Totem, Part 6

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Part 1 | Part 2 |  Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

The master, Jahi began, had an unusual ability. No one knew of it, not even myself until he entrusted me with the secret later. Haven‘t you ever wondered how he amassed so much power and influence? He was strong, yes, but even a powerful magician such as he would have had a hard time bending the world to his will. But he had an advantage, one he believed to be his alone, and there came a morning, just as I returned home to the master’s estate, when he told me what that advantage was.

*               *               *

“I can read minds,” he said before sitting back into a dark brown chair and waiting for Jahi to react.

But Jahi didn’t reply, for the statement had flown right over his head. He’d understood the words, but not their meaning. He’d just arrived from a long and tiring meeting with a group of influential priests who held the Pharaoh’s ear. It was now early in the morning, and he’d slept little during the late night journey back. He hadn’t known what to expect when he answered the master’s summons, but certainly not this.

“I intend no double meaning,” the master said when Jahi didn’t speak. “I can read minds. Forgive me for being so abrupt, but I need your help, and I believe you to be loyal.”

True enough. Jahi had cast his lot with the man years ago. He’d always believed the master to be, if not exactly a good man, at least an effective ruler—one who relied not on fancy clothes or public recognition, but on the strength of an iron will and an unshakable resolve. He had come, with time, to be the unseen glue that held much of civilization together, and Jahi admired him greatly for it. At the master’s side, he’d flourished as a skilled diplomat and negotiator. He’d brokered more than his fair share of deals with some of the world’s most powerful leaders, facilitating the master’s consolidation of power these past several years, and for Jahi, this shared accomplishment was a source of intense and ferocious pride.

“Sit,” said the master.

Jahi pulled up to the empty chair before him and did as he was told.

“The others can’t know of what I’m about to tell you. Not Rashidi, Chibale, Zane, Kasim, no one. It stays between you and me. Swear it.”

“I swear.”

“Good.” The master relaxed a little, sinking further into his chair, and Jahi thought he’d never seen the man look so vulnerable. “I find myself troubled, and I don’t know where to turn.”

Jahi gazed up at him, all harsh lines and wrinkles, and thought he looked unwell. Once more, he didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing.

“There’s a talent,” the master began, “one I thought had died along with the rest of my family long ago. Imagine, with only a thought, that you could leave your body to inhabit the minds of others, that you could feel their happiness, their joy, their sorrow, their grief—that you could hear every passing thought, every fleeting desire that courses through their heads as if it were your own. My mother and father used that ability long ago to negotiate peace between rival families and tribes, but I always had loftier aspirations.”

He paused, considered.

“Anyway, all that is to say my talent has played no small part in my success.”

Could this be true? Jahi reeled with the possibility. With the power to read minds, the master could do almost anything. Politics thrived on misdirection and deceit, and one’s skill at reading his enemies was tantamount to one’s success. If the master could peer inside the heads of those he competed with for power, if he could read their true intentions as easily as words written on a scroll…

“Then I could do almost anything I wished. Yes, Jahi, you’re right. Which is why I’ve always kept it a secret.”

Jahi felt his face turn cold. How long had he and the master worked together? How many of Jahi’s secrets did he know?

“Enough to know you’re not a threat to me.” The master said this in the affectionate tone normally reserved for pets and small children. “The others would rise up against me if they could—particularly my young apprentice, Azibo, who’ll take my place in the fullness of time anyway. But not you. You know yourself too well. You understand that your power has always been greatest when placed at the service of mine. I know I can trust you, which is why I’ve shared such a startling secret.”

“But why tell me this now?”

“Because something is amiss, and I need your help to set it right.”

“Of course, I’ll do whatever you ask, but…”

“Just listen, Jahi. As I said, until now, I’ve always believed myself to be the exclusive steward of this particular ability. But yesterday, while I was napping in my chambers, someone appeared to me in a dream. Not a part of my imagination, but someone real, someone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Like me, they were able to cast themself into my mind, though I have the feeling it was an accident, an early manifestation of a nascent power as of yet unexplored. I tried to catch a glimpse of their face, but they’d fled before I could discover who it was.”

