Hollow Chocolate

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Maxine quietly slipped through the door of her classroom, carefully balancing a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates and gifts. She spotted her sister Chloe carrying a stack of papers out of her classroom, and managed a small wave. Chloe came over and opened the school door leading out to the staff parking lot.

“That’s quite a haul,” Chloe commented appreciatively, eyeing the box of goodies.

Maxine grinned. “I know. It’s the one day of the year that I get more goodies than Theresa. And you know, some of these cards are hand-written—which is saying something considering my students are three and four years old.”

“That is impressive.” Chloe checked her watch. “And I’m guessing it’s naptime?”

“Yup. Theresa let me slip out to put these in my car. One less load I have to carry after school. Your kids in gym?”

“Yep! One blissful hour of peace and quiet.” Chloe opened the trunk of her sister’s car for her. She spotted an aluminum balloon in the box and grimaced. “I’m sorry I couldn’t take your extended care shift for you today. Liam had these reservations at the steakhouse for two months.”

Maxine shrugged nonchalantly as she plunked the box in her trunk. “Don’t worry about it. It’s your first Valentine’s Day together. You should enjoy it. Get two steaks. And a bloomin’ onion.”

She grinned as they headed back inside the school. “So, what about you? What are you going to do tonight after work?”

“Same thing everyone does after and eleven-hour workday: crash on the couch.”

“That’s it? You’re not doing anything special tonight?”

“I’m going to take advantage of the house being empty to watch the 1977 Lord of the Rings cartoon with Sam. Does that count?”

Chloe gave her sister an estranged look. “Really? That stupid cartoon is the best you got?”

“Hey, don’t diss my Lord of the Rings!” Maxine laughed. “You’re going to be off eating steak with your boyfriend, and it’s not like I’m forcing anyone to ‘suffer’ through it.”

“What about Mom and Dad?”

“Chloe, it’s Valentine’s Day. They’re going out tonight, too.”

“What about Hailey and Claire? Are they coming over?”

“No. Claire is out of town on a business trip, and Hailey is going out with Josh. And before you ask, Zoey is going out with Logan, and Brook is going out with Carter. Everyone is going their separate ways, and I’m going to be at home eating way too much chocolate.” The sisters paused outside of Maxine’s classroom door. Maxine had one hand on the knob, looking suddenly exhausted.

Chloe looked at her younger sister guiltily. “So, you’re really going to be alone tonight?”

Maxine managed a playfully smile. “What? Doesn’t Sam count?”

“No.”

“Then I guess that’s what I get for being single. I’ll be fine, Chloe. Enjoy your date with Liam. I’ve got to get back to class. See you tomorrow.” Maxine quickly slipped into her darkened classroom before her sister kept her longer.

The rest of the day dragged by. Maxine tried not to let her impending loneliness weigh her down as she passed out pink cupcakes to the children left in the school’s extended care. The sun set, and she received one or two cards more from grateful parents picking up their children. The clock struck six, and Maxine and the other extended care workers happily punched their timecards and went to their homes.

Maxine parked her car in the empty driveway and honked a four-beat rhythm. Sam came tumbling out the dog door, brown ears flopping, tongue lolling, and tail wagging as he ran down the steps to greet her. She opened her door and let her large puppy crawl onto her lap and cover her face with slobber, and she thoroughly enjoyed the loving attention.

“That’s my good boy, Samwise,” she cooed at her puppy as she ruffled his floppy ears. “Are you ready for dinner? Yes? Let’s get my goodies and we’ll go inside and eat. Come on, Sam!” She gently pushed her dog off her lap and gathered her things, carefully juggling her lunchbox and gifts as she unlocked the front door.

Since her salary wasn’t quite enough to allow her to live on her own, Maxine had been living with her parents since she’d graduated from college. Sam had been a Christmas present, and he had been the perfect sweet-tempered companion for her since Chloe started dating. With silence echoing through the empty house, Maxine was reminded how thankful she was to have such a devoted pet.

There was a note from her mother on their kitchen table, letting her know that there was spaghetti and cake in the fridge for her. Samwise followed her around the kitchen as she heated her dinner then laid at her feet when she turned on her movie and sat down to eat. The spaghetti was delicious, but the cake was better. When she had finished both, she placed her empty plate on the floor for Samwise to enjoy, and then took it to the kitchen to be watched and sanitized. She went back to the couch to finish her movie and picked up her puppy and put him beside her. Sam yawned and rested his head on her lap as she opened her phone to update her social media.

Maxine checked Facebook first, grinning at all the messages her friends had posted on her wall. She made sure that she liked and commented on every single one. Then she opened Instagram, smiling forlornly as she scrolled through the pictures of her siblings and friends’ dates. There was Chloe and Liam with their bloomin’ onion and steak. Zoey and Logan were at some fancy Italian restaurant showing off their oozing chocolate desserts, while Carter and Brook were posing in front of some romantic movie poster. Hailey and Josh were playing laser tag, and Claire was posting sunset pictures of the Washington Monument. Even her mother was posting pictures of her and her father together with their imperial crab cakes. The pictures made the house seem emptier.

“You know, Sam,” Maxine told her dog, “I usually prefer being alone, so I thought I’d be okay. I have you with me, after all. But right now, I honestly wish someone was here with me.”

Sam licked her arm and yawned again.

She put her hand on his head and scratched behind his ears. “I’m glad they’re having a good time, though.” She snuggled against her puppy and turned the movie up louder, trying to drown out the roaring silence.

It was the first time she had ever been alone on her birthday.

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The Guy’s Guide to the Perfect Proposal

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You’ve been dating this girl for a while now, and you know she’s the one. When you look at her, it’s as if there’s no one else around. You want to seal the deal, but you don’t know how. How the proposal is done has delighted women and tormented men for years.

There isn’t a wrong way to propose, but there are some proposals that have become cliché, such as hiding the ring in the champagne glass, having waiters sing your song while you propose, or proposing on Valentine’s Day at sunset. There are millions of ways to propose, the trick is finding the best way.

Spicing Up Clichés

Sometimes the best way to propose is a cliché that have been spiced up with a personal flair. For example, Dan proposed to Kaycee on Pensacola Beach, which sounds cliché until you hear the whole story.

Dan and Kaycee met in college, and he had made it a point to visit her every summer while they were dating. However, right before the summer of 2011, Dan told her that he wouldn’t be able to visit her because he was taking a summer class. Then he bought three wooden boxes, labeled one Wednesday, one Thursday, and one Friday. He put rose petals inside the Wednesday box and wrote ‘Past’ on the lid. Since Kaycee loved puzzles, Dan made a puzzle that created a picture of the word ‘Present’ and put it in the Thursday box. Finally, he put a one dollar bill for the admission fee for Pensacola Beach in the Friday box with a little note telling Kaycee where and when to go. Then he shipped the boxes to her and told her she couldn’t open the shipping box until she had a bad day at work. A week and a half later, Kaycee opened the box, and Dan told her she had to open each box on their specific day. That Friday, Dan flew down to Pensacola and waited for her. When she arrived, they went for a walk down the beach where he finally proposed, and she said “Yes.”

Ordinary to Extraordinary

Of course, spiced up cliché’s may not be the best approach for every girl. When Matt wanted to propose to his girlfriend, Bekah, he took an ordinary activity and made it extraordinary.

Matt and Bekah loved geocaching together, spending time in parks and woods searching for the hidden items. On January 1, 2012, Matt pulled up the coordinates for a geocach in Fitzgerald Park, Grand Ledge, Michigan. There is one geocach in Fitzgerald Park, but that wasn’t the cache they were going to find. Matt gave Bekah the clue “Journey’s end will also be its beginning, a hill a trail a fork a bend, by now your head is spinning,” which led them to the playground. There they found the next clue, “Broken tree, bended knee, surprise.” Matt let Bekah pick the trail they’d follow as he grabbed a walking stick. Bekah picked the trail, but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere. When she told Matt that they should try a different trail, he explained the clue to her. “Broken tree,” he gestured to the walking stick. “Bended knee,” he got down on one knee, and held out the ring. “Surprise.” She said, “Yes.”

Special Events

Another way to propose is to take advantage of a special event. When Ben learned that his family and extended family – girlfriends included – were planning on going on a cruise, he knew that it would be the perfect time and place to propose to his girlfriend, Erin.

Not only would Ben be able to introduce Erin to his extended family, but he’d have the perfect setting for a proposal. He bought a wooden jewelry box that had a secret compartment in the back of the drawer, and hid the ring inside. He gave the box to Erin on the fourth day of the cruise at dinner, and let her open it and look at it without telling her what was hidden inside. She didn’t find the ring, but she loved the box. After dinner, Ben took her out to the top deck of the ship. He had planned to propose under the stars, but a storm was gathering above them, completely blotting out the starlight. However, when he showed her the secret compartment in the jewelry box and got down on one knee and asked her, the weather didn’t matter. She still said “Yes.”

Location, Location, Location

Sometimes, it’s simply the location that makes the proposal special. With Josh and his girlfriend, Sara, where not to propose was the only thing that mattered.

Josh knew that Sara did not want to get engaged on the campus where they had met, so he planned accordingly. He had one week off work for Christmas, and had to split those days between his family in Massachusetts and Sara in North Carolina. The last time he had visited Sara at her home, they had gone hiking in the mountains, and it had been something that they both enjoyed. So Josh decided that another hike would create the perfect scenario for a proposal. The day he arrived, he and Sara hiked up to the outlook on Raven Rock. It had a breathtaking view, but it had attracted another family to its heights. Josh took pictures of Sara against the backdrop while waiting for the family to leave, though Sara had no idea what was about to happen. As soon as the family left, Josh heaved a sigh of relief and got down on one knee. It took Sara a moment to realize what was happening, but when she did, she started crying. Then she said “Yes.”

The best advice for any engagement is fitting it to the girl. Keep an eye out for things and activities she likes and incorporate them into the proposal. Listen for hints of what she wants whenever you talk with her. But no matter what you do, if she’s the right one, she’ll say yes.

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Ripped Paper Heart

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It was Valentine’s Day, and fourteen-year-olds Alli Clairing and Ellie Black were shopping for art books at the mall. As they wandered through the stores, nibbling soft pretzels and sipping lemonade, Ellie caught sight of two familiar faces in a nearby jewelry store.

She nudged Alli and pointed. “Isn’t that Jake and Alice?”

Alli looked, chewing her pretzel thoughtfully. Jake Hernon, her older sister Brittany’s boyfriend, stood with Alice Howard, Brittany’s best friend, looking at the extravagant display of engagement rings. “Want to go spy on them?” Alli asked.

Ellie nodded, and the girls ducked behind the pillar marking the entrance of the store. Alli peeked into the store, watching the couple intently. She frowned as Jake slipped a silver band with a large ruby on Alice’s slender fingers. Alli stiffened as he took Alice’s hand in his to examine the ring. His approving smile was unmistakable.

“Jake,” Alice said ecstatically, “you have made me the happiest girl alive! I can’t wait until tonight!”

Alli stepped out of hiding. “What’s tonight?”

They whirled around, their matching expressions of guilt quickly changing to anger.

“How long of you been spying on us?” Alice demanded.

“How long have you been cheating on my sister?” Alli spat back.

“W-what makes you think that we’re cheating on her?” Jake asked.

“Yeah,” Alice added quickly, “what makes you think this ring is for me?” She inclined her hand to show it off.

Alli slapped Alice’s hand away from her face. “Brittany likes sapphires, not rubies, and it fits you. You know Brittany’s fingers are short and stubby. Your rings don’t fit each other. That ring is screaming your name!”

“It is, isn’t it?” Alice admired the ring smugly, then frowned when she realized her almost-confession. “That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Sure it doesn’t.” Alli turned on Jake. “What are you doing? You know what Brittany’s favorite gem is. You’ve been dating my sister for four years, and you’re just going to throw it all away? You were happy! You were going to get married!”

Jake avoided her eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah,” Alice cut in, “it’s not like you have a boyfriend. Or have ever had one.”

Alli lunged forward, but Ellie grabbed her before she could reach the couple. “You low two-timing freaks! How dare you do this to my sister!”

“Alli, don’t! They’re not worth it!” Ellie begged.

Alli straightened proudly. “You’re right,” she said. “Let’s just go home and tell Brittany.”

Jake grabbed her as she turned to go. “Alli, don’t! You don’t understand! Just let me explain! I still love Brittany—a lot—but—look, Alice has leukemia. She doesn’t have as much time as Brittany.”

