Zeroflash Fiction: Chernobyl Romantics

On this journey to publishing my novel I often take little tangents, usually in the form of writing competitions. I love the immediacy of the feedback and the stretching prompts. Zeroflash’s August competition garnered me an honorable mention from the talented Jan Kaneen. I can’t tell you how uplifting it is to have a writer whose work I admire, admire my work! The writing journey is often riddled with insecure moments, lonely moments; the whole thing is mostly me feeling misunderstood and reaching out, like a kid holding a scribbled drawing and asking Do you like it? But as the journey goes on, I don’t hold up my drawings anymore, though some days I long to– especially on days when I’m feeling Genesis 1:31  …and God saw all that He made and behold, it was very good. I know my insatiable need for affirmation is a beast that must be tamed. But can never be tamed. Robert Frost taught me: Success doesn’t tame it, not all the praise in the the world will tame an artist.

My writing style often provokes this response: I don’t get it. Four words I dread to hear, but need to hear. Am thankful to hear. But these four I love much better: to-die-for language, with specific examples. So I’m savoring this moment of hearing four different words.

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. – Stephen King

I went shamelessly for the gross out. Read it and see if you agree.

Chernobyl Romantics

Fedir and Art were sorely unprepared for chemistry– all the excuse they needed for a day trip to the exclusion zone. Their options were “F” in chemistry vs. possible radiation poisoning. One promised a thrill.

“It’s perfectly safe,” Fedir said, “How else do all those animals live there?”

The abandoned amusement park surpassed their imaginings: especially the bumper cars frozen in skewed arrangements, caught in verdant webs of nature’s somnolent devour. Hostile shrubs punched through pane-less windows, and towering above it all– the Ferris wheel, monument to stilled life in Pripyat. Art pulled out his copy of Roadside Picnic and read: “Intelligence is the ability… to perform pointless or unnatural acts– ”

From the tangled growth a sound: leaves being crushed. Art’s smile died on his face.

“Quick!” Fedir dived into the nearest Ferris wheel car. Art followed. Probably just moose, but it could be police. A guttural growl, more leaves stomped, the brisk snap of tree limbs. Some enormity was less than twenty feet away and advancing.

“Moose?” whispered Art. He swiveled and peaked over. A serrated tongue flashed, cracked whip-like, and the top of Art’s head disappeared. Cleanly. Bone sliced like melon rind. The piece of Art that held his eyes was tossed mercifully away. Fedir heard it strike the metal supports then come to rest on the asphalt. He sank lower into the footwell and noted with macabre interest, Art’s hands still gripped the rail though he’d slumped.

Fedir remained frozen while the cloying copper smell of Art bloomed, lingered, and long since evaporated. In a cathedral silence. One with the steel cage, the grooves in the footwell painfully embossed Fedir’s skin. Art’s bowels released. Fedir wept silently.

The sun set behind a barb wire copse. Shadows advanced, followed by smothering dark. Fedir heard stirrings from the wood.

 

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Versatile Blogger Award

ver·sa·tile

able to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities.

A fiction writer must be versatile, if only for the toggle between fantasy and reality. I once woke to the reality I was due to teach a class in ten minutes. What’s the big deal? I was an hour away from said class, still in my fuzzy pajamas. It was my leg of a carpool and in my zealous story plotting I quite forgot I was supposed to be dressed and prepped to go straight on to my teaching gig. NOT wearing pajamas.

What I’ve found is, when I make even a feeble attempt to bless someone, I am the one who walks away blessed. Such was my experience when I made the acquaintance of blogger Kelvin M. Knight. Here’s how it went: I decided to take fifteen minutes each morning to find and point out fellow writers whose work impacted me. This writing business is like a one-way pen pal relationship, so it’s nice to get a letter back once in a while. I decided to write some letters back.

One morning as I went to be that return letter, I opened my email and received the Versatile Blogger Award.

How appropriate is the image on Kelvin’s About page. You don’t have to read but a few sentences of any one of his posts to agree: Kelvin is all heart. Self-effacing and quietly joyful, he reminds me of a man version of Anne Lamott.

Kelvin writes: The Versatile Blogger Award was created to feature and recognize blogs that have unique content, high quality writing, and fantastic photos. As the Versatile Blogger Award states: Honor those bloggers who bring something special to your life whether every day or only now and then.

