Dip: An Aoa Story

I dip my hands into the water. My cool skin becomes coated in the flowery scented tonic, easing the pain I felt only slightly. Delia looks at me tenderly, clasping her hands in front of her, her hood drawn close over her hair. If we were in the palace right now she would have gotten Landon. She always trusted Landon over any one of  my ladies. My ladies were supposed to protect me, but she always trusted him. Funny for a handmaid to trust the person I needed the least.

“Was it diving?” She asked, knowing I wouldn’t utter a word unless she did.

“Yes. There was a turtle caught in a crevice. It was too small for him, but he tried to test the odds anyways. I had to help him get out. He would have surely been stuck there for another week or two otherwise. Anyway, I didn’t even cut my hands that bad.”

“Miss Cory. Stop. It was splinter stone, and you could have gotten infected. I know you are new to me taking care of you, but it is sort of my job to keep you safe and I can’t do that if you get yourself into trouble. Now come on, what would Landon think?” She gently pulls my hands out of the bowl, placing them gently on a towel in her lap.

“Landon wouldn’t care. You know he doesn’t care for me like that. It isn’t my place to force him to. What is between us isn’t natural, it is political, and it shouldn’t have been me in the first place. I don’t do this for Landon, I don’t do anything for Landon.” I say more forcefully than I probably should, causing Delia to purse her lips tightly.

“It is what we need, now come on, put this shawl over you and let’s go.” She says quietly, her hood coming further over her face as she turns away from me, cleaning up all of the healing tonics. I pull a shawl over my swimsuit, and pull my hair back with a band. “I respect you, your majesty, I just want you to know your new life now isn’t as carefree as it was when you were just a politician and tactician. Eyes are on you now princess.”

“I’m not a princess yet.” I mumble as we step inside the pod. The automated vehicle sends us through the coastline a little bit before dipping into one of the offroads that leads to the palace. While royalty still used horse drawn carriages for parades and such, the pods were the more economic and efficient modes of transport. I was more used to their speedy delivery anyway, all of this horse-drawn, bumpy road bullshit gave me headaches anyways.

Delia smirks as the pod opens to the palace. Landon stands on the steps, waiting with his arms crossed and face bitter like the slight chill that was in the air. “Cory, we need to talk. Can I escort you to your room?” Despite his regal and firm appearance, he looks like he used to when we were growing up, fragile, afraid, everything his father forced out of him was suddenly coming to the surface.

“Certainly. Delia, if you would kindly bring my belongings up while we walk, I will be with his majesty for the time being.” Delia nods, a giddy smile threatening to break lose. Every time we wished to be alone together she always believed it was so that he could declare his love for me or vice versa. Landon brings his arm up and I take it reluctantly, our elbows knotted together as we enter the palace. This was mainly for looks, before the engagement we would have been perfectly fine with strolling down the halls arm in arm, but now, we didn’t want anything to do with each other. We don’t speak as we walk, knowing Delia is right behind us, but I can feel the weight of the impending conversation like a brick.

My room is on the upper west corridor of the palace, one hallway down from the suites of the royal family. Down my hallway the walls are lined with portraits of the royal family, all staring down at you as you walk. I had never liked it before, and I hated it now. The thought of producing one of the figures in the portraits on the wall made me sick to my stomach, especially at the thought of the involvement of someone who used to be my friend.

I pass by those stoic portraits everyday, and now, with my arm in his the pictures seem menacing, and my breath feels tight in my chest. Landon stops in front of my door, and moves to the side so that Delia can get past and put my stuff away properly. I still wasn’t used to that, but I never said anything of my discomfort because Landon would throw a fit if he knew. Delia was quick to set my things down, she always has been a deft worker, but it still felt like an eternity, waiting in breathless silence with my betrothed.

As she exits I see her devious smile. The formal rules of courting are that we are not allowed to be in a room alone together until our wedding night, but most servants knew to let that rule slide. Delia, with her romantic, fever heart, wouldn’t be the first to question us about that particular rule.

Once the coast is clear, Landon walks inside without waiting for me. I hurry in after him and close the door behind me, not bothering to lock it, even though that is always my first instinct. He clears his throat, and I move to sit on the bed until I realize he has already made himself comfortable. As always, the next best thing will have to do. “So… do you have anything you want to talk about?” I roll my eyes and move from where I had sat in my desk chair to my closet, where I can sift through clothes to distract myself from this brute.

“If you are looking for a confession, I am afraid you are going to come up dry.” I say, pulling a blue tulle dress out of the closet and laying it on an unoccupied part of the bed. Landon is unfazed as I begin to undress from my swimsuit in order to put on the gown. Only Delia would know I didn’t have it on when he first came in. Either way, Landon is no stranger to the female body, and he certainly couldn’t care less about mine.

“Please, for once in your life stop thinking that everyone is out to get you. I was simply asking as a friend.” He crosses his arms over his chest, his feet laid out in front of him.

“We haven’t been friends since you put this ring on my finger.” I say through gritted teeth, pulling the snug dress up over my bossom. He just chuckles.

“I miss your fire. We never get to be ourselves around each other anymore, have you noticed that?” I turn away from him, and he takes the cue to lace up my dress, something he had done many times before.

“It is for the best, Landon.” I turn around and look at him when he finished, the same youthful look still on his face from earlier. I thought surely it would have worn off by now.

“I miss my best friend sometimes. I’m not invincible like you seem to think.”

“If a king isn’t immune to emotions, then he should at least be cognizent of others.” I say from my desk, putting a light powder sheen on my face as he takes in my words. Yes, I was still hurt over the incidents of the night of our engagement. Wouldn’t a bride have every right to be?

“In all honesty, I was escaping the nobles. Lords of the eastern provinces or something of that sort. They had the markings of magic ones. Anyways, I knew, despite your incredibly long grudge, that you would be there for me.”

“You could have told me flat out and I would have come to your aid. I am not always to be ordered around like some rag doll, you know.” He smiles, and I can see, even in the reflection of my vanity, the twinkle in his eye. Another thing his father had beaten out of him. Not with a stick or his hands, but with words, his father had beaten out everything that made up my old friend. I missed him, the old Landon, but I also knew he was too far gone for me to bother hoping for his return.

“Cory, I know you are loyal to me as a subject, but as a fiance there is still some lacking. Understandably so, of course. These past three months have been hard on both of us, I know. Our friendship has gotten lost somewhere in there and I was hoping, if you were willing, that while I wait out the nobles downstairs, we could… discuss.” I don’t even have to look in the reflection to know he is nervous. His voice proves everything that I can’t see.

“Well, this is my room, so unless you planned on leaving, I don’t think I have a choice.” I say, turning around in my chair to face him. We had talked about this before. Many times actually. Whenever one of us got drunk it usually came up. One night it even went as far as him getting angry enough with me to do it again. Since then my anger had only grown. His father had noticed, but didn’t seem to care as much as one might think. Either way, my rage had been three months coming, and if I knew anything it is that this conversation wouldn’t change much.

“Cory, you must know by now that I am sorry, for that night, for the other night, and for everything in between. The pressure is hard on both of us, yes, but I let the pressure of a wedding, of a coronation, I let it all get the best of me.”

“Yes you did.” He gives me a puzzling look, as if he expected me to just forgive three months of hell over that half-assed introduction. “Oh please, don’t let me stop you. Go on.”

