A Proposal, Part 2

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Part 3 will be posted on Wednesday, October 25.

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

A Proposal, Part 1

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

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

Best Friends

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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!

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

The Man With No Name

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

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

Branwin

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

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

Regret

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

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

Wish

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

“See you later, Shit Face,” said Steve, spitting on the ground.

Lucas, crouched on the sidewalk where the bully had pushed him down, glanced up and tried very hard not to cry. Steve signaled to his lackeys that it was time to go, and a couple minutes later Lucas scrambled to his feet, wiped the dust and dirt from his jeans and continued walking.

Steve had cornered him on his way home from school again. Lucas hated the condescending smile, the insults, the shoves and headlocks and kicks. The kid was a monster, and Lucas wished he were dead.

He passed the school yard, glancing cautiously over his shoulder in case Steve decided to come back, and brooded with his eyes lowered to the sidewalk.

That was how he noticed the match.

The dingy partially consumed matchbox lay open in the gutter, a single unused match peeking out from the packaging.

It’s a well known fact that there’s nothing so attractive to a nine year old boy as an unused match, and all thoughts of Steve and his lackeys vanished as he knelt to retrieve the forbidden object.

He glanced over his shoulder again, this time to make sure there were no grown-ups to see what he was doing. Then he picked it up and turned it over to examine the cover.

Fritz Gentleman’s Club, where all your dreams come true.

Lucas didn’t know what a gentleman’s club was, but he knew all about wishes. He tore the remaining match from its cardboard binding and held it up to the light.

“I wish I had more,” he sighed before striking. The tip erupted in a bright green flame.

Lucas goggled. He’d never seen fire like this before. The flame crept dangerously close to his fingers, and the sharp bite of instant heat made him drop the match.

“Ow!” he cried, pulling his fingers into his mouth.

He looked down again at the matchbook…and beheld ten unused matches.

“No way.”

The match had granted his wish. Lucas thought of Steve, and his mind ignited with possibilities.

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

Way Station

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Come. Sit. Warm yourself by my fire. It’s not every day someone makes it out this far. You must have many questions.

What’s that? You’ll have to come closer. My ears aren’t what they used to be. Yes, that’s what I thought you asked. You’re not going to make this easy on an old man, are you?

Very well, stop looking at me like that. I’ll tell you what you want to know. It was a long time ago, you understand, and I can’t be expected to remember everything. These were the old times, when the world was still new, still blazing with the wild, newborn magic of creation.

Yes, as a matter of fact I was there when the world was made, and I’m old enough to remember what came before it too. But we can talk about that later.

Now, where was I? The creation of the world. I was there when the Maker spoke the Word. There were many words that came after, of course, but this was the first. This was the prototype, the foundation on which everything else was built, the fount from which all other words derive their meanings and their power. It was the Word that gave birth to the world, the Word that nourished the world, the Word that even now sustains the world.

Well now, what else would the universe be made of? At the root of everything, at the heart of creation, there is only will made manifest. Quite simply, the world exists because the Maker wishes it, and a good thing for you and I, wouldn’t you agree?

You say your father told you a different story? I see. He said the universe started with a bang, that the world we know today was birthed not by the utterance of a divine Word but within the celestial light of a star. Well, he’s not wrong, you know.

I was there, I should know. As an Elder, I witnessed it all. The fireworks were rather spectacular. A shame you couldn’t have been there.

What do you mean, you demand the truth? You believe I’ve deceived you, that both stories can’t be true? That’s the trouble with you humans, you’re so quick to dismiss a mystery as paradox and contradiction.

Yes, it was the Word that created the world, just as it was the motion of matter and energy that produced the world. One was the cause, the other the method.

And I’ll tell you a secret. The world isn’t finished yet. That’s right. How can it be, when everything is in a constant state of change?

I’ll tell you another secret. You’re a part of it. The Word is within you, as it is within me, and by the simple act of living, by making decisions and effecting change, you become a not so insignificant part of the Maker’s work. The mark you leave on the world is indelible and everlasting.

You don’t understand? Well, I’ll tell you one more secret. Neither do I. What is life, after all, but one grand, cosmic mystery? If you didn’t leave the light of my fire with more questions than answers, I’d question your intelligence. But I knew you were special from the start. That’s why you made it this far, and now I’m here to teach you that life’s a journey, that my humble fire is but a way station, one among many.

No, please. Stay as long as you like.  Some move on quickly, but others linger, and there’s no shame in that. Take all the time you need to ask, ponder and learn. No two journeys are ever the same, and some require more deliberation than others.

Just be warned, there is no going back, no returning to the way things were. You should have learned that already, having made it this far, but I want to be certain you understand that time and change are a one-way trip.

One day, the Word will return to the Maker, and you and I and everything else will be swept away along with it. That is the ultimate destination, the point at which everyone’s journey converges. There can be no turning back, and you would do well to look forward and to keep your eyes fixed on the horizon.

Yes, it is a mystery, one of many, and unfortunately, there are no satisfying answers, at least on this side of time.

No, I think that’s enough for now. Rest. The stars along with my fire will keep you warm, and when you wake, I’ll be here to answer more of your questions.

