Last week I observed the beginning of a new challenge posted by Aisling Weaver on her blog, Rebirth in Buffalo. Every week, Aisling will roll nine story cubes and post a picture of the outcome on her blog.

This is what she said:

Every week I will roll the dice. They will be posted Friday at midnight(EST). I invite all writers, no matter your genre or your style, to try your hand at this challenge. Short, long, prose, poetry, I welcome all!

Your challenge…to write a piece that encompasses the nine elements shown on the dice. Once completed, add your link below and crow your success on twitter under the hashtag #WeekendWriter! If you don’t have a blog to post to, please post it in the comments!”

It is completely ingenious, and I couldn’t wait to try it.

Here are the dice from Aisling’s blog for this week’s challenge:

… and below you can read what I came up with. I couldn’t believe how quickly the images started to trigger new ideas. I also loved reading entries from last week’s #WeekendWriter, all of them completely unique. It just goes to show the real significance of the writer’s mantra: “write what you know”.

There are many themes in life, in writing, in art, and everyone will interpret them in their own completely unique way. 🙂

The Mystery of N

“Open your eyes,” Dawn said. “You have to look at this differently.”

How? I thought.

The map was abstract. It was drawn on a square piece of parchment, depicting a rugged, rocky island with a mountain right in the middle. It was just like a treasure map from a pirate legend.

An arrow drawn above the mountain showed north, but from there, all similarity to a normal, navigational map disappeared. The shape of the island was scrawled over with symbols, hieroglyphs and letters that had no meaning for me.

“I know you have the answer all figured out,” I growled, “so why don’t you just tell me?”

Dawn sighed and took the map from my hands. She pointed to the single word in the bottom-left corner of the map. Underbelly. “I don’t think this map is of a real island,” she said.

“Okay, I thought that too.”

“Then why didn’t you say so?”

“Does it matter? You figured it out, didn’t you?”

She sighed again. “Okay. Well. Underbelly has to mean the underbelly of the museum – the crypts.”

“But the crypts are vast,” I said. “And there’s decades – centuries, perhaps – of stuff down there.”

“Exactly. This map will tell us what to look for in the crypts, where to find the next clue, perhaps. But we have to interpret it correctly.”

“Otherwise it’s just plain misdirection?”

She nodded. “Exactly, Alex.” She gestured in a circle over the map. “Everything here is symbolic. The island, the mountain … everything. Most of it probably doesn’t mean anything, to us anyway. It’s probably designed to give the right clue to the people who are clever enough to find it, and throw some of the others off the scent at the same time.”

“Okay. Is there something in the crypts that relates to … an island? Or a mountain?”

Dawn threw her hands askew in irritation. “No. Alex, that’s just stupid. Do you want to be one of those others who gets thrown off the scent right here? Because if you do, just keep on spewing that mundane, obvious crap. You don’t understand the significance here.”

I folded my arms and gave her what I hoped was my most piercing, steely glare. “I guess I don’t.”

I didn’t understand anything when Dawn was around. Not the way she spoke to me, like I was an unrepentantly idiotic child. Not the way she sometimes smiled at me, like the sun was shining out of my eyes, and then glared at me in the next instant when I said something that irritated her.

I didn’t understand Dawn, or any of this, full stop.

It all began at the Fishtank. That bar where all the research students converged after a hard afternoon’s work in the museum archives. At the bar, Dawn sidled up to me with an envelope in one hand and a tray bearing two cocktails in the other. I’d forgotten she bartended here after the museum shifts.

“Won’t you get into trouble?” I asked when she slid onto the bar stool next to me and pushed one of the cocktails – both mojitos, I noticed – towards me.

She smiled a very cute smile at me. “No. The boss is cool with me taking ten minutes to do something important.”

I raised my eyebrows. “This is important, is it?”

She pushed the envelope towards me and sipped her drink. “Very important, by the looks of it.”

I hesitated a few seconds, and that’s when I saw her trademark scowl for the first time. “Go on. I don’t have all day.”

Inside the envelope was the map. The first map, anyway. That one was quite straightforward, at least for the two of us.

It turned out that all the young research students working in the archives had been put into pairs and set the same challenge. It was a race, actually. A treasure hunt.

Dawn and I had been partnered up, without having spoken more than five sentences to each other before.