Alli gave him a look. “And that makes it okay? Why didn’t you just tell Brittany?”

Alice shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t want any sympathy. Jake found out by accident. Alli, we don’t want to hurt her, honestly. That’s why we haven’t told her yet.”

“Can’t prove it by me!” Alli snapped.

“You can’t tell her!” Jake growled.

Alli didn’t hold back when she kicked him. “Watch me!” she shouted, running away.

“Alli, come back!” Jake started to limp after her, but Ellie kicked him in the other leg before running after Alli herself.

The two girls dashed out of the mall and raced down the bike trail toward Alli’s house.

“What do you think Jake’s going to do?” Ellie shouted.

“Before or after that broken leg I hope I gave him heals?”

The mall was exactly a mile away from Alli’s house. Both girls were exhausted when they reached the porch. Ellie sat down panting as Alli stumbled inside. Brittany was sitting on the couch, cutting hearts out of red, pink and white construction paper. Markers of the same colors surrounded her as she hummed her favorite love song.

Brittany looked up and smiled as she showed Alli the heart she was making. “I know it’s cliché, and a little tacky, but I think Jake will like it. What do you—what happened to you?”

“I ran from the mall.”

Brittany laughed. “Why’d you do that? Was someone chasing you or something?”

“We were, but then we saw—”

Ellie burst into the room. “Jake’s here!”

“Jake’s here?” Brittany jumped from the couch and dashed into the bathroom to primp.

A minute later Jake limped into the house. “Brittany?”

Alli clenched her fists and growled threateningly, “If you don’t want me to crack your face like I cracked your leg you’d better get out!”

“Girl or not, you just try it and see what happens!”

“Oh yeah?” Alli lunged forward, forcing Ellie to hold her back again. “You’re such a creep! How could you do this to her?” Alli freed herself from Ellie’s grip, seized the heart Brittany had been working on and shook it in his face. “You don’t even deserve her paper heart!”

“Give me that!” Jake grabbed at the heart, catching part of it in his hand. The heart ripped, leaving one half in Jake’s fist and the other half in Alli’s.

Brittany chose that moment to emerge from the bathroom, her hair freshly brushed and teased. “What’s all the screaming abou—” She stopped in shock at the scene before her and looked from her sister to her boyfriend. “You ripped it.” she said numbly.

Jake dropped the torn piece and pointed accusingly at Alli. “That little home-wrecker made me!”

“You’re the one wrecking it!”

“Home-wrecker?” Brittany frowned in confusion. “What’s going on here?”

Jake gave Alli a dark look. “Absolutely nothing.” Somehow he managed a disarming smile. “Look, Brit, I’m sorry about the heart, and even though it was gorgeous, it was only paper. It’s your actual heart that means the world to me.”

Brittany blushed, but Alli hissed. “Sure it does.”

Jake glared at her, and then turned back to Brittany. “Listen, Brit, no matter what anyone says, I love you. Never doubt that.”

“I don’t, and I won’t.”

Jake smiled in relief and checked his watch. “Whoops! Sorry gorgeous, but I’ve got to fly. I will see that fabulous face of yours tonight. I love you.” He winked, and left.

“I love you, too,” Brittany told him dreamily as she shut the door.

After that, Brittany was impossible to talk to. She pranced about the house getting ready for what was bound to be a night she would never forget. Both Alli and Ellie tried to warn her, but Brittany was too busy dancing on her little cloud to listen. As the day wore on, the girls had to resign themselves to drawing pictures of Jake being eaten by a dragon, then throwing the pictures into the fire and poking the ashes as they burned. That night, Alli watched as Brittany applied the final touches to her make-up, still ignoring Alli’s desperate attempts at warning her. As Brittany danced off with Jake on their special Valentine’s date, Jake’s dad waved from the front seat of the car as they drove off.

“Somehow,” Alli commented to Ellie, “I don’t think having a chaperone on this date will keep her heart from being ripped to pieces.”

Ellie hugged her. “Maybe having his shin kicked in twice made him change his mind. And look on the bright side, he’s still limping.”

“Oh, hurray. Brittany gets to live the rest of her life knowing that her best friend since kindergarten stole the man she’s given her heart to for the past four years right out from under her nose. Jake only has to live with limping for a week. Yup. I feel like a winner.” Alli turned to her. “Brittany doesn’t deserve scum like him. She deserves someone incredibly handsome who will love her forever. Someone who will protect her, never hurt her, and kill anyone who even tries. She deserves a real man, not Jake.”

The night passed with seconds that seemed to crawl. Ellie wasn’t able to stay the night. The two said good-bye with a reluctance that had never entered their friendship before. After Ellie was gone, Alli waited anxiously on the couch for her sister to return. Jake walked Brittany to the front door hours later, and they said good night while gazing dreamily into each other’s eyes. As Brittany shut the door, Alli caught the hesitant look on Jake’s face over Brittany’s shoulder. The door clicked shut, and Brittany turned to her sister with wild eyes.

“Tonight was the best night of my life!”

“I seriously doubt that.” Alli muttered.

“If it gets better than this, I don’t know how!” Brittany laughed as she reclined on the couch beside her younger sister. “Want me to tell you about it?”

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“Girls! Time for bed!” Their mother called from the kitchen.

“Yes ma’am!” The girls chorused reluctantly.

As Alli headed off for bed, she dared to hope that Jake and Alice had decided to stop cheating on her sister. Still, the look on Jake’s face as he and Brittany said good-bye was going to haunt her. Alli sent a silent prayer to God for the best.

That night, Alli was woken by a heart-wrenching scream. She sat up, rubbing her eyes sleepily. She heard a loud sob and sleep fled from her mind. Terrified of what she would find, Alli scrambled out of bed and raced out of her room and into Brittany’s. Their parents were already there, trying to console an inconsolable Brittany. Alli froze in the doorway, watching her sister sob into their mother’s shoulders. Their father was pacing around the room, shouting into the phone. A moment later, he shook his head and lowered the phone.

“He hung up,” he growled.

“What happened?” Alli asked, her voice sounding small and insignificant even to her.

Her mother looked up and whispered, “Jake and Alice eloped.”

“Eloped?” Alli went to Brittany’s side, and wrapped her arms around her sister’s convulsing form. “Oh, Brittany, I’m so sorry!”

“It didn’t happen! It didn’t happen!” Brittany’s voice was choked with her tears. “They were my best friends! Why would they do this to me?” She looked at Alli, tears streaming from her blue eyes.

Alli scowled angrily. “Because they’re stupid morons that don’t deserve you.

Brittany sat up. “You knew, didn’t you?” Her blue eyes searched Alli’s open face. “That’s what you kept trying to tell me, wasn’t it?”

Alli threw herself into Brittany’s arms. “Oh, Brittany, I’m so sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Brittany hugged her. “It’s not you, it’s him. It’s all him!”

Alli snuggled deeper into Brittany’s arms. “Want me to kill him? I could dig that rotten heart of his out with a spoon. Give him a taste of his own medicine.”

Brittany managed a small laugh and hugged Alli tighter. “But then I would lose my last best friend.”

The two girls held each other as they cried. Alli told herself that she would never let a guy hurt Brittany again, and she would think twice before believing that a guy really loved her. For now, however, she concentrated on comforting her sister. Alli knew that tears wouldn’t heal the hurt, but they would cleanse the wound. Only time could heal this betrayal.

Unforgiven

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Jenny peeked between the curtains and scowled. Johanna stood outside the opposite house, laughing with her friends as they lounged in the sunlight. Her children were playing tag with the neighbors, dashing around their parents with squeals of delight. Johanna called to her eldest, who turned and signaled her understanding before passing the message to the other kids. Johanna turned back to her friend, bid her farewell, and they hugged. Jenny sneered and let the curtain slide back into place.

“Ugh! I can’t stand her!”

“Spying on Jo again?” Mary asked, sipping at her tea.

“Why does she need to have a party every week? She crowds the neighborhood, her children run amok in the street, and you can’t walk out the door without being accosted with lemonade.”

“It is pretty good lemonade.”

“Oh, shut up. It’s too bitter. And don’t you think a party a week is a bit excessive?”

Mary shrugged and refilled her tea cup. “A bit, but that’s mainly because I don’t like crowds. And Johanna’s parties are harmless. It’s just close friends and family coming to spend the weekend together.”

Jenny rolled her eyes and went to the kitchen. She straightened her vase of lily of the valley and grabbed a beer before returning to her friend at the table. She took a long swig before letting her head bang into the table with an exasperated groan.

Mary stirred sweetener into her cup and took another sip. She stared at the top of Jenny’s head, swirling the tea thoughtfully. “I’m worried about you, Jenny. This isn’t healthy.”

Jenny looked up with a sneer. “I’m fine.”

“Oh really? Every time Jo has people over, you call me and spend the whole time wallowing. That’s not okay.”

“It’s Johanna that’s not okay! The only reason she has friends is because they don’t know what she’s really like. They don’t know how manipulative she is, how…”

Was,” Mary corrected quietly.

Is. She’s just getting better at hiding.” She drummed her fingers on the table, her eyes wandering back to the window. “She was a bully, she’s still a bully, and she always will be.”

“She’s trying. If you just give her a chance…”

“I’ve given her a chance, Mary! I’ve given her hundreds of chances, and every single time she’s turned around and stabbed me in the back!”

“You’re not the only one she hurt, you know.”

Jenny fell silent for a minute, took another swallow of her beer, then admitted softly, “I know. And I don’t understand how you’re still able to defend her like this. I’m worried about you. She’s still using you.”

“No she’s not. Jo and I barely talk anymore.”

“Then why bother defending her?”

Mary looked down at her tea. “A couple of months back, Jo asked if I would meet her at a café. She paid for my lunch, and we talked for hours. She apologized over and over again for what she did and how she treated me, and she let me scream and rant and unleash all the pain she caused. It felt really good, and you know what? I forgave her.”

“So, years of psychological and emotional torture, and a little screaming makes it all better?”

 

She tugged at the edge of her long sleeves, pulling them to the middle of her palms. She took a deep breath before meeting Jenny’s gaze. “I want my scars to heal. I want to move on, and I want you to move on, too.”

“Ha! Johanna hasn’t apologized to me. She hasn’t even tried to talk to me in years!”

“Do you blame her?” She nodded to the curtains pointedly.

Jenny scoffed and downed her beer. Muttering under her breath, she stormed back into the kitchen to get a second beer and downed that, too, tossing it aside and grabbed a third. Mary shifted uncomfortably as her friend drank that one, staring at her tea as Jenny brought the drink back to the table. Jenny opened the drink and looked Mary in the eyes. “Do you blame me?”

Mary looked down. “I think that if you want an apology, you’re going to have to make the first move.” She stood and began clearing the dishes. “I think that if you’re willing to talk, Johanna will respond. She just needs a chance.”

Another chance.”

“Another chance. And if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for me.”

Jenny grunted and took a swallow. “I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I’m asking.”

 

~

 

Johanna stepped into Jenny’s house, nervously fiddling with her pitcher of homemade lemonade as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. She heard a crash and a curse from the kitchen and ran to help. Jenny was pulling two glass cups out of a spreading puddle, quietly swearing as she grabbed a rag to clean up the mess. Jo sat her pitcher on the table and picked up the white flowers.

“These are beautiful. What are they?”

Jenny glanced at the flowers then grabbed a new vase from the cabinet. “Lily of the valley.” She snatched the delicate flowers and dropped them in the vase, filling it and setting it to the side. She looked at the two cups, then shook her head and set them on the table next to the lemonade. “Thank you for coming over.”

Johanna relaxed and smiled. “Thank you for inviting me.” She filled the cups with lemonade and sat down opposite one, taking a drink of the sweet and sour liquid. “I was surprised to get your invite. It’s been years since we’ve talked.”

“Five years.”

“Yes.” She swallowed. “A lot has changed in five years.”

“Has it?” Jenny picked a tray of cookies from the dry counter and turned to the table. She stopped when she saw the full cups and narrowed her eyes.

“I’m sorry; I should’ve asked if you liked lemonade.”

“It’s fine.” To prove it, Jenny took a large drink.

Jo took a cookie and fiddled with it. “I’m glad we have this time together. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while.”

“Sure you have.” Jenny took another long swig.

Jo tightened her grip on her cup and took a deep breath. “Jenny, I wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry! Everything I did, everything I’ve done… I was so horrible to you, and there is absolutely no excuse for what I did. I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, or even this chance to apologize, and I know it’s just words, but I really am very sorry.”

