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    • Original Fiction
    The Many Worlds of EzloSpirit: The ZU Collection of Short Stories by EzloSpirit
    • Originally written October 17-November 20, 2012.

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      Horror/Suspense. 2,761 words. 20th story written consecutively. Rated M (Mature) for strong language, thematic elements, and terror. READER DISCRETION IS STRONGLY ADVISED.

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      Ultimalia Fiction
      proudly presents

      The Many Worlds of EzloSpirit
      Third Annual Halloween Story

      “The Mirrors are Plotting”
      By EzloSpirit



      Buzzzzzzzzzz.

      I roll over just enough so that I can flail my hand around my nightstand and maybe hit the snooze button. Instead, I wind up slapping my alarm clock onto the floor, its obnoxious, droning buzzing sound continuing to annoy the hell out of me. Groaning, I slowly open my eyes and roll onto the floor to join the clock. I am too tired to flip the clock over and press the small “OFF” button, so I just yank the plug. I know, I know: you’re not supposed to pull out a plug by its cord. Kill me, if it makes you happy.

      I walk over to my window and pull open the curtains. Unfortunately, my hopes that maybe light would shine in, blinding me, are dashed by the darkness that, um, doesn’t shine in. Ugh. I’m so tired.

      Well, Kat, maybe you should have gone to bed before midnight, I can just hear you saying in a scolding voice. Yeah, well, lucky for you, I did; in fact, I was asleep by ten. Well…for a couple hours.

      I don’t know exactly what the hell is wrong with my subconscious, but it is badly screwed up somehow. I mean, we all have nightmares, but seriously, this one was especially disturbing. I kept waking up and falling back asleep, but in every dream—a.k.a. nightmare—I saw the same thing: a large, grotesque, obese, furry, green creature with eyes as big as my fists, a blood-red nose the size of, well, my nose, and a mouth filled with two rows of scary-looking teeth. But its most terrifying feature was its hands; its hands were literally daggers, splattered with red.

      Each nightmare started out innocently enough. Weird, but innocent. For instance, one time, I was “general” of the U.S. Olympic women’s swimming team. I was winning, and I was about to touch the side of the pool, when that part of the dream ended and I was apparently in the locker room, getting dressed. As there is in most locker and changing rooms—which is more than a little creepy—there was a tall mirror on one wall. Well, I glanced into it before I put my shirt on. Frankly, I’m surprised how ordinary I looked, considering it was a dream. After I pulled my shirt over my head, I saw myself in the mirror again. But this time, I wasn’t alone. Behind me was that terrifying monster, holding up one sharp-pointed hand pointed at the ceiling just behind my ear, its other hand hidden by my body. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and then…I woke up.

      I probably had about ten of those nightmares last night. So that’s why I am so damn exhausted.

      I move away from the dark window and proceed to take out and put on clothes, go into the kitchen, and eat breakfast, dreading, irrationally, the final step in my morning routine before I head off to work: putting on my makeup.

      My cornflakes are soggy. Wasn’t cereal made to be eaten with milk? So why make a cereal that falls apart while floating in it? Why am I thinking about th—wait!

      I turn around ninety degrees in my chair. I could swear I just heard something. A footstep? I don’t know. Something. I shake my head and turn back to my soggy breakfast.

      That’s the thing about nightmares: they make you paranoid. As if that boogeyman who tormented you last night might be watching you in your waking life. Or as if your best friend might actually be a demon waiting for an opportunity to lure you out to some cursed bush behind your house. Or as if some weird door might really appear near your house and start turning all your neighbors into vampire-things like a plague. You know what I mean?

      Suddenly, I can’t wait to put on my makeup because at least by looking in a mirror, I would know if there were something behind me. I rush to finish my soggy cornflakes, practically shoveling them into my mouth. I am still tense while I shovel, though; if something is really watching me, I need to be ready to run. When I am finished, I grab my bowl and toss it into the sink. (The bowl's plastic. Calm down.)

      I dash toward the powder room, looking behind my shoulder a couple times while slipping and sliding across the polished wood floor. When I get inside, I slam the door shut and turn the lock. Leaning against the counter, out of breath, I look up at myself in the mirror.

      My hair is all over the place, and my eyes are slightly bloodshot. God, I look awful. What is wrong with me? It was just a fucking dream! I mean, that monster was like something out of a Maurice Sendak book. Well, minus the bloody knives.

      I shake my head and reach for my eye liner. For the duration of my personal beautification, every muscle in my body is tense, and I find myself constantly looking past the reflection of my shoulder, as if that grotesque thing would appear in the mirror at any moment.

      ******


      I work at Becker & Slatter, a loans company. For ten hours a day, five days a week, I sit at the desk in Cubicle 26 and type numbers into a computer. It is completely mindless, so long as I don't make a mistake, and I find myself functioning on autopilot throughout much of a single workday.

      Not today. I can't shake the image of that thing. That thick, green fur. Those enormous, red eyes. Those hands. I can't focus! I am going completely out of my mind!

      At about 9:30, Jill leans over the wall separating my cubicle from hers. “Hey, Kat, does my makeup look smudged to you?” I look up from my monitor and see a mess.

      “Yeah,” I admit. “Yeah, Jill, it does. You get caught in a storm or something?”

      Annoyance flashes briefly across her all-too-colorful face. “No, I didn't. But everyone's been saying it's all smudged, but every time I look in a mirror, it looks perfectly fine to me. Am I going crazy?”

      I give her a sweet smile and look back at my spreadsheet. You think you're going crazy, woman? You don't know the meaning of “going crazy.”

      Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jill roll her eyes before she settles back into her little space. I take this opportunity to swivel around to look behind me. Nope. Nothing there. Get a f×××ing grip, Kat.

      ******


      By lunch break, my paranoia has subsided substantially. Having people around—including a small force of security guards—who could alert me if I were being stalked by a big, green Gossamer with a bloodlust really helps.

      I join a group of my coworkers heading down the block to Starbucks. On the way, I decide to strike up a conversation with Phil. Phil is a tall, pale man who always wears a navy-blue sport jacket and navy-blue pants to work. He is also perpetually quiet and a bit on the clumsy side.

      Today, however, I notice that Phil is looking particularly dejected. “Yo! Phil! What's up, man?” Too perky?

      “Oh, hey, Kat,” Phil says glumly.

      “You okay?”

      He stops walking and starts to sob. God, I hope somebody didn't die. Or he didn't lose something important or something like that. I turn back, genuinely concerned.

      After another thirty seconds of sobbing, Phil holds his tears back for long enough to tell me, “I have cancer,” and then he starts sobbing harder than before. I give him a little hug; those tend to make people feel better, at least temporarily. Then I let go, realizing that no hug is going to help him get through this.

      When we get to Starbucks, Phil and I sit at a table on our own, away from the prying eyes and ears of the other part of the Becker & Slatter crew. By this point, Phil just looks depressed, though he’s stopped his crying.

      “The worst part is that I could probably have easily prevented this had I only known that I’ve had a tumor growing above my left eyebrow,” he tells me.

      I look above his left eyebrow, and sure enough, there is a sizable mass of skin. How could anybody not have noticed it there, a big lump growing constantly, sticking right out of his face? “And you didn’t see it when you looked in a mirror?” I have to ask.

      He shook his head. “I only noticed it in the mirror after I found out.”

      “And that doesn’t strike you as weird?”

      “It strikes me as stupid!” Phil shouts angrily, as he suddenly slams his fist down on the small table, causing me to jump and drawing a fair amount of attention to our little corner. “It’s things like these that make me just hate myself! I’m always missing the obvious things!”

      “Come on, man. It…happens to the best of us. Why, if we all noticed tumors growing on our bodies, the number of skin cancer patients would be much lower!” I think about these words for a moment after speaking them. I determine, even before Phil can respond, that they are not going to be helping and that I should probably shut the hell up before this guy throws his coffee cup at me.

      Also before Phil can respond—thank God—a couple of small girls come screaming out of the women’s room. “IT’S BLOODY MARY!” Phil and I just stare at this spectacle in unnecessary fascination. Pfft. The games children play.

      A woman who is probably their mother gets up from her seat, exasperated, and drags both girls by their arms back into the restroom. A minute later, the trio bursts out, the mother yelling at her kids as quietly as possible, “There was nothing there! Don’t you ever embarrass me like that in public again! And Maddy—” she turned to the slightly taller girl “—don’t go scaring your sister with silly, little games. Come on. We’re leaving.”

      Phil’s and my eyes follow the family until the girls and their mother are out the door. Then I burst out laughing. Hell, even Phil cracks a smile! “And that…that is why I am never having kids!” I admit while tears fall down my face from laughing so much.

      ******


      Back at the office, things go much more smoothly than they did before lunch. I actually manage to get some work done over the next five hours, some numbers crunched. I now have a secret weapon to use against my best friend the ugly, green knife monster: comic relief. Take that, you big lug! You ain’t gonna be messing with my head anymore! No, sir or madam!

      I get back to my apartment at 7. I am oh, so hungry. I put down my purse, take off my damn high heels, and get cooking. Yeah, Kat! You work that frying pan! I can hear my stomach saying. Gimme some of those delicious stir-fried veggies!

      While I am stirring those delicious veggies, I hear a creak behind me. A footstep. I put the frying pan on the other burner, leaving the stove on, grab the butcher’s knife from the knife rack, and turn around to face my stalker. Who still isn’t there. I look to my right, where a tall mirror hangs on a closet door. Nope. No Mr. Knife-Hands. Damn it, self!

      I put the knife back and get back to frying those veggies, waiting for the next false alarm so I can blame my upstairs neighbors for driving me fucking crazy.