“What can I do?”

“Keep your eyes open. See if anyone appears unusually perceptive, if anyone seems to know what you’re going to say before you say it, that sort of thing. I suspect the guilty party is close, maybe even one of my other advisers. Will you do this for me, Jahi?”

“If you can read my mind, then you already know the answer.”

The man nodded.

“I knew I could count on you.”

So dismissed, Jahi stood, knelt, and exited the master’s study.

*               *               *

It was Azibo, wasn‘t it? Rashidi turned his dark glassy eyes toward the both of them. The one who entered the master‘s dream.

Yes. But as I‘ve already told Azibo, he hid himself well. I had my suspicions, but never any firm evidence I felt comfortable sharing with the master. He never told me what he had planned for his potential rival, but I didn’t think their fate would be a pleasant one.

And you kept this from us until now? barked Kasim.

I couldn‘t tell you before. The master might have seen it in your minds, and then he would have known I’d broken his promise.

What about after he turned us into birds? Couldn‘t you have told us then?

What would it have mattered? How would it have changed anything?

No one answered.

Then Zane barged into the conversation.

Azibo, that was how you knew the master would be gone the day we planned to depose him! He wanted his absence to be a secret, but you read his mind, and when you realized he was leaving, that he would be gone for the next two weeks, you and Jahi convinced us to try and take control of his affairs.

Azibo nodded.

But Jahi, the master saw in your mind that you were loyal to him, which means it must‘ve been true. What changed?

I got to know the master‘s true nature. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I was forced to acknowledge his true nature. I should have seen it from the beginning, but I’d accomplished so much at his side that I didn’t want to admit he was a monster. Only after he grew increasingly paranoid and prone to suspicion did I realize, with enough time, not even I would be safe.

The others were silent for a while. Like Jahi, they remembered all too well the master’s cruel and increasingly erratic behavior in those last days.

I want to hear more about Azibo‘s part in this, said Rashidi. Will you tell us, Azibo?

But the youth only drew back into the lengthening shadows of the night, unable or unwilling to speak.

You might as well, said Jahi, not unkindly. No harm can come to you now. Our only worry is the bracelet, and the more we understand about your talent, the better. Maybe we can use it to communicate with the girl.

Azibo hesitated, then nodded.

Yes, you‘re right. It’s been a long time. It’s just that I had to keep myself hidden for so long… Azibo paused, then nodded again. Fine. I‘m ready to tell my story.

And after a moment of silent brooding, Azibo did.

Homecoming

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An almost volcanic heat rose from the dark green lake in heavy, steaming clouds, while the sun, smoky and dim, lent the day a faded, dusky cast. Andrea peered up at the thick, leathery trees, which clung to the perimeter of the water like towering ancient sentries, then back at the squat, vine-encrusted hut where she and her husband, Zemon, had lived for the past seven years.

A strange world, with little that resembled the home she’d grown up in. But Zemon was a native, and she’d decided to follow him back. It had been a difficult adjustment, and even now, she couldn’t say she loved this world. The days were intolerably hot, the locals could be private and standoffish, and while beautiful, the alien plants and wildlife, along with the brilliant emerald green oceans that covered ninety-eight percent of the planet’s surface, were irreconcilably different from her world of bright sun and blue skies.

But today, things were going to change. Today, they were going to pass through the Iron Gate and move back home to her family.

Ready, Andrea?

Her husband’s words unfurled inside her mind without sound. After all these years, the experience still sent a shuddering thrill across her body.

Soon, dear.

He came up behind her, his eyes reflecting back the dim, uneven light from above, and encompassed her in his lithe, silvery arms. She could sense his sadness. He tried to mask it, but she knew him too well, and it was impossible for him to be anything but himself with her.

Andrea reached out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.

