Crime – 15 min.

On the lawn I skidded to a halt and turned to face our pursuer.  My sisters had disappeared into the brown house and into safety.  I was pissed.  I felt my blood boiling and felt my rational mind retreating behind a cloud of utter fury.  I let out a banshee scream intended to frighten this man who had been on our heels—he was now angling towards the door trying to get past me.  I admit that I’m not the quickest on my feet but damned if he was going to get into that house and hurt my sisters.  I swung at his head in a wild haymaker.  To my surprise, and I imagine his, the blow connected and he paused long enough to reassess.  “Back off,” I commanded, still seething.  “They didn’t mean to run into your damn car!”

            He spouted some profanity at me and shoved me aside.  I grabbed his arm and sank my teeth into the flesh right above his elbow.  He howled and hammered at my face.  I immediately let go because that hurt!  Throwing my full weight at him, I screamed, “They’re kids! Leave them alone!” He stumbled and I pushed my momentary advantage to get him on the ground.   He rolled away, and I followed on my hands and knees, clawing at his shirt and jeans to keep him down.  I felt I had an advantage here.  I lunged forward again, catching him as he scrambled to his feet and taking him down to the cement sidewalk.

            One of the bricks was loose.  I saw my hand reach for it, felt my fingers close around it, and I felt my arm swing down with all its might.   The man howled, blood running down his face from the gash on his forehead.  Something tore inside me and I lashed out again, harder, trying to erase that noise from the earth.  Again, and again, I struck, and I felt blood spatter onto my shirt.  “Leave my sisters alone!”  I was sobbing now.  I felt completely intoxicated.  It was only when my uncle pulled me off that I began to regain some of my senses. 

Free Write – 15 min.

Xaon grimaced.  “I’ll call in so the bodies can be recovered.”

“Alright,” Elizabeth slung her rifle around and checked the charge.  “Eighty-five percent.  How are you?”

“Same,” Xaon flipped open his communicator.  “Talos to base.”

“Go ahead.”

“Discovered cache of human remains.  No survivors.”

“Alright, we’ll send down a recovery team.”

“Many thanks.  Talos out.”

Elizabeth stood, her leg armor creaking as she did.  “Colder in here,” she noted, mostly to herself.  “Let’s go.”

The pair continued down the white corridor.  The story-high windows allowed the sunlight to stream in, illuminating the crumbling walls and floor.  Graffiti and other vandalism were the only signs anyone had seen the interior of this building in quite some time.  Somewhere above them, the rafters of the building groaned in the mounting wind.  Xaon’s sense of unease grew steadily as they ended the corridor and rounded into a stairwell.  “Up or down?” he asked casually.

“I’d say up, then down,” his partner responded.  “I don’t like this place.  It’s got something I can’t lay finger to.”

“Agreed.”

They carefully made their way up the stairs, avoiding holes where rust had eaten through the steps.  “Tread lightly,” Elizabeth pointed at a particularly raw step.  Xaon could see the floors far below.  The iron grumbled protestingly as he passed over it.  Suddenly Elizabeth held up her hand to stop.  As she did, a harried fluttering of wings and indignant bird noises came from the top of the stairwell.  Both explorers flattened themselves against the outer wall, hefting their rifles into better battle-ready positions.  Elizabeth crept forward, remaining hunched over to keep their presence unknown as long as possible.  “What do you think it is?”  When Xaon’s only response was a shake of his head, she said, “Call it in.”

The communicator sprang to his palm.  “Talos to base,” his voice was extremely quiet.

“Go ahead.”

“Be advised we have encountered some disturbance on floor three.  We are moving to check it out now.”

“So advised.  Do you require back up?”

“Not at this time, however please prepare to respond quickly should we call.”

“Sir.”

“Talos out.”

Elizabeth stretched out further up the staircase and peered over the edge.  No movement, now that the birds had taken flight.  She carefully scanned the great open room, her sight finally falling on a white form at the center of the floor.  Raising her head, Elizabeth squinted.  “Talos, there’s someone up here.”

He tightened his grip on the rifle. “I’ll cover you.”

