Wilted Roses

By Rin J.

     Blood. It stained everything around her, the deep crimson mixed with the yellow of petals and blossoming roses alike as her Hanahaki slowly worsened. 

     Yeong-Mi Jin, the daughter of esteemed government official Do-Hyeon Jin, was hunched over on the floor in her bedroom practically hacking up a lung - with all the blood, she wouldn’t be surprised if she was. Her hands were stained with the crimson liquid, attempts at scrubbing it off proving futile when her panic had triggered one of her ‘episodes’, intense bouts of lightheadedness and fatigue that sapped most of her energy. The hand that wasn’t keeping her from dropping her trembling form in the bloody mass before her was clutched to her chest, the cracked peacock feather brooch she always had with her clenched in her hand. She stopped coughing long enough to gasp for air, and she shakily stood, walking to the bathroom to avoid staining the wood floors any further. Her legs gave out as she reached the tub, filling it with just enough water to keep the ceramic from staining. She was mostly still, save for the violent jolts sent through her body each time she coughed, blood spraying from her mouth with each pitiful burst of air. 

     Finally she stopped coughing and stood, draining the water and throwing the roses in the trash. Her face was ghostly, the edges of her lips crimson with blood. She walked over to her dresser and quickly changed into a simple black hoodie and red denim jeans, tossing the stained clothes she had worn previously in a corner, and she shakily made her way out of her room. She had to find someone, anyone really, who could remove this disease. 

     But... if she did have the surgery performed, she would forget. Forget all about Belle, and her feelings for the French, cream haired girl. The times they shared... the laughs, the tears, the sickness. They were all so important to her... but Belle didn’t know of Yeong-Mi’s feelings. And it was killing her. Quite literally. 

     And so she had only two options. Go through with the surgery, or die. She sighed, making up her mind. She took a few steps in the direction of her father’s office, her legs shaking as the finality of her decision struck a chord in her mind. When she reached the carved oak doors leading to the study, she raised a hand to knock. Thump thump thump. The door opened and Do-Hyeon looked out, a warm smile spreading over his features as he saw his daughter.

     “What is it, pumpkin?” He asked, opening the door fully. Yeong-Mi glanced down, opening her mouth to speak. She barely got one syllable out, “I-“ before she crumbled, her legs losing the strength required to keep her upright. Do-Hyeon caught her and quickly checked her pulse just as she blacked out. 

 

     Frantic murmurs, one carrying over the rest. The gentle embrace of sleep, calling her. A panicked voice, whispering to please stay awake. 

     Weightlessness. Floating through a black abyss, distant voices calling out instructions. A prick on the back of her hand. Nothing. 

     A distant figure. Emotions forced away, only to return with a vengeance. The figure, closer now.  “Open your eyes… return to your world.”

     A heart monitor. It beeped steadily as the heart of the person it was connected to continued to pump blood throughout her body. 

     White and gold roses, splattered with dried blood, blocking her vision. She weakly lifted a hand to push it away...

     Cream. Soft, silken hair, tied back into a messy bun. Cerulean eyes, as deep and as beautiful as the sea, tinted with worry. 

     Love. Fading fast, as swiftly as a gardener would snip a beautiful rose from a bush. But for whom..?

     A soft voice, a gentle caress. Warm, firm lips pressed against her cheek. “I’m sorry...” a tearful whisper.

 

     “...Ke up. Wake up, aleumdaun gongju.” She blinked, her eyes adjusting to the bright lights above her. She sat up, feeling the gentle tug of an IV, and she moved her hand so she didn’t pull it out by accident. Beside her bed, in a plush armchair, sat her father, Do-Hyeon, with her mother, Ae-Jeong standing next to him. 

     “My chest hurts..” she said weakly, her voice hoarse. 

     “You just got out of surgery, pumpkin. Just in time, too. It was almost too la-“ 

     “Yeong-Mi!” Belle cried, rushing into the room and to her side.

     “Belle...”

     “I’m so sorry! It’s my fault you got Hanahaki in the first place...” Yeong-Mi looked shocked. 

     “Your fault? How could it possibly...” 

     “Never mind that..” Belle’s voice was gentle, her hand cupping the girl’s cheek. Do-Hyeon and Ae-Jeong took this as their cue to leave, which they did quietly. Belle gave her a warm smile, leaning over to kiss Yeong-Mi gently. “I love you... I won’t ever leave you again.”

 

***    

 

     ‘I wish you would just remember the times we used to share... all the memories, the laughter, the heartache... i think about it every day, but you have forgotten. So you’ve moved past true love now... good for you. I hope it lasts. I hope nobody can break your heart like you broke mine. I wish I could tell you how much you still mean to me. It’s been years and you don’t answer my calls, don’t respond to any of my texts... I wonder if you remember my birthday? I still remember yours. I still remember your absolute favorite song. Remember when you showed me all the things you loved, and I began to love them too? You made me who I am, and I both love and resent you for it. I hope you’re happy without me, because it crushes me to pretend to be happy without you. You were my everything, the only person who kept me from sinking into a hole of depression I couldn’t climb out of. You were my lifeboat, and  the anchor that dragged me down all at once. I love you. But you don’t love me.’

 

     Three years had passed since Yeong-Mi’s near death experience. Belle was sitting in her room, writing in a leather bound notebook, red ink making a bright contrast against the paper. When she finished her entry, she snapped the book closed, slipping it into a drawer in her desk. 

     She pulled her hair out of her face and tied it back in a braid, then stood. She hummed quietly, a sad tune to match her mood, and worked on tidying up her room. When she finished, she left her room, walking around the house, her sneakers squeaking slightly on the floor. 

She looked up when she reached the end of a hallway, and smiled sadly as she saw the door to Yeong-Mi’s room. She pulled out a small scrap of paper and scribbled a heart on it, slipping under the door before walking off. 

   She returned to her room about half an hour later, and nearly slipped on a folded paper by her door. She picked it up and unfolded it, reading the hastily scrawled ‘hope you’re having a good day’, with a heart at the end of the sentence. She smiled. Perhaps there was still a chance...

 

Mother's Workshop

By Jackson T.

     We had lived in our Atherton 3-bed, 2-bath house for ten years. I had been chasing my twin, Madison, for about ten minutes around the whole house, determined to get my headphones back from her. Madison finally gave up and stopped running, giving me enough time to catch up to her. Looking around, we had somehow ended up in our mother’s art workshop, the corner room in our house. 

     It was familiar to us, but we didn't know exactly what was inside. Our mother was always a little bit hesitant to tell us what she made. It was a small room containing yarn of every color, needles, scissors, and a sewing machine on a tall counter. There was a small door in the corner of the room, partially covered with yarn, and either of us knew what was inside. Being curious in the way that only ten-year-olds can, we decided it was a good idea to check out what was inside. We moved the yarn to the side, and taking a deep breath, we opened the door. There was nothing to see, except for a long staircase leading down to another room. We walked down the staircase slowly, Madison no more than a foot behind me.     

     As we made it to the bottom of the staircase, we took another deep breath to see what was around the corner, and found a room that contained hundreds of dolls, all staring at us. I felt a shiver go down my neck and I saw my sister jump a little. This might scare most people, but our mother being an artist of some kind, we were mostly fine with it. 

     We checked out some of the dolls. One particular figure caught my attention. It was wearing a blue denim dress that my aunt used to wear every day before she passed away. I continued to survey the room. The dolls were extremely lifelike and realistic, and as we continued to observe with amazement, the dolls seemed if they were starting to look more and more human.

     After observing the dolls for a while, we decided to leave - we had both become a little creeped out. As I was leaving, I noticed another door that was partly obstructed by dolls in the corner of the room. I expected to see more dolls inside, but opening the door, it was just a bathroom. I let out my held breath.  

     As I turned on the rattling faucet and began to wash my hands, I heard my sister say, “Jackson, stop touching my shoulder”. I froze.

 

Gadja

By Tiffany Y.

     In Europa, the soldiers say that when a person dies, they are given one of the caves carved into the faces of mountains as their burial. They say that the spirits of the cave will snatch the fading flame of the soul and weave it into the sky as a gleaming star. They say the spirits do it for gratitude. They tell me it is an honor to fight on the eroding cliffs jutting into the monstrous waves. It is good to fight over the scraggly mile of mangled grass and dirt because we are protecting the land from our myths. 

     The hope on their faces flickers across my mind as I watch their bullet ridden bodies burn to ash every morning. 

     In Europa, there is a smell of death. It stinks, a noxious odor that winds through my nose through the bouts of rain. I taste ash in my mouth as we battle our way up the slippery slope. The plastic helmet is hanging by a fraying, thin strap. My eyes sting from the rain. 

     I can barely catch a breath without some man trying to shoot me. I dodge a swipe and gut the boy in front of me. I leave before his green eyes close. Maybe they stayed open. Does it matter?

     My only hope is the sun. When the sun sets, the other soldiers scuttle into their caves deep within the entrenched lines of armored nobles playing samurai. We do the same, dragging the bodies of our friends and enemies into piles. We strip the helmet first. Then we take the weapons and whatever valuables they held.

     I used to wonder why we stop. A bearded soldier said it because this was a game. This was an amusing game for the powerful, who saw it as a way to prove their ancestors’ prowess in war. I dragged his body to the medics a day later. 

     At dusk, the priestess walks from her tent, her veil fluttering around her as she leads the song of burial. She pours the oil over the piles, the frayed hem of her dress dragging through the mud. When the sky lightens to a dark purple, the rumble of drums start. It continues through the night, a constant reminder of what’s to come. 

     I can see the orange and gold streaks in the sky. The sun is lowering. Some of the soldiers sink to the floor. Others turn and run. The girl about to stab me turns and runs, her footfalls joining the small horde slinking away in a rush of clicking guns and knives. I lift my eyes to the sun as the soldiers I lead collapse around me and medics begin to swarm the bodies. 

     For a moment, I can hear the faint ringing of bells.

*****

     “What are you doing?” 

     A sharp pain flares on my arm and I flinch. I glance at Maya. Her skinny arms are crossed and she blows out a strand of fiery red hair. She looks at me. 

     “Did you just pinch me?” I ask incredulously. 

     “Oh no, it was the spirits of the vegetables,” she replies with a roll of her eyes. 

     “I thought you were going with the raiders.”

     “I thought so too,” she replies, swiping a stray strand of hair from her face. Her grey eyes cut to me. “But I heard that you petitioned Osamu and argued to keep me cooped up like a coddled baby duck.” I shift. 

     “I didn’t realise you were capable of similes.” 

     A low laugh. “I didn’t realise you were so ace at arguing.” 

     “I didn’t think so too.” My eyes drift up, to the faint twinkling stars in the dusky sky. I can hear her shift beside me, jade bangles clinking hollowly with the ringing brass bells around her left ankle. 

     “I heard there’s a war,” she says, voice shaking. She turns to me. “Are we going to fight?”

     “I hope to the gods that we won’t,” I reply. 

     Maya gulps. 

     “I mean, what could they want with this place? We’re a failed colony turned nomads. We don’t have anything.” 

     I don’t think they see it that way. 

     “That is true,” I say anyways.  

     Maya braces her wrists as she gets up from the grass. She turns away. “My mother said to get you. They want you present at the bridal dances.” 

     “I’m not of age,” I say. 

     Maya won’t look at me. “Mother said you’re an exception.” 

     “It’s not physiologically healthy to-” 

     “Mother said there’s a war. And the elders are scared.” 

     One of her hands is clasping her arm.

