Monthly Short Story Winner: Young Love
This month’s stories are about people experiencing true love (or what they believe to be love) for the first time. I know that writing about feelings – and especially love – is quite hard too but since love is an integral part of life, it was about time to try writing about it.
If you now stare in disgust at your screen because you think this has to be a teen girl romance, you’re wrong. It’s about the experience of love, not teenagers, and not romance. People can be old(er), the feeling doesn’t have to be mutual, the ending doesn’t have to be happy, and the main character(s) do not have to be female. Love comes in all sizes and flavors and it’s up to you to write an intriguing short story about it.
1. This must be prose or poetry.
2. Must be the story (or part of) people experiencing their first love.
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.
This month’s winning story was a first for our competition! We ended up with three winners! T. Eric Bakutis (@TEricBakutis), with “Adrift”; Malcolm Pope (Rukaio_Alter on the forums), with “An Unconventional Proposal”; and John Kelly (Jmack on the forums), with “The Library of Alexander”.
Congrats on your win, Eric, Malcolm and John!
You can find all our entries here.
And now on with the stories!
– – –
by T. Eric Bakutis
Rava Carristo had been called many things in her sixteen years scraping out a living inside third ring. Ringrat. Beggar. Thief. What no one had ever dared call her, until today, was “you bloody idiot”.
No matter what else happened today, she was going to prove Grace Tano wrong.
Rava’s EVA suit’s charge displayed inside her helmet. 5% after twenty minutes charging on solar wind. The suit showed she needed at least 10% before her ion thrusters could cancel, then reverse, her steady drift. By that time, the interlocking rings of Horizon Station might be just another glittering star.
The only home Rava had ever known was now the size of a protein cake, and that cake was shrinking like her air gauge. Slowly, but inevitably. Stretched out below her, Jupiter remained brain-numbingly huge. Rava had stared down at the massive gas ball since she could climb to third ring’s hand-width windows, but out here, in this void, it felt maddeningly enormous.
Of course, this was her first spacewalk. The first time she had managed to nick an EVA suit from a maintenance locker. That had been Grace’s idea, Grace’s fault. These things were always Grace’s fault.
It was Grace who teased her, infuriated her. Grace who outpaced her across the cables of third ring and never let her forget it. Grace who took a knife for her when a greaseboy from second ring decided he didn’t like Rava’s ‘attitude’. Rava would never see Grace again if she didn’t do something.
Her suit popped a window that warned of rising heart rate. It bothered Rava that her last words to Grace had been a slew of Martian obscenities. She didn’t want Grace to remember her like that.
Should she burn this 5% to slow her drift, hope it bought her time to charge the other 5%? Her yellow air gauge showed two hours. If only she hadn’t spent the last two unconscious.
Rava wasn’t as terrified as she’d expected. She had heard CO2 poisoning was peaceful – you got sleepy, then you went away – but there was still so much she wanted to do first. That included smacking Grace, repeatedly. No one else was dumb enough to walk across a dissipation port right before it irised open.
The last sound to pipe over their suitlink, just before the suit’s induced catatonia violently shoved Rava forward in time, was Grace shrieking like the day that greaseboy stabbed her. Grace flailing and trying to restore her suit’s maglock on the station hull.
Grace shouting, “You bloody idiot!”
Grace had been flailing because Rava had shoved her off the opening dissipation port, of course. As Rava recalled the terror in her friend’s voice, she felt unwelcome guilt. This was all Grace’s fault, so why did she have to feel guilty about it? She hadn’t done anything wrong!
The intense heat of the venting had challenged her suit’s regulators. To overload its cooling system, it had to cut life support to dangerous levels, levels a conscious human couldn’t survive, and Rava couldn’t fault her suit for knocking her out. Still, two hours in an unconscious drift had put her a long way out.
A hyperventilation warning joined her heart rate. A hiss filled Rava’s ears as her suit pumped in airborne drugs to dull her panic. She decided right then to fire her thrusters, and when her burn ended she had stopped drifting. At least, almost stopped. It was so damn hard to tell out here.
The words “Charging… 0%” blinked as Rava’s hyperventilation and heart rate warnings faded. The suit’s drugs calmed her as her worried mind could not. Now she just had waiting ahead – thirty minutes? Forty-five? – and the hope that the air left when her thrusters charged would get her back to Horizon Station.
