Deep Sapphire Blue Eyes - Part 1

By Kaela N.

         “Hello?” Callie said as she tried to open her eyes.​

          “They’re dead! Gone. Goodbye. Dead!” a voice screamed, followed by a low and slow demonic laugh. 

         “Please, no!” Callie cried into the phone as she frantically bolted upright, dripping in sweat, and looked around. A tiny bit of light from the full moon peeked through the blind-covered window and cast a glow on dozens of playbills on the wall in front of her. Slightly to the left, a signed, framed copy from Mean Girls: The Musical was displayed on a rickety old desk painted orange. Callie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She was in her room.   

         Why did this happen to me? It’s not fair, she sobbed, hugging her knees and gently rocking back and forth. Crawling out of bed, she shuffled down the hall to her best friend’s room and quietly opened the door. 

         “Another nightmare?” Francine asked, flicking on the mounted reading light above her bed, looking concerned as she wiped her long, thick curls away from her eyes. 

         “Just the same one I’ve been having for the last 28 days,” Callie said, trembling as she rolled back the comforter, slipped under the sheets and turned to face her best friend. 

         “Maybe going back to work tomorrow will help,” Francine said kindly. 

         Callie closed her eyes and shrugged. “Maybe.” 

                                                                                         _________________________________

         By the time Callie got up, Francine was already long gone to see her first client at the physical therapy clinic two blocks away. After a quick shower, Callie put on her gray wool peacoat and purple hat and matching scarf, grabbed her messenger bag and headed down the elevator. She had misgivings about wearing the hat and scarf. It was the last thing her mother had knit for her before early onset Alzheimer’s disease stole her life a year ago, the same week 

her father was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. 

         As soon as the lobby door was opened just an inch, the chill of the wind pierced through Callie’s skin to her bones. Growing up in California, it had taken her a long time to get used to east coast weather, but surprisingly she now enjoyed the freshness and crispness of fall in New York. 

         It was Saturday, and the ride from the York Street Subway Station into Manhattan was uneventful. A few scattered riders dotted the seats. Callie got off at the 34th Street Herald Square Subway Station to walk the rest of the way to her assistant stage manager job at the August Wilson Theatre. She made her way down Sixth Avenue toward Central Park, and a slight twinge of normalcy briefly overshadowed her intense grief as she glanced through the windows of the shops and restaurants along the way. 

         But within a few minutes, someone caught her eye, and she abruptly stopped. He was sitting inside alone at a square metal table for two closest to the window, eating an oatmeal cookie and drinking a large steaming cup of coffee in a take-out cup. She stared at him intently, unable to turn away. 

         You're still alive? Callie said to herself, shaking. No, that’s not possible. You died a month 

ago. Yet there was her father with his piercing deep blue sapphire eyes, the same ones she had 

inherited from him. She tapped softly on the window to get his attention, but the tall man 

abruptly left through the alley door. 

         “Miss, you are blocking the sidewalk,” a woman with a double stroller barked. 

         “Sorry,” Callie stammered as she spun forward and raced toward the theatre. 

                                                                                        _________________________________

         The crew of Mean Girls warmly welcomed Callie back with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and lots of hugs. Both of the day’s shows were superb, and the rush of adrenaline pulsated through Callie’s veins. Twenty minutes after the second show ended, Callie headed to the lobby to ask the House Manager if she needed any help as people still trickled out of the theatre. 

         “I don’t think so, but if you could stick around until the house clears that would be wonderful,” Lynne said. 

         Callie didn’t respond and grabbed desperately for the merchandise table. Her face was sheet white, the room was spinning, and the floor was buckling underneath her black sneakers. “Are you alright, Callie? Maybe you should sit down for a few minutes.” 

         Callie smiled weakly and lied, “I’m fine. I haven’t eaten much, but there’s a big piece of Junior’s cheesecake waiting for me in my bag.” 

         Please let that be you, she said to herself as she watched the man with those unmistakable eyes hobble down the last few steps of the stage left balcony stairs and exit to the street. 

 

Through the Fog

By Kareyn H.

         I stood beneath the spotlight of the stars, the sky as dark as the drop below me. Breathing deeply and clenching my fists, I swallowed the terror that encroached upon me, willing myself to be fearless. I glanced back into the dark again, hoping for a light to appear, almost hoping for a light to appear.

         As if brought about my wishing, I suddenly saw a hallowing of gentle warmth below me, and the dark cliff caved beneath me, sending me plummeting soundlessly downward. I landed on sandy beaches, tense until I felt the texture of the sand, showcasing the gentle memories of the past. Looking around, I realized that a river had lain beneath the cliff the entire time, and I presumed it had three parts. I stood in the past. What lay ahead could only be the present and the future.

         The very idea of these locations terrified me, and I hid my eyes from the forward current of the river, choosing instead to remain and relax within these sweet memories of the past. Dipping my hand in the water, I saw my sister, dancing with me to her favorite song. I lifted the water to my mouth, and I saw the best friend I had only known in childhood. I took a slight sip of the water, and I found that it was pure, if tangy, just like the champagne my father had let me taste all those years ago.

         I groaned in ecstasy, wading deeper into the river, trying to bathe myself in remembrance, but I went too far, and I was swept into the current leading to the present. As the wind and the waves carried me away from my safety, I cried out in fear, but I could do nothing to stop my progression. Rocks began to appear in the water, jutting outwards and tormenting me with their existence.

         My body slammed into each of them, and they sliced my skin apart, delivering my blood to these pain-filled waters. I cried to God to save me. I prayed and prayed, but God seemed not to answer, and I saw no means of deliverance. I was wet and trembling, and the tears coursing down my face could have only been more of the water that encased my body. I fought to stay afloat, but the winds and the waves were too much for me, and my head fell underwater.

         As the water made its way through my body, filling my lungs with a foreign substance, I retched and gagged, praying for God knows what...and the memories returned, breaking me apart with their ferocity. I saw the people I had built my life around crumbling and crushing me. I saw the person I had loved, abandoning me for someone else. Again, I relived my role model in all things, dying...and I was there again beside his hospital bed, crying and crying and crying and crying...

         My head broke through the surface again, and the waves had died down. The wind had stopped. Everything had fallen still. I took a moment in which I merely breathed, and I heard the song of a bird in the distance, proof that there was still life amid all this darkness. With that, I remembered the bird that I was nursing back to life.

         With that one small memory, all the good things came rushing back as well, and I recalled the laughter my sister and I had shared. I thought about the person I had become, and the good moments I had made. I thought about the friends who had called, bringing gifts and cards and kind words. This time, the tears were not so much of sadness, but of missed opportunities. Did I truly want to leave all this behind? Taking a deep breath, I swam towards the beaches along either side of the present, and though the sand was studded with sharp shells that tore at my feet, it was still beautiful.

         Then, I glanced ahead to the future. Always before, the future had been sealed to my vision, cut off from my thoughts, and shrouded in a veil of mist that hid what lay beyond from view. Yet now, as I peered vainly into its depths, the fog began to peel away, affording me a glimpse of what lay beyond. Two channels divided outward from the present that I walked beside. One was quiet, and the rivers were slow and peaceful. However, huge rocks jutted from the riverbed. Only those good at navigation could possibly manage to make it through the river. The second channel appeared rough, and the waves roared higher than my head in places. Yet, there were no rocks to bash my body against. Furthermore, both pathways led to the same destination: beautiful and crystal-clear beaches stretching as far as the eye could see. Drawn to them, I took a step forward, but the fog immediately covered the river until nothing more could be seen but the present.

         I blinked once...twice...and then the darkness surrounded me again. The cliff I had been standing on was now an office building, and the sky was pierced by the stars above. Below me lay only a river of traffic lights, streaming across my vision and blurring it. Trembling, I took a deep breath and stepped backward: away from the cliff and towards the future that awaited.

 

Trip of Horrors

By Haviva B.

         Cold encompasses me. I lay horizontal, floating in a pear-shaped lake. My shoulders slowly loosen from the strain of carrying a ten-pound backpack for what seemed like endless miles up a mountain in sweltering heat. I am here with my eleven cabin mates, two counselors, and one wilderness leader on a one-night backpacking trip. It’s an excursion from Camp Tawonga, a sleepover camp that I have been going to for the past four years. I look forward to the backpacking part of camp every year, and this year is no different. We had just finished setting up our sleeping area with a tarp overhanging us in case it rains, so we had earned some chill time.

         After twenty minutes in the water we all decide to get out and make for the sleeping area. We sat huddled in a circle, settled in the protection of our shelter. Ping, ping, ping. Little droplets of rain start to fall from the sky and collide with the tarp above our heads. The rhythmic beat of rain increases steadily, intruding on the former quiet of the wilderness. Excitement buzzes in the air as our minds fill with the prospect of a rainy day. The drumming grows louder against the tarp and then suddenly turns sharper as the water becomes little balls of white ice, pounding from the sky above. The pounding intensifies in seemingly impossible crescendos, a hellish hail turning the ground seemingly to snow. But hail isn’t snow, rather, it is its evil cousin. The clumps of white melt into large puddles of water and the puddles start to melt the new hail on contact. Impossibly, the downpour still intensifies. The ground now resembles the lake that we had been swimming in just moments prior. 

         Water starts to pour onto our tarp and in alarm, I yell, “Everyone grab the edges of the tarp. We need to keep the water out!” Our tarp is transformed into a dubious boat, perilously keeping us afloat but doomed; water finds its way and gushes in. My now soaking clothes stick to my skin, clammy and cold in the breeze. The water surrounding us is dark covered with ice teeth, leaf tongues like a monstrous mouth ready to swallow. An unknown dread fills us. The beautiful wilderness, which I thought was my friend, turned into my foe. Our isolation suddenly becomes apparent. We are soaked and cold in the middle of the wilderness. The sky is a dark blue and our cars are miles away and the camp is hours. Our choices seem fleeting and feeble. A thought flashes through my mind; for the first time in my life I don’t know how this story ends. 

         It’s hard to tell exactly when, but I suddenly become aware that the loud pounding above our heads has subsided. Our counselors inform us we must leave tonight. A kind of relief fills me, that even if I do not know the end, at least I know the next chapter of this treacherous story.  My cold stiff fingers struggle to stuff my soaking sleeping bag and mat back into my drenched backpack. Anything that does not fit in my backpack I carry in my arms. 

         Finally packed and dripping, we start the long slog back down the mountain in the pitch dark. Roots trip me, unknown puddles meet me, and rocks surprise me. The world narrows and after a time, the only thing I know is a silently repeated mantra: Onward. Hours pass as my frozen legs trudge forward desiring to collapse with exhaustion. Dread and fear are buried deep inside of me, too overwhelming to face in the moment. Just when I think I cannot walk any longer, I see a light in the distance and I know that we made it! Everything that has taken place in these last few hours feels like a dream that is just too disastrous to be believable as an actual occurrence. The leaders from our camp had been informed by satellite phone and had driven the two hours in the middle of the night out to the trailhead with hot pasta to fill our empty stomachs. Tears spring from everyone's eyes, even the leaders, not from joy, but as a delayed expression of fear - dread we had had to store away, but that could now be safely released. I lay in the heated car and feel my eyes roll into my head as my exhausted body grows limp with sleep. 

 

High School Reality

By Aastha K.

         To be honest, I never much saw the point in staying close friends with people you never see. Other people seem to have this knack more than me. I think I would have tried harder, but with my life and interests changing, my old circles just weren’t satisfying. You’re not alone in not having a lot of close friends from high school, though. It’s normal for most friends to fall off after high school. The main reason most people were ever friends was because they were practically forced to see each other every day. Now that there’s nothing forcing the friendship to stay together, it usually falls apart, unless they were your real friends. 

