Category Archives: Fiction

The Woman in the Japanese Hospital Bed

By Derek Frazier

The early morning shift of the Kyoto Takeda Hospital was a slow one, dotted with the occasional life or death cases. The doctors had taken to calling it “The Delivery room.” The hospital lacked the necessary equipment to deliver children, so the name stuck.

Einosuke Hada was the newest member of the Delivery, a bright young man in his late twenties who recently graduated from an American medical school (he had gone on scholarship) and acquired his position. The only sound in the common area was the clop-clop-clopping of his shoes as he paced, papers being signed, and the ringing of the receptionist’s phone.

Einosuke heard the ringing of the ambulance sirens as the vehicle parked. A split second later the doors swung open.  

A group of four emergency medical specialists pulled a gurney with a woman strapped to it down the hall towards an operating room.

“Hada-Sama,” one of the specialist exclaimed, adding the honorific to Einosuke’s last name, “give us a hand!”

The young doctor stepped quickly behind the gurney, the baggy legs of his purple scrubs fluttering as he doubled his pace.

“Status?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the emergency room doors that were growing closer and closer.

“Female in her twenties, she’s stable but her vitals are weak,” The specialist from earlier spoke.  His name tag in his left breast pocket identified him as Harada.

“Cause of injuries?” Einosuke asked, looking down at the woman before him. She wore a ripped raincoat slick with blood. Underneath Einosuke could see a well made black dress, with silver detailing working its way down from her breasts to her stomach like a spiderweb of dew. The left side of the dress had split outwards from the seams, exposing purpled flesh. Blood and scraps of fabric mixed like paint on her pale skin.

Harada’s breath came out in puffs as they rushed along the sanitized halls. Einosuke repeated the question.

“Severe blunt force trauma,” Harada said. “Witness said she threw herself in front of a truck.”

The doors to the emergency room opened with a heavy clunk, as they slammed against the light blue walls. With a grunt, Harada and Einosuke managed to lift the young woman onto the table in the center of the room.

“Left brachial and antebrachial are shattered,” Einosuke muttered to himself, looking at the signs of damage after he gently cut away the undamaged sections of coat and dress. “At least three fractured ribs and possible bruising of her left lung.”

With a sponge he began dabbing away the blood, his stomach clenched at the tender give of flesh and bone.

“Massive bruising and contusions on the left side of her face,” Harada said, pointing before leaving the room.

Einosuke lifted his head from the apron he was tying behind his back to look at an entering nurse.

“Get Doctor Hirano, and bring an oxygen mask immediately!” he exclaimed, “And notify the blood reserve downstairs that we will need a possible transfusion.”

“Of course,” the nurse said before stepping out.

Eventually, the nurse and Doctor Hirano returned. The graying doctor did her best, trying to keep up with the frantic movements of her younger counterpart.

“Her breathing’s shaky,” Einosuke said, a hint of panic seeping into his voice and clawing into his heart. The woman’s already pale skin faded into translucence.

“Let’s get her an MRI,” Doctor Hirano said, wheeling a new gurney over to the table before holding the patient’s ankles. “Slip that mask over her mouth.”

As Einosuke watched the young woman sleep in the MRI under the influence of anesthesia, he felt a lump grow in his throat.

He was just about to pray to the Buddha when Doctor Hirano made a noise in the back of her throat.

“What is it?” He asked.   

 Hirano let her gaze turn to the door of the analyzation chamber.

“She has a tako tsubo,” Hirano said.

Einosuke looked at the monitor in disbelief, blinking his eyes in hopes that he wasn’t seeing the disfigured bell shape of her heart.

However, no matter what, her heart stayed misshapen.

“Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy,” Einosuke said.

With a grumble of frustration, he ran his fingers through his straight black hair. Individuals who suffered from the ailment experienced an overflow of blood into their heart, a result of the interior tendons snapping. They died of a broken heart.

“Is there anything we can do?” He asked. “I’ve never– this isn’t something I– can we do something?”

Hirano shook her head and whispered, “nothing,” before leaving the chamber to return the patient to the emergency room.

In the staff locker room, Einosuke lit an offering of incense for the large metallic statue of the Buddha that took up most of the space in his locker.

“Take her into your arms, Lord,” he begged, tears beginning to flow from his cheeks. “There is nothing I can do…look after her,– in this life and the next.”

If the mighty Buddha accepted the offering or pledge he gave no sign, he simply smiled his bronze grin, staring back at the anguished doctor.

Who said nothing.

Who heard nothing.

 

A Friend at the Door

By Sara Malott

To Mr. Jeff,

I wanted to tell you that I like the red shirt you were wearing today, but I wasn’t sure how. You don’t say much other that good morning or have a nice day. I was scared that maybe good morning and have a nice day are the only phrases you know. I didn’t want to confuse you. I told my mom and she just laughed a little bit. She said you could probably read a note and that you might appreciate this one. So, Mr. Jeff, I wanted to say that I really liked your red shirt.

Hello Mr. Jeff,

Today we had career day at school. My father was busy and my mom doesn’t work, so I didn’t bring anyone to school with me. Lots of dads have cool jobs. Bryce’s dad kills bugs. Alex’s dad flies planes. Everyone was kinda disappointed when I told them my dad just worked at a bank. So then I told them about you, Jeff the doorman. Lacey said your job was stupid and you probably didn’t make that much money. I think she’s stupid. Ms. K said that being a doorman is an honorable job. I think I could be a good doorman when I grow up. Maybe you could give me lessons sometime.

For Mr. Jeff

This morning when I was leaving for school, you dropped your wallet when I said hi. It looked like you were looking at something. I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m not scared of people but I am scared of poison ivy and big storms. When you bent over to pick up your wallet I saw a little bit of your underpants. They were green with cards on them. I know, because me and my dad used to play cards a lot. Now he has to do his job all the time, so we don’t really play cards anymore. But my dad has a picture of me in his wallet. He tells me that he shows all his friends at his job what I look like. They tell him that I am getting very big. They tell him that I look just like him. Do you have any pictures in your wallet? You should show me them sometime if you do. Then maybe I can tell you if the pictures look like you.

@ Mr. Jeff

Today my mom taught me what an “at” symbol is. She says people use it when they are writing an email to somebody. I don’t have an email so I thought I might use it when I’m writing to you. I know it doesn’t really make sense, because at Mr. Jeff doesn’t make sense, but I wanted to use it anyway. You should really think about writing me back, because it takes a little while for me to write these.

