Month: March 2017

Caleb

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I was ten the year Caleb disappeared.

We were sitting on his porch, sipping lemonade beneath a pallid morning sun. He was showing me his rock collection, teaching me about all the different kinds of minerals, how and when and why they were formed.

“The Earth has so many stories to tell,” he said with the wisdom of someone much older, and he gazed into a piece of smoky quartz as if it were the solution to some profound primordial puzzle.

He had a way of making the ordinary extraordinary. I didn’t know half as much as he did, but it was enough just to listen to him talk, to absorb even a fraction of his knowledge.

Then he got quiet, and when I asked what he was thinking he told me he had a secret.

“You have to promise not to tell anyone.”

“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”

He paused. “Dad and I are going away.”

“On a trip?”

Caleb shook his head.

“Where? For how long?”

“I don’t know. Forever, I guess.”

The words formed a fist that punched me in the stomach. I almost doubled over. My best friend was leaving. Tears welled at the corners of my eyes.

“Why do you have to go?”

“I don’t know. Dad just said the world’s changing, that it’s time to move on. He said we’re leaving today.”

I was shocked. I stared at the street, silent and still, until Caleb spoke again.

“Dad says you can come inside to say goodbye. But you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

Caleb opened the door.

I followed.

The inside of his house had always been off limits. In spite of my pain, I felt a distant thrill. I was doing something that until that day had been forbidden. I expected the interior to be different somehow, like the threshold between Earth and some alien world. But it was only an ordinary living room, with a TV, a lamp and a couch. Just like my own house.

“Hello, Daniel,” said Caleb’s dad, emerging from the hallway with a leather suitcase. He was wearing a black suit and tie, with a matching fedora on his head. “We didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.”

“Will you visit?” I asked in desperation.

Caleb glanced up at his dad, who smiled and said, “Maybe. If we can.” Then he looked down at my best friend and asked, “Are you ready?”

Eyes downcast, Caleb said he guessed he was.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “Maybe I can write.”

But Caleb only shrugged and took his dad’s hand. “Bye, Daniel. I’ll miss you.”

They began to fade.

At first, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I blinked, closed my eyes, expected it to be some trick of the light. But when I looked at Caleb again he was transparent, only a ghostly apparition in place of the boy he’d once been.

“What’s happening?” I thought maybe I was dreaming, that I’d wake up to the familiar relief of my blankets and pillows, secure in the knowledge that Caleb wasn’t leaving after all.

“Remember,” said Caleb’s dad, hardly more than a glimmer, “You have to keep this a secret. We’ll visit if we can.”

Then they were gone.

In the months that followed, they were the talk of the neighborhood. What had happened to them? Were they okay?

“Caleb was your best friend,” Mom asked me once. “Did he tell you anything?”

I shook my head. Caleb was my best friend and I promised to keep his secret.

The house is abandoned now. The paint has begun to peel and the yard is a jungle of overgrown weeds. I wander by from time to time, childhood memories passing through my head like phantoms, wondering if someday he’ll return. But deep down, I suspect he’s moved on, and I wonder if he would even recognize me if our paths ever crossed again.

Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s having an adventure. I only wish I could have joined him.

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End of Days

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I tried to stop them.

I failed.

An entire world reduced to ash. The memory haunts me still. I would pray for death, but I’m immortal and cannot die.

I saw them coming when the universe was only a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth. Once, they’d been my companions. But when I tired of death I turned my back on them. I was troubled that they’d followed me and knew someday I’d have to stop them. But they were still far, and as the cosmos matured, I was caught up in caring for it, in helping it to thrive.

I was most fond of Earth. The humans, though quick to anger and capable of great evil, were nevertheless a noble race. Quirky and extravagant, yet I fell for them just the same. If I could have, I would have forfeited eternal life in exchange for theirs.

Again, I saw them coming, those demons of ice and fire, the Old Gods I thought I’d shaken so long ago, and again I did nothing. They were still a long ways off, and there was still so much left for me to do here. Humanity was evolving, and I had to help them grow, had to steer them clear of the path that would otherwise lead to their self-destruction.

Millennia passed. The universe ripened. Humanity reached its apex. I couldn’t have been more proud. Then I heard their raging shouts echo across space and time, the war cries of the Old Gods, and I knew I would have to stand up to them at last.

