Contest #144 shortlist ⭐️

Shuttered Hearts

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Start your story with somebody taking a photo.... view prompt

68 comments

Speculative

Weddings prove to be the perfect hunting grounds. 

My brother—with his ridiculous scythe—prefers them, harvesting the overly excited elderly in the midst of their joy. He finds those who’ve imbibed too much, attempting to drive home instead of into a telephone pole. On occasion, a jilted lover will show up, armed and reckless, doing most of his work for him. Fortunately, there are also tiny bones in fancy fish and overweight aunts who dance until their hearts give out. 

Hearts are normally my thing. 

Click

I smile, giving the young couple a thumbs up. The fake shutter sound of my digital camera is remarkably unsatisfying for what I’ve just done. 

The groom’s frozen smile dissolves the moment he looks at me. We understand each other. I know he hasn’t been sure of this union, this marriage, these vows, this girl. In a flash, what tenuous strands that have connected his heart to hers have permanently been severed. Sure, he’ll soldier on through his sham of a marriage for the next five or six years. He’ll develop a taste for six-packs and affairs with insecure women. But with a flash of my camera, there’s now a hole in his heart where the affection for his bride had lain. 

I put my digital camera back into its case. 

From across the room, I see the dark shadows of my brother fade. Women nervously laugh, feeling a chill, asking for their husband’s sport jackets to hang over their shoulders. Middle aged men clear their throats, double down on telling raucous stories from their profligate past, as if their memories of youth were going to lengthen their lives. Even children pause amongst playing with their never-before-seen cousins to consider their mortality—if only for a moment. But death has passed them by.


But I am still here—looking for cracks in the hearts where I can affix my lens, taking a picture the moment a person falls out of love with another. Platonic or romantic, I am not picky. I’ll take as many hearts as I can—like our poor groom’s. His heart is now safely stowed in my digital camera, now a series of 1’s and 0’s instead of X’s and O’s.

At the wedding reception, I sip my wine white. I watch a little longer while the groom ferries his new bride around the hall, wondering when his ardor will reignite. Perhaps he’s had too much to drink? Perhaps it’s just wedding day jitters? Certainly when things settle down, he’ll feel the familiar warmth towards his beloved once again. Won’t he?

Of course not. 

Don’t look at me that way, as if I were the one with a fragmented heart. 

It’s not like I kill anyone. I am not my brother, although some of those whose hearts I’ve taken had wished I were. 

My job is janitorial in the greater cosmic scheme of things. It’s quite simple. My brother is the gleaner of souls. I am the reaper of hearts. What’s remarkable is how weak the body of clay is—how useless without either heart or soul! 

They aren’t innocent, these so-called victims of mine. They’ve flirted with the idea of not loving those that they should—and when their hearts crack open, even a fissure small enough for me to insert my long fingernails into—voila! A click. A flash. A picture of a face surprised at how easy affection can die. 

My digital camera is an improvement on the other devices I’ve had to use over the millennia. Since mankind emerged from the Garden of Eden, drenched in sin, (or if you prefer, when mankind flopped onto dry land in its primordial amphibian form), my brother and I were already here keeping order. 

My brother is partial to his curved weapon of choice to do what he must. Mine is a gentler task. In ancient days, I culled hearts by drawing the lovelorn’s portrait on clay tablets. It was not difficult for me—an artist at heart—but it was a little more time consuming than my 21st century method. But back then, there were far fewer people and time seemed longer. 

To practice, I’d find an older man who’d taken on a new concubine, easily spotting the chasm in her heart. With my reed stylus, I would sketch the Mespotoamian mistress until she looked at her keeper with nothing but disgust. It was similar to my capturing the fraught relationship between master and slave, yieldlng very little affection for my considerable efforts. Unclaimed love was overly abundant, but the brutality of life in the Bronze and Iron Age did not encourage many seekers. If the Middle Ages brought man anything besides conquest and plague, it was the desire to love and be loved. 

In days past, I recorded former lovers’ images on Egyptian limestone stela and Chinese oracle bones and papyrus scrolls. I’ve used quills and parchment and vellum. From daguerreotypes to 35mm film to Kodachrome, each technological marvel made my job easier and easier. 

