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.

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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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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This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.

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!

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.
This text is copyrighted by Jeff Coleman. All rights reserved. For reproduction rights, please contact the author (who happens to be a kind and eminently reasonable man.) Unless otherwise stated, images are copyrighted by various artists and licensed by Shutterstock.