Unfinished Business

Stephanie
I open my front door and carefully step inside, trying not to wake anyone. But the floorboards betray me, creaking under my weight. I set my cleaning supplies down, take off my purse, lean my shoulder against the wall, taking off my flats. I lift my head and there stands Robin. I freeze, shoe in hand, leaning against the wall like an injured flamingo. How does he know every time I arrive? I sigh as he shuffles into the kitchen. At least I can buy him anything his heart desires. That was the best part of my childhood. I would give anything to make his childhood as good as mine. Always keeping up with trends, never eating alone, ah, the good old days.

Marcus
I’m lying awake in bed, lost in thought, when a whine from the front door snaps me out of it. She’s back. I would greet her but Robin is probably there, greeting her or getting her food from the fridge. He’s becoming a much better chef, but we should be taking care of him. Instead, Steph tries to do her part and mine, while Robin picks up the rest of my slack. Robin has never had a home cooked meal he didn’t cook, never had friends over, he’s never even slept well since I was paralyzed. I rarely get to talk to them anymore, they’re so busy doing my work. Out the window, my eyes glaze over my incomplete masterpiece. Supposed to be a place for making good memories, now it’ll just sit there insufficient, a constant reminder that I can’t do anything correctly.

Robin

The floorboards creak. I stir in my bed; she’s not fooling anyone. After 5 years you’d think she’d be stealthier. I check the time. 3:56. I roll out of bed, slide into my slippers and shuffle down the hallway. When I reach the living room, Mother freezes, slipping off her shoes. She looks at me, face full of shame and defeat. This no longer fazes me, I wished for her support but it never showed. She sighs as I shuffle into the kitchen to heat up the remnants of dinner.

Stephanie
A snapping noise suddenly rips me from my dreams. I look at Marcus lying to my right, still sleeping. I slide from under the blankets and stand up. I step around the bed dragging my feet, head hanging, rubbing my eyes as I open the door. Robin is in the living room, staring out the sliding glass door.

Maybe if I talk he’ll snap out of it, “What was that noise?”. In a few steps I’m standing next to him, he points to the backyard. I turn to see a power line hanging in the tree. I straighten up. We’re both focused. I hope it won’t hit the tree- but that bit of hope is crushed.

Robin
I accidentally drop the measuring cup. A cracking noise shudders through my bones. Why did the lights go out? I look around in the gloom, and out of the corner of my eye, I see something move in the backyard. I cautiously walk around the sofa, towards the sliding glass doors. A black rope hangs from one of the branches of the tree. It’s flailing around like a fish out of water. I see the end and understand why- it’s a power line.

Mother comes out of the bedroom, rubbing her eyes and dragging her feet “What was that noise?” I don’t know what to say so I just keep staring. When she reaches me I point. She becomes focused on the power line. It doesn’t take long for the inevitable to occur. The tree catches on fire. Mother goes into full panic mode, while trying to hide it.

Neither of us moves. “We have to go get Father, get everyone out, and call someone,” I say, voice trembling. We rush to the bedroom to see if we can perform the nearly impossible task of waking him up.

Marcus
I wake to screams beside me. The warmth of the sun glows through my eyelids. I slowly lift them, careful to let my eyes adjust to the sunlight. Something starts tugging on my right side below the waist, they’re probably moving my leg. It’s been a while since they’ve moved me – usually I slide out of bed myself. Regardless, I don’t want to get up, not after I finally fell asleep. Steph pulls my right arm around her shoulders and wraps her left around my back, so her hand lies on my ribs. I sit up completely, giving up on sleep.

Expecting to be disappointed by the sight of the unfinished tree-house, I look through the window. Instead, the tree is ablaze.

Now, I pay attention to the screams. “Hurry!” the voice comes from Steph, but it doesn’t sound like my wife. She’s never yelled like that.

She and Robin carefully place me in my wheelchair. Why? We’re in a hurry, we don’t have time to be gentle. I lift my legs, placing my feet on the footrests, and before I know it, Robin is pushing me through the darkness while Steph leads the way. Without me they could’ve escaped already.

Robin
Once outside, Mother calls 911. I turn to Father who is staring at the house, devoid of emotion. “Sorry we never finished the tree-house,” I say, staring at the house, trying to see what he sees.

I don’t see anything. “It was supposed to be a place to make memories.” He states flatly, “I’ll never forget this.” He hasn’t broken his gaze from the house, even the wind doesn’t dare touch him. I stare into the empty shell of a home, the fire burning bright behind it. It’s probably experiencing the warmest atmosphere it has felt in 5 years. I close my eyes, feel its heat, smell the smoke, hear the crackling of the wire as it flails.

Our household is going down in flames and I’m powerless against it.

Glass

As I woke up, I recalled from the previous night that we would be viewing open houses. After breakfast, My family and I piled into the car. My parents were considering moving to a more “prime” housing spot closer to work and school. Unbeknownst to me, that dark, fateful day was going to be ingrained in my memory forever.

Arriving in Palo Alto, we entered an elegant open house, and after my mom told me to “be a role model for your brother”, my little brother and I set off to investigate the home. The house was a very spacious and bright place with plenty of beautiful glass windows. I looked around some more and figured it would be a great place to play tag or hide and seek because of the plentiful rooms and vast square footage.

I initiated a quick game of tag with my brother. We joyously raced after each other around the house, through the numerous rooms, along hallways, and around the backyard.

I was completely unaware of the memories that would shroud this place in disturbing dreams I would have for many years to come.

With an explosive burst of speed, he tagged me and yelled, “You’re it!” before madly dashing away.

I chased after him, sprinting at full tilt from the bedroom, shooting down the hallway into another room. Rooms rushed past me in a blur. I was right behind him, poised to strike when he leaped and effectively dodged to the left.

