“We probably shouldn’t mention we went to a lower level.” Artie Chen ticks the extensive list of things not to mention to his parents on his fingers as he and Jay Dee ride the lift up to the higher levels of the OTC. “Or that we’ve been investigating things. Or that we know anyone involved with anything illegal – or even exciting. And you shouldn’t mention I rode a motorcycle.”
Two weeks after seeing Infinity War and I’m still not over it.
Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it; there won’t be any spoilers in this post. In fact the only reason I really bring it up is because my campaign D&D character for the past ten months has been Gameia, a tiefling assassin and the most dangerous woman in the realm, inspired by Gamora. And my best friend, Sam, has played her drow monk sister, Nova, our in-game equivalent of Nebula. In fact, our whole campaign was loosely influenced and inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy. It started as a joke, but quickly started to mean a lot to us. And you need to know all of that for the actual-play short-fiction piece that follows.
We happened upon these characters a bit by accident, which is a story I can share at a later point, but over time we’ve deeply connected with them. They’ve come to be an important part of our lives. Now Gameia prepares to fight her demonic father, Faranos, just like Gamora prepares to face Thanos in the film. But this scene was from far earlier in the campaign, detailing her first reunion with their father… Now just seemed an appropriate time to share it.
TL;DR: If you’ve seen Avengers, I’m sure you’ll get me.
Art of Gameia and Nova in one the rare happier moments of their lives by Rain.
TW: post-trauma and abuse
When the goblin’s blade first sunk into her shoulder, Gameia’s vision blurred, and she imagined lights dancing into the cavern.
Then the blade withdrew, and the sting brought a sudden clarity.
The lights were real. Dancing lights. Her sister’s. Nova.
I’ve been sitting in the same corner of the same coffee shop staring at the same page for hours now. I’ve reached the dregs of my coffee (and swallowed them too for good measure). I’ve started to massage my neck, praying my back won’t kill me later (though I know it will). The page is still blank.
It takes me a minute to notice he’s standing there. He’s striking, but he has a goofy grin – and he’s awkwardly staring at me. I look around, but no one else seems to notice he’s there.
“Can I help you?”
“Just stopped by to talk with you.” He sits down across from me.
I raise my eyebrows and point to my nose.
He nods, and lifts my coffee cup. “You had to drink it all,” he says on a heavy sigh. Then he extends his hand to me.
Reluctantly, I take it and shake. Then he starts to talk. And he talks.
He tells me where he was born, how many siblings he has, how he grew up, why he enlisted, his deepest fears, his first love, his longest love, his path of self-discovery, and his newest love. Then, after a deep breath, what he will be, where he will be, who he will be with, and why.
I nod, my eyebrows creased, still reeling from the fact that this radiant, golden stranger is talking to me at all.
But someone clears their throat next to me, and I don’t have time to process before I am thrown into confusion again. She smiles brightly, runs a hand through a messy mane of hair, pushes into the booth beside me, and speaks as if we’re old friends.
She keeps asking me about moments as if I remember them… As if I was there with her. And oddly enough, I find I do remember them. And vividly. All of her moments: the joyous, the fun, the hilarious, the heart-breaking, and the tragic. Right up until her death.
“It was fairly gory,” she says matter-of-factly. And I blink, startled, because at first I think she can’t be serious. But then I remember it. Vividly. And I’m glad I’d already finished my coffee, because my stomach is so knotted at the thought that I think I wouldn’t be able to drink anymore.
But I don’t even have time to dwell on it before two more people show up. A boy and a girl. He is a simmering fire, and she is as relaxed as the breeze. Still, his arm is slung protectively around her. She’s confident, but I can tell in an instant that she is genuine and kind. She is someone I would aspire to be.
They’ve been through more than I ever have. Their stories soar and then plummet through successes and then new trials. And they all treat me like I’m worth something more than a blank page. And the constant confusion I’ve had since the golden man first approached me starts to clear enough for me to find my words.
At the next pause in their steady recollections, I break in, “And what did you say your names were?”
The first stranger nods at my computer, drawing my eyes back down to the forgotten screen. There are words on the page. Their names, their histories, their loves, their deaths – their stories. My story.
A few weeks ago, someone posted in our writers group on Facebook asking about how characters work, everyone’s process for creating them. Or meeting them, as it were. I tried to write it out in a paragraph, I really did. But this happened instead.