Mr. Jeff,

We have Christmas break this week. I told my mom that we should invite you to our apartment, but she said that probably wasn’t a good idea. She said you probably wouldn’t come and then she said you probably had to spend time at your own apartment. Do you have an apartment? Do you live in a house? Do you live in a box under a bridge like the trolls my dad tells me about? You look like you might be a good troll.

Dear Mr. Jeff,

I’m sorry I called you a troll. My mom said that might hurt your feelings. We saw a really fat lady at the movie theater. She was sitting right next to us and I said, “Mom that lady is huge!” And she yelled at me for being rude. Then I said, “Mom, that lady is the opposite of skinny!” And she just rolled her eyes. So I’m sorry for calling you a troll.

P.S. Today we learned about writing letters and we learned about using P.S. We also learned about starting a letter with Dear.

Dear Mr. Jeff,

I’m having birthday party this weekend. I want you to come. We live in 6F and it’s at two o’clock on Saturday. I think you should come. You are my friend. If you don’t come, I guess it’s ok because adults have a lot of stuff to do.

Another P.S. I realize you might not know my name. It’s Simon. I’m in the fourth grade. I have Mrs. Hersch. If you’d like to know more, come to my birthday party. Thank you.

Thanks Mr. Jeff,

I’m really happy you came to my party. I had a lot of fun. Wanna go to the park next Saturday? I really like the swings. We could have a picnic. My mom always says she makes a mean PB&J. You can bring your dogs along. I could tell you liked to talk about them a lot. I wish I had a dog. Maybe you could bring yours to work with you sometime. I have so much more I want to tell you about. Let me know if you’d want to go to the park. Have a nice day!

– Simon

Goddess of the Moon

By Aevin Mayman

The goddess Selene was born under the sky. The morning of her birth was greeted by the shining light of the clear blue sky that was her mother’s eyes. Theia smiled down at her and Selene saw the expanse above them captured in her mother’s gaze.

As a child, Selene learned to live with a large family. Every holiday was greeted by the arrival of the remaining ten titans coming to join their siblings, her parents, for food. She grew up with booming laughs and communal songs that shook the foundations of her home. Even before learning how to speak, she laughed along with them and sang as loud as her little lungs would let her.  Most of her songs went out of tune, but no one ever cared.

Her days were filled with visits from her grandmother, Gaia. They would take long strolls through the thick forests of her home — the trees always lush and glowing from the sky’s clear light. Many days were spent entirely like this, with her grandmother showing Selene the details of the world around them. In the end, Selene ended up paying more attention to butterflies than things such as the variations in tree bark, but Gaia simply laughed off the distractions and let her play. Having the mother of the Earth as her grandmother gave Selene a deep appreciation for all things under the sky. Gaia would bring forth Selene’s chiming bell laughter with brilliant flowers that grew under her fingertips and the songs that she sang with the birds.

On a day such as this, Selene was walking a forest path with Gaia. With her grandmother’s help, the young Selene named every bird she saw. She trilled along with the chickadees, cawed with the crows. She was so preoccupied with the orchestra of bird song around her that the golden flash from above nearly startled her off the path. She turned her gaze to the sky – the clear blue sky that had once held only her mother’s eyes – and saw a streak of light far above her.

“Grandmother,” she said softly, voice hushed with awe. “What is that?”

Gaia smiled up at the sky and wrapped her arm around Selene. “That, my dear, is your brother. He now rides the Chariot of the Sun, and will journey across the sky with it everyday, and rest every night.” Around her, the broad-leaved plants and blossoming flowers all seemed to glow with this new light. They turned towards the sky where Helios now rode, their faces soaking in all the light he gave them.

Selene pulled on Gaia’s skirt and smiled up at her with a toothy grin. “One day, I want to be in the sky, too! Can I be like my brother?” She asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

Gaia smiled warmly down at the small goddess, placing a gentle hand on her hair. “Some day, my child,” she said kindly. “Someday.”

An evening fell many years later, after Helios had returned from his day-long ride and had long been asleep. Selene sat awake in her bed, staring out into the darkness of the world around her. She had been uncomfortable all night and, no matter how hard she tried, could not fall asleep. She huffed a sigh and flopped back down onto her bed. She traced lazy patterns on her ceiling in the darkness and tried once again to calm her mind.

Out of the corner of her eye, a glimmer of light caught Selene’s attention and she bolted upright in her bed. Another faint light shone through the trees for a heartbeat and she leapt out of bed, creeping out into the night. The only guide she had was the wavering ball of light that bobbed distantly before her. The goddess mumbled soft curses under her breath as she tripped over darkness-hidden tree roots, her nightgown tangling in the thick undergrowth.

The light seemed to be glowing brighter, but only slightly. It moved faster away from her as she followed it, and soon she was running through the forest, avoiding brambles and jumping over logs more out of reflexes than sight. When she finally broke out of the thick woods, her legs were scratched and tired, her nightgown torn from tearing through thickets. She burst into a clearing with heaving breaths and leaned against a tree for support. When she raised her head, her breathing caught in her throat. In the center of the clearing stood a gleaming white horse, its long mane glimmering with starlight. She took a careful step forward and the horse kneeled before her, inviting her onto its back.

Selene moved into the clearing and slowly mounted the creature. As soon as both of her feet had left the ground, the horse leapt into the air. She squeaked in surprise and curled her fingers into the horse’s mane, leaning into its neck as it galloped upwards. The stars seemed to swirl around her, getting closer and closer until they brushed through her hair, around her head. The stars began to coalesce around her, forming glittering shapes around her. One by one, the sheets of starlight formed themselves into a chariot around her. The horse beneath her was slowly replaced by the seat of the starlight chariot. The horse moved to the front of the chariot and silver reins formed in her hands. Selene let out a joyous laugh and threw her head back.  The crown of stars gathered at her forehead, casting her face in a rich glow of light.

Far below, Gaia stood by Selene’s mother Theia and the two watched Selene’s chariot form in the sky. Gaia wrapped an arm around her daughter and smiled, gazing up at the goddess of the night. She had finally, after all of these days, made it to the sky.

Normalcy

By Aevin Mayman

It wasn’t rainy. It wasn’t the slate-clouded funeral written about in overly-dramatic teen romance novels, a black understory of parasol trunks and supporting wire vines. It was sunny, a spring day. The cherry trees were just past full bloom, their pinks undertoned by suggestions of green. Each gust of wind carried with it a plume of petals. The drifting leaflets spiraled around black dress pants, embroidering the somberness with a distant reminiscence of joy.

