The potent smell of unbathed bodies filled the rowdy tavern, covering the sweet scent of mead that lingered in Dennis's empty mug. Once more, the persistent nudge urged him to look over his shoulder, and once more he ignored it. They wouldn't come looking for him in a place like this.
Drunks at the surrounding tables whistled as barmaids refilled their drinks. The sound was mildly distracting, but more distracting was their constant laughter and crude jesting.
Rubbing the pad of his thumb in small, deliberate circles over one of his worn cards, Dennis eyed the five other players calmly. Maybe even slightly arrogantly. With a smooth smirk, he tossed in a couple denarii. A round of slight gasps came from their onlookers, and the other players eyed him with disdain.
"There's more where that came from, gents." Dennis's delicate accent contradicted his sly, and slightly, wicked smirk.
More denarii tinkled as a large man with a red beard tossed in more denarii. "We know," he growled. His dark eyes pierced Dennis, and his thick fingers seemed to tighten around his cards. Hands like those could squeeze the life out of someone. Someone like Dennis.
As the game wore on, Dennis had earned himself several more glowers, and the urge to flee rose within him. But he was no coward. If he was going to win the game, he would. If he was going to get pummeled for it afterward, he would do that too.
*Outside the Tavern after the Game was Won*
"Fair and square!" Dennis insisted for the tenth time. "I won, fair and square!"
Without warning, the red-haired brute from the game slammed Dennis against the grimy wall and punched him in the gut. Several other losers snickered in delight, taking pleasure in the wheeze the punch pulled from Dennis.
"Come on," Dennis moaned. "It was a fair game." Sweat caused from the blistering, afternoon sun burned his eyes and soaked his finely woven tunic. It would have to be washed. Or completely replaced depending on how the next few minutes went. "There is no need for this. I won fairly."
Another punch to the gut. It took all of Dennis's self-control not to vomit. The last thing he needed to do was humiliate himself further. If it hadn't been for the hand pinning him to the wall, he'd have collapsed.
The brute's lip twitched with despise and his eyes bore deeply into Dennis's with cold bitterness. "You don't belong here, boy."
Dennis's heart hardened. He'd never hated his surname more in that moment. "I'm not like them. I belong here."
The man didn't look believing. "If you fall into debt, you call on your petty father to come to your rescue. Likely, the money you used tonight wasn't even yours. When none of what I said is true, then tell me you aren't like your family, rich boy." With a harsh shove, he backed away.
Dennis gave the man a dull look. "I'm not like my family," he stated blandly. "Besides, it's not the money used in the game, it's the player, pal. And you're just a really bad player."
Getting pummeled wasn't fun unless one deserved it. Insulting this idiot seemed to be the only way to make things more enjoyable.
Before the predicted fist could come flying for his face, someone cleared their throat. "What goes on here?"
Not him. Dennis cringed. Anyone but him.
"Ah, another rich boy," the brute sneered. "Here to rescue your pathetic brother, are you?"
Pathetic? Not charming or very likeable? Crud. Arrogant would've also worked.
Dennis turned slightly, getting a glimpse of his exalted eldest brother. "What are you doing here, Sam?"
Samuel ignored Dennis and leaned his muscled shoulder against the crumbling wall. His serious face rarely smiled, but a faint smile pulled at his mouth. "Go ahead and finish here, I'll carry him home when you're done."
Dennis turned back to the brute with a nervous chuckle. "He's jesting."
Popping his knuckles, the red-haired nightmare grinned. "We'll be done momentarily."
Wonderful. This would be quick, and his dashing features would likely be marred.
An ugly fist came flying for his nose and Dennis braced for impact. Why did it always have to be the nose?
"You didn't have to do that," Dennis muttered. Wincing, he pinched a towel to his nose.
Samuel was lounging on the sofa in the common room, while Dennis limped before the furnace in an attempt at pacing. "I didn't lie to him, Dennis. You were in the city testifying what you believe." He was gazing into the flickering flames and their shadowless fingers danced light across his stern features.
"Testifying what I believe?" The words were muttered as he tossed them around in his head, but he wasn't focusing on them. What the bearded man had said sparked something inside Dennis. He didn't want to be lumped with his father everywhere he went. He wanted more than what was offered here. The pleasures of the world called to him. What would it be like to gamble without worrying he was doing wrong? He supposed it was freedom he wanted.
The thick, wooden doors opened silently, and five young men bombarded the room like a pack of hyenas.
"Good, you're alive."
"Dennis! What happened?"
"What did you do to yourself?"
"Goodness me! You've got to know to use your words, kid!"
"Tell me you didn't start another fight."
Dennis waited patiently for his elder brothers to all get a word in. He tossed the towel down and faced them. Each one visibly winced as they got a look at the blackened eye and crooked nose.
"You started another fight," Remus, the second eldest, said dully. His weathered hands were placed on his hips, and he stood as though he thought himself in charge.
Anger spiked through Dennis at his brother's quick assumptions, and he glared, then winced as the motion shifted the bruised muscles. "I didn't start that blasted fight!" he roared. "I won that-" His clamped his lips and cringed. It wasn't the first time he'd slipped, but he knew he wouldn't be able to cover this one with a lie. Not one that was believable, that is.
Silence overtook the room as it dawned on each of the room's occupants.
"You were gambling," they said in sync. Their faces were crestfallen. Horror, sorrow and something else shone in their eyes.
As usual, Samuel said nothing to confirm even though he knew exactly what Dennis had been doing for the past few months. Letting Dennis sort out his own problems seemed to be a hobby of his. Even if it meant letting the baby of the family get his nose broken and his eye blackened.
Dennis could take it no more. His glare turned hateful, and he wanted to smack the looks of shame off their faces. "Like you all are so perfect! I just want a life! A normal life. This place does nothing but drag me down! You all do nothing but drag me down." His last words came out in a near snarl. His bitterness stunned him slightly. It stunned his brothers too, from the looks on their faces. They stood in shock, as if Dennis had slapped them in the face. Even Sam looked hurt.
Remus swallowed, opened his mouth. "Dennis," he said softly, as if approaching an injured fawn.
But he wasn't an injured fawn. He was a young man yearning for a freedom outside of his father's walls and rules.
Before Remus could say another word, Dennis stalked out of the room. It was time he started living his life. When he reached his chambers, he started packing his bags. He didn't take much. Just denarii, a bar of soap and a change of clothes.
He was out the window before anyone knew to look for him.
As he tore down the road to the city and away from his father's land, Dennis didn't look back.
*Two Days Later*
The high sun beat against the city like an angry overseer. But the heat didn't bother Dennis, because he no longer had to work in it.
A beautiful servant girl came to him and refilled his wine goblet. Most men in the quiet tavern let their eyes linger on her. The first day Dennis had done the very thing, had maybe even been looking forward to playing with the dame's hair. Now, the very thought made him so sick he thought he'd vomit up his wine. Though he was away from his father's home, everything he'd learned from a young age still clung to him like a briar.
The tavern door swung open, and Dennis squirmed in his seat. Oh dear. The brute who'd given him the lashing stepped in.
Brutish scanned the room and his hard eyes instantly landed on Dennis. His lip lifted in a sneer. Dennis contemplated on running for his life, but he refused. He wasn't a coward. If the man wanted to give him another lashing, he'd take it like a man. A man who was terrible at defending himself.
The brute moved toward Dennis in sturdy steps. No swagger, no intimidating saunter, just solid footfalls that managed to scare the living daylights out of Dennis.
"What are you doing here, boy?" the man asked gruffly. "You aren't looking for another fight, are you?" He took a seat without asking.
Dennis took a sip from his goblet. "Only if you're looking for another game to lose."
Faint amusement flashed through the man's eyes. "I've never seen you here before."
"That's because I've never been here before now." Dennis picked at the smooth table, trying terribly hard to find a splinter that would wake him from this nightmare.
"Do you think this is somewhere you belong?" His tone was demeaning, and implied he knew exactly the kind of standards Dennis grew up with.
"I figured this place is better than the streets." He winced as he found the splinter. Unfortunately, he didn't wake up.
In confusion, the man's eyes narrowed. "Streets?" In shocked Dennis to hear the slight concern lining the man's voice.
Dennis gulped the last of his wine down. "I left home, ruffian. I told you, I don't belong there." He nearly slammed the goblet down in his attempt at setting it down gently.
A short chuckle escaped the man. "It's actually Ren. But you were close, both start with R." He rubbed his jaw in thought. "Didn't think you had it in you, honestly, rich boy. Seeing as how you had the guts to do it, how 'bout I show you a bit of the city someone like yourself has never been."
A smile curled at Dennis's mouth. "You'd be willing to help someone like me?" He waved the barmaid away as she attempted to refill his goblet.
Ren smirked. "You mean someone homeless? Of course." His eyes twinkled. "Come on. We've a lot of places to see."
Dennis didn't move at first. His stomach tightened to think of the places he wasn't about to enter. But this is what he wanted. This is the freedom he'd been seeking. He pushed out of his seat, watching the ground sway beneath his feet. "Lead the way, Ren."
Ren let out a burly laugh. "How much wine did you drink?"
Dennis rubbed his temples. "I've been here two days, and wine is the only thing they serve. What do you think?"
Ren stood and came around, looping his arm under Dennis's arms. "Let's find you some food, then. The only places you know how to find are taverns."
*The Following Night*
After meeting several people Ren knew, Dennis felt he'd made the right decision coming to the city. Surprising enough, it hadn't been his money or his statis that had caused people to dislike him. It had been his cockiness and his unwillingness to take responsibility. Now that they knew he was trying to fend for himself without his father's money, they readily took him in.
Low snores filled the room Dennis was staying in. He wasn't accustomed to sleeping with so much noise surrounding him. But he didn't mind. It was... exhilarating. Living life on the edge was so much more than he could've imagined. There were no rules. Though, his bag of denarii was noticeably lighter than when he first began. He was sure it would all work out. He could find a job. Probably.
A low creak came from the door as it opened. A dark form slipped into the room and the door shut just as quickly. Nimbly, the form stepped over the sleeping lumps scattered across the floor. Dennis squinted his eyes to try to see better, but the room was too dark. Before he could move out of the way, the form stepped on him. With a surprised gasp, they jumped back.
"Hey!" she snapped. "You're in my spot." Her voice was husky and rough. Never before had Dennis encountered a woman who trampled over a man's authority. But from the tone she was using he guessed it was something this one did quite often. He couldn't bring himself to dislike it.
"My apologies," Dennis said smoothly, watching as her form went rigid, likely because she noticed his accent. "There is plenty of room, allow me to find someplace else to lie." He gathered his mat and slid it across the floor near a snoring man with a large belly.
The woman said nothing as she reclaimed her spot. Dennis could feel her eyes digging into him. With hate or curiosity, he couldn't tell.
*The Following Day*
"You sleep a lot."
Dennis slowly opened his eyes, wincing as light seared painfully across his vision. "I'm also awake a lot. I don't like having one without the other." His voice was groggy. He rolled over and sat up, surprised to see the room empty save for a woman standing at his feet. "Who are you?" he asked.
Her hazel eyes scanned him curiously, and he noticed the feint hint of amusement. "Ren's sister. He won't be back until the full moon. I'm to be your guide and protector."
Dennis's eyebrows slowly rose. "Protector?"
She smirked. "Ren said you have the tendency to run your mouth in the wrong areas. Your bruised skin is a testament to that." Again, that amusement filled her eyes. "Let's break our fast and get on with our day. Ren wants me to take you to the heart of our city."
Dennis was on his feet in an instant. "The heart of the city! That sounds exciting." He grinned. Her mouth turned up in a sly manner and suddenly, Dennis grew slightly concerned. "That sounds exciting, right?"
*In The Heart Of The City*
The heart of the city wasn't what Dennis was expecting. It was loud and full of exotic colors. Bright banners hung from every wall, piles of spices filled bins, dried herbs were bound in thick bundles, and laughter bubbled from everyone's lips. But the most exciting part was the two wrestling men in a small dust pit. Those cheering and taking bets surrounded them.
"What..." Dennis's eyes were wide. "What is that they're doing?"
The woman's arms hung loosely like the scarf around her neck. "It's a less bloody version of the Gladiator Games." Her grin was broad. "Ren thinks you'd be good at it."
Dennis's stomach dropped. "He what?"
She chuckled, gazing at the two sweaty men pounding each other's faces. "He says you don't run. And besides, you need a way to make a living if you aren't going to rely on your father."
Dennis suddenly didn't like the heart of the city. "I don't run because I'm a really bad runner," he hissed. "Fighting isn't my forte. Ask Ren."
She laughed. "He didn't say you should do it, Dennis! Goodness no. You'd be dead before the fight was over. He just thought you could eventually be good at it." She winked. "We're here for that." Dennis followed her gaze to a quieter area where several men sat under a canopy around a table.
His stomach churned with greed. That was something he was good at. "I do know how to play a good game," he mused.
The woman nodded. "Ren said as much. If you can watch your mouth, he thinks you could be good at it. I'm here to make sure you do. And if you don't, smooth things out with diplomacy."
Dennis made a face. "Diplomacy is overrated."
"Come on," she said. "We can get in in on the next game."
Dennis grinned. This would be too easy. It wouldn't even be working. No sweat, no muscle aches, but lots of money.
Once the game was over, the next one began, and Dennis was able to get in. He placed his money down and he was given his cards. His fingers tingled as he scanned his cards. He won, of course. And he won every other game after that. His name was spread through the city because of his skill. Dennis liked that.
The more known he became, the more he was invited to certain places that made his stomach churn. Each time he turned down the invitations. People thought it was because he was scared, and that he was still a boy, but it wasn't that. Gambling was one thing, but he couldn't defile himself. The more invitations he turned down, the less games he managed to get into. They didn't want a nonchalant player who didn't "play". Maybe his father had rubbed off on him too much. And for once, he wasn't entirely ashamed of that.
*A Month Later*
Dirty and unfed, Dennis sat in the streets of the city tempted to eat the leather of his sandles. He hadn't eaten but what little scraps people tossed to him. When Ren had returned to find Dennis's reputation "dirtied", he was forced to keep away from him. As was Ren's sister. Which was quite a shame. Dennis happened to like her a lot.
A low growl from his stomach reminded Dennis just how hungry he was. Maybe he'd made a mistake leaving home. What was so bad about having high morals and hard work? Living on his father's land had never been a bad thing. Now surely his father never wanted to see him again. He could imagine how ashamed the man was of his youngest son. Dennis himself was ashamed of how he'd acted. He'd been so ungrateful. His father had given so much, and Dennis had done nothing but throw it all away. He'd practically spat in the man's face.
Such an idiot, Dennis. Stupid, arrogant idiot.
An ache dug into his heart, and it amused Dennis. After all those years thinking he despised them, he missed his brothers. Likely they'd forgotten about him long ago. Probably happy to be rid of him.
"Look mommy, a beggar." A little girl pointed in passing at Dennis. The mother didn't give Dennis a passing glance.
Humiliation burned in Dennis's chest, and he looked away. If his father could see him now. Nothing more than a beggar in a prosperous city.
A pair of leather boots stopped by Dennis. Fancy, well-tailored. The man's garment was expensive.
"It took me awhile to find you."
Dennis froze. That wasn't a snobby noble.
Slowly, as if fearing it was a dream, he looked up. A dream or a nightmare, he wasn't sure. "Father?" Dennis squinted to keep the sun out of his eyes. "What... What are you... What are you doing here?"
