Beijing Took Us Under

Fading, the narrator’s childhood memory got fantastical.

I knew what I wanted when I left my hometown five years ago. I still knew, but the reason wasn’t the same. I have not been back to Beijing since.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t or wouldn’t go back, it was simply easier to stay away.

I still thought about the city, but only on a starless night and under a fluorescent desk lamp. I called it “city of fog”, a suitable name. When I was younger, I thought the fog was magic. When I grew older and came to my senses, the name remained due to the air pollution that the city was so famous for.

Today I was reminded that everything was changing. The city was a thriving metropolis, shedding its skin every day, over and over again like clockwork. The memories of my childhood were fading, that much was certain. Time ate away all things. Yet, one glimpse of memory came up every now and then.

It was windy that day. I exited my school’s steel gates, walking back home. Maybe I would stop by the convenience store and grab a rice ball, maybe not. I craved the kind with teriyaki beef inside.

I walked past the neighboring school, which was technically another part of mine. My classmates were jealous of them because of their beautiful campus. But to me, it was just the difference of more flowering trees. But it was winter, and they were all equally leafless. We were never expecting snow.

Gray brick walls guarded the other campus, except where they were metal fences. A string of students was outside, chattering and pacing, perhaps on recess.

Shapes of gray moving across the soccer field. Because the school color was unofficially gray, everything was gray. The buildings were gray, painted like that. The sky was gray but that wasn’t the principal’s design.

I liked the color gray. It was soft, neutral, and yet warm like dove feather. Many thought it dull, but I didn’t feel any annoyance when I put my hands inside the pockets of my uniform jacket.

I slowed to watch the students. They were mostly girls. They all looked similar to me. They all looked like me. Dark hair and dark eyes, whatever body size wrapped inside gray school uniform. They all looked the same except one, who had blonde hair and certainly not dyed.

It was naturally blonde. Dyed hair was prohibited, just like piercings of any kind. Tattoos were unmentionable, and it’s not like we knew where the parlors were.

Her blonde hair, long and straight, fluffed out in the wind. With her blue eyes and high cheekbones, she was the different one. But she was among them, dressed like them, talked like them, like us.

It confused me briefly. There were foreigners in my city, but they were tourists or businessmen.

I wasn’t a sociable child. Years of learning English didn’t mean I would call out to a stranger. Curiosity lost the fight.

She looked at me, turned back to her friends, and nothing else happened.

I walked home like usual. We didn’t live far from the school. We used to, then my parents rented an apartment near the school so I didn’t have to take two hours to commute.

The floor was made of cold white tiles instead of the familiar rich wood, which my mother was always paranoid about any scratches or spillage.

The second day we moved into this apartment, I spilled milk on purpose. The white liquid slouched on top of the tiles and didn’t react. I wiped it off, disappointed.

I sat on the bed in the living room and thought about the subway, which was only significant because it led to my real home. The small apartment I grew up in, where all my childhood memories dwelled.

The subway was a new one. I didn’t dislike it. It was new but already filthy and bustling like the rest of the city.

I was missing the commute again, except the parts I didn’t. The greasy seat or the handle, plastic feeling on my skin. The beeping of the card-reader and the green lights. The beggars who were slowly stumbling along the walkway performing a trick, then stick their hands under your nose. The constant danger of being a small animal among a large number of animals, of your species but much bigger.

I missed the creature living in the underground.

It was not a metaphor. Even if it was, a metaphor of what? The creature…what did it represent?

I saw it many times. Through the windows, the ghostly shapes as the darkness flashed past. It wasn’t merely the reflections of us passengers.

One day I went up to it and stared. The small lights guiding us, heading into the black hole.

The creature underground, it could be the desire of millions of people, wishing to make a life in the City of Fog. It could be the predator living in the shadow of those subway stations and waiting to strike. The creature could be the sleepless nights I spent on dreaming. It could be all.

It was not. The creature wasn’t any of the above.

The creature was real, and I was ashamed of not giving it a proper name. But who was I to name a creature that was as old as time? At least, that was what I assumed. I was a lost child in a lost city, heading toward a certain destination in life, no looking back.

