Donna

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I had a lot on my plate this week and wasn’t able to write a new piece, so I’ve reposted one of my Patreon shorts from last year. It should be new for most of you. I’ll have an original story for you guys next week 🙂

Her human name was Donna. She had a husband named Bill, a son named Rob. Donna lived in the desert in a house she and Bill had built when they were young.

Her humanity was an integral part of who she was. But it was not the only part, nor even the largest part.

In a realm beyond the stars, beyond even empty space, she had been a queen, was still a queen, for in that place there was no time, so that when she eventually returned it would be as if she’d never left. She had ruled, and continued to rule, with wisdom and strength. But something was missing. Something important. Something necessary.

So she’d descended, subjected herself to the internal workings of the cosmos, taken on flesh and blood. She experienced the fullness of humanity, the highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows. She plumbed the depths of human emotion, divined its arcane secrets. She learned what it was like to live. To breathe. To feel. Sometimes there was pain, but she found that it was always followed by relief. And sometimes there was sadness, but she found that it was always followed by joy.

Love.

That had been the most important lesson. She’d lived many happy years with her husband, her family and her friends, and she’d loved every one of them. Love sustained her. Guided her. Fulfilled her. It quickly became the source and summit of her human existence. It was what human poets wrote about, what human musicians sang about, what human philosophers dreamed about. It was the one thing that set the species apart from all the other creatures in the universe.

The linearity of time ensured that just as her life had begun, so too would it end. She suspected she had a number of good years left, but when it was time for her Earthly pilgrimage to conclude, she would let the sting of death take her, would let that last pang of loss teach her its final lesson. Then she would ascend once more to her incorporeal throne in the stars, and would carry the memory of her humanity with her.

It was part of her now, and would be evermore.

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The Voice

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“You can’t do this,” whispered a malevolent voice in the dark, a sound Amanda hadn’t heard in years.

She gritted her teeth, dug in her heels and tried to stand her ground. But it was persuasive, and Amanda didn’t know if she was strong enough to defy it.

The voice had been with her from birth, a dry hollow rattle that only she could hear. Its jealous strains had always tempted her to doubt, but the successes of her youth had made her confident, perhaps overly so, and for decades, the voice was little more than a nuisance, a background static in a constellation of accomplishments and accolades.

She’d conjured whole worlds ex nihilo, populated an entire cosmos in the realm where reality and conscious thought were one. Still, the voice was persistent, pointing out the flaws, the imperfections in her work.

“That world over there,” it would say, “Look how it wobbles and tilts on its axis.”

And Amanda would see it as if for the first time and realize the voice was right.

“And that world over there,” the voice would continue, “Look at its bulbous, oblong shape. How can you call yourself a professional?”

And Amanda would look again and once more realize the voice was right.

On and on the voice argued, and no matter how long Amanda honed the finer details, no matter how long she strove to satisfy the exacting requirements of perfection, she always fell short, and the voice was always there to remind her.

Amanda’s final attempt had been almost ten years ago, a tiny desert world that had come to her in a dream. In her eyes, it was a possibility for redemption, an opportunity to reduce that awful voice to silence at last, and she labored for the better part of a year, drawing on every resource left at her disposal.

When at last she was finished, sweaty and short of breath, the voice offered a terse appraisal.

“A good idea that suffers from a lackluster implementation.”

Amanda withered. A few weeks later, she retired.

But the urge to create had proved too strong to ignore. She’d tried, of course. For years she’d tried. She’d worked other jobs, and when she got home she would occupy her off hours with various unrelated hobbies, all in the vain hope of drowning a desire that had only ever lead to heartbreak and frustration. But the old dreams refused to die, and though Amanda had found some temporary respite from the voice, she knew it wouldn’t be long before she would have to try again.

When that time finally came, when the need to create grew into an all-consuming fire that threatened to scour her soul to the bone, she locked herself in her basement, where she’d covered over her old workshop with a faded dusty tarp. Now, taking a deep breath, she swept the tarp aside.

“What are you doing?” asked a familiar voice. “You’ve been out of practice for years. What makes you think you’ll succeed now?”

Amanda trembled. She knew it spoke the truth. Even during her peak, the voice had found plenty of flaws in her work. What made her think she could do better now?