“Fuck, Cory you make this too damn hard. I’m mad at you too okay? I’m mad at you for abandoning me immediately after the public ceremony. That’s why those girls came up to me. You know who else came up to me? My father. He said if I didn’t make this look believable, if I didn’t make the people happy through our union, that he would declare me illegitimate, and pick the next ruler. I needed you then. I had no idea where you were and I couldn’t find that one boy, the one you had been riding with. I assumed you had gone of with him. I was paranoid and stressed because of my father’s threats and so I drank. I drank and drank until those girls didn’t look like a bad idea. One last night of true freedom. After that I was yours. When you came back I wanted to prove to you that I wasn’t tied down to you. I wasn’t responsible for your feelings, but I am, and always will be, as your best friend. So I’m sorry that I let my anger and stress and paranoia get in the way.” He takes a deep breath and seems to sink further into the bed.

Some of that was news to me. Not the drinking, or the girls, both of those I saw clearly. It was the conversation with his father that made me even contemplate forgiving him. His father was a cold calculating man. He hadn’t always been that way, but after the death of his wife, it seemed as if everything was a tipping point for the aging man’s temper. I had been caught in the rage before. I knew what it felt like to be scrutinized from head to toe by his beady eyes and alcohol-ridden, breathless hisses. What I did not know, was how it felt like to have that be your own father. It was true, Landon was under intense pressure that night and the week after. I could forgive him for that, but the three months after that would take much longer to forgive.

“Landon, I can’t possibly know how hard that was for you, and I’m sorry he would threaten that, but that doesn’t forgive the hurt, tears, and heartbreak you have caused. While we were never romantic with each other, I was going to pledge myself to you, and you alone, because you were my best friend, and I owed you that respect and courtesy. It hurt me when you didn’t show me an ounce of that in return. Your infidelity, while nothing in the eyes of the law, broke my heart that night. Then for you to do it again… It is going to take a lot more than a mean talk from your father to make me forgive that.”

“I understand that, so let me show you. Tomorrow morning will you come with me to the farmers market in town? Just us. No Delia, no press. Just us. Well and a few guards, but they will keep their distance if I order them. Or they could stay close if you would like. I just want to do something we used to do, back when it was easy and natural for us to be friends. Back before I ruined it. Please, Cory. If you are going to give me a chance to prove myself, at least let it start tomorrow.”

“As long as you will let me go diving afterwards. Delia will try to object, but I need to dive, Lan. It’s my entire world and she is trying to take it away from me.”

“You called me Lan…” He says with a smile. I turn away from him to hide my blush, not noticing I had used my old pet name for him.

“Diving, or no more chances.”

“Fine, yes, diving. You know the power my smile has on Delia. Maybe let me give you a little peck on the cheek and then she will have no choice but to say yes. Also, I will be in the falconry after our morning tomorrow, my leading lads and ladies would like fresh fish. If you pick that up for them, I am sure they would be eternally grateful, as would I.” He says, finally getting up from my bed and crossing the room to stand behind me at my chair. From my turned position, I look up at him, oddly feeling more comfortable beside him, even though my brain says I shouldn’t. If I let him in too fast, my hopes of truly trusting him will be gone for good, and it will be old habits and old ways with no relenting and no respect for me. This may be his one chance, but it was mine too. I would not rest until we were on an equal playing field again.

“Of course. Don’t send any guards with me either. I prefer to do my diving without the fear of being watched.” He smiles, and leans down to kiss my forehead.

“Done.” Then he walks out of my rooms, sending Delia scrambling in.

“My prince! My lady! They need you immediately in the council room. A craft has landed in a northern province and they found a girl. They found you Cory.”

Final Steps: An Aoa Story

She liked to be able to see everything around her. That’s why she insisted on living above her little grove, but everyone assumed it was to keep herself hidden from her neighbors. Her horse, Baskerville, grazed calmly, outside her enclosed front porch. Everything was silent and calm, and I knew she knew I was here. My steps had been quiet to match the setting around me, but I knew that wouldn’t work. It never did with Polly. My supervisor was all too in tune with her surroundings, the surroundings she had created and nourished her entire life.

“Camina? Can I help you dear?” She asks loudly, stepping out onto her balcony. She is braiding her hair, her brown dress tied at the waist with a green scarf. Her red hair made her appear to have Arja influence, but she was about as Eto as it got. She was a lifegiver, and a caregiver, but her appearance could deceive her. Polly placed her hand on some ivy curling up her balcony and grows a flower to put in her hair.

“I just need to talk with you. I was going to wait until work tonight, but I heard this issue was time sensitive. You’re the only person I know to go to.” She smirks and nods down to me. I push the thick layer of plants aside and climb up the spiral staircase to her balcony. The farther I go up the more it smells like green tea and biscuits. Polly wasn’t a superb baker, but she had gotten really good at two things: tea and biscuits. So that was all she ever had. It was all she ever needed, most of her food came from testing our projects in the greenhouse labs anyways. All of those fresh fruits and vegetables all of the time, I can’t imagine a true Eto would want anything more.

“So my dear, what is it that I can help you with? It has been a while since I have been able to help anyone outside of a greenhouse.” I nod as she sits down in one of her lawn chairs, looking over her land. After a minute she motions for me to do the same, and I don’t question her, I just sit, my mind stirring and my heart pounding.

“Have you seen the news? About the voyage?” She nods. “Should I submit an application? I’ve been so undecided over it, but I feel like this is the only way I can truly help Aoa. I’m tired of feeling useless, but at the same time I don’t know if this is how we should go about solving the issues at stake-”

“My pupil, pause and take a breath. No matter what you decide, you are the next generation and whether you like it or not, you will decide the future of Aoa. Now, this mission could potentially end in death, while we are not as ignorant as them, the Earthlings did teach us this. So you tell me, are you willing to sacrifice your life?”

“If it means a better Aoa, then absolutely.” I say, wringing my hands together in my lap. Polly takes a sip of tea, and then looks me in the eye.

“Camina, I know you. You would do well in that program, very well, and you would be able to make a life for yourself. A life that you would be proud of. I’m not sure you can achieve that here with your certain convictions. That being said, wherever you go, and whatever you do, you can make a difference. Your convictions, strong and stubborn. A lot of people feel the same as you do about these humans, but not as many would act with the truth and promise that you do. Submit it.” She says, never breaking her eye contact with me.

“Thank you Polly. Thank you. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be yet, but I need to find out, and I can’t find out if I am being suffocated by humans.” Polly chuckles.

“Strong independent truth. That is you, Camina. Now, go submit that application, and don’t be late for work tonight, you’re marshing.” Polly instructs, remaining in her chair as I hustle down the stairs, knowing there is only limited time before the deadline beats me. Seb would be so proud. My mother would be proud. Aoa would be proud of me in the end. I know it. I can feel it.

My envelope crinkles in my pockets as I walk out of Polly’s garden home. I was going to apply. I was going to save Aoa. My heart was racing. I knew I had to make it into the program before I got my hopes up, but somehow I had a feeling my dreams rested beyond Aoa. They rested wherever the voyage would take me.

A Hidden Agenda: An Aoa Story

 

The rich surrounded the oceanside cafe, sipping from their champagne glasses with ease and elegance, but he was still absent from the table. I had even picked the farthest, most discrete one. Yet, I was alone.  12:30. That’s what he told me. Yet, here I was, alone for lunch.

