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?

 

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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

One Book, One Month, and GO!

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This was my first year participating in NaNoWriMo (Nation Novel Writing Month). I’d heard rumors of it for years, and kind of knew what it was–kind of. When other writers began prepping for it mid-October, my interest was piqued, and I asked around. I was sent to this website: https://nanowrimo.org/ . After reading the provided information, I decided to go ahead and sign up, and do my best to write 50,000 words in a month!

I knew just the story I would write: “The Dragon Girl.” It was a story that has been on my mind for thirteen years, and though I’d written bits and pieces of it, I had never sat down to put the whole story to paper. It is the origin story of Cassandra “Cassie” Moon (previously featured in “Where the Heart Is”). Cassie has been my favorite original character since I was thirteen, and much of her story was developed on dragnix.net, though a good bit was finalized with the help of my best friend in college. Many of my friends and family first met and know Cassie through my WIP (work in progress) “Forged,” but there she is firmly established in who she is and what she is meant to do. “The Dragon Girl” takes her back to that beginning time and how she learns that who she thought she was is not who she is. It’s fun to write, after having worked with the developed Cassie for so long in “Forged.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t complete the NaNoWriMo goal. There are so many reasons why I didn’t “win” the challenge. I had a very difficult student at my school that drained me, I had to plan and organize my sister’s baby shower, and the last three days of November I got a fever. “The Dragon Girl” ended November with 45,053 words, and the story is only halfway finished.

BUT

That’s 45k I didn’t have before.

AND

I have no intention of stopping just because I didn’t reach a deadline. I can’t leave a story halfway finished! Halfway means it’s just getting good, and Cassie is about to meet Zantin. I love Zantin! And I have two friends reading each chapter as I write them, and they both would be upset if I just stopped. Maybe the pressure of needing to write 1,667 words a day was too much for me. Maybe now that I don’t have that pressure, I will be able to write 5k a day (sometimes pressure works like that). Plus, Christmas break is coming up (YAY!), so I’ll have a full week off from work to write. If we’re lucky, “The Dragon Girl” will be ready for editing come 2018.

As a special treat, I am planning on publishing the first chapter of “The Dragon Girl” here on Monday (12/4/2017). If you would like a glimpse of what I’ve been working on, feel free to pop back here and check it out.

See you then!

Nightmare Sword

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“She had another nightmare last night,” Shyftin said quietly as he and his friends, Agrona and Chroniclus hovered in the Vermifiut Academy common rooms. “I could hear her screaming all through the night.”

“Sounds annoying,” Agrona said dismissively.

Shyftin wasn’t sure if the dragoness had altogether heard him; she was intently studying a new knife and was most likely only responding with programmed answers.

Chroniclus, however, looked a lot more concerned. He elbowed his girlfriend, alerting her to the seriousness of the situation and said, “My father says Seer Ogwaine frequently suffers night terrors. There are records as far back as Seer Owen of seers having incredibly vivid nightmares on an almost nightly basis. According to Chroniclus XXVII, it drove Seeress Hyactinath insane.”

“So it’s pretty serious?” Shyftin asked worriedly.

“It can be. Some seers are stronger than others. Chroniclus XIV theorized that some races bore the strain of prophecy better than others. Humans seem to hold up the best, with dragons and dwarves coming second. Centaurs manage pretty well, too.”

“And what about selarthins?”

Chroniclus shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know. Selarthins are similar enough to elves that she should be able to cope, but they’re pretty close to fairies, too, and they don’t tend to do so well.”

“Anything we can do to help?” Agrona asked, her own concern genuine now that she was paying attention.

Chroniclus shrugged. “I don’t know of any sure way, but we could always try being nice to her.”

Agrona laughed. “That shouldn’t be too hard for Shyfty here.” She nudged the dragon playfully. “I think he’s sweet on her already.”

Chroniclus grinned at Shyftin’s furious blush and stammered denial. Then he caught sight of a green and brown dress paired with red gold hair. He quickly stood at attention, signaling for Agrona and Shyftin to stop their bickering. When Shyftin caught sight of the pretty selarthin, he shot to his feet, paling and swallowing nervously.

Agrona snickered and stood in one fluid movement, placing two hands on his shoulders and whispering, “Go talk to her.”

“Talk to her?” Shyftin looked at her as if she’d gone mad. “What am I supposed to say?”

“Just invite her over,” Agrona instructed. “She hasn’t attached herself to any particular group yet. If you act quickly, you can have first dibs.”

“It doesn’t work like that!”

“Just go!”

“No, you go!”

Chroniclus rolled his eyes and strode toward the selarthin, who was still lingering in the doorway, as if unsure where to sit. Her large almond eyes lit up hopefully as Chroniclus approached her, then she blushed and looked down, tucking a loose strand of red gold hair behind her large ears. The elf smiled friendly at her, and offered a hand in greeting. “Hi. I’m Chroniclus XXXII.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “The future chronicler of Mid-Realm?”

“That’s me. And you’re Scota, right? Future Seeress of the same.”

She blushed and nodded, mindlessly braiding the cords of her dress.

He smiled easily, trying to help her relaxed. “I figured we’d get the introductions out of the way since we’re going to be stuck with each other for the rest of our lives. Might as well be friends, you know?”

She nodded eagerly. “Yes, friends! It’d be nice to have a friend here.” She looked around at the common room, and Chroniclus could see how small and insignificant she felt.

He touched her shoulder gently and gestured toward where Agrona and Shyftin were sitting watching them. “Would you like a few more?” He guided her toward the pair, silently enjoying watching Shyftin get more and more nervous while Agrona grew more and more impish. “This is my girlfriend, Agrona of Charfias.”

Scota’s expression fell a little at the ‘g’-word, but Agrona’s name peeked her interest. “Agrona? I feel like I should know that name.”

“Agrona was the name of Xasi’s thirty-third wife,” Agrona supplied coolly. “She was a fias from Charfias, and is often said to be the start of the Charren royal line.”

“Which would make you royalty, since it became a form of title for royal dragonesses of great power.”

Agrona smirked. “I’m of the last clutch of Queen Acacia and King Tarquin. So yeah, I’m a little important. But hey, who here isn’t?” She winked at the selarthin pointedly.
Scota smiled and seemed to relax fully.

Chroniclus exchanged a proud look with his girlfriend, letting Shyftin squirm a little longer before finally introducing him. “And this is Shyftin of the Versian Realms, first of the clutches of King Caio and Queen Evalda.”

Scota choked in surprise. “That means–! You’re the heir?! I didn’t think any of the continents allowed their heirs at this school. My chieftain said it was too much of a risk.”

“Oh yes,” Agrona said lazily as she stretched across the table, “because we’re all so volatile. Shyftin has quite the temper, you know. He’s practically a fias.”

Shyftin looked as if he was going to strangle the dragoness. Chroniclus quickly sat between them, both to reign in his girlfriend’s merciless teasing and to keep his best friend from killing her. Scota remained standing, obviously unsure of whether or not she was allowed to sit. Agrona answered the question for her, pulling her onto the cushioned seat beside her. Shyftin shifted uncomfortably, fiddling with his pearl throwing knives as he tried to figure out what to say. Scota looked down at her lap, too unfamiliar with the group to start a conversation. Agrona was having too much fun watching the two squirm in the awkward silence to break it, which left the merciful Chroniclus to speak.

“So, Scota, have you had any kind of weapons training?”

Scota nodded, eager to please and fit in. “Yes! I was at the top of my class in archery, and I’m pretty good with a sword, too. I can also make 42 different traps and snares.”

“What exactly is the difference between a trap and a snare?” Agrona asked. The question confused the selarthin enough to squeak a few “ums” and “uhs” out of her. Agrona looked at Chroniclus innocently when he shot her a reproving look. She saved Scota by dismissing her own question. “Doesn’t really matter. Dragons don’t need no traps to get dinner. Hey! Why don’t you come hunting with us this weekend?”

“Hunting?”

“Yeah. Shyftin and I like keeping our mad flying skills up to par while we’re here, so the Head Master lets us take weekend passes to go out. We catch enough meet to last the entire week!”

“But, I can’t fly?”

“Neither can Nicus, but he manages to survive.”

Chroniclus shrugged when Scota looked at him in awe. “We had special saddles made that let me stay with them even when they decide to get acrobatic. I’m sure we can get another one for you.”

“Since I carry Chroniclus, Shyftin can carry you! What do you think, Shyfty?”

Shyftin glared at her for putting him on the spot AND using her teasing nickname for him. However, Scota’s large eyes were on him now, and he couldn’t stay silent. “I-I think that-that should be fine,” he stammered.

“You wouldn’t mind?” Scota confirmed hesitantly.

“N-no! Not at all.” He smiled weakly at her.

“Then it’s settled!” Agrona cried dramatically, throwing her arms around Scota’s shoulders. “This weekend, you’re flying with us!”

*******
 

She’s screaming again.

Agrona snarled and batted the air as if that could make the telepathic voice go away.

I want to help. What should I do?

Agrona reluctantly opened her blue eyes and glared bitterly at the darkness of her cavernous room. Whatever you do, DON’T go into her room yet. I’m on my way.

What should I do in the meantime? I can’t just lay here listening to her scream.

I could.

Agrona!

Agrona flinched at Chroniclus’s rebuke. Shyftin, next time have the decency to tell me my boyfriend is tuned in to our little head chat. Nicus, IM NOT A NIGHT WYRM! Give me a break. But since you’re both being annoying, you can at least be useful about it. Shyftin, go get some milk for your blasted girlfriend. Chroniclus, your rather cranky and irritated girlfriend needs chocolate. I’ll run intervention. AND KNOCK BEFORE YOU COME IN!

Bitterly, Agrona forced herself to shrink from the gargantuan red dragon to the blue eyed red head the selarthin had been introduced to. The dragoness sneaked along the corridors, passing the large door that led to Shyftin’s cave, and passing significantly smaller doors of the rooms of the academy’s more human-sized occupants. One door was different than the others, thicker and made out of a wood Agrona knew was typically used for sound proofing. Shyftin, you little stalker, you! What, do you have her room bugged?

No! My hearing is just that good. It’s not my fault fias have the hearing of an imp.

Watch it, Shyfty. You’re treading on lava.

Agrona opened the door and winced when a horrified scream assaulted her ears. She slipped in, quickly shutting the door behind her, and rushing to Scota’s bed. She reached out to her, intending to shake her gently, but as soon as her fingers touched the selarthin’s skin, Scota was up, her already large eyes further enlarged by fear. She was still screaming, waving her hands around her face as if trying to keep some terror far away from her. Agrona reacted quickly, grabbing the selarthin’s hands and stilling them. Scota thrashed around for a minute before waking fully and looking at the dragoness in bleary shock.