Jenny stared at her for a long minute, but then she started to laugh. It wasn’t a good laugh. “You’re right; you don’t deserve my forgiveness. You deserve to rot in a dung heap, alone and forgotten by everyone you love. But is that what you got? No. You got a nice house, a nice family, good friends—you got everything! You don’t deserve any of it! So, if this is all I can do, no. No, I don’t forgive you. I will never forgive you! I…” Her face went white, and she dashed to the sink, retching violently.

Johanna seized Jenny’s lemonade, rinsed the cup out, and filled it with clean water. She held it out to her retching host, but Jenny turned and grabbed her wrists, eyes wide, pupils dilated. Then she crumpled to the floor, still puking. Jo grabbed her phone and called the hospital, kneeling in the vomit as she tried to resuscitate her old friend.

It took too long for the medics to arrive, and Jo couldn’t save her. Jenny died in a puddle of her own vomit, smelling like barf and bitter lemonade.

Lily of the Valley (2)

Things Change

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“Hello? Jenny, are you here?” I peeked into the room, my heart sinking as my hopeless voice echoed back. I opened the door completely and looked inside.

The room was dark and empty. I flicked light switch, turning the walls from black to a bland off-white. The sound of my feet somersaulted off the walls, landing in my ears as an almost deafening clump clump. It emphasized how empty the room was. Wait, no, the room wasn’t empty. There was a black nightstand set against the wall, a thick twelve-by-twelve scrapbook resting on its dusty surface.

I went to the scrapbook and opened it. The first picture was of Jenny and I with pretzel sticks jutting out from under our upper lips like walrus tusks. I had to laugh. We were freshmen, studying for our Bible midterm. I turned the page. We were sticking our tongues out at the camera. Her tongue was green; mine was blue. It had been one of the few times we had treated ourselves to a slurpee from the Hub. The next picture was of us at Fine Arts; then we were at her eighteenth birthday party. Rollerblading, badminton, foosball, Thanksgiving, Christmas—we did it all, and we did it together. I shut the scrapbook and stepped back.

That was when I heard the music. It was bright and lively. I turned and saw a shadow of something familiar. It was my bed, and Jenny and I were sitting on it. She was upset. She was lying on my bed, her face buried in my pillows. I had my laptop, Toshi, on my lap and I looked anxious. Then I grinned and set my laptop on my bed. I sprang up, grabbed my umbrella, and starting doing high kicks and prancing about as super perky honky-tonk music giggled out of the computer. I looked ridiculous, but it worked! Jenny was rolling with laughter, and I fell back on my bed, winded but triumphant. Jenny reached over and hugged me.

“Thank you,” she said, tears of relieved sorrow streaming down her olive cheek.

I watched as my past self returned the hug, and I smiled as the bed faded back into nothingness. Those were the good days, when she needed me, and I was always there for her. It was good to be wanted—no, needed! Now there was someone else she needed more than me.

I squinted as a window materialized above the table, sunlight streaming through the blinds. I heard laughter coming from the other side and raised the blinds to see what was happening. It was Jenny, on a double-date with Vincent, her boyfriend and my brother; her brother, Aaron; and Jane, his fiancée: my friends. They were having a picnic out on the lawn. Of course they wouldn’t invite me. I’m still single. I let the blinds fall back down, the grey plastic strips blocking the scene from my sight. I heard the murmur of Vincent’s voice followed by peals of laughter.

I turned and walked out of the room, flicking the lights off as I passed through the door.  Maybe Ethan would be home. I walked down the hall, feeling hopeful. Ethan was always there. Only he wasn’t this time.

I found myself staring at a closed door. There was a post-it note on it.

Katie,

Remember that college that’s 15 minutes away from my house that all my friends go to? Well, I was just accepted. Sorry, I won’t be coming back. I just really want to be home.

Ethan

My heart dropped to my feet. “No.” I opened the door and stepped in. “Ethan?”

Like Jenny’s room, Ethan’s room was dark, but unlike Jenny’s, his room wasn’t entirely empty. There were still shadows left, shadows of fresh memories lingering in the corners. I turned on the light and stepped in. There wasn’t much there. There were some pieces of lined notebook paper tacked to the walls and books scattered around the floor.

I bent down for a closer look at the books on the floor and realized that they were my notebooks. Some were opened to pieces of different stories that I had written recently while others just lay there. Ethan had always liked reading my stories or whatever bits and pieces I had for him to read. I looked at the pages of one of the opened ones. It was an excerpt of one of the stories I had written about our group. His character had been a half-giant, and I had been a jester of unknown race and origin. He had loved those stories. I closed the book and stood.

My eyes went straight to the leaflets of notebook paper. I smiled when I recognized them. They were Ethan’s class notes—or what he claimed were his notes. They were actually pictures from stories I had written and stories Ethan wanted me to write. I touched one of the pictures. It was of one of my characters, Miaku, playing his flute in the woods while his girlfriend, Brittany, watched. The picture right beside it was a black and red dragon egg, which held my favorite character, Cassandra Moon. When  it came to my writing, Ethan was my biggest fan.

I turned around and went to the nightstand and scrapbook that materialized beside the wall. The front picture was of the very first time we hung out together outside of class. We had gone bowling in the Sports Center. Then there was ice skating, Greek Rush, Fine Arts, Thanksgiving, Dutch Blitz, and Christmas. There was a picture of him with twenty-seven unshelled peanuts shoved into his mouth and drool oozing between the shells. I suppressed a laugh. That was our Sophomore Bash. We had been playing ‘Chubby Bunnies,’ but we used peanuts since we didn’t have any marshmallows. He had won. I turned another page and blinked in surprise when I saw a few pictures of myself. Then I remembered that he had taken them so that I could be in some of the pictures–so that I could be in some of the memories.

I shut the scrapbook and went expectantly to the window that materialized. When I peeked out, however, there was only dying grass and cloudy skies. I stepped away from the glass. Somehow, it hurt more not to see him than to see him with another group.

I walked out of the room and slammed the door behind me. I sank to the floor, my back against his door. The note he had left me slipped off and wafted down to my head. I plucked it from my hair and looked at it again.

I won’t be coming back.

I crumpled the paper in my fist and hurled it down the hall. I leaned back against the door, staring up at the ceiling as I tried to keep myself from crying. When I came to college, I had knew that I would only have four years to spend with whatever friends I would make here, but it had only been three years. What was happening to my life? Was I losing my friends? I brushed the tears from my eyes and stood. There was always the rest of the group.

I walked to the door at the end of the hall and opened it. I felt that all-too familiar feeling of my heart dropping to my toes when only darkness greeted me. I turned on the light and stared at the small square table in the room. There were four empty purple chairs around it. There were ghosts left from my earliest memories with my group. There was Jenny, Jane, and myself eating lunch or dinner. Then the table changed. The chairs turned red, and their number doubled as the table itself became larger and round. There were more people present, and all of them were my friends. I had to smile. There were nine of us now: Jenny, Vincent, Jane, Gil, Rose, Jordan, Kat, Ethan, and me. We all laughed hysterically as Vincent chucked another balled-up napkin at Gil. Gil’s brow furrowed and he asked Vincent if he could ever have one dinner where he didn’t act immature. The answer, of course, was “no.” Ethan then leaned over and poked Gil’s sides, causing him to shriek and jump. My ghost’s face was red with laughter, and she held up her hands, her fingers curling in to form a heart, reminding Gil that teasing was their way of showing love for one another. Gil smiled sarcastically back at her, but he returned the heart. He knew that this was our way, and he even laughed along when they turned on Jordan. Then the laughter and our memory faded, leaving the chairs empty.

I saw the notes right away. I already knew that Jenny, Vincent, and Jane were on their double date with Jenny’s brother Caleb, and Ethan was going to a different college, but what about the others? I went to each of their places and read their notes. Gil had a test tomorrow, and would be spending the night studying. Rose hadn’t left a note or explanation. Jordan was like Ethan, transferring to a college near his home, and wouldn’t be coming back, ever. Kat was eating with a group of her classmates. I set the notes back down and sat in my seat. It seemed as if they were always gone—as if they always had someplace better to be and someone better to be with.

I stared at the empty seats around me. “I’m all that’s left.”

A door formed at the far end of the room and swung open. Three girls stood just beyond the threshold, each with an arm outstretched to me. I stood in surprise.

“It’s okay, Katie,” the first girl said, beckoning to me. “We’re here for you.”

I looked at my friends’ empty seat. “I’ve heard that lie before.”

The second girl smiled. “You can’t let the past hold you back, Kate. Things are always going to change.”

“It’ll be okay,” the third girl reiterated gently. “You don’t have to be alone.”

I left the table but stopped at the door. Would it really be okay? I looked back at the empty table, my heart aching when the shadows of dinners past started to reappear. I would never have that again. I looked back at the three girls indecisively. I could go out and join them, holding on to the memories of my old friends while not letting these new ones get too close. Or worse, I could invite the girls in and let them take seats at my table. I could move on completely, I could let go and see what new laughter and friendships the world has in store for me. Or I could close the door on them completely. I didn’t have to move on. I could stay with the memories of the best friends I would probably ever have and live with old disappointments and pains instead of experiencing new ones. My hand gripped the doorknob while my eyes stared out at the world even as my heart pulled me back toward the table.

I have no control over the way things change. The only control I have is to decide how I adjust to the change.

Wild Love

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There is a valley in the world of Worthana that lies just East off the peninsula of Zorl.  To say that it is known for its cypress trees is an understatement, for here it lies at the base of Cypress Mountain, and it shelters the prosperous town of Cypress Cummings.  Needless to say that the valley had been named Cypress Valley.  Even so, neither the valley nor the town is the focus of this story.  In all truth, neither is the mountain.  Our story resides inside the mountain itself, in a large cave in the bowls of the earth.

Beyond the stalactites and stalagmites, beyond the sound of dripping water that bounces off the smooth stone walls, lives the strangest dragon you have, perhaps, ever heard of.  She is not covered in scales, but with short, white fur.  She has a bright magenta mane that sticks straight up, as if there is a current of electricity permanently keeping it that way. Her ears are large, and round, coming out from the curve of her jaw.  Her nose is pink, and lamb like, and she has a blunt horn jutting out from above her sea green eyes on either side of her head.   Her cave is filled to overflowing, not with gold, but with candy of all kinds!  Chocolate, lollipops, gum, caramel, fudge, and even whole sacks of sugar!  She knows exactly how many of each she has, and she’ll know in an instant if even one grain of sugar is missing.  This is WildLamb.

Of course, WildLamb is not the only dragon in the mountain; she is only one of thirteen, and each is stranger than the last.  There’s the giant Glyph, and his brother Leprechaun.  The warrior-like Manny, with the beautiful copper Fexkra Lee, and her dragataur brother Fenrak.  The armored Galrix, and his friend the rabbit dragon Buddy.  The twins, Soapy and Corky, the healer dragataur Jayla, and their leader, P.W.

As it happens on this fateful day, WildLamb is not alone in her cavern. Today Fexkra Lee is with her, lying beside the mountainous candy pile, while WildLamb herself is sorting her candy.  Again.

Fexkra watched WildLamb’s tail, the only visible part of her friend, move through the candy.  “You know,” she said practically, “if you like him so much, you should tell him.”

WildLamb’s fuzzy head popped out from beneath a sack of sugar.  “Tell him?” She repeated, surprised.  “Oh, right, Lee.  Hey Fenrak, guess what! Not only do Soapy and Jayla have the biggest crushes on you, but so do I!  That means, that the only female in this mountain that doesn’t have a crush on you is your sister.  Yeah,” she glared at the copper dragon, “there’s a brilliant plan.”  She dived back into her candy moodily.  “Besides, it would never work.”  Her voice sounded muffled from under all the candy.

Fexkra’s ears flicked back, listening to the constant dripping that echoed through the cave.  “Why not?” She asked brightly.  “I think you two are perfect for each other.”

“You mean  besides that fact that I’m five times bigger than he is?” Wild’s head gradually emerged from the pile again as she spoke.  She cocked her head at her friend skeptically.

Fexkra rolled her wings back in an eloquent dragon-shrug.  “That doesn’t mean anything.  My dad was smaller than my mom.”

“Your dad was a dracolf.” WildLamb pointed out.  “They’re not exactly supposed to be small.”

