The True Narrative all about how my Little Brother Ruins Everything because He’s the Worst

            My little brother ruins everything. Mr. Hammond, my fifth-grade teacher, says that’s “hi-per-bowl-ee,” but what does he know? I’m pretty sure he made up that word cuz I couldn’t find it anywhere in the dictionary. In any case, if you ever met Tommy, you’d have no choice but to agree. He’s made life miserable since I knew how to pronounce the word “brother.”

            What? You don’t believe me? Well, thanks to him, I’ve got asthma. No kidding. I have a respiratory disease that’ll affect me the rest of my life because my little brother ruins everything.

            It all goes back to a family trip from four years ago. My parents took us all to a farm where some of my mom’s distant cousins live. I don’t really know why we went. There wasn’t enough time to get to know anyone, and there wasn’t anything fun to do there aside from eating at a huge barbeque. My parents wouldn’t even let me climb on the tractors in the barn. Now that I look back on that, though, they probably made the right call for a seven-year-old.

            Anyway, we arrived at this farm, and this family had a bunch of cats roaming around. And I don’t mean that, like, twenty cats live there. Hundreds! Literally. I’m not even joking. Hundreds of cats. You could barely step anywhere without having to avoid tripping over one.

            I had not grown up with a whole lot of cats. Before now, my parents had owned one, but they got rid of it shortly after my birth. Something about the cat getting jealous of the attention my parents gave me, I think. But me, my sister, and little brother (who ruins everything) wanted to handle each of these cats. I told my parents how it would be nice if we could take one home.

            Cousin Obediah overheard that comment and told my parents that they could take as many cats as they wanted. I looked at my sister, Hannah, and we both grinned. And I could see the same look on my parents’ faces. We all had the same thought in mind.

            For the rest of that day-long visit, Hannah and I tried to identify the best cat to take home. It did not even occur to me that we might not take one home. It was going to happen, and I knew it. But then we almost lost that dream. Thanks to my little brother who, as you know, ruins everything.

            My dad picked out a beautiful gray, short-haired tabby kitten. She had sharp eyes and an athletic body. Her every movement displayed grace and dignity just as a cat ought to. My mom, Hannah, and I loved her right away. But who should set an obstacle in our path but Tommy? Of course. Because he ruins everything. He wanted to bring home this black-and-white long-haired mangy mutt. Who knows why?

            Tommy said, “If we don’t get this cat, I don’t want any cats.”

            I wanted my parents to tell my little wart of a brother to suck it up and deal with it. But mom and dad conferenced and decided to take both home with us.

            Now, four years later, we have to say goodbye to both of our cats. I started having wheezing attacks last weekend. I keep struggling to breathe. The doctor says I have asthma, and the cats need to go. It seems their dander aggravates my situation. And which cat produces the most dander? Why the dumb long-haired cat my brother wanted! So now we have no cats because my little brother ruins everything.

A Striking Impression

            Astra held her purse over her head as she streaked toward the sliding door. The sensors detected her and granted entry. Panting, she turned around to see the torrential downpour cease all at once. “I can’t – I can’t—” she could not stop huffing as her lungs struggled to refill on oxygen. “I can’t believe I made it!”

            Drenched strands of hair dripped water down Astra’s angular face. She tugged loose locks away as she examined the state of her disheveled garments. Her sopping yellow blouse and capris hugged her shape, concealing little. Already, wolf whistles chased after her. Her cheeks brightened at the sound. Forcing herself to straighten her posture, Astra stalked into the retail store, determined to find out what her father saw in this place.

            Astra wrung out her braided ponytail, splashing the white tile floor. “Where do you keep the – uh – the umbrellas?”

            “The what now?”

            “Umbrellas. You do work here, right?” Why did I have to ask for something so pedestrian?

            “Work here?” The balding man’s blue vest and nametag suggested as much, but his focus fixed below Astra’s neck rather than on her words.

            “I need some help. Are you going to show me?”

            “Show me?” He licked his lips.

            Gnashing her teeth, Astra abandoned the effort and charged through the aisles, intent on the search. Her father never seemed to have this kind of trouble. People always snapped to attend him, and that was without awareness of his importance. Maybe it’s the location. All the good ones at home. This trip strikes me as a bust.

            “Dang, girl! You’re lookin’ mighty fine. You wanna get outta here with me? Just the two of us in the back of my pickup?”

            “Seriously?” Astra whispered at the floor. “Is this bravado supposed to be attractive?”

            A woman held up a hand to her eyes as if shielding them from extreme brightness. Though squinting, she seemed incapable of looking away from Astra. All around, it seemed the entire store had come to gawp at the pretty, soaked stranger. None of them could capture Astra’s heart. Did father really meet mother this way?