      ******


      I have outdone myself. These veggies are more than delicious: they are divine. There’s nothing quite like eating a divine dinner while reading yesterday’s comics to stave off paranoia. …Okay, who am I kidding? These aren’t remotely funny. Except for Garfield.

      So when my lights go out suddenly with a click, I don’t really have to worry about not being able to read the so-called “funnies.” Unfortunately, I can’t see my dinner. Damn it, ElectriCo!

      And then I hear a creak again. I take slow, deep breaths. Cool it, Kat. The building owner is going to hear about this.

      I reach out my arms in front of me, slowly walking to the counter while my eyes adjust to the darkness. I open up a drawer and draw out a flashlight. I turn it on and point it across the room at the mirror on the closet door. Only my own reflection stares back at me. What the fuck, Kat! Stop it! Then I hear what sounds like a little girl giggling, but only for a second. Okay, now I’ve really lost it.

      I turn back around, and my eye is caught by something outside the window. What? I go over to the door and step outside onto my small terrace. My eyes really weren’t deceiving me; the building across the street has power. I lean over the metal bars separating me from the street sixty-six stories below. My downstairs neighbor has power! I look up. My upstairs neighbors have power! What the fuck‽

      Pissed off, I step back inside and slide the door shut as hard as I can. I go over to the light switch.

      The light switch…is in the “off” position.

      “Hello?” I call out. Somebody is in my apartment. Has to be. I wasn’t paranoid at all. Well, except about the green monster with knives for hands. “I know you’re there. Show yourself! I’ll call the police! I will! I will call the fucking police!” I walk over to the phone. I dial 911 into the handset and hit “TALK.” It doesn’t ring. I hit “END” and shine the flashlight on the phone’s base. I then trace the phone cord with my light until I get to the end…which isn’t there—it’s been cut off. Horror movie much?

      “Alright! You’ve had your fun! Phil? Jill?” I’ve never noticed until now that those names rhyme. No! Stop! Focus! You are probably in danger! What should I do? Leave the apartment? Lock myself in a room? That second one sounds a hell of a lot better. That way, this creep can’t just run down the corridor and stairwell after me.

      Just as I did this morning, albeit about sixteen times faster this time, I dash into the powder room, scrambling to lock the door. I lean back against the wall, my eyes closed, my head spinning, my breathing rapid and shallow. I have just about had enough of this.

      I walk up to the sink, staring at myself in the mirror. All things considered, I look much better than I did this morning. That’s probably because I don’t have bed head, though.

      I turn on the faucet and cup my hands under it. I lean over the sink and bring my cupped hands over my face, letting the cold water wash over me. I do it again. And again. And—

      I hear that same giggling sound. And suddenly, I understand: the mirror is laughing at me. They are all laughing at me. The mirrors are all laughing at the whole lot of us. At Jill, whose facial disaster was hidden from her. At Phil, the sight of whose tumor, the one thing he truly needed to see, was denied to him. At those two little girls at the Starbucks, who were shown the one vision that they did not want to see. (Well, deep down, they must have wanted to if they were doing the whole “Bloody Mary” thing.)

      At me. Whose stalker is an obese, green-furred, huge-eyed monster with knives instead of hands who, as my nightmares had implied, can only be seen through a mirror. And the mirrors hid it away from me.

      Because the mirrors have been plotting. Plotting a cruel joke—a sick joke—on humanity. And they played it. Because they find it funny. We always show the humans the truth, what they don’t want to see. So sure, why not? We’ll show 'em what they do want to see! Even if it kills them!

      I take my hands away from my face. I stare down at the sink bowl for a few seconds. Then I slowly lift up my head to look into the mirror.

      Over my shoulder, I see it grinning, baring those horrible teeth. It holds up one sharpened, bloodied hand to show me. The other is hidden by my body.

      Joke’s over.

      I feel a sharp pain in my chest—

      The post was edited 1 time, last by EzloSpirit: Audiobooks will be available in the OP. ().

    • Originally written 17 February 2013 - 30 January 2016.

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      Dystopian Adventure/Fantasy. 7,039 words. 22nd story written consecutively. Rated T (Teen) for mature themes and peril.

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      Ultimalia Fiction
      presents

      “Exile”

      by EzloSpirit


      ~1~

      “Step into the light.” The elderly, stern-faced Sentinel pointed the top of his Staff at the smooth, stone ground before him, which a wide beam of sparkling, green light met in a circle of blinding white.

      Kryn stood his ground. Well, it was not as if he had a choice; his legs simply would not carry him into the light’s path. “Please,” he pleaded, whimpering, “don’t make me!”

      The Head Sentinel stepped down from the knee-height Stage, maneuvering around the beam of light. His light-purple hood covered his eyes, concealing his intentions as he approached the terrified adolescent boy. He walked around Kryn until he was standing a meter behind him.

      “Why do you defy your heritage? Do you not possess the strength, the courage, required of you by our society?” hissed the Head Sentinel.

      “Honestly?” Kryn managed to get out. “No. I don’t. But—”

      “Well, you will need to learn to have such courage if you are to retain your honor and your right to stay within our borders.” The boy broke out in sobs. The Head Sentinel grimaced. “Come now. Enter the light. It is your destiny.” This only caused Kryn to cry harder. Disgusted, the Head Sentinel lowered his Staff at Kryn’s back. “It is time to accept it.”

      The large emerald at the top of his Staff suddenly grew bright and unleashed a burst of force at Kryn, shoving the screaming boy right up to the foot of the Stage. Another burst hit Kryn, and he was sent tripping onto the Stage and into the path of the light.

      Kryn’s screams as the light around him grew blinding and he vanished into thin air echoed throughout the valley. Nobody paid them a second thought.


      ~2~

      Growing up, Kryn had been stubborn. He would always insist that he be informed of the purpose behind every request made of him before he would dare fulfill it. As he grew older, he began to question the value of everyday etiquette such as two people nodding to each other as they passed each other on the street.

      And as the day of his Exile drew nearer, Kryn began to seriously question the very morality of the ritual. His Mentor would always tell him that Exile was a rite of passage that all male adolescents had gone through since the establishment of the City. His parents would always tell him that morality was not the issue; it was the upholding of tradition. His peers would always just laugh at him.

      After completing their studies each day, the girls of the City would remain indoors and either learn to cook recipes, care for their younger siblings or a neighbor’s baby, or read books. The boys would go out into the streets and challenge each other to games of risk and danger. The first time that Kryn joined them was when he was eight years old; the other boys were between eight and fourteen years old. The previous day, they had decided that today they would play a game in which they would line up on either side of the street, and as a herd of fluffy marimotts would round the bend hauling a carriage, the lines of boys would switch sides, hopefully before the marimotts would reach them. As it happened, the smaller boys were at a much higher risk of being trampled than the taller, older boys.

      Kryn had gotten in line, nervous but excited about participating in the boys’ games for the first time. His excitement was completely overtaken by his nerves as he heard the telltale rumbling accompanied by the rolling of wheels that signaled to any unfortunate bystander that a marimott-drawn carriage was nearby. And as the stampede of large puffballs rounded the bend and the other boys began their mad dash, terror wrapped its arms around Kryn’s legs in a vicegrip. He closed his eyes and covered his ears in a desperate attempt to get away from the creatures and the lines and the expectations. He only opened his eyes when he felt someone grab his arm and pull his hand off of his ear. He found one of the older boys glaring down at him as if he had something disgusting growing on his face.

      “There are two more of us on this side than on the other,” the boy said. “Since you were doing…whatever that was, I can only assume that you are responsible.” Quivering slightly, Kryn stared at the older kid’s nose, avoiding eye contact. But it was no use; the rest of him gave away his fear. “Coward,” the taller boy spat.

      ~~~~~

      A man’s honor was paramount in the City. He was expected to be able to stand up to any task, any challenge, and face it without hesitation. If he failed to do so, his inaction would tarnish his honor, and he would be shunned by his neighbors and his family.

      The news of Kryn's cowardice spread throughout the population like a wildfire, and his status quickly plummeted, despite his age. His parents were ashamed to be seen walking along a City street, holding his hand. They grounded him for a month and dismissed his Mentor forever.

      This month changed Kryn’s life; it was when he began to question the world that he was forced into.

      Over time, Kryn decreasingly resembled the template that he was expected to match. In the rare instance when he would tear himself away from the pages of a book and leave the house, people would move away from him while walking down the street. He had no friends. He was in love with the boy next door, but they had never spoken; of course, he dared not speak of these feelings to others, anyway.

      ~~~~~

      As his sixteenth birthday approached, Kryn began researching the ritual of Exile in depth. He learned that the tradition was established based upon the story of the City's founding.

      According to legend, two lovers worked together to construct the beginnings of the demesne. However, one day, they fought viciously. The man beat the woman almost to the brink of death; it is likely that she would have died had she not shoved her lover off of her, sending him flying off his center of balance and falling back onto a large, odd geode spotted with beautiful emeralds. As soon as he hit the geode, he vanished in a burst of light. The man returned to the building site five hours later, his face ghostly white. He went on to explain to his partner how he had suddenly found himself in a distant wood; he had then followed the subconscious map drawn by his love for her until he found himself back at the building site.

      For thousands of years since, the City's Sentinels had honored the founder and his unexpected journey back to his lover by overseeing the rite of passage that had become known as Exile. Using Staffs crowned with cuts of the legendary emerald and a mystical Stage that some children had discovered and which was made of an unknown material, the Sentinels teleported sixteen-year-old boys about fifty miles away from the City; it was up to the boys to find their way back home. And not everyone made it back, the fates of those lost left up to the imaginations of others.