“And my mom was a meadow dragon,” Fexkra added, “you think she was supposed to be tall?  And you’ve just named a perfect example! A dracolf and a meadow dragon aren’t exactly a normal draconic coupling.  No one would think twice about a dragataur and a vassant.”

WildLamb scowled.  “Fenrak should stick with Jayla; she’s a dragataur.”

Fexkra Lee opened her mouth to object, but her ears twitched as they caught the sound of rushing wind.  WildLamb heard it, too, and pulled herself half out of her candy to see the newcomer.  Manny flew into the cave, soaring high to the ceiling, then folding his wings close to his body, and free-falling towards the floor, spreading his wings at the last possible moment for a perfect landing.  WildLamb snorted in amusement, then went back to her candy, unimpressed.  Fexkra Lee, however, preened herself slightly as the brown approached.  Manny grinned proudly at Fexkra, then he prodded the WildLamb’s pile with his barbed tail.

WildLamb poked her head out between a section of chocolates.  “What?”

“P.W. wants us in the Great Cavern,” Manny replied, keeping one eye on Fexkra.  “Dragonhunters again.”

“Again?” WildLamb whined, pulling herself out of the candy.  “This is seriously getting old.”

“Tell me about it,” Manny agreed unconvincingly.  “P.W.’s thinking about sending two of us out.” He winked at Fexkra, who bared her teeth in a grin of anticipation.

“All right, then,” WildLamb sighed, as she leapt onto the stone floor, “stop flirting and lets get this over with.”

“Who’s flirting?” Manny asked innocently as they took off.

The Great Cavern was exactly that: a great cavern.  It stretch three miles from end to end, and a mile high.  It lay in the dead center of the mountain, with tunnels leading to the other caves branching out in every direction.  It was lit by dragon fire, kept in a glass and stone bowl 250 ft across, that hung from the ceiling, lighting every shadowed corner.  At the moment, it was filled with cheerful laughter as the other nine adolescent dragons played around the stone formations.  The single elder dragon watched them from his spot on a smoothed rock ledge that jutted out from the grey stone wall.  Manny and Fexkra joined the six dragons who were practicing their attack patterns in the air, while WildLamb dove down to join the earth-bound dragataurs Fenrak and Jayla, and the water dragon Soapy.

Seeing that the entire population of Cypress Mountain was present, P.W. stood, and roared.  The fierce noise rang through the cavern, magnified by the echoes.  The dragons fell silent, the flyers landing as they approached the ledge attentively.  P.W. stared down at them wordlessly for a moment, then he spoke.

“The dragonhunters are back.”

“You’d think they would’ve learned  by now,” Fenrak snorted proudly. He nudged Leprechaun conspiratorially.  “Hey, didn’t you and Glyph actually eat one last time?”

Leprechaun grinned, and nodded. “Yeah.”

“Who’s going out this time, P.W.?” Manny asked, eager for action.

P.W. started to answer, but Fexkra cut him off quickly.  “Wild and Fenny should go,” she said.  “They haven’t been out since the dwarf company almost killed Corky.”

All eyes turned to the smallest, spiky dragon, who instantly hid his face behind his yellow wings in embarrassment.  P.W. looked at the Wild, who was glaring murderously at Fexkra, then at the black and green dragataur Fenrak.  He nodded thoughtfully.  “All right.  I suppose that’ll work.  Take care of the problem ASAP.”

“Wait, what?!” Wild shrieked in dismay.

Fenrak pranced up to her, the green scales of his horse-like lower body glinting in the firelight.  He nudged her playfully, and said, “Bet I can get ‘em before you.”

Wild snapped her teeth at him moodily, and he withdrew quickly.  “You’re more likely to trip over your own four hooves,” she growled.  “Come on, let’s go.”

“Hey,” Fenrak grabbed her tail, and tugged it sharply as she spread her wings to fly.  “No flying.”  He flapped his own wings, too small to support his weight, and rode up to her head.  “But I’ll race ya.”

WildLamb grinned.  “You’re on.”

They shot off, but not before Wild caught a smug glance from Fexkra.

 

WildLamb felt all her anxieties melt away as the white sunlight touched her back.  She breathed in the crisp, mountain air, chasing the stale cave air out of her lungs.  She flexed her claws in the grass, enjoying the feel of the soft dirt after years with nothing beneath her but cold stone beneath her claws.  “It’s nice out here,” she commented pleasantly.

“It‘s kinda great!” Fenrak agreed, prancing about happily.  He flexed his muscled arms, his black, dragon face breaking out into a grin.  “Remind me again as to why we don’t get out more often?”

WildLamb laughed.  “We freak the humans out?”

“Oh, right,” Fenrak rolled his eyes.  “Humans are so paranoid!”

“I know!” WildLamb laughed.  “If we’re not razing their villages, we’re kidnapping princesses and eating them.”

“Yuck!” Fenrak rolled out his forked tongue in disgust.  “Humans taste worse than cows!”

Laughing together, the two dragons strode briskly through the cypress forest.  Their laughter died away into an awkward silence, and they avoided look at each other as they scanned the trees for danger.  WildLamb felt self-conscious with Fenrak so close to her; she felt so large, and bulky that she could barely stand it.  She stumbled slightly over her own claw, and resisted the urge to hid herself behind her wings.  Fenrak didn’t seem to notice her embarrassment though, much to her relief.

“Hey,” Fenrak said suddenly, as if some bright idea had suddenly occurred to him, “if we win, can I have some of your candy?”

“No,” WildLamb snorted derisively.

“All right, then I’ll guess I’ll keep this.”

WildLamb’s nose twitched as it picked up the scent of sugar.  Her head swung over to look at Fenrak, who was holding a heart-shaped lollipop in his human-like hand.  “Where’d you get that?” WildLamb asked, her voice quivering greedily.  She knew in an instant it wasn’t hers, but candy always made her crazy.

“You want it?” Fenrak asked tauntingly, waving it in front of her nose.

She snapped at it, nearly taking Fenrak’s hand off as he snatched it away.  “Where’d you get it?!” She shrieked angrily.

Fenrak took a step back, and pointed deeper into the forest.  “Over there.  It was the only one I saw, though.”

WildLamb took a step towards it, murmuring, “I wonder if there’s any more?”      Fenrak turned and ran.  “Bet I get to it before you!”

“Oh no you don’t!” WildLamb growled, leaping into the air.

She soared above the green cypress’, following the tantalizing scent of candy.  Suddenly, she heard a shout, half-angry, half in pain.  She recognized the voice as Fenrak, and froze, hovering above the trees in concern.  More shouts followed, excited, and dangerously human.  Dragonhunters.  WildLamb dived back down to the ground, and instantly spied Fenrak thrashing on the forest floor.  His back hoof was caught in a nasty dragon trap, and his face was twisted in pain as he desperately tried to reach it.

“Fenny!” WildLamb cried in dismay, rushing over to him.

Fenrak looked up at her, and growled, “Get out! They’re coming!”

“You don’t think I know that?!” WildLamb shrieked, more out of panic than anger.  The trap itself was actually made with a dragon’s jaw, its teeth continuously sharpened for the deadliest edge.  She examined the chain that held the trap to the ground, and pulled at it.  It stayed buried. WildLamb shook her head.  “Only humans could be so cruel,” she muttered, fastening her own jaws around the thick chain.

“You’re teeth aren’t big enough!” Fenrak snapped.  “You’d need Fexkra or Manny to chomp it like that.”

It was true; WildLamb’s teeth were tiny for a dragon her size, no bigger than those of a human, but that was all in being a vassant.  Still, they were sharp, and she wasn’t going to let size stop her.  She sawed her teeth across the chain, working as quickly as she was able, keeping her ears open to track the progress of the humans.

“They’re on horseback,” Fenrak hissed fearfully, his reptilian eyes watching the forest.  “They’ll be here any minute!”

“I’ve almost got it,” Wild told him through a mouth full of chain. The chain broke as the dragonhunters broke through the trees, wielding crossbows.

Wild ducked as bolts whizzed through the air, and roared at the men.  A few of the horses reared in fear, and bolted, dumping their riders on the ground.  Fenrak climbed to his feet, wincing slightly as pressure was applied to his sore hoof.  He squared his shoulders, and growled, “Pay back time.”  He lifted on hand, and green flames shot out from his palm towards a fallen hunter.  WildLamb looked at him in shock as the flames died away, and he returned the look grimly.  “Want to give these guys a cold shoulder?” He asked.

The hunters froze in terror as WildLamb barred her teeth, growling ferociously. She opened her mouth wide, and out came a stream of ice, encasing those who were unfortunate enough to get caught in her path in a frozen tomb.  Fenrak limp up beside her, and added his fire to her ice.  The hunters shouted in alarm, and retreated into the forest.  A few of the men raised their crossbows, hoping to get lucky with a parting shot.  They never stood a chance.  WildLamb stopped the arrows in a wall of ice, while Fenrak targeted the archers.  The men ran for their lives, dropping their weapons in their haste to avoid the deadly wall of fire.

Fenrak and Wild  turned to those left behind, their skin rapidly turning blue.  Fenrak raised his fists, and blasted the blocks of ice with his fire, melting them instantly.  The hunters tumbled to the ground, shivering, and taking deep breaths.  Fenrak limped over to them, and bent down so that his beak-like snout was even with their noses.

“Get out,” he growled, “and never come back.  Believe me when I say that next time, we’ll kill every last one of you!”  The men nodded, whimpering slightly in fear.  Fenrak snorted in their faces, then roared, “Move!”  The men scrambled to their feet, and raced after their companions.  Fenrak straightened, and winked at WildLamb.  “Not bad, huh?”

WildLamb considered the question.  “I guess it was all right.”  She glanced at his leg.  “Need a lift?  Jayla will want to have a look at that.”

Fenrak glanced down at the trap, still embedded in his back hoof, and sighed.  “Yeah, sure.”  WildLamb smiled, and gently placed him on her back as he commented, “Don’t let Lee catch us, though.  She’ll never let me forget it.”

 

Back inside the mountain, WildLamb curled up on her candy pile, using sacks of sugar as a make-shift pillow.  She stared dreamily at the cave ceiling, thinking back to when she and Fenrak had been in the forest.  She was glad the assignment was over, but some part of her, the same part that loved Fenrak, wanted to go back to that brief moment when they had actually gotten along.  She sighed wistfully, then tried to get it out of her head.

“You all right?”

WildLamb’s head shot up, and she looked over at Fenrak as he limped towards her candy.  Jayla had tended to his leg, after having Manny remove the trap, so now his hoof was wrapped from ankle to knee in a white gauze.  She smiled slightly.  “I should be asking you that.”

Fenrak winced self-consciously.  “I’m fine.  Just a flesh wound.  Nothing big.  Maybe a scar or two.”  Wild laughed, and he flapped his wings awkwardly.  “He, um,” he said uneasily, “I brought this for you.”  He held up the candied heart he’d found in the forest.

WildLamb licked her lips hungrily, then ducked her head, ashamed.  “I didn’t think you still had it.”

Fenrak shrugged.  “I figured since it caused all the trouble, it deserved to get eaten.  But, then I figured since you did all, well, okay not all of the work, you should get it.  I’ll just put it here,” he said, adding it to her pile.

“Fenny?” WildLamb said as he turned to go, half-thinking to confess.  He paused, and looked at her expectantly.  She opened her mouth to say those words, but she couldn’t.  “Thanks,” she said lamely, her wings sagging over the candy.

Fenrak nodded, took a few steps, then stopped and turned back.  “Wild?” He said, causing her to raise her head hopefully.  “Don’t ever let size hold you back.”  And with that, he limped out of the cave, leaving WildLamb to wonder just what exactly he meant by that.

 

 

I’m No Better

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“To err is human, to forgive is divine.”

Such a cliché line, right? You can almost hear the uptight priest lecturing you, telling you to forgive that person that hurt you because it is the “right thing to do.” Meanwhile, you’re standing there, arms crossed, reveling in the pain someone else caused, refusing to forgive. They’re not going to apologize, acknowledge they were in the wrong or that they hurt you, and they’re certainly not going to change, so why on earth should you forgive them? You should forgive them because they’re human, and so are you.

I recently shared a short story that was grounded in a harsh truth. It painted some people negatively, but it was as true as I could make it. The Sunday after I shared that blog post, one of the members—someone in that post—shared their testimony in Sunday School. She acknowledged her sin-filled past, pointed out that she had changed, and said that people judged her for her clothes, they talk about her behind her back, and they wrote about her. My first reaction was an eye-roll. I had heard this same testimony, complete with tears, almost on a weekly basis. It had started to feel like a gimmick, or bragging, and any emotion it was supposed to evoke was tired of being manipulated. Then the thought crossed my mind: had she actually read my blog? She didn’t talk to me about it, voicing displeasure at the content, or asking me to take it down. I didn’t ask her about it, and I have no intention of removing the post. I did, however, stop and question my motives.