         Friends in life are transitory, even good friends. You think you’ll be together forever, and then life happens. You move, or they move, or something, anything, happens and you are out of each other’s lives. Today with things like Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, it is easier to stay in contact, but life still happens. People change, too; maybe you won’t like some of your old friends anymore if you meet up again. 

         I have lost contact with many friends, but a year later I had an opportunity to get together with the person who was my good friend. I left, though, after realizing we no longer had anything in common. I feel that one good friend is worth way more than a bunch of acquaintances with whom you have nothing in common. The only thing is, you have to be good at finding and building good relationships. I can’t say what the word “friendship” means to you personally, but if your definition of the word is based on shallow reasoning then you might need to reevaluate that.

         I was bullied and had social anxiety, and as a result of that I had no friends in high school. That didn’t stop me from making new friends in college, though; you can make friends at any age until the day you die. The bottom line is that making no friends in high school doesn’t mean you’re going to be lonely for the rest of your life.

 

We’re Looking for the Sky - Chapter Two, Part Three

By Alyssa G.

         Skye himself wasn’t that big of a fan on the news, especially celebrity things like that and stuff that involved his best friend, Jessie. 

         “Can you believe this?!”

         Certainly. That was exactly what you got when you dated a celebrity. All of the publicity, the stupid lies, theories, and endless cameras in your face. People just didn’t understand ‘personal space’ when it came to popularity. Jessie had to learn the hard way and maybe that was what she deserved. 

         “What—what are you even doing here?” Isaiah questioned, completely avoiding what was said before. His eyes were drawn to the back of Skye’s head, getting lost between the little, sandy curls that bounced every time he gestured wildly to the TV. The boy was letting out nonsense as usual, only taking a pause when he heard Isaiah’s words. His expression shifted and the fire still raged within him. He looked just as angry as he did in Isaiah’s dream. Skye was about to kill him and he was sure of it. 

         “Why are you asking such ridiculous questions at a time like this?” Skye hissed. He stuck a finger toward the screen, angrily. “Do you even see what’s happening here? Are you blind?”

         “I know what’s going on, Skye. I’m not blind, jerk,” he said.

         Skye let out a dramatic huff. “Doesn’t this upset you? Like, at all?”

         Isaiah looked at the screen, seeing the visual of the irritated fans outside of Jessie’s apartment building. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if they showed up at her place with their pitchforks and torches. They would even hunt her down if they had to. Max’s fans were like animals; they were vicious and showed no mercy to people who even dared to step in Max’s spotlight. They certainly wouldn’t hesitate with Jessie. 

         He glanced back at Skye and gave him a cruel shrug. “Not really.” 

         “Wuh-what do you mean, ‘not really’?!” the other boy sputtered out. “Do you not see what she’s going through?”

         “I do, and I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just how it is. She got herself into this the second she started dating Max and the very second he won his first award.” Isaiah said. “That’s just how all of this works. Once you’re dating someone like Max, your whole life is now his and not so private anymore.”

         “So you’re blaming her now?” Skye scoffed. “Typical.”

         “What? I’m not—no, I’m not blaming her—” he stammered as he blinked in confusion. Isaiah sighed and grabbed the remote from the floor to turn the TV off altogether. He chucked the little remote onto the couch, flashing an angry expression to Skye, who was glaring at him with his arms crossed. “—What, what are you even doing here in the first place?” Isaiah asked again.

         “Is it a problem that I’m here?” Skye snapped. 

         “No, it’s just that…” Isaiah trailed off, looking for the right word that he hoped for. “...you never really show up here like this.”

         “Oh? You mean as a guest and not one of your things to use for your benefit and toss aside?” 

         Isaiah could see a flash of pain in his blue eyes. He swallowed back the nasty comeback and stared at Skye blankly. “That’s not what I meant,” he replied quickly. “I mean it as...you normally don’t show up anymore like this. Not even when Max...”

         The words floated up, but they didn’t come out. He reflexively closed his mouth and bit his tongue. His jaw locked in place and his gaze flicked toward the ground. It was getting hard to even mention Max. It was hard to even see him on television. It was hard to even think about him without holding back the tears and screams. Skye took a step closer and Isaiah took a step back. He could already see that pitiful expression on his face. One that he didn’t want to see from anyone else. Not even Skylar Bennett. 

         “Isaiah,” his soft voice emitted. “Hey.”

         Isaiah took another step back. He was already sorting out his options. He could either a) make up a lie and tell Skye to leave, b) run upstairs and lock himself in his room, or c) ask Skye to hold him and ask him for help to find a reason why Max died. The last option felt reasonable, but the dark and warmth of his bed were calling out for him from upstairs. He could sleep forever and no one would notice. No one would care. 

         Skye’s phone rang before Isaiah could say anything. He fished out his phone from his pocket and glanced at it for a moment. Eyes widening, he held his phone up to his ear and turned his back to Isaiah.        

         “Hello?” he asked frantically. 

         Isaiah could hear another voice on the other side, loud and terrified. Tensions were higher than before and the remnant of their past argument hung as they stood there. He didn’t bother to move or even speak. Silence took over him and his mouth was glued shut while he tried to listen to Skye’s conversation.

         ...What? Say that again, I can’t hear you—” 

         His words cut into tiny fragments, slicing the silence and tension that was thick in the air. He began to pace around the large, expensively decorated living room as if it was going to help him hear better. Skye ran a hand through his sandy hair, closing his mouth every few moments the voice spoke. Isaiah could hear nasty sniffles and sobs coming from Skye’s phone, already assuming who it might be.

         “Jess, calm down, alright? It’s okay. it’s going to be okay…”

         He paused, stopping dead in his tracks and glanced over at Isaiah. There was still a hint of anger in his sea-blue eyes that Isaiah gave back easily. “No, it’s...he’s okay, Jess. Perfect actually.” Skye said. “No, he saw the news...he knows—no, Isaiah—” He closed his mouth again, but then let out a sigh. “—okay, okay. We’ll be there in a bit. Just stay where you are and don’t move.”

         Skye ended the call right after and stuffed his phone into his pocket. When he looked at Isaiah, his face became an almost unreadable state. His eyes were narrowed, and his gaze was drawn toward Isaiah’s keys that sprawled on the coffee table. Without saying another word, Skye took the keys, pivoted on his heel, and darted out the front door. Isaiah called out for him, knowing that Skye obviously heard him as he tripped a little down the stairs. Skye didn’t bother to stop at all though. He was already throwing the door of Isaiah’s BMW open without hesitating in starting it up. The boy inside the car gestured to him to get in and Isaiah, for some reason, obliged. He followed Skye stupidly into the car, not asking himself why he was doing so in the first place. It was Skylar Bennett, for crying out loud! He was the guy who stayed with him in the same dorm for his entire high school years. He was the guy who kept him up all night; who he was constantly tripping over; who he even had feelings for, but could never admit it because he wasn’t that guy back then. Skylar Bennett wasn’t relationship material, and he even said it himself. So, why—why? Why was Isaiah still running after him like there was still something there? Maybe it was desperation, the loneliness, and every little voice that told him: Skye might be the one.

         That was boarding school, though. They were stuck there, in those tiny dorms, with nothing to do. Nothing was special about that school. No one ever amused him, except for Skye, of course. He was Isaiah’s escape from this horrible reality called life; he was his drug; his thoughts; the air he breathed; his everything. He was the one thing that made him feel...normal. Skye made him feel like a kid getting their first toy for the first time. He made him feel like a teenager getting their first phone. He made feel like anything was possible like the world was nothing more but a thing he could easily forget and mess around with. No one ever made him feel that way. No one like Skye made him feel like he had to do everything right and do something for someone every time. Skye was his way out, but he wasn’t going to admit that. Not yet.

 

The Abstracts: Seer - Chapter 9

By Danielle N.

         Nobody on the street was showing themselves, so I took the bus home alone. The trees rustled quietly in the coming-autumn, and squirrels skittered up their rough bark to forage for acorns. I climbed aboard the school bus, half-heartedly listening to whatever terrible music the bus driver was listening to. Once I saw my stop on the street, I scooched to the front of the bus, but didn’t instantly walk out. I stopped to talk to the bus driver.

         She had bronze skin and her jet-black hair was pulled back tightly in a ponytail. Her lips and nose were lazy - drooping downward with a detached sneer. She glanced up from the wheel with an impatient frown, so I made it quick.

         “Um, excuse me?”

         “Yea, what?”

         “Um, do you know where everybody has gone? There’s nobody on the streets or anything.”

         “Nah, and if I did I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you. Now get your rear out of my bus before I throw you out.”

         Our bus drivers are all like this, so I was expecting this reaction. But it was always easier to play the shy - kid ruse so they wouldn’t give you a hard time.

         “O-okay miss.”

         “It’s CAROL, miss.”

         The bus drove off unexpectedly fast, and I barely managed to grab my backpack before it zoomed off. I was a bit dazed, due to my lack of sleep, and I wasn’t roused by the bus doors nearly snapping my nose off until it was almost a block away. I stumbled up the front steps of my house, and opened the front door with a loose grip.

         After that, several things seemed to happen at once. An FBI officer grabbed my wrist and wretched it behind my back. With his other hand, he roughly pulled my other hand behind me and handcuffed them together. I would have attempted to pull free of his grip, but I felt like my head was full of heavy air, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. The only thing in particular that I remember was the cold, cold metal that was binding my hands. And I couldn’t understand why my hands were behind my back, or why the FBI man was shoving me into the living room by my shoulders. 

         When I pulled myself out of my daze, I was on my knees in the living room, held down by the FBI officer. He pulled out some type of walkie-talkie, but it looked too professional to be called a walkie-talkie. He said, “Number 43, we have collected the subject, waiting for you to arrive, I repeat, we have collected the subject, waiting for you to arrive.” At this point, the handcuffs were really agitating me, and that was what really drove me back to my senses.

         “What are you doing?”

         He glared at me. “If you’re guilty, you know exactly what I am doing. Now be silent.”

         Still wanting answers, but not eager to agitate a government agent, I shut my mouth.

         Mom trotted down the stairs, looking very angry and confused at the sight of her daughter handcuffed in the living room. She marched right down here, the look of murder on her face.

         “What are you doing?! Unhand my daughter right now!”

         “She is suspected for committing kidnap.”

          Mom’s eyes widen in anger. “Are you insane? My daughter would never do anything like that!”

         “Ma’am, as an agent of the FBI, I assure you that I have every right to do what I’m doing right now.”

         “But my daughter has done nothing!”

         “If she really is innocent, then no harm will come to her. But, as a suspect, she will have to be put in isolation temporarily.”

         Mom’s face turned bright red, and her voice took on a low, dangerous quality. “You, sir, will do nothing of the sort. My daughter is thirteen years old and has no such capacity to commit kidnap. Now get out of my house.”

         The FBI guy sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He sounded worn out. “Ma’am, if you continue to argue with me, I’m afraid we’ll be forced to consider you as a suspect.” And I hear him mutter something that sounded a lot like cursing.

         Mom turned up her nose, and sneered, “I’m calling the cops.” And she strutted out of the room.

         A few more minutes of awkward silence passed as the FBI agent wrote down information and observations in a little booklet. I tried to sit on my heels, since my knees were hurting, but the FBI guy kept forcing me back up.