I had barely realized he had slipped from my grasp when I had that scary, sinking gut feeling that something wasn’t right, and there was danger; I had that feeling just before something goes wrong. My heart stopped as I realized what was about to happen.

I felt the impact; I felt myself hitting the glass. The glass shattered in a deafening crash, and as I reflexively closed my eyes tightly, I could feel every shard scraping past me, turning against and cutting my skin. I suddenly felt a piercing pain in my leg, and then the thrum of agony came, overwhelming me. As I finally opened my eyes and looked down to assess my injuries, I was completely terrified as to what I would see. I was still in a state of disbelief about the whole incident. I saw the gash carved into my leg and gaped at it, my mind still attempting to grasp the truth, attempting to wrap itself around the fact that I had suffered an injury to dwarf any I had suffered in the past.

As I squinted through the pain, I watched in horror as glistening beads of blood formed on the shining, open wound, small flecks of glass glinting in the gash. Pulses of pain emanated from my wounds, throbbing intensely with every pulse of my now rapidly thudding heart.

Instead of the expected sharp pain of a cut, there was a surprisingly dull ache. It felt like I had merely fallen off of my bike into a bush with an intense, throbbing ache in my leg and sharp scratches all over my body.

Shell-shocked, I released a desperate cry for help as I limped toward my parents, part of my leg hanging limply. Fear was stalking me, threatening to pounce, but I pushed it to the side, determined to get help. As I began to run toward my parents, the flesh hanging from my leg flopped lifelessly, the adrenaline pressing away my pain.

My parents were speaking to the seller of the house. As they turned toward me, I could see them move in slow motion.

They froze, stopped cold at the sight of blood dripping from innumerable wounds. They just stood there, mouths agape, hoping what they were seeing was false. They scanned the cuts and scrapes in disbelief, so shocked by the turn of events that they were at a loss for words.

They suddenly seemed to snap from their trance and began scrambling to get some form of help, all while yelling for someone to dial 9-1-1.

The next hour felt like a rush; my mind was racing, but my body was unable to move. I had memories that were strange; they were warped, blurry and disjointed. “Put it on speaker!” “911, what is your emergency?” “Use a cloth to apply light pressure on the wound.” Sirens. The fire department arriving. “Oh man, it’s cut down to the bone.” Being lifted onto a stretcher. Going outside to see an ambulance sitting there. A dark, silent ride.

I was rolled into the emergency room and placed onto a hospital bed, an IV line attached to my arm. Painful shots of painkillers were administered to my open wounds, one after the other. The harsh, blinding fluorescent white lights of the emergency room glared into my eyes. All we could do then was to wait to see what would happen.

The recent happenings were just settling in. Earlier I didn’t have time to think. But now, as the adrenaline left my veins, the fact that I would have several permanent scars, the fact that I had experienced such an event at all, was beginning to surface in my mind.

As I thought back on that moment, my memories of that impact as the glass exploded around me, were strange. It was as if I had floated from my body and was merely calmly watching the scene unfold below me from a third-person perspective. Every shard of glass glinted as it flew past me, turning in the sunlight somehow supernaturally. Every shard of glass remains in my memory, lodged forever.

An eternity may have passed, or just a few seconds.

They put a gas mask on me, pumping anesthetic gases into my lungs as they began to work on my wounds and tie the gash closed with their needles and threads. I could feel the push and pull of every knot.

36 stitches. A scar to remind me for the rest of my life.

Where the Broken Ones Are

Voices surrounded Beatrix, cutting each other off, fighting for her attention. Her mask distorted her surroundings, the metal mesh fragmented her vision as she took shaky breaths to calm her nerves. The sides of the mask blocked off the rest of the convention center and directed her attention to her opponent a few yards away. Fencing is a game of chess where the winner is decided in a matter of seconds. You could win by being smarter, stronger, more aggressive, or more cunning. She stared at her reflection in the curve of her blade, ready to attack.

Beatrix remembered the first time she ever felt a sword in her hand. She had admired the swift motions the advanced fencers made, reminding her of ballet dancers. She would watch, captivated by the storyline of defeat, victory, and the beauty of a flawless fight choreographed to match the changing tempo and right-of-way. But planning your attack is not like planning a beautiful dance. It’s going to be ruthless. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to hurt if you lose. You can’t let any details escape your attention. Some like to hide their blade, others give away their attacks in their footwork, and others try to trick you into giving them easy points. If you slip up in some tiny way, it will cost you the bout. The more Beatrix practiced, the more fencing began to flow through her. She hoped her practice would be enough.

In fencing, everyone is ranked. Facing someone with better technical skills often intimidated Beatrix. Her current opponent was highly ranked in her category, whereas Beatrix was unrated and had only been fencing for a year. She lacked the experience to beat someone older than her. Beatrix knew she was fast enough to evade the attack of her opponent but lacked the skill to defend with her blade alone. Beatrix knew that she must find the courage within herself to not end the fight before it was over. She couldn’t let her fear get in the way. There had to be a different approach.

Beatrix had always been a very polite person, but sometimes she had been pushed around for her soft exterior. “Kindness will make me happy,” Beatrix would try to convince herself. But she was all too familiar with the twinge of anger that followed whenever she gave in. She wanted to take command, to change course, to empower herself with the determination of a hero. She wanted to re-invent what being a good person meant to her. Beatrix was confident that she would find a way to take control of her future. Beatrix continued to dream of one day becoming the hero in her fight for dignity, but at the moment, she found herself without a plan of attack.

