London Bridge Is Falling Down

He boarded the train from Brighton Station at two forty-five clutching a black leather briefcase. The car was crowded, but he found a seat in the back and made his way toward it. He sat down beside an elderly woman, who glanced up and smiled. He returned the gesture, and idly wondered if she would be alive tomorrow.

An artificial female voice came over the loudspeaker, notifying the passengers that they were on the Southern service to London Bridge and that their next stop would be Preston Park. It would take an hour for him to reach the last station. He settled back into his seat, gazed outside and watched as the train pulled away from the platform with a dull electric hum.

He could remember when the trains had run on steam rather than electricity. They’d been much louder then, always hissing like angry spirits just before leaving the station. But that had been a long time ago.

He heard the voice of a child and turned. It was a boy of six or seven, telling his mother what he’d done in school. The woman beside him smiled listlessly in most of the right places. He wondered if she would have appreciated the moment more if she knew it could be their last.

Humans were curious creatures. They always took what they had for granted until it was taken away. They were like spoiled children, capricious and short sighted, and every so often they needed a catastrophe to wake them up and remind them of how fragile ordinary life truly was.

He and his companions had been working in the shadows since the Earth was a flaming ball of molten rock. Always they would wait for man to reach a certain level of sophistication, then tear civilization down and watch as they scattered like frightened ants, scrambling to rebuild.

Sometimes they directly intervened, sparking natural disasters like the one that cast Atlantis into the sea. More often they would simply plant seeds of discord during brittle moments in history and let humanity take its course. Such had been the case during the Fall of Rome, the Sacking of Constantinople, The Holocaust, even the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

He glanced down at the suitcase by his feet. If only the passengers in the car with him could see what it contained. The item inside would raze civilization to the ground, plunging the world into a second Dark Age.

When at last he reached the station, he caught himself humming the tune to London Bridge Is Falling Down. He smiled when he considered just how true that was going to be.

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Precious Stones

Ainsley plunged his hands into the icy water, scraped the ground beneath until they were filled with stones, and pulled them above the surface. He examined each one, cursed when he didn’t find what he was looking for, and chucked the entire load back into the water.

Behind him, the rocky shore rattled like a string of beads as the tide pulled out.

The beach here was composed wholly of stones, stones of all shapes, sizes and colors. Once, when the world was new, they’d all been a dazzling white, each saturated with the wild unformed magic of creation. But most had surrendered their magic eons ago, had used their nearly limitless power to manufacture the world. The majority today were worthless trinkets.

The majority, but not all.

Ainsley reeled in another handful. Examined it. Tossed it back and tried again.

There were a few albinos left, cosmic leftovers scattered like flecks of diamond in a desert of common sand. Those precious few were still filled with the raw power of creation, a magic orders of magnitude stronger than anything magicians could wield today.

The water was cold, and Ainsley shivered.

Once, he’d thought he could avoid the ocean, that he could restrict his search to the rocks he saw on the shore. After all, he’d reasoned, it was equally likely that he’d discover an albino on land as he would in the water. But further research in the dustier corners of the Archives had indicated this was not the case, that searching outside the sea would have been a waste of time. The type of object he sought was drawn to the water like a magnet was drawn to iron. So he continued to sift through the shallow ocean floor, cold and tired and alone.

A shuddering gasp as he mined the bottom again. More worthless rocks. They plopped back into the water with all the rest.

The beach where Ainsley had spent his life searching was a special place, hidden away in a forgotten corner of the world where few ventured and fewer returned. It had taken him ages to find it, and his search for even a single stone had consumed double that time.

Long ago, he’d been an influential magician himself, had fundamentally changed theory as well as its application with his own groundbreaking research. For a time, he’d even served as one of the Tower’s Council of Nine. But then his research had lead him down an unorthodox path, and before he knew what had happened he’d been exiled by his colleagues, who were convinced he’d made a mockery of their field. The day they sent him away, they called him a lunatic. But he knew better, and he would prove them wrong.