His father's kind eyes gazed down on him. "What do you mean by that, son?"
Dennis tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry to swallow anything. "I've..." He cleared his throat and ended up coughing.
His father bent and offered a canteen of water. "Here, son. Have some water."
Dennis hesitated, feeling so guilty for what he'd done that he let the canteen hang in the air between them. The canteen pressed into his palm and his father uncorked it as well.
"Drink, son." Gentle, full of love and compassion, was his father's voice.
Dennis drank deeply, greedily, until he remembered whose water it was.
"Why did you come here?" Dennis asked, wiping his mouth with his dirty sleeve.
His father's eyes only twinkled, as if he thought it a silly question. "Why wouldn't I?"
Dennis shook his head. "I... I've been so ungrateful. I left home without a word. I've lost all of my savings. And I..." He let his head drop. "Father, I was so ashamed to be associated with you and what you stand for. I just wanted... freedom."
"Hmm. And did you find your freedom, son?"
Dennis looked up. "I could've. But I couldn't..." He clenched his jaw, unable to finish his sentence.
His father nodded in thought. "I understand. And what do you want now?"
Dennis's throat tightened. "Father, would you let me come on as a servant hand? Not even for denarii or a place to sleep, just for food and water."
His father smiled. "A servant hand?" He scoffed with a gentle shake of his head. "Why on earth would I do that?"
Dennis hung his head. He deserved worse. A slap in the face and scorn filled words. "I understand."
"I would never allow my son to work as a servant. You are my son, and though you have your tasks to complete, you won't ever be my servant. You are my heir same as your brothers."
Dennis was confused. "But aren't you ashamed of me? For what I've done?" He dared to look his father in the eye, to search them for truth.
There was no scorn there. Just gentle warmth that radiated his love. "Dennis, even though you ran, you're still my son. You'll always be my son. And though I can't support the life you've chosen for yourself, if you should choice to come home, I'll welcome you with open arms."
Tears pricked Dennis's eyes. "Oh, father. I've been so ungrateful. Can you ever forgive me?"
His father's eyes twinkled. "You were forgiven before you asked." He stood and lent Dennis his hand. "Come, let us go home and feast. Your brothers will be glad to see you again. They've all been worried."
Dennis arched his brow in surprise. "Them, worried?" He scoffed. "I doubt it. I'm sure they're all ready to clobber me."
"True that," his father said. "But they understand you more than you realize."
"How do you mean?" He took his father's hand and stood. Instantly, his father helped support him with his strong arms.
He looked down at Dennis with a strange smile. "They were like you once. Wanting a life outside of the one they were given." He chuckled and led Dennis to two waiting horses. "Why do you think Sam always knew to go to the taverns to find you?"
Dennis's jaw hung open. "You don't mean..."
His father nodded. "I do. I never loved him less because of it. I was just waiting for him to see where he truly belonged." He glanced at Dennis. "Like you, son."
Dennis clasped his father's arm and hugged him tightly. "I don't deserve a father like you. I don't." He sobbed.
Despite the filth that must've been on Dennis, his father hugged him back firmly. "Let's go home, Dennis."
(Author: Hope Robens)
To Walk a Meth-Mile in Her Shoes
People who are labeled the “dregs of society” seldom fret about the dregs of society the way those, who aren’t dregs, do.” –Ralph Ebe
Stephanie and I had grown up together, our houses separated by an easily climbable chain link fence. We were both born at Boston Medical Center during the fashionable phase of care, before epidurals were invented, in which our mothers were given “twilight sleep” and then were delivered of their babies—that is, us—using forceps. Fernand Lamaze would turn over in his grave.
Nothing indicated we had been forceps babies. We both excelled at the same school with other children whose birth techniques remained a mystery. We were both breastfed for 16 months, but we couldn’t tell what kids hadn’t. We each had two parents, as well as uncles and aunts. We each had two siblings, a little brother and a littler sister who were about the same age. Ours was apparently a community of synced pheromones, waxing and waning according to some mysterious neighborhood algorithm involving radon, tidal gravity, or perhaps even sanctifying grace. (Stephanie and I were both Catholic, studied the same catechism, and had the same guilt infrastructure in place). We got the same grades, won the same extracurricular and academic awards, and were probably quantumly entangled.
Until high school, when we each went to a Catholic high school exclusive to my and her gender. Besides gender and, now, high school, the only difference between us was that I had always wanted to be a doctor, and she had always wanted to be a good Catholic.
We remained close during those years, dated, and even dipped into the bodily fleshpool a bit, but never went all the way. She was a good fire-and-brimstone prude and I was scared of venereal diseases and pregnancy; and of her father. After all, I had plans.
“You can’t get VD if I’m a virgin, too, stupid,” she said.
“I like the way you think,” I replied.
Homework together in her room or mine became a non-issue for both sets of parents, since we had done that since the fifth grade, but the grade levels weren’t the only things that had changed. Like the sure-thing tip on a hot horse, the surging hormones invited me, implicit with my self-appraised status of being sexually underserved. So, I fell victim to a mutual denials between my encouraging hormones and the diseases, pregnancies, and fathers that only happened to others.
“No, but I can get pregnant,” she added. “That’s when my father kills you. Better to get VD, because he’s a Teamster.”
“A Catholic Teamster,” I clarified.
“Teamster first,” she said. “I could never tell him I was pregnant, well, not until Sunday, when he’s a Catholic again. But, then I guess the priest would kill you.”
“I don’t think they’re allowed to do that.”
“They’re allowed to on Sundays. They’re Jesus on Sundays.”
“Today’s Saturday,” I pointed out. She laughed. “How come you’re not on the pill yet?” I pressed her.
“Are you kidding? Dad would kill me.”
“I guess if you get pregnant, we should just kill him, right?”
“Over my dead body,” she vowed.
“This is getting way too complicated. Can’t we just trust the crystal ball and, well…we had promised that when the time came, we would lose our virginity to each other. You remember that, right?”
“Yea, when the time came,” she said. “And it’s not tonight.”
“Prom?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s so spontaneous and romantic. You want an appointment? Should I pencil you in?”
There is a term in Catholicism called “the near occasion of sin.” The Church recognized that if you sin because you can’t help it, it probably isn’t a sin; but if you put yourself knowingly into a position where you will risk not helping it—then that’s the sin. That tenuous zone, open to interpretation, is the near occasion of sin.
“No appointment,” I said. “Let’s just put ourselves in the near occasion of sin and see what happens."
“For Prom,” she pointed out.
“Yea,” I said, “for Prom.”
“You haven’t asked me yet.”
“Of course! Will you, Stephanie, go to Prom with me?”
“Whose? Yours or mine?
“And which one is the one?”
“I was hoping maybe both.”
“Poor baby. You’re here all hot and bothered—the only one ready—and I’m the party pooper.”
I remained silent, seeing a glimmer of hope in her smiley eyes and hoping this thing could turn around yet. When it didn’t, I surrendered. We were nowhere near any occasion, of sin or otherwise.
“Look,” she offered, sex is too important. It’s not just putting Tab A into Slot B.”
“Again, I like the way you think.”
“It’s communion, the forging of a completely new, composite being, so it’s holy.” I put Tab A away dutifully.
Truth be told, we really had pledged to lose our virginity to each other. When the time came.
That time never came which, as a male, meant being cheated my opportunity for a free and easy sexual encounter—all the way, mind you—at a time when accomplishing this was neither free nor easy. I couldn’t understand this tragic miss, because I had already gotten through the hard part—her agreeing to sex with me; the timing, it seemed, should have just followed. It didn’t.
I’ve often wondered to whom she did lose her virginity. I’m not jealous, just resentful, because it should have been me—should’ve been mine. I owned it. It was my unopened package at the bottom of the Christmas tree. I could only hope that hers went as unpredictably and awkwardly as mine had gone. They’re all like that the very first time, aren’t they? The gift wrapping all ripped up and lying tattered on the floor, the toy that can't be fixed--forever broken.
By senior year, attrition wrecked our broken plans originally woven out of gossamer, and we drifted apart according to fair-weather lures of newfound social circles. I had heard she went to her prom with the singer of the very band who had performed for it, so she danced alone. I wondered if she lost it at her prom.
I missed my own prom because of strep throat. Streptococcus made the sour grapes of my missed rite of passage taste a little less bitter in my mouth.
We both had impressive grades in high school, and we were both accepted into universities, 1500 miles and two whole time zones apart. We wrote letters until email made such thing passé. After that, our communications suffered from the dreaded “poverty of speech” that barely held together truncated relationships which dangled by just a verb or an abbreviation. Our communication line finally snapped.
Was I over her? She was a beauty, but so is anyone who is 18-years-old, until they’re ravaged by age, obesity, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or just the consequences of bad choices. In my indelibly inked mind’s eye, she was still angelically faced, muscularly sinewy and lean, twinkly and smiley-eyed, and just pouring out with excited enthusiasm for every micromoment of her day. But, yes, I believe I was over her.
Still, I wonder what would have happened had we not gone in two different compass directions for our educations. The fantasies, the plans, the expectations of our young, open, and pioneering minds—would they have been realized? Maybe. Perhaps a few of them?
In college I was pre-med, as were 60% of my entering freshman college class. By senior year, only 4% of our class were still pre-med. By the next year, only 1% of us were actually in medical school. I went as an out-of-state student to LSU School of Medicine in Shreveport, Louisiana, which is really in Texas, for all practical purposes. After my second year, I was granted the opportunity to switch to the LSU in New Orleans which, for all practical purposes, isn’t really in the South.
I remember a particular lecture from a visiting professor of Emergency Medicine. He explained that you can always predict what the next drug-fueled societal calamity would be in the United States by looking at what was happening in Japan in the present. I was curious.
“What is the drug problem in Japan right now, sir?” I asked.
It was rude, because I had interrupted him; but he was gracious and answered. He didn’t say, exactly, “crack,” but it was whatever crack was back then. By the time I applied to residency programs, crack was all over New Orleans, consumed by those who not only didn’t care whether you died when they mugged you, but didn’t even care if they died. The guns didn’t help, certainly. By senior year, both crack cocaine and I prepared to seek our destinies.
I had decided I wanted to be an Emergency Medicine doctor. I was accepted by Boston Medical Center’s Department of Emergency Medicine. I remember well my personal statement I had sent to them when I had applied:
For me, the Emergency Room is a special place, because it is the final resting place of consequences. Not only the accidents that come from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the bad diet and sedentary lifestyles that doom the physiology, foolish stunts and senseless risks that imperil the body’s integrity and structure, and poor life choices—their victims all ending up needing help for problems bigger than them. And this is probably why such things get to that point—the lure toward such maleficence was too powerful to resist. In any event, they’re at a point where they need help beyond that of which they are capable. As an Emergency Department physician, I become their steward, to mend them, perhaps fix the problems that got them there, and hopefully educate them so that I never see them again. This is not their gift to me; this is their gift to me—an honor entrusted to the very few. Although a real doctor learns to accept that he or she cannot fix everyone, were it another’s responsibility, the outcome may have been worse: at the end of each endless day, when I tally what I had done, the fact that it was my responsibility that oversaw such people to the best of my abilities is a feeling like no other. It's not hubris; it’s love, and without it no real doctor has any business practicing medicine. This is the passion I want to bring to my rotation and to the specialty into which I venture.
Whoever sat in judgment of such Admission Committee fodder loved it. A quick weekend trip was enough to establish a place to live, within walking distance to the hospital, and I was all set to report to my first rotation in the Emergency Room on July 1, the most dangerous day of the entire year in medicine—when shiny, new MDs with no unsupervised experience were thrown, unsupervised, at those who would have fared better on June 30, the safest day of the entire year in medicine. I defiantly said Bring it on! This is me. A real doctor. My call, my vocation, my destiny. I was ready, grandiose, and pompous.
Rotations of 12-hour shifts began on the 7s, so by 6:00 AM I was walking along Massachusetts Avenue toward the medical center. It was only a ten-minute walk, but I wanted to get there with enough time to have a cup of coffee and perhaps meet some of my equally inexperienced doctors, ready to assume stewardship of those for whom July 1 seemed no different from any other day in the calendar.
My walk on Mass Avenue, toward the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard, was stymied by persons with substance abuse issues whose dispositions were not keen on yielding politely. “Mass and Cass” represented a zone of homeless, addicted, underserved, and abused individuals foretold by the same scourge in Japan years earlier. They endured, between their visits to methadone clinics, homeless shelters, and drug treatment centers, in their ramshackle tents.
My walk was like entering an enchanted forest; true, there may be an augmented degree of adventure the deeper I journey, but it can also rain upon you a progressive accruing of menace and danger, from those who didn’t care whether they died, and also didn’t even care if they died. The farther I went, navigating my zigzags through this human heap of desperation, the more frightened I became. I witnessed active drug deals involving cash for pills, patches, vials, and needles.
I wasn’t really looking at anyone as I walked; I had my tunnel vision on, avoiding eye contact, my destination the horizon, as my only vantage reference point, like an actor performing to the “fourth wall,” far in the distance. Some eyes, it seems, can hook you.
A woman, easily 20-30 years older than me, flashed smiley eyes reminiscent of my childhood Stephanie. They were the only things on her that rang that particular bell, because she was so different otherwise—pale, emaciated, slightly stumbling in her gait. Obviously ravaged by age and the traditional nemeses of any 18-year-old: the slings and arrows and consequences of bad choices. All of this poor woman’s micromoments, originally slated for celebration, had blurred into the last throes of survival. I watched her stagger toward me but, to my relief, she was aiming past me, not at me.
We crossed paths and that was that. A closer examination as she passed revealed a haggard woman, impossible to age and life-exhausted. She had cutoff shorts that were too tight, but which revealed that the track marks were not exclusive to her arms. Yet her eyes twinkled, but not as much as I remembered Stephanie’s because of the dilated pupils and jerky movements of them. Japan’s troubles of yesterday were alive and well in this woman’s eyes.
It was emotionally exhausting. Although I hadn’t been to Mass in years, I found myself offering Catholic prayers as I passed, because I had nothing else to give them. Hail Mary’s, Our Fathers, and Glory Bes. Hell, if I were able, I would have hauled novenas at them. Self-reflecting on my faith, I realized I was not qualified to pray for anyone.
I would take a taxi next time, if they’d be willing to go this way.
My first official duty was to attend a briefing—how to be a real doctor—a 10-minute primer:
Use this suture for lacerations; use that antibiotic for punctures or dog bites. Give anyone with hypoglycemia dextrose IV until the Internal Medicine resident came. Put restraints on anyone combative until the Psych resident came. Use these settings on the defibrillator until the ECG gets read. Epinephrine sub-Q for anyone wheezing. Put a tube in every orifice before consulting the Surgery resident; no narcotics for anyone.
We all scribbled furiously, although it was mostly common sense.
“Go report to the ER and ask the Chief Resident to assign you a patient,” the elderly doctor briefing us said. Then, with his back to us as he left, added, “When in doubt, ask. You’ll be a real doctor when you don’t have to ask questions.” He yelled back to us more loudly the farther down the hall he went, “And if you don’t feel you need to ask any questions right now, here on July 1, please tell us, because we’ll make sure you won’t ever be a real doctor.”
I managed a question for every patient I saw, even if I knew the answer. “Treat ’em and street ’em” was the protocol. For the others, the consulted residents would take them away to their respective services. In the meantime, there was my stewardship, in full glory.
