A Toast

I started Word Whiskey 26 days ago as a way to express myself, my writing and my opinions. This will be my 30th post, a fact that illustrates just how off I was on estimating a M-W-F schedule. The updates don’t really have any rhyme or reason but are instead whatever happens to be on my mind at the time. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s a short piece of fiction. Maybe it’s writing advice I somehow feel qualified to give.

Yesterday was my most viewed day so far. In 26 days, I’ve accumulated 1,067 views and gained 52 followers. I’m deeply humbled by your interest in my words and fortunate that so many of you feel keen on sticking around! Thanks also to every one of you who shared my posts. That’s how the words get spread around and hopefully they’ll touch or inspire someone else.

I don’t plan on slowing down any time soon. I still have strong opinions about many things and I have ideas for recurring article types and fiction pieces.

In the meantime, to celebrate my first thousand views and the receptive audience you’ve graced me with, I propose a toast.

A toast to you who know me
Through words
Through deeds
Through reputation and the seeds
Of conversation
A toast to you who have risen and fallen
Who fought and fight and defend
Who spend their days mending the
Spirits of men and women
You who have succeeded and failed,
Who have tales of endurance
You who read and write; the sight of you
Encourages

Let’s raise a toast to moon-lit nights and rainy days
To the haze that sets roads in a different age
When the fog rolls through
To the cold nights, too
When the street lights reflect off trees
Decorated in snow and
Ivory spirals blow through the air
A toast to lost loves and loved lives
To husbands and wives and partners
Working together through strife
To fleeting kisses, to passions and blisses
To dancing on tables, fireside fables and
Reminisces

Let’s have a toast to those we have lost
The cost of a world with one ending
Let’s toast to immortalizing them through
Words and deeds of their own

Let’s toast to you and me
He and she and them and they
To night and day and wills and ways
To sun-kissed summers and rainy springs
To snowy winters and autumn things
To our yesterdays and tomorrows and
The present of Present presence
To picking ourselves up and moving along
To words, be they written or flown in a song

Let’s have this toast to speaking our minds and
Keeping in thought
Being loving and kind

Let’s toast to the fact that I’m free to be me
Let’s toast to you and for all that you do

Life Was Simpler When I Was Dying

I went to bed on a Wednesday night in May last year, not long after my birthday. I had the next day off, so I was a little high, a little drunk and I planned on sleeping in the next day. Instead, I woke up around 9AM, violently nauseous. I ran to the bathroom, hurled up what I could and staggered out of the bathroom. Was I hungover? Seemed like it.

One of my two roommates at the time, Matt, was getting ready to head down the hill. He knew I was sick, and I debated staying home, but I really wanted to see the new Star Trek movie. He agreed to drop me off at the mall and I walked up to the theater with a body that feeled ten times heavier than normal. I bought my ticket and a soda and sat down.

I threw up twice more within the first 30 minutes of the movie.

I don’t know if you’ve ever vomited so hard that you sat, back against the wall with your legs tucked against your chest, crying in the handical stall of a shitty theater bathroom but let me tell you, it isn’t ideal. At this point I thought it was the flu or some kind of food poisoning I got from the seafood I had the day before. Only one thing to do in that situation: sleep it off.

I left the theater, Star Trek thirst unquenched and walked down the escalator. One of my former bosses was walking by and waved to me. I didn’t notice. She told me later that I looked blue (physically, I mean. Not sad, although I was that, too) and she thought I was fucked up out of my mind. I mean, kind of. I had no idea.

I cabbed it back to my house. I barely remember the ride. It must have been around 11, 11:30. Matt swung back by. He had been to the gym and was no prepping for work. He could tell I was seriously ill. Let me tell you something about Matt: I firmly believe that he has zero respect for me at all. He’s always first to shit on me, has never congratulated me on an accomplishment and never had my back in a fight. On this morning, he was so worried about me that he made me soup while I was laid out on the couch, hesitated leaving and called our other roommate out of concern. It was serious shit.

I spent the next 9 hours fucked up. I was in and out of consciousness on the couch. My phone was untouched on the floor. I had two cups next to me. One was full of water that I could only sip out of because anything more triggered vomiting (and I was dry-heaving pretty well on my own at that point) and the other, disgustingly, was reserved for whatever phlegmy spit I could muster. I had no concept of time or self beyond pain and suffocation.

