The blinking of the black line was mocking, tallying the seconds in which I still hadn’t found the words to begin my email. Dear Mother… I typed out, then deleted. The blank body of the message was insulting, and over the back of my laptop, all I could see were the white walls. I’d enjoyed the “modernistic” look when I’d first moved in. Now I wondered if the landlord simply hadn’t bothered to paint them. Dear Mother…
I’m sorry; I can’t make our dinner on Friday night. Something has come up. Would it be possible to reschedule? And no, this isn’t an opportunity to complain about how little you’ve seen of me since I’ve gotten back. Except, of course it was. My index finger weighed heavily on the delete button. Leaning back against the padded headboard of my bed, I sighed. Should I just call? But no, that would give me even less of an opportunity to explain myself.
The laptop clicked shut, before I’d even realized that I was moving. Feet into black sneakers, a hoodie pulled on over my blouse to combat the early March chill. I palmed my keys and slipped my iPod into the right pocket of my jeans, headphones and all. I could work out the tangle later, while I was moving. No phone. I didn’t expect any calls.
One of the main upsides to my new place was its glorious proximity to a park, much larger than the sparse expanses of green that dotted my home city, Miami. It took about three minutes of jogging for the sidewalks to give way to roughly paved paths, and then I was alone, weaving through the trees. I pulled up my hood with one hand, regretting not grabbing a tie for my hair, which was only just long enough to warrant being restrained.
I’d forgotten how much green there was here, spread almost in excess across the grass and bursting in new growth from the branches that patchworked the light cast across the track. It was so much easier to go for a run when the humidity wasn’t trying to drown you, and the sun had stopped trying to glare a hole in your head. Of course, there had always been the days when the sky was coated in thunderstorms, when the water adopted the ominous dark of approaching weather - essentially, when it was hurricane season – but running in the rain had never been a favorite of mine, especially with my talent for slipping.
But the worst thing about Miami wasn’t even that it was too tropical, or its abundance of concrete. It was that I missed it. Moving back to Atlanta for graduate school was supposed to be the best possible choice. My tuition was cheaper, I’d gotten a good apartment, and I was closer to my family. I should have been happy, but it just wasn’t home anymore. Almost everyone I’d been close to in high school had moved away, and those who’d stayed had made new lives for themselves. I hadn’t been able to start a proper conversation with any of my new classmates. Many of my favorite restaurants and shops had even closed. I felt like an intruder in the town I’d spent the first eighteen years of my life – and that just wasn’t a sentiment I felt comfortable sharing with my mother. I was supposed to be happy. She always said she wanted me to be happy.
Every pound of my feet took me farther from that damn blank computer screen until, abruptly, they weren’t striking the pavement anymore. A shoulder collided with my upper arm and I was stumbling, trying to regain my footing before I pitched forward onto my face. Too late – a wrong step and my ankle was turning, dumping me unceremoniously sideways and off of the path. My hands broke the fall, and I could still feel them stinging, the pain making itself heard even above the shrieking my ankle was doing. I rolled onto my side, and pulled my right knee up towards my chest. Dammit. Not another sprain.
At least this time it wasn’t my fault.
“Oh, Christ, I’m sorry,” a voice said, and I was suddenly made re-aware of the girl I’d crashed into. She was sitting on the path, her own jeans marked by dirt and frayed at the knees. Farther up, fingerprints of paint marked the area around her pockets. “I completely didn’t see you.”
“It’s okay. I’m okay.” I considered trying to stand, but then my ankle throbbed. Maybe I’d give it a second. “I didn’t see you either.”
“Really? I thought you’d run into me on purpose.” She wasn’t smiling, but her lips were pressed together in a way that indicated she was trying hard not to, dark eyes bright. Widely curled hair, only slightly beating mine in length, bobbed around her face as she tilted her head to the side.
“Are you hurt?” Her legs now crossed, she’d made no move to get up either.
“I think I scraped my knee.” Her hand rested on the damaged fabric, which was either meant to be distressed or had been torn up by the fall. “Won’t be able to tell until I get home. Not too bad.” She frowned. “Honestly, though, I’m really sorry for knocking you over.” Her eyes flickered to my ankle, and I was suddenly sure she’d noticed the strange way I was sitting. I moved to stand, made it to my feet, and then regretted it immensely.
I tried to put as little weight as possible on my ankle, slowly realizing that there was basically no way I could walk home. Could I call my brother? No, I’d left my phone at home. This is great, I thought, followed by a string of curse words (only partially caused by being in pain). “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
She jumped up as I swayed slightly, trying my best not to fall. I felt her hand wrap around my upper arm, pressure felt even through the fabric, and flushed. This was so stupid. If I’d just brought my phone –
“Are you parked nearby?” Her arm was now linked with mine, helping me keep pressure off of the injury. “I hope it’s not broken –“
“It’s not, probably just a sprain.” I smiled at her, still feeling pretty dumb. “I mess up my ankles all the time, it’s not your fault. Promise. And I walked here. I can walk back.”
“Yeah, you’ve already taught me not to trust you.” There still wasn’t a trace of malice in her voice. “Can I walk you back to your place? I’m Grace, by the way.”
I’d expected her to ditch me in the elevator. Instead, she let me lean on her all the way back up to my apartment, and then, after I’d finished fumbling the door open, deposited me helpfully on the couch. Once I was situated (shoe off, foot propped up on one of the white pillows) I hesitated for a moment, then – “Would you like something to drink? Before you go?”
“Yeah, sure.” Grace didn’t seem surprised that I’d offered. “I’ll get it, you stay put. Where are your cups?”
“Cabinet to the left of the sink. Above, not below.” She found them without trouble, grabbing two. “Oh, I don’t need any –“
“Hydration is important, Nina.” I’d introduced myself on the way up the stairs. The faucet sputtered, reluctantly filling both glasses. Grace placed them on the counter. “Do you have ice? It’ll be good for keeping the swelling down.”
“It’s really okay, I can do it myself.” She gave me a look. “In the freezer. And there are ziplock bags in the drawer farthest to the right.” She filled one of them, swaddling it in a paper towel and tucking it under her arm.
“And if you want, there are cookies in the pantry. My brother made them, as housewarming gift.” The minute the words left my mouth, I didn’t know why I’d said them. Her hands would already be full –
“Oh, cool.” Finding the tupperware was quick. Grace picked it up and peered through the translucent blue plastic. “Chocolate chip, nice. Do you know if he used any nuts in these? I’m low-key allergic.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I think so –“
“Don’t be sorry, I’m still eating these.” She popped the container open and stuck one in her mouth before I could protest. Carrying it like that, and after making sure the icepack was still wedged in place, she picked up both the glasses. After placing them on the coffee table, and tossing the icepack to me, Grace settled down onto one of the matching chairs, legs crossed underneath her. Once the cookie had been transferred to a now-free hand, she said, “I hope this is worth it, Nina.” She winked at me, and somehow I didn’t think she was talking about the food.
I felt my cheeks heat, and tried to think of something to say.
“Anyway, you said ‘housewarming.’ Are you new to the area?” She leaned forward as she spoke. “Because I’d be totally willing to show you around.”
“I… um, yes.” Smooth. I cleared my throat and tried to clarify. “Yeah, I’m new. And I’d love a tour.” I’d left and come back four years older, to a place that didn’t recognize me. It wasn’t a lie – and a guide might be nice. “Do you live around here?”
“Not really, but the studio I like to work at is just around the corner. Hence the paint.” She gestured down at her pants. “I’d just finished a project, went looking for some more inspiration.” Grace hesitated, gazing around, and something about the new curve of her smile made it clear that there was a joke I wasn’t in on.
“Nothing. Just…” Her grin grew wider. “Makes sense you just moved in. For a while I though that you just really enjoy ‘sparse’ living or whatever. I mean, this can barely even be considered modern.”
I glanced around myself, taking in the minimal furniture and relative lack of decor. “I like my apartment,” I said, suddenly and irrationally a bit defensive. It was my first real place that wasn’t a college dorm.
Grace held up her hands in surrender. “I’m sorry! But really, you need to at least repaint. These walls aren’t even white, they’re off-white, which in this case is a nice way of saying grey. Trust me, I’m an artist. Do you like blue or light green better?”
“Is ‘pretentious’ also a color? I feel like that would be a nice grey.” The words slipped out, just as they did when I was around my brother, and I was worried I’d offended her until she laughed, the sound louder than I’d expected, but just as wonderful to hear.
“That’s it, I’m also going to help you repaint.” She leaned forward in the chair. “And pick a color. All in the name of making sure your ankle heals properly. You seem like the kind of person who’s incapable of taking it easy.” I could definitely get used to her lightbulb-bright grin.
“Because I can’t be trusted?”
“Exactly. Now drink your water, Nina. Health always comes first.”
Grace swore me and my blank walls were ideal vectors for her next project; I still couldn’t get the words to come. Back on my bed, legs tucked underneath me, laptop balanced unevenly on my knees, I was way too distracted by thought of the day after next. Grace had promised to “drag” me to her favorite art supply store, followed by her favorite coffee shop, though I wasn’t nearly resistant enough to warrant the verb. Finally – Dear Mother, I think we should meet sooner. I have a lot to tell you.
Princess of Mystery
“For the last time, your highness, it’s forward step, back step, then RIGHT STEP not left step!”
“I’m sorry, but with a pile of 5 books on my head, it is kind of hard to remember- like- the 90th step you have told me!”
Princess Anna of Rieno was in her dancing lesson and was not good at it. “Ah!” she said as she fell onto the hard freshly polished tile floor with the toppled books spread around her. “Oh dear” said her governess, Lady Gardenia, putting her wrinkled hand to her head in discouragement. Anna blew a piece of her red hair out of her face. She got up, fixed her green and gold skirt, and yet again blew that one piece of hair out of her face. “Why would it not behave?” she thought. Then, she realized she sounded like her governess, saying “Why will you not behave?”