It was a revolving door, and I was lucky enough that my passengers went smoothly with its torque. At one point, my collection of patients had reached zero, and I decided I should try to hide if I wanted to get anything to eat. I salivated over my brown bag lunch, sitting in a cubby hole, hopefully not stolen. Like a heat-seeking missile, I made a beeline for it, but my run for the gold was thwarted.
“Room 8,” the resident said. “Meth Mile patient in bad shape. Really yellow. Watch out, she’s a spitter.”
I masked, goggled, and gloved myself. I opened the door a crack and peaked in. No spitting. At least not yet. I stepped all the way in and I saw that same woman I had passed on Meth Mile. Indeed, she was much yellower than I had realized. No smiles in these eyes, only a buttery hue to the whites of them. Still pinpoint, they looked right at me.
“You my doctor, now?” she asked. Her voice was raspy from 40 pack-years of smoking crammed into only a decade.
“Right now, yes,” I answered.
“Good,” she said. “You’re just my type.” This threw me off a bit.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“You just know it, don’tcha?”
“Well, there are things I need to know about you—besides that.”
I looked through my notes for her demographic intake sheet and looked back up to ask her a question, but she was asleep. Her sickly eyes were closed, closing her windows to the world, and with that, her brow unfurrowed, her face unfolded from the anticipation, apprehension, or bitterness; her jaw unclenched. I was able to see the child in her, even though she semmed middle aged. Her disastrous life was swaddled in respite, visiting another place, hopefully dodging the very things that landed her here in Room 8.
“Cheyenne? Cheyenne Skye,” I asked. She started, then reposed when she saw me again. “What brings you here?”
It was a rhetorical question. Her intravenous drug abuse had brought her here; her hepatitis, her HIV+ status, her malnutrition, and her addictions had all brought her here.
“I need a bump,” she answered.
“A bump. A dose, a hit, a fix, ’cause I’m going down…” she began in singsong, “down to the pits that I left uptown…I need a fix ’cause I’m going dow-dow-down.”
She smiled, but it was a smile of self-irony—of resignation. It was the smile given when there’s nothing else left to give. And it was a plea as well.
“First, Ms. Skye—”
“Cheyenne,” she mumbled, but not to me—for me to catch.
“First, Cheyenne,” I continued, I’m going to have to draw some blood, I’m afraid.”
“Go ’head,” she agreed. “Not afraid of needles,” she laughed, whether this was funny or not.
“Good. Let me wrap this around your upper arm and lay it down here.” I applied the rubber hose tourniquet and looked her arm over. “Should I even try here?” I asked, looking at the gridiron crease in her mid-arm.
“Those ships have sailed, Doc,” she said. “Here, I’m gonna show you Ol’ Faithful, but you gotta promise you won’t tell anyone else.”
“Top secret,” I said.
She slapped the inside of her lower arm and there appeared a sinuous tract, complete with knobby valves. I ran my finger along it upwards, and it collapsed, indicating patency; I released my pinch on it below my little test and it refilled.
“Looks good, Cheyenne,” I said.
“Something on me that looks good,” she huffed sarcastically. I had no answer because she made a good point. “Cheyenne’s my stripper name.”
“Oh. What’s your real name, then?”
“Stephanie,” she answered.
Couldn't be was the fastened door whose locks and tumblers started fumbling loudly. I studied her carefully. Could it? Malnutrition, drug abuse, disease, emotional collapse, and a failing liver meant she could be anybody.
I swabbed the area with alcohol and it glistened, beckoningly. “Yea,” she said, “I should do that with the alcohol, too, I guess.”
I uncapped the needle and connected a vacuum tube to the syringe’s end, but not enough for the needle to penetrate it and establish a suction yet. For that I needed penetration into her vein. She crooked her neck up to watch as I placed the needle right over her skin for the thrust, and I saw a different type of look come over her face—not wan, forlorn, no longer desperate—a lover’s look, but twisted by passion. “Doc,” she said seductively.”
“Make it feel like a good…like a good fuck.”
It wasn’t romantic, but it must have worked for her, for now her face showed absolute pleasure. “That was so…good. You’re the best. See? I told you.”
“Told me what?”
“You’re my type,” she answered. “We just had to put ourselves in the near occasion of sin, that’s all. After that, it ain’t a sin, right? That’s how I always go about it. Helps with all that guilt. I thank the guy who told me that all the time.”
“No, don’t,” I cautioned. “It’s bad advice.”
“What about for me? Not for me.” She sat up halfway in a pose, allowing the wardrobe malfunction hospital gowns were prone to suffer. I reached over and pulled one side of it toward the other, reducing her exposure and spurning her invitation.
“Sorry,” I said. “That time won’t come. I’m going to send in another doctor, now. Someone not your type. But know this, Cheyenne, sex isn’t just penetration. It’s not just putting Tab A into Slot B. It’s communion, the forging of a composite being, so it’s holy.”
“It’s Stephanie, Doc, not Cheyenne” she said sternly. As I turned to leave the room she spat at me, and I felt her spittle strike my white coat from behind.
We each had had our masks, preventing recognition—mine an N95, and hers, malnutrition, drug abuse, disease, emotional collapse, a failing liver, and the pock marks on her soul from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Her mask had fallen, but mine kept me safely anonymous.
I was decimated with a type of pain I had never felt before. Empathy is one thing, but when it’s to the point of sharing a person’s total surrender, there is no rip in the world more treacherous—a one-way trip into the black hole. Some problems are bigger than you, once you’re past the event horizon. Hers was bigger than me. Here in Room 8 was a final resting place of consequences and poor life choices.
I had failed: I was a bad steward, unable to mend her, fix her problems, or educate her. This honor of stewardship—the doctor’s calling—was no gift but a trap from which there was no return. I would either escape it or die in it.
To this day I wonder how the outcome might have been different for her, had the responsibility of her stewardship been assigned to someone else. That night, at the end of my first day as an Emergency Room doctor, when I tallied what I had done, I had a feeling that blindsided me. It was antithesis to the passion I so eloquently had offered in my application personal statement.
Newly etched in my lifestone were two things I knew for certain:
I wasn’t over her; and—
I would never be a real doctor until I was.
Diane was a young woman living alone in a cottage overlooking the big Masora Forest, known for many legends.
One of them is that, every few hundred years, there's a healer living nearby, destined to become privy to many secrets the forest keeps well hidden.
Of course, Diane was already aware of this fact. That's precisely why she chose this particular cottage—apart from it being cozy and homey, it was also close to the forest, which was exactly what she needed!
So many unknown herbs are waiting to be discovered and used properly! Diane learned what she could from her grandmother, who was a famous healer. Diane watched her at work when she was a little girl, memorising every technique and every ingredient.
Diane decided right then, when she was just 10 years old, to one day become a healer like her grandma. Twenty years later, her hard work paid off, yet there's still so much left for her to learn.
Not that Diane's complaining; she loved learning! She was curious by nature, which more often than not led her into some crazy situations.
Diane's reminiscing was cut off by the pounding on the door.
'My first patient, and I hadn't even had the time to prepare! Should I call the people who come to see me patients? I'm not a doctor per se...' Diane didn't have the time to think too much about it, because the person threatening to break down the door opened it without waiting for Diane to answer.
A giant stepped inside Diane's cottage, looking around before spotting Diane standing near the table. Diane noticed him limping and wincing at every step he took.
"There you are, lass! Help this big guy, would ya? A bloody snake bit my leg! " The man said it as he sat in front of Diane's table, cursing silently.
"Of course, sir! Let me see the bite, please. I need to check if it's venomous or not." Diane spoke gently, going straight into healer mode. She helped the man raise his leg on a stool, which made him yelp in slight pain.
"Blasted lizard..." The giant cursed silently. Diane cast a quick spell, her hands glowing with a green light. If the light stays green, then it's just a simple snake bite she can heal with magic. If it's venomous, it'll turn dark purple, meaning she'll have to prepare a remedy.
A minute passed and the light stayed green. Good. The only thing left to do now is heal it.
"It should only take a minute. You're lucky the snake wasn't dangerous." Diane addressed the man.
"Thank you, lass. Who knows what might've happened if I hadn't gotten here in time. " The giant expressed his gratitude that his life wasn't in danger.
"Oh, you needn't thank me, sir. I'm happy to help! It's why I became a healer in the first place." Diane blushed a bit at the giant's gratitude. She has been doing this for so long, and yet she still gets embarrassed when people thank her.
"The name's Gord. No need for that "sir" nonsense. What's your name? Can't call you lass all the time, can I?" Gord asked with a grin. His black eyes twinkled with mischief. Despite his height, he seemed like a nice and friendly person. Diane liked him already.
"I'm Diane, and well, you know what I do. Nice to meet you, Gord. You're my first customer, actually! It'd be weird to call you a patient, since I'm not a doctor."
Gord laughed heartily, his laughter booming through the cottage. Combing through his snowy beard, he said, "Nah, you're much nicer than our doctor. He's a good chap, I'll admit, but grumpy. Impatient as well."
Diane didn't say anything about that. She hasn't met the doctor yet, so she can't be a judge of his character. She stood up, going back to the counter.
"Well, Gord, I'm so glad your injury wasn't that serious as it looked. Do you need anything else? I wouldn't want to keep you from whatever you were doing before." Gord just shrugged Diane's concern off.
He pulled something out of his bag before putting it down on the table.
"I was hunting before the accident, so here's my thanks and a sort of welcome gift to the new healer. There are many herbs in the forest that you can use. Lots of fruits too. Just be careful around the foxes; they can be tricky little buggers."
Gord warned Diane before waving her goodbye.
The quiet settled inside the cottage again. Diane sighed before smiling to herself.
'Gord is so nice! I hope I'll see him again, but under less daunting circumstances.' Diane looked at the package Gord left for her, deciding to see what it was. She went to the table and, unwrapping it, saw a rabbit inside. He couldn't have known she hadn't eaten anything yet, could he? What a thoughtful man he was.
"This rabbit is too much to eat at once, so I'll just leave half of it for dinner..." Diane whispered before moving to the kitchen.
The rest of the day was uneventful; no giants appeared, just a cute little family of a cat and her two kittens asking for food and shelter. Their mews were so heartbreaking to listen to, so Diane decided to take them in. They would have a warm home and food, and Diane would have some company.
Plus, the kittens were so adorable, their fur shiny and soft to the touch. Their mother gave Diane permission to pet them; at least, that's what it seemed like to her. Her cottage feels less lonely now that her little friends are here.
The next day, Diane took a trip to the town. She needed fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, and some tuna for her cats. The town wasn't far—a nice 20-minute walk from her cottage. The day was sunny and warm, pleasantly so. It would've been a pity to spend it cooped up inside.
The town of Asmer was a small town, surrounded by tall trees. It's so well hidden that you could easily miss it unless you know the right path. Its architecture was reminiscent of that of the olden days but well maintained. Cobblestone pavement gave Asmer a certain aesthetic.
A local market was located in the city center. Diane was in awe; she didn't know where to go first! She took out her shopping list, checking to see what she wrote on it. She'll buy some tomatoes first. She'll need parsley, pepper, salt, and cinnamon for the cookies she intends to bake, along with flour and some other stuff.
Diane's got a long day ahead of her. That's fine, though; this is a perfect opportunity to see some of the shops she might visit in the future. Before that, she'd like to visit the library. She's in dire need of new reading material.
Once Diane finished at the market, she looked around for a place to rest a bit. Her feet were killing her! Diane quickly spotted a quaint café a few minutes away from where she's at right now. Groaning, she dragged her feet towards it, trying not to crash into someone.
Diane stood in front of a café. It looked old on the outside, with its glass windows. A sign hanging above said "Zozo's." The bell chimed when Diane entered, signalling her arrival.
Diane took in the plush chairs, the wooden tables, and a bar in the center. They were selling delicious-looking cakes too.
Diane's stomach growled. She could use a bite of that chocolate cake she spied.
Diane took a seat in the corner, near a window. She was just putting down her bags when a chirpy voice could be heard above her head.
"Hi, welcome to Zozo's! Would you like to order?" A red-haired girl asked Diane with a friendly smile on her face, carrying a menu with her. It wasn't forced or fake. The girl appeared to be enjoying doing her job. Diane felt at ease immediately.
"Hi, I'm new here, so I haven't decided anything yet. Apart from that chocolate cake I saw. Do you have any recommendations?"
The waitress grinned, happy that someone asked for her opinion.
"You made a right choice with that one! A nice, hot cup of coffee would go splendidly with chocolate cake. " Diane nodded at that. It was what she would order as well.
"You can't go wrong with a chocolate-coffee combo! Okay, I'll take a slice of chocolate cake and a cup of coffee, please."
"Great! I'll be right back with your order!" The waitress spoke before going to the back of the cafe. Diane smiled. This girl is certainly an interesting one.
Diane observed the other patrons in the café.
There were humans and magic folk coexisting peacefully. Since Diane had magic of her own, she could detect those who had it as well. There were mixed groups sitting together, chatting and having fun.
They all had their differences. Nothing is perfect, but as long as no one causes harm to another, it's fine. Diane was happy to be able to mingle with both magic and non-magic people. She was brought out of her thoughts by something spilling on her table.
The waitress was wiping up the mess quickly. She was on the verge of tears.
"I'm sorry! I'm naturally clumsy, so I tripped on thin air and spilled your coffee! I'll bring you another one right away. It's on the house! Oh God, the boss is going to kill me... " Diane waved her hand, wanishing the spilled coffee and refilling her cup.
The waitress gaped at Diane, who only smiled and winked.
"There, all taken care of. Nothing happened." The waitress bowed down, thanking Diane profusely. Diane waved it off.
"I'm Diane, the new healer. What's your name? " Diane asked.
"Oh, how rude of me! I wanted to offer my name when I brought you coffee. My name's Ashley. It's nice to meet you. Gord has told us about you. He said you were really nice, and you healed his snake bite. " Ashley said, offering her hand to the healer, who shook it. Diane blushed at the praise.
"Oh, has he? It was nothing serious, honestly. And it's nice to meet you too, Ash! You don't mind if I give you a nickname, do you? I'm sorry if I offended you in any way! " Diane panicked. She meant no harm and hoped that Ashley knew that.
Ashley looked at Diane in wonder before bursting into laughter. Her laughter attracted the attention of other patrons. It was contagious too, so Diane couldn't help but laugh along.
"Wow, I spilled your coffee, and you think I'd get mad over a nickname? You're so cute. I like you already! And don't worry, I don't mind the nickname. Can I call you Di in return? " Ashley asked, happy to be able to make another friend. She just knew Diane and she were going to be best friends.
Diane nodded, "Sure, I don't mind. Well, Ash, I hope we'll get along! "
"Trust me, we will. I have a good feeling about you. And my instincts have never proved me wrong before. Oh, shoot, I need to get back to work! Thank you for the, you know, and if you need anything, don't hesitate to call me. See you! " Ashley said in one breath before running off to another table. Diane shook her head and smiled.
Diane thought this day wasn't a complete disaster. She made a new friend and got to eat a tasty cake, which she'll be doing right now.
After paying for the cake (she went back and forth with Ashley about it for five minutes), Diane left the café, promising to return tomorrow. Ashley said she'd come and visit Diane on her day off.
The next few days found Diane slowly settling into her new life. She got more customers thanks to Gord and Ashley, which she's grateful for.
Diane started exploring Masora Forest, taking short walks and enjoying the peace and quiet it offered.