Did I write that post as an act of revenge? It’s true, when I was writing that post, I was angry, but I was reliving a painful moment. When I originally wrote the story, I had created an unrealistic moment to spur my character into action. I reevaluated that moment, and I realized I needed a different moment to spur my character on. I searched my own life for the proper motivation, and I found that experience of mine, that time I wanted to run and did. I decided to use that moment to create the catalyst I needed to start my story. It wasn’t out of bitterness, or as an act of revenge, even though I knew there were people who wouldn’t like it. It was simply a tool I used to tell a story.

Even assuring myself that I didn’t tell that story for the wrong reasons, I realized that I hadn’t forgiven that woman. She had never asked for forgiveness, nor had she shown any remorse for what happened. I mentioned the occurrence to her a couple months ago, but she scoffed and rolled her eyes, saying, “You mean that time you ran away?” Yes, I mean that time when you made me feel so miserable that I would rather spend two hours alone in the woods than spend another minute under your responsibility. I think about that day, and I’m not sorry for running. I am sorry for making my brother and sister worry, and I am sorry for disrupting my friends’ day to make them search for me, but I’m not sorry for leaving that toxic situation. That may be wrong, but that’s how it is, and it makes me worry that I may be suffering from bitterness.

As I sat there thinking, stewing in the resentment of her unrepentance, I remembered something. That woman had tortured me emotionally, had driven me out, but I have done something horribly similar.

My sophomore year at college, I was introduced to a girl I’ll call Winifred. Winifred and I became friends pretty quickly, bonding over loud renditions of The Phantom of the Opera and pantomimed boxes of shame. What I didn’t realize was that the girl who introduced us—let’s call her Marah—was trying to get rid of me. Marah and I were both friends with another girl, “Irene,” and Marah didn’t like many people. Irene was kind and sweet, and very malleable, so Marah liked her. I was weird, exuberant, and stubborn. I was too much for Marah. When Winifred joined our little group, Marah was very friendly and accepting. But once Irene and I got attached to Winifred, Marah began to complain that she was feeling overwhelmed and didn’t want to come to our group meals anymore. Irene and I had discussed our situation, and we decided to try to compromise. I asked Winifred if she could find someone else to eat lunch with so Marah could have a break from people. Winifred was, of course, very hurt by this request, and she left our group completely.

I don’t blame her for leaving. It is not fun being where you feel you aren’t wanted. At the time, I didn’t realize I had been so hurtful, but I should have. I hated eating alone at college, and there were several times my freshman year when Marah and Irene ditched me at lunch. It was terribly lonely, and I should never have asked a girl I considered to be my friend to go through that. It took me too long to realize what I had done, and it took me longer to work up the courage to beg for forgiveness. I sought Winifred out and asked for a private lunch so we could talk, and so I could apologize properly. I made her a collage featuring lyrics from Taylor Swift’s “Back to December,” a gift I prayed would help convey my regret. Winifred listened to my apology, then she told me how much I had hurt her back then. She told me that she wouldn’t come back to our group; she had moved on and made new friends that cared about her and wouldn’t abandon her. But she forgave me, and she kept my gift.

Unfortunately, Winifred wasn’t the only one I pushed away on Marah’s command. A couple other people came into our circle and stayed for a while, until Marah got fed up with their presence and had us send them away. I asked Ryan to leave. I asked Isaiah to leave. I probably hurt them—not probably, I definitely hurt them, because I know that it is horribly painful to be rejected. I knew this back then, and I still sent them away. I could blame Marah, say that she forced me to banish these people I had nothing against, but it’s not her fault. Yes, she told me to get rid of them, but I didn’t have to listen. I didn’t have to cater to the whims of a mean-spirited girl, but I did. It was my fault. I drove them out. I hurt them, and I am so, so sorry. I had done something terrible, and though I may be forgiven, I have to live with the shame and consequences of my actions.

Marah has since grown into a good friend. Years after graduation, and we’re still in touch. She hand wrote me a three paged letter, apologizing for how she had treated me in college. I’ve seen how much she’s changed, and I’ve forgiven her, and I’m happy that we’re genuinely friends now.

I haven’t seen any such change with the other woman. Oh sure, she’s changed how she dresses, and she loudly proclaims what a horrible person she was, and she tells everyone that she has changed. Can’t say that I’ve seen her heart change though. She still comes across as a bully, scolding quiet people for being quiet, and at times it seems she’s looking for permission to do something morally gray. My glasses may be covered by pain and bitterness, and I’m ready to acknowledge that as a real possibility.

It’s nearly impossible for me to forgive her when she has shown zero sign of regret for hurting me. But she’s only human. She’s going to make mistakes, and she may not even realize how much she has hurt people by what she’s done. It took me a while, and she may still be figuring it out. In the meantime, I can’t let my bitterness poison me. I don’t want to be bitter and resentful, blaming my mistakes on the mistakes of someone else. I’m sorry that I’m bitter, and I’m sorry it’s so hard for me to forgive her.

And yes, I need to forgive her, because she’s human, and I’m no better.

 

Sophomore Friends

Here’s to Another Year of Mistakes

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It’s time to indulge in that yearly tradition of setting goals for the upcoming year. Goals are nice, and it’s probably good to go into the new year with an optimistic plan. I say “probably” because how often do we not meet the goals we set? How often do we not lose that weight? How often do we not go to the gym? We read our Bibles daily for a week, then get bored and tired of it and don’t pick them up again. Then February hits, and we realize that we’ve already failed in our resolutions. How do we feel then? I feel like quitting. I sit down on my couch, open that pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and mope. So was it really that good to set goals?

Probably.

If you have no real desire to change, don’t bother to set goals that you’re not going to try to reach. If you do want to change, if you’ve sat down and analyzed your life, saying “here, here, and here is where I need to be better,” then realize you’re not going to magically change overnight. Try writing down what you want to improve on, make a plan on how achieve that improvement, and accept that you’re going to mess up at least twice. But don’t give up. I think that’s where our true failure lies. We trip once, and go, “Oh well. I tried.”  One of my favorite life quotes comes from the Disney movie “The Haunted Mansion” (you know, the one with Eddie Murphy), and it’s this:

“You try, you fail, you try, you fail. But the only real failure is when you stop trying.”

Mistakes are a part of life. I’ve made so many last year, and the twenty-five years before that. I made a big mistake last year that I regret, and I have to live with the consequences now. I don’t want to live with them, but I don’t have that choice anymore. My choices now are to learn from my mistakes and grow, or let that mistake define me and shrivel into a bitter husk. I did cry over that mistake, by the way. I cried for days, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be sad that you messed up. Be sad, then pick yourself back up and keep going. And plan to keep making mistakes, because they’re going to keep happening whether you want them to, or not.

Last year, my “resolutions” were few. I wanted to lose weight, and send my finished book out to agents. Starting this year, I’m at my heaviest weight ever, and my book isn’t finished. Okay, so I had thought I had finished my book, and I did send it out to two agents. Both agents rejected it, and the one agent said it was 80,000 words too long. So I took it back and began hacking it down. I managed to chop it by 15k, but I still have thousands of words left to go. That’s fine. It’s not a failure, it’s just a set back.

This year, I have a few more goals in mind that I want to meet. I saw my sister’s New Year’s Resolutions, and I realized that I needed to steal some of them. I don’t like vegetables, but I know they’re good for me, and necessary to be healthy. I need to eat more vegetables. I don’t drink as much water as I should. I get caught up in drinking coffee, tea, and soda because they have actual flavor. I need to drink more water. I love drawing. I don’t think I’m great at it (I’m okay), but that’s mainly because I don’t work on it. It’s a hobby, and not one I try to improve. This year I got some nice Body-Kun drawing models for Christmas, and I want to use them to improve my drawing ability. And as I’ve learned from the agents I queried, my books are too long. I need to work on being concise and conservative in my story-telling. I need to treat my readers as if they’re actually smart (which they are), and not spell everything out for them. What better way to practice these traits than by writing a short story every month? On this blog, I’ve mainly been recycling ones I had to write in college. I’ll run out of those eventually, yet I have so many characters with backstories ripe for a short story! I’m not going to focus on numbers on a scale, or in a meal tracker. I’m not going to try to be perfect this year, just better.

2017 ended a little sourly for me, but I’m not going to say that it wasn’t a good year. I spent good times with friends, was in a wedding (or two, depending on which year my sister’s wedding falls), and I had a Halloween costume that I loved! Sure, there were mistakes. 2018 will have its fair share of mistakes, too, but I’m not going to let that hold me back. Bring on the mistakes. I can learn from them.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Best of 2017

The Dream

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Kelsey and Austin were at work, bustling around the Print Shop’s saddlestitcher, helping their boss Ian Pago set up for the next job. Kelsey was at the table, putting together four test booklets as Ian adjusted the blades on the trimmer. Austin was back behind the machine, doing something that Kelsey couldn’t see. Then he laughed, and both she and Ian looked over at him. He was holding one of the red cups from the Four Winds, and it had a long, deep crack running down the side.

Austin came over to where they were and leaned on the top of the machine. “We should put this at Stephen’s station,” he said, mischievously glancing over at the folder where Stephen worked.

Ian laughed and shook his head. “Nah. It has to be taken back to the Trade Winds dish return.” He took the cup and handed it to Kelsey. “You wanna do that for me? You don’t have to clock out. Just take it there and come back.”

Kelsey checked her watch. “Are you sure? It’s a ten minute walk to campus and we only have twenty-five minutes before we have to clock out. Don’t you think that’s cutting it a little close?”

Ian shrugged. “Nah. Go ahead and take it. If you’re a little late clocking out, I’ll take care of it.”

She took the cup hesitantly. “If you say so.”

Austin watched her as she left.

Kelsey made it to campus and put the cup on the dish return before quickly walking back to work. As she passed Griffith, her friend PJ jogged up beside her.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?” PJ asked.

“Work.”

“Ok. I’ll walk you there.”

She gave him an odd look, but shrugged and let him accompany her. She only had nine minutes left. They hurried down the road and PJ stopped when he saw the Print Shop. Austin and Ian were out on the porch, talking and laughing animatedly. Kelsey instantly knew they were waiting for her and that she was cutting it close.

“I’ll catch up with you back on campus,” PJ said, turning around and jogging back to the dorms.

Ian and Austin watched as Kelsey ran inside and clocked out. They came in after her, and Austin nodded back down the ramp. “Come with me,” he said.

Confused but obedient, Kelsey followed him down the ramp. Ian and Mrs. Thornberry followed them, keeping approximately ten feet between them and the students. Austin led Kelsey to a machine in a different section of the Print Shop. She picked a sturdy-looking part of the machine and sat on it, watching as Austin began turning on the machine. He handed her a farm-fresh apple to munch on and then took a basket of the apples and began feeding them one by one into the machine. Kelsey took a bite out of here apple in confusion. Why was he making apple fritters? They chatted idly for the next few minutes, Ian and Mrs. Thornberry keeping an eye on them from the other side of the machine. Then Austin said something that Kelsey never would have expected him to say.

“You know, after six months we’re supposed to go to Student Life and fill out paperwork letting them know we’re dating.”

She almost dropped the apple in surprise. “We’re dating?”

He stopped working at the machine and gave her a weird look. “You didn’t know?”

“You never asked me.”

He made a noise of irritation, grabbed one of the freshly made fritters and climbed up onto the machine to eat it.

Kelsey went over to him, throwing her apple core in the trash as she did. “I don’t mind,” she told him. “I don’t mind at all. I just didn’t know. I thought we were just friends, as much as I wanted us to be more.”

He looked at her thoughtfully for a minute. “I thought you had figured it out.”

Kelsey shook her head. “I thought you were still trying to get Amanda back.”

“Nah. I gave up on her.” He hopped down and began putting the finished apple fritters in a basket. “Come on. Let’s get back to campus.”

Kelsey started following him out, eyeing the basket dubiously. “Do want me to carry that? Baskets are kind of girly.”

He glanced back at her and smiled. “Nah. I’ve got it.”

“Ok.”