More rocks. Worthless. Dump. Repeat.

He was tired, had turned into a feeble old man while his back was turned, and from time to time he worried he’d die a failure, that his life’s work would be in vain. The years he’d traveled back and forth between the layers of the world to get to this place had taken their toll, and though he was only forty-seven, he looked and felt like a man of eighty.

He closed his eyes. Scooped up more rocks. Opened his eyes. Looked down. Gray and orange, red and black, but no white. He tossed them one by one, watched as they landed with tiny as well as not so tiny ripples.

Then he stopped. There, tucked beneath a larger stone in the palm of his hand, a tiny white pebble. His breath caught in his throat. He picked it up with his other hand, let the rest fall back into the water forgotten. Here, this was what he’d spent his life searching for.

In that single pebble was more energy than a thousand men could wield in a lifetime. The power to level mountains. The power to raise new ones. He could feel it, humming just beneath the physical surface like a high tension electrical wire.

A wicked smile bloomed on the man’s salt-parched lips as he considered his former colleagues. Wouldn’t they be surprised.

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The Man

This piece of flash fiction is an adaptation of a chapter that appears in a novel I’m writing.

George pressed into the late afternoon with his twin brother Bill at the forefront, a crippled knight mounted on his stainless steel steed. Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded futilely. His neighborhood in Anaheim was not particularly nice, nor was it all that safe, but he hadn’t had any problems in the six or seven years since they’d been living there.

Bill had been in a bad car accident when they were kids, and George had been taking care of him in one capacity or another ever since.

A low bass groan emanated from deep inside Bill’s throat, quiet and plaintive.

“I’m fine,” said George. “Just thinking.”

He wondered sometimes how he would continue to take care of his brother on his meager salary. Their inheritance had eased the burden some, but that source of income had almost run dry, and when it was gone George didn’t know what he’d do. He could have finished school, could have become an accountant like his father and made much more than he was making now. But he’d dropped out to help Mom care for Bill.

They rounded a corner and George spotted the man, standing by an empty bus stop. He wore a black fedora and suit jacket, and was smoking and peering up and down the sidewalk as if he’d lost something. George watched him. The man often did that, seemed to search for something just out of reach. It used to creep him out as a kid.

He’d started seeing him shortly after Bill’s accident. He and his brother would be out at the mall and he would catch the man sitting on a bench. Then they would be at the store and he would spot the man standing by the magazines. Sometimes he’d even spotted the man in their parents’s yard, ambling about along the grass as if lost. He thought it odd, seeing the same man in so many places. He’d asked Mom about him once, but when she started eyeing him askance and asking if he was pulling her leg, he decided to keep the matter to himself.

The man had become an inevitability, like death and taxes. Sometimes George wondered if he was crazy, if he was seeing someone no one else could see because no one was actually there. Once, he’d sat down next to the man and tried to start a conversation. But the man had just looked on, as if George didn’t exist.

Bill groaned again.

“Are you okay? Want me to take you home?”

More groaning, an ululating plea.

Then the man gazed in his direction and went rigid.

George’s veins turned to ice. The man had acknowledged him, something that had never happened before. And with the acknowledgment, the world around George seemed to lose definition, making the man stand out in harsh relief to his surroundings.

He closed his eyes.

“You’re not real,” he whispered under his breath. “Go away, you’re not real.”

When he opened his eyes the man was gone.

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His Domain

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

A gust of frigid night air blew past James as he wound through the park, making him shiver. Like a dream, only he knew he wasn’t asleep. The world was unnaturally quiet and still. There was only the wind, sighing like a mournful spirit.

Orange lamps lit the edges of an asphalt path, but the dim illumination only seemed to hint at all the things it refused to reveal. So many dark corners and hidden shadows. Anything could be out there, watching, waiting, hunting.

What was most distressing was that he couldn’t remember why he was there. Memory was a vague thing, a thin mist that parted and evaporated whenever he reached for it.