            Astra’s hair stood on end as the need to return filled her thoughts. The amassed crowd of onlookers shouted at her for attention, refusing to stand aside. She stormed by, shoving a few out of the way. Her touch dropped them to the floor, smoke rising where her hands had made contact. A sonic boom knocked down all within ten feet of her. Before anyone else could protest, Astra bolted for the exit.

            The doors slid open. As soon as her feet touched the outside pavement, the hostile precipitation resumed. She did not complain that it always rained whenever she went out. After this interaction with humanity’s worst, Astra welcomed a return to normalcy. She leapt heavenward and did not descend.

            In the clouds, a voice boomed her name. Frozen to the spot, she awaited judgement.

            “Why did you not return to me immediately?”

            Astra stammered, unable to find the right words. How it wasn’t fair that she could never walk abroad on the Earth or know what it was to fall in love. She could not raise her eyes to the man towering over her. His fatherly glower displayed more than disappointment.

            “Because of your recklessness, three people are dead. Atropos had to make a hasty cut, and now reality itself is at risk. What were you thinking?”

            Astra found her courage at last. “What are you going to do about it? Ground me? Those people were pigs! The whole lot of them. Did you see the way they spoke to me? As if I were nothing more than a pair of breasts. All I wanted was to follow in your footsteps. A chance to meet someone down there. And I can’t even have that, can I?”

            Zeus frowned at his daughter. “Astra, you are one of the most beautiful creations in the heavens. Yet your touch is lethal. Lightning is meant for admiration and grandeur, not love.”

A Stargazer’s Journey

            Yosef stared up at the stars every night. He did not know what they were or why they shone whenever the sun’s light went out. It was one of those unanswerable questions like: where does the snow go during the summer? Although ignorant, Yosef loved that he could see the shimmering dots with such clarity in Carmarthen’s dark sky.

            “Hey, boy! Get yourself in here this moment!”

            Sighing, Yosef picked himself off the ground and brushed off the nubs of grass his clothing had gathered onto itself. Making Master wait never ended well. A good ear boxing seemed the man’s favored method of discipline, but he had a way of inventing new tortures that baffled the mind and battered the body. Especially when he was drunk.

            “Yes, Master?” Yosef bowed at the waist as per expectations. A lock of his curly black hair tickled his nose.

            Master stood from his dining table, swiping a stained napkin from under his chin. The man’s ratty, tangled gray beard reached down to his chest. His belly could have been a kettle drum if it were not so gelatinous. Despite Master’s flabby exterior, he possessed a strength Yosef’s face knew all too well.

            “You were out there again, weren’t you?”

            Yosef shrugged. “Should I have been—”

            “Do not interrupt, pup.” Master lifted his arm as if to backhand the boy. He sneered when he saw Yosef shuddering. “It is your duty to see to my needs. Do I need to find a hair in my venison?”

            Shaking his head, Yosef wished his hair were not so long. “No. Of course not. I’m sorry master. Please. It won’t happen again.”

            “It most certainly will not.” Master lifted his flagon, peered inside, and slammed it back on the table. “Though it seems you cannot do a single thing right, can you? Why do you allow my thirst to go unquenched? Pour, boy!”

            Yosef wished he were not such a poor boy. Or, rather, he wished his family had not been thus. If they could have afforded to feed themselves and him, Master would not be his master. He could have apprenticed with a far kinder man. Perhaps the town scribe or tanner. They had always been the reputable sort. But when Master had appeared on his parent’s doorstep with a money sack that rattled some, they had been all too eager to part ways with Yosef.

            He poured amber ale into Master’s flagon, dripping a miniscule amount on the table. Master snatched his drink and imbibed until echoes of his slurping announced the mug’s emptiness. Yosef repeated the process, hoping his efforts to keep Master happy would not fuel an unprovoked raging.

            “Boy, go get the book off the stand.” Master pointed with a finger that knew the general direction with the weary certainty of drunkenness.

            There was no point in asking which book Master meant. The man knew how to read, but he placed value in only one book. Leather-bound and heavy as a watermelon, the tome looked as if it could have held the entirety of humanity’s wisdom. Yosef wished those were the contents as wisdom might have improved Master’s disposition. But no. If there was one thing Master repelled, it was wisdom.

            Once Yosef had succeeded at lugging Master’s book onto the table, he stood back a few paces out of Master’s reach. He watched the man leaf through pages with reckless, graceless hands that grabbed the corners as if he wished to tear through the linen paper. When he found the right page, Master’s grubby finger trailed beneath the words as his eyes squinted. Halfway through reading, Master fell into the book and began snoring. He sounded like a wolf growling at treed prey.

