Human

Nataliya Turpitko/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on December 20, 2017.

Anita slipped, and her physical therapist had to catch her before she hit the ground.

“It’s okay,” the woman said, while Anita, her legs no longer able to support her weight, clutched hopelessly at the woman’s wrists for balance.

The hospital room where they held their daily sessions reeked of cleaning solutions and urine. It was the last place Anita would have expected to find herself when she was young.

She could have assumed one of a million other forms—could have experienced life as any species in the cosmos. But in her foolishness, she’d chosen to be human. She’d been quite taken with humanity at the time. The novelty of their paradoxical nature had delighted her: an odd combination of cool, dispassionate logic and fiery, unbridled passion.

Most fascinating of all had been the concept of mortality—the notion that life not only had a beginning but an end. As an immortal being herself, the idea had only been a theoretical complication that made little practical sense. She couldn’t have imagined what it would mean to age—to feel life, energy, and health drain from a body that withered further with each passing day. Only now, as a human herself, could she understand what it was to be bound by the irreversible machinations of time, and it was too late for her to change her mind.

“Follow me,” the PT said, and she led Anita around the perimeter of the room in a vain attempt to engage muscle groups that would never function again.

Didn’t the woman realize the horror, the utter futility of the human condition? Couldn’t she understand that it was only a matter of time before she herself would experience a similar degenerative illness? Or, if her muscles didn’t fail her, it would be her mind, or cancer, or a virus, or one of a thousand other afflictions. That, Anita thought with more than a twinge of bitterness, was the human race’s reward for a life well lived.

A tear fell, hot against Anita’s skin. It stung her eyes, and she blinked it away before her therapist could see that she’d been crying.

“There you go,” the PT said after Anita took a single shambling step forward. “You’re getting stronger.”

Would the woman ever stop patronizing her?

At last, after ages of endless, fruitless struggling, the hour lapsed, and the woman let her fall back into her wheelchair—a rickety metal cage as good as any prison—and rolled her outside for a stroll through the hospital’s grounds.

A galaxy’s worth of energy roiled just beneath her skin, the inner workings of an ancient soul that would have dwarfed the entire cosmos if not for the fact that it was locked inside this lumbering clod of cold and sallow matter.

They passed through a pair of broad double doors, and Anita squinted up at a sudden burst of bright and early sunlight that warmed her skin and made her drowsy.

She didn’t try to stay awake. Sleep was one of the few blessings left to her. It was in sleep that the force which bound her to her body weakened, allowing her to shoot across space and time as she had once done before her human incarnation.

Eyes fluttered, consciousness guttered, and soon, her soul was soaring through the stars again.

Anita.

The voice was familiar to her.

“Father?” She hadn’t heard from him since she’d taken on flesh and blood. Could he rescue her from this awful life? “Father, please, release me from this prison.”

The universe rumbled with his reply.

You chose to be human. Would you turn your back on who you are now that life has become difficult?

“This body is worthless. It binds my soul like a ball and chain.”

Did you not enjoy your life when you were young?

“I did.”

Then what right do you have to complain now? You wanted to experience mortality, and that means accepting the feebleness of age along with the exuberance of youth. The two form an inseparable whole.

“But it hurts.”

Yes.

“Then what use is it? All the things I’ve accomplished as a human will amount to nothing.”

You’ve been human for so long that you’ve started to think like them. You see everything in terms of the past and the future. You forget that you are timeless, that your life on Earth is but a dream.

Everything you’ve accomplished in your mortal body will remain a part of you after you die. That’s what mortality is. It’s a transformation, one that most of your brothers and sisters, by their own choice, will never know. It will leave you forever changed, a new creation born of the intersection between two paradoxical natures. That is a miracle, and one for which you should be grateful.

“But I’m afraid.”

Then you understand what it is to be human.

Anita contemplated this in silence for some time.

Go. Her father’s voice was warm, compassionate. Live what life remains to you. Cherish the sorrows as well as the joys. They are the crucible in which you will become something greater.

“Yes,” she said. “I understand. Thank you, Father.”

I love you, Daughter.

“I love you too.”

Anita awoke a changed woman. All her former bitterness had melted away beneath the blinding light of the sun. There would be pain, there would be weakness, and there would be humiliation. But she would no longer complain. She would let each experience educate her, just as her youth had educated her, because what else was human frailty, she thought, but another lesson to be learned?

She would take the good with the bad, and when her time on Earth was finished, she would be reborn. Such was the life she had chosen, and she would no longer turn her back on it.

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The Fifty-Seven

BushaPhoto/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on August 16, 2017.

I sit at the bus stop just before sunset and wait for the 57 to arrive. I’m the only one here, but that’s not a surprise. Not many ride this bus anymore.

This city’s always been my home, but over the years it’s changed, and I hardly recognize it anymore. Nothing’s different on the surface. You can still see the old courthouse looming across the street from weathered concrete apartments that haven’t seen a fresh coat of paint in thirty years. But the city’s heart has undergone a strange transubstantiation, leaving me alienated and as good as homeless.

They say the bus’s purpose is to take care of people like me—people who’ve become vagrants in their own homes. Officially, the line stopped running sixteen years ago, but every so often someone goes to the abandoned stop, and after the sounds of the approaching vehicle have faded into the distance, they’re gone and never heard from again. Now, I’m about to find out for myself exactly where it goes. Hell, the moon, outer space, doesn’t matter. Anywhere is better than here.

The 57 pulls up at last, plastered with ads for products that no longer exist. It slows to a stop, hissing like a snake. The doors swoosh open, and I take one last look around.

“You coming?” calls a gruff voice. The interior is consumed by shadows, so that I can only make out the driver’s smoldering red eyes.

“Yes.”

