Monday, February 17, 2014


Photo 1: Dingy convenient store. Adam leans against the door frame of the entrance.
      Sometimes the way he looked at me made me suspect he knew something. Of course he couldn't; he was the trusting sort who was convinced life was one big adventure. Maybe in a way that's true. It sure as hell is for me. But regardless, the way he squinted his eyes at me—or maybe it was against the sun--made me think he was hearing the thump-thump-thump of my heart beating against my ribcage. Or was that the rhythmic drumming of the music on the radio? I never could tell; they were both so loud.
      “You want anything?” he asked me as I waited in the car for him to finish pissing and buying a drink.
      “No, I'm good. Thanks,” I replied smoothly and turned up the radio.

Photo 2: A rocky desert scenery. Adam in hiking gear, sans a shirt, a backpack slung over one shoulder. He stands atop a boulder, looking pumped.
      “Hell yeah, man! We did it!” came the celebratory cheer from Adam, who was making ridiculous manly faces at the camera to show his badassery at finishing the hike.
      “Yeah. Good job, dude.” My voice remained as calm and sultry as ever, as I was not one to get overly excited one way or another. My taste in exciting occasions were selective and... eccentric. I glided my tongue over my chapped lips under the brutal afternoon sun and gazed intently at Adam's dances meant to mock the surrounding scenery that he bested. “I'm parched. You want to go grab a beer?”
      Adam turned to me, his eyes filled with youthful, energetic life. They were dazzling. Hypnotizing. Enticing. “Fuck yeah, let's do it!” he exclaimed like it was the best idea he'd ever heard.

Photo 3: Adam partially submerged in a lake, walking further in. No other people around. Greenery surrounds lake tranquilly.
      The curves of his muscles ripple through his back and I watch the water lap at his skin like a thirsty hound. Setting the camera down gently, I descend into the water behind him, watching him play and splash around. He looks at me with perfect ease on his face, a look of blissful innocence matching the quiet scenery. Or is that ignorance I see smiling at me through his teeth?
      With slow, assured steps, I traverse the watery plane towards Adam. His body is broad, strong, and wet. I think he's taunting me with his slick, glistening body, moving it this way and that. He takes a few bold strokes through the water, tells me how great the water is.
      “Where did you find this place? It's amazing! And total privacy. This is the perfect camping spot.”
      “I've been coming here for a while. It's my regular spot. Never seen another person here my whole life unless I brought them here. It's been so long since I first needed its privacy...” I can feel the tangent threatening to spill off my tongue and reveal to him all. I see the confusion in his eyes piercing into me. I can't take the accusatory look of that beautifully innocent face.
      I grab him and push down. I think he's laughing. He thinks it's a game. Then he doesn't. He signals that he's done with his turn being pushed under, but I hold steady. Then come the panicy spasms. And thrashing. Rays of sun bounce of off his convulsing back side, gleaming on the flawless skin. I admire the power under my hands and my ability to crush it. He tries to scream, and for a moment I think the popping bubbles say “Why?” Or is it “Please?”
      I hold tighter until every spasm stops and no bubbles pop.

Photo 4: Lips to a puddle of water on a dirt path, drinking.
      I feel the intensity of the physical exertion from dragging the body. Due to the concern of it floating on the lake's surface, I relocated it, like the others, to a destination where not only will it never be found, but where it ultimately will be consumed. Who am I to deprive hungry wildlife from free game? Regardless, I trudge along a dirt trail back towards wherever it is I left my car. The afternoon sun chaps my lips. I run my tongue along them. They taste like accusations and blood.
      A pool of water in the dirt trail catches my attention, and without a second thought I kneel down to drink like I may never see water again. It rushes through my system and I feel rejuvenated. In fact, I feel elated. Accelerated. Excited. I take large indulgent gulps, and in a fit of pleasure dunk my face in. I alternate between wiping off my face and hands—wiping off the innocence, the ignorance, the pleads for mercy I still feel vibrating in my palms.

Photo 5: Gas station and prices, midday, people filling up their tanks.
      I will drive. The wind will feel freeing in my hair and the air will smell like adventure and gasoline. People will smile and nod in a sense of camaraderie as we share the open road, and pull over together to share the same bathrooms, same gas stations, and same restaurants. I'll go hiking and meet someone new and make a friend and we'll take an adventure together, and it will be very exciting and very eccentric.

Photo 6: From the freeway, the 170 Hollywood Freeway sign, North.
      I will take a hike in Los Angeles to meet my new friend.

Author's Note:

      This 2014 assignment for my Advanced Narrative Fiction class required me to choose 6 out of 10 photos provided to me by the teacher, and to write a story around them. I couldn't change the presented order of the 6 photos I chose, but I was allowed to change the timeline of the story, telling past, present, or future for any given photo. She encouraged us to play with time and POV. So while I did experiment with time and tenses, I didn't with POV because it didn't work for me for this story. Because this story was getting workshopped by the whole class, I put a little extra effort into it. I was inspired by the combination of serial killers, Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, and The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. I purposefully left the gender ambiguous because I liked the idea of the reader not knowing, and letting their own judgement decide for them. I used a bit of gender bending, hinting towards both genders in different ways, and I like the sexual ambiguity you see in Anne Rice's vampire stories and in some cases of serial killers. Does the line between sexuality and killing blur for the killer? If I changed anything, I'd love to go back and add the "thump-thump-thump" towards the end, or some kind of other onomatopoeia throughout for repetition's sake and for the sake and showing more how the narrator thinks. Anyway, I had a lot of fun with this despite the restrictions, and my class seemed to absolutely love it as well, which made me happy.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Virtual Reality and Love

      Her hair was like wavy auburn silk, bouncing and shining in the lights of the house with absolute perfection. With light hazel eyes, she glanced at the camera bashfully, a smile lighting up her perfect face, she her perfect teeth, and perfect dimples. She crinkled her nose like she always did when she laughed too hard to control herself. The shot was too enticing to make it into the final cut. Dave quickly edited it out of the main cut to make sure it wouldn't make it onto the air.
      Dave wasn't an extraordinary human being by any standards. A flawless criminal record, average grades, a diploma in Liberal Arts. His work wasn't rewarding, but neither was it the monotonous, soul-sucking office job of an accountant or some other such job. He edited the footage of a reality TV show, filtering through what was exciting and what was boring for their teenage audiences.
      There were plenty of moments where the girl he loved could have made it into the final cut going on television, but that would attract too much attention to her. He couldn't allow the love of his life to face ridicule for getting angry with all those of heinous women on the show, but neither could he edit in too many videos of her looking so beautiful, smiling, laughing, teasing.
      “Hey Dave, when are you gonna be finished with this week's footage?” Dave jumped slightly and turned towards his co-worker.
      “Soon,” Dave responded quickly, turning in his chair to cover a majority of the screen he was staring into. “Probably another couple hours, give or take.”
      “Okay. Be sure to send it to me as soon as you're finished so we can give it a final look through.”
      “Sure. Will do.”
      As soon as his co-worker left, Dave sighed with relief and turned back to look at the love of his life. Lizzie. He had to protect her from all those desperate men who'd come knocking at her door if they saw her the way he saw her. No one could resist falling in love with her, he was convinced.
      And one day he'd gather up the courage to talk to her. He let a finger slide down the screen shot of her shining hair, caressed her colored cheek. Some day soon he'd introduce himself to her, and he'd say all the right things. He knew her likes and dislikes, what kind of jokes she liked. Lizzie once said chivalry was dead, so he'd make sure to open every door, pay for every meal, get her flowers for no reason. He'd even lay down his coat for her to cross a puddle when she was wearing heels in the rain.
      Lizzie didn't know it yet, but her knight in shining armor would come swooping into her life soon, and all she had to do was open her arms to his love, and they would live happily ever after. “You and me forever, Lizzie, my darling...” he murmured quietly to the computer screen.

Author's Note:

      So I hope you read that in the creepy voice it disturbs. This 2014 assignment was again for my Hybrid Narrative class where I write a story inspired by the combination of a quote (from The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by Aira) and a fact. Even just writing this creeped me out, which makes me laugh. Again my significant other helped me come up with the premise (it was mostly his idea) but the writing is all mine, at least. I can only come up with so many short stories before I run out of ideas. Anyway, my classmates laughed and liked the piece, but recommended I add a scene with dialogue where Dave has an imaginary conversation with Lizzie. This cracked me up, as I imagined him staring into the mirror as he did it, practicing what he'd say to her. They also recommended I elaborate on how Lizzie is a shallow girl who doesn't deserve Dave's affections. I'd have to somehow manage that while still keeping the "unreliable narrator" voice of Dave, who sees her as exaggeratedly perfect. But I'd love to go back and add a little more to this piece, just cause it's so fun and silly and creepy.
      By the way, the quote is: “He watched them talk, his attention waxing and waning at irregular intervals, as a result of which the two enthusiastic and youthful—almost frenetic—faces he had so close to his began to seem unreal. And they were, he had no doubt about this, though only up to a certain point; because they did belong to two human beings of flesh and blood. The intensive use of hidden cameras in the last few years (in order to pull off all kinds of pranks, but also to catch corrupt officials, dishonest business-men, tax evaders, and criminal infiltrators into the medical profession) required using up actors at a phenomenal rate, for they could never be employed a second time because of the risk of blowing their cover. They had to always be new, debutants; they couldn't have appeared on any screen before, not even as extras, because given the high degree of distrust that had infiltrated society, the least hint of recognition was enough to ruin the operation. And that same, constantly increasing distrust forced actors to be constantly getting better, more believable. It was astonishing they didn't run out of them.”
      And the fact is: "Both sides involved in the Cold War used spies from all types of background. The ability to seamlessly blend into the background was vital. The Soviet Union also employed men from Britain to spy on Britain – men who had become disaffected by the British way of life and looked to the east. The most famous were the ‘Cambridge Five’ – graduates who as a result of their background had got into high positions in the British Establishment. Throughout the era of the Cold War information covertly acquired in Britain ended up with the KGB. British agents in the Soviet Union paid a high price for their betrayal."

