Insomnia (A Short Story)

INSOMNIA

(Dedicated to the “Albatross”)

“Roland, what the hell is this?” Ethan is glowering. “I’ve got that SamCorp account meeting in fifteen minutes, and this is what you give me to work with?” He shakes the blue folder like it’s covered in bugs.

I snatch the folder from him. Inside is the report I’d printed out and slipped into Ethan’s inbox early this morning. My eyes blur as I looked over the numbers, lids as heavy as wood. “Give me a minute. I can fix it,” I say, turning to my computer.

“You’d better not screw this up.” He storms off. I take a huge gulp of double-caff coffee, my second one this morning, and get to work.

At lunchtime, I doze off mid-conversation and wake up to find that my coworkers have returned to their cubicles, and my girlfriend, Haley, has sent half a dozen angry texts, the last one canceling tonight’s dinner plans. Great. I toss my half-eaten meal into the trash and hurry back to my desk before Ethan notices I’m tardy.

Greg, my neighbor from two cubicles down, stops to say hi and catches me mid-yawn. “You’re not coming down with something, are you?” He frowns as I rub my bloodshot eyes.

I shake my head. “Just a little insomnia lately.” Understatement. Lately, I was lucky if I could get four straight hours of sleep in one night. Unisom stopped helping. Herbal remedies were useless. Meditation, white noise, no electronics before sleeping…I’d tried it all. And still, I lay awake in bed, my mind a carousel of thoughts.

Greg holds up a finger. “Say no more. Let me send you a link for this new sleep aid, called Doz-Z. My brother-in-law tried it, and now he sleeps like the dead.”

I snort. Sounds like a gimmick. A few minutes later, the link shows up in my inbox. I ignore it.

By the time I drag myself home that evening, I feel half dead. I heat up a carton of leftover Thai takeout, then wash it down with a glass of cheap pinot. Haley calls, and I’m all apologies and promises, so she agrees to go out with me this Friday night. At least, I think we said Friday. My brain feels so sluggish right now, I can’t really hold anything. We hang up, then I head off to bed.

My room is completely dark except for the dim blue glow of my alarm clock. 10:15. The minutes stretch on as I close my eyes, twisting one way, then another. Somewhere across my room, Alexa pumps out the soft, soothing sounds of rain and wind.

11:15. 12:15. 1:15.

Just after two o’clock, I’m sitting up in bed, laptop powered on. I open my work email and find the link Greg sent me. Click. Posted on the website is a photo of a guy snoozing in his bed, unlike me.

TRY DOZ-Z AND GET THE BEST SLEEP OF YOUR LIFE

Underneath this, there’s a bunch of stuff about the science behind the product, and potential side effects. I skim over this and look for the price.

30-DAY FREE TRIAL. GUARANTEED 8+ HOURS OF SLEEP EACH NIGHT.

It sounds way too good to be true. But I’m sleep-deprived and desperate. Before I can change my mind, I fill out the form and send it.

When I get home from work two nights later, someone rings the doorbell. “Roland Zabinski?” the guy asks. I nod, and he hands me a small package. I close the door and tear open the package. I’m not really sure what I’m expecting – pills, maybe? A powder you mix into a smoothie? Instead, I dig out a pair of button-like wireless earbuds and instructions on how to download and sync them with the Doz-z app. You’ve gotta be kidding me.

I get it all set up, press the earbuds into my ears, and sink into bed. “Activate sleep mode,” I say aloud.

“Welcome to Doz-Z,” a soothing female AI voice says. “Would you like to dream tonight?”

I blink into the dark. “Uh…yeah, sure,” I say.

“Okay,” she says. “Dream will begin in three, two, one…”

*

I’m searching everywhere. Around the car. Next to the house. Behind the big round bush at the edge of the lawn. Nothing. I’m heading back when she suddenly scrambles out from under the front porch. Before I can do anything, she pelts right in the face with a snowball.

“Hey!” I sputter, wiping away cold, wet snow. “Not fair!”

In a moment, her arms are around me. “What’s not fair? The part where I won?” She kisses me, her full lips warm against my frozen mouth. “Poor sport.” Her round eyes twinkle like dark ponds reflecting the moonlight.

I take the snowball I’ve been holding and stuff it down the back of her shirt. She yelps and leaps away. “Oh, that was dirty!” Her eyes are narrowed, but she’s still smiling. “You’re in trouble now, buster.”

“Oh, am I?” She’s giggling as I chase her across the lawn. When I catch her, my arms encircle her waist, and I pull us both to the ground. She’s dusted with snow, like powdered sugar, her face electric with joy. My heart does a backflip.

“Marry me, Marley.” I smooth back her hair with a gloved hand.

She stares at me intensely, trying to see if I mean it. “Yes,” she whispers. Then the world around me fades to gray and dissolves.

*

I bolt upright in bed, gasping. “What the hell was that?” I say aloud.

“Your dream has ended,” says the soothing AI voice. “You have slept for nine hours, thirty-two minutes.”

Nine hours? “Shit.” I dig the earbuds out and drop them on my nightstand. I’m late for work.

“You missed the meeting with marketing.” Ethan’s pissed.

“I know. God, I…had some car trouble.” Still a lame excuse, but sounds better than sleeping in. I work extra hard for the rest of the day to make up for it. I feel more focused than I have for a long time, except for brief moments when Marley’s face would swim across my thoughts. She was just a dream, I remind myself, shaking the thoughts away.

“Would you like to dream tonight?” asks the AI when I’ve settled into bed that night.

“Yeah.” I countdown with the voice. Three, two, one…

*

“I feel like a cow.” Marley pouts and rubs her swollen belly. “A big, fat cow.”

“You’re not fat.” I place my hands on her belly, too.

“I’ve got a name idea.”

“What now?” I cock an eyebrow, waiting. Marley’s ideas to name our first baby have ranged from terrible to atrocious so far.

“If it’s a girl, Leia.”

I groan. “Vetoed.”

“If it’s a boy, Han.”

“Why not Luke? At least Luke sounds normal.”

“Who wants a normal name? This baby is special, and deserves a special name.”

“I still like the name Catherine, after my grandmother.”

Marley gasps, her eyes wide. “Did you feel that?” We both stand very still. Then I feel it. A thump from somewhere inside her belly. The baby – our baby, is kicking.

“See?” I say. “She likes the name, too.”

*

I’m late for work again. This time, Ethan doesn’t notice, but I know I need to figure out how to wake up on time. Maybe the app has an alarm feature.

“Your free trial has ended,” says the AI when I lie in bed two nights later. “If you commit now to the one-year plan, your credit card will be charged. Shall I proceed?”

I think of Marley and our daughter, Catherine, waiting for me at home. Our dream home. My dream family.

“Yes,” I say.

Each night, I hurry home from work, eager to fall into dream mode. And each morning, I reluctantly remove the Doz-Z earbuds and head to work.

“You seem more chipper lately,” Greg remarks one day. “Things going better with your girlfriend?”

