Seeing the Future

Three weeks after I earned my license, I had my first accident. I was sitting at a side street stop sign, trying to enter the busy intersection. I looked left, looked right, and looked left again before pressing the accelerator, spinning my wheels to turn.
I forgot to look straight ahead.

The few moments after an accident are surreal. You are dazed, not fully understanding the scene before you. The glass is shattered, and you vaguely register the shouts and beeping horns, but, for a few moments, time stands still.
Then your heart jumps into action.

“Miss? MISS! Are you all right?”
Someone is banging against the passenger window. It is a body with two heads. I shake my head, trying to clear the rising fog. There is glass all over my body. Cuts on my arms and legs oozing blood. I look through the open dashboard to see the other driver. He is slumped over the steering wheel. His seatbelt hangs loosely to the side.
There are sirens, and the smell of smoke. More people bang on my window, but I can’t tell what they’re saying. My ears are plugged, and my eyes are sagging. I want to close them. I want to sleep. I want to feel frightened, feel worried, feel something, but all I can do is fight the rising mist, which is gradually drawing closer…and closer…
My eyes jump open, and I feel a pair of arms wrap around me. Another pair of arms is cutting my seatbelt.
“We’re cutting you out,” a voice behind me says. “Stay awake, okay? Focus on my voice.”
The man (for it was a man’s voice) began to talk about the paramedics and the firefighters arriving to the scene. He mentions something about water and ice, but the words begin to blend into each other. To fade.
The fog is rising again. I feel my body rising with it. Up, up, and out of the car. Where am I going? To the hospital? To the heavens? I see a million scenes flash before my eyes, linked by a thread of insanity. Where am I going? What is happening to me?

When I open my eyes again, I am in darkness. The unfamiliar sounds don’t help my anxiety.
“Ah, you’re awake.” A man’s voice by my head. I stiffen instinctively.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
But I don’t see fingers. I don’t see anything, except my future. A dark, dull emptiness with no end in sight.
Despite its foreboding nature, I marvel at the sight. I’ve never seen anything so clearly.
And I never will again.

Soul Mates

They met in Athens, on the steps of the Parthenon. He was an Olympic athlete, the favourite for several cycling events. She was a reporter, straight out of school on her first big assignment. They were soul mates, though they didn’t realise it at the time.

When the Games ended, they left the city, never looking back. She returned home, got a promotion, and married a hometown boy, her best friend’s brother. He soon lost his job, but found another with a large, multinational corporation. Several years later, he was promoted and transferred to the company headquarters in London. She found a good job with the Standard, and the entire family moved to Streatham.

On the first day of her new job, she walked into the office only to find a very familiar face sitting at the cubicle next door. It was Him. The Athlete. Her soul mate.


Little Penny Pratchett ran to the door, struggling to unbolt the lock. “Mummy! Mummy! You’re home!”
The door eventually opened, seemingly of its own accord, and the girl threw her arms around her mother’s legs. “Mummy, I missed you!”
The woman looked down, surprise filling her eyes. “Home already, Penny? Did you finish school early?” And then, “Penny! What have I told you about opening the door to strangers?”
“But you’re not a stranger, Mummy! I saw you coming! And, besides, Mrs Townsfeld was watching me.”
The woman’s eyes travelled to a older lady sitting on the day bench. “Much obliged, ma’am, for watching my little girl.”
“Please don’t mention it, Helena. Penny’s a darling.”
After politely declining a cup of tea, Mrs Townsfeld was showered with thanks and praise as she returned to her house next door. The newfound lack of company left Helena Pratchett with nothing to do other than sitting at the kitchen table, resting her head in her hands.
“Mummy.” Penny crawled into her mother’s lap. “Mummy, you look sad.”
“I’m not sad, sweet pea. I’m just thinking.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Adult things, sweetie.”
“Can I help?”
“Actually…” Helena thought for a moment. “Penny, lovey, do you believe in…true love?”
“Yes, of course!” Penny bounced in her mother’s lap. “Everyone has true love! Cinderella and the Prince, Ariel and the Prince, Snow White and the Prince, and you and Daddy!”
Helena’s smile disappeared as the last couple was mentioned. “Yes…yes, your daddy and I love each other…very much, don’t we?”
Penny frowned. “Mummy, have you and Daddy been fighting again?”
“No, no, lovey. Daddy’s done nothing wrong. Nothing at all.”

Helena Pratchett lay awake that night for a long time, thinking. The man snoring next to her was everything a woman could ask for. He was kind, gentle, and understanding. He had a good job, a good mind, and a good heart. A way with children, a way with words, and a way with, well, everything.
Why, then, did she feel this way?
Parry was safe.
But Manuel felt…right.
Parry was where she belonged.
But Manuel was…different. Special.
Perhaps they were siblings. Or cousins. That could explain the connection, couldn’t it? So she searched. She called older relatives. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. She looked at family trees. Visited genealogy experts. But there was no trace of any “Manuel Ortega”, or even any Spanish ancestry, in her blood.

But they were good together.
She told jokes, and he laughed. Parry never laughed at her jokes.
They could finish each other’s sentences, predict each other’s lunch preferences, even choose clothes and accessories they knew the other would love.
Parry could do none of those.
But what could she do? She was married. She had a small child. She was a good woman. She wanted to be a good wife.
So she did the only thing she could. She came home and cried. Every night. When Penny was in bed and her husband was asleep, Helena Pratchett would let the tears wet her pillow, drowning the soft down in a deluge of heartbreak.