Ugly Beginnings

      Olive and Thaniel had the exact kind of trepid, rocky relationship anyone would expect two inexperienced young people to have when they're still learning how to be with another person, rather than fulfilling their own selfish wishes without a second thought. It started quickly and ended quickly, going from best friends to sworn enemies to strangers in practically the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. They weren't bad people, they were just stupid kids, as we all were at one time or another.

      Olive sipped her coffee in one hand with a copy of Persuasion by Jane Austen opened in the other. It was the trend to go to the local coffee shop to be studious, so that way everyone could witness one another's accomplishments. And Olive could understand the motivations behind the trend. Trying to do homework at home was one of the most distracting, unproductive things she'd ever experienced. For some reason the coffee shop with its elevator music and steady stream of strangers walking in and out provided her with a more calming atmosphere where she could focus instead of chatting with her friends via Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Instagram, text, Skype, Twitter, and e-mail.
      “Yeah, could I get a grande soy mocha latte?” came an uncomfortably familiar voice from the cash register. Olive looked up from her book only to jerk it immediately back into place in front of her face like a shield. Her cheeks flushed and she was holding the book way too close to her face to actually be reading it. She fiddled with her hair to try to look busy and important, which really sent the opposite message, to no avail. The awkward fidgeting drew the attention of the boy waiting for his vegan latte, who strolled up to her.
      “Hey, Olive,” came the smooth voice of Thaniel.
      Olive made sure to make a big show of looking up from her book and being completely shocked to see Thaniel standing there. “Oh, hey, Thaniel! Wow, it's been a while, good to see you!”
      “Yeah. It is. Mind if I sit?”
      “Uh... yeah. Sure! Totally.” The lady doth agree too much.

      “So... was that good for you?” Thaniel's voice was soft yet hopeful. The couple sat side by side, half their clothes situated back on, Thaniel looking at Olive, Olive looked ahead. She was attempting to put her hair into a bun and had a look of muted focus on her face.
      “Yeah, I guess so. I mean, of course, baby,” Olive stammered.
      Thaniel's smile dropped quickly and his brows knitted together. He looked down into his hands and picked at a cuticle. “Oh,” was all he said in reply.
      “Oh, baby, I'm sorry. It's just all so exciting and new. I'm not sure how I feel, is all. But you were wonderful. I promise,” Olive said while putting a hand on his arm.
      Thaniel managed another meager smile at her in response, and then an awkward silence sat between them as they tried to figure out what to do next.

      “What have you been up to, Olive?”
      “I'm getting my Masters in Literature at Cal State Hayward, so I read a lot of classic literature and analyze it. Pretty exciting.” The last statement was said half-heartedly as Olive waved her book around in her hand as her example. “What about you, Thaniel?”
      “I'm still working on my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering at Cal Poly,” Thaniel said with a nonchalant shrug, even though Olive knew he should've had his Bachelors already.
      “Ah, cool,” Olive replied with an awkward nod, playing with the corners of the Austen pages.
      “Olive, I think I should tell you something,” Thaniel said in the same tone he used when he was nervous or unsure. Quiet, awkward, shy.
      “I... slept with someone before you.”
      “WHAT?” came the harsh reply before she could even think about what she said or how she said it. A bunch of coffee shop customers looked over at them and Olive managed a forced smile and blushed at the attention. “I'm sorry...” she murmured quietly under her breath, “but what?”

      “This was your first time, right?” Thaniel asked gingerly, putting his hand on Olive's.
      “Yeah. Yours too, right? We both waited until we found someone we loved,” Olive answered for him in reply, looking up into his eyes naively.
      “Right,” Thaniel responded.
      Everyone has lied in a relationship before to save the other persons feelings. Thaniel and Olive weren't the first and wouldn't be the last to think a white lie was acceptable rather than the truth, and due to their lack of honesty, their relationship would turn into more fights than conversations before long.

      “I'm so sorry, Olive. I know it doesn't matter now. It was so long ago. But I feel bad for lying to you. I didn't want to hurt your feelings.”
      “Well good job,” she snapped back, exacerbated. She sighed deeply and rolled her eyes, flipping the pages of Persuasion back and forth, listening to the sounds of the pages scrape against her thumb. Olive felt the old feelings of frustration forming into a lump in her gut, but knew they were based on nostalgia rather than the current situation. “I mean, I guess it's fine. It doesn't matter anymore anyway.”
      More awkward silence filled the ever growing void between them. Thaniel got up to grab his soy latte and made a motion to leave. “I'll leave you alone so you can get your homework done.”
      “Wait, hold on.”
      Thaniel stopped.
      “I... well, I kinda lied to you, too.” She shifted uncomfortably in her chair and avoided his gaze.
      Thaniel sat down next to Olive again, giving her his full attention.
      Olive smiled awkwardly and opened to mouth to talk, but found nothing came out. She was such a coward sometimes. Thaniel was still attractive and soft spoken, but she also remembered him from so many stupid arguments. “You weren't my first, either, Thaniel.” She buried her face in her book so she didn't have to see his reaction.
      “What did you say?!” He sounded genuinely upset. “Who did you sleep with?!”
      “Pipe down! Jesus, Thaniel. Don't let the whole coffee shop in on my dirty laundry.”
      “Tell me, Olive! Who else did you fuck?”
      She scoffed at him and furrowed her brows in irritation. “Don't be rude. You fucked someone else too and I didn't throw a bitch fit. This was years ago, in case you didn't remember.” Thaniel's gaze just continued to bore into her like a silent interrogation. “Okay! It was Tim Michaels.”
      “Tim Michaels?!” a scoff from Thaniel. “I can't believe you!”
      “And... Danny Boomer. And Alex Estrada. And a couple guys you never met from summer school.”
      “Five?! Did you say FIVE?!”

      “You were looking at her!” Olive screamed at Thaniel. They picked a fight with each other over everything and nothing. Thaniel protested that he wasn't, Olive let her insecurities get the better of her, and they turned personal quickly as they pointed out how the other was selfish, unmotivated, and lacking in pretty much every way. Neither of them were proud of the teenagers they were at the time, the monsters they became in their relationships. It was like seeing a different person and realizing they had their own faces.

      “I didn't want to hurt your feelings. You were so insecure about being inexperienced. I wanted you to be comfortable,” Olive said as soothingly as she could muster, thinking she had done him a favor.
      “You... you were a little slut!” Thaniel half yelled at her, drawing more stares from the coffee shop patrons.
      “Me? You're the slut! I've seen your Facebook page. You're with a new girl almost every week. You're never going to grow up, Thaniel. At least I have a long term, serious boyfriend now. I got my shit together. You're still trying to get your undergrad.”
      “Fuck you.”
      “Fuck you back!”
      Thaniel stormed out of the coffee shop.

      Olive and Thaniel were good people, but they always brought out the worst in each other.

Author's Note:

      This is a 2014 piece written for an Advanced Narrative Fiction class. The assignment was to play with both manipulation of time and the point of view. So I came up with a very simple plot that my significant other helped put a little spin on. Since playing with the way a story is constructed is difficult for me to do, I wanted to avoid a complex plot, because I didn't think I could focus on plot and construction at the same time. I prefer to just let a story flow, and let the time and POV work itself out naturally. But my classmates laughed a lot at this story and enjoyed it, so I must've done something right.
      P.S. The name Thaniel comes from the book The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding. I wasn't clever enough to come up with my own awesome original character name.


      Julian's office building was like the rest of the world: bright, distracting, happy. The full spectrum of the rainbow was splashed across everything. The staplers were pink with green staples, polka dotted beanbags were the chair of choice, circular rugs were yellow smiley faces. Motivational posted were hung up on the wall telling cheesy jokes such as “Why don't cannibals eat clowns? Because they taste funny!”
      He walked past a group of his coworkers who were sitting around a large round table, their laptops all open in front of them, which was the preferred method of getting work done. In a group, never alone. They were all laughing as one of them shared photos of their cat on the office chat box. A woman looked up from her computer at her coworkers and said, “And this one is of my cat sitting in a box!” with a roar of laughter from the group in reply.
      Leaning in to one of his coworker's computer, he investigated the picture of the cat. It looked apathetic, staring up blankly at the camera, sitting in a normal cat position, but in a box. The look on Julian's face was similar to the look on the cat's. “That's not funny,” he stated blankly. Everyone stopped laughing and looked up at him. Nervousness flickered across their gaze. They all looked at each other, fear in a few of their postures. Then one chirped up, “Well, to each their own!” follow by more giggles and relieved smiles.
      Julian continued over to his Papasan chair, which was a solitary bowl where only he, and he alone could fit. He worked without the small permanent smile on his face that all the commuters on the street had while they walked, that all the billboards showed of models smiling and laughing as big as they can manage. Julian wasn't like everyone else. He valued productivity first, happiness second. Intellect over humor. Self awareness over social interaction.       Something dark flickered out of the corner of his eye. He looked just in time to see a shadow disappear around one of the rounded walls of his office. This was happening more often, yet as he was aware of it, he couldn't seem to get rid of it.
      The specialized advertisements on the edge of his social networking page said, “Affordable Happiness Rehab—Get That Smile Back TODAY!” Another told him, “Control Your Thoughts—Don't Let Them Control You. Free Anti-Depressants!” As he scrolled through his News Feed, he saw that no one posted about a loved one's disappearance anymore. Reading such posts created negative thoughts in the minds of readers, which spread like an infection.

