Category: original content

(WP) Forgotten Gods

(WP) Forgotten Gods

               Once, I
was a being of unimaginable power. I was able to wield the very power of life,
of creation, like a weapon. The oceans rose at a mere flick of my fingers, and
storms stirred in my very blood. But that was so long ago, back when chaos
itself reigned the world.

               Now, I’m
a freaking cashier at Costco, getting screamed at by a middle-aged mom named
Karen over a damn coupon.

               Back in
the old days, a mere dirty look from me would be enough to make a mortal
crumble, literally.

               “I’m
afraid that your coupon has expired, ma’am,” I repeat, wishing that I could
snap my fingers and obliterate this terrible, awful woman. Is it my lunch break
yet? On days like today, I miss my former existence, and how my siblings and I
ruled the earth, and its elements. It’s a deep, throbbing ache that’s near
impossible to ignore, and I grit my teeth, trying not to let my annoyance show
on my face.

               “But it
says that I can buy one, get one free—” The woman insists, impatiently shaking her
bangs out of her face. Her kid is in the cart, sucking down a sugary liquid
that’s an unpleasant neon shade of green.

               “Yes,
ma’am. Through yesterday,” I reply, feeling the plastic smile that I wear for this
underpaying job turn brittle, more like a grimace. “You came to shop a day too
late.”

               I feel
like a tape recorder, or one of those old-school voicemail machines, on repeat
until the end of time.

               Thankfully,
I’m saved from this awful woman by my boss, Roger, who, under any other
circumstance, is a douchebag. But I’ve never been happier to see the guy as he comes
up behind me and flicks my light off.

               “Timothy,
head to your lunch break, I’ll take care of her.” He smirks at me and winks,
and I don’t need to be told twice, absorbed in memories of the past.

               See, we
could have, and would have, kept our power, if we hadn’t gotten greedy. Never
mind that our power had been rooted in darkness, blood, and death. Gods we
were, but we’d forgotten about the humans we ruled, and their discontent. It
didn’t matter; does a human being think of the deaths of ants?

               But the
sparks of revolution fanned into a flame that consumed us all. The humans
tricked us into leaving our godly plane, trapping us in human vessels and killing
us. We were reborn in a modern age where we, and all of the other deities of
old, had long since been forgotten. And we had to make a living somehow.

               I feel especially
pathetic as I buy some hot soup and a dinner roll and take it to the breakroom.

               Once, I
split open the sky and made worlds of naught but air and a few droplets of
blood. My siblings and I were capable of creating life, and taking it, in an
instant.

               But
everyone knows that even gods can fall from the sky.

**

(WP) Questions for Alice

(WP) Questions for Alice

               It’s a
typical day at the salon when I turn on the news during a color, my client
sitting in her chair with a magazine.

               “Yes,
Jim, well, we’re going to interrupt our usual news programming for a special
report.” The pretty news anchor, Carol Keane, smiles brightly, though it doesn’t
reach her eyes. “We’re receiving word that a woman has been arrested,” She
pauses a beat for dramatic effect, “for murder.”

               At first,
the words don’t sink in. But then the mugshot surfaces next to Carol, and I
cover my mouth to hide a gasp.

               It’s
Alice. And she’s smirking at the camera, holding up her name and number plate.
As usual, she is beautiful, with her long, blonde hair twisted into an elegant
chignon, makeup perfectly applied and nails done, painted a violet so dark they
look black.

               How
could this have happened? I know that she and her boyfriend were having issues,
but surely it hadn’t all led to murder?

               Rita,
sitting in her chair, glances up at the screen and frowns.

               “Is
that Alice?”

               Living
in a small town really sucks sometimes; I remember giving that girl her first
haircut.

               As soon
as I finish Rita’s hair, I close up the salon and head over to the police
station, bits of conversations floating around in my mind like angry bees.

               I’m so
worried that I barely remember the ride to the station, and my hands are
trembling.

               “It’s
nothing, Heather, honestly,” I remember Alice saying, smiling stiffly,
shrugging her slim shoulders. “Frank and I just had a fight, that’s all. A
small disagreement and too much liquor, it’s not a big deal.”