“Your highness, your mother wants you in the throne room!” said a messenger, who was standing in the door. “ Finally FREEDOM!” anna sang as she kicked off her shoes and ran through the ballroom, sliding on her socked feet on her way to meet her mother.
“I suppose dancing lessons did not go so well?” asked her mother, Queen Maryam.
“Not really, mother. . . I mean ma’am. . . I mean your highness. . . You know what? I am going to stop talking miss. . .ma’am. . . um UG!”
“You MUST master this dance in three moons, or else you will not be married and you will not be queen. Your governess will be.”
“I know. I promise I will.”
“You are dismissed to go to dinner.”
“Yes, mother. . . sir. . . ma’am. . . I will just go.”
As Anna slid through the palace, she heard something coming from the ballroom.
“You must do as I say! Yes -- the day right after! Now Go!”
Out of the room came the gardener, his plump face white with fear. She peeked in the open door to see… an empty room? She tried to shrug it off but even when she went to bed she heard In her head the same voice saying the same thing. She could not sleep, so at midnight she got up, lit a candle, and snuck through the halls. She heard a noise -- foot steps. she turned around and there was her governess.
“Princess, you must go back to bed, or your mother will hear of this!”
“How did you know I was out here?”
“Um . . . I well . . . hmm . . . never mind that. What’s important is that you get to bed.”
About an hour later, just before she fell fast asleep, she heard the studder of her governess. Then she was asleep.
“Wake up your highness! Your birthday is in two days!! We have a lot of dancing to do!”
Anna opened her eyes and of course that same piece of hair was in her face again.
“Very well! After breakfast! And after I am ready!”
She got out of her nightgown and into her emerald green dress. She did not even bother to put on her shoes. They were still in the ballroom from yesterday! She stuffed the poppyseed muffin, soda bread, and goat’s milk into her mouth as fast as she could, and slid down the halls to the ballroom before anyone could stop her!
One eternity later…
“Why do I have to do this?!?!” said Anna.
“Because if you do not go, you will not get a fiance, and you will not become queen one day, and I will and I am not ready for the responsibility ” said her governess.
“I AM 12! I DO NOT NEED TO THINK ABOUT MARRIAGE!” Anna said, exasperated. Just then the same gardener that had been talking with whoever was in the ballroom the other night rushed in, sweat dripping down his face.
“The emerald!” he said, “it’s gone! I went to go talk to Charlie, the man who guards it, and when I found him knocked out on the ground, I ran inside and the glass case was smashed and GONE! I tell ye - GONE!”
The governess responded gravely, “Call the guards and the queen!”
“Already done it, ma’am” said the gardener.
“Good. Now I must see it for myself” she said, and off went Anna’s governess, faster than if she were running on hot coals to a cold bath. Anna, of course, followed. She, however, took her time thinking about last night. Could her governess have been the person who was yelling at the gardener? Could she have stolen the emerald? These thoughts almost brought tears to her eyes.
Lady Gardenia had been Anna’s REAL mother figure and best friend for years. It is hard to make friends when your mother will not let you off of the grounds, unless you are accompanied by your entire wait staff. By this time, Anna had almost reached the tallest tower where the emerald, which had been passed down in her family for years, was hidden. It was the most valuable thing in the whole country! It was under very high security.
“How could anyone outside of the palace have reached it?” thought Anna. “They would have to be very close to my mother.” Then she realized she had just finished walking through the door of the chamber where the emerald was kept.
The chamber was a mess. The black velvet curtains were ripped off the windows. The glass case was shattered everywhere. There were traces of red mud, like the kind of mud in the garden. The door had been broken down and Charlie, the guard, was knocked out.
“Why do we only have one guard up here?” thought Anna. It seemed pretty stupid to have like 40 guards whenever she wanted to stroll through town and only one of them guarding the most prized posession of the entire kingdom of Rieno.
By this time, everyone was leaving and boarding up the tower.
“Wait! I NEED TO INVESTIGATE TOO!” said Anna.
“Sorry, Miss. This place is closed. Only the royal guard may come through,” said a guard, who was boarding up the chamber.
Anna calmed herself down, and went to her personal parlor for tea with her governess.
“Goodnight, my dear,” said Lady Gardenia.
“Goodnight, Lady Gardenia,” Anna replied.
The candle by her bed was blown out, and softly, the governess left the room. She waited until she heard no more footsteps and then Anna sprang out of bed. She was going to go investigate the scene of the crime. She tiptoed up the seven flights of stairs in her pink silk nightgown and slippers. The guard was asleep. She snuck into the room and looked around for a while. She noticed that the man must have climbed through the window and knocked out the door from behind, because the vines on the way up were partly broken. Then she saw something shiny stuck in the vines. She climbed down the vines to see. Just as she was climbing back up, the guard awoke. To not be seen, she climbed down even more. Oh no! The vines started to break! She climbed down to the bottom as fast as she could, and ran into the garden. She examined the pocket watch and gasped. Suddenly, she realized why it looked so familiar. It belonged to her governess Lady Gardenia!
Still stunned about her recent discovery of her governess’s watch, Anna decided she had to find out more information. She had to go undercover.
As she put on the uniform of the governess’s cleaning maid, Anna wondered why there was dirt on the floor. It looked red, like the orchard part of the garden, not the vegetable garden next to the gem tower. If the criminal went out of the palace, she or he would not have to cross the orchard part of the garden to get to the gem tower. Hmm.
By this time, she put on the uniform and was unlocking her governess’s room. She looked around the closet and on the bedside table, but only found a letter. It was sealed with a wax seal, that looked like a lion. She did not have time to read it, however, so she simply slipped the letter into her pocket. Just then, the real maid came in and screamed, “THIEF! IMPOSTER!” and Anna had just enough time to get out and run to her room, before the guards came.
Anna opened the letter. She gasped.
“LG, if you value your life, you will make sure that princess never gets married. You will rule the kingdom exactly as I say. Once you are queen, you will make Anna get lost in the woods, where she will perish. All along, everyone will think it is all your fault. Get to work. - count V.”
With shaky hands, Anna closed the letter. She looked up at the ceiling, and it started to spin. Then everything went black.
“Princess Anna, Wake up! Are you ok? Oh dear, princess Anna!” said Lady Gardenia, kneeling beside her.
“I am alright. At least I think so,” Anna said, sitting up.
“What happened?” asked Lady Gardenia.
Then, in answer to her own question, she clapped her hands over her mouth and said “Oh, Anna, my letter! Did you read it? Oh dear, oh dear!”
“I am so sorry, but I was trying to figure out the mystery!” said Anna.
“I know. At least now you know it was not me. I am being forced.” Lady Gardenia said, hanging her head.
“By whom?” asked Anna.
Lady Gardenia replied, “Count Vladimir. He lives in a large city near here. He is in disguise. I have been trying to find out who he is. I know he is the one who stole the gem! I just know it! I can bet he is one of the people in the castle, too.”
“Wait a second,” said, Anna, “I THINK I KNOW WHO HE IS! Do you remember how the crime scene had red clay and bits of dirt from the orchard? Who goes out there every day? The GARDENER!”
Lady Gardenia said, “Of course, I will alert your mother at once.”
“No” Anna interrupted. “I have a plan to catch him in the act. He wants to make an attempt on my life right?”
“Yes, princess, but wait! You are going to put yourself at risk.”
“Do not worry. I know what I am doing,” said Anna. “Here is the plan.”
“You look amazing, princess” said Lady Gardenia, putting the last pin in Anna’s hair.
“Thank you. I never thought a girl like me could get more beautiful,” joked Anna. “And hey, for once that annoying piece of hair is not in my face!” They both laughed.
“Princess, are you ready for tonight?” asked Lady Gardenia.
“It will be fun. Now, hurry LG! I do not wish to be late for my own 12th birthday party!” said Anna.
“Coming miss!” chuckled LG.
“Announcing: Princess Anna and her governess Lady Gardenia,” came the raspy voice of the messenger. Everyone in the palace and surrounding town was there. Anna smiled and waved to the crowd. She loved her outfit, which included a green silk sleeveless ball gown, emerald necklace, and matching tiara. Tonight was the night.
The party went on until moonlight struck the windows. Anna and Lady Gardenia excused themselves, along with some pageboys who came some time after. They went out to the orchard, where the princess found the gardener.
“What are you doing here?” asked the gardener.
“Just getting some fresh air. I like alone time. All alone,” said Anna.
“Well, since you are alone,” he pulled out a sword, “Any last words?”
“I’m going to kill you,” said the gardener, in a mocking tone.
“OH NO YOU ARE NOT!” said LG, jumping out of a tree and kicking the gardener in the head. He was knocked out. Just then, out rushed the guards. Lady Gardenia pulled the emerald out of the man’s pocket. “This is the man who has threatened the royal throne!”
Soon enough he was in jail. Lady Gardenia said, “But your highness, it’s past 12, and you are not betrothed! That means...”
“. . . You take over the throne. I know. As long as you are not being controlled by some evil mastermind, I am happy with it.”
“Thank you, princess,” Lady Gardenia said, as she hugged Princess Anna.
Just then, her mother came rushing down the stone stairs to the jail.
“ANNA ARE YOU ALRIGHT? I WAS WORRIED SICK! You should not have defeated him all by yourself!”
“I did not do it alone!” said Anna. “I had help from LG”
“LG?” said her mother.
“Lady Gardenia,” Anna clarified.
“Thank you, Lady Gardenia.” Queen Maryam said, tearing up. “I guess you are now Queen Gardenia,” she said, putting her crown on Lady Gardenia’s head.
“How can I ever thank you enough?” Queen Gardenia asked.