Around 9PM, I found myself in the bathroom yet again, trying to find something other than stomach bile to bring up. My throat was so raw that I was spitting a little blood. My other roommate, RJ, got home. He had tried to call me twice, neither of which I had noticed because I had practically forgot I owned a phone. He knocked on the door and said, “What, you’re too good to answer my phone calls now?” I told him I was spitting up blood. He asked if we needed to go to the hospital. I told him I didn’t know.

I walked, poorly, out of the bathroom. I was pale, he said. RJ used to be an EMT and he sat me down on the couch, my prison for twelve hours, to take my pulse. He couldn’t find it. “We’re going to the hospital.”

They checked me in at the hospital. The triage doctor, who had a particularly active cold, was a huge dick who disbelieved the seriousness of my situation and blamed my low blood pressure on the equipment. RJ, God bless him, argued that no, something was very wrong with me.

I was in the emergency room from 10PM until 4AM, with RJ by my side. My blood pressure was 80 over 40. My temperature was 103 degrees. My heart was going three times the rate it was supposed to. I was almost completely dehydrated. My magnesium and potassium levels were almost nonexistent. My body was shutting down, and that’s when I got the news: I had septicemia. Septic shock. Blood poisoning.

I knew it was bad. That is bad. Shit. But it has levels, right? So I asked the nurse, “How bad is it?” and she looked me dead in the eye.

“Well, you could die.”

I looked over at RJ, RJ looked at the nurse. I let out a laugh that was a few pitches higher than I’m proud of and laid my head down on the bed and struggled not to cry, tried not to panic.

After 6 hours of fluids and tests (“Maybe it’s a UTI that went septic. Nope? Okay, a kidney infection? No? Huh. Well. This is, uh…hm.”), they admitted me eaaaarly Friday morning.

I spent four days in the hospital. I had multiple IVs in me the entire time. The saline was constant until I checked out. The magnesium wasn’t so bad. I opted for potassium pills every two hours because turns out liquid potassium burns like a motherfucker when it’s being pumped into you, a fact no one told me until I was writhing in pain on my gurney while my roommate (hospital, not RJ or Matt) shit on the floor.

I couldn’t piss until Saturday. Didn’t have the fluids in me. My blood pressure and temperature didn’t even out until Saturday night. I slept like shit and finally asked the nurse to give me some percocet so I could even try. Saturday night I got moved into a different room, one with a window and the first sunlight I had seen in three days. The doctor told me, “Wish these things opened up more but some lady tried to kill herself jumping out of it, broke both of her legs.” He went on to tell me that he had no idea what happened to me to put me in septic shock but it seemed to be under control. Prescribed me some medication,  let me check out as soon as I showered and felt up to it.

So there’s the bare bones of it. My brush with death. Once it looked like I was going to be okay one of the nurses told me, “Hey, man. You were hours away from dying. If you had waited until the next morning to come in, if you had made it, it would have been weeks in the ICU, minimum.” Several times while I was in the hospital, I thought,  “Hey, it could be worse” and then immediately reminded myself that at that point, worse was dead.

Now, you find out certain things when you’re on your deathbed. Like who gives a shit. Turns out, for me, it wasn’t many. Word got around on FB between my friends and I. I mentioned how serious it was. I texted some people to tell them I loved them when things were still looking shaky. A woman I care about very much but who was on the outs with me texted me to make sure I was going to be okay. The girl I loved and knew for years? Not even a text.

I would come out of delirium to find the last people I expected there to make sure I was alright. Seriously. These were people I cared about a lot but was by no means close with. They brought me thoughtful gifts. Superhero writing materials. Books to read. A flute. They kept me company.

I cannot express to you the emotions that come from not getting love and concern from the people you expect it from and then getting it from people you never expected. That’s a rough ride.

Now, here’s another thing I didn’t expect. Dying gives you a sort of perspective on life. What matters and what doesn’t. The things you haven’t finished or haven’t done. The words you wished you had said. The people you want to see again. I left that hospital with a sense of zen that lasted for almost three months. I stopped worrying about money, relationships, where I was at in life. It eventually crept back in and wore me down, but I was so content. Euphoric. It was beautiful, truly.