“Agrona? Why are you–?”

“Shyftin heard you screaming. He was worried, and he asked me to check on you. Now, calm down. You’re safe now. Breathe.”

Scota took several deep breaths and went limp, sobbing as the anxiety of the nightmares rushed at her. “There was so much pain and death and fire! I couldn’t stop it! I tried, but I couldn’t save any of them!”

Agrona gathered the other woman in her arms, trying to comfort her. “Calm down. You’re safe now. No one will harm you.”

“I’m not worried about myself, dragoness. I’m a seeress. I’ve seen my nightmares come true before, and dream or realty, I couldn’t stop either. You have no idea what it’s like, constantly seeing the lives of others be destroyed and being helpless to save them. No one is safe. Not in my visions.”

“Don’t you ever see anything happy?”

Scota shook her head dejectedly. “Never.”

“What about nice warm milk?” Shyftin offered hopefully, poking his head in the door.

Agrona raised an eyebrow at the two men who entered the room. “Eavesdropping again, Shyftin?”

“Hey, I can’t help if your voice is loud and obnoxious.” He offered the milk to the selarthin, who accepted it with an expression of confused gratitude. “Are you all right?” He asked, sitting at her feet.

She looked at him, bewildered, and took a large gulp from the milk to buy time. As she swallowed, she looked to Chroniclus, who was offering his girlfriend a chocolate rose. Agrona gleefully accepted it and bit off the chocolate bud before resting her head on his narrow shoulders. Scota felt a twinge of jealousy as he wrapped one arm around the dragoness, and she looked at Shyftin, finally able to answer, “I don’t think I will ever be ‘okay,’ but the milk does help. Thank you.”

“What was your dream about?” Shyftin asked. “Was it a prophecy?” He realized what he was asking and quickly added, “I’m sorry. You don’t have to say if you don’t want to.”

Scota hesitated, slender fingers clutching her cup for security. “No, it’s alright. I suppose I’ll have to get used to telling my visions to others.” She looked at Chroniclus and smiled. “Might as well get it out of the way now.” She took a deep breath and faced the dragon prince. “I-I saw a great black dragon rising over the ashes of a city, crunching the bones of the fallen beneath his feet. The sky was on fire, blood flowed like a river from between his claws. People fled from him, screaming in terror, but he just laughed as he slaughtered them. I-I tried to save them, I stood before him to protect them, but his fire only consumed me, too.”

“Sounds like an Ut’zuk to me,” Agrona murmured.

“Yeah, but which one?” Shyftin asked.

“Pick one,” Chroniclus said. “They’re all the same.”

Scota shook her head. “He might not even be born yet. Seer Carttropsyp says that our nightmares may not even be prophecies, they’re just vivid and horrible. As if having real visions isn’t bad enough.”

“Sounds to me like you need a sword,” Agrona said wisely.

“What? I already have a sword–?”

“No, no, no, a dream sword. It’s an invincible weapon you use in your dreams to kill any monster that comes after you. I have one. It’s big and shiny, and bursts into flame whenever I want it.”

“Why am I not surprised you have such a thing?” Shyftin asked, quirking a smile at the dragoness.

She flipped her hair and answered cockily, “Because I’m awesome like that.”

Scota smiled at the two and sighed, fingering the edges of her blanket. “I’m sure that works for a great dragoness like you, but I can’t control my dreams like that.” She yawned and settled back in her blankets. “I’m so tired.”

Agrona squeezed her hand. “Do you want us to stay with you until you fall asleep? Maybe it’ll help.”

The Seeress smiled gratefully. “Maybe it will.” Her large eyes fluttered as if she was fighting sleep, but it very quickly consumed her.

The trio watched her sleep for a few minutes before Agrona finally chased them out of the room. They walked down the hall together, each quiet and thoughtful. Chroniclus silently took Agrona’s hand and pulled her close.

“You never told me you have nightmares,” he said quietly.

“Everyone has nightmares, Nicus.”

“Yes, but why do you need a sword for yours? You’re a dragon. You can incinerate anything that comes at you.”

“Not in dreams.” She looked up at him, her normally cocky attitude hushed and weary. “When dragons have nightmares, we see ourselves as human, weak and vulnerable. Very few dragons I have heard of have been able to use their elemental abilities in their dreams. That’s why I attached my element to my sword.”

“What do you have nightmares about?”

“Trying to discover my greatest fears?” She teased.

He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her into a spinning hug. “I’m trying to figure out why you have any fears when I’m here. Do you think I’d ever let anything happen to you?”

She kissed his cheek. “No. That’s why I haven’t carried a dream sword since I met you.”

He kissed her back and grinned at Shyftin, who was watching them jealously. “Well we’re going to have to think of some way to help Scota until she figures out Shyftin exists.”

He scowled at them, but then his expression grew thoughtful. “We could make her a sword.”

“The proper term is ‘forge,’ Shyfty,” Agrona corrected mildly.

Shyftin ignored her and addressed Chroniclus. “There’s a metal in Vermifiut that can bond with its bearer, isn’t there?”

“No, but there is on Zykran. It’s called terratel. I could talk to my father; he could get us enough to make a good sized sword.”

Agrona looked at the two men in awe. “Shyftin, that’s brilliant!” She gave him a delighted hug and clapped her hands excitedly. “Oh, she’ll love you for that!”

Shyftin grabbed her hands, forcing them to be still as he hissed, “For Versia’s sake, Rona! Keep quiet! We don’t need any of the watchmen finding us out of our rooms–much less you two together at night.”

“We’re not going to do anything.”

“You’re a very public couple, you don’t HAVE to do anything to get in trouble.”

“He’s right,” Chroniclus agreed reluctantly. “We need to get to our rooms and get to sleep. We have a full day of classes tomorrow, and we don’t want anyone to suspect what we’re up to. Goodnight.” He kissed her once before he and Shyftin went to their rooms.

The next few nights followed a similar pattern; Agrona would reluctantly leave her bed at Shyftin’s anxious pleas and sneak into Scota’s room to wake her from her nightmares. The two men would sneak in a few minutes later, Shyftin with warm milk and Chroniclus with chocolate. Slowly, Scota’s nightmares eased, but they didn’t abandon her completely. Soon, Agrona didn’t need Shyftin to beg her to help the selarthin, she did it on her own, often seeking the other woman out even during the day. Shyftin finally grew confident enough to speak to her without stuttering, and she didn’t look at Chroniclus with quite so much longing. Yet the nightmares persisted.

Finally one afternoon as the classes ended, Chroniclus slipped away, confusing even Agrona. He didn’t rejoin them until halfway through their break, after Scota had already been called away for her special session with the Head Master. He slid onto the bench beside Agrona and leaned forward. The other two followed his lead, quietly waiting for his whispered explanation.

“I didn’t expect it to take so long,” he said, flashing an apologetic smile at his girlfriend. “My father finally sent the terratel I asked for. I took it to Shyftin’s cavern. I figure we can set up a make shift forge in there and work on the sword while Scota is working through her prophecy sessions with the Head Master.”

“Good idea,” Agrona agreed. She turned to Shyftin for approval. “It’s going to get really hot in your cave. I hope you don’t mind.” She turned to Chroniclus thoughtfully. “You know, we could always forge it on my cavern. I can handle the heat better.”

“No.” Shyftin insisted. “I’ve inconvenienced you enough with this. I deal with the heat. You are doing this for me, anyway. It’s only fair that I suffer.”

“If I were doing this just for you, I would have blown you off a long time ago,” Agrona rebuffed. “Scota is my friend, too, now, and she’s suffering. I want to help as much as I can.”

“Good,” Chroniclus said firmly, squeezing her hand. “We’ll need a powerful fias to make this work.”

They all stopped talking as Scota wearily approached the table. She plopped down ungracefully and slumped onto the table.

“I don’t know which is more exhausting,” the Seeress sighed, “the nightmares or the vision training.” She brushed her hair back in tired frustration before looking up at her friends hopelessly. “Seer Carttropsyp is coming in two weeks to check on my progress. If I don’t exceed his expectations–” She shook her head and sank low. “I can kiss any social life I have good-bye. The only friend I have that Carttropsyp actually approves of is Chroniclus. If the Head Master didn’t think that isolating me would cause another war, I would never get to see you.” She actually looked at Shyftin first before looking to the others and adding, “Any of you.”

“I will take it as a personal insult if I am ever forbidden from seeing you,” Shyftin promised. “I might even declare war on the Head Master himself.”

Scota smiled gratefully then slumped back down. “It’s too late. He’s already rescinded my weekend privileges.”

“What!” Agrona stiffened indignantly. “Why?”

“Are you failing your prophecy courses?” Chroniclus asked.

“No! But–but I’m not excelling either. According to the Head Master, I’m ‘on par.'” She sighed. “He’s desperate to impress the Seer, and I’m not good enough for him.”

“He’s pushing you too hard,” Shyftin said firmly. “You can’t handle this kind of pressure, not when you have to deal with nightmares, too.”

“What choice do I have? I’m already earmarked to be the next Mid-Realm seer. You think the pressure will let up then? Do you think my life will get any easier? My life is cursed.”

The trio was silent, all unsure of how to cheer her up. Shyftin stared at the miserable selarthin, glancing at his friends for help. Agrona only shrugged and shook her head helplessly. Chroniclus’s head was bowed, his arms folded over his narrow chest, his brow knitted in intense concentration.

Shyftin frowned and stood up. Everyone stared at him in surprise, but he just held out his hand to the selarthin. “Come on. You need a break.”

Scota accepted his hand hesitantly. “Where are we going?”

“Hunting.”

Chroniclus stood and chased after them. “You can’t! You don’t have clearance.”

“Who cares?” Agrona challenged gleefully.

“You still have three more classes today!” The elf protested.

“And we’re going to blow them off,” Shyftin told him. He faced Chroniclus with determination. “Look, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to, but Scota needs this. So I’m taking her.”

“Go,” Agrona told him, pulling Chroniclus back. “We’ll cover you.”

“How are we going to do that?” Chroniclus asked as Agrona pulled him back to their table.

“Easy,” she replied with a kiss. “You let me do the talking.”