“By being as kind to the people as you were to my daughter,” said the former Queen Maryam, with a sad smile. “You know what? I do not need half this palace. I am going to be the first Queen to live in a simple cabin with 12 acres of garden and rule from there. The palace will be turned into a place where people can go if they are hurt. They will get fixed up and send back home. The old servants of the palace will be the caretakers.”
“That’s a brilliant idea,” said Anna, blowing that red piece of hair out of her face again.
“I am just thinking like a true ruler. A ruler who is clumsy in dancing. A ruler who skids through the halls on her socks. A ruler who is a free spirit. The Princess Anna of Reino, who had to figure out the mystery, the Princess who never gave up, Princess of Mystery,” said Queen Gardenia.
As Anna lay in bed later that night, she thought of what Queen Gardenia had said. “Princess of Mystery”. Anna closed her eyes. Just before she fell asleep, she thought, “From this day forward, I will be Princess of Mystery.” Then she went out like a candle, thrown into the ocean.
I waved at myself. It wasn’t a friendly wave, though. Looking through the thin, crystalline glass was a tall, skinny, but rugged boy. He regarded me with an intense look in the eye. A defined clenched jaw was sculpted in place, breaking up dozens of scars. His wispy blond hair fell around his eyes. Though ripped with muscles, he was lean, a little too lean. It looked as if he hadn’t eaten in days. Five to be exact. Don’t ask me how I knew, I just did. The boy’s appearance surprised me. Just five days ago he looked so much neater; he looked… he was… Darn! Lost it again. Why can’t I remember my past life?
I turned away from from the neon blue stalagmite in disgust. I would have shattered it to oblivion with my two-foot sword that was hanging from my belt if my arms weren’t so tired and already scraped up from constant combat. For some reason, all around me in this endless damp and dusky cave were long and sharp speleothems. The weird thing was, they weren’t made up of hardened calcium carbonate, they were made up of a strange hard, translucent crystal-like structure with bright neon hues. Each wore one of six colors: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, or white. I never thought of some of those colors as neon, but these speleothems made it work. I didn’t know why, but the speleothems made me confused. A mix of emotions sloshed around in my insides, which eventually deciphered them as anger and longing. Anger is why there is a trail of glass shards following me. Longing is what was directing the glass shards onwards on a seemingly endless path. Both emotions are what were keeping me alive.
I began my walk forward for the millionth time. I knew if I stood still for too long, the enemy would catch me again. I never understood what they were. They were human-like, human-sized figurines, but did not have faces. Just a blank, flat area where one should be. There were six of these “partial humans;” one made out of the same material, and arrayed with the same color as one of the speleothems. All six of them seemed to be a part of a hunting group focused on one prey: me. They caught me on my second and fourth day in this cave. Both times, I was able to cut them down to shards with my sword, but not before nearly being gutted myself with their own wicked blades. One good thing about my situation, though, was that they could never surprise me. Because they seemed to radiate energy, a loud hum would fill the air before they were on me. I just wish they would stop resurrecting.
Slowly, on and on I trudged, looking for my next checkpoint. That’s what I called the platforms of rotten wood that rose out of the damp ground. On each platform was some sort of large dial implanted into the wood that had a large number in its center and slightly smaller ones around its edges like a clock. Each day I’ve found a checkpoint and soon I began to realize that the large center number was a tally of how many days I was in the cave like I was meant to find that certain checkpoint on that certain day. Around the edges, the smaller numbers ranged from 10 to 180 at intervals of ten. Then, there was a handle that needed to be pressed down to turn. I only turned the handle to either 90 or 180, never the other numbers. I can’t explain why. Something in the back of the mind told me to never do so. Every time I pressed and turned the handle, my surroundings would freakishly do a transformation. Sometimes it would spin the cave, and I would be facing a different way. Other times, it would flip the cave upside down, and I would fall to my should-be death, but always seemed to live through it. The ceiling wasn't too high, but it was a miracle that I’ve never landed on one of the sharp speleothems.
About an hour later, when I could tell that evening had come just by looking at how bright the speleothems glowed their neon hues, I saw in the distance a raised platform. Aah. I let out a sigh of reassurance. On schedule; that had to be checkpoint #5. I took a step forward with a little bit more energy and instantly an electric humming sound came to my ears, slowly growing in pitch. Oh no. Not again. The Hunters have resurrected for the second time. I didn’t want to have to face them again, so I did the only reasonable thing: ran like my life depended on it. Because it did. I sprinted like an olympian towards the platform. My sword was dragging me down, so I unsheathed it and continued running with it in my right hand. I didn’t dare toss it to the side, not now. The dangerous humming continued to grow, vibrating the air all around me. It was giving me a splitting headache the way it grew higher.
300 feet. My arms were aching like mad. Why did this stupid sword have to be so heavy? 200 feet. I could hear their footsteps behind me. No. To the left of me. No, wait. To my right? I’m so dead. 100 feet. Almost there! If I could only turn the dial, that might disorient them long enough for me to get away! 80 feet. 70 feet. 60. 50. Why haven’t my instincts kicked in yet? Should I turn the handle to the 90 or 180?! 30. 20. 10. BAM! I was hit from every side.
With flashes of bright colors, dozens of cuts bore into me. They never drew blood but burned unbearably. I raised my sword and blindly swung. I made a connection, and sadly due to the colored shards in my right arm, I was notified that the Blue Hunter went down. The other five were still merciless. Using my sword to block the majority of their swings, I pushed and shoved the rest of the way to the platform. The Red Hunter didn’t like that. Through the corner of my eye, I saw it lunge through the air, coming down on my back with the tip of its deadly blade. My back exploded with pain as the sword cut a deep wound down its length. I fell to my knees. When my palms hit the wood surface, I nearly blacked out, but a number blazed clear in my mind: 180.
I quickly forgot my sword and was oblivious to them as the neon rainbow Hunters started a dogpile on top of me. The only thing I could focus on was turning that handle. My hands were a fleshy mess, but I put all my strength into forcing the dial’s handle down and turning it to the 180 mark. It clicked into place, and there was a quiet pause. Then the cave turned upside down so fast I nearly threw up. I free-fell for about 5 seconds before I made contact and all went dark.
I woke up with the worst headache in whatever world I was in. Shards from the Hunters: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and white were scattered all around me. My body looked like it spent the night in a blender. But I was still alive. Yay. Go, me.
That was fifteen days ago. I woke up on my twentieth day in this diabolical cave just moments ago. Each day since that fiasco at checkpoint #5, I have been slow going, but still reaching one checkpoint a day and having to brace my body for another transformation of the environment. I have come across the Hunters a few more times but was able to fend them off more easily. Each time they attacked me, they seemed less eager to hurt me. It’s been a couple of days since I’ve seen them last.
Navigating my way through the speleothems has proved more difficult, though. They seem to be “growing” thicker together like a barrier against progress. My arm felt like lead, but I continued to slash at them with my now dull sword in order to move forward. Something in my mind told me to keep moving forward. I somehow knew I that today had something different in store than usual.
Lately, I’ve had the habit of looking down while walking because my weary feet have kept tripping over pure air. That’s what caused me to run smack into a piece of wood for another addition to my head’s “bruises museum.” I looked up a smiled to myself. Checkpoint #20. I could feel a power radiating from this checkpoint. I knew my life was about to change. I climbed up onto the platform and straight into a semicircle of the Hunters.
From experience, my initial response was to swing my sword through the closest one’s neck, but my sword went through it like the Hunter wasn’t even there.
“There’s no need, we won’t hurt you,” said the Orange Hunter in a metallic voice, who should have been decapitated. I didn’t believe him and swung again for good measure.
“Really, we’re done hunting you, Matthew,” said the Red Hunter. “You have had the bravery and patience to take this challenge and we respect you for that. Very few can complete this challenge. Very few have tried. You are certainly our master, now.”
Now, I was starting to be creeped out. How did they know my name? And when did they learn how to talk? “Um, I don’t remember signing up for a challenge,” I said slowly.
There was a grinding noise, and it took me a while before I realized that the Hunters were laughing.
“Of course he doesn’t remember,” said the Green Hunter. “We need to release him.”
“Come, Matthew. The next move is a 90-degree turn. It’s time for you to go back home,” said the White Hunter.
I kneeled down and pushed the handle of the dial to the 90 mark. For some reason when the White Hunter said, ‘degrees’ something clicked in my mind, but I couldn't grasp it. When the handle clicked onto 90, My surroundings started to blur. No, I don’t want to black out again, I thought. I raised my head and saw all the Hunters waving at me.
“Bie, Friend,” They called.
Friend? And then I passed out.
I opened my eyes and the first thing I noticed was that I was lying in a hospital bed. What happened to me?
“You’re awake!” A little boy next to me jumped up and hugged me around my neck. My brother. It was amazing how my memories seemed to be zooming into my head all at once. Something about a Rubik's Cube contest seemed significant.
“Hey, Jonathan, how are you?” I said, so happy to be back in the real world. I didn’t even keep my injuries.
“You’ve been out for nearly a month! Right after you broke the record for solving a Rubik’s Cube, you just seemed to pass out. Are you alright? Mom’s worried.
“Ha ha,” I laughed. "I’m fine, just a little shaken up."
“Well alright. But here,” he pushed a cube into my hand. It felt cold. Looking at it, I realized it was made of glass, stained with colors like a stained glass window.
“Thanks so much, Jonathan. This is so beautiful!” I said. “But you should go find Mom, now. I want to leave this place.”
“Ok!” he jumped up and left the room.
I set the glass cube on my lap. I knew to never mix it up. I could swear there was a quiet hum coming from it.
