StoryADay Challenge

Birthday Girl

Sam smiled as her friends snapped off another picture. Her college roommate Andrea gave her a huge hug after the flash blinded them for a moment.

“8 Myles girls!” she cried out, excited and tipsy. All of Sam’s friends from college repeated their freshmen year slogan. Their group broke off from their table and charged the bar. Within a few minutes, a fresh round of shots were being poured and distributed amongst everyone.

“To the birthday girl!” somebody called out and they all toasted their shot glasses. Sam downed her drink as best she could. The rail vodka went down rough and hot, bringing back contact memories of college. She looked down the bar and saw her boyfriend, John, sitting further down turned to face her group.

She slipped out of her mob of friends before they decided to do another round of shots. John’s smile was warm and reserved. His broad shoulders were relaxed and he actually looked relaxed. Normally, it was a war of attrition to get John to come out a bar like this unless he was already hammered. She was thankful he’d been so agreeable tonight.

“Are you alright, babe?” she asked him but the DJ drowned her out with another Taylor Swift song. John just kept smiling at her. When they first started dating, she thought it was goofy and kind of dumb-looking. She still made fun of him for it but secretly she’d come to love it. He looked so at ease when he smiled that way.

“Are you alright?” she asked again, louder and closer to his ear.

“I’m great, just sitting this one out. I don’t want to cause a panic with my killer dance moves” he said, giving her his fake “cool guy” face. John couldn’t dance to save his life. She’d tried with him once and the two of them had to sit down because they were both laughing so hard. She smiled at the memory and kissed him before turning back to her friends.

At first, her friends said that John was too opposite for her. He was the overly-serious, “old man” in school. She’d go crazy with such a downer, they all said. But now, they all saw it. Sam and John just clicked together. He challenged her and didn’t let her just float by on charm alone. It drove her crazy and she loved it.

In fact, she was ready to admit she loved him. Sam smiled to herself as she joined her friends dancing. It’s not like John was the first boyfriend she’d loved before. But that didn’t mean it still wasn’t something important to her. She felt like she was in high-school again, getting over-excited about a crush. She couldn’t put her finger on it but something felt different about this relationship. The song switched and all she could think about was how she wanted to drag John off his barstool and make him dance with her.

Sam looked back at the bar but he was gone.Probably in the bathroom, she thought to herself. As more friends crowded in around her, she quietly agreed that she’d tell him tonight.

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Warriors

Mathias threw a stick grenade into the field, killing two advancing soldiers. Snow and dirt showered his trench as bullets and shrapnel flew around his head. One of the men next to him panicked and crouched down, trying to disappear from the fight. Mathias grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to his feet.

“You can either fight or you can die!” he screamed in the Orc’s ear. He then shook the private’s rifle and pressed him against the wall of the trench. The terrified militiaman fired his rifle and Mathias helped him work the bolt. “Good man. Now keep firing!” he said, patting the soldier on the head.

He worked his way along the line, encouraging his men to keep fighting as the Takarj pressed closer and closer to the trench. Adrenaline was pumping through his body as he fired again and again, maneuvering along the narrow wooden duckboard. Takarj soldiers slumped to the ground like heaps of grey and brown against the harsh white landscape. Even as their casualties mounted, they pressed forward. Mathias cursed and reloaded his rifle. His fear of dying had given way to anger as he passed over every dead Orc in the trench. They were farmhands and factory workers, some with barely a week’s training. Now, desperate and outnumbered, they were dying in a frozen hole like dogs.

If he and his men were going to die, then he’d make sure these bastards paid for every Orc they killed.

On and on, the constant barrage of gunfire and explosions rattled Mathias’s skull. All along the line, blood poured from his men’s ears. Their faces were covered in soot, dirt and sweat. Some cried while others shouted every curse they knew. A handful simply fired and reloaded. The leading Takarj were within reach of the trench when fresh rifle fire erupted, cutting down the enemy. Mathias looked around and saw muzzle flashes from the crest of distant knoll. More and more Takarj fell dead, and the survivors began to waiver in the face of this new threat. Caught between two walls of fire, they lost the will to advance and started to retreat. A handful of officers tried to keep them moving forward but they only made themselves easier targets.

“Cease fire! Hold your fire!” Mathias called out to his men. The Takarj soldiers were retreating in a disorganized mob. The wounded and dead littered the ground in front of Mathias’s trench-line. The sound of scattered rifle fire crackled along the line as nervous militiamen fired at anything that moved. More screaming from Mathias and the company’s sergeants eventually stopped the shooting.

When his own men finally regained enough composure to hold their fire did the white-clad ski-troops emerge from a distant knoll. Mathias ordered his men to stand down as he hoisted himself out of the trench to meet his saviors. As he walked through the snow-coated battlefield, the groans of the wounded Takarj soldiers filled his ears while the smell of cordite coated his nostrils. Takarj bodies were everywhere, scattered everywhere like leaves in an autumn breeze. A few slowly dragged themselves through the snow while others simply cradled their wounds and prayed in foreign tongues.

“Where’s your commanding officer, soldier?” a deep and Northern voice called out to him. Mathias turned to face whoever had called out only to see a living legend before him.

“Lieutenant Mathias Anthonsen, 53rd Koldtwand reserves, 3rd company, sir. Our captain was killed by enemy fire. I’ve been leading the company since.” He addressed out of instinct, standing at attention despite the battle-high still thick in his bloodstream. The Orc before him was tall with strong features but uncommonly pale skin. In his deep blue eyes there was a spark of dangerous energy that seemed to crackle and spark with life.

“Colonel Henrikki Lehto, 28th Queen’s Mountain Rifles. What are you doing out here?” he asked, the predatory glint in his eye continuing to sparkle.

“We received orders to hold this position against any and all Takarj assaults.” Mathias reported, in as professional a tone as he could muster. The adrenaline was still pumping through his blood and the fear of another assault haunted his thoughts and senses.

Colonel Lehto looked around and chuckled, “It seems you’ve more than held your position, Lieutenant.”

