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Happy New Year!

Hello! I hope 2017 is off to a great start for everyone. I have a few things coming down the pipe on here, so I thought I’d post a short update.

First, I wanted to highlight two additional narrations for Devil in the Details. The first is a Youtube narration by Khostic, which you can listen to here! The second was part of a podcast by The Mad Catter (got to say, I love the name!), and you can catch it in episode 105  on SoundCloud here.

Going forward, I’m going to create a page that lists narrations just to keep them organized. It also allows me to more easily link between stories and narrations, so you can find audio when you want it. Again, I am so grateful for those who have taken the time to record things I wrote! It’s really been a great experience. If anyone is interested in narrating any of the pieces I have on here, just send me a note on the contact form and give me the info when it’s posted so I can give you the credit!

So, for this year, I have some things I’d like to accomplish. First, I plan on starting up a short series on writing tips covering various topics that I find come up when I’m doing beta-reading. I’m, of course, no expert, but I have a few years experience writing and getting solid feedback, so I’d like to pass along that information. And hopefully generate discussion with some of you as to what you agree and disagree with me on. I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned and learning from you as well! If you have topics you’d be interested in, leave me a comment or let me know, and I’ll see what I can put together.

Additionally, I want to continue with Milgram. I’m really enjoying that story arc so far, and I hope I can smooth out some of the issues to finish it strong. Right now, I’m considering it a much longer piece, moving out of short story realm and towards novella. But we’ll see what twists and turns my writing process takes.

I’ve also enjoyed doing some longer pieces, even longer than my admittedly wordy short stories. I’m trying to figure out a good balance. Because I really still enjoy the shorter, one-off stories as well. I also enjoyed the 13 Stories of Halloween, so I might try to work in more shorter, consistent writing events like that. They are a bit stressful, but I also really enjoy the end product.

Well, all that to say Happy New Year! Thank for reading, and I hope I can continue to entertain you throughout 2017!


First Draft: A Story About Dragons Because Who Wants to Think About the Election

I thought about writing a horror short story today, but I looked at the news and decided that was horror enough. And then I thought about ranting into the void about the election, but I know the void is noisy today with all kinds of opinions.

And so, instead, I think I’ll write a bit of fantasy. The fantasy genre is probably my first love, full of all that puppy dog infatuation and idealization. I don’t think I have the stomach to write a grand fantasy epic, but I do think those are some of the stories I am most intrigued by. Specifically, the idea of dragons and dragon riders has always been a favorite theme of mine. So, today, when I need to write something for me, that’s where I go.

Disclaimer: While this does deal with “election,” there is no hidden meaning behind these. It is not some sort of metaphor or anything. It is literally a story about dragons and people and how that happens.


I carried my pack into the Hatchery Barracks, feeling a swell of anxiety and excitement. They blended so purely that it was hard to distinguish where one began and the other ended. Perhaps, I thought, they were the same thing. Anticipation of the future, one anticipating future good and the other future ill. But the same.

My thoughts spun in a flurry of ideas, each one blending into another, leading me down paths with no destination or reason. And then I was standing before my bunk, the one carrying a tag with my name scrawled on it, and set my pack down. Suddenly my thoughts were silent.

And suddenly the room was loud, full of people shuffling in and finding their position. Each full of hope and terror. We were all so much the same.

I was tired that first night; I was tired most nights in the Barracks, which I suppose meant training was proceeding as intended. Each day was full of drills, combat training, conditioning, and tactical education. I cannot separate one day from another, as they were all renditions of the same symphony. But I know I was tired.

I was especially tired that first night after carrying the burden of anxiety for so long, crawling into my bed and pulling the thin sheets over my shoulders while others chatted and whispered in the dark. Their whispers diminished over the days, as the fatigue caught up with each of us.

That night, I dreamed of home. It had been two weeks since I left there, and I would not return until next spring. The house was as I remembered it, standing proud on its stone foundation, new thatch on the roof. Smoke puffed from the chimney and I imagined I could smell my mother’s cooking even from the path outside.

Inside, my mother and father sat around the table while my brothers sat in front of the hearth, building with the blocks father had carved from them two winters ago. Words and hugs were exchanged. I remember laughter from the dream, as well as a feeling of intense contentment.

And then those feelings faded back into reality with the sound of the alarm, signaling another day of training. Even now, only the barest images and sensations from that dream exist, even though I have held them tightly all this time. They are worn like an old notice hung in the town square. I can still at least make out the details to know what it once said, even if the words have vanished.

The anxiety dwindled over the next two weeks. The alarm woke me each day, and each night I fell asleep lying next to the slumbering eggs, waiting for them to awake.

It was day nine of fourteen when I felt the connection. Exhausted as I was, my sleep was often deep and dreamless. But that night was different. That night my dream was of light half glimpsed through some semi-transparent barrier. I could watch firelight rise and fall around me, a soft dance along the walls. I felt the steady flutter of my heart, felt the soft brush of my breath over scaly skin. Sounds floated through the sounds of someone sleeping, muted footsteps on patrol. Somewhere, I heard quiet weeping. That night, I slept in the shell with the one I would later bond with.

I felt refreshed the next morning, filled with a unique energy and vitality. The day quickly sapped that, but I managed enough energy to inspect the eggs that night. I walked past each bay, glancing briefly in to see the cream, oval eggs resting in their nests. And then I walked up to number 43.

If you’ve never experienced The Connection, I’m not sure how to explain it. If you’ve ever held an instrument as it reverberates and felt that energy meld with your hand and pass through your body as well as the air, that’s like it. It’s like existing as a giant tuning fork for the entire world, so that, for a moment, everything flows right through you. You feel joy and despair and anger and fear and everything at once. You are land and sea and sky, plant, animal, and human. And then it’s over, The Connection dwindling until there is just a thin trickle of that massive river surging through you. And if you follow that trickle, it leads right back to your bonded.

The anxiety that had plagued me for weeks disappeared in that moment. Not everyone is bonded—in fact, most people leave to fulfill their duty in the infantry rather than join the Bonded Ranks. I had always hoped that I would be chosen, that I would receive the glory and esteem that came from such a role. But I never dared to believe it would happen. Until I stood in front of egg 43 and felt my breath flow in through my nose and out through theirs.

I reported The Connection right away. Sir Conaway raised an eyebrow at the number. “Ol’ 43, eh? That one’s been here a while. Waiting on you, I guess.” He pulled out a large book and scribbled the event on the last page. “All right then, miss, we’ve got it and you will be at the hatching at the end of the training.”

By the end, fourteen of the ninety-two who had begun the training remained for the hatching. We stood in formation, awaiting our next orders. The tension was palpable. We were all steps away from what would be the most significant event of our short lives so far. Sir Conaway stood before us, chewing on the end of his pipe as he read over the event log again and again. After what seemed like ages, he pulled the pipe from his mouth and spoke.

“Larena Dougan and Tallesor de’Trie, please come with me.”

Chills chased through my body as I heard my name, but faded as we walked past the bays and toward Sir Conaway’s meeting room. This was not protocol, growled the knot of anxiety roiling in my gut. I walked into the room, shaking as Sir Conaway closed the door behind me. He walked to the other side of the table, dropping the log book in between the three of us.

“Alright you two, somebody’s not telling me the truth.” He ran a large hand over his forehead, massaging at his temples. “I had hoped the fraud would chicken out before tonight, but one of you is foolish enough to push on ahead.”

Tallesor jumped to alarm. “What do you mean, sir? I’m here for the hatching.” He was sweating heavily, perhaps because of the fire roaring in the grate beside him. But his eyes seemed too wide, too jumpy. I had trained alongside him for two weeks, long enough to know that things rarely broke through his veneer of arrogant surety. I was not sure what to do with this uncertain, nervous comrade.

“Of course you’re here for the hatching,” exclaimed Sir Conaway with exasperation. “We wouldn’t have a problem if both of you weren’t here for the hatching!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice tiny in the large room, “but I don’t know what’s going on?”

Sir Conaway sighed and stroked his beard once, weighing his words. “You’ve both claimed egg 43. Which means one of you is lying and trying to sneak into the Bonded Ranks. And there are serious punishments for such deception.”

His eyes moved evenly over the two of us, measuring and looking for any weakness. We both dripped with anxiety and fear, and I suddenly felt myself doubting everything I had experienced up until that point.

“Could we—has there ever been two bonded to one egg before?” I squeaked out.

“Never,” came the solid reply. He continued studying us both. The only sound was the snapping of the logs in the grate. Finally, he spoke wearily. “You both know what happens if you try to bond to a dragon you’ve not connected with, right?”

My head shook, and from the corner of my eye I saw Tallesor do the same.

Sir Conaway sniffed. “Of course not. You wouldn’t try something this stupid if you did. The dragon will hatch bonded to its true connection. It’ll reject the impostor. Aggressively.”

The anxiety that had been my constant companion now swelled into a monster of its own, turning the room into a chokingly small dungeon. Tallesor appeared to feel the same surge of anxiety, but I watched as it slowly faded from his features. He was watching me, a half smile now on his lips.

“So, before I turn one of you over to the beast, can you both confirm your Connection to 43?”

Tallesor was ready with his answer. “Of course. I would never be deceitful with such vital information. I just can’t believe she,” he looked over to me with a sneer, “would stoop so low to claw her way into prestige.”

Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Perhaps all of these experiences were just me wishing it could be different, creating something that was not there. But I could reach out, follow that thin trickle of the world still running through me, and feel someone at the other end. 43.

“I can confirm.” The words were out of my mouth before I had even processed what was happening. I was sure Tallesor turned a few shades paler after I spoke, but perhaps it was simply the lighting.

Sir Conaway lifted the book from the table, stepping around to the door and dragging it open. “Then let’s get this over with.”

Upon returning to the others, doing my best to dodge their accusing, questioning stares, the bay doors were opened. Slowly, with reverent grace and patience, each of us stepped forward toward our identified bay and the waiting egg. The rest of the room disappeared around me, replaced by the simple wooden walls and straw floor of the egg bay. Egg 43 sat in front of me, the same shade of pearly white that I had watched for so long.

