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Our September Flash Contest was based on Prompt #219 (provided by Stone Soup intern Sage Millen), which asked that participants simply write a scene in which two people are lying to each other. This straight forward prompt led to some brilliant writing, all of which was structured in distinct, fascinating ways. One story focused on two characters running together with the dramatic irony that neither character actually wanted to be running. Another story pitted a man and a woman fated to be married against each other, both of them lying about their happiness. And another story told a cautionary tale about a pair of wily friends in a magic forest, and the escalation of trickery. As always, we thank all who submitted and encourage you to submit again next month!

In particular, we congratulate our Winners and our Honorable Mentions, whose work you can appreciate below.

Winners
“The Job Offer" by Dev Agarwal, 13
“Coyote Falls" by Elise Buck, 11
“The King's Plan" by Eiaa Dev, 13
“Running in Circles" by Marin Hamory, 11
“Happiness" by Lui Lung, 13

Honorable Mentions
“Liar" by Asha Akkinepally, 12
“Saving of Rabbitland" by Claire Chen, 11
“Exchange of Power" by Sophie Li, 11
“The Two Explorers of Gorklin" by Aryaman Majumder, 11"
“Lying" by June Schaffer, 9


The Job Offer

Dev Agarwal, 13

Tuesday, 5:03 pm

A prolonged silence spread through the room like a poisonous gas. It diseased the two people, a man and a woman, sitting on opposite ends of a sofa within it. Both appeared somewhat confused, yet each seemed to be trying to muster up the courage to speak first. Finally, a single word, thoroughly checked before it passed the man’s lips, cut through the nauseating quiet like a bullet.

“Huh.”

This solitary remark conveyed more meaning to the woman than all the words in the dictionary. She stirred slightly, but, other than that, displayed no reaction whatsoever. Yet, a thousand thoughts were darting across the expanse of her mind.

 

Rebecca, 5:05 PM

Ok. This is a lot to process in one go, but I guess you’re just gonna have to stick with me on this one. First things first: I’m Rebecca, I’m a freelance psycho-therapist, and I’ve been married to Peter for, what, five years now? Seems like a lifetime. Anyways, a couple of months ago, Peter got a call from a friend from his old job who hit it big-time in a tech company up in the States. The call was about the same company, and get this:

HE OFFERED PETER A JOB.

Well, not really. He basically said that a position had just opened up and that Peter was perfect for it. And it wasn’t even a small desk job either — it was a pretty solid position. I have to say, the call excited me. A lot. I could tell that Peter didn’t like the fact that he’d have to move from here in the UK to LA. I mean, in my opinion, the location would be a lot better. He still applied, though — you know, just to amuse the guy who offered it. He submitted his resume last week, and the craziest thing happened.

 

5:07 pm

“You got The Job,” Rebecca said finally, her awed tone turning it into a proper noun. “I got The Job,” replied Peter in a dazed monotone.

At this point, Rebecca had settled into quite an awkward position, her body desperately trying to pull it off. Her head was held high and her back perfectly straight, yet her hands were clamped between her legs, and she made no attempt to pick up the glass of water on the table in front of her that her throat so desperately craved.

Peter’s situation was not much better, his body clenched tightly together as if he were a bomb that could explode any minute. He didn’t know what to think, yet he thought regardless.

 

Peter, 5:08 pm

Hello. My name is Peter O’Sullivan, and I’ve been born and bred in Britain. I have a wife, called Rebecca, and I recently received a call concerning — well, hardly a job offer, but something along those lines. The call was for a company that my ex-colleague, Mark Villami, started working for 7 years ago. In fact, he made the call. It’s a desk job, but I could do with some novelty in my life. Not that the pay is any worse. I wasn’t so keen on it because it was easy to tell that Rebecca wasn’t comfortable with one aspect: we’d have to move to the suburbs of Los Angeles. I submitted an application regardless, and what do you know? I got the offer! I’ve been terribly keen to take it, but for reasons described above, I’m probably going to turn it down. Not now, however; I’m interested in Rebecca’s take on it.

 

5:09 pm

“You don’t have to take it if you really don’t want to,” commented Rebecca in a passive-aggressive manner.

She turned to look at him, but Peter replied with a blank stare. This could only mean one thing.

 

Rebecca, 5:09 PM

Yeah, I don’t think Peter wants to take it.

