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Score - Chapter Two

By Deven P.

     “Marcos, time for school!”

     “Ok Mama.” I replied. This quickly snapped me out of my dream. My face quickly drooped at the thought of school. School meant class, and class meant El Padre. And unfortunately, El Padre meant bullying. 

     I walked to the living room to eat breakfast on the dirt, which was pretty ironic, but mostly embarrassing compared to the rich kids at my school. It was a 15 minute walk to school which caused lots of teasing, since the ‘richies’ had their fresh blue cadillacs. As I entered the huge emerald sandalwood doors, I tasted a whiff of the everlasting fragrance. The white tiled floors made my cheap suede sandals slip and slide. As soon as you get the slightest smell of Pablo or El Padre, you get really self conscious. Run fast. Look back. Don’t show weakness.

Somehow, these steps had slipped my mind since one of El Padre’s goons spotted me and called over the big man himself.

     ‘Oh no,’ I said as my face drooped. El Padre smiled his fake mischievous smile realizing that I was weak. He was always looking for a way to weaken someone or find weakness in a person. 

     “Well, well, well, what do we have here,” he said with a smirk. I didn’t understand why he said this because he knew exactly who and what I was.

     “Shut up,” I mumbled. My eyes opened up wide noticing what had just slipped out of my mouth.

     “What did you say nerd?” he asked, while his face slowly grew red. He clearly knew what I had said since he grabbed me by the collar of my dress uniform and held me against some lockers. He had me by the tips of my toes and had his hand up about to slam his hand through my head and into the locker. Just as he was about to swing, the bell rung, which meant the principal would come out to make sure everyone was in class.

     “Saved by the bell again, punk!”  El Padre yelled in my face as spit was flung everywhere. His face turned into a tomato and he ran into his everyday class, detention.

     “Get to class kid,” grimaced Principal Francisco from across the never ending hall. I quickly sprinted into homeroom so fast that I left my shadow behind.

     Once school ended, I ran out of the doors trying to avoid the bullies. I ran and ran and ran. Ripped tire soled shoes slamming the ground. I ran to my safe place, the diner that my mama worked at, to get a quick bite before going home or the library to do homework.

     I loved the sound of the bells jingling when I opened the dirty glass door. I immediately saw my mom scrubbing the front counter and we exchanged warm glances. The floors were covered with dust and random papers. The ceiling looked like the last time it had been cleaned was eighty years ago. I grabbed the usual Brigadeiro (which was basically a chocolate cupcake) and a glass of warm milk. As I ate, I noticed a poster on the usually empty bulletin board. I walked over and a paper made of rich manila and Visconti ink was pinned, untouched. I was so involved in the quality of the paper that I didn’t even notice what was written. It said ‘Attention all village soccer players. On May 16 will be the annual soccer juggling competition. Anyone over the age of 11 may attend to show off skill. (Picture of player juggling ball). The prize for most juggles will be 500 BCB.’

     I realized that this was my chance to show everyone that I wasn’t all about studying. I was also about soccer. And on top of that, the prize was a 500 BCB. I could buy a whole house with that. I quickly snatched the sheet off the wall and ran out the door without saying goodbye.

 

The Thing About Stars

By Addie M.

     There is something special about stars, how they can make a dark boring night so extravagant and beautiful. They are simply balls of hydrogen and helium, which seems so simple, how can something so simple be so beautiful. When we look at stars we are seeing the past since it takes the light about 4 years to reach us, the stars live in the future. I could stare and the sky for hours, I could watch those perfect little balls of hydrogen forever, but nothing is forever. I explained this to my best friend Ash once as we walked along this same gravel road we had walked every night for the last few weeks. Today was different though, usually our walks were filled with a quiet type of joy and bliss. Today was the opposite, today Ash was clutching my hand and sobbing as I held her in my arms.

     “I’m going to miss you so much,” she sobbed and she rested her head on my chest as we sat in the cold grass by the lake.

     “I’m going to miss you too,” I said sadly holding back tears. This was the last night of summer, tomorrow our parents were coming to pick us up from camp and bring us home.

     “I’ll FaceTime you every day,” she exclaimed with a smile.

     “Of course you will,” I laughed.

     “Remember ‘Mille Nooooo’?” She asked.

     “Ash- how could I forget? Best camp memory ever!” I laughed. Millie was the 2-year-old camp dog who was hilariously stupid.

     “What about taking care of the chickens every morning and Henry the Rooster?” she laughed, probably remembering how much I hated taking care of the chickens every morning. Henry had attacked me once too, not my proudest moment.

     “I wish I could forget,” I laughed, but quite frankly I would even miss those demon chickens. “The best was Mocha Ice,” I said smiling. I’ve never been more terrified in my life. Apparently both Ash and I have a major llama-phobia and we were partners, not the best idea.

     Ash started laughing uncontrollably, “I still can’t believe I let go of the leash!”

     “Our beloved llama, Mocha Ice, almost got hit by an arrow,” I laughed at the memory of the llama spit and a pure evilness of our llama, also the fact that Ash almost got our llama killed.

     “Courtney's face when we both ran to her crying-” Ash smiled as hot tears began to roll down her face again.

     “Priceless, pure mortification,” I said finishing her sentence. “Poor Sydney though.”

     “Syd-ney!” Ash yelled, her voice echoing over the water and off the mountains. She looked up at me, her crimson hair messy from camp, and her emerald green eyes, red and puffy from crying. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you really cry,” she remarked slowly.

     “I’m pretty sure you have, the llama’s,” I reminded her, considering it for a second.

     “No- that doesn't count,” she protested, her stubborn attitude coming to the surface.

     “You will tonight,” I said, for I was on the brink of tears. “I can’t leave my best friend and not start sobbing.” How do you leave someone so important to you? In one summer one person has never made me laugh more, or feel more like myself. How could one person change my life in one summer? It shouldn’t be so simple, should it?

     Ash must have thought the same thing because she looked into my eyes and whispered. “I love you.”

     “I love you more,” I smiled, it was an inside joke we had, but by this time tears were streaming down my face.

     “Noooo, don’t cry. If you cry, I’ll cry harder!” she said loudly, starting to cry again.

     “I won’t see you for a year,” I said sadly, the thought reiterating through my mind.

     “Stop stop stop stop talking! Every word you say makes me more sad!” she exclaimed.

     “We only have 6 hours and 53 minutes until our parents come,” I remarked sadly, quickly doing the math in my head, our parents would come at 9 am and it was 2:47 am right now.

     “Let's pull an all-nighter with the rest of the cabin,” she said quietly.

     I stared into the dark night, watching the stars. Suddenly I saw something, a bright light streaking across the sky, followed by another, and another. “Ash,” I whispered in awe.

     “Hush child,” She said shushing me.

     “No, Ash look at the sky,” I demanded. She looked up in awe. “It’s the Perseid meteor shower, I forgot it was tonight. This is one of the most spectacular meteor showers you know, these meteors are some of the brightest.”

