Writer's Wednesday!

Apocalypse 5–The Choosing

“[He was a] tiger at the zoo, throwing [his] lean body against [the] shackles….”

Chains. Biting into his skin like venomous snakes. Rubbing the flesh raw. Rattling a persistent reminder that he was doomed. A caged animal. Doomed to die. A tiger at the zoo, throwing its lean body against its shackles, baking under a hot sun and the mockery of the people. Unable to run free. Unable to love and be loved. What worse fate was there?

It had taken only a moment to sink in: the reality of his existence was painful, hot shards of glass piercing his skull, a throbbing redness boiling his blood. The world was this, and only this, unorganized elements in this catastrophe of human life:

Strangers.

Surrounded by them. These people. Revolting. Smeared in their own feces, criss-crossed with scars, a patchwork of torture that seemed to never end. Dead eyes. Crude gazes. A disgusting distortion of human intelligence, boring into him, blind eyes that saw nothing and everything all at once. How was it that such shells of people could send such a message? Each and every bloodshot, glistening orb said the same thing: you’re going to die.  

It had been an hour since Jax woke up in chains. 

But as much as it hurt to wake up in chains, it was worse to watch Ash return to the world. She gasped to life. Squirming. Burning. A bundle of sweaty clothes and clinking shackles. 

She used the first breath she drew for a scream.

No. Not a scream.

An earth shaking.

Gut wrenching.

Blood curdling shriek

Her eyes were wild, inspecting her arms, the backs of her hands, her palms. Roving over the pink skin. Searching. What? What was she looking for? Jax wished he didn’t know. He wished he had to ask her. He wished he could indulge himself in curiosity, a brief release from the terror. But he already knew what she was looking for. 

She was looking for a brand, a crudely marked scar. She was looking for the mark of an Original’s wife, a mark that would ensnare her forever as a slave. Her skin was unmarked.

“Ash!” he whispered. She looked up from her flesh. There was no relief in her eyes that she hadn’t been marked. No glint of hope, the kind he was sure was still inside him. Just a dead-eyed certainty that her fate was decided. That she was fated for the same destiny as Vixen—Rita—but without the escape.

Jax couldn’t bear to think about it. A dread so profound, so intrusive and deep, had wormed its way into his chest. The reason was simple. Stupidly simple. No matter what became of Ash, his fate was decided because of one thing alone. 

There was no use for him. 

In this caravan, there was no task for him to fulfill. If what Rita had said was true–and he had no doubt it was–he would be judged as too young for labor, and too weak for captive protection. Those cold emerald eyes had no reason to lie to him. He would be cannibalized. Jax would, without a doubt, be eaten alive.

“Ash, calm down, you’re going to get–”

“Jax!” Ash panted. His heart leapt into his throat. That sound. It was guttural. Feral. A noise he barely recognized as human, much less one of a cool, feminine voice. 

“Jax, my neck, did they mark me?” He shook his head. Had he ever seen someone so distraught? So crazed? The tightness of her face. The wrinkles on her brow. The pooling pond of insanity in her gaze, it soaked into him. A shadow giving way to the sun. He had never felt an empathy so deep as this, a hopeless kind of empathy that said “I understand. I understand, and I can’t do anything about it.”

“Ash, listen to me. Look at me!” It took a long second for her eyes to center. She was shaking now, hands tensing and releasing, nails digging into the wooden planks. He’d never seen her hair so wild; the constant jerk and rumble of the cart mussed the strands so they stuck up from her scalp at all angles.

 It would’ve been a cute look, he thought–spiky, spunky, a little punk–but paired with the puckered gashes on her brow and downcast gunmetal eyes, she looked less like a rocker and more like a severely abused porcupine. A porcupine with so much pain in her heart that it seeped into him. Hurt him. Drowned him. Her eyes focused.

“I just….I just want you to know that we’ll get through this. No matter what, because, because…” Because why? What could get them through this? They were enslaved. Grieving their families. 

“Because we’re together.” It was weak. So weak, so nonreassuring, so baseless. 

Jax scooched across the cart. Pushing aside a sleeping woman, he moved into position beside Ash. Lowering his voice to a whisper, he leaned close, whispering, 

“Rita escaped. We can too, because we’re stronger than her. We can get out of this. Together. Right?”

He expected a nod at least. Acknowledgement, maybe, something that said she’d heard his words. Maybe her spine would straighten a little. Maybe she would wince into a half-smile. Maybe she would make a joke, or a tiny jab at his gut with her elbow. A witty remark. A sob. Anything.

 She didn’t move her gaze from her lap. And she didn’t say a word.

Ash was in shock. Denial, maybe? Jax wished he’d paid more attention in psychology. Her calloused fingers ran tracks down her arms, back and forth, back and forth. He had the selfish urge to grab that hand, hold it in his. He needed her. Her affection, even a morsel. Her attention, just a glance. He wanted to intertwine their fingers so bad it physically hurt not to.

The cart pounded the road, sending him sprawling away from her; he clawed himself back. Pothole after pothole just like this. And for what?

 Why? Why, when he was shackled to a rickety cart, orphaned, fated for cannibalism, could his only concern fall to her admiration? Stupid, stupid, stupid. I dumped girls back home for being clingy! And this is what I do? Pine over her? Get irritable when she won’t hold my hand? Dumb. Shameful! 

Yet when the time slunk by, traveling down the road in chains, not once did he think of himself after that moment. He only thought of Ash. Ash: her trauma, her fingers inspecting her arms, the sickening thud of the boots on her back when they had been captured. He only thought of Ash, and how much he wished she would take his hand.

Jax could never be sure how long they sat there. Time–time that used to be so rigid, so strict–had taken an ambiguous form, like the off-brand Jello in the school cafeteria: lax, bitter, unsettlingly slippery. After forever, they stopped. 

He watched as the caravan unloaded. Car doors opened, expensive wagons cleared. Girls in cages were extracted from the enclosures, leashed up like dogs with hair twice as coarse. A cacophony. 

A set of men unlocked his chains and pulled him up. His legs felt like a TV screen when the signal goes out, all numb and static-y in a way that felt like needles driving into his toes. Jax was sure he would have fallen over immediately if not for the strong grips of his guards. 

Squinting in the sun, he looked out over the never-ending trail of horror and gasped.

It was incomparable to any parade, any gathering on the planet. A crowd so immense it was like nothing you could imagine. Miles and miles and miles of bikes and carriages and people. Young children led out of cages, whimpering, smeared in their own feces. Women with sad eyes emerging from wagons, hair mussed, too-tight chokers restricting blood flow to their faces. Emaciated men dragging themselves across the ground, screaming from the heat, scorching their bodies just to keep up. Helpless slaves gathered in carts, newly branded, sobbing under the sun’s bite. Every last person was sunburned, skin peeling, some with tumors and blackened teeth and hair falling out in clumps. 

He understood now why the people had turned away from Rita so rudely when she spoke of Them. Because they had seen it. Those men and women and children, those with pinned up or gelled hair, those kind folks who dressed in Amish-like clothes had seen this monstrosity of human nature. Maybe more of them had been in this caravan than they would like to admit. No matter your age or position in the procession, one fact was clear: this was no peaceful community with an ill-fated 3rd class. This was a death march for all.

All…except a few. They were easy to spot. Because even with this swarm of poverty and demented tortures, five men sparkled. From the moment their shoes poked from the royal wagons, Jax knew who they were. The Originals. The founders of the caravan.

Rita hadn’t attempted to describe them. Jax now knew why; it was utterly and completely overwhelming to do so. Five men dripping in diamonds. Coiffed hair, seemingly gelled, unmussed by the bumpy ride. Adorned in capes. Crowns. Rings. Necks spilling with gold chains, fingers studded so heavily with sapphires and emeralds and precious gems that they practically had the rainbow spread across each hand. Purple silks. Leather boots. Pale, unblemished skin, an aura of plasticity strong from caked on makeup. 

They were unbranded, just like the people of Jax and Ash’s cart. But the people of the carts–Jax and Ash included–were demolished. Morally. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. The Originals, however, did not look demolished. They looked smug. Smug. And free. 

Royalty, he thought as he watched them exit, servants and tired women quivering on their knees in front of them. These men are royalty. Ash glanced at Jax, fear clouding her gaze. At first he couldn’t tell exactly what she was afraid of, there was so much: the burning men, the starving, the sick, the tumored, the ugly, the slaves, the dirtied, they all coalesced in an ongoing rush of miserable people in miserable attire under a miserable sun. 

An Original made a gesture and the flurry of motion immediately stopped. Jax, against his better judgment, found himself frozen in place. He knew what this was. Easily. Ash had predicted this; he should have listened, but the thought was hard to think, a mental image that tore at his mind, itched and burned. This was the Choosing. 

He was lifted forward by the men, feet still bound, arms squeezed too tight, remarkably tight. Ash was brought forward alongside him. The sleeping woman he had moved to sit by Ash was dragged awake, muttering something low and sweet, reminiscent of a lullaby. 

Jax imagined a grand buildup. A painstakingly slow progression forth, onward to his demise, the guards building suspense and halting abruptly, his legs deadweight and swinging between them. What actually happened, however, was shockingly unceremonious.

March forth. Push aside the crowds. Silent crowds. The young, caged girls had ceased to wail. Blind stares locked on the Originals. Ash and Jax and the others in their cart were practically thrown down at the feet of one of Them. No introduction. Just a choppy line of ten or so people, the first row of many unbranded and fearful innocents. How was it possible that so many survived the Burn? How was it possible that such a dreadful caravan of Them could travel for so long without Jax knowing? Was this preventable, had they ignored the signs of other human life when they were steeped in despair?