      At home, Julian's apartment was painted in neutral colors such as beige and subtle greens instead of the neons and pastels everyone else was so fond of. The TV was filled with comedies of all varieties, but he flipped from channel to channel apathetically. He wasn't really watching.
      The lights flickered in his apartment. A shadow slowly crept out of his living room instead his bedroom, and he thought at the last second it turned to stare at him—or rather, into him. It had no real shape—it was always changing, but he always recognized it. Julian tried to ignore it, but he felt adrenaline release into his system. His heart beat faster, his toes and fingers tingled with fear. His neutral lips began curling into a frown.
      The TV shouted at him, “Alone tonight? Don't be! Go out with friends! Keep yourself positive!” Julian flipped off the TV to black. The advertisements always told you what to do—never what not to do. They were too scared to mention fear, sadness, depression, and the consequences of it.
      Julian got up from his chair and walked towards his bedroom. What are you doing? he thought. Negativity bred on negativity. He knew that. Get out. Stop the cycle. But nothing was truly funny. What made others happy just seemed trivial and childish to him. Julian had never really fit in, and what made him happy was different from others: accomplishments, solitude, the outdoors, poetry, introspection, catharsis.
      Ever since childhood, Julian had been different. He'd cause other children to become bored, angry, or scared. This in turn led to other parents becoming scared of him breeding unhappiness in their children, and even his parents to become scared of him. They were able to keep up their pleasant charade for a number of years, but over time, they were consumed by their unhappiness, their fear... their thoughts.
      But a deep curiosity pushed him forward. Step by step his heart pumped louder until he was sure this it was audible beyond his chest. More lights flickered until one by one they started to turn off. His television sputtered to life and flickered between white noise and black. His frown deepened. Julian knew to turn away, but he had to see what the manifestation of his negativity looked like. He put a hand on the edge of his bedroom door, took a deep shaking pause, and walked into the doorway.
      His eyes scanned the black room. The last thing he saw was The Shadow mid-leap. He didn't even have time to scream as it enveloped him, and consumed him.
      Julian Blackwood became another number in a list of disappearances that no one would ever hear about, talk about, or even acknowledge lest they risk the same fate. In a world where thoughts became reality, no one felt safe.

Author's Note:
      This is a 2014 experimental piece I did for a class called Theories of Fiction. The assignment is a "Fiction Lab" which is supposed to purposely be unrefined and raw and push your boundaries as a writer. I decided not to push my boundaries too much and chose to do horror from the options my professor gave me, because it's one of my favorite genres of fiction and makes me pretty comfortable. I actually absolutely love the idea for this piece, but I wrote it so rushed that I didn't do it justice at all. It needs to be longer, and I'd love to further explore Julian's psychological state of mind, slow down his spiraling depression, and explain why he his emotions finally got pushed so far now instead of any other time in his life. It needs more scenes, action, build-up, ect. So at some point I'll definitely go back and rewrite this story and give it the attention it deserves.

How Jaws was Born

      Tom Johnson found himself in a graveyard of finless bodies, piled on top of each other in pale sallow colors, swaying gently in the current. Various bottom feeders had gathered to the epic feast coating the ocean floor—it would feed them for weeks. The water was a hazy pink, with bits of flesh and gore speckling everything in sight and beyond. Tom Johnson had heard of the Finning Graveyard, but he was not prepared to see the sheer number of his mutilated fellow brethren.
      As a 16-foot Great White Shark, Tom Johnson or “TJ” was no stranger to violence and gore. That was the way of life for sharks, and TJ had the scars to prove it, but rarely did sharks see one another dead. They were the top predator of their respective food chain. However, TJ was one of the leading members of a growing food fad of sharks who didn't kill their prey. They didn't go full vegetarian by any means, either. They weren't like Tiger Sharks, eating any old garbage that crossed their path, but they preferred to live the life of a scavenger, eating what had already died.
      It seemed like a ridiculous idea at first, but when TJ thought about it, he realized that despite the perfectly normal nature of their hunting and killing prey, they had gotten a life-threatening reputation placed on them unfairly for it. And in his opinion, the best way to fight violence wasn't with violence, but with peace. So as an effort to protect his species, TJ became a scavenger rather than a killer, and recruited a few other sharks to follow in his wake.
      But there was only so much a handful of sharks could do to sway the minds of the doughy, bipedal murderers. The numbers of shark deaths rose into the tens of thousands per hour and didn't seem to be slowing down. And TJ had finally found the physical evidence of all the monstrosity in the shadowy trenches of the Pacific, a massive genocide forgotten and left to rot. The sight of bodies layered one on top of the other, taken from them the most defining feature of their bodies, was too much to handle. They looked like bloated eels, and gave off a concentrated death of scent that made TJ want to flee in the other direction as far away as he could go.
      Well a scavenger no longer would TJ be. Peace was no longer an option. The dirt-walkers were a threat that couldn't be allowed to exist any longer. They could not be reasoned with, even though TJ and friends had taken the time to show humans on multiple occasions their calm and docile nature while cruising by the metal cages the humans liked to swim in. No, the shark-finners had taken advantage of TJ's peaceful nature for far too long. They were to be banished from the oceans and go back to the land where they belonged. From this day forward, Tom Johnson would be a man-eater.

Author's Note:

      This is a 2014 piece I did for my Hybrid Narrative class that made me happy with its success in being both serious and funny simultaneously. However, my classmates brought up a good point that I should add a scene where Tom Johnson is talking to a friend in order to break up the exposition with some dialogue. I agree with that, so at some point I'd like to go back and put in a little more effort into the piece. Since this story was inspired by a combination of a quote (from The Absent City by Piglia) and fact, I'll share them with you. Here's the quote: “There were all sorts of terrible things in there, bodies piled up, remains, even a woman all rolled up, sitting like this, her arms across her legs, hunched over, you could tell she was young, that woman, her head sunk into her chest, her hair hanging down, barefoot, her pants rolled up, and above her there seemed to be another person, I thought it was also a woman, fallen with her hair forward, her arms twisted backwards like this, it seemed, I don't know, it was like a dug-up graveyard, the effect of what was in there, in the mirror, the light it gave off, like a circle, I would move it and see the pit, in that mirror, the shimmering remains, the light would reflect inside and I saw the bodies, I saw the earth, the corpses.” And here's the fact: Approximately 12 people are killed per year by sharks. 11,417 sharks are killed per hour by people, adding up to a little over 100 million per year. This is almost exclusively because of finning.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Grumpy Day in the Life

      I walked up along the sidewalk feeling smug about my early morning undertakings. My paws padded silently as I meandered across the street, cautiously looking for the large metal monsters the slaves possessed and brought to life at whim. I arrived at a large grassy area with trees and bushes where the slaves often came with their miniature counter-parts and the idiotic dog to run around and eat. I could not understand their desire to exert energy in the direct sunlight, which was clearly intended to be used for napping instead.

      The slaves were not appreciative of the gift I retrieved for them at the park. It was important to keep up a piece treaty with them to ensure that they remained gullible enough to continue providing me with free food. That, and I felt that the gift of a bird also demonstrated my strength, showing that I was not one to be crossed. The female slave screamed and chased me away. I did not understand what she was reacting to. The bird was not going to come to life and attack her. I was not keeping the gift for myself. There was nothing threatening to have caused such a reaction, but out of the house I ran regardless, lest I had to defend myself in the face of the hysterical female slave.
      I found a desirable sunny spot on the edge of some bushes to curl up and take a nap, when the blasted dog came up to me. How I despised that dog, who always insisted that the slaves were Gods and went out of his way to treat them as such. His twitchy nose sniffed mine and his curled up tail wiggled with enthusiasm. “Not now,” I said to the dog, who I easily outweighed by at least five pounds.
      “But I'm booooored! The masters are busy cleaning something dead! Can we play with the ball? Or we could play chase! C'mooooon, Lexie, play with me!”
      I told that dog hundreds of times that my name was Alex, but he insisted upon calling me the cutesie feminized nickname the slaves called me. The slaves weren't all bad, to be sure. When I was much younger and skinnier, they would leave out food in their yard, knowing fully I would not come for the food until they were well away from it, as I would never get within 10 feet of their tall gangly forms at the time.
      “Dog, I will scratch you if you don't let me nap,” I told him in a low growl, my muscles tensed.
      I watched the little yappy thing dance backwards a couple steps, then forwards a couple steps as if to taunt me. My back arched and the hairs on my neck stood on end, making my size look nearly doubled. I let out an intense hiss as a warning to scare him off—successfully.
      There was an interesting relationship between myself and the dog. There were days when he went out early to get exercise, so when my favorite time to nap in the afternoon sun came around, he was more than happy to pass out next to me in order to provide me with his body heat to lay against. But intellectually we were from opposite ends of the spectrum, so our interactions have always been strained.

      “Lexie!” called the slaves from the back door to the house. I was roused from my glorious slumber by the familiar sound. There was a specific tone that they used to indicate my evening food had arrived for me, as if pleading for my presence. I stretched lazily and padded over slowly to show that I was arriving to get food because I wanted to, not because they beckoned me to come. I now ate my food inside of the house rather than outside, having realized the slaves worshiped me rather than wished me harm. I slinked through the door, tail and head up to show my importance and demand for respect, then went over to the food bowl to gorge myself.
      Fingers along my spine startled me for a second, but I was too enthralled with my meal to do anything about it. The nails scratched delicately through my fur coat and itched all the places it was too hard for me to reach while eating simultaneously. Despite my best efforts to ignore the attention, I found myself intoxicated by the rubs and scratches. My skin tingled and my vocal chords vibrated with a deep purr. I pushed my head deeper into a chin scratch that made my body paralyzed with pleasure. Somehow I forgot about my food momentarily and instead flopped onto my back to receive rubs along my belly, which the female slave happily did with a gentle touch. I knew they worshiped me. Only a creature that worshipped me like a God would bother to feed me and pet me while receiving nothing in return. Even the most vulnerable parts of my body they treated delicately instead of trying to take down such a worthy adversary as myself. They are dumb and easily manipulated creatures. Finally, I gave the slave's hand a quick bite to show that I was done receiving pets and continued to enjoy my feast.
      I laid down that evening to rest on the large soft chair the slaves obviously bought as my throne and commended myself on a job well done on so easily taking over the household as my Kingdom. They even seemed happy to oblige me, as if they needed a Godly figure in their lives to give them direction, and I was happy to show them that to start, they needed to feed me and leave me alone, then to eat and sleep more themselves, for that is the key to existence. These reflections inspired more purring, and I lulled myself to sleep, in order to rejuvenate myself for a new day tomorrow.

