Trapped Between Worlds

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This post was originally published through Patreon on March 20, 2018.

It was too much too fast. Another world strobed in and out of view, and Kevin clapped his hands over his ears and closed his eyes.

“Stop.”

For a moment, the flow of otherworldly sensations surged. Then slowly, reluctantly, they petered out, until after a span of minutes or hours—Kevin couldn’t say—light from the world outside greeted his pupils once again.

He let in a lungful of air. Let it out.

In.

Out.

The world, along with the park bench on which Kevin sat, came back into focus.

The sun, warm against his skin, provided some comfort. It made the Earth feel a little more tangible, a little more real. That was a rare feeling now, and he treasured it, held it close like a newborn child.

For the thousandth time, Kevin questioned his sanity. He’d once had a schizophrenic uncle who went off his medication, and he could remember the man sitting in a secluded corner of his grandmother’s house, laughing and whispering at people who weren’t there.

But wasn’t the definition of insanity the inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy? If Kevin was crazy, why did he feel the need to ask himself if he was sane?

A child shouted in the distance as if punctuating the thought, and he turned to see a little girl in the playground tear through the air on a swing.

Kevin remembered when he himself had been a child. Ages ago, it seemed now, a whole other life. The fantasies had taken him hostage then, too. But it hadn’t occurred to him until he was much older that something might be wrong.

Like a ghost, he’d slip back and forth between two worlds, an effortless transition that always seemed so innocent, so normal, so natural. Mom and Dad would send him outside to play, and he would hydroplane across the stars, sliding through an alternate reality that seemed custom built for him.

He was just using his imagination, he assumed, like every other boy and girl his age. Then he turned into a teenager, and things took a turn for the worst.

He would hang out at school, chatting with friends, or trying to talk to the pretty girl who sat across from him in Math, and all of a sudden the visions would return, as lucid and as real as his life at school. Then, when he finally came back to himself, he’d be wandering the halls like a zombie, or sitting on a toilet in one of the bathroom stalls, or even walking home, with no recollection of the intervening hours.

He never talked to anyone about his sudden lapses. For him, they were something to be ashamed of. He was afraid, and so, one by one, he withdrew from his family and his friends, while inside, he quietly went mad.

Incursions of that other world into his own increased, until it was happening all the time, until he could no longer tell up from down or left from right.

Now he was twenty-seven and still lived at home, with no prospects for college or work.

I’m lost, he thought. Lost in the space between two worlds. It was a terrible kind of half-life that he hated bitterly.

Light. It tugged at Kevin’s eyes once more. This light wasn’t from the sun but from someplace elsewhere, a luminescence that was different in both quality and intensity. Blue sky and clouds one moment gave way to star-studded black the next.

“No,” Kevin whispered. It was happening again. “Stop.”

But it didn’t stop. In the end, it never stopped.

The world flickered, and Kevin, whimpering, closed his eyes and waited to be taken again.

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Remembering

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This post was originally published through Patreon on March 27, 2018.

The sun beats down upon my neck, but I do not feel its warmth. The light is wan, sickly, and I hug myself against the cold. The Earth—or the Old World, as it has come to be called by my people—is a graveyard. Ancient rotten buildings line deserted streets like headstones.

And yet, this is where we all began, where we all sprang up from a soil that was once fertile and rich. We are descendants of a celestial seed sown by our forebearers when the Old World was little more than stardust, and we honor our old home with reverence.

Of course, we moved on long ago. We didn’t want to; the Old World had been good to us. But we had no choice. Earth had given all it could, and as the sun dimmed and the oceans cooled and the plants withered and died, we opened the Book of Creation, placed our hands upon its shriveled pages, and let its magic sweep us away to someplace new.

Our world is once more a place of blue skies and clouds, of brightness, fertility, and life. But each of us must return to the Old World at least once, not just to connect with our distant past, but to divine the secrets of our far-off future.

I take one last look at the lifeless sky and shake my head. Nothing left to see here, only monuments by and for the dead. I open the Book of Creation. A warm light envelops me, and after I whisper the sacred words of our ancestors, the Old World once more gives way to the new.

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The Bell

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This post was originally published through Patreon on February 13, 2018.

