The Gray City

How many more artists do you think we will allow to defy us?

That night, the Painter watched music return to the Gray City, from her cell deep within the bowels of the colorless beast. She watched a song--the first new song in a hundred years--descend upon the world. She beheld the Melody's incandescence, lamenting the tune was not hers to claim.

She smiled. That she saw the stars at all was a kindness. She supposed the minds who conceived of her imprisonment thought of the view as torture: to see her muse and to not paint. Unimaginative folly. Those poor souls would never understand: creation happens first not on canvas, but in the heart. No imprisonment, no matter how confining, how oppressive, would strip the colors from her soul, nor the imagined compositions of light and shadow and bright brilliant color from her mind. When she closed her eyes, she saw the canvas, the paint, the palette, and she was free again.

It was like flight, creation, using your own powers to leave the world you knew behind and enter one of your own making. And once that world was real, no amount of force could take you away. In her dreams, the artist danced through a thousand fanciful landscapes. Though the surfaces she painted them on were now all likely ash, or consigned to some ill-lit basement, they were nonetheless burned indelibly onto her mind.

Clutching the bars, she watched the song fall toward some unsuspecting life. She imagined the joy it would bring, the sorrow. She imagined she could just make out the tune, a low mournful whisper of forgetting, of death, a crescendo towards celebration crying 'I have returned!' She drummed her fingers against the cool metal bars, separating her from freedom and dreamt that within their vibrations hid a song of their own.

She sat back to wait, knowing this song would not let her owner keep quiet. The act of composing, long forgotten in this world, could not be kept to oneself. The happiness in to be found in expression was… overwhelming. They would hear this expression, fear it. The powers that be would find this musician, capture them and bring them to the belly of this colorless beast. This penitentiary of newfound artists.

And she would, finally, hear this new song for herself.

It was a mistake, bringing them here, trying to corral the beauty of a world yearning to express itself. Soon this prison, this ghetto of the forbidden, would overflow with new songs, new words, new works. And humanity would at long last remember itself. Remember the beauty in the world it was their charge to interpret.

Revolution, the Painter knew, was only a matter of time.

How many more artists do you think we will allow to defy us?

At least one, at least one more.

The Priest

                God works in mysterious ways. Man, the monster in his image. What a dark creature he calls to work his will.

                The bathwater, warm and red, lapped pleasantly against their bodies in the dimming light. Was that the candle dying, or his eyesight fading? The Priest could no longer tell as his eyelids fluttered slowly. So slowly. It was as if the world slowed, as if time ground to a halt, but he knew it was mere perception as life trickled from his veins and into the overflowing bath. The rosewater trickled and splashed onto the tile floor, the water made rose by the lives of the two men within. Yes, the Priest thought again, God works in mysterious ways.

 

                He recalled the first time he was commanded by the Lord to serve.

                The Priest was a child, no more than 5, a yowling biting rebel, a terror to his poor parents and siblings who watched over him with the fraying patience of the most tested saints. He was a terror, that is, until one night he dreamt of desert. One he had never seen in life, of endless sand, of dunes that twisted in the wind, where piano music played in the distance, carried to his diegetically by the breeze. Satie’s 1st Gymnopedie, a favorite of his mother to play while she stroked her swollen belly where the Father-to-be waited for his moment to be born.

                Come to me.

                And so boy walked towards the call, in his dreams a hobbled old man with aged face and weathered hands, until he saw before him a figure. A formless shadow whose dark hands danced effortless across a piano perched delicately in sand. Its eyes were two lights that hung in the dark where a face should be, which held no other features that the Priest could see. The piece finished, though the notes lingered in the air long after its hands left the keys. The figure turned to face the Boy-cum-Old Man, who somehow knew he was in the presence of his Creator.

                “Oh my God…” He whispered in a voice creakier than he remembered. Knees shaking, he fell prostrate on the sand, suddenly feeling all 70-80 of the extra years the dream had placed on him. “Oh my God. Oh my God. God. God.”

                Honor thy father and mother.

                Like the music, the voice seemed to come from the air. A dark and heavy thing, yet not unkind. Not demanding, but with the plainness of one who knew their commands would be obeyed.

                “God, I-“

                Honor thy father and mother.

                And suddenly the Priest saw himself, as the Creator saw him, as his parents and loved ones must have seen him. As ungrateful and angry, a whirlwind of destruction. He wept. Only five and already his life was so steeped in sin.

                “Yes Lord,” He sobbed. “I shall. I shall obey. I will be your light in the world.”

                And he woke in his bed, seeing his room, the world and himself as if for the first time. And from that time on his was the model son and sibling.

 

                One night, ten years later, after a night of shameful fumbling with his own most private of parts, fantasizing about formless darkness, the teenager met the Lord again in his slumber. Again he was an old man, falling at once prostrate on the hot sand. Again the soft piano tremored music through the air. There was no doubt in his mind he would serve, whatever his God asked.

                You must serve me and no others. The darkness commanded.

                “Yes Lord,” The old man acquiesced in a phlegmy tone, as his unnaturally aged joints throbbed rheumatically. “If I may, God…” He began, not lifting his eyes.

                Silence was his only answer.

                Licking his lips to moisten them in the dry-heat of his dreamscape, the Priest to become continued. “If I may… how do you want me t-“

                You must serve me, and no others. As the Lord responded, the Priest saw in his mind’s eye the man he was expected to become. A serious man. A somber man in the trappings of piety, who had forgone the needs of the flesh to serve the aesthetic vision of God. He was to take the sacred oath.

                “I see my Lord, I see your will. And I will become it.”

 

                And so he studied the good book, consumed Augustine, Tertullian and the exegeses of Origen. He forgot desire, or suppressed the remembering of his youthful and became a man of the cloth. One known as the most pious and most high.

                And for a time, he was content. And the Lord was silent.

                Then, 25 years later, a young man walked into his confessional. One he had seen in his church, lurking at the beginning of a service the week before, but had left. Something about the young man, his shock of curly black air, his soft brown eyes, his full lips, his troubled innocence, captured the Priest. He was striking, beautiful even. The color of his oak pews, and skin just as smooth as those varnished seats. He could tell by his darting expression that this young man, still mostly a boy, was in a dark place. Maybe it was a place from where he and the Lord still could pull him out. He thought of counseling the man, and something in him stirred. Something long forgotten. Desire.

                Standing before a crowded congregation in that moment, the Priest was desperately glad he wore a flowing robe.

                The priest tried to put the ‘man’ out of his mind then. Some dark force was testing him. Until that fateful night. When that beautiful boy walked back into his church and entered the confessional to lay bare his sins.

                “Forgive me father for I have sinned. It has been… well, I’ve never confessed.”

                The Priest coughed to clear his throat. “I’m listening my son. Tell me your sins.”

                Tell me your sins. Why did the prospect of sin suddenly excite him so? The Priest shifted uncomfortably on the bench, needing to adjust himself. Afraid that the boy would see. Thrilled by the chance that he might.

                The man, eager to unburden himself, started right from the beginning. “Well, as a child, I was terrible to my parents. I lied often. I stole. I-“

                The Priest, he tried to listen, but was too captivated by the hint of the boy he could see through the wooden slats. His well-formed body. His mouth that listed a litany of horrors, yet beckoned him toward unknown pleasures. He closed his eyes, and felt himself back in the heat. In the dying wind. The quiet notes of Satie called to him on the breeze. Unlike in his previous dreams, it was night, and the soothing music took on an ominous lilt in the darkness.

                The night sky held no stars, and it was almost impossible to see the Lord, a shadow against absolute black. The music this time, it felt like a parting, a mournful goodbye to the dreams that had come before.

                The aged priest, still so far from the man in his dreams, yet much older than the boy who first became God’s servant, took to his knees. “What would you have me do? Are you… testing me my Lord? How can I serve you? How do you want me to serve you?”

                The shadow did not stop playing, yet the music grew more distant. The sand between them seemed to stretch and grow, an expanse of death—the gulf, so vast, that has always separated God from humankind. The Priest never felt it more acutely than he did in that moment.

                “I want to serve you, oh God. But I also want-“

                Sin. The desert grew so wide between the two that the Priest could no longer see the dark God he served. So much sin. You humans steep yourself in it, bathe in the filth like fleas. You want to serve, boy?

                The world grew so dark, the Priest could not see his own hands pass in front of his face. The music faded, the only notes those of his breath—ragged and shallow. “Yes, God, you know it.”

                Then purge yourself. And suddenly the Priest saw a window into the asked-for future, he and the boy embracing. First in the church, then unclothed in bed, then in the bath… their eyes vacant and unseeing. Crimson water spilling out from the bath all around them, pooling around them on the floor. Flooding the room with their spent lives.

                Purge yourself of sin, and come to me.

                The Priest opened his eyes, and shook his head, back in the world, back swimming in his latent desires.

                “Father? Did you hear what I just said?”

                “Sorry my child, please say that again.”

                The Priest could see through the slats as the young man licked his full lips in fear, trepidation… anticipation. The man of God knew what was coming, he feared it. But knew he dare not defy the Lord All Mighty, the darkness who directed his light.

                “I was speaking, Father, of my most recent sin.”

                “Go on, my son.”

                “One of desire… forbidden desire.”

                “And who did you desire, my son?” The Priest asked, hearing the answer before it was spoken. A Man of God.

                “A Man of God, Father.” The young man, the boy, was now quite boldly meeting the Priest’s gaze through the lattice slats of the confessional. And somehow the Priest knew without looking in a mirror that the hunger he saw there was reflected by the need in his own. He rose, left the confessional, walking back through the oak pews to his door of quarters hidden behind the altar. He ignored the judgmental gazes of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the silent admonition of the Mother and the Whore. He did not need to look back to know the boy followed; he could hear his steps echo on the stone.

                They entered the small room, empty but for a desk and small mattress that lay on the floor covered in fraying, threadbare sheets. The boy closed the door behind them and for a while they did not speak, staring at each other, consuming each other. Silent but for heavy breaths.

                Then they came together, and, after a fashion, came—together.

                They lay together on the bed, and The Priest savored this moment. The glow he felt unmatched by anything except that first moment in the Desert with his Dark God: who spun Satie gently into the air; who spoke him into a humble life of devoted service. One of servile delight that now found a dark end. He rose, still naked and still tumescent, and led the boy by the hand, docile after their coupling. Perhaps in awe of a man of God who could ravish him thus. Perhaps at some level aware that he was but an offering.

                He led him down a corridor and into the bathroom. He filled the tub with hot steaming water; got in, and beckoned the young man to sit in the scalding water. And as he did so took him into his arms. The boy’s eyes were closed, lips spread into a grin of guileless bliss. As if he too had been unburdened of his sins. His eyes were still closed when the Father picked up the straight razor he always left by the tub so he could shave as he watched. His body barely jolted as the Priest drew a wider, redder smile into the soft brown flesh of his neck. The boy shook only a few times before lying still in his Father’s arms, his life quickly spent in the dirtied bath water.

                “I’m sorry my boy,” He whispered, running the razor up the veins in both his arms, spilling his redness into the water, which quickly ran the color of the darkest rose. The waters-displaced by their slackened bodies—tumbled over the tub’s edge, staining the church bathroom’s tile with his final sin.

                As he lay there, as time flattened and wound to a halt, as his days of service came to their close, again he heard the music. It drowned out all other sound, that quiet piano, that holy musing of Satie, that call of his dark Lord

What a dark creature he calls to work his will. Man, the monster in his image.

Yes. The Priest thought. God works in mysterious ways.

                Then at last, he closed his eyes.

What Death Has Touched

“‘Tis a fearful thing, to love what death can touch.”

For as long as life can be, for as many long and painful silences that we endure, however many days and nights pass and seem unending. The lives of men and women ultimately boil down to a few key moments, none more important or more futile than the last. It was in such a moment Farouk found himself when he woke, bound to a chair, in a room full of smoke, a lilting voice reciting his favorite poem as if it were song.

The world froze in that moment, and he looked around the room in a daze. Flames hung in the air, frozen in their rapid consumption of the wallpaper, of his bookshelves and furniture and carpet, of his world entire. The air hung hot and heavy, searing his lungs with each breath. In the shadows, another figure moved, he squinted to make it out. Though as the man spoke, his blood ran cold. The familiar words of Halevi bringing little comfort.

