Category Archives: 2018 Festival

Winning Story 2018: Adult 1st

The Idea of A Big Blue Diamond
by Lis Jakobsen

Martin wanted to talk about the meteorite that landed on some guy in Ukraine. Ellie didn’t want to hear about it. It was nearly eight o’clock when she hauled herself through the front door, dragging a crammed briefcase.  If she had wanted to talk, it would’ve been about what a huge donkey pie hole her boss was.  Her husband never wanted to hear about it.

Instead, he was poised to use the fate of the unknown bus driver, the fireball lottery winner from somewhere near Kiev, to fuel another meditation on the imminent end of the world. 

 “Even you can’t ignore or smartass your way through this warning sign.”  He rapped the table with his knuckles as if nailing a summons to the door. “Not this time.” 

Two red gel capsules lolled on the floor by a plaid slipper.  Here we go. Don’t say a thing.  She dropped her briefcase at the kitchen threshold and kicked off her punishing shoes. Maybe it was the relief that visited her shoulders and feet, with its surge of transient lightness. Don’t say a word. Tonight of all nights.  Focus, focus, focus, Ellie. Maybe it was the dryness at the back of her throat that needed slaking words to stop her from losing her nerve. 

 Or maybe she blurted it out because she was just a congenital smartass. “How ‘bout that.  If it isn’t Ukraine’s turn to be the epicentre of calamity tonight.” 

His head snapped up, sending a cloud of cigarette smoke roiling toward her.

Sit down and for God’s sake, shut up. But there was too much skidding momentum now.  “Should we alert Chicken Little? About her awesome vindication?”

He mashed the cigarette in the ashtray. 

 “Cluckety-cluck, if she wasn’t right about this darned end of the world thing.” She raised her bent arms, fisted her hands and tucked them in her armpits.  “And starting in Kiev of all places.”  She flapped her arms like a wing-clipped hen celebrating victory. 

“Don’t!”  He put a hand on his forehead, screwed up his face and whispered, “Just don’t.”

But her lungs felt seared by years of second-hand smoke and an unnamable heat that made her rush on. She stretched her neck and jutted her chin back and forth. “And bonus:  No more Chicken Kiev!” She pumped her wings and hurled a scorched sound from her throat. “Bah-gawk! Bah-gawk! Bah-G-a-w-k!”

The last squawk rasped their ears, clawed at the paint, taxed the last of the drywall’s patience and finally infuriated the studs underneath.  Its force and the inrush of silence that followed made the room sag with exhaustion.  She dropped her arms and let them hang limp at her sides. 

He shook his head, the way you did when other people’s brats squalled through a restaurant brunch. “Are you done now?”

The set of his mouth signaled she’d torn their flimsy truce, brokered by a détente whose code neither understood, but knew when they saw it. “You want to hear this or not?”

 “Sorry, my bad.” She crossed the kitchen. “Please go ahead.” Her eyes—fixed on the floor in a practiced impersonation of remorse—avoided the yellowed walls and nearly amber ceiling.

When they bought the house—how many years ago was it now? —the small kitchen with its compact whiteness felt like a clamshell, the talk fluid, receding and renewing over long hours. He offered plans to go back to teaching, maybe in the fall. She countered with a flare of pride in her salary, money that could support two until he was ready. They’d sat close at the table, the current nudging them until their temples nearly touched.

Now she imagined another kitchen table.  But the anonymous meteorite victim wasn’t foremost in her thoughts. It was his wife—let’s call her Ludmilla—as she sat digesting the news.  No doubt there was shock, given the circumstances of her husband’s demise.  But was she grieving? Relieved?  Maybe both.  Had his warmth, curled around her every night, compensated for his steady vodka intake or the way he slurped his borsht?

Yes, Ludmilla, I feel for you and send sisterly consolation and a tip of the hat to your conflicted feelings.  When it all comes down to it:  you still have to watch a man eat his eggs. 

Ellie watched the movement of Martin’s jaw, flocked with a week’s growth. “Climate change.  Dwindling species. The scourging of natural beauty until the world is one big dustpan. And now— raining meteorites.”   The stubble scraped the air as he spoke. 

She thought about razors.

 “And now, are we just going to shrug about a massive boulder—straight out of the final frontier—obliterating a man? Will we treat this as a mere exclamation point in our thick book of denial?” Visibly pleased with his analogy, he paused to lick his lips, bracketed at the corners with dried coffee.