I could jump off at this stop. When I saw the blond girl earlier, she broadcasted the connection. It made her one of us.

I thought she might even know of the creature.

I was sure that I wasn’t the only one who knew of the creature. After all, it was there, underneath the city full of millions of people. Anyone could have stumbled upon it, or saught it and succeeded.

If I got to the underground, would the stranger also be there? I was convinced that it wasn’t my concern. Even if she did know of the creature, she might have other reasons for not being there when I was. Hell, her school might not even have let her out yet!

With a heart of pure intentions, I set out for the nearest subway stations. I went down, down, and down. The escalator hummed as it worked, crooning as the chains rolled. I was entering the underworld.

The smell in the air was different. It smelt of mod and urine, I guess.

I liked it better than the taste of fog. I saw the black hole of the tunnel. A train would come out of that any second. I walked alongside the yellow warning line, past the sentry’s office and the restrooms. I walked into the dark tunnel that had no end.

With a flashlight in hand, I was focused on the patch of light in front of me. I bought at the neighborhood store when I first started exploring. It was the most powerful one I could afford, yet the thick darkness still swallow up its light.

I walked, careful not to tip over. I was descending, but the slope was familiar.

I could never sense the flow of time with the world so still around me.

I heard a rumbling. A low thunder, constant and never-ending. Every rock in the tunnel shook.

I felt its presence before seeing it. It was there, in the dark. I stopped right there, looking up.

Then the creature was looking at me, staring at me with its enormous eyes. They glowed bright white, so bright that they tore open the darkness and lit up its face. The creature was large, so large that I didn’t even know how large it was. Maybe the size of a train, maybe larger. It was designed to fit in the tunnel, but its body was thick and smooth like a giant python.

It wasn’t a snake though. I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a dragon, but dragons didn’t exist and this creature did. Myths about dragons came from people’s imagination when they found dinosaur fossils. They created great stories for themselves, all based on dead things.

This one was alive.

Awestruck once again, I stood stock still and watched as it approached me. Its claws razor sharp. Each step made the earth tremble. I was not afraid.

It bowed down to me, not because I was superior. It allowed me to touch its head, right between the eyes there was a soft patch. Its scales were cold and sharp except for one place, where it had black furs extending from its forehead and all the way down its spine, ending with a long and soft tail. It looked like any Chinese dragon would look like, like the mythical creature we all knew by heart.

Except it was not that. I was never sure what it was. I continued to call it “the creature”.

It made a sound, a low hum. It might have been approval. I didn’t speak its language.

It turned its head. Torch-like eyes shone upon a dark corner, where I saw the blonde foreigner standing there, at its tail.

She was surprised to see me, but I wasn’t. I felt a slight joy and bitterness at the same time. She was stroking its tail.

She met my eyes. I wasn’t good at telling expressions from eyes. But one thing I knew.

It was my creature, and now I had to share.

Struck Dead

A writer working on his magnum opus had to face the end of the world.

Ermolai had been attempting to immortalize himself through works of literature for two decades.

It was hard work for sure.

He had been writing ever since knew the language. His mother said he learned to write before he could speak. He wrote on the swinging chair on the porch of his childhood home. He wrote on a slim notebook hidden under the English textbook while the teacher was talking. He wrote on prom night, shut in his bedroom with all the lights off. He studied engineering in college to please his parents, for he knew he should atone for ignoring their love for eighteen years.

When he acquired a typewriter, he typed. Rolls of manuscripts pooled onto the water-damaged floor of his college dorm. He would accidentally wake up his roommate, who would grumble and then yell at him in the darkness.

Upon completion of the bachelor’s degree, he rented a good suburban family’s garage and lived there. He had a used computer and it took five minutes to turn on, and he had to remember to save the document before closing.

His first publication was a short story published in a science fiction magazine, after a few dozen rejections. It put some food on his foldable table. He realized the market for genre fiction and thus he made money from it, enough to keep him alive in the dimmed light of his square room.

Any spare time after deadlines, eating, and sleeping, he would spend them on his Untitled Magnum Opus.

Define Magnum Opus: a large and important work of literature, especially regarded as a writer’s most important work.

