h3=. Precarious Balance
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Thank you for downloading this ebook short story. This book remains the copyrighted property of
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Copyright © 2017 by Adrienne Irene Oaks
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organisations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously
On the rocks…
“It’s okay Lindsay, you’re doing great. Just let the rope run through your fingers nice and slow.” Mo spoke the words in a low, measured tone, pitched to project confidence and a can-do attitude that she hoped was contagious. At the same time, ever the pragmatist, she watched her charge, ready to intervene.
Unfortunately, the girl appeared immune to her coaxing tone.
Lindsay, normally as chatty as a magpie and habitually inclined to offer her opinion, whether solicited or not, was making no sound whatsoever. As the quiet stretched, Mo’s sense of alert heightened …silence from a girl like Lindsay was seldom a positive sign. Given that the kids who visited the centre generally presented attitudes somewhere between brash posturing and noisy attention-seeking, which she and the other staff knew were mostly smoke and mirrors to disguise previous emotional or physical damage, quiet withdrawal was often cause for alarm.
Mo tried again. “You’re making great progress.” Slow, admittedly, but progress nonetheless. Lindsay, who had projected an absolute and stridently vocal belief in her own abilities, right up until the moment she had been clipped onto the rope, didn’t look happy. The confident air had dissipated, as had her running commentary on everyone else’s descent. “The hard part’s done. You’re over the edge. If you just relax your grip a little, you’ll be away laughing,” over-riding any concerns, Mo injected an extra note of enthusiastic encouragement into the words. As she spoke, she was aware that it was a daily feature of this job that she more often felt like a head cheerleader rather than the team-leader her job-description portrayed.
Noting Lindsay’s body language, overly tensed muscles apparent under her pallid skin, she felt she should be adding a postscript, “yeah, and while you’re at it, you might want to relax your neck, shoulders, biceps, triceps and every other muscle group right down to your black-enamelled fingertips.” However, experience told her that comments like these were not going to help her young student conquer her fears and take charge of the rope that currently represented her life-line, so Mo bit back the words.
With a look of rapidly increasing anxiety on her youthfully smooth features, Lindsay yelped, “I can’t do it. I’m falling! Pull me back up!” She gazed beseechingly upwards, repeating the plea, “Pull me up! I’m gonna fall …look, the ropes slipping right through my fingers. I can’t hold it!” Her eyes began rapidly filling with tears.
Oh dear, thought Mo. The girl was in no danger but it looked as if global warming had struck and the girl was in danger of a rapid meltdown. It was also interesting that, in a real situation, rather than the dramas that Lindsay habitually fabricated, her usual barrage of colourful expletives were noticeably absent.
In the year she’d been doing this job Mo had seen every variation on fear there was. Fear of heights affected everyone differently and occasionally her newbies panicked in this way – tensing up in all the wrong places. She lowered her tone once more, speaking clearly and calmly. “You are safe Lindsay. Jarli’s got you on the belay line so you’re in no danger of falling.” It appeared Lindsay had forgotten the presence of the second stout safety line connecting her harness to the solid bulk of Mo’s second-in-command. As she spoke Mo indicated with her hand that Jarli should take up any remaining slack on the safety rope -effectively halting their charge’s downward progress. The line went taut.
“Now, take a deep breath,” she instructed, “then just twist the rope up and around the descender like I showed you.”
Surprisingly, Lindsay, never one to respond to an instruction first time, did exactly as she was told.
“There. See, you’ve stopped completely. You’re perfectly safe. Remember, I told you, just one of these ropes will hold your weight easily. And you’ve got two.” Since underweight Lindsay weighed less than forty kilos wet and the rope had a breaking strain far in excess of her slight mass, a broken rope was the least of her fears.
Disaster averted, Lindsay’s expression calmed a little. Not exactly smiling with her usual nonchalance but at least improved from that of dread to relief.
“Okay, that’s great.” Mo prepared her own line for a quick descent, “Hang there a jiffy and I’ll come down to you.” With this instruction, Mo lithely leapt over the cliff edge and bounced down the few metres to where Lindsay was now hanging, uncomfortably frozen in position, her legs splayed across the vertical rock and both hands clutching the rope so tightly that she gave new meaning to the phrase, ‘white knuckled’ fear.