         After a few minutes, more agents came into the room, and one guy picked me up by my armpits and threw me into the backseat of a police car. I landed on my side, and I hit my head on the side of the car door. My head started spinning, and I cringed as I felt pain blooming on my skull. I tried to drag myself back to reality, but that just made my head spin faster. I vaguely grasped the car driving off. It must have been going super fast, since the car was barely vibrating. I tried to glance around without moving my head much, and managed to grasp the fact that the car was completely dark. There were no windows, and I felt my breathing quicken as my claustrophobia kicked in. 

         I don’t know how long we drove, but when I checked my mental clock, it was way past midnight. I felt the car climb a steep slope, and then it was smooth driving for awhile, until it felt like we were going straight…up…  

         The car door finally opened, and the harsh fluorescent lights from the room was blinding. Somebody pulled me back out, and the room I entered was vast, and there was a small crowd hovering around the car. As soon as the doors opened, and the FBI guy shoved me forward at a sprint. We entered a doorway, where I was pushed by the crowd and the FBI guy into a small room with no windows and a high ceiling. I whirled around from where I entered, but there was no doorway. If there was, it was so seamless you would have never seen it.

         This new room wasn’t much - a cold table with one chair. I had a chilling sensation of deja vu. I sat in the solitary chair, and opted to wait.

         And wait.

                  And wait.

                           And wait… 

 

The Alleyway Portal - Chapters Five and Six

By Jason W.

         “Hi, Karl! We found your sister at the market!” said Alistair as they walked into the house. The three boys set up the food, while the three siblings had a quick conversation. As they ate, the six of them traded information. Since Johanna knew almost everything the three boys knew, she told her brothers in German. Then she turned to the three boys.

         “My mom and dad were both part of the rebellion, but last year, the Nazis found them and shot them. Friedrich heard the news and came to us and invited us to be in the rebellion as well. We accepted so that we could avenge our parents, and we’ve been in the rebellion for over three months now,” she said, her voice trembling.

         “I-I’m so sorry, I didn’t know your parents were killed by Nazis,” said William, sounding shocked.

         “It’s okay, but we help you save your families. We stop Göring from destroying your world,” said Karl.

         “Thank you. Now, we need to figure out a plan for how we’re going to destroy the tunnel. I’m pretty sure it’s a wormhole, but other than that, we have no idea how it works,” said Jeridiah.

         “Well, for destroying the wormhole, I have a theory. I read in some kind of science book that if you put too many things inside the wormhole, all the mass and density will destroy the wormhole,” said Alistair. “I don’t know if it works, but it might be our only choice.”

         “Good. We know that Göring has a base in the sewers, if we can distract the soldiers, it will give you a chance to run through the wormhole, and there you can find things to put in it. I will have to ask my friends if they can help us distract the soldiers, the three of us will not be enough,” agreed Johanna.

         “Can we trust your friends?” asked William.

         “Yes. Her friends in rebellion too,” said Karl.

         “Okay, so Göring is going to invade tomorrow night. We should try and attack tonight before too many troops arrive. I’ll go contact my friends by pigeon, you guys figure out how to attack,” suggested Johanna.

         “Sounds good,” answered William.

         That night, Johanna, Karl, and Jens met up with Johanna’s friends, which consisted of boys and girls, ages ranging from 16 to 23 years old. Johanna told them a shorter version of the whole story, while Jeridiah, Alistair, and William prepared knives and any other sharp objects they could fight with. Then they cleaned out the house, hiding anything with significant importance. Otherwise, if any of them got captured and found out that this was an important house, they may try to search the house looking for anything. 

         “Okay, we’re ready,” said Jeridiah as he walked out of the house, followed by William and Alistair.

         “Good, let’s go then,” answered Johanna. 

         They split up into two groups. Group One, comprised of Johanna, Karl, Jens, and their friends, went down a sewer grate, and made their way into the German base. Group Two was Jeridiah, Alistair, and William. They went down a sewer tunnel farther away from the base, so they could get more rest and calm down before rushing into the base. 

         As Group One ventured into the Nazi base, the girls started a quiet conversation in German.

         “So who are those boys? They don’t look German,” one girl inquired.

         “Yeah. And the tallest one is super cute,” agreed another girl.

         “They are boys from the future, and need our help,” said an exasperated Johanna, who had already explained this many times, “Now stop talking, we need to figure out where the command center is, so we can start an alarm, and lead soldiers away from the main room, okay? Let’s go.”

                                                                                       _________________________________

 

         Farther back in the tunnel, the three boys made their way through the sewer, and into the base. They hid behind three wine barrels in a corner of the biggest room, where the wormhole was.

         “Hey, so we have to put things into the wormhole, right?” William asked Alistair.

         “Yup. The mass and density of all those objects should cause the wormhole to collapse in on itself,” replied Alistair. “But for now, I guess we wait for Johanna’s group to get all the Nazis out of the way.”

         Meanwhile, group one manages to find the command center, and are hiding in an air vent, peeking in. The command center was filled with rows and rows of desks, each one with a desk lamp and a stack of papers. Most of the desks were empty, excluding those that had soldiers who still had to finish some paperwork.

         “Okay, I think that all the soldiers are getting ready to go to sleep soon, so we’ll wait a bit longer and then when I give the signal, we’ll go and try to figure out how to sound the alarm. We’ll set it off and then get out of here fast,” whispered Johanna in German. They waited for what seemed like hours until there was only one soldier left. 

         “Only one person left, I think we can take him,” said Karl, also in German. They all jumped down quietly and snuck up behind the soldier. After a small scuffle, the soldier was quickly knocked out, and the group searched the room for an alarm signal. They looked and looked, but could not find it. Suddenly, Jens gave a cry. He pointed at a button, labeled with a sign that said “Alarm” in German. Johanna ran to the button and pressed it. A loud siren ripped through the air making everybody go on edge.

         “We have to get out of here now! Let’s go. The exit’s that way. Run!” shouted Johanna, shaking her friends and siblings out of their trance. They ran through the sewer until they came to the same grate that the entered in.

         “Shouldn’t we go to another grate? Just in case someone saw us come in,” said Johanna’s best friend.

         “Good idea, let’s go to the fifth one over,” answered Johanna. They sprinted over and climbed out. 

         “We should split up and go home in pairs. I’ll take my siblings, you guys figure out who to go with,” said Johanna, and led her brothers home.

         “Do you think they’ll be alright?” asked Karl, in German.

         “Hopefully, and maybe they can destroy the wormhole,” replied Johanna.

         “I liked them, they were very nice.” said a cheerful Jens.

         “They were, weren’t they?” agreed Karl. “Well, that’s our house.” They went in and lay down on their beds. 

         “Well, that was exciting. Go to sleep, we need to rest well for tomorrow,” said Johanna, already half asleep.

         “What are we doing tomorrow?” asked Karl.

         “We are gonna have to move houses, just in case the Nazis connect the crime with us and come here,” she replied.

         “Oh. That’s kinda scary.” shuddered Karl.

         “Yeah, well that’s what happens when you join the rebellion.” teased Johanna.

         “Good night,” sighed Karl.

 
 

Bowie

By Aarush B.

         Listlessly, I admit, I was sitting in a hospital room. Completely lost in a way I couldn’t remember I’d ever been in my life. Though, there wasn’t much life to remember and whatever I could remember I couldn’t grasp onto at all. I’ve only lived 17 years, and I don’t recall anything of the first 7. Even after that, I don’t remember much of the past last week ー unless it was something I intently cared about. I’m not the best with memory. I don’t know if I can just say it’s all a disorder, but nothing seems to be memorable enough to stick. The idea that I have lived 17 years and can only remember around 2 years combined or less is a disturbing thought to ponder. Nonetheless, I struggled for some minutes to try to recollect how the moments had played out when I was taken to the hospital. All I could remember was watching blood splatter against the plain white sink and stain the water as I coughed monstrously and wobbled where I stood. After a few gaps in memory, I found myself bound to a hospital bed. The walls were pearly white and seemed disturbingly clean for a room that so many have died in. The gown I was in was white too, adding to the eerily clean aesthetic, which came in stark contrast to my usual pastel hoodies and black jeans. I don’t think I like white. It’s hardly even a color in my mind and it’s not what I’m used to. I prefer dark wet asphalt on the sidewalks or the image of rooftops at night. The memories that I do have always had that sort of a setting. They serve as remnants and memoria of the brazen antics I’d use to have some sense of control of what I do remember of my life.

         Of course that hasn’t always been appreciated by my dad. He’s a Korean immigrant who gained a sum of wealth here in New York City through businesses and Wall Street firms. He looks like a businessman, too. He always has a suit on and has slightly oily hair. He’s always moving with a scurrying walk and a Blackberry phone in hand. I don’t know that I trust his wealth but I know I live on it, and probably would’ve ended up inheriting it. He knows pretty damn well by now that I reject his money and stay out with my friends partially to get out of the house. Truthfully, I never wanted my life to be a shadow cast from my father’s, and the moments that I can remember have always been unique or stupid in their own right. Almost nothing I can remember in my life has been stable, and for most aspects of life I liked it that way. I can’t say I had too many long lasting friends, though. For a long time I seemed to drift from group to group every week and I didn't always remember their faces. I would meet people in each group that I invaded and bring them out to my nightly crusades to test their limits. It was always fun to bring newcomers to the rooftop of the school or to the pool at night when it’s closed and see how they react to the stints of danger. Some stare up a wall with a look of hesitance and need encouragement to keep climbing up gates and gutters. Some take to it with faux confidence, perhaps trying to impress someone. Every once in a while someone would find me more interesting than most and would stick with me, and I made some friends.

         I don’t remember how I met everyone in my circle, but there are a few that I really trust. Jeremy. He’s tall with fair skin and medium-length, dirty-blonde curly hair. He wears stereotypical skater clothes, Thrasher logos and black ripped jeans. He’s always been a quiet character but never introverted. He would take me to parties whenever he could and would always enjoy being part of the conversation, even if he didn't say much. It was something about his confidence and charm and his nature to bring out the best in people that allowed him to meet so many people with the fewest words possible. He’s been with me for as long as I could remember, maybe even past. There’s a sense when I see him that I can pick up with him wherever we left off and a closeness that makes him feel oddly familiar. It sounds cheesy but I could swear I’d known him in a past life.                          

         I remember I met Riley on a rooftop as punk music blasted in the background. That’s about all the context I remember from that moment. It’s rather fitting, seeing how Riley and my friendship would end up playing out. They’re maybe my favorite to listen to music with. They and I would gossip in whispers in class and ramble about punk groups we knew best, like a middle-school emo kid’s notebook come to life. It’d often be at the expense of our classmates, who would become increasingly annoyed as our earbuds leaked Nirvana and other assorted grunge constantly. I can specifically remember the time they decided it’d be a brilliant idea to play punk music over the school PA while I was making a presentation to the class. I burst out laughing the second I heard it and was bewildered by how it happened. I met Riley after class looking proud of what they’d done.

         One of my last really close friends that I’d met in high school was Mayna. She was different, and I do remember how I met her. Riley brought her along when we went out downtown and I remember enjoying laughing with her in every conversation. When we sat out in a little Japanese restaurant she sat next to me on the couch by the tables and I felt my body tense up a bit out of nervousness. She took no notice and remained smiling and told me about the time her crazy family had brought her to this restaurant and had an argument over the waiter’s pronunciation of some item on the menu. My eyes squinted as I smiled and laughed with her and felt the creases in her smile mirror my own face. Perhaps a bit cliché, but I was focusing on her eyes. They were a bit grey but had tints of green, and her hair was bleached and white-blonde at the tips but wavy brown up until there. It reached down just past her shoulders. She had a kind face but with a darker and edgier aesthetic, and since our group couldn’t be any more stereotypically punk, she fit right in. Ever since then I found myself to be a bit attached, for obvious reasons, and Riley caught on so she stuck with us since. Memories clearly aren’t my strong suit, but they intrigue me.

