Editor’s Choice in our 2020 book contest
Born on the First of Two was released on December 1, 2021.
You can order the book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and at our store: amazon.com/stonesoup
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. The girl’s breathing was labored and fast, the way it always was when she had this dream, this memory. It was a strange dream; it seemed to linger in her mind, tickling its edges like light in her peripheral vision. She’d had it for as long as she could remember, but she never became quite used to it; every time it came to her in her sleep, she found herself unsettled.
The sky was light blue, and the sun radiated its warmth down on the Earth. Birds chirped contentedly in verdant, leafy trees while bees hummed along as they flew from flower to flower, careful not to damage the soft, delicate petals.
The girl—then just a baby—sat on the ground just beyond the shadow of a small cottage, running her hands through the cool, glossy grass. She laughed at its touch, the way it slid along her chubby palm, and gazed up at the sky in wonder at the occasional fluffy cloud that drifted through on the mercy of the breeze, sweet air pumping its way into her lungs. She wanted to go up there. She wanted to be in that dazzling blue and run her hands along the clouds. She giggled merrily at this gorgeous day.
Here, the dream-memory became fragmented, shattered visions stabbing her mind.
The sky became dark, dominated by threatening clouds that seemed to reach up into space and cast jagged shadows over the June day. The birds stopped singing, and the temperature dropped.
She could feel the warm air leaving her lungs, cold, thick air forcing its way down her throat instead. It was searing, like a block of ice. She gasped for breath, rasping and wheezing, unable to cry as numbness spread through her, jamming into her arms and legs.
Two blurred figures appeared. One—she realized it was her mother— ran toward her, unclasped a golden necklace from her neck, and fastened it around the baby’s neck. “You’ll know how to find us,” the woman whispered hoarsely.
The girl/baby, for now she was not sure which one she was, held out her hand, but her mother was already racing toward the gate in the white picket fence, rejoining her father.
“Stay back!” they called at the clouds. “Stop!” Their voices rang with fear and shook with weakness.
Now, outside the fence, there were many dark figures cloaked in dark robes that matched the army of clouds above. Their voices were deep and rumbling, like thunder that was mad, thunder on a rampage.
“No!” the girl’s parents shouted. “Stay away!” But the figures were advancing, opening the gate, and the coldness was tightening its grip and the wind was howling.
Then her father turned to the sky, tears in his eyes. “Save her!” he yelled. His voice echoed into the sky.
And suddenly the air twisted like vines wrapping around a tree, and the girl was falling up, sucked into a dark tunnel. The coldness vanished, replaced instead by a constricting feeling as the air and darkness seemed to tighten—for it was as if they were one thing—and the girl was left writhing, shouting into emptiness as she tried to fall back to Earth to see her parents one last time.
She awoke. Her sheets were twisted and her chest tight, as if there were cords binding it. She sat up in bed, panting, and clutched her neck, grabbing the golden necklace that had been placed on her so many years ago. She wrapped her fist around it, feeling the cool metal soak into her sweaty hand, and tried to relax, staring into the rich darkness of her room, so different from that of the tunnel. She knew it would be a long time before she allowed the waves of sleep to crash over her once again.
Stars Up and Down
“Maya!” Auntie’s voice flowed like honey, rich and deep, through the little house.
“What?” By contrast, Maya’s voice was sharp and clear, like water.
“It’s suppertime.” Auntie stood at the foot of the stairs, shouting up to her niece’s room.
“But I’m busy, Auntie,” Maya complained. Auntie could hear her sigh.
“Maya, in the eleven years you have lived in this house, you have never once skipped supper, and I do not intend for you to start now.” Auntie’s tone should have told Maya that this was nonnegotiable.
However, Maya either didn’t pick up on this, or ignored it. “But I have homework!”
“You can do your homework after supper!”
In her room, sitting on her bed, Maya jutted out her jaw. “Do I have to?”
“Yes. Now I’ll be out on the porch. Get your supper and come out there.” Auntie’s receding footsteps told Maya she was going outside.
Begrudgingly, Maya slid off her bed, lay on the floor for a good ten seconds just out of spite, then picked herself up and began storming down the hallway and downstairs. She wasn’t mad, per se, just highly annoyed. However, it is always more fun to storm downstairs than to walk.
She picked up a plate of spaghetti in the kitchen and headed out onto the porch, sitting down with the air of someone who is being forced to do so. “Are you happy now?” She glared at Auntie.
