing a billowing cloud of fire upwards as he rushed around the arena. Xandi glanced around, suddenly seeing the air turn into a boundary of flaming walls. “That was smart,” she said, and he smiled smugly in response. “But not smart enough. Ice breath!”

With that, the sky turned into frozen blocks of fire that swiftly plummeted to the ground. The dinosaur used all its agility and speed to dodge out of the way, but one of the falling pillo—ice blocks struck his shoulder, and he careened wildly along the ground.

He roared in pain, sliding along the dusty arena floor and bumping against the rock walls. Pictures hung along the rock face trembled, but held firm. They both sighed in relief as the lack of devastation.

“Now I’ve got you!” roared the dragon, circling her fallen prey. Victory gleamed in her eyes along with a haughty sense of accomplishment. “You won’t get away from me!”

Even in his wounded state, the dinosaur was not to be bested. He lifted a rock from the floor next to him and flung it with all his might toward the spiraling beast. She was taken by surprise, never having suspected her injured foe to be so creative or strong. The stone struck her wing, and she found herself careening back towards the ground. And the waiting claws of her opponent.

The twins crashed into one another, once again rolling across the floor in the throes of laughter and mumbled threats. They locked arms, faces hovering inches from one another, and rolled back and forth across the floor.

“Ice breath!”

“Fire breath!”

They tumbled and fought, managing to seamlessly block one another’s attacks. Eventually, their breath-based powers exhausted, they restored to throwing stones from around the arena, crushing one another under pillowy weights. The dragon lifted a handful of pebbles and watched as the stuffed animals mercilessly rained down on her foe. He stood no chance, as he could not block all the dozens of projectiles launched his way. But he dove behind a rocky outcropping, then launched another boulder towards her. She barely had time to roll out of the way, struggling to fly away on her injured wing.

They were breathless and screeching, dodging behind furniture and overturning pillows, cushions, footstools, toys, and anything else that made a suitably safe stand-in for deadly attacks. Eventually, the ruckus drew the mothership back into the room.

“Guys,” sighed the alien voice, cutting into their battle. The dragon and dinosaur froze, investigating the new threat. “I thought you were going to keep it calm.”

“We were, mom, we just—“

“You made a huge mess.” Both creatures looked around at the ruins of the arena, stones littering the floor from one end to the other. Little remained of the once pristine battleground. It had truly been a ferocious fight.

“We were just having fun,” muttered Xander, his eyes darkening under his pouting brow.

“Yeah, but fun does not mean destruction. Listen, dinner will be ready in ten minutes,” said the alien, pointing animatedly at the sundial looming on the arena wall. “I want this place picked up by dinner. No more Monster Battles.”

“Yes, ma’am,” moaned Xandi and Xander. They slowly began walking towards the pillows, picking them up with half-hearted zeal and dropping them limply on the couch. The mothership floated away again as she ran a tired hand through her hair.

“I’ll get you next time,” taunted Xandi as she restacked the various stuffed animals in their assigned spots.

“Why wait until next time?” growled the dinosaur, a devious smirk on his face. Before she could react, he scooped up the footstool cushion and smacked her in the back of the head.

“I win!”


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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 66

Card Day 66: An anchor in the sand with blue background behind.

The sandy landscape stretching before her had once been the bed of magnificent sea. That had, of course, been years upon years ago, and there was nothing of the sun baked landscape to suggest the previous role. Yvonne looked around, marveling at the endless expanse. This had once been her home, she thought with a dull feeling of nostalgia. Of course, it had never been her actual home, but this was where her parents’ parents had sprung from, escaping to the stars. Being back here was, in a sense, a homecoming, even if she had never laid eyes on such a mass before.

In fact, she was amazed at the feeling of land under her feet. It was strange to feel natural gravity holding her to the planet, the stability of miles and miles of solid earth beneath her feet. Sure, this spun just as her space station home had, but there was something different given the magnitude of this place.

However, she had not been sent here to appreciate the landscape, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Yvonne was certain she could sit and do so for the entire span of her assignment, but that would also ensure her notification of termination. Still, there was part of her that felt it might be worth it just to take in the landscape.

The skiff lifted behind her—the sand was not stable enough to make a permanent landing zone—and she heard the pilot’s voice through her ear piece. “Be back in a week for you, Terra Team. Stay safe.” She imagined the craft wiggled a wing in farewell before it headed back to the station sitting high in orbit. There were other teams dotting the planet, but it still felt so lonely being dropped onto the surface of the dead planet. Yvonne briefly wondered if her other team members felt the same, but they all seemed absorbed by their tasks. She was the newbie, the one earthstruck in her first moments. The veterans mulled about, seemingly unimpressed.

The leader, a middle-aged woman with already silvered hair, clapped Yvonne on the shoulder. “Got to get moving to the exploration site. We want to be there by dark so we can spend tomorrow descending.” Captain Morrison lifted one of the survival packs, pushing it into Yvonne’s hands. The older woman’s eyes, warm and sharp, met Yvonne’s for a moment and smiled in recognition. “It is impressive, your first time. Just wait until sunset.” With a parting pat on the shoulder, she moved along to the other team members, readying them for the trek.

The skiff had gotten close, but some places were not stable enough for even a brief landing. Not only was there the instability of the sand, but geologic changes meant some areas were too volatile to risk landing and taking off. Nevertheless, the drop off point had been only a couple hours hike from the site of the descent. And there would be no descending before tonight. The climb down would take long enough that it was best tackled in a fresh day.

