Writer Mind

I’m in the valley every writer goes through. I keep showing up day after day intending to make something amazing. If I were an artist, I’d be making stick people. If I were making dinner, it would be haggis. If I were conjuring up an animal, it would be a platypus. Sure, I just got petted last Friday. Won a contest. Got to judge. But without a steady stream of word-gold, I become convinced the well is dry.  I’ll ever write anything good ever again.

I worry the story I’ve been working on, bleeding onto the page for eternity squared, is a total waste of time. I worry I’m selfish. I AM selfish. I ask myself, what have you done for others? Surely not this writing gig. So I try to list out the selfless …act I’ve committed recently. It’s a short list.

So I’m writing and writing and every so often is the thought: Why don’t you do something eternal like laundry or weeding or deep cleaning? The grime is holding my home together, I tell myself. The weeds have feelings too. Things get dirty again. I wax certain I’m an undiscovered C.S. Lewis (the moment I won a little contest) and certain I’m a grub (most other times, beginning a few minutes after I won the contest).

To really keep things interesting, I sabotage myself by revealing my political leanings to people who would’ve liked me well enough had I just kept my mouth shut. If I had multiple personalities, they’d be Ann Coulter, Ann Lamott, and little orphan Annie. I’m the most liberal conservative in our family, the most confident insecure person I know. The nicest mean person you’ll ever meet. I don’t know why I feel the need to cough up my worldview every now and again. I hope it’s an involuntary trait of a writer. Like how the kidneys clean out your blood without you telling them to. My soul churns this stuff out against the advice of a meek little voice: are you sure you want to post that? I plunge ahead.

Today I read a lovely, worthwhile blogger writing from the mountaintop I can see from my valley, where he talks about writing “whatever the hell he wanted” for five years and he has no regrets and over a hundred thousand followers. He “likes” many posts, including mine. I emailed him to ask, does he really read the posts he likes? Because if so, does he sleep? Is he human? He has not answered my email. Oddly enough, I also have been blogging for five years.

This is what I say when I’m a  grub: He didn’t even read your post. Some days a rational being who’s just finished running a few miles and done vitality yoga– that person will tell me I’ve got something important to say, that to give up is the only failure. And, some really weird people like haggis. Days like today must be climbed over or crawled under or blasted through. On the horizon are days where I’ll come away thinking I’ve made something worthy– and had a great time doing it.

 

Congratulations Writing Contest Winners, Winter 2017!

One of the highlights of the year for me is the 5000 Words Writing Contest. Homeschooled students ages 13 & up participate in a creative writing workshop and post their revised drafts as contest entries. Entirely peer-judged, the contest prompts some of the most tectonic revisions and highly polished writing these students are capable of producing. I mean, when your friends read your story and say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” you’re motivated. You have a waiting audience. Don’t take my word for it. Read the winning stories.

1st Place, “Need You” by Phil Miranda

Phillip, 12th grade, has participated in 5000 Words since his freshman year. During that time, he has also competed on Keystone High’s track, academic challenge, and cross-country teams, where he was awarded the Mastick Woods Scholarship and Keystone’s 2016 MVP award. Additionally, Phillip has participated in CCWA Model United Nations, also headed by Kelly Griffths. He has taken college classes through both LCCC and Hillsdale College, and aims to earn his MS in architecture from Kent State University.

Need You

Corbin ripped open another coagulant packet with his teeth and quickly poured the powder into the puncture hole that ran neatly through the ribcage of the Pvt. laying beneath him in the dust. The soldier was overtaken by a spasm and thrashed beneath Corbin’s knee. Grimacing, Corbin shouted, “Sully! I need help!”

Several seconds later, another soldier slid to Corbin’s side. “Yeah?” he yelled.

“Hold him down.”

Sully grabbed the wounded soldier and pinned him to the earth. Corbin went to work immediately. His hands didn’t shake. He could have been operating on himself and his hands wouldn’t have shaken. He finished, pouring iodine over the wound. Then he plunged a wad of gauze into the puncture and taped a heavy bandage over it.

“I’ll get him to the corpsmen!” Corbin yelled. “Here, you’re empty!” As he hoisted the limp man onto his shoulders, Corbin handed Sully his rifle.

Seizing the fresh weapon, Sully raced off to the front line as Corbin carried the hurt soldier away from the firefight, towards the battalion’s staging area. It seemed the slowest sprint of Corbin’s life. A stray burst of bullets drummed into a concrete wall a few yards to Corbin’s left, toppling the feeble construction in a billow of dust and cement chunks.

Just as the makeshift base came into view through the maze of Yemeni streets, Corbin heard a hollow whistle above him. Without slowing, he glanced upward into the sky, and could just see the speeding blur of mortar shell as it arced over him and struck the ground at his feet.

***

A metallic boom shook the Emergency Room as the ambulance-bay doors swung open and struck the walls. A pair of paramedics rushed a gurney through the E.R. towards the elevator. On the gurney was a pregnant woman. Her face was beet-red and she was breathing sharply through nearly closed lips. Her whole body was tensed in place on the gurney. A trauma surgeon waiting on standby in the E.R. rushed to the paramedics.

“What have we got?” she asked as she helped wheel the woman to the elevators.

“Mary, 28, three centimeters dilated.”

“She shouldn’t be in this much pain.”

“Minor car crash set her in labor.”

“Okay; we have to check for trauma. Let’s get her to delivery, call in Dr. Schmitt and a trauma team.”

“Got it.”

“Mary? How we doin’?”

“Tense,” Mary gasped.

“Can you feel your toes?”

There was an unintelligible response.

“What’s that, Mary?”

“I n– need Corbin.”

“Okay. Who’s Corbin–”

The nurse’s voice was lost as Dr. Schmitt rushed to the gurney. “What have we got?”

“Minor car accident– she’s at three centimeters. Abdominal pain.”

“Okay. Here– this room right here. Yeah, she isn’t gonna do this naturally. Prep her for an epidural.”

“On it.”

“Trauma team’s here.”

***

The blast knocked out Corbin’s hearing and struck him like a hammer, but he refused to let it topple them over; at this point, the Pvt.’s compromised ribcage would probably have been crushed by the impact of being dropped. Lurching forward and sidestepping the coal-red crater, Corbin rushed through the smoke and covered the remaining distance to the compound gates.

Corbin rushed into the drab medical tent picketed just inside the fence, gagging as he was hit with the palpable reek of blood and rot. He deposited the Pvt. with the medics and left, picking up a new rifle as he prepared to rejoin Sully on the front line.

“Gates!” yelled an intense voice.

Corbin turned to look, and saw a commander running to him holding a satellite phone.

“A nurse called for you from your wife’s phone. She’s in labor. And it- she’s- they said she’s okay, but I guess she was in a car accident on the way to the hospital.

Panic branched through Corbin’s spine. “Wel- Ho… c-can I talk to her?”

Before the commander could respond, the cry, “Sully’s been hit!” blared in Corbin’s earpiece. Corbin’s eyed widened and he glanced at the commander, who heard it too.

Corbin’s feet started towards the front, then swiveled back. The already muted sound of gunfire in the distance faded away as he thought about the woman lying in pain in the hospital. He remembered the first time she hiccupped, “I love you,” on the sidewalk in front of a bar in D.C.

At the same time, he thought of the soldier bleeding in the dust somewhere. He remembered the man who pulled him out of a burning car what seemed like a lifetime ago. Corbin glanced once more at the commander, still holding the phone in his hand. I can’t help Mary, he thought. Sully needs me.

“We’re taking heavy losses— they’ve got a technical!” The voice was hysterical.

Corbin swore, then turned to race back to the front line.

“Gates,” the commander started. Corbin was already gone.

“Get ordinance on that technical,” he yelled over his shoulder as he ran.

Corbin rounded a corner into an alley that emptied into a little meat market ahead. Emerging, he saw several things at once. Firstly, his squad was hunkered behind a low wall along one edge of the market. At the other edge, the Yemenis had parked a truck-mounted machine gun— whose gunner was spraying a hail of rounds down the square. Lastly, Sully had somehow been pinned to a wall by a spur of rebar through his thigh. Corbin raced to Sully, emptying his magazine in the direction of the truck as he moved. All the while, a huge ovoid shadow spiraled around the market walls.