Author's Note:

      This piece was inspired by a homework assignment in 2014 with a prompt that required me to use a random, yet predetermined list of different ways to depict time in narratives; these time depictions are called summary, scene, stretch, gap, and pause. Summary takes longer to occur than to read, scene takes an equal amount of time to occur and read, stretch takes longer to read than to occur, gap is where time has passed but is not put into the narrative (white space), and a pause is where the narrative stops to go somewhere completely different, then come back to where it left off as if nothing happened. I had to write these in order as they appeared on the given list, which I found to be both difficult and constricting. However, with the help of my significant other Ryan, we were actually able to produce a clever and fun little story.

Hybrid Narrative: Nox and Time Travel

      I didn't know him, but I could see fragments of him floating towards me across the pond, like sonic echoes bouncing off the night sky and the water, singing my brother's travels in hazy moments. Other than a morose sense of nostalgia, my brother was a stranger to me—I knew as little as he could manage. His mind was a box without a key, and he would not give me access. What I did know was the pain buried deep within his consciousness, like the smoldering embers of a star. They pulsated in every moment of his past I watched unfold on the sea. I saw him with the spunky blonde. They pulsated in every curt sentence uttered on the phone. I heard his emptiness.
      His death came to tell me what happened far before the phone ever rang. The radio crackled with electrical disturbance; the apple pie's aroma faded away. The sea looked lifeless and moon was new. I looked out at the past and I saw that the pulsing was weak and obscured. Time ceased and I cannot recall how much time I spent in the window, watching the images of his past play out for me. I never knew my brother in the present—the pictures were always events he'd already experienced, and I could never reach out to help him.
      Sometimes I wondered if he looked out across the pond and saw what I'd achieved. Was I an echo of our past, our mother, that he could not face? Did he ignore the light of my past that came to him at night on the water? Or did he brave looking into the night to see my accomplishments as I looked out to watch his follies? I watched him die, and I couldn't reach out to save him. Blondie couldn't save him, and he couldn't survive without her.
      I heard my brother's voice in my own in the conversation I had with his widow. There was a distinct aversion, a curt edge that lacked willingness to face the present. In ways the past was easier to deal with—there was no need for reaction or participation. I could just watch the translucent movies of my brother's life play every night and at least know he was out there. But now the movies ceased, and as I look out, there's an empty past filled with silence.
      The stars wordlessly share their history, but it was not meant for me. My brother's pasts were meant for me. There's a thought that stabs at my heart: were those moments of his life sent to me on purpose? Was he trying to reach out to me, to find me in a way that he couldn't face? Left with nothing to face but my own position in life, I'm left dealing with internal arguments about whether I could have done anything. I try to convince myself he was nothing more than a stranger despite my nostalgia, but he would have never contacted me if that were the case.
      I saw his death come slowly across the sea to tell me goodbye.

Author's Note:

      In a Hybrid Narrative class I'm taking for Spring 2014, my class was given an experimental prompt that put me way out of my comfort zone as a writer of Young Adult Fantasy novels and short stories. The prompt was to find a favorite quote from a book called Nox by Carson and to find an interesting fact about the universe. Here's the quote: "When my brother died (unexpectedly) his widow couldn't find a phone number for me among his papers until two weeks later. While I swept my porch and bought apples and sat by the window in the evening with the radio on, his death came wandering slowly towards me across the sea." Here's the fact: "When you look into the night sky, you are looking back in time. The stars we see in the night sky are very far away from us, so far the star light we see has taken a long time to travel across space to reach our eyes. This means whenever we look out into the night and gaze at stars we are actually experiencing how they looked in the past." So... I'm not sure if I did the assignment justice because the piece of writing seems too foreign to have come from my own brain, but there you go. You decide.

The Last Elemental

      The force of his breath was hot on her neck as he pulsated on top of her. It wasn't soft, sensual, or even caring; it was hard, mechanical, violent thrusts as if from an emotionless machine. Even in a room with air as thick and hot as the one they occupied, her heart remained an unfazed glacier, floating in an abandoned sea. Vercta used the technique she had perfected to remove her thoughts from her body that was pinned under the glistening muscle of her client, Dreddithin.
      She allowed her mind to travel beyond the confines of her flesh. It stretched towards the ceiling, thankful for the break from reality. It proved futile to try to enjoy the sexual advances of her one and only client. Whether their clothes were on, or off, they seemed to remain just a handful of harsh words away from screaming and attacking each other until one of them blacked out; she never won. So she escaped, by refusing to consciously participate in their passionless sex that only ever left Dreddithin satisfied, if you could call a meaningless, shallow orgasm “satisfying.”
      The time Vercta spent in her thoughts away from her body, she often used to remind herself why Dreddithin remained her only client. She felt more like his slave, or better yet, his prisoner of war. To a certain extent, she was a prisoner of war. Her mind floated back through years of memory, through the abuse, through becoming a full-fledged Escort due to Dreddithin's connections and insistence, growing up learning the customs of the Court because of him, and finally, when they first met. Their meeting was always the same memory she came back to time and time again.
      Her mind settled itself at a safe distance in the sky, looking down on her younger self during The Great War. She quietly watched the scene of her memory play out before her for what must have been the hundredth time. She knew every move that would happen far before it did. Vertca wondered if there was anything she could have done differently, but it didn't matter, because she didn't.

      Vercta was just nine years old, with curled golden hair and sapphire eyes. Her skin was as delicate and pale as porcelain. She donned a simple white dress. Drops of water dotted the fabric on her knees as tears fell from her eyes. Her cries were hushed and scared. Outside of the safety of her dark closet, the screams of victims of war echoed around her home. It came from outside, inside, everywhere. The Mages had finally risen to power and were methodically going from town to town exterminating every Elemental. Women, children, babes still at their mothers breast, it didn't matter. No one was safe, no one was spared.
      The piercing cries of her mother came from beyond the closet, and Vercta buried her face in her nears to suppress the sobs erupting from her core. Her heart ached like nothing she'd ever experienced before. She was small and helpless, but couldn't shake the feeling that she had to do something, anything, to save her mother—until abruptly, the cries of terror stopped. Vercta looked up, eyes wide in the darkness of the closet. Her insides suddenly felt like ice; she was frozen with panic, terror, and grief.
      The water droplets on her blotchy red cheeks lifted up from her skin into the air. The moisture from her dress pulled itself from the fabric and hovered about her. The tears continued to flow from her eyes silently, but went directly into the air. The pressure of emotion threatening to burst forth rose within her stricken core. The water droplets hanging in the air began to twirl around her in eery ringlets, mimicking the shape of her hair. The orbs quivered, as if shaking from rage or fear.
      Beyond the closet, water lifted from pots in the kitchen, a well outside, a tub in the bathroom. It all rushed into the house without making so much as a whisper, then levitated eerily like a flood searching for the right place to onslaught. From the floor to the ceiling, orbs and rivers of water whirled and rushed about the soldiers who began to shout in panic and fear. Their voices raised an octave; that was pure fear.