 

Peter, 5:10 pm

After a thorough appraisal of that statement, it is clear that Rebecca doesn’t want me to accept the job offer. All to my dismay, of course, though I must say, I am doing rather well at trying to act cool.

 

5:10 pm

Finally, Peter broke the stare and stated matter-of-factly, “Rebecca. I completely agree with you, and I don’t want to take the job.”

Something twitched in Rebecca’s face. “I never told you to not take it,” she said quickly.

“So you want me to take the job offer?”

“No, no, uh, I don’t want you to take it, I never did. I like our life here, you know, in London, in this one-bedroom flat. I’d never ask you to leave!”

“Right. Glad we’re in agreement then.” 

"Yeah, no, definitely.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

It really wasn’t a productive relationship.

 

Rebecca, 5:11 PM

Oh well. I guess I’ll have to try searching for job offers in the UK then.

 

Peter, 5:11 pm

Oh how I yearn for the day that Rebecca will let me move out of this dump.

 

5:31 pm

The atmosphere in the room had not grown any better. A tense mood hung about it like a sickening humidity.

“Um, what are you doing?” Peter asked.

“Reading,” Rebecca said, the sudden twang of hope that coloured her face hidden behind a magazine.

“What are you reading?”

“A magazine.”

There was, once again, another bout of silence in which both parties paid close attention to the pitter-patter of rain on the window. In fact, the noise had grown so loud, Rebecca was suddenly seized by the thought that the rain was begging her to let loose the emotional baggage contained within her. So she did not.

“Dinner’s ready,” she said.

“Excellent.”

“Peter?”

"Yes, Rebecca?”

“Why do I get the feeling that you want to tell me something?”

 

Peter, 5:32 pm

Uh oh.

 

5:32 pm

It was true. A great many thoughts of quiet longing panged in his heart. What could he say about it?

“There’s nothing I want to tell you, Rebecca. Uh — Is there anything you want to tell me?”

She swallowed. Peter eyed this movement with great care, exploring its possible meanings.

 

Rebecca, 5:33 PM

Oh God, I-I think I’m gonna say it.

 

Peter, 5:33pm

I don’t think I can hold it for much longer.

 

5:33 pm

“I want you to take the job—”

“I want to take the job,” said Rebecca and Peter at the same time.

Rebecca dropped her magazine.

Peter delicately placed down his cup of tea, taking care to put it safely on a coaster.

There were no words for what happened next, nor did they think. They both jumped from their perches and embraced, an embrace which expressed their thoughts, their feelings, and their innermost motives.

“Also, I forgot to tell you,” said Rebecca, her face muzzled in Peter’s shirt collar. She pulled away.

“I want a divorce.”


Coyote Falls

Elise Buck, 11

As the river shivered along with the harsh winds, a pair of young, battered souls clung to each other through bright, blue eyes. Their minds overflowing with thoughts, they waded into the pristine waters. 

Laughing, one blew the other a kiss from across the stream. She had a nose sharper than a knife and lengthy locks of blonde hair. She was tall and slender. Her name was Eden. 

The boy leaped toward her, pretending to catch the airborne kiss. After crashing into the water with an immense splash, he peeked back above the surface, chuckling along with the lanky girl, mouth filled with river water. He had a blunt nose and brown hair. His name was Cupid. 

They had secrets that would kill somebody – and that was the plan. 

The two made their way back to the rocky shore, panting and shuddering with cold. “It’s perfect,” Eden murmured. “Away from the Patrol, not living in constant fear – how long did you say you’ve been doing this?” 

“Eight years,” he smiled, and she raised her eyebrows in surprise. “My parents died right before – river accident. I do miss them, but I’ve got other people at the Falls, and I’m free to enjoy that.” They sat in silence for quite a while, both contemplating everything that had happened days before. Eden finally broke the quietness, saying, “Cupid, I have some – er, you could say friends – that I want you to meet.” 

“Friends? You have friends?” He laughed, and she lightly hit him on the shoulder in response. 

“Peasants from my neighborhood – all wanted to run away, too, but… you can guess what happened. They’re being released today, so they could use an expert like you to get to the Falls.” 

“It’s pretty risky.” He considered for a moment. “But sounds like it’s worth it. We should probably start heading there now if we’re planning to make it by dusk.” 