“A fearful thing, to love, to hope, to dream, to be –“

“Ti?” Farouk called into the dark, the pet name of his ex-lover Tichaun, knowing it was him but not wanting it to be all the same. “Ti? What are yo-“

He danced lithely out from the shadows, nearly indistinguishable from them, though the sweat on his obsidian skin glistened with the firelight. Caressing Farouk’s cheek with his hand, he spun around the chair, then spun the chair around, so his old flame could see that flames surrounded them. Once this moment ended, so too would their lives.

“to be… and oh, to lose.” The man smiled as he straddled Farouk, he wore no clothes and, despite his situation, the bound man felt a growing warmth inside at his lover’s familiar closeness. The man was nude… and he was as beautiful as he was deranged. Their position together inspired memories of happier times.

“Ti. You-you don’t have to do this. We can still, we can still…” Lies faded from Farouk’s tongue as futility hit him like a bullet train. What was done has already been done; there is no going back, only forward into the end. He closed his eyes, remembering the look on Tichaun’s face when he walked in on Farouk with one of the Egyptian scholar’s students. He said nothing, not interrupting the liaison, only slipping back outside once he was sure Farouk had seen him there, that there was a witness to this crime against love.

Until now, Farouk had not seen him again, assuming he had found some other diversion. Like the wind he was always flying, laughing, speaking like behind his words there was a melody only he could hear. But now… now…

“A thing for fools this. And a holy thing.” As Tichaun spoke, Farouk felt the room grow hotter. Behind his lover, a shadow against the crimson burning, he saw the flames again begin to move. Sweat mottled the hair that covered the back of his hands, black bristles on hands brown like earthen clay.

“Ti… I’m sorry. I said I would be better and I wasn’t. I’m sorry. This moment is more than I deserve.”

Ti smiled, and with one hand tilted Farouk’s head upwards until their lips met in a tender kiss. As their mouths explored each other one last time, as the flames grew closer, as it grew harder and harder to breathe in the smoke. The Egyptian heard his lover’s voice, as if the air itself was commanded by his larynx.

“For your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me.”

Flames licked their skin, consuming them in desperate search of fuel, melting flesh and bone into blackened carbon, fusing them into the one they never were in life. Farouk felt no pain; only distant regret; he only thought:

To remember this brings painful joy.

And then the moment ended, and so came another, and another. And another.

After hours of moments, as police sifted through the ash trying to differentiate between what was once man and once house, wind sung its way through the home’s skeletal remains, sifting the ash with playful hands. Had any officers turned to see the ash winding its way across the charred floor, they would have seen—for a brief moment—this final moment’s words flash in the dying embers before dissipating.

Tis a human thing, love,

a holy thing, to love

what death has touched.

The Perfect Fit

                There are no perfect fits.

I sit at my desk, haunted by the same page—blank but for a single sentence—on my word processor that’s haunted me for months, contemplating my emptiness. I am looking inwards where there used to be words, an endless reservoir I once thought could never run dry, when comes a knock at my door. Opening it, I frown as I see the man with the perfect smile on my front step.

                “What do you want?”

“What do you think?”

I cross my arms, defense against the suggestion and the thrill it sends crawling through me.

“I told you not to come here anymore.”

                His lips curve upward, flashing those perfectly matching rows of pearls, and for a moment I forget how he broke me.

“Let me in.” He says, in a voice on the edge of song. One that could always move oceans, especially my own.

                Yes. Yes. I almost say, but catch myself. “I can’t. I’m writing.”

                He shakes his head, like a parent who catches their child in an obvious lie. Which—I suppose—he is. “Babe, I’m your editor. If you’d written a word worth a damn in the last year, I’d know.”

                He steps between the door jamb, and I can smell his breath. Cigarettes and mouth wash and… cheap scotch. Only now I notice how he sways, courtesy of the courage he drank to come here. Sliding one arm around my waist, sending half-forgotten tingles through me, he whispers in my ear.

                “Let me in.”

                “No, I can’t. Tonight might be the-” I trail off mid-sentence. What can I say? Tonight might be the night my stories return. Inspiration may yet appear from the emptiness.

                Undeterred, he brushes his lips against my ear. He remembers still how to love me; how to play me like he does all others. And how I long to be played, sometimes. I dare not meet his glance, knowing it will captivate me. I dare not close my eyes, knowing that falling into the pool of memory that contains our previous liaisons will do much the same.

                “Yes, perhaps tonight the walls fall, and your words return. But that is no certainty. What is certain-” Here he guides my hand to below his belt, and I feel his surging confidence. “-is the void in you *I* can satisfy.”

                Looking in my eyes, he sees me relent, and he tilts my head upwards until our lips touch. The tingles I felt at his embrace fan into flames. We grow against each other, the bad taste of our history fading away. A distant memory when weighed against the immediacy of our need. He backs me into the bedroom, not letting our mouths part for a second, pushing me there as if by muscle memory. Our clothes drop to the floor, and in a moment, for a brief moment, I am indeed filled. The anguish and the doubt, my failure to create, my anger at this beautiful man chased away by the pleasure and the pain of our coupling.

                “You bastard. God damn you, you bastard.” I cry softly. He cannot hear me over the rhythms of his drunken ardor. Whether my tears are born of joy or of sadness, I do not know.

                Later, in the night, as he snores loudly beside me, I stare past his slumbering form and out the window, up at the blood moon. Pale and red and angry and remote, like our brief passion now when weighed against the cold reality. Any joy I felt at his surprise return to my door fades as the omnipresent truth returns. Tonight he was my again, tomorrow he leaves my life and returns… to her. I will be left with nothing but another bittersweet memory. And the void.

“Look at you,” I mutter to myself, swimming again in my emptiness, “Gorgeous even in sleep.”

I run my hand through his hair, short and dark and soft like down to the touch. He stirs, but does not wake. Closing my eyes, I consider my own ugliness, my fat stunted form cuddled up against his sculpted perfection.

Why are you with me? Someone like me, deformed and unloved. Why must you torment me with unfulfilled hopes and inspire these unrequited thoughts? I wish… I wish…

Glancing back up at the moon, I finish my thought out loud. “I wish I could know your happiness, and you my sorrow.”

Rolling onto my back, the tears return. Silently sobbing, I slip into unconsciousness.

WHAT THE FUCK!” A scream that is at once familiar and yet impossibly strange wakes me with a start. I am in the wrong place. I somehow switched places with him in the night. The scream came from beside me, and so I turn onto my side… and see my own face staring at me in abject, confused terror. I speak again, quietly this time, for it was my own voice that woke me.

“What—what is hap-” Before I can finish my sentence, by some strange instinct, I roll over on top of myself, clasping my hands with a grip that is bigger and stronger than I remember around my own fat throat. I-He look(s) up at me in gasping fear, fat hands trying to peel away my-his own in vain. Before I even realize, I start screaming in his voice.

“You took everything from me! You bastard!” I begin to understand what has happened, a miracle, a wish. I am become my missing piece. Minutes pass, eventually he-I stop struggling and go limp, glazed eyes open and staring unfocused at the ceiling.

“You took everything… even the words.” I repeat, in a whisper, feeling tired and hollow as I stare impossibly down at my own corpse.

Disturbed by what I have done, by what happened, I leap from the bed with a speed and grace I did not previously possess, and stumble down the hall to the bathroom, still undressed. My head pulses and pounds like I am hungover, but I didn’t drink last night. Did I? A memory flashes through my head. I stand at my own door step, hesitating briefly before I knock, spurred onward by drunken desperation.

I have to see him. I remember thinking. Just one more time. I have to end this life.

The joy, and trepidation, I feel as the door opens and I see my own haggard, disbelieving face, jolts me back to myself. Opening the bathroom door, I look in the mirror and I see the impossibility made truth: his chiseled face stares back at me.

Looking at his-my face, I remember more. Drinking at a bar just down the street from my-his apartment, getting drunker and drunker as I contemplate how to free myself from his-my obsession. I twist the engagement ring on his-my finger as remembrances of our encounters of how my-his words made him-me laugh, twisted his-my heart, completed him-me in a way that no one else ever could. Not even our (our?) fiancée.

And yet he-I must kill me-him. To be free of this obsession, to return to his-my love unencumbered.

So he-I drag(s) our drunken selves up the apartment steps…

Back to the strange face in the mirror, becoming less strange by the minute.

So, the me that is still wholly me thinks, he intended to kill me?

We walk back down the hall to the bedroom, seeing what was my body lying there—tongue lolling and lifeless—is a sight I still cannot process. How that heart beats no longer and yet… I am alive?

In a way, I think, with a rueful grin on my-his… on my strange new face, he succeeded.

Then I hear it. At first I do not recognize the sound, so long it eluded me, but before long it is unmistakable. I take the plunge inward, and where for months there had been only silence, an empty dusty basin devoid of song and of sound, there are a chorus of words. My words. The light of my life, dark for so long, shined once more. I sit back down at my desk and smile at the sentence, my torment:

There are no perfect fits.

And… and… yes! I can. I can! I begin to write.

There are no perfect fits… and that’s okay. We are mere pieces dancing through an emptiness too vast to comprehend, part of a puzzle that is by design incomplete. Our creator, if there is such a thing, is a cruel gameskeeper who has us in a match not meant to be won. But that endless string of loss keeps us searching. That missing fit keeps us hoping that one day—

—our grasp will match our reach.

Then a phone rings. His cell, well… mine now. I step away from the laptop to answer it. I know the name, the man with the perfect smile’s fiancée. My fiancée. For a moment it angers the man I used to be, the sad hollow man who chased an impossible dream, one that filled him for only brief moments. Then I realize she took nothing away from me that I did not gladly relinquish out of fear. The love I craved was never truly mine. So I answer the phone, in his strange, sweet, low tone.

“Hey honey.” It is, I somehow remember, what he called her.

“Babe? Where are you? You didn’t come home after we-we…”

And I also remember the argument, bits and pieces of my dead lover’s life return to me as I need them it seems. They fought before he left her, before he drank up the courage to come and end the part of himself that held him apart from her. Me.

“I… I know. I got drunk and crashed at a friend’s. I needed to calm down and clear my head. We weren’t very good to each other last night were we?” How easy the words are now; how easy it is to become him.

“No,” She laughs, “No I suppose we weren’t. Are you coming home?”

“Yes, let me get rid of this hangover, get something to eat, run a few errands. I’ll be home this afternoon.”

“Okay, I love you.”

“I love you too. See you soon.” I hang up, and I realize it is true: he loved her. Now I… after a fashion, feel that love for her too. This woman I have never truly met, yet can picture perfectly in my mind’s eye. The separate selves that were are merging together, and only now for the first time do I understand the pain that must have hidden behind my lover’s smile. To love this woman and yet… to still need me. A need that ran so deeply he thought to remove my life from his like a gangrenous limb.

Well, I think, once again looking down at the unseemly flesh that became my bisected lover’s grave, a life has been removed indeed. It would be rude not to claim it.

Resolved so, I get ready to leave. I give my old body one last look, not of longing, not of regret, but of respectful farewell. Despite the loathing I may have for it, it is the vessel that allowed me to find my passion, where I first heard the words that are my life, that are as close as I will every have to a perfect fit. Then I gather my clothes, every hint of my lover—my self that he left at the apartment before I became him. I skip down to the corner-store and buy a tank of kerosene, which I then douse everything in the bedroom with, leaving a trail out to the kitchen.

I light that with a match, and make my quick escape from the building.

Driving his… my car away from the sirens, the smoke, towards *my* new life. I contemplate the pasts. I have two of them now, one that belonged to the man I was, and one that belonged to the man I am becoming. I can remember more and more of him, as if the world senses that this is who I must be.

