Dark Enchantress: Excerpt

Here are the first 3 chapters of Welcome to Heartstone, Book 1: Dark Enchantress. If you like it, you’ll probably like the rest of the book. And the sequels. So go get them!

You can also download the Dark Enchantress – Preview and read it on your mobile device.

Chapter 1 – Coffee Shop Hero

“Mom! Where’s my blue jacket?” Arwin called from his bedroom as he tossed the contents of his room around in vain search for the missing item. “Mom!”

“Stop shouting.” his mother patiently admonished from the kitchen downstairs. “I put it in the wash.”

“What?” Arwin straightened and went to his door, still shouting. “But I need it!”

His mother snorted. “It was filthy.”

“But, Mom!”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it smelled like. My bum. After spicy food.”

Arwin shuddered. “Ugh. You and your puns. Always with the puns. But even for you, that one was gross.”

His mother giggled.

He sagged against the door frame, jacket-less. “What am I supposed to do now?”

“Look in your closet.”

“Why?”

“Stop being obstinate and check your closet. Don’t you have another jacket you can wear? What about the black one? I thought you liked it. Besides, I’m sure your girlfriend thinks it looks a lot smarter on you than that ratty old blue thing. In fact, hasn’t she said just that about a hundred times before?”

He ran his hand through his short blond hair. “But I love the ratty old blue one.” Arwin growled. “Besides, I can’t wear the black one. I tore the pocket, remember?”

“Just check your closet.”

Arwin rolled his eyes. He felt like he’d gone back in time. He’d lived on his own, far away from home, for four years while attending university. He’d grown to be very independent in that period of self exploration and experimentation. He’d gotten a job after graduating, although it wasn’t in his field. Unfortunately, it had only lasted six months before the company had laid him off. Cutbacks. He’d immediately begun looking for another job. But times were tough now; jobs were hard to come by. He’d been forced to move back in with his folks. Now he felt like he was back in high school all over again. It was embarrassing.

Shoulders slumped, he turned and resignedly made his way to the closet. Throwing the wood panels back, he reached into the array of old clothes (he had no money for new ones) and pulled out his black jacket. His mom and girlfriend were right, it was much more fashionable, but how could he wear it with such an ugly tear… Arwin’s eyes widened. A mixture of happiness, thankfulness and sheepishness flushed through him. His mom had repaired the jacket. And brushed it clean. It looked as good as new.

He tried to clear the lump in his throat and went back to the doorway. “Thanks, Mom!” he called, feeling his cheeks heating.

“You’re welcome.” she called back in a knowing voice, probably with a big smile on her face. She was a good mother.

Arwin threw the jacket on over his white button-up shirt and grabbed his favourite red backpack. He checked his non-digital, name-brand watch. It had been a present from his girlfriend, Kelli, an effort to make him ‘more presentable’. He was really late. He had a job interview this morning and didn’t dare screw it up. He glanced apprehensively at the towering pile of student loan, phone and credit card bills all sitting on the edge of his desk like a wicked, hungry monster just waiting to pounce all over him. So much debt.

It also didn’t help that his girlfriend had been nagging him for a while now to get a place of their own together. And not just any place. Arwin was fine with living as a minimalist, especially while young and poor. But Kelli had what she called ‘grown up’ tastes. She wanted a place that looked like it belonged in a magazine. And she wanted it now. Regardless of the practicality or reality of the situation. So he needed a good, regular paycheck really badly.

He flew down the stairs, whipped into the kitchen just long enough to give his mom a quick hug, and Mork, the family’s pug-nosed dog, a loving rub between the ears, then bolted for the door. “Bye, Mom! Love you!”

“Bye! Good luck on your interview!” she cried after him. “Love you too!”

All Arwin’s friends had careers in the making, and as such had vehicles of one kind or another. In fact, a car was an essential social requirement in this culture. People didn’t consider you a proper adult unless you had your own vehicle. They also didn’t consider you an independent adult without a place to live that didn’t include your parents. Arwin was currently without either and socially suffered for the lack. He exited his parents’ house, hopped on his bicycle and peddled hard towards the bus terminal.

Feeling his legs warm up as he pumped them, wind going through his hair, he felt the familiar rush of excitement he always got from cycling. He wished everyone used these instead of cars. The positive difference was obvious once you stopped to think about it. Cars polluted, required a huge carbon footprint and tons of materials, turned people into arrogant monsters with a false sense of power when they got behind the wheel, and were involved in tens of thousands of accidents that killed a lot of people every year. Bicycles were great exercise, brought a sense of freedom, and were pretty much the most economical and eco-friendly method of transportation around.

Too bad Kelli didn’t feel the same way. She was pretty unimpressed with the fact that he hadn’t gotten a car yet and that she was the one picking him up for dates. He’d suggested once that they just bike when they went out, like the couple had done in university, where they’d met and started dating. They wouldn’t be able to travel as far, but it would be healthier. That suggestion had not gone over well.

Being a poor student had never bothered Kelli. It had fit with her inner idea of life at that point. Her life had satisfied her expectations, so she’d been happy. But her expectations and image of life had changed the minute they’d graduated and her business career had started, along with her entry into the ‘adult’ working world. Apparently it was socially acceptable to be a poor student, because, for some reason, studying excused one’s lack of material things in life. But as soon as one stopped being a student, one had to acquire all the ‘right’ material accoutrements of adult civilized life as quickly as possible, or one was branded a loser. Right now, Arwin was a loser in the eyes of many, his life a joke to friends with promising ‘good’ careers in engineering and finance. He worried he might be a bit of a loser in Kelli’s eyes too.

It didn’t seem to matter how smart he was, how good his heart, how superb his athletic body, how polished his skills were or what any of his other accomplishments in life were. People didn’t care about who he was on the inside, they only cared about what he had on the outside. He might be more developed as a person, but he couldn’t escape being branded as socially inferior, solely because he didn’t have the basic social must-haves: car, apartment, career. Just why anyone fresh out of school, or even after working several years, should be expected to have any expensive material things was beyond him.

Arwin shook his head, frustrated and angry at the culture around him. Life seemed so unfair. It was a good thing he’d already met Kelli. He doubted he’d be able to get another decent girlfriend right now in his current life situation. Thankfully, Kelli had been with him long enough to appreciate who he was more than what he had. Therefore, he could trust her when she said she loved him. After all, how could you possibly trust someone that was only into you once you checked off an arbitrary list of material possessions and status markers? Anyone who trusted a girl who married a man for his money, or a man who married a girl for her looks, was a fool. It was what was inside that really mattered.

Arwin approached an intersection. He rounded the corner so fast that he leaned into a near-forty-five degree angle. If he’d been going any faster, or there had been even the slightest dust on the road to lower friction between tire and pavement, Arwin would have slid sideways into the lane and been crushed by the glutinous-looking SUV roaring along beside him. But Arwin was a good athlete and played the move perfectly. He straightened smoothly and pushed hard, regaining the speed he’d lost in the turn.

He felt the adrenalin running through his system and grinned. It always gave him a thrill of accomplishment to see how far he could physically push himself. He’d been a sports junkie in university, playing on all kinds of teams and in many events. Too bad money and Economics 101 hadn’t sparked his interest in the same way. If they had, then he might have stayed in the Faculty of Business and had a job and a career path right now, instead of a really expensive Arts degree that very few employers seemed to respect.

Arwin approached his favourite coffee shop and pulled into the parking lot. He had to swerve around a pile of manure because a mounted police officer was here, his tall, beautiful chestnut steed quietly munching at a clump of grass errantly growing out of a crack where the sidewalk met the parking lot. Arwin parked, grabbed a refillable thermos from his bag (the eco-friendly option), and darted into the store, hoping the line wasn’t too long.

The interior of the shop was what drew Arwin there the most. Someone brilliant had designed the inside of the shop as a blend of cafe and library. Warm, dark woods and heavy gray stone permeated. Bookshelves ringed the walls above patrons’ heads and lined two full walls. The many books within were of a variety of subjects and styles, from fashion to fiction, travel to philosophy. All were free to use. A big fireplace dominated one wall. It was quiet now, but in winter real logs blazed within, bathing the surrounding leather couches in heated bliss and the smell of burning wood. As always, the smell of delicious, roasted coffee beans filled the air, along with hints of cinnamon, hazelnut and chocolate.

Although the place was busy, it was not too loud. Ribbons of thick fabric hung in elegant loops from the ceiling, dampening sounds. Thus the place maintained a peaceful air despite the myriad conversations and the animated greetings from the host of stylish baristas in black and pink uniforms against the far wall. The girl at the second register was especially cute. Her name was Mia. Shimmering black waves fell about her darling face and when she smiled it felt like sunshine. Arwin was absolutely loyal to his girlfriend, but not immune to beauty itself. Nothing wrong with enjoying a little eye candy along with his richly brewed java.

Arwin noticed the rider of the horse standing in line for the washroom, looking rather uncomfortable. Apparently the officer had a manure situation of his own to deal with, but as humans weren’t as free to leave their droppings about as horses were, he was forced to wait in line, awkwardly dancing in one spot while a frenzied mother tried to hustle her three kids through the toilet first.

The lineup for drink orders was short, so Arwin joined it and was soon served. He took his sweet caramel and espresso concoction outside and relaxed at an ornate cast-iron table. Sipping the coffee, he intended to enjoy a relaxing minute or two in the sun before rushing off again. Some people meditated, some people went to coffee shops for overpriced beverages. Whatever it took to relax.

An obviously gay couple sat at the table next to Arwin. He couldn’t help but chuckle at how flamboyant one of them was, his big, sweeping gestures punctuating a story he was telling his boyfriend, giving it an overly dramatic air. From the boyfriend’s amused smile, it was apparent that he loved his lover’s storytelling methods. Perhaps it was one of the flamboyant man’s endearing qualities.

Three men in business suits arrived and plopped down at an empty table on the other side of the gay couple. What no-one found endearing at all was the behaviour of one of those men. The eldest of the trio of suits, the man completely ignored the No Smoking signs everywhere (technically redundant given that smoking in public was against the law), and lit up a very smelly cigarette.

Wafts of thick gray smoke puffed into the flamboyant storyteller’s face. Not expecting the air around himself to become fouled, the storyteller took a deep breath as he prepared to unload the climax of the story. But instead of air, he took in a huge lungful of poisonous vapor. His throat constricted and he burst into strangled coughing.

The less affected boyfriend reached over in concern, grabbing his partner’s arm. “Jason. Jason! Breathe calmly. Here.” He pushed a glass of water towards the suffering man then attempted to wave the smoke away. It was ineffective. New clouds of smoke blew in on the light breeze.

The smoker was either oblivious to the suffering next to him, or, more likely, didn’t care. Smoking is inherently a very selfish and inconsiderate act. If the smoker cared at all about other people, he never would have lit up in the first place, sparing others both the filthy stench and the damage given through second-hand inhalation. The smoker continued reading something on his phone, eyes never leaving the screen. With a habitual move, he held the cigarette away from himself and flicked the unlit end with his thumb. Hot ash from the other end shook free and tumbled through the air, landing on the gay man’s arm.

The flamboyant man, eyes red and watery from coughing, yelped and yanked his arm away, quickly brushing the ash away.

The boyfriend had had enough. He addressed the smoker in a stern voice. “Hey! Excuse me. There’s no smoking allowed. Can’t you see the harm you’re doing to others?”

The smoker barely raised his eyes, took the scene in with visible contempt and went back to his phone without a word. He didn’t care about other people at all. Unfortunately, this was typical of those with this disgusting habit.

The boyfriend grew angry. He stood up. “Excuse me! Please put it out. There’s no smoking here. And have the decency to apologize, you selfish prick.”

The smoker harrumphed and blew a fresh cloud of smoke directly into the flamboyant man’s eyes. The victim reeled back and the smoker smiled at the discomfort the smoke wrought.

The upset boyfriend stood, snatched the glass of water from the table and threw it right in the smoker’s face, extinguishing the cigarette and drenching the front of the smoker’s suit.

Arwin laughed out loud, enjoying seeing the man get what he deserved. Smokers were completely inconsiderate. He hated the habit and had no respect for people who indulged in it.

“What the-?” the smoker raged, standing up. He flicked the soggy cigarette at the boyfriend and stepped forward, looking dangerous. Face to face, the smoker dominated the much smaller gay man, taller by almost thirty centimeters and much heavier.

The boyfriend refused to back down. He glared up at the smoker. “You breathe that garbage in our faces; you deserve the same in return. Actually, that was just water. To be the same, maybe I should piss poison in your face. How would you like that, huh?”

The smoker huffed. “You want to whip your cock out on me? Is that an insult? Or are you coming on to me, faggot?” He poked the gay man in the chest, hard enough to make the victim wince.

Arwin couldn’t help himself. He spoke before thinking. “Hey, there’s no need to get violent. It was just water.”

The smoker sent a look of warning at Arwin. “Shut your mouth.” He turned back to his challenger. “Go ahead, fag. Whip it out and piss on me. I dare you.” He pushed the gay man squarely in the chest, sending the smaller man flying backwards into his chair.

Arwin exploded out of his seat. “Hey! What are you doing? Back off!” He couldn’t stand bullying. If there was anything he hated more than smoking, it was bullying. He had zero tolerance for it.

“I told you to shut up!” The smoker growled, pointing his finger at Arwin. “Mind your own business.”

The man was taller and bigger than Arwin too. It gave Arwin pause, but he’d already begun and he couldn’t back down now. “This is my business. Everyone knows there’s no smoking. Even if the signs all over didn’t say it, it’s against the law. So you’re bothering me too. And when you start bullying someone, I make it my business. Bullying is wrong. Now back off.”

“What are you gonna do?” the smoker scoffed. He walked over and aggressively chest-bumped Arwin, pushing Arwin back a step. “You gonna make me?”

The guy was bigger and obviously a little unbalanced if he was so ready to fight over something so trivial. That gave Arwin further pause, but bullying was wrong, and to just stand there ignoring it, doing nothing to help, would have been just as wrong. When someone does something wrong, and we do nothing to stop it, we tacitly give approval for that wrongness. Arwin would never approve of bullying. He squared his feet. “Maybe.”

“You and what army?” the smoker asked. He looked over his shoulder and the two men he was with put their coffees down and stood, backing up their friend.

Arwin silently cursed and looked at the gay couple for help. It wouldn’t be coming. The flamboyant one frantically tugged at his partner’s arm, dragging the latter away from the situation. He wanted no part of an actual fight and sought to use Arwin’s distraction to escape. The boyfriend wasn’t putting up much resistance. Their cowardice disappointed Arwin, especially when he’d had the decency to stand up for them. Arwin was committed now and wanted to put the bully in his place, but with the gay couple choosing to run instead of fight, there was less to fight for. Especially when Arwin was outnumbered three to one. He relaxed his stance a little. “Look, man, just lay off. No one wants a fight. You got what you deserved, just leave it at that.”

The smoker frowned. “Maybe you deserve a punch in the face. So why don’t you just stand there and take what you deserve and then I’ll go on my way, ok?” He shoved Arwin in the chest.

Arwin caught movement in his peripheral vision and glanced over. People were standing up in the coffee shop to get a better view of the altercation. But none were moving to help. Stupid bystander effect. Humans were bizarre creatures. The probability of bystanders helping in a situation was inversely proportional to the number of people standing by. That is, the larger the crowd, the less likely anyone would help someone in need, everyone assuming it was someone else’s responsibility to do so. This further disappointed Arwin. People in general apparently needed a lot more courage and initiative. If a handful of the watchers stepped out into the street and had his back, this whole thing would blow over harmlessly. Arwin’s eyes roamed the windows. Where was that cop? Arwin could really use him right about now.