Auntie sighed placidly and swirled her spaghetti around with her fork. “Maya, I’m always happy when you’re with me.”
Maya’s hard, emerald-green eyes, flecked with silver and gold, softened for a moment before she resumed her pretense of anger. “Hmph.” She stabbed a meatball on top of her spaghetti. Her thoughts blew around crazily as she tried to find a way to fuel the fire of her own annoyance. As she settled on the perfect method, her eyes lit up slightly, the green becoming more alive, a wild forest.
Before she had a chance to speak, though, Auntie interjected: “Maya, why are you avoiding my eyes?”
“I’m not,” Maya answered, all too guiltily, her eyes wandering to a spot just over Auntie’s ear. “You know,” she began, preparing to launch her dagger of anger into Auntie’s heart, “my p—”
“Maya.” Auntie’s voice was firm now, not concerned, but curious. “Why aren’t you looking at me?”
Instead of answering this time, Maya just went ahead and launched her attack. “My parents would have let me do my homework and miss supper.” Her voice was laced with poison.
Auntie did not look provoked, though. She merely shook her head sadly. “Maya, don’t go there. It’s not fair.”
“Not fair to you, maybe,” Maya exclaimed, now truly angry without knowing why. “Because you know I’m right!”
“No—” Auntie tried to say, her blue eyes swimming.
“Have you ever thought that maybe it’s hard for me to not have parents, huh? Have you ever thought that it’s weird living with someone I call my aunt, someone I’m not even related to?” Darkness was setting around them, though the porch remained illuminated. The stars were beginning to come out, and the night air was cool and sweet.
Maya’s eyes shone with tears, but still she avoided Auntie’s gaze. She fingered the golden necklace around her neck. A thin pendant hung from the chain, and as Maya traced her fingers over the engraving of a dove, it grew warm to her touch.
“Maya,” Auntie pleaded. “Look at me.”
“Maya, please. You don’t want this anger. It doesn’t deserve you. You are better than it.”
“We both know that you get caught up in your anger very quickly. But you don’t have to. Look at me.”
“I don’t want you to use your power,” Maya spat out. They both knew what that meant. Auntie’s power was to calm people down, the way others could teleport or fly.
Maya hated the way it felt when Auntie used her power, the way it seemed to submerge her in a garden of sweet-smelling flowers. The way it forced the anger out of her, whether she wanted to keep it or not. It didn’t matter whether her anger was justified or not—Maya wanted to be the one to send it away, not to have it overpowered by perfume.
Auntie stared at the table. “Okay. You need to calm down, though.”
“I know,” Maya admitted. She could feel her anger slipping away from her, vanishing through the cracks in the porch.
“Look.” Auntie tilted her head. “Look out past the porch. The night is so beautiful. The stars are too.” Her face adopted a serene glaze as she looked off into the darkness.
“The stars are always beautiful,” Maya muttered, her anger rallying one last time. Still, she stood up, her chair scraping the wooden porch, and rested her elbows on the porch railing. The wind swept her dark brown hair over her shoulder, stroking it like a parent she couldn’t have.
“I wonder what it’s like down on Earth,” she mused. “I wonder if they look up at the clouds and wish they could be up here with us.” She recalled having had that very thought in her dream. How strange it was that she had been brought up to the Land of the Clouds immediately after desiring that very thing.
Auntie came to stand with Maya. Together they looked out into the darkness, at other homes, at the towns of the Land perched delicately on the tops of clouds. “It’s beautiful there,” Auntie sighed, recalling her adventures on Earth. She looked down, where a gap in the clouds revealed tiny orange lights—human life. There were stars up and down.
“Though not many people ever get to see it.”
Maya kept her mouth firmly shut, knowing that this last sentence was directed at her, a sort of “don’t even think about it until you’re old enough.” In her mind, however, she was already travelling to Earth. What would it be like to see the stars from down there?
The next morning dawned bright and clear. The sun had just come up when Maya awoke to her alarm. She turned it off and rose from bed, shaking sleep from her eyes. Pink-golden light spilled into her room, coating her desk and bureau, bed and bookshelf. She pushed the window open and let the sunlight hit her face, relishing its warmth in the frigid morning air.
She dressed in a simple tunic and cloak, then proceeded to go downstairs for breakfast. The smell of scrambled eggs caused her stomach to grumble. Auntie was setting two pieces of toast on plates, her silver hair neatly plaited, as Maya sat down at the kitchen table. As there was no precipitation above the clouds, they ate supper on the porch almost every evening, after the sun had warmed the wooden floor. But in the morning, it was still too cold to sit outside.
