I’ll never forget the night I returned.
It was my first good night of sleep in weeks, the night I finally stopped crying ’til three in the morning and wishing I were anywhere or anyone else in the world. That was the night I won myself back.
The third track of my once-favorite punk rock CD was echoing its second verse through my headphones as I sat curled up on my bedroom floor surrounded by a mix of tear-stained sheets of paper, torn photos, and used tissues. I would have stayed there all night, like I had every other night, if I hadn’t opened my eyes just then and seen something that made me scream.
A person was standing there, staring down at me with a look of sheer disappointment. I was terrified, not because I had never seen her before, but because I knew exactly who she was regardless. Her face was a little more mature and she might have been slightly taller than me, but there was no mistaking her: this was myself from the future.
“Hello,” she said the moment I pulled my headphones off. “Nice to see you again.”
I stared at her in silence.
“Twelve years,” she continued. “In case you’re wondering.”
It must have taken me at least five minutes to find my voice, but she didn’t seem to mind waiting.
“I see we’re not over him yet,” she said, looking around the room. “He really did a number on us, didn’t he? I remember this mess. Took us weeks to clean up. Depression is the worst stage of grief.”
“Wha–” I finally stammered. “What are you doing here?”
She shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m here to help you.”
Those words made my heart skip a beat. “Are you here to make me feel better? To tell me that everything’ll be okay? That he and I can still be friends?”
“Not exactly,” she said, leaning closer to me. “You see, I told myself that if I ever got the chance to travel back in time, the first thing I’d do was visit my sixteen-year-old self and…”
She reached out and smacked me square across the face. It stung like a dozen white hot needles in my skin.
“…slap her for being so stupid.”
I faced her again, one hand on my cheek. “Ow! What the hell’d you do that for?”
“To knock some sense into you,” she replied, standing up again. “You don’t understand this now, but you’re way better than this. At least, you’re going to be.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This!” She gestured around the room. “Love letters? Photo albums? Emo music? Come on, girl, get it together! It’s over! He doesn’t want you anymore. He’ll never want you again. It’s time to move on.”
“But…” I sniffed, the ever familiar tears welling again. “But I can’t imagine my life without him!”
“Oh, please! You’re sixteen! You can’t imagine your life without Evanescence! And trust me, they’ll get old faster than you think.”
I looked down, blushing. “Did you come here just to humiliate me?”
“No, I just have to be blunt with you first. Things are going to get worse before they get better. As soon as you think you’re getting over him, you’re going to see him with someone new, and it’s going to crush you. You’ll start wondering what you did wrong, what’s the matter with you, why can’t he love you like you love him. You’ll think you drove him away and this breakup really is your fault. It’s not. You don’t realize this yet, but the guy you’re so heartbroken over right now is a total jerk. You may still care about him, but he never really cared about you.”
“That’s not true!”
“No? When was the last time he complimented you or went out of his way to do something nice for you? Heck, when was the first time? Face it, he used you to boost his ego, that’s all. And now he’s tired of you and using some lame excuse about focusing on school to keep your hopeful little heart on a string while he moves on. You have to get over him, and soon. I don’t want you, us, to be hung up on him a minute longer than we have to.”
“So what do you want?”
“To show you this.” She handed me a photograph pulled out of her coat pocket. In the picture was a tall, sandy-haired man, about thirty years old, with soft brown eyes and a smile just imperfect enough to give him a quirky sort of charm. I looked up at the future me and shrugged.
“Who is he?” I said. She smiled.
“That, my dear, is your future best friend… and the man you’re going to marry.”
I wasn’t ready to believe it, until I saw her wave the diamond ring on her finger at me. I can’t remember exactly how I reacted. Maybe I just stared, maybe I smiled, maybe I froze for several minutes before I shouted with joy. All I remember after that moment is my future self crouching in front of me and looking me in the eye as she spoke in the kindest voice she had used yet.
“He’s going to fall in love with you because you’re smart and adorable and incredibly loving. You’re going to fall in love with him because he’s sweet and funny and genuinely cares about you. He’s going to ask you to marry him because he can’t imagine his life without you. And you’re going to say yes because the way you think you feel about your ex-boyfriend right now is the way you’re actually going to feel about him.”
I looked down at the photo again, this time with the biggest smile I’d given in months. He was pretty cute, now that I thought about it. So this was my future husband? And I’d only have to wait less than a decade to meet him? It was the first hopeful news I’d heard since being dumped. The future me took the photo back and placed a hand under my chin.
“See? It’s not the end of the world. So dry those tears, keep your chin up, and remember that every broken heart is the start of a new journey. True love is just around the corner.”
And with that, she rose to her feet, stepped back into the shadows, and vanished, like she was never there. I might have believed she wasn’t, that it was all a dream, had it not been for the wide grin brightening my face and last night’s hastily scribbled note sitting on my nightstand when I awoke the next morning.
I’m glad I decided to return to that day and talk some sense into myself. I did eventually get over my ex, start dating again, move on with my life. I found love a few years later, waiting for me around the corner just as I’d promised myself, and since then, I’ve never been happier.
Dedicated to my wonderful boyfriend, the love and light of my life. Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetheart! I love you!
Why does he have to attack me? What did I ever do to him? I’m sure I’ve never seen him before, yet here he is, charging straight at me with the light of the sun at his back. He looks like all the others: clad in glistening steel from head to toe, sword and shield at his sides, a white horse carrying him full speed into battle. Hopefully he’ll end up like the others too.