Still, the desire to create overwhelmed her. It was an ocean of power held back by only a single floodgate, a force of nature that would destroy her if she didn’t channel it properly. So she ignored the voice. She picked up her old tools, dusted them off beneath the dim illumination of a nearby desk lamp, and after a shuddering, rattling breath, she got to work.

“Didn’t you hear me?” asked the voice, incredulous at her determination. “You’re going to fail. You’re going to fuck this up just like you fuck up everything.”

Amanda hesitated. She tried to focus on the nascent world in front of her, tried to shut out the voice’s spiteful remarks, but it was hard, it was so hard. The tools slipped in her fingers, and she wondered, not for the first time, if she was making a mistake.

But that urge, that need to create, it burned, it burned so much, and every moment she spent second guessing instead of working was a moment of torture and almost unbearable agony. So in spite of the voice’s constant rebukes, in spite of her own crippling doubts, she kept at it.

On and on she toiled, for hours or days, she couldn’t say, and as the rusty hinges and squealing iron gears began to turn as they once had so many years ago, the pent up magic burst inside her like a grenade, a shower of bright, coruscating sparks that filled Amanda with almost euphoric joy.

When at last she’d finished, the voice offered a scathing critique.

“That world,” it mocked, “Look how crude and simple it is. Hardly your best.”

Amanda considered its remarks. “You’re right,” she said, but after having released a decade of frustration, after having poured her soul into the project, she discovered that was okay. She’d learned that through the lens of imperfection, beauty could only be magnified.

The voice sputtered and could offer no reply. For so long, it had used the truth as a weapon. Now, that weapon was useless. Deflated, it fled into the darkness and was silent at last.

Amanda knew it would return, that in the fullness of time it would make her doubt again. But instead of shrinking away from the inevitability, instead of hanging up her tools for another ten years, she decided she would face it head on.

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October 31

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It started on October 31 with a hole.

It wasn’t large at the time, only a minor abrasion on the surface of the Earth. But it grew, first in fits and starts, then at an increasingly alarming pace, swallowing cities and highways, forests and hills, rivers and mountains. Entire continents plunged to their deaths before the shaking and the sinking slowed, and by then, the Earth had been so radically transformed that nobody would have recognized it had anyone been left alive.

The only ones to see were the astronauts, safe for a time in their manmade haven among the stars, before they ran out of food, before their sensors went dark.

A grinning toothy maw, topped by two sharp eyes and a dagger for a nose, carved into the surface of the world as if with a knife.

In their dying breaths, they remembered the childhood smells of pumpkin pulp and roasting seeds, then surrendered their souls in the dark of space to an unknown god.

Happy Halloween!

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A Proposal, Part 3

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This is the third installment of a seven part series.

If you’re looking for part 1, you can find it here.
If you’re looking for part 2, you can find it here.

“Hurt you, Miss? Now, whatever gave you that idea?”

“Please,” she repeated. “Don’t hurt me.”

Jill wanted to screw her eyes shut, but she couldn’t look away from his terrifying visage. Lit by the lantern that stood between them, she thought back to carving jack-o-lanterns with her daughter for Halloween, to the jagged teeth and the wicked smile, and the smoldering light behind the eyes.

“I already told you, Miss, I only want to talk. I never said anything about hurting you.”

On his knees, Mr. Jacobs reached for her. But Jill yelped and he pulled back.

“Leave me alone.”

“Okay,” said Mr. Jacobs, settling now into a sitting position. “Then how about we talk from here.”

All the muscles in Jill’s body had bunched up tight, and sweat poured down her neck and back. She thought if her heart didn’t slow down soon, it might explode.

He held her there with his eyes, a steady level gaze that spoke of patience and need. The look was calm, almost weary, yet it possessed an urgency that Jill didn’t trust. She said nothing, only waited for Mr. Jacobs to make his next move.

“Well,” he announced at last, “This is awkward.” He shifted in the flickering light, shadows writhing like snakes, contorting into strange shapes on the stone walls. “You spend a few hundred years thinking about what you’re going to say, and then the time finally comes and you make a mess of it.” He shook his head and Jill thought he looked genuinely abashed.

A few hundred years? So he was crazy. Jill tried not to think about how he’d appeared inside her house after she’d closed the door behind him.