A bell rings behind me, and I turn. But no one’s there, and a moment later I continue on, boots clip-clopping against the paving stones of an abandoned street, their cyclic echo like a cannonade in the darkness of the night.

The bell rings again. The sound stirs uncomfortable memories, and I whirl, desperate to catch whoever rang it by surprise. But again, I see only a dark and empty street.

Faster. I must walk faster. The continuous rhythm of boots-against-stone rises in tempo to match the accelerating beat of my anxiety-ridden heart.

The bell rings yet again. Like a grenade, it bursts inside my head. The sound is so close now, I can almost feel cold metal pressing against my cheek. Those dark memories swirl, like dust kicked up by a storm, and I begin to remember what I tried so hard to forget.

I hoped I’d escaped, but now, too late, I realize the truth: They were always watching. I can feel them breathing down my neck, their wet, noxious stink rolling over me like poison gas.

The air grows still, pregnant with anticipation.

When the bell rings again, the force and volume drag me down into a restless sleep. But before I lose consciousness, I feel them place something around my neck.

My own bell—polished silver—flashing in the moonlight.

Then I close my eyes and return to my eternal unrest, knowing I am theirs once more.

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Firefighter

Selin Serhii/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on February 20, 2018.

The fire was so much worse up close.

Eric had seen it on the evening news every night since he was ten. He’d watched it gain a foothold, watched it advance, watched it spread like a contagion through most of the world, until Earth’s entire population, as far as anyone knew, consisted solely of those lucky enough to have lived in or retreated to a tenacious cluster of neighborhoods in Fort Worth, Texas.

Nobody knew where or when the fire had started. Perhaps someone had left a faulty device plugged in at home while on vacation, or perhaps someone had cast a still-smoldering cigarette onto a clump of dry and flammable weeds. All anyone knew for certain was that the fire was impossible to put out. Every time they fought it with water and flame retardants, the wind would blow it in a different direction, or the heat would burn so strongly that the firefighters had no choice but to pull back and retreat.

Like it was alive, Eric had come to believe. Like it had a mind of its own. And now, standing before the dwindling Fort Worth perimeter inside the small scrap of civilization that hadn’t yet been consumed by the fire, he thought that assessment was accurate.

Burning columns of flame rose high into a rusty, soot-filled sky as if taunting the survivors. Come get me if you can, the fire seemed to shout, and all the while it pushed against their failing defenses, promising to eliminate the final remnant of humanity.

But Texas wasn’t built that way, and neither was Eric. He believed it was better to die defending one’s homeland than it was to cower in defeat, and though the end was nigh—though everything he’d ever known stood at the utter brink of annihilation—neither he nor his fellow firefighters were going out without a fight.

So Eric donned his helmet, suit, and hose. He took a deep breath through his fogged respirator, then angled his head toward the sky to offer up a final prayer.

Then he charged headfirst into the flames.

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Red

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This post was originally published through Patreon on Janurary 17, 2018.

Red. The color floods Amanda’s vision, a blinding solar flare in the dark, and she lifts a hand to shield her eyes as a familiar creature advances. She was seven the last time she saw him. The same blinding glow had preceded him, and at the time, she’d cried.

“Go away,” she shouted, pulling the covers over her head like a shawl. “You’re not real.” She spent the next twenty years believing she was right.

But she is not afraid when he approaches her again, nor when he inclines his head and offers her a shriveled hand by way of greeting, nor when he examines the birthmark on her wrist, a dark patch of mottled, mossy black.

“You are destined for great things,” he told her long ago. “Dangerous things, perhaps, but great.”

What he meant he never explained, nor did she have the courage to ask. Now, she thinks she’ll find out.

“You came back to me.” Her eyes have begun to adjust to the light, and she lets her hand fall limp at her side. “I didn’t think you were real, but you came back to me.”

A slow, sad smile spreads across parched lips. “I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. I wanted you to enjoy your human life for a while longer. But our world needs you now, and I can’t keep my kind waiting anymore.”

She nods. On some level, hasn’t she expected this? On the surface, perhaps, it was easy to dismiss his existence as fantasy. But in her heart? The truth is, she’s always known she was meant for something more.