I look to the future, to the fiancée I return home to, to the child I can now remember grows inside her, my child. Closing my eyes, I can picture holding her in my arms. Somehow I know it will be a daughter. I can see her grow, and the joy we take in her growing. I see myself filling her in moments of passion, the way I was once filled by the body I inhabit. I see myself still sneaking off to be filled by other men in the venal, necessary way that part of me that is me still craves. I see us happy, despite the lies that haunt every marriage. I see her catching me in quiet moments, when I look up at the stars with the look of a man she doesn’t recognize, or I say things entirely out of character for the man she thinks she knows. I see her asking me what’s wrong, time and time again, unsatisfied by my bizarre non-answer. Yet is the only one I have.

We are old in one of these visions. Our one daughter long gone with kids of her own. I sit by the lake behind the home we bought to grow old—and die in—together. Sitting on the pier, I do not hear her approach, but she can see the look on my face, another one of those looks that is not her husband’s.

She sits beside me, resignedly, and sighs, saying only: “You know, when we were young, I was so sure you would tell me what was wrong. It must have happened that day.”

I turn to her in shock: “What day?”

“There was a day, before we married. We had a fight and you left for a night. You said you went to a friend’s, but…”

“But?”

“You came back, and I was glad you came back. But after that day you were different somehow. Not worse, better in fact, just different. It was after then you took up writing for yourself. Who knew you could be so good at it?”

She pauses for a moment, resting her head on my shoulder. I start to run my hands through her hair, even in brilliant white it is still beautiful.

“Still, I thought, though it doesn’t really matter, does it? I thought you would tell me.”

I take her chin in my hand, and turn her towards me. I tilt her head upwards and our lips meet in a kiss, one of tens of thousands to happen between now and then. Alas, all I have for her are the same words. I have no more to spare.

“My dear, you already know what I’m going to say.”

“Say it anyway, it’s a comfort now. This mystery is the you I love most.”

Then I sigh, I always sigh, though now, with her understanding, it hides a smile.

“In the best stories, the main character always has a secret. One that only he, or she—”

And here, I sneak a secret look up at the sky. Up at you.

“—and the reader know.”

When the Wind Speaks...

When the wind speaks, you listen.

                So it was, when, one inauspicious morning, a gust of wind whistled through an open window, tousling the hair of the sleeping figure within. The young man woke to a quiet whisper calling to the beach, to the beach as he slept alone. He rose quickly and dressed, following the command without hesitation.

One does not question the wind.

It was still cool as the sun rose, the grass beneath his bare-feet damp with dew. He padded silently along the path that led from his modest hut to the shore’s black sands. Wandering along, the young man was not sure what he sought—until there it lie—on the edge of the tide. A creature unlike any he had ever seen.

                Drawing closer, the young man saw it a human’s shape, but its color…

                Here—in the One World—lived men of all shapes and all shades. From those dark as rocks born in the belly of dying volcanos, to those the burnt red of the bark on God’s proudest trees, to those tone of a ripe, juicy peach, but never, the young man thought as he approached the—sleeping? dead?—figure, had he seen a man so pale. In the growing sunlight he appeared almost translucent. What little of the stranger’s skin that was visible outside his bulky, foreign dress seemed pale, unhealthy, like the ash that gathered in the pit of an untended fire. What little hair remained to him ringed his white, dome-like skull—like a shock of old yarn, fraying and molted. The stranger began to stir, eyelids fluttering as he blinked to wakefulness. He started at seeing the young man hovering over him, so the One Worlder crouched close and asked his pressing question:

                “Are you… human?”

                The strange, ashen-faced man furrowed his brow, before unleashing a bile of strange speech onto the young man’s ears. It was a harsh language, unpleasant to the ear and soul, but the young man forced himself to concentrate, to breath in the words. He mumbled a silent prayer for comprehension, and slowly, surely, he began to understand.

                “-dashed upon the bloody rocks over there, I suppose the survivors will be along to deal with you savages. We didn’t expect anyone to be here in our new home. And you can’t even speak civilized tongue? It will be short work deali-”

                The young man sighed, and interrupted the man in his own tongue with the same question.

                “Are you human?”

                At that, the pale-face grew even paler, if possible. “You… you understand? You speak our Queen’s tongue? How is that possible?”

                The young man replied with the saying his teacher repeated often as he learned the tricks of the wind. “Words are nothing but air, breathe deeply and they will be revealed to you.”

                Regaining composure, the stranger who still lay on the shore brushed the dark sand from his cumbersome coat. “Well, whatever that means, perhaps you may serve some use yet.” He lifted a hand to the young man without meeting his eyes. “Be a good boy and help me up?”

                The young man stared at the hand unmoving, until the stranger rolled his eyes, apparently remembering the unanswered question. “Tch, of course I’m human. I’m more Man that your godless kind is like to be. Help me up!”

                Muttering another silent prayer, words representing a call to truth that only the wind would know, the young man took the stranger’s hand and as they touched, the answer to his benediction came—a swift and painful premonition. An army of ships coming to the One World’s shores, on each ship a legion of ashy warriors bearing strange weapons and crying their guttural words of death. Their words promised an end to the One World’s way of life, a silencing of the wind. A whispered warning… all they bring are lies; their only truth is death.

                The young man moved, again without hesitating, with the same hand he used to help the stranger up, he pulled him forward, unsteadying him.

                “What are you do-” He interrupted the pale stranger with the dagger drawn with his other hand from the leather sheath at his hip, a quick swipe across the throat. From the red line gushed the dark crimson lifewater that filled every man.

                “So, you are human,” He spoke the unclean pale-man’s language, though its words felt like pebbles choking his throat. Every human-being, despite their provenance, deserved to understand the words following them into death. “The wind says you are human, but that our death comes with you.”

                The young man crouched again, as the stranger lay now on his back, eyes clouding, mouth wordlessly gaping—a fish flopping its last minutes upon a land it will never understand.

                “It is as my teacher always said: ‘Death can beget only death’. My apologies for the violence, but it was a preventative measure.”

                The stranger was gone, empty eyes staring up at the rising sun. His soul returned to whatever strange home had birthed him across the vast sea. Paying his final respect, the young man closed the stranger’s eyes for a last time. Whatever else he might have been; whatever threat he promised, there was no denying his humanity. As he did so, a gust of wind tumbled along the beach, bringing with it another vision. A shipwreck a little further along the beach, just around the head of a not-too-distant spit. The surviving ashy-ones dragged themselves from the maw of the sunken boat, dragging with them several chests. The wind showed him the contents of a few of that chests, strange weapons that looked like tubes with a small appendage at their base.

                Death… this is the death. The wind whispered, and showed the young man the future that might be. The pale men drying these weapons with fire and the heat of the sun, then using those same weapons to raid his village and others like it, spitting that same fire into the face of men, women and innocent children. Burning the corpses of the young man and everyone he loved along the shore before carrying their death inward into the One World.

                They must be stopped. Only you can stop them.

                The young man, returned to the present from the unpleasant future, blinked the tears from his eyes. Gripping the hilt of his blade so tightly his palm turned the same pale sheen as the dead man at his feet, he began to jog down the beach. Faster and faster he ran until it was a full-blown sprint. As he ran, he offered a breathless plea to the wind.

                “Call my mate,” He begged, “Warn my brothers and sisters. Bring them to my aid. Let them know what awaits should I fall. Let them know what has happened here. For… for…” His lungs had no space to finish his prayer as he rounded the beach’s sandy head, and saw the wood skeleton loom ominously in the distance.

                For when the wind speaks…

The Earthbound Shade

After an Earthbound slumber, your spirit takes Father Time's hand. He leads you to the stars, introduces you to the man you could have been. At first, you do not understand. Flying past distant pinpoints of light you look through your translucent hands and wonder: “Am I… really?”

The Elder Father Time responds with a quick nod. Faint hands gripped in his opaque, brown mitts, your shade appears even more insubstantial.

“Yes. Your time is done. The course of your life carved in stone.”

His voice is deep like the space around you, vast like many universes. Its inexorable timbre pulls your soul past acceptance’s Event Horizon. No use in denying the obvious. No point fighting life’s abrupt end. For a while, neither of you speak as Father Time guides your ghost in the black. You, the shade, parse what it means to become meaningless.

It is too big to be seen, the unreality of nonexistence. It is too much to confront all at once. And yet you must, to see what comes next.

Eventually, they slow, hovering over a familiar sight. The shade beholds a blue-green orb, large swaths of its surface obscured by white.

“But this is-”

“Yes… and no.”

“How is that possible?

“The world you knew was one of many possible worlds that are, or might or will be.”

Father Time continues: “We travel not just through what, but through when. Back in time to a different Earth, where you are a different you.

“I take you to see the differences between your many souls, your countless hearts. What changes... and what does not. I take you to see the core of your being. Only once you understand that, will you understand what must happen next.”

You shake your see-through head, hoping futilely to clear away cobwebs of confusion, omnipresent since the onset of death. “I don’t unders-”

“No, but you will. Watch.” Suddenly you descend, down into the clouds towards a familiar landmass. Down into a familiar city and quiet home.

It is you, the shade, but alive. Much is the same, yet much is also different. This self wears different clothes, speaks a different tongue. Yet, connected by a kinship of the soul, you understand. And as you understand you remember. You knows what horror you are about to witness.

Your ghost turns to Father Time, near tears. “Please, please, don’t make me watch-”

“I make you do nothing. This is all your own doing.”

“Please, I understand. I get it. Let me fade away… or send me to hell. Whatever my fate is supposed to be. Just don’t make me-”

“Watch.”

You, the shade, try to close your eyes, but still can see the scene through translucent lids. You turn away, but the world turns with you. Father Time regards you without sympathy, his dark brow creases. “You will watch. There is no escaping what you do, what you have done.”

And so, despite your eyes shut tight, you do. You watch yourself, a different self, slowly sip a glass of wine. Your smile open and hungry. You watch the man, your mirror image, fingers lingering over a tray of knives, grin at the figure bound to a chair at his dining room table.

“Where shall we begin?” He/You ask over muted screams, tutting mockingly at the struggling victim. “Now, now, we’ve discussed this already.”

You/He selects an enormous cleaver with a thin, sharp blade. Handle shimmering in the firelight, its inlay bejeweled with glowing emeralds. You/He caress your victim to be with the blade, a thin wound tracing your path.

“No one can hear you. Not on this hill. No one is coming.”

And so, madness flirting with his gaze, your doppelgänger dances around the room. Long, slow and with many steps, yours is a terrible art. For a while, you cannot tell if the screams are your victim's or your own. However, after much dismemberment, there is no longer any doubt. Father Time forces you to watch the whole grisly deed, to see what glee you took in the bloody work. Viscera pools at and through your feet.

You turn to the wizened Father and again beseech.

“Please, I get it. I do. I… just, take me away. Anywhere but here. Anywhere. Anywhere...”

The old, dark man looks to you, his mouth a thin, sad line. He again does not speak, but his face says enough: Be careful what you wish for. He lifts you both back up into the heavens, back to the void and stars. Again you travel through space and time, alighting on another Earth.

Immediately, you know what you will see. “No, please, not again. I meant-”

“What you meant is immaterial. This, it is your fate to endure.”

Here, on this Earth, you follow a young man in a dim alley. From the smile on his face, he clearly expects a different sort of encounter.

“So,” He laughs, “What did you want to-” He stops laughing immediately upon seeing your gun.

“Wait, wait. I’ll do anything. Just please d-”

Your only reply is gunfire. Its retort echoes in the rainy night. People flock to the alley, but we are already gone. On to the next Earth. And on and on. The methods and means change, but the result is always the same. You are always the same monster, with an unslakable thirst. At first you beg, plead with Father Time to show no more. You throw myself at the hem of his celestial, shimmering garment, but to no avail.

It is always the same refrain: “You must understand.”

“But I do! Please make it stop!”

He looks at you, the shade, inscrutable. “No, you don't.”

Finally, floating above a world where you dissect your victims. A doctor obsessed with experimentation. You at last ask the right question:

“What will it take for me to understand? How do I make this stop?”

At first, it looks like Father Time will not answer, a tortured silence. But after a pause, he sighs, with empathy in his glimmering eyes that are bright like the stars and just as distant. He relents, just this once.

“You must understand. There are countless universes. Within most universes Earth never forms, yet still there are countless Earths... On most Earths, life never comes to be. They are fields, forever fallow. Yet on countless others form Vernal pools...

"Even when there is life, the vast section of worlds never birth men, and yet there are limitless iterations of humanity...”