The smoker reached out and pushed Arwin with one hand. “Hey. I’m talking to you!” he growled.

Arwin defensively raised his hands. Things were quickly getting out of control. “Easy! I don’t want to fight.”

“Ha!” The smoker relaxed, sensing the victory was his. “You’re scared. You a fag too?” He pulled out another cigarette and began lighting it.

Without thinking, Arwin snapped back, “Says the guy sucking on phallic cancer sticks all day long.”

The smoker snarled, took a deep breath and then blew a long, thick stream of disgusting smoke into Arwin’s face.

Arwin lost his temper. Previous patrons had left their trash on his table. He picked up a half-full cup of coffee and threw it at the smoker’s crotch. A wet, brown stain appeared on the charcoal fabric, ruining it permanently. As soon as he saw the other man’s face, Arwin knew at once that he shouldn’t have done that. He should have walked away. Losing his temper, he’d just made the situation worse. Stupid.

The smoker looked down at his pants in shock. When he looked back up, his eyes practically flamed with anger. “You son of a-!”

The smoker and his two goons jumped forward, but Arwin grabbed the cafe table next to him and tipped it in front of them. The smoker came around the fallen table and lunged forward but Arwin ran, dodging the man’s grasp. He wanted to escape on his bicycle, but the way to his bike was blocked as several customers exited the store, gawking at the scene. Arwin couldn’t readily get through them. With nowhere else to go and the man behind closing fast, Arwin whipped the coffee shop door open and threw himself inside.

“Whoa!” Arwin exclaimed as he dodged a cute young barista and the steaming cappuccino in her hands. With athletic grace he just managed to slide under her tray and between two tables, eliciting a few startled gasps in the process. Spotting another exit on the other side of the store, he bolted towards it, threading tables.

A shout and crash sounded behind Arwin. He looked back and saw the two goons beating hot coffee off their chests. The barista, now irate, shouted up at them from the floor where she’d been knocked down.

Arwin hurried through the cafe, but a shadow appeared in front of the other door. It flew open and the smoker stood there, rage across his face. He’d cut Arwin off. Arwin slid to a stop.

A shout caused Arwin to turn. All he saw was a fat fist coming towards his face. He ducked, letting it whizz by, then threw himself sideways. He grabbed a drink from the table next him. “Sorry,” he apologized to the old woman whose coffee it was. Then he dashed the hot liquid at the nearest goon.

“Hey! That was mine!” the old woman huffed.

Arwin ignored her and grabbed the drink of the younger woman sitting at the same table. “Sorry.” he apologized again, and threw this missile too. He made his way across the room, apologizing and snatching up drinks, drenching both goons, but doing little damage. Patrons soon wised up and kept their drinks out of reach, denying him more ammo. The goons closed in. Arwin backed up against the barista bar.

The lead goon, covered in a wet assortment of foam, coffee, chocolate, syrup and cinnamon, bore down with a comically ruthless expression on his face. Both hands bunched into fists.

“Here!”

Arwin looked over.

Mia, the beautiful barista, skillfully slid a steaming cup of tea down the entire length of the bar. It was one of those really fat mugs the size of bowls. The tag hanging over the side read Guardian Spirit Tea.

Apt name at the moment, Arwin thought as he took the mug in hand, ignoring the burn of it on his palm. He heaved the whole thing into the incoming goon’s face.

Caramel-beige herbal tea with an earthy aroma and bitter, nutty flavour lightly scalded the man’s face. His skin turned pink and he stumbled away, hands over his face.

Arwin looked over at his guardian spirit, Mia. “Thanks!”

She smiled in a way that caused his heart to skip a beat. She was almost as pretty as Kelli.

A pair of hands took hold of a distracted Arwin. He looked up to find that the smoker’s other friend now had firm hold of him. The man was evidently some kind of body builder. Arwin’s feet left the floor as he was bodily lifted into the air. Arwin flew sideways, crashing into a glass display of roasted beans. The glass shattered, spilling beans and Arwin all over the floor. Luckily, none of the broken glass caused any harm.

The goon reached for Arwin again. As he did, the man’s foot came down on the dried beans. The foot shot out from under him. He fell forward and his jaw cracked down hard on the corner of a nearby table. Even the people at the table winced at the grotesque sound made when his teeth crunched together. The goon’s eyes rolled backwards and he collapsed to the floor like a wet noodle, limp.

Arwin had no time to recover. A serving platter whizzed through the air near his face and bounced off the floor. He ducked backwards and just avoided another. He looked up and saw the smoker approaching with an armful of black trays. The smoker flung them like Frisbees at Arwin’s head. Arwin threw himself out of the way, trying to keep tables between him and his attacker.

Each throw put all the other patrons at equal risk and soon everyone was diving for the floor. One tray bounced off a man’s head, knocking him from his chair. Another hit an iced latte in a woman’s hands. The drink exploded on contact, drenching the poor woman.

Just then, the cop burst out of the bathroom. “What the hell is going on out here?” he angrily shouted, face livid. The whole room paused, going completely silent, and watched him. Then anger turned to panic and the cop doubled over in pain. “Oh, crap.” Apparently literally, because he clutched his abdomen, turned, and ran back into the washroom, slamming the door behind him.

Arwin popped his head up above the edge of a table and met the smoker’s eyes. “Truce?” he asked hopefully. His answer was another tray. He barely ducked in time.

“Come here, you bastard!” the smoker yelled with fury, charging.

Scrambling away, Arwin made his way towards the door, but progress was hampered considerably by the mass of patrons trying to do the same. His escape became frustrated and the fleeing customers pushed him up against the condiment stand. A hand grabbed Arwin’s collar from behind, jerking him about so that he knocked a pile of dirty plates to the ground.

“Gotcha!” the smoker exclaimed, a gleeful look on his face.

Two women attempted to crawl past. A bottle of vanilla powder toppled from the stand. The top fell open as it fell and a cloud of lovely-smelling white powder smacked a crawling woman right in the face. She looked at her friend with wide eyes, blinked, and then made a horrendous sneeze. Somewhat wetter powder splattered her friend’s face.

The smoker rudely shoved the disgusted sneeze victim out of the way and got a better hold on Arwin.

Arwin glanced around, desperate. He grabbed a whipped cream canister and pointed it at the smoker’s face. Fluffy white cream blasted out, blinding the smoker. The man’s hand released Arwin. Snatching a metal jug labelled CREAM, Arwin saw a break in the crowd and dashed towards the door.

When the smoker followed outside onto the sidewalk, hot on Arwin’s heels, the man failed to notice Arwin hiding behind someone. Arwin’s arm came up, swinging the milk jug with considerable might.

Jug connected with skull with a dull clang. The smoker’s eyes crossed and he staggered forward in a daze. Wobbly legs gave out and he toppled forward, falling under the police officer’s horse and startling it.

“All right!” an authoritative voice bellowed from within the coffee shop. Evidently the cop was finished his personal business. “Now, who’s responsible for this mess?”

Every hand both inside and outside the coffee shop pointed directly at the smoker.

The police officer stalked through the room, all eyes following him expectantly.

Arwin used the momentary distraction to make good his escape. He snagged his thermos from the street-side table, got his bike and rode away from the crowd. Glancing back over his shoulder, the last thing he saw was the police horse fire a great blast of urine directly into the dazed smoker’s face, soaking him from head to toe. Then the cop hauled the smoker back onto the sidewalk and slapped cuffs on him. Justice was being served.

With a laugh and grin, Arwin pedaled hard for the bus station.

 

Chapter 2 – Worst Day Ever

Arwin skidded to a stop at the small bike parking lot next to the bus depot. It was an underused little corner sectioned off from the massive car lot. Ironically, it seemed that most people drove here in order to take mass transit. Was that counter productive? Well, at least it was better than not using mass transit at all. Locking the bike up, he sprinted for the buses and just managed to catch the one he wanted.

Getting off downtown, he located the necessary business tower and took the elevator to the ninth floor. Arriving in a nondescript office crammed with beige cubicles, he found two other people waiting on a bench outside the elevator doors. They had the nervous look of job applicants, although perhaps supplicants would be a better term, as both they, and Arwin himself, all had a certain atmosphere of desperation about them. The other two, however, had at least come in suits, cheap though they may be. Arwin felt out of place in only slacks, a buttoned shirt and his stylish but unprofessional jacket.

A man in a navy suit arrived. “Nancy, Bill and Arwin?” he asked. When the three nodded, he smiled and pointed down a slim space between an outer wall of nice offices and meetings rooms on one side, and the vast stretch of cramped beige cubicles that filled most of the floor on the other. “This way, please.”

Arwin looked out over the sea of people as he walked past them. It was as if each person and each cubicle had been photocopied from some standard blueprint. Everything was shades of white, black and beige. Everyone had their heads down, buried in their work. He couldn’t spot a single person with a smile on their face. Did no-one enjoy their work? The air hummed with the drone of voices, keyboards clicking, phones and office machines. It was all very serious and busy and monotonous. He imagined laughing out loud for some reason and the entire office pausing and turning to look at him like he was some kind of alien. He wouldn’t be surprised if a list of rules was tacked up to a wall somewhere, number one hundred thirty two, subsection fourteen being: No Laughing. Laughing after all, was unproductive. And unproductive meant unprofitable.

Chest tight with nervousness, Arwin felt a little sick to his stomach. He needed a job. He needed money. But this place was pretty much what he imagined hell would look like. Mind numbing boredom. Never-ending work. Always grinding away, always more to do, never catching up, never ahead of the game. And for what? What did this company do that mattered? They sold…stuff. Not important, necessary stuff. Nothing here was going to save the world or make it a much better place. Nothing done here was unique or innovative. So why do this? Did all these people really get up for no better reason than their salary, regardless of the work they did?

He looked the other direction, towards the offices which had an outer wall. Each could have held a half dozen cubicles, sometimes more. The cubicles were boring, utilitarian workstations made from cheap laminate and plywood covered in gray paint, but the men and women in the nice offices sat in deep leather chairs behind beautifully constructed oak or mahogany desks. Floor to ceiling windows offered a wide, open view of the glass-faced office building across the street. The view was boring, but the windows did provide copious amounts of real sunlight, as opposed to the endless rows of fluorescent lights above the cubicles.

The nicer offices came with beautifully stenciled titles on the doors, announcing this person and that as someone special. These offices and titles were no doubt voraciously sought after. Along with a dramatically nicer, semi-private cubicle, being called the manager of something or the vice president of something else somehow magically conferred more respect and social status on a person, even though the people in these nice offices were mostly just older versions of their unsmiling peers in the cubicles.

Arwin understood why these outer offices were here. Motivation. The carrot. Hook a horse up to a cart and it may not want to pull it. But if you hang a carrot in front of the horse’s nose, it’ll fixate on that carrot and start pulling, thinking it’ll get closer and get that carrot at some point. That poor beast will just keep on pulling as long as that carrot is dangled before it. You can get a lot of miles out of a horse before it realizes that it’s never going to get that carrot and decides to stop participating. But then you just give it the cheap carrot to make it happy, then dangle a new one in front of it. The poor beast will go through the whole process all over again.

A man in an outer office typed away at his keyboard with pudgy fingers. Sweat stains were just visible under his armpits. His belly bulged, a product of a lifestyle with too many hours sitting down. He glanced at Arwin in a way that felt like he was looking down at younger man.

Arwin figured the people with titles probably did the same amount of work as everyone else and put in the same hours. So, in reality, there really wasn’t any meaningful difference between them. He couldn’t personally understand the appeal of making such titles his personal goal. Sure, the bigger paycheck would be nice, but artificial status was meaningless to him. He had no desire to make others feel inferior to him for no reason.

He looked at the cubicle section. The folk lower down the company ladder outnumbered the titled members of their company at least twenty to one. All slaved away, day-in and day-out, putting up with this monotonous life, all for the slim chance that one day they would replace someone in an outer office, getting their carrot. An awful lot of people wanted those carrots, er, titles.

He tried to imagine himself in this lifestyle, because this was what he was interviewing for. It’s what Kelli evidently wanted, both for herself and in a man. Surely plenty of other women felt the same. If he worked here in this bleak office, or in some other place like this, could he earn the respect of his friends and the love, or at least loyalty, of a woman? Would he finally be a success as a person in the eyes of others? Would he finally ‘fit in’?

Arwin was no stranger to the idea that sometimes we just have to suck it up and do things that we don’t like. Like eating our vegetables or cleaning the bathroom. He hated tomatoes and brussels sprouts, but he ate them because they were healthy. We all have childhood dreams of what we want to be when we grow up. But did being an adult mean that we were supposed to give up our dreams and grind away at life because it was the right thing to do? That seemed sad. When Arwin looked around, people didn’t seem all that happy grinding away at life, yet millions of people continued to do just that, every day.

He noticed a smug man in one of the windowed offices talking on the phone, feet propped up on the corner of his chic modern glass desk. A set of keys dangled off the edge of his desk. The key fob read Ferrari. At first Arwin felt a stab of jealousy, then a much bigger wave of indignation. What did this guy do to deserve a car that was the same price as some people’s houses? Or equal to the annual wage of ten regular people? Was Arwin really supposed to be ok with slaving away for decades in some cubicle, barely able to pay his bills on a peon’s salary, while a significant portion of his labour went to making guys like that rich? They worked in the same office, for the same company, with the same overall goals. Didn’t that mean they were on the same team? So why were guys like this being rewarded so much more than everyone else?

Every fibre of his being told him this was wrong. It was unfair. Yet, was this just ‘the way the world worked’? He felt a tense knot growing in his forehead from all this worrying and tried to massage it away. Perhaps he was overthinking this whole thing. He took a deep breath and tried to relax.

They reached a small meeting room. The man in the suit waved the job applicants into chairs. “All right. Let’s get started!” He launched into a suave company spiel talking about how great this company was at everything they did. He spoke about how their future would be glorious and bright because of how much smarter they were than everyone else in the industry. How they made more money because they people in this company knew what it took to succeed and worked harder than anyone else in the industry. All of these points set off red flags to Arwin, but by the end, he saw that the other two applicants were on the edge of their seats with excitement. He shifted in his chair, uncomfortable.

Then the company man got into details. “Now, I’m sure the three of you have been through interviews before. Usually it’s a one-for-one process. We pick one of you for each position and you’re hired. The others lose out and go home empty handed. But that’s not how we do things at Fanri-Talbot. We are all about competition. We believe that competition is the heart of success and we encourage it in everything we do here. Sure, we’re a team, but within our team, and especially in sales, which is the division you’re applying for, we’re hungry sharks, always ready to devour the person next to us as we strive to help this company grow. Fanri-Talbot is made up of people who will do whatever it takes to win.” His charming, toothy smile resembled the underwater predator he apparently strove to be. “After all, it’s a dog eat dog world out there and we’re in competition with a lot of other companies for the same customers. We have to train ourselves to be smarter, faster, hungrier than they are.”

Arwin already didn’t like the sound of things. He’d played a lot of team sports in his life, but he’d never been interested in the competitive aspect of it, driven by a need to win over others. He didn’t define himself by others losing to him; he based it on his own success, measured by personal standards. And he’d certainly never, ever competed on a personal level with anyone on his own team. That was anathema to him for it would surely ruin the spirit of cooperation and mutual support necessary to succeed as a successful team. On teams Arwin had played for, he’d been interested in building teamwork and competing only with himself. Winning wasn’t for himself alone, it wasn’t something everyone achieved together.

