• Short Story Winner Fall 2018  :  Valeria Ortega

    The Ruby 

    “Do this for your people!’’ the frustrated King Rowan yelled, more strands of his brown hair turning snowy white. It was only a matter of time before the curse took his life completely. With his index finger and thumb he pinched his nose with closed eyes. He took a deep breath while his only child, Princess Kai watched in silent agony. There was so much going on and such little time. 

    “Do this for me.’’ The King clutched onto the royal blue fabric that covered his chest. Kai just gazed as her father’s caramel-colored hand trembled. She loved him dearly, however to her, marrying a stranger was wrong. She guided the king back to his golden throne, so he could rest. Sadness shined in the King’s eyes. Unfortunately, he knew exactly what the princess was thinking. 

    “There is nothing we can do Kai. What’s important right now is that we get you engaged with Prince Elijah. This will keep the kingdom running and going.’’ 

    Kai grew angry at her father, but it was certainly not his fault and in a sarcastic way she spoke. “Why are you getting me engaged with some stranger, dad? I can run this kingdom as well as you if I really wanted to.” She switched from sarcastic to a more optimistic tone in voice, “Of course I won’t need to because you are going to be just fine.’’ 

    The King smiled. The voice that Kai impersonated when she would speak in a sarcastic manner always reminded him of the queen, his wife. However, deep inside he felt so much guilt like he had never felt before, but there were rules that even he could not break. The thought of forcing his only child to marry, at such a young age – it felt as though he was abandoning her – truly damaged his heart. Though, there was no other option, was there? It wasn’t long before the poison would reach his heart.  

    “Kai, please do this. Please meet the Prince tomorrow.’’ 

    The Princess looked down at her black flats as she fiddled with her hands. If they didn’t do anything soon her father would surely be a goner. She did not want to lose him as well as her mother. Then, an idea popped in her head, but she kept it to herself.  

    “Of course, papa.’’ With those last appealing words, she went and placed a soft kiss on the King’s cheek. She looked into his dark and tired eyes. Kai placed her small, soft hand against the king’s stubble beard. It was prickly to the touch, but it put a smile on both of their gloomy faces. He took her hand and kissed it gently.  

    “Thank you.’’ 

    After Kai left the throne room she quickly went down to Oliver, the royal advisor. Fortunately, for everybody he knew a little magic. Picking her wine-red dress from the floor she zoomed down the flight of stone stairs. Opening the giant wooden door, she peeped inside calling his name.  

    “Oliver?’’ She called. There was a sudden crash from inside the room. At a leisure pace, she marched into the dim lighted room. Tall shelves surrounded the walls, filled with jars of mysterious creatures and disgusting little things. As Kai observed the stomach-turning objects, she made her way toward the back of the room. When the row was out of exotic critters, she looked up to find the wonderful Oliver mixing who knows what and mumbling to himself. Oliver was a young man in his twenties, but he had one heck of a brain. 

    “What are you doing?’’ Kai asked softly, as she watched from behind his back. The advisor jolted in the air almost dropping the thin flask with bright green liquid. 

    “Princess?! You nearly scared me to death!.” Oliver wrapped his hands around the tiny bottle. His reflection sparkled against the shiny glass. Kai laughed as Oliver straightened himself out and fixing the materials on his work space.  

    “I need help. I’m sure you know about my father.’’ Kai was now serious, she sat on the counter as Oliver put the supplies away in a cupboard. Oliver sighed and shook his head.  

    “Honestly, I wish I could help, but I’ve tried every little spell and potion in the book, and nothing works.’’ He said as he put the giant coffee colored book back on one of the shelves. Kai watched as he moved around the room. He chose a smaller book, this time red and flipped one page at a time, scanning the words swiftly. 

    “The king has some-kind-of curse no one has ever heard of. There is nothing about it in the book. How can we cure something that we don’t even know about? It’s impossible except for that crazy witch. Too bad she isn’t real.’’ Oliver said the last part under his breath and began mumbling to himself once more.  

    “What witch?’’ Asked Kai with a furrowed eyebrow.  

    ‘‘You don’t know the story? My mother used to tell me a story of this witch who had a cure for everything. She could make all the illnesses go away and anything bad in general. According to the legend, you had to cross the ocean and the forest and then jump into some volcano in order to find her. Of course, it was only a legend. Crazy isn’t?’’ 

    “So, she isn’t real?’’  

    “I can’t say for sure, it was only a legend. There has been no trace of her, but even if she is real, we could not possibly get to her.’’ 

    “Why not?’’ Kai had never paid so much attention to anything before, but now she certainly was.  

    “According to the stories, everyone who tried to reach her never made it. From the mightiest kings to the strongest knights, not one has been successful. They all were in need a princess with a ruby stone in the Firewitz kingdom. I think these days nobody really remembers the myth. Well, I have to get going. I must get the king his medication. Care to join me?’’  

    Kai shook her head, “I think I’ll stay here for a little bit, if you don’t mind.’’  

    Oliver nodded and left the room. Once Kai was sure he was gone she grabbed the red spell book. Promptly, she ran back up the stairs and down the hall to her bedroom, but before she could get behind her doors she was stopped. Without hesitation she put her hands that were occupied with the book behind her back.  

    “Where are you going in such a hurry Princess?” Asked the older woman in the black and white maid outfit. Kai laughed nervously.  

    “Oh Mrs. Celest...I was just going to my bedroom. It’s getting quite dark and I am getting really sleepy.” 

    Mrs. Celest told the princess that dinner would be served a little later this afternoon because the head chef was out sick. Kai nodded in agreement with the plan. After the maid was out of sight she rushed into her room. She opened the closet and all the way in the back she reached for a brown side bag. Inside she put the spell book, a map, a first aid kit, a few snacks, and any efficient materials. She changed from her elegant, long, red dress to a white long-sleeve with a black corset on top not too tight of course, black leggings and black leather boots to the calf, as well as a belt. The princess looked in the body size mirror.  

    “I look like a pirate.” She giggled to herself. When she was done observing her outfit, Kai went under her bed and grabbed a sword. A gift from her mother and father and placed it on her bed.  

    “How can I get it out of here?” Resting her finger on her chin she thought of what she could possibly do to get the sword out of the castle walls with no one suspecting anything. Getting the book out of the bag, she searched for some-kind of spell that could help her.  

    “Ooh, a shrinking spell.” She said pointing to the words on the page. Picking up the sword and placing the open book on the bed she read, “Shrink.” After that, she clapped her hands two times. Nothing happened. Then the princess began to feel her hands burn in a strange way as they began to glow blue. She pushed each end of the sword and it started to shrink to her control. Making it small enough to fit in her bag. 

    She smiled at her accomplishment and walked out her door to the entrance of the castle, hoping no one would notice, especially not her father. However, she thought too soon. The king stopped her right before she could step out. 

    “Where are you going?” He asked looking at her outfit and bag.  

    Luckily, she had already practiced an explanation in her head, “Oh, I just wanted to step out the castle for a walk and clear my head a little from all these thoughts. If you don’t mind.”  

    King Rowan sighed, “Alright, but be careful. I’ll send two guards with you.” 

    Kai responded quickly, “Oh please, dad. Let me go alone, I need to be left alone with my thoughts. There’s so much going on, please. I promise I’ll be careful.” 

    “Promise?” 

    “I mean I guess I can promise twice?” Kai kissed him on the cheek, “I love you.” She said as she stepped out the gates.  

    King Rowan was now behind the castle walls as Kai made her way down the hill to the little town that was on the edge of the beach. She could smell the salt water already and enjoyed the slight breeze. Running toward the shore, she tried to make as little social contact as she possibly could. Finally, the princess was at the delightful beach. For a hot Saturday morning the waters were unexpectedly empty only for a few sailors. Kai took a deep breath and walked over to the men, wondering if she could ask for a ride.  

    “Excuse me?” Her voice was soft and quiet compared to their deep singing. The sailors kept singing along to their work not noticing the tiny girl below that called out to them. This time, she yelled out with diction, “Excuse me!” At last she had caught their attention. “Gentlemen, could you give me a ride to the land of Firewitz?’’  

    After a few seconds of silence and turning heads, the sailors were all chuckling. Kai stood there with furrowed eyebrows wondering what was so hysterical.  

    “That land of Firewitz?!” One of the men yelled, it sounded more of an exclamation than a question. None of them had stopped laughing.  

    Another spoke, “Oh girly, you must be crazy if you think we can take you there. It’s so far away and we aren’t even allowed there.” 

    Bewildered, Kai tilted her head, “We’re not allowed? Besides it’s only like an hour away. It says here on my map.”  

    The first sailor shouted again, “There’s that boat there. It’s been there for a couple days. Now go on, will you.” Once again, not a question. 

    Kai walked over to the isolated boat. She climbed on to it expecting to find someone, but no one was in sight. She decided to take the boat, however just then she had realized she had no idea how to drive one. That’s when a young man with lots of supplies and food was making his way over to the boat. Kai didn’t notice him, but somehow through the huge mountain of materials he did. He jumped up in frustration, dropping all the supplies on the warm sand and running towards Kai and the boat. The princess still hadn’t noticed the young man. He yelled out and cried.  

    “Hey?! Hey?!” He shouted waving his hands in the air. Kai looked up finally realizing the boat certainly had an owner. The boy jumped on to the boat, panting and out of breath. Kai was about to say something to the boy. “Hold on.’’ He said resting his arms on his knees. “Oh gosh. What a workout. I don’t think I’ve ever run that much before.’’ He said in between breaths. 

    “You ran like ten feet.”  

    The boy looked at Kai with an incredulous face, shaking his head in disbelief. The nerve of some people, stealing people’s boats like it was cool or something.  

    “Oh, sorry. Was your boat about to be stolen or something?” He asked with sarcastic annoyance.  

    “I apologize for the inconvenience, I promise I will bring it back safe and sound when I return.”  

    “Look kid, no one steals from Alexander the Great.” With much pride he pointed at himself.  

    “Kid? You’re like about the same as me and this modern boat belonged to Alexander the Great?”  

    “Obviously not. I’m Alexander. Now get off.”  

    Kai gazed into his eyes. Trying to somehow get him to let her borrow the boat. “I’ll give you a proposal.” 

    Alexander crossed his arms on top of his chest. “What could you possibly give me?”  

    “Uh...my friendship?”  

    “Okay.” Alexander said walking off the boat and recollecting his stuff. 

    “Wait, really?” 

    “Again, obviously not.”  

    As Alexander picked up his coconuts and shampoo three ominous men began to march toward them. His dark blue eyes widened at the sight of two guys waving at him with giant swords. Quickly, the kid turned around and began to run.  

    “Turn the boat!” He cried.  

    Kai stood still, “I don’t know how!”  

    Alexander jumped on the boat and pulled the latter up and ran up to the wheel. The men were making their way toward the boat. He began to turn the boat around, but soon the guys had already jumped on board. Kai interfered their attacks with her sword. 

               “You wanted to steal my boat, but don’t know how to drive? Where was it you were heading again?’’ 

               “Do something!” She cried. Bewildered, the kid just looked from one man to another and back again at Kai. The other guy grabbed Alexander by the back of his shirt and pulled him off the boat.  

               “We only want him.” He said as they dragged him back to the shore. Kai let go off her sword and reached for her bag. She pulled out the small spell book.  

               “There has to be something.’’ She cried, as she flipped the pages. Once she found the correct page she yelled out, “Ocean sea rise for me!” Clapping her hands once again. 

                Kai waved her right hand while the other held the book. She twirled it around pointing at the sky, while the waters began to twist below her. Then she pointed at the direction of the men and the boy and a swarm of water went crashing their way. The men were washed up on the shore while the boy was in the care of the waves. Gently, he was put back on the boat. Kai waved her hand up and down and the water patted the boy’s head.  

               “Let him go.” Kai said, and the water was back to normal.  The boy’s eyes were wider than ever. He was completely frozen and wet.  

                “Should I steer the boat?.” Kai said already grabbing the wheel. The boy’s jaw remained wide opened. After he calmed down, he spoke. 

                “Who are you? How did you do that?” He said running his pale colored fingers through his black, damp hair. Kai shrugged her shoulders and kept steering the boat straight.  

     “Well, I’m Kai and I’m searching for someone. She can help my dad get better.’’ 

         Alexander finally sat still. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Wait, did you say Kai? Like the princess? Are you the princess?!” 

          Kai looked away from the kid and spoke without making any eye contact. 

                 “Yup, the one and only, but please don’t tell anyone.” 

                 “Oh my gosh, I’m sitting with the princess and wow- you saved me. I was saved by a princess. Don’t tell anyone that please, promise?”  

                 “Only if you don’t.” 

                 Alexander and Kai nodded in agreement. It would take only about an hour to get to the island and the sun was already setting.  

    “So where are we heading?” Alexander asked, taking the wooden wheel from Kai. She took out the map from her bag and looked at the directions. The boy took the map into his own hands.  

    “Firewitz Island? Interesting. Why there?” He said not looking up from the map.  

    “You know about it?”  

    ____________________ 

    Kai couldn’t help, but smile. Then the boat came to a halt. They arrived. It was a giant island. Kai grabbed her bag and sword then jumped off the boat. She took the map and observed her surroundings. They were on the deck, but before she could escape Alexander grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to the side. “Okay whatever you do, do not tell them where you are from and put your sword away. So, what’s the plan?” 

    The princess just let out a wobbly, “Uh.” 

     By the sound she had made Alexander knew she had no plan. Getting through the busy people he guided them to the center of the ashy kingdom. It was incredibly dark, but not enough to tell between day and night. There were people holding bags of coal and a giant market. Men selling smoked fish, beef and woman selling shiny jewelry. All provided by the mighty volcano. They stopped by small, family restaurant to get something to eat. As Alexander ordered them the special BBQ rib, Kai took out the book Oliver was reading from. The waitress set the plates in front of them. Kai was still reading and scrunched her face after reading a page.  

    “What, you don’t like ribs?” Alexander asked as he took a bite from the meat leaving red sauce all around his mouth.  

    “No, it’s just we need to look for a royal with a ruby stone.” Kai turned the book around for the messy boy to look. She tapped twice at the picture of the ruby stone with a string around it on the right side of the page. Then she moved it to the left side.  

    “This is our ticket to the witch.”  

    Alexander wiped his face with the back of his arm, while Kai watched in disgust. She silently wondered if they had taught this boy any manners or if he just chose to ignore them.  

    “That would be princess Ruby.” He leaned closer to Kai. “However, we can’t really talk about her, she hasn’t been seen in years. She was just erased with time. No one knows why.” 

    “Okay, so how do we get to her?” 

    “Do you like ignore me or something. I don’t know nothing. Nobody does.”  

    Kai stepped upon the brown wooden table, already getting most of the people’s attention. Alexander pulled her black legging. “Didn’t I tell you to lay low.” The young lady looked down at him quickly.  

    “No, actually.” She said, facing the crowd once more.   

    “Would anyone happen to have any current information on Princess Ruby?”  

    An ominous looking man sitting in the corner of the restaurant spoke with a heavy voice.  

    “She disappeared ten years ago, no one knows why.” He said looking at Kai with piercing black eyes. Without a beat Kai replied, “I said ‘current’.” Everyone stared at the man and Kai as they talked back and forth. Alexander kept tugging Kai’s legging pleading her to get down from the table without saying a word, but Kai did not move a muscle. Everyone wondered what the malicious man would do next.  

    “Oh yeah, sorry.” He said. That was all. After that everyone went back to their business and Alexander was breathing once more. Kai finally climbed down from the table and dropped the left side of her face on the surface of the smooth wood, letting her golden hair fall all over.  

    “Are you okay?” Alexander asked picking up the piece of hair that covered her face. Her eyes were stinging red, like she was about to cry. She slowly raised her head.  

    “What’s going on?” Alexander asked with worry.  

    “I’m never going to find the witch and my dad’s going to die.” The tears were streaming down her face now. Alexander raised his hand and with the other he comforted Kai by patting her on the head. The waitress came by the table and left the bill. Kai picked it up, but Alexander took it from her hands and unfolded it.  

    “This isn’t the bill?” The boy said puzzling at the piece of paper. Kai scrunched her face and took the paper from his hand. She gazed upon the words. After, she got up from her chair and marched into the bar on the other side of the restaurant. The room was dim lit, the only lights being the ones shining at the top of each table and the counter, where the bartender poured liquor into a young woman’s glass cup. Kai couldn’t see her face, but she had long, straight, black hair that reached almost to the floor. She wore a crimson red long sleeve that was cuffed at the end and lacing in the front. Pitch black pants with the boots that reached to her ankles. Kai and Alexander stood still next to each other wondering what to do. She was the only person (besides the bartender) in the room. Was it her who sent the note? Did she somehow overhear Kai from the other room? She sipped the rest of the drink in the glass cup in front of her and ordered the bartender to leave just by swooshing her finger.  

    Once she finished the drink, she slowly turned her body around to face the person looking for the Firewitz princess. She crossed one of her legs over the other and promptly tilting her head, cracking her neck. Her body language sent shivers down one’s spine. She was confident, which made her intimidating.  

    “You guys looking for Princess Ruby?” She asked.  

     Kai shook her head yes, while Alexander shook his head no in fear. She pointed at Kai and moved her finger towards her. Kai timidly walked over the young female and took a seat next to her. 

    “What do you need the princess for?” She asked chewing on a toothpick. Kai gulped down, hoping the girl didn’t wouldn’t 

    “I need her to help me find a witch. She’s my ticket into her hiding place, and I need to help my father find a cure, so he doesn’t die. I just don’t want him to die. I need her. I would almost give anything to find that princess.”  

    The girl tilted her head and raised her eyebrows, “Anything?” She asked. Kai had to think about it again, but she humbly nodded her head, “Anything.” She says.  

    The girl smiles and looks over to Alexander who’s just listening to their conversation. 

    “Can you leave us for a minute?” She asks politely. Mumbling a few curse words under his breath, Alexander leaves the room. The girl looks straight into Kai’s eyes and with a malicious smile she says, “I can get you the princess.” Kai’s eyes grew with shock. “But, for the princess you have to give me something in return.” 

    Without hesitation Kai cried, “Anything! Anything!” The girl snapped her finger and magically a piece of paper and pen appeared before them.  

    The girl began to whisper, “I want to trade lives with you.” 

    Kai’s face grew with bewilderment. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. 

    “What do you mean?” She asked.  

    “I will give you the princess as long as you trade lives with me. My life is nowhere exciting. I’m treated like a commoner, like dirt. I tend to pick up after others and my father does what? Lock me up. Keep me caged like some wild animal, but let’s not get into details. You’re life, for your fathers. Do we have a deal?” 

    Kai sighed, “How do you know I’m not treated the same as you? I’m a commoner as well.” 

    The girl laughed, “Oh sweetie. I know a princess when I see one.” 

    Kai raised her eyes in amusement.  

    “So, deal or no deal? I don’t have all day you know and you’re wasting much of my valuable time.” 

    Without hesitation, Kai took the woman’s hand. “Deal.” She said. There was a little doubt in Kai’s mind, but her father came first. The girl snickered. 

    “Okay, you got yourself princess Ruby? Where are we headed to?” 

    Kai was bewildered, “Shouldn’t I be asking that question?”  

    The girl nodded no. “Not at all. I’m princess Ruby.”  

    “If you’re princess Ruby aren’t you a little young to be drinking alcohol?” 

    She lowered her voice as she stated the last statement. “It’s not alcohol. It’s lemonade. Just makes me look cool.’’ Kai and Ruby made their way towards the exit. Ruby opened the door and falling to the floor was Alex. 

    “Hey guys.” He said getting up and sweeping dust of his clothes. He knocked on the wooden door. “Are these made from oak? They’re pretty strong...and sound proof.” 

    “Is he always like this.” Ruby asked, pointing at him and a cocked eyebrow forming on her face, unimpressed. Kai just shrugged, and they kept walking. 

    ____________________ 

    “I say we leave tomorrow morning. Get some shut eye and get well rested.” Requested Ruby. Waiting made Kai more anxious. Her father could pass any moment, but she wouldn’t be able to confront the witch without a clear mind, so she agreed to the recommendation.  

    Everyone agreed and made their way to a small motel. It was old, and the wood was rotting, but it would do for one night. At least they hoped it did. Ruby headed to the clerk, “Hello.” She said in a sweet tone. Kai hadn’t known her long, but she knew she was faking. “You wouldn’t happen to have to empty rooms, would you? I need one for me and my friends here.” 

    The clerk checked her book, “Sorry we’re book.” She said with an uninterested face. Ruby snickered. The evil little laugh.  

    “Let me ask you again.” This time she snapped her fingers and a small bag appeared in her hand. She waved it in the air, and it made a little jingle sound. The clerk gazed at the bag as it swung back and forth.  

