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.

Songs From the Damned

                I have started more stories than I could ever hope to finish. And when I die, I will die wondering: What songs did I leave unsung?

Mort washed ashore far from any ocean he recognized. The air was singing. A lilting chorus of countless voices, high and low, that gently woke him. He stretched on black sand, and yawned as he awoke. Despite his strange surroundings—the sky was blue and clear and the land was flat and he could see for miles in every direction, yet there was no sun in the sky—he was not perturbed, nor worried. Everything is at it should be, some voice inside him assured, wait… and you will see.

                So he waited. Waited for what this world wished him to witness.

                Eventually, though he stood still, not walking up the beach nor away from the shore. The waters receded into the distance. He was no longer on the sand but in the forest, mud cool between his toes. The air still sang, words beyond his grasp. Mort wondered what this could mean, to be so transported without his knowledge, without the sensation of movement. The stuff of dreams. Then a voice arose, different from the song of this world. It bade him Follow. And so he did, though its direction was not evident. He walked without aim, totally alone. This land was bereft of life—aside from the plants and trees—both large and small, not even the insects came for him. Only the flora, only the song and the singular voice conducting it all that called him forward.

                Without noticing, he passed from the forest into tundra, where his was the only life around. Despite the snow and raging winds, he was not cold. He did not feel their bite. The song, which prevailed over the wind, was within him now and where it sang no frost dared reach. At the center of this sudden wasteland, a mountain of ice, seemingly the eye of the storm that buffeted him to and fro. It was from its peak that the voice echoed. There the answer he had not realized he sought until he woke on the now-departed beach awaited his arrival. He walked forward, never stumbling, nor slipping, nor doubting his course. Hands shielded him from the wind and the stinging snow.

                Mort reached the mountain, and without hesitating he began to climb. Somehow he sensed hesitation meant death, to wonder at the impossibility of the landscape. The implausibility that he might survive it. That would overcome him. This, he also knew without doubt. Doubt, the poison of mankind. He would not drink from that trough. He would move forward.

                And forward, and upwards he climbed.

                At the mountain peak, a mouth yawned inward, revealing darkness. The voice beckoned him into its depths. Mort waited only a moment, pondering the chances that if he entered, he would again live to see the sun. Then he reminded himself: This land, wherever and whatever it is, has none. The sky is without stars. It is always day. Always night. Always a time in between. Where the sky is gray and blue, where the land is black and light. Let what will come, come. He left doubt and fear behind in the world he knew. And into the darkness he flew. Or the darkness flew into him. Once again, he did not seem to move.

                A cavern opened up before him. Here there was light, and a throne. Sitting in that throne, a figure in robes. He could not see anything but its smile until it threw back the hood, revealing an ancient woman with red on red eyes. Her skin, greyish green, wrinkled and thin, did not betray her strength. But from across the hall, in a world he did not understand, still Mort sensed it. A spirit not to be trifled with. She grasped his comprehension, and smiled, satisfied. After a while, she spoke.

                “The dead are words and memories, and that is how they exist… even here. You have done well to make it this far intact.”

                Mort was not impressed, tired of confusing words and whispers on the wind. Of dreams and half-measures. “Where is here exactly? Why should I be impressed to reach a place if I don’t even know where it is?”

                “This tower has many names. As does this land. As do I.” She smiled again, his impertinence did not seem to bother her. Quite the opposite in fact. “Have you not wondered why you have encountered no others on your journey? Or why the wilderness seems to float before you?”

                “Well, no… I-”

                “Wonder at this, then. How in the nature of dreams is your incuriosity! How malleable your world, like it is shaped by your subconscious moments before you perceive it. The only real thing you have seen… is me. This hall. Everything else…” She shakes her hands to demonstrate its illusory nature.

                “Then where am I?”

                “You… are in the land that has never needed a name. None of have lived to see it. None that inhabit it even realize it is there. You are in the land of song. And you, Mort, are a thing that should not be.”

