As an aside, I realized after posting this video that I said the word “soon” a lot…
As an aside, I realized after posting this video that I said the word “soon” a lot…
Special thanks to Shaleen for giving me the idea to write about sleep paralysis.
Rob lay down and closed his eyes. It was time to sleep.
Darkness. Relaxation. A moment in eternity, suspended in the half-life of semi-consciousness. Then he was drifting away from the waking world.
He was a traveler, an empyreal wanderer who roamed the spaces not accessible to him during his waking hours. He didn’t know if there were others like him, didn’t know if his talent was common or rare, only that it was fundamental to his nature.
There was a doorway in the distance, a bridge between Earth and the infinite expanse beyond. Rob rushed toward it eagerly, trailed by the ephemeral white mist that connected him to the slumbering body back at his apartment. It opened as he approached, and he stopped for a moment on the threshold to marvel at the celestial canvas beyond, universes stacked on universes, a cosmos of limitless bounds.
He took it in, a deep breath of the freshest spiritual air, then burst through the doorway like a rocket. He soared across the stars, a soul unfettered by the shackles of solid form. He could be anybody, anything. He thought of a bird, and he was flapping his wings in an endless expanse of blue. He thought of an ocean, and he was feeling his immense world-sized body crash into the rocks. In a timeless instant that could have been a millisecond or a thousand years, he cycled through an uncountable array of creatures and structures both physical and abstract, visited an unknowable number of worlds both alien and familiar.
Then suddenly there was a presence. It bubbled up around him, cutting off his flight through the stars. It reached for him with oily tainted feelers. Rob recoiled. He’d never seen anything like it, had never been afraid in this place before today. He dashed back toward the doorway between the worlds.
It followed. He could feel it gaining on him. If he stayed, he thought it might sever the cord that connected him to Earth, that it would carry him away to someplace dark and cold.
Almost there. He was almost back on the other side. But just as he’d started to wake, that dark entity snatched him from behind. He could feel the mattress beneath his head, feel his lungs rise and fall as his body breathed, yet he couldn’t move his arms or legs, couldn’t open his eyes. The world was still black, with that dark presence trying to reel him in.
He tried to kick loose, but its grip wouldn’t budge. Meanwhile the heart back in his body started to race, the lungs drawing in shorter and shallower breaths. He lunged at his body, scrambled to reanimate muscles that had been frozen by the paralysis of sleep. But he was maddeningly out of reach. All the while that mysterious entity continued to pull, dragging him inch by inch.
Rob clawed, scratched, dug in tight with his heels. Finally its hold began to slip. He could feel himself slide closer to his body. Reach. He had to reach. Just a bit farther. He could almost move a finger. The entity yanked harder, but Rob gave it everything he had. Finally the muscles in his fingers twitched. He felt the doorway between the two worlds begin to close behind him. He was almost there. Almost—
The door slammed shut.
Rob bolted from the mattress in a pall of cold sweat, heart thundering in his chest. He scrambled to catch his breath. He’d made it, but barely. What was that thing? Was he safe now?
For the first time in his life, Rob was afraid to go back to sleep.
A shadow grazed the surface of the wall. Jackson whirled, momentarily dazzled by the piercing gold of nearby street lights. Nothing. Rivers of sweat flowed down the tiny crevices of age-worn skin, while his heart pounded out morse code. He was prey. That knowledge propelled him into the night.
A flashbulb of memory like a strobe: Mom and Dad, cradling him in their arms, the reflection of a past love so strong that tears began to mingle with the sweat. How he missed them. He’d been safe then. The world had been safe.
Another shadow, glimpsed from the corner of his right eye. Once more he whirled. Once more nothing. He knew he wouldn’t see it coming, that even if he’d been looking straight at it he’d have only seen a blur of color here, a lessening of light there. The Wanderers were amorphous. That was why it was chasing him, to steal his body. They were like supernatural hermit crabs, except they didn’t wait for the owner of the body to die before snatching it for themselves.
Jackson turned a corner, sprinted until he nearly slammed into a concrete wall. A dead-end alley. Fuck, he’d turned into a dead-end alley!
Nobody knew what the Wanderers were nor why they’d come, only that one day they’d invaded en masse, blanketing the world in darkness. Civilization hadn’t completely unraveled, at least not yet — humanity was strong; Jackson had faith it would endure — but like Jackson’s life, it was on the brink.