There was nothing to do out here in the void – no vids to watch or games to play – so Rava focused on her best memories. The day Grace snagged a full pack of QuickHeat soup from an unattended cart heading to first ring, and they feasted for a week. The day Rava came across the last season of Atlas Peaks in a bargain bin – on thumb drive, no less – and traded her best bolt cutter away.
Grace had given her so much grief for that, of course – a bolt cutter was so much more useful on third ring than a season of Grace’s favorite cancelled soap opera – but that didn’t make the countless nights they’d spend watching and rewatching episodes, huddled in the tent they’d stitched out of discarded suit patches, any less wonderful. The way Grace cried when Sarah walked out on Jason so Dr. Carlo wouldn’t send him to Mars, every damn time. Even when they both knew it was coming.
It was those memories – Grace’s smile, the way the station lights glittered on her blond crew-cut, the feeling of her back against Rava’s as they slept – that kept her sane until her charge reached 5%. With less than an hour of air, she fired her thrusters and ground her teeth.
Rava was drifting back toward Horizon Station at last, but Jupiter’s almost inconceivable bulk felt claustrophobically close. Too close. Could its gravity be pulling her in? What would it feel like to be crushed at four times station gravity, or would she burn up first? How badly would that hurt?
Rava squeezed her eyes shut. The suit assured her its trajectory was correct. She had to trust it. She had to trust she would see Grace again.
Drugs hissed, breathing slowed, and Rava drifted through void. She imagined herself floating in a cool sea – not that she’d ever been in one, just seen one on Atlas Peaks – and imagined Grace floating beside her. Imagined clutching her warm hand.
Rava drifted with her phantom Grace, surprisingly content, until the beep of an oxygen warning opened her eyes. Had she slept? She had slept. Horizon Station was larger now, ten times the size it had been, but she was still so far away. Too far away.
Her air gauge blinked red and her thruster charge remained at less than 1%. She knew then either her batteries or absorbing panels were fried, probably by the intense heat of the dissipation port’s discharge. Rava could not gain any more velocity than she had. She wasn’t going to make it home.
She had tried. She hadn’t given up. That counted for something, didn’t it?
She hoped Grace would find a way to get along without her.
Rava’s heavy eyelids drooped as a dot separated from Horizon Station. Rava assumed it was just some chunk of debris a third-ringer had tossed out a cleaning vent illegally, but it looked too dull for that. Not shiny enough. As it grew, the dot squirmed. It had arms and it had legs. A person? A suit?
“Rava?” Grace’s tremulous voice was barely audible over the static-y suitlink. “Rava!”
“Grace?” Rava knew she was dreaming, lost in carbon-monoxide induced bliss. There was no way Grace would have remained outside the station for over four hours, looking for her. No one would do that.
“Rava!” Grace’s voice was stronger now, loud enough for Rava to hear it clearly over the air alarm. “Stay there! I’m coming! Don’t flail!”
“I’m not flailing,” Rava whispered.
Unexpected droplets wicked off her eyelids and floated between her face and helmet. Dammit! She couldn’t afford to cry right now.
Grace was the size of a lug nut. Then a hull patch. Then a person, a real person. Grace threw long arms and legs around her, and even through the suit fabric Rava imagined her warmth.
“Don’t move!” Grace ordered.
One of Grace’s gloved hands clumsily jammed a linktube into the backpack of Rava’s suit, failing again and again. Stupid lack of gravity. Finally, the linktube snapped into the ring.
Rava’s air warning faded as the tank inside Grace’s suit circulated air between them, heady, wonderful air. Air that smelled like grease and sweat. It smelled like Grace. Rava breathed deep.
Droplets floated before her eyes and Grace did too. If she was dreaming, she refused to wake up.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Grace whispered. “I thought I’d killed you, Rava!”
With the viewports of their helmets pressed together, with the helmet lights highlighting Grace’s light brown face, she was almost obnoxiously beautiful. Droplets floated inside Grace’s helmet, too.
As Rava floated in the arms of the only woman in all third ring she would trust with anything, even her life, regret and guilt flooded her like suit drugs. How could she have been so stupid for so long? All their arguments, all her complaints, all her nitpicks – those were the words of a bloody idiot.
