“Are you ready?” Jon held out his hand to Katie. His blue eyes sparkled in anticipation, and his shoulders easily carried the weight of his 150 pound pack. Katie was less comfortable with her 65 pound pack, and shifted uncomfortably under its weight. At 5’4” and 110 pounds, she was feeling rather bogged down, her center of gravity uncomfortably lower than normal.
The shimmering doorway of the transfer portal beckoned them, and Katie looked from that rainbow image glimmering and throbbing, back to Jon’s bright eyes. She realized that the blue in Jon’s eyes was mirrored by the blue in the portal, and wondered if that was real or more a reflection, a mirage. She smiled hesitantly, but held back from his outstretched hand, turning to look behind her at the control room and the waiting scientists, stern officials and huddled reporters scribbling in their notebooks, or jostling for a place close to the observation window.
Even though Katie’s heart was racing in anticipation, her palms were sweaty with nervousness. Was she ready? She supposed she was . . . there was nothing left here on Earth for her but unending days of a routine that rarely varied, of experiences that had long since ceased to be new. Her first two decades of life had been spent the same as every other citizen on the worn and overused Earth.
People were housed in 200 square feet of living space per person, with a maximum of 800 square feet per family. The limit on space had worked to slow population growth as nothing else had. People simply couldn’t tolerate a lack of private space, despite their orientation to communal living. Adults rotated through assigned work, continuing education, and recreation schedules based not on desire, interest or need, but on some arcane system designed by the government to allocate opportunity and resources fairly. Children spent months each year in specialized schools, receiving basic education and being socialized to the realities and necessities of the world they lived in. It was commonly held that it would take several generations of this before the old population that remembered days of greater freedom died off and would no longer be around to incite the new generations to unrest. Food was bland nutrition packets, modeled after military rations -- and potable water was repeatedly recycled from waste products - human, animal and planetary.
But, by far, the biggest problem for most people was the routinized dullness of everyday life. People were flat out bored. There was no diversity in what people wore, how they did their hair, what they ate, or read or listened to, what they did each and every day . . . and worse yet, they were packed together so tightly that governments had ended up controlling practically every facet of daily life to prevent inevitable outbreaks of unrest and protest. Bored people in a crowd tended to stir up trouble – government perceived its role in protecting the welfare of citizens as one that required strict oversight and control until a more permanent solution could be found to the problems of overpopulation, scarce resources, and restless people.
Finally, the government had announced a sliver of hope. Not only had NASA found habitable worlds, scientists had landed on a workable theory for teleportation, thereby avoiding the expense and complication of designing spacecraft that could support life and survive decades of space travel. All the experts had agreed that the theory was sound – it was just essentially the same conundrum faced by every generation – getting technology to catch up with theory.
The entire population had breathlessly waited for an announcement of NASA’s inevitable breaththrough – and five years ago they had developed the machine and began sending planetary explorers through to investigate possible new homes. Some explorers never returned. Some returned permanently altered. Some brought back news of other species and treaties to consider. And, at long last, one explorer returned with news of a possible planet to colonize.
The jubilation was widespread. Throngs of people celebrated – until the Lottery Riots began. NASA had announced that only the top 10% of each nation’s potential candidates who met specific markers would be further trained and sent through to colonize the new planet. Since the planet was too far away to transport heavy equipment, supplies or computerized support, the colonists would be reduced to what they could carry over. Very basic tools, supplies, equipment, resources. They would need to build their own homes out of native materials, grow their own food, raise their own livestock . . . if they managed to survive the crucial first few years, they would then need to learn to educate their children and build the communities and systems necessary to a new world.
Nothing boring about the challenges ahead, Katie though, a smile dancing across her lips. She wiped her hands on her rugged jeans, waved jauntily at the waiting crowd, and took Jon’s hand firmly in her own.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she smiled back at Jon, and together they stepped beyond the shimmering blue horizon and into a new world.
Day 14 Prompt: Write a story that opens, “On the edge of the mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.”
(Author’s Note: Oh dear – this is so not going to be a short story. It is the merest beginning of a lengthy adventure. What fun!)
On the edge of the mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.
This wood is a special wood. The grains twist into complicated whorls, rather like Celtic knotwork. Every color imaginable to wood is represented, rather like marquetry pieced together in finely cut veneers. Between the shifting lines and colors, the cottage appears to the naked eye to waver.