Each word he speaks slowly, each word penetrates your ken a little deeper. "In most human civilizations, you are never born, and yet..."

You finish the thought at it's only logical destination. “There are countless 'me’s'. This will never, ever end. This is... Hell?”

“Someone once wrote 'Hell is other people',” Father Time smirks, “But truly, Hell is bearing the weight of your worst sins in perpetuity. Hell is realizing that life, your choices in life were always but an illusion. You were always meant to be damned, always fated to be evil.

“Hell is realizing there is no justice, no fairness, no escape from what you have done. Hell is seeing you have no recourse but to suffer.”

You do not respond. Indeed, there is nothing for you to say. No futile protest to lodge In the quiet, Father Time senses your understanding and acceptance. The two of you, jailed and jailor, take flight once more. The two of you disappear into the past, into your many crimes and their frightful symmetry.

As the stars pass you by, and the planets too, you wonder. How many others slip through the void, made to witness sins they would sooner forget?

How many others arrive at this moment? Where they accept Death is a pain that will never end.

The Night Has A Thousand Eyes

The night has a thousand eyes,

And the day but one;

Yet the light of the bright world dies

With the dying of the sun.

 

                Looking back, the Mothers would say they knew her straightaway, and were glad the next savior would be one of their own. A rose-colored half-lie to obscure a darker truth. They knew, indeed, but hoped against hope they were wrong. They wanted to spare their daughter the pain forced upon all Messiah’s, the burden of guiding the flock through an unforgiving wilderness.

Maraya did not cry, not once. Not when exiting the womb. Not when they cut the cord. Not when blinking as she adjusted to the light in the ‘sky’ that mimicked the sun. She watched with quiet gray eyes as the conclave swaddled her, as if when first coming into this world, she remembered their births. As if when she closed her eyes to sleep that night, she could see the blue and the clouds of the world that was. Maraya smiled in her sleep, like she felt the long-forgotten stars kiss her plump cheeks in the night.

                She was a precocious child. For the first year she watched and listened. Every moment she was learning, and on the eve of her first birthday she spoke, broken and malformed English trickled out her soft palette.

                “Ee ha’e so fa t’go.”

                At first, the Mothers took it as little more than the pidgin gurglings of a young girl. Sounds with no more meaning than the emotion behind them.

                “You hungry, baby child?” One cooed, her Birther, baring herself for feeding.

                Maraya shook her head. This struggle, to make herself understood. She swam upwards from the bottom of the sea of infancy, flexing the long arms of language that she had grown, but never before used.

                “We… ha-ave… so far… t’go.”

                The Birther, Belledonne, stopped with her arms by her side. Language? In a child so young? She exchanged a glance with the others. All knowing what such precocity forecast for her future. The Captain had to be notified at once. With a nod, the Farmer—Ertrude—left the nursery and quickly wound her way through the reeds towards the door in the sky.

                And so, as the lights dimmed to mimic twilight, she came. A lithe figure in gray-suit, the mothers were always surprised by how small she was in truth. Compared to the power of her spirit, the way she loomed in memory. To see her was the remember that she herself was no bigger than a child, though there was no denying the ancient wisdom in her eyes. Dark and black like space itself, they betrayed nothing, but remembered everything.

                She pursed her lips, clenching and unclenching her hands as she approached the babe at the center of the room. She knelt before the bassinet, feeling the gray eyes watching her as she brought her face to the child’s height. They watched each other a while before the Captain deigned to speak.

                “We have so far to go.”

                The child spoke slowly, deliberately, recalling a ritual she only half-understood, wanting for every word to be clear.

                “Our… world is… only… a memory.”

                “Only the Captains remember.”

                “Only… they… shall… see… us… home.”

                “We are…”

                “Ee, We… are…”

                “The Captains.” They finished in unison, not once blinking as they held the other’s gaze. The Captain, white hair curled up around her had in a shock of an afro, nodded, her lips a thin line of grim satisfaction. Here lay not a child, but an equal.

                She turned to the Mothers, who gave the two a wide berth as they commiserated.

                “She is the one. When she’s old enough. Send her to me.”

                Belledonne was frightened, but not too frightened to ask what needed asking.

                “And when, O Mother, will we know the time is right?”

                The Captain did not turn back, only paused briefly at the burlap flap that hid the nursery from the glare of a false star.

                “You’ll know.” And she was gone, making her way back through the tall grass.

                The Mothers stood in silence a while. Then crowded back around the crib of their beloved Maraya. She whose name would be stripped away. Whose very identity would be subsumed in time.

                “I’m sorry, my darling.” They crowed in unison. “I’m sorry! Roan has claimed you. There is nothing left but to go.”

                The child did not speak, talking correctly to the Captain had drained her. All that remained was the energy to be a baby in truth. But she thought, and the tenor of those thoughts was clear in her gaze.

                This was always to be the way. This was always my fate. There is no use regretting the things that are certain.

                Regardless, tears streaked her cheeks. She closed her eyes and remembered the night sky. The true night sky. The darkness with its countless distant lights that they streaked past and towards in the Arc, their vessel, its payload humankind’s only hope. The stars weighed upon her like a hundred thousand piercing eyes. Each perhaps with a world or two of their own. One perhaps with a world meant for her flock… but perhaps not. Perhaps they would die in space, lost and cold and forgotten. Perhaps thiswould come to pass on her watch.

And for the first time in her short life, on the morning of her first birthday, Maraya, the next Captain, began to wail.

The mind has a thousand eyes,

And the heart but one;

Yet the light of a whole life dies

When love is done.

--Francis William Bourdillon

The Reflection

                There are places, the hidden lonely spaces, the frigid peak of a mountain or a basement corner in a condemned mansion, where the world wears a bit thin. One can stand there and peer into another universe. One that exists just behind, just above, just outside our own. In one such place a young man stood and waited for his reflection. The other mind behind the mirror. He who stopped mimicking his movements one day and winked. From that moment blossomed love.

                He knew what they planned to do in those woods was dangerous. As luck would have it, the forest behind his house—a land of strange sightings and unsolved disappearances, was one such space where worlds collided. He knew they hazarded the whole of not just his world, or his reflection’s, but the total of creation itself. But from that first moment when he realized that hidden in that glass was another life, with a smile so like his own, he knew they had no choice. They had to meet, to touch, to know each other’s intimate spaces.

                After a few minutes of waiting, he saw a transparent copy of himself approach through the forest. The same full lips, the same dark curly hair cropped close to the scalp, the same dark skin, dry and cracking in the winter cold. The reflection smiled, and he knew it to be identical to his own. How many times had he seen the same crooked smile in the mirror? He memorized it, and to see it belong to another thrilled him

They stood, face to face, under the auspices of an ancient oak. The wind blew and snow that fell the night before swirled down among them from the boughs, matting his hair, falling through his reflection like he was not wholly there. They did not speak right away, letting the mist from their breath come together and then dissipate like they might do soon, like the universe might.

He was unsure what to say and so, he sensed, was his twin.

                “You came.” He finally stammered.

                “I did, so did you. I didn’t think-”

                “No, neither did I.”

It was, as he suspected, like talking to himself. The same voice and speech patterns. Yet, somehow he sensed, there was another soul here. Another life apart from his own. His reflection looked up at the sky, gray and austere. The omnipresent cloud cover of a New England winter.

“Well that’s one difference at least. In my world, it’s summer.”

He looked behind his reflection, and saw—though faint—the same land and trees, but instead of leafless and bows laden with snow, the trees were blooming and covered in leaves. The sky was clear, the sun was just beginning to rise. They stood in grass, but somehow also in snow. He was cold and warm at the same time, and his feet were damp, the ice melting into water as it became unsure which world it belonged to.

“Should we do this?”

“Do what?”

“This, meet like this. Touch… you hear stories.”

“Yeah, present and past selves meet. The timeline collapses on itself. That kind of thing? Not really the same situation here.”

He kicked the snow, now slush, unsure how best to express his reservations.

“No, but it could be like… so the universe is made of matter and anti-matter. When the two meet, an incredible amount of energy is released. A cataclysmic amount even. Is it right to risk our… worlds? Our everything? Over this?”

His reflection frowned, thinking for a while how best to answer.

“Let me ask you something. When we first met, and realized that we were more than just each other’s reflections, how did you feel?”

He closed his eyes and remembered. His incredulity at the impossibility of it. The joy at discovering such a like mind.

“I felt… as if the sun rose after a lifetime of night. Like I just grew legs and crawled up out of the ocean and onto the shore. I was blind and stuffed in a box, but you let me out and gave me eyes to see. I felt as if… it was like…” Words finally failed him.

His reflection nodded.

“I felt the same. You ask, is it worth risking the universe to consummate… whatever this is. I ask, what else is the universe for if not this precise moment?”

“A bit solipsistic, no?”

The reflection took another step closer. Their noses were almost touching. He felt his reflection’s breath on his cheek. As they talked, he grew more solid, as did the world behind him along with its sun. He could see his reflection shivering and knew winter encroached more and more into his world as well.

“Perhaps, but look around you. In both worlds, at this moment, there is no one but us. Let’s be a little selfish, let’s…” And instead of finishing his thought, he closed his eyes and leaned forward.

He means to kiss me. The man realized. Then he smiled. Well, why not?

He leaned forward as well, and their lips touched. And in that moment, it mattered little to either of them whether the universes ended or not.

He opened his eyes to darkness, felt his reflection’s arms around him. He was an idea no longer, but love made flesh. His feet touched nothingness and yet he stood. He was not cold, not hot and sensed that the emptiness around them lasted forever. There was no light, yet he saw the man across from him perfectly. He saw himself, skin only slightly less black than the night and smiling. The young man smiled back, took his reflection’s hand, and they leaned forward to kiss again.

There was no light, no sound, no world, nor wind. Only love remained.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

                Oslo watched the second-hand race around the clock, counting down to midnight on the eve of his 25th birthday, and imagined he could still hear the ticking. Sound-waves crashed against his cochlear sea, he felt the vibration, but that was all it was. Feeling. Sensation, but no noise. His head hummed in silence. Fingers pressed flat against the table, he knew it rained outside by the patter that rattled along his palms. He sniffed, and smelled Rosco, their black Labrador, scratching around in the backyard. Based on the strong ammonia odor, it would not be long until he found his way back to their door, scratching to demand entry and—presumably—whining. The young man picked up a pen in brown hands and wrote the last lines of prose, the final story inspired by his year in meditation.

                They say that deafness is like sleep, and sound like a world we can never wake into. That a Writer’s world digs ever inward, that we plumb the soul while Talkers ascend to the heavens. But here, inside my head, I may have found a heaven that is all my own. My only fear is that—if I remain trapped here long enough—I will find it was hell all along.

                It was then the young man, trapped by indecision, had the choice made for him by time. Sound rushed around him, over him, through him, from the far off cries of babes to the beating wings of a nearby insect. He looked down at the words he had just written, and it did not matter when later they became smudged illegible with tears: after all, no matter how clear they were, he would never again be able to read them.

And so the Writer was damned to Listen.

                Could I live like this? Forever? He asked himself, replacing the pen on the desk. He had wondered this again and again over the past year, growing accustomed to interacting with the world by sight and smell and touch alone, reading along to his favorite movies, nose deep in book after book, looking friends in the face as those who had chosen to speak spoke, and following the fast hand gestures of the ones who had not. Oslo closed his eyes, wide grey pools rippling with doubt, and leaned back in his chair. Interlocking his fingers in his frizzy hair, now buzzed close to his head, he imagined he could distinguish each individual stubble. He thought that if he concentrated he might even feel it growing, however slowly, from his scalp. Heightened senses were the gift to every man and woman who came of majority age. He opened his eyes. They found the clock again, inexorably ticking towards the moment of decision. 60, 59, 58 seconds away. Soon, there would be no turning back.

                He was reflecting on this same moment a year prior, when he finished testing life as a Talker, relishing the richness of laughter—how full the world felt when you could hear and yet how empty became your head, looking at row after row of novel and tome, knowing their contents, their worlds, were never to be yours—when his Mother ascended the steps to his attic room. She waited a moment on the stairs, not wanting to interrupt his reverie, his collection of sensory data. The young ones must consider every experience and every sensation, in order to best decide what they could do without.