Ash was sixth in line, Jax eighth, the old singing woman suspended between them, unable to kneel on her own.

 The first woman was judged as meat. Too elderly. Thin. Weak. Not attractive enough to be a wife–no use to the Originals. A group emerged from the crowd and lifted her away. Jax didn’t know where to. His chin was crunched to his neck like all the others. 

The second was judged a guard. Unsurprising: she was lean, yet muscular, with a body like a triathlon winner and arms like a crossfit instructor. 

Third person. A boy, about the same age as the same height. Meat. Lifted away without a scream, a hand clamped to his mouth, legs kicking in Jax’s peripherals. His heart was in his ears. Calves twitching, Jax struggled to hold his breath; if he let it loose he would scream.

Fourth. Woman. Declared a Cleaner. Jax envied her, her and her future of feces and urine and vomit. Nothing was as bad as being eaten alive by your own species. Nothing he could imagine. 

Fifth. A man. Old. Senile, maybe, probably in shock. Jax remembered the term from his Psychology Class. A lot of good this knowledge was to him now. The fact that he was in shock and overwhelmed by senility didn’t change the cold inflection of the Original’s order: meat.

Sixth. The pounding of his heart stalled. All saliva evaporated in his mouth. Dry as the chalkdust air of an old schoolhouse. His tongue suffocated him. Ash’s turn. 

The Original man’s voice was monotone, unbefitting of a royal or even a savage cannibal. A voice of a bored emperor, flat and dry as he pronounced,

“Wife. My own, to be branded immediately.” One other Original shifted, looking upset, as though Ash was the last piece of licorice in the candy jar. Jax couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Ash was right. She would be like Rita. And if she ever escaped, she would be just as cold and heartless as that vixen girl.

He didn’t hear what became of the singing woman. Didn’t care. If she was meat, she was meat, and Jax could do nothing, just as he did for Ash. Sit. Wait. Sit. Wait. Just like every other person in this rotten hell hole. 

His neck hurt. The woman was lifted away.

Jax’s turn for the Choosing.

Distraught, he turned his face heavenward. The plastic face of the Original stared down at him. Lips too bright. Hair too shiny. Eyes too large. And proclaimed, monotone as ever,

“I know you.”

“What?” The response leapt from his lips before he could restrain it. Jax winced, hair catching the sun as he bowed his head again.

“I know you, child. I know a little girl–exactly like you, with the same features. A little girl from the cages.” A grin played on his cheeks. Jax glanced up to see him smile at the crowd. Dread settled on him like a blanket.

“Ladies and gentlemen of this empire, rejoice. We have found a sibling pair, for the first time in the history of the Burn! I know this boy.” He clicked his tongue, smacking his too-red lips.

“I know this boy because I imprisoned his sister.”

Burned, post apocalyptic city skyline.
Writer's Wednesday!

WW–Apocalypse 4–Crossroads

Exit of off an interstate

Do you ever have a thought that slams into you like an oncoming train? One that is so unexpected, conjured out of the blue and hurled at your face so fast, it literally knocked the breath from your chest? Now imagine that idea embodying a whole day. Overwhelming. Tiring. Distress-filled. Painful, in a remarkably silent way. 

That was what each and every day on the road was like for Ash. A thought that pummels you to the ground, a thought that you can’t bear to think any longer, but have to face over and over and over again.

They had been on the road for an eternity. Maybe to a post-Burn Ash, she would easily dismiss this as a “week” or “a couple of days.” But who had a need for time anymore? 

After the first Quarantine phases hit, the concept had already begun to slip, one day spiraling into the next without remark, without events to attend or friends to greet.

Then the Burn ravaged the world. Ash and Jax found each other soon after, both cowards, both new orphans that had abandoned their families. Did it matter that their family members never had a chance to get out? Seek shelter? Was it still wrong that they had left? Ash wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure that it mattered anymore.

Whatever happened before, now they were all alone. Roaming the land. The beaten down land. The land made up of dust and rubble. Lonely skies. Desolate cities. 

And all of it, all of it, hungry. That was it. Everything was hungry for life and energy: the fields hungered for youthful blooms, the river for a salmon, the sapling for a drop of rain. 

Which was how Ash came to decide that time no longer mattered. Because something bigger had taken its place. Hunger. It had planted its roots deep in the freshly roiled earth. The world was hunger, her body was hunger, her mind was hunger. A pit in her stomach that wouldn’t go away. A longing for the family which she couldn’t even mourn, she–

“Hey? You okay? Need to stop?” Jax’s voice broke through her stupor. Ash groaned. Just let me be depressed in peace! 

“No, no…I’m good.” Lie. What else could she say? That she winced with the strain on her stomach, that just drawing breath to her lips sent a bellowing ache through each capillary and nerve in her stomach? Yet another glorious way to remind her of their lack of food. Should she tell him that her thoughts were faltering even seconds after he spoke? Lingering on a million different impossibilities: what if we had asked for food to go? Stole the rations? Ate the people? 

Her brain screamed too far!, but Ash could have sworn her stomach rumbled in agreement. Back at the cement safe house, there had been everything she could ever want. A bed. Nasty mystery meat. A judgy teenage girl. A short but sweet kiss from her maybe-boyfriend-apocalypse-ally. Everything

And yet, she still had the strangest sensation that she hadn’t savored it like she should have. Like she should have absorbed the moments better, inhaled the perfection of that time through every dirt-clogged pore on her skin. Ash just couldn’t bring herself to be happy. Not yet. Not when the faces of her family were fresh on her mind.

Miserable, she put one foot in front of the other and trudged on. The road was long and never ending, each new city just as empty as the one before, save for a few bottles of sunblock and an obnoxious pink beret (who even wore those anymore?!). But the sunscreen was vital for their badly burned skin, even if the SPF 30 lasted less than an hour per application. Not like the shoddy tourist store could have anticipated a full-blown apocalypse and magnification of the sun combo.

“Left or right?” She looked up, dazed.

“What?” He pointed to the intersection ahead. One road led straight on, and the other? The other, pothole-pocked road filtered off into a town–Brucksville, advertising one KFC, a McDonalds, and a Holiday Inn. Impressive. 

“Brucksville.” She stated, thoughts already slipping into a delightful tornado of what-ifs and should-I-feel-guilty-fors. Content to let herself spiral, Ash began to fall into a rhythm.

“Wait! Uh, wait. Ash, I want to tell you something before you…” he stopped, unsure how to phrase his next words. She dragged her gaze to him. There was something entrancing about the way that the light hit his hair off the road sign, like an ancient Aztec mirror trick: reflecting the harsh white light back as soft gold. It made the cowlicks and flyaways shine, little strands of honey against a background of smog and decay. A little shiver passed through her, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, eyes dilating. All of the sudden, she felt much more alert.

“Before I…slip into my funk?” He smiled shyly…a good look on him. Passivity in a boy she used to think was a brainless jock. Timidity from a varsity athlete. It was unique. Entrancing, even. Compelling enough that she couldn’t let her tired eyes relax to the ground or the sky. 

“Yeah, I guess, a funk,” he admitted. Ash knew he was being generous with his phrasing. She had been in a stupor ever since they left that house: uncharacteristically quiet, jumpy at some times and spaced-out at others. 

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m glad I’m doing this with you. And I know we don’t want to talk about this now, because,” he gestured vaguely to everything. “Of all this. But we have to at some point. Back at that building, with the people–”

“I remember.” Impossible to tell with the severe sunburn, but Ash’s face would have been bright red, she was sure. In a way, that was a pretty good mechanism for her poker face…however, it was not such a good mechanism for her comfort. It stung like a thousand individual bee stings. 

“We don’t have to rehash it quite yet. I just wanted to say that…that it wouldn’t have happened with anyone else. If it was any other girl at school, or in the world, that I had found, I’m confident it wouldn’t be the same.” He paused. Ash was silent, unable to rip her eyes away.

“Back at the capital you said you didn’t want an ‘Adam and Eve’ fairytale romance, an illusion fabricated from circumstance alone. I didn’t know what to say at the time…and then we…you know. But now I know that what I feel isn’t just because we found each other on a whim, or because we don’t have anyone else.” Her face burned. The ache in her gut dimmed, something growing there, a warmth. Finally, he added,

“I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else.”

Lie. They both knew the last sentence wasn’t true for either of them…no matter what, they would rather have family here. Not even here, necessarily. Family alive. But Ash understood. The idea still rang true. 

“Even Rita? That judgemental blonde one with daggers for eyes?” She asked. He smiled.

“Even Rita.” Officially broken from her demented train of thought, she intertwined her fingers in his; he started to pull her close. A glimmer of happiness danced on her heart. Then she pulled away so fast he staggered back.

“Ash? What is it?” The hurt in his voice was unmistakable; she shook her head. “Was it something I said? I didn’t mean to–” 

“No!” She sighed, words evading her tongue. 

“Don’t you hear it? That noise? Like…like–” her fingers jumped to her scalp. Why couldn’t she think of it? That sound! Like thunder, like the rumble of the wildebeest hooves in the Lion King, like sleet on a driveway, thick, roaring….

Jax looked at her helplessly, face blank. He was straining to hear anything but the rush of his own blood in his ears. Ash tugged a hair from her head, pain shooting through her scalp in a refreshing jolt. It exploded off her tongue.