The rules for nomination are:

  • Thank the person who nominated you.
  • Nominate up to 15 bloggers for this award and inform them.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Put the logo of Versatile Blogger in your post, displaying these rules.

I even recognized some of the names on Kelvin’s nomination list, like Lynn Love, The Drabble, and Friday Fictioneers. Let me add my voice to his and say these are lovely people who contribute positively to the world, who use their gifts and take the time to encourage others to do the same.

So, seven little things about me:

  1. I first wanted to be a writer when I read Flowers in the Attic, which Stephen King judged as the putrid trash of the fiction world. This heartens me. My putrid trash may be someone’s favorite, may be a best-seller.
  2. For two decades I wrote only our family’s Christmas letter because I couldn’t be chill when my littles interrupted me with poopy diapers, playtime, and the rhythmic need for sustenance.
  3. My favorite book is the Bible because it changed my life.
  4. I homeschooled our four children. Presently down to one awesome student. 🙂
  5. When I was ten years old I dug up a friend’s dead cat (and since have used it in many a story).
  6. Watching my kids grow into beautiful people has been a chief joy of my life.
  7. Being on a cruise with my husband, being like the kids we were when we met, is another.

Now onto the fun. My nominations.

Each person above has, in some way, been a pen pal to me on this writing journey. Each is versatile. More importantly, each is unique. I heard a moving quote last night in the most unexpected place: a Hollywood formula movie, Ghost in the Shell. Just goes to show you diamonds can be found in the mud. Here it is:

When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, only then will we have peace.

 

Be a Flasher

Not that kind of flasher, naughty bird. A flash fiction writer.

Why should I be a flash fiction writer? You ask. I’m glad you did. Flash fiction forces several wondrous talents upon you:

  1. Economy of language.
  2. Full-bodied plot in a tiny, weeny package.
  3. A stretch into new genres, styles, content.*
  4. Opportunity for you to turn away from a grueling, lonely novel-nobody-sees and hit publish.
  5. The thrill of weekly or monthly contests, like zeroflash, cracked flash fiction, and microcosms.
  6. Receive needful pets from fellow writers and learn to give same. Be in community.

I had this thought as I sat down today with my novel-in-progress: flash fiction should/could be part of Stephen King’s famed tool box for writers. Use it if it suits you. At first I couldn’t imagine liking anything less than a full-length novel, but the more I read and write flash, the more I appreciate its form. It’s like poetry and fiction made love and bam! Flash fiction.

*One such stretching happened to me just this month. The prompt for July’s Zeroflash is to write a metafiction piece. Metafiction? What on earth is that? The latin prefix meta means beyond, which I think of as above and beyond. Still, above and beyond fiction? I had to look it up. Luckily some of the examples were books I’d already read, so I understood that metafiction called attention to itself as a form or structure. Call me thick, it didn’t get much easier once I knew what the stuff was. But chew on a thing long enough and eventually it assimilates into you. Check out my metafiction flash piece here.

Writing: My Quest

When I read something amazing I think, wow, this author must be extraordinary to be able to create this world, these people, this conflict. The Bible says we can know God in this way too, that His invisible attributes are known by His workmanship: our world. On any given day I can be impressed with God’s creation. All I have to do is look at a sunset or a storm or cows grazing silently.

Likewise, when I enter a fictional world held together not by atoms and magnetic forces, but by words and sentences, I ascribe to that creator an amount of awe. I think:  Only a beautiful mind could create such beautiful minds…

That’s why I wrote, initially. I was on a quest for a beautiful mind.

I still remember the first time I wrote fiction. The assignment was to create a scene from several different points of view. I created it, just a little junky park scene where two lovers passed by an old woman sitting on a bench.

I walked around the rest of the day like I had a secret, like I was a wizard or Captain America or just plain SPECIAL. I may look ordinary to you non-writers, but I just created a WORLD. Can Donald J. Trump do that? I think not.

I was hooked junky-style on world building and character creation. Still am. Some days I carry my chapter around in my head and smile to think of it. What began as a quest for me, a proof I’ve got something beautiful inside, became a passion in its own right.

Was there a specific moment you decided to become a writer? Please share! 🙂

 

 

 

 

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.