Friday, March 31, 2017

Indie e-Con 2017 Writing Contest Winner - The Sea Near the Moon

Hello, and I'm here today to share the WINNING entry for this year's Indie e-Con Writing Contest! WHOOO!!! This story was written by Camille Esther, and there are two facts that I find amusing about its winning -

1. It was the only entry for its category, which meant that it made it to finalists by default. (Though I did have Claire Banschbach as the judge for the category and she did read it before sending it on.)
2. It was also the first entry that I received for the contest.

The Grand Prize Winner was selected by Aubrey Hansen.

(Oh, and just an aside note. I am working as hard as I can on the new website and blog, but it's turned out to be a bit more intense than I had envisioned, so I'm hoping to have it unveiled somewhere in the middle of next month. Anywho. It's been awesome so far. Finally found a use for my HUGE collection of giraffes.)

Now enjoy, and, Camille, keep up the awesome writing!

Cover by Alea Harper
My eyes shot open, and I was wide awake like I’d just chugged two double-shot espressos. With whipped cream on top. Had someone just shaken me by the shoulders? No? I was still alone in my moonlit room, still comfortably staring at the ceiling with the quilts pulled up to my chin. There was nothing out of the ordinary as far as I could see. Just the pile of semi-clean clothes on the chair by the bed, my desk covered in wires and screens, and one of my old school science projects dangling in the corner—namely a solar system mobile made out of foam balls, which I had developed an emotional attachment to, which kept me from throwing the thing away. My air conditioner hummed in the window at the foot of my bed, blasting me with air so frigid I could almost see my breath.
I took a deep breath to calm that feeling that someone had been standing beside me. There’s nothing the matter so quit freaking out…
 I glared at the 3:09 glowing on the face of my alarm clock then stared back at the plain white ceiling, trying to make my eyelids relax enough to close them again. It was no use. Someone had changed out my regular eyelids for spring-loaded ones. Thanks, eyelid fairy, but I liked my old ones better.
Time to count sheep. I had four more hours to go before I had to jump out of bed, hit the alarm clock, snarf a pop-tart and drive to my dream job. Oh, and I had to fit getting dressed into the lineup as well. Didn’t need any nightmares playing themselves out in real life.
Yep, I was living the dream job. Straight out of college into a high-dollar computer technician position—oh yeah, baby! After two years of direct deposit, I could count dollar signs instead of sheep. And there was my Lexus out back, and my espresso maker in the kitchen, and my custom-built Mac with Photoshop and Dragon NaturallySpeaking on it. Oooh, and my drone…
The air seemed suddenly cooler and cleaner than before. I sniffed. The air was almost crackling with some kind of icy energy, some kind of excitement, like it was the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring… You get the idea.
The moonlight flooding my room even seemed brighter.
As I lay there in comfort, wondering why the world seemed so alive and poised like it was waiting for something, I heard a tiny tinkling sound, like crystal gently touching crystal. Or maybe the sound ice cubes or snowflakes make when they talk to each other. My cat prowling the house?
As I looked around the room, I heard a creaking sound, and suddenly to my horror I beheld my solar system mobile slowly beginning to spin on its own.
On its own, mind you. No strange drafts in the room, no cats batting at it. It moved. By itself.
My hair prickled to attention and I sat up. When I beheld a figure sitting in my window, my heart almost jumped clean out of my chest.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN HERE?” I shouted, leaping out of bed.
Great. My intense vocalization should have made any intruder jump, but the figure didn’t flinch. I saw it was a young boy; maybe ten? I stared at him, huffing deep breaths of pure panic. He was just sitting there in my now open window, lit by the moon, gazing at me. How had he gotten there without me hearing him?
“What is the matter?” he asked. His voice was so feminine I needed to re-evaluate my first impression of him—or her, whichever it was. Its hair didn’t help, being a sort of gender-neutral mass of curls. And his or her clothes consisted of what looked like a white knee-length t-shirt with a belt at the waist—just as confusing as the hair.
I was still freaked out, but my panic was subsiding enough for me to think. My phone was downstairs, tethered to a wall socket in its nightly re-charge mode. Too bad phones don’t respond to telepathic “dial 911” commands. But then again, this kid didn’t seem too threatening.
“Um,” I said.
The boy or girl—I’ll just go with “kid”—cocked his head at the sound of my impressive dialogue.
“Um,” I continued. “Are you by any chance Peter Pan?”
Curls bobbing, the kid shook his head.
I cleared my throat. “Then how did you get in my window, which is…” I made a quick guess, “eleven feet above the ground?”
The kid shrugged. “I flew.”
Weird kid. Probably enjoyed breaking into people’s houses for a hobby. At night. Super freaky. He’d probably lifted the ladder I’d seen leaning against the house next door. Maybe I should call the police.
“Sooo, what’s your name?” A name would come in handy when informing the proper persons.
The kid beamed at my question. He puffed out his chest. “I am The Keeper Of The Sea Near The Moon.”
Oookay. Strange delusion. “No, like, your name,” I said.
“That is my name.”
“Your parents call you that?” I said sternly.
He cocked his head again and looked up at the moon outside my window. “I don’t have any parents,” he said softly. “At least, not like you mean when you say parents.”
I tried again. “Where do you live?”
“In the sea near the moon,” came the answer, short and sweet.
I was running out of questions. Apparently this kid was either sleep-climbing into people’s windows, in which case he needed help, or he was mentally unsound, in which case he…needed help. Either way, it was time to make a call. I edged toward my bedroom door.
The kid stirred. “I am here to show you,” he announced in a confident tone.
“Um, why don’t you come on in,” I said. “I don’t want you falling out the window on me. We can go into the kitchen and get some…hot chocolate, or something.”
The kid hopped down onto my bed and bounced to the floor, holding out a hand like he expected me to take it. Gingerly I reached out and made contact.
His hand was cold. Not just cool skin like he’d been out in the night, I mean cold. Freezing. And what was worse, his touch sent electrical prickles up my arm and down my spine, followed by a mountain range of goose bumps. I tried to fling his hand away, but his grip was like a pit bull in a fight.
“WHAT ARE YOU?” I shrieked, going right back into panic mode. Demonic? Angelic? X-men? Please God let me be dreaming!
The kid’s voice came gently through the sound of my heart doing the drum symphony number 2 in A major—as in, A Major Bad Occurrence. It took me a minute, but I heard what he said. “I told you already, I’m The Keeper Of The Sea Near The Moon.”
With that statement, he bodily dragged me (more than twice his weight) across the bed to the window. I pinched myself. This is a dream. It has to be. This is way too weird to be real.
“Just hold on,” the kid smiled at me.
Right, like I could let go even if I wanted to. I braced myself for what looked like it was going to be a Very. Strange. Dream. My panic faded to an awe at how weird my subconscious could be. When the kid pulled me through the window and began to fly, drawing me behind him in the clear, wonderful night air, I was hardly surprised. My guess of Peter Pan hadn’t been far off.
In amazement I stared at the moonlit ground flowing beneath me, sprinkled with shimmering lights like a flock of fireflies. Then I could see a mountain range in the distance, full of shadows, and then the ocean far beyond, its reflective surface silver. A light breeze stirred my hair, far too soft and sweet for the speed at which we were moving.
Yes, this dream was coming along nicely; my counting dollars must have worked. I rolled over onto my back and stared up at the stars and the moon. Slowly my thoughts turned back to the dollars I’d been counting. What was I going to do with them? I could buy a second home on the beach. Or I could invest in the stock market and watch my profits skyrocket. Maybe I could join the millionaires by the time I was thirty. To do that, I would probably need to start my own highly lucrative business. I’d have high-profile customers galore, profits off the charts, about a million boring meetings every day, espresso coffee every hour just to keep me going…
I looked up at the moon again. It was huge, a vast sphere hanging over me like a white version of the death star. I rolled over en flight and looked toward the ground again. Sucking in my breath, I saw the entire circle of the earth—continents, clouds, everything.
“How are we even breathing?” I asked aloud.
My hand was still attached to my Peter Pan friend. I looked his way, not sure if he would answer or not. He smiled at me. “We are almost there,” he said.
“The sea near the moon,” I muttered. Weird. Did he mean, like, water? I looked around, searching the vast space around me for our destination. I spotted it. A faint bluish-green hue like some kind of nebula or aurora. Presumably, this was the sea.
A minute later, I found my presumption was correct, for with a rushing sound like a flock of starlings taking off we entered the Sea. It was cool and wet like a thick cloud. At first I wasn’t sure if I could breathe in it, but then I remembered it was just a dream.
Several feet in, the Peter Pan character slowed to a halt and dropped my hand. The Sea supported me much like real water would. Treading water was my only real skill when it came to swimming—I put it to good use and found that I could easily float wherever I liked. Cool.
“This is The Sea Near The Moon,” the kid told me.
“So this is where the DreamWorks kid goes fishing,” I quipped.
The kid cocked his head. Now that we were in his home territory, he didn’t seem so human. The white light of the moon seemed to go right through him instead of reflecting, giving him an eerie ghost-like look. “Dreamworks?” he said. “No. This is where dreams go when they die.”
My attempt at humor was quelled by the mention of death. Ulp. “The ghost of Christmas… Something or other,” I muttered. Apparently my subconscious had a malicious sense of humor. Too many Christmas seasons watching A Muppet Christmas Carol, and now when I entertain a Scrooge-like habit, like counting dollars, I have dreams of being shown around by strange ghostly beings.
A speck of brilliant light floated in front of my face, radiating strands of light in shimmering gold. Okay, Scrooge contemplation over; time to gawk at something new. “Wow, what is it?” I said, awed.
Peter Pan ghost of Christmas Dreamworks kid hovered over my shoulder. “Touch it and see,” he offered.
Well it was just a dream, so it couldn’t hurt, right? I reached out and let the speck of light rest in the palm of my hand. It was warm. Golden light radiated out and lit up the blue-green sea around me, like a holograph that was literally all around me. And there was sound. Faint and distorted so that I could barely catch a word every now and then, but it was enough to make the scene seem real.
A child, a little girl, danced on the grass before me, her hair flowing out and her eyes and teeth bright.  I could feel the breeze, and see the leaves of a maple tree overhead. There was a house not far away, a typical seventies era American dwelling, and other children running around in the background, their screams of laughter faintly reaching my ears.
“Mommy, look at me. See how high I can jump.” I half heard the words, half read the girl’s lips. I looked behind me and saw the mother smiling and nodding. Her hairdo was as outdated as the house. I felt like a sore thumb, standing in the middle of the scene in only my pajamas.
“Can they see us?” I asked the Dreamworks kid.
“No,” came the comforting answer. “This is only a dream that has died.”
The scene changed. Suddenly I was in the middle of a church, judging by the stained glass windows and the cross on the wall. I was standing on the stage, right next to a bride in a wedding. The guests were smiling, the bride was smiling and blushing, and I could hear the faint droning sound of the pastor officiating. A rustle of a program paper in the front pew caught my attention, and I turned to see two middle-aged ladies, one plump and one thin, their beaming wrinkles touched with rouge, their hats full of flowers.
Again I could only halfway hear the words, but the visual helped me construct what the plump one said. “How lovely she looks, standing there!”
“Strange material for a dream,” I muttered as the scene faded.
“Hush! It isn’t finished,” the Dreamworks kid told me.
Another scene unfolded before me: a man and a woman, the same as had been getting married in the last scene, walking together down a sidewalk in an urban area. They were smiling and laughing, and the birds were chirping in the trees that lined the road beyond them.
When that scene ended, others came. They seemed to all be the normal life of a woman; hardly the thing of dreams.
The scenes stopped coming, and the holograph retreated into the warm speck of light.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