Shyftin guided Scota outside, dropping the saddle he had retrieved into the grass as he took a moment to just stand with the seeress outside in the warm breeze. Her red gold hair was being tugged from her loose braid and tickling her jutting cheekbones and heart shaped lips. Her doe brown eyes were alight with mischievous excitement as she looked back at him, her tree-like frame unbending in the wind.

“Head Master is going to be furious,” Scota said, though her smile was relaxed.

“I don’t care,” he told her calmly. “You need this.”

“I do.”

He stepped away and transformed. His already white skin became whiter, taking on a metallic shine as scales grew across his body. His nose and mouth lengthened and became a hawk-like beak. His white hair seemed to stand up on end and twist together to form twin ridges of three horns, each one taller than the last. His wings spread out from his back, the thin fingers between the membrane glistening white. His foreclaws were hand-like, sharp and deadly claws growing from his strong fingers. His back claws resembled those of a lion, firmly planted in the ground in a stance that belied his narrow build. His tail curled was long and thin, whipping around to reveal a crystalline spade tail. Not for the first time was Scota’s breath taken away by his magnificence.

His giant head swung toward her expectantly. She scooped up the saddle and ran to him, expertly strapping the saddle across his back and scaling his leg to her position on his back. She hooked her feet into the straps and gripped the handle as Shyftin’s muscles coiled beneath her. Her stomach lurched as the dragon jumped into the air, and she whooped as he climbed higher and higher. Soon they were above the clouds, soaring with the smaller birds who knew they were too little for a dragon to bother with. Scota spread out her arms, letting the wind currents envelope her. Shyftin glided for a period, letting the selarthin enjoy the peace of the skies and just relax. She laid back on the saddle, propping her hands under head and closed her eyes, loosing herself to the warm sunlight and the heavy sounds of wings beating. Before she knew it, she was asleep, and it was the first time she could remember not having a nightmare.

They didn’t return until after sunset. The Head Master was waiting for them on the steps of the academy, arms folded over his brawny chest as his hoof pawed at the ground angrily. Scota slid from Shyftin’s saddle and hurried over to the centaur, curtseying low in humility as Shyftin walked behind her, his white draconic form glowing in the moonlight.

“How kind of you to give me enough time to write my entire lecture ahead of time with three points and sub points,” the Head Master said, his already gruff voice dangerously low.

“I’m sorry, Head Master,” Scota replied, her voice quivering fearfully.

“You will be. Wait for me in my office. I’ll deal with you there.” He dismissed her with a flick of his tail and turned his attention to the great dragon.

Scota scurried indoors, head bowed in the silence of the night as the two men stared coldly at each other. Shyftin pointedly remained in his dragon form, looking down at the centaur Head Master unapologetically. To the Head Master’s credit, he didn’t back down from his larger charge.

“What an excellent example you are setting, Prince Shyftin. Tell me, do you plan on encouraging your subjects to break rules as well?” The Head Master asked.

Shyftin shifted uncomfortably as he tried to figure out a way to answer the question. “Sometimes rules need to be broken.”

“And who decides when they need to be broken? Anyone any time they feel inconvenienced by the rules?”

“I’m not anyone, Head Master. I’m a prince!”

“So that gives you the right to choose when you want to obey the rules, and when you don’t?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

Shyftin snorted and lowered his head, glaring at the centaur rebelliously. “And who are you to tell me I can’t? I’m the First Hatched of the Versian Realms, the dragon that will one day rule the largest continent of Anrachel. You’re just a half-horse thing. You’re not even noble. I don’t have to listen to you.”

The Head Master put one hoof on Shyftin’s nose, pushing down on it and throwing the dragon prince off balance. “When you came here, you placed yourself under my authority. You and your father made it clear that coming here was your choice, so you can’t blame your presence here on anyone else. You may be a prince in the Versian Realms, but here you are just a student, my student, and nothing more. You knew that when you came here, and I expect you to remember it, or you can go back to your palace. You are not my prince, but you are my student, and I will treat you as such until you are my student no longer. You will be confined to your cavern for the remainder of the night. And since you decided to take your weekend excursion a few days early, I expect you and Scota to remain on campus Saturday and attend all classes you missed this afternoon. Do you understand?”

Shyftin transformed into his human persona and knelt before the centaur humbly. “I understand, Head Master. Will Agrona and Chroniclus still be able to go out this weekend?”

“They are not your subjects, and thus not your business. You should only be concerning yourself with your classes while here at the academy.”

“Yes, Head Master.”

“You are dismissed. Get to your cavern and stay there.”

The prince stood and bowed before going inside. Scota was lurking just past the entrance, pressed against the wall with one large ear tuned to the conversation outside. As soon as Shyftin crossed into the shadows of the academy, the selarthin wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.

“Thank you,” she whispered into his ear. “I’ll never forget that.” Then she ran to the Head Master’s office to await her own lecture and punishment, leaving the dragon prince standing stunned in the hallway.

Agrona and Chroniclus were waiting for Shyftin when he finally staggered into his cavern. He blinked at them, as if he didn’t recognize them, and stayed quiet.

Agrona regarded him warily. “So—how much centaur turd are you standing in right now?”

“A lot,” he replied numbly. Then he grinned, life returning to his purple eyes. “But it was absolutely worth it.”

Chroniclus raised an eyebrow curiously. “Sounds good.”

“I want details!”

“Later,” Shyftin cut Agrona’s excitement off as his attention was refocused. “We need to forge Scota’s sword before the Seer arrives. She needs to be well-rested in order to impress both Carttropsyp and the Head Master.”

They worked all that night and into the morning, then for the next five nights after. In Shyftin’s opinion, it took too long, silently suffering every night he heard Scota’s heart-wrenching screams and strangled sobs. Finally it was done. All it needed was an inscription that Agrona carefully etched into the flat of the blade:

Steel to mold

Fire to heat

Water to temper

Air to cool

Friendship to strengthen.

Nightmare beware,

I am no longer defenseless.

Agrona eyed her handiwork critically then offered it to Shyftin for approval. “My Selarthin is a little rusty, but I had Chron check and double check my grammar and form, so if there’s anything wrong, it’s his fault.”

“It’s nice to know you’re watching my back,” Chroniclus shot back, a slight smirk crossing his lips.

Shyftin smiled and nodded approvingly as he studied the inscription. “It’s perfect. Thank you. Thanks both of you.” He held the sword up to the light, admiring it. A sudden frown struck him, and he lowered it, looking at his friends in concern. “This is what she needs, right? This will help her sleep? Make her happy?”

Agrona and Chroniclus exchanged a sympathetic look before reassuring the worried Versian.

“She’s a fighter,” Agrona told him. “All she needed was a weapon to fight with. It might take a night or two, but it will work. And she will love it. She will love you for making it for her. If she doesn’t love you already, this will definitely steal her heart. It would steal mine. Look at it, it’s gorgeous!”

He smiled. “It is, isn’t it?”

“It’s mainly the inscription on the blade, but yes, the rest of it is pretty good, too.”

Shyftin chuckled softly and sheathed it. “I’m going to give it to her in the morning. This will be her last night of nightmares.”

 

The next morning, Scota staggered into the common room, looking haggard and old. Agrona hissed in dismay and smacked Shyftin’s arm, jolting the Versian out of his shocked stupor and into action. The Prince hurried over to her, trying not to stare at the bags under her large doe brown eyes. She smiled wearily at him and gladly leaned on his offered arm.

“I had another nightmare last night,” she said quietly, resting her head on his shoulder. “Did you hear me?”

“There’s not a night when I don’t hear you. Was it of the Tenth Prophecy again? Or was it something worse?”

“There’s nothing worse than the monster of the Tenth Prophecy. It’s always that creature. He delights in devastating my dreams.” She peered up at the dragon man. “Shyftin, he destroyed Anrachel.”

Shyftin stopped suddenly and looked at her urgently. “Is that a new part of prophecy? Or is it just a figment of terror?”

She gnawed her lip thoughtfully then shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t tell the difference yet, but I think it was a bit of both. While it won’t be anhilated amongst the ten foretold, I believe that our homeworld will be left devastated in the monster’s wake. I saw the mangled corpses of my tribe wreathed in his fires. I saw Chroniclus dead against a tree, two children sobbing over him. I saw Agrona’s twisted and crumpled, as if every bone in her body had been shattered. And I saw you—” she looked up at him and choked, shaking her head and squeezing her eyes shut.

On an impulse, the dragon man pulled the Selarthin into his arms and just held her. She melted into him and cried. He didn’t care, and he didn’t press her about her vision. She cried silently for several minutes, her body shaking with ragged breaths. Agrona made as if to come with her own comfort, but Shyftin shook his head, waving her off. He wanted to be there for the seeress.

Scota hiccupped when the tears finally digressed. She pulled away, wiping at her eyes furiously and sniffling. “I’m so sorry. I’m such a pathetic mess! I don’t usually have meltdowns like this, I swear.”

He tore off a piece of his tunic for lack of a handkerchief and offered it to her. His sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed. She smiled again, wiped her eyes, and blew her nose. He smiled back at her, hoping it didn’t come off as pitiying. “You’re tired and under a lot of stress. I’ve seen full grown men break down for less. And I’m sure these nightmares aren’t helping.”

“They are most definitely not. There just doesn’t seem to be any way around them.”

“What if there were? Would you take it?”

“You mean like Agrona’s ‘nightmare sword’? I don’t know. Seer Carttropsyp claims the nightmares are a necessary part of the seer’s duty, a telling side effect of foreseeing the future. It may be horribly selfish of me, but I think I would rather be without them.”

“Then come with me.” He took her hand and started leading her back to the dorms, catching an all-too-knowing grin from Agrona and a self-satisfied smirk from Chroniclus.

“Oh, Shyftin, no. As much fun as I had last time, I don’t think I’m in any condition to face another lecture from the Head Master.”

“Don’t worry. This will be lecture-free.” He took her to his caves, keeping tight grip on her thin hand as the darkness enveloped them. He quickly lit a torch for her and took her to the ledge where he and his friends had hid the newly forged sword. “I was hoping to give this to you tonight in a more romantic setting, but I think your day could use fresh hope already.”

Scota’s vision was admittedly swimming from both exhaustion and low-light, but she thought she could pick out the long shape amongst the shadows. “What is it?”

He unsheathed the blade and held it in the light for her to see. “Your very own nightmare sword. Agrona, Chroniclus, and I have spent the last several nights working on it. Agrona heated the forge and did the inscription, Chroniclus designed and shaped it, and I added my own special touch to it.” He tried to keep from twitching as she studied it mutely. Finally, he burst. “Do you like it?”