Ashtyn stood against a nearby dogwood, absentmindedly peeling strips of bark from its trunk. The approach of footsteps drew his gaze.

Tyler waved and stopped next to Ashtyn. “Hey,” he said.

Ashtyn offered a small smile in return and went back to peeling at the trunk.

“How are you holding up?” Tyler asked, stepping closer.

Ashtyn shrugged and put his hands in his pockets, gazing out over the uniform gravestones, verdant undergrowth framing them like unkempt dragon scales. “I’m alright.” He answered with a shrug of his shoulders.

Tyler frowned at him. “Just alright?”

Ashtyn sighed, kicking at the dirt. “Barely, but, yeah.”

Tyler shook his head, turning his back to Ashtyn to face the memorial gathering. He crossed his arms, jamming them forcefully against each other and shaking his head. “It’s just not fair,” he muttered. “It’s not.”

Ashtyn stood still for a few moments before sliding down to the ground. He dropped his head in his hands. “How am I even supposed to be upset?” He asked, voice quavering. “No one I’ve ever known has died before, much less–” He broke off and swallowed thickly. “Much less done what he’s done.” He fell into silence, raising his head to his knees to stare blindly at the grass before him.

Tyler sat next to him and leaned back against the tree. “You know,” Tyler began softly. “I didn’t cry when I got the news.”

Ashtyn turned his head to face Tyler, head tilted curiously.

Tyler smiled wryly and shook his head. “I didn’t cry, and then I didn’t for almost week. I was just…angry.”

Tyler held up a placating hand at Ashtyn’s indignant expression.

“Not angry at him for dying, no, I’m not that mean. I was just angry because it wasn’t– it isn’t goddamn fair that he has to die.” Tyler’s voice cracked at the end and he heaved a humorless chuckle, hanging his head between his knees.

Ashtyn linked arms with Tyler, leaning against his shoulder. They sat that way for a while before Ashtyn broke the silence. “I don’t think I cried either,” Ashtyn murmured. “I think I was just numb.” He tightened his grip on Tyler’s arm before continuing. “I couldn’t think of anything else. I made a sort of make-shift altar, but, that was it.” Ashtyn shook his head, gazing down to the ground. “I just… I just needed to do something. Anything. I just needed a goal to get to. I didn’t have anything to move forward on. No ambition or hope, no anything.”

Tyler pulled Ashtyn to standing and wrapped him in a hug. “I know,” he said quietly. “I know.”

After a few moments the two separated and wandered over to a nearby bridge, arms still linked. They leaned against the railing, the ornately twisted metal cool against their forearms.

“How can we just…” Tyler trailed off, bending to pick up a stone from the ground and turning it over in his fingers. “How can we just go about our life? Alex is– he’s gone and we all just have to do nothing and… and sit here.” He threw the stone to the water below and went silent, staring at the quickly disappearing ripples.

The spring sounds filled the quiet between them; the cheerful trills of birds and gentle hum of June beetles paying no heed to the bleakness invading the field around them. The gurgling of the stream below twisted up around them in the wind, teasing the echoes of splashes from the water’s surface.

“You’re right,” Ashtyn said, gazing out over the water. “We can’t just… we can’t just sit here like nothing’s happened and go on with our lives.” Ashtyn explained. “He’s been through so much pain. We have to do something for him. Honor his memory — I don’t know, something cliché like that.” He straightened up and brushed off the front of his shirt.

Tyler stood and turned to face Ashtyn. Tyler shrugged and hugged his arms close to his body. “I mean, yeah, but, how? Alex is dead, Ashtyn, we can’t just go and ask him–”

“Then we figure something out,” Ashtyn interrupted. “We- we make a memorial fund, donate to charity, fund the Trevor Project, I don’t know. But we’re gonna do something. We have to do something, okay?” Ashtyn held Tyler by the arms until he nodded, dropping his arms to his sides.

“Yeah,” Tyler said. “We’re gonna do something,” he smiled. “For Alex.”
Ashtyn let out a breath, eyes wet. “For Alex.”

The Color of Kings

By Aevin Mayman

Two men stood on the heather-covered hilltop, gazing into the breaking dawn.

The battle chieftain rested with one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other hand fingering the silver band, a pendant, around his neck.

“What do you see, Tellu?” He asked, turning his head to look at the man to his right.

Tellu gazed out upon the valley below, dark hair waving lightly in the morning wind. “I see a kingdom, Ffindán. I see your kingdom.”

Ffindán scoffed lightly, crossing his arms over his chest. The spiraling crow tattooed on his arm seemed to soar as the muscles flexed, the blue inked wings a deep royal color in the dissipating darkness. “That is quite a bard-like thing to say, Tellu.” He said.

Tellu chuckled. “Well, I am a bard, so…”

Ffindán laughed along side him for a moment, then the two fell silent once again.

“I see the time between times,” Tellu began quietly. “I see the first dawn of the fair season of Moffar breaking upon the land.” He stopped and turned to Ffindán. “The land with you as its leader.”

Ffindán gave him a hard stare, but Tellu held his ground.

“As you said, Ffindán, I am a bard. It is my duty to know these things. As your closest friend it is my duty to show you the truth. And as chief bard of the clan of Gofaddain it is my duty to choose its new king.” Tellu put a hand on Ffindán’s shoulder. “And you are that king, brother.”

Ffindán shook his head slowly, the pendant glinting softly as the sun rose. “Tellu, I know you mean well, but I cannot be king.” Ffindán gestured to the settlement sprawling in the valley below. “These people have just lost their king. They need someone strong to lead them. I am afraid I am not that man. I can be a leader, but I cannot be a king.” He sighed as he finished, turning to walk down the hill. “I am going with the next hunting party, Tellu. I wish you well,” Ffindán said and made to leave.

“Ffindán, wait!” Tellu cried, running after the chieftain. He caught Ffindán by the arm and turned him around.

Ffindán grunted and tried to pull away, but Tellu held tight to him. “Honestly, Tellu,” Ffindán said. “I don’t know what you hope to accomplish with–“

“By Airmid’s hand, Ffindán,” Tellu cried, staring the stubborn battle chief straight in the eyes. “Listen to me! I am the Chief of Songs, the Teller of Stories. I am the bard of Gofaddain, your bard. I have been your friend since you entered this clan. Trust me and listen!” He tightened his grip on Ffindán’s shoulders.

