Short Fiction: The Record Keepers

The dead man glanced up from the manila folder pressed under his nose to glare at the suited man hovering above him. The man who had addressed himself as “Lucifer, Satan, the Dark One—whatever mind you,” peered down at him from beneath a pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses.

“I don’t understand,” the dead man said, and Lucifer sighed, arms folding across his crisp lapel; something gray and expensive, with a purple tie and a paisley pocket square to match.

“What do you mean you don’t understand? It’s fairly simple logic. Open the folder, read the name, sort it into Heaven or Hell. Easy.”

“Yeah, easy,” the dead man echoed, staring up at the 10,000-file stack in his inbox, bulge forming in his throat at the realization that this pile was only from the last half hour.

“If you have any concerns, feel free to contact the human resources department,” Lucifer said. “You may also consider speaking with Charon, he is the district manager of the record keepers. He should be more than willing to answer any of your questions as long as you make it worth his while.” Lucifer smirked to himself, his lips thinning as they spread upward until there was almost nothing left of them; nothing to suggest that his mouth was anything more than a black hole in the center of his face. With, of course, the exception of two even rows of perfectly bleached teeth.

“You also might consider directing your questions to your fellow coworkers, though they usually prefer to remain undisturbed,” Lucifer continued, gesturing with a flattened palm at the rows of cubicles that extended beyond the dead man’s view.

The dead man could only make out the tops of most of the workers’ heads, with the exception of the few cubicles nearby. The woman directly behind him was hunched over a stack of papers similar to his own, stapling in a steady rhythm of thump, swish, thump, swish, thump. Every forth staple she missed the corner of the page, puncturing, instead, the skin between her thumb and forefinger, but she didn’t seem to feel it—or if she did, she no longer cared—because she continued the rhythm uninterrupted.

Beside her, a man with a Bluetooth headset strapped to his ear mumbled into the mouthpiece. On the gray carpet wall beside his desk was a pale blue poster of a tiny yellow kitten, its head turned to a rope dangling high above it in the shape of a noose. The words “hang in there” were etched sardonically across the bottom.

The dead man cringed.

Other than the single cat poster, the walls of the cubicles were barren. Even the office walls, a stark eggshell smelling of fresh paint, untainted by scratches or the pinprick holes left behind by thumbtacks, were unusually empty. The only exception was the clock that ticked above the copy machine. It had no numbers, only a second hand that zoomed around in circles, never once hesitating before moving along its predestined path.

The dead man glanced down at the folder that lay in front of him, eyes swerving to the name, Hannah LeMark, in clearly stenciled letters across the top.

He had no interest in the names written in elegant, golden cursive instead of the roughly outlined block letters. He didn’t want to know where they went. Well, he knew where they went, but he didn’t want to know the details. That meant it was real, a place where only the best of the best got to go. A place better than this one. Lucky bastards. So far, there had only been three; three names out of hundreds written in that flowing script.

He should have known from the beginning that getting into Heaven wouldn’t be easy: like receiving a Nobel Peace Prize or curing cancer. Easy for the point one percent, not so much for everyone else.

Standing at the copier, a man in a blood red tie and aged, gray suit jacket pressed the green “copy” button over and over. The machine whirred, shuddered, and choked. An error message popped up on the screen: paper jam in compartment 4a. The man opened the side door that led to the gut of the machine, reaching in and tugging; twisting nobs and adjusting levers until a crumpled piece of toner-streaked paper came out in pieces. He reset the levers, closed the door, and pressed start. The machine whirred, shuddered, and choked. Error.

“What about break times?” the dead man said, drawing a small pile of folders from the much larger stack towering above him. He eyed Lucifer who had pulled out his iPhone—the latest edition, something gold—and seemed to have lost interest in the plight of his newest employee; the jingling theme of Candy Crush chimed out from his small device.

Ignored, the dead man flipped through the files, one after another: Heaven, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell. He would need a break soon, before all of this really went to his head. “How about lunch?”

Lucifer arched an eyebrow, his expression drawing higher, making his forehead wrinkle. “No such thing, kid,” he said. “No need. You’re dead.”