This pattern continued for a few years, until, one day, Helena went to work only to find the cubicle next to hers was cleared.
“Where’s Mister Ortega?” she asked the only person in the corridor, a cleaner.
“He’s gone, Missus Pratchett,” said the man. “Said somethin’ ’bout seekin’ a fortune in ‘merica. Cleaned out last night an’ left.”
Manuel was gone. Left for a different country.
But what could she do? She was a married woman. She had duties. Responsibilities.

More time passed. Penny grew into a beautiful young woman. She went to college, earned a degree in English, and followed in her mother’s footsteps. Helena was proud.
At least there’s one thing I did right…

One day, Penny brought a young man home. His name was Toni.
He was a very nice young man, Helena thought. He’d make a good husband for Penny.
It wasn’t until the wedding that Helena realised why Toni Ortega was so familiar.
“I never realised you had a son,” she said to Manuel during the reception. “He looks a lot like you.”
“They’ll be happy together,” was the reply.
“Yes,” said Helena. “Yes, I think they will be.”

At Grandfather’s House

The beautiful night air whips across my face. The stars scintillate in turn as they rap out the rhythm of a song yet unheard in this world. I sing one of my own off-tune, my hands lightly fingering the revolver in my coat pocket.
It’s a grand night to be on top of the world, but, sadly, I’m not there. Yet. But I can fix that. I intend to, before the night is over.
There is a crash in one of the backstreets. A Havana Brown leaps into my line of vision, its wide, fluorescent eyes daring me to blink. I smirk, and the cat mews quietly before darting behind the wall.
Even the cats are afraid of me. There’s nothing left to stand in my way. Nothing but a few metres of potholes dipped in concrete, a mire of stagnant water, litter, and broken dreams.
I walk a few feet more, jumping over the potholes in the road. Some are deeper than others. Some of them are too wide, and I feel the concrete crumbling at the edges beneath my feet. But I don’t fall in. I won’t. I’ve trained too hard.
There is a beat, then the roar of sirens, cutting into the night. An amateur would hide, but I hold my place. The red-and-blue lights dance on the brick walls around me as the cars race by, filling my face with dust and exhaust. I hold my breath, not wanting to feel the acrid fumes burn through my chest.
The police are on a late-night chase. Fools. They’ll never touch us. We are far too careful, too clever. We entertain the cops and lawyers with the weaker links, disposable softies who would have been eliminated anyway. The dumb muscle, if you will. Everyone seems to want a job these days. Especially the ones who aren’t qualified for much of anything.
When I reach the door, I straighten my tie, adjust my hat, and knock twice. Almost immediately, the door is answered by a pretty, curly-haired maid. Her name is Maria, but we call her La Morte. Rumour has it she once killed an entire neighbourhood block by setting a gas pipe on fire.
“He’s waiting for you,” she says to me, offering to take my hat.
I shake my head at her waiting hand. “I’ll be quick.”
Climbing the stairs two at a time, I pause briefly before barging into the boss’ office. I don’t bother knocking.
The boss’ gray head is bent over his desk, and he makes no indication that he is aware of my intrusion. I clear my throat, and he looks up, scowling slightly before his face breaks into a grin.
“Flavio! How’s my favourite grandson?”
“I’m your only grandson,” I say. “Matteo doesn’t count.”
Matteo, my cousin, was two years older than I and currently “institutionalised” somewhere in America. He had reportedly gone mad after a drug deal went wrong. None of us believed that, of course; we knew he had sold information about the family to the police. Took three months to clear everyone worth saving and eliminate the rest. But Matteo didn’t care. He’s currently living the free life in Vegas. An embarrassment to the entire family. Mentioning his name is tantamount to murder.
Which is why, of course, I did it.
The boss’ eye twitch at the mention of Matteo’s name, but, other than that, he makes no acknowledgement of my statement. Strange that he should let it slide so easily. This new job he needs done must be horrible.
“To what do I owe this visit, Flavio?” The old man gestures to an armchair in front of the fire, but I remain standing.
“Romano mentioned something about a job.”
“Ah, yes. Job. Never have time to come and chat with an old man, do you, Flavio?”
“We have nothing to chat about,” I said pointedly.
“But you are my grandson! We are family. We are blood!”
I rest my hand over the revolver in my pocket. “We may be blood, tainted as that might be, but you are no family of mine!”
“Flavio.” The old man’s voice was hoarse. “You have to put that behind you. There was nothing to be done for her.”
“There was everything to be done for her!” I slammed my hands on the desk. “You gave up! You forced me to give up! You turned your back on the family! You betrayed our cause!”
“She was a traitor, Flavio. She was working with Matteo. She sold us out.”
“No, you’re wrong.” My voice cracks. “I read both of their testimonies. They don’t match. Matteo was lying. He was jealous.”
“Jealous of you and Carla? I think not…”
“You don’t think at all! Damn you, you’re nothing but a…”
The words die in my mouth.
“Do you forget where you are? Don’t test my patience, boy. I have more important things to worry about than your miserable love life.”
“More important things than me?” I say quietly.
The old man sighs. “The world doesn’t revolve around you, Flavio.”
“I suppose it revolves around you?”
“Don’t ‘Flavio’ me. You took everything away from me! Let’s see how much you like it.” I pull out the gun and point it at the boss. “Keep your hands on the desk, old man. If you so much as blink, I will shoot you.”
The old man tilts his head back and laughs.
Of all the possible reactions, I did not anticipate this one.
“I’m SERIOUS!” My grip tightens on the gun. “I’ll shoot you, I swear!”
“Flavio, Flavio, Flavio…” The old man shakes his head. “So you shoot me. You’re next in line, you become the new boss. You’ll break your dear Carla out of prison, I assume, and live happily together forever as the mafia don and his wife. Am I right?”
My hand shakes. “She’s dead.”
“Carla. She’s dead.”
“Oh.” The old man’s head drops. “Flavio…”
“You know who killed her?”
There is no reply, and I smirk.
“That’s right, old man. It was your order. Your signature. Her blood on your hands. Now, it will be your blood on my hands. That’s the way you always spin. Revenge. Power. Reputation. Prestige. Well, now it’s my turn.”
“You’re confused,” says the boss. “Grieving. If you’re the boss…”
When I’m the boss,” I correct, “I won’t kill innocent girls. ‘Specially not if my ‘favourite grandson’ is in love with them.”
“She was working with Matteo,” says the boss. “I had no choice.”
“There is always a choice!” I snap.
“Then you’ll understand why I have to do this.” The boss snaps his fingers, and the study doors open.
As three burly men hustle into the room, I stiffen. “Then I will make my choice.” I pull the trigger, only to hear a small click.
The barrel is empty.
“Maria switched your guns,” says the boss. “You really should be more careful when you’re entering your grandfather’s house…”