Mo coiled her rope around her own descender, a less-complex version of Lindsay’s gated bar, flexed her knees and sat back comfortably in her safety-harness before looking across to her student. Purposely taking both hands completely off the rope and waving them around animatedly as she spoke, she said, conversationally, “Okay, Lindsay. You’ve seen the movie, Shrek?”
Lindsay nodded irritably, “Yeah. Why?”
“Well, you know that bit where they’re rescuing Fiona and Shrek says, “Don’t look down,” and Donkey- freaks ‘cos he looks down and sees all the boiling lava, and goes like “I’m looking down, I’m looking down!” Mo was quite proud of her pseudo-Scots accent, à-la the big green ogre.
Lindsay nodded a brief response, head movement barely perceptible on her stiffly held neck. “Stupid kids movie,” she said in a disparaging tone. “You don’t do a very good Donkey.”
“Whatever,” Mo wasn’t about to be drawn into a critique of children’s movies or her impersonation abilities by a twelve year old who had been forced to grow up too fast. “Well here’s what I want you to do,” Mo paused for emphasis, “Look down.” She directed a finger towards the ground.
Lindsay’s eyes couldn’t help but follow Mo’s pointing finger. She flicked her eyes downwards then back up to her instructor.
“What did you see?” Mo questioned smilingly, dropping the Scot’s accent.
“The bottom …sharp, jagged rocks …my little brother and that other gormless galah watching me, waiting to see if I’ll fall and die,” Lindsay replied crossly, sounding a little more like her usual acid-tongued self.
“Hmm,” Mo resisted widening her smile, choosing not to acknowledge the ‘gormless galah’ statement. While put-downs weren’t encouraged, it was good to see her charge’s acerbic wit was back in full force.
“Hey guys,” she twisted in her harness, speaking over her shoulder to a skinny pre-pubescent youth and a spotty-faced teenager, dressed in the centre’s shorts and tees, one wearing a pink and grey hoodie that had elicited the bird-comparison. Both were standing a few metres out from the base of the small cliff, their eyes focused upwards. “How about you take that path,” Mo waved a hand to indicate the direction, “..and head back up to the top. Jarli, has some cold bottles of juice and water in the esky. Help yourselves to one if you’re thirsty -oh, and you can have another go, as soon as we’re done.” The duo responded with enthusiastic fist pumps before promptly disappearing from view.
“There, that’s them gone,” Mo redirected her attention to the girl, raising an eyebrow in question, “Now how far would you say it is to the bottom?”
“I dunno,” Lindsay glanced down once more, taking a longer look, estimating, “eight, ten metres, I’d guess. But it seems a lot further from up here than it looked from down there.” Her voice still wobbled a little a she contemplated the drop.
“Yep. Always does,” Mo nodded affirmation. “But look at it this way, there’s no red-hot lava and it’s not like we’re stuck on the North Face of the Eiger with an approaching snow-storm or something, is it?” She pulled a bar of chocolate from her breast pocket, breaking it and offering half. Lindsay accepted the proffered chocolate awkwardly, attempting to imitate Mo’s relaxed pose as she stuffed the treat into her mouth.
“What’s the Eye-Ger?” Hyper-vigilant Lindsay liked to know everything. As she chewed and interrogated, she also relaxed.
This was just what Mo had hoped for. To take Lindsay’s mind off the rope for a moment and concentrate on something other than the space below, allowing her heart-rate to slow a little and her breathing to return to normal. “Eiger is Swiss for ‘ogre’,” she explained, telling the story about the time she’d climbed one of the world’s most notorious vertical faces. They chatted for a few moments before Mo handed Lindsay a tissue. “So how about we give this ogre another go?”
“Okay.” Lindsay dried her eyes. Dropped the tissue. It fluttered to the ground below like a large white moth.
Mo watched it fall. Time enough for the environmental ‘leave only footprints’ lecture another day, she thought wryly.
“Now, when you clench your forearm as tight as you were, your brain forgets to tell your fingers that they need to hold the rope, -that’s why the line started sliding through your fingers like it did. So before we start again, I want you to tense up your arm muscles, one bit at a time then let them go all floppy and loose.”
She demonstrated. Lindsay copied.