     “What else do you know about this meteor shower?” Ash asked quietly.

     “Well, the meteors are from the debris left from the Swift-Tuttle comet, so when the earth runs into the debris it burns up in the atmosphere. If I’m remembering correctly around 75 shooting stars should pass overhead an hour.”

     “So I could make 75 wishes an hour?” Ash asked quietly after considering the information for a minute. The meteors were streaking across the sky among the stars, above the mountains that looked black up against the bright night sky. The moonlight reflected off the water, making everything it touched more beautiful. The rest of the cabin would love to see this.

     “Technically you could,” I laughed. “Let's go get the rest of the cabin.”

     We ran quickly back up the road towards our cabin, as I opened the door a rush of warm humid air hit me. The cabin was a mess, as usual, we refused to pack. I looked down at my cabin mates, who I had come to know as my family. They were the ones who had tipped me out of canoes, who made me countless friendship bracelets, the ones who knew my secrets, and of course the ones who made it their mission to make me laugh when I felt sad. They were all hugging each other and sobbing, none of us wanted to leave. “Guys, come outside, quick!” I yelled enthusiastically. Ash and I helped them up and we all ran outside towards the lake. “Look at the sky,” I said quietly.

     “What is it?” Bridget asked.

     “The Perseid Meteor shower,” I answered.

     Sophie turned to look at me, “It’s another astronomy type of thing isn’t it?” she laughed.  

     “Kind of,” I replied.

     “Remember when we went camping and you taught us so much about the sky and constellations that I thought my brain would explode?”      Sophie giggled. “That was hilarious.”

     I remember that,” Hayden said quietly as she came to stand by me.

     I feel like some people probably see it as weird, how close we are with each other. But camp is where you meet real people, people who     love mountaineering as much as you do, people whose appearance isn’t the most important thing to them. Camp is about your personality, it’s about how you can work together and build relationships, it’s about being positive; even when you forget to bring marshmallows on your backpacking trip. Camp is special.

     “Guys we only have, like, 6 hours left,” Lizzy said softly, sounding apprehensive. Ash and I looked down at our watches.

     “6 hours and 17 minutes,” we said at the same time. It was imperative to both Ash and I that people are on time and don’t just estimate. “We should do something special,” Bridget added, “Something memorable.”

     “Like what?” Lizzy asked.

     “I have no energy,” Hayden added as she laid down in the grass. The air felt pure and clean as the cold nipped at the tips of our noses, and the sweet smell of the wet grass surrounded us and made our clothes damp.

     “Well it’s 3 am in the morning,” Sophie laughed.

     “3:23 am,” Ash and I replied in unison as we looked at each other in the darkness, she took my hand and held it in her own.

     “Oh shut up,” Sophie laughed.

     I was going to miss these girls, even though I wanted to punch them sometimes, they were my family. Family doesn’t have to be your parents, or your biological sister, or anyone really. But if we’re being honest, everyone is related, you just have to go back about 3,400 years, we are all distant cousins of one another. But that's not really the point, family is a group of people you love with all your heart, people who make you feel like yourself. How could I just leave my family behind? After all the s’mores, the countless miles hiked, calluses, campfire games, 2 am marshmallows, midnight conversations, how could I just leave it all?

     “Why in the world are your hands always so cold?” Ash whispered to me.

     “Apparently I have bad circulation or something,” I laughed.

     “I wish camp would last forever,” Bridget remarked loudly.

     “According to this one,” Ash replied, gesturing towards me. “Right now there are around 75 shooting stars an hour.”

     “So I could make 75 wishes and hour?” Bridget asked loudly.

     “Ash said the same thing!” I laughed. “What are you going to wish for?”

     “I have a lot, but most of them are just a velleity,” she responded with a smile, using one of the many vocabulary words she had learned from me.

     We continued to lay there, staring up at the meteors passing by. That’s the moment I realised something, simple is beautiful. I was simply laying outside with my best friends watching the sky, but I’ll never forget this moment. It was special, that moment. I can’t explain the feeling, the thick coat of sadness, caused completely by love. You have to experience it, you have to feel it. It’s like an intangible blanket, we couldn’t see it, but we could all feel it. It bridged the space between unsaid words and untold thoughts.

     So maybe stars are simply hydrogen and helium, two of the lightest gases, we can even simplify further and say they are just plasma. They shine thanks to nuclear fusion, which turns hydrogen into helium, which emits large amounts of radiation, energy, and light, which is what we see. And then a few light years later we really see their light. It’s simple, yet it couldn’t be more beautiful. I felt a tap on my shoulder as a cold breeze brought goosebumps to my skin, it was Ash.

     “This is beautiful,” she said softly. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it, can you tell me some constellations?” I searched the sky, pointing a few out to her, my arm heavy thanks to my subduing energy.  Ash had always loved constellations and I had the insignificant skill of being able to find them easily. “Addie,” Ash started. “Why are stars so beautiful, what makes them so beautiful?”

     I looked at her, tears forming in my eyes, it’s like she read my mind. “I don’t know,” I started as I thought for a second. “I guess that’s just the thing about stars.”

 

Colin Myers and the California Carnival

By Sophia M.

     Colin Myers had three general policies for life, the first being that mayonnaise is not meant to accompany any dish ever, no exceptions. Secondly, spontaneity is counter-intuitive and never the answer; and third, there’s no such thing as destiny. Colin Myers was a strict believer in science and considered destiny to be a thing of fiction, just as he considered people who liked mayonnaise or cilantro to be crazy. Things in life don’t happen because they were meant to or were predestined to, they happened because of chain reactions based on past experiences, and there are always a million different outcomes of any one choice, probability-wise.  

     It was with this mindset that Colin entered his sixteenth year of life in the balmy heat of a Californian July. He could feel the dry heat seeping through the warped wooden doors, and he knew it was going to be a good day. His birthday was on a Wednesday this year, but any day can feel like a Friday in the summertime when you’re with the right people, and Colin planned to make it the best sixteenth birthday he could manage.  

     He had the entire day planned to a T: he would wake up at exactly 6:18 in the morning, as that’s precisely when he was born. He then would have his standard birthday breakfast, two blueberry donuts and a warm glass of chocolate milk, and gifts waiting for him on the dining room table. From there, at approximately 6:54 in the morning (as historically his birthday breakfast/gift combo routine took about 35 to 40 minutes, given proper time for the beginning of digestion of his donuts) he would migrate back to his room and sleep until his alarm woke him again at 11:25. From there, the day was, in Colin’s mind, a free-structure plan of going to the movies with Justin at noon, proceeding to eat lunch at 2:15, if the movie ran on time, returning home at 3:40, resting for a half-hour, and finally heading back out at 4:30 for his birthday dinner and party at the local bowling alley with all his closest friends. It was going to be perfect.  