         My earliest memory is probably the most elusive, unsurprisingly. I constantly feel as though I’m fighting my own brain to remember something earlier. The earliest I know of was when I was seven. I was running past the halls waiting for my dad to catch up to me as he struggled to both manage his office calls and make sure I didn't break anything in the house. We lived in the suburbs at the time and I clearly did not like the house. Most of the house remains nondescript for me but I remember red and gold being common themes, and much too many doors for seven-year-old me to count. My dad was struggling to put on his tie as he yelled, “Michael, stop running!” I paid him no mind and continued waddling as fast as I could. It’s not a significant memory, I suppose, but one thing stood out. I was running towards my mom. She was tall and slim with long, dark brown hair and a wide smile that showed all her teeth. I don’t get to see her often. My parents never married and she mostly kept to herself, but when she did come by she always seemed so happy, at least compared to my dad. She did pretty well herself and had an active dating life, but I always wondered if part of the reason she was so happy in contrast was because she didn't have to deal with me as a responsibility. It never made me think less of her—she made her decisions and lived how she chose, but it gave me a lot of admiration for my dad. He wasn’t perfect but he did a lot for me and it feels wrong that he puts so much more into my well-being but always seemed to get the short end of the stick between my two parents. I like to think I remember this moment because I feel a bit guilty that I, as a kid, was so immature as to run up to my mom and neglect my dad as he struggled. Maybe I’m just looking in too deep.

         I woke up in the hospital again to Mayna shaking me awake. She and Jeremy were standing on either side of me and she looked at me with that wide smile she had. Her hair has changed a lot over the few years I’ve known her, but it always seemed to be at the same length and have the same waves. Her hair was fully bleached blonde and her eyes twinkled as though smiling. Jeremy had on a cheeky grin and quipped at me, “Took you long enough, I was about to start poking you with the doctor’s toys.”

         “Aren’t you gonna buy me a drink, first?” I groggily muttered in an attempt to respond.

         “There’s the witty egghead,” I heard from the corner of the room. I sat up and turned my head to search for who it was and wasn’t much surprised to find Riley. They gave me a smirk and pulled up a chair next to Mayna.

         “Mayna, they’re bullying me,” I looked at her with pleading eyes. She chuckled and looked away with a bit of a smile, which was a mission accomplished enough for me, she always blushed easily. She looked towards Riley and Jeremy and the three of them began talking as I slowly fought to retain consciousness.

         Riley put on some Pixies as I started to get lost in my thoughts. They kept their hands on me or glanced at me every once in a while to remind me they were there but they knew my thinking face when they saw it. I looked up at the back of Mayna’s head as she spoke to Riley and Riley must have caught a glimpse of me fawning over her just a bit. Riley’s eyes met mine from the side of the back of Mayna’s head and they smirked at me. I think everyone in the room could read my face at that moment, and I don’t know if I really minded. There was a lot to unpack.

         Mayna and I had dated for about fifteen months. I think everyone sort of saw it coming. By then we’d known each other for a year and gotten playfully affectionate with each other. It didn't come as a surprise to anyone when I pulled her aside one night at an outside restaurant (which was closed but that didn't stop us). We sat front to front on one of the benches near the street lights. It was a quiet part of town and there wasn’t the usual blaring traffic or business. The only close lighting was an outdoor fireplace that we lit ourselves with a lighter that Jeremy found on the ground. The orange glow gave her peachy skin a sort of dancing glow that emanated warmth, but that might’ve just been the heat of the fire getting to me. After a second of me stuck in a freeze-frame trying to put my words together she looked at me with a smile and let out a cute chuckle and asked me, “What’re you trying to say?”

         “I- I’m working on it.”

         She let out a higher-pitched and more audible of a laugh this time which left me beaming uncontrollably. She always admired me when I stuttered but I think it was only then that it dawned on me that she found it cute. I let my hands, now clenched into a fist by anxious reflex, shakily unravel themselves as they reached towards hers and held them daintily. I hurriedly made attempts to collect myself and stared down at her hands in mine. After a few moments of feeling her gaze on mine I looked up toward her eyes as I watched the fire crackle there. She smiled, knowing what was coming next, and that only made me more nervous. Through my dumb smile I just barely managed to ask, “Do you wanna be my girlfriend? ‘Cause I really wanna be your boyfriend.” She smiled at me gleefully and let out just one happy, excited word in response: “Okays.”

         However, in my (not so) all-encompassing experience of life, it never takes too long for good things to end. I was diagnosed with cancer pretty late in the cycle, when I was sixteen. Being so late into the process, I had little hope that I would show any recovery soon despite the doctors’ reassurances. It was only shortly after that I had let the existentialism cross and loiter in my thoughts. I didn't eat as much and I slowly grew paler as time went on. I still, for a while, made feeble attempts to hide what was going on, but not forever. Everything just takes time, and I knew who I had to tell.

         I was out at a park with Mayna and I laid my head on her chest (it felt like a pillow) and wrapped her arms around me as we both laid against a tree trunk. She was a fair bit shorter than me but I didn’t mind the comfort from being the little spoon and she seemed to enjoy not being completely confined to normal relationship standards. She played with my hair a bit as we talked and every once in a while I’d look up to see her face and ruin her process of braiding, partially intentionally. I tried to make it a happy moment but it became difficult to bear my thoughts, realizing slowly that though I remembered Mayna and my relationship strongly, I still struggled to remember big parts of my life.          There’s really no right way to tell someone you’re going to die. Even if not for certain, it’s not something that leaps out of your mouth, rather, it curls your tongue. She noticed my smile fade, first from the creases in my lips and then from the crow’s feet by my eyes. She held my face in her hands. She seemed to be echoing my own face’s dismay, and her sympathy was heart wrenching. It hurts to see her mirror my frown.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” She almost pleaded when she asked and her lips pouted.

         I don’t remember the full conversation. Partially because I didn't want to. My hands shook as I struggled to tell her about the diagnosis. I kept averting my gaze down at the grass but I couldn’t help but look up at her. There were tears coming down her cheeks and I was trembling as I held her. I didn't want her to have to be so emotionally attached to me if there was a real chance of me dying. I decided it would be best to break up, but we stayed holding each other until night fell across the park. I laid her head on my chest and she turned her face in towards me and I could feel the tears on my shirt. I remember her. I remember our relationship. I remember being in love with her.

         I realized that the memories were filling me with nostalgia and guilt. I quickly dismissed my thoughts and looked back at my group of friends in an effort to read their faces and catch up with the conversation. Mayna was clutching onto my hand and looked at me with those same pleading eyes. Just as Jeremy began to open his mouth, my dad came into the room in suit and all, seemingly having just broken up a meeting. Though I didn't love being the son of a businessman, I did very much appreciate his dedication to me. My friends all left the room and smiled and waved at me as my dad sat next to me. 

         “How are you, Bowie?” he asked me, though my attention focused on his hurried tone of voice. I met the concern on his face with a weak but genuine smile.

         “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” is all I managed to say.

         “What?”

         “Memories are elusive, but I think I know by now what is and isn’t worth remembering. There is no memory more deserving than the night after… after I learned I had cancer. I watched from the roof of the school as your headlights searched the parking lot, turning frantically. I remember when they met my eyes.” Tears started rolling down my cheeks a bit, and I don’t normally cry. “My legs dangled off the rooftop and they began to feel heavy. A Pandora’s box of thoughts crossed my mind and my arms shook my whole body violently until I saw you step out of the car… I know I stayed silent the whole way home but when I heard you call out to me, ‘Bowie’, that meant everything in that one fleeting moment.” He stood there dumbstruck, inhaling deeply but unsteadily. The concern on his face remained in his eyes but the rest of his face slowly struggled to make a smile.

         “O- of course, Bowie.” His stutter took him by surprise, and I think the moment itself did, too. I didn't normally show much affection towards him, or anyone, and it’s something I’d really grown to regret.

         “I don’t remember every moment with you. I don’t remember all the birthdays we celebrated and I don’t remember anything much, and that’s scary as fuck, but I know I trust you.” There was a long pause after I said that as he struggled to get his words together.

         “I love you” is what I believe his exact quote was. I smiled and turned my face into the pillow to keep from showing too much. He took notice and let out a chuckle. He sat by me that whole night. I’ll remember that.

         He called me “Bowie” that night when he shouted at the roofs, the moon in the same direction. I shook where I sat as that word hit me and resonated and I found a thousand fleeting memories. Lyrics had swarmed my head. “Oh no, love, you’re not alone!” That single name means the world to me, but it’s not technically my name. Legally, my name is Michael Ahn, but the name Bowie has a long story that will always mean infinitely more to me. 

         When I was 11 I went under tremendous stress and it erased nearly all my memories in one fell swoop. It was then that I quickly learned the term “dissociative amnesia,” and knew that it had changed my life. To this day, I don’t remember what that stressor was, and I wanted nobody to tell or remind me of what it was. That single thing changed my life and I would do anything to avoid it. For the next few days and weeks, I found that I could remember anything academic easily but I couldn’t remember learning any of it. Much more severely, I couldn’t remember who my own parents were or who I, myself, was. I didn't even remember my own name; that’s when I chose one for myself. Bowie. I chose that name as I woke up with no memories and with a strange man in front of me (who I soon was told was my dad). By my side was David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” album, and it was one of the first things I saw in my new life of memories. Over time, I’d regained some of my past, but not all. That moment of running up to my mother was one of the first memories I could recall and that was the one that taught me my name was Michael and who my mother was. I still chose to keep going by Bowie, despite what government records told me. After the amnesia hit, my mother and I had a strange relationship that felt more like friends that live too far apart. Whenever she would come to visit she would take me to hit the city with her and made every attempt to entertain me. It was fun, no doubt, but I never really developed a strong bond with her. Over time it felt like we grew more distant until I rarely saw her, and I’m not sure if it ever really mattered; I had others to keep me company.

         A few days later I was sitting in the hospital room with Jeremy and Riley as we waited for the doctor to come in. Jeremy kept a smile on my face and reminded me of some fun times that he and I had with each other. He seemed especially fond of the one time we got caught on the school rooftop at night blasting Nirvana aloud and had to run across the tops of the buildings to avoid being seen. He told me about the time he drove us into the football field and raced around in it. All these reckless and downright stupid memories that we had made me realize something: I do have a memorable life. I don’t remember it all and people need to show me pictures or tell stories to help remember, but I know that my friends know who I am and they had plenty of fond memories with me. Mayna came in and sat on the side of the bed and smiled at me with a flirty wink in her eyes. We’d gotten used to being just friends but I don’t think either of us fully lost feelings. My dad found his way into the room hurriedly, coming shortly after Mayna. It was at that moment that I think I knew: I was content. I didn't remember my whole life, and that frightened me, but I trusted the people around me, and that meant everything. I was unsure about how my life would look going forward, or how much forward it would go, but I was willing to fight to stay alive for them, and even if I lost, I lived well. I held Mayna and Jeremy’s hand and Riley sat on the bed with me and my dad sat in a chair as we all waited for the doctor to arrive.

 

Sonder

By Anna H.