“Well, Miss, I suppose the only way to go is forward. I know you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t if our situations were reversed. All I ask is that you listen.”

Jill didn’t see what choice she had.

“I’ve lived a long life, Miss. A wondrous life, an exotic life, an adventurous life, but nevertheless a long life. Too long. I’ve witnessed history first hand, and if you don’t mind me saying so, quite the spectacle it’s been. But I’m tired, Miss. This mortal mind of mine wasn’t made for immortality.”

Mr. Jacobs sighed, a slow dusty rattle that stirred strange visions and haunting notions. Nobody could live forever, thought Jill, that was a fact, but what he’d said had moved her just the same. Perhaps it was the way the light had gone out of his eyes when he started to tell his story. Jill didn’t know how or why his words effected her, but despite the fantastical nature of his claim, she had the chilling feeling they held the ring of truth.

“That can’t be,” she said in a creaky whisper.

“I assure you,” said Mr. Jacobs, “It is.”

And God help her, Jill believed him.

Silence filled the space between them, until finally Jill asked, “What does this have to do with me?”

The light blazed in his eyes once more. Mr. Jacobs smiled, and Jill didn’t think the gesture was particularly friendly.

“As to that, Miss, I have a proposal.”

Once again, that atavistic shiver surged down the length of Jill’s spine. A proposal. A dreadful word, coming from his mouth. What sort of dark agreement would Mr. Jacobs try to wring out of her?

“Don’t you want to hear about it?”

Jill was silent.

“What if I told you I could offer you everlasting life? Would that pique your interest?”

The question hit her hard. It was a strange hope, the sort she’d never dared to consider. In Sunday school, she’d learned this life was temporary, that humans were made for communion with God in the life to come and nothing else. She’d always accepted that, and when she grew old she hadn’t complained. She’d said her daily prayers, done her best to make peace with her creator and resolved to wait patiently for the day Death would draw her number. But to hear someone say that they could change this ultimate fate, that perhaps immortality was possible after all, that changed her perspective. Now she doubted the beliefs of her childhood. Now, she pondered what the concept of eternal life could mean in the context of an otherwise mortal existence.

Yes, she thought, Mr. Jacobs had piqued her interest, all right.

“I thought it might,” said the man, staring as if he’d read her mind. The flame of the lantern reflected back at her in the pupils of his dark, wet eyes.

Jill tried to clear her throat along with her mind. “You said you were tired, Mr. Jacobs. And didn’t you also say…” She licked her lips. “…didn’t you also say, This mortal mind of mine wasn’t made for immortality? If you’re trying to sell me something, you’re doing a poor job.”

Mr. Jacobs chuckled. “You’re sharp, Miss. Sharp as a tack. Yes, I suppose my words don’t make for a ringing endorsement. But what in life is ever perfect? Are there not drawbacks to every reward?”

Jill considered.

“It’s not such a bad deal, you know, all things considered. Think of all the things you’ll witness. You’ll get to watch your daughter grow old. You’ll get to watch your grandchildren grow old. Your great grandchildren. On and on, down through the generations. You’ll get to see how history unfolds, how the decisions you made in life rippled out through time, magnifying, how they shaped society, nations, the world. So much to see. So much to learn. No longer will you feel the burden of time weighing down on your shoulders. Think of it, Miss. Think of it!”

Jill pondered the way the light played upon his face and wondered if he really believed that.

“What about the weariness? How do you live with that? How does it weigh on your shoulders, Mr. Jacobs?”

“It’s a heavy burden,” he conceded. “At times, unbearable. But you can live with it for as long as you’d like, and when the burden becomes too great you can pass it on to someone else, just as I’m offering to pass it on to you.”

“So that’s it,” said Jill. “That’s your proposal. You want to die, and somehow, by passing immortality on to me, that becomes possible for you.”

“Right as rain, Miss. Right as rain. Everlasting life for you, and in exchange I can finally end my own. We both get what we want. Everyone wins.”

But Jill wasn’t sure she wanted it. Even now, as that forbidden hope churned within, she thought of the faith that had sustained her for so many years, the faith that had seen her through so many excruciating trials.

“I don’t know,” said Jill from her hiding place beneath the bed. “Honestly, Mr. Jacobs, I don’t know what I want.”

“All I ask is that you think about it.”