     So, there he was, lying in bed on the night of July 14th at 11:53. Colin had just got back from a clumsy street carnival, the Ferris wheel rickety and the game booths creaking. His mind was peacefully empty, ready to enter a new three-hundred and sixty-five days of his life, except for the utterance of five simple words, gifted to him from a sham carnival fortune teller: “The daisies will smile too.” T-minus seven minutes until Colin’s sixteenth birthday, and the only thing on his mind was the cryptic warnings from a violator of policy number 3. He didn’t see the woman as she whispered the words into his left ear (or was it his right?) he only caught a glimpse of her backside and the long gray coat she wore in the sweaty summertime. He tried not to let her words irritate him: street side phonies never bothered him in the past, he knew this one should be no different. He turned on his side, urging his eyes to droop, only to find that instead, they watched the clock. 11:54. 

     He turned again, this time facing the darkened ceiling of his bedroom, methodically counting his breath. Inhale, 2, 3, 4. Hold. Exhale, 2, 3, 4. Repeat. He felt his body responding to the slowed intake of breath and shut his eyes gently. He focused harder on his breathing, disregarding the fortune teller’s words, disregarding all thoughts of daisies or sunshine or anything remotely related to the things that troubled him. He was on the verge of his sixteenth year of life, and decidedly, nothing could shake him of his enthusiasm for that.

   3:37 am. Colin remembered wives’ tales about three o'clock being the witching hour (or was that four?) and he sat and stared at the ceiling some more. He was on top of the covers, sweating, frustrated because this wasn’t supposed to happen. He was supposed to fall asleep when he got home from the carnival, he was supposed to wake up at 6:18 in the morning exactly. Now he was awake at 3:37am on July 15th, i.e. his sixteenth birthday, and he couldn’t stand it. Part of him found it comical that of course the night that he let a fortune teller’s words go to his head, things went wrong; the other part of him was just plain frustrated with his lack of sleep. He shifted on his covers again, forcing his eyes shut. If Colin couldn’t sleep, that would have to be fine, but boredom wouldn’t be. He started counting sheep.

     The alarm screamed at Colin, begging him to wake up again at 6:18 exactly. Before he stopped counting, Colin had woken up 4 separate times in the night, catching minimal sleep in between. His eyes felt heavy and his body ached, but per tradition Colin stumbled out of bed anyway, digging into an invisible well of strength. He moved like molasses towards the kitchen, yawning and rubbing his eyes the whole way there. An empty table met his sightline. There were no donuts, no chocolate milk, not even a glimmer of metallic wrapping paper. In their place stood a notecard, which Colin discovered had 15 measly words on it, scrawled in his mom’s rushed handwriting.  

     “Sorry honey, grandma needs your father and me. We’ll make it up to you later!” Colin frowned as he reread the note, upset at the fact that his parents weren’t in the house, concerned with the fact that his grandma needed them urgently, and disappointed with the lack of acknowledgment for his sixteenth birthday. He felt like a frustrated toddler as he stomped back to his room, ashamed for reacting the way he was but also, jealous at the fact that his grandma was receiving more attention on his birthday than he was. He flopped back down on his bed and fell asleep angrily, not even stopping to care about his stomach that longed for blueberry donuts.

     6:28 were the red numbers Colin could make out on the digital clock. He rolled over in bed as his mind processed the meaning of these numbers, and then he realized: he had slept through his perfectly planned birthday. He shot up, jumping out of bed to open the blackout blinds, cursing himself for leaving them closed. He clawed at their strings, furious for sleeping through the day and through his alarms, vexed because he didn’t get enough sleep the night before, and overall, angry at everything! He was upset at his parents, because their car was still not in the driveway, he was upset at his friends for not calling him continuously, for not checking up on him, and perhaps most of all, he was infuriated at the carnival fortune-teller who had whispered stupid, cryptic messages about daisies in his ear.  

     “I don’t even care about daisies!” Colin kicked the foot of his bed, instantly reeling in pain, and finally, he resorted to slumping his back against the wall and burying his face in his palms. Colin didn’t care anymore, he had slept through his sixteenth birthday, and he had ruined everything for himself. Hot tears slipped down through his hands, and he let them. He let himself be upset for what seemed like the infinite time today, but since he no longer cared that everything was going wrong, he didn’t feel the need to solve his problem. Until Colin realized that there was only one way to solve his predicament: he had to find the fortune-teller.  

     “Yes! I need to find her and ask her what she meant,” he thought, “I need to know.” So, he decided that since his parents were out, and that he was too afraid to check his messages for all the angry texts his friends would have inevitably sent, he changed out of his pajamas, pulled on jeans and an inconspicuous hoodie, and called a car to take him to the carnival. For once in his life, Colin was being spontaneous, despite his policy. He laughed as he locked the door at his circumstances, because, had it been any other day, Colin knew all of this wouldn’t have happened. It almost felt as if everything that was happening to him was meant to be... like it would have a deeper, more important meaning… Colin shook his head, chuckling, and waited for the car to take him back to the carnival.  

     6:58 pm. The shrieks of children and scent of gauzy spun-sugar met his senses before he stepped onto the carnival grounds. Colin thanked the driver and ran towards the booths and food carts, eyes hungrily scanning the neon-lit crowd for a hint as to where she could be. Colin wished he could remember where he encountered the fortune teller, he wished he had paid more attention to the booths his first time around. The expanse of the grounds felt overwhelming; his senses were on overload with all the bright colors and amplified sounds in the otherwise dark field. He took a breath, returning to his previously calm state of mind. He knew if he wanted to find the fortune teller, he would need to stay in control of his mind, he couldn’t stress himself out. He inhaled and exhaled and stopped moving. He felt people rushing around him on either side of his stilled body; he was minutely aware of everything that had gone wrong and everything that still had the potential to go wrong. He drowned out the noise of the carnival around him and began to think not of what could go wrong, but what could go right. He considered how good he felt having had rested all day, how concerned he was for his grandma, how much he had previously disregarded, all because he felt entitled to the world for his sixteenth birthday. He opened his eyes slowly, returning to the present moment. As his eyes and ears adjusted back to where he was, he noticed someone staring at him. It was a girl, tall with dark hair and looking directly at the lanky Colin peculiarly. He noticed the flowers on her shirt…

     “Daisies.” He whispered, moving his lips ever so slightly. She was wearing daisies. He grinned at her in disbelief, wondering why she was staring at him, wanting to ask her how she knew this was what he was looking for. She grinned back, coyly flitting her eyes downward as if to invite Colin over. His smile widened, and he couldn’t believe what was happening. He couldn’t believe how everything in his life had boiled down to this one specific moment, eyes locked on this girl in a daisy shirt. He thought back to all that had happened, not only today but the days before as well, to get him to where he was right now. He thought about how there was so much that had happened, so much that contributed to him standing stock-still in the middle of a dusty field during a carnival in the middle of summer, walking directly towards a girl who was doing the very thing Colin had panicked about all the night before, and he laughed. He laughed because to him, there was an impossible air of destiny encasing the incident. He had broken two-thirds of his previously rock-solid life policies, and he couldn’t care any less. As he closed the gap between her, Colin realized that life isn’t set in stone, that there’s always time to make a spontaneous decision or to change your mind about destiny or to live your life in a different way than before. She was right in front of him now, bronzed-face, almost perfect smile and all. She seemed too beautiful to him to be real.  

