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Thoughtfully curated stories from independent writers.
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The Lab Summer 2024

Summer 2024

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Pick Up, Nasim
by Violet Hudson

This is a story of Nasim and Valerie, a love story tainted by the touch of a life-threatening illness. Nasim is torn between her desire to control the situation and her love for Valerie.

“I’m sorry Miss. Kareem, with a disease like this you have about a month to live. There is

currently no treatment available.”

Nasim sprung up in her bed. Her chest heaved as she placed a shaky hand to it. Her eyes quickly fleeted around the room, but instead of the white walls and the bright lights of the hospital she was met with complete darkness. The rough hotel sheets scraped over the back of her thighs as she shifted.

 

Nasim carefully lowered herself back into the bed. Her dark hair fanned out around the pillowcase. A black halo around her head. She stared up at the ceiling as she tried to get her breathing back to normal. Nasim wasn’t sure if she could call it a nightmare, it was just an endless replay of her own memories.

 

The real nightmares came when those memories continued into her mind’s own creation. Without realizing it Nasim reached out to the other side of the bed, her hand searched for something that wasn’t there. So she turned her back to the empty side and tried to sleep. Her phone lit up in the dark.

Valerie: Baby, please. We can work this out. Talk to me.

That morning Nasim ordered room service. A stack of chocolate chip pancakes, hash browns, eggs, and both bacon and sausage. Enough food to make two people have to unbutton their pants. Foods that Nasim, who had been a vegan and health nut since should could remember, never allowed herself to have. She savored every last bite and chased it with a bottle of whiskey.

Valerie: Are you okay? Did you make it there okay? Call me.

 

Nasim didn’t bother to look before she crossed the street. She didn’t use the crosswalk either. She slowly strolled across the busy road and flipped off cars that honked at her. She knew she wouldn’t get hit. Those weren’t the cards she was dealt. There was a slight stumble in her step as she jumped onto the sidewalk. A few people whispered behind their hands as she made her way past them.

 

Valerie: Nasim. Answer your phone.

 

The liquor store was only a block away from the hotel she was staying at. Nasim walked to it. She whistled “Rockin’ Robin” as she went. A woman and her young daughter crossed the street before they got close to her.

 

Valerie: This is childish.

 

Valerie: Is a new job really worth throwing away everything we had?

 

Nasim spent extra on the expensive brand of vodka with gold flakes in it. She sat on the ground up against a lamppost. She shoved a powdered donut into her mouth. It rained powdered sugar down on her black shirt. She didn’t bother trying to wipe it off.

 

Valerie: Seriously? We have one little argument and that’s it?

 

The brown bag crinkled under her grip as she poured vodka into her mouth. It tasted horrible. A police officer had already given her an open container violation. Nasim nodded and apologized but once he was gone she crumpled up the fine and threw it into a random ally. She shared her liquor with a random bum who asked for some. Sharing is caring.

Valerie: Nasim. We’re all very worried. At least call your mom.

 

Nasim wrapped the rainbow feathers around her neck. She had seen the feathered boa through a window on her way back to the hotel. The store owner demanded she give him fifty dollars for it, he thought he could trick a ‘tourist’ into paying such an absurd price. She smacked a hundred on the table and walked away.

 

Valerie: A package arrived for you. Where should I send it?

 

Valerie: I miss you. We can make this work, Nasim. I can move out there to be with you. 

 

Nasim took the stairs. Fourteen flights up. Her legs screamed and burned by the time she got to her luxury suite, but she didn’t care. She stumbled in. The bottle of vodka shattered as she carelessly threw it into the kitchen.

 

Valerie: We can make this work. Just tell me what I need to do. I’ll do anything.

 

Nasim got into the tub with her clothes on. She made sure it was burning hot. Steam rose to the ceiling. The mirrors fogged up. She let her body melt into the water. Her skin loosened and freed her. She dunked her head under the water, and for a brief moment allowed herself to be dead.

 

Everything was silent and still. Time slipped out through her tears and mixed into the bath water. And for that brief moment she was free. Before it too slipped through her grasp. She wanted to scream but her throat wouldn’t open. Her hands wrapped around her neck, her fingers twitched with the urge to rip it open so she could finally scream. She wanted to break her jaw in pieces so it would no longer clamp shut and block her cries. When she rose, she felt silly like a mere child playing pretend.

 

Valerie: Call me. Please, Nasim. I’m begging you. Please call me.

 

Nasim poured every single fancy soap and liquid the hotel had provided into the water. She scrubbed her skin raw, till it burnt to even touch it. An attempt to wash away every memory, every sin. She wanted to be clean. Clean of her name. Clean of her life. She left her soaked clothes on the floor.

 

Valerie: I love you so much. I don’t want to lose you.

 

Nasim slipped the black satin over her skin. The fabric of the dress cinched around her waist and hung tightly around her hips. The rest of the fabric fell loosely to her ankles. It was a designer piece. The only designer item Nasim had ever owned. Bought just for today.

 

Valerie: Nasim.

 

She sat for a moment on the patio in silence. She twisted her engagement ring on her finger. She had been twisting it for a while now, the skin underneath it had turned raw. The pads of her finger dug into the jewel. The sun had set and the night life of the city had awakened. She carefully placed the ring on the table.