The pair stood and disappeared through the forest – not before Eden took one final glance at the crystal waters. She breathed in the salty air in full knowledge of what was to come. 

As they traveled through the thick foliage, the sky turned from a deep blue to an orange the color of the medicinal herbs surrounding their pathway. When a yellowing gibbous moon hung in the sky, the brush around them eased into dirt roads, and the kingdom of Coyote Falls grew nearer. Cupid, who was not near tired despite the hours of travel, turned to Eden, who seemed to grow more worried with each step. When her eyes told him she was fearfully concerned, he finally asked her if she was feeling alright. 

Hot tears formed in her eyes, but she did a good job of hiding this. She sighed, “I’m just worried, you know – what if they don’t make it? What if we don’t?” 

He drifted to her side. “Hey – we’re going to make it – okay? Do you believe me?” 

She nodded, though they both knew her answer was still a resounding no. 

At last, the brass gates of the empire were in sight, and the fatigued travelers sighed to themselves in unison. When his gaze was fixed on her, the lanky girl marched up to him and embraced the muscular boy. She sobbed, “Cupid – please, don’t die. You can’t die on me. You just can’t.” 

He wrapped his arms around hers. “I won’t. I know what I’m doing. I’ve done this a thousand times – “ 

“But you don’t understand!” She jumped back, panting. “They’ll kill you, don’t deny it, they will – oh, Cupid!” 

“Eden, Eden,” he coaxed. “I won’t die, I told you – look, the odds are on our side, so what makes you think I’ll die?” 

She gulped. “Because I helped them do it.” 

Before he could question her, she pulled him up to her and planted a kiss on his lips. She pulled away quickly but did not hesitate to use all her remaining strength to hug him tight. She stepped out of the embrace and observed every beaten feature of his face, as though trying to memorize it. 

“Goodbye, Cupid,” she whispered. 

The metal gates swung open with great force, and a chariot of white horses with armor of pure silver followed it. A dozen Patrol Guards armed with double-edged swords were perched on the rambling carriage, and at least twenty more were behind it, marching in unison. The boy did not attempt to escape, but merely gawked at the unsure Eden. 

“Y-you…” his shock transformed into rage at top speed. “You’re a bounty hunter? You led me here to get me killed – you’re a liar –  

“And you aren’t?” her voice shook drastically. “You’re not some runaway orphan, you’re a fugitive and a thief, and that’s all you’ll ever be!” She struggled to hold back tears, for she found it difficult to convince herself to follow the law and not her heart. 

Cupid panted for a half second and made a break for the woods. All his attempts were in vain, however, for the heavily equipped guards seized him immediately, one forcing his hands behind his back. 

She could only watch as her single lover in the cruel world, only friend in the kingdom, was taken away in the blink of an eye. 

Through the slim space between the bars of the holding cell, a candle’s flame could be seen dancing on the walls. The prisoner was awoken by the sudden light, seeing a shaking hand place down the wax light, and Eden’s face peeked through the stone rods. 

“Cupid – you’re okay – I thought you were dead!” 

“Save it,” he snapped at her, looking away. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.” 

“Look, I didn’t have a choice – they threatened my family if I couldn’t bring you back.” Seeing he wasn’t convinced by this, she added, “But that doesn't mean you should have to be put in here, even if you are a thief. I should’ve taken my family and left, lived out at the Falls – but I was a coward. And I wouldn’t want to ever see myself again either.” 

He turned his head towards her. “My parents didn’t die in a river accident. And I’m not a thief.” He sniffed, his blunt nose shaking as he did so. “They were killed on the street by a Patrol Guard. I made a run for it. I’ve been a wanted man since I was fourteen.” 

Eden gazed at him with adoring and pitying eyes. “You don’t deserve this. This is all wrong, it’s all wrong! And I’m not letting you stay here.” 

She produced a lockpick from her trouser pocket. Cupid started to stand but sat back down in caution. “But…” his voice shook. “How do I know you’re not tricking me again? Why – why should I trust you this time?” 

The girl said nothing. She only placed her fingers to her mouth and blew him a kiss. 

After a moment of realization, he lifted his arm and caught it.  

That night, a pair of young, battered souls escaped to Coyote Falls at last. 