Yvonne shouldered her pack and tried to get used to the hefty weight of gravity on her body. It did not help that her pack added another good twenty pounds of necessary gear. Still, she did her best to smile and press on, not wanting to be the weak link in such an esteemed team. The walk, however, served to reinforce her outsider feelings. Everyone else had travelled together before, exploring various landmarks and cultural sites. There were inside jokes, close companionships, and then Yvonne, standing on the outside as the eager new recruit.

She knew some ridiculed her, and the flight over had its fair share of hazing. This aversion as nothing new to Yvonne who had spent her childhood as a social outsider, but it was unexpected. She had always imagined that once she got into these respected academic realms, no one would ridicule her for her intellectual interests or social oddities. Yet she had merely changed one social group for another. The upside was this one seemed like it might just open up to her, if she gave it enough time.

The silence of the trek did not bother her too much, since she was still eagerly taking in the world around her. The sky was so blue, and the land stretched out endless before her. About midway through, a water canteen came winding back through the travelling group.

“Thirsty?” asked Mr. Carlton, pushing the jug towards her. She grabbed it eagerly, surprised by her own thirst.

“Thanks, I hadn’t even realized how thirsty I’ve gotten.”

Mr. Carlton laughed. “My first trip, I did not eat for the first two days because I was so amazed by everything. I was in the Amazon, and everything was amazing. Trust me, I don’t suggest that. I got to spend the next two days at camp, trying to recuperate while Dr. Melwin—an old battle ax of a man—scolded me. Don’t make my mistakes.” He twisted off the cap and Yvonne drank greedily, enjoying the refreshment. Then, she took up her role and passed it along back through the line to the smiling faces.

When it came time to camp, she was a touch sorrowful that the pilgrimage was at an end. Still, the journey was just beginning. Tonight, they camped on the lip of the deepest point on the now empty Earth. Tomorrow, they would descend into the belly of the best, uncovering treasures that had been locked away from human exploration.

The captain had been right, Sunset was amazing, and Yvonne let the beauty wash over her. She understood why these trips were so addictive. It was a drug she could get used to.

_

“Congratulations on a successful descent, team,” smiled Captain Morrison, her hair damp and plastered to her forehead. It had been a hot day, even though it was cooler down here in the shade. The darkness was deepening, suggesting the sun was setting on the surface. “I don’t have to tell you all that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. If nothing else, we’re sure to see some crazy stuff down here. So, orders for tonight are to rest up. We’re up early tomorrow to start exploration.”

Yvonne needed little encouragement to wind down for the night. After the descent, her arms ached. Even lifting the spoon to her mouth during dinner caused ripples of aches to flood through her body.

“The trip to the site is always the worst part,” said Dr. Abelard, rubbing her own shoulders in sympathy. She settled in beside Yvonne on the nearby rocks, stirring her own dinner. “I have an herbal cream that I put on my shoulders after a day like that. I can give you some if you’d like?”

Yvonne was taken aback by the kindness, having expected even more hazing. She opened her mouth, but lacked the words to respond. People weren’t her specialty, even if that was what she was seeking most from this trip.

Dr. Abelard laughed, a ringing sound among the silent walls. “Don’t tell me we’ve scared you off already. Trust me, the flight down here was all just formality. You’re on the team, you’re family. Loosen up.” She nudged her with her elbow, giving Yvonne a quick wink.

“Does it work?” Yvonne asked, trying to ease into the conversation.

The other woman shrugged. “I think so. Then again, it may all be in my mind. But if it makes it so my body stops screaming, I figure it’s worth it. I’ll drop it by your sleep roll later.” Yvonne and Dr. Abelard sat and ate, passing the time in quiet chitchat. Small talk was not Yvonne’s specialty, but Dr. Abelard seem incredibly skilled in the art, pulling Yvonne through the motions.

Still, there was little that was as refreshing to Yvonne as the thin layer of cotton bedding in her survival roll once she turned in for the night. The darkness was deep and thick, a bit unsettling to someone use to constant emergency lighting and ambient light from station halls or electronic monitors, and so she was relieved when a light came bobbing towards her.

Dr. Abelard was in the lead, Ms. Caldwell tagging along. The two women seemed to have a friendship that stretched far back, and they were whispering quietly as they walked. Once they reached Yvonne’s tent, they paused and knocked on the door.

“Come on in,” squeaked Yvonne, grateful for the light and company as the two women swept in confidently.

“I always bring some extra in case someone wants to try,” said Dr. Abelard, handing Yvonne a small tube of ointment. “Just a little before you go to sleep, and you’ll wake up feeling like a new woman.”

Ms. Caldwell interjected, almost as if the words burst forth from her lips unsummoned. “Julie told me that this was your first on-world trip. I knew you were new to the team, but not the whole planet!”

Yvonne felt blood rush into her cheek, once again labelled as outsider. Ms. Caldwell seemed to recognize her discomfort and rushed to right the wrong.

“I mean, it must be tough. My first time, I was so homesick. And I could not stand the dark. Wed not have dark like this on the station!” Dr. Abelard was nodding along with Ms. Caldwell, both women smiling knowingly. “I’ve gotten a bit more used to it, and thought this might help you. I mean, if you’re having trouble going to sleep.” She held out a small sphere and gently nudged it with her thumb. A dull, pale blue glow pulsed from the sphere, granting a modicum of light. The darkness, previously so suffocating, receded just a bit, and the women sat in soft light.

As much as she was comforted by the sphere, propriety took over. “That’s so nice, but I can’t. It wouldn’t—“

“Nonsense. We need you sharp for the exploration tomorrow, and that mean sleeping comfortably. You can give it back to me at the end of the trip.”