He grabbed Sully and ripped him free of the rebar—hoping he hadn’t torn an artery—and threw them both to the ground, rolling them into a culvert. The moment he did, the technical and its occupants burst open in a fiery hail of parts, machine and human. The market was shredded with splinters of rubble and bone.

There was a moment of shocked silence as the survivors outside of the culvert collected themselves. Then the gunfire resumed. Ignoring it, Corbin tended Sully.

***

“No… something’s wrong. Baby’s cocked.”

“It’s already too low for a cesarean.” A nurse pressed a hand to Mary’s belly.

“I may have to cut her.”

“You are NOT cutting me.” Mary forced past her clenched teeth.

“Then push this thing out!”

“Schmitt, she’s delirious; Cut her.”

***

As Corbin cut a shallow incision across the hole in Sully’s thigh, it finally clicked that his squad had retreated. There hadn’t been gunfire for several minutes. They left us, he thought.

As he locked the clamps open, Corbin peeked out and saw dozens of boots through the market stalls as insurgents picked the bodies of the Americans clean. Ducking back down, Corbin focused on Sully’s leg.

Holding a flashlight between his teeth, Corbin pressed himself flat onto his belly to reach the damage. Sully’s artery had been partially—but not fully—torn, creating a halfpipe-shaped gouge. Corbin used his thumb and forefinger to pull both sides of the artery together, creating a ridge, and clumsily ran five stitches through the resulting seam. Sully gurgled in pain through the rag in his mouth. Even mended, large beads of blood kept seeping from the inner flesh of the incision. Quickly, Corbin poured his last pack of coagulant in the wound, unlocked the clamps, took the gag from Sully’s mouth, and wrapped it tightly around his thigh.

By now the insurgents were on all sides of them. Even behind them in the buildings on their side of the street. Corbin looked at Sully, who nodded. Covering it with both hands, Corbin popped the button on Sully’s holster and slid the freed weapon into his hand. Likewise Sully found a magazine in a back pouch of Corbin’s pack. “That’s not gonna be quiet,” Sully whispered.

A cluster of footfalls was growing louder and nearer. “Ready?” Corbin asked.

“Yeah,” Sully groaned.

As he was pulled to his feet, Sully slapped the magazine into Corbin’s rifle. The rifle locked with a metallic slam. The insurgents tensed and whipped toward the noise. A hail of gunfire erupted through the market.

***

“Get it to the NICU.”

“Blood pressure’s falling.”

“NICU has no open units.”

“Then wheel a back-up unit from the basement!”

“Schmitt, she’s not breathing.”

“Get the baby out of here.”

“She’s flatlining.”

“Gel the paddles.”

“I’m not done closing her up.”

“Yes, you are. Clear.”

“No-”

“Clear!”

***

A dead weight fell against Corbin’s back, smearing his neck and shoulders with moist warmth. Corbin shrugged it off him, knowing full well it was Sully. He didn’t stop shooting. He could feel his chest plate splitting further and further open, the shards of ceramic pushing into his skin as they cracked into smaller and smaller pieces. The strike of the rounds against his armor quickly turned from dull pings to wet crunches. Still he kept shooting, until the receiver clicked on his rifle.

By then Corbin’s diaphragm was so traumatized that he hadn’t breathed properly in minutes.

Finally, a round caught him in the armpit, under his vest, and punched a hole through his torso. The force of the impact and sudden loss of nervous function bore him straight into the ground. He fell largely overtop of Sully, so that as Corbin looked up he saw Sully’s blank face, upside down, next to his own.

Ribs fractured, lungs filling, Corbin looked for the already-flown spirit of his best friend in the glass of Sully’s eyes. Diaphragm hemorrhaging, he lay a hand on Sully’s armor and gripped it like a lifeline.

“I’m… right behind you… buddy.” he choked out.

He pried the pistol from Sully’s hand. The insurgents had been nearing warily for the past minute, hoping him dead.

Corbin pushed himself to his knees, gun raised, face empty.

One final burst of gunfire erupted in the sleepy little meat market in Samir, Yemen.

Epilogue

“Good news,” said Dr. Schmitt as he entered the nursery holding a clipboard. “The baby’s green across the board. He’s cleared to leave as soon as you are.”

An exhausted voice cracked as it said, “He looks nothing like me.” But it was a chuckle.

The chuckle turned into a trembling sob. In between gasps came the whisper, “I can’t do this.”

Schmitt stirred uncomfortably. A look of pity and concern flashed across his face, then, “She thought you could.”

There was no answer.

“Listen, you’ve been through a significant trauma,” Schmitt eventually offered. “There’s no reason to do this on your own. If you need, I can refer an excellent therapist.”

“That’s not what I need.”

Schmitt nodded, understanding. “Well, if you change your mind.”

Corbin looked up from the baby in his arms.

“I need her.”

2nd Place, “Footprints” by Jenna Melendez

Footprints

The warm summer sun cast an orange glow on my August tanned face. The world was still tucked asleep in their cozy homes while the sun peeked over the horizon leaving an ombre of red, orange, and yellow colors in the then awakened sky. Silence. Everything was so peaceful that morning. The beach had been cleared by the sandboni that comes before the sun rises every Friday morning. The only marks near the shore had been my own. One single trail of footprints on the white sanded beach I had left that last week before the start of my last year of college came around the corner. I was deep in thought that calm morning with my mind on school and the unresolved drama that had been left the previous year between my best friend and I. Walking down my favorite spot on the beach with my wavy auburn hair blowing from the slight ocean breeze, I remember thinking how I wished to go back to that day and do it all over again, wishing that I would’ve forgiven her. Now we’re not even friends any-

My thoughts came to an abrupt stop. I sighed and looked up to see Doctor Davis crouched over my white sheeted bed.

“Christina, you were hallucinating again. How are you feeling?” He asked while jotting something down on his clipboard.

I told him that I was fine and that it’s nothing, but how am I supposed to pretend that I’m okay when I only have months left to live? I guess I could make a good actress someday with all the fake smiling I’ve been doing. The loneliness is more painful than the burning feelings I get in my bones on a daily basis, but I just keep that part on the down-low.

The doctor left the room after he grabbed some paper work from the desk near my bed. I looked over to the window though there was not much to see. The hospital room was as devoid of beauty and color as I am of hope. Its walls are simply cream, not peeling or dirty, just cream. The room as an undertone of bleach and the floor is just plain gray. Not a single person has flowers, cards, or home brought food. It seems as though they are sleeping to pass the time or just staring at nothing at all. The doctors tell me that I’m lucky I wasn’t in the car with my parents when it crashed, but how does my luck look now? I lost my best friend, parents, and who knows when I’ll lose my life.

My thoughts focused back to my mom and dad. They were the most supportive people I’d ever known. My dad always told me that he’d do anything to “see that big white smile” of mine, and my mom would look into my eyes as if they were worth more than her own life. They were my partners in crime. We did anything and everything together. They always took me and Vanessa to the zoo to watch the monkeys swing across the trees and vines. My best friend and I would beg my parents to let us play on the zoo playground so we could pretend to be monkeys on the monkey bars. Vanessa, being the clumsy girl she is, would fall more than I can remember. There was one time, though, that was worse than the others. It seems like it was yesterday when she fell on her wrist and broke it. I can almost see her tear streaked face and hear those little sobs of a seven year-old.

These thoughts came to an abrupt stop once again, but this time it seemed as though they were coming to reality as I heard loud footsteps pounding down the halls headed toward my room. The sobbing grew louder, and the next thing I knew, Vanessa was crouching beside my bed hugging me as if she never wanted to let go.

“I’m s-so sorry,” She tried to squeak out the words that I’d wished to hear since that June day when everything fell apart.

At that moment, all my doubts, worries, fears, and confusion faded away. My eyes dripped with tears. My walls, the walls that used to hold me up and make me strong just collapsed. Brick by brick, they came tumbling down. Salty drops fell from my chin, drenching my shirt. We cried until the tears couldn’t fall anymore.

Vanessa began again, “Christina, I really should’ve told you that we were together. I know he’s one of your best friends and that you always had something for him, and I shouldn’t have kept it from you. This past week, I found out that you have cancer… I guess I was just afraid I’d lose you, and I didn’t want to see that happen. You’re my best friend and I could’ve been the one to help you through this, but instead I was a bad fr-”

“It’s okay Nessa. Your feelings matter to me, and I shouldn’t have gotten so upset. I don’t blame you for being scared, but we’ve been through everything together and I wish you could’ve been here with me these past five months. You don’t know how hard it is for me,” I said with caution, knowing that these could’ve been some of the last moments for me to have someone by my side, and if it was my best friend, I wouldn’t give up the chance.

