I’m Lena Xairia Evergarde, or L3N3. My job is removing ideas of rebellion, thoughts of unsupervised creativity, things 1’s can’t control and 2's can't quell. The day I was born, The Authority decided I was different. They designated me a number in branch 3 and I became a part of the authority.
From six different branches, Branch One keeps everyone in line by feeding the public half-truths and deceptions. Branch Two destroys anything that will cause a disruption to The Authority's Order. I was placed in Branch Three, in charge of The Happy-Place. When citizens get too many big ideas or are unsatisfied, they go to The Happy-Place. They always come back better, but after a while, they’re even worse. It's addictive. It fills you up with serotonin and drugs your brain into compliance. We permanently remove thoughts if they're deemed dangerous.
The fourth branch is in charge of all tech and devices. You'd think Branch One has the most control, but in truth, it's Branch Four with true power. If all tech was shut down, the citizens would be powerless and confused. Branch Five handles jobs, schooling, housing, and work. The five branches are all the Citizens know about. In the Authority there is one more branch. Branch Zero, the killers. It's the smallest but most dangerous branch, considered a necessary evil to maintain quality of life.
My name is Natalene Katsa Winters, but anyone who calls me that is in danger. My Authority-given code is N4T0. The last digit of my code means I belong to branch 0. My profession was decided at birth by genetics, and so was the rest of my life. My parents haven’t seen me since I was 3. Here, we don’t have family. Life in the Authority isn't our own, it's run by elites pretending to help us. Somehow nobody else thinks we should be free. But I for one know I wasn’t meant to be a 0. I wasn’t meant to be a killer.
Rebels who act out are sent to The Happy-Place. In The Happy-Place, they sift through your thoughts and eliminate anything that doesn't agree with The Order. One of my allies is addicted to it, the feeling of ecstasy he gets when his brain is hooked up to their machines. Normal citizens who step out of line are swiftly dealt with, but in the Authority, we're silenced. Being silenced is worse than being unable to speak, it’s an inability to see the issue to begin with.
The Authority is corrupt and controlling. It started as protection and now we're barely allowed to have our own thoughts. It's said that before the Authority created the Order there was violence and pain. People used to die of sickness, violence, and accidents. Now they die by the hands of zeroes. By my hands. Everyone around me dies. It's my fault, the last relationship I was in, her name came up on my kill-list. My first assignment at 11 was a friend I tried to keep in touch with. Eventually, even my own parents were given to me. In a list of names, the Authority knew exactly how to hurt me, to make me the perfect killer. Emotionless.
Occasionally I pass a girl in the halls who seems to always be alone. Everyone knows she is a zero. She's intriguing to me, she looks hurt and tired. “The Authority did that to her,” I think whenever I see her. She's been here longer than me even though we are almost the same age. I’m 19 and she looks to be around 18.
A few weeks ago, I figured out her code was N4T0. The fourth N-name in the Traylone district, a zero. I’ve heard the Authority made her kill her own parents and friends. Unlike most other zeroes she isn't addicted to The Happy-Place. As far as I can remember, N4T0 hasn't been to The Happy-Place at all. Everyone says zeroes are conditioned to be emotionless, but they're still human. I often wonder how she deals with all the horrors she's witnessed. Someday I’ll get to talk to her.
Two weeks ago I realized L3N3, the transfer, was watching me. At first, I was surprised she wasn’t afraid of me, and then I was angry. “Doesn’t she know she’ll get herself killed?” I thought. She could choose to ogle any of the ‘hot’ men in the Authority like other girls.
After a few days of avoiding her, I knew her schedule and routine. I was hyper-aware of where she was whenever we were in public spaces simultaneously. This confused me, I shouldn’t care, I shouldn’t be trying to push her away and save her. She should just be another girl in the Authority who doesn’t matter. But she does matter, and it's a terrifying realization. I can’t get attached to her, at least not visibly, or I’d get sent to The Happy-Place. If I get sent there, it’s over for me. I have many thoughts The Authority would deem "dangerous for The Order."
I stopped going to lunch or break rooms during the designated times. Nobody would dare stop me because I’m a zero, and everyone knows sometimes we work through lunch hours. Maybe L3N3 was watching me for The Authority, what if I've been figured out?
I hid in the human history library. It's the smallest library and most of the books are fabrications to glorify The Authority. The books portray utter chaos before The Order. They never showed the beautiful art that was destroyed, the cultures that were erased, or the differences that made a certain person themselves. There was beauty in the old chaos. Even with shelves of lies, the library is comforting to me. Nobody came here, or at least I thought. L3N3 came to this library too.
I realized I wasn’t alone one day in the human history library. N4T0 sat along the back wall. This was the only time we'd ever been alone in a room. She looked up and I met her piercing emerald eyes. I knew this was my chance to talk to her. I walked over and simply said ”Hi.” A look of shock flashed across N4T0’s face so quickly that if I had blinked I would’ve missed it. Then came an expression of suspicion followed by exasperation.
“Why are you talking to me?”
“I wanted to.” I said simply.
Tiredly she replied, “Nobody wants to talk to me, I’m a zero.”
“I honestly don’t care, The Authority has put you through enough already I’d bargain. You shouldn’t be alone just because of your job. You’re interesting and you probably think differently than the rest of us.”
“My thoughts are as boring as anyone else’s L3N3.”
My eyebrows lifted as I said, “I never told you my code.”
N4T0 was an interesting character. I had a feeling we both thought things the Authority would silence us for thinking. I started, "The Authority computer systems have a database for everyone and over time some authority members get flagged if they haven't been to The Happy-Place in a while."
N4T0 tensed and said, "So that would be why you've been watching me isn't it?"
Calmly I replied, "No, I'm curious about you, I think we are quite similar. A benefit to being in branch three is I can avoid actually using the machines. I'm the reason you haven't been flagged yet." Nobody outside of branch 3 knows Happy Place procedures. That is the way it is for every branch.
I was shocked at what L3N3 said. Is she trying to say she can trust me? The next thing L3N3 said silenced every thought in my head.
"My name is Lena. Lena Xairia Evergarde."
A real name, not a code. It may be soon to say that I trust her but this is something. "Mine's Natalene… -" "What is the rest of your name?" "-Natalene Katsa Winters." I continued. There is no way to know if anyone is truly trustworthy in the Authority.
"I figured out a few days ago that The Authority is planning to do a mental sweep. People's consciousnesses are going to be scanned at night. To scan them though you have to undergo a mental sweep of your own. So I can't keep you safe anymore-" I was skeptical but everything she said made sense. I've run out of luck. "-I'm not safe either, N4T0. We need to leave. My friends and I need to leave, but the Wild is dangerous. Will you come with us?" On second thought, I haven't run out of luck, it just came in the form of Lena this time.
When Nat’s face softened my relief was immediate. Nat would be a perfect protector in the Wild. From what I can tell, we'd both thought about running from the Authority but couldn’t bring ourselves to do it alone. My thoughts were interrupted by the chiming of bells. “Meet me here tomorrow. The scans begin four days from now. We need to leave in two nights.”
“The Authority watches zeroes closely. If I spend too much time alone with you they’ll put you on my kill-list. They’ll think I got emotionally attached to you. It may be true but I can’t kill you,” Nat commented.
When she paused I said, “They can’t kill me in two days. You'll never have to get another kill-list.”
After waking up the next morning I did my usual routine. I ate then worked on the kill-list that the Authority had given me yesterday. Chances are I’ll never have to get another.
Around Lena’s lunch time I slipped into the Human History library. Today we would discuss who else would be going with us and what we needed to bring. I gathered weapons, water, and some food. Lena in turn had the connections we needed to escape the compound. All that's left is escaping the compound.
It was sundown and I was in the cafeteria. If I didn't know whom we were leaving with, I wouldn't have been able to tell that anyone would break the rules tonight. I found myself wondering how many times this had happened before. The Authority would've covered up any previous escapes so nobody got ideas. It was nearly curfew, one way or another I knew I'd never get another kill-list from The Authority.
"Hey, Lena," I whispered in the shadows at the edge of the courtyard. "Hey," she smiled back. "We have to work our way towards the meetup point and not get caught. After that, it's just a matter of time till they figure out we're gone. I know all the Authority's tactics. We can't leave a trace. If push comes to shove, we scatter. Everyone knows the basics." I confirmed the plan. "Well, I will try to stay with you," Lena said. I smiled but it looked more like a grimace.
Once Nat and I reached the gates we saw three of the five people meeting us. Tonight we were escaping with K4T0 or Kaito, E8X3 or Elyian, S5L3 or Seline, L1K3 Lucan, and T4N4 Thiaa. Our companions are from branch 3, except Thiaa and Kaito.
I knew Thiaa from the Nevranile training facility, she'll help us escape and remain undetected on the technological side. Kaito joined us because Natalene knew he wanted to leave and he could be useful. It turns out he is kind albeit rather quiet. Whenever he's alone he has a haunted look in his eyes. The Authority ruined his life, I'm sure of it. We need to get out of here.
"Elyian and Lucan aren't at the meeting point. Waiting this close to the gates could get us caught. We wait 3 minutes and if they aren't here yet we go," Natalene said.
"Trust me, I don't want to leave anyone behind, but to me, it's preferable to leave two people rather than all of us getting caught," I said reluctantly. The minutes stretched painfully long as we hid like wraiths in the dark. Finally, The two men arrived, quietly approaching from the opposite side of the courtyard.
Breathless, Lucan said "We nearly got caught twice. The guards by our quarters asked us a bunch of questions and we had to say we were going to go out and smoke. Neither of us would ever touch that stuff but lots of the guards do so they let us go."
I quickly replied "Okay, well we have to go." The moon was a sliver in the night sky as we slipped out of the gates single file. Suddenly a guard patrolling the citadel saw us and reached for her radio. I signaled Thiaa and she used one of her gadgets to disable the communication system temporarily. It was only a matter of time before they came for us anyway.
We ran down rough stone streets slipping through the darkness. The faint light of the moon barely illuminated our features. Lena's hair came undone and was streaming down her back. My legs were starting to burn and my feet were racing along the paved streets. I felt more alive than I had in months. The feeling of escaping was exhilarating. The cold night air filled my lungs, a faint smile on my lips. We blended into the silence of the night seamlessly. Upon hearing Authority guards approaching we split up and ran into separate alleyways. The outer city is my home. I've spent countless long nights watching the stars from rooftops in this area. We had the advantage.
