Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Lure of the Mermaid

Jacob was four years ahead of his brother Brad in age as well as in school. So when Jacob graduated from high school, Brad was just entering it. And as Brad finished high school, Jacob graduated from college. Their parents decided to celebrate their graduations by taking them to the beach for a weekend with their friends.

The second day at the beach, Jacob noticed Brad looking intently out into the water. He ran up to his side, away from the volleyball game everyone was playing.

"Whatcha see, Brad?" Jacob peered out over the ocean, but his eyesight wasn't as good as Brad's.

"Oh, I dunno," said Brad, "Maybe some seals way out there on a rock. I think I hear something too."

For a moment Jacob caught a flash of something strange, and maybe wild in Brad's eye, but then it was gone.

"I think I'll go see if I can get closer," Brad said casually.

Jacob shrugged and went back to the volleyball game. Occasionally he glanced toward the ocean, but Brad was a good swimmer, and he wasn't very worried. Brad swam out several hundred feet, then swam straight back.

As he jogged back to the game, Jacob shouted to him, "See any seals?"

Brad looked up surprised. "Seals? Oh, yeah. No, no seals."

Jacob forgot about the incident, and at the end of the day, all their friends left and went home. The two brothers and their parents were staying at the beach a few more days for what their dad called "bonding time." That night in bed, Brad surprised Jacob by bringing the subject up again.

"It wasn't seals," he said, "I swear it was a mermaid. And she was singing this song. It was, well, it was just beautiful. She was gorgeous too, but when I got close, she swam away."

Jacob felt disturbed on hearing this, though he couldn't put his finger on why it upset him.

The next morning Jacob and Brad went to the beach by themselves, Brad insisting that Jacob come hear the song of the mermaids. After walking for miles along the beach, Jacob began to tire of searching for the elusive mermaids, but Brad became panicky. Finally they heard a strange voice singing not too far down the beach. Brad started running toward it, and Jacob chased after him. As they drew closer to the source of the music, Jacob saw the singer, a mermaid, perched on a rock a few hundred feet from the shore. Brad was running, then swimming toward it, heedless of anything else around him.

Jacob slowed as he reached the edge of the beach, listening to the eerie song that floated across the waves to him. It was beautiful, certainly, but it filled him with a dread, and he realized that this song was not meant for him, but only for his brother. Suddenly the singing stopped, and the mermaid looked intently at Brad, then dove into the waters and disappeared. Brad swam slowly back to shore, and the two walked back to their rental house.

"Well, it certainly is exciting to see such a strange sight," said Jacob, "but I wouldn't ask to see it twice."

"No," said Brad, "I guess not." But the look on his face said differently.

That night Jacob had trouble sleeping. He lay in a state of half-dreaming for an hour, tossing and turning. Finally, he opened his eyes and sat up. Suddenly he looked over at his brother's bed. It was empty. Immediately he threw the blankets off of him and jumped out of bed. Without bothering to dress, he ran out the door to the beach in his boxers, grabbing only his pocket knife on the way out and clipping it to his boxers. Racing down the beach in the light of the full moon, he cursed himself for not reading his brother more carefully. He was certain that Brad had gone to seek out the mermaid, and he was equally certain that the mermaid meant nothing good for him.

On his left, the side opposite the water, a figure ran out toward him from a beach house. Jacob slowed, and approached the figure cautiously. It was an older man who looked as excited as Jacob, holding something in his hand out to Jacob.

"I saw your brother with the mermaid yesterday," he said without prelude, "He is in grave danger. Take this; swallow it, and you should be able to breathe underwater for a few hours."

Jacob took a small berry from his hand and eyed it suspiciously. But after looking carefully at the man, he decided that he had neither ill-intent nor insanity in his eyes.

He muttered a quick "thanks," then turned and continued running down the beach. Soon he began to hear the eerie singing, Far out in the water he saw his brother swimming away from the shore to where a mermaid was waiting on a protruding rock. He shouted, but Brad ignored him, or couldn't hear him. Jacob ran into the water, fighting the waves to get to his brother. When his feet no longer touched the bottom, he paused. His brother had just made it to where the mermaid was waiting. She looked down at Brad and laughed. Suddenly she bared her teeth and hissed, diving on top of him and shoving him underwater.

A shout stuck in Jacob's throat, and he swam out to the rock. There was no sign of either of them. Suddenly he remembered the berry the old man had given him, shoved it in his mouth and swallowed. Immediately he felt a sharp pain in his hands and his feet. He held his hands up and watched as they elongated, and thin webs appeared between his fingers. Then he felt a cracking sensation in his knees and ankles. At first he thought they were broken, but then he realized the joints had realigned themselves so that he could now bring his foot up to his stomach and bend his foot backwards. Finally, as he noticed his eyes going dim, he drew in a breath, but it felt dry, and burned as it went down his throat. Something told him to submerge himself, and he realized that somehow, he was breathing the water. He found he could see exceptionally well underwater, and his eyes didn't burn with the salt as they usually did.

Hoping that all these changes were temporary, he looked around, and spotted the mermaid with his brother moving quickly away from the shore. Immediately he swam toward them. Soon, there was a small opening in the ocean's floor, and the mermaid dove into it. Jacob hurried behind her, and after a moment's hesitation, plunged into the cave behind her.

Darkness enveloped Jacob as he swam farther and farther downward, and he put his hands in front of him, feeling his way slowly. Eventually the tunnel turned horizontal and the water in front of him grew brighter. It ended in a cavern as large as a house. Looking up, he saw that the water only reached halfway up the cavern walls. On the roof was something luminous, emitting a soft blue light, which Jacob realized was the only source of lighting.

Where Jacob was floating near the entrance, the floor was lowest, but it slowly sloped upward, until halfway across the cavern, it rose out of the water. Just above the water level was the mermaid, lying on top of the limp figure of Brad. With a shock, he realized that she was drinking his blood.

Immediately he swam as fast as he could to her. She turned and bared her bloodstained teeth at him, leaping into the water. Jacob pulled his pocketknife from his boxers and held it out toward her. She swam at him, dodged the knife and grabbed his legs with claws that tore into his skin. He twisted around, and plunged the knife into her arm, forcing her to let his leg go.

Suddenly she began singing to him. All thought of fighting left him as he listened to her song. He forgot who he was and what he was doing there, thinking only of her beauty and the enchanting song. He froze in place, mesmerized by her voice as she came closer and stretched out her hands to his neck.

But as her hands softly touched him, he stirred, and a small part of him woke up to the danger, perhaps remembering the claws in his leg. Without thinking, he thrust the knife in her chest. A look of shock appeared on her face. Bubbles began rising from her skin, and then suddenly she exploded into a mass of bubbles and mist. Jacob shook his head in disbelief at this, but quickly he dismissed it as he remembered his brother.

Brad was in a deep sleep. He seemed to be breathing very slowly, if at all, and his pulse was weak. Jacob wondered if the mermaid had done something to him to temporarily slow his breathing and heartbeat so that he could survive the trip through the tunnel. If so, he realized that he would be able to get him out the same way. He thought quickly about the dilemma. Could he risk his brother's life and assume that if the mermaid got him down here, he could get him back up to the surface?

There really was no choice. He had to get out of the cavern before he lost his ability to breathe underwater and they were both stuck there to die. Jacob grabbed Brad securely by his waist and slipped back into the water. As he made his way through the tunnel, he felt his arms and legs begin to shrink to normal size. When he emerged from the cave, his sockets popped back into place, and soon his head began to swim from lack of oxygen. It became a desperate struggle to drag himself and his brother upward as his lungs screamed for air.