The King's Plan

Eiaa Dev, 13

Rain thundered down from above, a sign from the Goddess, Kai was sure. The King paced the length of his massive room, frustrated and... frightened. An unusual emotion, indeed. He raised his head, staring at the midnight sky through the glass dome that formed his ceiling. Stars twinkled amongst a sea of black, a painting that is timeless and forever. A groan escaped Kai’s lips. A middle-aged servant stopped midway through the door, unsure whether to enter or not. Without turning around, Kai gestured for her to come in. As the woman began to clean, Kai walked over to sit on his canopy bed. “Where are you, daughter?” He muttered under his breath. The servant paused while dusting the gold table in the corner of the room. Her breath hitched, and her hands began to shake. She quickly tried to recover, but it was too late. A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, causing her to jump. “What do you know about my daughter?”

******
Mei checked her reflection in the mirror, searching her makeup for flaws. Across the room, Min threw fists at the black punching bag that hung from the ceiling. Smears of red were splattered across its coarse surface, symbolic of the pain, sweat, and effort over the past few years. A small tear unleashed some stuffing from its side. “Min, are you done yet? All you do is hit that awful thing!” Mei complained, glancing at the small clock on the wall. “You should be hitting this ‘awful thing’ too! You know what Ms. Lee said. You know what’ll happen,” Min said between breaths, still striking vigorously. Mei sighed. “God, you’re so paranoid. Nothing will happen. Our father doesn’t even know he’s our father. But... would it be that bad?” Min stopped punching. She turned towards her twin, fire in her eyes. “What?” Min spit out. Mei sighed happily, eyes distant and longing. “Well, Faith-” Min held a hand up. “Don’t call him that. He’s no father. And he’ll never be.” Mei backed up a step, hands held up dramatically. “Alright, alright. But my point is... we are the heirs to the Dragon Throne. Well, I am, since I was born first,” she said, flipping her professionally curled hair over her shoulder. Min frowned. She knew Mei was in line for the thrown first, but although her sister wouldn’t admit it, Mei wasn’t fit for being a queen. Min loves her twin, but sometimes Mei is a bit... self-centered. Oblivious. Careless. All of those combined. But it doesn’t matter because neither of them would rule this empire. “Mei, don’t talk nonsense. None of us will take the throne, okay?” Min forced out, frustrated. Mei sighed in resignation. “Whatever. Since you’re taking too long, I’m leaving for Madam Ward’s tea time. Join later.” Min rolled her eyes. With a swish, Mei and her supposedly ‘tea-time’ dress (a full baby pink ballgown with embroidered golden flowers) descended the staircase. Min watched her sister leave with a forlorn look in her eyes. Once the cascading dress went out of sight, she got back to punching.

******
Mei strolled down the street, umbrella in hand. A tedious downpour of weak droplets of wetness sprinkled down from the sky, hitting the already sodden pavement from last night’s storm. The hair on the back of Mei’s arms raised, and a feeling of uneasiness settled in the pit of her stomach. Mei observed the street- empty because of the rain. She glanced over her shoulder, tensing at the sight of a hooded man. Picking up her pace, Mei turns the corner, anxiety taking its toll. A bead of sweat evolves above her brow despite the cool weather. Almost in a run now, Mei glances back once more. The hooded figure was still there, picking up its pace as well. “Stop! Please, stop! I just need to talk!” A deep voice cries from beneath the hood. Mei slows down to a stop, facing the man. Once the hood fell off, she gasped. “Your highness?”

******
Kai stares at his daughter, eyes calculating and hard. Mei gulps audibly, then tucks her chin in embarrassment. She slips down into a curtsy, lifting the hems of her dress. “Hello, daughter.” Mei gasps in astonishment, stumbling back a step as she gets out of her curtsy. “Uhm. W-what are you talking about?” She stutters, a deep shade of tomato spreading across her cheeks. “No need for games. It is amazing to meet you, love. Your caretaker, Ms. Lee, mentioned that she was looking after my daughter.” Mei frowned. “Ms. Lee told you about me? But—” The King interrupts her. “Yes, she did. For her kindness, I rewarded her a job in the sewing department of my kingdom since I know she is quite fond of fashion.” Mei gasps, delighted. “Yes! That’s always been her dream. She must be so happy!” So clouded by her happiness, Mei missed the spark of evil that glinted in Kai’s eye. “Indeed she is. I’ve been searching everywhere for you! I cannot express my profound content now that I’ve found you. You look just like your mother,” he says, slipping in a hint of softness. Mei beamed. “Thank you. I get that a lot.” The King smiles. “Now that I’ve located you, you can join as an o cial princess and heir to the throne.” Mei inhales sharply. This was it. What she’d always dreamed of. She knew her sister’s warnings, but now that Ms. Lee had given up their location, it must mean that she wanted Mei to meet her father, right? She hoped so, or else she was about to regret her decision. “I can’t wait!” The King laughed. “Perfect. Just to be sure, you don’t have any siblings, correct?” He questions. Mei swallows. Had Ms. Lee not told about them both? But this is the chance of a lifetime! If Min comes... would the King still choose her to take the throne? “None, just me,” she says, smiling. Only later did she realize that the King had not once said nor asked her name.

