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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Picking Up the Pieces

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She lives at the crossroads of time and space. The rest of her kind left long ago, choosing to search for a new world instead of trying to repair the one they already had. But she couldn’t go with them. This was her homeland, the world that had given birth to her. She couldn’t let it die. Now she stands alone in a barren land, trying to pick up the pieces they left behind.

Trying to rebuild.

She dreams of how it was, focuses her power on reversing the decay. She grits her teeth as that power flows out of her, and she picks the constituent pieces of her reality off the ground like scattered rubble, molding them into something new.

It is slow, lonely work.

Her world was vast, and the universe will nearly be in its death throes by the time she’s finished. But she hopes that if she fixes it they’ll return. Without them, without her world as it once was, she knows she’ll never be whole.

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Death by Ice

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If John didn’t find shelter soon, he would die.

It was his thirty-seventh birthday. He’d always wanted to see snow, so he and a group of friends had rented a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains to celebrate. A huge snowstorm had swept the region the night before, leaving behind humongous drifts of crystal white.

“Let’s go hiking,” Alicia had said, and everyone thought it was a great idea. They donned extra layers of clothing and snow jackets, took their phones for group selfies and resolved to be back in time for dinner. Unfortunately, John had gotten separated from the group.

“I have to go back,” he’d said after only twenty minutes of walking. “I want to change into my snow boots.”

“You know the way?” Alex asked.

“Of course. A quarter mile there.” He pointed back behind them. If it weren’t for the fact that they’d teased him for his terrible sense of direction, he would’ve asked for company.

Now, John trudged through waist-deep snow and shivered. He’d lost the path a while ago, so that all that surrounded him were large gray rocks and towering pines. The cold had leeched through his jacket and snow pants, seeping into flesh and bone, and he could no longer feel his limbs. Was this how he would die? Would he exit this world only thirty-seven years after entering it, all because of a pair of shoes and a bruised ego?

I won’t die. That’s ridiculous.

He reached out to steady himself against a nearby tree and paused. How long had he been walking? Two hours? Three? He needed to rest.

No! screamed a half mad thought that bubbled out of a partially frozen mind.

Just a couple minutes. A couple minutes to rest his aching muscles, a couple minutes to calm his nerves. Then he could press on. In the back of his head, that manic voice continued screaming for him to go on. But he was no longer listening.

He dropped to his knees, rested his head against a nearby tree trunk. He reached back with numb hands to form a crude pillow, and he wondered vaguely why he couldn’t feel the bark.

Just a couple minutes.

John closed his eyes.

*    *    *

He woke to scratching. Eyelids fluttered, and for a moment he was dazzled by the golden light that filtered through the treetops. Then he felt it again, coarse and painful. He stumbled to his feet. His heart jumped into his throat.

John was surrounded by horned creatures twice as tall as himself, balanced on horse-like haunches and blood-soaked hooves. They reached out to him, scraping with scythe-like claws. He scrambled back. Bumped into a tree. Fell into the snow.

They closed in, began to rip skin and flesh. It was like having his heart carved out of his chest with an icicle. He cried out, coughing as his lungs hitched on the frozen air. He tried to pull away, but they’d pinned him against the tree so he couldn’t move.

Each slashing claw stole more of his warmth, until his teeth chattered like machine gun fire.

“G– g– go away,” he rattled.

Slash. Cut.

He tried to fend them off with useless hands.

Slash. Cut.

Black began to creep in from the corners of his vision. His arms and legs were dead, frozen weights.

Slash. Cut.

The image before his eyes constricted to a narrow white tunnel.

Slash. Cut.

Then light. Dazzling. And warmth. Suffusing. John marveled as feeling flowed back into his limbs. It was not the painful pins-and-needles sensation he’d expected, but a near instant restoration of feeling and motor control. The black that had conquered his vision dispersed. Now, he could see not only the world around him but more, a whole other realm that waited just beyond the threshold of space and time. There was love, and a presence that wanted to protect him. John called out to it, and it answered.

The horned creatures shrieked, shielding their eyes against the sudden burst of light. Hooting and snorting, they staggered away.

The light coalesced, assumed form and substance. It was the most beautiful thing John had ever seen. It had come to his rescue because it loved him, and he found that he loved it in return. He was no longer afraid to die, not if the light would take him with it.

John opened himself to its embrace. He felt a tug. A pull. His body fell away, left to freeze in the snow. John gazed down with disinterest.

The light swept him up and carried him home.

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Nightmare

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Sleep. It weighs her down, muddles her thoughts. She can’t let it drag her under. If she falls asleep now, she’ll die.

She can feel the creature salivating in the shadows, waiting for her to tumble into its toothy maw. It’s hungry and wants to feed.

Sleep. It sings of peace, promises solace and renewal even as it threatens obliteration. The world tilts as she turns her head. She can sense the creature in every corner, hiding just beyond the range of her perception, an ambassador from the underworld who will steal her life the moment she departs from the waking world.

But her eyes are heavy. So heavy. Like tiny iron curtains, closing over the final act of her life.

Consciousness gutters like a dying flame.

She can hear its voice.

You are mine.

Yes, she thinks, too drowsy to resist. I am yours. And she finds herself drifting toward the dark, drifting toward death, heedless of the annihilation that awaits.

Come to me.

She closes her eyes.

You are mine.

A cold embrace. Then darkness.

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