September Mid-Month Short Story Challenge

Thank you to everyone who participated in last month’s short story challenge. I’ve been going back through and adding links to Google Docs to those who have shared their stories from previous months with me on their respective month’s posts. If a few months pass and there’s enough interest and/or enough posts done, I may add a new page to the blog and curate all of the short stories there.

Your prompt is for this month below. If you do decide to blog your short story, link back to me and I’ll be sure to promote it where I can.

  • Suggested number of words: Minimum of 500 words, no maximum
  • Your theme: The demon within
  • Seven words to work into your story: red, philanthropy, safe, flight, shifty, cultural, feminism
  • Genre: None
  • Rating/Content Limitations: None
  • Other Notes: Story must be told from a first-person perspective

Your story should be posted on October 1st. Be sure to link back to this post so I can see your story ans share. Good luck and happy writing.

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In Training

This post is a response to August’s mid-month short story challenge. Click on the link in the previous sentence to read the prompt, share your story, and read those written by others.


“You must be cautious when entering the training grounds, Cyrus,” said Emil. “Though you are an advanced student, I’ve seen this particular simulation humble pupils with considerably more experience than you possess.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Cyrus replied, mocking the elderly instructor. “You’ve said that about the last ten simulations you’ve had me do. I’ve walked away without a scratch. Give me a challenge already!”

“That, dear boy, is precisely why we’re here. You’re about to take on a simulation of a long deceased mage and healer by the name of Tess of the Everlasting Shore. Her healing powers were legendary, but it’s her tome you need to watch out for.”

“I’ve got it. Just let me go already.”

Emil retorted, “I really do think you’ll want to hear this one Cyrus.”

“I’ve got this,” Cyrus proclaimed. “I’m going in. Start the simulation in thirty seconds.”

Cyrus walked through the entry way and into the simulation ground. A think metal door slammed down from the ceiling, closing the path behind him. Emil sighed as he made his way over to the simulation control panel.

“As you wish,” Emil muttered under his breath.

Cyrus stepped to his starting platform within the simulation room. As had become custom any time he faced a tome-based simulation, Cyrus drew a simulated version of his own weapon, the relic sword Caér. Cyrus has earned Caér from graduating at the top of his class in High Magistrate training. During his learning, Cyrus had grown accustomed to the blade’s ability to morph into twin daggers as he commanded. The one feeling the simulation could never replicate, however, was the power Cyrus felt when the electric aura of Caér flowed through this veins. With Caér in hand, Cyrus had yet to take a single blow in Premiere training, let alone lose a match. Cyrus had begun to think the Premiere level — the highest ranking for any student within the Terran Guard training program — was nothing more than a farce to waste this time when he could be leading his own actual Guard regiment.

A high-pitched buzzer sounded, signaling the training had begun. Cyrus drew Caér in its broadsword form and began walking toward the opponent staring platform. When the simulation of Tess of the Everlasting Shore appeared before him, Cyrus burst out laughing.

“A little girl?” Cyrus shouted. “Is this really the best you’ve got, Emil.”

“Do not underestimate her power, Cyrus,” Emil said over the loudspeaker.

“Right. I’ll see you before the first minute is done.”

Cyrus ran forward, charging toward Tess with Caér in hand. As he neared her podium, Tess vanished into thin air.

“Oh good, a teleporter,” Cyrus yelled. “Those are always annoying. Thanks for wasting an extra minute out of my d…”

Cyrus dropped to the ground as a beam of frigid water hit him from behind. Tess stood well out of striking distance, her long, braided hair whipping around thanks to a chilling gale that had kicked up around her.”

“Alright, water oracle. Time to remind you how water feels about electricity.”

Cyrus charged again, this time changing Caér to its dagger form. Tess teleported again, but this time Cyrus was ready, throwing one of the daggers into her anticipated path. The dagger found its mark, driving itself into Tess’ left arm just above the elbow.

“Is that all you’ve got? Just teleport and water cannons? Time to die then.”

As Cyrus threw the second dagger at Tess, she drew a staff from her back. She placed the staff on the ground in front of her and held the time tightly to her heart. As the dagger neared her body, it paused in mid-air, dropping to the ground just in front of the staff. For the first time since the start of the simulation, Tess spoke. Her voice echoed throughout the simulation room, reverberating though Cyrus’ every muscle.

“Abel the Mechanic. Creator of the electric sword Caér and the demon blade Bálor. You will not harm my people or my family again. I will kill you where you stand, even if I die with you.”

Tess raised her hands to the sky, causing both her tome and her staff to levitate in front of her. The sapphire orb within the staff began to glow, changing from a deep, dark blue, to an icy, pale white. As the orb reached its brightest white, Tess began to shout again.

“I have killed for you and I have healed for you. Now I protect only myself. The pearl brings forth the cold. The words of my ancestors bring forth the water. Farewell, Abel. AVALANCHE DUET!”

A sparkling wall of snow and ice came charging toward Cyrus. Though he scrambled to reach one of his daggers, the cold reached him first, burying him in a suffocating snowfall. From within his crystalline crypt, Cyrus heard Tess scream out in terror, yelling for her father and mother to save her. As her shrieks pounded into his head, Cyrus lost consciousness, his body enveloped within the snow.

Hours later, Cyrus opened his eyes to the blinding fluorescent lights of the infirmary. He blinked rapidly, his eyes struggling to adjust to the brightness around him. Emil’s voice calmly and mockingly cut into Cyrus’s eardrums with the same viciousness that the lights attacked his retinas.

“People don’t like hearing ‘I told you so’, regardless of the context of the statement,” Emil stated. “In the end, the person who spoke the truth and reminds someone else of that fact usually ends up feeling the worst of all. That said, when you’re repeatedly told about something, choose to ignore it, and suffer the consequences of your willful ignorance, it does make me chuckle just a tiny bit on the inside.”

“Emil, stoOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!”

Cyrus’s sentence was cut short by a vicious cry of pain. He gripped his right hand tightly with his left, only for the pain from that grip to force him to release the hold. Cyrus punched the hospital bed with his left hand, sheets shaking beneath each strike. Emil clasped Cyrus’s hand to stop the outburst.

“Calm down Cyrus. Your hand is frostbitten and you’re weak. You’ll be fine, but you do need to rest.”

“How the fuck did I get frostbite from a simulation?” Cyrus yelled. “What was that thing?”

“Are you ready to listen to my warning — and my story — now?” Emil asked.

“Do I really have a choice?”

“You do. There’s a lovely tomato basil bisque in the kitchen that I’d adore a second bowl of. I could even run home and get my calamari — you know, those little fried squid bites that taste…”

“I get it, Emil,” responded Cyrus. “Tell me what I did wrong.”

“You know the source of your beloved sword, Caér, yes?” asked Emil.

“It was the first of five divine weapons created by Abel the Mechanic. There’s Caér the thunder blade, Bálor the demon sword, Yggdrasil the earthen halberd, Niamey the fire tonfa, and the sacred sai of the Holy Emperor Milan. Yggdrasil and Bálor were destroyed in the great war. Caér and Niamey are artifacts housed at the academy. And Milan’s sacred sai are on display at the palace.”

“Correct. Bálor, Yggdrasil, and Niamey were wielded by Milan’s personal guard for the entirety of their existence, but Caér was originally the personal weapon of Abel the Mechanic.”

“So it wasn’t always the weapon of Ramses the Valiant?”

“Not until Abel the Mechanic died,” replied Emil. “Milan sent his personal guard to wipe out the last of the resisting forces in the outer kingdoms when he unified our kingdom. That said, the deeds of Milan’s personal guard and those under him weren’t exactly noble. Abel the Mechanic, while a skilled weapon maker, was a particularly brutal tactician.”

“What did he do?”

“This isn’t something the monarchy is particularly proud of, but Abel the Mechanic was known to have his men attack villages, killing anyone who didn’t surrender immediately. Those who surrendered were rounded up and placed in a semi-circle in the center of the sacked community. Abel the Mechanic would then tell the captives to swear their allegiance to the Holy Emperor Milan. If the village did unanimously, he let them live, though they were relocated to a camp for prisoners of war. If even one member of those captured said no, Abel would personally kill all of them on the spot.”

“Holy shit.”

“There’s a reason that some of Abel the Mechanic’s history is not celebrated,” Emil continued.

“Did he do all of this with Caér?” asked Cyrus.

“Not typically. Abel preferred his mass killings be completed quickly. He typically used the cache of firearms his regiment had at its disposal. There was one small town that was an exception to this, however.”

“And I’m betting that’s where Tess was from?”

“Tess of the Everlasting Shore was a cleric from the coastal town of Uimt Bay. When Abel the Mechanic and his army arrived in town, Tess was away learning magic from an old wizard who lived in the Zokymt Mountains to the north. She arrived back to her village just as Abel was giving his speech about subservience to Holy Emperor Milan. Tess’s father, Darren, saw his daughter hiding in the woods behind Abel’s troops and went on a particularly long and profanity laced tirade about how the Holy Emperor would be punished for the way his forces were cruelly treating the innocent. Abel, enraged by Darren’s words, drew Caér and began slaughtering the citizens of Uimt Bay one by one.

“As Abel struck each person, they fell to the ground, only to come back to life shortly after. One of Abel’s soldiers noticed Tess hiding in the woods, casting healing spells from a distance amid the screams. As the troops charged towards Tess, a barrage of icy daggers fell from the sky, killing the soldiers in their tracks. As Abel himself gave chase, Tess fled into the Zokymt Mountains, leaving the village of Uimt Bay safe and healthy in her wake.”

“So no one in the village ended up dying?” Cyrus asked.

“Not until much later in the war,” answered Emil. “Uimt Bay was the last village of the Trinna Kingdom to fall.”

“What happened with Tess next?”

“As he entered the Zokymt Mountains, Abel the Mechanic came upon an ice-covered lake with a mossy rock in the middle. Tess of the Everlasting Shore stood on the rock, beckoning the clouds to create a snowstorm around her. Abel the Mechanic called out to her telling her to fight him honorably like a true warrior. This infuriated Tess, who had just watched Abel attempt to kill her entire family in front of her. Tess charged forward and engaged Abel in hand-to-hand combat.”

“But she was a mage,” interrupted Cyrus, “why would she do that?”

“She might have been a talented mage, but she was inexperienced,” replied Emil. “Her actions were clouded by her emotions. Remember how impulsive you were at 12 years old. Add in the pain of seeing your family being killed — even if you did save their lives — and you have a mage with no regard for her own well-being.”

“Makes sense. I assume she didn’t survive.”

“She did not. Abel struck her down with a single blow from Caér.”

“So what was the simulation based on?”

“That very battle, actually,” Emil stated. “After Abel killed Tess, he turned around to find himself surrounded by Tess. In reality, they were duplications of herself meant to block Abel from escaping. The illusions all began to chant, dealing forth a spell that the old wizard had passed down to Tess — duet avalanche.”

“The spell that hit me,” said Cyrus.

“Sort of,” answered Emil. “By all accounts, the spell left the lake and the surrounding areas covered under 100 meters of snow. Everyone says that total is just a legend, but part of the reason the Trinna Kingdom survived so long was because a massive flood blocked the only way into its borders for six years. If anything, 100 meters might be a low estimate. The version you were hit with dropped the equivalent of one meter of snow.”

“How did Caér get recovered?”

“My great-grandfather, the founder of this academy, found Caér, along with Tess’s weapons — her tome, Frost Requiem, and her staff, the Amnesty Gale — in a cave as the flood waters receded. While Caér has been wielded by many members of the Terran Guard since that day, not one soul has been capable of handling either Frost Requiem or the Amnesty Gale. Not yet, anyway.”

“What do you mean, not yet?” asked Cyrus.

“Within the pages of the Frost Requiem, there is a prophecy that a young girl will follow in the footsteps of another child who saves here people with the tome. The story says that young girl will be a noble who overthrows her own kingdom to restore freedom to the entire world.”