Alone and Unarmed

Sorry for the delay in posting. As always, any comments/critcisms are greatly appreciated!
— Beatrice

“Rather fine day, isn’t it, love?”
The voice cracked her concentration, and the teacup tilted backwards, staining her white sundress.
“Oh! Dear God…” She grabbed a handful of serviettes from the table, only to find the white paper stuck firmly to the wet portions of her dress, giving her the appearance of a half-plucked chicken.
“Here, try this, love.”
She looked up, hesitantly taking the proffered towel. The man was right; it did help, although there was still an unsightly brown stain running down her chest.
“I’m terribly sorry about that, love. I didn’t…I mean, I…”
“Come again?”
“My name is Eva. Eva Castillo.” The woman smiled “So you don’t have to keep calling me ‘love’.”
The man scratched his chin. “Castillo…as in the famous Dr Eva Castillo?”
Eva laughed lightly. “If you consider commandeering cruise ships and subjecting their crews to rigorous training cause for fame, then, yes, I suppose I am.”
“The media says you have quite the track record. In preventing the outbreaks, that is.”
“The media’s goal is to solicit an audience, not report facts.”
“Still, I feel I’m in safe hands.”
“I’m flattered, Mister…”
“…Rodney Winchester.”
The woman nodded. “Mister Winchester.”
A small smirk gilded the man’s face as he adjusted his oversized Gucci sunglasses. The smile disappeared, however, when the man heard a small click come from the table behind him. Instinctively, he pushed the woman beneath the table, ignoring her indignant cry, and pulled a handgun from his inside coat pocket.
“Long time, no see.” The man spun around to see a group of uniformed waiters standing behind him. Each held a gun or pistol.
The man’s arm twitched, and one dozen firearms were pointed at his heart.
“Drop the weapon,” said the closest waiter, a middle-aged Oriental woman with bushy eyebrows and a deadly stare.
The man complied, setting the handgun on the floor.
“Kick it away,” said the waiter.
“If you say so…” The man gently nudged the gun under the tablecloth with his foot.
“Where is it, Parker?”
“Where is what?”
“The hard drive. We know you’ve been spying on us.” The Oriental woman cracked her neck.
“Really, Christine, do we have to do this here?” The man sounded exasperated. “This ship is full of innocent people.”
“You have a warped sense of innocence,” said the woman dryly. “This ship is full of mob bosses, loan sharks, and mafia dons. And you, of course. But that can be corrected. Boys?”
Two of the larger waiters advanced towards the man, and he placed his hands in the pockets of his jacket.
“As enjoyable as this has been…”
A pair of shots rang out. One of the burly waiters fell to his knees, and Christine clutched her arm. The man knocked the table over, grabbed Eva, and began to run.

The man triple-bolted the cabin door as Eva bent over the vanity, breathing heavily.
“Who…the hell…you’re not…name’s not…Rodney Winchester, is it?”
“Sorry, poppet,” said the man. “The name’s Parker.”
“Is that a first name or a last name?”
“Has anyone ever old you that you ask too many questions?”
“It’s in my job description,” Eva snapped. “And what on earth are you doing?”
“It’s an inflatable lifeboat,” said Parker. “You don’t think they’re going to leave us alone, do you? After that scene?”
“You expect me…to get into that…with you? I don’t think so.”
“Well, you’d better think now, doctor, if you feel like getting off this boat alive!”
As if on cue, the cabin door shuddered. The impact was followed by the sound of shattering glass, and an alarm.
“Well, that’s our cue!” said Parker. He opened the door to the balcony, pushing the inflatable boat outside. “After you, love.”
“What do you…?”
“Or I can push you.”