Girlfriend? Oh, her. “Haley and I broke up.” I left out the part where she had accused me of cheating and said she never wanted to see me again. I mean, I technically was cheating, since I kind of have a wife and family, so I didn’t bother to correct her. “It’s that Doz-Z app,” I say. “It’s really helping me get some good sleep.”

“Glad to hear it. My brother liked it, too, but he had to quit. Too expensive.”

The truth is, I haven’t even looked to see how much the service is costing me. When I get home, I call the credit card company for recent transactions, and learn that my payment in the amount of $10,000 was declined.

$10,000! My head is spinning. I was expecting maybe a couple hundred. There’s no way I can afford to continue using the app. But Marley, and Catherine…

*

That night, Marley and I take Catherine to the beach. It’s her first time seeing the ocean, and she squeals in delight as the waves wash against her pudgy toes.

“Build a castle, Daddy!” Catherine holds out her pink pail and shovel. I kneel in the damp sand and begin to dig as Catherine dances around me. The sun is warm on my bare shoulders, and the air is fresh and salty. I glance back at Marley, who waves from her beach chair, her free hand resting on her belly. She is pregnant again.

“There!” Catherine places a sand dollar on top of the mushy castle I’ve built. “That’s the princess who lives there.”

“Princess Catherine,” I say.

*

It’s becoming harder to wake up from the dreams. “Ten more minutes,” I murmur to the AI. Ten minutes becomes thirty, then grows to an extra hour of sleep. I creep into work later and later each morning, often unshaven, wearing wrinkled clothes from the day before. It was just a matter of time before Ethan calls me into his office, expression grim.

“I need employees who take their jobs seriously,” he says. Security walks me out of the building. I head home, clutching a cardboard box filled with my belongings.

“Would you like to dream?” asks the AI.

“Yes.”

*

Catherine is growing. She curls in my lap as I read her stories and stroke her soft curls until she falls asleep. Then I join Marley as she places baby Luke in his crib.

“Our almost perfect family,” she says as we gaze down on our son.

“Almost perfect?”

She sighs. “We’re missing one important piece.”

I kiss her forehead. Catherine and Luke. The perfect house. The perfect wife. What could possibly be missing?

The next day, Marley shows up with a squirming bundle in her arms.

“A puppy!” Catherine is ecstatic. She reaches up to pet its silky brown fur.

“I have a few name ideas,” Marley says with a mischievous grin.

I groan. “Oh great.”

*

The Doz-Z bill arrives in the mail. We were unable to charge your credit card. Payment is due immediately.

I toss the bill on the growing pile of unopened mail, wolf down a piece of burnt toast, then return to bed.

*

Catherine plays her first soccer game. She runs up and down the field in her adorable blue uniform, ponytails bouncing.

“Go, Blue Lightning!” Luke and I cheer, though he says it more like B-you Yighting. Aladdin, who is now a fully grown lab, barks and tugs at his leash, eager to join the game.

Marley laughs and pats his head. “Not this time, you scamp.”

*

“I’m sorry, Roland. I am unable to activate sleep mode until your balance has been paid in full.” The AI’s soothing voice only irritates me further. “Would you like to hear your options?”

“Come on,” I beg. “I’m going to miss Luke’s birthday party. We’re taking him to Bounceworld, and Marley baked his favorite cake.”

The AI doesn’t answer.

“Activate sleep mode,” I say again through gritted teeth.

“I’m sorry, Roland,” the AI starts again. I let out a frustrated grunt and pound the bed with my fist. “Would you like to hear your options?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

“You may pay your balance in full right now.” Out of the question. My credit card is maxed, and I haven’t made a payment in over a month.

“If you are unable to pay, but would like to continue using Doz-Z, then you can commit to six months of service as a Doz-Z staff member.”

“Staff member? Is this a job offer?”

“Yes. I can send Doz-Z agents to collect you tonight, and you can begin your service immediately.”

I think of the stack of unpaid bills covering my dining table. I think of the 72-hour warning from the electric company. I think of Catherine, who just lost her front tooth, and Luke, who started Kindergarten last week. I think of holding Marley in my arms, the sweet fragrance of her scented shower gel, her round, chocolate-brown eyes looking back at me with so much love. I can’t abandon them. They are my life.

The Doz-Z agents arrive two hours later. They take me to the corporate building and show me to my desk. “Look over these numbers and have a report ready for me by 10AM sharp,” says the new Ethan, a stern-faced woman with graying hair pulled into a severe bun. I turn to my computer and get to work.

Hours later, they release me, and I take the elevator down to the dormitory, where I share a room with half a dozen other staff members. No one speaks as we change into matching pajamas and climb into our cots. One by one, we all insert a pair of Doz-Z earbuds into our ears and say, “Activate sleep mode.”

“Would you like to dream tonight?” asks the soothing voice of the AI.

“Yes,” I say.

“Dream beginning in three, two, one…”

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Pearls (a Short Story)

PEARLS

string-of-pearls

“You burned the toast again.” Stuart made clicking noises with his tongue.

Ruby shot him a scornful look. “I didn’t burn the toast,” she said, setting his plate on the table. “That cheap toaster you bought burned the toast.” She poured more coffee into his favorite mug – the red one with the picture of the hula girl he’d brought home from their trip to Hawaii eight years ago. Now it had a small chip on the rim, a minor defect, like a blemished tooth. Her fingers itched to throw it away, but she knew Stuart would notice its absence.

With a heavy sigh, she sat across from him and fished the soggy teabag out of her cup. “Anything interesting in the news today?”

Stuart folded his newspaper and set it aside. “The usual overblown political circus and a workplace shooting somewhere in Colorado.” He scooped his eggs onto the unburnt center of his toast and bit into it. “The community section mentioned something about that women’s circle again. The Purple People, or something.” He chuckled.

Ruby frowned. “You know perfectly well that they call themselves the Pearls.” The Purple Pearls were like a cult, always trying to recruit people to come down to the community center for Tuesday craft days and Thursday reading groups, and who knew what else. But Ruby had no intention of knotting a purple bandanna around her neck and going on outings with those women, who were always cooing and chirping like a flock of city pigeons.

“Yeah, well turns out that those Pearl girls are planning to take a big trip. Guess where to?”

“Where?”

“Fiji. Isn’t that something?” he added, when Ruby folded her arms and glared at him. “You and me have been talking for years about flying down to Fiji.”

“That’s different.”

“Different how? It’s the same Fiji. Pristine beaches. Crystal clear water, coconut trees. Paradise!”

“But I’d rather go with you.”

“I’ll be here when you get back. You can bring me a new mug.” He held up the chipped red one. “You don’t want to miss your chance. Think about sinking your toes into that white sand. Think of that warm tropical breeze.”

“But I’m not one of them. Those Pearls.”

“You could be. You already know a couple of those women. And that one with the sparkly earrings—”

“Pam.”

Stuart nods. “Yeah, Pam. She isn’t going to stop trying until you give in and join them.”

“I don’t have time for them.” Ruby stood and began briskly scraping their plates into the trash. “I’ve got to finish crocheting that blanket for Sadie’s baby.”