The digital revolution ensured my efficacy in keeping track of the vicissitudes of today’s 8 billion hearts, so many of them false—the poisoned fruit of the postmodern age. With the surge in population, my brother hired minions to keep up with the breakneck pace of collecting souls. Don’t think he doesn’t lose sleep delegating that kind of power. 

As for me? I prefer my solitary work.

To be sure, ethical dilemmas arise on occasion when I go heart reaping. I wonder sometimes, is the fissure temporary? Could time sort things out between the two (as if it ever did)? Is it fair to harvest affection from one just to give to another? Much like my brother, I don’t wring my hands over our services. Just as man cannot be immortal in this realm, similarly man cannot accumulate a lifetime of love. Some of it must be retrieved. 

To be clear: I take love away from the people who don’t value it. Contrary to what most people believe, there isn’t an endless supply of love in the universe; love is elemental—as finite as water. And like water, it takes many forms. And also like water, love is recycled in much the same way: collection, evaporation, condensation, precipitation. 

As the Reaper of Hearts, my job is collection. The other three parts are chiefly controlled by man’s thoughts and, more importantly, man’s actions.


I work best at night. Homes with teenagers and young adults yield an especially bountiful harvest. Nothing like discouragement and guilt to cleft a heart in two! Listening outside of homes, I can practically hear the schisms rip from block to block:

“We didn’t raise you to be this way. How could you break your mother’s heart? It’s unnatural!”

Click.

“What do you mean a college degree is worthless? Your father has scrimped and saved to send you to school.”

Click.

“I found this in your room. Don’t lie to me. Where did you get it?”

Click.

“I don’t hate you. I’m just disappointed in you.”

Click.

I look at the digital prints after I finish killing off their affection. How shocked the parents are in my pictures when they admit to themselves that the love they felt for their child was not actually love—but more of an obligation? An obligation that evaporates like dew, just after their child decides to live his own life and not the one that his parents have prescribed. 

Regardless, freeing up the love from older parents ensures that new parents have an ample supply, as they hold their infants, sparkling with possibilities and promise. 


In this business, sometimes even I’m fooled. I will see a person taking care of their elderly parents, tenderly helping the infirmed navigate their way to death. The care that’s required of these old ones rivals that of an infant: feeding, bathing, dressing, cleaning. 

I think to myself, now that is the epitome of love. And sometimes it is. 

But then I catch the glimmer in their eye, the eye that sees the untended checkbook and bank card, the eye that sizes up the real estate value of the house, the eye that sees how my brother’s visit can be hastened. 

Taking their picture poses no ethical dilemma at all. But those particular pictures are dim and the return is low. How easy it is to no longer love the useful. 


So weddings are my preference. Such complicated emotions, all disguised as love, all vulnerable to a sharp word, a sideways glance, a thoughtless gesture. 

And while I see my brother lurk around the perimeter, nodding to me when he sees his work is done, mine never is. Because of all the fragile and fickle things in creation, man’s heart is the most tenuous. 

And unless they guard their hearts very carefully, friends and lovers who pledge lifelong love can easily find their hearts missing, resting at the bottom of a camera bag.


May 04, 2022 17:15

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68 comments

17:53 May 04, 2022

Wow, this is both chilling and beautiful. Ironically you paint a picture of what is too familiar, too common, too awful. And yet there is also hope. Love isn't stolen, it's redistributed to those who truly feel it. Amazing work as always, I am your biggest fan.

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Deidra Lovegren
17:56 May 04, 2022

Thanks, Christina. This one was a struggle.

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Felice Noelle
23:52 May 05, 2022

Deidra: I've waited for this all the long week, so finally...and I am not disappointed. So smart, and sophisticated and cynical and multilayered. I wish I could get a small glimpse of how you come up with such fascinating stories. Another great read. Maureen

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Deidra Lovegren
07:25 May 06, 2022

You are so delightful, Maureen. I dug this one out of the back of my skull. It wasn’t the easiest story to write! A friend and I were discussing how people like mythology or Just So stories to explain phenomena. It doesn’t matter if it’s right—we just want an explanation (creation myths, etc.) Why people stop loving others is definitely a mystery and one of the saddest. We just aren’t here very long. It should be easy to love 💕

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Felice Noelle
13:40 May 06, 2022

Thank you so much for the description of your thought process for this prompt. You ignited an old memory of mine that explains how I have chosen to understand love. I got it from a three day Marriage Encounter some thirty or more years ago. It underpinned the concept of marital love with agape and the importance of communication in a marriage and family. What I gleaned from the three days, besides a romantic weekend away from our four children, was that love is not a feeling. It is biochemicals for bonding and trust=building in the beg...