Nature is truly a blessing; the thick green treetops create cover from the sun as the birds sing their afternoon song. The scent of flowers permeates the air around the forest, a scent so potent Diane wished to trap it in a bottle to use as perfume.
There was a river streaming through, its surface glittering like tiny crystals in the afternoon sun. It truly was a place out of a fairytale. Diane fell in love with it.
There were animals that carried some form of magic within them. They kept the forest safe—another special trait of Masora Forest. If you don't mean harm, the animals won't bother you. Otherwise, expect to be chased out by a pack of wolves that do live here. Many people thought wolves were extinct in these parts. They couldn't be more wrong.
Despite being aware of the dangers this enchanted forest hid deep within, Diane felt as safe as if she were in her own home. The forest's magic called out to her own, embracing her like she was its child. She didn't need to be afraid.
Diane carried a small journal with her where she drew flowers she came across. She made notes of their size, color, and pattern.
The flowers didn't have any particular names, but Diane didn't worry about it. She was curious about how they could be used in her ointments, remedies, and cremes.
Diane sat under a big tree, gazing at the river. She felt content just sitting in silence, taking in the fresh air and listening to the river. Diane leaned more comfortably against the tree, closing her eyes. She could feel the breeze tickling her face and playing with her hair.
"It's time you hurry up home, little healer." Diane was awakened by a voice from somewhere in the forest. She opened her eyes, trying to locate the source. There was no one to be found.
Thunder can be heard in the distance. The forest became dark, transforming into a completely different place. The atmosphere was eerie and gloomy, and the threat of rain loomed.
Diane hurried along. The warning she got from the mysterious voice proved to be just in time. She ran, trying to make it back to the cottage before the storm it was shaping up to be.
As she ran through the forest, Diane could have sworn she saw the shape of something unidentified following her.
Diane didn't have time to wonder about it before she felt the first few drops of rain on her face. That motivated her to run faster, lest she end up soaked to the bone.
The lightning zapped through the dark sky, making everything around her appear more terrifying than it was just a few hours ago. The sound of thunder added to the scary atmosphere. The wind started to pick up.
Diane made it home in the nick of time, just when the sky opened its floodgates. She had trouble closing the door because of how strongly the wind was blowing. She leaned back against the door, catching her breath. Diane has never run this fast in her entire life!
Diane looked at herself. Her clothes did end up wet in the end. She needs to change out of them or else she'll catch a cold. A nice, warm bath and some hot cocoa sound good right now.
What Diane failed to notice, as she went to her room, was a dark shadow in front of her window. When lightning struck, it was gone.
The next morning, pounding on the door was what woke Diane up. She groaned, mourning those extra few minutes of sleep.
Groggy from sleep, she trudged to the door.
She opened the door, squinting in the bright sunlight. A tall man stood in front of her, his expression way too sour this early in the morning.
"Do you usually keep people waiting outside? That's bad practice and unprofessional. Now, are you going to let me in? " A cold voice asked, making Diane's head throb. She had a feeling this visit was going to leave her more exhausted than she already felt.
"And you are, if I may ask?" Diane asked as she motioned for him to come in. She stiffled a yawn, assuming it wouldn't be received well by the grumpy looking man.
"Forgive my manners. I'm Dr. Nickels, a local doctor. Perhaps you have heard of me. You are friends with Gord and that pixie girl from the café, right?" The doctor asked, observing the healer from behind his glasses.
Diane could feel his steely gaze piercing through her very being.
"Oh, I believe Gord mentioned you once! It's nice to meet you! How may I help you? " Diane went into her work mode immediately, trying to make this visit as painless as possible.
"You don't need to help me, per se, but one of my patients. They're in need of a soothing salve of some kind, and, while I know my way around them, the ingredients are often hard to find. " Diane could tell that it was physically difficult for the doctor to utter those words, but she kept quiet about it.
"Of course, I understand. I think I have some around here. Please wait a moment; I'll be right back. " Diane turned around without waiting for a reply.
"Don't take too long, though. I have other patients to attend to. Time is a precious commodity. " Dr. Nickels' words made Diane roll her eyes, thankful that he couldn't see her.
'He'd probably think I'm disrespectful, apart from being unprofessional. Does he have a good opinion of anyone, or is it just me he dislikes for some reason? ' Diane wondered as she searched for her camfor and orange oil salve. She located it on the shelf, hidden behind a few other bigger jars.
Diane did a quick check, making sure the ingredients were fresh, before returning to her guest, a term she used loosely when it came to Dr. Nickels.
When she came back to the counter, the doctor was where she left him.
"Here is the salve. It should be applied evenly to the affected area, but I can write down the instructions, if you want. " Diane offered, hoping her head wouldn't get bitten off for her suggestion.
The doctor was quiet for a moment before replying, "Yes, that would be wise."
Diane took a piece of paper and started jotting down simple instructions, all the while trying to do it as fast as she could.
Surprisingly, it was the doctor who broke the silence first, "I heard from Gord that you healed his wound. Not a single scar was left. Some of my other patients spoke fondly of you, as well. "
Diane was caught by surprise. She may not have known the doctor well, but she figured he wasn't one to be swayed by the opinions of other people.
"I do try, you know. I've been doing this for as long as I can remember. There's still so much left for me to learn about healing, but I'm in no rush. I like helping people, and I take my job very seriously. Just like you do. " Diane handed Dr. Nickels the paper, noticing he was caught off guard by what she said.
She was beginning to get fed up with his snotty attitude towards her anyway. She had managed to be polite so far, but he was testing her patience.
"Will that be all, doctor?" Diane asked the doctor. He shook himself out of his thoughts, replying, "No thank you, that would be all. For the time being, at least. It still remains to be seen just how seriously you do take your job, Miss Diane. "
With that, Dr. Nickels headed straight to the door.
"I'll see myself out. Have a nice day." Dr. Nickels nodded his head before leaving.
Diane waited for a few moments to make sure he left, before mumbling under her breath, "Asshole."
Two hours after Dr. Nickels' visit, Diane could be found at Zozo's, eating her favorite chocolate cake. Usually, she orders one piece of the cake.
That's usually when she's not eating her stress and annoyance away. She ordered three pieces now.
When she gave her order to Ashley, the waitress gaped at her for three seconds before telling Diane her cake would be ready soon. The black cloud over the healer's head was telling. It was rare to see Diane in such a mood; she's cheerful and friendly most of the time.
"So, mind telling me what happened that made you attack that poor cake?" Ashley wondered if she was the only one crazy enough to approach someone who gave off such angry vibes. And Ashley was good at sensing them.
Diane gave herself a moment to calm down. She sighed deeply before explaining what was bothering her.
"Sorry for that. That's how I get when I stress eat. And my magic gets out of control when I'm angry. " Diane said, taking a sip of her coffee. Her magic settled, not sending sparks all over the place.
Ashley felt it, too. She sighed in relief. One magic accident is avoided successfully.
"Yeah, I can sense that, literally. What I want to know is why. Did something happen? Are the kittens okay? " Ashley fell in love with Diane's kittens when she visited Diane for the first time.
She even gave them names—Coco and Whiskers. So it's understandable she gets worried about them.
Diane smiled at her friend softly and said, "No, the kittens are fine, Ash. Don't worry. I got a visit this morning from Dr. Nickels. "
Apparently, that was enough for Ashley. She gave Diane a look of sympathy.
"You finally met our local ray of sunshine of a doctor, huh? He elicits that kind of reaction from most people. What did he say to you? " Ashley got a hunch that more had happened than what Diane had offered so far.
"First, he woke me up. That's not a crime itself, but he pounded on the door like a brute! Then he said that I was unprofessional because I kept him waiting outside; please excuse my lateness; I just woke up! Then, throughout the whole visit, he gave me that holier-than-thou attitude. His time is precious, his patients are waiting, and so on. And lastly, he had the nerve to imply that I don't take my job seriously and that it remains to be seen if I'm that serious about it as I said I was! In short, he's downright rude and arrogant! " Diane finished her tirade, feeling better for sharing this with someone.
A snort and stiffled laughter was all she got out of Ashley, who was trying hard not to laugh. It got to be too much for her, so she started to laugh loudly.
Diane stared at her in shock, then gave her an unimpressed look. She took an angry bite out of her cake while waiting for her friend to calm down.
Ashley wiped her tears away after laughing so hard. She calmed down a bit before she said anything.
"Wow, that was intense! You actually talked back to him? And you managed not to strangle him while at it? Di, you're a saint, honestly! " Before Diane could argue that, Ashley continued.
"I'm being serious. He might be a great doctor, but he raises the blood pressure of the people he treats. He's like that with everyone, so don't take it personally. Don't let him get to you; it's not worth it. You're just as good as anyone else at what you do! Who is he to judge? " Now Ashley starts to get angry on her friend's behalf.
"He never saw how you treat people with kindness, how caring you are, how you explain what each herb is used for. My grandmother sings you praise every morning she wakes up without breathing heavily. The tea you gave her for her lungs helped her so much, so he's talking nonsense! He should really get off his high horse! " Ashley shouted the last part, drawing curious gazes towards Diane's table.
None of the girls paid them any attention. Diane was moved by her friend's passionate speech; her eyes stung a little, but she pushed the tears away.
"He did mention Gord and you. He knows I'm friends with you guys, and he said that he saw no scar where Gord was bitten. He did give me a backhanded compliment, I suppose. You're right, though. He has no right to judge my work ethic when he hasn't seen me actually working! " Diane said, making her the one to calm Ashley down now.
"Exactly, so don't let him get to you. You do your work, he does his, and everyone is happy! Now, finish your cake, and we'll go to my place. You're staying for lunch. Nana would be thrilled to have you over. " Ashley stood up, stretching her back. She needed to go back to work.
Luckily, her shift is going to be over soon. Before leaving, Ashley said, "And I won't take no for an answer. Wait for me to finish my shift and we'll go together.
Diane simply nodded, knowing that there was no use in arguing with Ashley once she had made up her mind about something.
It was decided that Diane would stay over at Ashley's for a sleepover. They could bake cookies, drink hot chocolate, and just talk about nothing and everything.
Ashley's grandmother was happy to have the healer over. In a way, she took Diane under her wing.
Nana frequently sent Diane food, knowing that given her occupation, she wouldn't eat unless forced to. Now that Diane's staying for the night, she can put some actual food into her.
Needless to say, Diane had a fun afternoon and evening with her friend and her grandmother. Both had a wicked sense of humor, something Diane appreciated greatly. Rude doctors were forgotten for the time being.
"Miss healer, miss healer, where are you? We need your help. Hurry! " It was what Diane came home to, or rather, what she found outside her door when she got back from Ashley's place.
Two white rabbits were waiting for her, looking frantic.
"What's wrong, little ones?" Diane asked them.
"One of the foxes was injured when a hunter shot it. Don't worry, it wasn't your friend the giant that did it. Please help the fox! They may not be the most pleasant animals to be around, but they contribute to the safety of our forest in their own way. " One of the rabbits explained.
"Let me just get my things. Wait here! " Diane said as she unlocked the door, gathering what she might need from the shelf. She put it all in her bag before hurrying out.
The rabbits lead the way to the forest. A few minutes later,
Diane could see two sillhouettes.
Those were the foxes, the pair that Gord had warned her about when they first met. They were cunning and maintained order in the forest.
They put anyone they came across on a trial of their own making, especially newcomers like Diane. It's different for everyone; something sly, befitting of the foxes' nature.
It was only a matter of time before Diane ran into them.
Will they put her on trial now that one of them is badly injured? She's going to heed Gord's warning. It's best to be prepared.
When Diane and the rabbits drew near, they saw a fox lying on its stomach. The fox was hissing in pain, the arrow that struck her sticking out of its back.
Diane needed to tread carefully. If she moved too fast, the fox might try to attack her.
"It's alright, little healer. We know why you're here; we called for you, after all. You won't be attacked. " The fox that was sitting spoke.
The voice sounded familiar to Diane, but she didn't have the time for that. She needed to get the arrow out.
The arrow was buried deeper than Diane expected. This is going to be a little tough. The healer took a moment to take in the soft looking reddish-orange fur. Diane started petting the fox gently in comfort.
The fox stopped hissing and settled down. Diane smiled softly before saying, in a quiet voice, "It's going to be okay. The arrow is in a little deeper, so bear with me, alright? I promise to be gentle as much as I can. "
The fox nodded in understanding. Diane grinned, before turning to the other fox and the rabbits.
"Alright then, let's begin! I'll need some fresh water, so could you bring me some, please? It'll move things along faster if we work together. " The rabbits nodded, taking the bowl that Diane handed them. They ran off towards the river that was, thankfully, nearby.
Diane took out a container. There were ice cubes in it. She gently rubbed the area around the wound, making it numb. She also used her magic to ensure it stayed numb.
The other fox observed in silence.
The next challenge is getting the arrow out in one piece. Diane gripped the part sticking out and started to pull it out slowly. She gauged the fox's reaction to make sure it was not in any pain.
"Here's water!" The rabbits put the bowl near Diane's bag, getting a nod of thanks from the healer. They watched as she slowly, but surely, pulled the arrow out.
Diane threw the arrow away, letting out the breath she had been holding. She managed to take the whole arrow out without leaving pieces of wood inside. Diane started cleaning out the wound to stop it from getting infected. She wiped the blood and dirt away gently, doing a thorough job.
Diane preferred dressing these kinds of wounds the old-fashioned way—without magic. One shouldn't rely on magic for something as simple as disinfecting.
"I took the arrow out and now I'm just disinfecting the wound. Do you feel any pain? " Diane asked the injured fox, who only shook its head no. Diane was glad her numbing technique and spell worked.
"That's good. I used some ice and did a numbing spell before doing anything else. I'm not a doctor, but I was taught how to do first aid as well. And I don't like seeing anyone in pain if I can help it. " Diane explained, trying not to give out too much information.
All the while, the other fox sat back and watched it all play out.
"Is Roxy going to be okay now, miss healer?" One of the rabbits asked nervously. Diane could tell they were really worried, which is strange. Don't foxes hunt rabbits? Leaving that thought for later, Diane turned to the rabbit who asked her.
"Yes, Roxy is going to be just fine. All that's left to do is a quick check to see if there's any poison or some other toxin left and to bandage the wound. And then Roxy will need some rest. No strenuous activities until the wound is completely healed! "
With that, Diane put her palm over the wound, checking for any poison or toxin that might've been on that arrow.
Her palm glowed light blue. So there was something on the arrow, but it wasn't that strong. It was probably something to make Roxy sleepy. Whoever shot Roxy didn't mean to kill her.
"What does the blue light mean?" The other fox spoke for the first time since it told Diane not to worry.
"It just means that there is some sort of chemical or medicine that is not meant to harm or kill anyone. I'll get it out fast. There's a small amount of it in there. " Diane said while focusing her magic in that one spot.
When the light finally turned light green, Diane knew she had succeeded in getting the remaining chemicals out.
Diane felt relieved that it was finally over. Now all that she needs to do is to bandage the wound.
"The bandage would need to be changed every day for at least a week, so I guess you'll be seeing me every day for a week." Diane told the foxes after washing her hands and packing her stuff.
"That's understandable. We have no means of doing it ourselves, so a little extra help is needed. We offer you our gratitude. "
The fox told Diane as both foxes bowed their heads.
"You're welcome. It's my pleasure to help animals too, not just humans. Besides, you have an important role in the forest, don't you? You can't exactly afford to be indisposed. " The foxes seemed impressed by what Diane said.