“I know how hard it is since your parents aren’t here,” Vanessa started, “and I should’ve been here for you like you’ve always been there for me. I’m just so sorry,” She said with a tone of sadness in her voice. Her glassy blue eyes looked as if they wanted to shatter.

I told Vanessa that we’ve always had ups and downs, but we get through them together, and that we would get through this.

***

Months passed by, and my hallucinations seemed to be coming more and more each day. Some of the times, I would fall asleep for hours on end. One of the doctors would have to wake me up so that I wouldn’t go into some sort of coma.  I knew that the cancer was spreading even further and would soon reach my heart, but I didn’t feel so alone anymore.  My anxiety of not making it this long seemed to ease. It’s been two and a half weeks since I was supposed to be “gone”. The ongoing pains I have weren’t the most pleasant, but for once in a long time, I felt at peace. The chemo treatments were getting more and more as time went by, but I’ve learned to deal with it. Doctor Davis came in on a Thursday morning and asked how I was feeling, as usual. I told him that I was fine with a real smile spread across my freckled face.

***

“Hurry get her some oxygen, she’s going under,” I heard the faint words of a blurry figure who seemed to be scurrying around the room.

“Christina, hang in there. Christina?” With all the strength that I could gather, I opened my eyes to see that it was Vanessa who was squeezing my hand. The words seemed to blur into nothingness as everything went black.

***

The sun was above the clear, blue horizon when I ran down to the shore. I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, and I looked around to see that no one was there. I realized that I was standing on my favorite spot of the beach, and I didn’t feel alone. Someone was there with me. The sound of the ocean brought a sort of peace and happiness over me that I had never felt before as I looked back to see two trails of footprints in the sand.

3rd Place, “We Were Gladiators” by Sharon Kay

I’m Sharon. I have a deep passion for things I strongly believe in and am not afraid of speaking my mind. I also love having deep, real conversations with people! Here are just some of the things I love: writing fiction, reading every YA book I can get my hands on, watching all different genres of TV shows, thunderstorms, running, sunsets, comfy blankets, Nike’s, Pinterest, Spotify, sleep, and COFFEE. Since I gave you some of the things that bring me joy, it is only fair that I tell you of some of the things that don’t bring my soul joy. Things like tomatoes, books that drag, people who don’t mean what they say, know-it-alls, etc….

Now that you know a little bit about me I will tell you of my future plans. Although you can never be sure of what your future has in store, I am planning on going to college after I graduate. I would love to either study Criminal Justice, Nursing, or both! We will see! – Sharon Kay

We Were Gladiators by Sharon Kay

Chaos.

I had never seen such chaos like this before, my whole world had in almost every sense, been flipped upside down. The cards had been changed, I was no longer preparing to die but, in fact, preparing for a new life.

That instant tossed everything I ever knew and had known up into the air, never to be seen again. The turmoil and excitement, however, did not just affect me. The moment after Marcus’s knife had gashed the Emperor’s throat, the Colosseum became still, and the faces in the crowd showed nothing but pure disbelief and wonder. They gawked at the man responsible for a death that would influence, perhaps, the rest of their lives.

The Emperor was a cruel and brutal leader, deserving of a cowards death. The mass yearning for his death, however, were not created not by his blunt use of words and force, but the moment he chose to create a new type of entertainment for his empire. This entertainment would draw out his citizens, hooking them in with excitement and adrenaline, but at the cost of tearing apart families and individuals piece by piece….

I remember the night it all started, it was the first time I had ever felt true hate.

I could make out even the farthest of stars in the sky, but I would not be admiring the stars tonight. The town was filled with the wailing of mothers, as their children were being ripped from their arms by the ruthless soldiers in red and silver. These mothers knew not whether their child would last the night or if they would ever see their precious faces again. This was the emperor’s way of recruiting noble gladiators, by grabbing their children right from their arms and instilling terror and fear within their souls. I remembered my mother’s voice when the red and silver came to our door, she screamed and collapsed to her knees begging for them to leave me be, but they dragged me off, just like all the others.

The Emperor’s Noble Gladiators brought more entertainment to the Colosseum than ever before and many forgot all about that dreadful night; however, many did not forget, and would never forgive the acts of abduction and cruelty done by their Emperor.

*********

My body lay still and under white sheets as I saw the door being cracked open, deep in thoughts of my past and not wanting to be disturbed my eyelids fell, pretending to be asleep. I could hear someone walking slowly in, footsteps growing louder as they came closer and closer. The footsteps suddenly stopped, they had reached the edge of my bed. A rough hand was placed gently against my damp forehead, the man belonging to the footsteps exhaled strongly and started to weep. Realization hit and I opened my eyes, I had to let him know I was alright. I tried to say his name, but it came out as only a faint whisper and brought about agonizing pain; the gash on my throat had not yet healed from the trauma it had been through. I looked up to see his eyes glimmering with tears as he saw the pain I was in. “I… I am sorry,” he said. His knees started to fail him as he slowly slid down until his elbows had reached the edge of the bed, he then placed his head into his hands, no longer able to look at the pain he had caused. I knew he would blame himself, he always does, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he had made the right choice, he could not have left that excuse of a leader live any longer torturing and killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children daily for entertainment. Marcus had always felt responsible for me, it began when we were both young, I had been ripped from my home and forced into the games and he had been thrown in by his abhorrent father, the emperor. As fate would have it, we became a team conquering each match together and he slowly became the brother I never had and I the sister he never had. My mind dragged those memories up once more, to the moment it all happened…

It appeared that no matter how hard I tried I would always end up in the same place, in the dirt, I had gotten myself up again and again but the only thing that had changed was the number of times I had fallen. The heavy steel still felt unfamiliar to my touch, as I had never held such a weapon before, ironic that my life would now depend solely on one. I got up once more and looked at my opponent, the emperor’s son, only to be knocked down once more. What came next was just as surprising, his feet carried him over to my frail helpless body, lying in the dirt, and leaned down to help me up. We became inseparable after that, training day and night and as time went on we slowly became the greatest noble gladiator’s there were.

To this day, I still wonder what had compelled the young emperor’s son to lean down to help me up. Maybe he had felt sorry for me or maybe he didn’t want a young girl’s death on his conscious…….I may never know, but I do know this, I will forever be indebted to him.

My hands grabbed the side of my head as another wave of pain came, my brain was reliving each and every moment that took part in the event that placed me here. Marcus still knelt at the edge of my bed, grabbing my hand he asked me what was happening.

I shook my head from side to side, tears sliding down my cheeks as I still could not speak.

“Octavia, what’s wrong?!” he said.

All I could force out was “Too……much….blood.” My eyelids then closed tight, trying to force the images away.

“We did what we had to,” he said, voice shaking.

I grasped his hand tighter as the memories I had been trying so hard to forget came crashing down. The moment that placed me here, wounding me both physically and mentally were upon me….

I saw Marcus out of the corner of my eye climbing up the Colosseum walls that were keeping us from the crowd, a mass of roman soldiers on his heels. I knew exactly what he was doing, we couldn’t keep this up much longer but getting to the emperor would have a greater influence than dying down here. Marcus was over the wall now making his way to the balcony, the crowd still thinking this was a game, made way for him and tried to prevent the soldiers from getting through. He had reached his father now, he was still and looking straight into his eyes. They stared at each other with so much hate and disappointment that if looks could kill, they would both be dead. Before I could throw my dagger, Marcus grabbed ahold of his father placing his blade at his father’s throat, tempting the beginning of chaos. His voice cracked as he screamed at his father asking him why and how he could ever do this to him. He kept pushing the knife further into his father’s throat, blood spurting out as his father began struggling. I was on the balcony now, watching as the man who killed my parents was gasping for his last breath when I felt a sword on my neck. Marcus stopped but did not lower his knife. We knew this was the end, we had stood up and defied the emperor and his games, and we were ready to finish this. I nodded towards Marcus, there was only a moment’s hesitation before he sliced his father’s throat.