Finally his head burst out of the water and he gasped for air. He brought his brother's head above the water, and he too, drank in the air. Jacob swam slowly to shore, and as the waves dumped them onto the sand, the old man walked up to them and dragged Brad further away from the water.

"What happened? Did you kill her?" the man asked.

"I struck her with my knife and she dissolved, so, yeah. She's dead."

The man frowned as he looked at Jacob. "Very good," he finally said. "That's one less danger to haunt the world."

Jacob looked at him quizzically. "Do you hunt mermaids for a living?"

The man smiled. "Oh, not just mermaids. I deal with a long list of dangerous creatures most of the world thinks don't exist."

Something inside Jacob perked up when he heard this. The man leaned in closer to Jacob.

"You know," he said, "I'm about to retire from active duty, and I'm looking for an apprentice to train. Not too many people would have dived into danger with no thought for themselves, you know. And to top it off, you survived! What do you say? Join me?"

Jacob grinned and turned to look at the rising sun. It was a brand new day in his life.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Violinist (and the Luthier): Part III

Oscar felt dizzy as his eyes glanced around, searching for some point of reference to focus on, but there was only white light shining from every direction. He closed his eyes, but the light still shone through his eyelids. His feet kicked in every direction, searching for something to stand on. There was nothing. He moved his left hand, and realized he was still holding the neck of his violin. That was something, at least. Abby squeezed his right hand, and he turned his head toward her, relieved to see something other than himself. He wondered how long it had been since they had jumped through the trapdoor, whether it was minutes or hours, and how much further it was till they would emerge. He couldn't even tell how fast they were moving, or if they were moving at all.

Without warning, everything went dark. There was a soft thud as he landed on something solid, and relief swept over him. He stood still for several minutes, adjusting to the dark and recovering from the journey. Travel by violin was definitely better than that! Abby walked forward toward a thin strip of light near the ground. He realized it was the bottom of a door as she swung it open to reveal that they were standing in a broom closet. Oscar followed Abby through the door into a large office.

Sitting casually on a desk across the room was a man wearing only jeans and covered with hideous tattoos. They were similar to the ones on the man he had just fought, though it was plain that these were drawn with considerably more skill and artistry. The design swirled and twisted about itself in a way that made Oscar sick if he tried understanding the pattern.

At his side was a middle aged woman. Her wrists and feet were tied, and there was duct tape across her mouth. Her left eye was bruised and there was dried blood encrusted on her face. She was missing both her pinkie fingers, and her shirt was splattered with red.

The man was holding a knife to her face.

He threw something small toward Abby. "I meant to do that when you could see her wriggle and writhe, but I got impatient," he said calmly. Oscar looked at what he had thrown. It was a finger.

"Hello, Rook," Abby nearly whispered.

Rook's face contorted into a sarcastic smile. "Hello, Abby. Nice to see you again. I've been getting to know 'mom' real well. You always ragged on me to spend more time with her, right?" He glanced toward Oscar. "And hello there, stranger. Are you Abby's new man-whore?"

Anger ran through Oscar, and he lunged forward.

"Don't come any closer!" Rook shouted, plunging the knife into her cheek.

Oscar stopped short as he heard her muffled scream. She writhed in pain, and Abby gasped.

"I wouldn't do that, friend," Rook began again. "This is my game, my rules."

Oscar froze in place, but his heart continued to beat quickly, and every muscle in his body tensed.

Abby took a step forward and leaned down to pick up the finger. She fumbled through her backpack, took out a small ziplock filled with ice, and placed the finger inside.

"Rook," she said, "Please don't hurt my mom. She hasn't done anything to deserve this."

Rook laughed. "What does it matter what she's done? It's just too much fun to see you try to stay cool and collected while your mom suffers for your sins."

Before Rook could react, Abby pulled out a glass bottle of clear liquid and threw it at him. He put out a hand to catch it, but it broke on contact, and the liquid splattered over his hand.

He screamed, and his skin began steaming as the liquid crept up his arm, onto his chest, and down his stomach. Wherever it touched, the tattoos began disappearing. Rook dropped to the floor, moaning in pain. Oscar watched in fascination as all the tattoos vanished. Finally, it was over, and Rook lay moaning on the ground. Slowly, he stood up, his head bowed, his skin still steaming.

"What was that for?" he asked quietly, lifting his head to reveal his blood red eyes. "Did you think you could 'cure' me?"

His mouth curled into a mocking smile. "You cannot cure what isn't sick. These tattoos you gave me merely brought out what was already inside me."

Oscar looked at Abby in alarm. Rook saw his surprise, and his eyes danced with delight.

"Doesn't he know, Abby?" When she remained silent, he continued with a cruel smile, "Abby's good at drawing tattoos that make people feel things. She can make people feel love, happiness, joy, whatever they want. She found out I had cheated on her, and was jealous for some strange reason." His face contorted into an even wider smile. "So while I was sleeping, she came and drew this beautiful design. I guess she was trying to give me the same jealousy she felt."

Rook walked over to Oscar, his smile disappearing. "But I think she poured in a lot of hatred as well. I hate her now, more than anything," he said with such passion that Oscar took a step backward. "I wish she was dead. No, that's not true, I suppose—I wish she was in hell."

He smiled as if at some hidden joke and walked to Abby. "Are you?" he asked.

Oscar looked over at Abby. She said nothing, but her eyes gave away her pain. Anger rushed through him and without a thought, he aimed a kick at Rook. Instantly Rook disappeared, and Oscar's foot met only air.

Abby ran to the office door and looked out. Oscar looked over at the desk. Abby's mother was gone.

"Where are they?" he yelled.

Suddenly they heard someone scream in the distance. Abby and Oscar raced down the hallway toward the sound. The hallway ended in a lounge area, and there on a couch sat Rook, holding his knife to the woman, fresh blood coming from her arm. He looked up at them, then disappeared once again. Abby raced to the couch anyway. She kicked it in frustration.

"He's killing my mom!" she shouted. She ran up to Oscar and put her hands on his shoulders. "Quick, play a song! Find him again!"

Oscar put the violin up to his shoulder and began to play the same tune he had used to find the house. This time there was a darkness to it that matched the hatred in Rook's heart. Behind them, the hallway lit up, and they ran back up it until they reached a large door. Abby threw it open, and Oscar gasped at the sight facing him.

An enormous factory stood before them. Rows and rows of robots worked tirelessly assembling parts of something Oscar did not quite recognize. The path lit by the song led toward the right, and then down one of the many aisles. They ran to the start of the aisle, and saw Rook about a hundred yards away, holding a kinfe to the throat of Abby's mother. They ran toward him, but when they were within a few feet of him, he disappeared, reappearing further down the aisle.

Abby started running toward him again, but Oscar grabbed her hand.

"Wait," he said. "I have an idea." He put the violin to his chin and began to play a slow, sweet-sounding melody. Each note rang distinct and clear as it left the violin. Time itself seemed to stop; and as Abby looked around at the machines, she realized it really had stopped. Not a sound came from them; they had simply stopped moving. She looked with excitement at Oscar, who had already begun to walk toward Rook. As they drew nearer, Abby saw that Rook also was frozen in place, staring intently at the spot they had been standing a minute ago. She opened her bag and drew out a knife sheathed in leather. Drawing it, she walked up to Rook, but hesitated as she looked into Rook's eyes.

"I'm so sorry, Rook," she said softly. "I wish I could have done the right thing, but it's too late now." Then she thrust the knife into his heart and stepped away.