******
It’s been 13 days, 7 hours, and 52 minutes since Mei and Ms. Lee went missing. Min anxiously raked a hand down her short, black hair. She’d asked every neighbor, friend, and stranger. She’d checked with Madam Ward’s tea group as well. No one had seen either of them. She had even called the police, but they hadn’t found anything. Mei’s heart pounded with tension, the feeling of cold spider-like pricks crawling up and down her spine. They wouldn’t run away so what could ha- suddenly, Min bolts up from her sleeping position on the couch. It couldn’t be, right? The thought circled her mind, toying with the idea of it being reality. No. No, god no. Could the King have taken them?

******
“Now remember, all you have to do is pull the sword out and toss it to my swordsman, who will slay the beast. Then you retreat to safety, understand?” The King explained. Mei nodded mindlessly, focusing on the bright red ruby sitting on her finger. “Mei! Focus.” Mei took her eyes o her pointer finger and stared at the King. “Of course... father,” she said, after a moment of hesitation. The King smiled. “Good. Now, you may return to your room.” Mei turned to retreat, but then paused. “Father, could you tell me what this legend is?” She asked.

Kai restrained a groan. “Of course, my dear. Take a seat,” he said, providing a thin-lipped smile.

******
“As legend goes, our kingdom is protected by the Dragon Goddess, Sisu. She used to be a real dragon, you know, a beautiful, majestic creature who roamed the face of this world, befriending humans. One day, a war occurred between us and our rival kingdom of the time. Sisu spent her last breath fighting, before dying at the base of Mount Loong, fading to dust, and forming the legendary Golden Sword. Many say she reincarnated into a Goddess and now watches over us from above. We won the battle that day, but at the cost of the last dragon’s life. It is said on July 14th, at midnight, exactly 3 centuries after the death of Sisu, a horrendous beast will be unleashed from somewhere within the mountain, seeking revenge for the death of Sisu. Although we didn’t kill the dragon, it will rampage the entire empire either way, if not slain. The only way to defeat it is by getting the correct heir to the throne to pull the legendary golden sword out of the crystal that’s set around it at exactly 11:59pm. They then must slay the beast with it. Many men and women of my team have tried to retrieve the sword. None succeeded. Now do you understand the weight of this situation?” Mei stared at her father, dumbfounded. This was a big deal. The entire empire’s life rode on it. But... “Father, isn’t this just a tale? Just some legend made up by people ages ago?” Mei asks, confused. “Indeed, it is said to be. But it was spoken by an old man, supposedly a seer of the future, and 99% of his predictions were correct, like the one of Sisu dying victoriously. This legend was his last words before he died. Plus, it’s better to be prepared than dead.” Mei nodded in agreement. “When will I see Ms. Lee again?” She questions, eager to show o her new jewelry to her adoptive mother. “She’s away currently, making a fine gown and suit for the Ember Kingdom up North. She won’t be back for a while. Don’t worry about her, she’s fine,” the King said, smiling a tad too wide. If only Mei knew...

******
“I’m glad you’re settling in, dear,” the King’s voice booms throughout the hall. Ms. Lee slammed a hand across the bars that confined her. “You will pay for what you’ve done. I promise,” she yelled, voice echoing. The King sighed. “Tsk-tsk. Love, now that I’ve received the heir to my throne, nothing shall stop me from the treasure the mountain holds. The girl is quite the daughter.” Ms. Lee trembles slightly, trying to hide it with an angry cry. “You know what happens when someone touches the sword and they aren’t the correct heir. Or after they defeat the beast,” Ms. Lee says, her voice dangerously low. The King sighs. “Yes, yes. They turn to dust, and what not. I’m aware. I’ve seen it in action multiple times. But she’s the only daughter I’ve found. Plus, once the sword’s out of the crystal, it should be able to be used by anyone and everyone.” Ms. Lee’s bottom lip quivered. She hangs her head in resignation. “You monster,” she whispers, her voice barely audible. The light flickered above them, the only source of brightness in the dark cellar. Kai laughs, a contorted sound filled with malice. “Maybe I am, but at least I’ll be a filthy rich one!”