“And what if I decide not to accept your offer? Will you force me to take it anyway?”

“That’s not how it works, Miss. If I could imprison you here until you said yes, if I could force your consent by kidnapping your daughter, by torturing her, by killing her, I would. But that’s not how it works, Miss, that’s not how it’s ever worked. It’s a state that must be freely given and freely accepted. All I want is for you to consider my offer.”

The man’s words horrified her, not only for their cruel and inhuman honesty, but for the fact that, as terrible as making a deal with Mr. Jacobs might be, she was still, after everything that had passed between them, tempted by the offer.

“Go home,” said Mr. Jacobs. “Live what life you have left. Enjoy it to the fullest. I’ll send you reminders from time to time, and when your life draws to a close, I’ll be around again.”

And in the very next breath she was in her kitchen once again, laying on her mattress with the TV on, just as she’d left it when she got up to answer the door. Late afternoon light burst through the sliding glass door, piercing her eyes.

A dream? How fortunate that would be, to get off so easy. But when she looked down at her hands, when she noted the scrapes and bruises that ran along her palms and forearms, souvenirs from her futile attempt to flee that mysterious room and the man who’d brought her there, she knew the rest of her life wouldn’t be so simple.

Someday, she was certain, Mr. Jacobs would return.

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A Proposal, Part 2

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This is the second installment in a seven part series. Parts 1–3 will be posted for free on the blog. Parts 4–7 will be posted exclusively on Patreon in exchange for a small monthly pledge.

If you’re looking for part 1, you can find it here.

It was dark when Jill opened her eyes. What time was it? The lights were off. She must have fallen asleep, only when her eyes started to adjust, she found the shapes in the room to be unfamiliar. Instead of the simple cubic dimensions of her kitchen, she was faced with broad high-reaching curves, with columns and formations that resembled stone and masonry rather than drywall and wood.

Her heart seized in a bright flare of panic, and for one terrifying moment she thought it would stop for good. The man at the door had been in her house (how was that even possible when she’d just closed the door on him?) and then she’d passed out. Where had he taken her while she was unconscious?

She was still lying on the bed from her kitchen, but now it stood against a wall, with a large Gothic window that let in the flat monochromatic light of the moon. Like a castle, thought Jill, like something she would have seen in a black and white vampire movie when she was much younger. Only this was real, this was actually happening.

The room was quiet, dead, like a tomb, which was why, even with her hearing as bad as it was, she picked out the dusty sound of distant footsteps.

The man, Mr. Jacobs, was coming for her. She had to hide.

She tried to get up, but all too quickly she remembered her rapidly deteriorating body. She had to work herself to the point of exhaustion just to reach a sitting position, and a quick test of shifting her weight onto her legs told her she wouldn’t get anywhere without her walker. When had she gotten so old, so feeble? In her head, she was still that nineteen year old girl she’d once spied in the mirror almost a quarter of a century ago.

Nevermind. Her body might be failing her, but she still had a few tricks up her sleeve, and determination if nothing else would see her through this nightmare. There was no way her legs were going to save her. Instead, she tipped forward, leaning out until she was caught by gravity’s jealous grip. Falling toward the ground, Jill held her hands out, praying with fervent devotion that she could catch herself when she hit the floor, that she wouldn’t break an arm or a hip.

The ground was stone, and the landing hurt more than she’d anticipated. But she’d braced herself, and the mattress wasn’t so high that the fall was catastrophic. She rested for a moment, waiting for the pain to subside, and all the while those footsteps grew closer, louder, echoing now in spaces as of yet unseen.

“You can do this, old girl,” she whispered to herself as she reached forward with one shaking hand at a time, dragging herself across the floor, looking for a place to hide.

Left. Right. On her belly, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden (“On your belly you will go, and dust will you eat all the days of your life.”) She crawled across the stone in small incremental stretches. Mr. Jacobs was close now; surely it was he who approached. A rational interior voice warned that fleeing was no use, that hiding was impossible, that there was no way she could outrun him once he saw her. But while her body might have succumbed to age, her spirit and her determination to survive had not. She was happy to die in the Good Lord’s time, but not Mr. Jacobs’s.