      I meet her eyes. 

     “Believe me when I say we will not have a war,” I say. 

     “I don’t think you know any more than I do,” she says. 

     I get up and walk to her side. 

     “If there is a war, then we can only pray,” I reply.

     Maya narrows her eyes. 

     “I’m joining the next raiding party. I don’t care if you petition again or use your connections.” I flinch. “I’m going to do what I was born to do.” 

     “Maya, just because your parents did it-” 

     She breaks into a run. 

     I sigh and rub my head. Maybe I should let her go. A child will never grow unless exposed to hardship. I turn to the fires burning amongst the colorful yurts a mile away. My ancestors came here as pioneers. Domes were constructed and they set to coax the thawing soil to yield life. Soon, though, they rebelled against the rulers. They have never received punishment. 

     I trudge through the frost dusted earth, my rubber boots sinking into the mud. A faint wind stirs my head. I have never left this planet. I have never even gone beyond the dome system.

     I am as much of a child as Maya. 

     I glance to the west, at the sliver of gray miles away. Past the domes, Neptune’s snow pounds against the gray mountains. Only the elders and businessmen leave the dome. Well, that and criminals. Only, they have no suit, no technology that can save them from the screaming winds and freezing cold. Within seconds, they would stumble, fall. It’s a question of how many steps. Two? Eight? The longest I’ve seen is ten. 

     I stop at the edge of the tents. Children run to the flickering bonfires in the center of the village, girls trailing behind. The boys are already there. I can hear a hawk caw above me. I look up. Katara skims the clouds above then swoops down, landing onto a leather glove. I follow the arm, up to a grim, scarred face. 

     “Why aren’t you at the bonfires?” Riku asks dully. 

     “I was waiting for someone.” 

     “Maya is in her room. I suggest you find a wife before she comes of age.” 

     “You’re going to marry her off then.” 

     "That is what I must do.” His eyebrows come together. “Just as you must follow your family’s orders.” 

     “Are you going to let her go on the raids?”

     “She’ll do it with or without my permission.” He turns his grey eyes to the stars above us. “She’ll be leaving tonight, most likely.” His eyes slide to me. “You best run along now. I’m sure the elders will be missing you.” 

     I clench my jaw. 

     He waits.

     I bow. 

     He brushes past me, the smell of alcohol clinging to him like the oils some of the women rubbed on their skin. I straighten. I lean against the slender supports of the yurt behind me. I take a deep breath. 

     “If you don’t come out of the shadows, I will whip your hide,” a voice says. I stiffen, my hand resting on the braided pummel of my dagger. I can hear a small whimper sound a few feet away from me. 

     “Wh-who are you?” 

     I stiffen. That’s...Riku. 

     There’s a slow crunch of snow and a whimper. 

     “Where is your charge?” the voice growls. I hear a snap and a thud. “Where is she?”

     “I don’t know! She ran off!” A pause and then another snap. Riku cries out. 

     “Will she return?”

     “I-I don’t know.”

     I twist to the direction of the voice. I can hear the faint melody of flutes in the distance. My kidskin boots sink seamlessly into the frost. I gulp. I tense and run to the edge. Once I see the black figure, I angle my knife at her neck. My heart pounds in my ears like a drum. I exhale a puff of pale breath. 

     She stiffens suddenly. Riku is on the ground, dirt smearing his face, a leaf hanging in his beard. She turns, grey eyes wide. The knife shoots out of my hand as I stare. 

     She looks just like Maya. 

     She takes a step forward. Riku starts screaming. Her breaths are louder, heaving gulps that fill the space between us. The knife is lodged below her collarbone. She takes another step. I can’t move. Then her eyes roll to the back of her head and she collapses.

     She looks like Maya. 

     I’m suddenly staring at the night sky. There are hands around my shoulders. Dark faces, pale faces. I see a glimpse of cherry red lip, probably one of the brides.

   The music has stopped, and all I can hear are Riku’s screams. 

*****

     I blink groggily up, at the weak light trickling through the ceiling hole. I see clouds, and a gray sky. Around the hole are painted pictures. Men and women riding on horses as they fire bows at a herd of deer. I’m in a yurt. 

     “Nice to know you’re awake,” a sulky voice calls out. I can hear bells ringing as Maya walks to the bed. I twist my head and meet Maya’s glower. She crosses her arms. She stares and finally blows out a sigh. “That was an android.”

     “Do you know why it looks like you?” I ask. Her eyes move up to the ceiling. 

     “No.”

     “You’re lying.” 

     “I am not!” She sits on a wicker chair beside the bed. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure the Kurusa royals have declared war on us.”

     “How is that supposed to help?”

     “I don’t know.” 

     I sit up and lean my head against a wooden support beam. “Did they declare war on us?”

     “Pretty much. Live broadcasts, first signal we’ve had in years.” She blows out a strand of hair. “Most of the elders have left. Cowards.”

     “What about the people?” I ask. 

     “I’m not sure if the raiders are coming back. But I know they’re scared spineless.” She turns to me. “I’m leaving tonight.”

     “Are you happy?”

     “No. Not without you.” I flinch. She abruptly turns. “But at least Ryota came back.” 

     Her voice is loud. Too loud. “He said he wanted to see you.” 

     I cringe. 

      “Why is he back?”

    “Apparently he was run out of town.”

   My eyebrows furrow. “How did that happen?” I ask. 

       Maya shrugs and picks an embroidered coat off the floor. She puts it on, buttoning the blue and red coat up to her chin then pulling the hood forward in seconds. I feel a ball of regret settle in my stomach. I clench my jaw. Am I really going to let her leave?

     I stand up as she sticks her pale hands into the fur lined pockets, taking out a pair of animal skin gloves. “Maya.” She won’t look at me. My tan hands fasten around her’s. They still. “Look at me.” 

     “I don’t want to.” 

     "Maya, please.” Her eyes are wet and she bites her lip as they overflow. 

     “I don’t want it to end like this. I’m scared I’ll never see you again and—”

     The door squeals. I hear a sharp intake of breath. Then the creak of the floorboard. 

     “Huh. I never thought Kazuke would be so bold as to stare into my little niece’s eyes,” Ryota drawls. We turn.  Ryota closes the door behind him, unpleasant words slipping out between his unwinding scarf. He yanks off his hood and surveys the room with a mocking smile. His eyes sharpen on me. 

     “I heard you fainted after seeing the android.” 

     “How’s Yuuta?” I reply, drawing Maya to me. She yanks out of my hands and stalks up to him. 

     “What are you doing here?” She demands. He casually sidesteps her and prowls closer, hands in pockets. His tan, chiselled face is unreadable. 

     “He’s alive. How’s your sister?” 

     I incline my head. “I wouldn’t know.” 

     “Ryota, stop.” 

     “Maya I think it’s best you don’t miss your raider friends about to leave.” Maya freezes, eyes going to me. 

     “Maya, go.” She gulps and turns for the door. She looks back one last time, then runs out, the door slamming against the wooden frame. My eyes turn back to Ryota. 

     “That was quite a lie,” I say. 

     “It’ll take her a few minutes before she realizes they haven’t even saddled their camels.” His eyes take me in. I tense. “Are you planning to lead your family?”

     “That honor is solely meant for my sister.” 

     "She certainly fits the look. You’re the spitting image of your father.” I narrow my eyes. 

     “Last I heard, you were serving in Kurusa’s militia.”

     “You look as foreign here as I did in Kurusa.” 

     “Maya looks the same. Why are you back?”

     “I was run out of town,” he replies, the lie slipping off his tongue like silk. 

     “You always lie to Maya. Why are you really here?”

     He tosses an object. I catch it. I unfold my fist. 

     A jade seal of a phoenix gleams up at me. I stare at the frayed, braided cord, eyes tracing the chipped edge of the left wing. No. No,  Aisleen is not-

     “Your sister told me to give this to you.”

     “You let her die.”

     “I loved her,” he says. 

     “You let her die,” I repeated, my hand tightening around the seal. 

     He shakes his head. “She was born for a greater purpose than living as the head of a family of two.” 

     “You killed her.” 

     His eyes cut to me. 

     Yes, I did.”

     I lob the seal at his head. He lets it hit him. I can see the angry red mark on his tan forehead. He raises an eyebrow, as though he’s challenging me. Is that all you can do? Is that all you really are? I haven’t heard of anything but the fainting boy and his weakling tendencies. He can’t even tame a hawk or stand on a horse. 

     “Ryota!” Maya’s nose is scrunched, her freckles bunched together as she storms up to him. Rikku enters the yurt, and he quietly closes the door. His eyes dart to me, then to his brother. He looks Ryota up and down and his lips pull back. 

     “You look as handsome as ever. Where’s Yuuta?” He asks. 

     Ryota smirks. “Drunk to the seventh ring of Heaven,” he retorts. Maya bends down onto the wooden floor. Her tan hands scoop up the seal. She turns wide eyes to me. 

     “Is she…”

     “He knows better than me,” I say, eyes on Ryota. 

     “Ryota?” Riku’s voice sounds almost fragile in the silence. Ryota’s blows out a sigh and runs a scarred hand through his brown hair. A gold band gleams on one of his fingers. I stare. 

     “You married her, didn’t you.”

     He raises his head, hand falling to his side. His mouth is twisted in a mocking smirk. 

     “We didn’t have enough time to do that,” he says. My hands ball into fists. Not enough time. How dare he say he didn’t have enough time. He let her die. He let her go. He has no right—

     Rikku walks up to me, his left leg dragging behind. His eyes are unreadable when he takes my hand and sinks to the ground. Maya draws in a breath and Ryota gives a low chuckle. I study Rikku’s face. His eyes are a slate gray, face pallid from surgery and whatever illness is eating away at him. 

     “Lead us to prosperity, Gadja.” I flinch. His eyes hold mine as he draws my hand to his forehead. My hand rests against the rough wrinkles of his forehead. His hand drops. “Lead us to safety and tranquility, so that I may see the golden fields of the Valley Past.” His eyes fill with tears. “Let me see the blue sky of my ancestors and taste the bounty of your raids. If you will, pledge me to your clan and let me ride beneath your banners.”

     “How poetic,” Ryota says, silky voice floating in the silence, “I’m surprised you learned the pledge when you wouldn’t swear to Kazuke’s mother.”

     “I am Gadja,” I say. Foreigner. The word is as bled into my memory as my other titles. Leader. Failure. Brother. 

     I drop my hand. His eyes are wide. I shake my head. 

     "I don’t belong in this position anymore than you.” I get off the bed and kneel beside him. He scoots to me. I can hear Maya’s anklet jingling as she walks over and sinks besides us. I hold out my hand and she drops the seal in. I lay it on the floor between us. “If I am to lead, if you trust me enough, then let me lead you to our homeland.” 

     His eyes are solemn as he takes my hands. 

     “Bring us home.” 

*****

     There are times when I wish I could remember my father’s face. HIs eyes were said to be the cerulean blue of the Western Dome lakes and his hair was as black as the mountains beyond the domes. Aisleen used to tell me his hair was the dark brown of our soil and his voice was made to tell stories. 

     I wish I could have spoken to him. 

     “You’re thinking about him, aren’t you.” Ryota’s eyes gleam in the dark. The wagon we’re in bumps and shivers, bells jangling merrily in the night. Ryota folds his heavily embroidered sleeves in a kingly fashion. He fits my forefathers look more than I ever will. 

     “You still haven’t told me where is Yuuta,” I reply. He pulls back his teeth. 

     “Dead for all I care.” 