Ffindán froze at the chief bard’s hold and gasped, eyes going unfocused. He stood that way for a couple heartbeats before going limp, stumbling slightly.

Tellu steadied him.

“What–” Ffindán swallowed thickly and began again. “What was that, Tellu?”

“That was the A Bheith,” Tellu answered, still holding Ffindán by the shoulders. “What is to be. I have given you a vision of what is to come,” Tellu explained. “Did you see it?”

Ffindán nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said. “I did. I saw the kingdom below this hill. I saw my kingdom.” He turned away from Tellu to face the open sky. His dusky red hair caught the rising sun and erupted in a fiery brilliance. “I saw the people smiling up at me, thanking me for leading them well.” He turned his head to the bard. “What does this mean, Tellu?” He asked quietly.

Tellu met his gaze. “You know exactly what this means, Ffindán.” Ffindán looked back to the valley. “It means you are meant to lead them.”

A flash of light caught Tellu’s attention and he looked down. “Ffindán,” he brought the chieftain’s attention to him softly. “Your pendant.”

Ffindán removed the band from his neck and held it in front of him.

The ornate metal was lit with the rising sun of dawn, transforming the silver it was fabricated from.

“It is gold.” Ffindán breathed.

Tellu smiled. “Yes, it is. A king’s color, is it not?”

Ffindán placed the pendant around his neck and gazed out upon the settlement below, the town just beginning to move as people woke. Dogs began to bark, roosters started their morning cries, children’s voices graced the morning wind.

“You certainly do fill your place as bard,” Ffindán said lightly.

Tellu snorted and turned to walk down the hill. “I certainly hope so, brother.”

Tellu disappeared into the treeline, leaving Ffindán standing on atop the hill’s crest, pendant glowing the color of kings.

Office Bakery

By Aevin Mayman

Monday mornings are the worst. It’s sad, it’s cliché, and it’s irrefutably true. Monday mornings with a throbbing hangover, however, are the worst of the worsts.

“Morning!” My coworker called, throwing up a hand in greeting before entering a staircase to his right.

I closed my eyes at his voice, making a disgruntled noise in the back of my throat. “Morning Jeff,” I groaned, waving in return. He was already gone, but it was the thought that counted. It was only a few moments later that I wondered what Jeff, from the press station, what doing at I.T. I then wondered why I even cared and continued walking.

I ducked my head, hiding from the overhead lights. The new manager was all ‘eco-friendly’, declaring all lights be replaced with some off-brand type of LEDs – the ‘tree hugger lights.’

In any case, they were bright. Brighter than the white yellow they were before the management change and definitely brighter than I was comfortable with.

I rubbed my forehead, trying to massage the persisting ache from it, and turned into my office.

Carol looked from the computer and froze for a few seconds, blinking more times than was probably normal.

I groaned and turned away. “Wrong room,” I grumbled. I counted two cubicle openings down and entered, throwing my bag down with more force than was safe with a computer inside.

I gave the laptop bag a withering look as I sat down, blaming it for the long and arduous process that would be Monday.

The fall had unsnapped most of the buttons holding the top-flap shut, so I just pulled at the offending piece of machinery until it came free.

I sat up from the wrestling match with a groan as blood rushed to my head and cursed the idiocy of myself in the evening before.

I put the laptop on my desk and stopped, staring at the object that rested there with an expression that was both confused and frustrated.

It was a cookie.

I looked around my office, pushing aside various objects in search of an explanation. I stopped and stared at the cookie again. I pushed back against my desk and I slid backwards in my rolling chair, looking outside the cubicle walls. No one. I looked at the cookie.

I slowly rolled back to my desk with a frown. I picked up the saran-wrap-covered sugar cookie and inspected it before slowly unwrapping the pastry and taking a bite. It wasn’t a bad cookie, not by any means, just a very unexpected one.

There was another cookie on my desk the next day. And the next. And the next.

That next Monday morning I entered work with a strange determination that had managed to get me out of bed at 5:00 am. I wasn’t happy about it, not in the slightest, but I was curious. Very, very curious, and that somehow pushed me into the office early enough to catch the mystery baker.

The lights in my hallway were off. At this point, it was probably only the manager’s assistant that was at the office. It wouldn’t make any sense for any other lights to be on, so I didn’t spend much time on the thought.

I.T., where I worked, was on the third floor of my building, and my cubicle was the fifth down.

Even from the stairway entrance, I could see a faint shadow cast from the constant emergency lighting. It was in front of the fifth cubicle down.

The floors on any level above the second creaked with an infuriating persistence, so I kept to the walls.

I was creeping along the wall of the third cubicle when a figure emerged from the opening of mine. I stopped. “Jeff?”

Jeff turned, spinning on his heel and stumbling. He caught himself on the wall and offered a strained grin. “Hey,” he said. “Figured you’d show up eventually.”

“W-” I began, clearing my throat and starting again. “It was you?” I asked incredulously.

He shrugged and scratched his neck. “Yeah,” he stopped and smirked painfully. “Surprise!” He looked down and took a few steps forward. “I know this is, like, really awkward, but, I don’t know. You’ve seemed pretty down recently and I thought I’d do something nice.” He broke off at my expression and held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Don’t worry, it’s not romantic or anything, I just thought it might be nice.”

I still hadn’t said anything, but I dropped my confused expression. Jeff visibly relaxed. I looked at him for a while, trying to decide whether his kindness was genuine or an attempt at bribery. I didn’t really know him all too well, after all.

At last, when his embarrassment became nearly too much for me to handle, I sighed and looked away, convinced. “Well, thanks.” I ventured, casting a wary glance up at him. “That was, that was probably the nicest thing anyone’s done for me in a long time.”

Jeff’s awkward grin turned to a heartfelt smile and he straightened, shoving his hands in his pockets. He shrugged. “Any time.”

A smile worked its way onto my face and I looked down, shaking my head. The floor creaked as he made his way to the stairwell. “Jeff, wait,” I called. He turned to face me, one hand on the stairway door. “After work, drinks?” I asked. He returned my smile.

“Drinks.” He answered, then pushed his way into the stairwell.

I let out a long breath, walking into my office and swinging down my bag with more force than was safe with a computer inside. I looked up and smiled at the object on my desk.

It was a cookie.

Open Spaces

By Aevin Mayman

“Come on, Teya!” Amy yelled up through the tunnel. “We’ve bugged the boss for months about this project. Now we’re here and you’re just staring at rocks!”