With a swift and genuine movement, he patted Mathias on the shoulder. “We need lads like you in the army proper, not wasting their talent in the reserves.” Mathias felt a swell of pride at the statement. Barely a month ago, he had been one of hundreds of reservists, struggling to load his rifle and march in step but here he was being commended by the legendary white wolf of Djävulenstand.

“Thank you sir!” he responded, trying to maintain discipline. Colonel Lehto smiled before he turned to his men. “Captain, police their weapons and search for any intelligence these butchers may have.” One of the white-clad troopers with a field cap nodded and barked orders to the nearby men. Colonel Lehto pulled a map out from his breast pocket and unfolded it before Mathias.

“We’ve been raiding Takarj supply lines, trying to slow their advance. This unit you fought off was likely one of the advanced scouting parties of the 3rd Army, probing for weaknesses in our line.” Mathias listened intently, trying to absorb as much information as he could as he studied every point and gesture the colonel made to the map before them.

“General Kotila’s bringing up the 1st Army to reinforce our line here but he’ll need time. We’re going to buy him that time.”

“Sir, our orders are to hold the inroads to Jorhanstad.” Mathias said.

“My orders are the same, lieutenant. But I can’t do that with light infantry hiding in trenches against whole divisions. We need to strike them where they’re weakest.” He looked to the Orcs milling about in tattered white smocks and dirt-stained camouflage. “And to do that, I need men like you.”

“Sir?” Mathias asked, still not able to believe what was happening.

“We’re at war, lieutenant. If we’re going to win this war, I need warriors. Now time and men are in short supply today but you and your men did a damn good job here today.” The colonel looked Mathias square in the eye while extending his hand.

“Help us save her majesty. Help us throw these invaders across the mountains and help us save the kingdom.” The patriotic charm that the newspapers always spoke of was even more seductive in the flesh. Mathias felt in this moment that with enough men, Colonel Lehto could win the war all by himself. He was a true leader; patriotic, fearless and inspiring.

“My men and I are at your disposal.” Mathias said.

“Outstanding! Now the first order of-“ the colonel was cut off by his men cheering and hollering. Both the colonel and Mathias turned to see ski-troopers dragging wounded Takarj officers and soldiers through the snow. A crowd of the sky-troops gathered around, jeering and cursing the wounded before them.

“Medic!” Mathias called out but the colonel raised his hand up to stop him. Mathias was confused. “I’ll place them in the stockades, sir.” He said, waving his militia out of their trench. The colonel smirked and shook his head. “No. We’ll handle this as warriors. Watch and learn Lieutenant.” The colonel pulled out a hunter’s knife from a sheath tucked under his belt. He grabbed the most senior Takarj by the hair and pulled his head back.

“These are the monsters who burn our homes, who rape our wives and who kill our sons. These are the devils who would take our lands and make us slaves. These butchers starve us and hunt us. They make war on all of Räthyr.” The ski-troops howled and roared profanities as the colonel whipped them into a frenzy. Even a few of the militiamen took on the look of starved animals, eager for vengeance.

“If war against Räthyr is what they seek, then we’ll give them war.” He bellowed as his men cheered and raised their rifles into the air. He crouched down, holding the wounded major’s face in his hands.

“This is a message to your emperor.” The colonel said before he slid his knife across the throat of the major. A jet of blood shot into the sky before the colonel kicked the man flat onto his back. The air filled with the war-cries of the ski-troops. Mathias was horrified. Before he could even react or intervene, Colonel Lehto pulled out his pistol and shot the remaining wounded in the head, one by one. The cheers drowned out the gunshots.

Haunted

Marcus waved his torch in front of him as he crept through the low passage within the cave. The air was close and smelled of moss. The walls of the cave seemed to be slowly digesting Marcus as his mail scraped against the damp stone. He couldn’t lose the sense of unease that had followed him into the cave. The blind man’s smile was still clear in his mind and the feeling crept up his spine like a finger of ice.

His steps echoed through the pitch darkness and his stomach clenched tight. Something wasn’t right about this cave but he felt a strange compulsion to press forward. A king must never show fear, he could almost see his father’s gaunt and stoic face. Marcus took a small measure of comfort in the memory and crouched down even lower to proceed.

He bumped and clambered through the caverns, repeatedly hitting his head on the ceiling or cutting his hand on a jagged stone until the cold and hard texture of rock was replaced with the wet, sticky feel of a spider’s web. Marcus almost dropped his torch, he was so surprised. A massive spider’s web formed a shroud that blocked his way.

He tried to swallow the lump in his throat and pulled at web. As he did, a small army of spiders the size of his fist scurried across the cave floor up the walls. Marcus shook, his childhood fear bubbling up inside him. He felt the furry leg of one of the beasts against his hand and he waved his torch back and forth in panic. More nightmares crawled out of their burrows and holes in the ground and scurried away from the flame. Marcus crushed one under his boot and kept the torch in front of him. As they passed him, the insects emitted a skin-crawling noise. Marcus pushed himself through the web, desperate to escape the creatures crawling around him.

On the other side, Marcus found himself in an open space within the cave, illuminated by a distant and thin shaft of light. He stepped forward as if the light were a sign from the heavens. Though as he walked forward, he suddenly felt a wave of cold air wrap around him. It was an unearthly cold that seemed to cut right through his cloak and latched onto his heart.

“Hello Marcus.”

Marcus felt a bolt of terror tear from his throat down to his balls. He gripped the torch as tight as he could. “Who’s there?!” he cried out into the din.

“You know who it is.” The voice replied. Marcus’s stomach tied itself in knots and he wanted to throw up. This couldn’t be real. Surely he was ill and this was a fever dream. Or perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him in the dark.

“You look frightened” the voice said, awash in predatory malice and arrogance. Marcus unsheathed his sword and held it forward along with his torch. “Show yourself!” he challenged, trying desperately to keep his voice steady.

“I’m right here.” The voice said behind him close enough that he could feel the words pouring into his ear. Marcus turned and to his horror saw a tall man standing before him. The man was pale and gaunt with a gash that ran the width of his belly. Bright red innards hung by his feet. The stains of blood streaked out of his mouth. Marcus dropped his sword.

“This isn’t real.” Marcus said aloud, his hands trembling.

