The Foolish Apprentice

“I told you how to do this already.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jess, stumbling over the title, tiny pearlescent beads of sweat popping from his forehead. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Amos sighed. Hovering over his apprentice, he watched with consternation as he made all the wrong weaves, a misstep he’d tried to correct over a dozen times during the past week.

Suddenly there was a bright electric flash like a strobe, and Jess staggered backward.

“Jess!” cried Amos, though he was too late to stop it. He was equal parts relieved and enraged to find he’d come away from his mistake uninjured. “Goddamnit, Jess! You could’ve killed us both.”

Jess looked back at him blankly.

“Here,” said Amos, collecting himself. He raised his hands into the air. “I’ll show you again.”

He proceeded to step through basic fingerings he’d learned when he was ten. He penetrated empty space, took hold of two threads. He tucked one behind the other and twisted until the pair was taut. Then he relaxed his grip and let the weave unravel slowly between his fingers. It emitted a soft golden glow.

“The weave for light,” said Amos flatly. “The tighter the twist, the more energy that’s released, the brighter the light.”

“I mostly had it,” said Jess, rising to his own defense. His cheeks had turned pink. “I just gave it too much tension.”

“And almost blinded us both,” snarled Amos. “You can’t just let go of a weave like that. You have to let it unwind slowly, keep it under control. Magicians have burned themselves to cinders for making mistakes like that.”

Jess had balled his hands into fists.

This wasn’t working. Simon had said the boy was headstrong, and that was true enough, but what he’d left out was that the boy was also a fool. Take either attribute apart from the other and you’d have something Amos could work with. If the boy were headstrong but talented, he could find some way to channel his pride toward a healthy confidence. If the boy were foolish but humble, he could be patient, step through the basics over and over again, confident that he would pay attention and eventually learn. But a headstrong fool? There was nothing to be done for that.

“Listen,” said Amos, and he had to swallow a vile insult that had risen up into his throat like bile. “I know you’re anxious to get through the basics, that you want to be a great magician like your father, but you’re young, you know nothing and it takes time. Your father was a great man because he knew when to listen as well as when to lead, because he spent hours in his workshop after you kids had gone to bed to drill himself on the essentials.”

“My father?” shouted Jess, leaping to his feet. “What do you know about my father?”

“Quite a bit more than you, apparently,” said Amos, trying to keep his voice level. “He never would have put up with your refusal to listen, your stubbornness in the face of correction. I would’ve thought you’d know better.”

“My father said I was destined for greatness,” argued Jess.

“Maybe. If you’d spent more time under his tutelage before he died, perhaps you would’ve learned what it takes to be great. But now? I’m beginning to think you’ll never learn.”

Jess looked like he was about to say something. Tight cords bulged from his neck like ropes. But after a moment the rage drained out of him and his head fell into his hands.

“He always made it look so easy,” said Jess in a vulnerable tone Amos had not heard before. “Before he died, he made it look so easy, and then Simon tried to teach me, and I couldn’t get it, and I felt so stupid. I got frustrated, and I thought, ‘if only Dad were still here to teach me himself.'”

A tear fell from one of the boy’s eyes, and Amos’s appraisal of him changed. Perhaps Jess could be reached after all. Maybe his pride was a facade, a front he’d erected to protect a battered ego further embittered by the premature loss of his father. With some patience and kindness (God knew this was not his forte), perhaps the boy would turn out all right.

“Jess,” said Amos, “Your father spoke very highly of you. I believe you can do this, but you have to be open to correction. You can’t take it as a personal affront every time I point out that you’re doing something wrong. Part of your father’s greatness was due to his willingness to own up to mistakes and fix them. If you do the same, you can be like him, I’m sure of it.”

“You think so?” Jess looked up then, and Amos’s heart softened at the sight of him.

“I know so.” He placed an affectionate hand on the boy’s shoulder. He would take him under his wing, he decided, not just as a mentor but as a guardian and a friend.

Jess nodded, sniffled, reached toward his nose to wipe away more tears. “Show me again?”

Amos reached into empty space once more, and this time Jess paid attention.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Life in Reverse

It was happening again. A cosmic hiccup. A moment in time, repeated.