      “Don't let it control you,” Vercta remembered her mother saying to her. It was the same tales everyone knew. The reasons natural disasters happened. Elementals were generally a peaceful people, but it didn't mean they were perfect. There was Seraphina the angry fire Elemental, Lief the jealous earth Elemental, Airyn the scared air Elemental, and Ryvre the sad water Elemental. Each of them had succumbed to their greatest weakness, followed immediately by unforgettable chaos that destroyed much, including themselves. “We are all born with distinct personalities,” explained her mother, “and our personalities are nothing to resent. However, our power feeds off our inherent weakness, and that's how your power chooses you at birth.” Of course, the most talked about was Seraphina, the fire Elemental who scorched the earth, destroying everything, and left a permanent mark on the planet that they called a desert. Those who were born with fire were always the powerful, showy leaders. Ryvre the water Elemental had merely caused a monsoon and a flood, which eventually created a great river that divided the continent. However, it also provided water for many towns lining it. Vercta always wished Ryvre were a more popular figure. “Vercta, don't let your sadness overcome you,” her mother had stressed. Vercta promised, as she always did, but she knew her mother worried. Her mother used to look at her like she was weak enough to be Ryvre, that she'd be the next water Elemental to let her depression take control of her, and destroy her, along with many other lives.
      This was the first time Vercta believed she could have been the next Ryvre. If this wasn't the type of sadness that would destroy her from the inside out, she didn't know what was. Regardless, she didn't realize the power pouring forth from her, nor did she know the fear she'd stricken into the hearts of the men who murdered her family beyond the confines of her closet. All she knew was that her mother wasn't screaming anyone. There was just silence, and she was alone. The sadness in her chest expanded so painfully that any semblance of control she had over herself was failing rapidly. Just as she opened her mouth to let lose the scream she'd been trying so desperately to suppress, the closet door swung open.
      Dreddithin stood in the doorway, staring aghast at the sight before him. His eyes, which were dark and serious, had a combination of subtly curiosity, and strikingly obvious fear in them as he stared at the ringlets of water hovering around the small, delicate girl whose eyes screamed more of terror than her voice ever could. He watched her last tear shed itself gently into the air to join the dancing circles of water. He looked at her like she was Ryvre reincarnated.
      Neither of them moved for what seemed like ages. Their eyes were locked in a tense, unwavering gaze, both of them waiting to see what the other would do first. Dreddithin's hand was curled around a rapier that was slick with bright crimson liquid—whose blood was never revealed. Dreddithin wasn't an unintelligent man. He knew that an Elemental, even a child Elemental, was a danger to wrangle with. But as he looked at her, it was hard to see anything more than a scared little girl hiding in a closet. His eyebrows furrowed, and a frown formed on his thin lips. There was a job to do, but in a moment of internal conflict, he hesitated.
      “Did you find one?” shouted the voice of a Mage military official approaching the two. The sudden new sound interrupted the trance between Dreddithin and Vercta, and the hovering tears cascaded to the ground, creating no more than a mosaic of rain drops. Every ounce of water spiraling through the house splashed to the ground, flooding the ground floor in a pool up to officers' ankles. Dreddithin started slightly and turned to face his superior.
      “No, sir. Just a scared servant girl,” he replied with a silver tongue that lied as easily as telling the truth. He cast a sideways glance back a Vercta, whose eyes were the size of saucers.
      “Good. The house has been cleared, then. Move out.”
      Vercta watched, quiet and puzzled. She didn't completely understand what just happened. Why hadn't he killed her? She wasn't ignorant to the fact that friends and family outside her village had began to vanish one by one. Her parents had looked sad and scared for weeks. People of other magics and races began to scowl at them. When she asked what was happening, why did people hate them, her parents only told her that the Elementals were being taken away. They said the Mages were scared of them because of the magic that lived within them. It was a well known fact that Mages relied on spells and books, without which they were powerless. They feared the limitless powers of the peaceful people in tuned with the world, who helped make it grow and stay calm: the Elementals.
      Dreddithin nodded in reply to his superior and turned back towards Vercta. “What's your name, girl?”
      “Vercta Radley,” she replied meekly. Her voice was quiet, and like that of a songbird.
      Dreddithin contemplated her for a moment, as if trying to figure out what to do with her now that he'd lied to his superior. He held his hand out towards her. “Come.” She hesitated, though she didn't see much option. He was a tall, fit man of average build with slicked back brown hair that reached his shoulders, sharp brown eyes, and a shadow of stubble across his strong jawline. He was dressed in coat of fine velvet with a badge of the Mages sewn on it, a rapier hung at his belt, and a spell book was tucked under one arm. There was a surly look to his mouth when he spoke. “Come!” he barked louder, impatient and on edge.
      Vercta jumped, then reached out and grabbed his hand. He led her away from the house, which was already beginning to go up in flames. That was the last time she saw her village.

      The war ended soon after Vercta left with Dreddithin. Seven years later, Vercta had developed into a young woman. While she was still beautiful and delicate, something about her were were perpetually sad. Her eyes seemed sunken into her fair face, and her eyes were always lined with a ring of red, as if she had always just finished crying. Somehow, this only made her more distinct and alluring, as if the unusual look in her eyes gave her mystery that distinguished her from all other women. Though she was only 16, she finally lost all of the innocence she possessed when she first met Dreddithin. He seemed to struggle at first with what to do with her. He tried to act a father, but he was painfully awkward around her. Then he tried to make her a servant, but he found her most distracting than helpful. Then he finally made a decision: the wrong decision. He sent her to an Escort academy, a prestigious education that guaranteed women a respectable job that included entertaining clients, normally of their choosing, whether with conversation, dinner, parties, or more intimate meetings. Dreddithin decided that if she were going to be so distracting, he may as well bring her out to the Court to be shown off on his arm. She tried to tell herself throughout her education that she loved Dreddithin for providing her with such an opportunity, but she never fully believed it. She was no longer ignorant to his advances, nor to the consequences of talking back to the man who held the secret to her death. Everyday was spent applying make-up, fixing her hair, and dressing in the fine clothing provided for her. Her job was to look as beautiful and presentable as possible so as to not embarrass her client at the Court. Her smile was small and generic, she said all the expected pleasantries, but avoided further conversation. She danced like the perfect marionette on strings she was supposed to be.
      Vercta sat in front of a mirror, brushing out her hair after a night of celebration at the Court. Looking at herself, at the eyes that looked back at her, she saw no life, no personality, no trace of who she once was. The resentment and frustration built up in her throat; part of her felt obligated to please him as payment for risking his life for hers, and another part of her wanted nothing to do with him. Dreddithin told her she should be ashamed of being an Elemental, but she'd never killed anyone, never systematically wiped out towns, like he and his friends had. Every time Dreddithin laid a finger on her, it made her skin prickle with disgust, but whether at him or herself, she wasn't sure. But what was there to do? Asking him to relieve her of her job, or requesting a second client to spend time away from him, only angered him and made their relationship harder.
      She watched the tears fall from her sapphire eyes in silence. “Where are you, darling?” Dreddithin called out as he walked in late from a party.
      Vercta only looked at the fabric curtain that hung for minimal privacy to her beauty parlor. The curtains pulled apart, and Dreddithin stood, staring at her reflection staring back at him. His eyes were locked on the tears on her cheeks. For a split second, a flash of fear seemed to pass over his eyes before his brows furrowed together in a look of pity. “Dry those tears, my dear. There's no need for that.” He was trying to comfort her, but his voice sounded strained and wary.
      Vercta watched the reflection of Dreddithin, unwavering. His hair had gotten longer in seven years. “They're just tears,” she said calmly.
      Dreddithin cleared his throat awkwardly. “Quite right, quite right...” he agreed quickly while trying to regain his composure. He approached her and ran his hand affectionately through her hair. He moved a few locks aside in order to kiss the nape of her neck, and his hand wandered towards her chest.
      Vercta sighed and shook off his advances, pulling away a couple inches. He was trying to change the subject. “I want to pick my own clients,” she blurted out. She needed more. Vercta realized that to a degree, she was in his debt. He'd raised her, paid for her, educated her, and he may have even loved her. But that simple fact remained that she did not want him, or at least, she didn't think so, and she wouldn't know for sure until she met other people.
      A look flashed Dreddithin's face made her insides twist with tension and guilt. He looked genuinely hurt, but that quickly gave way to a fierce anger. He gripped her forcefully on the shoulder and pulled her back towards him, and then hissed fiercely into her ear, “Is this the appreciation you give me? I have given you everything you could ever need, yet apparently my generosity is not enough for you.” Vercta tried to escape his grasp, but he pushed her down into her chair violently. “Don't make me tell the Court about you. I'd hate to see that pretty face yours wasted in death. And that's what will happen if you leave, Elemental. Is that what you want?”
      She could feel the flood gates open, and the tears rushed out. Sobs escaped through the fingers she clasped over her mouth. The only reply she could give to Dreddithin was a shake of her head, her golden curls bobbing with the motion.
      “Good,” he answered as he pulled her from her seat towards the bed.