                Then the clock struck 12, each bell a silent tremor. At their end, like a man rising from the sea a moment before drowning, the world of sound came crying back to the young man. He heard the rain, heard Roscoe barking, the laughter and chatter of the assembled party guests awaiting his decision. Tonight was his Sense Fete. Where his manhood would be celebrated and his loss mourned; where he would be carried across the threshold into the world where some spoke and listened but could not read, and others wrote and studied text but could not hear. His mother finished climbing the stairs as the final bell rang and Oslo turned 25 in truth. Her eyes were dry, but red, and, still in the waning throes of Writerdom, Oslo could smell that the handkerchief in her back pocket was damp with salty tears.

                “Well Oslo, have you made a decision?” Her voice trembled as she feared what she was about to lose. Would her beloved son never speak to her again, and be destined to a life of the mind? Would he become a recluse who gradually recedes from the only world she can understand? Or would he sacrifice the books he loved? The academic pursuits that sustained his youth? Would he choose to remain drowning in humanity’s flow?

                The young man did not answer right away, racing through his memories of this year and the one prior. When had he felt the most joy? Was it hearing his friend tell a favorite joke? Or those long nights spent discovering forgotten wonders in a basement library? Was it in movies? Or the quiet moments of meditation where the world seemed bright in clear? Was it surrounded by friends and loved ones? Or isolation?

                He closed his eyes and remembered…

                She brushed her hand against his, catching his attention, and smiled. Her eyes were bright, those of one who had consumed a hundred worlds and then a hundred more. Who had heard everything worth saying and found it wanting. Who had wisdom to offer in text… and in touch. In sight and in smell. And in that moment, with that gesture and that grin and those beckoning eyes, she said more than he remembered hearing said by a man with a hundred thousand spoken words at his disposal.

                Oslo opened his eyes and smiled—a poor imitation of that girl’s own, she whose name he had never learned nor needed to—and took his pen in hand. His Mother’s gentle sobs faded into the haze of a chosen silence.

                Yes, I have.

Emcee and the Proving Grounds

Emcee waits, at the yawning maw of the labyrinth, for the Heroes to appear. Those few ordained by destiny to duel for the treasures within. He smiles, revealing a mouth of endless teeth. All incisors, the jagged blades run down the length of his throat to his gut. Perhaps they even line his intestines. Emcee is always smiling, a sharp, white grin carved on his black face, brushing dust from his cloak with long thin fingers as he waits. The velvet garment runs down to beneath his knees. Below them long black socks are stuffed into wooden shoes painted to match a starless sky. He does a little dance at his station, a jig to keep up the energy of a silent existence, and delights at the clattering echo the clogs make on the stone. Small pleasures, but one takes what one can.

Humming a happy song, Emcee checks and checks again that the registration forms are in order, and that each of the eight to come has their place. The eponymous master of ceremonies pushes the microphone this way and that, adjusts the table millimeter by millimeter. How long he has stood there he cannot recall—perhaps since before a world grew around him—but Emcee senses the purpose of his life comes nigh. To observe the battles, announce the deaths and the victor of those fated few favored by Fortune. This is why he was born. And so he grins. And so time passes. Night turns to day and back again hundreds, nay thousands, of times over. Sustained by the magic of fate, Emcee waits.

There is another beside him, one with no name, a figure of light. Emcee knows it is by this creature’s will that these pieces are aligned. He the witness, they the fated, the paradoxical war to come. Not for the first time, he turns to the blinding one and asks to understand.

“So, you take a group of heroes…”

Yes. The creature of brilliance has no mouth, and so speaks from the air. This place is its creation, nature its plaything to bend and perform as it wishes.

“Each born under a fated star-”

Mmm hmm.

“And then pit them against each other? …Why?”

Why do any of us do anything? To see what will happen next. I am the instigator, the adversary. You are the neutral force, the observer, who holds this tale together. They, the heroes, will fight here at the proving grounds to see who…

“Who…?”

Who will be the one to-

“To what?”

Instead of answering, the being of light flares up into the sky, disappearing as a beam that stretches off across the horizon. Off to some other world where it stirs its glowing fingers in some other plot, perhaps.

“Always a damn mystery,” Mutters Emcee.

To see what will happen next, this mysterious talk of roles, like this is some play and the sunny beast its director was always the creature’s reply. Emcee knows not to ask wherefrom this creature hailed, or how he had connived to bring him thus into the world. It only answers the questions it cares to answer.

Reaching into his memories from before this place is like casting a line through fog into a dead sea. Nothing nibbles, but perhaps the corpses of rotting fish drift just below the surface, his past life, bloated and forgotten and out of reach.

From the mountaintop where Emcee stands, he can see little past the fog that settles just below the peak. Only the outline of rocks, the hint of a thinning tree line, a stream trickling down towards the estuary of the river whose faint rumble reaches his ears. There is no life on this planet but that which lives in the water and that of the trees—and his life, Emcee supposes. But the birds, were there any, would remain ever silent as there is no dawn for them to herald. The only light on this world departed with the Instigator.

Emcee stares into the always starless, always benighted sky, and sighs.

“Let this begin soon… or let me die.”

And yet, even as his says those words, he is smiling.

It Gets Better

                The Hereafter wasn’t quite what Antoine expected. No fire, no army of demons. Merely an ambling desert, uncertain footing atop shifting sands for as far as the eye could see. There was no sun, but heat bore down on him regardless. His feet burned black on sand hotter than a furnace fire. The young, yet damned soul trudged beneath an empty sky, bereft of any color. Not blue, not red, no matte arrangement of stars, just emptiness, as if the land he tread was all that mattered. This must be Hell, Antoine knew, there was nowhere else it could be. This perdition was not nearly as horrible as he expected.

                And yet… yet…

                How he longed to have someone else to talk to. Alone on the plain, no wind, no noise except for the smacking of chapped, bleeding lips—he thirsted, he hungered, but did not die. He felt himself slipping into madness. Isolation, the most effective torture Satan could develop for mankind’s social soul. Antoine would have tipped his hat to the fallen angel, were he wearing one. This was a subtle Hell indeed.

How he craved a drink. His throat coated with sand. Every swallow brought more abrasions along his esophagus. Antoine bled internally from a thousand tiny cuts. Each breath flushed his insides with desert air, drying him out a little more. He took a step, and then another, less sure with each one why he bothered moving at all. Perhaps it was time to lie down, maybe he needed sleep. Just for a while… or for good. What difference did it make, after all, to the dead?

                “It gets better.”

                Antoine blinked in shock. Time passed him by with indifference, and he did not know how many forevers had come and gone since last he heard another voice. Here one was hanging in the air. The young man looked around trying to find its source, hands shaking with… fear? Yes, and excitement and hope. Something had changed in a static world.

                “Hello?” He asked, and his own voice shocked him, a loud baritone that cut through the quiet and quickly disappeared among absorbent dunes. “Who’s there?”

                “Well, first it gets worse… but it does eventually get better.” The voice again came from all around Antoine. He could not place it. The air itself comforted him, or so it seemed. Was this a trick? Another means to propel him down the path of madness? He tried to weep, but no more moisture availed itself. He was a husk dragging through nowhere to get to nowhere, forgotten by all but Death’s faceless jester who taunted him from the abyss.

                “You aren’t mad. Hopelessness is normal, given these circumstances. We’re about as far down as a man can fall.” The man spoke again, for it was a man’s voice, and this time it did have a direction. Antoine lifted his head and in the distance he saw a speck, a moving shadow, another life in the wilderness. He did not wonder then how it was he heard this man speaking like he was already in his midst, running gladly to him like the stranger brought with him an oasis of the coolest water. Sooner than he thought possible, they met, touching calloused fingertip to calloused fingertip.

                Wheezing with exertion, the young soul spoke first. “An-Antoine.”

                “I’m sorry?”

                “My-my… oh God, my name. It’s Antoine. Who are you? Where did you come from? W-why why are you-” Antoine stopped to catch his breath.

                “-am I here?” The other man smiled, just another crease on a face well-traveled with lines and folds, greyed with impossible age. He scratched his scalp, cracked and bare. “I suppose that will be apparent soon enough. All in Lou’s time.”

                “Lou?”

                “My pet name for our jailer. You know, Lucifer?” The old stranger smiled through every word, unnerving Antoine.

                “Where I’m from…” The man continued, taking the questions in reverse order. “A place, much like this, empty. A void suited best for limitless pain. My time there was done, so I was brought here. Now, as for my name-” He paused a while, chapped, pale lips pursed in thought. “You know, I don’t remember. It’s been so long since it was any use.”

                Antoine shifted uneasily from burnt foot to burnt foot. Suddenly, with a visitor to his hollow realm, he was conscious of his near nakedness in the thin rags that draped his emaciated body. He was a skeleton coat hanger for fabric bleached colorless by the heat. That the other man dressed similarly brought little comfort.

                “So, uh,” Antoine spoke, uncertain how to proceed, “Uh… what happens now?”

                “Suppose, in lieu of my name, I tell you a story. You’ll learn more about me that way than any name’d teach.”

                The young, dead man nodded in assent.

                “When I was, oh, just about your age I’d guess, I killed a man. I can’t now remember why. Maybe it was over something foolish like lust or love, but reasons matter less than consequences. The man died all the same, by my hands, in my arms.” As he spoke, the old soul traced a pattern in the sand with his toe—a spiral growing slowly outward.

                “I didn’t confess. The crime was never solved. I remember… forcing myself to cry at his funeral, being comforted by gathered friends and family. I suppose I must have known him rather well. Anyway, years passed. I married, had children, lived what many might consider a ‘good life’, and died at a ripe old age. And yet still, despite all that good papered over the sin I-”

                “You ended up here.” Antoine interrupted in spite of himself, quietly cursing his rudeness.

                The old man smiled, not minding the disruption. What was a little time lost to the dead?

                “That’s right, I ended up here. For the longest time I was alone in a desert, like you. Unlike yours, mine was a tundra. So cold I could feel my blood freezing in my veins. With every breath I swallowed hundreds of sharp icicles. Each moment birthed unendurable pain. I shuffled along for God knows, well… maybe not, how long. Days, months, millennia. Until I heard a voice.”

                “‘It gets better.’” Antoine intoned, unconsciously mimicking the old man’s voice.

                The nameless one continued as if he had not heard.

                “At first it was impossible to tell where it came from. But then I saw her, in the distance, no more than a mite on the horizon. Faster than I thought possible, there I was in her arms. She told me her story. Her sin is not important, but it was vile. A rough in a vale of diamonds. I asked her the same question you asked me: Why are you here?

                “‘To make you see.’”

                See what? Antoine wanted to ask, but he waited. The answers came in due course.

                “And that’s also why I am here, Antoine. To make you see.”

                Then Antoine did ask. “See what?”

                The old man shook his head, instead saying. “Tell me about your life.”

                And so Antoine did, or so he thought. He spoke of his childhood, a hard drinking mother and father both passing in an out of prison, never really a presence in his life. The aunts and uncles whose hands he passed through, whose hands often found themselves on him in places they shouldn’t. The grandfather who taught him how to shoot a gun, then placed him on a street corner at the young age of 12, pockets full of ‘dust’. He spoke of the life he took a year later, and how he regretted the violence each time. He spoke of his dreams, the poetry he wrote in secret and told only to the boys and girls who frequented his bed. He spoke of his too young death, and stopped, looking at the old man expectantly.

                The old soul frowned and again shook his head. “No, tell me the truth.”

                Again Antoine recounted his life, not sure what the old man wanted. This time he discussed more detail about the darkness that brought him here. How his hands shook after each kill, though less and less each time. About getting high in back alleys, selling to kids even younger than himself. He confessed to killing his grandfather, then his parents, once he realized he could sustain himself without their interference. He admitted that sometimes, after reading his lovers his secret poetry, his knife would dance across their flesh so that they could tell no one else, and how he’d find someone new to play with. Tears in his eyes each time. He told of his death, shot in the back by someone he never saw. He remembered fading as their hands went through his pockets, and then the dull pain as they stabbed his dying flesh, once, twice, three times for good measure. And then he was here. Again he finished and looked back up at the old man.