Oscar stopped playing, and Rook looked with surprise and shock, first at Oscar and Abby, then down at the knife in his chest. He staggered, then fell to his knees, then on his face, and moved no more.

* * *

"I don't deserve to live."

They were sitting in the hospital, outside the room where doctors tended the many wounds Abby's mother had sustained.

"What do you mean?" asked Oscar. "Of course you do."

"No." She closed her eyes, and tears began falling down her face. "I'm the one who killed my dad and Rook, and nearly killed my own mom. Just for an act of petty revenge."

Oscar put his arm around her. "Don't think like that. He said it himself; the evil was already inside of him. You can't be responsible for his actions."

"No," she disagreed firmly, "The only way I was able to make that tattoo was by looking inside my own soul. That's how I make things, it's how I always make things. All the hatred he had, I have as much. Or more."

Oscar tensed as her words hung in the air. But finally he hugged her tightly. "That's only true because deep down, all of us are evil. We're all capable of murder, or worse. I am too, just as much as you."

Abby smiled slightly, "That's very nice of you, but I'm the one that let it get the best of me."

Oscar didn't know what to say to this. He opened his mouth to reply, then thought better of it. Finally, he said, "You make so many wonderful things, Abby. Just keep on making things that will help the world be a brighter place. If you let your guilt stop you from doing that, then the evil inside you has already won."

They sat silently for a while. Abby cried softly into Oscar, and Oscar comforted her as best he could. It had been a long couple of days, and he wondered whether it would ever really be over, but he thought he'd like to stick around to find out.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Violinist (and the Luthier): Part II

"Is that your house?" asked Oscar.

They had been running most of the night. At some point they had left the city, and in fact had left the natural world behind. Oscar figured they were in some sort of pocket or crevice of the universe that God had forgotten to fill with creation. All around them was a dull gray. There were no trees, no hills, no sky. They could barely tell that they were walking on ground. Every once in a while they passed a random object that probably used to be important to someone but was now lost and forgotten. There were chairs and tables, books, trees, cars and even a stray dog. It was hard to tell as they were moving, but Abby thought that some of the objects were blurry around the edges, as if the gray monotony was seeping into them slowly. She looked closely at the house now, but the edges were still sharp.

"Well? Is it your house?" Oscar repeated.

"Yes. We should be very cautious as we go inside. He could be waiting for us." Abby gathered up her courage and started to walk toward the house, but Oscar grabbed her hand.

"Wait. You're gonna have to explain a bit more of what we're up against, this thief of yours." Oscar didn't like being unprepared.

Abby hesitated. "He had dark tattoos over his whole body."

"Well that's easy enough, I suppose. Anything else I should know?"

She looked down and shook her head.

He studied her for a moment before shrugging. He turned toward the house again. "Okay then, let's go." He started forward, but Abby put a hand on his shoulder.

"Try not to touch anything inside. You never know what an object does. And keep your violin ready." Oscar nodded, and they walked to the front door and stepped in.

Once their eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, they found the house in shambles. Tables and shelves were lying upside down, smashed to bits. A piano lay in ruins on the floor. Drawers were ripped out and their contents scattered.

Abby stared at it as if she saw nothing, and said, "I have some things to get from my room. Look around and see if you can find any hints or clues."

Oscar looked at her carefully, but she was unreadable. He nodded and moved left, toward the kitchen. Abby went right, down a hallway. Oscar walked into the kitchen, avoiding the silverware scattered on the floor. He looked around aimlessly, wondering what a hint or a clue might look like, and if he would recognize one if he saw it. Suddenly there was a noise across the room from him. He walked cautiously toward the sound, wondering what sort of violin music could fight off a thief with dark tattoos. At the other end of the room was an archway into the dining room. He stepped through it.

Suddenly a dark shape sprang up onto the dining room table. It shrieked, leaped onto Oscar and propelled him back into the kitchen. The violin flew out of his hand. The figure of a man pinned him to the ground and began choking him. Red eyes stared at him, and Oscar noticed the tattoos that ran from his face all the way down his body. Oscar shoved his arms in between the man's and pushed them off his throat. Grasping the man's arm, he quickly turned onto his stomach and slipped out from under him. He pulled on the man's arm, who fell over onto his back. Oscar jumped on him and aimed a punch at his face. The man blocked with his arm and then Oscar was thrust backwards by a foot on his chest. He was forced onto his back, and in an instant the man was on top of him. Desperate, he reached his hand on the floor behind him, felt a sharp knife, and fumbled for the handle.

Just then Abby raced into the kitchen, saw the man wrestling with Oscar, and Oscar reaching for the knife.

"Wait, Oscar, don't!" she shouted in panic.

But Oscar finally gripped the handle and slashed madly across the man's face. As if it were cutting through pudding, a gash as deep as the length of the blade appeared, and blood splattered on Oscar. The body went limp and fell on top of Oscar. Abby screamed. Oscar shoved the body off of him and jumped up, his heart racing. He looked at Abby, who rushed up to the body and cradled it in her arms, weeping madly over it.

"That was my father!" she screamed at Oscar.

Oscar went numb. "He was trying to kill me! I—I'm sorry!"

"No!" Abby yelled. "Go away!" She stopped as a sob got stuck in her throat. Then she continued in a whisper. "Just go away for a minute."

Oscar felt as if he couldn't move, but he forced his legs to carry him away from her. He saw the violin lying with the bow among some broken plates. He picked them up unconsciously as he walked into the hall. There was a bench that seemed untouched by the wreckage, and he sat down on it. Without knowing why, he lifted the violin to his chin.

At first he played softly, unsure of himself. But soon the walls echoed the violin's tune. He heard Abby sob, and he closed his eyes, his own tears welling up as the song grew, sadness spilling out of the violin like water from a spring, filling the whole house. Soon the mournful song was too much for Oscar, and he felt he couldn't go on. He paused, and the song hung in the air as if waiting for someone to conclude it.

Oscar put the bow to the strings again and managed a few squeaky notes, faltered, then followed with stronger strokes. This time the melody was different, but somehow the two went together. If the first told of the grief of passing, the second spoke of a deep love. Suddenly Oscar understood that the second song was meaningless without the first. The melody went on, and Oscar interlaced it with the first so that the sadness that had hung in the air was joined with something that made Oscar feel he could bear it.

Abby walked into the hall. Oscar noticed she was wearing a small backpack. He stopped playing and looked at her, unsure of what to do.

She looked down at his feet and said, "Thank you, Oscar. That was—really beautiful."

Then she looked up into his eyes. She held out a crumpled piece of paper and said, "He left this on my bed."

Oscar took it and saw, written in large deliberate letters:

I've left one for you
I drew on him just like
you showed me
Come get the other one
or whatever's left of her

"He left a finger on top of the note. I think it's my mom's."

Oscar looked up alarmed. "So your father wasn't the one who did all this? Then who—"

Abby held up her hand to stop him. "Look, I'm not ready to talk about it yet. All you need to know is that some crazy person kidnapped my mom, and is probably torturing her right now."

"And so we're going to go find him, which according to this note, is exactly what he wants us to do." Oscar smiled grimly.

Abby nodded. "He wants the violin. And he probably wants me so that he can use me to make him whatever he wants."

"Perfect." Oscar put the violin up to the chin. "Where are we going?"

Abby smiled weakly at him. "Actually," she said, "We're not going to travel that way this time. I think I know where he went. Come on."

She took his hand and ran with him down a set of stairs to a basement. It was pitch black, and Abby pulled out a flashlight from her bag. There was a trapdoor in the middle of the room, and she went to it and pulled on its handle, but it remained shut.

