Categories
Dystopia Genre Short stories

Turning Tides

“Where are you taking me?” Katora raised her hand to undo the red scarf covering her eyes.

“No, no, no.” Kai reached out to her. “Just a little bit further. You trust me?”

She laughed, notes dancing upon the air like flower petals. “Have you met you?”

“Touche. But wait…Please.” His lips brushed her ear. “I promise. This will be worth it.” He guided her down the footpath. Underfoot, hot gravel crunched in the high summer sun. Trees swayed back and forth in the gentle breeze sending dappled patches of light and shadow to dance upon their skin.

Kai grinned, giddy. At this point, he didn’t know who was more eager for the grand reveal: himself or his young wife. His hand trailed absently down her body, resting upon her stomach and the small bump just beginning to show.

“How much further?”

“A few more steps.” They rounded the last bend and came to the large pasture. A few more steps ensured the best view of his surprise. “Okay…Now.”

Katora removed the scarf and it fluttered to the ground as her eyes drank in the sight before her. “Ohhhhh. Oh, oh, ohhhhh.” Her feet carried her forward, lips parted in awe. “Oh, Kai…Horses.”

Standing before them, saddled and ready, waited two horses, sun glinting off their chestnut brown hides. One gave a soft nicker, as if in greeting to the two-foots.

Between them, their female groom bobbed her head. “G’day…And a most happy birthday.”

“They’re beautiful…They’re so beautiful. Just like I always imagined.” Katora stopped before one with a white blaze down her face. Questioning eyes sought the groom.

“Go ahead. Starlett there won’t bite. Gentle as a sparrow she is.”

“Starlett.” With both hands, Katora reached up and traced the horse’s face, running her fingers along the white marking. “You’re so beautiful.”

Hands shoved in his pockets, Kai wandered up behind her. “Ready for your first ride?”

She turned, a hand dropping towards her stomach. “But…”

“Already cleared it with Doc. Said you’d be just fine. As long as we aren’t planning on any racing or jumping or trick riding. You and Peanut will be fine.”

She looked back to the horse. “I’ve always wanted…”

Kai presented a flourishing bow. “And your wish is my command.”

“Oh, Kai!” Arms snaked about his neck. “Best gift ever.”

“Well, ya know…”

Katora playfully backhanded his shoulder.

He smiled, chest expanding at her joy. Three years together and still he could gaze upon her forever and never grow tired. As his father said six months ago at their wedding, he was one lucky bastard. “I love you, too.”

After the groom showed them how to mount and coached them through controlling their mounts, they were allowed down the horse trail to where a picnic lunch awaited. “Enjoy your time,” the groom called, “Remember, if you need anything, just give me a call on the comm. They’re in the bags.”

The journey was a leisurely one. Both of their horses set a gentle walking pace, familiar with the trail and ultimate destination. Kai doubted they’d have to do anything to ensure they got there. For the most part, it was like riding in a hover. But instead of being encased in plastics and glass, they were exposed to the elements of the beautiful day and could feel the power of another living creature beneath them.

Lunch in the glade followed with matching idealistic pleasure. “A fairy’s grove,” Katora named it.

Kai agreed. While clearly engineered by an intelligent hand, outside of the blanket and wicker picnic basket, there was not a single hint of human or technological encroachment. Within this ring of tall shady trees, they were embraced and tucked away from the world. Was there ever a time in human history when such secret places as this were the norm as opposed to the expectation?

There, they laughed and dreamed with all the abandon of all young couples. They would raise their child, travel the world, do meaningful work, and build a legacy of love and joy.

Katora was smiling at him over a cup of sparkling juice when her face fell slack with wonder. “Kai! Kai!” Her hand reached for his.

“What?” With a quick roll, he was up to his knees.

She placed his hand on her belly and pressed it against her. “Can you feel it?”

Kai closed his eyes and concentrated on that point of contact between himself and Katora. He felt the softness of her cotton shirt, the wrinkles in the fabric, the firmness of her skin just underneath, the steady rise and fall of her breath, and then…

A grin morphed the planes of his face. Kai lowered himself until his lips brushed her shirt. “Hello in there, Peanut. It’s Dad.” He glanced up and saw Katora glowing. “I want you to know, your mum and I love you. We’ll be seeing each other soon. Just rest and grow strong.” He kissed her belly.

“Peanut’s first kick.”

“Here.” Kai jumped and ran to the saddle packs. He came back a moment later with his phone, recording. “Say hi, my sweetest darling.”

Laughing, she waved. “Hi, my sweetest darling.”

Kai turned his phone towards himself. “Okay, so we are, officially, in week nineteen of forty, almost at the halfway point. And today, we mark Peanut’s first kick at…four twenty-six pm.” He settled by Katora, holding the screen to capture them both. “Watch out world, Peanut is on the way.”

“Watch out world?” She laughed.

He turned off the recording. “Well, I know me. I’m handful enough. But mix that with you, my dear,” Kai waggled a strand of grass at her, “and the world has a force to be reckoned with on the way. I think we should both count ourselves lucky if Peanut doesn’t become a hacker.”

“Like Dad?”

“Hey, now. What I do is authorized. Not my fault people forget their passwords or don’t use other more reliable methods of security…You hear that, Peanut? Don’t be technophobic. Instead, be the technology and rule the world with it.”

“Be whatever you want to be, Peanut.”

“Yeah. Mum’s right. Rule number….whatever at this point, I lost track. Listen to Mum. She’s smarter than Dad.”

As the sun began to dip, the couple began back to the main pasture. Belly and soul full and content, Kai sat back in his saddle, watching as Katora led the way a few paces in front. He smiled, enjoying the rhythmic swaying of her body atop Starlett. A perfect day, if he did say so himself. Later, he’d snuggle her close on the couch, watch a movie. And after that…he let the thought trail off. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be too tired.

He closed his eyes.

Starett let out an unearthly screaming sound, jerking Kai to attention. The horse reared up, front hooves kicking the air, her white teeth showing, and eyes rolling.

And from her back, tumbled Katora. Her arms flailed as she tried to stop her fall.

She hit the ground with a dull thud.

Kai struggled, cursing the stirrups holding him captive. Somehow, he untangled himself and ran to his wife’s side. “Katora. Katora! Answer me.” His hands hovered over her crumpled body, wanting to touch her, wanting to turn her over so he could see her face, but frightened to do so. Hadn’t he heard somewhere it was dangerous to move someone after a fall?

“Katora, please. Come on. Answer me.”

Silence was never so loud.

Kai sprang up, nearly tripping over his feet, as he rushed to the saddlebag on his horse. He threw out the contents, seeking the comm, eyes constantly darting to the far too still body of his wife. He found it.

“Someone, please. Send help. Korta’s hurt.”

*********

He sat alone in the massive waiting room. A now cold and ruined cup of coffee sat on the coffee table before him.

Kai ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. How much longer? Ever since they arrived, he had been forced into this solitary confinement, this echo chamber, alone with only his blackened thoughts.

And the silent hours. They hounded and mocked him as they crawled by. This was his fault. He should have known better. What possessed him to even dare to think something like having her ride a horse would be safe? That was his problem. He hadn’t thought. He didn’t think. He never…

“Kai Whitlock?”

Towering over him stood a female nurse in light red hospital scrubs. He hadn’t even heard her approach. The lights shone down, bringing out golden highlights in her brown hair, but the angle cast her eyes in darkness, reminiscent of twin black holes.

“Yes?” His voice cracked, rusty and broken.

“Will you come with me? The doctor has some things he needs to discuss with you.”

As if he’d tell her no.

He stood, muscles protesting, a testimony to the weary watch.

With its red block numbers, the clock on the wall declared the time, four twenty-seven am.

The soles of his shoes squeaked on the shiny, white-tiled floor. Track lights chased away the shadows, bouncing back the harsh white of floor and walls, an assault on the eyes.

They passed others, trapped in this place, staff with pale zombie-like patients or with frazzled people like himself, struggling to keep up. Kai wondered if they were holograms, programmed to give the illusion of life, for none uttered a sound.

Did they think the same of him?

Several floors up, the stark walls and bright lights gave way to darker wood tones and carpeted flooring. The lights dimmed and gentle. The urgency faded, giving way to an oasis of rest in these silent predawn hours. Was this where Katora and Peanut were? Behind which door was his wife?

They passed door after door, hall after hall.

Katora, it seemed, was not here.

Several twists and turns later, the nurse stopped.

Before him stood a heavy door, beside it a burnished gold placard. Dark letters in an almost Gothic script proclaimed, Doctor Gregory Mitchele, MD. And underneath, Director of Emergency Medicine.

She rapped on the door, each one like a gunshot, a declaration of war, before the surroundings swallowed the sound. If there was to be a war, the dying sound informed him, it was over before it ever began. “You can go in,” she nodded to the room, “Doctor is expecting you.”

He should say something, give some token, some verbal acknowledgment. But for what? Katora would know. But he was alone. If this was for good, appreciation was in order. But if the news were ill? What did one say then?

In the end, Kai settled on nodding and clearing his throat. The metal of the handle was cool, cold even, under his living flesh. He pushed and the door glided open, allowing him access to the waiting Doctor Gregory Mitchele, MD.

The room was long, divided into two halves. The closest portion hosted an L shaped couch and two overstuffed chairs huddled about a glass coffee table upon which sat a silver tray with a blue glossed ceramic carafe and two matching cups. A small bowl held a few sugar packets and stir sticks. Floor lamps stood sentry, giving off honeyed light, warm and inviting.

Bookcases lined the whole length of the room, filled with massive tomes in dark bindings with gold leafed titles. Outside of the university, Kai had never seen so many hardbound books in one place.

The second half of the room held a massive glass desk with file cabinets lining the walls to one side of the window, behind the desk, with a smart board on the opposite side. Dark green curtains covered the window, cutting off the views of the world beyond, making this space a whole universe unto itself. No clocks announced the time here.

From behind the desk, a dark-skinned face looked up. Doctor Gregory Mitchele smiled at him, though Kai noted how the edges looked wilted and frayed. “Good morning. You must be Kai. I’m Greg.” He gestured to the seats. “Please, sit. And help yourself to a cup of coffee. I’m sure you’re tired.”

“That’s one word for it.” Kai dropped into one of the chairs.

The doctor set his glass tablet, screen blank, on the table and poured himself a cup as he joined him. He offered it to Kai, who shook his head.

Doctor Mitchele took a sip, set the cup down, and leaned forward, his hands clasped loosely between his knees. “First, let me start by saying how sorry I am for the situation. I understand you’ve only been wed recently and you’re both expecting your child. Such an unfortunate tragedy.”

“How is she? How’s the baby?” Kai leaned in.

He shook his head. “Perhaps it’s best if I show you. You appear to be a man of intelligence and understanding.”

The doctor laid his hand on the tablet and the screen shimmered, now glowing with charts and vital signs. With a swipe, he transferred the data to the table top, then selected two windows, magnifying them both. Vital charts with five lines each. In one, all five lines bounced up and down with regular rhythm. The second, however, showed only four of the five making any movements at all, and those lines jumped about sporadically, without a rhythm or reason that Kai could tell.

“These are the vitals of the fetus and Katora, respectively.”

Kai felt a band of pressure around his heart ease. The vitals for Peanut were steady. Their baby was okay.

Doctor Mitchele swiped Peanut’s vitals back to the cluster, leaving Katora’s. He pulled the window, enlarging it.

Kai’s eyes bounced from the window to the doctor’s now pinched expression.

The band tightened its grip.

“Your wife sustained substantial injuries to the back of her skull. The force caused her brain to twist and turn within the skull’s cavity, resulting in massive damage all throughout the organ.” He held up his hands, one hand forming a cup over a loose fist. He moved and twisted the fist around, demonstrating.

Kai felt as if his brain sustained the injuries, for thoughts, let alone words, floated out of his grasp, balloons carried away on the wind. After several swallows, he somehow managed, “And that means?”

“Here.” He brought up another window and positioned it next to Katora’s. All five lines in the second vitals chart moved up and down in regularity, a stark contrast to Katora’s. “This is what a normal, healthy set of vitals of an expectant mother should be.”

It was the difference between the barren desert and the lush oceanside.

“I know she is badly hurt,” Kai said, feeling his way through the jumbled mess of thoughts and emotions pressing on him. “What I need to know now is what we do from here. What is her treatment? How long will it take? What are the effects on our baby and the pregnancy?”

Doctor Gregory Mitchele sighed and leaned back, folding his hands behind his head. He glanced at Kai, then slowly sat back up, swinging his body forward until his elbows rested on his knees, hunched once more. His dynamic face, the features proclaiming his humanity, smoothed out until nothing but an empty mask looked at him. “I am sorry, Mr Whitlock. But even modern medicine has its limits. There is nothing we can do further for her. The damage to her brain is simply too extensive. Even now, the only reason why her heart continues to beat at all is because of the medication first administered by the medics at the scene and the machines she’s now attached to. Once the medications have passed through her system and we disconnect the machines, she’ll pass on.”

“No. Nonononononono.” Kai shook his head, thrusting himself as far back as the chair would allow. “No. That…You’re lying. Katora’s…She’s going to be fine. She fell, but…No. You don’t…You don’t know my wife. You don’t know her.” Kai stood, a mass of restless energy with no potential of release.

The doctor watched impassively from behind his mask.

Kai turned away and ran his fingers through his hair. He wheeled back around. “And what about our baby then? Peanut? You showed me Peanut’s vitals. Those looked strong.”

“Yes. I did. And yes, her vitals are for the moment.”