 

Valerie: Two Missed Calls

 

As she sat on the railing, she wondered just how she was able to do this. She questioned why a hotel with such high floors allowed access to the patio. After this there would surely be a safety meeting. Nasim felt slightly guilty for the poor souls that would have to sit through that.

 

Valerie: You left some stuff here. Want me to send it to you?

 

Nasim prayed. She prayed to every god she had ever heard of. She prayed to the universe. To anything that would listen. After a while, she ran out of prayers. So instead she cursed at herself. She looked down at the street below her, people walked by and looked like nothing but ants. She felt like them. Small and insignificant. She heard her phone ring behind her. She didn’t have to look to know it was Valerie.

 

“Have you heard of the dignified death act? We have resources for you and your family.”

 

 

The doctor’s words replayed in her mind. And for the first time Nasim wished Valerie was here. Here to hold her and comfort her. Like how Nasim had done for Valerie when her mother lost a long battle to ovarian cancer. She had been sick for so long. Nasim had seen what it did to Valerie. How it completely broke her. She knew Valerie wouldn’t have been able to last through another loved one fighting a disease. She had seen what it did to Valerie’s mother.

 

She refused to meet the same fate. To succumb to a sickness. So she lied. She told everyone she had a job opportunity all the way in Boston. It broke Nasim’s heart to tell Valerie she had to put her career first. She hoped this would be easier on her.

 

She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t let her body break down on her. She had always been in control. Every aspect of her life was meticulously planned out. Control was everything. Without it, Nasim didn’t feel like a person. Just some doll to be pulled apart by fate till the stitching tying her together popped free and sent her unraveling. Nasim wouldn’t, no couldn’t, give up control.

 

Valerie: Some of these documents look really important. I can bring them to you.

 

One of Nasim’s heels plummeted to the street. She watched it slowly become nothing more than a black speck.

 

Valerie: Missed Call

Valerie: Missed Call

Valerie: Missed Call

Valerie: Missed Call

 

Valerie: Nasim I found your medical papers. 

 

Valerie: PICK UP!

 

Valerie: We can get through this Valerie: Don’t do this

 

 

Valerie: I love you so much Nasim Valerie: We can fight this

 

Valerie: Please, Nasim. Answer me.

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Matt Knudsen:
Yes... You’ve Seen Him in Everything.

Interview with Actor, Producer, Writer and Hollywood's Positive Nice Guy

 

by Michael Furry

Matt Knudsen

Merchant Marine, Actor, Comedian, Director, Producer, Writer, and a genuinely all-around nice guy… Meet Matt Knudsen. Chances are you’ve seen him in something you love. I say chances are because his entertainment career started in the 90s and is still going strong. He has been Jesus on Malcolm in the Middle, acting in a “two-hander” with Brian Cranston’s Hal; he has appeared in our favorite shows from Boston Legal and Big Love to The Mindy Project, The League, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Big Bang Theory, & Shrinking, and currently as Dr. Mark Kramer on General Hospital… not to mention Workaholics, Key and Peele, and so many more it’s easier to direct you to his IMDB page than try to list them all out.

 

Along with his work in some of the best TV shows of the past 20 years, Matt is also a touring stand-up comic, and if that wasn’t enough, has recently published his first book: 

Have I Seen You In Anything?: True Hollywood Stories from a Guy that Seems Familiar

 

Matt sat down with us to discuss his book and career and share insights on his creative process and journey thus far.

 

 

YL: Thank you for speaking with me today, Matt! I wanted to kick things off by asking about your time as a merchant marine. How did that lead you to Hollywood and the entertainment industry?

 

Matt: I had never, like, been to Los Angeles or done stand-up comedy, or I wasn’t an actor. I never did any of those, like traditional, like theater kid, or even, like, NYU Tisch film school, that stuff. I just moved to Los Angeles after doing that, because I had always wanted to do stand up and act and perform. And I just thought, well, I could. And also, it was like, I was in my mid 20s when I moved to LA so I was like, well, I could go to, like Chicago for five years, and then I could do second city and kind of come up through that. But then, by the time I hit my “career”, I might be 30 or 35, so I just decided to move to Los Angeles, even with no experience in like super green, because I thought, if you’re going to be a fish in any pool, you may as well just have it be the biggest pool possible. Because even if you’re not where you’re hoping to be in your career, you can see other people who are killing it. And sometimes, you know the education you get is not necessarily what you pick up on your own, but you see others doing it, you’re inspired by the work that you see. And so it was, it was, it was daunting, but I’m really glad I did it. And even when I first moved here, I was a production assistant that was like, my first, like, foot in the door job, you know, emptying trash cans and grabbing people’s lunches, because when you’re at that entry level, you’re not expected to know a whole lot. So, it was a great education.

 

YL:  Sounds like it was a great education! I found it fascinating that you were a Merchant Marine, then a boom operator, and you took a Forest Gump-like path to where you are now, but it seems like you took an unconventional path.

