Contest #152 shortlist ⭐️

59 comments

Fantasy Drama Sad

This story contains sensitive content

(CW:death)


At dawn they swing from the gallows. They sway towards Hell, pitch for Heaven, dance in limbo. Everyone in the square holds their breath at the cracking moment, a yellow fog of expectant inhalations against the tea-stained sky. The bell tolls. The scaffold creaks, splintered and umber and steadfast.


On the outskirts of the town to the west, and in the hills gazing over the valley, a century of distraught mothers - keening, breaking - swear vengeance into the guts of the lords. 


*****

A woman waits on his doorstep. A woman, Solomon notes, who moves from foot to foot, restless energy coursing through her body. It is not until he is almost upon her that her face comes fully into focus. 

          Millica. Her name comes back to him on a breath. He knows her. Knew her. 

          "Solomon?" It's a question, because of course, he is old now. Youthful jawline masked by a beard and skin papery and dry. 

          She too is old.

           I used to admire the thin blue veins in your eyelids, he thinks. He cannot see whether they are still present: the flesh of her eyelids fold like a crumpled blanket. The eyes though. The eyes are bright, a glimmer of - what is that? - expectation glints. 

         "Come in."

        The cabin creaks, the dust, effervescent, small and grey and choking. On the table in the centre stands a lone brass candlestick, and in the cold mouth of the fireplace, twigs and logs await a flame. 

         Millica is still as he digs matches from a drawer. There’s a hiss as he strikes and a gentle crackle when the hungry spark licks at the kindling. 

         He should offer her tea, he thinks, but gets no further in this thought before she's speaking in a rush. 

         "All the boys are dead, Solomon. All of them. They wanted to fight, you see. The old rules, the old ways. Wanted something for themselves. For us, their old mothers, for their children." It is impassioned, her speech, but controlled. "So they tried. But they were caught. Hanged. Every last one." Only now does a hairline crack creep into her voice. "My boy amongst them. Edrow. That was his name." 

          Solomon sits. He knows what's coming, wants to delay the moment where her heart smashes for a second time. Millica remains standing. 

         "We, the mothers, we want you to…" She stares into the fire. "We want you to bring our boys back." 


***


A light always glowed in his mother's window. A light, thought Solomon, that drew the people like moths. The grieving, the dying, the sinners, the saints: they came to their home at all hours of the day and night. 

          They were wealthy then, Solomon and his mother. Solomon pressed his feet into fine animal rugs, nibbled his venison from silver forks, slept beneath fat goose down quilts. People were willing to pay handsomely for the resurrection of their loved ones. 

         "I have a gift, Solomon. Perhaps you have it too." 

          He never grew used to the cadavers, carried in on stretchers and carts, the sweet sticky perfume of decay. He'd study their faces, blank in death, then watch their bewildered smile of thanks, coughing, bowing on shaky legs. 

           After resurrecting a body, his mother, a spent heap beneath the covers, could never get warm. 

           "Come," she'd instruct him and he'd clamber under the thick blankets and press her shivering body to his, engulfing her in his own warmth. If I could harness the sun, I'd bring it here to your bed to warm you. 

           "It takes something from you," she'd say when the quivering subsided, "giving life back to the dead." 

          "When will I be able to do it, Mother?" 

           "When it matters, child." 


***

On the second day, there are five of them. Millica has returned, though she's quieter than before.  

          "This is bigger than just us," says one of them. Polina, he thinks she said. Her cheeks are red as though scrubbed with pumice, liquid amber eyes blaze. "It is not about our sons, but their children, their future. This world is so cruel for them!" She has grown shrill in her appeal. 

          "I'm retired," he repeats quietly. 

          A woman in a tattered russet dress continues. "Think, Solomon. You could be part of the solution. Play your role in creating a fair world." She is thrumming, a ripple pushing through the air, a pebble dropped in the middle of a pond. "Nothing could prepare them for that! The men they killed, returning for vengeance, to finish what they started." She stops just short of clapping her hands with glee. 

          Solomon shakes his head slowly. "You don't understand. You can never understand." 

          They watch him as his boots creak across the bare floorboards, as he stops, pulls open the door.  