“Her?” The word paused his thoughts and for a moment, the world.

The mask slipped, showing surprise. “You didn’t know?”

Kai’s lips jerked into a wry smile. “Call us old-fashioned, but we…We wanted a bit of mystery.” His body collapsed back into the chair. So he was to have a daughter then? A baby girl. Like Katora. He closed his eyes and he could see her. Their daughter wrapped in pink, eyes bright blue, and tiny hand reaching for him.

“The unfortunate truth is that while the vitals are stable, the fetus is too underdeveloped to survive outside of the womb.”

The cold bands around his heart sank to form a knot in his gut. “But what about-”

He was talking to the mask.

“Even transferring the fetus to a smart womb would be too much at this point in the pregnancy. If things were further along then, yes. We’d do it without hesitation. Would have already done it, in fact. But with where things are, it’d never survive the procedure. It’s too delicate.”

“So you’re not even going to try?”

“The chances are viability and success are less than a thousandths of a single percent. It’d be a waste of resources. We’d just as soon wake tomorrow and find all the world brimming with drinkable water again.”

Kai swallowed. And swallowed again. His hands clenched and his nostrils flared. Control was nothing more than a single, thin, and fraying thread, and panic the scissors.

“So…what does that mean then? What is done to protect my daughter and keep her safe until she is old enough for a smart womb? Can you keep Katora…?” His throat closed as his mind showed him a picture of her, nothing more than a broken and abandoned shell wrapped in a bedding of medical tubes. Kai shook his head. “She’d want that. I know she would.”

“We do nothing.”

Kai’s heart stopped. “What?”

Avoiding eye contact, Doctor Mitchele touched his tablet. “There is a matrix-”

“Matrix?”

“Yes. It helps us determine, with clear mind and sound judgment, those to whom we can direct our resources. Both Katora and the fetus-”

“No.”

Doctor Mitchele paused, frozen, like some prey animal before the predator.

“Daughter,” Kai corrected. Peanut was more than some lump of cells to be discarded. He had felt her kick only hours ago, just as alive as anyone else.

The doctor cleared his throat and pointed to the graphs. “Both, as you can clearly see, are well outside of the range of the viability. Therefore, all life-saving efforts are to be stopped.”

Kai sat there in disbelief. He could not be having this conversation right now. This had to be a nightmare. There was simply no way this could be. This was not a conversation that normal people had. How could he speak so casually about ending two lives? Wasn’t he supposed to be a doctor? Weren’t doctors supposed to save and heal people? How could the lives of Katora and his daughter be distilled down to some irrational numbers on some stupid chart?

“Mr Whitlock. Control yourself, please.”

Kai looked around, confused.

He didn’t remember standing up.

Doctor Mitchele rose. “I understand this can be distressing news.”

“Can be?” Kai laughed, the sound raw and all jagged-edges. “You do understand you are talking about murdering my wife and daughter?”

“Murder would be ending lives that were able to sustain themselves outside of medical intervention. Something both Katora and the fetus are, unfortunately, lacking at this point. And beyond that, even lacking the ability to sustain life with the assistance of medical intervention. We are merely facing the reality that in this case, we must, as they say, let nature take its course.”

“No. There must be some sort of recourse. Some appeal process.”

“Mr Whitlock, you waived the right to an appeal process when Katora was admitted to this hospital.”

“I did no such-”

“Is this your signature?” Doctor Mitchele held the tablet, with Kai’s name at the bottom of the admission documents.

His chest heaved. The world tried to tilt and his knees felt weak. “I didn’t…”

“They are part of the standard admittance package. All decisions of the hospital staff are binding and final…I am truly sorry, Mr Whitlock.” He clutched the tablet to his chest as if to protect himself from Kai’s impending loss. “Now…as a courtesy to you and to family and friends, we will hold off on disconnecting our machines from Katora for twenty-four hours. That should give you ample time to gather everyone for a Remembrance Ceremony. We also have ministers here and available once you are ready.”

Kai stumbled. His hand came down, landing on Katora’s vitals.

“Mr Whitlock?”

Under his fingers, he watched as the signs of her life bounced up and down. She was struggling to hang on. He could see it. How could they not? How could they just…toss her aside, like some broken machine?

“Mr Whitlock?”

Well, he wouldn’t cast her aside or give up.

“Mr Whitlock?”

“I’m okay. I just…It’s a lot to take in. You know?” Kai stood and straightened his shirt.

Relief passed over the doctor’s face. “I do. And again, I am sorry. I do wish I had better news. Please, believe me when I tell you, this is for the best and in both of their best interests. If we did anything else, we would only prolong and increase their suffering. And I know you do not want that.”

Kai looked away lest his eyes betray his thoughts. Katora always said he was a horrible liar. “May I…go see her now?”

“Of course. I’ll have a nurse take you.”

“Thank you.” Kai rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth to try and clear the rotten taste of those words.

A cold brush of air told him the office door opened, allowing reality and time to rush in once more. Haloed by the hall lights was another young nurse with long blond hair pulled back into a bun and soft blue eyes. She offered him a gentle smile, one that bespoke of understanding, empathy even. “Mr Whitlock?” The syllables of his name rolled off her tongue almost like a song. “If you’ll follow me?”

Kai followed.

They journeyed in silence through the halls. As they walked, Kai studied this new guide. She was a pretty thing to be sure, if not his type, but young. She didn’t look a day outside of high school. Too young even for the adult vocation testing if he were to guess. They passed another nurse and Kai saw the obvious difference he missed. While the other was dressed in medical red, this one, while she wore the same cut and fabric, was clothed in Remembrance blue.

His destination was on the ground floor, at the back of the hospital, and tucked away into a small alcove. Apparently, there was no desire to remind those that entered that not everyone left through the front doors with arms filled with flowers and balloons. Above the archway, carved words in faux stone read, “Always Remembered”. Six doors lined the short hallway, three to a side. Three of the doors were opened, darkened maws silently waiting to consume any who dared to enter them.

From one of the occupied rooms, Kai could barely make out the low murmurer of voices and crying.

From another, the light flicked off as the door opened. A janitor pushed out a cart filled with trash bags. Inside one, Kai saw bunches of fresh forget-me-nots, broken and crushed.

At the end of the hall, stood a large vase with glass blown forget-me-nots, iridescent in the strategic lighting.

The young nurse stopped at the last door on the left. She tilted her head and her eyes found his, steady and unwavering in her conviction. “I am sorry for your unexpected loss. May these last hours be a time of peace and gentle goodbyes.”

What did those words even mean?

With a scoff at her meaningless babble, Kai entered the small room where his wife and daughter waited, helpless, for others to end their existence. She looked small, so unlike herself. At first, Kai wondered if this was not some elaborate ruse. Surely, that could not be Katora in that bed.

But under the mass of wires and tubing, and the thin blue blanket, it was.

At her side, he fell to his knees. “Katora.” Her name a prayer of supplication upon his lips. He gathered her cold hand in his and kissed the smooth skin.

He had done this to her.

“Katora. Oh, baby. I’m so sorry. I’m-” His voice broke. “I’m here. Okay? I’m here. And I know you can hear me. I know you’re there and…I need you to listen very carefully to me. Okay?” His hands squeezed hers. “They think you’re not going to pull through this. But they don’t know you, and…” He swallowed. “I need you to be strong. Stronger than you’ve ever been. I know you wanted to wait, but…we’re having a daughter. And what they want to do…We can’t let that happen. So I need you to be strong and to hold on. For me. For Peanut. I need you to prove them wrong. That you don’t need this fancy medical stuff to stay here with us. And I know you can do that. I love you.”

Kai felt her hand tighten.

“I’ll be right back. I promise.”

Re-tracing his steps, Kai haunted the predawn hallways, keeping alert for an enemy or the object of his search. He found both at the same time.

He wrapped his hands around the handles of a wheelchair, and a male voice asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

Kai turned, bringing the chair with him and plastering a bright smile on his face. “Nope. I’m good. Just grabbing this for my wife.”

The male nurse, one dressed in the correct red scrubs, frowned. “I don’t-”

“Thanks for offering, boss, but I’ve got this.”

“Still-” He took a step forward.

Kai veered the chair around him. “Don’t want to keep everyone waiting, am I right? You have a good day.” He gave a quick nod and headed back to Katora.

No sirens sounded. No voices shouted over the PA.

The easy part was over.

Back in the room, he paused for a moment. Doubt woke, ripping through his confidence. What if Doctor Mitchele was right, it whispered? What if the machine here was indeed the only thing keeping her alive? What if, by carrying through with this crazy, ill-conceived, half-baked notion he killed her?

But if he did nothing, she’d be dead all the same by this time tomorrow. She and their daughter.

And that he could not accept.

Kai untangled Katora from the snare of tubes and wires. They could not have her. Not today.

The vitals flat-lined on the monitor.

He scooped her up and transferred her to the wheelchair.

Kai tucked the blanket around her. “You just stay with me, love. We’ll be home free in just a few minutes.” He rested his hand on her shoulder, her skin warm and soft under the thin hospital gown.

They made it fourteen steps down the hall.

“Stop!” a voice shouted.

Kai quickened his steps.

“You will not be told again. Stop!”

He ran.

He knew an exit was close. Just up and around the last corner. If he could run just a little bit faster and stay ahead of the clomping steps behind them they could make it.

Katora depended on him.

Peanut depended on him.

There. The faintest glimmers of natural light to his right. That had to be the exit.

He almost fell, yanking the chair to a stop as they came to it. Their portal to freedom and Katora’s chance at life. Kai slammed his body against the door handle. It gave way and a rush of fresh morning air tickled his face. His hands fumbled for the frame of the chair as he stretched, trying to hold open the door and pull the wheelchair through at the same time.

So close.

The wheels caught on the threshold and the chair lurched forward.

Kai looked up.

He locked stares with the hazel eyes of the hospital security. Instead of yelling or threatening, he said with a soft voice, as one might use with a young child, “You’re killing her, Kai.”

Kai shook his head, gathering Katora into his arms. He wasn’t killing her. He was giving her and their daughter a chance at life. Which was more than anyone within those walls was going to do.

Sweet fragrance exploded around him with each step as Kai fought his way over flowering ground vines.

Katora’s back arched, contorting her body. A deep wheezing, almost a rattle, slipped over her lips.

Kai stumbled and fell to his knees.

Shadows descended upon them; a small army of security, nurses, and doctors.

He could go no further.

Kai gathered her close, trying to shield her with his body. He wouldn’t let her go. Not like this. Not now.

Not ever.

“Kai?” A hand, feather soft, brushed against his wrist.

He dared to look.

Crouched before him was the Remembrance nurse. She blinked and something unreadable flitted over her features. If he had to name it, it looked like sorrow. Her free hand came up and touched the monitoring cord draped over her neck. “May I?”

His arms tightened and his throat closed off. His eyes stung with unfamiliar heat.

He couldn’t let Katora go.

But even as his head shook, his body shifted back.

As she leaned in, he caught a whiff of her faint perfume. She smelt like a wish, like longing.

Kai held his breath as if the mere act of him bringing air in and out of his lungs would disrupt the reading. Maybe if he kept himself as still as death, then death would mistake him for her, and Katora might yet live. He yearned in that moment for someone, something, to pray and believe in. They had lost more than just drinkable water in this last generation.

Who knew eternity could last the length of a single breath?

The nurse settled her weight back on her heels. Her eyes lingered on Katora’s peaceful pale face as if she were lost within some pleasant dream. Then those eyes lifted until they met his. Her blue orbs bright mirrors for his. “She will always be remembered.”

Air raced down into his lungs, a sudden black hole pulling all light and life inside it. Then reversed just as quickly, spewing forth everything, as if speaking were the key to composing reality. “No.”

“As long as there are those who speak her name, her light will never be lost. She will always shine forth, bright and beautiful and vibrant; a guide for those left here and for those to follow. A sacrifice poured out so others might live.”

Kai knew those words; knew the Final Rite. He had heard them far too many times. He always knew one day, those words would be spoken over Katora. No one lived forever.

But here? Now? Out on the lawn of some hospital, not even a day past her twenty-second birthday and only months from being a mother?

“Our daughter?”

“Rests and knows no pain.”

Kai closed his eyes. He was so tired. So…empty.

And there was no one to blame but himself. “I’m sorry.”

The nurse’s hand touched his forearm. Now he knew what emotion it was on her face; sympathy mixed with judgment. He saw it, a shadow behind frosted glass. She knew. “We need to bring them inside now.”

Of course, they did. It wouldn’t do to have them seen, sprawled out like this. Bad for the reputation. A disruption of the order and control, exposing the twisted chaos between life and death. Tore off the mask leaving reality naked. Couldn’t have that. Especially not here.

He should protest it.

Katora would have protested it. ‘Let them see!’ she would have shouted.

But he was not her.

And he ached with emptiness.

He had nothing to give.

They came, the angels of death, vultures circling, intent on their purpose of taking his Katora from him. They’d whisk her away, leaving him with only the memories and digital imprints; hallow echoes coded in zeros and ones.

And their baby…their precious daughter.

He never even got to hold her.

As they lifted Katora from him, the sun burst forth over the high rises of the city. Its beams of light danced down and kissed her brow, a goodbye kiss for the saints.

Kai looked up to the sky.

It was going to be a beautiful day.

Categories
Dystopia Genre Short stories

Until The Last

Pain.

Pain, hot and sharp, pierced through Nadine’s ragged awareness. She gasped, forcing her breath inward and choking on the cry threatening to escape. She couldn’t yell out. Not here. Not now. That would alert them…alert him, to where she was.