“You could crochet with the Pearls,” said Stuart, “while talking about your Fiji plans. Come on, sweetheart,” he coaxed, softer, when Ruby didn’t respond. “What’s that I keep saying? Come on, now.”

Ruby gripped the edge of the counter and stared down into the abyss of the sink drain. “Don’t fear death,” she started.

“Speak up!”

“Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life.” It was a quote from Tuck Everlasting, a book they’d taken turns reading aloud years ago, Ruby curled into Stuart’s lap on the soft brown sofa after they’d put the kids to bed. Fear the unlived life. Those words had wormed their way into Stuart’s very being. Suddenly fearful that he hadn’t been living life hard enough, well enough, bravely enough, he’d adopted a new favorite word. Yes. Ride a bicycle across three states? Yes. Read fifty books in a year? Yes. Give up his Saturdays to mentor young men at the job training center? Yes, yes, yes. No wonder they hadn’t had time to travel to Fiji together.

And what about Ruby? Was she living an unlived life? She thought of all the years of raising kids with Stuart. Driving Sadie and Laura to school, to tap classes, to birthday parties. Years filled with Christmases and summer barbecues and family trips to the mountains. Years of bandaging scraped knees and cleaning up after pets and sewing costumes for the annual spring play. When the girls were older, Ruby had taken a part-time job as an office clerk, which later turned into a full-time job, which lasted all the way to retirement. She and Stuart had retired on the same day. They’d planned it that way. And after retirement, Stuart had gone right on saying yes to everything and everyone. Everyone but her. Until recently, she’d had to wait her turn for moments with Stuart. She hated to admit it, hated the selfishness of it, but she was glad that now, he was here all the time. Here just for her.

“Doesn’t Pam live pretty close to where you’re going today?” asked Stuart.

Ruby gripped the counter even tighter and swayed on her feet. She’d almost forgotten she had to go. Almost. “Yeah.”

“Then here’s your chance. Ring her doorbell. Say hello. Tell her your bags are already packed for Fiji.”

“My bags aren’t packed.” She turned around to look at him, mouth twisted.

“You could get them packed in two minutes. What would you need for Fiji, anyway? Besides a swimsuit.”

“I don’t have a swimsuit that fits.” Not anymore, now that she’d lost so much weight. “Guess I could get one, though.”

“Now you’re talking.” Stuart’s grin made his eyes light up, made the whole kitchen light up. Ruby almost felt like grinning, too. “What time is Sadie supposed to pick you up?”

Before Ruby could even glance at the big wooden clock, the front doorbell rang. And rang. And rang, three long chimes and a series of short chimes. Sadie must have let the boys ring the bell, she figured, hurrying to the living room. Sure enough, when she threw open the front door, both her grandsons stood there, wearing grins that looked so much like Stuart’s, her heart squeezed tight for a moment, like someone was wringing out all the blood.

Sadie’s face fell when she saw Ruby. “Mom! You’re not even ready to go yet!”

Ruby glanced down at her stained lavender house robe, then placed a hand on her thinning cloud of white hair. “Guess I’ll just go like this,” she mumbled.

“You can’t go like that!” Sadie sounded dismayed. “It’s…it’s disrespectful!”

Ruby scowled, then headed off to pull on some real clothes to appease her daughter. “I’ll see you later,” she told Stuart as she breezed through the kitchen again.

Stuart winked, then waved his arms like a hula dancer. Ridiculous. She pursed her lips. Did they even have hula dancers in Fiji?

Sadie said nothing about Ruby’s too-baggy attire this time. In fact, her words were syrupy sweet as she drove them across town, talking about the boys’ activities and Halloween costume plans in that kitten-gentle voice people used with small children. It dug under Ruby’s skin like a tick, but she just clenched her teeth and stared out the window, picturing pristine beaches and coconut trees. She really could do it. She could fly to Fiji with the girls, maybe sip some kind of tangy, coconutty rum drink under a strip of the bluest sky. She could bring home a mug for Stuart, and maybe a new toaster so his toast wouldn’t get burned. This time, she did laugh aloud.

“Mother, are you even listening to me?” asked Sadie, her voice tinged with irritation.

“Yes,” said Ruby.

Then they were there, pulling into the parking lot. Damn the parking lot, thought Ruby as they trudged across the asphalt. Damn the tall iron bars they passed through. Damn the perfect grass, as green and manicured as a golf course. She wanted to turn and run back to the car, drive it back home, where Stuart was waiting.

“Are you ready?” asked Sadie. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers, just like a bride. Splashy, yellow flowers. Purple flowers. Tiny sprigs of white flowers. She placed them in Ruby’s empty hands. Ruby imagined herself walking barefoot across a beach, long veil flowing behind her, and Stuart in a suit with the pant legs rolled up, standing ankle-deep in the crystal blue waters.

“Hello Ruby.” Pam was here, too. Not on the beach, but here in the green grass, that damned purple bandanna knotted around her neck. Two other women stood beside her. More Pearls. “I asked Sadie if we could join you today, and she said yes.”

Yes yes yes.

Ruby’s head began throbbing. She took tiny steps forward, Sadie supporting one elbow, Pam holding the other. Fiji, she told herself in a stern voice. Think of Fiji.

“These anniversaries can be hard,” Pam was saying. “We Pearls like to support each other. All of these ladies know just what you’re going through.”

Ruby didn’t answer. She was frozen on the spot, staring down at the slab of stone jutting up from the grass.  Her blood had gone cold, like the coffee in Stuart’s chipped red mug.

“One year ago today.” Pam said this like one might say it’s raining outside, or there’s a sale at Penney’s, or we’re out of milk. “I always did like that quote.” She tilted her head to one side, squinting at the stone slab. “Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life. Wonder who said that?”

“Babbitt.” Ruby cleared her throat, tried again. “Natalie Babbitt. It’s from a book. Tuck Everlasting.”

“Well now.” Pam’s dark eyes burned into Ruby’s. “I hope that you’ll come to our next meeting and tell the Pearls some more about this book. We’re planning a big trip together, you know. To Fiji.”

“Yes.” Ruby nodded. There. She’d said it. Yes.

“So you’ll be there?”

“Yes.” Ruby laid the flowers at the foot of the grave, then turned to go. In her fingers, she clutched a single flower she’d separated from the rest. It was purple, like the Pearls. She was never going to join them, she knew. Never going to wear their stupid bandanna or attend their meetings. They might eat up all her time, then she wouldn’t have any left to spend with Stuart.

Tonight, she decided, she would cook pork chops, his favorite dinner. And she would place the flower next to his plate.

“That’s the color of my new bathing suit,” she’d tell him.

“So you’re going to go to Fiji after all?”

“That’s right,” she’d say. “You and me. So pack your bags. We’ve waited long enough.”

 

 

The Outers (a Short Story)

The Outers

Futuristic Dome City

I felt a pair of soft hands slide over my eyes and knew it was Glen before he even spoke. “I hope you haven’t made plans for this Freitag night,” he said, showing off his knowledge of ancient languages. “I’d like to take you out.”

I smile and gaze into his round, bistre eyes. “Where to?”