“Like it?” She shook her head, her expression somber. “In all my travels, I have never seen anything that could be compared to this. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Thank you!” She had to jump up a little to kiss him, but she had good aim.

Shyftin caught her and held her, kissing her back with fierce relief.

She nestled into his arms and closed her eyes, one hand on her sword. “I love you.”

The confession surprised him. He looked down at her and put one hand on the back of her head, cradling it, keeping her close to him. “I love you, too.”

 

The monster of the Tenth Prophecy reared its head once again in her dreams that night. She stood alone on an outcropping rock, surrounded by a field of wildfire, at the edge of which hovered the Shadow. She stared at the devastation and put one hand on her hip. The sword warmed at her side, hardening as her fingers curled around the hilt. The Shadow turned its indistinguishable head toward her suspiciously and growled at the sight of the weapon. It roared at her and flapped its wings, blurring into the thickening smoke.

“Hold your ground,” Agrona’s voice instructed from behind her. “Don’t let it scare you into submission.”

“Up until now your mind has been its realm,” Chroniclus added, coming up beside his girlfriend. “It’s time to claim it for yourself.”

Scota felt a gentle touch at her elbow and looked over to see Shyftin standing beside her. “I don’t think this monster knows who you are,” he said, his eyes sparking in a playful challenge. “Why don’t you introduce yourself?”

Scota drew the sword, feeling the wind turn cool and fresh, turning the smoke to clouds. The dragon’s head emerged from the brewing storm and glared at her, its eyed twin pools of bleeding flames. It snarled and opened its maw, embers beginning to glow deep in its throat.

She felt her friends behind her, she knew her sword would hold. She raised the blade to meet the forming pyre and shouted, “This is not the future I will face! I will give my life to save the worlds and people I love. I am not afraid of you, and you will not win!”

The dragon’s fire met her blade, exploded in a vibrant display of colors and screams. The sword flashed. Lightning struck the formless beast, dissipating it. Rain swept across the field, extinguishing the fire and clearing the way for the growing grass. The fear was gone.

Scota’s fingers curled around Shyftin’s and they looked at each other. “I won’t fear the future as long as you’re here to face it with me.”

He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it lovingly. “I will never leave you.”

On the Brink of Loss

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I have had a good life, but even the best life has gaping, black moments.

Growing up, I was very close with my family. I was homeschooled, so my mom was all my teachers, my dad was principal and VP, and my siblings were both my toughest bullies and my fiercest protectors. I got to spend weeks sleeping over at my grandparents’ house, I was treated to every Disney movie by my favorite uncle, and church was my second home. 

You hear “adultier” adults talking about “the good ol’ days,” and I’m starting to understand what they mean. As you grow, your body slowly dies, and the life that formed you slowly deterioates. My siblings got married, joined other families with other traditions, and are starting whole new families are their own. I remain at my childhood home with my parents, with only an adorable, snuggly mutt to call truly mine. Then, my favorite uncle is diagnosed with stage four liver cancer, my grandmother is in the hospital for unknown causes, and my church is dying. My health insurance didn’t cover all of my doctor visit when I had to go to get rid of my bronchitis and vertigo, and I have a full-time job that can’t support me. Happy Thanksgiving, right?

Yes, it is.

I have a roof over my head, providing by loving parents that charge a minimal rent that they then put into a savings account “for my future.” I have a beautiful dog that runs out to greet me after a long day of dealing with 3-year-old meltdowns and tattlings and accidents. I have siblings that still live nearby, and I get to work alongside my two sisters-in-law, and I’m about to have my first nephew! I have a caring mother that runs to help her parents whenever they need it; she’s currently helping my grandfather while my granny is in the hospital, and she does whatever she can to keep them comfortable and happy. I have an uncle who refuses to let “a little cancer” bring him down, and I still get to enjoy going to see current Disney movies with him–including the upcoming Star Wars! My church may be small, we may have to sell our building, we may be full of hypocrites and self-absorbed members, but that doesn’t change the God I love and serve. I currently have good health, and I have a strong support system for when I get in trouble. And my job? It may not pay much, but I love teaching.

I have worked as a teaching assistant in my preschool for four years now, and before that, I was working before and after care. I may not reach every child, but I am so blessed to have reached any at all. My first K4 students, now in 2nd grade, still ask me when I’m going to be in extended care, they still give me hugs, and one talks excitedly about his little brother coming to my class soon. And one of my before and after care students (now in 9th grade!) reached out to me this week. I was so happy that one of “my kids” still remembered me enough to be able to find me, and that I was able to be a fond memory of her elementary school life. I wouldn’t sacrifice this love for all the money in the world.

“Life is only worth living if you are loved by a child.” ~ Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story 2

It is so easy to get focused on all the bad things that happen. It’s crazy that we have to work to see the good, that we have to sit down and count out all of our blessings to see how good our life is. I know that the tradition of Thanksgiving is tainted by how our government treated the Native Americans, but I think it is still important to set a day aside to remind people that there is still good in this world that is seemingly filled with sexual assault and shootings. At times it can be hard to believe that there are people out there sacrificing their time and happiness to help others, that there are every day people who see you in that moment and hold the door when your arms are so full, you’re liable to drop everything. There are good cops, good men, sweet children, and fluffy puppies that cover you with slobbery kisses.

“There is still good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” ~ Samwise Gamgee, The Two Towers

This year I have a lot to be thankful for. Here’s just a few things I can count off the top of my head:

  1. My family
  2. My dog
  3. A warm fire
  4. Warm food
  5. Books
  6. The Lord of the Rings (and its author J.R.R. Tolkien)
  7. Notebooks and pens
  8. Blankets
  9. Chocolate
  10. JK Rowling

Of course there’s more. There’s always more to be thankful for, but I’ll stop there. I have a family to feast with, a dog to cuddle, and a couple dozen books to read. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Handprints On My Heart

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When I was three years old, my family moved from our home in Lochearn to a house in Glen Burnie. I hated that house. It had taken me away from my best friend, Megan Fitzgerald. It was the first time I had ever been separated from one of my friends. Now, years later, all that remains of that friendship is a name and a picture of two smiling little girls holding hands in front of a tree. I may not remember Megan anymore, but I remember the pain of losing that friendship. Years have come and gone since then, and so have many more friends. Despite the pain of losing them, I have never regretted giving my love and time to them, because each friend touched my life and helped me grow.

Heather Bauer moved away when I was ten years old. I met Heather at my church, and we became good friends. She was the inspiration for my second book, which I gave to her for her ninth birthday. She loved it! Soon after, her family was transferred to West Virginia, leaving me with memories of fun at their house. She was a great friend, but I wish I had been better to her. My family does not have cable, but the Bauers did. Because of that, whenever I went to Heather’s house, I was drawn to their television. Even when we’d play outside, I’d be yearning to go back to the couch to watch Scooby-Doo. One day I had my way. Heather wanted to play outside, and begged me to join her. I refused; Scooby-Doo: and the Alien Invaders was on! Heather went to play by herself while I watched TV instead of spending what I knew was limited time with my flesh-and-blood friend.

Ayla Neal didn’t move away; our paths just went different ways. This mainly happened because of our differences in schooling. I was homeschooled while Ayla went to private school and public school. I wouldn’t have even met her if it wasn’t for her grandparents living across from me. Weekdays after homework were our time! Ayla was adventurous, and she showed me how to be daring as well. She’d encourage and help me climb trees and onto the roof of her grandfather’s shed only to jump back down again. She led me on many adventures that stimulated my imagination, and together we’d battle the forces of evil! Occasionally I go by her house, wanting to rekindle our friendship, but that enemy we had faced then still comes between us. School was always evil like that.

Immanuel Gillispic, fondly known and loved by all as Manny, introduced me to a new feeling: being beautiful. He was one of my closest friends at our homeschool band. We had a lot of free time while the ensembles practiced, and it was rare that we had a moment void of laughter. I came to one of the practices dressed all in black because I was reciting “The Spider and the Fly” at a Fine Arts performance with my homeschool group. Manny thought I had been to a funeral. His voice was somber when he asked, “Who died?” I laughed, and told him about the recital. From then on, it was our little joke. Any time I wore black boots he’d ask, “Who died?” I’d come up with some kind of witty answer, and we’d laugh. It wasn’t long after that he asked me out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to date yet, or I would have accepted. The concert at the end of that year was the last time I saw him. His family went on a mission trip to Guatemala. That last night together—though I didn’t know it at the time—I dragged him and another friend outside for a group picture. It is the lone artifact of that “age.” Now if someone were to ask me what one object I would save in a fire, my answer would be that picture.

Another close guy friend was Shaun Lancaster. Shaun was a really smart guy, but he was lazy as well. I only knew him for a year or two, but they were good years. The first year I knew him he came to the teen camp hosted by my home church. The final night at the camp we had a firework show. We sat in a hay cart on a pair of overturned buckets to watch the explosions, and we got into a serious debate over who would win in a fight: a gryphon or a dragon. Naturally, I knew a gryphon wouldn’t stand a chance against a dragon, but he argued in favor of it. In the two years that I knew him, we never came to a peaceful conclusion on the subject. After Shaun left, my brother told me that Shaun had only argued with me to get me riled. I didn’t mind. It was the same reason I had argued with him.

I gave the title ‘best friend’ to a spunky half-Korean girl named Samantha Harris. She taught me so much in my life – more than I could name or count. She gave me a passion for drawing, for fantasy and for freedom. Since her father was in the army, she kept moving away, coming back only to move away again. It killed me every time she left, but it was the best day in my life when she came back. It seems like she was the one friend that always remembered me; she was the one friend that kept coming back. Even today, though we don’t have the intimate connection we used to have, I’ll get a random call from Samantha, and we’ll talk for hours about yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I’ll never forget her for not forgetting me.

Friendships can shatter suddenly, painfully, sadly, or they may just fade to a shadow of a memory, but they never truly end. Everyone you meet leaves a little fingerprint on your heart, but your friends leave handprints that stay with you even after they leave.

Where the Heart Is

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I lay on my bed, my eyes closing as the weariness melted from my fingers and toes. Every day at Mid-Realm Academy was like a week at a marine boot camp. Mid-Realm Academy was an inter-dimensional school for the elite of the elite of all the worlds. To give me a good idea of someone who had trained at Mid-Realm for a year, my chronicler Railix told me to imagine combining a Spartan, a Roman, a ninja, and a marine. Then he told me that the training period was ten years. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

Despite the incessant pain of training, the only thing I regretted was leaving my family. I was blessed with an amazing family, but I left them. I never felt like I belonged. I was never picked on, but I was always the strange one. No one quite knew what to do with me so I ran away to Mid-Realm. I belonged here, but I missed my family so much! I wished I could see them again, but I can’t. I’m from Earth—America, specifically—and Earth was a locked world. Interaction with its people or affairs is supposed to be non-existent. The Mid-Realmians allowed me to come and train, but I would never be able to see my family again. Just thinking about it was enough to make me want to cry.

