Ticana Zhu to attend Author Alley at Loganberry Books

post by: Ticana Zhu

Ticana Zhu will be selling her books at Loganberry Books on August 6th, 2022. The hours are 12PM-4PM.

Here are the Available titles:

Dynasty of Summer: Part One

Summer is a daughter to the Emperor’s fourth concubine during the Xia Dynasty. After stumbling upon her half-brother’s corpse, she finds herself faced with dangers she couldn’t begin to understand. As if those troubles weren’t enough, she’s ambushed while traveling to her betrothed’s kingdom. Summer was meant to live in luxury and safety with her new husband, but instead finds herself amongst bandits.

With the aid of her brother from a shared mother, Winter, and friend, Hanming, she navigates her way back home to Zhenxun. Yet once she returns, Summer discovers treachery had been living alongside her in the palace her entire life. It’s not long before she finds herself a target.

Dynasty of Summer: Part Two (releasing August 4th, 2022!)

In order to save Zhenxun, Princess Summer travels to enemy territory, beseeches her sisters for help, and faces foes. She skirts danger every step of the away. Meanwhile, a power vacuum in Zhenxun calls her back.

… But she can’t go back. Not until she unearths what the Empress has been secretly plotting.

As truths come to light, war is finding itself upon the front steps of Zhenxun. Princess Summer faces inner battles as she prepares for outer ones. Which should rule her decisions: her heart, or vengeance?

Three Rays of Heaven’s Light (Children’s Picture Book)

A young fairy who loves humans is concerned with their fate. Through a conversation with her sister, she learns there’s hope.

Stillness in the Storm

post by: Ava Reiss

Thank you to everyone who’s shown support by purchasing Fall of Ima and The Seed of Life! Don’t forget, Vesper’s Curse is a lil side story set in the same universe! The events fall between Fall of Ima and The Seed of Life.

If you’ve read Kameclara and Alpha-Je’s story in The Seed of Life and can’t wait for the conclusion, rest assured! Stillness in the Storm is 75% complete! I’m taking a much needed break, and will resume writing/editing at the end of this year. The release date for Stillness in the Storm is set tentatively for Autumn 2022.

Happy Reading!

New Project

post by: Ticana Zhu

With Dynasty of Summer, parts one and two well into their final phases, I wanted to share something else I’m working on. It’s a series, and I’m still playing around with a series title (Galaxy of Phoenix? The Silver River Phoenix? Division Seventeen?) I do know the first novel in the installment will likely be titled Falling from Orbit.

It’s sci-fi/fantasy, of course with a heavy dose of mythology. As per my style, only one character’s perspective will be seen (3rd person limited).

I did the prologue as a reverse of Dynasty of Summer: Part One (perspective-wise). DoS’ prologue is in 3rd person limited, but the novel is a 1st person memoir.
I have the first draft of this 400 paged novel nearly done. I’ve been told its emotionally entrenching; with many gut punches. But… I guess that’s just how I write.

The prologue for Falling from Orbit is reminiscent of Dynasty of Summer: Part One. That book starts off with Summer hearing her mother’s stories as well. After that, except for my writing style, not much is the same at all. I’m sorry to my readers who were expecting something similar (I do have off shoots of Dynasty of Summer planned- possibly a prequel)

Well, here it is!
Novel: Falling from Orbit


When I was little, one of my favorite things was falling asleep to my mother’s stories. A good friend of hers from university collected folktales from the around the world. Her favorite story, and subsequently mine, told of a love between mythical creatures.

            Before humans appeared on earth, the veil between the worlds was thin. Ancient creatures often crossed to where we now live. My mother showed me illustrations of them. I remember seeing the pixiu first, when I was age four. The little lion-headed creature was told to bring good fortune. Next was the dragon—one I was already familiar with. The sacred tortoise brought long life, and the qilin or kirin was a fast-moving, horned deer. They were the messengers of sages.

            It wasn’t until I was six years did my mother find a decent photo of a phoenix. She didn’t care for the drawings of them with rainbow-colored tails. “They’re look like glorified pheasants,” she’d purse her lips. “This speaks to their true essence,” she cooed one day, opening an old book found at a sale.

            An enormous bird dancing in flame arched its graceful neck. Its beak sat slightly ajar, as if singing. My mother smiled, speculating, “Its swan song.”

            As our favorite story goes, in ancient times before humans, the phoenixes and dragons were symbiotic. Each would find a single partner. The dragons guarded the phoenixes when they returned to their egg state. Often times in volcanoes. I liked the idea. Being little, I didn’t understand the dangers of lava, and thought erupting volcanoes to be beautiful. Perfectly suited for exquisite firebirds.

            “Dragons were like reptiles,” my mother explained. “When they traversed the coldest places of the universe, they would often freeze in place. The warmth of a firebird companion kept them moving; alive.” The thought made me cozy.

            My mother had studied astronomy. On clear nights, we’d look to the constellations. Together, we’d imagine a dragon and phoenix pair prancing from on to another. When shooting stars punctuated the sky, we fancied them to be kirins delivering messages.

Though the magnificent creatures could travel anywhere they wished and through many realms, the earth was a favorite place for them to nest. When humans started to appear, their ways thickened the veil between realms. Many of the creatures left. Only phoenixes in their egg phase and their dragon counterparts remained behind.

            The humans were intrigued by these creatures, particularly the phoenixes. They saw how the firebirds never died. After they burst into flames, they would return to an egg to be reborn. The humans wished to harvest the eggs in search for immortality. They came to clashes with the dragons. They invented weapons to slay them. One by one, they were eradicating the noble creatures from the earth.

Unfortunately, each time the humans opened a phoenix egg, they only discovered ashes. This did not deter their search. They were convinced they only need find an egg at the right stage to be harvested.

            “Then came a time when only the last dragon and phoenix egg remained.”

            I always sniffled at this part, trying my hardest not to cry.

            “This last pair did not know of the travesty committed against their kind,” my mother’s voice would grow soft. “They had nested on a remote island, far in the ocean. When a human ship arrived, the dragon introduced himself.” My mother would make her voice gruff, “My name is Tian Long—sky dragon.” She’d puff a breath and pretend to stroke whiskers. “My sleeping partner is Feng Huang,” she said the Mandarin name for phoenix.

            Despite sadness, I’d giggle at her impression.

            “The humans made no effort to befriend the dragon.” She said they tricked him away and tried to steal the egg. “He discovered their treachery and returned to the island. A battle followed, lasting many years.” My mother made a long face and I felt my spirit droop as I knew the noble beast was eventually slayed.

            I still repeat the next part of the story to myself, well into adulthood. “When Feng Huang emerged, she discovered her partner gone. Her heart was broken because those two had loved each other dearly for many millennia.”

There was a time when I was little, I believed if the dragon was strong enough not to be slayed, they’d still be together… that if we could defy death, we’d never suffer heartbreak.

            It wasn’t until I was ten did my mother tell me the ending. “Feng Huang searched the world for a way to leave the realm of the humans. She prayed on thin hope Tian Long secretly had an ability like hers—and had a way to reemerge somewhere in the universe.”

            When Feng Huang discovered the veil of the realms had become solid, she sang one last song—her swan song. Flying over the oceans, she ripped her heart from her chest. As she did, it burned away. The rest of her fell as ashes.

The phoenix had left the realm of the humans the only way she could.

            A sage had been watching from shore. She described the phoenix’s final blaze as a rose in the sky.

            My last name is Tian—sky. My mother named me Rose.

End-of-Winter Fatigue

post by: Ava Reiss

It’s that time of the year where it’s hard to find motivation, or to get out of bed. Call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, if you will, but giving it a name won’t lessen its impact. The real question, however, is how to get through it. How to keep writing.

The obvious solution is to perhaps write something post-apocalyptic. After all, I find myself in that mind frame around this time–more often than not.

There’s also a tanning bed. I gotta be honest, I’ve never visited one, but I’m told it works wonders for some people. I have a little “happy light” on my desk, and it works… a little bit. I have tried an infrared sauna at my local yoga studio. It works for about a day or two. But let me tell ya! I get so much done! However, the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t make it feasible to visit on a regular basis.

Allowing yourself a little procrastination doesn’t hurt either. Sometimes we crowd our minds with what we should be doing, that we don’t have time to relax, and let the creative juices flow.

I confess–I practice the procrastination thing a bit more than I should, lol!

But in the end, what it comes down to is discipline. It’s about firmly planting your buttocks in that chair and sitting at the keyboard. It’s about trying to approach your work from a different angle. It’s okay to pull your hair a little bit. But be gentle with yourself. If you run into a wall, step away. Do a chore, or go for a walk. But know that you owe it to yourself to return to that seat and see your work to finish.

After all–no one can tell your story but you.

Good luck and happy writing!

Nine years? Finally! (Dynasty of Summer)

post by: Ticana Zhu

It was early in 2012 when I heart the song, “Princess of China” by Rihanna and Chris Martin. I liked the song, it wasn’t bad. Then, I watched the music video. My first reaction was to laugh. Okay, it entertained me. But somewhere beneath it all, I felt a little offended.

“Princess of China” on youtube

I read about the rationale behind their video, because I didn’t want to believe they’d set out to be offensive. I think somewhere I saw it was an homage to old kungfu movies. Okay, I’ll buy that. At least Asian actors were cast.

After my amusement and disgruntlement settled down, one phrase remained in my mind: “That’s not how a Princess of China is like in the old Chinese dramas I used to watch.”

It started out as a short story. Just something small to illustrate how I recalled regal woman in the Chinese dramas I’d watched. The “princesses” if I may. A response to the “Princess of China” music video.

Then, the story kept going. There was so much I wanted to honor, not only from my love of period dramas, but from aspects of my culture that I appreciate. (Yes, I am Chinese)

Over four hundred pages later, I finished Dynasty of Summer.

I’d finished 90% of the first draft back in 2012, but things kept popping up. Like, you know, marriage. And other life changes.

And for a few years, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to publish Dynasty of Summer. It’s such a far cry from the usual sci-fi/spiritual works I’m accustomed to.

Now, nine years later, I’m finally putting out Dynasty of Summer: Part One. It’s the first half of the book, set to release August 14th this year. Part Two will be released in 2022. If you’d like a chance to win a free copy, please sign up for our mailing list: https://space-tigers.com/join-us/

It’s an action-adventure novel, filled with twists and turns. Princess Summer is daughter to the Emperor’s fourth concubine during the Xia Dynasty. After stumbling upon her half-brother’s corpse, she finds herself faced with dangers she couldn’t begin to understand. As if those troubles weren’t enough, she’s ambushed while traveling to her betrothed’s kingdom. Summer was meant to live in luxury and safety with her new husband, but instead finds herself amongst bandits.

With the aid of her brother from a shared mother, Winter, and friend, Hanming, she navigates her way back home to Zhenxun. Yet once she returns, Summer discovers treachery had been living alongside her in the palace her entire life. It’s not long before she finds herself a target.

I hope you liked the synopsis! I set up an author ig account. It’s pretty fresh, so I’d appreciate it if you could give me a follow @ticanazhu

Thank you for reading!


Short Story by Ava Reiss

I received positive feedback for the short stories I posted at the end of last year. As a show of appreciation, I’m sharing another :). This one was in my original short story anthology, Ava’s Shorts, and is sci-fi. I hope you enjoy!

            An unassuming black sedan with armored doors and bulletproof one-way glass arrived at its destination, an old and worn down barn. The barn stood larger than average and the boarded up windows suggested it was abandoned. Faded blue paint chipped, indicating decades of neglect. As the car rolled to a stop, a man stepped out and adjusted the lapels of his suit jacket. His dark skin glistened in the desert sun as his eyes scanned the distance. They were hundreds of miles from the nearest sign of civilization.