I stand my ground and turn to face the knight head-on, ready for what’s become a routine encounter over the past month. As always, I’m terrified, but I can’t let it show. The slightest hint of weakness and you’re roasting on a spit for the next royal feast faster than you can yell “Scram!”
He shouts something at me as he draws nearer. I can’t catch all the words through his closed visor and the whistling mountain wind, but I know what he’s saying. Every knight comes here for the same reason. Everyone wants to be the hero who slew the dragon and saved the kingdom. What difference does it make to any of them what I do? It’s not like they live on the old farms I scavenge. None of them know what it’s like to have hungry children to feed when winter turns the mountain into a barren wasteland. They don’t care if my family and I deserve a chance to survive, so long as they get their precious gold and glory.
I’d explain myself if I thought he could understand me. It wouldn’t matter; they never listen anyway. Not one of these buffoons has ever bothered trying to reason with me or hear my side of the story. All they see when they look at me is a monster who’d sooner rip their heads off than glance at them. So that’s what I give them.
The knight reaches my clearing and raises his sword and shield. Time to defend. I open my jaws and release a carefully aimed jet of flame at him, straight into the shield so it burns but doesn’t ignite him. Before he can look up, I bring my tail crashing down inches from his steed. The animal rears and throws its rider off before it turns and gallops back into the woods. Good riddance. I’m sick of seeing these white horses on my mountain. Why is it always white? Are horses color-coded for service? Or is it the same horse every time? Either way, it always gets scared off in the first minute. That’s the easy part.
The man staggers to his feet and faces me again, sword and shield still in hand. His visor is open now, and this time I can hear the words he yells up at me.
“Your days of destruction are over, foul beast! Prepare to die!”
I’d roll my eyes, but I don’t want to egg him on. Prepare to die. Like I haven’t heard that a million times. I have to give him credit for his bravery, though; most of them run away as soon as they lose their horse. Not so tough on two legs.
I tower over the knight and stare him down, ready for his next attack. He runs forward with his shield up, but I step back and shoot a fireball over his head. He ducks and rolls as if it would have hit him, then swings the blade at my front claws. It cuts, but not deep enough to sting. I’m lucky these fools never think to bring long-range weapons. If they ever figure out to go straight for my heart, I’ll be toast for sure.
The knight hacks at my claws a few times, then raises his shield again when he sees me open my mouth. Another stream of fire washes over him for a few seconds, and it’s his turn to attack again. This back-and-forth continues for several rounds, until at last I start to see the signs of fatigue in his movements. Time to end this.
Just as he lowers his shield and raises his weapon for the umpteenth time, I swing my tail back around and knock him to the ground. He falls on his back as the blade and shield go flying. Before he can recover his breath, I pin him to the earth beneath my claws and bring my face close to his, baring my fangs at him. Finally I see the satisfying fear in his eyes.
“GO AWAY!” I shout in my native tongue. He doesn’t understand my words, but I know he’ll get the message. I lift my claws with him still between them and drop him on his feet, then I roar until he bolts off in the same direction as his horse. Turns out he’s not just one of the bravest challengers so far; he’s also one of the fastest.
Exhausted yet triumphant, I sweep the fallen sword and shield into a nearby chasm full of lost weapons before I turn and walk back up to my cave. Three hatchlings are poking their heads out of the cavern, and I know at once that they were watching the whole time. They put on brave faces as I saunter in, pretending they knew how the battle would play out, but I’m sure they’re relieved that their mother is home again.
“Mama”, says my youngest as I cradle all three under my wings, her wide green eyes betraying the fear hidden in her voice, “will they ever leave us alone?”
I’m asked the same question after every battle, either by her or one of her brothers. The best I can ever do is smile at them and say reassuringly, “We’ll see.” Mothers are supposed to protect their children, even from the truth. I know the people in the valley. They won’t stop until I’m dead or the kingdom runs out of glory-hungry idiots. And the kingdom never runs out of idiots.
Sometimes I wonder if I should just kill the knights. It would be a much more effective way to make sure they don’t come back. My children have never tasted human before… but with good reason. I don’t want to set a bad example. It’s hard enough living in a world that thinks you’re evil; we can’t afford to lose all reason by living up to the hype. Too many of our kind have gone down that dark path, and it never ends well. Still, I have hope that it won’t always be this way, that someday empathy will overcome fear and our attackers will learn to tolerate us, maybe even accept us.
Until then, all we can do is defend.
As the creature reared its massive ugly head, we all trembled. We had never seen anything like it. Where had it come from? What was it capable of? And why hadn’t we seen it coming? The answers were more terrifying than we dared to imagine.
The sorcerer smiled thinly at the crowd from the platform. His beast towered behind him, held fast to the ground by a massive chain that rattled whenever it roared. We shuddered to think its master could unleash it on us at any moment.
“My friends”, the magician cried as the audience grew quiet, “I am honored to be your champion. My beloved pet and I will be proud to serve as your defenders in this new age of peace and prosperity. But trust me, we could not have succeeded in ending this terrible reign of oppression without your overwhelming support, courage, and spirit. We have all won a grand victory today. This day will be remembered for centuries as the day we ended tyranny, the day we crushed the bloodsucking rats who thought they could steal your freedom and leech off your hard labor forever.”