The Day was extremely cold, under 10 degrees Fahrenheit but with no snow. It was like the world was holding its breath waiting for a single snowflake to fall onto the cement. My faded purple converse shuffling along the snowless cement as we walked up to the door of the soup kitchen.
If you were in a car on the street, or just standing on the sidewalk, your eyes would instantly be drawn to me. The rest of my group, bundled up in black coats and shapeless hats, were no better than lumps of coal. I was the one black sheep among hundreds of white ones, the only star in the vast, open sky, the massive dog among tiny pups.
So, I will admit to having a distinguished fashion sense a bit on the, well... weird side. The rest of the street was grey, black, and brown. Boring bricks, boring walls, boring streets, and boring people.
I’ll also admit to feeling slightly awkward in my purple shoes, lime green tank top, and a lightning bolt necklace. But I was proud of my look, however people thought of me. Still, never the less I was nervous. I kept my head down as I slowly shuffled through the door with the rest of my group.
The smells of cooking oil and processed meat filled my nostrils as I stepped onto the cracked, blue linoleum. I am a vegetarian so I winced at the disgusting strings of meat. My heart started to pound and suddenly I stopped walking. Everyone else brushed past me as I stood, frozen to the spot. More people pushed past me as, finally I started to move.
When we got into the main dining area, a tall, Asian man stepped out to greet us. He said his name was Rod, and that he was the head chef. Next, Rod introduced us to the rest of his staff.
There were three cooks. Jenny, a perky blonde lady with a magenta sweater, Abe, a short pale man with a lot of freckles, and Olympia, a dark intimidating woman who looked like she wanted to chop my arm of with the knife she was using.
One by one, Rod assigned each of us to a task. The rest of the volunteers gradually filtered out until I was the only one left. Rod stared at me, his piercing blue eyes staring straight into my dark brown ones. He seemed to be sizing me up and, wow, he was intimidating. He was leaning slightly to the left, not on purpose just a natural stance, I guess. His skin was extremely pale, a face with long arching cheek bones and greying hair gelled to perfection, he scared the crap out of me.
Finally, after about two minutes of awkward staring he pointed at the door to the dining area. He didn't even say anything, he just pointed. I shuffled over to the worn wooden door. It smelled like pinecones, and a warm nutty fragrance I couldn’t put my finger on..
I opened the door and the nutty smells overwhelmed me. Some of the other volunteers were handing out casseroles. A short chubby boy with thick brown glasses motioned for me to put on some gloves. I looked to my right, and there was a cardboard box with medium sized vinyl gloves. I slipped a pair on, (they were about three inches too big.) and walked over to the serving table.
There was a pile of white, plastic, serving utensils and I grabbed a fork and started scooping green beans. They were practically liquid, with little pieces of ham poking in and out out the mush. Why must everything have meat in it!? I looked up at all the faces I was serving food to, they seemed scared and defenseless, I looked down again.
I didn’t want to think about these people not having a home, a warm bed, two dogs, or anything that I was so fortunate to have. I saw small children without parents, quiet senior citizens, out of work moms, and out of work downtrodden dads. And one small blurry shadow, wait… My head swiveled around and I saw a tiny little girl huddled under a table. I was about to walk over to her when.. “Oi! Are you here to volunteer, or sit around on your lazy ass?” It was Abe, one of the other cooks and he looked angry. I muttered something that sounded like: “bathroom” and I walked away.
I sauntered toward the the bathroom and went around the front of the building, through the kitchen, back towards the dining area. I saw the girl, this time she was sitting at another table in the corner. I scuttled up to her, careful not to be seen by Abe. I sat down at the table next to her and softly said, hello. She stared me, which I suppose is logical, given the way I looked. Then, she reached out and touched my hair.
Her tiny, brown, fingers grasping the strands of magenta locks. “You’re very pretty” she whispered. I was touched! I have never been called pretty. Weirdo, crazy, strange, odd, yes, yes all names I was used to, pretty? never! I thanked her and we sat in silence again. Then I asked: “Do you have parents with you?” She had a mom, no dad. I felt worse. I asked her if she wanted any food. She said yes. I got up and walked over to the food table.
Everything looked so disgusting compared to what I ate at home. I wished she had a salad and some warm potato soup, like what I had for dinner last night. Then, I remembered: my lunch! I raced to the closet where we were keeping our coats and lunches. It took a bit but I managed to eventually get the door open. I groped around in the dark, and my hand closed around the strap of my maroon messenger bag. I gingerly lifted it out and opened it. A spinach salad, pesto sandwich, and a slice of pumpkin cheese cake. I gazed longingly at the cheesecake, then thrust my lunch under my sweatshirt and ran back to the dining area.
I sat down for the second time and set my lunch on the table. She looked at me, as if to say “really? for me?” I nodded, she opened it up. Slowly, she savored the cheesecake first, then the sandwich. By the time she got to the salad she was shoveling it into her mouth as fast as she could. “Hungry?” I asked, “well…” she said, I’m vegetarian so it’s hard to find things to eat here. I nodded, “I know how you feel, I’m a vegetarian as well.” She beamed at me. I was about to ask how she liked my food when… “volunteers please meet your leader by the door, you will be leaving in 5 minutes.”
Her face fell, “I… have to go” I said, and I pushed my chair away from the table. My emotions were overwhelming me and I needed to get away from them, from her. I ran away as fast as I could. My group was already heading out of the door and I managed to catch up to them. We boarded to bus outside of the soup kitchen.
As we rode back towards our homes I looked out the window there were people sitting on milk crates, they were smoking cigarettes, ruined buildings scattered about. As we got closer, and closer the scene started improving. There were more people walking around with friends, on their phones, and walking their dogs. There was a change in the environment, a brighter, happier town than the one I just left behind. I thought about the girl the whole time. Then I remembered, I didn’t even ask her name.
Ugh. Algebra class. I don’t think anyone likes math, let alone my class. I wish I were smart enough to test out; I might have to because I’m failing. It’s not my fault; Mr. Leech is the worst teacher ever, but to his credit, he is the only teacher where his name suits his personality.
I glance at the clock. The bell rang only 5 minutes ago? How do I have 45 minutes of class when it feels like I have spent an eternity listening to him lecturing us? I roll my eyes and look at the board, ignoring the glaciers developing on the windows and people’s runny noses. There, he slouches at the front of the room in his baggy, coffee-stained, vomit-green-yellow plaid shirt, babbling and finally flipping open his algebra book, the only one in the class as no one bothers to bring it to school; would you carry a metric ton of useless pages around? No one else does. He dedicates the first 5 minutes yelling at us at how we will die in a ditch or whatever if we don’t do homework. I would much rather die painfully than be in his class for one more second. I need to escape.
He writes some useless shapes on the board, but I observe the ugly, 12-inch, lime-green ruler on the sill. His wife gave him that ruler before she divorced him and he kept it, probably because he misses her. I’m not sure how reliable that information is since it is a rumor and he smacks the ruler on the board whenever someone tries to fall asleep or just isn’t paying attention. I swear, one day that ruler will break, and that will be the day World War III starts. At least that would be more exciting than this class.
Another minute ticks by. Ugh, how will I survive this miserable excuse of a class? He finally goes over the homework despite no one doing it. At least it’s better than trying to threaten us and failing. I inspect the room for some desperate entertainment, but I instead see a field of nightmares; everyone stares emptily at the board with pale faces and hollow eyes. Their mouths gape open as they rest their heads on their hands. It seems like Mr. Leech has leeched their souls away. Do I appear like that too on most days? Mr. Leech must be used to it, otherwise any sane person would get nightmares. I can’t take it anymore. Another minute ticks by.
I know going to the bathroom is out, even if I peed my pants. I can’t go on my phone or read, so my options are limited, but there is no way I am doing math. Nope. I start to feel dizzy, so I close my eyes to clear my mind.
THWACK! I cringe at that sound as I don’t want to deal with it but I know what it is. I open my eyes to see the lime-green ruler on the board.
“Smith! Pay attention!” Mr Leech yells. My name is not Smith; he just calls everyone that since he is too lazy to learn names. I leer at him, but of course, it doesn’t bother him and he goes back to teaching, or should I say, lecturing. I take out my pencil case and then get the best idea ever. I put on a mischievous grin as I took out my pens and highlighters.
I use the world as my canvas, like a child using a marker on paintings. Due to lack of creativity, I sketch some generic devil horns which remain on his head. Algebra just got a lot more exciting. I start giggling which causes him to glare at me. I try to straighten my face to make sure he stared at me for less time, but the horns just made him seem so ridiculous, especially with the scowl, it was easier said--or thought--than done. He did turn around though which was probably his biggest mistake. Out of spite, I draw a crack in the middle of his ruler then yawn especially loud to make him smack the ruler on the board.
“Smith!” THWOOSH! The ruler snapped clean in half where I drew the crack. The broken half flew across the room. Everyone shot up to watch the ruler soar to freedom from the Leech. Mr. Leech peruses at the ruler, a billion sentiments flashing through his head. When it settles, so do his emotions as he becomes furious, fire burning in his eyes. He growls the lessons like a wolf at its prey as his handwriting becomes nothing more than squiggles, becoming more illegible than before.
Seeing him so angry only encourages me to continue mocking him. I draw a floor-length, flowy skirt on him that swooshed every time he took a step to write on the board and fill it with a green highlighter. He could be a dancer if he wanted to, he would just have to work on his posture. I take out my pink highlighter and color his white, overgrown hair pink. I start giggling again which makes Mr. Leech whip around and storm to my desk. I would have been afraid, but it was so hard given his appearance. I give him some extra-long eyelashes and a curly mustache. If only he knew how good he looked.
“Smith! Get out of my classroom,” he screamed, spitting onto my face. I felt dread drop from my calves into my feet. His horns, mustache, everything I accomplished was gone with a few simple words.