The room was barren, with only an empty high backed chair propped beside the bed. Nowhere to go, so she did the only thing she could think to do. She crawled back, clawing at the cold stone beneath her fingertips, brittle bones creaking, dry joints cracking. Sweat beaded across her forehead like tiny moonlit diamonds. She grabbed the smooth black poles beneath the bed, hid herself beneath its looming shadow and took several moments to catch her breath before falling silent.

The view under the mattress was all at once familiar and strange, a bizarre vantage overlooking life from a more preternatural angle. How odd that so many ordinary events in an otherwise normal life should ultimately converge on a moment so otherworldly and terrifying.

The footsteps came to a thundering crescendo, like gunshots, or the pounding of primeval drums, then stopped. Perhaps he would move on. Perhaps he would give her time enough to find a way out.

No such luck.

Another sound, a booming metallic rattle, then a crack. A moment later, a door swung open. She peered into the dark. There, standing on the threshold, the dim light of a lantern seeming to set his features on fire, was Mr. Jacobs.

Dracula, she thought, thinking back to her old movies once more, and Jill suppressed a shudder. The man lifted his feeble wellspring of light into the dark, revealing more of the elaborate Gothic architecture.

He started toward the bed.

“Miss?”

Farther he pressed into the dark, the circle of light coming closer, eager to announce her presence. She’s over there! she could almost hear it scream. Over there, beneath the bed!

“Miss?”

Mr. Jacobs stood beside her now. He saw that the mattress was empty, and that was when he lowered the lantern to the floor, where the treacherous light betrayed her at last.

“What are you doing under there, Miss?”

No answer.

Jill had never known such paralyzing fear. The same electric shock she’d felt the first time she saw him standing on her doorstep shot through her again. This was how she would die, not in her sleep in front of the TV, a painless exhalation of her spirit that would propel her into the arms of her Lord at last, but in feral, abject terror.

“Please,” she croaked, and then she started to cry. “Please, don’t hurt me.”

Mr. Jacobs stared at her, and the moment was reduced to a timeless pocket of eternity. Then he knelt before her and grinned.

Click here to read Part 3.

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A Proposal, Part 1

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This is the first installment in a seven part series. Parts 1–3 will be posted for free on the blog. Parts 4–7 will be posted exclusively on Patreon in exchange for a small monthly pledge.

It was the day the axis of Jill’s life forever shifted, the day she was swept away by the gravity of sinister forces, compelled to walk a dark and inexorable path. If only she hadn’t answered the door, she thought later, if only she’d stayed in the kitchen and watched TV. If only, she would think forever after, looking over her shoulder for the man hiding in the shadows, if only…

There were three things they didn’t tell you about getting old, as far as Jill was concerned. The first were the frequent bouts of insomnia, as if the mind, terrified of death looming on the horizon, had decided to stay awake and make up for lost time. The second was that most of your friends and family were dead, with more dying each year. Live long enough, and you might discover you’re the only one left, the unlucky winner of life’s wicked lottery. The third, and arguably the worst, was the lack of mobility. Everyone always said they couldn’t wait to retire, that they’d travel the world, build a workshop, or sit down to write that memoir. Trouble was the body refused to cooperate. It gave a sad new meaning to the expression, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Jill herself had had enough, and she’d be happy to go when the Good Lord called her home.

That last thought had just occurred to her when someone knocked on the door. Jill started. She wasn’t expecting company. Maybe it was the electricity man come to chase after another unpaid bill. It had happened last month, and her caretaker Rosalyn had warned her to be more careful (that was the fourth thing they didn’t tell you about getting old: your head had more holes than a pasta strainer.) She prayed even now that her daughter in Chicago wouldn’t find out. She’d already threatened to put Jill in a home, and only after hours of pleading for her independence had Jill secured the alternative of a part-time caretaker.

But as it happened, her visitor turned out to be someone else entirely.

Jill pushed herself up by her arms, body quivering. She grabbed the walker beside her bed, then shuffled toward the door.

She was greeted by a portly man in a black suit and a matching fedora hat. Odd, thought Jill, the summer being so hot.

“May I help you?”

“Actually,” said the man, removing his hat and inclining his head, “I was hoping I could help you.”

An atavistic shiver spasmed through her. Something about his eyes, she thought, and the way he talked. In some way she didn’t understand, the man represented all that was wrong with the world, a shining avatar of evil so bright, she wanted to slam the door and spend the next hour and a half on her knees in prayer.