Oscar played a few notes on his violin, and the latch turned from the other side of the door. Abby easily opened it. White light streamed into the room. A roaring, like an angry ocean, filled the room

"Once you're in an area like this," Abby shouted above the noise as she stuffed her flashlight back in the bag, "there's no easy way out. But my dad built this door so that no matter what, it would always lead to the same place."

Abby sat down and dangled her legs through the trapdoor. Oscar followed suit. The roar became deafening.

Abby leaned close to Oscar and yelled, "We should probably hold hands so that we land at the same time. Sometimes this thing spits you out right, but sometimes it glitches and it might be a half hour before you get out."

Oscar quickly gave her his hand. "Anything else I should know?" he shouted. "Are we going to land in the middle of wild, hungry beasts? Should I hold on to my lower half so that it doesn't get separated from me either?"

Abby missed the sarcasm and yelled back, "No, just watch out for the crazy man with tattoos on the other end!"

With that she jumped in, pulling Oscar in behind her. The trapdoor shut quickly behind them, and the room suddenly filled with silence and darkness.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Violinist (and the Luthier): Part I

A girl stumbled across a bedroom floor fleeing from a pair of red eyes that flashed in the darkness. She raced into the hallway carrying a violin case. A dark figure followed her quickly. Light spilled into the hall from a doorway on the right. The girl ran toward the light into the kitchen. On the other end of the room were doors to the outside. As she reached them, she turned and looked back. A man was standing at the other end of the kitchen, dressed only in shorts. From head to toe he was covered in dark tattoos that swirled and collided in what looked like a thoroughly evil and hate-filled pattern. His eyes were glowing with the same hatred and fire that exuded from the tattoos. In his hand he held a strange looking device. On seeing it, the girl's eyes widened and she turned and ran out the door. When she thought she was far enough away, she glanced back. At first she saw the large house she had just emerged from, but then there was a bright flash, and a noise like an explosion, and then the house was gone, with only its foundation left behind. The girl looked like she was about to cry, but then she turned resolutely away and walked off into the night.

* * *

Oscar stood at the bus stop, his violin case slung over his back. He looked down the road for the bus, anxious about his audition coming up. He shouldn't be worried, he told himself. After all, he had been playing violin since he was four, picking out melodies of songs like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Old McDonald." By the time he was eight, he had won several national contests. His early teens were spent obsessing over the instrument, sometimes practicing several hours a day, learning a new piece every day as well as composing his own songs. And now, as high school graduation was approaching, colleges and universities were clamoring to get him to come to their school.

The bus finally arrived at the bus stop. Oscar stepped on board and started to hand the driver some money.

"No cash, passes only," said the driver in a monotone.

Oscar looked at him surprised. "What?"

"Sorry, new policy, we don't accept cash anymore. You have to go buy your pass at a kiosk."

"But I really need this bus! The next one doesn't come for a half hour!"

The driver looked annoyed. "I'm sorry, sir. You'll have to step off, please."

Oscar thought quickly. "Wait, sir. I am really good on the violin. Let me just play a song for you." Oscar took the case off his back and fumbled for the latches. "The moment you don't like it, or get annoyed with me, just stop the bus and I'll get off."

Oscar didn't wait for an answer from the incredulous bus driver, but whisked the instrument up to his chin and started playing something he had made up a few days ago. The driver shrugged and started the bus.

Oscar started with a low note that hung in the air like a question. Then the melody began, stilling the atmosphere with a chilling mystery. The bus made a stop, and several people got on. Oscar continued to play, and the riders on the bus at first tried to look out the windows or read their books, but soon it became impossible, and one by one they began staring at Oscar, hanging on every note he played. The bus made several stops, and more people got on, but no one got off. Oscar's melody raced furiously toward a climax. Everyone sat on the edge of their seats. The bus made several more stops, but no one could leave their seats. Suddenly the melody changed, flowing out of the mystery from the beginning, yet resolving it, and the listening ears felt they now comprehended some deep, strange knowledge. Then just as suddenly as it began, it ended. Oscar put the violin back in its case and slung it over his shoulder. The bus stopped, he gave a quick bow, then hopped off onto the sidewalk.

Everyone stirred as if waking from a dream. Some realized they had missed their stops far behind. Most didn't care. One girl opened her eyes when she realized it was over, jumped up and ran to the front of the bus just as it was starting to move.

"Wait! This is my stop!"

The bus driver looked very annoyed, but he stopped for her and opened the door. The girl muttered an apology and jumped off. She also was carrying a violin case. She spotted Oscar walking away from the stop and ran toward him.

"Hey! Violin guy!" she shouted.

Oscar turned around surprised.

"Look," she started when she caught up to him, "I've never heard music like that before, and I think you're the one."

"The one?" asked Oscar. "What does that mean?"

"Look, um, what's your name?"

"I'm Oscar."

"Hi. I'm Abby. Oscar, I have a problem. I think you can help me, though."

She paused, unsure of herself. "Look, maybe it would be better if you saw this first. I have something for you, if you agree to help me."

She shook her head as she took the violin case and started opening it up. "You know what? If you won't do it for me, I don't believe anyone can. So you can have it, whether or not you help me."

She lifted the case's cover to reveal the most beautiful violin Oscar had ever seen.

"Go ahead. Play it. It's yours."

Oscar carefully picked up the violin. He raised it to his chin, took the bow in his hand and placed it on the strings. He played a short note on the A string. Immediately he knew there was something different about this violin. The strings didn't just resonate in the wood; he felt it in himself, in the sidewalk beneath him and in the air around him. Several people glanced over toward him, and he knew they were affected too. He looked back at Abby questioningly.

Abby smiled at him. "See? I knew you'd feel it. Several people have tried to play it, but either nothing has come out, or they didn't hear it."

"What is this violin?" Oscar asked. "I heard something. This is—this isn't a normal violin. Or if it is, I've been playing on trash."

Abby looked around conspiratorially. She grabbed his arm and lead him to a nearby bench. They sat down and Abby looked intensely at Oscar.

"Listen Oscar," she said, staring into his eyes so that he felt not a little uncomfortable, "I make things. I'm really, really good at making things, because I understand them. I mostly make instruments, but I've made knives, chairs, candles. But instruments are really my thing: pianos, flutes, oboes, and, of course, violins. I made this violin, and it's the best thing I ever made."

She sighed and sat back, closing her eyes. "It was definitely my masterpiece. I worked on it a week without eating or sleeping. The wood I used had been aging in my parents' house since I was born—"

"How long ago was that?" Oscar interrupted.

Abby opened her eyes and glared at him. "Long enough. Almost seventeen years. Anyways, as I was saying, It was wood from my birth year, so I knew this stuff, and it knew me, and together we learned about the world around us—"

Oscar interrupted again. "Sorry. 'Us' being you and the wood?"

Abby flashed her eyes at him. "Yes. Look. Did you or did you not feel something special about this violin?" Without waiting for his response she went on, "She's one with the world around her. A person who played her right could do anything, if he but found the right melody, with just the right nuances, played at just the right time."

Oscar cocked his head. "What do you mean, do anything? Do what?"

She leaned forward excitedly. "Anything, Oscar! You could force people do whatever you want! You could make people fall in love with you. You could move objects, unlock doors, walk through fire, find lost things. I don't know what all you could do. You'll have to find out! And Oscar, I think you're the only one who can wield this instrument. To anyone else, it's just a violin, though maybe the most beautiful one they've ever heard."

His eyes widened. "And you're just going to give this to me?"