“Like a motorcycle!” The instant she said it, her eyes widened. Realization dawned on Jax’s face, a look that held the nightmares of many nights and the worries of a thousand hours.  Their feet scrambled of their own accord, flying down the road. They had to leave. Immediately.

Cracks and pops of their joints and their panting breaths muffled the noise, but now even Jax was aware of it. Her breath came in gasps. Their sneakers slapped the road.

The noise surrounded them, closer with each second, the source not yet visible but approaching fast. The sound of nightmares come to life. A rumble of hundreds of cars. Motorcycles. Feet. Wagons and carts and murmuring voices. Crying. Trampling. Rocks underfoot. Silks shuffling, children moaning, snapping belts. Them

Ash pointed to a pile of rubble, almost a football field’s length away. The closest chance they had to survival. The caravan crested the hill, swarming into the street. First the cars and motorcycles, idling into the intersection, then the wagons. 

Not just wagons. Grand wagons, straight out of the era of French royalty: adorned with lavender silk curtains and gold filigree, plush duvets visible through sparkling windows. An outpouring of motion. The leading vehicles halted at the intersection. 

Hearts beating through their ribs, they sprinted as fast as they could, sweat blurring their vision. The rubble seemed even further away, each yard they ran becoming longer and rockier, potholes twisting their ankles. Ash pushed on blindly, drowning in the motion. Jax was only a few paces ahead of her. She looked back for a moment and–

Eye contact. Crap. A young girl stood on the road, stopped at the intersection with the rest of the walkers. Bare feet. Matted blonde curls. A blank gaze. Weary eyes that were staring right at her. Ash pleaded with her silently. Please, please, don’t say anything. Don’t turn around. Don’t tell that woman next to you, don’t move your scalded feet–

The girl twitched. Ash chanced a look at Jax, meeting his eyes as he faltered by the rubble. She tried her best to send him the message hide; he understood, reluctantly slipping behind the stones. Ash couldn’t risk going to him. At least Jax had a chance now. All she could do was stand, frozen like a statue.

Broom clutched against her chest, the girl turned to the woman next to her, hand twitching towards her arm. 

Please don’t tug her sleeve, please don’t tug her sleeve, please don’t–the girl tugged the woman’s sleeve. Ash dropped to the ground, flattening herself against the asphalt. Perhaps the woman wouldn’t see her. Perhaps the girl would be dismissed. She watched helplessly as the little girl pointed to exactly where she was laying in the road. Asphalt burned her cheeks. She pressed even lower, contracting all her muscles, sinking her scalding arms as low to the road as possible.

The woman’s eyes roved the area. Finding nothing, she turned to a man next to her, a man emaciated and marred with scabs. Without hesitation, the man began to run. Full sprint. Directly at her. 

Springing from the road like a flushed quail, Ash tore to her right. An arm flung around her neck. She screamed, biting at the flesh. Another hand gripped her wrist. Men flooded towards her, shoving her to the ground. Kicks pummeled her ribs, her back, boots stomping on her shoulders. Flailing, the road burning her skin, she shrieked in pain. Dirt flung in her eyes. The world swum with her tears; she cried out, blinking furiously. 

A pink-faced figure rushed onto the scene, throwing punches at the men. Masculine. He had honey-strand hair, a strong jawline, distinctively muscular build. Dread pooled in her stomach. No….

“Jax, leave…Jax!” Men gripped his arms, hauling him towards the caravan, his feet spinning and kicking. Ash sobbed. Cracks sounded from her shoulders, but she could no longer feel the blows. Kicks and stomps rained down on her, each impact potentially fatal, yet all she felt was a deep-seeded dread. 

There was nothing she could have done in the moment…but maybe, just maybe, if she hadn’t been so occupied with Jax, she would have heard them sooner. The thought was numbing in combination with the static in her limbs. She wasn’t sure how long she laid there, face burning against the dusty road.

Finally, when the men seemed certain she was incapacitated, they tossed her over bony shoulders. In the fuzz, Ash thought she heard some of them laughing. 

And where an idea of escape should have been brewing in her mind, all that there was was an image. An image she had tossed and turned with at night and obsessed over during the day. A vision. A vision of her own flesh, branded with a star.


Beautiful river flowing through a forest.
Poem

River of Life

Image from American Rivers

The only infinity on this Earth is the infinity of the questions without answers.”

-Autumn Brutyn

The River of Life

A poem by Autumn Brutyn

Sitting on the shore of the endless sea
A question came on the wind to me 

A question so rhetorical, so subjective, so sweet,
A question without an answer, forever incomplete

Impossible to answer, and yet, it lingered on my thoughts:

What can encompass life?
Life, so complex, so filled with strife!

A frog on the banks of a never-ending stream?
One speck of dust in the golden sunbeam?

No, not that, that’s not right.

Because what of the endlessly multiplying people?
Billions and billions, like rust spots on a steeple

The infinite wisdom in a dragonfly’s eye?
Each meaningless fleck of dirt in a rancid pigsty?

No, not that, that’s not right.

Because what of the young ones, the old, the bold?
Each spirit, so unique, with hearts warm and cold…

Can nothing emulate it, that tumultuous diversity?
The way the Earth rumbles and shakes, all topsity-turvety? 

Maybe, maybe not, but one thing comes close.

Because time will never cease to fly,
I thought, just like the river chugging by

The river, with its millions of glistening bubbles
Bobbing and weaving, like children, no troubles

The river, highway to the sea, comes close

Because it ebbs and flows, angry before it calms,
Has droughts and floods and never-ending qualms

Pebbles shift and change, silt travels downstream
Just like humanity, restless in their dream

That river, roiling and bubbling, comes close

Because...

Life is imperfect

Life is diverse

Troubled

Beautiful

Never a curse

Life is drowning

Life is sweet

Hopeful

Dismal

Take it from me:

There never has been, and never will be, one true answer
Life’s secrets are elusive, captivating, like a masked dancer

But if you seek an answer, please, hear my plea:
Turn to the river! The water! The path to the sea

Because the river, 
To the sea
Comes close
Writer's Wednesday!

Midnight Rogue 3–Dawn

When the bell had struck hours ago, she should have run. A messy murder was better than a risk like this: to be so far from home and take her time going back. He had taken too long to die. 

When the bell had struck hours ago, when her knife had plunged into his beating heart, she shouldn’t have waited for his last breath to be drawn. It was too late. Even before she left the alley, she knew this. She had gone too far, waited too long, been too careless.

The girl slunk from the hallowed place; she was alone again. Bloody morning sun rays painted her face in gold, glistening off a pallid, milky mask: the face of a killer. Beginning to perspire, little beads of pearly sweat adorning the pale canvas, her boots struck hard on the concrete as she started to run. 

Her feet were slick with the sweat, boots stuffed with paper upon paper to disguise her actual shoe size…a smart tactic. A smart tactic, but a disgusting one; her feet were swimming in greasy newspaper, toe sweat, and blood that had seeped through the fabric. 

Uncomfortable. Not an uncomfortable like wet socks after a water ride. No. Uncomfortable like the fact that her mind no longer lingered on the fresh blood on her hands. Uncomfortable that the swampy sweat bog of her boots was of a bigger concern to her than the man she just slaughtered. Oh, well. Discomfort could pass. Guilt, which she decidedly shut out, would have passed too. The girl had greater things to worry about.

She had been sloppy today. She was never sloppy–never. Gloves cleanly disposed of. Knives properly cleaned, soaked in chemicals, restored to their place. Boot prints left, yes, but in a size that was almost laughably big. Those grimy shoes had been passed around among relatives so many times the purchase was virtually untraceable. None of those were the problem. Not at all. 

Her problem was the sun. The sun, and the thousands of dirty, drug-shooting, poor saps rising with it as the outer boroughs spurred to life. Panther-like steps were abandoned. It was a race against the clock, a race against any early risers. This time, she had taken it too far, too lightly, too late. Sprinting now, her boots thudded so loud that she was more likely to wake up the people with the sound of her footsteps than the sun through the windows.

Idiot, idiot, idiot…how could you be so careless? It was at least a mile left to go; she had traveled so far through the night, hopped up on sadistic adrenaline and practically unfazed by the trip to the victim’s apartment. 

But her energy was waning fast. The Midnight Rogue persona was slipping through her sweat-slicked grasp, the addictive, psychotic energy dissolving. 

She had killed at midnight. 

Recounted their sins. She was the devil. The cruel Fates of hell. Anubis burning a sinner alive with the flames of their own wicked crimes. 

An easy dagger thrust. She was an assassin. 

Pierce the heart. She was Death. 

Watch the life bleed from their eyes, draining like thick soup through a strainer…make sure the victim is dead. She was vengeance.

The girl shifted through her roles easily now, easier than the first times. Each kill was smoother than the last; this broken shell no longer felt guilt. 

Why not? Simple: does the grim reaper feel guilt? No. Then neither would the Rogue.

She had killed at midnight. 

It was four A.M. 

The time in between had slipped through her grasp, springing through alleys and dodging the sleeping masses of homeless people, stewing in their own filth.

A dingy street flew by, she passed onto a silent avenue. Movement in her peripherals, just a flitting shadow. The girl faltered. There was a shape in the window, a heavyset figure: a silhouette wreathed in the brilliance of an old-fashioned light bulb, a set of eyes staring out into the void, a man. Did he see me? Is my cover blown? 