      Vercta's mind came wandering back from observing the memories from her youth. It'd been 15 years since they first met. Dreddithin's hair almost reached his waist, the distinguishing mark of a powerful Mage, and his stubble had flecks of white in it. Earlier in the evening they'd gone to a party amongst the Mage Court. They glided around the room together, arms linked, talking amongst other equally powerful and glamorous couples. There were other Escorts in attendance, and they exchanged knowing glances with Vercta. She made a point not to grow too close to other Escorts, in case they grew suspicious of the unusually “tight” bond between her and her one client, Dreddithin.
      To anyone that looked on, they appeared to be a perfectly happy and normal couple. But if they looked closer, they'd notice the sad, faltering looks that twinged in Vercta's lips when she thought no one was looking. She eyes were still sunken in and red, though it was mostly covered with doll-like make-up.
      Then there was the secret that even Dreddithin didn't know. Vercta had recently become more bold. There was another man, a Mage, and a Mage of the Mage Council at that. A powerful man, but not a well liked man amongst the aristocracy. He was shunned as an outcast, often arguing against the oppressive nature of his government. His name was Benjamin Thomas. He was an older, long-haired man of power with gentle eyes and a subdued demeanor. He was a man that Vercta felt she could trust, and she'd been right. They talked, very secretly, of their opposition to their positions in life, and sometimes in order to thank him, she entertained him in the ways she'd been trained in the academy. He touched her with more passion and empathy than Dreddithin ever had. He was thorough, generous, conscientious. She supposed he must have been grateful for her company, rather than just expectant.
      There stood Benjamin Thomas across the room. She'd been able to stay composed, avoiding his gaze all night, but finally by chance, they locked eyes. His eyes were gentle, with small wrinkles forming at the edges. He smiled warmly at her, and she in turn let a small smile curled the corner of her lips. He nodded at her. She held his gaze for another moment, then turned away. To most people, their interaction was too fleeting to notice. But to Dreddithin, who witnessed the looks between them that were far too familiar, especially for someone as closed off and distant as Vercta, it was a stab of betrayal that stirred up emotions of fury.
      They lay in bed after the party. Dreddithin had just finished up and was smoking from a pipe as he walked towards the wash room. “Clean yourself up and then join me in the bath,” came an aggressive and possessive demand in a gruff voice. She lay staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. She was thinking of Benjamin Thomas, and if he'd be able to help her. She wasn't sure if or how she'd ever get away from Dreddithin, but it was nice to imagine she could. That she could escape with Ben. She didn't love Ben, but he was the only person she'd truly connected to since she was a child.
      Vercta began to clean off the sheets on the bed when Dreddithin called again, this time angrier than before, “Where are you?”
      “Coming,” she sighed, exasperated. She walked to the wash room, still naked, and stood in the doorway, looking down at Dreddithin who looked ridiculously angry for someone relaxing in a hot bath. “What's the matter?” she asked neutrally.
      “You're fucking Benjamin Thomas,” came the cold, flat reply of Dreddithin.
      Fear shot through Vercta like an arrow to the chest. She faltered, looking for something to say. “Dredd, I--”
      Dreddithin shot out of the tub and stormed towards her. “How could you? How could you?! After everything I did for you!”       Vercta could feel something in her snap. “Everything you did for me? It was all for you! You wanted to fuck me without being embarrassed in front of your council!” Her voice quivered with anxiety. Her eyes stung and grew watery.
      His eyes narrowed, his body tensed. “You should be grateful for that. Otherwise you'd be lying in a puddle of blood next to your mother. That's where I should have left you, you ungrateful water elemental.” The last words were hissed as if the very words themselves contained lethal venom.
      Vercta steeled herself, then turned to leave the room. In the other room, she began packing her belongings. That didn't last long before Dreddithin stormed over and ripped her belongings from her hands, flinging them across the room. “You're not leaving!” he shouted.
      “Yes, Dreddithin, I am.”
      He grabbed her by the middle and lifted her into the air. She screamed and started thrashing. The two of them went at this as he dragged her towards the washroom and the tub. “Let me go!” she shrieked.
      “Leave, and I tell the Council about you!”
      In a moment of clarity, she realized that leaving Dreddithin wasn't an option. At least, not like this. Not with him knowing who she was, what she was. “Okay,” she sighed, and stopped struggling. She'd finally made a decision.
      “Good,” came the sinister reply, “I knew you'd see things my way.” He lowered himself into the tub, and motioned for her to join him. She stared down at him in the tub. Tears were now streaming from her eyes, and she couldn't stop them. He looked so vulnerable in the tub, though they both wore nothing.
      “I'm sorry,” she said suddenly. She walked over to the bath and took a seat on the edge, with Dreddithin looking up at her, confused. Feeling threatened, he made a move to stand, but found himself pinned down by an invisible force. The water pressure in the tub was growing, which was holding him in place to prevent him from struggling. He started to look scared.
      “Vercta, darling, please,” he tried to plead soothingly, but he couldn't rid the fear from his voice. But he could solicit no response from her. Vercta's face became closed off and rigid, the only sign of emotion the streams of tears that flowed faster and faster from her eyes. And in a moment of intense nostalgia, Dreddithin saw the tears float into the air instead of hitting the floor.
      Thin streams of water rose from the bath, slithering up Dreddithin's chest and neck, up to his face, and slowly trickled into his nose, and finally into his lungs. Dreddithin started to sputter and cough, but no liquid came up, despite the growing intensity of his struggle. Settled into his lungs the water stayed, ever increasing as the water slunk into his mouth and nose. He was thrashing and convulsing to no avail. Then, suddenly, he stopped fighting. His body went slack. Vercta released the water pressure in the bath, and Dreddithin sank under the water's surface and stayed there.
      For the next hour, Vercta struggled to stop crying. Once Dreddithin lay dead, sobs escaped her violently, as if she'd been keeping it in for years and never really let it out. She felt like she'd failed her mother and became Ryvre, the destructive water Elemental who lost control. The whole room had filled with water droplets that flew around the room like pellets fired from a sling-shot.
      Eventually, when a melancholy calm came over her, she spent time reapplying a mask of make-up in the mirror. Her eyes remained puffy, but that was normal for her. Besides, it wouldn't seem unusual considering the state of her client. She wrapped herself in a robe, and stone-faced, went to look for help.
      “The fool must have gotten drunk, fell asleep in the bath and drowned,” said one of the doctors later.
      Everyone stood around, nodding and giving their general agreement. Vercta merely put on a small frown and acted quiet and subdued, not that she had to try very hard. Everyone gave her their condolences, and a couple of them gave her a bit too friendly of a smile for the occasion. It was the first time many of them had talked to an Escort one on one, before. Especially one that would be accepting a new client soon. But she had only one person in mind: Benjamin Thomas.
      Vercta spent the next few days moving her belongings into her own, personal chambers. When she was settled in, she got dolled up for an upcoming party, and attended in full glory. She donned herself in an azure gown trimmed with white lace, and jewels wrapped around her wrist and neck. The only thing she couldn't do was rid herself of her sombre, stony expression. An older gentleman with long, flowing white hair approached her, a Mage of power and influence. “Excuse me, lady Vercta, but would you grant me the pleasure of your company?”
      Vercta curtsied respectively, yet shook her head. “You do me a great honor, Lord Bastian, but I must decline. An Escort chooses her clients, and I'm afraid that we do not make a compatible fit. Excuse me.” She left the Mage stunned. It didn't take long to find Benjamin. When she did, she linked her arm with his and whispered into his ear earnestly, “Please, I need your help.”

Valair's Viola

      The lights in the concert hall darkened and instruments behind the stage curtain quieted; the audience fidgeted in silent anticipation. A spotlight lit up an empty circle on center stage. Slowly the stage curtain folded back, forming a gap just large enough for a solitary violist to step forward into the beam of light. The audience almost audibly drew in their breaths and held it in deafening silence. No one could explain the strange pull of the new violist who drew crowds to the symphony in hypnotized hordes. Violist Steals Show printed one newspaper. Symphony Ticket Sales Skyrocket wrote another. The concert hall had gone from struggling to sold out for every performance. Ticket prices rose, and audience members became competitive about getting seats. All to see the violist, who took his time readying his viola between his chin and shoulder and feigned eye contact with the darkened audience. People squirmed with agitated excitement until the tension in the symphony was practically palpable.
      Finally a long pull across the strings broke the unbearable silence. The violist started out slow, playing with his whole body and face. A powerful release and renewed passion swept out across the audience as they held onto every note that sang from the soloist. The tune gathered in power as it morphed; it began as sultry and mellow, then built in tension and urgency. As the intensity increased, so increased the number of musicians playing: bassists, violinists, flutes, trumpets, a harp.
      The spotlight on the violist faded out, and the lights across the stage brightened to show the massive number of musicians. This lit up the first few rows of the audience just in time for the violist to look up from his playing and see a pair of eyes glaring back at him—a gentleman's face set in a grim glower. He stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd. Everyone around him had faces glazed over in pleasure, almost like they might fall asleep in numbed bliss at any second, completely transfixed by the music. Even the other musicians on stage looked dull and numb, like playing their instruments was merely an unconscious muscle memory. But the one who glowered stood apart glaringly; he had ear plugs firmly in place, and his eyes were alert. The violist, who had but seconds before been bent over his instrument as if in the throws of love, was unnerved by the familiar face. A pang of fear stabbed his heart, his fingers slipped, and the bow shot across the viola violently, throwing off the flow of the music for but a second.
      That's all it took. It was as if the entire audience had woken up out of a drugged stupor. People straightened their backs, blinked their eyes, and looked around with mild confusion as if they couldn't remember how they'd gotten to the theater that evening. Some of the other musicians missed a note or two as they too became aware of their confusion. The violist saw the surly man with ear plugs in the front row smile. In a small, simple moment, the violist could feel defeat knocking, threatening to undo his life and career, and the man with ear plugs had done it in a single moment of eye contact.
      The violist threw himself back into the notes, closing his eyes in concentration. Just like that, the audience slumped back down into their transfixed state, staring with dulled eyes. The other musicians lost all appearance of zeal. The violist felt the single set of hateful eyes on him, and no matter how hard he played, he could not shake the feeling that someone was going to notice. Someone would know. He'd never play again, and his life would merely fade away like the last note of a song.

      When the symphony finished two hours later, the violist found himself slumped in his chair in a private room at the back of the concert hall. His door was locked, and he had guards posted outside. His body may have been rejuvenated and strong from the performance, but he remained pale and shaky. Any moment that man would try to come after him. Or would he let the violist sit in agonizing anticipation, allowing his mind to assume the worst minute after minute?
      He jerked violently as the door to his room opened, but instead of seeing the man from the audience, one of the guards stood in the doorway. “Sorry to disturb you, sir. There is a miss Penelope here to see you. Says she's a close friend of yours.”       The violist furrowed his brows and the corners of his lips turned down subtly. “She is?” The guard shrugged and the violist sighed, placing two fingers on either side of the bridge of his nose, massaging the area. “Let her in,” said he resignedly.
      Hardly a second passed from the moment the words left his lips that a petite bubbly girl with wavy auburn hair, fair skin, hazel eyes, and a wide genuine smile bounced into the room. “Valair!” she exclaimed excitedly, placing her hands on either side of his face and planting a kiss on his lips. “You were wonderful, darling!”
      Valair brushed her hands aside and turned his head away, his frown only deepening. “I told you not to come,” he said. The tone of his voice teetered between angry and saddened.
      “How can you ask me such things when the town is raving all about you?” she challenged, placing her hands in naive defiance on her hips.
      “Do you think it gives me no pleasure to deny you? You must do as I say. Don't come to my performances, Penny. Ever.”
      “I want to hear you play, Valair. If not the symphony, won't you at least practice in my company?”
      “No!” The shout that came from his lips startled even himself. Guilt clutched at his insides as he saw her eyes widen in hurt. But he could not be soft with her.
      “I don't understand,” Penelope said meekly, her demeanor shifting from excitement to subdued and wounded. “Playing the viola is your life, Valair. It's who you are. Why do you try to separate me from it? What is it?”
      Valair hesitated as he tried to come up with a way to sooth her. A long time ago, he would have happily played for her, hour after hour. He would have let her try to play his instrument. He would have felt strengthened by her presence at every performance. But that was no longer possible, no matter how much he wished that weren't the case. “I...” he averted his gaze guilty, “am self conscious in front of you. I don't want to mess up.”
      She scoffed her delicate little scoff that was hard to take seriously. He liked that about her. She was happy, and not very serious. That happiness lifted his spirits, which he felt in constant and desperate need of lately. “Valair Dufour, that's just a lie!” she yelled at him. Something about the angry expression on her face made him want to write a poem about her. She was cute when she was angry, although he would never say so out loud. “Tell me the real reason you won't let me hear you play. I don't want part of you, I want all of you! I can't be happy with just a piece of you.”
      “Isn't my heart enough for you?” Valair pleaded, knowing it was a manipulative thing to say to such a sweet and innocent girl.
      He could see Penelope hesitate to think for a moment. She was a sucker for romantic notions. He understood what she was asking of him, and why, and he wanted to give her everything she desired. But he couldn't. “No,” she finally said definitively, a pout forming on her face.
      Please don't give me an ultimatum, Valair thought to himself. If she did, it would not go the way she wanted it to. “Penny,” he grabbed her hands, “Please. I don't deny you to hurt you. I'm trying to protect you. Believe me, love.” Scaring her with hints of an unspoken evil was a last ditch effort to get her to drop the matter. He knew what playing the viola did on small audiences. He could only make sense of it by comparing it to rain. If there was a certain amount of water spread over a large surface area, then it would fall like a light drizzle. If the same amount of water fell in a small, concentrated area, then it would pour like a tsunami. Playing for large audiences gave him the energy he needed to keep going without harming anyone significantly, but small audiences... was detrimental. He wouldn't drown her no matter how much she begged.
      “Protect me from what?!” Penelope snapped, on the verge of tears. She tore herself away from him, stomping her feet as she walked a couple paces, and whirled around to glare at him. “What are you keeping from me, Valair? Enough secrets!”
      “You think I want to keep secrets from you?” Valair cried, exacerbated. How can I tell her it would kill her? he thought. Valair knew he couldn't even play a single eight-count for her; once he started a song, he didn't have the will power to stop until the song was done. She wouldn't be able to keep that kind of information to herself, and he'd never perform again. At least, he told himself that he couldn't trust her. He wouldn't risk getting blacklisted in symphonies across the country. Penelope was so sweet and unsullied by the world. He didn't want to ruin her or burden her in anyway. He couldn't deal with more guilt than he already carried. “This is what I have to offer, Penelope. No more. I'm sorry.”
      Valair watched Penelope burst into tears and run out of the room. Everything in him wanted to chase after her and comfort her, apologize, and tell her everything. But this was for the best. He believed that she would come around eventually; he hoped she would come around.