    “Let me check again. Ah, would you look at that. I must have skipped these. There’s two vacant rooms one on floor three and the other down the hall.” 

    The clerk handed them two shiny copper keys. Ruby handed one to Kai and kept the other one for herself.  

    “What about me?” Alexander cried.  

    Ruby eyed Kai, “I’m afraid I only had money for two rooms and I would really like some privacy.” 

    Kai took Alexander by the arm and pulled him up the stairs. As she made her way across the hall she waved at Ruby with the other hand. “Of course we understand.”  

    The princess and Alexander marched up the hard wood stairs. Alexander groaned, as he was being pulled by the arm to the third floor. Kai pushed the door open. They walked passed thirty-seven, thirty-eight, and finally thirty-nine. Kai took the key and placed it in the knob she walked in with Alexander behind her and shut the door. Alexander jumped on the soft beige bed, “I call dibs!” He yelled. Kai just paced the room back and forth with a finger placed on her chin.  

    “Something isn’t right.” 

    Obviously, she was talking to Alexander, but the boy was already half asleep. “This so called ‘Ruby’ wants something. Why would she pretend to be someone else and just give herself up to a couple of kids her age?”  

    Alexander mumbled, “She wants your life.” His hand was resting on his face.  

    “You heard that?” Asked Kai. Alexander nodded his head.  

    “Maybe she does.” Kai responded not sounding convinced. Turning her head hoping to hear Alexander respond, but the boy just laid there, drooling all over the sheet 

    “Ew.” She whispered turning off the lights.  

    ___________________________ 

    KOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!  

          Kai fluttered her eyes open and looked around the room trying to reason. She looked up at the clock on the wall and it read 5:33 AM. She shook her head to wake up and blinked fast for a couple of seconds. They were still knocking at the door. Kai tried to get up, but her legs were held tightly together. Alexander hugged her legs with his muscle toned arms. Kai reached down to Alexander’s head and patted him non-stop as she called his name.  

    “Get up!” She whispered loudly. Ruffling his hair and attempting to unravel his arms off her legs. It was an unsuccessful mission. The noise would not go away, which was driving Kai crazy frustrated. This time she slapped Alexander on the cheek leaving a bright pink print on his face. The boy jolted up. “Mom, you okay? What’s going on?” He cried, his eyes barely open.  

    “Yeah, it’s your mom know go get the door. Someone’s knocking.”  

    Alexander rubbed his eyes with his arms and groaned as he walked over to the door. That’s all he did. Complain.  Before he even got a chance to open the door all the way, Princess Ruby stormed into the room. Kai is on her toes and stretching her arms above her head full of messy hair.  

    “Are we ready?” Ruby asked with a confident smile. Her hands placed firmly around her hips. 

    ___________________ 

     

    Finishing breakfast, the three walked out letting their journey begin. Kai takes out her book as they get in a chariot.  

    “We have to leave the town. Walk through some forest and the volcano should be right there.” She says flipping through the pages of the book.  

    “Obviously.” Alexander remarked. “You can literally see the volcano from here.” He pointed out the window of the charoite  

    “Well, I’m glad one of us actually knows what we’re doing.”  

    Kai shut the book and Alexander huffed in pride.  

    “Thank you, Princess.” He told Ruby.  

    Without surprise, Ruby pointed at Kai. “I was talking about her.”  

    Kai blushed while Alexander crossed his arms and legs. “Fine then.”  

    “She thinks you’re stupid.” Kai mocked him. 

    “I never said he was stupid.” Ruby said. Kai full of regret faced down at her feet, but before Alexander could get excited once more she said, “But he isn’t resourceful either.” Kai giggled to herself and Alex just melted in his seat.   

    The chariot stopped right ahead of Firewitz castle, just right outside the castle walls. Ruby paid the man and he was on his way. They all faced a stone wall and Alexander was confused, so was Kai, but she didn’t say anything. Alexander placed a hand on his hip and with the other he scratched his head.  

    “What are we doing?” He puzzled. Ruby stared at the wall and placed her hands on it. It was cold to the touch and she skid them all around. Suddenly, she stopped, now only touching the grey wall with her fingerprints. She pushed the stone and part of the wall rose up, making a way into the forest. Alexander stood in amazement, Kai not so much.  

    “That was cool. We have this back home too.”  

    The three stepped outside, now being surrounded by tall, green trees. There were sounds of animal chirpings and the trees rustling in the wind. Kai led the way through the woods.  

    “Okay guys stay close. We don’t want any of us getting lost.” Said Kai observing the map and her surroundings. Ruby pulled Alexander by the collar of his shirt, who was distracted by sleeping butterflies.  

    “Hey!” He cried as he rose to his feet from the ground. After an hour of walking Alexander began to groan with boredom. Ahead of them, Kai and Ruby stopped. This time he moaned even louder. 

    “UGH-” Before he could finish, Kai put her hand over his face shutting him up.  

    “Hey, I was-” This time Kai pressed her hand on top of his lips.  

    “Be quiet.” She aggressively whispered. The bushes in front of them kept moving louder and louder.  

    “Get ready to attack.” Ruby told them. Kai snapped her fingers and her sword was in her hands. 

    “How’d you do that?” Gasped Alex.  

    “Got it from the book.”  

    He nodded with excitement. Ruby had her hands before her, facing the direction the ominous noise was coming from. Her eyes were beaming blood red when usually they were black, and her fingertips were also glowing red, ready to attack at any given moment. The bushes shook even more, something was about to jump. A creature jumped out the bush. 

    “Nooooo! I’m too gorgeous to die! Eat Kite she snores when she sleeps!” Alexander cried.  

    The girls put their hands and laughed.  

    “It’s Kai! Kaaai! And besides it’s just a baby fox.” Giggled the spunky princess as she picked up the snowy white animal. The tiny hound made himself comfortable on Kai. She ran her fingers through his incredibly soft fur. Princess Ruby kept walking forwards, but again they had to stop.  

    “What is it now? Probably some cute little rabbit.” Alexander walked toward the giant bush in front of them, where the noise was coming from. He pulled the bush apart and a gigantic black panther stood in front of him. Alexander looked up at her and her saliva made its way onto his head. The boy could do nothing, but stutter.  

    “C-C-CAT!” He shrieked higher than ever before. The ten-foot black cat grabbed Alexander by the collar with her mighty teeth and turned around as the boy yelled his head off. Ruby used her black magic to attack the panther, but they did nothing since the panther was gone in a blink of an eye. Her tail disappeared with the trees.  

    “Well, we did what we could.” Ruby said already walking the opposite direction. The little fox was at Kai’s side covering his face with his tail. Kai took the fox in her hands and jogged over to Ruby.  

    “We can’t just leave him.” She said looking at the direction where the panther disappeared.  

    “And why not? He’s probably dead anyways.” Ruby was smiling to herself. “What?” She asked in a dramatic manner.  

    “I’m going to go get him.” Kai put the fox down and was already marching on her way. Ruby just sighed with annoyance.  

    “Really? All you princesses are the same. Ever so kind and sweet. It makes me barf.” Ruby took her tongue out and Kai turned around with a smirk on her face.  

    “Have you noticed you’re a princess too.” She had an eyebrow raise. Ruby rolled her eyes as they ran through the trail. Together they followed the paw prints of the enormous creature, deep into the forest. With every step, it began to get darker and darker. Finally, the prints stopped. They were now outside the forest facing a dark cave.  

    “You don’t think they’re in there, do you?” Kai asked with fear. She pointed at the dark cave.  

    “Do you hear that?” Ruby placed her hand behind her ear. Kai jumped behind her.  

    No! What is it?” She was trembling like an earthquake.  

    “Exactly. I don’t hear any little girls screaming. He must be dead.” Again, she laughed at her own joke. Kai smacked her behind the head.  

    “Ow! I was kidding.” She rubbed the back of her head.  

    Then suddenly, a shriek came from inside the cave. “He’s alive!” Kai cheered. Both the princess got ready for attack. With caution they entered the cave and the screaming got louder and higher. It echoed across the rocky walls.  

    “Alexander! Alex! Where are you?!” Kai had her hands around her mouth. “I can’t see anything.” She squinted her eyes.  

    “On it.” Ruby snapped her fingers and a small floating above her hand lit the entire cave. Kai gazed in amazement. They walked towards the shrieking and a small light that appeared away from them. Once the two girls entered, they acted swiftly. Ruby ran behind the cat, jumping on her back. She pulled the cat’s fur and rode her like a bull. This made Alexander free from the panther’s paws.  

    Kai quickly grabbed Alexander, who was covered in tiny kittens and pulled him up. All the kittens fell to the floor. Ruby used her magic to freeze the cat in place. A giant blue force field froze the cat as she was about to attack Ruby. The fire princess jumped off and ran after Kai and Alexander. All three made it outside, gasping from the workout.  

    “I’m glad you’re okay.” Kai said hugging Alexander. The boy just stood there with a raised eyebrow and a smirk.  

    “What are you talking about? I’m fine.”  

    Kai twitched her face, “Fine? That panther took you by the collar with her vicious teeth, took you to her cave, almost fed you to her cubs, and you’re fine?”  

    Alexander nodded his head and Kai turned to look at Ruby who had her brows raised. They both nodded in agreement and punched Kai on each of his arms.  

    “OUCH! What was that for?” The girls laughed with each other. Alexander widened his eyes.  

    “What’s wrong with you?” Ruby asked. Alexander pointed his finger beyond the girls. They turned around and a huge mountain stood before them.  

    “We’re here.” Kai said softly.  

    The three teens looked up to stare at the rocky volcano in astonishment. Night was falling and the sky was turning into a plain black sheet. Faint grey clouds formed above the fiery pit.  Alexander immediately spun the other way.  

    “Sayonara!” The boy cried walking away.  

    “Alex, if you go back in there mommy panther’s going to get you!”  

    “At least mommy panther loved me!” Ruby jogged over to Alexander and stood before him. Before he could protest, she waved her hand in the air, from where Kai could see her eyes were red again.  

    “Alexander, you will go with us to the volcano. Understood.”  

    Right after her chanting the boy nodded his head up and down, while Kai stood there in disbelief.  He raised his hands to his hips and said with pride, “Let’s get going.” He was the first one up the rocky path that twirled around the flaming mountain. Before even arriving half way, Alexander was already complaining.  

    “My feet hurt.”  

    “Did the spell not work?” Asked Kai turning to face Ruby.  

    “It did. I only commanded him to come up, nothing else changed...unfortunately.” The last word she said was under her breath. Finally, they all arrived at the top and the tiny spell was broken, Alexander was his complete self again. Not that much of him even left, yet he still somehow managed to be annoying the whole way.  

    “My head hurts.” He moaned putting his palm over his head. Ruby and Kai paid no attention to him, since they only stared at the molting lava right before them. Their faces glowed bright red and became warm.  

    “So..what do we do?” Ruby said leaning back on one of her legs. Kai took out the small red book from her dirty bag. She turned to the last page and looked up at Ruby with her eyes wide open. There was a troubled look on her face.  

    “What is it?” She said standing up straight again.  

     “Do you have a..a necklace of some type? An amulet of some sort?” 

    Ruby clutched her hand above her chest. Kai and Alexander stared at her. She carefully pulled out a red shiny amulet from inside her shirt and held it by the string so the others could see. It shined right before their eyes.  

    “That’s the ruby.” Alexander said, reaching over to touch it, but the princess swung it away from his wondering fingers.  

    “Just tell me what to do.” There was determination placed in her eyes, she would do what she had to do without letting anyone touch the trinket. In all seriousness, Kai nodded. 

    “When I tell you to, you’re going to throw the ruby in the volcano and say these words.” Before Kai could finish her sentence, Ruby interrupted her.  

    “Throw it? I can’t throw it! This necklace means a lot to me.” She held the ruby in her hand. There was a bright twinkle in her eyes. With her thumb she carefully rubbed the smooth stone.  

    “I didn’t know it meant something to you.” Kai said placing a calming hand on her shoulder, “You don’t have to do it. I bet there’s something else in the book.” 

    Kai reached into her bag and flipped the pages. Page after page, but there was no other solution. She couldn’t find an alternative. Alexander watched as Kai got more and more frustrated. He noticed her eyes filling up with tears. The boy went over to Kai who threw the book a few feet before her. Princess Ruby looked up, the crash of the book onto the rocky floor gaining her attention and Alexander stopped right before he would touch Kai to comfort her.  

    “I’m sorry.” The tears rolled down her slightly flushed cheeks. She took her arm and wiped her tears away plopping herself on the dirt. Her legs were up in her chest as she wrapped her arms around them. A few feet away from her, Ruby took a deep breath and pulled Kai to her feet. They stared at each other with giant eyes.  

    “I’ll do it.” Ruby said.  

    “No, no. You don’t have to. I was just-” 

    Ruby didn’t let her finish. “I said I’ll do it. What are the words?” It sounded more like a demand than an actual question.  

    “Really? You’ll give it up for me?” Kai said picking up the book. Alexander just stood there, moving his head back and forth, from one girl to the other.  

    “I guess I just...need to let go.” There was smile on her face which was apparently contagious because now it was on not only Kai’s face, but Alexander’s as well.  

    “Let’s do this!” He cheered. His hand was out before him and the girls put their hands in as well and they all cheered together. Stepping on the edge of the volcano, Ruby held the gem by the black thin string. “Mighty fire! Call to me for I have a present for you!” The lava began to bubble even stronger than before. She opened one eye as she heard Kai call to her.  

    “Close your eyes!” She yelled to her. Ruby shut her eye and continued, “I present to you the fiery ruby from my ancestors passed down to me as the princess of your kingdom! The princess of Firewitz! Princess Ruby!” Ruby’s eyes were now glowing red like when she did her magic, but this time it wasn’t just her eyes. Her veins were glowing red and she began to float in the air. Kai and Alexander gasped at the sight.  

    “Drop it.” Kai said quietly, but somehow Ruby heard her or maybe she just had an instinct on what to do next. Kai and Alexander’s heads followed the stone falling and disappearing into the burning lava. Once the ruby was gone the lava was calm again and the princess began to fall. Luckily, she fell on Alexander. Her eyes were shut, and the glow of her veins began to disappear.  

    “Ruby? Ruby?” Kai called. Her hands were placed on the princess’ face. She moved her black hair from her face and called again. The tears were about to fall again since they got no response, but then her eyes fluttered open. Alexander gently put her down and investigated the pit of the volcano.  

    “Did it work?” She asked. There was tiredness laced in her voice. Alexander shook his head.  

    “What?” Kai cried. She put Ruby down and ran over to Alexander’s side. The lava was still there.  

    “No! There’s supposed to be an entrance and everything! I can’t let my dad down like this! No!”  

    Ruby was up on her feet once again. “Hey, it’s okay.” Kai turned around to face her.  

    “But your necklace. Oliver was right.” Kai cried into her hands and Ruby pulled her in for a hug. She soothed her with comforting words.  

    “It’s okay. It’s alright.” She said, brushing Kai’s hair with her fingers.  

    Not wanting to interrupt such an intimate moment, Alexander tapped them on the shoulder, “Uh guys, don’t mean to be that guy, but you should see this and who’s Oliver?”  

    The girls let go and looked at the lava. It began to bubble again even stronger than before. Then it started to twirl and flush away like toilet water. All their eyes followed the lava until it was gone.  

    “Look!” Alexander yelled.  

    They searched for something in the direction Alexander pointed and there they found a flight of stairs leading to the bottom of the volcano floor. They ran around to the start of the stairs.  

    “Okay who’s going first?” They turned to see the owner of the voice.  

    He put his hands up before him, “As the only man, I would do it, but I uh..I don’t know where it leads or where to go.” The girls sighed and Kai led the way, then Ruby and only then Alexander following behind. He got closer to Ruby as it got darker.  

    “Alexander, some personal space would be nice.”  

    “Oh, yeah. Totally.” He stepped back and after her did Ruby lit her hand on fire to light the way. Finally, they made it to the bottom where they encountered three tunnels.   

    “Where do they lead?” Ruby asked lighting each one, but all of them kept going to what seemed forever.  

    “The book doesn’t say anything. I think we should split up. Maybe we’ll have a better a chance of finding the witch faster.”  

    She put the book back in her bag.  

    “That sounds like a good idea.”  

    “Yeah, yeah.” Alexander nodded his head exaggeratingly. “It also gives us a better chance to die. What happened to sticking together?” 

    Ruby turned to look at him, “Sticking together? You were the first one to leave.” 

    “Correction. I was kidnapped by a giant panther.” 

    “And then you wanted to go back?”  

    “Cut it out you two. Arguing isn’t going to get us anywhere.” Without Kai noticing, Ruby pulled her tongue out at the boy. Alexander did the same.  

    “Really Alex?” Kai said. Her eyes tired. 

    He opened his mouth to protest, but said nothing, while Ruby silently giggled to herself.  

    “Okay I’ll take the first tunnel, Ruby take the second, and Alexander take the third.”  

    Without saying another word, Kai began to walk into the tunnel.  

    “Kai wait up.” The princess stopped and turned back around. “Here.” 

    Ruby handed her a lit torch. “Thanks.” She said and began to walk once more. 

    Ruby handed one to Alexander, “I can be the light of your life.” She said laughing at her own joke.  

    “Ew. You’re so....never mind.” With that Alexander walked off there was a slight smile on his face. 

     After almost ten minutes, he entered a giant room. It was empty except for a giant ruby stone in the middle. He gasped at the sight and walked towards it. His voice echoed in the room. He turned his head hoping he would find someone, anyone at this point. He walked forward tripping over something. When he looked down, he jolted up in a scream. His palm was over his hand as he watched the boney arm move around. Then Ruby jumped from behind the rock with the bone in her hand. Alexander put his hands down with an expression of disbelief planted on his face. Ruby put her hands around her waist laughing away. She cleared an imaginary tear with her finger from her face.  

    “Oh, you should have seen the look on your face.” She laughed uncontrollably. She tried to grasp for air at any given opportunity, 

    “Ha ha, very funny. How long have you been here?”  

    Ruby threw the bone on the floor, “I just got here and you?”  

    “Same too. Well if those tunnels led here, where’s Kai?” 

    In the other tunnel, Kai was still walking looking at symbols and images carved into the rocky walls. Then she entered a small room, where an old lady investigated a cabinet. She mumbled to herself throwing bottles of who knows what onto the floor. Kai gulped.  

    “Excuse me.” She said raising her hand trying to get the lady’s attention, but she couldn’t hear her. “Hello?”  

    The old lady turned around and poured a pink liquid into the black pot before her, not noticing Kai. She went back to the cabinet and spoke.  

    “I’ve been expecting you. It’s been so long.” 

    “You have.” Kai asked with confusion.  

    The old lady jumped at the voice of the princess. “Who’s there?” She pointed her staff at the direction of the voice. At Kai.  

    “Sorry.” She said, “I was just wondering if you could help.” As Kai spoke, she turned to see if she could find something. Bingo! To her left were a pair of thick round glasses. She grabbed them and carefully put them on the old lady’s face. When the lady adjusted them, she made a disgusted face.  

    “Yeesh, you’re uglier with them on.”  

    Kai groaned at the comment. “I’d like to think I have appealing looks.”  

    “If you say so. What do you want from me? I don’t have any more money.”  

    Kai shook her head.  

    “I don’t want money. My father is sick, and I really need your help.” 

    The old lady jumped onto the stool and mixed the liquid then scooped some of it and poured it into a bottle.  

    “I have just the thing.” She handed it to Kai.  

    “Really just like that?”  

    “Yeah, it’s my famous recipe for bubblegum soup, passed from generation to generation.” She elbowed Kai in the waist (where she could reach). “Helps you go to the bathroom.” She said with a winking eye.  

    Kai sighed and headed out for the door with no more hope, “But if you leave now, your father, the king, won’t be able to even do that, will he?” The tone of her voice changed, and Kai even felt the atmosphere of the room change as well. Kai stopped herself and stepped back into the room.  

    “A disease that no one knows about. No cure to be found.” The lady stirred the liquid in the pot non-stop. She gestured Kai to come by her side. The liquid was now turning into a picture. It was her father laying on his bed with Oliver by his side. He kept coughing.  

    “Your majesty?” Oliver said, tearing up.  

    “Where is Kai?” He coughed some more, his eyes were pitch black with nothing in them not even life, Kai began to tear up at the sight.  

    “She still hasn’t been located your sire.”  

    “Oh, Kai.” He cried. The picture was now gone.  

    “Please can you help me. I can’t lose him too.”  

    “Of course, I can, but I’ll need something from you.”  

    “Anything!”  

    “I noticed that sword. That once belonged to me, but one of your ancestors took that power source from me and I will be needing it back.” 

    Kai looked at the silver weapon with streams of blue surrounded by gold. Using her right hand, she took the sword into both her hands. She gripped it from the bottom and lifted it before her eyes. 