The dead man placed a hand on his gut, shifting in his seat. The plastic surface squealed in protest and he paused, stomach trembling under his palm. “But I can feel my stomach growling.”

Lucifer frowned, backing away with a sigh. “You’ll get over it. It’s always hard to break mortal habits. You’ll learn to forget eventually. Enjoy your stay in hell.”

“Thanks,” the dead man mumbled. He stared at his inbox: 10,492.

Hello Again & Deathcapades

So it has been a very long time since we’ve chatted – four whole months – I checked. This, of course, is completely my fault. I’d like to blame it on the busyness of my schedule and all of that, but the truth is I didn’t make writing a priority for myself.

A lot can happen in four months. Like, I don’t know, the entire layout of the way WordPress posts are written. You know what that tells me? It’s high time I put more effort into my writing and my blog, and I am sorry about the hiatus.

But…you know…since we’re on speaking terms now… Do you want to hear about how I almost died for the second time in my life? It was definitely death; I could see at it – stared it right in the eye!

This is how it happened:

You would think for someone who will soon be earning a degree in English Literature I would read things (say…instructions?) a bit more closely. Although, in my own defense, I blame it fully on my shoddy memory and not my inability to read. Hell, it’s probably both.

I should have read the email closer, I should have remembered the bold “FOLLOW THESE DIRECTIONS TO GET TO THE CABIN” glaring at me from the white screen of my email. I should not have listened to my inner voice (something squeaky and thin) that said “Oh, it’s fine. The GPS knows what to do. That’s what it was designed for!” I should not have forgotten that the northern Michigan wilderness is not something one simply wanders into – it’s something that will eat you up, spit you out, and then make fun of your scroungy, damp appearance afterwards.

But did I remember the email’s directions? Nope. Not even a little.

So there we were, myself and three others, turning off I-75 onto a street called Waterby in the middle-of-nowhere Michigan on our way to a cabin we rented, listening to the new One Direction album at a decibel that made my eardrums vibrate. This exit did not lead to a town, not even a village. It was a road with no evidence of life once existing there except for a rundown Ford car sales lot on the right hand side.

“This looks familiar,” said one of my companions. She had been to the cabin before. She knew the way.

Or more correctly, I thought she knew the way.

So we continued to drive.

We made a couple of turns from one dirt road onto another, and soon it became apparently obvious to everyone involved – even those of use who had not been to the cabin previously – that nothing looked familiar. There weren’t houses, there weren’t people, and the only car we passed was an old Dodge Ram, red, dating back to some time before 2005.

Soon enough, just before dead-ending on yet another dirt road, we were instructed to take a left. Onto what? A path. A dirt path that consisted of two tire treads and NOTHING ELSE. Well, you might be thinking: why not turn around? Perhaps we had too much faith in the GPS, or perhaps we thought this  dirt-path-that-couldn’t-possibly-be-a-road was going to be a temporary venture. We shouldn’t have. And it wasn’t.

It was a slow crawl along the path and it didn’t take us long to realize that turning around was not going to be an option as there was hardly room for a single car to pass along the trail, let along to make any sort of movement other than drive straight ahead. Woods began to surround us, and soon we were in the middle of the northern Michigan forest.

Reversing was disqualified as an option when we heard a thunk, thunk, thunk and felt the scrape of logs pass along the undercarriage of the car. Every scrape made us wince.

And then came the sand.

Half a foot of sand was piled in places along the trail, tire tracks from what seemed like years ago had barely passed through it, and much like the logs, we flinched as the sand hissed, passing along the car’s belly. There were puddles too. Questionably deep puddles, for the trail – clearly, at this point, not meant for cars – would dip down into a trough, and we could only guess that they were shallow; hope that they were shallow enough to let the car drive through them.

If that wasn’t bad enough, about halfway through this two mile escapade (the GPS continued to trek along as if this THING that we were driving on was an actual road) no trespassing signs began to appear. At first it was just one or two, and then it quickly became one every one or two yards. “No trespassing,” “private property.”

And the sun was beginning to set.