My ignorance sparked a wide-eyed look of horror on the Dreamworks kid’s face. “Don’t you see?” he blurted. “She couldn’t walk. She wanted so badly to be able to play like other children, to be able to stand for her wedding, and to take walks with her husband and do all the things normal people do. But she couldn’t.” The kid paused to pant for breath. Such seriousness on the face of a child would have been laughable if I hadn’t been struck sober myself.
“That dream,” the kid continued. “That dream died. She never walked.”
“Oh,” I managed.
Silently my dream guide turned and walked onward through The Sea. Dazed by reality, I paddled after him. More flecks of golden light floated past me, but I did acrobatics to avoid touching them. Seeing other people’s dreams unfulfilled was not on my Christmas list. Guilt tugged uneasily at my heart, but I pushed it away. It wasn’t like I could help whose dreams came true or not. Not my fault I had a dream life and a ton of money.
Besides, all this was a figment of my imagination… I hoped.
A fish swam past me, almost luminescent gold. Wait! A fish? “Ha, you really do go fishing here!”
The kid turned and smiled. “Oh, that is a dead dream, too.”
“Uh huh,” I smirked. “Then how come it looks like a fish? All the other ones look like lightning bugs.”
The boy looked up at the moon and sighed. I could have sworn I saw an eye roll. “It is so hard to communicate with you humans sometimes! I’ll put it in your terms: that is an extinct fish. It no longer lives on the earth.”
I scratched my head. “I thought you said it was a dead dream.”
“It is!” The boy waved his arms in what appeared to be exasperation. His translucent curls bobbed vigorously. “Don’t you see? It was one of God’s dreams. He made it, and it faded into nothing. A dream, once living, now dead.”
“So, like, there are dinosaurs in here too?” Curiosity struck me.
“There are,” the kid nodded.
“Can I see some?”
“Very well, if that is your wish.” The Dreamworks kid turned and walked toward our left.
I swam after him, eager to see the creatures that had consumed much of my childhood interest. The specks of light grew thicker the further I swam. Clouds of them sprang up as the Dreamworks kid walked, like dust stirred up with a passing breeze. Try as I might, I could not avoid the swirling eddies of dreams. I tried batting them away, but that was a useless gesture. The sea around me lit up with flashes of gold every time one touched me. Whispers of sound from a hundred dreams assaulted my ears.
Dancing. A friend. Peace. Mount Everest. Freedom. Discovery. Property. Family. Music. The essence of each dream touched my mind.
Love. Architecture. The sea. Recognition. Giving. A home. Respect. Farming. Innovation.
Golden arms and legs shot past me, belonging to dancers, racers, people swinging hammers and riding horses and hauling in sails, building cathedrals, working metal, leading armies, feeding children and planting crops. Faces flashed around me from every nationality, age, and time period. I saw Spanish skirts, ancient Egyptian clothing, African tribal garb, Victorian dresses and modern t-shirts. The sounds hissed and whispered and rose to a continuous chatter like a flock of birds. The whirlwind was dizzying; the flashes of the holographs hit me like strobe lights until I was so overwhelmed I could barely see where I was going.
And all these visions were things that had never come to pass in the lives of those who had dreamed those dreams. The unfulfilled desires of a thousand heart-cries flowed through my soul. I couldn’t contain it. I felt like I was drowning in wave after wave of the cumulative desires of the centuries.
“Dreamworks kid!” I wailed from the midst of a hundred thousand dreams. “I mean, Keeper of the Sea! Where are you?”
Against the sea of writhing gold, my childish guide suddenly appeared. “Take my hand,” he said.
This time without any qualm I grabbed hold of his ice-cold death-grip and let him tow me through the millions of dreams. I squinched my eyes shut tight to block out the blinding barrage of golden light but no amount of curling up in the fetal position could save me from the massive heartache that was the unfulfilled desires of the entire world. If I hadn’t known better, I would have honestly believed that I was the one who had always wanted a family. I would have believed that I was the one that had never had a home, had never seen the sea, or been able to walk.
This dream was a nightmare!
“We’ve got to save them!” A man’s voice said with stunning clarity.
“We must save them!” a woman’s voice spoke. I flinched.
“We have to save them!” a hundred cries took up the refrain. I had a sense that this was not just a save the whales rally.
Great. Just great. The heart wrenching cry of people desperate to save them (whoever them was) was going to make me flip out and start bawling. The cry echoed around me again and again, and I curled up tighter and tighter, clenching my teeth to keep from wailing along with them.
Then suddenly there was silence. Even behind my shut eyelids, I could tell that the light show had stopped. The Sea was silent. I opened one eye a crack. Whew! Dreamworks kid had pulled me out of the cloud of dreams and was towing me onward. I opened both my eyes.
But I couldn’t forget what I’d seen and heard and felt. I was sober now. My own existence, honestly, felt kind of, well, measly compared to the intense desires of all these people whose dreams had never been fulfilled. And the haunting cry of “we must save them” was still echoing through me. Save who? Evidently they had never been saved, whoever they were. Somewhere in the world were a million graves belonging to people who had evidently been mourned.
My dinosaur was all but forgotten when Dreamworks kid broke the silence with “Ah, here is one of the creatures you wished to see.”
Dreamworks kid let go of my hand. There in front of us was a golden Stegosaur, large as life, looking like a tranquil antique statue with ornate gold patterns on its sides, and of course the golden plates sticking out of its back. It was floating contentedly in what looked like a school of…babies?
Yes, babies. I wasn’t much of a baby person, but in my emotionally drained state I had to admit that the scene was pretty cute. Babies were floating all around the golden Stegosaur, laughing and squealing, their chubby little arms and legs waving all over the place. There must have been a hundred of them.
The nearest baby swam right up to me and grinned a toothless adorable grin. I was surprised. It acted like it could really see me. Should I smile back? Oh well, it couldn’t hurt.
“Sooo, this must be…” I made an educated guess, “the dream of some couple who couldn’t have kids?”
To my surprise, my guide shook his curly head. “No.”
“Then where did he come from?”
My guide motioned toward the baby. “Why don’t you ask him?”
My eyes went back to the happy baby floating in front of me sucking his fist. With a shock, I realized his eyes were blue—not the standard holographic gold. Such big, innocent eyes staring at me while he gummed away at his fist. I swallowed, realizing this was going to sound a lot like Dory the fish talking to a random floating being.
“Hey there, little fella,” I croaked. “Where do you come from?”
The baby pulled his hand out of his mouth and grinned so big his eyes crinkled up. I half expected to hear the holographic whisper, but his voice was clear. It was just as babyish as could be, except real words came out instead of gurgles.
“I come from the earth.”
Duh. I tried again. “Yes, but how did you get here?”
The little fellow looked at me, his cute smile melting to a quivering lip. His eyes looked like they were about to start pouring out tears. “I never got to see the world,” he whimpered.
“Trust me,” I said, hoping to forestall a deluge of baby tears, “the world isn’t always such a great place.”
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. Slowly the little guy’s face screwed up in the most pitifully sorrowful baby cry I had ever heard. His little arms flailed in distress.
Now what?
“Nobody wanted me!” the baby sobbed.
His words cut me to the heart. Here I was, faced with what I now took to be a sentient dream of God’s, a dream that had died before it was even born, and all the comfort I had offered it was basically “you’re better off having never seen the world.” How arrogant of me! How insensitive. To suppose that I could judge whether another’s dreams were worth pursuing or not.
The baby kept crying. “I could have helped make the world a better place. I could have tried, anyway.” The baby paused, then his face screwed up again, a wail coming on. “I never even got to have a name! No one wanted me!”
The baby’s flailing arms and legs carried him away. I stayed where I was, stunned, the baby’s words ringing in my ears. “I never even got to have a name.” A thing I took for granted. “No one wanted me.” I couldn’t even imagine my parents despising my very existence.
I’d passed the local abortion clinic on my way to work for two years, and though I cringed at the thought of the practice I’d never once realized how devastated the babies were.
No one cared.
No one thought of the dreams these babies might have in the future. They dreamed of love; they dreamed of family; they dreamed of having a name.
They dreamed of life.
A tear made it past the lump in my throat and squeezed its way out my eye. Suddenly I realized the important things in life had nothing to do with my Lexus or my espresso maker or how much money was in my account. Maybe there was something I was missing in my dream life. Maybe I needed to dream bigger.
“Dreamworks kid,” I knuckled the tear out of my eye. “Why did you bring me here?”
Soberly he stared at me in the way only a reproachful child can. “Your dream—it is dying.”
My response was knee-jerk. “What? Are you kidding me? I’m doing what I always wanted to do!”
The kid shook his head. “No, you are not.”
I crossed my arms. Little punk, trying to tell me about my own dreams.
A speck of silver light floated from out of nowhere toward my face. “Oh no you don’t!” I told it, squirming to get out of its way. “If I see one more dream, I’m gonna freak out!”
The speck kept floating towards me as I thrashed away from it. Unfortunately, The Sea was not the easiest thing to move around in. The speck kept getting closer and closer as I got more and more frantic.
“Why are you afraid?” Dreamworks kid asked. “That is your own dream.”
“My dream isn’t dead!” I howled.
“Not yet. That is why it is silver. It is fading. If you do nothing, it will eventually turn to gold.”
I stopped thrashing. The speck floated inches in front of my nose. It seemed to be humming with energy, with expectation that I would touch it. Still I hesitated, not sure what I would see. Could I really have forgotten my own dream?
The humming continued, pulsating like a subwoofer. Fascinated, I reached up and touched the brilliant speck. White light shot all around me in the now-familiar holograph. In a moment I recognized the scene. It was the house I had lived in when I was ten years old. There was my dad’s favorite recliner with the remote lying on the arm. There were the floor-length drapes I liked to hide behind. The window was open, apparently, because I could hear birds singing outside and could see the breeze ruffling the drapes. I could even feel the breeze myself.
On the floor in front of me was an image of my ten-year-old self, fiddling with what was now an ancient cell phone. I remembered that time. Mom’s phone wasn’t working, and I had taken it upon myself to fix it for her, because I had heard Mom and Dad talking about how they couldn’t afford to buy a new one just then. I don’t even know what I did to it—probably the phone realized it was about to join the army of toys belonging to a ten-year-old, and decided it had strength enough to behave for a while longer.
“Look, Mom!” the child figure of myself shouted. “I fixed it!”
The scene started to fade, and I withdrew my hand from the speck of light. A word whispered itself in my mind—service.
Service. I remembered, now. My first encounters with the technological world had been motivated by a desire to help other people. I had found out I was good at helping people with their phones, finding the right cords for computers, and understanding what was going on with every new thing that came out.
But somewhere along the line I had focused instead on the almighty dollar. I looked down at my bare feet, ashamed. Service had been thrown to the wayside, forgotten.
“I see, now,” I whispered.
Dreamworks kid’s face lit up. I’ve never see a kid so overjoyed, except on Christmas morning, of course. “Really?” he exclaimed. “Then you’ll revive your dream?”
I nodded the most solemn nod I’ve ever nodded. “Yes.”
The kid motioned to the silver speck. “Then take it with you,” he said.
How was I going to see where I was going with a holograph playing all around me? I shrugged and grabbed the speck. To my surprise, instead of lighting up the sea around me with images, I felt that same cold electric prickle I had felt when Dreamworks kid had first grabbed my hand. I got goose bumps all over again.
“Um,” was the only word I could say before everything went white. Yes, “um.” Me and my superior communication skills.
For several seconds the white-out continued. When it faded, I was not exactly surprised to find myself standing in my own room again. I looked at the clock. It said 3:58.
As I snuggled back under the covers, yawning, I vaguely wondered if the whole thing was a dream, or if it had really happened. After a moment’s thought, I concluded that it didn’t really matter.