      It was primarily for this final reason why the cautious, unbrave Kryn resisted the Sentinels' demands for him to step into the emeralds' white light. What he could not ever hope to comprehend, however, was why he was required to risk his life to honor someone long dead who could not feel honored by his sacrifice.

      But in the City, these questions were meaningless. The upholding of tradition was of much greater importance than the life of an adolescent boy. Especially an adolescent boy who dared to ask such questions.

      To the Sentinels, Kryn was a threat to their way of life. To their lives themselves. And this is why the boy had to go. For good.


      ~3~

      Drowning. Kryn flailed his arms and kicked his legs. I’m drowning. Water poured into his lungs. I am going to die. A dull, blue light pierced through his eyelids. But I am not ready to die! A loud, frantic splash. A pleasant heat beating down on his face.

      Kryn opened his eyes. He was looking at the ocean’s surface, which touched the sky at every horizon. The boy coughed and wheezed painfully, no less than a pint of salty water jetting out of his mouth with every spasm. When he had expelled all of the fluid from his lungs, he threw his legs up from beneath him and arched his back. He drifted along the sea’s surface, pushed around by the waves alone.

      Where was he? Did something go wrong with his Exile? The sea was far more than fifty miles outside the City’s walls. Enter the light. It is your destiny. The Head Sentinel’s words burst through the surface of his sea of thought. “Destiny,” Kryn croaked. “Is this my destiny?”

      Why do you defy your heritage? “Defy? Is questioning a form of defiance? Is honest evaluation a form of rebellion?” This is what we have always done, and it has always worked for us. “No, Mother. It does not work. Not anymore. Our culture forces us into a mold, forces an identity upon us whose characteristics about which we have no say. We cannot possibly continue this way forever. Otherwise, we will all die as mindless automatons, as will the City. What kind of existence is that?” Exile also helps to weed out the weak, the unworthy. “Don’t we all deserve a chance at life, a chance to become strong through our own efforts? What is ‘strong,’ anyway? The ability to lift massive objects? The ability to face unnecessary terrors? Or is it the intelligence to solve any problem, the will to strive for something new and different, for change, progress? Are these not all strength?” Leave the storytelling to women.

      Kryn shut up, the voices of the past silencing his words as they had done when they had spoken. It was no use then, and it was certainly no use now.

      Was this what the Sentinels had wanted? Most of them had hated him from the moment he had avoided being trampled by marimotts half a lifetime ago. For the first time ever, they now did not have to listen to his constant complaining. What if they had wanted him gone for good?

      Swim. To drift is to succumb to the destiny that the Sentinels have determined for you. “I must swim.” But the boy was tired. So tired. His eyelids skipped the drooping phase and shut like falling guillotines. “It is of no use to fight destiny. It is not possible.” But this is not destiny. Destiny is not written by the Sentinels or your parents or your peers. Your destiny is yours alone. “I choose to rest.” But for how long? “Not long. Because I must get home. That is not part of the Sentinels’ destiny for me.” I can do this. “I will do this.”

      But not right now. As Kryn drifted off to sleep, floating on the waves, he dreamt of a large stone monolith, engraved with the story of his life. He chiseled new words over the existing ones as the Head Sentinel cursed him from the ground. As he finished the last letter, the monolith started to tilt forward. Kryn floated safely out of the way as the great prism of rock collapsed onto the Head Sentinel and the City itself.

      Your destiny is yours alone.


      ~4~

      The first thing that Kryn noticed before he had even opened his eyes was the warm softness of the pillow beneath his head. Then, the faint, orange glow permeating his eyelids. Finally, the gentle roar rattling his eardrum.

      After he opened his eyes, he felt a soft powder brushing against his palms. Then, he saw the fiery sky of twilight as the sun tucked itself into its celestial bed under its terrestrial covers. And finally, as he lifted his head, his brain matched the sound of roaring to the sight of ocean waves crashing onto the beach on which he lay.

      Kryn struggled onto his feet. For the next few moments, the Exiled youth watched the waves in silence. Gradually, he became aware of his situation again, aware that this scene was too peaceful for the grim circumstances surrounding his very presence there, too peaceful for the world in which he lived.

      Head home, demanded a voice in his head. “What home?” The City. “The City is no home for me; I am unwanted. My Exile from the Sentinels’ domain is being celebrated on every street right now.” Where else have you to go? Kryn had no answer to this question. Return to the City and prove the Sentinels wrong, dash their scheme. The more he considered this, the more he realized that this was the only option.

      With a weary sigh, Kryn turned and began scaling the nearest sand dune, despite the knowledge that he had no idea how to get back to the City…and that he really did not want to return, anyway.

      ~~~~~

      By the time sand became grass, Kryn was struggling to see his surroundings by moonlight alone. He was tired from hiking up and down great hills of sand, his spirit bruised from all the times he had slipped and fallen on his face or his backside. Sweat held his shirt firmly against his skin like an adhesive. All that kept him from collapsing to the ground was that voice in his head, always pushing him to take just one more step.

      Eventually, even the boy’s conscience told him to stop and rest. Kryn had reached the edge of a vast wood, and the idea of entering a place darker than the night itself terrified him.

      He began gathering stones and twigs. If prepared for nothing else of being in Exile, Kryn at least knew how to build a campfire. Every evening in the City square, a Firestarter lit a wooden bonfire several yards in diameter so that the whole square was bathed in a warm radiance; the flames reached up above the rooftops of the surrounding buildings so that their tip could be seen from the City perimeter.

      Once Kryn had all he needed, he placed the stones in a small circle on the ground. Into the middle of this, he tossed all but two firm sticks, then he sat down on the grass just outside the wall of stones, a stick in each hand.

      The boy shivered from both the cold and his own anticipation. Fire, a visible release of pure energy that both provided warmth and pierced through the darkness, had always filled him with awe. He tentatively placed one stick perpendicularly against the other and slowly began to slide it back and forth. As he got into a rhythm, he picked up his pace and pressed the sticks more firmly together so as to welcome the fire more quickly.

      Kryn squeaked as a spark suddenly slipped out from between the sticks onto the kindling below, dropping his instruments of ignition in his fright. He observed a slight, soft glow at the heart of the pile of wood, then watched with fascination and satisfaction as the glow gradually grew from a smoldering ember into a raging blaze.

      The boy closed his eyes and felt the heat on his face, comfortable and calming despite the fire’s aggressive appearance. He hardly felt his body leaning more and more to the side before he came to rest gently on his side, his bicep between his head and the ground.

      And Kryn was dreaming moments later, facing the Sentinels before the Stage once more. Two stood in a line on each side leading up to the platform, while the Head Sentinel himself stared down at Kryn from atop it with a fire in his eyes. The adolescent watched in a satisfied horror as the flames behind the Head Sentinel’s pupils grew in size and intensity until the old man’s head was ablaze, then his body, then the whole Stage, then all of the Sentinels. He heard their screams, but they were not screeches of pain, not outcries of fear. The burning oligarchs roared with rage.

      And in this dream, Kryn turned away from the hellfire, saddened but otherwise completely at peace.


      ~5~

      Water. I need water.

      As twigs and dried leaves crackled underfoot, Kryn could feel his tongue filling his dry mouth, sticking to the bottom. He trudged through the forest with ears wide open, listening for the telltale trickle of a stream that might provide him with the fluids he needed so desperately to replenish.

      In his left hand, the teenager carried a thin, wooden stake he had whittled himself using one of the stones from his campfire that morning. Having never before been outside of the City, Kryn had never before been inside of a forest, but he had read enough books in his lifetime thus far to know that predators lurked among the ancient tree trunks.

      “Wai—ouch!” cried Kryn as he tripped over a thick root and hit the ground hard. His calf stung from where it had grazed the root during his fall, and he could taste soft, muddy earth with a garnish of crumbled, dead leaves on his tongue. He spat out the dirt, cringing with disgust, but the taste lingered like that of every other unwelcome event in his life.

      The boy lifted his head as much as he could manage, but he was gripped by an overwhelming sensation of falling farther, through the ground, and he planted his face firmly on the forest floor once more.

      So thirsty. Of course, he was thirsty. He knew the average human could survive without water for up to five days, and he was already more than a fifth of the way to that point. Not to mention the river he had sweated on his way from the beach the previous day.

      But Kryn had no idea where he could find water to refill himself, and he was certain that no one else did, either. The only citizens who ever willingly set foot outside the City were the Meat Collectors who fetched the corpses of beasts that had foolishly ventured into the line of sight of a City Guard member.

      Turning his head onto its side, the parched youth’s heart sank to a low it had never known before. He felt hot, and the forest began to tilt at weird angles all around, duplicating itself and coming together before doubling again. Then it was as if Kryn’s neck had given up on supporting his head altogether, for his face sank into the mud slightly, trying to catch up to his heart.

      Wait, mud. As soon as the thought came to him, Kryn felt a wave of nausea rush up from his gut. Would he, could he stoop so low? Had the Sentinels really forced him to such a depth where if he were to survive, he would need to drink from the ground?

      Suppressing his bile as best as he could, the boy tentatively opened his mouth and cautiously reached out his tongue to the earth before it. He cringed as he felt something cold and gooey on his swollen, parched tongue, but he continued to push his tongue into it as much as far as he could. Then he drew his spoils slowly back into his mouth. And pressed the clump of mud up against his palate.

      Into his mouth poured two things. The first was the most heavenly sensation Kryn had ever experienced, a burst of lukewarm hydration that reached into the depths of despair and pulled him all the way up to ground level. The second hit almost immediately afterward: grainy runoff within the water that tasted stale and rotten, forcing Kryn’s survival instinct to lock his jaw so that he could not spit out the water he so desperately needed. Somewhat painfully, he swallowed what little water he had managed to extract from the mud clump, taking especial care not to swallow the dirt, as well, then his mouth shot open and the dirt shot out.