And I should also probably say it wasn’t always like this. I used to do 50 page long character sheets, asking questions – trying to figure out how they fit into the world, into the story. I wanted them to be different and unique, and creating them didn’t come naturally. And in all honesty, I have no clue why it changed.
But one day, I woke up from a dream, and my head was a lot more crowded. They’ve been the most talkative cast of characters I’ve ever met. And they just keep coming. (I just met a whole other group of people in this universe, and they’re being just as nosy and invasive as everyone else in this world.) But everyone’s process is different, and frankly the assertiveness of these characters still confuses me, because I don’t quite get how it works.
But I’m grateful for them, however confusing their creation and existence might be. Hopefully I can pay them back by making sure their story is told.
I cannot deny that the sight of that battered body tugs on my heartstrings.
His flesh is maimed, so it is unidentifiable as flesh. The color has been pounded black and blue and blood flows like tears from still open wounds. What scraps remain of his clothes are so stained by the mud and blood on his body that I can’t tell where the fabric ends and the flesh begins. His arm is bent at an angle that sends pains of sympathy shooting down my own. The sight is so gruesome, I simultaneously want to stare and avert my eyes.
Self-consciously, I brush my shirt, as if I may have dirtied or bloodied it. It is pristine – as always – but the sight feels so unclean, I feel it must be affecting me. I force my eyes back to the road.
I cannot help him. There is nothing I can do. What good am I to a stranger on the side of the road? All of the reasons flood my mind at once.
- I haven’t the constitution. My stomach roils, and my body aches with pains that aren’t my own, just from the sight. And even though I now stare at the pavement instead, I can’t unsee it. An impression lingers behind my eyelids. It’s all I can do to keep my stomach from upending everything I’ve eaten today. I know I couldn’t go near him and keep it together.
- I haven’t the initiative. I don’t know where to start. Do I call someone? Do I walk for help? Do I try to save him alone? Staunch the bleeding, cradle his head? If I don’t know where to start, perhaps it would be better not to start at all.
- I haven’t the strength. I couldn’t lift him alone. There is no sign of anyone for miles. Even if I managed to haul him onto my shoulders, I’d collapse myself before I reached help. I’d cause him more pain trying to move him than he is in lying there. And what use would I be if my efforts killed him? I’d carry that weight on my shoulders far longer.
- I haven’t the time. My day never stops moving. My mind won’t stop moving. My feet wouldn’t stop moving either when there is so much to be done. It isn’t that he’s unimportant. Just that there are so many things. So many important things. He’s only one of many.
- I haven’t the money. I can barely be responsible for my own health, how could I take on someone else’s? He’ll need more mending than I can afford. I’d exhaust all of my resources trying to get him help. It would leave me nothing to fall back on. And what if nothing comes of it? What if he dies anyway?
- I haven’t the ability. Someone else might. To actually do some good. I have nothing to give. I am nothing. I am no one. I am unnecessary. Inessential. Of no use. No purpose. What good could I be to him when I’ve never been any good to anyone before? I might as well be him –beaten, bloodied, and dying – for all the good I could do.
- He probably isn’t even still alive.
So I glue my eyes to the road below my feet. I grit my teeth. I curse the world for being so cruel. And I pass by on the other side.
Does it sound terrible? I hope so.
This summer, I heard a phenomenal sermon in Thailand about the good Samaritan. And it got me thinking about the story, about the characters we see so little of, so I jotted a few lines down. And then, in the first week of school, President Perrin discussed the parable in chapel. And the need to finish this struck me. At midnight. In the middle of the work week.
All we know of the priest and the Levite in Luke is that they “saw him and passed by on the other side.” On the surface, with such little explanation, they seem callous and uncaring, but in my life I rarely encounter people so cruel. So, then, why did they do it? Why pass by? Why not do something?
And once I find myself writing down all the excuses that could have gone through their heads as they willfully ignored a dying man, it makes me question: how many things do I see and pass by in my life? And how can I be more aware of those hurting or in need? How can I be a light, have mercy, do as the good Samaritan?
Because I want to be sure that I never glue my eyes to my own feet, grit my teeth, and pass by on the other side.
Again, I find myself pulling from my past files for a post. As I move into the new apartment and adjust to the new job, I have struggled to find time to craft a new blog post. So, in the meanwhile, I wanted to post something. As always, I fall back on short stories.