    “You mean this is yours? But it’s been passed down to me by my mother and father and my grandparents and so forth.  At least, so I’ve been told.”  

    “I know what belongs to me.” The lady’s eyes went all white and began to glow. The sword than was picked up from Kai’s grip and lifted toward the woman, but before Kai could get it back it disappeared leaving a small trail of smoke behind. A couple of tears went down Kai’s face.  

    “Don’t cry dear. It’s only for your benefit.” 

    “That sword was the only thing I had left of my mother.” Her hands were clutched against her chest.  

    “Yes, but if you hadn’t given it up, you’d have nothing left, not even your father.”  

    The witch began to sing and mix potions into the once bright pink liquid. She chanted a song and the room lit up with white smoke. Kai just looked back and forth as the witch sang her unpleasant song.  

    “I’ll also need you to cut your hair.” The witch floated a pair of scissors across the room right into Kai’s hand.  

    “My hair?”  

    “Why yes, you and your father share DNA so we must have some of it, unless you want to give up a finger or a leg, maybe an eye?” 

    Kai took the scissors and grabbed a lock of hair and held them in place. The old lady nodded with excitement. She cut right through holding it tight in her hand. Her hair fell back down halfway her neck. Then she cut the other half.  

    “Is that enough?” She asked holding it out for the witch. An evil smile grew upon the elderly women’s face.  

    “Oh but of course.” She took the hair and dropped it in the pot and began to mix maniacally. The room began to fill up with smoke and as the witch laughed Kai only coughed. Finally, the smoke subsided, and the witch poured some of the liquid into a small flask. Such large amounts of ingredients for such a little portion of antidote. She placed it in Kai’s hands.  

    “That should do.” She patted Kai’s hand with her wrinkly one. Then with a snap of her finger she was gone. Kai was leaving the door when she heard the witches' maniac laugh echoing through the room, but when she turned around to search for her, she was nowhere in sight. Kai put the bottle in her bag patting it twice before she went down the tunnel again. As she tried to find her way back, she called out for her friends.  

    “Ahhhhhhhhh!” She heard Ruby scream. Kai began to race down back to front of the tunnel, this time she turned to the second tunnel and ran as fast as she could.  

    “Ruby?!” She entered the giant room and stopped running. “Oh my gosh, I thought you were dying.” 

    Ruby lifted her hands in the air and ran towards Kai. “I am dying! Dying of boredom. Alexander doesn’t know how to live. Your hair? What happened?”  

    Kai picked up a piece of her short hair, “Long story.” She said.  

    “I think it looks nice.” Alexander said blushing a little.  

    “So, did you get it? What did you find?” Ruby said not letting anyone talk. 

    Kai took the bottle from her bag and presented it to Alexander and Ruby. They awed in place and cheered.  

    “Alright, we have to hurry home, my dad worse than ever.”  

    The two of them ran out the room, “Let’s go Alex!”  

    The boy stayed a little behind and swiftly ran his fingers against the stone. In the middle, Ruby’s stone was placed right there shining ever so bright. He reached over to it and hesitated. He put his arm back on his side.  

    “Alexander come on!” Their voices ran through the walls, quickly he took the ruby from its place and stuffed it in his pant pocket. “Coming!” He yelled. He was by the girl’s side when the rocky walls began to tremble. Tiny pieces began to fall, and the girls looked at Alexander.  

    “You didn’t take anything did you?” Kai said and the floor began to tremble.  

    “No of course not.” His hands waved in the air. The trembling stopped.  

    “It must have been a small earthquake.” Ruby added, “Let’s get out of here just in case.”  

    Once they were up the stairs and out of the volcano, they all cheered. The sun was rising, the sky turning from black to bright yellows and pinks. It shone right in their eyes and they all hugged. The three of them climbed down the volcano and through the forest. Ruby spotted the black panther passing with her cubs.  

    “Alexander look.” She whispered loudly enough for him to hear her.  

    “Aww, there so big.” 

    Kai scrunched up her face, “How can they be big it’s only been a day?” She pulled some of the leaves to get a better view and they were right. The cubs were way bigger than before. One of the cubs began to smell around and started heading the direction of the three teens.  

    “Oh no it’s coming.” Kai cried, letting go of the plants and smacking Alexander in the face.  

    “Ouch!” He complained. Pressing his hand against his right eye. Then the cub jumped right in front of them nuzzling his nose against Alexander’s face. He was so much bigger, taller than Alexander at least taller than six feet. The other cubs took notice and so did the mother. They all made their way towards them and even the mother panther was excited. Ruby and Kai looked at them with curiosity.  

    “Maybe we can get a ride.” Alexander suggested, patting the mother on her side.  

    _____________________ 

    “Hold on!” Alexander yelled as they ran through the trees.  

    “What do you think I’m doing?!” Ruby cried holding onto the panther’s fur as the little ones ran by her side. Soon they made it back to the invisible gate. They all jumped off and as Ruby opened the gate, the giant panther nuzzled Alexander.  

    “Thanks.” Kai said shyly to the mother panther. The panther than licked Kai leaving her wet and her short hair up in the air.  

    They walked through the gate and the town to the docks. Alexander climbed onto his boat and pulled a piece of a paper from one of the steering-wheel. 

    “A ticket!” He yelled. Kai jumped in the boat as he crumbled the paper violently in his hand. Ruby stood on the dock and watched.  

    “What are you waiting for? Get in or are you going to take my soul now?”  

    “That’s right! The contract!” She poofed up the contract and ripped it in half. “I uh, I’ve never left my kingdom before. I know it’s weird since no one knows who I am, but I don’t want to leave those people behind.” She rubbed her hands together.  

    “So, you’re staying?” Kai said standing up.  

    “I would love to go with you, but my home is here in Firewitz.” Tears rolled down her face and then Kai. Kai jumped out the boat and into Ruby’s arms who was just as surprised and hugged her tightly.  

    “Thanks, for everything. ” Kai said to her. They let go and then Alexander came in. 

    “Don’t forget me.” He said taking them both and hugging them tightly. They all giggled and cried simultaneously.  

    “Bye Ruby!” Kai yelled as Alexander began to row into the sea.  

    “Bye!” She waved her hand in the air until she was no longer able to be seen. After an hour they finally made it back to the kingdom. 

    “Hurry!” Kai yelled as Alexander tied his boat to one of the poles.  

    “They better not ticket me this time.” He grunted. Before they could take any step further a soldier stopped them.  

    “Princess, you must come with me.” 

    “No, I have to go see my dad.” 

    The soldier cleared his throat, “Well that’s exactly where I’m taking you.”  

    The soldier took the princess and Alexander in a chariot and rushed them to the castle. At the entrance, Oliver paced back and forth and when he saw Kai he cheered.  

    “Princess you’re back!” He said as he helped Kai down. 

    He looked at Alexander with a furrowed eyebrow and then back at the princess. Alexander scrunched his face up.  

    “Is that Oliver?” He asked but, Kai wasn’t paying any attention to him.  

    “Your father is terribly sick now. I think you should see him now. I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.”  

    “There is one thing.”  

    Kai rushed up to her father’s room, all the while Oliver wondering what she was talking about. She pulled the potion from her bag and threw it on the bed as well as herself by her the king’s side. 

    “Papa! I’m here!” She said putting her hands between his face. His hair was all white now.  

    “Oh Kai. Where have you been? You’ve made me worried sick. Literally.” He said this in a weakly manner and still managed to let out a little chuckle.  

    “I have something for you.”  

    She held the potion in front of her father, “This should make you all better.” She opened the cap and as he sipped the purple drink she whispered, “All hail the king.”  

    After the king drank all the antidote he coughed lightly, and his eyes began to twinkle that’s when Kai knew he’d be all right. She hugged him and cried.  

    “I’m so sorry I was gone, but you’ll be okay now.”  

    Then after a little explaining to the king and Oliver about her journey to find the legendary witch, a soldier barged into the room.  

    “Your highness! You should see this!” The king slowly but energetically got up from the bed. Kai, Oliver, and Alexander followed him to the balcony.  

    “After everything I give you, you steal from me!” Dark ominous clouds covered the sky and a small witch flowed before them.  

    “It’s her! It’s really her!” Oliver cried.  

    “What are you talking about?” Kai asked yelling.  

    “You stole the Ruby from me!”  

                Kai turned around to look at Alexander who’s making his way out of the room.     

                “Alexander, you took it?!” 

               The boy ran out of the room as quickly as he could.  

               “Guards get him!” Cried Kai. 

     

     

     
    Short Story Winner Fall 2017  :  Cynthia Perez Pinon

      

    The sky was brightened with terrifying yet absolutely stunningly different shades of red, orange, and yellow. Dark grey smoke accompanied the strikingly beautiful colors upwards into the sky. The wind carried the ashy sharp scent of the phenomenon for miles. The animals were struck with awe, for never in their life before had they seen something so amazingly beautiful. Even if so many were in awe, there was not a single creature that lived in the Fenrir forest that could string comprehensible words together in order to explain this strange occurrence. All they knew – note their understanding of the situation was not a very reliable source – came from others who managed to get up close and personal, a rare feat for after every peculiar happening, fellow animals disappeared, only to end up discovered dead several days later. It was because of this trend that everyone began to fear the reds, oranges, and yellows accompanied by dark grey in the sky. They heard it burned, for it was excruciatingly hot. According to reports, nothing would be left in the path after the strange red ball attacked the area. Once the ball finally left, everything was covered in ash and dissolved. What was even far more peculiar was that absolutely no one knew what caused this. Some began to fear that the ancient worshipped beings were upset with them and unleashing their all on them to dispose of them. As expected, this brought along more terror and panic.  

     The rather enormous forest that has been home to nature and its furry friends for centuries is stunningly beautiful and large; so large that many of the residents found themselves easily capable of getting lost for hours on end, what with the distractingly pleasing scenery and the many twists and turns in every nook and cranny. No matter how long one lived in the gorgeous Fenrir forest, they were bound to get lost at one point or another. Actually, since the forest is so big, there are even some areas that the more elderly animals have yet to explore. It is even unsure whether anyone actually lived in some of the more remote areas. 

    In one of the more secluded areas of the forest, there lived an adorably small rabbit with a captivating grey coat of fur. This rabbit was rather well known in their small area as being dorky, brave, and harboring a strong sense of adventure and justice. This widely loved rabbit is named Kukri. As the first exquisite streams of the dawn graced the residents of the Fenrir forest for the first time that day after what felt like an excruciatingly prolonged night, the mysterious and feared red ball dissolved and disappeared for what the animals prayed would be a long time to come. Hope and pray was all they could do after all, for it appeared at random intervals in time. With the coming of light, Kukri and his fellow companions all began to leave their cozy and secure homes, albeit hesitantly at first, unless you were Kukri of course. Kukri, instead of peeking his head out cautiously first like everyone else, bounced out of his burrow and into the morning light with the equivalent to a grin on his fuzzy face. "Good morning, everyone!" Kukri proclaimed, eagerly bouncing around to his neighbors, grin never leaving his face. His easy-going nature worked wonders on the tense shoulders of the others. Seeing him so cheerful and relaxed gave them the push they needed to calm down and continue with their daily chores. If anyone knew Kukri, they knew how much he loathed doing chores, so before he could bounce away, the leader of their pack of rabbits grabbed onto his ear and pulled him back before he could make a speedy get-a-way, "And where do you think you're going, Kukri?"  

    Cursing his luck, Kukri nervously laughed, "Ah, mother! You look absolutely beautiful this morning! Did you wake up early and have someone groom your fur? Or did you try the so-called secret beauty tip that those mischievous foxes told you about?" Mother, as everyone called her, fondly rolled her caramel-colored eyes and dragged him not so gently to the carrot section of their small garden. They learned about how to care for and the purpose of a garden from some old bird acquaintances who witnessed some giant beings gathering food from it. They borrowed the idea because of how much easier it made their lives. "Today," Mother began as she plopped Kukri down and handed him a medium sized basket to place the ready vegetables and fruits in, "You will be in charge of the garden. So, get down and dirty." Mother began to leave to attend to her own duties, but paused and added as a second thought, "And don't even think about leaving before you're done. I'll know and you'll be in a lot of trouble young man!" With that, she bounced off to do her own thing, leaving Kukri to suffer in the dirt and in the humid air no less. 

    Kukri found himself getting predictively distracted from his chore. Peering up into the red-orange-yellow afterglow of the sky he found himself being reminded of a sunset, in an odd way. They were both beautiful in their own way. The only difference is that these red-orange-yellows struck fear into anyone who looked upon it, although he had to admit, the mystery of it all was rather...enticing.  

    A sudden smack on the back of his head had Kukri falling face first into the dirt of the carrot patch. With a scowl he got back up and sent his laughing attacker a glare, "Ha, ha, ha kiddos. Very funny. Absolutely hilarious." Kukri sarcastically said as he rolled his eyes and wiped the dirt and grime off his furry face, watching as the younger children ran off cackling, and shouting at him, "Get back to work, you slacker!" 

    Calculatingly, he watched the younger children as they ran around, and then as they got slightly closer to him, he pounced after them, laughing as their terrified yet giddy screams filled the air. He expertly dodged the others who were busy at work; they sent curses their way for interfering and making a racket instead of helping. Kukri chased the children farther out of their village, into the more tree-dense section of the Fenrir forest. At the far back of his thoughts, he knew for certain that he would be getting an earful from mother later, but at the moment he could not find it in himself to care. Besides, it was she who always told him to take some time and play with the children, not to mention she said to get down and dirty but never specified how, so technically speaking he wasn't entirely disobeying her. 

    Children, no matter what species, all operated the same. They all huddled up together in groups to make themselves seem more tough and stronger than they really were. In all groups, there was obviously the evil – not always – mastermind who was the leader of the group. With this in mind, the leader of a group was always pretty obvious, if you knew what you were looking for that is. In Kukri's case, he did know what he was looking for. A leader was usually the center of a pack, they stood confidently in the middle of the protective wall made by the lackeys and usually tended to be the first to shy away as soon as the first sign of danger appeared. With this in mind and inspecting the children running in front of him, he figured out who the leader was; or he was more like ninety-three percent sure, not a completely high percentage, but it was still rather high. "Altais! Get back here you rascal!" With a screech of fear, Kukri tackled Altais, the suspected leader, down onto the dirt and cheered, "Ha! Gotcha!"  

    Altais, whose pride was bigger than his entire being, jeered at the older male, but one look from Kukri had him whimpering and laying his ears down flat in submission, "K-Kukri! I'm sorry, I swear! I'll never throw a carrot at your head again, I promise!" Kukri snorted and rolled his eyes, "As if I haven't heard that one before, Shorty." Altais opened his mouth in indignation about to, most likely, argue and complain about the insult towards his height, but wisely closed his mouth knowing it'd be unwise to challenge Kukri. Seeing that Altais fully submitted to his defeat, he got up and dusted himself off, ruffling the top of Altais' head and grabbing children and placing them into headlocks, laughing and teasing them. 

    A sudden scream of terror jolted Kukri to attention. His eyes widening in shock as he saw the red-orange-yellow ball that everyone in the Fenrir forest feared engulfing their home. Gasps and strangled whimpers grabbed his attention back down to the younger tear-streaked children. They huddled closer to him and grabbed onto his hind legs; hiding their faces into his fuzzy tail. Altais stood in front of him, staring paralyzed as well as mesmerized by the sight in front of them, the red-oranges-yellows lighting up his face in a spectacular light show.  

    Kukri began to panic, his mind going into overdrive trying to figure out just what to do with the children, how to keep them safe and away from the burning evil clutches of the ball. As he was lost in thought with all the different scenarios racing around his head; Altais shook himself out of his stupor and rushed back to the village, a look of pure determination on his face and shouted for Mother. Kukri paled and a sense of dread filled him. He moved as though he wanted to run after, but the hold from the children behind him kept him in place. He gently shook them off, turned around to face them and bent down so that he was eyelevel with all of them, "Alright you guys, here's the plan. I'm going to go after Al and in the meantime, I want you guys to stay here away from the fire. If you see it moving towards you, run straight down and go as far as you have to. You understand?"  

    They whimpered and shook their heads collectively, "W-What about you and Altais? If we run without you, how will you find us? How will we know that you're okay?" Kukri flashed them what he hoped was a reassuring grin, "No worries, you guys. I'll grab Altais and join up with you guys again." 

    "Promise?" The youngest asked, extending their paw out towards Kukri.  

    "I promise." Kukri said as he intertwined their paws and gave a slight squeeze, before letting go and ushering them backwards. "Now remember, don't come in after me. Run if you have to, and don't look back, ya hear?" Satisfied by their affirmative nods, he finally sprinted off after Altais, "Al, I hope I'm not too late, you idiot."  

    He rushed into their village, terrified of the image. Everywhere he looked was engulfed in the bright colors, which in turn brought pain and suffering everywhere it touched. The terrified painful screams were proof of that. Shaking his head and slapping his cheeks in order to bring himself back to his senses, he pushed forward in search of Altais or any survivor. Nothing could have prepared them for this tragedy, that much was obvious. "Altais! Altais! Al, can you hear me?! Where are you?! Altais!" Kukri strained his ears, desperately trying to hear anything that could help his search. 

    "Kukri! Over here, quick! It's—It's Mother! Hurry!" Kukri rushed forward to where he heard Al's shout for help, sliding in to where Altais and Mother were huddled on the ground. "Mother? Are you alright? What—What happened?" Kukri asked and he gathered the frail elderly woman into his arms, grabbing ahold of one of her hands and intertwining their paws, giving reassuring squeezes for she looked to be in so much pain; she meant so much to him for she was the one who had taken him in all those years ago. He winced upon seeing all the red irritated patches of skin all over her body, carefully, he tried to situate her so that she was comfortable in his arms while making sure to avoid irritating her injuries more than they already were. Altais, sitting in front of them with his brow furrowed and tears sliding down his face, reached forward and intertwined his paw with Mother's as well, looking absolutely stricken with grief. "What do we do, Kukri?" 

    "I—I don't know. We have to get out of here. The...The—Whatever it is won't stop and spare us; we have to get out of here and quick! The others are waiting for us, come on Al."  

    "But what about Mother and everyone else? We're not just going to leave them here, are we?"  

    Before Kukri could even think of how to respond to Altais' inquiry, Mother groaned and squeezed both of their paws to gather their attention. With pained coughs and a shaky voice, she whispered for that was all she could do, "Go without me. Worry about yourselves first. As long as you and the rest of the children are okay, everything will be fine..."  

    "Don't lie to me! I know that if we leave you behind right now, we'll...We'll never see you again! I'm not a little kid anymore, you can tell me the truth!" Altais shouted, the strength of his emotions breaking open the dam holding back his tears. Kukri found himself being able to understand how Altais felt and even felt sympathetic towards him, but regardless of how emotional this was, he had to get them out of here, it's not just the three of their lives at risk, the children who were outside the village waiting for them were at risk too.  

    "The lives of you two and the other children are more important than an old lady practically already on her death bed! Go, Altais, Kukri! Please!" Mother shouted desperately before being racked by coughs, 

    "Al, I know how you feel, trust me I really do, but we have to get out of here. Mother's right, as she always is. You and the rest of the children are more important than any of us, you're all so young. We—"  

    "No! How can you say that?! If you really cared for Mother like I do, then you wouldn't be saying that! Are you just trying to act all heroic?! Well, you know what?! A real hero would try and save everyone! That's a real hero!" Al shouted, screaming at the top of his lungs.  

    Mother squeezed Kukri's hand, giving him a look that begged him to grab Altais and run and he had every intention of respecting her last wish, "Yeah, well you know what Al? I'm not trying to be a hero. I'm just trying to do what matters to me and keep you alive. So just shut up and let's go!" Gently releasing Mother from his hold, he set her down on the ground, stood up and forcefully grabbed Altais, throwing him over his shoulder and taking off at a sprint; vowing to not look back at the dying figure of Mother. Altais kicked and screamed curses at him, but he ignored the sharp words and painful kicks. He ignored the pained broken screams of all the people who he had grown up surrounded by; pushing back all the flashbacks of those joyful and peaceful moments. He ignored it all and pushed on. 

    As they ran, parts of their surroundings would crumble and fall, nearly hitting them or completely blocking their way and forcing them to find another route. Gracefully, Kukri dodged the impending doom and kept going. He came to a halt in front of the village's exit, for it was surrounded by the red, oranges, and yellows. Glancing around quickly for another possible exit, he was disappointed to find none; he couldn't go back either because they were closed in. A sliver of an area caught his attention, the vibrant colors were low enough for him to, hopefully, jump over. Glumly, he thought, It’s worth a shot... 

    Kukri slid Altais down so that he was cradled in his arms instead of haphazardly thrown over his shoulder. "Hold on tight and cover your face." Tightening his hold on the youngster, Kukri braced himself and ran through the slim opening in the fire, wincing slightly at the burn.  