“What,” I mumble, shocked. I have never been kicked out of a class before and I really don't want to go to the principal’s office. Maybe, I didn’t have to-
“Get out!” My ears were ringing from his screaming. I squinted at him, glaring at him hard, before gathering my things and exiting the classroom.
“Honey,” my mom said, gently setting her arm on my shoulder. She glanced down at Angel’s labored breathing and then back at the veterinarian, Dr. Piper. “I think we should do it soon.”
I nodded, squeezing my eyes shut as hard as I could to try to keep the tears in. I gripped the armrests of my wheelchair, so hard that I made a mark.
I took a deep breath to calm myself. “Okay, Mom. Could I have just one more minute with her?”
Mom looked at the vet and Dr. Piper nodded. “Of course, honey.” Mom said, her piercing blue eyes full of worry as she slowly backed out of the room after the vet.
As soon as Mom had finished quietly closing the door, I turned to Angel, my fifteen-year-old Golden Retriever. She was lying on her side, her stunning golden coat spread out beneath her. I could see the gray creeping in. Her big, brown eyes turned to me, and I could see the pain in them.
I slowly lifted myself out of my wheelchair and softly set myself down next to Angel. She sighed as I lay down next to her, softly stroking her beautiful head.
I closed my eyes and that’s when the memories overcame me.
I saw the smiling, laughing faces of my parents. It was perfect. Dad, Mom, and me. And then everything fell apart.
I heard the crash, I smelled the smoke. Someone screamed. I’m not sure whether it was me or someone else. I heard the sirens, and then darkness fell over me like a blanket.
My memories shifted, like a movie screen. Now I was in the hospital. Machines beeped, and I heard whispers. “Paralyzed”, “Wheelchair” and “Seizures”. I heard an unnatural scream come from my mouth. Then I saw a needle, and everything went black.
My next memory was of my mom. I was in the hospital and trying to get out of bed, but the doctors kept pushing me back in.
“My parents!” I kept saying. “Mom!” “Dad!”
“Someone go get her mom!” A doctor yelled, and then, after a few more minutes of fighting, I saw her. Mom’s hair was messed up, her clothes were dirty, and she had her arm in a cast, but she was in one piece, and that’s all that I cared about.
“Mom!” I yelled and she rushed into my arms.
“I’m okay, Eliza. I’m okay.” Mom whispered into my hair.
I relaxed into her arms, but then sat bolt upright. “What about Dad?”
Mom’s face contorted with sadness, and a tear trickled down her face. “He’s-he’s gone, sweetie.” Mom said, her voice cracking.
The last thing I remember was me sobbing into her shirt, and then a doctor pulling Mom away. Then my body started jerking uncontrollably and my vision turned dark.
The next emotion from my memories I felt was joy, like a ray of sunshine breaking through a dark cloud. I was in my wheelchair, and Mom was pushing me around a tall, red brick building. We were following a tall, blonde-haired, lady named Ms. McCloud who spoke as she walked.
What she said became a blur as I turned the corner of the building and saw a small enclosed pen full of puppies.
My eyes widened and I gasped. “Wow,” I breathed, “They’re so gorgeous.”
Ms. McCloud laughed. “You get to pick whichever one you want to be your seizure alert dog.”
“This is like a dream come true!” I told her. “I love dogs, but my mom would never let me get one!”
Mrs. McCloud smiled. “Why don’t you go visit the puppies and see if any stand out to you?”
I nodded excitedly.
As Mom and Ms. McCloud went to go look over the paperwork, I wheeled over to the adorable pile of Golden Retriever puppies as they all jumped up to greet the newcomer. There was about six puppies, ranging from cream to red, all with beautiful, fluffy coats. My eyes scanned over all of them as they jumped up on me, wanting to make the right decision. Eventually, my eyes settled on a tiny, fiery orange colored puppy. She was staring up at me with her huge, chocolate colored eyes.
“Hello, there.” I breathed.
Her tongue lolled out and her tail started swishing back and forth. I reached through all of the wiggling, jumping puppies, picked her up, and set her in my lap. All of the world fell away as I stroked her soft head and murmured to her. She licked my face, and suddenly, I knew exactly which dog I wanted.
Suddenly, I felt my mom’s hand gently squeeze my shoulder, jolting me back to reality.
“Did you find any you like, honey?”
I nodded as I said, “I found the one I want.”
My mom’s smile was full of joy at seeing me so happy.
“That’s great, honey!” Mom said. “Do you know what you’re going to name her?”
I looked at my puppy again, my mind running through possible names, and then it hit me. “I’m going to call her Angel,”I said decisively, “Because she’s my little angel.
My mom smiled softly. “It’s perfect.”
As that memory slowly faded to black, other memories flew by of me getting to know my new puppy; training and working with her, and finally taking her home to be my official seizure alert dog. Me taking Angel to the park, playing with her, and simply petting her. I poured love onto her, and in return, Angel gave me her whole heart. We trusted each other completely, and my seizures became less and less as the days went on. Many memories flashed by, and then halted at a significant one. The first time I had a seizure with Angel there for me. Angel comforted me, licking my face, as I seized and jerked. That was the moment when I realized that I wasn’t alone. From that day on, we did everything together. Every moment I was with her made it my favorite moment. I couldn’t imagine my life without her.
Suddenly, I was jerked from my past by a tentative knock on the door.
“Eliza?” My mom called softly as she opened the door slowly. “I think it’s time.”
I nodded. “I think so, too.” I said quietly.
I gave Angel a kiss on her nose and whispered, “I love you, Angel. I’ll never forget you.”
Angel lifted her head and feebly gave me one last lick as her beautiful tail swished back and forth across the floor.
A single tear dripped down my face and landed in her golden fur as I slowly pulled myself back into my wheelchair.
I gave a long sigh as Mom and Dr. Piper stepped back into the room. Dr. Piper pulled out the needle and, once I nodded to him, he injected it into my beautiful Angel.
“You’ll always be with me in my heart and in my mind, Angel.” I whispered softly as Angel slowly faded out of our world. “You’re my angel from heaven.”
Run. You hear the voice in your head. It’s relentless. Is it yours? You don’t know.
You run, and as you do, the word echoes to the beat of your footsteps on the pavement.
It’s four miles to the next town, a tiny, pint-sized place, and twenty miles to a city that’s actually big enough to show up on a map.
Run. Don’t think about the sharp pain in your chest, the way your breath comes in gasps.
Look at the grass, wilted and covered in dirt from the dusty road. Look at the road itself, wide and never-ending. Look at the sky—no, don’t look at the sky. Tilting your head makes it harder to breathe. Keep your eyes ahead. Seeing what’s in front of you is important too.
And whatever you do, don’t think about back there. Don’t think about the screams and the broken glass and the ruins that were left behind. Don’t think about the silence that fell and that was broken when they screamed, broke, hurt.
Don’t think about it.
Run. Your back aches, your legs are growing heavier and heavier. Bricks. Lead. But you can be strong. Bricks can be lifted. Lead can be lifted.
Run! Stop thinking at all. The tempo of the words slows with your footsteps. They both drag on and on.
They’re coming. They’re coming. No, don’t let that become the new lyric, the word that pounds in your head.
Not them, not the ones that remind you of screams and hurt and the color red. Just them, the ones who try to help but will never be able to. They are perfectly painted and polished. You are chipped and worn. Oil and water don’t mix. Squares and circles don’t mix.
Just run. Run, even though breathing takes all of your strength. Run, even though you’re not sure how you can anymore.
This is why you can’t ever, ever stop running.
If you stop, they’ll come.
And if you fall, if you faint, then you’ve stopped.
And then they’ll come.
Not them, just them. But you don’t want them. You don’t want them and their ironed clothes, their faces filled with the worst thing—sympathy. You don’t want anyone’s sympathy, and you especially don’t want theirs.
You are strong on your own. You don’t need them. You will never, ever need them. Why can’t they just leave you alone?
Don’t look up, because they’re right there. You can pick out the sickeningly sweet smell of her hairspray and the fake-outdoorsy scent of his cologne. Their voices crowd your head, they pound against it. But they are outside your head. Don’t let them in.
Run. But you can’t run. You can’t even stand.
If only you had an excuse. If they had hurt you—no, that’s terrible. Don’t think that. You don’t have an excuse. You don’t have an excuse.
You could try to run. So you stand, and you fall, the ground rushing toward you at an all-too-fast rate for the second time with a span of time that is much too short in between.
They catch you.
Their voices are sugar-coated, trying to calm you, like candies that are too sweet for anyone to enjoy.
The room should be spinning around you, the sides around and around as if they’re caught in a tornado and the ceiling up and down, up and down. But everything is calm. All that you can see are the yellow walls and the clean wooden floor and the cream bedspread with little blue flowers stitched on.
So why does that make you want to cry?
Running makes you strong. Running distracts you. It makes you pay attention to the world in your head, not to the world around you. Pretending is a good thing.
Everything was better before. It was better because you were strong. You were hurt, but you were strong. Now you are safe, but you are weak. And you can’t, you can’t be weak.
But you don’t move an inch.
A knock sounds on the door, sharp but somehow hollow. It jolts you from your thoughts and forces you to notice what’s going on in the present. You feel like a rebellious child in school, not wanting to pay attention.
It’s her. You don’t call out to her and give her permission to come in, but she enters anyways. Something bubbles up inside of you, and you think it might even be hate, but you’re not sure. She’s still wearing her pajamas. She’s vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean that you are.
Let her break. You will never even bend.
Her voice is soft and caring, and you try to find something bad, something superficial about it, but you can’t. Her words are genuine. She may be fake on the outside, but the words she speaks are completely real.
You can’t deny that. You wish you could, but you can’t.
But you can keep her words from getting to you. Her words try to find the cracks inside of you so that they can seep through and reach you, but you seal them shut.