            Yosef shook his head and pinched his nose. He grabbed the flagon away so that no traces of ale could stain Master’s precious book. Master would blame him for anything awry whether it made sense or not, and a splotch on the page would infuriate the man more than an empty tankard. Wondering whether he should also take the book back to its proper place, Yosef glanced down at the less obstructed page. The letters were nothing but a scribbled mess to him.

            He lifted Master’s arm out of the way. The man’s hot breaths stank of stale alcohol and rotting cheese. Yosef scooted the book away before Master could roll back on top of it. To his surprise, the squiggles on this page made sense.

Escape from your suffering in a snap.

Recite these words while Master takes his nap.

Posterum incognita exquiro.

Forget your world to become the hero.

            Before he realized that he had spoken the words aloud, a bright, blue disc of light engulfed Yosef. Only the light’s sudden disappearance rivaled its arrival. As soon as Yosef stepped out of the ethereal light, he found himself with enormous structures surrounding him. He could not tell where the sky began and the towers ended.

            Despite the late hour the full moon evinced, he could not see the stars. He feared they may have fallen out of the sky or ceased displaying their magnificence. Just as Yosef raised a finger to scratch his head and ponder the question, a blaring horn sounded in his ear.

            “Hey, buddy! Get your ass out of the road!” The screaming woman sat inside a metallic box on wheels. The box put out a dense fog that choked Yosef.

            Yosef did not spot a donkey anywhere and wondered how he could help this perturbed woman. If she were seeing animals that did not exist, perhaps a leeching would be beneficial. On the other hand, perhaps he had been looking in the wrong direction. Stray donkeys in the road often caused delays for the regency as they journeyed from city to city.

            When Yosef scampered to find the offending beast of burden, the metallic box spun its wheels and screeched as it sped away. “Moron!”

            More on what? Clearly, she was disturbed in the head. Yosef noticed the incomprehensible woman’s metal box was not the only one sending up noxious fumes. It seemed the whole world had altered for the sole purpose of accommodating these mechanical monsters. They varied in size and color, but they all lacked a trait that might have given Yosef a better impression of this new world order. These boxes quarantined the user from life, and the people within appeared satisfied with that separation.

            “Look at his clothes! Dude! The Renaissance Fair moved on months ago.”

            Yosef did not know what a Renaissance was, but he did not believe in taking clothing advise from a man twice his age who dressed in flashy, immodest rags. You can see more than half his legs.

            After an hour of aimless walking through this choking, smoggy city, Yosef’s stomach began to rumble. He reached into his coin purse and smiled when he felt a few florins. He stopped outside a window and peered in to see people eating two meals’ worth in one sitting. Yosef entered through the door, jumping as a beeping tone startled him.

            “Welcome to Burger Bum. We’ll be with you in a moment!” Yosef could not see who spoke, but the voice sounded annoyed, contrary to what he expected from a gracious host.

            The dining establishment smelled of boiling oil and salt. So much salt. Yosef wondered if he were close to the ocean. If not, then the owner of the business must be wealthy to import so many spices. I hope they won’t turn away a mere apprentice.

            Yosef stepped up to the counter. “Hello. Would you happen to have a kidney bean pie and some oats? I assure you I can pay for it.”

            The tall girl standing behind the cashbox gave him a stare most would have reserved for a madman. Considering how many gold rings pierced her eyebrow, Yosef thought she would have been accustomed to anything peculiar. “Uh, this is a Burger Bum. Don’t you want a burger?”

            To Yosef, the word sounded like an odd name for someone living in a village. He leaned forward on the counter and whispered, “Wouldn’t that be cannibalism?”

            “Only if you’re a cow.”

            Gaping at the girl, Yosef counted out his florins. There was no way he could afford to buy a cow with such meager funds. “What could I get with these?”

            The girl narrowed her eyes at the gold coins as if unfamiliar with their worth. “Uh, sir? Are you from another country or something?”

            “It certainly feels that way. Nothing around here is familiar.”

            “New in town, huh?” The girl whipped her head about as if making sure no one was watching. “I’ll tell you what. Dinner’s on me just this once.”

            “It’s on you?” Yosef could not see any food on her body anywhere.

            “Sure. Keep your coins. Maybe you can trade them for real money at a pawn shop.” The girl’s fingers danced on a screen attached to the cashbox. “I’m not really supposed to do this, so don’t tell anyone.”

            Not sure of what had just transpired, Yosef waited at the counter until the girl handed him a gleaming yellow tray with curious-looking food. She called the round lump wrapped in paper a “double cheeseburger” and named the tall, crispy things “fries.” He smiled and thanked the girl for her generous gift before taking the tray to a table where two other people ate similar items.