Nodding, she stood and stepped noiselessly up three remaining steps and onto the third floor.  The figure lay face down, sprawled and undignified.  Definitely human, likely a former patient, judging by the bland clothing.  Close-cropped hair gave no indication as to a gender.  How did we not hear this person before?

“Excuse me,” she spoke aloud.  The silence of the entire building seemed to deepen as her words resounded off the dirty walls.  “Excuse me,” she tried again.  “Can you hear me?”

No reply.  No movement.

Xaon, still at the stairs, eyes roving uneasily, with rifle aimed at the prone figure, shook his head.  “Another corpse.  Recovery team will get him.”

Elizabeth ventured closer to the body.  From this proximity she could see part of the person’s face.  There was something vaguely masculine about the jawline, though it was hard to discern when the haunting look of emaciation and poor treatment hung so heavily over him.  Something at his throat caught her attention.  “Xaon.”  She took three hasty steps forward and knelt by the figure.  “It’s blood.  Fresh. This man was alive a few minutes ago.”  She took the body by the shoulder and raised him.  “Throat’s been slashed!”

“We’re not alone,” her companion came quickly to her side, rifle at his shoulder.

“Do you hear that?” Elizabeth stood, pulling her own rifle up.  “The screeching.”

Very faintly, but growing in volume and intensity, a definite sound of screeching came to their ears from several floors away.  Xaon flipped his communicator open again.  “Talos to base.  Third floor not secured.  Be advised: this hospital is infected.”

Secret / Solution / Savior – 15 min.

Tory had the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Hugo was upset with her.   The wind whipped past her face, her long red hair streaming behind her as she pounded the pavement towards her secondary get-away car.   It would take months to get back into his good graces, assuming she was quick enough to avoid the savage hit-men pursuing her.  Another shot rang out, splintering the bricks near her head as she slid around a sharp corner and yanked open the rusty sheet-metal side door before her.

Ripping the dusty tarp away from the body, Tory slid behind the wheel of the sleek, black Lamborghini, felt the engine roar to life, clutch, pop, brake… first gear.  Away.

Expensive, pretty cars destroyed in a maelstrom of bullets: To date, five.

Late nights, complicated very alcoholic drinks, lost friends or potential relationships who assumed she was just being a bitch when she didn’t return their calls, number of times in danger of being exposed as an officer and summarily executed: All countless.

Thrill of putting one more local drug kingpin away for life: Totally worth it.

But I don’t know how long I can keep this up.

Absurd – 15 min.

Amelia felt the tears burn behind her eyes as she flipped the page in her old, brown diary. She remembered this ugly part of her life, some five years ago, with painful clarity.

Perhaps I should just break up with P now to save him from me.  I feel so unstable, so ugly, so unlovable.

“Run, girl,” she whispered to the pages.  “Run before he can—“           

I started seeing a therapist today.  I hate these medications I’m on.  One makes me so sluggish I can barely function, the other is to combat that, but it’s not working yet.  P says I should keep taking them.  I feel nothing inside anymore, I can’t connect, I can’t see out of the haze.   The stupid thing is, these meds are anti-seizure meds.  That’s how they treat the bi-polar.  This and therapy.  My brain isn’t moving fast enough to seize, so that’s good, I guess.

But ten pages later, it was too late.  P and I are broken up.

The black ink was striking and unnerving in the white space.  Amelia remembered writing that way on purpose, trying to capture how stark and stiff she felt when P had told her over dinner at her apartment that he thought it best if they parted ways.  He’d knelt beside her as she sobbed her non-understanding and pleas for another opportunity to try to set things right.  In trying to comfort her, he suddenly forged the connection they’d been missing for months with the kindness in his eyes that had been banished after conversations with his sister.

They made love that night.  Amelia felt the horror of the action wash over her again and again in cold waves.  It was completely absurd—“Go from me, I don’t love you” should not mean “Let’s get naked.”  Yet that was where they were.  Amelia remembered the slow motion because even as her body reacted to P’s , as he pulled her and she pushed him towards her bedroom, she knew it was absurd and wrong and that pain was coming.