     “I’m surprised you can tolerate sitting in the same wagon as me.” 

     “It seemed kind of sad that you didn’t ask for anyone but me.” His eyes narrow. “Why?”

     I lean forward. There is a chipped hole on the side of the wagon. Though it, the full moon’s light shines.  I watch him smirk as the rays mark my dark blue eyes. “You look like a god reincarnate.” 

     “I want you to lead Maya out.” 

     His smile fades. 

     “What about the rest of the villagers?” My eyes stray to the hole, below the moon, to the stark, white lines of the Kurusa Royals’ ships. They came weeks ago, days after I had rounded the pledge of the villagers. I turn back to his still figure. He has a leg up, a hand casually dangling on the knee. 

     “You know as well as I that we are chattel.”

     His lips draw back and an understanding. It makes me feel oily, wrong. There is a dim thought in the back of my mind. The quiet realization that he has never smiled. Perhaps he had reserved such emotion for my sister. Perhaps he will never find that smile again.

“I wondered what you would do when I gave you that seal.”

     “Lead her out,” is all I say. He leans back with a cold smirk. The bells jingle hollowly outside. After some time, the wagon stops, and the doors are pulled out by smiling mothers. They stand back as Ryota steps out, their gray eyes riveted on his tall figure. Likely imagining the children their daughters would have with him. He turns and holds out a hand. His mouth quirks up. 

     “I forgot to say congratulations.”

     I take his hand as I step out. He falls behind me, the mothers trailing behind in a quiet flurry of embroidered robes.

     The walk is short. The dirt path is lit by torches, their flickering lights reflected by the still lake beneath us. Soon, I can see the backs of my people. They look at me with hope, faith that I will save them. It feels cruel to know our fates. The technology difference is too great. Hope cannot win against guns. I pass them, mounting stone stairs to the mouth of a well lit cave. 

     When I reach the top, I pause. Maya turns, veil swishing as she eyes me. I study her delicate, slightly tan face. I haven’t seen her since the day Rikku pledged his service. I wasn’t allowed to see her when the raiders returned, the rulers of the other tribes behind them. I stride forward, my footsteps quick thuds that echo. 

     I stand across from her and it’s hard not to hold her. My 17th birthday passed yesterday. I feel so young and untried. Rikku loudly clears his throat. 

     Maya smiles at me and takes my hands. I can feel new callouses from her hands. It makes me wonder if she will never go on another raid, if I will ever feel these callouses again. Her eyes desperately roam over my face and her grip tightens. Rikku wraps the white silk cord around us. I can smell the faint odor of alcohol on him. 

     The ceremony is silent, no words spoken. It is only with our eyes, our actions that we speak. Rikku ties a lopsided bow and not so gently pushes us to the entrance, where Ryota’s waiting. Maya smiles and I feel heat suffuse my cheeks. Ryota gives a low chuckle and she laughs. We stop at the entrance. The villagers below cheer as we raise our bound hands. I smile at Maya as the sounds of flutes and drums start. 

     My smile is firmly placed on my lips as my eyes drift beyond the people, our village, to the ships beyond. They are silent, but they wait like a fat spider looking at it’s dinner. The full moon will only last for one more night. Then the season of prosperity will end in my culture. It would be too kind of them to miss the chance to sow agony in a time of joy.

*****

     The morning came with the rattle of the dome. I watch as wave after wave of ship slam into the dome. They implode on impact. I wonder if there were any humans in there. 

     “You’re awful quiet this morning.” Ryota sips a cup of tea, eyes on the ships. “The villagers from the outskirts have evacuated to the center.” 

     “Thank you.” 

     “How is she?” he asks. 

     “She was sleeping when I left.” 

     “At least you did one thing right.” 

     “I think she wants to talk to you.” He stills.

     “We’ll have plenty of time for that,” he says. 

     I turn. “I want you to leave with her now.” 

     “It will take them a few more hours to crack the dome,” he replies, eyebrows raised. 

     “I want you to leave the planet along with the Western Dome’s tribal leaders.” Ryota gives a low laugh. 

     “Cowards.” 

     “I suspect our elders have joined them.” He smirks. 

     “I suppose you wouldn’t mind that much if a few of these ships were caught by the enemy...would you?”

     I watch as a ship’s wing is incinerated by the dome. It falls, flaming debris falling off until I can see the metal skeleton. 

     “I think it is only natural that a few escapees will be caught.” 

     “I suppose you’ll find some familiar names if you ever get a missing persons report.” 

     “Find a better life, Ryota.” He stiffens. “I know you miss Aisleen.” 

     “Probably not as much as you.” 

     “I’m not so sure of that. And don’t die. You need to take care of Maya for me.” A line of ships slam into the dome. It flickers. I tense. “I don’t want to see you in this village five minutes from now.” I hear him sigh. He yanks his hand through his hair as he stares at the ground. 

     “When they start to kill off the children, tell them you know where I am.”  

     I glance at him. He’s already gone. I watch the destruction in silence for a few minutes, then I go into our yurt. Maya’s gone. The bed is still warm when I lay in it. The yurt shakes from the force of the ships outside. 

     Ryota told me, as Maya danced with her friends, that they enslaved the leaders. That they would torture them until they could not remember their own names. And when they were done, they would offer the leaders salvation. They wouldn’t flinch when they lead the soldiers who killed their families. 

     He told me that they would often send an android of the leader’s most beloved, something they would be forced to kill. Something that would strike fear into the people and horrify the leader to distraction. Something that would make the leader make rash decisions. He told me to brace myself for what was to come. 

     I am not ready. I fear I will never see Rikku drunkenly croon over the fire or Ryota play the flute. I fear I will never see the embroidered banners of my homeland or the telltale feel of crisp morning air carried with the scent of snow. 

     I fear that I will never see Maya again, that I will never hold her in my arms and feel her lemon smelling hair tickle my nose. 

     I get up and walk out. I run down the deserted street, to the largest yurt, where our elders slept. I rest a hand on the intricately carved doors, my eyes studying them. They are carved with our clan’s most prominent legend. The Gadja.

    The elders spoke of a young foreigner who would lead a chosen people to battle the cruel royalty across a sea of stars. In a world of few beliefs, my people have come to find solace in such tales. Perhaps my mother knew this when she met my father. When she decided to have another, more foreign child when she knew tradition stated a ruling family should only have one. 

     I push open the doors, to the frightened people inside. 

     Their leader has come. And he will lead them to the Valley Past. 

 

The Dandelion Crown - Part Four

By Sophia R.

     It couldn’t have been past midday when we arrived, but by the time I’d made my way back, the sun had started to set, leaving brilliant shades of orange and purple streaking across the sky. 

     Selby and Dad were waiting for me just outside a small bar near the docks, while the rest of the crew was inside, the sound of laughter and clinking of mugs.

     “We were about ready ter go and find ye,” Selby said, a pint of mead in hand as he cleaned against the wall. He raised an eyebrow when he saw what I was holding. “What’s that, an apology for bein’ so late?”

     “You too then?” Dad said, and showed me a few stems of dandelions, which I now knew meant overcoming hardship and courage. “Some sailor gave us these when he heard about the ship.”

     “Started goin’ on about this big festival they’re having tonight, dunno if ye heard o’ it while you were in town. Everyone’s been going ‘round throwin’ flowers at us as if we were at a wedding, or somethin’.” Selby added. He took another gulp of mead and looked at me expectantly from over the brim of the mug. “So, did you find a place for us to stay?”

     A feeling of dread washed over me, making me forget entirely about my plan to weave a flower crown for Dad, and the flowers I’d picked out from the bouquet Miriam prepared for me.

     “I completely forgot!” I gasped, “I was going to look for one, but then people kept saying it would be busy everywhere, and then I got dragged into a flower shop—”

     “Calm down, Archer, don’t worry about it.” Dad said with a chuckle. “I spoke to some of the sailors earlier, and they mentioned there was one place we could stay at, after the festivities are over.”

     “Where?”

     “Never you mind right now.” He took the bouquet of flowers from me and frowned at them. “Now, I haven’t the faintest clue what they were telling me about flower crowns, but apparently it’s a tradition to make them because of—”

     “Because of the meteor that crashed thousands of years ago.” I said. Dad blinked, and Selby choked on his mead. 

     “It’s a long story,” I smiled, thinking about how the turn my afternoon had taken, “But if we’re going to celebrate with the Ollestrians, you two should know the history. It all started with a meteor that struck the heart of Ollestria a long time ago…”

 

Second Door to Death

By Faustina L.

     I had no control over my body. Something invisible and strong was pulling me forward.

     In the past I had a lot of strange things happen to me, but this for sure deserved to win a gold metal. 

     My feet - without my permission - took me left, off the main road, into an alley, followed by a sharp right turn a moment later.  For the longest minute in my life I was immobilized and terrified. The maze of grey concrete led me to a large circle joined by eight other exits. A second later my body was released from the invisible force. 

     “That’s it?” I said aloud as if anyone was around to answer. 

     “Hello”. A shaky voice spoke. 

     I directed my attention towards the source. 

     The voice belonged to a tall, brown-haired guy that looked oddly like me. I had a hunch that he was the same age, sixteen, as well. 

     “Who are you? And where am I?” I yelled.

     The guy flinched than slowly turned his attention onto me. 

     “Don’t...know”. He said, 

     “Did something pull you here?” 

     His eyes grew wide and he nodded several times. In a shaky voice he asked, “Did you feel it?” 

     “Yeah. What is it?” 

     “I don’t know, but...I don’t think it’s anything good.'' 

     I was about to pop another question but a third presence joined us. 

     “Welcome to the line”. Whispered several unique voices. 

     A lanky figure wrapped in about a dozen black cloaks glided into my line of vision. 

     “Rasion Gloruse…” The figure spoke. 

     I felt a hand of ice slide down my spine at the sound of my name coming from that thing's mouth.

     “Gorge Leminer…” 

     H-how do you know my name?”The other guy asked. 

     The figure went on: “I Am your guardian during the journey across the line. It is here that both of you succumb to death and fade away from life.” 

     My heart skipped a beat and I found myself swaying. 

     “I’m dead?” I whispered.

     “Shall we begin…?” The cloaked figure asked.

     “No!” I yelled.

     I steadied my balance and dug up any braveness I had left. 

     “Am I dead?” I barked.

     The figure dropped its head than slowly turned towards me. 

     I tensed. The figure had no face. Where a head should’ve been was nothing but a swirl of black. 

     “You have died”. It said in that creepy voice.

     “I never died,” I said incredulously. 

     “According to the universe, you have.”

     Before I could say anything the figure turned and pointed at Gorge. 

     “Two minutes ago Gorge Leminer died in a car accident. A minute and fifty-nine seconds ago you - Rasion Gloruse - died”. 

     “How?! How did I die?” 

     “Your death is tied to Gorge’s death.” 

     “What does he have to do with me?” 

     “Did he kill me?” Gorge cried.

     “No... You're both connected, the two of you. It’s the way of the universe”. 

     “Why are we connected”? I snapped.

     “You are doppelgängers. When one of you perishes, the other quickly follows.” 

     I shook my head in disbelief. 

     “That’s unfair,” I growled. “I shouldn’t be dead.”

     “It’s the law of the universe…” 

     “An unjust one.”

     The figure raised its arms and a row of four doors rose from the ground. 

     “Say what you like, but the universe is just. I’m sure you’ll figure that out soon enough.” 

     The doors were old but the paint on each of them looked new. They were all different colors: green, white, blue and red.  

     “What are the doors for?” Gorge asked.