Rava clutched Grace and shouted, “I love you. I love you, Grace Tano!”
Grace managed a half-giggle, half-snort as they drifted toward the bulk of Horizon Station, together.
“Well.” Grace beamed at Rava through floating tears. “Duh.”
– – –
“An Unconventional Proposal”
by Malcolm Pope
Karlel took a deep breath. This was the moment he prepared a lifetime for.
“Viya!” he called out.
The warrior girl turned and Karlel was momentarily entranced. Her beautiful blond hair, her eyes like shimmering diamonds, her face cocked in that adorable questioning frown. Just looking at her made his heart beat faster.
“What is it?” she asked.
Karlel almost lost his nerve then and there, but he summoned his courage and said the lines he had practiced a hundred times.
“Viya, it’s been two months now since I joined your group and, well, I’ve finally worked up the courage to say…” He calmed his breathing. It was now or never. “I like you. I’ve always liked you. Ever since you saved me from that Swamp-Wraith, ever since I saw you dueling those Ghouls, ever since we shared that night beneath the stars, I’ve felt such a strong attachment to you.”
He took another deep breath. “I know I don’t have much means to provide for us. I’m only a newbie mage. And I’m not skilled in a lot of things. But the one thing I do know is how much I want to be with you.”
Viya’s eyes widened. She hesitated for a moment before placing a hand on Karlel’s shoulder.
“Karlel,” she said, her voice eerily calm. “That’s very sweet and all…but now is not the freaking time!”
That was when the second wave of fire hit.
Karlel winced as the intense heat from the flames impacted the magical barrier he had called up over the trench they were in. In the distance he could see the shape of the enormous red dragon hovering in the air.
“VWAHAHA!” the dragon roared. “I AM BELPHEGOX, THE SCOURGE! ALL SHALL PERISH BEFORE MY FLAMES!”
Karlel looked up to see Viya gesturing at the dragon in a ‘Let’s-deal-with-that-first’ way.
“Ah,” Karlel said. “I think I understand.”
“Good.” Viya sighed.
“I came on too strong. You need time to think.”
“Ye- What, no!” Viya did a double take. “I’m saying we need time to kill the monster first!”
“Indeed,” Karlel said sagely. “Entering into a relationship can seem pretty monstrous.”
“What does that have to do with-?”
Viya’s protestations were interrupted by the sounds of Lucas, the team leader. The archer sprinted into the trench, dropping to one knee and shooting off an arrow towards Belphegox. The projectile ripped through the dragon’s wing, causing it to lose balance and crash to the ground.
“Are you two okay?” he asked.
“We’re good,” Viya said. “That last burst of dragonfire came a little close, but-”
Lucas ignored her and looked to Karlel. “So did you end up confessing then?”
Viya nearly choked on her own tongue. “What?!”
Karlel’s head sunk. “I did, but she said she needed time to think.”
“No, I didn’t! I said I needed time to kill the monster!”
“I understand,” Lucas nodded sagely. “Entering into a relationship can seem pretty monstrous.”
“Gkk-!” Viya tried unsuccessfully to regain her composure. “Leader, are you telling me you knew about this?”
“Of course,” Lucas said. “It’s obvious the kid’s had a crush on you since Day One.”
“And you didn’t think to tell him not to confess in the middle of a heated battle?”
“Well…” Lucas scratched the back of his head. “It’s better if you don’t put this stuff off too long. The longer you keep it bottled up, the harder it is to let it out.”
Viya’s eye twitched. “Maybe so, but there are better places to confess than while fighting a freaking dragon!”
“Look,” Lucas said, “let me tell you from experience that if you’re trying to wait for the perfect moment, then you won’t get anywhere. Those moments don’t come along often. And by the time it arrives, it may be too late. If you’ve got the guts to confess, just do as soon as you can. It may not be perfect but at least you’ve done it.”
Karlel clapped enthusiastically at Lucas’s speech.
Viya, on the other hand, looked like she was about to suffer an aneurysm. “I’m surrounded by idiots.”
“Love makes idiots of us all.”
“HEY!” Belphegox roared, stomping towards them. “STOP IGNORING ME!”