“Great. That’s much better,” Mo reached across and tapped the girls right hand. Instructing, “Grab the rope and just let the line slide gradually through your hand -you’ve got all the control you need to go slower or faster. Just remember, holding the rope downwards equals faster and upwards equals slower.” She waited to release her own rope until the girl had successfully dropped a metre with some semblance of control. “That’s perfect,” she encouraged “a little more and you’ll be back on solid ground.”
Moments later. The minor hissy fit had been forgotten -as if it had never taken place.
“That was awesome! I want to do it again.” Lindsay was practically dancing as Mo unclipped the safety line and rope from her harness.
Music to my ears, thought Mo delightedly.
“Stand still for a minute, will you, while I get this off. Then you can follow where the boys went.”
“I reckon next time I can go a lot faster,” Lindsay’s face glowed with pride at her accomplishment. She fidgeted as Mo undid the karabiner that held the metal brake-bar.
“Speed isn’t everything,” Mo cautioned, “but I don’t see why not,” she smiled broadly. “Okay. All done. Off you go.” Lindsay scampered. Mo followed more sedately, carrying the gear.
By the end of the afternoon the group had mastered the skill well enough to move onto the bigger cliffs -where Mo and Jarli taught them how to leap down the vertical wall, rappelling metres at a time, according to the boys, just like ninjas.
Given that the purpose of these activities was to develop a real sense of self-confidence in their abilities, rather than the sham self-reliance the kids constantly projected, this was the exact outcome Mo and Jarli desired.
There was no point pretending -these kids weren’t ‘easy’ to handle by anyone’s standards. Some of them were downright nasty and there were days when Mo felt she had about as much chance of getting away unscathed as a frog dropped in a pit full of Tiger snakes. But the job was worth the odd scar -emotional or physical- it wasn’t like some of the kids weren’t above lashing out with their tongues, or a fist when they felt threatened or annoyed. This wasn’t some bijoux outdoor pursuits centre full of psychologists and counsellors -just her, Jarli and a full-time cook-cum-housekeeper. Sometimes their version of Therapeutic Crisis Intervention was to duck.
But they had rules. Notably, no television, no computers, limited use of mobile phones and tablets -instead, that evening they’d had a post-dinner-dishes knot-tying competition with sour worms and jelly babies as ‘prizes’ ..Lindsay had crowed at being fastest to tie a figure eight.
Quiet -just the muffled rustles and noises of the bush coming through the bug screens.
Another day done and dusted. A few bruises and scratches but none of them serious.
One of the advantages of days spent exercising in the great outdoors was that, for many of the kids, for the first time in their lives, they went to bed early and slept a full night. A blissful necessity for both kids and their minders.
In the camp kitchen, Mo and Jarli sat at rough-hewn jarrah table, an empty pot of tea and a plate with one leftover scone between them. Intent on checking the kernmantle ropes for any signs of damage -inspecting the lengths for ‘boogers’ -those tufts of white threads poking from the mantle that indicated internal damage to the core.
“Mine’s fine,” announced Jarli, setting the rope aside. “Like me, good for another day.”
“Yeah. One day at a time,” Mo repeated their motto as she coiled the ropes and returned them to stuff bags. She arose, limping a little, to hang the bags on a hook.
“I thought we’d take them through the caves tomorrow. What do you reckon?” Jarli noticed the limp. She’d overdone it again. As usual.
“Hmm, good idea. No rain lately so the water levels will be okay. Maybe just enough to get them wet. That’s always fun,” Mo considered a moment, “then we could have a go at the flying fox before dinner.”
“You still tryin’ to fly kiwi?” grinned Jarli, white teeth shining in his dark face. He drummed his fingers on the timber tabletop. He started on his favourite topic, hoping to get a rise out of her. “I thought, now you’re here in paradise, you’d given that up and decided to stay flightless -like that big bird you’re named after.”
“Huh. Call me ‘flightless’ …and you’re what? An old barn owl?” Mo’s expression was one of comical disbelief.
“My name signifies wisdom and mystery,” Jarli feigned affront, “least my namesake can fly.”
“You’re going with that whole aboriginal owlish wisdom and mystery thing?” Tired, but taking up the game, Mo adopted a strong Australian accent -at odds with her clipped Kiwi vowels, “You’ve got to be joking mate.” She shrugged, “besides, you know I’ve given up flying.” They’d had this conversation so many times it had become a standing joke. “It didn’t work out too well the first time.”