The world moved around her, but in reverse. How many times had Stacy been through the same series of events? She might have been through a single iteration, or she might have been through a thousand. Forward. Then backward.

Water rose from the shag carpet like Jell-O, streamed back into a glass that reflected sharp needles of light as it fell upward, arcing through the air and finally righting itself on Mary Anne’s serving tray. The woman back-stepped from pale and mortified to warm and boisterous.

In an insane corner of her mind, the part of her that was convinced she’d done this long enough for the sun to burn out, Stacy wondered if God had found some particular event in the world so funny that he’d had to hit the rewind button to watch it again.

Then she wondered if this was Hell.

Mark’s shoulder disconnected from Mary Anne’s, just as his foot parted ways from the table leg that had tripped him. His head came up like an Olympic swimmer rising from the water. All of this in a world without sound.

How could that be so? Shouldn’t she hear everything, but backwards? Did it have to do with waves of sound traveling backward instead of forward, toward instead of away from the source? Maybe, though she suspected that wasn’t quite right.

During all of this she was frozen, like the ice sculpture mounted beside the chocolate fountain, dripping backwards as it spontaneously refroze. Like the T-1000 in the Second Terminator movie, she thought, and a mad giggle would have escaped her lips if she could have opened them.

Lucy stepped back into her field of vision, approached her in a strange backwards walk as she undismissed herself from Stacy’s company. She had no idea how far back time would go before things righted themselves, but a sense of certainty was mounting that the stage was nearly set for the next iteration. She thought of the movie Groundhog’s Day. Was there a lesson in this? If so, why couldn’t she remember any of her previous experiences? She suspected, much to her horror, that this was pure accident, that the universe wasn’t so neat and orderly after all. That more than anything else scared her.

If this was immortality, she wanted to die.

Lucy’s mouth opened. The arm she’d withdrawn from Stacy’s shoulder returned. And that was when she felt it, a tug, an instant of hopeless disorientation as the universe stopped, tilted, began to spin in the opposite direction once more. In one infinitesimal moment she felt she was on the precipice of something, that she existed outside space and time, that she was nearly a god. Then memory drained from her head like water down a sink.

“Stacy,” said Lucy with a hand on her shoulder, “it was so good of you to come. Let me see if I can find Steve so he can say hello,” and she parted company with Stacy in search of her boyfriend.

Then there was a shocked cry, a mortified apology and the dull sound of a glass landing on the carpet. Stacy’s eyes went to the wet spot, and she could swear that just beyond that darkened halo of shag carpet there was some cosmic secret, a hidden trap that was about to spring.

Another tug, then a pull. The muscles in Stacy’s body froze, and a knowledge that wasn’t quite memory returned to her. It was happening again.

A moment in time, repeated.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Choices

Janelle stood before a network of interconnected roads, celestial paths across space and time that fanned out into the horizon and beyond, forking and dividing in an increasingly complex and unforeseeable set of possible futures. So many choices. It was dizzying, thinking of all the places she could go, all the things she could see. Some were good. Others were not.

She hesitated.

She’d spent her whole life preparing for this moment, had been taught by her tribe from birth that someday she would have to stand before the Great Road and walk toward her destiny.

They’d promised her a guide, someone who would travel beside her unseen and pick her up when she couldn’t go on by herself. But now, at the outset of her journey, she felt alone, and that made her afraid.

Faced with an infinite array of choices, how was she supposed pick the right ones? She could see one, perhaps two steps ahead, could calculate the probabilities and possible outcomes as she saw them, but beyond? Her journey might have promising beginnings, yet end in disaster only a few steps ahead. Every step forward, every fork in the road was another risk, and one way or the other, whether her travels were long or short, fortunate or unfortunate, no path continued forever. One day, at the end of her road, there would be a door, ready to take her to the other side. Not knowing where that door would be or where it would lead terrified her.

But she couldn’t stand here forever. Some had tried, had spent their entire lives paralyzed by indecision, too afraid to move on. But they had eventually been escorted away in shame, forced through their own door before their journey had even begun. Janelle had no desire to pass over her own journey.

The end, she realized, would come for her whether she was ready or not, so what was the point in stalling? She would have to go, hope she was headed in the right direction and trust that her unseen guide would catch her if she fell. Her tribe had said the first step would be the hardest, that once she got moving she wouldn’t want to stop. It was time to see if that was true.