“Leave and I’ll pay you heartily, make sure the punishment is waived,” hissed Tallesor once we were in semi-privacy.

“What?” I asked, too loudly. He quickly raised a finger to his lips, shushing me.

“I need this more than you. I’ll be the first in seven generations not to be in the Bonded Ranks. If you leave, I’ll ensure you are well cared for.”

“I’m not going,” I said, surprising myself with my unusual confidence. Now I knew who the impostor was, the anxiety turned into pure excitement. “And I hope you’re not stupid enough or stubborn enough to go forward after the warnings.”

He smiled a dark, angry grin. “I’m sure the dragon will recognize greatness when it sees it. Let’s just hope you manage to survive this.”

Sir Conaway’s voice echoed behind us. “Place your hand on the shell of the egg. I will come through and pour the Hatching Serum onto each egg in turn.”

I placed my hand on the egg as Tallesor did the same. It was softer than I thought, feeling less like an egg shell and more like skin. It seemed to give slightly as I put pressure on it, almost as if returning the touch. A slow, steady heartbeat pulsed through my hand and into my body, providing an echo to the one that had flowed through me since The Connection. I would not be abandoned, it assured.

There were sounds of cracking shells all around us. Of course, the view was entirely blocked, but I heard shots of joy, followed by soft rumbles and yips. Through it all, Sir Conaway’s voice giving polite, practiced congratulations.

He stood in the doorway to our bay for the span of a few breaths, studying us both. There was resignation in his voice when he finally spoke. “So you’re both going through with this?”

“Yes,” was Tallesor’s confident reply. I nodded my head weakly, and I could tell by the pity in his eyes Sir Conaway thought I was the liar.

He lifted a bowl over our hands, spilling out a thick, warm, honey colored liquid. The substance oozed over our hands, then trickled down along the shell. After a moment, there was the sound of cracking as the egg moved for the first time. It rocked strongly, and I feared I would be thrown against the back wall. But the liquid held my hand to the surface with surprising strength, almost as if my hand and the shell had somehow merge in that moment.

Then there was a louder crack. Like a lightning bolt, one large, green eye found me. It was like a jewel, colors folding on top of colors to form a deep, ageless pit of emerald. The trickle of connection I had felt surged into a river again, but this time it was not the whole world. This time it was just myself and—

“Khandar,” answered the dragon’s voice in my mind. It flowed through me, the name sounding like thunder and tasting of smoke. There was a moment that the world was doubled and I saw from four eyes, felt two hearts. I felt my muscles strain against the shell before finally bursting free.

And then he was standing before me, our eyes locked the world having resolved to one perspective again as the river steadied its flow. The Connection was there, but it was restrained. Manageable.

I looked at Khandar, studying the long line of his neck, the strong limbs of his body, the thick wings folded. In an instant, he stretched those wings, the tips reaching from one corner of the room to the other. He was the same early white as the egg shell—I knew that, somewhere in the recesses of knowledge. All dragons are born without color. His would develop as we trained together over the next few months, reflecting our role within the Ranks.

I was dimly aware of Sir Conaway still standing, slightly shocked, in the doorway. I was also aware of Tallesor lying in a heap on the far wall, his hand still stuck to a fragment of the shell. Rage flowed through me, not from myself, but from Khandar. I watched as he turned, steam billowing from his nostrils. I could feel the power flowing through both of us as he reached out one clawed leg and struck at the stunned impostor.

Sir Conaway looked concerned, but stood immobile. “Such is the way,” he whispered to himself as he watched.

There was blood on the ground, blood in the straw, anger in the air. And I could see Tallesor’s shocked face, now sporting a bright red gash across his cheek.

There was fire building in my belly, and I could hear strong words, ancient words passing through my mind. I was at once witness and actor. “Thus to usurpers,” whispered Khandar’s voice. This was the way it had been determined, I could feel it in my bones. Those who attempted to deceive or disrupt the ancient ritual were dealt with harshly. Still, I felt sorrow and guilt rise up.

“No.” The word brought the world crashing back down around me. Khandar eyed me, his mind probing my own and uncovering every detail he sought. We were not of two minds any longer, but one shared.

“No,” his voice repeated in my mind. The fire dulled as he took the few steps to my side. Tallesor sat with blood dripping down his chin, eyes wide.

Sir Conaway watched the scene curiously, finally waving over his shoulder to alert the waiting guards. They shuffled in and grabbed Tallesor under the arms, dragging him from the room.

“He got off far better than most others who have tried that,” he said with a hint of disappointment and respect.

“What will happen now?”

“The doctor will patch him up, he will be disbarred from all military and public service, and as such he will be fined a portion of his income each year to atone for his negligence.”  He looked at both of us. “You let him off too easy, I’d say.”

I felt a nudge of agreement from Khandar, but it was good-natured. We had a difference in temperament, I could see, but certainly that could be a strength. Right.

Khandar leaned against me, so I could feel the puffing of his chest with each breath, the thunder of his heart as it pounded in time to my own. Connected. Bonded. The next few months and years would be full of training, of honing our bond and our work. But we had conquered time and space to unite together.

Excitement bubbling in our mind, we stepped out of the bay and into the Bonded Ranks.


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


WIP: The Bench

Hello! I’ve been dealing with some winter blues recently, not really writing too much. But I’ve been getting back into it. This is not the first compete piece I’ve written, but it is one I’d like to post. I’m hoping to submit the other to some sites, so you’re likely to see it soon. I also just started a sci-fi story that I would like to work on, but it is likely to be much longer than what I usually post, so I wanted to get a bit farther in to get a sense of where it is going, then I’ll decide about posting.

Is this piece great? Certainly not. It has a lot of problems. But sometimes the solution to a writing slump is to just write something and put it out there. So that’s what I’m doing. i will probably come back and make some revision later, but this is a pretty straightforward story with a minor twist to the expected plot. As always, thoughts and comments about how to improve are greatly appreciated!


Jack enjoyed hiking. It was a good excuse to get away from everything and everyone. He knew the trails well enough to get well away from civilization on a Sunday morning, only to begrudgingly trek back Sunday afternoon. This Sunday was no different. The sun was up early, a thin fog still lingering from rains the night before, and Jack was on the trail with his backpack. It was his life line. A trail map, ample supply of water, snacks and food that would keep if he got stuck in any too tight spots. Rope, first aid kit sun screen, mosquito repellant, fresh socks, and an emergency radio if things got dire. He had never used the radio and certainly hoped today would not be the day.

The forecast promised very warm weather today, one of the first official days of summer. For Jack that meant abnormally large crowds in the National Park, including irritable teenagers being forced on a family vacation, well-meaning adventurers just starting out for the season, and way more people than he cared to deal with. So he started early, on one of the more challenging trails. His route would take him long, require a brief bit of trekking through the woods on unmarked paths, and then back down and around an old ranger’s station that had not been used for the last four summers, at least. Jack knew because he had hiked this very trail many times before. It was an old favorite.

The din of vacationers was muted in the early morning hours, and soon even it faded from his ears. He passed a couple of other hikers—wearing absurdly large sun hats and straining on ornately carved walking sticks for sale in the park gift shop—early on, but they were already too out of breath to do much more than offer a friendly wave. Jack pressed on.

It was late in the morning when he finally reached the end of the first leg and prepared to set out across the forested landscape to meet up with the second trail. Such creativity was discouraged, but Jack did not particularly care. He knew there would be more than enough visitors to keep the park staff busy, and a respectful, skilled hiker was the least of their concerns.

This far in the only real sounds were the crunch of last year’s leaves under his feet, the trill of songbirds, and the rustle of the wind through the trees. He felt his stress melting away the further in he went, falling off him like scales of mud. This part of the hike always felt the easiest. He could shed all the burdens he had been carrying and march confidently between the trees. Once he started on the second path, there was the undeniable realization that he was hiking back to the real world. He always dutifully picked up his abandoned stresses, reattaching them to his weary body.

It was around noon when he found the bench. Jack knew this trail well, and he knew there was no bench. It also was out of place that it was not on any park recognized trail. He stopped in front of it, staring blankly at this unusual intruder. It rankled him, this sign of humanity out here among nothingness. Approaching it, he scanned it for any plaque or notice explaining why it was here, squeezed between two old oak trees. There was just enough room to sit down, but not much else. It also did not appear to lok at anything in particular, but was positioned staring out across the woods Jack was soon to traverse.

After allowing his irritation to subside, he reasoned it was a good enough place to sit and eat his lunch. Someone probably died and donated money to the park, but asked that the bench be placed here for some reason. Maybe it used to be a trail—his map showed the park as it was five years ago, so maybe something had overgrown here. Or maybe whoever donated the money had really pissed off someone on the board, who agreed to put in the commemorative bench but made sure to place it where no one would see. That possibility made Jack smile as he sat down and opened up his lunch.

He was only halfway through his apple when the sound of someone else crunching through the leaves made him turn to look. A man in a dusty, sweat-caked business suit was dragging his feet through the underbrush, face downcast. He offered a weak smile as he drew closer, then sat on the opposite end of the bench. Jack made a point to ignore him, turning his face to the side and continuing with his lunch.

“Bit out of the way, aren’t we?”

Jack ignored the man, taking a loud bite of his apple and shifting further down the bench. He had come all this way to be alone, not engage in idle chitchat with some stranger.

“So you’re not much of a talker, eh? I can understand that. I never was much of one myself.”

Jack quickly looked at the man, gave a curt nod and joyless smile. Perhaps that small sign would make it clear.

“Well, I mean, I guess it’s rude of me to assume. Can you even talk?”

Jack sighed. “Can I just eat my lunch in peace?”

The man laughed broadly, the sound seeming to carry for miles in the relative quiet. “I assure you, I am a peaceful man. You can have as peaceful a lunch as you want.”

“Thank you.” Jack finished munching through the core of his apple, leaving nothing but the stem. A good traveler left no sign behind.

“I always liked coming up here. A good chance to get away, you know?”

