Everlasting Life

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Death hung above Karen’s head like a dark shadow, ready to quicken, ready to smother her and snuff out her life. She remembered being put to sleep in the hospital for surgery a few weeks back. It felt like that now, no pain, only a bone deep weariness. The sole difference was that this time, when she fell asleep, there would be no waking.

She tried to summon every scrap of her remaining strength, as if combined, these fragments might somehow compose a spark that could jump start her failing body. But there was no fuel left for her body to burn, only the ashes of so many spent years, ready to be cast to the wind and forgotten.

Don’t let me die!

The words ran over and over again through her mind, a mad litany rattled off to an unknown god.

She could no longer open her eyes, and the darkness behind them was beginning to merge with a deeper darkness, one that whispered of oblivion.

“Karen.”

Startled, she wanted to ask who’d spoken—she thought she’d been alone—but she couldn’t open her mouth to speak.

“Karen,” said that voice again, cool, sterile, like windswept leaves.

Was she hallucinating? She’d read once that people on their deathbeds imagined all sorts of things, one last supernova of the senses before the brain shut down for good.

“I’m real, Karen.”

Yes, she believed it, though she had no particular reason to.

“Let me help you, Karen. Let me give you back your life.”

How can you do that when I’m so close to death, she wanted to ask.

“I can do all things,” said the voice as if it had read her mind. “All you have to do is ask.”

A convulsive chill surged through her spine like a high voltage current.

I want to live, she thought. No matter the cost, I want to live. Nothing can be worse than death.

“Granted.”

Sleep, if it had weighed on her before, was now an avalanche, pelting her on the head, driving her down into endless dark.

I imagined it after all, she thought, a mad sort of clarity coming over her at last.

If you’re real, speak. Prove to me you’re not a delusion.

Silence.

Speak, dammit!

Exhausted, Karen’s mind collapsed into darkness.

*         *         *

She opened her eyes the next morning, alert, wide eyed, reeling. When the doctors came in, surprised by her sudden turnaround, she asked with bugged eyes if anyone had been with her during the night.

She’d been alone, they assured her, she must have been dreaming. They released her and sent her home.

She still had the old aches and pains, the same brittle bones that were prone to breaking if she wasn’t careful how she walked, the same chronic cough. But she was grateful to be alive, to discover there were years left for her body to burn after all.

Then, one by one, everyone she loved began to die. First her sons and daughters, then her grandchildren, then her great grandchildren.

These last looked upon her in their final days with the kind of uneasy reverence one might show to some terrible, unspeakable god. Deep down, they knew her long life wasn’t natural, but like terrified children they were unable to articulate their fears, and instead they kept their distance from her until death had its way with them and delivered them from her sight.

She lives in a convalescent home now, far away in both place and time from where she’d once settled in another life. She sits on a rocking chair in a dark, shadowy corner, rocking, rocking, waiting for an end that will never come.

Only in that terrible half-life is she at last able to count the cost of her gift, not in fact a gift at all but a curse. Everlasting life, she thought, mad with despair.

Death would have been better.

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Mirage

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Richelle wandered up and down Sunset Boulevard, purse swinging by her side, holding up a hand every so often to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun. Everything seemed perfectly ordinary, and yet…

Something wasn’t right. There was nothing wrong with her surroundings as far as she could tell, nothing wrong with herself. But at the same time, everything was wrong.

A shimmer caught Richelle’s eye and she turned.

A towering skyscraper stood to the west, gleaming beneath the sun like a world-sized diamond. It snagged her gaze and refused to let go. As she stared, something inside of her snapped into focus.

She had to get to that building.

She was walking faster now, high heels clip-clopping like horseshoes on the hot cement. People continued about their business, yet she thought she caught them eyeing her askance. She could hear voices now, as if from far away, a low, vibrating hum almost too low for her to hear.

What were they saying? She thought if she listened carefully…

Someone bumped into her, shoving her to the ground.

“Sorry, lady,” said a man in a white polo. “Didn’t see you.” But somewhere beneath his voice, she thought she’d heard another: “It’s her!”

Rattled, she picked herself up, stammered, “that’s all right,” and brushed past him.