“So, you’re a secret agent? Like James Bond?”
The orange lifeboat rocked against the billowing waves as Parker rowed and Eva chatted. In her defence, speaking was the only thing currently distracting her from the unpleasant bubbling happening in her stomach, and she was afraid she’d vomit if she paused for breath.
Even if Parker knew this, he wouldn’t have cared. Taking care of babbling women wasn’t in his job description, and the fact that the one next to him was responsible for his aborted mission annoyed him immensely. But Parker knew the boss, never mind half the world, would have his head if something happened to Dr Eva Castillo. Therefore, he gritted his teeth and doubled the pace.
“…water’s so blue and clean, isn’t it? And the sun sparkling on it almost looks like a diamond mine here in the open…just water, no sign of any…Parker? Parker!”
Parker grunted.
“Did you even think this through? We’re stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of God-knows-where, no food, no water, not to mention the unsanitary nature of this…”
The woman was going into hysterics, Parker decided.
“…that even consider adequate vaccinations against tropical maritime vectors…”
“Where did you learn to shoot a gun like that?”
Eva paused, then frowned. “I asked you a question first!”
Parker chuckled. “You asked me a lot of questions, love.”
“You answer mine first, then I’ll answer yours.”
Parker chuckled again. The woman had gumption. He wouldn’t be surprised if she were another undercover agent, sent to provide back-up. “There’s a tracer in my shoe, poppet. My people will be here soon.”
Eva muttered something about that not being soon enough.
“The gun, love?”
“I can’t fire a gun,” Eva said. “Those were curare-tinged darts from my dart-blower. The gunshots were just a distraction.”
Parker inspected the small device Eva passed to him. Perhaps she isn’t entirely useless…

At first, it was difficult for Parker to believe the petite woman from the cruise ship was the great Eva Castillo. She was talkative, sensitive, messy, and clumsy. They were stranded on the boat for five hours; in that time, she had talked up a storm, managed to fall overboard, set the oars on fire, cried five times, and shot Parker in the arm with one of her dummy darts.
But she was clever. Parker had to give her that. He made this discovery twenty-eight hours after their rescue by the HMS Neptune. After a nap, a good meal, and a hot shower, Parker went down to the control room to meet with his boss. Surprisingly, Eva was already there.
Oh, goody, goody. The boss gets to chew me out in front of a pretty girl. Wait a minute…did I just call her pretty?
The boss did indeed “chew him out”, although Parker was surprised by the comparative leniency of the scolding. It must have been because Eva was in the room, he decided. Although she did look quite pleased to see Parker in trouble…or was that concern? Parker had never been good at reading women’s faces…beyond whether they were planning to shoot or let him live, of course.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that, doctor.” Parker’s boss was uncharacteristically cordial to Eva after he had finished his lecture. Must have been because the woman was an international celebrity. “Parker managed to compromise what should have been a very simple mission.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Eva. “It seems the balmy cruise vacation wasn’t everything the tourists expected.”
“Far from it,” said the boss. “But it’s our responsibility to keep the innocents safe and separate from our dealings, neither of which Parker seems to have managed.”
Parker shifted uncomfortably. It was horrid that Eva had become caught up in all of this.
Her next sentence, however, changed that view.
“Would this scheme happen to involve a ruby revolver?”
Parker jumped, then slammed his hands on the table. “How do you even know about that?”
Eva shrugged. “I’m a scientist. I listen and I look for clues.”
“But –”
“The entire dining room staff and most of the cleaners on that cruise ship were underworld agents. When I was training them, I heard several rumours too interesting to simply pass over.”
“So you…went looking?”
“Well, I prefer the term ‘investigating’. And would you believe what I found…” Eva reached under her dress and produced a small, lipstick-red pistol.
“Look familiar, gentlemen?”
“By George…” Parker’s heart was pounding as he walked towards the woman. “D’you have any idea…”
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Eva hid the pistol behind her back. “Five hours stuck in a lifeboat with you…I think I deserve some kind of compensation for my efforts. Don’t you, Parker?”
Parker’s boss was grinning. This woman was very interesting.
Parker, on the other hand, was flustered. Highly unprofessional.
“Now, see here,” he said. “You have no idea how valuable that…”
“Eighteenth century French artifact with the legendary power to convert lead into precious jewels. Lost in the mid-nineteen hundreds, found two days ago. Estimated value three hundred and fifty million American dollars. Four hundred million euros in England. They value French history more than the Americans, it seems.”
The woman was, in Parker’s eyes, most certainly very clever.

The days turned into weeks, and Eva and Parker were still on board the HMS Neptune. Neither of them could leave until the rogue cruise ship had been sequestered and its crew apprehended. The passengers, most of whom had Interpol files, would also be detained for questioning. Since both the crew and passengers had seen Eva and Parker, the two had to stay hidden under the protection of the Secret Service.
Or, at least, that was the plan. And, as with all plans, this one went terribly awry.
There were three underworld agents on the HMS Neptune. Given the choice between kidnapping a British secret agent and an internationally-renowned epidemiologist, they chose the latter and placed a potent sleeping powder in the woman’s dinner. She hadn’t awoken until she was tied securely to the steam pipes on the cruise ship’s engineering deck…by which time, there was no one around to hear her scream.
It was six twenty-four in the morning when Parker found the note taped onto his bathroom mirror.
We have the girl.
You have twenty-four hours.
Come alone and unarmed.