                He pursed his lips and sighed. “I said the truth, boy.”

                This time, Antoine recounted his tale without emotion. There was no justification. No weeping. No humanizing his actions. Just a list of sins, a long and varied catalogue of transgressions. There was so much wrong. So much hurt wrought by his hands and his alone. Confronting it again and again, the young man rubbed off the scabs over his guilt and finally saw all the pain he caused others. He saw this pain was all that mattered. No one saw how you suffered inside. No one cared about the motivations for your evil. All people see is what you do. The ‘why’ of anything is pointless before the weight of the ‘what’.

                The old man finally nodded. And the young soul found that, despite how low he felt delving into his past again and again, the telling lightened him somewhat. He fell to the ground and might have died of gratitude then and there were his heart still beating. It was over. He could hurt no one else now, not even himself.

                “Like I told you, it gets worse at first, but then…” The voice echoed from all around him again and when the young soul looked up, he was not surprised to find the old man gone. Nor was he worried that he no longer remembered his own name. His sins, all he needed, all he was, stood tall in his memory.

                “It gets better,” He finished the sentence that trailed into the distance, then sat down to wait, no longer burned by the sand.

Smiling, he knew it would not be long before he too was transported.

The Scorpion and the Frog

                We had fallen together for many centuries before I finally spoke:

"You know what's funny? Well, what I think is funny at least. Most readers believe a story is built of nothing more than the words used to tell it, a common mistake. They follow their structure, plot and character, ignoring the ur-tale that looms beneath. Take, for example, the common parable of the scorpion and frog. I will recount it to you now; you tell me what the story is about:

                "Once, many years ago, a scorpion tired of his mountain home. He began to travel down through the woods, to see what else his world contained. During his journey, he came to a stream he wished to cross. There, on the bank, played a frog. The scorpion approached the amphibian and asked to frog to carry him on his back to the other side.

                "'How do I know you won’t sting me?' The frog asked, naturally wary of the arachnid’s venomous tail.

                "The scorpion replied: 'Because if I do, I’ll die too. I’ll drown.'

"The frog, satisfied, allowed the scorpion to hop on, and began to travel through the current. It was the beginning of spring, and the melting snow had swelled the river's current to a torrent that almost dragged them both under. But the frog fought on, swam through it. A noble creature he held up his end of the bargain and made it through the worst of the flow.

"However, as they approached the other side, he felt a painful sting. Looking around, he saw that the scorpion had indeed stuck him. Paralysis rapidly setting in, he gurgled. 'Scorpion, why did you kill me? Now you have doomed us both.'

                "The scorpion shrugged, or approximated a shrug as best as scorpions know how. 'I couldn't help it. You see, It’s just my nature…'

                "So, entangled together, they sank beneath the waves.

                "Now, tell me, what is that story about?  The impossibility of creatures to overcome their baser natures? How it is God’s will that beasts do what they were created to do—the frog to swim, the scorpion to sting? Both to die? Or is it something else?"

                I smile, tail swishing in the dark.

                "Once, many years ago, I tired of my home. The sulfur, the burning heat, the emptiness. I climbed out of the void to see what else the universe contained. I came across many wonders, dying stars, thick clouds of nebulae, worlds containing nascent intelligent life slouching towards self-destruction. Looming over creation, I collected it all within me.

"Eventually I came to a barrier I could not pass, the end of this known demesne. A blank wall, a ferocious current of nothingness. And there you were, God, my nemesis, waiting to see what came next.

                "'Why should I carry you across?' You asked when I approached. 'He who was banished, carried by I who banished you? Surely you jest. Will you not touch your anti-matter to my matter, thus cancelling out both our powers?'

                "'But then we would both sink into nothing. I would also drown in the void between universes.'

                "You nodded at the sense of that, and so we entered and, well, you know what came next. My sting. Here we are still falling. Even those creatures within me, ignorant of oblivion, tell this tale in their own way as we hurtle down through the black. On a molecular or spiritual level, they know what I have done, what this story is about: the consumption of their known universe. How it all will end, has ended, with we two creatures of the cosmos tumbling off the edge into nowhere.

                "What? No smile, no comment? Not even a rebuke. You’ve said nothing since we entered this null-space. How many times can I apologize? How often must I explain?

                "You see… it was just in my nature."

Creation Myths: The Dreamscape

All began with the eternal and ubiquitous Id. A sea of life churning in the void. In that sea Androgiin swam alone. Androgiin, Ego and First Consciousness, the Builder, saw the nothingness that was the Id and the glory that might be. There Androgiin decided: they would give all for the world that is.

Let it begin again. The Builder proclaimed. And so began dancing. Androgiin whirled, a dervish through tenebrous emptiness, its steps a blueprint, its self the stock of creation.

From twinkling eyes that saw and sacrificed swelled the heavens, the sun and blinding stars.

From a body that nurtured and died grew the earth, an expanse of high mountains, deep valleys and endless desert.

From a mouth forever lapsed into silence whispered the wind, followed by a procession of howling storms. From its tears came the rain, filling basins that became the lakes, seas, and the boundless ocean.

From begetting loins, castrated and cast about the cosmos, sprouted flora and sprung fauna of every stripe. Birds to cloud the skies, creatures to leap through forest and field

From a mind that gazed at the deep and wondered, then forgot itself as it dispersed, came awareness, the seed of humankind and of Gods.

From a soul that yearned came the Dreamscape. The demesne of the Id, the Dreamscape floated above, behind, and just beyond the realm Androgiin created, flitting always out of sight, trembling with power. Here lay tamed a limitless potential.

And from its self, the many aspects of One, came children most prized—five faces of the Eternal: Angaama, paragon of justice, wise Wysheid the teacher, Alur, ardent and carnal,  Jev, the avatar of destruction, and Eleazar, the smiling fool, one of tricks, of shadows.

With all parts given to this new beginning, Androgiin faded, subliming into all it had made. What little that remained drifted to the corners of existence, no more than bits and pieces of the once glorious Ego. As it diffused, the Gods wept and beat their breasts, terrified babes in the wilderness. They were young, powerful being who could not countenance being left alone.

Father/Mother, Mother/Father!

My children…

Why do you leave us?

Leave you? Look at yourselves, at Creation. Every bit of every thing is me. Do not think of me as gone, but transformed.

Naked, still on their knees, damp tears dripping down their cheeks, the Gods were not satisfied. Most wounded of all was Eleazar, the God of Tricks. He who was born his face draped in permanent shadow, a wide smile etched like a scar from cheek to cheek and two large eyes—small black irises swimming in seas of white.

Why make us at all?" He muttered. "What are we for?

Androgiin's reply echoed from the world itself, from frosted mountaintops and streams hushing through nascent forests, from the stars above and cyclones rumbling across a newborn Earth, from creatures tottering out on unsure legs and blinking at the bright rays of a neonate sun.

You are stewards. Guide this crafted Ego with passion, wisdom, fervor, righteousness… humor. Protect them from the Id that is their baser nature.

Stay with us! Show us the path. Came their pained reply.

I am. Have been. Will always be of and with you. Remember that my children. Remember…

And with that, The Builder lapsed into silence and was no more. The Newborn Gods were left alone on their freshly molded world. Only Eleazar heard the quiet voice, whispering in his ear as they began to wander a still soft Earth.

Remember, one day the time will come. I will return.

 

End And Beginning

                Picture the unfathomable darkness of the nowhere the universe has become. A black the pitch of moonless night, but instead of centered in the sky, it is everywhere. The whole of existence collapses in on itself, the crunch of entropy come to bear on a limitless expanse once filled with vibrance, with color. Now all is sublimed in frigid emptiness, and silence. God casts his canvas in shadow. No hint of the paint beneath remains. Nothing breaths, nothing moves, and nothing lives.

                Nothing, except for…

                One bright light in the corner of the frame. Glowing, burning, it dwindles, recedes, fades, then gathers itself again and fights to expand against the tide of absolute zero. Here lies the everything that once spread over several billion light-years, now smaller than an atom, barely a quark of light left to battle against nightfall. Listen closely, and inside it you hear the ghosts of those the universe once contained. A cacophonous song, a dirge, a chorus in a million different languages. Here is voiced the anguish, the joy, the relief that their struggles have come to an end, the sadness that so too has passed their time with loved ones. So many things left unsaid, so many sentiments impossible to vocalize. And all that remains is light.

                Were there any observer to peer into the light, to listen to its song, they might entertain its visions. That of a blue-green world circling around a yellow star. First it sings of its creation, burning dust and effluence cooling and coalescing around an iron-nickel core. It sings of the rain clouds, of the water that patters against the still-soft surface, filling its dimples as oceans. Life sludges forth from its oceans, first mindless protozoa. Eukaryotes with no sense of place swim and crawl of microscopic flagella. Those develop into primitive plant-life, into the first animals that, on some small level, perceive their own existence. Reptilian creatures, increasingly mobile mammals, love and destruction follow. A song that burns as brightly as it ends, with a pockmarked and radioactive surface. Lifeless, yet the planet still turns.

                The light also sings of an endless stretch of stars, of nebulae wherein hide creatures sized on an interstellar scale. They swim through space-dust, subsiding on ice and on the stars themselves. They speak to each other in burst of radiation, penetrating the void’s gloom on aquiline paths. Brilliant lights cast by celestial beasts. In the collision of these lights, more such creatures are born. Star orcas crafted of molten rock, organic comets obscured by dust clouds lightyears thick.

                The light sings of life beyond imagining. Invisible minds constructed of song and scent. A network of intelligence that extends through the universe. One heart, several souls, they dream of connection and thus seek the known reality for like beings. But they are alone. As were we all.

                Across the quark that possesses all these memories passes an invisible hand, stoking the fire. The only presence that burns still in a universe gone fallow. A voice, from nowhere, from everywhere, from here and from beyond, whispers into the light, reminding it of a once glorious purpose.

                What was… will be.

                And the light, in fits and starts, continues to grow.

The Splintered Child

Every night the splintered child suffers the same dream.

As always Adlai drifts through al-Naqb, desert of craters. As always it is night. He floats high above the cooling sands, the rocky mélange of mountain passes, steeply sloping valleys with red and yellow flowers poking tentatively through plots of weak soil. He is drawn past them, beyond, towards one massif in particular. In the nature of dreams, he accepts its strangeness. How it looms over the other desert mountains, how in the waking world the peak drawing him near does not exist at all.

The air is surprisingly damp for the typically dry basin, as if just before Adlai arrived the desert tasted one of its infrequent rains. The moon hangs above his head in a sky clear and dark, just a size too large, glowing just a tad too bright, also in the manner of dreams. The satellite looms so close he is tempted to reach out a pluck it from the velvet curtain, but he does not. His destination waits.

Floating closer, a whisper grows. A voice calls him forward. The same sentence builds and recedes.

This… this is… this is the reason… this is… this… this is… this is… this… this is…

It builds but does not complete. Every night Adlai senses that if only he could reach the mountain, he would know. Somehow Adlai knows this sentence, and its speaker, hold the key to his life's purpose.

And so he approaches the mountain, the jagged peak cutting deep into the sky. A path winds around from the top, down into the open mouth of a cavern feeding its center. At the entrance, standing just at the border between moonlight and shadow, kneels a figure wrapped in gray. It faces away from him, its form obscured by its robe. But still, Adlai knows he knows this person, closely, intimately, if only…

The figure turns, removing its hood, turns to reveal its face. It turns, and Adlai sees… Adlai sees…

A sword flashes through the night, down towards Adlai's head. He cannot see its bearer.  Only that it means to cleave him evenly in twain from top to bottom. The shadowed figure, hood down but face still hidden from darkness, leaps to push him out of the blade's path. The movement takes him from shadows into moonlight. And Adlai finally sees the young man's face—

—from the hook-nose, and the brown eyes flecked with amber, empty eyes as if only half-watching the world, to the long slender face that rounds into a protruding chin that seems almost too large for his head, the face Adlai sees mirrors his own.

Brother? The young man thinks, though he knows in truth he has none.