“That would certainly explain the lack of daughters from nobility in the kingdom.”

“Indeed it would, Cyrus,” answered Emil. “Now get some rest. There’s much more training you have to do.”

Emil left the hospital and journeyed back to his home on the edge of the academy. He entered his house, locked the door behind him, then grabbed a book off of the bookshelf in his entry way. A trap door opened, leading to a ladder that lowered Emil down three stories into a narrow hallway. Emil walked the dimly lit hall, opening the door quietly as he did so.

“Are you back, Master Emil?” a tiny voice cried out.

“I am, dear child,” he replied.

“Is today the day?” the child asked.

“Not today. Soon though. Your training partner is almost ready.”

August Mid-Month Short Story Challenge

Looking for responses to this prompt? Here are some:

Mine: https://thattinywebsite.com/2017/09/01/1356/


Thank you to everyone who participated in last month’s short story challenge. While I only had my link to share, a couple of people reached out to me with Google Docs of their story contributions to the challenge. As a result, I wanted to do the challenge again this month for those interested.

Your prompt is below. If you do decide to blog your short story, link back to me and I’ll be sure to promote it where I can.

  • Suggested number of words: Limit of 2500 words
  • Your theme: Write about someone who is learning the history or lore of a sacred weapon, spell, or symbol.
  • Seven words to work into your story: army, oracle, squid, voltage, sparkling, duet, deeds
  • Genre: Fantasy/Sci-Fi
  • Rating/Content Limitations: None

Your story should be posted on September 1st. Good luck and happy writing.

Foxtails

This post is a response to July’s mid-month short story challenge. Click on the link in the previous sentence to read the prompt, share your story, and read those written by others.


I stood at the end of the bike path and stared out into the park before me. 18.5 miles done, 18.5 to go.

I walked my bicycle through the grassy park and toward the picnic area on the far side of the park. I leaned its emerald frame against the support posts of the gazebo and walked over to the nearby water fountain. The chilling liquid flowed forth from the silver spigot and hit my lips with its icy touch. My face flinched back instinctively from the shock before I went back in and took a couple of long drinks from the water’s flow.

I knelt to the ground, adjusting my shoes around my feet in an effort to limit the soreness that would develop on my ride home. With calm and purposeful movements I learned as a teen, I unlaced the top holes on each side of my shoe, weaving their plastic coated aglets back through those top two holes, creating a loop I could swoop the opposite lace through. For whatever reason, this configuration of shoe tying always made my feet less sore after a run or a ride. At the bare minimum, the placebo effect was strong with this ritual.

As a warm summer breeze blew in from the west, I grabbed my bike and hopped on, pedaling back up the path via which I had arrived a few minutes prior. June was hardly my favorite month to be outdoors — I strongly preferred a jog through the vibrant October foliage or a hike in the frigid January air — but this seemed different.

For weeks I had been battling this feeling that I was missing something. It took me a while to put my finger on what exactly was lacking. At first I chalked it up to being overworked and under caffeinated, though a long weekend and copious amounts of espresso later, I was still perplexed, albeit shakier. I took a short vacation from my day-to-day life to clear my head, however by the end of my time away, the feeling had only become more pronounced. It was as if a ghost from the past was calling out to me, beckoning me to seek it out. Yet no matter how loud the ghost yelled for me, I could not recognize its source, its name, or its purpose.

I decided to take one last shot at finding where this feeling was coming from. Perhaps I was acting quixotically in hoping that there was some silver bullet that could kill this nagging feeling. It was a phase. It would pass. All things do. Yet, despite knowing this fact, or at least believing in the passage of all feelings, factual belief or otherwise, I set out for a place I hadn’t been in nearly a decade and a half.

A little under three miles up the path from the gazebo, I came to a road crossing. The bike path was leaving town — this would be the last road I’d cross for four miles — but not before crossing over a tiny street that saw virtually no traffic. In one direction, I could see the side street end on the main street of town. There were three or four houses on the street, all bunched at the corner of the primary road. In the other direction, the road continued on for around two hundred feet before becoming a dead end. A bench sat on either side of the end of the road, often serving as a final stopping point before the park for any biker or runner needing a breather.

In my youth, I had stopped and sat on those very benches countless times. When running, they provided me with a place to sit for a few minutes before I finished my workout. If I was biking, particularly with a group of friends, the benches where a place for those of us who rode faster to pause for those who moved at a more leisurely pace. But those weren’t the moments that I associated with this place in the archive of my mind. At the age of 14, it was where I had my first kiss.

Mallory was my third girlfriend, but my first kiss. This is important only because at the moment when everything happened, I had neither had a girlfriend or a romantic kiss of any sort. Granted, I had been exposed to sloppy kisses from my great aunts that smelled of equal parts cigarette smoke, day-old hollandaise sauce, and that one old lady perfume that no one knows the name of but every seventy-year-old white grandmother who carries two Bibles in her purse seems to use. Those kisses were the stuff of nightmares. Mallory’s was not.

A group of eight of us had decided to bike the entire trail over a two-day span. Our parents all dropped us off at my friend Steve’s grandparents’ house, which was at the opposite end of the trail from the park with the gazebo. We’d ride that afternoon to Mallory’s house, which was just minutes from the park. We stayed there overnight, then rode back to Steve’s grandparents’ so that our families could pick us up the following afternoon.

On the second day of the ride, Steve decided that he wanted everyone to race back to his grandparents. Most of the group took off and rode as fast as they could, but Mallory and I didn’t feel like trying hard. We stopped at the benches and sat for fifteen minutes or so, watching as the sun melted the dew off of the giant foxtails growing in the unmown grass beyond the road’s turnaround. Mallory leaned her head into my shoulder, resting there as we watched the droplets fall or vaporize, depending on their size. Her strawberry blonde hair still smelled strongly of the campfire from the night before.

As we got up to leave, Mallory gripped my hand and pulled me towards her. We only kissed for a moment, but in that moment, time stopped. I know its cliché to say, but everything around me evaporated from existence. All that there was in that moment was Mallory, me, and that slow, soft kiss.

It ended as soon as it began. Mallory laughed and jumped on her bicycle, pedaling off as quickly as she could into the distance. I gave chase after her, catching up around a mile later. We eventually caught up with everyone else, save for Steve, who won his own race convincingly. Despite that middle school kiss, Mallory and I wouldn’t date until graduate school. I married her seven years later.

As my mind drifted back from long-gone days to my adulthood quest to free my mind, I parked my bike and sat down on the same bench Mallory and I had sat on as teens. It wasn’t literally the same bench — the rotting wooden benches had been replaced by nicer composite ones some years back — but the view was the same. Giant foxtails fading into farmland, dew clinging to their edges like tears on eyelashes. In the distance, I heard thunder echo through the sky. Even if I was bound and determined to relive that moment where I found that first glimpse of love, the world was not going to melt away for me today.

Save for a quick burst of rain, my ride ended uneventfully. I loaded my bicycle and drove home slowly. It wasn’t a race, after all. I arrived home shortly before dusk, unloaded my bike from the bed of my truck, and began to pedal up the road, just as I had nearly every day for the last year.

I stopped at an iron gated cemetery, locking my bicycle to the fence outside. I entered by foot, taking the same robotic path I always did — twenty-three steps forward to the first footpath, turn right, one hundred and six steps forward, turn left, then nine steps forward. I came to a stop, reached into my pocket, and removed the giant foxtail heads I had picked from the grass by the bench. I placed them on Mallory’s grave and kissed the headstone, hoping that somewhere…wherever she may be…she was feeling the same way she did when we both had our first kiss.

Mid-Month Short Story Challenge

Looking for responses to this prompt? Here are some:

Mine – https://thattinywebsite.com/2017/08/01/foxtails/

Grand Moff Joseph – https://docs.google.com/document/d/13rE0pyS_mOl5DS97yklXztkWX8c1fB5X6O5MpwCDCvs/edit


Over the past few months, I’ve been trying really hard to figure out what I want to do creatively. I’ve struggled to find something that spoke to the writer and creator in me. I’ve had multiple projects over the last year or so fail pretty hard and get me down. So on July 4th, I took to Twitter to try to get ideas as to what to write about.

At the recommendation of long time reader Tabitha, I want to try something to engage whoever out there might be reading this blog. I know that there’s not a ton of you out there, but I would love to interact and engage with you through creative writing. After all, creative writing was one of the first things to give me an outlet for my mind and make me care about writing. I’ve always loved writing communities I’ve been involved with…so why not try to build one here, however small that community is.

I’ve listed a short writing prompt below. Feel free to take it whatever direction you’d like. I’ll be posting my response to the prompt on August 1st. If you link back to this post, tell me about your prompt response, or write your own piece inspired by the prompt, I’ll try to share it along with my short story on the 1st (likely by adding links to that post, as well as this one, when it goes up). Didn’t see the prompt until well after the deadline has passed? Still shoot me a note or a link back. I’ll add where I can.

  • Suggested number of words: 1000-1500
  • Your theme: Recapturing a long-lost feeling
  • Seven words to work into your story: Gazebo, hollandaise, archive, caffeinated, quixotic, aglet, campfire
  • Genre: Your choice
  • Rating/Content Limitations: None

Awaiting Assessment

Note: The following short story was originally a submission to a writing zine with the prompt being “birth and death” with a 1,500 word character limit. The story wasn’t selected for the zine, so I figured I’d share it with all of you.


*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678545. Candidate OH-1-3678545 please report to assessment area six at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678545 to assessment area six.*

Isidora stared at her candidate card and carefully reviewed her number. OH-1-3678549. Only four more to go. This was the most stressful part of birthdays for Isidora. Arrive, politely decline assessment, leave. It was redundant, painful, and emotionally exhausting. Accepting assessment, however, would be worse.

A tall man walked through the entry way, crossed the room, then took a seat beside Isidora. She watched as he reached into his wallet, pulled out an emerald green card — the telltale color of assessment cards issued within the nation — placed it carefully in his left hand, then replaced his wallet in his pocket. The man was visibly upset, tears streaming down his face.

“First time here?” Isidora asked. She knew it wasn’t his first time at the Bureau. Everyone has to report to the Bureau yearly on their birthday upon turning 17 unless they choose to receive assessment. If a person chooses to receive assessment, they are no longer required to visit the Bureau until age 80 or three years before they die, whichever is set to come first.

“No,” the man meekly said, his voice trailing off as he spoke.

“Every time feels like my first time here,” replied Isidora. “I hate it just as much every time.”

The man shuffled his assessment card in his hands, flicking his fingers over the rounded edges. As he did so, the overhead lights reflected off the card, allowing Isidora to see the number. OH-1-3678551.

“You’re only two after me,” she stated. “Born around 2:30 pm in 2136?”

“2:36 pm,” said the man softly.

“I’m Isidora.”

Isidora reached out her hand to shake the man’s hand. The man stared at her hand for a moment, then cautiously presented his own.

“Penn. Penn Carrington.”

“You mean like the singer?” Isidora asked.

“Yeah, like the singer,” Penn replied. “It’s a good thing the Bureau gives us these numbers, otherwise I’d be mistaken for him all the time. Well, that and the fact that I’m tall, black, and quiet and he’s none of those things.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678546. Candidate OH-1-3678546 please report to assessment area eleven at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678546 to assessment area eleven.*

“You’re telling them no then?” Penn asked.

“Yeah,” responded Isidora. “I know assessment’s an accepted practice now, but I just don’t feel right knowing when I’m going to die. You know?”

“I get it,” replied Penn.

The transmitter on Penn’s left wrist lit up orange, indicating a restricted communication arriving. Penn touched the transmitter, hiding himself from Isidora’s view in the process. She waited quietly, watching as the previously called candidate made her way across the room. The candidate was a young woman, much like Isidora, though she was wheelchair bound. An orderly wheeled her to the door leading to assessment area eleven. Isidora wondered how long the candidate had to live. She often found herself wondering when those she came in contact with would die. But she didn’t want to know her own expiration date.