I didn’t expect that and when the shit started piling back up, I didn’t expect wishing I could be back there. It suuuucked. It hurt and I was exhausted for a month afterwards because of what my body went through. But people worried about me and gave a shit and things were much more clear-cut.

“Things were so much simpler when I was dying” is a tweet I sent and there’s a macabre truth to that. It sucks when you have a birthday where nobody shows up, like this year. Especially following a birthday party for a friend where a hundred fucking people showed up. That sucks. And it’s hard not to long for waking up and seeing someone unexpected who cares about your well-being.

These are weird feelings. They come and go and stay gone longer than they linger. Honestly, if I should take anything from it, it should be that zen perspective I got upon walking out ibto the sunshine and not the cascading disbelief that came with the bill for $22,000.

I almost died and it taught me that I don’t want to die. That I love love and I love life and I love people even when I hate them because over a decade of retail work demands it. It taught me attention is addictive, especially when it distracts from a lack of accomplishment. It taught me that if you live one life, you can sometimes find more in less.

It also taught me not to get septic shock, because that shit sucks hard.

Testing Doesn’t Equal Teaching

This isn’t a post about the trials and tribulations of high school, bullying or teen sex, but it is about education. There is a problem in and outside of our schools.

On the inside, it feels like our educators have stopped caring about teaching our kids and are instead relying on regurgitating information, assigning projects,  dishing out homework and relying heavily on the outcome of a test to determine whether or not they’ve retained enough information to shuffle on to the next step of life. And that’s bullshit, because it is easy to memorize things long enough to answer twenty-five questions but it’s harder to keep that knowledge the minute you walk put the door of a class you care nothing about.

I’m not saying it’s all teachers. It’s not even most teachers. It is, however, enough to be an issue. There should be a focus on engaging the students instead of relaying to them. The best ones are the ones fresh out of college, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to exercise their ideas to get the kids as excited about the subject as they are. I got one of these my freshman year of high school and it’s the reason why if I ever decided to take up university, it would be to become an educator.

My junior year AP Language and Compositions teacher was the same way. He found humorous ways to convey information. He listened to the kids and displayed remarkable patience. He interacted with us and shared with us his own experiences and work.

My Creative Writing teacher was an aspiring poet and during and after class, he encouraged us to share our work. He helped us and helped us help each other. He encouraged us to story-weave and world-build as a group.

But then there are those educators who are just going through the motions. And it is a hard job. You’ve got pressure from the government, from the school district, from parents, from jack-off bloggers like me, and – most importantly – from the very kids you’re expected to prep for life as an adult. It’s difficult to not just go through the motions and do the bare minimum and I applaud the teachers who go to school every day and do put in that extra work.

It is inspiring to see teachers write into the paper and explain that they are doing their damndest with what minimal resources and pay that they have. Because for every teacher who gives up and goes day to day and spits the rhetoric just to collect the paycheck, there are ten who are still passionately doing it for the kids.

Which brings us to the problem outside the school: LOOK AT THIS SHIT. That is from May 20th of this year. DRASTIC cuts in education budgets almost across the board to the point that it is worse than before the recession.

And what are we focusing on? Paying our teachers more?  Nope. Why is it that, well, look:

image

What the fuuuuck? Come on!

Now, I do have some good news. The rate of high school dropouts as been steadily on the decline for several years, with 7.9% as of 2013. The bad news is we’re still ranked 10th in high school attainment.

Do you know who runs the greatest risk of dropping out of high school? Kids from broken homes.

The high school I went to consistently has between 1,600 and 1,800 kids in grades 9-12. Do you know how many counselors they have?

Four.

Four counselors to help with class issues, college assistance, issues with teachers and other students, and the occasional stresses and problems at home. Four people.

So for a few years, they hired two more. These two people were specifically hired to help those in danger of failing out of school. These were the kids who liked to fight, who liked to party, who felt ashamed and alone at school,  who came from homes that were broken and abusive and had absentee or addict parents. For many of them, it was the first time someone had actively given a shit about them. And a significant amount of them began to graduate because of it.