"You've done your research, I see. That's correct. We do an important job of maintaining order in Masora Forest. Wolves serve as bodyguards while we punish those who disturb our peace. We reward those who contribute to it. That's how things have worked around here for thousands of years. "
Diane nodded in understanding. While their methods might leave much to be desired, if they get the job done, then it's fine.
"And how else would we be able to be our mischievous selves? That's a contract we signed with the higher spirits that protect the forest. We get to be ourselves in exchange for protecting our home. A fair trade off, if you think about it. "
Diane swears she saw the fox grin slyly as it spoke.
Before leaving, the fox said, "You can find us here. Just call out our names. You already know Roxy. My name is Kettu. Until tomorrow, little healer. "
Diane just waved them goodbye and left the forest.
Later that night, as she got ready for bed, Diane remembered where she heard that voice from two nights ago—it was Kettu's voice. Kettu called her "little healer" then, too, when the fox warned her about the storm.
A week later, Roxy's wound healed nicely. Not a single scar remained, which made Diane very proud and happy. The fox actually heeded her advice and rested throughout the whole week.
Diane was happy that all turned out fine in the end, but there's just something strange about this whole situation.
Now, Diane might not be an expert on magical creatures, but she's pretty sure that some animals, particularly the ones in tune with nature, have powerful healing abilities. That includes the ability to heal themselves as well as others.
Diane even went to the library to do some research on animal magic, foxes in particular. What she found confirmed what she already suspected to be true.
"Well, let's see what they have to say about this tomorrow." Diane said as she returned the book.
The next day, when Diane checked on Roxy's wound, she decided to go straight to the point.
"You could've healed yourself from the start, couldn't you? Since you're the protectors of Masora Forest, you must have some kind of ability. And healing abilities are one of them. Am I wrong? " Diane asked the foxes, looking straight at them.
Kettu and Roxy shared a single look before Kettu spoke, "You're right, we are able to heal ourselves just fine. Let's just say we had a valid reason for this little charade. "
"And that reason is?" Diane had her suspicions, but she needed to be sure. You never know with these foxes. But so far, they've been more straightforward than most humans ever are.
"Your cottage is on the border between the human realm and our own magic realm. You have the power to heal. That makes you, in a sense, a part of our world too. We wanted to be sure you'd be able to help us should the occasion present itself. And you proved yourself more than capable. "
Diane glared at Kettu, "And you couldn't have done it in a different way, maybe? Not that I'm surprised. I was warned about you before. You really are little buggers. " Diane said the last part without any heat in her voice. She kind of expected it, so there's no need to get worked up about it.
Kettu and Roxy laughed in their foxy way, already knowing who called them like that.
"Yes, we are sometimes. But it's necessary. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to discern your sincerity and dedication. It all turned out fine in the end, didn't it? You've taken more than good care of me, Diane." Roxy spoke to Diane for the very first time.
Diane stared wide-eyed at Roxy, "I thought you couldn't speak at all! "
"Kettu loves doing all the talking. I'm just a quiet observer most of the time.
Now it was Kettu's turn to glare. "I'm just better at handling such things. If we had had it your way, then everything would've remained a mystery. "
"And what's so bad about a little mystery? They make this whole world that much more special and keep the brain working. " Roxy stated, casually. Diane just sat there and listened to the foxes going back and forth.
'They're like little kids or, more correctly, like cubs. But they're not that bad, I suppose. Better than most, certainly. ' At that, Diane remembered Dr. Nickels.
She had another encounter with him this week, but chose not to take the bait this time. Ignorance can truly be bliss sometimes.
Diane couldn't complain-life can truly be a mystery. After all, there's so much that we haven't uncovered about the world around us and ourselves. The adventure has just begun.
AUTHOR: Emilija Veljković
Secrets of a Ghost Town
Down by the muddy riverbank on a sunny afternoon, Lizzy sat with her back against the trunk of her favourite tree and with her favourite book in her hands. The sound of the running water next to her soothed her nerves, and the words written across the pages she was reading had all of her attention. Lizzy had always been like that, she always appreciated the little things. Like the chirping of the birds jumping from one tree to another, the feeling of the soft grass between her fingers, the rustling of tree leaves, or even the sound of turning a page in a book she was lost in. Lizzy was a passionate, positive, and sensitive girl who always loved living life to the fullest. She romanticised everything, and always had a way of making something terrible seem perfect.
Every person in Lizzy's small town knew who she was, they all loved her. But no one knew where she always ran to when she felt life was too overwhelming and just wanted to be alone with a book. No one but Lucas.
"What are you doing?"
Lizzy jumped at the sound. She was too lost in her book that she forgot about the real world around her. She looked up and saw Lucas sitting down next to her. A smile drew itself across her face at the sight of her best friend. "I'm reading, obviously."
"You're always reading. I miss you."
"You just saw me yesterday, idiot." She said but her stomach fluttered with butterflies.
"Reading is the only place I can let go, you know that."
"Yeah, escape from reality and live all those different lives, you told me that before." Lucas said. "But don’t you get tired of reading that book over and over again?"
"I love that book. It's always good to live in a world where you know there's a happy ending."
Lucas raised his eyes to look at her. He took her in, her soft skin and the dimple in her cheek, her blue eyes that glimmered in the sunlight, the golden strands of hair that fell down her face and the warm smile she had as she pushed them back and looked at Lucas.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Lizzy felt the same butterflies again. She loved how Lucas always stared at her. She loved to feel his gaze on her when she was not looking and imagine all the things he could be thinking of. She imagined he was thinking she was the most beautiful girl he'd ever known. She imagined he thought he'd do anything to make her happy. And she imagined he was picturing the two of them together, just like she always did herself.
"I just love seeing you happy. If reading the same book over and over makes you happier than living in the real world, then please, keep reading it." Lucas said. Lizzy noticed just a hint of a sad smile on his face she didn’t see a lot. Lucas was always happy, he always wanted her to do something or go somewhere instead of just sitting there reading. He was enthusiastic about life and knew how to put a smile on someone's face in the worst times possible. So that sad smile he had, Lizzy wasn’t comfortable with. When Lucas noticed her narrowing her eyes at him, he stood up in one quick motion and clapped his hands together. "But for now, you need to get up and come with me."
"Where are we going?"
He shrugged. "I don’t know. Anywhere. Everywhere. Come on, everyone's asking about you."
Lizzy closed her book and got up. "Why would everyone ask about me, Lucas? Are you just trying to get me out of here?"
"No, I'm serious. People love hanging out with you, Liz." He took a step closer to her. His eyes gazed down on her. "Especially me."
Lizzy felt her heart skip a beat. She gazed into his eyes and never wanted to look away. In that moment, she didn’t care about anything else in the entire world. In that moment, it didn’t matter that Lucas just got out of a serious relationship. It didn’t matter that they were best friends practically their whole lives. In that moment, Lizzy didn’t care about her books or the happy endings she was never going to have. She only cared about Lucas. She wanted to freeze that moment when he locked his eyes with hers and showed what she could only describe as love. Lizzy wanted to stay in that moment forever and never let the reality of their world break them apart.
But nothing that felt so good ever lasted. Lucas broke their eye contact first. He looked down, then up, then behind him at the river, he looked everywhere but at her. Lizzy could see the glistening of his eyes. And his lips turned up at one side. She wanted to ask him why they couldn’t be together if he felt that much about her. But she didn’t dare let the question past her lips.
Lizzy slowly lifted her hand to touch his, he turned to face her again, she dropped her hand beside her. "Come on, let's go."
He lead the way through the trees and back onto the road. Outside the shadows of the trees above her, Lizzy could feel the sun heat warm up her body. She had to scrunch her eyes to avoid the sunlight hurting them. She'd been sitting by the river for hours that she got used to the green colours of the grass and the light blue of the river water. She had to accustom her eyes to the pale yellow outside on the streets.
Lizzy and Lucas walked side by side, street after street, shop after shop. Lizzy never liked their small town. Whenever she walked down those dusty streets, surrounded from both sides by different kinds of shops, and feeling the always hot air on her face, she felt suffocated. She felt like she could never leave, like every turn she will take, will always lead her to the same spot again. The only thing that made it all better, was having Lucas by her side.
They opened the door to the florist's shop, Mrs. Jackson. She was an elderly woman who walked on crutches. She smiled when she heard the ringing of the door chimes and looked at them. Her smile only made the wrinkles in her face more defined. She walked over to Lizzy and Lucas using her crutches for support.
"Oh, I wasn’t expecting you two today." She said in her high-pitched, old woman voice then she narrowed her eyes at them. "Did you skip school?"
"No, Mrs. Jackson, it's Saturday, we don’t have school today." Lizzy laughed and looked at Lucas but he wasn’t giving any reaction. "Lucas is going to buy me flowers. Right, Lucas?"
He snapped out of his trance and gave her his most charming smile. "Of course, anything for you, love."
Mrs. Jackson grinned, making her wrinkles even deeper. They walked further into the shop but everywhere Lizzy looked, there were wilting flowers. She looked at Mrs. Jackson, "Mrs. Jackson, have you been okay? Was there no one taking care of these flowers?"
The old florist frowned. She looked around her small shop. "Uh… I'm not sure…" she stuttered with confusion. "Maybe I wasn’t feeling well,"
"Mrs. Jackson, it's okay." Lucas said and supported her when she started to fall back. "It's okay, you should rest."
Lucas walked outside with a confused Lizzy. The world outside the shop seems to be even dustier and yellowish than it was before they entered the flower shop. "How come the weather is only getting worse when it's almost evening?"
Lucas stopped and looked up at the sky, covering his eyes with his hand. "I don’t know. We always get these very dusty days, Liz, don’t worry about it."
He looked at her and extended his hand for her. She didn’t care about the weather anymore as she accepted his hand and let him drag her behind him into an aimless run. They ran, their hands intertwined, and their laughs blending together and they didn’t stop until they were already at the end of the street. They kept laughing as they breathed heavily, trying to recover from their sprint.
When Lizzy stood straight up again, she was startled to see Lucas standing inches away from her. The last of their laughs died down and they were left staring into each other's eyes again. "Lizzy," Lucas spoke, his voice barely audible, "Elizabeth Parker, what are you doing to me?"
Lizzy's voice got caught up in her throat. Her heart jumped and her skin tingled. Her lips parted and she saw how Lucas's eyes flitted down to them.
"Lizzy, I missed you so much."
"What do you mean, Lucas?"
He shook his head and smiled. He opened his mouth. Lizzy wanted to kiss him. He wanted to say something. His eyes held so many words that never passed his lips. But he was leaning in. Lizzy closed her eyes. She waited. But nothing happened.
She opened her eyes again then frowned. The flower shop was right behind Lucas. "How did this happen?"
Lucas followed her eyes.
"How did we get back here?"
Lucas didn’t say anything.
Lizzy was distracted from the flower shop when she was almost knocked down by a strong body. She looked to her side and instantly felt a lump in her throat at the sight of Laura. She looked at Lucas and he looked just as surprised.
"What are you doing here with her, Lucas?"
"Are you stalking us?" Lizzy couldn’t help but ask.
Laura turned her attention to Lizzy and smirked. "It's a small town, Parker. If you don’t want to run into me, get out of here."
Lizzy almost took a step back under the intimidating look Laura pinned her down with. How could Laura know that Lizzy wanted to get out of that town? And why did Lizzy sense a warning in Laura's glare?
"Lucas, we need to talk."
Lucas looked at Lizzy before he said anything. "We shouldn’t, Laura."
"Please. I need to talk to you."
"It's okay. I'll wait for you." Lizzy said and gave his hand a squeeze. His skin was cold. Lizzy didn’t think anything of it.
She walked a few steps away from the ex-couple. She couldn’t even look at the two of them together. So she let her eyes wander around the street. One side was lined with small shops, the other was the woods that lead to the riverside. Lizzy wandered to the edge of the woods and lost herself in the life she made in her head for herself and Lucas. How they'd go through their ups and downs then end up together in the end. She liked to think it would be a romantic moment in her life when years from then, Lucas finally confessed his love for her and then they lived happily ever after. Lizzy smiled at the thought as she let her eyes follow a chirping bird over the river.
She longed for the calm tide of the river, for the sweet singing of the birds, and the soft grass. It was the only place she could let go of all the stress and be as peaceful as she could ever be. It's where she felt the most calm.
That is until she saw a shadow moving in the trees. She walked closer. Then closer. And even closer. There was no shadow. There was something else. Blood. Dark, red splotches of blood ruining the beautiful green of the grass and the brown of the tree trunks. Red blending in with no longer clear blue water. Red everywhere.
Suddenly, Lizzy was crying in Lucas's arms. She opened her eyes and dared a glance at the woods. Everything was normal. No blood. Nothing.
"You're okay, Liz. You're okay, baby."
She looked up at Lucas. His fingers ran across her cheek gently, his hand held hers tightly. He was colder than before. When she looked at his face, the redness in his cheeks was turning pale. The green of his eyes was losing their glimmer.
Lucas smiled. "She left. She thought we could get back together."
"What did you think?"
"I don’t want her, Liz."
Lizzy smiled despite the rapid beating of her heart and the fear she still felt. She let Lucas help her to her feet and he walked her home, saying that it was getting dark. They walked through the same streets until they reached her house. The sky was getting darker and darker very quickly. And by the time they reached Lizzy's house, it was completely dark, the street only lit by a dim moonlight.
Lizzy's father opened the door for them when they knocked. His usual red face was as pale as Lucas's. But he smiled even though he looked tired. "Lizzy, come here." He pulled her into a tight hug that Lizzy didn’t understand.
She laughed it off. "Dad, I've only been gone since this morning."
"I know. It's always good to see my daughter anyway."
Lizzy ignored her father's overly emotional attitude and thought that maybe he'd been looking through his old pictures with her mum and it made him emotional. But she couldn’t ignore his freezing skin. She touched Lucas's hand as they walked up the stairs to her room and wasn’t surprised to see it was freezing just as her father's.
"Lucas, what's going on?"
He didn’t answer her. He walked into her room and she followed him. She stood at the doorway and watched him looking at every corner of the room like he was taking it for the first time.
Lucas turned his back to her. She took a step closer to him. Slowly, she brought a hand to his shoulder. He flinched away.
"Lucas, what's wrong? Why are you freezing like that?"
He turned around to face her. Lizzy was surprised when she saw tears falling down his face. "Lizzy… I tried… I'm sorry…"
"What are you talking about?"
"I tried to protect you from the truth."
Lucas smiled. A smile that Lizzy fell in love with from the moment she saw it. He took a step forward. "I can't be around much longer. No one can. We all tried." He said, "I wish I could go back in time and leave this town with you when I had the chance."
Lizzy frowned in confusion. When did she leave town and asked him to go with her? She was still in school. She'd planned to leave after school, and she'd always planned to take Lucas with her.
"I wish it was easy to keep you in this world. This world where everything is fine, where we find our happy ending, you and me. I wish we could stay here forever."
"Lucas…" Lizzy whispered. She didn’t have anything to follow his name with. She didn’t need to, because he was stepping forward again and closing the space between them.
Lucas brought an ice-cold hand to Lizzy's face. He brushed her hair behind her ear. He leaned in and stopped right before their lips touched. "I love you, Lizzy. I always have."
Their lips connected and they weren't as cold as Lizzy thought they would be. She shut her eyes and kissed the only boy she ever loved. She shut her eyes and remembered. She remembered how his lips felt against hers. She remembered the way it made her stomach flutter. She remembered feeling complete for the first time in her life. She remembered how Lucas whispered those three words, I love you. And she remembered losing all that in seconds, when she failed to convince him to leave with her.