That was the last thing I saw…before the world went dark.

We had done what we planned to do, but we could have never foreseen what would have happened next or even thought we would be alive to see it. I had almost died that day, they said with the amount of blood I had lost I should not have survived, but I did and here I am today.

After the sudden death of the Emperor, the senate was in an uproar and filled with fear of another rising to power moved quickly to make the next of kin, Marcus, emperor. The people needed a strong leader, one they admired and would follow, Marcus was already that man. He had freed their children, gotten rid of the cruel and murderous emperor and was in all respects, next in line being the emperor’s only living son.

After the painful flood of memories had passed I drifted off to sleep.

Marcus got off of his knees and started walking towards the balcony. His feet slowed as he neared the end of the balcony, lips curving into a smile as he felt the breeze brush across his face. In all this chaos it was hard to remember that he was free. He looked up to see the dark and pillow-like clouds inviting rain, it was time for his city to be washed clean. As Marcus turned to go something caught his eye, that fiery blaze would not be the last of the night. Just like any rule, there will always be ones that oppose, and those men were getting stronger and stronger, threatening their new ruler and now his empire.

Marcus looked back at Octavia, she had been through hell and back and she didn’t deserve what he was about to ask her. It would be like asking her to sacrifice more of herself than she already had, but he needed her now more than anything.

1 week later

Marcus walked into my room, his royal clothes now less startling as the days went on, I lifted myself up so my back was straight.

“How are feeling?” he said.

“Stronger every day,” I said, giving him a small but painful smile.

“Good, I am going to need you soon,” he mumbled out.

“What do you mean by that?” I said eyebrows raised.

“There have been uprisings,” he said ” and I need someone I can trust to put these rebels at bay. I know I’m asking a lot, believe me when I tell you I never wanted to throw you back into battle.” He shifted from side to side, not being able to look her in the eyes, his eyes were the window to his soul, a clash of emotions and distress he couldn’t afford to let out. He couldn’t let her see the pain that haunted him. Deep down he knew she could do it, she had been doing the impossible her whole life. Every blow she took was received like it was a challenge, a challenge to be better, a challenge to grow, and a challenge to overcome against all odds.

I looked down at my skinny figure wondering how I would even leave my bed, let alone fight. Lord knows I wasn’t ready to be thrown back into a battle or have the constant guilt of the ones I’ve murdered haunt me day and night. I blocked the thoughts and did the unspeakable…. I moved my legs to the side of my bed, feet touching the ground, rose and brought a knee to the ground. My head spun and my legs felt like they were going to collapse at any moment, but I stayed in place. I brought my fist up to lay on my chest an all too familiar stance I’d hoped to never do again, but I reminded myself that this was different as I spoke saying,”I will protect my home and its armies or die trying, Emperor.” The world spun fast around me and then went dark, as I passed out onto the floor.

5 weeks later

Red, red as far I could see. My hands, my men, and my enemies were all covered in this crimson liquid.

Early that day, a small group of my men and I went out to silence a rebel uprising at the edge of the city. We expected it to be just like all the rest, small groups of men, angry and burning things; we were greeted with nothing like we expected. I had hopped off my black mare as soon as I saw what was up ahead, I tried walking over them but there were too many. The rebels had slaughtered a group of kids in the village like the savages they were, ones lacking a soul. No longer able to look, I looked up to see that one of my men had spotted a trail heading into the woods, I signaled the others off their horses and we took off into the woods….

I swung my sword towards another soulless one, blood spitting out of its flesh as I pulled back only to raise it once more, separating its head from the rest of its miserable body. Gore covered my body from head to toe as I looked at the bloodbath of my victims, tears springing from my eyes and mixing with blood flooded down my face as I killed one soulless child killer after the other.

The sunset ran as red as our victims that night, reminding us of all the lives we took that day.

Your hands are far from clean after you’ve washed them when you carry the title of general or emperor; being a leader to your people requires a certain strength and sometimes the only way to do that is to keep your emotions hidden from the crowd. But those emotions can only stay hidden so long…

I went home that night, needing to clear my thoughts and my heart. As soon as I entered I stood as still as the statues, in shock of my surroundings, it was the same yet so different. The rows, which were always stacked with brutal, loud citizens holding our lives in their hands, were now desolate with only broken dishes and crushed roses. The scene in the center of the amphitheater sent fear running through my body faster than lighting. Trying not to make a sound, I descended as quickly and as quietly as I could. I was an arm’s length away now, his back facing towards me, he was on his knees looking blankly at the ground while holding the edge of his sword to his abdomen threatening too many things. I have seen too much death, the lives that were taken by my hand haunt me night and day but I would not be able to recover from this death.

“Don’t!” I said, my voice cracking. “Look at me, Marcus! Don’t do it…please don’t.”

My eyes looked at his hands, still, they were.

“I don’t wanna fight. I don’t wanna fight anymore,” he said, voice faint.

“I will not accept your life to end like this, these people need you! I still need you. Marcus, you’re the only family I have left, please…don’t…..don’t do this to me.” I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, as I watched his hands grasp the sword tighter.

“You need to let me go, Octavia…let me go.” He said looking up at me, tears in his eyes.

My head swayed side to side violently as tears streamed down my face.

He looked me in the eyes one last time before he pushed the blade in as blood flooded out and he toppled over face down into the dirt.

I rushed to his side, pressing my hands down on his wounds aimlessly trying to stop the blood from leaving his body. “No…no…no…..no…Marcus…NO!! You can’t die, you can’t die!” I took my hands off his dead body and beat my fists on the ground repeatedly, yelling at the world.

********

My devils still haunt me in the night, waking me up with a tear stained face and throat sore from my screams.

***

As you can see, 5000 Words students write thousands and thousands of words. By the end of the session most write them joyfully, all write them fearlessly, with ever-increasing eloquence and clarity.

The Quiet Room of no Social Media

I’m not one of those planner-bloggers. I write what I feel, when I feel it. When I post I’m basically throwing you a real-time snapshot of my mind. I may be feeling a bunch of things, but when I post I’m shining one of those thoughts and offering it to you.

For me, posting has been a sort of reaching out. I post and then I wait. Did anyone like it? Was anyone moved? Who agrees with me? As much as I’ve tried to stop it– my writing, specifically blogging, is a quest for affirmation/connection masquerading as an essay.

A thought occurred to me this morning as I was having my “devotions.” I put quotes around them because they’ve not felt very devoted lately. A dark night of the soul sort of thing, but my internal ravings led me to consider: if Gandhi can fast from food, I can fast from social media. And wouldn’t it be freeing? Not to wonder who liked my posts, who liked my status, my picture, my buffed-up, shiny words? Yes. I decided. Freeing indeed.

I usually scroll through Facebook while I eat my lunch. I’m not sure what I’ll do while I eat, but I used to do something before. It’ll come back. Maybe I’ll taste my food. Time travel back to 1990 wasn’t an option, so turning off notifications will have to do. I’ll be writing my novel in the quiet room of no social media. That’s my real-time plan. Once I have it finished, I’ll come back to beg for beta readers.

Till then.

Coming in 2017… Not Your Average Book Reviews!

img_1036The trouble with book reviews: subjectivity. Two people can read the same book and opine in wildly different directions. A friend of mine posted that The Brothers Karamazov was her favorite book ever. Ever. Now I respect my friend, but even if I didn’t, ever is a pretty convincing review. Add to the ever– she is the only person I know on planet earth who has her own legit library. Floor to ceiling books, antique books, collectables, classics, reference items. She knows books, ok? Oh, and she wrote one too.

Of course I got me a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and dived in like it was the Crystal Palace pool.

As of today, Brothers is my gold standard for #1 on my readability scale. #1 means reading it felt like slogging through a mosquito-infested swamp. That was until I closed it, forever. Which means I can’t rate its merit. (I do intend to try again later and will update if I get a different result or find my pain tolerance has increased.)

How dare I not finish a classic, right? Let he who finished Moby Dick unabridged be the first to cast a stone. I did finish all three torturous inches of Anna Karenina and Atlas Shrugged, either of which could prop a sagging foundation. My subjective slant is that I enjoy a book for the sake of escapism entertainment, but prefer one that also makes me smarter.