Abby leaned back on the bench. "Well, I can't play it all that well. But if you take it, I would like your help with something."

"You're giving me something priceless. How can I refuse?"

"Don't take this lightly, Oscar. It's going to be dangerous. And we need to do this right now. So, just forget about whatever you were about to do."

Oscar thought about this, but made up his mind quickly. He got down on his knees, held up the violin in its case and looked earnestly into Abby's eyes. "Abby," he said, "I accept your honorable gift of this violin, and request that you would honor me in return by letting me help you with whatever you need right now. Consider it my payment."

Abby smiled. "Very old school, and sweet. I accept your offer."

Oscar stood up and smiled grimly. "So what is it you want me to do?"

Abby stood up, and they began walking. "I told you I make things. Well, my things—and my home—and I think my parents in it—have been stolen."

Oscar frowned. "How does one go about stealing a house?"

"My parents make things too. I'm the expert in musical stuff, but they make all sorts of things. Just believe me. They made something that could conceivably move mountains. So my house is gone, stolen. What we need to do is find my house."

"And how do you propose we go about that?"

Abby stopped walking. "The violin will lead us to it."

Oscar stopped walking too. "Really? How?"

"I don't know. You're the one that's going to have to find the right melody."

Oscar was feeling a bit more doubtful about the more magical qualities of this violin. He was also not sure he believed that Abby's house had been stolen. But he took out the violin again, and decided to at least humor her. He placed the violin on his chin, and picked up the bow. He played a down stroke on the open A string, then up on the G string, followed by more random notes.

"Stop, stop!" The world seemed to be spinning around Oscar, so he obeyed Abby and took the violin away from his chin.

Abby closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She opened them and said, "Okay, I'm sorry. I didn't explain anything. It won't just happen automatically. You should probably start with a song you already know. Something that's—like searching. Then think about me, and play something like where you think I would live. Once you get going, it should come easier. Just—think about what you play first. Does that make sense?"

Oscar shook his head. "Not really."

She sighed. "Look, the sounds that come out of that violin are more than just sounds. They're—real, they're reality itself. If you play something that sounds like searching, the violin will start searching. Savvy?"

"No, but I'll give it a try." Oscar closed his eyes and put the violin to his chin again. This time he thought of a melody he had come up with a few months ago that started with a desperate series of scales and trills. He began playing, and looked at Abby. At once something else filled in the edges of the first melody, something that was distinctly Abby-like. He smiled and played louder. Abby felt dazed by the music, it was so beautiful. But suddenly her mind snapped awake like she just remembered something important. She looked around. The city seemed to be dim and gray, but one street glowed brightly. She motioned to Oscar and they began running in that direction. His melody continued to soar before them, guiding them in a direction they were sure was the right one. But soon they began to tire.

Then Oscar added a third aspect to the song. This one seemed to release energy all around them, and immediately they felt refreshed, and they ran even faster. They ran all that day, and into the night, and they did not grow tired as the world around them flew by, blurring together until all they could see was a glow in front of them, leading them onward toward the unknown.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Fountain of Youth

Early in the seventeenth century, there was a man named John from England who loved the high seas and adventure. So he packed his things, sold what he couldn't carry, and set off on an expedition to the Americas. Once there, he was disappointed with what he saw, having expected lands flowing with gold, exotic civilizations and excitement. Nonetheless, he had heard of Ponce de Leon's search for the fountain of youth, so he decided that he would find it. He set off with a large crew, and they explored the Caribbean Sea, searching each island they came upon for this fountain. Year after year they searched, until one by one, each of the crew members grew tired of it, and deserted them.

John was still enthusiastic about the search. He continued to search, growing older and older. Finally, on his sixtieth birthday, he set foot on an island and climbed to the top of a mountain. There issuing from a cave was a small stream. He walked into the cave and found the origin of the stream. Cupping his hands, he dipped them into the water and drank a long draught. Immediately, he felt a change in him, and he marveled as his hair turned from white to brown, his atrophied muscles grew in strength again and he felt an energy he hadn't had since he was in his twenties. He leaped up and danced for sheer joy at his discovery.

He lived on that island as its sole inhabitant for fifty years, drinking from the spring almost every day. He became a skilled hunter, learning to track the footprints of animals and setting traps. He grew close to the land, and could recognize any plant and how it was useful or dangerous to him. If any had come upon him, they might have thought him a native of the Americas. But eventually he tired of being alone, and having marked carefully on his maps where the island was, he built himself another boat and left, looking for new experiences in other places.

He rowed his boat north, and landed on the mainland of America. Then he journeyed by land until he came across an English settlement. There he arrayed himself in Western clothes and soon became respectable in the village as one who knew how to hunt, fight, and till crops. Eventually he was chosen as the leader of the village. Other settlements sprang up in the area and John traveled to each one. All the people were impressed with him, and they asked him to be the governor of the area. He agreed and soon he was head of the whole area. He began to tax the people, and with the taxes he built a great fortress. Then he formed an army, and none could withstand them.

But after forty years of being on mainland America, John grew tired of leading. He was also growing old, and his thoughts turned more often to the fountain of youth. One day he slipped away, and traveled back to the Caribbean Sea. There he built himself a boat and found the island and drank from the fountain of youth. Once again he was reinvigorated. He laughed aloud and decided that America hadn't been thoroughly explored. So he rowed back to the mainland, gathered up a troop of hardy men, and traveled throughout the land. He saw the Grand Canyon, and beyond that the giant Rocky Mountains. Then he journeyed farther west and saw the sun set over the ocean, then turned north and saw the tallest Redwoods. Then he turned again and went east, and saw geysers and hot springs. Eventually he came in a full circle and saw the sun rise over the Atlantic.

As he was gazing over the ocean, he remembered England and felt an urge to go back and see his home country. So he found a ship to take him back to England. Once he had spent some years there, he decided he should see the rest of the world as well. So he took up with a ship headed to India. He started as a cabin boy, but it soon became clear to the captain that he was intelligent and hard working, so after they landed the captain made him the first mate. After a few more trips, John was the captain of his own ship. Soon he had invested in his own ships, and made a fortune on trading. He settled down in England to spend his money. He was happy for a while with a life of ease, but soon he grew restless and bored of it. And he was growing old every day. Death marched closer and closer, and dread filled him as he thought of the unknown beyond death

One day he took a ship back to the Americas. When they were close to the island, he faked his death, then secretly stole the ship's boat, rowed to the island and drank from the spring. Again his youth was restored, and he smiled. He left the island and returned to North America again. Here he found that the colonies were getting restless, and it seemed that revolution was imminent. So he joined in the army and fought against the redcoats. At first it was exciting, and he was proud to be a soldier. Eventually, however, he grew tired of it, and longed for the war to be over.

Finally the war ended and he decided to live in New York City, which seemed to be growing quickly. There he saw the prettiest girl he had ever seen, and pursued her passionately. At first she was hesitant, but soon he had wooed her, and they had a romance that flamed for a while, but too soon it had died. John was sad, but then he saw another girl, and he went after her. That romance died all too quickly, and John looked for another girl, and another. There were soon so many girls in his life that he began to lose count. But eventually the girls no longer came to him, because he grew old and looked frail. So once again he thought about the fountain of youth, but the thought of living even longer tired him. There was something irresistible about eternity, though, and John finally traveled down to the island, drank from the spring, but frowned sternly at the thought of more life. He decided that he would no longer live promiscuously, but would serve God.