Tomorrow was a new day. Of service.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Indie e-Con 2017 Finalist - Happiness Renewed

I'd like to share the finalist entry for "Happiness Renewed" written by Annie Louise Twitchell

This category was judged by Abigayle Claire.

Enjoy, and keep up the good writing, Annie!

Cover by Jansina
A few tears slipped down my cheeks, and I blinked twice, trying to stop crying before the salt water smeared my makeup. He turned and waved at me, his smile wide. He was so excited to go to the library all by himself for the first time in his ten years of life, and I was scared stiff of letting him go.
            Once he was out of sight, I ran inside and curled up on his bed, hugging his stuffed wolf. Wishing he had taken it with him, I cried into the worn, patchy black fur.

            My son was seven months after I left my boyfriend from college. I hadn't intended to leave him, but when my dad called me back home because my mom had broken her hip and knee and they needed me to help out. I left in the middle of the night without telling him why I left, and when he didn't contact me, after several months, I decided not to reach out either.
            As a single parent, I struggled to make ends meet, working days at a grocery store and nights at a restaurant. For the first two years, we lived at my parents house, and my mom took care of him. She was never very nice to me, blaming me for the fact I was a single mom, but she adored her grand-baby. I got home at eleven at night, enough time to kiss his forehead and crawl into my own bed, where I could snatch a few hours of sleep before heading out to work again at seven in the morning.
            Every Saturday, I took him to the library and we spent all day there, cuddled on the beanbags in the children's section. He took his first steps there, to move from my lap to the toy box, in search of a black stuffed wolf with huge eyes. I thought it was ugly, but he loved it. He thought it was the best thing ever, and when they got new toys, the children's librarian gave it to him. The next week, we moved from my parents house to an apartment. I was so glad to have something for him that was the same.
            That stuffed wolf went with him to visits to the doctor; to the library with me; to Christmas dinners with all my relations; to the first day of school. As he got older, it stayed behind on his bookshelf more and more. I wished he would take it with him, but he didn't. Sometimes he forgot, remembered halfway through whatever the visit was, and needed to snuggle with it when we got back. But to my dismay, more and more often he just forgot and didn't remember again.
            He'd begged and begged to be allowed to go to the library by himself. Our newest apartment was only a block away, so, on his tenth birthday I let him go. I could feel my heart crying for him to come back, before he had even put on his purple and black sneakers, tying his left one first and then his right. His jacket was next, then he put on his baseball cap - he'd bought it after his grandparents had taken him to see a game. Just him. I wasn't invited.
            I tried not to feel snubbed, not to feel jealous of my sweet boy who everyone loved, but it was so hard sometimes. It wasn't his fault that everyone loved him. It wasn't his fault he was different and it certainly wasn't his fault that I was so stressed and tired and depressed.