Her mind filled with panic. She started to make mistakes. The footwork Beatrix had practiced perfectly in club bouts fell apart. Her parries were in the wrong position. Her opponent’s coach turned to her, “Don’t worry. You’ve already won. Look, she’s falling apart. At this point, all you need to do is not freak out like she is.” The stress came pounding in as a seething, smoldering rage that built within her. The audience watched as it built and built, with no way to let it out. Stinging words of doubt filled her mind and manipulated her thoughts. For every reason and no reason at all, she felt herself start to shake. The faces all around Beatrix twisted into expressions of confusion and what used to appear as cheers of support twisted in her mind until they mocked her. She could feel the sensation of the stress in her lungs, making her weaker. The air around her seemed to scorch her skin. She could feel her face heating up, burning like a flame. She felt like a ball of fire: smoldering, raging, burning. She was an out-of-control beast. Beatrix was losing, but not ready to surrender. Winning mustn’t always have to rely on being faster or stronger. As she continued to drown, Beatrix held onto her urge to fight.

Beatrix remembered her coach telling her about how to prepare to fence. Once you step onto the strip, you are on your own, and you must remember to be in control of the bout. You get to decide if you will attack or react. “Fencing is a jungle. The weak animals hideaway, but they are never the kings of the jungle. Some are the hunters, some are prey. The ruthless rise to the top, but it is always the choice of the weak to give in.”

Her opponent had chosen to be the hunter; to attack, to continue to push until she won. Beatrix could try to be a stronger hunter, to do the exact same thing, and hope to come out victorious. She could also just give up, to decide all her practice wasn’t worth it, to spare herself the grief, knowing she would lose anyway. She had seen this play out many times before. The predator relies on the prey to give up and to make mistakes. But there are more animals in the jungle. There are not just lions and rabbits, but also spiders, foxes, and snakes. Tricksters.

With her next breath, Beatrix swung her blade to expose her arm as a target, faking weakness and innocence. Her opponent lunged for her arm. She saw the glee in her opponent’s smile. In the blink of an eye, Beatrix parried and brought her blade down onto her stunned opponent’s mask. The scoreboard blinked green, awarding the point to Beatrix. She had taken control of the bout. She was no longer reacting to her opponent.

Beatrix had caught her opponent off guard. She used her opponent’s overconfidence to her advantage. The match meant more than just another number on the scoreboard. Beatrix had won the first battle in the fight to become who she wanted to be. She had beaten the lion as the fox.

Evolution’s Mistake

Henry Almsworth lay on his deathbed, his beloved daughter and siblings beside him. It was death, but it was nothing out of the ordinary, only a result of old age and cancer take its final toll. It was like the billions of deaths before it and the billions of deaths to come.

Henry awoke still lying on a bed. Lights on the white roof above him radiated into his eyes, surrounded by light blue walls. Couches rested around the side of walls, and a single TV sat in front of Henry. Raising his hands toward his face quickly, Henry accidentally hit the glass incubator he realized he was in. He noticed the glass around him was thin, so thin that he could hear the fan spinning above him with clear quality. Henry felt very much alive; everything felt very real, and he did not feel in the presence of omnipotence like he thought he would, as he was a devout Christian. Maybe the doctors revived him, Henry thought.

Abruptly, a thin man with thick glasses and a white lab coat walked into the room. He had a tall build, his head almost bumping into the doorframe.

“Am I dead?” Henry asked. When he looked at his hand, he saw wrinkles on it just like before, but they were different. They crossed at different points, arched at different angles as they belonged to somebody else.

The doctor looked at him curiously.

“Hello?”

Flustered, Henry pressed the doctor. “Who are you?”

“I am C6.”

“That’s not a name!”

“Names and identity are the things that you people had. People here have no identity, just numbers and letters to make things easier, like a license plate.”

“Here?”

“You are on Earth, but not the one you think we are on. The world, or ‘Earth,’ you and your people lived in for around 73 years, was a simulation created by scientists. You may feel shocked, but I believe once you get your memories back you will be at peace with the truth.”

Henry could barely think right now. The only thing he remembered at this moment was the doctor’s first sentence. “My people? You mean me, and everybody else?”

“They were the people around you. Your mother, father, siblings, daughter, and everybody else.”

“My family, my daughter …. all simulated?”

“Yes. But do not worry about them, because the feeling of human connection will soon fade, for you no longer have our artificial amygdala.” The doctor motioned to an unplugged wire lying next to Henry’s head. “They will be nothing but a fleeting thought.”

“Why – why do all this!?” Henry asked, too shocked to react.

“A while ago, the amygdala of our brains, the part that processes emotions, started developing in humans. As a result, people started having individuality, and there was chaos around our world. Scientists quickly created drugs to solve this, but researchers like us wondered if, in the long run, a developed amygdala would be beneficial, and if we were right to stop it. As a result, this study was created. It was meant to discover what a completely developed amygdala would have on us, by simulating a world where everyone had one. We monitored your brain, saw what you saw, learned what you learned, and we have concluded that fully developed emotions would be disas-”

“Where is my family now?”

“They never existed.”

“You killed them!” Henry kicked and struggled. The doctor flipped a switch, and clasps held on to Henry’s limbs, strapping him until he was unmovable. The doctor walked away, and tears started rolling down Henry’s face, seeping down his neck and onto the clasp that held it.

He didn’t remember how much time had passed when he stopped feeling despair. Maybe it was hours or days, or longer… But when Henry stopped, he tried to remember what he felt so much for. A family, a daughter. He knew they were important because of something, but he didn’t remember why anymore. For days he tried, but when he thought about them, it felt like his mind was grabbing onto fleeting vestiges.

One day, the doctor appeared in his room again. “It has been a week or so. Strong emotions like love are almost nonexistent, but you will still feel simple ones, like anger.”

Love. Henry grasped it now, feeling the sorrow he felt before. He realized the doctor was wrong because he could still feel love. But he sensed how far away it was, and realized that this moment could be his last thought of it, as it was swiftly fading away. “So you people do not have emotions right?”