Her nickname, bestowed by friends, post-accident, was a shortened version of her given name, Moana ..now reduced to Moa. A friendly reminder that she should not attempt such a stunt again or she would be as extinct as the bird.
There was no need, between them, to repeat her tale of a climbing accident involving a tumble into a crevasse and the sojourn, with badly broken legs and internal injuries, in a freezing ice cave, which had altered her life and started a journey, culminated in her presence here. “But, calling this place Paradise?” she pulled a face, “well, I guess with all the venomous serpents slithering hereabouts, it might qualify.” She forked two fingers and motioned a serpentine squiggle with her hand, knowing it would trigger a response.
“Don’t you be dissing the rainbow serpent, girly,” Jarli shook a finger. “He might come punish you. Likes a bit of foreign meat now and then.”
“Ha. You change that tale every time you tell it,” she scoffed. “Besides, I’ve been punished enough already. Speaking of -mind if I take my leg off? It’s twinging a bit after bouncing down all those cliff-faces.”
“You know you don’t need to ask my permission. And, it’s not your leg, it’s only your foot and ankle. That’s not a punishment. That’s barely a telling-off. You want to watch yourself or you’ll turn into a drama queen as well.” The reference was an allusion to Lindsay’s earlier meltdown. As usual, they’d discussed the day’s events at their end of day debrief -chatting about how they might handle things better the next time something similar happened.
And, with his dry good humour, Jarli was wonderful when it came to reminding her to count her blessings.
Chastened. “Huh -you haven’t seen drama until you see the day I throw a hissy.” she leaned down to remove the prosthetic.
“And one less foot to smell bad round here can only be a good thing,” he added.
“Yeah, I noticed. Those boys need to get into the shower tomorrow. I’ll leave that fun activity to you.”
“For that, I’m taking the last scone.”
“Hey, not fair!”
“Nothing you can do about it -you’re on one leg. Might be old but I’m faster. You’re more of a slow-mo.”
“Oh …that is such a bad joke,” she groaned.
“Not staying here to have my eloquent wit insulted.” He rose to leave. The words might say one thing but the kiss on the top of her head said another.
“Night Mo.” Jarli ambled off.
“Night Jarli. Sleep well old man.”
Leaving the prosthetic limb on the floor, Mo hopped outside to sit on the veranda, a mosquito coil at her elbow in hopes of warding off the worst of the biting insects. Relaxing, she contemplated the warm night. After a few moments, she tugged a small silver cross from under her shirt, fingered the worn edges, held it up to her lips to kiss.
“Another day. A pretty good one. Thank you.”
She and Jarli had travelled quite different roads that had brought them here to this backwater, spending their lives helping kids that were troubled, frequently difficult and often unlikable. But the work was satisfying in a way her previous, self-centred life had never been.
It had just taken the loss of a leg…
…no, half a leg, she corrected, to show her that.
Laughing to herself, she rose from the chair, found her balance, and made for bed.
About the Author:
Growing up in the far south of New Zealand, Irene rapidly came to the conclusion that her native home was a long way from anywhere and unless she wanted to spend all her holidays on Stewart Island she’d need to get used to flying.
With this in mind, she jetted off to school in Tennessee, university in Palmerston North (that’s in the North Island), living in London and France, then Australia and the USA, gathering material for writing along the way.
Following a degree in biology, she studied post-grad in Landscape Architecture before producing two beautiful babies; both of whom are now well on their way to being grown-ups.
Adrienne currently lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband Tim and an adopted greyhound called Smudge.
Other titles by Irene Davidson
Flowers in the Morning, (Book 1 in the White Briars series) free download from Shakespir
Leaf On A Breeze (Book 2 in the White Briars series) out soon!
Collecting Thoughts (Book 1 in the Chateau de Belagnac series) free download from Shakespir
A Good Read (Book 1 in the Athenaeum Library series)
Various short stories -see Shakespir.com
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A sample of Irene’s next title: A Good Read
And ye, who have met with Adversity’s blast,
And been bow’d to the earth by its fury;
To whom the Twelve Months, that have recently pass’d
Were as harsh as a prejudiced jury -
Still, fill to the Future! and join in our chime,
The regrets of remembrance to cozen,
And having obtained a New Trial of Time,
Shout in hopes of a kindlier dozen.