It didn’t bode well for him if the working world was focused more on individual competition than teamwork. Did that mean Arwin wasn’t cut out for ‘real life’? Was he destined to be a failure because he had the wrong values in life, preferring cooperation over competition? This was a disturbing thought.

The company man continued. “So, in the spirit of competition, you’re actually all going to be hired today. But, over the next three months, you’re going to battle it out with each other and some of the other newer members of our team. Your sales results will show us the true measure of who you are. Prove yourself, and you’ll become a permanent member of the winning team here at Fanri-Talbot.”

Arwin raised his hand. “I’m sorry, perhaps I misunderstood the job posting. I thought this was for a full time position starting now.”

“It is, it is!” The company man assured him with a plastic smile. “You’ll be working here full time. And after the first three months you could be a permanent member of the staff. And I assure you that our hiring package is amongst the most competitive in the industry. If you make your sales targets each week, you’ll be very happy indeed.”

Arwin glanced at the other interviewees, but they seemed without the uncertainty he himself felt. “So, the first three months are an internship? Or a reduced salary or something? And at the end, we might be let go?”

The company man spread his hands. “Well, I suppose you can think of it as an internship. You won’t be paid anything for your first three months, but you really shouldn’t be focusing on that. You should be thinking about just how much you’ll be making during your career here at Fanri-Talbot – after those three months. Why, some of our sales staff have made over a hundred thousand dollars in their first year alone!”

The other two applicants’ faces lit up at the idea of so much money.

Arwin just nodded and tried to smile. So, this was not a job; it was a chance at a job – with a possible paycheck four months from now. If he beat the others out of it, doing whatever it took to win. Could he wait four months to get paid? He doubted if the people at his student loan or credit card companies would be terribly understanding or patient.

Arwin suppressed a frown. Three months of free labour? The VP of human resources here was probably laughing at the ingenious way they suckered people into such a scam. Arwin wondered how unpaid internships were illegal.

One of the applicants, Bill, raised a hand. “So, if – I mean, when-”

The company man smiled and pointed at him. “I like that attitude.”

Glowing, Bill continued, “-when we’re hired on, what is our starting salary?”

“Your starting salary is fifteen hundred per month.” the company man began.

Arwin felt like he’d been punched in the gut. How could he survive on that after paying taxes and bills? How could he possibly afford rent anywhere?

The man continued. “But don’t focus on that number. This is a sales position, so a lot of your income comes from commission. And don’t worry, it’s not like you’re here to do everything on your own. We’re here to help. We’ll train you in cold calling until you can sell snow to eskimos. We’ll help you build the best leads. We’ll-“

Arwin interrupted the man, surprising both the manager and himself at the spontaneous interruption. “Excuse me, but, those people in the glass offices we passed on the way here. How much do they make?”

The manager paused at the unexpected question, then smiled. “I like where your head is at!” he exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Yes! Focus on the future. Have goals, big goals here at Fanri-Talbot. When you move up the ladder at Fanri-Talbot, I promise you the rewards scale exponentially. Most lower level managers clear over two hundred thousand a year, and things just get better from there. Lower execs make over half a million and top execs all clear a million annually. And that’s just base salary. There are still stock options and bonuses on top of that.”

The other two applicants literally bounced up and down in their chairs with excitement. They were already chomping at the bit to be hired on by Fanri-Talbot. Arwin pictured dollar signs glowing in their eyes. Maybe dollar signs shaped like carrots.

He did a quick calculation. At fifteen hundred a month, that was eighteen thousand dollars per year. That mean that a lower level manager making two hundred thousand per year was equal to about eleven guys in cubicles. The people clearing a million dollars annually equalled about fifty-six bottom-rung peons. Exactly what could any man possibly do that was equivalent to the labour of fifty-six others? Crap raw gold? Pee a never-ending supply of crude oil? Fart rare xenon gas used in ion propulsion systems for spaceships? Or did he have some kind of mutant superpowers like a hundred and twelve arms and was able to use fifty-six computers?

Feeling his anger rise at the idea of so much inequality, Arwin clamped down on his negative thought process, stopping it. It was only making him frustrated. He was overthinking things again, questioning everything. The other two applicants were ready and willing to join the team right now. Why was Arwin constantly being negative about the working world? What was wrong with him?

Surely the problem had to be with him, right? It didn’t make sense that so many people were being unwittingly manipulated into supporting a system that wasn’t actually in their best interests. Surely our entire culture wasn’t being screwed over by a few greedy people who cared more about profit than their fellow man. The scale of such a thing was too big to contemplate. It would have to be rooted in our very genes to be so widespread. It had to be an impossible conspiracy theory. Right?

Next, the company man made some superficial attempts to engage the three applicants, asking them to say a little bit about themselves, pretending to get to know them and making them feel special and involved. Arwin looked at the others two and saw that while the two were obviously super excited, Arwin felt the complete opposite. This was not good. His whole future was at stake and his polar-opposite attitude to so many people was seriously jeopardizing it. He had to change.

“So, you all look pretty excited.” the company man enthused, ignoring Arwin’s blank face. He clasped his hands together. “You all ready to start on Monday?”

“Yes.” the other two applicants chorused together.

Arwin hesitated. “Actually, I’ve got a couple of other interviews scheduled for next week. Could I give you an answer the week after?”

The company man frowned, sucked in his breath and looked pained. “Ooh, I don’t know. Fanri-Talbot is in the middle of a big hiring push right now. We’ve got some key positions to fill, but they’re not unlimited, you know. Lots of competition.”

Bill, looked at Arwin with wide eyes. “Why would you hesitate? What’s to think about? They’re a fortune five hundred company. Have you seen what their stock is doing lately?”

“Yeah,” agreed Nancy. “This is a dream job. A chance to get your foot in the door. Half my friends would kill to work here.” She glanced at the company man as she spoke and beamed at the manager’s look of approval. Perhaps killing each other was looked upon favorably as part of climbing the ladder here. Cannibals.

Arwin hesitated again. This was his chance. He needed the job. He should take this. He should do what was expected of him. He composed the words in his brain, but couldn’t bring himself to accept the opportunity. “I’ve already made the commitments to those interviews. I feel like I should at least go and listen to what they have to say.” Besides, wasn’t it fair that he explore all options before choosing where to go? Why was the man so insistent in taking his choices away?

The company man shrugged. “Well, you know, it’s good to see someone with, um, such integrity. But the fact is, you know, time is of the essence. Why don’t you take the weekend, think about it, and if you’re here at eight AM Monday morning we’ll see how you feel, ok?”

The interview came to a close. Interview? Arwin felt more like they were trying to initiate him into a cult. The other two stayed to fawn and ingratiate themselves with the company man, but Arwin headed for the exit, a measure of guilt in his gut as the elevator doors closed and he began to descend. He knew exactly how his girlfriend was going to react when she found out that he’d turned yet another corporate opportunity down.

Stepping outside the office building into the sunshine, he felt refreshed by the open air. His phone beeped an alert at him. Checking it, he saw that it was his friend Brad’s birthday. He found a spot out of the way of sidewalk traffic and dialed his friend.

“Hello?” a confused voice answered.

“Happy birthday, Be-Rad!” Arwin enthused.

“Thank you!” Brad happily responded in his typically jolly voice.

“You’re welcome.”

“Uh, you could have just texted, like most people do.”

“Or sent you a message on social media?” Arwin chuckled.

“You know I don’t use social media.”

“What, you don’t like the phone call?” Arwin teased.

“I do! Very classy. Old school. No-one does that anymore. But I’m at work. You know, work?”

“The whole wage slavery thing? Yes, I’m still looking for a place in which to enter into indentured servitude. Just finished an interview, actually. Unfortunately, I really didn’t like the kind of manacles they use.”

“Ah, going for something classier?”

“Yeah. Definitely. And the guy with the whip here? He looked so weak. I really want to be whipped into action by someone with some good arm strength. Someone who can really put their back into it.”

“Did they at least serve nice gruel?”

“Oh, exceptional compensation package. You just have to murder your coworkers first before you get your food.”

“Sounds bloody.”

“Well, he did literally say that we were supposed to be sharks.”

“He actually said that?”

“Yeah.”

Brad laughed out loud. “Oops. Now people in the office are staring at me, wondering why I laughed out loud.”

“So, you still busy tonight?” Arwin asked.

“Uh, yeah. Sorry. Got plans with the wife and kid. Gonna do a family thing.”

Arwin felt a small stab of disappointment, wondering why they couldn’t do family and friends at the same time, but quashed it because he loved Brad and didn’t want to think ill of him. He smiled. “All right. Have fun. Let’s try to do something next week.”

“Sure.”

“Love ya, buddy. Happy birthday again.”

“Thank you!” Brad replied. “See if you can find a place that will make you into a slave Leia. Give you the gold bikini and everything.”

“Only if my boss is a grotesque, lazy fat guy and I have to pleasure him in countless horrible ways. I mean, who needs dignity, right?”

Brad laughed. “Ok, I gotta get back to work. Later, man.”

“Later.” Arwin hung up. He made a mental note that if he ever got around to having a family that he’d definitely invite Brad to any get-together. He’d make sure that his friend always felt included. Brad was such a great guy.

It was time to meet Kelli for lunch. He took a shortcut through a small urban park, ducking under elm trees, past a cascading fountain churning out cooling mist, and was just about to head out the other side of the green space when he spotted someone he knew sitting on a park bench; Eddie Jacobs.

Eddie was one of Arwin’s best friends. They were both athletes, often hiking and skiing together and participating together in a number of events. The two had formed a team for this year’s Storm the Wall challenge. It was a kind of triathlon that ended in scaling a wall some three meters tall after swimming, cycling and running towards it. He and Eddie had been training for a while together. Arwin grinned and, despite knowing he was pressed for time, headed over.

Arwin skirted a playground full of happy, climbing, clamoring kids. That’s when he finally saw who his friend was sitting with. Arwin pulled up next to Eddie and two other guys sitting opposite his friend on another park bench. Arwin’s friendly greeting caught in his throat.

Eddie’s eye caught Arwin’s arrival and he did a double-take. A brief look of guilt flashed over his features, but he hastily smoothed his expression to cover it. “Hey. What’s up?” he said with obviously forced casualness.

“Hey.” Arwin replied. He eyed the two other guys sitting across from his friend. They were not a welcome sight. He recognized them as two of the strongest contenders for the upcoming Storm The Wall event. Arwin had a strong suspicion he wasn’t going to like what he was about to find out.

Eddie didn’t offer anything in reply. A very awkward silence dragged out.

Arwin felt his stomach sinking. Eddie was one of his best friends. There were never awkward silences between them. He swallowed. Forcing himself to be light, he slapped his hand onto Eddie’s shoulder and nodded at the other two guys. “So, you guys sharing training tips?” he asked.

Eddie had the grace to look just a trifle awkward, then he hardened. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to tell you. I can’t do Storm with you anymore. I’m joining Jars and Danny. We’re making a new team.”

Arwin felt his body go cold, then a kernel of anger coalesced inside. He tried to control it. “You and I are already a team.”

Eddie shrugged. “If you and I do it we only have two, which means one of us has to do two events. That’s rough.”

“I did the whole event myself last year and came in third in the individual challenge.” Arwin reminded Eddie. “I told you, we’ll be fine in the team event. We stand a really good chance of winning.”

“Maybe.” Eddie nodded. “But if I’m on a team with Jars and Danny, the three of us are pretty much guaranteed to win.”

Arwin shook his head in disbelief. “We’re friends. And we’re already a committed team. We’ve been training for weeks. You’re just going to bail on me?”

Jars finally spoke up. He had a greasy, satisfied smile on his face now that he’d seen Eddie officially commit to their team and ditch Arwin. “Eddie’s smart. He wants to win. With us, he will.”

Eddie nodded.

“And what, winning is everything?” Arwin asked seriously.

The others all laughed, including Eddie.

Danny spoke up. “Why would you do it if you weren’t trying to win?”

“Maybe that’s why you only came in third last year,” Jars taunted. “Maybe you don’t want to win enough. Maybe that’s why Eddie chose us instead. We’re all about winning.”

“Winning is everything.” Danny agreed. “Especially when it’s five grand for the winning team.”

Arwin turned to Eddie, ignoring the others. “Eddie, don’t do this. We’re friends. You know I want to win; of course I do. And I know you do too. But at what cost? Are you going to throw away our years of friendship over one race? Tell me this isn’t about the money. Come on man, we’re a team!”

Eddie looked really defensive for a moment, then anger clouded his features. He turned his body away from Arwin. “Not any more. I have a new team.”

Emotionally staggered, Arwin backed away. He stumbled over someone’s foot, turned, mumbled an apology to a mother frowning at him, and made his way to the street. Reeling, he continued onwards towards his original destination, though his date with Kelli was no longer foremost on his mind.

Eddie’s decision really floored him. Arwin could hardly imagine doing the same thing to anyone. And for what? A third of five grand? For the momentary glory of winning and maybe a spot in the local paper for one day? That’s why Eddie had betrayed their relationship? Really?

Shock gave way to anger as the pavement flowed by below his feet, but the emotion soon subsided into disappointment. This would be the end of their friendship. He might forgive Eddie if the guy ever apologized and honestly tried to make up for it, but he doubted Eddie would. Eddie knew what he’d done was wrong and if there was one thing people hated to do, it was publicly admitting when they were wrong. This wasn’t a television sitcom. In real life, people didn’t always choose to learn their lesson.

As for the Storm The Wall contest, Arwin was pretty much screwed unless he could convince the registration officials to let him replace Eddie on the roster with only a month to go. Somehow Jars and Danny had managed to finagle adding Eddie to their team. Could Arwin do the same? Could he even find someone new now that the registration was over? He’d probably stand no chance of placing in the top three any more, but that was fine. He still wanted to do the event.

For Arwin it wasn’t only about winning. Winning was just icing on the cake. For him, it was mostly about the personal challenge; seeing how far he could push himself to do his best. And, when Eddie had been his teammate, it was about seeing how far they could push themselves as a unit. There was real joy in being a part of something bigger than oneself, of being on a great team. Knowing someone else had your back and was trying to reach a shared goal as hard as you were brought an incredible feeling of belonging, security, hope and excitement.

Arwin walked by a restaurant with outdoor seating. Two men sat at a table being served lunch by a very, very cute waitress. She had big, doe eyes, nut-brown hair cut in a short bob, and a tiny red t-shirt that looked painted on. She bent over to put a plate down, and drew every eye into her vast, creamy cleavage – including Arwin’s.

Arwin walked straight into a steel light pole.

“Bwa-hahahaha!” one of the restaurant patrons howled with laughter and pointed at Arwin.

Arwin staggered a little, hand on his bruised forehead. Boy, did he feel stupid!

The waitress, who had also seen his accident, studiously tried not to look his way, but blushed deep red. The colour worsened as the other restaurant patron started laughing too. All four people were very well aware of exactly why Arwin had crashed.

Arwin sheepishly tried to ignore them and continue on his way. And tripped over a dog. He sprawled on the pavement.

Laughter above him redoubled in strength.

Arwin looked up and saw the server rushing away, the back of her neck beet red. He got to his feet, thoroughly embarrassed himself. He bowed his head at the woman walking her dog. “Sorry.” he apologized. Luckily the dog itself seemed only startled. Arwin hurried on his way, wondering just how red his own face was at this point.

Arwin found himself in the lunch-hour rush. His feelings picked up and his enthusiasm for the day came back as he looked forward to his lunch date with his beautiful girlfriend. People drained out of office buildings and men and women in nearly identical business-wear flowed out onto the sidewalks, making their way to restaurants and coffee shops for a quick bite before returning to their unending toil. Kelli was surely en route to her favourite place, the chic little cafe they’d agreed to meet at before Arwin’s interview. Arwin checked his watch again and walked even faster, anticipating the charming company of the girl he loved.