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Shea West
20:25 May 05, 2022

You had me at this line: The groom’s frozen smile dissolves the moment he looks at me. We understand each other. I like how you played with the balances and imbalances of what love is and what it isn't, and how it could/should be redistributed. The justification of the "photographer's" scything along with "In this business, sometimes even I’m fooled." and I think to myself, now that is the epitome of love. And sometimes it is. " You pose a wonderful question with this story: Who decides what real love looks like? I don't think your givin...

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Russell Norman
23:38 May 05, 2022

Shea West.."I don't think you're giving story enough credit!" I agree with Shea. Polish by all means, but it's fundamentally a powerful story.

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Deidra Lovegren
08:00 May 06, 2022

You are a good cheerleader 📣

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Deidra Lovegren
07:59 May 06, 2022

When I was an overwhelmed young mother with 3 kids under 4, some “helpful” (sarcastic font) old lady told me that “love doesn’t divide, it multiplies.” My first thought was “bullshit.” My second one was, that may be true, but time and energy and attention don’t. If I had infinite sleep and resources, sure. Love would multiply like crazy. But we live in a finite world with finite resources — hence, compassion fatigue and the need for (and I hate this term) self-care (or what I call yoga and cookies).

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Shea West
14:29 May 06, 2022

No, it turns into fractions and I dunno anyone who likes those fuckers!!!

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Russell Norman
00:57 May 07, 2022

The ancient Greeks called them irrational for a reason.

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Mike Panasitti
17:14 May 07, 2022

Potent observations on the availability love. It does, like water, seem to become scarcer and less pure as the decades flow by.

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Laura Eliz
21:33 May 17, 2022

This story sent shivers down my spine and I loved every moment of reading this story. I like your take on a wedding photographer.

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Deidra Lovegren
00:43 May 18, 2022

Ooooo good and creepy All those 💔 need to go somewhere 👹

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Kaizlees Stories
19:56 May 15, 2022

This is a great story go check out my first story

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Andrea Doig
06:05 May 15, 2022

A great concept. Beautifully written. A good Saturday morning read. Any story with the Grim Reaper as supporting character is a winner in my eyes. Too good.

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Deidra Lovegren
15:22 May 15, 2022

Thanks, Andrea. I hope love isn't finite commodity :( That wouldn't bode well in a world that needs a whole lot more that it has. :)

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Kevin Broccoli
22:41 May 14, 2022

Another fantastic story recognized and so deserved!!!

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Deidra Lovegren
22:43 May 14, 2022

Love you Kevin B :)

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Faith Ogedegbe
20:12 May 13, 2022

Nice one, Deidra.

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Deidra Lovegren
20:43 May 13, 2022

Thanks, Faith!!

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Susan Sidell
13:43 May 13, 2022

Great character building; I read the first paragraph twice to put the pieces together. The scythe he carries was such a wonderful indicator of who the MC is. What a treat, thank you for putting this together!

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07:09 May 11, 2022

Such a beautiful, yet kinda chilling, way to put forth the most harsh yet undeniable truth that love is not permanent and it's not in abundance. Exquisitely crafted. This is one is worth scrolling a million times.

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02:03 May 10, 2022

Very interesting premise. Definitely closer to my genre and one of my favourites of yours. So much potential here for a longer story.

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Deidra Lovegren
11:11 May 10, 2022

I often wonder how many "reapers" there must be to keep the cosmos in check... :)

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05:41 May 12, 2022

There is a small blurb in one of my notebooks about the reason that all ghosts seem to be from the early 1900s, is because there was so much death during the wars, that the reaper couldn't keep up. People were just stuck to wander as ghosts because the reaper didn't get to them on time. Still not sure how to make it a story

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Deidra Lovegren
11:13 May 12, 2022

That makes a lot of sense. The 20th century was the first time we automated war, killing scores on a scale unfathomable. Plague, (manmade) famine, despots...the four horsemen do like to travel together. Yeats captured it perfectly in "The Second Coming" -- "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

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Michał Przywara
21:56 May 09, 2022

A very nice use of the prompt :) I've always liked the personification of concepts. Certainly ones like death have been (wait for it) done to death, but the concept of love ending is new to me. And representing it as one specific instant in time… yeah, very fitting. I think I know the feeling, this kind of uncomfortable squirm where things have just aligned and you know something has irrevocably changed. Attention grabbing opening line, immediately made me want to follow up. The narrator has a strong voice, and I like the pairing of love/s...

