Tomorrow at 10:00 AM EST, I’ll begin sending out the final sketch of the first illustration for my soon-to-be-released short story, Rite of Passage. If you want to see it, be sure to join my mailing list before then by submitting your email address below this blog post. You’ll also get a free copy of another short story, The Sign, just for joining 🙂
Dianne stood at the summit of a broad stone outcrop, jutting out at a sharp angle from the desolate land of the Mojave Desert. She drunk it all in, the jagged outlines of sparsely populated Joshua trees, the humongous brown and gray rocks, the limitless expanse of baked dirt and dried shrubs.
It was mesmerizing.
She would drive out into the desert alone as often as she could with nothing but food, water, a sleeping bag and a tent. She would hike during the day, and during the night she would sleep beneath the stars, trying to puzzle out the transcendental mysteries of the cosmos.
A wind gusted, sudden and fierce, sending ripples through her clothes. A cloud of dust kicked into the air, and she snapped her eyes shut a fraction too late.
“Ow,” she breathed, eyes stinging. She waited, expecting the pain to subside after a few moments. But her eyes kept tearing throughout the day.
That night, as the sun set beneath the peaks of distant mountains, her body began to ache, and by the time she lay in her sleeping bag inside the tent she was feverish, racked by chills that nearly sent her into convulsions. She fell asleep wondering if she would wake.
She dreamed of a man, or was it a woman? Every time she caught sight of the creature it would change. The amorphous entity seemed to manifest from the desert itself, raw, wild and powerful.
It chased her beneath the baking heat of the sun, until she fell to the ground on all fours and could not run any longer. Then it knelt beside her and whispered in her ear.
Come, it said in a voice that carried across the dry convection-oven breeze. Be one with me.
Dianne felt it brush against her lips — it’s own mouth was dry, parched and cracked like the dirt and the rocks — and then thought and sensation fused, recombined. She was no longer Dianne, nor was she this entity of the desert. She was a new creation, a synthesis of sand and flesh and blood.
The hybrid that was no longer Dianne woke the following morning, its fever broken. It rolled up its sleeping bag, packed up its tent. It got into its four-wheel drive pickup truck and drove back toward the city, toward civilization.
Humanity had spent thousands of years taming the desert, pushing it back to the peripheries of the world. Now, it would bring the desert back to them.
He wanders the world, The Faceless Man, journeys from city to city, always in search of items to add to his collection. When you answer your door he won’t say a word; indeed he cannot, for he has no mouth with which to speak. Instead he’ll incline his head, ever so slightly, all the while clutching a black leather-bound book to his chest with reverence.
He’ll open to the first page, always blank, and bid you to gaze upon its fallow surface. Then dutifully, curiously, you’ll look to see what all the fuss is about, and before you know what’s happened you’ll have been pulled inside, transformed from a creature of flesh and blood to an indeterminate being of pen and ink.
He will take you home and place you atop a dusty shelf. From time to time he’ll pull you back down, sit in his favorite armchair to read and drink your loneliness, your madness, your despair, savoring them like a rare vintage.
You’ll never die, but you’ll spend eternity wishing that you had.
When he looked up, he did not see the ceiling of the bedroom but stars in a moonlit sky. He pushed himself to his knees in a dark alley. There was a stench, foul and sour. It was a smell he’d once grown accustomed to, a smell he’d almost forgotten.
Crumpled against a concrete wall to his left was the slumped figure of a man. He crawled toward it. He lifted one of the man’s sleeves, examined with almost clinical detachment the needle marks on the man’s arm. He searched the chest for signs of breathing and found that it was still. The man was dead.
“You died there,” said a little girl’s voice.
“The same night. I watched it happen.”
Yes, he could remember now. Trembling, he’d stumbled into that forgotten pocket of concrete and asphalt feeling like shit. He’d administered an extra potent dose of heroin. It had been his last high.
The girl, though young, shone with an ageless wisdom that he found difficult to bear. He averted his eyes.
“I’m ready,” he said.
“For Hell. That’s where you’ve come to take me, isn’t it?”
The girl stepped forward — he watched the pink plastic lining of her shoes glisten in the moonlight as she approached — and pulled him up by the chin.
“Is that what you want?”
“It’s what I deserve.”
He stared at her, forced to peer into her eyes. The girl, by way of reply, knelt beside him. He closed his eyes, prepared himself for what would come. He didn’t expect what happened next.