“Isn’t it? It certainly seems real enough to me.” The man said, his face still contorted in a malevolent smile. “You’re not here. This is all just a dream.” Marcus declared, trying to assure himself as much as he was trying to dispel the specter in front of him.

The ghost laughed, “Ahh Marcus. You haven’t changed at all. Clinging to dreams when reality proves too daunting.” Marcus didn’t know how to respond. He was afraid to move or else he’d have dove headfirst into a sea of insects to escape.

“What are you?” Marcus finally forced himself to say. “Such a thing to say. Don’t tell me you don’t recognize me. Has it really been so long since we last met?” the ghost replied, circling Marcus.

“It can’t be…you can’t be here!” Marcus said, his breath quickly escaping his body. The realization slowly poured over him like pitch.

“But I am here.” The ghost retorted, “Tell me Marcus: how well does that crown fit?”

Marcus had to turn his face away from the ghost’s jet-black eyes. His armor suddenly felt impossibly heavy, anchoring him in place as the ghost continued.

“Does it fit you snug or do you find it heavy and oversized?”

“What does it matter to you?” Marcus said, still averting his eyes. Suddenly, he felt the ghost’s dead hands grab him by the throat and lift him into the air.

“It..was…MINE!” the ghost roared into his face. Marcus had tried to forget that temper but here it was, more terrifying than anything he had seen in his childhood.

“Mine! And you stole it from me. Can you tell me why?” The ghost released him and Marcus felt shame now mixing with his fear. It was a shame he’d buried for years. As it surfaced, it choked him and left him speechless.

“You can’t can you?” the ghost looked down on him, disgust etched across every feature, “You can’t even admit to it after all this time?”

Marcus tried to speak but nothing came.

“You’re pathetic. Still the same simple whelp unfit to bear our father’s name, much less his crown.” The ghost looked up, too repulsed to stare down anymore.

The words were clawing at the inside of Marcus’s skull and he felt tears burning behind his eyes.

“I am the king.” He forced himself to say, practically gagging as he did. The phantom turned, his gaze now one of cold hatred.

“You’re a coward. Did mother have to comfort you when father laid my body upon the pyre? Did you look away when they set me on fire?” Marcus remembered the funeral and how he refused to hold mother’s hand for fear she’d notice the trembling.

“And now you hide your cowardice with bluster and arrogance. All your good nature and all your regal bearing. But I know the truth.” The ghost said, slowly crouching down, causing more of its intestines to spill out of his wound.

“Stop it!” Marcus cried out, covering his face with his arms, desperate to silence the voice.

“Do you know that the truth is?” the ghost taunted him. Marcus crawled away, reaching for his torch. The ghost snuffed out the flame and continued to lean closer to Marcus’s face.

“All your victories, all your titles and all your splendor can neither hide what you are nor erase what you’ve done.”

Marcus felt tears streaming down his cheeks and he begged for the ghost to stop. He threw his cloak over himself and pressed his hands firmly against his ears, no longer trying to escape.

“You’ll never be rid of me, kinslayer.” The ghost said. Marcus screamed out into the darkness as the voice echoed off the cave walls and inside his head.

The pale shaft of light vanished, leaving Marcus huddled on ground, his brother’s laugh ringing in his ears.

Inner Sanctum

Mira opened her eyes and stretched out her arms, taking in the lavish comfort of the soft cotton sheets she was sleeping in. The morning light was punctuated with the dull vibrating hum of the airship’s main engine. She had worried that the noise would be unbearable yet now that the craft was lazily floating along the countryside, its distant yet constant presence felt like a lifeline to the ground, which was something she welcomed.

Through the large glass window panes, she could see the rolling barley fields and deep green hills of Tybernia stretching out for miles. She had often seen the penny-artists trying to sell paintings of the countryside and had even worked on a farmstead before moving to the capital but to see the vastness and the purity of it all from so high above was truly breathtaking. It was so incredible a vista that the trappings and furnishings of the cabin almost came across as an annoyance to her. But then, she considered the owner of those trappings.

At the head of the cabin, facing the bow of the airship was the minister’s writing table. An ornately carved and handsome piece of lacquered mahogany, it was covered with a sea of letters, papers, books and maps. Sitting on top of a stack of books was a small marble ashtray. A hedge of extinguished cigars jutted out of the top of the tray in every direction. Mira could smell the smoke on everything in the cabin and felt a tinge of sympathy for whoever was tasked with tidying up this hermit’s den whenever the airship came down to earth.

She laid back down in bed and closed her eyes, wondering how many other women had been allowed into this inner sanctum. Could she truly be the first person to share this cabin with him? Her thoughts were interrupted by a new aroma. It was the smell of cinnamon and coffee. She opened her eyes as her stomach awoke to see Viktor placing a serving tray on the nightstand. “All I ask is avoid spilling if you can. I hear enough complaints about ash.” He said, stealing a biscuit off the tray.

“Good morning to you too.” She said, giving him a playful smile. He seemed distracted as he sat at his desk, dipping his biscuit into a small porcelain cup.

“If you’d prefer something more substantial, I’ll see what can be arranged.” He said, rifling through the papers on his desk, looking for a matchbox. This was the first time she had ever seen Viktor truly at work. All the times she’d seen him in his office, he was either rakishly relaxed or impatient as a child. But here, floating above the world, she saw a different man.

Everything about him spoke of a man who was lost in the machinations and turnings of a runaway mind. His feet were bare and his suspender had slipped off his left shoulder. Instead of the traditional dressing gown favored by the nobles, he simply wore a white dress shirt unbuttoned and partially tucked into his trousers. It was so strange to see him like this after a year of seeing him constantly put together.

She rolled over to the nightstand and gingerly dipped a biscuit into her coffee.  The hard crunch of the biscuit gave way to the sweet taste of sugar and cinnamon. She helped herself to the tray as Viktor sat, writing away, occasionally standing to check some map or dig through a mountain of correspondence. As he worked, a new stack of letters took shape by his side. How he kept track of it all, she could only guess. With no discernable pattern or rhythm, he wrote letter after letter. At times he would stop writing one letter only to start a three page memorandum before returning to his original task. It was dizzying to watch.