I was new in town and it was my birthday. Being fresh off the boat -well, plane to be more precise- I knew absolutely no one with whom to celebrate the event. Under the circumstances, I felt that this was a good thing. Given that the one person with whom I would have wanted to celebrate the day was no longer around, I preferred to treat the day like any other. I had learned to be happy enough with my own company -especially as it meant I had no one to remind me what had happened on this day a scant twelve months before.
So, there I was on my twenty-eighth birthday -with little to do other than search for a decent cup of coffee. And just for the record, I had not been looking for a library. Yes, if truth be told, I love a good read almost more than anything else, but I was currently deep in the middle of reading a great thriller and was not in the market for a new book on that particular morning. Even my walking into the bookshop -the place I decided later that everything had started from- had been nothing more than chance.
Or so I’d thought.
Now, I’m not so sure any more.
I had simply wandered in off a street bereft of pedestrians whom I might have asked, to enquire where there might be a good local café. I had a mind to sit back, relax and maybe watch the world go by, so bought a glossy magazine by way of thanks to the lady behind the counter. She had pleasantly recommended not just one but several coffee spots nearby and I’d thought I would idly leaf through its pages while I worked my way through one, or possibly more, cups of my favourite brew.
As I paid for the magazine I imagined myself beginning to salivate like some Pavlov’s dog at the thought of a piping hot latté. Feeling that I was about to start slobbering all over the counter-top, I made a hasty exit from the shop before I embarrassed myself in front of a complete stranger. Ironic, the intensity of that imagery, I’d later thought, once I’d had the luxury of time to look back over the events that followed.
But seriously, a trip to the library was just about the furthest thing from my mind. Honest Injuns.
Bugger. There I go again. My sincere apologies to any and all of the indigenous tribes of North America because that is not how I usually speak.
But I think I know where it came from.
Politically-correct creature that I am, phrases like that are so not something you would normally hear coming out of my mouth. It’s weird what that darn book’s done to my speech. My command of the language has transmogrified so much that I sound like some anachronistic, tobacco-spittin’, ‘there’s-gold-in-them-thar-hills’ version of myself -and it’s not just my speech that’s changed. I’ve noticed a few oddly uncharacteristic behaviours as well, like sudden cravings for beef jerky and a heapin’ helpin’ of beans served on an old chipped enamel plate. Not foods I’ve ever favoured, pre-library. I’ll have to watch myself or I’ll be saying and doing all sorts of inappropriate and potentially offensive things if I’m not more careful.
Frankly, I hope it all wears off soon.
But I digress…
…Getting back to my unexpected visit to the library. Please understand -I have nothing against libraries per se. As I’ve said, I love reading. Always have. Give me a suitcase full of books (and a change of underwear -the last piece of good advice my mother ever gave me) and I’m ready to travel to just about anywhere. I’m a book editor for goodness sake, so, I guess you could say that I don’t just live to read, I read to make a living.
But this day that should have been special was ruined by a less-than-special memory, and as nourishing to my psyche as a good book might have been under normal circumstances, my mind didn’t feel up to anything too taxing. Maybe tomorrow. Today I just wanted to get through the twenty-four hours that was my birthday as best I could.
I did want a drink rather badly though. Not alcohol, in case you are wondering and are too polite to ask. After what I’d been through this last year, I’d been careful not to turn to drink or drugs to dampen the flash-backs and nightmares -and when it seemed that I’d never be free of the demons of my abhorrent memories I’d finally sought help from a PTSD therapist rather than resort to prescription medications or alcohol.
I just wanted that coffee. As I left the bookshop and turned my face towards the direction the lady had recommended, I fancied I could smell the freshly roasted beans in the air. I walked, my mind wandering from subject to subject as its wont to do and I pondered about when some concerned individual would form a coffee drinkers anonymous to go with all those other anonymous groups that one could join for various addictions? Today, I could care less. Until such time as mine was designated an addiction requiring group-support, I’d stick with caffeine.