     “The green is a passage to a land of pure peace and adventure. The white is for tired souls. The blue is for those who wish to live again a second chance, but that chance comes with a price. The red door is for souls that seek war and hate”. 

     “What is the price for living again?” I asked.

     “Life starts over and your memories from this life fade to nothing.” 

     “I want to go through the green door.” Gorge announced.

     In a soft voice the figure spoke. "The green door is a wise choice for a man who accepts his fate.” 

     “I do.” 

     “Open the door and let your spirit go.” 

     Gorge did as he was instructed and a second later he was no more. 

     “What door might you choose, Rasion Gloruse…?” 

     “The blue.” 

     The figure nodded. “Just remember that souls who have lived twice do not get a third opportunity.” 

     I nodded towards the blue door and asked the figure, “What do I do?” 

     “Open it and let your life here slip away.” 

     I cleared the distance between me and the door. My hand froze as I was within inches of the gold knob. 

     “I’m afraid,” I admitted.

     “If you weren’t then you wouldn’t be human.” 

     I took in a big shaky breath then twisted the knob and flung the door open. 

     A cold wind hollowed past me and a chain of memories from my childhood followed. 

     I gasped as a huge part of me was taken away. 

     I wanted to cry, but I suddenly couldn’t remember how or why. I couldn’t remember where I was or who I was. All I knew in that moment was the dark pit rising from deep in my mind.  

     Something solid collided into me and I was thrusted backwards at a fast speed. 

     Suddenly I had it all back, my memories were returning. 

     My eyes were forced closed and the world grew dark...dark...and then I felt a sudden pain snake its way up my back and across the bridge of my neck. 

     I willed my eyes open to the sight of a blue sky. 

     “Rasion Gloruse.” The figure spoke. 

     “What happened?” I asked, carefully hauling myself to my feet. 

     “A soul that has already lived twice will not be given a third chance.'' 

     Panic swelled in my chest and tears threatened to break free. 

     “I’ve already died once?” 

     “You have lived once before, yes.” 

     The white door next to the blue one creaked open and a welcoming light peeked out. 

     “Let your soul rest, Rasion…” 

     I felt a warm sensation tug me towards the door. 

     “I’m still afraid.” 

     “You're still human.” 

     I cracked my last smile as I stepped into the light. A heat full of life surrounded me. 

     Memories of my first life flashed by me, and I caught sight of an important one. 

     In my first life, Gorge was my brother. 

 

The Abstracts: Seer - Chapter Four

By Danielle N.

     “You’re so lucky.”

     “No, I’m not.”

     “You spent an entire two weeks in bed! You were excused two weeks of homework! How could you not be having the time of your life?”

     I sighed. Lyla was leaning on my door frame, crossed arms, staring at me enviously like I’d just won a year of chocolate truffles.

     “I wasn’t able to do anything, Lyla. No games, no tinkering, no reading…”

     “Well, didn’t you sleep in?”

     “That was my only escape from the endless boredom, Lyla. I took naps in the middle of the day and slept until three. It was like I was still in a coma, how much I slept.”

     “Ugh, I’m so jealous. I felt like a zombie at school, while you sit in bed, complaining that her royal highness wants some entertainment!”

     “I’d be open to switching places, Lyla.”

     “Lyla, leave your sister alone! She needs to rest.”

     I groan loudly as Lyla slowly stood up and strutted out the room. Mom didn’t know, but rest was the last thing I needed right now. I’d snuck downstairs last night to see what I could do to fix the tongs. Mom finally told me where she put them after I said that my mind would be at rest knowing where they were. At first, I was afraid to even touch it in fear that my brain would start slamming itself against my cranium again. But after I started writing down ideas on how to fix the tongs, the only pain in my head was a dull throb.

     So I started to work.

     I wasn’t lying to Lyla when I said I had a lot of naps; I worked from eleven at night to two in the morning without so much as a yawn. I only went back upstairs when I checked my watch and realized that I had to at least pretend that I’d slept. So I quietly climbed upstairs and lost myself in my pillowcase.

 

     School.

     I was going back to school today, and I didn’t realize I’d have to get up so early. I’d slept in for two weeks and wasn’t used to the time I’d have to get up, and I’d worked late last night. Lyla had woken me up that morning to go to school, but my mom was so worried she took my backpack off for me once I’d gotten home and told me to go back to bed. I’d already had a bad enough day while everyone assumed I’d watched one to many episodes of Star Trek, and Brandon brought an alien mask to school and popped out of corners just to annoy me.

     Boys. They’re fine in elementary school, but they turn sour in middle school. That’s one thing that has always been clear to me. On rare occasions you get a really sweet and considerate boy, for instance Carter. He’s been friendly to me since second grade, and for a while I thought he liked me, but he’s been getting cozy with Jessica, so apparently not. But most of the time, you get guys like Brandon, who has taken on the job to annoy everyone in class. But I’m just imagining what he’s going to do to those poor girls he asks to prom…

     Anyway, after mom so rudely shoved me back to bed, I wasn’t so keen on trying to lull myself to sleep, so I pulled out a few of the baby books on the shelf up here. The reason I keep all my favorite books downstairs is that I spend so much time down there; doing homework, tinkering, reading, or just chilling out. Lyla only reads when she has to, so when anyone has a book they want out of their way, they put it on the shelf up here in my bedroom. As a result, 30% of the books up here were baby books, 60% are books that found their way up there by chance, and are either uninteresting or have too tiny print, 7% are slightly interesting, and 3% make their way to the “lesser favorites” section in the bookshelf downstairs. 

     I was not really in the mood to read, so I reached behind my bed for the spare remote to the TV. But the earthquake must’ve done something weird to the WiFi, and I found a big fat error message on the screen. So I was like, crap, I have nothing to do until dinner.

So, instead of watching the shadows play across the floor, I decided to sneak a book up here for me to read - and only that. If I timed it right, I should be down to the Garage, grab a book, then zip back up here in less than a minute.

     Turning the doorknob but not opening the door, I listened for the sound of creaking footsteps on the staircase. When I did open the door, it was silent. No one was upstairs. This was really lucky for me. I peered around the staircase, and noticed mom and dad chatting quietly in the living room. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but that was hardly important. I came out onto the stairs and tiptoed down as quiet as I could. At that point, they could just look away from each other and I would have no place to hide. I reached the landing on the stairs, and inserted the key into the tiny hole. It was a drop down to the staircase to the Garage, so I slowly lowered myself in, going slowly so the landing didn’t creak. My arms ached for holding myself up, and once I finally dropped down with a satisfying poomp, my arms felt like soggy noodles. The landing top creaked slightly as I closed it, but it was so tiny I didn’t think they noticed.

     I rushed to the Garage, noticing bitterly that Mom moved my desk back to the wall, and tipped everything out in her search for the tongs. On a happier note, my supply bins looked much more full, possibly from Dad scourging the internet for supplies, possibly a surprise from either parent.

     But I promised myself I’d be out in less than a minute.

     I skimmed through the bookshelf, trying to decide between King’s Cage or Insurgent. 

     They both looked really good, but I knew what I really wanted to do down here. My eyes wandered to the tongs sitting on my desk, the metal dented and a half of one tong sliced open, just begging me to fix it.

     No, I’m only down here to get myself a book.

     But if I fixed them now, then when I got back to school tomorrow I’d be able to test them again. The concentrated electrical energy at 124 DFH should be able to detect even the faintest of brain waves.

     And I knew I couldn’t resist as I crept back to my desk and opened up the side panel in the tongs, and got ready to work.

 

     About an hour later, the tongs were completely fixed: the metal was welded together, the electrical boards were straightened and in prime condition, and I even added in a space for a computer chip. And not even a pinch of pain in my head. To be frank, I felt relieved to know that the Tongs were ready for school tomorrow.

     I was about to go back upstairs when I noticed the bookshelf, and remembered that I was here for much longer than I was supposed to. It was really no big deal; If I were stealthy enough, getting back upstairs would be a breeze. I picked out a book by random (Six of Crows), and left through the door by the stairs. 

     What felt like only moments later, I heard my mom call for me. 

     “Vikki, it’s dinner time!”

     It seemed like whenever I was really into a good book -

     “Vikki, NOW!!”

     I sighed, and hopped off my too-stiff bed and ran down the stairs to the table. Dinner was mac’n cheese, which I absolutely despise: It tasted like chemicals scraped off someone's boots, always way too strong, and was super unhealthy. I looked around the table, noting the steak on Mom’s plate and some mixed veggies Lyla was poking at with her spoon.

     “So, Victoria.”      

     “Yes, that’s my name.”

     “I wanted to talk to you about school tomorrow.”

     “Okay, what about it?”

     “Well, the thing is, I want you to stay here.”

     I groaned. I JUST fixed the tongs, and I already missed enough school. Mom would be hindering me by making me stay home.

     “Mom, I was in a coma for two days and I missed two weeks of school. I already must have a mountain - sized hole in my grades, everyone is ahead of me, and I’m completely healed. I’m going to school tomorrow.”

     Mom pursed her lips, racking her brain for a counter-argument. I already know I’ve won, of course.

     “Honey, when I heard the doctors tell me you were in a coma, I thought I wouldn’t ever leave your side. You have no idea how hard it was for me, seeing you full of tubes and unconscious. It doesn’t matter that it was only two days, the fact that you were unconscious at all put me in denial. And now that you’re standing here, in front of me, I don’t want you to do anything that could possibly put you back into that terrible state.”

     “So instead it’s better for me to lie in bed here, already healed and bored out of my skull? Because that could also put me in a coma.”

     Mom chuckled sadly, already admitting defeat. “Maybe just for one more day?”

     I shook my head. “Mom, I’m already hopelessly behind all the other kids. Are you really willing to put yourself and your feelings in front of my education?”

 

Panic Pancakes - Part Five

By Rachel F.

     For a moment, I just sit in the cold cell before everything washes over me like a waterfall.  When everything hits, I burst into full-blown panicky, and confused sobs. I cry and cry, shuttering and sputtering for a while.  When I finally stop, it’s almost dark and I start to panic. ‘Oh no, oh no,’ I think. ‘I’m going to be here forever, my mom will call the police, but they won’t be able to find me and I’ll die of starvation.  All because of my stupid decision to trust Jamie. I knew I smelled trouble, well at least half of me did and that half was my gut. So many times my gut told me to turn around and walk away, but I didn’t because the stupid other half of me thought that maybe, just maybe, me and Jamie could reunite as friends.’

     I shut my eyes for a minute and bury my head between my legs.  I sob some more and more until there is nothing left and then I stand up and pace.

     I pace back and forth and back and forth.  All I can think about is what Jamie said. How could my mom steal money from Henry’s family, and what does she mean when she says she’s ‘in too deep’?

     I keep pacing to pass time until I hear a faint, “woof, woof woof.”

     Then I hear some footsteps and a panting sound.  I hold my breath and cross my fingers. The panting gets louder and louder and so do the footsteps.  I count to five and a very happy, rather-plump golden retriever comes into view. The dog comes up to the cell and I come over to it.  It licks me through the metal, rusted bars. The tongue is slimy and warm and wet. It leaves my face sticky, but I love every second of it.

      When I’ve finally been licked to death the dog backs up a little and I stand up.  Now if only the dog could get me out of here. “Here boy,” I call.