He decided not to return to New York, and instead found a ship to Europe. Once there, he journeyed to a monastery in Germany, and lived there for many years, but he felt that the monks there were too close minded. So he traveled to Africa, and joined a tribe, and learned how to be a medicine man. After ten years, he felt he understood the religion perfectly, but it was too dark and heavy for him, and he finally moved on to China. There he became a Buddhist monk, but he felt that it would take too long to achieve perfection. So went to India, and worshiped the pantheon of gods there until his beard was longer than most of the Sadhus. However, he always felt trapped by the gods. So he withdrew from all of the religions, and decided to act as if there was no god. But after a long time of this, he started to despair, and think that life was meaningless. At one point, he thought that it would be better to kill himself than to live on a pointless life, but once again, his thoughts returned to the fountain of youth hidden on the island. Almost against his own will, he journeyed back, and drank from the water. He cursed himself and spat into the spring.

John lay despairing next to the spring, unmoving for a year. Then he went to the United States. There he took to alcohol and drowned himself in it for the next fifteen years, hardly knowing what was going on around him, and sometimes begging on the streets for money. Finally, World War I began, and he enlisted himself. He heard that the most dangerous position was piloting, so he flew a plane, and became a flying ace. After the war ended, he performed dangerous stunts in air shows. Once he tired of that he became a stunt man in Hollywood, always doing the most dangerous stunts, for he had lost his will to live.

Again he began growing old. He made up his mind that he would not go back to the island and drink from the fountain of youth. but once again, he felt pulled to it, and at first he moved from Hollywood to the mid-west, and lived there for a few years, fighting the urge to visit the spring, but then he moved to New Orleans, and then he rented a boat and went to the island, hiked up to the spring, and drank its water. As soon as he drank it and he grew young again, he roared in frustration, and ran from the place. World War II was beginning, and once America entered the war, he joined the army and fought as a foot soldier. He was filled with a rage and was a terror to face. The war ended and he went back to America, but he could not live peacefully. He became an outcast and earned his money robbing banks and houses, and forcing people at gunpoint to give him money. He ran from city to city eluding the police. Eventually they caught him, and he went to prison. The entire time he was in prison, he could think of nothing but the fountain of youth.

As soon as he was released, he started journeying south, against his own will. As he was passing through a small town, he stopped at a diner. There was a woman sitting alone crying, and he sat down by her and asked what was wrong. She told him that her husband had just left her for another woman. At this, John took pity on her. He decided to stay in that town for a little while, and he found a house and a job. Every day he visited the woman, and soon he found that he enjoyed her company. A year went by and he fell in love with her. He asked her to marry him, and she did. John found that his desire to drink from the fountain of youth was being replaced by his desire to make his wife happy. After a long life, John and his wife grew old, and one day, she died. John mourned her, and could not leave the town where her grave lay. So he stayed there a few more years, and then he, too, died and was buried next to his wife.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Elf Queen

"Alex, did you hear that?"

"Hear what, Sunny?"

"I think someone was calling for help."

Alex frowned. "I think you need to get your ears checked, Sunny. There was no sound."

"No really, Alex. Someone definitely shouted. And--there it is again, from that direction." She pointed deeper into the woods. "Come on! We should check it out. It'll be fun!"

She took his hand, but Alex hesitated. They had already been walking in the woods for a while and he was getting tired of it. Sunny shrugged, dropped his hand, and began jogging in the direction she had indicated. Alex sighed loudly. There was no stopping Sunny once she got something into her head. He jogged after her. Sunny looked back at him and laughed.

After two minutes of straight jogging, Alex was sure Sunny had imagined the sound. After five, he was beginning to think she was crazy. When seven minutes had gone by, he began to worry about getting lost. And when ten minutes passed, he stopped.

"Sunny. Look, I've humored you up till now, but seriously?"

Sunny stopped and turned around. She started to say something, but just then they heard a vicious growl nearby. Sunny immediately sprinted toward the noise. She noticed several arrows on the ground, and picked one up as she was running. She saw in front of her a huge wolf clawing at a small tree. She looked up in the tree and saw a young boy in one of the top branches. The wolf turned from the tree and faced her, baring its teeth. Without stopping to think she continued running straight toward the wolf. The wolf leaped at her, and instinctively she braced her feet, leaned back and slid underneath it, then turned quickly and jumped onto its back. She drew back the arrow to strike, but the wolf threw her off, and she landed on her back in front of the wolf. Immediately she took the arrow in both hands as the wolf jumped toward her. The wolf opened its mouth to tear her throat, and she thrust the arrow in. The wolf fell limp on top of her.

Alex ran up and shoved the wolf aside. "Are you okay?" he asked frantically.

"Wow, yeah. That was...weird," she said, looking at the wolf and wondering where the instincts for fighting like that had come from. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Some sort of fire had awoken inside her, and it had not died down completely. The feeling was good, better than anything she had felt before, and she laughed aloud.

A voice spoke from up in the tree. "Yeah, great job on killing the wolf, but wouldja mind helping the guy with a sprained ankle climb down the tree?"

On hearing his voice, Sunny realized that she had been mistaken to think he was a young boy.

"Sorry," she said quickly. She turned to Alex expectantly.

"What?" he asked as her gaze burned into him. "You want me to climb up there, take him in my arms and then magically climb down without my hands?"

She rolled her eyes at him. A few minutes earlier, maybe her reaction would have been the same. But now, without even thinking twice, she sprang up into the tree and climbed to where he was clinging to the trunk.

"Here, climb onto my back." Carefully and awkwardly he put his arms around her neck. She was surprised at how light he was, and she did not find it too difficult to climb back down again.

"Thank you kindly," said the stranger when they had reached the ground, bowing slightly toward Sunny. "I am called Aidan, and I am in your debt."

He was slightly shorter than Sunny herself, who barely reached more than four and a half feet tall. He was clean-shaven, his eyes were bright green, and he was dressed in brown pants, a white t-shirt, and no shoes (Sunny was barefoot as well). His ears were pointed, and she couldn't help but reach up and feel her own ear that she had always thought was too pointy, though not as severely as his. His eyes followed her hand as she touched her ear, and suddenly they widened. Sunny froze and wondered what she had done wrong.

Alex interrupted their silent exchange. "Wow, Sunny, that was pretty cool. My girlfriend is totally insane! She can climb trees with someone riding piggyback, and she likes to kill wolves with her bare hands!"

"Yes, Sunny," Aidan said slowly, "You are particularly agile for a human. Did you get that from your parents?"

"My mom is actually kind of un-athletic," Sunny responded lightly.

"And your father? Was he big and fat too?" he pressed.

"I don't know. What? My mother is not fat. Just...un-athletic." Sunny began to feel a little excited. "Are you--what are you?"

Aidan stared at Sunny with a piercing look, then glanced at Alex suspiciously, then unexpectedly ran away.

"Wait!" called Sunny. She began to run after him, but Alex caught her hand and held it tightly.

"Alex, we've got to follow him!" Sunny pleaded. She tried to wrest herself from him gently.

"No we don't." Alex looked at her angrily. "We came out this far, we saved his life. That's it. We've done our part."

"But didn't you see him, Alex?" Sunny wrenched her hand from his. "He was my height. Did you see his ears? He was, like, an elf. And, well, he looked like me. Don't you think that could mean something?"

"Don't forget to mention he was uber-creepy!" Alex gave her a smirk. "I mean, you wanna go hang out with someone who's thanks for saving his life is to run off mid-sentence, go for it!"

Sunny gave Alex the coldest look she could muster, then turned away and ran in the direction Aidan had gone. Alex just stood there gaping at her.