Suddenly I realized Lena wasn't with me, we were separated. I kept running, now my heart was beating faster. I should've been paying attention. I got sidetracked avoiding some guards I nearly ran into. Once I led the guards the wrong way from where we were going, I turned and sprinted back to my destination.
Horrified at the scene in front of me I watched as two guards held Lena and Elyian hostage. I wasn't going to let this happen. Before I made any decisions I looked for the others. Kaito wasn't there, Seline, Lucan, and Thiaa were standing helpless. They couldn't do anything because of the Guards threatening Lena and Elyian. I spotted Kaito in an alleyway opposite to me, we made eye contact and in that split second, we knew what to do. We rushed at the guards closest to us and knocked them out. I stole their weapons and then turned to comfort Lena.
The fear I felt while being held at gunpoint by the very same guards who were supposed to protect me was debilitating. The moment they pushed the cold end of a gun into the space between my shoulders I froze. Natalene attacked with force, speed and precision, forcing the guard to let go of me.
When the bruising hold on my neck released I fell to the floor. I reached over and hugged Natalene. Then, she said we had to go, picked me up, and carried me out of the city, into the forest. I could've walked by myself but Natalene took care of me instead. For the first time in my life, I knew I was free and safe.
After running between trees in the forest for a few hours we finally stopped to eat. I occasionally stole glances at her, thinking back to the way her arms felt wrapped around me protectively. I began to think about the way I've always admired her eyes and the way she smiles or the way she tucks her hair behind her ear. We were finally far enough from the city to be safe. Who knows where we will really end up next but as long as we stick together we'll be fine.
When Lena was in danger I scooped her into my arms instinctively to keep her safe. Now we sit in the dark without a fire eating our dinner. I stiffened at first when Lena leaned her head on my shoulder but then relaxed after a moment. I think I finally have a real friend. I wonder if this is what love feels like, it's been so long, I've forgotten.
From this day onward it will be as if we never existed. We will stay silent to be free.
The Vanished Heirloom
It was the middle of the night, I silently crept around in the dark trying to make my way to the kitchen. I knew my own house well enough, but it was still challenging to walk down the stairs quietly in the pitch black. I had only one simple goal in mind: to get to the cookie jar without being caught by my family. The scent of fresh cookies led me down the winding stairway as I made my way to the kitchen. I felt the crumbles in my hand as I was about to have a midnight snack.
At that moment, I heard a voice overhead. Not a minute later, the sound of someone running was right above me. I feared getting caught with my hand in the cookie jar. I knew I had to cut my midnight snack time short. Fortunately, I made it back to my room without getting caught, and I slowly drifted to sleep…
Next morning, I woke up to the sound of my hideous alarm right at 7:00 AM because I forgot to turn it off on the weekend. I heard the sound of doors opening in the hallway and decided to check what happened.
I walked out of my room and looked around. I saw my grandmother leaning against the wall. My other family members are consoling her. That’s when I noticed her wedding ring wasn’t in her hand. That was her most cherished possession and she was never without it. Not only was it given to her by my late grandfather who passed away years ago, but it was also a treasured and very valuable family heirloom that has existed in the family since my great grandfather.
You know when in movies and books after an appalling incident everyone would come together to support each other, hum, that could not be more far off from what happened. In the event of this vanished family heirloom, everyone in my extended family started blaming each other for pocketing the vanished ring.
“It was you, I know it,” my uncle said, directing his scream at my aunt.
“Says the one who needs extra money the most,” my aunt retaliated. As the blaming game continued, it occurred to me that nobody had even called the cops to report the missing heirloom.
“Stop,” I tried to speak at the highest volume without losing my calm. Well, it didn’t matter, because no one was paying attention. Not even my parents and so-called family. I quickly fumbled for my phone in my pocket and dialed 911.
“911, what is your emergency?” a female voice asks.
“We have a valuable ring stolen in this house,” I said.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, I swear I’m not joking,” I told her our address. I could literally hear a deep breath in her pause when I said it. Everyone in town knows the honorable or not-so-honorable Curtis family. When our great-grandfather came to town, he quickly rose to power because his mining company created many jobs. After hitting it rich by finding gold and diamond in the mine, he retired and lived in peace. The missing ring was made with the first piece of gold and diamond found in the mine. My grandfather owned the company and then passed it down to my uncle. Although these days, the company is going through financial problems.
When the cops finally arrive, we settle down and tell them what happened. Then they start interrogating everyone of us in the mansion.
“Michela Curtis,” a cop says as my mom walks into the study the cops are using as the interrogation room. Next, they interrogate my dad. Then my aunt. Then her husband. When it is my uncle’s turn for interrogation, my aunt asks who wants breakfast. All three kids including me said yes. It was a stressful morning and I needed a snack because my midnight snack got disturbed. My mom is toasting bread and my aunt is about to cut up some fruit when
I hear one cop say to the other, "He's just arrived."
Just that second, the doors slam open and a figure walks in. He is covered in black wearing a black hat and trench coat while smoking a cigar. He hangs his coat on our rack and reveals a pistol strapped to his belt. He is wearing a tailored suit with slicked-back hair. He plops down on the couch and grabs a bowl of pretzels on the table. Another cop hands him a list and the first thing does is cuss.
“What is this garbage, you guys need to go back to police academy to relearn about collecting evidence.”
“Sorry detective, we did all we could,” one of the cops says.
He then tears the paper and sprinkles all the bits onto the beige carpet.
“We are restarting this investigation from the ground up, everyone please head into the living room”
I had just started eating but I went over to the living room without complaint. When everyone settled down, he addressed us.
“I am detective Charles Harvey, and as far as I am concerned, someone in this room stole the heirloom worth several millions”
Then he motioned with his hands and the two cops locked the doors. I could tell my uncle was going to open his mouth, but detective Harvey put a knife concealed in his pocket on the table which shut my uncle up.
“We will be taking each of you one by one to interview, until then you all will stay here. First, up will be Benjamin Curtis”
“Me,” I stuttered.
“Are you Benjamin Curtis?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then I am talking about you, now come with me”
We walked together to my grandfather’s old study that they were using as an interrogation room. As he opened the doors I thought about the unused study collecting dust over the years since my grandfather passed away. When detective Harvey opened the door, I looked around at the old bookshelf and all the medals my grandfather earned in his years in the army before he went into the mining business. Then I thought about the motive. Who would want my grandmother dead? As much as I hated the idea it had to be someone from my family. At the top of my suspect list was my uncle. Although I just said that because I never really liked him.
My thoughts got disturbed when detective Harvey motioned for me to take a seat. “Please tell me what you know”
“Nothing that could be of any use to this investigation,” I replied. Not wanting to talk about my sneaking at night.
“I know you are hiding something but I can't tell what it is. Please remember that any information would be of help!”
“Fine”, I sighed and said, “I was awake when it happened. I heard footsteps but then I went back to bed. That’s All, I swear.”
“Thank you for your information, he said. You may rejoin your family. Please send word to your family that the case is almost solved. You all shall remain there until I have put the pieces together.”
I walked out of the study, down to the library where my family was. As I passed the dining room I thought of my hunger as I was interrupted in eating breakfast. I decided to grab a snack and then head back to the living room. When I went back into the living room and settled down with my family, who were in the middle of a game of cards.
Then all of a sudden detective Harvey rushed into the room holding a stack of papers and signaled for the other officers to stand by the door. He then said, “I have figured out who stole the ring.”
Then he said “No one”
He then walked upstairs to my grandmother’s room and we all followed him. Everyone was fixated on Detective Harvey listening intently at what he was about to say. That is except my Aunt who was scolding my little cousin for dropping cookie crumbs on a priceless rug. At that moment, my little cousin dropped the chocolate chip cookie he was eating behind the bed and crawled down to get it. Although when he came up he had an unsanitary cookie in one hand and a ring in the other. “Look, everyone!” he screamed, “I found grandmother’s ring under the bed between the wooden seams where my chocolate chip cookie rolled down.” He said.
It must have rolled under there during the night was what everyone agreed on. He then handed it to my grandmother. Detective Harvey didn’t get to announce his investigation conclusion but he looked relieved and then proclaimed the job to be finished and left in haste.
I was happy that the missing heirloom was found and no one was harmed but I was still confused about what I heard last night. So the next night I stayed awake to see if I would hear it again. And as it turned out, my little cousin also had gotten his cookie from the same place as me. Now both the vanishing heirloom and the midnight noise cases were solved. I could go back to have a nap to catch up on my sleep!
It was the foggiest day Wesley had ever seen, even for Maine. The bow of the fishing boat was barely visible. Fog crept along the ocean, concealing everything but the small boat. It was silent except for the lapping of waves against the boat and the low hum of the motor.
The driver sat in the back, hands on the tiller with his eyes barely open, like he had done this many times before. Which he probably had. He appeared almost eighty years old and smelled of old fish; a fisherman by the looks of it. He had a tattered shirt with stains, overalls, and an old bucket hat. A scruffy gray beard covered his mouth with his breakfast scattered over it.
The man noticed Wesley staring at him and tipped up his hat.
“So,” he said in a rough voice. “Why’d ya do it?”
“Do what?” Wesley asked, defensive, confused.
“Take up the job,” he said. There was silence. Wesley wasn’t sure how to respond. “I mean, what's yer reason? You running from demons? Guy before you came out here running from the second Great War.” He paused again, waiting for a response. “Not trying to get personal but,” he stared off into the fog with a faraway look. “It ain’t normal people who take up this job.”
Detective Theo Gautier liked to wake before dawn at the start of a case. He opened his blinds revealing a clear morning. He was staying at the only inn in a small, seafaring village, Port Harbour. It was the kind of place where fishermen and sailors would grab a drink, maybe stay the night.
He had received the assignment only the day before; the three-year lighthouse keeper, Wesley Murray, had gone missing. From his briefing, Theo was informed that Wesley had uprooted himself and had defaulted on his rent. Four days later, he’d taken up a job as lighthouse keeper.
It was clear the police did not sufficiently look into it. They sent Theo to investigate further, but they wanted to write it off as a suicide. But, something didn’t sit right with Theo about the case.
He got to the docks seven minutes early. He looked at the horizon but saw no sign of the lighthouse. It was further out from land than he thought.
Theo’s boat arrived. Piloting it was an old fisherman, who gestured for Theo to get into the boat.
“You do this a lot? Take people to the lighthouse?” Theo asked.