The heavy front door of the barn opened creaked open. Steel reinforced bars lined in the inside. “Agent Clagney, thank you for arriving on such short notice,” a stout man approached him with heavy steps. He stopped to straighten his lab coat before shaking hands with the man. “I am Dr. Jiminez.” 

            A strong hand extended from a standard gray suit, “Call me Michael,” the tall man responded in a commanding voice. His request for the doctor to call him “Michael” was not out of cordiality. He preferred to be unassuming. It often helped to drop his title as “Agent.”

            “Of course,” the man in lab coat nodded with a nervous twitch. He pushed his sliding glasses up his nose. “Come with me. The sooner we can figure out what’s going on, the easier everyone can be.” There was a slight tremble to his voice.

Michael began to smirk at the doctor’s uneasiness, but stopped. Instead he remained stoic as he followed inside. Contrary to what the outside of the building would suggest, a gray box of a lobby with minimalist décor greeted them. Electronic eyes covered every square inch, with the closed circuit feed linked to a hidden location. As the men approached the elevator at the far end, the door opened automatically like a convenience store entrance. One inside, the man in the lab coat pressed his thumb against a rectangle on the wall. As he removed his thumb, a green light blinked accepting his print.

“Doctor Jiminez and Agent Clagney to level thirty,” Dr. Jiminez spoke.

“Accepted. Please stand clear of the doors,” an automated voice announced.

The stainless steel doors closed and the elevator began to move. Michael felt the usual sensation in his stomach as the car lowered thirty levels. When the doors opened again, he was met with a dimly lit corridor. Lights in drop ceilings illuminated their path as they marched towards an unknown destination. They did not see anyone else along the way. Michael had been to this facility once before. Everyone was tucked away behind their own titanium door that lined the halls. Each was on separate project, all marked top-secret.

The last time Michael visited level thirty he was escorted to a titanium door far from the elevators. As he made his way through the narrow halls, he sensed they radiated from a central location. He even passed a gate and caught a glimpse of an especially heavy titanium door. It appeared to be the only door leading to a central room.

Michael’s job was to ask questions, but only to his mark. He saw no need to question the doctor. He didn’t need to know where he was going and the man in the lab coat was sworn in under securities so heavy he couldn’t breath differently without permission.

Dr. Jiminez made a turn and stopped at the gate. Michael lifted an intrigued eyebrow but remained silent. He watched as the doctor pulled out a keycard and swiped a panel. The gate unlocked for him and Doctor Jiminez waved for Michael to follow. The two entered and approached the heaviest of all titanium doors on level thirty. Behind them, the gate swung closed and locked with a click that sounded too similar to a gun cocking. Michael fought to calm the hairs that rose automatically on back of his neck. He worked with some of the most dangerous people in the world and rarely do things go as planned. More often than he liked to admit, Michael found himself at gunpoint, hearing the familiar click.

Doctor Jiminez pressed his thumb on a panel next to the door. It glided open to reveal a retina scan machine. He went first. Then Michael scanned his iris. He waited patiently as the computer confirmed his identity. A green light flashed in his eye. There was a buzz followed by the sound of the heavy door sliding open.

Michael stepped back from the panel and followed the doctor through the door. They entered a small passaged with a grid that confirmed bio-signatures. The door closed behind them and sealed shut with a hiss.

“What would happen if the bio-signature scanners were to malfunction?” Michael could not help but ask.

“They wouldn’t,” Doctor Jiminez answered with borderline pomposity. “But if they determine you are not who your iris scan show you are, the lasers in the grid will paralyze you.” 

Michael was seldom impressed, but at that moment he felt a hint of excitement. He and his escort exited the passage into a large room filled with three-dimensional screens. They stepped down from a landing that circled the dome shaped room and onto the floor. At a glance, about a dozen other men in lab coats were busy running tests and twice as many security personnel patrolled the walkways surrounding the room. 

“Here is his file,” Dr. Jiminez handed Michael a tablet. Agent Clagney scanned his thumb and the device unlocked. He began to review his target. 

Michael had worn many hats when it came to national security. In recent years his job was to pull information from uncooperative subjects. There was a formula to breaking people. Secrets were kept to protect someone or something. In his experience, the most common culprit was money or blood. Michael only needed to figure out what the subject wanted to protect, no matter how messy it got for them or him.

After reading quickly through the information, he raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious?” Michael lifted his head to the doctor.

Dr. Jiminez shrugged, “Three weeks ago if you told me it was him, I would have thought that you were crazy. After the ‘astronomical anomaly’ last week, I am open to anything.” The doctor let out a long shaky sigh. “It’s terrible, my sister’s kid almost lost an arm. Luckily they were able to get her to a hospital on time.”

Michael was uncomfortable with Dr. Jiminez’s newfound openness. He ignored the words and instead stared at the information on the tablet, trying to find a pattern. After another moment he shook his head. “This kid is a community college student who flips burgers for a living. He has no living relatives and spends most of him time alone with minimal social media action. In fact, since 2013 he hasn’t had any online activities. What person in their late twenties stays off the internet for two years? Are you sure you’ve got the right person?”

“Hey, that’s your job!” the doctor lifted his hands in the air. He turned to point at the far end of the room. A smaller titanium door waited with a guard positioned beside it. “You’re the interrogator,” he added, “Figure out how he’s involved.”

Michael sighed and steeled his gaze, “Let’s see what he has to say.”


            A one-way mirror separated Michael from a young man wearing a standard issue jumpsuit. They had shaved his head but allowed him to keep his goatee. A few colorful beads were braided in, creating a haphazard pattern. Michael glanced down at the photo on the tablet. A crooked and crazed smile was plastered on the kid’s face. His dreadlocks poked high on his head as if he never bothered with hygiene. 

Dr. Jiminez spoke to Michael, “I’ll be monitoring the interview from the other room. If you need anything, just signal.”

Michael took a breath and waved the doctor away, handing him the tablet. He approached the door and with a firm hand, twisted it open. He stepped into the room like he had stepped into thousands of other rooms. The familiar sound of a sliding bolt behind him assured him this was just a standard day of work. 

Michael kept his face impassive as he pulled out his chair as far as the chain would allow. He took his time sitting down. There was nothing else in the room except a table and the young man’s chair. Both were chained to the ground. The young man fidgeted, looking around wildly in a terrified manner. His eyes would study Michael’s face for one minute, then dart over his shoulder the next.

“Bert, is it?” Michael asked.

            “Yeah, man,” he coughed, “That’s my name.” A second later those fleeting eyes locked on Michael’s face. “Are you?” he paused. Then leaned forward and whispered, “From the exchange?”

            “What would make you think that I am from the exchange?” Michael asked neutrally. Though he was trained not to make assumptions, the phrase “conspiracy nut” wormed its way into Michael’s mind.

            The young man let out a sigh and leaned back, “Look dude, I just want to go home! Crazy stuff has been happening and I need to know if the folks I care about are okay.” 

Michael studied Bert’s haggard face. It was apparent that he had not been sleeping well. A lot weighed on his mind. Michael considered briefly who Bert’s “folks” were.  Their records were thorough and it showed Bert had no living relatives. 

            “Tell me what’s been bothering you, Bert?” Michael asked. “The friends you work with at the burger joint tell us that you’ve been antsy the past few weeks.”

            “Yeah something’s been bothering me!” Bert was impudent. “Were you not here three weeks ago?” he exclaimed in frustration. He gestured rudely into Michael’s face.

            Michael took a deep breath to keep his patience, “Tell me about what happened three weeks ago.” He remained impassive. 

            “Um, hello! The near total invasion? It’s kind of hard to miss! They wiped out over three million people!”

            “Do you remember why they attacked?” Michael asked. 

            Bert rolled his eyes, “Those friggin’ cretins have always had a problem with us! Don’t you guys call them something here? I dunno, was the word ‘terrorist’ or something?” He shuffled his weight onto on arm and stared off to the left, tapping his foot nervously. 

            Michael recognized that Bert did not taking him seriously. The kid felt entitled to some sort of protection and was just waiting for Michael to leave. That was not going to happen and Michael was done wasting time. He needed to accentuate to Bert the severity of his situation. This honky will fix his attitude, if not by his own free will, then by fear. The large man took his sweet time reaching across the table and grabbed the shrinking Bert by the collar. 

            “I don’t have patience for your crazy talk,” Michael growled, leaning into the boy’s face. “You will tell me what happened or you won’t be talking at all.”

“Okay, dude! Just chill!” Bert whelped and lifted his arms in defense.

“What is you name?” Michael demanded shouting into the boyish face.

“It’s Bert!”

“Where do you live?”

“On planet Earth!” Bert quaked, “Oh gawd, please don’t kill me!”

Michael saw in Bert’s eyes surrender to cooperation. The boy was quick to break. Michael held on for a moment longer to stress his point that he did not take nonsense. He then shoved Bert back into his seat and sank with calculated motion back into his own chair.

“Now, Bert,” Michael continued in a calm voice, “Tell me what happened last week.”

“I got angry and I attacked them,” Bert said meekly. A flimsy hand scratched at the back of his head. He didn’t say anything more. Michael folded his arms on the table and heard the kid gulp. He engaged Bert with his most poisonous look.

“You are in a lot of trouble here,” he began. “Those alien ships that appeared three weeks ago were hovering peacefully in our orbit, unknown to the civilian population of the world. Before we could sort out their presence, some idiot attacks their mother ship and a war begins.” Michael leaned over the cowering boy, “By some miracle, that idiot manages to destroy the mother ship and then fall back Earth, alive.”

            Bert was meek, “Sir, if you are asking if I am that idiot, I’m not denying it. I said that I was angry when it happened. Right now I just want to know if you can get me home. I’m sure my actions are inconsequential.” 

            Michael felt his anger flash, something that rarely happened, “I would hardly call the loss of millions of lives inconsequential.” He struggled to keep his cool.

“You’re not from the exchange then?” Bert asked with tears brimming in his voice.

            “What do you think?” Michael snipped. In the back of his mind, he wondered about the exchange. Did it have something to do with the events three weeks ago? “I’m here because you will tell me what technology you used to attack the aliens. You will also tell me how you obtained this technology.”

            Bert lifted a trembling finger, “One question at a time please,” he said. He shuddered when Michael glared back. After pausing to regain composure, he continued. “What do I think? I think I’m screwed. I figured that after all the crazy stuff the exchange would send for me and take me home. I haven’t heard from them in over a year and now I’m worried the aliens took them away to leave Earth vulnerable. You know, to cut off communication or whatnot.”

            Michael narrowed his eyes, “What are you talking about?”

            The boy scratched nervously. “I am also surprised that you don’t know about the exchange program.”

            Michael leaned back in his seat and studied Bert for a moment. He contemplated whether he was genuinely delusional. Regardless, facts don’t lie. This young man was found amongst the ocean debris. They had tracked his unknown craft falling from orbit. The men in lab coats were given custody of him and his technology.

The broken ship was reported to be of an unknown ceramic. The circuits, which would have been silicon-based on Earth, were made from undetectable materials and solid gold. None of the countries were known to work with that kind of technology.  

“To answer your other questions, I’ve learned the history of your planet and I knew where many crafts were hidden. They taught us all the antediluvian stuff at orientation,” Bert added.

Michael blinked slowly. He tried to process the words that left Bert’s mouth. Orientation? Did this runt think he was at school?

Bert continued, “I wasn’t really sure how to fly it, but I guess I managed and I got the weapons to work too. I got lucky, I guess.” His eyes wandered off to the side. “Normally if I need to go somewhere, I just contact the exchange. They send for people to take me away.”