Parker openly declared his arrival on the cruise ship. He was greeted with guns, threats, and smirks.
“Knew you’d come, you damn limey,” said Christine.
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, love.”
Christine grunted in response before disappearing below deck.
Parker was happy to advertise the fact that he was unarmed and ready to negotiate. What he didn’t advertise were the dozen or so British submarines surrounding the ship with torpedoes aimed for the hull if something were to go awry. Such a manoeuvre was undesirable, though, as it would cause both Parker and Eva to perish along with the rest of the ship.
Parker knew he had strong feelings for Eva. Whether it was guilt for dragging her into this mess or something more, he wasn’t sure. But he did know he had to get her off this ship safely. He owed her that much, at least.
Several guards donned in waiter uniforms escorted Parker to a meeting room, which housed a single, long table. At one end sat Christine. Next to her was Eva, gagged and bound. Her eyes were active, though they lacked the vigour they once had.
Parker winked at Eva. Don’t worry, poppet. I’ll get you out of this.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, limehead,” said Christine.
“Don’t try to be clever,” said Parker, taking a seat at his end of the table. “It won’t work.”
“Aye,” said Christine. “I’ve heard the clever one’s sitting right next to me. Doesn’t speak much for your agency, now, does it?”
Parker’s hands clenched under the table as he looked carefully at Eva. She had several cuts and bruises, and a black eye was forming on her right side.
“Like the new look?” asked Christine. “I did the eye.”
Parker’s knuckles were white. “What do you want?”
“The revolver. For starters.”
“Well, I don’t have it.”
“You said come unarmed. So I did. The ‘ruby revolver’ would count as an arm, wouldn’t it?”
Christine shrugged. “Then send word to your people to bring it here.”
“You think they’re that stupid?”
“No one who walks on this ship is going to leave alive.”
“And yet you’re here.” Christine smiled maliciously.
Parker shrugged. “You have something I need.”
“The doctor? Parker, have you gone soft on us?”
“No,” said Parker, feeling in his pocket for Eva’s dart-gun. “I just learnt a few new tricks.”
Several minutes later, Christine and the guards were laying on the floor, paralysed. The first thing Eva said when Parker untied her gag was: “Your handgun. Left boot, third buckle.”
“Thanks, love. Blow darts aren’t quite my style.”

“What was your plan, again?” Eva muttered as she and Parker pressed themselves against the stairwell wall.
“Get onto the boat and find Christine.” And you, of course. But he didn’t say that part.
“And now…?”
“I didn’t think that far. But running seems like a good idea.”
With his handgun in one hand and Eva’s arm in the other, Parker dashed across the open deck towards the rail. Gunfire opened almost immediately, and Parker lifted Eva off her feet, carrying her in his arms, trying to shield her with his body.
“Good. Lord. In. Heaven.” muttered Eva.
“Hush,” grunted Parker. In one fluid movement he jumped over the deck rail, dropping himself and Eva into the seawater below.
“You can swim, right?”
“Of course I can swim, you stupid man. But what does…oh, God, you’ve been shot!”
Parker raised his head high enough to see a large, red stain quickly spreading across his chest. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. “This doesn’t…look…”
“…Parker? PARKER!”

Due to policy arrangements, the funeral was not held until two weeks later. It was a small service, one for a brave comrade who had fallen in the line of duty, protecting the people he served. The media had a field day with the story, of course, and there was talk of a new movie focusing on an epidemiologist and a secret agent trapped on a modern-day Titanic.
But Eva heard none of it.
She saw only the stone marker, the name engraved neatly in curled print: “Phillip Parker Putnam. May he rest in peace.”
Neither his first nor his last name. The tears fell quickly, when they did fall, and she felt her heart crack open.
“I-I wonder…what h-he…oh, God, Eva don’t be stupid. You were just…just a…annoying little girl…”
In the distance, two bald men watched the scene. Large Gucci sunglasses covered most of their faces.
“You had to, you know,” said one man to the other. “There was no choice. You’d just put her in more danger.”
“I know,” replied the other man. “But it’s hard to see her like this.”
“It always is. But it will get better.”
The second man folded his arms. “You’re lying.”
The first man sighed. “Come on, Parker. Your next assignment is waiting.”

The Five Heroes You Meet

My final history assignment wasn’t about daring battles or secret marriages or long expeditions. It was about finding everyday heroes in the world around us. Five of them, to be precise. Being the procrastinator I am, I waited until lunchtime the day before the assignment was due to read the prompt. Now, as I head to my after-school job at the local corner store, a series of thoughts fly single-file through my head. Perhaps I’ll meet my hero tonight. At least one of them, anyway. He’ll come up to my register and sweep me off my feet. Yes, that would be lovely, wouldn’t it? I need a hero in my life; I haven’t even got a prom date. Everyone was sure Orson Collins would ask me, but he asked that stupid Cindy Lewis instead. Now I’ll be stuck as a wallflower unless I can find somebody. Fast. There’s only one week left before prom.

As soon as I switch on my overhead light (#4), a man runs in front of my register. He wears an old, faded denim jacket over a gray track suit. In his hands rest a bag of nappies and a box of baby wipes, with a bottle of Destin precariously balanced on top.
“Find everything you need, Sir?” I ask as I begin to scan the items.
The man grunts in response as he pulled out his iPhone, which had just started to ring. I grin, taking in his dopey, unkempt appearance. His hair is matted, as if he had run through the pouring rain to reach the store, and his shoes are stained with mud and grass.
It isn’t until I take his credit card that I recognise his name. Reverend Lance Johnston. Pastor at the Methodist church two streets away from my school. His wife had given birth to a baby with severe spina bifida three months ago. A small, sickly thing they called Lucy. The doctors said it wouldn’t survive the year.
But that hadn’t stopped the principal from milking the student body for every cent we had last Friday in exchange for some rubbish lollipops.
And that hadn’t stopped Reverend Johnston from running out in the rain late one Thursday afternoon for emergency baby supplies.