            After a while I got up and went to the bathroom to wash my face. I stared at myself in the mirror, the words he had told me a few days before, echoing in my mind.
            "You should hug yourself more, Mom."
            I'd asked him what made him say something like that and he said because he wasn't going to be there all the time to hug me, and he'd had to worry about me less if he knew I hugged myself.
            I ran cold water over a cloth and washed my face, then reluctantly hugged myself and rocked on my heels. It was silly, hugging myself. I was going to be fine, I didn't need him to worry about me, and I didn't need some kind of child like solution to what wasn't even a real problem.
            But as I stood there and hugged myself, I began to feel happier. Calmer. As if maybe I didn't have to carry the whole weight of the world on my shoulders and maybe it was okay to just let go of some things, to let go of the guilt I carried that my little boy didn't know his father, let go of the tension and anxiety over my job and my parents, let go of the worries and thoughts that hounded me.
            I didn't hear him come in but suddenly there he was, hugging me, pressing the wolf against my back.
            "I love you, Mom. You love you, too." He blew a kiss and then hurried away again, clutching that ugly stuffed wolf in his hand as he headed for the front door. "I'll be home later," was his cheerful call as he disappeared outside.
            I found a smile on my face as I moved to the kitchen and began making supper.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Indie e-Con 2017 Finalist - The Magic Jacket

Hello, just wanted to share the finalist story for The Magic Jacket. This was written by Hannah Gaudette, who doesn't have a blog.

This category was judged by Katy Huth Jones.

Cover by C. B. Cook
“Where is he?” I remember bouncing on my toes to see out the front window as I asked the question, not for the first time that morning.
     My mother chuckled while attempting to complete her sweeping of the dining room despite my peppering of questions. “He'll be here soon.”
     “How soon is soon?”
     Mother didn't answer, but finished her task and set aside the broom. “There. Why don't you go outside and play before Danny gets home?”
     I gave her a pouting look. “But if I'm in the backyard, I won't see him come.”
     A vehicle squeaked in the driveway. Almost as if there were some sixth sense in me, I shrieked out my brother's name even before that sound reached my ears. “Danny!”
     With Mother's hand around mine, together we raced out of the house, across the porch . . . and stopped. I pulled at her hand, nearly squeaking in my own excitement. Then I saw she did not smile. She did not laugh. There was a shadow over her eyes. A shadow that would stay there many months to come.
     It was not Danny who came to meet us at the porch. As I watched the two strangely suited men with long, sullen faces and lowly spoken words, I could not understand them. As Mother collapsed to her knees, her hands clutched before her face, I felt a foreboding dread about these men. I began yelling for explanations, for Daddy, for Danny.
     It was Mother's voice, tattered and broken like an autumn leaf wrested from its branch of safety that finally brought clarity to my young mind. “My Danny,” she wept, “my Danny . . . he's gone . . .”
     And I sensed then that my world was changed forever.

~ ~ ~


     My ninth birthday was celebrated by what Dad called a “house-cleaning” party that we would do for Mother. But after the year of hell we'd just lived through, I knew better. He and Mother had yelled all night about it, it seemed. This morning she wouldn't come out of her room.
     “Cleaning” Danny's old room and stuffing all his belongings into the attic meant, in her mind, that we were forgetting. I could understand that. I'd been forced to grow up a lot in the last year, and I didn't want my brother's room emptied any more than she did.
     He was my brother.
     And every day, my heart broke all over again.
     After that cleaning day, Mother was more shut away than ever. Dad had to hire a babysitter when he was gone for work all because she couldn't pull herself together to take care of me. I hated the babysitter like I hated everything else. She was a spindly old bookworm with the ugliest glasses known to mankind. And when Thanksgiving vacation pardoned me from the endless, miserable drawl of school, I, too, retreated the way Mother did. But instead of seeking out my bedroom, I fled to the outdoors, the unexplored wilderness around our New York home that Danny had so loved.
     “My little Rose,” he used to say, “someday, we'll be great adventurers in these forests! We'll tame the untamed wilds and beasts.”
     The wilds and beasts were ideas frightening to most kids I knew. But not to me. I knew Danny would protect me.
     But he was gone now. Dead. Buried in the dark recesses of the earth. Was he afraid of the dark? He'd always said he wasn't, but he had slept with a nightlight for as long as I'd known him. Did the darkness of his grave scare him? There was no nightlight down there.
     The unknown brought my frail composure to tears that afternoon on Danny's favorite trail in the woods where I'd come with my bike. I huddled beside his rock, my arms hugged around my head, my tears soaking through the knees of my jeans.
     “Danny . . . Danny, please come home.”
     “Who are you looking for?”
     I looked up with a gasp and scanned the trail. Standing not two yards from me was a boy about Danny's age, maybe a little older. His ruddy hair was askew, his slate blue eyes were distant. And despite the pronounced autumnal chill, he wore a light summer jacket.
     I sniffed and rubbed my eyes. “What do you want?”
     His eyes still did not find mine, but stayed off to my right, as though he spoke to somebody else. “What is it you want, Rose?”
     “How do you know my name?” I asked, sincerely irritated.
     “I just do.”
     Oh, what a stupid answer!  “Go away,” I growled.
     “What is it you want, Rose?”
     I huffed a breath. “A flute. That's what I wanted for my birthday, only we never celebrated it. Now shut up and go away.” I had thought my learning the instrument would make Mother happy, remind her of Danny, but the moment I brought it up, she walked out of the room.
     A breeze sifted through the dull, brittle leaves and carried a tinkling sound to my ears. My brow furrowed a little and I glanced over at the strange boy. He had a hand in the pocket of his jacket and he withdrew it as a clenched fist. I watched in frightened awe as he opened his hand and let a slim new penny whistle fall to the earth. Only instead of falling at the speed it should have, the flute descended slowly, defying gravity.
     I gawked at the little instrument for a long moment, then glanced up at the boy again. He was gone. Looking back on that moment, I can understand the reasoning, but in my still youthful mind, he must have run away while I was staring at his gift.
     I didn't take the flute home. It reminded me too much of Danny. He'd learned to play it a few years ago. I used to walk beside him, grinning from ear to ear in pride as he blew tune after tune into his little silver instrument.
     At home, I eluded the scolding I no doubt would receive from Babysitter Gloria and went upstairs to Mother's room. I knocked. She didn't answer. I didn't expect her to. I went to my own bedroom and stayed there all evening, even when Dad got home and begged me to come down to supper.
     The following morning, I was swiftly drawn back to Danny's rock. The flute, now covered by some leaves and a bit of dew, still remained on the ground. I picked it up. I don't know what I expected exactly – fairy dust? Mist? Air? But the instrument was whole, solid. There was nothing unreal in its substance.
     I rubbed it on my shirt and put the mouthpiece to my lips. Inhaling shakily, I blew into the flute. A light string of cacophonous sounds proceeded, so unlike Danny's skills. He had mastered it overnight, it had seemed. But then, Danny could master anything he wanted to. I was the unskilled and blundering one of the family.
     Footsteps crunched almost soundlessly on the leaves. “What is it you want, Rose?”
     I turned to the strange boy. He still wore his summer jacket. He still did not look at my eyes. “Okay,” I began. “You did this, and I want to know how.”
     “We don't get to know the how of everything in life, or the why. Some things are simply for us to accept.”
     “What, are you a student of philosophy or something?”
     “Aren't we all?”
     “You're weird.”
     He paused for a moment, his posture relaxed and comfortable like Danny's was. “What is it you want, Rose?”
     I clasped my hand around the penny whistle. “You can give me anything I ask for?”
     “Do you believe that because you have seen it?”
     I cocked my head. “Huh?”
     He laughed a little. “What is it you want, Rose?”
     “Something to make my mom happy, I guess.” If any such object existed.
     The boy smiled faintly and turned his gaze even farther from me as he reached into the pocket of his jacket. I waited with a little dubiousness. He withdrew his fist, held it out from his body and opened his hand. Again, the wind carried that tinkling voice of anticipation. The small object met the ground, and I stepped towards it. This time, the boy stayed where he was.
     I held it up. My breath caught in my throat. A simple heart-shaped photo of Danny in our backyard captioned with the pen-scrawled words, Happy Thanksgiving. I had no recollection of the picture, when it was taken or where. But I was in it, too, standing beside him, my auburn hair a mass of unruly snarls, much like Danny's.
     “Where did this come from?”
     The boy didn't answer. I glanced up. He had already taken off. I frowned in petulance. Did he have to be so weird all the time? And yet, despite the oddity, I felt no inhibitions about coming back tomorrow. His presence seemed to put me at ease, if only for a little while.
     I returned home with the photograph. Mother called me into her room after I knocked, and I found her sitting in her chair at the window, gazing into the backyard below, but I knew perfectly well, not seeing it at all. My heart squeezed painfully as I held out the picture.
     “Look what I found.”
     She looked. For the longest, most agonizing moment, she did nothing. I feared I had been correct – nothing would make her happy again. But then she looked up at me, her eyes more open than I'd seen them in months.
     “Rose . . . where did you find that?”
     I froze just a little. “Uh . . .”
     “I lost that one,” she told me, her words rushed and amazed. “I looked for it. I thought your dad had destroyed it, maybe, or it had been thrown out . . .  You found it.” She was smiling now, through her tears. “Oh, Rose. This photo . . . it was the happiest moment of my life when it was taken. We were all together, laughing together . . .”
     Next thing I knew, I was in her arms where we cried together. But these tears were different. They didn't enhance the burning hole in my heart. They brought a bit of peace to my pain by bringing to Mother a bit of relief.
     That night, she ate dinner with Dad and I downstairs.