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Deidra Lovegren
14:07 May 10, 2022

You are going to have to start charging authors for your insightful reviews. This line of yours is powerful: "things have just aligned and you know something has irrevocably changed" EXACTLY. Like before X happened, you were someone completely different. Afterwards? A whole new normal. The cognitive dissonance makes you recalibrate everything. And you were right. I completely muffed useful/useless but found the mistake too late. How generous of you to try to pretzel-logic some greater meaning into that line :) :) :) Maybe come hang out wi...

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Michał Przywara
22:04 May 11, 2022

What a lovely term, pretzel-logic :) Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

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Michał Przywara
17:15 May 14, 2022

Whoops, looks like I sat on the discord link for too long and the invite expired. Would you mind sending another?

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Deidra Lovegren
18:22 May 14, 2022

Does this work? https://discord.gg/pbTx5BU If not, I'll have to ask Russell Norman, the tech wizard.

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Michał Przywara
20:19 May 14, 2022

Hmm, still the same. "The invite is invalid or has expired."

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Deidra Lovegren
20:50 May 14, 2022

Email russell@bmpublish.com He'll send you a link :)

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Sharon Hancock
01:13 May 09, 2022

Oooo fantastically weird and sinister and wonderful! This one is right up my twisted alley. Reminds me of the old idea that a photograph steals your soul. Your photographer is more like a jaded and bitter Cupid. I feel like there’s an underlying warning to not take love for granted in there, too. And the ethical dilemma makes me think you might have been thinking about another competition when writing this. (I had 2 to do this week too.) I could see this winning both of them! 😻

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Deidra Lovegren
01:25 May 09, 2022

Yep. Double dipping with Globe Soup. Someone's gotta like it . . . or not :) What genre did you get this time around?? Reedsy authors had a GREAT turn out for Challenge #5. Eight Reedsy folk in the finalists spots. That's a good showing! I like the idea of a reverse-Cupid! HAH. Absolutely a theme: people take love for granted. From the start to the finish in their lives. If the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial has taught us anything . . . wait, no it hasn't. That's just a horror show trapped in a train wreck. Nevermind :)

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Sharon Hancock
01:08 May 10, 2022

I got magical realism, which I had to look up and I’m still not certain my story doesn’t qualify more as humor/satire, but what can you do….I start writing and seem to have very little control over the outcome.🤷🏻‍♀️😂 I love the upbeat friendly atmosphere on here and Globe Soup. What group did you get for the GS challenge?

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Deidra Lovegren
11:16 May 10, 2022

Oof. Magical realism. All I know about that is "Like Water for Chocolate." Humor/satire is always welcome :) Agreed about letting the characters come to life and staying out of their way...we authors have zero control!! My group is P A R A N O R M A L -- oOOoooOOoOOoOo spooky (i guess) Tried to do a Steven Spielberg "Poltergeist" kinda of thing. Ended up with Death's brother stealing hearts. What are you going to do? If you are looking to expand your Reedsy community, check us out on: Readlotswritelots.com Bluemarblestorytellers.com https...

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Sharon Hancock
18:49 May 10, 2022

Thank you, I will check those out! 🤞🏼Good luck with both contests!😻

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Zack Powell
23:42 May 08, 2022

Brilliant. This is simply brilliant, Deidra. Such a fun use of this week's photography theme, and so very creative. I have high hopes for this story's success. There's a precision about your diction that makes me envious. So many good word choices throughout this story, including (but not limited to): "profligate," "janitorial," "schisms," "bountiful," "cleft," "elemental," and "fissure." Every single one of these words have a plethora of weaker, more common synonyms that could replace them, so I respect your precision in pinpointing the st...

