End of Days

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I tried to stop them.

I failed.

An entire world reduced to ash. The memory haunts me still. I would pray for death, but I’m immortal and cannot die.

I saw them coming when the universe was only a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth. Once, they’d been my companions. But when I tired of death I turned my back on them. I was troubled that they’d followed me and knew someday I’d have to stop them. But they were still far, and as the cosmos matured, I was caught up in caring for it, in helping it to thrive.

I was most fond of Earth. The humans, though quick to anger and capable of great evil, were nevertheless a noble race. Quirky and extravagant, yet I fell for them just the same. If I could have, I would have forfeited eternal life in exchange for theirs.

Again, I saw them coming, those demons of ice and fire, the Old Gods I thought I’d shaken so long ago, and again I did nothing. They were still a long ways off, and there was still so much left for me to do here. Humanity was evolving, and I had to help them grow, had to steer them clear of the path that would otherwise lead to their self-destruction.

Millennia passed. The universe ripened. Humanity reached its apex. I couldn’t have been more proud. Then I heard their raging shouts echo across space and time, the war cries of the Old Gods, and I knew I would have to stand up to them at last.

They came brandishing weapons and armor, the lust for death and chaos burning in their eyes. I stepped between them and the universe and said, “You will not pass.”

They looked first to me, then from one to the other, sneering as if enjoying a private joke at my expense.

“What are you doing?” their leader asked. His voice rolled across the stars like distant thunder. “You were once one of us. Why would you stop us now?”

“I’ve cared for this world since it was an infant. Please, leave us in peace.”

Centuries passed as we gazed into each other’s eyes. Then their leader threw back his head and laughed.

“You are a coward,” he said. “It is well that you left us.”

They advanced.

“Stop!” I shouted. “I won’t let you pass!”

Teeth bared, I flung myself at them. But they were too strong and numerous, and I was easily overpowered. They tossed me aside like a piece of flotsam, and that was when I heard their leader shout, “Burn it all!”

Men, women and children wailed as the End of Days arrived, as Earth was transformed into a celestial funeral pyre. And my former companions didn’t stop there. They marched through the universe, tearing everything down. I shouted after them, begged them to spare what little was left. But by the time they’d gone nothing remained, only a barren wasteland and I, its single surviving inhabitant.

I hung my head and wept. They’d salted everything, so that nothing like humanity would spring up again.

My children. My purpose.

Gone.

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Balance

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

A special shout out to my new patrons, Blake and Tina! If you want to read early drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write, as well as receive free copies of all my books in the digital format of your choice, become a patron by clicking here.

“Got any change?”

The young couple before him averted their gaze and continued walking. Chris sighed, sat down beside his stolen shopping cart and watched traffic coast up and down Sepulveda Blvd.

He reached up to adjust the frayed, weather worn beanie on his head, and to wipe a slimy streak of brown sweat from his forehead. The day was hot, and boy, what Chris would have done for some air conditioning.

Ah, well. He deserved this. He couldn’t say why, since most of his life had been one misfortune after another, but somewhere in the back of his mind he believed he must have had his fair share of luck, that now all he was doing was paying it back.

Balance. A sorrow for every joy, a broken bone for every healthy year. It was as if the universe were run by an omniscient, omnipotent accountant with a cosmic ledger to balance before the day was out.

In fact, in a previous life, Chris had found a way to cheat that ledger, to enjoy a lifetime of good fortune without any of the corresponding bad. Or so he’d thought. Turned out, the accountant had been watching the whole time, and like a dutiful IRS agent, he’d ensured Chris would pay his debt with interest.

“Hey, Mister, got any change?”

A man in a dark flannel suit stopped, turned and crinkled his nose. “Get a job.” And then he moved on, leaving Chris to wallow in the heat of Los Angeles.

Oh, did he have to pay.

At the end of his original life, Chris had sat before the Great White-Robed Bureaucrat himself.

“It appears you have a negative balance,” and Chris had just sat there in the man’s office, gazing outside as other souls passed through the celestial gate and into the next life.

“There’s interest, of course,” the accountant continued, punching buttons on an antiquated calculator. “And penalties.” More buttons.

Chris watched a woman with gray hair pause on the threshold of two worlds, biting her lip. An angel stepped up beside her, nodded, and a moment later the woman turned and went through.

“That amounts to two and a half lives,” said the accountant behind his desk, double checking his work. “Of course,” he mused, “You really can’t have half a life, can you? We’ll just round that up to three and refund the difference when you reach the other side.” And then he nodded, satisfied. “Sign here.”

Chris signed and waited to be born again.

In his first makeup life, he was the child of an addict, grew up in a crack house, became an addict himself and spent the rest of his life rotting in prison. In his second, he was a refugee from the Middle East, denied a visa by every country that interviewed him. He died of malnutrition at age forty-five.

