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.

Luke’s Missions Trip 2017

Luke, 2016. To donate to this summer’s trip, click his picture. Thank you! 

Every summer since he was eight years old Luke’s gone on a short-term missions trip to an Indian reservation. This particular missions trip is so physically exhausting that most people (myself included) can’t hack it a second time around. Sleep deprivation, strenuous and sweltering construction, and mosquitoes of apocalyptic proportions are what you sign on for.

Luke loves it.

This year Luke hopes to travel with his high school youth group to Santiago de los Cavelleros, Dominican Republic, to share God’s message of salvation and love. Like his usual summer trip, this is no pleasure excursion, no summer camp experience. The students show love tangibly: playing with the kids at the dump where they live, cleaning, digging out foundations, construction– anything that needs to be done. They get dirty. They get sick. They get the gift of perspective. I dare not say God’s perspective, for no one can reach that. But they get a bit closer when they step out of their comfortable lives and go.

With all the need here, why go there? Because there is worse than here. It’s not enough to study National Geographic covers. One must go.

It is faith-building to lean on God’s provision. I’m not saying God couldn’t drop a duffel bag of $1,700  on our doorstep, but generally He works through the actions of people, moved to do benevolent work. Luke was moved to sign up. I am moved to write this post on his behalf. Some friends and family have been moved to support him with a donation. THANK YOU!!! If God just dropped the duffel, so much would be lost.

So here’s Luke. He’s been rolling subs, waiting tables, and working at various church functions– to raise the needed funds. On Sunday the students stood before the church. (Luke’s right behind Pastor Jonathan on the big screen.) As of today, Luke has half of his support raised. Kindly pray for Luke and the other students, that they’d raise the needed funds, that this trip would be life-changing, that God would eclipse all in the lives of the students, the advisors, and the people they go to serve.

If you would like to help Luke get to the Dominican Republic, send up a prayer for him and/or make a tax-deductible donation here.

Book Review: The Bible

Title: The Holy Bible 
Authors: 40+ men over 1500 years  
Genre: Non-fiction  
Publisher: God  
Release Date: 1535 
Pages: 1,200ish

 

Simply filling out the specs I’m picking a fight. My choice to label The Bible non-fiction communicates:

  1. Ignorance to secular scientists (Gah! Join the 21st century!)
  2. Intolerance to other religions (god wrote our book too)
  3. Combativeness to atheists (your god is what’s wrong with this world).

All that, over genre. No wonder the reviews are either 1. mocking or 2. pertain to the version and/or ergonomic design. No one reviews The Holy Bible for substance. Enter, me. 🙂 …little ole nobody gonna review God’s letter to humanity.

Authorship of the Bible is attributed to some forty bearded men and God. Hand-in-glove is the way it’s described, the men being God’s gloves. I personally struggled with accepting the Bible as written by God. Here’s how it went down, an analogy because I love literary devices:

I was tired. This chair looked really comfortable, but I didn’t trust it. I’d been warned against chairs: they were fine for decoration, but one didn’t actually sit. That was taking things too far. But like I said, I was tired of standing, and the chair looked cozy. How could I know whether or not it would hold? Might there not be a sharp spike just under the upholstery? I was taught in school about chairs; People like Jim Jones and Jim Baker sat in chairs (a murderer and a thief, respectively). But I’d lately learned some great people sat in chairs too. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. I scrutinized my chair from all angles. I asked other chair-sitters how they liked their chair and did it hold? Everything one could do to ascertain the soundness of this chair, I did. Except, I would not sit.

Talking with a chair-sitter one day*, she asked, “Don’t you believe this chair will hold you?”

I said I didn’t know.

To my surprise, she said, “Then we’re done here. There is nothing more I can do for you until you decide to sit in the chair.” I thought she was going to convince me about the chair. No, the only way to know for sure was to sit. She left. I got desperate.

I wanted the comfort of the chair, so I made a conscious decision to trust it. This was a leap in my faith. I had read the Bible before, as a work of literature like Dante or Shakespeare. Now I would read it as the answer to my question: why am I here? I would trust what it had to say. They call it the trust of a child. If you’re new to the Bible you have a decision to make before you open it. Is it or is it not Truth? Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” It is not enough to ask. One must pursue truth like a lover.

A pursuit is not a meandering stroll or a meme search. It’s not a glance or a nap or an infusion. Think, stalker.

This image may help (warning: literary device #2): imagine you’re digging for buried treasure. When you’re digging, you sweat. You grunt. You’re not having much fun sometimes, but you’re convinced there’s something worth it, so you keep on digging. You want the treasure more than you want to rest. You throw up a prayer or a curse for your aching muscles, but on you press. This is how the Bible can be. Before you even open it, you must believe there is treasure in those pages. Proverbs 24 advises: seek [wisdom] as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures. 