She would not let that happen. Not again.

She reached out to halt her fall as her knees buckled. Rough and jagged tree bark bit into her flesh, pulling, tearing, and digging into her skin. Her teeth clamped hard on her chapped lips and she tasted blood, tangy and salty, a torment to her parched mouth.

She had been such an idiot, trusting him, believing his lies. She was a thrice-damned fool and now…

Nadine shook her head. She couldn’t let herself dwell there or finish the thought. She had to meet up with River, first and foremost. Then, she could decide what their fate would be.

From his carrier against her breast, a young toddler stirred, pulling her from the self-incriminations. There would be time later for those. Provided she survived the night.

Hoping her voice wouldn’t crack or betray her desperation, Nadine swallowed and forced a smile. “How are you holding up in there, Colby?”

Even in the darkness, the head of golden blond hair still managed to shine as he wormed and wiggled about. A small face tilted upward and his light brown eyes gazed at her. He blinked several times and opened his mouth.

Nadine’s heart skipped. If he cried now, they would be found.

But he merely yawned, rested his head against her, and closed his eyes.

A wave of relief rushed through her body, leaving her feeling weak. She braced herself against the tree trunk. The sedative she had given him before this mad flight still held him in its grip.

She forced herself on, intending to push deeper into the woods towards safety. But as soon as she put pressure on her foot, the pain flared again, bright and fresh. Nadine lifted her now bare foot. Her shoe lost somewhere among the rocks earlier. She didn’t need the light of the full moon to see the brambled stick that came up, clinging to her foot.

Lying to herself with the thought that it would be like ripping off a stubborn band-aid, Nadine yanked the offending piece of forest debris off. Pain seared the sole of her foot, a hungry fire. She set the foot down and tried to put weight on it. Again, her body protested. She felt the remaining thorns dig themselves further into the soft flesh. She’d never make it like this.

Clamping down her panic, Nadine searched for anything to ease and protect her foot. Nothing. Not even a fallen branch long enough to serve as a walking stick. She had no extra wraps and would not take clothing from Colby. The night air was bitter in this early autumn, and she’d not expose him to such conditions. She had her shirt, but nothing to cut a strip with. She’d have to use the whole thing then.

With care to not disturb Colby in his carrier, she slipped out of her thin shirt. A shiver ran down her now exposed spine as a breeze mocked her venerability.

She had to keep moving.

Nadine wrapped her injured foot as best she could. Then, in spite of the pain, she forced her body to take the weight and stepped forward.

Followed by another step.

And another.

“One step. One more step…You can do this. You have to do this,” Nadine whispered. If she told herself that enough times, maybe she could trick her body into believing it.

Time ceased to have meaning as her world narrowed down to the small patch of ground just in front of her. One painful step after the next, one lie after the next, Nadine pushed her mind and body further and further on.

One moment, it was dark. The next, man-made light flooded the area about her from behind.

She was undone.

Refusing to admit defeat, Nadine straightened her shoulders and turned around, arms encircling Colby as if they would shield and protect him from the imminent harm about to consume them.

“You know…That was a very stupid thing you just did, dear heart,” a familiar male voice said, “I mean, I knew you to be rash. But this? Come now. I was certain you’d give a better game than this. It’s pathetic, Nadine.”

“So sorry to disappoint you, love.” She spat the words out as if they were spoiled wine. “I’ll do better next time.”

Dead leaves crunched underfoot as Jacob Covington, a company man of the mega-corporation GenTech, stepped forward. A dark smile danced on his lips and sparked in his hazel eyes. “We both know there isn’t going to be a next time.”

Nadine tightened her muscles to keep from shaking. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her fear. Instead, she readjusted her arms around Colby.

Jacob shook his head. She knew she must look a fright, her long brown, hair tangled and wild, falling into her brown eyes. Her arms covered in scrapes, pants ripped, shirtless, and one foot crudely bound with said shirt. He tsked.

“You know, you’re lucky it’s me that’s found you first.”

She refused to respond to such an obvious lie.

“Anyone else would have just shot you.”

Which would have been a mercy, she realized. He, instead, would toy with her like a cat with a mouse.

“I don’t understand it, Nadine. Well, okay, I do. No doubt he reminds you of your own lost son, yes? A young boy in peril. A child guilty of nothing more than a simple miscoding in his DNA, now at the mercy of bloodthirsty killers…Tell me, Nadine, do I look bloodthirsty to you?” With each word, he moved closer. The shadows as if living things, wrapped themselves about his body, clinging to the darkness pulsing through his veins.

“Even Satan appears as an angel of light.” She took a step back, fighting a whimper of pain.

Jacob’s eyes darkened, displeased. “You don’t understand anything. After all this time…I’d’ve thought you’d come to your senses and would know by now the truth of the matter.”

“The truth is you’ll kill him.” She pressed Colby closer.

“He’ll die anyway, Nadine. Why not give him a good, clean, and honorable passing instead of one where he dies from
and honorable passing instead of one where he dies from thirst? What did you think you would do for him out here in this?” Jacob gestured about them. “You’d miraculously find water enough for him in this waste? Don’t you think if there was, we’d have known and used it already? Did you think you’d somehow save his life? More like prolong his death. Answer me this, what sort of sick and twisted mercy is that?”

From in his carrier, Colby shifted, protesting her embrace with a low moan.

Nadine shook her head. There was no honor or clean death awaiting Colby back in the city. There was nothing more than a poison-filled needle to be thrust into the back of his skull with no one to hold or comfort him while he screamed in pain. Then, insult to injury, his body would be tossed in the flames, lost among all the others deemed unfit, unworthy of water rations. His light would be lost to the world and in exchange, they’d put his name on a wall? As if that made up for his murder?

“Over my dead body.”

“That, my sweet love,” Jacob said, voice far too smooth, “can be arranged.”

He lunged at her.

Nadine turned to flee, cursing herself once more. How many times would she play the fool to this man? She let him keep her talking, let her body rest and grow stiff, let the enforcers tighten their net about her, making her and Colby’s chances of escape all the harder. Fool!

Her injured foot would not incline itself to bear her and little Colby’s weight under such conditions anymore.

She fell, rolling on her side and taking the impact to spare the child. White, searing pain, lanced from her shoulder up through the back of her skull. For a brief moment, all she saw was white.

As the world returned, she felt hands pulling at the carrier, intent on wrestling the babe from her.

She tried to roll to her other side, bringing her arms up, and using her fingers and nails as claws.

Awakened by the sudden jarring, a thin wail of fear rose into the air.

“Get away from him!” Nadine screamed, thrashing and writhing against her assailant.

One swift kick to her lower back was all it took.

Her body arched in pain, exposing the pack with Colby.

Before she could recover, the booted foot came down on her neck, pinning her to the ground and cutting off her air. Desperately, she tried to claw at the offending limb but found it protected by thick clothing.

The pack was lifted from her body, taking the child with it.

Jacob shifted his weight, releasing some of the force from her neck.

Nadine’s shrieks mixed with Colby’s cries, rending the night air in discordant song.

The sharp crack of a bullet ended half of the chorus.

Nadine stared as Jacob dropped Colby’s now silenced body to the ground. It fell with a sickening thud.

You,” Jacob said, pointing with the barrel of his still smoking gun at Colby, “You did that, Nadine. You forced this ending on him. This is your fault.”

“No.” The protest fell from lips that barely moved. “No.”

“He could have passed on with all the honors of Remembrance. But you had to drag him out here to die like an animal instead…Now he will never be remembered.” Jacob stepped away from her and reached into his pocket.

Nadine closed her eyes. She would die now, too. A fitting end for her failures. She didn’t deserve to live.

Instead, she heard the soft crack of a pod being opened.

She watched as Jacob drank the clean water from a water tree pod. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. He lowered the pod, saw her watching him, and then, with deliberate slowness, poured the remaining water on Colby’s body.

Jacob moved and knelt beside her. His hand reached for her.

Even as she tried not to, Nadine flinched under his gentle touch as he pushed her hair out of her face. “We could have done so many amazing and wonderful things for this ailing world together. Your fire and passion with my intelligence and strategy. We could have brought the world back to its former glory and filled all the dry basins with water enough for everyone…But you had to go and be selfish. You had to betray me.” He stood and wiped his hand on his pants. “Now you’ll pay the price.”

“Just kill me,” Nadine said, refusing to look at him.

“No.”

Unbidden, her eyes turned towards him. What game was he playing at now?

“That would be far too merciful. You’ll get the experience of dehydrating to death. Just as that child would have suffered if you’d gotten your way. And to make sure of it…” He pulled out his gun and shot her in the lower leg, near her knee.

Nadine screamed in pain and clutched the wound. Her eyes closed as defeat consumed her.

“I found her, boys. Her and the candidate,” Jacob spoke through his intercom, “They’re both dead. Let’s pack it up and go home. Nothing left out here.”

“Copy and acknowledged,” an unknown male voice answered him.

Jacob sighed, followed shortly thereafter by the sound of him walking away.

Nadine remained where she was, resigning herself to death. Her neck craned to see the carrier. She should…She should try to go to him. But as she thought it, she knew she couldn’t. Her body refused to move any more. Which was, perhaps, just as well. She didn’t think she could bear to look upon the fruits of her failure; another dead child. “I’m sorry, Colby,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

The night passed slowly, seconds merging into minutes, and minutes blurring into hours. Through it all, Nadine drifted in and out of awareness. Here in the woods would be a good place to die. Here, she and poor Colby would return to the earth from which they were formed, as had all their ancestors before them. This was a clean death.

“Nadine!” a panicked male voice cut through the darkness. River. That was River calling her name. “Sweet Jesus, Nadine.” Hands, rough and calloused, grabbed at her shoulders and sought a pulse at her neck.

Slowly, she forced her eyes open and squinted against the dawning light.

“Oh, thank God, you’re alive.” Relief flooded her old friend’s face. “Here.” He thrust a dented canteen near as he gently lifted her up, easing sweet water on her lips and into her mouth. “I’ve been so worried about you. When you didn’t make it to the grove…I’ve been searching all night.”

She wanted to push him away, wanted to refuse the water. What had she done to deserve it? But instinct took over and she swallowed, greedy for the life-giving liquid. The water woke her further, bringing waves of fresh pain to her wounds. Her groan turned into a whimper.

“Nadine, what happened? Where’s Colby?”

Her eyes closed again as grief washed over her. Her head began to shake as she pointed in the direction of his body. She couldn’t say it. Saying it would make it real. So instead she said, “Jacob found us.”

She waited for the tirade and the recriminations to come. River had protested her getting close to Jacob from the beginning. He had seen clearly what she had blinded herself to. If only she had listened to him.

When nothing came, she dared a glance. Instead of anger, she found only pain and sorrow in River’s blue eyes. “I am so sorry, Nadine. So sorry.”

Tears flowed. But who she cried for, Colby, Jacob, or herself, she could not begin to say.

River wisely said nothing, letting her cry for a few moments, rubbing his hand up and down her back. Then, he gently said, “We have to go. It’s not safe here.”

Nadine drew in several shuddered breaths, forcing her tears down. River was right. She had to live and push forward. It was high past time she started listening to his sage counsel. Never again would she disregard his words.

With outstretched hands, he helped her to steady herself and to stand. “We can’t leave him,” she said as he went to wrap his arms around her waist to offer her support. “Jacob said he’d be forgotten.”

River shook his head. “No. That won’t happen, Nadine. Not as long as we have a beating heart to remember him by.” He left her side and picked up the carrier, strapping it to his body.

A small hand slipped out, fingers curled in an empty grasp.

“Riv-“

“No, Nadine. You don’t want to remember him like this. Trust me.”

Tears stung her eyes, but she brushed them aside. Someway, somehow, Jacob would pay for this. He would own to what he did here today and the life he chose to end. Never again would she allow another child to be lost in such a fashion.

She would not lay down and die. Not when there were more children like Colby. They needed someone like her. And with God as her witness, one way or another, somehow, she’d find a way to save them all.

Categories
Fiction Genre Short stories

Sweet Confessions

Side by side, we sat on the old park bench. The late spring air hung heavy around us like a priest’s confessional. Unspoken words buzzed and danced about our heads with all the welcome of a mosquito swarm. I think we both hoped if we ignored the words long enough, they would disappear.

I sat back, the pitted wood a familiar comfort through my shirt. This was our bench. On the last board to the left, our crudely carved initials were still distinguishable against the green flecked and greying wood. The lingering and silent testimony of countless childhood dares and vows to always be there for each other. We grew up on this bench, sharing the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.

Words used to flow freely. Now, they lodged in the throat, refusing to come. When had life become so dang complicated? I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when we crossed the threshold between childhood and lost innocence.

Joey glanced at me and smiled. Not his normal, mischievous smile. Nope. Hadn’t seen that since he started dating Rita, the cheerleading queen. His happy smile had become as elusive as some endangered jungle cat, leaving an empty shell.

“I don’t get it, Em,” he said, “Not one bit. I can’t make her happy no matter what I do.” The toe of his shoe drew a line in the dirt. Joey sighed, rubbing his neck. “I don’t text, and she says I don’t think about her or love her. I do text, and now I’m some near stalker who won’t give her space. Makes no sense to me.”

“She’s a prep and a bitch.” I swallowed hard, rubbing my hands on my worn jeans. I shouldn’t have said it. Joey didn’t want to hear it. But God, I hated her.

Joey’s head turned towards me, and he frowned.

