Anathema

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Arnold stopped to peer at the moon, glabrous and pale in the late night sky, then slipped through the broad cathedral doors. The church was silent except for the echo his shoes made when he walked across the marble floor, and he suppressed a shudder as he passed by flickering candles and confessionals, surrounded by leering statues of the saints.

He stopped beside the front row of pews, genuflected before the blessed sacrament and sat. It was a ritual he’d learned in his youth. A ritual he hadn’t practiced in years.

The domed ceiling rose to a spectacular height, covered in otherworldly frescoes depicting the cosmic struggle between God and Satan. He looked up and felt dwarfed by the vastness of eternity, a terrible awe of Heaven and Hell, and felt as if he might be crushed between the two.

Arnold took a deep breath and gazed toward the altar, where a large wooden crucifix loomed over the empty congregation, hidden beneath a dark shadowy veil. He imagined the figure of Christ within, face frozen in perpetual agony.

It was Holy Week, a time of penance and reflection, and Arnold had a lot to think about.

The cathedral was a special place. Time was thin here, and if he focused hard enough he was sure he could peer through it, into the past, where he’d spent so many formative years in the Church, into the future, where he searched for answers to questions that had almost destroyed him once and threatened to destroy him still.

What was he? He was no closer to figuring that out than he’d been fifteen years ago when his terrible transformation began.

Life had been simple as a child. He’d done as his parents had told him, had believed as the priests had taught him. He’d gone to mass and confession, learned his prayers, absorbed himself fully in the truth that was presented to him.

Now, he was a stranger in his old place of worship, a stranger to his family, a stranger to himself.

He waited, as if God might glance down from Heaven and notice him at last. But there was only the quiet and the dark.

A faint buzz emanated from the stone walls, as if a tension was mounding in the cathedral’s foundation. Arnold closed his eyes to pray.

“Hail Mary,” he began, voice husky and dry. He stopped to clear his throat, then started again. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Was there a Lord? If so, how did Arnold fit into his plans? The buzz grew louder, and Arnold could feel the pew begin to vibrate beneath him.

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

What did it mean to be blessed? Arnold had been taught that to be saved, one must remain in a state of grace. Was Arnold in a state of grace, or was he now anathema? Did he have a place in Heaven, or a place in Hell? The buzz transfigured, became a loud shuddering rumble.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

A thunderous crack exploded like a cannon, and Arnold’s eyes popped open.

The veil had torn along a jagged seam that ran down its center like a fault line in the earth. The heavy wooden cross beneath trembled, leaned forward as if in prayer, then came crashing down, destroying the tabernacle, scattering consecrated hosts like confetti.

The earth shook with such violence that Arnold imagined the gates of Hell were opening, ready to swallow him whole.

“Please, God, make it stop!”

Arnold rocked back and forth like a toddler, holding his hands over his ears as if the gesture could protect him.

Then just like that it was over. The Earth stopped moving. The cathedral fell silent once more.

Face hot, Arnold’s neck bulged as he beheld the ruined altar, veins popping through his skin like thick cords.

“What am I?” he shouted at the painting on the ceiling. “Why are you doing this to me?”

A man emerged through the open doorway behind the altar, a silhouette wreathed in moonlight. He stepped forward until the pallid illumination revealed a pair of wide, disbelieving eyes.

The parish priest.

Arnold leaped to his feet and bolted.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

We Are You

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

The creature shrieked. Diane ran.

Rain fell, pattering the street, while above in the clouds, thunder exploded like aboriginal drums. The rain had soaked through her clothes, and a chill was settling into her chest. But she kept running, blood pounding, side aching, because something dangerous was behind her, and if she let her guard down for even a moment she was dead.

Another shriek, a war cry that drained the blood from her already pallid face.

Have to go. Have to get away.

The streets had been abandoned years ago and Diane was alone. Buildings slumped in abandoned lots, while empty cars tilted into gutters and signs hung from rusted posts like ancient monuments to forgotten gods.

No one left but Diane, which meant no one left to help.

She remembered a time before the invasion, before the world had been reduced to broken structures and shattered dreams. The image most prominent in her mind was that of her mother, cradling her in her arms when she was only three. Nobody would have believed her if she said she could remember such a young age, but Diane recalled every word that passed from her mother’s lips as she sang Diane’s favorite song, every stroke through her hair as she leaned in to whisper that she loved her, that no harm would come to her as long as she remained in her mother’s arms. The potent memory of what she’d had and what she lost made her chest ache.