Absent the occasional dream or moment of déjà vu, he was never aware of his past lives. But every time he died, after his life had flashed before his eyes like an old-fashioned movie reel, there was that damned bureaucrat to remind him how much time he had left.

Now, Chris was on his third life, and unbeknownst to him, he would spend the rest of it believing his fortune was just on the other side of the horizon.

“Got any change?”

A woman looked down at him in her suit and tie, had pity and threw sixty-seven cents into the coffee tin beside him.

“God bless you, ma’am,” and he meant it.

He stared down at his day’s earnings, a total of $3.27, and allowed himself to smile. Soon enough, he thought, his luck would change.

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An Unexpected Visitor

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Martha glanced at the clock on the wall. 8:00 p.m. She sighed, turned off the TV and prepared for bed.

While brushing her teeth, she gazed into the mirror, and not for the first time, she wondered what the hell had happened. In her mind, she was still a nineteen-year-old woman, yet she now had the achy, arthritis-ridden body of seventy-five. She could feel the weight of time pressing down on her, breathing down her neck, stalking her in every unseen shadow. She never failed to be surprised by how ephemeral life seemed in these vulnerable moments, like vapor that was solid to the eye, yet parted and evaporated to the touch.

She spat her toothpaste into the sink, rinsed out her mouth and turned off the light.

Ghosts of the past visited her as she tossed and turned through the night, visions of people and places that had either changed beyond recognition or were no more. The world seemed pliable in that place between dreams and the waking world, a land of impossible geometries and infinite possibilities.

It was in one of these not-quite-dreams that Martha received an unexpected visitor.

“You returned,” she said when she spotted him floating in the window sill.

“I promised, didn’t I?”

“I was fifteen when I last saw you. You promised to come back, but I gave up on you by the time I was thirty-five. Why did you take so long?”

The phantom reached out with insubstantial hands. “You were young. You needed experience that only age could provide.”

“Well, look at me,” she snorted. “You certainly got what you wanted.”

“But don’t you see? You are so much more lovely now.”

She said nothing.

“I have something for you. Open your hands.”

Martha had not seen this particular visitor in decades, yet she trusted him now and did as she was told.

“You saved us. An entire world exists today because once you loved. Now, that world belongs to you.”

Martha looked down at her gift and gasped. She held the universe in the palm of her hand.

“My final gift to you,” said the apparition, and then he smiled and disappeared.

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Training

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A special shout out to my new patrons, Christina, Vickie, John, Jessica, Amanda, Karen, Allen, Amanda, Cassie, Chad, Suzie, Janis, Thom and Sandra! If you want to read early drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write, as well as receive free copies of all my books in the digital format of your choice, become a patron by clicking here.

John hears a sound. Turns.

Click, click.

It’s coming. He wheels around and takes off through the tunnel. He can still hear it as it closes in. He doesn’t dare look back again. Looking back means slowing down, and slowing down means dying.

Click, click.

He hardly registers the fowl miasma that hangs over the dungeon, a putrid sulfuric rot, though it took him aback when he first entered the place.

When was that?

He tries to remember, but whenever he reaches back in time it’s like slamming into an iron curtain. All he knows is that he’s being pursued and he has to get away.

There are brief flashes in the dim surroundings like a strobe, flickers of a life before the dungeon. Colors and lights. Flowers and trees. A family. Kids. But none of these ever resolve into the fully-clothed specters of memory.

CLICK, CLICK.

It’s almost on top of him now. Perhaps thirty yards, maybe twenty. John’s heart jackhammers. He can feel a power blossoming inside, strangely familiar, a latent ability to do…something, an ability that only expresses itself when he’s in danger. That power is important. He knows it as a matter of instinct. There’s something he has to remember, something crucial. He has to—

Claws clamp down into his back, an impossible weight that sends him tumbling to the ground. The foul water that was at his feet splashes into his nostrils, so that he feels for a moment like he’s drowning.

Meanwhile, he can feel the creature on top of him, pushing, tearing, lacerating his upper back, shredding it to blood-soaked ribbons. John screams, the sound bouncing off the walls in an endless cascade of agony.

Every nerve has come alive, high tension wires that send thousands of volts coursing through his body. He can feel the power within, pulsing, waiting for him to take hold. Yet he does not know how, and with each feeble reach it fumbles away from his grasp, bounding off into the dark. And then the creature’s humid maw has opened wide above him, breathing its stink over the back of his neck. John screams again.

More pain. Then darkness.

* * *

John surges into consciousness, crying out as the final drops of world-shattering torment drain out of him.

When it’s over he stops. Rises. Looks around.

He now finds himself in a tiny stone chamber, surrounded by brightly burning candles. Beside him, eyes closed, kneels an old woman, her face obscured by harsh lines and shadows.

“Where am I?”

The woman answers without opening her eyes. “Give it a moment to come back.”