    Once on the other side, he continued to run. He ran and ran until he caught sight of the other children who were huddled up into a group, looking fear-stricken and antsy. "Kukri! Altais! You're back!"  

    "Come on you guys, let's go! Stay in front of me, you hear?"  

    "But! Where are we going?"  

    "There's another village a few miles away, I remember visiting them a couple times with Moth—" Altais flinched in his hold, effectively cutting him off, "Just go. Hurry. If we keep going straight, we should make it in a few hours. Stay together and do not run off without me, you hear?" 

    As the children gathered themselves up, he turned around and stared at his—no, their home. Everything was lost, even Mother and the others. I've even gone and lost Altais' trust, he hates me now... Which, I guess, is understandable. I deserve his hatred. 

    Shaking himself out of his self-degrading and depressing thoughts, he moved forward behind the children who all glumly walked forward, Altais still huddled up in his arms.  

    And so, marked the beginning of their tragedy... 

    — 

    "I'm glad you and the children are all right..."  

    Kukri gave a slight nod towards the chief of the village of Baal, "Thank you for taking us in, Sir." 

    "Why, of course! Who wouldn't take you in after such a tragedy?" The dark grey colored fox chief of Baal exclaimed, patting Kukri on the back sympathetically. "Come now, child. Surely you know that both you and the children are welcome to stay here as long as you like. If not here, where else could you go, after all?" All Kukri could do was give a slight nod before the chief was talking again, "Oh, now only if there was someone who could defeat this foul spirit who brings about ruin and despair to our peaceful homes!"  

    Kukri's ear perked up, furrowing his brows, he repeated inquisitively, "Spirit?"  

    "Why, yes? Didn't you know that it's because of the spirits that we are suffering so? The spirits are the reason behind all this unnecessary death and destruction. They always were nothing but monsters. Horrid things, those spirits, if I do say so myself. Yup yup."  

    Kukri went silent for a minute, mind in overdrive trying to process this new information. "Boy, you do know what the spirits are, yes? Didn't your chief of the village ever tell you the ol' tales?"  

    "Mother...Our chief did tell us of the stories, but..." 

    "But?" 

    "But her stories were different than what you're telling me. She always said and taught us that the spirits were kind entities that would aid us in our time of need. So, there's no way they're behind this!" Kukri protested, shaking his head to rid himself of these doubting thoughts. Mother always said to never doubt our saviors, the spirits. And mother knows best. Right?  

    "Ah. I see. So that’s what she decided to teach the new generation, aye? Tell me lad, if that were true, if the spirits were these so-called saviors who aided us in our time of need, then why is your chief dead? Why is your entire village, poof, gone? Some help those spirits were..."  

    He's right, you know.  

    No, he's not!  

    The spirits abandoned us.  

    No, they—they... 

    All of us. 

    But—We believed in them...Mother believed in them... 

    And what did we get in return? 

    Nothing, but death and destruction... 

    Cruel world, isn't it? Looks as though you can't really rely on anybody, can you? Can you even rely on yourself, lad?  

    "Oh, my dear lad. I'm so sorry. This must be so shocking to you. Your entire village...Your family gone. Now you're learning that the so-called spirits that you believed in are the real villains. Oh! I can't even begin to imagine how you're feeling right now!" The chief squeezed Kukri's shoulder, leaned in near his ear and whispered in an auspicious low voice, "Now...What are you going to do?"  

    — 

    Kukri was situated on his back, hands behind his head, lying on his small patch of hay. The snores and whimpers of the younger children he had brought back with him surrounded him. As they slept, he could not, regardless of how hard he tried to fall into a peaceful slumber. A hundred and one thoughts were racing around his head, driving him positively insane. Turning over onto his side, he released a sigh of frustration. Lifting himself up from the floor, he made his way outside, looking for some fresh air. He was hoping that the fresh air would help him with his thoughts. 

    As he stepped outside quietly so as to not wake up the slumbering children, he was surprised to find Altais outside and sitting on the brick wall surrounding them. Kukri approached him and gestured to the spot beside him, "Can I?"  

    "I don't know, can you?" Altais retorted without so much as sparing him a glance. 

    Rolling his eyes, Kukri tried again, "May I?" 

    This time, Altais glanced at him and Kukri was able to spot some amusement in his eyes before the small fire of it was distinguished and he turned away, nodding his head in response to Kukri's earlier question.  

    Kukri didn't say anything after he situated himself down, he only sat there, staring forward, and thinking. It wasn't a comfortable silence though. The tension was so thick you'd need something sharper than a knife to cut through it. It made the two of them uncomfortable, but neither had to courage to say anything, even though they each had at least a dozen things they wanted to say to each other.  

    "...Kukri." 

    Of course, Altais was the first to speak. He was always the more courageous one of the two. Kukri was even willing to argue that Altais was the most courageous person he knew.  

    Kukri turned his head to look at the younger and motioned for him to go on. "I overheard your conversation with the chief," Ah, so I wasn't going crazy when it felt like I was being watched, Kukri thought absentmindedly, "And I want to know; What are you going to do?" 

    "What am I going to do? About what?" 

    "About the spirits? The ones who caused all this? Are we going to get revenge?" 

    Kukri raised his brow, "Okay, first of all. It's rude to listen in to others conversations. And if I am going to go and get revenge, it's not 'we'." 

    "Aw, come on! I can help!" Altais protested, but Kukri firmly shook his head no. "No, Altais. It's dangerous. And I never said I was going anyways. Also, aren't you mad at me?" 

    "I still am yeah, but I want to help! I can help! And I know you, you will go and get revenge. Isn't that why you can't sleep? You're overthinking things again," Quietly, he whispered the next part, "That is if you haven't changed from the old Kukri I know... At this point, I don't know anymore." 

    In exasperation, Kukri ran his paw over his face. He wanted to argue against Altais, but he had a point, he was right. Ever since he was a young'un, Altais had a way with words. There hasn't been a single person he hasn't been able to convince to do what he wanted. He was the best arguer and convincer in the world, no question about it. With this in mind, Kukri knew that no matter what he said, nothing would successfully change Altais' decision. Heaving a sigh, he hung his head in defeat as Altais let a grin consume his face, "Fine. But there are going to be strict rules in place and you must follow every single one!"  

    — 

    "So, when do we start?" Altais blurted out as they were eating breakfast later that morning, "Today, right? Right?" 

    "We don't even know where to begin looking for this...spirit-thing though!" 

    "I think I can help with that." Kukri and Altais jolted in surprise at the sudden appearance of the chief. "C-Chief?" 

    "Indeed. I couldn't help but overhear your peculiar conversation. So, you're searching for spirits, are you?" The chief casually asked, sitting down beside Altais across from Kukri. "Yeah! We're looking for the one who caused the destruction of our village! The one you told Kukri about!"  

    "Oh, the fire spirit."  

    "The what?" Kukri confusedly asked.  

    "The fire spirit? You do know what fire is, correct?" When the two shook their heads in the negative, the chief made a strangled sound of disbelief. "Seriously? Oh, dear lad, haven't you ever wondered what it was that burned down your home?" 

    "The red, orange, and yellow ball?"  

    "The...? Oh, yes that is fire. That, how did you put it, red, orange, and yellow ball? My boy, that is fire and who controls the fire? Why, the fire spirit of course. That is why I told you that the spirits are behind it all. They're not trying to help and protect us like the old lore states. They're trying to kill us." Kukri did not want to believe it, no matter how much the evidence said it was true. Mother had raised him to believe and worship the spirits after all. Maybe something else started the fire? The spirits wouldn't just suddenly turn their backs on us, would they?  

    "I know what you're thinking, Kukri my boy," the chief reached over and gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder. "Y-You do?" 

    "Why of course! It's clear on your face! You're thinking that maybe something else started the fire. That there's no way the spirits would just suddenly turn their backs on us, isn't that right?" The chief's guesses were so spot on, it gave Kukri chills that raced down his back. "But think about it my boy, no one else can control fire like the spirits, right? And according to the ol' legend, each element has one spirit, so don't go thinkin' that there's a single spirit that is rebelling. Just face the fact, my boy. It'll make things so much easier on everyone." 

    "You...You're right, but I—" 

    "Of course I'm right! And yes, you may have some doubts at first. Change is never easy, but believe me when I tell you, they're at fault. Now, back to my original point. I may know where to find them. "After a long pause, which the boys assumed to be meant for dramatic effect, Altais awkwardly urged him on, "And that is...?" 

    "Why, it's so kind of you to ask. There's a small grotto at the edge of the river where it is said that the fire spirit lives. If you go there, I'm certain that you'll find him. And lucky for you two," The chief heaved up two drawstring bags and unceremoniously plopped them down onto the short wooden table, "I already packed your essentials. I had a feeling you two would decide to go after him after all!" The chief ushered the two of them to get up and personally helped them put the bags on, then began pushing them towards the exit, "Now off you go! Quickly now! You're burning daylight!' 

    — 

    "Why do I get the feeling he was purposely trying to get rid of us?" Kukri asked no one in particular as he trailed far behind the enthusiastic Altais. Although he didn't have much time to dwell on it for Altais let out a startled scream soon afterwards. "Altais!" He shouted, rushing forward towards the screams and shouts of the struggling boy. Kukri came to a skidding halt as he arrived at the scene, flabbergasted. Altais was strung up in front, caught up in some kind of trap. "Don't just stand there! Do something and help me!" 

    Kukri shook himself out of his stupor and tried not to laugh, "Well, what do you want me to do?" 

    "Anything! Don't just stand there, you jerk! Get me down!"  

    Kukri examined his surroundings, letting out an amused hum. He approached the tree where the younger was strung up and looked around for the string that held the trap together. If he just could find it and then untie it, Altais would be free. The only problem being that Altais would fall all the way back down, about ten feet, which could end up in him acquiring some injury of sorts. "U-Uhm, Kukri?" 

    "Relax. I'm working on it. The more you rush me, the longer it'll take." 

    "Yeah, um. Think we have bigger problems. Much bigger."  

    Kukri looked up confused and moved back around the thick tree to see what Altais was complaining about. He let out a gasp and tripped over his feet and onto his bottom. Before them was an enormous being of some kind, sprouting flames from all over. The fire spirit, how the heck are we supposed to defeat that, Kukri glumly thought. 

    "Rabbits? How unusual it is to see your kind near this part of the forest—" 

    "Don't eat us!" Altais shouted, startling the being in front of them, "E-Eat you? Now, why would I do that? Have you done something that would warrant me eating you?"  

    "N-No! Of course not!"  

    "Then?" 

    Kukri cautiously walked forward, grabbing hold of the spirit's attention and interrupting the conversation, "You are the fire spirit, right?" The being above tilted their head, "Depends on who's asking and why they are asking."  

    "My name is Kukri, I'm a citizen of the Fenrir forest and it was you who burned down my village; my home. And for that, I am here seeking revenge." Kukri proclaimed, clenching his fists. On the surface, he wore a brave confident face, but that was only a mask. On the inside, he was freaking out because of the fact that the spirit is practically eleven feet tall and while was unarmed, he was still very intimidating. He was already at a disadvantage and they all knew it. 

    The spirit let out a booming laugh that shook the ground slightly, looking down at Kukri with mirth shining in his golden eyes. "You? Take revenge? What could you possibly do, dear child? You are so very small and harbor no weapon. I know the layout of this area far better than you do as well. And, not to mention, I hold your friend captive and at home I have a pot all set up, waiting for some fresh rabbit meat." 

    "Hey! You said you had no reason to eat me!" Altais shouted, shaking a fist at the spirit who only laughed harder in response.  

    "I know I'm small, but that doesn't give you the right to look down on me. I could take you on and succeed! I'm at an advantage because I know of my disadvantages." Kukri shouted in response. The spirit chuckled and continued, "I can easily see through you, child. False confidence and bravery doesn't make you a hero." 

    "I'm not trying to be a hero. I'm just trying to do what's right!" Kukri found himself easing up, the tension in his shoulders, while still very much there, was beginning to loosen. "And enlighten me, what exactly is right? Taking revenge? On someone who is being falsely accused of a crime they did not commit." 

    "Falsely accused...? What are you talking about?" 

    "Perhaps, you should wait and gather all the facts before you go around accusing people. Especially people like me. You see, most spirits like myself don’t take to false accusations as kindly as I do. If it were any other spirit, you'd be burning in a pot quicker than you can say fire. Especially if it were the God of Deceit, Baal. He's had such a strong hatred towards everyone. It started with only our kind, but then quickly moved on to others—" 

    "Wait. Did you say...Baal?" Kukri asked, straining his ears because surely he misheard or the deity in front of him made some sort of error. "Hm? Yes, child. Baal, the deceitful. It sounds as though you know whom it is I speak of? Have you had a run-in with him?"  

    "I think we might have. Is he...Is he a fox?"  

    "A fox? Well, we spirits can take on a number of shapes. Baal though, that is his specialty. And, of course, strewing up lies and tricking poor unfortunate souls into believing them. He is most often in the form of a fox, seems to be his favorite. I suppose it is because foxes are usually tied in with mischief and known for being sly." Examining Kukri's facial expression, he gave a decisive nod, "The man you are thinking of was probably Baal. Enlighten me if you would, what did he tell you." 

    "Huh? Oh well, he was the one who told us what fire was and he said that you were at fault. Chief Baal, oh sorry he was the chief of the village that took us in after the burning of our village, said that the old lore that states that the spirits were here to protect us was wrong. He...He was the one that convinced us to come and take revenge." 

    The fire spirit gave a hum and nodded, crossing his arms across his chest, "That sure sounds like him. Like I previously said, he harbors a rather deep hatred of all mankind. I won't go into detail about that though because that is a rather...personal matter between us spirits." The fire spirit's eyes glazed and it appeared as though he was lost in thought, although as to what, Kukri was unsure. He assumed though that it was about this personal matter, whatever it may be. "Anyways, I assure you, I had no hand in the tragedy that transpired on your village. I had no clue as to it either." 

    "Then—" 

    "Uhm, hello! Sorry to interrupt, actually no I'm not, scratch that, but aren't you guys forgetting something important? I'm still conveniently hanging here! Let me down!" Altais screeched, sending a glare down at Kukri and at the spirit below. "Oh, that's right. I actually forgot." The spirit lazily said, shooting a small fire ball towards the top of the trap, effectively cutting Altais loose, then extended his arm to catch the falling rabbit and gently setting him down onto the ground beside Kukri.  

    "Now, I'm positive that you two have some questions you'd like to ask, but I'd honestly rather not do it here. Follow me and we can have a chat in humble abode." 

    "...You're not secretly planning to eat us, right mister?" 

    — 

    Settling down into a chair at the dinner table, the spirit hummed thoughtfully and then proceeded to shrink down to a size closer to his two guests, "Wow. That is super cool!" Altais said, his face brightening up in awe. The fire spirit flashed him a grin, "Oh, I never properly introduced myself, now did I? I am Firaga, God of Fire. Pretty easy to remember, right?" His two guests nodded in agreement, "Now then. I didn't cause those fires, but I have a pretty good idea who did." 

    "Was it chief Baal?"  

    "No, my child. Baal, for all his faults, is not the kind of person who'd do that. He knows there'd be serious consequences that he wouldn't be able to weasel his way out of either if he messed with my fire." 

    "Then who...?" 

    "Have you ever heard or seen a human?" Kukri and Altais looked at each other, confusion evident on their faces, giving Firaga his answer. "Humans are beings that are different than you and me, but also rather similar at the same time. All that is different is their looks. It is said that they also used to be animals, much like yourselves, before they evolved into the forms that they are in today. But that is just a theory at the moment, don't think too hard on that. Anyways, centuries ago, when I first gifted the world with access to my powers, the humans began to use my fire to survive. After all these years, that tradition still remains. As smart as humans are, they are still rather clueless and cause problems. They start what they call forest fires. Which is what has been happening to this forest."  

    "Forest fires? And how do we stop those? Do we have to defeat the humans?" 

    Firaga made a strangled gasp, shaking his head in the negative. "My dear boy, violence doesn't solve everything. There are other efficient ways of going about things."  

    "...Like?" 

    "Well, humans are...special creatures. Everyone is different and, much like you, their first instinct is to resort to violence. Approaching them could prove to be very dangerous. It's highly possible they won't understand you either." 

    Altais slammed his paw down onto the table, "Well, then what are we supposed to do?! How do we stop these forest fires?!"  

    "Calm down, young one. Don't be so hasty." Firaga raised a hand and ushered Al to sit down, "I suppose your only option really is to approach them and try showing them the consequences of their actions. Hopefully, you find someone who is kind-hearted and willing to listen, even if they don't understand your words."  

    "And where exactly are we supposed to find someone like that?" Kukri asked, shoving Altais down into his seat when he made to get up to complain again.  

    "That, I can actually help you with. I have seen a young girl wander this forest quite often. She appears to be a kind soul who'd be willing to listen. I have seen her leave food and all sorts of things for your kind. She never litters either. The closest thing to a perfect human, though I'm sure she has her faults. As soon as you're ready, I'll give you a passage to where you can find her. She's usually here around this time."  

    "We're ready." The two stood up, grabbing their things and getting ready to head out, "Thank you for all your help, Firaga. And we're sorry about what happened earlier."  

    Firage stood up and offered a smile, "No worries. Mistakes happen, all you can do is learn from them in response. Now then, I bid you adieu."  

    Next thing Kukri and Altais knew, they were being swallowed up by darkness and screaming in fright. Altais shouted something along the lines of, "I knew he was gonna eat us after all!" It was like an abyss, a never-ending abyss, then suddenly they're being engulfed by flames and they paniced. But it didn't burn, which confused them. It's supposed to burn and leave nothing in its path. He's seen the scars and burns so why— A bright blinding flash of light temporarily blinds them, forcing them to shut their eyes. When they open it again, they're lying on the ground, dazed. 

    That must have been a surprise, my apologies. I love seeing the expression of people after I do that though. Now then, she should be around here somewhere. You'll know it's her when you see her. She has that aura to her.  

    "Ugh, the world is spinning. Is it supposed to do that?" Altais groaned, shaking a fist at the air, probably intending for Firaga to see that.  

    "Oh my! What happened to you poor fellas?" Suddenly, the two were lifted up into the air and cushioned into something warm, "Wah! Kukri, what's going on?!" They looked up to see what they guessed was a human. "Is this the girl Firaga told us about?"  

    "Hey, you guys are all burned! What did happen to you?" The girl asked, tilting her head and furrowing her eyebrows in concern. Kukri and Altais struggled to be put down, startling the girl who quickly moved to gently set them down. Once they were safely on the ground again, they sighed in relief. Kukri then began waving for her attention. The human girl crouched down to their level in order to better understand what it was they were trying to tell her, "What is it?"  

    "She doesn't understand us though Kukri. Remember? That's what Firaga said." 

    "I know. We'll just have to show her through movements I guess."  

    "We'll look like idiots!"  

    "Oh hush you!"  

    Kukri raised his paws and tried mimicking the look of the fire. "I'm sorry. I don't know what that means..." Kukri dropped his paws in dejection, "See Kukri? I told you."  

    "You want food?" The girl asked, humming in thought when they shook their head no. "Want to show me a place?" Kukri was about to shake his head no, but then thought it could work, so he nodded and ushered her to follow them. "Where are we going, Kukri?" 

    "We'll take her to our home and show her the damage."  

    — 

    "Oh my god! This...Did a fire do this?" Kukri nodded repeatedly, "I heard about the forest fires, but seeing the remains is so—oh my god I can't believe this. Was this your home?" Kukri and Altais nodded once more. "Then that means... Your family...Oh, I'm so sorry. I wish I could do something to help but—"  

    When the human girl saw the two lower their ears in sadness and her words of not being able to do anything, she paused and thought hard. "I'm in college right now and my professor is really nice. I'm sure together we can come up with something to help spread awareness and stop these fires. I'll get my friends in on it and then they can get their friends and families! Oh, I know just what to do! Don't worry little guys! I'll do whatever I can do help stop these forest fires! Now, I gotta go! I'll see you two later, okay?" With that, the human girl ran off.  

    Well done. That was the girl I mentioned. She looked determined. I'm sure she'll try her best. Now, let's wait and see the results. Goodbye, you two. It was a pleasure. 

    "...We did it, Kukri. We figured out what was causing the fires! And now we're doing something to stop it! Mother would be so proud!"  

    "You're right, buddy. She would." Kukri reached over and brought Altais into a side-hug, ruffling his fur. "Now, let's get back to the village and the others. I'm sure they're worried sick about us." 

    — 

    A few days later, the girl they spoke with returned to the forest and went looking for them. When she did find them, she grinned and told them all about her success. A lot of the things she mentioned left them confused but they just nodded their heads in response. All sorts of people came and took photographs and helped clean up the damage done to their homes. Before they knew it, there homes were nearly the same as it used to be. Once their village was back up and running, Kukri and the kids returned and continued to live out their lives. 