“Good morning,” Auntie said. Her tone was welcoming and warm, like an embrace, but Maya sensed a note of hesitancy. Neither of them had forgotten their fight from the night before.
“Morning,” Maya replied, greedily grabbing a plate of toast and nearly shoving it down her throat. It crunched pleasantly in her mouth. “Where are we today?” Maya inquired through a mouthful of toast.
This was not an odd question in the least. In fact, most children asked it every morning and evening as well. Since the “land” of the Land was clouds, they often moved from place to place—wherever the wind blew them—every day. It was an exciting game for little children who loved trying to guess the correct answer, and an interesting bit of trivia for everyone else.
“We’re over southern France this morning,” Auntie informed Maya. “So it should be warmer today.”
“Good,” Maya said. She supposed weather could be cold on Earth, but it could be absolutely freezing in the Land—frigid to the point where you had to wear three heavy layers.
Maya finished her breakfast and bid farewell to Auntie as she grabbed her backpack and headed out the door, wrapping her cloak around herself.
She skipped along the sidewalk, careful to stay away from the precipice at the edge of the cloud. People did occasionally fall off. Some could fly back up. Maya had no idea what happened to the others.
“Hey!” a voice called from near Maya. She whirled around and saw her friend, Scarlett Clayden, leaving her house, her two little sisters in tow.
“Hi, Scarlett,” Maya yelled back, walking toward her friend. “What’s up?”
“Nothing, really. I have to take my sisters to daycare this morning because Mom’s on an assignment.”
“Oooh.” Maya’s eyes sparkled in the sunlight.
“Yeah. I don’t know much about it, but if you wait for me in the park while I drop these two off, we can walk to school together and I’ll tell you.”
“Sounds good. See you there.” Maya started off again. As she left her neighborhood, with all of its houses in neat rows, she began to see more and more people. Some biked in the streets, some walked, and some flew. And Maya knew there were many more commuters who were teleporting.
She reached the park, with its towering trees, and sat down on a bench. The ways of the Land were unknown to most people. In school, they learned about Earth and its people, but they never really talked about why the Land worked the way it did. As far as Maya was concerned, no one knew how trees could grow above the clouds, or how the citizens of the Land could survive, and even thrive in, cold temperatures that could kill a human. The Land of the Clouds was a mystery, and Maya was fine with that.
She was just pulling out some homework about the geography of Earth when Scarlett strode up to her. “Hello,” Maya said, looking up at her friend.
“Hey.” Scarlett sat down on the bench next to Maya and peered over at the homework Maya had out. “It’s plateau: P-L-A-T-E-A-U, not ‘plato.’”
“Oh, right.” Maya grinned sheepishly. “Wait, what did you get for question four? ‘Liquid precipitation on Earth?’”
“Okay, same.” She stood, and they began to walk. “So, the assignment?”
The two girls were obsessed with Scarlett’s mother’s assignments. She was part of a select group allowed to visit Earth in order to make sure that the world was running smoothly, that no human was in danger of messing it all up. Maya and Scarlett got up from the bench and walked through the lovely green park as Scarlett told Maya all that she knew.
“Mom didn’t say much. But, you know, she never does about these things. I suppose they’re probably top secret.”
“Top secret,” Maya sighed pleasantly. “I would love to be a part of a top-secret mission.”
“Yeah,” Scarlett agreed, nodding so that her long platinum blonde hair swayed slightly. “Anyway, she said it wasn’t a very big mission. There are only two of them going down to Earth this time.”
“When’s the mission?” Maya asked. Like “where,” “when” was not a terribly uncommon question. The Land of the Clouds existed outside the flow of time. It was like a fern on the bank of a large river. Though the fern might get splashed by water sometimes, it wasn’t a part of the river.
“Um . . .” Scarlett scratched her chin in thought. “I think my mom said 1400s CE. Whenever there were all those kings in Europe.”
Maya sighed again as they passed a small office building. “I would love to time travel.”
“We’re learning how to in school. In just a few years—”
“I know, I know. But I’m ready now. I want to time travel. I know I could time travel.” Her voice was yearning, betraying her obsessiveness. Her eyes glittered frighteningly.
“Maya,” started Scarlett, raising her shield, preparing for an argument.
“Don’t ‘Maya’ me! I’m ready!” Maya could feel the heat in her tone rising. “I’m the best in the class, and I want to get out of here!”