I dared a glance at his hazel eyes to gauge his reaction. While many people used ridiculous rings to decipher someone’s mood, all I needed to do was check the predominant color of his eyes. They shone green. So I’d surprised him. Yeah. Him and me both.

His eyebrows rose. “Say again?”

With a shrug, I looked away. Me and my big mouth had already said more than enough.

“What?”

“Forget it.”

“No.” He sounded set and entrenched. I hated that tone.

I shook my head. My tongue and brain were not on same the page at the moment, not even the same book. I didn’t trust what would pop out of my mouth if I let my jaw wag.

“Emily.”

My lips pressed together, and I gazed at the sky. Maybe the clouds would form a word, or two, or ten and give me a script to follow. Nada. One did resemble a boat; a boat I was about to go down in. “I’m sorry.”

Joey didn’t miss a beat. “No. You’re not.”

Scratch what I said earlier about hating his tone. I hated it more when he was right. I wasn’t sorry in the least.

“Why did you call her that?” He laced his hands in his lap and leaned towards me. He didn’t sound upset, per say, but he wasn’t happy either. Still, he opened the topic of his love life. Again. Did he think I wouldn’t say something eventually?

“What do you want me to say, Joey?” Rita couldn’t have herself a better boyfriend if she programmed a robot. Joey was the best boyfriend material out there, kind and loyal. He knew just how to make a person laugh, not caring if he appeared a fool. The kind of guy who spent his last twenty to throw his shoulder out to get the stupid oversized bear at the fair if you wanted it. I saw him do it. Still had the stupid bear, too.

“Well, you could start with why you called my girlfriend a bitch.”

“Don’t like her.”

“Clearly.”

Our eyes met. Silently, I begged him not to press me any further. The horrible truth expanded within my chest, deep in the air pockets of my lungs, and threatened to jump into the world. If those words escaped, there was no telling what would happen.

“Talk.”

“Joey, trust me. You don’t want this.” The truth inched its way up my throat where it choked and jumbled together like a pile of rocks. “I said sorry.”

He shook his head. “Naw. Not buying today, Em. You started this.” His eyes shifted from surprised green to determined blue. Normally, I loved the way his eyes changed color. Not so much today.

I started to point out, no, technically he started by complaining about Rita. Though, to be fair, I did set off the bomb. He merely presented said bomb. “I don’t like how she makes you sad,” I said.

Joey leaned back against the bench, letting out a long breath. Slowly, his head nodded, accepting. His eyes dropped. “Yeah. We do seem to fight a lot.”

I bit the tip of my tongue. A lot was an understatement, and he knew it. We both did.

“Is that why you don’t like her?”

Yeah, he asked the question, but it didn’t mean he wanted the answer. He wanted to stay with her. The longing was written all over his face, like a puppy in search of praise. He wanted someone to hold his hand and tell him everything would all be okay. One day, they’d go to prom together and live happily ever after. He wanted a lie. I wouldn’t lie to him.

My palms itched, and I rubbed them on my legs, pressing down as hard as possible.

“Okay. Fine.” He hit his thighs with open palms. “Why don’t you like her? Real talk. “

The words fell heavy and final in the space between us as he invoked our long-standing promise to be honest with each other. With two words, he blocked off any and all hopes of escape. I sat, frozen. How was I expected to start? I couldn’t think of a single way that didn’t involve destroying our friendship.

“Are you sure?” Maybe, if I gave him a chance to take it back, he would.

“Real talk, Em. Hell, I’ll start. You wanna know why I’m with her, right? Okay. I’ve liked Rita since, like what? Forever? And now I’m dating her. Me and not someone like Tom Gibson. Should be heaven, right? She’s the perfect girlfriend. Drop dead gorgeous, always smiling. Popular. Everything a guy wants, am I right? But when I’m with her lately,” he shrugged, “all we do is fight. She’s upset. She’s angry. And the more I try, the worse I do. Yeah, maybe I should break up with her, but I keep hoping, something’s gotta give. Then it’ll be easy. Like a…a good friendship.”

I frowned and blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“What?” He frowned. His mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. His hand shot up to rub at his neck. “A good friendship, Em. Relationships should be smooth like a good friendship. Right? That’s what I thought I heard Mom say once…on the phone…with…someone. Aren’t you girls supposed to know this stuff?”

“Whoa! Whoa!” My hands jumped up to stop him. “Have you met me? Not exactly the rom com queen here.”

A smile, an honest to goodness, genuine smile graced his face. “Yeah. Ya do kinda have a point.”

“Well, duh,” I said, fighting back the urge to hug him. Here was the Joey I knew and missed. “So you knowing all that. Why talk to me about this stuff?”

“You’re a girl.”

“Seriously? Is that what you’ve been doing? Is that why –?” I leaned against the bench letting my head fall back. “Sorry to disappoint you here, but I don’t know any more about relationships than you do.”

“Yeah. You can say that again.”

Was that what he’d been wanting from me all this time? Love advice? I let out a snort, feeling the tension start to disappear. Maybe now things could start to go back to normal, and he’d stop jabbering on about Rita. I hit him on the shoulder with back of my hand. “That’s what you get for being so stupid, Stupid. I’m your friend, not Oprah.”

“Yeah…You are my friend aren’t you?”

“Sure as sure.”

“And we’ve got a good friendship…Don’t we?”

My stomach did a flip-flop. There was something in his tone, in those last words. And I didn’t understand it.

Hoping for some clue, I turned towards him. No such luck. We had known each other our whole lives. I knew him inside and out, better than his parents, his siblings, anyone. But now, there was something completely alien on his face.

And it shot a thrill right up my spine, like I touched a live outlet. Every nerve screaming in agonized pleasure. I swallowed to try and wet a mouth filled with sand.

“Em?”

Unbidden, the words blurted out. “Rita doesn’t deserve you. And you know it. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s her. All her.”

Joey sighed.

My stomach clenched tight and hard. Even without being a relationship expert, something told me that was probably not the right thing to say. Here we had just gotten back to normal, and I went and blew it again. Today was not my day. Why had I said those things? True? Yes, beyond a doubt. But I knew better than to say it out loud. Mouth, meet foot. Had I gone and ruined our friendship?

The silence taunted and whispered prophecies of doom as it dragged out between us.

“I know,” he said, voice soft and low. I think my heart stopped. Did he say what I thought he said? I wanted to look at him. I wanted to say something. But everything was locked up frozen. It took more effort than I had ever known speaking to take, but somehow, I managed to ask, “Are you going to break up with her, then?”

“I think I should.”

Our eyes managed to find each other, and we sat there, just looking. My mind felt like it was running frantically but not getting anywhere, like a hamster on a wheel. If there was something I was supposed to say, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what. I wasn’t even going to try.

He leaned forward.

Warm lips pressed against mine. Everyone always talks about how lips are supposed to be all soft and sweet. His were, but I could also feel the chapped ridges and the remains of soda.

Like magnets, we bent in once, twice, three times. I was scared to push for more, but no single touch was enough to quench the hot thirst welling up inside. This was Joey, my friend, my best friend. And we were kissing. What did it mean for us? I didn’t know. We’d figure it out later, somehow.

Right then, all I wanted to was to drown in the taste of his sweetness.

Categories
Fantasy Short stories

Choices

The light changed, granting its permission to cross the busy downtown intersection, as I hurried back to work after lunch. My phone dinged as a text arrived. Without thinking, I started across the street, looking down to check.

I never saw the car coming.

The impact registered as my body flew through the air. I was distantly aware of pain, and the odd thought, Hope the screen doesn’t crack. Then world went black.

It came back slow and blurry, like swimming up from the bottom of a pool. Instead of a hospital or an ambulance, I seemed to be standing in what looked like college dorm room. Which made no sense at all.

“Welcome back to the moment of your death!” a male voice announced cheerfully behind me.

“What?” Twisting around, my eyes scanned for the speaker. Did he say death? “No. I’m not dead.”

Spread out on the bed, ankles crossed and arms folded behind his head, was the source of the voice. “Fraid so, sweetie. You, my dear, are well and truly and completely deaded. Wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. Trust me.”  He was a young man, late 20s maybe, with a mop of dark brown hair, and grinning like the Cheshire cat with eyes an impossible shade of blue. A nagging sense of recognition tickled in the back of my mind.

“Do I kn-?” The question died as I suddenly recognized the bed. That was my bed. My gaze shifted back to the room, taking in every familiar and long-forgotten detail, the posters, the teddy bear, the horrid drapes. It had to be drugs. There was no way I could be standing in my dorm from twelve years ago.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side in one smooth motion. “Your eyes do not deceive you. No, you’re not on drugs. This is indeed your dorm room. The date is March 16. Time to pick your classes.” He gestured like some old carnival sideshow host towards my computer.

“Uhn-uhhh.” My head shook “No. No way. Not possible.”

He titled his head to one side and grinned. “Are you sure of that, sweetie? Absolutely positively?”

“Yes,” I bobbed my head. “This isn’t real.”

He rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin on laced fingers. “Tell me then. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Walking across 5th.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” He nodded.

“Gwen texted me.”

“Yes.”

“And-” I swallowed back the rising fear, unwilling to say. If I didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be real. It couldn’t be real.

“And you were hit by a car. A blue Ford Expedition to be exact. Going fifty-seven miles per hour to make the yellow light. The driver, ironically enough, checking his cell phone, too. Text from the girlfriend. You know how it goes. Now tell me,” he leaned forward, eyes almost twinkling with delight, “who survives being hit by a blue Ford Expedition going fifty-seven miles per hour?” He raised one hand in an almost agonizing slowness and made a zero shape. “Catch my drift, sweetie?”

“My name is Amy.”

He grinned. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever, sweetie.”

I glowered at him. “And you are?” Time to focus on what made sense. A strange man daring to address me by pet names I could understand and deal with. Claims about my apparent death and somehow traveling back in time, not so much. It didn’t matter how real this felt. I was not going to resign myself to the crazy. My thumbnail dug into my index finger, the pain crisp.

“Call me Aeron.”

“Look…Aeron, I don’t know who in the hell you think you are-” I pointed at him with my last three fingers, still keeping the pressure between nail and flesh. The pain kept me focused. The pain was real.

“Don’t you?”

Something in his tone insisted on a pause. Swallowing, I took a half step back. Somewhere, somehow, our paths had crossed. There was something about his face, his blue eyes and their intensity. I had seen those eyes before. “Have we met?”

He shrugged, rolling like a stretching cat. “In passing a few times. Now I don’t mean to rush you or anything, but you have a choice to make. And I have another date in about oh,” he checked his empty wrist as if wearing a watch, “twenty minutes, give or take. The guy who ran you over? Yeah, his right temple and the steering wheel had quite the meeting. Normally they don’t book two from the same event so close like this. But, ya know, scheduling conflicts and all. So, chop, chop,” he clapped his hands, “choices, choices.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your class schedule for next quarter. The classes you chose to take on this fateful day, specifically World Lit with Dr. Gubber. Who has a name like Gubber, anyhow? Poor fellow.” Aeron shook his head, then waved his hand dismissively. “Anywho, by picking to be part of that class on this day, you set your rendezvous with the blue Ford Expedition which killed you. Talk about DOA.”

No. No. No. My head shook; sharp tight bursts. I could not be dead. There wouldn’t be any pain. No standing, talking, or thinking. Dead was the end; nothingness. He was wrong. “I am not dead!”

“Well, how else do you explain being in your dorm room?”

Regarding the space, I finally threw up my hands. “Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.”

“Already told you. No drugs.”

“And you’re so believable.”

“Is this the face of someone who would lie to you, sweetie?”

“Call me that one more time and-“

“Hey,” Aeron tilted further forward, all mirth gone, “I get it. This is a little hard-“

“A little hard?”

His lips pressed into a thin line. “It’s not easy accepting death. Let alone your own. But you’re dead, sweetie. Deal with it.”

I shook my head.

“You know.”

My head kept shaking, refusing to accept his words.

Aeron sighed and leaned back. “Amy.” His tone reminded me of my father when he tried to coax me down the big slide at the fair as a child. “No one survives a collision like that. I’m sorry. Really. But you died. Now you have a chance for something else. So let’s stop with the whole head in the sand thing, and work with what is, instead of what you wish, shall we?”

“I’m not dead.” My words sounded soft, distant even to me. “Mark. We’re going to Chante tonight.”

He shook his head. “Not anymore.”

Fear slipped over my whole body, heavy like a cold, soaked wetsuit. There had to be a way out of this. This couldn’t be the end. Not now. Not for me. Not here.I licked my lips and glanced at Aeron. “You said something about a choice?”

“Yes.” The grin returned. “You may choose to keep things as they stand now. You take World Lit with the amazing Dr. Gubber and your death will remain as is. Or, you take advantage of this time-limited offer to change the choice and change your future.”

My heart rose a little higher. Options were doable, workable. “What would happen then?”

“You wouldn’t have to deal with that end-of-the-quarter assignment comparing Scottish to English literature in the fifteenth century.”

“Or die?” Was this conversation happening? Were we accepting my death? This was not how my day was supposed to be going.

He grinned at me and winked. “You catch on fast, sweetie.”

“Amy.”

“Amy.”

Change a simple class and not die? Sounded like an excellent exchange to me. A thought stopped me. “What about everything else? My husband and kids? The job and house? My dog?”

Aeron waved his fingers apart and made a flapping sound. “Gone.”

“What would happen to them?” They couldn’t just vanish. Could they?

“Not my department. I’m just the choices guy. And not to rush, but tick tock, sweetie.” He nodded over to the computer.