Kelli’s favourite cafe came into view and Arwin pushed his problems with Eddie to the back of his mind. He didn’t want to be in a bad mood for his date, for that would just spoil the experience and ruin it for his girlfriend. He’d talk to her about it, of course; he always told her everything. But he didn’t want to drag them both down over the issue. So he stopped just outside the place, took a few deep breaths and calmed himself. He pictured Kelli’s pretty face, radiant smile and cheerful attitude. It helped restore him. After all, no matter how bad things got with anyone else, there was always Kelli. They were partners. Two against the world. As much as he had once trusted Eddie, his trust in Kelli was on a whole other level. Regaining his smile, he reached for the door.

Arwin entered the cafe and nodded to the waitress at the register. “I’m meeting someone.” he said with a smile and wave, heading into the seating area. He looked around, eyes scanning the tables for someone sitting alone. But none of those women were the one he was looking for. Then he spotted Kelli in a more private booth in the back. He came to an immediate halt, startling a male server with his abruptness, almost causing the man to spill a tray of used glasses.

The server just managed to swerve out of the way, grabbing a wayward wine glass and scowling before moving past. But Arwin was oblivious.

Kelli was beautiful, even in a light gray, very professional suit and with her hair tied up in a bun. The woman could wear rags and get away with it. Despite how unsexy pantsuits often were on many girls, she still appeared classy and hot. Especially the way her curves stretched her suits in all the right places. She was even more lovely than usual though right now, with her face glowing and a big smile on her shiny red lips.

But then her lips plastered themselves to someone else’s. It wasn’t just any kiss, either. It was the kind of wet, energetic thing that new lovers gave each other, and the man she was with returned it in the same manner.

Arwin edged forward like a zombie, his brain completely shut down. His eyes traveled over the couple. He saw the man’s arm around her shoulders in a comfortably possessive manner, and her arm around his lower back in a much more sexual one. One of her legs hung over his. There was no doubt in Arwin’s mind; the way these two moved and touched, they had slept together. Actually, they’d probably been sleeping together for a while.

Arwin looked at the guy. The man was slightly older than Arwin and Kelli. By the confident way he lounged next to her, the expensive suit hanging open, expensive silk tie slightly loosened, the glittering luxury-brand watch on his wrist, it looked like the guy was pretty well off. He wasn’t particularly good looking, but he looked financially successful. If you liked that type. Arwin knew Kelli did.

Kelli looked up as Arwin approached the table. Her red mouth broke into a cute little O. Well, it might have been cute in other circumstances. “Arwin!” she gasped.

Oddly, he still had yet to react to the situation. That puzzled him, for he and Kelli had been dating for almost three years now. Well, maybe it wasn’t that he wasn’t reacting. He didn’t feel angry yet, but he certainly felt stunned. In fact, his face and arms felt somewhat numb and even tingled. How bizarre! Mouth dry, he tried to speak and his voice came out far more awkward and less manly that he desired in this moment. “We had a lunch date.” he croaked.

Kelli and the man slowly disengaged. But she didn’t entirely pull away from him. “Arwin, look-” she tried to say, but stumbled, seemingly unsure.

It took Arwin a split second, but he realized that there was no look of panic in her eyes. “You knew we had a date. We confirmed it on the phone last night.”

Kelli’s looked down and away.

Arwin knew then that this ugly meeting was no casual accident. His jaw dropped in astonishment. “You set this up!” he accused. At last, shock began to give way and a stab of pain cut into his chest.

“Arwin, I’m sorry. I really am.” she managed. No denial.

Arwin’s thoughts raced. What had he done wrong? How had he screwed up? Had he failed her somehow? He must have, because she had left him for someone else. “Why?” he stammered. “Kelli, I love you. You love me too. What’s going on? What did I do wrong?”

“I’m sorry. It’s just – I don’t think we’re the right match for each other anymore.” she said lamely.

Arwin glanced at the guy next to her. No guilt on his face. He certainly didn’t care one whit for Arwin’s heart being crushed right in front of him. In fact, Arwin suspected that the guy was either annoyed that his make-out session had been interrupted, or glad that he and Kelli would no longer have to sneak around behind someone’s back. Arwin looked at Kelli, unable to suppress some of his contempt from boiling up in the heat of the moment. “It’s because he has money, isn’t it? And, let me guess, he works for a big name firm, doesn’t he?”

“Arwin…” she replied before trailing off, not denying him again. Apparently Arwin’s guess had been right on.

Arwin’s eyebrows rose. “Wow. I do everything I can to love you the best way I know how. I spoil you with attention, I’m forgiving and understanding, no matter what. I’ve been your best friend, supporting you through everything you’ve gone through in the last year with your family and stuff. And you throw all that away for some empty prick with a nice suit and big salary?”

“Says Mister Unemployed.” the illicit lover scorned with a mocking sneer. “Why don’t you go hop back on your bicycle like a good little boy and get yourself a nice McJob. I’m sure you can find a sweet high school girl who will think you’re special.” His arm slid back around Kelli’s shoulders, a mark of ownership which she didn’t refuse in the slightest. “Kelli deserves a real man.”

Arwin’s left eye twitched. He looked at Kelli in further surprise. “You’ve talked about me to him?” He tilted his head, almost unable to believe it. Who was this woman and what had happened to the girl he’d thought he knew? “You, what, laughed about me together? Made fun of me? Why? How did I fail you? How am I not good enough? Come on,” he dared her, “tell me this clown is a better person than I am. You know me. You know who I really am, my character. Tell me this prick actually compares to me as a person.”

Kelli had no response.

“It’s all about the money, isn’t it?” Arwin’s heart broke. “Money is more important to you than love.” To Arwin, being a good person had always been more important than material wealth, and he was proud of his own personal growth. But it seemed his values were completely opposite to Kelli’s.

Kelli finally grew angry and defended herself. “Well, you know what? Money’s important. I can’t drive you around all the time in my car because you don’t have one. I can’t pay for stuff because you don’t have any money. You’re the man, you’re supposed to pay for everything.”

“That’s bull. Why should I have to pay for everything? You make as much money as any guy at your position.” Arwin countered. “Men and women should be equal and split the bills. I always manage to pay my fair share.”

“Oh, enough! I’m so sick and tired of your philosophical, moral rantings. And I’m sick of living like I’m still in university. I’m not a kid anymore. I want a real, adult life. A future. I want to go on nice vacations and stay in nice hotels. I want a man who knows how to dress. I want to be with someone I can respect. Who I can introduce to my friends and not have to apologize for.”

“You know I’m looking for jobs.”

“I don’t want a man with a job; I want one with a career!”

Arwin sagged with a devastating realization. “You have no faith in me.”

Kelli softened a bit. “Look, you’re a nice guy. We had some good times. But now it’s time to grow up and move on. You’ll find someone else.”

He instinctively wanted to fight for her and their relationship, as he always did when they fought, but everything she wasn’t saying and her body language told him that she’d already committed to the other guy. She might have waited until now to break up, using this contrived ‘accident’ to do it, but she’d given up on him some time ago. He’d been too blind and trusting to see it. Her love was the one thing in life he never questioned. He realized that she wouldn’t have set this up until she was absolutely sure of things with the other guy first. Arwin’s relationship with Kelli was already over. He was just the last to find out about it.

He looked into Kelli’s eyes. “Three years together. All the love and support and friendship I gave you. All the laughs and good times. But this is how you repay all that? This is how you choose to break up and end our commitments to each other? You couldn’t have had the decency to sit down and talk to me about your feelings and doubts before you cheated? If you fell in love with someone else you couldn’t have had the decency to tell me to my face? To break up with me to my face? Haven’t I earned that kind of respect? I would have tried to understand you and your feelings. And even if it hurt, I would have still been your friend after you’d left. Instead, you set up a fake accident where I see you and him together, ruining everything that ever was between us, forever?” He shook his head slightly. “All that love and trust and you chose the one way in which to destroy it all in one cruel, selfish stroke.” His voice hardened. “I guess you’re not who I thought you were. I thought you were better than that. But you’re not. You’re just a selfish coward.”

Kelli opened her mouth to reply but couldn’t, then looked away, a pained look on her face.

Arwin turned away. “Goodbye, Kelli.” He walked out of the cafe, never looking back.

 

 

All the way home, his mind whirled with a thousand thoughts. He felt like his legs had been swept out from under him and he was in emotional free fall. He was reeling. He was lost. He felt sharp stabbing pains in his head and chest and knew he was on the verge of crying. He texted just about everyone he knew, hoping that someone, anyone, was free. He needed to talk, to share, to get things off his chest. He was hurt and confused and while he wanted to be alone, he wanted much more to be distracted or supported.

With each passing moment, the specters of his future, his heartbreak and his loss of friendship became ever heavier and worse. He came close to tears more than once on the bus. Unfortunately, his texts went unanswered. Everyone was apparently busy. So he suffered alone.

The bike ride from the bus station passed in a blur. When he got home, he went directly to his room and collapsed on his bed, trying to digest all the emotional trauma and worry and questions within.

“Arwin! Dinner’s ready!” his mother eventually called as the sun lowered itself to the horizon in a warm bath of oranges, yellows and reds.

Arwin ignored the beauty of the sunset, emotionally unable to appreciate it at the moment, and went downstairs. His feet felt leaden, his heart aching. He sank into his chair, but, despite the delicious looking lasagna, he had no appetite. He just stared at his plate, unable to find the energy to even pick up a fork and pick at the food.

“You ok, son?” his father asked.

“Yeah. Lasagna’s your favourite.” his mother added.

Arwin tried to keep it bottled in, but his parents were good people and wouldn’t have it. They kept investigating in the supportive, caring way they had and soon everything came spilling out. Arwin told them all about his miserable day.

When Arwin at long last fell silent, his parents were the same. His father was obviously lost in thought, his mother looked both sad and worried.

His father sighed. “Son, I wish I had an easy, simple answer to give you, something that could make all this right for you. But the truth is, there isn’t.”

Arwin nodded, not looking up.

“That’s not to say you can’t make sense of it all.” he continued. “You can. From my point of view, Kelli’s values and priorities became different from yours. Maybe at one time you were a good match, but her goals changed. And maybe she was too scared or weak to do the right thing by breaking up with you in an honest way. I’m not saying you made a mistake in being with her, just that people can change and it’s not always in the same ways we do. And not always for the better. Nothing here is your fault. You simply grew apart.”

“And Eddie,” his mother said, “just wasn’t the friend you thought he was. His priorities and values evidently changed too. Winning became more important to him than his relationship with you. Sadly, it’s an all-too-common attitude.” She reached out and took Arwin’s hand, squeezing it. “You’re such a good person. You have such an amazing heart. You give so much, love so much, trust so much. You go out of your way not to hurt others. But, unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the world that aren’t like you. Most people think of themselves first. I know you want to believe in the best in people, and that’s a good thing, but sometimes they’re going to disappoint you.”

“If people are so selfish, then maybe I should stop believing in them.” Arwin stated sourly.

His mother gave him a pointed look. “Is that what you really think is best?”

Arwin glanced up, then away. He shook his head. “No.” And he really didn’t. He’d known it even as he said it. But despite the fact that his mind knew he shouldn’t stop believing in other people, there was a strong emotional temptation to want to never trust anyone ever again. Especially any girl. But, while powerfully tempting to let his emotions completely rule him, Arwin couldn’t prevent a stab of guilt every time his inner voice reminded him that giving in to our emotions is often the most foolish of our choices.

His father gave him a sad smile. “As for a job, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do with your life. I know it’s a difficult choice and there aren’t a lot of appealing options readily available. Being a spaceman or a ninja the way we wanted to as little kids isn’t so practical as an adult. As for the options we do have, it’s difficult to see them all because, as young adults, we’ve no experience with them and so we don’t really know what our choices could be. Growing up in schools today, kids don’t have any experience in the working world, so how could they possibly be expected to know what they want to do for a career? How can we possibly understand what goes on in the daily life of a drafting engineer if we’ve never even heard of drafting engineering? How can we know what being a soil conservationist means or how to become one unless we’ve been around soil conservation? How can we know if being an elevator inspector is any fun or not until we’ve tried it? Unfortunately, we can’t really know any of them until we’re doing them, and we simply never get that chance when we’re young. It’s not fair and the system we’ve put in place as a society could be way better.” His father spoke with encouragement. “You’re still young. You need to discover more of your choices.”

“I don’t have a choice anymore. I have bills to pay. A student loan to repay.”

“I understand the feeling.” his father said. “When we’re faced with the reality of trying to put food on the table, we don’t feel like we have the luxury of debating qualities of the system. We feel like we just have to accept whatever choice is thrust in front of us. Don’t be fooled. That’s giving up.”

His mother nodded in agreement. “We’ve tried not to push you in any one direction, encouraging you to explore and see what you liked. Ultimately, you are the only one who can choose what you want to do with your life. I know it’s not easy with the social pressure on you, but it would be best to keep trying different jobs out until you find one you’re happy with.”

“Losing Kelli sucks,” his father pointed out, “but the upside is that you don’t have the pressure of trying to make enough money to get that apartment together anymore. Or try to keep up with her financially. Try to see the bright side, even in the worst situations, right?”

“Don’t let the future scare you. Don’t feel like whatever job you pick has to last you your entire life. As difficult as it may seem now, it really is possible to change careers later in life.” his mom added. “Especially if it’s something you hate doing. There are a million different kinds of jobs out there. Surely there are ones in which you can find purpose and meaning, and love doing.”

“I don’t know if that’s possible.” Arwin said with a defeatist attitude. In the back of his mind, he knew it was wrong to think that way, but he let the comment slip anyway. “Today when I was at that interview, I couldn’t get excited about it at all. All these thoughts kept running through my head about how awful and meaningless everything was. And how unfair the system was with most people as white collar slaves making such pathetic wages and all these executive types earning stupid amounts of money. I got so angry and frustrated.” He looked up into their kind faces. “I don’t get it. The rest of the world seems fine with all this. Is there something wrong with me?”

His father reached over and grasped his shoulder. “No! Why would you think that?”

Arwin half shrugged. “Because I think differently than other people. I don’t know.”

His father’s eyes focused directly on his son’s, compelling their gazes to meet. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with you.”

Arwin fought back a tear, feeling no hope at all at his personal future. “Then why am I so unhappy at the idea of working in some office?”

His father was firm and understanding. “Because you have very high values and you believe in ideals. More importantly, you choose to live by them. Many people don’t. They’re happy to just go along with what everyone else is doing and never stop to think about their choices or the big picture. You do. When you look at something, you judge it. Because you’ve learned to think for yourself and critically question everything. You try to decide right from wrong and actually evaluate different options. And the idea of choosing wrong really upsets you. That’s a good thing. It means you’re a good person.”

“Maybe.” Arwin replied, not sure if he believed is father at this particular time, though that might have been his heartache talking.

“Has any job caught your eye at all?” his mother asked. “Do you have any idea about what you’d like to do? A general field or industry you find interesting?”

“I just want to do something meaningful.” Arwin replied with more than a little frustration. “I want to do something good, something that matters. Something that makes the world a better place. I want to work with people, not against them.” He sighed. “And the idea of doing the exact same thing every day scares me. I wish life had more adventure to it.” He sighed. “Too bad life isn’t like some book.”

“Life is what you make it,” his father stated with authority. “That’s not to say you have a free hand to do anything you want; we’re actively constrained in many ways by the society around us. But you have a lot more flexibility and choice than you probably realize. Take some time to look around more.”

