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.
(What If? Exercise: Read the description here.)
Our trip to the beach was an annual family tradition.
Every New Year’s, we’d go down to watch them.
The beach would always be crowded that night.
Everyone wanted to welcome the new year.
The final countdown to midnight began.
At one, they started flying.
All along the coast.
Exploding sky flowers.
This piece is based on What If? Exercise 93: “Ten to One”. The exercise is to write a 55-word story in which the first sentence has ten words, the second has nine, etc., until the last sentence has only one word. The objective is to show that precision and thrift in writing can produce surprisingly powerful results. I hope you enjoy what I’ve written. Thanks for reading!
Back to the story
It’s that time of the year again, the time when the lights return and the street comes alive with their magic.
Quietly I sit in the back seat of our car, waiting anxiously for the show to begin. My parents tune the radio to the station posted on the sign in the main house’s front lawn. A moment of static passes, then the sound comes through and I start to quiver excitedly.
I press my face to the window as a voice comes on the radio. Out on the lawn, a bear made of an outline of lights has appeared and is talking in sync with the voice in our car. He welcomes us to the show and says he hopes we’ll have fun tonight. I know I will. I always do.
When the music starts, the lights on the streets dim. Another lit outline, a toy soldier playing a guitar, appears beside the bear. He softly strums the instrument as the sound of a real guitar plays through the radio. It starts out soft, then suddenly the music flares up and the decorated houses along the street come to life. Lights flash in colored patterns atop the roofs and in the lawns. My eyes shine wide with wonder; it’s finally begun!
A voice starts to sing over the music and the bear moves his jaws in sync with the words. Around him, the lights dance to the rhythm of the remixed Christmas carol he’s singing. Snowflakes twinkle in alternating patterns on the trees. Reindeer pulling sleighs glow on the rooftops. Christmas trees spin on the lawns and flash in bright patterns in the driveway of a house behind us. Outlines of familiar characters shine through a light grid on the roof. And all the while, every single light keeps perfect time with the music. It’s a magical sight!
My parents and I watch the lights dance to a handful of Christmas songs, many old favorites, some new tunes, and each more amazing than the last. Finally, the bear returns to speaking to thank us for watching the show and to ask us for donations to a children’s hospital. My parents must be able to read my mind because they turn around to hand me a $50 bill before I can say a word. I smile as I take it before I rush outside. As I drop the bill into the donation box, I look up at the bear to wink at him. I can almost swear I see him wink back at me.
It’s the most magical time of the year. I can’t wait for next year’s Christmas light show!