    And with that, the case of the forest fires was closed. 

     

    Short Story Winner Fall 2016  :  Maya Haywood

     

    Homestead

    By Maya Haywood

    Crash! The thunder bellowed and lightning struck across the evening sky. The lovely England forest encountered rain constantly keeping the grasses green and the trees healthy. Since it was winter time, the icy winter chill mixed with the rain and froze the ground and kept your bones chilled. The wind, no more than an innocent breeze, made even the toughest men curse at the extreme cold England endured during the winter time.

    The wind whistled in my ear; I began to wake from a nice little nap. “John,” it seemed to whisper lightly, “wake up. It’s not safe here…” Funny, that reminds me of a time when my mother told me the same thing, when I was just a young kit. All those years ago…

                “John! Wake up, John, it’s not safe here. We need to leave,” my mother startled me as I began to wake. My nostrils filled with smoke, “What’s going on?” I frantically shouted, half-blinded by smoke and half confused. The next moment I was being picked up by my mum and carried along the side of the tunnel. I saw fire, then the devilish silhouettes of a tall, disfigured creature and his hounds of the Underworld cackling about in the distance. Mum finally stopped in a thicket near a stream, then lowered her head to put me down onto the soft grass. “Mum,” I had tears in my eyes, “what’s happening? You’re scaring me.” She only looked around, cautiously. “Where’s dad?” I asked, “Stay safe, pumpkin,” She said as she nuzzled my nose with hers, “Please, don’t come out,” she tucked me into a small elderberry bush. “Mum!” I called out to her, wanting her to stay with me. She looked back, and only smiled, whispering, “I love you,” then she ran away, with tears in her eyes, disappearing forever. I soon heard the wicked demons drawing near. A single shot was fired, then, a sudden cry, followed by pure silence. My heart grew heavy. Later, the receding footsteps of the hounds and the devil himself, carrying back his newfound treasure.

                But this happened in 1904, this is now 1909, five years later. This is a different year, a different problem. I know if I didn’t make it to my burrow in time, disaster would strike. Jumping down from a rock, I began to bolt to my home, hoping for its safety. As I ran, lightning began to streak the sky, followed by deafening boom even Zeus himself could not create. Renlow, my magnificent oak, which resides near my burrow, still stood strong against the elements. And then, with a single strike of lightning, Renlow began to fall. A loud cracking sound of wood was heard. I began to run away, to a boulder, and hid behind it for cover. When the oak fell, the world seemed to disappear for a moment in a beautiful array of decaying leaves in amazing oranges, reds, yellows, and browns. After the lovely show, I began to swell with dread, I knew my home was destroyed, I knew I had become homeless once again.

                On my journey to find a new home, I decided to take a small detour. I should be in Crowthorne by nightfall, since I was coming from Aylesbury and not Surrey. After the forest began to clear, I saw a large multiple-layered home. A beautiful home, really, it was. It had a rustic charm as well as senseless in some parts of the house; I shall claim this as my home. I giggled a bit. Of course this is not my home to claim but someone else’s. A sign read: LIVINGSTON. As I walked onto the grounds, I noticed a few brightly coloured spheres on the ground. I inspected them closer. Ah, the orange is in season now. I only knew these were oranges because someone had placed a lovely post reading: Orange Tree, a lighter hand than the Livingstone sign’s writer. Anyway, I hate oranges, with its bumpy bitter exterior. When I first bit into an orange, which I thought was first delightful, was the most perfume-y, acidic, not to mention spicy--somehow--thing I had ever tasted. In other words, it was outright disgusting and took a few minutes for the orange flavor to stop permeating in my mouth. That and green strawberries were the worst foods I’ve ever encountered. I leisurely walked through the Livingstone’s luscious gardens filled with flowers of various shapes and sizes, colours, and fragrances. I think, if I can recall correctly from memory, perhaps, these flowerpots had special names; Asters, Birds of Paradise, Callas, and Chrysanthemums. I remember only these by their silly spellings and oddball names. The Birds of Paradise were my favourite, with their vibrant colours and its “bird-like appearance”, as the small sign once said. What sort of peculiar bird would look like a flower? I’ve always wondered that.

                I began to travel from around the back side of the house to the front. Numerous vines had sprouted and climbed up the back of the house, each sprawling in different directions, some even intertwining with each other. The front side of the house, however, seemed to rid itself of this magnificent greenery. Instead, a smooth brick surface covered the face of the house, which connected to a small cobblestone pathway that opened up to the dirt-and-gravel pathway leading far over the hills. A few wire framed windows hung around the front of the house, like small paintings that still gave plenty of detail. Just below a row of three window, a door rests there. A vibrant, lush green colour.

                Maybe I should wander about for a moment and wait for an invitation? Before I could make a decision, a wonderful aroma filled my nostrils. “Now, Harold, I don’t want you eating this pie, it’s for after dinner only,” said a woman from inside the house. She lifted one of the small windows up a bit higher, I got to look at her, she had a clown’s face, rosy red lips, white-powdered cheeks, and black rings—it looked like—around her eyes. She had loose hair as black as a raven. Her hair drooped down almost enough to touch the “pie” that emitted the amazing scent. This pie had a lovely brown criss-crossing top, and a bit of blueberries spilling out of the silvery container. My stomach slightly rumbled. Oh, yes, I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday, I reminded myself. Perhaps I can…I proceeded to the window stealthily. No, this nice woman has told us both—well not really—that the pie is for after dinner. She wouldn’t take too kindly to a stranger eating her pie. I stopped myself before falling into temptation. But it wasn’t specifically aimed towards you, John, said the Irish voice in my head.

                Yes, Irish. You may be thinking, Why would an Englishman, or English red fox, have an Irish voice instead of an English one inside his head? I ask you, why do you sing, or read, or smile? Because you are happy. The voice…keeps me sane, and acts as another person to communicate with, to counteract the sheer boredom of loneliness.

                Anyway, I decided to hop through the kind woman’s window, without tipping over the pie, or eating it, to become a sort of company to her and her Harold. The moment I jumped into the house, the woman turned the corner. “Where,” I looked around, “did she go?” I began to wander around the house, being extremely careful not to damage anything. I examined the walls, they seem to all be the same dull yellow color, except for a few tears showing concrete and wooden beams. I turned down another hall and caught sight of a masterfully carved jade, most likely, vase. I couldn’t help myself so I moved closer to fully take in its beauty.

                It had small detailed dragon wing handles, made from ivory, sprouting into a lotus engraved lip. The base of the vase had large, less detailed, Mandarin characters. I only knew these were Mandarin characters because this is the same vase I’ve heard about for years. And here it is, with the same white-painted dragon in its centre, roaring with power. It was magnificent. A true feat of artistry. It seems as if older art was more interesting than modern art.

    I’ve taken this knowledge form an old art book I read and viewed in my youth, titled: Art through the Ages, 500 BCE— the 1900s. Recent works were nothing compared to the art of the past.

                As I looked at this vase, I began to swing my tail from side to side and lifted it up higher by the second. Quite a peculiar trait I picked up from my adoptive mother. She was a forest cat, God bless her soul. Don’t believe me? There are plenty of wild cats lurking in the forests of England. She’s the one who taught me everything a mother passes onto her son. It was just my mother, Cecilia, and me against the world, exploring and roaming. She the one who taught me about this house I’m currently in right now. She used to live here, then was driven out by the frightening thunderstorms. When she tried to return, she was no longer welcome, something about her being…“feral” and “wild”, as the owners screamed about. Her mangled appearance too.

                But that family had moved out and the house still stood, another family soon occupied this lovely home near the forest.

                CRASH! I turned around and noticed a black vase, next to the one I was examining, had fallen to the ground because of my notorious tail-swinging. You’re a fox, not a cat, you idiot.

                The raven-haired woman ran my way. How kind of her. “Harold! Are you all right?” she asked whilst turning a corner. “I’m not Harold, but I am all right, miss. Thank you,” she must’ve not heard me. She nearly fainted but simply yelled out “FOX,” and ran away. “Well, yes I…am,” I said quietly as she bolted around the corner. I heard her yelling to her Harold of a fox in the house. I think we’ve overstayed our welcome, said the Irish voice. I agreed. I began to turn down each hall carefully trying remember where I had just come from, but also in a hasty manner to avoid a bop on the nose for being an intruder. I must’ve taken the wrong turn because I ended up in a room with a small fireplace and trophies of antlers.

    A hunter, heh, you should get out of here before you’re next, John, I innocently joked. Noticing a door outside, I walked over and scratched at it, but it in turn, was locked of course. I turned around and saw two familiar faces. Faces that seem to stretch back to my childhood. Faces I could never forget. It was my mum and dad. Stuffed and hung on the hunter’s wall. What a monstrous thing to do. A horrible, awful act. Tears began to run down my eyes. Father, with the small tuft of white fur near his eye, I had been searching for him all my life, since mum never told me of his horrid fate. And mum, she had the oddities that were passed down to me: her odd brown ears, bright blue eyes and pink and black nose. I was happy, for a moment, then my heart sunk. I finally found my parents after all these years, filled with many bouts of doubt and silver-linings of hope. They peered back at me with blank stares. The hunter at least kept them looking the same, and in a nice condition, unlike the unlucky deer whose antlers were the only prize of the hunt.

                Harold, the hunter, appeared, with a shotgun. A powerful weapon in the hands of a powerful man. I was frightened out of my wits, Harold raised the gun to me and fired. Fortunately, I ducked and bolted underneath his legs. He, unfortunately shot the metal grate keeping back the flaming log pile, which then liberated itself from the stone prison. I dashed away and past the screaming, black-haired woman. “Matilda, are you all right?” the hunter asked frantically. I ducked into another room, this one with some furniture and a sofa big enough to hide under. “Where’s that rabid fox?” the hunter yelled angrily. “Now, Harold—” the woman began to talk, but was interrupted by Harold. “—That fox could’ve bitten you, that fox is a wild animal,” Harold was getting tiresome of my presence in his home. “I’m not rabid,” I whispered slightly, hiding underneath the sofa. The hunter must have heard me because he then turned the corner and pointed his gun under the sofa, why did I even open my mouth?

                “No rabid fox is going to hurt my wife,” a shot rang out. Good thing I began to scurry from underneath the sofa before the gun fired. The bullet missed. “Fox!” Harold chased after me. Thank goodness the window still stood open, I skillfully jumped through it, avoiding the pie altogether. I ran as fast as my four legs could take me. Dodging a few of Harold’s bullets in the process. I heard a laugh in the distance, “Scared him off, didn’t I, Matilda?” I laughed a bit myself, one, for the fact of alive, and two, for Harold’s behaviour change. One from an angry demeanor to a happy, even victorious demeanor.

                I have no idea where I am. In the middle of open plains, there are surprisingly no maps. How is that surprising, John, I scolded myself.

                I stopped for the night and had to endure cold rain.

                In the morning time, I heaved myself up and began to walk once again. For a few hours I felt fine, but after the fifth hour, I began to grow hungry, famished, actually. Only a few more hours I would have to endure until I’m in Crowthorne, a beautiful place it is. Cecilia and I once travelled there and had to leave once it became crowded. A few months ago, I heard, from some perched birds, Crowthorne was a stable place, full of animals, but not overcrowded at all.

                What? What is this place? I had no idea where I was, once again. Somehow I travelled to London instead of Crowthorne. I could find peace in my situation. While in the heart of London, no one had the politeness to say, “I’m sorry,” or “Pardon,” whenever one should bump into you. Although I said just that, no one wanted to look down my way and smile. It’s actually a good thing no one looked my way, they may have called the proper authorities and escorted me out of the people’s way… Though I doubt it would end up that way.

                While keeping a low profile, I began to scan the area for possible scraps of food. A butcher shop in the corner, but I was a vegetarian; a florist, I can’t digest flowers well. I didn’t dare enter the shop marked, “BAKERY”, it had doors. Awful, wretched doors. A produce stand stuck out in the huge crowd of businesses. It sold mostly winter crops and a few imported items. What particularly caught my attention were the various fruits and vegetables marked “cranberries”, “broccoli”, “grapes”, “pears”. Maybe I can eat just a few. Not a lot to be a burden upon the vendor. Just a few, John, don’t be greedy, I warned myself. I ate just enough foods to fill up half of my stomach. I devoured a big cluster of reddish grapes, three bunches—I believe that’s what they’re called—of broccoli, thirty-something tart cranberries, and five pears, though I do warn you; do not eat the seeds nor the stem.

                The vendor must’ve noticed this disappearance because he began to shout, drawing attention from the Londoners to him and I.

    “You thief! You feral thief,” the vendor shouted, holding up his broom angrily.

    “Feral, I’ll have you know,” I began to speak, then the man whacked me on the nose with the broom.

                I began to run, the only thing I could and wanted to do. I wanted to run away, to get rid of this guilt bubbling up in my throat as if I were a child being scolded by his mother.

                In all this commotion, the Londoners started to speed out of the way as I ran. Some even chased me. “Hey, get that fox!” One man shouted, another grabbed a net. With a mighty swoosh, a great big net began to fall from the sky, I dashed to the left and slammed into someone’s leg. They were not too pleased with this and tackled me to the ground, powering through my struggling. “This one will make a fine meal,” the man’s booming voice rung in my ears. I, with all my strength, moved my back paws onto the man’s face and leaped forward, out of his grasp. No, I did not harm him, the hardened mud on my paws temporarily blinded him and may have catapulted into his eyes. It did seem like I hurt him though, with all his gasping sobs and cursing.

                I managed to get out of that area and tried to sneak through the alleyways of Greater London, with bustling streets, cars, and more polite persons, though they didn’t look down when saying sorry. They just went about their day. Although Greater London is a beautiful town, I did, however, need to get moving to a new place. Yes, other than Crowthorne, that plan was a bust. It wasn’t long until I reached the docks.

                Mountains of fish were piled high onto small vendor crates, the sky was as the same as the fish, big, grey, and dead looking. And it smelled, an absolute horrid smell. A smell that would knock you down and lose your hair. It was the musk of the sea, dead fish, and sewage all concocted into an unpleasant broth. What fascinated me was that the workers didn’t mind the smell at all. Nor the unsightly dead fish or sullen sky. In fact, they seemed delighted. How could they possibly be happy? The sullen sky, the sight of fish flying through the sky, the stench of the pier.

                I snuck behind a cart and overheard some men talking, “Draft dodger? I ain’t no draft dodger,” one man angrily shouted, “Got to th’ edge of England b’fore I got shrapnel in m’ left leg. Had to discharge me ‘cause of it.” Draft dodger never heard of one of those before. “Hey,” said another man, “rather be discharged than fightnin’, rather a smile than a grimace, ’s what I say.”

                As the men chatted away, I snuck passed the draft-dodging men and came upon a peculiar yet satisfying smell. What is that? I looked around the dock, still hungry from my last meal. Then, I found it, a cart of different foods and raw meat began was hurried up the platform of a nearby ship. An elegant one at that, with distinguished guests dressed in their Sunday best. How will I get on? I looked to the side and saw an opening, the cargo they were carrying was an excellent cover. It was big enough for me to hide, but small enough to not be very noticeable by wandering eyes. It’s perfect, a fool-proof plan, if you can swim. I calmed myself down and assuring that there was absolutely no way the cargo would fall off the gangplank. The cargo had not yet been hauled up to the ship, I still had time to make it on-board. I hopped into the cargo unsuspectingly and began to settle in for the ride up to the boat. As I was carefully loaded into the ship’s cargo hold, I realized something. The stupid act I just pulled was absolutely ridiculous! Wait, what am I doing? I’m not supposed to be on a boat to God knows—“Last call for Belgium,” the captain shouted in the small microphone he held.

                Belgium! I can’t be going to Belgium, I need to stay in England, I don’t belong there! I’m trying to find a home here, in England. Hunger had overcome me! A selfish act of taking had gotten me into this mess. “This is all your fault,” I quietly yelled at my grumbling stomach.

                There’s…there’s still time, yes, time to make it off the boat! I tried to jump off the ship before it took off. By the time I reached the small window’s opening, I saw the dockhands waving farewell to the other passengers. Maybe I can still make it, I thought, I then looked down and saw the deep blue ocean washing by the ship. It’s too late…I…guess I can find a home in Belgium! Yes, that’s what I’ll do, I cheered myself up. Although deep down I was completely frightened.

                The trip didn’t take nearly as long as I thought, but time seemed to stop at different moments of the day, the moments when I felt deathly ill, due to seasickness. Though there were crates of breads and fruits mixed with the other cargo, I settled on eating just the crates of prepackaged wafer crackers, the only thing my stomach could keep down.

                When I reached Belgium, I was met by a sullen sky, much like England’s, and was disturbed by the intruding sea wind that ailed me with a runny nose. How do I get to the pier? I contemplated, the answer was quite simple. I have to run. As the deckhands began to haul the cargo off the boat, I sprinted with all my might to reach the edge of the gangplank and off the pier completely. I was met with success. As I sprinted across, a few of the deckhands only watched in amazement, how a fox had made its way from England to Belgium, without the slightest appearance until now. They might have thought of it as a magic trick, as they applauded, but I didn’t have time to stop and bow. Some men saw me as a threat.

                After what seemed like an hour of running, I began to slow my pace. Aside from the grey clouds, Belgium was a beautiful country. The dewdrops of a fresh rainfall covered the small blades and the winter winds had frozen them in place, a true field of crystals. Some patches of grass were replaced by a light blanket of snow that would soon cover the Earth, refusing to be taken off until the early springtime. While trekking through the countryside of Belgium, I noticed some deer with fuzzy antlers sticking their heads out of the bare woods. Stoats and mice scurried along into small burrows that provided warmth. A band of horses and their riders galloped along, not noticing me, then soon disappeared in a flurry of snow. Small birds, those of whom chose not to migrate, trilled as they hurriedly flew back to their homely nests.

                I unconsciously followed the great horses’ hoof prints, wondering where they were headed to. It took a while to catch up to the horses who. All three, had a rope fastened around their muzzles and tied to a wooden stall. Next to this stall were white tents with a glowing light peeking out from each of them. I decided to take a look inside. Four men stood, one tending to the bright fire, another hovering over a map, and the remaining two were in a heated argument.

                “Our men have dug out the trenches, and you want to just face them head-on? Are you completely mad?” one man shouted.

                “Yes, I do see the advantages of a trench warfare but, an offensive, rather than a defensive plan of attack is guaranteed to be met with a swift victory, Andrews, trust me,” the other man smiled victoriously.

                “At what cost, Smith, the fatality rate will surely triple! Less men will return home, the trenches are our best bet of winning this war,” said Andrews, listening to the voice of reason.

                “What of the diseases and illnesses the trenches will carry? England couldn’t even supply every soldier a pair boots. Some would be running through them in only their socks,” said the man who was hovering over the map.

                “Maybe, we should all come up with a strategic plan that everyone can agree on,” said the man who tended to the fire.

                “This is none of your business, Martin, you’re just a medic,” Smith snapped at him, “Why don’t you go bandage up a soldier?”

                Martin rose from his small, wooden stool by the fire and threw down the metal poker. “Klaus, it was just a joke,” Andrews said, looking angrily at Smith, “a cruel one at that”. He tried to bring Klaus back but was met by the loose white tent flap that covered the exit. I looked up at Martin as he passed by. He looked down at me and his angry expression softened. “Fox, you should leave,” he told me gently and nudged me with his shoe, “Go on.” I listened to him and began to leave.

                Klaus Martin sat down on a nearby post and began to light a white paper on fire, he held it to his lips and began to breathe out smoke. Oh no, a fire! I almost shouted as I turned back around and ran towards the man. I slammed into him by accident and knocked the fiery paper out of his hand, he got up and nearly cursed until he saw me dousing snow onto the flaming object. “Don’t like me smoking?” Klaus asked, laughing a bit. I looked up at him as he outstretched his hand to pet my head. I hesitated a bit, “I’m not gonna hurt’ya,” Klaus smiled. I allowed him to pet me on the head a few times. He unwrapped a small cloth that contained a bit of cheese, he offered it to me and I accepted it gratefully. He pet my muzzle as I ate.

                I heard a bullet load into a gun, much like the sound I heard at the hunter’s house, “Stay still lil’ fella,” a man behind Klaus directed the gun towards me, he was stumbling a bit and slurring his words together. Klaus tried to calm the man down, “Westlan, put the gun down, you’re obviously—”

                A shot rang out, Klaus looked back at me, as I remained unharmed. The one bird hovering in the sky was not so lucky. “Well, look’e that,” Westlan smiled warmly at the dead bird. The two arguing men rushed out from the tent followed by the map-keeper. “What’s going on,” Andrews demanded. Westlan kept his eyes on the bird, Klaus spoke up, “Sir, what happened was—” “—I don’t care, you idiots just gave our position away,” Smith angrily yelled.