The sun rises, and the young man opens his eye to familiar surroundings. The dry heat of his Judah home, the quiet rush of wind, dust falling from mudpacked walls, the billowing curtains exposing him to the sunlight. He wakes, every day, to the sense of missing something vital. He reaches into the light cloth sheets next to him, expecting each morning to feel a presence that is not there. He belongs to… someone. And they belong to him. Every night, the dreams grow stronger, as does his sense that someday soon he will be reunited with that… that piece of himself which draws closer to the present.

Stuck in this reverie, Adlai almost doesn’t notice when the ground begins to shake. Faint dust falls from the ceiling and the walls baked hard by the sun. He can tell the epicenter of the disturbance is far in the distance, yet it must be a strong one to reach him here. Deep in the desert perhaps, where none will be harmed. After a few minutes, the quake subsides, and Adlai resumes his morning routine. Stretching into wakefulness, he listens idly to the chatter of a village so rudely roused.

Praise Yahweh! That was a light one.

I remember—what was it—fifteen years ago? Quaked so bad almost had to rebuild my home from scratch.

Oh yeah, still, I’m thankful we all surv-Do… do you see that?

What? Oh. Adinah! Come here!

Samuel? What’s with the clamor, that quake was bad enough… oh. Oh God… oh God!

Piqued by the clamor outdoors, Adlai walks to the window. He sees a crowd gathering at the village center, all facing out from the city and towards the al-Naqb desert beyond. It doesn’t take long to see what has everyone agog. The horizon has changed. Stabbing into the blue, piercing the heart of the rising sun, a mountain rises above all the others. Adlai’s heart stops.

Even from this distance, he can tell: it is the mountain from his dreams.

This… this is… this is the reason… this… this… Sulayman will show you the way.

2nd Chance

Simple and useful resurrection app with GPS, Google Maps and e-copy of the Necronomicon

2nd Chance is the first necromancy app available free on your Droid and iPhone (in beta testing stage only)

<< 2nd chance requires a magnetic sensor, location services activated and two samples of blood, one living and one dead >>

This resurrection app is a tool for bringing your loved ones back to life. PLEASE DO NOT USE ON CORPSES DEAD MORE THAN A WEEK. Cannot guarantee that it will be the decedent’s soul that returns after that date. You may find them… changed.

1.       Although you may bring back to life pets and other animals, they will not know you and must be retrained.

2.       Necronomicon is available in Latin only (translations pending)

3.       If Location services are turned off, soul may return only halfway. Please keep gun on hand to re-kill any raised abominations.

4.       All belief systems supported

The 2nd chance app depends on the performance of your device exactly. If the dead are raised perfectly, it means that your sensors for the nearness of spirits are perfect too.

If there are aberrations, such as the undead (zombies) or manifestations of Beelzebub or Lucifer, please check that you are a firm believer in the afterlife. Any doubt allows for evil to creep through! This app has several options to calibrate your theism (The Bible, Qu’ran and Avesta are all included).

·         Pro-version includes:

Ø  Soul sensor (guarantees accuracy of re-absorption up to 95.5%)

Ø  Nearest Exorcist locator (in case of resurrections gone awry)

Ø  Helpful resurrection tips

Ø  Free vial of holy water

Good luck, and remember, if it’s been less than a week. There’s still hope. Your loved ones are never fully gone!

 

                John looked down at his phone, then back up at the grave.

                Aviva Lester 1988 – 2014

                R.I.P

                Far more than a week, but still, thinking back on the past two years of misery, on the grief that had never lessened, on the unfairness of her dying just after their wedding day, the apps warnings went unheeded as he download 2nd chance and approached his beloved’s final (?) resting place.

                “I promised,” He whispered, “I will never say goodbye.”

                The app downloaded and stalled, he pulled up its main screen.

                SOUL LOCATOR. He pressed the button and, when prompted, enter Aviva’s full name and birthdate.

                SEARCHING… SEARCHING… SEARCHING…

                “Come on!” He begged. “Work goddammit! She’s here, she waited for me.”

                RESULTS: 1 SOUL LOCATED THAT MEETS PARAMETERS. WOULD YOU LIKE TO RETRIEVE? (YES/NO)

                John’s heart soared. This might actually work. He pressed yes with tears in his eyes.

                WARNING. SENSORS SHOW SOUL IS _2_ YEARS PAST ‘RAISE BY’ DATE. CHANCES OF SUCCESSFUL RESSURECTION <10%. CHANCES OF ‘OTHER PRESENCE’ FORCING ITS WAY THROUGH OPENED CHANNEL ~50%.

                DO YOU STILL WISH TO PROCEED? (YES/NO)

                “Any chance is chance enough.” John said to himself, pressing yes without the slightest hesitation.

                The phone whirred for a bit, then grew hot in John’s hands. So hot he dropped it into the soft loam of the gravesite. Blue electricity shot from the phones edges into the ground. Then the heavens opened, and lightning cracked down onto the grave, burrowing into the soil and casting it asunder. The crackling electric bolts struck again and again until a hole several feet deep opened before John, who by that time had thrown himself onto the ground hands before his eyes.

                After some moments of chaos, silence reigned. John gingerly took back to his feet, creeping forward to see what remained.

                The grave was undug, the coffin struck open, a figure rose unsteadily from it. Rot and years fell away and John recognized his Aviva.

                “My God… it’s possible. I brought you back. It’s possible!” He ran to her, weeping again.

                Aviva stared at him silently and with wide eyes, recognition slowly dawning.

                “John? But… how. I was, oh my no. I was dead?”

                He hugged her, not caring that a shock of electricity went through him. The pain of that was nothing compared to his joy at reuniting with her. “Doesn’t matter. Darling, you’re here now. I love you. I always loved you.”

                Aviva’s eyes then too began to water. “Oh, John…”

                “Come, let’s get you home and out of those rags. Everyone will be so glad you’re back…”

                He half-carried her from the torn grave, as she stumbled over legs rusty from disuse and atrophy. As he nattered on in his happiness, Aviva turned back the way she had come, eyes narrowing at the sight only she beheld. Briefly, in the moonlight, a translucent figure the mirror image of the girl brought to life reached out towards them. It mouthed silently, no body with which to speak.

                John, beloved. That’s not me. I didn’t make it back. I was beaten to my body. That’s not me. That’s not me-

                The figure faded, its connection to this realm lost. Seeing the figure go, ‘Aviva’ turned away, satisfied, and once again contemplated what horrors she might work on this world of flesh.

                You thought you stopped me for good, God. But I’m back, baby. I’m back!

The Urn

                Mother always wanted to be buried at sea. Laura and I pledged, after she died, that we would make that happen. So from the Kansas flatlands we traveled west by train, on new-laid track through forest and desert and rain.

Weeks passed in silence. We promised we would never speak again of that night, and circumstance had left us with little else. Laura sat by the window. Though she did not say it, I think she loved to watch the landscape rolling by. Watching her, she seemed to age thirty years, the burden of sin. She became the mirror image of the parent we lost. Once, she caught me looking at her and frowned, hard black eyes like coal penetrating to the core of my thoughts.

“I’m not like her, you know. I swear I never will be!”

I nodded in response, silently making the same promise.

As we traveled, Mother waited in the luggage rack in a plain, unadorned urn, returned to dust as we all will be some day. She rolled around above our heads, looming nearly as large in death as she did in life. When the conductor came to take our tickets, he noticed the urn with a start. After that we were left alone. The mysterious children. The couriers of death.

Eventually, our journey ended. We came to California. We wound through the streets, following our noses to the sea. It was vaster than we had ever imagined, stretching out past the limit of our eyesight. We waited for evening, until the sun began to crash beneath the horizon, Mother in hand.

“Bury me.” She said, spitting blood. “Bury me where I daren’t rise again. Bury me beneath the weight of the ocean. Bury me with the setting sun. Promise me you’ll see this through. For the good of the world. Promise me!”

She clutched my hand, which still clenched the knife buried in her side, and convulsed, and screeched. Then fell still. Her emerald eyes faded and were black as I closed them a final time.

I opened the urn, grabbed two nearby rocks, and dumped them into the ash. Resealing the urn, I took my sister’s hand, looked her in her cobalt eyes and walked onto a rock outcropping that extended over deep ocean waters. Here, in San Francisco, we consummated a funeral deferred. We had no words, no fond memories of our time with Mother. When we knew her, it was as a woman possessed. The time before, when she was gentle still, remained shrouded in the past. Flashes of kindness. The echo of a smile. The laughter we remember as toddlers. A time as distant to us as Mother was now.

Yet I felt that one of us should speak before the deed was done.

“Earth to Earth,” I whispered, “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.”

The urn sank into the ocean depths quickly. Within seconds, all we saw were the waves.

After a moment, Laura finished my thought. “And may dust be all that remains.”

We watched the ocean for a while. Watched the tide recede. Watched as the moon rose to replace the sun, bathing the world in faint silver light. Watched to see if the urn would resurface. Clasped together, my hands trembled. I hoped that Laura did not notice. Hours crept by, until satisfied, I turned to leave the burial ground.

Laura waited a while longer, whispering a silent prayer before following. Ahead of her, in the night, I did not then notice her smile.

I did not notice: her once jet black eyes glowed emerald green.

 

Under the Bed

At first Reggie feared the monster, then he grew to understand it and, as the years passed, understanding grew into love.

                After his third birthday is when Reggie first felt inkling of the foreboding presence beneath him. He had just moved from crib to toddler bed, in his own room with blue wall-paper fringed with cherubic angels, with a dark velvet carpet that covered the floor from wall to wall. He was a big boy, or so his parents told him, and could sleep on his own. At least most nights. But then he heard the breathing, low and slow, coming from below his mattress. A looming force grew in his mind. He was not alone. Reggie thought to tell his parents of his fears, but worried they would dismiss him as the foolish child, and take his bed away from him. That crib, with its wooden slats and high walls, was no prison he wished to returned to. So he overcame his fears and stayed. Each night, the breathing grew louder and louder.

                When he was five, legs dangling off the edge of the bed, nowhere near long enough to touch the ground, the creature began to talk to him.

                Reggie. Its voice, loud yet subvocal, echoed against the chambers of his impressionable mind. The loud, booming tone belonged to a creature of unfathomable dimensions. It spoke his name, and Reggie screamed. Within seconds, his parents rushed to his room.

                “Reg, honey, what’s wrong?” His mother asked.

                Father yawned, scratched his chin impatiently, both their clothes were disheveled. As if they had been recently discarded and then quickly reworn. “You have a nightmare Reg? Go back to bed, there’s nothing here to get ya.”

                Reggie could only mumble, stutter his concerns. “M-m-m-monster, Momma, a-a-a m-m-m”

                His mother ruffled his air, cooing quietly to soothe his fears. “Oh monsters Reg, there’s no such thing. Only shadows in the dark. Here-” She turned up his nightlight. “That should scare them off.”

                She kissed him on his forehead and Father hugged him gruffly, clearly still resentful of the interruption. They tucked him in, left, and again Reggie lay alone with the flimsy light, the darkness, the low, deep breathing only his child’s ears could hear.

                Do not be afraid. Reggie. I mean you no harm.

                This time, Reggie swallowed his fears. No help was forthcoming. If he was grown enough to sleep alone, he was grown enough to confront the demon meant for his eyes only.

                “Wh-what a’you?” He asked.

                I don’t know.

                “H-how long you been down there?”

                Always.

                Silence hung in the air, Reggie did not speak. Only the hushed breathing signaled that the monster still remained. Waiting, it seemed for the young boy to make the next move.

                And so Reggie took a chance. He swung his legs back over the edge of the bed. Nothing. No grotesque limbs reached out from under him to drag the boy to some hellish dimension. No horrid jaws nipped at his heels. Hopping off the bed, he knelt down to look underneath the frame, to see what horrors awaited his child’s eyes. Yet he saw nothing. To be more accurate, he saw nothingness. Not the floor, not the hanging sheets, not the bedframe itself. He saw only blackness, he felt only despair. And he began to empathize for the monster, living in such a world all its own.

                “Monster?” He asked.

                Yes Reggie.

                “You lonely down there?”

                Lone-ly? The creature spoke as if he didn’t understand the world.

                “Doncha, donchou wish you had friends to play with?”