She clasps his hand in her own, her ruby tears glistening in the crimson light, and says that she is ready.

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What Goes Around

Selin Serhii/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on Janurary 31, 2018.

The wind has become a billowing gust, a mounting power that taunts me as I stroll through my private gardens. I do not reply but continue on, while inwardly I consider the old adage that humans have always been so fond of: What goes around comes around.

An ancient enemy is the wind, from a time when the Earth was only slag, when the stars were nascent blossoms of fire streaking across an infant sky. “I claim the cosmos for myself,” I said, though the wind was its sovereign master. A battle ensued, not of good versus evil, nor even of ideal versus ideal, but might against might, a contest for supremacy and the right to rule all.

I bested her in the end. Worthy adversary though she was, my strength overtook her, and she was cast into the darkness on the outside.

But now that I grow old, now that my strength diminishes, I can feel her breath on my back once more. “Soon,” she whispers. “Soon, I’ll rise again and take what’s rightfully mine.” And I know, loath as I am to admit it, that I won’t be able to stop her.

What shape will the universe take when she breaks free? I cannot bear to imagine. The cosmos is mine, I think, though I never had a right to it. I shake with quiet, indignant rage, and I take comfort only in knowing I won’t be around when her time to rule comes again.

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Outsider

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This post was originally published through Patreon on September 27, 2017.

I hear the cadence of their voices, the rise and fall in pitch as their mouths open to form words, followed by sentences. I attempt to reproduce their style, but it is only an affectation, a counterfeit exchange. My true self is beyond expression. Bound by a centuries-old rite, it is out of reach even to myself.

I have spent the past twelve hundred years in exile. During my unnaturally prolonged life, I’ve had a front row seat to the violent mood swings of history. I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of nations, conversed in foreign tongues with people of every color, nationality, and creed. But in the end, I am and will forever remain the outsider.

It is my punishment for a crime I’m not allowed to remember. I am dead to myself, dead to the world. Yet I wander the Earth still, little more than an animated corpse.

The guards told me that the key to unlock myself lies within, and I search the tattered remnants of my soul for it each and every day. But perhaps they lied. Perhaps they only told me this to torment me, to set me on a quest that has no end. Sometimes, I wonder if they watch me still, if they laugh from the shadows at my foolish attempt to reclaim my lost humanity.

Either way, I’ll never stop searching. My determination is an indelible part of my nature—the only part they couldn’t take away—and I choose to believe that it will someday set me free.

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Surrender

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This post was originally published through Patreon on May 31, 2017.

“You found me.”

“You weren’t hard to find.”

Arcturial nodded. He hadn’t wanted to be caught exactly, but neither had he tried very hard to evade his captor.

“What happens next?” He looked toward the shadowy figure in the doorway.

The figure emerged into the soft, mystical glow of moonlight, resolving into a man of indeterminate features, skin tight and pallid, as if he donned a mask rather than a face.

“You come back with me,” the man said, “and we return together to the Council.”

Arcturial nodded again.

“Just as well. I’m tired. I don’t want to run anymore.”

“Five hundred years is a long time to be away from your kind.”

“It is.”

The man fell in beside him, and together they walked, boots clip-clopping through the darkened street. Arcturial flipped his gaze upward, finding the moon, white and luminescent. He drank in its otherworldly glow. He’d walked through hundreds of worlds, had existed long before the births of most, and still the vision was unlike anything else he’d seen before. He committed a snapshot to memory, for this would be the last time he saw it with his eyes.

“There will be punishment,” said the man.

“I understand.”

The echo of footfalls. Buildings rising before them, falling behind them.

“What was it like?”

Caught off-guard by the question, Arcturial stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“To live as a human. To feel, laugh, cry. What was it like?”

This was not a question he’d expected.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because,” said the man, features set in a perpetually emotionless state, “there are those of us who envy what you’ve taken, even if we will never partake of it ourselves.”

“I see.”

Now, it was the other man’s turn to nod.

How to sum up centuries of life in a human body that could never grow old or die? How to explain the desire and the need to feign mortality, to spend so many long years in the shadows, always on the outside looking in, knowing all you could ever do was pretend?