          "Please." He gestures for them to leave. 

          The women stare at him silhouetted by the dense green beyond the door, glance at one another, step stiffly away from the table. They shake their heads tightly as they pass, their pink cheeks blazing.

          Millica stops, hand gripping the rough wool of his tunic. "Help me understand." Water pools in her eyes. He sees, for a moment, a life where they could have been friends. More even. If he'd been normal. It could have been our son. 

           Solomon stares at the floor, a spider making its grateful escape from the stuffy cabin. Millica drops her hand.

            "I'm sorry," she whispers. 

            He watches until the women are spots on the expansive horizon. Behind, in the cabin, a door groans. 

           "You'll keep saying no, won't you Solomon?"

           Her voice is low and empty. 

           Solomon nods. 


***


A resurrection is like a kiss, though it would be years before he'd make that connection. To bring life back, the chosen one places their lips on those of the deceased and exhales slowly, passing, not only breath into the lungs of the dead, but essence back into the body. Like a kiss, it requires more than just the mechanics of the motion: there must be an exchange: a deep, sonorous connection that goes beyond simple compassion. 

          A blue jay, crumpled from a crash into a window, was his first attempt. Under the watchful eye of his mother, he focused on the wretched form, sorrow running cold through his veins. He covered the little beak with his mouth, closed his eyes, exhaled. The bird's chest remained still.  

         "Why won't she breathe, Mother?"

         "Because you focused on your own sadness for the bird. Compassion is not enough." She took the lifeless mass of feathers and cupped it in her palm. "Dying is complicated, messy. A lifetime of memories leaking out. Think, Solomon. Think about what this bird would have grasped for in her dying moments." Mother held the bird close to her lips. "Those chicks in the nest, entirely reliant on her for survival." Her lips parted, covering the beak. She released her breath like a sigh. At first, nothing happened, then, a tiny pulse, a flutter beneath the breastbone. Then the gentle rise and fall of her feathered chest. 

          Solomon watched as the bird shook herself from his mother's hand, soared, a tourmaline arc in her wake.

          "The dead," she said, "must have something to come back for."


****

When they come for him, they are an army in themselves. Close to one hundred women, unable to hear another no to their bequest, righteous and punctured and lost. 

          He brokers no argument, puts up no fight, but they shackle him all the same. Rusting cuffs press coldly into his wrists. The metallic tang of the chains burns his throat as he is led from the cabin in the thick of night. 

          Over his shoulder, Solomon can make out the jagged edges of his cabin. I will return, he thinks, willing her to hear. I'm sorry. 

           The dewy grass licks his boots, moisture finding an opening in the sole, stocking sucking the water thirstily. For hours, they walk, the women saying little to him. They talk amongst themselves though. 

           Maybe now, I'll get the grandchildren I've always yearned for. 

           He didn't marry Rima, but I think he will now. 

           Little Amaraq misses his father so. He's going to be overjoyed to see him again.

          It doesn't work like that, he wants to scream. You don't know what you're doing. 

          Air thickening with the stench of the dead tells him they're getting close to the camp. And death weaves a thick web between trees and the land. Solomon fights through, sticky sinewy strands catching his hair, but the women are oblivious to its reaches. 

           It's almost dawn by the time the makeshift city appears through the gloam.  

          Their leader is a stout, pungent woman named Elga Bendt whose nostrils gape like wells. Solomon guesses her to be around sixty, but she could be anywhere between thirty and eighty. As she speaks, flecks of spittle foam at the edges of her mouth, drying to a salty crust. 

          "You can begin after breakfast. I understand that you need your strength for the task ahead."

          "And what if I won't do as you ask?" 

           Elga folds her arms across her chest. "We will kill you."

           "Then you'll be no better off than you are now. Besides," he snorts, "I'm not afraid of death." 

            "Not afraid, but you're not ready, are you?" 

            "I don't know what you mean?"

             She stares at him, hard pewter eyes flinty and cold. "Cabin empty, is it?" 

            He closes his eyes. "If I do this, you need to know that when they come back, they are changed." 


****


"You need to know, Solomon, that when they come back, they are changed." 