James’s eyes flitted from one shadow to the next. He licked his lips. They felt cold and dry. The wind was blowing harder now, trees swaying back and forth to a harsh rhythm. Leaves and branches played a haunting tune, a dry rasping sound.

James caught movement to his right. He whirled, strained hearing to the point of breaking. But there was nothing. More movement to his left, the slightest flicker just at the edge of vision. Again he whirled, and again there was nothing.

James ran. Lamps and trees streaked by in a blur until his side ached and his breath started to come in ragged irregular puffs. He had no idea where he was going, no idea what he was running from, only that he couldn’t stop, that stopping meant dying.

It seemed the trees and the asphalt went on forever. He could make out buildings on the horizon, a smattering of yellow-orange windows like distant stars, but running never seemed to carry him any closer.

James’s heart pounded faster, until it had become a high frequency beat that made him feel lightheaded. Eventually he stopped, and when he couldn’t catch his breath he fell to his knees, gulping for air. He wanted to keep running, but when he tried to scramble to his feet he only succeeded in falling to his hands and knees once more.

“Why do you run from me?”

James froze. He tried to discern the voice’s source, but it moaned and whistled with the wind so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“They all do, you know. They all believe they can escape. They think that if they only run fast enough, that if they only run long enough, they can get away, that they can cheat me out of what’s always been mine.”

The wind was now whipping at James’s hair and clothes in a violent gale.

A figure emerged from the shadows, not from a place of hiding amongst the shadows but from the shadows themselves. It loomed over him, donning the blackness like a cloak.

James wanted to scream, to summon anyone who might be close enough to help. But whatever sound he’d wanted to make had gotten caught in his throat. Finally, in a hoarse whisper, he croaked, “Who are you?”

“Yes,” the figure mused in that same elemental voice, “and they always ask me the same thing. Who am I? Why have I come? And you know, they all know the answer before they even ask. Deep down, they’ve always known the answer.”

The figure knelt before him, and as he leaned in with a face that was shrouded in darkness, the air grew colder. “Have you figured out who I am yet?”

James had lost most of his body’s warmth. He shuddered, hugged himself with shaking arms. “Death.”

“Yes.”

James’s vision blurred around the edges.

“You’ve come to take me,” said James, Death undulating before him. “Because I’m yours.”

“Yes, you are.”

The blackness enfolded him, blinded him.

A breeze grazed the surface of his left ear like a kiss. “Death is my domain.”

A flicker of consciousness, like a sputtering flame, and then James went to join Death in the dark.

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Thread

It was with her for as long as she could remember, a thin golden thread of light that tugged at her as if she were a hooked fish. She had no idea where it came from or where it lead. She only knew that it was always pulling, that with every passing year the tightness increased until the pain was too much to bear.

Nobody else could see it. Not her mother or father, not her relatives, not her friends. It got to be so bad that she spent most days alone, afraid others would think she was crazy.

On her eighteenth birthday, the pain blossomed into searing fire. Not knowing what else to do, she left home, left behind everyone and everything she’d ever known. She followed the pull of the thread out of Phoenix, out of Arizona, out of the US. Traveling helped; the thread slackened when she followed. She spent most of her life allowing it to drag her across the world, never knowing where or if it would end.

Now, after more than forty years of never staying in one place, she stands before a tiny redbrick house in Belgium and knows that she’s come home. She sees that the golden thread leads here, that inside the house there is an even brighter glow. This is where her journey ends.

She swallows, takes a deep breath, walks up and knocks on the door. There’s a brief moment where she wonders what she’ll do if it doesn’t open, and then it does. Gold floods her vision.

“Come in,” says a kindly voice. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

She enters. The door closes behind her.

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A Father’s Encouragement

“Come on, son. You can do it.”

“No, Daddy. I can’t. It’s too hard.” Conall pushed, slammed into the invisible wall with as much force as he could muster, and still he wasn’t able to break through. “Help me.”

“This is something you have to do yourself.”

“Help me!” Couldn’t Daddy see it was too hard? He was only seven. Traveling, pushing through the boundary between the worlds, was beyond him.