 

Matt:  Well, thank you. Yeah, I actually got into sound. I was working as a PA on a job, and I met one of the sound guys who was who’s working on the film, and he introduced me to a  sound mixer. And I got the job. So, it was a way to stay on set and stay in the mix. But then I also was departmentalized. You know, when you’re when you’re starting out and you’re doing a production assistant work, it’s like, “hey, we need you to do A, B, C, D, E, F, G”. Once you get into sound and you’re like, Well, I’m in the sound department. So you go from a jack of all trades to a little more specified role. And it was just honestly, it was just luck. I just, I’ve I was fortunate enough to meet someone at the right time. I was working on a movie that went from a non-union contract to a union contract, and I was able to join the international Alliance of Theatrical and stage employees, local 695. I was still able to be on the set, but as a boom operator. I was right near the actors. I was literally standing next to them as they were doing their thing. And I had a poll over my head and was capturing their dialog and performances as they were delivering it. So again, in the same way as like being able to see stand-up comics, any night of the week, or sketch improv shows, any night of the week. I was literally on set with these professionals in the environment that made them stars. So you get to see not only how they prepare for their work, but how they handle themselves when the cameras aren’t rolling. The people that they are offset and what they care about and you see them as people more than, you know, just these like Robert Wagner. It personalized it a lot more, and it also made it feel attainable for me. There was also a time when I would be booming. I’d work like, 60 hours a week, five days a week, 12 hour days, but then I’d get off work, and then go do a show at night and be taking classes on the weekends and performing and going out. Since I was so green when I moved to Los Angeles, I knew I, just I knew it wasn’t good enough to be a viable option when it came to picking you for acting or stand up, I just needed more experience. So being a boom guy allowed me to be on set, to be around, to learn, and then also it was my survival job while I was working towards my ultimate goal of just, you know, being an entertainer.

 

YL: A moment ago, you said that it was a lot of luck, which I’m sure played into it a bit. But it also sounds like you really put yourself in the middle of everything.

 

Matt: I think there’s something to be said about being in the mix. You can’t underestimate the power of just being around, you know? And having a good attitude. More than anything, I’m grateful for my sense of curiosity, because my sense of curiosity has led me into so many different directions. If I was just kind of like, Yeah, I’m going to go to work and then I’m going to go home and I’m going to watch TV for a couple hours, and I’m going to go to bed and I’m going to get up the next day, you know? I’m sure you’ve heard the expression like, the harder you work, the luckier you get. Yes, absolutely. So I really believe there’s something to that as well.

 

YL: One of the general themes in your book is a genuinly positive outlook on the industry and the people you’re meeting. And, you know, as somebody read the book, I found it refreshing. It’s a celebrity, not tell all, but tell some. What gave you the idea to write the opposite of everybody’s celebrity book out there? 

 

Matt: to be honest, the that has been my ride for the most part. I’ve had a handful of experiences where you’re like, well, this person wasn’t very nice, but for the most part, some of the biggest names that I’ve met have been the coolest, you know. Some of the biggest people have the least amount to prove so they can just be gracious and genuine and cool. And those are the stories that I like to hear about, people. I don’t want to hear about, this guy was a jerk. You’re like, yeah, you know it. It’s kind of cliche. I just wanted to give people their flowers for being decent and funny and kind. Also, if you’re a fan of these people, you’re like, hey, you know Bryan Cranston, he’s the best. Wouldn’t you like to hear something positive and uplifting about someone you already, like, you know, I do. So you can take your fandom up just a little bit more by knowing that, like, hey, you know what? Gary Busey, he’s a, he is a man unto himself. He’s a good dude, you know? So it’s also just from entertainment industry sense. I would never go out and, like, torch these bridges, you know, and like, you don’t want the reputation of someone who’s backstabbing. And I didn’t even think about doing something like that for a second. And so, I sleep good every night. I’m proud to share these people being cool. And, you know, I think that’ll just kind of generate that the positive energy that I’d like to be around with other people.

 

YL: As you were putting these together as an actor and comedian, you have a great grasp of the elements of narrative and story,  what to you, makes a good story?

 

Matt: I think a good story, maybe you can kind of like in much of my Stand Up Show, there’s two words that I want people to experience before the show. I want them to be intrigued, and when the show is over, I want them to be delighted. So if there’s a level of intrigue and you’re like, Oh, I’d like to know a little bit more about Gene Simmons, you know, then you hear the story afterwards, like, all right, you know. I think for me in this book, the hook is celebrity, but at the same time, realizing that I’m not a celebrity. So, if you pick up the book and you just flip through the table of contents, and you’re just like, oh, you know, Rachel bloom, I’d like to know more about her. You get a 5 page story, but it’s not told from a fellow Star. It’s told from number eight on the call sheet, who’s just happy to like, you know, be there as a guest star for the week. So I’m not the crazy ex girlfriend. I’m Stonebrough, the owner of the country club. So I guess celebrity and realizing that I’m not famous enough to try and sell a book on my own.

 

YL: I think you might be selling yourself short there. I would consider a celebrity. 

 

Matt: Oh, thanks, Michael. Come on. 

 

YL: And you know you mentioned Rachel Bloom and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, that was one of my wife’s favorite shows.

Matt: Rachel’s the best. She’s just the best. Also, it’s a reminder to anyone with artistic aspirations that as long as you create art that’s meaningful to you, you never know where it’s going to connect. Because she started out with like, doing her songs and music videos and things online, and then suddenly they’re like, “Oh, who is that woman that sang ‘F Me, Ray Bradbury’? So, they just as long as you’re creating and doing things that you’re proud of, the sky’s the limit. I always encourage any artist to just make what resonates with you, and then the rest of it’s up in the air.

