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Vote for the best short story

Poll closed Mar 31, 2014.
  1. Shishi-odoshi (Scare the Deer)

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  2. The Ax for the Frozen Sea

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  3. Serenity with the Status Quo

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  4. Nightmare's Mother

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  5. Empty Glasses

    2 vote(s)
    16.7%
  6. Future Leaders of the World

    2 vote(s)
    16.7%
  7. The Game

    4 vote(s)
    33.3%
  8. Terrorist

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  9. The Core

    1 vote(s)
    8.3%
  10. Wishes and Willows

    1 vote(s)
    8.3%
  11. Fooled

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  12. Set Me Free

    2 vote(s)
    16.7%
  1. GingerCoffee
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    Closed Voting Short Story Contest 151: "Serenity and/or Diversity"

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by GingerCoffee, Mar 17, 2014.

    Voting glitch fixed.

    Short Story Contest 151
    Theme: "Serenity and/or Diversity" Courtesy of @rasmanisar

    Voting for Short Story Contest (151) is OPEN

    We have twelve excellent entries in this contest.
    The winner will be revealed in two weeks and the winner thread will be stickied until the next contest's winner is crowned. No more entries are allowed in this contest.

    Entries are listed in the poll in the order I received them.

    Voting will end Sunday the 30th of March 2014 ~1730 (5:30pm) Pacific Time to give everyone a chance to read the stories.

    I encourage authors to vote. It is acceptable to vote for yourself, but I encourage you to vote honestly. In the name of good sportsmanship only vote for yourself if you have read all the other stories and given them your honest evaluation.

    Consider how the author has responded to the theme, as well as the quality of the writing and overall impression of the story in making your decision.

    With this many entries depending on the voting we may have to have a runoff. WE NEED YOU TO VOTE so that won't be necessary.

    HINTS for how to get through this many stories (for those that turn away because the task of reading 12 stories is intimidating):
    Read the first three or four paragraphs. If you don't think it will be the best, move on. If you like it, read the rest. Hopefully you can narrow it down that way so you only have to read a couple of them all the way through.
     
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2014
  2. GingerCoffee
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    1. Shishi-odoshi (Scare the Deer) [654 words]

      Woosh…perclunk!

      How many days has it been? How long has it been so peaceful? Gazing from my porch, tea and pipe in hand, the simplicity of my garden hypnotizes me.

      Woosh…perclunk!

      I can puzzle about the patterns in the sand for a lifetime. What does each line represent? The ripples of water? Perhaps rather the life of a man. If that were the case, the rocks would represent the ill-fortune that befalls some but not others, each rock causing an interruption in the soft lines of sand. The larger the rock, the wider the interruption spreads, disturbing those close to the rock and making a new pattern. How strange and cruel life can be.

      Woosh…perclunk!

      A soft breeze blows from the south, bringing with it the warmth of spring and the scent of cherry blossoms. Sweet cherry blossoms, such a delicate flower from such an unsightly tree. Such little wonders never cease. Is this what they mean by diamonds in the rough? It takes a strong will to be so beautiful amidst adversity.

      Woosh…perclunk!

      Smoke. A new breeze comes from the east. The scent it brings does not bode well for me. My simplistic garden loses its serenity in the midst of my troubled mind.

      “My Lord!”

      Woosh…perclunk!

      It was a young man who called to me, breathing heavily with exertion. I did not turn my head to look. I knew this because I had expected him.

      “Have you ever just sat and puzzled the mysteries of a rock garden?” I asked to man. I could sense his confusion and he chose not to answer me.

      “My Lord! Ieyasu’s ally, the Kenshin, comes from the east. He burns the village and slaughters our forces. We cannot hold him back much longer! We must get you to safety!” panic taints the edges of his voice.

      “No.”

      Woosh…perclunk!

      “My Lord?” I calmly set my tea on the ground beside me. Grasping the hilt of my blade, crafted by the great sword smith Masamune, I rise from my porch and turn to face the messenger.

      “Tokagawa Ieyasu will rule Japan. That much has already been decided. I will not let him take it so easily.”

      Woosh…perclunk!
     
  3. GingerCoffee
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    The Ax for the Frozen Sea [1,350 words]

    Serenity and Diversity were twin sisters who had followed forking paths.

    Serenity was a statuesque blonde. Diversity had let herself go to chunkiness, owing to her appreciation of diverse foods. Also, she had dyed her hair purple, and she had a ring in a wing of her nose. She wore tight black jeans that clung to her buxom thighs, while Serenity favored long flowing gowns. Diversity was tattooed, while Serenity was not.

    Their father was a wealthy and corrupt Wall Street insider trader who had died comically: As in some goofy adventure movie, a safe full of his own money being moved by a crane had snapped free of its mooring and fallen on him from a great height. Splat. He left his fortune to Serenity, cutting Diversity out of his will entirely. Their mother was not in the picture, having died when the girls were young (pills, overdose).

    Serenity lived alone on the top floor of a penthouse apartment building on Park Avenue. She lived, not just above the street, but above the clouds, in splendid ethereal isolation. Diversity lived in a pigsty underground studio apartment on the Lower East Side, with a coven of black cats ("witches," she called them). She worked as a telephone solicitor in a boiler room, selling timeshares. She rode a bike. She was a lesbian -- no, that's not quite right, she was pansexual.

    One day Diversity called Serenity on her landline -- she couldn't afford a cellphone -- and asked her sister to meet her at a downtown punk rock nightclub.

    "You know I never go to places like that, my dear Diversity," Serenity replied with haughty disdain. She even sniffed. "So downmarket. All that loud noise and bright lights. How do you stand it?"

    "Because I need … well, diversity," Diversity replied.

    "Well, I don't. How is it possible that we are sisters, still less twin sisters?"

    "Listen, sis, it's really important."

    "Does it involve money? Because I've told you --"

    "Yeah, I know. I've got to stand on my own two feet. Pull myself up by the bootstraps, which I guess makes sense, because I wear combat boots."

    "I wear high heels."

    "Listen, it's really, really important. I'll explain when I see you. I won't take 'no' for answer." She gave the address of the club and hung up before Serenity could reply.

    Perhaps out of boredom, or curiosity, or a residual sense of sibling duty, Serenity, wearing a mink stole, arrived at the club at the appointed time to meet her sister Diversity.

    Presently they were installed in a booth in the back in the crowded club. It was packed from wall to wall, a pulsating mass of protoplasm. On a stage illuminated by bright lights, an avant-garde band performed, which styled itself as a post-post-modern, or popomo band: they twanged on saws, banged on industrial-strength toxic-waste drums, and blew on toilet paper tubes. On the wall behind them, a high-definition, digitally remastered version of the collapse of the Twin Towers played in a continuous loop, a YouTube video projected from a computer screen and blown up to obscene proportions. The band called itself the Dead Twins. Hundreds of young people in bizarre tribal attire, pressed together elbow to elbow and cheek to jowl, bounced up and down like human pogo sticks to the dubious beat of the music, while multicolored strobe lights swept the dancers like prison searchlights in the midst of a riot by the inmates. The noise was deafening, and the lights were blinding. The close, fetid air of the little club was sweet with the incense of marijuana.

    Serenity was appalled.

    "I find this discombobulating," she said, waving her hand over her nose to banish the marijuana haze. "It upsets my equilibrium."

    "How's that again, sis?" Diversity inquired, covertly slipping some knockout drops into her sister's drink (a martini on the rocks. Diversity was drinking a pint of Pabst.)

    "I said--" and Serenity repeated her words, yelling them over the wall of noise in order to be heard. When she woke up, she was in bed with her sister, in her sister's pigsty apartment. They were both naked. The coven of cats -- sixteen black cats, in all -- prowled about, high-backed and razor-shouldered. They leapt gracefully from free surface to free surface like agile animated silhouettes.

    Awake with a pop-open of the eyes, a startled Serenity shot bolt upright but her sister clapped a hand over her mouth and dragged her back down into the moist and bedraggled love sheets. When she removed her hand from her sister's mouth, Serenity opened it to begin to offer an official protest, but Diversity silenced Serenity by covering her sister's lips with her own, while with her fingers, she penetrated the furrow between her sister's thighs.

    ***

    They wintered on the Riviera, on Serenity's dime. The weather was fine, and at the finest restaurants they dined. But one day something strange happened -- some freak of weather, of nature. A mistral swept in, and the temperature plummeted within an hour from a mild 52 to below zero. The sisters watched from the window of their four-star hotel room as the Mediterranean froze over with startling swiftness. Under a gunmetal sky, the water became a vast slab of ice crisscrossed by cracks.

    "It's nice, the ice," Serenity sighed. She was seated with her sister on a divan. Serenity wore an elegant gown, and black gloves up to her elbows. Diversity wore a grungy T-shirt and the usual clinging black jeans. She was running her fingers through the ringlets of her sister's hair, and she had slipped her other hand up under the gown and was cupping the naked breast thereunder, periodically plucking at the stiffened nipple. She kissed her sister on the forehead and whispered into her ear: "Yes, it's nice, isn't it? Nice and stable and serene. And also dead."

    They were cheek to cheek, Diversity's head slightly above her sister's. While caressing Serenity's breast, she watched with catty insouciance as Serenity's eyes, which had been half-lidded with contentment, gradually widened, first with surprise, and then with horror. She was gazing fixedly out at the gunmetal Mediterranean, where frozen sea melded almost imperceptibly with foggy sky. Just beyond the shore, out on the crystal littoral, the ice was breaking up. Suddenly a hand clinging to the handle of an ax broke through the ice, with a burst of fragments like shards of glass. The hand waved the ax in triumph. Diversity let go of Serenity's breast and slipped her hand down across her belly, her fingers finding the furrow from which the sap freely flowed.

    ***

    Months later, in Diversity's pigsty apartment, the black cats leaping and bounding like elastic licks of licorice, Diversity lighted a candle, and then blew it out. Her sister, naked, reclining in Diversity's arms, looked at Diversity with curiosity. "Blow it out," Diversity said, replying to an unasked question.

    "Blow it out?"

    "Nirvana," Diversity said, petting her sister with fierce affection. "The ultimate serenity. The stillness of mind after the fires of desire have been extinguished. It's what you've always wanted, Serenity: serenity. And what I've always wanted to give you, since we were little girls."

    "Give me? You took my serenity away from me," Serenity said serenely.

    "And you took my diversity away from me. I live for you, now. So we're even." Diversity gathered Serenity in a warm embrace and the sisters kissed passionately, for a long time.

    At Diversity's urging, Serenity had made a will, leaving everything to Diversity in case of Serenity's premature death. Both young women could not fail to recall the untimely demise of Father (safe, splat) and Mother (pills, overdose).

    After they broke off kissing, Diversity draped an arm around Serenity's shoulder, and then with her hand she cupped her sister's chin. She gently moved Serenity's head upward, exposing a statuesque expanse of smooth white neck. Serenity's eyes crawled downward, and she only caught the briefest glimpse of the flashing blade that her sister lifted to her throat. The cats caterwauled.
     
  4. GingerCoffee
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    Serenity with the Status Quo [522 words]

    I’m determined not to look out the window and describe the weather. All avenues about it have been exhausted. Basically there’s nothing one can say that would add any further vitality to the lexicon of descriptions about “the weather.” So...my blinds are closed. It could be sunny or cloudy, all I know is light is sifting through the blinds and I’m bathed in a brown sort of twilight, feeling content. I’m staring at my ceiling with the curious thought that I inhabit something of a shoebox. A cuboid four walls, floor and a ceiling, with the carpet stripped back to reveal nutty, time-tested strips of wood. I'm in an enclosure yet I feel free. How absurd.

    Something is out of place. Why am I so content? For instance my wallpaper. Look at it. It's dead, lifeless, lacking in...zest. By all means it should be a source of discontent. For if you stare at the ridiculous sky-blue abyss for long enough as Nietzsche said the abyss might stare back at you. But this is not always a bad thing. I pick at the wallpaper, and fashion little white balls on the walls, rolling the bits of paper between the index and thumb where I then flick it across the room. I’m content because I’ve no job to do today, no stress levels cranked to the rafters, or power dynamics in place which places me at the bottom of a hierarchical ladder with no authority or respect. No ambition, no drive. I am the happiest man alive.

    Pick a label. Call me lazy, call me a dreamer. Whatever. I close my eyes and on the back of the lids are plasma TV screens. It beams an image right across the horizon of my brain, which due to a lack of imagination is a virtual reality of the room I am sitting in. So what's the point? I open them. I see my curtains. For some reason I’m pre-occupied with them to an obsessive degree which unsettles me, if only for a moment. Those yellow monstrosities, complete with heinous blotches of blue, are designed in such a way as to crudely match the wallpaper. Looking in detail at the curtains reveals a sort of fine interweaving fabric, the same way if you suddenly look closely at your thumb you see a unique fingerprint slowly revealed as the eye focuses. Wallpaper and curtains, abyss, fabric, lots of time to reflect...Contentedness...Serenity...what’s it all about, eh?