She began walking faster, leaving Scarlett in her wake. It was true. She knew she was the best in the class at the principles of time travel. So why wouldn’t anyone let her do it? It isn’t fair, she thought, practically screaming the words in her head.
Maya’s cheeks were flushed with anger by the time she reached school. She wrenched open the door to her classroom, stomped to the back of the room, and sat down in her seat. Scarlett came in a few minutes later. She stared at Maya for a moment as if trying to read her mind, then took her own seat two rows away.
At 7:15, the bell rang for first period. It wasn’t loud, just a faint buzz in the background.
The teacher, Sir Galiston, entered the room, sweeping his cloak as he did so. Tall and broad, he looked like a hero from one of Earth’s medieval stories. Amused by Sir Galiston’s entrance, Maya almost turned to roll her eyes at Scarlett before remembering that Scarlett was probably still mad at her.
“Good morning, class,” Sir Galiston said. His voice was high pitched and squeaky, like that of a baby bird.
“Good morning, sir,” responded the class in a dull fashion. Their lack of enthusiasm wasn’t due to the fact that Sir Galiston’s class was bad. More that he was often overdramatic. In fact, Sir Galiston was one of the best, most experienced teachers in all of the Land, having been on the front lines in one of the greatest battles of all time. He would regale them with stories most every day in his class, History of the Land. Today was no exception.
“Now,” he announced in his strange chirp. “The next subject in your curriculum is the War of the OCT. Luckily for you, I fought in that war.” He made a flourished bow, and half of the class, Maya included, smothered their giggles.
It was hard for Maya to stay angry and on edge when Sir Galiston told stories. He made them bright and fun, unlike the textbooks, which turned lively tales into dry dust. And as Sir Galiston began, Maya felt her anger receding like the tide. It was not gone, just removed from her focus for the time being.
“It must have been over a hundred years ago,” Sir Galiston said, striding up and down the front of the room. “I was only a boy—well, I was seventeen. I had just discovered my power . . . Yes, seventeen,” he repeated, seeing their looks of astonishment. “It was much more common to discover your power around age sixteen or so back then, not at twelve.
“Anyway, my power, as I’m sure you all know, is flight. Not a terribly uncommon power, but still . . . Now, who here actually knows what the OCT were?” Only a few students raised their hands, Scarlett among them. Maya supposed her mother had told her about them.
“Ah, well,” mused Sir Galiston. “I should probably tell you about them, then. ‘OCT’ stands for the Organization to Control Time, and the Octagons were People of the Land of the Clouds, just like you. You kids all know how we try to interfere with human affairs as little as possible, right? Well, the OCT wanted to control time and the outcome of human events. That completely violated the Standard of Time Travel, which stated that we would use time travel only to keep humanity safe.
“They wore awful black robes with an octagon emblazoned on the back and always traveled in groups of eight. It was their lucky number.” Some giggled, most likely at the notion that an evil organization could have a lucky number.
“No—don’t laugh. The Octagons were dreadful people. Their motto was ‘Beware the storm,’” Sir Galiston continued.
“Anyway, there were several skirmishes between them and the rest of us in the Land before the great battles began. Their leader, Fredrick von Hopsburg, had the power to transform his appearance and often appeared as a young boy. One skirmish began when he . . .”
And so Sir Galiston rambled on, describing the war in enthralling detail and also recounting his own brave actions that saved the mayor, leader of the Land. “Thus,” he concluded, “we good People of the Land vanquished the OCT. However, I must tell you, they are still out there. They mostly reside on Earth now, hiding in the shadows, making mischief, interfering with human governments and history. Many of the Land’s missions to Earth involve correcting their mistakes.”
Maya saw many of her classmates cast a furtive glance at Scarlett, whose cheeks were now turning cherry red; the class knew about Scarlett’s mother.
“There will undoubtedly be a time when the OCT attempts to regain its former might,” Sir Galiston informed his pupils. “As you should know, after the war, Grenna the Great made the prophecy that is now engraved on the fountain in every town square across the Land of the Clouds.”
Many students nodded at this. Most of them, Maya included, walked past the fountain every day.
“The prophecy goes, ‘The child—’”
But at this point, the bell had hummed, and Sir Galiston dismissed the class, shouting after them in his squeaky voice that he would carry on with this story tomorrow.
Our annual book contest opens every spring and runs through the summer. This year, we will publish one winner in fiction and one in poetry. You can read more about it at stonesoup.com/contests