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Under the Surface · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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In Service to Her Highness
The drip-drip-drip of the water echoed in Lamar’s ears like the shots of cannons. He was up to his waist in a seemingly endless pool of the stuff, the surface rippling from the drops that came from a sky of black. Not rain. Rain didn’t fall that languidly. Ahead of him was darkness. Behind him was darkness. He had no idea where he was, but it didn’t seem to matter to him when compared to the thunderous cacophony of those droplets.

He felt the presence to his left. There stood a wall covered in plain floral wallpaper. A clock in the shape of a cat ticked away the seconds with its swaying tail, the only sound that dared to rival the water drops threatening deafness. At the center of the wall, flush against it, was a coffee table that the water hadn’t quite managed to overcome. And on top of that?

A boy. The child was curled into a tight ball, his hands over his ears and his eyes squeezed tightly closed. Tears stained his cheeks as he pressed himself against the wall, seeming to want to disappear into it, but the wall would not accommodate.

Lamar approached as quickly as he could against the deep, dark water, keeping his arms high and swaying them left and right for momentum. He paused, feeling his heart flutter weakly. A hand, black and bloated, lay on the table, its attached arm disappearing into the water. The fingers were stretched taught, as if they’d been reaching for Thomas’s face, but now they remained perfectly still. Lamar stared at the ugly black veins and sucked in a few slow, calming breaths.

Nothing would happen. And if it did, it wouldn’t affect him. As cold as that idea was, it proved enough to help him push forward. Sometimes, being cold was the only thing keeping screams at bay.

At last, he reached Thomas. He had to think for a moment, think against those horrible explosions of water on water and the constant, tedious tick-tock of the cat’s tail. What was the solution? He’d never be able to speak over the noise. That made things harder. He didn’t think he could solve the problem here. No, he needed an alternative, as much as he hated to try it.

Making up his mind, Lamar reached down and shook Thomas. The boy opened his mouth. A scream? Possibly. Probably. Lamar couldn’t tell. He took the child by the shoulders and, with some effort, got him into a sitting position. Thomas was like a statue, unable to fight back for his fear. Those eyes remained firmly closed and snot began to run down his nose. That wouldn’t do.

The hand abruptly came to life. It reached for Thomas, fingers clawing at the air, but it seemed incapable of coming closer. It ignored Lamar, so he ignored it in turn. Grabbing the boy by the sides of his face, Lamar leaned down until they were almost touching noses. He shouted Thomas’s name. no response. Another shout, another failure.

Sucking in a long, long breath, Lamar screamed the name with as much volume as he could muster. He could actually hear his own voice that time. Apparently, so did Thomas. The boy’s eyes snapped open. They were green, and they locked with Lamar’s in an instant. He began to focus, sending a single thought through the connection he was building:

Wake up.

Thomas’s lip trembled. His eyes drifted towards the clawing hand. His face paled.

Lamar shook him slightly, reacquiring the boy’s attention, and put extra force into his thoughts. Look at me! Only me. You need to wake up now, Thomas. Wake up.

He repeated the thoughts over and over again. With every second that their eyes remained locked, the connection between them grew stronger. The ticking of the clock began to fade. The water drops became less thunderous. The squirming hand grew lazy and slow.

Wake up, Thomas. Look at me. You need to wake up.

Thomas’s body began to go limp. A little at a time, he relaxed. His eyes started to close.

They opened again, and he was staring at his hand atop a blue pillow. With a long yawn, he sat up and stretched. His room was small, but large enough to fit two beds close to one another. Darkness bled through the window to his right, working its level best to strangle what little illumination the room’s night light provided. Lamar didn’t like night lights. They made it harder to sleep. But tonight one was absolutely necessary.

He turned to the bed beneath the window, only a couple inches separating it from his own. There lay Thomas, curled into a little ball. His sheets were crumbled up at his side and he was sucking his thumb. The poor boy was covered in sweat. He stared up at Lamar with those green eyes that had been dominated by terror just seconds ago.

“Hey, Thomas.” Lamar leaned over onto his elbow to smile at his charge for the night. “You okay?”

The thumb made way for hesitant words. “Don’t know.”

“That’s okay.” Reaching over to take the boy’s hand, Lamar kept his smile on and his voice gentle. “That’s quite the dream you have there.”

Thomas’s shoulders hunched. “It didn’t finish.”


“Normally, she comes out.”

She? Lamar considered the statement for a moment, then recalled the hand. He repressed a shiver. “Who is she, Thomas?” Say his name. Make him feel important, keep him focused.

The boy’s lip trembled, his eyes threatening fresh tears. “M-Mom.”

“Ah.” Lamar scooted a little closer. Gave his hand a squeeze. “She comes out of the water?”

“Mm-hmm.” A slow nod. Thomas was maintaining perfect eye contact. Good. “S-she tries to take me with her.”

From what he’d learned about Thomas’s parents, Lamar had a good idea of what was really going on here. “You know what she’s trying to do?”

“She wants to kill me.” Trembles took over the boy. His other hand reached up to grasp Lamar’s wrist. “Why does M-Mom want to kill me?”

Lamar widened his smile, sadness and warmth competing for control of his emotions. He brushed Thomas’s curly hair back. “She was there. When the cold and the water became too much. That’s how the rescuers found you. During the flood?” Thomas nodded. “Did she want to kill you then, Thomas?”

“No.” Tears started anew. Thomas clenched his eyes closed. “She told me to get on the table. That I’d b-be safer there. She wanted me out of the water.”

“In your dream. Did you mother ever actually touch you?”

After a few snotty sniffles, the child managed to open his eyes. Barely. The hurried shake of his head was all Lamar needed to confirm his suspicions. In truth, it was a great relief. He hadn’t known what he’d have done if Thomas had responded any other way.

“Come here, kiddo.” Lamar pulled the boy onto his bed and held him tightly, rubbing a hand along Thomas’s back. “Your mother isn’t trying to kill you.”

“Yes, she is! She wants to drag me into the water and drown me.”

“Thomas. Your mother loved you. She still loves you. She loves you so much that she wants to hold you, just like this. But she can’t. She won’t. Because she’s scared that if she does, you be cold and wet and suffer just like her. So she reached, but keeps herself from doing what she wants. Because she loves you, Thomas.”

“Then why does she look so scary?”