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678547. Candidate OH-1-3678547 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678547 to assessment area two.*

Penn ended his transmission, coming back into view for Isidora and those around. He had reverted back to crying, much like he was when he first walked in.

Isidora reached into her clutch and produced a small package of tissues. She handed them to Penn. He gratefully took them from her, removing one of the tissues from the case and wiping his eyes with it.

“Thank you,” Penn said, handing the package of tissues back to Isidora. He held his lone tissue tightly in his left hand, balling it up atop the candidate card.

“Is everything alright?” Isidora asked. “If that’s not too personal, that is.”

“Not particularly. Trying to take care of the affairs of my wife.”

“Oh dear. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“You couldn’t have known. It’s a bit of a birthday downer, even more so than a trip to the Bureau.”

“May I ask what happened?” Isidora asked.

“She um…,” Penn stammered, trying to collect his thoughts. “she died two weeks ago. Heart attack at the age of 27.”

“That’s so sad!” Isidora exclaimed.

“I didn’t know it was coming. None of us did. I mean, we knew there was a chance that Mira — that was my wife, Mira — would have heart issues. Both of her parents died from heart conditions in their fifties. She…”

Penn took a deep breath and stared into the room in front of him. He watched as a young man walked out of the room, a large packet of papers in hand. The man was clearly shaken. Like Mira, he’d die soon. The assessor had confirmed as much.

“She felt she had time to live her life without worry before she had to worry about getting assessed,” Penn continued. “We were both planning to get an assessment done when we turned 40. Halfway to the required visit age seemed like as good of time as any to know.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678548. Candidate OH-1-3678548 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678548 to assessment area two.*

“They must have said no,” said Penn. “I always said no. So did Mira. She’s gone now though. I’m a 28-year-old single father. I need to know if I’m going to be around for my daughter or if I need to make plans for her.”

Isidora stared at her assessment card. Only one spot until she would be called. She grabbed a tissue out of her case, handed it to Penn, then took one for herself. Isidora wiped away the tears that had begun to well up in her eyes.

“Do you have anyone you’re responsible for, Isidora?” Penn asked.

“No,” she responded, “not yet. No kids, no spouse, no partner. My roommate will be living until age 83. My parents each have at least 25 years left and none of my grandparents will be passing for the next five years.”

“So they all know?”

“Everyone in my family knows. My roommate’s father was an assessor before he died. I’m the only person I know personally who doesn’t know when I’ll die.”

“Why not?” Penn asked.

“Because my creators gave me a choice. My parents sat me down at a young age and told me about how assessment worked, my choice, and the consequences of knowing and not knowing. It’s scary not knowing, but I’d prefer not to be counting down the days until I get hit by a bus, die from cancer, or never wake up from sleep.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678549. Candidate OH-1-3678549 please report to assessment area four at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678549 to assessment area four.*

“That’s you,” stated Penn.

Isidora rose from her seat and started walking towards the assessment room. She stopped and turned back to Penn.

“Regardless of what you find out today,” she said, “you should get some cake and ice cream for you and your daughter. It is your birthday after all.”

“Happy birthday to you too, Isidora,” replied Penn.

Isidora entered assessment room four. She proceeded towards a single white stool in the sterile white room. Across from her stool, a gangly woman in a white lab coat sat on a white stool with a white computer on a white desk in front of her.

“Please sit.”

Isidora sat down on the stool.

“Candidate OH-1-3678549, given name Isidora Pía Lorca Cabrera. Born March the 11th, 2136 at 2:32 pm. Please confirm your identity.”

“I am as you say I am,” said Isidora. The required identification response still seemed forced to Isidora, even after years of saying it.

“Thank you. Candidate OH-1-3678549, do you wish to undergo assessment?”

“I do not,” Isidora replied.

“Please confirm your denial of assessment formally.”

“I, Candidate OH-1-3678549, hereby decline assessment for one calendar year.”

“Thank you. Please exit.”

Isidora rose from her stool and made her way back to the Bureau lobby. Penn was gone, off to his assessment room to learn his fate. Isidora zipped her jacket up and walked out of the building, striding through the late winter snowfall to her transport.

She sat inside the transport, her warm breath fogging up the cold windshield. With a long sigh, she spoke into her transmitter.

“Remind me to receive assessment next year at this time,” said Isidora.

“Reminder set.”

Isidora let out a deep breath and pressed the button to start her transport. A loud explosion ripped through the air, its force tearing apart both the transport and Isidora alike. As the Bureau building caught fire, those inside evacuated out the back. Penn was happy to learn he wouldn’t die that day. He only hoped the same was true for Isidora.

In Her Majesty’s Silent Service

“Mom, I want to get a picture with him!”

“Kaitlyn, he’s doing his job. Leave the poor man be.”

“Puhleeeeease!”

“Terry, make your daughter listen to me.”

“Kaitlyn, please listen to your mother and leave the guard alone. I’m sure he’s had to deal with enough tourists trying to get pictures with him today.”

Terry was right and wrong, all at the same time. I, along with nearly every other member of the Queen’s Guard, have tourists take pictures of us at a seemingly endless rate. I’m fortunate enough to begin my duty at a relatively early hour of the day, meaning the majority of people who cross my path are commuters rather than tourists. However, the sentry who takes up the guard after my tour of duty in the rotation ends deals with far more people than I.

The Americans are the worst. Loud, brash, insistent on spelling words like colour and aeroplane improperly. The Americans are the visitors that drive the less experienced sentries mad. I personally have a hot and cold relationship with them. On one hand, their country’s repressive drinking age means that young Americans are more likely to be drunk tourists. Drunk tourists never cease to add amusement to my day. On the other hand, I cannot interact with them. I cannot laugh, smile, nor otherwise act in such a manner that distracts me from my post.

‘You may not eat, sleep, smoke, stand easy, sit or lie down during your tour of duty.’

So it is. So it was. So it shall be. All in the service of our majesty, the Queen.

“I wonder when he’s going to move next.”

“The internet says they’re supposed to move every 10 minutes.”

“Oh what the fuck. It feels like we’ve been here an hour already.”

The second young lad was right, while the third was wrong. I, like all other members of the guard, do march every ten minutes at my post. The group had only been standing watching for a little over three minutes. It’s peculiar the details you begin to remember and which you begin to forget when your task is largely to remain silent for two hours at a time. If bystanders don’t say their names or don’t do anything to cause me to yell at them, they all blend together as voices in my memory. By the same token, I’ve learned to tell the amount of time that has passed in a ten minute increment within ten seconds in my head.

“Try saying something funny to him.”

“Wanker!”

Heard it. Your mum said it better.

“It didn’t work. Try again.”

“Fuck off. You want to make him laugh, you try.”

“WANKER!”

Saying something louder doesn’t make it funnier. It just makes it louder. That’s how science works.

“What if we ask him question until he answers?”

Won’t work.

“Do you like it when I do this?”

The first lad grabbed the second lad’s leg and began thrusting his pelvis at it rapidly and rhythmically. This led to the second boy smacking his friend, then running off while the first boy chased after. If I didn’t see that skit nearly every day from a teen, I’d probably find it funny. Instead, it just bored me.

Every once in a while, one of the passers-by will ask a question I wished I could answer. While the wording my vary by person, the six questions I hear the most frequently are asked in a manner similar to the following.

  • Are you a real solider? [Yes.]
  • Do you like your fuzzy hat? [My uniform is a representation of my country and my duty. I love my country and I honour my duty. Therefore, I love my fuzzy hat.]
  • Are you hungry/thirsty/tired? [It’s irrelevant while I am at my post.]
  • Have you ever had to use your gun? [Fire it? No. Port arms for someone not heeding my warnings? Only twice so far. I don’t particularly see this number rising, as my post is no longer one that the public can walk directly to. A rope prevents the public from getting closer than ten meters from my post.]
  • I want to take him home with me. [Not a question, but the answer is no. This answer remains the same independent of your attractiveness, at least while I’m on my tour of duty.]
  • What would make him smile?

That last question — as innocent and simple as it may be — is one that brings a particularly high level of consternation to my mind. As I mentioned before, we are not to stand easy while on guard. The intense focus necessary to perform our duties is more than just a solider’s training. It is about protecting and honouring the Crown. That’s not to say I was immune from cracking a smile as a guard. But every day I endeavored to be as serious about my job as possible.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah, sweetie?”

“Why isn’t the man in the funny suit moving?”

“He’s a guard for the Queen.”

“But I don’t see the Queen.”

Children like that small girl confused about the lack of the Queen’s presence bring me the closest to smiling or laughter. One day, very early in my time as a member of the Queen’s Guard, a small girl from somewhere in the Commonwealth (I believe Canada based on her accent, but time has faded the memory) walked under the ropes and started making her way towards me. Her parents yelled after her, causing the child to stop mere paces from where I would have been forced to shout at her to stand back.  For the next few seconds, the parents pleaded with the child to cross the ropes, while the girl insisted that she wanted to hug me. Had I not been on duty, I would have immediately walked up and embraced the child. However, had I not been on duty, the entire event would never have occurred.

“Daddy?”

Our present day child had more questions for her father.

“Yes?”

“Can I pet the kitty cat?”

A small kitten — likely no more than three or four months old — had crossed the street, strutting under the ropes like it owned the whole of England. It walked up to me, rubbing itself against the leg of my trousers. I could hear it purring loudly, in spite of the sound of the public around me.

“No, the kitty is on the other side of the ropes. You can’t go on the other side of the ropes.”

“Do you think he’ll pet it?”

I could not pet the cat, as the child had asked. That did not, however, stop my heart from being warmed as the cuddly grey feline snuggled up against my legs. The cat circled me, its tail reaching up and tickling the backs of my calves lightly. Its purring with rhythmic and fast. I found my own breathing speeding up so as to match the purring in time.

After a second pass, the cat stopped in front of me. It stood on all fours, patiently staring up at me as I glanced back down at it. The kitten sat, wrapping its tail around its tiny body. It cocked its head slightly to the right, never breaking its gaze with me.

“Meow?” said the cat, questioningly.

I smiled, first at the cat, then at the man and his daughter watching us. The kitten, seemingly content with my response, sauntered away, chasing after a fallen leaf that had blown by a few moments prior.

Hand of Silence

Note: The following is a fictional(ish) short story. The concept behind this story comes from one of the prompts (#55) on Think Written’s 365 Creative Writing Prompts.


The television’s bright lights flickered through the room, passing through my eyeballs and to my brain with no acknowledgment on my part beyond that of knowing I wasn’t paying attention to it. It was still two hours before sunrise and three hours before I could go anywhere. Not that I minded.

The television kept me awake some nights. Working when most people are sleeping wasn’t the most ideal thing in the world, but it gave me enough money to live off of. It wasn’t like my work was hard. Occasionally, one of the potheads or drunks would saunter in, wave at me as they passed by, then make their way up to their room. On the rare instance one of them would stop and talk to me, it was to make sure the building head wasn’t around. It was usually at that point I’d watch as some freshman snuck in a backpack or two that totally wasn’t filled with the cheapest beer you could buy. Since I couldn’t see inside the backpack, I couldn’t say anything.

Every once in a while, particularly closer to mornings, and especially on weekdays, one of the residents would come by my post. Their requests were usually innocent enough. ‘I’ve locked myself out’, ‘Can I borrow your stapler/tape/scissors?’, or ‘What’s the weather like?” topped the common questions list. The first two questions were within the scope of my job responsibilities, while the third was a fact I’d look up early on in my shift, just so I could answer the question when it inevitably arose.

And so it went. Two nights a week from midnight until 8 in the morning, and two other nights a week from 4 in the morning until 8 in the morning. This was my life. I never had to do any projects other than group endeavors during my normal waking hours because I had a ton of free time to spend on them during my job. My boss even encouraged it, as doing homework (generally) kept me awake. So I sat at my desk, typing away on a laptop held together by duct tape and dreams, staying awake for the 5-10 minutes I would actually be needed each night during my shift.