    I remember watching Eraserhead one time, and one thing that struck me was the lady inside the radiator. She was so happy doing a quirky little horizontal dance from one side of a stage to the other to chirpy organ music on a loop. The repetitive music and dance routine suggested never-ending, cyclical eternity, but she looked so satisfied and content, and you were left in doubt she enjoyed her job as a vocation rather than a duty. And who’s to castigate her for not conforming to expectations? If, of her own free will that is, she wants to dance inside a radiator without anyone watching...Why would anyone burst her bubble?
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    Nightmare's Mother [2488 words]

    The Raven ruffled his feathers and croaked irritably,

    "Still the flies are bothering me. Always they are feasting on my rotten flesh.
    Slowly as I move my re-animated body, as I shift and change, they fly away.
    When I lay still, they return voraciously to my broken shell."

    The Raven then turned to me with a weary eye. The solid black orb swiveled infinitely round and round. It spoke to me in a warm and loving voice.

    "You are the fruit of my non-existent womb."

    The Raven will always be connected to me, as he is my first and true mother. My soul will always be a part of his, no matter the dimension. Yet, within this life, a shadow that still utters the voice of "mother" haunts me. It fills me with guilt of crimes I did not commit.

    " I am ridden with guilt. I lied to you when I said I loved you."

    The memory I love is fouled. The current being I know is one that I cannot love.
    Still, I betrayed my oath never to say I love someone when I do not. For this I am guilty. For this crime, forgive me."

    ~~

    The mothers eyes narrowed as she looked down at her handsome child. Her dark chocolate colored lips parted slowly over slightly crooked off-white teeth. This smile struck fear into the heart of the child and yet he still smiled in return. A false joy glowed from his eyes.

    "Only I can love you." She whispered as she hugged him tight.
    These words haunted him for years to come.

    "No one can love me, no one. If even my own father could not, then how could anyone else?
    Even mother seems disgusted now and again."

    He heard a sound and looked up. A raven had suddenly lit onto a dying tree in the backyard.
    A matted feather fell from the ravens wing.

    "No one else can love you but me." The mother's voice whispered in the dark.

    The Raven cawed a lament in response to the poisonous words.

    "For you are the fruit of my non-existent womb."

    The Raven ruffled it's rust tinged black feathers and cocked it's head. A large infinitely black eye swiveled down, fixating on it's son.

    The son looked up. The fading sunlight struck his cornea. The wood colored eyes closed inward.
    He saw now before him his true mother, his friend; indeed his soul.

    "Our souls are connected, aren't they Raven?"

    "Strange fruit indeed."

    "Ah, but that is a song long forgotten by your mother. Those songs are sung now with no meaning to her. She simply enjoys the sound of her own flattering voice."

    Only she comforts herself now.
    Then, as the evening twilight descended upon them, he receded back into his memories.
    Then, as the darkness grew deeper...

    Mother had her hand around my neck, my eyes were closed. She pressed her face into my neck and breathed deeply.
    "You smell so good." She murmured.

    She often gave me an innocent smile. As if she had wronged no one and nothing all her days, not even herself.

    What hideously feigned innocence.

    Slowly, as the years progressed, this smile chilled my blood and stirred within me a deep repulsion for her. Her mind is ravaged with lies, some self-imposed and some borrowed.

    "Are you ashamed of me?" She asked.

    "Why should I be?" I responded.

    Her large ruptured capillary-spotted brown eyes bored into me. Multiple emotions contorted her face into something I could not understand.

    "You're ashamed," she insisted.

    Her lips twitched as if it pained her to speak her mind.
    Slowly her sharp manicured nails dug into the soft flesh in my back.

    I awoke with a start.

    ( What is it you've done that causes you to be so paranoid and bitter with the world? Who stole your love and trust? Why don't you love and trust even me, your own son?)

    ~~

    He sat on the wooden stool in his mother's childhood room in his grandfather's house.
    The air was thick with hot moisture and the stale stink of must. The dull buzz of cicadas overpowered his thoughts. He felt as if a part of him were dead.

    (Does a coffin begin to smell like this? Are the humming of bugs just as dull yet inescapable?)

    "They buried you alone, in the ground." I stared at my hands.


    Five Years Earlier~


    I patted my grandmother's gnarled dark brown hands. She smiled sweetly at me.

    "Do you know who I am?" I whispered to her.

    The soft dark skin around her faded brown eyes crinkled as her smile grew bigger and said in a South Carolina twinge,

    "No baby, tell me."

    She rocked back and forth gently in her large cracked leather worn out piss stained Lazy-boy chair.

    "I'm your grand-son. Your daughter's son."

    "Really?" She exclaimed in surprised delight. "Gimme some sugar."

    So I did. Every day till she went to the old folks home, I reminded her who I was. Only once did she remember my name. Only once did I cry.
    No, not until they buried you did I cry. Not because you were dead, but because strangers buried you.
    An abusive husband and selfish children buried you. Who was I to you?
    A stranger, and yet you were only ever kind and gentle to me. Even as the faces of those you love faded and merged together, you were gentle to everyone. You're free now. You're free.
    Still though, what can be said for them?
    I'm tired of this pain.
    So tired.
    You endured it for all those years.

    "Did you love him? My grandfather?"

    "Yes."

    "Did you wish you could leave him?"

    "No. Never. I only wanted to love him. Take care of him. But he wasn't satisfied. Sometimes I was enough and sometimes I wasn't. So church comforted me when he couldn't. Even though church was all all a lie. I needed it to be real to keep going. Keep living. I was tired. So very tired..."

    Twenty years earlier~

    In my faded memories, Mama is washing dishes in the kitchen. There's pale morning light coming through the window. She's singing to herself. I sneak up behind her to listen. I love when she sings, her voice is so rich and deep and sounds like a lullaby but always a sad one. Slowly the words became clear.

    "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. I'm just a long way from home. I'm just along way from my home."

    She sings the same words over and over. Though it seems as if tears will come, I take no notice and say, "That's because you don't have one."

    In utter shock, she whips around. Her eyes widen, she screams.
    "What did you say?"

    Terrified, I run crying.

    I was four then. Why I said it, I'm still not sure. Yet, a part of me started to feel that I too was a motherless child. That was of course until the raven came into my life. My spirit mother, my soul mother.

    Late Teens~

    The young man sat against the tall aging pine tree in the side-yard next to the house.
    It was snowing lightly now, but he had stayed still for so long that he had become covered in a blanket of powdery white snow. He was waiting for the cold to put him to sleep.
    Then, in sleep, he hoped he would die. He hoped he would die the type of peaceful death that old folks talk about.

    Instead, the sharp stabbing pain reminded him that was alive and he found it impossible to forget that the encroaches of pain meant death. He wanted to die without knowing he was dying.

    Even this, his death, he seemed unable to control. Once again because of a lack of conviction.
    Nothing mattered anyway. Soon Jesus would come and all the Christians would go to Heaven.

    "The end times are near honey. Jesus is coming soon." As mother always said.

    (Don't leave me Jesus, like my father, don't leave me behind!)

    Nothing mattered to him.
    Only his own misery, how he longed to die.
    (Kill me God. Please end my suffering.)

    Still he was too tired to die and too afraid of the Hell that was sure to come with it.
    He was just waiting to die, all the while doing nothing positive.
    Doing nothing to express his inner being as he could do nothing without God and without mother.

    A soft cawing startled him out of his trance. He shook the snow off and slowly stood up with a painful grunt. His feet numb, he sludged through the snow like a haggard old man. He walked to the house wishing he had had the will to die.
    The cawing grew louder but he took no heed of it and went into the house.

    The television blasted a T.V. program from fifty years ago. The old man yelled over gun shots and yeehaws. His garbled voice turned the T.V. noise into incoherent chaos.

    The old man didn't want to communicate, only to dictate.
    I listened to him.
    "Yes sir. No sir. I will sir."

    It always pacifies angry people when you show them some respect.
    It was the fastest way to make the verbal abuse stop.
    Retaliating with violence and anger only spreads it till one either backs down or becomes victorious.

    (I would have killed them. I could have killed them.)

    Still, only a fool thinks he'll kill and get away with it. Eventually everything comes around full circle.
    So, I shutdown, I became nothing more than dark vacant windows reflecting the world outside in order to blanket the rage they induced in me.
    I cut off my thought processes and learned to take whatever came at me, with little to no reflection or question as to why.

    If only to survive. But was that surviving, taking no action? Or did I take action with non-action?
    ~

    The multiple thin cuts oozed ruby red blood. The sharp pain became a dull throb.
    (Is there anybody out there?) Echoed the eerie voice of Roger in his mind.

    "No..." He whispered.

    The air in the bathroom was steamy. He sat in the tub of hot water, staring at the decayed tiles shadowed in the dark on the wall before him.

    (If only my blood were as hot as my tears.)
    He licked the blood away unsatisfied.

    "Where's my conviction to die?"

    (I have become comfortably numb) The music died away in his mind.

    Be seen and not heard.
    Better yet, out of sight
    out of mind.
    As a good child should

    (Disappear.)

    "She knew. She knew!" He rocked back and forth, clutching mother's thin poetry booklet tightly.

    "She knew that I would be without a father all these years. "

    These words of sympathy sound much prettier than her spiteful mocking when he was a child.

    "Go live with your father if you don't like being here. "

    (And where was he?)

    It wouldn't have mattered if the man who "Fucked yo' mama," as grandfather put it so eloquently, left or stayed. So long as you, the one caring for me, showed me that you really loved me and wanted me there. The words of kindness only grew colder as years progressed. Why did your emotions betray your words of professed love, mother? And you grandfather...

    " You half-white bastard! I need you like I need a goddamn hole in my head!" a rather drunk belligerent old man hollers in my memories like sandpaper on the brain.

    ~

    Gran-dad's teeth gnashed together as he slept. He listened to obtrusive grinding of wet bone in the dark.
    A memory flashed.

    "Granpaw. What did you do in WWII?"

    I sat eagerly on the floor in front of him, expecting some great valiant story to be told.

    He sat for a moment in his puke-pea green recliner and hummed for a moment. He replied in a garbled voice that he had been a cook in the segregated Army of the United States. For despite his love of the country, he was not white and therefore was not trusted with a gun.

    "What do you remember?" Still eager for some action. Though now my smiled was cracked as I hoped to find something to be fasley proud of in my old man.

    "The sergeant blowing the brains out of a Polish woman. They caught her stealing food for her children in the pantry. Shot her in the face. I remember the bodies in winter stacked one on top of the other like logs of wood. Outside dozens of bodies... I still dream about them..."

    A dark shadow fell over my face.

    "Oh.." I whispered.

    The eighty-four year old drunk mumbled on in a distant voice.

    He had done his best to be distant.
    He never had to explain why. No, not to nobody.
    After all, he paid the cost to be the boss.
    Just what that cost was,
    he never did tell.

    Why did he isolate his pain and drown it in booze
    only then to inflict that pain on the ones he 'loved'?

    (Oh...granpaw

    Why did your weakness mean more to you than us?

    Will I let my own do the same to those I love?)

    ~

    Alone in his room, he sliced his forearm open quickly.
    Oddly the blood reeked of booze.
    Emptiness begot hate.
    He screamed and grabbed the blade.

    (Stab it in your eye! End it already! Die! Die!)

    An enraged hysterical voice screamed in his mind repeatedly till he could take it no more.
    He began to sob uncontrollably. The razor fell to the floor with a carpeted hush.
    Hate begot emptiness.

    "I don't want to die." he whispered in agony.

    Dark rich blood stained his sweater a darker shade of black.

    (If I killed myself, would they even know why? Would they blame the fact that I stopped
    going to church?Would they blame the fact that I had no father, before they questioned how they ignored my mind, therefore ignoring my existence?

    In the end, it would have only been my own fault,
    as it is my own life,
    my own choice.

    My actions are mine alone
    No demons
    nor gods
    nor Satan
    nor you.

    Just myself to blame.)

    The Raven opened his ebony beak revealing sharp rows of teeth and laughed gleefully.

    "Finally you see, you are yours."

    (And yours alone.)
    ~
    The scars now healed. the faint odor of booze fades too with time.
    For once since the age of eight, I no longer wish to die.
    My soul family saved me. Their love save me from myself.
    It was the Raven who reminded me that I too could fly.
    ~
    Whatever lives we live again
    we will find each other and heal each other again.
    Until we cease to come to this world.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    Empty Glasses (Mature content) [1842 words]

    The cold air bit at her nose the moment she stepped onto the balcony. She scowled and turned her back to the breeze long enough to light a cigarette. The smoke scattered in front of her. She leaned forward against the railing, the steel cold against her skin. It didn’t bother her. The cool breeze didn’t bother her, either--the alcohol dulled her nerves well enough.

    She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, letting the smoke fill her nose and lungs. Anything to give her that numbness. Alcohol, nicotine, cold steel, anything. She slipped into it when it hit her. Not a crashing wave, no. Instead it was like sinking down into a pool, slowly submerging her head, letting the cold water wash over her. Drowning in serenity.

    Her eyes popped open at the hooting of an owl. A rustle in the leaves of a nearby tree gave away its position. She stared for a moment but nothing interesting happened. The wind blew again. She followed its curve from the tree to the blue skin of the lake, rippling under the fingers of the breeze, shivering at its cold touch. Maybe she could drown herself. Or maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort. The door opened behind her.

    “Katya, is that you?”

    She turned in mid-puff and faced the man who had addressed her. Sanjay Fucking Kapur. She closed her eyes and exhaled. “You did invite me to the party, didn’t you?”

    He smiled and stepped closer. “Of course,” he replied. “You are number one on my list.” His nose scrunched. “But I thought you quit that habit.”