Yvonne tried again. “No, really, I c—“

“Listen, I’m more stubborn than you, and you’re young enough to be my daughter. I’d want someone to do this for my daughter if she were all alone. I’m leaving it here. Goodnight.” Ms. Caldwell set the sphere by Yvonne’s bedroll, and the two women disappeared back into the evening, continuing on their way. She had to admit, her tent did seem much more comfortable with the soft light. Soon, she was asleep, a smile on her face.

_

The next morning, she was woken by the sudden, rough shaking of Dr. Pollard. H grinned at her from behind his spectacles. “I was beginning to think you were going to miss the first day. You know I did that on our last trip, and they never let me live that down. Trust me, you don’t want that!”

Yvonne smiled self-consciously as she disentangled herself from her bed. His flashlight was aimed for her eyes, and she blink quickly, hoping he would understand. He looked away, granting her relief. “Thanks, Dr. Pollard. I’ll be there in a minute.”

He spun back around with the flashlight, and she was blinded again. “You can call me Tim, Yvonne. No need for formality down here.”

She smiled as he left, her tent swaying shut behind him. As she got up to join the others, there was an extra spring in her step. For once, she felt the scrutiny and interpersonal discomfort fade. It took a moment for Yvonne to identify the feeling. Acceptance, she realized.

Feeling at ease in her own skin, reliant on her skills and experiences, and brought into the fold by her kind companions,  Yvonne was ready to dive in and learn something really important on this trip of discovery.


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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 65

Card Day 65: A cat sits in its bed, staring up at a deer head mounted on the wall. Tears drip from the deer’s eyes and down to the floor.

Henry had the growing sense of unease that there was something following him through the woods. It was a subtle sense, steeped in his own paranoia and cautious personality, but unshakeable. It was as if he could hear the slightest echo to his steps among the crackling leaves, or as if the birds seemed to wait just a bit too long to return to song behind him. He was born and raised among these woods, and he felt as if he could read them like an open book. Today, the message they were spelling out was grim, and he could not escape the clammy feeling creeping up his back. He was being followed, watched, and stalked.

The feeling of eyes on his back made his skin itch, almost as if a cold wind had whipped up and bit at his well-protected skin. Henry though he might just crawl right out of his skin, leave it a husk on the ground, if only to escape the impossibly unsettling feeling. Every tree branch suddenly became a traitorous hand seeking to pin him down and impede his progress. His home turf took on sudden maleficence he strained his ears, trying to hear the double crunch of his steps mirrored in someone else’s, attuned to the whispered music of another’s breath filtering through the trees.

It took all the resolve he could muster not to turn heel and flee through the woods. His home was on the other side, just over a mile’s journey, and even at his age he could make it in fifteen minutes or so at a light jog. His heart wasn’t what it used to be, but his doctor would probably approve of the exercise. But his pride forbade such an act of cowardice, so he held his steps to steady stroll through the diminishing sunlight. It would be dark soon, which might have been reason enough to hurry his trip, but the lingering possibility of some adversary that could perceive it as a sign of weakness meant he would be late getting home, strolling in and hanging his hat on the hook just past sunset.

Fortunately, the idea of the woods at night was less terrifying, or would have been under normal circumstances. His youth had been defined by sneaking into the woods for drinks and carousing with his buddies. Not to mention the many early morning hunting trips with his father—generally full of its own drinking and carousing—that had given him a familiarity with the darkened woods. In some ways, that was his territory to prowl. He felt as if he knew the way better under the cloak of night, those times when he relied on his other senses to guide him.

Only now, there was the very real danger of a predator. Carter Jinkerson had sworn he saw a couple of wolves roaming around a couple weeks back. Henry tried to dismiss the thought, noting that the footsteps—real or imagined—that he heard were not the soft padding of some four-footed animal. No, it was something large and heavy, walking about on two feet that perfectly mirrored his own. Somehow that realization did nothing to relieve his feeling of unease. He had bested every kind of animal that haunted these woods, but a human, now a human would certainly be challenging.

There had not been any string of attacks or murders in the sleepy town, so he tried to remind himself that killers did not just spring up in the midst of the woods. It was probably some kids, maybe one of his buddies trying to give him a scare. Even more reason to not let them see him sweat.

It was then that Henry realized the footsteps he had been thinking so intently on had, in fact, grown silent. He no longer heard anything sneaking along after him, even if the unusual silence did hang thick among the branches. Nothing but one set of steps pushing through the fall’s bounty of leaves, thundering through like a wounded deer crashing through the underbrush.

The silence was terrifying. He had lost the one thing that gave him an edge. He had known he was being hunted, and now he had lost his predator. Henry took a few great gasping breaths, trying to look as if he was merely resting, while his eyes jumped from tree to tree in a futile hope of finding one of the guys from the town leaning with a wide grin from behind his cover. But no one appeared, and Henry’s heart began to beat heavily against his ribs with the panic that left his limbs leaden.  Even if he was not walking, he could hear the steady steps of his heart pacing the forest floor, seeking solace in trees that had so often filled him with serenity.

And then the leaves cracked behind him, closer than he had imagined and gaining with each shuffling step. That sound sent a jolt running through him, the alarm of the woods filtering through his heavy soled shoes and through his body. It spurred those limp muscles to action, pushing through the detritus. Thin, wispy branches whipped at him, tugging on his clothes as if pleading to also be taken away from whatever monstrosity dogged his heels. The steps were heavy behind him, signaling some beast much larger than any he had ever hunted. Henry fled, his eyes trained to the treacherous ground, unwilling to risk of fallen branch or surprise sinkhole ending his perilous flight.