Teya let out a puff of air and focused on the water-carved tunnel ahead of her, looking away from the glittering substance in the earthen walls. “You’ve bugged the boss for months about it. I was just the scapegoat.” She accused. Amy laughed from behind her and Teya rolled her eyes. “We still have a few hours before dark,” she called behind her. “Might as well make the best of them.”

They had been at the dig for five hours already today. Seismic readings had indicated a cavern somewhere ahead in the uncharted territory. In the end, those readings were what had made the boss’s decision.

“Not that it gets any darker in this place, anyway,” Amy grumbled under her breath. Teya grinned. “Hey, by the way,” Amy continued. “The map ends about…”

Teya heard the shuffling of paper and the click of a flashlight.

“Twenty meters. After that’s uncharted territory. We good?” She asked.

“Yeah,” Teya responded. Silence fell as they continued. There wasn’t much room for conversation, as the section of tunnel they had entered had narrowed to merely two feet in height. Army crawls would have to do, and both women were out of breath.

The difference in air brought Teya’s gaze up from the earth beneath her. She paused, lifting her head. Amy collided with Teya’s boots and let out a noise of indignation.

“Teya!” She exclaimed. “What are you-”

“Stop,” Teya said. “Do you smell that?”

Amy shook her head. “No,” she said, then, “The air.”

Teya nodded. “Does it smell fresher to you?” She asked.

“Yeah, it does.” Amy agreed. “Any air shafts would be highly unlikely. We’re more than nine-hundred meters below the surface.” Teya could hear her grinning through her words.

“The Krubera-Varonya cave’s still got us by thirteen-hundred. Come on.” Teya let out a heavy sigh and continued forward. “Let’s keep going.”

She could still feel the enthusiasm of the scientist behind and felt a smile creep onto her face. The air only got clearer as they went on, the musty smell of untouched earth slowly being replaced with fresh air.

Teya pulled up sharply when her arm’s next foray hit open air instead of earth.

“What?” Amy called up. “What is it?”

Teya shuffled sideways so she could pull herself up without moving further over the edge. She reached her free hand back to pull the flashlight out of her belt and clicked it on, shining it forward. “Amy,” She whispered. “We found it.”

Amy’s breath caught in her throat in the darkness behind Teya. Teya moved the light downwards and illuminated the solid ground a yard below her. She slid herself forwards and rolled off the ledge, hitting the ground beneath on all fours.

“Teya!” Amy called.

“I’m fine!” She yelled back. “I’m fine.” She moved the light around the cavern. Amy fell with a thud and a rather obnoxious expression of pain behind her.

Amy scrambled to her feet and came to stand beside Teya. “Whoa.” She breathed.

The light of their flashlights only reached about five meters ahead of them, but the cave was lit all the same. A red-gold light filtered from far above.

“The sun.” Teya said quietly. “It’s the goddamn sun.” She felt herself break into a grin. “Amy, we found it!” She turned and grabbed Amy by the arms. Amy laughed, the sound echoing through the cave. Teya jumped away and looked around.

It was as though the surface above had creeped into the cavern. Long tendrils of vine hung down from the crater. A waterfall cascaded over the easternmost lip to gather in a deep pool at the bottom of the cave. The pool ran into what could only be described as a small river coursing through the center of the cave. The river curved into a hidden vent under the cave’s wall and disappeared. The further into the sun’s light the cave went, the more vegetation covered the cave floor. Green growth clung onto the earth around the mouth of the cave’s roof entrance for nearly ten yards before giving away to water-slick stone. Lush undergrowth hugged the rocky surface beneath their feet, occasionally giving way to pointed rocks that seemed to mold out from the cave’s floor. Tropical trees grew up from the center of the cave, spreading their thick leafy branches into canopies.

As the sun set, so did the brilliance of the cave. The jewel-green leaves and grasses dimmed with the dying light, changing their hue from red to blue. The section of river under the spot of sun slowly lost its glimmer, fading into a deep blue-black.

“Teya.” Amy’s quiet voice broke the silence of the evening. “We did it.”

Teya closed her eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of stone and running water. “Yeah,” she said, opening her eyes. “We did.”

Painted Red

By Claire Dever

Beep. Beep. Beep.

There was noise in my ears. I wanted it to stop. How do I make it stop? I need it to stop. Find it, find it, find it.
No, don’t move. That hurts too much. Where am I? It smells like disinfectant. It smells like stale lemons. I think there’s someone next to me. They’re not talking and their breathing is inaudible, but I feel it. It’s in my gut, right where the stabbing pain is. Why am I in pain?

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Things are coming back to me. I remember her, but only a little bit. Strawberry-blonde hair, green skin. No, not green skin. Pale skin. Green background. Grass? Grass with yellow. Flowers. A field of flowers. Who is she?
The pain is getting worse. I can’t breathe without it hurting. I should go to the hospital. I would, but I can’t open my eyes. They’re glued shut. The smell is getting unbearable and the beeping is breaking open my ears. Any more of this and I might go crazy.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Could someone stop the beeping? Please. I can’t think with it in my head.I remember her smell. She smells like trees and stubbornness. Amber. Her name is Amber. She has small, white teeth and a black dress. She’s holding flowers to her nose. I know she’s smiling because her eyes are crinkled. Why is she smiling? Me– she’s smiling because of me. I can feel it.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I’m bleeding. My blood smells like pennies. The noise is getting louder, the beeping faster. People are running. I can hear the slap of their shoes on the ground. The person next to me isn’t moving. They’re still. They don’t care. Who are they? Who am I?
Slow down. Thinking too much hurts. It hurts a lot. Start from the beginning.
I think I’m seventeen. My mother calls me Jack. I hate that name. It reminds me of my father. My father. He always called me Jack when he unbuckled his belt.
This is for your own good, Jack. He would say. Take it like a man.
I call myself Theodore, I think. Maybe Ted. I like the name Ted, I don’t remember why.
I woke up early that morning. Amber and I drove separate cars to the field. She brought a friend, but they weren’t there the whole time. Maybe they left early.
I can hear someone’s voices. I think I’m underwater. I can only make out a few, bubbly words.

Alive. Beep. Fall. Beep. Terrible. Beep. Who? Beep. Stab. Beep. Blood.