I know I have admitted in the past to fictionalizing pieces of the stories that I tell, but I give you my word that everything I am telling you in this post is 100% true. This actually happened to me. THIS IS MY REAL LIFE!

It was easy to imagine as we continued along the trail that should another car come up to us, facing the opposite direction, we would be at a complete stand-still, unable to move. And if this person was a serial killer, well…we’d all be dead.

The wolves too. We could easily have been eaten by wolves.

What if the car stalled? What if a tire popped? We would be stranded in the middle of the wilderness where absolutely NO ONE would find us. Not even the police dogs would be able to scent us out; that’s how far into the woods we were. On a trail that our GPS thought was a road.

Every so often as we drove an oil rig would pop up in a clearing a distance from the trail before disappearing one again into the thicket of the woods. At one time there was a maintenance shack that could have been a murder shed for all I know. I am from the city; while I like the idea of a quiet weekend up North by a lake, I have the survival instincts of a goldfish. I would definitely die if left to myself in the woods in the middle of winter: 100%.

At least there were four of us, however (moral support), and between the four of us we decided that our best option would be to venture forward on the road rather than to make an attempt at pulling off and circling back.

And then we went fully off the grid.

The purple line that our little car image had been following on the GPS’ map steered into the gray. No longer was our trail a road. We were in the dead center of the forest. No road. No hope.

So we did what any rational people would have done in that situation: we screamed. Loudly. So loudly that I could only just hear Harry Styles sing his melodic runs behind the ringing of panicked shrieks.

Now, I wish I could tell you that this story has some kind of epic conclusion. I wish I could tell you that we had to get out of the car and trek ten miles to the nearest road, hitchhike to town, and by our dinner with the money we earned from betting on pool in a local bar. Unfortunately, this story’s conclusion isn’t nearly that thrilling.

We continued strait along the trail and eventually our car on the GPS managed to find its way back to purple road. Only a little ways after that did we also find ourselves on an actual road (a dirt one, sure, but it was definitely a road!) We were still lost after that and it probably took us a good solid hour and a half to finally get to the cabin, which we did just prior to it getting dark.

I can honestly tell you it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I honestly thought that was it – the end of my days spent stranded in the middle of the Michigan wilderness. And all because I didn’t read an email closely enough.

As it turns out, we could have easily taken two main roads – two PAVED roads – to get to where we needed to be, it just wasn’t as direct a route (apparently) as the Trail of Doom our GPS recommended instead. I am still not sure how the GPS even knew about that “road,” and I’m really upset that no one thought to take video at the time so I could prove to you that I am absolutely, 100% telling the truth right now. Unfortunately we didn’t. We were far too busy screaming in terror. Ah well, it is what it is.

Mel

Mini Post About Nothing #23: Some Things You Should See

This is going to be a very random post coming to you at a very random time, but there are two videos that I want to share with you. Two videos that I think everyone should see once in their lifetime. The first is amusing. The second is important (but also amusing.)

#1: 

Even if you are not a fan of One Direction, this is funny. If nothing else, it’s self-deprecating as it mocks the sheer commercialism of the band. I think I laughed for a solid ten minutes after watching this. And then I watched it again.

#2: This video I think is extremely important. It’s about sex. But far more importantly, it’s about consent, and putting consent into terms that are both easily understandable and shockingly clear. If you are a teacher, a parent, or (as cases may have it) simply a good friend, you should spread this video like wildfire. So much of today’s problems come from ignorance and/or confusion. This video makes sure that there can be none of that, and that “oh, I didn’t know s/he didn’t want it” can’t be used as an excuse. It’s also funny as hell. I highly recommend taking a look!

What Have I Been Doing With My Life?

Ehem… Nothing.

That’s a lie– it’s been a lot of somethings, thus the not posting.

So, here it is:

I moved back into my on-campus dorm-apartment to begin training for my housing job (I work as a form of night security for the dorms on my campus) and have been spending 12 hours a day listening to people talk about how to do my job, how to be a good listener, etc. All very important things but all taxing when put one after another after another after another— you get it.