Someone knocked, distracting me from my thoughts. “Come in.”

Faye poked her head in. Faye was the only other Earthling at the academy, the only one who could understand what I sacrificed to come here. “Hey Cassie, you okay?”

“Just homesick. It happens. What’s up?”

“Railix wants to see you in the Bochard.”

I sighed and sat up. “He probably wants to yell at me for something.”

“I doubt it.”

I gave her a hard look. “It’s Railix.” I joined her at the door. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Railix was a trallorp, something I had never heard of until I came to Mid-Realm. The species are human enough in appearance. They’re human in build, but they had metallic skin and eyes, gaunt features, and dark hair. Trallorps were known for their biting cruelty. They’re not cruel physically; they favor verbal cruelty over physical pain. Thankfully, Railix wasn’t like the rest of his people. He was exiled for being “too kind,” but as far as I could tell, “kind” to a trallorp was “Scrooge” to the other worlds.

Faye and I strode down the halls of the Academy, ignoring the gothic buttresses of the soaring ceilings. The place was amazing, and more human than I had imagined an alien school would be. Now the grandeur and majesty of the red castle-like academy was old news. The only thing I really noticed was the sound of our boots on the marble floor as we walked to the twin wooden doors of the Bochard.

I exchanged a resigned look with Faye. She smiled sympathetically and pushed open the doors. We walked into one of the open areas used for sitting and reading, but the couches had been pushed to one side and a table had been erected. On the table was a birthday cake and a stack of presents, and streamers had been hung on the nearby bookcases. From the rafters hung a banner that read “Happy Birthday, Cassie,” and beneath it stood my friends. There was my fire sprite roommate, Fia; my elf guardian, Chroniclus, and his wife, Aoife; my siren classmate, Conch; my albino half-dragon frienemy, Drax; and Railix.

As I stood there, shocked, Faye smiled apologetically. “They were supposed to shout ‘surprise,’ but I think surprise parties are kind of an Earth thing.”

“And this is a library,” Railix added with his usual sneer.

“Shut up, Railix.” Fia looked at me. “You didn’t realize it was your birthday, did you?”

I shook my head. “It’s not like we use Earth calendars here, so it just slipped my mind completely.” I looked to Chroniclus. “Is it really my birthday?”

He smiled. “You were seventeen as of one o’clock this morning. Happy birthday, Cassie.”

“Here,” Conch said, grabbing one of the presents from the table and thrusting it at me. “Open my present first!”

I laughed and accepted the present. I grinned when I saw what was inside. She had given me tortoise shell combs for my long, dark hair. I didn’t know how to use the things, but I thanked her anyway. Fia’s present was more practical. She gave me a pair of black arm braces I could use for archery, or as a day-to-day fashion statement. Chroniclus gave me a set of silver earrings, a stud and a wing. He told me that the stud was a speaker and the wing was a microphone, “earcoms” for inter-world communications. Then Faye gave me her present, a large, perfectly balanced sword.

I hugged Faye gratefully, and then looked around for Drax. The albino was perched on a ladder, playing with her throwing knives. She raised a white eyebrow questioningly. I grinned. “So, where’s your present?”

She tossed her knife up and caught it casually. “Your present, hmm. Well, I’m not throwing knives at you today, so happy birthday.”

“Well thank you,” I said with a laugh.

“Cake next!” Conch said.

“She has to blow out the candles first,” Faye told her, pushing me toward the cake. “And make a wish.”

Wishing for anything is stupid. If you know you’re not going to get whatever you want, why waste time wishing? And if you know you are going to get what you want, wishing is pointless. But I wished because I had just enough hope to dream it would come true. I blew out my candles, making sure to extinguish all seventeen in the same breath—just in case.

“Thanks for this,” I murmured to Faye. “It really means a lot that you set this all up.”

Faye smiled. “You’re welcome, but it wasn’t my idea. I’ve been here two years, and I still can’t figure out how Earth time correlates with the time here. It was Railix’s idea.” I didn’t bother to hide my disbelief. She grinned mischievously as she swallowed her mouthful of cake. “It’s true. He researched Earth customs, decorations, invited everyone, set up, and everything.”

I looked over at the trallorp. After the initial comment about the library, he hadn’t taken much interest in the proceedings. He was sitting in one of the chairs with a pen and a notebook in his hand, probably doing his job and writing down what was happening. I glanced skeptically at Faye, but she only nodded again. I silently promised to get Faye back if this was some kind of prank and walked over to my chronicler.

“Faye said this was your idea,” I said neutrally.

He didn’t even look up. “It was.”

“It was? But you—but I thought—why?”

“Because you needed it.” He looked at me, his amber eyes as emotionless as his golden face. “Are you done?”

“Done talking to you?” I guessed.

“Done with the party.”

“Oh.” I glanced at my friends then looked back at him. “I guess so.”

“Good.” He snapped the notebook close and stood. “Come with me.”

Confused but obedient, I followed him out of the library and into the communications control room. He led me to a console in the corner and sat down.

“I’ve arranged for you to have a brief talk with your family,” he said, his bony fingers blurring across the console keys. “You’ll have exactly five minutes to say what you want to say.”

“What?”

“Five minutes. Use them wisely.” He moved out of the chair, and I quickly took his place. He reached over my shoulder and tapped the final key.

The screen snapped on, and I found myself facing my younger brother, Troy. I fought down the urge to cry and then the urge to laugh at his confused face. “Hi, Troy,” I said. “Are Mom and Dad there?”

Troy got over his shock fairly quickly. “Cassie? Where have you been? Do you have any idea how upset Dad and Mom are? What kind of stupid—!”

“I know, I know! But listen, I only have five minutes, and I’d rather not spend it being yelled at. Can you get Mom and Dad, please? And Helen and Hector?”

“Helen is in her room, but Hector’s out. Mom and Dad are in the kitchen.”

“Figures Hector would be out,” I muttered, fighting disappointment. “Can you get the others please? And hurry.”

Troy took his laptop into the living room. My heart nearly broke when I saw my home, and I braced myself as Troy called everyone together. Mom, Dad, and Helen appeared, out of breath and relieved. They instantly started scolding me for running away, telling me how worried everyone was, and that everyone had been looking for me. I had to work to get everyone to shut up long enough for me to explain my time limit. Everyone was disappointed when I said I couldn’t talk for long. They looked at me sadly for a moment.

“I’m fine,” I promised them. “Look at me. I’m fine, I’m hale, I’m healthy.” They nodded silently, and I began. “Mom.” She looked at me, her brown eyes showing her heartbreak, and my voice cracked. “Mommy, I’m sorry I left. I really am, but I had to. I know you didn’t want me to leave, but I didn’t belong on Earth anymore. I was useless there, just lazing about watching TV. I can be so much more here. I could help so many people.”

“Who says? Gold-face over there?” Troy pointed accusingly at Railix.

“She’s right, Troy,” Mom said quietly. “She didn’t belong here anymore. I just didn’t want to let her go.”

Dad squeezed Mom’s shoulder comfortingly and then looked at me. “Cassie, are they taking care of you over there?”

I smiled and promised that I was kept well-fed, well-clothed, and happy. Helen asked about the guys at the Academy. I told her truth—they were all men that girls drool over. Of course, Dad was quick to remind me about our family rule of not dating until we reach eighteen. Then I had to explain to Mom why it had taken me so long to call, and why I probably would never be able to call again. She was ready to cry when I finished, and none of the family was very happy with the news. We all looked at each other sadly for a minute before Mom remembered.

“It’s your birthday.” Mom turned to the others. “We should sing to her.”

“On my count,” Helen said. “One, two, three.”

They started singing. Helen was attempting to get everyone to sing in the same key. Mom and Troy were doing their best, but Dad wasn’t even trying. He was singing “Apple Bird-doo,” which had completely different lyrics. I was somewhere between laughing and crying when they finished.

“Best birthday present ever,” I told them. “I miss you all, and I love you, so, so much.”

Railix put his hand on my shoulder, silently let me know that my time was almost out.

“Listen,” I put my hand on the screen, feeling the precious seconds disappear, “I may not ever see you again, but I want you to know that I love you all, and if there’s ever a way for me to come visit, I will.”

“We love you, too,” Dad said.

“Love you, Cass,” Helen agreed, and then she elbowed Troy.

“Yeah, love you,” he muttered.

“Good-bye,” I whispered and the screen went black. I took a deep breath and looked at Railix. “Thank you.”

He nodded and walked out.

I sat there for a moment, staring at the now blank screen, crying. It was my seventeenth birthday, my first birthday away from home. I had wished on candles, and I had gotten my wish.

THE OSTRACISM OF DR. NORTHROP

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***The following is a true story of college students banishing their history teacher from the classroom***

“Hey, everyone!”

The students in HI 417-1, Greco-Roman history, looked from their study groups and textbooks to the second row where Melody Holloway had turned in her seat to face the majority of the class. Melody’s black hair framed the irritation warring in her brown eyes, and her black fingers gripped the back of the chair as she faced. Any annoyance at being interrupted was replaced with curiosity. What would bother Melody so much for her to talk to the whole class?

“You know how Dr. Northrop said the other section called us ‘barbarians’?” she asked.

The class nodded silently, wondering what that had to do with anything.

“Yeah, well, one of my friends in that class told me it was the other way around. He’s the one that called us barbarians! He doesn’t get to call us that and then lie about it. So on Friday, we’re going to ostracize him, and show him how barbaric we are. I’ll bring in a vase, and everyone write Dr. Northrop’s name on a three-by-five and drop it in. I’ll get a Greek official and we’ll make some speeches, all right? Don’t tell anyone about it, and make sure you come early on Friday, okay?”

The other students nodded, grinning delightedly. Ostracism fit in perfectly with the class. This was HI 417-1, Greco-Roman History, taught by the currently infamous Dr. Stephen Northrop. At first glance, he looked like a stickler for the rules. He could easily be seen walking around campus in his suit with a serious look on his face. His balding head added an extra touch of severity to his overall noble features. He was dignified—especially when he was pantomiming drawing a gladius from his sheath—complete with sound effects—and even more so when he was re-enacting the fight at Philip of Macedon’s wedding.