It is not a solid cottage. The cottage itself is conjured out of equal parts day-dream and cold reality; therefore, it squats uneasily across the dividing line between our world and the next.
I see your eyebrows lift up into the sky, widening your sky-blue eyes. Disbelief so soon into my story? For shame. Listen patiently, and you will hear a thing or two to trouble your dreams, and haunt your waking hours.
You know that there are doors between this world and the next – and the next can be any number of places magical, horrifying, entrancing, mysterious. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination. But what lies in between our here and now, and whatever we dream the next place to be?
Ah, I can see you are intrigued! Come with me, and you shall see.
Matthew had spent the better part of the day wandering in the forests outside the small village he and his parents recently moved to, following his father’s desire to escape the dull inanities of daily life and work, and his mother’s longing to follow his father. Neither his mother or father appeared to care greatly about any longings Matthew harbored, so he pursued his dreams overtly, secure that they were hidden rather like Poe’s Purloined Letter from their disinterested eyes.
Matthew’s latest longing included the desire to explore the lands surrounding his new home, and an even more urgent desire to disappear from the cat calls and less-than-gentle-ribbing-of-the-new-kid by his school mates.
Between his thick glasses, formal button down shirts and trousers, and clipped northern accent, Matthew was an oddity in the little southern community of Castlegrove. And in the time-honored fashion of angst-filled adolescents trapped in their narrow perspectives bounded by their parents’ even more small-minded and fear-filled views of the world, Matthew provided a butt for jokes ranging from indifferent carelessness to studied heartlessness.
All of which only meant that Matthew drew on his ready skills of slipping easily into his books, studies, and imagination. For example, he had been hearing a stubborn whisper inside his head all week – a whisper that was louder than any jibe or curse tossed his direction.
“Matthew, please. I need you. The Cottage holds me prisoner.”
The voice wormed into his psyche, with a desperate intensity and lingering sorrow that beckoned to Matthew. He was called, he knew it. To ignore that call would be less than honorable, a betrayal of who and what he knew himself to be.
So, Matthew rolled out of his bed which was barely rumpled – he was a sound and quiet sleeper -- when the first robins began their morning song. In the dim light of a single lamp, he packed a hearty lunch and filled two water bottles, grabbed his compass, rope, utility knife and windbreaker, shoving them into his tattered knapsack. He then scribbled a brief note to his parents, never dreaming that the vagueness of it would open far more doors into the next world than he had ever dreamed or even hoped for.
Gone exploring. Back by dark. M.
On the edge of the mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood. This cottage waits with great anticipation for the arrival of a hero. It has waited for centuries, and doesn’t particularly care if the hero understands the enormity of the task awaiting him. The cottage only knows that redemption is at hand.
Day 13 Prompt: Sam has been offered a dream position — or at least it would have been if it had been dangled two years ago. But since last summer, Sam thinks there’s more to life than ambition, career, advancement, the trappings of success. Write Sam’s story.
Sam sat in the chair in front of the pristine mahogany desk, stunned. Mr. McGuinn’s beaming face across the desk’s shining expanse mocked Sam’s sensation of sinking into a tar pit, trapped and undecided if taking a last breath before his head disappeared under the black sticky mess was a reasonable idea or not.
Two years ago, the challenge would have been restraining his desire to leap up whooping and stomping in a wild victory dance. Sam had worked hard, pouring his heart and creativity into the firm, and expected to promote rapidly. Instead, in counterpoint to the tidal waves of sadness, Sam heard the sonorous tolling in his head of a Hemingway quote: “I don't like that sadness,' he thought. That sadness is bad. That's the sadness they bet before they quit or betray. That is the sadness that comes before the sell-out." Sam was done. He would go no further.
Smiling woodenly, Sam shook his boss’s hand, and slowly left the office with what he hoped looked more like a dignified step, rather than a reluctant trudge to the gallows. Sam would quit before he took the promotion offered to him. But, it wouldn’t do to say so to his boss’s face. He still needed a job to provide for his daughter, Janet. Poor little motherless waif.