He was put on this earth to complete this, his most important work. He would one day finish and publish it, and his life would be complete. It was doubtful that people in this day and age would understand the true meaning of such work, though. He wouldn’t be surprised if no publishers would take the risk in publishing this tome. Many famous authors in history were remembered posthumously.

As for the moment, it sat at 920 pages and lacked an ending. He cherished the moment when it would be complete, therefore he should be fully prepared for that.

He made preparation. He was going to shut himself in the garage and write Part Five of his Untitled Magnum Opus on the first of February and finish it in 28 days.

It was doable.

He had received a check of $150 through the mail. He went out to cash it and buy food. He hadn’t seen the outside world in a week, and the sunlight was brighter than he remembered.

It was slightly more crowded in the discount store, but only slightly so. There were families doing their weekly shopping, and he had seen a more hard-edged man pushing full carts down the isles. They bought crates of canned foods and water and loaded them onto the back of their monster trucks.

The shelves were almost bare when he arrived. Still, it was more than enough. Non-perishable products were great for his shut-in.
He came out with a cart full of groceries. Two loaves of bread for fast consumption, peanut butter, instant ramen, canned meat, canned corn, canned beans. Alcohol. He drank cheap whiskeys, but there were a few beers in the basket. He didn’t have a fridge, so anything frozen was out of the question. He would have taken the canned sardines, but they reminded him of his lesser times in college.

He rolled the cart down the street. Cars sped past him and no one spared him a glance. He pressed the secret password to open the garage door. He placed the cart in his den, next to the bookshelves. The garage door hummed as it unrolled, and finally closed.

He was inside his kingdom again.

All better. Drained from his outing, he was recharging as he leaned back on his faux leather office chair. The computer began to boot up. He grabbed a bottle of water and drank, eyes never leaving the loading screen.

He scanned the document and found the machine too slow to load to the entire thing. He booted up the printer and began to print. All 920 pages of his work. The printer made a buzzing sound as it worked in the background.

When it’s done, he had the stack and flipped through them once and once again. The sound of the paper was like the fluttering of wings. He smelt the heavenly ink.

He looked upon his screen. It was blank except for the two words: Part Two.

He adjusted the type size. His eyes were getting worse these days, but it would not matter when it was over.

He stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles and began to type.

Days blurred together. Time lost its meanings. Ermolai typed, ate, and slept. His life became hazy in the end.

The nice suburban family didn’t bother him—that’s why they were nice. They stayed upstairs, talked quietly, walked quietly, and even the children played quietly. Which was why when there was a loud crash, it woke him from a drunken slumber.

He stared wide-eyed at the bleach-white ceiling. There was a throb in his right eye. It was difficult to tell reality from a dream, and a dream from the words that poured from his fingertips.

When the crash was followed by a scream, he sat upright.

He couldn’t tell the time. There was no clock, but judging by the blue-ish gray cloud seen from the slit above the garage door, it was either dusk or dawn.

He paddled his way across the various objects littering the floor. A small door connected the garage to the kitchen, but it usually stayed locked for the safety of both the family and himself.

It was only unlocked when the matriarch came looking for the monthly rent. Then she would close it carefully, and turn the lock slowly, so it didn’t make much of a noise, so it didn’t hurt his feelings.

He tried the door. It was locked. Why wouldn’t it be?

He heard a few clamors upstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud.

He went back to sit down at his computer, yet there was this constant distraction. He had tolerated the existence of humans in his close proximity, but it was too much this time.

He fought the urge to scream at the family “Stop the noise!”

He settled for knocking on the door and yelled, “Would you please be quiet?”

The noise continued downstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud. Down the staircase. Then it all died down.

Good.

He went back to work.

The quiet was nice.

When the noise sounded right next to him, he almost jumped out of his skin.

The office chair creaked loudly. He stared at the door. The sound came urgently. Thud. Thud. Thud. Something banging on the door.

Knock. Knock. Knock. He scrambled backward.

What the hell was that?

“Stop!” He shouted at the person on the other side of the door. “If it’s about the rent, there’re still a few days until it’s due!”

It wouldn’t stop.