The girl hoped she was unrecognizable as the Rogue. As dangerous as it may be to face down the Midnight Rogue as a criminal, it was twice as dangerous to be the Rogue at the mercy of a citizen. In this lawless, disgusting place, who would falter to kill her?

 The vacant-eyed Reject on the street–some ex-politician from City Central, a broken man swaddled in urine-soaked blankets–who would turn her in for a scrap of cloth on his back? 

A criminal wandering the avenues, haunting bars and clubs, waiting for a young girl he could prey on to stagger from a bar?

Not even a mother, wreathed in cigarette smoke, puffing her lungs with toxicity to shut out her grief? Desperate to make ends meet? Living paycheck to paycheck?

Even her only friend would condemn her to hell if he knew. So why not every other sinner in the boroughs? She had no right to play reaper. No right to play God. No right to deal justice where none existed. Yet she still kept running. Somehow, inexplicably, she would not let herself die.

She knew what had to be done. There was no time to get to the bunker. No more shadows to hide in. Now was the time to be the girl she’d grown up as, the girl she was before the triggers, before the ugly monster inside her reared its head. It was time to shed the disguise.

Shrugging off her cloak, the Rogue ducked into the first alcove she saw off the street. It was dark, humid, with a dumpster that smelled disturbingly close to human feces. The boot slid easily off her foot. Sweat-soaked newspaper shook loose from its pungent prison. Remorseful, the girl stuffed the royal purple silk into the lining, cringing as the hand woven cloth was smashed into a moist boot. When she stuffed the boot back on, she was equally delighted and regret-filled by the coolness of the cloak on her foot. 

Pony tail holder: it had carved a pinkish track in her wrist. Her hair felt coarse under her greasy fingers; she quickly tied it up in an unflatteringly high ponytail. Shrugged off her jacket, loosely knotting it around her waist. 

Then, the worst problem. My dagger…the bronze etched handle was laughably visible. The sheath at her belt, so easily concealed by her cloak, was now glaringly obvious. Choking on laughter, she surveyed the sharp edge of the dagger, the designs on the sheath. Very uncharacteristic of a teenage party girl. 

Such a beautiful sheath. Shining black leather. Perfectly crafted to caress her dagger. Easy draw. And without a doubt, the most expensive thing the girl owned. 

Every nerve in her hand rebelled at the motion. A tangible ache gripped her gut, but she knew she had to do this, no matter how much it hurt. The dagger slid easily into the soggy newspaper of her left boot. 

And the perfect dagger sheath fell to the concrete. Abandoned. Ripe for the pick of any drug-hungry Reject scouring the dumpsters. The thought made her sick.

“Hey, missy. You lost?” She jumped. A voice. So close it couldn’t be more than six feet away. She pressed down the scream that clawed at her throat. A wave of terror crashed over her: what could she do? 

Panic. Hot in her veins, on her cheeks, in her throat. Hide the dagger hilt? No time. Flirt with him? No experience. Pretend to be a party girl? Drunk? Lost? Maybe…but only because killing him would be too much of a fuss this late in the morning. 

The Rogue turned. Attempting a casual pose, she gave a dopey smile, heart pounding her ribs. A man stood at the mouth of the alcove. Beefy. Heavyset. No more than a few feet away. Threateningly close. 

“Um…who are you?” She managed, slurring her words. She tried to think of what a blackout-drunk party girl would say, how she would act. The exact way her eyelids would flutter. The drool dribbling down her lip. No time. No time! Any truly drunk City Central girl would never stop talking, never, especially if she was with a man who was even slightly interested. She was panicking. Desperate to conjure something flirty, stupid, bewildered. Yet what spilled from her lips was the most idiotic thing she could imagine.

“Rebecca? Is that you?” 

Idiot. 

Idiot! 

But wasn’t that something a drunk girl would say? She didn’t know. The Rogue had never had a drink. She was only a teen…too young. Too impulsive. Enough sense to know that alcohol would send her spiraling further than blind rage ever could.

The man screwed up his brow. It was obvious he was male–masculinity practically radiated from him, dashed with the usual arrogance and self-righteousness. He frowned, uncertain,

“Uh, no, I’m–” 

“Thank god! I left my bag at the club, do you have it? My mom would killlllll me if she knew! Kill me, Becky! Becca…Rebeccs…Rebie, some rando Reject could, like,” she hiccuped, “steal it and then I would be all like, ‘mom my bag got stolen’ and she would be like ‘your nice one?’ and I would be like ‘yes, mom, the one with all my I.D and monies in it!’” 

Fanning herself, the girl started to tear up, wavering on her feet, clutching the bricks for support. Her eyes were wild. She looked down, rifling through the crumpled papers at her feet. Dazed. As if her bag was somehow in the newspaper. 

“I’m not Rebecca. But if you want–”

“Oh! My. God.” Her lip quivered like a plucked bowstring. The jacket around her waist sagged, falling down to her knees as she trembled, clouds growing in her gaze. Perfect. Even in a fake stupor, she could appreciate her acting skills. 

“Are you alright? I can take you hom–”

A piercing shriek cut the air. She wailed like an air horn. He could have sworn her eyes crossed for a second.

“Where. Is. Gerard?! I promised him that I was going to give him my number! Oh, where is he?” The girl stamped her boot. 

“I totally forgot after I lost my bag! Oh…he’s never going to…Rebecca!” The girl whined, practically whimpering now, oblivious to the fact that the man was backing away.

“Becca…Gerard was like…” her eyes glassed over. Silence hung for a second, a strange interaction coming to a halt in a little divot, on a disgusting avenue, in a trashy borough, far away from the glittering lights of City Central. Silence.

Then she wretched. Doubled over. Gagged. Saliva splattered the ground, gruesome chunks of god-knows-what painting the concrete. Vomit. Vomit! Hot, thick, clumpy, moist vomit. The man cringed back, sprinting from the alcove and down the street. 

As soon as he was out of sight, the Rogue stood up, eyes clearing. With a decisive motion, she let her hair down, pushing the hair tie onto her wrist and shrugging the jacket back on. Always the actor, the girl, name unsaid, ungiven, strutted confidently from the steaming stew of vomit and saliva. 

Just as she shifted through her roles of justice, she transitioned from drunk-party-girl-with-a-lost-handbag-and-a-crush-on-Gerard to confident young woman returning home at dawn.

The mistakes wouldn’t go unnoticed. Unremarked. The Midnight Rogue was sure of that. Only that. She flowed through her forms fluidly as the devil changed faces. The only role switch she had to control was the shift from Midnight Rogue to guilty teenage girl. All the rest came naturally.

The girl stepped into the street, thoughts of the approaching day already clouding her mind. She was no longer the Rogue; her rage had dissipated with the night. The only signal of her crimes was the dagger in her left boot and the cloak in her right, a vague recollection of bloodthirsty rage, a memory of a scream. 

She had been invited to meet up with a friend at 8:00 A.M., which meant she would have to jog home, further matting down the beautiful cloak–

A hand encircled her throat. Cloth against her lips. She flailed her limbs. Feet lifted from the ground.  Immediately, a wall of rubbing alcohol scent smashed her nostrils, deep, pounding. Her vision blurred. She drew in a breath as her feet scrambled for purchase. The regret was instant. Nausea roared at her like a gut-punch. Chloroform. 

Breathless, dripping with sweat, the man from the alcove lifted her into a car trunk. She lost consciousness before he could even close the lid. 

Karma, she thought. The world was paying her back for her sloppiness. Karma, and arrogance, for believing she could so easily outsmart every passerby. Her mistakes were not unremarked. Justice comes at a hefty price in the outer boroughs. The Midnight Rogue would soon pay it.


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Articles

Said isn’t dead–why this “rule” ruins your writing

Did your teacher ever mention tell you this? If not, you might’ve seen the plethora of online synonym lists. Here’s why said really isn’t dead at all.

All things in moderation, including moderation.

Socrates

Looking back on my education, there is a common theme in my writings, one message that was taught that completely dragged my story down into the muck. Can you guess it? 

Just like many youth growing up today, I have heard teachers use the same phrase repeatedly throughout elementary and early middle school, meant to strengthen variety and add an element of emotion to any story. My teachers printed out charts of synonyms and taught the class about sentence fluency, always using the same phrase: “Said is dead!”

Back in the days of being an elementary-age kid with a tremendous passion for writing, I hailed this as a golden rule, scolding myself for using “said” even once as a dialogue tag. But whereas this tip should have been helpful to me, I took it to the extremes–as did every other one of my classmates. 

Collectively as a grade, after learning this “useful trick,” our writings were flooded with unnecessarily flamboyant synonyms, proud of ourselves for always using a “show not tell” strategy that included not using said. But too much “show” bogs down your story and slows down the story’s pace to a crawl. This leaves the readers bored and dragged along by an endless stream of chunky, hard to read dialogue with weirdly specific verbs and dialogue tags. 

So, I wrote these points to help all those writers that question the rule, or wonder why these crazy synonyms ruin the flow of their writing or destroy a good piece. Because to me, said isn’t dead! Here is my message to those who choose to take the essentially harmless phrase too literally:

Sometimes “said” is the exact right word

Using your billowing, five page long synonym list isn’t always the best option when it comes to dialogue. Sometimes, “said” really does get the message across better than any other word. Especially when writing an action scene or a piece in which a lot of dialogue is exchanged between characters, this “forbidden” word can be just what you need, for a single reason: you need to keep. It. Moving! 