“And there!” Viktor finally declared, blowing a smoke ring onto the last letter he wrote. He sealed it and added it to one of his many piles. Mira was startled by the sudden outburst which had broken the morning stillness. He turned around to face her and seemed surprised to find her watching him. He nervously fumbled with his hands and snubbed out his cigar. Before her eyes, this posh and proper old hound had transformed into a bumbling youth full of nervous energy and totally lost in his own world.

“I’m terribly sorry for that. You must be bored stiff.” He said, his fingers fumbling with one of the buttons on his shirt.

“I enjoy watching you work.” She said, her voice amorous and genuine. Viktor smiled back, running a hand through his salt and pepper hair.

“You do?” he asked. She laughed at him and nodded her head.

“Well I feel simply dreadful. What a neglectful host I’ve been.” He said, the aristocrat slowly regaining control over the tone of his voice. As she watched, it was as if he were putting on a jacket. His nervous fidgeting slowly faded and the embarrassment departed from his voice. His dark green eyes regained their focus on her as he stepped out of his head and back into the cabin.

He slowly but purposefully walked towards the bed like he was approaching the Emperor’s throne. For all of his bluster and pageantry, Viktor had the natural grace that seemed to be a growing rarity amongst the highborn. He climbed onto the bed and crawled to meet her.

“I beg your forgiveness my lady. How may I correct this terrible slight?” he asked, the devilish twinkle in his eye now fully returned.

Escalation

“I’ll take point.” Collin said, bringing his carbine up to his shoulder. Kelly nodded and stacked up behind him. “Control, Foxtrot Sierra five is on the deck and looking for extraction.” She said into the mic around her neck. The team waited inside the squat brick building as dull chaos of battle echoed through the alleys and streets.

“Roger that Foxtrot Sierra five. Proceed to our forward command post at 17th and Columbia. We’ll get you home from there.” the voice in both their ears said. “You ready to go?” Kelly asked. Collin gave her a thumbs up. She checked her rifle, gave Collin a light pat on the shoulder and they set off.

Outside the building, the air was cooling off as the sun slid towards the horizon. The oppressive baked white light was now a warm glaze of orange and red as dusk came. Step by step, Kelly and Collin scurried through the maze of brick and concrete, careful to watch for any threats. Every clatter of an assault rifle sent a spike of adrenaline through their bodies.

Kelly could feel her muscles tensing and the sweat from the day’s heat and her own nervousness clinging to her body armor. Her stomach growled and her throat was dry but still she kept her focus on each window they passed and her hands ready to snap her weapon to any threat. She maneuvered through the debris-littered streets in perfect sync with her partner. She had always taken pride in how well they could move together without the need for digitally enhanced read-outs or equipment. They just gelled.

Collin came up to a street corner and put his hand up. The two stopped dead, hunched against the thin sheet metal of a make-shift kiosk someone had built. Carefully, Collin peeked around the corner, his carbine raised to answer any shots that rang out. He was about to wave Kelly to cross the road when he screamed “Dow-“

An explosion finished the sentence for him as the shanty collapsed on top of both of them. Kelly’s ears were ringing and she felt the weight of the shanty pressing against her armor. The world seemed to be swimming in slow motion as the sound of her breathing echoed inside her own head. She was only vaguely aware of the incoming bullets smacking into the ground around her. She pushed against the piece of metal sitting on her chest. A bullet pinged off it as she did.

When Kelly wiggled free, she peered through the dust and smoke for her partner. Collin was on his hands and knees and appeared as dazed as she was. She reached out and grabbed him by the belt. He turned but fell on his side. The haze wore off when Kelly noticed why he’d fallen. Collin’s right arm had been shredded off just below the elbow.

Collin must have recognized it around the same time because he started screaming in pain. Kelly grabbed him by the collar of his armor and started dragging him to behind firmer cover. The ringing in her ears had toned down enough to hear Collin spewing profanity and wincing as blood ran from his mangled stump.

“FUCK!” was the first word she could clearly make out.

“You’re gonna be alright.” She said, pulling the field aid kit out of her rucksack. More bullets hissed and smacked into the pavement as she readied a tourniquet. Collin clinched his teeth as she tightened it around what remained of his arm. “Control! We’re under heavy fire and need an immediate medevac for one critically wounded.” She reported into the comm as she continued treating Collin’s wound.

“Copy that five. We cannot medevac from your current position. Get to the forward command post and we can get you out there.”

“Jesus Christ! That’s still ten blocks away! Request close air support!” Kelly yelled as another explosion showered the two of them with dust and chips of asphalt.

“Negative that request five. We cannot spare any CAS at this time. Advise you disengage immediately.” The mechanical tone of command underlined the desperation of their situation.

“Great fuckin advice!” Kelly screamed as she brought her rifle up, looking for a target. The fire was coming from an elevated position and the sheer volume made it clear that they were easily outnumbered. Kelly leaned as carefully as she could from behind cover and fired off a few rounds into a window where she could make out muzzle flashes. The return volley of gunfire blew a chunk out of the wall she was using for cover and she cursed again.

Suddenly, Collin threw a smoke grenade into the street and a cloud of grey began to block everyone’s field of vision.

“Get running. I’ll keep ‘em busy.” He said, trying to un-holster his pistol. “It’s been a shitty enough day without you pulling the martyr card.” Kelly said, managing to crack a smile through the smoke. Collin wanted to protest but Kelly grabbed his remaining arm and pulled him to his feet before he could say anything. He let out another cry of pain as she slung his left arm over her shoulder.

“Ready?” Kelly asked, balancing her partner on one shoulder and her rifle in the opposite hand.

“Ready!” Collin snarled through gritted teeth. With a deep breath, they hobbled across the street as more bullets filled the air around them. Small shards of concrete and pavement peppered them and a bullet grazed Kelly’s knee but they pressed on to the other side.

Kelly slammed the two of them into a thick wall, well out of sight of the enemy shooters. “Are you dead?” she asked, almost surprised to have made it.

“Not yet.” Collin said, equally as surprised.

“Cool. Then let’s get out of here” She said as they limped down the alley towards their evac point.