Post-hole-digger

Not that there aren’t strategies. One can dig for treasure with her bare hands (not recommended). One can use a spade (better). Or one can use a post-hole-digger. Here is your complimentary Bible post-hole-digger:

  1. Start with the book of John in the New Testament. I didn’t listen to this advice and began with Genesis– digging with my bare hands. Thing is, the Bible is also a sort of ledger of Jewish history. There are verbose lists of family lines and architectural instructions and how-to de-germ people and/or your dwellings. Lots of sifting to get to the treasure. I should have listened, story of my life.
  2. As you read, write down questions or observations. One of my husband’s observations was the following insult: “…whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:32b) Here was God, it seemed to my husband, rebuking him for his willingness to marry a single mom, adopt her baby girl, and love her as his own. Some people would’ve shut the book then and there or tossed it out the window. But my husband believed there was something worth pressing for, so he kept at it.
  3. Watch expectantly for God to answer your questions through His Word, through “random” people, and through “coincidental” events. Make one small step toward Him, and He will run to you.
  4. Record what happens.
  5. After John, read the other gospels and then the rest of the letters of the New Testament.
  6. Read the Psalms, one-a-day as you do this whole exercise.
  7. You will most likely find yourself undone at some point. The Bible is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. (Hebrews 4:12) It pierces your heart to be convinced God suffered and died for you. Head knowledge is not the same as heart. We can read about Syrian refugees, but only pictures seem to enter the heart.

This is what happens when you pursue faith. If a human photographer can capture a moment that so awakens our compassion, imagine what God can do if you fix your eyes upon Him.

Trusting the Bible is like sitting in that chair. What I didn’t realize until I sat, was that this wasn’t just some stationary chair in a heavenly lounge. I found the chair to be that of a co-pilot, in the cockpit of some marvelous engine that has taken me places I never would have imagined. I don’t mean exotic earthly places, though I’ve been to those as well. The Bible, my faith, my Lord, the friends and family He’s given me, the meaningful whole that is my life– have taken me to emotionally beautiful places.

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. – Matthew 13:44

Usually I rate books numerically according to readability and merit. Because I consider the Bible to be outside the realm of ordinary books, I would not dare assign it a number. None is high enough.

But read it, I challenge you… and the peace of God that transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7

*The can-I-trust-this-Bible? conversation happened with a lovely woman who shared her faith with me, Debbie Spink. I remember being stunned she didn’t try harder to convince me the Bible was true or cajole me or debate with me. Her dismissal made me realize I wanted peace more than I wanted to win a debate. After I stewed for several months and gulped down the New Testament several times over, I met with her husband, Pastor Ken Spink. He fielded my gazillion questions and/or objections to the Christian faith.

Indiscretion: Flash Fiction

“Oh, everyone just thought you were crazy,” the intake nurse winked at me as she tightened the cinches on my straight jacket.

“I had to use the restroom,” I said, “Real bad.”

“That’s what got you into this mess,” the nurse said, “no pun intended. One can’t just indiscriminately… well, you know. People jump to conclusions.”

My shoelaces peeked out of her pocket, and certainly my necklace was in that same pocket. I could feel the slimy coldness of drool sliding down my chin and I wondered why she didn’t dab at it with the handy towel she kept tucked into her belt for just such occasions. Hers was lightning white, smooth, clearly never used. Why wasn’t that a red flag for someone? Who was in charge?

“Did you give me something?” I asked, “I don’t usually drool like this.” I hoped my hint would get her to wipe my face, my own arms being unavailable and all.

“…nurse?” I said.

She seemed to be struggling with an uncooperative clasp, but it was awfully convenient she had an excuse to ignore me.

“Did you drug me?” I asked, raising my voice.

“We gave you an anti-diarrhea… there.” She had finally gotten whatever piece of my contraption stymied her. The room teetered back and forth.

“My necklace,” I managed, “It was a gift.”

“A gift? How thoughtful of you. I’ll keep it always,” she patted her pocket, and I noticed her smile turned wicked. A wave of horrible understanding crashed over me.

“When can I go home?”

“When you can use the bathroom like a big girl… and when everybody agrees you’re not crazy.” She winked. Or was that a nervous tic?

“All I did was use the men’s room. It was vacant.”

“Yes, well. You’re not a man, are you?”

*This was an entry for Cracked Flash Fiction’s weekly contest. They provide a first sentence and you run with it for up to 300 words.