Lamar tried to imagine what it must have been like to sit on that table for nearly two days, staring at the floating body of his mother. The thought was enough to threaten another shiver, but he fought it back. No weakness. Only answers.

“I can’t change my skin from black to white,” he whispered. “Can you change your skin from white to black?”

Thomas shifted in his arms before offering a hesitant, “No…”

“Your mother can’t change how she looks anymore than we can.” Lamar pulled back so he could look his charge in the eye. When the boy didn’t prove accommodating, he gently grabbed Thomas’s chin and tilted it up. His eyes were thoughtful. Curious. Questioning. All good signs. “But you can fix how she looks.”

The boy’s brow furrowed. “I can? How?”

Making a show of glancing around as though to ensure nobody was listening, Lamar grinned and added a conspiratorial edge to his whisper. “You can control your dreams. All you have to do is focus on what you want, and you can fix your mother. Would you like to do that?”

Thomas reached out to grip Lamar’s nightshirt, his eyes wide with wonder and hope. “I c-can fix Mom? I really can?”

“The next time you have that dream, I want you to remember your mother how she was before the flood. Remember the when she used to play Checkers with you?” Thomas nodded, the ghost of a smile starting on his lips. “Remember how she always let you get away with cheating?”

“Hey!” It was more a squeak than a shout. Thomas’s eyes darted around as if to make sure no one had heard. “I didn’t cheat.” At Lamar’s smirk, he added a quiet, “Much.”

“Sure you didn’t, kid.” Lamar ruffled the boy’s hair, earning him a half-serious scowl. He became serious again. “Do you remember her laugh?”

The scowl disappeared. Thomas had a dreamy look on his face. “Yeah.”

“Remember her eyes?”


“What color where they?”

“Green. Like mine.”

“That’s good, Thomas.” He took the boy’s cheeks in his hands, just as he had in the dream. He couldn’t form the same connection when they were awake, but he found his charges tended to listen better after the dream experience when he did it. He met the boy’s gaze and spoke with firmness. “The next time you have that dream, remember your mother. Remember her smile, her laugh, and her green eyes. Remember playing Checkers with her. Remember who she as before the flood. You do that, and everything will be okay.”

“Okay.” And to his relief, Thomas said it in earnest. “I’ll remember. Mom’s not scary. Mom loves me.”

“That’s right, Thomas.” Lamar pulled him back into a hug. “Your mother loves you very much. All mothers love their children.

“Never forget that, and you’ll be just fine.”

Thomas improved magnificently after that night. It took only three days for him to start changing his mother’s appearance without Lamar showing up for encouragement. Within a week, Lamar didn’t even have to make his presence known. In two weeks, he announced to Headmistress Kettle that the boy would be fine on his own, and Thomas moved into his own room. Another satisfying job well done, as far as Lamar was concerned. Not having to have the night light on anymore was just a bonus.

He sat at the picnic table in the back of the orphanage, watching the younger children on the playground. Seeing Thomas having a normal, fun time with the other kids filled him with no small amount of pride. Any prospecting parents who didn’t know his background yet would think him a normal, healthy boy. They’d be told, of course, but the image would help. It always did.

He was just about to get back to reading his book when the door to the orphanage opened. Headmistress Kettle, a tall woman in a cheap suit and a lot more muscle than one might expect, stepped out and examined the scene. She didn’t look anything at all like a kettle. Lamar knew something was wrong the moment he saw her. Normally, she’d had her hands on her hips and a smile on her lips, one part authority and two parts motherly. Today one arm crossed her midsection, holding the elbow of the other while she chewed on her fingernail. Very rarely did she display the habit in public. Lamar had only seen it four times since he’d come to live here twelve years ago.

Her eyes locked with his, and he promptly tensed. She didn’t need to say a thing. He tucked his book under his arm and approached at a jog. “Miss Kettle. Everything alright?”

She removed her fingernail from her teeth just long enough to say, “You have a visitor.”

“Me?” Casting his gaze around the area revealed no unfamiliar faces. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Lamar. Very sure.” A moment to bite at her nail. He almost reminded her not to do that. “You need to go to my office now. I’ll watch the kids for now. Thank you.”

She strode past him, and he turned to watch her. At no point did she look back. Frowning, he went inside and hurried to the office. Why wouldn’t she tell him who it was? Why did she seem so nervous? Miss Kettle didn’t get nervous, not visibly. Had he done something wrong? He thought back to everything he’d done in the last month, but nothing came to mind. At least, nothing so bad as to warrant a reaction like that.

Two men stood on either side of the door to the office. Lamar had never seen them, but he recognized what they were. Their blue and green uniforms, the pistols on their hips, the dark sunglasses? Palace guards. He’d never seen any so close before. It took a while for him to realize he’d been staring, and by that time both men’s heads had turned to him. God, forgive my language, but who the fucking hell is behind those doors? As an afterthought, And why do they want to see me?

He approached slowly. Neither man moved save to follow his path with their turning heads. He paused before them, licked his lips, and in the quietest voice he could ever remember coming out of his throat, said, “M-my name’s Lamar Kelvin. I was, uh, summoned?”

The man on the left reached into his jacket and pulled out a small piece of paper. From the shiny texture and size, Lamar suspected it was a photograph. The man studied it for a moment, then nodded to his companion. “Okay, Mr. Kelvin. Go on in.” Sucking in a deep breath, Lamar entered the room. The door closed silently behind him.

The Headmistress’s office was a messy place. Bookshelves overflowing with trophies, a treadmill and some weightlifting gear in a corner, pictures and diplomas on the wall, a potted fern on the windowsill, a small desk overloaded with folders with a too-small space for actual work to be done on a computer almost a decade old. And there, sitting in the Headmistress’s squeaky rolling chair, was a small woman.

But what a woman she was. She wore a long-sleeved red dress with yellow trim and those big, ball-like things on the shoulders. Lamar would have sworn they were made of silk. Her black hair was straight and fell down her back to her hips, undecorated save for a pair of braids on either side of her round face. Though her expression was hard, it remained so in defiance of feather-soft features decorated by dark red lipstick, yellow eye shadow and just a hint of blush. She wore a necklace of silver, intricately patterned with flowers and doves in a latticework that tan to the top of her small bosom. On her head was a crown made of silver and studded with rubies.