“Correct.” Suddenly, Henry felt immense anger when the doctor said that, angry that they were not able to understand what made him human, to completely disregard it.

“So you are not able to feel anything.” Henry seethed, shaking now. “I feel bad. You do not understand love or happiness, and you would not even if I spent years explaining it to you. Without your humanity, you humans are no more important than a resting rock, an inanimate ob-”

The doctor pressed a button, and Henry’s jaw was clamped shut.

“The subject has no more use for our species, he’s mentally unstable,” a man said as he strolled into the room, he had an intimidating build and thick eyebrows. A gas started filling his incubator, choking Henry. “C6, what do you conclude?”

The doctor sighed. “The effect of the amygdala on Mr. Almsworth was startling, even after we unplugged the artificial lobe. You and I already know how torn down the simulation world is, with the selfish and powerful people rising to the top, forcing the weak to the bottom. They are cursed with the ability to think for themselves instead of for their whole, to think emotionally rather than practically, and that will lead them to their inevitable doom. We are lucky humans never had emotions, to begin with. They were nothing further from evolution’s biggest mistake.”

The Legend of the Single Digit Creatures

At a time far in the future, when animals once again roamed the Earth, there was a family of marmoset monkeys who lived happily in the canopy of a lush rainforest. Papa and Mama Marmoset were proud of their growing infants. They had taught Mark and Malia how to deftly dig up edible insects, skillfully sniff out luscious flowers, and nimbly clamber up towering trees to find mouth-watering fruits. However, Mark was not as industrious as his sister. Often too lazy to climb a tree, he would settle for snacking on insect larvae which, while chock full with protein, did not provide the variety of nutrients he needed to grow strong.

One morning, following a torrential rainstorm which had howled like an angry pack of wolves all night, the Marmoset family awoke very hungry. However, as they started foraging for their breakfast, they found the rain had transformed the jungle floor to a lake as muddy as a day-old coffee. Finding their usual cornucopia of insects and flowers washed away, Malia scampered undeterred to the top of a gangly tree to find fruit, but Mark sat listlessly below.

“Why don’t you go get fresh fruit in the tree?” prodded Mama.

“Too much work,” Mark responded lackadaisically. “Why bother if I can just eat insects crawling around?”

Mama sighed loudly. Papa gave her a knowing wink and then announced, “Well, Mark, I have a story that may change your mind. Let me tell you and Malia ‘The Legend of the Single Digit Creature’.”

But even as he said the title, Mama groaned. “Everyone knows that story is not true, Papa!” she challenged. “One digit can never be that important.”

“Of course it’s true! My great-great-great-great-grandfather was alive back then and passed this story down through my family!” Papa argued indignantly. “Listen carefully and you will learn how a single digit was responsible for both the meteoric rise and tragic downfall of an entire species.”

Malia sat down obediently next to Mark in front of Papa, but Mama harrumphed and turned her back away slightly in subtle protest. Papa ignored her and began his mysterious tale. “A long time ago there was a type of animal that had a very special digit.”

Immediately, Malia interrupted, “What’s a digit?”

“See our four beautiful paws? Each has five digits! These creatures also had five digits on each paw, but on their front paws they had a very special digit called a ‘thumb’ which could bend so oddly that it could touch the tip of the four other digits!”

“EWWW!” cried Malia as she tried to contort her paw into such a structure. “Too strange, Papa! I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true! Because of their special thumbs they could grasp things. But instead of using this ability to climb higher up a tree they invented a…,” paused Papa for theatrical effect, “…thumb machine!”

The kids sat with their mouths agape, as open as a lion about to roar. But Mama only shook her head and muttered, “Thumb machine, haha, Papa, maybe you should call it a ‘dumb’ machine after this dumb story.”

“Now, Mama, let me tell the whole story,” continued Papa, relishing the attention. “These creatures started walking on their back paws so they could use their thumbs to do other things. Instead of adroit quadrupeds they became sluggish bipeds. Then many of them stopped using even their back paws! Instead of walking they spent their days in rolling machines, using their thumbs to steer, as they zoomed everywhere as impatient as wildebeest on migration! They also stopped eating fresh food and just ate convenient food,” elaborated Papa, catching Mark’s eyes before continuing. “This was often less nutritious, processed food. Many of these creatures became so fat it was hard for them to bend over.”

With this sentence, Mark and Malia started giggling. “This story is too much, Papa!” snorted Mark, chiming in for the first time. “What sort of stupid creature would stop eating delicious fruit that grows naturally? Why would it roll around when it could walk? Wouldn’t evolution select against it getting so big that it could no longer escape its enemies?”

“Excellent thinking, Mark,” agreed Papa, his complement enveloping Mark like a hug. “But these creatures had no predators. Their only enemies were themselves. It was no longer about survival of the fittest, but instead all about convenience. And this led to their doom. They spent all day using their thumb machines: to work, to socialize, to order delivered food. This is why they are remembered as the ‘Single Digit Creatures’.”

Papa gazed calculatedly at his captive audience before continuing. “It was their habits which destroyed the environment: temperatures rose, unpredictable fires charred our jungles, and tsunamis flooded our coasts. Finally, pollution from the rolling machines choked oxygen levels until they were mortally low. Every foot higher off the ground had 10% less oxygen, so a six foot tall biped had half as much oxygen as a quadruped one foot off the ground. Upright, these bipeds no longer had enough oxygen to breathe. And, unable to spend all day on all fours, they began to die off, one by one, like overripe fruits dropping from a tree.”

The entire family sat in stunned silence. Finally, Mark looked up with tears in his eyes and asked, “What happened after that, Papa?”