My manilla folder sat restlessly in my lap, waiting – itching – to be opened and devoured. The contents of this folder could change lives, and he was still absent. At this point it was more than a lack of priorities, it was a lack of common sense. The world, and other worlds, were at stake and he was blowing me off – for what? Other suits? Other corporate government monkeys?

Bullshit. The real world, right now, was more important than his “career.” What was in these folder changes everything. It is everything. If he was truly as smart as his business card claimed, he would be here right now. I know he would.

I take out my phone and dial his number, hitting the call button harder than I should as I bring the device to my ear. It only takes two rings for me to hear his voice. “Sandra! It’s so good to hear from you!”

“You filthy son of a bitch. Where are you? My project needs confirmation today! The fate of this dying world is literally sitting in a cafe and where are-”

“Slow down, missy. I’m here.” He said, plopping down at the chair in front of me, his hair a sloppy, but charming mess, and his tailored suit windblown with elegance. Please. I straighten my blazer as my glare deepens. “Now, let me hear about your little project, doctor.”

“Elias, we have found life. Habitability. Safety. There is a moon two galaxies away, but we can get there. It’s a moon that supports life, teeming, intelligent life. In order to save the planet from their mess, the infidels in my prison must go there. 25 teens, those are my high priority. Teen murderers, arsonists, and enemies of the law. Form a team and I will send them there. My husband will-”

“Look your plan sounds good, and I will fully endorse it, but how long has it been since Bob worked in aerospace engineering?”

“We have the craft built. Despite being paralyzed, my husband stays busier than you think. We can get it in the air. We can get it to Delta-9. Just help us, and our prisons will be clean, our Earth will be safe. Trust me.”

“I do. I truly do. Let me come by your airfield tomorrow and take a look at the craft. This could be groundbreaking, you know. Both for you and me. Careers made. Retire immediately. Money in our pockets. It is astounding how far you have come from being a prison warden with a disabled husband. Now you are a true American.” I stifle an eye roll at his offensive words and do my best to agree. He would be funding and promoting my project after all, putting it in the right hands and all. Getting it off the ground, so to speak.

“Wonderful. Can I consider you a partner then?” I extend my hand and my old friend scoffs, as if appalled I would actually want to shake hands during a business deal. “C’mon Elias. I’m the only one that would lose here. Just shake and secure prison reform. Do you know how many votes that would guarantee you and your cronies?” Eli smirks, running a hand through his hair before nodding and placing his hand in mine and shaking.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t call my well crafted piece of political machinery, “cronies”. That is highly offensive you know. They may be manipulated, but they are people just the same. Now, I have to run. Go home to your cripple and tell him the good news.” Elias Dubois slides a crisp fifty dollar bill my way before standing up and walking out of the cafe.

I shove the bill in my wallet, guilty for taking a handout from such a cruel man. Any normal situation and I would not have taken it. This was abnormal. This was a victory. A victory for me, for him, and for the world.

As I packed up my folder, I felt unstoppable. If only Bob could see me now, actually see me and be proud. This was his idea after all, I only took the credit. I was his wife once, but ever since his post-paralysis paranoia set in I had become his secretary. Separate rooms. Separate offices. Separate lives. Until now. The Delta-9 initiative had brought us together. I am more than thankful for that. This planet, however innocent it may be, brought my husband back just in time for us to destroy it.

He didn’t care what happened to the planet, and neither did Elias. The men were always similar in their self-driven nature. While part of me cared, the other part was thankful to have Bob back the way I knew him before: a gifted, young astronaut dreaming of the world and universe as a place of perfection. Then the incident. It changed everything.

Now he was back, if only for a moment, and I would be right by his side. Just like old times. It was like he had never left at all. That’s the way I wanted it. Just like it was before. Even though after this project gets completed, the world would never be the same.