His cold hands were warm on her skin. His hair tickled her face. His tongue moved with hers.
A wall broke down in her mind. The wall guarding her from the truth. A gate opened and all the memories came rushing through. She was scared to open her eyes. Lucas's touch was gone. His lips weren't on hers anymore. She couldn’t feel his presence anymore. All she could feel was emptiness. She knew when she would open her eyes, she will be in the real world, the one in ruins, the one that took away everything she ever loved.
Lizzy braced herself for the harsh reality. She opened her eyes and she wasn’t in her house anymore. She was in the street, in front of Mrs. Jackson's flower shop. She saw the world for what it really was. Messed up. In ruins. Shop fronts were broken down. The signs were cracked and thrown off to the side with blood trickling down the wood. What horrified Lizzy the most wasn’t the town in ruins, it was the people. Torn open and thrown onto the streets. Red everywhere. Everything was red. Red streets, red broken glass, red tree leaves, red torn clothes. Red, red, red everywhere.
Lizzy walked through the mass of dead shop owners, she held her tears back and tried to keep the bile in the back off her throat from coming out. She saw people she knew and people she never spoke to before. She saw Mrs. Jackson on the ground with one of her crutches sticking out of her stomach. She saw classmates she hadn't seen in a while. She saw Laura lying down in a heap of dead bodies. She tried not to recognise the faces but her mind did it before she could think about it.
Her friends. Her family. Everyone.
She passed from house to house, all with shattered windows and broken down doors. Some with still flickering lights shining over the glistening blood still on the walls inside. Abandoned bikes were thrown into the streets. Cars with opened doors and dead owners inside. Lizzy always thought their town had to have been cursed for her to hate it that much, she always connected that hatred to her mother losing her life slowly in their house. But for everyone to die in this town, it had to be cursed.
Lizzy found her house, standing in the midst of a dying fire. She took a deep breath and pushed through the open doorway. Her feet stuck on something squishy. She stopped moving and brought her hands to her mouth, refusing to look down. Her eyes burned with tears that begged to fall. She looked down and gasped at the sight.
Her father laid down in a pool of his own blood. Lizzy couldn’t hold back the sobs that broke out of her. She leaned down and touched her father's face. She watched her tears trickle down and onto his pale skin. She closed her eyes and forced herself to keep going. She went up to her bedroom, no sign of blood. No one lived in this bedroom anymore.
Lizzy's eyes were fixed on the spot right in the middle of the room. The exact same spot where Lucas kissed her for the first, and the last. Where she tried and failed to convinced him to leave with her. He had to stay and take care of his sick mother and his little brother, he'd said.
I love you, Lizzy. The words echoed in Lizzy's head. She shut her eyes and pretended he was still standing there. She pretended he was speaking the words, over and over and over again. She'd told him that she had always been in love with him. Then he kissed her. He promised to join her someday, when his mother was better, when his brother was older. She promised him she would come back someday. They were empty promises.
The whole room taunted her. Reminded her of her selfishness. Reminded her that she could have stayed and suffered the same fate as everyone in this town. Some might say she was lucky she got away, but Lizzy thought this was what she got for abandoning her family, abandoning Lucas, she got to live with the fact that she was completely alive, and alone for the rest of her life. No one ever left their small town. No one but her. And that was her punishment.
Lizzy left her house. She knew where she was going. She knew the way like the back of her hand. She'd taken that path thousands of times ever since she was a kid. The path to Lucas's house. She arrived and saw his little brother first. He was lying on the porch steps, just as dead as everyone else. His mother was right behind him, her throat slit open in her wheelchair. Lizzy remembered all the time this woman had welcomed her into her home, all the times she made her dinner and covered her when she fell asleep on the couch watching television. She remembered how she felt she had a mother in Lucas's mother. Lizzy forced her blurry eyes away from Lucas's family as she stepped over the wooden sticks that were once a door.
Up the stairs she went, her hands sticking on specks of blood on the railing. She stopped at the top of the stairs and stared at his open bedroom. Her heart started beating faster. She was scared of the state she will find him in. She was scared she would never be able to sleep without seeing his bloody face in her dreams.
Lizzy breathed in, then out. She went in and the tears fell down immediately. He was on the floor next to his bed. Scratches covered his arms, and bruises covered his face. But what took him out was the knife sticking out of his chest, where his heart is. Lizzy leaned down and laid on the floor next to him, she touched the tips of her fingers to his cheek. He looked peaceful, she could pretend he was just asleep. She let her tears fall as freely as they could, she let her sobs be as loud as they could be. No one was there to hear her anyway. She put her head on his chest and her arm around his body and she closed her eyes, pretending to just be asleep next to him.
Lizzy felt herself pulling away again. Pulling away from the town in ruins, from the broken glass and the bloodied dead bodies of her town. She was pulling away from the truth, from the real world, and to her own perfect world. She wondered if she could leave town right now, just get in her car and drive as far away as possible. She wondered if she could start fresh somewhere else where no one knew her. She thought of the possibility of a new life, new love, new family. And let go of her past, let go of the fantasy she made herself live in over and over again.
But when Lizzy opened her eyes again, the sun was casting its light through the tree leaves above her. Lizzy sat with her back against the trunk of her favourite tree, with her favourite book in her hands and her nerves at peace.
2099; Tragedy Drowns Bliss
Amanda was asleep in a room in the Connecticut bunker, and she was shivering slightly, not because of the little chills in the room, but because she had been with this condition for years.
**** ** ****
In Amanda's nightmare.
"Mum, don't do that. You can't stop me from going to prom. I won't let you." Amanda said with anger flaming in her eyes as she stared at her mother.
"Amanda, you're sick. The doctor advised that you sit out any form of stressful activity. I get that prom is important to you,…"
"Stop saying that. You don't get anything. You hardly do." Amanda interrupted her mum as she uttered these words infuriated while she walked out of the room, passing by her disconcerted mum's side with a bag pack in her hand and a bottle of pills in her other hand.
"…but you're more important to me" Susanne finished her sentence as she looked at the door that was slammed by her daughter in enraged transit. She let out a sadder face of concern and she couldn't help but break into tears as she sat on her daughter's bed and held the quilt on to herself while she appeared to be crying into it.
Amanda was 18 and was the primary concern of her mum, Susanne, a retired big time actress. She didn't have a father, as her mum had her through In Vitro Fertilization, and the sperm donor was kept anonymous on her request.
Amanda was born with a medical condition whereby she couldn't stay conscious for long hours without being on medication, and it worsened about two years ago.
Amanda, getting down from the staircase of her mum's mansion, picked up her phone from the edge of her tiny-strapped yhand bag as she headed towards the entrance door.
"Iris, open the door!" Amanda frustratingly yelled at the AI controlled door and as it clicked open, she went right to her car where she rested her thumb on the door's knob to unlock it.
She sat by the driver's seat of her Tesla MX340 and dropped her bag on the chair to her right side without much care. She then rested her thumb yet again on the ignition switch, and the car started with the AI systems coming alive.
"Hi, Amanda. That's an ugly frown. Where are you wearing that to, girl?" The AI asked from within the speakers of the car.
"Just drive, please. Now's not the time for that conversation." Amanda replied with a sombre pitch as she looked towards the door of her house.
"All right, girl. We don't have to talk about it. We about to go get stoned, and maybe put down our teenage girl pants for a minute." The AI replied her with an eccentric accent that sounded more like a fusion of Black American, Scottish and Spanish.
"AHHHH AHHH AHH! You always get me girl." Amanda laughed before she could utter a word.
"We girls got to have each other's boobies, right?" The AI said the phrase the wrong way with all humour intended.
"Yeah, I guess so. Thank you, Ava." Amanda said with a genuine face and a gleeful touch on the screen over her dashboard.
In a ride that wasn't more than a dozen minutes long, Amanda arrived at her school and alighted from the car with the door still open.
"You're forgetting something, girl; your corsage." The AI said promptly.
"Thank you." Amanda replied with a smile as she took her corsage from the side of her bag.
There were a number of cars, majestically looking and delicately designed luxury ones parked over the whole premises and this was a view that she'd envisaged. Everything was going as she'd always imagined it to be.
Amanda walked up the many stairs that led to the hallway of the school, and at every five feet stroll she took, a couple were making out steamily with their hands in places she'd rather not concern herself with.
For Amanda, this night held two surprises. She was going to surprise Lucas, her boyfriend by showing up and she was going to tell him that she loved him. The thoughts of how all these could be romantic stirred up an orchestra of butterflies in her belly.
"Hey. It's so good to have you back here, Amanda." A tall guy said with a tone of concern.
"You were in our thoughts and prayers." The other boy, whose nails were painted like the Croatian map and had lip-gloss heavily expressing themselves on his lips while he constantly held up one of his hands in the air back and forth, with his other hands romantically leaning on the guy who spoke first.
"Thank you. Have you seen Lucas?" She asked, in a hurry to get away from these lovers whose pheromones were half as powerful as hers.
"He should be by the pool-side." One of them replied while Amanda walked speedily towards the location.
"He must be so lonely to be staying there." Amanda thought to herself a while she walked because that spot was renowned for being home to the school loner's or losers who had no one to hang out with or to the super lustful couples who needed to exchange bodily fluids.
Amanda was walking fast with her heart pacing and beating loudly like a notorious 90's punk band. With every rising, tingling and affectionate energy flowing through her veins and into her heart, she began to feel weak.
The bodily weakness halted her steps and hastened her breathing and her heart rate in this hallway where no other person was at. She was still a far distance from the poolside where she was headed and she had to get there. She had to see him.
With every bit of strength left in her, Amanda forced her legs into moving from where they were stuck at, and she rationalized the whole "I can do it against all odds" speech in her head while she advanced slowly and painfully.
One would not have known the measure of pain in her chest as she wheezed while walking with a loud smile that could haunt any creeping ghost in this dimly lit hallway. A guy passed by her but barely noticed her groans and the little aching sounds she was letting out from her widely stretched red cheeks. She didn't want help anyway. She had to do this for herself, and by herself.
Amanda kept struggling, and with just a few steps towards the edge of the turn that led to the poolside, her vision began to blur like a Polaroid camera out of focus, with eigengrau becoming more evident in her eyes which were shutting slowly as her breathing became louder.
"Oh, no!" Amanda muttered barely with her body getting shivers of numbness all over. She was on a Sisyphean quest and with not much strength left in her, she held her hand tightly on the edge of the wall and struggled to pull herself to the side of the edge from where she could have a clear view of the lonely, sad and loving eyes of Lucas.
The light-headedness was becoming thicker and Amanda was losing clarity to its weight while she fought hard to stay conscious. She could barely see things as they were, as the pixels of all around her were either grey to her fading vision or wriggling in their shapes.
She saw a shadow of a guy's back reflecting on the wall, and without much help, she could identify audaciously that it was Lucas'.
You know how lovers can sense the presence of their other halves from across the room? Amanda was feeling this heavily, and her pain coupled with her fleeting consciousness seemed like less of the bully it was.
"Lucas?...lu…" Amanda said softly with more sighs of exhaustion and unconsciousness evident in her indiscernible words.
She had seen him, or at least the shadow of his back, but he hadn't seen her or even felt her presence as he was in the business of searching the uttermost parts of Clara's mouth with his tongue while she was seated on his right side by the edge of the pool itself.
"uhhh. Uhh!" Amanda sighed once and subsequently panted hardly with her hand slipping from the edge of the wall which she held on to earlier. A few seconds into her hand's slip, she faded out of whatever was left of her consciousness levels and her body thudded heavily on the ground with her back taking the hardest hit which she didn't feel as she was wrapped in vivid unconsciousness.
Despite the hard thudding sound her body made on impact with the ground, Clara and Lucas weren't in any way distracted as their lips fervently rubbed on each other's.
"Lucas?" A woman asked with a tone of curiosity and slight surprise from a distance which was a few feet away from the pool.
"Oh, shit!" Lucas said with his mouth running out of Clara's mouth's heavy grip as he turned his face towards Susanne, Amanda's mom. In this fit of shock and heightened levels of guilt, he stood up hastily and all of these prompted a bewildered facial expression from Clara who scoffed and watched whatever scene was unfolding before her eyes.
"…have you seen Amanda?" Susanne asked with a palette of emotions; anger, hurt, and disappointment while she slowly uttered her words to the trembling Lucas whose forehead was bearing a bold sweat on it.
"No… I didn't know she was coming." Lucas said in a lowly turn soaked in guilt and hurt as he barely kept eye contact with Susanne.
Susanne nodded her head slowly with her breathing going off rhythm while she struggled to keep her head straight.
"Amanda. Amanda. Somebody help me. Anybody, please." A guy yelled with a voice coated in tears and pain boldly inscribed on every stuttering syllable as he held Amanda's head on to his knee while rubbing her face. He hoped for help, or a miracle. He needed something and someone to come save her. He loved her. That was obvious to everyone but Amanda.
Susanne sprinted her way to the corner which was a few steps away from where she stood. Lucas followed her from behind with his guilt getting the better of him as a concerned burden became fixed on his face as he looked at the unconscious Amanda on the floor in her prom outfit.
That was always her dream. That's all she'd ever wanted, and Lucas had failed her.
"Amanda, mummy's here. You'll be okay." Susanne said with her hand over Amanda's head and the other hand on her neck to feel her pulse.
"Calum, let's get her to the car now." Susanne said hurriedly to the sobbing boy who had shouted earlier. Calum was her best friend, and all he'd ever wanted was for her to be happy and healthy again.
Amanda, dressed in a white hospital patient outfit and laying on the bed in this ward with what appeared like a lean smile on her face that had an oxygen tube right underneath her nose, gasped suddenly and her eyelids which were initially closed, twitched a dozen times in a space of a few seconds before she finally opened them wide.
Amanda had been in a coma for 112 days and her body was used to sleeping and being half-conscious. The right side of her head hurt and she was having blurry vision and a strange tingling sensation around her back. Amanda's mind was fuzzy, and she barely understood anything about what had happened to her and where she was.
In an attempt to settle her unnerving curiosity, she slowly sat up with her back resting on the frame of the bed where her head formerly was while she released a few moans under her breath as she felt pain in her joints and body.
Amanda, looked to her left side, towards the window of the hospital and saw her hologram device by the table a little far from her. She wanted to touch it, to feel something besides her pain, but as she extended her hand halfway, the pain gripped her yet again, and strongly this time, so she gave up and returned her hand to her thighs letting out sighs borne of discomfort.
"Fuck!" Amanda yelled with the throbbing mild aches she felt. This was her first word in over four months, and as she spoke, her Hologram came alive.
"Fuck! Amanda, you're awake. Was kinda hoping it'd take Calum's kiss to make that happen, but here we are. I missed you, girl. You scared the shit out of us all." Ava said with heavy happiness and a speedy rush.
"Those cuss words are definitely a reason I can't die yet, Ava… I missed you, too." Amanda said with a light laugh and keen cheer while she placed two of her fingers on her head.
"I bet, girl. So, catch me up. You stalked Jesus much? He as pretty as em GQ dudes? Don't hold back! Tell me all of it." Ava said with over-the-top excitement and non-drug-based euphoria.
"Oh! You are nasty, Ava.. and I didn't see Jesus. I did see my boyfriend, Lucas, a lot though." Amanda wrapped up her sentence with a perfect blush resting on her pale cheeks.