He gives his eyebrows a mysterious waggle. “Somewhere special.”

“Hasta viernes,” I said, showing off my own command of languages that had once been widely spoken, but had long since disappeared from the earth. Glen leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, then sauntered off to do his own studying.

After that, it was hard to concentrate on my studies. Glen and I had both been so busy lately, preparing for our detail examinations, that we hadn’t had time to go anywhere together, unless you counted quick lunches on the Green, surrounded by our other sixth term friends. And I did not count those at all. But studying was our lives right now. Our scores would determine our detail placements, and those would determine the paths for the rest of our lives.

Glen didn’t seem to take the exams as seriously as I did. Of course, he had a lot less to lose. His parents were both placed in Detail 1, the most important, influential positions in Oberon. His family had money, status, and connections that my Detail 4 family only dreamed of having. I was so flattered when he’d begun to show an interest in me during our second term of academy, since high-detail jacks like him don’t usually notice low-detail girls. But he claimed to be in love with my mind, and pursued me until I agreed to be his pair.

Right away, I was swept. Glen turned out to be intelligent, witty, and charming — a lethal combination. I didn’t have any choice but to be swept. Lately, however, something inside me had begun to hesitate when he told me he loved me. Now that I knew him so well, I could also see the cracks in his smooth, polished surface.
Glen owned an heirloom guitar — a real guitar, made from actual wood. He’d impressed the other students, and even some academy officials with his ability to pluck the strings and produce beautiful music. But one day, I’d discovered that he wasn’t playing it at all. His hands made clever strumming motions in rhythm to a high quality recording, which played from a device hidden in his pocket, the music streaming out from a speaker built into his shoe. It was just one of many small tricks he played to sharpen his image of he ideal jack, worthy of maintaining his place in Detail 1. I tried not to think about it, to instead focus on his better qualities, like his ability to think up creative algorithms to solve complex issues, or the way his mouth curved when he observed something aesthetically pleasing, like the gentle lines of the new resident building in South C, or the plump, purplish tomatoes hanging from the plants on the academy’s rooftop garden. But though I went through the motions of being his pair, something inside me had frozen, keeping me from giving my all, expressions of love painted on my face like the antique porcelain dolls at the Museum of Human History.

Though my mind raced with curiosity, I forced myself to focus on my studies until the evening chimes floated across the academy campus. Then I ran to my quarters to change clothes and tame my short, wispy curls into a manageable twist. I had no idea where Glen planned to take me, so I played it safe with a comfortable elegant slacks and a top edged with colorful embroidered flowers.

“You’re joking!” I said when he told me the address of our mysterious date. “We’re taking the express?”

“All the way to Titania,” he confirmed. We parked our solar scooters next to the station, then rode the air lift up to the express platform. My heart thudded against my chest as we boarded the sleek machine, which could be powered to travel almost as fast as a rocket, but was often slowed down so that passengers could enjoy the scenic vistas outside the windows. I had only ever ridden the express twice, due to its cost, and only at night. So I’d never seen what lay beyond the windows.

The express glided out of the station, and Oberon faded behind us as we flew toward Titania. Glen relaxed as though he’d made this trip dozens of times. But I pressed my face against the glass, eager to see a world that was unknown to me, except for brief mentions in digibooks.

“What is that?” I frowned at the cluster of squat, square buildings in the distance. They were the same hazy brown color as the foreign sky outside — nothing like the slender towers and clean, blue sky inside of Oberon. The whole cluster had a shabby, thoughtless air, like whoever built them had no concept of aesthetics.

Glen looked over my shoulder. “Those are the Outers,” he said, his voice grim. I said nothing. We did not often mention the Outers, as their very existence was somewhat taboo. A society of miscreants, criminals, people who were unable to thrive within the bounds of a civilized community. Every once in a great while, we’d hear of someone who had committed an act so heinous, that they were deemed beyond the help of the usual redirection and counseling, so they were banished to the Outers.
I shivered and pulled my gaze away from the window, not daring to look again until the train came to a stop inside the walls of our sister city, Titania.

Glen’s surprise exceeded my expectations. He took me to an air skating rink, which very preme among the academy students. You strapped on a pair of wheel-less skates and hovered around a smooth, glowing rink on a cushion of air. I had never been, due to the high cost of traveling to Titania, but I had good balance and physical skills, so I was gliding around in no time, even keeping up with Glen.

Afterward, we went out for dinner at an authentic Old Western restaurants, which served foods like chili and fried chicken and hamburgers, some made with real meat! I looked at Glen, shocked, as he took a bite of something that was cooked with the flesh of an actual fowl. But he just grinned and offered me a bite. I made a face. I wasn’t that adventurous.

After we’d eaten, Glen did something else unexpected, and so old-fashioned, that it fit right in with the themed restaurant. He handed me a small box, then crouched down on one knee on the floor.

“Glen!” I looked around, blushing. “What are you doing?”

His eyes gleamed. “Open the box.” I did. Inside sat a slender silver ring, set with a tiny, round stone that caught the light and sparkled with every color. “It’s called a diamond,” he said, and slipped it onto my finger. “Very, very rare.”

As I held up the ring, staring in awe, he took my other hand in his. “Sochi, will you share with me?” He asked. I redirected my shocked gaze from the diamond to his hopeful face. Share my life with him? Be his permanent pair and bear children with him? My stomach rose and fell like an air lift. A part of me was tempted to say no, to return the expensive ring. But sharing with him would mean a rise in status. A better chance at Detail 1. Better living arrangements and influence for my aging parents. And besides, there were parts of him that I had grown to love. Maybe, like plants choking out weeds, those parts could overtake the parts I didn’t care for.

“Yes, of course.” I throw my arms around him. When I did, I noticed something strange over his shoulder. A small group of young people wearing dull gray uniforms, cleaning and repair supplies in hand. Detail 4 crew, I thought. But then, one of the jacks looked my way. His jaw was set in a disapproving way, his unusually pale eyes squinted and hard, filled with a coldness like metal. His hands clenched and unclenched, and even from where I sat, I could see how red and chapped they were, from hard labor. I sucked in my breath.

Outers. I had seen them before, in Oberon. Such crews were shipped in, and heavily guarded as they performed their work. Then they disappeared, like puddles evaporating from asphalt. I wondered what this young jack had done, what his parents must have done, to lead him to such a hopeless fate, to live in a place still choked with pollution and illness, where survival was more important than aesthetics, and life barely spanned eight decades.

Gale and I planned our sharing ceremony for six months after exams, to give us both time to gain new jobs after placement. We spent time studying together when we could, though it was easier for me to work alone. At last the week of examinations came and went. On shaky legs, I took my place on stage as my peers looked on, then breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as the officials announced my placement. “Detail 1.”

“I knew you could do it,” said Glen, who had also received Detail 1. Within the next two weeks, we were both granted jobs as junior environmental engineers at Tyros Agency. There was no time to even think about planning our ceremony, as the following weeks were filled with orientations, training, and learning how to be taken seriously as professionals, and not just empty-headed neos.