~ ~ ~

     I was bound by pouring rain and Gloria's reprimanding to the house for two straight days. I was terrified the boy would not be there when I returned to Danny's rock on the third day. I already knew what I would ask him for – the engagement ring my mother had lost only a couple months after she and Dad were married.
     But on the third day, and every day after that, he was there. He never made eye contact, and he never changed that odd jacket, but I didn't care. During the weeks that I made the almost daily trips to the rock, I saw my mom come back to me. Dad fired Gloria – fired her! - much to my delight, and Mother . . .  She was always there. Present. At peace. Maybe not completely happy, but at peace was good enough for me, her attention-starved daughter.
     Looking back, I can so clearly see the relief I felt during those days. I once even asked for a dog like the one Dad wanted. He didn't pull that from his pocket, of course, but all he had to do was smile, turn towards the woods, and we had a dog. It was like magic. Maybe it was magic. I never told a soul about it. It was my special secret, one I only shared with Danny as I lay on my bed at night and whispered to the shiny little flute. I remember thinking how excited Danny would have been at these mysteries.
     It was on one such night after I finished telling Danny about my adventures that day and thinking how he must be proud of me for being the adventurer he wanted to be, when I fell into a sleep deeper than any I'd felt before. When the nightmare came, I couldn't shake it. I saw those men, the two police officers, on the porch. They kept telling us the news over and over. Mother was screaming and crying. Dad was walking away. I was screaming. I saw the strange boy, too, standing at the edge of the yard.
     “What is it you want, Rose?” was what he kept repeating as I kept screaming. “What is it you want, Rose?”
     “Danny!” The word escaped in my sickened terror. “Give Danny back!”
     In the culmination of the screams and the panic, I awoke.
     It was still early and not yet dawn when I shoved my feet into my boots and left the house, giving our dog a treat from the refrigerator to keep him quiet as I fled to the woods. We had very little snow thus far, so the forest was a smokey gray, drab in the earliest light and fog. I ditched my bike halfway to the rock and sprinted the rest of the way if only to expel the panicked energy still tight within me from the dream. From the nightmare.
     “Are you here?” I called upon reaching Danny's rock. “It's Rose. Please, I need to talk to you.”
     It took only a moment for the familiar footsteps to approach. I nearly cried when I saw him, but he spoke first, his voice quiet and gentle, as if he were soothing a frightened kitten. “You've lost something, Rose.”
     “I have.”
     “What is it you want?”
     Just for once, I wished he would look me in the eyes. “I want . . . I want . . .” Tears jammed in my throat, muddling my words. “I want my brother back.”
     The crippling grief I had learned to deal with crashed upon me and drove me to the earth. I held my arms around myself as sobs racked my body. “I want Danny,” I gasped. “You can do that. I want my brother.”
     The boy came up beside me, but I did not hear the tinkling of the wind that had become such a comforting voice. Instead, I heard him speak one word. “Rose.”
     My heart stuttered to a stop. I lifted my blurred eyes to his face and met his eyes. They were now vibrant, alive, fixed upon mine, clear and alert. His smile was so genuine and so tender.
     “D-Danny?” I dared to whisper.
     He held out his hands to me as the sunshine exploded through the forest branches, warmed the air, made his eyes glow. I gasped out his name once more and leapt into his arms. My pain turned to such lightened joy I was sure my heart could not contain it.
     “Danny . . . Danny . . .”
     “I'm here,” he spoke near my ear.
     It was a long moment before he stepped back and stood where the sun would blaze upon him, illuminating his smile, setting his hair aflame. He placed a hand on my cheek, sealing forever the reality that this was so very real. “My little Rose . . . I'm so proud of you.”
     I glanced for a moment at his summer jacket and relished the clarity that stormed through my mind like a ray of this brilliant sunshine. This was the jacket he had worn the last day I saw him. It had been summer then.
     “Proud?” I repeated, dazed. Wonderfully dazed. “For what?”
     “All these weeks, you only asked me for the things that would help our mom and dad. You could have asked for me that first day I was here. You didn't.” His smile widened. “You were very brave, Rose.”
     A little giddy laugh bubbled over inside me. “Oh, Danny. Let's go home and see Mom and Dad!”
     His smile faded, but not the joy in those perfect eyes, their light blue buoyancy, their elated hope. “No, Rose.” His words were quiet. “I was sent only as a messenger. I have a home. Another home.”
     I didn't understand him. “What do you mean? Don't you want to see Mom and Dad?”
     “You were the one I was sent to.”
     “By who?”
     “By God. To bring you, our whole family, some comfort. Unity. Peace.”
     “But . . .” I shook my head. “Danny, don't say that. Don't leave me.” A shudder raced through me.
     “I'm not leaving you. I'll always be inside your heart. But you have to let me go back.”
     “Back?” I felt the rise of panic.
     “It's not forever, Rose. You'll join me there someday.”
     “Danny!” It was just like my dream. I could feel him slipping from my presence. “Danny, no!”
     “Let me go, Rose.”
     My pulse quickening, I forced myself to meet his gaze. That sounded like a plea.
     “Let me go. There are glories waiting for you in heaven that I've already seen. ” A giddiness rose in his voice despite the now obvious pleading in his eyes. “You've never seen anything like it. The streets glow with gold, and the music! Oh, I've never heard such music. It's never dark, it's always light. Rose, it's all so beautiful! It's just . . . beautiful. You can't imagine it.”
     He was right. I couldn't imagine it. All I saw was the horror of losing my brother all over again.
     “My task here is done now, and I'm ready to go back to the Father who sent me. Please, Rose. Let me go.”
     I never thought much about God. I didn't think Danny did, either. I was wrong.
     “But you'll . . . you won't be here,” I whispered. “With me.”
     “Yes, I will.” He smiled softly and removed his jacket. My heart nearly tore into two as I held it. It smelled like springtime. Like orange trees and apple blossoms. “Keep that for me. I won't need it.”
     He began to move away from me, walking backwards, an increased joy on his face. “Rose?”
     I swallowed hard. “Go. Tell God . . . I'll be there someday.”
     “He knows.”
     I gasped out a small sob. “I love you, Danny.”
     Now several yards from me, Danny bowed. “This is where we can say a proper goodbye. We couldn't before, you know? Everything happened too fast.”
     “You never liked things to move slow,” I remarked as my heart wept within me. “Danny-”
     “Thank you, Rose. I'll be waiting for you!” His voice grew distant as he reached the spot where I'd first seen him standing. “There's lots more to explore up there! I can't wait to show you!”
     His childlike exclamations died as a light brighter than the morning sun enveloped his body and raised him skyward. His name escaped my lips one last time, and I heard whispered beside my ear his very last message.
     “I love you too, Rose.”
     And there I was left in the morning light which now seemed dim compared to the light I had just witnessed. I held Danny's jacket close to my body and waited for the onslaught of grief to return. It didn't. Through this encounter, I could move on. Mother could move on. Dad could move on.
     And one more thing I knew, a reality that would live forever deep in my soul, even still to this day as I reflect on that one lonely fall morning where it all began.
     Perhaps it was the fullness of the message he brought back to me. It was the truth that sustained me after that day, a certainty rooted deep in my soul.