               I
try to press the issue, but she just shakes her head and sits down. “I just
need a trim.”

               **

               She comes
in on a rainy day, and her cheeks are tearstained, makeup ruined despite the
umbrella she’s carrying. A purple bruise stands livid on her neck, like a
strand of bright violet jewels.

“Alice, are you all right?”

I rush to the back of the shop
and make her a coffee, thick with cream and sugar, and press it into her hands.

“I’m fine, Heather,” Alice murmurs,
shivering after she takes a sip of coffee. It’s a constant refrain, even with
my gut telling me that everything is wrong. But I ignore it, not wanting to
rock the boat.

**

And here I am, kicking myself
sounding for everything I noticed but refused to acknowledge. I sit in the station’s
parking lot, punching the steering wheel and wondering if the voice taunting me
in my mind is right.

Could I have prevented this if I’d
said something earlier?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist
to figure out that Frank was abusive. There’s no doubt in my mind that the man
deserved it.

But does Alice deserve to rot in
jail for the rest of her life, just for defending herself?

My decision made, I lock the car
and walk into the station.

**

An officer is sitting at his desk,
taking a bite of a sandwich. His scowl makes me wish that I hadn’t walked in,
but it’s too late to back down now.

“Excuse me, officer, I apologize
for interrupting, but it’s important. I’m here to talk about Alice Dewitt.”

**

(WP) The Goddess of Spring’s Victory

(WP) The Goddess of Spring’s Victory

               “Anthea?”
Paris nudges me, as if to tell me to pay attention. “Our goddesses asked you a
question.” His handsome face is closed off, and his hand in mine sweats
profusely. But, ever a soldier, he does not allow anyone in the room, immortal
or otherwise, to read the emotions he must be feeling.

               I heard
it; I know I did. But I guess I’m still in shock; I’m bathed in the golden
light of Mount Olympus. When Paris told me that he’d discovered a way for us to
be together, I was certain that he was lying to me, until he revealed the
bushel of golden apples he planned to present to the goddesses.

               “Think
about it, Anthea. If we give the apples to the most beautiful goddess, our mere
human trifles will be forgotten in their squabbles. Immortals don’t often think
about humans unless they’re directly involved.” Paris had said, over a hurried
meal of honeycomb, sweetened wine, fresh bread, and the rest of the fruit we’d
harvested.

               “What
better way to please them?”

               I’m
still not sure we haven’t made the wrong decision.

               “Who is
the most beautiful of us all, child?” The Queen of the Gods, Hera, addresses me
directly from her throne for the first time. She smiles beautifully, and a
brightly plumed peacock sits in her lap, adorned with a jeweled collar. “Answer
honestly, and you will be rewarded. You will be given a life with the man you
love, and servitude will be in your past.”

               It does
sound tempting; it sounds like we’re living the myths our culture has been
built upon. But even so, observing the array of beautiful goddesses before me,
I cannot name any of them as the most beautiful. Athena, Aphrodite, Hera
herself.

               “Persephone
is the most beautiful,” I say, after another moment of thought. Of course, she
isn’t here; being autumn, she is in the Underworld, with her husband, Hades.

               A
chorus of gasps meets my declaration, and Paris blinks; clearly, of all answers
he is expecting, it isn’t this one.

               “Are
you quite sure of that, child?” Aphrodite asks, in a voice like bells, but her
bright, blue eyes narrow, and her full mouth purse as if she’s bitten into a
particularly sour lemon. “Beware the wrath of the gods. I can bless your love.”

               “And I
can make sure that you survive childbirth and fill your home with healthy,
hearty children,” Hera adds, smiling so widely that her eyes become mere slits.
I almost miss the heated look she throws the other goddess’s way, and Paris
holds my hand, squeezing it, his dark eyes urgent, as if begging me to
reconsider my decision.

               After
all, our love hangs in the balance of whatever these all-powerful beings decide.

               Their
words hang in the air, honeyed and threatening all at once.