Welcome Home

“Hey Wyatt. Where have you been saving the memos you’ve been working on?” Alyssa’s condescending tone came through the phone. Wyatt locked his jaw, composed himself for a second before picking up the handset.

“I’ve been saving them in my folder on the public server.” He answered, trying to sound as calm and even-tempered as possible.

“No. You need to be saving them to the memos folder.” She corrected him, with her usual brand of tact and grace.

“I see. I’ll fix that right away.” Wyatt responded, gripping the phone even tighter.

“Ok. And can you leave a list of the memos you worked on in case we can’t find them?” she asked. Wyatt felt his blood boiling.

“Absolutely.” He forced himself to say. It always happens the minute before I leave, he thought.

“Oook thanks.” The line clicked dead. Wyatt stared at his computer screen for a minute and contemplated ripping it off his desk and throwing it down the hall. Alyssa had a special talent for crawling under his skin. He’d never met anybody with such terrible people skills. Even her compliments were so shallow and condescending. He still had the post-it note she left him the night he stayed in the office until 11 to fix some calamity inflicted on the office by their idiot receptionist. It was a coffee-stained note with barely legible scribbles that simply said, “Thanks”.

Wyatt finished putting the list of his mistakes together for Alyssa, grabbed his phone and made his way down the steps.

When he stepped through the door, he walked into the thick August humidity. It was almost 6 but you could still feel the oversaturated air practically heave with moisture. By the time Wyatt was down the office steps and on the sidewalk, he could already feel sweat beading on his head.

There were plenty of people on the streets, all in various states of casual summer dress. Guys in sleeveless lacrosse pinnies, girls in tank tops and light skirts. Wyatt felt especially out of place with his long pants and button-down. He pushed the discomfort from his mind and set off through the crowds back to his apartment.

He checked his phone again, eager to see if Kendra had replied to his text. He had forced himself to limit checking the phone to once an hour during work. She was probably just busy at work, he thought to himself. He had read over his previous message a hundred times, thought it over, dissected every possible way one could possibly interpret “Hey! Are you free tonight for happy hour?” That couldn’t be creepy or coming on too strong. Just a nice casual invitation. Nothing to worry about or overthink.

He checked his phone again as he crossed another block. No response. Wyatt sighed and placed the phone back into his pocket.

By the time he reached his apartment, Wyatt could feel the sweat clinging to his undershirt and staining his armpits. He had finally heard back from Kendra as he passed one of his favorite bars. “Sorry, but I really can’t.” It didn’t leave much room for any sort of negotiation or maneuver. Like his old man used to quote, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. Wyatt half-smiled to himself and tried to make peace with bottoming out. Perhaps it was just as well. He was in no particular shape to try and impress anyone as he could swear pieces of his very soul were being sweat out of him.

He was stepping into his building when he noticed the new email on his phone. He opened it to see a notice sent to his entire building that the AC was out of commission for the weekend. Wyatt groaned out loud as he climbed up the stairs. He did an honest day’s work, paid his rent on time and tried to be a generally decent person. Was it really too much to ask for a little break like functioning air conditioning in August?

He opened his door and to his surprise was greeted with “hey there, hot stuff!”  His roommate Chelsea’s girlfriend, Morgan, was lounging on the couch watching TV.

“Hey hey! When did you get here? I thought you were still on the road until next weekend.” Wyatt said.

“They let me go early so I figured I’d stop in. Hope that’s OK.”

“Madame, you’re always welcome here.” Wyatt said, in a dramatic voice complete with a tip of his imaginary cap. “Where’s Miss Thing?”

“She went to pick up some beer. Check this out. I got this awesome little package for 4 dollars in Maryland.” She dug through her backpack and pulled out a collection of incredibly corny and terrible-looking movies.

“Is there really a Croc-o-shark vs. Mechasaurus Rex?” Wyatt asked, looking down through the list of titles.

“There sure is. Chelsea hates movies like this but she agreed to watch them as a ‘welcome back’ present to me.” Morgan said, smiling a wicked little smile.

“I like the way you think. Well don’t let me interrupt the fun.” Wyatt said, turning to head to his room and collapse onto his bed.

“Oh you think you’re getting out this? I told Chels to pick up some Sam Adams just for you.” Morgan gave him her patented devilish smile. Wyatt couldn’t help but smile like a goon. Nobody could make you feel like the center of the world like Morgan.

“Well now you’ve got me blushin something fierce.” He said, in his clichéd Southern accent, fanning his face to complete the joke. In perfect sync with his over-the-top style, Morgan blew him a kiss and the two started laughing. Not a bad day, Wyatt thought to himself.

AM Commute

Tom rolled over in bed, trying to keep warm under his covers. The world wouldn’t end if he spent another five minutes in bed, he thought to himself. The air in the apartment was almost as cold as the December morning outside. When Tom’s roommate, Mike, told him that he liked the apartment cold, Tom didn’t expect that to mean meat locker levels of cold.

Tom lazily checked his wristwatch and felt a wave of dread crash over him when he saw the time.

7:55 AM.

With a quick motion, Tom threw his covers off, shivering as the cold ran over his legs. He’d overslept again and was stuck in a race against the clock to work. He pulled his pants on and was still working on his tie as he came out of his room.

Mike was sitting in the kitchen, shirtless and reading the newspaper. It wasn’t the first time Tom had seen it, but it still always amazed him. You could almost see your breath and Mike was sitting there in nothing but his boxers.

“Seriously dude, don’t you ever get cold?” Tom asked, trying to simultaneously finish his tie and pull over a sweater.

“Ole mies.” Mike said, not even taking his eyes off the paper.  Tom shook his head and stepped out of the apartment into the dreary grey morning.

Tom hurried down the block, praying he could time getting to the metro at the same time as a train. Unfortunately the traffic was not on his side this morning. There were only two red lights between Tom and the Metro but he caught both of them. The roads were packed with overcautious drivers and buses and everybody was driving slower than usual for fear of the quarter of an inch dusting that DC got the night before. Tom rolled his eyes and tapped his foot impatiently.