They walked back to campus, talking about dating, Kelsey’s family’s rules for dating, and about Austin possibly visiting over Christmas break. When they got back to campus, Austin called Kelsey’s father and—

 

The theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly broke through Kelsey’s dream. Grumpily, she grabbed her phone and turned the alarm off before rolling out of bed. She staggered into the bathroom and braced herself sleepily on the counter. She looked up at her bleary-eyed reflection. Her long blonde hair was popping up in random places, and her black night shirt hung loosely over her medium frame. Her large silver grey eyes blinked back tiredly at her, and she smiled. “Best dream ever.” She turned the faucet on cold and splashed the sleep out of her eyes. She dried off her face and faced her reflection again. “But why did it have to be just a dream?” She sighed wearily and went back into the room to finish getting ready for the day.

 

Wednesday, two months later, Kelsey grabbed her pizza from the line in the Carousel cafeteria and went to sit with her friends. She quickly prayed for her meal and began eating, listening to her friends’ conversations and occasionally adding her input. Then Austin came in. She looked up as he joked with the lobby attendant and slipped his ID back into his wallet.

Kelsey had met Austin sophomore year at her college job. They had become good friends that fall semester, swapping numbers and teasing each other whenever their paths crossed. By Christmas break, Kelsey had fallen in love with him. That next semester their schedules had changed, and they were working opposite shifts. They still messed with each other, but it was a lot less frequent. Then junior year he got a girlfriend. When Kelsey found out, she felt like her heart had been wrenched from her chest, but she forced herself to suppress her feelings and be happy for her friend. They stayed close, meeting each other in the Commons their free morning hour to hang out before chapel. Spring semester junior year, Austin began talking about manipulating their class schedules so they could get the same work shift again. Kelsey had jumped on the idea, and they quickly adjusted their classes. The next semester, senior year, they started walking to and from work together. Two weeks later, Austin’s girlfriend broke up with him. Kelsey tried not to get too excited about the turn of events, especially since Austin was trying so hard to get his girlfriend back. It was hard not to hope, but as far as she knew, Austin had no idea how she felt for him.

“Check this out,” Eric said, pulling her attention back to the table.

She looked at the picture he’d pulled up on his smartphone and squealed in delight. “Awesome! I want one!” It was a ring that was modeled to resemble a silver crown.

Eric grinned. “I thought you’d like that.” He turned his phone back toward him and began scrolling through pictures to find another one to show her.

Austin came out of the burger line and stopped to fill his cup at the soda fountain. Someone stopped beside him and they started talking. Kelsey smiled as she watched him laugh, his eyes narrowing to resemble happy anime slits. She remembered her first impression of him. She had thought he was a scrawny geek with a funny voice, but her impression now was completely different. He was thin, not scrawny, and if you looked, you could tell that there was not an ounce of fat on him. He was tall, and he had a straight and noble way of walking. Kelsey could pick him out in a crowd by his walk alone. His wire-frame glasses and fuzzy brown hair made him look like a geek, and their conversations did tend to lean towards science fiction and video games, but she now knew there was so much more to him than that.

“Check this one out.”

Kelsey looked at the next picture on Eric’s phone. It was a pug dressed in a blue Star Trek shirt with a black wig, his ears pulled high and pointed.

“It’s Spock!” Eric said, laughing.

Kelsey laughed along. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Austin moving again. He was walking over to the carousel salad bar, stopping to talk to his ex-girlfriend, Amanda. Amanda didn’t smile. She never smiled. Austin’s expression changed from pleasant to disturbed as they talk, and he eventually turned and walked away. Kelsey’s heart went out to him, and she sent an irritated glare to his ex.

“Check this out. It’s totally awesome.”

Another picture on Eric’s phone. This time, Kelsey only looked long enough to say, “Oo! Cool!”

Austin sat down at a table with four of his friends and began laughing and smiling again. Kelsey smiled and turned her attention back to the group she was sitting with as Eric started regaling her with the different glitches he’d come across in the video games he’d played. He did a good job explaining the glitches and re-enacting them, and Kelsey found herself laughing at each one, though her eyes kept wandering back to Austin’s table. Once, she thought she saw Austin watching her table, and she thought a strange look crossed his face. She shook her head and forced it out of her mind. She was only seeing things because she wanted to see them. The reality was nothing.

 

Thursday was one of Kelsey’s two favorite days of the week. Chapel ended early, and she, her brother Alan, and his girlfriend walked from the Crowne Centre to Varsity for lunch before work. Three of their other friends had already grabbed a six seater and had their meals in front of them. Alan and his girlfriend made for the soup bar and chicken line while Kelsey grabbed her daily allotment of pizza and a salad and sat down. Her group started discussing the different points of the chapel message, and then they turned to reminisce about the Student Body program the day before. She suddenly saw Austin leave the burger line, however, and she waved at him. He smiled and waved back before going to join his friends at their table on the other side of the salad bar. The hour passed, and three of her friends headed to their classes as Kelsey’s co-worker—Alan’s roommate, Rick—came in and sat down with them.

As Alan and Rick chatted about their criminology classes, Kelsey fiddled with her cup. She ran her finger around the rim aimlessly, lost in thoughts about classes and projects, but then she frowned when her finger snagged on a crack. She held the cup up to the light. There was a deep crack running down the side; she didn’t know how she hadn’t seen it before. “I always manage to find the cracked ones,” she complained.

“Just take it to the dish return,” Alan said with a shrug.

Kelsey sighed in aggravation and took the cup to the dish return. She put it in the bucket and turned.

“PJ, watch out!”

Kelsey ducked, narrowly missing a marinara coated plate as the guy jumped back. His friends laughed at the near miss, and PJ smiled apologetically. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“No harm no foul,” she said, going back to her table.

“Dude, you gotta watch where you’re going!” One of PJ’s friends laughed behind her.

Rick and Alan were still talking criminology when she got a new drink and sat down. She glanced over to where PJ and his friends were leaving Varsity. She felt like she had seen him somewhere before, but she knew that she had never met anyone named PJ. She shook her head and tuned in to Alan and Rick’s conversation.

The time on her cell turned to 12:15 p.m., and she, Alan, and Rick got up to take their dishes to the dish return. Rick and Alan wrestled a bit as they headed out the doors, making Kelsey laugh. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Austin get up and take his dishes to the dish return, too. They stepped out into the lobby, grabbed their bags, and walked outside.

“Where’s Austin?” Alan asked, looking back into the lobby.

Kelsey shrugged and smiled. “He’ll catch up. He always does.”

Two minutes later, Austin was right beside her, walking with her and Rick down the steps of the terrace. Alan waved as he split off toward his dorm, and the remaining trio began chatting amiably as they walked down the road to work.

“How’s life, Austin?” Kelsey asked.

“Better now that they have apple fritters at Break Time,” he joked.

“Oo, apple fritters!” Rick laughed. “I’ll have to get some of those.”

“Yeah.” Austin air-nudged Kelsey. “We should get some after work.”

She laughed and nodded agreeably. “Sure, why not? I like apple fritters.”

They reached work with four minutes to spare. Rick went to his position at the binder while Kelsey and Austin took their places on opposite ends of the saddlestitcher. The other three saddlestitch workers and Ian showed up soon after. Ian turned on the machine, hit the “go-go” button, and the saddlestitch rumbled to life. The other three workers fed chunks of pages into the machine pockets, Austin boxed the finished books, and Kelsey stacked the boxes on the pallet for shipping. A half hour into the shift, the machine stopped. As Ian went to clear the jam, Kelsey took advantage of the pause to move up to Austin’s position.

“So how are things going with Amanda?” She asked.

He smiled wryly. “They’re not.”

She flinched sympathetically. “Sorry.”

He shook his head and shrugged. “No offense, but girls can be stupid sometimes, Kelsey.”

“Guys can be stupid, too!”

“Yeah, but guys are stupid all the time.”

“True.”

“They’re jerks, too.”

“You’re not a jerk.”

“I am a jerk, Kelsey.” He paused and leaned on the chute in front of him. “Who was that guy you were sitting with yesterday?”

Kelsey blinked in surprise and shrugged. “Which one? I sat with Alan, Cory, and Mark at breakfast, Eric, Chris, Gary, and Percy at lunch, and Mark and Alan at dinner.”

“At lunch. The blonde that sat beside you.”

“That was Eric. He’s one of Amy’s friends. She had his group sit with me for Monday, Wednesday, Friday lunches because all of my friends have lunch at different hours. He’s pretty cool.”

Austin nodded silently and leaned back.

“Why?”

He shrugged. “Just curious.”

“Amy thinks he should date Alice, the short brunette that was sitting with us.”

“It looked like he’d rather date you.”

Kelsey snorted derisively. “No. He was just being nice. I’m still new to that group and he and Alice are just trying to make me feel more comfortable.” They were silent for a moment and Kelsey asked, “So have you asked Amanda to the Thanksgiving Fine Arts yet?”

“No. I don’t think I’m going to.” He paused and asked, “Anyone asked you yet?”

She snorted again. “Didn’t we go over this after the first Fine Arts? No one ever asks me. That’s why I go with Alan and his girlfriend.”

“That’s not cool, Kelsey.”

“Tell me about it, Austin.”

“We should go together.”

Kelsey’s heart did two hop-skips and a leap, getting wedged in her throat before falling back down into her stomach to play with the butterflies. She had to quickly remind herself that he was probably only asking her because neither of them had someone to go with and he was trying to be nice. “Sure. Sounds fun.”

“I wouldn’t have to ask your dad for permission, would I?”

Her heart started dancing erratically in her ribcage, and she told it to shut up. She shook her head. “Nah. Dad said the first one’s free and group settings don’t count.”

“So I’d have to ask him for the next one?”

She stared at him, trying to figure out if he was joking or serious. “That depends on whether or not you’re really asking me out right now.”

“And if I am?”

She gripped the chute with both hands, took a deep breath to calm her hyperventilating heart, and pinched herself.

Austin laughed. “What are you doing?”

“I told you. I’ve never been asked out before. Not ever. I’m just making sure I’m not dreaming.” She looked around to make sure that he was talking to her and not some gorgeous super model behind her. “You are talking to me, right?”

He laughed again, his dark blue eyes becoming the happy anime slits that she loved seeing. “Is there anyone else around here, Kelsey?”

She smiled and shook her head. “I guess not.”

“So now that you know it’s a date, are you still game?”

She nodded emphatically. “Oh yeah. Definitely.”

The saddlestitch roared back to life and Ian cheered.

“We should do dinner tonight,” Austin said.

“We should.”

A stack of books came out the chute. He calmly checked them and boxed them. He sent the box down the assembly line and looked at her. She looked back, grinned, and hurried down to her station to put the box on the pallet. She leaned on the pallet, already four layers high, and took several deep breaths. She looked back up to the line and watched as Austin did his job.

Ian came over to her, one eyebrow raised questioningly. “You look happy.”

She laughed. “If what I think just happened actually happened, then happy is an understatement!”

“What do you think just happened?”

“I think Austin just asked me out.”

“Oh really? It’s about time.” He laughed and wandered back up the line to talk with Austin.

Kelsey had no idea what they were saying, but they were smiling and laughing at every word. She smiled and finished the fourth layer on the pallet.

Work finished in a blur. The machine didn’t jam again, which was rare and slightly aggravating since Kelsey wanted to go back up to Austin’s station to talk again. She still couldn’t believe he had actually asked her out. She glanced over at the folders and noticed Mrs. Thornberry standing there talking with her husband. Then she glanced over at the cover feeder where Ian was standing, singing “White Christmas” as off-key as he possibly could. Then she thought of Austin’s random mention of the Break Time selling apple fritters. She paused in shock.

“No way.”

Apple fritters. Ian. Mrs. Thornberry. Austin. There was even a cracked cup and a guy named PJ at lunch. Did her dream really just come true? Sure, there wasn’t an apple fritter machine in the Print Shop, but everything else—! She shook her head, not really believing what had just happened. Then the bell rang, signaling the shift’s end.

Austin shouted a final comment to Ian as he walked around to grab his backpack. Kelsey headed up the ramp, grabbed her jacket and book bag, and clocked out. Austin came up the ramp behind her and clocked out. They walked out of the Print Shop together.

She had just enough time to wonder if she was dreaming again before Austin said, “We should get those apple fritters after dinner.”

Kelsey looked at him, pinched herself again, and then laughed when she felt a slight sting. “Yes, we should definitely get those apple fritters after dinner.” She looked up at the sky and smiled at the heavens. Thank you, God, she prayed silently.