Jack sighed, but didn’t respond. He pulled out a slightly squashed sandwich and took a long swig of his water.

“I’m guessing that’s why you’re here, too. Just a chance to get away.” No matter the amount of silence it only seemed to encourage the stranger. “I came up here all the time. Never wanted to leave, wished I could just sit here forever. That’s how I got this here bench. But it’s not quite as enjoyable as you might think. Your butt gets awfully sore sitting on this hard wood day in and day out. Had to get up and stretch a bit, you know?” He laughed, though this time there was a sad, cynical quality to it.

Jack half listened to the man’s babbling, more focused on finishing his meal and getting on with his trip. If he hadn’t been hungry, he would have moved on already. That and he still hoped the man would somehow get the picture and take his rambling elsewhere.

“So, what do you want, son? What brings you up here.”

“I don’t want anything,” he said with a resigned sigh. “I just want to be left alone.”

“Ah, see, you do want something. What do you mean, to be left alone?”

Jack stopped chewing, barely catching himself before his mouth hung open in awe. How could anyone be so thick, he found himself wondering. “Listen, I come up here to get away. Form work, from noise, but most importantly from people. So I don’t really want to talk to anyone up here.”

“Oh, so that’s what you want? To be alone?”

“Yes, finally, yes. I want to be left alone. No people. This is my chance to get away from everyone, and that means you.” Jack felt a slight smile spread over his face.

The man beamed from his seat. “Well, why didn’t you say so? And you are right, this certainly is your chance! I’ll be on my way, and I guarantee you that you will get exactly what you want, Jack. You’ll be all alone, here on out.”

The man stood, gave a slight nod of his head to signify his departure, and walked back the way Jack had come. Jack reached down to uncap his water bottle and discovered the man had already disappeared from sight behind the leafy trees, the sound of his steps having faded back into birdsong. Finally alone, Jack felt at peace.

After finishing the sandwich and a handful of nuts, he rose to his feet. The rest of the trek would be hopefully uneventful, he thought as he shouldered his pack. He made off along the path he knew by heart, enjoying the feeling of the dappled sun on his skin. Here there were no deadlines or micromanagers looming over his shoulders. It was just him and the birds, but that was just fine by him.

When he found the next trail, he felt that heavy weight settle back on his shoulders. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was heavy in the sky. Despite his comfort on the trails, even he did not want to risk trying to navigate it by moonlight and flashlight. So that meant the inevitable trek back to the noise. Back to his car sitting in the parking lot. Back to his too small apartment. And, eventually, back to an uncomfortable office chair in the middle of a cubicle farm. He sighed as it all came crashing back down, but pressed own with a dour expression etched into his face.

He expected to run into exhausted families dragging along pouting children as he neared, but it was surprisingly quiet. Even as he passed by the river, he could not hear the usual ruckus of people playing in the water, squealing as they slipped in and discovered just how cold a natural water source could be. Even once back in the parking lot, there were no groups of hikers, kayakers, or weekend warriors loading up their sunburned bodies into cars with a look of pleased exhaustion etched on their faces. The parking lot was full, but silent.

Jack couldn’t help but feel as if he may have missed some major emergency. There were alert towers spread throughout the park, but he had heard no warning sirens of any sort. Falling into his car, he turned on the radio and searched for a news report, but the signal appeared to be out. Static on all the stations.

He sighed. Just his luck that the radio would go out. It was not that he used it often, but it was, at least, supposed to function in a car. What would he do if Dave needed a ride? Usually, he turned the radio up and appeared to listen intently, even to the commercials. Visons of idle chatter and small talk filled his mind as he moved the car into reverse, and then drove out of the park.

The ranger was not at the gate with his usual cheerful wave goodbye. Perhaps some tragedy had occurred in the park. A kid got lost of something. Maybe everyone was searching for little Tommy or Julie. Jack spared a thought, hoping they would be found, but did not let that slow his drive out of the park.

The rad was empty. No headlights flared into view along the winding road. He lived close to the park, but was still used to passing a good number of people. It was nice though, he thought. The lights usually hurt his eyes.

The smokers were not in front of his apartment tonight, nor were the college kids out at the grills like they had been the past two weekends. He didn’t even hear the baby in 3E crying for what had to be the first time in weeks. Jack had ben seriously beginning to wonder how the child even ate with the crying going on day in and day out. He stomped into his apartment, dropped his pack, and made his way to the bathroom for a nice, hot shower. It did little to wash away the tension that had built up as he thought about work the next day, but he at least smelled cleaner.

With a towel wrapped around his waist, he made a quick dinner and settled in on the couch. Jack ran through his calendar for the next day, noting the meetings and project deadlines. He was fairly certain he had finished everything on Friday that was due, but there always lingered the fear that something would come up and surprise him, Or, worse and far more common, he would get in tomorrow to realize one of his coworkers had not completed their portion, meaning his entire day would be spent making up for their failure. He shook his head and tried to put the thoughts out of his mind, leaning back against the couch.

In the surprising quiet of his apartment, he soon fell asleep.

The world was just as quiet as he woke, got dressed, and trudged out the door to work. Just as quiet as he drove in on deserted streets. Just as quiet as he approached the empty office building and walked the stairs, staring into each floor in turn. It was quiet as he headed home with a broad grin on his face, quiet as he jogged up the stairs to his apartment, and quiet as he grabbed his pack to head back to the woods.

Jack needed no more evidence to realize his wish had come true. He was alone. And while movies and television had always told him he would regret what he had wished for, Jack felt nothing but absolute joy.


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


First Draft: Hope Springs Eternal

Hey, here;s a little something I whipped up tonight. The first line was pretty much the information, a quote adapted from something one of my supervisor’s said during training. Just a idea, bit of a thought experiment with some mild twists thrown in. As always, feedback heartily welcomed. I hope you enjoy, and happy reading!


Hope is the knowledge that the next moment can be better. It is about potential and the inexorable march of time. I used to think my next moment could be better, but eternity has dissuaded me from that foolishness. I live without hope.

At least, I think I live. I have been trying to remember those qualities I learned in grade school to determine if something was alive. Living things move, but I have not twitched an inch in so long, I know longer know which direction my libs would customarily travel. Living things reproduce and grow, neither of which I have done any of recently. I know that energy is a part of being alive, and I suppose I have enough energy for thought. Then again, so would a computer, and it certainly is not alive. Unless the world has changed more than I realize.

I remember my teacher—Mrs. Hasemblat—writing the signs of life on the board. She started with simple things, like dogs and rocks, and then got more and more tricky. Were trees alive? What about fungi? Bacteria? Viruses?

Living things had to be organized, and I suppose I am still organized. I know that I have two arms, two legs, ten fingers and ten toes. My lips are dry and cracked, a constant source of dull irritation. I assume my eyes sits right where they always have, crushed too deeply into my face and set just too far apart to make me conventionally attractive. Knowing no one can see you makes you surprisingly honest about physical appearance.

The one that seems to fit me best, however, is that complicated process of homeostasis. Mrs. Hasemblat talked about air conditioning and hunger to help us understand. She brought in a set of scales and showed us how things can be balanced. I am perfectly balanced. Never one bit out of sync, always exactly as I should be.

And perhaps that is it. I finally hit the perfect human balance point, and now my body refuses to disrupt that delicate homeostasis. I’d love to say I’ve spent days, weeks, or years here in limbo, but without another moment to come along, that time really has no meaning. It’s hard to describe how something can feel so long when time has absolutely no reign in some strange purgatory.

I’d wonder if others noticed that I was gone—or I used to before that thought experiment became too boring. I ran through every permutation, and none of them were promising. More importantly, none of them broke this curse. I assume they did not, because they are still sitting in front of me, their faces lit with smiles. Jason has a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth, eyes bright with the first half of a joke. I never got to hear the end of that joke. I think I figured out what it would be, because I have had plenty of time to contemplate how “a man called the electrician about his washing machine,” can end. At least I can find solace in the fact that the joke was likely terrible.

Claudia’s hand is on mine. Her skin is still warm, a comfortable weight atop my fingers. She was mid-laugh when it all stopped. At least I can be close to her, even though I cannot see or hear her.

Yes, the lack of sound is concerning. Well, lack of sound is incorrect. There is sound, but it is just a single moment of sound, playing endlessly. A dull thrum of a single syllable from every mouth. It just becomes useless white noise, or at least it did after a while.

I wonder if I have died. Or if the world ended. Or if someone unplugged me and left me in some strange limbo, forever caught between one page of my life and the next. Good things were going to happen, I am certain of it. Only those moments will never come. The next moment certainly would be better, but I am convinced now that it cannot. It cannot be better because it cannot be. I am forever in this single instant, a frozen memory forgotten by someone.

I wish I were dead, because nothingness would be better than the intolerableness of being and having no agency. I cannot move or speak or cry or sleep or read or die. And that must be the ultimate injustice. I cannot even choose to cease to be, to escape this hell of emptiness. I must continue on, a solitary sentry on this instant time forgot.

Jason’s eyes watch me, and I find myself sinking deeper into despair. That is the only thing I can change about my state. I can despair and mourn and bitterly embrace my cruel fate. And so I despair a bit more, and let myself think again that they all may be trapped with me. Perhaps Claudia is just as frozen at my side, our child half-knit in her belly and destined to never be born. Is Jason frozen, the words of his stupid joke forever pasted to his lips? Has the whole world stopped on its violent course through the universe and held onto this microsecond of existence?

Perhaps the universe collapsed. Or maybe the Earth did stand still, sending us plummeting into a void where physics, time, and human consciousness have no meaning.

I have thought of a million and one possible scenarios, but none of them help to set me free. If hope is knowing the next moment can be better, than I of all people am certainly hopeless. I cannot even hope to die any longer.

_

Maggie dragged her arm under her bed, scraping up years’ worth of detritus from underneath. It was hard to imagine actually leaving the old house, but her burgeoning family certainly needed more room to grow. It was hard to say goodbye to such a good home.