He thought he saw an opening where he could shoot the gap and run across the street. He had barely started moving forward when a large woman driving a brand new Cadillac laid on the horn. Tom stepped back but the woman continued to lay on the horn, punishing him and everyone else within earshot for even daring to think of crossing in front of her. The Cadillac rolled past him, complete with the driver shooting him a dirty sideways glance. It was then that Tom saw the bright red bumper sticker that read: I’m not mean. You’re just a wimp. From inside his pants pockets, Tom flipped her off.

When he finally reached the metro station, he knew that his luck was not about to change. The crowd was impenetrably thick with dozens of clueless commuters staring off into space. Tom gritted his teeth and hacked his way through the mass. As a new train came in, the crowds all clumped together around the train car doors. Tom shook his head again, seeing that the crowds on the station platform were so densely packed that nobody could even get off the train. For minutes, the commuters on the train pushed against the wall of humanity trying to board the cars. “Jesus Christ! This is clogged tighter than my arteries!” an angry middle-aged man declared as he tried to part the crowd using his briefcase.

Two more trains came through the station before Tom finally was able to squeeze into the car. He wanted to look at his watch but it was pointless to try. Any attempt to move his arms and he’d either break someone’s nose or accidentally grope someone. The man in front of Tom was a massive slab of flesh and was sweating underneath four layers of coat and jacket. To complete the picture, whatever type of deodorant this man was using, it was not working. Tom spewed profanity after profanity in his head as he tried to keep calm.

When the train finally reached his stop, Tom fought and pressed his way to the exit, managing to just slither out as the doors began to close again. He took a glimpse at his watch and to his distress saw that it was almost 8:30. He bolted up the escalator two steps at a time. His day was shitty enough without his pain in the ass office manager giving him a lecture about what time he was expected to be in to work.

Tom was weaving through the street crowds like a professional, side-stepping and half-running past a sea of gloomy city-dwellers. He hated being that guy who was causing so much commotion and threw out a sorry every time he cut someone off or jumped in front of a person who wasn’t moving quite fast enough.

He came to the M Street crossing and saw the green light. Tom hadn’t endured the hell of the Metro to be thwarted here. After a Mercedes ambled by, Tom made a run for it. A cab slammed on its brakes and blasted him with the horn. Tom didn’t stop, using the pause as a chance to hop through traffic.

“On your left!” Tom heard the voice and turned to see a cyclist speeding down the lane right at him. He panicked and stepped backwards but was too slow. Tom let out a howl of pain as he felt the full weight of the environmentally-conscious asshole run over his foot. After taking a second to convince himself that a homicidal rampage was not the best choice at this moment, Tom limped forward.

Stepping into his building, Tom moved as fast as his throbbing foot would permit towards the elevator. He saw one that was going up and threw his arm into the door to keep it from closing. He pushed the door back open and clambered into the small pine-scented box. He pushed his floor’s button and fell back against the back wall. A minute and change to go. Plenty of time, Tom thought to himself. He closed his eyes, trying to mentally compose himself before he stepped onto his floor.

“Hey, you’re Tom right?” A voice brought him back to reality. He opened his eyes to see the cute girl from the floor below his smiling at him.

“Yeah and you’re Dana?” he tried to make himself as presentable as he could without being obvious.

“Yup that’s me. Rough commute this morning?” She asked.

“That’s a bit of an understatement.” Tom replied, his foot still throbbing in pain.

“Well I was going to head around the corner and get some coffee. If you could live with being a minute late for work, how’d you like to join me and you can tell me all about this horror story of a commute?” She asked, her tone playful and enticing.

Tom smiled, more to himself than to her. “I think I’m going to need some coffee this morning.”

Tide of History

“Good morning Mr. Wittmann. I trust you slept well?” The commissar asked as he stepped into the bleak and confining room.

Kurt spit some of the blood in his mouth on the floor, “Don’t I look well-rested?”

“You’re the first German I’ve met with a sense of humor.” The commissar laughed, “All the others are so stern. It really is refreshing.”

“If you’d be willing to let me go, I’d be happy to introduce you to a host of humorous gentlemen.” Kurt said, making an effort to keep his head from slumping.

“I’m certain you would and as tempting as that is, I’m afraid work must come first.”

“It always does.” Kurt said.

“Indeed…Now please understand Mr. Wittmann: I have no interest in making this more painful or prolonged than it needs to be. You just need to answer my questions and all this brutality can end. A fair arrangement, no?”

“Very fair.” Kurt said, pain continuing to wash across his body.

“I’m so glad you agree.” The commissar waved and one of the guards placed a chair. “Now that we’re all comfortable, let’s begin. Who was your contact in Budapest?”

“I can’t remember.” Kurt said.

“Who are you working with?”

“I’m terrible with names, I simply can’t remember it.” The commissar sighed, removing his black leather gloves.

“Mr. Wittmann, this is disappointing. I thought we had an agreement.” The commissar punched Kurt hard across the face, sending a fresh bolt of pain into Kurt’s brain and opening a fresh trickle of blood from his nose.  “Give me satisfactory answers and this can all stop. Now let’s try this again, this time simpler. Where did you hear about our little organization’s meeting?”

“I just had it but after that punch, it’s slipped my mind.” Kurt said with a weak smile. The commissar returned the smile before kicking Kurt square in the chest, knocking him back onto the hard concrete floor.

“Mr. Wittmann, I really do admire your spirit. You are a credit to your nation and to your emperor. But why don’t you see how that loyalty is wasted?”

The commissar put his knee on Kurt’s chest and pressed down.

“Your superiors, those blue-bloods with titles and inbred family names, your fool ‘Warlord of Germany’, all of them are happily using you as a sacrificial lamb. Surely you can see that. For all this pain, would they grant you lordship? Would they elevate you from working poverty?”

“And you would?” Kurt coughed out.

“Of course!” The commissar lifted his knee, “I’m offering you a chance to join the very tide of history. Just look through any newspaper in Europe. Our time is coming. Don’t sacrifice yourself trying to preserve a relic of history.”

“I must be reading the wrong papers.” Kurt said, laughing to himself and bracing for the commissar’s retaliation.

“Your government and its press only sees what it wants to see and blind themselves to the truth.” The commissar said, looking very pleased to deliver such a dramatic line.