               But I
am soon saved from a response by thick whorls of dawn-pink smoke, and a young
woman steps out from it, clothed in a long, black gown that hugs her frame. The
skirt sparkles as if full of the night’s stars. A large pendant hangs around
her neck, the red jewel resting on her chest. Her hair is long, brown and
curly, and her eyes are a green that reminds me of the valleys I’ve seen from
my master’s windows.

               “I
believe the child has already made her decision in that regard,” Persephone
says, smiling at me. “And that means, ladies, that I’ve won.”

               **

(IP) The Last Dragon

(WP) The Last Dragon

               The
dragon sat sedate on the peak of the hill, listening intently. But all they
could hear was silence. They were alone, and they found no trace of their
brothers and sisters. The clans were gone.

               Was it
possible that they were the only one left of their great race? The thought of
being alone, truly alone on this green, lush planet, made them flap their
wings, walk in place. If they were feeling strong enough to use their voice,
they would scream, weep, or laugh. Despite their loss, they began to explore
their new home. Tall, leafy trees with heavy jewel-bright fruit, a rainbow of
stars and comets stitched in the fabric of the sky.

               It had
been a gorgeous place to land, at least.

               They
wandered, their mind full of memories too painful and fresh to hide from, even
in the beauty of their surroundings. Fire, shrieks of agony, dragons rent to
pieces and cold, wicked laughter.

               There
was a bright flare of hatred inside of the dragon, and upon confronting these memories,
it realized that the humans were at fault for the violence. They hadn’t warred
with the children of Earth for centuries. As their numbers had lessened, they’d
all become isolated, from one another and the outside world.

               It had
been something that they’d longed for since they’d had left behind egg years.
To see real humans, up close, had been a dream, a fire in their belly that hadn’t
gone out. Well, their wish had been granted, a price paid in the blood of their
kin.

               The
dragon found themselves wondering if they’d somehow caused the deaths of their
loved ones. Had the humans sensed its longing, capitalized on it to shed ‘monster’
blood? It was all so foolish.

               What
was the difference, in truth, between a human and a monster? Were they not the
same? Monsters came in all varieties. It was such a trite, human word. After
all, who determined what made a monster so?

Humans were so arrogant, so sure of
their own place in the world, never mind that all manner of creatures had
claimed the world before they so much as drew breath or opened their eyes.

But what good was vengeance,
retribution? The only result would be more spilled blood, and there was more
than enough of that to go around, for the dragon and the humans slain in the
war.

But they couldn’t just give up,
either.

Perhaps there was a better way to
go about things, even though they would never see their own like again.

After they were walking for some
time, the dragon came upon the beach, and beneath their clawed, long-toed feet,
they felt sand, smelled the salt in the air.

They couldn’t see hope now, but
that didn’t mean that it wasn’t there. Things would get better.

The pain would not disappear, but
it would recede with time.

At least the dragon had that. They
had life, and time, and a new home.

For now, that had to be enough.

**

(WP) Unholy Matrimony

(WP) Unholy Matrimony

 These days, it was not unusual for a human to make a deal with a supernatural creature.

Of course, depending on the bargain, you’d have to find the said creature. Demons, merfolk, angels, Nephilim, ghosts, and gods.

For me, I was looking to make a deal with The Devil. Or at least one of his subordinates. Sometimes you have to take some shortcuts to get what you want to be. I considered myself an ambitious person, but I wasn’t about to slave away under some idiot, trying to climb the corporate ladder. Nah, that was thinking too small. I wanted to rule the world, screw the rat race.

So that’s how I ended up in a dry, barren desert in Scottsdale, Arizona, murmuring in broken Latin, the stars staring down like bright, cold eyes. I’d had to pay a pretty penny for the incantation, but what was a few hundred dollars for world domination?

The ghost of my voice hovered in the air, and I gritted my teeth against the goosebumps that sprang up on my arms. If I’d been catfished, I was gonna be pissed. But my fears were unfounded because a plume of red smoke began to cover the sky, funneling toward me like something out of a horror movie.

The smoke materialized into a curvy woman with a bright, crimson grin and eyes so dark they appeared to be black.

“You rang?” She asked, her voice melodic and soft, deceptively so.