Panicked, Viya prepared to attack, but Lucas stopped her. “Sorry!” he shouted. “But can you give us a few minutes? We’ve got a bit of a romantic problem we need to sort out.”
To Viya’s surprise, Belphegox came to a skidding halt before them.
“WHAT KIND OF ROMANTIC PROBLEM? CAN I HELP?”
Viya’s jaw dropped.
“Well, you see,” Lucas said, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. “Our little mage here, Karlel, has just confessed to his longtime crush, Viya.”
“WELL, CONGRATULATIONS,” Belphegox said sincerely. “I KNOW THAT SORT OF THING CAN BE VERY DIFFICULT IF YOU’RE PARTICULARLY SHY.”
Karlel blushed. “Thanks.”
“The problem is,” Lucas continued, “Viya’s a little unused to relationships herself and needs time to think it over.”
“That’s not-! I didn’t-! You-!” Due to a mixture of confusion and rage, Viya’s brain had lost the ability to complete full sentences. “But-! Monster dragon-! Kill-!”
“I UNDERSTAND,” Belphegox nodded sagely. “ENTERING INTO A RELATIONSHIP CAN SEEM PRETTY MONSTR-”
“Finish that sentence and I will rip off your tail and feed it to you!”
Belphegox raised an eyebrow. “WELL, SHE’S CERTAINLY SPIRITED.”
“I know.” Karlel smiled dreamily.
“Seriously? Has everyone lost their minds?!” Viya’s eye was twitching quite furiously at this point.
“Love certainly can feel that way.” Lucas nodded.
“I- Gkkkkkk!” Viya looked like she was going to explode. However, Belphegox interrupted.
“LOOK GIRL,” he said. “I MAY BE A GIANT MONSTROSITY DEVOTED TO DESTROYING ALL IN MY PATH, BUT I’VE EATEN ENOUGH COUPLES IN MY TIME TO KNOW A LITTLE BIT ABOUT LOVE.”
“……I’m pretty sure that’s not how that works,” Karlel said.
“Not-?!” Viya’s eye began twitching again. “The giant dragon is trying to give us romantic advice and that’s the only thing you find odd?!”
Belphegox cleared his throat. “AHEM. IF I MAY CONTINUE?”
“Sure. Why not.” Viya threw her hands up into the air. “I’ve given up trying to make sense of any of this.”
“Love sometimes makes little sen-.”
“I will end you, Lucas!”
“YOU KNOW, I CAN’T HELP BUT NOTICE YOU SEEM TO LIKE DRAWING ATTENTION TO OTHER PEOPLE’S TRANSGRESSIONS,” Belphegox said. “YET YOU’RE AVOIDING YOUR OWN BIG QUESTION. DO YOU LIKE KARLEL?”
Viya was caught off guard by this. “W-Well, it’s a bad time for-”
“IT’S ONLY A BAD TIME BECAUSE YOU SAY IT IS. WHAT’S SO DIFFICULT ABOUT GIVING A SIMPLE YES OR NO ANSWER?”
Viya was stammering quite heavily at this point. “B-But-”
“IF YOU DON’T LOVE HIM THAT WAY, IT SHOULD BE EASY TO JUST TELL HIM. YOU DON’T STRIKE ME AS THE SORT OF PERSON WHO WOULD STAY QUIET JUST TO PROTECT SOMEONE’S FEELINGS. SO WHY WON’T YOU ANSWER? UNLESS OF COURSE… YOU DO LIKE HIM?”
A blush spread across Viya’s face. “Well… I don’t not like him…”
Karlel tilted his head in confusion. “Viya?”
“Look, Karlel,” Viya said. “You’re one of the most talented, sweet, funny guys I’ve ever known. With your mage abilities we all know that you’re going places. Me…” She looked down. “I’m clumsy, slobbish, easily angered and all I’m good at is swordplay. You don’t need to be saddled down with someone worthless like me…”
Karlel was silent for a moment. Then he stepped forward and took Viya’s hands in his.
“No,” He said firmly. “You’re not worthless. You really think I didn’t notice you were clumsy or temperamental? I love that about you. I love the way you keep your pride no matter what. I love how you constantly work to improve yourself. I love how passionate you can be. I love…you.”