“Well, after the Single Digit Creatures went extinct, it took a very long time to reverse all their damage to Earth. But eventually oxygen levels rose again and the catastrophic weather relented. Surviving quadrupeds like us began to thrive again.”

Mark sat solemnly for a moment gazing up at the trees. The dangling fruit now seemed to sparkle in the sunlight, like bundles of jewels tempting his appetite, and his mouth began to water. His eyes brightened and he grabbed his sister’s paw. “Malia, I’ll race you to the top of that fruit tree!”

And as their two dashed off, Mama smiled and reciprocated Papa’s knowing wink. “Great story, Papa.”

Sibyl in the Attic

“Will you write me a story, miss?”
I nod, reaching for a fresh sheet of paper—a fresh fate. “In exchange, will you tell me about the soldier’s life when you return?”
“I’d be glad to. Thank you, miss. Please write a story where my friends and I all come home safely, and the war ends quickly like they say it will, and my sweetheart is still waiting when I return.”
“Her name?”
“Elaine, miss. She’s the one who told me about you.”
I smile at him knowingly, “Your friends all told me you wouldn’t come. They said you don’t believe in my prophecies.”
The young soldier grins. “Who am I to say your stories can’t change the future?”
Chuckling, I say, “Very well. You will have your story. Now go. I have much to write.”
~
For twelve days and nights I work in my attic, erasing sad futures and rewriting them until they are almost glorious. On the thirteenth day, I breathe again. All of my soldiers are saved. Carefully, I bind each story with leather and string, leaving empty pages for their lives after the war.
From my window I summon a boy to deliver them. I cannot do it myself: the walls of the attic are the limits of my power. When the boy returns, he brings my soldiers’ regards. They are to be shipped off tonight.
A year passes before another person ventures into my attic. I gesture for her to come closer. “You’re the one who convinced him I was real, aren’t you?”
Elaine nods slightly, and I wait as her thoughts solidify into words. “Miss, I know I shouldn’t be afraid. I know it’s foolish of me. He survives in your story so I know he’ll return but… Please, will you help me write a letter to him? Most of us girls can’t write very well, and I know hearing from them would put us at peace. Please, miss! Only your letters can reach them now.”
“Of course.”
~
The next day, it’s as if every woman in town has congregated in my attic. They bring kindling for my fireplace which I’d never used before, and cookies which we nibble on in between letters, and wine which we drink straight from the bottle. They give me their emotions raw and unedited, and I translate them for the men on the other side of the sea.
From then on, the women make a ritual of coming to my attic once the sun is down. There’s a war being fought in this town as well, but together, each woman becomes something far larger than herself.
At the end of the month the women bring their reply letters—unopened—to me. As I read, we cry and we laugh and we drink because our soldiers are safe. These women teach me how to love and I teach them how to write, but somehow it seems like loving and writing are actually the same thing.
~
The war ends. Exactly as I prophesied. Although they refuse, I insist my friends await their soldiers without me. They promise to visit like they always do.
But dusk falls and it’s only me in my attic. Anxious, I peer out of my window to see Elaine. She enters, and immediately I know something is incredibly wrong. “Where’s Charlie? He’s come back, hasn’t he? Talk to me, Elaine!”
She looks away and I fall back into my old, wooden chair. “It can’t be. I don’t understand! I wrote in my story that he would survive and— Wait. What about everybody else? Has everybody else come home safely?”
Looking around the empty attic, I answer my own question. My grief grows too heavy for my body to bear, and as I fall, I realize words are useless. My words—they couldn’t save those soldiers. They couldn’t save anything. Because at the end of the day, words are just etchings on paper. Words are meaningless.
~
I open my eyes and wonder if I’m seeing ghosts. Standing worriedly around me are my soldiers—some missing limbs, some missing eyes, some missing altogether. “Are you alright, miss?” one of them asks, and finally, I start to cry.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I promised you would all return to your families safe and sound but—! Charlie was right after all. My stories can’t change the future. My stories lied to you!”
Before I can say anymore, Elaine wraps her arms around me, her tears diffusing their warmth into my skin. “No… Don’t say that, dear. All you ever wanted was to help us. Look at this. It’s Charlie’s.”
She presses a familiar leather-bound book into my hands, opened to the empty pages I left at the end. They’re no longer empty.

When everyone started asking the sibyl for stories, I thought they were fools. We were heading off to war, and no legend could save us from our fate. Elaine’s why I requested one… and perhaps, I was also desperate for a tiny sliver of hope.
The battlefield is hell because it isn’t just men dying from bullet wounds. It’s men dying because they’ve forgotten why they wake up in the morning. After a while, the earth shakes beneath your feet even when you’re not under fire. It was on the worst night that Dan suggested we read the story the sibyl wrote for us.
It was too good to be true. From the beginning until the end I knew but something about her story moved me. The other boys felt it too. And we realized we couldn’t give up on “the town which sung us lullabies until we fell asleep” and “the people whose love was more nourishing than food.” When we read her story, the earth stops trembling and becomes almost kind. Now, long after the rest have surrendered, we’re still fighting.
The sibyl’s stories give us hope. And that’s enough.

I rise, taking up my pen once more. Words are etchings on people’s hearts.