The fading sunlight threw long shadows across the forest floor. The slender bodies of the trees lay in straight lines, painting lanes that he used to direct his steps toward safety. His home was just a bit farther on, just beyond the edged of the woods. He pushed himself to keep moving, even as his lungs ached and his mind swam with possibilities. Most disorienting was the shadow that followed along behind him, something that towered over his meager silhouette. It consumed his shadow, devouring it was the long, angled face. Spindly protrusions—could they be antlers?—protruded from the head of the shadow, dueling the black and grey branches lacing the ground. And it always grew closer, gaining on Henry’s frenzied steps.

Breath, hot and sticky, rolled of his back. It came in great puffs, crashing onto him like a wave, and he felt primal terror of something old and unknown snaking through his body. It threatened to anchor him to the spot, cease all bodily functions, and sacrifice his life to avoid living with the knowledge that such a thing could exist. Only Henry barely understood what it was he was fleeing. But his instincts knew that it was dangerous, ancient, and inescapable. The memory would cling to him like disease. It would rot his life away, turn his speech into frenzied howlings of woodland monsters and curses. Henry’s baser side understood all of this, even as his human mind scrambled over all the rationality and logic it could muster. Unfortunately, things like what lived in his forest were utterly impervious to the machinations of rational thought.

A tree branch snapped at his cheek, ripping his baseball cap from his head and leaving a thin trail of blood. The pain, slight as it was, freed him from the hindrance of that instinctive fear and returned full control of his muscles. Henry vaulted back to his top sped, a far less impressive speed than it might have been five or ten years ago, and made for the tree line. He could see the golden light just beyond the trees, the freedom from shadow. Just beyond that would be his home, the front porch light on, and a heavy shotgun in the hall closet.

Those steps never faltered, but never seemed to gain on him either. Henry almost felt like this thing that he could not bring himself to study was toying with him. It was waiting for him to turn, look back, and trip. Then it would pounce, its lure taken by the prey. It, however, did not know just how stubborn Henry could be. Presuming to know its plan, Henry steeled himself. He would not give it the satisfaction of looking.

The trees thinned around him, and he imagined the steps slowed behind him. In his delirium, he was certain that the pursuit had slowed. He was escaping. The thought blossomed in him as he burst through the trees, a flock of pheasants startled from their roost and exploding into the air. He felt the same rush of escape, putting distance between himself and whatever his hunter was. As his front porch grew closer, Henry felt as if his heart would pound right through his chest wall and beat him to the safety of the house.

He collapsed inside, falling against the backdoor. Nothing sounded after him. There were no steps on his front porch. It was silent in his house save the ticking of a clock on the mantle. Henry marveled at the silence, wondering if perhaps he had imagined the pursuer in the forest.

While his hand scrambled to the closet and pulled out his ever reliable shotgun, Henry risked a peek through the glass of his front door. He saw shadows leaning long form the woods, but there was a section of darker shadow. Something tall and imposing, its shoulder heaving in the woods as if out of breath after a long pursuit. Antlers reached high into the trees, branches mingling with branches. He could see feral golden eyes sparkled at him, then whirl and disappear.

Henry flipped the deadbolt, and leaned heavily against the door. He had no answers, no any energy to move farther. The paralysis of fear finally snared him, and he spent the evening cowering by the door.

When he woke in the morning, it was easy to attribute his fear to a bad dream figments of his imagination, or symptoms of a stroke. Perhaps it was time to see Dr. Macoughley in town after all. His knees and back ached as he rose unsteadily from his vigil by the door. The hardwood floors—while attractive to look at—did not make a suitable bed. He felt certain he would hear about this for the next few days from his creaking joints. At least, he reasoned, it was looking like another nice day outside, full of early morning sunshine. Maybe not a day for a stroll in the woods, but pleasant nonetheless.

Henry opened the door to take in the view, to prove to himself that he was not terrified of the woods that had so long been his haven. Instead, the view confirmed his fears. On the porch sat a twisted crown of tree branches, reaching high and twisting like the beautiful antlers that resided over his fireplace. The branches jutted perversely from a bleached white deer skull, the eyes empty and glaring deep into Henry’s own. Worst of all, however, was what lay beside the strange skull.

There sat his hat. Jagged tears ran along the right side, tiny tufts of his hair still tangled within the material. The blood rushed from Henry’s face, leaving him a ghost standing on the porch of his home. The only thing about him that remain alive was the shallow, stinging cut along his right cheek.


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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 64

Woohoo! On the last quarter! It’s been quite a ride, and will probably continue. Unfortunately, I have a raging migraine tonight, so there may be a lot of typos or issues here. I will probably look over this tomorrow and try to make some corrections. Tonight, I’ve just got to get my eyes closed. Happy reading!


Card Day 64: A rabbit in armor, sword drawn, standing before three different doors.

It is strange to think that my life spun on a pivot based on one choice alone. In one breath, I drastically altered life as I knew it, striking off on some path that I could never have imagined had you granted me ten thousand years to dream. No, it was the impulsivity and daring of youth that set me on this path, and I cannot help but wonder what may have been if a cooler head had reigned and selected my future. Life is, ultimately, the assembled sum of choices made in moments of strength and weakness.

“Take my hand.” The words had been a command, but they were a choice. And I chose adventure, leaving behind the life of simplicity I had thus far known. I leapt from the precipice of the unknown with a mysterious stranger whose tongue was decked in gilded lies. I eschewed the life I had known to chase after the fairytale presented.