My head hurts. I want to rub it, maybe feel if it’s bleeding. I can’t move my hand much, maybe only an inch or so. Why?
No. Go back. Keep thinking.
My car is red. I chose that color for a reason. I can’t remember why. It’s on the tip of my tongue.
My mother is dead. That I know for sure, as sure as the pain. Her funeral was on a sunny day. There were birds around. I was the only one that didn’t cry. My eyes were as dry as my mouth. My palms were sweaty.
Father died right after Mother. A month. No–two. They said it was soon, weirdly soon. Who is ‘they?’ Aunt. Aunt Ruby.
Aunt Ruby wanted me to live with her. She lived in Idaho. Over a thousand miles away. I refused. There was a fight, a big one. She died four days after Father. How? They died so close together. Something must have happened. Someone must have been after them.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Cough.

The person next to me coughed: a hacking, evil sound. He sounded and smelled like a smoker. His breath stunk of nicotine and mint. He was silent.
Amber. The word blinked through my mind like morse code- Amberamberamberamberamber. What happened to her? Where is she?
She was already at the field when I got there. I remember police sirens, red on yellow, screaming. I fell.
Her friend was a man. His face is fuzzy. I only remember a splatter of red and a swirl of blonde hair. He had white teeth. I saw them on the ground. Three molars. Two canines. One incisor. Three, two, one, a countdown to something. But what? My mind remained blank.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I’m growing wary of the man beside me. He could be dangerous. When he moves, I can hear the soft clang of his belt. He could kill me, that I know. He could strangle me and I wouldn’t be able to stop him.
I hate the man next to me. I hate him. He watches, not moving. I don’t know how long I’ve been awake but it’s enough for me to know that he’s been here longer. I want to kill him– I want to bash his skull in with a hammer. I want to see his brains painted on the walls. I want him to stop breathing and coughing and watching.
Hammer.
Hammer.
Hammer.
There was a hammer with me. I could feel the sticky sweat growing on the sides where my hand was. I wasn’t nervous. I was calm, excited, maybe. The heat pressed on the back of my neck. Why did I wear all black?
Amber saw me with a smile but her body language said that she was scared. I returned the smile, said something about a lost dog. She relaxed. Her friend, boyfriend maybe, didn’t. He was angry. He saw the hammer.

Beep. Beep. Beepbeepbeepbeep.

The noise got faster, louder. I want it to stop. I need it to stop.

Beephurrybeepbloodbeepshockbeepcomabeepwakeupbeepbeepbeep.

Her boyfriend dropped. Amber was screaming. He was moaning. His blood sprayed the flowers like paint, beautiful paint. A dull rage burned through me, becoming bigger and bigger as the hammer rained down, down, down. It was my arm.
My eyes could open. I tried to move my arm. It was sore. A clanging sound echoed throughout the bright white room. It was a hospital room. I was on a bed, a thin sheet covering from my abdomen. I went to uncover my chest, but my arm couldn’t move. Handcuffs. I was handcuffed to the bed. The man next to me was big, beefy with a blue uniform, a police officer. I stared at his gun. I craved to shoot him but my hand was strapped down.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The sound went back to normal. It was a heart monitor.
Focus. Remember Amber. Amber, sweet smelling Amber. Her blood didn’t smell like pennies. It smelled like dirt and rain and a butterfly knife rammed into my side.
A struggle, a terrible struggle. I saw red when she stabbed me. Her shrill voice made me want to claw out her throat, see her die.
The pressure of the knife in my side staggered me. I fell to the ground. Something sharp. A rock? Hit on the back of the head.
Nurse at my side. Needle in my arm. I don’t want it. Arms are heavy.
Police sirens becoming louder. Need to get out. Need to get out now.
World turning black. Turn the lights back on.
Amber ran to the car.
What car? Where am I?
Blood on my truck. Red blood, red truck.
Beeping slowing down. Thank God.
Sunflowers painted red. Blood red. I always hated the color yellow.
My eyelids are glued together. My arms are heavy.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Rocky Road

By Claire Dever

Rodrigo loved her scent: oranges and honeysuckle, jasmine and peppermint. She was an ensemble of everything that was good to him, everything that made him happy.

And now, she was gone.

He didn’t know where, of course. If he had, he would have gone there immediately. She had been gone for a long time. After the third day, he stopped scolding himself for being worried and started worrying freely. She had told him it was only a trip to the supermarket. They ran out of eggs and she wanted to bake a cake. He could smell the reek of excitement floating off of her in waves.

When did the grocery store close? Maybe she was just waiting for it to open.

No, that’s crazy. It’s been three days.

He didn’t know what to do. He could never go outside. The people outside would string him up like a lightbulb and dance around his decaying body like he was an offering, persecuting him for his deformity. That’s what his mother taught him.

But he had to, didn’t he?

Jenny was gone. Jenny, the light of his life, the one that smelled the sweetest, Pastor Joseph’s daughter. She never taunted him, never stuck out her finger at his face. He had a horribly large nose, something all the doctors called hideously unfixable. His eyes and mouth were unusually small, the vast majority of his face taken up by his schnoz. Other girls laughed, walked to the other side of the street just to avoid being close to him. Jenny was different. Jenny didn’t care.

He spent a long time waiting for her. He sat by the door, eyes wide, staring. His eyes got dry, but if he blinked, he’d miss her. He was horribly thirsty, horribly hungry, but to stop staring would be to postpone her arrival.

On the fifth day, he got a letter.

We have your wife, it read. Put $60,000 in an envelope and leave it under the Civil Memorial. Contact the police or try anything and your wife dies.

Rodrigo was used to fear. He had spent his whole life scared. His father would joke that he inherited his fear from his mother. Whenever he said this, his mother would look at him with the expression of a cornered rat. She was a religious woman, very strict. She feared everything: spiders, snakes, God, her son. She feared her son so much that he was forced to sleep under his bed, in case she ever got too drunk and walked into his room instead of her’s. Rodrigo still had a scar on his forehead from when that last happened.

Today, after he read this letter, Rodrigo felt, instead of fear, a new emotion. He had no words for it. It was like molten lava had been poured into his chest. His heartbeat was so loud in his ears and his breathing became heavy. He wanted to hurt someone, something. He wanted whoever had hurt his wife dead. Rodrigo got up and paced. He thought about what he could do.

*

Jenny had been invited over for dinner by Rodrigo’s mother. His mother invited the pastor of their parish. He brought his wife, who invited their daughter. When Jenny walked in, Rodrigo had been at the top of the stairs, staring longingly at the feast that his mother prepared for the family that he wasn’t allowed to touch. When Jenny walked in, everything stopped.