The Guest: An Aftermath Story

Author Note: I currently have a story, tentatively titled Valmora, and this is a short story from the work that would follow Valmora, tentatively titled Aftermath. I will share more Valmora stories later so that you can become more familiar with the characters, but until then, enjoy “The Guest”…

~~~~

The carriage arrived early. Normally my days in the city market place were left untouched by my fiancee’s hectic schedule, but I suppose today would be the exception. Mirabelle smiled at me from inside the carriage, a quietly nervous smile that made my heart sink the slightest.

“Let’s go dear, we have to get you back to the palace. You have a – er – visitor.” I grab my bag of local trinkets from the guard, pull up my skirts and get in the carriage across from Mirabelle. She had been the former queen’s handmade long before she had been mine, but I feel she cared for me as much as she had cared for Queen Anna, Aussen’s mother.

Mirabelle’s kind face smiles at me, but her eyes continue to divert mine. Knowing we were on the road now, and that there was nowhere for her to run to, I decided to probe her with questions. Her diverted attention and silence made me uneasy, still. “Who is the guest, Mira?” That was it. Her eyes shoot back to mine, almost as if she forgot I was in the carriage with her.

“Nobody you know dear. Your husband, excuse me, fiancee, just begged that I get you. It is of the utmost importance apparently.” My mind couldn’t help but flash to the last thing that was of utmost importance: the book. Surely there wasn’t another curse. Surely after all of the stress we were put under less than two months ago, we would get a break.

“Mira, is it about the book?” I pull my shawl tighter around myself. It had been a while since we had pulled out the book. It was in a vault at the Tantuckt palace, but we knew its power was still alive and well. There was no doubt.

“Not the book of the kingdoms. In fact, I’m not sure there is any book deary. She’s mysterious, I haven’t talked to her, but Aussie seems nervous.” Her gentle face relaxed, she was telling the truth. I took a deep breath. A mysterious girl. We knew quite a few of those.  “Don’t you worry about it too much. You and Aussie make a good pair, this is probably nothing. A village freak accident perhaps.”

“Freak accident? Was she hurt?” Mira chuckles slightly.

“No, she looked scared, and frazzled, and overall unkempt. Oh, how I would have loved to sit down and clean her up, but I was instructed to come get you. Speaking of, how was the market today? Did you get anything nice?” She was always interested in my finds since her life revolved around the upkeep of the palace. Many times I had offered to bring her along with me, but she always declined, saying she would never allow herself to rest.

“Some silk for you of course. There was also some of the best bread I had ever had. I just had to buy some, I hope Darius won’t mind.” Darius, the royal chef, was often stingy about ingredients in the kitchen, but it was well known that he had a soft spot for me after I hid in the kitchen the first time I visited the palace.

“Ooh, deary, you know he’s a big softy. Now, what color is the silk, and how much did it cost? I’ll be more than happy to repay you.”

Out the small window I could see the castle coming into view. “There’s no need to repay me, I’m almost the Queen, remember? It’s a sunshiny yellow, I figured I had already picked up too much red.” I blush and she chuckles.

“You only bought that because they were Aussie’s favorite.” It was true, and I couldn’t deny it. After the red dress I wore that was pictured in the book, the color red had become my staple look throughout the kingdom as I was pictured by Aussen’s side.

The cart jerks to a stop and the footman opened the door to reveal Aussen on the front steps. “Carina, welcome home. Mira, thank you for grabbing her, this is urgent.” Aussen says as he helps me out of the carriage, placing his hand on my lower back once I’m down. Mira stays seated within the carriage, they will take her to whichever part of the palace she needs in order to fulfill her other duties.

“A girl showed up today, Cari. She’s nothing like I’ve ever seen.” He whispers in my ear as we walk quickly inside the palace. My demure market dress was unassuming of royalty, but it still had enough skirt to keep me from going any faster than a quick walk. He leads me into the parlor room, and locks the door behind us. The viceroy, state secretary, and the girl were all staring at us expectantly.

She was dirty, leaves strewn all about her worn cloak and hair. Her dark hair covered her tanned skin and her dark eyes peered from behind thick strands inquisitively. Viceroy Kinnon looked sharply to her as if she might need to be sliced in half at a moment’s notice. Upon taking in our entrance, Secretary Maddox did the same.

“Back away from her immediately.” I instruct them and they each take one step back from the defenseless girl. “Who are you? Where are you from?”

“My name is Mukhina. I’m from a kingdom you have probably never heard of, Maagiline, and it is dying. I am the sole survivor of my family and I have come here to find you. And the book.” My head snaps to Aussen and he solemnly nods.

“What do you know of the book?” I ask suspiciously, wanting to see if she truly knew the depths of the situation.

“It was created by one of my people for your people, to save your people, but it can also save my people. I need to see it. His handiwork can save an entire race, my Queen. Please-”

“How are you any different from us? Why are you a different race?” She looked just the same as myself or my husband, granted her accent was different, but still, to my knowledge she was a human.

“I am not like you in the sense that I practice a different religion, and I practice something your nine kingdoms forbid.” I raise my eyebrow, and she reluctantly continues. “I am an apprentice of a Volurian. I am a sorceress in training, and now my home is at stake. I am powerful enough to fix it, but only with one page from that book. Thousands could die if I don’t defeat this tyrannical beast that has destroyed my country. Please. I know I’m different, but help me, my Queen.”

Her hair attempts to hide a single tear that falls, but I can see it plainly. This girl must being telling the truth, and if she was that means her ancestors were the ones banished from the nine kingdoms long before the curse was ever enacted. Long before there were even nine kingdoms. Magic was always hated among our people, and that hatred hadn’t changed, we had just assumed that their “kind” had stopped practising magic all together.

I saw no fault in giving her the book as long as Aussen and I were in the room with her, but obviously the Viceroy and Secretary thought otherwise. I turn back to Aussen and he opens the door to motion for me to come in the hall with him. “No. I’m not leaving her alone in here with two mean who are clearly scared of her. We can talk here, openly, with her. Viceroy, if you would leave. Secretary, if you would wait outside the door. It is better for her to understand that we are not here to harm her like our ancestors did.”

Aussen looks as apprehensive as Kinnon and Maddox, but nods anyways. “Do as you’re told.” They leave the room quickly and Aussen leaves the door unlocked behind them.

“Now, Mukhina, we are not here to hurt you. Will you repeat your situation to us?” I pull two chair over as I speak and Aussen and I sit across from her.

“An evil, vile man killed the man that created that book and therefore took control of the country and the most powerful magical weapon known to man and beast. That vile dictator’s name is Alatu, and he killed my grandfather, Conrad, the man who wrote the book . He killed my father, and my mother, and my baby sister as well, but he did not kill me. I escaped to find the one thing that will give me the ability to defeat Alatu. Somewhere in that book my grandfather wrote me something. He gave me a weapon to use in case anything ever happened. He always said that despite past transgressions, the people of Valmora were our friends, and would not hurt us in times of need. I only hope he was right and that you will help me.” Mukhina finishes, and tries to discreetly wipe her eyes, but Aussen hands her his handkerchief anyways.

“Valmora? You have come to the wrong place. This is Tantuckt, the fifth of the nine kingdoms. I’m sorry, Mukhina. I thought we could help you, but it appears we cannot.” I feel my heart ache for her, but she just laughs.

“Long ago, before the book, you were called Valmora, one nation with nine states. The curse caused you to separate, but my grandfather then a young sorcerer of eighteen used his relatively new powers to create something that would one day change the fate of nations. He did not like seeing his birthplace ripped to shreds, even if they had exiled his family and neighbors to the hinterlands for being Volurian. I have come to the right place. I would not have traveled for three weeks to come to the wrong place.” She says with a smirk and crosses her arms over her chest, seemingly more comfortable with us now.

“What was the title of the book your grandfather, Conrad, wrote?” Aussen asks, eyes narrowing.

“It was untitled. Just a maroon journal, seemingly with empty pages, that is until the right person found it. I believe that would be you, Cymer of Sincoria? Forgive me, my Queen, for speaking out of turn. Please, understand I am telling you the truth, and as we speak Alatu is executing more people for siding with my family… The royal family of Volruia.” She says, staring my fiancee down with a force I hadn’t seen before.