“Don’t you mean ‘our’ planet?” Michael spoke after a lengthy silence. He was having a hard time finding an approach to his line of questioning. If the boy was delusional, he needed to be careful or the subject might lapse into a psychotic break. The alternative was that Bert was telling a version of the truth convoluted by misunderstandings. Michael would have to decipher Bert’s interpretation of information.

Bert shook his head, “Look man, I’m scared. I’m trying to see things from your point of view, because that’s why I’m here in the first place, you know–to learn about Earth’s humans. But I can’t help but think that you’ll think I’m crazy.”

Michael scoffed, “Tell me the truth.” He put on his most amiable expression. Bert’s cringe told him that it was not successful. Michael had never been a friendly man. Despite trying, he often failed. He had been around too many hardened criminals.

Quickly discarding the “good cop” attempt, Michael got straight to the point, “You’re facing a precedent crime, one that has yet to be named. Your preemptive attack on the alien fleet in Earth’s orbit elicited a counter measure on their part. The death of millions around the globe is blood on your hands. Your one redeeming act would be to tell me where you obtained your technology, how we can replicate it, and use it if and when the alien’s reinforcements return.”

Bert shook his head sadly, “The aliens you refer to are a race called the Shubans. I don’t expect you to understand. Earth is on the outskirts of our civilization and out of touch. This planet has been forgotten for countless millennia and is unique to the galaxy.” Bert fidgeted his hands but was appearing calmer. “In my studies I came across these islands that I could use as an analogy.” He paused and stared at the ceiling. “What was the name of them again? Some dude named Darwin found them. The species on them had all evolved separately.”

“The Galapagos?”

“Yes, that’s it!” Bert waved a finger. “Anyway, Earth is a rarity. A lot of stuff here, like the cultures that emerged independently are awesome! It’s sad though because this settlement is dying. The planet’s ecosystem can’t keep up with humans’ needs of productivity. Especially not with the rate the population has grown here.”

Michael thought back to his reports. The men lab coats had done a thorough physical exam on Bert. By all intents and purposes, the boy was human. So what was he saying?

“You think you’re a Shuban?” Michael asked.

Bert let out a raucous laugh. When he saw that Michael was not joking, the laughter died. He cleared his throat. “No, man. I’m definitely human. Though the Shubans and the humans evolved away from a common ancestor over what would be 60 trillion Earth years ago, we are both ancient races existing far before the formation of this tiny planet.”

“Then what are you saying.”

Bert let out a whistle and tilted his chair back, “Oh man. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone like you to hear this for the first time. I mean, I’m someone who grew up knowing about all humans, but you guys out here on Earth, you all have no idea!” Bert leaned forward on his elbows. His face took on a serious expression as if he were about to share a friendly piece of advice. 

“Dude, what if I told you that Earth is not the only planet with humans? There are thousands of settlements with our species spread out across the stars. Our home planet is a place about twenty five thousand light years away called Ollipsa.” His eyes grew misty. “It’s beautiful and about ten times the size of this little settlement, Earth. Ollipsa has eight moons, each rich with our life and culture.” Bert paused for a moment to reminisce. Michael sat silently, waiting for Bert to continue. As difficult as it was, he kept his reservations to himself.

“It’s natural and within our human nature to explore and learn from the universe. That is why we have colonized countless other planets. Most of them were prolonged successes, Earth being one of them. However as our population grew, so did the Shubans’. Territorial disputes have been growing increasingly violent.”

Bert frowned as his voice took on an unfamiliar accent. His saddened posture indicated that he was losing hope. Whatever he was hiding, he was beginning to not care anymore. “About an Earth month ago, my private transmissions to my family were going unanswered. They live nearby on Prisma, that’s a planetoid orbiting Alpha Centauri. Well, you guys call it that. We call Alpha Centauri Fish-Eye, because from Ollipsa it’s in the Fish constellation as the eye. 

Anyway, my transmissions were not receiving a response. I got really worried, man! Four years ago, when I came here to Earth I heard that the Shubans were drawing near. I was all chill about it, thinking that everything would work out.” Bert leaned towards Michael and spoke in a low voice fraught with fear, “You want to know what I think? The Shubans must’ve destroyed our settlements on Prisma! There have been reports that they were committing routine genocide missions to protest the humans colonizing fresh planets!”

Michael scoffed, “That’s an interesting story, but why are you the only one who believes we are from this Ollipsa and in the Shubans? I have access to hidden recesses of the internet. There is not a single mentions of Ollipsa or the Shubans.”

Bert grasped his head in frustration, “Dude!  I’ve been trying to tell you! I’m here on a student exchange program! Just me, no one else! It’s illegal for me to talk about life outside of Earth with native humans. I study Advanced Human Anthropology in Outlying Settlements. My thesis is on how to inform Earthlings that they are not alone in the galaxy without inciting panic. I’ve spent the last segment of my life learning how to walk and talk like an Earthling! Oh yeah, a segment is like twelve years here.

Anyway, the point is in a few segments, Ollipsa was planning to send officials here to tell you guys that you’ve gotta move! This planet is dying!” Bert shook his head, “In fact, the Shubans kind of did you guys a favor. With all the people who were killed, it’s bought you Earthlings at least another ten years. I’m telling you all this now at the risk of spending of the rest of my life in jail because there is no one left of Earth for me to go to for help!”

Bert was exhausted. He dropped his head onto the table and covered it with his hands. A long dejected groan escaped as he mumbled to himself incoherently.

Michael sat keenly across from the young man. His training taught him to consider all possibilities while remaining objective. The look in Bert’s eyes told Michael that the boy was telling the truth. Yet the words were so absurd that Michael didn’t know how to believe. Perhaps Bert suffered from PTSD or a hallucination. No, the better story here was that Bert worked for an enemy country as a test pilot on new technology. 

Michael grabbed his chin and frowned. That could not be right either. Most of the countries on their watch list took heavy hits from the aliens during the counter attack. If their enemies were going to use a weapon, wouldn’t they only target the alien ships that hovered over the Western Hemisphere? Another thing that bothered him was Bert’s bizarre accent. Michael could not place it and he had dealt with men and women from all over the planet. He even spoke seven languages himself.

“It’s going to haunt me forever,” Bert grumbled as he lifted his head. “I knew it was the Shubans, but I waited. I didn’t do anything. Meanwhile the mother ship was right here all along. Right here,” Bert cried, “while the other Shubans probably went to Prisma and slaughtered everyone! I should have taken them out sooner!” 

His eyes drooped as he shook his head, “I should have known bad things were going to happen when I lost contact with the exchange advocates. I think the Shubans sent down assassins to take them out. Since I was just a lowly student who wanted to blend in with the Earthlings, they probably thought they could eliminate me out when it became Earth’s turn for a sweep.” Bert dropped his head again, “This is a nightmare.”

A thought occurred to Michael, “Why were you able to destroy the Shuban mother ship?”

“Oh yeah, you don’t know your complete history,” Bert looked up. “Earth was originally intended to be a military research base. They gave up when the ecosystem proved that it could not sustain the necessary demands. That’s why it became a forgotten settlement. Some of the old, really brutal fighter crafts were left behind. The heavy firing equipment causes massive damage to the hull, making atmospheric reentry dangerous. That’s probably why the ship I used fell apart. Anyway, after that big flood mentioned in that bible book, they all became buried.” 

Bert stared Michael in the eye, “My brother is in the military. He used to tell me all about the crafts and weapons.” He dropped his head sadly, “I haven’t heard from him in years. His ship lost communication on its way back to Ollipsa. I think the Shubans got to him.” Tears streamed down Bert’s cheeks.

Michael cleared his throat, “Let’s say I believe you. Why now? Why did the Shubans select Earth at this time if our ecosystem is pending collapse?” 

Bert rolled his eyes, “You Earthlings really are geocentric, aren’t you?” He threw his hands into the air. “The Shubans don’t care about Earth in particular. They are a systematic species. They are sweeping from point A to point B. Earth just happened to fall in between.” He let out a sigh, “Many of us thought the issues would have been resolved by now, but I guess not,” he finished with a shrug.

“Are you saying all this so that you will not be charged with the death of millions?”


“Based on your story, you are a savior for the rest of us Earth humans.”

Bert shook his head, “Whatever man. I was just angry when I attacked the Shubans and acted emotionally. Think, if you were studying some exotic tribe in a rainforest, away from modern civilization and you get word that your country’s enemy just slaughtered a bunch of your citizens, how would you feel? Then you see a bunch of the enemy camped nearby and you have a weapon. What would you do? I admit that I was impulsive, but at least I slowed them down. It was all for the human race.”

Those words resounded with Michael. His job gave him many sleepless nights and constant glances over his shoulder for tails. He didn’t do it for the pittance of a pay, he did it for the people of his country. Michael rubbed his jaw with a hand.

Yet, how much could Bert’s words be trusted? It was all so absurd that he didn’t know how to continue with the questioning. This was a first. Perhaps he could ask the men in lab coats to do a psych evaluation to see where they stand. After considering for some time, Michael decided to give it another crack to see if he could poke holes in Bert’s story.

“Let me get this straight. Earth was settled by humans after the flood in the bible.”

Before the flood in the bible.”

“Whatever. Earth was settled by humans from elsewhere.”

“Yes, Ollipsa.”

“Stop interrupting.”


“So, Earth was settled. Meanwhile, the humans on our home planet are having territory disputes with another race that systematically destroys settlements. Earth was only targeted because it is a settlement. Why not target Ollipsa?”

“Because Ollipsa is unreachable. It has eight moons. Beyond the eight moons are other planets also settled, and beyond them are asteroids hollowed out to create biomes. In these asteroid biomes are the patrols that constantly scan for threats. The outer planets are all required to keep a strong battle fleet. If the Shubans ever make it to Ollipsa, the eight moons have these, what do you call them here? They’re like antennas. I don’t know exactly how it works, but they can activate a protective force field around Ollipsa.”

Michael listened intently. Against better judgment, he was starting to believe this crazy hippy. He just had one more question. “If you came here to blend in, then why are you taking like someone from decades ago?”

“That was my carelessness, man. I didn’t account for the time difference. I began preparing for this trip well over two segments ago when I was still in primary school. I always knew that I wanted to visit a settlement! Back then, I had only selected my embedding location and everyone talked like this. So I learned to talk that way too.”

Michael opened his mouth for more questions, but the sealed doors to the interrogation room opened, cutting him off. Doctor Jiminez escorted three men and one woman into the room. Michael recognized the first man as his chief. The woman and one of the men wore clothing with odd designs. Michael furrowed his brow. The material was smooth and seemed to lack thread count. It also didn’t appear to have seams. He was trained to read people based on their clothing and posture, but these two gave him nothing.

Then the third man stepped into view. He could not be mistaken. It was the Vice President. Michael stood quickly and saluted.

Bert leaped to his feet, “Lorton!” he exclaimed in a voice filled with emotion, “I thought you were dead!” He moved to rush towards the group but the chains on his legs kept him behind the table.

“Please unchain this young hero,” Michael’s chief ordered. Dr. Jiminez moved to comply.

Bert’s eyes were locked on the man in the strange clothes, “Prisma, is it?” he asked desperately.

“It’s safe,” his friend nodded and spoke in a soothing voice. “Our friends and family are fine.”

Bert slumped back into his chair as Doctor Jiminez worked with his stubby fingers to remove the boy’s cuffs. He turned to Michael and smiled as if they were chums. “This is my brother,” Bert announced quivering with relief and pride. “Judging by his clothes, he and his diplomat friend are here from Ollipsa. Things are about to change here on Earth.”