      It was not much, and it certainly had not been pleasant, but it was enough to give Kryn the strength he needed to lift himself from the forest floor into a sitting position. Cringing once more, he scooped up some more mud and proceeded to rub it onto the leg abrasion he had sustained when he had first tripped. The soft earth was soothing on his stinging scrape, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

      Then he noticed something rather odd. “That can't be right,” he croaked aloud. For at that moment, Kryn had looked back down at the ground; his face had fallen onto a narrow strip of bare earth that stretched rather deliberately in a straight line. The boy’s eyes followed the line away from his position until it reached between two other lines branching off at a wide angle.

      An arrow. On the ground. In the middle of the forest. Kryn blinked. But the arrow was still there.

      His looked over in the direction the arrow pointed, and he saw that it pointed to a tree. At first, there did not seem to be anything that set that tree apart from any other in that veritable sea of trees. But…yes! Another arrow, this one pointing left, scraped into the bark!

      Kryn grunted as he struggled to his feet, shaking slightly all over. Hungry. And still thirsty. Perhaps. But now, he had the spirit to keep on.

      And a mysterious trail to follow.


      ~6~

      When Kryn stepped out of the woods’ shade, he shielded his face with his arm, only to discover that this was unnecessary, as the sun had already made its way well behind the patchwork of gray rock and green vegetation that was the nearby mountainside.

      After turning left at the first marked tree, the youth had followed a series of arrows—most of which pointed to another marked tree, save for the few outlined along the forest floor to reassure him that he was still following their directions—until emerging at last into the open field in which he now found himself. Along the way, he had encountered a small brook from which he stopped to drink until his stomach felt like it would have burst if he had drunk any more. Later on, the boy had discovered a stretch of angai, an edible fungus, growing in the ground, and he had picked every single one he could see, in one motion—straight from the ground—wiping it off on a clean spot on his shirt and popping it into his mouth. He figured he could have been worse off, like having nothing to feast on but more dirt.

      Whoever had mapped out the trail through the woods seemed to know exactly what Kryn had needed. While he was more than grateful toward this unknown guardian angel, he also felt somewhat uneasy. What if this was the work of the Sentinels and they were toying with him? What if he would not find any more food or drink until he was once again at the brink of hopelessness? Or what if the arrows had led him in the wrong direction and he was now even farther away from the City walls?

      But what if someone is really trying to help you? said Kryn’s conscience. “Maybe,” Kryn responded aloud. In any case, he reasoned, there were no other arrows to be found at the moment, so…

      But what was that in the distance, lying among the blades of green, ankle-height grass? Kryn pulled his sharpened stick from out of his sleeve, easing alertly but deliberately toward the object on the ground. No. The objects.

      Kryn relaxed and put away his weapon as he realized that it was some sort of supply cache, small piles of handcrafted odds and ends for the lone traveler. Or Exiled City male.

      As he browsed through the items available to him—a long stick with an end that looked as if it could pierce stone, several small, filled canteens made of various animal skins, and bunches of berries and angai wrapped in leaves tied shut with grass, to name a few—it dawned on him that no one who lived in the City, who had access to sturdier materials and had more knowledge of crafting effectively, would have manufactured such crude equipment.

      So who could have made and gathered these things? This question ate away at Kryn, even after he grabbed the makeshift spear, a furry, brown canteen, and one of the bundles of berries. He used the “pole” of the spear to help himself up, then hung the canteen from his neck using the slack of the thin rope that held the sack shut; the youth tucked the leaf of berries under his arm, and he set out once more.

      ~~~~~

      It was not until Kryn had resumed his trek after another night’s rest that he encountered another arrow. This one had been dug out of the field, a slightly sunken void of dirt among the otherwise endless leaves of grass. The arrow pointed toward the nearby incline that formed a less steep path up the mountain.

      Kryn sighed and took a deep breath. “I need to walk up that? I really hope it leads somewhere worthwhile.” He was not sure how it could be; everyone in the City knew that all that could be found on the other side of the mountains was the ocean. The City was in the opposite direction.

      But his faceless, nameless guide had proven to be nothing but helpful up to that point, so the adolescent decided it was worth a try.

      Kryn trudged up the mountain path, feeling sore all over from all of the walking he had done over the past day-and-a-half and from sleeping on the ground over the past two nights. The sun shined from off to his left, creeping higher along its daily arc as the minutes and the hours passed.

      The weary exile continued upward in a trance so that he almost wandered right over an arrow carved into the ground, pointing to the right. The feeling of an absence of ground underneath parts of his feet startled him back into awareness.

      What Kryn saw when he looked in the indicated direction caused his jaw to drop. Jutting out from the base of the cliff was a single glimmering emerald, like the one atop the Head Sentinel’s staff. Another arrow had been carved into the cliffside just above the gemstone; it pointed down at the emerald.

      In the City’s creation myth, it was a geode of emeralds such as this one that had whisked the man away from his lover. And it was the emerald crowning the Head Sentinel’s staff that, in conjunction with the power imbued within the Stage itself, sent the City’s sixteen-year-old males into Exile.

      Maybe this one could get Kryn home.

      The boy cautiously approached the powerful mineral and reached out to touch it. He shut his eyes and held his breath, thinking desperately of the City, his goal.

      For an instant, Kryn felt a smooth, cold surface on his fingertip. And then…nothing.


      ~7~

      Kryn opened one eye. It was dark. Inside somewhere…? He opened his other eye.

      Indeed, the emerald had sent the boy straight into a dark room, lit only by a large bowl of fire in the center of a ring of five chairs; one chair had a taller backrest than the others.

      “Frankly, I do not care that we have a shortage of food in the City. Under no circumstances is anyone within the walls to eat a marimott, let alone put one to death! How dare you suggest such a thing?”

      “I completely understand, sir, but…we have so few options in the short term, and we need to keep the people fe—AHHHH!”

      The voices were close by, slipping into the dim chamber alongside a sliver of light through the underside of double doors on one side of the room. The first voice chilled Kryn to his heart; he knew it all too well.

      This is City Hall, and I am in the Sentinels’ Ward. The Sentinels are not meeting privately right now; they’re right outside this room. The second voice’s screaming was joined by a loud sizzling sound. There’s another woman out there. She’s being punished using pyrestone.

      Pyrestone was a hard material that was moderately corrosive to human skin, with the potential to cause severe, even life-threatening burns. It also had the unfortunate property of being rather adhesive to human skin. As such, the Sentinels used pyrestone as a method of punishment—or torture—particularly on women, as depriving them of their honor did not have the same impact that it had on men.

      Kryn noticed that he had a strong urge to burst out of the Sentinels’ Ward and rescue the poor soul who was now being abused for caring for her fellow citizens’ well-being. Then he felt something wooden in his hand.

      Oh, yeah.

      Before his Exile, Kryn would have rushed into the back corner of the chamber and huddled up there until the light from beneath the doors had vanished and then set up a shelter for himself in some abandoned alley on the fringes of the City. Not anymore.

      The young man rushed the Ward’s double doors, spear set in his right arm, a silent charger going to the relief of an oppressed civilian. He grunted as his sharpened stick struck the right-hand door, which held fast, and the momentum knocked the weapon back, straight out of the grip of both his hand and his underarm, clattering to the stone floor with a dull but loud thud. The resulting noise proved inconsequential, however, because while the spear flew backward, Kryn kept going, and so a moment later, his left shoulder rammed into the seam between the doors with a mighty boom, sending them flying open.

      The abused woman screamed more loudly, masking the gasps and startled squeals from the Sentinels. All in the room—the Head Sentinel, the four other Sentinels, the woman, and three or four bystanders going about their daily business in City Hall—looked up at the filthy, bruised, unkempt figure stumbling into the atrium.

      Kryn caught his balance as soon as he was able, continued running toward the burning woman writhing about on the floor, lifted up a portion of his shirt, and used it to grab the pyrestone and tear it from the side of her face, the skin tender and covered in large welts. The teenager tossed the pyrestone as far away from everyone as he could while also holding onto his shirt.

      “It…It’s…you,” exclaimed one of the two female Sentinels in what was hardly a whisper, “…isn’t it?”

      “Have…Have you no morals?” Kryn managed to get out. He got to his feet.

      “How did you get in here?” demanded the Head Sentinel, dodging the youth’s question.

      Kryn ignored this interrogation in turn, instead reaching a hand down to the weeping citizen. He was tempted to ask her if she was okay, as was customary to do in the City if someone had fallen or received an injury, but he already knew the answer well. Instead, he said, “I’m so sorry.” The woman took Kryn’s hand, still sobbing, and the young man pulled her onto her feet. “Go home. Hold a damp cloth to your face.” He looked into her eyes. “It will be alright.”

      The woman nodded shakily before turning and making her way towards the front doors. Kryn watched her leave, if only to have something on which to focus apart from the imminent culmination of everything he had believed in and lived for up to that moment.

      “Enough!” The Head Sentinel slammed the butt of his Staff on the ground, sending a deep roar reverberating around to every corner of the hall. “Kryn! Face us!”

      Kryn gulped down the last of the moisture from his mouth. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Then, slowly, in as many steps as could manage to stretch out the action, he turned his body.

      All five Sentinels looked down at the bane of their existence with hatred. Three of them had something else in their faces, too, that Kryn could not quite put his finger on. Misunderstanding? Fear? Disappointment? Whatever it was, it was nowhere to be found upon their Head’s face.

      “When did you return to the City?” demanded the gray-haired man.

      “A few minutes ago,” breathed Kryn, barely loudly enough to hear himself.

      “Speak up, boy!”