Ermolai began to pack. Whatever was going on, was either supernatural or he was going insane. Judging by the frequency of the knocking and the force of it, it’s only a matter of time before the person made a hole on the panel, or brought down the door altogether.

It was clear that he couldn’t stay there.

He didn’t have many possessions. A backpack could carry them all. The stack of paper and the computer. A change of clothes. Clean underwears, not many of them. A jacket, wrapped around the computer to minimize damages. Bottles of water and some food. He swung on the bag and opened the garage door.

The neighbor, an old lady dressed in a flowery gown, snapped her head up at the sound. She stared at him unknowingly, unblinkingly, and it was unnerving.

She was making her way over to him. A slow shuffle, then faster, faster, almost up to the speed of a jog.

When she was some ten feet away, he finally recognized the pattern on her gown wasn’t flowers, but blood splatters.

He looked at her face, which was missing a half. She reached out for him, made gurgling sounds with a hollow cheek. A bloody eyeball skewed on her ring finger.

Naturally, he did what was acceptable in this situation he screamed, and ran.

His backpack bounced on his back as he went. His jeans were coming loose, his shirt riding up, and he could feel the wind against his waist and upper ass. There was no time to worry about his dignity. There was no dignity in fear.

After about thirty seconds, he was heaving like an old dog. He slowed down to a jog and then a fast walk, and finally stopped. He bent over in the middle of the sidewalk, breathing heavily.

He took in the silence around him and the sheer contrast of his loud heartbeats. He looked up and scanned the neighborhood—it was eerily quiet, devoid of anything living. There was a dog barking, but it could be an illusion. When he looked to that direction the dog silenced. The houses were there. A few pieces of clothes and trash littered the unkempt front lawns. The curbs were empty of cars, except one.

Was it a dream? If it was, the vividness was equally alarming. The only car was a white sedan. It had a broken window. He approached it without much thought.

There was a corpse sitting behind the wheel. He took a few steps back, still stunned by the state of the world he was living in.

He couldn’t stay here. He had to get away. Far, far away.

He took another closer look at the corpse. It wasn’t moving, and showed no sign of imminent animation. He tried the door handle, didn’t expect much, but the door unlocked. He froze, afraid of sudden noise would wake the corpse. It didn’t respond. Still had its mouth hung open; he was decomposing.

Ermolai noticed the key was still jammed in the ignition. He hesitated for only a second, then hauled the body out of the car and climbed into the driver’s seat.

The car smelt unpleasant, but the window was down. He started the car. It coughed a few times, then hummed to life.

He drove, heavy-hearted, toward the edge of the city. His manuscript never once came to the forefront of his head.

It was a different world. One unsafe to him. One he couldn’t play God with. He had to navigate its rules like everyone else who wished to stay alive.

It was a new world, and he wasn’t brave at all.

How I Deal With Too Many Ideas

As a writer and a creative, I have way too many ideas and too little time (as I tell myself). Therefore, I have to find ways to deal with them.

Photo by Ekrulila from Pexels

Write everything down. Including every version of the idea as it evolves, because it will.

I carry around a pocket-sized notebook when I can, but sometimes I get lazy. The Notes app on my iPhone is filled with notes. Random musings, last night’s dream in a few words, story prompts that read like haikus.

Select a few and entertain them in my head.

I look through my notes and organize my ideas. The Notes app also contains to-dos and grocery lists, which get deleted after they expire.
Review the ideas are just as important as coming up with them, and I would add new insights as I go.
If an idea was hastily jotted down, it would make little sense a few years later. However, if you review it in a few days, it would still be mostly fresh on your mind, and you can add more details to it to make it clear. Think of it as a convenience for later.

Focus on the main work-in-progress.

New ideas are always shiny and full of potential. My current WIP would look dull and used in the comparison. Feel free to run with the latest idea, but if I do, I never end up finishing anything.
To me, the key is to focus on my current work and get it finished. Even though it’s not perfect, at least it is completed. A completed content is out of my head and onto paper, but an idea, no matter how full of potential it is, is in my head.

Combine ideas into one.