“But I have loans due immediately.”

“We’ll help with the loans,” his mother cut in. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re family. As your parents, it’s our job to give you advantages that help you succeed even more than we ever did. We’re not here to give you a free ride, but as long as we see you making your best effort, we’ll do everything we can to give you a leg up in life.”

Arwin continued, unwilling to give up his pessimism so easily. “If I’m ever going to make myself marketable to a girl again, I need a job – now. What do I do? Do I take this thing with Fanri-Talbot?”

“There are fulfilling jobs out there. And some adventurous ones,” his mother noted. “You can make a difference with them. You don’t have to do a job you find ethically wrong.”

“What, like building houses in third world countries or teaching orphans? I can’t make any money with those.” Arwin said, letting a touch of his anger at society show. “Why does doing something meaningful mean I have to be poor? Why do I have to work for some soulless company to earn money?”

“There’s more to life than money.” said his father.

Arwin scowled. “Yeah? Not if I want a girlfriend, or a wife some day. Women apparently only want money.”

“That’s not true.” chastised his mother. “Well, not always.”

Arwin couldn’t believe her. “That’s why Kelli left. If I’d stayed in business in university and come out making lots of money then she’d still be here.”

His father looked at him squarely. “And would that make you happy? Do you really want to be in a job like that to be with a woman who only wants you for how much money you earn?”

“Of course not. But do I really have a choice?” Arwin retorted. “What if all girls are like that? I don’t want to be alone.”

“They’re not.” his mother said. “Look at us. I didn’t marry your father for money.”

Arwin rolled his eyes. “Dad makes lots of money.”

His father snorted.

“Your father makes ok money.” his mother corrected. “But when we met, and when he proposed, he didn’t make much at all, and he had no foreseeable prospects of doing so. But I knew what kind of man he was; the same kind you are. I respected him for that. And I loved him for it. I knew what kind of life we’d have together and that the relationship itself was far more important to me than whatever material possessions we accumulated. I’ve never regretted being with him or wished I could have married someone rich instead. I’m happy with my life. I proud of my husband, and I’m proud of you.”

Arwin found it difficult to maintain his desire to hate himself and be negative in the face of the love and wise support his parents were giving him. He was spouting a lot of negativity, but not-so-deep down he knew his own words were wrong. He knew that giving in to pessimism would be giving up on himself. Despite his inner turmoil, he smiled a little and they smiled back. He took a deep breath, feeling the tension ease a little. Heartache and pain still filled him, but the edge had worn off a little. He was glad to have such a family.

He ate. The lasagna was golden, as always. When they parted ways and Arwin headed upstairs, he hugged them both. “I love you guys. Thanks for everything.”

“We love you too, Arwin.” his father said.

“Always and forever.” his mother added.

It took him a while to fall asleep. The night passed rather unpleasantly, filled with nightmares given birth by his emotional trauma.

 

 

Time passed. Arwin remained depressed. He went to his interviews and applied to more job postings, but couldn’t get excited about anything. His nights were sleepless. He laid in bed for hours on end, his brain running over events with Eddie and Kelli, having a thousand different imaginary conversations. It was incredibly stressful and he spend his days irritable and sleepy.

It was an effort just to get up and eat. He was so miserable that he’d lost the willpower to simply pick up a good book and distract himself. There were times when he’d find himself standing in a room or sitting somewhere, completely unaware of how he’d gotten there or how long he’d been standing there because he’d been so wrapped up in his painful thoughts.

The next Saturday, in a miserable funk, Arwin tried to distract himself with chores but quickly grew restless. “Can I borrow the car?” he asked his father. “I just, I dunno, want to go for a drive and get some air or something.”

“Sure.” His father handed him the keys, no questions asked.

Arwin got in the car, started it, backed out of the driveway and headed towards the main road. Without even really planning to, he found himself aiming towards the highway out of town. Beyond was the vast and quiet countryside. It was completely opposite to the crowded and busy city that housed the agents of his misery. Escape was just what he needed. He took the exit and headed out of town.

As buildings gave way to wild trees, just one question filled Arwin’s sad, hopeless, emotionally clouded mind. It was a question about his future. He voiced it aloud. “So, what am I going to do now?”

He had no idea.

 

Chapter 3 – The Blues

One moment Arwin was driving down the open highway and a limitless stretch of straight road stretched out as far as the eye could see under a sunny sky. On either side lay vast fields of golden wheat and bright yellow canola, punctuated with tractors and irrigation systems. He took a quiet, little-used exit, intending to park and simply sit for a while. The next moment, he was careening through a bumpy field of blue grass. Literally blue. Vivid, deep, royal blue. And instead of the sound of crushing vegetation, the grass made soulful music as he careened though the tall blades.

Too stunned by the sudden change in environment to react, he never saw the bluebeard tree until it was too late. His car thundered into it and came to an abrupt halt, fender, hood and engine wrapping around the immovable trunk. Blue spruce-like branches rattled the hood and roof of the car, each branch thick with moss in the various shapes of beards: French forks, Van Dykes, Xaén Dovéts, hulihees, goatees, ducktails and many more. A tiny little man the size of a squirrel, in aristocratic clothes and with a full blue beard, stormed out of a little door high in the tree and rattled off a strong of blue language in Arwin’s direction, the little man’s face blue with the effort.

Arwin shook his head. Wait – what? Musical blue grass? Bluebeard tree with blue beards? How could a man be only a handspan tall? What was going on?

Glad that he’d been wearing a seatbelt, as he was rather sore where it had cut across his chest, but alive after the crash, he unsnapped the restraining device and climbed out of the car. He whirled around. “Where am I?” he wondered aloud in shock.

All around, the scenery had completely changed. Endless prairie had been replaced by a towering, dense forest. Some trees he recognized, others were completely foreign. Like the bluebeard trees. And what he guessed was probably a sandalwood tree. After all, the leaves were all shaped like sandals. He took a closer look. No, they were sandals. And in his immediate vicinity was the blue grass. A gust of wind came down out of the sky to tickle the rounded blue leaves and a mournful wave of notes played through the meadow.

Arwin put his hand to his head. “I’ve lost my mind.” he groaned, checking his scalp for blood. “I must have hit my head. I’m delirious. Hallucinating.” He stepped backwards and his foot landed on something hard. A despondent cry arose from below. Jerking his foot away, he looked down.

It was a bluestone. A rock. Coloured blue. And it appeared to be sad. How a rock could possibly have, let alone communicate, emotions, struck Arwin as rather impossible, yet here it was. When he had stepped on it, the rock must have made that sad sound. Then he got it. The rock was feeling blue. That was – literal.

Arwin tried to wrap his head around his current situation. “Ok, I was driving and everything was normal. Now – what happened? Where am I?” It was no use. The situation refused to be wrapped up. He continued to look around and the odd world in front of him continued to remain. No matter how many times he pinched himself, he refused to wake from whatever this was.

He took a deep, steadying breath. This was not good.

First, he had been in a car accident. A fat stone of guilt weighed down his gut because the car wasn’t his. His father had entrusted it to him and he’d destroyed it. The evil insurance company was doubtlessly going to milk his father for this by doubling insurance premiums. Looking at the crumpled front end, if the car wasn’t a total write-off, then the evil repair companies would see this as a feast to gorge upon. They’d charge his father half the price of a new car to fix it, money the family didn’t have to waste. The repair company would sick their untrustworthy mechanics on the car. The mechanics would do a half-ass job and force his father to return three or four times to fix all the little mistakes they’d carelessly leave behind. All the while, the process would take more and more money, time and frustration. All because Arwin somehow wasn’t paying attention and blundered carelessly into whatever was going on now. It was too overwhelming and disheartening to think about. Arwin’s shoulders despondently sagged and worried notions bothered his mind.

He walked over to a nearby pine tree and leaned heavily on it. That poor car. He was going to miss it so much. He loved that car and he was just so heartbroken over seeing it hurt so. He might even lose it forever. A tear trickled down his cheek.

In fact, his whole situation right now was glum. He was screwed, stuck in some alien world. Stupid accident. He returned to the vehicle and bitterly kicked the rear tire. This freak, unfair episode had just put a massive hole in his plans and his life. He sighed defeatedly. He felt so…blue.

At that thought, his eyes flickered towards the grass field.

Ok, it was totally normal to feel this way given the circumstances, but, to feel this much sorrow and so suddenly? The field itself couldn’t be having an affect on him, could it? He looked around more closely. Blue grass, bluestone, a blue bird whistling a melancholy song perched in a nearby limb of blue spruce with drooping branches. He’d leaned against a pine tree, and then begun to pine for his car. Coincidence? Maybe not.

He spotted a nearby bush covered in deep blue berries. He walked over and popped one into his mouth. It burst with sweet, ripe juice. As he swallowed, he immediately felt his sadness deepen. Yep, blueberries. Made you feel blue. Arwin smacked his forehead with sudden insight. It was a world of puns! Everything was literal. Maybe just being here in this blue meadow was causing his feelings to worsen. The idea couldn’t be any more odd than everything he’d already seen so far. So, turning on his heel, he headed for the closest edge of the green forest on one side of the field.

Sure enough, a change of scenery brightened his mood considerably. All he’d needed to do to feel better was get out of the bad place he’d been in. Now, looking back, he had a very different perspective of the crash. The car looked so silly and incongruous out there under a bearded tree with that miniature man still shaking his fist at Arwin. Arwin actually managed to chuckle. Looking at things from here he could see that everything he’d experienced so far was pretty crazy; worth a laugh. And, after all, he was pretty relieved to be alive after hitting that tree so hard. His nodded thoughtfully. A new perspective worked wonders on his attitude. In this case, that was probably directly connected to the blue area, but on further thought, it was probably a valuable life lesson on its own too.

Feeling better, he turned his thoughts to how to proceed. “We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.” he muttered to himself. “Not that I’m from Kansas. Or ever want to visit that cultural backwater. Ugh, nothing but endless prairie and ignorant religious rednecks.” He shuddered. “Dorothy herself moved to Oz rather than stick it out in hicksville. Hell, it hasn’t even produced any really good Playmates.”

He caught himself in mid-tirade and rubbed his chin ruefully as he paused to give more balanced consideration to the subject. “Well, I suppose Playmate Maggie May is pretty cute. And a number of pretty cool actors have come out of the state, like Annette Bening and Dennis Hopper. Oh, and Elmer Dresslar Jr, the voice of the Jolly Green Giant. Grew up listening to that and I can still hear it in my head.” He shrugged. “I guess, like any place, Kansas has its good points and bad, fair enough. I shouldn’t have rushed to a harsh statement like that without due consideration first. Still though, perhaps Kansas really is best appreciated from a distance. Maybe this crazy place is too. Maybe I should figure out how to get the heck out of here. And why am I saying all of this out loud?”

Arwin pulled out his cell phone. Not really surprised, he saw that he got no cell service here. Where ever here was, there was no coverage. He was on his own. A brief survey of the land told him that there were no roads, no signs of civilization nearby. The gravel road leaving the highway he’d been on had completely disappeared. Staying here didn’t seem to be very helpful because no-one was going to come looking for him here. He could follow his tracks back the way he came. Perhaps there was some kind of dimensional door? He might be able to find his way back home to the familiar, comfortable world he was used to. He reflexively took a step in that direction, seeking to return to the world he knew, but stopped after a pace and a half.

Hmmm. Actually, on second thought, returning didn’t seem as appealing as it should. Here he was, in a completely foreign place, with all kinds of mind-boggling things to see. Should he go home, to the daily grind of a job he didn’t want, his bills, to the mess awaiting him when he tried to explain where the car was? Other than his folks, who was there to return to? His friends didn’t seem to appreciate his friendship. And his girlfriend had just left him.

That entire scenario, his whole life right now, felt ugly and stressful and hopeless. Standing there, looking out over the field, he realized, he really didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want that life. Here, he felt free of all that.

A whole new world promised a whole new adventure. And he loved adventure; was desperate for it! Despite so much unknown and potential danger, even the prospect of maybe never being able to go back once he turned his back on home, he was eager to stay here. He took a deep breath. A stab of guilt caught him. Was remaining here actually boldness on his part, or an attempt to escape from his problems rather than deal with them? Unable and unwilling to answer that guilt at the moment, he tried his best to push the feeling away and decided to feel more confident. He’d stay, and he’d tell himself that he was being adventurous, that this was a good thing.

“I guess that’s my decision then. Come on, strange new world, show me what you’ve got.” The first step was to survive here. He’d move on and try to learn more about his new environment. Hopefully he’d be able to find some friendly people. Failing that, at least some food and shelter. He didn’t relish the thought of filling up on blue berries and sleeping in his car in the blue grass field all night. He might wake up at two a.m. feeling suicidal. He shuddered.

Arwin picked a direction at random and set off. Having always enjoyed forests, he entered a thicket of tall blue spruce to the north. The trees had blue-tinged bark and the needles were a dark pastel blue, similar to blue spruce trees back on Earth. Soft ground strewn with dead brown needles sank gently underfoot with each step. The clean smell of evergreens permeated the air. Yet, despite the bright sunshine overhead, a softly melancholy atmosphere pervaded the woods, inherent in the blue nature of the trees. Gazing around, the forest floor seemed oddly tidy, as if – ah. He got it. Blue spruce – spruced up. To spruce up meant to make neat or trim, to take particular care in external appearance. Part of the magic of the trees evidently included keeping their immediate environs clean. Perhaps themselves too as each tree was a model of its kind with no sap dripping from wounds or bug infestations to be seen, even the branches seemed to have taken special care in where they’d sprout so as to grow in orderly fashion. It was impressive.

The blue spruce eventually mingled with other, non-blue trees and the melancholy of the area faded. Arwin soon came across two lovely girls in Victorian style dresses. They sat together on a log bench in a small clearing. He paused at the edge of the clearing in surprise. The skin of both girls was light blue!

One of the girls looked up and gave him a sad smile. “Oh, hello.”

The other made a sad wave. “Hi.”

Arwin approached, the excitement of encountering literally blue ladies putting a slight Captain Kirk-ish spring in his step. Both girls had the most stunning blue eyes. The orbs sparkled like sapphires. Dark lips might have been tinted with lipstick back home to get this colour, but here they appeared to be naturally deep, blue of night sky just before the last traces of sun disappear. In all other respects the girls seemed perfectly human, and very nice examples of their gender. In fact, being blue was a refreshing, and kind of hot change. “Hello.” Arwin replied, grinning. Yep, he definitely felt like Kirk.

“You must be a traveller.” stated the first girl.

“I am.” Arwin affirmed. “How did you know?”

“You’re not blue.” replied the second. “This is the Blue Region. All of the human folk here are blue by nature.

“You mean they’re sad?” Arwin asked.

“Perhaps a little more prone to being down than some,” nodded the first, “though not terribly so. I meant their skin colour.”

“I see.” he nodded politely. “Yes, I’m a traveller, I suppose, though not voluntarily. My name is Arwin.”

The first girl rose and met his gaze with bright, round eyes. Light blue curls fell in ringlets about her delectable bare shoulders. Her dress was lapis blue and festooned with sky blue ribbons. “I am Bleu, the first belle of the Blue Region.” She offered her hand and, when he took it, curtsied daintily.

The second girl rose and looked at him with fine, slightly mysterious eyes. Her hair fell straight to her waist, such a dark blue that it was nearly black. Her corseted dress was two-toned, cerulean and cobalt, and hugged a refined figure. “I am Aoi, the second belle of the Blue Region.” She, too, curtsied, though in a more sultry manner.

“Blue belles.” Arwin noted. “A pun.”