      Kryn felt a spark light up within his chest. “A few minutes ago!” he shouted. The Sentinels looked at each other.

      The Head Sentinel scowled. “And you made your way to City Hall, and into the Sentinels’ Ward, unnoticed…all within a few minutes? Do you truly believe that I could possibly appreciate your…disgraceful sense of humor? Your behavior is unconscionable: you scoff at your history, you defy morality. You are a coward, a perversion of man. And still, you stand here, making jokes?” He took a step closer to the young man, increasing the angle at which they looked at each other. “What have you to say for yourself, boy?

      Tears streamed down Kryn’s cheeks, and every muscle in his body was jumpy, but the youth glared back at the hateful old man, not moving a step. He is so blind; why can’t he see? “I…d-defy morality? You’re s-sick.” I need to open his eyes, open all of their eyes. “J-Just because your p-predecessors were cold and promoted a society b-built on c-competition, s-segregation, and a f-flawed concept of ‘honor’…d-does not mean that that is your prerogative, too.” I can do this; I will do this.

      He reached up and wiped the tears from his face. The spark inside him was evolving into something hotter, brighter, now. “I don’t think that you have any idea how much pain your City causes us. Yes, some of the boys, and even some of the girls, might have fun jumping in front of charging marimotts, but that is their choice; not everyone should be expected to put one’s life in danger for the sake of honor. Yes, marimotts have helped us and our ancestors for centuries, but if we are to survive a food shortage, then sacrifices have to be made, regardless of how holy those sacrifices are. Yes, our City was founded by a woman whose male lover was unwillingly sent on a perilous journey to find his way home again…but that taught future generations the power, the danger, of that mineral on top of your Staff, and you force that very danger on the young people of today.

      “So it is you, ladies and gentlemen, who defy morality! It is human nature for us to help, not fight or turn our backs on, each other; we were never meant to throw each other to the beasts, to the woods! You call it ‘destiny,’ but one’s destiny is determined by one alone…not you!” Kryn bellowed these final words, which hung in the air as they bounced off of the walls, the ceiling, the floor. The tears were flowing again, but he cared not; everything he had learned, everything that he had suffered, was pouring out of him like a crumbling levee.

      Before Kryn’s eyes, the four Sentinels standing together in an arc collapsed to their knees, one by one. And each one of them had tears in his or her eyes, the two men and the two women.

      But the Head Sentinel smiled. “The content notwithstanding, your outburst has shown that you may have some potential, after all, boy.”

      Kryn’s eye twitched. “That’s…all you have to say…?”

      “It is called respect, Kryn. Respect for one’s history, one’s culture, one’s superiors. Ours is a society…of respect. And you are the most disrespectful human being we have ever had the misfortune to lay eyes upon.” The Head Sentinel’s face twisted up once again, the modicum of respect he might have gained for Kryn now completely overshadowed by pure disgust.

      “The boy may be right, Teth,” cried a voice from behind the icy man. “Perhaps our way is not respectful to the people.” One of the female Sentinels, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and tired eyes, was standing once more, looking at the back of the Head Sentinel’s head.

      “The boy…is not right!” the man roared in response, turning to look over his shoulder. “He must be Exiled for good!” He stomped his foot on the floor.

      “It’s okay, Teth. We can make it up to the City in time.” This time it was one of the men, bald with a black moustache and in his late thirties, who had stood back up and spoken.

      The Head Sentinel whipped around to face his associates. The other two Sentinels rose, as well. “We have nothing to make up for! This is the way things have always been and always will be! You are all treading on treacherous, blasphemous ground!”

      While his enemy railed at his new allies, Kryn closed the gap between himself and the Head Sentinel. By this time, it was abundantly clear that the old man would never understand; however, it was also undeniable that the old man still held all of the power, so long as he held the emerald-capped Staff.

      So Kryn grabbed it and tore it from the Head Sentinel’s hand, catching him completely off-guard.

      How DARE YOU…!” the Head Sentinel screamed. He lunged for the Staff. Kryn lept out of the way. Mid-lunge, the wrathful Sentinel pivoted to follow Kryn’s movement, and his hand shot forward to grab and reclaim his precious possession.

      Then he was gone.


      ~8~

      Life in the City changed, but not all at once. No, it would be a long and confusing process, but one that Kryn wholeheartedly believed was for the very best.

      The four remaining Sentinels kept their posts, but they turned their focus away from dictating citizens’ individual lives and began instead to focus on merely maintaining order in the City whenever issues arose. Their first action after reentering the Sentinel’s Ward was officially abolishing Exile as a tradition. The oligarchs then conceded unanimously that marimotts would have to be sacrificed for food, but they mandated that not a single creature more be slaughtered than those which would sustain the people of the City until the shortage had ended.

      The news of Kryn’s courage spread throughout the population like a wildfire, and people began to view the young man in a different light: not as a pariah, but as a prodigy. His parents still failed to understand him, but they reasoned that, so long as their peers had gained some level of acceptance of their son, they might as well allow him back into their lives.

      ~~~~~

      The day after Kryn’s confrontation in City Hall, the youth was walking through the City square when he encountered a large gathering of young men, from only a few months to a full decade older than himself.

      When they saw Kryn, they all turned to face him. Kryn felt a twinge of anxiety in his gut. This was going to end poorly.

      But the young men only stood in place and began to applaud. At first, Kryn did not have the foggiest idea what to make of this new and unfamiliar reaction to his presence. However, as he looked into each of these strangers’ faces, he saw a familiar pain in every pair of eyes.

      And Kryn suddenly knew who his guide had been. No. His guides.

      Within the City, the Sentinels had kept a close watch on every citizen to make sure that tradition and proper etiquette were always upheld; if one deviated, they made sure that this person would be stripped of his or her honor and shunned by his or her peers. But the Sentinels had no jurisdiction beyond the City walls.

      Kryn had not been alone in his distaste for Exile. Once others had gotten a genuine taste of the hardship and the loneliness, they must have seen how cruel the tradition truly was. And they began to help each other, one after another, collecting or crafting and then leaving sustenance, tools, and directions for the next Exile to utilize and get home safely.

      Recently, somebody had discovered the emerald on the mountainside, the ultimate shortcut to end Exile, if used properly, and had made sure that the path was laid out for the next sixteen-year-old victim of the Sentinels to find and thereby get home sooner and suffer less than he had.

      ~~~~~

      It was the Stage that had always allowed the Sentinels to send boys into Exile with pinpoint accuracy. So when the Head Sentinel had touched the head of his Staff directly, nowhere near the Stage in the first place, he was whisked away to whatever far-distant place his thoughts had most related to at the moment.

      Nobody within the City ever heard from nor spoke of him again.

      As for Kryn, he quickly grew tired of all of the attention he received in the wake of the City Hall incident, though he was grateful that it was largely positive attention for once, rather than ridicule. The young man instead devoted his time to reading and learning, occasionally spending time with some of the children who lived nearby and telling them stories about the world outside the City walls.

      If there was one positive thing that Kryn had taken from his Exile, it was the peace, the quiet, and the beauty of the uncivilized landscape. So when he reached middle age, he decided to leave the City—this time properly equipped—and build a home for himself near the very beach on which he had washed up so early in his Exile all those years ago.

      And whose place was it to stop him? After all, this was the destiny that he had chosen.


      ~The End~
    • Originally written 13 May 2013 - 20 May 2013.
      Originally published on Tumblr 11 October 2017.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
      Romance/Angst. 1,226 words. 21st story written consecutively. Rated T (Teen) for adult themes.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
      Ultimalia Fiction presents
      “The Boy Next Door”
      by EzloSpirit, inspired by their story “Exile”

      Lock’s eyes twinkled as he walked by. Kryn felt himself falling into them and was overcome by a strange sensation, like a warm, pleasant tightness in his stomach that seemed to radiate throughout his body. Suddenly, the silvery blue turned black, and Kryn was shocked into reality. He quickly averted the boy’s questioning glance, instead turning his attention to his own shoes.

      Kryn knew that he was in love, but he did not know what to make of it. If the Sentinels found out that he was in love with another boy, the punishment would be beyond harsh—young adults had been executed for such attractions. If his parents, or anyone else in fact, found out, they would report him to the Sentinels. If Lock found out—no, that was out of the question; he could not learn of Kryn’s feelings for him. Absolutely not.

      And so it was his eternal secret, a secret he would take to his grave. He wondered how many other secrets had suffered the same fate because of the City’s rules. Because of the Sentinels’ Draconian oligarchy.

      ~~~~~

      The sun went down. Then it came back up. And it went back down. And up. And down. Up and down. And up again. The cycle of days carried on, and Kryn spent every moment trying to forget about Lock. But Lock had always been the boy next door; they had been neighbors since birth. And while they had scarcely spoken a word to one another, they often saw each other through their respective bedroom windows. Each time they did, Lock would look at Kryn with a blank expression; Kryn would look at Lock with curiosity.

      Lock had always been short for his age until he reached adolescence, at which point his legs seemed to rocket three stories into the air. His hair was reasonably short, and it reminded Kryn of the color of dust after rain. He was fairly well-built, although many of their peers could still beat him in a wrestling bout in mere seconds.

      His eyes were his most striking feature, however. They seemed to glow with a chillingly calming phosphorescence. They were the color of icy starlight, a blue so pale that peripheral vision would sometimes indicate that he had no iris at all. Lock’s eyes acted like magnets, drawing other eyes toward them by some unseen force.

      One day, Kryn watched Lock through his window as the other boy lay in his bed, gazing at the ceiling. This was a magical opportunity for Kryn to gaze into Lock’s eyes. They filled him with a mysterious daring, and being the magnets they were, they seemed to draw the words out of him.