Of course, HI 417-2 started it with their pompous application of wearing the purple. Dr. Northrop had told them about how it was a big deal in Roman days to wear purple. It was a sign of aristocracy. “Do you wear the purple?” was an old saying back then, insinuating that one was far above the other, that one was an elite. In response, the entire class showed up wearing purple. Dr. Northrop was delighted. According to Melody, that was when he referred to 417-1 as barbarians, since they apparently didn’t have what it takes to wear purple.

Ostracism is an ancient Greek custom of voting someone into exile for ten years. It was created by the democrats to target their political enemies and prevent them from becoming too powerful. The name derives from the Greek word ostra, which basically means a broken piece of pottery. They’d write the name of the person they wanted to get rid of for a few years on the ostra, and throw it in the vase that served as the ballot box. The Greek officials would tally up the names and the name that showed up the most was ostracized. The TV show Survivor was reminiscent of this ancient practice.

The classroom was soon buzzing with excitement. To their knowledge, students had never hijacked a lesson to ostracize anyone, especially the teacher! Were they even allowed to ostracize Dr. Northrop? The class bell rang, and everyone became silent as Dr. Northrop strode into the room to begin the lesson. Students looked knowingly from one to the other as Dr. Northrop led the class in prayer. Friday wasn’t simply the weekend anymore, it was the day they were going to ostracize the teacher.

On Friday, 10:50 a.m., students began pouring in through the doors of MK 217, excited about the upcoming events. The room was alive with energy, and there was a never ending stream of chatter.

Only one person didn’t join in the bubbly conversations. He just sat at a desk in the back corner of the classroom, his black hands relaxed in the depths of the pockets of his white coat. He listened to our excited conversation curiously, unfamiliar with the class conspiracy. No one seemed to notice him sitting there, or if they did, they didn’t mind his presence.

Then Melody hurried in, carrying a brown plastic bag that she sat on the table beside the credenza. Jake Kaiser followed her, and she hurriedly pulled out a beige sheet and wrapped it diagonally around him like a toga. Then she pulled out a wreath of privet leaves and set it in his brown hair. Lastly, she pulled out a pink plastic vase and set it on the table. Everyone laughed.

“Where’d you get the wreath, Melody?” Billy asked.

“The ramp outside.” She smiled and glanced at the vase. “And this was the best I could find at the dollar store. All right, has everyone written Dr. Northrop’s name on a three-by-five?”

Anyone who hadn’t done so already scrambled to retrieve their index cards. They scribbled Dr. Northrop’s name on the light blue lines and then looked up to Melody for further instructions.

“Okay, now line up against that wall, and when Jake escorts Dr. Northrop in, start walking forward and put the card in the vase. No one laugh or smile, got it?”

They nodded, swallowing their spring-loaded laughter. At first, it looked doubtful that anyone would be able to keep a straight face, but somehow, everyone managed to gain their composure. Melody took her place at the end of the line, and Jake slipped out into the hall so he would be ready to escort Dr. Northrop inside. The bell rang, and they waited for theirr teacher to appear.

Finally, the handle turned and the door opened. Dr. Northrop was led into the room, and everyone was silent. Dr. Northrop regarded them curiously, a black binder in his right hand, and a blue cup of water in his left. Then the line started moving forward, and the first girl dropped her folded card into the vase.

“Something is—uh-oh.” Dr. Northrop took a sip of water as the first few students filed past him and into their seats. He glanced at Jake. “What do my eyes behold?” He spread out his arms in confusion. “This is strange. No one is speaking. They’re all calm, they’re all quiet. They’re all dignified.”

One of the students walked past him and sobbed loudly.

“They’re making weird sounds.”

The last students dropped their cards into the vase and filed into their seats. Jake walked up to the podium as Melody sat down. Dr. Northrop looked at the class and then at Jake as he cleared his throat and began reading his oratory. “Friends, students, and Greeks. It has come to the council’s attention that one of our sections has played the role of our fellow countryman, Alcibiades.” He looked up from his paper at us and let his words sink in.

It was a serious accusation. Alcibiades was a three-time Athenian traitor during the Peloponnesian Wars.

“He has betrayed our section with his words of contempt, with his words that were matter of opinion, but the real dilemma is that these words come from the lips of our instructor.”

Dr. Northrop cried out, “No!”

There were scattered snickers, and everyone was grinning with mischievous delight.

Jake continued, “Words such as ‘barbarians,’ ‘plebeians,’ and other such words.”

Dr. Northrop pressed his fist against his lips and shook his head, mortified.

Jake put down his sheet of paper and looked at the class. “That is from the royal decree.”

Dr. Northrop also looked at us. “No wait! It can’t be!” He looked back at Jake and pressed his fist against his lips again as he repeated quietly, “It can’t be.”

“You know what that means,” Jake said gravely.

Dr. Northrop covered his mouth in horror. “No!” He bowed his head and tried to suppress a laugh. “No, I don’t know what it means.” He gestured for Jake to continue as we laughed, and he took another sip of water.

“The stones speak.”

Dr. Northrop choked back another laugh and turned to the class, his arms wide. “Oh! The stones speak! What do they say?”

“Northrop.”

He laughed.

“Northrop.”

“That’s two!”

Jake paused, confused as he read the next name. “‘The Greek Cat’?”

The class laughed at Billy’s little joke.

Jake pulled another card from the vase. “Northrop.”

There was silence at the finality, and everyone’s eyes stayed trained on Jake, waiting for the next move. There were still cards in the vase, but Jake didn’t want to read all twenty plus index cards.

“I believe another member of the senate has a few words.” He bowed and stepped aside as Melody rose and walked to the front of the classroom.

She faced the class, hands clasped in front of her as she said, “It is with a heavy heart that we today ostracize a fellow member of our section. But we cannot forgive this betrayal. He called us ‘barbarians.’”

Dr. Northrop had been poking around amongst the seats, pointing accusingly at one of the students. At that moment, however, he withdrew, guiltily curling his fingers near his mouth.

“But this act that we have today, ostracizing one of our own, is far from barbaric.” She solemnly pressed her right fist over her heart. The class mimicked her and followed when she held it in the air in a Roman salute. The Roman custom was ill-suited for the ostracism, but since several of the students referred to Dr. Northrop as “Caesar,” and this was a Greco-Roman class it wasn’t horribly out of place.

Dr. Northrop chuckled and looked around. “Who’s behind this conspiracy?”

The laughter everyone had been holding in erupted. The laughter bubbled out, bouncing off the four walls and rolling back onto the students. They quickly silenced themselves, and some students leaned forward to see what their teacher was going to do.

Dr. Northrop strode up to the podium and set his binder and cup down on the table beside it. He looked out at the class and spied the student at the back of the classroom. “Who shall defend me against these awful accusations?” Northrop cried. “Spartacus! Spartacus!” He went to the student who he had apparently nicknamed “Spartacus” during a lesson in the other section. “You must be my lawyer!  You must play the part of Cicero.” He turned to the class. “I never referred to 417-1—” He paused and pressed a hand against his forehead dramatically. “I-I can’t even say it.” They chuckled, and he lowered his hand, reaching out to Spartacus. Spartacus nodded, his head bowed as all eyes turned on him. “It’s a harsh indictment. Spartacus, Cicero, say something on my behalf.” He put his hands on Spartacus-Cicero’s shoulders and stared out at the class, waiting for his defense.

Spartacus was a Roman gladiator that had led a slave rebellion up and down the peninsula of Italy, while Cicero was a famous Latin lawyer. Spartacus was greatly feared, and Cicero was greatly admired. It was a dizzying combination.

Spartacus looked up. “You called them ‘barbarians’?”

Dr. Northrop stepped back. “That’s what they say.”

Spartacus turned to face him, stepping away as he did. “You called them ‘barbarians’?”

“I wouldn’t!” The class laughed, and he looked at them, laughing at himself. He reached out to Spartacus again. “We’re friends with barbarians.” There was more laughter, and he, again, could not keep a straight face. “We’re friends with barbarians,” he repeated, walking toward the front of the room.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Spartacus took one hand out of his pocket and waved it in halting confusion as Dr. Northrop walked away.

“We Romanize them!” Dr. Northrop cried, grabbing his podium passionately as Spartacus approached him.

“I will speak in defense,” Spartacus said, leaning on the podium, first facing us and then facing him. He held up a hand in a humble gesture. “If I may?”

Dr. Northrop nodded and chuckled. “You may.”

“I may.” He looked out at the class proudly. “There is nothing greater than being a barbarian.”

Dr. Northrop’s head shot up, mouth open in delighted triumph.

“As Spartacus, I must say, own it with pride. But in the senate? In the senate?” He gestured out at the class and looked strangely confused. “Barbarians in the senate?”

Dr. Northrop put a hooked finger to his lip thoughtfully. “That would not be appropriate.”

“Not appropriate!”

“So what are you doing here?”

Dr. Northrop bent over his podium, laughing, and everyone in the class laughed—including Spartacus. Dr. Northrop grabbed him as they staggered back laughing, wordlessly letting him know it was just a joke.

After the laughter had settled, Dr. Northrop reassumed his place at the head of the class. He picked up his papers and straightened his notes. “I think there has been an unjust event that’s taken place. And I think I have been cleared of all charges based on Spartacus’s testimony.”

The class laughed again, and the students began reaching into their bags to retrieve their notes and pens. The class had been successfully hijacked, and everyone was bound to be in a good mood for the rest of the day. Even though Dr. Northrop had managed to reinstate himself in his teaching position, they had gotten out of a quiz, and that was good enough for them!

Halloween on Parade

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Halloween is my favorite holiday. It’s that one day where dressing up in crazy costumes is not only socially acceptable, but expected! Schools have costume parties, many work environments allow (and maybe encourage) their workers to dress up as well. I like to think of it as the day when people let a little piece of their secret self out to play.

This year my brother got me into a show called “Gravity Falls.” It’s a Disney TV cartoon created by Alex Hirsch, and the big bad villain is basically the illuminati triangle with a top hat. His name is Bill Cipher, and he is psychotic, and I love him. His character is utterly random and shockingly twisted for a kid’s show; he pulls teeth from a deer and offers them to a child, he offers a disembodied head that’s always screaming  and then possesses the main child, and turns the townspeople to stone and builds a giant throne out of them. And yet, he comes off as a nacho with a squeaky voice with a hilarious laugh. I adored his character so much that I decided to dress as him for Halloween.