                He was right. By the looks of it, large groups of men peered out from the opposing trenches and the sky began to hail bullets. “Men, get into positions,” Smith called out to his scrambling men from the tents.

                “All men to—” Smith began to command, then stopped. He crumpled to the ground, men rushed to him. What a melodramatic man, he only had a grazed shoulder. There, fortunately, was a ceasefire, a truce. In all this commotion, the trench-men were actually on our side. They were scolded profusely by not recognizing their own commander’s voice. No serious damage did occur, though the commander was grazed on his right shoulder, no one else was shot. Some tent damage did occur but could be mended.

                A burning sensation overcame me as I began to walk toward Klaus, who was also being scolded by Smith for giving their position away to the “potential enemy”. I began to see spots of white, I looked down and I saw the colour that has haunted me ever since. Red. A bright red that stained my fur and seeped onto the nearby grass. Klaus must have seen this too. He caught me as I became unbalanced and started to tip over. Klaus hauled me into his arms, which gained Smith’s attention.

                “Another excellent example…fox…could have been one of your comrades…hope…learned your…lesson…” Smith pointed to me, making the men turn to Klaus and I. I felt light-heads and cold, I felt a rumbling sensation as Klaus began to speak, “He needs…help…medical attention…” The world’s colours began to fade, into a stark white. I began to hear people less and less, the world would soon turn black. I saw the commander, it didn’t look like him at all, just a smudge of white on a greying canvas. I closed my eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.

                “Don’t worry…be alright…just take some time,” someone spoke to me. I began to see the world’s beautiful colours of the world once again, and my hearing had returned. Where am I? I began to panic slightly, a hand rested on my head I looked up slightly, it was Klaus.

                I tried to move but he placed a reassuring hand on my muddy paw. “You don’t want to move, that bullet went through you,” he said. My chest hurt a bit, “You have a broken rib and two bullet holes…you should rest,” Klaus smiled to calm me down. I felt a slight jostle, I looked outside the window revealed the bare trees rushing past us. “We’re in a car,” he seemed to read my thoughts.

                I moved my head back down to rest, I saw Klaus try to shift his position and saw him grimace. His leg was wrapped in white bandages. “Looks like you weren’t the only one,” Klaus tried to laugh it off, “we’re being discharged, buddy,” Klaus said. I dropped my head, discharged, leaving a place and once again and leaving a friend. “Don’t worry, you’ll come with me, in live in France, it’s not far from here…”

                He had quite a beautiful home in Arles.

    “Here,” Klaus opened up a book, “what’s your name?” Funny, he thinks as if I can actually read. Luckily for him, I can. I barked at the name “JOHN” as he slid his finger down the name book. “John, huh?” Klaus pet my head. “I think you’re going to enjoy your new life, John.”

                I’ve been living at Klaus’ house for a few years now. He didn’t mind having a fox for company and I didn’t mind him. His home is a few miles from the beach where we often visit and take relaxing walks.

                Klaus does have some odd habits though he drinks straight from the carton, he likes to bundle up sheets and lay on the floor, and leaves his clothes on the ground. I don’t mind these things though. The milk never tastes odd, he allows me to sleep next to him, and his clothes act as a sort of napping bed for me.

                He enjoys, when we come back from the beach, to walk a few miles to a house where a blond woman named Lily chats with him, they like each other, and it’s quite obvious. And she doesn’t mind me either, which makes me favour her greatly. Recently he’s been talking about weddings and my opinions on shiny diamond rings for Lily.

                I often think of the bird Westlan shot instead of me, I think of how it may have possibly saved by life. I also think of his, as Klaus now calls it, “drunk state” and how it hindered his mind into firing to the sky instead of the horizon where I lay.

                My wounds have healed, thankfully. The only evidence of its existence are two small scars that peer out from my fur, Klaus has recovered well too and no longer has any use for his crutches. I ponder about how the world would have turned out if I was no longer apart from it.

                I try to shake these thoughts out my head as Klaus opens his newspaper. He is dressed in his comfortable robe and puts on his reading glasses as he slips into his plush chair. The newspaper reads: “WE WON THE WAR: Trenches Do Solve Problems…” I guess Andrews was right, I smile gently.

                There I am. Curled up by the warm fire. Safe at home.

     

    Short Story Winner Fall 2015  :  Amy Rodriguez

     
     

    Evilyn Crenshaw

                   

                    Mental Institutions have always fascinated me. Everyone is so calm, nice and very welcoming. Everyone here thinks I’m special and I couldn’t agree more. John, my psychiatrist, finally heard my story on how I cured my students by sending them to a cabin. 

     

                    Caroline

     

                                    I open my eyes. I’m wide awake now on a cloudy Monday morning. I hate this. I hate waking up in this damn house with my mother. Does this make me a bad person? To resent my own mother? It probably does, but I don’t care anymore. Most days it’s like I don’t feel anything anymore: no emotions, no attitude, nothing. Nothing at all.

                   “Caroline you better be up already!” my mother yelled.

                   “I’m coming mother!”

                   “Well you better hurry up. I have company coming over today, and I can’t have them knowing I own a worthless kid like you”.

                   It’s so annoying when she does that. My mother has always referred to me as something she owns, and never her daughter. I used to care, but after years of it I just got used to it. As I’m putting on my shoes I have a flashback of my first day of kindergarten. I was so excited that day. I remember putting on my brand new shoes and my mother came in to check on me.

                   “Caroline are you almost ready? You’re taking too long to get ready. ”

                   “Yes mommy.”

                   Those two simple words got me a big slap across my face.

                   “Don’t you ever call me that again? Do you honestly think I care about you? You ruined my life! I should be out with friends and having the time of my life, but instead I’m here babysitting you! No wonder why your father left. It’s all your fault! ” she yelled.

                    I wipe my tears off of my face as the memory that scarred my life leaves me alone with my mother and other deep, depressing memories.

                    As I get to my first hour class, Algebra, I can feel the anxiety coming in from everyone staring at me. I do the exercises that the school counselor, Ms. Crenshaw, taught me; First, breathe in and out, then count slowly 1 to 10. For some reason it’s not working! I can hear voices in my head yelling at me. “LOOK! Everyone around you hates you just like your mother always has!” I can’t catch my breathe. I feel myself slowly falling. Then, it goes all dark.

                    “Where am I?” I whisper as I begin to remember what happened. I look around and realize I’m in the counselor's “healing room “. This is a “special” room that Ms. Crenshaw made for when something happens to students, however the situation happens to not deal with anything physical, for that’s what the nurse’s office is for.

                    “Hey Caroline, how are you feeling?”

                    I love to hear Ms.Crenshaws sweet voice. She’s probably the only person who actually cares about me, either that or she’s a great actress.

                    “I’m confused. I don’t remember what happened.”

                    I lied.

                    “ Caroline, you had an anxiety attack. Your teacher says you were doing fine, then you suddenly started screaming at everyone. What happened this morning? Did you drink your medication?”

                    I trace back my steps to this morning. Ugh, I forgot to take my medicine. I can’t tell her. If I do, she’ll call my mother, so I lie.

                    “ Yes. I took them right when I got out of bed.”

                    I nod my head down. I can feel her staring at me and determining whether I’m lying or not. After awhile, she finally speaks.

                    “ Okay then. Look, it’s your junior year, and you haven’t done a single fun thing in high school. For this reason, I’ve decided to get permission to send you on a three day, two night field trip to go camping. It’ll be a great experience for you to relax and make friends with other students with...problems.”

                    Camping trip? I have never been camping, or have actually traveled anywhere. Maybe she’s right, maybe it will help me.

                    “ Okay.” I say.

                    “ Great! I just need you to come in after school and pick up a few forms. You will come here Friday morning and be back at school on Sunday afternoon.”

                    “ Ms.Crenshaw, um where exactly is the camp site?”

                    I feel myself getting tense as I wait for her response. If it’s somewhere tiny, I know I will get very claustrophobic and fill up with anxiety if we have to stay in a tiny tent, especially with others, other people who will stare at me.

                    “ Don’t worry Caroline. You guys will be staying in a cabin in the woods. This cabin is only a few hours away from here, so you’ll be fine. Now then, just meet me here after school, and I’ll introduce you to the others.”

                    Others? I can’t help to wonder what other students will be like. Druggies? Bullies? Loners like me? I guess I’ll just have to find out.

     

                    Mike

     

                    “ RING, RING, RING ”

                    “ Mike! Get up already! I swear if you’re late to school again I’ll…”

                    “ I’m up! I’m up! Jeez there’s no need to yell.”

                    “ What did you just say?! You’re lucky I’m running late to work or else I’d teach you to not talk to me like that.”

                    “ Dad, I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”

                    “ You know what, apparently you’re always tired. I’ll get you up.”

                    “ No dad please, I promise I’ll get up on time tomorrow.”

                    I can hear his footsteps coming up the stairs, as the floor creaks. I begin to prepare myself. As my father storms into the room, his dark glare already has me shaking.

                    “ You think you can answer me any way you want or what?”

                    “ I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

                    “ Yeah, well I’ll teach you a lesson!”

                    I begin to shiver as I see him take a belt. I Can already feel it coming. Then, I feel it. The cold metal part of his belt as it slashes against my back. I do something I’ve never done before; I fight back. I instantly grab the belt out of reflex.

                    “ Oh, you think you can fight back now huh! Well then go ahead then! Hit me!”

                    I freeze. What did I just do? I think, long and hard.

                    “ I knew it! You’re to much of a whimp to stand up for yourself. No wonder why you’re such a loser in school. Whatever, you wasted my time. I’m leaving now.”

                    It’s now 7:45. Great. Now I’m late to school. As I get to school I can still feel my father's words repeat in my head. Ugh I just want to punch him sometimes. I can feel the rush in my body. All the adrenaline, all the energy. As I’m walking to class, I feel so energized. I’m supposed to try to calm myself down. My school counselor taught me this. She’s an amazing lady. She’s the only one who understands me, and the only one who knows what i go through, and doesn’t snitch me out.

                    As I’m about to open the door to second hour, i lose it. Another student bumps into me.

                    “ Watch where you’re going!”, I yell

                    “ Jeez I’m sorry.”

                    “ You know what, I know you’re not!”

                    Then, I instantly grabbed him and shoved him against the wall.

                    “ Mike! Stop it!”

                    I get control of myself when I hear Ms.Crenshaws voice.

                    “ Come to my office. NOW!”

                    It’s now been three hours of just sitting here. Honestly, the only thing on my mind is my father's reaction when he finds out. Finally, Ms.Crenshaw walks in. She has a relieved, yet serious look on her face. This better be good.

                    “ Okay, luckily you won’t be getting suspended. Don’t be too happy though. Mike, you can’t be acting up every time you have a bad start in the morning. Look, you need to be more open and nicer. Did your dad do something again?”

                    I don’t answer.

                    “ Have you been hearing the “ music” I provided for you?”

                    I actually havn’t been hearing it, but I stay quiet anyway.

                    “ Fine, don’t answer. Look, I honestly think you’d be behaving better if you had more friends. For this reason, I think you should attend a “ special” kind of group therapy. It’ll be a lot of fun. There’s going to be other students with similar problems, and I think you’ll do just great. What do you think?”

                    Group therapy huh? I honestly don’t want people to know I’m a loser who can’t even defend himself. On the other hand, it’ll be time away from my father and his whippings.

                    “ What kind of field trip is it?” I finally ask.

                    “ I’m glad you’re interested. It’s a camping trip from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon. It’s in a cabin in the woods only a few hours away from here.”

                    “ Okay, I’ll go.”

                    “ Cool, then just come on after school to pick up forms and meet the group you’ll be going with.”

     

                    Sarah

     

                    I wake up to an urge. I already know what for; my “ medication.” I quickly get up and go directly to my box hidden between my laundry basket and my shoe box. As soon as I open it, I suddenly remember my plan. My plan to get over this addiction I never even wanted. It’s all her fault. I shake my head to wash away the memory of the conversation that led me to this addiction.

                    “ Sarah! Honey, it’s time to get going to school. Are you up?”

                    I walk to the kitchen half dressed. I can smell the delicious food ready. I know my mom is really trying to be the best mother she can, especially after my dad walked out on us, but I don’t blame him. She kept a huge secret from us and now I have to pay. I never get to see him, and I’m stuck here with my mom and her pity on me.

                    “ I’ll eat at school.”

                    “ Are you sure? I can make you something else if you like.”

                    “ I said no. I’m running late anyway. Oh, and I might be home a little late. I’m stopping by with Ms.Crenshaw to meet the other losers who are going on the trip.”

                    “ Okay. I’m excited for you. This will be a great experience for you. Maybe you’ll even make some new friends.”

                    “ Yeah, whatever. I just want to get away from here.”

                    As I walk out the door, I feel guilt. I just can’t help it. She should be happy I’m even talking to her.

     

                    John

     

                    Ugh, todays my first day back to school. I already know how it’s going to go; everyone will judge, my teachers will judge, and no one will give a crap about me, as always. The only person who actually cares about me is my best friend Sarah. Sarah and I have always been there for eachother. We both know what it’s like to have a crappy parent in our lives.

                    I go down stairs to see if I have anyone who can give me a ride to school. Everyones gone. Of course. As I’m about to go back to my room, I notice a letter on the table with my name on it. I open it to see what it says. I get a little curious when I see that my school counselor, Ms.Crenshaw signed it. I’ve never actually talked to her at school, but she did visit me at the hospital, and Sarah says she’s pretty cool.

     

    3:15 p.m. ( After school )

            Ms.Crenshaw

     

                    Everyone’s coming in already. I can’t wait for all of them to become friends and overcome their addictions,and all because of me. Finally! Everyones here and I can finally begin. Hopefully I won’t mess up and accidently let them know the things they’re going to be experiencing.

                    “ Good afternoon,” I begin.

                    Gosh, they’re all staring at me, their helpless, innocent faces. Maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe it’s too harsh what they’re going to experience. No. They have to, I mean if they want to get better, and I’m going to make sure it happens. But Sarah might be a problem. Hmm, I’ll just have to get rid of her if she gets in my way.

                    “ I want everyone to say hi to each other. These are the students you guys will be with for three days starting Friday.”

                    Everyone is now interacting, so I guess that’s a good thing. I guess I won’t push it.

                    “ Okay then, that went well. I want everyone to meet back here on Friday morning at 5 a.m.”

     

                    Caroline

     

                    Oh, no. I can’t believe I’m going to be staying in an environment with a drug addict and someone who just came out of a looney bin. I guess I’m not the only screwed up kid in this school.

     

                    Mike

     

                    Ugh, I really don’t feel like going to this stupid thing, but I also really don’t feel like being hit and hit all weekend. Guess I’ll just make the best of it, if that’s possible, especially since there’s going to be people with anxiety issues with us.

     

                    Sarah

     

                    Yes! I will finally be able to talk to John. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him. I wonder how he’s doing. I just hope his problems with Mike are over.

     

                    John

     

                    Swear, nobody told me Mike was going. It’s all his fault why my life was ruined. He didn’t even visit me. Not once. Such an “amazing friend ” I had.

     

                    The Cabin

     

                    Caroline

     

                    It’s early Friday morning. Too early. As I’m looking out the window, I can’t help to wish I was playing in the snow like the other kids were.

                    This is the probably the most awkward car ride I’ve ever had with my mother. I really wish the school buses didn’t have to cancel on us. The only reason my mother agreed to bring me, is because I told her it was a required school event.

     

                    Mike

     

                    I’m so glad I got my neighbor to take me to this camping thing. I’m trying real hard to imagine myself playing in the snow, but I can’t stop thinking about the nightmare I had last night. It’s a little fuzzy in my head. All I remember is me walking into a room, a very plain room with nails on the wall with weapons hanging on them. However, they’re not just weapons. They’re the same things my dad uses to hit me. When i see this, I try running out the door, but I can’t. There’s a monster yelling at me.

                    “Do it!”

                    I notice i’m now holding a belt in my hand, and I’m no longer in the room. I’m now on the top of a stairway. The monster begins to laugh at me.

                    “I knew it. You’re to much of a chicken to fight back!”

                    The monster then takes away the belt to try and hit me with it.

                    “No! Please! Leave me alone!”

                    I’m yelling my lungs out, begging for someone, anyone, to hear me. Then I feel a shaking.

                    I’m wide awake now. I can’t believe it. I actually fell asleep again, and had the exact same nightmare. This time in the car. I look out the car window. This is the most ugliest cabin I have ever seen.

     

                    Sarah

     

                    I was the first one to arrive. As I walked to the doorstep, there’s a letter taped on the door. It read;

    “WELCOME!”

                    Okay? That’s a little weird. Then I notice a post it note on the back. As I read it, I can’t help but to be confused by it. I put the my cold, shaking hands on the door nob. I twist to open it. As I enter, no one's there. How weird that this field trip has no sponsors. Is that even allowed?

                    I hear a car pull up. Oh no, Mike is here.

     

                    Caroline

     

                    I  feel weird in this cabin. Not one single teacher is here. I notice everyone trying to call someone, but there’s no reception out here, and there’s no public anywhere for another four hours. I honestly feel creeped out here. I can feel something watching me and criticizing me.

                    “ Stop it! Stop it!”

                    Oh no. It happened.  Now everyone's staring at me. What can I say to fix it.

                    “I’m sorry”, I begin, “ I just...I just.

                    “ Are you okay?” Sarah asks.

                    “Yeah, I just had a panic moment, but I’m fine now.”

     

                    Mike

     

                    I can’t believe that we’re all stuck here. No one knows what's going on, and the crazy chick just had had a hallucination. Great.

                    “Wait a second, how did the first person who arrived even get in?” I ask.

                    Everyone turns to Sarah waiting for an explanation.

                    “How did you get in?”

     

                    Sarah

                   

                    Everyone turns to me waiting for an explanation. How am I supposed to explain that our counselor left the door unlocked, and knew I  would arrive first. I guess I’ll just show them the letter that was taped on the door.

                    “Well,” I begin, “ I got here and noticed a letter taped on the door. When I opened it, it’s as if the person who put it there knew I would be here first.”

                    When I see everyone's face, I get the feeling that no one is believing a word that comes out of my mouth.

                    “Look, I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it’s true.”

                    “Then show us the letter” Mike says.

                    I reach into my pocket searching for it, then pull out a envelope.

                    “Look.”

                    I open it up, but then realize that this a completely different letter. This one has a list with everyone's name on it. Oh no! I see everyone's face in disbelief and confusion.

                    “I swear this wasn’t in my pocket you guys.”

     

                    John

     

                    I’m so confused right now. First, Caroline has a complete meltdown, and now Sarah just lied about how she got inside. I really hope this isn’t the drugs that are talking.

                    “It’s ok Sarah, just read what the letter has to say.”

                    “What do you mean it’s okay!?” Mike yells. “I  bet she’s just making this up! She doesn’t know anything,  especially with all those drugs in her system.”

                    I can’t believe he just said that! Sarahs my best friend so I have to do what’s right by defending her. I swing at Mike, but instantly get pulled back by Sarah.

     

                    Sarah

     

                    I can’t believe this is happening. Mike actually thinks I’m back with drugs. I know John well enough to know that he thinks the same. I got everyone to calm down a little, so I speak again.

                    “Look, let me just read what the letter says.”

                    No one says a word or even attempts to look my way, so i begin;

                    “WELCOME EVERYONE!” it begins, “I’m glad everyone was able to make it. This camping experience is a little different from other trips you have all been on. For example, I’m sure you have all noticed by now that there is no supervisors. This is because I want each one of you to feel trusted and handle everything on your on. However, there are specific rules that must be followed. They are,

     

    1.Everyone will be sleeping in the room assigned to them. ( Each room has a tag with your name on it.)

    1. No one is allowed in each other's room, for each room reveals a secret about each of you individually. Unless you wish for it to be discovered, stay out of each other's rooms.
    2. Whatever happens this weekend shall not be talked about, or else.

                    If all four of you follow these three simple rules, you should be fine. With that in mind, it’s best if you all begin to communicate positively by sitting in a circle and telling each other something that makes you uncomfortable to talk about. For example; Caroline can talk about her mother's abuse, Mike can talk about his drinking problems, Sarah can talk about what her mother has done to her, and John can talk about his experience in rehab. With that said, enjoy you weekend!

     

                                                                                    Ms.Crenshaw

     

                    Caroline

     

                    Oh no. I feel it coming; all the anxiety. Now everyone knows my mother abuses me. I don’t even care about the fact that Sarah might’ve been abused as well. I only know one thing for sure; I want to leave right now.

     

                    Mike

     

                    Drinking problems! I swear if this is some kind of stupid joke John planned just to humiliate me, I’ll make sure he goes back to rehab. I can’t believe he won’t get over it. It was just an accident, and if he’s blaming anyone, it should be my father. He’s the one who ruined his life.