All of this paled in comparison to her most defining feature: eyes that were blue on her left and pale white in the other, a faint white scar running along from her forehead to just above her cheek. Those eyes settled upon Lamar, hard as steel, and he felt his blood run cold. There wasn’t a soul in the kingdom who didn’t know this woman.

Oh Lord Almighty, that’s the Queen. I’m standing the same room as the goddamn, almighty Queen.

His knees buckled, but he somehow managed to bow from the hip. “Y-your Majesty!” How he got the words out of his dry mouth, he’d never know.

“Be at ease, Lamar Kelvin. Please, be seated.”

The context was polite, but the tone made it clear that it was no request. He hurried to one of the chairs on the opposite side of the desk as fast as dignity would allow. Hands on his knees, he tried to look Her Majesty in the eyes, but found he couldn’t. There was just too much steel there, too much legend behind the identity. So he instead stared at the folders on the desk. Frantic prayers swam through his mind as he questioned just why the most powerful woman on the continent would want to see him.

Her words were like satin chilled in ice water. “I appreciate your deference, but I demand your responsibility. Tell me, Mr. Kelvin, how old are you?”

Deference and responsibility? He wasn’t sure how he was meant to take that, but he hazarded a guess that he was supposed to somehow show strength. That could only mean one thing. So, with no small effort, he looked into her piercing eyes. “F-fifteen, Your Majesty.”

She stared into him, her gaze like a frigid nail stabbing into his heart. He had the distinct impression he was being judged. Harshly.

“There are rumors in the kingdom,” she said, placing her hands on the desk. Her every motion radiated grace and precision, as if not a hair on her body ever moved without intent. “Rumors of a young man in an orphanage who can visit the dreams of others.”

Lamar felt his eyes widen. She was here to discuss his powers? Surely the Queen herself wasn’t suffering from nightmares? Impossible. She was… She was the Queen. She was perfect.

Words cracking like whips, she asked, “Are you the young man in question?”

A slow swallow did nothing to ease Lamar’s throat, but it at least let him rediscover words. “I… I wouldn’t expect Your Majesty to believe in such things.”

“What I believe is of no consequence.” Her eyes narrowed. Lamar felt as though a knife were being pressed to his throat. “All that matters are results. So tell me, Mr. Kelvin: can you deliver?”

She was demanding his abilities. The Queen, calling on him, a mere orphan. What for? How could the state possibly gain from his abilities? He was going to be a therapist, at best. And that meant…

That he was harmless. And if he was harmless, the Queen didn’t intend to use him to do harm. She couldn’t, because he couldn’t. Unless… “If I may, Your Majesty?” He waited for her nod. “I want to be absolutely clear. I can see into dreams, yes. But only one person’s, and only if we sleep within very close proximity. I cannot change the outcome of a dream. I can only see it, interpret, and try to talk to them about their nightmares. If what you wish of me goes beyond that…” He braced himself, ignoring the panicking voice in the back of his mind that begged him to stop gazing at her misty eye. “…then I can’t help you.”

She was silent for some time, with not so much as a twitch of the lips to help him decipher her emotions. He kept perfectly still, not daring to even breathe lest she take offense. Then, she stood tall over him, her manner as serene and cold as ever.

“That will be enough.”

The royal palace. If there was anywhere in the world Lamar had never expected to be his entire life, it was here. He sat at an ornate hardwood table, his rump seated in a chair of similar make with red velvet cushions built into it. The floor was plush red carpet for a room that could have fit the entire orphanage within its mural-covered walls. Three crystal chandeliers hung overhead, the lowest sparkling diamond possibly a story up, and before him was more food than he could eat in three days, much less one meal.

None of these things held his attention as much as the person sitting on the opposite side of the table. Princess Garnet, heir to the throne, was only eight years old. She shared her mother’s dark complexion, but her hair was auburn, and her eyes were a soft grey. Adorned in a simple green dress, she glared at Lamar from over her own plate. She’d not said one word to him since he’d arrived at the table five minutes ago. If the butler standing in the corner felt the awkwardness in the air, his imperturbable manner refused to let it be known.

The Queen had been very clear. If Lamar could do what he claimed – and she admitted to having doubts – then he was to help the princess with her sleep. For her part, Princess Garnet did not appear at all eager to have his help. She ate slowly, methodically, rarely taking her eyes off of him. He tried to emulate her eating manner, blushing at the realizing that a child not even half his age had better table manner than he did.

He should be building a rapport with the Princess. He knew that. He always got to know his charges before he shared their dreams. It was an important step, perhaps the most important. The Queen had told him personally a number of things about her, but none of it was as important as earning the Princess’s trust.

He could do this. She might be royalty, but she was still only a child. “So… Princess?”

Her only response was a narrowing of the eyes. This made him smile; like mother, like daughter.

“Do you understand why I’m here?”

Her cheeks puffed up, giving him the impression of a frog. “No. And I don’t care. I don’t like you.”

Laughing at royalty probably wouldn’t be a good thing, so he kept it in check. Barely. Still, this was good. This alone gave him a good idea of what he was dealing with, and he knew how to handle it. “Why don’t you like me?”

“Because Mother said I have to be nice to you.”

Yep. He had her pegged. “So if the Queen says you have to be nice to me, you won’t be?”

She turned her attention to her food, not loosing that puffy-cheeked scowl. “That’s right. I’m a princess. I don’t have to be nice if I don’t want to.”

“Even if your mother, the Queen, tells you to?”

“That’s right!” She shoveled some potatoes into her mouth, chewing with a ferocity that made him wonder if she was imagining the mush as his head. Even in her anger, she had the etiquette necessary to swallow her food before declaring, “I don’t want you in my room.”

He hummed and leaned back in his seat to stare at the chandelier over their heads. “That’s going to be tough. Where am I supposed to sleep tonight?”

“On the floor!”

“I can do that.”

She blinked, her anger fading slightly in her confusion. “You… can?”

He shrugged. “Done it before. Can do it again. I bet the palace floors are way more comfortable than the floor at the orphanage.” He hadn’t had to do that in five years, and then only because his charge at the time wouldn’t get in a bed and he wanted to make him feel comfortable. Not that the Princess needed to know that. “Does the hall outside your room have carpet? I’d really like to sleep on carpet.”

“Oh. Um, it does.” Stirring her green beans with her fork, she quietly asked, “You really sleep on the floor?”