 

YL: Speaking of creating, the way you write these memoirs, there is a lot of creative pattern to it. And I wonder, have you ever considered writing fiction, short stories, novels, or screenplays?

 

Matt: No. I mean, I do write. I mean, I’ve written movies and pilots and things like that, but I’ve never sat down and wrote it once upon a time, or like a Philip K Dick type of a thing. I like to read them, and it intrigues me, but to sit down and commit the time, I guess, at this, at this age that I’m at right now, and the way my career is trending, I don’t see myself as an author as much as I do a comedian and an actor right now. I’m writing a TED talk, and that’s a goal of mine, to do a TED Talk someday. So, the onus of my TED talk is, don’t have a bucket list, to have things that you want to do, but to say, like, someday before I die, I want to go to Peru. Just like, go to Peru next weekend. You know what I mean? Not this, like, grandiose, when I retire. Just go to the airport, you sit in a long silver tube for nine hours and you’re there. No bucket list, when you can just do it now.

 

YL: One of the stories in your book that that I loved, I love all of them, but one of the is your chance meeting with Colin Hay over lunch, right? I’m a huge Colin Hay fan.

 

Matt: Oh, dude, he’s just Colin Hay!  He’s funnier than most comedians. You know what I mean? Like you go and you see his live show, and he’s done this kind of troubadour act. It’s just him and the guitar, and he’ll play his songs and then tell these stories that it’s just like you’re falling out of your chair laughing. And it just so happened, I did a movie with Ray Abruzzo, who played little Carmine in the Sopranos. And at the time, I was doing a podcast, and I invited him and the director of the movie. The three of us went to his health club because it had, like, a little, kind of a breakfast and lunch place at the club. So, while we were sitting there talking and recording the podcast, it was called, Grabbing Lunch with Matt Knutson. Colin came over, I guess he was a member of the club too. They were pals. Colin sat down. I mean, what an artist, what a great guy.

 

YL: And you’ve worked in for decades in the in the industry. From the stories in your book, and just talking to you now, you’ve been everywhere, on both sides of the camera. The title of your book is “Have I Seen You in Anything?” Reading your stories, you’re everywhere. in prep for this, I was scrolling through your IMDB, yeah, again. And it is an incredibly impressive list.

 

Matt: Um, somehow, I’m a doctor on general hospital right now.

 

YL: And you were Jesus on Malcom in the Middle?

 

Matt: That was the first time for me. It was a seminal moment, because it was the first time I was on a show that I really loved, and, you know, was a good scene. It was just a two-hander with Bryan Cranston, and it really changed my life. It made it feel more accessible than it had before, because you had kind of already been in the arena, even though you were nervous. And you know, you did your best, but you get those timely yeses, and they really put a lot of wind in your sails.

 

YL: imagine they would! With all the relationships you’ve developed with people over the years in the industry, on both sides of the camera. What do you feel is the most important lesson you’ve learned about your creative process from those you worked with over the years, something you’ve taken with you?

 

Matt: Sometimes yes is just not right now, you can always be working on something, and you don’t always hear yes to all the yeses that you want, but if you keep working, everything that you’ve created is available anytime people are interested. You know, there’s projects on my hard drive that I’ve haven’t really touched in years. But if I run into someone or, like, maybe I hit this big HBO show where, you know, who knows what, then you’re in this strata with these executives. Hey, have you thought about your you know thing? Like, yeah, I have these things, you know, like the pilot that I would quit acting to make I wrote, it’s called clinical trials, and it is Parks and Recreation meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s about a clinical trial facility, but you think that they’re all like, clean and put together and, you know, really professional, but what’s the 99-cent store version of a clinical trials facility, and that’s the prime location. So, I’d love to make that, but I haven’t had that sit down with ‘insert name of person’, but it’s available.

 

YL: So, that’s a project that you’ve written the pilot for?

 

Matt: I wrote a pilot, and I shot a sizzle real and, you know, has like Kyle Canaan and Edie Patterson and like some of my favorite people, Lynn Stewart, who was Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Yes, they all like, volunteered their time and came out and did this, and it’s, you know, but nothing’s ever dead. There’s no official debt. You can repurpose anything that you make at any time. You know, for the most part, the show that I’m touring right now is called The One-Man Variety. Show, and it’s stand up, it’s music, it’s sketches, there’s short films, there’s a dance number. So, my elevator pitch is the Chappelle Show meets Lawrence Welk with a little TED Talk. So, one of the elements of the show is this movie I wrote and directed like three years ago somewhere, like, half hour into the show, I just show the short while I take a break and get a drink and use the restroom, and like, three, four minutes later, come out. It’s like, it’s, you can fold in and repurpose everything you’ve ever created your entire career.

 

YL: that’s interesting. I like to touch on that because, this sounds like this is an evolution of your show Rhythm & News.

 

Matt: Just bringing other stuff in. And there’s also these tentpole things that I have. I call them improvised sketches, wherein you set the parameters for what the scene is, but it’s all improvised in the middle of it, you know, like one of the bits I do is called KTZN, The Zone. I’m like an FM D.J. guy, you know. But what audience members do, as they enter the theater, I have a prompt by the door. It just says, “Write down a made-up event.” To give some examples, like the paperclip convention, cloud Appreciation Day, you know. So as people are going into the theater, they write a suggestion down and put it in a bowl. Then at some point in the show, I have someone who works at the club bring the bull out, and those are the suggestions for the community calendar. You know, yeah, these are events going out of your town this weekend. Get out there, and I just pull the slips of paper out and I read them, and people get to hear their idea. And I kind of riff a service announcement. Don’t miss you know, The Poor Teddy Bear, you know, whatever it is. And I do 3,4,5, of those, and it’s new for me every night, and I get to enjoy it. And it’s kind of that combination of passive crowd work.