Growing up, my father refused to let us dress as villains. He doesn’t like when people “idolize” evil. I can respect that stand, and as a child I dressed as the traditional Disney princesses, Dorothy, Arwen from The Lord of the Rings, and as Osgood from Doctor Who. But this year, I was determined to be an evil yellow triangle.

I didn’t want to literally be a triangle, however, I wanted to be a recognizable human representation of the character. I actually did research! I found several cosplayers on Pinterest who had created a male and female persona for Bill Cipher, and I studied their costumes to see how I could emulate them while remaining original. The consistents were Bill’s skinny top hat, yellow tea dress or 3-piece suit, an eye patch and a black bow tie. I added my own long black gloves, boots, leggings, a cane, and I followed the trend of having long bangs that covered one eye, while accenting the other with makeup. I made my dress myself, stitching yellow pine trees into the hem as a little joke. The only mistake I made was not getting enough black ribbon, and when I went to the store to get more, I grabbed party ribbon by mistake. The party ribbon didn’t affect the appearance of the costume, but it did make the dress uncomfortable to wear since the course ribbon was rubbing against the back of my neck. (I will be replacing that ribbon soon so the dress will be more comfortable.) But the costume was still a hit at the party, and I loved wearing it!

I had fun being the bad guy this year, and I can’t wait for Halloween to come around again!

And remember: reality is an illusion, the universe is a hologram, buy gold. BYE!

Weird

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“So you’re commercial writing? What do you want to do with that?”

I was collating math flash cards in the assembly division of the Print Shop, heartily wishing my boss Talani would call me back to the saddlestitcher where I usually work. In an attempt to break up the monotony of our job, Elizabeth, one of the assembly girls, asked me about my major. I looked at her, annoyed that she insisted on talking to me when I did not want to be anywhere near assembly. I smiled and answered as sickenly perky as I could, “Write big, big books about dragons eating people.” Elizabeth looked shocked, and I tossed in what I hoped would be the final barb that would make her leave me alone. “Did I scare you?”

It was her turn to shock me. “No. I’ve just never heard that before. Why dragons?”

No one had asked me that before. It’s no secret—I’ve told several people—but Elizabeth was the first to ask. Thankfully I had an answer ready.

I grew up on fairy tales and mythologies of the ancient world, developing a deep love for the mystical and fantastical early on. As a child, I dreamed of seeing a fairy or a unicorn in the woods by my house, but of course I never saw anything. When we went camping, my mother would bring out her guitar and play all our favorite songs. One night when I was ten years old, she sang Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It infuriated me that Jackie Paper would leave Puff alone, and that night I decided I would be Puff’s friend. That was where my love of dragons began.

At the age of thirteen, I started studying, drawing, and writing about dragons. I favored the western dragons over eastern. Western dragons were large, with massive bat-like wings, and ivory horns, while eastern dragons were glorified snakes with painted faces and beards. Western dragons were the heroes, villains, sidekicks, and minor characters of my stories. They were painted on my walls, in the books I read, in the movies I watched—they were everywhere in my life.

Apparently, not everyone likes dragons. A lot of people hate them, because dragons are frequently associated with Satan and witches.

One Sunday, my parents invited a missionary family over for dinner. I was wearing one of my favorite necklaces, a silver medallion with the emblem of a dragon stamped into it, and the missionary noticed it.

“Ah, I see you’re wearing a necklace with Satan on it,” he commented casually.

I bristled. “A dragon is not the same thing as Satan! Satan was a serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Peter compared him to a lion, but no one gives those animals any flak! And there are several passages in Psalms that have dragons praising God’s glory!”

We debated the point for a few minutes before it was brought to a peaceful conclusion. What most people don’t realize is dragons are simply a part of God’s beautiful creation. I was weird because I stood up for them.

My friends would roll their eyes and laugh, maybe tease me a little, but they understood that it was a part of who I am. There was one time in my teen group when we played Pictionary. We had to draw different people in the church so that the others could guess them. Robert drew my name, drew my picture, and held it up for everyone to see. I had large elf ears poking out from my wild mass of hair.

“Debi!” Everyone guessed instantly.

“Though Debi’s more into dragons than elves,” my best friend Samantha said critically.

“You should’ve just drawn a dragon,” Brandon suggested. “We would’ve recognized her more easily.”

I never felt hated, but there were several times when I felt alone. I felt like I was the only one in the world that was weird. I didn’t want to be alone.

I started writing. I created worlds where I would not only fit in, but I would be the hero. I became a dragon in my stories—strong and powerful, with the ability to make everyone I loved happy in the end, no matter what it cost me. I dragged my life into my writings, bringing all the troubles and pains of this world into a world where I could fix them. When my sister’s boyfriend broke up with her, I exposed him with pen and ink, then created a man that was handsome, chivalrous, and perfect for my sister. In my own weird way, I was trying to fix the world.

I came to college when I was eighteen and met weird people like me. Before, the only weird people I knew were related to me, but now there were more of us! We had fun being weird together, laughing, singing, arguing, and just enjoying each other’s company. I showed them my stories, and they loved them. They would ask me deep questions about the stories, and then listen intently as I answered. It shocked me that they were genuinely interested, that they really liked my stories. It gave me hope that I could succeed as an author.

There were normal people on campus, too. They were nice—calmer than my regular circle of friends—and they smiled tolerantly at our antics. One of the normal people, Heather, borrowed my flash drive to transfer picture files to her computer and accidentally downloaded the book I was working on. It surprised me when she asked if she could read it, but I was more than happy to let her. She finished all 348 pages in three days and then shared it with her friend, Zach.

The four of us—Heather, Zach, my friend Keith, and myself—stood outside one of the college dorms, discussing different scenes and characters.

“Do any of the characters get horribly maimed?” Keith asked.

A character instantly came to mind, but I suppressed my answer because I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. “It depends on your definition of ‘maimed,’” I replied neutrally.

“Someone should lose a pinky,” he suggested.

“That’s a great idea!” Zach agreed. “Karran or Miaku maybe.”

I laughed and shook my head. “No, Karran and Miaku have enough happen to them. Arvid could lose a pinky, though. That could work.”

They both cheered and rubbed their hands together in gleeful satisfaction. At first, I couldn’t believe they were reacting to my story this way. It was kind of weird, but it suddenly occurred to me that normal people are weird, too. In fact, there’s no such thing as normal. Some people may be weirder than others—and I may be weirder than most—but everyone is weird in their own way. We all have our little quirks that others don’t understand. Those who have more quirks than others are isolated, looking for others who share their quirks. Even the ones who claim to be normal are looking for others like them. We all want to know we’re not the only ones, that there are others out there like us. At the same time, we want to know that we’re different, that we’re special.

I want to use dragons to translate my weirdness so that others can understand it. I want to show the weirdoes they’re not alone. I want to show them that we’re all just a little bit weird.

From Dream to Reality

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It was a dream. I remember my mom tucking me in at night, shaking her head at the stuffed animals I had piled around me. My older sister was in her own bed on the other side of the room, and we’d both lay there and listen to our mother’s “if’s.”

“If your grandfather comes to live with us,” Mom would say, “then we can build an addition, and you can have your own rooms. But only if.”

It was never supposed to happen. My uncle lived with my grandfather and took care of him. There was nothing I could do, except dream and imagine what a room of my own could look like. Then came the series of events that fulfilled a dream. My uncle got married, and he and his wife began looking for a house of their own. My grandfather’s ulcer ruptured, and he was hospitalized for a month, slowly fading away. My uncle could no longer take care for my grandfather. I remember the family meetings with my other uncles and aunts. They all wanted to put him in a nursing home, but Mom was afraid that if Granddad went to a home, he would die. That was when we struck the deal. Granddad would pay for the addition on our house so that there would be room for him to live with us. The “if” had come true.

September 2005, the construction workers began laying the foundation for the addition. By January 2006, the addition was insulated and sheetrocked, waiting to be transformed into a home.

My room is on the second story of the new half of our house. It has three large windows, one facing the rising sun, and two facing the noon sun. It also has a small closet with three deep shelves and a thick wooden pole for hanging clothes. However, the room was just the shell of the dream. The real dream wove itself on the four walls, stretched across the ceiling, and enveloped the ceiling fan. It is a beautiful mural, drawn and painted by my mom, my best friend, Samantha Harris, and me.

My mom painted the mural by my closet door. Two tall oak trees framed the picture, their roots twisting around each other, and their branches interweaving to form a crown of leaves. Beyond the frame you could see an elegant copse of trees with speckled bark wrapping around the slender trunks. Behind the trees rises two tree-covered mountains, and hidden on the left mountain was an old tower flying a red banner. My mother is a wonderful artist, and I was slightly jealous that Samantha and I couldn’t do as well with our part of the mural.

My mother’s mural joined with Samantha’s and mine through a tree painted over my bedroom door. A vine circles the tree, spiraling up toward the highest branches. There’s a river racing along the grassy floor that shoots down the cliff as a magnificent waterfall. Rose bushes sprout at the roots of trees, though the trees are not as grand as my mother’s since I drew and painted them myself. A fairy, her brown bun crowned with a wreath of flowers, dances with a ball of roses, her blue dress spinning out around her knees. Another fairy with pink wings peeks out from behind another tree, her black curly hair framing her pale smiling face. Two more mountains, the green of the trees dwindling at the base of their rocky forms, sit proudly in the distance. You can see a dark cave in the right one, with a green dragon perched on the ledge breathing fire into the blue sky. There is another dragon, a fierce black one with red wings, soaring above the towers of a medieval fort no one has thought to defend. The tower has been built of brown and gray stones, and it has a wooden palisade running around it. Two flags fly from the towers. One bears a golden horse running across the green field. It looks suspiciously like the flag of Rohan, but it’s actually the flag of Relobacock, the elven kingdom of my world, HearldEarth. The second flag is also from HearldEarth, but this one wasn’t stolen from any story greater than my own. It’s a swirling sun on a field of red, the flag of the mountain city-state, Peruda. Anyone that looks at my walls looks into my world.

Of course, anyone that sees my room will most likely admire the ceiling the most. My mother painted it. It’s sky blue, and three puffy white clouds surround my ceiling fan. They’re not normal clouds, though; my mom is better than that. If you turn your head one way, the first cloud looks like a worm, but if you turn another way, it’s the shoe of the Greek god Hermes. It doesn’t matter which way you turn your head for the next cloud; it will always look like a baby dragon, because that’s what it is. The third cloud is a castle. Mom laughed when she painted it.  I laughed, too, when she told me that now I have a real castle in the clouds.