I kept the television in the corner of the lobby on as my way to know if we were having power problems. Though most of the building didn’t have any sort of backup power, the building head’s room and the entry desk had full backup power. Unless the TV was on, I generally wouldn’t know the power was out until someone came downstairs to tell me so. On the nights I worked alone — which was at least 3 of the 4 shifts per week — Sportscenter played on loop for four hours. Its repetition served as a way for me to track where in the hour I was without having easy access to a clock. It also provided me some amusement when people who didn’t understand the show was on repeat saw it for the first time.

This particular night wasn’t my night to work. I generally worked every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then three out of every four Saturdays in the month. But my co-worker had come down with a case of the early autumn flu (read: she was probably too drunk to come into work), so I was awoken from my Thursday slumber at a quarter until four in the morning. I slogged across campus in the pouring rain, giant energy drink in one hand, massive cup of coffee in the other, and a laptop and charger in a backpack on my back, arriving just in time to see off the two girls who had the shift before this one.

I didn’t like picking up extra shifts at work. Sure, the money was nice, but I barely slept as it was. I didn’t need to further my sleep deprivation. Tonight was different though. I needed to know the end of a story.

Last night, just about this time, a sleepy-eyed girl named Marcie came downstairs to the lobby. For the third night in a row, Marcie told me, she couldn’t sleep. She missed being near her family. She missed her pets. She missed everything that she was used to in her life prior to university.

We sat at my station, me in my underpadded office chair and Marcie in a cheap plastic chair from the arts room, and talked for the rest of my shift. Though my initial goal was to talk to her long enough to get her to fall asleep so I could go back to working on my paper, I found myself more and more interested in Marcie as the night turned to morning. We spent much of the time playing cards and drinking more that our fair share of caffeine — which seems like a terrible decision for Marcie’s sleep habits in retrospect.

Around our fourth hand of gin, Marcie began to tell a story about this terrible date she went on a few weeks prior. She had met this guy, Lucas, in one of her early morning classes during last semester (biology, I think it was). They done a group project together in the first few weeks of class and started hanging out somewhat regularly after that. Summer came and went, with Marcie barely hearing from Lucas. Then, two days after school started up again, Marcie got a call from Lucas asking if they could go on a date.

Marcie planned to meet Lucas for dinner that Friday night. Marcie arrived at the restaurant first, just a few minutes prior to the date’s planned 7:30pm start time, so she sat down on a bench in the lobby and played games on her phone while she waited. Before she knew it, time had passed to a quarter after eight. Lucas was still nowhere to be found.

Marcie went to the hostess booth at the front of the restaurant to see if somehow Lucas might have arrived without her noticing. Sure enough, the hostess recalled seeing someone fitting Lucas’s description, so she led Marcie to the part of the restaurant in question. When they arrived there, Marcie found Lucas laughing and chatting with another girl, clearly on a date of his own without her.

When Marcie pressed to find out what was going on, Lucas explained that he had messed up. He had meant to tell Marcie that their date would be Saturday night, then began to make up some excuse as to how he confused the two dates. Marcie stormed out of the restaurant and back to her dorm room. Though her roommate consoled her with freshly delivered pizza and contraband beer, Marcie was depressed at the turn of events her night had taken.

I told Marcie how Lucas had been a dick to her and that no guy should treat her like that. Marcie then told me how that wasn’t the end of the story, but that she would come find me another morning to tell me the rest. She strode back up to her room — hopefully to get some sleep, I assume — leaving me in the silence of an empty lobby for the rest of the night.

That brings us to tonight. It’s a cool, slightly rainy Thursday early morning. I never know what to consider the time I work. The people who see me at the beginning of my shift always tell me good night. The people who see me at the end of my shift always tell me good morning. To me, it’s night, as I’m still waking up before the sun rises. But it’s whatever day the calendar says it is because that’s how calendars work.

The clock on the wall across from my station read 4:43am when I heard footsteps coming from the hallway to my right. Marcie strode around the corner, her body wrapped in a fluffy yellow comforter and her messy black hair partially obscuring her face.

“I didn’t know you worked tonight,” she said, stifling a yawn.

“Normally I don’t,” I replied, “but someone called off. It’s free money.”

“Do you actually do anything?”

“Sometimes. Usually I just do homework and dick around on the internet. But every once in a while someone will lock themselves out of their room or come get a board game.”

“Does anyone visit you?” asked Marcie.

“Rarely,” I responded. “My roommate will drop me off food at the end of his shift sometimes, but that’s only if I’m working the midnight shift. My boss will stop by occasionally, but that’s really it.”

“Well, hey! Now you have me to visit you too.”

“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Stressed. Worried. Miss my family. Had the same problem last year too.”

“Any way I can help you?” I asked.

Marcie shrugged. She turned away from me and stared at the television for a few moments. As the screen flickered away showing highlights of some baseball game on the West Coast, an echo of thunder rumbled outside the dorm. I watched outside as the rain began to pick up, its pattering landing making its way into the silence of the lobby.

“Can I change the channel?” inquired Marcie.

“Yeah,” I answered. “The remote should be over there.”

“Okay. I’m going to lay down.”

The building head tended to get upset at the desk staff if we let anyone lay down on the couches. Apparently it was a potential legal issue if students fell asleep outside of their dorm rooms in a supervised area. But if Marcie needed to sleep and the couch happened to be where she fell asleep, I wasn’t going to question it.

“Hey!” Marcie shouted from the couch.

“Yeah?”

“Come watch this with me.”

I walked over to the TV area and started to sit in one of the chairs beside the couch.

“No,” she scolded me, “come sit with me. It’s cold.”

I sat down on the couch beside Marcie. She leaned her head against my shoulder, then snuggled herself tightly into her blanket. We watched as a pack of ran across the desert, presumably fleeing from some sort or predator.

“I always wondered how anything other than a camel could survive in the Sahel,” Marcie mused.

“The what?” I asked.

“The Sahel,” she replied. “It’s a region in Africa between the Sahara Desert and the rest of the continent. It’s hot there all year around just like the Sahara, only there’s a couple of months a year where it rains like crazy. At least that’s what my geography class taught me.”

“Yeah…you’ve lost me. I don’t know much geography.”

“You don’t need to. No one ever does. I just talk about it to amuse myself. If someone’s there to listen, all the better.”

“Now that much I can do,” I answered. “I’m good at listening.”

“I do owe you the rest of my story,” she said.

“Yes you do.”

“So later that night, Effie decided she was going to go to the store to get us ice cream.”

“Effie’s your roommate, right?”

Marcie nodded. “Yeah. Effie, Steph, Steffi, Stephanie. She answers to pretty much anything you call her. It’s not even her name.”

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Well,” replied Marcie, “Stephanie is her middle name. Her first name is Andrea, but she hates that name. As long as you don’t call her that, she’s content.”

“Huh.”

“Anyway. So Effie and I drove to the store to get ice cream. We picked up ice cream, a 2-liter of root beer, whipped cream, and we were going to make root beer floats. Normally we’d go through the self-checkout but they were all closed down for maintenance or something. So we’re standing in line waiting to check out when fucking Lucas walks up behind us in line with the girl he took on a date.”

“No shit?” I said, trying to feign surprise at his sudden reentry to the story even though I knew he’d be coming back.

“Yeah. Asshole was buying condoms and cheap vodka.”

“So what did you do?”

“Effie hurried us through the check out line as quickly as she could,” Marcie continued. “Lucas was pretty drunk, so I don’t think he even realized it was me standing in front of him. The girl knew though. She made eye contact with me, gave me this evil smirk, and winked at me.

“I broke down in the car on the way back here. I had to pull over and let Effie drive the rest of the way back.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” replied Marcie. “I knew what was going to happen. But to see them out was almost like the universe was mocking me. It’s like I…HOLY SHIT!”

As Marcie talked, the television had turned to a cheetah crushing the neck of an antelope to kill it. It was one of the bloodier things I had seen on TV in some time, catching both of us by surprise

“That antelope is so dead!” I exclaimed.

“This is why you should never trust a cat,” replied Marcie. “One moment they’re laying on your lap, letting you pet them and snuggle them. The next minute, BAM! Motherfucker’s chomping down on the neck of some gazelle in the Serengeti.”

“I don’t think all cats are godless killing machines.”

“That’s what they want you to think.”

A commercial gave us a reprieve from the cheetah’s victorious hunt. Marcie slid her body along the couch, her legs dangling over the end of the armless sofa. She clumsily pulled at the arm of the chair near her feet, trying to drag it over near her.

“Do you want me to get that for you?” I asked.

“No!” Marcie exclaimed. She poked her tongue out of her mouth, trying to focus as she pushed her toes against the soft fabric of the chair. She gave a quick tug with her legs, only for her toes to slide off the fabric and her feet to fall away.

“…yes…” she said, defeated.

I rose from the couch and pulled the chair over closer to Marcie. She lifted her legs over the arm of the chair, then placed her feet down on the cushion. She stretched her ankles and pointed her toes toward the back of the chair, the toenails missing the backrest by just a few inches.

“Thanks.”

I sat down on the couch beside her, only for Marcie to scoot further down the couch to get her feet further on the chair. Marcie sat her head down on me, her dark hair covering my lap as she rest her head on my legs.

“Do you think it’ll get easier?” she asked.

“Do I think what will get easier?” I retorted.

“The not being able to sleep for my first few weeks here. The homesickness. The missing everyone.”

“I don’t know. I never missed my family when I came here.”

“That’s sad. Everyone should have someone worth missing.”

Marcie freed one of her hands from her blanket cocoon and raised it above her head. She felt around without seeing clumsily smacking my leg and side a few times before hitting my arm. She slid her hand down my arm, grabbing my hand and pulling it back to her. Our hands rest on her side atop her fluffy blanket.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“I feel bad for you,” responded Marcie. “It’s shitty that I’m awake all hours of the night because I miss people. But at the same time, it means I still care about them a lot. If there’s no one you care about, I’m not okay with that.”

“I care about people.”

“Then be quiet and miss them for a moment.”

I sat in silence for a few minutes, trying my hardest to think about my family and to miss them. Thinking about them was easy. I thought about my family regularly and talked to them regularly. Missing them was another story though. They’ve always been there. While I know they won’t always be there, the impermanence of their lives seemed natural to me.

I felt Marcie let go of my hand slowly. When I looked down, it became apparent she was dozing off to sleep. I took my hand back from her and brushed some of her hair off of my legs.

“You should do that.”

“Do what?”

“Run your fingers through my hair. It’s calming. It helps me sleep.”

I listened to Marcie, running my fingers through her hair as she snuggled up tightly in her blanket. The television had switched from an action-filled program with cheetahs killing antelopes to some guy talking about bird eggs. Wherever he was looked exotic. I thought about asking Marcie where he was or trying to reach the remote to figure it out for myself. But Marcie had started to fall asleep. I didn’t want to disturb that. I didn’t want to miss out on the silence. She certainly seemed like the kind of person I could learn to miss.

Lost in the Open

Note: The following is a fiction short story. It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for about two years or so, but never could figure out how to tie together a couple of the subplots of the story to make it work. We’ll see how it works.


I hear them. The voices are there at all hours of the day. I have to assume they’re mostly there in the day time. That’s the logical conclusion. While I’m not sure what this hospital’s visiting hours are, every one I’ve ever been too generally has visiting hours at or around normal business hours plus evenings.

It’s hard to keep track of time. I’m occasionally told what time it is, maybe even the date or the day of the week. That said, I don’t ask for the time. I can’t. I can’t speak. My eyes won’t allow me to see who’s talking to me. All I have to go off of is the sound of those talking to me and their touch to know who’s there.