She thought about eggs.

At this table, through their courtship and new marriage, there’d been scrambles, omelets and soufflés, made and eaten with equal passion.  And games of strip Scrabble where she learned to eased her panties off early in the game and drop them on the floor, causing distraction and certain victory.  In between he told her there was a Japanese word, tsundoko, a name for the habit of buying of books you never read.  She’d allowed him the points.

They talked about names for the two children they’d wanted. But since the world was ending there was no point in further debate about whether the name Lenore was too burdensome for a child. Or Esther too biblical, a definite taunt now that the Horsemen of the Apocalypse were currying their chargers.  Getting ready to saddle up.  

 She opened the curtain, faded from her efforts to wash away the smoke sallow, hoisted up the window, drew a breath and sloped toward a chair across from him.  There was a cinder of hope that this meteorite thing would inspire a less mind-numbing Jeremiad than the one about the three-clawed lobster caught off Herring Cove, Nova Scotia a couple of months back. Martin had ridden a galloping filibuster about the third appendage and its implications for certain doom. 

Weeks later, patches of it still replayed in her ears.  “Toxins making lobsters—and next, all ocean life—morph into the unknowable . . . all grace gone.”

While he’d called down the saints, cursing them for ignoring crustacean prayers, she swept and washed the floor. When the broom caught a truant red capsule, she picked it up and stored it in her pocket.  “Sure. Sure. Soon we’ll finally be wiped out by a global tsunami or done in by our profound moral decay.” 

Her finger traced the barbiturate’s hard gelatin casing. “But just think of all those tasty extra lobster claws we could be noshing on while we’re waiting for the end. Even though it might suck if there’s no butter after the cows all meet the big farmer in the sky.”

“Please, El, I wish you’d take this seriously.”

“So do I.” She put the mop and broom away. Rubbed the small of her back. “Wish I would.”

That wasn’t true. Mostly she’d hoped to remind him about food. It was Martin’s job to buy groceries and look after the cooking. He hadn’t made dinner in a long time.  Or any meal, for that matter.  

Tonight was no exception. No simmering pots steaming up the windows.  No bottle of wine airing on the counter.  The ashtray held a day’s worth of butts and the sink was dotted with Italian coffee cups tarred with espresso dregs.

A reliable resignation began at her feet and worked its way up, settling in her mouth like a lozenge.  She turned to gauge him. How stoned was he? Judging by the early shimmer in his eyes, she guessed he had about fifteen lucid minutes left. After that, his observations about the road to oblivion would start to blur. Borderline incoherence would arrive in less than an hour.  She figured he’d still be sitting upright though.

Satisfied her timing was right, she held up the espresso pot. It had gone tepid. “Do you want the last of the coffee?” 

Of course he did. He had a never-ending thirst for it. He always gave the cup a delicate little slurp when he finished. Hey Ludmilla, are you there?  Did that kind of swig make you grit your teeth too?

With her back to him, she warmed the coffee in the microwave and stirred an Inderal tablet into the cup.  She watched him drink it in two gulps. Good. The Inderal would prevent vomiting if she waited an hour.

Martin was saying more about the meteorite—maybe how Ludmilla’s husband was squashed like a bug or flattened like a beret.  But her attention was out the window at his half-finished birdhouse in the backyard.

She turned away as it swiveled on its post. Its boney frame, eroded by six unpainted winters, made her shiver and feel a bit lightheaded. There’d been no time to eat lunch. Maybe he’d managed a trip to the grocery store that day, at least to buy some bread. 

 “So get this.” His gaze followed her as she foraged through the shelves.  When the meteorite hit, it left a whopping eight-foot-deep crater.” 

She heard the creak of the birdhouse as an evening breeze picked up.

“But here’s the amazing part.”

As if a man killed by a meteorite wasn’t amazing enough. 

“The news yesterday reported that afterwards they found a large blue stone beside the crater. Looked like some kind of diamond.”  He lit a cigarette with the artificial steadiness of a veteran barfly at the wheel.  “Unearthly.” The lighter fell out of his hand and clattered on the table. “That’s the word one witness used to describe the blue. Unearthly.”  This time it sounded more like “un-early.”