Rodrigo was always overwhelmed. There were so many scents from everything: the food, the candle, the dirt from outside, the paint. The stench of sweat and rust and sadness and anger. But when he saw Jenny, the flood of sensations froze. The only thing he could smell was her, her sweet feminine scent, her excitement of being invited to such a grown-up event as a dinner party.

“So,” said Pastor Joseph, after everyone except for Rodrigo was seated. “I’ve been told that you have a son about Jenny’s age.”

Rodrigo’s mother made a shrill noise, eyes wide. His father, whose fork was halfway to his mouth, froze. The silverware clattered onto the expensive porcelain plates. The pastor began to apologize hastily.

“I am so sorry,” he said, face beet red. “How terrible for your family. I had no idea. When did it happen, do you mind me asking?”

Father cleared his throat. “No, no. Nothing like that. He’s upstairs.”

Pastor Joseph smiled. “Jenny, would you like to meet him?”

When Rodrigo heard this, his stomach rose to his throat.

“Yes, please.”

When he heard Jenny’s voice, Rodrigo almost fainted. His heart did a dance. Her clear voice echoed in his ears. For the first time, he could smell sounds. Her voice smelled of vanilla taffy, of pink sea shells.

“Rodrigo!” his mother shouted up the stairs, her voice hard as nail.

“Coming, Mother,” he said. He shook as he walked down the stairs. He had put on his best clothes early in the evening in hopes of his mother seeing and inviting him to join the dinner before the guests arrive. But, when she saw him, dressed in a blue button-up and black slacks, she narrowed her eyes as her mouth contorted into a look of disgust.
He entered the dining room, braced for the yells he was used to. But, when he looked into the faces of the family he didn’t know, there was no hate. Father Joseph and his wife looked a bit pitiful. Jenny’s face was alive with curiosity.

“Well, hello. I’m Father Joseph. I’m assuming that you’re Rodrigo?” The priest’s face was kind. There was no fear coming off of him, none at all. The foul stench of disgust that Rodrigo was so used to exuded from his mother, but there was none in the visiting family.
He struggled to find his words. In the absence of a response, Jenny spoke up. “You can sit next to me, if you’d like. There’s plenty of room.”

“That’s not necessary,” Mother said loudly, standing up. “Rodrigo, leave. Now.” Her voice was hard, angry. Rodrigo backed away, hands shaking, eyes wide. He stared at the belt cinching tightly at Mother’s waist. He waited for the hands to unbuckle, to lash at him. But nothing of the sort happened. Mother’s hands were fists that did not strike.

*

The door remained unopened, no matter how long he stared at it.

A loud noise rang through the empty house. Mrrow. Mrrrrrow.

Numbly, Rodrigo stood and fed the cat, Noseferatu. Rodrigo suggested that name as a joke, but when he said it, Jenny laughed the laugh that smelled of lavender and lemon so the name stuck even though Noseferatu was a girl. The cat was Jenny’s favorite. Noseferatu would curl up on the light fabric of Jenny’s sundresses and fall asleep, purring like a motor. Jenny would laugh when that happened and stroke the cat, then look at Rodrigo with the expression of a proud mother.

*

It was on a boardwalk at twilight when he proposed. The air smelled fresh and clean, like linen and unscented deodorant. Jenny had convinced him to come, saying that it had the best view and that there was barely anyone there. He agreed, saying that if it made her happy, he would be happy. He proposed to her in front of an old-fashioned ice cream shop. He could smell the rocky road ice cream still lingering on her breath as she beamed and squealed out a, “Yes, yes, yes!”

On their wedding day, the gift his father gave him was long and thin, hastily wrapped in brown paper bags. “You’re the man of the house now,” his father said with a grimace. “You have to protect yourself and your wife. She’s relying on you.”

Rodrigo wanted to tell him that Jenny wasn’t relying on him, that she could protect herself. That she was strong and smart and independent and didn’t need him, that actually, he needed her more. But all he did was open his mouth like a fish, words refusing to fall out, then close it and nod. He went to the bathroom after the ceremony and unwrapped it, ashamed of himself for feeling the need to hide whatever it was. It was a gun, a small, sleek handgun. He slunk into his closet and slid it into the too-small tuxedo at the very back of his closet.

*

Rodrigo rushed to the back of his closet, thanking his father. For the first time, he regretted his decision to skip his mother and father’s joint funeral. It was too late, he told himself hastily. That was years and years ago. Regretting did him nothing, nothing at all.

He pulled out the gun, dusted it off, loaded it. He put folded pieces of paper in an envelope and numbly walked to the library. When he reached his destination, he slid the envelope under the statue of a soldier. Once, it had been in the middle of town, but now it resided in a field untouched by civilization. He sat down a few feet away from the statue, the tall grasses making him invisible.

*

His mother was screaming. Screaming of a disappointment, of the devil. Her eyes were scornful and glistening with tears. The sound of skin on skin, of leather on skin, metal to skin filled the air. There were rushed prayers and standing up when Rodrigo entered the room, the look on her face shrieking hate.

Rodrigo was lying awake past his bedtime, not being able to sleep due to the yelling fights.

“We need to get rid of him,” his mother shrilled.

“He’s our son! For God’s sake, Nancy! Think about him, for one second,” his voice always went to a pleading tone at the end, begging her to stop. Father hated conflict.

“Do not use the Lord’s name in vain,” his mother would gasp. “That boy is the devil. Deformities come from the devil, you know that! A boy with a nose that size is nothing but evil.”

That was another thing about her: whenever she said the word ‘nose’, she would lower her voice and check behind her back. If possible, she would toss salt over her left shoulder, or at least cross herself.

For the first time, Rodrigo wanted to die.

When he was in third grade, he asked his father why he was shaving. “To remove the hair I don’t want,” his father replied, giving him a smile. “You’ll do this too, when you’re older. Almost all men do it.” Rodrigo took a razor blade from the bathroom cabinet that night and attempted to cut his nose off. He didn’t like it, so it could be removed. Oh, how his mother shrieked.

*

Rodrigo waited anxiously. His mouth became dry, his stomach loud and angry. He was all too aware of the time ticking by. Not for the first time, he felt helpless and alone.

Time passed, as it always does. He lost track of time in the grey skied world. Rodrigo knew only that he waited. And then he came.

The man was tall, stinking of fear and powdered drugs. A black coat was tightly drawn over Rodrigo watched him glance around nervously like a cornered animal, then quickly look under the statue. In one fluid motion, the man plucked the envelope and tucked it into his coat pocket. He walked swiftly to the car, glancing behind his back once, twice.