After a few minutes, Sunny began to wonder if she was going the right way. She stopped to see if she could discern where Aidan had gone. There was a tall oak nearby, and she decided to climb it to see if she could spot anything. Once at the top, she looked all around. She was amazed to discover that she could see far, much farther than she could normally see. About a mile away in the direction she had been running, she spotted movement. Immediately she dropped from branch to branch to the ground and sped off.

As she neared the spot that she thought she had seen movement, she slowed, and began looking for Aidan. Suddenly an arrow sped toward her heart. Faster than the arrow, Sunny ducked backwards, snatched the arrow out of the air, and started running toward its origin, scanning the woods for sign of the attacker. Another arrow was loosed. Sunny dodged, but this time she saw the bow and its owner, already stringing another arrow. A short female with blue war paint on her face stood about a hundred feet away.

Another arrow streaked through the air, and Sunny jumped and neatly turned a somersault and kept running, pleased at this new skill. The archer looked at her with wonder and fear. Swiftly she turned and ran so quickly that Sunny had trouble keeping up with her. They raced through the forest jumping over thorns and creeks, and sliding between bushes.

Suddenly they came on a river too wide to jump. The woman sped up and leaped into the air, grabbing onto a vine and swinging over the river. Sunny slowed down to look for a way to cross. There were no other vines, and Sunny had never been too good at swimming. But suddenly the vine broke, and the woman crashed into the river near the bank.

Sunny ran up to the bank, but the woman quickly got to her feet, pulled out a knife and jumped on Sunny, forcing her to the ground and holding the knife to her throat. Her teeth were bared as she looked coldly into Sunny's eyes, but slowly the fierceness melted away and turned into surprise and astonishment. She leaped back from Sunny and bowed low.

"Your pardon, your majesty. Forgive my impudence. Do with me what you will." She held out the handle of the knife to Sunny.

Sunny took it, confused. "Do what now?"

"You may dole out your punishment to me for trying to kill you." She stuck her chest out and pulled her dress down slightly to uncover her heart.

"No! What? No! I can't do that!" Sunny shrieked in astonishment when she realized her meaning.

The woman straightened and bowed again. "Your mercy is incredible, my lady. Command me to your will."

Sunny was still reeling in shock, but she managed to stutter, "Um, please tell me your name. And why you were trying to kill me, and then suddenly decided that you wanted to die instead?"

"I am Kiera," she began, "And I shot at you, assuming you were in league with the Green Elves. I am of the Brown Elves. We have been fighting nigh on sixteen years in the absence of the true elven king. It was thought, until now, that he was without an heir. But now it is clear that you are his child."

Sunny's mouth hung open as she heard this. "I'm what? I'm the daughter of an elf king?"

"Yes, your majesty. And if your majesty permits, I have a request."

Sunny laughed at being called "majesty" so many times. "Okay, ask away, but please don't call me your majesty. It's just Sunny."

Kiera bowed. "Of course. Sunny, the elf king--or queen--is the one who keeps the magic of the land in balance. Since your father died around sixteen years ago, the kingdom has been falling into disrepair. All the elves have been fighting over who owns what little of the land is left. But only those of royal blood can heal the land, and even this petty fighting is useless. Without a king or queen, the land will die, and us with it."

Sunny thought about this. "But why should I care? I mean, up until now, I haven't known about this whole world, and I've been quite happy without it."

"Sunny, you must do something. The fighting cannot go on like this. The land must be restored. All of the factions will follow you, if you simply make yourself known to them."

Sunny frowned. "But what about my friends? I can't just leave."

"Your friends?" Kiera asked. 'Do you fit in with them?" Sunny looked at her guiltily. Even though she liked her friends and enjoyed their company, sometimes she wondered how much they really cared about her.

Kiera looked at Sunny seriously. "Sunny, you belong in here, in this world. Did you not feel it as you ran after me and dodged my arrows? This is your true home."

"But there's Alex, too."

"Your majesty. Sunny, you have responsibilities to your people--"

Sunny interrupted. "This is my life we're talking about. I never knew about this! It's not my responsibility, and you can't make it mine!"

Sunny turned and ran toward the place she had left Alex. She thought she heard Kiera following behind her, but she ignored her.

All at once arrows streaked around her from two different directions. There were two groups of elves, one on either side of her. She was running through a battlefield.

Suddenly to her right, an archer stood up and called to her. "Sunny!" It was Aidan.

She turned to look at him, and as she did, an arrow suddenly pierced his heart. Horrified, she turned and ran toward him.

She reached him and kneeled over him. He reached out and grabbed Sunny's arm, and struggled for a moment. A few words escaped his lips. "Please," he managed, "Save your people." Then his hand went limp. Sunny looked up angrily at the archers on the other side. She saw Kiera standing to one side of them, her eyes pleading with Sunny.

Sunny looked down at Aidan. This was no longer a strange people that had nothing to do with her. She slowly stood up and began to walk out into the middle of the fighting. Arrows continued to streak back and forth. One came toward her and she reached out a hand and grabbed it from the air. One by one, the archers dropped their bows and stared in amazement at this stately queen who walked out to reconcile her people.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


At a university in a big city there was a good looking student named Aaron who always had all of the girls following him around wishing they could be his girlfriend. He dated many girls, but never found any that he felt was worthy of his handsomeness. There was also a beautiful girl named Rosalie who went to the same university who had all of the guys falling all over her. She dated some, but never found any who deserved to be with her. Eventually the two dated each other, and since they could not see any flaws in each other, they fell in love and soon were married.

At the wedding, Aaron's brother Lee met Rosalie's sister Sarah, as they were best man and maid of honor. Sarah was plain in appearance, perhaps even a bit ugly, unlike her sister. But she and Lee got along well, and he asked her on a date. They found that they had a lot in common, and they began to fall in love. Soon enough, Lee proposed to Sarah.

Sarah, however, cried and felt that she did not deserve Lee. She was afraid that Lee would soon grow tired of her plain looks and seek a woman who was more beautiful. But Lee insisted that he loved her and promised to always remain faithful to her, no matter how she looked. This satisfied Sarah, who set aside her fears and doubts and accepted his proposal, and they, too, married.

All was well for the first few years. The two couples lived near each other in the city, and were happy. The brothers found good jobs, Aaron as an engineer, and Lee as a writer for a magazine. The two sisters also worked, Rosalie as a model, and Sarah as a florist. But Sarah became more and more restless as each year went by. She felt that age was coming upon her, and that soon Lee would forget his promises to her.

One day an old woman came into the flower shop. She had a large scar running across her face.

When she noticed Sarah staring at it, she said, "I see you are curious about my scar. Many years ago I heard a rumor that one can venture below the city's sub-basements and find a sphinx guarding a potion that will give the drinker beauty beyond words. So I searched long and hard for it, and found the sphinx. But I answered its riddle wrong, and did not get the potion, barely escaping with my life."

On hearing this, a great desire to have this potion awoke in Sarah's heart. She asked the woman to tell her where the sphinx was, and reluctantly the old woman told her. Immediately Sarah closed up the shop and called her sister and told her about the potion.

"Oh Sarah!" said Rosalie after she had been told about the potion, "Now you and I can have matching beauty!"

So Rosalie and Sarah met up and went down into the lowest basement of the building the old woman had indicated. They looked around, but found no sign of a sphinx. Finally, after hours of searching, Sarah found a hidden staircase behind a trick wall, and they descended into a large hall. In the middle of the room was a huge sphinx: a creature with a lion's body and a human face. Sarah and Rosalie cautiously approached the creature.