I’ve been considering adding book reviews to my blog… well, since I began it, but always shied away because I don’t relish ripping into a living author, especially a novice. A painter can hang his pictures, but a writer can only hang himself. I keenly feel that sentiment by Edward Dahlberg and will not be responsible for any noob author suicides… JK… sort of. So, if you write and breathe and are not on the New York Times bestseller list, I probably won’t review your book.

There are two important aspects to any book: readability and merit. Bestsellers need have only one of the two. Guess which. Great works of literature need only have one as well. My students can readily tell you which. Every once in a while, a book embodies the highest levels of both readability and merit.

Every book I review will really be two reviews, as outlined below.

Readability Scale (fun factor)

When I read this it feels like:

1 – Slogging through a mosquito-infested swamp. The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick

2 – Canoeing through same. A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

3 – A stroll in the park: not a thrill, but mildly pleasant. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Frankenstein

4 – Cruising on I-71. The Ravenant, Watership Down

5 – Aliens abducted me and I’m rocketing away from earth. Unbroken, The Hiding Place

Merit Scale (and it will make you smart, too)

1 – I could either read this or watch MTV– the net effect would be the same. Apocalypse

2 – At least I’m not watching TV. Treasure Box: A Novel

3 – I’m shopping at the thrift store– unearthing a gem or two out of the dust. A Tale of Two Cities

4 – Many pearls of understanding and perspective. Soundly profound. Atlas Shrugged

5 – Should be required reading for entrance into heaven. The Screwtape Letters

An example of a book high on the merit scale and lower on readability would be Atlas Shrugged (readability: 2, merit: 4). An example of a book high on readability and low on merit would be anything published after 1960. JK… sort of. If you’re interested in a fun book, look to readability. If you want to upload a fresh perspective of the human condition, look to merit.

If you stayed with me to this point, can I shamelessly beg you to leave your favorite-ever book in the comment section? For the truly daring, would you be willing to submit your favorite fun book and/or your favorite makes-you-smarter book? I’d be ever so grateful and will definitely read it, maybe review it. 🙂

 

5000 Words Writing Competition: Everyone Wins.

 

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And not just in the sense of participation trophies. Everyone wins because they become confident and robust writers who don’t shrink at the idea of putting their minds on the page.

5000 Words develops excellence in writing by combining the following elements:

  1. Read quality literature and analyze its structure, themes, and content. (Most recently The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Whipping Boy, and The Indian in the Cupboard)
  2. Write creatively and analytically about the story and other topics, including a heavy emphasis on fiction.
  3. Analyze and critique peer writing.

That students analyze and critique their peers creates a rich environment for excellence: competition. Older students use WordPress; younger students share their work in class. Ecclesiastes 4:4a gave me the inspiration for this element: …every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. When I happened on WordPress, I knew I wanted to harness it as a writing curriculum. The importance of having a creative space of one’s own cannot be overstated; public writing is motivation to put your best word forward.

Want proof? In the fall of 2015 I taught a class to 10-13 year olds. I gave them authorship of their own student blog, and they wrote thousands upon thousands of words, using one another as characters in their stories. I even show up as an evil character and am summarily executed– imagine. Well, that class finished in April. Today a student posted a story. Today. They continue to use the space and share their work and comment to one another.

Whether I’m teaching or not– they’re writing. And I’m delighted. This week was the 13 & up creative writing competition, entirely student-judged. One of my winners is in 9th grade, which blows my mind. No bar is too high. I’ve had students win flash fiction contests against adult writers.

I shared the winning stories below because some student blogs are private, which means only classmates can see them. Enjoy!

1st Place, Sharon Kay The Last Words

My family and I were patricians. We lived a very comfortable life, having a vast amount of land and a company of slaves; however, we dealt with our slaves quite differently than the rest, paying them wages and treating them with respect. My father also held a position in the Senate, devoting his life to helping others. He believed that all people whether patricians, plebeians, or slaves were created equal and should be treated as such. This belief made him unwelcome among nobles but truly admired among his people. My mother was quite similar to my father in these aspects, also had a passion for the truth and believed that even the worst of the worst deserved a second chance. We were looked down upon by our peers because we treated all people, wether plebeians or slaves, with the same respect and dignity that we would like to be granted to us.

My parents did not just mean the world to me, but also to so many other young men and women, they gave them a hope for a better world. Having them taken away destroyed a part of me that can never and will never be replaced.

One evening, my father and mother told me they had something of grave importance to discuss with me. I sat there listening, as they told me about a family that believed very differently than us and how they had transformed their lives. This family had called themselves Christians, and they had been arrested and were taken to the Colosseum for a religion they so strongly believed in. My father and mother seeing this family stand up and refuse to deny their faith were amazed. They wanted to know why one would sacrifice not only themselves, but the lives of their children. Curious, my parents spoke to them before their execution, asking why they would sacrifice everything just for some god, and why they had not renounced their faith to at least spare their children? They spoke to him saying, it was because of a man named Jesus and how He had changed their lives. Moved by what they had spoken to him and how they were willing to die for their beliefs, my father and mother made a decision to become Christians and fully commit their lives to Jesus.

This belief is the reason I am here now.

I stood there silently watching, my body wanting to propel itself somewhere far away. They said all gladiators in training were forced to watch, and that it would aid in preparing us for the amount of deaths that we would have to grow accustom to. I had watched a countless number of games before but this one was different, my own flesh and blood were out there tonight. I looked at the excitement and glee plastered on the faces of the crowd, waiting for the moment they would let the vicious creatures loose. Kneeling in the center of the arena, the prisoners faces showed something entirely different from that of the crowd, some had the terror of fear in their eyes while others had a stunned but peaceful look about them. How is it possible to be faced in a situation like that and have peace, I thought.

It was time. The gates were being dragged up slowly, the sounds of the crowd growing with every inch. The horrid mountain lions were hissing and scraping their sharp claws at the metal bars, separating them from their food. Their muscular bodies throwing themselves at the gate, just waiting to tear the life out of these frail helpless souls.

Then they were open, chaos was suddenly upon them. I could barely hear my own shrieks over the cheering of the crowd. All at once there was something so distinctive about their voices that I locked on. I could see my mother being dragged off by a vicious panther, black as night, her hands flinging side to side and her legs, hardly visible, were just creeping out of the panthers mouth. Her once peaceful face was now a sight of terror and her screams were so sharp it felt as though they were slicing right through my soul. The panther throwing her body side to side in the air, slammed her into the wall each time it swung back, breaking every bone in her body. I could no longer hear her screams and my heart beat stopped as I watched the panther walk away, like it had lost interest in destroying the life that is my mother. I turned away, not being able to bear looking at what was left of her.

It had felt like an eternity watching my mother and that cursed panther, but in reality had only been a few moments. I furiously searched for any sight of my father, knowing fairly well that he may already be dead. Barley able to recognize him, I almost missed him but there he was lying on his back all of his limbs now missing and his body drenched in his own blood. Not being able to breathe, I could no longer bear it.

I started wheezing as the damn holding back my tears was slowly being broken, I turned to run inside when I was stopped abruptly by the emperors guards blocking my only escape. I glanced over at… him… as he nodded towards the guards, signaling them to let me through. As soon as I was past the guards the damn broke, I started to bawl and it all starting sinking in, my parents…they’re gone. They had been ripped apart in front of my own eyes, and just because they believed in a man named Jesus! Suddenly, all I could think of was how I needed to get back out there, I would not let the Romans see me like this. Marcus came running in as soon as I was walking out suddenly stopping me,

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I would be better if your father’s last breath was just now torn from him, instead of my parents.”

“We would all be,” he said.

I looked into his eyes, “You do not really mean that do you? Your father is a horrible man, but even I could never imagine wishing the death of my own blood“.

His eyes showed the tiniest hint of sadness before the hatred devoured it as he spoke, “My father has been dead to me since the day he threw me in here. Yes, I truly do wish his death”.

Marcus did not belong next to me, he belonged up there in the balcony, sitting next to his father but like me he did not have that choice. His father, obsessed with the Colosseum and its games, sent his son to fight as a gladiator. The Emperor had proposed an idea of a new type of entertainment to the nobles, to have gladiators against gladiators but instead of slaves and foreigners they would have nobles train to fight, making the games an even more exciting and merciless event. This idea the Emperor had proposed was not taken as he had hoped, so he did something no one noble would have ever dared thought, he placed his one and only son to become the first ever noble gladiator. The people called him insane sending his son to entertain them, but later on they praised him as Marcus became one of the greatest gladiators of their time, the Emperors Pride.

