“Taboo?” Erica frowned. “I know what you mean and I don’t like it.” She looked to their team leader for support. “Joren, come on, back me up here. They may have issues with women in combat and whatever else, but this isn’t some far away galaxy with issues. This is earth. We do things differently down here, we treat our women right.”
Joren’s easy smile did not match the steel in his eyes as he turned to the green-skinned ambassadors with their high collars and turned up noses. “You will find, sirs,” he inclined his head. “That my chief officer, Erica Stranden, is a very capable woman with a habit of speaking her mind, as she has just done. You will also find that I stand behind her, 100%, so if there is anything beyond this that might ruin any trading potential between our two people, I would suggest you mention it now. Perhaps it is taboo in your society–or perhaps in ours. This–mistake, as you put it–works very well for us.”
“Simplify? Like simplify my life?” Carrie tilted her head to the side, making her ponytail swing. “I don’t know, Ash, I mean, really. I don’t know.”
“Sometimes there are things that don’t need to be complicated,” her boyfriend smiled. He tugged gently on the swing’s plastic coated chains. “Want another push?”
She grinned. “Another one would be nice.”
What are stories?
The collection of blood, sweat, tears, heartache, and headache from the years before us? The speculations of years ahead of us? The reality that lies before us?
Dirty, dark, torrid little things.
They exist and they die, just like every legacy ever breathed upon this earth. But still, just as we continue to live and survive, they do the same.
“Tell me a story,” we say.
And someone will answer, “Once upon a time…”
Strangely enough, the best story of all time, began with the simplest of words and settings and places, saying “In the beginning…”
Burning, twisting, dying, falling.
I’m burning. I’m on fire. It’s sparking, leaping, jumping and trying.
It’s trying to be me.
I’m burning. I’m on fire. I’m flickering, as I fly higher.
Think I’m gonna fall.
Think I’ve done it all.
Help me, please. Give me one reason to live
I’m burning and fading away, without hope for another day.
Don’t let me die so soon. Don’t let me burn right out.
Give me a wish, a dream, a hope. Give me the chance, a final note.
I’ll make you proud and I’ll stand tall.
I’ll make my own place, in history’s hall.
When I am grounded inside and out,
Given thanks for my gifts and showed them off,
My burning flame will remain true
One special memory, one last view.
“Rating? What rating? Like five stars or something?”
“What do you mean, not really? You’re kind of freaking me out, you know.”
“I…I’m not sure. I can’t, I mean,”
“Just spit it out!”
“I don’t want to! I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not that kind of a rating. It’s…it’s not nice.”
“What do you want me to say? That I hate you or something? I mean, what do you think that I am going to try and make you do?”
I fumbled with the clasp on the worn sweater. Warmth seeped in from the slightly linty knit as I sucked in a breath and tried to keep it together. There was some little bit of whatever that wouldn’t come true and I wasn’t sure about what would come next.
She was gone.
I would miss her.
We would all miss her.
And yet, somehow, the only thing anchoring me in this moment was one of her old sweaters, with a tarnished gold clasp and a few snags in the magenta knit. It was a pretty sweater, maybe, back when it was new.
She was a pretty person, maybe, back before her heart had fallen through. But what did I know? I wasn’t really someone special to her, but I did respect her. No matter what they had all said and done, she was just like me.
Another human being.
She deserved better.
Just like the rest of us.
And when we die, we ought to leave something behind.
Not necessarily an object, family or some giant inheritance.
A memory is good.
Something for each person, is even better.
I never thought of it, until I saw the planters. Two giant plastic tubs with colorful, drooping roses in full bloom. I knew that they would provide a good living reminder and I was happy. I could never keep plants alive, but I knew that they weren’t for me, but for the family and I was glad.
It was good.
It was special.
It would mean something.
I would later find out that it was symbolic in a way, because she’d touched each of our lives in a way that we wouldn’t be able to just blurt out. It was subtle, it was special and above all else, it was unique.
Because she planted a memory in the planters of our hearts, a little spark of a seed that would grow to frutition some day, perhaps in the way we would reach out to others. I took that from her passing, if nothing else. Because it was all I needed.
Mourn for the dead and lend your tears to water their graves.
Remember still and never forget.