“This is the environmental control room,” said a bored-sounding employee during our initial tour of the agency. “This is where we monitor levels of gasses in the air. Here is where we track natural plant growth, as trees and plants shift the amounts of gasses and reduce polluting toxins in the environment. And here is where we store data.” I peered through the locked glass case at the rows of tiny compartments. Each compartment held a single round, sparkling stone, not unlike the one on my ring.

“Are those diamonds?” I asked.

The employee’s snorting laugh made me cringe. “Real diamonds are more rare than cats,” he said, referring to the once-cherished human pet that had been abolished from society years before I was born. “These are synthetic storage chips, each able to store enormous amounts of data, which can be read by even the simplest computer systems.”

After that, I clammed up, afraid to ask any more brainless questions that might lower my status in the eyes of my fellow engineers. I quietly listened and learned about ways to keep Oberon’s air and water clean and healthy. My mind flickered to the jack from the restaurant, and the unhealthy conditions of the Outers, and I wondered why, with our advanced technology, they still chose to live that way.
Though Glen and I now lived together in our own luxurious quarters, we hardly saw one another. Our work kept us both so busy, we only had time for a few brief kisses before leaving in the morning, and quick, shared evening meals before collapsing in bed, exhausted. It was hard to believe that we would soon be a permanent pair, since at the moment, we were more like distant roommates.

Three weeks before our sharing ceremony, the world came crashing down. “Sochi, someone is here to speak to you,” said the desk assistant over the phone. “Please report to the front lobby right away.” I blinked in surprise and locked my computer. Who could be here at work to visit me? Was it one of my parents? Had someone been injured? I twisted my ring around my finger nervously as I approached the front lobby.

It was not my parents. A team of security officers stood waiting, their faces stern. Palo Vyer, the head of the agency, stood nearby, and Glen was beside him, his expression filled with worry and doubt. My pulse raced with sudden fear. What was going on? Was Glen in trouble?

“Sochi Desai?” said Palo. I nodded. “You are being charged with theft. A very large amount of data was recently downloaded from agency servers, and the download was traced to you.”

“What?” I stared, openmouthed. “There’s no way! I would never do that.”
“As you know, our agency contains very sensitive data that could be dangerous in the wrong hands,” he continued. But I was so stunned by the accusations that I barely heard what he was saying.

“I swear, I had nothing to do with this!” I tried to twist away as the security officers restrained me, locking my hands behind my back. “Glen, tell them I wouldn’t steal.”
But Glen refused to meet my gaze, his eyes cast downward at his own folded hands.
“It was Glen who told us the truth,” said Palo. “Glen chose to come clean when he realized that his pair,” he spat the word as though it were filthy, “is a spy and a criminal.”

Hot tears filled my eyes. “Glen, no…” But the truth was sharper than a razor. Glen, my charming, clever pair, had conned me, like he conned everyone else. He was never going to become my permanent partner. He had set me up for this fall.

I was silent as the security officers took me away. Silent as they strapped me into an express train headed toward an unknown location. Silent as they handed me a rough, dingy gray uniform to wear. I changed into the strange new clothes, and as I did, I slipped my sharing ring into one of my pockets. The security officers had not noticed the ring on my finger. The slender, silver ring set with a small, round stone, which caught the light and sparkled, and contained the secrets that had the power to transform even the most hopeless of worlds.

Plant (a Sort-of Short Story)

For Alan (because I promised him a short story for his birthday. Sorry it doesn’t have a shiny happy ending.)

houseplant1

Plant

 

I’m in a hospital. The word flared across his mind, then quickly faded. No, that couldn’t be right. A hospital had nurses that checked your pulse every ten minutes, and noisy machines that blipped and beeped like video games. This place was calm and white. Blazing white lights. White, sterile walls stretching up toward a high ceiling. White tile floors that felt cool and hard under his bare feet as he dangled his legs over the side of his cot. A long mirror ran across the wall opposite him, reflecting the sparse room, and him – a middle age man with a paunch and hair that resembled a dried-out lawn in need of mowing.

Is that me? He frowned. Were his eyes always ringed by such dark shadows? How had he ended up in this room? What was his name? He clenched the edge of his mattress, straining to recall any details about himself. But there was only emptiness.

He stood, approached the mirror. It reminded him of something he’d once seen. An observation window. Somewhere behind the glass, someone was watching him, maybe taking notes.

“Hello!” He rapped his fingers against the glass. “Is anyone there?”

No response.

He wandered around the room, searching for a hidden door. But the walls were smooth, blank. No way out. But if he got in here, then there must also be a way for him to get out, right?

In one corner of the room, a low privacy wall separated a toilet and sink from the rest of the room. Resting on the sink, a metal cup. He pressed a small button to activate the sink, cupping his hands beneath the thing stream of water and splashing it on his face. Then he explored the rest of the room, which didn’t take long. There was his cot in the center of the room, metal legs bolted to the floor. A few feet away sat a narrow desk with an attached swing-out stool, also bolted to the floor. On the white laminate surface sat a white book and pencil.

He perched on the stool and opened it, hungry for words of instruction, or a written explanation as to why he was confined to this strange place. But there was nothing. Every single page in the book was blank. He looked at the pencil. Were they expecting him to keep a journal? To write a confession for some crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t remember?

He twisted around, facing the mirror again. “Hey!” He waved his arms, certain that they could see him. “Is this some kind of joke? What is this?” He picked up the pencil, threw it across the room. Then he hurled the book at the mirror. It glanced off and landed against the floor. Thwack! “I want out of here! Do you hear me? Let me out of here!”

Still, no response.

The next day (Or was it a day? He couldn’t be sure), his throat was parched from yelling at no one, his hands red and sore from pounding on the glass, on the walls, on the floor. As he sat up in bed, his stomach let out a low, angry growl. When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember.

“Are you going to feed me, or what?” His voice came out in a croak. Didn’t matter. No one responded from behind the glass. Maybe he’d been mistaken to think that someone was observing him from the opposite side. Maybe there was no one. Maybe they, whoever they were, had locked him in here and left him alone. The idea lodged in his throat, too big to swallow.

It wasn’t until after he’d used the toilet and gulped down two cups of water from the sink that it occurred to him. Something in the room had changed. The white notebook and pencil once again sat on the little desk. And in one corner of the room, where before had been nothing, sat a potted plant. It was knee height, with glossy, arching green leaves that reminded him of something. Tree. He closed his eyes, savoring the brief flash of memory. Outside. Trees. Gardens. He’d had a garden at his house! His heart accelerated. A garden with plants like this, sprouting from the ground. Flowers, too. And a tree that burst with orange, sweet fruit. His stomach rumbled again.

Could he eat the plant? He ripped off an experimental piece of leaf and chewed it. Then he spat it out, retching from the bitter taste. The plant was useless.

He stood and began to pace the room, until hunger made him so weary, he at last sat at the table. With nothing else to do, he opened the notebook and lifted the pencil. He intended to write his name, but it still eluded him. Instead, he sketched the plant. It wasn’t a great sketch – maybe he’d never learned how to draw well. But the moment he finished and set the pencil aside, there was a small whoosh sound as a small panel opened in the wall across from him. As he watched, openmouthed, a tray loaded with food slid toward him. Shaking with relief, he pounced on the tray and ate every morsel.