             They were watching his rabbit, Anouk, hop around the courtyard. 

          "She doesn't love me anymore."

           "She doesn't know how to love anymore. " 

           Solomon had brought Anouk back himself, gleeful when her soft abdomen inflated after he lifted his head.

           "Those memories, those attachments that leak out during death, once they're gone, they're gone. " 

           Anouk stared blankly at a patch of grass. 

           "Then why don't the people get upset? The ones that bring their dead to us?" 

            His mother smiled sadly. "They're so happy to have their loved ones back – so wrapped in their joy - that they don't notice." She stroked his hair. "They project their memories, their attachments, their feelings on these blank canvases." 

             "So, we should just…let them go?" 

              She remained silent awhile, the rush of a breeze filling his ears. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe." 


****


Solomon works from just after sunrise until dusk makes her way into the camp. 

            The men have been laid in rows and, were it not for the bloodless pallor of their skin, could have been mistaken for sleepers. A few he recognises from before, an innocence to their repose that time has snatched. Others are merely boys. Fathers, sons, lovers, brothers all.  

            He is methodical in his work, kneeling by each body in turn, searching for a hint of who they were in life. Each kiss is administered with his eyes closed, reverent, earnest, fingertips resting lightly on the breastbone. As they wake, there's bewilderment, acceptance. They're embraced by the living, gathered tight in the folds of a joyous mother, kissed by a lover. There are tears, shrieks, yelps, but Solomon continues his work with abstraction. 


The last of the men rises as the sun sets. Solomon takes to the bed they have made up for him in a rough canvas tent on the edge of the camp, a soundscape of rejoicing families resonating in the soupy air. 

            He cannot get warm. Wrapping himself in wool blanket after wool blanket, the shivers surge through his limbs. All night, he shakes. 

            By dawn, the tremors have subsided, but his arteries are choked with ice. 

            Millica comes to tell him he may leave. A horse has been found to carry him back to his cabin. She presses a purse bloated with coins into his hand - a whiparound, she tells him. Grateful sisters emptying their threadbare pockets. He leaves it on the ground when he departs. 

            Grey-skinned men nod as he leaves. I'm sorry, he wants to tell them, but instead he keeps his eyes on the soft tips of the forest in the distance, the circumambient mountains, the rhythmic footfalls of the mare. 


****

Her forehead burned, white-cold. At Solomon's orders, the chambermaids rotated filled copper bed warmers, sliding them under the hill of bedding piled on top of her quivering body.  

           The skin on her face, almost blue, almost luminescent, stretched tight across her skull. She is beautiful still, thought Solomon. More so, perhaps, than someone without the gift, for who else could glow with the taste of a thousand deaths on their lips?

            In the night, death circled. 

            Solomon remained by her side through the dark hours, warm hands growing cold in the grip of her frigid fingers. She trembled, and her lips muddled over words and phrases. Incomprehensible for the most part. 

            "Do not…" she wailed. "Do not…no." 

            "Do not what, Mother?"

            "Bring me back." 

            The sun had almost reached its peak when the ice fire roaring through her veins burned out. The tremors stopped, mouth sagged, lids fluttered to a close. Solomon brought his head to her chest. It was incomprehensible to him that it should no longer rise and fall. That he could no more hear the tattoo of her heart caged behind those ribs, nor feel the heat of her blood surging through her veins. 

             The grief tore him in two, a knife pushed deep into his belly, tearing him from top to bottom. He sobbed, cursed, smashed furniture while she lay in stillness. 

             For two days and nights she lay, her son at her side, while he replayed her words. Did she want to return? "The dead must have something to come back for."

            On the third day, he administered the kiss, the easiest one he had ever performed, because she was his own flesh and blood. And on the third day, she returned. 


****

He arrives. The cabin is dark, curtains and shutters drawn against the velvet cloak of evening. Solomon tethers the mare to a post.  

           "Hello?" 

           Inside, he sinks into a chair that sighs with his weight. He wants to sleep and cry and pretend that he has not just resurrected an army of the dead. That he has not unleashed these limping, sodden half-people back into the bosom of their families. And for what? To march again into battle? To be killed again? To break the souls of those that love them for a second time? It is not a gift, but a curse he has been afflicted with. 