He rubbed his chin as if thinking on the matter. “Not always. When you’re poor, you make do with what you can.” He grinned and pointed at himself with a thumb. “I’m an expert on floor comfort. This floor?” He stomped his foot a couple times for emphasis. “Now this is a comfortable floor. I bet I could sleep on this floor and only toss and turn half the night.”

Her lips worked, silently mouthing the words ‘half the night’. If her eyes got any wider, they might fall out of their sockets. When she noticed him watching, she straightened her back and took on a serious face that was a pretty good imitation of her mother’s. “Well, you’re lucky they’re putting another bed in my room.”

He made a show of raising his eyebrows. “In your room? But I thought you said—”

“I’m allowed to change my mind,” she snapped, her fiery eyes once again set on her plate. “After all, I’m a princess.”

Lamar avoided smiling. The butler in the corner smiled enough for the both of them.

Lamar liked to think of himself as more patient than your average boy. This patience didn’t help him at all when he stepped into Princess Garnet’s bedroom. He needed only one word to describe it: pink. As his eyes traced a path across the flower-themed bedsheet, mountains of pillows and a small army of plush toys, he thought he could feel a little bit of his soul dying. Yes, he could handle girly things better than most boys his age, but this? So not fair.

At least the small bed placed beside hers was normal. Still ostentatious compared to what he was used to, what with carved wooden frame and a mattress that, upon pressing his hand to it, turned out to be softer than anything he’d ever felt in his life.

The servant who had let them in asked the princess a few clipped questions and received similarly concise answers. Lamar sat on his temporary bed and listened intently, trying to take what he could out of the conversation he clearly wasn’t meant to be part of. The servant reminded the young princess of her schooling schedule for the morning, then asked some probing questions about her day. Probing, because Lamar was sure the servant was actually checking for lies. Was Princess Garnet known for trying to shirk her responsibilities? He couldn’t blame her, given her age. The conversation ended with the servant offering to have some hot cocoa prepared for her, which seemed to be a treat afforded whenever she behaved.

“And bring one for Mr. Kelvin, too.”

Lamar’s head rose at this. “Me?”

Princess Garnet didn’t look at him, keeping her hawkish gaze set on the servant. “Yes, you. You’re my guest, and I have to be a good host. Even if I don’t like you being here.”

This time, he couldn’t tell if she meant exactly what she said or was just trying to save face. It wasn’t like at dinner, when her emotions were clearly on display. Her mask of neutrality would have made her mother proud. Lamar looked to the servant, who maintained a smile he could only assume came with years of practice.

“Of course, Your Highness,” the servant replied. “Will there be anything else for tonight? Perhaps a story?”

Princess Garnet’s face went beet red, her eyes darting towards Lamar. So much for the mask. “Siegfried! I’m far too old for bedtime stories. Those are for children. Just the hot cocoa, thank you.”

The man blinked, his smile fading as he stared at her. “I… see. My apologies, Your Highness. How foolish of me.” His eyes met Lamar’s. His smile began to worm its way back, this time with a wry edge.

The Princess noted the look the two were sharing and huffed. “You are dismissed, Siegfried.”

“Of course, Princess.” Siegfried placed his hand on his heart and bowed low. “I’ll have the cocoa brought up soon.” Without another word and only the briefest smirking glance at Lamar, he turned on his heel and strode out of the room, leaving them alone.

Princess Garnet went to a vanity thrice as wide as she as tall and jerked open a drawer. Pausing, she turned to glare at Lamar. “I’m gonna change into my pajamas. Don’t touch anything while I’m gone.” Without waiting for a response, she snatched up some clothes from a drawer and marched, head high, into an adjoining room, closing the door behind her.

At last, Lamar let his grin out. Too old for bedtime stories, was she? He stood up and paced the room, trying not to let the pink wallpaper, pink carpet, pink-clad dolls… just the pink overwhelm his masculinity. Had all this been chosen by her mother, or had she chosen it for herself? Garnets were supposed to be red, weren’t they? He could have tolerated red.

But for all the childish, girly pink stuff that made up the princess’s room, he began to note some things. Everything was… precise. The brushes and combs on the vanity? Spaced with exacting precision and alignment. The dolls were all placed in a corner of the room, each turned in just the right way that they could all face the left corner of the foot of Princess Garnet’s bed. Deciding that one act of insubordination wouldn’t get his head chopped off, he went to a large chest by the bed and opened it to reveal a collection of toys neatly packed together.

What kind of seven-year-old arranged their things so neatly? Perhaps it was possible that the servants made it so while she was gone, but Lamar would have expected at least a little chaos. Children thrived on tony acts of rebellion, at least in his experience. He closed the chest and took another look around, trying to understand what felt so wrong about this place. After a minute or two of study, he came to a conclusion: this wasn’t a child’s room.

Oh, it was a child’s room in that a child slept in it. But where was the signs of a child’s life? The toys were put away. There was no mess. There was no identifying features of any kind. Princess Garnet was an individual, with opinions and desires and feelings. He’d only known her a few short hours, but even that was enough to make her personality clear. This room had no personality at all. It was as though someone had taken all the trademark elements of a stereotypical girl’s room and threw it all together.

“What are you doing?”

Princess Garnet stood in the door wearing a set of dark red, silk pajamas. At least her choice of clothes matched her personality better than this… place. Lamar, who still stood by her toy chest, raised his hands as if to plead innocence. “Just looking around. Is that okay, Your Highness?”

“You didn’t touch nothing?”

“I didn’t touch nothing.”

She peered at him, tiny hands balled into fists, for almost a full minute. Lamar couldn’t help being impressed by bother her glare and her ability to stand so still for so long. At last she nodded. “Good. I’m…” she hesitated, trying to maintain her hard expression as her eyes swam about the room. “I’m going to…”

There came a knock on the door. The hot cocoa had arrived. It was the smoothest, most luscious cup of cocoa Lamar had ever tasted. He’d always read advertisements of ‘silky smooth’ chocolate, but only now did he understand what they really meant.

The treat didn’t make him forget that bout of anxiety in the princess, though. The moment stuck in his mind, repeating again and again. He couldn’t get past the worrying idea that Princess Garnet didn’t know what to do in her own bedroom.

The nightmare came suddenly, and it came hard.

The world was a red mist. The crimson ground rippled like water even though his bare feet didn’t pass through it. It felt hard as granite, and uncomfortably hot. A soft roaring filled the air, a consistent background noise. Although the sky was dark, Lamar had no problem seeing a great distance. A head of him rose a mountain, smooth and just as red as the rest of the world. The fog rolling about him proved no barrier to his sight when he gazed upon the vast thing.