I miss you, Mom.

Then pain shot through Diane’s leg, and the world rose to meet her, knocking the air from her lungs.

The gutter. She’d tripped over the gutter. Diane staggered to her feet, eyes wide.

“No,” she breathed. “No.”

But it was too late. By the time she found her balance she’d already seen its eyes, staring at her from across the street.

Diane’s eyes.

Her dark double’s thoughts immediately burst inside her mind.

We are you, now. The time for running is over.

It was the last thing Diane heard.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Alone

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Philosophers have pondered it. Theologians have pontificated about it. Scientists have been skeptical of it. Life after death. The great beyond. Sarah had been afraid of it, then had slipped silently into it during the night.

She had no idea how she’d met death. She could only remember waking in a dark place, unable to move her limbs because she had no limbs to move. Her nature, her mode of being, had been turned on its head in an instant. It took her ages to come to terms with the loss, to begin exploring the depths of her insubstantial self.

When at last acceptance came, she drifted through the cosmos, ready to begin whatever journey lay ahead. Moving was not so much an act of the body as it was an act of the will, a projection of thought and mind.

She called out, hoping to find others like herself, but no one answered.

Was that what death was? To be alone? The thought terrified her. If her eternal vocation was to exist in such a state, she’d rather the darkness had consumed her.

She continued to skid through the universe, crying out in increasingly panicked outbursts.

Hello? Is anyone there?

She felt her soundless voice reverberate, ripple out through space and time. But again, there was no reply. If she kept this up, she was certain she’d go mad.

Had she gone to Hell? As she streaked through a thousand worlds in silence, she pondered this terrible prospect.

Hell. Was that the reward I earned in life?

She tried to remember but could not. Her old life had faded until it left only the vaguest of impressions, a formless shadow in the dark.

Is anyone there? Please, answer me.

She projected herself further. Further. Like a heat-seeking missile, she launched herself as far as she could go in search of companionship.

Sarah.

A silent whisper, echoing across the void in reply. Her name. Someone had used her name. At last, an answer to her call. If she had a body, tears would have poured from her eyes.

I’m here!

Sarah, follow my voice.

And Sarah did. On and on she went, zeroing in, while every so often that voice would say something new so she could pick up its trail and continue following after it.

Sarah, over here. That’s it, Sarah. You’ve almost made it.

There was light in the distance, not the kind she had once witnessed with her eyes but something different, a radiant, all-consuming fire that warmed her essence.

Just a little further.

The voice was close now, still separated from her by some unfathomable chasm, but close all the same.

Suddenly, the light was a searing fire that burned just to look at it.

Sarah, you’ll have to jump.

I’m scared.

But she ached to pass through it, to see what was in store for her on the other side. Most of all, she longed for communion with the voice that had reached out to her at the height of her terrible loneliness.

Just let go and jump.

Sarah felt power mounding in her. Fear and desire warred with each other in greater and greater intensity, until the fire in her own soul was a greater agony than the fire she contemplated crossing.

That’s it, Sarah. Jump!

She did as the voice commanded. There was a timeless instant in which agony reached an excruciating peak, in which she could feel all the impurities of her former existence smelted away. Then she was pure, pristine, and the fire could no longer harm her.

She was a part of the light now, and inside of it she could at last behold the one who’d spoken to her with a kind of awe she’d been incapable of in life.

Welcome home, Sarah.

Love filled her to capacity. The chasm had been bridged, and Sarah would never be alone again.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

The Generous Patron

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

This story is dedicated first and foremost to my generous and supportive patrons ♥

“Damn.”

Alan sighed and dropped his hands. A moment later, the half formed construction of fire that hovered before him vanished. Without its flickering light, the market stall was cold and dark.

He’d tried to make a Phoenix. Not an actual living creature that could take to the sky, but a forging of elemental magic, a work of art, a tribute to nature’s greatest and most breathtaking creatures.

But nobody had come to visit. Nobody had come to see his spectacular figures of ice and fire, so what did it matter that he hadn’t gotten this last one right?

His big brother’s words came back to him.

There’s no money in magic. Go out and find a real job.

But Alan had been young and idealistic. He believed the world needed magic, that without its beauty, the awe that it inspired, life wasn’t worth living. Now, Alan thought maybe his brother had been right all along. Maybe there was no place for his kind of talent.