She gave up searching the fridge, straightened her back and shut the door. “Yeah, well.  The latest news reports today said it was a gas explosion.” 

A clumsy attempt to brush ashes off his chest left comet-like streaks on his t-shirt. “Just another one of their lullaby cover-ups.”

She found a half bagel in the breadbox.  Not too moldy.  She could cut that away and put the rest in the toaster.  There was a blob of peanut butter left at the bottom of a jar. 

“And that unearthly blue stone?” She got a knife from the drawer. “Turned out to be melted glass from the fire after the explosion shattered windows at the scene.”

He looked at her in a way he hadn’t in a long time. “When we first met, the idea—just the idea—of a big blue diamond. Think about it now for me, El.”  He ran a hand through his hair, the new grey strands more pewter in the uncurtained light. “Just the idea of a token of beauty from a universe on a warning mission?  It would’ve been enough to feed us for days—as long as we had enough wine.”

The rumble in her stomach was strong enough by then to bullhorn into her ears.  If she’d heard him, she’d have winced at this sort of cheesy aria, the kind she used to find so romantic. She finished her sandwich in three bites, glanced down every few minutes at her watch and mined her own thoughts.

There was a time in the early days when she hung on everything he said. She was in sudden possession of poetry, dance steps she hadn’t known she’d wanted to learn, food and wine she hadn’t known the names of. He’d cooked for her—lavishly. 

Almost forgotten was the awkward, but promising rough draft of his novel, achieved with her input and urging. “A small miracle,” he said. Ellie wasn’t sure if he’d meant her or the manuscript. 

 Miracles seemed plentiful then, including a keepsake from their first year, still wrapped in tissue paper and kept tucked in a drawer. “I was doing the laundry and noticed you only had one strapless bra,” he said one day when she arrived home shortly after they’d moved in together.  “So I went out and got you another one.”

 Though the need for strapless lingerie had been overestimated, she knew she’d never throw that token away. 

  From the beginning, she’d known about the drugs. In those days, they had a much looser hold on him. But smart women, stupid women and all the middle brows in between have one thing in common:  They’re so sure their own intoxication can save a man from himself. 

Right, Ludmilla? Hadn’t it all seemed so manageable? 

Then ten years went by.

Last Tuesday, she said, “Guess that means you’re off the hook for taking the cat to the vet to get her shots, which by the way, were due three months ago.” That was after an extended account of the plastic bag Armageddon that was going to smother us all. “And, for my part, here’s a solemn pledge.  The International Adopt an Oak Sapling Fund? Not getting another red cent from me.  

 “Not funny, Ellie.”

Neither was living with a drug addict. 

Junkies boiled everything out of you—all of it. They gobbled up all your compassion. Zombie-feasted on your time. 

You sat with them at the shrink’s office. Drove them to rehab. Sought the consolation of friends until it finally ran out. You put a pillow under their head and covered them with a blanket when they passed out on the kitchen floor. Went without deep sleep for years because they thudded and stumbled at all hours of the night. Washed the piss from their clothes. You did this until sympathy for their suffering dribbled away, leaving only a parched sense of duty.

An hour had passed.  His eyes were getting droopy.

She opened a cupboard, took out a tetra pak of orange juice and poured it into a small glass. Perfect, it was at room temperature. From her pocket she took an envelope that held the powder harvested from fifteen red Seconal capsules.  She dumped it in, stirred the juice. 

Some time after he drained the glass, things started to slow down faster.  His speech became softly muddled. His words, like his body, swayed like underwater reeds in the current.

She caught him as he tilted from the chair. Lots of practice over the years meant there was no trouble easing him gently to the floor. 

She emptied the ashtray, scrubbed the cups and juice glass, made a fresh pot of espresso and listened to its burble as it rose to meet the creak of the birdhouse.  She chatted with Ludmilla as she washed the walls. The two of them would put the pillow and blanket away before the 911 call in the morning.

 

Winning Story 2018: Adult 3rd

Cataloguing the Stars
by Andrew Lee

Tombstones were just a case of dead people bragging in the wrong place. Beloved, fondly remembered, loving this and that, nothing about having a crooked, you know… nose.

“Haven’t you heard you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead?” Agnes asked me.

When I die I don’t want people lying about me. It’s a terrible idea you know. Let’s get together all the people who really knew a person well and then totally lie about them. Who do they think they’re fooling?