Only his fairytale did not have a happy ending, and did not include brave knights or sweeping castles. No, his fairytales were grim reality dressed in a veil of magic. True, there is magic in this world of mine, but not the kind to transform frogs to princes. That was a lesson I learned quickly with him.

I had been young and impressionable. He had been the answers to all the darkness and ennui that dogged my daily life. I was an independent woman who wished for the fantasy of my youth. So I sought it out, digging through the recesses of our reality and searching for the tears.

My search led me to him in a back alley shop carrying all kinds of items, covering the gamut from arcane to mundane. A spells hop, he said with a smile. Only I did not realize that by opening a relationship with him, entering his world, I was actually granting entry to a myriad of unwanted guests.

“Take my hand,” he said, and led me into his shop, into his world. He showed me how to create a spell, how to transform the world and revitalize the magic I sought. Old ways, he said with the gaze of a zealous worshipper.

At first, things had been magical in the most innocent sense of the word. He had shown me how to create light and beauty, how to enchant things so that they took on a feeling of whimsy. I learned simple things to make the colors of my world shine brighter, to make music dance before me, and to grant levity to the struggles of life. I was overwhelmed with luck and beauty. It was like the greatest high I had ever experienced, only it was not bought with self-delusion and unhappy consequences.

Of course, the consequences were there, they just hung back in the shadows and waited until I was so ensnared that I could not escape.

It began with whispers that followed me throughout my day. They ebbed and flowed like waves, overwhelming me at times with their threatening whispers. Whenever I used the gifts he had unlocked within me, I heard them swell to a rabble, only to dim as I exhausted my gifts. As I transformed the pebble in my hand into an apple, they screamed, and then faded on the wind. Every time I cast a light about my home, illuminating my abode with dancing light that shone with tranquility, they raged against the peace. Only when it grew dark did they quiet again.

I thought I was going crazy, but that is not the thing you can tell a therapist. Yes, I hear voices, but only when I use magic. That’s a one way ticket to a life I did not want. So I chose not to reach out for help, but to live with it. I told him about the voices, and he smiled knowingly.

“You didn’t think you’d get this all for free, did you? You’re building quite the tab.” And he stopped taking my calls. The shop closed up, a smudge of paint on a brick wall downtown. From shadows he came, and into them he once again melted.

Had they stayed voices, I think I would have been fine. I could hold them back, limit the use of my skills, and make it by without becoming overwhelmed by the ever clearer voices. As long as I did not think about the horrors they whispered, I could hold it together.

Soon, there were shadows in my eyes. They clung around the edges of my sight, deepening natural shadows and sneaking from them when I was not looking. Their forms were obscure, fluctuating, moving with the ease of light filtering through a dusty window. At night, I woke to find them grinning down at me, hungry and waiting. “An account must be made,” they whispered, grinning with delight.

I know I should have stopped then, stepped away from the new world I had uncovered. I should have returned to the life of normalcy, hoped that they would let me go with time served. But this was more addictive than any drug. Imagine you could change the very fabric of reality around you to make life exactly as you wished. Mourning? Then simply alter time and space so that the loss never happened. Disappointed? Just a few tweaks here or there and the world realigns to your specifications. Lonely? It’s always easy to find someone when you know exactly what they’re looking for. The allure is in the ease. For such a huge power, the keys are relatively simple. Just a nudge to time here, a pull on this part of space, a twist of that arbitrary boundary. Once I knew the rules, it was as if all the world was nothing but a puzzle to be figured out and pieced together per my command. That is a power I could not step away from.

Of course, my refusal did not suit them either. They grew more and more terrifying. They woke me from sleep to scream and growl. My dreams were their playground, filled with images of horror and despair. Every time I tried to right the world in my dream, it twisted before my eyes. Not only did I not get to go home with the man I had hoped for, but I watched as he was ripped limb from limb. My attempt to brighten my apartment turned into a blazing fire, my nostrils filled with the scent of burning flesh while I listened to the screams of my neighbors. I woke in terror.

And tonight, I woke in terror to find they had taken on an even more tangible danger. This time, one of them was seated on my chest, two of its many appendages pinning my arms to my sides. I could try to describe it, but I know words do not do it justice. Its form was mist, eve in movement, but I also had the distinct image of a snarling wolf impossibly balanced on my torso. In no way did the writhing mass of shadow actually resemble a wolf, but that is the form that best describes the being before me. It at once had a form and denied that shape.

“An account must be made,” it snarled, breathing long coils of hot, rancid breath over my face. The stench of my dreams resurged, burning flesh and rotting meat comingled. The claws around my arms dug deep, and I felt my skin pop with the pressure, beads of blood trembling down my arms. I could feel its hunger at the sight, an almost ecstatic trembling in its undefined form.

“An account will be made,” it purred, jaws flashing near my face. “We are owed. We will be sated.”

And I screamed, focusing the primal rage, fear, and desire into one vocalization. I looked at my blueprint of reality, this alien blot marring the system I had learned so well. It was an invader in the world I had created, and I must be the defender.

I know my story could have ended hours ago, a blood stain on a mattress in a bad part of town. A series of screams reported to cops who did not care, a person who vanished into the night, a collection of blood and bones without any valid explanation. I could have been a cold case reserved for the stuff of urban legends.

But my teacher taught me so much better than that, even if he did abandon me. Then again, I don’t think he knew half of what he taught me. But you can learn an awful lot when you can freeze a moment and pick delicately through every neuron of their brain. Yes, you can learn so much.