It’s unfortunate that I’m here. I never expected to be here — twenty-eight days into an unforeseen hospital stay. One turn down the wrong alley on my way to meet friends for dinner and here I am. Blinded. Muted. Trapped by my own body.

I don’t remember all of the circumstances surrounding how I got here…not on my own at least. In my early days at the hospital, police officers came and talked to my father about what caused me to be laid up like this. A trio of muggers attacked me moments after I turned down the alley. The biggest one knocked me down with a pipe, while two others came after me with baseball bats. I apparently fought for a bit, kicking and flailing at the air around me, though I was quickly subdued. The trio robbed me for everything I had, then left me in the alley to die.

The police caught my assailants about a week after my attack. Surveillance cameras from the pawn shop next to the alley picked up enough footage to help the police identify two of the three people involved. All three were small time criminals between the ages of 19 and 23. It’s a shame. My pain is going to cost all three of them a significant portion of their adulthood. I wish it didn’t have to be that way.

The doctors have told me quite a few things about my condition. I can move my hands well enough that I can give them a thumbs up if I understand, but that’s about it. My voice is severely damaged from a shot to the throat from one of the baseball bats. The doctors are optimistic I’ll be able to speak again with enough therapy, but they can’t guarantee anything. My legs are in casts, but should heal properly within the next couple of months. As for my eyesight…the doctors aren’t so optimistic there.

My dad stops by most nights to check in on me. He’ll tell me about the happenings of the day. He hates his job, though not much more than most middle managers I know. His boss is an arrogant blowhard who loves nothing more than when people suck up to her. My dad’s as good at playing office politics as the next guy, but when the boss’s boytoy gets a promotion because he’s sleeping with the boss, there’s no amount of politicking you can do to get around that.

I get to hear videos of my dad’s cat, Lemia, and his dog, Cheese, playing in his house. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen either Lemia or Cheese, my accident not withstanding. Lemia is a gray British shorthair with a tuft of white hair on the top of her head. She loves climbing up on my dad’s lap and dozing off with him as the afternoon sun hits them both on the recliner. Cheese is golden lab with far too much energy, especially for a dog his size. I never understood why Dad let the neighbor’s child name his dog. Six-year-olds aren’t exactly known for their naming skills. I really just think that Dad likes yelling “bad Cheese!” when the dog climbs on the couch or “stinky Cheese!” when the dog farts.

My dad did a lot for me, even though I didn’t always realize it. He was a single parent for the majority of my childhood. My mom left us at age 8 and we never saw her again. It’s probably for the best from all the stories I’ve heard about her. While not all addicts make poor parents, she certainly fit the mold of one that wouldn’t treat me the best.

Dad did all he could to take care of me in spite of being alone. I played numerous sports throughout school to keep me off the streets. I picked up the trombone to play in the marching band and concert band. While I think Dad secretly wanted me to play the same instrument he did (tenor saxophone), he showed up to every concert he could. My favorite memory of my younger days with him was winning the sectional wrestling meet my junior year and taking him my trophy. I broke my arm in the first match at districts, ending my run there. Even with my injury, he reminded me every day I was a champion.

I wish I could talk to him. Partly because I love talking to him and I miss that. My voice will come back, I hope, and we’ll be able to talk about the cat, the dog, work, wrestling, the past, and the future. There’s always something I kept from him though. I never thought he needed to know it until I faced my own death at the hands of someone else.

During the final two years of high school, I dated this beautiful girl by the name of Lydia. We’d known each other since childhood. Lydia and I went lived in two different school districts despite living less than a mile apart. We saw each other almost every weekend outside of marching band season, though only when our schools — fierce rivals in every sense of the word — faced each other during the fall. Like my dad, Lydia showed up at most of my extracurricular activities. She’d even ride along with Dad if she didn’t have to work that day.

Lydia was the first girl I ever had feelings for and (to my knowledge) the first person who ever had feelings for me. I remember the first time we kissed vividly, even to this day. We were having lunch at a local cafe, waiting on our food to come out. We were both single at the time, both lamenting about how we wished the circumstances would change. Lydia got to talking about how she wanted to be in a relationship where she could make the first move rather than having to wait on the guy to do so. My oblivious teenage self asked what she’d do if she were to make the first move.

I watched as her fingers walked their way up my arm, her cool, umber toned skin contrasting with my light, beige arm and my bright yellow t-shirt. Lydia talked about how she’d wrap her arms around the guy’s neck, just as she was doing so to me, then lean in for a long, soft kiss. I didn’t expect her to go for it, though I certainly didn’t complain when our lips finally did touch. The kiss couldn’t have lasted for more than a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. A long, blissful, eternity.

Three months after beginning college together, Lydia and I began to have an incredibly rocky relationship. Her roommate insisted repeatedly that I wasn’t good enough for her, and that Lydia should use college to find out who she really was. At first, Lydia was deaf to her roommate’s pleas, but over time, things began to change. I saw Lydia less and less with each passing week. At first it was only on weekdays, though as time passed, I rarely saw her on weekends. The day before Thanksgiving break, Lydia told me that we needed to take a break.

I despise the idea of “taking a break”. It’s rare that it’s actually a break. Sure enough, the “break” that Lydia and I had is still going on to this day. I can’t imagine her husband would be particularly happy if I tried to talk her into coming back to me. It’s been nearly fourteen years anyway. I’ve been over her for a very long time.

I wasn’t over her at Christmas, just a little over a month after Lydia and I split. Her parents always treated me like a son — a fact I appreciate to this day. But that closeness only caused me to be more hurt when Lydia and I broke up. The public portion of my Christmas Eve ended with a rather loud, animated fight with Lydia’s mother. I was frustrated that my second family was drifting away from me, while she was frustrated that I wasn’t saying the kindest words about her daughter. Eventually Lydia came over and separated us. She defended me to her mom, but then asked me to leave.

That year, 2009, I had offered to take care of my buddy’s house for he and his parents while they went to Arizona for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, I dug through the medicine cabinet at someone else’s house, opened a bottle of sleeping pills prescribed to my friend’s mom, and downed the whole bottle. I woke up in the middle of the night violently vomiting all over the couch. It wasn’t until December 27th that I had the strength and energy to get off the couch and take myself to the hospital. The next day, I told my dad all about what had happened.

The problem is, that story never happened. It didn’t happen as I just stated. It’s how I told it to my dad on December 28th. But that’s not what happened. I did have a fight with Lydia’s mom on Christmas Eve. Lydia did ask me to leave. I did go over to my buddy’s house as I had promised to care for the house and their cat. But the suicide attempt never happened. I pulled a bottle of Glenlivet out of the liquor cabinet, drank three shots, then passed out on the couch while crying and listening to Fuel. Christmas morning, I woke up with puke all over my shirt and a cat pissed off that I hadn’t fed it since the 23rd. I stayed in my friend’s house in shame until the 28th, ignoring every phone call, text, and visitor that came looking for me.

I don’t know what prompted me to lie to my dad like that. Suicide was, and still is, a serious topic in our family. My cousin died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2004. His younger sister tried to follow suit in 2007, but she passed out from exhaustion before she finished loading the gun. You don’t even joke about suicide in any circumstance around anyone in my extended family. And yet, there I was, nineteen years old, lying my face off to my father about trying to take my own life.

I had self-harmed a couple of times in my teens. Couple that with a family history of suicidal tendencies and my “actions” weren’t shocking to anyone. Except they never happened. If I ever get my voice back, that’s going to be the second thing I tell Dad. Right after the fact that I love him.

I’m not just sorry for how I lied to him. Yes, he’s the biggest person that I regret lying to in my life. But he’s not the only one.

By the time late 2013 rolled around, I had moved on from Lydia and had been dating various people off and on for the better part of three years. My girlfriend at the time was a girl who went by Valorie to nearly everyone. To me, she was Vai. Vai was the first girl since Lydia I’d managed to have a semi-serious relationship with.

On one hand, the fact that I was so heavily interested in her wasn’t shocking. If I could have built the perfect woman in some futuristic laboratory that allowed you to create the partner of your dreams, Vai would have been an excellent starting point. The contrast of her iridescent crystal-blue eyes and her golden copper hair allowed me to spot her from across the bar, no matter how many people were around us on a given night. She sang in the shower with a voice bestowed upon her from on high, her melodious tones able to shift from rock to jazz to hip-hop and back to rock again with minimal effort. Vai always found a way to make our sex life exciting, even at times looking up porn videos online for us to emulate when I came to visit.

On the other hand, Vai and I weren’t destined to be together for long. There wasn’t a single one of my friends that was able to stand being in the same room with her for more than a few minutes at a time. While my family adored her, it was because her political views more closely matched theirs than my own. When Vai talked politics, it was like she was a different person from a different era — one that would have judged me for even associating with Lydia, let alone date her, just because of her skin color. Though I’d grown out of my conservative upbringing, I still held rather siloed views about drugs. Vai’s occasional use of marijuana was a huge turn off for me.

It wasn’t so much that she smoked pot that bothered me as much as the fact that she lied about it regularly for the first four months we were dating. My visits to her apartment led to questions about the weed smell, which she usually blamed on her neighbors or her roommate. Considering I only saw her roommate once (total) in the entire time Vai and I were together, it became apparent rather quickly that Vai had been lying to me. She confessed, was sad, told me to get over it because she wasn’t going to stop, then proceeded to give me great makeup sex the next three or four times we saw each other.

The other major roadblock in my relationship with Vai was our limited overlap of interests. While I did like a lot of the same things Vai liked, there was only a handful of things she could talk about regularly without going silent. At the age of seven, Vai was in a car accident that killed her younger brother and severely injured her older brother, as well as her parents. Vai received severe brain damage from the accident. The trauma limited her ability to form coherent long-term memories in the same way that most people could. Furthermore, she struggled to keep up with most people in conversation, often leading me to cover for her silences when with friends.

Talking with Vai most days wasn’t too troublesome. We’d talk about music, television shows, and sex regularly. The problem was, that’s really all we could talk about. Over and over. I know it wasn’t her fault, I really do. But it was frustrating to have the same conversation over and over again.

After Vai and I had been together just over a year, a friend of mine from high school in touch with me via Twitter. Cate and I had flirted a bit off and on throughout high school, but nothing ever came of it. One weekend, Cate sent me a text asking if I wanted to meet up for drinks. Vai was out of town visiting her parents for the weekend, so I met up with Cate at the bar. It was nice to get to reminisce with an old friend.

Cate was three courses away from getting her MBA from Vanderbilt and was already getting internships offers from some of the top companies in the Nashville area. Hearing about Cate’s life states away was a welcome break from the monotony of life with Vai. It felt like I was single again, getting the chance to chat up a brilliant, beautiful girl at the bar.

Cate and I went out separate ways at the end of the night. She flew back to Nashville two days later to start-up her next semester of grad work. I went back to work running background checks for my employers. Vai returned home from her family trip and went back to work as a clerk for the superstore near her apartment. Nothing changed in terms of how we lived our day-to-day lives. Well, almost nothing.

It was at that point that I began wondering if I would be happier with Cate than with Vai. Part of me instinctively knew I wouldn’t. Vai was compassionate, altruistic, loving, and affectionate. If Cate was any of those things, she never showed it at any point during the time we had known each other in any capacity. Vai was significantly more attractive than Cate, she adored me, and my family loved her.

I couldn’t help my thoughts to the contrary though. Being with Cate would be exciting. Cate had a bit of an edge to her. Not the kind of edge that leads you to wonder if someone is dangerous to be around. It was more of the kind of edge that led you to constantly wonder if you were going to get your head bitten off if you said one wrong word. Cate was witty, eloquent, snarky, and daring. Her tongue was as sharp as her mind and she wasn’t afraid to let you know it. Cate was everything Vai wasn’t; for better and for worse.

Across the next three months, I found myself more drawn to Cate through our digital communication. We occasionally flirted with each other, though more of our interactions resulted in repartee befitting of a sitcom.The more we spoke, the more I was caught in Cate’s spell. All the while, I became less and less attracted to Vai.