“Yes, of course. We will give you the book.” Aussen snaps his head towards me. “Tomorrow.”

“Why not tonight?” She asks, not angrily, just curiously. In fact, there is even an air of relief in her voice, as if she thought we weren’t going to tell her the answer she wanted to hear.

“Well, we must get you cleaned up, fed, bathed, properly clothed. You know, the works. You’re going into battle are you not? Against someone strong enough to defeat your grandfather?”

“Well yes, but-”

“Listen, Mukhina. We owe your grandfather everything. Without him the curse would still exist, I would still be making no money doing something I hated, and all of my closest friends would not be able to have their happy endings. I wouldn’t be able to get married in two months if it weren’t for him, Mukhina. So, let us help you. How do you defeat a magician?” I say, resting my elbows on my knees and holding my head on my bent wrists. Her eyes widen. Aussen places a hand on my back, pressing in lightly.

“My fiancee is not asking to go into war with you. Tantuckt can’t risk it’s military force to something with far greater power than we have. Yes, your grandfather was a patron saint of these nations, but surely he would not beg us to send in armies. He trusted you, yes? This means you have power, great power. If we give you the book surely that will be enough.” Aussen negotiates, and she smiles.

“I’m not asking for an army. Just the book, and just the neo-founders. Aussen, Cymer, Malaki, Tiana, Henley, Kalligi, Westbrook, Markos, Arbor, Halien, Naron, Pasaxi, Astella, and Fidelon. Together, the magic my grandfather gave you all, and my magic, will be more than enough to defeat Alatu. I have a chance on my own, but we would be unstoppable with the founders.” Aussen looks uneasily from me to the door.

“Maddox! Go grab Mira for me, she has a new lady in court to support.” Maddox mutters a reply and Aussen turns his head back to Mukhina, his dark waves falling in front of his face. “Mukhina, we are all heads of state now. You can’t expect us to leave our countries to defeat a threat that isn’t even ours! We will help you in any way we can, but we cannot leave our posts.”

Mukhina bites her lip. “I was afraid that would be the case. Supposedly, the book has a solution… some sort of blood potion that I can dip my hands in.” Aussen looked horrified at that thought and Mukhina chuckled.

“I wouldn’t kill any of you, it would just be a drop. As I use my hands to cast my spells the blood potion would amplify my power. It wouldn’t be as strong as having you all there, but it would be stronger than Alatu’s power certainly.” That sounded reasonable. I nod to her and Aussen’s hand on my back begins to rub circles, our secret code for when he agrees with something.

Just then Mira comes through the door, and Aussen smiles to her and waves her forward. “Mukhina we can discuss those plans tomorrow. This is Mira. She, or one of her ladies, will help you for the rest of your stay.”

“C’mon deary, I’ve drawn you a bath, let’s get you ready for supper.” She says with a smile and Mukhina gives us one last look before following Mira out of the room.

Once they were out of earshot, Aussen turned to me. “I know your patriotic sense of duty, love. We can’t fight her battle for her, but I’m not opposed to doing the blood potion. We will write the founders tonight and call for a meeting.” Aussen says, his kingly plan of action coming out in full bloom.

“That’s exactly what I was going to say.” Aussen smiles and kisses my cheek.

“Good, well, let’s go start with those letters my love.”

Living: A Ben Hoffmann Story

“Brothers! This is Living! Fighting for a Cause!” Sarge yells. He was always one for pomp and circumstances, especially in the face of death. Many crew members often joked that Sarge was death itself, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid of the impending case the Japs could give us.

It was night. Cold, blustering night out on the sea. We had been sailing for countless days now, each day coming closer and closer to the archipelago that would inevitably deliver our fate. I suppose it had been on the verge of a month now. There were thirty letters to her under my cot, tucked and hidden away so as not to be seen by any of the other sailors. Especially not Sarge. Sarge gave people the slightest bit of hell for having feelings, let alone thirty days of them. It had been months since Josiah had boarded the ship, and even in the sick bay he was given hell by Sarge. My cheeks heat up when thinking about it, finding myself pushing away thought of anything involving her when I face death. I pull my coat closer around my body and stare out at the expanse of black before us. The Japs would only see us coming through their radar. Would we be able to spot them in time?

“We are men tonight. Real. Unadulterated. Men. So, get dressed and let’s kill some fucking Japs.” Sarge said, always a man of confidence, even now standing shirtless in the bitter cold, his white navy pants blowing up with the wind like big balloons. Even with the funny image of our commander, he was still the picturesque virtue of everything we were supposedly to be taking from this war: courage, faith, and strength.

A chorus of hurrahs and hollers echo across the deck, and part of me wants to yell at them to shut up. Just shut up.

The truth was, Sarge’s optimism made me scared shitless. If there was one thing Colonel Lewis always said to me back home, it was that a person should never be too confident in their abilities. Isn’t that what we were being right now? Overconfident? Shouldn’t we be preparing to evade death, perhaps even win over death?

My voice pipes up over the crowd. “Assignments, sir?” I ask meagerly, ashamed at how much emotion was betrayed in my shaky voice. Some sailors laugh, but Sarge just smirks. My heart hammers in my chest, waiting to either be ridiculed, or given what could be my last assignment. My right arm tapped my pant leg, feeling the photos in the pocket. One of my brother, William, and my mother and father, and the other, of course, of her. This couldn’t be my last assignment. If only for them.

“Well, I think the only person here more eager to kill Japs than me is Lieutenant Commander Hoffmann! Funny. We all need some humor in war time, don’t we boys? Hoffmann, I need you in sonar, but listen to the gunners. If they need you, that’s where I need you. Brinkley, guns, as always. Jim Cross, sonar, follow orders from Hoffmann, it’s just you two down there.” I don’t wait for him to give any more names. I have all I need. Jim Cross and myself, in charge of the safety of the whole damn ship.

Cross follows me, I can hear him without even having to see. His shoes were too big for him and so every step was more like a clown shoe clip rather than an actual step. The sound it made was solely attributed to Cross, on the ship at least. On top of that he was humming a radio tune, “Lili Marlene”, that one I knew. It had been her absolute favorite, she absolutely adored the tune and the message. Often in her letters she would quote the song, but that was before we got out of range of recieving letters. It had been a month since I had heard from her, knowing her and her line of work, she was probably worried sick.

By the time we reached the cabin and hooked up all the equipment I couldn’t stop myself, I turned to face him and pointed a finger in his direction. “Any other song would be nice Cross.” Before I knew it he was humming Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition louder than he had been humming before. That was a tune I could get behind. The nation was at war now, had been for a while, so by god if we didn’t all come together to Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition in the hopes that this horror would end soon.

My fear had dissipateddissipated some. I was in charge of one person at least. I would pull them out of this alive. Rather, him, Jim Cross. The one man I was responsible for. “East! East!” He calls, and I look on my screen to see the same thing. Torpedoes.

My hand flies to hit the button and the alarms blare. The battle had begun. Gunners began to launch their array of explosives at the torpedoes. It was unclear which we had actually hit and which were still on their way towards us. My voice was coming out of the speakers without even registering it, telling the gunners where to aim, telling them where the ship approximately was. Cross and I kept talking, watching the monitors in front of me and pressing buttons. Then there was nothing. One by one each screen showed nothing. They were still operating but it was as if the ships had disappeared into thin air.

“Sarge get down here! I need Sarge now! Keep firing in the same direction boys! Don’t waste ammo!” I yell into the microphone connected to my headset, minutes later hearing the same words get repeated to the crew. In less than a minute Sarge bursts through the doors and looks at the screens.

“Where in the hell are they Lieutenant? They couldn’t have gone far, we’ve only been at this for ten minutes.” He’s frustrated, but I know it isn’t with me. His large frame pushes past me until he is standing in front of the controls rebooting them one by one.

Still. Nothing.

“Hold your fire.” I say quietly through the microphone. Where the hell had they gone? There was land 70 nautical miles north, but it was American controlled. Surely the Japanese didn’t go there. That was our next stop actually. To stock, refuel, and connect ourselves with the postal service once more. Several of these things I was grateful for. All of this could easily be jeopardized if even one Japanese torpedo was allowed to hit the ship. My job was crucial, clearly enough, but currently, it appears that my job was in fact in the hands of the enemy. What had they done?