She sat up and surveyed the assortment of trash, papers, and forgotten treasures. There were more candy wrappers than she wanted to admit, a handful of cat toys, two letters Alvin had written her, a framed picture from her senior prom, and a dog-eared old book. She sorted the trash from the keepsakes, and then turned her attention to the book. Donation or library, she pondered?

The cover was dusty, and she did not immediately remember the title. Her bookmark was still wedged halfway between the covers, so she guessed she must have dedicated some time to it. Still, flipping to the back cover offered no further illumination. Claudia, Jason, Cory, and Luanne were high school friends reconnecting when they were caught up in a supernatural thriller of sorts. It was definitely the kind of cheap, cliché, fast-paced book she liked to read, but it had been sorely neglected.

She flipped it open, sneezing as it gave up a hearty serving of dust for her efforts. She scanned the page where her bookmark sat, reading briefly about the dinner where they finally put aside the years of difference and began to reconnect. As she read it, she felt tingles of memory. It seemed like things were about to take a terrible turn—the lights would probably go out soon, she thought with a smirk.

Jason leaned forward, his dinner halfway between table and snapping teeth. It was spared for the briefest of moments by a joke. ‘So, a man called the electrician about his washing machine…’ he began, looking around the table to be certain he had everyone’s attention.

Cory was rapt with attention, barely noticing Claudia’s manicured hand finding its resting place on his, giving him a light squeeze. They waited with bated breath for the rest of the joke. Jason had always been the class clown, ready with a quick wit and hilarious story. For once, the four felt young again. They felt alive. Invincible.”

Maggie shook her head and closed the book, tucking it under her arm. It certainly was not highbrow literature, nor was it likely to win any awards. But, she hated to leave a book unfinished. It seemed disrespectful to simply abandon the characters midway through, to not at least give them the benefit of finishing their story.

Besides, it could not be that bad of a story. Or, so she hoped.


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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 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.


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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 80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breaths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, not at all. I like it.”

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

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

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

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

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


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


Card Challenge: Day 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 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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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 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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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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Card Challenge: Day 59

Card Day 59: A man and a woman falling through an orange background.

As it always had, the moon had risen bright and full on the horizon. Now it hung low in the sky, heavy and tinged orange. Nevertheless, it appeared just as content as the two silhouettes resting on the top of the train car. Ilene passed the glass bottle across the roof of the car, leaving it to the safety of Lewis’ waiting hand. They sat in silence, staring up at the expanse of stars rolled out before them. It was a mid-summer night in the middle of the South, so the air still held onto its cloying warmth and humidity. Still, it was better than trying to coax a breeze through the tiny cabin windows. The only sounds were the distant chirping of crickets and the occasional gulp from the bottle or clink of glass against the metal roof.

Lewis was the first to break the silence. “Know which town we’re in tonight?” He passed the bottle back to her, and she took a hearty swig.

“Nah, one of those one-stop deals, I think.” She left the bottle in between them. Giving way to the comfortable silence yet again. Eventually, a thought sprung to mind, and she spoke again. “Do you know when we have to raise the big top?”

Lewis sputtered around his drink, the liquid obviously trickling down the wrong pipe. He shook his head empathically as he tried to clear his airways. “Not for sure,” he coughed, “but you know boss usually says before noon.”

“Should we plan on practicing tomorrow?”

He shrugged his shoulders, relaxing back against the roof on his elbows, an occasional cough breaking through. “We can, but I’ve been tossing you around so long, I’m not sure it will help. Plus we had the show yesterday, and we don’t want to wear ourselves out.” He gave her a wink. “But if you’re worried I’ll drop you—“

She waved away the end of his sentence, chuckling good naturedly. “Drop me and I might finally draw a reasonable check from someone.”

Neither of them laughed at the joke; the truth of the matter stung a bit too much. Ilene drank another swig, sighing. The comfortable silence between them took on a mournful quality, the moon watching over with its solemn gaze.

“Hey, Leney?” asked Lewis, rolling to his side to look at her. She kept her face pointed up at the stars as if she were trying to catalogue each one.

“Hm?”

“When you were a kid, is that that you wanted to do?”

She released a grim bark of a laugh. “What, make poverty wages while being dragged from Podunk to Podunk by a fly-by-night circus? Yeah, what kid doesn’t dream of that?” The bitter edge to her voice cut through the companionable atmosphere, and Lewis rolled back to look at the stars.  He laced his fingers across his stomach, just listening to the sound of crickets. The acridity slowly faded from the air between them, replaced by the companionship that only comes from years lived in a hopeless state.

“I wanted to be a vet,” whispered Lewis, just loud enough to carry to her ears. He knew it was not the conversation she wanted to have, but it was one he needed. He needed her to help set him free.

Ilene shook her head as she took another drink. “Not me. Couldn’t stand the idea of blood and sick animals.”

He rolled his eyes over to study her for a moment. “Then what did you want to be?”

“A florist,” she chuckled, shrugging her shoulders with an air of defeat. “I guess I never dreamed too big.”

Lewis knit his brows together in concern, turning to face her full on. Sensing the intensity of his stare, Ilene even turned to look at him, the jaded smile fading on her lips. “Leney, I think you would make a fine florist. You’d do great.”

He watched her wilt, uncomfortable under his eyes and with his praise. She studied the bottle in her hand, feeling how light it was. Determined to end the moment, she tossed it back, draining the last few drops and repositioning her eyes at the empty sky. “Yeah, but I’d have to get my GED. And I was the kid with the bright idea to run off and join the circus.” She replaced her shell of sarcasm, fixing Lewis with a grin that kept him at bay, always on the outside. He wished he could crack that enigma, but she always seemed to sense whenever he was closing in.

“Well, we both made some foolhardy decisions.”

“It could have been worse,” conceded Ilene, lying down beside him on the roof. He felt her hair, long and untamed, brush against his shoulder, the scent of her shampoo drifting closer.

“True. I mean, I could have never met you.” He grinned widely, and she rolled her eyes at him.

“You really don’t give up, do you?”

“You’re the only woman I’ve found that would stick by me all these years.”

“Lew, I’m contractually obligated to hang around these train cars. Don’t go getting any wild ideas.”

“Yeah, but you’re not contractually obligated to drink on the roof with me.”

“No, but everyone has to maintain their sanity somehow. Speaking of, you’re going to have to start providing more incentives,” she shook the empty bottle, “if you expect to keep luring me up here.”

He gave her the most winning smile he possessed. “As soon as I get that raise they promised me, I will. And it’s got to be coming any day now, because—“

“They’ve been promising me for six years,” finished Ilene with a laugh. “You may also need to get some new material.”

The evening stretched between them, quietly joining their solemn counsel. It was a familiar friend, one that always joined in their ritual without fail. Given the noise and hubbub of the job, both needed the escape. Everyone needed their escape, Lewis thought, mind flipping through the many other characters. Some found it in the pages of dirty magazines, others at the end of a needle. Some discovered revitalization in a new town every night, the endless adventure of the experience. Others found it in fitness, in solitude, in study, and perhaps most popularly in the back corner of small town bars. Lewis, he found it in friendly silence and an occasional drink to unwind. He watched Ilene from the corner of his eyes. She seemed to find it in brooding thoughts enjoyed mutely with his company. The beer probably helped, too.

“Have you ever thought about quitting?”

For a few moments, he thought Ilene would not answer, but would ignore him and hope he got the message. But, finally she spoke, her voice quiet. “Every day. Don’t you?”

“Most days,” he said with a sigh. “More and more now that my body ain’t as young as it used to be.” As if to prove his point, he rolled his neck, listening to a chorus of pops. Suddenly, he propped himself up on his elbow, a glimmer of wild hope in his eyes. “What if we did, Leney? You and I just set off, started our own thing?”

She laughed at his response, and he could hear the desperation in it. No, such thoughts had no place in this world, no matter how much she might hope. “And do what, Lew? You bandage up all the strays while I make them daisy chain collars?”

His eagerness faded, replaced by the omnipresent weariness of their lives. “I guess you’re right. It is a kind of crazy idea.”

She seemed to soften at his disappointment, realizing her remarks had cut deeper than she intended. She rested her hand on his, squeezing it softly. “We are both getting too old for this. Maybe we should start planning to retire. You and me. Find some small town where the circus doesn’t run through and put down some roots.”

“Want to leave tonight?” he asked with a wistful smile.

She shrugged. “Not tonight, but maybe in the next town over.”

Lewis smiled, closing his eyes as he completed the ritual. “Yeah, next town over should be just fine.”

As it always did, the moon set slowly, abandoning the silhouettes to their contemplation.


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Card Challenge: Day 58

Card Day 58: A person made entirely of orange, autumn leaves walks with a wooden walking stick towards dark hills beneath an orange sky.

Walter pondered his map beneath the heavy brows of old, stately buildings. His back ached with the weight of his backpack, and his knees groaned and cracked as he stood and tried to unravel the knot of roads. He pinched the bridge of his nose, the map catching and flapping in the breeze once half-loosed. This was supposed to be the trip where he accomplished all his lifelong goals, saw the world, and embodied the idea of “aging well” that he heard preached so furiously. Instead, it seemed to be the trip of getting lost, sore bones, and midafternoon headaches.

The map continued to defy him, reminding him again and again that his eyes were not what they used to be. No, Walter agreed, they certainly were not. Then again, none of him was. Walter, of course, considered himself middle aged, but h was nonetheless old enough that people mistakenly referred to him as an elder. He was also old enough to carry the aches and pains of a life lived long and hard.

He shifted his weight, swinging the backpack to his other side and momentarily relieving the pinch against his back. The map was so small, and the buildings here were not as well marked as he would like. Walter leaned back against the nearby building, granting reprieve to his aching feet as he removed a portion of the weight. This building had stood the test of time, that e could be sure, it could handle his meager weight for a few moments.

Despite the frustrations, he smiled at the memory of many such side streets and new experiences. Yes, this travel had been rough, and his body was tired, but it had also been incredibly rewarding, He had never thought he was the kind to leave his tiny home, take off to Europe, and squander his savings on rich food and exotic accommodations. But Walter had wanted to age well, seize life in both hands as long as he had it.