 

YL: A lot of writers have rituals to get themselves in the zone to write, just to fill the pages, what sorts of things do you do, or do you have any rituals that you go through to get in the zone? For writing, for acting, for improv, when you’re creating these, you know, these entertainment experiences. Is there anything that you do to focus your juices?

 

Matt: No, not really. I mean, outside of allow time and space for them, you know. I think if there’s a something that you really want to do, that burning desire, like I got to do this, you’ll find a way. If things get in your way, like, I just can’t get to writing. Maybe you don’t want to do that thing as much as you think you do, or that you just want to talk about doing it. Like, I’m working on my movie right now and, you know, but I have to go to the bank and work. I try and keep paper around me and to be able to collect ideas when they occur to me. And I thought this was a great thing Hemingway used to do. Leave the writing when you still have an idea. Don’t empty the tank. What you’re going to think of next? Our ideas are valid. They belong somewhere. If they’ve occurred to you, they matter. You know, look for that glimmer that shines behind your eyes. You know, in every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts.

 

YL: That’s getting a call out in the article for sure.

 

YL: Tell me, you named your book “Have I Seen You in Anything?” How often do you get asked that question?

 

Matt: Have I Seen You in Anything: true Hollywood stories from a guy that seems familiar. I never get recognized. That’s just not a part of my life or lifestyle. But if that ever comes up, that that is the question that people ask for the most part – there’s maybe a familiarity. But I think everyone has a favorite show and movie and, you know, song and book, and everyone has a favorite thing. So, if, if they’re curious, you know, I take it as a compliment, and I really am grateful that I could potentially have a response. Yeah, I think the thing that the most people have seen, that I’ve done recently is shrinking with Harrison Ford and Jason Siegel, if you’re a fan you may remember, I was the guy that spread my ashes at the Rose Bowl.

 

YL: You’re terrific in Shrinking by the way. And I loved the section in your book where you’re talking about meeting Jason Siegel and what a great person he is.

 

Matt: He is the best. The best guy, the funniest guy, the nicest guy. And He’s the reason we all have a job. He created the show. So, what a champ. 

 

YL: Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your book, and your career in the entertainment industry. 

 

Matt’s book is available now 

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Wonderland Farm
by Rye Miles

 

A woman who lives in her old family farm, is approached by a young lawyer. The firm is eager to buy the land, yet the space between village and forest is far more than the gentle lawyer could have expected. A woman, a boy and Wonderland Farm.

The black car was a blot against the green. Like an oil spill, it oozed down the winding paths that curled through the lush hills. 

           

 

My plans for the day forgotten, I hurried home. At best, I had an hour before the car reached me. I retrieved the pouch from its place in the kitchen and slipped out the back door. The afternoon was sweet and wild, tangled between the soft spring and broiling summer, even the wind was restless. I heard it murmur through the trees; leaves whispered hushed conversations above my head. These trees were awkward, tall and gangly compared to the giants who took root in the sprawling forest on the other side of the river.

 

My grip tightened on the pouch as at last I reached the water. I inhaled slowly as I placed one foot onto the stone bridge, then another. Only when I reached the centre, did the air rush from my lungs. My fingers dug into the coarse fabric of the bag, and after a moment of fumbling, I found it. Despite the honeyed light, it still looked ugly. A bundle of twigs and bones, the edges were maroon, as if they’d been dipped in merlot. In the centre, an orange gemstone. The colour of wildfire. This was not the flame from the hearth, this was destruction contained. 

 

I whispered, and I could hear the overlapping voices of my mother, my grandmother, echoes of long-dead generations lapping over my own words. Almost of their own accord, my fingers were filled with a numbing static, they turned limp and the bundle fell into the river. Beneath the silver-blue water, a single orange eye gazed up at me. I straightened and brushed off my clothes, then tried to coax warmth and life back into my stiff hands.

           

I returned home, still flexing my fingers as I closed the backdoor behind me. A moment later, a jaunty knock came from the front door. With my chin lifted, I closed the distance until I stood on the other side of the time-worn wood, and after another moment, opened it wide. A young man stood there. His ill-fitting black suit jarring against the sky, but his smile seemed open.

 

“Miss Blackthorn?” He asked,

I nodded.

 

“Hello, it's lovely to meet you! I am so glad I found the right place. My name is Marcus David, and I am a representative for Hudson & Sons. Did you get a letter from us?”

Yes. I’d crumpled it into a tiny ball with a plea my silence would keep them away.

 

“It’s hard to say,” I replied, “Difficult to keep track of the post out here.”

His smile remained undimmed,

 

“Yes, I can imagine! My supervisor told me it was rural, but somehow, I didn’t really understand that until I got here. I’m terrified for the state of my tires!” He grinned ruefully, glancing back at his dirt-splattered car.