      “I love you,” whispered Kryn. Then the blue mana pools covered themselves with pale skin, as if satisfied.

      ~~~~~

      Weeks passed Kryn by, and love began taking its toll on him. The euphoric longing inside him had imploded and left a throbbing hunger in its place, a widening chasm with no floor. He began to spend all of his free time in his bedroom, staring across the infinite void into Lock’s window, even when the parallel bedroom was unoccupied.

      Kryn had almost been reduced to a hopeless mess when he found himself the surprised spectator of a private routine. After Lock took out his outfit one morning, he evidently forgot to close his window’s curtain. When the tall teenager removed his nightshirt, Kryn was spellbound. He knew he should avert his eyes. But what if Lock sported other physical wonders beside his eyes? This was the time to find out. As Lock continued to undress, Kryn felt his heart pounding faster and faster.

      Then, after removing his final article of clothing, Lock looked up at Kryn. Kryn’s breath caught in his throat. Lock had seen him watching him undress. What excuse did Kryn have for looking at his naked neighbor? He turned away and started to cry.

      ~~~~~

      Many days passed before Kryn left his bedroom. His parents worried about him during his seclusion, but he refused to give them so much as a hint as to why he was so terrified of emerging from his room.

      When he finally did emerge, he was relieved to discover that the City was as normal as ever; people paid him no attention as he walked to the market to grab a fruit to eat. He had been craving a bite of juicy, succulent albrite, and his family did not have any in the house.

      The market was bustling with people. Kryn kept his eyes aimed at the brick road below him; he was not taking any chances.

      The boy quickly arrived at the albrite stand. He reached into the basket to draw out one of the bright-orange fruits. “Hello,” said a deep voice in front of him. Kryn jumped. And when he saw the voice’s source, his throat tightened and he could hardly breathe. Lock reached in and took an albrite for himself before turning around, paying the clerk, and turning back to the mortified Kryn. “I want to talk to you. Meet me in that alley when you are done shopping.” He pointed to the dark alleyway just off the end of the road. Then he walked away and into the alley, giving Kryn no choice but to pay the clerk and then follow.

      He approached the taller boy slowly, cautiously. There was something off about this encounter: it was too relaxed. There was no air of fury, of stigma. Lock looked calm. No, he looked more than calm; he was smiling a smile devoid of malice.

      “Your name is Kryn, right?” questioned Lock. Kryn nodded, unblinking. “You are my neighbor?” Kryn nodded, still unblinking. “You have been watching me through my bedroom window over the past few months?” Kryn just stared back, unmoving. Lock grinned, clearly amused. “It’s okay. I haven’t minded.”

      What was okay? He hadn’t what? Kryn had watched him undress! A boy had watched another boy remove his clothing! In the City, too! How could Lock be okay with that?

      “To tell you the truth, I was watching you back some of the time. When you averted your eyes when I looked your way, I didn’t avert my own.”

      “W-what are you saying?” Kryn managed to get out.

      Lock looked around as if to make sure nobody was watching, and satisfied that the two youths were out of eyeshot, he stepped closer to Kryn, reached over, and took the shorter boy’s hands in his own.

      Kryn gasped. He found himself looking up into Lock’s eyes, and he was instantly drawn into their icy depths. It was like swimming in the clearest, most beautiful blue ocean. But there was something else there this time, too; a friendly dolphin splashed out of and into the water over and over nearby.

      Lock let go of Kryn’s hands, and Kryn realized that he was crying. But these were tears of relief, tears of joy, not tears of terror, tears of fate. “I love you, Lock,” he sobbed. The words just slipped out in the moment without his explicit permission, but he did not care.

      Lock drew Kryn into an embrace. “I love you, too, Kryn.” When they pulled apart after many minutes, Kryn looked back into the ocean that was Lock’s eyes. Even in the shade of the surrounding buildings, his eyes twinkled.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      “The Boy Next Door” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. It is made available on Zelda Universe by the content’s creator.
    • Been curious about how your writing is so I'm glad to see this thread now, for some reason I didn't notice the link to it in your signature XD I've only read your most recent post so far but hopefully I can look at some of the others sometime.

      As far as The Boy Next Door goes, I think it's really solid :) I feel like I'm biased from the get go when it comes to this sort of fluff but meh, I enjoyed it so that's all that really matters >w>'

      You seem to be into the high-concept dystopian type stuff from what I can tell, but I don't think that sort of setting is particularly necessary for the plot you're doing here. I don't really care for the whole "forbidden love" sort of scenario, but there's a lot that can be done with that kind of story.

      But this feels really down to earth, about two young guys grappling with feelings they're not used to. This is pretty universal stuff that pretty much anyone could relate to, even if the story was centered around a heterosexual pairing. The implications of the setting don't really harm the story, it's just that it didn't contribute much in this particular instance.

      The only real problem I have with the story is that it's a little anticlimactic when Lock approaches Kryn in the final scene. You make up for it right after with some cute interactions at the very end, but because of the buildup I would've liked to see them cross paths in a more eventful manner than approaching and saying "meet me in a back alley"

      This is all stuff you wrote quite a long time ago but I think it holds up well :3 Really curious about how your writing is these days, so I'll be looking forward to that contest we'll be having here <3
    • Written 8 April 2018 - 8 January 2019.

      Sci-fi/Drama. 5,215 words. 23rd story written consecutively. Rated T (Teen) for thematic elements.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Ultimalia Fiction presents
      “Now and Then”
      A short story by EzloSpirit
      Adapted from their 2010 TV pilot concept, After the Destruction: The Safe (Parts 1 and 2)

      Luke shielded his face with his bare arm, as a fresh gust of sand blew his way. When the sand had passed, he fell to his knees; his knapsack slid off his exposed shoulder and fell with a soft thud onto the desert floor.

      The young man grunted as he dragged the knapsack in front of him and fumbled for the zipper. He plunged his hand in and ripped out a canteen, which he opened and shoved between his lips.

      “Ngahh!” he vocalized after he had almost drained the canteen, which was about the same size as his forearm and made of some kind of tan leather. Luke's head drooped to his chest as he caught his breath from chugging water and felt the cool liquid tumble down to his stomach.

      Without looking, he reached into the knapsack again and removed a handful of crunchy, black objects. He leaned his head back and tossed the objects into his mouth. As they broke apart under the weight of his teeth bearing down on them, they let out a mighty cacophony. When he had swallowed, Luke used his long fingernail to pry out a stray insect leg caught between two of his teeth and then swallowed that, too.

      Then, he stood back up and resumed his trudging on.

      This was Luke’s life: endless wandering in an endless wasteland, barely surviving from day to day. Sometimes, he would find a stream at the bed of a deep, meandering depression that had evidently been carved out over time by a much larger amount of water. He would try to stay near the stream for as long as he could, but he would always ultimately be shooed away by groups of people he called Sedentaries who had claimed the area as their own many generations earlier. As a result, Luke usually had to tap water trees for fluids, which luckily seemed to be popping up more and more over time.

      Luke’s mother abandoned him when he was nine so she could better fend for herself, as Luke figured most mothers did. It hurt for years to be alone like that after having been with her his whole life up to that point, but he was numb to it now, six years later.

      After a couple hours of aimless walking, the boy decided to rest. Actually, he really had no choice, as his legs suddenly buckled, and he found himself face-down in the sand. The nomad just lay there for a while—he could not be sure how much time passed. The sun’s rays beat down on his bare neck and back so that his skin started to prickle and then burn.

      Luke groaned and then started coughing as he lifted his head, clouds of sand firing out of his mouth as if from a cannon. He brought one arm around next to his head, palm in the ground, and started pushing himself up. As he pushed with one hand, he moved his other hand to push from the other side. His second hand sank slightly into the sand like his first, but he did not have his full weight on it before he felt a tremendous heat attack his palm.

      He jolted up onto his knees and fell back onto his rear. He looked at his throbbing hand. The palm was a deep, reflective red, with a small, white blister in one spot. The boy winced, both at the sight and at the pain.

      Luckily, Luke had some spare water tree fiber in his knapsack. With his unburned hand, he took out a bundle of long, green strings and carefully wrapped them around his injured hand. That would help stave off infection, though it did little to ease the searing pain; it would have to do for now.

      Next was the mystery of what had burned his hand in the first place. The boy bent over where his hand had been injured. Mostly buried in the sand there was something metal. Luke carefully scooped away the sand from around the object until he could better make out what it was.

      But even then, he could not be sure. It was a cube, about a quart in size. Rust covered most of the surface except for several spots of peeling, blue paint. On one side was a panel with a hinge on the right and some sort of black dial with faded characters on it on the left.

      Luke stared at this strange box for a while in immense fascination. He carefully crawled around it in a wide circle, inspecting every facet of the cube, trying to determine what it could be while maintaining a safe distance from it.

      Once he was reasonably sure that the box posed no active threat, he took his spigot, which he normally used to extract drinking water from water trees, and tentatively poked the box with it. The resulting noise confused him: the spigot hit the metal exterior with a dull thud. So the outside of the box was really just a covering or a shell for something solid, the boy reckoned. He determined that another poke could prove enlightening, so this time, he moved around to the side with the hinged panel and gave that a light jab with the spigot. Ever so slightly, the panel gave.

      Luke had seen doors in his life before, but it had been a long time, and he did not realize that they came in such a small size. But he knew how to take them down.

      The boy knelt over the cube, lifted his spigot in two fists, spout aimed downward, and plunged it down at the hinge. Rusty as it was, the nail holding it together went flying like a dart into the sand. The door still would not budge.