“He’s talking about us”, I heard one of my friends mutter next to me through the thunderous applause. It was true: every right we had worked for over the past decade, every step we had taken in the name of justice, everything we had thought was for the good of the people, was now being undone before our eyes because it was only ever good enough for us. It was a cruel reminder of how fragile our world really was; the harder you fought for change, the more afraid and resistant people became.
“This is your time, my friends”, the sorcerer continued. The cold look in his eyes as he addressed the people sent a chill down my spine. “It’s time you took back what is rightfully yours. Together, we can return this land to the thriving state it once was. Things are going to be very different from now on.”
The rows of people around the platform cheered, while those of us huddled in the back of the crowd remained more lost and confused than we had ever been in recent memory. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The queen and her army were supposed to save us, to fight the dark forces and vanquish the evil into oblivion. We were supposed to be celebrating today. Instead, she had been defeated and most of us were left cowering like frightened children in the wake of the revolution. What had gone so wrong?
Some of us blamed the town criers for carrying false news and exaggerated reports of the army’s successes. Some of us blamed the queen’s advisors for devising a military strategy that ultimately failed. Some of us blamed the queen herself for overestimating her own power and placing her trust in the wrong people. And some of us were reduced to blaming each other for taking our beloved leaders for granted and not doing our part to defend the progress they had made possible.
In the end, it didn’t matter. We were all to blame for this travesty, we knew that, and now it was too late to stop the storm. History had already been changed. So now what?
My gaze fixed on the stage, I saw the others turning to face me from the corner of my eye. It might have been the weight of my words that made them stare, or perhaps they were just surprised that I had spoken for the first time in hours.
“What are you saying?” said one of my companions, her voice small and nervous. I shook my head.
“Things are going to be different. This is just the beginning. The queen is gone, the army is scattered, even the scholars are starting to disappear. There’s nobody left to protect us… so we have to protect ourselves. No running, no hiding, no pretending that everything is normal. It’s time to organize. It’s time to fight.”
“But…” another friend stammered, “how are we supposed to fight them when they have that… thing on their side? It’ll kill us as soon as they know we’re coming!”
“And who’s going to see us coming?” I said, turning to the group at last. It was the first time I’d smiled in weeks. “We’re rats, remember?”
The monster roared again, flaming locks of fur flying as it convulsed like a raging madman. Somehow that horrible sound made the crowd cheer even louder. Stoic as I planned to be for the foreseeable future, I turned my back on the holes in the wall and jumped down to walk away into the darkening streets. I didn’t have to look back to know my friends were only a few steps behind, nor that nobody else saw us leave. They never even knew we were there.
We still remember it as our darkest day. And though none of us knew exactly what to say, to think, to feel anymore, of one thing we were absolutely certain: these were going to be the longest and hardest fought years of our lives.
Welcome to the conclusion of “The Monster Under The Porch”. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 here. Otherwise, enjoy!
Autumn watched anxiously as her mother walked around the porch, peeking under the boards on her way to the far end by the side of the house. Try as she might, the child couldn’t stop imagining what sort of monster might be lurking under their house. Was it a troll? A gremlin? Or what if, with those bright eyes – she shuddered – it was a wolf? The girl shut her eyes tight to keep from crying, but after a minute, she looked up again at the sound of a woman’s voice exclaiming.
“Autumn, come quick!”
Suddenly curious, Autumn hurried to the edge of the porch and looked down over the railing. To her astonishment, she saw her mother kneeling on the ground and smiling up at her. Next to her, a black kitten was sniffing at a few pieces of candy that had rolled off the porch.
“He must have gotten lost and wandered under our house,” she said, stroking the cat as he pawed at the candy. “I think you scared him more than he scared you!”
Autumn grinned as the kitten looked up at her, no longer afraid of his bright yellow eyes. Just then, a group of costumed children appeared in front of the house, heading up the walk toward the front steps. The girl’s mother gently scooped up the cat and rose to her feet.
“Sweetie, can you keep an eye on this little guy while I hand out the candy?” she said as she returned to the door. Autumn eagerly agreed, taking the animal in her arms so her mother could distribute the sweets. The cat was surprisingly calm around her, considering the fright she had given him a few minutes ago.
“Can I please keep him, Mommy?” the girl asked after the other children had left with their candy.
“He might belong to someone,” said her mom, taking a broom by the door to sweep up the mess of confectionery left on the porch. “We’ll wait until Daddy gets home, then he can hand out the candy while you and I go door to door looking for the cat’s owner.”
“And if no one claims him?” said Autumn, her eyes bright with hope.
“Then Daddy and I will talk about it.” And that was the end of the discussion.
For the next hour, Autumn played with the kitten on the porch while her mother sat beside her with the bowl of candy, handing out sweets to every trick-or-treater who stopped by. When her father came home, the girl set off with her mom in search of the cat’s owner, but after knocking on every door on their street and on the neighboring streets, they hadn’t found one person who had ever seen the kitten before, and mother and daughter returned home with the stray animal still purring softly in the child’s arms.
Autumn sat on the living room floor stroking the sleeping kitten in her lap while her parents talked in the kitchen. By the time they returned, her heart was pounding. She was ready to cry and beg to keep the little cat to which she had grown so attached in the last few hours, but to her immense relief, she noticed when they asked her to join them at the table that they were both smiling.