The fisherman nodded. “Been doin’ this since the twenties. Came out here to Port Harbour right after the Great War.” He paused. “Well, the first one. Someone’s gotta take people out to the lighthouse.”
“So, you must have known Wesley Murray, then?” Theo asked.
“’Course I did.” The old man coughed. “He was a strange one. Didn’t seem the talkative type. Brought him out three years ago. He barely ever visits the mainland – “ he paused, “I mean, visited.” Another pause. “I brought him supplies ‘bout every two weeks.”
The old man leaned forward, like he could see the lighthouse. “This here job – it’s for people escaping demons. Wesley wasn’t no different. ‘Cept he talked less than the others. When I’d ask him questions, he’d start scratchin’ his face. Left a right ugly mark on his cheek.”
Theo had seen people with nervous habits like this. They all had something in their past.
Then the fisherman added, “oh, one more thing. Don’t think the fella could swim. Imagine that, taking this job and not knowin’ how to swim.”
Wesley walked up the trail to the lighthouse, lugging a box of tinned foods and coffee tied with a strap and a leather suitcase. Stopping to look around the small island, he saw a small wooden rowboat hauled up on the rocky shore.
The lighthouse sat on the raised rocky edge of the island, about three hundred feet above the ocean. Waves lapped against the cliff face. He couldn’t shake the feeling the water was reaching out for him. Daring him.
Hugging the base of the lighthouse, was a small, lonely dwelling – his home for the foreseeable future. He unlocked the one-room cabin. On one side was a small kitchen with dishes stacked neatly on shelves. On the other side was a bunk and a small desk. On the desk was a make-shift manual, presumably scribbled down by the previous keeper.
He walked towards the windows, lined with mold. He looked out over the cliff. The fog was beginning to clear, revealing sharp rocks, jutting out of the gentle sea.
Wesley opened the door to the lighthouse tower. Stairs spiraled up toward the lantern room. He climbed the staircase as it wound its way up. As he ascended, he peeked through the tiny windows, each round bringing him higher above the ocean, giving him a sense of security.
He climbed through the hatch at the top and leaned against the railing, looking out into the now-clear day. There was no sign of land. He was truly alone, completely surrounded by the desolate ocean.
Theo and the fisherman docked at the lighthouse. Theo could see why a lighthouse was needed; the remains of a boat were strewn along the rocks.
“What happened here?” Theo asked.
“Two boaters comin’ in during a storm. Must’ve been a big one, ‘cause they crashed against the rocks and had to jump ship. They’re the ones who told us Wesley was missing. Ya know what’s funny tho’? Wesley never radioed about it. Not one message ‘til the two boaters – they was brothers – called in.”
Theo walked down to the rocky shore to look around. He came upon a piling, wedged between two rocks. The piling stood lonely, its purpose long forgotten.
After completing a lap around the island, he headed back to the cabin. Theo waited as the old man flipped through his key ring for the right one. Theo pushed on the door, and to his surprise, it creaked open.
“Guess we won’t be needin’ these,” the fisherman said, looking at his keys.
The cabin appeared as if Wesley had only just stepped out. A chair was pulled out. A plate with a half-eaten sandwich sat at the table. Drawers hung open, and dishes were piled in the sink.
Theo walked towards the windows. Notes were scattered on the desk. He looked at the top page, struggling to read the handwriting:
“For water crafts in distress, use The Spotlight to locate the craft and any survivors, then signal the port for help.”
He read it again, confused. Was the document referring to the lighthouse spotlight?
His eyes scanned the cabin for additional clues. Next to the bunk he found an old leather book, the title faded away. Picking up the book, a newspaper clipping floated to the floor. Theo retrieved the clipping and examined it. It was an obituary of a young boy named Sean Lowell. The boy had drowned in the ocean off the shore from an old chapel.
“Do you know this boy?” Theo handed the fisherman the clipping.
“Nope, that’s forty miles down the coast,” he replied. “Besides, just another drowning. Happens ‘lot ‘round here.”
That didn’t explain why Wesley would have the boy's obituary. Theo placed the clipping into his case to look into later.
The fisherman turned and opened the door to the lighthouse. He gestured Theo through but said he’d wait behind; stairs were difficult for a man his age. Theo ascended the spiral and climbed through the hatch at the top. He looked out at the sea. What would drive someone to choose this life?
Wesley had read the manual; the job seemed simple enough – he had to document everything he saw at sea and keep the light burning during the night hours.
As the days turned into months, Wesley settled into a routine. During the day, he slept. During the night, he kept the light burning. When fuel ran low, he climbed down to the oil cellar to get more. The repetitive nature of the job kept him at peace.
Some days, however, he couldn’t sleep. On those days, he spent time looking at the ocean, just staring.
It was one of those days. Wesley sat on the lantern room balcony, staring at the horizon. His mind began to wander. He found himself back in the nightmare.
A piece of wood on the beach. A stick. He picks it up and throws it into the sea. The tide is going out. He watches as it draws the stick further out to sea.
His heart was racing. He began to scratch his face.
After a thorough check of the island, Theo had the fisherman return him to the mainland. He felt stuck.
He went for a walk along the shore, and was out until sunset, revisiting what he knew: Wesley left his life and took up a lonely job. He appeared to be in distress, but there was no sign of a suicide. A boat crashed nearby the day he disappeared. There had to be something that connected these events. He decided to turn in for the night.
Just as he was about to turn back, his foot struck something in the sand. Looking down, he saw a large piece of smooth broken wood; part of a boat. Printed on the side was the word: The Spotlight. So that was it. ‘The Spotlight’ in the manual was Wesley’s rescue boat. He had tried to rescue the two brothers – and had been lost at sea.
Wesley sat in his kitchen eating his dinner. Night had fallen, and it grew windy. Rain beat against the windows of the cabin. A flashing light caught his eye. Morse code. A boat was in distress.
Wesley had dreaded this moment since the day he took the job. He’d gone over the protocol a hundred times in his head, but he still checked it again. He grabbed his light and ran to the door, when the nightmare returned.
The dog runs into the water, splashing through the waves. The tide moves out. The sound of coughing fills Wesley’s ears.
Wesley scratched his face. He froze staring out the open door. The waves crashed against the rocks, threatening to crawl up and engulf the island.
His resolve strengthened. He was not going to make a mistake again. He would rescue the boat.
The case was mostly concluded now, but Theo wasn’t satisfied with a simple drowning: Why did Wesley want to isolate himself? And, was there a connection to the drowned boy? He pulled out the obituary. The date at the top was one month before Wesley took the job. The boy had drowned in the sea outside St. Mary’s chapel, while his mother attended a funeral.
He booked the next train to the town near the chapel. The chapel was an hour’s walk from the station.
The sun was beginning to set when Theo finally got to the chapel. He was reminded of the lighthouse. The chapel sat isolated perched on a rocky cliff. At the base of the cliff was a small bay with a beach.
Inside the chapel, colored rays of light shone through the stained glass. Theo found a priest hunched in a corner, lighting votive candles. Theo approached him and after a short introduction, questioned him about what happened the day Sean drowned.
The priest sighed, and crossed his chest. “It was a tragic day. The funeral itself was a quiet one; quite sad, really. Only six people came, including the mother of the boy, Ms. Lowell.” He looked at the votive candles. “Ms. Lowell and her boy were often visitors to this chapel. Sean was playing outside as usual. You know, kids have a hard time sitting through mass. After mass, the congregation left for the burial.”
Theo interrupted him, “did you know the other people?”
The priest replied, “I recognized a few regular faces, including Ms. Lowell. The man who died must not have had any family; the few people who attended didn’t seem to know him very well. And, one of them didn’t know the hymns. I can always tell a newcomer to the house of God.” He paused as if just realizing something. “Actually, the newcomer wasn’t at the burial. He must have left early.
“When we got back, it had rolled around to evening, and Sean was nowhere to be found. Ms. Lowell stayed all night searching for him. It wasn’t until the morning that they found the body washed up on shore. God rest his soul.” The priest looked upward mournfully.
Theo sat silently with the priest for a moment before standing up to leave.
As Theo walked toward the doors the priest said, almost to himself, “whenever I meet someone, I wonder how God might help them. Like that man. There was a loneliness about him. And, I’ll never forget the mark on his face.”
Theo stopped. “The mark, is it from scratching?”
“Possibly. But what a strange thing to do.”
Theo stood, looking through the doorway. He realized what had happened.
Despite the urgency, Wesley slowly walked to the rescue boat. He fought the wind making his way to the beach. As waves crashed on the shore, they sprayed his face and body. He looked towards the distress signal. The desperate cry for help. His help.
He stares at the stick as it’s pulled out by the tide. A dog follows behind, paddling his way out to the stick. A child cries out to the dog. But, the dog keeps swimming. The boy sprints into the sea, falling over in the water. He wades out, crying out to the dog. The dog does not turn around, he pursues the stick. The boy’s head drops below the surface. He resurfaces and begins to gasp. Wesley stands frozen. The boy begins to cough.
Wesley untied the rowboat and pushed it out into the rough water. He jumped in the boat and used his paddle to propel off the shore. The waves fought back throwing the boat back and forth, water pouring over the edge each time. It was impossible to see the way ahead. Wesley fumbled in his pocket for his flashlight. He turned it on revealing a rock directly in his path. He couldn’t slow down. The boat struck the rock, splintering it to pieces. Holding onto a piece of the hull, Wesley watched his light source sink into the darkness.
The dog, stick in mouth, heads back. There is no sign of the boy. The dog paddles over where the boy was struggling moments earlier. Wesley still stands, a bystander, just watching. He can’t swim. He couldn’t have helped. He turns around and runs.
Water splashed into Wesley's mouth as he pulled himself onto the board. But, the waves pushed him back. He could feel his grip loosening on the board. And then, he let go and began to sink into the depths below.
I stumble around in the darkness. It's 9 A.M., and I am cleaning out my closet. Or, am supposed to be, anyway. Currently, I am trying (and miserably failing) to find the lamp and turn it on. After my arms flail around for what feels like eternity, my fingertips finally touch the thin metal chain that hangs from the ceiling. I grasp it, and give it a tug. I hear a small click, but no light. I try again, and still no light. The light bulb is so old, it must not work anymore. I grunt, disappointed that my efforts were fruitless, and go to get a new bulb.