     Danny lives on. I have his jacket, and I have this hope.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Indie e-Con 2017 Finalist - When the Music Fades

I'd like to share the finalist entry for "When the Music Fades," written by Sierra Blasko and Rachael Steele.

This category was judged by Laura Vosika.

Enjoy, and keep up the good writing, Sierra and Rachael!

Cover by Kate Flournoy
    “Announcing the arrival of His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Vladamir Varatin, of Eslos.” The herald’s voice rings out over the chattering assembly, and I stride towards the grand staircase as the prince descends.
   “Vlad,” I greet, grinning and gripping his hand in a firm handshake. “Good to see you again.”
   He shakes my hand, his look almost mischievous as he gestures to the room. “Feeling claustrophobic yet? Or are you enjoying the crowd?”
   I laugh. “Claustrophobic? Me?”
   “No, of course not. Have you asked anyone to dance yet? Or just skulked around the refreshment table?” Dropping his arm around my shoulder, he steers me to the left, waving with his other hand to some noble.
   I roll my eyes, ducking out from under his arm. “I don’t skulk. I observe. And yes, in fact, I was just dancing with Princess Clumsyfoot.”
   “Oh,” Vlad scolds, shaking his head. “That’s not nice, not nice at all. Low, even.”
   “It’s nothing personal against her,” I wave my hand, snagging a drink from the table. “Averanda’s sweet, beautiful- and she’ll admit it herself, she can’t dance to save her life.”
   “Well not everyone can be as perfect as you, dear NIkolai.” In one smooth move, he takes the drink out of my hands and tips his head back, draining it. “Some of us have a little thing called imperfection.”
   “You would know all about that, eh?” I punch his shoulder, picking up another glass and raising it to my mouth before he can take this one too. A flash of red catches the corner of my eye, and I glance over, choking slightly on my drink.
   The newcomer holds a violin in her hand, and her bow in her other, standing in the doorway for a moment, her eyes going around the room as if taking it in. She moves towards the musicians stage, slowly at first, then a bit quicker. Gathering her scarlet skirt in one hand, she steps onto the stage, moving behind a stand and raising her violin to her chin.
   I’m frozen, spellbound as the first note slides from the strings. The ballroom quiets slightly as the girl continues to play, her music sweeping through the room. Her eyes close as she plays by ear, ignoring the music on her stand, her left hands shifting on the strings while her right holds the bow. After a few more bars, she starts to sway with the music, tilting her head to the side.
   I slowly set my glass on the table behind me, feeling the music tug at something deep inside of me, an ache I didn’t even know I had. I can’t take my eyes off of her.
   “Nik,” Vlad interrupts, his hand on my shoulder, shaking me. “Snap out of it. It’s pretty but not that pretty.”
   I turn my head, blinking at him. “What, are you deaf, man?”
   “It’s a violin, but great stars she’s gorgeous,” Vlad says, his voice almost too loud. “You should ask her to dance.”
   “No way,” I hit him again. “You want me to just go up and interrupt her?”
   “After then,” he shoots, smacking the back of my head. “Or you can just gawk the whole night, eh?”
   “I wasn’t gawking,” I shoot back. “I was appreciating her music.”
   “Her fa-Music! Sorry!” Vladimir coughs loudly, hitting his chest dramatically. “I choked, excuse me.”
   “Get out of here, man,” I shove him away, laughing.
   “No! I’m gonna ask if you won’t,” Vlad threatens, grabbing my arm and shoving me forwards a step. “Go on!”
   “No!” I hiss. “Not until she’s finished playing, at least.”
   “She’s staring at you,” Vlad hisses, his grin widening. “Right now, she’s staring at you.”
   I turn my head. She is indeed staring at me, her dark eyes almost stormy as she raises her eyebrows, her painted mouth never moving along with the rest of her face.
   I nod politely to her, tearing my eyes away and giving Vlad a shove. “She’s staring at you, imbecile. Because we’re being disruptive while she’s trying to play.”
   Snorting, Vlad shakes his head, nodding at her. “The song ended and-” Something close to terror fills his face, and he whips his head around for a minute, dragging me back. “She’s coming this way!”
   “Moron,” I hiss, yanking my arm away. “Still going to ask her to dance?”
   “No! I didn’t actually think-I messed up her song she’s going to murder me! Did you see her eyes? They were scary!”
   “Crown Prince Nikolai,” a soft voice greets, and I turn, running a hand through my hair, to see that the violinist is the one speaking. Her expression is unreadable, and she holds her head up proudly.
   “Yes?” I respond smoothly. “My friend and I were just remarking on your lovely performance, lady...”
   “Sophia,” she answers, matching my tone.
   I swear if Vlad makes some smart remark to ruin this I will murder him.
   I flash her a smile. “Your music is lovely, Lady Sophia.”
   “Ah, but it’s not mine,” she corrects, her lips parting in a smile. “It’s the violin’s. A true musician would know this, so I assume you don’t play?”
   “Regrettably I do not.” I shake my head. “I love music, but I’m afraid I am completely incapable of producing it.”
   What am I waiting for? She's standing in front of me, those dark eyes looking right at me, and we’re carrying on a conversation about music. Why haven’t I asked her to dance yet?
   I’m trying to string together the words to do so when she speaks again. “Would you care to dance, Prince Nikolai, or do you already have a line waiting?”
   “With you, it would be a pleasure,” I respond. “There is no line.”
   Not that I wouldn’t let you cut it if there were.
   Taking my left hand in hers, she leads me to the center of the room, sliding her hand over my shoulder.
   I slip my other hand on her waist, and the dance begins. Her smile grows the slightest bit as she steps back, then to the side, following the steps of the dance.
   “Your dancing is nearly as lovely as your music.” I say softly, raising my arm as she twirls under it. The bottom of her skirt twists around her ankles.
   “Not as lovely as the violin, I know that, but when one’s trained under the great Marrelini, you learn it all,” she answers.
   “Marrelini?” I echo, surprised. “How did you manage to study under him? Not that you aren’t qualified, of course, but he hardly ever accepts a student.”
   “Note hardly,” she almost whispers, her eyes sparkling at this. “There are exceptions.”
   “Aye,” I murmur. “You certainly are that.”
   “So you’re a lover of music while not a musician,” the girl continues, dropping her eyes down to the floor.
   “Aye,” I say again. “I’ve tried. I can hear the music, but it doesn’t come for me.”
   We part for a moment, twirling with another couple. I catch sight of Vlad in the corner of my eye, his expression dark. Then Sophia and I are back together again, and my eyes are only on her.
   “The music comes for who it wants,” she answers, her fingertips on the palm of my hand as she circles me, her skirt spinning again. “Although it can be persuaded.”
   “You seem to have found the key to its heart.” I comment. “It comes beautifully for you.”
   “It took me many years, two to even produce something average people would call amazing, but something Marrelini described as ‘the beginning.”
   “Have you studied under him for long?”
   “Tonight marks my fifth year,” she explains, looking up at me while still somehow keeping her gaze on the ground. “You only get five years, Crown Prince, with the payment at the end.”
   The dance ends, and I bow to her, lightly kissing her hand. “It was a pleasure, Lady Sophia. I hope you’ll reserve a dance for me later in the evening?”
   “And you,” she returns, her hand still over mine as she pulls me towards the stage, releasing my hand and gathering her skirt again as she climbs on it. The violin sits on her unused chair, and she takes it and the bow again, stepping down and tucking it under her chin. “Any requests, Prince Nikolai?”
   I pause for a moment, considering. “Do you know Melody of Home?”
   She shakes her head, resting her bow on her violin. “But if you hum a bar or two, I can pick it out and play a version of it.”
   “I can try.” I pause for a moment, calling the song to mind. It takes a second for me to find the right tune, but I begin to hum softly, hardly doing the bright tune justice.
   Her smile grows again, and she takes it over for me, the trembling of the string filling the room. Eyes shutting again, she sways to the music, fingers dancing over the strings.
   My eyes slide shut as well as the music sweeps through me, and it occurs to me that I’ve never heard true music played until tonight. As it picks up a bit, she spins around, the full bottom of her skirt spinning as she twirls through the people, her fingers plucking now.
   I glance over to Vlad at the refreshment table, raising my eyebrows and smirking as if to say, “I told you her music was incredible.” Vlad rolls his eyes, his arm around Princess Averanda.
   “Was that the song?” Sophia asks, her tone breathless.
   I laugh, looking back at her. She’s radiant with the afterglow of the music. “It was perfect.” I respond.
   “Then would you care to try?” Holding out the violin, she raises her eyebrows, eyes taunting.
   I hold up my hands, shaking my head and laughing. “I’ve told you, I can’t play.”
   Tucking it back under her chin, Sophia uses her bow hand to pluck the strings, creating a riff of sorts, the same notes over and over. Half way through her third bar, she spins the bow in her fingers, dragging it across the strings in a long note. Her fingers shift, and the same note changes keys, almost piercing. 
   Have you ever heard a violin cry? It’s the most haunting sound you can imagine.
   The notes drip from her bow like tears, and I can do nothing but stare at her. She’s incredible. Unbelievable. I applaud when she’s finished. Movement out of the corner of my eye draws my attention. Vlad approaches, his smirk half forced, half annoyed.
    “Got up the guts to do it then?” He asks, clapping me on the shoulder.
   “Can't imagine what you're referring to,” I respond coolly. “Lady Sophia, this is Crown Prince Vladamir of Eslos. Vlad, the lady Sophia.”
   “I remember you,” she says, her voice friendly as she softens her notes to almost inaudible. “You were the one attempting to hide earlier.”
   “From the lady Averanda,” he says quickly, gesturing to where she is. “And yet you can’t avoid someone forever, eh?”
   Sophia gives a nod, her eyes flickering towards me. I clear my throat, asking pointedly, “Was there something you wished to speak with me about, Vlad?”
   Looking back at me, Vlad snorts softly, shaking his head and turning. “No, enjoy the music,” he throws over his shoulder, disappearing in the crowd without another word.
   I turn back to Sophia, shaking my head. “Don't mind him, he's just… Well he's Vlad.”
   “I'm not,” she says simply, flashing me a small smile. “He can't hear the music.”
   “Not at all.” I snort. “He'd barely admit your playing was ‘pretty’ earlier.”
   “If you truly appreciate it, Prince Nikolai,” she begins, lowering her violin, “then you’re special. You have befriended the music in some way.”
   I’m not sure what to say to this. She speaks of the music as if it’s a living thing, something who chooses who it befriends. I’m not sure I agree, though the concept fascinates me.
   Sophia fascinates me.
   I must have hesitated too long, because she speaks again. “You don’t think that music chooses people?” She asks, her voice curious as she mounts the stage again, setting her violin down on a stand.
   “I think there are some people with a unique ability to hear the music in the air. The sounds of everyday life line up for them, and they can pick out patterns and songs in the ordinary sounds. And some people,” I gesture to her and her violin. “Can take those song-sounds they hear, and spin them into music. But they’re only sounds and a gifted ear to hear them.”
   Her smile is almost amused, and Sophia walks to the edge of the stage, looking down at me. “And that, Prince Nikolai, is why you’re the listener and I’m the musician.”
   I smile. “And I’m happy to leave it at that.”
   “Prince Nikolai,” a servant clears his throat, and I turn, arching a questioning eyebrow at him.
   “Yes, what is it?”
   “The king has requested your presence, your highness.”
   “Thank you. Tell him I’ll be over in a moment.” I sigh, nodding and turning back to Sophia. “Well, duty calls.”
   “Aye, it does, as the music does,” she almost teases, her eyes sparkling. “I hope to see you again sometime, Prince Nikolai?”
   “I look forward to it.” My smile is genuine. “Would you ever consider a position here? Royal musician?”
   “Perhaps,” she says, interest sliding into her voice. “Since my term with my teacher is up. Isn’t there another who’s better than I that you could choose?”
   “I have heard no one better than you in all my days.” I respond, sketching a bow in her direction. “Would you return, say, tomorrow? Early afternoon?”
   “I’ll be there,” she answers, fingers around her violin again. “Enjoy your night, Prince Nikolai.”
   “And you, yours.” Reluctantly, I turn and make my way to my father, the faint strings of violin music trailing after me.
   A soft, mournful song.