Where the Mirror Takes You

The Mirror takes you to its First World; it’s filled with shadows that share your face, but theirs are prettier, reflect your body but theirs seem more proportionate and echo your soul but theirs shine brighter. On days where people’s voices are ringing too loudly in your mind, your cheeks seem too puffy, and your wrists too weak. The Mirror takes you to a fragile world, like the glass you are looking at or your trembling heart. There is water in this world like the one beyond the Mirror. The storm clouds collect in your eyes and pour down your cheeks. Rivers glide through their beds using your skin as their pillows.
The air is suffocating and pushes down soft words of comfort before they can fight past the lump in your throat. Your eyes burn even though there is no light in this world to blind you.
Curiosity for what might lie beyond this dark place draws you further in, except it seems endless and you begin to see with increasing clarity that you don’t belong here. This world is only natural; you are the thing that is unnatural, the thing that stands out from the rest.
Your soul begins to fragment, like your broken reflection staring back at you in shards around your feet. You can feel yourself breaking like your fist had broken the Mirror; your heart shatters first and your soul slowly fragments with it. The marks can be hidden but will never disappear. The shadows that exist without light will taunt you, the acid rain that flows from your eyes will burn you, and the air that chokes the breath out of your lungs will silence you. This world can’t hurt as much as the cuts and scrapes that linger on your soul.
All it takes is a single blink or a call of your name to escape the darkness, but perhaps the singular strength of this world hidden within the Mirror is that its memory can’t be broken.

The Mirror takes you to its Second World, where you look into the smooth glass and your face stares back. Your legs are a little sore from walking, but is that not what they were made for? Your hands ache from writing but how else would you use them? Your body helps you do amazing things and every part has its purpose, but you wonder why your jawline needs to be so soft, why your eyes need to be so small or your nose so big. You wonder whether your face was made for looking at.
Your hands can produce works of art; beautiful pieces that would belong in galleries, unlike its creator. Your legs can take you places you never thought you could go, yet you can’t help but wonder if perhaps they could look a little more pleasing while doing so.

There are some days when you decide to try new things and the Mirror falls away to darkness, but these days, you are not afraid. Neither the shadows of the First World nor the imperfections of the Second World can plague your mind as you stare into the Mirror, waiting to see where it takes you, what it shows you.
At first, you only see a pair of eyes that look like your own, but rather than black holes of despair or disgust, you see a brightness that gazes back, content. The Mirror’s Third World shows you the stars that shimmer in your eyes.
The Mirror shows you a palette of blues, blacks, and purples that light up like your face when you smile. In the Third World, you discover that every blemish on your skin is just another glittering constellation waiting to be born. You find yourself in your own galaxy, a solar system that is as beautiful as you.
The stars twinkle happily. They brush back your hair as you float alongside them, whispering gentle words that warm your heart and heal your soul: your hair looks nice today, your face was made just for you, we think you look amazing, you are beautiful…
The stars are infinite, and you can’t help but retreat into the dark black hole of misery and mediocrity, of merely being a single star in a vast ocean of many.
But the stars remind you that your constellation will always be incomplete if a star disappeared from its place, that within every star there is a unique universe of history and love, and that every star shines brightly in a way special to them.
When you look into the Mirror on days when you feel invincible, it takes you to this enchanting world that reflects the words of love and praise that glow in your mind.

There are days when you feel unnatural in your skin, there are days when you feel your body was not made for you, and there are days when you look at your face and feel empowered. The Mirror has been both your worst enemy and your greatest friend. It has taken you to worlds in which you are hurt and worlds in which you are loved.
You still rely on the Mirror to show you what you can’t see on your own: the knot in your hair, the food in your teeth, or the stain on your skin. The Mirror reveals different parts of your mind, soul, and heart; the parts that alternate in strength on days when the world is cold or days when the world is kind. The Mirror unveils parts of you invisible to the naked eye, parts that seem too intimate to be able to escape the looking glass but somehow bleed into your everyday actions. You’re too aggressive when you close the door, too emotional when you try to explain your perspective, too affectionate when you try to show people that you care. Yet your laugh can be harmonic, your actions can be significant, and your smile can light up a constellation on its own.