I spoke about it a school board meeting. I talked about the importance of keeping those people around because removing them meant directly affecting the kids who needed them most and who needed to be convinced staying in school was worth it. I said that taking those two counselors away would be failing the kids we’re supposed to be helping and encouraging. I emphasized that four people are not enough to help 1,800 confused kids.

Guess what? It didn’t do shit. Those crisis counselors were let go because they were considered an unecessary budget expense. Because people are too focused on guaranteed graduations and high school GPAs and focusing on the easy kids instead of trying to lift up the troubled ones.

Do I have any answers? I don’t know. Nothing quick and easy. I guess this:

Talk about this. Make an issue of it. Go out and vote for increased education budgets. Quit giving so much shit to teachers as a whole and take teachers who aren’t taking their jobs seriously to account (as you would any employee at any job).

If you’re a teacher, don’t just talk at your students. Don’t just lecture and give them problems to solve. There isn’t depth there. For kids with short attention spans (like me) or troubled home lives or who aren’t as interested in math or science or english or history as they are other subjects,  you need to find a way to keep them engaged. If learning is fun or interesting, it’s easier to retain information.

And if you’re an educator who is doing that currently, and there are many of you, good fucking job. Keep doing what you’re doing. You have my undying respect, gratitude and support.

When a community gives up on educating and supporting the children of the community in exchange for bare-bones “education” and grading, it gives my nerves a test as wracking as any I took in high school.

I scored an F. You can guess what that stands for.

Life from First Person POV

I checked in over at Deadly Ever After and found a solid post about writing in first person. The novels I write tend to have large casts, so I find third person works well enough for me in exploring every little nook and cranny. But I recently experimented with 1st person over in Birthday Notes III and this post by Kristen Strassel illustrates how a more focused first person perspective can pack an intense punch.

Deadly Ever After

Today’s Brew: Pollen Brulee

by Kristen

First or Third?

It’s usually the next question writers ask each other soon after “what do you write?”

Whatever your choice is, you are probably pretty passionate about it. You may cross genres and age groups with the greatest of ease, but how you tell the story is your voice. Chances are, you are much more comfortable with one than the other.  When I tell people I write in first person, they’ll either say they love doing it or they can’t do it. That’s how I feel about third person. For me, evening the playing field and knowing all the characters the same way flattens my storytelling. I feel like I’m giving a recap of a TV show, or just blocking out a screenplay. I’m simply reacting to what other people are doing. I admire everyone who writes third person with conviction and emotion…

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Something In the Water

I was going to save this for later this week, but after yesterday’s pretty heavy post and with court tomorrow morning and because I need to cheer myself up, here’s the conclusion to the story that started with Goodbye, Horses and With a Kiss In the Wind.

Just a head’s up, the first two entries were pretty PG. This one is PG-13, maybe even a soft R. Hope you enjoy:

“What about you, Marisol? Anything interesting happen to you over the weekend?”

“Hmm?” Marisol looked up from her coffee to the two friends that had managed to drag her out for an evening of catching up. A smile crept across her lips like a cat. “Well… I met a guy.”

The girls leaned forward over the table, gripping their cups with both hands. Marisol flipped her hair over one shoulder nonchalantly.

“Oh, you actually wanted to hear about it? Alright…”

*****************************************

Tom lay in the bed of the truck, staring up at the clouds. That one looked like a turtle. That one, a giant middle finger. Hmph.

His buddy walked around the side of the vehicle, wiping the grease from his hands that he had accrued while working on the engine. He looked annoyed.

“Are you going to tell me about this woman or what?”

“What makes you think there’s-”

“Don’t play coy with me, Sawyer. You’ve had a shit-eating grin on your face all week. You’re blushing, for Christ’s sake. Blushing. What are you, twelve?”

Tom smirked and sat up, propping himself upright with his hands. “Fine. You want to know? I met her this last weekend.”

*****************************************

They reached the creek about the same time. Marisol claimed victory and Tom was too busy catching his breath to dispute it. The waters were mostly clear and gurgled over uneven stones. The afternoon sun shone between the trees on either bank and reflected as several golden patches along the surface.

“Thought you were a track star,” she said, chuckling between small gulps of air.

“I keep forgetting how long ago high school was,” Tom replied.