“It’s supposed to be about how sad you are that the person is gone,” she said.

And what do you say when you aren’t sad about it? I mean, it’s true. There are people who die accompanied with sighs of grief and those with sighs of relief. The stone seldom gives away which kind lays beneath. Secrets and flaws tucked into their dirt beds and kissed goodnight with an unoffending block of granite.

One time Agnes claimed that memory has no acne. When I mentioned it later she said,

“It sounds like something I would say.”

“Don’t you remember saying it?”

“I can’t remember everything. Sometimes you have to guess at what you said

before. You have to say to yourself, ‘Would I say something like that?’ ”

“What if you never said it?”

“If it sounds wise, I’ll usually agree that it was me who said it. If I can’t remember anyway, why not give people the pleasure of knowing someone wise.”

Agnes had this great aunt who slowly lost her memory near the end of her life and so went around writing tags and putting them on things around her house, so people would know who the items would go to when she died. Then she realized some people wouldn’t want the item, so she wrote in a backup. Agnes talked about it for the whole two-hour drive back, while she hugged the Tiffany lamp her aunt left her. Hers was the only name on the tag.

“We are not tagging all of our stuff.”

“Alex, seriously…OUR stuff? We are not tagging all of YOUR stuff. I can do what I want with mine. You barely even have any stuff at my place anyway.”

When she turned twenty-seven, Agnes started having a hard time with reading. Things got blurred.

“Alex, it’s not a big deal. Life is blurred.”

Soon her vision got worse and worse. She would look it over tomorrow, she’d say. Her eyes were “just tired.” The doctors didn’t agree with her. Or rather she didn’t agree with the doctors. Macular degeneration. Agnes was going blind.

“Stop saying blind. I can still see you. I’m still here.”

Look up a medical condition online. Most of them are for older people, sixties, seventies, eighties. Right where it says, “But may occur as early as…” That was Agnes.

“I’m not fucking blind.”

Agnes took it really hard. She used to paint, take photographs. Her house was full

of her work framed. It all happened really fast. The first three months she spent a lot of time sleeping. She told me that it was like the walls of the world just closed in on her. She was trapped inside herself. She started calling herself “the old blind lady.” She was twenty-eight. I moved in and helped out around the house. I wish I could say that I cheered her up.

After about a year, something changed. She started working with organizations that trained her how to navigate the world. It wasn’t just about walking around. She learned braille, how to write and read. She learned to experience the world differently. Two years after she lost her sight completely I asked her if she missed it. It seemed like enough time had passed. She told me that I wouldn’t understand it, but that there was a whole blind culture out there that sighted people don’t realize. If she got her sight back, then she’d lose her world all over again. She wasn’t ready to lose the world twice. It was around that time that I began noticing the tags. They were written in braille.

“What does this say?”

“I told you that you should learn braille, Alex. How can I leave you love notes?”

“I’m trying.”

“It says remember the time you brought me an orange.”

“An orange? Why is the label on a spoon?”

“Remember the time that I said that I really wished we had a grapefruit for 

breakfast, but we were out. You brought me an orange, all sectioned and everything.”

“Oh, right.”

“There is a difference between a grapefruit and an orange. An orange is sweet. I guess you were being sweet too.”

Sometimes I would ask about a tag, but Agnes didn’t always answer. I admit that I stopped asking and finally they became invisible. I did notice when she moved on from tags to small envelopes. She was typing longer and longer notes, but she seemed happy. One day she went shopping downtown. The dark shadows of the past had disappeared completely. She was finally excited about things. New friends, blind and sighted showed up at what had become our house. She stopped thinking of me being here as pity. She never mentioned it, but she started saying things like “it’s your house too.” Mostly when it needed vacuuming, but still. She was shopping for new towels. It could have been any day. She could have bought them any day of the week.

The bullet that killed Agnes was from a 9mm automatic, and was meant for a teenager Jeremiah. After all my stupid fears about her walking into traffic, and my not-so-stupid fears about her not getting out of bed, she was killed by a stray bullet that could have killed anyone. 

I was sitting there, after I received the phone call from the police, and I saw one of her tags. Then I saw another, and another and the more I wandered through the house I realized that they were everywhere, taped to the bottom of things, attached to things in every room. Attached to a mug: “That time when you were racist when you were trying to be sweet.”