My helpful guide had said that a number of cafés were to be found in the town square -or, more precisely its Octagon, the town’s cultural and social hub and a mere stone’s throw away from my present location. I smiled in memory. Her exact words had been “... just take a wee walk down the street and you’ll find plenty of nice cafés, all within cooee of one another.” I had struggled to keep the amused grin off my face at her quaint usage of the words wee and cooee. …Not for the first time since my arrival, I’d noticed that more than a few of the local inhabitants I’d come across still maintained strong links to their not-so-distant Scottish past.
I turned the corner to find that language was not the sole link, apparently. As I rounded the street corner into the Octagon -an eight-sided plaza that was the heart of this town, I noted a large seated bronze of Robbie Burns, the revered Scottish poet, uphill to my left, atop a steep terrace. To my right were a tavern by the name of The Craic and its near-neighbour, the Thistle café. If these were any indication, the town-folk were enthusiastic in celebrating their Celtic roots. I studied the café’s sign. I was no botanist but I knew enough of thistles to recognise that the prickly purple flower depicted on the sign was of the large Scottish variety rather than my more-familiar yellow Californian species.
I was mere steps away from that delightful café, with its comfortable bistro chairs, hot buttered scones and nectar-of the-Gods coffee, when I spotted a set of imposing, delphinium-blue coloured doors between the café and the tavern -and alongside, a brass plaque on the wall that announced the Athenaeum and Mechanic’s Institute Library to be open this morning. The doors were tantalisingly slightly ajar and just asking for me to go through.
What a wonderful name for a library, I thought. Deciding that I might rethink my lazy morning and explore said library after I had downed a cup or two, I checked my watch. I found, to my consternation, that the library would be open for only another fifteen minutes. I re-checked the opening times and dates, finding that the establishment was more often shut than not -it wouldn’t be until the same time next month that the doors would allow public access once more. My interest was immediately piqued -I didn’t want to wait another month before I could see inside. So I put aside my pressing need for the coffee and made for the entrance.
Fate, you might say? Nah, I wouldn’t assume anything so lofty. Just me and my overly well-developed sense of curiosity -of the ‘curiosity killed the cat’ variety. Nosiness, you might as well call it, if we’re being blunt. So, with my coffee within cooee and my magazine tucked firmly under one arm I decided to take a wee walk inside. I pushed the large blue door further open and walked through.
The sign might have said the Athenaeum and Mechanic’s Institute Library was open but, once inside, there was a dearth of information about just where I’d find said library. Plus, it appeared someone was saving on electricity -either that, or they really did not wish to encourage the public to visit after all. A few steps inside and I was reduced to feeling my way along a barely-lit dark-panelled hallway, before proceeding down a steep circular stairwell to a second more-narrow corridor. This was slightly brighter than the first with… Were those gas lamps? The dimly glowing lamps certainly looked convincing enough to be the real deal -but perhaps they were just a modern-day equivalent? With mounting feelings of trepidation, I followed increasingly smaller signs depicting a finger pointing to an open book, feeling as if I was being led down into the bowels of the building. Well, perhaps not the bowels, but the sub-basement at the very least.
I was wondering if I’d somehow taken a wrong turn and should retrace my steps when, at last, I came to a frosted glass door, etched with the words Athenaeum and Mechanic’s Institute Lending Library –in a gothic typeface. It appeared I’d found my destination. With a small sigh of relief I turned the handle, hoping this would be worth delaying my much-needed coffee for. But what kind of library, I thought, would be tucked away out of sight in the basement of a building and only open one morning a month? Probably one not worth visiting my more cynical inner voice replied. From the looks of the dated signage and old-fashioned doors, it might boast, at best, a few dusty titles, published circa 1900 or before, and nothing I’d want to read. Yes, I’d read my share of classics and toiled my way through one or two weighty tomes, but more for good forms’ sake than any sense of enjoyment. Aside from Tolkien, I generally preferred contemporary authors. That was my job, after all. Contemporary fiction.
If only I’d known then what I know now.
I should have turned, beat a hasty retreat and dashed back to the quiet comfort of the Thistle café and three cups of coffee.
Still, I doubt it. After all, curiosity and that cat are powerful influences.
With this thought in mind, I opened the door and walked in.
Now available for pre-order from Shakespir.com
Release date October 31st, 2017
A short inspirational story about getting back up after falling,keeping going and giving back.