     

                    Sarah

     

                    This can’t be from Ms.Crenshaw. She wouldn’t expose our personal lives like that. Would she?

     

                    John

     

                    I knew it! This stupid trip was just to humiliate me. If they really want to know me, I’ll show them the real me.

                    “ So,” I begin, “ you have drinking problems Mike?”

                    I just want to see the reaction on Mike’s face, but as soon as the words escape my mouth I feel guilt.

     

    Sarah

     

    “Just stop,” I begin, “let’s just share a little bit of something about ourselves. It doesn’t have to be too personal.”

    No one says anything.

                    “Fine I’ll go first. Um, I’m pretty sure most of you know, but just in case you don’t, I’m a recovering drug addict. However, this is my mother's fault. She made me this way.”

                    I stop talking before I break into tears.

                    “Caroline? Do you want to go next?”

     

                    Caroline

     

                    I can tell Sarah is about ready to break into tears. What am I supposed to say? I’m not a drug addict or an alcoholic.

                    “Well… I’m here because I have panic attacks, and I have social anxiety.”

                    That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t care what they think or say.

     

                    Mike

     

                    I’m not going to say anything. My life is nobody's business.

                    “Why don’t you go next John? You probably have the best story to tell, since you did spend a long time in a rehab center.”

                    John gets angry. I can tell.

     

                    John

     

                    “You know what, I will tell my story, but I’ll tell the whole truth to it.”

                    I think of what to say, but nothing comes to mind. I guess I’ll just say what really did happen.

                    “So in case anybody didn’t know, Mike and I used to be best friend. He was like a brother to me, but you see, Mike always had a drinking problem. That’s right people, not me, but Mike. I always told him to stop, but he never listened, and to make it better, his dad blamed me for some reason. Should I continue Mike?”

                    At this point I don’t care about what Mike does or how he reacts, so i just continue;

                    “Well one night, Mike calls me over to his house to have a drink because his dad pissed him off again, and I felt bad for you Mike. I decided that for once in my life I would take a risk, I would drink with you because you were my best friend. I even bought the beer for us. Little did I know that would be my ticket for rehab.”

                    I take a deep breath. I can feel tears rushing down my face, but I don’t care. Everyone has criticised me and called me a drunky, and I’m tired of it. Everyone needs to know what really happened.

                    “Later that night, Mike's dad comes home and sees us with beer in our hands, so he has me arrested for underage drinking, but also tells them that I’m an alcoholic who’s always buying beer for his son. That’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that Mike agreed, he didn’t even stand up for me. He even convinced my own parents that I’m an alcoholic. What a true friend.”

                    Everyone stares at Mike, waiting for an explanation.

                    “Come on man, was it that bad?” Mike says.

                    “Not that bad! Mike I still have nightmares about what they did to me in there! Not even that, but I have to now attend AA meetings! Everyone in my family treats me differently! You ruined my life!”

                    I can’t take this. I get up and leave to look for my room. No one says a word as I walk off.

                    When I get up the stairs I look for my room, for all the rooms are labeled with our names on them. My room is the last door on the right side of the hallway. I have a hard time opening the door. gosh, I hate doors like these. They frustrate me,especially because the ones at the hospital would never open when I wanted them to. I can’t believe my eyes when I first look around my room. It looks just like Pine Woods rehab center, but 10x worse. The entire room is white and there’s chairs in the center of the room, all facing each other in a semi circle. To top it off, one wall if filled with posters on why teens shouldn’t drink, and the others are filled with posters about how to deal with alcoholic friends. However, in the corner of the room there’s a pack of paper hanging off the wall. Filled with anger, I go to see what this crap has to say. I feel so confused on what I’m reading. I don’t understand, but then it all clicks together.It’s the interview conversations I had with my doctor. Before I can throw it away, I read the bottom:

                    “It’s highly possible that John will return to drinking, unless he controls himself and stays away from alcohol completely.”

    I can’t believe this! The stupid doctor actually thought I had a drinking problem! I feel so much anger. I flip all the chairs over and tear the room apart. I fall to the floor and think about how my life is so screwed up.

     

    Caroline

     

                    After John left, we all decided to go to bed as well. When we get to the top of the stairs I can see my my name on my room door. Great. My rooms the first door, right at the top of the stairs. Before I go in, I can’t help but to notice that Sarah picked another argument with Mike. Ugh, I’m so tired I decide just to go and sleep. As soon as I enter I close the door behind me.

                    Before I can take a breath, I notice strange markings on all four walls. I go up to see what they say.

                    I can feel the sudden rush coming to me as I read it. It’s my name carved everywhere. Then, when I turn around and see the other walls, I see it. A big printing on the wall:

                    YOU NO GOOD WORTHLESS DAUGHTER! I start screaming and crying.

                    “Why?! Why can’t you leave me alone?!”

                    I fall to the floor and cry myself to sleep.

     

                    Mike

     

                    Great. Sarah decided to pick another argument with me about John.

                    “Look,” I say, “just leave me alone and go to sleep like everyone else.”

                    “Do you hear that?” she says.

                    “Omg, hear what?”

                    Then i hear it. It’s Caroline. She’s crying.

                    “She’s probably just having a moment, so just leave it alone.”

                    Just by the look on Sarah’s face, I know she won’t.

                    “She sounds like she’s in pain.”

                    “No!” I yell, “ Don’t go in her room. Isn’t it bad enough what happened fifteen minutes ago. Just don’t.”

                    I feel that she’s not going to listen, so before she does anything stupid, I walk away to my room. Out of all rooms, it’s the one right next to Caroline. When I walk in, I get this strange feeling. I notice a mini fridge right in front of a big wall filled with belts and whips hanging down, just like in my nightmares. Is this some kind of a sick joke? I open my door and expect for John to come out laughing, but no one's there. I quickly go back into my room, and slam the door shut. I throw everything hanging from the walls to the floor. Instead of seeing an empty wall, it’s covered with messages. I feel so much anger inside, so I punch the wall many times until my first starts bleeding. I fall to the floor. I decided to open the fridge out curiosity. Beer, vodka, and liquor bottles fill the fridge.

                    “Might as well,” I say.

                    I open up a bottle of liquor and begin to drink until I can’t think anymore.

     

    Sarah

     

                    Mike’s right. I couldn’t just walk into Caroline's room. Not after what just happened in the living room. After he leaves, I decide to go to sleep. My rooms right between Mike’s and John’s. I close the door behind me. Everything seems okay, except for this random box right on top of my bed with a not on top. It read:

    “Sarah, fight the temptation!”

                    I instantly feel the urge to open it up. Inside, I find packages of every substance I have ever tried. I can’t believe this. I haven't had this much handed to me in a long time.

                    “Stop!” I cry out, “I can do this. I don’t need it.”

    I carry the box and put it under my bed. Then I realize that if anyone sees this, they’ll think I’m back on the drugs.

     

    Caroline

     

    I wake up thinking I just had a nightmare. Unfortunately, I’m wrong. I have the same feeling as waking up to my mother. All the bathroom mirror. I can’t even wash my face without seeing the word “WORTHLESS” spread across something. Before heading downstairs, I notice that my eyes are still red from crying so much last night. Hopefully nobody notices. I wonder if anyone else had the same or worst experience than I did.

    I head downstairs to the kitchen. I hope eating together isn’t as awkward as last night. When I get there, everyone's already there eating toast or drinking either coffee or orange juice. Everyone, except Mike. He was drinking last night. You can tell. It’s not just him that’s acting strange though. Sarah is shaking in fear, and John looks like he’s about to lose it at any time. I grab a seat, and sit next to Sarah, facing Mike. Everyone sits in silence.

     

    Mike

     

    When I woke up, I had the biggest headache. I try to get up quickly, but trip over all the bottles lying on the floor. I bet nobody else had strange things going on last night. Well maybe Caroline. I head downstairs trying not to trip and fall.

    As I walk into the kitchen, I look around for Advil and some water. When I open all the drawers, I finally find some. As soon as I grab it, I notice that the cap has my name on top. This has to be some kind of a sick joke. Then I hear someone coming down, so I quickly tuck in the bottle into my sweater pockets. I turn around, but stumble.  It’s Sarah.

     

    Sarah

     

    I didn’t sleep at all last night. I had the feeling someone was going to barge in and take my stash away. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t control the urges anymore. It’s 7 a.m. I hear someone downstairs. I leave my room, but make sure I close the door tight, but feel paranoid someone is there. As soon as I get to the kitchen I see Mike. He’s drunk.

    “You’re drunk, aren’t you?” I begin to feel angry. I bet John’s not even the alcoholic. It’s Mike.

    “Answer Me!” I yell.

    He looks up, and just nods his head.

    “You were actually stupid enough to bring alcohol with you. I bet this was all you! You were probably the one who’s making all of us feel crazy!”

    I wait for him to say something.

    “Sarah,” he begins, “I Promise you that the alcohol was already in my room. I swear.”

    I actually believe him. I mean if the alcohol was already in his room, like the drugs were in mine, I wonder if the others had something in their room. I’m scared to ask. Before I can say anything, I hear John come in. He looks like a mess.

     

    John

     

    I decide just to go along with the rest of the weekend. I swear though, if Mike says one word about me being an alcoholic, I’m going to lose it.

    Mike and Sarah are already talking when I enter the kitchen. I can’t even look at them, so I just sit and eat whatever's on the table. Before things get weirder, Caroline walks in. Out of everyone, I  actually feel sensitive towards her. She actually seems like she has nothing to do with this mess, so I decided to try and comfort her.

    “Hey Caroline, how’d you sleep?”

    She just stares at me. It’s like she wants to say something, but can’t, or won’t. Should I ask her again, or just let the awkwardness fill the room?

    “Caroline?”

    Instead of Caroline answering, Mike does.

    “Just leave her alone John.”

    “Why don’t you just shut up Mike. We all know the real you, but you know what, right now I can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with any of you!”

    I feel angry. I feel betrayed. How is it that no one has my back, when they all know I’m a victim, and Mike’s an alcoholic.            

    “I’m sorry for trying to be your friend Caroline! I’m sorry that you have to be that way Mike, and I’m sorry that I ever thought we were friends Sarah!

    I get up and leave. Then I realize Mike is following me, and he’s not happy. I run up the stairs and go up to my room.

     

    Mike

     

    John can’t just yell at us like that. I follow him to see what his problem is. Before I can catch up to him, he’s already in his room. A part of me wants to just go in, but I also know that I’m at risk of having my whole life exposed. I decide just to risk it and go in.

    “What are you doing in here?!”

    I can’t believe what I see. His room is full of posters that should be in my room. Then it hits me. I’m a monster. This is what I did to my best friend. Before I can say anything, I feel a shove. A hard shove out of his room into the hall.

    “Get out!” he’s yelling.

    “John calm down! I’m sorry! I promise I’ll fix this man. I screwed up okay. You don’t deserve this, and everything you said downstairs was  true.”

    “No! You can’t fix this okay. My life is over. You didn’t have to be in rehab with a bunch of doctors who made you feel crazy! You didn’t lose your best friend!”

    John has completely lost it. He tries to punch me, but i grab his wrist and try to calm him down, but there’s this voice in my head telling me something else.

    “Don’t be a loser!” It says. Then I realize it’s my father's voice. “Show him your a man!”

    “No!” I begin yelling. “John is my friend!”

    I get angry. I try fighting it, but I come to realize that I’m taking it out on John. There’s blood all over me. But it’s not my blood. It’s his, and his body is down the stairs, and his face is messed up. What did I do?! Sarah is yelling, and Caroline is having a hard time breathing. I don’t know what to do.

    “John!” I begin to yell, while I run down the stairs. I check for a pulse, but I can’t concentrate. There’s blood everywhere. Blood all over his face, and blood on the floor, coming from his head. I don’t feel a pulse. I can’t believe this. I murdered my best friend.

     

                    Caroline

     

                    I can’t believe what just happened. I feel terrified. Sarah is yelling and crying on the floor, and Mike just ran up to his room. I don’t know what to do. It all just happened so fast. A minute ago Sarah and I were in the kitchen trying to figure out whether or not to try and help Mike and John work thing out. Then all of a sudden we hear Mike yelling weird things like:

                    “Get out of my head! He’s my friend! Leave him alone!”

                    Who was he yelling at? At that moment, Sarah had gone running to the living room and began yelling. That’s when I went to see what was going on.

                    “Call for help Caroline!”

                    I go running looking for my phone. There’s no reception out here, and no sort of transportation to go anywhere.

                    Sarah is going through and reading the letter Ms.Crenshaw left for us.

                    “Sarah, what are we going to do?” I ask.

                    She finally calms down a little.

                    “I don’t know” she says, then leaves without another word to her room.

     

                    Sarah

     

                    I don’t know what to do right now. I’m pacing back and forth. I need something right now to calm me down. I try to fight the temptation, but it’s coming back towards me ten times harder. I tear open the box and decide that just a few won’t hurt me.

                    It’s been a few hours and I actually feel relaxed. Then I begin to hear someone tap on my door. I’m scared to open the door and see Mike. But what if it’s Caroline?

                    “Caroline?” I call out.

                    I decide to open the door just a little. I can’t belive it! It’s Ms.Crenshaw.

                    “Ms.Crenshaw! You have to help me and Caroline. There was a freak accident, and now John is dead! We need to leave.”

                    She’s just staring at me like I’m crazy. Mabey she’s in shock.

                    “Ms.Crenshaw! Help us! Please!”

                    I can’t take this. I start shaking her and yelling at her but she’s not doing anything.

                    “Sarah!” she yells, “It’s okay. Mike figured it out. Don’t you get it? He now understands that he needs help, and he will get it.”

                    “What is wrong with you! What kind of a counselor are you!”

                    I can’t believe what I’m hearing. She knew what was going to happen all along. I move out of her way to go find Caroline. When I get to her room she’s gone, so I run down to the kitchen, and see her just sitting there and crying her eyes out.

                    “Caroline! Ms.Crenshaw is here, and she’s lost it.”

                    She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t even turn my way.

                    “Caroline!”

                    “Don’t you get it!”, Crenshaw yelled, “Mike learned, but you didn’t. You freaked out and went straight back to doing drugs. You did this to yourself Sarah!”

                    I calm down a little, then it hits me. I go running up stairs back to my room, but terrefied of what I might see. Then there it is. My body, and right next to it are a bunch of empty bottles. Overdose.

     

                    Mike

     

                    I’m a killer! I can’t believe what’s happening. I just sit and think for a few hours. I wonder what Sarah and Caroline are thinking. Mabey they saw what happened, because I don’t even know what happened. I had some kind of a hallucination or something. I can’t think anymore when I hear someone yelling, but it’s not Sarah. It’s Caroline. I get up and run out the door. She’s in Sarahs room. As soon as I run in, I don’t know what I’m seeing. Sarahs just lying there. I check for a pulse, but feel nothing.

                    “I just came to check on her!”, Caroline cries out, “No! Sarah!”

                    I don’t know what to do. I pull Caroline up and away from Sarahs body. She’s such a big mess, and can’t even get up to walk right, so I carry her into the kitchen.

     

                    Caroline

     

                    I can’t stop crying. Sarah and John are gone. What if the police don’t believe our side of the story? Mike doesn’t say a word, so I do the same.

                    We just sit and stare all night, and all morning, until we hear a knock on the door. Mike gets up to open it. It’s the police. As soon as they see John's body they begin searching around the house like crazy. Mike and I just sit in shock.

                    “Ma’am are you hurt?” the police begin to question me, “Ma’am whose drugs are these?”

                    I look up to see them holding a bag of drugs. I can’t even answer them. I turn to Mike, but he’s being questioned about the alcohol bottles they found in his room.

                    “Ma’am what happened?”

                    I decide to try and explain, but how do I explain something I don’t even know, so I just say what I do know.

                    “Ms.Crenshaw brought us here.”

                    “Ma’am who is that? We got a call from an Evilyn. Do you know who Emily is?”

                    “Yes that’s our counselor. Evilyn Crenshaw.”

     

                    Evilyn Crenshaws Psychiatrist- John

     

                    “Evilyn, what happened after Caroline, after she and John both left the cabin?”

                    “Well doctor,” she began, “Caroline became worse and died two weeks later.”

                    I couldn’t help, but notice a mean smile across Evilyn’s face while talking.

                    After Evilyns session was over, I immediately called her sister Caroline. I knew what I had to say, but the words wouldn’t come out when Caroline was sitting face to face with me.

                    “Look Caroline, your sister is showing no progress, but I called you in to tell you about something strange Evilyn told me. She told me a story.

                    “What kind of story?”

                    “A story about four teens who go to a cabin to “get away”, but they end up losing it. Does that ring a bell to you?”

                    “That’s not possible. She couldn’t know about what happened to us. She was-”

                    “That’s not all Caroline! She also mentioned you. She says you died two weeks later!”

                    “John! Stop it! That's not the point. The real question is; how did she know what happened to us? She’s been locked up in here since she was twelve years old.

     

    Short Story Winner Fall 2013  :  Brianna Frank

    Underneath this fiery Saudi sun lies an oppressed group of people who are refusing to be held down by the shackles of an unjust society any longer.  The women whose abayas glide over the glistening sand of the Saudi desert are no longer willing to appease our king and sit silently while we are being suffocated by the overpowering blanket of male supremacy.  We are no longer willing to be told that men have physical and psychological dominance over women, who happen play the most pivotal role in raising the next generation of Saudis.   

    Women are strong.  Women are able.  Women are intelligent. Women are fearless, and we will overcome these prejudices that have plagued the Saudi Arabian society for far too long. 

    Despite the condescending labels that have been bestowed upon me by my male counterparts, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself rebellious or unruly.  Rather, I would say that I am a perpetual nonconformist.  I’ve always wondered why I grew up watching my father and brother get behind the wheel of an automobile while I am left in the backseat.  I have always wondered why I am not able to speak to men who are not a part of my family, and why men and women have to go into separate rooms when in the same house.  Personally, I was taken aback the most by being required to have a male companion with me when I go out in public.  As a young and curious girl, I wanted to experience the world for myself without being restricted or shielded from anything by my older brother or father. 

     My candid questioning of these Islamic principles raised quite a concern amongst my family members, who told me that all rules were made for the purpose of serving the common good.  They told me that in order for me to live the greatest life possible, it was imperative that I succumb to these laws without hesitation or defiance.   I was always the outcast of the family due to my strong beliefs and feminist values.  In turn, I was shunned by several family members and friends.  No one wanted to be associated with the girl who defied the laws of royal authority, which made me become fiercely independent.

    As I grew from a young child to a teenager, my frank opinions made me look at magazine columnists with high regard.  I so desperately wanted to have that job, so I could have the glittering platform on which I could stand and shout my opinions to the world!  This was somewhat of a façade that I hadn’t realized, because what I didn’t know was that all Saudi press had to be approved by the king before publication to prevent opposition to the crown.  This annoyed me deeply!  How was I supposed to let the world know about my desire to drive, walk in public without a chaperone, and vote if the king had to approve my speech?  Nevertheless, my hope stayed alive that one day I would live in a society where free speech wasn’t just something young schoolgirls dreamed about!

    I finished high school and then quickly accepted an internship at a local newspaper, The Saudi Gazette.   I soon developed a deep affinity for writing, even if I couldn’t say exactly what was on my mind with the censorship laws.  I loved covering different beats and editing stories multiple times over until the sound was just right.  For a few weeks in the summertime, I was able to shadow a columnist to witness how they went about their job.  Since men and women are not supposed to socialize together in public, I shadowed a female reporter named Abeedah.  Abeedah was in her mid-thirties and was someone I admire deeply to this day.  She reminded me of myself, and I reminded her of herself.  We instantly hit it off, and she soon began divulging her thoughts about royal censorship to me.  She would tell me that it was undoubtedly unfair, and that she was going to be leaving the kingdom whenever the chance came.  Until that chance came, she said, she was going to have to continue writing articles for the paper and saving money.  Her dream was to travel to Dubai, and be a new citizen of the United Arab Emirates.  Considering her likeminded feministic values, I suggested that she move to the United States.  She said that such a drastic change would be too traumatic, as it would involve moving halfway across the world.  She claimed that at least Dubai was moderately close, and still Islamic for the most part.  Abeedah’s dream was to escape her government, not her religion. 

    Abeedah finally had enough money to leave Saudi Arabia after two years of working for the newspaper.  Luckily for her, she was able to find a moderately priced apartment in the glittering streets of downtown Dubai.  She would be surrounded by a concrete jungle and crystal blue waters.  Abeedah loved that fact that she would be living in a glistening tourist attraction, meaning that there would be no shortage of events to cover for her new reporting job she had procured at the Dubai Weekly

    While I was saddened that a colleague and role model would be leaving me to fend for myself in the intimidating newsroom, I was overjoyed that I was the logical first choice to replace Abeedah as chief columnist.  This meant that I would be writing for publication nearly every day.  Regularly, I would be able to see my name underneath a stark headline that begged for a reader’s attention.  I loved this newfound power that I had, to make people look and listen to what I had to say! 