   “So your entertainment left and now you’re moping around the room,” Vlad calls, hitting me with his shoulder. “Eh?”
   “I don’t mope, Vlad.” I roll my eyes, allowing them to wander over the room again. Sophia left early, while I was speaking with my father. I can only hope she’s alright, that nothing happened to have made her leave so suddenly. A beautiful girl like her, on her own as far as I could tell…
   “Nik, Nik,” Vlad repeats, shaking my shoulder. ”Quit tuning out, you’re zoning.”
   “I am not.” I frown. “I heard everything you said.”
   “What did I last say?” Vlad challenges, snorting softly.
   “Last you told me to stop tuning out.” I shoot back. His scowl darkens his face, and he steps back.
   “Well now I’m telling you to go find your little music girl,” he spits. “Go find her if that’s all who you want.”
   “Why?” I snap back. “Jealous?”
   “That you’re madly in love with a girl who came in here and played the violin? Whose face isn’t even real? Right.” Shaking his head, Vlad turns away, walking off towards Averanda.”
   I stare after him for a moment. How dare he!
   I don’t remember shoving my way through the crowd, but I must, because my hand is on his shoulder and I’m yanking him around. “You take that back.”
   “Why? Take what back? The fact that she was so made up you don’t even know what her real face looks like?” He snaps, shoving my hand away.
   “What do you have against her?” I shove him back a step. “You’re allowed to snap over a well meant jest at Averanda, but then you turn around and call Sophia fake? Her music is beautiful, you just can’t hear it.”
   “Get out of here,” he growls, fighting to keep his voice in check. “I don’t want to get into a fist fight in the middle of a ball, Nik.”
   “If there’s a fight tonight, you’ll be the one to have started it.” I spit at him.
   Shaking his head, Vlad pushes my hand off, storming off into the crowd. My fist clenches, but this time I let him go.

   I stroll through the halls the next morning, idly running a hand through my hair. I didn’t mention a specific time to meet Sophia, but now I almost wish I had. She could come at any time during the “early afternoon,” and I’m starting to get jumpy. It doesn’t help that I haven’t seen or spoken to Vlad since we nearly fought last night. Not that I want to.
   Not until he takes back his insults towards Sophia.
   “Prince Nikolai,” Sophia greets from behind me, her footsteps quick.
   I turn smoothly, offering her a smile. I might not have recognized her at a glance, she looks… different this morning. She no longer wears all the flashy makeup from last night, though it’s done nothing to change the fact that she’s still the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.
   See? Vlad was wrong. She’s not fake.
   “Good morning, m’lady.” I offer her my arm, and she slips her hand around it, the corners of her mouth pulling upwards in a smile. “You’re early.”
   “Did we set an exact time?” She asks, her tone implying that she knows the answer.
   “No.” I smile down at her. “You look beautiful this morning.”
    “Contrary to last night? Or are you simply saying that and you preferred how I looked last night?”
   “No!” I shake my head quickly. “You looked beautiful then, and you look just as beautiful now.”
   Smile widening the slightest bit, Sophia nods to me. “Thank you, Prince Nikolai. And did you have to form a line last night to dance with others?”
   “I managed.” I tell her. “I looked for you, but you left early. I hope all is well?”
   “Of course,” she hurries to assure, nodding. “I played a last song and then took my leave for someone else to play.”
   “None of them compared to you.”
   A small laugh comes from her, and she nudges me, raising her eyebrows. “I doubt that.”
   I shrug, grinning. “It’s the truth.” I can feel the corners of my mouth pulling down into a frown, remembering Vlad’s words. “Even if some people are too deaf to hear it.”
   “Do not be dissuaded by those who don’t appreciate music, Nikolai. It’s not their fault.
   I tip my head in acknowledgement, shoving Vlad from my thoughts. It’s too lovely a morning to dwell on his words.
   Unfortunately the morning sours as he walks into my line of sight. His eyes flicker to Sophia, but there’s no recognition as he stops, dipping into a half bow. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure,” he says mildly, glancing at me. I grit my teeth, clenching my fists to avoid punching him right in his smug face.
   A short, breathless laugh escapes Sophia, and she ducks her head, letting her long hair slip in front of her face. “Lady Sophia, the violinist,” she sighs, still chuckling. Vlad’s face goes from pleasant to blank as he stares at her, eyes squinting. 
   “Oh…” He says slowly, nodding at the same pace.
   I’m glaring daggers at him, but he hasn’t looked at me since his poorly disguised insult a moment ago. “I’ve asked Lady Sophia here to consider the position of Royal Musician,” I tell him pointedly. “Her music last night showed her to far surpass the previous one. Wouldn’t you agree?”
   “I wouldn’t know,” Vlad mutters, scowling darkly at me.
   “Not everyone loves music as you and I do,” Sophia says quietly, her finger brushing against my arm.
   I pat her hand, arching an eyebrow at Vlad as if to say, “Ready to apologize yet?” He rolls his eyes, brushing past me and stalking down the hall.
   I scowl, shaking my head. “I’m so sorry.” I tell Sophia softly. “I don’t know what he has against you. His behaviour is… he’s not usually like this.”
   “It’s quite alright. Although I do have a request before I consider working at the pala ce,” she answers, lifting her head up and letting her straight, sleek hair fall back.
   “What is it?” I ask, looking down into her sparkling eyes.
   “You have to hear the music in the place it sounds best,” she says, almost a whisper. “In the place where I can best play it.”
   I break into a smile. “It would be an honor.”