At ten o’clock that night, Fred returned from his friends’ party to find his family seated around the living room waiting for him. He was about to ask what was going on when he caught sight of a small mass of black fur on the carpet, staring up at him with round yellow eyes. When he took a step toward it, the animal hissed and scurried off to jump into his sister’s lap. Stunned, the boy looked up to see his parents laughing from the couch.
“Welcome back, Fred,” said his mother. “I see you’ve met the newest addition to the family.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll warm up to you soon,” said his father, though his smile suggested he looked forward to seeing their new pet put his rambunctious son in his place.
“Yeah,” Fred muttered, realizing that a lot had happened since he deserted his sister on the street. “So, um… what’s his name?”
Autumn, still in her costume, smiled from the armchair across the room, stroking the black cat affectionately as they both eyed her brother like a real witch and her loyal companion would a frightened child.
Hope you enjoyed the story! Thanks for reading!
“Mommy, I don’t wanna go!”
“But it’s Halloween, Autumn! You love trick-or-treating!”
“I know, but I wanna stay home this year.” The ten-year-old girl turned nervously to the front window as her mother placed the finishing touch of her costume, a witch’s hat, on her head.
“Let her stay,” said an older boy standing by the front door in a werewolf costume. “Then I can hang out with my friends without having to drag her around.”
“Fred, you promised to take your sister trick-or-treating this year.” His mother gave him a stern look as she handed a pumpkin-shaped candy bucket to her daughter. “You can meet up with your friends after you and Autumn visit all the houses on this street and the next one over.”
“Mom, I’m 13 now! I’m too old to go around begging for candy like a baby! Can’t you take her?”
“Dad’s working late tonight, so I have to stay home to hand out the candy, remember? Just go, it’ll be a good chance for you to bond with your sister.”
“Fine,” the boy sighed, rolling his eyes as he idly swung the skull-shaped candy bucket in his hand. “Autumn, let’s go!”
Fred walked over to his little sister, who had been staring out the window through the whole argument, and took her by the hand. Their mother called after them as they stepped out the door onto the front porch.
“Fred, bring Autumn back before it gets dark, and don’t come home too late! Have fun, kids!”
And with that, the door closed and the children were left to enjoy Halloween on their own.
“Freddy”, the girl whispered as they walked down the front steps, “does the… kid-munching monster really come out every Halloween night?”
A week ago, Autumn had started hearing strange noises coming from beneath her bedroom window. Ever since asking her brother about it on the first night, she had been terrified of going outside for fear of seeing the monster he told her was hiding under the porch. According to Fred, every October the creature would choose a random house to stalk, then appear on Halloween night to gobble up the children who came back with buckets full of candy. Autumn had always been afraid of monsters, and it never occurred to her that the noises might be the work of the wind or a harmless animal, nor that her brother had made up the story to avoid having to take her trick-or-treating.
The siblings paused on the sidewalk and the boy looked down at his sister with a smirk.
“Only after it gets dark”, he assured her, “so we’d better get this over with fast. Let’s start over there.”
Over the next hour, Fred escorted Autumn to each house on their street and on the neighboring street. When the sun disappeared completely, they started heading home with buckets full of candy, and by the time they came within sight of their home, the moon could be seen peeking through the clouds. Before the siblings reached their house, however, they heard voices calling out from behind them.
“Hey, Fred! Ready for the party?”
The boy turned around to see a group of teenagers standing at the other end of the street and beckoning him over. Suddenly awkward, he glanced back at his house before turning to his little sister.
“Listen, I gotta go.” He handed her his bucket. “Take these back for me, ok? Don’t tell Mom I left early and you can have a piece.”
“But…” Autumn glanced nervously up at the darkening sky. “What about the monster?”
“You’ll be fine! The house is right there and it’s not that dark yet. You can make it if you run. Happy Halloween!”
And he ran off to join his friends, leaving his little sister trembling and teary-eyed alone on the sidewalk.
Autumn continued on her way home, trying not to think how much more enticing she would be to the child-eating monster now with twice as much candy on her. By the time she reached the front steps, the sky had grown dark and the street was lit by the full moon and the flickering glow of jack-o-lanterns on every doorstep. To a frightened ten-year-old, it was an eerie and unnerving sight.
The girl placed a foot on the bottommost step, ready to bolt up to the door and into the house, but at that moment, she heard the strange creaking sound from beneath the porch again. Autumn dared to peek into the dark space under the wooden boards… and jumped back at the sight that met her eyes: a pair of bright yellow eyes staring back at her!
Quick as a flash, the child leaped up the steps two at a time, screaming as she hurried for the safety of her house. She was so startled that she tripped on the top step and fell flat on the doorstep, dropping both buckets and spilling candy all over the porch. Two sounds followed: a loud screeching from under the floorboards and the creaking of the front door being thrown open.
“Sweetie! Are you okay?” Autumn looked up to see her mother in the doorway, bending down to help her to her feet. “What happened? Where’s your brother?”
“I’m okay,” said the girl, brushing some fallen candy off her witch costume as she stood up. “Freddy… dropped me off before he left with his friends.”
“Why were you screaming?”
“I…” Autumn looked down at the wooden flooring under her feet. “I thought I saw something. Down there.”
The girl pointed at the floor, still shaking from the scare of seeing those eyes. Her mother looked down in surprise.
“Well, let’s check it out.” And against her daughter’s protests, she stepped down from the porch to investigate, leaving Autumn shaking in anticipation of whatever horror was about to unfold.