          "You said you would not do it Solomon." 

           She is there, in the doorway to her bedroom, face as white and impassive as marble. Her voice is thin and flat, all traces of her lilting cadence muted and pressed.

           "I had little choice, Mother." 

            "We always have a choice." 

            They stare silently into the gaping mouth of the fireplace, embers long-cold. 

            "It's time," he says eventually. 

            She nods. 


She leans on him as they leave the cabin. Her frail form feels as though it could blow away in the slightest breeze like a dandelion tuft. He is reminded of the blue jay all those years ago, light and hollow and insubstantial, and he feels a crack in his chest.  

          He studies her profile as he lifts her onto the horse, features as fine as always. But the eyes are glassy: two frozen pools against the snowy contours of her face. She didn’t ask for any of this, he reminds himself. It was my grief, my longing that brought her back. Condemned to live as a shell in that body, withered and wearied by giving so much of herself to the dead. 

The stones under the horse's feet jolt through their bodies, tossing them like puppets in the saddle as they begin the long climb ahead. 


****

At dawn they march into the city. At close range, their faces are the hue of ashen snowflakes, eyes empty, cold fingers gripping hand-forged weapons. They are crude and rough, but they cut an imposing silhouette against the tea-stained sky. The bell tolls. The lords stir in their beds, innocent in repose, soft and languid. 


On the outskirts of the town to the west, on the hills gazing over the valley, a mother and son take a fatal, final plunge to the grave. 

June 28, 2022 07:07

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59 comments

Zelda C. Thorne
09:52 Jul 11, 2022

Wow, this is amazing. Loved the structure, the haunting way it was written. The dialogue, descriptions... Uh just everything. Brilliant work.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
10:16 Jul 11, 2022

Aw, thank you!!

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Kevin Broccoli
16:22 Jul 08, 2022

I'm so happy this was recognized, Jay. I thought the way you put so much characterization and emotion into such a short space was incredible.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:08 Jul 08, 2022

Thanks!!!

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Rhianna Frey
08:59 Jul 08, 2022

Hi Jay! I am actually completely new to this site and the community this site has fostered — this story is actually my very-first read on the site! It was a truly beautiful story to start off with, and I look forward to the stuff you write in the future! I wanted to go through some of my specific thoughts when reading the story, apologies if it turns into a huge rant, haha! But the entire concept of resurrection in the world you created is deeply fascinating to me. It made me think about whether or not I would rather somebody I love deeply...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
10:33 Jul 08, 2022

Welcome to the site Rhianna! I'm humbled by your lovely comments and glad the story gave you something to think about. It is something I try not to give too much thought to, but every now and then, it occupies me (hence the story!) I hope you enjoy the site and community here, and I look forward to reading your stories.

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Tony Coppo
13:51 Jul 07, 2022

Powerful opening that draws you directly into the story. Loved the structure. Thanks for a great read!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
20:37 Jul 07, 2022

Thanks Tony!

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Seán Mc Nicholl
20:40 Jul 05, 2022

Jay!! Loved this! Amazing idea! Loved what you said about how a kiss isn’t just a mechanical action, thought that was brilliant! This story was a great take on grief and death, really enjoyed it! I would love to know what happens the potential fatal wounds - do they close up? And how long after a death can a resurrection happen? What happens if the body is partially decomposed!? Could see this idea being made into a novel/novella. Really think it’s great!! Well done!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
23:30 Jul 05, 2022

Thanks Sean! My thought was that you have to get in quick (pre decomposure), ideally that day or soon thereafter. I hadn't thought too much about fatal wounds, but as these boys had been hanged, they would be restored to not having broken necks, but some pain would remain - like a wound healing and leaving an itchy scar.