Cold and alone, Alan started packing up for the night.

He was about to unravel the cord that anchored his tent to the ground when a soft female voice startled him.

“I’d like to see what you have to offer.”

Alan spun, almost knocking into a nearby table, and spied a young woman dressed in a dark coat, eyes catching the light of distant lanterns so they seemed to glow.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, catching his breath. “I’m closing.”

“That’s a shame.”

“You wouldn’t be interested, anyway,” said Alan, years of bitterness rising to the fore. “Just worthless avatars, nothing of actual value.”

“I’d like to be the judge of what I find interesting.”

A breeze swept through the dwindling market, kicking up dried leaves, yet the fabric of her coat remained untouched. There was something about her stately presence that unnerved him, and he felt suddenly as if he were dreaming.

“I only dabble in magic,” he found himself saying, averting his gaze. “Surely you’d prefer something of more practical value.”

“I happen to like magic.”

He stared at her for a moment, then nodded. Fine, he could cycle through a few forms. When she tired of his art he could send her on her way and be that much closer to going home.

“All right,” he said, and he sat down before the broad oak table he’d almost toppled a moment before.

What should he make for her? He tried to think of something captivating, but found he was too self conscious to think clearly.

As if sensing his vulnerability, she sat down in an empty chair across from him and took one of his hands into her own.

“Go on,” she insisted. “Form whatever’s in your heart.”

Now, the light in her eyes radiated patience and kindness, and he found a comfort so unexpectedly powerful that the walls inside his head began to weaken.

Whatever was in his heart. Yes, he supposed he could do that. He didn’t know this woman, but in this intimate moment that passed between them he was certain he could trust her, that he would be safe expressing a piece of his truest self.

Alan closed his eyes.

The form that leaped to mind nearly arrested him with heart stopping wonder. An expression of vulnerability and longing, of an age old passion, once dusty and dry, its dying flames stoked at last.

His hands started to move, animated by a force not entirely his own. The woman, the tent, the other stalls, they all fell away, burned to ash before a blinding interior vision. The form he beheld was a soul without a body, an essence in need of life. Alan was the vessel through which it could achieve that life, and he was eager to fulfill its need. He reached beyond himself, beyond the world, into the vast, limitless universe and its roiling sea of unrealized power and potential.

He channeled that boundless reservoir of energy, dividing what he took into its constituent parts. From one, he drew scintillating fibers of bright, orange fire, serpentine tongues that lashed through the air in bright, sparkling flashes. From another, he drew frosty tendrils of ice, subliming into the wind in gentle, billowing wisps like smoke.

Then, like an artisan weaver, he wound these two elemental threads together into a single, seamless fabric, a bold, exotic material of contrast and extremes. When he’d spun enough, he tied it off, holding it suspended in the air, now a lump of clay to be molded, shaped and refined with each pass of his deft and dexterous hands.

The basic form complete, he reached out once more, spinning invisible threads of wind and air. These became the life force that would bind the whole together.

Finished at last.

Alan opened his eyes. The world came back into focus, and he almost jumped when he saw the woman sitting close. He’d been so lost in what he was doing he’d forgotten she was there.

Above both their heads, there now hovered a bright, fiery dragon, shot through with strands of icy blue, broad wings flapping in the air, sending down heavy gusts of frigid winter wind as well as hot, baking heat. A masterpiece.

The woman clapped her hands.

“It’s wonderful!” she exclaimed. “The best I’ve ever seen.”

Alan blushed. “Thank you. It’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”

Alan let the elemental form persist until he felt the fibers begin to buckle, eager to be released. Sadly, regretfully, he let the cord that anchored him to his creation go. The dragon above their heads vanished in a puff of smoke.

“It is everything,” she said, with such gravity that he was taken aback. “There are those who do practical things, and they are important, because without them the world cannot function. There are also those who do beautiful things, and they too are important, because without them the world cannot remember why it functions.”

Tears sprung to Alan’s eyes as the idealist of his youth burst from its hard, cynical shell.

“You are a maker of beautiful things,” she continued. “You are important and necessary, and I would like to be your patron, if you would have me.”

“My— What?” Alan’s heart seemed to stop.

She wanted to be his patron. He nearly trembled with shock.