“Still nothing, Sarge. My readings are clear as day.” Cross says, and Sarge frantically rubs his brow, a nervous tick from his one year in the Great War when he was eighteen.  

Suddenly Sarge points to the open cabin door and we both stand at attention. “Cross, go check the deck, tell them to be alert. Hoffmann stay with me, and help me get this damn thing working again.” His evidently frustrated tone shakes the room, and as Cross Scurries out, Sarge takes his spot by the sonar.

He turns to face me from his new position in the cabin, he stood a good head taller than me, but right now it looked as if he felt like the smallest man in the world. His face was grim. He was an army man, he liked to think in facts. Right now the absolutes were grim. We were under attack. The Japanese were nearby. Our sonar did not work. Death could happen at any moment. The date was June 19, 1945.

Josiah limps in, as fast as his legs can carry him, and stops in the doorway, face flushed. “Sir, important telegram. The boat was on it’s way back to Japan, there were torpedoes launched. All missed except for one which is unaccounted for. We bombed Shizuoka sir. Japanese surrender could be near. That’s why they are sending them back sir. At least, that’s what the man on base thinks. They were going pretty fast sir, the ship. They wanted nothing to do with us.”

Sarge nods, thinking it all through. All that goes through my mind is “one which is unaccounted for”. I turn my head back to the sonar equipment.

Green.

Red.

Green.

Red.

“FIRE!”

Insanity: Dystopian Snapshot

This can only be insanity. There is no other way to explain this crazy half-assed plan. Of course, Odd came up with it, but Even wasn’t here to detest it, and I was too stressed to come up with any better ideas. Odd at least knew the area better than I did. I surveyed my group, black as night, before we took off. Odd, Kali, Gerad, Lily, Koi. Okay. That’s it. We have everyone. We need to wait for the flare, and then we can jump to the next landing and start running. We all know the plan, the job is just to go for it and hope for the best. I have to make it all the way down the hall, and with the help of Koi, and possibly Kali depending on how long her job takes, is to take out all of the body guards that would get in Odd’s way. There was a bright flash in the light, we could see it clearly from our rooftop vantage point.

I get a running start, and then leap off the roof, bending my knees and preparing for landing on the fire escape. It was an old brick building, maybe from as early as 2000, I didn’t know any buildings could survive this long, but it wasn’t on any updated gps, so it was the perfect location for a hideout of this caliber. The metal clangs as I land, and I run in through the window while its open, and more pairs of feet hit the escape behind me. I pull my arm around the first guys neck before he can even turn around. I push the pressure point hard enough on his neck to where he blacks out, and pull all of the guns from his body, taking the ammo out and putting it in the pockets at my side. Our goal was to disarm, not to harm. The guy who stands a good twenty meters in front of him finally turns around as Koi tackles him to the ground. Koi in a tangle of limbs, tosses the guns to me, and tries to gag the guard. Then he’s knocked out, and we are free to move down the hall. I know Koi loves this. He hasn’t had a real thrilling mission in quite some time. This was his first big push back into the real world. I put the ammo in my belt, having unloaded the guns while we were walking, and shoved the cases into my pouch. Koi took out the first guard down the next hall, and I moved for the second, who had already cocked his gun in suspicion. I doubt he thought he would ever have to use the gun. He looked like a lost child, completely dumbfounded. I gave a sharp kick to his gut, and reached for his arm, twisting it until he dropped the gun. It hit the floor with a loud clang, causing it to go off. Well crap. A bullet shot the door handle off. Great. So now we were going to have to spend some extra minutes trying to unlock the door from the opposite side in order to get into the next hallway. I heard a metal panel drop, and knew either Kali was closer than we thought possible, or Odd had broken into the first mainframe. I hope the latter.

I pinned the guy to the ground, and smiled sweetly before knocking him out of consciousness. Koi nodded to me, as he stood up over his guard, he tossed me the ammo from his two guns, and I quickly undid guns from my guy. The ammo was tucked tightly in my pouch before we began trying to undo the lock on the next door. Odd was worried about this. This is the one door that blocked the hallway, after this we were clear and our job was done. Dammit if he didn’t predict this exact thing would happen. Koi pushed me back just hard enough to cause me to move, and kicked the door in causing it to clatter to the floor.

“We gotta run.” He warned before sprinting through the door and tackling the first guard. I take his lead and kick the gun out of the second guys hand before punching him in the jaw, causing blood to spit out of his mouth. I kick his gun over to Koi who takes it apart no problem, then he tosses both sets of ammo to me, and runs ahead to check for more guards. Just as we suspected, they had a weak night patrol. Perfect. That would make our job easier. I placed a hand to my ear.

“This is Jez, we are all finished here, mission is go. I repeat: Mission is go.” I say into the speaker, and with another metal pang, Kali drops out of the air vent above, several wires following. She smiles, and pulls out her pocket knife, fraying the ends of the wire endlessly.

“Nice job. You and Koi get more done than I would think. You really compliment each other. Now let’s move so we can set it up for Odd. He is on section two. The first section was way too easy. Second section has more firewalls but he can knock it out all the same. Let’s move and prop the second grate for him. Maybe we can see your boyfriend along the way.”

“Maybe we can see yours.” I retort.

“Touche.” She says, before she moves to jog after Koi. I, in turn, went after them. We were on the main grounds now. There were a few guards, but we were prepared for this too. Kali and I dashed in the girls bathroom, and Koi, after getting a signal from Kali that it was empty, followed in after us. We began to change into more professional clothes, and there were briefcases from when Maroon snuck her way in earlier. She was still here, just in the main conference area, doing whatever she has to do in order to distract Wok. As long as she distract him…

I walk out in the hall first, giving the guard a flirty wink. I continue to do that with every guard I don’t know, until I come upon one that I do. Even stands rigid in a blue suit and golden shoulder pads. His hat is pinned to one of the shoulderpads, another key thing to help us tell them apart. Now to run through the script.

“Hello sir, this may not be a request you get often, but could you please walk me back to my office? I’m scared to walk alone in the dark. Normally I’m not out this late, and I have a big fear of the dark. Would it be okay to ask you to help me?” I ask, and I can see the smile in his eyes. He hates this script. Odd wrote it of course.

“Sure ma’am, I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to leave my post for one moment. What office is yours?” He asked, and I pulled out the fake key card Anthony had created today. Even nodded, and looked up into my eyes, nodding once more. I smile kindly, and wait for him to start walking before I follow. Nobody seems to notice or care that he is now walking away from his post. We pass the main hall, and go down the first branch. I put a finger to my ear again.

“This is Jez. J phase two has been completed. Even is in sight. I repeat J phase two has been completed, E is in sight. We can move on to phase three. Enter Kali.” I say, as we bust through the door and into the main corridor, breaking into a run. The plan was half way through, and there were barely any ways we could screw up from here. Odd might actually deserve a pat on the back for this. However he may have to be murdered for making me run in heels. Kali breaks in over the short bursts of static from my earpiece.

“Madden is in sight, making my way now.” I can hear the rehearsed lines leave her lips as Madden makes his exit swiftly. Even and I make it to the stairwell where the open air vent is waiting for us. I leave my enormous heels under the stairs, and clamber in, Even comes after me, closing the grate back. Madden and Kali would use the one on the second floor. Then, over the static, gunshots.

“Damnit Kali! Did you want to deafen us? Run! Take Madden with you!” Even yells and pushes the back of my thigh to move me farther. We needed to get farther from the entrance and wait this out. Koi needed to check in.

“He’s the idiot that fired his warning shot too early! He was supposed to let me come on the air first. We are nearing grate 2. Koi any word?” We near a bend in the vent and Even pushes me behind him, shielding me with his body. I can see the entrance from here perfectly, they just can’t see us. That is the point. I can see the exact moment Kali’s heels and Madden’s dress shoes clamber up the stairs. A couple more gunshots, but no screams. “Koi we need you to respond, two enemy lives lost. Invasive casualty. It was impossible to evade. Stop touching that Madden.”

Even laughs, and then holds his breath as the static peters out. Koi hadn’t been on in over five minutes. We had trouble.

 

 

 