“May I come in?” he asked. “It’s hot and I haven’t had anything to drink.”

Jill was always hospitable, even to strangers. She hadn’t been a part of the generation that was taught to fear the vagrant on the doorstep, and turning someone away without a good reason was rude. But this man was dangerous, she could feel it in her bones, and instinct trumped manners any day of the week.

“I’m sorry. My daughter’s sleeping on the couch and I don’t want to wake her.” She felt her face flush with the lie, but she didn’t want him to know she was alone.

The man smiled wide, revealing bone white teeth, and a strange thing occurred to her.

He knows I’m lying.

“I understand,” he said. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

If you don’t want to be a bother, why are you still here?

“I’ll come back at a more convenient time.”

“Thank you, Mr…”

“Jacobs, Miss. Mr. Jacobs. Good day.”

Jill shut the door behind him, shivering once more. Why had he triggered such a visceral reaction? Anyway, he was gone now, and she could return to her makeshift bed in the kitchen.

“Hello again, Miss,” said Mr. Jacobs when she’d turned back toward the living room. He was lounging on a cloth covered couch, looking as if he’d been relaxing there all afternoon.

Jill shrieked.

“Curious. I came back around for a second try and discovered your daughter wasn’t in.”

“She’s in the bathroom,” babbled Jill. “How did you—”

“A minor technicality. But I’m afraid I really must speak with you.”

“I’ll call the police.”

“There’s no need for that, Miss.” Mr. Jacobs was no longer on the couch, but standing right before her, obstructing her path to the kitchen. “I only want to talk.”

Jill’s pulse quickened and her heart pounded to an irregular rhythm. She tried to turn again, only she felt lightheaded. Like a ghost, she thought as the world blurred, as she tried to reach for the stairs beside her with insubstantial hands and lost her balance.

The world tilted. Slowed. Stopped.

Jill remained alert long enough to feel the man’s hand press into the small of her back. Then her vision faded to white and she saw no more.

Click here to read part 2.

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Best Friends

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A special shout out to my newest patron, Nick!

Don stood outside a pair of broad double doors, torches in iron scones along the walls casting a dim orange glow in the late night darkness. At his word, the doors would open, and then he would carry out his duty. But for now, he waited.

The night was cool, serene. The chirrups of crickets, the rustling of treetops, these spoke a comforting lie. They told the story of a world whole and intact, of a world untouched by the atrocities of a civil war that had almost destroyed humanity itself. Don wanted to steep in its sweet murmurs, to find what refuge he could in the all too brief illusion.

But Don had a job to do, one that shouldn’t wait any longer than necessary, and after a dusty bone weary sigh, he signaled to the guards.

The doors opened.

Light flooded out from a humongous palatial chamber, a coruscating electric blue. No illusions here. Tapestries lay in tatters on the floor alongside clotted blood and broken bodies, strewn about as if toys abandoned by a spoiled child.

At the center, where the light originated, was a man in a sword torn uniform, about the same age as Don, with snow capped hair and a permanent frown line, etched by time and turmoil into a face that could no longer move save for the lips. Presently, those lips were curled into a sour grimace of disgust.

Don could see that even now, the man fought against his restraints. It was a futile effort, of course, and the man knew it as well as he.

Don approached, the light beginning to thicken like gel around him. Not too close, his advisers had warned. The light was a trap. It was how they’d captured the man who stood before Don now. If he got too close, it would harden around him just like it had his prisoner.

“It’s been a while,” said Don after searching for words appropriate to the occasion and coming up short. A headache was blooming in his left temple, and his stomach had started to churn. The sight of his best friend Arnold bound by the light, no matter how evil he’d turned out to be, still rattled the cage around his weary soul with grief.

Arnold sneered but did not answer.

“You destroyed my kingdom. You destroyed the world. It will take centuries to rebuild.”

The sneer widened.

Don shivered, and the light around them turned a darker shade of blue. Who was this man? They’d grown up together in the castle, and though Don had been a prince destined for the throne and Arnold had been a servant destined for the stables, he’d loved the boy like a brother and had treated him likewise. But this man couldn’t be the same person he’d grown up with. Couldn’t be the same. Couldn’t be the same.

Yet here he was.