“This isn’t the mug I wanted.”

“Does it matter?”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

“I was thinking that there are benefits to being, um, differently sighted. Like now

when someone is talking to you, you can’t see their race. It’s like an ideal society.”

“Yeah, but they can see mine and besides someone’s race wasn’t an issue to me 

before anyway.”

“I was just trying to say.”

“Yes, I know, but you are still stupid.”

There were so many notes and tags, and letters. That time you kissed me. And that time that you really kissed me. And then there was a note that described a scene, this kiss, and it wasn’t me. And then attached to a dress: “The time that I convinced you to wear my clothes and you looked better in them. It was the one time I remember being jealous of you.” That was definitely me. “That time we waited out the rain, under that overpass bridge and you told me all about spray paint and tagging as an art form.” That was definitely not me. I admit I was pretty angry, and then I remember that Agnes had mentioned a friend she knew when she was twelve who became an “urban artist.” These notes, they weren’t all for me. Some were for people from long ago.

And some weren’t.

“Remember when we went skinny dipping in that pool that time because you said that I was beautiful and that you wanted to see each other as we really were. Then the lights of the back yard went on, and the house was full of people, even though you said your friend was out of town. I laughed when they saw me, because it was so surprising but when I got home I cried because that night my body was just for you. 

I never told Alex.”

And buried under books in her night table was a wrapped up little box, with an envelope. 

It said, 

“It was this one time, a year after I lost my sight, and you went to go see your parents. I couldn’t bear to leave the house. There was this little box of razor blades that I used to cut frames for photographs. You need to understand, the world had disappeared for me. I feel so stupid right now, but all there was was non-ending black and I couldn’t take it another day, or another hour. I went to the bathroom and poured a bath and took off my clothes and took one razor blade out of the package. And it slipped out of my hands, and fell without a sound.

I got on my knees and searched for it, reached around like the blind old lady I kept calling myself. There was a whole box of them, but I needed to find this one, for some reason. It took me five minutes to find it. It was sitting on one of your socks, Alex. And I got so mad because you never picked them up, and why can’t you do such a little thing, and suddenly I wondered why it mattered that you left those socks there when I was leaving this world anyway, but it did. 

I cried for an hour, just holding onto your sock. When I finally stopped, I got dressed, and drained the bath and called a counselor, one of the ones you had been encouraging me to call. And when you got back home, your socks were on the bathroom floor and I never complained about them again.”

And the time we hitchhiked: 

“There were so many stars. When that car finally picked us up, I almost didn’t want to get in. You never see so many stars in the city. I wanted to disappear into them with you.”

And a long letter to a friend she had lost touch with:

“I was bringing this blanket I made to you when you told me that you had just lost the baby the day before. I was the first one you told after your husband. And while I held that little knitted thing in my hands, all I could think is how much I wanted to have a little one to share with Alex. There just never seemed to be the right time.”

I invited everyone we both knew to search the house, to match up notes and letters to the ones they were for. I left out the notes and tags that Agnes meant for me too. No secrets. No lies or softening things up. We knew her so much more now than when she was alive.

Agnes, there were times I wondered if, wherever people go when they die, you could see again, or if you would choose not to. I’m not sure it really matters, as long as I could still see you.

We didn’t hide you beneath a tombstone. We planted a tree in our front yard where we buried your ashes. After all of the letters and notes you left, people began leaving ones they wrote to you, tied to the branches of the tree. Some notes were left by old friends, or by family. But some were left by people I have never met and I realize that there was so much more to you than was my role to know at the time. 

There were times it made me angry, but now there is only the feeling that comes when I know I will never see all of the stars. Some days it makes me sad and others it just makes me wonder.

Winning Story 2018: Youth 2nd

Dusk
by Laura Hou

Emil hated dusk. 

He hated that the sun had to set each night. He hated the last sliver of light that lasted for no more than a few moments. He hated the long night that followed the sunset. 

    Emil glanced in his sack of collected berries. There was an even smaller amount than yesterday. The berries on these mountains were almost gone. The only ones that were left were the small, unripe ones. Emil looked up, sweeping his gaze over the barren mountain. The land was drained. Only a few shrubs remained, bearing the tiniest fruit.  It looked like this would be another hungry day. Emil looked towards the small path leading up to the far side of the mountain and bit his lip. Judging by the sun, there was likely to be another half hour of light. 