On my way back out of the closet, I trip and nearly fall over something lying on the floor. Great. I cracked a mirror last Wednesday, that must be the cause of all this bad luck. But no, Bridget, there are no such things as bad luck signs, I tell myself. However, I still knock on the old oakwood table that I got as a gift a while ago.
I look down and scan the floor for what I tripped on. I find what I figure is a box, it being hard to see in the dim light. I pick it up, and carry it out with me. The box is roughly 9 inches in width and 11 inches in length, and has a rather ugly design. I open it, and find a pair of brown sandals that are just as ugly as the box, if not uglier. Then it hit me. These are the shoes that I had first gotten at the shoe store 35 years ago.
Ah, yes. That is a story I shall now tell you.
I walked down the air conditioned aisles of the shoe store, my eyes flitting from shelf to shelf. I saw platform shoes, ridiculously high heels, running sneakers, flipflops, llama fur slippers, light-up hightops, knee-high boots, Crocs, slip-ons, ballet flats, and everything in between, but no sandals. That is, until I had reached the second-to-last aisle, next to a shelf of wooden clogs.
My eyes soon landed on a brown pair with covered toes. Just what I was looking for. I took them off of the shelf.
First, I obviously had to check whether or not it had memory foam, so I pressed my thumb against the smooth footbed. I never got any footwear that had memory foam, because it was bad for your skin. The things you learn on the internet. Luckily, this pair didn't. So far so good.
Next, I crouched down, and was about to have my final epic Cinderella moment, until I realized something. I wasn't wearing socks. That was another thing you had to watch out for. Who knows what kind of foot had been in there last. My husband had foot fungus, and I wasn't about to step into a pair of sandals barefoot, and risk getting foot fungus too.
I straightened back up, and looked around the top of the shelves, but didn't see any of the little boxes with those disposable socks. Then, I remembered something. I dug around in my green Baggalini, and came up with two brown crumpled up pieces of nylon. Aha. I knew that I had a pair somewhere. Shoe store socks. Now and then I snuck those into my purse when I was at a shoe store; you never knew when you wanted to try on some footwear and couldn't find any socks. They turned out to be a bit ripped, but still usable. I pulled them onto my feet, and slid my feet into the sandals.
To my disappointment, I found that they were a bit big, but I could still walk in them. When I looked in the big mirror on the wall, I realized that they were also kind of ugly. However, they were comfortable non-memory foam shoes with covered toes, so I couldn't let go of them so easily.
After a little while of looking at them and debating with myself, I took them up to the check-out and ended up buying them. There was a 30 day return policy, so if I ever changed my mind, I could bring them back.
I took them home, left them lying on the shoe shelf, box and all, and... well, sort of forgot about them.
Before I knew it, I found Christmas to be right around the corner. I sat in front of my laptop, my eyes drifting around the room as I made plans to find some presents for family members.
I soon found myself staring at the box with the sandals sitting on the shoe shelf. I hadn't touched it even once since I first put it there. As I bought those sandals, I had known that I wouldn't ever actually wear them, but I had just pushed that thought to the very back of my mind, and gotten them anyway. I looked over at the calendar hanging on the wall. The 30 days were over, so I couldn't return them anymore. It had been a waste of money. What was I to do with those ugly sandals?
Then it came to me. I could use them as a Christmas gift! Oh, I was a genius. I mentally went through my list of people to give gifts to, and settled on one person. My sister Eleanor's feet were slightly bigger than mine, so those sandals would fit her perfectly.
On Christmas Day as we exchanged gifts, I gave Eleanor the box with the ugly sandals. I had wrapped the box, of course, with some wrapping paper that I had received a dinnerware set in last Christmas. I always save wrapping paper. Why throw away perfectly good wrapping paper that you can reuse? Save the trees, people.
Eleanor unwrapped it, and I could already see the thought running through her head: what could possibly be in such a box? When she opened the box and saw the sandals, she looked confused. Inside I was laughing. She was probably already trying to figure out how to get rid of them. "You know, I saw these in the shoe store, and immediately thought of you, so I thought they would make the perfect gift," I told her.
"Thanks! I love them," she told me, and smiled. I could tell she was lying.
"I'm glad you like them," I said anyway. Well, at least I got those ugly sandals off of my hands.
I don't know what gave Bridget the idea to gift me those sandals on Christmas. Seriously, did she really think I would wear them? And to be honest, those are some really ugly sandals.
When I had opened the box that Christmas morning, I thought that maybe Bridget had accidentally mixed up the gifts and given me the wrong one, but nope, those were for me, all right.
And so a few months later, I sat down with the box of sandals in front of me, thinking about what to do with them. I obviously wasn't going to wear them, so I thought of giving them away. My chance to do so came not so long after.
Before I knew it, Mr. and Mrs. Steiner's anniversary rolled around. They were my elderly neighbors, and I sometimes helped out around their house. I started thinking about what I could gift them. Then, I had the most brilliant idea. I would give them the ugly sandals. Elderly people like that style of sandals, right?
I put the sandals in a gift bag, and also tossed in some oatmeal cookies and a book on gardening, just in case. Those sandals have such an *ahem* "unique" design that even they might not like them.
On their anniversary, I walked over to wish them a happy anniversary, and gave them the sandals. I considered saying that I ordered them online, but they wouldn't understand that, so instead, I told them "I saw someone else wearing a similar pair, and I thought you might like sandals like those, so I got you these,".
Mrs. Steiner looked very happy, and I was happy about that, as well as the fact that I got rid of them.
When I received the sandals from Eleanor, I couldn't help but feel sort of disappointed. Now don't get me wrong, I liked Eleanor, and I was not disappointed in her, but I was disappointed in the sandals. How could a pair of sandals possibly look so ugly? Alright, I guess many elderly people like that kind of footwear, but not me. I didn't want Eleanor to feel bad though, she's always so nice, so I thanked her and acted like I really liked the sandals. Apparently I was good at that, because she didn't seem to notice anything.
After she left, I tried them on, and found that they didn't fit me anyway. No wonder, my feet are huge.
The good news was, I did know someone who would like that pair of sandals. Dorothy. She's one of my very good friends. Now she had a whole collection of ugly sandals.
I suppose that I just couldn't wait to give those sandals away. I walked over to the phone to ask Dorothy about the sandals right away. She picked up the phone in three rings. "Hi Dora, I just wanted to ask you if you would like a pair of sandals," I said into the receiver (It's a landline).
"A pair of sandals? Oh, yes, if you don't mind, I would love to --".
"Wonderful," I cut her off, and hung up. Life is short.
The next day, I visited Dorothy and brought the sandals along with me.
As we sat in her living room drinking tea, I pulled the box with the sandals out of my bag and handed it to her.
Dorothy looked delighted as she opened the box and took out the sandals. "Why, thank you, they're perfect! I can't wait to wear them," she told me. I smiled. I knew she would like them.
She carried them over to the shelf next to the door where she kept all of her sandals. There was one spot left, perfect to fit the ugly pair. I was very triumphant that I was able to get rid of them while making Dorothy happy at the same time.
"I think they are fit to wear on my daily walks," she was saying, but I was only half listening. I had to think of what to say to Eleanor if she ever asked about them.
Those sandals soon became my favorite pair. I wore them every day when I went on my walk.
A few weeks later, I started to have difficulty getting around, so I went to see my doctor. She told me that I was starting to age, and that I should reduce my walks to one or two times a week because too much movement would be bad for my joints. At first I didn't listen to her, but I started to agree as it became harder and harder to move around.
I still went on walks, but they kept getting shorter and less frequent to the point where I completely stopped going on walks. That also meant that I stopped wearing my sandals.
Soon, I realized that I would have to give my sandals away. My niece Caroline's birthday was next week, so I needed to figure out what to get her. I had an idea, but I was not quite sure yet. All day long, I thought about it, and finally came to a decision. I would give her my beloved sandals.
She's already nine, so those sandals should fit her, right? And they're only slightly worn on the soles, so I don't think anyone will notice.
I put the sandals in the shoebox, and wrapped it. The wrapping paper was apparently cute, according to Caroline, because it had these odd creatures that this generation calls "unicorns" on it. These "unicorns" are colorful sparkly horses with cone shaped horns on their foreheads. A truly odd sight to behold.
In her birthday card, I considered writing something about the sandals, like the I-saw-these-in-the-store-and-thought-you-might-like-them sentence, but I decided against it, and just wrote "Happy 9th Birthday".
I packed the box wrapped with the "unicorn" wrapping paper into a first-class USPS box and had it shipped to Caroline. I do hope that she likes the sandals.
I only realized until after I mailed it that I wrote "Happy 9th Birthday" and not "Happy 10th Birthday".
I tried. I really did. I just couldn't wait to see what was in that sparkly unicorn wrapping paper. I didn't mean to, I just couldn't wait. You could say that I'm quite impatient.
My mom had stored all the presents for my birthday in the closet, and gave strict instructions that I was not to open them until my birthday.
On the day before my birthday, I just couldn't wait any longer. My mom was out shopping, my dad was at work, my brother was with his friend, and I was the only one in the house. It was my chance.
I retrieved the package, the one with with the sparkly unicorns, of course, and carefully opened it as to not rip the wrapping paper. Inside, I found a shoebox. I opened the shoebox, and – oh. I honestly did not know what to say about the sandals that lay in the box.
What I can say is that I hid them at the bottom of my drawer. I wrapped up some books and a notepad in its place, and placed the “untampered with” package back. I can only hope that my family hasn’t seen the replacement items around the house before.
A few days later, I donated the sandals to Goodwill.
Grandma never asked about the sandals.
And there were the sandals, on a table at the Goodwill.
Is it? It can’t be. I thought. I looked closer, and indeed, they were. The sandals that I had given to my sister as a Christmas present. I guess I was right about her not liking them.
I sighed. There was no return policy this time.
I picked them up, and walked to the checkout.
The dirt walls surrounding the town are the only thing the citizens of Souterraine ever see. Dark skies shroud their messy rows of small houses in shadow, the only light coming from warm yellow street lamps and dimly lit houses. Every once in a while, their sky shakes and rumbles, making clumps of dirt fall. There are 5 children that live in Souterraine who can be seen playing on shabby playground equipment, the rusted metal and shaking bolts a hazard to their safety. Dark woods line the far end of their town, a dirty white rope cutting it off from access.
Mrs. Maynard, the only teacher, always tells the children that they’re miracles and that they need to stay safe; listen to the adults. The thirty-something adults far outnumber the children, constantly telling them to keep away from the forest and keep their eyes on their studies.