A Leap of Faith

I gazed at the dusty street ahead as I headed home with Tomas. We still had too far to walk until we reached my building, and the exhaustion from our work was taking its toll on us. The only thing that kept me from collapsing was knowing Tomas was next to me, holding my hand. I looked at him, with his chocolate brown eyes and the purple-blue smudges beneath them, his hair in complete disarray, as always. I leaned into him for the rest of our walk home, letting him support me as I slowly inched closer to sleep. Once we reached my doorstep, he kissed me goodnight tenderly and promised to walk with me and Natasha to work tomorrow morning. As he did every night. When I entered my family’s tenement room, I could barely shoo off Natasha from asking me questions about Tomas and eat my dinner before collapsing onto the cushions I used in the kitchen to sleep on.
The next morning, I woke up to the pitch-blackness of my family’s apartment, along with the stench of sewage coming from the windows off of the air shaft. I could hear my family getting ready to go about their day, but Natasha was still sleeping beside me. I gently woke her, wondering how she managed to stay asleep while my parents dressed and made breakfast because it was beyond me. I ate my meager portion of food and dressed in my ragged, old clothes as quickly as I could to be on time for work. Natasha and I raced out of our tenement just in time to be greeted by a smiling Tomas. He appeared exceedingly happy today, as though he had some type of plan that I knew not of. He gave Natasha a glance, sending her off towards work without us. As I looked at Tomas inquisitively, he bent down on one knee, pulling something out of his pocket.
“Alisa, will you marry me?”
I thought I was hallucinating, but Tomas was still there, blushing furiously and looking at me expectantly. “Yes!” I screamed as I ran to him and kissed him. Tomas slipped the ring onto my finger, and we walked hand in hand to the factory for work, smiles from ear to ear spread across our faces.
The day at the Triangle Factory passed as any typical day would: basting countless shirtwaists together and sending them up to the floor above us. Usually, the monotony of sewing hundreds of garments in an hour got to me, but not today. I was giddy with joy, and whenever I reached for a new piece of fabric to baste, I gazed over to where Tomas was working. The girls sitting next to me whispered their congratulations to me once they saw my ring, but I could say nothing, thanks to the supervisor staring at us with her hawk-like eyes. Had we uttered one more word, she would have harassed us and potentially cut our salary for today in half.
As the day slowly dragged to a close, beads of sweat rolled down my neck and my cheeks began to flush from the heat. It seemed slightly odd to me, as normally it was freezing in the factory. I should have taken it as a sign that something was off. A few minutes passed before any doubts I had that nothing was wrong were destroyed.
“Fire! Fire! Everyone get out!” Our heads snapped up immediately. As one of the lucky few with a station at the end of a row, I reached the door closest to me earlier than the other workers. I tried the handle and yanked as hard as I could. The door was locked. Surrounded by the heat of the other bodies, I shoved my way from the door, shouting that it was closed, but no one heard. The flames were coming up faster now, and they had already advanced through the other set of stairs and the elevator. There was only one way out, and I looked straight at it. My heart soared with relief, yet also fear, as I saw Tomas helping people out the window. As fast as physically possible, I moved to him.
“Tomas!” He scanned the crowd of people, eventually locating me. His expression was of pure terror. I reached him, and he grabbed my hand, helping me to the frame of the window.
“What are you doing here, Alisa? Why did you not escape?” I did not answer as Tomas helped me to the edge of the window. It took little thought to decide whether I wanted my fate to be chosen by the fire or by the ground. Slow and painful or instantaneous, the option was simple. I did not want my family to have to search among the burned for me, looking at corpse after corpse that I could already see piling up by the doors. I would not cause them that burden. I wobbled as I stepped out onto the sill. It was too narrow for a bird to safely stand on, let alone two people. The ground looked so cold and unwelcoming, but it would have to suffice.
Somewhere nearby, Natasha sobbed desperately, crying out for me. “Alisa! Alisa, where are you?” I turned towards her screams, tilting dangerously close to the empty air below me. They were coming from another window, invisible to me, as I was to her. Her screams ceased as I heard a sickening smack against the pavement. I never had to look to Natasha to picture the brokenness of her limbs, lying in disarray around her fragile body, her always perfect hair now splayed out in all directions. I felt myself shiver as I turned back towards Tomas. Bodies flew around us, dozens, if not more, by the minute. He kissed me, told me he loved me, and let me go. I looked up at him, staring at the beautiful face I would never see again.

“I love you too”.

The Empire’s Last Story

And when the final blow had been dealt, and the Emperor’s Butcher lay at my feet, in the wreckage of the old Empire capital, she looked up at me, blood staining her mocha skin, and whispered, “Do you want to know why?”

It was just us, on that ancient, haunted planet, at the far end of the galaxy, and in that moment, we were the only ones in the universe. The sky was quiet, the shadows were long, and my mission was complete. I could simply have left, and collected my reward.

And yet I had to know.

She saw it in my face, and a thin smile crossed her lips, even as she bled out. After all the legends I’d heard, a simple stomach strike had ended her. Was this really who’d brought down the Empire? The assassin who’d turned against the regime she’d served, consumed with a mysterious rage that wasn’t satiated with its downfall? For decades, she’d lurked among these ruins, slaughtering whoever dared come close. When I’d arrived, her anger was as hot as ever, but now, crumpled on the cold metal floor, she seemed so old.

And yet I had to know. And with her remaining strength, she told me her story.

She told me of her years serving under Emperor Zekos, as his personal soldier. It was her job to keep order in an Empire that was slowly falling apart. For years, she committed acts of unspeakable cruelty, carving a bloody legend throughout the galaxy.

“And I felt nothing,” she murmured. “Even now, I don’t. I did my job.” And she might still be doing that job with cold efficiency if, one night, her starspeeder had not blown an engine on a flight through the Tasken sector.

“Imagine it.” She laughs quietly. “What an end to the Emperor’s Butcher – a fiery spiral in the skies of Graestis. That would have been rich.”

But instead of a glorious death, the crashing starspeeder plummeted through the atmosphere of Planet 8.1b, and wrecked in the snows of its endless forest. What happened next, the Butcher could not say. Even she could not withstand such a wreck without falling unconscious.

And then she woke, bandaged and woozy, in a wooden hut lit only by candlelight, wrapped in furs from a creature that she couldn’t recognize. Across from her, asleep in a chair, was a man she did not know.

“And then he was awake,” she whispered, and then she was quiet, and I thought maybe she had succumbed to her wounds. But soon her voice returned. “His name was Koyla.”

Koyla was tall and quiet, and lived alone in the forest of Graestis, the name that he called Planet 8.1b. His homeworld was situated so far from the rest of civilization, that it had not been explored for many a decade, and the galaxy had lost track of its inhabitants. Koyla was one inhabitant, and likewise, he knew very little of the outside world. Thus, when he had tracked the crashing starspeeder, and found a young woman entangled in the wreckage, he did not realize who she was. So he thought nothing of pulling her free, and nursing her back to health in his home.

“I was there for two months, maybe three.” She had closed her eyes now, letting the memories wash over her. “And when I left, I was not the same.”

There, slowly regaining her strength, the Emperor’s Butcher watched as the snow melted, and the first flowers of Graestis’s spring blossomed to life. She felt the rain on her cheek. And she listened to Koyla as he sat by the fire with her, singing the songs of his ancestors.

“His eyes shone with such passion,” she whispered. “I still remember every song. Was it any wonder that I fell in love?”

She did not tell him her history. He did not ask. He had loved her since he’d set eyes on her, and to him, that was all that mattered. He wanted only to show her the joys of his life, to make her smile, as she so rarely did. It was affection that she wasn’t used to, and as she repaired her starspeeder, she felt an ache grow within her. That day, when she prepared to leave, Koyla caught her around the waist, pressed his mouth to hers, and begged her to stay. “I’ll come back,” she whispered, her hands curled in his golden hair. “I promise.”