     The dog comes bounding over and I stare into his eyes.  I turn my head and look at the tree with the button on it.  The button is a little taller than the dog, but I decide to try it anyway.  “Ok,” I say to the dog who is now looking back at me. “You’re gonna go over there and stand on your hind legs so that you can push that red button,”

     The dog looks at me with a puzzled grin and I point to the button as the dog obediently walks over to it.  It stands on its hind legs but it’s still too short. The dog tries jumping but it’s no use, I’ll be stuck here forever.

     I stumble backward and rest my back against the opposite side of the cell.  I bend my knees and sit down on the cold cement floor. The dog, who now looks very sad and disappointed, walks around the cell and sniffs my hair.  I turn toward it and reach through the bars. But my arm can’t reach, so I sit back down.

     A couple minutes pass and the dog walks around and around the cell.  It tries again to reach the button, but again, it’s no use.

     Almost half an hour passes by when I hear, “Suzy, Suzy, where are you girl?”  It’s a boy’s voice and I jolt upright as a boy comes into view. He’s medium height with pale skin, freckles, and dirty blond hair.  He wears a blue and red striped T-shirt with some worn jeans and on his face are some big round glasses that make his green eyes look huge.  His eyes go wide when he sees Suzy and it takes him a moment to see me. When he does he gets a confused look on his face and I start to panic until he lets out a grin.

     “Well hello there,” he says.  “I’m Owen, and you are?”

     “Umm, I’m A...Audrey,” I stutter.

     “Well hello, there A...Audrey, what are you doing in this cell?” he asks.

     “It’s complicated... could you please just go over there to that tree and push the red button?” I ask. “Then I’ll be out of your way and you can do whatever you need to do with your dog.”

     “Oh, don’t be silly,” he says with a laugh.  “What kind of gentlemen would I be if I just freed you and left?”

     I shrug and he goes over to the tree where the button is.  He pushes it, and with a loud scrape, the cell walls lift up into the sky, setting me free.  I walk out into the almost pitch-black forest and sit on a nearby bench, next to Owen. “Thank you,” I say.

    He grabs my hand, clips Suzy’s leash onto her collar and says, “Come on, Suzy’s pregnant and due any minute.  Oh, and my parents sadly have a rule that anyone that I find in the woods must have dinner at our house, and may or may not be able to take one of Suzy’s puppies as a souvenir.”  Owen has that same grin on his face and I smile too as he leads me down the hill and out of the forest. 

     We sprint down the hill pretty fast, until Suzy starts groaning about halfway down.  We stop for a second and Owen gives Suzy some water, then we continue down the rest of the way.

     We walk and walk until a little cottage near the edge of the forest pops into view.  There’s smoke coming out of the chimney and something smells divine. As we come up to the house I feel a drop of rain on my arm.  A couple seconds later the rain picks up and little raindrops start peppering the lawn. The raindrops look like little jewels or diamonds, hidden in the grass.  I keep walking a few more short steps until I realize that Owen isn’t following me and neither is Suzy. Is this not his house?

     At that moment I turn around to a surprising sight.  Owen is about 10 feet back and is looking at the sky with his tongue out.  So is Suzy, whose golden tail is wagging. I begin to laugh really hard.  I almost fall to the ground when Owen looks at me in confusion. “What’s so funny?” He asks.

     “Oh, I don’t know,” I say sarcastically.  “Maybe just you and your dog, looking at the sky with your tongues out.”

     “We were thirsty,” Owen says.

     “Did you get any water?”

     “Yeah, lots, very refreshing,” he says.

     I roll my eyes for the trillionth time and Owen tugs on Suzy’s leash.  We walk some more, and the rain picks up when we’re almost there.

     “You should have waited until now to take your rainwater drink,” I say while nudging Owen’s side.

     Owen gives me that same smiley smirk and then opens his mouth again with Suzy as rain falls in.

     Owen burps and I roll my eyes as he wipes his mouth.

     The rain picks up again, making us soaked, and we sprint the rest of the way to his house with Suzy panting along.

     When we get to his house, I see a small cottage with smoke wafting out of the chimney.  It smells delicious, like the perfect home-cooked meal. Owen rap, tap, taps on the door, and in a second it swings open.

 

Red Lipstick

By Aastha M

     The first time I was ever in a principal’s office was in the August of fifth grade, six months after my parents had split. My foot tapped anxiously against the apple-shaped rug on which my chair rested. I was waiting for the Principal, Mrs. Christie, to get her third coffee of the day from the staff lounge. 

     I knew it was her third because among the clutter of worksheets, stationary, and miscellaneous documents scattered on her desk were two empty coffee cups. You could even tell which one had been from the morning and which one was from lunchtime by the lipstick stains that were left over on the rim of the lid—the one from the morning being more red. 

     As she walked into the room, lipstick darker than it was when I first saw her, she raised her glasses to her forehead and sat in her desk. 

I was confused as to what I had done wrong. Was I mean to someone while playing tag? Did I throw my bag of chips in the recycle bin instead of the trash? Did I not do my homework or  forget to return my library book? I wasn’t sure what she wanted from me. 

Puzzled, I had no option but to stare at the floor because I was too afraid to look directly at her. I knew something was peculiar about this whole situation but I had trouble noticing what it was at first. Just like mine, her feet tapped against the ground on her side of the desk. Looking back on it, she must have been anxious that day too. 

     Then I noticed. Her Valentino’s were much more elegant than the sneakers she had worn during playground duty. Her shirt was modest, but slightly more revealing. Her lashes were slightly more prominent. 

     Ms. Christie barely acknowledged me and opened up her phone. With nothing better to do, I picked at the scab I had gotten from tripping during PE the other day. The blood began to trickle down my leg as my fingernails dug into the skin on my knee. I felt a sense of relief because I had pacified my boredom, but only until I felt the blood seeping into my socks—then I just felt uncomfortable. Ms. Christie peered over her desk to see why I was bending down so much. I could tell she was annoyed, but still, she offered a few paper towels and a bandaid for me to put on. She even got up from her seat to help clean up my wound with some alcohol wipes. 

     Then my mother walked in. Expecting a look of disappointment across her face, I once again looked down, refusing to accept the fact that she was mad at me. Suddenly, I smelled my mom’s going out Lancome perfume and was even more astonished when she came up to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. She then turned to Ms. Christie and gave her a hug. 

     Once again, I was puzzled. The only people my mother gave hugs to was me, my sister, her close friends, and my dad when they were still together. Was she in an extra good mood today? Who knew. Who knew anything about this situation anyways? Because I sure didn’t. No one was saying a word to me and I was too scared to open my mouth myself. So I just sat there. Ms. Christie just sat there. My mother just sat there. 

     It was pindrop silence for a solid what felt like an hour. In reality though, it was probably only thirty seconds or so. The thoughts raced through my mind. Were they good friends? Why was I dragged into this meeting? What was going on? Did something happen to my dad? I wanted answers, but I was too shy to ask.

     Then my mother’s mouth opened. What came out of her mouth was words I will never forget as long as I live. 

     “Rachel honey, I have something to tell you,” she said in a gentle voice, “I wanted you to personally meet Susan,” she said gesturing towards Ms. Christie. 

     Ms. Christie, nervous and jittery, smiled at me the best she could without getting her lipstick all over her teeth. I appreciated the gesture, so decided to smile back. Still confused, I wondered why my mother needed me to meet her in person.

     “Me and Susan have been going out for dinner a few times a week for the past few months on days you are at your dad’s house. I just wanted to let you know so that there are no confusions,” Mom said.

     No confusions? I was still very confused. So? Who cares if she went for dinner with her friend? What was the big deal?

     It became clearer when my mother’s fingertips reached out to those of Ms. Christie’s and held her manicured, nail polished hands from across the table. The red lipstick, Valentino's, and extra spray of Lancome perfume all began to make sense. They smiled and looked at me as if they were seeking my approval. But why did they need my approval? They were already going to dinner without my consent. 

     I missed my old family. Everything had gone smoothly up until the point mom had mentioned something to dad that caused them to get a divorce. I had always wondered what it was that split them apart, and even blamed my mom for it because it was her who had told him that she wanted a divorce. Why did she have to do that? Why did she have to force our family apart? Why did she have to fall in love with a woman? 

     As a fifth grader, I wondered why it took so long for mom to realize she was attracted to girls. She was 32 when they split, and by the time a person reaches their 30s, they should know who they like and dislike. Didn’t she like my dad? Didn’t she like my sister and I?

     For months it was hard for me to face the truth. I felt like everything I knew about mom was a lie. She wasn’t who I thought she was. She had betrayed us.

     It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was a junior in highschool that I really began to accept my mom as a lesbian. I began to realize that who she was attracted to was something she could not control. I realized that not telling my dad about herself would have been a disservice to him. Although she might have been later than most in understanding herself, the fact that she stood up for herself shows just how courageous of a woman she is. 

     Even though the first few years after my parent’s divorce were quite difficult for me to understand and get used to, my mom and dad still keep in touch and we even spend holidays together. We no longer live in our little townhome together as a family, but both my parents are in new relationships that have made them happy, which makes me think that their divorce was actually for the better.  I am happy too —probably the happiest I’ve been in a long time. It truly is comforting. 

 

Selfish Acts of Love

By Juehan L.

     Children of the 1980s in China were undoubtedly the luckiest — many of them were the only child in their families. After the Chinese government’s announcement of the One-Child Policy, there was hardly a family with multiple children. Parents in those days, therefore, gave all their love to the one child. Baoxia was one of them.

     She grew up in a family full of love. Although the village she lived in did not have abundant resources due to the economic conditions in China, she certainly never needed to worry about food and clothes. Baoxia was a contented girl; what she owned satisfied her every desire. She never thought of acquiring anything that she did not already have. Baoxia enjoyed a good life, for her family treated her well. They loved and supported her when she did not feel well. Every evening, everyone in the  family sat around an old table for dinner under dim lights hanging from the ceiling, waiting for Baoxia to return from school. These moments, accompanied with the clatter of chopsticks and bowls, were filled with laughter and mouth watering flavors. Warm and orange light seemed to spill through the windows out into the dark and quiet field. 

     Just like so many other kids, Baoxia sometimes asked where she came from. More often than not, parents answer this question with humor, jokingly something like, “We found in a trashcan, and you were a little troublesome.”  Nonetheless, whenever Baoxia asked her parents, this question, they always became serious, turning silent with poker faces, and they pretended to have heard nothing. In desperation, Baoxia asked her friends about the reactions of their parents regarding the same question that she had repeatedly asked. 

     “Baoxia, do you know that you were adopted from a family living in a neighboring village?” said one of her friends. 

     “Yea, yea, don’t you know Baoxia? I just remembered. Your parents are not your real parents. But thank God they are nice to you,” another villager agreed. 

     “What do you mean?” These villagers annoyed her. “Who gave them the right to judge me and my parents? Huh?” and she ran away, leaving these villagers in the dust.

     “She doesn’t understand,” sighed one of the villagers, looking at the direction of Baoxia’s house. 

     Baoxia went back home and cried in front of her family, explaining what the villagers had said – that she was adopted. 

     “Who said you are adopted?” Baoxia’s mom yelled, “You are my only child. Which villager said this to you? Baoxia, remember, you are the only child of your mother, you were not adopted. Don’t listen to this nonsense.”

     Although Baoxia remembered her mother's earnest, emphatic words, a seed of suspicion, nevertheless, germinated. She had always been obedient, and she had always trusted every word her mother said, but she did not understand why the villagers repeatedly told her and others that she was adopted. Thinking about this more and more, she became scared. She did not dare to keep asking her parents because they had already emphatically answered her. Besides, asking her mom over and over again would be disrespectful, so Baoxia simply said nothing more about this to either her mother or her father.  