*****

Sharing and helping others like never before, because of their new-found religion, the hate my father and mother were experiencing only got worse.

I had just heard of the Emperor’s proposition, of nobles offering up their children to become gladiators, as I saw my parents being dragged off by soldiers. I ran quickly after them, begging the soldiers to let them go. My father tried to quiet his panicking daughter, telling me to go right on home and that they would be back soon, but as he was speaking I could see the doubt in his eyes knowing this was going to be the last time he would see his beloved daughter as he wrapped me in his arms and held me close. My mother, taking my face into her hands smiled down telling me to be strong and not forget that our God is a loving God, no matter the circumstances that we may go through. Just as my mother turned me towards my home another group of soldiers came up behind and grabbed me, laughing and telling the others about the emperor’s first volunteer noble gladiator. My mothers eyes filled with tears as she stood in shock while the soldiers tried to move her along, my father attempted to tackle the soldier closest to him hoping to break free only to be held down by three more soldiers. I looked at my parents horrified as realization kicked in and I started screaming in terror for them to let me go.

*****

I watched as they brought yet another group of prisoners in, lately there had been more coming in everyday. I could not help but feel deeply bothered by this, even though we had been taught and trained not to let emotions take over, to not see them as people but as a disease threatening to destroy us. My eyes fell upon a young girl about my age when my parents were taken from me, her eyes were filled with terror as she clung to her parents for dear life, how could I see that as a disease? My mind suddenly wondered back to that day, that day apart of my heart was ripped out and would never be put back. I turned and started walking away not being able to face them anymore. I was slowly becoming immune to the amount of people being killed every day, but not when it came to children.

Later on that day I got the news, I may have to kill this girl.

My long brown hair was tightly braided on both sides of my head. My shoulders, chest, and stomach were covered in a well used and beaten up red cloth. My sandals were laced up till they touched the backs of my upper calves, and my sturdy dark leather skirt hung just above my knees. A short well crafted sword hung from my side and strapped on my left arm was my trusty shield, I was ready for what was about to happen. I had been waiting for an opportunity to strike back, and now I have it.

I took a deep breath in and let it out, my feet were moving forward but I felt as though I was stuck in one place. The only thing keeping myself going now was my parents, they had taught me to be the best I could be no matter the circumstance. That strength and determination had gotten me this far, match after match.

Stepping out into the arena I let my head fall, my eyes refusing to acknowledge the barbaric crowd making them scream and yell all the more. I was not here for them, I was here for one reason and one reason only. Lifting my head up as I neared the emperor my heartbeat quickened and my fists tightened. I looked straight into his eyes and spoke reluctantly “hail emperor, we who are about to die salute you,” just like the others. Knowing that would be the last time I would ever to say those words to him, gave me the courage to do this, whatever the cost.

*****

When we heard the Emperor had wanted to organize a group of noble gladiators, we never though it would be us. That we would be ripped out of our homes, against our will, and forced to take the lives of anyone the emperor deemed not worthy of life all for the entertainment of this troubled crowd. The young men and women chosen by the emperor for this”great opportunity, for one to make their mark on history,” were nothing but enraged. We knew we were stuck here and that we would have to kill, but most of all we were prepared to learn, and to be the best in order to survive. We told ourselves that we would learn, we would become the best, and we would fight back when the time presents itself.

We had learned to become one, a unit, a team, and never leave a man behind. I don’t think this is what the Emperor had in mind when he chose his noble gladiators. We were fighting and killing for him but at his expense. The more we trained the more equipped we became, what was once our personal entertainment was now much more. It wasn’t just a game anymore, it was life or death, every moment of every day. Most just wanted to be rid of the emperor, for ruining their lives and throwing them in here while others saw just how sick and corrupt the games really were and wanted to make a difference, to some how change the outcome. Marcus believed these ideas were one and the same, wanting to be rid of his father but also seeing the sick and horrible ways of his people. He wanted change, real change and he believed that cutting off the head of his father would do that. No matter the cost, it was all worth it to him.

*****

The prisoners started flooding in to the arena being pushed, shoved, and cursed at. The crowd silenced as the prisoners were drawn into the middle, gladiators surrounding them. My eyes found the little girl and her parents, holding on to each other, knowing that I was going to change the outcome moved my feet forward.

Looking over at Marcus knowing this was the moment we have been waiting for, we were going to need the entire team if we wanted to save all these men, women, and children. I could not do this alone the best shot we had at protecting them is if we did it together. He looked at me, a questioning look on his face, I glanced over at the little girl and her parents one more time and he nodded his head. Fully aware that this just might be the end of us all, but it was about time we stood up.

Before the sound rang off we ran as fast as we could to reach the little girl and her family, soon the others followed suit, the crowd taking notice, started cheering us on as if this were some sort of surprise and we were all just playing a game. We looked at each other knowing full well this might be the end, but again the slightest bit of hope burned a fire within us all.

The emperors soldiers had come rushing in on all sides, surrounding us and ready to take our lives. We had betrayed them, having not taken these innocent lives for their sol entertainment. The soldiers looked towards the emperor for the final confirmation of our deaths, and the emperor took one last look at Marcus while lifting his thumb and then he pulling it down sealing our deaths. They came in all at once, we were trained and disciplined in battle but so were they. The crowd went wild cheering us on, yelling and cursing at the soldiers thinking this was just one of their games.

I saw Marcus out of the corner of my eye climbing up the walls, a mass of soldiers on his heels. I knew exactly what he was doing, we could not keep this up for long but getting to the emperor would have a bigger effect than dying slowly down here. Marcus was over the wall now making his way to the balcony, the crowd still thinking this was a game, made way for him and prevented some of the soldiers from getting through. He had reached his father now, stopped and was looking straight into his eyes. If looks could kill they would both be dead, they stared at each other with so much hate and disappointment in their eyes. Before I could throw my knife Marcus grabbed ahold of his father placing his knife at his fathers throat, tempting the beginning of chaos. His voice cracked as he screamed at his father asking him why and how he could do this to him. He pushed the knife further into his father’s throat, blood spurting out as his he started struggling. I was on the balcony now, watching as the man who killed my parents was struggling for his final breath when I felt a sword on my neck. Marcus stopped, but did not lower his knife. This was the end we knew, we had stood up and defied the emperor and his games and we were ready to finish this. I nodded towards Marcus telling him to finish it once and for all, he hesitated slightly before he sliced his fathers throat.

That was the last thing I saw…before the world went dark.

2nd Place, Phil Miranda The Wolves

Shifting streaks of icy sand snaked between the burned-out car frames and across the cracked asphalt of the abandoned road. The high moon, cold and distant, lit little save the twisting ribbons of sand that whistled through the night air. The skeletonized vehicles of an army convoy littered the old road. Somewhere in the shadow of an overturned Humvee, in the crater where the vehicle had passed through a guard rail and fetched in a ditch, the prostrate figure of a man lay motionless in the dust.

***

The high Afghani sun glared fitfully into the window of the Humvee and glinted off the faded, creased polaroid in Corbin’s hand. A younger, more innocent version of himself stared up from the photo, his face grinning from over the shoulder of the girl in his arms. Corbin’s sergeant, Anders, was sitting opposite him, talking; Corbin was pretty sure Anders was telling him a story. It had been a while since Corbin pretended to listen, so he raised his gaze from the picture to pay Anders his attention.

“Anyways, she told me to leave,” Anders said. “It’s not like it wasn’t-”

A bullet passed through the vehicle, punching through the windows on either side. A single shaft of white light filtered through the hole in the bullet’s wake. The beam travelled straight towards Anders’ head, where it should have stopped. It shined right through.

Corbin started and fell sideways in his seat as the sound of the gunshot finally struck the car. Anders, lips still speaking, keeled over dead.

A chorus of yelling filled the vehicle and sounded over the radios. More gunshots rang out and bullets drummed against the Humvees like hail on a steel roof. The convoy skidded to a stop, and as soon as Corbin’s driver stopped the car, Corbin squirmed toward the safe side of the car and kicked the door open. He fell heavily on the ground, his armor both jostling and cushioning him. As he rose, a steady stream of curses poured from his mouth; they hadn’t been expecting anything like this in friendly territory. His gun was in the trunk.