     “Hi, uh, I’m Colin… you’re wearing daisies. And you’re smiling. And that’s a coincidence in my life because yesterd—“ She put her left index finger to her lips and laughed, extending her right hand,

     “I’m Ramona, Colin. And you’re the boy who stood still in the middle of the sea. It’s very nice to meet you.” She shook his hand as he roved her amber eyes, searching for some kind of explanation.  

     “How did you find me? Why are you here? Honestly, what’s going on!” Colin laughed again, wishing there was some sort of logical explanation for his encounter with Ramona.  

     “We clearly have a lot to talk abou,t Colin! Haven’t you ever heard of destiny? More importantly, why isn’t it a ruling force in your life? Everything that happens, does so for a reason. That’s my experience, at least.” She extended her arm, and he linked the crook of his elbow in hers. They began to walk towards the washed-out plastic tables and sweet-scented funnel cakes.  

     “I have a lot to learn, obviously. And it’s very funny that you mention destiny like that. I used to not believe in it, but now I’m not so sure…” She pulled his arm in tighter, and they continued weaving through the crowds of the carnival. Somehow, the daisies had smiled, too.

 

The Neighbors

By Andrew M.

     It was another boring day for him. After his homework was done, he sat and watched the clock. He listened to the tick-tock as if it were white noise. He watched it for some 2 hours a day. His school ended at 2:00, he did his homework for one hour, and watched the clock for two every day before going to sleep. Obviously, he couldn’t do all of his homework for much of it required a computer, but he had no electronics. His parents roamed the streets every day for hours on end begging for money, but in rural south Georgia, there were hardly any cars that passed. In fact, they lived in a dilapidated mobile home that they found abandoned, so deep within the pine trees that nobody knew it was there. There was another mobile home as well, near where they live, but no one lived there that they knew of. The teen living there walks for nearly an hour a day to the nearest middle school, and an hour back. Every time his parents made money, it was usually spent on water, bug spray, food, and toiletries. The mobile home was overgrown with greens and browns. The inside was in bad shape. Drew had a boring life, one would say. But he was actually fine with it for he knew he would have a much better life with God. This was temporary, he thought. Still, it was hard living in a house like that. 

     One day, Drew was excessively bored, so he decided to explore the adjacent mobile home. The going through the brush was difficult, but he finally arrived. When he got there, he realized just how bad shape it was in. The walls were overgrown with vines, leaves, and branches, the windows were green like slime and were almost opaque. The rusted-out door hung on one hinge. Despite all this, there was food, water, toiletries, and few other things inside. There was no electricity, but lanterns and a battery-operated fan. Drew was aware that this was burglary, but he explored anyway. That’s when he saw them - people. They were sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor. They were a family of six - a mother, father, two brothers, and two sisters. Then, Drew saw what looked like another pillow, but with no one on it. It was possible they were a family of seven. However, if that were the case, then the last one could be sneaking up behind him, so Drew tiptoed his way out. As he did, he stepped on a twig. A loud crunch could be heard, and suddenly, what Drew thought was a pillow in the darkness was a dog. It barked a few times at Drew, as if to wake up the others, which he did. Drew was out in a flash. He tripped and fell after hitting a branch. He looked up to see that they were coming after him! Immediately, Drew got up and ran. He managed to make it into his house without them noticing. He looked at the hole in the wall in his room that he used as a window and saw them. They seemed to have given up the search and headed home. 

     The next day, Drew woke up and walked to his school like normal. It was raining hard, so Drew used the piece of wood he normally does to use as an umbrella. He got to school at 8:00 and left at 2:00, as always. When he got home, he had is usual snack - water. He did his homework. Then, he packed his old backpack that he had used for seven years so far, and stared at the clock. Time feels like it goes by slow when you stare at a clock. It made Drew feel like his life is long. He was interrupted by voices, though. He looked outside, thinking he would see the people he saw yesterday, and he did. They were out playing tag. The kids looked to be Drew’s age (Drew is an 11-year-old sixth grader)

     Thereafter, Drew’s days were not as boring. Instead of just himself staring at the clock, they all did it. For one day. The next day, Drew decided to play tag, capture the flag, and various other games with them. It was a blast. The other kids - Jay, Jenny, Josh, and Jill had been going to school, but didn’t understand much. Drew was happy to teach them. 

     The parents of both families pooled their resources. They all lived as one family. With the combined money, they were able to walk an hour and back to a nearby Walmart, where they went grocery shopping, bought new apparel, purchased toiletries, got batteries, and even got an umbrella. On the way out of the store, they read a sign saying, “Now Hiring.” Drew went to a worker and asked if they could all volunteer to work for money. The benevolent worker said, “I’ll ask the manager.” The manager came over and said, “Well, since you are all young, you can sweep the floors for $1 an hour for each of you. That means $5. That may not sound like much, but your parents can work at the Self-Checkout for $10 an hour per parent. That means $40. If you add them up, you get $45. We can’t give you full price because you are not “official.” In fact, I’m doing this out of benevolence.” With that, they all agreed. 

     By December 1, 2018, they had over $1000! They used the money to buy an abundance of essentials, plus battery-operated lights, the ones that you push on to turn them on. This replaced the lanterns. Neither mobile home had electricity. They used these new push-lights as much as miners use torches. 

     Their lives had improved significantly. The money they got from Walmart they gave back in exchange for items. 

     By the time Christmas came around, they could afford a fake but decent 7-foot Christmas tree that was pre-lit. There were a total of 19 presents underneath - two for everyone and one for all of them. The one for all of them was the best one but hardest to get from Walmart to home - a comfortable recliner chair for $250. All of them had to carry the box. Drew’s gifts were a small Lego set and a digital clock.

     The parents announced that they would now be working the night shift at Walmart as well, working as cashiers. Albeit this meant that the teens couldn’t see their parents much at night, they got much more money - at least $100 a night. They would get paid more, but the manager significantly reduced their pay because they were “in better shape now” and that they were still not “official.” The manager said they were simply “volunteers.” 

     On New Year’s Day, they bought another recliner. They also learned what The Home Depot was and bought wood to fix up the houses. 