He clawed at the far wall, forced himself to turn, and there, standing before him, a vision of darkness only half glimpsed. Even in the night it was visible, an inkblot on the surface of the world that shifted before his eyes every time he tried to get a clear reading. He stumbled forward, bumped into another wall, stumbled forward again. Then he tripped over a concrete brick and went flying into the asphalt.
Pain, bright and flaring. Vertigo seized him and he felt like sicking up. It was upon him now, he could feel it. Not a physical weight but a heavy burden nonetheless, coiled like a snake, ready to strike.
On the precipice of death, he saw who he was reflected through the viewfinder of eternity. Then it lunged and the world went dark.
The Lady of The Stars found her when she was only an infant, an orphaned ball of molten rock hurtling through the cosmos. She adopted her. Nursed her. Nurtured her. She named her Earth. And in the eons that followed she thrived. Mountains sprang forth from her surface like newly germinated flowers. Water condensed, pooled, bulged into vast sprawling oceans.
And perhaps Earth’s most important accomplishment: life. First were born the amino acids. Then the single celled organisms. Then the plants and the animals. Each form was more complex than the last, and each was assembled under the expectant gaze of The Lady of The Stars. Soon the planet teemed with life. And finally, perhaps the Earth’s crowning achievement: humanity.
Humans. Her daughter’s children. The Lady swelled with pride. She loved them as her own, spoiled them with all they could ask for and more.
There was peace.
But The Lady had sisters, and they were jealous, for they were barren and could have no children of their own.
“I’m like you,” she protested when they confronted her. “Earth was not my own, yet I adopted her. Can you not scour the cosmos for your own adopted children?”
But they were too consumed by their hatred to hear her words. Instead they bound her, cast her outside the boundaries of space and time. Earth soon became distressed, torn by the competing interests of The Lady’s sisters. Humans mirrored their divisions and formed divisions of their own. There were wars. People died. Earth rumbled in pain.
The Lady, hearing her daughter’s distant cries, was overcome by grief. She broke the chains that bound her, and today she runs toward her child, toward her grandchildren.
But will she be too late?
This piece of flash fiction appears in the November issue of The Wagon Magazine.
Max looked down at his feet. Gazed back up at the desolate street. Watched as his breath plumed before him in the cold midnight air like dragon’s breath.
How had he gotten to this point? He took hold of who he was, and like a string he tried to follow it back through time. But that string was so tangled and twisted that he found he wasn’t able to follow it back very far.
His father had introduced him to this lifestyle when he was a child, but that was no excuse. He’d had plenty of opportunities to escape. So why hadn’t he run off when he’d had the chance?
A shadow caught his eye, and he turned in its direction just in time for the darkness before him to melt, morph, coalesce into the figure of another man. The figure dropped a cigarette to the ground, tamped it beneath the heel of a thick leather boot and tipped a broad fedora hat in Max’s direction.
“Evening,” said the man, and oddly Max was reminded of John Wayne. He reached out with a thick muscular hand. Max took it and shook.
“Evening,” echoed Max. Butterflies churned in his stomach. This was it. This was when it all went to Hell.
“The boss has another job for you,” said the man, reaching in his pocket for a second cigarette. “A gentleman by the name of Richardson. Say’s he’ll pay quite a sum if you can do this one right.” A stainless steel lighter sparked, ignited. The man lit up and took a long drag. “Sounds important.”
Max shifted his feet, shivered as the frigid air pressed in around him.
Richardson. Max wondered how he’d crossed the boss’s path, and he could only speculate on how terribly he’d fucked up to warrant the boss’s intervention.
Max would be asked to introduce himself, to befriend him, to gain his trust so that he could ultimately lure him to his demise. It was a skill he was good at, a skill that ran in his family, the ability to read minds, to get at the heart of a person’s needs and desires. That, along with a pinch of charisma, won them over every time.
No doubt Richardson would be dethroned. That was the boss’s term. It meant he would be stripped of everything but his life, imprisoned just outside the range of human perception, forced to look on from the shadows in despair as someone else stole his identity, his life, and enjoyed all the things that were rightfully his. He would be doomed to wander the Earth in exile forever.
Like a disinherited prince, the boss was wont to say, hence the term.