To be concluded next Friday
Never leave the incubator unattended.
That’s the first lesson they teach you when you start at the lab. I wish I had listened.
Thankfully, the explosion was contained to the one room. The building has been evacuated as per safety protocol, and the cleanup crew is busy decontaminating the area while the head of the department has me fill out a statement for the report. I’ve never felt so guilty in my life. That’s saying something.
I have a bad history of putting living beings in danger. I squashed my sister’s hamster as a kid, ran over my neighbor’s cat as a teenager, and lost my friend’s dog on the street in my first year of college. And now I’ve endangered at least a dozen human beings by accidentally unleashing bacteria all over the laboratory. Unknown, unpredictable bacteria. There’s no telling what damage I could have caused if I hadn’t been alone when the incubator burst.
The cleanup crew has finished their work and is filing out of the lab. I’ve been told it’s safe to go back inside. While everyone else leaves, I throw on my cleanroom suit and head in to grab my notes. As I pass by the busted incubator, I feel a horrible sinking sensation in my stomach. Years’ worth of research has been lost tonight, and it’s all my fault.
I open my notebook and flip to the last filled pages. I want to figure out what went wrong. Could I have set the incubator temperature too high by mistake? Was there a malfunctioning piece in the machine? Or is this all just happening now because bad luck follows me wherever I go?
A tear splashes on the corner of the page. I wipe my eyes as I take a pen from the table and scribble a quick note about the explosion. After replacing the pen and skimming through my notes one last time, I close the notebook and glance up at the clock on the wall. It tells me I’ve been here over half an hour, much longer than I’d anticipated. Better start heading out.
Replacing the notebook on the table, I hurry back to the adjoining chamber to remove my suit before I head out, but I stop just inside the doorway when I hear voices in the hall. They must think everyone has already left. Standing still, just out of sight, I listen to them talk about the incident. I recognize two voices: the head of the department and the director of the lab. The director is saying it was lucky no one was injured by the explosion, otherwise the consequences could be catastrophic. The results from the last lab mice test came back this morning; they’ve just discovered that the bacteria we’ve been studying induce a lethal reaction in the subject.
My heart starts to race and I break into a sweat, but I dare not make a sound. The department head asks if we should quarantine everyone in the building, but the director reassures him that the bacteria are not airborne; infection only occurs from direct contact with the subject’s blood. Even if anyone had been contaminated, they wouldn’t last long enough to spread the disease beyond this isolated research facility, as the infection is fatal within hours. The head of the department mutters a curse against “that damn clumsy student”. He wishes I had never set foot in the lab in the first place.
I’ve heard enough. Moving away from the door, I turn and hurry back into the lab. This time I don’t bother with the suit, heading straight through the door toward the notebook and pen on the table before making a beeline for the room on the other side of the floor. Tears return to my eyes as I rush past the broken incubator.
All your fault… All your fault…
I’m no stranger to being cursed. Most people who know me end up wishing they’d never met me, usually after my bad luck causes them some sort of injury. Nobody likes me. Nobody ever wants me around. I don’t blame them. I’m a jinx, a curse, a disease.
You’re the real infection…
I rush into the freezer and slam the door behind me. I lean back against the wall, open the notebook, and start scribbling words on the blank pages in the back, important notes to all the people I’ve loved and wronged. By now the tears have blurred my vision so much that I can barely see the letters anymore. Tremblingly, I rip the last page from the notebook and clutch it close to my chest. Now all that’s left to do is wait.
A strange calm overtakes me as I flip through my notebook for the last time. This is best for everyone, I tell myself. Everything happens for a reason, right? Yes, they’ll all be better off this way. Shivering, I get to the last of my notes, the secret of how some loose shards of shattered glass and metal struck me in the explosion.
My strength begins to leave me and I stifle a cough. I close the notebook as well as my eyes and pull my sleeve down, covering the gash in my hand where the glass tore right through my glove. This is how they’ll find me in the morning, tears frozen on my cheeks and a piece of paper clutched tightly in my hand, containing a single word that says everything…
Welcome to the conclusion of “Dance of the Fairies”. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 here. Otherwise, enjoy!
The music gradually died down as Cindy, Joey, Shea and Eldan moved toward the center circle. The next thing the children knew, the fairies were all staring at them in awestruck silence as they stood before the queen.
“Your Majesty”, said Shea, bowing deeply alongside Eldan while the children stood wide-eyed behind them, “we found these two humans watching from the outskirts of our sacred field. We beseech your judgment of their permission to stay.”
The queen fluttered down from her high throne, and Shea and Eldan moved aside to allow her passage to the children. Cindy and Joey gazed at her in wonder; though she was considerably smaller than them, they felt humbled in her presence. The great fairy studied them seriously for a minute, then broke into a smile.
“Welcome, children,” she said kindly. “I see you’ve discovered our secret festival. Please tell me your names.”
The children glanced at each other awkwardly before turning back to the fairy. The girl was the first to find her voice.
The queen considered them both for a moment before nodding, never breaking her smile for an instant. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cindy and Joey. I’m Queen Tianna. Welcome to our magical field!”
“The pleasure is all ours!” Cindy replied. The queen’s kind smile had melted away all her fear.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Eldan spoke up, “but what should we do with these…visitors? You have only to say the word, and Shea and I will readily escort them out.”
Queen Tianna grew serious again. Without taking her eyes off the humans, she fluttered down to lift each of their hands as Shea had done. She held onto their forefingers for a full minute, the silence deafening around them… until at last she smiled once more.