Let’s look at two examples, one using the rule religiously (which was not the intent of teachers using this curriculum, but was certainly the widespread outcome), and another writing freely with the ability to mix in the word said.


❌ Example 1 (without using said)

“Mother went to the kitchen, pulling down a jar of honey from the shelf and angrily twisting at the cap. It was obvious she needed help; my arms still hurt from baseball practice and I stepped hesitantly forward.

‘Do you need help?’ I asked.

‘No, I’m good,’ she groaned. ‘Just…trying to…get this thing…open!’

‘Uh–I can do it, I guess,’ I responded.

‘Honey, I can get it!’ she exclaimed. ‘No pun intended,’ she added. 

‘Okay, I’m going to go to my room then,’ I stated, shuffling to the stairs.

‘That’s fine. Leave me here. I’ll do it alone.’ Mom amended.”

✅ Example 2 (mixing in said)

“Mother went to the kitchen, pulling down a jar of honey from the shelf and angrily twisting at the cap. It was obvious she needed help; my arms still hurt from baseball practice and I stepped hesitantly forward.

‘Do you need help?’ I asked. Every nerve in my arm protested at the mere thought.

‘No, no, I’m good,’ she said with a groan. ‘Just…trying to…get this thing…open!’

‘Uh–I can do it,’ I said, muttering to myself, ‘I guess.’

‘Honey, I can get it!’ she exclaimed. After a moment, realizing her words, ‘No pun intended, of course.’

‘Okay, I’m going to go to my room then,’ I said, shuffling to the stairs on sore legs. I thought I saw disappointment flash in her eyes, a disappointment entirely unjustified after I had repeatedly offered her help. As my aching feet touched the landing, I heard from below,

‘That’s fine. Leave me here. I’ll do it alone.’”


Now, can you see how the first one is no better than the second? In fact, the first version of this brief story is entirely worse. The dialogue stays entirely the same, yet in example #2 there is use of “said” and much more intermingled actions. What this shows is that:

  1. Mixing in actions with dialogue makes the story flow better.
  2. The use of the word “said” is good in moderation.
  3. It is unnecessary to tag every line of dialogue in a two character exchange unless not doing so would be confusing to the reader.
  4. You can also practice switching between pronouns and character names in you tags, for example, “he/she/they said…” rather than always “*character name* said,” or vice versa.

Hopefully those examples showed you how the “said is dead” rule is misleading, and why it is misinterpreted so frequently by authors young and old.

Why was this taught/promoted in the first place?

So, if this rule really is a detriment to your writing, why was it even taught in the first place? The answer is simple: variety. A huge focus in writing good essays or short stories is the use of a variety of vocabulary, sentence lengths, and sentence structures within the piece. But having good variety in your sentences shouldn’t only rely on synonyms for “said” when writing dialogue tags. 


In short, what teachers/online posters meant to avoid was:

“‘Hi Brett!’ She said.

‘Hey, what’s up,’ he said.

‘Nothing much,’ she said.

‘Oh, okay. Same with me,’ he said.”

Yes, I agree. Awful! Completely horrible to read, but here’s what happened to many student’s writing after “said is dead” was implemented:

“‘Hey Brett!’ She exclaimed.

’Oh, hi Ellie!’ He responded. 

’It looks like it’s going to rain,’ she commented.

‘Yes, definitely, those clouds are pretty grim,’ he inputted.”

It’s obvious to me that the second version is no better than the first. Said isn’t dead. Therefore, instead of giving the advice “said is dead” to students or authors, I would recommend to use these tactics to promote sentence variety:

  • Mix in action with the dialogue to avoid boring scenes.
  • Switch between various pronouns.
  • Don’t tag every line of dialogue in a two-person exchange.
  • Include characters’ thoughts about the situation or people in it.
  • Use the five senses in your descriptions.
  • Vary the sentence length, punctuation, and the starting word of paragraphs/sentences.

Using these tricks can easily turn one of those disgustingly bland conversations above into this:

“‘Hey, Ellie!’ A voice called from across the room. A set of eyes caught hers, bubbling with energy, excitement rippling in the deep midnight blue. She turned away immediately. Her face flushed pink; she knew exactly who it was. The voice was familiar, a nasally, pitchy voice she had learned to ignore whenever possible. Sighing, Ellie turned back to face him.

‘Oh, hey Brett!’ She forced excitement into her voice, injecting as much enthusiasm as she could muster into the words. It was physically painful not to scowl, draw up her nose in disgust at the mere sight of him. Brett was just one of those people: nothing outwardly wrong with them, nothing they’d done to offend you, not particularly ugly or handsome, and yet, inexplicably, she hated him. Detested him. Him, and his infuriating love of small talk.

‘It looks like it’s, uh…’ Ellie trailed off, looking out the window, ‘going to rain?’

‘Yeah, those clouds are pee-rit-y grim!’

‘Yeah, I guess,’ she replied. This was why she hated chit-chat. What do you say to that statement? Always, ‘yeah,’ ‘uh huh,’ and ‘I was thinking the same thing!’ even when you couldn’t care less about the weather or their family or politics. Dead-end conversations, every one of them, with no meaning except to waste time and craft a polite facade. Ellie turned away brusquely. It was rude, sure. But she had an essay to write, not much time, and a last straw that had already been pulled.” 

How much better is that? Not only does it give the petty small talk meaning, but it aptly describes the relationship between the two characters a thousand times better than the two examples above. 

Is “said” dead?

Maybe you’ve been swayed by the infographics online, childhood teachers, or internet buzz over the subject…so here’s a question: what is your stance on this “rule”? If you were taught this, how did it impact your writing? Do you have any other tricks you use to create better sentence variety for essays, stories, or other pieces? Feel free to comment down below!


Writer's Wednesday!

WW-Elementals–Silver and Screams

Ambulance image from Parkway East hospital

Shock registered in his eyes. A smirk threatened my lips, even in the face of torture in a blood-soaked alley. Mouth twitching, I began to sneer…then I stopped. My speech had been impressive: beckoning on my gruesome fate, stating that I would never leave this alley alive, the alley where an innocent young girl named Daria died for the Artemisian agenda. A girl with the power to manipulate the sea: it was a power wasted, barely used before she was brutally kidnapped and mortally wounded. 

My name is Selene, goddess of the moon and starlight. I was one of five Elementals: myself (starlight), Talia Thorn (storm), Zara Nightlock (earth), Daria (sea), and Kenna King, embers and fire. 

We were humans with godly powers, a new race of hybrids with the combined powers to overthrow the Olympian gods and goddesses: the ones out of myth, the ones that shook the Earth, blazed through forests, and crushed ships in fits of rage and petty quarrels. We were united, if only for a few minutes. But just as soon as we’d been united, we’d been torn apart: Daria shot, Zara chasing after an illusion of her late sister, Talia and Kenna fleeing from Artemis’ mercenaries. 

It was foolish of me to smile, to take satisfaction in the fact that I was a sitting duck, waiting to die, staring down the shaft of an arrow. The man–boy?–standing above me was in no way menacing, too fragile a gaze to even seem dangerous at all, though his nocked bow said otherwise. Large green eyes and a smatter of freckles all scrunched up, nose twitching with nerves, arrow jittering left and right with his severely shaking arms. 

Something about the glint in his eyes screamed surprise, perhaps even downright terror. At me? Holding a dead body in my arms, face streaked with tears, starburst necklace torn from my throat? Arrogant of me to think that, but my lips began to quirk. I thought, for a split second, that his unwillingness to release the arrow was because of what I’d said, how he would have to defy Artemis’s orders and kill me if I were to leave Daria alone in that alley.

A second later, when I followed his gaze, all satisfaction plummeted from my chest.
Daria was alive.

Inexplicably, her eyelids snapped open and shut, blinking in the darkness of the alcove. A shuddered breath rose and fell on my lap, her bloodsoaked chest expanding with a breath of air. Daria was alive. And her eyes were the brightest gold I’d ever seen.

I’m ashamed of what I did next. But I did it anyway. Instead of feeling relief…I felt horror. I reeled back, slamming my head against the wall. I slid her off my lap frantically, with half the sense to gently place her head so it didn’t crack on the concrete. 

She sat up. Fresh and dried blood had intermingled in an artful pattern on her back, like an abstract painting that would fetch millions in a modern art museum–a painting with random splashes of grotesque brown and dripping crimson, a splattered canvas that looked like nothing that ever existed and everything in the world all at once. Her gaze fell briefly on me, golden eyes disturbingly bright, hair falling limply around her large shoulders, the shoulders of a swimmer. 

Less than a second passed, enough for me to feel uncomfortable at the fact that somewhere under that bloodsoaked suit, Daria’s heart was pulsing and thrumming with life when moments before it had been irrevocably stalled.

Wavering on her feet, Daria stood, movements wobbly and uncertain, joints audibly groaning like a reanimated corpse from a horror movie. I saw her stare flicker to the mercenary, eyes glittering, the unnatural gold so unlike her original irises that it was as though they had been touched by the angels themselves. For the red-headed boy, that one glance was enough. 

He shot.

But he didn’t shoot Daria. 

He shot me.

Daria leapt forward, careening towards me to block the arrow. Colors blurred: I barely registered the gleaming silver tip until it embedded itself in my chest, a devastating slice as flesh was torn by metal. 