He began emptying his pockets. Down went his cell phone, his driver’s license. He pulled free three punch cards to different restaurants he liked to frequent. There was a money clip with fewer bills than he felt comfortable with wrapped around a debit card that had seen better days.

“What are you doing?” Marisol asked.

“You wanted to get in the creek, we’re getting in the creek. It’s shallow, but better safe than sorry.”

Marisol plopped her long leather billfold atop his things and beamed up at him. She gestured to the creek.

“What, that’s it?” Tom asked. “Nothing in your pockets? No money in your bra?”

“You should get a clutch, Tom. They’re wonderful.”

“Pass.”

Tom patted himself down just to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything and then stepped carefully down to the edge of the creek. He could make out a handful of coins scattered amidst the rocks. Did kids toss them in for good luck? That was ridiculous. It wasn’t a well. There were no stories about wishing creeks.

He stopped, the sudden realization hitting him that if he was mentally dissecting the proper protocol for wish fulfillment based on tossing coins into a body of water, he was probably thinking too hard.

He reached down and began hiking his pant legs up to his knees. He had barely gotten one rolled up before a firm presence on his buttocks sent a shot of adrenaline directly into his heart. He opened his mouth to protest, but before the first word could escape, the foot on his ass pushed and sent him pinwheeling into the creek.

The water was cold and gritty. He tried not to think about what chemicals had been leaked into it some point along the way or what kinds of things the pathetic little trout who lived in it got up to. He floundered for a minute, struggling to gain purchase on the slippery stones beneath him. When he did get traction,  he pushed himself up in a spectacularly ungraceful spray of water.

On the bank, Marisol had Tom’s phone in her hands. She was staring at it bemusedly.

“What’s your password?” she asked.

“What are you doing?”

“I want to put my number in.”

Tom slicked his hair back. “What makes you think I want in there now? The water is freezing.”

It was a fair question. Marisol had taken a gamble with what she had initially thought of as a playful gesture. Did he think she was just trying to mess with him? He would be part right, anyway. She decided she could only respond with the first thing that popped in her head.

“Because I’m going to warm you up.”

Tom opened his mouth to retort but his eyes widened and he faltered. “Five-five-seven-seven,” he eventually blurted.

Marisol smiled again, her different colored eyes standing out against the foliage. After a few minutes of fiddling around with the phone,  she set it back down next to Tom’s money and strode into the water without hesitation.

He was right: it was cold. Her pants were the first to go, clinging to her legs like saran wrap. She lowered herself so the water came up to her waist, her stomach, her chest. She leaned back so that it covered her shoulders and then temporarily submerged her head, ignoring the icky feeling she got from even considering it. After all, fair was fair.

She surfaced and positioned her legs under her so she could rise back up into a standing position. The water pushed into and past her legs at a height just above her knees. Strands of hair were plastered across her face and she pulled them away from her mouth with two fingers and a funny expression. Goosebumps dotted her flesh and her nipples pressed hard against her drenched brassiere and shirt.

Tom stared. There was no way to play it off or make it any more charming. Marisol ‘ clothes clung to every curve and contour of her body and the way her wet hair gleamed under the daylight was strangely alluring.

Suddenly self-conscious of the way his own clothes were sticking to him, he tried unsuccessfully to adjust the front of his pants, pulling at the fabric over his legs to try and alleviate the tightness in his crotch. It wasn’t as subtle as he would have liked it to be.

“Too late, Tom. I know all your secrets now.”

Marisol smiled softly and began thrusting her legs towards him, shuffling up stream. Her legs were tired from the race and fighting the current wasn’t helping. Just as she got near, her foot slipped on the smooth kind of rock made for skipping and she began to fall backward.

Tom reached out and caught her hand. Her wet palm almost slipped from his, but he was able to pull her up and wrap his other arm around her waist. They were pressed against each other, they both realized, and the cold was definitely beginning to fade into something different. Tom felt himself stirring. Marisol felt it, too.

Their eyes were lost in each other, occasionally dropping to look at the other’s mouth. They leaned in. Their lips brushed. Their lips pushed. Slowly, but firmly. His tongue probed the line along her upper lip. She took his lower lip between both of hers. Their lips pulled. Their lips brushed. They leaned out.