It’ll be all right. We’ll only be gone a few years, and then you’ll be home again.

It was the compromise they’d struck the day they agreed to spend the rest of their lives together. Seven years in his world, followed by seven years in hers.

Zemon nodded.

A curious combination of anticipation and guilt fluttered in her chest as she conjured a mental image of her hometown in Iowa. She thought of her parents, her grandmother, her nieces and nephews, all living together under a single roof. She thought of fresh baked bread, biscuits and pie. Most of all, she thought of endless corn fields and navy blue skies, all priceless treasures of an ordinary life she hadn’t appreciated until after she’d gone away.

Now I know how you felt when you gave up part of your life for me.

At least there’ll be cornbread, she replied.

Zemon’s eyes lit up, a bright yellow rush of avaricious desire.

Yes, cornbread.

And grits.

Yes, he agreed. And grits.

Once more, Andrea would be the native and Zemon would be the foreigner. But he loved her as much as she loved him, and through that love, they would forge a path through the next seven years.

Come.

They clasped hands, and together they set off for the Iron Gate.

Totem, Part 5

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Deep inside the dappled light of a tall oak tree, the six blackbirds kept watch. They’d followed the girl to this location, a two-story house in the suburbs, and had spent the rest of the afternoon contemplating how best to proceed. When they’d first arrived, the sun had still been bright overhead. Now it was a dull, burnished copper, slipping fast beneath the roofs of the other houses.

She hasn’t been outside since she got home, remarked one, a slim creature who in another life had gone by the name of Zane. A boring one, she. He took a moment to preen himself with his beak.

She’s troubled. That from Rashidi, their leader. You saw the way she fled from us.

A hopeless cause, argued Kasim, another of the six. Millennia of endless flight, just for it to end like this.

Not hopeless, said Jahi. He’d been so quiet that, until now, they’d forgotten he was there. His voice was elegant, stately, bellying his many years of experience as a diplomat. No cause is hopeless as long as one maintains hope.

A worthless platitude, spat Kasim.

And one, said Rashidi, that I happen to believe is true.

Well, barked Kasim. What do you think, Chibale?

I think, came the creature’s reply, that we should stop arguing and focus on the girl.

He’s right. Rashidi addressed them each in turn. Let us consider the task at hand.

Kasim offered his bitterest telepathic grumble, but did not reply.

Azibo, the last of their number, was staring into the sky and didnt say a word. The youngest of the six, he’d only been a teenager when he was changed. He rarely spoke and spent much of his time peering into the endless world with longing. Rashidi felt for him, for he also felt the weight of his own punishment and could only guess how much more it must affect the boy.

An Egyptian magician had set it all into motion over two thousand years ago. A man history no longer remembered, yet a man who’d once been the most powerful person in the known world, for although he was mighty in deed and strength, he preferred to rule from a distance.

“Better to be the power behind the throne,” the cruel old man proclaimed when Rashidi was still his most favored servant. “Let the Pharaoh enjoy his pomp and ceremony. True power lies in obscurity.”

And the man had been wise, for he’d sat on his throne for centuries, until a plan set in motion by Rashidi and the others almost toppled him.

After their failed mutiny and subsequent transformation, they’d taken to the skies. They dwelled among the Babylonians and the Assyrians, then traveled Northeast into Persia, then farther East still toward the Huns and the Mongols. When enough time had passed to hope their master had forgotten them, they circled back in search of the bracelet, wishing to destroy it and undo the spell that bound them.

But when they’d returned, they’d found their old master’s estate in ruins, neither he nor the bracelet to be found. Farther West, a vague interior sense whispered. Farther West is where you’ll find the bracelet. So they took to the skies once more, wandering the world in a futile search, that sense of the bracelet’s proximity moving almost as fast as they themselves moved, until finally it drew them toward the North American continent on the other side of the world.

Now, Rashidi began to pace along the tree branch. We must find a way to communicate with her.

We could get into the house ourselves, offered Chibale. Sneak in through an open window when no one’s watching.