“And what truth is that?” Kurt asked, trying to keep the windbag talking and prolong the return to torture.

“The truth is that the Petrograd government is on it’s last legs. No matter how many guns you smuggle to them, it will not live to see the leaves change. The truth is that Austria-Hungary is a house of cards, waiting for our revolution to sweep it away. Even your precious Fatherland is nothing but a dying flame of the old order. We will change this world and end the senseless era of oppression.” The commissar spoke as if he were addressing an assembly of soldiers or an adoring crowd.

“How fortunate for you.” Kurt shot back. The commissar face spoke of irritation. It gave Kurt some small measure of satisfaction to know he was at least irritating his captor.

“Change is always terrifying especially to the small-minded. I understand the fear, truly. That is why I beg you to help yourself. Don’t die for your ‘leaders’. Embrace the tide of history, Mr. Wittmann.”

“I’d love to had I a free hand right now. Besides, it must be said that Bolsheviks hold poor ballroom parties.” Kurt said, defiant and smug.

“I can see that you’re still not in a mood to cooperate. I’m terribly sorry Mr. Wittmann. I had hoped that we could resolve this now.” He replaced his black leather gloves and stood up, forcing the two sentries to snap to attention.

“Comrades, it appears as if Mr. Wittmann needs further persuasion into the righteousness of our cause. Do what you must.” The commissar said to the two guards.

“Mr. Wittmann. Should you survive, I urge you to re-consider your position.” The commissar concluded before stepping out the room.

Kurt smiled to himself again as he wiggled and squirmed against his restrains.

Just a little bit further, Kurt thought to himself, feeling the thin wood of the chair flex and bend.

Partners

Collin settled on his stomach and flipped open the cover of his rifle’s scope. The city-scape was a mix of squat concrete structures and rusting sheet metal shanties. The echo of automatic weapons and the rumbling engines of vehicles came from several directions.

“Control, Foxtrot Sierra five is on-site.” He said into his mic.

“So did you talk to Joe?” Kelly asked him as she made herself cozy in her spotter’s position. Collin felt a flash of irritation. Why did Kelly always pick the worst time to make small talk?

“Not now, Kelly.” Collin said, focusing down the scope. Kelly chuckled as she deployed the observation drone. “You didn’t did you?”

Collin sighed, “No. I didn’t talk to Joe.”

“Reb, one o’clock. Roof of the blue building.” Kelly called out, her normally playful tone replaced with a mechanical and emotionless one.

“Range?”

“306 meters.” Collin put the crosshairs over the enemy soldier, slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger.

The rifle’s report pierced the relative quiet of their rooftop perch. Collin watched the bullet hit the target square in the chest. A mist of blood came out of his chest and he slumped to the ground.

“Hit. He’s down.” Kelly confirmed. Collin pulled the bolt back on his rifle and ejected the spent casing. “You know you’ve got to talk to him.” She continued, seamlessly switching back to her playful tone. Collin sighed and continued scanning the rooftops and windows.

“See this is your problem. You try and tamp down those little things called feelings and you wonder why Joe’s always upset with you.” Kelly continued lecturing him. He had heard it all before. Ever since command had made them partners, she’d appointed herself Collin’s shrink as well as his spotter.

“Doesn’t the army have rules against having conversations like this during missions?” Collin asked, trying to keep focus on the battlefield.

“There you go again. This is what I’m ta-. Shooter, twelve o’clock. Fourth floor window, Grey building.” Kelly called out, never taking her eyes off her binoculars. Collin dialed in the target and saw the rebel setting up a machinegun in the window. Another exhale, another squeeze of the trigger. The rebel fell backwards into the room, taking the weapon with him.

“Hit. Kill confirmed.” Kelly said, “Burying all those feelings isn’t healthy.”

“Jesus Christ. You’re worse than he is.” Collin grumbled, “In the middle of a goddamn war and you two want to talk about my fucking emotions.”

“What’s that say about you then? Kill rebs from dawn till dusk, sure. But letting either of your partners what’s going on in your head? That’s where you draw the line?” Kelly asked.

Collin hated when Kelly made points like that. He wanted to tell her to leave him alone, to keep her mind on the mission. He wanted to tell Joe that fretting about their relationship seemed incredibly petty while the country was literally tearing itself apart. Most of all, he wanted to push all of this bullshit out of his head. The federal army didn’t need someone in tune with his emotions: it needed a sharpshooter who could consistently hit the mark.

“I don’t need to talk about it cause there’s nothing-“

“Reb. 10 o’clock. Rooftop of the McDonalds. He’s behind the AC unit.”

“Range?”

“389 meters.” Through the scope, Collin waited, his muscles tensing in anticipation. The air was hot and quiet between the two as both were fixed on observing their target. Through the scope, Collin saw only the flat metal of the AC block. Seconds ticked away into minutes. He could feel sweat trickling down his face and he could practically chew on the early summer humidity.

Then, after what felt like a lifetime, the black helmet of the rebel slowly peered out from the cover. Collin exhaled but waited just a second more. The rebel put his whole head out and Collin squeezed.

The rifle kicked into his shoulder and Collin watched through the scope as the bullet connected squarely with its target, the gruesome report visible across the roof.

“Kill confirmed.” Kelly said.

Collin wiped the sweat off his face before returning his eye to the scope.

“Nobody’s saying there’s anything wrong with you. I’m just saying if you stay bottled up like that, either you’re gonna snap or he’s gonna walk.” Kelly returned to giving advice. Her tone wasn’t playful anymore. There was a genuine concern and emotion that colored it.

The two were quiet again for a moment.

“Droid. Three o’clock. Shanty with the flag graffiti on it.” Collin scanned the cobbled together houses until he found the one in question. The wall facing them had the Federal Union’s flag spray-painted on it but the twenty stars had been replaced with swastikas. Inside the shanty, he could just make out the shaded outline of an assault droid. Collin put the crosshairs over its chest and fired.

“Good hit.” Kelly confirmed the droid was scrap. “You’re not a droid, slick. Talking helps”

Collin sighed again. It was going to be a long watch.