“That was probably highly unsanitary,” she whispered. “Creek water and all.”

“I realized that, immediately before realizing I don’t give a shit. That’s why God made doctors.”

She smiled and bit her lip. He brushed locks of wet hair behind her ears. A rustling from the bank broke the reverie and they turned as one to see a teenage boy sitting on his bike just off the trail.

The kid turned beet red and looked either way, as if someone was going to extricate him from the situation. No one was coming.

“I was just…I’m going to go.”

*****************************************

“So what happened next?” Marisol’s friend asked. “Did you get him out of those wet clothes?”

“And then?” Tom’s friend asked. “Did you smash that?”

“You’re a barbarian, man,” Tom said. “We just talked.”

“We picked up our stuff and dried off in the sun,” Marisol replied.

“But we’ve got a date this weekend.”

The Importance of Talking About Suicide

When I started this blog, it was right around the time the Suicide Prevention Awareness charity walk was happening. I wanted to write about it because it’s a topic that means a lot to me. I have lost friends and a god-brother to suicide and it’s suicidal depression is something I wrestled with for years. I decided against it. I wanted to start with posts that were generally light-hearted. I wanted to talk about writing and talk about me and gain a bunch of followers before I got into the deep stuff.

I found out tonight that a friend of mine took his own life a couple days ago. He was one of the most hilarious and genuinely empathetic people I’ve ever met. He offered support and kind words and jokes to whoever needed them. We spent many long nights running riffs that lasted hours. This was a complete shock, but then these things usually are.

These feelings are not cut and dry. It’s not as simple as getting medication (and many medications run the risk of making it worse or creating a sense of apathy so appallingly potent that feeling nothing becomes worse than feeling bad). It’s not as easy as going outside or finding a hobby. It’s not even as easy as talking to someone, but it’s a good start.

And some people going through these issues have a hard time expressing the feelings they’re having. I did. I felt like I was imposing on my friends or that they would view me with pity or think less of me. It’s hard to see that there are people who care about you and genuinely just want to help. And a lot of times it is all too easy to hide those feelings in public. If you’re not familiar with depression, I cannot put it any better words than Hyperbole and a Half did HERE and HERE.

I implore you to read both of those because it is so easy to get the wrong idea about what those feelings entail and it’s important to have a better understanding so that you can relate to your friends going through it or, if you’re going through it yourself, to know you’re not alone.

It is easy to want to give up. I spent so many nights wishing I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. I made mental pro and con lists. I cried when no one was looking because I felt alone and useless and talentless.

But I wasn’t. I never was alone. It took years and several very stubborn friends to help. It took a lot of introspection and an actual near death experience but I started to see through it and get better. And I still get depressed and down on myself, but I know there is light in this world and I know that I can do right by others and be there for others when they need someone. I found a purpose for myself. I didn’t do it alone and it wasn’t easy, but once I found it, it helped.

So many people don’t get that opportunity and it’s because so many others don’t know how to recognize the signs or how to be there when they do.

To those that have dealt or are dealing with suicidal thoughts: please don’t fucking do it. Don’t hurt yourself. You might not know how much your kind words and your smiles and your jokes and your company means to people, but people care about you. And it might not always be the people who should or who you want to, but I promise you that the kindness you show others leads to a ripple effect. Every time you smile at someone,  you’re letting them know the world is more beautiful than you think. When you tell someone it’s going to be okay, you’re giving them strength.

Believe it. Believe in this world and yourself. You are never as alone as it feels and there is always something around the corner worth holding on for. You are loved and you would be horribly missed. Please be patient and please be hopeful.

And if things seem so desperate that you need someone to talk to, someone to listen, call this number: 1-800-273-8255

They are there to listen. They don’t know you and won’t judge. They just want to help you and remind you how amazing you are.

You have a purpose and you will find it. You’re someone’s reason to get through the day. I have faith in you.

Bless you and please take care.

Birthday Notes III

Fire blossoms. I used to collect them by the basket as a little girl,  wandering deep into the thickets that surrounded our little college. Deep red petals that faded into a sunset orange towards the stigma, I fashioned them with twine into pretty little bracelets and necklaces. I would braid them into my hair and manipulate them into decorations for the small table we gathered around for dinner most nights.