“We are.” Aoi confirmed.

“The two most beautiful girls in Blue.” Bleu twirled, the hem of her dress riding up high enough to show two perfect feet in blue high heels.

Arwin wasn’t sure how practical high heels were in the forest, but they sure made her feet look cute. He opened his mouth to ask one of the one hundred and two point six three seven million questions on his mind, but a nearby tinkling of bells interrupted him.

At once, both girls began to weep.

“What’s wrong?” Arwin asked, naturally concerned for the welfare of beautiful women.

“It’s the sound of bluebells.” Aoi answered.

“They are the most beautiful of flowers.” Bleu continued.

“But, why would that make you cry?” Arwin asked.

“Because the sound so touches our hearts.” answered Bleu.

“And because they are forever beyond our reach.” Aoi said with sad frustration.

“Beyond your reach? Can’t you just go over there and see them?” Arwin looked towards the source of the sound but thick forest and a rising hill prevented seeing the flowers themselves.

“We can’t.” Aoi looked hopeless. “They grow only in the garden of one of the local blue bloods. And he guards them zealously, knowing their beauty and value.”

Arwin raised an eyebrow. “Blue blood? You mean, aristocracy?”

Bleu nodded. “Yes. One of the evil nobles of the Blue Region. They are wealthy men who abuse their power and seek to keep treasures like this to themselves. They’re the worst villains in the land. Except for the Dark Enchantress maybe, but she lives outside the Blue Region.”

“Dark Enchantress?” Arwin asked.

“Wickedest witch in western Heartstone.” Bleu answered. “Maybe all of Heartstone. They say her heart is as black as the evil creatures whose company she keeps.”

“She’s bad, but a recluse, rarely venturing in our lands, whereas the nobles here oppress us every day.” Aoi scowled prettily. “They’re tyrants. They keep everyone in the Blue Village peasants while forcing our brothers and fathers to build them fancy mansions. We barely scrape by while blue bloods live like kings.”

“And force any Blue woman they choose to marry them.” Bleu said with a sour face.

Arwin’s brows rose. “Ah, then you two…”

Aoi nodded, anger giving way to bluer feelings once again. “Yes. We are both to be wed soon. Although it’s entirely against our wills.”

“To blue bloods on the other side of the village.” Bleu added. “But bluebells only grow in the garden of Azamont, just there.” She pointed towards the thick part of the forest. The breeze picked up and a wave of tinkling bells carried to them. It really was a very pretty sound.

Arwin disliked seeing any lovely maiden, er, girl, in distress. The sight immediately compelled him to act. He began to speak when Kelli’s image popped into his head. Suddenly he felt very blue again himself. Betrayal. Love a lie. Pain. Kelli, a woman, had decimated his heart. Why should he now leap to the aid of yet more lying, cheating females?

He shook his head, trying to clear it of harsh, negative emotions. He wasn’t sure how much was his own natural heartache and how much was from the melancholy forest around him. Either way, the aggressive, insidious nature of it offended him. He refused to give into his sadness; refused to let it become bitterness. The way Kelli had treated him, she didn’t deserve his unhappiness. So screw her, and screw these blue feelings. He’d show her! He puffed up his chest and inhaled a breath of daring. “Belles, it truly makes me blue to see such lovely ladies down.” he told them. “I shall fetch these bluebells for you.”

Both ladies beamed up at him. “You will?” Aoi asked.

“But what of Azamont?” Bleu asked. “They are his.”

“No man can own flowers. They are things of nature and beauty and therefore belong to everyone. I shall liberate them from his garden prison.” Arwin wasn’t sure where this dashing dialogue was coming from but he felt energized at the prospect of tackling this problem. Perhaps he hated the idea of wallowing in his misery and sought to strike back at the world somehow. Perhaps his misery was simply making him reckless. Maybe it was because these girls were so attractive. (The cleavage Bleu sported – wow!) Either way, he was going to do this.

“Oh, thank you!” Bleu cried. “You’re so brave. We shall have to reward you for such gallantry.”

“With a kiss.” Aoi added with a smoky blue gaze that ignited Arwin’s imagination.

“Or three.” Bleu gave him a look that cubed Arwin’s courage.

Arwin headed off in the direction of the ringing bells feeling like he could take on the world. He’d been impressively motivated. He slid between dense thickets of trees and climbed a short rise. He soon found himself before a tall brick wall just slightly higher than he could reach. Huge flowers the size of a dinner plate, each with four petals, grew directly out of the wall itself. That puzzled Arwin for a moment, but he soon got it. “Wallflowers.” he chuckled. He stepped back, tensed his body, and then stepped forward, launching himself up towards the lip of the wall.

“Hey! Watcha doin’ there, sonny?” a voice shouted.

Arwin slipped from the top of the wall and landed hard on his bottom. He scrambled up and spun about, looking for the source of the voice.

“Don’t turn yer back on me when I’m talking t’ you!”

Arwin jumped in surprise, then turned about. He scanned the top of the wall but saw no figure there. Who was talking?

“Eyes front, young man. You daft or somethin’?”

Arwin lowered his gaze. Then he dropped his jaw. Eyes and a mouth had appeared in the face of one of the wallflowers. That’s who was speaking! “Um-um…”

“Yes, Erysimum.” the flower spat. “Erysimum Wittmanii. That’s my technical name.” The eyes narrowed. “You know somethin’ about gardening?”

Arwin put on a confident air. “Yes. Actually, I’m Azimunk’s new gardener.”

“You mean Azamont?”

“That’s what I said.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Speech impedimonk.”

“Impediment?”

“Exactly.” Arwin nodded.

“Ah.” The wallflower nodded sympathetically. “Sorry to hear that.”

“Thanks.”

The flower’s eyes became suspicious once again. “Well, if yer Azamont’s new gardener, why you climbin’ over this wall?”

“Shortcut.”

“Shortcut?”

“Faster than going all the way around, isn’t it?”

The wallflower tried to give that some thought, but flowers weren’t especially intelligent. It nodded. “Can’t argue with that. Very well. Carry on then.”

“Thank you.” Arwin leaped up and caught the edge of the wall. Gracefully, he pulled himself up and peered over the top.

A display of botanical wonder lay before him. Flowers of every shape and size could be seen, from pinhead dots of red on carpeting moss to giant blossoms the height of a man. Beyond the garden stood an orderly row of trees and a three story mansion rose beyond those, the elderly-looking building formed of heavy stone and stout wood beams.

The breeze carried a host of enchanting perfumes. It also carried the sound of bells. Arwin saw no-one else in the garden just then; the cobblestone paths were empty. He heaved himself over the wall and dropped down the other side.

Following the tinkling sound, he cautiously wormed his way through exotic foliage. He passed a trellis of grapes. On the ground rested a bucket full of picked grapes marked FOR WINE. Next to it stood a rack on which lesser fruit dried into raisins in the sun.

“Aw. I guess I’ll never achieve grapeness.” one of the sad raisins wined as Arwin passed.

Arwin followed the edge of what appeared to be a crop of riding whips (they were made of braided leather and everything!). Then he ducked under a palm tree. He had to move fast because the hand-shaped leaves tried to grope him. He came upon a stream babbling through smooth, water-worn rocks. Not wanting to get wet, he climbed a tree on the bank, went out on a limb and then branched out until he was able to drop down onto the other bank.

He found himself in a vegetable patch. Weeds smoldered between neat rows of planted foliage. He thought he recognized the leaves of the latter as potato plants. Taking a step, his toe nudged a mound of dirt, dislodging it.

A potato looked up with red, blurry eyes from where it had been unearthed. “Hey, dude. Like, watch where you’re going, man.”

“Uh, sorry.” Arwin apologized. Evidently this was a baked potato. Ah, from smoking weed. He hurried along, getting away from the smoke. He wasn’t into that sort of thing himself.

He walked by a fenced off square with a quaint stone well. A dying tree drooped over both the well and colourful flowers within the fenced off section. A brown leaf, long dead, broke from the branch of the dying tree and gently fluttered down. The leaf landed on a bed of white carnations.

Arwin leaped back in surprise as the leaf transformed into a honeybee. It hovered in the air a moment as if confused, then shrugged and began tending to the flowers. When the bee touched the blossoms, nothing happened to it; there was no further change. Arwin realized it was because the bee was alive and the leaf hadn’t been. Those were no ordinary carnations. They were reincarnations! Arwin’s mind spun. Was there no end to the wonders of this place? Without a doubt, he must be in some kind of magical world now.

He continued. All of his attention quickly diverted to rows of completely nude women growing from the ground. Their shapely flesh turned to green where their legs entered the soil. The women bore bright red hair that curled in gentle points about their bodies, falling all the way to their wide hips. Each had golden eyes and golden lips that sweetly smiled. The women beckoned Arwin to their soft embrace. Arwin tore his eyes off the plant-women long enough to read a small black sign at their feet, er, roots?

 

AMARYLLIS

(aka. Belladonna, Naked Ladies)

 

Wow. If he never found his way home to Earth and had to stay here, he was going to plant a whole field of these things and never leave it.

Reluctantly, he redirected his mind back to his quest and slowly continued down the stone path. Still looking back over his shoulder at the Ladies, he failed to notice the patch of flowers growing on the edge of the path and bumped some.

“Hey, clumsy! Begone, yuh!”

“Yeah, go away. Begone, yuh!”

“Begone, yuh!”

Arwin danced away from the pesky little flowers barking at him. Be-gone-yuhs.

He ducked out of the reach of snapdragons who blew fire at him. Feeling hungry, he sampled fresh buttercups, spreading the butter over cornbread growing hot and warm on tall stalks. He washed the snack down with edelweiss beer drunk from tall, white, unopened edelweiss flower pods. The dirt below the open ones was wet and the whole edelweiss patch smelled of hops and barley. Satiated, he moved on, admiring birds of paradise blooming high above him, careful not to come within reach of their long, sharp beaks.

Little blue flowers tugged at his jeans as he passed and begged him to “Forget me not!” He guessed their name readily enough.

A beautiful red fox slunk through a hole under the base of the outer wall. It paused for a moment to regard Arwin, but apparently found him no threat. Then it proceeded to place its paws into two flowers, fixing them on like purple mittens. Foxgloves. Nodding with satisfaction at its new gloves, the fox trotted back through the hole into the forest.

Arwin wondered what a fox needed gloves for. Perhaps it was just a very fashionable fox.

Gladiolus blooms filled Arwin with a wave of gladness. It was very refreshing after the melancholy of the blue forest. He admired a patch of beautiful lady slippers. They grew next to a bench where one could sit and try them on for size, for they were, of course, real footwear, from pumps to heels to slippers.

At last he came to the bluebells. Their stems emerged from clumps of broad leaves and stood about half a meter tall. All up the stem dangled delicate blue bells, their petals metallic-looking, like they were shiny little Christmas decorations.

He bent to pick a couple and then stopped. He could pick the flowers and carry them back to the belles, but that would really only be a temporary gift, wouldn’t it? The larger problem, that of this Azamont guy having the only bluebells in the area, remained. What Arwin really needed to do was dig up some of these plants and carry them back over the wall where they could be replanted and left to spread naturally.

He rubbed his hands eagerly at the idea and cast about for tools. Soon he armed himself with a trowel and a burlap sack from a nearly dilapidated old garden shack. He went to work. In the span of fifteen minutes he’d dug up a dozen full plants. All were superb specimens. He picked the first one up to put it in the bag. The bells jangled harshly, completely breaking their natural rhythm. He looked towards the mansion with concern. If he handled the delicate flowers roughly, the ensuing cacophony would surely raise someone’s unpleasant attention.

He waited, but no-one had noticed his first blunder. He moved the plant very slowly and gently as he placed it within the burlap sack, roots and all, laying it down so that the bells stayed silent. Very carefully, he did the same with each of the other plants. He tied the sack shut with a length of twine and slung the bag over his shoulder.

“You there! What are you doing?”

Arwin whirled. An arrogant looking man stood at the garden door to the mansion. He was tall and reedy and immaculately dressed. Like the belles, his clothes were in the Victorian style. Two gentlemen behind him were dressed the same. One actually had a top hat and monocle.

“Why, you’re not one of my gardeners.” the lead man exclaimed. “Who are you to dare pilfer from my garden, thief?”

That must be Azamont. Arwin flipped him the bird, not caring if the hand gesture was known here, spun and sprinted away. He ignored the angry shouts behind him and careened back through the exotic plants towards the point where he’d entered the garden. The naked ladies he only spared the briefest glance or seven. This time he leaped the stream at full speed, just clearing it. Then he was at the wall.

It was just like the event he had been practicing for with Eddie back on Earth, Storm the Wall. Only this wall was a little shorter. He timed his jump perfectly and leaped. One foot landed between two wallflowers who cringed and tried to lean out of the way. Despite the vertical grip, Arwin pushed off the wall and was able to propel himself further upwards. His hand grabbed the top of the wall. Pulling quickly while he still had forward momentum, Arwin managed to get his other foot cleanly on top of the wall. He looked back over his shoulder.

The three men skidded to an astonished halt at the sight of Arwin’s athletic prowess. Azamont turned and pushed the other two men back towards the mansion. “To the horses!” he cried. “We’ll ride the bugger down!”

Arwin turned and lowered himself from the wall on the forest side with one hand, then dropped to the ground.

The wallflower he’d spoken to earlier heard a tinkle coming from Arwin’s sack as the young man landed. “Are those bluebells in there?” it asked archly. “Watchya doin’ with ‘em?”

“Just taking them for a walk.” Arwin answered innocently. “Show them around the forest. Trying to cheer them up so they aren’t so blue anymore.”

“Hmm. Oh. Ok.” The wallflower nodded. “Carry on then.”

Arwin grinned and hurried through the forest. In moments he arrived in the little clearing.

Bleu and Aoi jumped to their feet at his approach.

“Arwin!” Bleu cried.

“Be not blue, blue belles for I have your bluebells.” Arwin opened the bag and revealed the contents.

“You’ve brought the entire plants!” Aoi gushed in surprise. “You brilliant man! Now we can plant these anywhere.”

“And enjoy them anytime.” Arwin agreed.

“You have more than earned your reward,” Aoi breathed happily, dragging him towards the bench and pressing her plush blue lips on his.

“And three times that reward from me!” Bleu cried, tugging Arwin away from her friend. She gave him a kiss with three times as much passion as Aoi had given.

Not to be outdone, Aoi pulled him back to her and kissed him even more passionately than before.

Arwin’s head spun and he found all kinds of splendidly soft womanly parts pressing onto him from both sides. He completely forgot all about the pursuit until a shout jarred the two girls from their lusty endeavors.

“You there! Thief! Stop and prepare to die!” Azamont shouted from afar.

Arwin took a moment to refocus because little blue hearts danced in his vision. He blinked, thinking them part of his imagination, but no, they were real! They popped like bubbles and vanished. Then he saw the blue blood, Azamont, bearing down on the clearing. His fellows rode steeds hard on the man’s heels.

“Why, those are our betrothed!” exclaimed one.

“Fiend! Death to the fool who dares touch our women!” bawled the one with the monocle.

“Death because I stole some flowers and kissed a couple of girls?” Arwin asked rhetorically. “Are you nuts?” He jumped to his feet.

Aoi and Bleu followed suit, panic in their eyes.

“You must flee!” Aoi pleaded.

“Run!” Bleu begged at the same time.

Arwin snatched the sack of flowers from the ground. “I’ll hide them in the forest. Find them and hide them before the nobles come for you. Or they will take them back.” He could not deny the girls each one last kiss, despite the seconds it cost him. Then he shouldered the bag and dashed off into the forest.