“I need a word with your boss,” I said, smirking down at her. “Lucifer, the big guy, the head honcho of Hell.”

“I’m afraid you’re stuck with me,” She rejoined, laughing. “You have to be special in order to talk to The King of Hell, after all. But I can help you easily.”

“Uh, no, you can’t,” I said, shrugging. “You see… I want a special bargain and need to speak to him personally. Go on down and tell him it’s important, won’t you? I’ll make it worth his while.”

The demon frowned, her arms crossed, but her mouth was mashed into a thin line, eyes narrowed; I could tell she was listening to me. I wasn’t budging; this gamble was crazy, and I hoped it would work.

A few tense moments passed before the ruby-colored smoke disappeared again. The wind blew cold, sending up sprays of golden sand. It took so long that I found myself wondering if I’d overreached. If this was the time that my want, desire, and ambition were going to destroy me.

But this time, the smoke blocking the stars was black, dark as oil, as pitch, and a handsome man in a fine gray suit appeared in front of me. His smile was like something out of a magazine, and his eyes flashed dark.

“One of my employees told me you had the most interesting proposition for me.” He purred, in a voice that made me think of crushed velvet. “She said that you demanded to speak to none but me. Lucifer, the first Fallen. I presume you want a deal?”

“Of sorts,” I replied, smiling. “I wanted to offer you my hand in marriage, as well as my soul.”

“In exchange for what, pray tell?” He asked, circling me, a smirk on his lips.

“The world. I want the whole world. I want to be Queen of Everything.”

 I shrugged. “If I have to be on the Devil’s arm to achieve my ends, then so be it.”

Much to my surprise, The Devil laughed uproariously, the sound echoing back at us in the vast space.

“Oh, God, I haven’t seen this kind of ambition in a long time. I love it. You’ve got yourself a deal, girlie. Let’s hit Las Vegas and get hitched.”

** 

(WP) Ragnarok Now

32(WP) Ragnarok Now

You must’ve drunk too much during D&D night last night because when you finally get to sleep, you’re bombarded by strange dreams.

**

You and your party are walking down a wooded path, toward a clearing bathed in moonlight.

You can’t understand what everyone is saying; their words are muted as if you’ve all been dunked underwater. Your steps are especially slow as if the lot of you are walking through syrup.

You hear words coming out of your own mouth, though you don’t even feel your lips move.

“Allfather, maker, and master of all that is, we come to you with heavy hearts. Your children, the gods, control our actions. We seek to wage war against them.”

The clearing goes dark as if the clouds are hiding the eye of the silver moon.

 At the center of it all, there are gravestones, but they waver in and out of sight, all emblazoned with your party’s names.

The ground begins to rumble, and then part, beneath your feet, ominous blue light seeping out of the fissures. Your friends fall into the cracks, sealing them on the inside of the earth.

**

You wake up in a cold sweat, the ghost of the invocation still hovering on your lips. Your clothes stick to you, and your mouth feels like sand. You throw the sheet off of you and go to the kitchen, trying to calm the racing of your heart. You’re so rattled you don’t pay attention to how hard you’re walking. You get a glass of water from the tap and gulp it down, but the relief is temporary.

What are your friends going to say when you call them later, telling them that their weekly D&D session is canceled? You try to tell yourself that it was nothing but a dream, brought on by exhaustion and too much alcohol. But there was something about that ritual that felt real, and you can’t shake off your fear, no matter how many glasses of water you drink or breathing exercises you try.

You look at the digital clock on the microwave, squinting to see the numbers correctly. 3:52. It’s almost four o’clock in the morning, there’s no way that you can call your friends now. You force yourself to go back to bed, deciding to send a group text in the morning. You can get everyone together at breakfast and explain yourself then.

**

Morning dawns and everyone agrees to meet at the local diner a few blocks away. You still can’t shake the idea that the dream you had was not, in fact, a dream, but a vision. It has sat in your bones heavily, and you wait until everyone has gotten their meals to speak.

“I’m sorry, guys, but D&D has been canceled from now on,” you say, buying yourself some time by shoving a piece of bacon in your mouth.