“There’s no need for that, Eldan,” she said sweetly, still gazing intently at Cindy and Joey. “These children are pure of heart. They will be our honored guests tonight!” The queen announced this to the entire field, then lowered her voice again as she addressed the visitors directly. “What do you say, children? Would you like to dance with us?”
“Would we ever!” Cindy exclaimed, then suddenly catching herself, she added with a polite bow, “I mean, it would be an honor, Your Majesty.”
Joey bowed as well, and the entire field of fairies cheered as the music started up again. Immediately, two pairs of fairies carrying a crown of flowers each came forth and placed them lightly on the children’s heads. The two were then escorted toward the center circle, Cindy giggling as she caught sight of Shea triumphantly sticking her tongue out at Eldan.
The rest of the night passed by like a dream. Cindy and Joey twirled together in the light circle to the cheering of the fairies around them. They gleefully lead lines of dancers around the field, clapped and chanted along to the music, and joined hands with the fairies to spin around the great center circle. They even had the honor of joining the final dance with Queen Tianna herself. It was a night they would never forget for as long as they lived.
At last, the night passed away and the morning sun began to glow on the horizon. As the music and dancing finally stopped, the queen fluttered before her guests to share a few final words with them.
“Thank you for joining us tonight, children! You have made this a most magical evening indeed! Know you are always welcome to our full moon festivals. May the Mother Earth always bless you both!”
“Thank you, Your Majesty!” Cindy and Joey exclaimed in unison, grinning and bowing deeply.
The other fairies had already begun to disappear, one by one in little fading balls of light. Shea waved her new friends goodbye, and even Eldan smiled as he disappeared with her. Queen Tianna was the last to vanish, leaving the warmth of her kind smile hanging in the air. The light circle faded away, and before they knew it, Cindy and Joey were standing in the middle of what appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary field at dawn, with no sign that anything magical had ever happened there.
Joey reached up to take the flower crown off his head, and stood staring at it as if in a daze while Cindy started walking back toward the rocks. Timidly, he turned his head up and called to her.
Cindy stopped and turned around to face her friend. Joey shuffled his feet awkwardly for a moment, gathering courage as he glanced at his crown, before looking her in the eyes again and speaking up.
“…Do you think we could come back here, at the next full moon?”
A smile spread across Cindy’s face. She walked up to Joey and took his hand in hers.
“It’s a date!”
Joey grinned and squeezed Cindy’s fingers as she replaced the flower crown on his head. Holding hands, the children left the field together, laughing and skipping all the way home. It had been more than a magical evening, a night they knew even then that they would remember for the rest of their lives together. Every full moon from then on would bring about the same cheerful thought: the next dance of the fairies could never come soon enough.
Hope you enjoyed the story! Thanks for reading!
“What are we looking at?”
“But there’s nothing here!”
“There will be! Now be quiet!”
Cindy covered Joey’s mouth with her hand. He brushed it off, but did as she told him nonetheless. The two children huddled closer as they stared over the rocks at the empty field ahead.
“I still don’t get why you brought me here,” Joey whispered after five uneventful minutes.
“You will.” Cindy glanced up at the full moon just beginning to poke through the clouds. “It’s almost time.”
They sat quietly for another several minutes, waiting. Joey opened his mouth, about to complain that it was cold and this was boring and he wanted to go home, but the words never left his throat. Just then, a circle of light appeared in the middle of the field, in the very spot Cindy had pointed out when they arrived.
“C-Cindy?” Joey stammered, suddenly afraid. “W-What’s happening?”
But Cindy didn’t seem to notice her friend cowering beside her. She was too busy grinning as she leaned over the rock for a better view.
“Here they come!”
She quivered with excitement as little balls of light began to appear across the field. One by one, the floating lights materialized into tiny glowing figures with wings. Joey’s eyes grew wide as he stared into the field, unable to believe what he was seeing.
“Are those…?” he gasped. Cindy nodded without taking her eyes off the scene ahead.
The fairies all gathered around the circle of light in the middle of the field. One of them, who was slightly brighter than the rest and wore a crown on her head, raised her hands to call for silence, a request immediately respected by all the others. Cindy turned to Joey, who was now leaning over the rock beside her.
“That’s the fairy queen!” she whispered. The two of them watched quietly as the leader of the fairies began to speak.
“My children!” she said in a kind yet authoritative voice. “Tonight, let us give thanks to our Mother Earth for her bounty. Let us praise her, that we may never find ourselves wanting of her generosity. Let her know that we are eternally grateful for her kindness. So sing and be merry, my children! Tonight, we dance!”
The queen raised her hands again and all the fairies cheered. A small group beside her began to bang and strum on tiny instruments, and soon the air was filled with music. Cindy and Joey watched, enthralled, as some of the little glowing figures joined hands and danced around the center circle while others twirled through the air in pairs. It was a sight to take the breath away.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” Cindy sighed dreamily, her head in her hands. Joey nodded without even realizing.
“They really are.”
The children giggled as they watched the fairies dance and sing. Before long, they too found themselves getting caught up in the spirit of the music.
“May I have this dance?” Joey said in a mock grown-up voice as he stepped back and bowed to his friend. Cindy curtsied and waved an imaginary fan.
“I thought you’d never ask!”