And then what? scoffed Kasim. How do we break the bracelet? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re birds. Unless they make hammers and chisels for our delicate size and shape.

Kasim, said Rashidi, be calm.

He’s right though. Jahi jumped in once more. We’ll need her help.

Azibo? Rashidi pulled up behind him. What do you think?

No reply.

Azibo? Rashidi came toward him and tapped him with his beak.

With agonizing slowness, the boy finally turned. But his eyes were blank, as if he had no idea where he was.

Help us. If Azibo’s words had come out as sound, they would have been the faintest of whispers.

The others were all looking at him now. He’d always been quiet, but never this strange.

Help who, Azibo? Once more Rashidi tapped him with his beak.

Please, help us.

Who’s he talking to? asked Kasim, all his characteristic bitterness and sarcasm gone.

I don’t know, Rashidi answered. Azibo, who are you talking to? What’s wrong?

And then, just like that, the youth’s eyes blazed to life. Startled, he tottered back almost to the edge of the branch.

Azibo! What’s wrong?

The boy’s head twittered, and he stepped to the side, ruffling his jet black feathers.

I felt the girl.

What do you mean? Chibale.

A pause while Azibo collected his thoughts. I don’t know. I was gazing into the sky, daydreaming. Then I was a wizard, and a girl came to seek my wisdom. A different girl, yet the same.

Azibo shook his head.

I was in her head, I think, like we were sharing a dream. I asked her for help, and I could feel that she understood me. Then she was gone, and I was back here with you—

Again, Azibo shook his head.

How can this be? asked Rashidi. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

They began to argue. Rashidi and Chibale asserted that Azibo should rest, while Zane and Kasim insisted he’d gone mad. Finally, Jahi broke in.

I have.

Reduced to silence, they all turned to face him at once, an unspoken question burning in their eyes like hot, black stars.

I don’t think he’s mad, continued Jahi, and I don’t think he was dreaming. Azibo, this has happened before, hasn’t it?

The boy didn’t answer, only put his head down and refused to meet Jahi’s eyes.

Azibo?

Still no reply.

It’s okay, Azibo. The master is dead. He can’t hurt you now.

Still the boy hesitated, until at last Jahi sidled over and gave him a gentle nudge with his beak.

You can tell us, Azibo. You’re among friends.

After more prodding, the boy looked up and said, maybe.

Jahi nodded, while the others looked at both of them aghast.

I thought so. You hid yourself well. The master would have killed you if he’d known.

Would one of you please explain what’s going on? It was the first time in centuries that any of them could remember Rashidi losing his patience.

And with Azibo’s silent assent, Jahi told them a story.

Part 6 will be posted on April 18.

I Saw Her Again

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The line we draw between reality and fantasy is a fragile thing, a brittle house of glass that requires only one small pebble, one hairline crack, to fall shattering to the ground.

I saw her again.

I saw her again, and my psyche, like our metaphorical house of glass, burst into a million sparkling pieces.

I was seven when I watched her die, and I was thirty when I spied her outside in the pouring rain, holding an umbrella in her right hand, along with a smoldering cigarette in her left.

I can already hear what you’re going to say next. How do I know she was the same person? People look like other people all the time. And if not for what happened next, I’d say you were right.

The world, dreary and gray, took on a hollow, distant cast. I thought, surely, I must be dreaming. I wanted to move on, wanted to shy away from the uncanny encounter before I could be undone. But in such mad and dreamlike moments, we do odd things—dangerous things we wouldn’t dare attempt by the ordinary light of day.

I pulled up beside her, not minding the cold and the damp and the pelting rain, and I said, “Excuse me, don’t I know you from someplace?”

In the instant before she turned, I thought, This is all a misunderstanding. The crawling goosebumps will pass, and when I see for myself that she isn’t the same person, that it was only a bit of déjà vu, I’ll wander on, shaking my head and wondering how I could have been such a fool.