Five different faces look up at you, blank with shock. Then they all speak at once.

“What? Why?!” “Oh, come on, Brayden, you can’t do that!” “I’ve been looking forward to it! Why are you doing this?”

“I had a dream that we were about to start Ragnarok and we all died. It was real. I saw your bodies disappear, the gravestones. I saw it all happen. I’m not risking your lives for a roleplaying game!”

**

(WP) Simple Courtesy

(WP) Simple Courtesy

               I got
engaged to be married to a wyvern by holding the door for him.

               I didn’t
think anything of it; I was only being polite. We both worked at the same
bookstore, and we happened to both be returning from our break, and he was
behind me, so I just held the door open.

               He
beamed at me; his eyes dewy with something that I couldn’t understand.

               “Patrick,
you’re too kind! We’ll have to tell our parents, you know. Wyvern-human
marriage is generally frowned upon in my culture.”

               I
stared at him, frowning. “Marriage? What are you talking about, Dalton?”

               “You
held the door for me, Patrick!” He answered as if this was obvious. “In my
culture, showing someone specific kindness, such as you just did for me, shows
the other person that you wish to be married!”

               There
was that word, again. Marriage. I didn’t even know if I wanted to get married,
and now here I was, engaged to a wyvern. For opening the door.

               “Uh,
that’s not what I meant,” I said hurriedly, damning the bright flush that was
climbing up my neck and flooding my cheeks. “I was only being polite!”

               But it
was too late to backpedal, and I found myself making a date to have dinner with
Dalton and his parents. My stomach had quickly tightened into knots, and nausea
was quickly roiling my stomach. How had this happened?

               **

               When I
returned home, I told my parents the situation, feeling embarrassed all over
again.

               My dad,
who’d been folding laundry in the living room, looked at me, brow furrowed. But
his eyes crinkled up at the corners, the corners of his mouth turned upward as
if fighting a laugh.

               My
mother was sitting with a cup of coffee on the couch, frowning thoughtfully.

               “But
surely you can say that this is all a misunderstanding,” She said, taking a sip
of her drink. “I’m sure once you explain, it’ll be a laugh, and then we can
move on with our lives. Besides, we’ve been long overdue for a night out. We
need to make a good impression on our future in-laws.” She dropped a wink, and
my embarrassed “Mom!” was drowned out by my parents’ laughter.

               **

               We met
with Dalton and his parents in a fancy restaurant on the outside of town. We
were all dressed nicely: I wore my finest suit, though it was too small and
parts of my wrists showed; Mom had donned a silk gray sheath dress and a little
tiny bag to match, with heels and my dad wore the tux he’d worn to his own
wedding to my mother, fifteen years before.

               But no
matter how nice we looked, my heart wouldn’t stop pounding, and sweat formed on
the back of my neck, my forehead, the small of my back. The restaurant wasn’t
even warm, but I couldn’t stay still. I had to get out of this, or I was going
to be married to a wyvern.

**

(WP) Hellfire and The Orchid Mantis

(WP) Hellfire and The Orchid Mantis

               She’d
felt she’d earned her retirement, the former supervillain thought to herself as
she put the kettle on to boil. And she was glad; being one of the world’s most
evil supervillains was not easy. That was part of the reason that she’d risen
to the challenge; being good, heroic, just seemed so boring. Anyone could be the friendly hero, the schmuck next door
who averted everyday crises. Yes, it took someone with true fortitude to be
wicked.

               But
thankfully, that was all behind her now. She’d married, had children, had gone
on to be a productive member of society after her stint in prison. From her
place in the kitchen, she heard the television, currently on one of the
national news channels. She could faintly hear a female news anchor, reporting
on how a gang of villains were currently holding the patrons of a bank hostage
until it would fork over a million dollars in cash.

               She
smiled faintly, but she could admit to herself that she didn’t miss that life.

               Ava
suddenly found herself uneasy, as if she were being watched.

               When
the kettle screamed, she jumped, and swore quietly.

               What
was the matter with her? Pouring herself a cup of hot, steaming tea, Earl Gray,
she took the mug and walked back into the living room. Thanks to her powers,
she didn’t have to wait for it to cool. She made herself comfortable in the
armchair in front of the fireplace, turning off the TV.