And so I cleansed my world. I brought back the light that I had created and tended so gently, used it to burn away the claim that thing placed on me.  I can close my eyes and see the shock, awe, and fear on its face—or lack of a face—as it realized that the morsel it had in its claws was far more competent than expected. I hate to admit, but that look was intoxicating. As was the feeling of its form dissolving within my thoughts. I felt the structure of its phantasmagorical shape fall apart, covering me in its darkness. It ran warm, thick, and soothing over my skin; it seeped into my wounds and fed me with energy from beyond the veil.

It was a taste exhilarating, fulfilling, and empowering in a way I had never known—a way I did not know a mere human can know.

So, still wearing the remains of my foolish captor, I am once again faced with a choice. Another pivot point in my life has arisen, and I must this time be aware of what lies ahead. I may remain here, waiting, and try to return to life before I was filled with this indescribable power. They will return. Or I can flee, hide myself from the powers I have gathered, and hope that my account may one day be forgotten. The life of the victim, ever on the run.

There is a third option. I may hunt, feed myself on this essence that provides all my life has been lacking. I can drink deep, rip apart those who would dare to threaten me. I can drench myself in shadow and fill myself with their fear as I take the offensive.

Humanity has so long been prey; perhaps it is time for at least one of us to take on the role of the predator. Besides, I can feel the hunger awaken again.


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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 63

Card Day 63: A man peers over the edge of a large leaf, noticing piles of berries and fruit arranged on the leaf as if upon a table.

Exploration in concept was thrilling. Exploration in reality was exhausting. Ulrich collapsed down into his tent for the night, sinking into the cheap polyester that stunk with a week’s worth of his unwashed scent. His limp arm cast about the tent, finding his pack and tugging his recorder from the dark recesses.

“Ulrich Briggs, exploration party 39974 on Ourea-2, day 15. I traveled—“ he glanced briefly at the blinking display on his writs, translating the numerous metrics into useful data—“27.39 miles today. There was no sign of any intentionally formed structures. I catalogued seven potential new species, available in my imagedeck with transcribed narration. I have set up camp for the evening within the foothills. Tomorrow, I will begin to descend the mountains and search for any sign of sentient habitation or shelters. Proximity alarms are set and any trigger will initiate upload of all of my data, as well as activate my distress beacon.” The rest of his message descended into the rote jargon required by daily travel and bureaucratic CYA policies. Ulrich faded off to sleep, the final words dribbling from his lips with the same automaticity his entire journey had taken on.

The next morning broke bright and slightly cool. The thinner atmosphere meant that the temperatures tended to fluctuate a bit more rapidly from day to day, and Ulrich was very thankful for the temperature regulation of his Discovery Corp uniform. He stretched his arms wide and breathed deeply. There was something lovely about the freshness of relatively untouched air. There was no smog, pollution, or even foreign scents to sully the surrounding atmosphere, so he was left with a lungful of crisp morning air. It almost made the day seem worth it.

After a quick breakfast from his rations, Ulrich thumbed the compression button on the camp and watched as it swiftly folded in on itself until it fit neatly in his pack. The noise was uncomfortably loud, and he was disappointed that the local fauna opted to cease any morning songs or sounds in response. It made the first few steps of his journey all the lonelier.

The foliage around him was a much brighter shade of green, but they grew as hula hoop-sized leaves up and down the alien equivalent of trees. The trees here, however, stretched far taller than any he had seen on earth. He had measured quite a few specimens well over 500 feet. However, the trees grew shorter and squatter as he neared the mountains, taking on an almost moss-like quality to their low profile. They still arched high above him, but seemed to crawl along the surface, clinging close as if any higher and they would be ripped straight off the surface. It was remarkable, and Ulrich walked along in the midst of a botanical cave. The sun peeked through the branches, lighting the soft ground beneath his feet, but the shade did its best to suck the meager warmth from the surrounding landscape.

Still, the view was incredible. The one benefit of the job, Ulrich though glumly.

Ulrich was not studying his lifeform scanner as close as he should have. He was used to the usual noise of small creatures that crawled unhindered through the region. But, his boredom bred complacency, and he missed the taller heat signatures creeping along his footsteps.

Lunchtime came after what felt like hours—mainly because it had been—and Ulrich loved the break. Even the wonder of a new world grew dim when his feet were aching and his back groaned from the weight of his survival pack. He smiled, realizing he would at least have the chance to lighten the pack a tiny amount by devouring his lunch ration for the day. It was a small solace.

Just as he broke the seal on his mid-afternoon vittles, the foliage around him shuffled to life, opening to allow a collection of tall humanoid figures. Ulrich studied them, wide-eyed, and tried to fit this into the paradigm of bored observation that had thus far defined his exploratory experience.

They were taller than humans—everything on this planet seemed taller than Ulrich thought was average—and covered in relatively thick, dark skin. It made since, his scientific brain added, given the decreased atmosphere and extreme temperatures. Their eyes were set deep into their heads, but looked intelligently out at him. Each individual of the troupe was clothed with one of the large leaves from the abnormal trees. They were wrapped intricately around their tall, slender bodies, and Ulrich found the sight of them enchanting. They moved gracefully, and their eyes followed him with wary intrigue.

Slowly, Ulrich lowered the food to his lap, but his mouth remained agape in amazement. This was a truly fascinating find, but it was terrifying. The sudden danger of the situation settled over Ulrich like a blanket, but he felt just as frozen as he had in wonder.

Their fingers, long and delicate, were wrapped tightly around smoothly carved spears, but they were not lifted or poised to attack. Still, the simple presence of six alien beings, watching him intently, made Ulrich begin to shake. He was a scientist, not a fighter, not a soldier, just a mere explorer. He knew there would be dangers, and he had expected problems with local fauna and inhospitable conditions, but not that he might meet some truly sentient being who could maliciously choose to destroy him.