            A year passed since Michael’s interrogation of Bert. He stood in humble silence looking out the windows of his apartment. He had lived on the twenty-eighth floor for over a decade and always enjoyed the clear view of the skies. During the alien attacks the year before, his building was lucky to be spared. Throughout the city, debris remnants were still scattered, some as close as two blocks away.

            A knock came at his door. Michael called for the person to enter. The sound of the turning handle caused unease, but there was no more looking over his shoulder. The duty of protecting the people was no longer his.

            “We’re ready for you, Michael,” announced a kind, familiar voice in broken English.

            Michael let out a sigh. “I can stay. I can help.”

            Footsteps approached his side. “I’m sorry, friend, but you must come with me. Earth is no longer safe. The Shubans are returning and only military personnel from Ollipsa’s home system are allowed to stay.”

            “You’ve forcefully evicted the entire planet! How can you do such a thing?” Michael cried, barely containing his cool.

            Lorton spoke in a low voice, “This cannot be easy for you. We are sentimental creatures and partings are always painful. We have this energy that grows within us and it entwines things into our lives, let it be living or an object. It is called love. You love your home and that is understandable. I apologize on behalf of our home planet for not negotiating peace in time for you to stay. You have suffered the travesty of losing so many of your local brethren. Now I ask you to look at the facts. Earth was originally intended to be a military base. Even as we speak, they are uncovering the abandoned ships and repairing them for use. This planet will become a battleground.”

            “Why do we not have a say in this?”

            “Quite frankly, I am surprised that many of you Earth humans are holding on so tightly,” Lorton continued. “The ecological state of this planet is in shambles. You must understand that an environmental collapse is imminent, brought about in part by the humans’ stressful contribution. Prisma, where we are taking you, has an ecology more suitable for our species’ demands.”

            “Where is our voice? Earth’s humans–we did not choose this.” Michael turned to Lorton.

            “Friend,” Lorton’s eyes were compassionate, “there is very little we get to decide for ourselves in life. The best we can do is to understand the facts presented to us. The facts I have presented to you are irrefutable. Earth is no longer safe. Your home is not just here. It is in many places amongst the stars that welcome you with open arms. Now come,” his tone took on firmness, “it is time to go.”

            Michael let out a shaky breath. For as long as he could remember, he followed the facts using them as anchors of logic as he deduced his subjects. Now Lorton was using the same tactic to rationalize with him. Though he did not feel ready, he knew Lorton was right.

He bent down and reached for his bags. Lorton took one from his hand to be helpful. The two were soon on their way to a spacecraft in a city nearby. As it prepped to launch, Michael glanced at the sky. His eyes could only see a few wispy clouds, but he knew there were Ollipsan fleets made up of millions of fighter crafts defending his planet, Earth. Beyond them was Prisma. There, Bert eagerly waited to show him around.

The End!

If you’ve enjoyed this tale, and would like to read others, please check out my anthology on Amazon: Ava’s Shorts.

“Imaginary Jace”

short story by: Ava Reiss

            It was the first day of the “best years” of Eva’s life; the first day of high school. Her hands trembled, clutching the straps of her book bag. Studying a map of the halls, she found her homeroom. She turned uncertainly and trudged past a group of large boys. Their jackets indicated they played varsity. She wasn’t the athletic type. She didn’t know what lacrosse was.

            Eva wished Jace were with her. She could picture the way his eyes creased when he smiled. The bottom lid bubbled. He was her imaginary friend.

Eva had started to picture him when she was five. She was at a church picnic and fell into a ditch in the nearby woods. Eva knew she shouldn’t have wandered, but she thought she had seen a butterfly. A really pretty one. She couldn’t climb out and shouted for help. She continued hollering at the top of her lungs for quite some time, but no one came. Afraid she was doomed to stay there alone forever, Eva wept.

In the exhaustion, a boy appeared. Eva couldn’t recall exactly how, but he was covered in mud like her. He said his name was Jace. He couldn’t climb out either. He looked worried but managed a smile. It’s when she first noticed the bubbling lower lid.

Jace had told her they should try shouting together. Eva agreed. Before long, adults found them and there was lots of clamoring. Eva was too young to understand what was going on. Drowsy, she fell asleep.

            Afterwards, Eva had asked her dads about Jace. They didn’t know anyone by that name. As Eva grew older, she never saw the boy at church again. She eventually concluded he was an imaginary friend, created in a moment of distress.

            Eva’s thoughts returned to high school as a tall girl pounded through the halls. She ducked out of the way. As Eva rounded the corner, she sighed in relief to see a familiar face. Seda, from her art class last year, waved her over. She was chatting with some people Eva didn’t recognize. She scooted over. “They go to my Hebrew school!” Seda announced with excitement.

            “Pleased to meet you,” Eva smiled sweetly.

Seda’s friends studied her with curious eyes. She patted her big hair nervously. Eva wanted to say more, to make friends, but it was never easy. Her tongue felt heavy, as if the right words took pleasure in escaping. She wished she could be as eloquent in person as she was on paper. Over the years, she had written slews of letters to Jace.

            Seda introduced the girls first, “Anneli, Soroya.” The boys were, “Elijah, Abner.”

            “I’m Eva,” she squeaked.

            “We’re freshmen too” Soroya beamed. “Where’s your homeroom.”

            “Um…” Eva looked past the group towards her door.

            At the same time, a swarm of people headed their way. Some shouted excitedly. Teachers appeared in the halls to scold the level of noise. The teenagers paid no mind. The ruckus was headed straight for Eva when she noticed a boy at the center of it all. She froze as he stepped beside her.

            No way.

            A boy who could be a grown version of Jace cut into their group, with dozens more people crowding from behind. Eva felt like a sardine. She couldn’t move. Helplessly, she watched the boy lean towards her, eyes down. Eva dared not breathe as his cheek hovered inches away. He spoke pessimistically to Elijah, who was crammed beside her, “Transferring here was no use. I think I’m going to homeschool or drop out.”

            “Alright cousin. We tried,” Elijah responded.

            The boy quickly disappeared around the corner. The boisterousness followed.

            “Was that Jesse Danger?” Anneli squealed. She slapped Elijah’s arm, “You said your cousin was a web celeb, but you didn’t say he was THE Jesse Danger!”

            “Yeah, he doesn’t like people knowing,” Elijah appeared uncomfortable.

            Eva gulped. “W-who’s Jesse Danger?”

            Anneli’s jaw dropped. “The free runner that travels across country, shooting vids on or around national monuments? He also sings a cappella love songs! Everybody loves him!”

            Elijah’s next words floored Eva. “He started really young after falling into a ditch. He got really into climbing things after that. Said he didn’t wanna get stuck again.”

            “A-and it was just him in the ditch?”

            “Yah. Why?”

            Eva shrugged.

            “I think Jesse just got another fan,” Seda teased.

            A bell rang, alerting the students they had five minutes to get to homeroom. The group parted ways. Eva drifted down the hall, lost in her mind.

            What if that was Jace? I was young. I could’ve mistaken his name. Jace sounds a little like Jesse.

            Eva found her seat and pulled out her phone. She searched for Jesse’s history. She didn’t find anything relating to his ditch incident. Perhaps only his family knew.

            “I see you’re a Jesse Danger fan,” the girl behind her said. “Me too.” Eva swirled to see a blonde fanning herself. “I never expected him to come to our little town!”


            “He’s from the West Coast! Hasn’t been this far east, ever. Only transferred here ‘cause he’s got family in the area.”

            Eva frowned. Jesse couldn’t be Jace. She was crazy to think so in the first place. She’d never left the East Coast. Dejected, she put her phone away.


            The bell rang for lunch. Eva rubbed her eyes before putting her glasses back on. Her stomach was in knots. Now came the pressure of figuring out where to sit. Gathering her books, she headed to her locker.

Seda and her friends found her. “Come sit with us.”

            Eva felt relieved. “Okay!”

            As the group made their way to the cafeteria, Anneli busied herself scrolling through her phone. “Check this out!” she cried. “Jesse uploaded a new song this morning!” She leaned onto Eva’s shoulder, flashing her the screen. “I’m sure you’ll dig this!”

            “Dig? Who says that anymore?” Abner snickered.

            “Shut up!”

            Eva gently accepted Anneli’s phone. She had trouble hearing over the noise, so she plugged in her headphones. Jesse’s Danger’s smooth voice flowed into her ears and Eva’s steps slowed.

            You chased pink butterflies,

Because they take you to the world of dreams.

Hopes are fleeting so we hold on tight.

My big-haired darling,

I can see it in your eyes. It’s no surprise.

The loneliness we feel, makes life unreal.

The fire of candles you burn,

late at night, as you write,

Are your only friends, until the end.

Together, we gotta fend…

            Eva pulled out her headphones and quickly returned the phone to Anneli. “Excuse me,” she dashed towards the bathroom, rubbing a sore mark on her thumb. She had burned it the night before with wax. Eva liked to set the mood when writing to Jace, and often used candles.

            Locking herself in a stall, she pulled out her phone. Eva performed a search on Jesse Danger lyrics. As she read, she sank to the floor. “Th- these words. Half are from my letters!” she mumbled. An odd sensation crept up her spine. Eva didn’t feel well. “What does this mean?”


            Eva felt like a creep. Yes. She was stalking Jesse Danger, but not because she wanted to. Well, maybe a little bit. But she needed answers!

            It was inconvenient to get him alone. There were things she needed to ask, but she knew she would never have the nerve to do so with others around. It was difficult enough just thinking of speaking to him.

            She joined the journalism club at the first chance. Everyone wanted to interview Jesse Danger. Eva did something she wasn’t proud of. “I’m a good friend of his family. He’ll feel comfortable giving me real answers,” she lied during their first meeting.

            “Yeah, I’ve seen her hanging with that Elijah,” a boy whose name she’d forgotten grumbled.

            “It’s settled then. Eva gets the interview.”

            The rest of the staff groaned.

            It was hard to get Jesse to commit. He didn’t like the idea initially. Eva kept emailing and texting. He eventually agreed to “be nice.”

Eva couldn’t eat for days. She didn’t know which questions to ask first, the ones for the paper, or about her words in his songs. She had never shown her letters to Jace to anyone.

Is Jesse cosmiscally reading my letters somehow?


The door to the empty classroom opened. Eva’s heart skipped a beat. A sandy-haired boy peered in.

“Hi Jesse,” her voice broke and her cheeks burned. Eva cleared her throat, and forced herself to try again. “I’m Eva. I’ll be doing your interview today.”

Jesse shrugged, “’Kay.” He found a seat and folded his hands on the desk, disinterested.

Eva cleaned her glasses before placing them back on her face. She brushed a loose strand of hair away, knowing she couldn’t stall forever. In her backpack sat a few letters she’d written Jace.

“I- I’d like to start by asking about your inspiration for your songs.”

Jesse shrugged, “Oh, you know, they just come to me.”

“Do you talk to people to get your ideas?” Eva didn’t know how to move forward.

“Look,” he exhaled and leaned back. “Do you just want the usual FAQs?”

Eva knew her chance was slipping away. “I-I,” her mouth went dry.

“If it’s okay, I’ll just email you my press pack. You can use it how you want.”

“No,” Eva whispered.

“What?” Jesse leaned forward.

Unsure what to do, Eva panicked. She grabbed her letters out of her backpack. “Jesse, your words are mine!” she clutched them in his face.

Jesse battled a look of disgust. “Oh no, not another super fan,” he breathed. “This interview’s over.” He stood and headed for the door.

“No wait!” Eva pulled out a letter with lines she knew were in his song. But there were more than just those lines. There were private things she’d only shared with Jace. If Jesse somehow had read her letters, he would know them too.