All at once, events cascaded, transcending time in a fuzz of action. Daria grabbed my hand, a blur of motion. I willed my feet to move. Held my chest with one hand and her fingers in the other. My arm grasped, a thin, sticklike hand; the boy! His grip was strong but Daria tore me free, viciously dragging me from the alley. My legs felt numb. My chest throbbed. I knew what to do. I had done the same with Daria. I grasped the shaft of the arrow tight. Fletchings tickling my tensed wrist, I yanked as hard as I could.

Pain shot through me, a train hurtling off the tracks. A morbid sound: of flesh tearing open, of capillaries bursting under impact. Daria gasped as I let the arrow fall, faltering to rip cloth from my shirt. Footsteps behind us. Running steps. Boots. 

“Where are we going?” 

“Busy road, the busiest we can find. I won’t let you die because of me!” Her voice was hoarse, emotions unexpectedly raw and heartfelt. What’s wrong with her eyes? Why is she here? Where am I? My heart pounded through my ribcage. The questions all blurred together. I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight: my throat was itchy with the urge to scream. All I could manage was a gasp of agreement…we needed to find help. 

The next street we turned down was the one. Daria knew it. She glanced over her shoulder, a split second move that would only cost us time. He was right on top of us. I pressed the cloth harder to my chest, blood seeping through the fabric, sticky on my fingers. 

“No, Selene, don’t go–”

He was right behind us. No time. I pulled Daria through to the street, through to the busy thoroughfare crowded with people, when it struck me why she had paused. The people weren’t congregated on the sidewalk. They were all clustered, bees to their native hive, in the road. 

This was bad. Daria had wanted to find a small group of people, or even an individual that would quietly drive us to the nearest hospital. What we had gotten was a mob. My thoughts faded in and out, dizziness sent my mind toppling back and forth between answerless questions and impossible scenarios. The boy reached out to grab my arm, a million possible actions rolled through my head: block his grip, kick his shins, lash out with my fists, throw myself into the street and beg for help. Anyone of those would do. I prepared myself, tensing my wrists for a strike…

I screamed. Motionless, I didn’t have the sensibility to attack the mercenary, defend myself, tend to my own wounds or Daria’s mysteriously healing ones. Do I wish I wouldn’t have defaulted to the damsel-in-distress wail? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality is that I didn’t spring into action. I planted my feet. Tensed my wrists. And screamed. 

Immediately all eyes snapped to us, the droves of people prying their eyes from whatever was in the road. Looking back, I can see that I probably made the right choice; in the eyes of those people Daria and I were two helpless girls, mortally wounded, obviously aggressed by the wide-eyed boy with a bizarre hunting bow. A moment passed. I wondered what they would do, how long the hunter would wait before he struck us down under the suspicious eyes of the public, how Daria had dragged herself from the grip of death and how I could do the same. 

The people charged. Flocks of faces rushed toward me, a blur of diverse eyes and faces and freckles and not. Hands gripped my arm. I was led into the crowd. Daria disappeared in the buzz. A man’s yelp. A head of fiery red hair dropped to the ground, swarmed by fists. Shop. Blazed through the door, items crashing to the floor, a table newly cleared. Hoisted up. Beads of sweat. 

“Daria!” I thrashed against the hands. I was held firm, pinned on the table. Red first aid kit. Bandaids spilled. Aspirin clashed to the tile. Gauze pressed to my chest, pain like glass shards ripping my heart. I couldn’t see. The world started to blur. Eyes wouldn’t focus. Hair tickled my clavicle, a worker bending to examine the wound.

“Bloedgroep? Bloedgroep?” I blinked, squeezing my eyes tight. It sounded like  “blood group,” should I respond? Would human medical treatment even work on me? It was hard to tell what memories were real and what memories were shown to me in a slideshow by my mother to give the illusion that I’d always lived in Ohio. Had I ever truly been injured before my life plunged into this insanity?

The mass of people pressed gauze to my wound, dialed numbers furiously on their phones, asked me questions in Afrikaans that I had no clue how to answer. Through the cacophony of noise I heard a voice,

“Selene, what’s your blood type?” I froze. My arms fell from where they were thrashing. I knew that voice. It was a voice that had been embarrassed in the desert, torn with emotion, a voice that now sounded pleasant, with a soft British accent and a steady rhythm. Talia? 

“A-negative?” I could just barely recall my mother…well, not my mother…Melissa? Telling me that I had a rare blood type, one that didn’t really match up with my mother and father’s. No wonder. They weren’t my family at all, just some greedy farmers with a freaky desire to control something beyond themselves. How could I never have asked them about it? My blood type, my affinity for the night where they were morning people, my obviously different appearance, resembling neither one of my “parents” in any way. 

“Selene? Come back to me! Come on!” I snapped open my eyes again. They felt like they had immense weights pressing down on them, trying to drag me into unconsciousness. Above me, through a curtain of loose-hanging blond hair, Talia wriggled her fingers. 

Little droplets of water splashed on my nose. I blinked harder, the shock of cold water stinging my skin. I felt her other hand on my wrist, then I convulsed. A sharp pain stung my skin! Throwing my hips off the table, I yelped. A bolt of electricity! Did she just…shock me? A fizzling warmth climbed through my body, activating every nerve, buzzing and thrumming with power.

The fog hanging over my thoughts began to recede, alternating shocks of cold water dribbling down my nose and electricity fizzing in my veins. Alertness began to return as the jolts of energy spiked in my blood. 

“Where’s Daria?” I felt another shock, Talia’s eyes intently focused on the crowds of people unrolling gauze and conversing with authorities. I felt myself lifted off the table. Canvas under my dress. A stretcher. “Talia! Talia!!!” My throat ripped with the words.
“Shhhh…” Talia ducked close to my ear, waddling alongside the stretcher. The world swayed, a jangle of bells as we passed through the door frame, chest stubbornly throbbing from the wound. 

“Kenna’s with her, she’ll go to the same hospital as you. Try to use your power if you can…I think it helps heal you,” she paused, climbing in alongside me as I was lifted into the ambulance. After the doors shut, she hastily added, “I don’t know for sure though.” Like if my power didn’t do anything to help, she would feel guilty. As though I would feel betrayed if her advice didn’t work. 

I would’ve smirked at that. But my head pounded. My eyes stung from the harsh fluorescents. Blasts of noise seemed to blare from every orifice it could: sirens, heart monitors, voices, wheels, even the buzz of the filaments in the overhead lights. I barely grasped what Talia was talking about when she continued, 

 “But you have to try. Keep it contained, close, maybe restrict it to your fist. You already stand out enough with…” she gestured vaguely to my silver dress, wet with blood, sea spray, and vomit from rough days on the ship. “Lord knows you don’t need any of the suspicion that inevitably comes with the usual…you know, harnessing starlight, summoning beams, drawing an aura of pure silver or gold around you like an angel, the like.” I registered the words, dimly. Her shocks were wearing off, the raindrops had become calming rather than startling.

My head lolled to the side; even her soft whispers had begun to grate my ears. I wanted so badly to fall asleep, drift through the yawning doorway and into the darkness. They must be feeding me a sedative through the IV…so that was what the prick was from? But I let the light flow to my limp palm. Visualizing the stars through the ceiling, beyond the clouds and daylight, beyond the atmosphere, beyond our Earth. Blazing somewhere high in the heavens, glittering, burning, yearning for my call. I was ready to receive it. But there was one thing I had to do first. One question looming in my mind.

“Talia?” She was at my side immediately.

“Yes?”

“What were all those people gathered around?” I saw something flash in her eyes. Her arms tensed, she stepped back slightly, knitting her brows. With a sigh, she gripped my hand and said,

“It was Zara. She was struck and…” she took in a deep breath, a shuddering breath, a sad breath. “She let go and I, I–Zara’s gone, Selene.” I stared at her, blankly, unable to register her words. Daria had been gone too, but the way she said it, “she let go…”

Sensing my hesitancy, Talia sighed.

“The doctors will do everything they can for you and Daria. But Zara didn’t have a chance. She’s dead, Selene. And she’s not coming back.”

Writer's Wednesday!

Writer’s Wednesday! Elementals–Afterlife

On a day like that, it was impossible to feel like everything is okay. Some people have an unfaltering belief in the positive outlook: rainbows always come after the rain–as long as you let the sun shine through.

 I used to think that way too, when I was Mira Casse, a starry-eyed teen with a passion for the sky. But there was no silver lining for the cloud that had eclipsed my life. I had been as normal as I ever could have been, a month ago. Now I was huddled in an alley, clutching the limp form of a girl I’d barely known. 

I shuddered, letting the tears spring to my eyes. I hadn’t cried in a long time, it seemed, and with every petty little heartbreak I’d endured in my high school years, the cries had felt freeing–as though the warm torrent of tears that slid down my cheeks carried all my sorrow with it, lightening the swirling storm in my heart.

This cry was different. It was a cruel, empty, shameful act of cowardice in the face of death. It was trying to hide from my grief, wake up from this enduring nightmare of the last few weeks. I cradled in my arms a lifeless prodigy that I had barely known, a sweet Italian girl without the slightest inkling of how vast her powers truly were. A heavenly embodiment of the sea with endless possibilities. Killed within the course of a few days. A wound from a ship. An arrow to the back. Daria was dead.

Zara had taken off with determination in her gaze, chasing after a young woman, screaming after her insistently and leaving us in the dust. Talia said the name was that of her long-lost sister: the one who had disappeared years ago after running away to Kommetjie… the one that had never come back. Zara was gone, too. A poor girl with a missing sister and a tortured past, condemned by her whole village for trying to help them. Knowing Artemis’s games, the “sister” Zara was chasing was nothing but an illusion to lure her away. If that was true, as I suspected it was? Zara was dead.

