The Man With No Name

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A ribbon of pipe smoke curls into the air, and not for the first time, I think of my grandpa, who would sit at the back of a musty kitchen, puffing his pipe, pondering a world that passed him by long ago. The memory is vivid, visceral, and it almost sends me sprawling into the distant past.

The man who sits before me now, The Man With No Name, is not my grandpa. He died eleven years ago. Though The Man With No Name would have been around when my grandpa was still alive, as well as when his grandpa was still alive. He gestures to me with his pipe before returning it to his mouth.

“Sit, Michael.”

I do as I’m told. I have no idea why he’s summoned me. I only know I was home, heading upstairs for bed, and when I reached the top I realized I was no longer ascending the wooden steps in my house, but the ancient wrought iron steps that lead to his personal chambers. Yet I’ve learned in all our dealings not to ask questions but to listen. He always has his reasons, and my family and I have come to trust them.

The candelabra that hangs from the high stone ceiling glows a dim flickering orange. It makes me feel as if I’ve crossed the threshold into another world, and for all I know I have.

“Michael, I’m going to get right to the point. I’m dying.”

Dying. It took a moment for the meaning of the word to resolve.

“But how?” I can’t believe what I’ve just heard.

“My kind live long by your standards, but contrary to what you and your family may believe, I am not immortal.”

I feel as if everything I’ve been taught has been a lie. All of Grandpa’s stories about The Man With No Name, about how he helped the family, once poor, prosper and succeed. He was not just a saint to us, he was a god. Now, I’m learning that even a god can die.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

I must have been staring. I gaze down at my feet, crestfallen. The world falls apart around me. I feel like throwing up.

“I served your family long before it had a name, but now my life draws to a close and I’d like to put things in order before I go.”

“But, what will we do without you? We’ve relied on you for so long. I don’t know how we’ll survive.”

The Man With No Name leans back. A grimace sours his features like rancid milk.

“I spoiled you. I should have been more discerning in my aid. Ah, well, that’s love. Michael, there comes a time in every person’s life when they have to leave the protection of their parents and strike out on their own. This is true of children, and it is also true of families. I’ve been with your kin for more than a thousand years, teaching and guiding. Now, it’s time to take what you’ve learned and make something of yourselves.”

“You can’t leave us.”

“I have no choice. My time in this world is finished. I’m ready to flee the shackles of my body and discover what lies beyond.”

Shock begins to thaw, and despair begins to take its place.

“Make me proud, Michael. You and your family are capable of great things. You no longer need my help, and you haven’t for a while.”

“But I don’t want you to go.” My voice cracks.

“I know.”

The Man With No Name opens his arms, and I find myself running into their embrace. I cry. The arms close around me.

“Goodbye, Michael.”

When I pull back, I’m standing once more at the top of my own stairs. For the first time in my life, and in all the centuries of my family’s life, I know what it truly means to be alone.

Branwin

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A bright rectangle of light fell on the cold stone floor, and Branwin blinked. How long had it been since he’d seen light? He squinted up at an iron door that hadn’t opened for centuries.

“Branwin.” A hooded figure stepped over the threshold.

Branwin tried to use his lips, but they were like rusty hinges and he could only manage an inarticulate squeal.

“Not mad yet, I hope.” The figure chuckled, pulling back the hood to reveal the face of a man. Branwin scurried like a spider into a dark corner.

Branwin didn’t like him. There was something about the man that touched on uncomfortable memories. If only he’d go away and close the door behind him. But instead he came closer, until he loomed over Branwin, teeth gleaming like knives. Branwin’s inhuman eyes flitted back and forth between him and the walls.

“I need your help, Branwin.”

A flare of strange memories, bursting in Branwin’s head. Shards like stained glass. Memories of a life before the dark, before he’d been transformed into this creature of the shadows in exchange for immortality.

“I see I have your attention,” said the man, and he knelt beside Branwin, as if he were a dog who needed to be reminded that his master still loved him. “I know it’s difficult to talk, so just listen.”

Branwin’s eyes locked on the man’s, so human, so unlike his own. He squatted on all fours, braced to run.

“You made a foolish bargain,” the man continued, “The choice was yours, of course, and if I could have left you here alone I would have. But times have changed. The Republic is crumbling. Old barriers are failing, and people of your power and skill have become valuable.”

A spark in Branwin ignited, a furious hatred that erupted like an active volcano.