All born on the same day, Luke and Casey: the twins, Emerson, Piers, and Hazel are best friends. Not that they have any other choice.
On the creaky swing set, Emerson tries to teach Casey how to swing. “Casey, you have to swing your legs back and forth! Like this!” Creak, creak, creak. Casey’s legs kick aggressively, but he doesn’t get anywhere. Luke jumps off of the monkey bars and stands in front of him.
“How can you be ten years old and not know how to swing?” He clicks his tongue at Casey, imitating Mrs. Maynard when she’s disappointed.
“Yeah, look how high I can get!” Emerson’s skirt flows in time with the motion as she goes back and forth.
“Hey, we just turned ten today!” Casey gets off of the swing and swats at Luke who runs away towards the houses laughing.
“Be nice to Casey, Emerson.” Hazel’s soft voice comes from the rickety jungle gym as she giggles. Emerson jumps off of the seat at the peak of her swing and lands with a thump.
“It’s not my fault I’m better than him!” Emerson’s comment is immediately met with a glare full of daggers from Hazel whose head turns as she hears feet pattering.
“It’s mine too. Why don’t you be nice to me?” Luke shouts as he comes back with a sobbing Piers in tow. “My mom said our party starts soon. And Piers won’t stop crying!”
“Did you hit him or something?” Casey walks up to the two boys. Luke lets go of Piers’ black smudged hand.
“No! He’s just… I don’t know, he’s always crying.” He rolls his eyes with an exasperated sigh, acting like his father. “Why don’t you tell them, Piers.” Luke shoves him and Piers stumbles a bit. With tears streaming down his cheeks he hesitates.
“My moms said…” He pauses, eyes nervously flitting around. “They said… we’re growing up. I don’t want to be old!” His shoulders shake and he rubs his eyes until they are redder than a tomato, tears smearing his cheeks black. Piers thinks back to mere minutes ago. He was sitting in his dark room, back against the cold wood door, pale hands pressed against his eyes.
“No. I don’t know.” One of his mother’s muffled voices could be heard, distress clear in her tone.
“We can’t go on like this. Piers…” A pause after his other mother’s words. “The electricity isn’t working and I’m not going back up there again. Not after what happened last time.” Piers couldn’t comprehend what ‘up there’ was, but from his mothers' words and shaky voices, he could tell they were crying. And he knew that ‘up there’ wasn’t good. He could feel his cheeks get warm and he used the palm of his hand to wipe away salty black tears. One of his mothers knocked, telling him Luke was there. Luke barged in just as Piers stood up, barely dodging a blow to the nose. He pulled Piers’ hand and dragged the little boy along with him to the playground. He couldn’t tell them what his mothers were talking about. They would get worried about ‘up there’, too. So he lied.
Hazel walks towards him, arms outstretched, and Piers gladly accepts the hug. “Don’t be worried about getting old. We aren’t! Not like Mrs. Maynard, anyway,” Hazel’s comment makes Piers giggle a little. The golden light from the singular lamp around the playground illuminates Hazel’s shiny white hair, making it look almost blonde. “Let’s go and eat cake, okay?” She puts a pale hand on Piers’ back and leads him to the biggest house in the town, motioning for the others to follow with her head.
The noise of chaos thunders in their ears. The words DOUBLE DIGITS are plastered on every wall in the collective house. The house that’s used for every party, meeting, and holiday.
“Stop crying, Mom,” Emerson consoles her mother, annoyance in her voice. “Can we just eat now?”
Hazel’s parents, both the cooks and bakers of the small town, come into the room, holding a small pink and orange sunset cake riddled with randomly placed already-used candles. Casey and Luke run up to the table and their father yells at them to not touch the cake before everyone else. Luke grumbles, stepping back.
“Gather around, children,” Mrs. Maynard motions for the parents to form a circle around the miracle kids.
“Can I light it, Mrs. Maynard?” Luke inquires excitedly. “Please, please, please?”
“That’s dangerous, Luke. You mustn’t put yourself in danger. I’ll do it.” Mrs. Maynard pats his head affectionately and Luke pushes it away, scrunching his nose.
“Come on, ma’am! I’m ten years old already! Isn’t that enough?” Luke pleads. Hazel shakes her head and Emerson rolls her eyes. Luke’s been trying to light the candles ever since he could speak. No one knows why he’s so enamored with putting himself in danger.
“I just want to eat already.” Casey whines, shoving Luke.
“Alright, alright.” Luke waves his hand, shooing his brother away. He plops down on his chair with a pout.
“Alright, Luke. I’ll let you light one candle. Since you’re a man now.” Mrs. Maynard laughs and hands Luke the lighter, who struggles with it for a few seconds before getting a spark. His hands shake as he lights the first candle, his eyes widening as the golden flame bursts to life, dancing in fiery glory. Mrs. Maynard takes the lighter from Luke’s now relaxed grip and lights the rest of the candles.
Piers’ hands grip the table as both deep and high voices mingle to sing. He glances at his mothers, their eyes still rimmed red. What is ‘up there’? Why do Piers’ mothers not want to go back? What happened last time? Boom. A confetti cannon comes out of nowhere and the adults cheer. Board games are brought out and Piers tries his best to pay attention and play the games with Casey and Emerson. Before long, boredom takes over and the children find themselves back outside on the playground in the frigid air.
“What should we do now?” Emerson sits on the cold grass and looks up at the pitch-black sky. It rumbles and a clump of dirt falls on her face. “Yuck.”
“I don’t know,” Hazel absentmindedly swings slowly on one of the rusty swings. “They’re talking about adult stuff again. They won’t include us.”
Luke sits up quickly, the back of his shirt still damp from lying next to Emerson. “Let’s go to the forest,” He gets to his feet. “We should go play in the trees! Maybe we can even climb one!”
“No. No way.” Casey says from atop the jungle gym. “Mrs. Maynard always says-”
“Who cares? We’re old now! We can do whatever we want!” Luke argues. He turns and walks toward the trees and the white rope. Emerson quickly stands to follow him, implying her agreement.
The forest is terrifying. Terrifying and exciting. Luke has always wanted to play in the shadows the trees cast, he was always the bravest. The only thing the children can hear is raucous laughter from the adults in the now faraway house.
“Are you sure this is okay, Luke?” Casey is grabbing onto Luke’s sweater and trailing behind him, glancing out from behind his twin brother into the darkness of the trees.
“It’s fine! Stop being such a crybaby.” Luke shakes him off and keeps inching toward the shadows.
“Aw, are you scared of your mommy getting mad?” Emerson mocks. “We’re fine! They’re all falling asleep anyway!” She rolls her eyes.
“They drank the ‘nasty stuff’. It always makes them fall asleep,” Hazel chimes in. “I tried it one time because someone told me it was basically grape juice.” She glares at Piers who stops walking and swivels around.
“Well, it was Luke who dared me,” He shrugs and turns back around to continue walking. The laughter fades out as they reach the border of the forest, the children coming to a stop. It’s like a force is telling them, no, willing them to not go any further. Pure terrified silence. Hazel speaks up.
“I think we should… go back,” Her voice is shaking and Piers starts to tremble. Casey clutches Luke’s sweater again and huddles in close behind him.
“Go back if you want to. Scaredy-cats!” Luke turns around, flinging Casey with him whose lip quivers in fear. Luke tries to mask his terror. “I’m going in!” He takes a hesitant step over the white rope that separates their safe homes from the alleged hell that they’re always told about. Don’t go into the forest. It’s not safe. Never leave the town. Always stay away from the forest. Luke’s body passes the threshold and the air goes dead around him. It feels… hollow. He slowly turns around, expecting to see a barrier of some kind behind him, blocking him from his home. Instead, he sees his friends and brother, standing there with wide eyes. Nothing has changed. Except for the air.
“Luke!” Casey bursts into sobs and wipes his nose. “I- I thought you were gonna die.” His dark tears spill onto his shirt and his shoulders shake. What if Luke did die? What would Casey do without his brother? Emerson rolls her eyes and walks forward.
“Stop crying. What if they hear us and we get in trouble?” She gestures her arm back in the direction of the house. “Luke’s fine.” She steps over the rope, into the darkness, and stands by Luke. “I’m fine.” Hazel brushes her white hair back and joins them.
“I really, really, think we should go back.” Piers starts to wring his hands.
“No. We’re going in. Don’t be a coward.” With a hand on her hip, Emerson waves to motion for the remaining two boys to join them, her silver hair bright against the black. Luke runs into the trees, laughing gleefully.
“Yeah! Let’s go, guys!” He bellows. Casey slowly follows his brother, Piers inhales as he steps over the rope. Before long, they can’t even see the town, only darkness.
Casey’s small hand clutches his older brother’s. Everywhere he looks all he sees are dark shadows reaching out to him from the spindly branches. Emerson leads the way, white hair gleaming as she jumps over uncovered roots and stones. At the back of the group, Piers’ whimpers are soothed by Hazel’s soft humming.
“Emerson, it’s been hours,” Luke whines. Spinning around, Emerson’s hands fly to her hips and she sighs with annoyance.
“It’s only been, like, two minutes,” Turning back around, she continues to walk, barely avoiding a dangerous rock that would cause a bleeding knee, should she trip. Hopping over the sharp stone, she continues, grumbling. “This was all your idea anyway.”
“What are we even looking for, Luke?” Casey asks his twin.
“Um,” Luke pauses, which causes Casey to stumble backward. “That!” He rips his hand out of his brother’s and points slightly above Emerson’s head.
“Hm?” Hazel’s humming halts. “What is it?”
“I think it’s a door!” Luke exclaims, breaking into a run. As the children follow Luke, the silver of a metal door becomes increasingly closer. “See! It is a door!” He pulls on the handle to no avail.
“You have to turn the handle, stupid.” Emerson pushes past him and turns the handle. A loud creak fills the area as the door slowly swings open, dust flying everywhere. Coughing and waving the dust away she peeks her head into the dark entrance. “What do you think’s there?”
“I don’t know, but obviously no one thought we would find this. Or it would be locked.” Piers says matter of factly. “My mommies always lock the door when they don’t want me to bother them.”
“Oh!” Hazel blinks and shakes her head. “Um, what do you think, guys? Should we go in?”
“Absolutely.” Luke confidently steps into the darkness. Emerson gladly follows, motioning for everyone to join.
Their pale necks crane as their almost translucent faces look up. “I’ve never seen so many stairs,” Casey comments.