You can combine similar ones and save space in your document. Ideas for the same project should be grouped together, tagged, or put into a “WIP idea” document.
Another thing I often do was combine interesting but different concepts together to create an idea for a larger project, such as a novel. It would have depth and multitude. It would be weaved with subplots, character developments, and also challenge the tropes.

Decide what idea is for what.

When I get ideas for new stories, I go on to decide which is a short story and which is a novel. Short stories make it really easy if you just want to get the story down in a few thousand words, and it’s a complete project.
Novels could take months even years to write, and I don’t have time to write a few hundred novels.

Flesh out the idea, but still keep it contained.

If I don’t have time but still want to expand on an idea, I write micro pieces. They are usually a scene, a few lines of dialogs, a description of an environment.
The point is to get the idea out and make them into usable snippets, which is what I name the document that contains these, “Usable Snippets”.
Sit on them. Come back to them a month later, or a year. Sometimes I fill in or edit the prose, because my prose had improved with time.
Sometimes the snippet has stood up with the test of time, and I can just copy and paste it into the correct spot of my WIP.

Starve your brain if you don’t want to get more ideas, just for a while.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. If you really want to, you can stop yourself from getting more ideas. When reading, don’t be distracted by great concepts. Focus on the prose and languages. You can improve your writing skills without getting more ideas.
When listening to music, listen to it. Don’t analyze the lyrics and dream of the stories they hold. Listen to the rhythm, the beats.
When out for a walk, look at the colors of the trees, the shape of the hills. Live in the moment. Not in your head and in an imaginary world.

Document dreams and therefore have more ideas.

My dreams are usually really interesting. I dream every night, sometimes 3–4 dreams per night. I only write down the best or better ones, and of course, I had to remember them first. Oftentimes they just vanish from the first second I woke up.

Go out and find more ideas.

Ideas are cheap. Investing in even one takes energy. The execution is key.
I read through my idea document regularly, and add to it regularly. I separate the good ones from the others, but never delete anything. Anything.

Do regular braindumps.

Get things out of your head and onto paper. Clear your head. Disk capacity is cheap, brain space is not. And who knows, what if something were to happen to you and you suffer from memory loss or worse, but you’d still have your ideas recorded and ready to be executed.
But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Worldbuilding: Ravenmont

Ravenmont, a fictional U.S. state

ravenmont state flag

Basics

Location: West coast, Pacific Midwest

Abbreviation: RM

Capital: Tapacali

Population: 24 million

Largest city: Duskim (technology center)

Second largest city: Ridgewood (college town)

Third largest city: Freetown (entertainment industry)

 

History

In the 1840s, a merchant ship carried cholera disease into a trading town in the Pacific Midwest. The plague led to the quarantine of several frontier settlements. People from inside and outside the quarantine began calling it Ravenmont, due to the large population of the bird in the area, as well as the mountain ridge that ran diagonally through the region. After the plague died down, the area was reopened and granted statehood in 1852.

 

Present

Ravenmont is the fastest developing state in the country, gaining the title of “the ever-changing state”. It thrives on tourism and innovative technology, owning three national parks, countless museums, and historical sites. The Ravenmont Museum of Uncommon History is a leading facility in the curation and studies of uncommon related subjects. The University of Ravenmont in Ridgewood (URR), and Duskim University are among the top colleges of the nation.

The state symbol is, of course, raven. The blackbird is seen on the flag, the car license plate, and in the sky. The bird-beaked Plague Doctor is also a famous mascot.

In Ravenmont you would see common humans and uncommon humans living in harmony.

 

 

Why this website exists​

I had been entertaining the idea of starting an author website for years now. I started a few and practiced my web design skills by exploring WordPress and such. It was fun, but it was expensive. The hosting and the domains all costed money, and I had no reliable income at the time. I can’t keep a website and have nothing up.

Still, I recognize the need to have a website. I knew I would be published one day and I need to have a place to direct the readers to. Social media would work, but a website would be more formal and can contain things more than the size of a bite.

I can have things related to my books here. Deleted scene, worldbuilding, lore, sketches, art, maps, or my writing process. I write what I want to read, and I believe there are people out there who would be interested in seeing these.