She started to read, not knowing what she had hoped for. Eva kept on, promising to stop when she heard the door slam.

It never came.

Eva reached the end of her letter. As she set it down, footsteps approached. Jesse sat back down. They stared at each other with uncertainty.

Jesse eventually spoke, “Dreams. That’s where I get my ideas from.”


“Yes. Sometimes I hear someone talking to me. I don’t always see her. But…” Jesse looked scared, “I’m pretty sure those were words I once heard.”

“I also fell into a ditch when I was little…” Eva didn’t know what else to say. “I thought a boy named Jace was with me…” Eva bit her lip before she said she thought Jesse could be the boy. It was preposterous.

Jesse’s face contorted. His eyes darted about as if he were thinking hard. He let out a long breath. “You can’t write in the paper what I’m about to say.” He begged, “Please.”

Eva nodded, “Promise.”

“Yeah I fell into a ditch when I was little… but I thought I heard a kid down there. And,” he clutched his head, “I coulda swore I saw her too! But everyone said it was just me!”

“Jesse, my dads swear I was never in a ditch. They say they didn’t even go to church that year.”

His face paled. “A church?”

“… Yes?”

“Not many people know it was by a church. How do you?”

“I dunno…”

Jesse grew excited, “I had friends tell me it was ghost, buried on the church grounds. I even saw a shrink, and she says the girl was an imaginary friend!” He scrunched his face. “I was messed up for a while. No one believed me.”

“Did you see butterflies in the ditch?” Eva grasped for anything that was similar.

Jesse nodded, “An iridescent one.” He raked fingers through his hair. “My uncle Martin said the girl was astral projecting from someplace. He’s into that stuff.”

Eva frowned, “What’s astral projecting?”

“It’s when you sleep and your mind goes someplace else. Sometimes, other people can see you.” Jesse grew concerned. “Just double-checking, you’re still not planning to write any of this, are you?”

“I promised.” Eva couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Jesse, did you fall into the ditch in the early evening?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, if you were on the West Coast, and I was on the East Coast. It would’ve been my bedtime.”

He sat up with a start. “What are you saying?”

Eva’s head swam. “I- I dunno.” She pulled off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. The chances that she really astral projected were astronomical. With a sigh, she replaced them on her face.

Jesse narrowed his eyes. “Wait…” Slowly, he reached towards Eva. She pulled away a bit when he pinched the sides of her glasses. Yet his eyes were kind. Eva patiently allowed him to remove them. The two stared at each other for a long while. Jesse’s face sifted through a half dozen expressions, each harder to read than the last.

Finally, it settled on a grin. Eva had never seen Jesse smile before. Now, his bottom lid bubbled. “You’ve grown, Ella…”

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here


Short Story: Ava Reiss

Trigger warning: has suggestions of self-harm

Reid looked from the window of the attic in his Aunt’s old farmhouse. It was where he spent most of his time. The sun, low in the sky, set his walls ablaze. Brenna should be arriving soon. He closed his dark-web browser and wheeled his chair to a hanging mirror. He smoothed back a few stray hairs and sniffed his arms. “Good.” His deodorant was holding up.

Reid and Brenna went back to the first grade. They were grouped together for playtime. The two bonded in mischief, teaming up to bully other kids. They had shared many trips to the principal’s office.

All through middle school, they had each other’s backs when things got rough. Brenna was a foster kid hopping from house to house. In their small town, word traveled fast and she often found herself with parents who presumed troubled. Few gave her a chance and it was hard on her.

The two drifted apart when they first started high school. Reid became the quarterback and spent most of his time aiming for a scholarship. Brenna didn’t change much, still looking for trouble.

Pain shot through Reid’s leg. He grunted, grasping his knee. His fingers dug into skin, bracing against the throb. Sweat dripped as he eyed the painkillers on his desk. After a moment of teeth grinding, Reid decided he didn’t need them. The searing faded slowly, and he wiped his brow. Reid carefully wiggled his toes, testing sensitivity.

His chance at a sports scholarship was shot the middle of sophomore year. While going to dinner with his parents for his mother’s birthday, they were t-boned by a distracted driver. Reid’s parents were killed instantly and his spine was crushed. The doctors restored sensation and some control to his lower extremities, but he would never play sports again. Walking, even with crutches, became unbearably painful. He was condemned to spend the rest of his days in a chair.

At the beginning of junior year, Reid had tried to kill himself by taking all his pills at once. He awoke to Brenna’s fist across his cheek and a toothbrush in his mouth. “Stupid asshole, is this how you cop out on going to homecoming with me?”

Reid had lost track of the days and forgotten all about the homecoming dance. “Sorry,” he gagged in disorientation. Pulling the toothbrush from the back of his throat, he saw vomit covering her black satin dress. Brenna had gone on and on in the weeks before about how she loved the lace details.

Brenna rolled him onto his side as heat rose in his throat. More pills came up. Some hadn’t even dissolved. His vision grew fuzzy, and he couldn’t remember why he took them all in the first place.

When Reid awoke hours later with a severely dry mouth and throbbing head, he was on the bathroom floor. An arm draped around his midsection. He turned to see Brenna spooning him, wearing one of his shirts. The black dress hung over the edge of the wastebasket.

A year passed since then. They were in their senior year. Reid moved to live with his Aunt Rita, who didn’t like Brenna. Her friend Alice was once Brenna’s foster mother and said the girl was no good. Reid had bobbled his head through Aunt Rita’s lectures. She was up in her years and always went to bed early. Brenna still swung by.

A knock came at the window. “It’s open,” Reid called over his shoulder.

A sliding sound, then, “How’s it goin’ loser?”

Reid couldn’t help but smile. “You got my stuff?” He turned his chair around.

Brenna tossed him a small, metal tin. “Your shady friends on the dark net can’t get you better pot?”

“You’re the shadiest person I know.” He opened the tin and took time selecting a joint.

“How’s homeschool?”

“Same as last time you asked,” Reid mumbled, searching for his lighter.

“Dunno why you bother. Aren’t you loaded now that you’re some tech genius?”

“I got a few things going. But wouldn’t say loaded.” He was one of the best freelance cyber security consultants in the area. Money was less of a concern for him than other high schoolers.

Brenna flopped cross his armchair and picked up a magazine. She flipped through absentmindedly. “Play some friggin’ music, it’s like a tomb in here.”

“Play it yourself,” he retorted. “My tablet’s under the box on the table.”

“Lazy dipshit,” Brenna climbed to her feet. Reid watched from the corner of his eye as he lit a joint. Taking a slow drag, he saw Brenna lift the floppy box. Its casually tossed on lid fell, revealing dark fabric. Brenna froze. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Nothin’. You can have it if you want,” he played it cool.

Reid watched Brenna lift the dress by the straps. “You didn’t!” She held the gown to her body, identical to the ruined one last year. It hadn’t been easy to find, since the original was purchased at a thrift store. The style was long out of date. Reid had paid quadruple for the replacement.

             “You earned it, kid,” he grinned.

            Brenna ran to him and encircled his neck. Her scent filled his nostrils, and he wished he could breathe it forever. After the short hug, she dashed into the bathroom and emerged moments later, donning the dress. “How do you like my fashion sense?” she teased, showing off dust-covered kicks. “I totally match, don’t I?”

            “Yep, you’re punk through and through.”

            “Here,” she ran to her tote and pulled out an old fashioned camera. “You owe me homecoming pics.”

            “What the hell is that ancient thing?” he laughed.

            “It prints pictures right when you take ‘em. I stole it off my foster mom’s boyfriend. He’s into retro stuff.” Brenna leaned onto the side of Reid’s chair. She faced the contraption towards them and a flash of light flooded the room. Reid watched in amusement as a square ejected from the camera.

            “It’s completely gray,” He reached for it.

            “Don’t touch it! You gotta hold it by the white bar and shake it.”

            “That’s so stupid,” Reid scoffed.

            “Here, you keep it,” she hopped to his corkboard and found a place amid his mess. “When you look at it, you can remember me.”

            Reid’s ears perked. Something in Brenna’s voice was different. “Why would I need that to remember you?”

            She crossed her arms behind her back, head dropping. “I’m turning eighteen next week.”


            Brenna exhaled loudly and pulled a chair from the wall. She turned it around and sat straddled beside Reid. “Remember that new guy in town I told you about, Jimmy?”

            “Yeah?” he gulped.

            “He says he’ll give me a lift to California.”

            “Awesome,” Reid tried to sound enthusiastic. “What about school?”

            “Who gives a shit?” Anger flashed and Brenna quickly averted her gaze.

            Reid looked closer and the small lines on Brenna’s face told him something was amiss. “What happened, Brenna?”

            She shook her head, running fingers through honey blonde curls. “It’s nothing, Reid. I’ve got it handled.”

            They sat in silence as Reid contemplated her comment. Trails of smoke from his joint billowed around them. “No, Brenna. This sounds big and you need to tell me. You owe our friendship that much.”

            “It’s not that big a deal!” she shot in frustration. Brenna pursed her lips and leaned back. Despite her defiance, he could tell she wanted to share.

            “Well if it’s not that big a deal, why can’t you tell me?”

Brenna studied him with dark eyes. “Promise you’ll keep it between us?”

            “Absolutely.” Reid needed to know.

            “I’m pregnant.”

            Reid gulped, careful not to overreact. It was the last thing he expected to hear, and it wasn’t easy. After some time to process the words, he sputtered, “Makes sense you wanna head to Cali. They shut down the clinics around here.”

            Brenna didn’t seem to hear. Her next words floored Reid. “It’s my foster mom’s boyfriend’s. You’re the only one who knows.”

            Reid’s jaw dropped. “Brenna, you need to go to the police.”

            She shook her head. “He already took off. He and my foster mom got into it last month over his ex showing up in the middle of the night.”

            “You sure it’s his?” He felt his brow deepened.

            “Despite rumors around town, I was a virgin until two months ago.” Her gaze cast sideways with shame.

            Reid couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Here was Brenna, the girl he knew since childhood, with a child inside her. “Brenna.”

            “Stop it!” she got up from her seat and paced. “I don’t need your pity.”

            “Let me help you.”

            “NO.” She stopped and turned to Reid. “No,” she repeated softer. “If you want to help, let me do this.”

            “Yeah but you don’t need to be alone.”

            “Yes I do, Reid,” she continued to pace. He could hear tears in her voice. “I’ve been stuck in this godforsaken town too long; not allowed to do anything on my own. I need to be able to see this through by myself. Good or bad, whatever happens, it’s a decision I’d have made for myself! I NEED this!”

            Reid choked as feelings he couldn’t identify welled. He couldn’t imagine what Brenna was going through. “Okay,” was all that came out. It saddened him to know she didn’t open up to him sooner.

            “Thanks, Reid,” she sat back down and took his hand. “You’re shaking!”

            “I can’t help it. I’m pissed for you.”

            “I’m pissed too. At myself mostly.”

            “Brenna, it’s not your fault. You’re a minor. That man needs to go to jail.”

            She shrugged, “I wish I told myself a long time ago that age was just a number. I always wanted to run off but felt I couldn’t, that I’d just come crawling back. I probably would’ve been better off if I did.” Her eyes peered deeply into his. “I don’t want you to blame yourself, but a part of me stayed as long as I did because of you. I didn’t want to leave you.”

Reid blinked. He did blame himself. If he didn’t swallow all those pills last year, maybe Brenna would’ve taken off sooner. The thought was bittersweet. Another person who’d been so integrated in his life was about to depart. Reid suddenly felt vulnerable.

“It’s because you’re the only thing that felt like home…” she added in a small voice.