Even after she’d made herself comfortable
with a worn, dog-eared book, she could not shake off that uncomfortable feeling
that she wasn’t alone. Putting down her book and mug, she stood up, feeling her
fists become enveloped with bright blue flames.

“Who’s there? If you don’t come out
and tell me who you are, I’ll barbeque you!”

She hadn’t become one of the world’s
worst supervillains by cowering in a corner, and her voice was cold,
threatening. She hoped it was only her imagination, but her instincts were much
to sharp not to heed. She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to wait, and her
patience was soon rewarded.

Of all people she’d expected, it
wasn’t one of the world’s most beloved superheroes. But the young woman stepped
out, her invisibility melting away once she was caught. The Orchid Mantis,
named for her ability to blend in, as well as her hair, as bright pink as the
flower she was named after.

“What do you want?” Ava demanded;
as far as she was concerned, the threat hadn’t been averted. “How dare you,
breaking into my house! And you’re a hero! Aren’t you and your ilk supposed to
have manners?” She bit off the rest of her diatribe and her flames extinguished.

Once she got a good look at the kid,
her defenses lowered somewhat. The teenager was pale, her bright hazel eyes
ringed with violet circles, her costume rumpled and stained. Her hair was lank
and greasy, and Ava noticed that the girl couldn’t even look her in the eye.

“I need your help.”

Ava barked out a laugh, high and
derisive. “Why would someone like Orchid Mantis need my help?”

“Let’s just say that I don’t want
to be a hero anymore. I want to become a supervillain. And you’re one of the
best, so…”

“You broke into my house!” Ava squawked
indignantly, shaking her head at the audacity of this child.

“Please, Hellfire. I’m so tired of
pretending to be something I’m not.”

**

(WP) Ironclad Hearts

(WP) Ironclad Hearts

              Once upon a time, there was a young prince who longed for love. He had everything he ever desired, except for a loving partner. Rumors had begun to swirl about the prince, about how he abducted young maids in the night to be held as prisoners in his castle.

              Of course, that wasn’t true, but truth does not matter one way or another to wagging tongues.

              The truth was, he’d fallen in love with a childhood friend, and he’d begged his parents to match him with her. He could not live without her. The prince was so distraught that his parents granted their permission for the two to wed.

              But it was not to be. The princess was engaged to another, and worse, he’d been told that the suit had been rejected with laughter.

              From that day on, the prince grew bitter and jaded and had all but given up on love. As the days passed, the castle grew into a twisted iron prison, a mirror of what lay inside of his heart.

              Eventually, he was forgotten by time and his subjects, and his lands grew thick with trees and bushes and overgrown grasses and flowers.

              But he hadn’t been entirely forgotten. The princess’s little sister, Amelie, had been unable to think of little else since her sister’s rejection of the prince. She, too, had been released from a troth of marriage, due to her disability: she had a club foot and had to use a wooden stick to walk properly.

              And this headstrong, determined princess was hellbent on getting to the prince and showing him that he could be loved as he so wished. Amelie set out on horseback with a sword, her staff, and a magical book. Accompanying her was her faithful familiar, a crow with bright green eyes and a sharp, wicked beak.

              The journey led her across mountain ranges, rivers, and hills, past fields and plains. Soon, she lost track of just how many days had passed. But she had started this, and she would see it through, even though she didn’t know the outcome.

              Finally, she rode through the forests, hacking her way through it with her blade, exhausted but undaunted.

              Amelie put her horse at the castle gates, then ascended the stairs, the only sound her wooden cane on the steep marble steps. If she hadn’t already made it this far, she would’ve been unnerved.

              But there was a reason she’d lived this long, and she’d be damned if a long quest broke her. What was that, in comparison to the expectations of her own family?

              The doors were barred shut, but the sword sliced through the bars as though they were mere paper.

              Amelia limped through the silent, gray rooms of the castle.

              Where was the prince? She’d come all this way to save him.

              Finally, she found him in the library in front of a roaring fire, hearing the pages of his book turn.