She sees that the little spell she’s trying to cast isn’t working. Her face grows sad. I am solid iron, and she wants me to be malleable.
She sits down cautiously on the side of the bed. I think about running.
Why does she even care about you?
Why does he even care about you?
Why do either of them even care about you at all?
It’s been the good part of an hour, and you still haven’t broken. She’s the one who’s breaking now. She isn’t breaking like you’ve been broken, but her shoulders are drooping and she stares at the ground.
It makes you feel satisfied, but it also makes you feel something else. Guilty, or maybe just sad. You don’t know.
Why don’t you ever seem to know?
She walks to the door, and you think she’s going to leave. Instead, though, she calls out to him and asks him to come upstairs. Her voice is weary. You hate it, but you feel weary too.
You can fight one of them now, but you don’t know if you can fight both. You wish you could give up.
But you can’t.
He isn’t vulnerable like she was at the start. He’s had time to shower and put on a preppy polo shirt, and he smells like cologne again. You hate the smell of cologne.
And you don’t know what it is, but before he even says a word, the cracks inside of you all open up.
Why can’t you be strong around them? Why do they make you weak?
It doesn’t make sense. And you’re telling yourself that it’s all wrong, but something almost seems right. And that in itself is wrong, and then you just don’t care.
And somewhere, somehow you know you are losing something, but you don’t care about that either. Because you also know what you’re gaining.
And then your eyes fill up, and then you taste salt on your face, and then you’re crying.
Now you feel vulnerable, and afraid, and you do feel sad.
She tentatively touches your shoulder. She’s probably afraid that you’ll pull away, but you don’t. He gives you a small smile.
You still don’t know why they care about you.
But it’s nice to have people who care.
Now, I’m going for a run. It took them a while to let me, but they finally did. I can’t blame them for thinking that I wouldn’t return, because I might not have before. But I will now.
This time, instead of hearing the constantly-repeating voice in my head, I just hear my feet hitting the ground. The only sounds that accompany them are neighbors laughing, dogs barking, and the howl of occasional gusts of wind.
I run, but everything is different. Because now, instead of running away, I’m finally running to something.
I’m running home.
I strode down the street, my backpack flapping against my back. It was a windy day in Newgate, and I was in no mood to have to stand in the cold any longer then I had to. Directly ahead of me I saw the great stone building that was my destination, The Newgate Public Library. Quickly hurrying inside of the building, I dumped my books into the appropriate bin and moved towards the YA section. Turning the corner I saw my friend, James, standing in the corner of the alcove that housed the YA section, with his nose buried in a book. “Hi, James,” I said, “have you found anything good?”
Turning, James looked startled to see me there. “Hi, Adam, I thought you had swimming practice at this time. If you had let me known (what), I could have scheduled something.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I replied, “It was canceled at the last minute, something about risk of storm. I should have called, we could have scheduled something”
I went over to the bookshelf and began to browse as James stood there, seeming to forget that anything existed outside of the story that he was reading. I continued to look through the books, carefully avoiding anything with a one-word title. Of course I knew the whole “don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover” deal, but in my experience looking at the title was one of the most important methods of gauging a book’s potential. I slowly moved down the aisle, sometimes adding promising books to my stack, when I came across the strangest book I had ever seen. It was a large black tome, with leather binding. Despite the fact that the spine of the book was facing out, I was unable to find a title. I removed the book, and upon turning it over discovered that it had been bound on the wrong side. On the cover of the book, in words that looked like they had branded onto the cover, the title was simply, “The Book of the Forgotten King”. Interested, I set the book down on the table and opened it. The writing began on the first page, and was in a strange language that I had never seen before. I called James over to help me examine it.
“I’ve never seen any writing that looks even vaguely like this,” said James. Though with most people, this would have carried almost no weight, both of James’s parents were archeologists and James himself loved to study languages. “Do you want my parents to look at it.”
I replied that I could just check it out at home and, upon finding no form of identification , smuggled it out of the library in my backpack.
When I got home, finding no one there, I ran upstairs to my bedroom to study the book. In the privacy of the area directly below my raised bed, I began flipping through the book to see if there was anything that I could understand in the book, even if it was just a picture. Unfortunately, my wish was granted as I found several pictures apparently detailing the life of a man. The picture mainly showed him passing judgement upon some group of people, but the last image showed him being tricked into an ornate cage,, with the cage in the center of a ornate, old key. The picture also had a heading, which I seemed to be perpetually on the verge of understanding. Running my finger along the bottom of the words in an attempt to focus my thoughts, I found an unexpected bump along the picture of the key. Feeling along where the picture of key was, I discovered that the key seemed to be real and three-dimensional, though I still saw it as flat. I pulled the key out of the page, and the illusion broke, allowing my eyes to see it as it truly was, about 250 centimeters long and made out of iron. I stared at the key, then back down at the page. For a moment, the page seemed to flicker between the original image (but without the key encircling the cage), and on the man, still in the cage, but now smiling a terrible, nightmarish smile.
I bolted down the stairs, the key still in my hand and called James from the phone in our kitchen. Thankfully, James had arrived home in time to answer my call.
“Hello, this is James.” said James when he answered the phone.
“J-James,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm, “Would you come over right now?”
James replied with a touch of concern in his voice, “I’m coming. Is everything okay?”
“Yea…, maybe I don’t really know” I replied, sucking in huge breaths of air to calm down my heart.
When James arrived, about ten minutes later, I explained what had happened and showed him the key. As James stood there, slowly turning over the key so as to examine it from all sides, I ran upstairs to bring him the book, but when I arrived, a surprise greeted me. The book still was still where I had left it, but now the binding was cracked and worn, and the paper was yellowed and old. As I watched, the book continued to decay, and eventually collapsed underneath its own weight.
I ran downstairs to see James standing directly before a pair of gates, looking at them in wonder. The gates were tall, black and appeared to be standing with no form of support. We stood in front of the gates, looking intermittently between each other and the gates. As one, we reached forward and pushed open the gates. Beyond them, somehow stretching far past the length of the kitchen was a huge, dark hall. At the far end of the hall, about fifty meters away from where we were, there was a raised plinth with a man-sized statue on it. The hall itself had clearly once been resplendent, but time had worn it down. There were great tapestries on the wall, they must have once been alive and full of color, but they were now faded and moth-eaten.
Together, we stepped through the gates. I couldn’t feel anything strange about the passage, except for the sudden coolness of the air around me.We continued walking through the hall, stopping now and then to get a closer look at a tapestry or candleholder. Whoever had done the decoration of this place had a taste for the macabre. The tapestry’s looked like they had been copied off of by Dante and the candlesticks were all of men being crushed under the weight of the candles. Even the candles themselves were strange, they, though now no more than stubs, were several inches wide and were of a black that seemed to suck in all the light around them.
We continued to progress until we reached the plinth. Stepping up onto the platform, we began to examine the statue. It was about two meters long and seemed to be made out of flint. Despite the horrors all throughout the hall, the statue was by far the worst. Patterned on it’s surface were images of huge demons running amok over the land, sowing chaos and carnage wherever they went. In the very center of the carving was a man, bestriding a horse. The man held a chain connected to a hook, which he used to catch and impale men and woman on, in one hand and a great flaming sword in the other. Despite his horse facing off to the left, the man himself stared directly at us, almost as if he was actually alive, instead of simply a carving.
The statue was so terrifying that I lurched back in disgust, my stomach flipping and my heart beating violently. James, however, appeared to find no problem with the horror of the carving. “What my parents wouldn’t give to get their hands on something like this,” he muttered to himself, running his hand along the carving, “this looks ancient.” As his probing fingers reached the man in the center of the statue, he suddenly recoiled, as if shocked by static electricity. His legs gave way beneath him, and he collapsed to the ground.
As I ran over to help him, he started convulsing wildly, limbs and head slapping the ground. I forced his head down onto the ground, to prevent further injury, and looked around for something soft I could lay him on. Though the tapestries looked almost ideal, they were clearly far too large for me to drag over, so I was forced to simply stay where I was, trying to hold as many of his limbs as I could in check.
Slowly, bit by bit, his convulsions slowed and his limbs started to relax. As he lay there, apparently unconscious, his breathing calming down, I tried to figure out what had happened. He had never done anything like this before. Then again, I had never gone through a magic portal before, so today was a day of great surprises. Suddenly, his eyes flashed open. I fell back, startled, and saw what was likely the most terrifying in that room. James’s eyes were glowing with a strange, green light. His pupils had been transformed into slowly rotating circles comprised out of strange runes like those in the book.
Suddenly, he leapt up and charged at me, roaring. He slapped me with strength far beyond that of any human, and sent me flying into the wall. I lay where I had landed, my body refusing to do what I told it, and watched as pulled out the key and slowly moved towards the statue. As the key drew nearer to the statue, it started changing shape, as though trying to fit any other lock than the one it was approaching. The moment the key touched the material of the statute, however, the key stilled and began slowly sinking into the flint, as though it was jello. A sense of foreboding came over me, almost as though I were in a movie, and dramatic, screechy music had just began to play.
Despite their exhaustion, I forced my weary muscles to begin movement, raising me off the ground, onto my feet. With a great effort, I began to run towards the platform. I stumbled up onto the platform and, tensing my muscles for more power, charged at the thing that was occupying James’s body.
I hit him hard, both of us tumbling to the ground. In some respects, I was incredibly lucky, James had always been the bigger of the two of us and with his newfound strength, he would have crushed me, but his head smacked against the floor, and by the time I got up, he was out cold.