~~~~

So I wrote this a few years ago, but I found it recently and wanted to share this story idea that I had. I really enjoy the characters and I am really glad I found this! Enjoy!

Canard: A Short Story

Canard: A false or baseless rumor


“Colonel Lewis? You wanted to see me, sir? I thought our meetings were the third Wednesday of every month…. Did something change?” I ask him briskly, smoothing my skirt as I take a seat in his office. He smiles, the wrinkles beside his eyes coming out to play as his icy stares assesses everything from my posture to my outfit choice.

“We have more information. Which soldier did you talk with last week?” I chuckle and push a strand of hair behind my ear. He turns off his radio quickly, Glenn Miller’s In the Mood promptly getting cut short.

“You mean which soldier did I sleep with?” He rolls his eyes, bumming out his cigarette as he plans how to respond. “Those were your orders, were they not?”

“Just give me a damn answer. You signed up for this post. You wanna help your country don’t you? Well the President is suspicious of those damn commies and nazis and fascists alike and we have very kindly asked you to do a little digging for us. Now, tell me which soldiers you spoke to.” I cross my arms in my lap, his terse tone making me inwardly sigh. There would be no changing his ways. None at all.

“Jack Livery, Spokane, Washington. Small man, short temper, full of compensation. He worked with a Russian commander named Gurkin. I was him until Wednesday when he was deployed. He told me to keep it quiet, his wife was a Catholic.” John Lewis writes the name on his notepad and then looks up at me, silently asking for me to continue. “Then I met a man named Will Hoffmann. We didn’t sleep together but we talked and I met his brother. Navy man by the name of Ben Hoffmann.”

“Fuck. Don’t talk to Ben Hoffmann again.” He urgently leans forward and messes with some files on his desk as if I were able to read secrets. “We have him covered.”

“Don’t worry so do I. Funny thing happened with him, Johnny Boy! Turns out we both work for this colonel… oh what was his name, ah yes, you. Care to explain why we operate with a German spy? I thought we were against them!” He rubs the bridge of his nose in defeat. Everyone was downright fed-up. The weather was hotter, the war was still here, and the men and women under the command of Colonel Lewis hadn’t received answers since the day they started.

“Do you want to know your real job? It’s not to sleep with these men. It’s to find out their secrets. What do they know? What are they telling others in careless, casual whispers? This is the difference between life and death on the homefront. My board and I saw trust in you, we have been training you, yes? That is why you meet with me face to face rather than through letter using code. We trust you. We trust Ben. He started taking on international missions a month or two ago, but we need another operative. A more convincing target for the minds at work here. You, Carina Malikov, are the perfect candidate, so we were simply testing you. From now on you will be held to a higher standard. I expect you to act your age, and to respect your authority. You are property of the US military now. Meetings will move to every other monday, beginning next Monday. These will be joint meetings with Ben until he is deployed again. You will not be deployed until I feel you are ready.” I smirk and nod. So, it appears ol’ Johnny Boy was finally recognizing my potential. What a catch.

“Yes, sir.” All I can mutter are those two words but inside I was a bottle rocket exploding into a billion pieces. Finally, I was moving up from a high class prostitute to a woman of respect, well, at least more respect than I had received before. Ben was annoying and stubborn, not to mention he kept talking about how he was German, but even then he was better with working alongside the scum of the bars. As soon as they realized the extent of my potential I would be working more missions and going more places than Ben had ever gone. Mark my words. “Yes, sir.”

Lewis chuckles at my repeated words. “I’m not done with you yet, Malikov. We’ve been hearing of some false leaks. The latest canard is from a soldier I am not of obligation to name, but from your reports it appears you have not encountered him. He is revealing reports that our last forces in Bataan have surrendered. This, I am afraid, is true. We will not release this until Roosevelt releases this. Have you heard any of this?”

I shake my head. “So far, sir, the only men I have ‘encountered’ as you so kindly put it, are men fighting in Europe. I apologize. The only man who has fought in the Pacific is Ben. Even then, I’m sure you coached him on not talking about his service.” Lewis nods and looks up at me.

“He has never served. I have him registered under Halsey just in case, but he has never seen combat. He’s been our operative for some time, and before that a student who spoke more than fluent German. Hard to come by, and a rare treasure, especially when he so closely believed in the United States effort. Like I said before, we have only started seriously training him recently. Ben Hoffmann has never seen action, and as long as he is under my command I pray he never does. We need him, and eventually you, to be running routine international missions. Do you know Russian?”

It took a second for me to process that Ben had never been in actual combat. My blood seemed to chill. I considered myself a person who could read people easily, when they were lying, when they were telling the truth, etc., but Ben… Ben had evaded me in every possible way. He had been lying to me that whole time. The son of a bitch. Then when Lewis cleared his throat I realized I still hadn’t answered the question. “If you are asking if I am Russian, then yes, somewhat, but if I speak it? No. Mother was always very hush hush about her heritage. The only words I know are Privyet and Babushka and those won’t get me very far in Moscow will they.”

“No, ‘hello’ and ‘grandmother’ will not be enough. I’ll get you a tutor. He’s a friend of a friend in Moscow. Louis Antonov. He should be in town relatively soon, as soon as I ask him to be in fact. As soon as he gets here he will immerse you in the language. No choice. You want to take this to the next level? Become fluent in Russian, then we will take you seriously. Ben’s meeting with me starts in five minutes so I have to shove you out and tell him that he will have to start working with a partner. A Russian at that? He will be less than thrilled for sure. Maybe say hello to him on the way out. Be cordial. See if he remembers you.” Lewis winks and puts my file back in his drawer. I smile as best I can as I leave. My heart sank at the thought of an American loss, especially in the Pacific, but as soon as I remember my promotion my heart soared once more. The war was in my hands now. Or at least, it would be as soon as I learned Russian.

The blonde boy stood from his chair as I exited Lewis’s office, he smiled at me. It was a knowing smile, he knew why I was there, but he wouldn’t fully know until Lewis sat him down and told him the cold hard truth. The last I see of Ben is his knowing smile, and I don’t stay to find out the rest. I was going to be happy for myself, even if he wasn’t going to be too happy about the arrangement in the end. I wasn’t sure I cared too much what he thinks right now, not if it meant the United States and its allies would come out victorious. That’s what matters to me.

Snapshot: Carina Malikov {1945}

1009 words from the life of Carina Malikov: 

Shirley arrived at my hotel room before noon. Her hair was done up in nice curls, her pearls were on, and her lipstick was brighter than any rose I had ever seen. After her time in India, her skin was deeply tanned and her body toned. She smiled and entered the room, her eyes anxious and her cheeks rosy.

He was coming home today.

She was only moral support, but it was common knowledge that Shirley was just dying to meet the boy I couldn’t stop going on and on about. Shirley, the woman of commitment she was, had already been in the Women’s Army Corps for six months when I officially met Ben Hoffmann. She had only heard about my intrigue of him through letters. Now, three years later, we were engaged to be married. I had planned and waited, and Shirley sat eagerly beside, my best friend of all of my twenty one years becoming a bridesmaid herself.

I was anxious to see him again, yes. I knew what exposure to the real war had done to him last time, but a second time around. It was known the Japs were worse fighters, relentless, never surrendering. It was impossible to know how much he had suffered, all the horrors he had seen. Secretly, selfishly, I hoped for Shirley to be able to meet the Ben that I fell in love with. There was nothing I wanted more than my best friend’s approval.

“Who gave you this much money? You, Carina, are literally staying in luxury. We are only staying here one more night and you bought the nicest damn suite.” I chuckle and watch from the bed as she pours her a glass of the champagne sitting on the bedside. I neglect to mention that the champagne actually costs extra.

“So the Indians taught you to curse did they? The Shirley I knew would never utter a word against the teachings of the Lord.” She takes a drink, her face puckering slightly.

“That Shirley did not sign up for war, sweet pea. You seem anxious. Loosen up, it’s not like I’m going to murder the sailor.” I smile, and stand to go finish dressing and applying my makeup. Shirley was always known for her punctuality, and by punctuality I mean her tendency to show up excessively early to every function she has ever been invited to. She follows me into the suite bathroom.