My next customer is a teenage girl, a little younger than myself. She places a large bouquet of pink roses on the counter. It is a simple scan-and-bag…at least, so I think until I hear a small voice emerge from behind the counter. “Um, Lizzy? Can I have a Mars Bar?”
The girl frowns. “Dad said no snacks before dinner.”
“I said no, Zach!”
The boy pouts, and the girl softens. Slightly. “Zach, I’m sorry, but Dad told us to just buy the flowers because we have to…”
“But the flowers are from you, Liz! I want to give Mommy something, too.”
The girl scowls. “You can’t give her candy, idiot. She can’t eat it.”
“But we could leave it for her.”
The girl rolls her eyes, her attitude masking something deeper. “Fine, whatever.” She reaches in her pocket for the extra money.
“Oh, uh…Zach?”
“I’m short fifty cents.”
Tears begin to form in the little boy’s eyes. “But, Lizzy! I have to give Mommy something. She’s my mommy!”
“She won’t even know you gave it to her, you know…” The boy’s sobs begin to pierce the quiet bustle of the store, and customers turn around. The girl freezes momentarily, then reaches for the bouquet of flowers.
“Miss?” she says, addressing me. “Do you mind if I swap this for something else really quick?”
The girl returns moments later with a smaller bouquet of baby’s breath and a little plastic sign which says: “In loving memory”. She places the items next to the chocolate bar, and says, “I think I should have enough money, now.”

Several customers later, a rather obese man waddles towards the counter, tossing a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts next to the register.
“Just this?” I ask. My manners are disappearing with my energy. I need a Red Bull.
“Uh-huh. Oh, and maybe add this, too, darlin’…” The man tosses two Butterfingers and a Babe Ruth next to the doughnuts.
It takes all of my concentration to keep from smirking.
“Total’s twelve-eight-five, mister.”
The man pulls out a wallet and gasps slightly.
“Everything okay, mister?”
The man totters to the side, clutching his chest. His lips are slightly blue.
My heart skips a beat.
“Mister!” I say, my voice rising. I walk around the counter. My feet are wobbly. What do I do?
“Mister, can you hear me?”
The man kneels on the floor, gasping for breath. His face is shiny, and his shirt is wet.
I look around the store. No one in sight.
The man groans.
“Help! HELP!” I scream. “Someone, we need a doctor!”
A young woman appears from inside one of the aisles. She has a light jacket thrown over dark blue scrubs. She is a nursing student from the CC.
The nurse sees the man on his knees, and me hovering around the counter, unsure what to do.
“Call nine-one-one,” she tells me, kneeling next to the man. I use the phone by the register.
“Sir, I need you to calm down, okay?” says the woman. “Just sit back here, yes, just like that. Tilt your head back. Good. I’m just going to loosen your shirt and belt. Nothing to worry about, okay? We’ll get you some help.”
The woman is much calmer than I am, I realise, as I squeal at the emergency dispatcher on the other end of the phone.
“He’s having a heart attack! Oh, god, what do we do? What do we do?”
The paramedics are dispatched, and I watch the woman speak soothingly to the man. I feel useless. Numb.
“Do you have any aspirin?” the woman asks me a few minutes later. I nod.
“Can you get it for me?” Her tone is still calm. Collected. For a moment, I am jealous of her poise. I wish I had nerves like that.
The nurse asks the man to chew and swallow the aspirin. Moments later, the store doors open, and two paramedics rush in with a stretcher. I see my manager standing behind them. The paramedics place the man on the stretcher. The nurse says something to me, but I don’t hear her.
I only see my manager several feet away. He gives me two thumbs up.
But I wasn’t the hero, here.

Two hours before my shift ends, the effects of the Red Bull kick in. My smile is brighter, my head is foggy, and I wonder how late I’ll have to stay up to write this essay. Two hours, three, maybe, if there’s an interesting discussion on Facebook. My best friend Katelyn has been having problems with her boyfriend. He’s really cute. I wonder if they’ve broken up as yet.
There is a lull in the flow of customers, and I inspect my nails. I still have to pick out my prom dress. I’ve narrowed it down to a yellow tulle and a purple satin; I’m going back to the shop tomorrow to try them on one last time. Cindy Lewis is wearing silver and blue, but I don’t know what fabric. Not that it matters. Everything she wears looks like spun gold.
“‘ello, poppet, ‘ow are you today?”
A little old lady stands in front of me, clutching a box of Earl Gray teabags and a box of cookies.
The automatic smile returns. “I’m very well, thank you, ma’am. Did you find everything okay?”
“Yes, thank ‘ee, dearie.”
“Just these, then?” Tea and biscuits. Typical old lady.
“Just these, dearie.”
I begin to place the items in a bag, but the lady stops me.
“Love, you can just put them right there. They’re for your food drive.”
Food drive? I follow the lady’s finger to see the barrel of dry goods by the door. HOLY TRINITY FOOD COLLECTION.
“Oh…that food drive…”
The lady smiles. “Nothing like a spot of tea and a nice biscuit on a chilly night, is there, love?”
“No, I suppose not…”
The lady follows me as I walked towards the barrel. I suppose she thinks her donation had bought her five minutes’ worth of my ears. “It’s uncanny…I had a daughter who ran away from home, once. We had a huge argument. Something silly that I can’t remember, now. She spent three weeks living in a shelter and eating from a food bank. Ever since that time, I always try to give back, give to someone else’s daughter, even if that means I don’t get my cuppa every night. Sometimes all it takes is a good deed to warm the heart. Right, poppet?”