    She took another hit and blew it in his face. “Maybe I just want to feel the buzz again. What’s it to you?”

    “I do not want you to die just yet.”

    She scoffed. “Afraid this will ruin my karma?” She turned back to the rail and blew her smoke out into the night. The lake was still. Serene. “And it’s your fault, anyway.”

    “Why it is my fault?” he asked, stepping closer. “Why it is not your fault? Don’t blame me for that one, Katya. I tailored my party to your tastes exactly.”

    “Your vodka is terrible,” she replied without turning around. “All you have is cheap shit.”

    “I apologize,” he said. “I do not have liquor like your country.”

    His hand touched her shoulder. She inhaled sharply but did not face him. His cologne masked the stench of the cigarette.

    “I don’t love you, Sanjay.”

    He remained silent for a long time. Then his arm retracted and he cleared his throat. “I can wait.”

    Her eyes remained locked on the still lake as his footsteps thumped to the door. It opened and he disappeared back inside. She let out her breath and turned, peering through the glass doors. The guests filled the room beyond, but they were just a faceless mass. All fake, all pompous, all pseudointellectual. All but one.

    Aiko stood by the window, her back to the outside but her head turned just so. The top-right window pane framed her profile. Katya stared through her own smoke. The girl was perfect. Ebony hair wrapped in a loose knot at her neck. Aquamarine eyes. Porcelain flesh. Curves just modest enough to be mouthwatering. Exquisite. Exotic. Intelligent. And straight as an arrow. The serenity began to fade. She took another hit.

    She was talking to some American lawyer who stood eyeing her up and down. Katya glared. Probably thinking of some twisted sex fantasy he saw on the internet. Japanese women were a hot commodity to American men. Her pulse quickened. She turned away again, sucking down the last of her cigarette before stamping it out. She closed her eyes and imagined Aiko’s tongue all over her body, and shivered even though there was no wind.

    The numbness faded, and pins and needles poked her flesh. She did not have another cigarette. Her hands shook. She turned back to look at the window again, but Aiko was gone. Wandered off somewhere, maybe with the American. Maybe with some other man. But not with her. And she would never. She walked across the balcony and opened the door. She needed more shitty vodka.

    Her eyes scanned the room--Aiko was nowhere to be found. Some indecipherable electronic beat pulsed from the speakers, far too loud for her to think straight. Multicolored lights flashed above her head. She grimaced. The party was just as fake as the people attending it. What she wouldn’t give to be sitting in her own apartment, Tchaikovsky playing from her record player, the lights turned low and her arms around Aiko. And maybe a cigarette. But the girl was nowhere to be found. And neither was that American lawyer.

    She got her drink. A vodka martini, no olives--she hated olives. The liquor slowly brought her back to her numb serenity. The pins and needles disappeared into blissful nothingness, much better and cleaner than the nicotine and tar. She closed her eyes a moment. Was it enough of a distraction? Maybe.

    Then Aiko stepped into the room, hair slightly disheveled. The American lawyer followed with a wide, dumb grin on his face. She watched them from a distance and took a long sip of her martini. They smiled at one another and went their separate ways. Aiko returned to her position at the window, popping a handheld mirror out of her purse and checking herself in it. She fixed her hair and straightened out her dress.

    Katya closed her eyes. No, her perfect girl wasn’t so perfect. But what did it matter? It wasn’t as if she had a chance anyway. She could only watch her from a distance. Love her from a distance. That was all it would ever be, and she would have to learn to accept it. The vodka martini quenched that desire in full. It coursed through her veins and numbed every sense she had. There it was, that sweet serenity once again. Maybe she could convince herself that she didn’t care.

    She turned around and made eye contact with Sanjay Fucking Kapur. Had he been watching her the whole time? She scoffed--as if she had room to judge. But that must have been what it was like for him, wasn’t it? To love from a distance. At least he had the courage to walk up to her and talk. That was something worth admiring. But it was different for him. She wasn’t an impossible goal. That was a struggle he would never know.

    He smiled at her. She sipped her shitty vodka and forced a half-smile back at him. Then she turned back to the room and saw Aiko slowly approaching the bar. Her heart pounded. A drink to forget, perhaps? No, Aiko wasn’t quite so coy. If she could look herself in the mirror after such a tryst then she didn’t need liquor to forget.

    Her heart beat faster and she turned away. She couldn’t make eye contact. Not now. Not after she had seen the aftermath. Catching her eye now would do nothing but pull back the blissful tide and expose the raw sand underneath. It would only crush her.

    So she was left with Sanjay Fucking Kapur. She finished her drink, sucking down the last third in one large gulp, and paused to let it flow through her. Her chest clenched and the numbness spread, taking her back to her bliss and bringing the tide back in. It would be fine for now. It would only hurt when the tide receded again.

    A hand clutched her waist and turned her back around. Sanjay wore a peaceful expression, as though he’d read her mind. As though he could commiserate with her. Maybe he could.

    “You seem to be enjoying the vodka now, Katya.”

    She smiled and put the empty glass down on the bar counter. “It’s funny. The more I drink it, the less I care about its quality.”

    He chuckled. “I agree. I say all liquor is the same when you drink enough of it. I balk at quality.” His hand swept out in an all-inclusive gesture. “But these socialites balk at me for saying so.” He caught her eye and grinned. “They want luxury for the sake of it. It is not about living life but keeping up appearances.”

    She nodded without speaking. Maybe he wasn’t such a tool after all.

    “It is wonderful to enjoy the finer things,” he continued. “But drink the expensive vodka because you love the vodka, not because you love the expense.”

    He took her hand. She shivered. Her eyes found his and held them for a long moment. The buzz of the party and the pulse of the electronic heart faded into the background, covered over by the tide as it washed ashore.
    “I do not want to wait any longer,” he said. He leaned forward.

    Their lips made contact for only a brief moment. When he pulled away she opened her eyes to his smile, though her lips remained unmoved. The numbness held her steady.

    “Sanjay, I...”

    He shook his head. “I don’t care.”

    She closed her eyes and sighed. “All right.”

    They proceeded up the spiral staircase. Her legs moved without conscious thought and her breathing remained steady. What was it to her, anyway? No breath caught in her throat. No flush rose to her cheeks. No fire burned inside her. Instead she moved like an automaton, feeling only numbness. Only the tugging of the sweeping tide’s undercurrent.

    When she reached the top she glanced down at the guests below. Aiko looked up and caught her eye. She smiled. She winked. Then she turned back to the bar and continued her conversation. Katya stared back, a knot in the pit of her stomach. Then she closed her eyes and turned her back on them and followed him to the bedroom.

    She awoke naked under silk sheets. Her eyes fixated on the ceiling, studying the splay of light across it. The numbness had faded again. The pins and needles were gone. Her temples pulsed and her skin prickled. He lay beside her, spooning her, one hand on her belly and the other behind her back. She trembled and squirmed, wrenching free of his grip, and slipped out of the bed. A full-length mirror caught her in its frame, and she looked at her naked body. The sight made her wretch.

    She turned and faced the bed. Her eyes roamed the sheets and his recumbent form, and then fell to a half-empty bottle of Crown Royal on the nightstand. An empty glass stood beside it. She smiled and stepped over to it, her bare feet making no noise against the carpet. She opened the bottle and poured, then took the glass with her to the window. The view took the breath from her lungs. The lake stretched out before her, still and silent, untouched by God’s gentle fingers. She sipped the whiskey and closed her eyes, slipping back under the wave of serenity.
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    Future Leaders of the World [2992 words]

    It was dance night at the Midwest Model United Nations conference: just a square floor, lit by the purple, red and white neon lights, filled with lonely college girls jumping incessantly and calling it dancing. They would eventually end up with some guy, one who would be sweaty from running to the 7Eleven to buy condoms, and wake up with a headache and regrets. These were the delegates of the Midwest Model UN, and I was one of them. That was the commonality which wrangled all of us into the Union Station Hotel in St. Louis: to talk about the future of the world during the day, and then attempt to cram the cavernous depths of our social insecurities at night.

    In our group at the time there was just me, Summer and Greg who is known for his omnipresent cowboy hat perched perfectly on top of his short buzzed hair. All of us were sloshed and fading quick, half-dancing in the doorway to the dance’s ballroom between the pitch black and strobe of the room full of hopping drunkards and the bright steady serenity of the lobby on the other side. A bar, which was just a desk with bottles on top, sat in one dark corner of the dance offering cocktails and beers for the same inflated prices as food would be in a third world country. DJ Disarmament sat in front of the square dance floor, rocking his head down and up while playing top forty hits from his mac playlist, wearing a pillowcase as a cape, wearing sunglasses indoors in the dark like a douchebag. I had popped a couple of Ritalin which had as much effect as if I had popped some candy.

    “I’m losing my buzz real quick, man,” said Greg the cowboy, his plaid shirt drenched with alcohol sweat, “We need to get some fuckin’ drinks.” His tight jean’s pocket was indented with the ring of a condom he had bought in prospects of a lucky night.

    “We need to go to that convenience store then. Summer has a flask right?” I said, unzipping my North Face jacket, unzipping my gray hoodie beneath, letting my red t-shirt beneath beacon out, which had grown damper and grayer from sweat, from the heat of the people.

    “Oh yeah,” she said her smile brightening quick and fierce, leaning on my shoulder with the arms of her fuzzy fleece sweater. Her eyes were shining from the wine and Jack Daniels that she had drained ten minutes before. “We should seriously go get it, like, right now,” she said, the alcohol made her voice higher, seething with child-like femininity, the modern way girls would elongate their words, purring out the vowels. I already knew I wanted her that night. I knew I wanted her for the last four nights since the whole conference started. If it wasn’t for the presence of all the other people who smothered me away from her view, from her ears, if it wasn’t for the small granules of apprehension that danced in my blood, sifting in the skin of my hands, from being close to her. If it wasn’t for her pseudo relationship, if it wasn’t for my girlfriend, then maybe I could be with her, but it’s not like that will stop me. All those reasons are just excuses, I thought.

    “Fuck it then, let’s go,” I said. I walked out of the pulsate lights of the ballroom, out into the hotel’s blinding lobby, Greg and Summer following me. We started to run.

    We didn’t stop running: up the stairs through the lobby where frescos, paintings, and stain glassed windows all stared at us from above, anchored eternally in a high dome ceiling, running down the damp and iced steps from the top of the hotel’s stone exterior, running across the mud and homeless ridden parks to the liquor store, and back, running from green streetlight to red streetlight, back to room twenty-three twenty-three, every second and moment us laughing about something we never had to talk about.

    We fumbled in the door as I ripped through the plastic bag and paper sack to start swigging mouthfuls of rum. The room was like any motel room save for the small discrepant messes that made it lived-in: dirty mounds of clothes, beds that were mussed and tussled from sleep, little red stains left on a work desk from the attempts at opening a wine bottle with no corkscrew. Greg went to the restroom, prepping for any potential love partner.

    “Hurry up man the dance is over in like thirty minutes,” he said while buttoning on a fresh black shirt, spraying every inch of his body with Old Spice.

    “Relax,” I said, taking another swig for myself. “Not like you need us to help fuck her, man.” I passed the bottle to Greg. “Or maybe you do?” I added.

    “You’re an asshole. We’ve been over this: no sharing,” he said with a wry smile.

    “God, you are so-o disgusting,” Summer said, already splayed on a bed, her shirt peeking up, showing her cute flat stomach, white and smooth like porcelain. “When I first met you I thought you were sweet, but now you are just such a dude,” she said, her eyes half closed. I tapped her exposed stomach with the base of the bottle of rum, her hand instinctually homed in on it as she sat up and took another drink, leaving my hand flat on her skin, her stomach cool to the touch against my hand.

    “Like you’re one to judge. Didn’t I see you kiss that guy from the car yesterday? Aren’t you the one in a relationship?”

    “Sort of a relationship,” she said, her eyes looking up and away, passing the bottle back to Greg.

    “You asked me this once too,” I said to Greg, “and I had the same answer.”

    “You fucking people,” Greg said with a dejected roll of his eyes, drinking, passing the bottle back to me. My relationship was not an unhappy one but it also was not something that kept me from pursuing other women. My girlfriend and I spent time together that was enjoyable. We spent holidays and anniversaries together. There have been small petty fights. There had been love. There still was love. But for me, maybe it wasn’t enough. Either way, I didn’t care to analyze the complexity of my relationship at that moment. I wanted Summer.

    We drank halfway down the label of the bottle when two other members from our team walked in, Brian and Shawn, their eyebrows raised and a slippery surprised smile stretching their lips thin.

    “What have you guys been up to?” Brian asked. He was six foot something, built strong and hard, chiseled by god’s tool, and always with an easy going smile. Shawn was with him, five foot something, a nice red beard on a face that wasn’t weakly built like many gingers I know. His eyes were inflexible and clear. We told them the dance sucked, except Greg the cowboy who still pleaded for us to go with him, so that we decided to drink in the room. They kept smiling like they never heard us, still looking at me, at Summer, so close to each other, our bodies vibrating from sheer excitement we could have started a fire between us.

    “We-ell,” Brian began to say, stretching the word, “Me, Shawn and Shaelynn are going to the bar. You guys wanna come?” I could tell he knew what everyone’s answer would be. There was a mutual look between guys that occurred with Brian and me. It lasted a second, brief, but noticeable, a direct electric connection between eyes, a mesh of minds and he knew what I thought, and I knew he knew what I thought.