Then I got into short stories. I think it had to do with the fact that there were so many ideas in my head and I couldn’t possibly write them all as novels, and also because not everything was that complicated. I wrote some snippets when I got a burst of inspiration. They were few-hundred-word pieces, going nowhere. I had the impression that a short story has to be 4000 words and literary-magazine-worthy, but I forgot how to write for myself.

Right now most of the posts on this site are around 1500 words. They are short, weird, but they are fun to write. I experienced a period of depression in the Fall of 2018, and I couldn’t work on any of my books, so I began to write short pieces and put them up on the blog. It really helped, even though some days I didn’t touch the keyboard at all.

I’m trying to keep this site alive. My debut novel is coming out soon, and I want to have things here. Not just life updates (my life isn’t that interesting), cat photos (I don’t own a cat, or any pets at the moment), coffee latte art ( I don’t go to cafés nearly enough), but also an extension of the world I’m creating. I hope it would be a good and casual place to hang out on this vast internet of ours.

Okay.

Airy Head

A teenage mindreader attempted to decode a new classmate, and received something unexpected.

I sat behind her, so it was easy to infiltrate her mind. It must’ve been what NASA felt like when they sent out probes to outer space, searching for answers, searching for life, searching for something to prove we weren’t alone. I felt the same way every time I tried on someone new. Except unlike NASA, what I did was an invasion, and I wanted no proof. And I was always alone.

I was an army in the body of one person. One person with a gift, personalized for this quiet chaos.

The new girl captured my interest about the same time she captured everyone else’s. The school was small and a “tight-knit community” according to the principle. We rarely got a transfer student, and when we did, it had a ripple effect.

People were talking and rumors were spreading. Waves of curiosity lapped at the edge of my mind. The things they said and the things they thought didn’t match up.

It was understandable.

Her name was Chloe something—her last name didn’t matter. What mattered was: it was taking a while to read her mind.

It should’ve been easier. The class was boring, so there were fewer distractions. Mrs. Kimberly was droning about algebra. There’s not much going on in the old woman’s mind. She thought about her next line and the textbook material in general, and an underlying distaste for the younger generation. She could almost recite the lecture. After all, it was same thing she had taught for the last twelve years.

I was familiar with her mind after an entire semester and a half. Enough so I could listen in and pay 2.7% of my attention, and still get average grades. Better or worse academic performance would make me stand out. There’s nothing that kills a special person faster than standing out.

The students around me were different thinkers. The whispers spoke in the same language as the winds. Some were louder, less afraid to be heard. Others would decide even their favorite color was a secret. Still, I could hear them all. Last night’s football game, the boys they liked, the questionable contents on their computer hard drive. They each had a thought of their own, at least they believed so. Buzzing like bees, buzzing like a hive mind.

It got tiring after a while. I let the background noises fade away, only focusing on her. Her mind had organized defenses, walls around her thoughts. Smart people had those.

I took my metaphorical hammer and attacked them. It happened in another reality. Here, I was sitting behind my desk, playing with my pen in one hand, twirling it between fingers, the other hand propping my head as it got heavier and heavier, eyes downcasted, staring at the notebook paper. The pen spun 360 degrees. I caught it between middle finger and index, clicked at it with the tip of my thought.

The cheerleader next to me gave me a nasty glare.

The walls were down. I suppressed a smirk and strode inside, stepping over the rubble and ruin. There was a galaxy inside everyone. Chloe’s was purple and teal like an aurora. The recent memories were bright and alive, while her childhood was muted and blurry. I brushed through the stars, browsing through like they were photographs.

I investigated each of them. Which one to read first?

The mindscape trembled.

Chloe stopped jotting down notes, her hand frozen in the middle of writing. Her back went rigid.

Then it was too late. Everything shut down. Black. Total darkness. I stood in limbo with infinite space around me, completely alone.

It was bad. I turned tail and ran, pulling away from the darkness. It chased me like a ferocious beast, threatening to swallow me whole.
This darkness was different. A cloud of smoke with a thousand stars as eyes. A large cat, then a wolf. A shapeshifter, the worst kind. It growled, jaws opened wide like a snake’s.

It spoke. “Whoever you are, get out.” The combination of a thousand voices. Men, women, elders, and children.