In the two weeks prior to me relocating my life back on campus, I was cramming in thesis research (which is really just me analyzing 6-7 novels in the children’s fantasy literature genre and making a shit ton of notes as well as finding scholarly articles and the like.)

I’ve also been pleasure reading various other books. If you like book recommendations, I will tell you that Sarah J. Maas’ book A Court of Thorns and Roses is very good. Fantasy is my favorite genre (if you couldn’t tell by my thesis topic) so I may be a little biased, but I honestly thought it was a very good read. The plot involves faeries but is quite different from any book I’ve ready in the past involving faeries (have to say they are usually not my favorite– like at all) but this one really grabbed my interest. Warning: the sequel doesn’t come out until next May, which is a super bummer because my friend who let me borrow the book didn’t tell me that until I was finished. You shouldn’t lead people on like that. It’s rude.

I actually got a chance to meet Sarah Maas at an author/book tour of Michigan a year or two ago (man, I can’t keep track of time) and she was super sweet. For that reason I emphasize that you should definitely check her and her books out. This is her second series, and I will be honest with you, I wasn’t too crazy about the first book in her first series, but since its publication and the 2-3 books following it in the series, she has been getting a lot of attention, so maybe I should try it again. Anyway, I can definitely see her growth as an author and it is very impressive to me, so if you like YA Fantasy, definitely give this girl a look.

I’m not going to be editing this post because I still have a ton of stuff to do tonight, the first of which is to take a shower because y’all I’m gross. I apologize now for the grammar issues I am sure this post is riddled with. I have had to press the space bar about a thousand times so far in this semi-short post which is typically not a good sign anyway. I’m also not wearing my glasses which is both strange and stupid because it could explain a lot of these errors, but I decided to do this in loo of taking my shower first, so I guess i just left them off and am only realizing it now.

Also sorry that this post is more like a stream of consciousness than a well thought out blog post. In the words of my boss: Awko Taco.

(I’m thinking I might just sign out with “M” from now on instead of saying Mel or Melanie. Just something I’m experimenting with. Will it stay? Who knows. I expect it will come and go with my mood. Might as well just keep with the theme of randomness in this post so far.)

Writing Prompts: “The Smell of Music” & “Five Easy Pieces”

The first of these prompts, “The Smell of Music,” is simple. Listen to a song you don’t know from a genre you do not (or rarely) listen to, and then write a response to it–prose, poem, or otherwise. I listened to a French “pop” song that I found on YouTube. I chose to write my response as a poem because it’s a form that I normally don’t use, and I thought it would be fun to experiment. (Is it successful–who knows?)

“The Smell of Music”

Song: Révolution by Benjamin Braxton

It tastes like semi-toxic bubbles,

the vibrating thrum of flashing lights,

and the smell of fermented wheat

seeping through the exposed, heated pores

of twenty-somethings.

It feels sticky

and sour like sweat,

freeing like brief carelessness,

and the people are smiling, hair whipping toward the ceiling,

strands sealing to damp foreheads.

The taste is foreign, new, unexpected—

escargot and strobe lights.

~~~~~

This second prompt, “Five Easy Pieces” by Richard Jackson, is a bit more difficult. In five lines (only!) you must: 1) Describe someone’s hands. 2) Describe what s/he is doing with her/his hands. 3) Use a metaphor to say something about a (exotic) place. 4) Mention something you want to ask this person (in the context of 2. and 3.) 5) The person looks up, notices you there, and says something, suggesting they only heard part of what you said.

I found this one to be pretty difficult because I’m not good at metaphors and this is a very small space in which to create a full image. Again, is it successful? I shrug. But here it is anyway!

“Five Easy Pieces” 

Chef Baudin’s right hand grips tightly to the handle of a hissing iron skillet, fingers bending sharply at the knuckles to keep the heated pan firmly in place. He flicks his wrist upward and the smoking bits of chicken and onion scatter in the air. The Vidalias are caramelizing, earthworms shrinking in the pan, seasoned with Herb de Provence and the memories of southern France when the irises are in full bloom. I wonder if that is where he fell in love with cooking, in his hometown of Nice, his nose nestled between cookbooks and fresh garden herbs. I do not realize I have said this aloud until his eyes blink up at me, hand still swirling the inhabitants of his skillet, and says “There weren’t many children my age in the village.”

Flash Fiction: Flipping Houses

It’s 1:30 AM and I can’t sleep. Probably because it’s 100 degrees in my bedroom and my parents refuse to turn the air conditioner any lower. That, and for some reason I keep thinking about ghosts. I mean, it’s too hot in my room to sleep with more than one blanket, but one blanket is too light and leaves me feeling exposed to all of the bogeymen. And, yeah, I know I’m way too old to be thinking like this, but I am not about to be one of those people in a horror film who has their leg sticking out and gets grabbed by a ghost. I am well-versed in horror and I am not about to be one of those dumb hats. No, thanks. I’m good.

So, instead, I thought this would be a good time to share more writing from class. Because why not?!