The girl pulled him into her arms and embraced him like a mother. Emotion swelled, a tsunami of sensation that nearly drowned him. He sobbed and wailed and moaned like a lost child, and the whole time the girl held him, cradling his head against her tiny shoulder.
When at last the storm subsided, she pulled away. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, slathered in snot, and gazed up at her, unable to comprehend such reckless and unconditional love.
“You were desperate. You were a slave to your addiction.”
“There’s no excuse for what I did.”
“No,” the girl agreed, “There isn’t. There is love in you, but it’s tarnished, impure. It must be cleansed. Justice and love demand it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’ll have to do this again.”
“No,” he said when he realized what she meant. “I can’t.”
“You have to. You must confront your evil and the pain it’s caused, over and over again, until little by little your spirit is broken. It’s your punishment and your redemption. You must be broken before you can be made into something new.”
“As long as it takes. Some go through it only once. Some for much longer. Some never find their way through.” She gave him a warm and reassuring smile. “You’ve been at it for a while. I think you’re almost done.”
He looked up, and when he did he spotted another door, just like the first, standing a few feet away from him in the alley. There was fire and pain beyond the threshold. He could feel it. It would burn him, consume him whole.
“The fire is necessary,” said the girl, as if she sensed his thoughts. “It burns away the impurities. Your soul will be smelted and refined until it’s been reduced to love, and when that’s done you’ll find rest.”
He found a different emotion then, one he’d not experienced before. Hope. It overcame him. There would be fire, and it would hurt. But then there would be healing, and he would be made whole. He would atone, and then he would find peace.
He pulled himself to his feet. Gritted his teeth. Walked forward.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” said the girl behind him, “to greet you as a friend on the other side.”
He opened the door. Stepped through.
He was consumed by the light.
The man stood in a girl’s bedroom, surrounded by police. They’d cordoned off a section of space near the bed with yellow tape. Sitting with their backs against the wall were a man and a woman. The woman was crying into the man’s shoulder, while the man, also crying, held her in the crook of his arm.
On the floor by the bed was a chalk outline. Only, when he turned away and looked back again it had been replaced by a body, the body of the young girl he’d seen in the photos downstairs. He wanted to look away, but his eyes had affixed themselves to hers.
The girl looked like she was asleep, except that her head was tilted at an unnatural angle and her eyes were open, glazed and unfocused.
He squeezed the bear against his chest.
He felt more, a dimension that could not be perceived through the eyes but only through the heart. The room was pregnant with terror, loss, hatred and despair. The emotions writhed as if they were alive. They beat like a heart, and with each pulse the man felt as if he’d been punched squarely in the chest.
Who could have done this?
He tried to speak, tried to grab the attention of the couple and the officers. But neither group acknowledged him. It was as if he were speaking from the other side of an unbridgeable chasm.
He bent down beside the girl and gazed into her lifeless eyes. So young. A tragedy. He wanted to join the man and the woman in their mourning. He reached out, touched a strand of the girl’s hair.
A bolt of something like electricity flowed into him. He twisted and convulsed.
A flash of light and he was the girl, laying in bed beneath the covers. She heard a sound outside and woke with a start. She clutched her teddy bear against her chest, prayed that whatever had caused the sound would go away. Then she heard scraping at her window. There was a shudder, a click and the thin layer of glass that separated her from the urban wilderness beyond came undone.
A man slipped through the opening, dressed in dark clothing. A stench filled her nostrils. She gagged and failed to suppress a cough.
The man turned toward her. When he met her eyes his own widened. She tried to scream but he’d already pounced, had already grabbed her throat. All the while that horrible odor assailed her.
There was a moment of disorientation. Thought and vision split into two.
He was the girl, staring up at a strange man, the life leeching out of her as she clutched feebly at her throat. He was also the man, a junkie without money in desperate need of a high.
All the girl half of his existence wanted was for her parents to rescue her, to hold her, to tell her they loved her and that everything would be okay. All the man half of his existence wanted was to stop the girl from trying to scream, to get out of there before the cops were called and he was sent to prison.
Her world went dark. He felt her body crumble in his hands.
There was another bright flash, a solar flare of white, and once more he was just the girl. She stood above her body, looked on with confusion as her parents burst through the door after her. They found her body on the ground. Ran to her. Cried out with disbelief.