The vines are running, sprawling, overtaking the entire estate. It is a building of crumbling white stone, forsaken marble and cracks larger than my six feet, three inches. I do not know what I will do with this place.
Something tells me that the secrets lurking within are worth the effort and the wait, should I decide to do the unthinkable and attempt to keep this rubble. If I should decide to keep it and explore and restore, there may be treasure buried beneath it.
There may be more than treasure. There could be something else. Hard work and pure intent has never led anyone wrong. There are things I can sort in heart and head, if I have the emptiness to myself.
Promise, future and life is what I seek. Should I take this up, as these vines beckon to me, there is a promise carried on the wind. A promise worth seeking.
I could find myself.
“A bagel?” Steve opened the paper back, staring at the freshly toasted specimen. “You brought me a bagel?”
“What were you expecting, a donut?” Riley rolled her eyes. “Seriously…men.”
“Hey!” He pushed the bagel up through the paper envelope and began to sniff at the golden crust. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what I said.” She perked a brow. “What are you doing?”
“Figuring out what kind of cream cheese-”
“Original. Regular. Full-fat. Whatever you want to call it. Sheesh. For crying out loud, Steve. I just bought you a bagel. I should’ve eaten it myself. I was being nice.”
“You didn’t have to.”
His girlfriend stared at him for a full minute and then she reached over, yanked the bagel from his surprised fingers and took an overly large bite out of the snack. She chewed vigorously for a moment and swallowed, then took another bite and handed it back. “There. See? No poison. No weird anything. I’m alive. I’m fine.” She swallowed with a wince. “And except for the fact that I don’t particularly care for plain bagels, I’m fine. Happy?”
Steve flashed a hesitant smile, taking a careful nibble of the returned bagel. “It’s very good.” He said, after a moment. “and you didn’t really have to do that. I don’t expect you to try and poison me. It’d be too obvious.”
Riley made a strangled sound in her throat. “I’ll kill you.” She groaned, eyes rolling heavenward. “I swear, I will kill you.”
He smiled, softly. “I’ll be waiting.”
He didn’t protest when she pushed him off the park bench.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, said the mind to the heart. If you love him as much as you claim, then lie down and die.
What makes you stronger isn’t always what kills you, replied the heart to the mind. It is because I love him that I can lie down and die–in peace.
The plague listened to this age-old argument with the whisper of Death upon his lips. He halted then, unsure of whether he ought to deliver the curse he’d brought. It was one thing to succeed in offing the mind, ripping through the heart and leaving life to bleed out to nothing.
But when the heart and mind combined their efforts, there was the unmistakable power of an invincible soul.
The sancitity of our home.
I looked at him. “Do you even know what that means?”
He blinked. “What?”
“Do. You. Even. Know, what that means?” I tried not to roll my eyes. “You blockheaded idiot. Don’t use words that you can’t properly fit together.”
“I’m not trying to do what you think I am!”
“And what do I think you’re doing?”
“I rather thought so. Do you mind?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I would much rather prefer that you were able to-”
“Shut up. Just shut up and sit down. We’ll discuss this later. In the meantime, say hello to my ridiculously helpful friend.”
“Wikipedia?” He snorted.
“Miriam Webster!” I threw the dictionary at his head.
He dodged it.
The Iphone hit him.
Like a pancake. Like my beating heart. Like the way Mark Cutter looked when Darcy Jones told him that she wouldn’t go out with a loser like him.
Two-dimensional. Like a cracker, salted and unsalted. Two slices of bread, like the sandwich that Karen gave Miles for lunch last weekend.
Really, really, flat.
Steam-rolled all nice. Like my cake. Like Jenny Marco’s chest as those rude boys just had to point it out because she refused AnnaMarie’s initiation offer.
What I really am, when I stand here and see everything and say absolutely…nothing.
What could you possibly teach me? I want to know more, to do more, to be more. I don’t know that I want to learn.
What is this word you keep shoving at my face and stuffing down my throat? Do I look like a statue to you? Something unfeeling and uncaring and made of pure, white stone? I am not that cold. I am not that pure.
I am me.
I am different.
My differences make me want to be more. I want to know, but I do not want to learn this strange thing you ask of me.
“You really want to know?” She rolled over to her stomach and craned her head back to look at me.
“What do you mean, ‘what’?” She wrinkled her nose. “What do you want me to say?”
“Something? Something different.”