He ran as fast as he could, vaulting roots and gullies, swerving between trunks, trying to find the most difficult terrain for the horses following. Even as he sailed through the air over one particularly deep hole, not far from the clearing, he dropped the sack inside. Free of his burden, he picked up speed.

A thunderous crack sounded from the sky above. Arwin looked up into the pale, clear blue sky. Something tumbled towards him. It grew larger as it fell. At the last moment, he threw himself to the side. Looking at the ground next to him, he found a bolt of cloth. “Huh?” A bolt of cloth?

Another thunderous crack resounded through the forest. Arwin looked back and saw the nobles gesturing towards the sky. He looked up and more specks appeared out of the blue. They fell towards him.

He threw his arms over his head for protection and continued to run as bolts of cloth, all kinds of steel bolts, and even bolts of lightning slammed down into the forest floor around him. Bolts from the blue! The way the men had cast their hands towards the sky, Arwin was sure they were some kind of magic users. He was being attacked by spells!

Steel bolts ricocheted off Arwin’s shoulders and back. A bolt of cloth caught the side of his head, stunning him. A bolt of lightning just missed him, splitting a nearby blue spruce instead. The tree moaned with despair as it fell in two pieces, one of which caught the dazed thief and trapped him to the ground.

Arwin clutched his aching head and looked up at the three horsemen reigning in above him.

“Let’s gut him!” the monocled man enthused with vicious glee.

“No. I shall grind him into paste and turn him into fertilizer for my flowers.” growled Azamont.

“Gentlemen,” the third man said more calmly. “Waste not, want not, wot wot? He’s a fine, strapping lad. Look at the muscle on him. Why kill him when we can put him to work?”

Monocle nodded. “Ah, make a blue collar worker out of him. I like it. Though it means the chase does lack a bloody ending.”

Azamont snarled with resignation, evidently seeing the other man’s good sense. “Very well. Always the voice of reason, Tremblee. I suppose we should be grateful.”

Tremblee reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a blue ring. He dismounted and snicked it closed around Arwin’s neck. It was a collar, much like a dog might wear. A blue one.

Arwin heard the lock click shut and an immediate change came over him. Now, he wasn’t just melancholy, he felt down right beaten. He felt lower class. He felt hopeless. When they hauled him to his feet, his shoulders sagged and his back stooped. His only method of walking seemed to be the trudge, the slow, weary, depressing walk of a man who has nothing left in life and whom moves only at the behest of his betters. He’d been transformed into a blue collar worker, and their slave.

They herded him through the evergreen (everblue-and-green?) forest until they came to a large clearing. Other men in blue collars chopped down pines and spruce and hammered rocks to smithereens. Men in suits with white collars stood above the blue collared workers armed with whips and lethal-looking calculators.

Azamont kicked Arwin in the back, propelling him to his knees before a white collared manager. “Put him in the blue man group. Work his fingers to the bone. Make him bleed.”

The white collar manager fawned up at the noble on horseback, his posture self-deprecating. “Yes, sire. Of course, sire.” But as soon as the nobles had their backs turned, the demeanor of the white collar man changed. He became domineering and pushed a very sharp pencil at Arwin’s chest, drawing blood.

Arwin winced. But he made no move to defy the pencil pusher. For some strange reason, his will to fight had been sapped. What would be the point? This man was a manager. Therefore, he was Arwin’s better, wasn’t he? If Arwin fought back, he was sure to lose.

The manager thrust a business card in Arwin’s face. “See that, maggot? I’ve got a title. Says Vice President. Can you read that? You know what that title means, you pathetic worm? It means I’m better than you. It means I’m more successful than you. It means you’re just a lowly, pathetic, no-good, nobody. And you’ll always be a no-good nobody.” He pushed the pencil into Arwin’s chest again.

Arwin gasped. That had really hurt.

“Get your ass up. I said up!” The whip cracked, eliciting a sharp sting from Arwin’s leg and drawing a fleck of blood.

Arwin rose. What else could he do? This was his lot in life, wasn’t it? It’s not like he could ever hope for anything better. This is where he deserved to be. It was just the way he was born. He’d been made inferior. He was stupid. Lazy. Incompetent. Incapable of anything in life. He could never become one of the white collars. And he could certainly never become one of the blue bloods. He was just a simple worker. It was his function to be used, a tool for others. Disposable, if necessary.

The manager cracked the whip again. “Get your sorry blue collar ass over there and start breaking rocks, maggot.”

Arwin complied. He found a sledgehammer and started into a small boulder. For hours he complied. The hammer went up, he brought it down. Stone chips flew. He repeated the process. It was backbreaking labour. Though he was no stranger to such work, his hands eventually grew red and blistered at the unending rhythm. Each swing drew power from pained muscles. Sweat poured off his body, soaking his clothes. He was soon as filthy as all the other blue collar workers.

As they worked, an obese blue man, totally nude, periodically streaked the blue collar workers. He’d run up to one, turn around, bend over, and moon a poor worker. The sheer size of the nude man’s buttocks made for quite a full moon.

The white collar workers, probably because they were never targeted, did nothing but laugh and encourage the uncouth behaviour.

“Here’s your free astronomy lesson for the day, boys.” a white collar worker howled.

“Any of you want to have at it with your telescope, you just let us know.” roared another.

When the mooning happened to Arwin, he found himself much closer to the moon’s crater than he wanted to be and threw up his arm to shield his face. He fervently hoped nothing would emerge from that crater. Luckily, the moon remained quiescent.

A whistle sounded. A white collar worker came over to Arwin. “Eat. You’ll need the energy for your next shift.”

Arwin dumbly nodded and shuffled off towards a rude wooden canopy that the other blue collar workers were gathering under. On the way, he watched as the white collar workers met in a picturesque white gazebo. They downed ice cold lemonade and picked from a buffet of succulent delights. There was so much glorious food laden on their tables that it would have fed all the whites and blues together twice over and still remained only half touched. The whites, not working up much of an appetite as overseers, barely picked at the mountain of goodness. Most of the food would be wasted.

The blue collar fare was much less appetizing. It consisted of gruel, one ladle per bowl. No seconds. Arwin took his and planted himself in the dirt next to his comrades.

As he ate, something nagged the back of Arwin’s mind. Something was wrong. Something about his situation. But what? Was it his nutrition-less food? His downtrodden lot in life? He felt a flare of anxiety when such rebellious thoughts dared invade his mind. Instinctively, he tried to bury them. But they would not be denied. Something in his subconscious refused to be kept down. Near panic, he could only watch as the rebellious emotion inevitably welled up and burst from within, swamping his mind with illicit ideas.

Arwin’s eyes widened. He remembered. He remembered who he was and why he was here. This was no natural place for him. It was a prison enforced on him by the white collars and the elites. He had to break free.

He wanted to rise, but still found it difficult to control his body. His movements were sluggish, resisting any attempt at independent action or freedom. He reached up for the collar and experienced a nasty shock as he tried to unlock it.

“Careful, son.” the man next to him replied. “That’s not wise.”

Arwin looked over at the speaker. Like everyone else he’d seen so far, the man had blue skin. Arwin flexed his fingers, trying to make the pain go away. “How do I get it off?” he asked.

The man looked at him with a puzzled expression.

“Off?” asked another.

“What do you mean, off?” asked a third.

“I mean off.” Arwin replied. “I want to remove the collar. How?”

A man shook his head. “Oh, we don’t take them off. Never. We’re blue collars. Taking them off would be trying to step above our lot in life. That’s not right.” He shuddered, as if just thinking about the idea scared him. The others nodded in agreement. They each slid a handspan further away from Arwin, putting distance between them and the fool talking about removing collars, as if that added distance provided more safety by disassociation.

Arwin shook his head. “This isn’t your lot in life. It’s no-one’s. Unless you choose it for yourself. No one is born into this.”

The blue collar workers all slid just a little further away. They all refused to meet Arwin’s eyes.

The one beside Arwin shook his head, very serious. “It is our lot. I can feel it in my bones.”

“Besides, they remind us every day.” a man noted, gesturing at the white collars. “They’re our betters, so they would know.”

Arwin grew angry and the emotion helped fight the magic controlling him. “This is not your lot in life. You feel like this because they’re forcing you to. They’re manipulating you into believing it. It’s a lie.”

“It is?” a man asked. Despite their illicit nature, Arwin’s words were reaching some men. They were listening, even though most pretended not to.

“Yes. All lies.” Arwin affirmed. “Everything they tell you is. They’re no different than you are. No better. They only make you believe it so that you stay beaten down, slaving away for them, making their lives better while you take less in return for your labour.”

“But, that’s not fair.” a man said, scratching his head in thought.

“No, it’s not.” Arwin agreed. “They’re Cheaters.”

“Cheaters?” the man beside Arwin asked.

“People who steal from others or trick others into giving up their fair share for less in return. The white collars are Cheaters. And the nobles are worse.”

A slowly growing anger rose within the blue collared workers around Arwin. Faces once dull and haggard twisted with emotion for the first time in a long time. Some murmured to themselves, giving voice to dangerous thoughts.

Arwin pressed his case. “They’re just using us. They don’t care about us; they don’t treat us fairly. Look at us. We work all day, breaking our backs for them. We eat this garbage,” he lifted his empty bowl up, “while they feast on all that.” He pointed at the gazebo. “Why? Why do we get gruel for our hard labour and they get to feast when all they do is watch us work and tell us what to do?”

The men all looked over at the gazebo. Faces connected to ravenously hungry stomachs grew angrier at the sight of the white collars stuffing their faces and reaching for more, or worse, taking one bite of something and then carelessly tossing the rest away. Blue collar stomachs rumbled.

Arwin pointed at his collar. “How do we get them off?”

Some of the men looked uncertain at the idea of actually doing something to change their state. Others were bolder. Some were dismissive.

One of the men jeered. “Maybe you should ask for magic help. The Dark Enchantress lives just over yonder in the swamps. Ask her to take it off for you.”

The others laughed.

“Would she help?” Arwin asked.

More laughter. One man answered. “Some say she’s a crazy old crone whose power is as great as she is ugly. Others say she’s a violent young witch, whose power is as great as her breathtaking beauty. The one thing everyone agrees on: she’s evil, through and through.”

A blue collar man leaned forward, a furtive look on his face. “I heard that she’s a cannibal. Whoever is foolish enough to venture into her territory, she snatches and carries off to her dinner table. Then she proceeds to eat them. Raw. They say she loves the taste of raw flesh and blood.”

“Probably eat you as soon as look at you.” a man said, glancing over his shoulder with a fearful look on his face, as if he expected talking about the Enchantress might summon her. “The only person she’d ever help is herself.”

Heads nodded in agreement. The mood of the circle grew more serious, fearful. Another man, older, spoke. “It’s babies she likes best. She spirits her way into houses in the light of full moons. She steals our children and grandchildren while they’re still in diapers. It’s their new, tender flesh she’s after. Because it’s the most succulent.”

“No, it’s their youth she wants! She eats them to stay young. She uses them in elaborate magical rituals and their youth allows her to live forever.”

“And she always leaves a substitute in their place. Fills the cradles with goblins and vermin and the like.”

“She rides a broomstick, has wild hair as coarse as metal wires and her eyes are as red as blood. She’s the most hideous creature in existence!”

“She’s a witch!”

“A demon!”

The fear in the men was contagious. Arwin felt it affecting himself and he’d never even met the Dark Enchantress. “So, what you’re saying is, she wouldn’t help.”

A man sharply nodded. “Exactly.”

“Well, then the Enchantress isn’t a very helpful suggestion.” Arwin noted, trying to remain calm. These men had to be led by the hand to their own freedom; they weren’t being tremendously helpful so far. “Anyone have a better idea?”

The man next to Arwin hesitated, then spoke. “The collars work on blue tooth technology.”

“Bluetooth?” Arwin frowned. “Wireless tech? Here?”

The man shook his head. “No. Blue tooth. Teeth. Like mine.” He opened his jaws and pointed inside his mouth. His teeth were very light blue. Then he pointed to a hole in the front of his collar. “You need to insert a tooth, here. Then it can open.”

Arwin felt a little sick. “So we have to knock someone’s teeth out to escape?”

A blue collar worker chuckled. “Good luck. Blue people’s teeth have really deep roots. Trying to remove a healthy one would probably just break it. Then the tooth wouldn’t work.”

Arwin frowned. “Hmm. I wish there was some other way to open these things. I don’t really want to start pulling your teeth.”

“If only there was a key we could use.” one man thought aloud.

A bulb flashed over Arwin’s head, startling him. But it was gone so fast he almost doubted it had actually been there in the first place. “Say, how about a dental key? If it’s for blue teeth, would that work?”

The man beside Arwin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, maybe. But what’s a dental key?”

“I heard of them.” an old timer put in. “Not used any more. Hard to find. Heard they’re only found once in a blue moon.”

Everyone looked disappointed at that.

“Oh no.” Arwin groaned.

“What’s wrong?” the man beside him asked.

“This world is literal, right? I’ll bet we have to find an actual blue moon.”

Half the group instinctively glanced upwards.

“But it’s daytime.” said the old timer. “And our moons are white and red. Blue moons are rare. They only happen after a forest fire or volcano. Due to dust particles in the air. Then the white moon appears blue temporarily. Besides, how could we possible reach the moon itself?”

But Arwin wasn’t talking about that moon. “Guys, we’ve been staring a literal blue moon in the face all day long.”

The old timer frowned, then burst out laughing. A moment later the others got it too.

“The naked fat guy!”

“The one mooning us!”

Arwin nodded. “We’ve got to capture him and get a key from him.” He thought quickly. “We need a distraction. Something to keep the white collars off our backs long enough to tackle the fat man.”

“Why don’t we start a fire?” a very stupid man suggested.

Arwin kept his voice patient, like speaking to a baby. “Um, why don’t we think of something that won’t rapidly get out of control and burn up the forest we’re completely surrounded by, putting us all in mortal danger?”

“Oh.” the dullard nodded. “That’s smart. So, what should we do about the one I already started?”

“The one you-?” Arwin jumped to his feet.

The dullard pointed behind himself. A small blue fire burned in the grass and weeds just outside the dirt floor they all sat on.

“Put it out! Put it out!” the man beside Arwin shouted, taking leadership.

Frantically, the men rose and sought to put the fire out. They beat at it with clothes, tossed the meagre remains of their gruel at it, but nothing helped. The grass was dry and fire rapidly spread. Soon the white collars caught wind of the smoke and shouting and they too went into panic mode.

Arwin caught the old timer’s arm. “Now’s our chance. Keep the white collars occupied. I’ll find the blue mooner.”

The old timer nodded and set off shouting, calling the white collars towards the fire.

Arwin found the man who had been sitting next to him earlier. He pulled him aside. “Grab a couple of men. Let’s get the mooner and find that key!”

The man nodded. He turned and pulled two big, athletic men away from fire fighting. Together, the four raced to the edge of the forest, seeking the point where the mooner had last been seen.

They found the nude man curled up taking a nap. They surrounded him and moved in.

A twig underfoot snapped and the mooner woke. Realizing his predicament, he put up a fierce fight. It took all four of the men to subdue him. They pushed him to the ground and sat on him.

“What now?” one of the blue collars asked.

Arwin spoke to the mooner. “We need a dental key. Do you have one?”

The obese man replied with a fierce snarl, showing a mouth full of rotten teeth. A cloud of revoltingly bad breath struck Arwin full in the face, making him reel backwards and gag.

“He’s not being very helpful.” the blue collar leader remarked.

They tried repeatedly, but the fat man refused to cooperate, saying nothing.