Fast forwarding to May 2019, the families had a decent amount of essentials. Many days, the adolescents would bring home food from school lunch and that would be their meals. All they ate besides school lunches were non-perishable items because they had no fridge. The manager at Walmart was not aware of their condition; he thought they were just desperate for a job and they were very poor, but not aware that they didn’t even have electricity or proper homes. By the end of May, all of them had bicycles. This made travel easier. 

     By Christmas of 2019, they had the funds to purchase only two Christmas gifts, but they were important. One was a strong cart to transfer heavy objects from the store to the homes. The other was… a futon! Every night, two people could take turns sleeping on the futon, which was much better than sleeping in the usual sleeping bag. 

     Time passed. By Christmas of 2020, they had six recliners, a surplus of essentials, two futons, battery-operated lights everywhere, battery-operated fans everywhere, lots of school supplies, two NIV Bibles, batteries galore, and more!

     Despite the difficulties, their life was fun, enjoyable, and excellent. Yet, they had no electronics. They had no power. They had no cars. They lived in abandoned mobile homes that no one knows are there. Instead, they spent their days indulging themselves by getting money to buy essentials and furniture! They played tag, capture the flag, rode their bikes, played with the dog (Buddy was his name) and more for free time, but they were busy working in both Walmart and school. They socialized with each other, arguing only once a year, tops. They enjoyed the little things they had - food, water, batteries, battery-operated lights and fans, recliners, futons, Bibles, bikes, a cart, a roof over their heads and walls to support it. And that’s more than they needed.

 

Panic Pancakes - Part Two

By Rachel F.

   I lunge through the open front door with tears brimming my eyes.  Everything starts getting sticky and blurry as I begin to sob again.  I hear my mom coming down the stairs and in a minute she’s staring at me.  I turn away but it’s too late and she asks, “What happened?”

   I turn back towards her and take in a shaky breath, then I start at the beginning of how I got covered in syrup.

   Throughout me telling the story my mom just stares at me like a poor little puppy.  And when I’m done, I take in another deep breath and my mom rushes toward me. She wraps me up in a long syrupy hug and when I pull away she has syrup all over her blouse.  I wipe my nose and my mom walks down the hall.

   “Take off your shoes and follow me,” she says.

   I walk down the hallway and into the bathroom, I see our ocean blue walls with tons of pictures all over.  In one of them, I see me, my mom, and my dad. The perfect trio. I touch my dad’s face in the picture and can almost feel the scratchiness of his beard.  My dad died about two years ago from cancer. He had cancer for over a year until it got to stage four and he passed away. He past away, March 16, 2014, while he was sleeping.  I remember standing next to his dead body in the hospital room. I held onto his hand and squeezed but there was no response.

   When they wheeled him away and buried him, they had to shoo me off and push me away.  That day was a sad day. All day I wanted to be able to burst into the hospital room and see my father sitting in bed.  I wanted so badly to hear his laugh. His laugh was the best sound ever, it was this warm chuckle that turned into a cackle when he laughed really hard.  For weeks after that, I would want to go to the hospital to see my dad until it really sunk in that he was gone.

   When it really sunk in that he was gone and I’d never be able to feel his scratchy beard or hear his laugh, I cried.  I cried for hours upon hours until there was nothing left to cry out. It took forever for the pain of him to get released but when it did it was strange.  It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I could finally laugh again. I look at the picture again and see a little girl on my dad’s shoulders. On my dad’s shoulders is a 2-year-old me, laughing and playing with no fears of panicking.  I touch my playful face and then walk into the bathroom with my mom.

   She hands me a towel as I undress and I hop in the shower.  The sticky syrup runs down my body and down the drain. It forms a golden liquid as I reach for the soap.  I squeeze out a huge dollop and lather my whole body from head to toe in it. The soap smells like oranges and I close my eyes as I imagine an orchard.  The Valencia oranges smell the sweetest in May and mixed with the leftovers of the syrup, they smell even sweeter. I lean back into the water and let it run over my body.  It’s warm and sends a shiver up my spine as the suds disappear down the drain. The orange smell becomes less strong and I open my eyes. Then I shut off the water and wrap myself in my green bath towels.

   When I’m done in the bathroom, I tiptoe up to my room before my mom sees me and collapse on my bed.  I sit there for a minute and then I start replaying the events of this morning in my head. The embarrassment hits and then the panic.  I start shaking and replaying it over and over again. How everyone was laughing at me and how I wish we could move. Somewhere far far away from here.  My mom’s an accountant, but she’d understand. And then, when we get to our new city, maybe Dallas, I could rename myself. Maybe Renny, or Renie. Oh shoot though, people would be able to track me through email.  Maybe I should move to Mars? Oh, who am I kidding? I’m staying right here in the middle of nowhere Nebraska until I get over my stupid panic attacks.

   I slide down the bed and onto the floor.  But then I hear, “Audrey, come down please,” my mom calls.

   ‘Oh shoot,’ I think.

   “Coming,” I call.

   I quickly dress and walk down the hall.  The whole time I’m thinking about who it could be. Could it be my teacher or the principal?  When I get to the front door, I see my mom. I poke my head around the door and standing there is the worst person in the world.      He’s the person I never want to see again and standing next to him is his mom. That’s right, it’s Henry Davidson.

   “Henry came to apologize,” my mom says while nudging my shoulder.

   I feel my blood pressure rising and my pits starting to sweat as Henry’s mom puts her hand on his shoulder.

   “Uhh I-I’m…,” Henry stutters.

Henry’s mom grip tightens on his shoulder and he continues, “Uh I’muhreallysorry,” he says in one big slur.

   I can tell that he’s not actually sorry.  And I can tell that tomorrow morning he’s going to keep bullying me, just like he has since fourth grade.  But I just say, “No problem,” and then I turn to leave.

   I have almost escaped from the Henry trap when Henry’s mom says, “Um, Henry got suspended after, um the accident.  He’s suspended for a week so the bullying will stop, and I’m really sorry for how he behaved today.”

   I just nod and then after a moment, they turn to leave.  My mom closes the door and without a word, I go back up to my room, collapse on my bed, panic a little, and then cry my guts out.

 
 

The Abstracts: Seers - Chapter One, Part One

By Danielle N. 

     Today was a school day, so I got up and collectmy stuff for the bus stop. I usually sat alone, because I prefer to work on the bus and people sitting next to me feel some sort of urge to make conversation. I’ll never understand what drives a person to fill an already-awkward silence with “What’s your favorite color?”

     However, today I had a specific purpose. I started jotting down notes from my research last night in my journal. I knew it’s a long shot, but I couldn’t resist. About one in seven hundred people have this power. But wouldn’t it be so exciting to learn that someone you knew had a supernatural power?

     I decided to start in homeroom. Mr. Deger usually gave us that period to work, so most people will be staring at their homework, so no one’ll think to look up at the invisible geek. I take out what someone else would say looks like a pair of metallic tongs from my backpack. I take one last look at my notes that I’ve already memorized. 