    “I’m on my way out,” Greg said, looking at Summer and me on the bed, “And am I going alone?” Summer and I nodded in unison. “You jerks.”

    “Have fun,” I called after as he walked away, not looking back. The brevity of an awkward pause followed. The room was warm with too many bodies and they ended up talking to eradicate the room of silence but it was nothing worth remembering: trying to resuscitate the lingering corpse of a dead conversation.

    Another swig of rum. I pass the bottle. Summer takes another swig. Eventually Brian and Shawn leave. And it’s just us, Summer and me. She is the epicenter of my sight, floating like a marionette as the background shifts and rolls back and forth as she moves everywhere around the room. Stumbling from dense carpet like weeds, over each other, onto the bed into the sheets like sinking into white sand, warm and consuming, we lie next to each other in a yin-yang format, my head near her thigh, her head near mine, lying in a boisterous bliss. She gets up on jelly legs, comes around the bed, and lies down on my arm, curls up against me, her scent sweeping onto me, her leg slithering around mine. I bury my head in her hair, inhaling the smell of her shampoo like coconut until my head goes dizzy, until my eyes close from the sensory overload of her body against mine. She takes the bottle of rum again, dipping it into her mouth, puckered against the lips of the bottle. I feel a spritz of the sprinkled liquor on my face as she releases it from her mouth. I kiss her forehead as she lies on my arm, my other hand on the divot of her waist, feeling the smooth curve of her body like a pocket. Her chin in my hand now, I tilt it up and touch my lips against hers lightly; the movement frictionless as she opens up to me. I taste the hint of her tongue. My hand finds her skin feels the small of her back as her hand scratches at my chest, finding my flesh under my shirt. She stops for a second, and places her hands on both sides of my face. My eyes open, I lift my face from hers, look into her eyes that seem gray now, muddled. She’s too drunk, I think. I shouldn’t have passed the bottle to her so much. I shouldn’t have pressured her. I shouldn’t have picked her. There could have been others. I have a girlfriend at home. I try to stop thinking, but her lips have given up. I stop.

    She lay to my left side, fetal position, as I turned on my back, spread eagled arms. I became suddenly exhausted and wanted to sleep, but Summer kept stirring. She stood up, didn’t talk, and began walking fast and falling as she did.

    “Whoa, whoa, whoa, are you alright?” I asked, getting up.

    “I need to go to the bathroom,” she said. She got past the bed, but her leg crumpled and she almost fell as I caught her. I led her to the restroom, a ragdoll under my shoulder, a marionette with cut strings.

    I turned the light on and got her in the restroom, but she slipped from my arm and landed near the toilet, vomiting a mess of meal into the bowl. The scent was strong and sour, filling the air. Her eyes began to tear. Her head on the rim of the bowl, she got sick in waves, routinely dipping her head deeper into the toilet and emptying her stomach. I tried desperately to hold her hair back, the only thing I could imagine doing. She eventually stopped, but would not leave her position between the wall and the toilet, her head still leaning into the bowl.

    “Call Shaelynn,” she said, “I need her. Call her, please.” Her voice, tear-ridden, sounded frail and desperate.

    “Of course of course,” I said. I called and after ten or so rings, it went to her voicemail where a cheerfully ignorant voice called out a hospitable greeting and instructions.

    “I hate her voicemail message,” Summer said, her voice echoing in the bowl of the toilet.

    “Hi, Shae,” I said in the most ironically cheerful voice I could muster, “It’s John. So, yeah, Summer had a bit of a problem holding her liquor. No worries though, she just has been inducing vomiting. Nothing major. But yeah, she would like you to drop in. Like right now maybe? That would be swell. Ok call me back. Bye.” I hung up, slumped against a wall and slipped down into a sitting position. “She’ll be here soon.” Summer didn’t hear me, or couldn’t over her coughs that tried to evacuate what wasn’t left in her stomach.

    “Why did you snap off my bra?” she asked. I had forgotten I did that.

    “Probably for a very obvious reason I assume,” I said, my mind rewinding thoughts. “I’m sorry.” I added quickly.

    “No, I’m sorry. And yes, you’re obvious,” she said slurring, head still down.

    “You shouldn’t be sorry. This isn’t your fault. It’s mine. I shouldn’t have let you drink that quick. I shouldn’t have been pushing you. Maybe you wouldn’t have gotten sick,” I said. My mind was wrecked, exhausted. I half feared this night would be remembered as attempted date rape. “I’m sorry I kissed you like that. You’re in a relationship right?”

    “Don’t. I liked it. Stop being sorry,” she said, the bowl a halo around her head. “You are great. You’re taking care of me,” She’s drunk. This is drunk talk, I thought. It’s still nice though, but I don’t deserve it.

    “I’m just doing a normal thing,” I said, “I’m sure lots of people would have done the same.”

    “No they wouldn’t.”

    “I wish you really knew me. I’m not a good guy. I have a girlfriend.” It sounded strange out of my mouth, like a mistaken language.

    “No, you’re not a bad guy. You’re great. You’re smart, and funny, and sensitive. And I ruined tonight. It could have been such a great night,” she said. My face warmed, and a smile slipped onto my mouth.

    “I hope you remember this. Not this part particularly, just how you feel about me right now. I wish to God that stays,” I said. I did not even look at her now. I looked at the wallpaper, gold stripes on a carnation yellow background, the single light above the toilet beaming down like a spotlight on us, shimmering the golden flecks in the walls, the bathroom silent. “But you won’t remember,” I said, letting my words slip out like a bad confession, “and if you do remember, you won’t say anything. You won’t and I won’t in fear that you do remember, but you just don’t want to. I know that’s what will happen. I really hope it won’t though. Even when I know it will.”

    “I hope I remember too,” she said. I moved my hand towards hers, grasping it lightly, and felt her grasp back in acceptance, her slender fingers entwining into my own. In that moment the space enclosed like a time capsule, the rest of the universe disappeared. It was special and terrifying, terrifyingly special, especially terrifying, the amount of emotions that radiated out from us, and the amount of peace I felt. What I couldn’t recall, was the last time I ever felt like this. There was excitement and happiness that lingered in the air, despite fear, despite anxiety. It doesn’t sound like a time to be happy or feel anything: on the pale tiled floors of a hotel bathroom with a girl who had just gotten sick on a night where you cheated and couldn’t even score. But maybe it was because it was a failed night and being alone then and there which made it so different, that aligned so awkwardly but correctly so that maybe we could be with each other in a way that no one ever gets to be with someone. It was different. It was honesty in its rawest form. It was something I knew I would never stop searching for.

    There was a knock on the door and I scrambled onto my feet.

    “Where is she?” said Shae standing her full four foot something height, the bubbliness of her personality popped, eyes looking past me.

    “Bathroom,” I said, pushing the door further open letting her walk under my extended arm. Brian and Shawn were in the hall.

    “What happened, man?” Brian asked.

    “She drank too much,” I said.

    * * *

    I walked down the hall, looking for the nearest exit so I could have a cigarette. Shae and Summer just so happened to be in the hall, walking in my direction.

    “Morning,” I said

    “Hey, where are you off to?” Shae asked. Summer stood there. She didn’t say anything.

    “Cigarette.”

    “Oh, ok. Well we were just gonna find Brian and head to the ceremony,” Shae said.

    “Sounds good. I’ll meet you there,” I said.

    I saw Summer four more times that day. Each time our eyes met it was with the same murky blindness of an amnesic night. We didn’t talk about it. I didn’t bring it up. I walked through the rest of the day making the motions of a patterned normalcy.

    All our belongings were packed. Our room had already been cleaned of our existence. Housecleaning had made the mussed bed, the trickles of alcohol on the floor and tables had been steam cleaned and wiped down. It looked as if no one had ever lived in the room, grew in the room, experienced anything in the room but a good night’s rest and superb hotel services. I grabbed my bags and went into the hall.

    “’Sup?” Shawn said, waiting in the hall for me to grab my stuff.

    “Nothing.”

    “You alright?”

    “Yeah. I think I’m going to break up with my girlfriend when I get home, though.”

    “Huh. Ok.”

    “I shouldn’t have fucked around man. She deserves better.”

    "Alright."
     
  8. GingerCoffee
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    The Game [2,443 words]

    The master of ceremonies stood in the middle of the room, rummaging through the drop box. His ratty top hat from the thirties didn’t match the rest of his neat, manicured look or his twelve hundred dollar Brooks Brothers' suit, but tradition demanded he wear it. Ever the showman, he dug through the box longer than necessary until he finally produced an envelope; a hush fell over the small but buzzing crowd.

    Holding the envelope over his head, the host slowly spun a complete circle, giving him time to lock eyes with various audience members, engaging them. Using his index finger, he tore the envelope open with a flare and removed the paper within. Tossing the torn envelope aside, he read the word printed on the paper, a smile forming on his handsome but weathered face.

    “Tonight’s topic is….the zoo!” he bellowed a little too loudly for the small venue.

    The crowd erupted, a mixture of laughter and disbelief; it was a rather silly topic compared normal, but it would make the festivities more interesting if the contestants were up to the challenge.

    As the murmur died down, the audience settled in. Most had glasses of wine, though some chose cocktails instead. It wasn’t necessary for anyone to turn off or silence their phone, for all electronic devices were strictly forbidden. Situated in what used to be the library of the once-famous McHugh House on the southern tip of Grosse Ile, a million dollar renovation left the room with the appearance of a coliseum, though on a much smaller scale. The stadium seating, with capacity for sixty people, surrounded a small center stage area. Interrupting the seating on one side was a small tunnel that led to other parts of the residence.

    A couple of helpers finished preparing the stage area, placing four extra large tarps such that they covered the entire floor. Once the tarps were in place, three white, plastic lawn chairs were brought out and placed in a triangle pattern, two of the chairs facing each other and the third staring at the dead space in between. Each chair was given a small matching table.

    Mr. Johnson – not his real name, of course – came out of the tunnel to a smattering of boos and catcalls. This was his fifth game and much to the audience’s chagrin, he was undefeated.

    Before taking his seat, he looked around at the faces watching him. Though there was a nearly perfect mix of males and females, they all looked the same; middle-aged, white and well-off. Digging deeper, most were independently wealthy, bored and slightly insane, or at the very least out of touch with reality. And, just like him, all had a small omega symbol with a lightning bolt above it tattooed on the inside of their left elbow. The chances of a non-member stumbling upon the same design and location for a tattoo were beyond remote; an outsider was not going to get in.

    After Mr. Johnson selected one of the two chairs facing each other, his opponent for the evening emerged to whistles and applause, the crowd sounding much larger than it actually was. Weston Bilkin, a proclaimed self-made millionaire that stumbled into his fortune. Cocky and arrogant, he chose to use his real name. In his mid-forties, he was significantly younger than Mr. Johnson, though his frail frame and receding hairline made him look much older.

    He, too, looked around the audience before sitting. Seeing friendly, familiar faces, he added waves and blown kisses. He had been in their position many times, having witnessed the game on nine previous occasions; he had never played, though, and despite the high stakes, was looking forward to the contest.

    Mr. Johnson sat quietly and shook his head as Bilkin acted like he was on the set of a TV talk show, playing to the crowd, smiling, waving and even shaking the hands of people sitting in the first row. Did the man have no idea what was about to happen?

    How had things progressed to this point, he wondered? What had happened to his original group? How had a social experiment he designed degraded into...this?

    As a waiter took drink orders from Mr. Johnson and Bilkin, the two helpers reemerged with the third “contestant” for their game. An old Hispanic man of indeterminate age was slowly walked on stage and sat in the final chair. He had been bathed and shaved and dressed in a nice tailored suit but it wasn't possible to clean up years of hard street living; he was another member of Detroit's homeless population. Taken from the street under the cover of darkness and brought here for entertainment, his disappearance would go unnoticed like all of the others.

    The old man sat perfectly still, in his own little world, staring at nothing, his eyes hollow and face scarred.

    Mr. Johnson wondered if it was just the administered drugs that caused the nothingness in the homeless man, or something else. Beatings? Torture? Some combination of all?

    In the beginning, all it took was a small drug cocktail centered on ketamine, followed by hypnosis, to put a patient under. But as the group grew larger and others forced their way into leadership positions, that method was deemed inadequate; now, much stronger drugs were being used, many with significant long and short-term side effects.

    During that same time, what was once a thought-provoking look at the human mind devolved into a twisted game meant to satisfy the morbid curiosities of those in attendance. Even worse, the rules were always changing, skewing in favor of the macabre.

    Mr. Johnson didn’t know what to do. Go to the police? He’d spend the rest of his life in jail; he was as complicit as the rest – perhaps more, considering he was the one that started everything. Back then, it was done on a volunteer basis and nobody ever died, but he doubted that would buy him much leniency. Plus, he only had a couple of names to offer up as anonymity was a key part of their little society. No, going to the police wouldn’t solve the problem. It might put a damper on it for a short time, cause some legal issues for a few and result in a new location but eventually, the society would be back up and running as normal.

    Instead, he did the only thing he could think of – try to save them one at a time.

    He preferred not to look at the subjects, but in this instance he couldn’t stop staring at the old man; he looked familiar. Mr. Johnson thought that he might be the same subject from his first contest a couple of months ago. If that were the case, though, he should have been released per the rules of the game. Apparently, another change was made.