"Stop," it said as they came closer, "You may not pass by me unless you can answer my riddle. Answer wrongly and I tear your head from your body. Are you sure you wish me to ask the riddle?"

"Yes, yes!" the sisters said quickly.

The sphinx nodded slowly, and then spoke:

"With a touch, I can kill a man,
But with a flick of his finger, man kills me."

The sisters looked at each other confused.

Rosalie stepped forward and said, "Is it a bug? Like something that stings you?" In a flash the sphinx lunged forward onto Rosalie and swiped her face with its claw.

But Sarah quickly shouted, "Wait! You haven't let me make a guess!"

The sphinx paused, and looked at Sarah. "Very well," it said. "If you answer correctly, you may pass, and your sister may live. But answer wrong, and you both die."

So Sarah thought and thought about the riddle. Finally she replied, "Is it electricity?"

The sphinx nodded, and then moved to the side of the hall, gesturing for Sarah to pass. Sarah walked down to the end of the hall. There on a pedestal was a small bottle filled with a blue liquid. She took it and walked back to Rosalie, who was lying on the ground, crying and clutching her bleeding face.

"My face!" she cried out. "Look at my face! I will never be beautiful again." Seeing her in such distress, Sarah had pity on her.

"Don't cry," she said, "Here, take this potion." So Rosalie drank it, and her wound healed. If there was any hint of a scar on her, it only added to her stunning beauty. Sarah looked at her with sadness as she saw what she had given up. They both went back to their homes and told their husbands about their adventures. Aaron looked at Rosalie and was amazed that she could be even more beautiful than she had already been. But in the deepest part of his heart a seed of envy was born, as he realized that she was now more beautiful than he was handsome. Lee listened to Sarah's story and marveled at her unselfish act toward her sister, and loved her even more. And in his heart, he thought that Sarah had become more lovely, even without the potion.

Another year went by. Sarah was content for a while since Lee told her every day that she was beautiful. Aaron, however, refused to acknowledge that he thought Rosalie was even a little bit pretty. Rosalie began to believe that her husband thought she was ugly, and she yearned for more beauty.

One day, while Rosalie was modelling, a photographer began talking with her. "You know," he said, "You remind me of another girl I saw once. Excuse me for being so blunt, but your stunning beauty was only second-best compared to her. And get this--she claimed to have gotten her beauty by wearing a stone that she found in the sewers guarded by goblins. I saw her recently, and she wasn't that pretty, and she told me she'd given the stone back to the goblins!"

As soon as she heard this, she desired to have the stone for herself. But she was afraid to face the goblins herself, so she called up her sister and told her about the stone, saying "Oh Sarah, I feel so bad about you sacrificing beauty for my face, so when we find the stone, it's all yours."

At first Sarah was reluctant to go with her sister, but soon desire awoke once again inside her, and she agreed to go with Rosalie to find this stone. Sarah took two knives from her kitchen, then met up with Rosalie. In the dark of night, Rosalie and Sarah opened a manhole, and went down into the sewer, and began to search for the goblins. They walked miles and miles in the labyrinth of the sewers, and just as they were about to give up, Sarah saw a small figure running down a passageway to the side.

Quickly they ran after it, hoping it would lead them to the stone. They trailed it down a maze of tunnels until they turned a corner, and there facing them was not one, but several dozen goblins. Sarah pulled out her knives, and turned to hand one to Rosalie, but Rosalie had run away at the sight of the goblins. So steeling herself, Sarah took one knife in each hand and fought the goblins as they came at her. Rosalie had not run far, though, and when she thought the goblins were too busy to notice her, she sneaked past the goblins to where the stone was lying on a table. She picked it up and ran past her sister, who was beginning to tire of the fight.

Rosalie held up the stone and shouted, "Sarah, come on, I found the stone!" Sarah looked over at her sister and turned to run. With goblins hot on their trail, the sisters sprinted as fast as they could until they saw a ladder leading up to the surface. They opened the manhole, and none of the goblins dared climb after them with the morning sun shining through the hole.

Once they had caught their breath, Sarah asked Rosalie, "Where is the stone?"

Rosalie feigned surprise and pretended to look all through her pockets. "It's not here! I must have dropped it in the sewers."

Sarah suspected Rosalie was lying, but she decided not to say anything. Instead, she went home and told Lee of Rosalie's conversation with the photographer, of their journey in the sewers and of the fight with the goblins, and their escape through the manhole.

"So do you have the stone?" Lee asked her.

"No," she answered, heavy in her heart. "Rosalie told me she dropped it, though I think that she was lying. I think she kept it for herself. I decided to let her have it. I don't think beauty is worth fighting with my own sister."

Lee smiled. "What a pure heart you have, Sarah. You don't need the stone, for you are already exceedingly beautiful."

Sarah smiled at Lee, and finally believed that she was beautiful.

Rosalie, however, took a string and tied the stone around her neck. She went home, and when Aaron saw her, he couldn't help but stare at her at a loss for thoughts. Rosalie was pleased at this at first, but as time went by, Aaron started to avert his eyes from her whenever he saw her so that he could think straight. Once again, the desire to be even more beautiful rose in Rosalie's heart, and she began to listen for rumors of other magical ways to make herself beautiful.

Finally she heard that drinking a drop of dragon's blood would make a person beautiful. And she also heard that there was a dragon that made its abode at the top of the tallest skyscraper. Rosalie smiled at the thought, and called Sarah to tell her about it.

"What?" said Sarah, "You must be crazy! I don't need beauty, and you are already the most beautiful person in the world. Why would you want to fight a dragon?"

No words could convince Rosalie, though, and Sarah knew that she would die trying to get a drop of dragon blood. So Sarah agreed to come with her to protect her. So they drove to the tallest skyscraper, and rode the elevator to the very top. They found a door to the roof of the building and walked out into the open air. There was the dragon, lying in a nest made of human bones and gold coins.

"Welcome to my home, most delicious flesh. Are you here to make my next meal?" the dragon asked them. His voice was so beautiful that the sisters felt an urge to do whatever he wanted them to do. Rosalie began to walk up to him, but Sarah fought the urge, and stopped Rosalie with a hand.

She mustered up her will and began to flatter him saying, "Oh great one, we have heard much about your strength and prowess. We have not come to feed you, for we felt that would be an insult to your stealth and cunning in the hunt. But, magnificent one, we have friends (who are not friends anymore) who scoffed at you and thought you were not as strong as we know you are. If you would but give us one of your scales, so that they could feel your impenetrable shield, and pour some of your blood into it, so that they could see the fire that runs through you, perhaps the entire world would know how terrible and awesome you truly are!"

At this speech the dragon was pleased, and gave Sarah what she asked. They left, and Sarah handed the scale to Rosalie and told her to take a drop and drink it. But Rosalie was greedy, and drank all of it. Immediately her beauty grew so much that any man who saw her instantly froze in place and could never move or speak again, for he thought only of her beauty till he wasted away, standing or sitting wherever he had seen her. Rosalie went home to Aaron, and as soon as he saw her, he too froze and would not move or speak. Rosalie wept and ran away to a nearby forest, where she lived the rest of her life in a state of delirium.

But Sarah took the scale, and saw that there was one drop left. She went home to Lee, showed him the drop, and told him all that had happened.

"And now," she asked, "Do you want me to drink this blood and become beautiful for you?"

Lee just stared at her and smiled. "No. Sarah, I cannot imagine you any more beautiful than you are right now. But if you want to drink it, then do so."

So they took the scale with the blood and put it on the mantle, and then then took it and put it in a box in their attic, and then one day they accidentally threw it in the trash.