Rodrigo ran forward, gripping the gun that stunk of power. When the man was almost in the car, Rodrigo caught up to him and cocked the gun. The man froze and turned around.

“Take me to Jenny,” Rodrigo said, trying to control his shivering voice. The man’s eyes were wide as he nodded and slowly got into the car.

Rodrigo rode in the passenger seat, keeping the gun’s barrel pressed against the man’s temple. There was powder residue lingering in the car, forcing Rodrigo to breathe through his mouth.

The driver slowed down as they approached a series of dilapidated townhouses. He led Rodrigo in slowly, hands shaking and mouth pleading cries of freedom. Rodrigo paid no mind to the man. His only thoughts were of Jenny.

*

When he was a boy, his mother gave him peanut butter candies everyday, even though Rodrigo was allergic. She would tempt him, saying ‘just one bite is all. Go on.’ Rodrigo smelled the desperation on her, but no guilt. There was never any guilt.

*

There was sulfur guilt on the man, the one cloaked in black. He was shaking, apologizing as he led Rodrigo to his wife.

She was tied on a couch, covered with a thin knit blanket. While Rodrigo rushed to Jenny’s side, the high man reached into a cabinet and pulled out a gun. Rodrigo could smell his excitement, his adrenaline. Rodrigo cocked the handgun and turned it onto the man, then pulled the trigger. His head blew off like dandelions in the wind.

While the ambulance came, Jenny sobbed. She sobbed of how he was a coworker, how he had lost his job and how he had a sick fascination with Jenny. She would find him staring at her, at her breasts, her neck, her fingers.

He held her as she cried, apologized. He told here there was nothing to apologize for. She didn’t believe him until months afterward.

Jenny stopped crying after the sedation took over. She didn’t start crying until it wore off. She didn’t talk in the hospital, or in therapy. Sundresses turned to loose sweatpants, baggy t-shirts. Breezy mannerisms turned into those stinking of fear. She had a hard time going to sleep. Nightmares plagued her. Rodrigo stayed up with her, telling her that it was all okay, everything was okay.

Rodrigo hated essential oils. He hated perfumes and smelly shampoos. They clogged his nose, blocking out everything else. He couldn’t stand smelly hair creams, scented candles or flowers. After Jenny returned home, he bought her an essential oil diffuser. He would put in calming lavender, rejuvenating peppermint. He bought her the most expensive perfumes and the best shampoos and made sure to bring her peonies every day.

One day, he convinced her to go to the boardwalk with him. He wore her favorite colors, blue, purple and yellow. She wore jeans that he bought her and a loose hoodie. She stared at the passing birds as he bought her treats. When they got to a part of the boardwalk where there were no people and a view of the crystal sea, they sat next to each other, lightly touching, licking rocky road ice cream and inhaling the linen skies. She leaned into him and sighed, eyes fluttering shut.

Sammy

By Aevin Mayman

“I bet you, like, ten bucks that you can’t eat three whole pickles in fifteen seconds.”

“You don’t even have ten bucks.”

“I sure do.”

“How?”

“I lifted it off of Ms. Kaberov.”

“I’m not eating theft pickles!”

James crossed his arms and sat back in the chair, the ‘Sunhill Foster Center’ sign outside casting his face into sharp-cut shadows as the sun set. “Only the money is theft money. The pickles were obtained completely legally.” He raised an eyebrow, pulling his face into a regal, knowledgeable expression.

Sam shook her head and looked down, glancing at James’ carefully blank face. Sam grinned. “Dude, you totally wanna smile.”

James raised an eyebrow at the girl in front in him.

Sam leaned forward and poked him. “You totally wanna.”

James broke out in a toothy smile and hit Sam on the shoulder. The two children laughed and started shoving at each other, bet forgotten. Their carefree pushes at each other had turned into an impromptu wrestling match and now they were both rolling around the room, not-so-carefully avoiding tables and the most likely expensive vases they held.

A woman’s voice broke them apart. “Is everything alright in here?” Ms. Kaberov, the foster center administrator, leaned into the room. “I heard some thumping.”

James shook his head enthusiastically and grinned. “There’s no trouble Ms. Kaberov. Sam here was just showing me some her wonderful dance moves–” He was cut off as Sam elbowed him in the ribs.

Ms. Kaberov pursed her lips, but nodded and stepped out of the room.

Once she was out of sight, James blew out his cheeks and collapsed backwards onto the floor from where he sat. “Eat your pickles, Sam,” he said loudly.

Sam swatted him on the side of the head with an open palm and chuckled at his exaggerated sound of pain.

James frowned and rolled over, propping his head on his palms. “Eat the pickles.”

Sam smirked. “No,” She said.

James narrowed his eyes. “Eat them!”

“No!”

Eat the pickles.”

“I’m not gonna eat the–”

A knock on the door silenced them. A young man leaned in the doorway, a mop of black hair hanging in his face. He was dressed in jeans and a button-up, his blue converse almost glowing with their intensity. He smiled awkwardly.

“Hey man!” James called. “I like your shoes!”

Sam hit him on the head again and ignored his noise of protest.

The man chuckled and unfolded the form in his hand. “I’m looking for, uh, Samantha Locker?”

Sam frowned and looked down at James before standing, crossing her arms. “It’s just Sam, now,” She said slowly. James stood up beside her, standing defensively at her side.

The young man broke into a smile. “Samantha, Sam? It’s me, Eli, remember? I’m your brother.”

Sam froze in her place and James took a step forward.

“How do we know that?” He accused. “How do we know you’re not just some creepo?”

Eli’s smile fell slightly and he handed James a piece of paper. The boy looked at it for a few moments. He uncrossed his arms and gave the paper back, looking at his friend. “Sam.”

She stared at Eli for a few moments more before turning away to face James. He put his hands on her arms, making her look up at him.

“Look, buddy-o,” he began, looking at her intently. “I’ve only known your brother by how you talk about him, but I’m, like, 87% sure this is him.” He looked over at Eli and smiled before turning back to Sam. “I’ve been your friend for certifiably forever. You can trust me. Go to your brother.”

Sam smiled at him, eyes glistening. He nodded. She turned to face the man at the door. “You’re my–” she broke off. “You’re Eli?”

Eli swallowed thickly and nodded. “Yeah, Sammy. I am.”

Sam broke out into a wide, watery grin and ran to Eli, hugging him tightly around the waist. “I missed you so much,” she mumbled into his shirt.

Eli leaned down to kiss the top of her head. “I missed you too, kiddo.”