     The years pass, and one night Baoxia careens down the hallway in a hospital, running fast and gasping for breath. 

     Arriving out of breath, she blurts out, “How is my mother?” The doctor tries to calm Baoxia. And after her breath slows a little she asks three more questions in quick succession. “What is happening to her? What are her symptoms? Is her health severely threatened?” she almost cries. 

     “Your mother is fine for now. But later she needs to be transferred to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) due to her serious situation,” the doctor answers in a placid voice. He hesitates for a few seconds. Looking deep into her tearful eyes, the doctor begins to speak, but stops and an awkward silence ensues. A sense of helplessness and anxiety clutters his thoughts as the doctor explains the disease that has taken over her mother’s body. 

     “Your mother has ovarian cancer.” Clearing his throat and controlling his facial expression, the doctor continues, “This type of cancer develops primarily in women who have never been pregnant . . .” 

     And on and on, the doctor explains the sordid prognosis, which Baoxia only dimly hears because only the fact that her mom has ovarian cancer loops around in her mind. Her body stiffens stoically like a statue, emotionless stone. Yes, she had seemed to know all along. Now, her mom’s ovarian cancer is the evidence proving her adoption. She cannot believe that her mom who loves her and has always supported her has lied to her for most of her life in an attempt to hide the truth. Thoughts, like taut strings, wind through her head, and though she tries, she fails to disentangle from them. Baoxia’s lips moved; still she holds all emotions in check and asks the doctor flatly, “What’s your treatment plan?” 

     After hearing his plan, Baoxia walks back to her mom’s room. Baoxia sits on the bed next to her. Her mom is lying there with tubes in her body, so weak.  Though asleep, she sometimes slightly curves her fingers. The silence is only interrupted by the intermittent mechanical expression of  the ventilator beeping.  Not willing to interrupt her mom’s sleep, she deliberately focuses on every action with nearly a sound. She continues thus through the night hours until dawn.

     At about 4:00 in the morning, her mom wakes up to see her daughter sitting next to her in bed, asleep. Peering at Baoxia and smiling, she grabs her daughter’s hand. Baoxia immediately wakes up with question after another as to how her mom feels.  

     “Don’t worry, I feel good,” whispers Baoxia’s mom.

     “Would you like some water? Are you thirsty? I will get some water for you. Just wait for a second...”

     “Baoxia,” her mom grabs her hand, indicating for her to sit down, “It’s been a long time since I last saw you. You’ve grown up. I’m pleased.” 

     Baoxia realizes her mom wants to talk, so she puts everything aside and intently listens to every word. 

     “I know I am about to die. Have no fear, Baoxia. This is our destination. Before I die, I have something really important to tell you. This might be my last chance.” Taking a slow deep breath, she looks directly into Baoxia eyes and then looks away to the ceiling and hesitates. Baoxia realizes that she does not know how to begin. The medical ventilator continues to beep. Baoxia sees her mom’s heart rate rise on the monitor, just as the medical ventilator’s output rises. 

     “You were so innocent when you were a child,” Baoxia’s mom recalls, “I just wanted to protect your innocence and promise you a better future. But I have come to realize that I was wrong,” she sighs and touches Baoxia’s hand. 

     “I think you’ve long known that I didn’t give birth to you?” She is not surprised that Baoxia still remains calm.

     “The first time I met you was when you are about a year old. You had just learned how to walk. You parents were arguing loudly in the yard about whether they had to abandon you to have another child, who they wanted to be a son.”

     “I know it was painful for you to hear the truth that your parents abandoned you because of the fact that you are a girl. Each family could only have one child. I was sorry that you became a victim of the One-Child Policy back then. Right then, I decided to adopt you from your biological parents because my body would not allow me to have a baby. I thought that you would never have to suffer with your original family again, and I promised you a better life.” Baoxia’s mom uttered a gasping sob as she poured over her memories. 

     “My husband and I then made a selfish decision not to tell you the truth because we wanted to protect you, so in our kindness we were cruel.” Tears filled her eyes, “we didn’t want you to leave us when you grew up because we knew we would be too old to earn after we retired.” Baoxia’sfists are clenched tightly as if by doing so she could relieve her pain. Nevertheless, she kept her face straight and forced a smile. 

     Baoxia’s mom closed her eyes and sighed. She knew that Baoxia was finding it hard to accept her words after all the years of lies, but she could not take her heavy regret to her grave. And perhaps she even was repenting for the next life. Taking a deep breath, Baoxia’s mom continued: “Please forgive my selfishness, Baoxia.” Baoxia saw tears stream from her mom’s eyes. And then there were no words; only silence was exchanged between mother and daughter. Baoxia still sat next to her mom, remembering every part of her mom’s confession and carefully filing each away in her mind. 

     Not giving her any chance of choosing her parents and not telling her the truth about her real parents seemed to bring Baoxia to an understanding, and she forgave her parents. As a young girl, Baoxia had never really understood the efforts her mom made in raising her from an innocent baby to a mature adult. Thus, forgiveness was not an issue, she had for many years suspected the truth, but she was in no way resentful.

     An hour later, with her mom’s heart rate suddenly began increasing; the medical ventilator beeped faster and faster. Suddenly, doctors and nurses appeared in the room. She saw many medical workers running in a hurry, doing CPR and giving injections. Baoxia watched this whole chaotic scene with tears in her eyes, but she found she could not say anything. About twenty minutes later, the doctors pronounced her mom’s death.

     Leaving the dark and heavy atmosphere in the hospital, Baoxia looked up at the bright blue sky, refreshing her thoughts and clearing her mind. Taking a deep breath to inhale the air outside and exhaling the lament from the bottom of her heart, she collected herself.. After the final talk with her mother, Baoxia never attempted to look for her real parents. She left her family and moved to another city, far away. She has never contacted her family and old friends. Still, however, she returns once a year on her mom’s birthday. She visits the graveyard and talks stoically to the cold gravestone. She never cries in front of her gravestone; rather, she always smiles and laughs innocently, just as though her mom were still alive, standing there in front of her. 

 

324

By Edmund L.

     As I sit up groggily and open my eyes, the first thing I notice is the unnatural silence. I can’t hear the hubbub of talking passengers or even hear the usual screeching of the subway on the tracks. I forgot my coffee when leaving for work this morning, so I guess I must’ve slept till the last stop and everyone else already left. The one day I have to use the train after my car broke down, and now I miss my station? My boss will kill me if I am late. As I get up and the carriage door opens, cold air blasts by me, and I try to pull my jacket closer to me. I swear I washed it this morning, so why does it look so worn out? Shrugging off the thought, I take a step onto the platform, the train speeding off behind me.

    The empty station sends a chill up my spine. Looking around, my first indication that something is wrong stems from the unnaturally clean concrete floor and walls. The usual smell of smoke and dust is nowhere to be found, and in its place, the dead stale odor of concrete wafts through the air. There is no sign of the usual pieces of blackened gum on the floor. In fact, there is no indication that the station has even been touched, ever.

     Wondering if the station is just a newly completed addition to the complicated New York subway system, I make my way towards the ticket gates, looking for a map or a security guard to tell me where I am. As my footsteps echoed down the long subway tunnel, I can't shake the unsettling feeling that someone is watching me. Wanting to leave as fast as possible, I pick up the pace, climb the stairs off the platform, and slide past the ticket gates out into the dark road, lit only by the occasional street lamps. Dark? It should’ve been the morning train to work, yet the sky is black, no moon, not a single star to be seen. Shaking off this feeling of uneasiness, I looked out onto the busy street.

     Yet the street was not busy; it was barren as far as I could see. The bright windows of shops advertising their new products were dark and empty. The honking of angry drivers, the annoying beep of the pedestrian signal, and the sea of pedestrian voices in the background are gone, replaced with the eerie whistling of the wind between the dark looming skyscrapers. The city felt unused, deserted, incomplete. A ghost city that has been a ghost since its creation.

     My mind floods with questions. Where am I? How did this happen? How do I go back? Can I go back? Without the faintest idea as to what is happening, I decide to take a look around and try to find clues about what this place is.

     Setting off down the main road, the vast emptiness begins to sink in. Amidst the towering buildings and endless roads I am small, insignificant, and vulnerable. Picking up my pace, I scan the lifeless storefronts for any sign of life. My legs were killing me after what felt like an hour of walking. Was I always this out of shape? Just as I was about to give up and return, I found it. A sign of life. Etched into the side of a wooden bench, a series of numbers, each increment of one striking out the previous. A beaten and scarred stone lies beside the bench, the artist behind this sculpture. At the end of the long chain of strikethroughs, a single number, 323. Does this represent the number of people who have been here before me? If 323 people have been here, where are they? Did they escape?

     Leaving my own number to signify my presence, I continue along, hoping to find another sign, a waypoint of some sort to tell me I am following the right path. After another eternity of wandering, my stamina has run out and so has my motivation. I found two more of those landmarks, each with a smaller number of marks than the one before. I quickly added my own, and moved on, but I can’t help but wonder where the missing marks went. Now that I have made it to the fourth it is probably time to return to the station before the night, as I hope was the reason for the decrease in markings for further distances. Hopefully it means the subway returns at the end of the day and I can go back home.

     After another grueling hike back, I have finally made it. With my last burst of energy, I rush down the station steps, my mind filled with the faint hope that the subway has returned. As the shiny metal carriage comes into view, I nearly jump with joy at the possibility of finally ending this nightmare. I rush through the nearest door, ready to be thrown back into my chaotic yet comforting daily life. The subway doors close, its insides still as empty as before. As it glides silently into the dark subway tunnels, my tired eyes close, ready to wake up back in reality.

     As I slowly stretch and open my eyes, the subway car is empty and silent. I must’ve slept till the last stop and everyone already left the car. A dull numbing pain throbs against my head. Am I forgetting something? Whatever, I’d better get to work, my boss will kill me if I’m late. The carriage door opens as I get up, a wave of cold air blasting by me and making me pull in my jacket. It looks dirty and worn, even though I just washed it this morning. Reminding myself to wash it tomorrow, I take a step onto the platform, the subway speeding off behind me...

 

The Wrong Side of the Arena

By Corwin S.

     I was eleven. The perfect age. The age of discovery. The age where you really start building yourself. The age when you can enter the arena of Th’tap. 

     My whole family participates in the arena, except for my mother. My father told me many things about her, how she was gentle, bright as the Sun, amazing at everything and brought joy to everyone around her. But I never got to meet her, she died by bringing me into this world. I wanted to do something for the family that I love so much. For the family who loves me to death.

     Ever since I was born, my family kept telling me, “You want to earn money? Go to the arena. You want fame? Go to the arena. You want love? GO. TO. THE. ARENA!”

 The arena is the main economic source of Th’tap. There are four major rules to the arena. The first one is that no magic or scientific advantages are allowed. Second is that any ‘non-glorious’ weapons such as knives, shurikens, bows, or anything like that is forbidden. The third major rule is you may never give up in the middle of a fight but you can stop and go home at any time in between each fight. And last but not least, the fourth major rule is that, when and if you lose, all your belongings will come back to the arena.

     Each major city has an arena There is the slime arena of Th’tulu where courageous (but mostly stupid and suicidal) people come to fight wave after wave of monsters to attempt to get a wish granted if you survive, to this day, only one person has succeded, but it was later learned he was using an immortality drug and died shorty after; he had wished for a “Hot Dog,” whatever that is. I hope he’s happy.