         Everyday small talk interaction involves the questions, how was your day? How are you doing? How’s life? Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own. I sometimes hope that these questions will fulfill my sonder, but they never do. So instead I have asked other complimentary questions such as: Who am I in your life? Which gives me a perspective as to who I am and what role I play in a life that’s not my own. Or, What were you thinking when this happened? Which gets me an inside view of their thoughts as one specific thing happened. These types of specific questions give me a deeper understanding of my sonder, and it helps me come to peace with it. So what is it like to live like me? I may be a friend to you, a loved one, an acquaintance or simply a stranger. So this is how to be me for a day.

         I wake up in the morning and pull my sheets over my head thinking of nothing but the dream I was just pulled out of. I usually press snooze a few times until I finally give in and go on my phone. The bright light reflects off my eyes and causes me to squint; a few seconds later, they adjust and my eyes return to their normal dilation. I respond to any messages I may have and go on Instagram to just wake up a little. I put my phone down and with enough thrust, get my body up and out of bed. For a few moments I simply look out the window thinking of nothing and everything at the same time. I brush my teeth while looking in the mirror, before looking away because I don’t want to look at myself. Then I usually will myself to go into the garage to do some exercise, still in my pajamas because I don’t feel like spending money on workout clothes. I’d rather spend that precious paper currency on my energizing bean juice, more formally known as coffee. Almost every time I’m doing a roll of crunches to get those precious abs, I wonder why I care so much, and then I push that thought out of my head and tell myself it will be worth it once I’m skinny. Usually I still have plenty of time to get my coffee and some fruit before starting my classes for the day. So I change into something not much different than my pajamas and lie in bed to enjoy the few minutes of serenity I have left before I regret waking up again. Getting out of bed the second time is almost harder than the first time, because this time I have to prepare for another day of online classes, which no matter the amount of interest I have in them always seem to drain the life out of me. Like a dementor from Harry Potter, I feel as if my soul is being sucked out of my body as I stare like a cat seeing a ghost, not at my screen but through it. I am sometimes saved by a joke, but in some ways I am a traditionalist, so having to look at a screen to learn for 7 hours doesn’t satisfy me. That being said, I have no intention of going back to in-person school next semester because I value the safety of my friends, my family, my teachers, and my fellow peers more than my need for social interaction. Lunch is usually spent looking in the fridge for something to eat and settling with ramen again. By the time school is over I go back to bed and despite all the deadlines lingering over my head, I stay there until around 6 p.m. I do nothing—just stare at my screen some more, sometimes crochet, but the feeling of monachopsis always takes over me in the end. When I manage to get myself out of my bed for the third time, I sit down at my table and almost like a sloth, slowly pull out all my work. I scan my planner and decide which things I need to do and which of them I can procrastinate on and do tomorrow instead. I spend an hour or two completing my work, with about half of that time being spent either talking to myself about how I don’t want to do it or just staring at my computer with a blank expression not doing anything. Dinner is the only time I really interact with other people, not virtually. Not while eating dinner itself, because we usually watch a TV show while eating, but while setting up dinner. I still have to orient myself around our new house though. Soon after, I get ready and go to bed again. I tell people “goodnight,” but usually fail myself and stay on my phone for another hour or two. Eventually I lay my head down, close my eyes and think about what I could be doing, what my ideal life would look like, who I would be with, what my job would be, what I would be doing on Friday nights instead of wasting away in my room. When I fall asleep I sometimes don’t want to wake up again, not because I hate my life, but because my dreams are more interesting than my day life. I don’t always have good dreams, but there is always something going on—there’s adrenaline, adventure, danger, and sometimes love. And then I wake up again, back into the cycle of my completely average life.

         So for those of you who were wondering what it is like to be me, there you go. You may think it’s depressing, but it’s just simply the cycle of an uneventful life in the times of a pandemic. I used to be out with friends every night and be excited for the day rather than just hoping I’ll make it through. It’s just the way it is; I believe that it will get better and one day something may happen to bring me out of this virtual cycle. That day just isn’t today.

 

Garden of Eden

By Danielle P.

         Her favourite flowers were tulips. Mostly red ones, but also pink ones, and yellow ones, and orange ones. She loved the way they burst open from the bud, so vibrant in color, crying out with their satiny petal lips, look at me, I am here, I am alive. 

         He was the first boy to bring her flowers, to knock on her door and shake her father’s hand, to press a kiss on her cheek as he handed her a startlingly bold bouquet of tulips. He loved the way her face lit up when she was excited, the vibrancy in her eyes, crying out in youthful earnest, look at me, I am here, I am alive.

         She lay in bed for hours at a time, unable to bring herself to care about anything or anyone enough to get up. She was just so exhausted, so drained. Not only did her body ache and moan, her soul did as well. Hours slipped away, lost in the vastness of time. Her life was standing still, despite the fact that the earth continued to turn itself around, and everyone else’s lives kept moving too.

         His mind moved a mile a minute. He did things without thinking, stayed out too late with people he didn’t trust, and pretended not to care when he got home to an empty house. He was lost, stumbling around in the world with no one to guide him. He couldn’t find the right way back to his life, and everyone else moved forward while he fumbled his way back. 

         They met in the hospital, on a Tuesday, on the third floor. Welcome to the Adolescent Psychiatric Ward, said the pamphlet a nurse handed to her on her way in. She scoffed at the use of the word “welcome,” as if anyone actually wanted to be there. Even if she didn’t want to be there, she needed to be; that’s what her therapist had told her when she sent her to the emergency room and had her committed. It’s for your own good. 

         His mother found him, on one of the rare occasions that she came home. He was lying face down on the carpet, lips tinged slightly blue, a puddle of vomit by his cheek. Once he had recovered in the pediatric department of the hospital, they sent him up to Psych. He has an addiction, the mother said. I can’t look after him anymore. 

         They wore light blue scrub pants with elastic waists and dark red v-neck scrub shirts, which meant that they needed to be watched extra carefully. The others, the ones who weren’t at risk anymore, or right out of the emergency room, got to wear regular clothes, but only ones without laces or strings or rips. 

         She only ate the food her father brought her in the afternoon and at night during visiting hours. She claimed the hospital food made her nauseous, which it did, and that since she was going to get fat in the hospital anyway, she might as well make the calories count. She ate with a plastic fork and spoon, because nothing too sharp was permitted within the doors. She privately wondered what damage anyone could possibly do to themselves with a plastic knife. She imagined what she could do to herself with a real one.

         He had no family anymore. His brother died within the walls of another hospital, shrivelled and bald. His father wasted away at the bottom of a glass until he met the same fate. Only his mother was left, his stubborn, prideful mother, who couldn’t bear the sight of his face, for he looked too much like her youngest son, and acted too much like her husband. After she brought him to the emergency room, she told him that this goodbye would be forever. This could be good for me, she said, a fresh start. She would get a chance to start over with someone new, make a new family, but he would have nobody.

         She decided to become his family, the wild-eyed girl with a journal always by her side. They shared food, and did puzzles, and read books until the dull hum of their hearts faded away and all they could hear was each other. Where will you go when you get out of here? she asked him one afternoon when they were sitting out in the sun room. Who do you have left? 

         He was ashamed to admit to her that he had no one, that it was his fault tragedy seemed to trail behind him like a shadow. Her fingertips kissed the soft skin of his lightly stubbled cheeks. I’ll be your family now, she said. A nurse looked up sharply. No touching you two, came the reprimand, a constant reminder that their bodies weren’t their own at the moment, that their free will meant nothing between the walls of the ward.

         Five days after their initial meeting, they were finally permitted to wear their own clothes. Her father brought a bag full of sweatpants and hoodies and baggy t-shirts for her. She had asked him to bring some clothes for the boy, the one carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, defending a bruised heart and a saddened smile. She had an older brother, roughly the same size, and her father respected her wish to take in the stray. 

         It was because of her pleading and begging that her father agreed to bring him home with them. The hospital had to be involved in the proceedings, but what could they possibly do? He turned eighteen in a few weeks, not long enough to be in the system, and he wasn’t sick enough for residential. After much deliberation and consideration, he was finally permitted to leave the hospital with them. 

         They were a motley crew, the three of them: the tall, weathered man, greying with each step, the dark, lean boy, nearly a man, but not yet, and the girl, the young woman, her curly hair blowing around her in the wind. From a distance, she looked almost as if she was floating, her feet hovering above the grass. 

         They spent the next few weeks going on countless adventures, bouncing between therapy, meetings with psychiatrists, AA meetings, NA meetings, studying to catch up on school work, but always making time at the end of the day to drive out to the ocean on the coastal highway, sit on the hood of her car, and look out into the distance. 

         The ocean was her first love. For as long as she could remember, her father had brought her time and time again to the viewing point where she now took the boy. There was no question the sea could not answer, no wound the salty spray could not heal. She often recalled the tale of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, born straight out of the foamy waves. Some days she went down to the beach and searched for the flowers that grew out of the sand, defying all laws of nature, so powerful yet so small. 

         He had not been to the beach in ages. His family used to go, before everything. They would all pile into the car, loaded up with bags, and blankets, and snacks. Two surfboards would be strapped to the roof of their car, for when his father taught him and his brother how to surf. He loved the exhilaration he felt when he was riding a wave. It felt powerful and all-consuming, almost godly. Going there reminded him of home, and he thought to himself what a cunning little mind the girl beside him had, to take him to a place that reminded him of his past family, and replace those memories with the new family he now had. 

         When she lay awake in bed at night, she would picture his tattoo in her mind. It was the tree of life, permanently etched on the skin just below his left shoulder. She would think of how beautiful it was that he paid homage to the people he had lost, how he anchored them to his body forever, so he could never let them slip away completely, no matter how much they had hurt him in life. 

         On days when his mind shot by too fast, when all the words and pictures and thoughts tumbled around, as if shaken up, he would sit under the tree in the front yard and observe the garden. It was her garden, and though she had been away for quite some time, her flowers still bloomed with radiating grace. He would wonder if the reason she tended to her garden was because she wanted to be responsible for a life besides her own, or if sometimes she just needed a reminder that beauty can grow even if there is no shortage of evil. 

         Since they had come home, color seemed to return to their cheeks. They were doing everything they were supposed to, and more. And yet, her aching heart still beat against her chest, fervently asking her time and time again if living was the right choice for her after all.  And yet, his fingers itched to snag a bottle of something strong and chase a sunset to forget about his worries. 

         Each time the two of them ran out the door and into her car, her father smiled fondly from the window. He wanted so desperately to believe that they were better, that they were healthy, and happy, and loved, and they were, at least to him. The eyes often show us what we want to see. 

         It was a Tuesday when it happened, and later on, the boy would reflect that there was a certain poeticness to the fact that they had first met on a Tuesday. An anniversary of sorts. 

         She was in her bed, tucked beneath the covers. He thought she was asleep at first, because she looked so peaceful. He flopped onto the bed and reached out to touch her face in an attempt to wake her up. He felt bad doing so, because he had always liked the way her face looked when she slept, but it was half past noon, and she wasn’t supposed to sleep so late anymore. 

         Her face was cold to his touch, despite the fact that she was cocooned in blankets, and his stomach churned violently as his mind ran amuck with worst case scenarios. He hadn’t loved anyone in a very long time, and he was sure he loved her. Maybe the very fact that he loved her meant she had to leave, but he knew in his heart that she hadn’t left because of anybody but herself. He couldn’t help but notice how she finally looked at peace. 

         They buried her the following week. This time, the three figures who walked to the car were men: the father whose hopeful eyes had played tricks on him, the brother who hadn’t been there enough, and the boy who thought he could save her. He wasn’t a boy today, not anymore. 