So, this was what the Queen wanted him to address. It was not like any nightmare he’d ever experienced before, and he’d seen many. He immediately began to scan his surroundings for evidence of his royal charge. He didn’t see Princess Garnet anywhere. This did not bother him. If anything, it gave him a hint as to the problem. The mountain was a distinctly visible focal point of the dream, so he began jogging towards it.

Instinct and experience rewarded Lamar in short order, for he soon spotted Princess Garnet in the fog. She stood perfectly still, dressed in long red robes that merged seamlessly with the ground. She held a scepter in both hands, topped by a ruby. The thing was far too large for her, and she visibly struggled just to keep it at the height of her chest.

Lamar slowed, approaching her cautiously. Thus far, nothing had happened that he could see. What kind of nightmare was this? “Princess?”

The child gasped, turning her head to look at him. “W-what are you doing here?”

He raised his hands slowly. “I’m here to help. This is why your mother asked me to be with you.”

The little princess clutched the scepter to her chest and looked forward once more. “she sent you to spy on me.”

“No.” He knelt at her side, but didn’t touch her. Not yet. “No, Garnet. She wants me to help you.”

The child sniffed. “Liar.”

He hesitated. There wasn’t enough information. He didn’t even know what the problem was, much less what he might do about it. He eyed her, then the scepter. “Garnet? Why are you holding that scepter?”

As if he were threatening to take it away, she turned her body away. “Because I have to.”


“I…” She bowed her head. “I don’t know.”

The roaring, once so quiet as to be forgotten, abruptly grew louder. Princess Garnet’s head snapped up, her eyes going wide as she stared at the mountain. “I’m doing good,” she whispered. “I’m doing good. I’m doing good. I’m doing good.” Over and over again, she said the line. Fear oozed from the words, which were soon drowned out by the ever-growing volume of the noise. Lamar soon came to recognize the riotous sound as cheering. An endless, joyous cheering.

He followed her gaze to the mountain and sucked down a sharp breath. It was not a mountain, not at all. It turned with methodical slowness to reveal that the mountain was a face covered in a red cloth. The cloth extended downwards to form the floor on which the princess and Lamar now stood. It lined the face with white. Fur or fire, he could not tell.

The face’s jaw hung loose, white flame billowing from within its mouth. Those same flames lashed from the face’s right eye, which was marked by a seething red scar. Yet the left eye? A great blue pool, settling upon the two of them with no warmth or recognition. There was naught but dismissal in that gaze, so cold that Lamar could feel his very bones turning to ice. The mountain’s present weighed upon him, crushed him, made him stagger to his knees. Lamar ripped his eyes from the mountain, looking to his charge. Princess Garnet did not fall, but she was hunched over her scepter, tears streaming down her cheeks as she whispered the same three words again and again.

Lamar forced his eyes closed and focused. This was a nightmare. He could come to no harm here, for it was not his dream. He reminded himself of his task, of his purpose, of his reality. With every slow breath, the inexplicable fear that had dominated his mind retreated. He would not let the emotions of a child overwhelm him! He would take what he’d seen and interpret it.

When his mind at last cleared, he stood up and opened his eyes again. He took in Princess Garnet’s quivering form, the scepter she clung to, the robes that bound her to the floor. A floor that led to the mountain, was part of it. And the face on that mountain, which he did not dare look at again…

The pieces of the puzzle were all there. It was a surprisingly easy one, but that did not make the problem any easier to solve. If he was right, then he couldn’t solve it at all.

He stood between Princess Garnet and the mountain, grabbed her cheeks, and looked her in those wide, glassy eyes. Within seconds, he felt the connection forming between them. Look at me, Garnet. Only me. This is a dream. You need to wake up.

Her lips kept working, repeating her mantra in an endless loop, but she didn’t break eye contact.

That’s right, Garnet. Look at me. Focus. Focus on waking up. It’s okay.

Her lips slowed, stopped. Her shoulders began to relax. She tried to speak over the roar but couldn’t match the volume. She didn’t need to for Lamar to recognize the two words.

Yes, Garnet! Wake up. My name is Lamar, and I’m here to help. But you need to wake up now.

Gradually, Princess Garnet’s tension faded. The scepter slipped from her hands as her eyes started to droop.

Lamar sat up as soon as he realized he was awake. He turned in his indescribably soft bed and looked to his charge in her much bigger one. She lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling, her crying almost silent. Even when he leaned his arm onto her bed to get a closer look, she didn’t stop staring straight up. “Garnet?”

A sniffle. The girl closed her eyes. “She doesn’t love me.”

“No. No no no.” He reached out to hold her hand. “No, Garnet. She loves you.”

“No, she doesn’t. She hates me.”

“She loves you, Garnet.” He crept a little closer, brushed his free hand through her hair. “All mothers love their children.”

At last, her eyes met his. “How would you know?” she spat. “You don’t have a mother.”

He paused, giving his throat a moment to loosen from that blow. Thinking of Miss Kettle helped. “I have a mother. She may not have given birth to me like yours, but she loves me all the same.”

Back to the ceiling went the eyes. “Mine doesn’t love me.”

He lay at her side, idly stroking her soft hair and holding her hand. He wished he could say something, anything t make this right. Yet that was impossible. He knew it as sure as he knew the sun would rise come morning. He had to approach this from another direction.

But not yet. Right now, he had something more important to do. “Would you like me to tell you a story?”

She sniffed. “Bedtime stories are for little kids.”

“If you say so.”

Her eyes drifted to him. Her shoulders hunched. Her hand tightened around his own.

“J-just one?”

Lamar smiled.

The Queen’s private study. Lamar stood ramrod straight, forcing himself to meet the monarch’s gaze. He was very aware that Princess Garnet was in the next room, studying her arithmetic.

“You’ve had a night to work your… ‘magic’,” the Queen declared, staring down at him with all the harsh presence he’d come to expect. “Already, you claim to understand the Princess’s problem. I must admit, I thought you’d need more time.”

Lamar nodded. “No, Your Majesty. One night was more than enough.” His heart pounded in his chest. He had to fight the desire to rub his sweaty hands together.