I began pulling over the candle holders, piling them on top of him in man attempt to hold him if he awoke, and then moved over to the plinth. The key remained in the statute, the point where metal and flint collided glowing with a pulsing, green light. I began pulling out the key the ver stone seeming to be attempting to resist. Nonetheless, I slowly pulled out the key, the iron looking new from where it had gone into the statue. About halfway through the process, whispering filled my ears, demanding that I push the key farther in. Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and continued pulling out the key. The moment the key was pulled fully out, a great pulse of wind echoed through the chamber, the great tapestries on the walls began to blow, and the cobwebs that hung from the ceiling of the hall were knocked down, pieces of silk fluttering to the ground. I turned back to the statue to find the demons of the carving slowly moving in from the background as if to catch me. For a moment, I found myself laughing at the utter absurdity of the situation, until a miniature claw, extended from the frontmost demon, poked through the surface slowly groping out at me.
A sudden crashing behind me revealed James’s, or at least James’s body, return to consciousness. Backing away from the statue, I quickly glanced behind me, to see James’s condition. Two pieces of luck hit me just then, the first was that James’s eyes were back to normal, and the second was that my make-shift barricade had massively failed, so James was already back on his feet.
I jumped off the platform, just as the first of the miniature demons escaped from the statue. Interestingly, I noted, the man in the center still sat on top of his horse, a look of hatred distorting his features.
Grabbing James by his shirt, I began running towards the gateway, terror fueling my strides. About halfway across the hall, I stumbled and almost fell, but James pulled me back up, his momentum jerking me forward back into my stride. By this point, some of the winged demons had taken flight, their wings quickly propelling them towards us. We fell through the gate, crashing to the floor of my kitchen. As we scrambled to get up, the lead demon came streaking out of the hall into the kitchen.
Grabbing a nearby stool, I swung it towards the demon. The stool made direct contact, sending the demon into a nearby wall, one of its wing in tatters where the stool leg broke through the membrane. I jumped onto my feet and slammed the great gates, pressing my back to them in a desperate attempt to keep them closed. As soon as the gates were fully shut, they disappeared, leaving nothing behind.
The moment the gate disappeared, the demon in the corner froze, its face contorted in fury. Touching the now inert demon, I discovered that it had become a statue, with no signs of life.
Hearing a car pull up into the driveway, James and I ran up to my room to plan what to do next. As we sat on my bed, both of us still shaking from the encounter, we decided that there was only one reasonable course of action.
“The only reasonable course of action is to bury the key and demon,” I said, “We clearly didn’t destroy the thing in that statute, only set it back. We can’t risk anyone letting it free.”
The debate settled, we went out to the backyard of my house, and started digging until we had dug a pit almost 2 meters deep.We tossed the key and demon into the pit and began to re-fill the hole. Within the course of 30 minutes, the hole was filled. Thankfully, there was no grass in this part of our yard, only leaves, so no trace of where the key was buried remained anywhere except in our minds. Nodding in a silent agreement, James and I decided never to talk about what had happened, less someone repeated our folly, and in doing so concluded that chapter of our lives.
For as long as the merchant’s daughter could remember, Hunger had been working Its claws into the folds of her mind. She lived with the Hunger for what she could not have—she lived beneath Its wings, under the yellowed eye trained on her every motion; for when she did move, it was Hunger who moved her: with Its talons ripping deeper into the crimson of her throat, she flew to wherever on whatever whim Hunger could fancy. Dangled always in darkness, she saw herself for what Hunger knew her to be—prey.
She knew as much—nineteen years of living under the merchant’s roof had taught her she owed her life to anyone but herself. It had warped her: she sought tirelessly to justify her servitude, surmising it was fair that she should endure this treatment—for Hunger had not harmed her. To harm her would be to make her bleed; thus she checked her neck for blood, settling her undying hand where Hunger would use Its talons to take the liberty of dragging her from place to place. She had never stopped checking, nor had she ever bled; for this reason she had never objected to cleaning up after one of the merchant’s revelries, or having to scavenge for food when he needed a snack. Or being told to take the gravel road through the woods to the store at midnight to buy him some matches.
She tears her hand from her neck. The matchboxes tumble from her arms as she brings both hands to her eyes, searching, searching for traces of blood, the blood where Hunger would have left gashes. Over and over she scoured her hands, kneading them until they turned a shade of red so rich she wouldn’t have been able to pick out bloodstains had they existed.
Tightening the coat around her, the merchant’s daughter left, feeling the Hunger to be home again.
Home, it seems, was just as hungry for her return: the door was wide open. The merchant, nowhere to be seen; a note thrown to the floor, “Back when out of cash” scrawled in red ink. If she were to peer out the back window, she knew, the truck would be gone—off to some bar in the middle of nowhere.
She sat down. She got back up; she had wanted dinner, she remembered. Tomato soup. She fetched a pot, filled it with water, set it near the stove, and reached for the matches to light the stove.
Hunger had bested her yet again.
What had she done with the matchbox? She had just been carrying some. Or—had she? No—she dropped them outside. In the gravel. Yes, that’s where they are. She stooped to pick her coat off the floor—had she taken it off?—and moved her hand from her neck to open the door.
There they were. Five or six matchboxes strewn about, as if somebody had dropped them mid-sentence. The few that were unharmed, she set aside while she kneeled to collect the poor matches who were homeless.
One match in the matchbox.
Two matches in the matchbox.
Three matches in the matchbox.
Four matches in the matchbox.
All the way up to forty; then one box was completed and another began.
“Tough, huh, getting those apart from the gravel?”
“It’s not so bad,” replied the merchant’s daughter, her eyes on the ground.
“Yeah. Last time I tried, I got all the little rocks stuck up my fingernails.”
“I’ve learned to live with it.”
“Then at least let me help you,” the girl said, getting on the ground.
She waved a hand. “Oh, you don’t have to.”
“Nonsense! Can’t a girl just be wandering the middle of woods in the middle of the night, without needing to be somewhere?”
They both laughed.
They made a funny pair, picking up matches in the middle of the road in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night like that. Perhaps they should have had such a task done by now, but as more matches were collected, more seemed to take their place.
The merchant’s daughter couldn’t help but notice the girl’s pale skin—you could almost see through her hand to the match she was holding. She felt the pinpricks again, and continued with one hand. “You live around here?”
“What were you doing?”
“—What do you mean?”
“Walking all alone, in the forest, with matches?”
“Yes—that. Sounds pretty grueling to me, doing that of your own volition.”
“I was told to go get some matches from the store.”
When the girl didn’t reply, she continued: “We needed to light the stove.”
The girl gave up on the matches. “Well, I can understand that. Hunger’s boss, right?”
“But you got that pretty fine cherry-red truck, don’t you?”
The merchant’s daughter said nothing.
Thirty-nine matches in the matchbox... “Oh, spilled the box. I’m sorry, I’m such a—”
“Why didn’t you drive. To the store?”
“Well, he, uh, wanted to use it...” Her voice trailed off as the girl started to circle her.
The girl sighed. “All I want is to help. Why should we throw our life away? But if you won’t listen to me, how are we going to do that?”
“Yes, we. Us two.” Their faces were inches apart. “You and I? We’re two halves of the same whole.” In the girl’s eyes, the merchant’s daughter discerned a familiar longing; a longing she herself had felt to escape, but had never acknowledged. Now the longing was acknowledging her: it had been fed up with Hunger.
“I want us to live our own life,” the girl went on. “You just have to listen to me.”
“Listen to longing?”
“To what you want. Don’t wanna end up like those guys.”
“What guys—” Figures began to materialize out of the darkness before her, each with the same spectral skin as the girl. They stood silent, looking on.
“Oh, these guys? They want the same thing I do. All suppressed longings—like me.”
“I don’t ‘suppress’ you—”
“Think about that: for every person you see here, there’s another—like us—not living up to our potential.” She tried to take the merchant’s daughter’s hand, but the flesh fell through the girl’s ghost of a form. The girl’s voice betrayed her. “And I—I won’t stand for it any longer.”
“That’s not your decision.”
“You can’t justify this, this—half-life—because your neck doesn’t spontaneously bleed.”
“If it doesn’t bleed, then the wound isn’t fatal. And if the wound isn’t fatal, than I—
“—‘we’ have nothing to worry about.”
“What wound?” the girl asked.
“I—you know what I’m talking about.”
“What? Say it.”
“The ones some ‘Hunger’ left on your neck? It’s not a vulture, it’s a feeling. You can’t be physically harmed by something intangible.”
“That’s not the point—”
“Then what is? Last I checked, there wasn’t anything on our neck.”
“How would you know? You can’t see back there.”
The girl scoffed. “Then you look.” Turning around, the hair was lifted from her neck.
“Nothing’s there,” she murmured; the merchant’s daughter’s longing validated, the girl’s skin became opaque. More real, but not yet alive.
“No, there isn’t, is there?”
“But—that’s not the deal I made.”
The girl, the hundreds of figures behind them—all gone. Only a row of neatly packaged matchboxes lay at her feet.
She picked up a box. Slid it open. Forty matches tucked away in the dark, waiting to live up to their potential. Should she light—should she light the stove...
She held a match. Struck it against the box. It lit. She let it drop. It died.
Hold, strike, light, dead; hold, strike, light, dead.
If she dropped it, the match would die. If she held it, the match would die.
If she lived like this any longer, she would die, her life unfulfilled; if she stepped out of line, made a life for herself, either Hunger or the merchant would kill her.
If she did nothing, she would die. If she did anything, she would die.
She had surmised that if she was unharmed, she could endure their treatment.
What if she was harmed either way?
A hand, now the same tone and of the same material of the merchant’s daughter’s figure, came to rest on the merchant’s daughter’s shoulder, her longing manifested in full. “Attagirl, Anne,” the girl whispered in her ear.
She picked out another match. Lighting it, she let the box and its contents fall to the ground. She threw the lit match as far as she could throw it, and kept her eyes on the flame until it went out.