But Max wanted no part of it, not anymore. He’d ruined too many lives, had betrayed too many people’s trust, consigning them to a fate worse than death. He’d foolishly followed in his father’s footsteps, but he would follow no further.
“Actually,” said Max in a strangely quiet voice, “I wanted to talk to you about that.”
The man squinted. “Yes?”
“Well, I—” What was he doing? The boss would tear him apart. Perhaps he too would be dethroned. Well then, it would be a fitting punishment, atonement for his own crimes.
“Go on,” said the man.
“I mean, it’s just that— I thought maybe I’d go to school, try to make a different kind of life for myself.”
The man stared at him, boring a hole through Max’s skull. Then without warning he threw back his head and laughed, a hearty mirth that took Max aback.
“School? You’re a funny guy, Max. A very funny guy.”
“I’m serious. I—”
“Stop,” said the man, and just like that the laughter was gone. “You’ll want to stop joking, because sometimes,” said the man, backing Max into a brick wall, “jokes have consequences.”
Max swallowed. He’d prepared for this moment, had practiced what he would say in front of a mirror for hours. But now that he was here and actually saying it, the imagined bluster and bravado had evaporated.
“I can’t,” Max stammered. “Not anymore. It’s too much.”
“The boss gave you everything. And your father. And your grandfather.”
“I appreciate everything the bos—”
“Bullshit,” said the man, poking him hard in the chest, “I don’t think you do. The boss needs you, Max. Your family has a rare skill that he needs, and in return there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you. And now you’re going to deny him, why? Because it’s hard? Because it hurts? Because suddenly your conscience bothers you and you want to sleep better at night?”
“This is wrong,” said Max, slowly picking up steam. He’d already pushed too far; his fate had been sealed the moment he opened his mouth. “You know it is. I can’t undo what my family’s done, but I don’t have to be a part of it anymore.”
The man glared at him, goggling as if Max had just proclaimed with religious zeal that the Earth was flat. Finally, after a long silence: “So, that’s it then?”
“Yes,” said Max, and he shrugged. “I have to do the right thing.”
“All right.” The man released Max, and he slid down onto the sidewalk, his legs suddenly too weak to support his weight. “You’ll be hearing from the boss soon.” The man stepped back, melted once more into the shadows. “Real soon.”
Once again Max waited.
He sees the boy, pumping his legs as he soars through the air on a swing, and he almost smiles. How carefree and innocent the boy is, not yet aware of the world’s cruel designs. His own childhood is a distant thing, far removed from who and what he is today.
The boy releases the chains. He leans forward, and when the swing is at its apex, he slips from the seat. He hurtles through the air, lands on his hands and knees, and grins.
Play. It’s a concept he’s thought about a lot. In the small hours of the night, when he lays awake unable to sleep, he stares beyond the ceiling, pondering its manifold mysteries. The imagination of a child, he thinks, is a thing of boundless possibilities, a grasp toward the infinite, an exploration of a vast, unformed world filled with all the things that might yet be. It is an art, he thinks, a special kind of magic that he lost the moment he was Changed.
He brushes the thought aside. There will be time for reflection later. Right now he’s focused on the boy. He stares at him from behind a broad oak tree, shrouded in shadow.
Today, the boy will be his.
* * *
His name is Gol. He is not an ogre or a troll, a gnome, a fairy or a centaur. There are no stories written of his kind. To the best of his knowledge, he’s the only one of his kind. He was once human like the boy, but he is human no longer.
He is the latest incarnation of an ancient lineage, a succession stretching back beyond the foundation of the world. He cannot reproduce, but like humans he’s compelled to propagate, to continue the work of his ancestors. Though he’s lived for thousands of years, has witnessed the rise and fall of long-forgotten civilizations, in the end, like all living things, he too must die.
He’s spent a great deal of time pondering his origins. The memories of his ancestors are a part of him, but they’re so numerous and convoluted by the ravages of time that the secrets of the distant past remain shrouded in mystery. Someday, before the stars have burned up all their hydrogen, before the world is an icy ball of lifeless stone, before the universe is a tepid mass of eternal darkness, he hopes his progeny will solve that riddle, that perhaps they’ll even find a way home. But that will be a task for the boy and his descendants.
His own days are nearly at an end.
To read the rest of the story, click on one of the buttons below to purchase the e-book.
There is a book. It is written not in English or Spanish, Greek or Latin, Hebrew or Arabic, but in the wordless language of Creation. It is a series of divine utterances, a wellspring of stars, energy and life.