At his boyish laugh, my own years seemed to crash against me, a physical weight hanging from my skin.

 

“Look, Marcus, was it?” I asked, continuing after his nod, “I understand you’ve come a long way, but I’m afraid it was for nothing. My answer will not change, I am not selling the farm.”

 

Please. Please, just leave.

 

His face fell, but only for a moment, before the blazing grin returned.

 

“I understand why you’re reluctant, Miss Blackthorn, but I am here to convince you. I’ve seen the records, and this land has so much potential. And the benefits for you, even to list a few -”

 

“No.”

He blinked, and I couldn’t quite suppress a flicker of guilt at the flash of innocent hurt in his eyes.

 

“I told your bosses and several other firms that I am not interested. Wonderland is not for sale. Not to you, not for anything.”

He straightened up at the mention of rival firms,

 

“That’s why I’m here. We are offering you the most generous deal, far more than any other company. Wonderland isn’t an operative farm, and from the records, it hasn’t been for a long time. It’s a house which, I hope you don’t take offence, needs some repairs and a few acres of land. Honestly, Miss Blackthorn you need to consider what we are offering, you truly won’t find a better deal.”

I waited, arms crossed for him to finish.

 

“I’m sure I won’t, but I will not be accepting your offer or anyone else’s for that matter. If I were you, I would get back into your car and go home. There is nothing for you here.” 

 

I wondered if the pleading tone in my voice was loud enough for him to hear.

To my dismay, he simply grinned again.

“Well, it’s my job to convince you! I’ll be staying at the,” he paused and glanced at his phone, “The Fallen Leaf Inn, so hopefully I can learn why you’re so against the deal and prove to you there is no better firm than Hudson & Sons.”

I blinked at the exuberant speech.

 

“Stay wherever you like,” I replied, “but my answer isn’t going to change, no matter how many pretty speeches you’ve got prepared. Wonderland Farm will never be sold.” 

 

I closed the door, just as his mouth opened to reply. 

 

Motionless, I waited until I heard him sigh, and the louder roar of his car faded as he drove away. When it was quiet, I walked slowly back into the living room and sank into my armchair. I was sure I could feel disapproval in the air at the lack of hospitality, I should have invited him inside. Poured a glass of lemonade and offered a biscuit from the tin. But I just couldn’t do it, not again. It was unusual that he chose to remain in the village, but he would be wrong if he expected any warmth.

 

The people here had suffered enough. Houses bought for second homes for the bored upper class, they sat empty and neglected while local families were forced from their homes, generations buckling and breaking as rent increased like a rising tide. Every time you looked, greedy hands raked through the village, leaving behind destruction they named progress. Hiding behind pretty buzzwords and hollow promises.

 

Wonderland Farm had remained untouched, but the firms circled like vultures above a carcass. A few acres of land and a time-worn house seemed inconsequential, but they saw opportunity. Plans of hotels, giftshops, a tourist attraction so tantalisingly close to the famed ‘haunted wood.’ Folklore ran like honey over the cobbles, thick and cloying, the perfect allure for greedy flies.

 

The stories were always half finished, voices trailing off like smoke thinning in the air, but they carried beyond the village. Outsiders, tourists hungry for novelty would appear in the summer. Into the woods they would walk, holding expensive cameras as the trees swallowed them whole. Some would return, their cynicism intact and unbroken.

 

Those were the types who would never mention the nightmares that filled their nights with the scent of churned earth. Others would never be seen. Rescue parties would half-heartedly wander through the trees, but their well-trained dogs turned rabid. Writhing and foaming at the mouth at the edge, refusing to enter with their confused masters.

 

Wonderland Farm sat placidly on the boundary, the no-man’s land between the village and the wild. Protected by a lazy river which encircled the glowering trees who were unable to drag their roots over the stone bridge. The farmhouse remained a grim survivor of too many storms and too little care. But the barn had withered into a skeleton, the ragged fence stood in leaning posts which swayed and swooned in the wind. 

 

Clouds gathered in the sky, huddled to gossip about the new visitor, smothering the sunset but for a few hopeful rays of light which peered from their dark edges. Night settled into place, a starless dark silence which rested heavily against the walls of my home. Still, the fireplace burned merrily, it’s crackling song my oldest comfort. I closed my eyes and leaned back, wishing I could let the flames lull me to sleep. But I kept seeing that boy’s face, his smile.

 

Perhaps it was an act, it would be easier if he were simply a wolf masquerading as a lamb. Yet I doubted it. In my mind’s eye, I saw him in the sparsely decorated room of the Inn, perhaps hurt by the cool manner of the villagers. I saw him planning on how to convince me, saw his eager smile as he schemed. 

 

I willed him to leave. I imagined my voice at his ear, a persistent tug to pack up his things, get into his car and drive away. 

 

Opening my eyes, I stared into the fire until the living room faded into light. I hoped the next day would bring peace. As always, I could feel the forest. Like a stubborn guest who refused to be deterred, their presence disturbed the very air. I could hear the trees, and it seemed they too were in a scheming mood. The fire burned, and only when my eyes stung from the light, did I look away.