      “What's with him?” asked a bassist.
      “I heard he hates how he sounds without other instruments,” said a flute player.
      “That's ridiculous. Do you know who he is? He's just conceited and can't be bothered to take time out of his day to practice with us lowly, common musicians,” said a violinist.
      “How does the symphony justify paying him when he refuses to rehearse with us?” asked the bassist.
      “Seriously? Because he's the only person people are coming to see,” said the flute player.
      “It's just spooky. He's almost never seen until the night of a show. I don't know what his girlfriend sees in such an arrogant recluse,” said the violinist.
      Penelope stood in a hallway of the concert hall, around the corner from the circle of gossiping musicians. She was worried about Valair. It was weird, the way he was so secretive and secluded. He seemed so paranoid as well. She wished he would go out more and socialize. It'd help him be happier, she was sure of it. Those musicians were wrong about his personality, though. He was thoughtful, poetic, sweet, and loving. That was the man she had fallen in love with, and then discovered all of his idiosyncrasies along the way.
      A door opened and all the instrumentalists hushed and tried to act natural as Valair walked by. He stared stonily at his fellow musicians, his lips drawn tight, his face clouded. Penelope kept herself pressed against the wall around the corner so she wouldn't have to face him yet. She remained like this until his steps faded out of ear shot.
      “Are you lost?” asked a calm, low voice from beside her.
      Penelope started and turned towards the voice. The man she saw in front of her had a somewhat unpleasant countenance, although she couldn't place her finger on why. He was a tall man with an intense gaze, and a less than happy expression. “Oh, no sir. Thank you,” she responded, giving him a small, polite smile.
      “Are you here to see someone, then?”
      “I am. Valair Dufour. The violist from the papers,” she said, trying not to sound boastful.
      “Ah,” the man said, a look of recognition and interest coming into his surly face. “I know Mr. Dufour personally. What a lucky man he is to have a friend like you.”
      “You know him?” Penelope perked up immediately. The idea of Valair having any friends at all gave her instant excitement. “How?”
      “My wife... my late wife, worked backstage at a concert hall a few towns over a couple years ago, when Mr. Dufour was still performing there. They knew each other, having worked together constantly, and so I came to know him.”
      “Constantly? He... actually spent time in the concert hall, then?” Penelope was amazed. Curiosity overwhelmed her like an unquenchable thirst, and she eyed the man like a tall pitcher of water.
      “All the time. Until one day, there was an accident. I don't know what happened exactly, but there were a few mysterious deaths. It must have scared Mr. Dufour, because he stopped coming around until it was time to perform. Dropped all his friends. Eventually moved away.”
      “What... did you say your name was again?” Penelope asked, unsure how to respond to his story until she processed it more.
      “Thaddeus Sinclair,” he said, nodding his head slightly.
      “Penelope Mayfield,” she responded. “So you came all this way to see him perform, then?”
      “That, and so that I might reconnect with my old friend,” Thaddeus replied coolly.
      “What's he like when he's practicing, Thaddeus?” she asked with large, curious eyes.
      “You mean he's never played for you?” Thaddeus asked, putting on the air of mild shock.
      “Why don't you just listen to him practice without telling him you're there?”
      Penelope was silent. She'd never considered it before. She did very much want to hear him practice. She knew that he practiced in private, but she'd always dutifully left him alone, like he requested. After a minute, she said, “Would you like to go find him? I'm sure he'd be delighted to see you. I could give you a tour of the concert hall along the way.”
      “I would be honored, miss Mayfield.”
      “So, your wife was involved in this accident?” Penelope asked as the two of them began their walk through the large hallways.