I stumbled and retreated. My chair cringed as I leaned back, a little too quickly. My chair stood ontwo feet for a brief second. I almost toppled over, creating a loud squeak in the quiet classroom. People turned their heads.

I masked my sudden movement with a stretch, then leaned forward, hovering over my notebook again.

Carefully lifting my eyes, I saw Chloe scanning the classroom with casual calculation. She brushed a tress of dark hair behind her ear. Turning back, she asked a boy for a sheet of paper. He opened his three-ring binder and took one out, flattered by the attention. He clamped the closure shut a bit too loudly.

She glanced across the room while she waited. I smoothed out the notebook papers and began to write. Actual, perfect notes on math.

Her exchange was taking too long. Mrs. Kimberly would notice her not paying attention in class. But it was all forgiven. She was the new student.

I much preferred a library. It was like entering a frozen yogurt shop with a paper cup for unlimited sampling. Delicious thoughts everywhere, and no need to pay.

The community library was close to my high school. Many students walked there after school to study. The elementary school students waited for their parents to pick them up. There were adults typing away on their laptops after work. A nice variety of humans.

All thoughts were flying in the air like birds, neatly and informational, coming and going from home. They danced. I would spend hours on end with my head buried in my arms, breathing the smell of laundry soap and soft fabric. Fake sleeping, and actually watching the beautiful multiverse.

The scrawny guy a few chairs down had his nose in a history book. I listened for a way into his mind, then decided not to bother. I had locked down on the best student in my class, thus I was all set with my exams. Their minds held all the correct answers.

Chloe entered through the automatic door. I didn’t stir. I had known without looking. The popular kids had invited her to hang out after school, already welcoming her to their clique. Chloe wasn’t bad looking and she had an aura of elegance, something this town lacked. They would hate for her to disappear into the background. She politely declined them with “I’m going to the library”.

Very well, then. I planned another attack on my home turf. Her defense would still be weak, but the darkness within her mind was a different beast. I had never encountered such a thing before…and I was ignoring the real problem.

How did she know I was in her mind?

That had spooked me. Most people had minds so dull they couldn’t feel it even when the walls came crumbling down.

Chloe was a wild card, uncharted territory. That made her interesting. I would have to be more careful. Put away the hammer and to take up the surgery knife, cut away the strayed and idle thoughts, go straight for what made her who she was.

I skirted the field, looking for answers. Who was she? Why was she here?

There was a tingling in my own mind. Something was wrong.

Something hadn’t been right since the start. I ceased the effort and stilled.

Slowly I sat up and went to a bookshelf, the closest one. I stared at the rows upon rows of books, holding my breath and letting it go. Blood trickled down my nose. I touched it—crimson red. Then it was seeping into my lips. I tasted the coppery liquid and wiped it away. I cleaned my hand on my blue jeans, trying not to stare at the red.

I hated blood. The sight of it made me want to throw up, but it was part of the consequences. It’s not the blood I hate, it’s the reason for blood.

“Indeed.”

The voice made me jump. I spun around so quick I almost twisted my neck. No one was talking to me. The voice was in my head. A chill went down my spine. The paralyzing fear gripped me. I had left my headspace wide open.

I ran from the library as fast as I could, putting distance between me and the other mind reader. A thousand thoughts flashed through my head. Places I’ve never been, people I’ve never met, thoughts I’ve never had. I began to recognize some of them. I don’t know which were mine.

I ran back home and stayed there. I excused myself from school the next day and the day after, faking sick. I was sick, sick of myself and the things in my head. I compartmentalized, filed them away.

Mine, not mine.

On the fourth day, I got out of bed. Still dizzy but at least I could walk. I went to the library.

There it was, a sign. Printed in bold on a white paper.

It read: “No Mind Reader Allowed in the Library”.

I stood there, my mind blank.

I broke out laughing, because the symbol was a red diagonal line over a stick figure’s brain.

The library prohibited brains.

I projected that image into everyone’s head, reminding them of the sign they saw on their way in. The silent library burst out laughing. Some were giggling behind their books, others snickered into their hands.

Chloe looked at me with her lips pressed together. She was not amused at all.