Curled in a dank, fetid alley, I willed death to come take away my suffering. Kenna and Talia sat on either side of me, leaning their heads on my shoulders. Kenna conjured sparks and swirling ashes in the air, tinkering with the curling threads of fire that hung suspended in her control. 

Her left knee jittered, body wrought with tension and unasked questions that I could sense on her tongue. How much longer will we rest? The mercenaries were without a doubt nearby, canvassing the area. But I was thankful she didn’t ask the question. I couldn’t imagine moving right now, taking a step forward and running away again. Running away was what had brought me here, to the stench of death congealing on the humid air, to the darkest shame of my heart: I wished I was human. 

Somewhere in me I felt Mira Casse, striding boldly down the dark hall, smelling the scent of cherry blossoms and fresh grass wafting in from the open window. A beautiful high school girl dreaming under a blanket of stars, gazing up at the brilliant Ohio sky and yearning to be a part of the vast unknown of the heavens. Human. Loving and living, heart cracking and mending, carefree and vivacious under the blazing starlight. I wanted more than this twisted, power-filled life that I was trapped in. I wanted more for all of us.

I was going to be an astronomer. Kenna could have been a firefighter or a military officer, Daria a marine biologist. Talia might have become a lead meteorologist, growing out of her shyness and lighting up the screen. Zara could’ve been an environmental biologist, studying the natural world and the Earth. Now two were dead. Three quivering in an alley, waiting on a command from some unknown force, longing for an apparition to show us the way, to drink some honeycomb elixir and let myself fade away into the stars. 

Footsteps sounded, not far away. The drum of sound grew with each passing moment, a heavy tread like a large man in boots. I could feel myself floating away, detaching from reality. Kenna’s hands grabbed me roughly, pulling on me. I cried out, blind with pain, batting away her hand. 

“Leave me! Run! I can’t leave her alone.” Clutching Daria to my chest, I stroked her hair, tears spilling over the girl that I had barely known. Kenna shook me with increased fervor, urging me with words that I couldn’t hear. The world was a haze of tears, a meaningless blur of voices and dead eyes. 

“Selene, she’s dead! We have to go!” Talia insisted, her clear, frantic voice cutting through my hysteria. More than anything, I yearned for Mira Casse. I wanted to be a human; I never wanted to run again. Let Artemis kill me. Let me drown in my sorrow and join Daria. Perhaps I’d meet my mother again, face framed with blonde locks. Braiding my hair, gazing at me with pure, human pride. My beautiful angel. One day you will be among the stars, where you belong. But we need your light on Earth, Mira. Let it glow. 

I had failed her, the mother who had never truly been my mother at all. Kenna squeezed my hand, as though in a silent goodbye. She knew better than anyone that I wouldn’t move unless she physically dragged me away. That wasn’t what I wanted, they knew. Embers and Storm, bright-eyed, able to change the world. My time was up.

As the pounding footsteps grew ever louder, the two girls slipped out of the alley, disappearing from sight. On cue, a man thundered into the dank sliver of space. Stark red hair, ghostly pale skin sprayed with freckles, a silver knife clutched threateningly in his palm. Hugging Daria close, I closed her eyes with a butterfly-soft touch and waited to die.

🌊Daria

Daria had always imagined life after death a certain way, the way that had been ingrained in her head since the moment she was born. Good souls go to heaven. Sinners go to hell. 

Heaven, a billowing landscape of pillowy white clouds, beams of golden sun streaming through the puffy wisps. Everything you’d ever loved and lost, your family you’d never gotten to meet, or the ones that had gone too soon. A childhood dog trotting energetically with a bone, youthful as a small puppy and as soft as the cotton-candy clouds themselves. The chiming of the Saint Maria Assunta church bells filling the air with warm, joyful chords. 

Hell, a fiery chasm of endless tortures. Sinners on every level uniquely punished by twisted demons. The flap of leathery winds. A stench of brimstone and diseased breath.

Instead, Daria found herself in midnight’s blank grasp. Nothingness. Empty black as far as the eye could see, neither hot nor cold, but an uncomfortable sensation of…no sensation at all. There was no tether to the outside world, nothing but the faint sound of lapping water somewhere in the blackness.

“Mom? Are you out there?” she asked the dark in her native language, hopeful phrases rolling off her tongue. Daria expected at least an echo of her words, to hear the sweet Italian syllables cascade into the air. It was as though her sound was immediately quenched, a towel thrown down onto a bass drum.

 Disappointment swelled in her unembodied conscience. Water. Just water, a soothing lap like the waves on the shore outside her Positano home. She should have known better than to hope: for a spirit-filled heaven with soaring white clouds, for her late mother’s warm touch and sweet bakery smell, for anything more out of death but an infinite oblivion. 

Out of the dark, a great sob came to her, nothing like the church bells from her seaside home. Selene, she’s dead! We have to go! 

A voice! Was it her own thought? Surely not; it was a voice like raindrops on the roof, rapid, frantic. Was that what the angels sounded like?

Daria wished she could feel something: the blissful warmth she imagined of heaven…or even the fiery cold of hell. Instead, she felt no sensation at all: no underlying feel of being. It was a sensory-deprivation chamber, a distant sound of lapping water and screams and pounding feet. Of ragged breath now, a distant voice coming from all sides then not at all.

Was she being held in the arms of her mother, awoken from a nightmare that had lasted years and years? A nightmare where she set off to work one day, still smelling like pastries from the day before? A nightmare where Daria’s mother never returned except for a motionless body in a casket, a dismal funeral on a rainy day? Or was she laying on a coroners’ table, being examined for her strange powers, poked and prodded and shocked with electrons?

All she knew was that this was the end of the line, and…somehow, she knew that she was being held. There was no sensation. No contact. Just a gut feeling. As though from an echo in a deep, dark cave, Daria could hear the sounds of sobs, gasping breath. 

Someone out in the other world was crying for her, someone she knew if only in a dream. She wished she could tell the voice that she wasn’t in pain. Memories of an arrow rose and fell, crumbling in the oblivion. Barely an inkling anymore…but the person sounded as though their heart was breaking, as though watching whatever was left of Daria hurt her soul. She wished she could tell the voice she wasn’t in pain there.

There was no suffering, no joy either: she supposed that was all she could ask of Death. Greedy of her to think that her failure to live would be rewarded by clouds and a smiling face. 

Suddenly, something called to her. She felt a tugging at her thoughts, a power, a strength–water? An invisible tether snapped into creation, an olive branch extended from her to the other side. 

They weren’t by the sea anymore; the water that called her had to be tears. Selfish. Selfish! But Daria grabbed onto them, pulling the droplets through into the nothingness. A drop of water splatted on her nose.

Wait! She was dead. Yes. Certainly. Embroiled in darkness, she was dead–so why did she feel the splat of water hitting her skin? 

A feeling! 

A sensation!

A state of being was forming in the dark. More water called. She received it, pulling it closer, hearing a vacuum suction as she dragged each tear through. Another splat, another…baffling. Baffling! But unmistakable water…

“Mamma? Mamma, mi senti?” Mom? Mom, can you hear me? The words echoed this time, the darkness accepting them rather than suffocating them. Still no response–her heart dropped with realization: the tears I am summoning are not the tears of an angel, of my mother bringing me closer to Heaven. They are the tears of a human. I’m being pulled back! 

Abruptly she stopped seeking out the water. It hovered somewhere out of reach, itching for her call. She could feel her nose now, wrinkling as the droplet slid down her cheek and slithered down her throat. 

Was this what she wanted? Each tear Daria pulled through to that side–death’s side–was strengthening her tether to the living world. Was she prepared to go back to pain, to the prick of the arrow throbbing in her back, to the metallic gush of blood through her tattered black swimsuit? 

This should be easy, she thought, wrinkling her nose, still trying to spread the state of being down to her legs, her toes, her fingertips. 

It should be an easy choice: seize the connection her power brought, spring forward into life to help that suffering voice. But–in a way–the nothingness was comfort. It was uniquely sweet in its blankness. 

She was mortally wounded in the living world–flesh torn by a wooden hull, skin pierced by an arrow. But there, floating in the black…she was nothing. No pain, but at the hefty price of no pleasure. Daria was willing to pay that price.

Just as she began to let go of the sensations of face and nose and teardrops, just as she was ready to hope for a heaven beyond this black, she heard a voice. 

Take me. Kill me if you want to, I won’t fight! I’m done running from Artemis for my choice…I’ll never be ready to live forever. But if Daria…Her face contorted, startled to hear her name in the disembodied words…if Daria, an innocent, had to die for the Huntress’ agenda, it seems right that I die too before she can torture me for her own gain. I will take every opportunity to steal her pleasure. I will relish the fact that I will die here, with Daria. So do it. Do it! Kill me. Because I will not leave this alley alive.

Daria didn’t even have to make the choice. She didn’t have to know who it was, the voice on the other side of the void. She called every single drop of water from the girl’s tears, every ounce of humidity from the living world, every essence of being from the place where she lay dead.

In a rush of light, life sprang forward to her body. She felt the thud of her heart in my chest. Her eyes snapped open, tears splashing across her skin, tangling themselves in her hair. An odor foul and bloody as death itself washed through her nostrils. 