My final customer for the night is Orson Collins. My heart stops when I see him standing in front of my register. Even though he’s technically with Cindy Lewis, the girls still swoon every time he walks by. Myself included.
Stupid heart.
He has no boxes or parcels in his hands, though, and I raise an eyebrow.
“Something I can help you with…sir?
“My car…it just broke down…I don’t…the garage isn’t open…I can’t…” He jumps and stares at me, as if seeing my face for the first time. “Grace? Is that you?”
I sigh. “Yep, it’s me, Orson.”
“Grace, you gotta help me. My mom’s gonna kill me if I don’t get home before nine.”
“Did you try calling her?”
“Busy signal…”
“Try again.”
“I’ve been trying for the last hour. I think someone forgot to hang up the phone.”
I sigh. “Where’s your car?”
“I managed to push it into your parking lot, but I don’t think it’s going any further. I’d walk, but it’s all the way across town. And it’s raining.”
“Well, I get off at ten. I could give you a lift…”
“I have to get home for nine.”
I rolled my eyes. He didn’t have to try so hard to be annoying. “Call a cab.”
“No money. You know they require cash on sight. Especially from teens.”
“Orson, I’m sure your parents will understand if you…”
“No, Grace, you don’t understand. We’re having a wake for my Gran. I have to be there at nine. Mom’s been alone since this morning. She’d be exhausted. But she can’t go to bed unless someone else is there to keep watch.”
I sigh again. This one is much longer. Then I reach over, and flick my lights. The manager runs over.
“I just need a sec,” I say, abandoning my register and grabbing Orson by the arm. I take him to the back room, pull my purse out of my locker, and pass him my phone and a fifty-dollar bill.
“Call a cab.”

The next day, I hand in a half-completed history assignment. Mr Sterling raises an eyebrow after flipping through the paper, but he doesn’t say anything. I have no energy, no motivation to do anything. Last night, I gave Orson Collins over half of the money I’ve saved for a prom dress. My family isn’t rich. I’ve been saving for over three months. I know I’ll never be able to afford a dress now. I probably won’t even end up going to the stupid dance.

Two days before prom, Orson Collins arrives back in school. He is carrying a large parcel with him. There is much speculation. Some say it’s for an elaborate proposal for Cindy Lewis. Others say it’s a mini Ferrari.
It isn’t until lunchtime that Orson pulls me over and thrusts the package in my hands.
“I heard through the grapevine,” he said. “And don’t worry about the history assignment. I’ve already told Mr Sterling about my everyday heroes.”
Puzzled, I tear off the paper wrapping. Inside is a silk, floor-length, green-and-gold gown.

Spanish Eyes

“Your eyes are beautiful.”
The girl blushed, and I continued.
“They’re so green…like grass…or frogs…or avocados…”
“Juana!” Santiago scowled. “You can’t run around telling people they look like avocados!”
“But her eyes! They’re such a delightful shade of green! Don’t you think so, hermano?” I tugged his shirt. “Don’t you think her eyes are pretty?”
Santiago pushed my arm away from his body. I whimpered.
“Hush,” he said. “You can’t run around telling strange girls they look like food items, and you certainly can’t run around saying that they’re pretty!”
“But her eyes! They’re green!”
The girl was smiling now, as if she found our conversation amusing. As if she understood.
“She’s a foreigner,” said Santiago. “Of course she’s strange. But you can’t speak to them. And you certainly can’t insult them. They will kill you.”
“I mean you no harm.” I looked at the green-eyed girl, who was forming our words with her mouth. “And I think your sister is adorable.”
“Oooooh! Hermano, did you hear that? She called me adorable!”
“Hush your mouth,” said Santiago. “Please excuse my sister, señorita,” he added to the girl. “She has no manners.”
“I do have manners!” I fumed. “Tía Magdalena says I am the perfect little lady!”
“You’re the perfect little something else,” Santiago muttered.
“You two are just so cute!” said the green-eyed girl. “What are your names?”
“I’m Juana,” I said. “And he’s Santiago.”
“Why you little…” Santiago grabbed my arm and dragged me away from the girl. “You cannot speak to strangers! You can’t walk up to a girl and tell her my name!”
“Why not? You like her, don’t you, hermano? You think she is hermosa.”
“What? No! She’s a foreigner. We should not associate with them.”
“She’s following us, you know, hermano.”
“The devil she is!”
“You should watch your mou–Santiago! You’re hurting me!” I tried to pull my arm back, but Santiago’s grip was strong.
“We have to get away from that girl, Juana. She’s trouble.”
“You’ll be in trouble when Tía Magdalena finds out that you hurt me.”
“Hush your mouth!”
I bit my lip. “Hermano, you’re frightening me!”
“We have to get away…” Santiago mumbled, half to himself, before pausing.
“SSSHHHHHH!” Santiago threw a hand over my mouth and pushed me to the ground.
But he was too late.
Through the grass, I saw at least a dozen archers forming a semicircle around Santiago. They were pale-skinned, with eyes coloured like the girl from earlier. They spoke to each other in a strange language which blended with the whistling wind, but their voices turned clearer when they addressed Santiago in our tongue.
“Where is the village? We will speak with your chief.”
Village…? I pressed myself lower in the ground, looking up at Santiago’s face. He was angry. Angrier than I have ever seen him.
“Where is the village, dog? I will not ask again.”
Santiago spat on the ground. “I will die a thousand deaths before I tell you.”
“Very well, then. Men!”
“No, wait!”
It was the voice of the green-eyed girl from earlier.
“You can’t do this. He’s just a boy!”
“He is a message to the rest of these native scum! They will learn to obey us, or they will pay the price!”
“Juana.” Santiago’s voice was soft. “Juana, when I shout, run. Run and don’t look back.”
I was too frightened to nod.
“Boy.” The green-eyed girl was speaking to Santiago. “We want to speak with your people. We want to teach them our ways. The ways of the King.”
“You want to kill us,” spat Santiago. “I know your kind. I watched my parents die on the arrows your people carry. They were shot in the back as they ran from the burning village. I will not watch another village burn. You cowards will shoot me, yes. An unarmed boy against twelve full-grown men. Yes, that sounds like the odds you cowards are used to. But I will not betray my people. You will not win this time.”
“You DOG!” shouted one of the archers. “Men, AIM!”
“NOW, JUANA!” I leapt to my feet and darted towards the trees, not daring to look back at the confusion behind me. A few arrows fell at my feet, but I was too fast. The trees granted me cover long before the strangers thought to follow me.
It wasn’t until I reached our village that I realised Santiago was not following me, either.