~~~~~

Flipping Houses

Five plastic cruise ship keycards, “Miss Beatrice Stills” scrawled across a picturesque view of the ocean—to remind you what you paid three year’s rent for. And to keep reminding you long after. Three postcards from Bluegrass hills and thoroughbred racers, flicking their tales absentmindedly in the summer heat, million-dollar-foals suckling in their mothers’ shade. One old schoolroom photograph, disinterested children, half smiling, and four student ID’s; each marking the passage of another year in faded smiles and purple and gold letters: Yellow jacket pride. A beaded snake, a participation medal, a name tag—years of summer camp memories in three easy pieces. They do not smell like horse manure or sulfur water or old leather tack. They do not taste like bonfires or s’mores or hot dog eat-outs on the Great Lawn. They do not sound like laughter or horse whinnies or whistle calls hidden in the thicket of the woods, calling all riders to attention. They are plastic, paper, disposable. There are three abused homecoming tickets, but only one of them cliché: “This is where your story begins, Homecoming 2009.” Ink and stale sweat. One old movie ticket to Horton Hears a Who in AMC salmon with fading type—Horto Hears a Wo—complete with a butter residue fingerprint on the upper right corner. Two senior wallet-sized photographs: mementos of friendships severed by diplomas and Pomp and Circumstance. Only one of them still speaks to me, only one of them is worth keeping, but I place them both in the box anyway.

My room smells of dusty cardboard, of the backroom at FedEx where these boxes must have been waiting, accumulating dust mites and false hopes for a set of contents worth the battering of the U.S. Postal Service. I feel sorry to disappoint them.

One tarnished star necklace with “forever” and a pale pink gemstone on its sickly green-gold exterior. A metallic smell rubs off on my thumb with some of the discolor. I remember the day I first put it on ten years ago; it gave me a rash.

The trash can is two feet away, cold, black plastic and a fresh-linen Febreze lining.

I slide the chain into a corner of the cardboard box.

A pair of lime-green mirror-dice go in next. Several of the white pips have ripped away from the fuzzy flesh over the years, forming a pair of unique five-and-a-half-sided die. I’ve owned a car for six years and they’ve never made it to their predestined place on the dashboard. I put them in the box too.

Then goes the pin—National Junior Honors Society—another participation medal, but this one means something: 10 hours of community service, one meeting per month for two years, and 20 hours of 7 a.m. boredom, of eye-tearing yawns, of monotonous voices, of passive participation. But it was all worth it: I got a pin.

The trash can leers at me. On the television, the overly enthusiastic announcer for HGTV is narrating a frightening turn of events on “Flip or Flop.” With over $50,000 sunk into a house renovation in Palm Springs and no money left to fix the pool, will this house be a flop?

The houses never flop. What’s a flop for a couple of millionaires anyway?

There is an award for studying French: a ribbon and a pin that both say “Je parle français!” These are for gratitude, not participation. For sticking it out when no one else would. Bon effort et bon chance avec ta vie! Even the students whose greatest achievement was the ability to make the correct choking sound when pronouncing their r’s received a ribbon.

I try not to put this one in the box.