My pulse quickens when I meet his gaze. I step inside, and I jump back when the doors swing shut behind me. I take my seat, and a moment later the bus rattles up to speed.

My former home recedes into the distance, and soon, there is only darkness ahead.

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The Other Side

Nigel May/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on May 23, 2017.

I wasn’t ready to die. I suppose no one is.

As mortals, we have a strange fixation with immortality. We understand that each of us has a clock embedded deep within, set to an unknown length of time; that when this time is finally up, when our clock’s internal mechanism winds down to zero, we’ll be thrust headlong into the uncharted lands of death—and into light or oblivion, who can say? Yet each of us holds to the secret belief that there must be some way to get ahead of our fate, that there must be some trick, some unexplained force of nature that, once harnessed, would allow us to reset that clock, or even stop it.

This was my belief until the end. And even when that end had come and gone, I was still convinced I could do things differently, that I could scrape together whatever temporal crumbs were left and use them to accomplish all the things I’d said I would do in life.

Well, you can guess how that worked out.

One moment, I was lying in a hospital bed, tubes and sensors protruding from my arms like cybernetic tentacles as the cancer devoured my body from the inside out. The next, I was standing on a hot desert road, surrounded by nothing but asphalt, sun, and endless sky.

First, I just stood there thinking, “This isn’t right. I’m in the hospital.” Then I shook my head. “Shit,” I said, and after the absurdity of my situation had truly sunk in, you could say I threw a bit of a tantrum. I shook my fist at the indifferent sky, shouted useless invectives while stomping and fuming like a toddler who’s just had his favorite toy taken away.

A good long time passed before I realized there was no way left to go but on.

And on I went. On, on and on, with a bloated sun razing my neck and shoulders, and a dry, arid wind cracking my parched and blistered lips. A strangely corporeal experience, I thought, for someone who’d left his body behind in the hospital. At times, I’d pray for death, only to realize soon after that I was already dead. Then a terrible despair would surge through my soul like an ocean, and I would break down all over again.

This is Hell, I would think. I hadn’t been good enough in life, and eternal suffering was my reward. But then the sun would set for the night, the air would cool for a little bit, and the sky, transparent to the cosmos, would fill me with the hope that this too might yet pass.

A quest, I realized after one particularly scorching day. I was on a quest, like King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail, or Odysseus in search of his lost home in Ithaca. A quest for who or for what I couldn’t yet say, but in my heart I knew it was the truth.

That night, I heard the stars sing.

A haunting alloy of otherworldly harmonies, they addressed me by name—not my given name but my true name, the one etched indelibly into the substance of my being. Their voices reached into my weary soul and offered me their everlasting light.

A transformation had begun, and no longer would I allow myself to be discouraged. I dragged my desiccated post-life body across the endless asphalt by day, and drank from the light of those angelic voices by night.

On and on they carried me, across the sand and the centuries, until now, at last, I stand before the Celestial Gate, those radiant stars lighting the way home.

Now, there’s only one thing left to do. Weak kneed and teary-eyed, I knock.

“You are well traveled,” come their collective reply. “Come inside, and make yourself at home.”

The gate opens, and of what I see beyond that cosmic threshold I could write entire books. But I hear them singing again, calling on me to take my place in the sky, and I will not keep them waiting any longer.

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Emily

Tithi Luadthong/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on September 12, 2017.

Emily gazed down from the balcony of her studio apartment, the evening shadows lengthening as the sun dipped below the horizon. She watched people pass along the sidewalk, watched cars pass along the street. A rhythm, she thought, an elaborate choreography that dazzled her every bit as much as it had when she was a little girl.

There were those who hated the city—those who thought it too congested, polluted, or confining. But not Emily. The city had a life of its own, a vibrant soul born of the intersection between its many citizens. She and the city enjoyed a symbiotic relationship; it nurtured and sustained her, while she defended it from harm. Like a superhero, she would sometimes think after coming home from the cinema, and then she would giggle like a little girl, delighted by the fanciful notion.

She was standing over the railing, just as she was every night, when she heard the cry. Loud and shrill, it shattered her concentration. The sound was tragically common in the city, and it broke her heart each time to hear it. Somewhere, in Emily’s beloved city, someone was in danger.

So she closed her eyes, and she shifted her focus from that which could only be sensed with eyes and ears to that which could only be perceived through the heart: a vast shimmering network of interconnected threads, joining every soul in the city to every other. She reached out to the closest thread, and she felt for the vibrations that traveled along its length like a phone line.

Another cry.

The thread quivered, and Emily traced it back, flying through the space between space. The souls around her blurred, streaking past her like a stained glass mosaic.

There. A young woman—perhaps nineteen or twenty—and a man barging through her door. His face was covered, and a drunken lust and violence swirled through his head like a snowstorm.

Someone must have heard her call, but as was so often the case in the city, help was in short supply. So Emily did the only thing she could. She tugged on neighboring threads, sending out vibrations of her own.

HELP THE GIRL.

She tugged and tugged without success—there were so many hearts calloused by the daily horrors of modern life—but at last, just as she thought her resources exhausted, she felt a reply. A retired cop, gray haired and out of shape as well as out of practice. Bitter and alone, he was the sort who would have preferred to be left alone. But Emily kept tugging on his heart, and he found himself unable to turn away.

Deep inside, beyond the jaded, street-wise exterior, he remained just and duty-bound, like the day so many years ago when he was first sworn in. Emily felt his unconscious reply, a resonant hum feeding back along that intricate network of souls. It was his own soul’s way of letting her know he was on his way.

That was when Emily disengaged and reconnected with her body.

Once more, lights and colors filled her vision. She gazed down at the city again, its silent lover as well as its protector, and she prayed as she so often did that the little she was able to do would be enough.

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