   I follow Sophia through the forest, softly humming the song she played last night. It swirls around and around in my head, looping and winding around my thoughts, brightening the colors of the scene around me. The sun beats down on us, though the trees shield us from its full fury, and birds chirp their respective songs, lending themselves to the melody swelling inside of me.
   I glance at Sophia, my heart skipping a beat or three. It's a beautiful morning, and I’m here with a beautiful girl, in a beautiful forest bubbling with music.
   I’ve never been happier.
   I might even, if I’m being honest with myself, admit the truth.
   I’m falling for this girl. And I’m falling hard.
   “Here,” she tells me, stopping in front of a cave opening. “This is the beginning of it. Are you scared of the dark?” A teasing smile pulls at her mouth, and she watches me.
   “Not a bit,” I smile back. “Lead on.”
   Slipping inside, she slips her hand into mine, pulling me through the first tunnel and turning a corner. “Have you ever seen a stone amphitheater before, Nikolai?”
   I shake my head. “No, never.”
   “It’s the most beautiful place you could ever go to hear music,” she sighs, the light around her growing as we near another opening.
   “I look forward to it.” I hold my free hand up to shield my eyes, the light blinding even though we’ve spent only a few minutes in the tunnels.
   Sophia stops in the entrance of the amphitheater, blocking the view with herself as she steps around me. “And you’re not going to pass out? From the music?”
   “I hope not.” I respond, laughing slightly. Slipping her hand to my arm, she steps back, pulling me with her as she reveals the stone amphitheater.
   My breath catches. “It is beautiful,” I murmur, gazing around.
   Her fingers are around her violin again, and she raises it, drawing out the first note. Just as quickly, it fades, and she drags it across again, changing up the notes into a haunting pattern.
   I’m frozen, spellbound. I can’t move, breathe, speak, as the aching inside stirs again. It swells in time with the music, tearing at my heart even as the music fills in the holes.
   Her grey dress falls above her knees, spinning just as the red one did as she twists from side to side, her head tilting back again.
   I understand now why she asked if I would pass out. I might yet.
   A tear slides down my cheek, and I swallow past the rock in my throat. I’m so empty. The music is filling me, and I never want her to stop playing.
   But she does. Her bowing becomes slower, more soft, and she's obviously finishing the song as tears run down her own face.
   No, don't stop. My heart begs her, though I can't find the breath to voice my plea aloud. The music is receding and the chasm it's opened inside of me is threatening to swallow me whole.
   The music fades slowly, barely even there now.
   The music fades, and I fade with it.

   I’m lost in a swirling fog of grey.
   Sophia’s words twist their way through the mist to me. A whisper, a breath, a plea. “I’m sorry, Crown Prince. The payment was due.”
   I can’t quite process her words. They dance around me, and I’m too empty to care. The last notes of the song drift to me, the mournful sound of the violin twining around me and pulling tight. I’d cry if I had the tears.
   Then suddenly the notes stop, cut off with a screech. In the absence of the music, I dimly hear scuffling, shouts, a loud splintering sound.
   Then fire races through me, and I am hurled back into the amphitheater. Someone is screaming, and someone else is yelling, and the harsh sounds tear at me. My hands fumble to cover my ears, and I lurch forwards, choking.
   I can’t breath, can’t hear, can’t get enough air. Someone help. Someone help me.
   Someone grips my shoulder and Vlad shakes me, his voice rough. Reaching up, he pulls my hands off of my ears, shaking me again.
   I blink at him. “Vlad?” I croak, my voice hoarse.
   “Yeah, you ok?” He waves his hand in front of my face, forehead furrowed.
   No. No I’m not.
   “What’d you do?” I manage instead. My eyes flicker over the scene in front of me, and I rub my hands over my face, tangling my fingers in my hair. Sophia kneels on the ground, cradling the broken pieces of a violin, crying. Her long hair which used to be perfectly in place now hangs in her face, the back messed up from her gripping it. 
   “I broke the blasted violin,” Vlad mutters, scowling deeply.
   Broke it. He broke the violin.
   I nod slowly, extending my hand. It’s shaking. My hand is shaking, I’m shaking, even my voice is shaking. “Help me up?”
   Pulling me to my feet, Vlad turns away from Sophia, shaking my shoulder. “You sure you’re ok?”
   “Yeah,” I mumble, breathing deeply. “Yeah, I’m alright.”
   “You sure?” His hand moves to my head, and he peers at me, ducking his head slightly to get on eye level. “You seem zoned.”
   I blink a couple times, running a hand through my hair and letting it drop. “Just… Shaken.”
   “You broke it,” Sophia sobs, stumbling to her feet, her fingers wrapped around the neck of the violin, one of the only solid pieces left. “You broke it and ruined it!’
   Vlad scowls deeply, stepping back behind me. “You deal with it,” he mutters to me. “You were the one who fell into it.”
   I stare at her, my eyes narrowed as I try to see what captured me last night and again this morning. Whatever is was, it’s gone, vanished. All I feel is pity for this beautiful girl. The echoes of her last song come back to me. It was so sad, so achingly lonely.
   I’m sorry, Crown Prince. The payment was due
   I take a step forward, and she backs up three, feeling behind her for the wall.
   “Marrelini?” I ask softly. Her nod is barely there, and her eyes fill with tears again as she ducks her head.
   I watch her, the emptiness, though much smaller, still gnawing at me. It’s a reminder, and one I will carry with me until I die.
   “When?” I ask her, my voice dropping. “When do you have to have the payment?”
   “To-” She freezes as the wooden violin crumbles to dust in her hand. Yanking her arm back, she grabs her hand, tilting her head back and gasping out a breath, as if waiting for something.
   The broken pieces on the ground crumble as well, the wind carrying them away. My eyes stay on Sophia. “I didn’t fade,” she whispers, staring at her hand. “I didn’t fade away. I’m not going to fade…”
   I shake my head slowly. “You’re free.”
   “I was...supposed to fade,” she says slowly, her forehead wrinkled. “Why didn’t I?”
   I glance at Vlad, though my words are still directed to Sophia. “If Marrelini gave you the violin, then Vlad destroyed his hold on you when he broke it.”
   She breathes something, someone in a language I can’t understand, her head against the wall. “Thank you,” she whispers, not moving.
   I turn towards Vlad, gripping his arm. “Thank you.” I tell him softly. “If you hadn’t come...”
   He nods, a small smile on his face. “We’re friends, Nik.” Stepping back, he reaches out, rubbing his hand over my hair. I crack a small smile. “But I think we can all agree which friend is the more handsome, eh?”
   I laugh and weakly hit his arm. “Sure.”
   Sophia’s hand is on my shoulder, but her touch is hesitant, completely different from at the palace this morning. “I’m...sorry,” she says, taking a deep breath, her eyes still down.
   I shake my head. “You wanted to live. I don’t fault you for that.”
   “But…” She breaks off half way, choking slightly and wrapping her arms around me.
   I freeze up for half a second, then gently slide one arm around her, patting her shoulder. Burying her face against me, Sophia’s arms tighten, and she doesn’t lift her head up.
   I hold her for a moment, then gently pull away. “Do you know where you’re going to go?”
   She shakes her head, taking a deep breath and scrubbing her face with her sleeve.
   I nod slowly. “Will you still play?”
   “Yes, that’s what I’ve spent the past five years learning. I can’t give that up.”
   I nod, my tone serious. “Find a violin. One with new songs inside of it. I’ll pay the bill.”
    This time her head snaps up, and she shakes it quickly, reaching up and brushing the hair that went in her face away. “You don’t have to pay for it, you didn’t break it.”
   I laugh slightly at the expression on Vlad’s face. “I want to. Let me help you start over. Please.”
   “Then...thank you. Although I can’t accept the position at the palace, though I’m not sure it’s still open to me.”
   I hesitate, then shake my head. “I’m sorry.”
   “Farewell, Crown Princes,” she says, nodding to both of us.
   “Farewell.” I say softly. Sophia turns, slipping her hand to her shoulder and starting off down the tunnel.
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