Selene was above her, midnight hair tickling her chin, face gaunt yet strikingly gorgeous in its moondust whiteness. Daria’s side throbbed, her back throbbed, her head throbbed, and yet when she sucked in a breath, hope flooded her senses. She was alive. And she wasn’t going to let Selene die.

Poem

🐕 Dog in every view

Beautiful dog
Dopey smile 
Lolling tongue 
Wagging tail

Candy dog
Chocolate fur
Caramel eyes
Sweet taffy tongue

Feisty dog
Wrecked tennis ball
Rooted-up yard
Snappy bark

Clumsy dog
Strewn-out toys
Bulky hips
Awkward paws

Quick dog
Pulsing heart
Sleek build
Lightning legs

Lazy dog
Sleepy evenings
Sluggish movements
Snoring nose

Hungry dog
Expectant beg
Dripping drool
Shredded bone

Same dog
In every view
You can’t have just one
Because all their love is for you
Poem

🌺 Midnight Lily, Bloom!

Casablanca “night-blooming” lily, via Earth-n-World
Midnight lily blooms
Flowers lustrous, blooming, sweet
Shy, afraid of day

Beautiful blossom
Afraid to show her glory
What are you scared of?

Frightened of the sun?
Scared your beauty will outshine
The red daylight rose?

Midnight lily, shine!
Dare to bloom, under the sun...
Show the world your worth

Petal, blossom wide
Throw your colors to the sky
Life is yours to take

Dwelling in moonlight
Hide away beneath the stars
Tantalizing grace

Midnight lily blooms
Ready to show her beauty
Envy of the rose

Pride of the garden
Beautiful both night and day
Midnight lily shines
Writer's Wednesday!

Apocalypse 3- Part 3- Burned Star

The nameless people invited them to stay for dinner, a hearty scramble of potatoes and mystery meat. She held Jax’s hand under the table. Everything had changed in the blink of an eye. Colliding with the rock, her neck sticky with blood–she could hardly remember the bogs now, didn’t have the slightest idea of how far she got before she collapsed.

It wasn’t a dramatic fade out like in the movies: slowly falling into the silt, a curtain of darkness drifting lazily over her eyes, the sounds of the earthquake fading away as the black settled in. No–she didn’t remember much, but she remembered it was quick. Staggering slightly behind Jax, then abruptly black, a power outage in a bustling metro.

Now she was here, wherever here was. The women had explained how Jax had hauled her in uninvited,

“Barely able to lift his eyes from you for a second! He didn’t notice us lot til’ a good five seconds after he barged in!” A woman clucked, lowering her gaze,

“Even my husband doesn’t look at me like that…all concerned and wonderfilled, like I’m an angel on Earth with a broken wing. I would be charmed, except that he mouthed off to my mute brother-in-law as he was trying to take him for new clothes.”

“Either way, the poor boy thought you were on death’s door! Rita almost worried him to death, talking about how you wouldn’t make it through the hour.” 

After that, the women were quieter. They knew just as well as she did: that much blood loss was bound to take its toll, if not now, then sometime soon. 

Jax was out cold for a while, long enough for her to try (and fail) at making conversation with Rita. Ash had never been the talkative type, but she was starved for human interaction with a girl–or really anyone other than her lovable “always-dirty-football-player” of a companion. But, apparently, Rita was not the talkative type either. And not starved for basic human-girl interaction.

She was a beautiful girl, cold as ice, with a haughty air that sent shivers down your spine. Without saying a word, Rita had already skyrocketed to the top of Ash’s list of female powerhouses. Everything about her screamed “strong,” like an untouchable goddess or a model in a magazine. 

She would have been popular back at school, Ash had thought, the kind of girl that annihilates everyone in the mile run without breaking a sweat, the kind of girl that every boy trips over themselves with desire to get, the kind of girl that dominates every single sport the school offers. Ash let the thought die away, the embarrassing memories of Rita faded and a new one coalesced. It was a vision, an imprint, a sweetness made of golden hair, burning skin, a lingering scent of pine and morning dew.

The kiss. It lingered on her lips, in her mind, the warmth of his skin swirling on her fingertips. Wow. Electricity, energizing her body and rolling across her heart like a lightning bolt striking water. Alive, charged with passion, the physical weakness dissipated for a moment. She was floating on air.

The moment was tantalizing, dangling in the back of her mind like a cat’s toy as she scooped a spoonful of potato into her mouth. But she refused to be a complacent maiden, a two-dimensional character that swoons over a boy after he saves her. 

As much as the role was sweet, it wasn’t her. With resolve, she shoved another clump of ambiguous meat into her mouth. But, a light in the swirl of emotion…

I saved him first. The thought soothed her turmoil, a morsel of triumph, as though now their kiss was “justified.” Not that hauling deadweight through a mud bog was equal to hesitantly lifting him from the ground; it wasn’t, but the sentiment made her feel better about the electricity that pulsed through her body, the mortifying way her cheeks burned as she smothered herself with mashed potatoes. It would have happened anyway. Definitely. But it helped to know this. 

Hyperaware of the closeness between them, Ash cleared her throat, licking away bitter mystery meat morsels from her teeth. 

“So…uh, not to be…” 

All eyes were pinned on her abruptly, the only sound in the room the mushy chewing of rations and crackling flames in the woodstove. Jax’s thumb was drawing circles on her palm–which, she could resentfully admit, didn’t help her train of thought. Finally the word leapt to her tongue.

“Ungrateful? But, despite, you know, not having any weapons,” she paused, certain she saw one of the men’s brows raise in suspicion, “at all. No weapons at all.” Bad amendment, unnecessary–paranoia was getting to her.

“Why did you help us? How did you know we weren’t dangerous?” The question hung on the air for a moment. All three men lifted their forks to their mouths, an eerily synchronized motion, the small children twiddled their utensils between their fingers, eyes downcast as though they had learned that it was easier to let someone else answer. From the looks on the adult’s faces, they felt the same way. 

It was Rita that finally spoke…grudgingly, as though she had places to be other than here, like a tired teacher explaining third grade math to a high school student. Like Ms. Weatherby with all of Jax’s friends…after a moment, she let the thought drop. That was no way to think of the dead.

“Easy. Not only are you twigs with tight fitting clothes, impossible to hide weapons in, you don’t bear Their mark on your neck. The way this one sauntered in–” she pointed an accusatory fork at Jax, “it was like his throat was glowing with the lack of it, almost boisterously clear.” 

“Wait, who are They?” Jax asked, unconsciously fingering his neck.

If the room had been quiet before, it was dead silent now. A young girl’s spoon clattered to the floor, a little boy practically cringing back in his seat. Rita regarded them coolly. 

“Cannibals. A traveling band of the worst parts of society.” Ash wished now that Rita would have stopped there, it might have saved her sleep and helped her in the future. But she didn’t. The kids writhed in their seats…the women shooed them away from the table wordlessly. All 5 sprang from the table, bursting through the door into the muck.

“They take women as slaves, men to pull the carts of the Originals–the first members. Young girls are held in cages or forced to clear the path ahead, young boys…” she glanced at Jax, emerald eyes glinting in the light, unfazed. 

“Slaughtered for meat. No use for them. Feral dogs trail along their path begging for scraps. They take anyone in their path, teenagers especially. As far as I can tell, they never stop travelling their nomadic quest. Suck cities dry of stored food or supplies, the Originals taking as many wives as they like, burning a star into their arm so they can be returned to them if they escape.

“And Their symbol? A brand on the neck, an exploding sun. No name for the group, just a silent agreement with the world that any survivor they find is their property. No exceptions.”

Ash exchanged a horrified look with Jax, squeezing his hand tighter; it had started to tremble. A tap on the floor told her her foot had begun to jitter. It only did that when something was wrong–very wrong.

She knew she should leave Rita’s speech at that, kindly thank the family for the meal and book it for civilization, wherever that may be. Maybe they could find guns, knives, anything to protect themselves against this gang. But something gnawed at her mind, the curiosity she had never had an affinity for rearing its ugly head. Before she could stop herself, the words spilled out.

“How do you know so much about Them?” 

Rita smiled. A hollow smile. The adults all averted their eyes, a man lightly resting his hand on his holster, a pudgy-faced woman doing a 180 in her chair. 

No one looked at the beautiful teenage girl, with a smatter of freckles across her cheeks and delicate blonde hair. And no one said a word as she lifted her sleeve to reveal an ugly black burn, a birthmark gone wrong–imprinted roughly, in the shape of a star.

***************

“Thank you so much for helping Ashley and myself. My apologies for my misunderstanding of your husband’s condition–I truly didn’t know.” The woman that had hummed at his side smiled, face barely moving her bun was so tight. She handed him their clothing, still a bit damp but entirely unspeckled by the foul-smelling mud. 

“Tell the men that I am indebted to them for my life, and if our paths do cross again, hopefully I can repay you for the meal and your troubles. The wooziness has improved as we speak.” Ash shook the woman’s outstretched hand; if she was shocked by the antiquated gesture, she didn’t show it, firmly shaking it without missing a beat. It was an outdated practice, one that hadn’t been used since the Quarantine long ago. 

With that, they left the squat concrete building, glancing back to see the kids ushered inside, the pine door slamming shut before they had a chance to wave goodbye. At least that was one practice that had survived the Quarantine and the Burn. Waving. 

Never hello, however. Only goodbye. Maybe that was symbolic of the world as it had been for the last 2 years: mournful.