                “And that is?”

                “Alive.”

                “Alive?”

                “Alive… in a land built for the damned.”

                I have ended more worlds than will ever live, merely by having an idea and then forgetting it. In this fashion, how many great works have been lost?

Wise King Sulayman

                Sulayman sat cooking in the sun, fanning himself to no avail, a long line of his citizens before him. Water did not sate him, sweated out before he could hydrate. He cursed David’s traditions that demanded he go among his people clad in the regal purple robes of Judah’s kings. One by one, he was beset by subjects and their problems. He dispensed justice, and they left satisfied that their king had done right by them. That the truth was known. One by one, he judged, until two women approached. One held a child. The other had nothing but tears.

                “Your Majesty,” Began the crying one, “This woman and I live in the same house. We are sisters, I am Rachel, she Beulah. Not long ago we both became pregnant. I gave birth first, she followed three days later. No one else was home, our husbands work as traveling merchants, you see…”

                The wise king Sulayman did not interrupt, but he fanned himself faster, sweat dripping from his brow onto his fine velvet clothes. Rachel knew his patience grew thin.

                “One night, after our babies were both born and we were all asleep, she rolled over on top of her baby, and he suffocated. While I was still sleeping, she crept into my bed and replaced my live child with her dead one. She placed a dead infant next to me!”

                “She lies!” Beulah cried, silence by Sulayman’s regal glare. He turned back to Rachel and gestured for her to continue, no longer fanning. This tale had piqued his interest.

                “In the morning, as I rose to feed my son, I saw that he was dead. I was bereft. But when I got another look at the child in the light, I knew instantly that he was not my Adlai. I knew instantly what had happened. Beulah took him from me.”

                “No!” Her sister shouted. “That was your son. Kaleb is alive! This is my child.”

                Rachel turned back to her sister Beulah, fire in her eyes. “Even now, you will not admit what you’ve done. Taken another’s child. Carelessly killed your own. And you call yourself a mother!”

                “I AM a mother. I’m not the one who killed her son in her sleep.”

                “Liar! That is exactly what happened.”

                They bickered back and forth for a few more minutes, until the King began to feel the heat again, oppressive and heavy on the desert wind. Sulayman motioned to a nearby guard. “Someone bring me my sword.” He said, yawning and fanning himself once more.

                Soon his blade was brought forth, held reverentially in the guard’s hands. It was translucent, and hummed. It vibrated in the bright sunlight, like its edge reverberated with power to cut the Earth in twain. He stood before the women, holding each gaze for a long while. When he spoke, he was calm and quiet, but each word held a king’s authority. His was the voice of a man whose orders were never countermanded, whose whims guided the destiny of an entire nation.

                “I will cut the baby in half. That way each of you can have part of a son.”

                Rachel’s first instinct was to protest, but Beulah spoke first, a vengeful glee in your eyes. “Go ahead, slice him up.” She said, oblivious to the babe that began to mewl in her arms. “Then neither of us will have a baby.”

                Sulayman shook his head. “You misunderstand. I will not kill the boy. I will split his soul, each child will live half a life. Have half the feelings, the potential, that the single child would have had. They will live tortured lives, growing always feeling that something is missing from them. A depth of feeling that they will never know how to name. It will be a curse for the rest of their days… and the rest of yours.”

                The true mother, Rachel, was paralyzed by indecision. She could let her sister have a whole child. Watch knowing it was hers. Or she could let herself accept… what? Some monstrous half-breed? Some soulless cretin of a son? It was no choice at all. And yet. And yet…

                I cannot be alone. I cannot let him go. Half a son is better than no son at all.

                And so, weeping once more, she nodded her silent assent. Let the child be split.

                Sulayman took the boy, who looked up at the king and scratched at his beard with his pink, pruny fists. He lay the child, still gurgling, on a broad wicker bassinet. And raised the blade high above his head. The sun cast through it like it was nothing, like it, presumably, would cut through the child before it.