I slide the trashcan forward and its plastic bottom skips over the surface of the wood, skidding with a thunk-thunk-thunk until it bounces against my knee. It would be so easy to make the mocking gold ribbon disappear in a hollow void of Febreze darkness. So easy to remove it from sight—to forget.

I slide it into the cardboard box when I am not looking.

On the television, the host looks relieved. “After three weeks on the market we finally received an offer on the house,” he says. “If this deal goes through, we stand to make a profit of over $73,000. Time to find another house to flip.”

Short Story: Lessons Learned

Another short story from my creative writing class! Enjoy :) Also, today marks my third year on WordPress! Hurray!

~~~~~

Lessons Learned

Miss Papperman’s School for the Gifted Elite was both opulent and terrible. Referred to as “the bastille” by the students who attended it—sons and daughters of government officials, politicians, lawyers, doctors, ambassadors, and heir apparents—it instilled terror in every child that approached its leaden oak doors—not because the students were terrible, of course; the students were quite bright.

For Emilia Summers, the faded taffy bricks and dilapidated shutters, black with wood rot and stinking of mold, were nothing more than another stop on a long list of places she would rather not be. An unfortunate consequence of orphanage.

Lilian squeezed her sister’s hand, petite, white-laced fingers pressing insistently against the calloused skin. “Do you think,” she squeaked, peaking up at the decrepit school through a veil of lashes, “we will be able to find a mother here?”

Emilia shook her head. “This is not that kind of place.”

“Oh.” Lilian nodded, blonde curls bouncing. It wasn’t another minute, however, before her voice was ringing out again. “What are we going to do here?”

“Learn lessons,” Emilia said, drawing her lower lip into her mouth and chewing gingerly on a corner—a gesture much older than her thirteen years. “Mathematics, sciences, history, and language skills; things like that.”

Lilian accepted this new information with reserved silence, neatly folding her hands in her lap as they waited. They were perched on a carriage bench just outside of the wrought iron gate that separated Miss Papperman’s academy from, well, everyone else. They had been waiting exactly twelve minutes—Emilia knew because she kept checking the old pocket watch that she had stolen from their last home with the Bittermans before, once again, they had been sent away—and yet there was no movement from the grounds. In fact, aside from the coachman and his skittering dapple mare who had dropped them off with one meager trunk between them (apparently this far into the countryside they did not believe in cars) Emilia couldn’t remember seeing another living being whatsoever.

“Are you sure they are expecting us?” This time Lilian’s voice was like a fading bell, not much higher than a whisper.

Emilia’s head tipped to the side as the biting of her lip grew more adamant. “The letter most definitely said April sixth at two p.m. sharp.”

“That is correct,” came a barbed voice behind them, interrupting the silence. A woman had appeared on the opposite side of the gate, though Emilia couldn’t remember seeing her approach. She had a sharp nose that jutted away from her face and hooked at the end like a beak. Her shriveled lips pinched into a thin, bloodless line, emphasizing the paleness of her complexion and the large scale of her other features.

“I am Miss Papperman,” she snapped. “You are Emilia and Lilian Summers?” She didn’t wait for a response before spinning briskly on the soles of her feet, her gray carpet-dress swaying as much as the overly starched fabric would allow. “Follow me.”

*          *          *

There was a pond on the farthest corner of the school grounds, one that could not be seen from the windows of Miss Papperman’s office-apartment. It was tucked into the corner of the fence that surrounded the academy—red bricks ten feet high, the color of the school before one hundred years of weathering—protected by overgrowth and clinging ivy. The pond’s surface was mossy, smelling of greenery, fish corpses, and still water. The shadowy figure of what could have been a carp meandered close to the surface, bobbing just below the water’s edge, and disappearing back into the murk before Emilia could tell for certain. She wasn’t sure why she thought it was a carp, except that every time Mr. Bitterman had returned from his fishing-hole, weary and stinking of fish guts, he would always mention carp. If he was bustling and tart it was because only carp were biting that day.  If he arrived at the house whistling “Daisy Bell” it was because the snappers were biting, or maybe the bass—as long as it wasn’t the carp.