“Why?” It was not the question Don had meant to ask, but it bubbled out of him anyway, with all the force of an active volcano. “Why, Arnold? I trusted you. I loved you.” His voice cracked around the word love. “You were part of the family.”

When Arnold didn’t answer, Don raised his voice. “Do you not know I have the power to destroy you? Answer me!”

No reply. The light flared.

Don’s hands trembled at his sides. Love, he reflected, was a dangerous thing. Wonderful, exhilarating, at times liberating, but dangerous all the same. He had loved his friend Arnold, had welcomed him into the royal house as an equal, and a broken world had been the result.

The light’s shade darkened once more, and Don felt a love already starved by the horrors of war dwindle further like a guttering ember. It cried out in its death throes, interceding on his friend’s behalf, but ultimately fell on deaf ears.

“By order of the Crown and in defense of the Common Realm, I sentence you to death.”

Don snapped his fingers, and the light rushed inward, coalescing around Arnold, crystallizing around flesh and bone. Arnold’s mouth twisted into a final derisive grin, then opened wide as he let out a muffled agonized death cry. He arced his back, pulled taut by the matrix of light turned substance, then cried no more.

Why did you do this, old friend?

Don would live the rest of his life without the answer.

The light died, leaving behind a block of stone with Arnold’s body encased inside, and Don’s childhood heart died along with it.

Next week, I’ll kick off a seven part flash fiction series called, “A Proposal.” Don’t miss it!

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The Man With No Name

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A ribbon of pipe smoke curls into the air, and not for the first time, I think of my grandpa, who would sit at the back of a musty kitchen, puffing his pipe, pondering a world that passed him by long ago. The memory is vivid, visceral, and it almost sends me sprawling into the distant past.

The man who sits before me now, The Man With No Name, is not my grandpa. He died eleven years ago. Though The Man With No Name would have been around when my grandpa was still alive, as well as when his grandpa was still alive. He gestures to me with his pipe before returning it to his mouth.

“Sit, Michael.”

I do as I’m told. I have no idea why he’s summoned me. I only know I was home, heading upstairs for bed, and when I reached the top I realized I was no longer ascending the wooden steps in my house, but the ancient wrought iron steps that lead to his personal chambers. Yet I’ve learned in all our dealings not to ask questions but to listen. He always has his reasons, and my family and I have come to trust them.

The candelabra that hangs from the high stone ceiling glows a dim flickering orange. It makes me feel as if I’ve crossed the threshold into another world, and for all I know I have.

“Michael, I’m going to get right to the point. I’m dying.”

Dying. It took a moment for the meaning of the word to resolve.

“But how?” I can’t believe what I’ve just heard.

“My kind live long by your standards, but contrary to what you and your family may believe, I am not immortal.”

I feel as if everything I’ve been taught has been a lie. All of Grandpa’s stories about The Man With No Name, about how he helped the family, once poor, prosper and succeed. He was not just a saint to us, he was a god. Now, I’m learning that even a god can die.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

I must have been staring. I gaze down at my feet, crestfallen. The world falls apart around me. I feel like throwing up.

“I served your family long before it had a name, but now my life draws to a close and I’d like to put things in order before I go.”

“But, what will we do without you? We’ve relied on you for so long. I don’t know how we’ll survive.”

The Man With No Name leans back. A grimace sours his features like rancid milk.

“I spoiled you. I should have been more discerning in my aid. Ah, well, that’s love. Michael, there comes a time in every person’s life when they have to leave the protection of their parents and strike out on their own. This is true of children, and it is also true of families. I’ve been with your kin for more than a thousand years, teaching and guiding. Now, it’s time to take what you’ve learned and make something of yourselves.”

“You can’t leave us.”

“I have no choice. My time in this world is finished. I’m ready to flee the shackles of my body and discover what lies beyond.”

Shock begins to thaw, and despair begins to take its place.

“Make me proud, Michael. You and your family are capable of great things. You no longer need my help, and you haven’t for a while.”

“But I don’t want you to go.” My voice cracks.

“I know.”

The Man With No Name opens his arms, and I find myself running into their embrace. I cry. The arms close around me.

“Goodbye, Michael.”

When I pull back, I’m standing once more at the top of my own stairs. For the first time in my life, and in all the centuries of my family’s life, I know what it truly means to be alone.