      Valair stood with his eyes closed, breathing in and out slowly. He stretched in physical relief—it had been a while since he played, and his body had stiffened and weakened quickly. The performance had rejuvenated him, despite Thaddeus's appearance and Penelope's fit. There was nothing like the feeling of taking life from his audience and fusing it with his own body. An overwhelming pleasure took control of him and negated any guilt he tried to hold on to. Every time he tried to make sense of it all, it always came out in verse. Poems helped him organize his thoughts and cope. Slowly he opened his contemplative blue eyes and recited to the now empty theater seats:
“A curse wrapped wrapped like a gift
The legend lives on again
Pass it off or diminish with it
Gratitude painted in bitter defiance”
He listened to the echos of his voice bounce off the cavernous building. The tall ceilings were adorned in eye catching architecture, leaving no inch of the place plain. Everything looked lush and expensive. Yet instead of feeling small standing under it all, being on the stage made him feel larger. It was an intoxicating spot reserved for very few. Valair always felt that he was meant to stand here, but his curse managed to ruin even that. And now it was ruining what little he was able to maintain with Penelope. He knew it was a bad idea to return her affections, but she was sweet, and persistent, and made him feel almost normal for the first time in years.
      Heavy footsteps snapped him out of his reverie. He expected that it might be a musician leaving late, or employees doing some last minute cleaning before they went home for the night. Valair got a rude awakening when he saw it was neither of those, but rather the familiar face from the audience he would've given anything to avoid. “Thaddeus.”
      The surly gentleman walked slowly through a row of seats, one hand gliding across the tops of the back rests. Thaddeus had aged in the last two years. He was a reasonably handsome fellow, but his frown had become deeply set, and stress wrinkles formed on his forehead and next to his eyes. Before the accident, his height and build made him look masculine and respectable, but now it just made him look intimidating. There was a certain amount of tension in those muscles, like he might snap at any moment.
      Valair's eyes had grown to the size of saucers. A few seconds felt like forever as fear coursed through his veins like ice, freezing him in place. He stammered, “What are you doing here?” His fear sounded even clearer in the echos of his shaking voice.
      “I just came to catch up with an old friend,” drawled Thaddeus, who was clearly enjoying the dramatic reaction of the quivering artist. He had the same satisfied smile that he wore earlier that evening, when he witnessed Valair make a dangerous mistake. “And...” he paused as he searched for the perfect words, tasting them before picking them, “to finally make you pay for what you did to me, to my wife.”
      “Thaddeus, I'm sorry. It was an accident; I didn't know that was going to happen!” Valair could feel sweat beading his forehead. He took small, tentative steps backwards without taking his eyes from Thaddeus.
      “Of course you didn't,” the other man responded in mock understanding, “but you didn't stop when you saw them collapse.” There was something sinister about the way Thaddeus's eyes glimmered.
      “You don't understand. I would've stopped if I could, but it takes over. The trance works both ways. I would never purposefully hurt your wife.”
      “You didn't hurt her. You killed her!” Thaddeus raged, unable to contain the fury that had simmered in him for so long. “And yet you continue to play, knowing what you are now!”
      “You don't know the pain I endure, Thaddeus! To not play is torture. I've done everything I can to protect everyone. But this...” Valair motioned to the grandeur of the concert hall enveloping them. “It's all I am. It's all I've ever known.”
      “You still don't see it. You're justifying your selfishness. Every time you play, you're killing them. Just because you're killing them slowly doesn't mean you aren't killing them! Maybe they won't notice the effect until years from now, but what happens when everyone starts dying tragically young?”
      Valair stood rigid, his eyebrows furrowed. “I don't know,” he finally said at length. “What would you have me do? What would you do if you were me, Thaddeus?”
      “I'd leave. I'd never play again. And I would make certain I could never come back.” Thaddeus took a few steps closer to the stage, looking up at Valair with a challenge in his dark eyes.
      While Valair comprehended what Thaddeus was suggesting, how could anyone willingly go through with it? Especially when they had someone to live for. Someone like Penelope. His shook his head slowly, “I can't do that, Thaddeus.”
      Thaddeus lunged towards the stage, but Valair knew Thaddeus well enough to see it coming. He had just enough time to leap out of the way and take off running. Valair disappeared backstage, threw open a door, and ran as fast as he could through employee only corridors throughout the theater. The pounding of heavy footsteps never remained far behind. With sickening intent, he made his way to his private room. With a burst, he flung himself through the door to his room, grabbed his viola case, and left again. He turned just in time to see Thaddeus charging through the hallway straight for him.
      Valair ran with what little strength he had left back towards the stage. As soon as he push through the door to the wings and bounded onto the wooden platform in front of the empty audience, Valair fells to his knees and fumbled with his viola case. When it snapped open he snatched up the viola and bow, and flung them into place on his shoulder. He held his shaking bow above the strings, staring at the door, waiting for Thaddeus to charge through. But nothing happened. There was no sound except for Valair's heavy breathing. What was going on?
      “Thaddeus?” the silence that answered was crushing. Valair listened intensely for the slightest noise of footsteps, but heard none for some time. Valair looked at his viola. Could he do it? Purposefully? His eyes turned out towards all those empty seats, which often filled just to see him. This is what he lived for, but in a cruel twist of fate, it had become what he killed for. He tried to numb himself against the guilt. He could drown in the guilt if he let himself really feel the full weight of what he was doing. Part of Valair knew that Thaddeus was right. There was no justification that made what he did okay, but he wanted to keep living. And to live was to play.
      With the viola tucked between his shoulder and his chin, Valair closed his eyes, and allowed himself to slowly pull the bow across the strings in a low, melancholy tune. The effect was immediate. Thaddeus was out there watching him somewhere. He felt the trance kick in, felt the life of another being pulled from their body and poured directly into his. A groan escaped his lips, and he played on more violently. The bow caressed and ground against the strings faster and faster. His body was tingling with life, his senses heightened, his mind completely wiped of everything but the pleasure of taking.
      It was almost a violent, animalistic pleasure. Valair lost himself completely. He succumbed to the power that coursed through him, gave up to it freely. His body moved with the music as if possessed, swaying and thrashing. Finally, the last note of the viola echoed and died away in theater. The sound of a body hitting the floor came from backstage. Valair was panting and covered in sweat. His body felt electric, but was quickly being replaced by his consciousness catching up with him. Thaddeus. He killed him, he must have. No one could have survived that alone. Already guilt bubbled up inside him and threatened to pour forth. There was nothing else I could do, he reminded himself over and over. He walked tentatively towards the wings, creaked a door open and poked his head through to examine the backstage area where the sound of the body had come from.
      “...Penny?” A thousand thoughts and feelings attacked him all at once, and in the chaos he couldn't grasp and hold onto a single one. What happened? This can't be real. “Penny?” He was imagining things. It had to be Thaddeus. Thaddeus was the only one with him in the theater. Where the hell was Thaddeus?! “Penny!” A river overflowed forth from his eyes and he sank to the ground, touching her hand. No, no, no.
      Heavy footsteps approached slowly and stopped short of the two.
      Valair turned his wet face up to Thaddeus. Thaddeus reached up and plucked earplugs from his ears and pocked them. His face was blank, apathetic.
      Valair looked back down at Penelope. He could have prevented this. She loved him, trusted him. If he'd told her, shared with her, respected her enough to let her make her own decisions after he warned her, this wouldn't have happened. She was just curious. She loved him, wanted to know him, share his life. Penny.
      “What I did was an accident, Thaddeus. I never meant to hurt her. I would never have done it again. I could keep moving to new towns. But Penny? Why Penny? It wouldn't have lasted between us anyway. Why would you do this? She was innocent. This didn't have to happen!” Valair bumbled, gasping for breathing, trying to convince himself as much as Thaddeus that he wasn't in the wrong.
      Thaddeus only sneered in disgust down at Valair. He shook his head, turned, and walked away, leaving Valair calling after him desperately, trying to get an answer, as if making Thaddeus believe him would make himself believe him. “I didn't ask to have power over peoples lives! It's not my fault!” He didn't want to admit that playing was a gamble. He didn't want to face that he would've killed Thaddeus and felt better about it than killing Penny. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry!” Years ago he wouldn't have been able to deal with the death of anyone. But not he was picking and choosing who got to live, and for how long.
      Valair listened to Thaddeus's footsteps die away, and was left with only the sound of his own sobs. He stared hopelessly at Penelope. She looked content, like she was sleeping. “Penny,” he choked, grabbing her limp, pale hand in his. “I should've told you.” He gathered up his viola, left out of the theater, and ran. He ran in any direction, with no sense of destination or time in mind. He ran until he couldn't think anymore.

Missing Friends and Making Parties

      Nathaniel struggled to keep a cup of tea balanced in his shaking hands. Sweat beaded his face in an unflattering mosaic of frayed nerves. He watched his friend Adrian work calmly in the kitchen as if their meeting was about no more than an idle chat about the weather. A small wave of tea breached his cup and cascaded onto Nathaniel's pants, so he brought the cup to his lips to drain some of the liquid.
      “What can I help you with?” Adrian finally broke the silence in a voice lawyers and politicians would envy. It was slick and chilling, and perfectly matched the cold smirk splayed on his face.
      “We're going to get caught, Adrian,” Nathaniel blurted, spilling more tea.
      “Come now, Nathaniel. Calm yourself. That's a rare tea.” There was a glint of amusement in his condescending gaze. Adrian sipped his tea delicately and uttered a sigh of approval.
      “Forget the God damned tea, Adrian!” Nathaniel was pale and desperate. He had no one to turn to but his friend, whose demeanor was causing more anxiety than relief.
      “We will not be found out,” Adrian stated simply, as if that fact was as plain as the gravity that held them to the floor.
      “How can you be so confident? People will question us. We were his closest friends at the party.”
      A bone chilling chuckle poured out from Adrian's teeth. He had a grin that could make the Grim Reaper nervous. “My poor Nathaniel.” He strode across the kitchen, grabbed a chair, and pulled it in front of Nathaniel. He took a seat and leaned into his sweating friend's face. “You do not understand.”
      Nathaniel felt like his blood had turned to ice. He wasn't sure if he was more scared of getting caught, or his friend who seemed to find pleasure in what they'd done, and Nathaniel's reaction to it. Would Adrian ever do that to me? Nathaniel suddenly thought, and then couldn't shake the idea no matter how much he wished to.
      “Everyone has friends. Friends are as natural as the air you breath. Or the sweat running down your cheek. It protects us, my dear fellow.”
      Nathaniel frowned deeply, his brows knit together. “I don't understand.”
      Adrian continued, “No one wants to disrupt the normalcy of their reality. If we, good friends, could be suspected, then everyone around us will grow suspicious of the sanity of their own friends. Our world is their world. To question ours is to question their own, and they do not like change.”
      The logic made sense, and Nathaniel hated him for it. He could not back down so easily from his paranoia. “What if they search our homes?”
      “Legally they cannot, but of course we shall oblige them like gentlemen. We will offer them tea, discuss business and the weather, and air our concern for our dear friend. We will mention we have a dinner date with him and his wife soon that would be most inconvenient to reschedule, and that his absence is most inconsiderate.”
      Nathaniel gaped openly. Adrian's eyebrows were pulled together in mock concern and confusion. Nathaniel stood abruptly from his seat and began pacing to relieve some of the nervous energy building in his gut. “But what if they see? What if they hear?” It was all Nathaniel could see and hear every night when he slept. Therefore, he'd hardly slept at all for the past couple nights.
      “They can't begin to accept the idea that he could be down there. But even if they did check the catacomb, all they would see is a brick wall amongst brick walls. My dear fellow, they would be embarrassed to take time out of the day of a man of my status. They're more concerned that I wouldn't invite them to my next party than they are with finding our friend.”
      Nathaniel felt like he was seeing his friend for who he truly was for the first time. His calm demeanor, subtle smirk, and glinting eyes unnerved Nathaniel deeply. He found himself more disturbed and paranoid now than when he'd first come over to voice his concerns. He was scared. He was scared of Adrian. “Don't you hear him? See him?” he finally choked out, his voice barely above a whisper. Subtle shivers coursed through his body.
      “No,” Adrian answered simply, and sipped his tea. “And neither do you,” he said in a demanding voice.
      “Yes, I do!” Nathaniel blurted desperately.
      Adrian surged forward with a power and quickness that caught Nathaniel off guard. They stood with their faces inches from each other, Adrian staring Nathaniel down with wide, wild eyes that screamed with predatory animal instincts. All color drained from Nathaniel. “No, you don't,” Adrian insisted in a venomous whisper. “You're more concerned with our dinner party we're planning for our business associates. You find our friend's absence to be a mild annoyance, because it can't even enter your mind that he wouldn't be coming back. You're thinking about where to get the finest vintage of Amontillado for our friends and our parties. Understand?”
      Nathaniel could only manage a mute nod. He felt seconds from collapsing.
      Adrian's body relaxed in one fluid motion, like he could just sigh away all his tension and worries. He walked across the kitchen and poured himself another glass of tea. “So,” Adrian said pleasantly, turning his attention to Nathaniel with a smile, who was gripping a chair to keep himself steady, “shall we plan our next party, or shall I show you where I keep my cask of Amontillado?”

Author's Note

      While I think of this piece as one of the weakest ones I wrote in 2013, I still enjoyed the act of writing it. The prompt my professor gave me was to have two characters talking about something that never gets revealed to the reader. Obviously, I ended up using the plot of The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe with a few tweaks added to it, which is what made it so fun for me. I've always wanted to produce something along the lines of a gothic horror story told by an unreliable narrator like he did. That's not what I did here, but it was fun to write something in the setting used in Poe's stories. I'll make sure to write something better inspired by Poe in the future.