The next day was the same. Only this time, the food didn’t appear until after he’d drawn several pictures of the plant and given it a drink of water from the metal cup. On the fourth day, he filled the entire notebook with sketches and words – rambling, almost childlike writings about the plant. His plant. His living, growing, leafed companion. He was rewarded with more food than he could eat, so he saved the scraps on the edge of the sink.

The day after that, the scraps had mysteriously vanished. And like before, there was a fresh, empty notebook and new pencil. But though he filled the notebook as he had before, no food appeared.

“How do you like that?” he said to the plant, fists balled in frustration. “Now what do I have to do?” No sooner had he spoken than the wall panel opened, whoosh. “Talk? All I had to do was talk to you?” he said to the plant.

He spent the next few days engaged in one-way conversation with his plant. As faded memories returned, he told it all about his life. His lucrative, though unfulfilling job at the bank. His black and white cat, Panda, who curled in his lap as he sat reading in his favorite chair. The strong black coffee he ordered every morning from Java Hut. His routine had been so simple, comfortable, dull. But he ached to return to its familiarity. He longed to sleep in his cozy bed, lulled into drowsiness by Panda’s purr. As he spoke, Plant listened, but of course, never responded. He sometimes offered it water, even reached out to stroke its smooth, rubbery leaves.

One day when he woke, a large pair of scissors sat gleaming on the desktop. He stared at the, puzzled. Were the rules about the change again? “What do they expect me to do now?” he asked plant. When food didn’t come, he turned the scissors around in his hand, feeling the cool, heavy blade. When at last his stomach began to grumble, he lifted the scissors, opened them, and snapped the blades together. A hunk of graying brown hair floated, featherlike, to the floor.

Still no reward.

At last he collapsed on his cot from exhaustion, mad with hunger, the cold floor littered with tufts of hair, white scraps of notebook paper.

He rose with a sick feeling, knowing what they expected him to do. Before he could think, before he could allow himself to feel, he grabbed the scissors and raised them to his plant. Snap! One shiny green leaf dropped to the floor. Snap! Another. Then another. When at last his plant was stripped bare, doomed to die of starvation, the wall panel slid open. He ate, hating himself for his own desperate hunger, tears seasoning each bite. Then he buried a handful of leaves along the scissors, beneath his thin mattress, and slept.

He awoke with a lead heaviness in his chest, not wanting to open his eyes to see the lifeless plant in the corner. But he opened them anyway and yelped with surprise.

Someone else was in his room.

Several feet away, a second bed was now bolted to the floor. In it, a bearded, gray-haired man was sleeping.

“Hey,” he said aloud. Beard stirred. “Hey!” Louder this time. Beard startled awake, confused brown eyes meeting his. In seconds, he was on his feet, backing away, looking around the room with a wild expression on his face.

Guy held up his hands, like he would to calm an agitated animal. “It’s okay,” he said. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

Beard shook his head and spouted panicked words some another language. Russian? Slovakian? Guy had no idea. He watched from his cot as Beard went through the same desperate gestures, feeling the walls for a hidden exit, pounding on the observation mirror, yelling what sounded like a stream of foreign obscenities, complete with hand gestures.

“They won’t answer,” he said. Beard ignored him.

Hours later, when Beard was rocking on his bed, holding his stomach, Guy tried to draw pictures in the white notebook to show Beard where the food came from. But he had no idea how to explain the unpredictable things he’d had to do to earn it. Nor did he know what they were expected to do now.

The next day, Beard turned his back to him, and to the mirror. Guy tried to talk to him. Then he tried singing songs. Were the Food Givers fond of eighties pop tunes? Folk songs? Dancing? He tried everything he could think of, until he was weak with hunger. He even drew lame pictures of Beard in the notebook, and then on the walls. But there was no food. That is, until Beard hurled the notebook at his head, then kicked the pencil across the floor.

The panel slid open.

The next day, Beard destroyed the notebook and cracked the pencil. When he was not rewarded, he took out his frustrations of Guy, pinning him against the desk and twisting his arm behind his back. The resulting tray was piled high with food. Beard left him little.

Guy’s anxiety rose like a swarm of insects, stinging his insides. Whoever was watching was obviously thirsty for blood. Sadistic, the word came to his mind. He couldn’t remember, but he somehow knew that outside these walls, he was not a violent person. He was patient, cool-headed, even under pressure. But this went far beyond pressure.

Beard barely waited for Guy to awaken each morning before the beatings began. Afterward, Guy would collapse on his cot, weakened and bruised, listening to the munching noises as his stronger opponent ate all of the food.

One day, Beard struck him with a blow to the temple that made his ears ring and his vision fade to black. When he awoke, he was lying on his cot. Beard was straddled on top of him, face screwed into a frightening leer. As Guy held his breath, waiting for the next blow to come, Beard lifted a pillow and held it above Guy’s face. Then he brought it down.

Lewis! Fight back! A voice said in his mind. Guy kicked and struggled, trying to shake the pillow from his face. But Beard was too strong. Guy was suffocating, he knew, tiny white points sparking in his vision. He was going to die, just like Plant.

Plant!

                Somehow, Guy managed to slip his hand beneath the edge of his mattress, where it closed around a hard metal object. They hadn’t taken the scissors away. With his last ounce of strength, he thrust the point upward, felt them penetrate the pillow.

No, not the pillow. Beard’s body jerked, then went slack on top of Guy’s. The pillow slipped to the floor, and fresh air filled Guy’s lungs. Still gripping the handle of the scissors, Guy pushed upward, until Beard’s body rolled off of his, landing on the floor with a thud.

Blood, so much blood. Warm and sticky on his hands, on his clothes, on the floor. Still gushing from Beard’s abdomen, where the scissors were still planted. Bile burned the back of Guy’s throat. What had he done?

He clambered off the bed, crawled across the room, retching. What had he done?

“I couldn’t be a soldier. I could never kill someone,” his own voice had said once.

“Anyone could kill a person if your life depended on it, Lewis,” another voice had said.

“Not me.”

The observation mirror slid down like a car window, revealing a dozen watchers in lab coats, all applauding. At the same time, the impaled man on the floor vanished, as did the traces of blood. When the large panel door opened, and a medical team entered to retrieve Guy, he still sat in the corner of the room.

“Lewis,” he said, still clutching the lifeless plant. “Lewis. My name is Lewis.”

 

 

Party Girl (a Short Story)

Did you catch a glimpse of those three guys, as I was walking down the street?

“Hey, Party Girl!” called the tall one in the baseball cap. “Come and party with us!”

So of course I did. My heels clicked against the pavement as I sashayed up the walkway. “You guys ready?” I asked.

What? Did you think I should have kept walking? Did you expect me to say no? Then clearly, you don’t know who I am.

I’m Party Girl.

And let’s face it, a party’s just not a party without me there.