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Rebecca Miles
15:03 Jul 05, 2022

Lovely use of parallelism in this; it all just flowed so beautifully. A moving story, movingly written; I wouldn't change a word of it! For me, my absolute favoruite parts are the flashbacks to the mother and her dialogue (before we learn what has happened to her); the section on the resurrection of the raven had me close to tears. I am, more than anything, impressed that you delivered this dark (from the context) yet beautiful story whilst staring adoringly at your baby (as you write in your bio). This makes it even more of a praiseworthy i...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
20:21 Jul 05, 2022

Thanks Rebecca! I too am a (displaced) Brit, so those pesky Tudors creep up from time to time without me realising! I really appreciate your comments :)

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Sharon Hancock
01:15 Jul 04, 2022

The first sentence is so perfect and engaging. I couldn’t NOT read the rest after reading that. Beautifully written with heartfelt, sorrowful but endearing characters. I could see this being part of a much longer storyline…like in an epic fantasy series. Great job! I enjoyed it a lot.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
01:26 Jul 04, 2022

Thanks Sharon! Definitely a hard one to write, so I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

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07:14 Jul 02, 2022

I have never been a fan of fantasy but this is beautiful. There is a particular line in this piece that keeps getting to me. It's something around, "The dead need to have something to come back to." I read that line over and over again, constantly pulled in by how innocently tragic it feels. I understand it and right now, it's helping me grasp a few things in my personal life. So thank you for this. Generally, I think the story was written so well. There is a bit of mystery revolving around the story because at first, I thought Solomon was...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
07:20 Jul 02, 2022

Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I'm a huge fan of your writing so that really means a lot. I'm not really a fantasy fan either and wanted to try out something new this week, so I'm really glad you liked it. :)

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07:33 Jul 02, 2022

Of course! Trying new genres, away from what we normally do can be difficult but you did this so well. I'm going to keep an eye out for your work so I can learn a few things about this as well

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Riel Rosehill
21:28 Jun 30, 2022

Hi Jay! I fell in love with this story right from the start. That first paragraph was just so gorgeous, I can't get enough of that writing! And it was beautiful throughout. And the story - beautiful, sad and chilling all at once. I absolutely loved reading every line - would be hard pushed to pick a favourite. I love this theme, the dead coming back, changed. It adds a tinge of horror, and though Solomon and his mother learned their lesson about life and death, those who were brought back, and their families are still there. It's so dark,...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:30 Jun 30, 2022

Aw, thank you so much! I'm stepping out of my comfort zone here which makes me a bit nervous, but everyone has been lovely and helpful. ❤️

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07:57 Jun 30, 2022

Jay, this was beautiful and haunting. With longer stories I sometimes get distracted (or at worst, struggle to finish them), but this gripped my attention from beginning to end. Your prose was used in such an effective way to build the atmosphere. I loved the resigned nature of the MC, and your flashbacks were used at the perfect moments. (It's shit sandwich time lol - but with huge loaves of bread) My only feedback would be re the second half - I would have loved to know more about what happens to the hundred men that got resurrected. Was ...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
22:49 Jul 02, 2022

Hi Shuv, I had written a (huge!) reply and don't know where its gone! Thanks for using lovely bread in the ss :) My reckoning with the raised army of boys was that many of them would wind up dying again. The mothers would have been aware of this too, but would have each secretly believed their boy to be able to survive. Also, the grief for the boys was so intense that they simply weren't prepared to listen to reason. I definitely think I could have showed the mother as more changed - that's a really good point. I would add more interact...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:31 Jun 30, 2022

I replied to this and don't know where its gone!

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J.C. Lovero
01:08 Jun 29, 2022

Hi Jay! I really enjoyed this story. The alternating structure between Solomon's past and what was happening in the present was wonderful to read. It helped to give us backstory that was critical to understand the ending. From a fantasy perspective, LOVED the resurrection concept and the kiss that brings people back to life. What a way to subvert the necromancy just a little bit. I got a sense this was a village of some sort, maybe set in a historical era circa the witch hunts and I am here for it. Good luck this week!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
03:53 Jun 29, 2022

Thank you so much J.C. Your feedback and input is very much appreciated :)

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21:49 Jun 28, 2022

I was pinned to this story by the vivid vivid details- “She is thrumming, a ripple pushing through the air, a pebble dropped in the middle of a pond.” “The dewy grass licks his boots, moisture finding an opening in the sole, stocking sucking the water thirstily.” And a truly epic story line, Jay. Wonderful.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
22:09 Jun 28, 2022