“That’s just what I am worried about, Shirley. Just that.” She smirks and pushes a curl behind her ear, as she takes another sip of champagne she rolls her eyes. “Don’t roll your eyes Shirley McIntire! Do you not remember that boy you ran out of town for kissing me under the slide?”

“That was third grade, Cari! Third grade! Will you please get over that! I was a child!” She testifies through fits of girlish laughter and giggles. I have a hard time keeping myself from chuckling as I apply my own lipstick, a darker red, better suited for my skin tone and my grey jacket and skirt. My pearls were delicately hung about my neck, the red string tied in the back with an elaborate bow. The pearls had been his gift to me for my twenty-first birthday. The red tie after his nickname for me: his Soviet. The lipstick promptly matched the tie. I was sure he would love it. “You look gorgeous. I sure hope I don’t have to run this one straight out of the United States.”

Shirley hands me my heels as we chuckle at the thought of itty-bitty Shirley running a sailor out of the whole damn country. My heels were on. My makeup was done. My hair was curled and pinned. It was almost time. Shirley places her hand on my shoulder, a light blonde curl falling out of place as she does so. “Are you ready? You don’t have to meet him. I’m good at excuses.”

“No. No. That will not be necessary. Of course I’m ready. I haven’t seen my fiance in a year. I am more than ready.” I nod at myself in the mirror before I lead Shirley out of the hotel room. I’ll admit it costs me quite a bit of my salary from Lewis, but I’m sure it would be worth it as soon as I had Ben with me again. Everything would be right. I just knew.

 

The massive ship pulls up a few minutes late. My heart hammering with anticipation that had been building up for one entire year. One entire, long, war torn year. How the world had changed in that short span. All along the docks were family, young women like myself, brothers with handicaps from birth or war, and townspeople. It was always heartwarming to watch a homecoming. Even if the ship was only going to pull away with more men and supplies than it began, I would still get to see my fiance. To me, this was all that mattered.

In truth, I wasn’t sure why Ben was being excluded from the last advance towards the Japanese. Maybe Lewis pulled some strings. Maybe the man who once ordered me into espionage was now doing some good for my life and well being. No matter what the cause of his return, I was grateful. My heartbeat accelerated by the second.

Men began disembarking from the ship. Then I saw him. Helping a man with a crutch get off the ship. A woman next to me sobbed and rushed forward. My heart hardened, jealousy clutching it, fear thinking she was here for Ben too. When she reaches the man with crutches I see that she was only here for him. She was his sweetheart. Ben sees me and holds his arms open, setting down his bags and offering a smile. Tears rim my eyelids as I move as fast as my heels would carry me into his arms. He smelled of sweat and BO, but I couldn’t care less. He was mine, and he was home.

Snapshot: Ben Hoffmann {1945}

A 994 word snapshot in the life of Ben Hoffmann:

“Hoffmann!” Sarge yelled at the top of his lungs from below deck. I was getting some fresh air, watching the wind turn the royal blue waters into rippling whitecaps on the ocean’s surface. My thoughts were elsewhere. My thoughts were back home. With Will. With Colonel Lewis. With Carina. My thoughts were at home. In my mind I was still on my beat up couch reading the paper, watching as Will hurried out the door in order not to be late for work. Lord knows I have killed in order to one day be right back on that couch, nonchalantly sipping coffee and reading the paper.

“Damnit! Hoffmann get your scrawny ass down here!” I rolled my eyes at Sarge’s terse language, but my feet moved quickly anyways, realizing the severity of my delayed reaction. Jim laughed at me as I ran down the stairs to promptly get my ass handed to me. Sure enough, as soon as I got below deck, Sarge was waiting at the base of the stairs. His beady eyes were squinted, and his face was red from the heat of the day and presumably his anger. “All I needed you to do was teach Josiah to keep inventory of ammunition! You were hiding from me, boy? Best not. I’ll whoop your ass, boy. Now. Once you are finished helping Josiah, report to weapons. Brinkley has something for you. You’re being promoted to gunner, dumbass. Don’t screw it up or I will whoop your ass boy. Now go quickly before I have to tell you twice.”

“Yes sir. Thank you sir.” I say before walking quickly past him and down the passageway to the stores. Liam Josiah sits atop a crate of cloth, his arms crossed and his head titled back to lean against the metal wall of the ship. He smiles when I enter.

Josiah was born to a Southern Baptist family in Mississippi, though he didn’t particularly think of himself as a religious folk, so he enlisted when he turned eighteen. That was one year ago last tuesday. The boy was young, but he didn’t look it by now. A year at sea, fighting against the Japs, it simply wears a man down. He came in a tall and proud man, and is currently sitting in front of me boasting a scar above his eyebrow from a drunken brawl, and messed up knee after he fell trying to get to the guns before the Japanese got to us. Before spending a year with rowdy boys and the ocean he was probably doll dizzy too. Hell, we all knew he was girl crazy from the moment he stepped on this ship. All he wanted to talk about was this girl Elaine. Even now, whenever Sarge brings her up in a moment of bitter laughter and weakness, Josiah’s cheeks will still redden with the faint memory of his girl. Back then I sympathized with him – I suppose I still do – for missing his darling back home. After all, I did, and still do, miss Carina with all of my mind and body, but I certainly wouldn’t be considered girl crazy.  

“Sarge assigned you to my keeping? Excellent. It has been a rather long time since we talked.” Josiah chuckles, his brown hair falling in his face and his wide smile breaking loose. “Grab my crutch will ya pal?”

I grab it from the wall and help him up steadily, talking to him as I do so. “It’s been a while indeed. Three days?”

“Long time to be cooped up on a ship and not chit chat, wouldn’t you agree?” I have my arm around his shoulders, holding on just enough to ensure he would not collapse, leading him towards the record book where he could sit and work just fine. This was the one job that Sarge could have Josiah do before we docked back in the US and had him transferred to home front units. There wasn’t much use for a soldier with a bum knee.

“Oh most certainly. Now, let’s sit you down here at the desk. Yes, just like that. Perfect. Each binder is labeled with items we have in here, you will keep tabs of things coming in and going out. Just mark it, check once, twice and so on. You will even get updates on mail pick ups and so on. Won’t that be nice? You’ll get to see when Elaina sends word.” I say with a genuine smile and he smiles up at me too.

“Of course, and I will notify you whenever word comes from Carina. How is she, by the way?” He looks up at me with eager blue eyes, but the rest of his body seems ready to give out. One more month until we dock, and I can marry my sweet Carina, and Josiah can get back on land and fix that knee of his. Surely the two of us can survive one more month.

“The last she wrote was a week ago, I’m sure my recent letter hasn’t even arrived at her door. Her mother has been staying with her recently, trying to find a new place for her parents. Out of the city. Housing has just been so tight back home. Other than that, she is the same precious girl I wait for.”

“Piping hot too.” Josiah jokes and I smack his back playfully, joining him in laughter.

“I suppose you’re right. She is definitely piping hot. Anyways, do you have any questions about your job before I go down to the gunner?”

“No, no. Don’t trouble your time with me and women. Go get your tiny ass promoted!” He calls, sending a small whistle my way as I mock salute him and exit the room.  I couldn’t deny my blood tingled anticipating the action found in the gunning room. The Japanese would have no idea what hit them. Not after they get a taste of Ben Hoffmann.