Change the class, change my fate. Walking to the computer and sitting down, I kept my eyes on Aeron, who kept grinning back at me. On the screen, was my old class schedule: piano, stats, Women’s Lit, and one blank space where 12 years ago I put World Lit. The cursor flashed, awaiting the numbers that would determine my future.

Twelve years left to live if things stayed the same. With eight mostly wonderful years with Mark. Two babies, Kevin and Patty, children now. They were my world. My job gave purpose and meaning. We lived in a decent part of town. We had plenty of money for needs and wants with extra to save. It was a wonderful life. One many envied. The only apparent flaw was it ended far too soon.

No. The thought slammed into my brain. It couldn’t be over. There was still so much to do. Learning French for starters. Hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Seeing my grandpa again. How could I be out of time? Would making a different choice buy me more time?

But what would change? What would happen to my family? Aeron had said gone. Would I be trading them for that time? A mother laid down her life for her children. Yet here I sat, contemplating trading them for my benefit. Then again, might they survive on elsewhere? Could I not still have them again?

What was it about this specific class? It wasn’t connected in any way with my crossing 5th. It was only taken because Creative Writing started at eight and I didn’t want to get up that early. Nothing more than a filler class.

Yet, Aeron insisted this class was the cause of my death. How? It made no sense. Not that any of this was making sense to begin with.

Assuming this was all truth and really happening and I could trust Aeron, couldn’t I still meet Mark and have our babies regardless of my class schedule? They might be independent of this whole debacle.

Or they might cease to be. My new life and extended time for theirs.

My head started to hurt. This was why I didn’t take philosophy. Too many unknowns. Too many what ifs.

I stared at Aeron, helpless.

“Tick tock.”

“You’re not going to help me with this?”

He shrugged. “Not my life.”

Scoffing, I looked back at the screen. No help was forthcoming from that quarter.

I didn’t want to die. At the end of the day, it came down to that. It couldn’t be my time.

To avoid death, I would gamble with the lives of my children.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “Mommy loves you.”

Even with the declaration, my fingers punched in the code for Creative Writing.

And hit enter.

Three weeks later, I sat next to a young man named Peter. Six months and a whirlwind romance later, we wed.

We wrote a book series together, which became an international sensation almost overnight. The demands for more books, the tours, the interviews, the movie contracts, the whirlwind of success kept us so busy. We knew we couldn’t bring children into the world. Not yet. Next year, we’d see about starting a family. But every year, we had one more project to do. I never noticed the passage of time.

Until almost seven years after our marriage when our plane crashed. And I died.

When my eyes opened, it was to my college dorm and a stranger named Aeron sprawled on the bed. His brilliant white grin stretched from ear to ear as he explained my options. Elusive humor colored his words, like some personal inside joke. For another chance at life, would I be willing to take a class other than Creative Writing? Would I shuffle the deck and try again?

It was never a question; of course. To pass up a chance to live beyond seven more measly years was insane. Besides, I hated getting up early. Though not dealing with writing, sociology always appealed and I chose the intro class at eight pm. Evening classes were much more my speed.

Only three years later, my best friend was getting married. Of course, Shelly wanted to go bungee jumping. I felt uneasy, and almost claimed the 24-hour flu bug . As the maid of honor, it was my duty to go. So I went. I should have listened to my gut. Because the cable snapped, and I died from blunt force trauma.

No sooner did my lifeless body begin to float down the river when my eyes blinked and beheld my dorm and Aeron. This time, it would be French instead of studying social behaviors. Spring break that same year found me touring Europe with the last stop in Ireland. A local directed me to a wonderful little pub. I was in love and ready to move until a bomb went off.

Next, my eyes saw a man all but draped over the back of my computer chair in my dorm. “I know you.”

“You do, sweetie.” His eyes danced, but his words were solemn.

“Amy.”

He nodded. “I know, sweetie.”

“What are you doing here?”

“To tell you your time has come. It is time to die.”

I remembered this. We had done this before. “No.” I took a step back. “No. Not yet.”

“There are no more choices left to play.” He sat up and spread his hands wide.

“Yes, there are.” I pointed to the open class catalog. “That thing is filled with different classes. Different choices. Different outcomes.”

He shook his head slowly. “Not for you.”

“I’ll quit school. Move back home. Move to another state. Another country. Those are different choices. I can still do those.” My feet shuffled further back.

Aeron steepled his fingers and shook his head again.

“What do you mean no?”

“Just that. No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Everyone always says that.”

“I’ve always had a choice before.”

“They always say that, too. While it may have been true before, that’s no longer the case. You see, before this, you had time.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I took another step back, edging my way to the door.

Aeron looked at his nonexistent watch. “It means you have about…oh, five, maybe ten minutes, give or take. No choice you make would change what will happen then.”

“So why am I back here again?”

He shrugged with his liquid grace. “Not my department.”

“You’re just the choices guy?” my lips asked, recalling something he said once before.

He smiled and tilted his head. “And occasionally the guide guy when the situation requires. Which it will here soon enough.”

“So this is it? There’s nothing else I can do? Surely there’s something. Just tell me!”

“Sweetie,” he leaned forward, “you’ve had every chance in the world. You lived to be ninety once before. You’ve had children and grandchildren. Progeny. Husbands and lovers. You’ve had good work, meaningful work, fame, and fortune. You’ve had it all. And every chance, it has never been enough for you.” He smirked, shaking his head. “You, foolish, foolish girl. Through it all, you never once thought to ask what it would cost you. Never once. You got close once, though. I’ll give you that. Right after…oh, what’s his name? Mark. Right after Mark. You almost asked then. You were this close.” He held up his fingers. “But, nope. Just ended up barreling straight through like you always do. Isn’t there supposed to be a saying about looking before you leap?”

No. No. This couldn’t be happening. It was getting harder to breath as I choked on the terrible truth. He was right. What had I done?

“Each choice, as all choices do, come at a price….Time.”

My hand touched the cool door handle. I could change this. I could fix this.

“You have no more time to barter with. You’ve used it all up. Every choice you ever made. Every decision. Every keystroke at that computer brought you one step closer to this point. To this ending.” He stood growing taller, flowing and malleable. He held out his hand. “Take my hand, sweetie.”

“No!” I spat the word at him, pushing the handle down. This would not be the end. Not for me. I raced down the hall, refusing to look behind. He could chase me all he wanted. I was not going to take his hand. Past the elevators, I rounded for the stairs.

I made it down the first flight, feet familiar with the rise and turns of the ancient steps.

“Sweetie!” Aeron’s voice echoed down the stairwell.

I needed to move faster. Hands grabbed the rails and my feet jumped. Taking four steps at once was nothing new.

My heel caught and slipped. I screamed as the world spun helter-skelter. Each step dug painfully into my body, arms and legs hopelessly tangled and unable to slow my fall. Something gave in my neck with a loud crack.

The world went dark.

And all around me the word, “Sweetie.”

Categories
Fantasy Genre

Dragon Born

It was dark in the cave. A soft huffing was Heather’s only warning.

“It’s okay, Korro. It’s me. I’m here to check on Mari and the kits.”

The huffing subsided and Heather heard scale shifting on rock. Satisfied all was safe, she lit her lantern, flooding the space with honeyed light.

Curled up against the far wall was Mari, a young female dragon. Her yellow-green scales shimmered in the dancing light. She lifted her head to regard the human woman who approached her with reflective black eyes.

“How are we doing today, Mari?” Heather asked, sitting the lantern down.

Mari’s head bobbed up and down, moving with serpentine grace. She slid her tail back, exposing six eggs in a small nest of sand and rock. The first generation of dragon kits to be born in this world.

Before approaching them, Heather stopped by Mari’s head. She pressed her forehead against the dragon’s, scratching behind the eye ridge. “I am glad to see you’re feeling well today. Korro is taking good care of you, isn’t he?”

A snout bumped her shoulder. She turned and pressed her forehead against the mighty Korro, a beast of red and purple magnificence. “Yes, yes, Korro. It is good to see you again, too. Now, let’s take a look at the kits, yes?”

Under the watchful eye of both parents, Heather dropped gently and slowly to her knees, holding her own full belly. Matthew didn’t like her traveling so close to the coming of their child, but Korro and Mari needed her. They were the only dragons with a clutch of viable kits and she was only dragonologist.

Heather bent close, her green eyes making careful note of the changes since her last visit two weeks ago. The shells were still intact and showed no signs of stress. The colors were lighter, taking on an almost translucent hue. If she angled the light, she was sure she’d be able to see the tiny kits inside.

“I’d say we’re getting close, aren’t we, yes?” Heather asked. She sat back on her heels, wincing and rubbing just below her ribs.

Korro’s head snaked down, coming even with Heather’s. His head tilted slightly to the side and he blinked.
“I’m fine, Korro. Just my baby. He’s active and space is at a premium.” She turned to Mari, “There are many a day lately that I envy you, Mari. No lie.”

She took several deep breathes, breathing through the discomfort as her baby kicked. He always seemed to be more active when she visited the dragons. She sat, putting herself closer to the eggs and pulled a log book from its satchel. “May I?”

Mari settled down, relaxed and at ease. It was the closest thing to permission she’d get.

Heather smiled. “Thanks.” Her fingers trailed over the eggs, feeling their smooth, almost silky texture. “Soon, soon, yes?” She decided to start with the orange egg she called Vela.

There was still so little known about dragons. One day they had been no more than stories and myths. The next, the world woke up to their existence. Scientists were still scratching their heads at that one. Heather, for her part, was content to let them do so. She was satisfied living her childhood dream. Who else in all of history got to study real live dragons for a living?

She picked up each egg in turn. Inside she could see each tiny kit, perfect miniatures of their parents. “As far I can tell, they are doing beautifully well, you both….Weights have increased across the board for the most part. Shells are getting thinner. Hatching could be any day now.”

Korro and Mari looked at her with their endless eyes.

Heather reached out to pick up the last egg. It was pure black, even now, making it all but impossible to see the kit she called Armon inside. This one intrigued her, and the rest of the growing dragon community, the most. Armon lacked the jeweled tones seen in the other eggs. Of all the dragon’s cataloged, none had black in their scales. Speculation buzzed across the chats. Was it a new color variation, something within norms, birth defect, or sign of illness? This egg was also the smallest and lightest of its siblings. Was it possible for dragons to hatch runts? So much they did not know. So much to learn.

Her fingers brushed over Armon and her baby jerked, bringing on a contraction. Heather doubled over, mouth gaping. Her baby kicked again. And again.

Armon began to rock in time, matching her baby’s movements.

The second contraction hit.

Her water broke.

Heather tried to push herself up and fell backward against Korro, who had come up behind her. Mari’s head rose, her eyes regarding her. Heather glanced over to the eggs.

They were all rocking. Were they hatching? Now?

Be at ease.

Heather started, looking up into Korro’s eyes. Did he just speak? There were no records of dragon’s speaking. Dragons were intelligent creatures like dogs, yes. But none had ever spoken. They didn’t have the physiology to allow it.

Be at ease, the words rumbled again in her mind, rocks tumbling down the mountainside.

It’s time, another voice said, as lightning flashes across the deep ocean.The Dragon Herald is coming. And our kits are eager to greet him…Especially Armon.

Heather looked at Mari.

The dragon’s snout brushed her shoulder. We are with you, Heather. As you have been with us.

Heather’s lips parted to speak, but another contraction stole her words.

Be at ease. Let the Herald come. We have searched the worlds and waited long.

Heather moaned, fingers digging into the soft dirt. Her whole body shuddered as her mind fought with what was happening. Dragon’s didn’t talk. They were nothing more than massively overgrown lizards.

So why was she suddenly hearing voices? Why did they seem to be coming from Korro and Mari? What was going on?
The birthing grabbed her, commanded her, and ended all further thought.

Time unmarked later, Heather rested against Mari’s flank. She was weak and exhausted, but content. She and her son had made it through the birthing journey safe. In her arms, he slept, sated from his first meal.

Circled about her were Korro, Mari, and the tiny kits. All had hatched during her son’s birth. Closest was Armon, jet black from tip to tip. His snout brushed against her son’s arm. Heather had tried to push him away, to give some space. But each time, the kit had come back as if he could not stand being parted from her son. Since he caused no harm or panic, Heather relented.

Watching them, she knew, a new had era dawned for dragons and humans both. At the center of it, all would be her son and Armon. And his would be a life filled with dragons.

Categories
Dystopia Genre

All For a Drop

It was wrong to steal. And Jazel was not a thief.

So it was with little difficulty that he shoved back the random thought that he could easily slip an extra water pod or two into his jacket pockets and not be caught to the recesses of his mind. He was an honest, upright, and faithful citizen to the GenTech Company. Which was the least he could do for all that the company had given him. In the years following the last of earth’s natural freshwater supplies being exhausted, it was GenTech that had stepped up and quite literally saved the world. With their water trees that needed only air to live and ability to produce precious pods filled with clean, drinkable water, they had managed to prevent the nations from rending each other apart. They gave generously from their massive and carefully cultivated forests, providing with seeming ease enough fresh water for every man, woman, and child to not just survive, but thrive. All they asked for was peace; for all to share their wealth and resources just as they had done.

The world willingly complied.

One by one, nations merged with each other. Currency and money became a thing of the past. Crime began to go down. What need was there to take or force from another when all one had to do was ask? Patriotism, nationalism, racism; all those ills of society began to move from daily life to the realms of history books and museums. It was a new era for the world, for mankind; and it was golden.