The two friends laughed as they imitated the fairies, twirling around in circles until they were dizzy. Then…
Cindy and Joey froze, their smiles vanishing instantly. They turned around slowly to see two glowing figures floating before them, watching them with wide, pale blue eyes.
“What are you doing here?” one of the fairies asked, his brow raised in suspicion. While Cindy and Joey exchanged awkward looks, the other fairy turned to her companion.
“Don’t frighten them, Eldan!” she said in a much softer tone, taking him by the arm. “They’re not hurting anyone. They’re just children!”
“Human children, Shea,” said the first fairy as he turned to his friend. “You know we don’t allow humans here. What would the queen have to say about this?”
“Why don’t we ask her?”
“You want to take them to the queen?”
“Why not?” Shea smiled. “They clearly like to dance too! I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. She might even be delighted to have them join us!”
Eldan glanced at the nervous children, then turned back to his companion and sighed in defeat. “Fine, if you say so. But if we get in trouble for this…”
“We won’t.” Beaming, Shea fluttered over to Cindy and Joey and extended her hand to them. “It’s okay, don’t be afraid. Come with us! We don’t bite!”
“Speak for yourself,” said Eldan, sparing a piercing look at Joey. The boy drew back at those words, but Shea calmed him with a gentle laugh.
“He’s joking, sweetie. This guy couldn’t hurt a fly if he wanted to!”
The fairy fluttered down between the children and reached out to touch their hands. Dazed, Cindy and Joey stepped forward as Shea led them by their forefingers out from behind the rocks and into the field, Eldan following close behind. They didn’t know what to expect, but of one thing they were certain: the night was about to get far more interesting.
To be concluded next Friday
I really thought amplifying DNA would be easy. Molecular biology seemed simple enough in theory: extract, amplify, sequence, analyze. But I had no idea how difficult it would be to work with so many variables.
After my third failed polymerase chain reaction attempt, I started to wonder what I could be doing wrong.
Was I using the right concentrations of each reagent? Buffer at 1X, MgCl2 at 1.5mM, dNTPs at 200µM each?
Were the primers optimized for my DNA template? Had they been designed for the correct gene? Did they have the right length, melting temperatures, GC content?
Were the PCR cycles optimized? Was I using an annealing temperature within a few degrees of the primers’ melting temperatures? Were the denaturation and extension times long enough to assure proper replication of the DNA fragments?
Was the electrophoresis gel being prepared and run correctly? 1% agarose gel with GelRed in TAE buffer, run for about 10V per centimeter between the electrodes?
Or what if – shudder – the problem was in the DNA itself? What if the extraction had failed, and I’d have to start the entire project over from Square One?
No, no, calm down, I told myself. One step at a time. First, eliminate the variables you know aren’t the problem. There’s no reason the extraction should have failed; the quantification returned optimal concentrations of DNA. These are the same universal primers used in countless other studies, specifically designed for the cytochrome-b gene. The thermocycler and the electrophoresis apparatus have already worked before. There’s nothing wrong with the gel because the ladder and primers appear in the UV photos. That’s already five ticks off the checklist.
Now start with a positive control, a sample you know has worked with these primers before. PCR #4: did it fail to amplify along with the others? Yes. Good, then the problem isn’t the DNA.
Next step: new aliquots. Replace the water, the buffer, the MgCl2, the dNTPs, even the primers. Everything must be fresh to minimize contamination. Double-check the concentrations before preparing the mix. PCR #5: still no bands in the gel. No problem; just move on to the next step.
Try altering the reagent concentrations. Use more DNA template, double the primers, increase the amount of MgCl2. PCRs #6-8: nothing. Don’t panic, it’s all part of the process. You’re zeroing in on the problem now.
Adjust the PCR procedure. Increase the number of cycles, raise the annealing temperature in increments of 2ºC, lengthen the initial denaturation and final elongation steps. PCRs #9-12: still nothing. It’s okay, every failure is just another step closer to success. These tears are totally normal; nothing to be ashamed of.
For weeks, I tried everything I could think of. I replaced the reagent aliquots three times. I used half a dozen standard PCR procedures from various troubleshooting references. I ran gradient tests and touchdown tests and hot-start tests. Zero, nothing, zip.
Finally, after over a month of PCR attempts and no results to show for it, I was at my wit’s end. One morning, when I was alone in the lab, I broke down into a sobbing mess. I couldn’t look at the thermocycler anymore, that beast of a machine that I had to work with every day. I felt like a knight facing off against the same dragon over and over, knowing that hours of battling would only get me burnt every single time.
So I resolved to take a break from it all. No more PCRs for a while, not until I could work up the energy to start trying again. Today, I would just sit at the desk and read papers while indulging in a bag of cookies. Stale cookies. Really stale cookies. Seriously, how old were these?
I turned the bag over to check the date on the back…and that was when it hit me. Could it be? Immediately I dropped the bag and ran to the freezer. The stock solutions were stored in the back of the bottom shelf; I searched through them one by one until at last I found what I was looking for, printed clear as day inside the lid of the Taq DNA polymerase box. “Expiration date: Oct 2010.” Of course! No wonder none of my reactions were working: the enzyme was over five years old!
My first grin in weeks spread across my face, and I was suddenly overcome with an urge to shout “Eureka!” I hurried to my professor’s office and told him about the expired reagent. He quickly ordered a new stock and it arrived within two weeks. Sure enough, the next PCR I ran yielded the most beautiful set of bright DNA bands I had ever seen in a gel. I wanted to kiss that UV photo. My very first successful DNA amplification! And it only took two months longer than expected.