                The King looked once more at the pair. He looked straight at Rachel, as though he knew the truth. “Are you sure this is what you want?” He asked, and it seemed the question was meant for her alone.

                “I cannot lose him.” Was all she said. Beulah sneered. A child, after all this. More than she could have hoped for. Another chance, another opportunity to redeem her unforgiveable sin.

                Maybe there is a God, she thought.

                The blade fell. There was no noise as it cleaved through flesh. The child did not cry out. No blood spilled from the bassinet. Rachel, who covered her eyes as Sulayman moved to strike, looked through her fingers. There lay two children, both entirely still. Only the slight rise and fall of their concave chests indicated any life. Sulayman picked up both children, hefting one in each arm as if they were weightless, and approached the aggrieved mothers.

                “Adlai.” He said, handing one to Rachel.

                “Kaleb.” And handed the other to Beulah.

                Standing before them, he held both their gazes. His eyes, a light gray-blue, filled with tears of their own. “I hope you will not come to regret your decision,” He said to both women. “But I already know you will.”

                He kissed the quiet babes on their foreheads, and whispered in each of their ears something neither mother could hear. Then he returned to his throne, and resumed fanning himself once more.

                “All right,” He said, dismissing the mothers from his memory. “Who’s next?”

                Beulah, baby strapped to her back, strode off, not giving Rachel a second glance. Rachel stood to the side, watching her child, watching Adlai, trying to spot what was lost. She could not tell. Had he always been so quiet? Always looked at her so knowingly, so judgmentally? Was she imagining the emptiness behind his stare? A thought struck her, and she turned back to the king, already embroiled in some dispute over livestock.

                “Wise King!” She shouted, and Sulayman turned back, an annoyed expression pursing his lips. “O Wise King! Forgive my one more question. If… if I had offered to let my sister keep him. To save his soul and my own, would you h-”

                “Every mother loves differently,” He interrupted her, anticipating what she would ask. “There’s nothing nobler than sacrifice, but not all are capable of it in their love. Some love selfishly, some are determined to cling to what little they have, even to the point of destruction. Others are selfless, and find that selflessness brings them greater joys than they imagined. Know this-” Rachel stumbled backwards at the fury that smoldered in the King’s soft eyes. “You will never know what might have been had you chosen differently. Satisfy yourself with what remains… if you can.”

                He turned away from her then, back to the farmer with complaints of a thieving neighbor. It was clear her audience with the king had ended. She swaddled up her child, still quiet, strangely so. Before the… dividing, he had never gone a full half-hour without crying for affection, or food, or just to be heard. Now he simply stared, as if the capacity for wanting had been stripped away.

                Hiking eastward, she considered what to do next. One thing was clear, she dare not return to her sister. The one who had stolen everything from her, who had betrayed her and proven herself capable of a heretofore unfathomable dishonesty.

 

                Yes, it was clear: First she must find a new home.

204 Seconds

                In the corner stood brawny Arturo. Arturo, the prototype heavyweight—equally thick around the waist and chest, not a curve to his figure, just a straight line from shoulder to toe. Nose arched and aching from a dozen old breaks—he wondered how he came to be a supporting player in his own life. A long arc lead him here, always the bass player in the background, always the silent scene partner. From the first moments—when he was born the quiet second twin to his bawling older brother Balto—to his marriage—where he and his equally timid wife were overshadowed by the bold proposal by the best man to the maid of (also Balto), he felt most comfortable in the shadows. And so it was still. Arturo, flinty enforcer, watched the Big Boss McGuin beat Art’s own twin brother to death.

                “Art…” The bludgeoned Balto whispered, his tone somewhere between plea and rebuke, “Art…”

                Will you really just stand here? He asked himself. Doing nothing?

                The meat-fisted McGuin, just as broad as the lunk Arturo if not nearly a head or two as high, himself had the same thought. Resting a moment from the once-over, he laughed, a wheezing, corrosive howl, and turned back to the silent Art.