That’s why I’m here, after all.

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

The Stranger

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

I slam my fists against the wall, and you stare at me until I turn my eyes. Then you look away and give me a wide birth, backing off to a safe distance. Desperate for help, I cry out to you, and that’s when you scurry around a corner and disappear from sight. I gaze at the sky and loose a hailstorm of curses.

All around me, glittering crystal towers reach for the heavens alongside metal trees with lights that hang over roads where self-propelled vehicles rocket toward foreign destinations. I’ve never seen such opulence, not in all the centuries of my royal upbringing.

Above me is a sign in a language I don’t understand. I try in vain to decipher the unfamiliar script.

GOVERNOR GEORGE DEUKMEJIAN COURTHOUSE.
SUPERIOR COURT OF CALIFORNIA.
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES.

I shake my head, as if doing so will dispel the alien environment like a bad dream.

Banished. The word echoes through the chaotic corridors of my mind. Banished for a crime I didn’t commit, stripped of my title, my citizenship, my world.

They broke into the palace while I slept and threw me into a moldering dungeon. From there I was brought before a tribunal, and despite my vehement denials I was convicted and sentenced to exile.

They dragged me toward a towering rockface etched with symbols only the priests could understand, flickering torches in iron sconces casting a dim illumination. The priests uttered a guttural chant, and light exploded from the wall, no longer smooth stone, but a passageway to someplace else.

In the presence of the assembly, I proclaimed my innocence one last time. They spit in my face, made obscene gestures and shoved me through. Fire consumed my body, rending skin and flesh, until I passed out.

I woke here, in front of this building where I’ve remained ever since, my robes turned dingy and threadbare, my hair turned tangled and feral.

I know what you thought when you saw me pounding the wall, crying out in words that would have sounded to you like inarticulate war cries. He’s crazy. Once, in my own world, I would have thought the same.

I stare at the wall again, seeing not the stone that stands before me but the world beyond. I may not be crazy yet, but I will be before long.

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

The World Fire

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Dappled light danced across Vivian’s face, a hypnotic electric blue. She’d traveled long and far to get here, to the ends of the Earth and back. So much pain. So much loss. Time had passed her by as she wandered the darker passages of the world, until everyone and everything she’d ever known was dead.

“The World Fire accepts your sacrifice,” said the priestess, sitting cross-legged opposite the brightest flames Vivian had ever seen, an azure blaze that sizzled and popped with raw, untamable energy. “Come and accept your gift.”

Vivian shambled forward, a painful lump bulging in her throat as she swallowed. She hadn’t eaten in three days and she was weak. When at last, after God knew how many centuries of wandering, she’d finally arrived at the underground temple’s gates, she’d expected the mysteries she sought to be laid before her feet. Instead, the priestesses had denied her entry, requiring her first to fast.

“Please,” she’d said, weary and starving. But they’d been adamant, and Vivian had been put up in a tiny monastic cell outside the temple proper with no source of light save for the dim flicker of an oil lamp, the flame blue, like all the fire down there.

“Do you know why we made you fast?” the priestess asked, face shrouded by a dark cloth.

Vivian shook her head. She was muzzy and and couldn’t think straight. She’d tried to meet the priestess’s eyes, but the fire kept drawing her attention, wild energies she’d lusted for her entire life.

“The World Fire demands sacrifice,” the woman said in a low voice. “Even after all you gave up in search of it, you were required to give up more, because only with your stomach and your heart empty can you partake of its secrets.”

Vivian licked her lips. There were many theories pertaining to what the fire was and what it could do, ranging from the plausible to the fantastical and everything in-between. She hadn’t known what to expect when she set out, then a young woman disillusioned with life, but she’d believed with almost religious zeal that the fire could satisfy her deepest curiosities, that in its furtive flickers she would glimpse nothing less than the mysteries of the cosmos.

“Come forward,” the priestess said again, and Vivian placed one stumbling foot after the next, the object of her endless quest burning before her like an indigo star.

There were those who said fire was an expression of the divine. There was Moses and the burning bush, the great “I AM;” there was Agni, the Hindu fire God, riding on the back of his goat with flaming hair flying in the wind; there was Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, wielding his mighty blacksmith’s hammer as he toiled in a supernatural inferno. Now, standing in the midst of this underground temple, Vivian believed all those stories were true.

The flames sang to her as they danced, casting harsh, abstract shadows along the walls, primal rhythmic chants promising salvation. Come, the fire crooned. Find the answers you seek.

A blinding flash erupted as Vivian stepped into the flames. They tore into her skin, which sizzled and crackled; they clawed at her eyes, which boiled and popped. Smoke choked her airways so she could no longer breathe. But none of that mattered, because here, on the precipice of death, the secrets of the universe were revealed to her at last.

“I see,” Vivian rasped through blackened lips.

The fire required sacrifice, the priestess had said, and how right she’d been. The fire had opened her eyes, giving her the knowledge she desired, but in return it had demanded her life. That was how the World Fire worked, how it claimed the fuel it needed to burn, the fuel it needed to power every revolution of the Earth around the sun.

Vivian’s body crumpled in immolation, and she offered her spirit to the fire and said no more.

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