“Exactly how different?”
“Just…tell me…tell me you’re real.”
Those cherry red lips quirked into a pout and then she rolled over again, this time to lie on her back. she waved me forward, with both arms, beckoning, as she stared up at me, upside down to her view.
“What?” I tried again.
She winked, gesturing again.
I leaned down, careful not to overbalance, only to wobble dangerously when she reached up and yanked me down to her level.
Those cherry red lips really did taste like cherries–and they were soft and firm at the same time. It was a kiss to remember among kisses and when we parted, I was sure. She was definitely, very, very–real.
Swish. Swap. Swish.
The rough straw broom scraped along the worn stones. The priestess calmly continued her work, moving with slow deliberate movements, until she reached the end of the entryway. There was a faint gleam in her soft, brown eyes and her grip on the rough wooden handle, betrayed something deeper, something darker.
“Anka?” The Head Priest rounded the corner, his sharp, dark eyes seeing everything that she did not say outright. “How many?” He asked, at last. His black eyes shifted to fix their gaze on the tall, looming mountains that hid the sanctuary.
“Thirteen.” She continued to sweep, with careful, practiced moments. “And then some.”
“And the others?”
“Five, six, maybe more. A child, I think.”
He sighed, hands folded into the thick, warm sleeves of his outer robe. “Very well. We will do what we must and we shall save all that we can.”
Her shoulders quivered, faintly.
He tilted his head forward, capturing her eyes with his own. “The path we walk is not an easy one.” He reminded. “But we are able to make a clean sweep of it all at the end of every day. The people that are coming to us, seek sanctuary and peace for their troubled souls. We are beacons and we are guardians.” His expression softened. “We do not fight, for He fights for us.”
“Master.” She entered the room and knelt by the door, a newly polished, silverblade knife in her hands. It would seem out of place anywhere else, but atop her slender, elegant fingers.
The blacksmith turned with a half smile, one bright eye showing his approval, the eyepatch twitching as his face did. “You’ve done me proud, Ariel.” He rumbled. “You may keep the knife. You crafted it in fire and ice in a thankless time. The blade will always answer to you.”
Her head bowed, scarlet curls dancing around her cheeks, a hint of a blush present. It was the first genuine compliment he had ever gifted her in the five years since her apprenticeship. “Thank you kindly, Master.” She murmured.
“Get to work.” He grunted, turning back to the anvil.
She bowed in answer and rose to her feet. The precious knife was sheathed in the holder strapped to her left thigh, hidden by the long tunic. She’d known this knife was hers since she’d hammered it out in the morning chill so many weeks ago.
So had her master, apparently.
“Listen to me, Muriel. You must do this for me. You must!”
“But Father, I don’t understand-!”
“I haven’t the time to explain. Sometimes there are things that must be done without question and without ever knowing why.”
“Shh. Just know that I love you, my child. I love you dearly and I would do anything in this world to be sure that you never have to live the kind of life I am burdened with now.”
“Take this. Go directly to St. Bartholomew and ask to see Ashbury.”
“Ashbury? Ashbury, who? What do you-”
“You need only say that word and they will help you. They must. Just as I must let you go now.” He kissed her forehead, tenderly. One weathered hand cupped her soft cheek and then his smile wavered. “Go quickly, child. Godspeed.”
I have being placed. I never know how it’s going to turn out and when it does, it always turns out to be something of an issue.
I may not be the smartest apprentice in school, but I am the quickest. I am small, quiet an very, very, quick. You will find that my loyalty to youis as long as ou keep me. Beyond that, we are each our own.
Please make your choices carefully.
And remember, my potential lies i your hands, unless of course, I am placed again.
“Itt’s a barrel,” Tuney eyed the wooden object with ill-disguised curiosity.
“I can see that, dummy.” Rosetta rolled her eyes. “What are we supposed to do with it? How is that to supposed to help save us from the Raiders?”
“Maybe we hide in it?”
“Are you insane? Why would anyone hide in a barrel?!”
“Precisesly.” The other girl said, grimly. “Shall we go, my princess?”
“…oh shut up. If I get sick from bobbing down the river in this-”
“–you will kindly hold your ‘sick’ until we are on land.” Tuney said, sweetly. “Right?”
“I hate you.”
“The feeling is entirely mutual, princess.”
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