                Friends. It paused, teasing the word over in its mind. I have no friends.

                In that moment, Reggie made a choice that would divert the course of his life and countless others. “It’s okay monster. We can be friends.”

                Reggie was no longer afraid of the darkness. Years passed, and each night he and the monster spoke. Soon, he was ten, in a full bed of his own. They had moved, yet somehow the monster followed. His world unstuck in place, he knew exactly where to find Reggie. He knew which bed was the boy’s. Reggie’s parents wondered why he forsook all close friends, instead choosing to play in his room, but that was the way of children nowadays. With access to the internet, the constructed worlds all their own, they reasoned. As long as his schoolwork didn’t suffer, and he seemed so well adjusted, there was no need to worry.

                “Monster?” Reggie began one night, “Can I ask you a question?”

                Go ahead Reggie.

                “Why don’t you come out, meet my Mom and Dad? I’m sure they’d like to know I had a friend.”

                I’m scared. The blackness seemed to contract and sigh.

                “Scared? You?” Reggie wanted to laugh. The idea of this consumptive darkness—one that had terrified him to his core—itself feeling fear, seemed impossible to him. “Whatever of?”

                Your world… is so big. I am… accustomed to being alone. Just me Reg, just you and just me. I don’t- I don’t want that world. It scares me. It is scared of me.

                “I’ll make them understand! I will. You mean no harm to anyone, right?”

                No… I don’t know. I don’t even know what I am.

                Reggie asked a question he had asked many times before, and was always met with a dodge or dismissal. “What did you do before you haunted my bed?” He asked with a smile, he knew that the monster hated all comparisons to a ghost. (I am not that creature it would deny loudly, well, as loudly as it said anything). “Where were you?”

                For the first time, it answered. I… I don’t know. I remember you, my Reggie, I remember knowing you, even before we spoke. I knew we would be friends. But before that, I remember nothing.

                “Then how do you know?”

                Know what?

                “How do you know I’m not to bring you out of your shell? Show you the world?”

                I-

                “Come on! You’re tired, lonely. What’s the harm?”

                I don’t know.

                ”Monster?” Once again Reggie sat at the foot of his bed, staring underneath into the darkness.

                Yes Reg.

                “You know I love you, right?”

                I love you too Reg.

                “Then come out. I’m lonely too. No kids understand me, my Mom and Dad don’t neither. I… I only have one friend.”

                Me too.

                “Then why be alone when we can be together and happy?”

                Because.

                “Because why?”

                Because… perhaps I should show you.

                The ground beneath the bed began to rumble, and from the darkness within sparked a light. It grew and grew, sprouting features. A face, grotesquely misshapen. A body, parts all out of line and out of proportion. The light, the glowing form, grew to the size of a small rat, then to a dog, then a human child. But it did not stop there. Its chest rose and fell and still the creature grew. Soon, the bed was no longer big enough to house it. And its bulk lifted the frame into the air. Reggie stumbled backwards, eyes wide in fear for the first time in many years.

                “Monster? What are you? Why are you-”

                I cannot stop once started. I’m sorry. This is what I am. What I’ve always been.

                Reggie stared in awe at the creature of terrible, powerful light as it grew even larger. Staring slack-jawed as it crushed his small frame against the wall, before splintering it—and the house containing it—to pieces. Within minutes, the monster loomed over the late-Reggie’s neighborhood. The screams of his neighbors quickly obliterated by the spreading form that consumed them and everything else. A tower of light reached into the sky, and beneath it crumbled the entire world. Nations fell into the seas, which then boiled and evaporated as the light touched it.

I remember. The universe... It explained to the long dead boy, who was now beyond and a part of it. Your bed, your fear, was a prison built to protect me from the universe.

                Earth burned as the light stretched across it, melting land into plasma, converting the core into light brighter than the sun. With the light within it, it reached across the solar system, consuming the planets, the satellites and even the void in its wake. Soon, not even the sun was a match for its brilliance. And soon after that, the sun’s brilliance was merely a part of its own, augmenting it even as it spread past what was once our solar system, greedily feeding on the rest of the galaxy.

                Soon, the whole of our realm of being became one creature. The nameless monster, once friend to Reggie, once fearful of the world beyond. Now it knew, it was not that the creature had to fear the world, it had to fear what it would do to the world if unleashed. It expanded into darkness, wondering how far it could grow, until off in the distance it saw a light. In the light, two scrawny legs dangled, not yet long enough to reach the velvet carpet beneath. It reached for the dangling legs, but was rebuffed by a barrier it could not see, by an incipient fear of the unknown. And it understood where it was. The prison still. It smiled, a smile of hunger and terrible purpose, and spoke into the mind of a boy readying for bed.

                Reggie…

The New World

                After three weeks of sailing west, Columbus and his crews tumbled over the side of the world. First to fall were the two speedy caravels, the Nina and Pinta. According to the mate atop the mainmast, the ships appeared to wobble slightly and then buckle, before disappearing entirely. By the time Captain Columbus gave the order for the Santa Maria to turn, it was too late for the lumbering carrack. The sailors saw the ship’s bow dangling over sudden blackness, and soon the dark consumed them as well. They plummeted off the Earth and into the unknown, too frightened even to scream. Chris, huddled in his cabin below deck, stared in disbelief at the globe he no longer knew and prayed to the God he suddenly doubted, and waited, alone for the end his own hubris incurred.

                Without the sun or stars to tell time or place, none could say for certain how long they fell. Only that it felt like an eternity. Only that after a while, after the flat world fell away from view, they were not even certain they were still falling. The feeling was akin to a bug suspended in molasses, struggling as it sank, its struggles bearing it ever closer to certain doom. Days, Weeks, passed. Their stores grew low. Men wondered if they would die there, if their skeletons might fall forever, with no one to ever learn their fate. One by one, they fell asleep, alone, or huddling together for warmth and comfort and… something more, waiting for the inevitable end.

                Men closed their eyes, expecting never again to see the light.

                It was then that they awoke en-masse at a loud splash. They opened their eyes to see the ocean, the sun, to feel the wind on their face and a hazy mass in the distance that could only be land.

                “We’re alive!” They cried, “We’re saved!” Captain Columbus called the three ships together to celebrate their good fortune and plot their next move.

                But, as they sailed ever closer to their salvation. He couldn’t help but notice more was amiss. First off, the sun had reversed its habits, sinking in the east and rising in the west. At night, he could not recognize any of the stars, they aligned themselves into constellations of strange beasts he could not name. The water, even under the bluest sky, remained blacker than night and was empty. Their nets yielded no fish, no birds flew in the overhead. This was indeed a new world.

                At night, when they slept, they all suffered nightmares. When they woke, they knew by the frenzied look in each other’s eyes that their visions were shared, yet they dared not speak of them, for fear that naming them would make them true. They dreamed of strange, human like creatures who descended from the sun and the stars, translucent bodies full of brackish blood the color of the strange ocean they swam through. Their skin, thin and yet rough like sand-paper, occasionally bubbled like living creatures swam within. Their mouths were full of pink flagella instead of teeth, and when they spoke, their lips did not move, they talked directly into the minds of Chris Columbus and his crew.

                Welcome to the New World.

                They floated above the three ships, descending slowly, yet surely. Arms wide in greeting.

                Welcome to your new homes, brave voyagers of 1492.

                Columbus stood at the head of his crew in these dreams, their guns and crossbows at the ready.

                “What do you want?” He would ask, signaling with his hands for them to fire at his signal.

                What we want has already been achieved. You are here. On our planet, in our time, never to discover ‘America’ or the ‘Indies’. Never to set a chain of events in motion that doomed several trillions of creatures across a hundred thousand worlds.

                “What are you ta-”

                You were identified as the Catalyst, Chris. The one that set a long chain of events in motion that ended in the collapse of a universe, yours and mine. Long after your death, to be sure, but this was the latest point we could identify that would stop it.

                Columbus did not understand, and he signaled to his crew a simple message: On my signal.

                “You talk of things far in the future? How can I be responsible? I merely seek glory for Spain, sights unknown, riches, the spices of India. Are these dreams so wrong? So abhorrent they merit the death of my crew? I am the… Catalyst? You say? Well then take me and do what you will, leave my men to their lives.”

                It is too late. They circled the ships now, these creatures, about three score in number. Arm in arm they surrounded Columbus and his ill-fated followers. There was no escape except what violence might bear. You are here now. The only way to be certain is to claim all of you.

                Columbus sighed and let his hands fall in seeming supplication. The signal at last. Bullets and crossbows passed into and through these post-humans without incident or injury.

                It is as we expected. Savagery from a savage race. Let us lance this boil here. Let them consume themselves and their planet before they ever discover the Others.

                And the circle of strange beasts slowly constricted. Their bodies glowing green, their eyes filled with hate. The screams were as terrible as they were short.

                After they were done, after they floated back away from their toxic world and into the sky. Only skeletons, only blood-stained wrecks, remained.

                Every morning, after Chris and company woke from such dreams. They spent an hour, maybe more, staring at the sky, waiting for them to come true. In the meantime, land, beaches of purple sand. Naked trees under which strange shadows loomed, waited. Some feeling told the Catalyst Columbus that whether it was by land, or by sky, or by sea, their doom was an inevitability. One that would arrive quite soon.

               

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

 

He had three ships and left from Spain;

Never to be heard from again.

 

Book of Ellen

                It was then Ellen found the book that contained the whole of her.

A slim tome, hidden on a shelf in her attic, covered in dust. Its cracked leather cover bore no name. Ellen could not say what drove her to the volume, its spot in the loft, nor what brought her to explore the old mansion’s heights in the first place. Only that she was compelled, drawn up the stairs, into the room, to its frail vellum pages. Once held, it was as if she had held the book her entire life. She brought the tome to her nose and sniffed, a rich ancient smelled suffused her with a sense of the sublime. The book begged to be consumed, and she craved to know the content of its pages. It… belonged to her, intimately. Even before she started, she knew this to be true.

                Not knowing why she held her breath, she began to read, a gasp strangled in her throat. The first lines: “Ellen Percival, born 1962, weighed 7lbs 8 ounces in her first moment of life. She did not cry at her birth, a unique child. This was not belied by her quiet infancy, nor her silent childhood, nor her demure adolescence. Indeed, her parents openly wondered if at any point they heard her speak more than ten words all at once. In her eyes was language enough, they lit with emotion. Happiness, Anger, Sadness, Betrayal, Love. She spoke more eloquently with a glance than most did in a dissertation.

                “Such was the way of Ellen Percival.”

                How shocking! How perceptive! Ellen spent little time dwelling on the impossibility. The book was clearly older than she was herself, and yet there it laid bare the sum of her parts. There was no denying it had her measure. So she read on. And each page spelled another chapter of her life. From her first kiss, to her first love. Her marriage, her divorce, her next marriage and its inevitable failure. Every chapter she bore in silence. Perhaps that was her trouble; no one in her life could tell that she cared. For herself, or for them. She seemed to wait for something. The next thing waiting on the horizon, with an implacable patience. If asked, she could not name what it was. Until that day.

                That day she found this book.

                Alone in the house, independently wealthy, there were none that sought her company. None that wondered at her disappearance. Day after day, she read. Despite the volume’s slimness, it took her nearly a week to finish. It did not strike her as strange that as the book came to a close, it had not yet reached the present day. She approached the moment she discovered the book with excitement, and a hint of trepidation. Would it end just before? Would it know what came next? Would it loop backwards upon finishing? Might she open her eyes and find herself being born again? Perhaps in the arms of her mother and father, back when they still looked on her with love and devotion. Back before they feared her aloof, discreet nature.

Breathless, she turned the page.

                She crept into the attic, called forward by a voice she had not heard before, but had called her all her life. A voice she waited for, through failed marriages, through childhood. A voice that she had stayed unknowingly quiet waiting to her. And now it was just ahead. There, in the back of the old house. Once she had purchased and restored herself, a bookshelf hid in the shadows, covered in cobwebs in dust. There, on the shelf, between two books of little note. She found it. She grasped it instantly, held the thin text in her hands.

                It was then Ellen found the book that contained the whole of her.

                I imagine she remains there reading, even now.