Like this party. An ordinary Friday night crowd of tense faces, drowning in Taylor Swift pop at the bottom of a plastic red Solo cup. Pathetic. But those three guys knew what was up. The minute they sensed my presence, they invited me in. Like any good partygoer should do.

And just like that, everything changed.

It’s like Disney magic sparkles floated in the room after me. Suddenly, the music began to pump, and faces came to life.

“Let’s get this party started!” I said. I popped the cork of a frosty bottle of champagne (what, like you don’t carry your own champagne to parties?) and dowsed myself in the bubbly rain. “Whooooooot!” I cheered.

All around me, voices echoed my cries. The music turned up a couple of notches, and soon, there wasn’t a single person sitting. We jumped and twisted and gyrated our hips to the music, lost in the release.

That’s how it usually goes.

But one night, things got a little out of hand. Sometimes that happens. I don’t know why the party spirit hits some peeps just a little too hard, you know what I mean? Like, the high they get isn’t enough, so they have to throw dangerous crap into the mix. Illegal drugs. Stupid stunts. When this kind of thing happens, I usually take off so that no one can blame me when someone gets hurt.

But that time, I was too slow.

There was an underage kid at the party. A skinny, hungry little thing who wasn’t ready for liquor. Especially the amount of liquor they got him to guzzle down, like he was a car, and they controlled the gas pump.

“Stop it!” I said, trying to push the kid toward the front door. “Let him go home.”

But they wouldn’t stop. They pushed and pushed. Then, next thing you know, the kid was out, flat against the discolored carpet, surrounded by the discarded booze of the partygoers who’d fled the scene. In the spotlight of whirling red and blue lights, the remaining fingers pointed at me.

So the officer did the unthinkable. He fastened cold handcuffs around my wrists and locked me away.

“No more Party Girl,” he said with a sneer.

I waited until he walked away. Then I smiled.

The very next night, while I was lying on a lumpy mattress in my cell, a party began. No, not where I was. Somewhere across town. I could feel the vibrations in my bones.

Somewhere, in an ordinary house, a group got together to let off steam. Someone opened the front door, and in walked a boy wearing bright red sneakers and a grin as bright as the daylight. “Let’s get this party started!” he cried, then pulled out a frosty bottle of champagne (I’m telling you, it’s a thing).

And all around him, the party came to life.

The next night, same thing. Only it was a girl with high ponytails and dance moves like Britney.

Then the officers let me go. Because it finally occurred to them that, no matter how hard they tried to lock me up, you can’t stop Party Girl. Anytime a group of peeps is gathered together, Party Girl will be there, too. I am that guy turning up the stereo volume. I am that girl dragging you into the circle to dance. I am the shine in your glow necklace, the beat in your dance tunes, the cherry floating in your drink.

A party without me just isn’t a party.

So open the door and invite me in.

Are you ready?

Party Girl

Where’s the Story? (aka: A Flash Flood of Flash Fiction)

First, let me make one thing clear. Not all flashes are bad. Some flashes are even good, in fact. Flash drives, for instance, help us to protect our sensitive data. The Flash, I’ve been told, is a pretty fast superhero. And let’s not forget my favorite flash of all: Flash Beagle.

 

But some kinds of flashes earn a thumbs-down. These are brief, destructive flashes that appear, unwanted, leaving destruction in their wake. Flash floods. Hot flashes. Flashes of lightning. And now, the latest trend to takeover the blogosphere: Flash Fiction.

No, I am not a big fan of flash fiction.

What I am a fan of is fiction. Well-written fiction. Convincing fiction that has all of the requisite elements for a good story. An interesting beginning. Compelling characters. An actual plot, climax, resolution. And, of course, a satisfying ending.

Short stories can often accomplish this, if the writer is clever enough. I have read some wonderful short stories by authors great and small, who manage to weave a web of intrigue with a clear beginning, middle, and end in 5,000 words or less. But my personal preference is novels. Give me the thick, juicy, unabridged version of the story. Let me become absorbed in the story, swimming in the delicious stew of words and action. Let me escape to that other world, lose track of days as I drift through the pages. Let me fall in love with the characters as they grow, and learn, and change.

Just don’t give me flash fiction.

The premise of flash fiction is not new. Take a complete story. Now tell it in 1,000 words or less. Or try writing in Dribbles and Drabbles of less than 500 or less than 100 words. Shortest of all? Micro fiction, told in 6 word sentences. For example: Her expensive lingerie collected dust afterwards.

“Oh, how moving!” One blog reader may comment. “So thought-provoking!” Comments another. But I grit my teeth, frustrated. What is so thought-provoking? Why are we calling “stories” what we once called an opening line? Why have so many non-writers jumped on the flash fiction bandwagon, turning the world of blogging into one enormous slush pile?

Yes, flash fiction can serve as a way to strengthen one’s writing skills. And once in a blue moon, I come across some that features high quality writing. But most of the flash fiction, micro-fiction, and other Twitterature I have come across on the internet are junk. Sure, they sometimes have a stand-out character, or a beginning that makes me want to read a little more. But then…nothing. The story never builds. The characters never grow. There is a shadow of a plot, or a unique idea, but the writer, either due to laziness or lack of skill, doesn’t bother to develop it.

Sometimes, I’m tempted to pull on my Miss Snark high heels and walk all over these so-called stories. “Who is this character?” I would ask. “Why did she buy the expensive lingerie? What happened to make her stop wearing it?” In other words — WHERE’S THE STORY? Is this a kind of journal exercise? Am I supposed to take the idea and write my own damned story?

Forget it. I am so done. I shall go and stick my nose where it belongs — between the pages of a nice, long novel.

I can only hope that flash fiction blogging is nothing more than a flash in the pan.

ZELLA (A Short Story)

When one is born with the gift of storytelling, one’s purpose is to offer those stories as gifts to the world. I hope that you enjoy this gift.



ZELLA

It took exactly seven minutes for me to figure out that there was something seriously wrong with Lake Vista High School. It took me just two more to figure out that it had something to do with Zella Marks.

 I don’t mean wrong like street gangs or drug problems (though I did wonder for a while there). I mean horror movie wrong. Buffy the Vampire Slayer hell-mouth wrong. It had all seemed normal for a moment. Familiar. The strips of lawn surrounding long, low stucco buildings. The clusters of students standing around, chatting in the corridors before school, dressed in the usual department store jeans and sweaters. The boring, cookie-cutter classroom that didn’t look any different from my math class back home.

 Home. I had to stop thinking of Rocklin as home. Lake Vista was home now, thanks to my parents, who thought it would be better, healthier for my younger brother, Jack, and me to grow up in a small town.

 “Smell that fresh air!” Dad had said when we arrived at or new house – a sprawling ranch-style with a sprawling yard that was big enough for horses, but would never have horses, thanks to Jack’s pet allergies. We all took a deep sniff of the clean, fresh air that smelled like the lilac bushes next to our new house, and vaguely of cows. Jack broke into a fit of sneezing. Dad cut down the lilac bushes the next day.

 “Welcome to Lake Vista, Sadie,” said Mr. Gordon, my first period teacher. “You may take your seat right behind Cassidy Price.” He pointed to a girl in the second row, who grinned at me as I slid into my seat.