Sam could see Janet’s peaked face gazing anxiously up at him each morning before he handed her over to her nanny -- a pale replacement for a mother newly dead -- her small fingers clutching at his shirt with a desperate intensity. “You’ll be home for dinner, Daddy, right?”
“Of course, sweetheart,” he would invariably whisper, and dinner would invariably be held over more and more often while Sam finished a last-minute project. Sam would race home filled with guilt to – invariably -- find Janet sleeping in her booster seat over a cold dinner plate. He would then – also invariably -- stand helpless in the face of the nanny’s judgment as she quietly packed up her bag and left Sam with his sleeping daughter. After a few weeks of this, the nanny then invariably left for good, and Sam would then – again invariably --open the door in the morning to the newest replacement handing him her references and recommendations from the placement firm. And invariably, Sam would get a call from the placement firm.
The woman who ran the company would adjure Sam to think of his daughter’s need to see her father, especially during this time of grief and adjustment. Then the woman would caution Sam that the nanny’s were not live-in nanny’s, and had specific employment hours. Then she would end by thanking Sam for his business, and the phone would click, the line dead.
So, most evenings, after Sam locked the door behind the nanny’s retreating back, he would return to the dining room and clear the table while his daughter slept. Rather than eat, Sam poured a shot of Scotch over a handful of ice cubes in glass tumbler, and sat across the table from his daughter, looking for signs of Carol in her hair and face and hands. Carol’s image faded a little more each day from Sam’s memory. He looked at the photo in his wallet, and felt no connection to the cheerful face and sparkling eyes gazing at the camera. He looked at the family portrait hanging over the sideboard and felt . . . nothing. He didn’t know who those people were, filled with hopes and dreams and a vision of the future that included many more people in the final family portrait decades into the future. Where had that dream gone?
Ice would clink as Sam drained his drink, and then he would scoop his daughter up and carry her tenderly upstairs to her room. Generally, the nannies caught on quickly to Sam’s inability to make it home in the evening, and they would make sure Janet had a large afternoon snack, an early bath and her PJs on, so that all Sam had to do was tuck his daughter into bed. Janet would stir and start to awaken as Sam tucked her into bed. Janet would sleepily kiss her father’s face and cling to his hand while he rubbed her small back and sang her silly songs and lullabyes, struggling to remember the words and melodies that had floated so effortlessly down the hall to Sam’s ears in the evenings when Carol would go through the nightly tuck-in rituals with Janet.
Sam flushed with shame remembering how many dinner hours he had missed with his daughter. The shame gave way to a flash of self-righteous anger -- what did the world expect? He was the bread earner. That required work. The anger was always short-lived for Sam, the shame and guilt taking precedence. He hadn’t seen it coming. Sam just thought Carol was tired. Tired from the daily demands of caring for a large home, a small toddler, and a second baby on the way.
Sam knew Carol’s second pregnancy was taking a lot out of her. He had thought it odd that she was losing weight rather than gaining, but when he asked, Carol would just smile and tut-tut away his concern. Sam never had the time to go with her to her monthly check-ups, and it never crossed his mind to call the doctor and ask what was going on with Carol and the pregnancy.
And it was too late by the time Sam got the call from the hospital. Carol was gone, leaving Janet and Sam to fend for themselves and find whatever path through the tangled briers of their mutual grief that they could. All Sam knew at this point was that he could no longer hide in his work, leaving Janet to cope with a revolving door of nanny’s and a father that was absent even when he was home. It had to stop. Sam had to choose.
Slowly Sam pulled a piece of paper over to him, and began the slow process of figuring out the correct words that would in some fashion show his gratitude for the opportunity to promote, and make it clear that this was not the proper time. He was needed by his daughter. He was needed at home. Sam needed the stability of a standard 40-hour work week that ensured he was home and could keep to a daily routine.
Sam knew, though, that his career would meet an abrupt end. Refusing promotions in the firm generally led to loss of employment altogether. Abruptly, Sam pulled his briefcase over to him and clicked it open. Looking at his tidy desk, he reached across to the one personal item he kept – a picture of Janet during her 4th birthday party a mere two weeks before Carol died so suddenly, and slid it into his briefcase, closing the case. Standing, Sam shrugged into his jacket and clapped his fedora onto his head. Life was altogether too short to miss another moment of his daughter’s life. It was all he had left of Carol.