    If he was right, the old man had spent four or five months in captivity. What horrors had he endured during that time? Even if he lived through the game tonight, would he go back to being a prisoner? Or would they finally release him, sending him back on the street more damaged than before? Even if Mr. Johnson won, the subject lost. He briefly wondered if it was even worth trying; the most humane thing might be to throw the game, put an end to the old man’s suffering…

    But then he saw his opponent. Still preening, acting like a jackass. A life hung in the balance, and all this Bilkin character could do was smile and wave and have a grand old time. He didn’t value life; he should pay with his.

    A waiter emerged from the tunnel, carrying a large tray. Making the rounds, he set something on each of their tables. For Mr. Johnson and Bilkin, it was their drinks and a small envelope with their names on it. For the homeless man, it was much different; a Glock G19 semi-automatic handgun, complete with silencer. Next to the gun was placed a ten bullet magazine.

    Transitioning from host to judge, the emcee ditched the top hat and replaced with a long black robe and replica powdered wig. Taking his seat in the front row, he addressed the contestants.

    “Mr. Bilkin, you are on offense and will have fifteen seconds per statement. Mr. Johnson, as requested you are on defense and have…well, you know the time frame you’ll be working under. Mr. Bilkin you will begin. Please open your envelopes to get your words, and remember that today’s topic is the zoo.”

    Both contestants did as instructed, tearing open the envelope and removing a small index card with one word printed on it. Upon reading his card, Bilkin spoke.

    “Many animals don’t have the serenity they desire in a zoo, there are too many people present.”

    Upon hearing the trigger word, the homeless man picked up the Glock off the table, loaded the magazine and racked the slide back, putting a bullet in the chamber. Everything was done slowly, deliberately; it was as if he was loading a gun for target practice, not a matter of life or death. He held the gun to his temple, ready to squeeze the trigger.

    Before he could, Mr. Johnson spoke. “The reason that zoos are so popular is because of the diversity of animals present.”

    The homeless man, hearing the deactivation word, lowered the gun and ejected the bullet from the chamber, letting it fall to the ground. He ejected the magazine and set both back on the table, as before. A slight groan briefly swept through the crowd.

    It was Bilkin’s turn again. “Many biologists are against keeping certain animals in zoos, instead preferring them to have the peace and serenity of nature.”

    Once again, the homeless man reached for the gun, installed the magazine and racked the slide.

    As before, Mr. Johnson quickly spoke. “To properly support all of their animals, a zoo needs to have a wide diversity of ecosystems and habitats.”

    The homeless man ejected the bullet, removed the magazine and set them both on the table. Round two was finished; another moan from the audience.

    For five more rounds, the pattern repeated; Bilkin would activate the subject, only to have Mr. Johnson quickly neutralize him.

    After each successive round, Bilkin got more nervous, more anxious. He started stuttering and taking longer to form a qualifying sentence. The audience, noticing the change, shifted. The booing and groaning reached an apex after round four; now, the crowd was neutral but quickly turning on Bilkin.

    Round eight started; Bilkin was covered in sweat, unable to think. He had two more rounds to complete his task or…no, he wasn’t going to think about it.

    “Some animals find serenity by avoiding people and spending their time away from the boundaries of their cages or pens.” A few boos rang out from the gallery as the homeless man reached for the gun.

    “Weak, but I’ll allow it. Tread carefully Mr. Bilkin, that was very similar to a previous sentence,” the judge admonished.

    Before the homeless man could even rack the slide, Mr. Johnson spoke. “One of the reasons it’s so expensive to operate a zoo is because of the diversity of food required to feed the various animals.” No groans or complaints this time, and even a few cheers.

    Just like that, the homeless man ejected another round. The unfired bullet spilled to the ground and rolled to the edge of the tarp next to the other ones.

    Eight rounds completed. One round left, just one more chance. How had he gotten such a ridiculous word? And a topic of the zoo? Not politics or religion or…no, he couldn’t waste time, he had to come up with something. How much of his time had passed? Five seconds? Ten? He was counting down in his head Five…four…three…two…

    “The serenity of nature…is…um…the serenity of the animals is more important than…is a more important aspect than the people that want to see the animals so…animals shouldn’t be kept in cages.”

    The judge jumped up and screamed, “Prohibere!” Stop. The homeless man stopped in mid-motion, twisted in his seat, his hand already on the gun. Eyes open and unblinking, he looked more like a wax figure than he did a person. As a fail-safe, words were implanted that would basically shut the subject down; they chose Latin so that a contestant wouldn’t unintentionally use them during the contest.

    “I’m sorry Mr. Bilkin,” the judge said with an evil grin, “but you didn’t use the word zoo. You know the rules. You lose.”

    Mr. Johnson watched as the color drained out of Bilkin’s face. He tried to speak, but only managed to stutter and stammer; even that was drowned out by the crowd’s cheering. Eventually, he slumped back into the chair, head down, accepting his fate.

    Turning toward the homeless man, Mr. Johnson leaned forward in his seat and spoke quietly. “Initium.” Start. It was – from what he remembered – the reactivation word. Putting a subject in suspension was probably the most dangerous thing they did, if it was possible to rank such things. Too often, the suggestion to stop couldn’t be countered, especially if left in that state for too long; during the initial trials, they had lost more than a few subjects this way.

    Much to Mr. Johnson’s relief, the homeless man started moving again, picking up where he left off. As he lifted and loaded the gun, Mr. Johnson muttered the deactivation word one last time, causing the old man to eject the ninth bullet. This time, though, he didn’t eject the magazine or put the gun on the table; still gripping the gun tightly, he rested it on his lap instead, his finger on the trigger.

    Quickly removing the wig and pulling off the robe, the emcee-turned-judge-turned-emcee donned the top hat again, leapt from his seat and shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, your winner for the fifth consecutive time…Mr. Johnson!”

    The crowd, already roaring its approval, broke into a vigorous applause; some even whistled, and on his way out the tunnel, Mr. Johnson was pretty sure he even saw someone give a fist pump.

    Turning to Bilkin, the emcee spoke again. “Thank you for playing, Mr. Bilkin.” The only response he received was a slight nod.

    Now addressing the homeless man, the emcee said, “Occidere, unus a sinistris.”Kill the one on the left.

    One more time, the old man raised his gun, only this time he aimed it a Bilkin...and there was nobody to stop him from pulling the trigger.
     
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  9. GingerCoffee
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    Terrorist [3002 words]

    Memories of my youth have built me up and held me together like mortar filling the cracks of an old concrete sidewalk. The world is a different place now, one that hardly remembers the fragments of my village or my sacred longing for environmental peace.

    Sterile beeping brushed through the laminate halls more frequently than the janitor’s push broom, resounding off the washed out wholesale art that hung in their white wooden frames. The constant flow of cold air from the metal vents grasped on to the sickness that inhabited this hospital, so stagnant in the air, brushing against the cheeks of visitors as they pushed through the door. Eventually the slew of familiar faces were silently replaced by newer ones, as if the only good memories in these cold, cold, halls were just dreams caused by medications.

    My body is now old and weak, sluggish with medication that makes me chronically nauseous, however I have clarity of sane mind and I have the serenity of living a fulfilled life.

    The time was close; I could hear the sounds of the second hand on the barefaced clock slow, dramatically slow, down to a halt, it seemed. Soon, I would be free from this world, this old body, and all the good and bad I had done.

    I picked up the notepad that lay on the end table and began to write.
    ***********************
    I looked up at the wooden building, industrial and rigid with a shiny metal roof, jutting out on its own in the center of the jungle. Men from the big city; building their processing plants and train tracks; they planned to clear it all. I could hear metallic clanking from construction inside that looming building, the size of an entire field of crops. I stood towards the entrance on the East side, staring at the men that came and went, concealed by the waning light and crouched inside a large leafy shrub.

    The elder of my village held counsel with the local tribes about this deforestation of our homes, and it seemed they had accepted defeat over all other options. They planned to move the villages South, into the lands of our aggressive neighbors. These men knew that they would have to defend us from their enemies, fight for territory, but the women of the tribes had greater a worry. Yes, the men would have to battle, and some would surely perish doing so, but their greatest fear was death, and us women had to worry about living in the hell they left behind. Our southern enemies, when their gold mines started to trickle dry, found a new raw material to trade; young village girls, traded to underground city men for land or money. Just last harvest, three young women disappeared from my village, never heard from again, never seen, yet we all knew. One of those girls was my older cousin. Images flashed in my head of the very real torture I may have to face if we moved south and I was given to the barbarians.

    There was a very small militia working secretly against these industrial monsters, made up of young, progressive people, all of us much more modern thinkers than our traditional tribal parents. We have been to the city, we have been educated in modern scholarship and we have the skills to use the new technologies available. We would bring these killers of our home to their knees.

    My thoughts were quieted when a burly man exited the door, although no one wore clothing showing their appropriate ranks, I knew he was at the top. He held the door open, and a string of workers exited from the dark innards of the building, joyfully chatting and taking leave for the day.. Back to their modern houses they would commute, back to their wives who probably had dinner waiting for them. They would all be gone hastily, and then soon I could slip in and do what needed to be done.

    It was sunset, and the headlights of their old jalopies illuminated as their clunky engines started enthusiastically to head home. I burrowed myself deeper behind the large leaves, as the spotlights of their machines passed over the very place I stood. For a moment, my heart beat fast like a drum, my body was trembling. I felt as if they saw me in my hiding place, that they would stop their cars and shoot me within the fame of their headlamps. Yet slowly they passed, and each car headed up the straight dirt path until taillights disappeared over the hills, kicking up dust into the orange glow of the growing night.

    I took a deep breath and grasped on to the drawstrings of the heavy bag that hung from my back. Like an animal of prey, frightened by the passing commotion, I waited another moment before I stepped from my earthly veil. It was completely dark now, my senses relaxed, as I was invisible in the night. I knew I was alone, but I was terrified.

    Looking back, I still can’t believe I went alone. I was frantic for my people, and could not spend another sleepless night thinking about packing my things and moving, only to be slaughtered or sold. I was the only one I could trust. The leader of our militia was the village leader’s son, a fellow I can only remember as honest but stubborn. It was perhaps by accident, as I came to meet with our leader, I heard him and his father discussing a large sum of money they received to agree to move the village. They had taken the money, and accepted to move south. I was outraged. If the only man who had risen up had been so easily swayed with a bribe, I knew the only person who could finish this was a woman. I did not wait to hear of this from our leader’s mouth. I did not wait to tell the others of his deceit…..I took our final plan, and decided it could not wait. It would be completed tonight or I was prepared to go to jail trying.

    I took the first step out of my camouflage and I felt naked. Easing my feet down so quietly, it pained every muscle. I was nervous and tense. I gripped onto the straps of the backpack as I gripped my mother’s hand when I was young and frightened. I could hear a sloshing sound quietly bouncing in my bag as I stepped so carefully forward. I stopped before I entered into the beacon of light, emitted from the bulb above the entry door of the building that stood cold and dead before me.

    I found a window on the rear side of the building, low enough that I could hoist myself up. I was careful to set my bag down on the floor of the building before jumping through myself. It was eerie inside, and I felt watched although everything was still. The bulb from outside shone into the front windows, the only light allowing me to see into the guts of the building. I left my bag, snooping through all displayed on the big long tables that formed a single line down the middle of the room. Blueprints, documents, signatures, plans….

    What I found shocked me; it was far beyond what we had ever imagined.

    This corporation wasn’t clearing out land to build housing upon, or to even plant upon…..they were going to build a nuclear power plant….The building I stand within was just a place to set up shop, a place for them to begin storing building equipment and begin the engineering.

    Tears began to well, fogging my already strained vision. I could imagine my favorite place, tucked deep away in the forest as I closed my eyes tight, it came to life before me. It was a cascading gradient of green, growing from the dark, almost black of the forest floor, up to the white light of the sky breaking through the treetops. The path lined with fruit and nut trees, a glorious bounty of colors, and animals tasting the treasures of the trees. All this glory thrived around the river that gave us life; the twisting, narrowing, widening water that flowed through the jungle like the veins in my body. It was the most diverse place, lush and full (although it is now long gone).

    No more wasting time, I was inside the seed of the operation, and if I could bring this down, it would give me enough time to let the citizens of the city know what is going to happen to their beloved preserved jungle. I headed straight for my belongings. Untying the drawstrings, I grabbed the large container of liquid that I had forced into the sack. It was a gas can; the largest size I could carry still concealed. I felt like a scientist, focused and serious, quickly loosening the top to open the container. I looked around, running a plan through my head before I broke past the point of no return.

    I started in the corner farthest from where I entered.

    My muscles jumped when the first splat of liquid hit the floor and broke the strong silence that hummed around my thoughts. My nerves calmed and I felt my anger rise up. I covered the tables with gasoline, their papers, their tools, their personal belongings. I did not care. I wanted it destroyed, all of it, every trace of this building. I was insane with the passion I felt for exterminating this kind of industrial revolution. The power I felt I had with that gas tank in my hands was comparable to that of a machine gun. I had abandoned the idea that anyone would find me here, and I was finally comfortable doing my destructive work. The yellow light from the lamp filling the long room with a haze, giving me just enough vision to sparingly divvy the flammable liquid around until the entire floor and tabletops were doused.