“Me neither.” Piers scratches his head and the kids collectively move toward the first step of the spiral staircase. This is the most exercise that the children of Souterraine have ever done. Their huffing and puffing don't cease even after they reach the top platform.
“Oh, my goodness,” Emerson gasps, hands on knees. “And there’s another door, great.” She looks at Luke, who grabs onto the side rail and turns the handle of the door. It’s identical to the one in Souterraine; rust, and everything. Strained grunts coming from Luke make Casey laugh.
“Luke, you’re so weak! Let me try,” Casey pulls. And pulls and pulls and pulls. Defeated, he steps back, which earns a laugh from his brother. After Emerson tries and fails, Hazel speaks up.
“Have you tried pushing?” She walks up and turns the handle. One hard push makes the door open. The children step outside.
White. Pure, painful, white. Palms clap over eyelids and screams of pain tear through the children, their pale skin burning. Luke claws his way back through the door. The shade that’s cast from it cools his skin and he slowly opens his eyes. He winces from the brightness that he’s not used to. A whimper of agony escapes him as he looks down at his burned red flesh. He looks back outside but covers his eyes again with a groan. All he could see was a flash of writhing bodies and tall metal towers. Screams still come from the bright outdoors and Luke covers his ears, tears of pain and fear rolling down his face. He curls himself into a ball and sobs as the screams outside finally quiet. He knows they must be dead. Emerson, Hazel, Piers. His best friends. His only friends. Casey. His brother. His other half. Luke and Casey did everything together. Everything. Luke’s heart breaks into thousands of little pieces. What would Luke do without him? He chokes down a cry. Who knew the surface would be so unwelcoming?
The fire crackles as I toss another log onto it, a beautiful mixture of orange and yellow with just a hint of bright red at the bottom accompany the sweet aroma of smoke. It reminds me of barbecue. I find myself salivating at the thought of having a decent meal, but that’s not important right now.
I take a glance towards Edward, his face is completely stoic. He pays no mind to my existence, as if I didn’t just save his life from a horde of orcs ready to assassinate him. Ungrateful snob, he is. This isn’t the first time I’ve been hired to protect royalty, and from what I’ve seen they’re all the exact same.
Well, no. Not Edward.
“You’ve changed.” Is the first thing I hear, the ears atop my head twitching at the sudden noise. He looks at me, that human mouth that I’ve always thought looked strange pulling into a slight smirk, though his brows remain furrowed and tense. I lean back against the tree, lowering my guard somewhat as my eyes shift from the fire to his skinny frame.
“I can say the same for you, eh?” I exclaim as I try to form my muzzle into a smirk as well, I fail.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” His slightly playful expression seems to shift to a more serious one, almost like he took actual offense to what I had just said. My expression turns sour as well, I shrug lightly before looking at the dark abyss of forest that enshrouds us.
“I suppose… you’re quieter, first of all.” I let out a small laugh, looking at the lush green grass under me.
“Surely that’s not all?” Edward says, his voice a bit lighter and less serious now, as if he’s challenging me.
“Hm, well, let’s see. You’re ruder, meaner, worse at running for your life, and snobbier, how’s that sound?” I beam a smile at him as I hold up four fingers towards him, he grabs at his chest playfully and feigns shock at my harsh words. I try to resist laughing.
“Are you dogfolk always so harsh?” He says, making sure to play up his accent. It’s an inside joke from when we first met, he had said it the exact same way, I had commented on his rather large ears. Though I’d say he’s grown into them now. Either way, this seems to finally blow the hypothetical piece of dynamite from within the both of us, as we explode into a fit of laughter together.
“I’m an adlet, pig skin!” I say, playing into the joke. This seems to set us off even further, we disregard the possibility of compromising our location for a good couple of minutes before our laughter finally dies down. I let out a cough and clear my throat before saying, "Gods, I've missed this, whatever happened to us?”
I realize the gravity of what I’ve said right after the words escape my mouth, Edward lets out a sigh, staying silent for a bit before slowly patting his hand next to him on the log. I look to my rifle to the left of me, then take a moment of consideration before grabbing it and moving to sit down right next to him. We both say nothing for a few moments, I tighten my coat around my body as I shiver. Edward seems to take notice of this as he looks up at me, pushing some of his brown hair away from his eyes to see me better. “Really? You? An adlet, shivering? It’s hot out for night time!” He says, genuinely shocked.
“Don’t judge me, it’s been a while since I’ve worked up in the mountain region, I mostly do work in the savannah.” I say bluntly as I look up at the night sky, the moonlight reflecting upon my fur, almost making it glow. He smiles as he looks up there as well.
“Yeah, well…” His thought seems to drift off, “wow, the moon is bright!”
“You ever just take a second to look at the sky and really take it all in?” I ask, he nods as his eyes continue to stare at the inky black vastness above us, accompanied by the speckled white dots we know as stars. I point up to the millions of them that reign the sky, “Sometimes, I like to think that the stars are the gods themselves, and that they’re watching from above us. Whether they’re judging us or accepting us, depends on the person I suppose.”
He lets out a light chuckle, looking back down at the fire before shaking his head. “I lost faith years ago, I don’t know how you religious folks do it."
We don't share another word for the rest of the night, eventually finding ourselves drifting off to sleep after constructing a small shelter for the both of us.
The Following Day…
“You were literally in the kitchen when I shot that guy, and you didn’t grab a single bit of food, not even a grain of rice?” I ask as Edward takes a sip of water from my canteen while I hoist my rifle onto my back.
“I–” He swallows the liquid, “was panicking, okay? I’m sorry for not thinking too rationally after nearly getting stabbed in the hand!” He exclaims as he tosses the canteen back to me while holding up his palm, allowing me to take a sip.
“Whatever, it’s fine, Edward. We should get goi–” Suddenly, a rustling sound, our heads dart towards a patch of bushes near us. We both turn towards it as I draw the rifle from my back, “Behind me.” I say as quietly as I can muster. Edward quickly listens to my command, I can feel his chin on my shoulder as he attempts to see what I’m seeing. I raise the gun and slowly walk forwards, whether Edward is following me or not I cannot tell. Though his chin isn’t on me anymore, but that’s not of immediate concern currently.
“Out. Now!” I say, putting on my “Mercenary Voice” as I take another step forward, it’s met with more rustling.
That’s enough of this, I reach into the left pocket on the inside of my coin purse, where I keep my bullets, still making sure to keep the butt of my rifle pressed against my armpit. Before grabbing a bullet and loading it in. “Alright, last chance!” I then wait for exactly thirty seconds, just like I always do in a situation like this.
I’m met with silence, though it may have just been a bird or the wind, I’m not taking any chances. I press my finger to the trigger, slowly squeezing until…
A piercing sound splits the air as the trigger then snaps backwards! A flash of light escaping the barrel and the bullet speeding towards the bushes. Once again, I’m met with nothing, “Huh, I guess we’re hearing things already.” I say jokingly, a chuckle of relief escaping my mouth as I let out a sigh, I begin to turn around when I’m met with no response.
Before I can even take three steps back to where Edward should be. I’m met with a swift twinge of pain, causing a gasp to leave my muzzle, almost as if I had gotten punched, though my face forms into one of horror as a familiar throb of pain followed by a warm feeling invades my body. I react immediately, slamming my gun into the perpetrator behind me and spinning around. The two figures on the dirt floor in front of me are a small, young, orcish girl, no younger than fifteen with a bloody knife… and Edward.
Across his neck is a laceration, it leaks bright red blood. It sickeningly reminds me of the color of strawberries. Despite seeing such a sight many times before, I nearly vomit, managing to barely steel myself.
“Ahkwa… Ahkwa…” The girl growls as she stares at me with big eyes, no… no… it means in Orcish. Tears begin to escape my eyes, I take a few steps back, the girl looks at her knife, then back at me before pushing herself up and rushing towards me. This time I slam my gun’s barrel into her chin, incapacitating her before reaching back into my coin purse, pulling out a bullet and loading the gun faster than I think I ever have before. She lets out a scream as she raises her knife once again, I fire the gun.
She crumples to the floor, not even really being knocked back by the force. She just goes limp, the whole encounter must’ve lasted only thirty seconds. Her face… it’s unrecognizable from what it once was. I look away from it and instead run over to Edward.
Crouching down next to him and turning him over, I’m immediately relieved to see his hazel eyes focus on my face. His hand rises from his neck to clutch at my pure white fur. Staining it with blood as he opens his mouth, but before he can say anything I yell out, “Where’s the nearest town?”
He only mumbles something, it’s completely incoherent. I clutch my hands around his throat, squeezing just enough to hopefully stop the blood from flowing out but not enough to choke him. “C’mon Ed, try again buddy! Try again, just try again.” I demand him.
“Pa– Pastown… fifteen… miles.” He’s able to push out as his eyes well up, he’s not dead yet. He’s not going to die. It’s not going to happen. It’s impossible.
“Okay, good. We can make that!” I exclaim joyously, “Wait, I think I have a roll of bandages in here too, actually!” I’m practically bursting with happiness as I scavenge my small coin purse, letting out a giddy laugh once I find the roll, “A doctor’s gonna fix you up, we just gotta take a short walk.”
I begin wrapping the bandages around his throat, using as much as I can without making it too tight before scooping him up.
I immediately drop him. He’s heavier than a boulder, “C’mon Ed! Work with me!” I say angrily before trying again, but I only stop once he weakly grabs at my wrist, I look at his face, he’s as pale as an orchid.
“Waylen…” He says my name, “don’t…”
“Don’t what?” I ask him.
“Edward, don’t what?”
On a beautiful Saturday, Greg admired the brewing machine spewing out a stream of coffee. When he was about to taste his morning bliss, a ring from his phone buzzed. His shoulders jumped, causing his hands to spill his coffee all over the white undershirt. Admitting to himself that he had no friends who would call him, he deduced that it must have been the chief officer coming to give him more overtime. The appearance of the stain on his shirt drained him as if it was eating his energy to spread itself onto the white space. Cranking his flip phone open, Greg grumbled a greeting in order to keep his low salary.
“Yes, sir?” His prophecy was correct.
“The Silent Killer struck again,” And you’re giving it to me again? Greg thought. “It’s a young one this time.” That piqued his interest.
“Tell me about it.”