    It was worth the trip. 

 

    Emil made his way back to the cave that he called home. The sun had almost gone, casting the bleak land into darkness and with it, the bloodshed that was sure to follow. 

Emil lived with his grandpa Castor, a gentle and frail man who had seen death one too many times. He would be glad to leave this wretched world behind if it were not for his grandson. Whenever Emil was around, Castor’s eyes would light up with an ember that twinkled even in the darkest night. 

“Grandpa, I’m back.” Emil announced as he climbed the loose rocks that led up into the mouth of the cave. He came in and put the sack onto the stone slab that they used as a makeshift table. 

“I was beginning to worry.” Castor loosened the breath that he had been holding ever since Emil left in the morning to gather food. “What took you so long?” 

“The berries on this side of the mountain are gone. I had to go to the far side” Emil said absentmindedly. He took out a wooden bowl and emptied the bag of berries into it. 

“Emil!” Castor hissed. “You know you can’t go that far.” 

“I made it back, didn’t I?” Emil said. A hint of guilt crept into his voice. 

“You know it’s too dangerous. What if you got hurt? What will I do then?” Castor sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “You’re all that I have left. I’d sooner starve than lose you.” 

Emil fell silent. He knew ever since his parents died, his grandpa had been extremely protective of him. Emil couldn’t blame him though. In the world that they lived in, no one was safe, and each other was all that they had. 

“I’m sorry” Emil said. “I’ll try to find food on this side of the mountain tomorrow. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and catch a rabbit.” With no way of growing food for fear of being seen by the Hunters and Castor too weak to leave the cave, Emil had to find food for them every day. 

Castor’s eyes softened. He knew Emil was trying to comfort him. With most of the vegetation gone, barely any animals remained. “I just want you to be careful.” He said. 

Emil nodded and moved a slab of stone set against a crack in the wall, he reached in to the crevice and pulled out a small strip of dried meat. It was too dangerous to light fires, even during day time. So, Castor had dried what little extra food they had and stored it in the cool space behind the stone slab. 

The sun had completely set. The only light they had was the moon that peeked through patches of the cloud. 

Emil sat with his grandpa around their makeshift table. “Tell me a story.” Emil said around a mouthful of berries. “Tell me The Story.” In the distance sounded the first screams of the night. The killing had begun. Emil tuned the sounds out, just like he had done all the nights before. 

“Alright.” Castor smiled. He shifted into a more comfortable position on the ground. “Once upon a time, the land was green, lush with forests, grains, and vegetables. There lived billions of people, more than you can ever imagine. They worked the fields together, built houses together. Their houses were so tall, they were even taller than the tallest trees. And all humans lived in harmony.” 

Emil’s eyes widened. He stared unblinkingly at his grandpa, as if afraid the story would end if he looked away. “They were all together, Grandpa? They saw each other, and they didn’t kill? Not at all?” 

Castor shook his head. “No. You see, the Hunters didn’t exist back then. People had plenty to eat. The earth provided enough for humans to prosper.” 

Emil closed his eyes. “It is so beautiful, to think that we can all live in harmony. If only the Hunters didn’t exist, and we had enough to share.” His eyes slowly lit up as he spoke, as if he could almost see the imaginary world. 

Then the light dimmed. “Too bad it’s just a story.” Emil whispered into the night. 

Castor sighed. “Even the most ridiculous stories can come true sometime.” 

“It’s not ridiculous, it’s magical.” Emil said. 

Moonlight slanted into the cave and cast a small patch of light on the ground. 

             “But people were greedy, they wanted more.” Castor gazed at the moonlight on the ground and continued. “They over-worked the lands by putting chemicals into the soil. They spread poison onto the crop to kill insects. They dug holes everywhere for water and fuel. Eventually, the earth turned into a mess. The lands became so poisoned the crops could no longer grow. Food grew scarce. Water and fuel were hard to find. People began to kill. A bottle of water was worth the life of another human. A blanket was worth killing a child. The world was never the same again.” 

            “I wish we could go back to the world before the killing started.  Why couldn’t people be happy with what they were given?” Emil said. 