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Deidra Lovegren
01:22 May 09, 2022

Zack -- Belated congratulations on your win last week. I'm up to my neck in alligators finishing out the school year and getting ready to move to Virginia. Thanks for the high praise. It occurred to me that love may actually be finite, like gold or helium or other elements that we haven't put on the periodic table. (Compassion? Empathy? Sorrow?) And when are we getting you on the podcast? https://www.readlotswritelots.com/previous/ :) Drop me a line lovegren.deidra@gmail.com

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Cathleen C
18:43 May 08, 2022

Terrific story! So creative and well-written. Thanks, Cathleen

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Deidra Lovegren
18:48 May 08, 2022

Thank you, CC. Appreciate the read and the kind remarks.

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A.G. Scott
20:24 May 07, 2022

Long time no read! Wonderful, funny, unique voice as always. The heart-reaper being a wedding photographer is a good choice on a few levels, one of which is, who the hell is that person with the camera that the maid of honor scraped off of Craigslist? They could be anybody, and they're tip-toeing around, gathering proof of your impairment. I particularly liked that paragraph ending with 'But death has passed them by' -- I think there's a lot more meat in that observation... it could have easily been a story in itself. My take is that I wi...

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Deidra Lovegren
20:13 May 08, 2022

Wedding photographers are ghouls, right? Emotional vampires. As for the process of taking images and culling of love, I think this dude sees people for who they really are -- instead of us lovestruck desperate mortals, clinging on to the narratives we like to tell ourselves (or to the dopamine and serotonin squirts that the objects of affection provide.)

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Mike Panasitti
17:08 May 07, 2022

Ms. Lovegren, this story alone is worthy of a chapter in an English dissertation. The Reaper of Hearts. Not only kin to the Reaper of Souls, but a cousin to Cupid. Your mastery of the language is mesmerizing. Another pleasure to read.

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Deidra Lovegren
18:49 May 07, 2022

Mr. Panasitti -- you leave the best comments. Looking forward to your picking a date in late July or August to come on the podcast. I'd love a nice long chat about the vagaries of life. :)

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Ace Quinnton
01:33 May 06, 2022

Does this... heart reaper have a name? I would like to make this into a comic. (With your permission of course) The story is just so amazing, that I have to draw it out. I HAVE TO. If I don't, I'll be thinking about it all evening long because I have an idea for the heart reaper. What if they found someone so innocent and loving, that they were determined to collect their heart.

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Deidra Lovegren
07:11 May 06, 2022

You have my full permission to name him (or her?) and draw it as you wish. When you are done, can we publish it on https://bluemarblestorytellers.com/ (as well as any of your stories you want to read)? Then we can talk about your creative process on our podcast (if you wish). https://www.readlotswritelots.com/previous/ Drop me a line 😀 lovegren.deidra@gmail.com

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Ace Quinnton
14:12 May 06, 2022

That... is an absolute HONOR. I will draw them to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, I have to politely decline coming onto the podcast. Thank you for the permission. It will take me awhile to finish (because it's going to be digital) but it will be done as soon as I can.

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Deidra Lovegren
14:15 May 06, 2022

Totally fine about the podcast. But I would love to see your artwork. My daughter is going to SCAD (art school in Savannah) to learn 2D animation.

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Ace Quinnton
14:19 May 06, 2022

That's amazing! I'm working towards an art school as well to become a character focus designer. (Someone who makes the name, looks, personality, and backstory of a character but doesn't make the story themselves.)

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Deidra Lovegren
14:54 May 06, 2022

You sound like a great D&D master :)

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Holly Guy
19:03 May 05, 2022

This is such a wonderful story- definitely winner material!! Very good!

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Deidra Lovegren
07:52 May 06, 2022

From your lips to the Reedsy Gods’ ears — hahahahha

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Jay Mc Kenzie
17:56 May 05, 2022

Well, as always you bring a unique take on the prompt. I enjoyed the way you dealt with the very huge idea of lost love in a microcosm, as well as touching on death. Have you read The End of the Day by Claire North? If you haven't, I highly recommend it. In it, the Harbinger of Death is a job, undertaken by a normal man. I got vibes of that. Another great piece from you. Very well done.

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Deidra Lovegren
17:59 May 05, 2022

Thanks, Jay! School is almost out and I need a few good book recommendations. Kimberly Close's shortlisted story did a great job with Death as a Joe Schmoe. Loved this one: https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/45af83/

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Jay Mc Kenzie
18:06 May 05, 2022

Thanks! That is a great story.

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