“And I did,” she told me, bitterly quiet. “Whenever I could get away. I was a fool.”

For love is a hard thing to hide, and the change that had come over the Emperor’s Butcher was all too obvious. It was so simple to track her to and from the Taskin sector every few months, for love makes even experts careless. With hindsight, the ending was obvious.

Yet how shockingly terrifying it must have been, returning to Graestis that winter night, to a forest consumed by fire. Choking on black smoke, stumbling through the flames, sobbing desperate prayers to dead gods, the burns on her palms were nothing to the stabbing pain in her heart. There, helpless and raw with grief and rage, she swore an oath to the silent sky.

“They took the only peace I ever had,” she whispers, her eyes opening, burning with that old anger. “I had no other option. I killed them all.”

And she did, sending an Empire that had meddled with something it could not control to its bitter, bloody end. Yet the anger that burned in her soul wasn’t quelled with its destruction. Until now, bleeding out on the capital floor, it had ruled her, sending her after any who dared cross her path.

“So now you know,” she said, and her eyes closed again. “Don’t pity me, fool, I don’t deserve it. I’ve been waiting years to die.”

So I left her there, the last fragment of the Empire’s bloodsoaked reign. Alone. And resting at last.

Bridge

Lynn practiced. Practice makes perfect. That’s what Lynn was told and what she believed. She listened to Coach’s feedback and pushed her limits to improve. She had to make a good practice today. She felt thirsty, but it could wait.

Make strong movements and lower stances.

Lynn stopped. The class had ended, and she needed to leave to finish her homework. But all she wanted was some water. She tried to remember when she last drank water, but her vision became blurry.

I need water.

Lynn stumbled. All the voices around her started to echo. The yellow lights were too bright. She couldn’t see well, so she shut her eyes tight in hopes that her vision would be back to normal when she opened them.

Lynn! Open your eyes! Don’t fall asleep!

Lynn fell. She couldn’t stand anymore. Her knees gave away, and her hip hit the floor followed by her head. But somehow, she didn’t feel connected to her body. She felt an out-of-body experience. Then she understood what had happened. She was standing, but her body lay on the floor.

What is happening?

Lynn saw it. She saw a body, lying on the ground, with its eyes closed and sweat drops covering the face. No. It can’t be. It can’t be her. But it was.

It’s ok. I’ll be awake in no time.

Lynn tried. She tried to get back into her body. She tried to run into it, hoping that she will come back to her senses. Her attempts showed no effects on her lifeless body. She sat on the ground and sobbed into her arms.

No. This can’t be happening. I am not ready to die yet.

Lynn noticed something. The clock, the hands were not moving. She looked around at the people. They weren’t moving either. Everything was frozen in time. She stopped crying.

Huh. This probably means something.

Lynn craved to hear a voice. Bridge’s voice. Bridge was a petite woman who had a bold voice and many loyal followers. She was the fashionable, popular, outgoing type of student, one that people would never suspect had any serious life problems. But Lynn knew that there were problems. Bridge had issues within her family, like her parents divorcing all of a sudden.

I should have been there for her and given her hope.

Lynn remembered. Last month, her friend had revealed a terrible secret. A secret that no one should keep to themselves. Her best friend, Bridge, had mentioned how her dad had neglected her after the divorce. Bridge had made many special memories with her dad, and to see that he never treasured them had made her question her existence. Bridge had talked about how no one cared for her, but she had told her that she did care. But who knew Bridge wouldn’t believe that? She had seen a cut on Bridge’s wrist but didn’t think much of it.

That was the biggest mistake I have ever made.

Lynn should have done something then. She should have looked her best friend in the eye and sincerely said, “I care about you. You matter to me.” But like others, she thought that Bridge would push the problems away and become her happy self again. She decided that her minor problems were more important.

I still don’t forgive myself for becoming a selfish monster.

Lynn heard something. “Stop”. It was a familiar voice. Too familiar to ignore.
“Bridge!”, she screamed,” Where are you?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
“Oh.”
“Anyways, it’s not your fault. And don’t you dare think about it.”
“Think about what?”
“You know what I am talking about.”
Lynn thought for a moment. Then she nodded.
“Yes. Yes, I know what you are talking about.”

Maybe she is right. Maybe it is time to start a new chapter.

Lynn rummaged through her memories after what happened last month. After the day she saw Bridge break down, she woke up to hear the news from her parents. Bridge was gone. And now, there was nothing she could do. In the next few days, she had to get counseling, but that didn’t help her much. It let her have a break from school, but the smile on Bridge’s face had still lingered on her mind.

Why did I think of ending it there like Bridge?

Lynn felt ashamed. She had turned a blind eye towards her friend’s problems, and now, she felt guilty about it and wanted to end it so she didn’t have to deal with another day without her best friend.

It is selfish enough to ignore someone’s problems when they put their faith in you. It is even more selfish to end your life because you want them back.

Lynn was strong. At least that’s what she told herself. Until she started searching up things like “why do I feel like I am the reason my friend committed suicide” and “why do I want to end my life after a friend did so”. She began to feel as if she killed her closest friend, and decided to join Bridge by jumping off the bridge.

How ironic.

Lynn knew what she had to do. She had to give herself hope. She had to tell herself that she could deal with these things because when you hit rock bottom, there is only one place to go – up. She took a deep breath.

I can do this. I can make it back into my body.

Lynn sensed it. She could feel a connection to her body. She was doing it. With her eyes closed, she let her body suck her back into it. She was over it. Her mind was free.

I have to step out of my comfort zone. I have to make friends. I have to do this. For Bridge.

Lynn was thankful. She was thankful for her best friend. Bridge had helped Lynn bridge two worlds together – Lynn’s island and a world filled with hope.

Thank you, Bridge.