      Luke next attacked the dial with the spigot. After several strikes, this, too, fell to the earth. There was some kind of mechanism behind the dial, holding the door onto the cube. Luke stabbed the rusted metal with his spigot, and it gave slightly. He stabbed it again, and it gave more. Then he stabbed it a third time, and the door flew forward off of the box. Sand seemed to flow endlessly from the inside of the metal cube.

      Wrapping his uninjured hand in water tree fiber as a shield, Luke carefully reached into the small, rusted box and began scooping out the excess sand. After only a few seconds, he noticed something in the sand he had just poured from his hand onto the ground.

      The curious boy picked the…something up. It was thin, flat, and flexible. He realized that this must be paper, which was a rare material only found among ancient relics. He had once seen an entire pack of paper held together in some harder material, with strange symbols all over the pages, partially faded.

      Luke shook the excess sand off of this small rectangle of paper and then examined it with his eyes. It was mostly covered on both sides with a light green. On one side was the image of a man with a bored expression on his face, along with alien characters that looked something like:

      2 TWO DOLLARS UNITED STATES NOTE TWO DOLLARS 2
      THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
      TWO-2-DOLLARS TWO DOLLARS TWO-2-DOLLARS

      On the other side was a larger image of groups of men who were wearing too many garments to be anywhere near comfortable. One group was standing near a table, another was seated behind them, and one solitary man sat on the other side of the table.

      How strange. Like all relics, this piece of paper had no meaning whatsoever to Luke or anyone else currently alive.

      But…


      The gift was a cold cube that went clunk when he tapped it with the palm of his hand. That was all Aaron could discern about what was covered in metallic-silver wrapping paper. It made no sound when he shook it. What could it be?

      “Open it,” beckoned Aaron’s father, with an eager smile.

      The curious child ripped at the wrapping paper like a bird of prey tearing at its meal, and as stray slivers of silver floated to the ground, he observed in his hands a small safe the color of blueberries. The dial was black, and a large sticker on the safe's underside detailed how to go about opening the little door. There was also a slot in the top that was the perfect size for inserting spare change.

      “This is so cool!” the boy exclaimed, his eyes bright and his smile wide. “Thanks, Dad!” He threw himself around his father, hugging the man’s waist tight.

      Aaron’s father patted his son on the back, beaming down at him. “Of course! I thought you could use a place to store things that are super special to you. Now, uh, loosen up a bit so your dad can get his circulation back!”

      “Whoops.” Aaron released his parent and stepped back. His eyes got brighter when he had a sudden thought: “Oh, hey! I could put that two-dollar bill I found into this!” His father nodded.

      The eager child grabbed the safe and ran up into his room. He excitedly approached his end table, upon which rested, among other things, a gently used, forest-green piece of paper. After reading over the opening directions a few times, Aaron placed the safe beside the bill and set about working the dial. He turned it clockwise twice until the black arrow above the dial pointed to the small, white tick mark next to the longer “20” mark, then he turned it counterclockwise several degrees until the arrow pointed to a mark next to the “10” mark. Then he pulled on the dial.

      The door opened smoothly and just for Aaron, and this fact made the boy feel very proud. He triumphantly picked up the two-dollar bill and placed it within the blue, metal box. Finally, he closed the door and rotated the dial a couple of full turns. When he tried to pull the door open again, it hardly budged. The boy’s smile grew twice as wide, so that his mouth started to sting a little from stretching so much—not that he cared.

      He picked up the safe again and ran onto the landing. At the foot of the stairs stood his father, smiling up at him.

      “Happy birthday, Aaron; welcome to your double-digits.”



      Luke figured that such a small piece of paper would be of no use to him, so he dropped it. Before it reached the sand, however, a light breeze swept it up and carried it away.

      The nomad had only a passing interest in relics, but there were Sedentaries whose settlements were founded upon the study and use of such things. Luke had seen, in these places, people exchanging small pieces of metal for necessities of far greater value, which made no sense to him.

      Once, a woman had pointed a strange, rusted object at the ground in front of him that unleashed a piercing crash when she squeezed it, and the sand at his feet had burst up as if hit by something moving at an incredible speed. This had startled him violently, and he had fled for very life.

      Now, Luke reached into the metal box again, curious as to what else may be buried within. He had not scooped out but a couple small handfuls, when he found in his cupped hand another piece of paper, this one a rectangle of shorter length than the first. The material was sturdier, and it was more colorful overall, though these colors were rather faded.

      On one side, he saw a depiction of a red, white, and black sphere that was opened slightly. This sphere was on a pale, blue background, and Luke could just make out stylized but familiar symbols on either side of it, mirroring each other, that read “POKéMON.” He flipped over the piece of paper, and he observed more faded text flanking a large illustration of a small creature looking out of the hollow of a tree.

      What could this possibly have been used for? Luke imagined that the answer to that question was in the symbols littering the paper.


      “I take Togepi from my Bench into the Field.” Aaron picked up his white—or “Colorless”—Togepi card from among the line of cards immediately in front of him and placed it face-up in the middle of the table opposite a mostly-green card depicting a small, blue, reptilian creature with a puff of smoke coming out of a green pod on its back.

      “You know it doesn't stand a chance, right?” Johnny mused, raising an eyebrow.

      Aaron just shrugged. “I don't care about winning. I just want to see my Togepi card in play.” He giggled to himself.

      Johnny rolled his eyes. “Whatever.

      “Bulbasaur uses Leech Seed, which does twenty damage to your Togepi.” He handed to Aaron two small, navy-blue, cardboard discs with the number “10” written on them in white, which the latter placed next to his Togepi card. “And because the attack did damage, I can remove one damage counter from Bulbasaur.” Johnny picked up a similar blue disc from next to his Bulbasaur card and threw it in the pile of damage counters on the edge of the table.

      Aaron picked up his Togepi and placed underneath it a purple card with an ominous emblem depicting an eye on its center. “Attaching a Psychic Energy Card to Togepi.”

      “But I’m going to knock it out in the next turn,” said Johnny, confused. “Why bother putting any Energy Cards on it if you won’t get the chance to use it?”

      Aaron just shrugged again.

      Johnny gave him a curious look before declaring, “Bulbasaur uses Leech Seed again, which knocks out your Togepi. And that gets me my last Prize Card, so…I win. Why didn’t you try?”

      “You know I’m no good at the card game. I just do it for fun.”

      Aaron’s friend raised an eyebrow again but said no more. The boys put all of their cards back into their respective decks and said their goodbyes before going their separate ways.

      When he got home, Aaron sifted through his deck for the Togepi card that was his favorite card in the Pokémon Trading Card Game. He grinned when he saw the spiky-headed hatchling looking transfixed at him from just within a tree hollow. The fictional species’ carefree personality and adorable appearance had made Aaron an instant fan, and this particular card was the first Togepi card he had gotten.

      Aaron walked up the stairs to his room and went straight to the blue safe sitting on his desk. He worked the dial with a speed that came from opening the safe over a hundred times over the past couple of years since his father had gifted it to him. The metal box open, its owner gently placed the Togepi card flat on top of a two-dollar bill. Then he closed the door and rotated the dial clockwise a few times.

      “Until next time, little guy!” the boy said with a chuckle.



      Luke stared at the creature in the illustration for awhile. It was unlike any the teen had seen before. Could such a being have existed in ancient times?

      The fauna of his world consisted primarily of insects. Roaches were in abundance, and they served as the primary source of meat for the human population.

      At this point, Luke was pretty sure that there was nothing in the metal box of any utility in the present day. However, the artifacts within seemed to call to him, as if they were finally ready to be free after so long buried in the sand. So he again reached into the unknown.

      Moments after the boy’s fingers penetrated the earth inside the box, they collided with something hard and coarse. He used his other hand to clear the sand from on top of a bulky, rusty object about the size of his palm. A black circle with faded, white tick marks and symbols was inlaid within a round, metal case, from the perimeter of which a closed loop of rusted metal protruded.

      The black circle immediately reminded Luke of the dial on the box.


      3…21…35…

      The lock clicked open. Aaron twisted the lock around one side of its shackle and then snaked the shackle out from the latch. He pulled the small, orange door open. What he saw inside the compartment beyond filled him with dread. Nevertheless, he pulled out the contents, shut the locker door, and closed the lock around the latch again.

      The boy walked into the throng of young men inside the cage-like changing area and began to strip. He held the top of his black gym uniform in front of his torso as he slid his shirt off, then he yanked the lightweight garment on as quickly as he could. He performed a similar maneuver with his shorts, though throughout this one, he fixed his eyes on the sickly green tiles at his feet.

      All the while, Aaron’s classmates shouted to each other about dodgeball and the World Series and Call of Duty Prestige and how someone was gay for glancing at his classmates while they changed. At one point, one kid decided to solve the locker room’s body-odor problem by running back and forth while spraying AXE body spray, causing Aaron to gag.

      Nobody paid him any mind this time, but Aaron found the whole experience overwhelming, humiliating, and degrading nevertheless. But he still took his time in leaving the cage, with its rows of benches and its large, creaky, lockable, chain-link door.

      After all, the gym class itself was his least favorite part of the school day. He would probably be pelted so hard in the arm with a rubber ball during dodgeball that he would be unable to move it for the rest of the day. It had happened before. Or he would find himself lagging behind most of the other boys during a run and subsequently rebuked by the teachers in front of the rest of the class.

      Aaron missed the gym class in grade school. His class only went to Gym once a week, and they always played fun games with Frisbees and scooters and Hula Hoops, and the boys and the girls played together in their normal clothes, and the teacher catered to the students’ strengths rather than drilling holes into their weaknesses. It was innocent and fun. And it wasn’t this.

      After all of the other boys had left the locker room for the gymnasium proper, several of them giving him dirty looks for loitering as they left, Aaron finally decided that he could put off the inevitable no longer, lest someone come looking for him, and he dragged his feet out of the changing cage back to his tiny gym locker.