******

July 14th. 17 days since their disappearance. Min slumped against the wall beside her worn out punching bag, sobbing in defeat. The only family in her life... gone. A strangled noise formed in her throat, and she slammed a hand into the ground. The tears kept falling, cascading in rivers down her cheeks. Goodbye, Ms. Lee. Goodbye, Mei. Goodbye, heart.

******
The King exhaled, a heavy weight on his shoulders. If his plan didn’t work, it would mean the death of his entire kingdom, including him. 11:58pm. 100 swordsmen, armed and prepared. Archers hidden within the cli s above. And a girl. The most important role in this play. To think this girl was so blinded by wealth that she didn’t even bother to ask what would happen if she wasn’t able to pull the sword out. Kai turned to Mei. “You better do this right. Our fate relies on it.” Mei exhaled a shuddery breath. She couldn’t help but wonder- what if the correct heir isn’t the one who’s older? What if the correct heir was her sister? She shook the thought away, hands only inches away from the sword. The King glanced at his watch. “15 seconds. 14. 13. 12.” As he counted down, Mei swallowed. “3. 2. 1! Pull it now!” Kai yelled. So Mei did. She yanked. Nothing happened. She tugged as hard as possible. “It’s not coming out!” Mei cried, voice filled with anguish. The King fell to his knees. “No. NO!” He gasped, tearing a hand through his hair. Suddenly, Mei dropped to the ground beside him. Pain etched onto her features as she screamed. Then, she was gone. Nothing but a pile of dust. But before that, Kai had seen the look in her eyes. The one of hurt. She’d realized. She’d realized that Kai had known. He stared at the spot where Mei had once been, and a hint of... sorrow entered his eyes. But there was no time for that. He glanced at his watch. “NO! Everyone, get ready! Looks like we’ll have to do this ourselves. 10 seconds!” Everyone waited in anticipation, filled with dread that pooled in the pits of their stomachs. “3. 2. 1.” An ear-splitting roar echoed from somewhere nearby. A moment later, a horrifying creature stepped out before them. “It’s real. The tale is real,” the King whispers, eyes frozen and transfixed on the monster. It was unlike anything ever seen before, with its ghastly, blood red eyes that stared beyond one’s soul. Even in a crouched position it was almost 10 feet tall. It opened its mouth as if to smile, revealing rows of long, jagged teeth coated in fresh blood. Only then did they notice that in the monster’s razor-sharp claws was a body which was once a man, now ripped and shredded. Lifting the victim to its mouth, the beast tore o the dead man’s head, chewing on it like a child eating a lollipop. An archer, Kai was sure. Bones cracked loudly among the soundless thicket as the creature chewed the head of the man. Then, it leaped.


Running in Circles

Marin Hamory, 11

Rosemary sighed to herself as she tied the laces to her running sneakers. She hated running - hated it. The shoes pinched her toes and gave her blisters, and they were mud-splattered and grass-stained.

Rosemary’s best friend, Inez, sat on the bleachers beside her, her fiery auburn hair hanging around her face. Rosemary glanced at her and felt a tinge of guilt. She ran because her friend seemed to enjoy it, so she just needed to get it together if she was to enjoy it.

Inez finished tying her sneakers, li ing her pale hands to her hair. She gently tied it back, her navy blue scrunchie fastening it into a ponytail. Her fingertips were rosy.

“Ready, Rosemary?” Inez asked her running partner. Rosemary put a smile on her face and stood, quickly braiding her own hair.

“Yes.”

Inez scowled inwardly. She didn’t want to run! Running was boring, and she always got cramps and had trouble breathing. Especially in the colder autumn weather. The brisk air was a bit painful to inhale.

...

Rosemary and Inez ran beside each other. Rosemary coughed, and Inez slowed down. “Want a break?” she asked eagerly. Rosemary glanced at her in surprise.

“Sure.”