Fake a Smile

I sat cross-legged on the floor in Ryza’s study. My sketches and equations lay scattered around me as I doodled on my latest design. I heard the door open behind me.
“Ryza!” I said happily. “D’you think the tank should be brown or green?”
Ryza didn’t respond, and I tossed my hair over my shoulder, adding a spare tire to the back of a motorcycle. “Ryza? Ryza? Ryzzzzzzzzza…?”
Ryza’s tone made me drop my pencil and turn around. “Ryza? You okay?”
“Katerina, you know I love your company, right?”
Ryza was using my full name. Anxiety bubbled in my heart. “Ryza…are y-you kicking me out?”
“No, no, of course n-not, Kate! It’s just that m-my father…”
My heart began to race. Ryza’s father? Lord Salvator of the Llynx Noire? He was supposed to be on a three-month diplomatic mission to the neighbouring countries. Of course, it was little more than a scare tactic to coerce a trade agreement from the weaker nations around him. Mine included. But the rebels had overthrown my capital a little over three weeks ago, and I sought refuge with Ryza while her father was still travelling. Lord Salvator was currently unaware of our situation, but Ryza doubted he would have minded my presence. It would have fed his ego to know that a neighbouring princess needed his assistance. No doubt he would have tried to weasel a biased trade agreement with me.
“What about your father?” I asked Ryza.
“He’s coming back.”
I stiffened. “When?”
I leapt to my feet, all sketches forgotten. “Tonight?!?! But, Ryza, that…”
“He already knows about you. One of the guards sent him a message, apparently.”
“Bloody traitor,” I muttered under my breath. Louder, I added, “What should I do?”
“Play the role. He’s expecting a weak, quimbling creature who will succumb to his will.”
I scowled, kicking the tank sketch under the table. An unsightly mud smear appeared beneath the wheels. I hadn’t realised my boots were so dirty. “Quimbling? Is that even a word?”
Ryza shrugged. “Is now.”
I looked at Ryza warily. “Does this mean a dress?”
“A dress? Katie, you’ve no idea…”

Three hours later, I stood at the top of the ballroom staircase, a scowl plastered across my face. Ryza’s words still echoed in my ears.
“You’re here as a foreign dignitary. You are soliciting our aid, and you will have to comport yourself in an appropriate manner in front of Father. Which includes attending his welcoming ball tonight.”
My scowl deepened as I looked at the dress Ryza had forced me into. It was a light, wispy purple with a long train, making me look as fragile as the china dolls on Ryza’s dresser.
“You have to play the part,” she said. “If Father thinks you’re tough, he’ll be intimidated, and he’ll make you leave.”
I thought briefly of my sketches, tucked gently under Ryza’s bed. They were nearly finished. With a few more strokes, I would be able to send them to the general by the morning post.
If I survived tonight, that is.
“Stop being such a drama queen…” Ryza poked my side just as her name was announced.
“The lady Teryzana of the Llynx Noire!”
“Well, this is it!” Ryza squeezed my hand before she started down the stair case. “Good luck!” she called, glancing at me once before she was swarmed by adoring attendees.
An unsettling lump formed in my throat as I thought of my own country. My people loved me, too.
“The princess Katarina of Galbury West!”
The announcement left a bitter sound in my ears. Gritting my teeth, I spread my lips in an unnaturally broad smile before descending the staircase. Like Ryza said. Play the part, Katie. Play the part.
“Ah, Katarina! It is certainly a pleasure!”
The slimy voice of Lord Salvator crept into my ears. I curtsied, noticing my trembling hands.
“My lord Salvator, the pleasure is mine. To be sure, I am gladdened by your lordship’s safe return to his kingdom.”
A cruel smirk passed over the lord’s face. “Yes, well, it is a dangerous world out there. For sturdy men such as myself. Never mind a delicate flower like your majesty.”
My hand clenched into a fist, but I kept the smile on my face.
“I hear your country is doing well in the diamond business,” Lord Salvator continued. “An unhappy current state of affairs, of course, but perhaps you could be tempted to initiate a trade agreement?”
My blood boiled, and the tremours worsened. “What exchange would you offer?” I asked.
Salvator reached in his pocket, and I saw the butt of a silver pistol. “Your life.”

Early the next morning, I donned a thick, coarse cape and went to the post office in one of the smaller towns to send the general my sketches. Although Ryza was a sweetheart, the sooner I got out of this miserable hell-hole, the happier — and safer — I would be.
The lady behind the counter was a sweetheart, and a good friend of mine. Curiously, she was holding a letter for me. It was addressed to “Little Kate, Companion to Lady Teryzana”.
I tore open the envelope. The letter read:

To Her Royal Majesty, Princess Katerina of Galbury West:
I write to inform you that we have discovered the source of the rebels’ funding. Salvator, Lord of the Llynx Noire. I would advise you remove yourself from his area of influence as soon as possible. Our fear for your safety increases daily.
I know you hoped to send sketches for new machinery, but I fear we shall be overrun before you read this letter. Focus on saving yourself. You are wiser than I, and I hope you might be able to appeal to our few remaining friends for assistance. Our country is lost, but I hope you might be able to escape from the grip of Salvator.
Yours in life and death,
General Barret of Galbury West


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