 

The next morning found me sleep-deprived but hopeful. I walked the long path that unravelled like a pale ribbon into the village’s heart, praying the boy had left. My heart quickened as my scanning eyes found no sign of his sleek car, nothing seemed amiss. The market hummed with life, the shouts and laughter of the villagers seemed defiant against the empty spaces where other stalls used to stand. Despite the cloud-choked sky, the air was warm and the few fleeting glimpses of sunlight had coaxed people out into the day. For the first time in weeks, the village seemed alive again. I relaxed slightly, nodding my head in polite greeting as I passed a few familiar faces. 

 

“Miss Blackthorn!”

I didn’t slow my pace. Perhaps I could outwalk what I hoped was just my imagination.

 

“Miss Blackthorn?”

 

Marcus appeared by my side, and in my peripheral, I saw several of the market sellers pointedly look away. Villagers subtly turned their backs, and directed their conversations away from the boy in the too-dark suit. He didn’t seem to notice, his smile just as wide as it had been yesterday.

 

“I’m sorry if I made you jump. I did call but I don’t think you heard me.” He said cheerfully, “How’re you?” I sighed, “Busy.” I replied shortly, stepping around him. Like an eager dog, he simply fell into step beside me, his arms swinging at his side.

“With the market? It’s beautiful.” He said, and I heard nothing but sincerity in his tone,

“I can’t remember the last time I actually bought food from a stall. It’s so much nicer than the supermarket. It reminds me so much of home.”

 

“Home?” I enquired, before silently cursing myself for replying.

 

Marcus nodded, “I grew up in a little village, market day was always my favourite. Being here, it reminds me how much I loved it. There’s just more community here than in the city.” He looked at me, “Have you always lived here?”

 

I shrugged, “More or less.”

 

“Nothing beats it.” He sighed, lifting his head to bask in the single ray of sun which weakly pushed through the clouds, only to succumb to the grey moments later.

 

“If you love it so much, why are you so intent on changing it?” I asked, and his eyes widened, “Change it? Miss Blackthorn, the last thing I want to do is ruin this place. I know you’re weary about selling your land, but it could do so much good. Not just for you, but for the village.” He said, a gleam of excitement sparking in his eyes.

 

I ignored him this time, but he remained undeterred.

“The village is struggling, you know that. I read about it before I came- the empty houses, the shops closing down. It’s awful. But I really do want to preserve the beauty of this place. I don’t want to ruin your home, I want to help save it.” He finished breathlessly. 

I paused, before inclining my head for him to follow. We wove between the stalls, and I walked into one of the winding alleyways which spread like veins through the buildings. Now we were alone and out of sight, I turned to face him.

 

“You haven’t worked at the firm long, have you?” I asked.

For the first time since meeting him, he glanced away. I saw this throat shift as he swallowed.

“No. No, not really. If I’m being completely open,” he paused and took another breath, “This is actually the first time I’ve approached a client. Was it that obvious?”

His cheeks were flushed, somehow he looked even younger. My sharp retort wilted.

“You’re just… You’re not like the others.” I forced the words out, before lifting my chin,

“So you’re new and they sent you here? Does your supervisor hate you?”

Marcus’ grin returned full-force, “I asked to come! You came up in a meeting, and after reading so much about the village and how the people here are suffering… I wanted to come. Try and help.”

I closed my eyes for a moment. He asked. He asked to be here.

“I promise, we don’t want to build a mall. Or evict anyone else from their homes. There is so much potential here, and hardly anyone knows it exists. Imagine if we could help people find this place, share the amazing history of the village. Visitors would come from all over the country! It would help every business, from the shops to the Inn. Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

 

“Not really.” I replied.

 

“This place could flourish! Look, I’m not really meant to tell you about the plans but… we’re thinking about a monument to the village. Nothing fancy! Like a museum, or a gallery to showcase local art. Tourists love that kind of thing. And think of the jobs it would open up, from curators to a small café. It could help so many families.”

 

I raised a hand and he fell silent, “Look, I understand you are passionate. I genuinely think you have good intentions and want to help.” I paused, “But my answer is not going to change. I will not sell Wonderland Farm. I don’t care if your firm is looking to build a museum or an orphanage, I will not change my answer. Please, go home. Find another village to save.”

 

His face fell, and only then did I realise he truly believed he would change my mind.

Marcus looked away again, his hand lifting to run through his hair.

“Miss Blackthorn, I can’t do that.” He said, his words, for the first time, faltered. 

 

I stayed quiet, trying to ignore the dull thud of my heart.

 

“You see… I really did want to change your mind. But Hudson & Sons are planning to move ahead with the plan regardless.”

 

“They can’t do that.” He grimaced, “Technically, you only own three acres of the land. The rest is available for purchase. According to our records, no one has ever owned that land.”

Despite the warm morning, I felt cold. Cold and tired. It wasn’t uncommon in rural areas for boundaries to be defined by honour and word.  A tree, a shrub, a fence post - they were markers enough to separate land owned by generations. Few cared enough about the legality, the laws written by those who would never understand.

“No one wants a legal battle,” Marcus continued, “So if you sold, it would make the process so much easier on everyone. You’d have more than enough to buy a home, and you could have a fresh start without ever having to leave your village.” He said, his tone bordered on desperation. His face was flushed, palms open beseechingly as he looked at me with wide eyes.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the burning gemstone as it fell into the river.

 

I exhaled, before forcing my mouth into a smile, “Well then, it looks like there’s nothing else to be done. At least let me show you the land, that way you’ll be able to write a full report for when you get back to the office.”