And, as it always seems, this is far more tragic than I’d intended. The stories I post seem to be entirely depressing. Though that truly isn’t all I write. In high school theatre, I played a character who suffered through five stillbirths, and as a sixteen year-old, I had no reference for such devastating emotions. A friend of mine allowed me to interview her about her own struggles with stillbirths and miscarriages. It was a difficult hour. We both cried, and I took pages of notes. Though I didn’t write the story until years later, our conversation (and the role I’d portrayed on stage) weighed heavily on my heart. So I tried to put something together, in words, in memory of the mothers who have suffered in similar circumstances. It’s hard, but I think it’s important.
With all the love in the world, I hope this piece impacts you.
Trigger warning for stillbirth.
In honor of Rebecca and Jessie.
And women who suffer from the tragic loss of a child.
It’s a blessing and a curse, a mother’s link to her child. Because of that connection, I knew the exact moment that it happened.
The movie had just reached its climax, and Ryan was riveted. He held my hand tightly, oblivious entirely to anything but the screen. For me, on the other hand, the world stopped when her heart stopped. Everything in me had lost focus on the film and turned inward.
I placed a hand gently on my stomach. For a moment, I sat completely still, hoping I’d imagined the sinking feeling. There was no movement, no heartbeat, no sign of life. She was still connected to me, but she was gone.
My breath quickened. My lungs wouldn’t fill enough for me to be satisfied. The tears welled as every possible scenario shot through my head. A foolish hope remained that the moment was temporary, that she’d come back to me. Despite my blind denial, I felt the certainty of her loss weighing on me.
The first tears spilled silently. My desperate gasps for air accompanied the others that joined them soon after. I looked around, worried suddenly that I was making a scene. I was needlessly worried; the movie was too engaging. No one took notice of the frantic pregnant woman in aisle three.
Ryan had turned from the movie to me and placed his other hand on top of my knee. “Are you alright, Jess? Jess?” Instead of responding, I gripped his hand so tightly, my fingernails sunk into his skin.
Our gazes locked. Mine felt hollow. His looked radiant.
“Is she coming?” he asked excitedly.
My voice caught. I could get as few words out as I could breaths in. “No,” I moaned. “She’s gone.”
I clicked on the light. It chased away the shadows, but it couldn’t chase away the ghosts. This room was supposed to hold life, not reminders of death.
Ryan and I had chosen a faded yellow for the walls. The white cradle had stuffed animals hanging over the side to watch over the baby that would never sleep there. Stacks of diapers stayed hidden in the drawers of the white dresser along with the clothes and a plethora of other gifts from the baby shower. Everything in this room whispered the expectation of her arrival.
I’d embroidered a blanket with her name: Anna Bette. It lay draped across the pale blue recliner in the adjacent corner to the cradle. I lifted the cloth and held it to my face and kept it there. It smelled fresh and new and was so soft against my skin. The tears began fight their way out again, against my will.
I sank tiredly into the recliner and just let them pour over. My hand rested naturally on my swollen belly as it had for the past nine months. I moved it away immediately to the arm of the chair. It just felt wrong to rest it on Anna’s lifeless body. I didn’t want the reminder. For just a moment, I wanted to bask in what-might-have-been.
It let my head loll back and I imagined the room as if she had been born like she was supposed to be. As if she had been born alive. As if I wouldn’t give birth to a corpse any day.
I released my emotions and contorted my face, furiously holding onto the illusions of my mind: the feel of her kicking in the womb, then the cries of a newborn girl, holding my baby and rocking her in this chair. I could feel the mascara-mixed tears drying in spider’s legs across my cheeks. Some ran into my hair and dyed temporary streaks of black. My delusional vision couldn’t last against the reality of her death.
He lingered a while in the doorway and, though I could feel him watching, I did not move. His grief equaled mine, but I knew he struggled to understand how torturous it was to lose the person who is physically part of you. After a while, I opened my eyes. The lashes, soaked with mascara, clung to each other and the last of my imaginings that were slipping away.
“I should have washed my face,” I said, sheepishly. I gave him an unconvincing grin. My bottom lip was quivering too much for it to come across real. “Mascara does funky things when it gets wet.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t the first thing on your mind.”
I frowned. I’d expected him to take my uneasy joke as a hint: ignore the pain. “Yeah, I was pretty bummed about missing the end of the movie.”
Ryan moved to stand next to the recliner. I stubbornly averted my gaze.
“Jessica, we have to talk about this.”