     Th’bib’s arena was a curious one, from what my older brother told me, it’s an arena that transforms into a forest maze, when you manage to get out of it with the only thing intact probably being your physical body, well you get to own a planet.

     The arena of Th’cha is one of gambling, “step into the arena rich, come out richer”, if only that was true… 

     And the list goes on.

     Arenas have been existing since the dawn of time. Th’tap’s arena was one of the most classic ones, you would fight round after round, one on one until you were the last one standing and earned money and fame for each man you killed until you stopped. Tournaments are a different thing though, those like my father do, last one round where people bet on the winner. It’s the quickest and deadliest way to earn fame and money. But you need a certain amount of attention to get a tournament first.

     The arena was shaped like a coliseum. It was in as much ruin as any thousand year old monument can be. Vines were left to rot on the outside columns of the arena, sand filled the inside of the arena stained with blood.

     My father was one of the greatest and most feared gladiators of our century. So great that whenever my brother and sister got into the arena, the opponents ran away in fear of our father hunting them down shortly after hurting them. It’s a lot of fun from what my family says, seeing those grown men run away like little girls with their tail between their legs.

     We were rich and famous, loved by everyone… but also envied. One of the biggest matches of our century was about to happen on my twelfth birthday. My father just  finished teaching me the basics of how to fight in the arena. For those who did not cower and fear, they died at my hands. My father is the best father, teacher and gladiator in the world! But, That one fateful day, the battle of the century, the greatest event of our era, the most amazing fight we would ever see in our lifetime happened. People from all around the gigantic dusty ruin of an arena yelled my father’s name, a name that was forgotten as quickly as it gathered fame. My father went up against the greatest gladiator of Th’tulu. They thrusted spears at each other with incredible speed, sparring swords as if they were the best friends in the world, banging each other’s shield with hammers as if they were made of rubber. My father laughed and his opponent stared him down intensely, he was too serious, way too over his head if you ask me.

     But he cheated, he had a dagger behind his ankle. He fell to the ground after being kicked by my father’s dusty sandals. My father roared like a lion, he knew he was going to win. He took off his leather golden armour. He took his spear, sword and thrust them into the air. The crowd praised him. All these rich people came to see my father WIN, throwing all sorts of golden pottery at him. He laughed more then he had ever laughed before, then stopped. He looked confused, he turned his back to the crowd, he had a knife through his neck, knives aren’t allowed in the arena, only medium to big sized weapons. Not enough glory or action to be seen with a petty thief’s weapon. Normally when you break the law you go in jail, but our town was very serious about thieves.

The crowd yelled at my father’s killer. He was hanged for having broken the sacred law of the arena and our family was left to rot without enough income and no more guardian.

     8 years later, chains are all around me, no emotion, my heart ready to burst. I was aching to give the sweet release of death to my enemies. I wanted to kill. I wanted to do it fast and I wanted their organs to fall out. The gates started moving upwards, the sun shined on the golden gate into this damp dark waiting room. I lifted my father’s spear, light as a feather. I put on my leather armour encrusted with my father’s face, it had holes in it, rotten blood and scars but it would do the job. I stepped out into the arena without a care in the world. I looked around, the crowd was cheering, it had no meaning to me. The opposing gate opened, as soon as I saw my opponent feel the sunlight on his face, I looked straight into the white of his eyes and rushed towards him leaving nothing but a cloud of dust behind me. Before my opponent could even raise his shield, I thrusted my spear through his throat and ripped out his vocal cords to the side, blood gushing out, blood all over me, blood on my spear, the blood of my enemies is all I need.

     I went home covered in red  and gold. My sister, frail as a skeleton, was almost never hungry, her hunger left her body after the shock of my father’s death. We were all marked by this drastic change, one way or another. She  was sewing covers for my brother. My brother was sitting on our couch, covered in blankets, too afraid to touch the sun. He never was a good fighter; our father’s legacy protected him, and now that he was gone... well, let’s just say his opponents scared the life out of him. I threw my spear aside without care and told my brother to clean it, to which he responded by jolting back and rolling on the couch screaming. My sister ran towards my brother, I pushed her away and gave her my armour to rinse. I stashed the gold away in my brother’s room that he never uses. It was littered with gold, the sight of it disgusted me.

     Each and every day it's the same routine, I’M SICK OF IT. Ever since that day, on my twelfth birthday when my father died. I hate the arena, but I HAVE TO FIGHT AND GET STRONGER. I want revenge… But I feel like something is wrong.

     The next day, I went as always, to the arena to fight, to distract myself, fight, win, collect the prizes and come home. Something felt off, something felt completely upside down.

     I came home that day, I gave my spear to my brother and called for my sister, who did not answer. I called again, louder this time, still no response. I walked ferociously towards my brother, leaned towards him and yelled, “WHERE IS MY SISTER?!” My brother did not answer, so I screamed again. “WHERE IS SHE?!”

     It was pointless. I was yelling at my traumatised brother, unable to move, think or talk. “What am I doing?” I rushed outside, the sun is setting, I yell in every alley, every corner, every house, EVERYWHERE! The moon was shining bright, I did not realise it was nighttime.

     Finally, when the whole town fell to sleep, I heard someone sobbing, I ran towards that sound, my feet were hurt, I could not care. I tripped once or twice on some rotten fruit on the ground, unaware of how exhausted I was. I never took the time to look around the city, I lived for the arena, fought in the arena, focused on the arena and trained for the arena.

     Our city was one where the poor and rich where completely separated. The entire South-East part of the city was covered in old buildings filled with dust with no fountain in sight in this desert. I hated money so I never used it to get to the North-East part of the city where all the nobles and kings lived.

     The sobbing got louder and louder, I was almost there. I turned the corner after corner until I saw her, my sister.

     “Why are you crying?” I asked, regretting my decision immediately. She yelled back at me, “You’re asking ME why I’m crying? It’s too late for your sympathy… You’ve forsaken us, you don’t even call us by our names, you ignore us, you treat us like trash, what do you want from us? Father would be ashamed, mother as well…”

     Her words hit me like a hurricane. “I’m not asking for forgiveness for what I've done, but I am asking you to give me another chance to redeem myself, not as a brother, but as a human being alongside another one.” I extended my hand towards her filled with calluses, she grabbed onto it. The pain was unbearable, but it could not compare to the pain my family went through.

     The next day was going to be my last inside the arena. I stepped into it, I noticed every single detail this time, the wind lightly blowing the sand upwards, every single different cheer, the sound of people eating their cold and hard bread, the heavy drums pounding on a strict tempo and the overlord’s cup filled to the brim with wine, slipping onto his robes. His gaze was directed straight at me, he waved his servants away and opened his mouth wide to yell to the crowd.

     “TODAY MY DEAR FRIENDS, TODAY WE WILL WITNESS A BATTLE FROM THE  LIKES YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE, PREPARE YOUR MONEY, PREPARE YOU HEART FOR, SHNIN SON OF THE GREATEST GLADIATOR OF OUR TIMES WILL BE FACING, GLUB SON OF THE GREATEST LAW BREAKER OF ALL TIME, WHO WILL GET TO SEE THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ARENA AND GET THE PRIZE, WHO WILL SEE THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ARENA AND DIE! PLACE YOUR BETS AND LET THE BATTLE BEGIN!!!” 

     My opponent rushed out me, almost identical to the way I killed that other gladiator the day before yesterday. His eyes were vehement just like mine. His face squinted at the sight of the sun rising. I threw my shield in the air, shining it straight onto his face. I ran towards him, grabbed his sword, jumped off his shoulder, turned around and thrust it straight into his back. It was quick and disappointing, I felt sorry for him. His body fell to the ground making dust clouds around it. I found a knife hidden in his heel, poor guy did not have a chance to use it, unlike his father.

     I was not mad, instead I felt grateful. I picked up the dagger, the crowd kept cheering and the overlord laughed, yelling gleefully. “HAHA! YES YES YES GIVE ME MORE MONEY!! MORE MON-” I threw the knife straight at him, landing it between his eyeballs just deep enough to reach his brain. His body slowly toppled off his high golden throne. I flipped his body over and pulled out the knife. “It is wrong to rule this way, it is wrong to kill, it is wrong to separate and it is right for you to live on the wrong side of the arena.”

     The crowd cheered, my sister was in the crowd, she jumped onto the arena with my brother on her back and hugged me. I kissed her on the forehead and whispered “I was wrong, revenge isn’t what I want, I want to live in peace with my family.”

 

308 Expo Street

By Jeffrey M.

     “So, does anyone have any questions?” the teacher asked.

     “I have one,” declared the student in the back. “Why is there a giant stuffed chicken in the back of the classroom?

     “It’s just for decoration. I got it on sale for 5 bucks,” said the teacher, as the bell rang and dismissed the students. This was one of the many conversations that I witnessed day in and day out. I wonder if the teacher knows the real reason I was so cheap… because I sure don’t.

 

     I’ve been in this very room since the beginning of the school year, August 14. A teacher had purchased me from my inventor and placed me in here. Room 308. It’s a very lively room, painted with a beautiful shade of pristine lavender. The desks are made of cleanly carved and finished oak wood, with a chair attached to the desk by a metal bar. 

     There are stickers everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. The walls are littered with decals of fish, tigers, lions, zebras, giraffes, and even elephants. It’s like a zoo in this classroom. But it’s not the animals that are alive. It’s the people.

     Every day, different students come into this room and sit down at the tiny desks. The teacher usually talks to them and then writes some stuff on the board, and then it’s utter silence until the ring of the bell. At that point, the teacher gets up and says goodbye to everybody. Every. Single. Day. It’s so boring. 

     One day, there were no students even coming in and out of the room. I stood and stared at a dark, silent, empty room. I figured that I would take advantage of the lack of people and figure out what kind of room this is.

     I got up off of the table and waddled over to the teacher’s desk. There were stacks upon stacks of paper just piled up on each other, labeled with a yellow square of paper saying “Grade tomorrow!”. It had all sorts of little tchotchkes on it, including these three gold bars holding up a small mallet. I picked it up and was not super interested in the object. When I put it back down, the collision between the mallet and the bars made a lovely pinging sound that played the best sounding B♭ major chord I’ve ever heard. 

     After that, I went up to the huge slick board that had a bunch of writing on it. There were so many different kinds of colored pens sitting on the little ledge hanging off of the board. I uncapped one of the pens and tried to write something on the board. I read the writing on the pen afterward, and it said “dry erase” on it. I had no idea what that meant, so I looked it up in my database. In a mechanical voice, it told me,

“ Dry erase marker- used in schools due to its ability to erase quickly. Even though just the hand is enough to erase it, the eraser erases the ink so you don’t touch it.” I tried it myself, and it was like magic! It disappeared so seamlessly!

     I went over to the back of the room, and there was a small table that had this weird box with a bunch of pencils in it. On the side, it had two rotating balls that rotated a half-pipe tube. I turned it a couple of times, and it spat out a pencil right in front of me. That was one of the coolest inventions I’ve ever witnessed. It made dry erase markers look like child’s play. 

     There was also a black box with a hole in it, and my instinct told me not to stick anything inside of there. Dont do it. It won’t turn out well. Regardless of my instinct, I stuck one of the pencils in there, and it perfectly fit inside of the hole, and a loud whirring sound filled the room. I panicked and took it out to find the pencil was very sharp on the end. 

     After a thorough investigation of the room, I compiled all of my findings into one search, and I cross-reference them in my database. After about 5 minutes, it matches my description with a classroom in a school, which I guess is supposed to be for kids to learn stuff. 