Arwin glared at him. Then he had an idea. A very gross one. “Once in a blue moon.” he muttered.

“Yeah? Ok. So we got him.”

“No. Once in a blue moon.” Arwin said, emphasizing the word in.

They all looked down at the obese man’s bare buttocks. They had the texture of lumpy cottage cheese.

“So who wants to do the honors?” Arwin asked.

They all looked at him.

“It was your idea.” the blue collar leader said.

Arwin felt sick. “Dammit.” But what needed to be done must be done. This was one of those times when he had to do something even though he really, really didn’t want to do it.

They maneuvered so that Arwin sat atop the fat man’s legs and behind two mountainous buttocks. They were so vast it seemed impossible that anyone’s backside could be this large. The mooner’s crater faced Arwin squarely, er, roundly. It was filthy. Perhaps the man lived in the woods and had neither paper nor soft furry creatures on hand to clean up after himself. Nor did he bathe often. Arwin hesitantly inserted a finger, fervently wishing there was any other way to go about this. This was pretty much the last thing he wanted to do with this fat man. The finger pressed into the dark starfish of flesh. He couldn’t get far. “He’s clenching.” Arwin complained.

A blue collar man near the mooner’s head clubbed him twice with a ham fist. The mooner went limp.

“Thanks.” Arwin reluctantly inserted a second finger and loosened the opening. Then a third. A whiff of gas escape. Arwin felt the contents of his stomach momentarily leap up into his mouth.

“Oh, gross!” the blue collar leader gagged. “Now that’s foul!”

The others agreed. But Arwin had no choice but to continue. “Oh no.” he muttered. He could feel pressure building up around his arm. He panicked, instinctively withdrawing. It was the wrong thing to do. More gas erupted from the nether tube as he forced his way inside. This time, little flecks of wet brown substance came with it. His stomach flipped. “No no no no!” He tried to deny what was happening, but he’d evidently hit a pocket of something nasty.

The others doubled over in laughter, pinching their noses shut but finding Arwin’s plight hilarious.

The eruption of gas passed. Arwin pressed on. But progress was slow. “I need something to lubricate the hole.” he said.

One of the men spotted an olive tree. He raced over, harvested a bunch, then brought them over. Together, two of the men crushed olive oil into the mooner’s crater.

“Hurry!” a blue collar man urged. “They’ll notice us missing any moment and come for us.”

Arwin pushed as hard as he could, but it was tough work loosening the tight o-ring. Eventually he got his entire hand inside. He quested for the object they required. More gas escaped and his fingers came up against some soft, very unpleasant substances inside the man’s backside. Arwin couldn’t take it. He vomited.

The others barked with laughter.

“Hurry up.” the blue collar leader chuckled. “Stop playing.”

“I’m not playing!” Arwin said through gritted teeth. The vomit only made the smell three times worse. His stomach heaved again. Then, almost up to the elbow, he felt something that didn’t belong inside a human body. “Got it!” he announced. Withdrawing his arm, he held up a very disgusting object. It was an old-fashioned dental key. It looked a lot like a T-shaped corkscrew, the sharp end designed to curl snugly around a tooth so that it might be pulled. Arwin wondered how something so dangerous and sharp had remained harmless inside the moon man.

“Clean it off!” the blue leader urged. “And for goodness sake, don’t touch anything with that arm.”

Arwin found a streamlet curling around the roots of some nearby blue spruce. He washed his arm the best he could, pledging to himself that he’d cut his own limb off and burn it the moment he no longer needed it. He tried to squelch the thought of ever handling food again.

When Arwin returned, the fat man had regained consciousness. The others held him down. He growled at them all, but remained helpless.

Arwin tried not to allow his sense of smell to work as he sat down and tried to fit the dental key into the hole of his collar. “It doesn’t fit.” he realized with disappointment.

The others tried in turn, but the key didn’t work on theirs either.

“Now what?” scowled one of the blue collars. Frustrated, he slapped the obese man in the face.

The mooner bared his rotten teeth and tried to bite the hand that had slapped him.

“His teeth. Take his teeth!” the blue collar leader exclaimed.

After having been mooned so much, and undergoing such an arduous and smelly process to acquire the key, Arwin took a measure of perverse justice as he placed the filthy dental key inside the fat man’s even dirtier mouth. He gave a sharp twist and the mooner howled in pain. But a rotted blue tooth emerged. Arwin, despite always taking good care of his own teeth, mentally promised himself to brush and floss twice as much in the future to avoid a mouth so black and disgusting inside.

Arwin hurriedly fit the freed tooth into his collar’s hole. The lock clicked and the collar dropped off. Arwin grinned. He reached for the collar and tried to extract the tooth he’d used. “It won’t come out.” he said.

The mooner’s face clouded with fear.

Arwin shrugged sympathetically. “Sorry. Looks like we’re going to need more.” He didn’t want to cause any unnecessary pain, but there was no better option at the moment. The inside of the man’s mouth would probably terrify any modern dentist. No doubt each tooth was passing rotten garbage into the mooner’s gut, significantly contributing to heart disease and other problems. Not to mention they surely must hurt. Pulling the rotten teeth out would be doing the man a considerable favour, whether he appreciated it or not.

The mooner howled and whined, but there was nothing he could do. Arwin extracted all his rotten teeth. That left the mooner with about six good ones. And a very bloody orifice. They left him alone and he sat in the dirt, thoroughly wallowing in a blue funk for a minute or two. But then the mooner seemed to realize that a source of constant pain had been removed and he gladdened a bit before running off.

The other three blue collars quickly freed themselves. All felt immediately lighter in mood. Hope returned.

Arwin held the remaining teeth up. “Let’s free the others and then get out of here.”

The raced back to the work area. Even before arriving, smoke blurred their vision. They pulled up at the edge of the area in horror. The fire had grown exponentially. Bright blue flames now covered half the forest surrounding the work clearing. It was incredibly hot, worse than typical orange fire. Apparently blue fire burned with blue heat.

Arwin protected his face with one arm. Blue flame on wood burned at about fourteen hundred degrees celsius, if he remembered science class correctly. At that temperature, just about everything it touched would be destroyed. Even some metals would melt. He looked towards what workers remained in the area. Blue and whites huddled together in the gazebo. White collar workers used some kind of water magic to hold the fire off, but fought a losing battle.

“It’s too late.” a blue collar worker next to Arwin insisted.

“We have to help.” Arwin insisted back.

The leader put a hand on Arwin’s shoulder to restrain him. “The fire will get us.”

“Gotta try anyway.” Arwin sprinted towards them. He was fast. He braved the edge of the flames and soon reached the men in the gazebo. “Here!” he told them, thrusting the blue teeth their way.

Those men who weren’t in blind panic grabbed the teeth and freed themselves. As soon as the magic ceased compelling them to stay, they turned and ran, selfishly abandoning their fellows for the hoped-for safety of the forest.

Arwin tried to use the teeth on a white collar, but the white devices must have run on white tooth technology; blue teeth were ineffective. There was nothing he could do. “Get out of here!” he urged the white collar workers. “Why do you stay?”

“We have to!” one shouted back, flinging a water bomb at the fire. The bomb exploded, clearing a patch of flames for one brief moment. Then the flames swamped back over the spot. “It’s our job. We can’t abandon our posts.”

Arwin shook his head. Those darned nobles and their compulsion methods were about to condemn all these men to their deaths. He desperately tried to pull the collars off by hand, while simultaneously screaming at the remaining blue collar workers to use the blue teeth he’d brought them, but it was no use. The remaining blue collar workers were beyond rational thought. They huddled in fear, incapable of even saving themselves.

A hand grabbed Arwin from behind and hauled him backwards. It was the blue collar leader. “Let’s get out of here!” he screamed in Arwin’s ear, still barely heard over the roaring flames.

Arwin had no choice. He and the leader ran for the one side of the forest not yet burning. They caught up to the others, everyone in wild-eyed panic as they tried to escape.

But it was no use. The fire circled around through the forest, cutting off their route. The group came to a panting halt.

“What in the blue blazes?” one man asked, pointing ahead.

Arwin and the others looked.

From within the flames, and entirely unscathed by them, probably protected by magic, rose a monstrous computer monitor, the kind common in the nineteen eighties or nineties, big, heavy and ugly. It was the size of a small movie screen with a shell of hard, beige plastic. The screen was uniformly blue in colour.

“No… No…!” a man screamed in denial, backing away. Others followed suit.

“It’s the blue screen of death!” cried the blue leader.

Sure enough, the only thing written on the screen were the words Blue Screen of Death in white letters. Then those words faded away and were replaced with: ‘A problem has been detected. You must be shut down. The problem seems to be caused by the following:’ followed by an incomprehensible string of characters and words and computer gobble-de-gook. The screen advanced.

Men howled with fear and ran.

Arwin stood rooted, unable to believe what he was seeing. He watched the monitor float through the blue blaze towards the men. Blue death rays shot out from the screen. Each man screamed once when struck, then froze and toppled to the forest floor.

Arwin felt helpless. The fire surrounded him. The blue screen of death turned and oriented on him. But what could he do?

Blue death rays shot out from the monitor. Arwin dodged, using every ounce of his athletic ability to prevent the rays from touching him. Yet, what was the point? There was nowhere to run. He was trapped. Or was he?

Arwin took cover behind a spruce. Peering around the trunk, he studied the oncoming screen. It was huge. The glowing blue screen was just as hostile as the ones he remembered dealing with as a kid. He paused. The only course of action one could take with those old computers was to restart them. Could he do the same to this technological monster?

Arwin searched the edge of the machine. A death ray flashed and he threw himself to the ground to avoid it. There! On the bottom right of the screen, a button labeled RESTART. Arwin shot forward, feet plowing up dead needles and soft soil in his haste.

The blue screen of death, not expecting prey to come at it, overshot its mark.

Arwin dodged and feinted. Blue rays flashed, but each just missed. Ten meters. Five. A lesser athlete might have dived for the goal when he got close but Arwin knew a man was always faster when he stayed on his feet. He ran on.

A blue ray caught Arwin in the chest. He screamed, hand outstretched, and felt a sizzling heat shoot through his body. He was dying! But he’d stayed on his feet and his forward momentum kept him on course. His frozen hand hit the RESTART button. Arwin’s vision went black.

There was a period of nothingness. Then bright sunlight blinded Arwin. He bounced in his seat as the car sped along through the blue field. He crashed into a bluebeard tree. An irate blue gnome berated him.

He sat in the car seat for a few minutes, chest pained from where the seatbelt had cut into him. He panted. Slowly, he caught his breath and looked around.

Everything was just like it was when he first arrived in this world. He climbed out of the car. A bluestone gave a despondent cry, just like it had before. There was the sandalwood tree full of sandals. The field of blue grass made soulful music as wind went through it.

“I’ve restarted.” he said aloud. He looked down at himself. He was whole and hearty. The death ray’s effect had been cancelled out. He breathed a sigh of relief.

He realized that not just he, but probably everything and everyone had been reset too. There was no smoke over the forest, so the fire hadn’t happened. Probably all the blue collar workers were still alive and well. The white collars and the mooner too, for surely they had all perished in the blue blazes before the restart.

Arwin felt shaken and sat on the ground. The near brush with death had rocked him like none other before. He regarded the strange new world about him in a new light. This wasn’t just some fun fantasy world. It could be deadly.

He looked back in the direction the car had come from. Was there a portal back there somewhere? Maybe it was time to head home.

He looked up at the brilliant sky and contemplated the fluffy white clouds floating by. He smelled pine and looked over at the pine tree that had caused him to pine for the car earlier. He once again felt the melancholy of the area sinking into him. With a smile, he stood.

“Sure, it’s dangerous. Sure I don’t understand it.” he said to himself. “But it’s still a whole new world; a magical place. I wanted adventure. Well, now I have it.” He took a deep breath. “Puns galore, beautiful women, death defying action; this is no time to give up. I’m loving this!” he shouted.

Turning his back on his car, and perhaps the portal too, he once again faced the direction of the blue belles. Danger lay before him, but he had the luxury of knowing the future.

Arwin entered the blue forest. He met the belles and stole the bluebells on their behalf, but this time escaped detection. This time their rewards proceeded without interruption. Then, much later, he snuck deeper into the woods, knocked the mooner out and plumbed the moon’s depths. This time he wore a glove taken from the noble’s gardening shed. He extracted the man’s teeth, freed the blue collar workers, and inspired a small but peaceful revolt.

He explained what the collars did to the men. He explained how their lot in life was ultimately all the fault of the blue blood nobles and their greedy manipulation. Then he elicited their pledges to free the white collars the same way. The blue collars agreed and set to work, thanking Arwin for his help. Arwin returned to his car well satisfied. And without encountering the blue screen of death again.

Arwin leaned against his car for a well deserved breather. It didn’t last long. He was already eager to explore more of this wonderful fantasy world. His recent success had restored a lot of his confidence, doing wonders to distract him from his recent heartache. He yearned for more. So, this time, he went south.

Walking away from the blue area, he plunged into another evergreen forest, this one soon becoming a familiar green. It was marvelous. The trees towered far above him, reminiscent of douglas firs on the west coast back in the land where he came from. Trunks stood as solid and wide as stone towers, with crackling brown bark and evergreen needles longer than his fingers.

Looking up into the sky-high reaches of the trees, something strange caught his eye amidst the broken light and organic shapes of the branches. There was something almost uniform there. He stopped and squinted up. Yes, there was something unnatural up there. It had manmade regularity.

As he moved around to get a better look, he spotted similar dark shapes in other places. But they were broken up and inconsistent. Was that a ladder? A bridge? Were those frayed ropes dangling over there? Or just his imagination? Unfortunately, they were just too high and the light too dim to clearly make stuff out. He continued on his way, and immediately tripped over something on the ground.

Picking himself up off the prickly, brown forest floor, Arwin looked back to see what caught his foot. His eyebrows rose in surprise. A few old, mostly buried and very worn wooden planks. Sweeping off some of the dirt and debris covering them, he could see that they would have been held together with rope at one time. Now they were dilapidated, almost gone from rot. He glanced back upwards. Those really were some kind of manmade bridges or something up above. Perhaps an elaborate tree house. Or tree village, given the size. It looked like it had been a very long time since anyone had used it though.

He continued on, keeping an eye out for anything unusual. Pretty much everything was. He saw two bellhops hopping along through the woods, each bell making a distinctive ring at the top of their bounce. A cat of nine tails startled him when jumping out from some bushes and lashing him vigorously with all nine soft and velvety tentacles for a moment before leaping away to regard him from a safe distance. He had the odd sensation that the feline giving him the cat scan was cataloguing him, and was on the point of catechizing him, perhaps before realizing that it couldn’t speak human. Then it vanished once again into the underbrush. Arwin shook his head. He’d certainly been catapulted into a strange world.

Eventually the great evergreen trees thinned and more and more deciduous types worked their way into the forest. Soon after, Arwin stumbled upon a path in the woods. It was no animal trail. Wide enough to fit a car, it was made of solid, packed earth. Being of the outdoors type, he idly wondered how the path was so perfectly clean. Not a blade of grass or weed sprung up anywhere. And there wasn’t a single trail or rut created by a wheeled vehicle. It was as if someone had created it that very morning. Magic? Shrugging, he looked both ways.

Which way to go? With nothing to indicate either way was better, he chose at random and ambled off. It was then that he noticed the sun sinking past its zenith and starting to make its way down towards the horizon. Also, a growling in his stomach reminded him that adventuring through the woods builds an appetite.

But all this swept from his mind in an instant as he turned a corner in the path and saw what lay before him.

Thanks for reading!

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