In the distance, that crystalline edifice called to her, shimmering like a mirage. Only she thought that wasn’t quite right.

The world is the mirage. That building is the only real thing here.

The thought was earth shattering in its clarity. There came another.

Have to get to that building.

But no sooner did she continue walking than another man in a white polo bumped into her.

“Pardon me,” he said, scurrying off. And somewhere beyond, in another layer of reality: “Stop her!”

Reeling now, Richelle broke into a sprint.

Have to get to that building!

Smack. Another man in a white polo.

“So sorry!”

Smack. Another man in a white polo.

“Excuse me.”

Smack.

Smack.

Smack.

Richelle was surrounded now, drowning in an ocean of men in white polos. Her breath came in increasingly shallow gasps.

What is this?

All around her, beyond the absent minded apologies, clamored a chorus of darker voices.

“Can’t allow her to reach the building.”

“Can’t you see her?”

“She’s over there.”

“Stop her!”

They were not men, she decided, nor was this a real city. Moreover, they knew she knew and they were trying to keep her from discovering the truth. Richelle was angry now.

Planting her feet to the ground, she hefted her purse in both hands and swung it in a wide arc.

It whistled through the air before smashing into a target.

“Ouch! What’d you do that for?” The man clutched a bleeding nose and stared at her as if she’d gone insane. Beneath his voice was another: “Kill her!”

The ocean of bodies pressed tighter, became a swarm of flesh-eating flies. All the while she swung her purse, slowly pushing on, inching her way toward the building.

She couldn’t remember how long she’d been fighting, but when she looked up again the sun was a bloated red ball hovering close to the horizon, and directly before her was the building, only yards away now, a wildfire of reflected light that seared her retinas whenever she looked directly at it.

Richelle screamed, a feral cry that seemed to resonate with the city and its malicious inhabitants. The men clutched at their ears as if enduring  an unbearable agony, and Richelle continued shrieking until her lungs were depleted and her throat was raw.

When she could no longer sustain the sound, she made a beeline for those last few yards, ignoring the arms that reached for her, trying to grab fragments of clothing and hair, trying to pull her back into the crowd.

Richelle stopped just short of that magnificent structure and was suddenly dwarfed by its size. She squinted up at the fiery light reflected from its surface, and for a moment it seemed to capture a different light, scattering it across the city in an otherworldly spectrum.

On the surface, it appeared transparent and made of glass, yet it was opaque to her in some way she didn’t understand. Her eyes fixed on a simple door, set into the foundation, the only part of it she could see clearly.

“Stop her!” those voices commanded again, but it was too late. Her hand was already on the door.

She turned. Pulled.

The door opened.

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Merchant of Desire

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He is called the Merchant of Desire.

He operates in a dingy stucco strip mall and has been in business for as long as anyone can remember. Only the foolish or the desperate seek his aid, and then only as a last resort. They’re people without ambition, people who hate their jobs, their spouses, their families, people who’ve gone mad in the wasteland of routine.

They appear in the dusty doorway without an appointment. An electronic bell chimes when they gather the courage to enter, and they blink with surprise as if the ordinary sound has no business existing in such a place.

They inch forward into the dark environment, anxiety knotting their stomachs as they pass through a mostly empty building that appears long abandoned.

The merchant waits in the back. He wants the unsettling nature of the shop to work on their minds. Only the most desperate stay, and it’s only the most desperate that interest him.

When enough time has passed, he steps out from behind a dark curtain, announcing himself in a sudden flourish that makes his patrons jump. He apologizes, offers soothing gestures and comforting words.

He is the consummate salesman.

Anxiety doesn’t escape them completely, but after a joke or two, perhaps a word about the weather, they start to relax. They allow the merchant to charm them with his hospitality, knowing full well he’s a dangerous man who can’t be trusted. He listens to all they have to say, and he regales them with tales of his own life, of his youth in rags or his youth in riches, of growing up an only child or growing up among five siblings.

As they listen they let their guard down, so that eventually they disclose something compromising. A sibling’s habit they find annoying. A regret that keeps them up at night. Unsettling dreams. Tiny cracks in the psyche reveal themselves, and the merchant prods with great care until the window dressing that covers their naked souls has come undone without their having realized it.