“This form you assumed shouldn’t have been possible. The most powerful mages of our time believe you are only a legend. You not only changed your shape, you changed your essence, your soul. Not a change for the better, I would say, but I digress.”

The man set a hand on Branwin’s disfigured shoulder, and an internal spring uncoiled. Branwin pounced, slamming him into the moldering wall.

“I could kill you,” Branwin hissed, the first words he’d uttered in over seven hundred years. It was all coming back to him now.

Surprisingly, the man laughed. “Yes, my old friend, I have no doubt you could. But don’t you wonder, dear Branwin, how it is that I still live?”

Branwin blinked. His humanity was coming back to him, and with it his curiosity.

“I’m not immortal, alas, but I’ve lived for centuries so far and will live for many more, all while retaining that which is essential to my humanity. I could teach you how. There are other ways to prolong life, most not nearly as…unfortunate as the path you chose.”

Something reminiscent of hope surged through Branwin. His inhuman state seemed on the verge of shattering, and he wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

“Come,” said the man, holding out his hand. “Let me fix you.”

Branwin gazed up at him with slitted eyes. He considered the possibilities, his forgotten humanity blossoming at long last, and after a timeless moment of silence in the dark, he took the man’s hand and let him pull him to his feet.

Regret

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There is no greater puzzle, no greater struggle, than the beginning. The first note of a sonata, the first stanza of a poem, the first stroke of a painting. All that comes after builds on what came before, and if the scaffolding established at the start is weak, the whole piece comes tumbling down.

It was the reason I never put my own skills to use, the reason my house had always been a tangled jungle of loose leaf pages, saturated with ideas I never had the courage to pursue.

I would come home from work, bleary eyed and broken. I would descend the shadow engulfed stairs that led to my desk beneath the moldering ceiling of a neglected basement, and there, in the dark, I would set pen to paper. For a little while, I would labor under the delusion that this time, things would be different; this time, I would follow through with my design; this time, I would impart substance and life to an idea that I was certain could change the world.

Then I would stare at the latest fruit of my manic depressive mind, pondering its intricacies, its peculiarities. I would sigh, turn out the light and go to bed, abandoning my brain child to rot along with the house’s foundation.

Time slipped, until I grew old. I never stopped telling myself that this time, things would be different. But one day I fell ill, and after an extended stay in the hospital I realized I wasn’t going home. On the precipice of death, I thought of all my unfinished designs, and like an absent father, I wailed and lamented for all the lost years that I could never reclaim with my children.

Better to have tried, I thought, to have started something imperfectly than not to have started at all. But somehow that was worse, somehow that was more painful.

“I loved you all,” I whispered, but as I closed my eyes, as the final curtain began to fall on my life, I realized with mounting terror that this was a lie.

Wish

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“See you later, Shit Face,” said Steve, spitting on the ground.

Lucas, crouched on the sidewalk where the bully had pushed him down, glanced up and tried very hard not to cry. Steve signaled to his lackeys that it was time to go, and a couple minutes later Lucas scrambled to his feet, wiped the dust and dirt from his jeans and continued walking.

Steve had cornered him on his way home from school again. Lucas hated the condescending smile, the insults, the shoves and headlocks and kicks. The kid was a monster, and Lucas wished he were dead.

He passed the school yard, glancing cautiously over his shoulder in case Steve decided to come back, and brooded with his eyes lowered to the sidewalk.

That was how he noticed the match.

The dingy partially consumed matchbox lay open in the gutter, a single unused match peeking out from the packaging.

It’s a well known fact that there’s nothing so attractive to a nine year old boy as an unused match, and all thoughts of Steve and his lackeys vanished as he knelt to retrieve the forbidden object.

He glanced over his shoulder again, this time to make sure there were no grown-ups to see what he was doing. Then he picked it up and turned it over to examine the cover.

Fritz Gentleman’s Club, where all your dreams come true.

Lucas didn’t know what a gentleman’s club was, but he knew all about wishes. He tore the remaining match from its cardboard binding and held it up to the light.

“I wish I had more,” he sighed before striking. The tip erupted in a bright green flame.

Lucas goggled. He’d never seen fire like this before. The flame crept dangerously close to his fingers, and the sharp bite of instant heat made him drop the match.

“Ow!” he cried, pulling his fingers into his mouth.

He looked down again at the matchbook…and beheld ten unused matches.

“No way.”

The match had granted his wish. Lucas thought of Steve, and his mind ignited with possibilities.