            “Hey! We’re eating here!” The man shoved at Yosef.

            “Yes, I saw that. I thought perhaps you would want company.”

            “There’s a table for you over there. Leave my girl and I alone!”

            Yosef turned in the direction of the abrasive man’s pointing finger. “But it’s empty.”

            “Exactly. Piss off!”

            Once again, these people’s phrases left Yosef’s mind circling as he attempted to comprehend their meaning. Why would the man demand privacy in a place where so many shared the space? How could he speak about urine in front of a girl he intended to court? And what was the urine off of?

            At his lonely table, Yosef unwrapped his double cheeseburger. A red substance leaked out from beneath the squishy bread and splattered his rough-spun tunic. Uncertain of what to expect, he lifted the food to his mouth and took a tiny bite. In all his years, Yosef had never tasted beef before, and now he wanted to have nothing else ever again. The meat’s juices ran down his throat. The chef had managed to combine so many unfamiliar tastes into such a small masterpiece, and Yosef could not wait for an encore.

            As he finished the cheeseburger, Yosef watched the girl with the eyebrow rings walking over to his table. “How was everything?”

            Yosef wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “These were the best victuals ever to touch my lips. My life will never be the same again.”

            She giggled. “It’s only a burger. We serve millions of them every day. Quadrillions if you include international chains.”

            Millions? What are those? “Would you sit with me a moment? I don’t usually eat alone.”

            The girl shrugged before taking a seat opposite Yosef. “Why not? I can take my break now. So what’s your deal?”

            “Deal? I don’t sell anything.”

            Her ring-bedecked eyebrow raised half an inch. “You wear unusual clothing, try to buy food with money unlike any I’ve ever seen, and until recently had no idea what a burger is. What’s your story? Who are you?”

            At last, a question he could answer. “My name is Yosef of Carmarthen. Though I’m originally from a village two miles away from Carmarthen, but you probably haven’t heard of it.”

            “Nice to meet you, Yosef. Mine is Charise. I’m not sure I’ve heard of Carmarthen.”

            “It is a beautiful place. Everything is lovely there except—”

            Charise munched on a fry. “Except what?”

            “I always look up at the stars at night there. And they’re so magnificent to gaze upon. I just wish Master understood my need to study their brilliance.”

            “Wait. Master?” She brushed grains of salt off her hands with a napkin. “Are you a slave, Yosef?”

            “Slave?” Yosef chuckled at the notion. “No. I work for Master. He’s training me to take over for him when I’m old enough. My parents sold me into the apprenticeship when I was a small lad.”

            “Your parents what?” Her breaths sounded heavy. “Yosef, this can’t be right.”

            “Well, I wish they had sold me to someone else, but Master offered enough for them to eat for a month. And I’ll have a reasonable skillset once I’ve learned everything I need to. If Master doesn’t beat me to death first.”

            Every word Yosef uttered seemed to pain Charise, as if his tongue had the power to cut wounds into her soul. Perhaps my view of the world makes as much sense to her as hers does to me. Then a topic sprung to mind that could do no damage. “Charise, do you ever wonder what stars are made of?”

            Charise took the last fry and ripped it in half. “Can’t say that I have. If I ever want to know something like that, I just search it on the Internet.”

            Yosef’s face twisted. It sounded like she wanted to go fishing, but that idea did not fit in with the conversation.

            “You do know what the Internet is, right?” The girl took out a rectangular box and pressed a button on the side. The screen illuminated with a picture. With several swiping motions, she changed the image so that Yosef could see a photograph of a star. “It says here that stars are made of very hot gases. Hydrogen. Helium. Others too.”

            “And this magic box holds all the answers to life’s questions?”

            Charise smirked. “Not yet. But you can find almost every piece of information you want to know. Why?”

            “Could you look up Master on that thing? I want to know if he’s going to punish me for reading his spell book.”

            “Uh, sure. What’s his name?”

            “Merlin.”

A Sparrow’s Triumph

            Fourteen girls sat in the crew leader’s living room. The scent of potpourri infested the room. Valerie brushed her hands along the soft, beige carpet as Crew Leader Zinnia called the meeting to order. Val found herself wishing she could be anywhere else. Even stuck in a broom closet. But Mom had insisted she give this group another chance. A phrase from the crew leader won her attention.

            “The top sales Sparrow for the week will win a prize.”

            “Prize?” Cassandra’s hand shot up as she shouted her question. “What’s the prize?”

            Crew Leader Zinnia gaped for a moment before answering. “I can’t tell you that right now, but it will be amazing.”