And maybe that was the more accurate truth, he granted. Walter was looking to die well. Even in the twisted Italian streets, he could not escape that reality, No, fleeing to Europe, abandoning the life he had known, and putting miles and oceans between him and his doctors had done nothing to remove the burden of steadily dying. The memory swelled up, overtaking him even there. He remembered well the sterile office, the soft words, the professionalized sympathy. Words hung frozen in the air, others floated past him unheard. Six months were two words that kept his attention. Walter watched in the office as his golden years shrunk from a couple of decades to “won’t see the end of the major league season.”

There were, of course, so many pitying glances. The receptionist at the front was sorrowful, eyes watery and mild as he stepped forward to settle his bill. Walter let himself chuckle in the shadowy, foreign streets. Yes, he had paid them for the pleasure of receiving his death sentence. He did suppose, however, that with such feedback, it was unwise to wait to collect on bills.

No matter how bad life had gotten, Walter had always held to his sense of humor, grim as it was. Part of his need to leave was that the folks he knew no longer had room for humor in the scenario. He was constantly being smothered by concern from his friends, neighbors, and co-workers. The jokes he wanted t make—morbid, grim, and utterly inappropriate to the situation—were met with slight gasps of shock and tearful eyes. Walter had fled the suffocating atmosphere of propriety to grieve his life his way. And so he toured lonely streets, laughing at his own dark jokes.

A car horn broke through his reverie. Somewhere, a pedestrian had almost lost a leg, he smiled grimly. It had only taken him one or two close calls with pounding heart and rapid breaths to learn that pedestrians did not have the right of way in many cities around the world. Still, he had remarked to more than one bystander, he as a dead man walking either way. Car or cancer, did it really matter at this point?

Still, the city sounds drew him way from the home he had left and back to his current conundrum. The early morning sun was shifting towards noontime, and he had still not found his desired goal. Admittedly, his journey had started a bit later in the day, as he had enjoyed a couple of hours dozing in the soft, luxurious bed and letting his aching muscles unwind. And then he had been forced by his raging stomach to endure a heavy, delicious, and decadent breakfast at a local restaurant.

For years, Walter had watched his diet. He had cut out coffee to prevent any negative cardiovascular effects. Breakfast had been a grapefruit and glass f water, perhaps with a multivitamin on the side. But here, in this world of food and fantasy, he devoured rich and creamy desserts, fatty dinners full of cheese and cream, and drank dark coffee by the gallon. The taste of pastry still hung about his mouth, reminding him of the snack he had squirreled away in his backpack for later. If you have six months he saw no reason to waste it on careful eating and moderation. If ever there were a time for indulgence, it was now.

Walter straightened and smiled as a young woman walked down the side street towards him. Young, he chuckled. She was clearly fit the middle-age category far more accurately than Walter did. A young boy hung on her hand, and he could hear the melodious voice gently chiding him. Having been a mischievous child himself, Waletr had learned that he could recognize a mother’s rebuke in almost any language, at last based on his travels thus far.

“Scusi,” he offered, his tongue trying to figure out the unfamiliar sounds. Yet again, he bristled at the difficulty of switching language. There had been a time he would have leapt between languages flawlessly, back when his mind was sharp and quick. Now, he felt like he was paging through a dictionary carved into stone tablets for as long as it took him to recall the few phrases he had learned on his flight over.

She paused, seemingly surprised by the stranger’s voice. He did his best to smile pleasantly, and she returned the smile before rattling off some string of syllables that, while sounding lovely, meant nothing. Walter continued to smile, then held out the map.

“Dove sono?” he asked in broken tones. As beautifully a the words rolled of her tongue, he felt like he was spitting stones

She wrinkled her brow—trying to decode his broken Italian, he reckoned. Walter held up the map, waving his index finger over it before giving an exaggerated shrug. Her face suddenly brightened as she let out a simple “Ah.”

The woman gave her son a sharp look, then grabbed the map with her free hand. After a brief study, she placed one long, manicured finger on a tiny intersection. “Here.” Her English sounded foreign, exotic, and perfect. Walter felt a deep sadness ell up inside of him that he had never experienced this part of life before now. How long had he wasted on his tiny corner of the world while turning his back on everything else?

“E il museo?” he asked again, his tongue beginning to wake and wrestle with the new sounds.

She smiled at him and then returned her eyes back to the map. Quickly, she pointed to another area, a tiny open square in the tangle of streets. “Here.” She added again, fixing him with a broad smile. Walter added his smile to hers as he folded the map back up and stowed it away.

“Grazie.” She half-spoke something to him as she turned back to collect her son, quickly disappearing down the shadowy street and back into the sunlight.

Walter began to walk, the old cobblestones under his feet as centuries old buildings loomed over him. There was something so right about being in the ancient city as he himself grew old. He walked the ancient city streets, feeling kinship with the worn stones he trod, the comfort of familiarity blanketing him from watching windows in squat buildings.

Walter felt as if he had a lot to learn from the city that had aged so well, well enough to become a treasure in its own right. He smiled and set his goal. He would learn to live well, age well, and die well in whatever few days he had left. With that, he pulled out his breakfast pastry, and let the sun shine down on his aching bones.


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Card Challenge: Day 56

Card Day 56: A boy climbing a ladder and sculpting a bird out of the clouds.

Florence had never been a good sleeper, and tonight certainly was no different. She tossed and turned, fighting against her covers to achieve the perfect balance of hot and cold, feeling at once too tightly covered and too exposed. It was impossible, she decided, to get comfortable in the sweaty tangle of sheets, and the air outside of the shelter of the blankets was too chill. She gave in to the losing battle, lying helpless and frustrated in a knot of sheets, pillows, and irritation.

Self-help books all told her the same thing. Lying there and trying to sleep was not going to do any good, so she should find something soothing and relaxing to do until she felt tired again. With a groan of frustration—the clock already said 2:15 and her alarm was set for 6:00—she set her feet on the comfortably cool wood floor, padding softly towards the kitchen.

Growing up, her mother had always given her a glass of milk and crackers when she could to sleep, and Florence repeated the ritual religiously. A snack acquired, she sat munching at the darkened kitchen table, trying to figure out why her body could be so tired when her eyes remained so alter. The crackers were loud in the silence of her home, the only sounds the occasional hum of a car drifting along outside and the quiet whisper of the air conditioning circulating through the house. It stayed set on a nice, cool temperature at night, just like the doctor ordered. Not that it helped.

The first part of the ritual complete, she moved to the living room, the dog-eared book and tiny reading light at their appointed positions. Computers, television, and cell phones were all forbidden, but books were highly recommended. Sometimes Florence felt she should probably develop a taste for bad books so that they would actually put her to sleep. Still, doctor’s orders.

A few pages in to the dog-eared copy, she did feel her eyes beginning to get slightly heavy, just enough that she dared hope it might be working. There was something about reading that quieted those anxious voices in her head, lulling them into sleep just as surely as smoke stilled the hornets’ nest.

Her chin was sinking onto her chest when there came a slight knock at the door. It was quiet, but rang out obtrusively in the quiet of the house. She snapped to attention, a new wave of fear crashing over her. Who would be out this late at night? Why would they knock on her door? What could they want? Should she call the cops? Was it a ploy?

New anxieties began buzzing about, shattering the forced meditation of her evening ritual. She set the book down from where it lay steepled on her stomach, leaning forward in her chair. There was no other sound, no call for help, no repeated pounding. In fact, the silence refilled the house so quickly, she assumed it had been a half-experienced dream, a car backfiring on the road that her brain twisted into some fitting sound. Still there was a tiny doubt nagging at her, and so she walked over towards the door. Peering through the glass, there was nothing out there but her front porch, wilting flowers that reminded her to add “water the plants” to her checklist.

Turning to walk away, her foot brushed up against something. It was a tiny package wrapped in butcher paper and bound with twine. It was awkwardly oval shaped, and definitely foreign to her house. Had she heard this dropping against her floor?

A thousand new questions began clamoring in her head as Florence carefully undid the string and unwrapped the present. She was half expecting a severed finger or ear to leer out from the wrapping. Instead, much more pleasant fare awaited. Inside was a small, ceramic dove. Its wings were spread mid-flight, and it was crafted finely enough that she imagined she could see the feathers ruffled by the air. It was beautiful, she conceded, if still a creepy package to wind up in her entryway at nearly 3:00 in the morning.

The trespass sent chills up her spine, but she found the object captivating. It was hard to focus on all the anxious thoughts as she stared at it, the limited light from streetlamps outside glinting off the smooth finish. It was perfect, cool to the touch, and oddly reassuring. Still, she as certain the excitement would keep her up the rest of the night. Might as well finish a book, at least.

Returning to her chair, Florence found herself turning the trinket over in her hand, examining all the impossibly tiny details. She was drawn to it, her eyes running back and forth over it, seemingly discovering new details at each pass. Without realizing it, her hand began to loosen and her head dropped forward. Eventually, she fell precipitously to sleep, the figurine resting softly in her lap.

_

In her dream, she was flying. The landscape raced away below her, dappled pastures broken up by stretches of pale white clouds. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and she felt the exhilaration of freedom rush over her. Ahead, a mountain swelled into view, its peak snowcapped and gleaming in the brilliance of the sun. Guided by a quest she only half understood, Florence swung herself towards the mountain, diving at a microscopic opening hundreds of feet below her.

The landing was smooth and gentle, carrying her gracefully into the mouth of the opening. She rested briefly, and looked up to see an open door. Listening to the draw of some unspoken goal, she walked through the door.

The inside of the mountain was beautiful, swirls of white, pale blue, and purple rock dancing about in naturally flowing veins. The walls glimmered with embedded minerals, giving the whole place a seeming glow. Following the path, she eventually entered into a large room seated at the base of a sweeping caldera. Sunlight streamed into the room, highlighting a tiny man carefully carving an abstract figure. To the best of her knowledge—and for some reason, she felt she should trust her gut here—it as a man and woman dancing.

