Through the Flame

 

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Anita threw more wood onto what was already a blazing fire. Glowing embers popped and cracked, leaping into the air like fireworks. That should be enough, she thought. She sat on the smooth white sand to watch the flames. So far, the beach was barren save for herself. But that wouldn’t be the case for very long.

A few hundred yards ahead, where land met water, the ocean smacked into a pile of rocks, sending up a jet of misty white spray.

She was sure she’d been followed. She’d taken precautions, but the soldiers who pursued her were seasoned trackers, and she was certain they were at most a few hours behind.

Before her, bright orange flames reached for the sky like earthbound spirits, flickering in the confines of a crude stone ring. She stared at where the air shimmered from the heat, a flame-induced mirage, and concentrated. She could feel it, drawn to her through the fire like iron toward a magnet. The mirror world, which like her own would die without her help.

The mirage flickered. Dimmed. She pushed through the partition with her mind, picked at the boundary between worlds. She gave a relieved sigh when the dimness subsided, resolving into a beach very much like her own.

There, in the mirror world, was an identical fire, and beside it an alternate Anita, seated before the flames with her eyes closed.

Suddenly breathless and eager to be done, she reached into a small leather satchel, retrieving a faded parchment rolled and sealed with her family crest. She reached toward her alter ego, who had opened her eyes and was now simultaneously reaching out with her own hand. She pushed through the partition, feeling like her hand had been submerged in gel. They exchanged notes, pulled away, and just like that the bridge between their worlds evaporated.

Just as Anita came back to herself she heard horse’s hooves, pounding against the sand like distant thunder. It seemed her enemies were closer than she’d thought. No matter. The deed was done. She’d saved mirror-Anita’s world, and in so doing had saved her own.

She opened the scroll, read her alter ego’s note and smiled. Let them come. She would be ready.

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Going Home

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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 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 voice. 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 timeless as it was. 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 he disappeared beneath the surface.

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Love Between the Lines

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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 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 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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The Gift

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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 with 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.” He tried to make his voice light and playful. He succeeded only in a tone that was dull and flat.

The boy frowned and came 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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Embraced by the Light

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“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, watches 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 predate history. Perhaps they were built by a race more powerful than their own. Perhaps they’re only a natural phenomenon. All people 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 on 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 head of the line. This is it, he thinks. He’s spent the last of his money on his ticket. Will life on the other side be better, or worse?

“Next.”

The portal gate slides open. Mark steps forward and is embraced by the light.

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