“I’m impressed.” Her tone suggested she was anything but. “The finest doctors and physicians in the Kingdom could offer no satisfactory results. Perhaps this ‘dreamwalking’ ability you claim to have is more valuable than I expected.”

Was she mocking him? It certainly sounded like it, even if her face hadn’t budged. But Lamar had had time to think on matters. He was no royal and couldn’t think like a politician, yet he’d managed to put a few pieces together. If they were the wrong pieces? The idea didn’t sit well with him.

He would not lie. He’d be doing his charge a disservice. Lamar was young, but he understood responsibility. He could only hope the Queen would be forgiving. “If I may, You Majesty?” The Queen offered no response at all. He could only assume he’d been given permission. “I understand that you’re coming to me, an orphan with an unbelievable rumor attached to him, was an act of desperation.”

At last, a reaction: the slight quirking of an eyebrow. “Would such an accusation be brave… or foolish?”

“A little of both. I think.”

She said nothing for a time, only continuing pinning him to the floor with her gaze. Lamar was certain the temperature in the room had dropped a few degrees. Somehow, her next words were even harder than the ones before. “You say you know why Princess Garnet suffers from nightmares. What, in your opinion, is the problem?”

He thought he was prepared for this, but Lamar could feel his knees shaking. Last chance to turn back. Last chance. Last chance. Last chance! “It’s… you.”

The Queen’s eyes narrowed, the scar across her right eye stretching at the faint motion. Her pale eye seemed to bore right into him. “Explain.”

Here it goes… “Your Majesty, is this all she sees?”

She tilted her chin up the faintest bit. “This?” It might have been a trick of the imagination, but Lamar could have sworn there was confusion in that tone.

He raised his arms to indicate her royal presence. “This. The Queen. Has she ever seen you in any other way?”

An extra layer of frost joined her reply. “Do you know who I am?”

Lamar’s insides twisted as he forced the words out. “You’re her mother. And she thinks you don’t love her.”

At last, Lamar got a real reaction: the Queen’s eyes widened, her lips parting into a small ‘o’ shape. The expression disappeared in an instant, so fast it might have been an illusion. “You would dare…”

He tried to speak firmly, but his words came out in a whisper, little waves of sound to crash against her gargantuan presence. “You portray this manner of stone, but you came to me for help. I know you love her. I’m not denying it.”

“The doctors and psychiatrists said nothing about this,” she replied. Her hands were pressed firmly to her desk. “Why would they have not told me this if it were true?”

He didn’t look away. Oh, how he wanted to. “M-maybe because they feared what you would do in response.”

She continued to drill holes in him with her eyes, the white one sending chills up and down his spine. But then, slowly, she bowed her head to look at her hands. She lifted them up, turned them about as if not recognizing them. They were trembling. She placed them in her lap, beyond his sight. “Why… What reason do you have for your opinion?” Though still hard, the ice in her words had thawed noticeably.

Lamar relaxed, but only a little. “Who decorated her room?”

The Queen’s brow furrowed, but this time it was in clear confusion rather than anger. “The servants.”

He nodded. “Did she get any say in the matter?”

“She’s seven.” A beat. “Four when the room was decorated as it is now.”

He licked his lips, wondering how far down this rabbit hole he could safely fall. She’d not called for the guards to throw him in a cell yet, so maybe he was safe. “And how often have you been to her room?”

She stared at him. Or rather, though him. She seemed lost in thought.

“Your Majesty, how much time do you spend with your daughter?”

Shifting. Anxiety? On the Queen? “I am a very busy woman.”

“And she’s seven years old,” he replied quietly. “She needs more than servants and royal toys. She needs her mother.”

“We…” She hesitated. Even averted her eyes. “We have dinner. On occasion.”

“Formal dinners?” When she didn’t answer, Lamar sighed. He realized he was beginning to lose his decorum, but he could only hold it for so long when she was no longer emitting an aura suggesting she’d rip him to shreds for blinking incorrectly. “Your Majesty, if all she ever sees of you is the Queen, that is all she will know you as. I’m sure you know as well as anyone the kind of image that is. She wants your love and approval. Right now, you’re just a…”

Her gaze met his. Seconds passed as he tried to find the right way to phrase his thoughts. When he went on for too long, she asked, “A what, Mr. Kelvin?”

He recalled Princess Garnet’s nightmare. “An impossible standard she has no hope of meeting. A mountain she can never climb. And for that? She feels nothing but shame.”

“Shame?” Another crack in the stone as alarm and pain mixed in those mismatched eyes. “I am nothing but proud. Her schooling, her lessons, her etiquette. She’s not perfect, but…”

At her pause, Lamar pressed his point. “I understand you’re trying to give her structure, prepare her for a life of royalty. But, and I’m sorry for saying it again, Princess Garnet is a child. She needs to be a child while she still can. I know you’ve been through all the same things she has. What did you want to do at her age?”

Once more, the Queen bowed her head. But only for a moment. She stood up sharply, making Lamar jump. Yet, when she looked at him this time, there was no stone or ice in her expression. For the first time since she’d found him, she looked at him not as the Queen, but as Lazuli, the human. “You’ve given me much to think about, Mr. Kelvin. I wish I had come to you first. I intend to spend some time with my daughter now, but I would have you remain at the palace for the time being, in case your services are still needed. If what you are saying is true, then… you have my gratitude.”

He placed his hand over his heart and bowed, imitating as best he could Siegfried’s motions from last night. “It was an honor, Your Majesty.”

She walked at a brisk pace for the door, but paused before opening it. After a moment’s hesitation, she turned to him. “If you are right about this, then the crown owes you a debt of gratitude. Is there anything you might desire for your services?”

Lamar’s considered this offer for only a moment before daring to smile. “Tell Princess Garnet a bedtime story tonight.”

Queen Lazuli took in his smile, her expression the definition of incredulous. Gradually, she returned his smile. It may have been the loveliest he’d ever witnessed.
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#1 · 2
· · >>PaulAsaran
I was certain for a while that this was Cold in Gardez's story. It has all the Cold in Gardez trademarks: good description, fantasy genre, pulpy high concept premise, talks about dreams as they relate to real life in a vaguely Freudian manner, barely manages to fit into word count (I would hyperlink this, but it would be basically every story he's written in the last three years), and of course, the en-dash.

But this isn't Cold in Gardez's story.

I don't know who wrote this.

This bothers me.