         Her garden was dying. The tree he had sat beneath shed its leaves on patchy grass, and the lovely flowers she had tended to with such care and attention were beginning to wilt, turning their faces down as if in mourning as well.          

         He brought tulips to her grave every Tuesday. They were her favorite flower. She liked all the colors, the red ones, the orange, and the yellow, and the pink. She loved the way they opened their faces to the sun, calling out to anyone who could hear, I am here, I am alive. 

         He was the first boy to bring her flowers, and he was also the last, every Tuesday, without fail. The grass around her grave grew thick and green, and the tree that watched over her cast speckles of light patterns across the stone. He touched the tree that watched over him, resting on his arm, and marvelled at how similar the two looked, and he knew in that moment that no matter what it had taken her to get there, she was whole at last, at peace, forever.

 

Tempus

By Eric F.

         It was summer. The sun gave passionate embraces and the sky was a delicate cyan and seemed to stretch beyond infinity. The carpet of grass laid on the rolling hills infused the air with a herbal, bittersweet smell. Nights were cool, but not cold so that walks at night weren’t comfortable and fresh. The kids could be heard laughing and shouting in the neighborhood park, while teenagers slept in and lazed thoughtlessly, and adults took their treasured paid vacations. It was a time of irresponsibility, freedom, new connections, and broken hearts. 

         Newt was lonely. He had never been bullied. He talked both to people he liked and people he didn’t like so much, but he neither connected with them nor did he push them away. He knew a lot of people, but even then, the word “friends” had never appeared in his mind. And so, his summers were quite uneventful. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about summer programs, and, besides, he was in high school and used that as an excuse to fend off his parent’s persistent, caring harassment. He didn’t even like playing video games all that much. They were exciting for the first week, and then they lost their novel sheen and felt like a chore. Newt would probably say that he was “contently bored,” if he was ever given an opportunity to describe himself.

         When the time for school to start had rolled around in mid-August, he was enthusiastic and hopeful that he might meet new people, “his” people. And, he was pretty sure his wish came true. Mr. Brownson’s American History, fifth period, Third Row, Four Seats from the left, which was right next to him. The girl caught his eye from the moment he walked through the door. When all the other students were standing around the classroom, gloating about their eventful summer or their hate for school, she sat there, in deep thought. Her dark, flowing, hair looked like it had been taken straight out of an ink painting. Her defined chin presented itself as she looked to the side, chewing her mechanical pencil. It was beautiful, picturesque, and he fell in love at that moment. Then, the seasons changed.
 

         It was now autumn. Sidewalks were rarely seen without a fabric of leaves laying on top. The air was bitingly crisp and smelled of old oak trees. Cold breezes whistled by well-clothed passersby. As both adults and children alike were shedding the wildness of summer to establish their tedious routines, families began to hang Halloween decorations and carve pumpkins. It certainly was a time of anticipated celebration and novel mundanity. 

         They quickly became friends. At first, Newt had interacted with her in a timid, yet desperate manner. But, time smoothed the awkward creases, and they began talking naturally. American history, math, music, family, themselves. The conversations flowed and turned like a gentle creek as they walked home together every day after school.          

         It was around this time that their friends began to catch on to what was happening. His friends urged him to make a move, but no amount of egging or teasing would cause Newt to break out of his uncomfortably sheltered shell. He yearned for their relationship to progress but was fearful of breaking the status quo and losing his one real friend. It wasn’t until his classmates colluded together that things began to change. 

         They met at a movie theater for their first date. It had all been mischievously orchestrated by his classmates, yet somehow she had accepted. He checked his phone every other minute as they stood in line for popcorn, hands shaking. His nerves didn’t even calm after they started watching the film. Yet, he felt calm when he looked at her eyes. It was a passing glance at first, but soon he became entranced at her side profile as she munched on her popcorn, stealing a look sporadically. If someone had asked him to describe the movie afterward, he probably couldn’t answer. 

         So, they started dating. Nothing really changed at first. Then, he felt brave and they started to hold hands as they walked to school. Then, they started to go out together regularly. Theaters, tea, restaurants, amusement parks. They introduced each other to their families. And, when it came time to part ways, Newt would pull her to the side and kiss her on the cheek. He was content and cared about nothing except for her. Then, winter crept in. 
 

         Winter was freezing, brutal, yet mysteriously comforting. The howling wind laughed as pedestrians huddled in their sweaters and scarves. The mushy snow and vexatious ice made walking quite the ordeal. Yet, the cold weather seemed to make the house warmer and more comfortable. Families would gather together to celebrate festivities while the smell of gingerbread and sugar cookies wafted through the air. Kids would spend their winter break wrapped in blankets, resting after the busy first semester. It was a time of family and cheer, but also sorrow and loneliness. 

         It was on a frigid and forsaken day that she gave him the news. She said she had to move at the beginning of the following summer. He stood there in disbelief as the quiet snow fell around him. He was overwhelmed with emotions and questions. He turned and hurried home. What is going to happen to our relationship? Why did it have to ruin everything? What am I going to do? Why, God? He forced himself to sleep, hoping to run away from reality and sleep away the confusion and pain. When he came to, he had a conclusion. Something subconscious had clicked for him, and he told himself that he was going to treasure the months they had left with each other. Determined and aroused, the first thing he did was call her. 

         Newt spent the holiday season with her. It was a joyous period of time. They ate cookies together, went holiday shopping, and enjoyed the various holiday-themed attractions that their town had to offer. Yet, there was a change in the atmosphere of the relationship. It felt like they were doing things for the sake of doing those things. He was sure she felt it too but just didn’t say anything. He sometimes questioned if they really loved each other anymore, but quickly shoved it to the side, afraid that it would actually come true. Then, the rain washed away the snow, and spring had come.     
    

         Spring floated in like a butterfly. Still recovering from the hazy depths that was winter, the spring showers fell as if to mend the earth. Small puddles and ponds formed on the sides of roads. Green foliage spilled out of gardens into sidewalks, and trees lost their bald solemness. Birds chirped loudly as worms wriggled out of the moist soil. Kids, snapping out of the trance that was winter, found themselves buried by school and looking forward to summer with every passing day. Spring was a time of revitalization, newfound clarity, and hope, yet not without deep struggle and responsibility. 

         Something had shifted in the transition between winter and spring. Newt no longer felt burdened by his perceived obligations to his relationship. He talked with her about what he wanted out of the relationship, how they should spend the little time they had left together, and how he had felt during the past months. He no longer felt the slight awkwardness he had when he was with her. He no longer felt confused about himself, her, or them. 

         Despite the workload he had from school or extracurriculars, he spent most of time with her. They didn’t even do anything special. He studied with her, talked with her, watched movies with her on a worn-out couch. He was happy though. And he was pretty sure she was happy as well. 

         He spent a lot of time reflecting. How he found someone and something to dedicate himself to when he had been lost. How he had not been sure in himself or her. How he had questioned their love in a rough period of time. 

         His love for her rebloomed as the nature around him turned a fresh green. They shed tears of early-morning dew and sang songs like lovebirds. The world around him became saturated with color as he stared at himself in the puddle on the sidewalk. The world was so big and round and full of things to do with her. 

         Then the seasons changed and she was no more. 

 

Family Drama

By The Prose Train Project 2 writers: Chania R., Emily Z., Eileen H., Irene T., Fiona L., Belina J., Helena S., Amann M., Ciara C., Jessica Z., Arlette A., Heeseo J., and Sophie H.

         Jack looked at himself in the mirror. That shirt was okay. Right? Probably not, but Lisa would just have to suck it up and deal with it. It wasn’t like he’d asked to meet her parents. He would much rather stay at home and play Final Fantasy VII like his life depended on it, but Lisa had made those really cute puppy dog eyes and… how could he resist? 

         So, there he was, trying on a hundred different shirts, hoping that his girlfriend’s parents wouldn’t hate him too much. Or rather, hoping that they wouldn’t hate the person Lisa wanted him to be. A nice, educated churchgoing man who would do anything for the girl of his dreams.

         To be fair, that’s always better than being a failing art student (who doesn’t even go to church for that matter) but c’mon. Her family couldn’t be that perfect either.

         On the way to her parents’ house, Lisa drilled Jack about everything from his work to his favorite color. He was supposed to be a family-oriented man who had aspirations of a large family. Worked a regular 8–5 job on the weekdays and volunteered at their local church on the weekends. As Jack struggled to commit all the details of his fake persona to memory, they pulled up to Lisa’s parents’ suburban house. The neighborhood consisted of nine three-story houses that were identical replicas of each other. From the cleanly mowed lawns to the billowing American flag hung proudly on every house, this neighborhood was spotless.  

         "Well, here we are," Lisa said, lips pursed, "What do you think?"

         "It looks like something out of a Homeowner's Association pamphlet," Jack replied before he could stop himself. Lisa's mouth twitched.

         "Cute. If you tell my parents that, they may even think it's a compliment." She then got out of the car, and Jack soon followed suit.

         "You remember everything you ought to say?" Lisa asked, giving him a side eye.

         Absolutely not. "Of course, but, ah, remind me why we're doing this again?"

         Lisa huffed. "We're doing this because my dad and I made an agreement that if I found a  'good' guy, he'd keep paying tuition. Remember?"

         Jack did not remember. "So. We're doing all… this... just to trick your dad?"

         "Basically," Lisa agreed, smirking. "I mean, you look like a cardboard cutout right now. My parents will love it."

         "...Thanks. I think."

         Lisa fished out a key from under a potted bush and unlocked the front door. “Mom, Dad!” she called. “Jack and I are here!”

         A matronly sort of woman bustled into the hallway, all smiles and warmth. Jack started. This was not what he’d expected. 

         Lisa and her mother exchanged hugs, and she ushered them into the living room. “Hello, come in, come in! We’ve both heard so much about you, Jack.”

         Jack felt a sort of cold steal over him. He was sure the Jack Lisa’s mother was referring to was not Failing Art Student Jack. It’s only dinner, he consoled himself, hoping his memory and acting skills wouldn’t fail him this time. 

         Jack gave a warm smile and looked around at the tall ceilings, the crystal chandelier and all of the diamond decorations around the house. He smelled the atmosphere and took in all of the expensive details. Jack looked over at Lisa, her blonde hair bouncing as she giggled with her mother and he began to feel a small amount of guilt for ever wanting her family to be imperfect. Lisa happily gave Jack a tour all around the mansion and finally reached her dad’s office. 

         She looked around, and pulled Jack into the office, closing the door behind her. 

         “What are you doing?” Jack asked nervously. 

         This is just in case my dad doesn’t ah...agree to keep paying.” Lisa began to pull open drawers.

         “So in other words, in case he doesn’t like me?” 

         “You could say that.” Lisa pulled out a checkbook. Inside were checks elegantly pre-signed with what Jack assumed to be Lisa’s father’s signature. Lisa carefully tore a couple out, and stashed them in her purse. She returned the checkbook to its place and glanced around the room, making sure everything was in order. 

         “Dinner’s ready!” Lisa’s mom called in a cheery voice. Lisa shooed Jack out of the office and they headed towards the dining room. So their family isn’t so perfect after all, Jack thought. 

         At the table, Lisa’s father gave them a curious look, as if he knew something was amiss. 

         Lisa’s mother pulled out the first course. Salad. Essentially what he’d been eating every week on his low-budget, failing-student life, only this seemed like out of some boujee Trader Joe’s — it was so crunchy. 

         “I hope you like it,” her father said, “I understand you’re a vegetarian so let us know if there’s anything else you need.”

         Vegetarian? This must be another one of Lisa’s amounting tales of his great aura and love for the planet. 