Amelia could feel the space around her growing, like a cavernous vomitorium to the theatre of her mind, as she sank back into that fog that rose from the pages of the brown diary.   The ink itself reached for her, stained her fingers, and pulled her down so she could relive each moment as recorded all those years ago.

A gentle tap on the doorframe caused her to jump and look around to see her husband.  She sprang to her feet and ran into his arms.  “Hi!” he said, surprised.  “Cleaning up?”

Amelia nodded.

“Find anything interesting?”

She shook her head, burying her face into his warm, strong neck.  “Just some old memories.”  She looked at him.  “I love you.  How was your day?”

Overcoming the Monster – 15 min.

           “It’s a growing threat, Your Grace.  Our correspondents in the East write that the Orient army is fortifying itself for what could be an invasion.”

            Aubra leaned back against the bone stays of her green corset, her eyes half-closed in thought.  The information being presented to her now was nothing new, thanks to Theresa’s vast spy network.  She still had to let her Council do its job.  “Are we to assume they are preparing to attack or is the Khan sending supplies to reinforce his men?”

            Sixteen pairs of eyes slid towards her.  “Your Grace,” a voice from the end of the table came to Aubra’s ears.  “With all due respect, the idea that the Khan could be doing anything other than preparing an invasion is naïve indeed.”  The silence that descended upon the room was deafening.  Aubra smiled icily.

            “He has not historically been a quiet neighbor. What exactly is he sending to these outposts?”

            “ Supplies, horses, likely munitions and extra weaponry,” another voice floated towards her.  “They are probably laying supply lines back to the capitol as well.”

            “What is the Council’s recommended course of action?  Should we not send someone to ensure these reports are true?”

            “ We should,” a voice at Aubra’s elbow.  “Your Grace.”  A dark young man bowed.  Aubra straightened immediately to hide how startled she was.  “Master Riley,” she acknowledged him.  “Was there something you had intended to share with the Council?”

            “Only that the Khan has been in power for over a quarter century, Your Grace, and he knows the business of running a far-flung kingdom better than we at this point.  He could be resupplying his outposts or he could very well be arming them for an invasion.  Were I in Your Grace’s position, I should send a trusted, informed person to discover the absolute truth beyond the observations of a few jumpy noblemen—”

            This brought murmurs of discontent from the group.

            “—to better inform us so that we could act appropriately.”

            “And if the Khan is preparing for invasion?”

            Riley’s face, already masked in partial shadow, grew darker.  “We would have no choice but to call upon our allies.”  Aubra’s brow furrowed.

            “Your Grace!” a messenger clad in royal standard approached Aubra hastily, knelt, and presented her with a sealed letter.  Aubra wondered if her Private Advisor, Tymon, had had time to read it.   As she lifted the wax seal and scanned the hastily written words, her face paled. 

            “Your plan comes too late, Master Riley,” she said in a less than satisfied tone.  “The Khan has already made his intentions clear.”

Wedding – 15 min.

We’d had to put off our wedding for weeks because of some stupidity on the part of my lenders.  I was in the middle of buying a house and the deal should have closed at the top of November.  Instead, it was the middle of the month, and the lender’s money “wasn’t there” despite my having been approved, the money promised, and the closing papers signed.  There was nothing I could do.   I was advised not to change anything about myself—i.e. my marital status—lest I have to go through the closing process again but this time take new information into account.  

After days of upset, everything settled out, the house was mine, and we rearranged our meeting with the Justice of the Peace for 8p, November 16, 2011.

I went to work that day, trying to keep my mind off the wonderful thing that was to happen that night.  I didn’t want to make the day slow down more than I knew it would!  I went home—to my very own house!—to meet my soon-to-be husband and get ready.  In non-traditional fashion, we dressed side-by-side in our good clothes.  I remember putting on my makeup as he buttoned his shirt.  We stepped out of the house as a non-married couple for the last time at 7.30p.