            Valerie imitated Cassandra’s exuberant interrogation technique as her own hand went up. “More amazing than a year’s supply of ice cream?”

            “It is not polite to interrupt, Val.” Crew Leader Zinnia stared the ten-year-old down with pink heat rising in her cheeks.

            “But Cassie—”

            “But Cassie nothing. When I’m talking, you’re not!”

            Valerie deflated. She took sharp, frustrated breaths. Out the corner of her eye, she spied Cassandra sticking out her tongue. Valerie wished she could rip it out of that spoiled brat’s mouth and boil it over an open flame.

            “I’ll give each of you an order form in a moment. But before I do, I want you to remember these safety rules. Do not…and I repeat…do NOT try selling from these catalogs by going door-to-door. Second, do not sell to your friends.”

            “What? Why not?” Cassandra stood from the prescribed “criss-cross applesauce” stance.

            “Because your friends will order things based on their stomachs. When it comes time to pay, they won’t be able to fork over the money. Good question, as always, Cassie. Finally, do not sell outside a local store.”

            Valerie thought over each restriction. There did not seem to be anyone to whom she could sell anything except her mom. That would not be possible. She raised her hand.

            Crew Leader Zinnia frowned and rolled her eyes. “Hands down, please.”

            “But Crew Leader Z—”

            “Must I repeat myself? You know I don’t like having to do that.”

            Valerie knew how true that was. The crew leader had not allowed her to have marshmallows at last weekend’s campfire because she asked for Zinnia to repeat an instruction about tying a sailor’s knot. Cassie had earned double marshmallows after the crew leader tied the perfect knot for her.

            “Crew Leader Zinnia, how are we going to sell if we can’t sell door-to-door, to friends, or outside stores?”

            “Excellent question, Cassandra! I’m so glad you asked. My recommendation is that you take this order form home and ask your parents to take it into work with them. They’ll sell to their coworkers and friends. If you go to church or synagogue or mosque or some other house of worship, your parents can sell there as well.”

            Valerie thought she could identify a problem already. If parents were the ones doing all the sales, how could the Sparrow with the most sales expect a special prize? That girl would not have done any of the work. She raised her hand to point out this paradox.

            “How many times do I have to say this, Val? I’m not taking questions now. One more time, and I won’t give you your order form.”

            “Dang!” Cassandra giggled. “She straight roasted you!”

            “How was that a roast?” Valerie asked, her forehead wrinkling.

            “Enough! Valerie, I’m very disappointed. I’ll be talking to your mom when she come to pick you up.”

            “Look! Val looks like she’s about to cry!” Cassandra pointed at the girl. All twelve of the other Sparrows took this as a cue to laugh and point.

__________________________________________________

            When her mother’s old sedan pulled up in front of the crew leader’s house, Valerie stood on shaky legs and stumbled to the vehicle. Dried tear streaks itched on the girl’s cheeks. Behind her, Crew Leader Zinnia marched out to the car, her hands balled into fists. Valerie’s mom lowered the passenger window. The crew leader stuck her head through the opening and began to recite her complaints from the day’s Sparrow Meeting. Valerie could hear the frustration venting into the car.

            On the way home, Valerie moped in silence. Her hair covered her face as she sat with head bowed.

            “How do you think today went?” Mom’s voice sounded curious rather than furious.

            “Not good.”

            “Could you tell me why?”

            Valerie shrugged.

            “I’d like to hear your version. Tell me everything.”

            “We’re supposed to sell things from a catalogue. Why do we have to do that, mom? It seems pointless. There’s a prize for the Sparrow who sells the most, but that’s never going to be me.”

            “Oh, I wouldn’t say ‘never,’ Val. Why don’t you tell me what’s really bothering you?” Mom waited for the response without another prompting.

            “I don’t think Crew Leader Zinnia likes me very much. She always gets upset when I talk. She never gets upset with anyone else. Especially not Cassie.”

            “That must seem unfair. What about your other friends in the Sparrow Crew?”

            Valerie wished she could identify one of the other girls with that label. “Cassandra won’t let any of them be nice to me. She always gets them to laugh at me. When I’m in trouble. When my clothes don’t look good. When I don’t have my hair done up like theirs.”

            The two contemplated the situation for the rest of the drive home. They entered the trailer together, Mom holding onto the catalogue. She examined each page and commented on the way the picture made her mouth water. Mom had a great affection for salted caramel.

            At dinner that night, Mom levered a slice of meatloaf onto their plates. “Val, sweetie. I just wanted to tell you. You’re going to win this competition.”

            Valerie’s nose crinkled at the notion. “No, I won’t.”

            “Sure, you will!”

            “How? We’re not supposed to sell door-to-door, to our friends, or outside stores. Our parents are supposed to take the catalogues in to work. So you can see how this is all impossible, right?”