“Ah, Florence,” he chirped as she entered. He carefully descended from the ladder in a cloud of rock dust. It was hard to tell where the pale white dust ended and he began. He was swallowed by a long white beard and a mop of white hair which danced about him like a fine mist. His cloak had likely once been a nice, bright, cheerful blue, but it had turned pale at the accumulated debris, as had the simple brown pants. There was not a clean inch on him, but that did not prevent him from making a show of dusting his hands on his pants.

He extended a hand once he reached her, and she bent to shake it graciously. The wisdom of her dream had fled, and she was merely confused. “I’m glad you made it. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” He fixed her with a stern glare, his eyes a bright stone grey. Normally, she could see them shinning with glee. Now they looked somewhat serious, though still inviting.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Well of course. You don’t think folks just wander their way in here, do you? I’d never get my work done!” he said, gesturing quickly at the statue behind him. Florence nodded knowingly, but her puzzlement spilled out across her face.

“But I suppose that is precisely the problem, now isn’t it?”

“I really don’t know,” said Florence honestly, trying to take in whatever was going on around her. She missed the confidence of her previous flight.

“Of course you do. I’ve been in here working diligently to craft you the best dreams I can. I have worked up all kinds of wonderful things. And what do you do? You let them go to waste, spoil, and rot!”

“I—I’m sorry,” she began her stammering apology, but stopped as he waved his hand.

“Yes, I’m sure you are. But I am a busy man. Do you know how many dreams I have to construct a night? Do you? Billions, Florence. And then so many people do not even appreciate what they are given.’ He sighed, shaking his head. His cheeks were flushed red with the passion of his speech.

“I try to sleep, but—“

He waved off her defense once again. “Now, I took valuable time out of my day to meet with you about this. I simply cannot spend my time on projects that are going to waste.”

“I don’t know how to fix it,” she mumbled, her eyes scanning the ground. He pursed his lips and studied her out of one eye, thoughts obviously racing through his own head.

“Yes, that is a problem, isn’t it?” He stroked his long beard once, twice thoughtfully. “Do you think you could give me some sort of notice? Maybe if you know you aren’t going to sleep, you could just let me know, say around noon?”

“I wish I could, but I just can’t. What about that statue you sent me?” she asked, surprising herself with how easily the pieces fit together.

He shook his head. “No, far too tiring for me. If I did that every night, I wouldn’t get half of my dreams done in a day.” His voice trailed off, and then his head shot up, a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye. “I’ve got it!” He raced off to a workbench near the nearly-completed statue, pulling up a sheet of paper. “You are on Earth, right? Well, I’ve got just the thing. One of my coworkers brought it in just this week. The perfect sleeping potion!”

Florence grabbed the paper from him, her eyes scanning it and devouring it eagerly. Yes, it all made sense. It was so clear. She nodded, a smile swallowing her face. “This is perfect!” she exclaimed. Not only had he solved his problem, but hers as well.

The man nodded knowingly, turning back to his project. “Just don’t forget it. I won’t have myself wasting all this energy for nothing.” With that, the beautiful dream faded into swirls of color, then darkness.

_

Florence woke with a start, the sound of the alarm chirping from her bedroom. She craned her neck, stretching out the sore muscles form the uncomfortable position. This was not recommended, she thought grimly. Still, she felt rested, somehow at peace. It had something to do with a dream, she thought fuzzily, grasping at what remained. She remembered sculptures, rock dust in the air, and flying. But the details remained a hazy suggestion of something more.

Still, as she shifted to get up, she felt the dove sculpture shift in her lap. Somehow, that seemed to remind her of something, something old and half-remembered. She set the figurine on the table beside her, mentally making a grocery list. Some sort of inspiration told her it might be the answer to what she needed.


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Card Challenge: Day 51

Card Day 51: A sad looking child holding a slingshot stands with his back to a life-size teddy bear with a tear trickling down its face.

Hannah knew that no one believed in imaginary friends, but that did not change her situation. It also did not change the fact that she was lonely, and Carmen was a very good friend to her.

“I didn’t mean to break the vase,” whispered Hannah from her spot beside Carmen in time out. “It as an accident.”

“I know it as,” Carmen smiled sweetly, seemingly unperturbed by the punishment. “But momma sure was mad, wasn’t she?”

Hannah’s legs hung off the bed, swaying back and forth as they kicked at the bed spread. She spun her braided hair around her finger, looking glumly at the floor “Yeah, she had a real fit.”

“Well, next time you shouldn’t run in the house.”

“But you told me you wanted to play tag!” Hannah said, her eyes widening and her voice rising. Camren still just smiled and fixed her with a friendly stare.

“But like momma says, ‘Imaginary friends aren’t excuses!’”

Hannah crossed her arms, pouting. It was not fair that she had to sit in time out for something that was barely even her fault. Yes, she may have been the one to break the lamp, but it had ben Carmen’s idea. It was really an injustice that the two always had to be punished as one, but she supposed that was the risk with an imaginary friend. No one would blame the person they could not see, but it inevitably meant an innocent party was unfairly tried and sentenced.

“Time out is over. Just try to stay calm and remember to use your inside manners.” Momma was in the door, standing tall but looking tired. Her hair was tucked up into a frazzled bun, letting airy wisps of dark hair float about her face. He eyes were heavy and tired, but still filled with a hearty measure of love and care. She balanced her toddler, Jasper, carefully on one hip, her weight resting lightly against the doorframe.

Hannah needed no prompting and hopped up, trying to find the next activity to occupy their time. Carmen sat politely on the bed, watching as the woman slowly walked back down the hallway. Once momma had disappeared back into the kitchen, sounds of stirring and chopping accompanying her return, she slid off the bed and into the floor. “Wanna play dolls?”

Hannah rolled her eyes, but eventually gave in to her friends exaggerated look of request. The two settled in front of the little house. Its rooms stretched before them, a chaotic landscape of toppled furniture and mismatched doll clothes. Hannah picked up a light-haired man and straightened his shirt and pants before seating him at the kitchen table. Carmen was methodically moving through the house, righting the rooms and assembling the family members. The walls of the house were a cheery shade of pink, spring green trim rounding along the walls. When she reached the kitchen, she lifted the father from his assigned seat, gathering him with the rest of the family. There were two little girls, a little boy, a momma, and a dad.

“What a happy family,” sighed Carmen as if mimicking the weary sighs of adults. She looked down at the collection at dolls wistfully, carefully setting them on the floor. “I don’t have a dad,” she added with that same sigh, gazing at the man in his khaki pants and eternal smile.

Hannah felt a twinge of fear and discomfort at the topic, grabbing the man off the floor and putting him behind the house. “I did, once. He was a very mean man. We don’t need a daddy in our house,” she said with finality. It was weird looking down at the small family on the floor, their home gaping in front of them while they smiled with perfectly painted plastic smiles. The mother’s hair was never mussed and frizzed, and the little girls never wound up with dirt on their dresses. No one broke vases in the perfect doll house.

“What was it like?” asked Carmen, pulling Hannah from the uncomfortably mature thoughts that had been drifting through her mind.

She picked up one of the little girls, setting her in one of the pink rooms with a tiny tea set. “What was what like?”

Carmen picked up the little boy and set him in the room next door, moving steadily closer to soiree Hannah was building. “Having a dad?”

At first, Hannah shrugged, her eyes growing distant as memories she did not want to consider filtered in, their shadows stretching over the idyllic dollhouse. Carmen was placing dolls, moving them through the motions of family life. Sister joined the tea party, brother continued trying to sneak through the door, mother ran between the bedrooms and the kitchen, always a bit frantic. She kept her eyes on Hannah, eagerly awaiting the answer. “He was very mean,” she repeated again, her voice sounding distant, “very bad. He used to lock me in the closets when I misbehaved. Sometimes, he would hit me. A lot of time, he and momma yelled. She would cry, and her face would be all red and puffy. Once, he hit me and I didn’t wake up until tomorrow morning.” The words slipped numbly from her lips, falling to the ground. In an instant, she was back in those moments. There were screams and yells, her pounding heart and rapid breaths. She felt tears stinging at her eyes, begging to be released at the memory.

Carmen’s voice brought her back, tying her paradoxically back to reality. “That sounds really bad. I’m glad he’s not your daddy anymore. I’m glad you can live with me.”

Hannah knew how to respond, putting on her old smile as the nightmares continued to pulse through her head. Nevertheless, she tried to focus on the game at hand, to be the perfect host and entertain her friend. In reality, she sought merely to distract herself, lose herself in a world of fantasy where grown men did not take out their inner demons on helpless victims. But that was a world she did not know, and sometimes she wondered if she ever would. Carmen’s voice again broke through. “Why did he do that?”

Hannah’s smile slipped and she shrugged. “I don’t know. He came home late a lot, smelling bad and yelling. Then he would be really mean. The last time I saw him—“ fear welled up in her throat. She remembered that last time. There had been so much noise, explosions of anger blossoming in their tiny home. She had been in her room, in this room, when it had been green instead of blue. He had come into the room, smelling a stinky kind of sweet and wobbling on his feet. There had been blood and pain and darkness. Even in the memory, she could feel fear clawing its way up her throat, pulsing behind her eyes. She took a breath, trying to refocus. “The last time was bad,” she finished, her voice barely a whisper. “Can we play something else?”

Carmen could sense the tragedy behind the words, even if she was young. It was the way such a friend worked. The two shared so much that even feelings were little more than a river flowing between two banks. She did not have the images or the sounds in her mind, though, and so she could be stronger. Hannah smiled appreciatively at her friend. Carmen was the strength she needed. “How about Pirates?”

With that, the two girls fled to the dress-up closet, donning baggy leggings and eye patches. They spent the evening storming beaches and burying treasure, ruling their ship-room with mostly-cotton-but-occasionally-iron fists. The weight of the previous moments was replaced by laughter and false bravado, daring adventures and death-defying feats.

The flurry of activity followed by silence in the kitchen signaled the play date was drawing to an end. The two were caught mid-mission by momma’a reappearance.