 

Nutcracker Days

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I set up my Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. I had the day off, so I cleaned my living room, cleared off the table, and pulled my old fake tree out. Last year was my first year with a tree of my own. My sister gave me the three-foot tree she used in her classroom, and my parents gave me a box of my favorite ornaments from their tree. I unboxed the Wizard of Oz ornament where the witch actually melts. I unboxed my little elf playing his flute, and the mouse with his camera. I opened my dragon ornaments, Hiccup riding Toothless, Smaug on his hoard, and the glass dragon missing its foreclaws. I unwrapped two dancing ballerinas, then Clara dancing with her nutcracker. Then I unboxed the large stage ornament of the nutcracker dueling the mouse king. Then came five wooden nutcrackers who’s mouths actually open. Then came the fragile glass nutcracker, my favorite ornament of all. I sat back to admire my handiwork, and I had to laugh. My tree was dominated by nutcrackers.

The story of the Nutcracker is very dear to me for an important reason: I danced in it. My ballet studio put on the Nutcracker ballet every year, and when I graduated to the second level, I was eligible to tryout for one of the children’s parts. They cast me as one of Mother Ginger’s many children. I was the tallest and oldest child in the part, so my costume barely fit me, and I didn’t fit under Mother Ginger’s massive skirt with everyone else. Instead, they had me dance out from behind her with a line of other children, and we had a blast. The next year, I auditioned again, and this time scored two separate roles. I was one of the mice, dancing out to attack the Nutcracker’s soldiers, then scurrying backstage to retrieve my medic flag and mouse EMTs to clean fallen mice off the stage. Then, after intermission, I returned as a page, carrying Clara’s tiara and giant cake.

I only did ballet for four years, and only danced in the Nutcracker twice, but it was so much fun. I remember waiting backstage with the other kids, coloring in my Barbie and the Nutcracker coloring books with brand new crayons. My hair was wound so tightly in a bun and stick with so many pins that my head would hurt, and caked with so much hairspray with felt like straw. But I didn’t care. I got to spend time with my ballet friends, dance on stage, and wear makeup and pretty costumes. It was great fun, and left me with warm memories I had to share.

I started collecting nutcracker items, including buying the nutcracker prop from my ballet studio. I got the McDonald Barbie nutcrackers, I got the full-sized Barbie version, a nutcracker music box, and a real, iron nutcracker. I also got two Nutcracker books! Nostalgia draws me to nutcrackers of all kinds, and I love seeing the amazing variety!

When I started teaching preschool, I brought my Young Reader’s edition of the Nutcracker to school to read to the kids. It took us a week to get all the way through it, but by the time we finished, the kids loves the story as much as I do. I’ve continued to read the story to all of my following classes, even bringing in my nutcracker for the kids to see. It’s a wonderful tradition that I look forward to, because as I relive my Nutcracker days, I get to share my love for the strange, Christmas story with my students.

The Silent Treatment

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Sunday morning, my pastor spoke on the four factions he saw in our congregation. Our church had gone through some major changes recently, and the lines of these factions were so much clearer in the chaos that accompanies such change. He said he saw the hypocrites, the Pharisees, the pariah, and the indifferent. Each faction has a major problem, and the issues with the first two factions are obvious. Hypocrites are fakes, those who say they tow the line and judge others for not following the rules, but go home and do that thing they were judging others for. The Pharisees are the law-abiders, they honestly believe what they believe and will follow the strictest letter, but they try to teach tradition as doctrine, not allowing the world to change, because their way is the right way, the only way. The pariahs are those subjugated by the hypocrites and Pharisees, bullied and shoved out in the cold because they recognize that tradition does not equal doctrine and refuse to conform. The indifferent are similar to the pariahs, but instead of being pushed out, they’re ignored, because they ignore everyone else.

I sat back in my pew, and I tried to honestly gauge myself to see where I fell in those factions. I don’t believe myself to be a hypocrite; I’ve never believed in being anything except what I was, and I have a strong dislike for people who follow the crowd because it’s “hip.” I’ve had several friends confess to me that I have never made them feel pressured to conform or judged for not conforming, so I don’t believe I’m a Pharisee. I could be a Pariah. I don’t tend to follow the norm, and there have been several moments of my life where I’ve felt actively pushed out. Unfortunately, I think the faction I am truly in is the indifferent. I have always existed in my own little world, and I miss a lot of what happens in other people’s lives. I had to look around the congregation then, at all the people who had helped raise me, at the people I had grown up beside. I have been in this same church, with the same people, for twenty-six years, and I didn’t know who they were.

Sure, I know names. That’s Mrs. P; she taught my nursery class. That’s Mr. and Mrs. M, the church grandparents. That’s B-Boy, who I’ve known since we were seven. That’s Kay, that’s R, that’s S. I have memories of them, with them, I know Facebook details about them (mainly because we’re friends on Facebook), but I don’t know them. I’m fairly sure I used to, but, somehow, we became strangers. How did that happen?

Yes, I’m an introvert, but if you want to know the truth, I don’t think I always was an introvert. I think it’s something I became. I used to be comfortable going up to strangers and talking to them like we were the best buddies. I used to be comfortable performing on stage. I think I was quite extroverted up until I was a teenager, but isn’t that always when things fall apart? The crazy thing is, my extroversion resurfaced during college. I was always making friends, and I was happy with them (until Senior year when things fell apart again). But then I came back home, and I’m drained by social interaction. I don’t feel welcome in my group of “friends,” and I look for any reason to avoid any extra-curricular socialization. Here in my hometown, I’m happiest in my own cozy room with my dog, and not with the people I grew up with.

Why?

Because they don’t know me.

They don’t know you because you don’t spend any time with them.

And when I do spend time with them, I’m off in the corner because everyone else is doing stuff with the people they like better.

You don’t try to join them.

They don’t really want me to. They just invited me to be polite.

How did I get like this?

I think it might have started when my church started their school. It was a one-room schoolhouse type thing, all the grades in the same room with one teacher overlord to instruct them. The rest of my church friend were enrolled “to support the church,” but my parents decided to keep my siblings at the school we had been going to since birth: homeschool. I’m thankful they kept us home and taught us themselves, because I’ve heard some stories from those schoolhouse days. But it meant that the rest of the church would be hanging out 6/7 days a week, while I was only there 2/7. Everyone else became close knit, a family of little rebels seeking secret ways to escape the teacher overlord, and I was forgotten.

I learned to be introverted at home, too. In a family of extroverts, someone has to be shoved into the introvert box, and I guess that was me. My older sister and little brother used to play a game at the dinner table. A family conversation would start, about the movies, upcoming competitions, or church events, and everyone would be talking—mainly my sister and brother. I would have a comment or idea, and try to speak up when someone else finished, but then my brother or sister would cut me off with their own thought. I would try again when they finished, and again, get cut off by the other one. It would never be intentional at first, but then they would see me getting frustrated, and keep cutting me off until our mom finally got fed up and told them to “shut up,” so I could speak, but by then what I had to say no longer mattered. Then in the car, I would try to sing along with the music, and then promptly told to stop singing. I would try to mouth the words to the song, and my little brother would snap at me to stop. It felt like every time I sang, someone told me to shut up, and it felt like anyone else could sing but me. Now they try to tell me that I have a “nice” voice and complain when I won’t sing loud during family specials. You told me not to.

I think I’ve forgotten how to talk to real people in real life. I talk through my stories, blogs, and books. It feels so freeing, because I can talk about whatever I want, and no one interrupts me. And it feels so amazing when people actually want to read my stuff, because it feels like they’re actually listening to me. Maybe that’s why I’d rather go home and write than go out and talk. People actually listen to me when I write, and it’s so nice to be heard.

But this is all conjecture, and there are probably parts that are exaggerated. It feels worse to be told to “shut up” than to be the one shouting it. And it honestly doesn’t matter how I became so anti-social. The point is, I don’t feel welcome around most people. I can think of three people who I feel comfortable talking to, and one of them is my mother. There are two people I’ll willingly leave the house for; everyone else is under protest. And this isn’t because I want to be like this. I actually want more friends, I want to be comfortable and feel welcome around people. Half of that is up to me, putting myself back out there, conquering this fear of continued rejection.

I don’t often have nightmares, but I do remember two very clearly. In the first nightmare, my family boards the last spaceship on the planet. My dad stays behind for a minute to say goodbye to me, but then they just leave. In the second nightmare, the world is flooding. My family is on a boat to survive the flood, and I’m trapped in the house, the water climbing up the stairs to drown me. When people ask, I tell them I’m scared of sharks, but my greatest fear is being alone. Does that sound introverted to you?

 

What I Wrote for NaNoWriMo

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The Dragon Girl

Chapter 1

 

I went to sort the freshly folded shirts back on their shelves and found an elf. I was working at a department store at the time, trying to earn money for college, and I didn’t realize he was an elf at first. He was wearing a grey knit beanie pulled low over his ears, and it looked weird because he was an obvious adult, possibly only in his late thirties, and the rest of his outfit seemed to be out of a GQ magazine. He wore a black suit jacket and pants, a white button up shirt, and a deep red tie. And that beanie. It was distracting. It almost made me miss his silver eyes; they were the only things on his person that matched the beanie. He caught me staring and smiled.

I quickly turned my attention back to my work, silently cursing my sister for hammering some semblance of fashion into my being. I was only wearing a t-shirt and jean skirt, so it wasn’t like I really cared about clothes. My black hair was pulled back in a high ponytail (yet still reached past my waist), and I flipped it back over my shoulder as I tried to look busy. It didn’t work; he started coming over.

“Excuse me,” he said.

I quickly checked my peripheral for another associate of the store, but I was alone. I suppressed a sigh, slapped on my working smile, and straightened. He was still wearing that beanie. “May I help you, sir?”

He clasped his hands behind his back; it emphasized how thin he was. It also made me notice how tall he was. “Perhaps you could help me. I’m looking for a specific book, but I can’t seem to find any books at all in here.”

“That’s because this store sells stupid things like clothes, shoes, and frying pans,” I responded. I made a mental note to smack myself later; sarcasm isn’t an appropriate answer to customer questions—even if they’re stupid ones. “We do have some children’s picture books in the back by the bathrooms. They’d take up one shelf of the three dedicated to toys.”

“The book I’m looking for isn’t quite a children’s book. It’s rather thick—over three hundred pages if I had to guess—and I believe it would be classified as a young adult fantasy.”

“We definitely don’t have those. Sorry, sir.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am quite sure, sir, that you are in the wrong place. If you want picture frames, we have a minimal selection. If you want clothes, we got them in barrels. If you want candy, it’s by the register. I can help you find any of that stuff, but I can’t help you find those kinds of books.” I turned back and shoved a shirt into the stack. Then I got to kick myself and dig it back out so I could stick it in the proper pile.

The man’s narrow smile never faded as he watched me put clothes away. “I think I am in the right place. The book I’m looking for is called Finding Love. You’ve heard of it.”

I stopped sorting as I processed his words. Heard of it? I wrote it. The question was: how had he heard of it. I turned to face him again. “I’m sorry, sir, but can I ask your name?”

He didn’t answer right away, but he stuck his hand out for me to shake. “My name is Nicus.”

“How did you hear about my book? It’s not even finished yet.”

“I am aware of that, but you have been providing copies to your friends. Chapter by chapter as you finish.”

My heart skipped a beat. “Did Rachel send you my book? Are you an editor?”

“Do you have a moment to talk?”

I had an hour lunch break coming up. I could take it early. “Just give me a minute to clock out.” I tried my hardest not to run back to the break room, but I might have rushed the clocking out process just a tad so I could get back to the man. “Let’s talk.”

Nicus stepped to the side and gestured for me to lead the way. I started out of the store, trying to think of a place for us to sit and talk. There were a couple of picnic benches on the hill by the parking lot, and they were often empty, and they were within sight of the store. Nicus had called out my weakness, so I was obligated to talk to him, but I didn’t trust him. I’m not fast, but I’m loud and not afraid to bite.

We sat on opposite ends of the table. Nicus kept his hands folded in front of him as he faced me. I mimicked his posture, trying to be as professional as any sixteen-year-old girl could.

“Cassandra Moon,” Nicus began.

“You can call me Cassie,” I interrupted. “My full name makes me feel like I’m in trouble.” I chuckled awkwardly, regretting the seconds the words left my mouth. Why did I have to be stupid?

Thankfully he seemed amused. “Cassie, then. I should start by telling you I brought you out here under false pretenses.”