In early 2015, I broke things off with Vai. I told her that I was leaving her because I couldn’t imagine raising a family with her. I told her that it was important to me to be with someone who would keep me interested for the rest of our lives. Vai wasn’t that person for me.

My statements weren’t a lie, per say. I couldn’t see myself with Vai for the rest of our lives. I did want someone who could provide me with greater intellectual and social stimulation than Vai would ever be able to provide me. I told Vai the truth about all of that. What I didn’t tell her about was my growing infatuation for Cate. I was convinced that’s what would have broken Vai’s heart.

Later that spring, Cate and I went out on a pair of dates while she was on break from grad school. We had a fine time on both instances, but it was nothing terribly exciting. We kissed goodbye on the second date, but things were awkward from that point forward. We haven’t spoken in nearly eight years.

Vai was heartbroken that I left her. Two days after we split, I woke up to find my car’s windshield shattered and a rather vulgar note telling me how I should have let Vai down easy. The note insisted that I could have told Vai nearly anything as to why we were breaking up. Leaving her for another woman would have been fine. Coming out as a closeted homosexual would have been fine. Losing interest in her sexually would have been fine. But to admit that I had concerns about Vai’s ability to connect with me on an intellectual level broke her heart into a million pieces.

I know her brother wrote the note and smashed my windshield. I hid the note from the cops and never bothered mentioning it to my insurance company when I filed the claim. I didn’t want him to get in trouble. He was protecting his little sister. And he should. I was a shithead.

I wish Vai nothing but the best. If she were here right now, I’d apologize profusely for the way I left her without telling her the truth. A heart as pure as hers deserved the truth, as a half truth only hurt her more.

She emailed me a couple of years after we broke up telling me how she had moved on and realized that she was perfect in spite of the things I said to her. Vai was right. For someone, she was and is perfect. She wasn’t perfect for me. But I shouldn’t have hurt her in the way I did to let her know that.

A lie hurts. A half-truth can hurt as well. But the truth? The truth hurts too. Sometimes it cuts the deepest.

I’ve been single for most of the past eight years. There were a couple of women in and out of my life after I left Vai, but nothing serious ever developed out of it. It took me quite some time, but I was finally okay with being myself and being by myself.

I partially have Sylwia to thank for that. Throughout my life, I’ve had a difficult time making friends. When Lydia and I broke up, I drifted away from most of our mutual friends. We were a tight-knit group, with everyone relying on each other for emotional support. Even after moving away to college, the group of friends came together on a regular basis without fail. It was hard for me to be around Lydia, even harder for me to be around a group of friends who I felt had taken sides in our relationship split. So I slowly faded out of their lives. I haven’t talked to most of them in years.

Sylwia was the closest thing I had to a best friend since high school. She lived in the apartment beneath mine, moving in just a week after I moved in. Sylwia was new to the city and largely to America. She’d attended college on the East Coast on a track and field scholarship, then managed to get a job at a Fortune 500 company as an actuary shortly after graduating.

Sylwia and I hung out frequently her first two years in the apartment building. One of her first nights here, the two of us trudged downtown in the heavy winter snow to a bar. We bet $50 each on who could drink the most that night. The tequila shots cloud my memory as to how exactly we got home, but I do remember Sylwia dancing on my kitchen table to “Promenade” by Street Sweeper Social Club before passing out on my couch.

For as unclear as that night was as a whole, that moment of Sylwia being a drunken fool in my kitchen has never left my mind. She had stolen a large button up shirt from my closet to keep her warm at the bar. With the arms being too long, the sleeves swung around haphazardly, hitting my light more than a few times. Sylwia wore a red and white truckers cap on her head, her short sandy blonde hair peeking out from under the cap as she smiled and sang at the top of her lungs.

The next morning, I woke up to a searing headache and the sounds of my kitchen being turned upside down. I threw on the first clothes I could find and walked out to find Sylwia digging through my cabinets to find a bowl to mix up a batter for waffles. We spent the morning drinking pots — not just cups — of coffee, eating waffles and bacon, and watching shitty television.

Despite the fact that I was able to be outgoing and upbeat around Sylwia, she found out rather quickly that I didn’t have the highest opinion of myself. Most mornings I’d leave to go to work, only to find a folded piece of paper wedged into my door as I went to leave. Sylwia generally used the papers to motivate me, telling me how smart, kind, or generous I was. Occasionally though, they’d be random facts about nothing that she found on the internet. Eventually, she just started texting me a random fact each morning to go along with whatever kindness she wrote on the paper she left in my door.

In 2020, after about a year knowing each other, Sylwia told me she’d found a boyfriend. His name was Chris and he was a salesman she met while they were both working out together at the gym.The three of us would hang out together pretty regularly, usually over a bottle of tequila and some variety of greasy food. Chris was even my carpool ride to work a handful of times.

In the summer of that year, after a night of drinking and video games, the three of us were relaxing in my apartment, waiting for Chris to sober up so he could drive home. Though he regularly stayed with Sylwia, for some trivial reason that escapes me now, Chris had decided it would be easier to get to work the next morning if he went home first. Around two in the morning, Chris and Sylwia departed my apartment. A few minutes later, I heard Chris start his motorcycle. He drove off into the night, the sound of his tailpipes giving way to the tones of crickets and wind as Chris got further and further away.

About twenty minutes later, as I laid in my bed trying to doze off, I heard a loud knock at my door. I wrapped a robe around me and sauntered out, opening my door to find Sylwia laying on my welcome mat in tears. I knelt down in the ground beside her, scooping her up into my arms. I held Sylwia as she sobbed for nearly an hour without saying a word.

Once she finally did start talking, I found out that Sylwia’s grandmother had died early that morning. Her father called from Slovakia to let her know. While Sylwia’s grandmother had been sick for quite some time, it was still devastating to Sylwia to learn that her favorite family member had passed on.

I consoled Sylwia until well after the sun had come up the next morning. Over the course of the weekend, Sylwia gathered her things, then flew back to her hometown of Košice, Slovakia for three weeks. During the time she was gone, I occasionally heard from Sylwia via email and various forms of social media. She loved being able to see her family again, even if it was for a rather sad reason.

When Sylwia got back to the US, something about her changed. It started out subtle. She had a bit more of an edge when she talked. She was more aggressive in conversations and when playing games. I assumed it was a natural stage in the progression of her grief after losing her grandmother. While Sylwia was an outgoing woman, she was also calculated and planned in what she said. She was always the most tactical person in any game we played and took great pride in her ability to use her superior planning skills to act swiftly and decisively, which usually led to Chris and I losing games against her.

One of Sylwia’s first tasks when she got back to the states was to spend the next few months trying her hardest to convince me that I needed a relationship. Not only did I need a relationship, but I needed a relationship with the perfect girl…and Sylwia was just the person to set me up with the perfect girl (at least in her mind). Sylwia spent the better part of a month trying to convince me that her coworker, Kirsten, was the answer to all of my loneliness and troubles.

Truth be told, I didn’t particularly feel lonely at the time. Yes, it was a bit lonely around my apartment when Sylwia was in Slovakia for three weeks, but that was an absence for a relatively known and finite amount of time. I didn’t think that I needed someone to serve as some sort of cure for being single.

Eventually though, Sylwia’s persistence won out and I agreed to go on a double date with her and Chris in order to meet Kirsten. As Sylwia told me about Kirsten on the days leading up to the date, she sounded like a pretty good person. Kirsten was a veterinary technician who worked with Sylwia’s college roommate. Kirsten had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with her college boyfriend and was eager to find someone to help her forget about him. Though I didn’t particularly favor the idea of being someone’s rebound, Sylwia convinced me that Kirsten was more than worth my time to meet.

On the day of our double date, I spent a bit longer than usual getting ready. I was in the process of tying my tie when I heard my phone buzz from across the room. I walked over to it to find a picture from Sylwia that was clearly not intended for me. Sylwia was standing in front of the full body mirror in her bedroom, wearing nothing but a lacy blue pair of underpants and matching high heels. The caption with the picture read “Your choice. Either these…”.

Before she could send another picture to me in error, I texted Sylwia back to get her know what she had done. Her texts went silent from that point on, so I assumed she realized her error and sent that picture, as well as whatever was to follow, to Chris so that he could choose.

The four of us met for dinner at a Japanese steakhouse just down the road from Chris’ apartment. Kirsten, as Sylwia said, was a very charming lady. We chatted the majority of dinner before heading off as a group to see a movie. At the end of the evening, I walked Kirsten back to her car, where she gave me a long, lingering kiss. She then dug into her purse, scrawled her phone number on a business card for a car dealership, then said goodbye to me as we left.

I drove home that night happy with how my date with Kirsten went. She seemed like a pleasant person and under other circumstances, I would have been ecstatic to talk to her again. The problem was the nagging image that had played through my mind countless times over the course of dinner. Sylwia’s picturesque body reflected in her bedroom mirror was seared into my mind much in the same way that hieroglyphics were engraved into the Rosetta Stone. Sylwia, in a word, was breathtaking. I’d always found her to be an attractive woman. But to see her nearly in her most private sense — and the slightly forbidden feeling associated with it — elevated her to another level.

After sitting at home for a few hours, I made my way downstairs to talk to Sylwia about the text. If Chris happened to be there, I’d make up some other reason for coming by. If Sylwia didn’t want to talk about it, or didn’t realize she’d sent me the photo somehow, I’d move on with my life. I knocked on the door and waited patiently for her to answer. As the door opened, I looked up to see Sylwia in a pair of red panties similar to the blue ones I’d seen earlier, as well as the bright red heels she’d worn to dinner.

“Or these?” she said, knowing full well that her beguiling presence would leave me speechless.

Sylwia pulled me into her apartment by the collar of my shirt, kissing me passionately as she did so. She pushed me over the arm of her couch, causing me to collapse on the sofa in the process. As she pulled her high heels off and tossed them haphazardly down her hallway, I stopped her advances. This wasn’t right, I reasoned. While Sylwia was very beautiful, she was dating Chris. I wasn’t about to ruin their relationship.

It was at that point Sylwia revealed the true extent of her changes following her grandmother’s death. In the past few months, Sylwia said she realized that life was too short to not make the most out of it. On her death bed, Sylwia’s grandmother talked with her family about the concept living life to its fullest and doing what makes you happy as often as you can in every — and I do mean every — sense of the word. Shortly after her grandmother’s passing, Sylwia’s mom went on a lengthy rant about how it was inappropriate for an old lady to preach the concepts of a libertine lifestyle, let alone to take her dying breaths to do so.

To Sylwia, however, living a life that gives you exactly what you want while being devoid of life’s sexual and moral restraints, was exactly what she wanted. She had convinced Chris that their relationship should be an open relationship, so long as they told each other about their sexual activities and got regularly tested for STIs. And seeing as I had been there for Sylwia when she needed someone the most, Sylwia wanted to pay me back in a way that made me as happy as I could be.

Sylwia and I slept together regularly for the better part of a year. Though I still regularly saw Sylwia and Chris together, the topic of my escapades with Sylwia didn’t come up unless all three of us were in the bedroom together. I came to learn that threesomes with Chris and I were Sylwia’s favorite kind of sex, so I tried to help make her desires a reality the best I could as often as I could.

Those times where Sylwia and I got to be in bed alone were by far my favorite times that we were together. Part of it was because it allowed Sylwia to put the focus on me rather than me — as well as someone else — putting the focus on her. But it was also for a more selfish reason. I began to realize that Sylwia was right. I did need someone in my life to be the answer to all the loneliness. That person, however, wasn’t Kirsten or any of the other people who Sylwia tried to set me up with. It was Sylwia herself.

I spent the better part of two months mentally grappling with whether or not I should tell Sylwia how I felt about her. On one hand, I felt that it was the right thing to do to tell her, both as her friend and as someone who was romantically involved with her. On the other hand, I held a deep fear that if I were to come clean to Sylwia, it would drive her away. That was the last thing I wanted. I’d finally found someone who I had a connection with. Someone who cared about me and who trusted me enough to let me into the most intimate part of her life. That’s what I wanted most.