Trick-or-Treat

“C’mon dad! We need to get going!” Eric said, checking his cloak and his Darth Vader helmet in the mirror. James sighed and put down his book. Of all the ways to spend a Thursday night, this was not the first thing that came to mind. After a whole day of running around the city, handling one crisis after another, the idea of spending the next two hours on his feet going door to door sounded about as appealing as getting up for work the next morning.

“You better go before your son uses the Force on you.” Barbara said to him with a teasing smile on her face. James frowned at her. “He’s your son too.”

“I have to wait for the kids who come to our door.” Barbara replied, her tone matching her smile. James sighed, knowing there was no way out of it. He grabbed the keys to his car and found Eric marching around, red toy lightsaber in hand, quoting Star Wars.

“Are you ready, Darth?”

“Aren’t you going to wear a costume?” Eric asked him, lifting the helmet off his head, revealing his little cherub face and jet black hair.

“I’m sorry kemosabe. My costume’s at the dry-cleaners.” James lied.

Eric pulled his helmet back down over his head, “I find your lack of faith disturbing!” The timing, coupled with Eric’s 9 year old voice forced a laugh out of James.

“Let’s get some candy, you goof.”

The car ride to Eric’s friend, David’s house was a short one. James wheeled through the lanes of identical houses to the end of the block. There were throngs of other children and parents wandering through the neighborhood under the yellow glazed streetlamps. All of them in costume and with pillowcases sagging to a certain extent. James sighed again, remembering how many houses there were in this neighborhood. Jesus Christ, I’ll be out here all night, he thought to himself.

Eric had the car door open a millisecond after James turned the car off. As James stepped out of his car, he looked at the lawn of David’s house. It was sparsely decorated, with only two pumpkins sitting by the front door. Both of the neighboring houses had gone all out with fake cobwebs draped over everything, carved pumpkins and even a plastic skeleton.

Walking behind his son, James struggled to remember the last time he had done anything festive for Halloween. He then stumbled on the memory of his junior year of college. He went as John Wayne, complete with cavalry shirt, boots and hat. James smiled to himself as he thought of the party he went to that night and of the drunken impression he insisted on doing the whole time. He was brought back to the present by his little sith lord ringing the doorbell.

The door opened to reveal Carly, David’s mother, no costume visible. “Hi Mrs. Alexander. Is David ready?” Eric said as he and James stepped into the foyer.

“Well aren’t you something. Hello James!” She said in that overly sweet voice she was so prone to using. James feigned enthusiasm and returned her hug.

When James saw David emerge from the basement with no costume, he knew something was about to take a turn for the worse.

“Hey Eric.” David said in a casual disinterested voice.

“H-hey David.” Eric replied pulling his helmet off. James could hear the embarrassment and hurt in his son’s voice. These two had been going trick-or-treating since David’s family first moved out here.

“So you’re goin around the neighborhood?” David asked, sounding as disinterested as before. Eric shifted in place, trying feebly to hide his helmet and pillowcase behind his back. “That’s cool.”

James shot his focus back on Carly, who seemed completely oblivious to what was going on. “David’s just not feeling going out this year.” She said in a quieter tone while the two boys talked. James was furious at her. She stood there with that fake sugary smile on her face, acting like nothing had happened.

“So would you like to stay a while? Jerry’s in the den. I can fix you a drink if you’d like.” She made the offer to him, back to being loud.

“No, we’re leaving.” James said, making no effort to hide his contempt. “C’mon pal.” He patted Eric on the back.

“Bye.” Eric managed to get out, his voice struggling to hold back tears.

“See ya” David said, as oblivious as his mother.

Even in the dim light on the walk to the car, James could see the sheer hurt in Eric’s tear-filled green eyes. It ate at his heart and James wished more than anything he could take the embarrassment for his son, that he could rewind time or anything just to dry his boy’s eyes. Eric climbed into the car, no longer able to contain himself. He cried softly, using the pillowcase to try and hide his face.

“Hey now. It’s OK.” James said in as soothing a voice as he could muster through the anger that was sitting on his chest like a weight. “We’ll dry those tears and get you a pillowcase full of candy.” He said, rubbing Eric’s hair.

“I just want to go home.” Eric said, finally getting enough breath to form sentences. It broke James’s heart to even listen to his son, much less look at him. The image of his little boy caught completely off-guard and left hanging out to dry by his “friend” was torture. God, he’d give anything to erase that memory. “Are you sure? We can go to as many houses as you want.” James offered again, trying to cheer Eric up even a little.

“Can we please just go home?” Eric asked, looking up at his dad. The little tear-stained face punched James right in the chest, adding sadness to the range of hatred he was feeling.

The car ride home was a quiet one. Just the occasional whimper of Eric or the muffled whizz of a passing car. When they got back to the house, Eric set to getting himself out of his costume as fast as he could.

“That was quick. Did you even let him out of the car?” Barbara asked James as he came into the den. James hadn’t even finished explaining before Barbara was on her feet, searching for her son. She gave him a big hug and helped him out of the cape he had tangled himself in with all the gentle and compassionate grace that seemed to come naturally to mothers.

James picked up the empty pillowcase, now damp with tears and snot. He took it to the laundry room when Barbara came in.

“I just put him to bed. Do you want to go in and turn the light off?” She said, the anger in her voice bleeding out.

“Nope.” James said with a smile as an idea came to life in his head.

Eric was lying with the covers pulled over his head. James sat down on the bed next to him.

“Eric? Can you come out?”

The boy shuffled but still remained under the covers. James couldn’t help but smile at the stubbornness of his kid.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.” Eric shuffled again, poking his head out from underneath the covers just so that his eyes could see.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Your bedtime’s been extended so you can help me catch the rebels!” James said, with a smile.

“What do you mean?” Eric asked.

“I can’t watch Star Wars without my Darth Vader.” James said, revealing the Vader helmet. Eric’s face slowly lit up, as James’s enthusiasm washed over.

“Whaddya say, Chief? I’ll even steal the candy we got for the other kids if you promise not to tell Mom.” James said, knowing full well how strict Barbara had been about Eric not eating the designated trick-or-treater candy.

Eric smiled, hugged his dad as tight as he could then took the helmet and pulled it over his head. “There will be no one to stop us this time!”