We cracked the map in those ten minutes she had, and arranged to meet after her shift to go to where we thought it was leading us. I sat there in the bar for the rest of the evening, drinking too many mojitos and savouring the ripe, fiery excitement that was burning its way along my nerves and bones and veins and arteries, making my skin tingle.

It was the alcohol. It was Dawn actually talking to me, and the fact that I’d been partnered up with her. It was the challenge, and the thrill of wondering where we would end up. My student buddies in the bar with me all looked on edge, and were talking in smaller groups than usual. Most of them were in pairs, actually. There was none of the easy banter and laughter that usually went with our nights out.

Dawn and I found the next clue pretty easily. Some of the others had had a head start on us, but at that stage it didn’t matter. The first map was the opt-in. The next maps would be the ones that separated the mere spectators from the real players.

There had been two more after the first, after which the competitors were whittled down from twelve pairs to roughly six. I hadn’t asked anyone outright if they were in or not, but I’d marked everyone’s progress in this crazy race by their mood at work, their expressions and allegiances – some of which were straightforward, some which I really hadn’t seen coming.

I guess you could say that Dawn and me fitted into that second category. Dawn was sharp as a tac and stunningly beautiful. I was more your Average Joe and I might as well have had a gigantic L-plate plastered over my forehead in comparison with Dawn’s knowledge and experience, even though she was a full year younger than me.

That we’d been thrown together was hilarious, infuriating and gob-smackingly wonderful all at the same time.

And we’d come a long way. This map, this cryptic, ass-kicking map, was the win-or-lose. I’d already gone over it with a magnifying glass, hoping I’d missed something tiny that would stand out the minute I finally spotted it – like the man-in-the-coffee-beans picture. But Dawn had grabbed the glass out of my hand and nearly thrown it across the room when she saw me using it.

“Jesus, Alex! As if it would be that obvious!”

I slammed my hands down on the table and had to count to ten to avoid saying something unforgivable. “What do you want, Dawn?” I hissed through gritted teeth. “You obviously know the answer.”

She shook her head, almost looking sad. “Alex, we have to do this together. We were paired up for a reason.” She leaned towards me and looked into my eyes, which made me a rabbit in her headlights. “Look, I don’t know the answer either. But I’m sure you won’t find it in the small print.”

I grinned at her bad joke, and she eventually grinned back at me. Well, there were some perks to this game.

Now we sat, heads bent low over the map, and I thought maybe she was reconsidering the magnifying glass after all.

“Maybe it’s mathematical,” she mused. “Perhaps there’s an equation in here, somewhere.”

I looked at the arrow on the map, with N written over it. North. Both of us had agreed that all maps, however abstract, basically related to a geographical location – all of the others had, anyway – and therefore north would somehow be shown.

But what if N stood for something else? What if the arrow was misleading, like the rest of the map?

A torch suddenly flicked on in my brain, shone out through my eyes and illuminated the map in blinding clarity.

I sat up, rigid in my seat, and closed my eyes. When I opened them the light was still shining out, and N was still there, staring me in the face. Dawn was looking wide-eyed at me, like I might sprout wings and fly around the room any second.

“Alex?”

“Dawn. Tell me, what else does N stand for?”

“Um. Nowhere. No. November.” Then she must have had the same realisation as me because her eyes lit up with the same torchlight as mine, and she smiled a slow, stunning smile.

“Nitrogen?” she whispered.

“How about liquid nitrogen?”

“You think … under the museum … in the Underbelly …”

“The cryogenics lab, it has to be!”

“You think it’s real? There are rumours, sure, but …”

“Not just rumours. It’s the urban legend around here. And all stories start somewhere. I’d bet both our lives on this.”

She gave me a grim look. “Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that. This game is getting out of hand.”

“Let’s go there now,” I said. “There’s no time to lose.”

“Okay, but first –” In two seconds she’d pulled me to my feet and yanked me forwards into a crushing kiss, which left me gasping. She looked up at me with those wide blue eyes and her mouth was red from the kiss. “Whatever we’re getting ourselves into here, I’m glad we’re doing it together. I mean that.”

“Me too,” I said. Dawn could be a pain in the ass, but she was also brave, and gorgeous, and on my side – to the end, wherever that would be.

And maybe – if we didn’t get ourselves cryogenically frozen and packed in ice for a few decades – I’d get to kiss her again sometime.

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