Inez walked over to an old, wooden bench and sat down. Rosemary sat next to her with a yawn, taking a sip of her water.

Rosemary sneezed. Inez laughed quietly, breathing heavily still. “Allergies?”

Her friend rubbed her nose. “Yeah.” she admitted sheepishly. Inez smiled. “Sorry if it’s annoying. It’s probably all of the pollen.”

“No worries. Should we head back to school soon? PE is probably over soon, and Miss Haily is likely waiting for us to get back.” Inez added hopefully. She just wanted to go back.

Rosemary spotted her opportunity and nodded. “Yes! Let’s head back now. It’s nearly a mile, so we’ll be just a little early if we start running back now.”

Inez nodded and stood up. She waited for Rosemary to stand, and they started down the trail.

After a bit of running, they arrived at school about five minutes early. Inez huffed, her legs aching. She didn’t know why her friend liked to run so much.

Rosemary rubbed her shoulder. Why does Inez like to run? It hurts so bad. She thought grimly.

Inez glanced at Rosemary. Why does Rosemary enjoy this? It’s so monotonous!

Inez glanced at her friend, deep in thought. She was overwhelmed with guilt — it wasn't right to lie to a friend, even if it was to make them happy.

She decided that she would see if they could do something other than running, even though she wasn’t sure that Rosemary would be open to the idea.

“Er, can we try lacrosse sometime, Rosemary?” she asked anxiously. Hopefully Rosemary is open to trying this out. I really don’t want to run every day. Rosemary blinked at her.

“Don’t you like running?” she asked, eyes round. Please say no. Please!

“Not really... it’s fine if you like it, and I’ll gladly do it with you once in a while, but...” Inez admitted.

Rosemary glanced at her, a small smile spreading across her face. “Oh, I’m glad to hear you say that, actually. I hate running.” she agreed with a chuckle. “Lacrosse sounds much better. Wanna try it Friday?” Relief washed over her.

“Sure.” Inez giggled.


Happiness

Lui Lung, 13

The first time Willa saw Austin, she married him. 

It was not a senseless decision. Willa knew she was fortunate to have been Matched—her genes were therefore worthy enough to have reproduction as a new, officially cleared course in her life. She’d always wished for a child, a family, but some were not nearly as fortunate as she. 

There was no time to think of them now, of course. Her future awaited ahead, a portrait of the contentment of a life well led, with flowers in window boxes and childish laughter unfurling through the halls of a sunlit home. What a far cry from those crammed, narrow streets and hollowed cheeks of the wanderers that just might have become her fate! Yes, she was lucky indeed to have been one of the few chosen to settle. 

It was all over in the scratching strokes of two signatures on pristine paper. Man and wife, bound by law, till death do they part. 

If only her husband would have looked at her. 

Her smile faded. 

The second time Willa saw Austin, settled among dusted boxes yet to be unpacked into their new home, she at least learned the color of his eyes—brown, steady and warm as sun-baked soil. He was mere steps from her reach, and still, she didn’t dare to inch closer across what inexplicably seemed like far too great a distance. 

“Hello,” he spoke, the word laced with a polite sort of caution. 

“Hi there,” she answered. She offered a smile, and he managed one in return, an upward jerk of the corners of his lips like the commanding yank of a puppet’s strings. 

They finished unpacking in silence. She wished that the vacant space between them didn’t hurt as much as it did. 

At some point, she had stopped tallying their days together, overanalyzing each glance and occasional exchange of words, freeing herself of the delusion that their union might just become more than the word of law and a lovely facade paraded to the public. 

“Are you happy?” he asked her one night from where he lay beside her. It was a blatant break from the ordinary. She’d almost forgotten the sound of his voice. She shifted to her side, gaze tracing the shadowed outline of him. They didn’t touch, as always, but she’d learned to find familiarity in the dip of the mattress with the addition of his weight. 

It was funny how two people could fall into a routine with each other while remaining strangers all the while. 

For a moment, the question was met with nothing. What was there to say? 

She swallowed. “I am. More than ever.” 

An exhale of a sigh from the man meant to be her husband followed, so soft that she might not have even heard if the darkened bedroom wasn’t so devoid of sound. 

“And are you?” she dared to add. 

She wasn’t certain if he would respond until he spoke once more. 

“Yes,” he breathed. “Always.” 

 She almost believed him. 

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