            Mom shrugged. “Impossible is a strong word, dear.”

            “You work as a janitor, mom! How are you supposed to—”

            Mom chuckled. “I thought you were more creative than this, Val. Think about it for a second. Doesn’t another option spring to mind?”

            A literal second passed, and the girl shook her head. How can she always be so optimistic? With a whimsical wink, Mom smiled and held her daughter’s hand. Behind her eyes, the machinations of Mom’s industrious mind turned.

__________________________________________________

            At the next week’s Sparrow Crew meeting, Valerie entered the crew leader’s home with head held high. She clutched the results of her labor in her hand as if it were a diploma. Mind racing about whether she had done enough, she smiled at the total amount. Seven days of hard work had earned her far more than she had anticipated. Her backpack contained a bag with all the checks, dollar bills, and small change she had collected in that time. Valerie and Mom had spent their days volunteering at nursing homes, hospitals, and churches throughout the town. Mom had been right. When people see a ten-year-old pursuing a dream, most are willing to spare a few dollars from their wallets and purses. It did not hurt that their efforts had left Valerie feeling as though she had done more than simply outselling the competition.

            Yet a nagging thought would not go away. What if someone had been able to collect more? Was all that effort worth it?

            Crew Leader Zinnia gathered the Sparrows around her and asked the girls how they had fared during the week. Two of them had forgotten all about the fundraiser. Most of the others had not sold more than a single item to their parents. Cassandra stood with a smug smile plastered onto her face.

            “I collected $1,002.15.” Cassandra sounded altogether too proud of herself.

            “How did you get that much?” the Sparrows chirped.

            “I did just what mommy said. She took the order form into work and her boss bought twenty of everything.” Cassandra shook out her hair in triumph as Valerie’s face fell.

            “What about you, Val?” The crew leader asked the question with a dismissive tone, as if anticipating nothing.

            “Well, not as much as Cassandra.” Valerie handed her order forms to Crew Leader Zinnia.

            The crew’s sponsor stared at the papers in her hands. Her brow wrinkled. “Val, how did you collect $736.85 in one week?”

            Cassandra stood up and ran behind the crew leader as if needing confirmation. The other Sparrows in the crew gasped.

            Valerie described the undertaking as best as she could. A few times, she would veer off track, but the essentials of the tale came through clear. Unlike Cassandra, Valerie had done the work herself.

            “Well, this was good work, Val. Good job.” Crew Leader Zinnia sneered as she said the words. The grudging compliment sounded forced. “But the winner of our competition is the one who sold the most. Cassie, that was you. Here’s your prize.”

            Cassandra received a five-pound bag of gummy bears. The girl who had not earned her meager prize frowned at the bag as if it contained poison. “That’s it? I thought this prize was going to be amazing. Isn’t that what you said, mommy?”

            The dozen other girls in the crew did not cheer on the winner. Instead, they crowded Valerie, congratulating her on her great effort. Appreciation made her feel like the real winner. When Mom informed the crew leader that her daughter would form her own Sparrow Crew, Valerie’s new friends vowed to swap nests. From then on, Valerie and her Sparrows made many headlines as young girls making a positive impact on their community.

Behind the Mirror

Warning: Story may contain disturbing imagery

            A shadow. That’s all it was. A shadow moving across the mirror. Wes shivered, backing away from the bathroom. Compact as the woman who lived there, his grandma’s apartment was a cozy place full of browns and dark greens. But the bathroom was a blight on the place. The one room that unnerved Wes upon every visit. Whenever his mom and dad dropped him off for their date night, Wes would only enter as a last resort. Or when forced. He always felt watched in there.

            “Did you finish brushing already?” His grandma stood behind him wearing a white gown with vertical pastel stripes. Pink curlers stuck out of her hair beneath a hairnet.

            Wes shook his head. He had tried lying last time, but she had known somehow. It was as though the curlers were antennae tuned to his lies’ frequency. Sighing, Wes turned back to the door. Moonlight painted the door in a ghostly glow. The shadow moved again.

            “Come on, now. Before you start growing beard hairs. Mamma’s gotta take her teeth out.” The woman walked back out of her bedroom, and the sound of her hide-a-bed creaking like a loose floorboard met Wes’s ears.

            Just make it fast. Inducing himself to run, Wes stubbed his big toe on the bathroom door and found himself hopping on one foot and made as if to kiss his injured digit. A tear streaked down his cheek, and he set down his foot, careful not to jar it again. He flicked the light switch, but the bulb’s filament snapped within seconds. Groaning with furrowed eyebrows, he squeezed out twice as much toothpaste as he needed, too hasty to exert control. A small glob landed on the coffee cream-colored counter. Wes ignored the spill and brushed his teeth faster than ever before.