Aw, thank you so much! This means a lot as I was trying a different style this week. :)

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Michał Przywara
20:42 Jun 28, 2022

Fantastic, Jay! Powerful opening sentence, and after that I couldn't put it down. Awesome premise, great world-building, engaging story, and an ominous, bleak ending. Very much a "be careful what you wish for" situation. Very appropriate for dabbling with necromancy. I like the idea that memories leak, and the focus on finding a reason for the dead person to return, opposed to the reasons their loved ones want them back. The mother/son dynamic is interesting, too. It's very prevalent. The mothers want their sons back and he reanimate...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
22:10 Jun 28, 2022

Thanks Michal! It was fun to write, once I got over my fantasy-writer-imposter-syndrome!

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Michał Przywara
01:50 Jun 29, 2022

Yeah, I recall you mentioning that fantasy wasn't typically your jam. So if this was like a first attempt venturing into new waters, I think it paid off. More to the point, it's just a fun story (well, fun to read; it doesn't sound fun for the characters) and I think it's a definite contender. Best of luck this week!

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Michał Przywara
21:06 Jul 08, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:03 Jul 09, 2022

Thanks!!!

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Tania Shawn
11:49 Aug 06, 2022

I want to thank a very kind and powerful psychic who brought back my ex wife who left me she told me she wants to be alone and left me and the kids I was devastated everyday i keep thinking how i would live without her one day i was online when I found Priest Ade website then i contacted him, He told me not to worry she will be back in 24hours after he cast his love spell i had some doubt though but i just did all he instructed and had a little faith, To my greatest surprise the next day she was back to me and the family she told me she was ...

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Tania Shawn
11:49 Aug 06, 2022

I want to thank a very kind and powerful psychic who brought back my ex wife who left me she told me she wants to be alone and left me and the kids I was devastated everyday i keep thinking how i would live without her one day i was online when I found Priest Ade website then i contacted him, He told me not to worry she will be back in 24hours after he cast his love spell i had some doubt though but i just did all he instructed and had a little faith, To my greatest surprise the next day she was back to me and the family she told me she was ...

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Amanda Lieser
04:19 Jul 16, 2022

Hi Jay! I really love how you chose to not only focus on the task your MC took on, but the weight of his own grief and his relationship with his mother. I thought that this piece felt very historical-although, it could have been the beautiful names you chose that made my mind go that way. I really enjoyed how you ended this price as well. It was a bitter goodbye that I waved to your characters. My last thought was that I loved the way you wove a few of your MC’s memories into this piece from their childhood. Nice job and congratulations on t...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
06:20 Jul 16, 2022

Thank you so much! I enjoyed writing this. I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it. :)

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:18 Jul 11, 2022

Fine work.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:03 Jul 11, 2022

Thank you!

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Betty Gilgoff
04:31 Jul 09, 2022

Ooooh Jay, I really enjoyed reading this. You write great descriptions. Looking forward to reading more of your stories. Congratulations on the shortlist.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
05:28 Jul 09, 2022

Thanks Betty!!

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T.S.A. Maiven
20:40 Jul 08, 2022

Jay, I got goosebumps reading this story. I think its a great piece of work. Keep up the good work. I was 'wowed'!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:03 Jul 09, 2022

Aw, thank you!

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Zack Powell
19:55 Jul 06, 2022

I'm sure someone with more Biblical knowledge than I possess could spot some symbolic religious through lines and motifs in this piece. The protagonist being named Solomon, the mother rising from her grave on the third day, Solomon "crucifying" himself at the end. Not that you wrote it with the intention of it being a Biblical allegory or anything - just that there's enough symbology there to probably construct an interesting Christian interpretation. But that's another day and another task for another reader. Fantasy is probably the tricki...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
20:27 Jul 06, 2022

Thanks so much Zack! Yeah, playing with the changed mother would definitely help to illustrate that.

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Zack Powell
14:58 Jul 08, 2022

Congrats on another shortlist, Jay! You're eating them up like breakfast.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:08 Jul 08, 2022

Thanks!!!

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