“You have to learn, son. You can’t stay in one world forever, and I won’t always be around to help you.”

“But I don’t want to. I’m not ready!”

“You are ready. I learned at your age, and so did your grandfather before me. It runs in the family. You can do it. You’re strong.”

Conall tried again, took hold of space and time, pushed and stretched them as far as they would go. For a moment the fabric of reality bent further than it had before, and he thought this time he might actually poke through. But it eventually pushed against him once more, casting him back into his exhausted body as it collapsed.

Conall’s face turned red. He’d tried a dozen times. Space and time were pliable, yes, but also firm and durable. He could stretch them, but only so far, nowhere near enough to form a tear. Tears spilled from his eyes, and he had to try very hard not to cry. He was a failure. He would be the only Doran in fifteen generations to settle on a single world, incapable of pushing the frontier any further. Daddy would be ashamed.

“Conall, you’re trying too hard. Don’t force it. The harder you push, the harder it pushes back. Remember what I taught you.”

“I can’t do it.”

“You can. The blood of your ancestors is in you. You have their strength.”

Conall took a deep breath, shut his eyes and reached out once more. He seized space and time, grasped them firmly inside his mind, and pushed. The universe met his show of force with one of its own.

Then Daddy’s words popped into his head. Don’t force it. But how could he get through to the other side if he didn’t push? This time he felt more closely, examined the weave of the universe in greater detail.

There, a loose thread. How had he missed it before? He pulled, and it slipped free with almost no effort. There was a frightening moment where he could feel the cosmos groan, where the fibers of reality unraveled, coming apart like a frayed tapestry. Then space and time righted themselves, became whole once more. And where he’d tugged one of those fibers loose there was now a hole, a soft spot where one world bled into the other.

“Daddy, I did it!”

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “You did. I’m proud of you.”

“Daddy, can we go through?”

“If you want to.” He swept Conall into his arms.

They stepped through together, father and son, and emerged in a new world.

This piece of flash fiction is dedicated to all the fathers who, like mine, have been an unwavering source of love and encouragement from Day One. Happy belated Father’s Day!

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Jeremy

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

Jeremy glanced down at his hands, hidden beneath the table on his lap. A moment later he closed his eyes. It was happening again.

Tiny beads of sweat popped out of his cheeks and forehead. He could feel the pressure mounding. He wouldn’t be able to hold it in much longer.

“Please,” he whispered. “Not again.”

He looked around the crowded downtown plaza and panicked.

He saw a familiar-looking man bite into a sandwich, and his mind did a jump shot to his old best friend Patrick, who’d disappeared when he was only ten. He turned and spotted a pair of brightly dressed women chatting around a table, and was instantly transported back to high school, to the girls he’d always wanted to talk to but had never had the courage to approach. They too had disappeared.

“Why is this happening?” Jeremy asked, grasping the table with trembling knuckle-white hands. He could feel the power welling up inside, knew that it would burst from him like a firework no matter what he did.

He looked down at his hands again. They’d begun to glow a faint swampy green.

“Not again,” he moaned. “Please, not again.”

He clamped down harder on the table. His grip was so tight he thought it might snap in two. Then he convulsed. His head whipped back, his stomach clenched and he was certain everything he’d eaten for a year would come back up again. He gasped and shuddered. Shrieked. Brightness filled his vision.

A moment later all was dark.

*    *    *

The first light to reach Jeremy’s eyes was cracked and broken. He lifted his head mechanically and sat up straight once more.

When his mind came back online he whirled. He searched his surroundings, already knowing what he would find but hoping this time would be different.

Jeremy was alone.

The tables were empty. There was no sign anyone had ever been there. Silence hovered over the plaza like a thick fog. Tears began to fall from Jeremy’s eyes. He raked a hand through lanky hair, gazed up at the sky and shouted.

“Why?”

It was the same thing that happened to Patrick and the girls from high school. They were there. Then his hands started to glow. There was light, then dark, and when he came to they were gone.