“What’s there to talk about?” I pursed my lips tightly. “She’s dead. Seems pretty final to me.”
He took my hand. He smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. That was his one vice when he felt he couldn’t handle something. The last time I’d smelled it on him was when I miscarried two years ago. “We have a lot of decisions to make.”
“Do we have to make them right now?”
I allowed myself to look up at him. “I don’t want to. I want to sit. And not move. Maybe never again. I can’t keep putting myself through this. I was such a fool to hope, Ryan. I don’t know why we even tried.”
“Because she would have been worth it.” He traced my fingernails lightly with his own fingers. “We had to hope for Anna’s sake.”
“What does it matter now? She won’t ever know.”
“I wish I had an answer, Jess. I just can’t wish away the hope I had. For a couple months, it was the most precious thing.” His mouth was tight. His eyes looked five years older. I reminded myself to watch my mood. He was hurting too.
“Do you really wish you hadn’t hoped?” Ryan whispered.
I considered for a minute. “I wish she were breathing.”
“I wish that too.”
Silence spread maliciously between us and we fell into it, separated entirely by the sadness, connected still by our fingertips. So many emotions warred within me, tormenting my thoughts, hardening my heart, and suffocating my soul.
“I ordered pizza,” Ryan murmured.
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’m not either.”
“We need to eat.” It was simple fact. I wasn’t sure what good it did to state it. I just did.
He sighed. “We need to eat, we need sleep, we need to move. Jess, we need to keep living.”
“If she can’t, why should I?”
“Because I need you to. I can’t live if you don’t live, so, Jess, I need you to live.” He was pleading with me. His voice had gotten higher pitched. His fingers trembled where they still rested against mine. There was desperation in him – desperation and pain. But, selfishly, I didn’t want to do what he asked of me. Not even for him. I wanted to waste away in this chair where there was still a hallucination of her presence.
“I don’t want to, Ryan,” I protested.
“I don’t either,” he said simply. His honesty raised my eyes.
He couldn’t live without me. He didn’t want to live anymore, just as I didn’t, but if I didn’t stand up and continue on, he would waste away with me. I couldn’t have that responsibility on my hands. And I realized I couldn’t live without him.
I needed him to go on too. Neither of us would get through this alone. The silence would damn us to the depths, leaving us wasting in the desperate company of death. I didn’t want any more death. Not mine and certainly not Ryan’s. I couldn’t be at fault for that.
If neither of us wanted to live, at least we could struggle through the days together.
“Pizza sounds nice,” I acknowledged. I only shot him a sideways glance; I couldn’t bear to add his sadness to mine yet.
He helped me up. His arm circled me, and I appreciated the closer connection. If I was going to rely on him, fingertips were not nearly enough of him to cling to. The doorbell rang. We’d been sitting in the nursery longer than I’d realized. We’d wasted more time than I’d realized. I needed to step away, shut the door, wake up from my daze, and force myself to function. For myself. For Ryan. For our friends and family. For our future.
I clicked off the light upon my exit, daring myself to keep looking forward and not back at Anna’s empty cradle in an empty nursery. In fact, it wasn’t even Anna’s cradle.
No, Anna’s only cradle would be her grave.
I can’t say how many of these there will be. These three snapshots compose the second post in a series I can’t put a number to. The first can be read here. Thankfully, these didn’t manage to be as depressing as the first set, with #6 perhaps being the exception. These, more for me maybe than anyone else, have been a blessing. They give me a small writing project as I travel to and from work. They allow me to hone my craft in the little ways. They keep me immersed in writing, even when it’s not a big project. Plus, they’re a ton of fun.
In honor of the snapshots in the hall.
The sign screamed, “DANGER” but he didn’t hear it. Instead, he leaned casually against the edifice, pulling his tie tightly into a knot. The sheer walls of smoothly cut stone rose sharply around him, but they didn’t intimidate him. Even the dark hole marked with danger didn’t intimidate him. This was his territory. He was comfortable in it. If he’d wanted to, he could have dusted the stains of his pants and boots. If he’d wanted to, he could have had a suit to pair with his tie. But he didn’t want to. He was proud of the stains and his clothing. Every stone, every pipe, every rail had passed through his crafting palms, and that gave him power.