As I’m processing all of this information, many questions start to develop. But in particular, one stands out above all of the rest. 

     What am I doing watching a classroom?

     I’m remembering back to my investigation of the classroom, and the papers on the desk should be graded and handed back by now. As I’m remembering back, the teacher is blabbering away to the students and they are sitting there half-paying attention. 

     All of a sudden I see the papers being passed back to the students and they have the most depressed looks on their faces. They must have all done horribly on whatever those papers were. 

     A student was walking over to the file folder I sit next to and then stops. Dead in his tracks. He rotates his head to the point where our eyes meet. It was not like a death stare, but a confused stare. He shakes his head rapidly and takes a longer look. 

     In this situation, I cover my lenses and turn off my eye lights. At this point, I don’t know what’s going on anymore. As I slowly start to open them, I see that he’s at the file folder.

     “Jerome, please return to your seat,” says the teacher, as Jerome walked back to his desk. I thought to myself,

     Damn. That was a close call. That kid had a suspicious look. Like he knew what I was doing…

     “Just remember, whatever you do, do not, and I mean DO NOT let anybody know what you actually are!” 

     Those were the last words I heard before being purchased by the teacher lady. My creator sold me to this teacher, but I don’t think the teacher was aware of what my owner was trying to do with me. 

     Whenever my creator was making me, he was working in this very dreary lab. The air was damp like there was something wrong with the pipes. It made me feel like I was outside after it had rained. There was absolutely no color in the lab. Just a bunch of gray, metal equipment and machines. It was what humans might call a depressing place.

     All of these memories of when I was being built are starting to come back. I don’t think my creator knows this, but I feel like I’ve developed some kind of artificial intelligence. For instance, I don’t think it was in my program to leave my spot and survey the classroom. I don’t know how, but something definitely changed in my code that caused me to form some sort of conscience. 

     For now, all I know is that after a quarter of the year going by, there is a lot of interesting stuff that’s going on, and I just need to keep doing my job and surveying this classroom. 
 

     It’s about 5 in the evening, and all of a sudden, I hear a jingle like someone trying to open the door. I quickly shut off everything except for my eyes and try to act as normal as possible. 

     Luckily, I did not have to worry because it was my creator, and he was probably taking me back to the lab to update my software. He gets notified whenever I need my software needs to be fine-tuned. He saw I was shut off, so he just picked me up and carted me off to his car.

As we arrive at his lab, my lenses drew towards a new security measure that he had installed. It was a piano, and you had to play a certain rhythm to access the lab. It was a rather difficult rhythm to play, especially since it was in 5/4.

     He sets me down at his table, and I look to my right. I see at least 50 other chickens that look exactly like me. Same size, same look, and even the same plush material. I decided that now was the time I had to turn on and ask him what they were for. 

     “Good evening, sir,” I told him. 

     Jumping from his chair, he yelled, “What the heck! You scared me!”

     “Sir, if I may ask, what are all of these other chickens for?”

     “After watching your surveillance footage, I realized that I can’t get coverage of more than just that classroom. So, I will donate these to the original teacher for her to hand out at the school.”

     He then told me his entire plan. He is mapping out the entire school. Learning the schedule, the usual flow of student traffic, classroom layouts. All for one purpose. He’s going to do what I guess the kids would say, shoot up the school… 

     After being returned to the classroom, I was in deep thought of what was about to happen. Hundreds of lives were about to be lost, and I would be the one who helped plan the whole thing. It makes me wonder what will happen to me if I ever get found out that my surveillance camera is found out. Will I be destroyed? I can not be turned into scrap metal! I just can not!

 

     The next day, after class, gets out, and the teacher leaves, one of the students walks back in and walks right towards me. He exclaims,“I know you’re in there, so why don’t you just come out.”

     He found me out, so I turn on and talk to him.

     “Good afternoon, what’s your name?” I asked

     “I’m Jerome. I know what you’re here for.”

     “How do you know that, Jerome?”

     “That’s an easy one. Your creator is my uncle.”

     This info intrigued me. All along, this kid I’ve been watching is in relation to my creator.

     “You have to turn my uncle in. It’s the only way you can stop him.”

     “But, I will be turned in, and then sold as scrap metal,” I explained.

     “I disagree,” countered Jerome. “You could be a hero. I gotta go home, but you could be a hero if you just go to the police station, and tell them the address of the lab. They will do the rest.”

     “Well, you turn him in! Why can’t you do it?"

     “Only you have the memories and surveillance footage. Besides, they won’t belive a kid…”

     I realized that I know what I have to do.

     “Hey, Jerome?”

     “Yeah, what’s up?”

     “Hold the door on your way out.”

     The address was easy for me to remember.

 

     I arrive at the police station. It was regal on the outside, having a sense of cleanliness before I even step inside. It was busy, with many officers going in and out of the driveway with all of the cop cars. Speaking of which, made the environment very noisy. I wonder how people ever got any kind of work done around the are.

     I step inside, and it’s even busier on the inside. Luckily, no one was in line, so I was able to report the crime right away.

     “Hello, officer. I need you to do an investigation for me.”

     “Are you a chicken plushie, that talks?”

     “Just do it. The address is 308 Expo Street.”

 

Alien Island

By Ewan B.

     I was in a very peaceful slumber when I heard a loud noise. It was especially scary because I was on a plane over the middle of the ocean. At first, I thought “It’s okay, it’s just my imagination.” But then I looked out the window to confirm my worst fear had happened: the engine was smoking. I moved to the cockpit to confer with the pilots and see what was going on. After all, it’s not like it was a commercial flight. My very private jet was very comfortable when I was especially alone like this. But I didn’t want to be alone forever. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have started my smartphone empire and book my trip to Tahiti to hopefully meet someone. 

     The pilots said the engine exploded and we were going down. Luckily, they spotted a little green island in the distance, so they started to descend so we can aim for it. They told me to go to the back of the jet because it was safest in a crash landing, as if I didn’t know that. But I still made my way to the back. As we kept going down, I was looking out the window wondering when we were going to land. The big blue ocean kept getting bigger and bigger, the pilots kept yelling stuff I couldn’t process, and all I could think about was how wasted my life was. Then, everything went black.

     I woke up. At first, I was grateful to be alive. I was kind of regretting those promises I made to myself, but I couldn’t care less. I was alive and had a chance. I got up and unbuckled from my seat to check on my pilots. But when I got to the cockpit, neither of them were there. I was relieved. I went outside to try and find them but couldn’t see any signs of them. Oddly enough, I found one set of footprints in the sand. We had crashed on a beach and if it weren’t for my current situation, the sunset over the horizon would have been quite beautiful. When we crashed, it was around 2:30 in the afternoon, everything was so bright. When I woke up, the sun was beginning to set. The sky was golden, there weren’t any clouds. The weather was chilly, but I wasn’t cold. The ocean waves were peacefully crashing on the beach, so silence wasn’t an option but it was a sound I didn’t mind at all. 

     I decided to follow the footprints while yelling for the pilots. Unfortunately, the trail ended when it got to the forest. I decided that it was too dark to explore so I started to set up a shelter in the airplane. Luckily, I was a former Eagle Scout so I knew what to do in a situation like this. Once I was done setting up my shelter and fire, I thought about all of my scenarios. The rescue planes will be looking for us but that can take weeks. The plane was mostly destroyed, but luckily the cabin was still intact enough to hold me for the night. The plane also still had my luggage, the pilots’ luggage, and most importantly, the survival kit every plane is equipped with. I wanted to wait to look for it in the morning but I was absolutely starving. So begrudgingly, I did the work myself and looked through the rubble for it. 

     I could only use the light from the fire, as my equipment was destroyed in the crash. As I was looking for the rations, there was something bothering me. Why didn’t the pilots try to wake me up? Wouldn’t they have done their due diligence to make sure I was alive then try and enlist my help in looking for materials? I couldn’t shake this weird, weird feeling that we weren’t alone on this island. But we should be. When we saw it from above, it looked very lush with no signs of human life. It was only a few miles in diameter, so it’s not like there were a lot of options for long-term survival. 

     It must’ve taken me an hour, but I finally found the ration kit. I took out the first thing I found in the kit, a protein bar. I was never a huge fan of these things but it was the best meal I had ever eaten in my life. As I was savoring every bite, I heard a noise from the other end of the jet. I thought it was one of the pilots but when I called them out they didn’t respond. I tried again but still no response. At this point I was legitimately scared, so I looked through the survival kit and found what I was looking for. I pulled out the flare gun and made it known I had a weapon. But what I saw next was the craziest thing I had ever seen.

     I saw a humanoid figure emerge from the plane. It had 2 eyes, was a bit taller than me, and had the same body structure as me. So why did I shoot my flare, the only one for hundreds and hundreds of miles, at the one person who I was left to survive with? Because this person was blue.

 

5pm at the Train Station

By Claire A.

      There was no other way to put it: Simon Mortimer looked exactly like a clown. He had a thick head of curly red hair, wore size thirteen loafers, and easily cleared six feet. The funny thing was, despite his appearance, people rarely noticed him. He just seemed to blend in with the crowd.

    This was how it was in the train station that afternoon. Hundreds of people were milling around within the brick walls, each heading to one platform or the other. Some stopped by the pretzel stand for a bite before their journey. Others ordered steaming cups of coffee from the coffee stall. Still others waited in line for the restrooms. They all dripped from the afternoon rain, and the building was filled with the squelch of wet shoes and the scraping of umbrellas against the tiles.

     Simon Mortimer sat on a wooden bench in the center of it all, with his own cup of black coffee in one hand, and a half-eaten pretzel wrapped in a napkin in the other. The big metal hands of the railway clock displayed 4:58. Two more minutes until the 5pm train came in. More importantly, Simon thought to himself, two minutes until a certain somebody came in. He chewed on a bite of pretzel and watched the people swarming about him. All these people, and not one gave a passing glance to him. Well. Nobody, except for three people.

     First, a woman in a purple mink coat by the west exit. She was shifting her weight from one high-heeled foot to the next, wincing every time she put weight on one or the other. She had a matching purple handbag dangling from her elbow, and was reapplying her lipstick in a shiny pocket mirror. She’d clearly been in a hurry to get here, as her hair appeared rather disheveled, and the backs of her stockinged calves were speckled with mud. As the woman replaced her things in her bag, shutting it with a snap, she looked up directly into Simon’s eyes. A couple blinks, and her attention was back on the contents of her bag. 

     Next, on the opposite side of the building, by the eastern exit, a muscled twenty- something year old man lighting a cigarette. He wore a casual suit and a newsboy cap over his cropped hair. A dripping umbrella rested against the wall behind him, and water droplets still rested on the shiny leather of his shoes. He looked up as he clicked off his lighter, directly at Simon. A quick nod, and he was focusing again on the clock on the wall as it struck five.

     The deep, resounding strikes of the clock rang through the building. Simon turned his attention to the tracks. Right on time, the five o’clock train sped into the station, and the people began to stream out of the doors onto the platform.

     Last, a thin man in a dark navy suit with a heavy leather briefcase. He stepped off the train onto the platform, and looked first to the west exit, and saw the woman in purple mink with one hand in her bag, closing around the handle of a revolver. His feet jerked toward the eastern exist, but stumbled to a stop upon seeing the man in the newsboy cap pulling a dagger from his inside suit pocket. And then the man looked straight ahead, finding himself looking into the eyes of a six foot man with shocking red hair. And Simon Mortimer’s face was the last thing he ever saw.

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