She took a deep breath, her heart thumping in her chest like an overworked piston. She glanced down at her feet, swallowed a lump that had formed in the back of her throat. She lifted one foot, then the other.

There was a shift, an instant of double vision as the world changed, and then her surroundings resolved. She looked around, overcome by cosmic beauty such as she had never seen before. She was overcome with joy. Now she was hooked. The fear remained, but was superseded by a deeper desire, an inborn need to discover what else was out there. There was a whole road just for her. There would be joys and sorrows, conveniences and hardships, but in the end, it would all add up to one hell of an adventure.

Janelle found the next fork. Stepped. The world shifted.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Journey’s End


This piece of flash fiction appears in the September issue of The Wagon Magazine.

It was big. World-sized big. It towered over her, blocking her path. So, this was what her journey had come to. Centuries of trudging through desert and mountains, sea and jungle, space and time, only so that minutes from her journey’s end, a stone wall could block her path. It shot up into the sky and out of sight, extended to the left and right for as far as the eye could see.

She crumpled to the dusty ground, bowed her head and cried.

She could remember when she’d first set out, how young and beautiful she was, so full of ambition and drive. She cleaved to her mission with an almost childlike devotion. Then she aged. Her features weathered, until she was like many of the deserts she’d passed along the way. Youthful optimism yielded first to caution, then to exhaustion. In the end, only gritty persistence and determination saw her through so close to the other side.

She’d faced many obstacles, pushed through quite a few toils, trials and dangers. There were times when she was convinced she couldn’t go on, when she thought in long bouts of despair that she might as well lay down to die, letting her dry bleached bones adorn her incomplete path to serve as a warning to others who might dare follow in her footsteps. Then she reconsidered, thinking that perhaps she should encourage rather than frighten her fellow explorers. After all, more were setting out every day for the same reason she had, to be a part of something bigger, something transcendent and everlasting. So instead she let her struggle bear witness to the fact that anything was possible, that if you wanted something badly enough you could seize it by sheer will-power alone.

And that’s all this was, she realized, another obstacle, one more test before she could finally indulge in the fruit of her labor. She only had to be strong, to pick herself up from the ground one last time.

She rose. Beat the dust out of her shirt, pants and boots. Wiped away her tears. She stared at the rock face before her, until a grim smile pushed past her ancient features.

“Okay,” she said to the wall, “Let’s do this.”

She launched herself at it, pried, picked and climbed for as long as she could. But the hard granite surface was unyielding. It dug into her skin, scratching, tearing, bleeding.

Then, just when she’d offered all her strength, when she felt she had no blood left to shed, a harsh baritone rumble swallowed the world. The wall moved down, sucked into the Earth. She watched, mesmerized, until first the sky, then the mountains beyond became visible. An entire vista opened before her eyes, a glittering otherworldly refuge of gold, silver and crystal. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

When the last of the wall had disappeared beneath the ground, she stepped forward. She’d done it. She was on the other side.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Announcement Next Week

I have an announcement to make about my upcoming book, Rite of Passage. If you haven’t already done so, join the mailing list using the form below.

For those of you who already have, look for my email next Saturday 🙂

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Through the Flame

Anita threw more wood onto what was already a blazing fire. Glowing embers popped and cracked, leaping into the air like fireworks. That should be enough, she thought. She sat on the smooth white sand to watch the flames. So far, the beach was barren save for herself. But that wouldn’t be true for very long.

A few hundred yards ahead, where land met water, the ocean smacked into a pile of rocks, sending up a jet of misty white spray.

She was sure she’d been followed. She’d taken precautions, but the soldiers who pursued her were seasoned trackers, and she was certain they were at most a few hours behind.

Before her, bright orange flames reached for the sky like earthbound spirits, flickering in the confines of a crude stone ring. She stared at where the air shimmered from the heat, a flame-induced mirage, and concentrated. She could feel it, drawn to her through the fire like iron toward a magnet. The mirror world, which like her own would die without her help.

The mirage flickered. Dimmed. She pushed through the partition with her mind, picked at the boundary between worlds. She gave a relieved sigh when the dimness subsided, resolving into a beach very much like her own.