Castor didn’t know what to say to that. So, he didn’t answer. He looked out through the mouth of the cave, all the way through the clouds. He could almost see the stars. Whatever happened here on earth, the stars would never change. 

 

            Emil woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of clanking rocks under footsteps. The stars and the moon had gone, leaving the night in a shroud of darkness. 

Emil got up from his bed. He felt Castor do the same. Emil could vaguely make out the entrance of the cave. The sound of footsteps got louder. 

Emil reached for Castor’s hand and squeezed it in the dark. Castor squeezed back and placed Emil’s hand against his heart. A silent promise and a wordless vow. It was his duty to keep his grandson safe. And he would do anything to ensure that no harm would come to Emil.

Castor moved to push Emil back, tugging him behind the stone slab they used to store their food. The footsteps had reached the mouth of the cave.  

Emil peaked out. A single figure blocked the entrance of the cave, from the barest of light, Emil could vaguely make out his silhouette. 

The Hunter pulled out his dagger. Emil tensed.

At the moment the Hunter’s finger tightened around the blade, Castor threw himself onto the intruder. The Hunter only staggered but dropped his blade in surprise. Shaking himself free, he kicked Castor in the stomach and threw him to the stone wall. 

“Grandpa!” Emil cried, there was no reply. The Hunter turned around, his eyes narrowed on Emil. Then he shifted his eyes downward, looking for the dagger. With no time to pick it up, Emil kicked it away. But when he tried to get closer to Castor, the Hunter pounced at him, knocking him down. Emil’s head smashed onto the ground hard. He nearly blacked out from the blinding pain. Then he felt a pair of hands at his throat, closing in tight. Emil wrapped his hands around the Hunter’s wrists and pushed but to no avail. 

Stars danced around his vision and his arms and legs turned into cotton. Just when he thought he was going to black out, the grip on his throat loosened. Emil gasped for air and coughed violently. 

When he finally sat up, he saw the Hunter lay by his side, lifeless, the dagger through his back. Castor was sitting to the side, weak and limp, his eyes on the body. 

            “Grandpa, we killed someone.” Emil’s voice quivered. “Does that mean we are Hunters now?” 

    Castor was about to answer when footsteps sounded from behind them. They turned around sharply, a second Hunter appeared at the entrance of the cave. She took one look at the dead Hunter on the ground and snarled. 

    Her eyes wild and dilated, she pulled out a gun and aimed at Castor. 

“Run!” Castor pushed Emil away and took two steps towards the Hunter. Shoot me first. He beckoned. 

            A single gunshot rang through the cave. It bounced off the stone walls and vibrated through the air. 

            Emil ran.

 

            When Emil finally went back to the cave, Castor’s body had cooled. He lay in a pool of blood, a bullet through his heart. The cave had been turned inside out. The makeshift table was tipped over, the beds ripped up, and all the food was gone. 

The moon had peaked out from the clouds again, casting the land in a bluish glow. 

Emil felt a sob break out of him, then another, until all he could do was latch on to his grandpa’s shirt and cry. 

His grandpa didn’t deserve this. Nor did he. None of the people who died each night did. Yet it still happened, like a recurring nightmare.

Come dawn, the land would be silent again, mourning for the ones who died over night. And come dusk, the killing would begin anew, bathing the land in blood. And each day after that. A circle that had no beginning and no end. 

Emil stood up. He dried his tears on his sleeves and made a vow to never shed them again. He was ready to kill. There was no going back to the magical story world. If he didn’t become a Hunter himself, he would get killed. 

At dusk, Emil walked out of his cave.

He was ready, and he was not afraid. 

 

    Autumn morphed into winter, then spring, then summer, until the days blended into one another and only ashes floated around the skies. It turned the earth to a greyish color, the color of death. It even smelt like it, a sharp tang of carrion and bones.  

    It was dusk again. The same sun, same shade of orange, same sliver of light that disappeared too quickly. 

Only this time, no Hunters came out. 

No one hid from the Hunters.   

    A soft wind whispered across the land. It caressed the ashen ground and coaxed the dirt to dance. As the ash slowly floated away, a speck of green peaked out from under the sea of grey. 

    A sprout of grass. 

     A ray of sunshine broke through the clouds. It punched a hole through the veil of darkness and stretched across the land. 

    And in the distance, sounded the first thunder of spring.