And as if her words were a command, the iron curtain in his head parts.

“Oh no,” he says, and he drops his head into his hands. “I failed again.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” says the old woman. “You still have a ways to go, it’s true, but you’re not a failure.”

“I still couldn’t do it. The power, I felt it inside of me, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it.”

“Perhaps not,” she agrees, “But you sensed it, and that’s a start. We’ve been through this exercise a thousand times before. Until today, you’d never even realized it was there. Something changed this iteration. You sensed it, waiting, and you knew you had to reach for it.  You’ve improved very much.”

“What use is it if I can only sense it?”

“You have to sense it before you can use it.”

John looks up, stares at the old woman beside him. She’s now opened her eyes. “I’m scared.”

“We all are,” she says. “These are dark times. But you’re learning. Sooner or later, you’ll master it. Sooner or later, you’ll reach for it without thinking, and that’s very important, because when the peril is real, when the Chancellor steals your memory in earnest and throws you into his pit to play his game, the power will be your only advantage.”

“I want to go again. Please,” he says, “Let me go again.”

“You need rest.”

“Just one more time.”

She stares into his eyes, and she must see something burning in their gaze, for when she speaks again she gives her reluctant assent.

“Just once more. Then off to bed.”

John nods, relieved. His contest is a month away. If he can survive, if he can beat the Chancellor’s game, perhaps the man will grant him an audience. It would be the first time the Chancellor has allowed it in fifteen hundred years. And then, well, anything is possible.

“Close your eyes,” says the old woman, not unkindly, and he does as he’s told.

Once more, a fog settles over his mind, and the neurons in his head realign. The iron curtain closes. And then he’s in the dungeon, running, trying to get away.

Click, click.

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I’ll send you Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology”

Last week, I made an offer to my mailing list and got a fantastic response. I now want to extend that same offer to my social media friends and to also give those who missed that first email another opportunity.

The idea is simple. If you pledge to my Patreon at the $2 level or above, I’ll send you a free hardcover copy of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. I had a great time reading it, and I think you will too.

If you change your mind after I’ve sent you the book, you’re free to cancel your pledge, no questions asked. I believe most people are kind and won’t take advantage.

Your pledge also entitles you to other perks. The $2 level gives you access to rough drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write. The $5 level lets you decide which of my flash fiction pieces I should turn into a longer story. Whatever you can give, it will help me immensely on my journey toward becoming a full-time writer.

There are only two rules.

1. You have to have an address in the United States to be eligible (I’m working on the legalities and logistics of offering a similar giveaway to residents of Canada and the UK.)

2. You must become a patron at or above the $2 level on or before Monday, February 27, 11:59 PM Pacific Standard Time.

That’s it. Once you become a patron, I’ll send you an email to request your shipping address, and once I get it, I’ll order the book through Amazon and send it to you as a gift. I may or may not do a similar giveaway in the future. This is an experiment. Let’s see how it goes 🙂

To become a patron and get your free hardcover copy of Norse Mythology, click the “Become a patron” button below.

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The Stone

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

A special shout out to my new patrons, Buffy, Melody, Sandy and Jenn! If you want to read early drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write, as well as receive free copies of all my books in the digital format of your choice, become a patron by clicking here.

“Psst, boy.”

Adrian glanced toward the alley, where an old man stood hunched against a brick wall.

“Boy,” he repeated. “Come here. I have something for you.”

Curious and heedless of potential danger, Adrian did as he was told. When he was close enough to get a good look at his soiled rags, and to smell that he hadn’t bathed in weeks, the man glanced sideways, as if nervous he was being watched.

“Take this.”

Adrian looked down at the man’s closed fist.

“A gift,” he said, shoving a smooth round object into Adrian’s left hand. A moment later, he darted off into the shadows.

Adrian examined his prize.

A stone.

Brow furrowed, he continued home and placed it atop a shelf. He didn’t think about it anymore that day.

Meanwhile, the stone waited.

That night, when Adrian returned to his room to sleep, he found the stone where he’d left it. He picked it up and carried it with him to bed. Beneath the moonlight spilling through the window, it seemed almost to glow. Suddenly, his imagination went wild, and he was certain this simple object could reveal the universe’s deepest secrets.

When exhaustion overtook him and he finally fell asleep, the stone was still clutched between his fingers.

He dreamed that night.

He was tumbling through the stars, falling, floating, jets like cosmic sparks shooting through space. Galaxies spiraled in the distance, galaxies of every shape and size, whirling, colliding, bursting in blinding coruscating flashes.

Adrian felt lost, but he was not afraid because he held the stone.

“The cosmos are yours now,” said the voice of the man he’d met in the alley. The universe shook with the force of his words. They were a binding, the oldest and most powerful kind.