            As the taste of fluoride stung his tongue, he spat out the paste. When he raised his head to face the mirror, he thought he spotted reflected movement. Wes turned to see if his grandma had returned to check on his progress, but there was no one. He was alone in the bathroom. He turned back and almost screamed. A face was staring out at him. Its feral grin exposed needle-sharp teeth.

            Wes took a step back, but furry black limbs reached out from the mirror. Claws extended, it swiped at Wes, slashing a gash into his shoulder. He fell to the floor, weeping and holding his bloody arm. The creature crawled out of the mirror, climbing down the sink’s front like an overgrown gecko. Fox-faced, the creature licked its chops as it inched closer to him.

            “Help.” His voice was weak, but he could not make himself louder. Fear had constricted his vocal cords. “Mamma. Help.”

            The creature chuckled in its throat. It grasped Wes by the armpits and hoisted the boy aloft. “You’re coming with me.” The thing’s voice was a raspy, guttural sound like a distant, rumbling engine.

            He writhed, attempting to escape, but that sent the claws deeper into his flesh. Somehow, the pain allowed him to scream this time. The sound of scrambling feet preceded his grandmother’s arrival in the bathroom. The creature froze in mid-step.

            “What is the meaning of this?”

            “Mamma! Save me!”

            The old woman bent down to look at her grandson. “What have you done to yourself? You’re a bloody mess! What did you cut yourself on? Glass?”

            “It’s going to eat me, Mamma!”

            “Right.” She sighed the way she did whenever Wes talked to her about make-believe stories. “Let me go wet a cloth, and I’ll get you cleaned up.”

            Wes watched as his grandma walked away, muttering to herself. The creature pulled Wes to a place of bones. No amount of struggling would bring him back from behind the mirror.

Outboxed

            Bennett’s fingers could not tear through the tape. They were shaking too much. He reached into his pocket for a key, but the key ring’s bulk struggled against the trousers’ inner fabric. The keys jingled in victory as he freed them. At last he could open the box. The sound of metal tearing through tape was more satisfying than popping bubble wrap. Bennett bent back the box’s flaps and cleared away a layer of protective lining.

            “Ah. The Q-47. At long last.” Bennet picked up the rounded rectangular plastic container. “No more having to worry about lonely afternoons.”

            He read the container’s tagline. “The Latest, Greatest Pocket-Sized Friend.”

            Bennett smiled. That expression soon changed as he realized he could not find a way to open the package. He squinted, trying to find a seam or opening, but there was none. He shook the clear, plastic box and listened to his new device rattle along with the small battery he would need to install. Bennett tried squeezing the package, but the plastic did not give in any visible way.

            Muttering to himself, he opened the junk drawer in his kitchen and rummaged around in its contents. Bennett tossed aside old wires whose purpose he had forgotten and unnecessary loose screws until he found what he had been seeking. He extended an inch of the box cutter’s blade and attacked what he considered the safest entry point. The tip of the blade slipped over the plastic’s surface, leaving neither incision nor scratch. He tried holding the package with a firmer grip with his left hand, but the blade once again glanced off the plastic. The third attempt resulted in a small cut along the webbing between thumb and forefinger. He sucked in breath through his teeth.

            Deciding that a hammer would be an overreaction to his frustration, Bennett tried looking for videos online that could walk him through opening the Q-47’s impenetrable containment. There were videos available for how to light one’s flatulence on fire. Why not something as practical as this? There were an abundance of videos demonstrating customers using the device, but no one had deigned to create an “unboxing” entry.

            “Looks like I only have one option left to me.” Bennett groaned. The last time he had gone down this avenue had left him banging his head against a wall for hours.

            “You have reached Companion Industries. For English, press 1. Para Español, pre—”

            Bennett pressed 1.

            “I’m sorry. Please wait for all options to be read before responding. For English, press 1. Para Español, presione 2. Pour le Français, appuyez sur 3.”

            Bennett pressed 1 again, aggravated that he had to wait through so much when the first option was what he needed.

            “I’m sorry. Please wait for all options to be read before responding. For English, press 1. Para Español, presione 2. Pour le Français, appuyez sur 3. Für Deutsch, drücken Sie 4. Para Portugues, pressione 5. Dlya Russkogo, nazhmite 6.”

            “Are you kidding me?” Bennett’s brow furrowed.