But then she looked at me, and she was the same person, and I stood there in a hapless stupor as her lips curled into a malicious sneer.

“Hello, Joseph. How good to see you again.”

That from the woman I watched die.

That from the woman I helped my father kill.

“Say hello to your father for me.”

Then she turned away, just another stranger in the pouring rain. First I was walking. Then jogging. Then running. I careened down the puddle-laden street, convinced she was right behind me, ready to mete out cold, hard justice at last.

Murderer, whispered a part of myself I’d locked away for twenty-three years.

Impossible, shrieked another.

And inside, in the manic chambers of a shattered mind, a million shards of my broken soul clambered and shouted at once.

Now I am broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put me together again.

“Dying Breath” is released!

A place of waiting.

The thought echoes over and over again through Jerome’s mind. Waking in a barn with no memory of where he’s come from, it is his only clue. But before he even has time to think, sleep bears down on him, and when he opens his eyes again, he’s someone else.

A soldier one moment, a financial analyst the next. A little girl. An old man. With each life Jerome experiences, he remembers something else of his own. Flashes of a bright light. A hospital bed. A mysterious woman named Darlene.

But what does it mean? What does each life have in common? Most importantly, what can it tell Jerome about himself?

My latest short story, Dying Breath, is released today!

About a year ago, I posted the first rough draft on Patreon. Now, finally, after having been through three editors, it’s released 🙂 I had a great time writing it, and I’m excited to share it with all of you.

You can buy the e-book for your Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook or Google device for just $1.99.

Find it for the Amazon Kindle by clicking here.
Find it for your Kobo device by clicking here.
Find it for the Barnes & Noble Nook by clicking here.
Find it on Google Play by clicking here.

I hope you enjoy the story, and if you feel so inclined, I hope you’ll write to me at jeff at jeffcolemanwrites dot com to let me know what you thought of the story 🙂

The Old Man’s Candy

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I never should have taken the old man’s candy.

“But Joseph,” he said, “it’s so juicy and sweet.”

He popped one in his mouth. Chewed. Swallowed. Well, my eight-year-old brain reasoned, if he could eat it, so could I.

I took one from his outstretched hand, examined the brown paper wrapper with interest, and asked, “What is it? I’ve never seen this brand before.”

His lips curled into a toadstool smile.

“Ah, Joseph, the candy you hold in your hand is one of a kind. I make it myself for special boys and girls like you. Go on, try it.”

I did. It was delicious.

An exotic rainbow of fruity flavors burst across the surface of my tongue—the invigorating tang of lemons and oranges, the elysian sweetness of strawberries and blueberries, all accented by flavors I’d never encountered before and haven’t encountered elsewhere since.

Yes, it was delicious, and from that day forward, I was hooked.

It seemed I couldn’t go for more than a few hours before my craving reached an agonizing climax. My body would ache and burn with need, as if someone had thrown me into a fire, and I would have no choice but to return to the old man’s house for more.

“Of course, Joseph. I’d love to give you more.” He flashed me his signature toadstool smile, an expression I would come to loathe. “But if I do something for you, you have to promise to do something for me.”

“Anything,” I breathed, and when he pulled three more candies from his pocket, I lunged.

“These are for tomorrow. There’s one for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for after dinner.”

He gave me a fourth to take the edge off, and all at once the longing vanished.

“Come back tomorrow, and I’ll give you your first assignment.”

That was how my life in the underground started.

At first, I was given simple jobs, like delivering packages or relaying messages. Easy enough to accomplish behind my parents’s backs, and I was always rewarded with more candy. Then I grew older, more capable, and the nature of my assignments changed. Sometimes I would steal, sometimes I would spy. I was exposed to a whole other world, to the dark and seedy underbelly of humanity. They were people who’d slipped through the cracks. Desperate people. Powerful people. Dangerous people.

By the age of twelve, I’d had enough.

“I can’t do it anymore,” I told the old man.

He just smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said he understood.