I have some theories that some people are involved in a grand conspiracy of trickery headed by the nefarious Cold in Gardez, but of course I have no proof of this. It is curious, however, that a select number of people have switched up what dash type they use.


The opening of this story is a bit rough, which is a shame because there's a lot to like about in once you get over that initial misstep. In particular, I had to re-read the first opening paragraphs a couple times to be sure of who Thomas was referring to. I'm not sure why the story plays so coy with what is going on, since Lamar definitely knows what's going on, but the narrative doesn't clue us into this fact. On a reread, I found myself perplexed as to why the author decided to structure the scene in such a way—I assume to give some sense of mystery or force the reader to ask a question—but it just goes on too long and provides too little answers as to what is happening in the scene. Just getting a sense of what Lamar is trying to do or what his direction in this scene with a sentence or two would greatly improve the initial read, because again, in the context of the scene, Lamar knows what his directive and generally what is happening.

Generally speaking, the biggest thing hold this entry back for me is that it clearly can't fit in the 8000 word limit. The author is trying to tell a novella-length story in 8000 words. The slow deliberate pacing leaves the story feeling highly lopsided once we finally get to the meat and potatoes of the story, which is Lamar's recruitment by Queen Lazuli and subsequent interactions with Princess Garnet (seriously, what is up with how often people use these names. I blame Steven Universe), which gets rolling 2000 words past the introduction, and the conflict really isn't established until around 3600 words in. So we're left with around 4000 words left for the story proper. As such, it gives off the impression that all the work done establishing the setting in prior scenes isn't really fully being put to work, and that the latter half of the story is a truncated version of a much larger scale. All those lovely details come to bite you in the ass since you don't have space to actually flesh out the full scope of the conflict you've established.

As such, the latter scenes seem a bit rushed. Answers come too easy. Lamar doesn't even really need to be in Garnet's dreams to get an understanding of what is wrong, he can pretty much observe it himself without much difficulty. The story tries to deflect this with an "Emperor Has No Clothes" sort of situation, where the "experts" just can't tell the Queen what is obviously wrong. I'll outline three problems with this approach:

1. The Queen is not established to be such a cruel woman that she would lash out at anyone trying to give her the slightest criticism on her parenting, and despite appearing intimidating, she is consistently demonstrated to be rather reasonable and cool-headed. There are mentions in the prose that the Queen maybe is cruel enough to do something drastic, but it is never demonstrated.

2. The ease at which Lamar is able to ascertain what is amiss with the situation deflates the idea that Garnet's problem is desperate as to warrant his help and even further, doesn't fully utilize the unique skill set he happens to possess (his dream-walking). It seems to me even Siegfried the Servant could figure this out. When combined with the above point, it breaks my suspension of disbelief that the Queen is so desperate as to be scouting out an orphanage in Bumfuck Egypt for the vaguest hint of what could possibly be going on. Again, if the situation was that Siegfried and everyone else knew what was going on, but you'd get executed if you spoke out, it'd make more sense. Maybe there Lamar could have some conflict between himself and the servants, or even Garnet, like they're threatening him not to tell the Queen, because then they'll get shit.

But that's not the case.

3. Lamar isn't really challenged and isn't really allowed to have an arc. Everyone just seems to accept his advice carte blanche. He has minor adversity in the fact that he has overcome his fear of Queen Lazuli in order to actually tell her she's wrong, but that's not an "arc" (moveover, it's not what the story is about) and really he had already done it before in an earlier scene. Lamar ends the story with the same mindset as he starts it. Even the Queen admits that she thought he'd take a bit longer.

Complaints with pacing and information distribution aside, the story has all the components to be complete, and ends in a mostly satisfying way once you adjust to that fact. I'd hate to tell the author of the 7,800 word story that it's just not long enough, but unfortunately it really is the case.

If you want to go with the "Emperor Has No Clothes" and ditch the necessity of Lamar's dream powers to remedy the situation, you're going to have to introduce some sort of antagonist force that is keeping the blatantly obvious information from the Queen, whether it is the Queen herself, her staff, or perhaps a new character altogether. If what's going on is really as easy as Lamar being with Garnet for literally a day, provide another source of conflict to make it the adversity seem more substantial.

Alternatively, you could make Lamar's dream powers more important to actually solving the problem. This makes a lot of sense considering the painstaking details you go to establish this. Maybe Lamar can't tell what's going on right away. Maybe there's something unique about the Princess's dreams that stop him from being able to enter them or something that makes them unique in some way that proves difficult to Lamar. Maybe he pushes himself to develop new limits to his power. I don't know. For the purposes of this story, I find Lamar's powers to be criminally underused for something so fleshed out and important within the story's universe.

Still. Near the top of my slate if not the top of it. I'd post the "you tried" star, but Roger doesn't let us use images.
#2 · 2
· · >>PaulAsaran
tl;dr: A charming story with an enjoyable central premise that is unfortunately dragged down by a misuse of its word count.

I like this story. It won me over rather quickly with its fun teen inception concept and a rather imminently likable main. The idea is smoothly presented and we are introduced quite easily to our main, his abilities, and his place in the world.

Of course, what this world is is a bit of a troubling question. You give very little information here, which kinda leaves me scratching my head. I'm not even sure if this is primary world or secondary world fantasy. It is not a super important question and you establish the key facts well enough (dream sharing being unusual), but it still leaves me floundering around a bit whenever I try to imagine the setting.

Also, the drip-drip-drip at the beginning is a bit of a problem. Simply put, the visual structure of it doesn't actually lend itself well to the auditory description you provide. That text reads quietly and quickly, where you have something much slower and more ponderous. Always keep that in mind with onomatopoeia.

Of course, the problem with this wonderful and evocative opening is that it doesn't work in a short story. With a short, this is way too much time invested into setup. It is cool, it is a good hook, and it utterly devours your word count, forcing you to compromise the actual narrative you were attempting to tell. Due to their space limited nature, a successful short story needs to be tight and focused.

As Cassius says, Lamar actually has a pretty breezy time. He comes in, hangs with her for one night and solves the issue. There is no real challenge for him, no real conflict, no real sense of stakes. Don't do that! Give Lamar some obstacles. The dream is tough symbolism, the princess is far less cooperative, there is a red herring option that makes him unsure, etc. Make Lamar work for his victory, give us the sense of a hard earned therapeutic battle for this princess' soul. There is nothing wrong with a character succeeding, but they can't succeed right away. They need to be challenged. They need to fail. Then they rise back up and rock it. Otherwise the story is just too flat and level.