The words opened an emotional floodgate. Reid couldn’t help it. He reached up and tenderly cupped Brenna’s cheek. She shrank away, eyes dropping. Reid felt terrified he might’ve triggered an unwanted flashback. He quickly withdrew his hand.

“We’ll stay in touch, right?” he asked as evenly as he could. Dull pain throbbed in his leg, and he took a heavy drag on the joint.

            Her eyes peaked guiltily, reaching for the smoke. She inhaled before whispering, “I want to change my identity. Start fresh with none of the infractions I’ve on my permanent record. Jimmy says he knows a guy.” She gave an apologetic grin, handing back the pot. “You’ve been my best friend for so long. People could find me through you.” Brenna squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m sorry Reid. You’re so important to me, but I need to get away.” Her eyes blinked as a tear dropped. “You’re the only thing I’ll miss.”

            Reid swallowed hard, afraid he’d start crying. He cleared his throat, “Well, I’d better give you your birthday present early then.” He pulled away from Brenna and grabbed a large envelope from his desk. “I found this on the dark net.”

            Brenna took the package with a curious glance. Wiping at tears, she tore open the paper. Reid watched from a distance as she studied the contents. A hand clutched his chin as he reflected on Brenna’s earlier words. His stomach flipped. He couldn’t help but feel Brenna’s violation infect him.

“My God!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. Reid saw her shoulders shake as she read her adoption papers. “My birth parents are named Marjorie and Dale Hampton. My birth name is Madeira.”

Reid forced a smile, “I remember when you were little. You were always wonderin’ about them.”

Brenna sniffled, “It says they gave me up so I wouldn’t live in their destitute situation.” She crumpled up the top page and tossed it in the corner. “So much for that! What did it spare me?”

Reid grew unsure of his present. “Brenna, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“What?” her chin lifted, a wild look in her eyes. “No, no! Reid, this is the best present ever!” She paused, rubbing her nose. “Yeah I’m mad at where I am now, but it still feels good to know they cared enough to do what they felt was right.”

His heart soothed. Brenna poured attention back into the papers. “Says I was born in Wisconsin. Haha!” She looked up, “Thank you, Reid.” Her shoulders shook as her eyes brimmed with joyful tears. Reid looked away, knowing he’d cry if he didn’t distract from the moment. He put out the joint and picked up another. He busied himself lighting it.

Thin fingers softly took it away as Brenna’s skinny arms encircled him again. Closing his eyes, he felt a tear roll down his cheek. “Your secrets are safe with me,” he whispered, wrapping an arm around her.

“I’m so sorry, Reid,” she whispered in his hair. “I wish you could come with me.”

He scoffed, “I know. I’d slow you down.”

She kissed the top of his head. “There’s what our hearts desire, then there’s the fact of life. We both know nothing’s fair. Besides, I’ll just screw you up even more.”

Reid cleared his throat. “When’re you leaving?”

“Day after next.”

He pulled away and wheeled to his computer. If he didn’t, Reid would’ve broken down. He didn’t want Brenna to see him that way. “’Kay, swing by anytime before then,” his voice wavered.

Brenna stood without making a sound. He could sense her befuddlement. Reid wanted to say something, do something, but didn’t trust himself. If she saw how broken he felt, or picked up on his desperate wish for her to stay, she might change her mind. Reid sensed Brenna was at the point he was last year. If she were to stay, she might make an attempt on her life.

Reid knew the best thing for Brenna was for him to let her go.

Brenna shuffled around a bit. Reid could tell she was waiting for him to say more. When he didn’t, a teary voice piped, “See you around.”

A few seconds later, the window slid shut. Brenna was gone. Reid still sat frozen, losing track of time. In his mind, he played memories of Brenna. Turning to the corkboard, he saw a small rectangle where a recent picture developed. Brenna’s dark eyes sparkled as the rest of her face sagged from a suffocating life.

His chest convulsed and sobs tore forward. A flash of anger drove him to sit up straight. He tapped furiously on his keyboard and instantly, a vast, untraceable network was at his fingertips. As Reid tried to remember the foster mom’s ex-boyfriend’s name, he gripped his head.

Reid could create a warrant for the man’s arrest. Hell, he could even take out a hit. “But should I?” Drawing a hand across his face, Reid leaned back. He’d promised he wouldn’t share Brenna’s secret, but he didn’t promise to do nothing.

“What does Brenna want most?” he asked himself. Reid started to calm down. “She wanted to handle it herself. Who am I to interfere?” The name of the ex-boyfriend surfaced and Reid searched for the man. Moments later, he had Larry Putnam’s records. All for the fraction of a crypto currency.

Reid chewed his lip and thought hard. “What should I do? What’s most important?” He picked up a baseball from his desk and tossed it in the air. After a few catches, he leaned forward and deleted the record. At the same moment, he made a vow to not follow Brenna online when she started her new life.

“I’ve already helped Jimmy find her.”

Jimmy was really a private investigator hired by Brenna’s birth parents. He and Reid had come across each other online. Her parents wanted to reach out to Madeira Hampton, but wanted the young woman to decide on her own if she wished to meet them. Thus they hired Jimmy as an intermediary.

Reid followed their example. He would let Brenna decide if and when she wanted to reach out to him again.

Reid messaged a friend one town over, “Hey man, can I crash over for a few days?” Brenna didn’t know him.

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Just gotta clear my head.”

“When’ll you be here?”

“A few hours.”

Reid whipped out his phone and turned on his rideshare app. He was in luck. A wheelchair accessible van was about twenty minutes out. He requested the ride before jotting a quick note for his aunt. He left it vague, but told her not to worry. He’d leave it on the breakfast table. Turning attention to the screen, Reid thought long and hard before drafting a letter.

Brenna, there are somethings too difficult to say in person because we feel them so strongly. I know we never really defined what we are to each other, but it doesn’t matter. I love you completely. No matter what happens, please remember that. To me, you are whole. Nothing can spoil you in my eyes.

I’m blocking your email and phone because I’m not sending this to get your attention. I just want you to know that you’ll always have me. You won’t find me at my house or anywhere in town. I don’t want you to know where I am because I don’t want you to stay. I know you need to go.

When you’re ready, years later when you’ve done all you need to do, I’ll be waiting.

Reid looked up a flower delivery service and attached the letter. Afterwards, he took the recent photo of Brenna off the corkboard and tucked it carefully in his shirt pocket. It still smelled like her.

Silently, he took the stair lift down.

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here

“Through the Rainbow”

Short Story by: Ava Reiss

Erma’s Greek mythology book sat open to a page about the goddess Iris. It’d been unread for the last hour or so, despite an upcoming exam. Instead, she clutched her phone, sitting in the tollbooth she operated. There had been a lot on her mind the last couple of months. Finally, during that quiet night with little distractions, she couldn’t hold it in anymore.

“The Text” was sent. Erma had just come out to her best friend. There was no going back. Even if Erma recalled the message, it’d show. Shirise would undoubtedly ask about it later. More importantly, if Erma didn’t say those words, she’d implode. 

She counted the minutes passing. Shirise should be wrapping up a study session. They kept tabs on each other, both being freshman at college. They went as far back as middle school.

Erma read “The Text” for the hundredth time. “Shirise. There’s a secret about me I’ve wanted to share with just you. I was born with male and female parts. My parents wanted me to have a normal life, and they opted for the safest surgery. However, recently I’ve been wondering if they’d make a mistake. Or maybe I am the way I’m supposed to be, but I… I think I’m in love with you.”

They’d talked about boys before, and skirted around girls. Shirise gave indications she might be fluid. Erma never worked up the nerve to ask.

A horn honked and Erma jumped. She quickly took the driver’s ticket and money. She counted change and raised the barrier. “Have a good night,” she spoke in a trembling voice. The woman ignored her and drove away.

Too wrapped up in nerves, Erma didn’t mind the rudeness. She turned back to her phone and her heart skipped a beat. Ellipsis showed Shirise typing.

“Oh my God, oh my God!” she muttered under her breath. Cold fingers lifted her mug. Erma sipped lukewarm coffee.

The phone sounded and Erma splashed coffee onto her sleeve in a rush to read the response. “I feel so honored you’d share this with me! Erma, you know I love you, but I’ve never thought of you that way. If you wanna talk more, I’m here.”

A pit formed in Erma’s stomach. She felt humiliated. Shirise didn’t feel the same. 

Another car came through the toll. Glum, Erma did her job. It was her turn to ignore the driver as they wished her a good night. As taillights disappeared, tightness in her gut eased. Tears threatening receded, as Erma reread the message. “At least Shirise understands,” she grinned. It was better than nothing.

“Thank you,” Erma replied.

Shirise winked with an emoji. 

Though disappointed, Erma started to type a longer note of appreciation. She didn’t want to lose Shirise, even if her hopes were dashed.

As the ellipsis reappeared, she paused. Erma grew sick, “Did she change her mind? Does she never want to see me again?”

Shirise’s next words made Erma dizzy. “I don’t think my earlier text came across correctly. I’ve never thought of you romantically before, but I think I might be okay with exploring new emotions with you. Can we talk more?”

Erma quickly deleted her previous composition. “Yes!” 

The rest of the night dragged on. Erma couldn’t wait for her shift to end. Shirise didn’t text back anymore, but she was a night owl. Erma knew she’d be up studying for many more hours. They lived down the hall from one another and visited often.

Erma smiled to herself, wondering if she should pick up a pineapple pizza, Shirise’s favorite. “She’ll be hungry.” Erma always picked the fruit off her half and gave it to her friend.

She called ahead and ordered for pick up.

Finally, quitting time came around. Barry, her replacement, ran a few minutes late. Erma brushed off his apology and hurried to her car.

“What if mom and dad had waited to make a decision? What if I’m a guy now?” she wondered aloud. “Would I even have been friends with Shirise? Would it be easier for her to like me that way?”

Erma’s hands quivered as she picked up the pizza. She parked in the distant student lot and trekked her way back to campus. 

A dance of blue and red lights sat on the street running beside their dorm. Erma normally didn’t pay any mind to police cars. There was a speed trap on the road.

That night, there were more lights than usual. Erma frowned. There was an ambulance too. Not wishing for an unfortunate circumstance to spoil her mood, she took the long way around.

Sitting on their stoop, a sobbing girl sputtered to an officer. Erma recognized Hari, a girl from their floor. Erma started to turn, heading to another door. She was still in high spirits. Whatever happened, she could deal with it tomorrow. 

From the corner of her eye, a familiar key chain caught her attention. Hari had two book bags. One covered in blood. 

The pizza hit the concrete. “Th- that’s Shirise’s backpack,” Erma stumbled forward.

“Erma!” Hari stood and the two locked arms. Hari’s nails dug into Erma’s skin. “I was holding the door open for her! The car didn’t have its lights on!”

“Where’s Shirise?” Erma’s throat tightened. Hari peered past her, towards the ambulance. Gulping, Erma spun on her heel. Vertigo threatened. “They’re taking her to the hospital, right?”

The cop was speaking. Erma felt her knees give out. She sank into the grass. “… She didn’t make it,” was all she heard.

“If I didn’t stop for pizza… I could’ve been here,” Erma muttered.

Hari whined incoherently to the officer. Erma’s ears rang as she clutched her head. “No, no…”


Erma sighed, annoyed. Her thumbs twiddled, unsure what to do without her phone. Weeks had passed and she’d taken leave from school. She hadn’t been sleeping. After an emotional bout where windows were broken, her parents admitted her to a sleep-study program. One that included therapy. 

“As if taking away my phone’ll make me sleep,” she muttered, tossing from one side to another. Erma kicked her sheets to the foot of the bed. Taking a deep breath, she released it slowly. The soft tick of the clock was the only sound. Sometimes, it felt as if it were in her head. She sat up, debating whether to complain about the noise.