“If you want more candy,” he said, closing the door behind me, “you know where to find me.”

I was on his doorstep the following day.

It’s been thirty years, and I’ve done a lot more for the old man than steal or spy. At first I found it odd that he could survive so long. Then I thought about it some more, and I decided it wasn’t odd at all. I lay awake at night, watching the moon-limned shadows dance across the ceiling, and I ponder with manic obsession what I’ll do when he’s gone and the candy finally runs out.

“You’re mine, Joseph,” he said to me once, and he was right.

I am his, now and forever.

Totem, Part 4

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Sandy hovered over a brown leather notebook, the faint smells of ink and paper setting her imagination on fire, fueling the pen in her hand as it skittered and scratched across the surface of an empty page. It was late afternoon going on early evening, and Sandy had arrived home from work less than an hour ago.

A primal force passed back and forth between Ava and the bird, and each stared resolutely at the other, unsure how to proceed, unsure how to break down the barriers that prevented them from understanding one another. A stalemate, she thought in the dank, moldering darkness of the cave, an impasse that would not be breached until she gathered the courage necessary to break the silence.

A story, one that had come to Sandy that afternoon not long after her own close encounter of the avian kind. A young woman, not much older than herself, chosen by her village to venture into the mountains, where it was said a wizard watched over them from a distance, protecting them from harm.

Was this, then, the one whom Ava had been sent to find? Surely not a creature so small and lowly as this solitary blackbird. Yet it gazed up at her with its ink black eyes, whose immense weight bore down on her with all the regal stylings of a king, and she knew there was something there beyond the fleeting awareness of a mere animal, an uncanny stillness and depth that belied ageless wisdom and incalculable strength.

By tradition, the story went, a strong woman from the village was sent into the mountains every decade to seek out their unknown benefactor, to renew their pact of protection. It had gone on for so many generations that nobody could remember precisely why such a journey was necessary. All they knew for sure was that they would send someone, and they would be kept safe for another ten years.

A sacrifice of some kind, for not one of the women sent into the mountains ever returned.

Stories were how Sandy related to the world. They were how she dealt with the things she didn’t understand, how she made sense of a universe that, at times, seemed chaotic and irrational. In a way, it was like dreaming, an opportunity for her to pick apart and reassemble the building blocks of reality in strange and exotic configurations—a way for her mind to process and organize information as it attempted to solve problems, as it attempted to form a more complete picture of the world and how it worked.

It was no surprise that Ava, Sandy’s protagonist, would soon come to discover their mysterious wizard was a bird. Birds had been on her mind the entire afternoon, ever since her strange meeting with the blackbirds at the sandwich shop. They were where the idea for her story had come from.

“Are you—” Ava paused, unable to speak further.

I can’t believe I’m talking to a bird, she thought, knees trembling. This isn’t how the world works.

And yet.

The bird was waiting for her to finish, waiting for her to acknowledge its presence. Only then would it deign to speak with her. The idea was crazy, but a growing part of her had come to believe it was the truth.

And was her reluctance to communicate truly the consequence of a skeptical mind, or was she maybe afraid to learn that the world did, in fact, harbor secrets that defied every logical system she’d ever been taught, that the world made no more sense now than it had to her distant ancestors, who’d discerned the handiwork of unknown gods at the heart of every interaction between man and nature?

Ava swallowed. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. At last, after a pregnant pause, she spoke again.

Sandy’s story had taken hold of her, had swept her away on the coattails of a powerful wind that carried her further and further into the depths of her imagination, into a realm where she was never quite sure how much of the story was her own.

“Are you the wizard?” Ava finished. A simple enough question, yet she’d had to move mountains inside herself to push it out.

Sandy was no longer aware of the pen in her hands or the notebook on her desk. She was in another world, the story before her pouring into her head like some exotic form of telepathy.

“Yes,” came the bird’s reply. “I am he.”

Ava took an involuntary step back. No, she thought. This can’t be. Then, out loud: “You are not the wizard.”