She shouted at them, tried desperately to tell them she was okay, that she loved them. But they couldn’t hear her. Then a light appeared, a tunnel perpendicular to space and time, and she was drawn toward it like a moth toward a flame. She went to it, allowed it to consume her whole. It was the most natural thing in the world to do, as natural as breathing…
The electric current ceased and the man collapsed face-first into the floor. He was himself once more.
He’d killed her. He remembered now. The red welts that ran up and down his arm, they were needle marks, and the bear was what she’d been holding when he’d snuffed the life out of her. Self revulsion wracked him in waves, and he curled into a ball and sobbed like a baby. How could he? What had he done? He deserved Hell. He was the apotheosis of Hell.
A voice, addressing him by name.
He sniffed, opened his tear-streaked eyes and looked up.
Read Part 5 here.
The man stood in the middle of a spacious living room, and he wasn’t entirely sure how he’d gotten there. He knew only that he’d entered through the front door. A tiny worm of recollection niggled at his brain, but all he could dredge up was an amorphous black void where memory should have been.
Light streamed through the windows, framed by white semi-transparent curtains. Ahead, picture frames hung on a wall above a brown leather couch. Had he been here before?
He glanced down at himself. Clutched in his right hand was a worn stuffed bear with one of the eyes coming out of its socket. Where had that come from?
He wandered toward the couch, glanced up at the rows of pictures. Each of them portrayed a little girl at various stages of development. In one, she was being pushed by an older man in a car-shaped stroller. In another, she beamed up at the camera from a teal beach blanket. In each snapshot she wore the same enthusiastic smile, an involuntary gesture that communicated contentment and a general love of life.
He jumped, turned toward the stairs where the sound had come from. A dark foreboding seized him, as if a part of himself already knew what he would find if he followed after it and didn’t want to pursue.
Another scream, weaker. Then a strangled muffled cry. Then silence.
He wanted to run, to bolt back through the front door and never return. But instead he walked toward the stairs, pulled forward by a taut invisible line.
He took the steps one at a time. Each footfall triggered a camera flash of memory. He was a father reading a magazine on the couch. He was a mother brushing her hair in the upstairs bathroom. He was the same father rushing up the stairs two at a time after hearing his daughter scream. He was the same mother dropping the hairbrush on the floor and running toward her daughter’s bedroom after hearing the same scream.
The bursts of memory became longer, more frequent and more coherent as he neared the top of the stairs. Like a quilt, the man had become a patchwork of other lives, all converging on a tragic event that had taken place in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
He reached the top step and squeezed the stuffed bear against his chest.
He honed in on one of the doors in the upstairs hallway, and as soon as he spotted it he knew that was where he needed to go. He took hold of the knob. Twisted and pulled. Walked forward.
Once again, he was consumed by light.
Read Part 4 here.
Read Part 1 here.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been running. The light in the distance seemed to be getting larger, brighter, yet still he hadn’t reached it. He was moving as fast as he could, had been pushing himself as far as he could go, but he wasn’t tired, and he was too focused on where he had to go to care even if he was.
Flashes of memory strobed through his mind at irregular intervals. He saw a house. A flower bed. A mailbox. He would poke at each recollection, only to discover every time that it was a dead end.
When the light before his eyes finally took form, he stopped. Suspended in the darkness was a simple wooden door, slightly ajar. Bright white light spilled out from the inside and was swallowed by the blackness beyond.
He approached the door slowly. He reached out to examine it, and when he caught sight of his arm in the light he was struck with wonder. It was the first time he’d seen himself since he’d woken.
His arm was dotted with tiny red welts that ran along the length of the veins. When he touched one, he found that it was tender.
After a failed moment searching for a corresponding memory, he glanced back up at the door. He placed his hand beneath it and verified that there was nothing to hold it up. Then he tested the sides a few inches beyond the frame and found that they too were empty. He walked around, and when he came to the other side he discovered that the door was gone. He panicked, came back around and was relieved to observe that it had reappeared.
Where did the door lead? He wasn’t sure what would happen if he entered, but there was nothing for him here, only emptiness for as far as the eye could see, as if the world beyond the door had never been defined.
He gazed at the opening, hypnotized by the light. He had no choice. For better or for worst, it was clear he was supposed to enter. He took hold of the knob, a ball of cool brass that sent a chill through his spine, and he pushed the door the rest of the way open.
The man walked forward and was consumed by the light.
Read Part 3 here.