GenTech continued to be the sole guardians of the water forests. They were the ones who monitored, cared for, nurtured, and distributed the water pods. It seemed like an impossible task and to someone like Jazel, a logistical nightmare. But GenTech had been a profitable company in the years before and thusly showed little difficulty with adjusting to managing the populations of the very world. They ran with a precise science and formula, everything carefully calculated and overseen to ensure that everyone got exactly what they needed; no more and no less.

Every day, people like Jazel loaded pallets onto trucks. And trucks hauled the precious pallets filled with water to the different distribution sites. Every day, the people of the world would arrive at their appointed times with their baskets, bags, buckets, and arms ready to receive their alloted amount. So it was, and so it would continue: the world finally, truly at peace.

For a company that gave so much good for so long, there was no question at all that they would continue to do so in Jazel’s mind. The company would always give just what was needed. All he would ever have to do was ask.

Then Shara became ill.

It started innocently enough, nothing more than a normal childhood illness. His wife kept her home from day care, more to keep the other children from falling ill than anything. Then she stayed home a second day, followed by a third. She lost her color, her appetite, her energy. Jazel stayed home that third day, his wife needing a break from the constant care. Shara remained in bed, clutching her bunny rabbit as she tossed about in fitful sleep. Jazel sang softly to her. Songs that his mother and his mother’s mother used to sing. He soothed back her hair. He painted her nails in her favorite lime green. And he read her her favorite book over and over without compliant or suggestion of her second favorite book.

Then the fever hit.

He took water from his own supply and gave it without question to his daughter once her daily allotment depleted. His wife did also.

They called the doctor who came without delay. He poked and prodded, took measurements and readings, all the while scribbling ferociously in his little book and muttering to himself words and phrases that made no sense. When Jazel asked him what his daughter had and what she needed to recover, the doctor only bobbed his head, flashed an apologetic smile, and said that he had to run some tests. He promised to call as soon as he knew anything and felt certain that all would be well. In the meantime, continue to ensure that Shara got her rest and that she drank her daily water. GenTech would, as always, provide exactly what the family needed, no more and no less.

Jazel never doubted.

The fever grew worse in the night.

Shara’s skin almost glowed red, flushed with heat. Her curls clung to her head, limp and wet. When Jazel dared to touch her, she burned.

That day, he gave her everything he could spare of his water, leaving just enough for himself to take off the sharp edge of thirst.

The following day, his gaze lingered on the pods as he packed them away into their crates. His hand held their weight a little longer. He was thirsty and surrounded by water, but unable to take even a drop. It would be taking from another. It would be wrong. It would be stealing. He would not steal or take from another.

Finally, two days later, the doctor called back. Shara needed water for her fever and medication for the virus which ravaged her body’s ability to regulate its temperature. He had already called in the request for supplies and GenTech would no doubt respond by the end of day. They would provide exactly what Shara needed to ensure the quality of her life, just as they had for every other human on the earth over the years. There was no reason to fear or be worried.

GenTech responded quickly. A currier arrived within a few hours with a small bag and an official notice.

Jazel disregarded the notice. It would be nothing more than words of affirmation of what he already knew. Inside was everything Shara would need. GenTech was generous and gave freely to those who asked. In the bag would be both the medication and all the water she would need. It never crossed his mind to doubt.

Inside was one small vial of mysterious green liquid.

He frowned at it. The vial was so small. Barely a mouthful for even a child as Shara. Surely she would need more medicine than that. And where was the water?

He picked up the notice and quickly read the words. It fell from his fingers.

There would be no water.

There would be no medicine.

The vial contained not life, but death.

Surely there had to be a mistake. It had to be a simple mix up. The company would not condemn a child like Shara to death. This had to have been meant for someone else. Someone else who was old and already so near death after a full life. It could not be meant for his little daughter.

Jazel called the company. He was granted an appointment for that evening. Everything would be fine as soon as he could speak to them. He would explain what had happened and he would return home with the proper supplies; medication and water. He promised his wife and his daughter, kissing Shara’s fevered brow. She was so hot she no longer sweat at all. She only burned.

He was greeted promptly by name upon his arrival to the large glass building. While he waited, he was offered a glass of water while he waited. Jazel accepted with many thanks. He had drank nothing that day, giving all to Shara. He took nothing for himself but enough to wet his lips.

The rest he slipped into a small water tight bag and slid it into his pocket. Shara needed it more than he.

The company man who greeted him was polite and cordial. He listened well and nodded sympathetically at all the right moments. Yet when the time came and Jazel asked for the correct supplies, the man shook his head. There had been no mistake. They had sent exactly what they had meant to. After looking at the results of the test, an expert panel of doctors had concluded that Shara was too far gone and too sickly to survive and recover enough to achieve any means of acceptable quality of life. Giving her medication and water would only take from another who would benefit more from it. And that would not be fair to that person. Surely Jazel could understand. While it was sad to see one so young have to leave this earth so soon, it would be for the best. And after her burial, he and his wife could apply to have another child. They were young enough yet that the man stated he felt confident they would be granted permission to conceive again.

Jazel left empty handed but for his one small bag with water.

That night, every single drop was given to Shara.

The morning light brought the dismal realization that no help would be coming.

Jazel’s mouth felt like pure cotton and his head felt made of stuffing. He needed water but there was none left in the house. Everything had been given to Shara. And their daily supply would not be given until that evening.

He went in to kiss his daughter’s forehead and could hardly believe what he felt. Her skin was cool. The fever had broken. Though weak, her eyes were clear and was she able to smile and ask for her favorite book.

He returned to the company building. Surely things would be different now. The doctors had misread the tests. They had been wrong. Shara would be well. All she needed was some extra water. No more than a pod or two for a few days. GenTech surely had enough to spare. They had given him an extra glass only yesterday had they not?

He was turned away. The company man refused to listen; refused to even see him. The answer would be the same. There was no water to spare. They would receive their daily allotment at its appointed time, no more and no less. It was advised that he return home and bid his daughter farewell. It was also advised that he remember just what happened to water thieves of old. They were executed on sight.

He went to his work, watched, and waited. Supervisors walked the rows. They counted the boxes. Machines weighed the pallets. Everything was checked and double checked to ensure not a single ounce was missing. He had never paid attention before to how closely everything was monitored and guarded. Not a single movement was lost to the watchful eyes of those who guarded the water pods.

Jazel picked up a water pod and it slipped from his hand, falling to the floor. It hit with a slosh. Supervisors rushed over in a swarm, everyone on alert.

It was then that he noticed the gun. He caught the quickest flash of it under the jacket of one of the supervisors as he leaned down and over to pick up the unbroken pod. Jazel only recognized it because of the old movies he had watched. He had thought they had been all destroyed years ago. At least that was what the teachers had said.

Before he could say or think anything, another was asking him if he was alright. Was he ill? Did he need to go home and rest?

No, Jazel assured them. He had been merely lost in thought. His wife’s birthday was approaching and he was struggling to figure out what to give her as a gift. It would not happen again.

The answer seemed to satisfy. The pod had not broken so no harm was done. After admonishments to be more mindful and a few gift suggestions, the supervisors left back to their original posts and watches.

How was he supposed to get the water he needed for Shara? With supervisors that watched this closely and guns to kill, it looked hopeless.

Perhaps the company man had been right. Perhaps the kindest thing he could do would be to go home, hold his daughter tight, and give her the vial. Who was he to argue with doctors; with the company? If they said Shara would have no quality of life after her illness, would they not know best of all? Had GenTech not saved the world? Were they not versed in making decisions such as this?

And he was no thief. If he failed, he would be killed before he ever reached Shara with the water. What would it gain her? Nothing but a father to mourn before her own death. And where would that leave his wife? But childless and without a husband. Was it not better to grieve only one instead of two?

His daughter. His only daughter. He could not shake the images of her from his mind. He could not silence her laughter that echoed in the shadows of his memory. She was but a child; so young, too young.

He had to try.

He signaled to a supervisors. He was feeling faint, he explained. He had drank all his rations from the day before due to excessive working out in the yard, and now he was incredibility thirsty. Could some of his rations from later be given early now? In the state he was in, it was not hard to convince the supervisor that he did indeed some some water.

A small glass was provided to him. It would be noted and what he was given this evening would reflect the deduction he took now.

Jazel nodded his understanding and took the smallest of sips. It was hard, but he forced himself. Shara needed the water more than he.

He waited until the supervisors were turned away, then dropped to tie his shoe. In his palm were two water pods. He slipped them into the sides of his shoes, pulling pant legs down and over.

He repeated the process twice more. Each time he felt certain the pounding of his heart would give him away. Surely the supervisors would be able to hear it from their posts? He could hear nothing but. With each drop, however, he managed to slid the pods away. The last time, he pocketed the glass of water, dropping it into a small bag.

At day’s end, he went to file out with the rest of the workers. Jazel fought to keep his head up and gaze forward as he walked out of the door. If he didn’t look like he had anything to hide, then perhaps he just might make it through without notice.

Sunlight hit his face as he passed under the double doors.

He heard his name called along with the directions to stop.

Slowly, he did as directed, hoping his face looked suitability confused and not guilty.

Did he have any water pods on him? The sensors had detected water when he passed under.

The water from earlier. Jazel reached into his pocket and pulled out the small glass. He had but taken a sip. Not wishing to drink more than he needed, for water was precious, he had pocketed the remainder. It must have slipped his mind.

It was hard to tell if the supervisor believed him or not. He did not know if the sensor above the door told them how much water was on him. If it told quantity, all was lost.

The supervisor checked a read out on his tablet. He tapped the screen a few times. Asked to hold the water. Made a few more notes. Then handed the water back. Next time, he should declare such things before leaving. It threw the senors and caused more work.

Jazel apologized profusely. It would not happen again. It was one of those days. Tomorrow would be better.

Yes, the supervisor agreed, tomorrow would be.

Jazel left unable to believe that he had managed to do it. He had actually walked out with six extra pods of water for his daughter. That night, when added to the regular ration, there was finally plenty of water for all in his home to drink and be filled.

Jazel repeated the process over the next few days. Each time, he was successful. And every day, Shara grew stronger.

It came to its end.

Jazel had slipped ten pods away in specially concealed pouches he had brought for the day. It was to be his last day taking this risk. Shara was almost fully recovered. He had his water in hand and declared it before leaving that night. He passed the supervisor and his heart did not pound at all. The sensor he knew, read only that water existed, not how much.

He saw the company man walking towards him, two supervisors flanking, and knew he had been found out. Jazel didn’t even bother trying to defend himself. Instead, he asked just one question. If he was found guilty and killed as the law demanded, would his daughter be able to get his water rations?

The company man nodded.

Slowly, Jazel leaned down and pulled out the water pods, sitting them gently on the ground before him.

That night, a young water tree was delivered to his home.

*Winning Short Story on Reedsy
Categories
Fantasy Genre

Your Father’s Song

Be still, my child. Be still and listen to the lullaby your father sings for you. Listen closely. Can you hear? The gentle lapping of the waves upon the shore. His voice is there, in the deep. His message of love for you.

Listen. I will tell you, he is not gone.Your father is here, my child, my love. He is here with us right now, upon this darkened shore. Do you see the glints of light upon the water? How they dance upon the waves like splinters of fallen stars? Those are your father’s eyes, watching to make sure you are safe.

Feel the water, here. Do you feel the bubbles as they dance between your fingers? That is your father’s hand reaching out for yours. His promise that he is always here and ready to embrace you. You will never be alone or without him, my child. Can you feel him?

He washed upon the shore one night, a blacker night than this. The storms brought him here to me. The land gave him form to walk upright and be seen amongst men. The sea made flesh, encircled and contained, but only for the passage of a season. He is not a man as you will come to know men to be. He is and always will be a creature of the mighty and terrible sea.

The others in the village thought him nothing more than a shipwrecked sailor. Dismissed, they called him crazy; sun struck and mad from thirst. They did not try to understand. Such is the way of the people of the land; hard and unyielding. Hush now and still. Do not think I condemn, nor do I wish you to look down upon them for their weaknesses. They are, as all creatures, nothing more than mere echo of that which gives them breath.

Never forget, my child, for as much as you are water, the land, too, lives on in you.

Perhaps their blindness was a gift, enabling me to see. For daring to look closer, I saw the storms and stars reflected in his gray eyes. I heard the water in his voice. I felt the embrace of the sea.

Even as I grew to love him, I knew he was never mine to keep. He could not stay. The ocean cannot abide in one place for long. Its nature is a thing of motion, constantly reaching, exploring, expanding. It can brush against the land, a quick caress but nothing more. Such was the time your father and I shared. Moments stolen from the vaults of time and secreted away; land and sea mixing and embracing, entwined.

Promises of fidelity and to be forever by my side he could not give. They were never his to offer. But he did not leave me empty. Instead, he gave me you. You are a token of himself; a gift left as a seashell upon the shore. I hear him in your voice. I see him in your eyes. The salt of the sea is the salt of your blood. You are the very best of him, our precious one.

Though you are but still a babe, the restlessness in your storm-gray eyes promise one day I will have to give you to the sea. You will follow his ways and touch distant shores that I will never see or know. I only pray when that day comes, I will be strong enough to entrust you fully to your father’s care. I only ask you take care to remember me; here upon the earthen shore and to return to me when you can.

But for a while yet, be still here within my arms, and listen to your father’s song.

Categories
Science Fiction

Child of Night

The day the world ended was the day Joseph’s life began.