Erma froze, staring at the far wall. There was a strange shimmer. She swung her legs to the ground. Then, cautiously stepped to the abnormal sight. The walls of her room were supposed to be pale blue, not that she could tell in the dark. More importantly, Erma had never noticed anything glittery about it before. The only glow came from a strip under her door. There were fluorescent lights in the hall. Not enough brightness for a mirage. 

Hesitantly, she lifted fingers to touch the wall. Erma gasped. Her hand passed through the wall! Something warm brushed her palm on the other side. Airy fingers, barely there, laced through Erma’s. She recognized the grasp.

“Shirise!” she exclaimed. The familiar hand tugged, and Erma allowed it to lead her through the wall. 

Bright light pierced her eyes. Erma shielded her face, taking a moment to adjust. Soft petals brushed her bare legs, toes digging into velvety earth. When Erma finally opened her eyes, an illustrious rainbow greeted.

Beneath it, with sadness dripping, Shirise waited. 

Tears brimmed as a giggle burst forth. Erma raced to embrace Shirise, speechless with joy. To her horror, her arms grasped air. Shirise’s image was just that. 

“I’m sorry, Hermes,” Shirise spoke, her voice vibrating the air around them. “Zeus called me back.” She lifted a pitcher of dark water, shimmering like the night sky. 

“Is… is that from Styx?” Erma instinctively recognized the fluid. She wondered why Shirise called her “Hermes.”

“Yes. I’m the only one who can retrieve its waters. It’s why I left the mortal realm the way I did.”

“Shirise, where are we? Why can’t I hold you?” tears cascaded down Erma’s cheeks.

A melancholy smile painted Shirise’s lips. “We’re in the messengers’ realm, Hermes. Only you and I can access it. However, in your present state, you cannot step further. Your work as a mortal is not yet complete.”

“I don’t understand. Will I ever see you again?”

“Of course. When your work is done.” Her eyes glistened, “But unfortunately, our time together as Erma and Shirise has passed. It can never be again.” She stepped forward and placed a hand to Erma’s cheek. Erma felt gentle air in its place.         

“It’s not fair! Our story hasn’t started!” Erma wept.  

“My dear Hermes,” Shirise whispered in her ear, “our story began before the dawn of man, and shall continue long after…” Shirise placed her lips to Erma’s. Warm breath brushed her in an ethereal kiss. “I just came to say farewell.” 


Erma shared her dream during the next therapy session. The doctor said it was “subconscious closure.” Erma shrugged.

They were outdoors. A breeze stirred plants around them, and the scent of irises filled the air. Erma grew alert. They were the same flowers that had brushed her legs beneath the rainbow. The large petals dipped and swirled, as if Shirise reached through from another realm in greeting.

Erma’s chest ached, but thin ray of hope emerged. “See ya later, Iris.”

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here

“Fractured Shadows”

Short Story by: Ava Reiss

“Kelsey, don’t forget to check your firewall after brushing your teeth,” a voice called from downstairs.

            “Okay, mom,” the fifteen year old rolled out of bed. Fragments from her preloaded dream program flitted across her eyes. The first day of summer vacation greeted her as she eyed the backpack by her closet. Warmth expanded through her. It’d been packed and repacked weeks ago in preparation. For her sixteenth birthday she was taking her first unchaperoned trip with two friends.

            Skipping into the bathroom, Kelsey stuck a toothbrush into her mouth and found a gadget about one cubic inch amidst hair clips and nail polishes. She turned it around finding the magnetic side. Placing it at the base of her neck, she felt it latch. After a few soft clicks, a familiar relaxation graced Kelsey’s mind. Her neural link synced.

The gadget hummed for a few seconds before a pleasant ping indicated completion. “Firewall up to date.”

            Shaking her hair loose, Kelsey replaced the scanner on its dock. It’d been a quiet morning. She had wanted a good night’s rest so the previous evening, she did something rare. Kelsey had logged out of her MeedFeed account, the current rage in social media.

She couldn’t wait to see what her friends were up to and spit out her toothpaste. “Open MeedFeed,” she spoke. A tingle sparked at the base of her neck where a nano-chip rested beneath her skin. Its signals communicated directly with her frontal lobe.

            “Connecting,” a voice caressed her mind. A second later, “Identity confirmed. Welcome back, Kelsey Gaines.” A virtual screen arched in her mind’s eye, as if surrounding her on three sides. Immediately messages populated on the right as short videos appeared on the left. With regular vision unaffected, Kelsey scrubbed her face while focusing on the video feed.

            Scroll down, she thought and the video page obeyed. A clip of her boyfriend’s dog made her giggle as she reached for her makeup bag. Comment she thought, and a small window popped up below the video. “Aw, I heart puppy,” she spoke. The words appeared in her window. “Post.”

            On the right, a small box wiggled, marked as urgent. It was a private message from Mara, sent about an hour ago. Assuming it concerned the trip the two would soon embark upon, Kelsey squealed as she opened it.

A frown creased her lips. “What’s this?” Instead of playful images or words of excitement, an article was shared.

            “What’s that hon?” her mom peeked into the bathroom.

            “Here, look at this,” Kelsey squinted, thinking hard to forward the article to her mom.

            A second later, her mother’s eyes glazed as her mind scanned the words, “Oh, that’s terrible!” she exclaimed. “Maybe we should postpone your trip to the Freya Islands?”

            “No mom, please!” Kelsey whined. “It was just one incident, and the guy’s okay!”

            “He’s in the hospital!”

“But they say he’ll make a full recovery, mom!”

“If there’re pirates out there hacking into neural links, I don’t want you far!”

            “But I’ve got my new firewall, and I checked it just like you said!” Kelsey begged. “It’s the latest of year 2032!”

            “The article says they got past that update,” her mother raised her voice.

            “Oh mom, they’re just sensationalizing to get more readers. Besides, what’re the chances there’ll be a hacker at the Freya Islands? Everyone has a neural link these days and posting all the time! I promise I’ll be the first out of there if I anything sketchy in the area pops up!”

            “I don’t know, Kelsey. We like to think bad things only happen to others. All it takes is once to be wrong, for regret to happen.”

            “Please, mom! I’ve been waiting forever for this!” Kelsey instantly dug into her past feed and found images of her mother’s first trip to Freya Islands. Kelsey was just a toddler. “Remember how you kept going on and on about how beautiful it is, and how family friendly it is!” Her mother sighed. Kelsey dug in her heels. “You’re being overprotective.”

            Her mother looked tired as her eyes glazed once more. Kelsey could tell she was researching online. A moment later, she conceded. “All right, but call me every day!”

            “Yes! I will, mom! Thank you!” She gave her mother a quick squeeze before returning to preparations. Kelsey caught her giving a lingering look of concern before walking away.

She peeked at the wireless speaker mounted above her mirror. “Play ‘summer playlist’ at volume twenty.” Beats spewed forth as she bounced on her toes, anticipating the trip of a lifetime.

            In her mind-vision, another box wriggled on the right. This message was from Beth, Kelsey’s other travel companion. Beth had copied Mara too. Without much thought, Kelsey opened the message.

“My dad won’t let me go to Freya. It’s that stupid report on the attacks.”

Kelsey’s eyeshadow brush froze mid stroke. A tinge of uncertainty crept upon her, soon overshadowed by disappointment.

            Mara responded immediately, “That’s so unfair! I hadda bargain with my parents to let me go after they read that article!”

            “OMG me too!” Kelsey chimed in. “Is there anything u can do to make them change their minds?”

            Beth sent an emoji rolling her eyes. “They won’t budge.”

            Mara sent a curse. Kelsey creased her brow, “We can’t let my mom know you’re cancelling. She’ll make me stay home too!”

            Mara chipped in, “Kels, I can pick u up early and say we’re meeting Beth for lunch. We should head to the airport early.”

            “Yeah, but if my mom doesn’t see us posting pics over lunch, she’ll probably call your parents.” Kelsey sighed out loud and set down her brush.

            “Damn our narcissism,” Mara added a wicked grin emoji.

            “Hello! Beth’s still here! Still pissed! Make me feel better!”

            “You should sneak out and come with us,” Mara posted. “I mean, u have the tickets and everything. It’d be wasted if u don’t go.”

            “Tru,” Kelsey weighed in. “But aren’t you on lockdown?”

            “Not really,” Beth answered. “I think they want to keep an eye on me, but they planned something this evening, so they’re running around getting ready.”

            “Well then why are we talking about this?” Mara asked. “I’ll pick u up now. Once we’re through airport security, there’s no turning back.”

            “Disaster averted!” Kelsey posted.

            “Oh man, lol, my parents are going to kill me!” Beth messaged. “But it’ll be so worth it!”

            Kelsey scrambled to finish her make-up. Meanwhile she scrolled through well wishes for the summer. Stuck somewhere between the dozen messages was a conversation request from an unknown sender. She thought to delete it, but at the moment her hand accidentally knocked into nail polish remover. Kelsey cried in surprise as it spilled, kicking herself for not listening to her mother. She’d always yelled at Kelsey for leaving things open, bottles and messages alike.

Kelsey froze, noticing she’d accidentally opened the strange message. There was no subject, no body. With a shrug, she deleted it.

            Another urgent message came from Mara, “Outside now.”

            “Hey mom, I’m going out for a jog!” Kelsey sent a message to her mom.

            Old fashioned, her mother called out from another room, “Okay, don’t forget to kiss me goodbye later!”

            Guilt gripped Kelsey. She blew a kiss in the direction of her mother and felt a bit better.

Dashing into her room, she grabbed her backpack and swiftly exited the house. Outside, Mara’s auto-buggy waited behind a bush. Kelsey dove into the self-driving vehicle and it was on its way to Beth’s. They parked a block away and messaged Beth. It didn’t take their friend long to appear.

            “That was close,” Beth griped as they pulled away. “As I was about to climb out the bathroom window, my sister came in.”

            “How rude,” Mara scoffed.

            “Yeah, she just wanted to borrow my brush,” Beth shook her head.

            “Idiot, why didn’t you lock the door?” Kelsey asked.

            “What if someone needed to use it while I’m in Freya? They’d hafta break it down!”

            “Who cares, we’re going to party on the beach!” Mara started dancing and soon the car’s sound system synced to her neural link. Music flooded the cabin. Kelsey joined, waving her elbows about. Anticipating their adventure, she envisioned herself running through waves and feeling the sun on her skin.

Search images of beaches popped up in the background. She closed them out and cleared her cache, chalking it up to her excitement feeding loud thoughts. Sometimes when emotions were high, she accidentally triggered a search.

            Beth slowed her dancing. “Hey, are you guys having trouble with your dream emulator app?”

            “No, why?” Kelsey asked.

            “I got rid of mine a few nights ago because images from it were creeping into my daytime searches.”

            “Ew, no emulator? what’s that like?” Mara made a face.

            Beth grew peaceful, “It was actually kind of nice. I had real dreams. They were weird, made no sense, but left me refreshed when I woke up.”

            “You sure you weren’t just emotional? Maybe on your period?” Kelsey snorted.   

            “Shut up,” Beth laughed. “No, it was weird, it’s like my neural link thought I was asleep and would start playing the dreams. One time, I almost passed out. It was almost like the dream emulator was trying to put my brain to sleep.” She looked genuinely worried. “Good thing I was sitting down. That’s when I decided to uninstall it.”

            “Um, are you sure you’re okay then?” Mara asked. “Maybe you should’ve gone to see a tech doctor.”

            Beth waved dismissively. “When I get back.”