Arcturial thought before he spoke.

“Lonely.”

“Ah,” said the man.

Arcturial continued walking, and the man once more took up station beside him.

“I think we’ve gone far enough,” said Arcturial. “We should be hidden from any mortals who might have seen us in the alley.”

“Yes,” the man agreed, “I think it’s time to be on our way.”

The two turned a corner, taking a detour that was neither north nor south, neither east nor west. The blackness of night enveloped them like a cloak, and the physical world melted away.

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Up

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This post was originally published through Patreon on March 29, 2017.

Darkness surrounds me. I see only a silver flight of stairs that ascends into endless black. Only one thing is clear: there’s nowhere to go but up.

I begin to climb.

Each step is illuminated, and I look around and try to find the source of the light. But it’s a mystery. Just like this place. Just like myself.

It seems that hours pass before I finally stop to catch my breath, and when I do, I glance back to discover an infinite expanse of metallic steps, sinking down into the blackness below. Meanwhile, the air up here is warm and humid. I reach to wipe sweat from my brow, and that’s when I hear them for the first time. Voices, whispering beyond the void.

Cautious, I continue to climb.

One voice in particular distinguishes itself from the rest. A woman. The sound is warm, inviting.

“Life,” I hear her say, and then broken shards of memory invade me, flashing before my eyes. They are remnants of a time outside the darkness, and for a moment, I almost remember who I am.

I’m afraid, but the comforting voice urges me to continue.

The humidity has become a pressure cooking heat. Sweat pours from my face and neck like a river.

“Life,” she repeats. The word terrifies me even as it gives me strength, and I find myself scrambling up the steps two, even three at a time.

“Life. Life. Life.” The other voices have joined with the first, merging into a single-minded chant, an otherworldly chorus that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.

A beam shines above me now, not far from where I stand. The heat has become unbearable, yet I know I must press forward. All the while, the voices cheer me on.

My skin feels like it’s catching fire, and I can no longer breathe. I wobble, teeter, and for a moment I fear I’ll fall, that I’ll tumble down and down, all the way to the distant and forgotten bottom.

That’s when I see her, a woman clothed in white, iridescent robes, descending from the light like an angel.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says, taking my hand. “I’ll help you.”

Power surges through me at her touch. I’m in agony, yet I find I now have the strength to go on. Face covered in sweat, I climb the last step, reach out, and push through.

A solar flare: coruscating, blinding. The impurities of my old life burn away, until I am a part of the fire.

It no longer hurts. Instead, love and life surround me, welcoming me home. A column of white robed figures chant my name. My encouragers. They smile, and I greet each as an old friend.

“Well done,” says the woman who helped me through. Transfigured, she has become more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined.

My old life is over, and my new life has just begun.

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A Spell Gone Wrong

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This post was originally published through Patreon on February 28, 2017.

I hunker on the bare stone floor, shrouded in darkness, and scream. The room is silent, ghostly. I can see a sliver of moonlight leak through the bottom of the caged window like the tip of a dragon’s fingernail, but it’s swallowed at once by a palpable black void.

My home, it seems even the entire world, is gone, undone by my careless words.

My master was there when I uttered the phrase that brought about this ruin. He was smiling, encouraging me to continue, and I was eager to please. Then I opened my mouth, and he must have spied the latent syllables on my lips, for I glimpsed the sudden twist of his own, perhaps a warning in the making, just before I let loose a hailstorm of destruction.

Avenhalom.

The mystical word rolled off my tongue so easily. It tasted sweet, like honeyed milk. But as soon as the last syllable escaped my lips, I knew something had gone wrong. The sweetness turned bitter like ash, then acrid like charred flesh. I felt the air around me part like the Red Sea, and I became dizzy and lightheaded.

Stunned, I crumpled to the ground, assailed by a deafening, high-pitched whine. Then the world burst in a violent explosion that tore through my entire chest. I slipped inside myself, and the world turned black.

I woke on the dusty floor of an alien world that only vaguely resembled the home I’d once known. Everything had been consumed by darkness, made empty in a way I can’t describe. My master was gone, and with stomach-twisting certainty, I knew that I would see him no more.

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