The glow was gone now, just as it had gone before. Now, all he could do was wonder how long it would be before it happened again.

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Tainted Eyes

They say you can see it first in the eyes, a blue tint in the whites like colored contacts. A day or two later the madness sets in. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from. If they’d had more time to study it, maybe they could have figured it out.

Now blue eyed monsters roam the streets at night, breaking the world, creatures that were once our fathers and our mothers, our sons and our daughters. Though human in appearance, they’re only hollow shells of their former selves, dark monuments of loss erected by an unknown disease. Not the zombies of pop culture, who prowl the remnants of a post-apocalyptic world, but something else. Something much worse.

Nobody knows how it spreads, only that more of us turn each day, that any one of us could become the monster we fear. If tomorrow you wake with tainted eyes, make your peace with God and pray we put an end to you before the madness does it for us.

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The Last Heir

Tien walked along a grassy plain, bathed in moonlight. In the distance stood a ruined castle, the final defiant cry of a long ago age. Once a fortified structure crafted by the greatest of rulers, it was now nothing more than a weathered collection of broken walls and battered gates.

Tien approached the drawbridge, face covered with mud and sweat, clothes torn, streaked and stained.  He gazed up at the massive structure, turned dreamily from one gate tower to the next, crumbled and broken.

A low rumble sounded from within and the massive wooden bridge tumbled to the ground. Tien made his way across, old rickety panels of ancient wood creaking beneath his feet.

He passed through the gate and emerged on the other side of a forgotten world, a wide open space that had once been occupied by laboring serfs and peasants. Now it stood empty and alone.

He continued past the inner ward, all the while clutching the handle of his sword, constructed according to an ancient craft that had died along with the castle. He passed the remains of what had once been the great hall, then finally stood before the keep.

Here all four turrets stood, untouched by the ages. It seemed not even time had breached the castle walls entirely. Tien slipped through the open doors. He marched in the dark across a faded red carpet, past moth-eaten banners and flags, and stopped when he reached the throne. There he knelt and closed his eyes.

A wind gusted, blowing through the room, and for a moment the banners of a forgotten kingdom flapped once more. Then the keep flooded with golden light, and when Tien looked up he saw the King, holding audience from the throne.

Tien’s eyes fell to the floor once more.  The King, gazing down at him with solemn understanding, removed his crown and placed it atop Tien’s head. A flacid smile grazed the old man’s lips.

Tien rose to his feet, spared a final regretful gaze for the world beyond. Then the room darkened, and once more the ruins stood in silence.

The castle had claimed its heir.

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A Web of Ink and Paper

Giles sits in a corner near the back, donning a dark fedora. He watches as a man enters the coffee shop and places an order for a grande Americano, waits for the man to hand over his money and receive his change, follows the man with his eyes as he makes his way to a seat near a distant window.

The man is not actually a man at all, but something else. Something dangerous.

Giles reaches into his pocket, produces a faded leather notebook and silver fountain pen and begins to write. He works carefully, starting with the courser superficial details and slowly working his way toward the more refined. They are special words. Words of power.

Giles does his best to capture the essence of the man, though even words such as these are only crude approximations. They reach inside and bind him, pair with flesh and bone and spirit, tearing him out of space and time like a coupon from the local newspaper.

It isn’t until he’s nearly finished that the man by the window notices, and by then he’s already fading like an overexposed negative. He bolts from his seat and stumbles backward, opens his mouth in shock, ambles toward Giles like a wounded soldier.

The patrons of the coffee shop have taken notice. Some scream. Others run. More than a few gawk stupidly, cell phones at the forefront. God, thinks Giles, these are the creatures he’s sworn to protect?

Before the man can take ten steps he’s already disappeared, torn from the fabric of reality and bound forever in a web of ink and paper.

Giles caps his pen, closes the leather notebook and strolls toward the door. He turns back once, tips his hat deferentially to a crowd that can’t see him. Then he’s out on the street, ready to tackle his next assignment.

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