My mother appreciated my enthusiasm and complimented my craftsmanship,  but she wasn’t keen on my venturing so far away from the home. We lived in a quiet village not known for its roving bands of brigands or intrusive predatory animals, but she insisted it was dangerous all the same.

“Brittania,” she said one night, sitting at the foot of my bed. “One day, you will have a Name Day and your gift will be something extraordinary. Something unlike the world has ever seen. You’ll have the ability to keep yourself from harm’s way and you will have no need of me or my worry. But until then,  you are my little girl and your safety is the most important thing to me. Please listen to your Mama in these things.”

And I did listen to her. Sort of. I no longer wandered out during the day. I didn’t show off any more trinkets. Instead, I snuck out in the middle of the night and returned before dawn. Finding the flowers in the dark was a challenge I thrived on. I kept them in a box I hid beneath the floorboards under my bed. It was my guilty pleasure. My secret adventure.

I spent many hours out there just listening to the sounds of the night. The songs of the lunar swallows and the snapping of click toads. The rustle of wind through pine needles. The crunch of dried twigs under my feet.

And all the while, I wanted to know what this present was. Where was my mother hiding it? When would I get it?

She never told me. No matter how much I begged. No matter how old I got. She didn’t tell me when she got sick. She didn’t tell me when the armies from the East began pushing into the True Territories. Not even when I announced that I was leaving to try and do something with my life.

That was three years ago. I hadn’t done much of anything, as it turned out. I spent one Name Day in the arms of some scruffy grifter I had picked up a couple months before. He had spent the whole day trying to convince me he was the present I would come across that would empower me and protect me. I once saw the man swindle the last few coins out of a traveling family because he wanted a new pair of snakeskin boots.

Yeah, safe to say I packed up my things and left the next morning before that idiot slept off the drunk he had worked up.

Things didn’t get much better from there. I bought a map off a poor forger and spent the next several months getting lost and traveling in the wrong directions. I ended up in the path of the Eastern armies and, in attempting to get away from the stories I had heard, found myself lost in the deepest parts of the Ghostwhisper Valley.

It was a nonsense name, of course. Not that I don’t believe in ghosts, but I spent a couple months living off the land in there and the scariest thing I came across was the savaged body of some kind of wild pig. That wasn’t the work of ghosts. It was a mangled link in the food chain.

Still, there were worse things than ghosts. I was finding that out tonight.  The Eastern armies had moved into the valley as well, probably to try and circle around the next city they wanted to take. I had been foolish and kept my fire burning. The same flames that got me to thinking about fire blossoms had attracted the attention of some unsavory company.

I could see them in the shadows, their twisted, ugly armor standing out in what moonlight broke through the canopy. There were rumors that the army was not comprised fully of human warriors. Fanged monsters and green-skinned animals that walked on two legs were supposedly responsible for razing entire villages and plundering whatever supplies they could.

Surrounded as I was, I don’t suppose it mattered much if they were man or beast. I was looking to be in a predicament I couldn’t get myself out of. I was disappointed as they circled closer, as chuckles rolled through the darkness that crawled like spiders across my skin. Disappointed that I would never know-

And that was when the flames of my firelight exploded upwards in a sudden burst of energy. The forms around me shrank back, a few even yelping in surprise. Just as quickly, it extinguished itself. The forest was plunged almost entirely into blackness.

Sparks spiraled downwards, like little red eyes glinting at me. They filtered their way down, past my head, my shoulders. They fell to where my hands fidgeted anxiously by the knives at my belt.

It was there that their descent grew lazy. Their glow grew brighter and they swirled faster. Around my hands, closer and closer to the skin no matter how much I tried to shake them away. The air around them glimmered and in a flash everything up to my elbow was engulfed in flame.

Strangely,  it didn’t burn. In fact, I felt no heat at all though I knew, somehow, that the temperature would be unbearable for anyone else.

I looked up slowly, back to the figures around me. They had stopped completely. Though I couldn’t make out their features, I could see that some had lowered their weapons, stupefied.

Was it my Name Day again already?

“Huh,” I said.

—Happy Birthday, Britt.