    “Who are you? Who let you in here?” The words cut through the air like an electric saw, alarming and loud. A wide figure stood silhouetted in the doorframe. By his shape, I knew instantly that it was the burly man; the man who was in charge. He stood only ten feet away, both of us dazed by our uninvited guest.

    I was frozen. I could not see the features of his face, but when he realized what I held in my hand, and caught a whiff of the gasoline, I could see a twisted demonic possession take over his emotions. He lunged for me.

    All the thoughts within my head, the plan, my goal, it all vanished.

    I threw the empty gas can at his head as he reared towards me, it all happened so quickly, my face was already turned when I heard the hollow thud of it hitting his body. With the door open, more light flooded in, my eyes already used to the dark and now able to see everything. I turned to run back to the low window I came from, I spotted my bag, and tried desperately to grab at any part of it.

    As my hands closed around the material, his hands closed on my shoulders. He jerked me to him, and the feeling of frantic helplessness set in as he quickly pinned my arms behind me, and drug me to the floor. It was alarming how little I was able to fight back, he was over twice my weight, and even my hardest and most stubborn attempts to repel him were tragically unsuccessful.

    He pushed me hard into the floor, putting a knee into my lower back, “Who the **** let you in here, princess? What’s a pretty young thing like you doing settin’ this place on fire? You break out of the crazy home or something!” His hands were big and fat, and I felt him frisk my body. He grumbled and made noise that came from deep within him, a deep place I could feel hardening against my back. The intense smell of the gas I was now covered in was beginning to make me light headed and it irritated my skin.

    “So what were you trynna to hide from me, princess?” he leaned over and grabbed at my backpack, and he drug it across the wet floor to him. I squirmed in terror as he stuck his hands inside the sack and grasped the thick bundle it concealed. “What the ****? Is that dynamite! You some hippy psycho trynna save the jungle, lady?”

    He struck me across the back of my head with his fist full of bundled dynamite sticks and the back of his knuckles. I cried out, he dropped the bundle and struggled to turn me over. My only advantage in this brawl, that I was sure to lose, was that I was so much smaller and now covered in gasoline. As he maneuvered himself to flip me over, grasping at my clothes and reeling at feeling my body squirm beneath his, I was able to slip out from his possession as the hand made skirt I wore ripped and allowed me to be free. Standing bottomless in front of him, half illuminated from that yellow lamp, was even more terrifying than wrestling to get away from him. What was I to do now?

    He started at me in my moment of womanly specter, giving me a split second to raise my confidence to fight, before he lunged towards me again on his knees. As he got closer, I used all my force to kick my knee up into his cheek. In my inexperience and his last minute movements, I missed and hit him in the jaw and upper neck. Although he made a grunt, it did not faze him, and a higher level of panic arose. I threw elbows down in his direction and tried to push him away. I felt my nails sink into the pudgy skin of his face as I snatched both hands full of his hair. Again, I raised my knee up fast to meet his face. This time, using my fists of his hair as leverage, I caught him right on his cheek, and immediately, I came back to do it again, mustering everything; another golden blow.

    So relieved to have some sort of upper hand, I began to cry as I bashed my knee into his face, again and again. The moment he eased, I released him, and he lay on the floor grumbling and disoriented, but in a few moments, he would be able to fight again. I turned my head, and by the grace of the gods, my eyes fell upon my saving grace. It was a heavy bookend, metal, with a bull’s head at its top, perfectly illuminated by the light shining in through the open door. Like a beam from the heavenly sun showing me the way, the tips of the bull’s horns sparkled. I ran to it, so fast that I fell into the long table on which it sat, my feet slipping on the greasy floor. When I grasped it in my hands, it felt like my entire body sighed; it was so heavy.

    With new emotions….. anger, pride, and revenge…. I took slow steps back to him. He blinked as he turned his face up at me, trying to focus on my figure, blacked out by the godly light that circled in an aura behind me.

    He murmured a threat, and I smiled. So many things I wanted to say.

    The first blow, I let my hand fall with the bookend, to crash upon his already bruised cheek bone. It was so heavy; I let the blunt end fall..

    In my head, I cursed him, and with every blow, each with more power than the last, I thought: This is for my people. This is for my land.

    He was no longer moving. I turned the book end around and stabbed down one last time until the bull horns penetrated his chest. This is for my cousin…

    With the anxiety of the fight still pumping through me, I hurried to grab my bag, and to reaffix my skirt. Bending down to pick up the bundle of TNT, I took one last look at this burly man, a puddle of blood collecting from a wound to his face and the puncture in his chest.

    Laying the dynamite bundle just inside the doorframe, I pulled a long fuse from my sack and attached it to the existing fuse, and walked the length of the string until I was at the end and it was pulled tight.

    Although I was frantic with raw hormones and shaking with emotion, I saw his car maybe a hundred feet away, and ran to it. The keys were in the ignition, I said a prayer to the goddess, who was so obviously watching over me. I cranked the keys and the engine turned, it was clunky, but it would take me away from here. I reversed the car until I was square with the fuse and the still open doorframe.

    Right next to the gearshift, was a pack of matches from a bar in the city,El Rio, ‘the river’. I opened the driver door, and lit the match. For a second I smiled.

    “For the River….” I said, and light the end of the long fuse.

    I slammed the door and stomped on the gas pedal of the old rusty car, my heart beating, I flew down the dirt road, fishtailing, until I heard the explosion.

    I drove until I came to the old fashioned bridge, passing over our river that separated the city from the jungle. I got out, and left the car in drive. I watched the tail end heave over the side of the bridge and into the river before I turned to walk the trail home.
     
  10. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    The Core [2720]

    Yes I know the secret
    That's within your mind
    You think all the people
    Who worship you are blind
    You're just like Big Brother
    Giving us your trust
    And when you have played enough
    You'll just cast our souls
    Into the dust
    Into the dust

    ~ “Who Are You?” by Black Sabbath

    Chapter One

    Angela’s spirit felt thin; thin and somehow inside out, as if the thinness had caused the inside-outness. It got like this when there was too much time between harvests. And how much time had there been? She couldn’t remember now. The thinness made it too hard to think.

    What she did recall was that it had been four months since she had gone her own way. She’d had no clue on the day she left, of course, what she would do, where she would go. But she figured it would work itself out, and for the most part - it had… all except for the harvest. But she didn’t like to think about that part. In fact, she actively avoided it. That last time, the way it had happened… it stayed with her, taunting her, spooking her when she closed her eyes. So she tried not to close them.

    However, now that some time had passed; she wasn’t sure she’d done the right thing. It was true. She had grown weary of the elders deciding where they went, what they did, how they would harvest. It had become a constant frustration over the years.

    But still, she couldn’t ignore that edge of worry under her skin; the worry that maybe she had been rash in her hurry to separate from them. It was just that after three decades, Angela realized she doesn’t believe as they do, and moreover; no longer wanted to live as they do. The price was too high. Although, to be fair - the price to leave was high as well: banishment and the penalty of death if they ever crossed paths again. There were times - when she allowed herself to dwell on it - when she was more than a little shocked she’d chosen to leave anyway.

    She knew she was deemed naïve, too green to grasp the complexities of their existence. After all; she’d only been among them for thirty years. That was nothing in their world, a mere babe. But she still retained pieces (tiny, miniscule, barely-there parts) from her other life. Things from beforethat she believed they, in all their seniority, had lost.

    The details of what it was like to live In the Light were gone, but she got glimpses of brightness sometimes when a sight or smell hit her just right. Those glimpses were like shards of broken glass scattered on the ground, reflecting random images of their surroundings, shifting and changing as they were kicked around. But beyond that, living In the light was a completely alien concept to her now. Something so far gone, it was almost as if it had never been. And she supposed she was glad for that; it would make her sad to remember.

    But to Angela, living wasn’t the black and white portrait the elders painted it to be. Or rather, it didn’t need to be. And besides; didn’t beings like them belong in the other area anyway? They neither lived In the Light nor In Darkness. They lived in the space in between. They were The Gray.

    How she’d even become gray was a mystery to her. They say it happens quietly, peacefully, but she knows they lie. She didn’t know that for a long time, but she knew it now. There was no telling what choices she could have made, different choices – better choices - had she been more aware of those she traveled with and what urged them forward. But she tried not to think about that either. It troubled her insides. And troubled insides coupled with her thin spirit were too much to bear.

    ***

    She needed to move. Angela had been on this park bench too long. People – those who walked their dogs every day or passed her bench on their way to work - they were eyeballing her by now. She realized she must look odd, sitting like stone in the center of this concrete bench, facing the gray sky and the cold, murky water of the lake. She kept forgetting that to blend in she must do things like change positions, look around, make eye contact, initiate conversation, smile. But she forgot to do those things. The lack of harvest, again.

    The passer-byers were trying not to look; trying not to be rude, she could tell. But she could feel their eyes on her. Worse, she could sometimes catch unvoiced phrases of their pity, her talent of mind-sight showing off when she least wanted it to. Some projected disgust; some even anger (“Fucking homeless cunt. GET A JOB!” one angry man’s mind said) – but most of them thought “Poor girl” or “Oh my” or “That’s so sad” as they strolled home to their warm sofas, cozy amber lampshades, and sweet smelling kitchens.

    She pictured them walking through a front door, shouting, “I’m home!” to the family waiting there, and dropping their belongings on the foyer floor before seating themselves at a round, oak dining table – a table overflowing with a mouth-watering, home cooked dinner. Her mind’s eye always went right to the roasted chicken, because in her fantasy of where they would go – there was always roasted chicken.

    “I used to love that.” she said aloud. The sound of her own voice startled her. She hadn’t spoken in days – since before planting herself on this bench. There’d been no need since she kept forgetting to make conversation or greet people.

    “Excuse me?”

    His deep, smooth voice made Angela jump. She hadn’t seen the dark haired man or his fluffy dog with the curly-Q tail approach. Her mind was too focused on roasted chicken. He stopped, told his dog to sit, and then looked at her with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen; so blue they were almost gray, which wouldn’t make sense to anyone that wasn’t of her kind. The Gray saw colors differently than others did. And shades of gray jumped out at them more than any other. It was the color of bonding; something they were inexplicably drawn to. Most times it was a good thing. Other times… not.

    “I-I’m sorry?” she stammered, mesmerized by his eyes. They seemed to reach into her mind and peel back her thoughts. The words naked or exposed were only a fraction of how bare she felt. It was worse than the thinness, but also… lovely. Somehow worse and so very lovely. It confused her.

    “Were you speaking to me?” he said, and the blue and gray swirled and danced around his pupils. “I thought I heard: ‘I used to love that’”. And then he smiled and she thought she might fall over, right off that bench. “Did you mean Barley, my dog?” He looked down at the gray and white Siberian Husky at the end of the leash. He was sitting politely and looking intently at Angela. The man ruffled the fur around the dog's neck as he spoke. Angela tried to hide her surprise when Barley's blue gaze met hers and was just as intense as his master’s. Was there gray swirling and dancing in his eyes, too? She could’ve sworn there was.

    “Uh, no – I-I wasn’t really… well, I wasn’t talking to anybody.” she said, embarrassed.

    “Oh!” he laughed, “I don’t know why, but I was sure you were talking to me.” He smiled again. Was he doing that on purpose, trying to disarm her? If so, it was working. She was suddenly weak in the knees, and she wasn’t even standing.

    “I was just thinking, is all. I didn’t mean to speak out loud.” She chuckled nervously and looked down at the ground.

    “Well then – tell me.” He sat next to her, so close that their thighs touched. She scooted several inches over to give him room, but he scooted over, too – not quite as close as before, but nearly.

    “Tell you what?” she asked.

    “What you could be thinking about that would make you say ‘I used to love that’?”

    “Oh, that… it was nothing.”

    “Aw, c’mon now. It couldn’t be ‘nothing’ if you loved it.” Damn that smile. How could teeth be so white, so perfectly straight? She stared at them, thinking they looked like a row of pearlescent jewels. Suddenly she wondered if he was putting The Whammy on her. It sounded silly, impossible even - but was it?

    “Really, it was nothing. I was just remembering something… something from a long time ago.” she managed.

    “Ah, memories…” he said quietly and looked off toward the lake. “They must be good memories if you loved it.” His voice was soft, soothing, like a warm quilt just begging to be snuggled into.

    “They are…were” she sighed. That was actually true; they were very good memories. But when she thought them a moment ago, she’d forgotten they wereher memories and not a fantasy of what she imagined the people walking by were walking towards. The realization made her feel even worse.

    “Well then – that means something, doesn’t it?”

    She scowled at him, suddenly furious that he dared to dazzle her with those white teeth, his dancing, blue eyes, the nearness of him. “Yeah, I suppose.” she said curtly. Then, “Look, can I help you with something?” The icy bite in her voice was clear, but it didn’t have any affect. Instead, he grinned at her.

    “No,” he sighed and leaned his head back. His eyelids went slack. He looked as if he were basking in an invisible ray of sunshine. “I’m just going to sit here for a few minutes.” Then he turned to her, an amused look on his face. “You don’t mind, do you?”

    Angela frowned, wanting to tell the truth; that she minded… she minded very much! She surprised herself, though, when the words, “It’s a free country,” came out of her. She attempted a smile, but it’d been too long – days, in fact - since her facial muscles had contracted. She could only imagine what it looked like; some kind of freakish sneer. The idea of this beautiful man seeing that instantly filled her with anxiety, so she tried it again, the smile. It felt more natural, less rigid, more pliable this time. He smiled back. Hopefully she looked more normal than she felt.