     I entered the room, hiding the tongs inside my shirt. It was very uncomfortable - unless the tongs are in use, they’re very cold. I organized my binder, took out the math homework I’d already finished, and tried to act normal. Nobody was watching me. I took a few deep breaths, and got out of my seat once I was certain everybody was thoroughly focused. I pointed one of the tongs at Jacob, who sat next to me, and to Jessica, who sat behind me. Both tongs read negative. I moved through the line, from Beth to Zach to Christina to Kelly to Damian. I got through about half of the students, but as I passed Brandon, his head darted up, and he wrinkling his nose mockingly. My blood went cold.

     “Hey, Vikkstagram! What’s up!”Brandon said, putting his head in his hands. Brandon has always been, well, I don’t know. I’ve never met anyone like him, and that’s not a compliment. 

     He hooked his elbow around my neck, like we’ve been friends for years, even though I’ve known him for about 6 months and hate him. Not just because his skinny arm was choking my windpipe. If you’re breathing a little heavier during a test, chances are Brandon will acknowledge it. Loudly. I guess he thinks it’s funny, and it was after a while, but it started to die after two weeks. That didn’t stop Brandon from doing it, though. My theory is Brandon’s head is stuffed with rocks, and there isn’t enough room in his head for him to understand non-verbal cues that people are uncomfortable around him.

     “I’m, uh…”

     Everyone was staring at us now. There was no way he couldn’t see all those eyes on us, but he went on like nobody was watching. He’s used to getting involved with conflicts, and he’ll do practically anything for attention. I look to Mr. Degerfor help, but he was still grading our last test. He’s been trying to establish the rules to Brandon all year, but he had to admit at some point it was useless. Brandon is one of those kids who tricked his parents to think school is finished an hour after it is because he’s stuck in detention every day.

     Brandon got up from his seat and snatched the tongs from my hands. 

     “Ooh, did you steal these from an airport, Vix?” He started waving them around like airport light sticks and yelling “Oop! Oop! Oop!”I felt my face burning, and I desperately grabbed for the tongs. He pulled them just out of my reach, and I fell chest - first onto his desk, causing papers, pens, and other assorted classroom supplies to fly off his desk and make neat little plink plonk noises once they fell onto the hardwood floor. Mr. Deger glanced up from his book, then just as quickly continues reading.

     See, this is why Mr. Deger’sclass was my least-favorite subject.

     Brandon held them above my head tauntingly. Now everyone was watching us. I glared at them, waiting for Brandon to do something, then unpredictably lunged for them. He was too fast, and I end up just grazing them with my fingertips, feeling the slight warmth from Brandon’s grip. 

     I made a decision in that split second, and I shoved my hands higher, knocking the tongs out of his hands, where they crashed onto the hardwood floor with a huge WHACK. 

     My mouth dropped open, and I sank to my knees before the tongs I spend a whole week laboring over. The damage wasn’t too bad: the metal on one tong was dented where it hit the floor, but the plastic tube connecting the tongs had a thin crack splitting it, sparks spilling outward. 

     I glanced around for something that wouldn’t conduct electricity to patch the tongs, and my eyes landed on Brandon’s fireproof windbreaker hanging on the edge of his seat. In a fit of anger, I took a corner of his sleeve and ripped out a slip, and tied it around the tube. I doubted Brandon would notice, but it felt like devastating payback to me. I carefully took the tongs into my hands, and when Brandon pretended to reach for them again, I held the tongs over my head as if I would beat him over the head with them. Thankfully, Brandon wasn’t feeling up to another petty fight, and I didn’t have to break his skull with the already-damaged tongs.

     I soon found myself slumping against my chair, glumly holding the now-useless lump of my invention. I gently tucked it away, in hopes of fixing it later that day. Afterward, I took a computer out of the computer cart and continued to research the websites I was on last night.

Finding Hope

By Jessica J.

     Overhearing Mother’s phone conversation, I found myself gripped my blankets tightly. This has to be a nightmare. I laughed before adjusting my blankets and closing my eyes. However, my eyes fluttered open to meet the pale moonlight illuminating my dark room. I could not sleep. Footsteps approached my room. The door slowly creaked open, allowing the warm yellow hallway light to shine into my room and make the moonlight fade. Mother made her way to my bed to tell me the news that I already knew. She opened her mouth to speak but I shook my head. Kaelyn Michaelson, my best friend, was dead. It felt unreal and I didn’t know the proper way to react. As Mother pulled me to her, I nestled into her neck. I breathed in her lavender perfume. It took me back to when Kaelyn gave it to her.

     It was a Sunday afternoon. I invited Kaelyn to the family picnic to celebrate Mother’s birthday. Kaelyn was practically family anyway, so she fit right in. The conversation at the picnic had died down and the extended family was packing their stuff away. Kaelyn asked me to come with her to give her gift to Mother.

     “This for you, Mama! Kaelyn got it for you, but I helped pick it out.” Mother opened the box to reveal the perfume bottle.

     Even though it happened years ago, I still remembered that particular moment with no hesitation. This still felt like a nightmare. I fell asleep in my mother’s arms, trying not to think about Kaelyn being dead.

     I woke up to an empty bed. “Mother never came in and Kaelyn isn’t dead,” I thought to myself as I headed to my bathroom across the hall. I took my phone from the charger to scroll through Facebook. All the posts were articles talking about Kaelyn’s accident and people saying how much they were going to miss her. People that didn’t even talk to Kaelyn at school were offering condolences to the Mikaelson family. It was real. I lowered myself down against the door until the cold tiles on the bathroom floor caught me. I brought my knees to my chest and hugged them. I felt the hot streams of tears escaping my eyes. I tightly closed my eyes to stop the tears from falling, but they didn’t stop. I brought my phone into my view to distract me, but I cried harder when I saw my last notification. It was from Kaelyn. “Maybe.” That’s all it said. “Maybe.” I scrolled through my camera roll and realized it was filled with silly videos and photos of Kaelyn and me. How did we get here? We were happy yesterday. We were discussing our future, our plans to go to the same college, decorate our dorm room, and preparing for career choice. She couldn’t be gone. It was way too soon. We were supposed to grow old together. The driver. That driver d to rot in jail. He left her there to die. I hated that driver. A knock jolted me out of thought.

     “Taylor, are you alright in there?” my mother said carefully. I didn’t want to deal with my mother, so I lifted myself off the floor and made my way to my room. I made sure to slam my bedroom door to inform her that I wanted time to myself. I slipped back into my bed and pulled my covers over my head. As her footsteps retreated and her whimpers faded. I let sleep overcome me once again.

Mother allowed me to stay home for a week. I wasn’t ready to head back to school. Since Mother was a stay-at-home mom, she would monitor me carefully. She offered me affection and allowed me my space. After the week was up, Mother decided I was ready to head back to school.