Anne was walking back to the house when a small light appeared where the match had extinguished. She stepped toward it, in disbelief that the flame had grown into a fire; but then the light separated into two flames, and then the lights intensified into beams pointed at her and the house; them the beams turned into headlights and Anne leapt out of the way before—
Where she had been standing there was a mess of cherry-red metal and burnt rubber. The corner of the house had disappeared behind the hood of the truck. Behind the wheel...
She sauntered over to the car door. Opened it. Looked at the merchant—Anne’s father—unconscious. Her nose smacked by the mixture of booze and blood.
His chest was rising. Falling.
She heaved him from the seat and through the doorway into the house. On the floor he lay, motionless save for his breath.
Anne touched her left hand to his forehead, catching the streams of blood. Letting it pool there. Tracing in the outlines of his eyes, of his nose, of his mouth until he wore a mask.
Look at him; she had been living under his lock and key for nineteen years, and he hadn’t had the courtesy to die on her. Not even after she had just begun to question the system.
With one hand pressed to his forehead, she clenched her other hand around the matchbox.
She held a match. Struck it against the box. It lit. She let it drop.
She was outside before the first flames bloomed on the wood beneath her father’s body.
Hold, strike, light, dead.
First the floor, then the walls, then the ceiling, then the roof. Her house went up in flames. She would have stood there, watching—the cold was more bearable with the warmth of the burning cabin—had she not heard the sound of an engine revving.
The girl—she was backing up the truck, both hands on the wheel.
Anne shouted, but in vain: her and the truck were facing one another.
She took a step forward.
The girl slammed the gas pedal.
She sprinted toward the car. She didn’t care anymore. Her father dead, her home destroyed, her life, ash—what left did she have to live for? She knew only that she’d spent her life obeying orders; she was going to die on her own terms. In her final seconds, she saw the girl’s eyes, headlights in themselves.
One match in the matchbox.
Two matches in the matchbox.
Three matches in the matchbox.
Four matches in the matchbox—
—It came and went.
The moment of impact—it came and went. As in, one second, the hood of the truck was tickling Anne’s nose; the next, she was staring straight ahead, at an empty road in the the middle of the forest in the middle of the night.
She whirled around to find the bed of the truck facing her, and the ghostly crowd of onlookers returned. The girl was opening the door.
“Well, if I don’t believe my eyes,” the girl laughed. “Killing our brain-dead father? Where do we come up with this stuff!”
Anne strode over to her counterpart. “You said—”
“I said I wanted us to live our life; not murder someone!”
“But that was the only way to—”
“Oh, ‘But that was the only way to’—think. Again, Anne.” The ghosts were slowly advancing on the pair, trapping them against the truck. “We could have just as easily stolen the truck when he got back or something, don’t pin this on me.”
“But he’d find us, and he wasn’t—” she had stopped, transfixed on one face above the girl’s shoulder. The pinpricks were all over her body. Anne could not move. “What. Is he. Doing here.”
Their father stood behind the girl in the ghost crowd. Her father, who she’d not long ago burned alive—dead-set on staring his killer down. His skin may be translucent now, but his eyes had retained every last drop of mortality.
“Who, him? He belongs there, now.”
“What. Are you talking about?”
“We really have got the worst memory.”
Anne lunged at the girl, her hands aimed at her throat—but she passed through her.
“You just got hit by a car, and you’re wondering why we’re seeing ghostly apparitions of our father? Get your priorities in order.”
She stood hunched over.
“These ghosts—they’re each heir to their own suppression: they all got what was coming to them. You murder our father, you suppress him.”
She clutched her head in her hands.
“Did I not say they were suppressed—like me?”
Her hands were convulsing.
“Or at least, I used to be like them.”
Her hands—her hands were transparent.
“I’m not like them anymore. I’m stronger.”
“What have you done?”
“We killed our father. We chose to listen to our longing to be free, instead of you—the little scared, helpless thing who’s been in control since birth.”
“I, I—I thought you said you wanted to help me.”
“Us. I wanted to help us. And to get out of this hellhole, we needed to listen to me. To do that, you had to be eliminated. Bye-bye. From now on, we live on through me.”
“I don’t understand—”
The girl was already getting back in the trunk. “We did what we had to do to survive. And to survive, we had to let go of the thing holding us back. That was you.” She closed the door. “You suppressed me for too long.”
As the girl drove away to start a new life, a ghostly Anne threw herself to the floor. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the fire spreading from her house to the trees. Fire rained down from branches falling to the ground, the rocks doing nothing to abate the swelling inferno.
She did nothing to stop it. She had waited too long.
There was no use in rebelling against anything. Hunger had starved her long ago.
From somewhere above, a vulture cried down to Its prey as the merchant’s daughter lifted her left hand from her neck for the last time, and it came away caked in dried blood.
“I can’t say this enough: do not open your test booklets when I hand them out!”
Eve wrapped up her apple core in a napkin and rapped her pencil on the table sharply, bringing her brain to attention, a mental call-to-order.
“I will now hand out test booklets for the AMC 10—please raise your hands if you are taking the AMC 10 test. And once again, what are you not going to do with your test booklets?”
“Don’t open them!” —the chorused response.
Eve didn’t raise her hand, because she was a senior, and that meant, unfortunately, that she had to take the far-more-difficult (but still easy for her) AMC 12. She watched the small freshmen across the gulf of the long, wooden, plane as small, dove-like booklets glided onto tables.
“Now raise your hand for the AMC 12!” Eve raised her hand, and received in exchange the gift of a booklet, which slid easily to her on the slick wood, making the faintest hiss in its passing. She rubbed her eyes, and the thing blurred in and out of focus like a picture in a refocusing camera lens: fuzzy black letters on white frame alternated with small print in between the lines.
“I will now pass out the answer documents for the AMC 10. Once again, do not open your test booklets!”
Her heart skipped a beat. This time, Eve had a booklet. This time, Eve wanted to open it, just a bit. And she could tell that the guy nearest her was eyeing his booklet as well.
“If you do open your text booklet, you will be disqualified from the competition!”
Test booklet, test booklet…they were all eyeing their test booklets now. Was there, or was there no voice saying “open your test booklet…just a little”?
Eve snapped back to attention as an AMC 10 answer document landed in front of her; she handed the sheet back to Mr. Michael, explaining that she was taking the AMC 12. But as she was doing so, her hand flew over the flypaper of the test booklet and stuck. As she glanced at it, the ink winked at her, and her cheeks bloomed, flustered. It was just a test booklet. She lovingly traced the lettering, as if in a trance, while her breath came shorter all the while. Was the lettering different on the inside? Her fingers caressed the edge. Her ears felt hot.
Saved by an answer document that fluttered onto the table, she began bubbling in residential information with a vengeance, shunting the strangely seductive test booklet to one side.
“I will now read the instructions for the AMC 10 and the AMC 12 as required by the American Mathematics Association…you guys can follow along on your test booklets if you want…”
That was a mistake. A dull roar in her ears washed over the voice as the lure of the test booklet enchanted her once again, the fingered edge pleading alluringly with her, a corner peeking up where her fingers had touched it. The hinge staples were somewhat loose to her machinations; two of them curved at the left corner like fangs.
“Number seven, all questions left unanswered will result in a gain of 1.5 points…”
Seven—was that the number they were on? She refocused her attention on the bottom. There were ten rules. Three more to go until she could rip open the stupid test booklet.
“Derek, I see your fingers on the test booklet over there—make sure not to open it!”
There was a flurry of fidgeting as brains cut the strings to fingers that had jumped at “open”.
Eve gasped as she hurriedly drew her finger away from the hinge, a two-holed puncture opening on her finger where she’d accidentally rammed it into the staples. As she paused to inspect the wound, she could hear Derek’s loud, short, breaths as he held up his hands to show his innocence. She wiped away the pinpricks of blood on her apple-stained napkin and tried to listen toMr. Michael’s megaphone:
“Number eight, incorrect answers will earn zero points…number nine…alright guys, I really need to go to the bathroom, so just hang tight…it’ll just be a moment” and with that, Mr. Michael dashed out of the cafeteria. There were, of course, no other adults around, save a grizzled janitor quietly humming in tune with his keys.
Eve could have sworn that Mr. Michael did it on purpose. Her love affair with her test booklet was temporarily forgotten in favor of anger at Mr. Michael. Did he want somebody to get disqualified? Couldn’t he see that they were all struggling with their far-too-potent test booklets?
The part of Eve that was still self-aware was glad that everyone was looking at the door that the teacher had disappeared out of, instead of down at their test booklets. That part of Eve also knew that as soon as one person looked, there was no hope for the assembled students.
Eve took out her phone, the king of distractions
But the phone was a holding measure. The cover page of the test booklet beckoned, its leading edge bent and snaky from her sweaty fingers. Barely aware of the deafening chatter of her logical side, Eve reached out. A drop of sweat, innocuous, beaded on her forehead. She could feel her thighs straining a little as she rose a little bit in her chair to the occasion.
She bit her lip. The test booklet begged. She felt it watching her. The others were watching her. Hot, flush, flustered, do, do not, pain, pleasure and in a flash she had done it. A flick of the fingers, slightly sticky in two pinpoints where her staple-wounds were; there was a sinking of the soul into delicious relaxation, like the first, crisp bite into an apple on a hot summer day. The test booklet’s cover page lay hugging the table, its first and second pages revealed to her in naked glory.
She scarcely had time to take in anything with her heightened senses before Mr. Michael walked back into the room. She frantically closed her test booklet. Did he notice?
“Number ten, this one is made up…have fun guys! Open up those test booklets and begin!”
A rustling of doves. As Eve began work on the test she noticed that for some reason, the test booklet was no longer sinuous and seductive. It was paper, stapled together. She chuckled slightly and plunged into her work.