Corbin dashed around the corner of the car and slammed the trunk release. The hatch popped open, and Corbin reached for something– anything– the first gun he could find. Just as his fingers were closing around a grip, a low whistle screamed out over the desert ground. Corbin turned toward the noise in time to see the blooming vapor trail of a rocket as it arced through the air and slammed into the vehicle just behind him. A sphere of light exploded outward, striking Corbin with a shockwave like the world was splitting apart.

His unconscious body was flung against his Humvee as the car was sent skidding by the explosion. It careened into a ditch– Corbin tumbling after it– where it overturned and ground itself into the earth, pinning Corbin’s body beneath five thousand pounds of metal.

Insurgents poured into the mess of the convoy, stripping the bodies of anything useful and killing the survivors. A boy wrapped in rags and strapped down with ammunition and a rifle taller than he was meandered into the ditch and rummaged around in the smoldering wreckage of Corbin’s Humvee. He reached inside the car and pulled the body of the driver partway out. He scoured the deceased soldier, then Corbin, and, convinced they were dead, wandered off. He never noticed the small distress beacon that slid onto the ground from the driver’s dead grasp, strobing gently, before it was smashed into the dust as the body toppled over.

***

The stinging sensation of sand whipping against Corbin’s taut skin found its way into his troubled dreams and pulled him awake. Groaning, he raised his head. In front of him, the body of his driver slumped out of the car, half in the dirt, the other half suspended upside down by his seatbelt. All along the road to Corbin’s left stretched a line of destroyed vehicles. Alarmed, he tried to rise, but felt a constricting numbness in his right arm that held him down. He looked to find it lodged under a car frame, in a little crevice where the vehicle’s cargo rack met the roof. Breathing sharply, Corbin tried to pull himself free, but the frame refused to budge. Panic and confusion set in at once, and he tried again to dislodge his arm, pulling until his ulna felt ready to snap. Then a sound not his own shattered the night’s calm. Corbin immediately stopped struggling and pressed himself tightly to the ground. Within the walls of his base it was always a chilling but distant sound, something that lost a sense of realism when heard from the safe side of a steel fence. Now though, it was near and very real.

The wolves were out tonight.

The sound seemed right in front of his face. Two huge creatures, lithe and muscular, crept out from behind a pair of car frames. Anders’ blood cracked on Corbin’s face as he grimaced. He tried to sit up but the tension against his ulna awkwardly pulled him back down. The first one rushed for Corbin, and without another conscious thought, he threw the entirety of his weight against his arm. A crack instantly shot through the entire bone, which held for an instant before splitting in two with a revolting crack, snapping one end like a spring out of Corbin’s forearm. His wrist was wrenched unnaturally to the side as the buckled bone sent waves of anguish throughout his crooked limb.

The pain was so profound that it passed from recognition as pain. With eyes bloodshot and utterly blind, and ears ringing out protests so loud Corbin couldn’t even hear his own screaming, he slid his twitching arm free of the car and raised it at the animal just as it crashed into him. A sickening squelch rose into the air as the spur of dagger-like bone caught the animal in the breast, skewering its heart. The beast collapsed onto Corbin– twisting his ravaged limb further out of place– and its dead jowls clacked together over harmless teeth as a slap of putrid warmth from within the animal’s unclenching throat cloyed at Corbin’s increasingly crazed eyes.

But then the other one was on him, trying to reach him around the body of the first, its claws tearing away at its companion, its jaws close enough that Corbin felt the volumes of air against his face that were displaced whenever they snapped together. With teeth that likely killed dozens just inches from his face, eyes blazing like an inferno with a hunger for his living body, pinned under the corpse of the monster he had just murdered with nothing but his sundered arm, which was sending shrieks like tearing metal into his brainstem, the madness finally set in.

Corbin released an insane roar and lunged forward. The snapping teeth caught the corner of Corbin’s mouth, slicing sideways as he moved forward and tearing a gash through his cheek. But then Corbin’s face was past the maw and his own teeth punched deep into a bundle of writhing muscle and artery. A taste like the smell of coins rushed between Corbin’s teeth and down his throat. He gagged but bit down harder. The ringing had died down enough now for Corbin to hear the monster release a gurgled, agonized yelp that sounded far too human. It thrashed violently, tearing itself off of Corbin’s teeth and leaving a hunk of its own flesh in Corbin’s mouth. But then there was nothing to keep the animal’s life from flowing out of its body, and it collapsed almost instantly, releasing horrifying keens and twitching its muscular limbs over the swirling dust.

His head slammed backward onto the dust, as he spat out fur and gore. The wolf wouldn’t die. Its keens burrowed into Corbin’s eardrums and filled the world with pain. Corbin writhed under the heavy body, his back so arched that his spine didn’t touch the ground, hating the animal struggling next to him for refusing to give him quiet. Just as the cries seemed about to die out, they bloomed louder than ever. There seemed to be the faintest echo of words now. Corbin wearily twisted his head to look. Glassed-over eyes stared back at him from the lifeless animal, yet there were clearly words being spoken. Now Corbin was sure he was losing his mind. Then he heard his name.

Confused, he struggled halfway out from under the first wolf and sat up. Flashlight beams assaulted Corbin’s eyes and lit the wreck. Exclamations of disgust at the sight of three bodies and Corbin’s living corpse floated out from the desert. Americans. “Found the beacon,” one of them said, turning over the body of the driver.

Corbin let out a sigh of profoundest relief as strong arms lifted the animal’s body off him, allowing him to take a deep breath again.

3rd Place, Katelyn Steyer Missing Plans

“Do you even know how to drive this thing?” I yelled from my seat

“I did take a class back in 1975, but I think it was on a older model.” Barb replied just as a missile was shot from the ship behind us.

“Oh no, we are going to have to jump! The missile took out the part of the ship that controls the…controls!” I said in a frantic voice as a blaring alarm started going off.

“That’s called the control system sweetie, I remember learning that from class.” Barb said feeling accomplished.

“Whatever, but if we don’t jump now we are going to turn into toasted marshmallows!” I said annoyed at Barbs previous comment. “Here put this on.” I said handing Barb a parachute.

“Thanks sweetie, now let me grab my things.” Barb said turning around.

“No, we don’t have time. We need to jump now!” I said as I grabbed her hand and opened the door to the sky. “One, two….”

***

Hold on a second, let’s back up just a few hours. That would leave us right about here….

***

Agent Harper, please report to the director’s office. The mumbled voice over the stereo system said as I sat in headquarters. I walked into the director’s office hoping to be authorized for another great assignment.

“Hello Agent Harper, please sit.” Director Brian said gesturing towards the tall, black, leather chairs at the front of his desk.

“What do you have for me today Brian?” I asked.

“I have your first team assignment.” Director Brian replied.”So Agent Harper, I would like you to meet Agent Barbara.” Director Brian said as a old lady walked into the room. She was wearing a light pink dress with a purple shawl, she had a brown purse and brown cane to top off her elderly lady look.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I mumbled under my breath.

“Hello sweetie, you can call me Barb.” Barbara said with a full smile on her face.

“Um, hi. My name’s Harper.” I said as I shook Barb’s wrinkly hand.

“Well let’s get started with the briefing of the plan.” Brian said as Barb sat down. “We are sending you to Havoc’s enemy headquarters to retrieve the stolen plans. They were seen on their island in Madagascar. You two will be flying in on a jet we apprehended from their headquarters. Your mission is to retrieve the missing plans and bring them safely back to our headquarters. The plans are located in a secret closet in room 35 on floor 3.” Brian explained.

“Alright, so what kind of gear do you have for us?” I asked.

“We have the latest technology in comms, parachutes, and climbing gear. The new earpieces are much smaller and work faster. They do have a tendency to get stuck in your ear though, so watch out for that. Also, the parachutes are quicker and have been proven to have a 50-50 chance of opening. Which is much better than our last one’s with only a 40-60 chance. Oh, and the climbing gear is made out of stronger material so it won’t snap under pressure anymore.” Brian said as he held each items up in front of us.

“Ok I guess that’s as good as they’re going to get.” I said annoyed at the mediocre gadgets

After we grabbed our gear we headed to the hanger and boarded our ship. An hour later we landed at Havoc’s headquarters ready to take on our mission.