    “Yes, let’s just enjoy this…” he said, head back and eyes closed again. Barley settled himself on the grass, chin rested on his paws, his eyes already drowsy. And almost as if he hadput The Whammy on her, Angela did the same. She took in his handsome profile for a moment, and then she turned toward the lake, closed her eyes, and felt something warm on her skin… something like an invisible ray of sunshine.

    ***

    Twenty minutes went by. It amazed her that she was able to sit so quietly, so peacefully in his company. She never responded this way to those that lived in the light, and clearly – if she were any kind of judge – that’s where he lived. There was something about his calm presence and easy nature. His sweetness drew her in. Or was that just The Whammy again? His smooth voice interrupted her thoughts.

    “Okay then… I’m gonna go.” He turned to look directly at her, leaving her no time to hide how awkward it made her feel; stripped and bare, only not in a physical way. Again, it was as if he were peeling back her thoughts. And just like a while ago, she couldn’t decide if it was something she hated, or something she really liked.

    “Okay,” Angela replied, tearing her gaze away to look down at Barley. He was sitting beside the bench, looking expectantly at his owner. “Have a good night,” she said as casually as she could. It was all she could think of that felt… normal. And that’s the way people talk, isn’t it? They said things like ‘have a good night’ or ‘enjoy your day’, or ‘nice seeing you’.

    She couldn’t bring herself to say the latter, even though that was the truth. It hadbeen nice. It had actually been quite wonderful to sit here on this bench, feeling his peaceful, gentle energy. Even if it was The Whammy – even if he’d cast some kind of unworldly spell over her – it was unlike anything she’d experienced in at least three decades.

    She decided she liked it. Yes, she liked it very, very much.

    He stood up then, extending his hand. A little stunned by the gesture, she just stared at it for several seconds. She noticed the size, the even skin tone, his narrow wrist and blunt, well shaped fingers. Even his fingernails were clean and perfectly shaped. As she shook his hand, rigid calluses rubbed against the softness of her palm. Something about it felt sensual. This was a man’s hand – not a boy’s. And although she hadn’t thought of men in that way in all the years she’d lived among The Gray – it woke something up inside her that she thought had died long ago. She decided she liked that, too.

    “I’m Ethan,” His touch was warm, his grip firm, but not crushing. It was perfect, just like his blue eyes and brilliant smile.

    “Angela… I’m Angela” she answered back as he withdrew his hand. He looked at her for another long moment, nodded as if to himself, and then he left. He and his dog wandered down the sidewalk. Angela fought it at first, but then she gave in and watched them until they were completely out of sight.

    ***

    It had grown dark. It was probably cold, too - but she didn’t notice things like that. She had an idea if it were chilly based on how others dressed, if their body language was folded in and clutched tight, if billows of steam escaped their mouths as they breathed. She dressed herself according to their cues to look like she belonged. But the cold itself; she was numb to that, which made her wonder how she was able to feel the warmth of that unseen ray of sunshine, or more importantly; Ethan’s presence as he sat beside her.

    The Gray didn’t feel such things. To them, air was at all times neutral, no matter what the weatherman declared or seasons dictated. She didn’t know why it was so, but it had proven helpful when they were on the hunt. Storms, blizzards, heat waves…no matter where they ventured, weather never got in their way when they sought to harvest. She had actually come to appreciate that fact over the decades. For The Gray, that kind of discomfort was a thing of the past.

    But buried deep, in some hidden chamber, she could still feel a glow from being near Ethan. How that was possible, she didn’t know. But it was all she had been able to think about since he’d walked away.

    Without realizing she was doing it, she checked the large clock on the stone tower near the park’s entrance every few minutes. It was just after 3:00 AM. Dawn was still hours away. She didn’t believe she’d ever see him again, but caught herself counting the seconds until the park got busy with people. Maybe luck would be on her side this once and he would return… him and his blue eyed dog.

    She turned to fully face the clock, totally surrendering to her urge to count. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi…” she said aloud. She counted until the sun lit the sky, until the first pedestrians, bundled and freezing, hurried toward work; until she caught the familiar gait of a tall man with dark wavy hair and a gray and white dog alongside him.

    He’d come back! And as he approached, that feeling of warmth – that invisible ray of sunshine seemed to settle again on her gray skin. She stared at it, stunned by the heat, and watched in amazement as beneath the gray pallor, the beginnings of color began to emerge.
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    Wishes and Willows [2049 words]

    The sun is high in the sky when Melanie finally opens her eyes.

    She had only been lying there for a moment, she was certain. But the orange and pink of sunrise had been replaced by the clear blue of afternoon. The morning dew was long gone, and the dense fog that had obscured her path only hours before had slithered back into the depths of the earth.

    Melanie doesn't remember falling asleep. She remembers how she got to the forest, of course, with her mother in tow behind her. The trek had been a long and hard one – for both of them – and when they had finally collapsed on the soft grass beneath the old oak, it was there they remained.

    At first, the chirping of crickets had been an annoyance, loud and shrill as they were. But soon the other sounds of the forest joined them, and their tune changed from piercing noise to a beautifully composed orchestra.

    The crickets became the drums keeping time, their beat steady and sure, and the frogs were the melodious piano. The crows were a decent enough cello, though they were often out of tune. The robins and cardinals took the place of violins, and the wind whispered through the leaves in a perfect imitation of the cymbal. The only section she had found lacking was the bass. The owls seemed to have missed the summons for the concert.

    Melanie stretches wide as she stands, extending her arms and arching her back in an attempt to bring life back into her aching bones. Sleeping on the ground had not been wise. But her mind had been fried, working on overdrive for far too long. She would have found her tasks today far too difficult had she not slept at all.

    Her mother doesn't wake as Melanie moves away from her – in fact, she doesn't even twitch. It had been a long night forher too. The dress she wears is torn at the shoulder, no doubt snagged on some branch during their journey, and her ankle is swollen and purple. Melanie instantly feels guilty for having pushed her so hard that morning. She hadn't meant anything by it – no disrespect at all! She'd only wanted to get it over with. Melanie wasn't a fan of the woods at night.

    So she decides to leave her mother there, sprawled half in the grass and half in the dirt. She is no use to Melanie yet anyway. She still has much to do before her mother is needed.

    A few short paces takes her to the edge of a stream, the water crystal clear and flowing steadily over a bed of smooth gray stones. Small silver fish play beneath the surface as they search for food. Their attempts seem futile to her, the water far too clear to contain enough sustenance to feed this massive school of fish. But she still finds them fun to watch.

    The smallest of the group swims closer to her position at the bank, and she moves her hand to hover over it like a large umbrella. The creature darts from rock to rock, lifting and sifting underneath to examine the treasure it conceals. His pace slows for only a moment, his attention focused on something only he can see, and Melanie thrusts her hand into the frigid water – too slow.

    He swims away at the speed of light and leaves her empty handed.

    “Nuts,” she says aloud and dries her hand on the hem of her dress.

    Her father had given her this dress when she graduated high school. Melanie had been over-the-moon for it then, and she liked it well enough still. The yellow flowers had faded over the years, making them nearly impossible to see on the white fabric, but the dress still holds life in the swirls and smears of red.

    “That's enough playing, Melanie,” she sighs, her feet carrying her back to where her mother lies resting. “Time to get this over with.”

    They hadn't brought much with them on their trek – just enough to get the job done. The walk had been long, and Melanie could only carry so much. Her mother, with her swollen ankle and unseeing eyes, was in no shape to carry anything.

    She finds the blanket at the base of the old oak, right where she had dropped it those many hours ago. The shovel is wrapped up inside. Its handle is old and brittle with pieces of wood missing in chunks. But Melanie is sure it will do the job efficiently.

    She knows exactly where to dig – she had chosen the spot ages ago. So she crosses the clearing, past the oak with her mother at the base, past the stream with the quick silver fish and shiny stones, and stops beneath the boughs of a willow. Her father had planted this tree for her when she was a child. Melanie had always loved them – the way their branches seemed to sag with an invisible weight and sway in the wind like hair. Beautiful trees, they were. And it is here that she plans to dig.

    Melanie is no man – nor is she one of those tomboy women who play football and wear sports bras and sneakers – but the digging still fairly easy for her. The soil here is soft. She stabs the shovel into the grass and uses the wedge of her heel to drive it in further. Her body is sore, from her nap on the ground, from her walk here, from the day before, but she forces herself through the pain and digs.

    Yesterday had been a good day, she remembers.

    The weather had been warm – eighty degrees and sunny – so she had gone to the zoo. Melanie loves to watch the animals play. The giraffes twined their necks together in a loving embrace. The penguins dove in and out of the water and splashed anyone who came too near. The tiger cubs chased each other around their pen as if practicing an actual hunt.

    But the best part of the day came when she returned home. Her mother was in a mood – not much of a surprise there – and her father was in the city on business. But the letter had come. The letter she had been waiting for had finally arrived.

    Melanie hops down into the hole she's dug. It's far too deep now to stand on solid ground and still be able to dig deeper. Her feet sink a good five inches when she lands, but she doesn't mind. It will all be over soon, she reminds herself, and takes another shovel full of dirt.

    Melanie is a hard worker. Her father had raised her that way. After her high school graduation, Melanie was determined to attend a top-notch college, one she could be proud to have a degree from. So she had spent months applying to the best art schools in the country – Yale, VCU, all of the Art Institutes. Her grades had been flawless – a perfect 4.0 average – so she wasn't surprised when she'd received acceptance letters from nearly every one. Her father had been ecstatic! It was a huge honor to attend any of those colleges, he'd said. But her mother..

    Sweat drips down the side of Melanie's face. Strands of her hair had popped out of her ponytail and now stick to her cheek and neck. The day is growing warmer with every passing moment. Surely the hole is deep enough. She can stop digging now..

    The hole is deep enough, yes, but not long enough. Not nearlong enough. She abandons her shoes and tosses them up onto solid ground. The ache they're causing is only slowing her down. She has mud up to her ankles, but she isn't overly concerned. She'll wash them in the stream later. She'll have alot of washing up to do later.

    Melanie's mother hadn't been nearly as excited for her acceptance as her father had. “All of those colleges are across the country,” she'd said. “You're going to leave your poor old mother alone?”

    Melanie had tried to explain that she wouldn't be alone – she'd have father. But her mother wouldn't hear it. And after many days of discussion and arguments, her mother had won. All of Melanie's dreams were shattered the first time she'd stepped into the community college.

    Melanie crawls out of her hole in the ground like a skilled mountain climber, anchoring her shovel nearby like a claiming flag. It hadn't taken nearly as long as she originally planned. She was certain it would be dark by the time she was finished, but the sun is still high overhead. She might actually be home for dinner! What a relief.

    The time she spent at the community college hadn't been a total waste. Melanie had made many friends and even learned a few painting techniques she hadn't known before. But she knew it would never be enough. She had to receive a Master's degree if she ever planned to do anything with her life. She never told anyone when she started applying again.

    Melanie finds her mother right where she left her, the branches above no longer shielding her from the harsh afternoon sun.

    “Time to get up, mother,” she says as she retrieves the scratchy old blanket from the ground. But her mother doesn't move, which is fine by Melanie. She'll drag her to the hole if she has to. She helps her mother to sit up before draping the blanket across her shoulders. The weather is warm, yes, but her mother still feels so cold.

    The letter had come. The Art Institute of Chicago was emblazoned in red on the front with Melanie's name displayed boldly below it. It was the letter Melanie had been waiting all month for – her acceptance letter. And her mother had found it first.

    To say her mother was angry would be an understatement. She ripped the letter to pieces in front of Melanie's eyes, screaming of betrayal and disappointment.

    Melanie's strength is all but giving out as she helps her mother to the hole beneath the willow. She had somehow managed to wrap her mother's arm around her neck and ease her to a standing position, but her mother was dead weight in her arms. Her broken ankle drags the ground as they move, leaving a trail in the dirt behind them.

    “You're not going!” her mother had screamed, her face red with fury.

    Melanie had tried to calm her down, promising she'd come home for the holidays and both winter and summer breaks. But no amount of promises had eased her anguish. If only her father had been home..

    “No child of mine is going to some rich-bitch college for stuck up art snobs!” she'd said next, and her words had wounded Melanie to the core.

    “I'm sorry, mother, but I'm going,” Melanie had said, as sweetly and calmly as she could muster.

    But her tone only made her mother angrier, and in a fit of rage, she screamed, “Over my dead body!”

    Melanie hadn't wanted to do it – really, she hadn't. But her mother had given her no choice. And as her lifeless body falls into the hole in the ground that will be her grave, a tear slides down Melanie's cheek. The blood-soaked blanket falls in after her mother, covering the split in her skull and the gap her in chest.

    She seems so peaceful laying there, nestled within the layers of the earth, and Melanie is proud to have chosen such a scenic resting place for her mother. The willow will protect her from the sun. The wind will blow through its branches and make them dance for her. And the wildlife will play their orchestra for her – a new song every night, she's certain.

    “I'm sorry, mother,” Melanie whispered, fighting back the swell of emotion at seeing her mother so fragile. “But one of us always had to leave.”

    As Melanie takes the shovel in her hands, the clouds part to expose the sun.

    It is shaping up to be another beautiful day.
     