We made it to the justice’s office about 15 minutes later and stood outside for a few minutes, waiting for him to arrive.  He appeared and opened the locked door for us.  We went through a door, down a hallway, through another door, and into a small courtroom.  Presenting all necessary documents and fees, we couldn’t contain our delight.

I don’t remember the vows exactly, even though they were standard for the State, but I remember the look in my husband’s eyes.  I remember hoping he could see and feel the veracity in my eyes as I repeated the dusty words that bound us “in good times and in bad.”  I remember feeling the hope and excitement in his hands as we exchanged rings.  When the judge said, “You may kiss the bride” there was only silence and his shuffling as we did so.   There were no other witnesses, no honor attendants, and no parents present. 

It was a moment all our own.

Coming out of the small, square, brown building, we saw my car had been covered with white paint, crepe flowers, streamers, and tin cans had been strung on the back bumper.  My dad said in mock-astonishment, “Quick! Here they come!” as he ducked behind the car.  My mom laughed and said, “You’re not supposed to be done yet! Go away!”

My husband and I walked to the end of the parking lot where we had a private, quiet minute together.  When we heard my parent’s car rev up and saw it drive away, we put on our best ‘shocked’ faces.  I called my mom.  “Someone vandalized my car!” I told her.  “They wrote sweet notes all over it and decorated it!”

“It’s like you just got married or something,” she said.

I agreed.  We went to my mother-in-law’s after that for champagne and cake.

As I write, it seems I am merely listing the evening’s events without emotion, but that is only because I am finding it difficult to convey how surreal and yet how strikingly clear everything was to me that night.   I remember the strange tiny things—the crickets, the noise of the traffic, the driving, and the shine on the forks as we cut into our cake.  I wore a purple and white polka-dotted dress with a beaded belt.  He wore a white shirt, black pants.  He looked fantastic.

The moment was just for us, a quiet act of determination to be bound together forever, symbolized by our round golden rings, a quiet declaration of our love for each other in complete commitment.   We plan to renew our vows with a church wedding some time in the future, and even further down the road we’ll do it again on a black sand beach in Hawaii with a traditional conch shell ceremony.   Nothing will replace for me, though, the look in D’s eyes and the strength of his hands as they held onto mine that night. 

 I love you, dearest.  Eternally.

Eavesdropping on Characters – 15 min.

“I tell you, I’ve had the worse end of the deal,” Xaon laughed.  “Since she started writing with us as her protagonists, I’ve died, but then ‘no, he didn’t die,’ and then we were in a motorcycle wreck, I’ve been beaten, stabbed, lied to, had to off my mentor and friend because he killed my first mentor and friend, not to mention this whole thing about missing a significant part of my body.”

“I’ve been poisoned,” Elizabeth pointed out.  “Beaten, stabbed, in fights, placed in random perils, sent down a freezing waterfall—“

“Which I, too, went down.  That bitch was cold!”

 “—and I’ve had my share of near-death experiences.  We’ve both lost good friends to her pen.  The worst, though, was her making us fall in love and then taking what… twenty of our years… to bring us back together?”

“Something like that,” Xaon took her hand.

 “But do you know what I’m most afraid of?”  Elizabeth looked at him steadily.  “I’m afraid this mercurial author we live beneath will write a way that does not include us being together.  That pain, I think, would be worse than the rest.”

The pair of them looked up at me from the page.

 I promise, you guys, I won’t split you up.  First of all, I like your relationship.  I like how you complement each other.  Second, you’re the embodiment of the childhood into adulthood romance that everyone longs for—Xaon, you were originally created by a friend of mine, Jonathan, on whom I had a huge crush, and Elizabeth, you are based on the ideal Me.  Jonathan and I would have been kick-ass together.  You two are kick-ass together and I have no reason to change that.

“Well that’s a relief.”

Elizabeth nodded.

Also, this whole “long life of tragedy” thing you two are on about is only because you’ve both existed in my head for about 20 of my years.  Your stories are so jumbled and out of sequence that they long to be stretched out, rewritten, organized, and finalized.  I owe you both that much.  We can talk about your last adventure together some other time.

The pair nodded their assent, relief washing over their faces.