                “Maybe he’ll listen to you, yeah? Don’t twins have some kind uh… psychic connection er summat?” The cudgel in his hand was pointed right at Art, business end forward. McGuin flipped it effortlessly, displaying an agility that belied his bulk and presented the handle for Arturo to wield.

“Make ‘im sing Art. Earn your Starbucks.”

After the nastiest jobs, torture—or information extraction, as McGuin termed it—or murder—corp’real removal was the affable McGuin-ism—he always took the perpetrator of his mandated crimes out for coffee. Art stared at the cudgel, blinking slowly, remembering all the times he would have grabbed it glady and bashed his brash brother Balto’s skull in. His audacious proposal at the inauguration of Art’s ill-fated marriage. All the times as kids when they wrestled and Balto always, always won.

“Those 204 seconds catch up to ya!” He’d laugh, referencing the difference in time between their births. “I can see your next move coming, before ya even think of it!” And he was right too. Two minutes and 24 seconds later, Art would close his eyes and see the fight unfold once more… from his Brother’s perspective. Every move perfectly predicted, only after the fact instead of before. Alas, if only he had been the elder twin. Maybe then he might’ve become a star.

After each fight, Balto would tousle Art’s hair affectionately and bound off on another adventure. A machine of perpetual motion, he sought the next thrill, the next surprise. Balto closed his eyes and saw the future. He closed his eyes and saw himself moving upwards towards brilliance. Up and up, until…

None of that energy remained in the battered man now. Not with both his legs, all ten fingers and ten toes, twisting in different directions. Not with his face a red mass and a dozen of his teeth on the floor. Art waited for the familial compassion to set in, waited for the instinct to refuse his task to rise. Yet his hand went to the proferred handle, and even then he expected to grasp it and bash McGuin’s face in. He could just imagine rescuing his brother, killing the crimelord, all the while screaming “Who’s the star now, eh? Who’s the star?”

But he did none of those things. Slick wooden cudgel in hand, he walked over to his brother, trussed and moaning, and for a while said nothing at all.

“Art, pl-”

THWACK! Balto’s head jolted back, eyes wide in shock for a moment, before they closed and his neck bent at a crooked angle. SMOSH! His skull grew a sudden dent, leaking fluids from a puncture made by jutting bone. Art let rise and fall the wooden weapon another half-dozen times, until the once identical siblings had very little left in common indeed. Balto’s lungs filled with air a few more times; his heart let out a few more beats; his muscles twitched, perhaps out of instinct or his natural born stubbornness, before subsiding entirely.

In the room, only Art and a stunned McGuin remained.

“Christ,” Stammered McGuin, “Did ya really? Did ya have to-Christ, Art! I mean, it was only a little bit o’money, but… well, Christ!”

Art didn’t respond, he dropped the cudgel at the feet of the lifeless mass once named Balto, retreating back to his corner. Back to the shadows. For a few moments, he didn’t say anything, then he checked his watch.

“Give me… two and a half minutes boss. I’ll tell you where the money is.”

Mantra for a Dying World

 

All it takes is one bad day…

                Those words, whispers on her lips with the dawn. The last thought echoing through her head as dreams seek purchase. Meager distractions from whatever patch of ground made for last night's bed. She closes her eyes and thinks of better days, when all was green and she possessed everything she ever wanted… when she—what a fool!—was not satisfied with happiness and, in reaching for Godhood, destroyed the world. Now here she lies on a throne of dust, the Queen of Ashes.

                She stretches, onyx cloak shading her from what faint light signifies the morn. She yawns, and shadows genuflect around her. Long thin shades grasp at her, thwarted by the rising, flickering sun. A candle burned down to the nub, the beleaguered star provides heat enough, and brilliance enough, to allow at least one more reprieve from the dark.