Once, it was passed from one keeper to the next, an unbroken succession rooted not in blood or prestige, but in honest merit. It was a cosmic secret to be guarded, and it was never to be opened. But thousands of years ago, the last keeper tried to violate this rule. He was slain, and the book went missing. Those who remembered it had children, grandchildren, then died. The book passed from memory to legend, and from legend it was forgotten.
Like an ocean swell, civilizations rose, civilizations fell. All the while the book hid beyond the shadows, watching, waiting for its next keeper, someone worthy of its secrets, someone who would at last be allowed to open its dusty weather-worn pages, for it so longed to be read.
Now, it sits upon a humble library shelf, and today it spies Garrett, a child of ten, who happens to be at the very same library. The book gazes down at him, peers into his soul, sees that he is worthy. It drops from the shelf into the boy’s backpack, and the boy, unknowing, carries it home with him. He does his homework. Watches TV. Eats dinner. Prepares for bed.
Meanwhile the book finds its way onto Garrett’s mattress, and there it waits beneath the covers.
After Garrett climbs into bed, after the winds of sleep have begun to carry him away to secret lands, the book nudges his shoulder.
Half asleep, he reaches out, taps the ancient leather spine with his fingers. He opens his eyes. Fully awake, he rises to a sitting position, reaches into the sheets and pulls the book out into the open. Where did this come from, he wonders. He opens it. A warm light shines on his face.
Garrett flips through empty weathered pages, and a universe springs to life.
A thick fog surrounded Gerald, billowing like smoke. The world beyond the Labyrinth lay bare before him, pale and insubstantial, faded like an old photograph. He’d navigated the Labyrinth’s perilous depths for centuries, a towering ancient structure of stone, iron, and magic. All the while he’d labored under the promise that someday, when he’d reached the end, he would be released.
Now he knew the truth.
He could see the world outside, only now it was a mute shadow of the place he’d known before he was captured. It would be forever out of reach.
His conquerors had said the Labyrinth was a Purgatory, that at the end he would find pardon and peace. But the Labyrinth was not a Purgatory, it was a Hell. It’s purpose was not to redeem him but to break him.
Head hung low, shoulders hunched in defeat, he turned back the way he’d come.
Amos sat before a plate of sizzling sisig. He gazed out the window of a tiny hole-in-the-wall resto, watched the erratic traffic patterns of the Philippines that were still so foreign to him even after all these years.
He sighed. It was a heavy dusty sigh. A sigh of resignation. A sigh of loss.
Forced into hiding by a life-long enemy, he’d fled all the way to the other side of the world. He was all that was left of his line; the rest of his family was dead. A decade ago, he’d spent what was left of his life’s savings on a plane ticket, entered the country on a tourist visa and hadn’t been able to afford an extension. Now he was an illegal alien. If he tried to leave the country for some place new, the BI would detain him, fine him and deport him back to the States, where his life would be endangered once more.
A shadow passed over his table, and he looked up. A figure stood in the entrance, a silhouette against a bloated late-afternoon sun. A man. Something about him ticked the periphery of Amos’s memory, but he couldn’t have said why. The man walked in, ordered the tapsilog and sat down at an empty table across from him.
Every now and then Amos caught him stealing furtive glances in his direction. It wasn’t unusual for foreigners in small towns to draw attention, so why did the man’s covert looks cause him so much anxiety?
As if replying to the unspoken question, a thought that was not his own hit him in the head like a dart.
The man looked up once, peered into Amos’s eyes, held his gaze. Amos caught sight of the tattoo on his right upper arm, a coiled snake with its mouth open, baring two sharp fangs. The insignia of his enemy’s inner circle. He was certain the man had meant for him to see it.
Amos’s pulse quickened.
So, he was found. Amos wasn’t surprised. In fact, he’d never truly expected to get away, only to buy himself some extra time. He had nowhere to go now, nowhere else to hide. His immigration status ensured that. It would be a showdown then. Would he be the last man standing? He didn’t know, but he had nothing left to lose. What kind of life had he managed to enjoy so far from home with none of his kith or kin, anyway?
Amos finished his sisig, pushed the hot metal plate aside and walked out into the humid afternoon heat.
It was time to prepare.
If you want to follow along with the text, you can find it here.