Looking around, Emilia sighed. This was definitely a carp kind of place.

“You really shouldn’t be sneaking off on your own,” a voice said. He stepped forward from behind a cluster of undergrowth, wild grasses extra high near the brick wall. All five feet and six inches of him, his arms crossed over the chest of his uniform, creating wrinkles, a sneer on his lips.

She recognized him from her class—the fifth years—Daniel McGuill, governor’s son.

“What do you want?” Her voice was firm and his eyes widened in surprise. She hadn’t meant to be so forceful but she didn’t regret it. He was always leering at her from the other side of the classroom, through the clouds of chalk dust between instructors as the class president swiped away the history of the Opium Wars or several half-attempted solutions using the Pythagorean Theorem from the board. It had only been three days, but Emilia was already used to the stares, not just from Daniel but from almost everyone; some curious, most spiteful. She was one of the orphans, one of the two students who definitely didn’t belong. A charity case.

He brushed off the surprise of her last comment with a shrug, though he refused to answer, trudging forward and toeing at a pile of dirt clotted near the edge of the pond. He kicked it into the water, breaking the surface with a hollow plunk and agitated ripples, and the shapes beneath darted away. “How did you find this place, anyway?”

“I walked,” Emilia said simply, pursing her lips and brushing damp palms against the edges of her hand-me-down navy skirt, left behind at the academy by a past graduate. Emilia imagined that the girl, whoever she was, now lived as a farmer’s wife, enjoying the quaint solitude of milking cows in the morning, or as the mistress to Leonardo DeVelli, Magic Man Extraordinaire! Touring the globe and astounding the mind! Leaving Miss Papperman’s School for the Gifted Elite far behind her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked as a way to break the silence, though she didn’t much care. She just wished he would leave.

Daniel McGuill had dark, untrustworthy eyes. Emilia had decided that the first time she saw him. His eyes had glinted as she passed him in the hall outside of the history classroom, scrutinizing her. And when he had turned away to whisper something in a friend’s ear, resulting in a snicker in her direction, she had been quite certain she could never trust him. Now, watching him brush a hand through his hair—an unsuccessful attempt at nonchalance—she was sure of it. “I wasn’t going to,” he said at last, taking a step toward her, and she found herself with her back to the water’s edge. “But then I realized I was the only one who saw you leave the classroom, and I thought this would be a wasted opportunity if I did not—” He paused. “—invest quickly.” Words he had heard from his father, no doubt, Emilia thought as he took another step forward—the last step—closing the space between them.

Her stomach clenched and she leaned away, nose crinkling from the over-pungent smell of moss. She squared her hips above the soft earth, boots sinking a centimeter or two into the water-logged ground.

Daniel’s voice was lower when he spoke next and he leaned so far forward she felt the heat of his breath brush across her chin, humid and smelling of strawberry tart. “It is very important that you follow the rules here. Rules are meant to keep things in place. Including people.” When he pulled back his dark eyes glinted. “Know yours.”

The force of his shove was even stronger than she had anticipated and she sensed the loss of traction before she felt it; boots sliding, skirt lifting, arms flailing—

Splash.

Submerged beneath the murky water, lungs tight in her chest, clamoring for air, she felt something brush against the back of her hand—then two somethings. It wasn’t long before the shadows she had seen beneath the water were swarming around her. She lunged for the surface, spluttering as she choked on water that was forcing its way down her throat.

The pond was shallow enough that she could stand once she’d managed her footing, and stockinged thighs protruded from the water just beneath her water-logged skirt. Emilia glanced to the edge of the pond but Daniel was gone. She imagined him staying for the splash and then leaving with a satisfied grin.

Her shoes were heavy, suctioning into the muddy bed of the pond as she trudged toward shore, stopping only when a jerking movement in her skirt pocket startled her. Her prodding fingers were hesitant as she lowered her hand to remove whatever it was inside. She winced when she wrapped her fingers around a slick object that lurched when she touched it. Collecting her breath—and wishing it was as easy to gather bravery—she pulled the thing away from her.

In her hand, floundering, its red-brown scales flashing beneath the sun, was a carp.