“On December 9, the victim called Samantha Eliza Wilson was murdered. She died from hanging, a neck fracture to be exact. Her parents saw her in her bedroom at 8:07 AM hanging, with her head in a noose of a belt. We approximated her death around 12:00 to 1:00 AM. There was a note on the bed that read: “Help me.”
“How old was she?”
“15.” There was a demeaning silence between the two men. 15. Such a young age.
“... And what did her parents say about it?”
“They were devastated. Samantha was happy her whole life, had straight A’s, and had healthy relationships too. She also was good at tennis. She was on track to success.” Greg furrowed his eyebrows.
“And you say it’s the Silent Killer? Where were the parents?”
“They were at a friend’s house. Alibi confirmed.”
“And did Samantha have no bad relationships?”
“From what her friends said, she never got into a fight with anyone. It had to be the Silent Killer.”
“I… don’t know why they would go for such a young child.”
“Greg, the prodigy detective, doesn’t know a murderer’s motive?”
“Sir, I am not a prodigy nor am I a murderer. How should I know what the Silent Killer is thinking?”
“Call me back when you have any ideas.” Click.
Greg sighed. After switching into a new shirt, and sipping a freshly brewed coffee, he grabbed a pencil and paper. Doodling down random circles, he wondered what the Silent Killer was doing. A circle. What motive did they have? Another circle. How did they murder? More circles. There were no hints of anything, how could they escape so flawlessly every time? The circles swirled around, intertwining and forming little tornadoes. Finding no start, no end, Greg ended up pondering why circles were his go-to shape to draw.
Kill yourself. A voice boomed. His train of thought halted in front of the unknown. In the midst of silence, the familiar sound of the devil filled his mind.
You are worthless.
You should kill yourself.
No, I really shouldn’t. I should be solving a case.
You haven’t solved any cases. This serial killer is killing more lives, and you are doing nothing. What are those circles supposed to do? The circle of life?
I’m trying. The circles help me.
Clearly not enough.
So kill yourself.
The louder he yelled at the voices, the louder they replied. His mind echoed with constant chaos. Covering his ears, he begged for peace. Greg had heard this voice so many times, every time the Silent Killer took a life. He wanted them to stop so much that he considered slicing his ears off. Should he become the next Van Gogh? The sounds then sweetened into softer voices, coaxing ones. On the chessboard, the voices advanced towards the end, promoting into a queen. Greg backed away, shrinking like a pawn.
We are all going to die in the end. You are useless, you should just die.
No, I’m not, I have a reason to be here.
What is the reason?
I… don’t know, but there is one.
So what are you doing here?
I… don’t know.
So why don’t you just die? You have a gun right on your belt, locked and loaded. You became a crime detective for the gun right?
His hand involuntarily inched towards the handle of the gun. Holding the barrel to his forehead, he used all his will to not pull the trigger. The voice changed again, into the sound of Greg’s own voice.
You want to die.
I am you. Your true thoughts.
You want to die. You don’t want to deal with the Silent Killer anymore.
No, I like solving cases.
No, you don’t. You want to die.
Yes Greg, you want to die.
I want to die?
Yes. You have always wanted to. You solve cases of the dead to fill the pleasure of dying. You’ve always wanted to be one of the cases that needed to be solved. You want attention. Now, you have the power to die, for attention.
Slowly but steadily, the voices spread like a virus across his body. It was like paralysis, a brainwashing. His world was covered with a black screen.
In Greg’s mind, the veil of color was removed. He saw himself as a new person. A person who saw the truth of the world. A person who realized the secrets of the darkness. A person who finally recognized the strength of the Silent Killer.
I should die.
I should die.
I want to die.
I want to die.
I want to kill myself.
I want to kill myself.
Pull the trigger.
Greg paused. What was he doing?
Pull the trigger.
Pull the trigger?
PULL THE TRIGGER.
No, I really shouldn’t. This is my life.
He repeated what the killer whispered in his ear, over and over. His finger placed more and more pressure on the trigger with the gears in the gun beginning to shift.
The killer was almost done with the deed. Greg wriggled around the palm of the killer’s hand, struggling to find an escape. He wanted to scream for help-.
That’s what Samantha was wanting to say. She also was fighting with the voices, the voices of herself.
His first instinct was to reach for the phone. However, he couldn’t. The gun was still aimed at his head, the voices were still forcing his hand in place. Cold hands curled around his tender neck of Greg. Leaning in, the voices spoke one last time.
Pull the trigger, Greg. You want to. Who cares what the Chief knows?
But the killer-
The killer? Who cares about the killer? Once you’re dead, you don’t need to deal with more cases anymore.
No more cases?
Yes, no more cases of the Silent Killer. No more deaths along with that sneaky little murderer. No more need to draw circles to calm yourself.
Yes Greg, so pull the trigger.
Let me draw one more circle-
PULL THE TRIGGER.
PULL THE TRIGGER.
On a beautiful Saturday, the Silent Killer struck again.
On the first day, we came to see that the meadow where the orchard grass and wildflowers grew in abundance had been stripped bare, leaving behind a mound for a sour wind to drag at the dust. Then on the second, every animal disappeared without a trace – even the cattle enclosed in Old Herschel's pasture. But it was on the third that I felt life as I knew it would change forevermore. The sun did not rise, nor did the moon. All that appeared were the stars. And I could have sworn they shined brighter than ever before.
As a child I used to watch the stars from the veranda with Granddad. I remember the melody of the crickets and the aroma of tobacco that clung to his clothes as he puffed on a cigar; the way his eyes watery with sleep would settle toward the endless black of the sky and linger before returning with me with a jovial half-moon smile. And then he'd tell me about space. I always loved the stories of how Saturn got its rings and of the alien lifeforms that danced on meteors. One evening in particular was different, however. There was no story. There was no smile.
'Child,' he had said, 'see that star up there? That glowing red one.' He pointed, and I followed his direction with a careful squint and the cock of my head. I chewed my lip.
'I think so. Why?' Granddad sniffed long and hard and took off his glasses to rub them clean, something he had always done when preparing for a solemn exchange. And so I sat patiently and waited.
'When a star gets old, it turns red. That means it's not going to last much longer. Do you follow?' I nodded. He perched his lenses back atop the bridge of his nose where a permanent mark resided from their weight. 'And when it's gotten really old, it will explode and disappear.'
'But,' I asked with a tug on his sleeve, 'why do you say this?' Granddad chuckled, ruffling my hair.
'You'll understand more when you're my age.' He turned back to the sky. 'One day, all of those stars up there, they're going to disappear. And that's part of life.'
'Granddad, I'm afraid.' He paused for a moment.
'It will be in a long, long time from now,' he broke the silence to tell me. 'So don't be afraid. Instead, live.' His answer, I suppose I was unsatisfied by it. So I decided to keep it with me for a decade and then some. As the years passed I grew restless. My watching of the stars continued even after Granddad's death, but instead of looking for little people frolicking amongst them, I looked for red.
Now, as I cling to the railing on that rotting porch and examine the stars with a deep scrutiny, I settle my observations from prior. Yes, they're far too bright, the stars. But nothing else about them seems to be abnormal. Thus I temporarily retreat inside the house for supper.
It isn't long before I've returned to my studies, pencil and journal in hand which I mark for every thought that enters my mind, and every thought that does enter my mind is of the stars, for my heart has long ached for peace, my soul for truth, and I shan't rest until each are fulfilled.
'You ought to come back in. It's gotten awfully late,' a lone voice from inside calls. I reply that I will, eventually. I'm far too busy.
Hours melt together and I have yet to find the waiting to be a challenge. Surely, the strangeness in the previous days is connected. Surely it has meaning. It is then that I wonder: would it be more dreadful if it didn't? At last, I get my answer.
I see it in an instant. The change is mere, though unmistakable. Red. One of the stars has turned red. I hardly believe it! Mouth agape, I rub my eyes to rid them of disbelief. Sure enough, the oddity remains. It flickers for a beat, and I wait for it, I pray for it, to return to its ordinary state. It doesn't. Instead another star changes. Then another. Soon the heavens are filled with angry glowing light, much to my dismay, a fantastic sight of beautiful Death that is all too much for me to bear.
My heart throbs in my ears. No, no, no, I think to myself. This isn't real. It is.
I break into a run. I run until I cannot run anymore, and yet I am not fast enough to stop them. The stars cast an ugly glare, each one shrieking and scurrying about like a wild beast on the chase. ‘No,’ I cry aloud, ‘please don’t.’ But my words are smothered amid the chaos. And so, in a silent panic, I watch.
They are spinning, the stars. Everything's spinning; I realize I'm about to lose my balance, so I sink to my knees to steady myself. The stars seem to mock me. They flicker as if to say I'm a fool. I know it to be true. I wish that it weren't.
Now they are growing. I cower in terror. I can't breathe. The entire sky is red. I'm screaming, and suddenly, the stars cease to a halt.
I can tell even with my eyes squeezed shut; the high-pitched whine of their movements is no more. I lift my head and rise to my feet. I don't understand. Is this all that there is?
I think for a pause. Before I know it I've started in a lethargic walk until I've reached the meadow, stripped of all its greenery; and upon that mound I look toward the skies. The skies look down toward me. Watching. Waiting.
'Do something.’ My begging catches in my throat. I am desperate. ‘Please, please do something.'
The stars oblige. They fall.
Light. Pure, radiant light, an explosion of light, comes barreling to the ground in a heavy shower. In an instant my surroundings vanish. I see nothing. I am nothing. But when my vision returns I find what has become of me and I am bewildered. They are gentle, the stars. Nurturing. They kiss at my shoulders, my head, and I extend an arm to catch one, yet it dissolves into my skin, leaving behind a tingly glow. I'm light. I'm one with them. I throw my head back to release laughter I have no desire to suppress. Then I begin to dance. Around and around I go as the stars melt into my body.
Finally, as the last of the light fades, I fall backwards in a heap of tears. The rising and falling of my chest slows. My palms sweep the barren ground to form angels in the dirt. A shimmering trail is left behind. I am shrouded in darkness and still I've never seen anything so bright.
I understand at last. The starlight coursing through my veins allows me to smile amid the tears. I don it proudly. And as I lay my weary vessel to rest for an eternity, I, still glowing and as alive as ever, remain.
Dancing was never one of her dreams. It was much too scratchy, full of costumes, and it was puzzling to understand why people would willingly bend themselves into all sorts of squiggly shapes. This was her belief, until one Christmas day, when The Nutcracker came to town.