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Branwin

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A bright rectangle of light fell on the cold stone floor, and Branwin blinked. How long had it been since he’d seen light? He squinted up at an iron door that hadn’t opened for centuries.

“Branwin.” A hooded figure stepped over the threshold.

Branwin tried to use his lips, but they were like rusty hinges and he could only manage an inarticulate squeal.

“Not mad yet, I hope.” The figure chuckled, pulling back the hood to reveal the face of a man. Branwin scurried like a spider into a dark corner.

Branwin didn’t like him. There was something about the man that touched on uncomfortable memories. If only he’d go away and close the door behind him. But instead he came closer, until he loomed over Branwin, teeth gleaming like knives. Branwin’s inhuman eyes flitted back and forth between him and the walls.

“I need your help, Branwin.”

A flare of strange memories, bursting in Branwin’s head. Shards like stained glass. Memories of a life before the dark, before he’d been transformed into this creature of the shadows in exchange for immortality.

“I see I have your attention,” said the man, and he knelt beside Branwin, as if he were a dog who needed to be reminded that his master still loved him. “I know it’s difficult to talk, so just listen.”

Branwin’s eyes locked on the man’s, so human, so unlike his own. He squatted on all fours, braced to run.

“You made a foolish bargain,” the man continued, “The choice was yours, of course, and if I could have left you here alone I would have. But times have changed. The Republic is crumbling. Old barriers are failing, and people of your power and skill have become valuable.”

A spark in Branwin ignited, a furious hatred that erupted like an active volcano.

“This form you assumed shouldn’t have been possible. The most powerful mages of our time believe you are only a legend. You not only changed your shape, you changed your essence, your soul. Not a change for the better, I would say, but I digress.”

The man set a hand on Branwin’s disfigured shoulder, and an internal spring uncoiled. Branwin pounced, slamming him into the moldering wall.

“I could kill you,” Branwin hissed, the first words he’d uttered in over seven hundred years. It was all coming back to him now.

Surprisingly, the man laughed. “Yes, my old friend, I have no doubt you could. But don’t you wonder, dear Branwin, how it is that I still live?”

Branwin blinked. His humanity was coming back to him, and with it his curiosity.

“I’m not immortal, alas, but I’ve lived for centuries so far and will live for many more, all while retaining that which is essential to my humanity. I could teach you how. There are other ways to prolong life, most not nearly as…unfortunate as the path you chose.”

Something reminiscent of hope surged through Branwin. His inhuman state seemed on the verge of shattering, and he wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

“Come,” said the man, holding out his hand. “Let me fix you.”

Branwin gazed up at him with slitted eyes. He considered the possibilities, his forgotten humanity blossoming at long last, and after a timeless moment of silence in the dark, he took the man’s hand and let him pull him to his feet.

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Regret

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There is no greater puzzle, no greater struggle, than the beginning. The first note of a sonata, the first stanza of a poem, the first stroke of a painting. All that comes after builds on what came before, and if the scaffolding established at the start is weak, the whole piece comes tumbling down.

It was the reason I never put my own skills to use, the reason my house had always been a tangled jungle of loose leaf pages, saturated with ideas I never had the courage to pursue.

I would come home from work, bleary eyed and broken. I would descend the shadow engulfed stairs that led to my desk beneath the moldering ceiling of a neglected basement, and there, in the dark, I would set pen to paper. For a little while, I would labor under the delusion that this time, things would be different; this time, I would follow through with my design; this time, I would impart substance and life to an idea that I was certain could change the world.

Then I would stare at the latest fruit of my manic depressive mind, pondering its intricacies, its peculiarities. I would sigh, turn out the light and go to bed, abandoning my brain child to rot along with the house’s foundation.

Time slipped, until I grew old. I never stopped telling myself that this time, things would be different. But one day I fell ill, and after an extended stay in the hospital I realized I wasn’t going home. On the precipice of death, I thought of all my unfinished designs, and like an absent father, I wailed and lamented for all the lost years that I could never reclaim with my children.

Better to have tried, I thought, to have started something imperfectly than not to have started at all. But somehow that was worse, somehow that was more painful.

“I loved you all,” I whispered, but as I closed my eyes, as the final curtain began to fall on my life, I realized with mounting terror that this was a lie.

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