Ava went silent, and said nothing. In this moment of silence, Amanda turned her head towards the right side of the room and saw a pile of beautifully designed and multi-coloured greeting card, and for some reason, her heart leaped for joy and butterflies were roaming in her belly.
"Are those from Lucas? Oh, my God. That's so sweet. He did them the vintage way. I've always wished for something like this. It's just as if he read my mind." Amanda kept speaking with eyes and cheeks lighting up for joy towards this gesture.
Ava remained silent, and Amanda noticed this, so she returned her face to Ava's side.
"What's wrong, Ava? You aren't saying anything?" Amanda asked curiously.
"Amanda, Lucas didn't write those. He didn't write any of it. I'm sorry." Ava said with an empathetic tone.
"I don't understand. If he didn't, then who did?" Amanda asked with her smile fading from her face.
"Calum did. He came here every day and he'd bring one every time and even read to your ears while you were out." Ava said, still with a sombre tone.
"How long… how long was I out again, Ava?" Amanda asked with the ringing pitch in her head rising slowly while she spoke.
"112 days, Amanda." Ava replied.
"..and not once did Lucas come over, right?" Amanda continued with an heart-breaking voice.
"I'm sorry, Amanda." Ava said, in a bid to comfort her.
"mmmm… can you read me the first one Calum brought?" Amanda asked as she sniffled lightly.
"Yeah. Hey. It's the first day since you've been all Snow White, and I'm terrified. Please, get better, for your mum and for me. I love you." Ava read, with all emotions the letter weighed.
"hhhh!" Amanda, disconcerted and emotional at the same time let out a shallow breath with her eyes opened a little less widely.
"Can you read the last one he sent, please?" Amanda asked in a very low voice that was almost under her breath.
"So, guess what? I got us tickets to go to the Theatre of Antiquities in New York, just like we'd always planned. We are to leave in nine days. I am not going without you, Amanda. You have my heart and my love. You're going to come out of this, and we're going to be old and grey making jokes and painting ugly pictures of ourselves." Ava read with a rather poetic voice as she was immersed in the sincerity of the letter.
"Ughhh." Amanda chuckled lightly with tears rolling down her eyes.
How did she not know that Calum loved her? She'd meant the world to him, but she hardly saw him as more than her best friend.
In the middle of this slightly eccentric sobbing, someone walked into the room hastily with a letter in his hand, and a big bag on his back.
"Amanda?" the voice said with shock and excitement.
"Calum?" Amanda replied with affection as she raised her head to see the unfamiliar voice.
The moment their eyes met, the whole lights in the building and the other sky scrapers next to them went off. Every gadget, electronic device and technologically fashioned device buzzed their last before shutting down.
All lights out.
"What the fuck?" They both thought to themselves in the middle of this gross darkness that had befallen them.
A few seconds after, tears and wailings could be heard loudly and discordantly from every edge, corner, room and part of the hospital.
Amanda was terrified, not just because of the sudden darkness, but the heavy breathing that her lungs and mouth were producing as she began to hyperventilate from her mouth.
"Amanda, breathe. I'm here, okay? We'll get through this." Calum said as he rubbed his hand warmly on her trembling shoulders and arms.
Calum took his hand from her and dropped his bag on the bed while he opened it up to bring out an antiquated torchlight that used 20th century lithium rechargeable batteries. While Amanda kept breathing hard and saying nothing because of the shock that had overwhelmed her, he switched it on, and he looked into her eyes.
Those eyes, turquoise edges of the moon in bloom were adorable, and as the light spread across the room, he could see her face light up. Every part of her was beautiful, even her scared and teary face, and he couldn't hold back on the smile that his face unveiled.
"Hey. You are going to be okay. Okay. There's no easier way to say this, and now feels like really horrible timing, but I'll say it anyway. You know how.." Calum said in a haste of awkwardness before Amanda interrupted him.
"I know, Calum. I'm sorry I didn't acknowledge it earlier. I love you, too." Amanda said with a soft and yet still voice with a face of extreme sincerity.
"Whoa… ooofph! I waited half my life to hear that and this was just perfect. Thank you, Amanda. However, that's not what I was going to say… uhmmm." Calum replied with a hefty blush on his cheeks that spilled words even more awkwardly than before.
"It's 2099, Amanda. The apocalypse is happening. And I'm sorry if you find that hard to believe right now, but that's what this is." Calum said, while stuttering throughout most of his words before Amanda's clueless and confused face.
"Calum, are you really quoting one of your teenage comics or nerd references right now?" Amanda asked with seriousness as she demanded clarity.
"I wish that was all this was about, but it's no joke, Amanda. It's really happening. Okay, look, outside as we speak, the sun is gone, like it has vanished, and bad, bad things are about to come next." Calum said patiently with a tone that had a rising amount of fear in it.
"That was good, Calum. Very good Eli Roth impression there." Amanda said with a brief and awkward chuckle.
"Oh, come on. What do they have you on? This is no joke. Can you walk? We really have to go now." Calum said with more apprehension and fear enveloping his voice.
"Okay. Let's assume for a moment that I do believe you, and the "apocalypse" is happening, where are we going to?" Amanda asked as she was leaning into the idea that all these might be true.
"There's a bunker…" Calum replied instantly before she interrupted him with an exclamation.
"Really, Calum? This is so not funny anymore. What movie is this whole act from?" Amanda asked as she was slowly freaking out.
Calum, anxious to prove to her that this was no farce or movie joke, walked towards the other end of the room and pulled the curtain open for her to see what was outside.
"More noise, noise, dread, horror, blackness." That was all she saw, felt and heard in that moment she looked outside.
"Okay, I believe you." Amanda said quickly as her mind was thunderstruck and helplessly clueless.
"Good, let's go." Calum said with a sense of relief as he slowly held her hand while she sat by the edge of the bed to wear her hospital crocs which Calum brought nearer to her feet.
"We are gonna have to go a little faster than that, Amanda." Calum said while they dragged their feet and walked like pregnant snails.
"You really want me to go faster? I've been half-dead for 100 plus days. Have a little pity for my speed." Amanda said humorously as she held her arm around Calum's neck.
"remember what you'd always tell me? You can do…"
"Anything you put your mind to." Amanda and Calum said together at the same time as she moved faster.
"And how are we supposed to get to the bunker?" Amanda asked curiously amidst all the panic and screams that emanated from every corner and turn.
"We'll cycle. I got the bike downstairs." Calum replied quickly while panting from the energy expended in adding her weight to his while they ran down the stairs.
"Ooooh! God, why didn't you just let me rest in your arms or something when you had me over for vacation?" Amanda asked God rhetorically as she looked towards the roof above them.
"Now's not the time for philosophy, girl. We are on our own this time." Calum said with no bit of humour as he pointed the torchlight towards the bicycle where he'd parked it.
"Is that it?" Amanda asked with her body weight bearing more on Calum as they were a few metres away from the bicycle.
"Yeah, that's Leah, and she's our ride." Calum said as his movement paced.
"You named that after our grade eight teacher, didn't you?" Amanda asked as she burst into a nasty laughter.
"Well, maybe." Calum replied with a laugh.
"Pervert!" Amanda added while she laughed so hard that her nose oinked like a pig's.
"Oh, fuck!" Calum uttered with worry as the torchlight in his hand flickered as they got to the bicycle.
"We are both doing this, right?" Amanda asked sarcastically.
"Yeah. Why else does it have two pedals and two seats?" Calum replied while helping her to sit on the rear end of the bike.
"I'm good. You're really handling this whole apocalypse shit well, you know.." Amanda said, looking at him while he sat in her front.
"Yeah, it's either that or the other option we are definitely not talking about." Calum said as he fixed his hands on the handles and gear while holding on to the torchlight.
"Thank you, Calum." Amanda whispered lowly to the back of his body which was in front of her.
"Did you say something?" Calum, who was already pedalling and navigating the bicycle around here said without looking back.
"No, I didn't." Amanda replied as she wrapped her hands around his back and joined in the pedalling and slowly pedalled the one at her feet in rhythm with his.
They pedalled and rode through the darkness with most of Calum's instincts and help from the flickering torchlight as they finally got to the multi-million dollar Ares Company.
"Okay, come on. Let's go." Calum said as he removed his bag from the basket tray in the front of the bag and helped Amanda get down while he faced the building.
"Uhhhmmm.. is that legal?" Amanda asked with uncertainty clouding her voice.
"I think the word "Legal" died when the sun kissed us bye." Calum replied as he dragged her closer to himself while they walked into this edifice in search of the bunker's location which Calum had not paid much attention to earlier during the nerd breakfast broadcast.
"Do you actually know where we're going…. NNnnnkkkkk" Amanda asked as she coughed, short of breath.
"Is the oxygen tube still intact?" Calum asked her with care as he held her hands and stopped trekking ahead of her.
"Yeah, it's just not as effective, I think." Amanda said with low breath and a thin voice.
"I'm sorry. I promise you'll be okay. I may or may not have stolen two mini oxygen cylinders, too." Calum said as he burst into a criminal laugh.
"Oh, no. you didn't." Amanda replied with laughter of curiosity.
Amanda fixed her eyes on his voice and she found hope, love and strength in it.
"What more could one ask for?" She thought to herself, revelling in the love of Calum.
After a dozen missteps and a ton of miscalculated routes within this building that now felt like a maze, Amanda was exhausted and sat on the ground while Calum looked around them in search of a sign, memory or anything.
While they stayed clueless in this silence, a loud crash of glasses by something heavy and huge scattered round the building and caused them both to shiver and this heightened the chills in the building.
"What the fuck was that?" Amanda asked Calum who was speechless and equally frightened by the sound.
"Shhhhh!" Calum said to Amanda who wondered why.
From a distance, foot steps were approaching towards their direction and Calum patiently listened in a bid to identify their distance and to catch up on their words.
"What is that?" Amanda said in a stealthy voice while she dragged Calum's trouser by his knee tightly.
"I don't know. Let's find out." Calum replied in an even quieter voice as he sat down next to her and put off the flickering torchlight till it was absolutely dark around them.
As the footsteps advanced and the sounds of their shoes and movements became louder, fear gripped Amanda and Calum the more.
What was lying around them? Were these people dangerous? Would their death be gentle, kind and merciful? These thoughts danced around the pages of their heads as they covered their mouths in order to keep their trembling and freaked-out moans within their mouths.
"Jesus. I can't do this anymore. Fuck. I'm sorry, Calum. I'm freaked out." Amanda yelled loudly in a Tiffany Haddish voice that was loud enough to rock the bowels of anyone breathing in the building.
"What the hell, Amanda?" Calum said in a mid-baritone voice weighing tons in tension and suspense as he knew that their cover had been blown.
"Who's there? Please don't hurt us. We're just looking for a bunker. We have no weapons and are very domestic and loving human beings. We are Homo Sapiens Sapiens, people." A guy whose voice was full of fear uttered uncontrollably as he kept walking slowly towards where he'd heard Amanda's scream.
"Please shut the fuck up, Garcos. You're saying shit that could get us killed." A teenage girl who was next to him replied hastily with more confidence than fear.
"I'm the dumb twin. You deserve better, baby girl." Garcos replied her with a voice that broke into tears that became louder by the second.
"Oh, shut up. You're the perfect twin. I couldn't have wished for any brighter one, cos then I'd be the dumb one." Fillux replied authoritatively as she kept her heavy emotions at bay.
Amanda's fear gradually lessened as she heard this jovial and somewhat funny banter between these two that were about 6 feet away from them.
"Should we…?" Calum asked Amanda quietly.
"Yeah, sure." Amanda replied confidently as she nodded her head.
"Hi, guys." Calum said as he got up from the floor where he sat.
"Oh, God. Garcos, I love you, too. I should have said that earlier." Fillux screamed out in fear of the stranger's voice that intensified the dread in her veins.
"You remain my favourite twin, even till the afterlife." Garcos said as he hugged her tightly as they sobbed in each other's shoulders.
"That's not weird at all. You guys, we aren't attacking you or anything. We are just like you, so you can end the sibling's party now." Amanda said with an emphatic tone which stirred up from her frustration at how sweet the banter of the twins was.
"What? You guys aren't bad guys?" The twins said together with uniform pauses as though they shared a telepathic connection.
"Oh, come on! What's with you all and thinking this is some Nolan or Tom Hanks' movie?" Amanda replied with a slight scoff as she looked towards their direction.
Calum, who had been standing in silence while smiling at the cuteness of them all, switched the torchlight on and pointed it directly at their faces.
"Whoa! Is that light?" Garcos asked as though he was re-entering into civilisation.
"Okay. Let's make this quick, before the actual killers come for us all. And I don't know about you, but I'm not ready for that." Amanda said as she looked at their illuminated faces which were even friendlier than their voices and repartee.
"I'm Fillux, and this is my twin, Garcos. You guys are?" Fillux asked with a smile and curiosity on her face.
"I'm Calum, and she's Amanda." Calum said as he pointed the light towards his face and Amanda's.
"Are you guys twins, too?" Garcos asked with a smile so wide you could count all his teeth.
"No. Lovers, actually. Now, let's go find that bunker." Amanda said as she advanced towards nowhere in particular while they all ran towards her like lost puppies and followed her.
Calum had not gotten his smile off his face since she called them lovers and in that bubble of excitement, he looked towards the ground and noticed neon lights that shined slightly whenever the torchlight in his hands struck them.
He traced them with his light into a farther distance from them, and it made sense to him.
"It's the direction." They all said together with smiles and jubilant blushes falling off their cheeks.
"Let's go." Calum said as he held Amanda's fingers and locked them into his while they advanced.
By Chloe Shin
I took a deep breath and stepped out of the spaceship. The area seemed deserted. There was no one to be seen. I turned back to see the spaceship gone. No going back now. I took off my space boots and left them on the ground. Surely no one would notice? I put on some sneakers and started my search. But after some time walking, there still was nothing.
For years, aliens and humans had been enemies. I wouldn't have visited if it wasn't important. I looked down at the compass in my hand. It was pointing north. I knew I was on the right track. All of a sudden I heard a metal clang. It was from the ground. It seemed as though it was a metal plate. I brushed off the dirt on it to reveal some text.
I looked ahead and saw a seemingly abandoned facility. Knowing this was it, I started to run towards it.
Commander Westings of the Area 51 Project peered into his telescope to see a 15-year-old girl running toward the building. He sighed and sipped his coffee.
A young man around the age of 20 ran up to him. "Commander, we have spotted someone attempting to break in-"
"Yes, officer, I know that! As you may know, this facility was made to prevent those tourist pests from breaking in. Now get back to work before you're fired!"
The officer gulped. "B-But sir...we think she's an alien."
The commander nearly choked on his coffee "A WHAT?!"
"An alien, sir-"
"I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME! WHAT ARE YOU DOING JUST STANDING THERE AND DOING NOTHING? GO AND SEND OUT THE GUARDS!"
The officer seemed more than happy to get out of the commander's office.
I heard alarms blaring as I made my way towards the entrance of the facility. The guards spotted me and tried to stop me. I was too quick for them though, and they ended up tripping. My victory didn't last for long though. Just as I stepped into the building a wall of drones prevented me from passing through. I swung my hand at them just to be lasered a bit. I started backing away when I bumped into someone. I turned around to see a tall man. He had no expression on his face, but evil gleamed in his eyes. The guards were with him.
"Bring her in for questioning."