The bird followed after her, a mischievous gleam burning in its eyes like coals. “Oh,” it asked, “and why not?”

A pause. Then the bird spoke again.

“Help us.”

Sandy snagged on that last piece of dialog like a fish caught on a sharp hook. Where did that come from? It was so jarring, so unexpected and out of place in the story she was writing, that Sandy tried to disengage. But she was so deeply entrenched in the tale that the image in her mind refused to leave her right away, and her pen, almost of its own volition, scribbled out three more words before the dream finally burst around her like a bubble.

“Please, help us.”

Rattled, Sandy slapped her pen down on the desk and took a deep, shuddering breath. A story had never taken such complete control of her before. Sure, she was more than casually acquainted with the feeling of a story coming to life inside her head, blossoming into something entirely novel and unexpected. But she’d always been in control, had always known what was coming at least in the instant before pen met paper. But this time, it had come at her so fast, almost like a vision, startlingly lucid, and when she’d tried to pull away—to get a hold of herself again—the story had pulled her back in.

No, thought Sandy, viewing the notebook before her for the first time with suspicion and fear. She was probably just tired. Maybe she’d dozed, and that jarring pause between when she’d told herself to stop and when she’d pulled away had simply been her transition back into a fully wakeful state.

Sandy’s mind went reeling back to the blackbirds, to their strangely intelligent eyes, intense in their silent questioning.

Spooked, Sandy snapped the notebook closed. She bolted from the desk, threw open the curtains to let what remained of the outdoor light inside—a bright burnished copper—and squinted. Though the light hurt her eyes, it also felt good, felt right. It was the blinding visage of reality slapping her in the face, yanking her away from a fantasy that felt as if it had almost drowned her.

When her eyes at last adjusted to the brightness, she let her gaze wander over the familiar contours of the neighbors’s houses, over the backyard she’d grown up in what seemed a lifetime ago, over the towering oak tree she’d once climbed when she was nine.

Sandy drank in the familiar view, relishing its tangible realness. She never noticed the six blackbirds perched in the oak’s branches, shrouded in the deepening shadows.

Read part 5 here.

The Cup

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The cup is full.

I place it to my lips, tilt my head back, and drink.

The cup is empty.

I return it to the table beside the TV and go to work. When I come home again at six thirty—when I sit once more before the table, remote in hand, ready to drown myself in a hurricane of commercials and prime time programming—I reach for it again.

The cup is full.

I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know how or why it works. I only know that it’s a family heirloom, passed down to me by my mother and passed down to her by her mother before her—an ancient artifact, filigreed in untarnished silver and embossed in gold relief. Its means of production unknown, it is both a paradox and a mystery, a bold and strident reminder of all the things in the world we have yet to understand.

The liquid that materializes inside is tangy, salty, sweet. Like a gourmet meal. Like a decadent dessert. It has nourished me two to three times per day since I inherited the cup at the tender age of eighteen.

How much good could such a relic accomplish in a world ravaged by hunger and thirst? Yet it has somehow managed to fall into my lap, into that of a single middle class, middle-aged man with a decent job, a steady income, and plenty of food at his disposal.

A cruel and senseless joke, I think, setting it down on the table once more. But then the world is a savage and irrational place. It knows not of justice and balance, only of chaos and disorder.

With no children of my own, I sometimes wonder what will happen to the cup after I’m gone. Will it rot in a box, forgotten now that its stewards are no more? Or will someone happen upon it by accident, take it for their own, and start a new tradition?

I shift in my seat, dangerously close to a maddening truth I dare not think about for very long, and let the flickering pictures on the TV deliver me into oblivion.

Read Dying Breath, Chapters 1-6 for free!


A place of waiting.

The thought echoes over and over again through Jerome’s mind. Waking in a barn with no memory of where he’s come from, it is his only clue. But before he even has time to think, sleep bears down on him, and when he opens his eyes again, he’s someone else.