    One of my first columns that I wanted to write argued against the infamous driving law.  This is the law that bestowed the title of “Most Oppressed Nation” to the Kingdom.  Technically, the law doesn’t say that women can’t drive.  However, women cannot obtain legal licenses in order to do so.  In my piece, I explained how women play such an integral role in society, and that if they were able to drive, we would be able to do so much more to benefit men and women alike.  I knew that this would be a controversial piece in the Kingdom, and one that I didn’t even think would make it to print.  My boss, Aamil, wasn’t known for being the most easygoing person in the newsroom, and getting such a controversial story approved by him would be a major feat. 

    I completed my story and emailed it to him.  Surprisingly, he didn’t give a harsh reaction to the piece. 

    “This is a risky one, but it might give us more readers.  I’ll see if it’ll fit into our next issue,” he wrote in response.

    I was pleasantly surprised by his response, but was somewhat overwhelmed when the column went into print.  I got hundreds of emails from readers across the country who had read my column.  Some of the responses were from men, who thought that my column was outrageous, and that my boss should seek my relocation.  Others were from women, who agreed with me and said that women do need to be given more rights. 

    One email in particular was from a woman named Yamiir in Jeddah.  She had just gotten a divorce from her husband – an extreme rarity in the Kingdom.  It had been a long and bitter divorce, one that lasted two years until they finally settled.  This was one of her main points of her email – women needed to have more freedom to choose whom to marry and they needed to have easier ways to divorce abusive or neglectful husbands.  She told me that my article gave her hope that someone else felt the way she did, and thought that more women needed to join this movement.  One thing she said in particular got my attention.

    “What if you made a statement for women’s rights?  Obviously you’re interested in the freedom to drive, what if you tried to drive?” she asked.

    I was taken back by her statement.  I had never thought about actually driving.  I had never done anything so rebellious.  This would mean that I would have to get a male to let me use his car, and have the courage to actually go through with it! 

    I pondered the request for a few days, and came to the conclusion that I would do it.  It’s one thing to write an article, but it’s another to actually go out there and make a statement by driving!  It sat at the back of my mind and ate at me constantly.  Did I want to do this?  Was it too risky?  What would people say?  How would I do it?  Would I be arrested?

    I decided that even though I was unsure, I needed to do this if I wanted anything to change.  I was finally ready to put my plan into action.  In a way, I was sort of nervous.  This type of thing had never been attempted before, and if I was caught, I didn’t even know what the implications would be.  However, I highly doubted that a woman would be held in jail for too long.  There aren’t many women’s jails in the Kingdom, because very few women are willing to question what they’re told!  They wouldn’t be able to put me in a man’s jail, on account of Islamic protocol, so I figured I would be reprimanded and fined at the very most.  If that’s what it takes to make a political statement, so be it!  I was actually enthralled with the idea that I would be the first woman to drive in Saudi Arabia. 

                It was 6:30 AM, on the day of October 1, 2013.  It was perfect timing, as it was the time just before thousands of cars would begin their daily rush on the Riyadh highways.  I was sure to be noticed if I went at this time, and that was precisely what I wanted.  My brother Muhammed was with me, as I didn’t want to get in trouble for not having a chaperone with me.  I figured violating one social expectation was enough for one day!  I didn’t want to push boundaries too much, because I knew that very serious consequences are dealt out to women seen without an escort.

                I slid the cold metal key into the lock of my brother’s automobile.  The immediate rush that I got was indescribable.  It seems like a miniscule experience to many, but to me, it represented much more than simply unlocking a car.  It represented unlocking my future, filled with unfamiliar yet joyous and even intimidating experiences.  I got into the car and sat down on the black leather seats, warmed by the Saudi sun that had already begun to rise at the early morning hour. 

                I started saying my prayers along with my brother, asking for courage and strength to my Savior.  I prayed for many minutes, because I wanted to feel affirmation from Allah that my protest would not be punished.  An incredible feeling of courage soon washed over me, and my faith was strengthened by the fact that I knew He wanted this for me.   Finally, the moment came to begin my drive and turn the page to the next chapter of my life – advocacy.  The clock stated that the time was 6:39 as I switched the gear into reverse and made my way out of the driveway.  Even though he had already trained me on how to operate an automobile, he still had to give me further instruction as I eagerly made my way down the residential street.  My adrenaline kicked in, and just wished that I could speed furiously down the streets, yelling with joy out of the window, broadcasting to the world that I was finally living my dream!

                Due to the early morning hour, there weren’t many people outside of their houses when I drove cautiously but swiftly down the road.  Mothers were probably inside, helping the children get ready for their day at school.  That meant that the only people I had a great chance of running into would be working men.  No one saw me as I drove down the street that my house was located on, but the stop light at the end of it signified a crossroads where I would indefinitely be seen by at least a few people. 

                I came up to the stop sign, slightly pressing my foot on the brake pedal in order to stop.  I turned on my right blinker and looked towards my left to see if I would have to wait for traffic to pass.  An immediate rush came over me as I looked to my left and saw an approaching vehicle. 

                My heart started beating faster, as I knew that this would be the first time someone would see me!  The approaching car got larger and larger as it came closer towards my vehicle.  I knew that he would be able to see me, as my windows weren’t tinted in the slightest and my abaya would immediately identify me as a woman.  I watched, eagerly waiting to see the driver’s reaction.  My palms were sweating profusely now and my heart nearly stopped when the driver craned his neck as he drove by to verify what he was seeing.  As he turned, I could have sworn that I saw an encouraging smile coming from him towards me…but it all happened so fast that I scarcely remember! 

                Having been seen by one person already made the task at hand a little easier as I continued on my journey.  I made my way down the city streets and had finally come to the frontage ramp for the freeway.  I knew that this would be my first chance to be exposed to a lot of people at once and really begin making my statement.  It wouldn’t become news if one man claimed to have seen a woman driving on a vacant residential street, but it would become news if hundreds of people saw a woman driving on the largest freeway system in all of the Middle East! 

                My brother asked me if I was sure that I wanted to do this before I turned to make it onto the freeway.  I told him that I was undoubtedly sure and that I wouldn’t be able to die happily if I knew that I didn’t take a stand against this.  He seemed to have a look of reluctance on his face, as if he finally realized just how risky this was.  Nonetheless, he gave me his blessing to continue on my venture if that’s what my heart desired.

    No one had seen me since the first man that saw me as I made my way down the street my house was located on, so as I turned on to the ramp and began accelerating to match the speeds of the others.  As I furiously drove down the freeway, people started noticing me.  I heard a plethora of car horns ignite, with people rolling down their windows to take a second look.  Children who had been sitting in the backseat of vehicles eagerly waved towards me, giving me their approval.  As I looked to my left, I noticed that the male driver respectfully nodded at me and gave me a thumbs-up. 

    I continued on my way for a few miles, with people honking and waving at me the entire way through.  My brother and I were incredibly humbled and appreciative at the overwhelmingly positive response that we got.  I was amazed that there was not one person who chastised me or seemed to be disapproving.  Finally, I decided to get off the freeway – for I had already made my point, and many people had already seen me!

    I made my way home after getting off the freeway with the greatest feeling of pride that I had ever experienced.  I knew that I had just done something that would get the entire Kingdom talking – both in good ways and bad.  There would be some backlash, I was sure – but I wasn’t scared, because I knew that that was what needed to happen.  In life, nothing can ever change unless one brave person demands it, and I was crying out for change. 

    My brother and I got home and gave each other conflicting looks – we were excited, proud, nervous, and terrified all at the same time.  We lounged around the house for awhile, doing housework and preparing for our next meal when we decided to turn on the afternoon news on television.

    “Hundreds of people on the freeway in Riyadh were shocked today after seeing a female driver on the roads with them,” the newscaster began.

    My brother and I immediately gave each other panicked looks – everyone was going to find out about our venture, and they were going to find out quickly.  This was the largest news organization in the Kingdom, and they were talking about me!  I have to admit that even though I was terrified, I was flattered at the same time.

    The newscasters went on to interviews with witnesses who had seen me driving.  The first gentleman who spoke said that he was understandably shocked to see me, but that this was a good step in the advancement for women’s rights. 

    “I don’t know that I’d want my wife to be making such a large statement for rights, but I’m okay with someone else doing it so that my wife will someday have the same rights I do,” he said.

    I was confused by his statement, but in a way I understood.  Men wanted women to get their rights, but they didn’t want someone they knew to be the first person to bring it about.  They had no idea what would happen to the first woman to speak out against the Kingdom’s oppressive policies, and they didn’t want to find out by one of their loved ones experiencing it.

    The next man who was interviewed was less supportive of the movement, saying “I think that the Kingdom should be respected above all else.  These policies have been in place for hundreds of years, and they’re meant to protect women.  Why should they drive when we, as men, are able to take care of them and take them to places they need to be?”

    Needless to say, I rolled my eyes at his statement.  What ignorance!  At last, the news piece on my adventure ended and I was able to begin breathing again!  My heart was still racing, but I realized that the worst of it was over – for now.  I would have to wait and see how people I knew would react to the news.  Of course, no one knew it was me because I had on my abaya, so no news story would have my name attached to it.

    That night, I went to bed feeling conflicted.  What had I just done?  Did I go too far?  Did I not go far enough?  There were so many unanswered questions and I was eager to simply go to work the next day and throw myself into my work. 

    As I walked into the newsroom and sat down at my cubicle to check emails, I saw an urgent email from my male boss, named Aamil.  Since Islamic males and females are not supposed to socialize to a great extent even in a workplace environment, we had to communicate through emails and limit face-to-face contact.  I clicked on the email to read the body of it, and my heart immediately sank.

    “I have been informed that you partook in the disgraceful event of yesterday on the freeway,” it began, with my heart sinking more and more with every word.

    “It is unseemly that one of our reporters is the one making headlines.  As you know, our job is to observe what happens in the world and inform the public.  It is not our job to initiate silly protests for a movement that will never go anywhere.  You may complete your duties for today only and seek employment elsewhere.”

    How could this have happened?  How did he find out it was me, considering that my abaya covered my features?  I responded back with the questions, but tried to make it seem as though I wasn’t admitting that I had done it.

    “Sir, I’m afraid I don’t understand how you’ve come to the conclusion that it was me driving.  Seeing as how women are forced to wear abayas, I didn’t know that people are able to tell who is underneath them.  I thought that was the point of the abaya,” I typed, with a hint of sarcasm since I knew I would inevitably be caught and fired anyway.

    As I waited for a response from Aamil, I told some of my female colleagues about what had happened.  I figured that they would all realize something was going on anyway, and I would rather explain my side of the story than have to hear gossip about me through the grapevine.  Anyway, most of the females were sitting around a conference table to discuss assignments for the day.  I sat down near the head of the table and politely said that I wanted to make an announcement.

    “I’m sure all of you saw the news yesterday, and heard that a woman had driven down the freeway alongside a male companion,” I started.

    “I did hear about that!  Did you want to do the story on that, Saamar? I know that you’re really passionate about women’s rights here,” an editor named Noor asked me.

    “Well, I definitely heard about that… because that woman was me,” I said, with a shaky voice.

    The newsroom fell silent.  I didn’t know what to think as all seven of the women immediately gasped with the news.  I didn’t know if that meant that they disapproved or were upset, or whether it meant that they were proud.  A few moments passed, with everyone looking at each other for direction on how to react.  I looked at Noor, since she was the highest-up woman at the newsroom, and her opinion mattered greatly.  I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, her stoic face didn’t give me any hints.

    After what felt like hours, thunderous applause erupted from the hands of each woman in the room.  They didn’t say anything, but enormous smiles emerged from their faces.  The applause continued for awhile, until Noor began to speak.

    “We are so proud of you, Saamar!  I had no idea!” she said.

    “Yeah, I thought of you yesterday as I watched the news because I know how much you want more rights, but I would never have guessed that you had the audacity to actually start a movement!” a reporter named Reemara said.

    I didn’t say too much at first, but they got a look of concern on their faces after a few moments when they realized that I wasn’t as excited as they.

    “What did Aamil say?  Did he find out you did it?” Noor asked.

    “Apparently so,” I said, “he sent me an email telling me that this was my last day.  I don’t know how he found out it was me, but I emailed him and asked.  I don’t know if he’s responded yet,” I said.

    “Let’s go see!  He can’t do that to you!  If he’s going to fire you, he’ll have to let me go too.  I can’t work for such a close-minded and arrogant man,” Reemara said.

    We all made our way over to my computer, because everyone wanted to see if Aamil had replied to my questions.  Sure enough, I saw the subject line: “RE: Discussion.”  I clicked on it, and I again heard the room fall silent.  You could hear a pin drop as I opened the email and the women scoured desperately to see what he had written.

    “You thought you would be able to do this in disguise because of your abaya.  Did you ever stop to think that cars are registered to owners?  The license plate of your car was looked up, and it belongs to your brother.  It’s registered to an address that is conveniently also where you live.  After doing more research, it has come to my attention that only you and your brother live at that address.  Seeing as how you are such an activist, I thought that you were definitely a part of this movement.  Enjoy your last day here at the Saudi Gazette,” he said.

    There was an awkward silence yet again while people tried to figure out what to say to me.  I decided to lift the mood with a joke to get people to laugh.

    “Isn’t he charming?” I said to the women, who erupted with laughter.  It was a relief, because they knew that they would cry if they didn’t laugh.

    They all began to embrace me, telling me that they still believed it wasn’t right, and that he had no basis to fire me because I made a statement to get my rights. 

    “I don’t want you all to leave because of this.  What I really need from you is to get him to change his mind.  Get this paper to approve of women’s rights.  If we can just do that, we may be able to change the minds of our readers and open them up to a whole new perspective.  I need you all to do that for me.  Nothing is going to change outside of this newsroom until we change what’s on the inside of these walls first,” I said.

    “We’ll certainly try.  We need things to change, because we all want rights here,” Reemara said. 

    Even though I technically could work until the end of the day, I just decided to go home early, and everyone understood why.  I needed to take time to recollect my thoughts and think about seeking a job somewhere else.  I embraced the women, who wished me good luck in return.  Noor sent me off with a deep promise, saying, “Things are going to change around here, I’ll promise you that.  Thank you for doing this for us,” she said with a proud smile.

    I took the bus home, since my brother was still at work at a computer software company.  The buses are segregated as well, so I had to wait until I saw a women’s bus approach a stop near the Gazette’s building.  I finally made it home about an hour after I had left the newsroom, and collapsed on my bed in a heap of frustration, anger, pride, and misery at the same time.  Again, I second-guessed myself, asking if I had really done something that would ignite change or whether I just made a statement that would get me into a mess.

    My brother came home and I told him what had happened.  His eyes were watery, and I thought I knew why without him even saying anything.

    “They figured out who the car belonged to.  I was fired today,” he said.

    I told him what had happened to me, and we embraced strongly.  We didn’t know what we would do until at least one of us found another job.  Luckily, we had enough in savings to get us by for a few weeks, but we still didn’t want to wait long to find another place to work at.  We didn’t say too much after that, but we sat in our living room and turned on the television to take our mind off of things.  After a few hours of watching crown-approved programming, we said goodnight and retreated to our bedrooms. 

    The next few days passed without much incident.  We went on about our day at home, because we thought that going outside would mean getting looked at and questioned for what we had done.  One day, I got a phone call from the Gazette.  I almost didn’t answer for fear that it was Aamil.  I eventually picked up after realizing the extension number was that of the women’s section of the newsroom, so it would likely be Noor.

    “Hi Samaar!  How are you doing?” she asked.

    “I could be better.  I’m pretty stressed out with all of this stuff!  How are you guys doing?” I answered.

    “I’m sorry to hear that.  I called you because we’ve come up with a way to help this movement, and we need you to be brave enough to help us,” she said, which immediately peaked my interest.

    “We’re going to protest.  We’ve contacted our family and friends and we’ve organized an event that’s going to be held downtown next week.  Hundreds, maybe even thousands of women are going to show up and protest for rights.  We’d like for you to make a speech to the women, since you’re now the face of the women’s rights movement,” she said.

    Me?  The face of the women’s rights movement?  A week ago I was nothing more than a reporter for a local newspaper, and now I was headline news!  I reluctantly agreed, because I figured I wouldn’t be able to dig myself into a much deeper hole than I already had.  We conversed for a few more minutes on the logistics of the event.  Technically, it wasn’t illegal, so we wouldn’t be able to be arrested by police.  This was their way of helping me because they said that if Aamil realized that his female readers all supported me, he may change his mind about firing me.

    I wrote my speech for the next few days.  I was going to talk about the importance of women in society, and how I scrounged up the courage to start a movement.  I was nostalgic about the fact that I had always dreamed of people listening to what I had to say – that’s what started my journalism career.  But this seemed different – now I was going to be getting up on a stage with thousands of people starting at me, and I did feel nervous.  I didn’t want to mess up and have the entire event be a disaster!

    At last, the day finally came.  My brother was going to drop me off and go back home, because he didn’t want to incite more controversy by being at a women’s rights protest as a male.  He dropped me off, and I was greeted by a plethora of eager women wanting to converse with me.  They congratulated me on my bravery and told me I was an inspiration to all Saudi women!

    “I came from hours away to hear you speak.  When I saw you on the news, my eyes welled up with tears.  Finally we have someone who’s going to fight for us!” one woman exclaimed.

    After meeting dozens of people who wanted to speak with me and tell me their story, I made my way to the stage to prepare for my speech.  My knees were shaking with both excitement and terror as I ascended up the stairs and walked across the shiny floor of the stage.  There was a podium towards the middle, but I was to sit at a chair near the side of the stage until I was introduced by the emcee.   I sat in my chair with my leg shaking from nervousness as I looked over my index cards with notes on them.  I was going to cover my early life, career, inspirations, and why women’s rights are so important to advance Saudi society.  Finally, I heard the emcee say my name.  It was time to deliver my speech.

    My legs felt like they had been bounded with heavy weights when I crossed the stage and made my way to the Oakwood podium.  I looked out at the crowd and was dumbfounded- there had to have been at least 10,000 people waiting outside for ME to speak!  I lost my composure for a moment and simply gazed out at the crowd, nearly tearing up.  The thunderous applause was deafening.  It was one of those pinch-me moments, where I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. 

    “Good evening, and thank you for being here.  I’d like to thank all of you women who have come today to support this movement.  As you all are aware of, I made a statement against the Kingdom’s policies by driving my brother’s car down the freeway last week.  In turn, I was fired from my job, which is what prompted this meeting today,” I began.

    “Women play an instrumental part in society, and you are all equally as important as the men in this country.  Many of you left your husbands, brothers, and sons to be here today, and I want you to know that I appreciate it greatly.  Everyone in this audience is wearing abayas, which tells me that only women showed up today.  I’m thankful that all of you are here, but we cannot start a movement unless everyone gets on board.  We need men to support us too, otherwise nothing will be able to change.  This country is ruled by men, and unless we get men to fight for us too, we have nullified our chance at equality,” I stated, to which the crowd erupted with cheers and claps.

    I was disappointed that no men had showed up to the event.  Looking out at the audience was looking at a sea of black cloth, because all of the women had on abayas.  Despite the disappointment, I went on with my speech.

    “I was a columnist for the Saudi Gazette until last week, when my boss fired me for making this statement.  Needless to say, I was angry.  I felt like he didn’t even give me a chance to explain why this was so important to me.  When I left the newsroom that day, my only hope was that someday he would understand why this was such a major issue in Saudi Arabia,” I said, and then stopped abruptly when my eyes fixed on the front row of the crowd.

    At that moment, I noticed dozens of women near the front of the crowd reach up to adjust their abayas.  No – they weren’t adjusting, they were taking them off!  Why would they be taking off their abayas? 

    Suddenly I realized why they were doing it.  I realized why all of them were taking off their abayas at that very moment when I was talking about Saudi men not supporting women.  At that moment as the abayas unwrapped, I realized that underneath the black cloth stood not women but men!  Not just men, men from the Gazette.  Not just men from the Gazette, but Aamil too.  He stood no more than a few feet in front of me, and had come hours before to get front-row seats to my speech.  He smiled at me, and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”  He had changed his mind, the mind of the paper, and that was going to change the mind of thousands of Saudi men.  And it was all because of me.

    Women’s rights are changing in Saudi Arabia as we speak, and we need to all get on board to ensure that we aren’t moving backwards.  We cannot fall deeper into traditionalism as the world around us embraces modernism.  We need to all fight for what we want, and we cannot stop until we are appeased.