The red light winked to life, bathing his room and entryway in its soft glow. Joseph blinked several times, his eyes struggling to adjust to the intrusion of even this, the most gentle of lights. While many of the Night Children complained about the red light, Joseph found himself at odds. For the red light signaled more than just the Day Children’s arrival with their offerings of food and drink. It signaled the promise of Amina.

Joseph stood, smoothing his shirt. Today; he was going to tell her today. He pressed his lips and swallowed hard. He could think of no reason why he should be nervous. Amina wouldn’t laugh or call him silly. Surely, she felt the same way.

The heavy metal door swung open, gliding across the concert floor. Just as softly, in stepped Amina, her skirt flowing about her legs in what Joseph liked to image the swells of water at the ocean’s edge looked like. She smiled at him and warmth rushed through his inner most core to the very tips of his fingers and toes.

“Hello, Amina.” He was smiling like a fool and knew it. Today, he didn’t care.

“Hello, Joseph.” She nodded her head in greeting, sitting down her offering on the table. The smell of fresh bread and strawberry jam wafted up; his favorite. “I hope your day has been well thus far.”

“It has.” He swallowed again, rubbing his hands on his pants. “I finished the book you loaned me.”

“Oh?…And what did you think?”

“I think the people of Earth were unusual creatures.”

“They…were a fanciful people,” she agreed, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

Joseph watched entranced by her movements, the line of her neck. “Amina-“

“Today is the big day, Joseph.”

He frowned. “Today?”

“Today,” she echoed. She took a slow, steadying breathe. “You can already see it happening Outside.”

Outside; the one place he had never been. He knew about it. He knew because of his books, his lessons, and from Day Children like Amina. But never had his feet crossed the threshold between his home and there. Night Children were not able tread in that place; not yet. Outside belonged to those such as Amina. The care of Outside was theirs to tend until the Day of the Sleeping Sun.

Today.

How it could be today? Yes, he knew it would come during his lifetime. It was why he had been born; why he was a Night Child. The Day of the Sleeping Sun was the day the Night Children would be able to walk openly in the Outside. But for the Day Children, for Amina, it would mean… He shook his head, cutting off the thought.

“Outside is yours now,” Amina said.

Joseph could only look at her. How could she even think that, say that? Did she really think that was what his thoughts would turn towards? That he could be so shallow, so narrow minded?

She turned to him and he couldn’t help but note how her arms wrapped around herself. “You get to leave the Underground today. It is a good day.”

“Not for the Day Children,” he said.

“We always knew this would come. It’s how it’s always been on this world since time began. Day Children keeping the Outside during the Long Day and the Night Children keeping all well during the Long Night. You know this. All the preparations have been made and all stands ready. Once you go Outside, you’ll see. I even brought goggles for you. The sun is still too bright yet…but in a couple hours.” She smiled, but Joesph thought he saw a strain at the edges. “You’ll see.”

“I love you,” he blurted.

Amina’s smile reversed into a pronounced frown. “What? No, Joseph. You can’t.”

“But I do.”

“You have been Awake for barely two weeks. That is hardly enough time to know what love is.”

He blinked. His mouth opened to protest;  to seek understanding, to reaffirm his devotion. All these things he wanted to say and more, but nothing came. The words were gone, unreachable and foreign; just like Outside.

“Joseph, come now. Eat your meal. There isn’t much time.” Amina motioned to the food. “You’re needed to help us to our Rest. Others have already begun.”

“You gave me your books.”

“I let you borrow my books.”

“You remember my favorite foods.”

“It’s the common meal.”

“But you do love me?”

“Joesph,” Amina shook her head, “Day Children and Night Children cannot be together. I cannot survive the darkness of the Night. Just as you cannot the survive the light of the Day. We live in two different worlds.”

He looked down at the floor.”We don’t know that. No one knows that.”

“You’ve avoided the history lessons?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement.

He rubbed his hands along his legs.

Amina looked at him, head tilted to the left. She shook her head, tsking softly behind her teeth. “We left the old Earth thousands of years ago. Those few who survived landed here. Turned Espera into our new home. Then they learned about the Long Day and the Long Night. How the moon and the sun exchange places, creating such extremes that the only chance to survive here was to become two different types of people.”

“Day Children and Night Children.”

She nodded. “And we trade places just like the sun and moon, always passing and never joining.”

“I love you.”

Amina sighed and looked away. “Eat your meal.” She placed a pair of goggles on the table. “I’ll wait Outside for you.”

She turned to go.

“No!” The thought of her going to into Rest was unacceptable. He could not let her go. He could not be parted from her. He would not. His hands grabbed at her shoulders, fingers digging into her flesh like hooks and pulling her back. He thought she cried out, but he could not hear it over the hammering of his own panic. He threw her bodily as far away from the door as possible. “You’ll stay here! I’ll take care of you and you’ll be just fine. You’ll be the one to see!” Though he knew he spoke the words, they sounded distant, like another’s voice.

“Joseph!”

He scrambled to the table, grasped the goggles, and flung himself out into Outside.

The light burned.

Joseph’s eyes watered and he shut them tight against the searing pain. Working through touch alone, he fumbled with the goggles, trying to put them on. Sounds and smells assaulted his  senses in an cacophony of stimulus. It was too much. It was too big. It was too overwhelming. If this was Outside, he wanted nothing to do with it. He turned to find a way back into his home.

“Joseph?” A familiar voice cut through the noise.

“Henry?”

“Here. Let me.”

Joseph felt Henry, a Night Child like himself, grab hold of the goggles and adjust them.

“There. You can open your eyes now.”

Joseph swallowed hard. He didn’t want to feel the pain again. But he couldn’t just stand here with his eyes closed either. Henry had not lied to him before. If Henry said it was okay and safe, then there must be some truth to it. Slowly, Joseph opened his eyes.

“Welcome to the Outside.”

Even with the dark lenses, it was still almost too bright for Joseph’s eyes. He blinked several times.

Slowly, his vision cleared. He saw Outside. It was huge.

His brain began matching images with names that he had learned in his lessons; rocks, grass, buildings, birds, clouds, and sun.

“Don’t look directly up,” Henry advised, “unless you wish to be well and truly blind. These goggles apparently aren’t light proof. Just enough to give our eyes protection while the transition takes place. From what I hear, this started some weeks ago. Today is the last of it, though. Darkness will overtake, and us Night Children will walk the Outside for the next hundred years or so.” He laughed, nodding his head. “Yes, indeed. All of this will be ours.”

“The Day Children?”

Henry shrugged, “Do their thing in their Rest like we did in ours, I guess. Come on,” he nodded away across an open expanse towards a squat building on the other side. “That’s where the Day Children will be staying and they need our help to tuck them in.”

It looked a long way and there was so little between here and there. “It won’t fall on us?”

“What won’t fall?”

Joseph pointed upward to the sky.

“Oh. No. The sky stays up there just like our ceilings. Had one of them tell me just to pretend it was a big, painted ceiling. It’s worked well enough so far.” Henry shrugged again and started off without a glance back.

Having no choice that he could see which did not involve him being alone, Joseph followed. He kept looking back to the door of his room, but Amina never showed. What had she said once? That it locked from Outside to prevent the Night Children from accidently entering the Day and being burned by the sun? Unless he or another opened the door, there was no way she would get out.

Amina could have her Rest there. He would take care of her. Bring her food and drink and more, just like she had done for him. She would not die. She would be fine and they could be together. He would love her and she would realize that not only did he speak truth to her, but that she loved him back. Joseph nodded to himself. Yes. That was how things would go and how they would be. Everything would be just fine.

All around, he saw Day Children converging on the building that he and Henry were headed towards. Some of them he knew, others not. Day Children of all ages, all moving to escape the Long Night through an artificial sleep known as cryosleep. For the next several hours, Joseph aided the Day Children, following the instructions in his books. Each one thanked him as they closed their eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Through it all, his thoughts kept returning to Amina.

“Why can’t you stay awake during the Night?” he asked of one man.

“Why couldn’t you stay awake during the Day?” the man replied with a laugh, settling himself into the sleep pod.

“The sun would burn us. Make us to go blind. Our bodies cannot live under the Day.” Joesph attached the sticky pads to the man which would monitor his vitals. Lights on a nearby panel started to pulse, affirming everything was set in place.

“Exactly. And we cannot survive the lack of Day.” He clasped his hand on Joseph’s forearm, an blotch of inky darkness to the near translucence of his own skin. “So, thank you. Mine and all my fellow brothers’ and sisters’ lives are in your hands until the Day dawns again.” He smiled at Joseph, rested his hands across his chest, and closed his eyes.

The Day Children could not survive the lack of Day. Those words haunted him as did Amina’s stricken face. But it didn’t make sense. The Night would not burn her. It would not do any physical harm to her at all. Had she not spent hours with him in his home with only the faint red light to give her enough to see by? Never had she spoken of ill effects or shown any. There would be food and water for her. He had seen the crops on his way over here and heard a river in the distance.

With those things, she would surely be fine.

She would come to see that.

She would become the first Day Child to show that they could survive and stay awake during the Long Night.  It would be a new era for this world. An era where he and Amina would be together.

That first night, she cried. She was scared. “Please, Joseph,” she whimpered, “I know you don’t think you’re doing wrong. But you’re killing me. Please. I need to enter the Rest.”

He merely shook his head. “Trust me, Amina. All will be well.”

The next day he brought her her books to read.

She refused to look at him.

Joseph comforted himself with the knowledge that this was all only passing. She would not avoid him like this forever. It was her fear that made her hostile and harsh against him. Once she saw that she would be fine, she would look and speak with him again.

In the meantime, he explored Outside. It was proving to be a place of wonder. Every day, Joseph and the other Night Children expanded and learned more and more about the world they had inherited from the Day Children and what was required of them to sustain that life. Joseph found that he particularly enjoyed working in the fields among the plants. Three quarters of the fields were thriving, their plants growing strong and well in the darkness which continued to grow as the moon finalized its replacement of the sun.

It was the remaining quarter that had him concerned. The plants there were starting to wilt and die. No matter how much he tended to them, how much water he gave them, how he moved and arranged them, they continued to grow increasingly weak and sick.

How like Amina who now never left the bed and barely touched the food he brought her.

Joseph knelt at the base of one of the sick plants. His fingers ran through the rich dirt. “I don’t understand. Why are you dying?”

“Lack of sun,” Henry’s voice answered him from behind.

Joseph turned and looked up.

Henry knelt beside him. “This plant? It’s a Day plant. Needs the sun to live. No sun, no life. Simple, see?”

“No. Why does it need the sun?”

The other man shrugged. “Just what the books say. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to get them to live.”

“There’s nothing that can be done?”

“Not that I know of. Seems to be the way of this divided world. Day or Night. Sun or moon. If you’re born under one, you can’t live under the other. Shame though.” Henry ran his hands over the delicate stalks. “Would have liked to really see this one. Pictures of it are so pretty.”

Like Amina was pretty.

Like Amina was dying.

Joseph swallowed, head bowed. He loved Amina. He couldn’t just let her leave and go to her Rest. He’d never see her, hear her, share with her again. He didn’t know if he could stand that. But by keeping her, he was killing her.

Either way, he lost her. The only question was how he was going to lose her.

“I have to go,” he said, standing.

“Sure. See you at dinner?”

Joseph nodded. His steps took him without having to look to his old home.

Amina was lying on the bed, curled into a tight ball. The food from yesterday still untouched. The books he had left her still right where he had left them. Not even a rumple of the sheet was different from when he had last come.

“Amina?” he asked.

If she heard him, she gave no acknowledgment.

“Amina!” he rushed across the space, nearly tripping over a chair in his haste. He threw himself beside her, hands seeking her skin, her pulse. “Amina!”

Her eyes blinked open, red rimmed from crying.

“Amina…I am….I love you.”

Her eyes looked at him for a moment, before sliding away to focus on some distant point beyond his shoulder.

“Amina.”

Silence answered him.

“I’m sorry. I…I can’t lose you. I can’t…I don’t know what to do,” he confessed. His head dropped limp, brushing his cheek against hers. Her breathe was faint, soft. He could hardly feel it.

He thought of the Day Child man. He thought of the Day plant. He thought of Amina.

He thought of himself. Alone and unloved in this strange Outside.

Was it better to be alone and unloved because Amina was safe in her Rest or because she had died in this room for lack of the sun?

Joseph sat there as the seconds slipped by one by one; unmarked and unheeded.

He heard himself say eventually, much to his own surprise, “I will take you to your Rest, Amina.”

She looked at him. Her lips pressed together and parted as if she wanted to speak. In the end, she only gave a small nod.

He picked her up, marveling at how light she was in his arms; no more than a heavy blanket. The journey to the Rest Hall as it was now named was swift and one in which he would later only remember her eyes, bright with unnamed emotions he couldn’t understand.

He found an empty pod for her and gently deposited her within. Joseph was quick to attach everything she would need for her Rest, hands moving almost of their own accord.

It was time.

All that was left was to touch the final button. The pod would close and Amina would enter her Rest which take her all the way through the long Night only to awaken again as Day dawned, years after his death, once more.

“I am sorry, Amina. I love you. Believe me, I do.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek.

As he moved to pull away, she whispered, “I know. Thank you.”

Joseph almost faltered in his resolve. He almost undid the wires. Almost picked her back up to take her back to the room. Almost.

Instead, Joseph pressed the button, watched the pod close, and bore witness as Amina, the last Day Child, drifted into dreamless slumber. He didn’t know what would become of himself in the time to come, but he would face the future and figure it out a day at a time.