         “It looks delicious, thank you,” Jack said, serving himself with as many croutons he could reasonably take. Soup came a few minutes later, and he helped himself to that too. 

         Eyeing the others sitting around the table, he realized that he hadn’t put his napkin over his lap. Hastily, he unrolled his and threw it across his legs, laying down his fork and knife haphazardly. This earned him a reproving look from Lisa and a curious glance from her father. 

         Rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, Jack gave a strained smile — and ended up knocking down his tureen of soup with his elbow as he brought his arm back down. Scalding cream-of-tomato spilled over his lap, soaking through the napkin and dripping onto the floor. He watched as the tureen toppled to the floor, falling in slow motion, arcs of soup jumping from it almost gracefully.

         Lisa’s reaction was instantaneous. She hopped up and ran to him with her own napkin, attempting to wipe him up. As she did so, she hissed in his ear: “What do you think you’re doing? Are you insane?” 

         It’s not like I did it on purpose, Jack thought, and was about to whisper it to her, but then he realized something far more important. Lisa’s purse, which had been overturned in her hurry, had fallen to the floor — and one of the checks she had stolen had fallen out, right in front of her father’s feet. 

         Jack lifted his gaze from the check, praying that her father hadn’t seen it. But it was too late — Lisa’s father, originally having gotten up to help Jack, stopped in his tracks. Time slowed as Jack saw him slowly look down, laying eyes on the evidence of his daughter’s dishonesty.

         “Lisa honey… what is this?” her father questioned, a scary calmness laced through his voice. Lisa froze, her hazel eyes widening to almost twice their usual size. Slowly she turned towards her father, noticing the conflicting expressions on her parents’ faces. Uneasiness consumed Jack, while Lisa’s mother had stood up curiously eyeing both her daughter and her husband. Lisa’s father, however, was stone-faced except for a slight downward slant in his eyebrows, making the already intimidating man downright terrifying. 

         “Uh…” Lisa stammered, clearly trying to make up an excuse as to why the blank checks were in her purse.

         Jack knew what was on the line, and what he had to do. He wasn’t the nice, educated church-going man that Lisa’s parents so desired, but he would do anything for the girl of his dreams. A cookie-cutter man wouldn’t do this, but an unsuccessful, hopeless romantic of an artist like him would, and that was who Jack truly was.

         He took a deep breath and sighed inwardly at what he was about to do.

         “It was me,” he said. “The checks were my idea.”

         A strained silence seemed to replace the air in the room as everyone gaped at Jack, and he held his breath in anticipation of the storm. It was going to be okay; he could handle this; he was no stranger to disappointment. The consequences of the night’s events could be dealt with somehow at the loss of his dignity, but really, the only significant thing Jack was risking was Lisa. Would she be just as furious, alongside her family? Would she end up blaming him for this disaster, along with the pile of breached expectations and broken rules he had compiled within the last few weeks in the midst of the anxiety-inducing preparation for family dinner? 

         Well, anything that is worth having is worth fighting for. And Jack already had very few of such things in his little life. 

         And as Jack felt the familiar sensation of Lisa's warm hand grabbing his, scattering his worries, he knew he'd made the right choice. 

         Even as Lisa’s mother asked in the same quiet accusation that Lisa's father had used: "Jack, did Margaret tell you to come here?" 

         In the whirlwind of being dragged out of the house by her, he thought he saw her eyes flicker from curiosity to a snakelike rage.

         Lisa's grip hardened, her pull stronger. As the front door closed behind him, he could hear angry screams reverberating throughout the house. He didn't know whether they were more angry at him or Margaret, whoever she was.

         Without thinking, he asked, "Who's Margaret?"

         Lisa let go of his hand. She stopped midstep, and slowly turned around to face him. Her eyes were wide, so wide. 

         He’d messed up.

         “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean,” he started, but he was helpless as Lisa brought her shaking hands up to her face and started crying. Jack didn’t know what to do, and he awkwardly wrapped his arms around her, pulling her towards him. He tucked his chin against her head, feeling so much guilt. 

         “I’m so sorry, I really didn’t mean to ask,” He whispered to her. Lisa looked up at Jack, her tears still running down her face, looking undeniably vulnerable. 

         “My mom, Margaret, is my biological mom,” Lisa finally answered after a deep breath. Jack opened his mouth to speak like an idiot, his heart aching for this girl. But of course, the first thing that came to his mind slipped out. 

         “You’re adopted,” he stated. 

         Lovely. Just wonderful.

         "I mean, my dad's my biological father, so it's really my stepmother who's adopted," Lisa said wryly, though her attempt at humor was falling flat with her downcast expression. "Something something custody battle, my dad has more money than my mom, the whole deal. You know?"

         Jack didn't know, not really, but it was clearly not his place to pry, so he just nodded. Then he paused awkwardly, not sure what to do from there. "Um. So."

         Lisa took another deep breath, eyes still red. "We… no, I need to go back in there. Calm them down, make excuses… you need to get out of here."

         That made the most logical sense, but the idea of Lisa going in there alone made something unpleasant turn in Jack's stomach. "You… you sure you'll be alright?"

         Lisa looked up, eyes red but glinting with determination. "I'll be fine. I have a plan."

         Jack watched as Lisa composed herself, wanting to say something reassuring but not knowing what. When he finally came up with the words, Lisa was already back inside the house facing her parents.

         Lisa’s dad thundered, “EXPLAIN. Were those checks for Margaret?”

         Seeing her dad’s expression, Lisa’s planned excuses dried up in her mouth. She couldn’t say them.  

         “Mom’s been… she’s been struggling so much. When I visited her last week, her house was falling apart. Dishes piled sky-high, broken furniture, dust so thick I could see my footsteps. And”—Lisa’s voice faltered—“she’s sick, Dad. Like sick as in she needs to go to the hospital.          You know she can’t afford a hospital bill on top of everything else, and I just thought…” Lisa couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

         “You thought I owed her this, at least,” her dad’s lips twisted regretfully. 

         “Mom doesn’t know about the checks,” a defensive edge entered Lisa’s voice. 

         Her dad sighed. “I know I haven’t been the best to Margaret, but you can’t really believe I would ignore her if she needed help. I’m sorry that you thought you needed to go to such lengths… You should’ve just asked. Take the checks, but know that you’ve severely breached my trust.”

         Lisa’s shoulders folded in even as she reached for her purse and one of the blank checks. 

         Outside, Jack was growing more uneasy. He was no comic book superhero or white knight (and Lisa didn’t need him to be one), but he couldn’t just sit around and wait while the girl he loved bravely faced her parents’ wrath. He hesitantly stepped into the hallway and towards the dining room, being careful to stay silent. 

         “Why did you drag that poor boy into this?” Lisa’s stepmom, who had been silent the entire time, finally asked. 

         “I told him that I needed the checks for my tuition,” Lisa said quietly, sadly. “I didn’t want him to know about Mom. You know how she is, and I didn’t want him to see me in the same light as her.”

         “That didn’t answer my question.”

         Lisa bit her lip, thinking, this really is not a good time to tell them. But for all her dishonesty today, she felt she had to offer them a slice of the truth, even if it would further denigrate her in her parents’ eyes. “Jack is the man I love, and I wanted you two to like him too. I was going to bring him to meet you anyway, but then I found out about Mom, and I just had to do something, anything to save Mom. I couldn’t not act,” Lisa pleaded. As she said this, she realized just how much she had wronged Jack. 

         Jack, who had heard all this, stiffened with shock. She used me.

         The revelation didn't hurt as much as it probably should have. This was the part where he was supposed to get upset and storm out, and end this disastrous get-together. His girlfriend lied to him, her parents hated him, it really couldn't get much worse than this.

         At the same time… Jack brushed his shoulder against Lisa's. "You love me?"

         Lisa turned, eyes a bit watery. "Yes," she managed. Jack reached out and curled his hand gently around hers.

         "Then we'll figure something out." He looked toward her parents, biological or otherwise, and nodded politely.

         "Thanks for having us," he said in his best customer-service voice, as he was already halfway out the door, Lisa's hand still in his. They walked in brief silence to the car, and it wasn't until he was starting the engine that Lisa spoke again.

         "That went… horribly."

         "It did," Jack agreed mildly, "but you love me." He was still stuck on that.

         Lisa smiled, just a little. "Yeah, I do."

         Jack felt his chest flutter with warmth as he pulled into the road, driving away from that cardboard cutout of a home. "Well then, it'll be fine. We can always try again later, maybe with all three of your parents this time." Feeling a bit daring, he turned and shot her a grin. "How do the winter holidays sound?" 

         For the first time that day, Lisa laughed, bright and surprised. That laughter echoed around the neighborhood as they drove away without a second glance.

 

Just One More Cup

By The Prose Train Project 3 Writers: Jane F., Michelle K., Nina R., Rohit D., Lillian F., Christine L., Miguel L., Joel C., Irene T., Casey F., Irene H., Diya B., Michael Z., Kelson C., and Emily H. 

         You wake with a jolt. Your hand is extended in front of you; the distinct warmth of a handshake still lingers on your fingers, though you are alone in your room. You relax your arm, rub your eyes, mumble sheepish apologies to yourself. The glow of your laptop screen brings you back to reality. Crouched in your chair, you refresh your email, squint to read the words. A sigh escapes you. The scent of coffee floods your senses. Not again, you whisper.

         “Thank you for applying to our company. We are most apologetic to inform you that…”

         Without bothering to read the rest of the email, you flop down onto your bed. 

         Another rejection. Regret fills your mind as you reflect on your past. 

         If only you hadn’t taken that deal. She’d sworn it’d be fine, that you could go back to your day job working at a coffee shop down the street that cost too much and paid too little. Oh, how wrong she was. Right now, that coffee shop job sounded like heaven. 

         As you lay there, you remember the warm, fragrant aromas of the shop, the golden rays of sunlight shining through the windows after each shift, and the smiles on people’s faces as they walked out the glass door.

         But you realize now that you can never return to that time of peace. 

         Not anymore.

         You creep your head over to the side and see a forest of coffee mugs littering your desk with endless brown stains on and near them.              You think about how you waste away, day after day, rejection after rejection, coffee after coffee, trying to get things back to how they used to be. All you can do is wonder about what your life would be like now if you hadn’t accepted that deal on that fateful day.

         You sigh again, your body sinking into the mattress. Regardless of rejection, you have to try again. You’ll never be happy again if you don’t.

         In the bathroom, you splash cold water on your face, hoping that it might make you feel a little more alive. Your reflection looks tired, dark shadows hanging under your eyes. So maybe you’ve been getting a little less sleep lately, but it’s nothing a little extra caffeine can’t fix. 

         As you pass your room again, you pause, contemplating the coffee cups that nearly blanket your desk. 

         It’s fine. I’ll pick them up later, you think, starting down the hall towards the kitchen. 

         Your old, barely functional coffee machine whirs as it heats the water. You stare at it, thinking of the woman who’d convinced you to chase something better, if you just worked hard and worked together.

         As if standing here, waiting for your watered-down coffee, is somehow “better” than everything you had before. 

         You close your eyes, listening to the soft hum of the machine before it shuts off with a click. Your hands tremble as they reach for the mug, but you barely notice. The dark, swirling liquid in the cup is enough to distract you from your current state. It may not be “better,” but it’s the best you’ve got for now. It’ll all get better after a cup of coffee. You know it is a lie, because you say it after every new rejection you recieve. But in that moment you want nothing more than for it to be the truth. You walk towards your mug-littered desk and sit down. It’s time to look for more job applications. You log on to your Google and begin searching. Suddenly you hear your phone vibrate. What could it be? You think to yourself. The few friends you have are currently at their jobs. Maybe it could be something to do with the applications. You hold your phone and read the messages.