      3…21…35…

      Aaron opened the door and put his day clothes into the compartment with a burning dread. Then he closed the locker door again and reinserted the lock. The boy sighed.


      Click.


      This object had some heft to it, so Luke thought that perhaps he could use it as part of a blunt weapon were the need to arise. He turned around and dropped it into his knapsack with a soft thud.

      Satisfied with his haul, the youth grabbed his bag and threw the strap over his shoulder.

      “Agh!” hissed Luke as the strap rubbed against the skin on his back. The boy had been hunched over in the same position for too long; the sun had beaten its way into his skin.

      He dropped the knapsack back onto the ground and began to rummage inside it. Moments later, he pulled out a small, corked, glass vial filled with a milky green substance. Luke pulled out the cork and poured a dab of the viscous fluid onto his palm. The salve was cool to the touch. He reached over his shoulder, gritted his teeth, and smacked the salve onto the burn, only able to give it one quick stroke across his skin to spread it before the pain hit.

      “Shiss!” Luke swore. It was like shards of ice stabbing him in the back. The sudden and agonizing sensation forced him to his knees. But by the time his knees had lodged in the warm sand, the pain—all of it—began gradually to fade away.

      The salve was a precious commodity, only available from one woman in a nearby hovel, as far as Luke knew. He had had to gather the ingredients for it himself as payment, which took him two full days. The woman still only gave the boy enough to treat about half a dozen wide burns.

      This worrying fact was on Luke’s mind when he noticed something flat sticking out of the sand in front of the metal box. Curiosity once more ensnared him, and he reached down to free it from the ground.

      When the youth could get a good look at it, he could not fathom what it could possibly be. The object was rectangular and flat, like the paper with the illustration of the creature, only this had a much thicker, sturdier composition. One side was completely white, with a black stripe running lengthwise near one of the long edges.

      Luke flipped the thing over. The reverse side was also mostly white, but the boy could just make out some symbols like those on both pieces of paper. But in the upper-right corner, almost the same, white tint as the rest of the object, there was what appeared to be an illustration of a child, albeit a hyper-realistic illustration. The child had pale skin, short, dark hair, and eyes framed with ovals connected by something on his nose, with additional extensions protruding towards either side of his face. He smiled at Luke, and his parted lips revealed teeth covered in large dots.

      Was this the owner of the metal box?


      Aaron opened the door and stepped over the threshold into the school library, his trusty refuge. He had been excused from gym class indefinitely, and instead, he now attended a study hall of his own in the library.

      The eighth-grader went immediately to the fiction stacks along the library’s perimeter. As he perused the collection, he noticed a wrenching pain in his gut. His heart pounded as if trying to break free from its rib cage. His breath was shallow and strained.

      People had been talking about it for weeks, but now scientists had all but confirmed it. Aaron did not want to believe it, but he knew in his heart that he, everyone he had ever known, and everyone he had yet to meet was in terrible danger.

      The temperature outside was almost unbearable. Several area schools had already closed for the day because their central air conditioning systems had failed. This was not supposed to happen in early spring.

      Aaron picked out A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle. A Wrinkle in Time was one of his favorite books, and this was the third in the series. The cover depicted a unicorn upon which rode a youth. Aaron wanted to ride away on that unicorn, across the stars, far away from the fate that awaited him not long after the school day ended.

      He took the book over to the circulation desk, where sat the librarian, looking deliberately lost in whatever work was on her computer screen.

      “Hi, Mrs. Rowley,” Aaron croaked, his mouth dry.

      The librarian looked away from her screen to see the boy standing there, his hand on the paperback book he had placed in front of her. “Oh, hi…Aaron,” she breathed. “Sorry I’m a little out of it today.” Aaron nodded in understanding; he knew exactly what she was going through. “Are you checking this out?” Aaron nodded again. “That’s a…a good choice. Can I have your student ID, please?”

      Aaron reached into his shorts pocket and drew out his student ID card. One side of the white, plastic rectangle displayed a photograph of the child, as well as his name, ID number, grade, homeroom, and school. The other side contained a magnetic strip.

      The librarian took the book and the ID card—Aaron could just make out a slight tremor in her hand. Then, she slid the card through a reader, turned the book over, and aimed a barcode scanner at the library barcode on the book. This whole process was carried out in a strained silence.

      “It’s due in—” Mrs. Rowley froze in dread. After several seconds had passed, she meekly finished, “—two weeks.” She handed the novel back to Aaron, giving him a very unconvincing half-smile. “Enjoy.”

      Aaron swallowed as he took the book from the librarian. The phrase “in two weeks” caught in his mind. He knew—and he knew that the librarian knew—that he would likely never get the opportunity to return the book.

      The child walked over to a nearby table and sat down. He figured that he could work on the homework he was assigned already that day. But what would be the point, now? So he opened A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

      At first, Ms. L'Engle’s description of the Murry family’s kitchen put Aaron at ease. But then he started to think about his own kitchen and his own father, and how he should probably say goodbye to both when he got home later today.

      Mrs. Rowley looked on with a frown as Aaron seemed physically to melt into the book in anguish. She knew exactly what he was going through: that dread at the uncertain but probable end…of everything.

      *****

      Aaron stepped off the yellow school bus and stood there, on the street corner where it had dropped him off, watching the vehicle fade into the distance. Tears he had been holding at bay from the view of the jocks from the other junior high school, even as he hugged his friend Johnny goodbye, now burst forth, a sudden surge of sorrow inexpressible in words. His tears evaporated quickly in the sweltering heat, leaving salty trails on his cheeks.

      When Aaron arrived home, his father was still at work. So his company was not letting its employees leave early today, after all. How heartless, how greedy the management must be, thought the boy.

      He rushed to the phone and dialed his Dad’s work number. It rang. And rang. And rang. And…

      “You’ve reached the voice mailbox of Iain Gardner, certified public accountant, Jefferson, Lynch, & Associates. Please leave your name and number after the tone, and I will do my best to return your call as soon as possible. Thanks, and have a great day.”

      There was a high-pitched tone, lasting about a second. Then silence. Aaron sniffled in an attempt to protect the handset from the fluids pouring out of his nostrils, to little effect; besides, it was already drenched in a sticky mess of sweat and tears.

      “Da-Daddy,” he managed to sob after an apparent eternity of silence, “I…I love you…” The wireless handset slipped out of his hand and clattered onto the linoleum floor. A tinny off-hook tone was barely audible from the earpiece.

      Aaron’s body switched to autopilot. He was distantly aware of leaving the kitchen, going upstairs, and entering his bedroom. He only snapped to when he stood in front of his end table, upon which his blue safe rested beside a box of facial tissues. The boy grabbed a clump of tissues and used it to wipe the saltwater and phlegm covering his red face like a sheet.

      Then he gripped the dial in his unsteady hand. Clockwise twice to 21, then counterclockwise directly to 9. He collapsed to the floor in a heap and took the safe with him, his fingers glued to the dial. As he had already unlocked the door, the safe tumbled open, and its contents escaped onto the carpet.

      Some of Aaron’s most precious belongings now lay scattered around him on the floor. He pulled himself up onto his knees and began to put the objects back.

      A handful of coins from Mexico and from Canada.

      A savings bond certificate from his childhood babysitter and her family, given to him on his thirteenth birthday.

      Some LEGO keys from a pretend game he had played alone several years earlier.

      The lock from his gym locker, the shackle secured.

      His favorite Togepi card, the kind critter peering out of its tree hollow with a questioning gaze. (He kissed its tiny forehead before returning it to the safe.)

      A genuine two-dollar bill, with its stern portrait of President Thomas Jefferson and its dramatic depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

      Aaron tried to say it out loud, but he could not utter a sound. So he just thought the word, Goodbye, to his treasures.

      Before he closed the safe, the child reached into his pocket and withdrew his junior high school ID. He supposed he would have no use for this anymore. And he supposed that it had become a treasure to him ever since he was liberated from gym class, serving as his ticket into other worlds and other lives.

      So Aaron placed the plastic card on top of the pile of things within the safe. Then he closed the small door, turning the dial clockwise several times before setting it back to zero. He picked up the safe and enveloped it with his body, curling into a fetal position.

      Aaron’s stomach ached with anxiety, as if someone had driven a knife into his gut and were now wriggling it around inside. He could not move. All he could do to keep from losing his mind entirely was to focus on the smoothness of the metal box in his embrace, the weight of its frame supplemented by the treasured memories inside.

      The boy heard the air conditioner fail. Then he noticed that it was getting very bright and hot in his room.

      And then he was gone. And the planet was silent.



      Luke stared at the faded image of the boy. What had his life been like?

      Relics like these, the youth had learned, came from before the Destruction, when Earth was a very different place on which to live. So what was this child’s average day like? Luke wondered. Did he, like Luke, have to fight for survival every day? Did he know his parents? What did he use these objects for? And why were they together in this box?

      The young man put the sturdy rectangle back into the metal box, among the sand inside. Then he pushed an adjacent mound of sand on top of his discovery, burying it, he supposed, until the next sandstorm.

      Luke stood up and took his pack in his hand. He could feel the additional weight from the blunt, metal object he had scavenged.

      The boy scaled the nearest dune he could find, and he squinted into the horizon. He could just make out, in the distance, a monolithic structure. Good: water.

      He reached into his bag and drew out his spigot. Then he began trudging across the wasteland in the direction of the distant water tree.

      The fight to survive never stopped for long.

      The End


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      “Now and Then” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. It is made available on Zelda Universe by the content’s creator. After the Destruction and related characters and concepts are ©2010-2019 Eden Biskin; all rights reserved.

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