“So what’s the plan to get into the building ?” I asked hoping Barb was more experienced and knew what to do.

“Easy, we just walk over and ask to get in.” Barb said as she exited the jet.

“We can do that?” I asked confused as Barb started walking over to the security guard and I followed closely behind.

“Hello sir, would you like a chocolate chip cookie?” Barb asked as she pulled one out of her purse.

“Sorry miss but you and your friend are going to have to show me your passes or I will have to report you to the authorities.” the security guard said.

“Is that so, well then….. take that!” Barb said as she whacked the security guard in the leg with her cane and once more on the head. Knocking him to the ground in one big thud. “You should have taken the cookie.” Barb whispered in the security guards ear before walking into the building.

“Wow, that was pretty impressive.” I said as I ran past the unconscious guard and caught up with Barb. “Let’s go find the plans.” I said

“This way to the stairs sweetie.” Barb said as she opened the door to the stairwell.

After trekking up the stairs to floor 3 we were out of breath. We took a rest and then continued our mission to room 35. When we reached the room we slowly opened the door and crept into the room, leaving the door open a crack for a quick escape. After about ten minutes of looking for anything that could open the secret closet, I found a switch behind a portrait.

“Barb, look!” I said excitedly as the secret closet was revealed.

“Hey, what are you two doing in there?” A security guard yelled as he walked by the room.

“Quick sweetie, grab the plans.” Barb said as she hobbled towards the security guard with her cane raised in the air.

“I need backup in room 35.” the security guard said into his walkie talkie, right before getting whacked over the head with Barb’s cane.

“Siri, text the pilot to bring the jet to the third floor.” I said into my phone as Barb dealt with the security guard.

“Your message has been sent.” my phone replied.

“He’s here, come on Barb!” I said as I shattered a window and hopped into the jet.

“Pilot, we need to get out of here.” I said as Barb got into the jet.

As we climbed into our seats a security guard shot a bullet straight through the window, killing the pilot instantly.

“Oh my gosh! What are we going to do! He obviously can’t drive the jet and we need to get out of here now!” I yelled in a frantic voice as the ship started to fail.

“I will have to drive.” Barb said as she picked the limp body up.”I’ve been wanting to do this for years, so long Henry!” Barb yelled as she tossed his dead body out of the window.

“Who’s Henry?” I said with my jaw dropped after what I just witnessed.

“Henry was my ex-husband.” Barb said as she sat in the driver’s seat and began to drive the ship.

As Barb began driving, my heart began beating as loud as a drum. I asked Barb if she knew how to drive, and her reply wasn’t good. Then a missile was shot from the ship behind ours and it took out our controls. I handed Barb a parachute and we got ready to jump.

“Thanks sweetie, now let me grab my things.” Barb said turning around.

“No we don’t have time we need to jump now!” I said as I grabbed her hand and opened the door to the sky. “One, two, three!” I yelled as we jumped and began plummeting towards the ground. And just in time because as we reached the ground the plane blew up, sending debris towards the ground as well.

“Oh man, my brand new cane was in there.” Barb said sadly as she saw the jet blow into smithereens.

“Hello, this is Agent Harper. I am sending the coordinates to where we touched base. Do you copy me?” I asked.

“Hello Agent Harper, this is Agent Ben we will be arriving in a few.” Agent Ben says.

A few minutes later a jet arrived.

“So ladies, do you have the plans?” Agent Ben asked.

“We do indeed.” I said as I handed Agent Ben the plans. “Now can you tell me one thing?” I asked

“Sure, what is it?” Agent Ben asked

“What exactly are these plans?” I asked curiously.

“These plans are the secret recipe for our famous chocolate milkshake.” Ben said as he opened them up and admired them.

“What! You mean I risked my life for a milkshake recipe!” I yelled loudly.

“Famous milkshake recipe.” Barb pointed out.

“I don’t care if it’s famous, I almost died for a recipe.” I said annoyed.

“Sweetie, look on the bright side you did complete another mission.” Barb said as she got into the jet.

“That’s true.” I said as I began to calm down.

“Yes, I would like to be the first to congratulate you both on another completed mission. Maybe we can celebrate with a chocolate milkshake.” Ben said as he helped me into the jet.

“Fine famous chocolate milkshakes it is.” I said as we headed back to headquarters to enjoy some milkshakes and celebrate another completed mission.

 

Considering Death This Christmas? Read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”

I’ll never forget the first time I read “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Elliot. Think: Passion of the Christ, sub magi. This poem is deep and dark and human, revealing the grit that’s glossed over by art and centuries. All I knew of the magi is they were funny-looking little men-dolls we set up each Christmas, and there they stayed, their gifts outstretched toward baby Jesus for all the month of December.

Enter poetry to save the day. Enter “The Journey of the Magi.”

Turns out there’s much more to their story besides a manger moment and a savvy decision not to tell Herod where Jesus was because they had the sneaking suspicion Herod was a psychopath. They’re not called “wise” for nothing.

Tradition says there were three wise men, but only because there were three gifts. The Bible records it in Matthew chapter 2:

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;

For out of you shall come forth a Ruler

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

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If writing is about creating empathy, Eliot gets you so close you can smell the goat cheese curdling in the travel bags, taste the sand in your mouth, and smell the sweat and camel dander. He clothes with human skin these porcelain men who live one-twelfth of the year on our fireplace mantels. They were complainers, cynics. They lost heart, lost their money, lost sleep over it all. Like us. They found Jesus. And the find was a loss as well. Follow their journey and note the change Jesus wrought in the lives of these wisest of men. The last line of the poem makes a curious statement– the magi would be glad to die. Most people won’t be able to figure out what on earth the man is talking about… can you?

The Journey Of The Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

by T.S. Elliot

Don’t Forget Summer

Warning: This post is really boring. I wrote it in July and then left it in my drafts because I hated it. Then I re-read and decided it’s worth remembering my 2016 summer. Still, unless you’re slogging through your first novel or you want to remember my boring summer, you may want to scroll down to the bottom where I share the coolest song ever.

This summer’s goal was to write the first draft of my novel. I attempted it last summer, thinking I could start and then drizzle some here and there all year until it was done.

No dice. That’s not how a novel gets written. I’ve learned a ton about how novels get– or don’t get– written. Some of it overwhelms me, like the idea of re-writing my novel at least three times. I tell myself, If Bob can run the Boston Marathon, can train in the worst conditions ever– a Cleveland winter– if Bob can hold on to his dream in spite of all the obstacles thrown at him, I too can do a hard thing– a writing marathon. I read in one of my favorite writer blogs that a would-be writer will put down a million words before her words are publish-worthy. That’s ten Stephen King-length novels or five Russian novels. Like any dreamer, I believe I’m ahead of the curve, that my success will come promptly at 500,000 words.

This was the summer schedule:

Wake at 6AMish (snooze), have my devotions, take Gabe to swimming at 7:50, and then sit down to write until I pick him up at 10 or 11. I’ve carved out a steel time cage for myself that I don’t allow anyone to break into, though some have tried. Need a ride somewhere? Can’t. Tutoring? Nope. Groceries? Starve until noon, my darlings. With two cups of dark roast coffee and a smoothie coursing through my veins, I write until I get to a thousand words. That’s the minimum Stephen King suggests for beginners who want to actually finish a novel. 3000 is recommended, but I think he meant that goal for independently wealthy empty-nesters or Emily Dickenson types who have zero friends and no responsibility whatsoever. Love you, Stephen.

When I imagined summer, I saw a blissfully open schedule. The reality this year is Gabe swims every morning from 8 to 11, Luke has weightlifting or soccer downtown every afternoon at 2:45, and Gabe swims every evening. That leaves me with a sliver of open time from 11:30 to 2 PM on the handful of days Gabe doesn’t have a swim meet. In that sliver of time I schedule friends to come over and swim. Or I schedule doctor appointments. Or I buy groceries. Usually we just have an empty fridge. It’s cool because even when I go to the store the kids always say there’s no food in the house. I’m keeping them honest.

Update: It’s fall and my school schedule is similar. I take Luke to school on the days I carpool, then I get in my steel writing cage and don’t come out until it’s time to start schooling Gabe. My steel cage isn’t sound proof. I need the cone of silence. I asked Bob to get me this. I’m hopeful.

On a completely unrelated note, I love this song.