            “I’m sorry. Please wait for all options to be read before responding. For English, press 1. Para Español, presione 2. Pour le Français, appuyez sur 3. Für Deutsch, drücken Sie 4. Para Portugues, pressione 5. Dlya Russkogo, nazhmite 6. Duìyú Zhōngguó rén, qǐng àn 7. Et Latine, placer premere 8. For norsk, vennligst trykk 9. To hear these options again, press 0.”

            In his frustration, Bennett accidentally pressed 4 and heard a computerized voice speaking in German. “Damn it!” He hung up and dialed again.

            “You have reached Companion Industries.”

            Bennett gnashed his teeth.

            “I’m sorry. Please wait for all options to be read before responding.”

            “You didn’t even give me options yet!”

            “I’m sorry. Please wait for all options to be read before responding. For English, press 1. Para Español, presione 2. Pour le Français, appuyez sur 3. Für Deutsch, drücken Sie 4. Para Portugues, pressione 5. Dlya Russkogo, nazhmite 6. Duìyú Zhōngguó rén, qǐng àn 7. Et Latine, placer premere 8. For norsk, vennligst trykk 9. To hear these options again, press 0.”

            For the third time, Bennett pressed 1.

            “Okay. English. Tell me, what device do you need help with today?”

            “The Q-47.”

            “I’m sorry. I did not hear that. What device do you need help with today?”

            “The Q-47!”

            “I heard the Cute Forrest Suburban. Is that correct?”

            “No!”

            “Okay, then. What device do you need help with today?”

            “I need help with…the Q…Forty…Seven.”

            “I heard the Cue for Symphony. Is that correct?”

            “What? That isn’t even a thing!”

            “I’m sorry. Please respond with either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I heard the Cue for Symphony. Is that correct?”

            “NO!” Bennett’s grip on his cell phone left indentations in his skin.

            “Okay, then. What device do you need help with today?”

            “Connect me with a real person!”

            “I’m sorry. If you want to speak with a representative, I’ll need a little more information. What device do you need help with today?”

            “Gahhh!”

            “I heard Gaga. Is that correct?”

            Two hours later, the automated answering device understood Bennett’s problem. Another fifty minutes after that, an actual person answered the call.

            “Hello, my name is Taco. How can I help you today?”

            “Taco?” Bennett decided pulling on that thread would lead to nowhere helpful. “This is Bennett. I’m trying to open the Q-47, but the container is just impossible.”

            “Thank you, Becket. Your call is very important to us. And I’ll be sure to get you through this problem as fast as possible. Have you tried turning the device off and on?”

            “What?”

            Bennett could hear Taco take a deep breath as if anticipating having to deal with an ignoramus. “I asked if you’ve tried turning the device off and on. Eleven times out of ten, that’s the problem.”

            “How am I supposed to do that?”

            “Find the power button at the top of the device and hold it for seven seconds. Release. Then that should reset your device. Let me know when you have attempted this, please.”

            “I can’t do that, Taco!”

            “Why? What’s wrong? This should be a very simple fix, Baritone.”

            Bennett huffed and puffed like a pork-craving wolf.

            “I cannot help you, Benny, unless you talk to me. Have you located the power button?”

            “The Q-47 is still inside the package! How am I supposed to—”

            “It’s still in the package? Well, then, there’s your problem, Bracket. Simply take the device out of the package.”

            “How am I supposed to do that?”

            “Blake, do not kid around with me. I have thousands of calls to answer here. Simply take the device out of the package and you’ll be able to reset the device.”

            “You’re not listening to me, Taco!”

            “I can assure you that is not true, Benson. Your call is very important to us. Take the device out of the package, press down on the power button for seven seconds, and—”

            “I’m trying to tell you that I can’t open the package. Why is that so difficult for you to understand?”

            “Have you tried turning the device off and on yet?”

            Bennett swore at Taco. Within seconds, Taco disconnected the call. Bennett chucked his Q-47 across the room. The package remained intact, but the device’s screen cracked.

Who am I Here?

I am Mark van Tol, an author. It’s at this point that most people would be naming all their accomplishments to date. After all, why read a creative writing blog from someone who hasn’t won awards or had some work published?

First of all, writing isn’t all that I do. For about three-fourths of the year, I teach at an elementary school in Florida. That fact by itself shows how busy I am. There’s an old joke we tell each other: “Here’s something else for you to do with all your free time.” “What free time?” If you don’t get it, ask one of your teacher friends. They’ll set you straight.

Also, I have spent the better part of the last two years’ so-called free time working on a novel. I have the story done, but that doesn’t make it ready for publication. Once I finish the final edits, anyone who stops by will be sure to see the announcement in obnoxious, neon letters.

In the meantime, this blog is intended to share some of my latest short fiction. While writing has been a part of my life for many years, it is also my dream to share these stories with others. After all, this is who I am. An author.