One of them, a creature with a smooth scalp and slightly glowing grey eyes, stepped forward slightly, sharply angled nose sniffing towards Ulrich. He did not doubt that the alien would have any difficulty smelling him, especially after these days in the field. The leader, or at least the one he presumed was the leader, began to speak. Unfortunately, Ulrich had absolutely no way to possibly understand the complex language that circled around him. He smiled, hoping it would not appear aggressive. The leader looked taken aback, but then split its mouth into a wide grin.

Ulrich did not like the surprisingly sharp teeth that grinned back at him.

But, instead of moving in to attack, the leader motioned to one of the others, and another creature stepped forward. This one looked similar, but the eyes were a soft-blue glow, granting a slight illumination in the shadows. It was also more tightly muscled, looking thicker and more intimidating than the slender and graceful leader.

This was it, Ulrich thought. The end was coming. He closed his eyes tightly and waited for the inevitable.

Instead, the being knelt down beside him and pulled a tightly wrapped package from the leafy garment. Its nimble fingers danced over the packaging, revealing a cluster of brightly colored berries and oddly shaped fruits. It was only after a prolonged period of, frankly, still being alive passed that Ulrich dared to open his eyes. He was met with an image of bounty, even if it did scare him. It could, he reasoned, be poison.

The alien lifted a single berry to its lips, crushing the food between those razor teeth. Then it smiled, bright blue juice staining its teeth in a slightly unsettling display. Ulrich swallowed deeply and carefully lifted a berry to his lips.

If this was it, he had at least made a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-a-species—discovery. He munched on the berry, smiling at his gathered hosts. It was surprisingly good, tart and sweet, and the juice trickled down the back of his throat pleasantly. It was also surprisingly filling, and a welcome break from the stale, bland rations he had been devouring.

Still, it was only fair. He extended the bar to the being kneeling before him. It reached out, glancing at Ulrich and then to the leader standing behind. The leader jerked its hand sharply to the side, and the brave creature beside Ulrich eagerly bit into the bar.

As much as Ulrich hated the rations, the alien seemed to enjoy the change from the berries which were certainly stale to them.

Ulrich grinned at it, it grinned at him. First contact.


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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 62

Card Day 62: A snail contemplating a spiral staircase that reaches to the clouds.

Ivan rolled the flashlight between his hands, looking at the long staircase reaching up into the house. He licked his lips, a gesture equal parts anticipation and fear. The sun was setting, at least he assumed it was based on the deep orange light now filtering through the dusty first floor windows, and that meant it would soon be time to leave. But he could not, not before he at least saw what existed at the metal door behind these stairs.

From the outside, there was no evidence of a second story. The abandoned building was a squat, rectangular, cement structure that sprawled across the empty lot. Abandoned parking lots stretched around it, only making it seem all the more isolated. It had once been a school, though the only remaining evidence were the occasional desks scattered in empty rooms—most of them left presumably because of the fractured surface or shattered seats—some frequently graffitied chalk boards, and an empty playground in a state of criminal disrepair.

But, after hours of creeping through classrooms once filled with possibilities, Ivan had grown bored. There were no surprising finds in any of the rooms, and his eagerness soon faded to a driven need for completion, even if he would only return with a few needlessly artistic pictures of woods floors and graffiti. There had been a fair share of rats as well, but Ivan preferred to avoid them rather than discover them. His history of exploration had introduced him to dozens of families of rats, and he had yet to meet one he liked. However, this staircase changed things.

He ran again through the remembered profile of the building, trying to identify any unusual space sticking up, suggesting a second floor. But as far as he remembered, the roof was felt, the only projections coming from the rusted HVAC unit. This was a legitimate mystery. After his hesitation steeled his nerves, Ivan flipped on the video camera on his phone, turning it so that his round face and eager brown eyes filled the tiny screen.

“This is Ivan Herrera in the Little River Elementary School. I found a set of stirs to another floor, but I did not think there was another floor. I am now going to investigate.” He trained the camera on the stairs, steadily making his way up them one at a time. They were covered in a fine layer of dust, so his shoes left fresh prints to mark his progress. It must have been years since anyone else stomped their way up.

Besides disturbing the dust, he also disturbed the empty silence of the building. The stairs were old metal, complete with the little raised crosses he remembered from playground in his youth. Each step rang with a metallic call, echoing around the narrow stairwell and the first floor below. There were no windows up here, and he fumbled to turn the flashlight on. The last thing he needed was to fall through the stairs and have to call an ambulance. He was sure they would not take lightly to his trespass in the old building. Plus, he would never live that down if it got out at school.

The metal door was different than all the other classroom doors. They had been standard wood doors with tarnished doorknobs and glass windows. This one was solid metal, a stiff handle arcing from the side. He tugged at it, heaving it open despite its loud protest. Opening the door kicked up another hefty cloud of dust, and Ivan began to cough and wave the cloud away from his eyes. It settled after a moment, and his flashlight pierced through the dusty veil to look beyond the door.

“No way,” he whispered, staring ahead. Another set of stairs arced upwards, disappearing into darkness above him. He flipped his phone around, his face swimming into focus over half the screen. “There’s no way there’s a third floor here! I’m going to see where this goes.”

The light from the floor below him was completely gone as he began the ascent. About halfway up, he heard a familiar creak from behind him. He looked back to see the door swing shut behind him.