              “Your Highness,” Amelie whispered. “I’ve come to end your loneliness.”

              **

(IP) Mental Health Day

(IP) Mental Health Day

               The
four girls sat on the train, forming a little group on the right side of the
car. The early morning sun streamed bars of golden light, dappling their skin.
Despite their plain clothes and bored faces, something about them seemed otherworldly,
strange. Even wrong.

               One of
the girls stretched her feet out into the aisle, arms folded across her stomach.

               Her
three companions were seated in a cluster next to her, rocking with the motion
of the train as it roared through the city.

               A pair
of blondes sat in front of the windows, the sunshine making the girls sport a
halo of sorts. One had a cigarette tucked behind her ear, and the other stifled
a yawn, pulling her feet into her chest.

               But
these girls were far from angelic; they’d come into the city for a ‘mental
health day’. And everyone knew that Mondays just sucked.

               The
only brunette of the group sat next to the blondes, smiling distantly to
herself.

               “Is it
just me, or have we been on this train forever?” One of the blondes, Julie,
said, tilting her head toward her double.

               “It
hasn’t been that long, Jules,” The other blonde, Annabeth, replied, grinning
sleepily. “Besides, we’re almost there.”

               “Coffee.
I need coffee.  I feel like a zombie.”
The brown-haired girl, Ava, murmured. Of all of the girls, she was having the
most trouble staying still. Normally, this wasn’t like her, but she just didn’t
feel like dealing with school. Lately, she’d felt like a pressure cooker that
had been left on too long: stifled but about to blow. Driving herself to be the
best, constant studying of facts and figures, all to graduate pursue a degree
she wasn’t even sure she wanted. Yes, it was just easier to blow it off.

“Starbucks once we get to our stop?”
The brunette, Cat, asked hopefully, snapped out of whatever daydream was
playing in her head.

“We need to get some food, too,”
Julie said, shaking her head so her bangs fell to the side, uncovering her
bright green eyes. “I’m starving.” As if on cue, her stomach grumbled, and the
friends laughed.

Finally, the train ground to a
stop, causing all four girls to rock forward with the motion. Since they were
seated in the middle of the train car, they hurried to get to the front, all of
them holding hands, so as not to get lost in the crush.

Their giggles echoed in the station
as they exited, now single file, but all staying close, marching through the
crowd in search of food and frivolous distraction. Ava was leading, and when
they finally found a Starbucks on a street corner, they all clambered inside. She
found herself instantly calmed by the homey scent of coffee beans roasting and
sugary treats being baked.

The place was packed, but she didn’t
mind. All of the noise and controlled chaos, combined with the chatter of her
friends, distracted her from her own anxious thoughts.

They each ordered a giant coffee
drink, with the exception of Cat, who ordered a green tea latte. Ava also
ordered an array of different snacks; it wasn’t as if she didn’t have the money
to burn.

Soon enough, they were all seated
in a booth at the back of the shop, crammed together like sardines.

“You said you’d spill once we got
here,” Annabeth said, after taking a dainty bite of a muffin, licking her lips.
“Why the sudden need to ditch?”

Ava grimaced; she’d known this was
coming, but she still didn’t like it. Even with her closest friends, she didn’t
like talking about her problems. Especially when it sounded so ridiculous, in
her own head.

“I’m just… Stressed.” She said,
looking down into the swirling, dark depths of her huge macchiato.

To their credit, her friends did
not laugh, nor try to interrupt. They were just waiting through her silence,
knowing that she wasn’t finished.

“I don’t know what I want anymore,”
Ava admitted, at last, feeling a flush starting to climb up her neck. “And my
parents would freak out if I told them. They’ve got my whole life mapped out
for me. Graduate at the top of my class in high school and college, get married
to a nice guy and give them grandkids. But I feel like… I never got a choice in
the matter. School’s so stressful anymore.”

Cat reached across the table and
took Ava’s hand, her touch surprisingly warm.

“You should talk to them. I’m sure
they’ll understand. And even if they don’t, well. You’ll be eighteen in a little
less than six months. You’ll be an adult, and able to make your own decisions.”

**