And then he was opening his eyes, and all he could see or hear was the pale light of the moon and the chirping of crickets outside. He glanced at the ordinary-looking stone, still firmly grasped in his left hand. It felt warm.

Adrian smiled.

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The Music Within

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The music called to him, and Steve skipped work early to follow after it.

He rushed home, head down, walking back to his apartment. All the while that spectral, otherworldly tune twined through him, shooting feelers into his heart, penetrating the darkest corners of his soul. He bolted up the stairs, dug through his pockets for his key, opened the door and slipped inside.

The room was dark, with only a sliver of late-afternoon sun seeping through the shuttered window. But he didn’t turn on the light. Instead, he sat beside the coffee table where his violin lay, the polished surface catching the minuscule light from the window so that it seemed almost to glow.

He took the instrument into his hands, and the music within swirled, coalesced. He ran a finger along the smooth, wood-grain surface. An electric charge surged down his spine. The music was pounding at his skull now, demanding to have its way with him, and he was ready to oblige.

It was going to sweep him away, he thought, carry him to that other world once more, a world where music was the language of creation, a world under siege, a world that needed his help if it was going to survive. He was afraid, but the music had embraced him like a lover, and Steve was powerless to resist.

He held the bow above the strings. Paused. Sighed.

He began to play.

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The Tree

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The tree. It towered over Diane, thick muscular branches reaching high into the sky, gilded by late-afternoon light. She’d been walking through the park on her way home from work. She must have passed it a hundred times before, yet today it had stopped her.

She felt for a moment that it was calling to her, that it was trying to establish a connection. But that was a childish thought.

Grow up, Diane.

The words of her foster mother sprang to mind, and she began to pull away.

“Diane.”

She stopped, looked back. Had the tree just called her name?

Grow up, Diane. It’s just a tree. Trees don’t talk.

She turned away once more.

“Diane, come back.”

The voice wasn’t one of sound but of feeling, a silent mournful breeze that seemed to blow from someplace far away. Diane shook it off.

She was tired. She was on her way home from work after ten hours without lunch, and her imagination was getting the best of her. Once more, the words of her foster mother came to mind.

Grow up, Diane.

She peeled her eyes away, forced herself to move in the direction of her apartment.

“Diane, please.”

And the voice of the tree intensified. It penetrated her strongest defenses, reaching her heart, setting it on fire. In an instant that transcended time, visions of an alien cosmos flowed through her, a broad sweeping narrative, first of pain, loss and defeat, then of victory, triumph and love. The tree. It loved her, and it wanted to sweep her away.

Diane came back to herself, caught herself mid-stride. She was shocked to find that she’d been headed toward the massive trunk with arms outstretched. She felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her.

The voice in her head was gone now, but not the supernal mystery that lingered long after the strange encounter. It had set her off balance, sent her reeling headfirst into a universe she knew nothing about.

Diane stood a moment longer, unable to move. Then she stumbled back. She gazed up at the tree one last time, now just an ordinary tree, then turned and bolted the rest of the way home.

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Planter of Worlds

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Andi reaches into a faded leather pouch and produces a handful of seeds. She scatters them about the ground. Waters them. Moves on.

She waits for them to grow.

She is a Sower, a planter of worlds. She wanders the cosmos, the last of her kind, spreading her celestial seed. Wherever she goes, worlds spring up in her wake, quivering with wild, newborn magic.

Long ago, her people filled the fertile fields of the universe, sowing and nurturing celestial objects of every kind. Stars burst to life in the darkness of empty space and bore an abundance of planetary fruit. It was their greatest work, their crowning glory.

But when they were finished they moved on. The canvas had been filled, they said, and they were ready to plant bigger better gardens. But Andi couldn’t let it go. She saw that it was beautiful, but also imperfect, and she knew that with time she could make it better.

So Andi picked up her seed pouch and got to work, planting a world here, a star there. Each sowing brought the cosmos that much closer to perfection.

Andi knows her work will never be complete, that perfection is an eternal struggle, something to be aimed for but never reached. She understands something the rest of her kind did not, that a labor of love is never finished, that it must be tended to assiduously.

She hopes that one day they’ll return. Perhaps if they lay eyes upon her work, they’ll stay to help.

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Half-Life

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Fingers reaching, creeping, curling around my neck like choking vines. Draining my life. I struggle, try to pry it off my vulnerable skin. It taunts me, utters its low, susurrus laugh like dried leaves, like rattling snake’s skin, slithering across dry, desert sand.

I always manage to survive in spite of its debilitating grip, but only just. Mine is a sort of half-life, forever suspended between the dark and the light. And beneath me, the creature in the shadows, beckoning me to give up, to let go, to allow myself to fall into its insatiable jaws.

It knows I weaken, that I have not the strength to escape and fly toward the light. It does not age, but instead bides its time, for it knows I can only go on for so long before I falter.

How long can I live without rescue before my grip loosens? How long can I survive?

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