“Time for dinner, Carmen. Clean up and wash your hands.”

“Yes, momma,” she sighed, dropping to a seat on the bed. She began to remove the layers of costume. “Can Hannah have a place, too?” she asked.

A flash of worry brushed across her mother’s face, and she smiled gently. “Sweetie, Hannah’s not real. I know you found that diary, but she doesn’t live here anymore.”

Carmen opened her mouth to protest, but Hannah shook her head. Her mother’s disapproving gaze also helped to silence the matter. “Yes, ma’am,” she sighed plaintively, stomping towards the bathroom. Hannah watched her go, sitting down on the bed, trying to forget what her room looked like after that fateful night, trying to forget the months of loneliness before the new family moved in, bringing the friend she always needed.

Too bad no one believed in imaginary friends.


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Card Challenge: Day 50

Card Day 50: A bride and groom stand in the moonlight, suspended inside a bird cage with a black cat watching from below.

May 7, 2011

Maybe this is what they always mean when they talk about a loveless marriage. It’s not a contemptuous one, an angry one, or a bitter one. It’s just loveless. I mean, I remember the feeling of butterflies and dreaminess when we first got married. I’d wake up in the morning and just smile at his face, snoring and drooling. Now I see him and I’m just left with nothing but boredom and abstract irritation at having to wash two pillowcases. Nothing changed between us, there is no major conflict, no affairs, no abuse. I just don’t feel anything. I almost wished I could just hate him, because that would make my path clear. Instead, it’s just like sharing the house with a visiting relative. Just smile, be on your best behavior, and go through the motions. Is this what love is? Is this what marriage is?

May 9, 2011

I wonder if he feels the same. He still kisses me good morning and goodnight with that beaming smile. Am I that good at acting that he cannot see the emptiness? Or has he just got me fooled and really feels as empty as me? I don’t know. I talked with Tracy yesterday—she just wanted to blab on about her newborn, which is great and all, but I felt like it took forever to get a word in. I asked her about how she and Jeff have been, and she said great. Of course she would. But when I started talking and asking about this kind of…lull, she just looked at me like I was discussing something obscene. In her oh-so-perfect way, she just told me she “hadn’t gotten there yet,” and laughed her fake smile.

Maybe this isn’t what marriage is supposed to be like. But we didn’t do anything wrong! We used to do all kinds of things together, share everything, cuddle, and spend hours just wasting the day together. That just stopped at some point, and everything just settled into a rut. And now I look at him, smile, and feel nothing. Maybe we just weren’t meant to be.

May 12, 2011

We had a fight tonight. A big one. I don’t even know how it started, but he ended up just unleashing on me about all of this stuff. And I really couldn’t even feel angry. I felt offended that he would yell at me like a child, but I felt like there should be guilt or sadness or something. It was just annoyance at having to waste time in all the verbal jousting.

He did ask why I had checked out. That was the first time I really felt like I could add something to the conversation .But I didn’t know. I don’t know why I checked out. All I know is that I woke up one day, and I just did not care anymore. He was just a man sharing my bedroom, and we just danced around one another in the circuits of daily living. I wanted to be able to tell him something, but I just had to be honest. I don’t know. He asked if I even loved him anymore. I didn’t answer. I just don’t know.

May 13, 2011

He slept on the couch last night. I wish we could go back to the point where he did not know, because now our lukewarm home has turned artic. I wish I could help him understand that it has nothing to do with him or anything he did. But I don’t think it’s anything I did, either. Maybe people just fall out of love? Is that a thing? Because I think he’s fine, and I’m fine, but we just aren’t fine together. It’s not fair for either of us to sit and flounder in an unfulfilling, unappreciative marriage. Right?

May 16, 2011

We’ve talked. We talked and talked and talked until the words we said really had no more meaning. He was frustrated because I couldn’t explain, I felt bad because he looked so pained. Our words spun in circles and it felt like we were getting nowhere. He wants to do therapy, and maybe we should. I just don’t feel like anything is wrong with me or us. We just aren’t right together.

Somewhere along the way, the two of us enjoyed a bright stretch of life together. Then, we decided that they joy we had should last forever, and we committed to it. Only brilliance like that doesn’t last, but it fades. It has faded. It is not because we did something wrong, but because we tried to make something miraculous and ephemeral eternal under the strain of daily living. I don’t think therapy can help with that. We dreamed, we reached, and ultimately I woke up. I’m sure he will soon.

May 18, 2011

He scheduled the appointment, and I agreed to meet. He guilted me into it with those pleading eyes. The therapist was…fine, I guess. He wasn’t nearly as weird and new agey as I thought he would be, and did not jump down my throat. I mean, I figured he would blame me for checking out, assume I was cheating, or tell me how terrible I was for not communicating sooner. He just listened and nodded a lot, asking a few questions here or there. Chad seemed to feel better when we left, and I kind of did too. Dr. Schwartz told us to make a list of things we loved about each other when we were first together, like that would be hard. It’s easy to remember what I did love, but it’s hard to remember why.

May 20, 2011

Chad gave me his list. He said he loved my laugh, my determination. He loved that I always ate things in even numbers and hid silly notes around his dorm room. He said that he loved the way I argued in class, how I doodled dinosaurs on my notes, and the way I looked when I just woke up from a nap. I gave him my list, and he seemed to be very touched. I felt a little sad. I miss feeling that way about him. I miss the love we had. Dr. Schwartz asked if we were interested in working through, or ready to go our different ways. I said I don’t know (do I say anything else anymore?), but maybe I do.

May 25, 2011

Fake it till you feel it. That was seriously the advice today. Just pretend I love him, and magically it will get better? He said we should act like the people we fell in love with. Maybe this guy is the quack I though he was. Chad did not really seem to appreciate that either, so at least we’re on the same page on this. Still, he’s the one with the degree, so I might as well give it a shot. Not like I can lose anything, right?

May 27, 2011

Chad planned a night out for us. We went back to the diner we had our first date, walked along the park where we first kissed, and he danced with me just like I used to love. He took everything he could from my list. I just tried to enjoy myself, laugh, and be the person I used to be. It was surprisingly hard. About halfway through the date, he stopped me. “Just be you,” he said and sighed. But his eyes looked at me lovingly through the pain. So I acted like I felt. He seemed happy, and it made me feel a little better to see him smile again.

May 28, 2011

I woke up this morning and he had his arm around me. He was snoring, and I was just listening to it, smiling, before I even realized it. It was not love—not quite, at least—but it was something. It was peace. Comfort. I just laid there, warm and content. And maybe that’s the first step.


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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 48

Card Day 48: A young girl and boy in tattered clothes walk along a dark city sidewalk. Their shadows fall on a blank wall behind them, taking on the shape of a ferocious monster.

Malcolm pressed back deeper into the shadows, listening to the hollers and clashes of the neighborhood gangs roaming the streets. His jeans were cold and damp after sitting on the rain soaked pavement, but he hoped the shadows loomed thick enough to keep him hidden. He mentally berated himself, squeezing his eyes shut as if he could force himself to wake up from this terrible nightmare. Decisions this stupid did not come around too often, but he knew that this one could be the one to end all possibility of future bad ones. He had known he needed to leave and make for the shelter earlier, but he had dawdled and lost track of time, meaning he was trying to cross half the city after nightfall.

They were approaching his alleyway, their voices a loud echo of three of four different people babbling at once. Most of what they said was nonsense, posturing, and blustering, but he also knew that they were itching to find anyone to take out their inflated aggression on. He had no money or food to buy them off, and no good will to earn him mercy for his passage. They would not take the affront likely.

Malcolm held his breath as their voices passed a dozen or so feet in front of him. The wall against his back was cold and rough, but he pressed against it even tighter, almost as if he was trying to melt right into it. The voices grew in volume, and he could see five men wander past, their bodies hulking and casting long shadows down the entrance to the alley. He did not dare move or even breathe as they sauntered past, eyes roaming the streets and looking for a fight.

He exhaled slowly and silently as their shadows passed by on the street, fading as they turned down another side road. Cautiously, Malcolm stood, his knees aching from his prone state for so long. He had been lucky to hear them early, before they had a chance to see him, but they had spent an awfully long time dawdling, smoking, and regaling each other with the previous night’s exploits. At least, Malcolm considered grimly, he knew who had been responsible for the four dead bodies on Lower East. Not that the knowledge would ever be put to the cause of justice, but the closure on the mystery was somewhat welcome. In a world where dead bodies turned up in the city streets like rats, it was nice to have at least one person to blame for some of the atrocities.

On tiptoes, he crept to the edge of the alley and peered around the corner, ears straining for the slightest sound. Their voices still echoed, but fading quickly. Otherwise, there was nothing. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Malcolm sprinted across the street and into another alley way, walking slowly through the shadows. It was best to stay in the alleys, off the main thoroughfares, hidden in darkness. It at least gave him a head start on hiding.

Malcolm could not help but wonder, as he walked the lethal streets, what a life without constant danger might have been like. He had read books about it, about people who lived their lives in moderate comfort, more concerned about who to love and how to find a job than how to survive a night on the street. People in his books were studied and learned, knowing amaing things about the way the world worked. But, he guessed few of them knew how to make a scrap of bread last a week or how long you could go without purified water before the runoff began to make you too weak to stand. The people in his books would have died in a week.

And, Malcolm supposed, he probably should have. He was born on the streets, and it was rare to see an infant who actually grew to adulthood. He had a couple of birthdays left but—barring any future stupid mistakes—Malcolm felt his chances were good to defy the odds. It was his mother he had to thank for protecting him, raising him, sacrificing for him, and ultimately teaching him the tricks of the trade. She knew how to hunker in an alley if the shelter filled up, how to scrounge for food, and how to keep warm on nights that claimed many a finger, toe, and life.

Malcolm’s childhood was filled with many similar nights tucked into the shelter of dumpsters while chaos ranged around them. His mother would hold him close, covering his ears to block out some of the awful things. Of course, it never got rid of it all. When he would get very scared, she would turn him to face her, her hands clutching his cheeks softly.

