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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An Unexpected Visitor

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Martha glanced at the clock on the wall. 8:00 p.m. She sighed, turned off the TV and prepared for bed.

While brushing her teeth, she gazed into the mirror, and not for the first time, she wondered what the hell had happened. In her mind, she was still a nineteen-year-old woman, yet she now had the achy, arthritis-ridden body of seventy-five. She could feel the weight of time pressing down on her, breathing down her neck, stalking her in every unseen shadow. She never failed to be surprised by how ephemeral life seemed in these vulnerable moments, like vapor that was solid to the eye, yet parted and evaporated to the touch.

She spat her toothpaste into the sink, rinsed out her mouth and turned off the light.

Ghosts of the past visited her as she tossed and turned through the night, visions of people and places that had either changed beyond recognition or were no more. The world seemed pliable in that place between dreams and the waking world, a land of impossible geometries and infinite possibilities.

It was in one of these not-quite-dreams that Martha received an unexpected visitor.

“You returned,” she said when she spotted him floating in the window sill.

“I promised, didn’t I?”

“I was fifteen when I last saw you. You promised to come back, but I gave up on you by the time I was thirty-five. Why did you take so long?”

The phantom reached out with insubstantial hands. “You were young. You needed experience that only age could provide.”

“Well, look at me,” she snorted. “You certainly got what you wanted.”

“But don’t you see? You are so much more lovely now.”

She said nothing.

“I have something for you. Open your hands.”

Martha had not seen this particular visitor in decades, yet she trusted him now and did as she was told.

“You saved us. An entire world exists today because once you loved. Now, that world belongs to you.”

Martha looked down at her gift and gasped. She held the universe in the palm of her hand.

“My final gift to you,” said the apparition, and then he smiled and disappeared.

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Training

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John hears a sound. Turns.

Click, click.

It’s coming. He wheels around and takes off through the tunnel. He can still hear it as it closes in. He doesn’t dare look back again. Looking back means slowing down, and slowing down means dying.

Click, click.

He hardly registers the fowl miasma that hangs over the dungeon, a putrid sulfuric rot, though it took him aback when he first entered the place.

When was that?

He tries to remember, but whenever he reaches back in time it’s like slamming into an iron curtain. All he knows is that he’s being pursued and he has to get away.

There are brief flashes in the dim surroundings like a strobe, flickers of a life before the dungeon. Colors and lights. Flowers and trees. A family. Kids. But none of these ever resolve into the fully-clothed specters of memory.

CLICK, CLICK.

It’s almost on top of him now. Perhaps thirty yards, maybe twenty. John’s heart jackhammers. He can feel a power blossoming inside, strangely familiar, a latent ability to do…something, an ability that only expresses itself when he’s in danger. That power is important. He knows it as a matter of instinct. There’s something he has to remember, something crucial. He has to—

Claws clamp down into his back, an impossible weight that sends him tumbling to the ground. The foul water that was at his feet splashes into his nostrils, so that he feels for a moment like he’s drowning.

Meanwhile, he can feel the creature on top of him, pushing, tearing, lacerating his upper back, shredding it to blood-soaked ribbons. John screams, the sound bouncing off the walls in an endless cascade of agony.

Every nerve has come alive, high tension wires that send thousands of volts coursing through his body. He can feel the power within, pulsing, waiting for him to take hold. Yet he does not know how, and with each feeble reach it fumbles away from his grasp, bounding off into the dark. And then the creature’s humid maw has opened wide above him, breathing its stink over the back of his neck. John screams again.

More pain. Then darkness.

* * *

John surges into consciousness, crying out as the final drops of world-shattering torment drain out of him.

When it’s over he stops. Rises. Looks around.

He now finds himself in a tiny stone chamber, surrounded by brightly burning candles. Beside him, eyes closed, kneels an old woman, her face obscured by harsh lines and shadows.

“Where am I?”

The woman answers without opening her eyes. “Give it a moment to come back.”

And as if her words were a command, the iron curtain in his head parts.

“Oh no,” he says, and he drops his head into his hands. “I failed again.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” says the old woman. “You still have a ways to go, it’s true, but you’re not a failure.”

“I still couldn’t do it. The power, I felt it inside of me, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it.”

“Perhaps not,” she agrees, “But you sensed it, and that’s a start. We’ve been through this exercise a thousand times before. Until today, you’d never even realized it was there. Something changed this iteration. You sensed it, waiting, and you knew you had to reach for it.  You’ve improved very much.”

“What use is it if I can only sense it?”

“You have to sense it before you can use it.”

John looks up, stares at the old woman beside him. She’s now opened her eyes. “I’m scared.”

“We all are,” she says. “These are dark times. But you’re learning. Sooner or later, you’ll master it. Sooner or later, you’ll reach for it without thinking, and that’s very important, because when the peril is real, when the Chancellor steals your memory in earnest and throws you into his pit to play his game, the power will be your only advantage.”

“I want to go again. Please,” he says, “Let me go again.”

“You need rest.”

“Just one more time.”

She stares into his eyes, and she must see something burning in their gaze, for when she speaks again she gives her reluctant assent.

“Just once more. Then off to bed.”

John nods, relieved. His contest is a month away. If he can survive, if he can beat the Chancellor’s game, perhaps the man will grant him an audience. It would be the first time the Chancellor has allowed it in fifteen hundred years. And then, well, anything is possible.

“Close your eyes,” says the old woman, not unkindly, and he does as he’s told.

Once more, a fog settles over his mind, and the neurons in his head realign. The iron curtain closes. And then he’s in the dungeon, running, trying to get away.

Click, click.

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