So, that is a lot of words spent saying: cut straight to the queen or even the princess, backtrack us into a few necessary facts, and then make Lamar earn the W.

The foundations are great here (though I'm not quite sure I buy Lamar at 16 - he's a bit too mellow and reasonable), you just need to clean it up and refine it a bit for a truly excellent "psychological" adventure story.
#3 · 1
· · >>PaulAsaran
Hmm hmm.

First off, cut the bit with Thomas, it's not doing much for your story. Sure, it establishes a bit of Lamar's powers, but... you could do that just as easily in Garnet's dream sequence. I think you'd be better off devoting the beginning of your story to Kettle and Lamar's relationship, re-enforce the 'I have a mother' bit, so it comes across as more poignant. Alternately, bring up some sort of plot element that comes back later... have Garnet meet Thomas or something? Give Lamar some regrets that he can resolve in the latter half? As it is now, it's like it's own little open-and-close story before the real story starts, and it's not doing much for you.

Secondly, the confrontation between Lamar and the Queen at the end, which is the crunch point of the story, feels too straightforwards to me. Lamar goes in, says his piece, everything ends happily. Nice in principle, but the truth is, once Lamar gets over his struggle to speak, there's no real tension there. Is the Queen going to kill him? No. Is she going to reject his advice? No.

Thirdly... well, it's a small thing, but Kettle's office and the guard's guns felt somewhat like an anachronism in a country with an all-powerful Queen. On the one hand, magic + orphanage suggest classic 'high fantasy', but then there are hints that this is more modern day. I'd suggest stepping up the 'modern day' stuff just a touch at the beginning, to solidify the surrounding world a bit; it might still clash, but it'll feel more 'normal'? Eh, this wasn't really a big deal, I guess. You could also use a different name for the Queen that sounds more modern, but I'm not sure what I good one would be.

Other than that, I liked this one a lot. interesting characterization, interesting conceit, competent execution. Nice work!
#4 · 1
· · >>PaulAsaran
This one's hard to judge by the opening alone. It's making me confused... but with the horror vibes I'm getting, that may be the intended effect. The surreal scene is different and strange enough that I'm still curious to read more. So I guess that's a thumbs up for the hook doing its job.

Thomas’s body began to go limp. A little at a time, he relaxed. His eyes started to close.

They opened again, and he was staring at his hand atop a blue pillow.

This part tripped me up. It made me think the POV had jumped over to Thomas (cool transition!), but it's actually still Lamar.
#5 ·
· · >>PaulAsaran
This is a strong entry, but it does seem to let itself down as the story continues. As others have mentioned, the simplicity of the conflict and the lack of an antagonistic force betray the premise.

Overall the story needs a couple more editing passes—not only for the typos here and there, but also because it's in dire need of a trim. There's a fair amount of repeating yourself and trying to be a little too verbose with some of the descriptions. In my experience, it's when too much effort is poured into sounding cool and/or unique that the typos, hidden pov changes, and narration confusion featured above end up happening. It's nice to see it from the outside for once!

Another complaint I have is that when Lamar revealed himself to be 15, I was shocked. I was thinking late twenties at the youngest. I don't think I've ever seen such professionalism from a 15 year old boy. The terminology he uses and the manner in which he stays on task is astounding. The only explanation I could see for this would be that he had a mentor of some kind, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

The highlight of the story for me is the dinner scene. Lamar overcomes Garnet's brashness with ease, but it makes sense here, because presumably he spent his whole life with children of multiple ages—so it's not weird that he's a natural at making friends with kids. I only wish the narration wasn't so cocksure about it.

Great work and good luck!
#6 ·
· · >>PaulAsaran
The way the kid was ignoring him, I thought he himself might have been a ghost at first. Still, two days stuck in a flooded building with a dead parent? No wonder the kid has issues.

I get a vibe that the setting is modern, but clearly there's magic, or at least esp afoot. But whatever it is seems to be normal enough.

Good descriptions of body language, showing the headmistress's nervousness.

Hmm, palace guards and now a queen. More anachronistic than I was getting earlier; I'm having trouble picturing the setting.

He's fifteen? I wouldn't have guessed.

Ah, so the dream thing doesn't seem to be a common ability.

I didn't follow the therapist logic, though, as to why he's not worried.

A few mechanical errors, but nothing excessive for a writeoff entry.

Some nice interactions with the princess; I like how he has to use his skills to win her over. That said, it's still relatively quick. It would've been nice for there to have been some more complications.

Likewise with the dream sequence. It's an interesting dream, and it all fits together, but it only takes the one. Given the writeoff word limit, this is largely forgivable.

It seemed solid overall, my main thought would be to throw more obstacles in his way to overcome.
#7 · 1
>>Cassius>>AndrewRogue>>Not_A_Hat>>Haze>>Miller Minus>>Ratlab

The day before the prompt was announced, I had a dream. In this dream, I found myself in this strange world of darkness and red, where I met a little girl I'd never seen before and watched her undergo a nightmare very similar to the one Princess Garnet went through. I then woke up... only to find myself in another dream, in which the girl ran away in terror and I had to explain to her mother, a powerful political figure, that she was responsible for the nightmare. Then I woke up for real.

That was one of the strangest dreams I've ever had, and I just had to write it down. Oh, hello there, Writeoff!

Honestly, I knew that the idea was too big for a single contest of this nature, even as I was writing it. But the dream was still vivid in my head and I really wanted to write it down properly, so I accepted the issue and the fact I wouldn't be placing this time because of it. I didn't even expect to make it into the finals with this, but you people never fail to surprise me. My real intention was simply to get the idea down so that it could be expanded upon at a later time, and maybe get a soundboard on the idea in and of itself.

So consider me pleased. Now I can grow this into something great at my leisure and when I'm ready to do so, while keeping the visual concepts intact long after the dream fades from memory. I thank everyone who gave their thoughts on this. Many of the issues – pacing, characterization, sense of conflict – were known to me ahead of time, but I appreciate the insights regardless. There are a few things I didn't anticipate, and maybe I'll be better prepared to deal with them next time.

PS – Okay, guessers, here's a clue: Paul likes powerful female characters. So if you see a female role that is strong politically, physically, financially, or just in personality (and especially a combination of them), it might be me.