There, in the mirror world, was an identical fire, and beside it an alternate Anita, seated before the flames with her eyes closed.

Suddenly breathless and eager to be done, she reached into a small leather satchel, retrieving a faded parchment rolled and sealed with her family crest. She reached toward her alter ego, who had opened her eyes and was now simultaneously reaching out with her own. She pushed through the partition, feeling like her hand had been submerged in gel. They exchanged notes, pulled away, and just like that the bridge between their two worlds evaporated.

Just as Anita had come back to herself she heard horse’s hooves, pounding against the sand like distant thunder. It seemed her enemies were closer than she’d thought. No matter. The deed was done. She’d saved mirror-Anita’s world, and in so doing had saved her own.

She opened the scroll, read her alter ego’s note and smiled. Let them come. She would be ready.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Going Home

Jack stood facing the Pacific, dwarfed by the vastness of the ocean. He was nothing before that endless expanse of blue. The vastness of the ocean made him ponder the vastness of the cosmos, transcendental, eternal. A tailwind kicked up behind him, billowing his shirt and jacket. He hugged himself and shivered.

He wanted to go home. He’d been away for too long, had almost forgotten what his other life was like. He’d married. Had kids. Grown old. He looked down at his hands, gnarled with age.

A wave rolled in, frothing at the edge. It reached as far as it could, grazed the surface of Jack’s feet, then retreated, leaving behind a wet briny footprint.

His children were grown now and had families of their own. They hardly visited anymore. Would they miss him when he was gone? He supposed they might. He knew all too well that you never appreciated something until it was taken away.

No matter. They had all they needed to be self sufficient. For a season they would mourn, and then they would go on to enjoy long happy lives.

He peered at the sea with the rabid hunger of someone who hasn’t eaten for months. The water called to him, sang his name in its maddening siren song. The surf curled around his toes, tickling, teasing.

Jack had had enough of time. He would return to the sea, allow the water to take him, diffuse him, spread him around until he was as vast and as timeless as the water. Someday he would emerge and venture back onto dry land  he thought the world might be very different by then, just as it had been on his last return but he didn’t want to think about that now.

He stepped forward, pulled his head back in ecstasy as the ocean embraced him like a prodigal son, and disappeared beneath the surface.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Love Between the Lines

He begins to wake.

The dream warps, fades, falls away to the space between. On the periphery of his subconscious, just before the threshold of reality, is where he meets Diane.

He can feel himself slipping, feel the world around him breaking apart like dandelion puff in a breeze, and it’s in this moment that she caresses him against her breast. He cannot see her, and he dares not open his eyes for fear of shattering the fragile transitory state in which he enjoys her divine company.

He wills the encounter to last, wills the future to melt like the wax of a brightly burning candle to reveal a single ever-present moment. But sooner or later the bubble will pop, and he knows that when it does he’ll be left alone in the dark, awake, heartbroken, aching for the next time their two worlds intersect.

There is no lasting peace for him, no enduring joy. There is only Diane and their love between the lines.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

The Gift

This piece of flash fiction appears in the August issue of The Wagon Magazine.

The man sat on a long wooden bench, watching a little boy no older than two play in the grass. He saw him kick a soft blue ball and thought the sight should have made him smile. But he only felt despair, an aching emptiness that had hardened his heart long ago. He’d lived a long life, had expected so much and received so little. He had no spouse, no family, no friends. He’d spent the better part of his life drifting from one thing to the next, always in pursuit of something better, a dream only half glimpsed, always on the edge of the horizon and forever out of reach. Now his life was like his eyes, blurred and unfocused in his old age.

The boy chased after his soft blue ball. When he caught up to it he laughed, drew back his right leg and kicked. The ball rolled along the dewy grass, cut across the asphalt path and skittered to a stop just below the man’s worn brown shoes. He looked down at the boy, and he tried so very hard to smile. Instead he sighed, gave the ball a light kick and watched as the boy took off after it.

The boy picked up his ball. Returned to the man. Eyed him curiously and smiled.

The man said, “Hi,” tried to make his voice light and playful. He succeeded only in a tone that was dull and flat.

The boy frowned and waddled closer, cradling the ball in his arms. He peered into the man’s eyes, tilting his head slightly, and extended his arms outward, gesturing with his soft blue ball.