                One… bad… day…

                She opens her eyes to see the ever-present cloud of soot hovering above her head: blackness obliterating a gray sky. Undulating, keening, the dim inorganic presence contains more life than she. She lies still a moment, lost in the embrace that teases her dreams night after night. Love's warmth, the joy she lost many lifetimes ago. How many innocents have crumbled away to nothing in her grasp since? Their faces, their names, were lost to her in the gusts of time, a tunnel that harkened back further than she chose to remember. Forgetting was far easier. Better to focus on the sins still to come than the ones already committed. Let the dead remain dead. The living join them soon enough. If only she could forget her smile, her eyes, green and wide and bright and focused on the Queen. If only…

                Then she becomes aware again of the cold, jolting her back into wakefulness and the ubiquitous wasteland. As far as she can see spreads death, the ossifying of a once vibrant planet. Before her hisses the desert. On the horizon, angry mountains belch smoke and bleed fire. In the middle distance, clouds that stretch from the heavens to the Earth block the landscape from view. But she knows what waits there for her, the same emptiness plaguing the rest of the world.  As always, when not teased by memories of her faceless love's prophetic death rattle—or nightmares of the fateful day when all was lost—the siren song of life, that divining rod, points her towards the last vestiges of light. Calls her forth to douse the hopes of a dying species, one she once called her own. For regret it or not, her path leads towards the end. A commitment not easily shirked. Only then, when the quiet in her soul settles on the Earth entire, will she rest.

                The Queen rises to her feet, and the cloud of soot descends upon her dark, fleshy husk, a soulless vessel of malevolent intent. She senses it questing within her, seeking life. Finding none, it turns its search outwards, listening for far-off heartbeats, for running water, for…

                Joy thrills through her from the haze, its eyes, and hers, alight on a river in the distance. There, in a nook by shore, hides a garden. Shriveled and sickly to be sure, but alive nonetheless. And where there is green, no matter how slight, there is sure to be… yes! Humankind. A small figure, cheeks stained with charcoal, picks its way through the twilight. The child, a young girl, heads towards her sanctuary. The Queen of Ashes clenches her jaw in anticipation, pleasure and hunger throbbing in her fists. Where there is a child, there is also civilization.

                Some atavistic slice of her brain recalls the phrase: It takes a village…

                She floats towards the river, towards the horizon where life awaits, begging to be broken. The child's path leads her one step closer to manifesting ruin.

                She will visit violence upon this village. They will learn the truth she cannot forget. The truth it is her sole remaining purpose to establish. A truth reflected in the final words of a woman whose face and whose name she can no longer remember. Only the warmth they felt for one another remains. That and her prescient final utterance. A fitting mantra for a dying world.

                All it takes is one bad day.

The Last Stand

                The shot does not ring around the world. Indeed, not even the general himself hears the fateful pop. Drowned out by the fray, by the din of war, he only feels the bullet as it strikes his side, spinning him around and then down into the ford. There he lies, embraced by the river. He did not expect this, and does not have time to evince surprise.

The light dims too quickly; life does not flash before his eyes. Pain centers him in the present, forces his focus onto the bodies surrounding him. Young men moan feebly for their mothers, their fathers, their lovers or wives. Others stare blankly into the beyond that claims them, ushered into an afterlife that yet comes for him. He sees the ridge thicken with Lakota and tries to scramble to his feet, to continue his crossing, his fight, but all his strength drains into the waters.

                Custer tastes death. He chokes on clotted blood. The river, Little Big Horn, rushes by, running red.

Gagging, gasping, the general fades away.

                The Lakota cross past the dead in silence, in pursuit of survivors and other companies of men. They trod over the fallen, the young and old, the white, black and Native, in solemn observance of the evil men force themselves to do. They do not see him, nor the stars on his lapels. They do not know what ‘great’ man has passed here; they do not care.

                The world is for the living, burdened by concerns, plagued with violence. As they pass on, across the river onto grass greased by dew-like ichor, the sun continues to rise towards a sanguine dawn. Disappearing beyond a copse of ash trees, their thoughts fix on the battles ahead.

                And they know: the day’s dying has only just begun.