They came brandishing weapons and armor, the lust for death and chaos burning in their eyes. I stepped between them and the universe and said, “You will not pass.”

They looked first to me, then from one to the other, sneering as if enjoying a private joke at my expense.

“What are you doing?” their leader asked. His voice rolled across the stars like distant thunder. “You were once one of us. Why would you stop us now?”

“I’ve cared for this world since it was an infant. Please, leave us in peace.”

Centuries passed as we gazed into each other’s eyes. Then their leader threw back his head and laughed.

“You are a coward,” he said. “It is well that you left us.”

They advanced.

“Stop!” I shouted. “I won’t let you pass!”

Teeth bared, I flung myself at them. But they were too strong and numerous, and I was easily overpowered. They tossed me aside like a piece of flotsam, and that was when I heard their leader shout, “Burn it all!”

Men, women and children wailed as the End of Days arrived, as Earth was transformed into a celestial funeral pyre. And my former companions didn’t stop there. They marched through the universe, tearing everything down. I shouted after them, begged them to spare what little was left. But by the time they’d gone nothing remained, only a barren wasteland and I, its single surviving inhabitant.

I hung my head and wept. They’d salted everything, so that nothing like humanity would spring up again.

My children. My purpose.

Gone.

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Balance

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“Got any change?”

The young couple before him averted their gaze and continued walking. Chris sighed, sat down beside his stolen shopping cart and watched traffic coast up and down Sepulveda Blvd.

He reached up to adjust the frayed, weather worn beanie on his head, and to wipe a slimy streak of brown sweat from his forehead. The day was hot, and boy, what Chris would have done for some air conditioning.

Ah, well. He deserved this. He couldn’t say why, since most of his life had been one misfortune after another, but somewhere in the back of his mind he believed he must have had his fair share of luck, that now all he was doing was paying it back.

Balance. A sorrow for every joy, a broken bone for every healthy year. It was as if the universe were run by an omniscient, omnipotent accountant with a cosmic ledger to balance before the day was out.

In fact, in a previous life, Chris had found a way to cheat that ledger, to enjoy a lifetime of good fortune without any of the corresponding bad. Or so he’d thought. Turned out, the accountant had been watching the whole time, and like a dutiful IRS agent, he’d ensured Chris would pay his debt with interest.

“Hey, Mister, got any change?”

A man in a dark flannel suit stopped, turned and crinkled his nose. “Get a job.” And then he moved on, leaving Chris to wallow in the heat of Los Angeles.

Oh, did he have to pay.

At the end of his original life, Chris had sat before the Great White-Robed Bureaucrat himself.

“It appears you have a negative balance,” and Chris had just sat there in the man’s office, gazing outside as other souls passed through the celestial gate and into the next life.

“There’s interest, of course,” the accountant continued, punching buttons on an antiquated calculator. “And penalties.” More buttons.

Chris watched a woman with gray hair pause on the threshold of two worlds, biting her lip. An angel stepped up beside her, nodded, and a moment later the woman turned and went through.

“That amounts to two and a half lives,” said the accountant behind his desk, double checking his work. “Of course,” he mused, “You really can’t have half a life, can you? We’ll just round that up to three and refund the difference when you reach the other side.” And then he nodded, satisfied. “Sign here.”

Chris signed and waited to be born again.

In his first makeup life, he was the child of an addict, grew up in a crack house, became an addict himself and spent the rest of his life rotting in prison. In his second, he was a refugee from the Middle East, denied a visa by every country that interviewed him. He died of malnutrition at age forty-five.

Absent the occasional dream or moment of déjà vu, he was never aware of his past lives. But every time he died, after his life had flashed before his eyes like an old-fashioned movie reel, there was that damned bureaucrat to remind him how much time he had left.

Now, Chris was on his third life, and unbeknownst to him, he would spend the rest of it believing his fortune was just on the other side of the horizon.

“Got any change?”

A woman looked down at him in her suit and tie, had pity and threw sixty-seven cents into the coffee tin beside him.

“God bless you, ma’am,” and he meant it.

He stared down at his day’s earnings, a total of $3.27, and allowed himself to smile. Soon enough, he thought, his luck would change.

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