They open up to him then, forgetting all about his reputation. They reveal their life has been an affectation, a pretense of passion they construct daily to hide the apathy that’s consumed their hearts, reducing them to gnarled, withered stumps. They ask how such a thing could be so, if there’s something wrong with them, if something’s not right in their heads.

This is the opportunity the merchant has been waiting for.

By this time, his soon-to-be customers have made up their minds. For mere dollars, he offers them ambition, dreams, desire. He offers the opportunity to feel once more, to escape the icy prison of indifference that’s tormented their malnourished souls for so many years.

They’re skeptical, of course, at least on the surface. They invariably call him mad, absurd, even disingenuous. But in the most primal regions of their hearts, they know he can give them what they think they want.

He always has his way with them in the end.

He leads them into the back, a dark, windowless room. He sits them down in a corner on a small wooden chair. He tells them to close their eyes, then hovers over them unseen, where he reaches into their minds.

He navigates the labyrinthine corridors of their psyches with ease, wending his way through broken dreams and broken hearts. He knits and mends, constructs new dreams from the detritus of the old.

His customers wake refreshed and invigorated. They rediscover purpose. They find their mental compass has been reoriented. The Merchant bows and wishes them the best of luck.

But there’s still the matter of the price.

To start, there’s a modest financial exchange. This allows the merchant to pay his rent. But his rate is low and his customers are always surprised.

There’s also a hidden fee, one his patrons never see coming. It usually costs them their lives.

Most don’t last for more than a few years. Their ambitions outgrow their accomplishments and they find they can never be satisfied. They don’t blame the Merchant. Why would they, when the fault lies solely within themselves? They believe their goals are reasonable and they can’t understand why they’re unable to achieve them. If only they’d worked harder. If only they’d put in more hours. Saved more money.

They push themselves until they’ve depleted what little energy they have left, and the Merchant watches from a distance, feeding on their ballooning ambition like a vampire.

Some commit suicide. Others suffer heart attacks and strokes. A few survive to old age, but only as desiccated husks, devoid of anything beyond a heart beat and a pulse.

The merchant always regrets their passing. If only he could feed on them forever. But there are always others to sustain him.

It’s never a hard sell.

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Selina

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The old man hunched over an antique desk beneath the dim light of a small lamp. An open notebook stared up at him, empty though he’d been sitting there for hours.

Once, when he was young, he’d enjoyed a vibrant career. Back then, the words had flowed like wine. He’d brought stories into the world the likes of which had never been told before. But now in his old age, the well had run dry.

Of course, his books had never been his own. That was his dirty secret, the thing he kept from his readers whenever they asked him where he got his ideas. He’d always offer the standard bullshit, that he’d been a reclusive child, that it was his retreat into fiction that changed the way he saw and thought about the world.

But the truth was he was a fraud, for while the writing had been his own, the stories had come from someone else.

When he was only a teenager, a visitor came during the night. A woman, garbed in flowing silk that glowed in the dark.

“Wake up,” she whispered.

He almost screamed when he saw her, but she placed a hand over his mouth and assured him she meant no harm. She said her name was Selina, that she’d wandered the world in search of someone to tell her story. She placed a finger to her lips. Then she covered his eyes.

What followed was a supernova of sights and sounds, streaming before his eyes like a cosmic newsreel. An excerpt from a life outside the universe.

When he finally came back to himself, she was gone.

A notebook and pen had been left beside him. An open invitation, he thought, and he stayed up until dawn, trying to capture some small part of what he’d glimpsed in the mysterious vision.

She came to him the following night, and the night after that. Each time, he would sit down after she’d left to search out words that might do justice to the otherworldly snapshots of her life.

The books that resulted propelled him to unheard of heights. Nobody had read anything like them. People fawned over his work. Even the sharpest critics seemed at a loss.

But five years ago, Selina stopped visiting.

He flailed, struggled to recall something of her supernal sojourn through the stars so he’d have something new to write about.

But without those constant visions to guide his work, his writing became derivative, stale and uninteresting. People stopped buying his books. Eventually, he locked himself inside his house and never went out again.

Now, he gazed up at the lamp, still at a loss after five years. He closed his eyes, and he wondered if Selina would ever visit again.

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