     Kaelyn was my only friend and school just felt empty without her. At school, I gained sympathetic gazes from people in the hallways. I entered my first class and the math teacher pulled me into a hug. It felt like forever before she finally let me go. I made my way to the back of the classroom and slumped to my seat. Pulling my hood over my head, I took a nap in class. I never felt interested in the class, but without Kaelyn here it felt pointless to try to concentrate. When lunchtime approached, I realized I had no one to sit with. I trudged over to the girl's restroom that no one entered because few people knew about it. Kaelyn had discovered it when we were freshmen. She would drag me in there weekly to have “girl talk” with me. I sat on the bathroom floor and started to feel the streams of tears rushing out. I kept replaying memories of her in my head. I wanted this pain to stop. I needed a distraction. I took out my scissors from my backpack and before I knew it I was bleeding. It made me pay attention to the pain on my arm rather than the emotional pain I was feeling. It was a relief. It wasn’t a deep cut, so I wiped the blood away and lowered my sleeve to cover the wound.

     When school was finally over, I biked home to be greeted by police cars in front of my house. They were escorting my mother in handcuffs out of the house and into a squad car. My eyes didn’t know where to focus. There were flashes of the police light surrounding me and yells from my mother, which were quickly silenced by officers grabbing her tighter. Police officers were searching her car. I didn’t understand what was going on. I jumped off my bike and ran towards the police, who was holding my mother. I kept grabbing the police and hitting him to let go of my mother. Yelling at them for wrongly arresting my mother. A female police officer grabbed hold of me and tore me away from the other police and my mother. I saw my mother being shoved into the back of the squad car and hopelessly sobbed at the sight. The female officer tried to calm me down my father approached me. He replaced the female police officer’s position in trying to comfort me. Father held me and sang me a song to calm me. When I was finally calm enough, father took me inside the house. We ate our dinner in silence and the house felt empty without Mother. After dinner, I locked myself in my bedroom and stared at the ceiling. I couldn’t help but think that life was stacked against me. I had already lost my best friend to an accident and now my mother was arrested for an unknown reason. I wanted to cry, but I had no more tears. I was about to drag myself into the shower when Father walked into my room to talk to me. We sat in silence before he finally worked up the courage to start the conversation.

     “Do you know why your mother was arrested?” I shook my head.

     “You are not going to like what I am going to say, but you have to know the truth. There is no way of hiding it.” I nodded for him to continue.

“Your mother, she she she...she was the one that killed Kaelyn in the car accident. She was the one that left her there to die. I don’t know the exact details because neither your mother nor the police officers have said anything,”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My own mother had killed my best friend. My own mother had left my best friend in the middle of the street to bleed out and die. I started imagining how that would play out if I was there. I played out the gruesome scenario over and over again. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I could hear my father droning on about something, but I couldn’t focus on his words. I was stuck in my head. I only realized that he had stopped talking when he closed my bedroom door.

     The next day at school, I was no longer greeted by sympathetic gazes. They were replaced by glares from adults and students. I was the daughter of a murderer and I deserved their hateful glares. I made my way to the girls’ restroom and sat down on the floor. I took out the scissors and made a cut below the other cut. I let out a sigh in relief. I hated my mother for causing this pain I was feeling. She had killed my best friend and left me to pick up the pieces.  I knew my headspace was in a dark place but there was nothing I could do. I just had to get through this day.

     After school, I decided to visit the Michaelsons' house to offer apologies on behalf of my mother. I got to their front door and rang the doorbell. Once Mrs. Michaelson saw my face, she slammed the door in my face. I didn’t blame her. Why would she want to talk to the daughter of the person that had murdered her daughter? I ran home crying. Mrs. Michaelson was always like a second mother, but even she couldn’t bear the sight of me. I trashed my room, throwing everything on my table, to the floor. I slammed the picture of my parents and me to the floor. I took the picture from the broken picture frame and ripped my mother’s image to shreds. I took the pictures of Kaelyn and me off the walls. I was careful not to rip them in the process of my rage. Father only arrived home when my room was completely trashed and I had broken down to weep. He embraced me but said nothing. He didn’t know how to help me.

     Father decided to move us away from our small town to another town where no one knew our story. I was sad to move away from the town that I grew up in. I was sad to leave the only place that I felt close to Kaelyn, but I had to get away from Mother. I couldn’t stand thought of her. After her speedy trial had ended and found her guilty of manslaughter, she had tried to call me a few times from prison. I always declined her request to reach me. I didn’t need her apologies and her affection. She was a stranger to me. A cold-blooded killer that I wanted no association with.

     We settled into a small town named Abelsville. Father tried to find the perfect place for us to live that would give us hope for happier and better days. He chose this town because it was far from our old home but still close to our relatives. We took the whole weekend to unpack the few things we had brought from our old home into the apartment. We decided to keep mother’s stuff at the old home and only take necessities along with us. After settling in, I prepared to go to my new school the next day. I knew that the students there knew nothing about me, but the thought of them finding out made me anxious. I would be labeled the Murderer's daughter again.

    To me, it did not matter what school I transferred to because I had no interest in school. I sat in classes that I didn’t care about and listened to teachers drone. I made no effort to make new friends at this school. It seemed better that way. I became the embodiment of darkness. It clung to me. I no longer had the urge to cry; it was replaced with emptiness. When I finally was released from the confinement of school, I walked home. Alone with my dark thoughts, I entered the bathroom and locked the door. I took out the scissors and made a cut. My arms were now littered with visible scars. I was no longer cutting to numb my emotional pain. I was trying to feel something to ensure myself that I was still alive,  even if it came in the form of pain. Weeks passed and this became a routine. I would go to school because I had to. I did the minimal amount of school work, so I wouldn’t draw attention from my teachers. Then, I headed home to wallow in my grief until Father came home. I knew he noticed my change in mood and my distant behavior, but he did not approach me about it. Instead, he offered affection when he saw it was necessary to get me out of this ‘funk’.

     Sitting in physics class, I pretended to take notes and pay attention. I had tuned out the teacher’s voice the moment I sat down at my desk. I was about to drift into sleep when a girl with dark locks and piercing green eyes approached me. She lightly put her hands on my shoulder to suggest I sit up. I removed my hands from the table to force my head to face her fully. She offered me a small smile.

“Hey, Taylor! I guess you are my partner for this physics project. So do you mind if we start today? I really just want to finish the project as soon as possible. We can go to my house or yours to discuss what we should do.” I wanted to tell her to not to bother. I didn’t want any part of this project. However, her eyes reminded me of Kaelyn’s green eyes. My head reacted, and before I could process it. I nodded my head and invited her to my house.