She despised nothing so much as country roads. The car’s thin wheels carved its own rivers in the road, but the second the infernal machine crossed another set of tracks, the car jumped, and her teeth set to rattling. The only thing keeping her hat on her head was a ribbon that only ended up choking her. The driver argued that the view was beautiful, as if that could persuade her. Dust aggressively rained into her eyes. How could she see any view in conditions like this? Much less enjoy it. Besides, the views hid behind pitiful fences of basic wood and wire. She’d have to look past the eyesores just to appreciate the mountains. No, she despised the whole endeavor: the hot sun, the bumpy roads, and she resented the dust hiding in the creases of her favorite dress.
Hell was smoky – the heavy kind of smoky that accompanied the acrid smell of burning wood. Hell was carpeted with thick, grimy dirt and prickly, broken branches. Hell had no sun. Hell had no sky. And hell heard only the cries of fallen men and echoing gunshots. He didn’t count the soldiers next to him as signs of life. Either they were dead men walking, or they’d long since given up on being anything else. The trees, destroyed and splintered, still reached for the unseen sky in a wicked parody of fingers. His own fingers twitched in reflex as he peered through the scope and waited for the illusion of a pause to end. In hell, there was no peace. And every time peace settled in his bones, he reminded himself that it was a lie. This was hell. This was war.
Just a reminder that these are not historical and include no basis for fact. They are only the musings of an overly-inspired writer trying to glimpse into a moment of time. Still, I hope you enjoy them.
Many photographs line the hall in route to my office. Though they are all recognizably pictures that are housed in the Archives, they are not obviously attached to moments, stories, or people. It’s a long hallway too. Walking by them everyday inspires me, in a sense. Every photo in that hallway has a story we cannot hope to glimpse. It’s both beautiful and sad. I can’t speak for the people in these images. I can’t pinpoint their emotion or their history. But they still make me wonder.
I should clarify: the following paragraphs are not stories. They have no beginning or end. They are snapshots, like I see on the wall on the way to work. They are based solely on my initial impression of the photo. I leave many specifics to the imagination because I can only hope to imagine them as well.
I don’t expect much from these snapshots. I jotted them down on the metro, or while walking around, or whenever the next sentence hit me. But at the very least, I hope they make readers feel something, anything, in honor of the snapshots in the hall.
Every soul in town had found their way to that street. Fabric scraped on fabric as the bodies undulated, struggling against each other to move forward. Someone hit her – hard – from her right. Instinctively, she elbowed back and pulled her hat more tightly to her head. People around her moved with a purpose, even if they weren’t going anywhere. She wondered if the crowd pressed around her was slowly pushing her back, away from the square that she, and everyone else, tried so desperately to reach. She wanted to push back against the pressure and come up closer to the front. But this sea couldn’t be cut through so easily, and the people that comprised it were determined to oppose her. Instead, she planted her feet and fought the sway and hoped to witness what she could.
“Stay close to me,” she whispered fiercely.
They were hesitant, enough to stay by her, but she worried about their curiosity. There was not much for them at home. Frankly, she wouldn’t blame them for wandering off if they could find something better. Part of her still hoped for them. But what remained of her hope trickled away from her as slowly as the grimy water trickled into the drain. The part of her that wanted them to stay clung still to their grubby arms. But even that part was uncertain enough to let the course fabric lay loose in her grasp. Hair fell in matted tangles in front of her eyes as she stared blankly toward the end of the cobblestone street. She didn’t know where they would all end up. And a dying part of her still fought to care.
This wasn’t a line, he thought; it was a stalemate. If he moved at all, it was only to shuffle a few inches forward before settling into waiting again. He didn’t dare set his suitcase down, for fear someone would make off with what precious belongings he had left without a thought to him. But his arm tired the longer he carried his things, and the thought of taking the risk was so tempting… Worse than the pain creeping like a worm up his arm was the desolation he had to look at while he stood. There was no where that had gone untouched by the damage, no safe place to rest his eyes. He pitied the souls of the children who couldn’t fathom the situation. He empathized with the families struggling to stay calm. But all the staring and waiting and shuffling and standing had distanced him from the rubble, and he wondered only where he’d end up, without worrying over the home he’d lost.
More of these turned out sad than I intended. Of course, in order for a photograph to be in the Archives, it must have permanent relevance of some sort. And I suppose many of the moments that have permanent relevance are the tragic ones.
Just a reminder that these are not historical and include no basis for fact. They are only the musings of an overly-inspired writer trying to glimpse into a moment of time. Still, I hope you enjoy them.