A soldier one moment, a financial analyst the next. A little girl. An old man. With each life Jerome experiences, he remembers something else of his own. Flashes of a bright light. A hospital bed. A mysterious woman named Darlene.

But what does it mean? What does each life have in common? Most importantly, what can it tell Jerome about himself?

On March 24, 2018, Dying Breath will be released.

What started out as a request from a $5 patron turned into one of my favorite projects. A lot of work went into this short story, and I’m really excited to share it with all of you. To celebrate the book’s launch, I’m sharing the first six chapters for free. That’s more than half the book!

I’m going to send out an email to my mailing list on March 10 with those first chapters. To read them, all you have to do is subscribe by entering your email address below. As an added bonus, you’ll also receive my short story, The Sign, immediately after confirming your subscription.

Please note that after subscribing, you’ll be emailed a confirmation link. You must click that link to complete your subscription in order to receive the first six chapters of Dying Breath.

Enjoy! 🙂

Totem, Part 3

Images licensed by Shutterstock.

Part 1 | Part 2

She’s coming!

The birds watched the girl with the bracelet make her way outside.

What do we do now?

A collective telepathic murmur followed, and no one ventured to answer.

For hundreds of years they’d searched, six men immortally bound by their former master to a cruel parody of life out of revenge for a transgression they could no longer remember. They’d crossed mountains and deserts, countries and oceans, all in the vain hope of at long last discovering the key to their prison, the totem that bound them to their blackbird bodies. Now, here they were, and here it was, and the discovery was not nearly as satisfying as they’d imagined it would be.

Their search had sustained them with the hope, however small, that they could undo their old master’s evil work, that they would at last be allowed to die. Immortality as men would have been bad enough, but immortality as birds? The first few decades had almost driven them mad. Now, they were reminded that locating the bracelet was only the first step of a longer journey. Now that they knew where it was, how would they take possession of it, and when they did, how would they destroy it?

The girl pulled a thick garment over her head, wrapped it around her waist, and had just passed by the window where they were standing when she stopped suddenly to stare down at them, eyes wide and wondering.

She knows we’re watching her.

Impossible.

Should we address her?

It’s been a long time since we encountered a human capable of speaking with us, said their leader. The memory was not a pleasant one, and he pulled away from it like a child whose hand has passed too near an open fire.

They were not afraid of the humans that populated a modern city like this one, but neither did they trust them. They were all too aware both of how they had been treated as birds and of how they themselves had treated other creatures as humans.

Still, that look in the girl’s eyes, a look that was surely mirrored in their own gaze—a look of recognition, a look that suggested a connection might be made.

When she shook her head and started to back away, the birds panicked. No, they thought, she couldn’t leave them now. They had so much to say to one another, if only they could figure out how. A questioning chirp escaped their leader’s beak, and a moment later, side by side, they followed after her.

Stop, you’re frightening her!

How else can we get her attention?

Too soon. Need to plan first.

But she’s already trying to get away.

No, this was not at all how they’d imagined their search for the bracelet would end. What should they do now? How should they proceed? At any rate, it seemed their efforts to reach the girl were in vain. She was clearly spooked, and while it was likely she could sense something about them beyond their exterior blackbird façades, she would not be open to an encounter with them right now. Not like this.

She’s getting away! Stop her!

Let her go, their leader sighed.

But she has the bracelet!

Yes, he replied, and of what use is that if she’s too afraid to speak with us? We need to give her time.

So they watched her back into the parking lot, imploring her with their eyes not to go, watched her throw open the door of a dark blue Prius, watched her slam the door behind her and start the car.

For now, said their leader, we follow. Find out where she lives, get to know her interests and her schedule, see if we can learn anything that will help us reach her. Maybe, we can even get a hold of the bracelet without her.

Yes, they decided, he was right. And when the car pulled out, they shot into the sky to follow. All was not yet lost. They would watch, and they would wait, and when the time was right, then they would act.

Read part 4 here.