Never again will I underestimate the work of a scientist. Molecular biology may seem simple in theory, but having learned my lesson the hard way, next time I’ll be prepared for the challenge of working with too many variables.
Welcome to the conclusion of “The Silver Queen”. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 here. Otherwise, enjoy!
The night was dimly lit by the full moon Faye knew was hiding behind the clouds coating the sky. The drake followed the marks she’d left in the trees, pondering her wish all the way to the clearing. New colors were insufficient; she should definitely wish for a different form too. Her gossamer wings were just as pathetic as her dull scales. She much preferred leathery ones, or feathered ones, or even fins. Why couldn’t she have been born with any of those? Instead, she looked like an oversized butterfly. Hopefully after tonight, she never would again.
The clearing was even more beautiful than she’d remembered it in the daylight. There was the pool, just as the dwarf had described. All she had to do now was close her eyes and make a wish. Simple enough, right? Right?
No room for doubt, Faye. Believe.
Faye took one last look down at her plain scales before turning up to the thinning clouds. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
She paused. What was it, again? To be red and gold? To have feathered wings? To have more magic than all the other drakes combined?
Don’t overthink, Faye. Wish for what’s in your heart.
“I wish to be a new me.”
A soft breeze blew through the clearing. Had it worked? Was she here? Faye dared to lift her eyelids a tiny crack, but nothing seemed different. Unable to stand the suspense, the drake opened her eyes and looked down.
She thought she’d be prepared for disappointment. She was wrong. The sight of those same old white scales seemed to pierce her heart like a sword. Maybe she didn’t believe hard enough. Or worse, maybe the dwarf was right, and there really was no witch.
No, there has to be a chance.
She wanted to believe there was still hope, but several more tries yielded no results. Heartbroken, Faye approached the pool to stare at the plain dragon in the water, doomed to be ordinary forever.
I’ll never be special, she thought, her tear rippling the water. I’ll never be anything but me.
The white dragon turned away, ready to head back home in defeat, when a sudden noise prompted her to look back in alarm. As the clouds shifted, the moonlight revealed a small figure standing across the clearing…
Terror overtook Faye the second she spotted the human child. It was a dark-haired female, six years old at most, and she wore a long dress that was torn at the knee. She too had tears in her eyes.
The drake didn’t have time to hide from the girl before their gazes locked. What now? Humans were dangerous, even little ones. Dragons were taught to scare them away with magic, but that advice wouldn’t help an Achromatic. She’d have to run and hope the creature wouldn’t believe ever having seen her in the first place.
Before she could move an inch, however, the girl’s small voice broke the minute-long silence.
Whatever fear the drake felt vanished instantly. Fairy queen? Only a child could reach such an outlandish conclusion. She wasn’t a fairy, much less a queen. She was a dragon! A small one, yes, but a dragon nonetheless.
“Fairy queen! Fairy queen!”
Suddenly annoyed, Faye decided to react, to prove that she was no fairy, that she was something far greater than those tiny creatures who wasted their time floating among flowers. But upon turning away to prepare the scariest roar she could manage, the young dragon suddenly froze at the sight that met her pale blue eyes.
The image in the water was so magnificent that it took Faye a full minute to recognize it as her own reflection. The moonlight had illuminated her scales to a shimmering silver, and her translucent wings had come to life in an opalescent display such as never had been seen on the back of any beast. It was a sight that took her breath away.
With fresh tears in her eyes, this time of joy, the dragon only returned to her senses when she felt a tiny hand on her right front leg. Looking down into her eyes, Faye noticed the child’s tears had been replaced by a smile.
No longer afraid, the silver drake glanced at the child’s torn dress, and somehow she knew what she had to do. The moon’s magic in her veins guided her to lower her head and exhale a soft breath over Flora’s injured leg. The human’s gratitude for healing her knee warmed Faye’s heart, and she felt unexpectedly calm as the girl placed a hand on her head and looked into her eyes.
“I wish to go home.”
The dragon smiled. Normally she would never consider helping a lost human, but the moonlight on her scales had given her much more than the magical color she’d always wanted. Now she had a purpose. Faye stepped back and bowed to let Flora climb onto her back, then spread her multicolored wings and took off toward the village south of the forest.
Try as she might, Faye never remembered everything that happened after that. She recalled standing in the shadows at the forest’s edge while Flora hugged her and promised to meet her every full moon, and she recalled watching the girl wave one last time before running into the village. The next thing she knew, she was back in her clan’s cave, still beaming in disbelief that her wish had come true. She was a new her.
A week later, the white drake watched the magic competition from a high rock in the fields, a smile on her face at all times. Faye had no desire to join the solar dragons anymore, nor did she bother to reveal she was a lunar dragon when the anticipated bullying began.
“Monochrome!” “Colorless!” “Pale-face!”
But Faye no longer cared. They’d tire of name-calling soon enough, but even if she never got a chance to prove herself to the other dragons, the drake was content to know there would always be someone looking for her whenever the moon was full, someone who had seen the real her and had made her believe she was special. Faye wouldn’t give up being Achromatic for all the colors in the world, now that she knew she was something far greater than an ordinary dragon. In a human’s eyes and in her own heart, she truly was a queen.
Hope you enjoyed the story! Thanks for reading!