“Guess I should have propped it open,” he mused nonchalantly. “At least there wasn’t a lock.” As a precaution, he skipped down the few steps he had gained and shoved against the door. It opened easily, letting a tiny sliver of light filter in. He shrugged off his unbuttoned shirt and wadded it into a ball, using it to prop the door open. “Better safe than sorry,” he quipped to the camera, then clambered up the remaining stairs.

It had been very warm when he entered the building but now, certainly after sunset and in only a thin t-shirt, Ivan began to feel a bit cold. It surprised him, since the temperatures should have stayed pretty warm as late in the spring as it was. Then again, this place may have been well-insulated and without any access for sunlight.

His flashlight revealed another door at the top of the stairs, and he chuckled. “Seriously?” This one looked old, at least the pieces he could see. It was wood and heavily carved, though he struggled to make out the shapes in the gloom. The suggested faces, and he was reminded of the strange church doors he had seen in his Art textbook. Whatever it was, it was out of place in the school building. Then again, the second and third floors were both out of place in the single level school, so who was he to judge. The golden-colored handle was cold in his hand, almost stinging with the chill. That was certainly unusual, but maybe it was nerves. Ivan’s brain scrambled for a rational explanation, but he opted to rush through and prevent conscious acknowledgment of the oddity. This door swung open silently, and, with a final reassuring look at the tiny sliver of light marking the door below him, Ivan stepped over the threshold.

The room he entered was just as empty as the rest of the building. There were the same wood floors, the same layer of dust, and the same warped glass windows He glanced outside, but there was only darkness. It must have gotten far later than he thought, because everything outside was lost to inkiness. He couldn’t even see headlights passing on the road outside, and that revelation sent a chill up his spine.

Ivan studied the images gathered as he spun around the room. All of that, and it was just another empty room. He did not understand how this floor existed, suspended above the rest of the school, but there was nothing special about it. Just an empty—

No, not empty. He started at the sight of a young girl sitting in the corner. She was watching him, smiling broadly. “Hello,” she sung once she was seen.

“You really shouldn’t be here,” remarked Ivan, suddenly aware of how dangerous his chosen hobby was. She couldn’t be more than nine, either.

Instead of responding to his chastisement, she giggled. “Neither should you, silly. But that did not stop you!”

“Yeah, but,” his reply sputtered out. There was not a good excuse he could give. “Do you know what this room is?” he asked. She seemed more familiar with it, maybe a neighborhood kid using the building as her private treehouse. Perhaps she could solve the mystery.

“It’s my playroom,” she said with another laugh. That confirmed his earlier suspicion.

“Yes, but I meant when it was a school. What was this?”

“Oh, this did not exist when it was a school. I built it.”

“You…built this?” It was Ivan’s chance to laugh, as the image was quite absurd. She did not seem to appreciate this, and her expression grew cloudy. She glared at him, and he found himself surprised by the anger that was well beyond her years. He collected himself quickly. “I’m sorry, I just—you’re a kid.”

That did not seem to smooth over the insult, and she crossed her arms tightly. “Yes, but I built this for my playroom.”

“Well, you did a really nice job then,” he surrendered. He stood to gain nothing by offending the little girl, and it was good that she had an active imagination. “Why did you decide to build it?”

She seemed to soften at his compliment, even if he had not been sincere. “I was stuck here, out in the open. So I built a place to keep me safe and warm.” She beamed with pride at her accomplishment, and Ivan’s face contorted in confusion.

“How did you get stuck here?” His mind was now racing. Did he need to call DCFS? Could he do that? How did you do that? Was there a phone number online?

She shook her head, laughing. “I guess you don’t know why everyone else left the school, do you silly? Mr. McGuire brought me onto the roof. He killed me just out there,” she said, pointing towards the solid black windows. “But I made sure you cannot see it. I don’t like to look out there.”

“You’re dead?” he asked, incredulous. Could you call the police to have them carry a child away to some asylum or something? Was there a wiki on how to institutionalize an insane 7-year-old?

She laughed, a joyful sound given the mournful conversation. And then she stood, walking towards him. Once she was a few feet away, she titled back her head, letting her neck extend far beyond a point that was comfortable. Horrible dark bruises covered her neck coupled with red welts. It seemed as if the bones protruded against the skin at irregular intervals and angles, implying something terribly sinister below the surface. Ivan felt his knees grow weak.

“Yes, but I’m so happy to have a friend now. We can have so much fun, and I won’t be alone.”

Ivan began backing towards the door, and she smiled. She simply watched, a giggle barely constrained on her lips, as he groped for the door handle and tugged. As soon as it came open, he sprinted through the doorway, expecting to shoot down the stairs and back to freedom. Only he wound up back in the same room, staring at the now giggling little girl with the distended neck.

“You came to be my friend,” she laughed. “You can’t leave, silly!”

Ivan was hyperventilating, trying to make sense of what just happened. She seemed concerned, biting her lip. “Don’t be scared, I’m really nice. I just need someone to help me. I need someone to be my friend and keep me company. I won’t hurt you.” This, unfortunately, did not calm Ivan. He sprinted through the door again, only to skid back into the room. And again. She began to cry, watching him flee over and over, barely even pausing in the room any more.

“No, no, you have to stay and be my friend.”

After his sprints, Ivan found himself bent over, gasping for air in the same schoolroom. She was sobbing, but then froze. Her eyes widened and the most recent sob died on her lips as heavy steps rang out on the steps just outside the useless door.  She looked scared as she met his gaze, speaking barely above a whisper. “You didn’t leave the door open, did you?”

He could only stare breathlessly at her and her sudden fear. He limply nodded his head. “Why?”

Her words were little more than a whisper. “Mr. McGuire.”


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