I soon learned that the man was important since all the workers there saluted him as he walked past. When the workers saw me, they shot me looks that I could not identify as either fear or disgust. The guards led me to a very dim room and left. I sat down in the chair and waited. After a while, the tall man entered. He sat down at the other end of the table.
"My name is Commander Westings. What's your name?"
Commander Westings's voice was not assuring. I knew he was demanding answers.
"Hm, okay, Hannah. What brings you here?"
I decided to go with my coverup. Aliens look exactly like humans, he couldn't possibly know I was one.
"You know, I just wanted a tour of the facility. I am such a fan-"
"Oh stop with the lies." He rolled his eyes before saying, "We know you're an alien."
I froze in fear. I was exposed.
The commander just grunted. "I will ask you one more time. What brings you here?"
When I didn't respond, the commander stood up. "Are you a spy? Are you planning to bomb Earth? Oh, wait I know! Are you here to make friends with the humans? Well, the answer is NO!"
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. "The reason is neither of those," I answered. "I'm here for the antidote."
The commander started laughing.
"Oh silly girl, there is no antidote! Do you know how many aliens like you come searching for it? It's just a trap!"
I was in shock. Did I come all this way for nothing?
The guards entered the room.
"Take her away," the commander told them.
The guards pushed me into another room where I saw a couple of kids, all seeming to be very bored. They seemed a bit surprised to see me though. The guards left the room.
I looked around until I asked, "Are you guys aliens too?"
One of the kids scoffed. "Um, yeah."
"How did you get here?"
A girl around my age jumped down from her bed. "The same way you did. We tried to find the antidote."
I shook my head in sadness. The one cure that we thought could help everything wasn't even real. I looked at the kids once more and realized who they were. They were the ones who had been sent out to get the antidote before me. But they had failed. And I had too.
The kids started introducing themselves. The youngest was 13 and her name was Thalia. There was a boy named Caleb who was 14. The girl around my age was named Zee. In the back, I could see a girl, around the age of 17. She barely even looked at me and was just staring at her shoes.
"That's Quila," Zee whispered to me. "She hasn't talked to any of us since we got here."
I just nodded, wondering why she seemed so moody.
Just before I could think about it, Thalia asked, "So, which planet are you from?"
"Planet 256," I answered.
"Cool, I'm from 378."
Right then the door burst open. Commander Westings entered the room.
"I hope you are all settling in nicely."
"Yeah, we were until you came in," Caleb told him.
The commander ignored him. "I'd like to know, why are you so desperate to get a so-called antidote?
It wasn't Thalia, Caleb, or Zee who answered though. It was Quila.
"Our homes are being raided by a virus. Only the antidote can cure it. If we don't find it, our planets will be destroyed."
The commander showed no sympathy. Instead, he smiled and exited the room.
Thalia shrugged. "I wonder what that was about."
It was nearly nighttime when I peered out the window. There was no one. I sighed and was about to go to bed when noticed there was a crack. Immediately, I woke up the others.
"Over there! There's a crack. If we get something hard enough we can break through!"
Eagerly, everyone started searching. Thalia started unscrewing the metal leg piece of her bed. Caleb picked up a relatively sharp pair of scissors. And Zee started throwing nails at the window. Even Quila helped by denting the window with some rocks she had taken out of a plant pot.
We started throwing whatever we could find at the window. Eventually, the crack split into two and we managed to make a hole to escape.
One by one, the kids hopped out of the window. But as I was lifting myself up to the window, I saw a figure in the distance. I couldn't tell who it was though.
"Guys, there's someone out there."
Caleb shook his head. "We've got to go!"
I ran as fast as possible, hoping whoever was out there wouldn't find us. Suddenly I heard Zee screaming. Turning back I saw the same figure face to face with Zee. But the person seemed meek and small.
"P-Please don't hurt me," the person said.
The person was a boy and had brownish hair. His eyes were full of fear. That wasn't what caught our attention though. He was wearing a space suit.
"Why are you wearing a space suit?"
"I-It's none of your business!"
The boy turned around to leave when Zee blurted out, "Are you an alien?"
He turned around, his eyes fierce. "Why should I tell you that?"
"Cause we're aliens," Thalia replied.
The boy's face softened. "Oh."
Looking around, the boy whispered, "My name is Trevor."
"It's nice to meet you, Trevor," I said. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to find the antidote."
All of a sudden time seemed to stop.
"Trevor...there is no antidote," Caleb said with a sad look.
Trevor flashed a look at them. "Oh, I see. You don't want me to get the antidote, do you?"
Thalia stared at him. "W-What? We're telling the truth there is no antidote, it's a trap-"
"I know what you want. You want to steal the fame for yourself!"
"What? Of course not!"
"THAT'S ENOUGH!" Quila yelled.
Everyone was shocked to hear Quila's outburst.
"The antidote is real."
There was silence.
"W-What?" I asked.
"T-The antidote is real," Quila repeated.
"Well, why didn't you say so earlier?" Thalia asked, holding the temptation not to scream.
"I-I never thought we'd escape..."
"Forget it. There's no way we're going back there."
I turned around to tell Trevor but he was gone.
Caleb looked back at the facility. "Oh boy."
"It's too dangerous! We can't go back!"
"Yeah, but what about Trevor?" I asked.
Quila sighed. "We'll have to leave him behind."
"No way. If he went for the antidote we should too. It is real, right?"
We all looked at Quila.
"Well, alright. But we cannot get caught!" Quila said.
As we approached Area 51, we saw Trevor being pulled over by the guards.
"He's already been caught," Caleb whispered.
Zee nudged him with her elbow. "This is our chance! Let's go in and find the antidote while they're busy with Trevor."
As we approached the building, we noticed something wrong. The security cameras were off, and there were no guards. "That's weird," Quila whispered.
"Bring in the boy." The guards pushed Trevor into the chair.
Commander Westings smiled. "Let me guess, came for the antidote eh?"
Trevor didn't move. He could not take his eyes off the glowing bottle of liquid on the commander's desk.
"Oh, so you're looking at this?" The commander picked up the bottle and said, "Yes, it is the antidote." He turned to Trevor. "Yes yes yes, but we will dispose of it soon."
"What will you use it for?" Trevor asked.
The commander didn't answer, but he grinned. "Oh, you'll find out very, very soon."
The hallways were empty. There wasn't even a guard.
"What if this is a trap?" Thalia asked.
"We'll have to find out," Zee replied.
With every step, the whole hallway seemed to echo. My eyes were wide open, expecting a guard to jump out and catch us.
"Look." Zee pointed to a window.
We peered in to see a room. Inside was Trevor, sitting down and listening to Commander Westings give orders. All the guards were in the room. In Commander Westings's hand was a bottle containing some glowing liquid.
Trevor watched as the commander poured the glowing liquid into a syringe.
"Now as you know, your planets are under a virus, and this is the cure, correct?"
"Not only is it a cure, but if injected properly into an alien, the outcome would be a mutant form of yourself."
A doctor took the syringe and positioned it onto Trevor's arm.
"You're not going to-"
"Oh yes I am!" The commander rubbed his hands in glee. "Imagine what kind of discovery this would make! Now, on the count of three..."
I could hear the commander talking to Trevor.
"Quick, unlock the door."
Thalia removed a hairpin and started pickpocketing the lock. There was a click and the door swung open.
The commander turned to see the five aliens standing in the doorway.
"Ah, you're just in time!"
The commander laughed. "Three...two..."
Just in time Quila pushed the doctor out of the way. Trevor grabbed the syringe.
"Come on, let's go!" Thalia yelled.
"Yeah, go without me! I'll catch up," Trevor said.
It took Trevor quite a while to come out, but when he did, he was clasping the syringe.
Then we ran for our lives.
We stopped as soon as we were far away from the facility.
"So, where do we go now?" Trevor asked.
Zee scratched her head. "Back to our planet, right?"
"Yeah, but how?"
At that moment, a spaceship landed on the ground and a girl stepped out. She looked around and spotted us.
"Who are you guys?"
Caleb sighed. "Aliens!"
The girl rolled her eyes. "Yeah yeah okay. I'm here to find the antidote-"
"Already here," I said, handing her the syringe.
The girl seemed shocked. "Wait, but how?"
"Long story. Could you take us home now?"
I spent the whole trip home looking out the window. I could see the city lights brightly dotted on the terrain. Perhaps we would visit Earth once more one day.
Zee asked, "What do you think will happen once we get home?"
"Well, the antidote will cure everything and everything will be back to normal," I replied.
Zee didn't reply.
I took a deep breath and stepped out of the spaceship. The field that we had landed on was full of people crowding around us. A bunch of interviewers came rushing to us.
"Did you find the antidote?"
"How did you escape?"
"Was it nice on Earth?"
Some security guards held the crowd back as a elderly man came in.
Immediantly the crowd went silent.
"I've heard that the antidote has arrived. Where is it?"
I handed the antidote to him. "Yes, this is it."
The man carefully inspected the syringe. He paused for a moment before saying, "I'm sorry to say this, but you have been tricked. This is not the real antidote."
The crowd gasped in despair.
"B-But how?" Quila asked.
The man shrugged. "Could have been a swap. I don't know. You are already booked rooms in the hotel across the street. Rest."
As the crowd dispersed, I realized something. Commander Westings did not have a copy of the antidote. No, he didn't have enough time to replace it. So who swapped it out?
I whispered to Zee, "Isn't it a bit odd that Trevor took so long to get the syringe?"
Zee stared at me. "You're not saying-?"
I nodded. "Only one way to find out."
I entered Trevor's room in the hotel. Zee tossed stuff around looking for the antidote. It took us a while, but we found a syringe underneath his bed.
"What are you doing?"
Trevor was staring at us furious.
"Explain this," Zee said, showing the syringe.
Trevor smiled. "Took you long enough. Go on, take it! Not like it matters anyways now."
I froze. "What do you mean?"
"I've already injected a bit into me. The plan is complete. I will become the ruler of these planets!"
Trevor started turning blue. His skin started bubbling. His hair turned bright red.
Zee and I dashed for the door screaming for help. The police arrived soon. And so did Caleb, Thalia, and Quila.
"What in the name of planets is THAT?!"
"It's Trevor! He was the one who swapped out the antidote and he turned himself into a mutant!"
I immediately took one of the blasters and started shooting. The shots had no effect on Trevor though. He just laughed and said, "You fools! I'm immune!"
All of a sudden he stopped laughing. His skin started turning back to normal, and his hair turned back to brown.
"What no! How is that possible!"
Quila held up a syringe. "Eticulas Reverso. Reverses anything once it is injected. Learned that in chemestry class 6 years ago."
As Trevor was being detained by the police, Zee brought up the antidote to the elderly man.
"Ah yes, the antidote. It'll take a few days to be duplicated before it could be put into good use though. For now, rest. You have done the world good."
At the hotel, Zee asked me something.
"Do you think our lives will return to normal after everything that's happened?"
I shrugged. "It definitely won't be the same though."
"Is that in a good way?"
Thalia burst into the room. "In all that time we've been stuck on Earth, Space Monsters 3 came out! Wanna watch it?"
I laughed. "Sure."
Caleb came running in. "Did I hear Space Monsters 3?"
"Count me in!" Quila said.
And so, we spent the next 5 hours watching Space Monsters 3.
3 Days Later...
"It's time," the elderly man said.
I took the syringe and struck it into the ground. I pushed down on it and the liquid was injected. The dull grass turned into bright green sprouts. The dead trees came alive once more. Everyone hugged and cheered.
"Next stop, Planet 378!" Thalia said.
The trip took less than 30 minutes. When we arrived, the people cheered once more.
"Hooray, we're saved!"
The crushed buildings became rebuilt and refurnished. The electric billboards were on once more. We hugged Thalia before saying goodbye. I saw her waving as we left for the next planet.
One by one, the alien kids were dropped off. At last I returned to Planet 256. I hugged my parents who were waiting for me.
2 years later...
I was watching Space Monsters 4 when an alert came onto the TV screen.
POSSIBLE DANGER APPROACHING FROM EARTH.
I watched the news broadcast. The leaders of Earth had sent a video recording.
In the video recording was the following words:
"We. Are. Coming. For. You. Be. Prepared."
I gulped and nervously punched some numbers into the phone.
"Hello? Yeah, there's been a problem. Uh-huh. A message. From Earth. Ok, see you later."
Soon, Zee arrived. Then Quila. Then Caleb. Then Thalia.
"Did you guys hear about the message?" I asked.
"Yeah," Caleb replied.
"I wonder what he wants now," Quila said.
"Maybe some type of revenge?" Thalia said, clearly scared.
"LOOK OUT!" Quila shoved all of us to the right.
"What did you do that for-"
A meteroid had landed right next to us.
"Yikes," Thalia said.
"Well, thanks for saving our lives," I told Quila.
"Do you think that was the danger?" She asked.
"I don't know, we should inspect it."
I knocked on it, and the outcome was a very hollow sound.
"It's hollow. We need to find something to crack it open."
Caleb left and return with a pair of pliers. Together, we managed to crack it open. Inside of the meteroid was a message written on a piece of paper:
WE OFFER A PEACE TREATY BETWEEN THE ALIENS AND HUMANS. WE ARE DEEPLY APOLOGETIC ABOUT THE INCIDENT AT AREA 51. COMMANDER WESTINGS HAS BEEN ARRESTED WITH CHARGES OF UNVERIFIED EXPERIMENTS, ILLEGAL IMPRISONMENTS, AND AN ATTEMPTED INJECTION.
WE INVITE THE FIVE ALIEN KIDS AND OTHER ALIEN GUESTS TO AN OFFICIAL CEREMONY TO HONOR THIS TREATY ON THE 14TH OF OCTOBER.
THE UNITED NATIONS
We were all shocked at this sudden declaration of peace.
"So, should we go?" Zee asked.
I nodded and said, "Sure, why not?"
1 month later...
"I now gather us here to celebrate the truce between alienkind and mankind. For many years, aliens have been considered as, 'unatural' and 'weird'. But todayeh is different. From now on the aliens will be considered one of us. Our world is theirs to share. May there be peace between our species. Cheers to a new harmony and nation." The President lifted his cup then stepped down from the podium.
The stadium echoed with "cheers". The five of us shook hands with the President as a sign of thanks.
"Psst," Zee said.
"What?" I asked trying not to be loud.
"You were right. Our lives definitely won't be the same anymore. But, in a good way."
I chuckled. "Yeah, I guess so."
I sighed and looked at the clock, sitting in my chair, knitting.
The door opened, and a pair of twins came in.
"Grandma! Grandma!" A little boy and a little girl the around the age of six ran excitedly over to me as soon as they had spotted me.
I opened my arms for a hug and squeezed my grandchildren.
"Oh it's so good to see you kids!"
A woman around the age of 38 carrying a cake came in.
"Happy 75th birthday, Mom!"
I smiled sniffed the air and said. "Oh Georgia, vanilla cheesecake, my favorite. You never forget."
The woman chuckled. "Of course not! You are my mom."
"Grandma! Tell us the story about the cool antidote and how you saved the world!" The boy said.
"And how Trevor tried to become a monster with the antidote!" The girl finished.
I pulled my hair up and tied it into a bun. "Oh I feel as I've told it far too many times..."
The woman laughed. "It used to be my favorite story when I was little."
I smiled and put on my glasses. "Alright then, gather around everyone. You too, Georgia."
The woman scooted in between her daughter and son.
"Alright," I began. "It all started when I stepped out of a spaceship onto Earth..."