“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!”

            “Wh-What?”

            “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.”

“D-dreams?”

“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

“Runaway”

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.”

            “And?”

            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.

Ctrl+Alt+Delete.

Nothing.

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?”

            “Yes.”

            “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.

“Yes.”

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.

“Yes.”

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.”

“Done.”

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