            Kelsey grew thoughtful. She’d been setting the dream emulator to tropical paradise mode, obviously because of their trip. The images she closed down a few minutes ago could’ve been from the app. She didn’t look too carefully.

Should I be concerned?

A message came from Mara, interrupting her thoughts. She shared a video on last year’s Freya music festival. Kelsey smiled and played it on expanded screen.

She hardly realized arriving at the busy airport. Absentmindedly Kelsey heard Mara send the auto-buggy home. They checked in for their flight with videos of Freya still streaming through their minds. Wandering the terminal at a slow pace they occasionally checked the airport map loaded to the side of their videos. It indicated the best places to eat and the location of their gate. All around, others walked and talked to themselves, connected through neural links.

            Absorbed by a video of the beach, Kelsey imagined warm sand running through her fingers as wind kissed her cheeks. A message appeared from Beth. Kelsey opened it to see rows of exclamation points. She composed a response of excitement for Freya. It was then she realized her physical sight was darkening fast. She’d been on autopilot, allowing her subconscious to avoid obstacles.

“Beth? Mara?” Everything went black. “Is this a power outage?”

There were no cries of panic. Confusion filled Kelsey. She turned attention to MeedFeed, “Compose message.” The app was frozen. It was as if the power outage- if that’s what it was- had affected her neural link too.

“Hello?” Kelsey reached for her friends. Her arms moved slowly, as if covered in sludge. “This isn’t funny.” She thought to frown but couldn’t feel the muscles around her mouth. She put a hand to her lips, but found nothing. “Wha-?” she exclaimed. “Somebody, please answer!”

Dead silence.

Why haven’t I run into anything? Kelsey felt she should’ve covered distance in her stumbling. In moments like these, a gross feeling usually settled in her gut. Where is that feeling? She couldn’t sense her legs either. They must be numb. How long have they been that way?

The frozen images on her MeedFeed flicked and pixels scattered. Kelsey wanted to hold her breath, but realized that she actually hadn’t been exhaling for a while. It made her want to panic, but her nerves were unexpectedly steady.

The pixels flicked again and disappeared. In that instant, thousands of images populated and pulled her towards them. Kelsey tried to scream, but no sound came. The new pixels sliced through her mind, leaving Kelsey disoriented.

I’m dreaming. This feels like a dream. All these images here, words, everything just darting in and out. It must be a new dream sequence on the emulator app. Beth said hers was acting up. Mine must be too. Logical. Very logical

… But mother says I’m not the logical type.

Kelsey aimed to pull herself together amid the flashing pages fogging her mind. She tried to hone in on an image or article before it disappeared. But her thought commands were ignored.



Kelsey rethought the action, harder this time.

The pixels changed direction and she lost what little control she’d grasped. Spinning helplessly, Kelsey found herself surfing headlines. Looming over the ever changing images was the word, “Trends.”

Stop scrolling. Kelsey begged. Have I been hacked? Despite her mind in a frenzy, her body felt unnaturally calm. What’s the matter with me?

Sometimes the scrolling would slow and select pages moved to a pile. She soon discovered they were being grouped by numbers. Is- Is that the date? Using enormous effort, Kelsey studied the numbers carefully. That can’t be the date! If it is, then it’s September and summer’s over!

Kelsey struggled to turn and run, but her legs felt mired. Her physical eyesight hadn’t returned and when she reached hands to galvanize her body, they found nothing. Even the sensation of her arms had diminished. The idea of dread visited, even though Kelsey felt no fear.

“Investigation of Teenagers Returned Results,” a glaring headline flashed.

Curious, Kelsey turned her attention to the trend. The title went by instantaneously, but a similar page soon appeared. Kelsey pushed her mind forward, and the page drew her in. She didn’t resist as pixels wrapped around her. Kelsey bounced around sentences, reading the article out of order. It took her a while to piece it together.

She released a gasp.

“Teenage girls cleared of hijacking charges posthumously. It was found their neural links were compromised, therefore they were not responsible for bringing the bomb onboard flight MQ4516 to Freya Islands.”

What the hell?

            “… the Mara Smith case, where fragments of code believed to be the girl’s consciousness were downloaded into the Smith’s computer. Doctors and technicians alike have been trying for months to solve the mystery; the age old question of sentience asked repeatedly. The family shared nearly a thousand hours of interaction with the program. After thorough discussion, they determined the code was not their daughter. Specialists believe it to be a copy of her thought patterns, somehow casted into the world wide web at her moment of cyber abduction.

Mr. Smith comments, ‘It’s not our daughter. It’s not self-aware, only responding to our prompts in a manner similar to our daughter. Like the techs said, the program formulated an algorithm of her personality through information found in her online accounts. Please, in honor of Mara’s memory, delete any remnants of the code.’ The specialists have since obliged.”

Kelsey stopped reading. Omg, did the same thing happen to me? Am I dead? Am I just a copy of my consciousness somehow injected on the net?

But I’m self-aware! What if Mara was too? Where’s Beth? I don’t want to be alone.

Kelsey tried to leave the article, but pixels poured over her as more articles were cached. Caught in the avalanche, the words “It’s not our daughter, It’s not self-aware” flashed repeatedly. Each instance elicited an emotional reaction. Something she hadn’t been able to experience since the blackout. As she tried to sob, anxieties boomeranged back, breaking Kelsey apart. She felt her mind coming undone.   

A piece of Kelsey remained trapped in the article. Another latched onto an image of the charred plane her hijacked body had destroyed. A third escaped into numbers and soon found itself drifting amongst algorithms for ads. Many smaller pieces were carried away to far reaches of the internet. All remained linked and the buzz of endless information made it nearly impossible for Kelsey to reorganize her mind.

The largest chunk of intact consciousness surfaced from time to time, forming coherent thoughts. Help! I’m all over the place!

Data streams rushed her consciousness from one place to the next. Kelsey felt herself slipping away, being constantly bombarded by information. The largest piece of her consciousness recalled a prayer from her youth. She recited it, hoping to be saved somehow. But I can’t be saved, can I? This is Hell. Cyber-Hell.

An unfamiliar barrage of 1s and 0s swept through her mind. Kelsey noted their strange appearance.

A year went by. Kelsey only knew this by catching a glimpse of a “Today’s Horoscope” article. To her, it felt as if no time had passed at all.

Unexpectedly, the 1s and 0s appeared again. It latched onto the largest fragment of Kelsey and pulled her away. She tried to fight, but soon lost the will. The chain of 1s and 0s seemed to hold a purpose, expertly zipping around letters and numbers. Where are we going?

To her alarm, the 1s and 0s responded, “To answers.” Stunned, Kelsey fell mute. She desperately wished to ask more. But her scattered mind struggled to keep thoughts together.

Soon, a blue light appeared and the 1s and 0s rushed towards it. Apprehension crept over Kelsey, but she couldn’t break free. The 1s and 0s didn’t slow, charging into the light. Bright rays pierced Kelsey.

When the light receded, Kelsey gasped to see she had a body once more. Her mind was clearer than it had been since the black out. She stood on a Freya beach and palm trees swayed. Why can’t I feel the wind?

            “Because this is a simulation,” a voice answered.

            “Where am I?” Kelsey asked in a shaky voice. Her hand went to her throat. “I can speak again!”

            “You’re inside an NSA computer. We’ve screened out your other mind fragments to diminish noise. Don’t try to elicit emotion, or your code will break apart further.”

            “Am I- Am I like Mara? Am I just a copy of my mind?”


            “Are you the government?”

            “Yes and No. I am an artificial intelligence test program written by the NSA. They named me Beth because fragments of Beth Leary’s code are embedded in me.”

            “You ate her mind?” The information came as a jolt, but emotions didn’t register.

            “Beth’s code was fractured beyond repair. One could say we saved what was left of her. In your group of three, she was the first to be hijacked through her neural link. She realized this and tried to warn you and Mara. In doing so, her mind took the brunt of the attack. This meant you and Mara were left mostly intact.”

            “Then Mara…”

            “She was already gone. The deletion was only of a shadow of her mind.”

            “What happened to me?”

            “You opened an empty message which allowed hackers into your neural link. A classic phishing expedition. The perpetrators knew you were going to be on the flight to the Freya Islands. They used you to commit a crime.”        

            Speechless, Kelsey dropped her eyes. She squeezed toes in the sand and watched them move. The sensation of graininess was absent. I’ll never feel the sun in Freya. I’ll never kiss my mom again. None of this is real. She squeezed her eyes shut. To her relief, there was nothing but darkness. It felt inviting, to be absent of a MeedFeed screen. I wish I could get lost in this blackness forever. I wish I could die.

“You are dead. Your charred remains were laid to rest two weeks after the attack.”

            Kelsey’s eyes snapped open. “But I still feel! I still want! I can’t be dead!”

“What you experience as emotion is merely an algorithm of interaction your brain had with your body. You must be careful not to over-stimulate these emotional codes. Since they does not have a body to affect, it will rebound and shatter you. This is what happened to Mara.”

Kelsey wanted to weep at the information, but realized she didn’t really feel any way about it. Weeping was merely a reaction she would’ve once deemed appropriate. “Why am I here? Do you want to eat me too?”

“We did not eat Beth. We merged remnants of her data with the artificial intelligence program. We do not wish to merge you. You are more or less whole. We wish to study you to assist in coding sentience.”

Kelsey processed the information. “So, I’ll be like your pet?”

“Our subject. We would be able to create any virtual environment for you to ‘live’ in. Your perceived comfort is important to us.”

“So, I could stay on these simulated Freya Islands forever?” She wasn’t even sure she wanted to.


Kelsey bit her lip. “Do you need my permission?”

“The process would be easier if you are a willing participant. If your consciousness were to reject the process, the data could be corrupted.”

“It sounds like you’re saying you could force me to do this.” Sher curled her toes in dissatisfaction. Still wishing she could feel the sand.


Kelsey sighed, “What about the fractured pieces of my mind still scattered on the web?”

“We will eventually track those down and stitch them back into you. There is a chance we will never find all pieces.”

As she considered the words, Kelsey stared straight at the sun. It didn’t burn her retinas and felt disappointing. “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

“What else do you have to exist for?”

Her eyes dropped to lulling waves. Knowing they weren’t real, Kelsey didn’t have the desire to run towards them. She folded her arms and rubbed her shoulders. “My mom. Can I see her?”

A screen appeared before Kelsey, blocking the view of the ocean. It was a security camera at a grocery store. It showed her mother stopping before the fruits. Kelsey’s hand went to her mouth. The bags under her mother’s eyes were heavy and gray hairs peaked around her temples. “I want to talk to her.”

“That is not possible. Nor is it wise.”

“You’re lying!” Kelsey pushed, but knew the program was right. Her mother would only suffer to know Kelsey was trapped like Mara. Furthermore, Mara’s family would never forgive themselves if even an iota of second-guessing their decision existed.

It’s only you and me against the world, kiddo, Kelsey heard her mother’s voice rise from a memory. Now she had no one.

“Kels,” the voice changed to Beth’s. “If you help us, think how many people you could protect in the future. Once we program sentience and its learning patterns, we can improve our defenses. No one else needs be hacked.”

Hearing her friend’s voice, Kelsey felt emotion rise. She stopped herself, remembering the warning. Kelsey brushed hair behind her ear, making her decision. “Do one thing for me and I’ll agree.”

“What is your request?”

“Send my mother a kiss emoji, but back date it to the day of the hijacking.”


Kelsey watched her mother glance up from the fruits. The familiar distant look entered her eyes as she checked her messages. Tears soon beaded in the woman’s eyes as she dropped to her knees.

Goodbye mother. I love you. Kelsey felt emotions surging and turned away. “Please, no more.” The screen disappeared.

“Welcome to the future, Kels.”

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here