“Ball?” The boy dropped the toy into the man’s lap.

His eyes brimmed with unexpected tears. “For me?” he asked, pointing to himself with a finger that trembled only partially due to old joints.

The boy smiled in reply.

Such kindness. For what seemed the first time in a very long life, the man cracked a smile, thin and awkward as it was. The boy had given him a gift greater than anything he’d ever received. A tiny spark that had lain dormant in the man’s heart for many years ignited, and he let the awkward smile bloom into a broad grin.

The boy saw the change in the man’s face and giggled.

That was when he realized he too had a gift to give, a gift he’d almost forgotten, a gift he’d never expected to give himself.

The man said, “Come,” and the boy came.

“For your kindness, I give the oldest gift, the oldest and the greatest.”

He extended his right hand, laid it atop the boy’s head. A sudden gust of wind scattered strands of the boy’s light blond hair.

The man closed his eyes and turned his gaze inward. He peered into the boy’s heart, examined the boy’s future. He saw all that the boy was and all that he would become.

“You will hold this gift in your heart always. I pray that you treasure it and that you never let it die. Most of all, I pray that you’ll have the opportunity to share it with another.”

The boy frowned, comprehending nothing. No matter. Knowledge would come when the boy was ready. Knowing was its own gift, one that gave itself in its own time, one that could be accepted or rejected when the boy came of age.

The man muttered a string of words he’d once thought himself incapable of articulating, and for a brief moment the space between the boy’s head and the man’s hand seemed to glow, a brilliant gold that highlighted the boy’s blond hair. A moment later the light died and the man opened his eyes.

The man said, “Go.” He said it gently, smiled warmly.

The boy took his ball and ran, bobbing awkwardly as he kept the toy clutched against his tiny chest.

The man exhaled deeply, content. Finally, he’d given what he himself had received so many decades ago, a light he’d turned away from when he was a young man. He hoped the boy would pass it on. He was strong, and the man had seen great things in his future.

His life’s work, he now realized, was complete. He’d done what he came into the world to do, and now it was time to go home. His eyelids grew heavy and began to fall. His breathing slowed, and he fell into a permanent dreamless sleep.

He was free now, and he would never be unhappy again.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Embraced by the Light

“Next.”

Mark’s heart somersaults. He’s close now, only fourth in line. Soon he’ll be moving on.

Every now and then he steals nervous glances at the underground cavern surrounding the terminal. Inscribed on the rough stone walls are symbols whose meanings modern scholars still haven’t deciphered. Above, incandescent bulbs provide a dim illumination.

There’s a bright indigo burst as the portal gate slides open. He squints, looks on with a sinking feeling while the person at the head of the line steps forward. For a moment the glow intensifies. Then the gate closes and once more the only source of light is the bulbs overhead.

Nobody knows where the portals come from. They preexist history. Perhaps they were built by a race more powerful than their own. Perhaps they’re only a natural phenomenon. All they know for sure is that they form bridges to other worlds. They know this because off-world pilgrims come through every day in search of a new life.

But the portals only travel in one direction, and the trip is always one-way. It’s a blind jump. A chance to start over.

“Next.”

A middle aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair steps forward, a stony unreadable look etched into her face. The light swallows her whole.

Mark used to play it safe. There were too many uncertainties, he reasoned, too many unseen variables to warrant excessive risk. So all his life he took the road most traveled. He graduated from college with a degree in accounting, because there was always demand for accountants. He got a comfortable desk job. He married. Bought a house. Had two children. Planned for retirement. He did everything by the book.

Then his wife and two children burned to death in an arson fire.

“Next.”

A young man, hardly older than eighteen, steps forward. Light. Flash. Gone.

Mark planned for all the contingencies, and the universe compensated him with an absurd and senseless act of evil. He quit his job. Sold his house. Wandered the world in search of answers until his savings ran out.

Now, all that’s left for him is to press forward into the unknown.

“Next.”

Another man, this time well into his seventies. Another burst of indigo light and the man is gone.

Now Mark is at the front of the line. This is it, he thinks. He spent the last of his money to buy his ticket. Will life on the other side be better or worse?

“Next.”

The portal gate slips open. Mark steps forward and is embraced by the light.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.