  12. GingerCoffee
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    Fooled [540 Words]

    Davis looked up from his crossword puzzle to the flickering security screen. One of the manufacturing droids on the assembly line had fallen to the floor again. The collapses had been happening with an increasing frequency that had become routine and unlike the first time, Davis didn’t feel the fluttering panic of the unknown but a dull irritation that it had cut into his lull time.

    He pressed the comm for the Repair Department.

    “Hey Jarold, we’ve got another one down.”

    Static for a moment, what sounded like bungling into chairs, and then Jarold came onto the comm screen. He pulled at the hem of his shirt. It was riding over a paunch that had been growing exponentially since Davis met the man three years ago when he’d first been employed.

    “Which floor is it this time?”

    “The assembly unit in Zone 4.”

    “You know that’s not my jurisdiction, Davis. Why don’t you call Reinhardt?”

    “He’s on paternity leave.” Davis checked the daily roster. “There’s no one else except Alice and she’s been assigned offsite to deal with another nuclear leak.”

    Jarold hunched his shoulders. “We’re talking minimal containment, right?”

    Davis tapped the Geiger counter by his hip. He’d bought it on his own after the last meltdown scare even when the company hadn’t reimbursed him. “No need for special suits yet.”

    Jarold shrugged, loosening his arms. “Well, I don’t have anyone else, so I’ll need you to come down and help me get the droid to scrap.”

    Davis took a look at his security monitors, at a stray cat prowling at a respectful distance from the electrified fence, and Zone 6 where droids were assembling tank parts. The bathrooms were empty and there was no one at the canteen.

    “I’ll be down in a minute.”
    ____

    They stood loosely over the prone machine while the other workers went about their business.

    “It’s burnt out.” Jarold whistled, peeling back one of the droid’s eyelids. The droid was about half the height of the other ones, with a heart-shaped face and tawny-haired – maybe a leisure model, a playmate for the Elite’s children.

    “Its nose is bleeding.”

    “So lifelike that it’s scary right?” Jarold grinned.

    “Why don’t you try repairing it this time?”

    “Most of it’s flesh.” Jarold prodded the android with one foot. “I’m a mechanic, not a doctor, besides, there’s a new batch coming in from the conquered colonies soon.”

    They heaped the droid onto a trolley and rolled it outside to a special dumpster near the electrified fence. Davis fought the urge to gag when they lifted the lid and dumped in the droid. Sanitation would come by for pickup at the end of the week.

    They leaned against the container. Jarold offered Davis a Marsoli.

    “Thanks,” Davis murmured, trying to still the shake in his fingers as he pulled out a lighter and ignited the cigarette. “They even smell like rotting.”

    “Makes us clear them out faster when they go down,” Jarold said. “You’d be surprised what the eggheads think up. You can really get fooled.”

    “Fooled,” Davis echoed. He closed his eyes. He focused on the smoke, on each inhale and exhale until his heart calmed, steady and without disquiet, and that other stench went away. “Yeah, fooled.”
     
  13. GingerCoffee
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    Set me free [2182 words]

    Evan lay still in the dark and listened to the humming engine outside. Diesel fumes seeped through the cracks in the walls and windows. These barracks weren’t built against the cold, crystalline art pieces had formed on the windows over the four days and now the entire canvas was covered. It had been two months since his greasy brown hair had tasted soap or felt the relief of a scissor, and even the smallest tunic was still too large for him. The previous label had been ripped off and a new one had been sewed on, announcing his name: 766.

    Next to him, 765 almost smothered in a coughing fit before letting out a ragged sigh. Pity he wasn’t going to last the night, he’d liked him.

    He still remembered when Pjol, that was his real name, had taken him apart and told him his secret.

    “You’re still young,” he’d said. “You still have a chance. You must escape.”

    “But how?” Evan had asked.

    “When it’s dark, when everyone is asleep you must slip out and head to the northern fence, I’ve made a cutout there, behind the bush near the outlook.”

    “Why haven’t you left yourself?”

    “I don’t have enough time. It’s too small for me, but you still have a chance.” His wrinkled skin had turned into a slanted, near-toothless smile. “Tomorrow night, you must leave.”

    “What if they catch me?”

    A grim look had crossed the old man’s face, darker than usual. “I think they’ll make it quick. But that’s only if they catch you. Don’t let that deter you, what do you have to lose?”

    The answer had been nothing of course. Nothing at all.

    Once more, Pjol sighed beside him, before turning silent. Evan didn’t dare to look back, he only knew Pjol by his smile and didn’t want to scathe the memory. Without a whisper, he snuck out of bed.

    The concrete floor was comfortable to his bare feet, smoother than the board he’d been resting on. He made a mental note that, should they catch him and bring him back, he would sleep on the floor instead. At least he could turn in his sleep there without rousing those next to him. He imagined it wouldn’t be much colder besides.

    On his toes, he stalked towards the door of the barracks. He sucked in an icy breath through his nostrils and prayed that there wouldn’t be a guard on the other side even though he’d never seen one there, the door had no window through which he could check. It didn’t have a keyhole either, which was how Pjol had found out that the doors were never locked. Not that they needed to be, most prisoners were too old and tired to attempt an escape, and the threat of death kept them in their rickety beds.

    That was why he needed to escape. Like shriveling plants, dehydrated and put out in the cold, men had perished one by one. He’d heard their breathing shallow with every passing night, he’d seen them struggle day by day to lift their blunt pickaxes. They would smell sweaty at first, whenever they walked by, but the longer they worked, the more dirt would cake onto their skin until not even their own stench could break through. They would start to fail their quota, and the guards would beat and starve them. Eventually, they’d end up in the ditches some of the other prisoners were forced to dig –a hundred feet or so out of the camp– always in his line of sight when he ferried the mined stone with a wheelbarrow.

    Sucking in another breath, he mustered his courage and pushed the door open.

    No one. There was only the steady hum of the truck around the corner. He was just about to move when the sound of a voice pinned him to the spot.

    “Don’t be stupid Artiom, they’re not like us. They’re hardly human.”

    It was The Bear. Evan had no trouble seeing the man with his mind’s eye. Always carrying his large, black cane, dressed in his thick cloak with a fur collar, and toting a drunkard’s beard. He honored his name.

    “I am not so sure, uncle.” A softer voice replied.

    “You’ve been reading too much about the world and have seen too little of it. They are an ungrateful bunch and must be taught a lesson!”

    Evan sprang back into action at the crunching of gravel, though it sounded like they were moving away from him. The humming of the truck stopped and the clunk of a door being shut resounded throughout the camp. Silent like a fox, he stalked through the dark, away from the barracks. Whenever one of the four rusty steel towers creaked, swaying in the wind, his heart was chased up his throat, and he would dash for cover. Even a mere rustle of leaves or the call of a nightingale made him cringe.

    By the time he reached northern fence he could no longer feel his numb feet under him. If he hadn’t smelled the air of freedom on a gust of wind, he’d have sworn his nose had disappeared too.

    Perhaps the gods favored him, aside from the guards at the searchlights, he hadn’t spotted a patrol. It weren’t the guards he was scared of. They’d trash him, or shoot him, but at least they wouldn’t rip him apart piece by piece like the dogs. He’d seen it happen once, The Bear had let his three best shepherds loose on a man who’d looked at him wrong. The image of the man’s intestines being ripped out of his chest was chiseled into his mind. The searchlight tried to catch him in its loop. He ducked to cover behind a stack of crates. Perhaps, he thought, they were just letting him think he could get away, only to jump out of the shadows at the very last moment.

    A dry lump started to form in his throat at the thought. But he couldn’t give up now! He watched the searchlight pass ten times, to make sure he knew it’s pattern before he would risk a sprint across the fifty feet of bare land between him and the metal fence. From there, he could crouch towards the outlook on the left and escape through the cutout Pjol had made.

    When the light passed for the eleventh time, he’d finally mustered enough courage to risk the crossing. His feet hammered at the ground in perfect symphony with the relentless pounding of his heart against his ribs. The ground was a mere strobe of dark greens and browns underneath him.

    Thirty more feet. . .

    Halfway there. . .

    Fifteen. . .

    Just ten. . .

    Like thunder, the low rumble of a truck pulling up reached his ears. He could already see the light sweep onto him from his right. Then, like a bolt of lightning, they caught him. For a second, it seemed as if they would continue to sweep right and that he hadn’t been spotted after all, but a jerk in their path made them catch onto him again.

    He froze.

    His mind wanted to run, but his limbs had surrendered and he stood pinned to the spot. The lights came closer and when he turned around to face the soldiers that would no doubt jump out and seize him, he saw the truck had only stopped inches short of him. The door opened.

    He hoped they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot.

    “Come here boy.”

    A young man, somewhere in his twenties, wearing a dark-green uniform and a cloak like The Bear, approached him.

    He remained standing still. Arms hanging like twigs at his sides, shoulders slouched, weighed down by the inescapable pull of fate. A dullness had settled over his eyes.

    “I won’t harm you boy. Come, before they see you.” Evan recognized his voice. It was the soldier from before, the man who’d called The Bear his uncle!

    He was a liar of course. Even though his face was younger and not quite as wrinkled or scarred as that of most in the camp, he was still an adult and adults always lied. Even Pjol had lied, whispering that everything would be alright and that he would be free some day and see the world outside.

    Yet the hands that wrapped themselves around his thin waist were not like the ones that had battered against his cheek or hit him in the stomach. Gently, he was picked up and hoisted into the passenger seat of the truck. Then, the young man walked around the truck, shouted something to the guards at the searchlight, stepped into the vehicle and reversed the gears.

    “I won’t harm you, but you must be quiet.”

    His lips curled upward a bit, and Evan was confused as ever as to what that meant. “My name’s Artiom, what are you called?”

    Evan blinked a few times to make certain that Artiom was real. No one had ever asked for his name. He was prisoner 766, nothing more, certainly not to the guards. “I am Evan,” he muttered.

    “Alright Evan, I am going to get you out of here, but you must do as I say. Can you do that for me?”

    He nodded. Given that the man had caught him, but hadn’t handed him over to The Bear yet, he suspended his distrust for the moment.

    Artiom then instructed him to climb out of his seat and into the back. “You can push some of the crates aside,” he’d said. Evan obeyed and slithered himself behind them.

    The crunching of gravel only stopped when they reached the gate. Artiom exchanged a few muffled words with the guard and they were allowed through. He could tell because the air changed as soon as they rode out of the camp. It was fresher here and smelled of pine needles. For half an hour, Evan fought against the increasing weight on his eyes, but eventually he succumbed to it.

    “Artiom!”

    A fist pounded against the side of the truck. The Bear had come to devour its prey.

    “Wake up you lazy bastard!”

    Feet shuffled outside, a door was yanked open and the low thud of a body being thrown to the ground reached his ears.

    “What are you playing at? Taking my munitions? Is this some ploy of my beloved brother again?”

    “Uncle, I was merely trying to-“

    “Empty the truck! I want each and every bullet accounted for!”

    Sunlight crashed into the truck as the cloth on the backside was cast aside. It took the soldier that entered three seconds to spot the terrified boy in the corner and pull him up by the collar.

    “Who are you?” The man was slender for a soldier, but still strong. A small grey beard surrounded his yellowing teeth.

    Evan didn’t dare to speak a word. His tongue was glued to his palate and before he could even think of resisting, he was tossed out of the truck onto the dirt road. The first thing he saw was trees, then more soldiers around him and lastly, The Bear towering over him, cane in hand.

    “Did you take him with you?”

    Evan followed The Bear’s gaze to where Artiom was being held by two rugged, tough-looking soldiers. A third had his rifle at the ready and pointed it at the young man’s gut.

    The brown eyes of his savior and only friend met his own. Cold-blue, devoid of all hope for he’d never seen kindness aside from that fleeting moment of peace he’d been granted.

    “Did you take him or not?” The Bear demanded.

    Silence. Artiom opened and closed his mouth like a fish before answering.

    “No.”

    The Bear poked the stray lamb at his feet in the gut. “So you’re a little stowaway then?”

    A boot kicked him in the side and he rolled over in pain. “Answer him!”

    He wondered what the point in that would be, they were going to kill him anyway. With a snap of his fingers The Bear had Evan plucked off the ground and held firmly in place, much like Artiom. His hand reached to his belt, under his cloak and he pulled out a pistol.

    “Do you know what this is?”

    Evan nodded.

    Click. The Bear pulled back the safety lever. “Now it’s loaded.”

    “I can see that,” Evan ventured to say.

    In a flash, The Bear grabbed his chin, forced his mouth open and pushed the cold metal in.

    “Please uncle, he’s just a boy!” Artiom said.

    Evan squeezed his eyes shut. He wished they’d just be done with it, he wished they’d take away the cold, the fear, and the lonely voice in his mind.

    “Exactly, nephew. He’s just a boy.”

    Evan lay still in the dark. The soil was wrapped like a blanket around him. Trees sprouted from his grave, that was the grave of so many others as well, and their leaves cleansed the air of all the foul scents that had lingered there. Now he was free.
     
  14. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Notice: Technical difficulties corrected. All people affected should be able to vote normally.
     
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2014
  15. GingerCoffee
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    Problem fixed.
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2014
  16. GingerCoffee
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    Last day to vote. :D
     
  17. GingerCoffee
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    I'm leaving the poll open for a few more minutes while I make dinner, but it looks like we have a winner!
     
  18. GingerCoffee
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