         UNKNOWN NUMBER says “I know you’ve been having a hard time. I can help you feel like you have a purpose, other than just sitting at a desk and drinking coffee all day. You look like at this point you would do anything to satisfy your urge to do something. Now this brings me to my offer. It's not your traditional job, but it does offer you to be something greater, something you never thought you could ever be. Meet me at the alleyway of the big brick skyscraper on 6th Avenue and 34th Street this Thursday. You may reject this offer but what I have here for you will change your life, so think about it.”

         You don’t know how to react; at this point anything that brings you hope for the future interests you, even if the opportunity is vague and sketchy. But on the off chance that this does change your life and make you feel like you have a purpose, maybe, just maybe it's worth a shot. Maybe you'll never get another chance like this.

                                                                                             _________________________________

         It’s Thursday. You’re shivering next to the specified building, snowflakes drifting down before you. It’s been an hour. Nobody’s approached you, and you’re afraid that either you got the wrong address or somebody’s laughing at your gullible ass. 

         Ten more minutes, you think, ten more minutes and then I’ll treat myself to some coffee. 

         Mmm. Coffee.

         Your daydreams of coffee grounds and dancing beans with top hats are shattered by a voice. 

         “You look like a crackhead,” the person stands directly in front of you, head tilted at an angle. He is dressed in a raggedy shawl, with a scraggly goatee that wrapped around his pointed chin and face. His messy hair is bundled up under a wool beanie, stray tufts sticking out here and there. 

         “Excuse me?” you hear yourself say.

         “I don’t have time for this,” he turns around and gestures his hand forward, signalling you to follow. 

         You’re feeling more suspicious and worried by the second, but you tell yourself that if this doesn’t work out, you’ll at least have your coffee. Coffee won’t let you down. 

         You’ve reached an old, dusty warehouse that’s small enough to be someone’s garage. You have so many questions, but the first thing you blurt out is, “Who are you?”

         The man ignores you, brushing off your question like one of those cobwebs lining the walls of the warehouse. 

         “So. The books in here need sorting.” He waits expectantly, like he’s asked you a question that you should know the answer to. 

         What books? You wonder, until you see the covers of books peeking out from the worn cardboard boxes. Now that you look carefully, you realize that the boxes must contain piles upon piles of books, enough to stock a school library. The next thought you have is, Wait. This is the opportunity that will change my life?

         The man sighs impatiently, either because he knows you just realized the boxes contain books or because he really doesn’t have time for this. “If you accept this job, you’ll be expected to be here eight hours every day, excluding weekends, until you finish. While you’re here, no food, no drinks of any kind”—a touch of sadism seems to enter his voice—“including coffee.”

         The hair on your neck stands up, graced with a phantom itch. What does he know? You swallow down feelings of suspicion, yellowed teeth scraping against leathery tongue. You comfort yourself with the idea that he is meant to help you, to “make you feel like you have a purpose,” as he put it.

         You look from the man back to the boxes stuffed into the back of the warehouse. Your hands tingle as if they've lost blood circulation. After all, they never go too long without embracing a porcelain mug. You pick up a book to soothe the sting—it's certainly not the ceramic you're used to, but it'll do for now. You’ll have to get used to it anyway.

         "Where do these books go, anyway? I doubt there's going to be any room here after I'm done." Your voice echoes for a few seconds. The silence left in its wake is all but deafening.

         A few seconds is a lot for a tiny room cluttered with books and boxes.

         "Well, that depends on if you ever finish." He responds just as the silence becomes unbearable. Boredom is laced in his voice, but the glint in his dull eyes say otherwise.

         It isn't until he leaves that you realize he never answered your question.

         Frustrated, you pour out all the books from the closest cardboard box. 

         You are in shock to see no titles on any of the book covers. The first pages are absolutely blank white, so you rush through all the colorful books. However, there is not a single letter even on the spines. 

         Sigh. 

         You realize you would have to read all the books in order to sort them. Eager to finish, you quickly open a cloud-patterned sky-blue book. 

         Whish. You feel a light breeze. 

         Cloud? Impossible! The bright yellow sunlight embraces your face, and the blue sky filled with other fluffy white clouds surround you. You look down to see green grass moving backwards. It’s been a while since you felt this peaceful.

         As soon as you start to enjoy the oddly inclusive feeling of moving forward with other clouds, a splash of cold coffee throws you back into reality.

         You open your eyes to see a younger version of yourself staring at you with widened eyes and an empty coffee mug. 

         “About time you got here. We’ve been waiting forever,” the child complains.

         You frown and begin to ask what she meant by “everyone” but before you have a chance to finish your question, the ground splits, and you begin to fall.

         You fall backwards and downwards, this way and that. 

         While falling, you see in your mind the briefest glimpses of days long lost. Yesterday passes in an instant. Last month goes by in a second. You are able to envisage yourself looking sunnier and brighter as the wheels of time turn back. After the longest minute of your life, you finally land in a pool of murky brown liquid, submerged up to your neck. 

         With nowhere left to go but down, you let your gaze drift into the dark pool and see yourself at the beginning of it all, with the woman.          The one who promised that your books on exotic coffee species could help save lives. The one you trusted with your research, secrets, and heart. The one who used you as her failed experiment.

         That coffee, you remember. What was in the coffee? 

         Suddenly, you wake up, gasping, and notice a pile of books littered around you. A red mug sits right next to them. I must have passed out, you realize. You study the mug closer. “Get over your addiction today!” it reads.

         Then you finally notice the presence of another in the room. You look up, and see him standing in the doorway.

         “What is this even for?” you ask the man.

         “Just a simple test. You passed. There are a few more books you should sort over here once you're done.”

         You think to yourself, Ugh, how many books am I going to have to sort? This feels endless and somehow painful. Perhaps he drugged me? Maybe that's why I feel so drowsy and weird.

         You ask louder, “What is this for!? What is the point of bringing me here?”

         “In time you’ll see,” he responds. You think to yourself, Ugh, why am I still here? Even if I did leave, it would be for nothing. At least this offers some productivity, but it’s so stupid. Why are these books in an abandoned warehouse? Who is this man? What does he want specifically with me?

         He leaves to a hallway behind the warehouse and you decide to follow him. You slowly creep behind him. He enters an office room and stays in there for a bit. You decide to look inside. You peek your head into the broken glass window of the office. He has various papers hung up, a laptop and a wall with pictures. You can’t make out any of the pictures because they are too far away, but some have “X”’s on them.    What could that mean? you think to yourself. You decide to tiptoe back to the main room where you were sorting books. You begin to sort a few more books, flipping through the pages and putting them on a stack that correlates with the content. You hear the creak of the office door and footsteps hastily coming your way. The man walks up to you and looks around as if to check for exits.

         He says, “Don't go anywhere, keep sorting books. I need to go get, uhh, a suitcase I forgot at home.”

         “Okay,” you respond while thinking to yourself, Who needs a suitcase in an abandoned warehouse? He goes toward the hallway and you hear a heavy door shut. There must be another exit in the back there. You walk towards the hallway and think, maybe I should check out the office. You walk towards the office and try the door. The handle only shakes—it must be locked. You realize the window panel is weakly sealed and you take it off with ease. You go through the window frame. Inside the room is a huge board you didn't see the first time because it was out of sight from the window. It has a bunch of different organs named on one side and little Post-It notes with names of people right next to the organ names. You remember the board with the pictures of people with “X”’s. You look at it and see your portrait. Under is his laptop with a message that reads:

         This one is kind of a loser. No one will notice if he's gone. He has a horrible coffee addiction so some of his organs may be a bit damaged, but they will still sell at a price at least above $15,000 each, not as much as the last guy. But man, will it be easy to cover up his death. He has like 2 friends who he doesn't even talk to anymore. Once we cover up his death, that should be all of the money we need. I've got him sorting some old books in the warehouse while I wait for the coolers to get here. I also lightly drugged his coffee so he's a little bit disoriented and won't catch on (I didn't know how much to put in, so I put in a pinch of this stuff that Marlene gave me). It shouldn't be so much as to compromise any of his organs.

         Below that was another message that read,

         I forgot my surgical tools in the car, and I parked on 8th Avenue and 34th Street. You know how parking is this close to the Empire State.

         You take a moment to process this, but then hear keys jingling from outside the heavy door down the hall. You inhale sharply, eyes darting from object to object, searching for something that might aid in your escape or conceal your presence. The room appears smaller than it actually is, swallowed by heavy, immovable furniture—the floor-to-ceiling metal cabinet, the shelf underneath the creepy detective-esque board, the L-shaped desk with drawers on either side. Only one of them might be able to hide a shorter-than-average adult: the cabinet. You swing open the cabinet door carefully, attempting to ignore the sound of approaching footsteps and the volume of your heartbeat increasing with it. Once the arduous process of stepping into the cabinet is complete, you close the cabinet slowly, eyeing the glass pane on the desk and silently cursing yourself for not having put it back into place. The door closes with a soft click.

         “Yeah yeah yeah,” you hear the man say, his voice now dangerously close to your ears, “I’ll get it to you as soon as I can.” Once again, you hear the sound of keys, this time at the office door. You wonder why he hasn’t noticed the missing window yet. Maybe he has bad eyesight? you consider hopefully. Never mind that the glass pane is still on his desk.

         Something slams the side of the metal cabinet, and you almost let out a high-pitched shriek. Then you realize it must be the door, pushed violently by your employer—and most likely, future murderer—for reasons that you’re sure you don’t want to know.

         “Ughhh,” the man groans, “that woman will be the death of me.” Then silence.

         Your hand instinctively reaches out for a cup of coffee. There is one next to you; there is always one next to you. You take a sip; the caffeine floods your brain; you feel your senses coming back to life; you let out a sigh of relief, and take another sip…

         And then you’re laughing. Laughing with the heady deliriousness of failure—or is it triumph? Laughing because you are afraid.         Laughing because rejection will fill your hands with meaningless words, will force you to wade through them for the rest of your life, will taunt you with those it has consumed before, will lock you up and threaten to murder you. Laughing because your paralyzing fear of joining the ranks of its victims has distracted you from the fact that it is already eating away at your life one day at a time. 

         And yet the Submit button is a ray of sunshine, a bite of sky, and all that caffeine makes you hungry. 

         The man rips the cabinet door open, and you think you should probably scream, but instead you’re still laughing, because what else are you supposed to do in this moment?

         You press your lips together and try to stifle it, turning to face him. His face, to your surprise, isn’t twisted into an angry snarl, but has pity written all over it. He grabs you by the arm, pulls you to your feet. Your laughter is gone, but your fingers itch to reach for your cup of coffee, lying on the ground. 

         “I shouldn’t be doing this,” he says, and you’re wondering what comes next. What does death feel like? Regret hits you like a brick wall, regret for all the things you could have done, for the life you threw away and were too scared to really fight for. 

         “Get out of here,” he continues, pushing you towards the door. “Start over; don’t touch anymore goddamn coffee, or fall for stupid scams. Don’t waste your life.”

         You can barely move, you’re so surprised. 

         “Go,” he says again, his tone laced with disgust — for you, or for himself? 

         Well, you think as your feet begin to move, if he’s going to give me a second chance, I might as well take it.

         So, knowing how close you were to losing your life, you leave behind that dark, dusty warehouse and that last cup of coffee, swearing to yourself that this time, you’ll try to live.