Metamorphosis. Fiction for Microcosmsfic

The little boy. I never considered him a target until the day of the falcon. That’s what I called it anyway: the day of the falcon. See, I pass this kid every day on my way to school, but on this day a peregrine falcon had landed on his head. I expected the bird to flee, but both just stood there like time was a DVD, paused.

I’d gladly trade my acne for those majestic black and white striped feathers and steel-blue crest. My life for the falcon’s, stuck fast as I was between desk and chair and subjected to what was essentially a manufacturing line. We were tubes. They bent us, punctured us, riveted their ideas into us, never gingerly, never tried to coax anything in. No. Teachers slammed their convictions into us with a press brake and slid us on to the next grade. My life was not my own.

A peregrine falcon soared above. Or sat upon a toddler’s wayward tresses. Whichever. Still, he sat.

Like he owned the boy. No one bothered to shew him off. The boy, of course, could do nothing. I thought, if that bird could get away with it, so could I, right? Yes, the more I considered it, the more certain I became.

I began to see myself anew. Above. The. Law.

The boy. Three years old. I could take him. I could get away with it. Just like the peregrine falcon with a mouse.

The boy never blinked. He never spoke. No one would hear.

I felt the serrated blade of my hacksaw. With my mind I felt it.

His days were numbered, this brazen pissing boy of bronze. If a peregrine could abuse him as a perch, he wasn’t beyond my reach.

Manneken Pis, Dutch for “little man pee” Brussels

Disturbed teenager/Brussels/Memoir – those were my prompts for this flash fiction piece. This time I had to do some major amputation on my word count. When I got to the “end” of my original story, I had 387 words. I could only keep 300. Talk about killing your darlings…

I love memoirs. I love disturbed teenagers.

Brussels was the only part of the trilogy I didn’t have down, so I did a little research. Writers have to do research. I’m not against work. It’s just that writing on a subject I don’t know is frightening. Even after researching, I could get something embarrassingly wrong… an author must be willing to fail. I am willing.

Rather quickly I found a delightful statue called the Manneken Pis. Sounds like mannequin piss, doesn’t it? Uhem, well, the shoe fits. Of course my next vision was of a disturbed teenager wreaking a little havoc with said statue. And bam! Inspired. I thought I’d chronicle my process. Sometimes I get a prompt that does nothing for me. The original elements of this contest were: driver/race course/tragedy. I tried to find a story in those three. It was me, mentally groping in a black cave, never finding any light. After a time of trying and not succeeding to plot a story, I gave up and spun the handy spinner they provide at Microcosmsfic and hallelujah!

I hoped the boy would seem like a living boy at first. This famous statue is often dressed in outfits that communicate a message or a celebration, sort of like dressing one’s yard geese. He seems to be the rivet between culture and its fleeting colors. What struck me was how bold the little boy is, and how audacious it would be to defame such a work of art. What kind of mind would do it? How would a person get there mentally? These are the thoughts that inspired me.

 

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t: Fake News

Remember Joseph, the one with the rainbow coat? Joseph had some old-fashioned ideas. Like: don’t sleep with other guys’ wives. Crazy old school, that Joseph. Remember Joseph’s big mistake? Being alone with the boss’s wife. She wanted him. He refused her advances. Hers. Potiphar’s wife was Sexy. Powerful. Arrogant. Not accustomed to being denied. When she made her advances, Joseph ran out of the room. She tore the clothing right off his back.

Whew. Near miss, right? Wrong. Just by being alone with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph put himself at the mercy of a her-story-vs.-his dynamic, and it didn’t play in his favor. A reasonable person might come up with the idea, the policy if you will, not to put himself in such a position. Enter Mike Pence.

Joseph and Mike Pence have this in common: both reap a flogging for their integrity. I’m trying not to throw up in my mouth as I type this, but it’s getting difficult. Do I actually live in a society that shells a man for putting up boundaries of purity in his marriage? To say you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t is the biggest understatement of our culture. I offer the following clip as proof:

Trump: I moved on her, actually. You know, she was down on Palm Beach. I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it.

Unknown: Whoa.

Trump: I did try and *&%# her. She was married.

Unknown: That’s huge news.

Huge. News. So is a man who won’t. The preceding is an actual tape. It’s not someone’s version of what happened. It’s what actually happened. But even when you’re being given what actually happened, it’s often cut and pasted, censored, sifted. You get the parts someone else thinks are important. Another example: The Diary of Anne Frank. Most of us read it as part of our school curriculum. But the diary I was given was cleaned up by Anne’s father, who decided some parts lacked decorum. I remember my jaw dropping when I read the unabridged version, which is delightful in its own right, but is not the same “truth” one gets from the abridged version. Anne is more complex, no angel. She’s not the Laura Ingalls Wilder dropped into WWII to whom I was introduced.