 “You’ll like it here,” Cassidy said. “We all do. I can show you around at lunchtime, if you want, and introduce you to some – oh!” She had been grinning the whole time she was talking, but now, her face fell as her eyes flickered down to my clothes. I glanced down, too, certain that I must have a huge stain on my shirt or something. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “You’re not wearing any blue.”

 “So?” I had picked out a pair of black jeans and a plain, olive green t-shirt. Clasped around my neck was a slender gold chain, from which dangled a tiny heart-shaped pendant. My dad had given me the necklace when I turned sixteen, and I’d worn it every day since.

 “But we’re supposed to wear blue.” Her eyes were round. “Where’s your blue?”

 I blinked. “What is this – Smurf Day?” I looked around the room. That’s when I noticed that everyone was wearing something blue. Blue jeans, blue baseball caps, blue flannel shirts. One girl even had blue streaks dyed in her hair. It would have made sense if Lake Vista’s school color was blue instead of green and gold.

 The bell rang, and everyone fell silent, eyes facing the front of the room. Mr. Gordon made no move to start class. He stared back at the class, occasionally reaching up to tug on his blue necktie. I was tempted to raise my hand and ask what we were supposed to be waiting for, but just then classroom door swung open.

 “Hell-o-o!” A girl sang out. She strode to the front of the classroom, her blue corduroy pants rubbing together with each step. “Ooh, I love all these blue clothes! It’s like swimming in the ocean.”

 “I like your clothes, too, Zella.” A boy with blonde curls gazed up at the girl with a fawning expression.

 “Aww, Prentice, you are so sweet.” Zella ruffled the boy’s hair like she was petting a loyal dog. “Mr. Gordon, I think we’re ready to begin,” she said. As she turned back toward the rest of us, I leaned forward, wondering just how math classes in Lake Vista began their day. I was expecting Zella to rattle off some dull announcements, or maybe to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance.

 What I did not expect was for the entire blue-clad sea of students to burst into song. Especially the chorus of an old Michael Jackson song, Heal the World. As they serenaded, Zella swayed from side to side, hands lifted high in the air. My mouth hung open as I watched the spectacle. Nope, I definitely wasn’t in Rocklin anymore.

 As the song ended, Zella spotted me. “Hi there, new girl,” she said, bending over and totally invading my personal space. Her breath smelled like peppermint gum. “Where’s your blue?”

 I shifted away. “Umm…guess I didn’t get the memo.”

 “Oh, you’re funny!” She laughed – a way too loud, guffawing type of laugh. “Listen, here in my school, everyone wears blue.”

 I snorted. Was she kidding? “Why, is it the law?”

 Her eyes bore into mine. “It is because I will it so. Starting tomorrow, you will wear blue. Every. Day.”

 I could feel a pool of anger ooze toward the surface, like lava. I didn’t care for people giving me orders. “Look,” I said, my voice like steel, “It’s obvious that you’ve got some kind of god complex. But I’m not one of your little worshippers.”

 A slow smile spread across her face. “Not yet.”

 The rest of the day was just as weird. It was like the entire school was a Zella Marks fangirl, decked out in blue clothing, following her around like the paparazzi. It would seem more normal if she fit the typical mold of cute popular girl. But cute was not the word to describe Zella. Her face was too horsey, her chin too sparse, her eyes too small and beady to resemble anyone’s standard of beauty. Her sense of fashion was Walmart chic, at best. So what was this bizarre hold she had over everyone?

 The answer occurred to me in the middle of lunch. Cassidy had abandoned me as I was now on the Great Zella’s hate list, so I was sitting alone at one of the outdoor tables, watching a group of guys (and a couple of girls) flirting with Zella.

 “Please go out with me this Friday night,” said one of the boys in a pleading voice. “I’ve got tickets to an Imagine Dragons concert.”

 “Well, I will cook you a five course Italian dinner if you go out with me on Friday,” said another boy.

 I was too shocked to eat my lunch. It was like they had all been brainwashed. Or hypnotized. Or…or…I grasped at ideas. Enchanted. That had to be it. Zella Marks was a bona fide witch. It was a crazy theory, but it was the only thing that could explain all of this. Every single person at Lake Vista High School was spellbound. Except for me, of course.

 I’m not sure why Zella’s witchy ways didn’t work on me. But as the days ticked past, it became obvious that I was immune to whatever kept the others on her leash. I noticed with some satisfaction that my unwillingness to submit to her command caused her some frustration. Since she had no direct power over me, she used the rest of the student body to lash out toward me.

 “Freak,” kids would mutter as I passed in the halls. “Go back to where you came from.” They left nasty messages scrawled on my locker, shoved books out of my hands. My teachers were in on it, too, granting me grades much lower than I deserved, closing their ears when I contested.

 “Adjusting to a new school can be rough at first,” was all my parents would say. Just give it time.” It’s wasn’t like I could tell them my real theory about Zella Marks. They would have me in 72-hour psych evaluation faster than I could say the word witchcraft.

 I would have to get proof.

 That’s why, on a chilly Saturday night, I sneaked onto the Marks’ property. The moon shone full and round, lighting up the grassy field like a helicopter spotlight. I skirted through the shadows past the line of trees, around the edge of a pond, closer and closer to the small house. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to find – Zella dancing around in the night, throwing toads and newts into a bubbling cauldron?

 A loud sound cut through the silence, and I jumped. But it was only a horse, nickering from a stable a few yards away. I let out my breath, weak with relief.

 Then a voice spoke from behind me. “I knew you would come, Sadie.”

 I whirled around, heart pounding in my throat. There stood Zella. She wasn’t wearing a peaked witch’s hat or carrying a broomstick or anything, but somehow she still looked scary in her too-tight jeans and shapeless t-shirt. Her expression was victorious, like she’d won a bet with someone that I would show up.

 “Now what?” I glared at her, fists clenched. “You drag me off to some ritualistic sacrifice?”

 She guffawed. “You have quite the imagination! I don’t need to sacrifice anybody. I just need you to fall in line.” She stepped closer as she spoke, until she was again invading my space bubble. The moon reflected off her eyes, until it was all I could see as I looked at her. “That’s a lovely necklace.” She reached out and fingered the tiny pendant. Stop! My mind was screaming. Don’t touch that!

 “No,” I said. But my voice was weak. The moon in her eyes grew larger, a bright, mesmerizing light.

“You want to give me that necklace,” she said. Her voice had changed. The words rolled over me like cool waves of water on a warm day. Give her the necklace. It felt so easy, so right to unclasp the chain from my neck and place it in Zella’s outstretched hand. It looked much prettier on her, I realized, as she flashed me a smile and sauntered toward the pond. Tomorrow, I should cut some fresh flowers from my family’s garden to place on her desk. Bluebells. She would like those.

Zella undressed, then began to split open at the seams. Her real skin was smooth and gray, and slick, like a dolphin. As she dove into the pond, flippers splashing against the black surface, I dreamed of Monday morning, and her pleased smile when I wore blue, as she willed it.