Viya raised her head to meet Karlel’s, her eyes glistening with tears. “Karlel…”
Then, she took a breath and sprung forward, kissing him on the lips. Karlel seemed stunned at this show of affection.
Viya gave him a small smile. “There. That’s my answer.”
Karlel blinked before a grin stretched across his face.
From the side, Lucas and Belphegox watched, smiling as the couple embraced.
The dragon wiped away a tear with its enormous talon. “HOW SWEET.”
Lucas nodded. “You truly did a wonderful thing today.”
“YEAH…,” Belphegox said. “IT’S ALMOST TOO BAD I’M GOING TO HAVE TO KILL AND EAT YOU ALL NOW.”
“Yeah…,” Lucas said without looking. “And it’s also too bad I snuck a bag of explosives underneath you while you were talking.”
Belphegox froze and looked down to see a satchel with a lit fuse running from it.
“………SON OF A BI-”
Belphegox exploded in a fiery mess of blood and dragonscale. His charred remains toppled to the ground with a sickening thwack.
Lucas smiled. “I guess love really is… a bang.”
“…….You’ve been waiting to say that all day, haven’t you?”
“You have no idea.”
– – –
“The Library of Alexander”
The wizard’s apprentice sighed and took off her mistress’s magical translation glasses, then set down the last of the books she’d pulled from the Eternal Library’s shelves.
“It’s not this one either,” she said to the boy sitting across from her. “The title translates to Gardening for Dragons, though it sounds much fiercer in firetongue.”
It certainly wasn’t The Nightmare of King Barouk, which was the last book the wizard had sent her to find. She’d already fetched and delivered ten others, but her mistress would not stand for even the smallest failure from her apprentice.
Her companion had a stack in front of him too, and although Alexander couldn’t read any words at all, he knew the Library’s system of location dots on their spines, as he’d proven during their trek through the stacks. He was smart, and not unattractive even though he could have passed for a street beggar, with his patched clothing and ragged hair. The bright intelligence in his eyes fascinated her, not to mention the four squirrels perched on his shoulders.
“I’m sorry, Penelope,” said Alexander, shaking his head, with four grey heads bobbing back and forth in unison. “Books don’t go missing. The squirrels make sure of that. It has to be here, somewhere.”
Alexander and his bushy-tailed companions had found Penelope wandering the Library early that morning with a useless map of the ever-shifting halls, and had adopted her on the spot. She’d never have found the other books without them. Now, after discovering the last was missing from its proper location, they’d spent hours inspecting book spines and covers in case it had been mis-shelved.
“Will your mistress be angry with you?”
“Oh, no,” she lied.
“We did not,” the wizard would say, “travel four months by sea, suffer camel rides, and hire mule trains to reach the Library just for you to indulge your incompetence.”
When Alexander, who seemed to know everything about the Library, had promised to help her, she’d thought her problems solved. In return, she’d promised to teach him to read at least one of the millions of books that surrounded him every day.
“Alright,” she said. “Let’s put all these away.” She rose and inspected her dress for dust and wrinkles. “Why don’t you–”
But the boy and his squirrels were already in action. Alexander placed a book into a wire device strapped onto the back of one of the squirrels and called out a location in the chittering squirrel tongue. The squirrel leapt up the shelves, ran to the right spot, and triggered a spring that popped the book out of its basket and exactly into place. A second squirrel was ascending by the time the first returned for more orders. Penelope smiled in appreciation at the efficient little team, and when they’d finished, she applauded. It startled Alexander, who looked at her hands in confusion.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I’m clapping. It’s a way of saying thank you.”
“Oh,” he said. “You’re welcome.” He spoke to the squirrels, the four answered back, then disappeared down the hall.
“Where are they going?” she asked.
“Well,” said Alexander, a bit sheepishly, “We made them late for school.”
“School?” laughed Penelope.
“Of course,” said Alexander. “Shelving school. Soon, they’ll be Senior Shelvers.”
Penelope took a long look at the shelves around them – so many books, one after the other after the other. But…how odd.
“Alexander,” she said, “is there a gap between those two books over there?” In the middle of one shelf, between a thin blue book and a thick red one, was a book-sized gap. The two looked around them, equally puzzled, then Penelope realized she’d left one book sitting off to the side, a thick tome with carved wooden covers. “I checked this one already. Why isn’t it on the shelf?”