The turning point my decision came when I realized I was jealous of Chris still being Sylwia’s boyfriend. From a sexual standpoint, we were both with Sylwia nearly equally. If anything, she was in my bed more than Chris’. But Sylwia never fell asleep in my arms. She never told me she loved me. It was at that point that I realized that I loved Sylwia. I needed to tell her, regardless of what it did to us.

What it did to us was complicated. Sylwia confessed she had started developing some sort of feelings for me too. Whether or not it was love was something she was still unsure on. But considering I fully expected the entire thing to blow up in my face, I was happy with the result. The downside to things was that earlier that same night, Chris had proposed to Sylwia. She didn’t know what to say to Chris at that point in time. My admission of feelings to her only served to further complicate things.

A couple of weeks later, Sylwia finally gave Chris his answer. She told him no. I was overjoyed. I made the assumption this meant she had decided to choose me over him. I couldn’t believe my luck. Yet, I had to be sensitive to the fact that Sylwia had just split with her long-term boyfriend. I offered to make her dinner and drink with her to take her mind off of things. Ever the fan of solving problems with booze, Sylwia graciously accepted.

That night, as Sylwia and I ate dinner, she told me she had taken a job in Slovakia and was moving back there at the end of the month. Sylwia began telling me all about her new job — the opportunities it’d give her, how it’d allow her the chance to reconnect with her family, how it was a great step forward in her career. She also told me, however, that a major reason she took the job was because she couldn’t choose between life with Chris and life with me. She knew our situation as it was couldn’t and wouldn’t last forever. She couldn’t choose which of our hearts should be broken over the other. So she chose to break all three hearts in one fell swoop.

Sylwia and I drank that night as a celebration to her new job. The fact that she was advancing her career doing something she loved truly was exciting for me. I was incredibly happy for her success. At the same time, I was devastated that I was losing her. Sylwia knew it too. As the night wound down, she hurried down to her apartment and changed clothes, coming back upstairs wearing one of my button up shirts and her trucker’s hat, just as she had early on in our time together. She drunkenly danced on my kitchen table again, this time sans pants, and sang at the top of her lungs. The only difference was that this time, as Sylwia was smiling and singing as loud as she could, I sang along, though all I wanted to do was hold her close and never let her go again.

I took Sylwia to the airport on her final day in America. We shared a long embrace before the security line as we both tried to hold back tears. As I turned away to leave, I heard Sylwia start crying. While the sound was only a faint murmur over the noise of the surrounding crowd, it opened the floodgates for me as well.

When I got home, there was a piece of paper wedged into my door, just as Sylwia had done numerous times before. I unfolded it, stared at the note for a few moments, then tore it up as I cried. A piece of paper was not the way I wanted to hear Sylwia tell me she loved me too for the first time.

If, by some miracle, I were to regain my voice and if, by another miracle, Sylwia were to step through those hospital doors, I’d apologize to her too. Not for making up a story about a traumatic life event like I’d need to with my dad. Not for telling a half-truth to get out of a relationship that I’d lost interest in like I’d need to with Vai. My apology to Sylwia would be one where I tell her I’m sorry for not fighting harder to get her to stay.

The chatter outside my room is dying down now. Visiting hours ended a little while ago. Friends and family have gone home. Doctors and nurses have finished up their nightly rounds. This is when the routine begins.

I’ll lay here with my thoughts for a few hours. Some nights, those thoughts are relatively harmless, such as when I try to visualize what’s playing on my television. Some nights, those thoughts are darker, wondering if I’ll ever regain my sight, my speech, or my ability to walk ever again. Still other nights, like tonight, my thoughts are reflective.

I wish I could say these things I think to my dad, Vai, and Sylwia. I have confidence that one of those will happen. My dad will be back here at some point this week, perhaps even tomorrow. As my speech slowly improves, I’ll be able to tell him what I want to say. Vai is long gone. Even if I wanted to talk to her and give her the apology she deserves, it’s probably in my best interest to never, ever speak to her again.

As for Sylwia, there’s a very large part of me that wants to talk to her again. I know she’s a text, an email, a tweet, or a phone call away. Even if she doesn’t answer, I’d know she’d see it and I’d know she’s there. But it’s that same part of me that never wants to talk to her again. I don’t want hurt by her. I don’t want her to be indecisive, to ignore the paper in my door she wrote less than a year ago, or to give up all of the opportunities that she chased in Slovakia.

It’s time for me to sleep, just as it is every night around this time. As I nod off, I silently hope to regain my voice, so that I may seek out the retribution I so desperately desire. The chance to set right a lie that led my family to believe my life was much darker than it actual was. The chance to make amends with a kind soul that never deserved the pain I caused her. The chance to have a choice as to whether or not to chase down the woman I loved — and possibly still do love — and see if she feels the same way about me.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to talk. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to see. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to walk. But until then, I sleep. I’m trapped with these thoughts that haunt me. All I want is to set them free and fix the wrongs I’ve created. I just want another chance at a normal life. I’m sure I can do better this time. Lord knows I’ve had enough time to make a plan for it.

The Last Remaining Shadow

Note: The following short story is part of a shared writing project I’m going with a fellow writing friend. Basically we’re both taking a concept — in this case, the tale of the last remaining mortal human on Earth — and writing a piece of fiction to our whim from there. I’m a bit out of practice, so we’ll see how this goes.

I woke up from my mandated rest period to see him laying there, eyes struggling to stay open as he breathes in and out, continuing the imprisonment of life that has been thrust upon him. It’s supposed to be impossible to feel remorse for this man, yet here I am, lounging in a hospital chair, just wishing he’d die already.

As the humanity has evolved, we’ve managed to save a great many things. The Earth, once a planet in such catastrophic danger that they were sending ill-fated mission after ill-fated mission to Mars in an attempt to colonize a new planet, has been saved. Climate change — global warming as it was once correctly, though over simplistically, called — has stabilized. Population too has stabilized, thanks in large part to scientific advancements and policy changes adopted by nearly all of the world’s nations. Those countries that had the foresight to plan for the well-being of everyone have prospered. Those countries that tried to fend for themselves or who made petty squabbles more important than the survival of humanity crumbled and died out. Quite literally on that last point, I might add.

Around 85 years ago, a scientist by the name of Krysia Nosek and her assistants discovered a drug that would grant immortality to human kind. In a very un-human like turn of events, Nosek and her team turned the drug over to the Polish government, which then in turn funded Nosek’s Krakow based lab to allow the scientists to create enough of the drug to make sure that everyone in the world had the opportunity to live forever. Not just everyone in Poland. Everyone. Everywhere.

There was quite a bit of uproar from the global community thanks to the decision to make this drug, Damodrine as it would eventually be marketed, available to all for no cost. The concern was that if people were given the ability to live forever regardless of their actions, the majority of people would stop being the structured life-loving individuals that inhabited the Earth and would turn into a world full of anarchists. Some of the existing media which had built its empires upon the foundation of scare tactics and chaos tried to argue that Damodrine represented the end times or was ‘a way the devil was going to implant the number of the beast in humanity’. Humans were so primitive.

The first mass shipments of Damodrine went out to just shy of 100 million people across Europe and Northern Africa. Though there were a few isolated incidents of violence — all of which would be quelled by an antidote known as Andamodrine reversing the immortality effect — those who took the drug went on about their daily lives. If anything, those people became happier and more productive individuals. Damodrine largely eliminated the need for sleeping and eating beyond small quantities. It acts as a vaccine for more known deadly diseases, and the ones it doesn’t prevent or cure cannot overcome the power of Damodrine. The modern human now views HIV in the same light that those of 200 years ago viewed the common cold. Though HIV cannot be prevented, if it were to enter the body of a human who had consumed Damodrine in the last 7 days (likely considering the pill should be taken every 10 days for maximum effect), the virus would be killed instantaneously.

As the use of Damodrine spread across the world some more isolated or conservative nations banned the drug as an import. No one paid these nations any mind until a funny thing happened. At about the same time as the 2 billionth dose of Damodrine left Krakow, people in nations that had banned drugs import — countries like North Korea, Hungary, Israel, Turkey-Bulgaria and the United States — began to leave their nations in droves in order to obtain the drug. Like millions of Ponce de Leons, they sought out a fountain of youth that was proven to exist and work sucessfully.

It’s difficult to fight a war when the enemy combatant cannot die. They can be blown to tiny, tiny pieces, effectively killing them, but literally ending their lives doesn’t work. Hungary learned this the hard way, as it invaded Slovenia on September 5, 2240 — 82 years ago today — in an effort to stop Hungarian citizens from leaving the country and entering Slovenia. The Slovenian armed forces had been on Damodrine for nearly two years when Hungary invaded. The Hungarian army managed to accidentally (or intentionally, depending on who you believe) kill more Hungarian refugees and their own soldiers in the conflict than Slovenian citizens or soldiers…by a count of 250,000 to 25.

As the majority of the world’s then-14.8 billion people had started a Damodrine regiment, the United Nations put forth laws surrounding use of Damodrine. If immortality was to be a reality, that was acceptable with nearly every nation in the world. It was also a reality to recognize that fertility rates would never be zero, and thus the world’s population would continue to grow. With the world fertility level hovering around 1.85 each year, it was determined that those in the oldest 10% of people alive in the world would be put into a lottery each year. At that lottery, 18% of the name in the lottery would be chosen. Those individuals would then begin a three week regiment of Andamodrine, ending their lives while still providing 21 days for them to tie up any loose ends. The remaining 82% of the names in the lottery would survive another year.

In addition, the UN added a small caveat to the Damodrine usage laws that prevented a small handful of known criminals, fascists, and those whose medical conditions had deteriorated to the point where Damodrine wouldn’t help improve quality of life from every procuring the drug. For the last group, it was a mercy killing. For the former two groups, it was a death sentence for their deviant and destructive ways.

The man in the hospital bed before me is one of those who cannot take Damodrine. Sort of.

His name is Christopher Mehmet. Mehmet was born April 26, 2199 in the American state of Angeles. His parents, Craig and Dawn, blended into the background of society by being lifelong teachers. Christopher was the second born of four children — a large family by the standards of the late 2100s and early 2200s. Christopher’s older brother, Daniel, was paralyzed as a child due to a freak accident where he slipped and fell down a flight of stairs. Christopher also had two younger sisters, Evi and Jessica, both of whom were nurses and both of whom were winners of the Andamodrine lottery in 2318. It’s rare that elder family members get the opportunity to pass on together in the way that Evi and Jessica did, so national governments try their best to recognize the occurrence.

As for Christopher, he grew up in a relatively nondescript manner. He graduated 119th out of 440 in his high school class, finished his undergraduate degree in business from Cal-Berkeley before receiving his MBA from the University of North Carolina. At the age of 29, he married Ana Castillo, a waitress from a restaurant near Christopher’s home in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Had Christopher Mehmet died before the age of thirty by some freak accident, there would be no mortal humans left alive. Prior to age thirty, his life was boring, much like mine. But because he continued living — and still does — he’s an example to the world and a thorn in my side.

Two days before Christopher’s 30th birthday, his manager and two other high ranking individuals at the company flew to Liverpool, England for a business trip. Christopher’s company, Soulivair, researched genetic economics — the study of how one’s DNA, culture, race, and other genetic factors impacted the socioeconomic status an individual was able to attain in the world. Soulivair’s business practices were suspicious at best, unethical at worst. This trip would be Christopher’s first foray into field research for Soulivair, though it most certainly wouldn’t be his last.