Marcus smiled a little, but his eyes were still worried. “I really am sorry. If there is anything I can do-”

 

“Don’t worry about it” I cut him off, “It’s not your fault. Are you free to meet in about an hour?”

 

He nodded, “There’s a little stone bridge over the river, can’t miss it. I’ll see you there.”

I turned and walked away, letting the market swallow me into its bustling movements. Somehow I could still feel his eyes on my back. I didn’t turn around.

           

 

An hour later, the sun remained smothered by the clouds. An eerie white circle was all that could be seen from the star. I leaned against the cool stone as the river murmured beneath, old words from stories long forgotten. It always seemed just out of reach, as if you could just get closer you would be able to understand. I wondered how many had drowned for their answer.

 

“Miss Blackthorn!” 

 

I turned to see Marcus walking over the bridge. His jacket had gone, and his white shirt now looked wrinkled, sleeves pushed high over his elbows. The humidity was unrelenting, despite the pale light.

 

“Are you ready?” I asked, half turning to face the trees.

He hesitated, “Is it safe? I was never the best at map reading.” He joked half-heartedly.

 

I smiled, “It’s a good thing we don’t have a map then, isn’t it? And don’t worry. I might not own these woods, but I do know them.”

His face flushed at the slight barb in my voice, and without another word, walked into the trees. 

 

I watched his face change from apprehension to admiration as he gazed around the wild. Here, surrounded by trees, civilisation felt like a world away. High above, the branches swayed, limbs entangled until they formed an impenetrable canopy. Shadows mixed with the grey-light of the dull afternoon, until everything was edged with an odd purple hue. The longer we walked, the nosier the forest became. The river we’d left behind remained impossibly audible through the trees, the water-song carried in the air. Around us came the scuffling of animals and I wondered if he could feel the weight of their eyes. Marcus flinched at the sudden sound of frenetic hoofbeats and didn’t look convinced when I simply explained it as a deer. The ground seemed to shift and move beneath our feet as the forest breathed. My shirt stuck to my skin, and I could feel hair plastered to my face with sweat as the heat only grew with every step. 

 

Marcus stopped and peered over his shoulder, “Did you hear that?”

I didn’t reply. At the base of a looming oak tree, I watched as the soil churned and roiled like ocean waves. After a few moments, a large bone was pushed to the surface. White and gleaming, edged with the imprint of sharp teeth. 

 

“Hear what?” I replied, glancing over to see Marcus was looking away from the tree.

 

“I don’t know, maybe it was another deer.” He said, his eyes met mine and I saw a confused fear there. He was scared, but he didn’t know why.

 

“Are you alright?” I asked, biting the inside of my cheek.

 

“Yeah, I think so. But maybe we could go back soon? I really don’t like the idea of being here when it gets dark.” He said with a weak laugh. Marcus turned, and I saw him frown. There was no sign of which way to go. 

He looked so young.

 

“Marcus… do you have any family?” the question escaped me before I could stop it. He looked at me,

 

“My dad, and my sisters. Why?”

 

“Just wondering.” I replied quietly.

 

He opened his mouth to speak but gasped. His eyes fixed on something behind me.

I turned and saw a hare step out of the darkness collecting at the base of the trees. It was big, with none of the domesticated friendliness of a rabbit. Black fur and two long ears which twitched and turned at things beyond my paltry senses. Two orange eyes met mine.

 

I inclined my head slightly, unable to pull my gaze from the flames in its intelligent gaze.

 

“I’ve never seen a wild rabbit before…” Marcus whispered; his eyes wide with wonder. 

           

I stepped back, just as another creature emerged free from the dark. A stag, with the same black fur as the hare, crowned with obsidian antlers. Marcus made a small, choked sound, jerking away from the stag, only for a crow to flutter down onto a branch. Feathers of pitch, with the same burning eyes. Marcus shuddered, his gaze fixed on the crow. I knew what he was seeing… the unnatural stillness of the bird, the sharp intelligence in its orange, unblinking stare. A black fox crept forward, unnoticed by the man, and met my gaze. Its tail languidly swayed, and its eyes never left mine.

 

“Miss Blackthorn?” Marcus said, his voice catching on my name. I looked and saw his eyes were glassy with tears. His lip trembled. 

 

Blood filled my mouth as I bit through the wet flesh of my tongue.

I stepped back, trying to pull my eyes away from his, trying to hold it together. He tried to follow, but the fox crept forward, standing between him and I. It looked at me, ears flattened against its skull. The hare thumped one large foot, making both Marcus and I flinch. Their message was clear: it was time for me to go.

 

At last, I looked away from the man, the boy, and started walking. I ignored him when he called my name. When he screamed it. I walked over the black soil, the trees swaying and shifting to clear my path. I clenched my fists when his screams finally collapsed into cries, then gasping wheezes. By the time I reached the river, and let my hand rest on the old stone bridge, the silence was deafening.

 

I let myself into my home and collapsed onto the sofa. My eyes burned with tears I wouldn’t let fall. This day would end, and tomorrow I would begin the process of buying this land to abide by whatever human law is necessary. Anything for it to be left alone. The forest would remain, and Wonderland would stand firm- preventing it from spilling out into the village. 

 

My ancestors had been the last thing to emerge from the forest, and I would ensure nothing else would follow. 

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