I knew it. I stood and started to walk back to the store.

“I’m an elf.”

That was ridiculous, but I turned around anyway. Nicus was still sitting at the table, but he had taken the beanie off. Two tall elvish ears poked up from either side of his head, perfect silver hair tousled by the removal of the knit hat. “Congratulations on your dedication to LARPing,” I told him, not caring if he could pick up on the sarcasm. I folded my arms and stayed exactly where I was. “What do you want with me?”

He left the beanie on the table and smoothed his hair back. He was no longer smiling. Instead, he was leaning on the table as if he was tired, and his strange silver eyes kept straying back to the store. “I’m sorry for misleading you earlier, but I didn’t want you to make a scene. My name is Chroniclus. I’m the Head Chronicler at an interdimensional military training facility called Mid-Realm Academy. I’ve come to recruit you.”

I stared at him dumbly for a moment, then I had to laugh. “Okay, forgetting the whole ‘interdimensional’ part, why on Earth would you want to recruit me for a military training facility? Look at me!” I gestured to my shirt, one I had specifically chosen to hide how overweight I was, but anyone could tell I was fat. A blind man could probably hear it in the way I breathed. Physical activity and I weren’t on speaking terms, but pizza was my best friend. There was no way anyone would want me for military anything.

To his credit, Chroniclus’s eyes didn’t flicker. “What does your appearance have to do with anything?” He asked calmly.

I snorted and shook my head. “You, sir, have a stupid cover story.”

He stood up and stepped away from the table, raising his hand to show me the ring on his hand. I could barely see it from where I was standing. He turned his back to me; something flashed in front of him. A golden light grew, swirling until it was as tall as the elf, and then it opened. He stepped aside, showing me the scene inside the golden-rimmed portal, and I had to get closer. There was a red brick castle, topped with a black roof, a mile in the distance, but it was so huge it still filled the view. Red towers climbed to the clouds and pierced them, sending clean sunshine down on the statues that framed the black doors of the wall around the castle. Stained glass windows winked in the castle as a white dragon cast its shadow on them. It circled around the tallest tower before folding its snow-white wings against its lithe body and diving to the ground and out of my sight.

Chroniclus knew two of my weaknesses. I tried not to be impressed, but I failed. “That was the best CG dragon I’ve ever seen.”

“That was a real dragon.”

“Please. I’m not stupid. That’s a projection of some fantasy landscape made by a genius computer programmer.” I leaned closer to examine the picture. I wanted it to be real so badly that it was hard to be skeptical. I waved my hand across the portal, front, top, bottom, both sides, trying to find the light source, but the image never flickered. I waved my hand around the back and noticed that I couldn’t see its shadow. I walked around to the other side, stopped, and stared.

The castle was gone. I was looking at an other-worldly forest, with impressively varied trees. I focused on the closest tree, noting the light purple of its bark and its dark blue, toothed leaves. The tree beside it had bark with a cranberry tone, and its leaves were the deep, rich green of a holly. I loved the imagination behind them. If this was a trick, it was a good one.

“Your trees are terrible,” I told him. “They’re not realistic at all.” I stepped away, wondering how he had gotten a double-sided projection to show so clearly in the middle of an open field. I glanced back at the table to make sure I hadn’t missed a camera or projector while I continued to critique his trees. “The colors are completely wrong.”

“They’re wrong for this world,” he agreed, walking around to look at the trees. He consciously kept his distance and kept his hands behind his back as he nodded at the first tree. “He is an Othymti[1]. They’re native to Nundara Five, but we had him transplanted to Mid-Realm so he could help me in the Böchard.”

“He?”

“Yes. He’s a dryad. His name is Tim.”

“Is that reddish tree a dryad, too?”

“No. That’s just an elvel. They’re common in Mid-Realm.”

“Nice.” I forced myself to step back, checking my phone for the time. If I was lucky, I would still have enough time to cram my sandwich down my throat before I had to go back to dealing with customers. “Well, your LARP effects are great. You should talk to someone in Hollywood; you could make a fortune with that tech there. I have to get back to work.”

“It’s a portal, Cassie. You could go to another world, a world with dragons.”

I would definitely deal with dragons over people any day of the week, but I, unfortunately, had to accept reality. “Dragons were wiped out centuries ago. Portals don’t exist. That’s not another world, that’s a high-quality projection or hologram, and you’re wasting it on me.”

Chroniclus stepped backwards into the portal. The golden light swallowed him, then he was a part of the projection. I went back to the portal and walked around it. Chroniclus followed me from within the golden frame, watching me with an amused look on his slender face. The portal had the same width as a penny; there was no way he was hiding behind it, and the hill I was standing on was definitely grass and dirt. I couldn’t think of another way for him to pull off this trick, so I stuck my arm into the glowing circle. The elf took my hand from the other side and pulled me through.

I was standing on another world’s grass, and I was disappointed that it was green. I could see the castle, reaching up from behind the safety of its grand wall. I was at the edge of the forest, in front of the dryad’s othymti tree. I reached out to touch Tim’s bark, then decided that would be weird and touched the elvel instead. Its bark was paper-smooth and a little soft, completely unlike the rough and hard barks of Earth.

“It’s real.” I turned in a slow circle, openly gawping at everything. “It’s real! This is real!” I covered my mouth after an excited shriek escaped it and looked at Chroniclus. “You’re really an elf. Your ears are actually pointy, and they’re taller than Legolas’s.” I looked at the castle. “Is that the military place?”

“Yes. That is Mid-Realm Academy, and just behind it stands the Böchard, the complete collection of every written work carefully shelved within its walls.”

“Dude, you should have opened with the giant library.” I started to walk toward it, then stopped and looked back to the portal. It was still open and still set at the top of the hill, looking down at my job. “I can’t go. I have to get back. I have to finish my shift! I could get fired!” I ran back to it, then stopped again and looked at the castle. “The dragon was real? What’s his name?”

He smiled fondly. “Her name is Draxia. If you decide to attend the Academy, she will be one of your teachers.”

“Seriously?” I had to smack my face to force myself to turn back to the portal. “No! I can’t do that! I can’t do that to my family. Not to my mom.”

“I understand. It’s a difficult decision.”

“There is no decision. I’ve had my entire life planned since I was eight! I’m set to graduate next year! I’m going to get a writing degree in college, and I’m going to get published. My mom has always believed in me, always supported me. If I left, just suddenly disappeared, my mom would go crazy with worry. She would never get the book I promised her.”

He nodded quietly. “I understand. You love your family very much.”

“I do. I can’t leave them.” I stuck one foot out of the portal and stood between the worlds, my mind still swirling. I was honestly not sure which was the more idiotic choice: leaving or staying. Chroniclus stepped through the portal and helped me back onto Earth’s soil. He didn’t say anything as I stared at the wide cement building below us. My break ticked away—I could almost hear the clock—but there was still a question I needed to ask. “Why me?”

He looked at me, one silver eyebrow raised questioningly. “Why not you?”

“Because I’m fat. I’m not going to bring anything to the table physically, and I’m pretty sure I can’t bring anything mentally either. So why bother asking me?”

He considered the question, raising his eyes from the store to the heavens. “Because I believe there is a world out there that only you can save.”

Me?”

“Yes, you, Cassandra Moon. Cassie. You may not think much of yourself now, and I will admit that you are not a prime candidate for the school, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do something great.”

I could save a world?” I snorted derisively, but I couldn’t deny it was tempting. There was so much about his proposal that I wanted. I wanted to go to another world. I wanted to meet a dragon, and I definitely wanted one to teach me cool fighting stuff. I wanted to live in a castle. I wanted to save the world, but I didn’t want to leave my family to attend a military boot camp. “Is it worth it?”

He was quiet again. “Not at first,” he admitted finally, avoiding looking at me. “Our training program is brutal. Your teachers will push you until you break, then they will patch you back up and break you again and again until you stop breaking. Then you are sharpened. When your training is complete, you will be perfect. The life I’m asking you to accept isn’t easy. Everything is demanded of everyone, and once you join, you cannot leave. Do you understand?”

I glanced over my shoulder at the castle, still visible through the portal. I could see banners flapping in the newly arisen wind. There was a world I desperately wanted to be a part of. “Can I think about it?”

Chroniclus nodded. “Of course. You are scheduled to attend your church camp this week, aren’t you? You may have to the end of the camp to make your decision.”

 

Camp sucked. In previous years, I had looked forward to it. My parents knew the owners, and it was a small, personal and crazy fun. It was a whole week to spend with my friends doing dumb stuff you could regret as adults. This year, I was the oldest girl in the group, all of my friends having either graduated or moved away. I just had my older sister, Helen, as a counselor, and my younger brother, Troy, to hang with. Another change was our camp was under different management, and the couple in charge were newly-weds more concerned with spending time with each other than organizing waterslides and canoeing. I wouldn’t have cared about that as much if the head counselor hadn’t enjoyed watching us be miserable. She organized an official camp food fight, providing bowls of spaghetti, mashed potatoes, corn, and leftovers—all doused with overwhelming amounts of mustard—and made it a requirement of the camp to participate. I watched one of the younger boys stagger around the outdoor arena puking while everyone else either did the best they could to dodge the flying food. Helen had tied up my hair in a bandana to protect it, but I still found mustard and marinara sauce caked in my roots. Then the counselors had us line up against the wall and hosed down with icy water, full blast. Even Helen was laughing as boys and girls alike screamed at the sudden cold. I was able to brace myself for the torture and barely flinched at the water.

“Aw, Cassie, you’re no fun!” The camp counselor complained.

I wanted to punch her.

The hose didn’t do a very good job at cleaning her nasty mustard food off us, so we were sent back to our cabins to change for our next activity. Dripping with cold water, my cabinmates and I found ourselves the victim of the counselor’s prank. She had taken all of our stuff, stuffed it in a canoe, and shoved it in the middle of the lake. Our lake wasn’t one you could swim in. It was the result of some government reservoir thing; geese swam in it and nested on the banks, but it wasn’t human safe. The other canoes had been taken back to storage, and it didn’t look like there was a paddle on our lone canoe. Someone was going to have to swim into the lake to get our canoe. I looked to the camp counselor’s husband, but he laughed and refused to get it. The younger girls were starting to freak out, and the youngest was crying. I already stank of camp food and mustard, so I decided to risk the polluted water just so I could have something clean to wear.

The girls from my cabin cheered when I waded into the water. Helen made some obvious remark on how unsanitary the water was, and the other counselors just laughed. The water was at my chin by the time I reached the canoe, and I had lost my flipflop to whatever muck lined the bottom, but I grabbed the prow and hauled the boat back to the bank. Seaweed wrapped around my leg, something sharp stabbed at my barefoot, I almost lost my other shoe; then I was back on dry land. Now that the boat was within reach, the counselor hauled it out and carried it back to the crowd of girls, leaving me on the bank.

I heard him say, “That was so gross!” and I decided I was done with the camp. I was covered in lake muck, mustard, spaghetti, and who knows what else, and I smelled like a sewer. My own stench made me want to puke. I tilted my head to the sky to breath and caught sight of Chroniclus in the shadows of the nearby woods. How long had he been there? He looked mad, his smooth face wrinkling as his lips puckered and his brow furrowed. The glare was directed was directed at my counselor, who was laughing at the situation with my sister. I made my final decision.

I stood and walked to the elf. “I’ll go with you.”

He glanced at the group laughing people, all walking back to the cabins, not even realizing I wasn’t with them. “Cassie, Mid-Realm won’t be any kinder to you. This camp was only a week long, and there’s two days left.”

“I know, but at least there the torture will have a point. It will make me perfect, right? That’s what you said.”

“Yes, but perfection takes a long time.”

“How long?”

“Ten years.”

I took a breath as I let that length of time process and instantly regretted breathing. I gagged, aiming any oncoming projectiles away from the elf, who watched sympathetically. When my stomach had calmed, I aimed my nose away from my body and said, “Fine. Let’s do it.”

He twisted the ring on his hand to open the portal. Again, I saw the castle, and I was actually excited. He held up his hand as I started to enter the portal. “Cassie, there’s no turning back now. Are you sure you want to leave without saying ‘good-bye’ to your family?”

I looked back. Helen and Troy were farther away now, still not realizing I was gone. “I’m sure. If I said good-bye, I wouldn’t leave. It’s now or never.”

He stepped aside and let me crossover before following.

And just like that, I was no longer on Earth.

 

 

[1] Pronounced Oh-thim-tee