Alexander picked it up and studied the spine before handing it to her. “It doesn’t have any location dots.”
“I didn’t check,” said Penelope. “I just read the words.”
The carving on the cover showed twelve doors. Eleven were open, but one was closed. Her training told her this was to represent the eleven known worlds, plus the twelfth, lost world. A metal hasp latched the front and back covers together. She tried to work the mechanism, but it was stuck.
She glanced up and found Alexander was looking at her, not the book. She felt a blush rising. He started to say something, but the book latch popped open.
The first thing Penelope noticed was the pages were completely blank. She flipped through the leaves, then inserted a finger midway, revealing a cache cut into the pages. Concealed inside was another, smaller volume in dark leather.
“You’ve been hiding,” whispered Penelope. She opened the little book, and yelled in pain as green flame burst from it. The book flew from her hands and the tome banged to the floor. Fire consumed her hands and shot up her arms.
“Penelope!” said Alexander. “Penelope!”
She moaned in pain.
Alexander reached for her hands, but she pulled them away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you alright? Let me see.”
Penelope held her hands out and gritted her teeth at the sight of angry welt rising on her brown skin.
“We need to go to Damus,” said Alexander.
“The Great Squirrel. He can help.”
“The Great Squirrel,” she echoed numbly.
Carrying both books, Alexander led Penelope through the maze of hallways at something like a sprint. Soon they emerged into a vast chamber echoing with chattering squirrels, thousands and thousands of them. The noise and smell were like a slap.
“Wait here,” said Alexander. He scrambled straight up the brick wall with what looked to her like amazing dexterity, but must have seemed ridiculous to the squirrels, who barked with laughter all around.
He was back in moments, followed slowly by a large squirrel of great dignity. His fur was white as salt, his eyes were clouded with age.
“This is Damus, the Great Squirrel,” said Alexander. “You don’t have to bow or anything. None of us do.”
Damus studied Penelope’s hands and summoned another squirrel who listened, then skipped away. The old squirrel extended a hand and Alexander passed him the books. After inspecting them, Damus spoke, and Alexander translated. “Damus says he knows this book. The histories say it was last borrowed over three hundred years ago.”
Penelope started to speak, but Damus stopped her with a raised paw. The other squirrel returned, bringing a scented ointment which it rubbed onto Penelope’s hands.
Damus and Alexander continued. “It is a very dark book. It was the obsession of a wizard who visited the Library day after day to learn its secrets. He returned to his lands, and within days, the twelfth world was a burning ruin. Squirrels remember. We vowed never to retrieve this book again. We hid it and protected it. I am very sorry you were hurt, young human, but we cannot allow anyone to read this.”
The ointment was easing the burning in Penelope’s hands, and she could think again. “Couldn’t you just have destroyed it?”
Alexander and the squirrel stared at her in shock. “Destroy a book?” Alexander exclaimed.
Damus said a farewell and left them.
Alexander turned to Penelope, his normal cheer clouded. “I’m sorry. I promised to help you find all the books.”
“And I promised to teach you to read,” she answered.
“That’s alright,” he said, looking away. “It’s not really important. I can read the dots.”
Penelope’s thoughts turned back to her mistress. She was already in trouble; what was a little more? She slipped the magical glasses from her skirt and passed them to Alexander. “Keep these for tonight. Find a book, any book. Look at it through the glasses, with your own eyes. Think about the letters, the characters, the words. I don’t know if this will work for learning to read, but it’s worth a try.”
As Alexander cradled the lenses, she was already regretting giving them to him. What if her mistress was so angry that she sent her home? She’d never see Alexander again.
Far off, a bell chimed. “The Library is closing,” said Alexander. “We need to get you back to the front rooms. Will you come tomorrow?”
Penelope started to give him a hopeful lie, but stopped. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I hope so.”
They walked side by side and were there all too soon. Alexander stopped before the door to the great foyer. He leaned over and surprised her with a light kiss on her lips. He pressed the glasses into her hands, and walked backwards down the corridor. “Come back tomorrow! You promised to teach me!” he called.
Penelope stared after him, her fingers touching her mouth. How surprising a trip to the library could be!
– – –
Congratulations again to Eric, Malcolm, and John! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for more information.