Categories
Fantasy

Sage’s Choice

Sebastian leaned back in the chair and threw his legs upon the corner the solid oak desk. Gray eyes watched his friend pace and fidget, worrying the hem of his jacket and the collar of his shirt. “And this is why I’m glad I’m not you.”

“How kind.” The answering voice was dry and devoid of any and all humor.

A faint smile pulled the corners of his lips up. “I know.”

His friend, best friend, the Crowned Prince Gilleon Marlus Harthian of the Emerald Highlands, paused before the full length mirror in the room, feet spread apart. He leaned forward, fingers fumbling with the mound of fabric and the emerald stick pin at his neck. “Damn collar. I can’t get it to sit right.”

“Relax. It’s not like anything important is going to be happening in the next hour.”

As the old saying went, if looks could kill, Sebastian was certain that he would be beyond the realm of the dead right now.

“If you wanted someone to whisper sweet platitudes and fret with you, you should have asked someone else like Harry to be here.”

The roles reversed as Gilleon smirked at him in the mirror’s reflection. “I know. It was highly encouraged in fact.”

“Of that, I have little doubt. I can hear your mother now. Why don’t you pick Harry to be your Oath Keeper? He’s a good, stable boy.”

“Would she have been wrong?”

Sebastian flashed a lupine smile, eyes glinting. “Of course not. If there is one thing your gentle mother is, it is that she’s always right.” He steepled his fingers before his face, “Honestly though, I am glad I’m not you.”

Gilleon gave up on his collar, pulling instead on the bottom his jacket. “With privilege comes responsibility.” The words sounded old, route, long since drilled by countless mentors, headmasters, and tutors. At what point did words lose their meaning? When did they become nothing more than pointless touchstones, used not for their message or wisdom, but to steel the nerve as chants did a warrior before battle?

“And apparently the lack of ability to chose one’s own wife.”

“The Tests will ensure a proper match is made. I have been Tested and I have no doubt that Freesia Tested all the others thoroughly as well.”

Sebastian noted fingers dance along the jacket, smoothing non-existent wrinkles. “Are you saying that convince me or yourself?”

Gilleon’s answer came as a raised eyebrow and frown.

He had overstepped his bounds. If the reprimand bothered him, it never crossed the lines of his face. He sat up and pushed himself smoothly to his feet.

“Remember, you are the one who asked me to be here this day.” Sebastian made short work of the distance between him and a small serving table with wine and refreshments. He poured a glass and handed it to Gilleon. “I am but a minor noble in your father’s court.”

“Hardly minor. Your family stewards nearly a fifth of the land.” Gilleon took a long drink, nearly draining the cup, before handing it back.

“As exciting as that sounds,” Sebastian conceded, taking the glass to refill it again, “I’m still dismissed by practically everyone in court.” He poured a second glass for himself.

“That might change if you followed the rules every once in awhile.”

“But where’s the fun in that?”

“Where indeed?”

The two friends smiled at each other over the rims of their drinks.

“What if I don’t like her?” Gilleon blurted.

“That afraid you’ll end up with the fair lady Tylinda?” Sebastian teased, “But everyone has been Tested, correct? And Testing is supposed to ensure a most noble, worthy, and blessed matching. Besides, it’s a beautiful day. Surely that in itself must be a good omen. Or do you not trust our wise King’s Sage?”

Gilleon’s face drained to a blank mask. He let the silence speak the words he could not.

Sebastian nodded in sympathetic understanding. To be so trapped by one’s station and at the mercy of other’s choices was nigh intolerable. A gilded cage, no matter how comfortable, was still a cage.

He gripped his friend’s shoulder, gray eyes serious, “For all his faults, the Sage knows people. He also knows that his life and position depends upon our nation’s prosperity and your future happiness. I may have no faith in his Tests and riddles and rhythms, but I do have faith in his self-interest to keep his comfy life. I think it’s safe to say you’ll be safe from the, how should we say, tender cares of Tylinda.”

A rare true smile graced Gilleon’s face, lighting his features. “And this is why you are here and not Harry.” He gripped Sebastian’s forearms tightly, almost to the point of bruising. He clung like a man desperate not to drown.

Perhaps he was.

Sebastian barked out a short laugh. He may indeed be nothing more than a minor lord in the court, and one of disrepute, but he and he alone held the keys to Gilleon’s friendship and trust. Would they have allowed him to be the whipping boy all those years ago if they had known the bond of friendship that would emerge?

Sebastian doubted it. The fourth son in his family, he had been meant to be a throwaway child; one son to inherent, one to war, one to scholar. That was all that was needed in a lord’s home. So what was left to a lad of birth too noble for less but too low to be more?

Whipping boy to the prince was the suitable answer.

“It will be okay, Gilleon.”

Gilleon’s eyebrows furrowed. “What did you do?”

Sebastian brought a finger to his lips.

“Sebastian.”

He was saved from having to answer by the steward’s arrival. The Ceremony of Handfasting was about to start. It was time for Gilleon to meet his future queen.

The ceremony was long and vapid just like every ceremony that had ever been before it and every one that would ever come after it. Freesia, the King’s Sage, droned on and on about the wisdom of the gods, purposes of the Tests, and how glorious was the prepared match for the kingdom and the Crowned Prince. Dull, dull, dull.

The most interesting part of the whole thing was watching Gilleon as he tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to determine Sebastian’s secret. Every time, he merely redirected his prince back to the event, giving him nothing more than a smile. That at least was amusing.

Hours later, the pinnacle of the Ceremony had come. It was time to announce the Crowned Princess to be. All the Ladies that been Tested began to preen, clasp hands, smooth gowns, and let forth sighs enough to be audible in the large hall. Every one certain that she would be the one selected. They eyed Gilleon like a rancher eyed his cattle. It disgusted Sebastian.

Freesia picked up an ornate scroll and held it aloft. Upon that scroll was the name of the chosen lady. All attention was dutifully focused upon it. A mouse scurrying at the far end of the hall would have been heard it was that quiet. No one wanted to miss the next words spoken. The future and fate of the kingdom rested upon those words.

Sebastian reached forward and discreetly grasped Gilleon’s elbow. Tenison was so high, his arm nearly trembled with it.

“The gods have guided and the Tests have confirmed,” Freesia intoned, “she who will be Crowned Prince Gilleon’s wife and our next Crowned Princess is known as…Lady -” This close Sebastian had a front row seat to the confusion that swept across the King’s Sage’s face and the falter in his voice. “Lady Analyn.”

To a one, the whole hall erupted in confused mummers. The Princess’ least Handmaiden raised her head in shock upon hearing her name. Gilleon’s eyes locked with hers.

She had never been Tested.

Sebastian leaned forward. “I told you not the worry.”

Slowly, Gilleon turned to look at him.

He grinned at his best friend. “Sometimes you just don’t need some stuffy Test to know a good and proper match. I have no faith in the King’s Sage to realize that. But the Prince’s Sage…Now that’s someone I’d trust.”

“Sebastian,” Gilleon hissed.

“You’re welcome. Now go and meet your bride. She’s waiting.” With a gentle push, Sebastian encouraged Gilleon onward towards the only woman he’d ever taken a fancy and a liking to.

Gilleon would no doubt chew him out later for messing with the Tests, the Ceremony, and practically the whole future of the kingdom. But that was fine by him. As long as his prince was happy and his needs were met, that was all that mattered. Seeing the pure joy on Gilleon’s face as he clasped hands with his lady made everything he had risked to change that damned scroll worth it.

Anything for his prince. Anything at all.

Categories
Fiction

Lost and Found

Note to self; this is why you never go camping, hiking, backpacking, or anything else that could be classified under “outdoorsy”. You are a city boy. Accept it and move on.

Go, my therapist said. Give yourself some time away from all the demands and chaos surrounding you. Give yourself space to think. A space to ground; whatever the heck that meant. It would be fun. It would be peaceful. It would be good for you. So said my most wise and insightful sage of a therapist.

I was away from all my regular chaos, sure. And I apparently had countless square miles in which I could think all I wanted to. Still not sure what grounding was supposed to be, but I’m fairly sure this wasn’t it. This wasn’t fun, not at all peaceful, and I couldn’t think of any way that being lost in the middle of the woods butting up against national wilderness would be good for me. But there I was, with the sun setting, nonetheless. What was supposed to have been a short little day hike on a moderate trail had turned into an unprepared overnight hike through the middle of freaking nowhere.

I was, in a word, screwed.

For the umpteenth time, I held aloft my cell phone towards the sky and prayed once more to the useless heavens for something more than that stupid circle and its stupid line.

Still nothing.

Well. Okay. There was one change on the screen. Instead of having 10% battery life left, I was down to 3%.

Images of rabid wolves with saliva dripping off mile long fangs slowly advancing upon me under a full moon pressed upon my mind’s eye. Thanks, mind. I really needed that image right about now. Were wild wolves even a thing here? I knew they were back in Yellowstone and in Alaska. But those places were thousands of miles from here. Surely there were no wolves here, right? Right? Dang it, I should have Googled that before going.

Note to self; before plunging into the woods like some expert, life long, woodsman from that Mountain Men show, Google your local area for information about all the things that could kill, eat, and or both, before you go.

I let out a long, guttural growl, pinching the bridge of my nose. Okay. Think, self, think. You told Mom where you were going and what you were doing. You made sure to tell the most hysterical person you could think of so if something did go wrong, you could bet the farm there would rescue crews searching for your lifeless body as soon as possible. Surely Mom must have called the cops, forest service, fire fighters, national guard, local news, national news, and anyone else she thought would listen by now. You just have to survive until they find you.

Note to self; fire therapist as soon as cell single returns.

Second note to self; inquire if future therapist believes time in woods is a good experience. If so, pass.

On to immediate problem, how to survive the night and not get eaten by rabid wolves or anything else here not a rabbit. I had eaten the last of my food hours ago, so food was out. Still had some water left, about a quarter of my last water bottle. A light jacket. Hat. My latest self-help book on finding your purpose in life. Yep. Definitely screwed here. Miles would never let me live this down.

Note to self; kick Miles. Because, Miles. And it would feel good.

Maybe there would be a large tree I could huddle under or some unoccupied rock cave thingy I could use as temporary shelter. There was no telling how cold it was going to get tonight. It was still early-ish summer. The day had been hot enough that I had even rued taking the jacket and wished for a tank top and shorts over my Tee shirt and jeans. Thankful enough for them now. Wasn’t there something about it always getting colder at night at higher elevations? What was the temperature for hypothermia? How would I even know if I got it? An innate and crazy urge to strip? Wasn’t that was happened in that one book back in middle school that I had to read for science?
Screwed, screwed, screwed.

I checked my surroundings for something that might offer some hope. What I saw was….a light? Oh, dear God, please, I’ll start going back to church tomorrow, forget that it’s Monday, if that’s a light from a people person that would keep me alive and safe. It wouldn’t count if it was a wild ax murdering hermit. That would kinda defeat the purpose. But a sane, normal human with supplies to keep me from getting eaten by wolves or freezing to death; I would go back to church for that. Ignore the fact that anyone who would do this whole woodsy thing voluntarily can’t be normal for the moment.

Approach softly. Look for ax. If ax seen, back away slowly, and resume with original plan. Rabid wolves surely would be better to deal with than ax murdering sociopath. Right?

Note to self; Google that if you live.

I got close enough to see a woman sitting on a rock, tending a fire with a large stick. Behind her was a small tent. I tried to get closer to look for a bloody ax; hey, women could be ax murderers too; but my stealth left me as I stepped on a branch and a loud crack announced my presence. I winced and froze. Maybe if I did the whole rabbit thing she wouldn’t notice. Or maybe she’d think it was rabid wolves. Or maybe…

“You can come out now. I don’t bite and I’m not going to kill you.”

…Maybe I’d get invited to join her and a promise that she wasn’t looking to maim or kill me.
Rather sheepishly, I entered into the ring of light provided by her fire. “Hello.” When in doubt, act normal and greet with manners. That’s what my grandmother always said. Who knew that what she said would ever be useful one day? Go figure.

“Can I safely assume that you’re not an ax murder coming to try and kill me?” asked my savior.

“No axes here.” I held up my hands and slowly turned around, letting her fully see my pathetic state.

“First time in the woods?”

“That obvious?”

She nodded, lips pressed tight to no doubt hide a smile. But the sparkle in her deep brown eyes gave it away. “Sorry.”

“Yeeaaahh.”

“I’m Jane,” she offered.

“Should I be worried about Tarzan sneaking up on me?”

Jane made a face that I’m fairly sure was not amusement or appreciation.

Note to self; don’t say stupid things like that ever again. Ever.

“Olivier,” I offered, then added, “As in Twist. My mother is a huge Dickens fan.” Okay, was it just me or was it weird to be having this type of conversation in the middle of no where in the dark with a strange woman whom I happened to literally stumble upon?

Note to self; Google that. Also Google how to show gratitude when one’s life is saved from being eaten to death by rabid wolves and/or freezing to death by a very pretty lady. For I suddenly realized that she was very, very beautiful, in fact.

A small chuckle carried across the space between us, even as Jane tried to hide it behind a hand. “Well, Olivier, if you can promise no more Tarzan jokes, you are welcome to share my camp for the night. I don’t have much, but apparently it’s more than you do.”

“I won’t contest that. And I promise. Scouts honor.” I even did the salute and everything.

Jane nodded, still smiling, and scooted over, making space for me to join her at the fireside.
It was that night that I learned the truth behind the statement that not all who wander are lost. And how somehow, when we are our most lost, we can end up finding exactly what we need the most. You see, that was the night I met my wife and the mother of my children.