Tall dark hats on soldiers with red angular uniforms; golden beams of light reflected off buttons. Leaping from one place to the other, a random mouse was seen here and there, bounding with nonchalant mischief. Twinkling snowflakes dazzled from the sky, surrounding the Sugarplum Fairy.
The Sugarplum Fairy. A glowing wonder on the stage. Flickers of the wrist and hand, twirling as if on ice, perfectly on point with the chimes of the bells. Twirling on her tiptoes, her sheathed tutu forming a halo around her. From then on, the little girl who didn’t even think about being a dancer aspired to be just like the Sugarplum fairy. For what reason? She told her parents that she simply loved the emotions the fairy evoked while captivating the audience with her eyes.
The little dreamer wrote about the fairy's expression in her journal (she was quite the erudite five-year old):
a tilt of the head
gazes meet in a bare glance
blink, and it is gone.
Dancing was... a journey to say the least, and perhaps to say the most. She progressed quickly at times, slower during other seasons. Soreness filled her muscles as she eased into new poses, expanding on each tiny detail. Her charisma and confidence was in her heart, where she always imagined herself as the Sugarplum fairy.
The flow in which she felt as she tried new movements, showed her the repetition of moves needed in order to make her muscles remember exactly what to feel. Awareness was something to be learned, and then built upon. Momentarily, she would forget about the Sugarplum Fairy. But a particular sound, movement, or expression of the eyes would cause all the memories to rush back.
The little dreamer wrote in her journal:
step by step backwards
learning is a deep process
Ⅲ. Life Happens (Especially in 2020)
In the midst of constant motion: the world stopped, and restarted again. The pandemic stopped thousands of people, artists especially, from physically connecting. For her, during that time, she rested. In her own bubble, in her own time, she found herself. Stretching herself beyond what she thought she would ever do, she found her breath. In and out.
Now exploring modern contemporary dance, jazz, hip-hop alongside ballet, each movement felt like a different expression. The rhythm was energy to her. Though at times, dancing felt mundane, she realized that dance was now a part of her identity.
Perhaps something could stop her from dancing in the future, like an injury or just the busyness of everyday life. She knew that everything would be impermanent, but she could use this part of her identity in a way that felt right to her.
Dancing for a group of elderly citizens in a nursing home, she realized even though their memories could not remember their closest family member’s names, they could feel what her presence brought them: moments of awareness and ease. Flickering in and out.
The teenage dancer wrote in her journal:
all wrong, all right, out of grasp
in the process, breathe
Sometimes, she felt as though she didn’t measure up. Thoughts about other people’s relationships and their path of life lead her to question her own. Inner judgment would flicker through her mind. She felt tall and lanky, always hunched, or too exposed, not embracing her true height and potential. She realized that she chose those pathways, chose those perceptions, and that she could choose otherwise. She had wanted to be a guide to others, not realizing she needed a guide for herself.
Feeling confused and quirky one night, she wrote:
thoughts are stuck in loop
i should try to meditate
UGH i can’t sit still!
Years passed. She found guidance in various people and books. She began to take a little something, like a lesson, an idea, a thought from each person she encountered. Especially in her relationships with others, she found joy. Just like when the little dreamer found inspiration from the Sugarplum Fairy, her paradigm of many things began to transform. Previous anxiety and uncertainty subsided. She had joined a ballet company on tour, working hard to improve and learn each day.
At this point, auditions for the Nutcracker began. And of course, the Nutcracker was a Christmas special, in which many people wanted to dance the leading role. She stared at the list of the ballerina’s names, all auditioning to be the Sugarplum Fairy. Her brow furrowed. Was this journey all worth it? No matter, she thought, as she went to the dance studio every single day, studying dance repertoire. Sometimes she fell, other times she soared. But every time she channeled the image of the Sugarplum fairy that she witnessed more than fifteen full years ago, her body knew not only the movements, but also the character. The Sugarplum fairy was a symbol of childhood dreams and she made sure to show that through the her take on the delicate yet all encompassing choreography, full of sweetness and spice. Excitement filled her body and the adrenaline was parallel to a sugar high; which was very suitable for a wondrous ruler of the Land of Sweets.
The dancer wrote in her journal:
delight in the land of sweets
VI. Full Circle
She landed the role. The performance of The Nutcracker was set during a wintry night. Nerves were tumbling back in forth in her mind, obviously, but she knew that her crescendo in dance was forever growing. Feeling completely free, she balanced, stretched, and pirouetted with grace (the costume wasn’t too scratchy, it turned out). Her rehearsed jumps and leaps were on point, as the familiar melody by Tchaikovsky twinkled through the air. With every muscle turned on, she piqued around the stage, fully present and radiant. Some little dreamers were in the audience that night, watching the Sugarplum Fairy in awe. The fairy smiled, thinking, “You’ve got one hell of a journey to go on.”
The fairy wrote:
truly a mission
to sweeten the horizons
journey of dancing
The smoke covered the sky like a gray blanket. The ground was brown from ash. Two trenches sat opposing each other. Nothing moved between the trenches, except for some lice which lay hidden in a dead soldier's boots. Gunshots echoed across the front like an endless stream of fireworks.
I stood in the trench, searching the horizon through the scope of my rifle. The wind started to blow East, and the scent of rotten corpses was masked by the smell of latrines from the West. I caught movement at the edge of my scope, and I adjusted my rifle to get a better view. It was a crooked spike, sticking up from the opposing trench, the top half of it bending at an angle. The spike of a Pickelhaube, though it was supposed to be straight. The iconic German helmet was supposed to deflect swords with its spike, but it also provided a nice target for snipers. Snipers like me.
I slowed my breath, steadying the rifle. The crooked spike rose, following it a gold and black helmet. I waited patiently as more of the helmet became visible. My heart raced and my legs shook as I rested my finger on the trigger. The helmet rose even more. I held my breath. It was now large enough a target for me to shoot, but my finger refused to move. I clenched my jaw, bit my lip, closed my eyes, and pulled the trigger.
Click. There was no recoil. I looked down at my rifle. It must have been jammed. Sighing, I watched the crooked spike and helmet disappear, slipping down into the trench below.
The ground was wet. Puddles formed in the shape of footsteps in the dirt. My jacket was soaking, and my body itched from lice crawling around inside my shirt. I sat in the trench, my back facing the enemy. The wind was blowing West now, and the smell of rotten corpses floated down toward me. Above me, a crow flew over the trench, its black body barely visible below the gray sky.
I tapped my fingers on the rifle in my hand. It had been jammed, and I got it fixed by an engineer in my unit. I glanced over to him, seeing him asleep in a dugout with a jacket and a blanket wrapped around him.
I reached into my pocket, pulling out and unfolding a piece of paper. I took out a pencil, set the paper on my thigh, and hesitated. There was nothing new to write about to my mother. Tapping my pencil against my chin, I looked around for inspiration. The trench was muddy and crowded. Rain poured down from the sky, and most soldiers, like the engineer, were sheltering in dugouts. Aside from a soldier humming a Christmas carol, the front was devoid of any festivity. After seeing a rat running around the ground, I decided to fold the piece of paper up and slide it back into my pocket.
The humming stopped. A whizzing sound came from above. Soldiers started scrambling around and yelling. Without thinking, I sprang up and sprinted toward the closest dugout, the one occupied by the engineer. Hopefully, it would provide shelter for me. As I ran, something caught my foot, and I tripped and tumbled to the ground. My face planted into the mud, some of it getting into my mouth. I tried to force myself up but decided against it. I would have no time. I lowered myself back into the mud, pressing my face against the ground. A second later, an explosion ripped before me, shrapnel flying in every direction. A few pieces hit my helmet. More bombs fell around me, but I could only pray as I lay on the ground.
After a few minutes, the bombing subsided, and I raised my head cautiously. Soldiers started to move around me and check on the wounded. The adrenaline would have prevented me from feeling any injuries, so I checked on myself first, making sure that I had not been hurt. Aside from being covered in mud, I was fine. I pushed myself up from the ground, the screams of agony now starting to rise as the adrenaline of injured soldiers wore off. I wiped some mud off of my face, and saw that right in front of me was the dugout I had been running towards. It was now completely obliterated.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht. Alles schläf, einsam wacht.
The sound of the German song carried across the night. The Germans had been singing for the past hour, and it was approaching midnight, by my guess. I lay in a dugout, a blanket wrapped around my body, listening. I recognized the song. It was called Stille nacht. German for “Silent Night”.
A couple of soldiers moved around the trench casually. No one was in a rush, for no shot had been fired after sunset. I blinked lazily, my eyelids getting heavier. My subconsciousness started to take over, and I thought of when I first enlisted in the army, like many, thinking that the war would be quick. I scratched my stomach and felt lice crawl under my shirt. Yawning, I felt my eyes shut, and then I was asleep.
Not a single shot had been fired today either. I sat in the trench, listening to the sound of German Christmas songs from the opposing trench. To my right, a group of soldiers sang too. Their voices contrasted surprisingly well with the Germans, creating a duet. More soldiers around me started to join in with the caroling, too.
As the song ended and the singing faded, it was instead replaced by applause and cheers from both trenches. I watched as a couple of soldiers peeked their heads over the trench, getting a glimpse of the German trench. I assumed that the Germans were doing the same, but didn’t want to risk taking a peek for myself. One of the soldiers who was singing before slowly climbed out of the trench. I closed my eyes, imagining the bullet of a German sniper piercing his body. I waited, but the shot never came.
I opened my eyes and saw that he had been joined by even more soldiers. Cautiously, I peeked my head over the trench and saw a line of German soldiers leaving their trench. I reached for my rifle. I watched as the German and British soldiers formed a small group in between the two trenches. The group started getting larger and larger, so I discarded my rifle and crawled over the trench.
The Germans wore similar clothing as we did. Most of them wore Pickelhaubes, with the exception of a few officers. Their trench coats were gray, however. As I walked around the gathering, I saw that the soldiers were exchanging items. Some were trading cigarettes. Others, newspapers.
A German soldier stood in front of me. He had bright blue eyes and dark brown eyebrows. His face was brown and muddy. Despite standing surrounded by corpses, he had a crescent-moon smile on his face. He turned around, saw me, and smiled. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cigarette, which he handed to me. I took it and nodded to him gratefully. He nodded back, his oversized helmet sliding down and slightly covering his face. I saw that he was wearing a gold and black helmet, a standard Pickelhaube. And resting on top of the helmet was a crooked spike.