I didn’t even know her name and she didn’t bother to inform me. She just led me to her car. I told her that it wasn’t necessary to drive because our apartment was so close to the school. She shook her head. She tried to make me laugh by saying she was lazy and that she would rather drive from my apartment to her house than coming back to school. When she saw that her self-deprecating joke did not elicit the response she was hoping for, she unlocked the car to invite me in. Once we got to the apartment, we headed to my room. I settled on my bed, while she decided to lay her stuff down on the floor and sprawled out on the carpet. She took out her computer and asked if I had any ideas of what experiment we could do to show projectile. I shook my head. She was concentrating on researching on her computer while I pretended to do the same. Often, I caught myself watching her as she bit her lip concentrating and wrinkling her eyebrows in deep thought. It was something Kaelyn use to do when we did our homework together. Flashbacks inundated my mind and I felt something that I hadn’t felt in forever. I felt tears escaping me, and I sprinted to the bathroom. I looked at my disheveled self in the mirror. I hadn’t bothered to care about my appearance since Kaelyn’s funeral. I couldn’t recognize the person in front of me. I took scissors from the cupboard and lifted my sleeves. Before anything could happen, I felt a hand take the scissors away from me and grabbed my arms. She looked at my scars and I felt ashamed. I pulled away from her grasp. She blocked the doorway so that I couldn’t escape. I broke down. She held me close to her chest and rubbed my back as my mother had done before. The girl didn’t smell like lavender but she was good enough. She didn’t kill my best friend and for now, that was all I could ask for. I lifted my head to meet her green eyes. They gave me comfort. I tried to fool myself into thinking that this girl in front of me was Kaelyn.

     “I am not going to pretend to know what you are going through. I know nothing about you but I do know you are strong. You are strong enough to want to keep living, but you need help,” Kaelyn stated calmly. She continued and took my hands to reveal my scars.

     “You know doing this to yourself isn’t healthy. You need help and we are going to get you help,”

     I didn’t need her help. I was managing. I was doing just fine on my own. I didn’t care if she reminded me of Kaelyn. I didn’t need her. I pushed her away and ran out of the bathroom, but collapsed in the hallway. I couldn’t catch my breath. Something was against my chest pushing it down. I was trembling, heart racing and my hands were tingling. Two hands were placed on my shoulder and the girl was on her knees before me.

     “Taylor, look at me.” I lifted my head.

     “Follow my breathing.” I obeyed. I was slowly able to breathe again and my heartbeat was evening out. All the other symptoms began to disappear. I thanked “Kaelyn,” offering a weak smile.

     “I never got your name,” I said.

     “It’s Hope.”

     In the evening, I confessed to my father about my self-harm with Hope by my side. I was gonna get through this because I had Hope.

 

The Cruel Queen

By Aithy N.

     “Tell me the story, Elias,” Katerina requested.

     Elias looked from the loaf he was cutting to Katerina, who’s frail fingers were pulling on the hem of his shirt. He bent down to meet her at eye level and placed his flour covered palms on her head. “Why, my little bird, would you want to hear such a sad tale?”

     Katerina stomped her foot onto the wooden floors. “Because, I want to hear a story.”

     “A story?” he started. “Mother will be back soon. Why don’t you wait for her? She can tell you the story of the wishing fish, or the girl who could speak to the beasts.”

     She shook her head. “I want this story.”

     He sighed. “Very well. Go take a seat then will you?”

     Katerina beamed and scurried to a chair at the dining table, her dangling feet moving back and forth in anticipation.

     Elias stood and went back to slicing bread. “Where shall we begin then?”

     “The part where the queen causes bad luck,” Katerina said.

     “Ah, yes.” His bread knife was sawing back and forth on the buttery crust as he began. “All knew of the cruel queen. Sixty years of her reign, and it is because of her that the land was nothing but rubble and ash. The crops did not bear many fruits. There were no summer harvests for many seasons. There was nothing but sorrow for many moons. But even so, that is not the greatest sin she has committed. Do you recall what it is Katerina?”

     She fumbled in her seat. “Yes. She steals the hearts of men.”

     He chuckled. “Not quite. Once a year, on the day when the winters are at an end, and the flowers mark the beginning of spring, the queen would send her soldiers to collect one young man for her to wed. It is the one law she has enforced for sixty years, and the one law she still continues to this day.”

     Katerina giggled. “Who would want to marry such an old hag. I reckon she has more wrinkles than all the men she has married in her lifetime.”

     He moved on to the next loaf. “Indeed. But we will probably never know, for not once has she ever left her castle. Not a living soul has ever met eye to eye with her. Once, she has taken a young fellow, he was never seen again. Killed almost immediately from the looks of it. That is why for so long, women were afraid to have children. They would not risk the chance of bearing a son, a son that would one day be taken from them.”

     There was a slight pause before she spoke. “Elias?”

     “Yes?” He arched an eyebrow.

     “Why did she take Bash?”

     Elias loosed a breath and slowly set down his knife. He swallowed before turning, smiling at his little sister. “Bash was very handsome. He had a way with everyone who he had been acquainted with. It was hard not to love Bash. Even the queen fell for his charms.”

Katerina laughed. It quickly died, leaving behind remnants of anguish. “I miss him.”

     He walked over and opened the cabinet, taking out a small wooden plate and fruit preserves. He spooned heap fulls and spread it on two slices of bread, settled it on the plate, and layed it in front of Katerina. “I miss him too, little bird.” He sat himself in across from her, watching her shove mouthfuls of bread down her throat.

     She finally swallowed. “Can I have some milk with this?” And with that, they spent the rest of their day delivering fresh baked bread to the village.

***

     She was to come tomorrow. Elias lied on top of his already made bed, clutching Bash’s dagger to his chest. It was dark, silent. He was alone with his thoughts. It had been three years since his separation with his older brother. He remembered it vividly. Masked men in metal armor, Bash struggling against their grasp, Katerina weeping in their mother’s arms. He would never see his beloved brother again because of the woman who ruled the land.

     Retribution. That was what he was after. Three years he was patient, and now he is of age. This is the year the cruel queen’s reign would end. He sat up, dagger still tight in his grasp. “I will end her, Bash.” He got out and made his way to Katerina’s room. She was asleep, her breaths slow and steady. He kneeled by her side, brushed her ginger curls aside, and pressed a gentle kiss on her temples.

     “Elias.”

     Startled, he turned to see his mother at the doorway. Her arms were woven around her waist, her face drained of life, as if he were looking at a corpse.

     “Mother,” he simply said. He made his way over to her and embraced her. She was tense while she muffled cries against his shirt. They stayed like that for some time until she relaxed, occasionally sniffling.

     “Must you go?”

     He led her outside to their porch. “I will come back. I swear it.”

     She pleaded. “Elias, I can not raise Katerina alone. I have mourned Bash ever since that day. Do not make me lose another son.”

     He looked her sternly. “You will take care of Katerina, you are to tell her I will be back soon, you are to go about your day baking bread as you do all days. Nothing has changed. Do you hear me?”

     She bit her lip, closed her eyes, sniffled, and obeyed. He hugged her once more, and, without looking back, took to the lions den.