“Malcolm,” she would whisper with her soothing voice, “you don’t have to worry one cent about them out there.” Her eyes were sincere and hopeful, wooing him into peaceful trust. “Ya see, you got a guardian angel watching over you, little man. Nobody gonna hurt you, not while your angel’s on watch.” She would gather him close to her and stroke his hair with smooth, measured strokes until he fell asleep beneath her watchful gaze.

Of course, that guardian angel had not saved her in the end. Like most people, she wound up black, blue, and ice cold after leaving to find food at dusk in desperation. Malcolm cursed himself at the memory. He had been too young to go, too young to help, and too young to be left alone. Hell, he thought, he was still too young to be on his own in a world like this. But no matter how hard he railed against the injustice, it did not change the facts.

He wove through the streets, following practiced paths that he hoped would lead him to the Gathering before too long. The little community was probably on edge since he was missing, especially with the violence encroaching ever closer to their tiny sanctuary. Malcolm just hoped he would make it home, rather than providing evidence for their worry.

Lost in his thoughts, regrets, and memories, Malcolm did not see the shadows looming around the corner, nor the glass bottles littering his path. He did, however, notice them once his foot struck one, sending it skittering across the pavement with loud cries of offense. At the sound, the shadows moved, gaining voices that encroached quickly on his position. Malcolm’s eyes flew wide open, watching as the group of three rounded the corner. His heart raced, pushing blood to his limbs so that he could flee. Spinning on his heels, he took off, feeling the worn soles of his sneakers slip and slide over the pavement. The men gave a yell and took off after him. All his hopes for silence and discreetness were gone in an instant as he created a stampede.

He was out onto the street in an instant, scanning quickly side to side to find an escape. Unfortunately, he only saw the gang from before closing in. The leader gestured to him, and they began the pursuit as well. No amount of ducking and swerving through alleyways was going to help as they quickly cut off his potential escape routes.

His mouth ran dray with fear as his brain quickly shuffled through options. He had seen on man dart down a side alley to cut off his forward escape, another darting after him down the road. The three were still rushing up behind him. Malcolm looked down the large road and accepted his only path. It was in the open and a bad place to lose pursuers, but it was the available option.

Since nothing was going his way that night, the streets were slick with rain and refuse. He did not make it far before his feet flew off in different directions, landing him on the pavement with a sharp crack to his head. They were upon him in a minute, leering jackals circling their prey with looks of excitement plastered on their faces.

Malcolm’s vision swam, bursting with stars, He felt blood seeping from his forehead, a decent gash appearing where he had fallen. The world spun around him, a mirage of bloodthirsty faces rotating dizzyingly around him. He tried to stand, but his legs were weak and wobbly beneath him. With a helpless groan, Malcolm sank back to the ground, his fight gone. The circle tightened around him like a noose.

Suddenly there was brilliant light. Malcolm thought it was yet another sign of concussion, but the others responded as well. They shielded their eyes, looking around and yelling at one another. Their words were gibberish to him, indistinguishable for the loud humming he heard in the air around him. Their mouths opened in screams, and he imagined that he watched as some invisible force flung them away from him. In his delusional state, Malcolm swore he saw their bodies fly across the streets, smashing into buildings and crumpling lifeless to the ground, He though, perhaps, he saw one of them running and screaming, only to be cut down by an invisible blade. Weirdest of all, Malcolm thought he felt the gentle caress of his mother’s hands in his hair as he drifted into unconsciousness. The darkness closed in, and Malcolm said his final goodbye to the cold world that had been his unfortunate home.

However, the bright rays of morning pried his eyes open once again. He found himself lying in the middle of the streets, a pounding headache radiating from the cut on his forehead, but no worse off. Around him, seven men lay in various states of disarray, cast aside and torn apart.

His mother’s words floated back through his memory, and he felt the gentle presence of her watchful eyes on him once 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 40

Card Day 40: A boy stands inside a glass dome, the world inside the dome a sunny scene with a house in the background. Outside the dome is a snowy world. Imagine an inverted snow globe.

Kevin pressed his face up against the glass, seeing the first flakes of snow falling for the season. He sighed, leaning against the cool glass as if he could somehow pass through it and catch the tiny flakes on his tongue. Alas, the window remained an impassable boundary, cutting him off from the wonders of the world outside.

He drifted through the empty house, aimless and tired of the same faded wallpaper, crushed carpet, and creaky wooden steps. What he would not give to get out and feel the cool wind on his cheek, the sun on his back, the tingle of snow against his skin. The breeze from the air conditioner, warmth of the stove, and icy residue of the freezer were no suitable substitute, despite his best efforts. He sighed, begrudgingly bearing his burden. Such was the life of a deceased spirit unable to pass on.

Kevin made his way to the attic. He had always wondered, growing up, why attics tended to be such a magnet for ghosts and ghouls in movies, books, and campfire stories. Having lived the life himself for almost ten years now, he finally understood. Everyone stored their interesting things in the attic or basement. After spending a couple of months following behind the current residents, watching the world move by past his window, Kevin felt his boredom grow. It was not until he found a box of old comics and books in the basement, the unusual medical textbooks in the attic, and a stash of old tapes and a Walkman under the stairs that he found a hobby that did not leave him feeling dejected and alone. Unlike some spirits, he was at least conscientious enough to wear headphones when he listened to his music.

The internet was a remarkable invention even if he could not fully interact with the computer—the screen tended to blink and fade to off whenever he was too close by. The current owners often left the thing running, displaying news, family updates, or short videos. It was something different to pass the time, even if it did little to relieve his boredom for long.

The good thing about living in a haunted house was that people eventually got tired of the weird happenings, flickering lights, occasional bumps and whispers in the night, and sometime oldies blared through speakers that they moved out. A new gaggle of residents would move in, bringing their own bizarre junk for exploration. Kevin imagined that, were he alive, he probably could have earned a couple of degree based on the information he absorbed through boxed up textbooks alone. He had also read numerous dairies, journals, failed novels, children’s books, and salacious wannabe romance novels.

Of course, he always knew what he would do at 7:13pm. No matter where he had been, what he was doing, or what he felt like, he would be magnetically drawn to the second floor landing. He found himself there now, looking out the large bay windows at the accumulating snow. What he wouldn’t give for a sled and an hour outside, he thought wistfully. His legs—or their incorporeal spirit form—began to walk towards the stairs of their own volition. Kevin sighed, awaiting the inevitable.

The sound of a toy car clanking down the stairs echoed in the room, even though there was nothing to create such a racket. Kevin felt himself follow suit, tumbling down the stairs in a disjointed heap of limbs. He stopped against the wall, a lingering dull ache to remind him of the sudden pain and darkness of a broken neck.

His current roommates startled a bit, and he could hear a feminine voice rise at the sudden noise. It was much quieter than the actual event, but still a disruption. For a boy who never really liked to be the center of attention, his unavoidable disturbance was certainly a fate worse than death. The ritual complete, Kevin slowly stood, brushing himself off and stretching out the kinks in his joints from the fall. Recently, his shoulder had been popping out of join in what would have certainly ben a painful situation if he could have felt pain. Instead, it was a inconvenient pop to reset the socket, and then he could return to what he was doing.

Hearing nothing more, his tenants calmed back down, attributing the sound to someone on the street, the heat kicking on somewhere, or the refrigerator cycling. They nestled back down on the couch, him running his hands over her hair as they watched some comedy. He only really knew it was a comedy because of the laugh track. It really did not seem that funny to Kevin, but then again, he had to remember that mortal concerns had little pull over him anymore. Wacky situational comedy had lost its relevance when he took his shortcut from the second floor.

Still, seeing the snow outside awakened a thick feeling of nostalgia. For a long time, actually dying, leaving the mortal coil, had been a distinct fear. He had floated along the halls of his family home, watching his parents grieve and struggle to move on, but ultimately afraid to actually leave the world behind. It was, after all, the only world he knew. Then, he realized that he could still learn and experience some of life, even if it had to be from a distance. More recently, however, he felt a deep fatigue and ennui with the whole situation.

He ached for the feeling of snow, for a scene besides the same inside of the house. Different paint and trappings did little to relieve the sameness of the space.

Feeling adrift in his feelings, Kevin made his way back to the attic. She was, apparently, a veterinarian, and so he was learning a great many things about animal care. It was wonderfully useless knowledge, since he would never have any need to keep an animal alive per se, at least not in his current form. Sometimes he imagined leaping in to save the day, giving some puppy the Heimlich when the owners were out, but generally animals had an instinctive fear of him.

Settling back into the corner he had created, Kevin let the evening slip through his fingers. He found himself gazing sorrowfully out the tiny round window, watching snow pile on the streets, cars, light posts, and tree branches. The moon rose high, nothing but a orb of haze behind a wooly blanket of grey clouds. He lazily turned the pages, studying the diagrams and text. A real lifelong learner, he thought with a sardonic smirk.

His studying was disrupted by the long, pained creak of branches outside the house. The wind had kicked up and paired with the heavy snow and ice, leaving the trees to fight against the constant battering. He could hear the branches groaning beneath the strain.

The wind howled a bit louder, whistling through microscopic cracks he never could find. The branches swayed and kicked, creaking all the more loudly. Try as he might, Kevin was completely unable to focus on his book with the racket.

With a sudden crash, one of the branches finally gave way, crashing down through the roof. It slammed into a pile of boxes, shattering an old mirror that had been in the attic even longer than Kevin. Even though he was in no danger, the sudden noise made him jump.

Then, miracle of miracles, Kevin watched the snow filter in through the gaping hole in the roof. Entranced by the dancing flakes, finally so close, Kevin stumbled towards them. Barely believing, he reached out his hand and felt the tiny flakes land on his skin. They burned with a sharp cold, never quite melting on his hand. The feeling was wondrous, a final touch of the world he had known and left behind. He could hear the wind, feel the snow, see the moon, smell the new fallen snow, and taste fresh winter air.

Content and at peace, Kevin finally left his childhood home, seeking the next step in the grand adventure of death.


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