The idea of fake news is on everyone’s lips these days. I’d like to tell you a story, a story about fake news. Now, should you believe me? I mean, some of you don’t even know me. Of this you can be certain: I have an agenda, and it will find its way into my story. Be certain also that every other source from which you ever, ever get your information– also has an agenda. No one is pure. No one is entirely exempt. Everyone puts their own spin on the tale, and the most talented spinners get their versions published. Even if, like me, you get your fake news from opposite ends of the continuum (Fox News and MSNBC), the “facts” you’re given may not even be facts at all.

To wit. In Bob’s Cooker days he was asked by a local news station if he’d like to cook the tailgate fare for a demonstration. It was spring, and the Cleveland Indians were getting set for another season, and you know what that means? Or did mean.

Before the “C,” it meant the uprising of indignant Native Americans. The news story of disgruntled Native Americans was as cyclical as the leaves budding or the crocuses coming up. There’s a crocus. I wonder when the news story will come out about the angry Indians?

Bob cooked the tailgate food. He had to be downtown early. Like wee morning hours. I’m not sure why, but that’s because I don’t understand how to create fake news. Bob cooked for the single Indian who was summoned downtown, as Bob was, for the angry-Indian-demonstration complete with tailgate food. If you watched that news clip, you’d come away certain Cleveland was about to go up in flames of angst akin to the Irish-Protestant conflagrations of the 1970’s– Indians against white-suburbanites, war whoops be coming down your subdivisions, people, if you don’t depose that inflammatory red face.

It took 15+ years to complete the coup against our baseball mascot. If real Indians feel better about the move, super. If real Indians demonstrated for their cause, great. But that day, the day the cameras were rolling, it was a stage. There were actors. It was fake. It was news. But we got a real change. Our Chief Wahoo for a “C.” Oh… so personal, that “C.” So unique. So innovative.

Mike Pence loves his wife. Very old-fashioned of him, I know. Dinner dates, alone with the opposite sex– that’s a line he’s drawn in the sand. Some voices don’t respect his line. They’re churning out lots and lots of news about his line. What I see is a contest. The winner sways the public to believe their version of the news, to sculpt the world through the medium of public opinion.

The Solution: Cracked Flash Fiction Entry

Dragons stalked the streets, puffing out smoke and clattering their mechanical wings. Gulligan sighed. Rush hour. A dragon who had the bad sense to scuttle in front of Gulligan found himself violently kicked. The iridescent creature rolled end over end and hit the curb, sending up a cloud. Brittle things, Gulligan thought, for all their noise and pollution. Pieces of silvery scales lay like dust, drawing the trajectory of Gulligan’s kick.

Gulligan mumbled an apology and kept walking. The three-inch pest began to swear in its own language. Gulligan understood, but pretended not to. From behind he could hear metal scraping against the charred asphalt and knew the dragon was coming after him. Gulligan stopped short. Sure enough, he felt the sting of warmth and impact as the dragon rammed into his calf. The smell of his own seared flesh was immediate, but Gulligan did not flinch. Again the dragon came at his feet. This time, Gulligan lifted his leg at the last moment, sending the animal reeling.

Each sized up the other.

“Your kind never watch where you’re going,” the dragon said in the common tongue.

Gulligan snorted. “You landed right in front of my foot.”

“You shouldn’t even be on the street. The streets are ours.” The dragon pruned its ruffled scales, pulling out the chipped ones. New ones would grow back. Old ones littered the ground. The lightest metal flakes began to quiver. The dragon narrowed its eyes and backed away. He wondered that the boy hadn’t cried when he burned him. Realization began to dawn.

Too late. The dragon recognized the hum of electricity, saw the boy’s eyes vacate the avatar. Dead eyes were the last thing he saw. He and countless others were crushed to the Bombshell Boy Electromagnet, society’s solution to the dragon problem.

The end.

Random thoughts: Judging for CFF taught me more about writing than countless hours spent butt-on-chair, a little phrase I picked up from this article. It’s helpful to boil writing down to this simple, if crude phrase (I cleaned it up). Kind of reminds me of Nike’s Just Do It. Both find power in pith. Succinct advice. Not confusable. How to write? Sit down and write. Nothing’s easier than freewriting. Oh yes… what I learned from judging– understandability is more important than finesse. If I can’t understand a story, I can’t appreciate it.