Samantha and I painted my ceiling fan. I wanted it to be a compass for my room, but it had five blades. It was Samantha’s idea to make the fifth blade the needle of the compass. So she painted the needle, East, and West, and I painted North and South. The needle is an orange triangle, with the swirling sun of Peruda above it. For the Eastern blade, she painted the pale star maid of Perudan mythology beneath the green “E.” Underneath West’s “W” a brown gryphon sits on his golden hoard in his cave. South boasts of the three-headed Imperial Dragon of Loremoon, its spiky green head watching the world outside its cave warily. Then, to the North, a unicorn lies on a rich bed of grass, looking at the night-kissed forest around her. When the electrician came in to install the fan, he warned us that the paint would make the fan unbalanced and wobbly. We were okay with that. As it turns out, the paint on the fan blades made my ceiling fan the smoothest fan in the house; it never shakes or wobbles!

The last two walls of my room are a darker shade of green. I wanted them to be forest or hunter green—my favorite shades of green—but Mom said those colors were too dark. She told me to pick a lighter shade, and so I browsed the color selections until I found a color that I thought was tolerable: Nickalodean Green. Mom bought two buckets, but we only needed one. My brothers painted my two walls for me, but when I came in to see how it looked, I cried. The walls were hideous! The green was so bright it hurt my eyes. I knew I would not be able to live in that room as long as that grotesque color marred the walls. Mom had pity on me, and we took the spare can of paint back to Home Depot. They graciously adjusted the color, adding globs of dark blue, dark green, and a little black to its hideous brightness. It created a new shade of green; I call it Perudan Green. We painted over the nasty walls, and I was able to sit on the floor and look at them without pain.

The floor was covered with a carpet the color of grass, and my room was complete. I wanted so badly to move in, but we had to wait until the building inspector gave us the “go ahead.” When he came, Mom gave him the complete tour, starting off in Granddad’s handicap accessible room, and then leading him through upstairs bedrooms. The inspector was impressed when Mom showed him my room; he admired all our murals and the ceiling fan. Mom told him that I was very excited about my new room, hinting that I couldn’t wait to actually live in it. Still looking at the forested plains of my HearldEarth, the inspector told Mom that he “guessed it would be okay if we moved in now.” Mom told me that she suspected my room was what got us into the addition early. It made me feel that much prouder about my room. In March 2006, I got to move into my room!

It started as a dream, and then my dream became my sanctuary. I began to fill it with all the things that would shelter me from any reality I wanted to reject. I crammed books into my bookshelves, and then organize them into neat piles on my chairs and floor once the shelves were stuffed. I have a basket overflowing with stuffed animals —old friends of my childhood. I have covered my two green walls with pictures of family and friends, paintings and drawings of mine and my grandmother’s, fantasy movie posters, and even a map of Narnia! I have a knick-knack shelf that holds my Lord of the Rings action figure collection, as well as several others that hold my dragon figurines and fantasy utensils. I’ve hidden a sword in my wardrobe, right behind my green ranger cloak and Renaissance gowns. And at the edge of the waterfall lies the true portal: my computer. My stories, my songs, my poems, and my dreams are imbedded in its aging hardware. I look at it, wondering if those dreams will ever see the light of day. Then I look at my room and realize: if this dream came true, why not others?

A Saint at Home

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“Carol, you’re such a saint. You really are.”

Carol Overstreet smiled and nodded, accepting the compliment as graciously as it had been given. But as soon as her friend was out of hearing range, Carol turned to her husband and said wearily, “They always say that, but I don’t feel like a saint.”

Maybe she doesn’t feel like a saint, but to one bedridden man she is.

John Overstreet was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001. His wife, Frances, had died on April 1, 1999, leaving their third son, Dan, to tend his father. Dan, however, had a full time job, leaving John home alone most of the day. That’s when Carol stepped in.

Carol is the wife of Tim, John and Frances’s second son. She is most easily recognized by her large, happy smile framed by graying brown hair. Choosing the family over the work place, she was a stay-at-home mom, raising and homeschooling her four children through high school.

“After Frances died, I was the one taking care of John,” Carol said. “It got to the point where it would be easier on me if he just came here so I wouldn’t have to be spending so much time away from home. And he said he wanted to move in with us.”

At first, John’s other children wanted to put him in a nursing home rather than letting him move in with Carol’s family, but she insisted on taking him in.

“A nursing home is for people that don’t have any other choice,” she said. “I knew I could take better care of him than a nursing home could—better staff-to-patient ratio. And we cared.”

After three family meetings, it was agreed that John would move in with Tim’s family and be cared for by Carol. He would also pay for the addition that doubled the size of their house so he could have a handicap accessible suite.

John was supposed to move in after the addition was finished, but their plans were suddenly changed. He was admitted to North Arundel hospital on September 1, 2006, with a bleeding ulcer and a perforated stomach lining. He was released into Carol’s care October 7, 2006, before the addition could be finished. Carol’s family had to make adjustments. Since her two eldest children were attending a college out-of-state, the household had just enough room to squeeze John into his own room. She put her two youngest children—both high schoolers—in an attic room that was used as a single bedroom, and set up the bedroom across the hall from the master bedroom for John.

John was weak from surgery, too weak to even lift his head from his pillow. He had lost 60 pounds that month in the hospital. Because of the surgery, food wasn’t allowed in his stomach. The doctors gave him a feeding tube that channeled his food directly to his intestines so he could still eat. However, when the doctors finally took the tube out, he threw up whatever he ate. John hated throwing up and stopped eating.

“He asked me on several occasions to kill him,” Carol said quietly.

Carol ignored his feeble pleas and struggled to bring him back to health. Under her care, John was soon able to eat again, and she tried to cook all his favorite foods. Even though he had lost a lot of weight, John still weighed over 170 pounds and was unable to move himself. A physical therapist came to the house to teach Carol how to use a transfer board to move John from his bed to his wheelchair to his potty chair.

Carol quickly developed a routine of caring for her father-in-law. Every morning she would get up and get John to the shower. There she’d undress him and wash him herself.

“He didn’t believe in showers,” she said, remembering how it was before his surgery. “John stank all the time. If he actually got in the shower, all he would do is get wet. I remember helping him in the shower, him getting wet, then wanting to get out. He thought he was done. And I was like, ‘No, I haven’t washed you yet.’”

Once he was cleaned, Carol would dress him, making him help as much as he was physically able. Then she would move him back into his chair and wheel him out into the family’s living room. There he would sit in his arm chair and alternately watch channel 13 news and read his Maryland Gazette, only moving out of his chair for meals in the kitchen. When nighttime rolled around, Carol would take him back to his room, dress him in his night clothes, and tuck him in bed, setting his TV to turn off after 10.

“We were putting him in bed around 10 o’clock,” Carol said, “then we moved it up because Tim wanted me in bed by 10. So I’d put him in bed around 9 and let him watch TV in his room.”

The addition was finished in March 2007. Carol set up John’s room as she thought he would like it. Since John was a veteran of WWII, she gave the room an Americana theme, with soft blue walls, a dark blue gingham wallpaper halfway up the wall trimmed with a band of patriotic stars and hearts. They installed a ceiling fan and blue carpet. Carol also handmade John two sets of curtains that would match the trim of his wallpaper. She collected his six war medals, arranged them in a shadow box with a picture of him in his Navy uniform, and hung them on the wall. Then she gathered pictures of John’s children and grandchildren and hung them on the wall where he could see them from his bed. Dan also gave Carol two large collages their sister-in-law made of John and Frances growing old together.

“I thought that would make him happy,” Carol said wearily. “I don’t remember getting any approval or disapproval of the décor of his room.”

Once John had recovered from his hospital trip, things became easier for Carol. He was able to move himself, using his walker to help him get around the house. He would eat his food, ask for more, and then ask for the chocolate chip cookies Carol was famous for making. He would even join Carol on her daily bike rides, pedaling no faster than 3 miles per hour downhill, but enjoying being out on the bike trail. Every week, he would treat Carol’s family out to dinner at a restaurant of their choice, though he favored Bob Evans and Friendly’s. Even with his blessed mobility, Carol was limited in what she could do and where she could go.

“I didn’t have freedom anymore,” Carol said with a sigh. “I couldn’t go where I wanted to go when I wanted to go unless I took him with me. Grocery shopping, errand running, taking my kids to band, church—I remember taking Granddad to church and he wouldn’t be quiet.”

It is now 2012, six long years since Carol became John’s official caretaker, and things today are very different.

“When he first came to live with us, he had the mentality of about a 12 year old or so, and I’ve seen it go down, down, down,” Carol reflected. “Right now, he’s a 1 ½ year old in what he can comprehend. He liked having his wallet on him, going for drives—whatever—telling me where to go. Now he doesn’t even know he has a wallet, sometimes doesn’t want to leave his bed, and he no longer knows what day of the week it is.”

Today, John has a catheter and is in his bed more often than not. Since he won’t move himself, Carol has to use a Hoyer Lift, a large Y-shaped lift that has a hammock-like seat, to get John in and out of bed. They still go out once a week for dinner, but it is getting to be too much of a hassle to get John in and out of the car. His food has to be puréed, and he can’t feed himself. His wrinkled hands shake so badly he can’t keep food on his utensils, so Carol sits across from him and feeds him. Despite Carol’s best efforts, his appetite is slowly dwindling.

“My biggest problem is getting him to understand what we need to do,” Carol said. “He doesn’t always understand what I’m trying to do, and therefore fights against me. He doesn’t use his strength to help, only to fight.”

Carol stopped giving John his Alzheimer’s medications. The doctors agreed that it is probably better that he didn’t have them, since they were no longer helping him. Carol is currently just trying to keep John comfortable until he passes.

“There have been times when I get extremely frustrated at him,” she said, “And when I get mad at him, I get mad at me, because I know he can’t help it. But when you’re in the moment, you forget that. For years he would tell me I was his best babysitter – though he doesn’t say that anymore – even on days where I had been ‘bad’ and then I’d feel bad. I try to have more patience with him.”

Despite these difficulties, Carol has cared for him, through her own health problems with bone spurs, torn rotary cuffs, and golfer’s elbows without any apparent gratitude from him. Her husband and children were always ready to help, but they couldn’t always be around. There were days when Carol cared for her father-in-law with one arm in a sling. And she cares for him still.

“The main reason I care for John is because Frances always took good care of us,” Carol said. “I do it as a favor for her. She’s no longer here to take care of him, so I feel like I owe it to her to take care of him.”