Field research at Soulivair typically involved a team of grunt employees abducting 6-10 randomly selected individuals from a town or region of the country being studied. These test subjects were stored in empty warehouses or other isolated locations that the subjects would never return from. Soulivair testers (a group ominously called human resource inspectors) would then complete hundreds of tests analyzing the DNA of those subjects while Soulivair’s electronic engineers (read: computer hackers) would dig up as much financial data as they could on the subject. Finally, this data would be synthesized by a results team (of which Christopher Mehmet was a part) in an effort to find what genetic traits went into the most economically successful human beings.

It’s presumed the end goal of Soulivair’s research was to create a master race of individuals that would run the planet in such a manner so as to make the planet as economically viable for themselves as possible. Soulivair would get shuttered in early 2241, just after the unrest in Hungary, but not before Christopher Mehmet went on to become one of the most heinous criminals in modern history.

In addition to his actions as a member of Soulivair’s results team, Christopher directly participated in the killing — resource disposal, as it was referred to by Soulivair — of over 150 test subjects. The International Court session on Soulivair was particularly appalled at Christopher’s decision to abduct his own wife, as well as their two year old daughter, Roslyn, for use as test subjects. Ana and Roslyn Mehmet’s bodies were eventually found the ruins of The Gnoll in Neath, Wales, presumed to be the site of one of Soulivair’s final abductions. Christopher Mehmet was also found to have bribed numerous officials in the American, British, French, Spanish, and Catalonian governments to look the other way for travel for all Soulivair employee activities in those nations.

With today being September 5, 2322, Christopher Mehmet is 123 years old. Prior to the invention of Damodrine, the average life expectancy here in the United States was 83 years, with a man expected to live 81 years and a woman expected to live 86 years. Even with advances in medical science over the last 80 years other than Damodrine, the typical nonimmortal would have been expected to live around 95 years (93 and 96 for men and women, respectively). Christopher Mehmet shouldn’t still be alive. I know that. He knows that. Everyone old enough to comprehend what Damodrine and Andamodrine do knows that.

I look up from my communicator to find that Christopher has opened his eyes fully and begun his tenuous process of sitting up. He locks eyes with me and addresses me the same way he has for the past eleven years, save for the three days per month I get to leave the hospital.

“Good morning, Judit,” he said, his voice gravelly and hoarse from the passage of time.

“Good late evening, Christopher,” I replied.

“Do we really have to do this every time? You’re waking up from your rest period. It’s morning for you. I sleep whenever my body tells me to.”

“It’s 9:50pm. I refuse to call this morning, regardless of when my mandated rest cycle falls.”

“Any updates?” he asked.

I look down at my communicator again, scrolling through the various messages I’ve received. Because of the nature of my position, I can only receive messages from people outside of the hospital during my rest cycle. There are minor exceptions made for emergency situations or Protocol Marta, however much of my communication with friends, family, coworkers, and my wife occurs in fragmented messages spread over the course of days.

There’s a video message from my brother telling me my cat is doing well. I save that one for later when Christopher is asleep. There are a handful of non-vital written messages from coworkers that I can handle whenever. There’s two video messages from my wife, Sara. I know better than to open those around Christopher. I’ve learned that nonimmortals can’t control their sex drive the way the rest of us can, and I can’t stand the way he lustily comments about Sara’s voice.

I reach the end of my list, looking back up at Christopher to give him the same update I’ve given him every day for eleven years.

“No updates,” I said solemnly.

“Perhaps another day then,” he replied.

I sigh and walk across the room to the small refrigerator on the opposite wall. I retrieve two cups of applesauce, opening one and placing it on a table by my lounging chair. I bring the second over to Christopher.

“Would you like to try this yourself today?” I asked quietly.

“You know that I want to,” he answered, “but I’m going to end up with half of it on me if I try.”

“Sorry. I just figured I’d offer.”

“You do every day. I appreciate it. At least someone here treats me like I’m human.”

I scoop a small spoonful of applesauce out of the cup and begin feeding it to Christopher. The nursing staff will be by in ten or so minutes to bathe him, change his sheets, and tend to his other needs. The 90 minutes or so that’ll take will give me time to walk around outside and remove the smell of death from my nose. There’s a quiet room on the first floor of the hospital that I can make a monitored call to Sara from, so long as I use the hospital’s line. Sara’s been very kind in knowing that she can’t ask about my job over the monitored line. I can imagine it’s very difficult to be married to the primary person responsible for keeping guard over the only nonimmortal and the most notorious criminal still alive. I should get her a present to thank her the next time I get home. I’m thinking daffodils.

“Do you think they’ll let me die someday?” Christopher asked, licking a dribble of applesauce off his lips.

“It’s likely it’ll come sometime,” I replied. “I don’t think the Tribunal Court would be keeping me here all day, nearly every day if they just planned to keep you alive indefinitely.”

“They could just give me the drug that Polish doctor made. Either one works. Either I live forever or I die tonight. Then you could go home.”

“I know.”

“I’m not a patient here. I’m a symbol. I don’t know how they keep me alive, but I know why. I’m the last remnant of the world they tried so hard to stamp out. Without an idea of what could happen if rules aren’t followed in place, what incentive does anyone have to follow the rules?”

Christopher (largely) wasn’t wrong. World governments did view him as a symbol. They kept him alive with just enough Damodrine in his system to stave off death, but not enough that he’d require Andamodrine to kill. The entire point to my being here was to enact Protocol Marta if world governments so chose to do so. Protocol Marta would end the life of Christopher Mehmet in reality, though his symbolism would live on. Governments would report his death in a slow, controlled manner, so as to allow their own infrastructure time to prepare in case of an uprising of immortals who wished to keep Christopher’s name live. No intelligence existing believed this to be the case, however the precautions were put into place for a reason, I’ve been told.

As I fed the last spoonful of applesauce to Christopher, a tall, blonde nurse came into the room. His name was Tobias, one of the regular nurses working on the floor.

“We’re here for Mr. Mehmet’s bath and other essential actions,” Tobias said.

“Thank you, Tobias,” I responded. “I shall return before 11:30pm as normal.”

“Thank you, Miss Judit.”

I grab my applesauce and my communicator and make my way out the door, shuffling around two other nurses coming into the room. I ride the elevator down to the first floor quiet room, entering and locking the door behind me. While no one ever knocks at the door, especially late at night, I just feel safer locking the door if I’m reading Sara’s messages. It’s the closest I can get to having privacy with her when we’re not together.

The quiet room is dark, save for a small window letting moonlight into the room and a wired phone on a table near the door. I could turn on a light, but I don’t. I’ve been in the room so many times I can tell you where everything is with my eyes closed. Immediately on the left when you enter the room is a small end table with the aforementioned phone on it. A light brown wooden rocking chair sits immediately to the table’s left, providing me with a place to sit while on the phone. A half-sized Murphy bed is folded out from the wall on the window-side wall, giving me a place to take some extra rest if I’m impatiently awaiting any sort of messages from the outside world. On the bed are three pillows, two of which I use for my head and one of which I place between my knees to help my back with the necessary side sleeping the bed dictates. Otherwise, the room is empty, beige walls and beige carpet aside, that is.

As I sat down in the rocking chair, I feel my communicator begin to vibrate. Looking down at the screen, I see five words staring back at me that I’d been both waiting to see and dreading to see for eleven years.

Activate Protocol Marta at midnight.

I sent back a quick and direct message to the sender, whoever he or she may be. There is a rotation of six people that man Protocol Marta at the Tribunal Court daily, though I’m the only one in the field.

Acknowledged. Will confirm when protocol is initiated.

I shuffled through my communicator messages staring blankly at them as they went by. I know I played the message from my brother and cat, though I couldn’t tell you what it said. Sara’s first message was simple and straight forward, talking about her love for me. Admittedly, my mood caused me to forget the words as soon as I heard them, even though the meaning stuck. Her second message was much more lewd, as was the usual when I’d been gone a while. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it at all, though that wasn’t Sara’s fault. She was everything to me.

My mind couldn’t stop racing, wondering why now was the time. I had sat in a hospital room with a dying, but not dying man for eleven years of my life. Why now? And why make me kill someone I’d developed a rapport with? While everyone else referred to him as Mr. Mehmet or just Mehmet, I called him Christopher. you can’t spend eleven years in the same room with someone and not end up on a first name basis with them, no matter how devious their past.

As time ticked by second by second, minute by minute, I thought about how I would deliver the news. In light of my position, there was a very formal reading I had to make when initiating Protocol Marta. But just saying that seemed unfair to a man whose life was about to end. Immortals are granted 21 days when they begin Andamodrine. Why shouldn’t Christopher be given some sort of closure? And once I’ve returned home, I can finally tell Sara the specifics of my job. How will she react to know that my classified job — on that she’s spent countless hours worrying about my well-being for despite not knowing my circumstances — was to essentially be guard duty for the most hated man in the world today?

I arrived back to Christopher’s room at 11:23pm, seven minutes before the time I stated to the nurses. As Tobias and company finished up their duties, I sat in my lounger, sipping on a cup of coffee I’d brought up from the cafeteria. As the aromatic steam invaded my nostrils, I considered what it would be like to sip on coffee for the final time. I too would die someday, likely via Andamodrine just the same as every other immortal. Due to the nature of the world around us, specifically the lottery, I can’t imagine it’d be any time soon. In the immediate future though, I hold the life of someone in my hands. What human would ever desire such a responsibility?

Christopher was asleep as the nurses left, so I let him rest until midnight hit. As my communicator hit 12:00am, I rose from my lounger and walked over to the side of his bed. I placed my hand on Christopher’s arm, rubbing it lightly until he awoke.

“It’s time, isn’t it?” Christopher asked.

I nodded and began to walk to the end of the bed. I face him, staring at his withered skin and bald head. Eleven years ago, Christopher still had a few strands of white hair wisping around his skull. Those are long gone.

“Christopher James Mehmet,” I began, “by the orders of the Tribunal Court, the United Nations, the United States of America, and the state of New Hampshire, I am hereby required to inform you that your life will be ending. You will be provided with an opportunity to speak any final words, have a final meal, and speak with either a member of your designated religious services group or a representative of the Tribunal Court regarding burial proceedings. You may choose to waive any or all of these amenities, though you are not required to waive any of them. Do you understand the information I have provided to you? If so, please affirm with the statement ‘yes, I understand’.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Do you wish to speak with a member of your designated religious services group or a representative of the Tribunal Court regarding burial proceedings?”

“I do not,” Christopher replied. “They may do with my body as they see fit.”

“Acknowledged. Do you wish to partake in a final meal?”

“I do not.”

“Acknowledged. Do you wish to make a final statement?”

“I do not.”

I sighed and took a deep breath.

“Before I finish this, Christopher,” I stated, “I want to thank you for not begrudging my presence as I’ve been here the last eleven years. I know it must have made you uncomfortable to have the physical manifestation of your impending death watching over you since even before I got here. But thank you for being personable all along.”

“Thank you,” Christopher replied. “Now you’ll get to go home and see Sara.”

“Yes. Yes I will.”

The air hung silent for a few moments after I spoke. It really was all finally coming to an end. I could go home. But not without first ending the life of a man who had committed terrible, inhuman crimes, all while still treating me kindly and with respect.

“I’m ready, Judit,” said Christopher.

Christopher closed his eyes and tried his best to drift off to sleep. As he did so, I removed a syringe with a sedative from my bag and inserted it into the lines running to Christopher’s body. It would take just a few seconds to make him fall asleep, then would come the next step.

I threw the syringe in the medical waste box, paying careful attention to not stick my hand near the opening. Back in my bag, I produced a second syringe, this one filled with a liquid that would end Christopher’s life. I inserted the syringe into the line, just as I had done before, emptied the vessel, then threw it away.

In the hospital lobby, a young man in a dark blue suit waited for me. He took my bag from me and escorted me to waiting transportation outside. The young man would be taking me to pick up Sara and our belongings, then moving us to a secure location on Svalbard, Norway, well away from everyone else in case all hell broke loose as a result of Protocol Marta. It was my reward for a job well done, they said. But to me, it felt like a job that never should have existed.