“Your magic must live on. You won’t survive here, in this world of practical things. You were made for a different life, and I would like to be the one who makes that life possible.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, his voice suddenly husky and hoarse. “Thank you.”

“Come on,” she said, “I’ll help you tear down. We have a lot to discuss.”

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Finding the Light

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

A special shout out to my new patrons, Michael, Liz, Billie, Christine and Jewelz! If you want to read early drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write, as well as receive free copies of all my books in the digital format of your choice, become a patron by clicking here.

Mary peered down at the murky, gray-green water, pondering the cities and bodies that had slipped beneath its sallow, rippling surface during the night. All around her, a fetid wind whipped and whistled, mocking whispers in the faltering light.

“You failed,” those sneering voices seemed to say. “Before you even realized anything was wrong, you failed.”

She looked up at the sun, low in the sky, bloated and red. It gave off a pale, sickly illumination that reminded her of congealed blood.

Just yesterday, the water had been a bright, electric blue, the sun a blinding ball of white hot fire. So much had changed, it was staggering to think how the corruption could have swept through the world so fast.

My ancestors defended it for tens of thousands of years, she thought, and I couldn’t even defend it for one.

The wind became dry, rasping laughter, like shriveled snake’s skin rattling across hot, desert sand.

“The world has always been mine,” the wind seemed to say, and it sent its rotten, moldering stench to her nose. “Since the time before time.”

No, Mary couldn’t accept that. Corruption had always been a part of the world—evil was an ever-present danger to be guarded against at all times—but there was also love, and this could not belong to evil any more than darkness could belong to the sun.

“I reject you,” she said, stepping forward toward the water’s edge. “You hold no claim over these lands.”

More laughter.

Mary held her ground.

Dig deep, her father had told her once, his last lesson before taking up his mantle in the second life. In times of distress, dig deep. Cling to what’s right, find the light and let it out into the world.

Dig deep.

Mary closed her eyes.

She reached far into Earth’s heart, into the only place the corruption hadn’t been able to reach. She could see that the light inside had faded, diminished some by the relentless onslaught of the evil that forced it into hiding. But it was pure, strong and true.

The Earth shuddered as Mary let out thick, gnarled roots. They surged through the ground, beneath soil and stone, down into the red hot regions beneath, plunging into the very core.

“What are you doing?” asked the wind, picking up in intensity, transforming into a hurricane-like gale.

With all the force she could muster, Mary pierced the white-hot center, making contact with the life force inside.

A bolt like an electric shock plowed through her, shooting up into the roots. With her as a conduit to lend it strength, it flowered into a radiance and a love so strong no corruption could survive its searing power. It flowed through her, out of her, out into the world.

“No!” cried that fetid wind, burning to cinders in the blinding luminescence. It boiled off like water, dispersing in a cloud like super-heated steam.

When at last she opened her eyes, the world was as she remembered it.

“You’ve done well,” said the light, once more free to sustain the world.

Mary could no longer move, for her roots had run deep and there was no disentangling herself. She was one with Earth now, just as her father had been, just as she would be for as long as the light allowed her to live.

“Take care of this world, so that I might always shine.”

“I will,” she whispered.

Now, she gazed down at water that was a clear, crystal blue, the sun blazing overhead just as it had for thousands of years before. There would always be evil, lurking in the shadows, but as long as there was light, redemption would be close at hand.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

From Life to Death

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

CRACK.

Thunder crashed, tearing the sky asunder. A storm of apocalyptic proportions. But Martha didn’t jump as so many of her neighbors did. She’d been expecting it since she was five.

The year she died.

She set her things aside and walked into the pouring rain. The street was nearly empty; most had gone inside when the rain started. There were only a couple folks standing in their front yards, staring up at the sky as if Hell had descended from the clouds, and Martha guessed she could understand. That last crack of thunder had packed quite a whallop.

The sky was a writhing mass of charcoal clouds, pluming like broad stone columns, blotting out the sun. Martha gazed up and tried to spot the form hidden within.

“Come out where I can see you,” she shouted. “Let me look at you.”

She glanced across the street, self conscious in the wake of her outburst, and of course there was Harold Vernor staring back at her. Well, let him think her a senile fool. She had other things to worry about.

A second peal of thunder, like a mortar bursting in the sky, followed by a bright, strobe-like flash. The sound set off at least a dozen car alarms.

Martha stood there waiting.

MARTHA.

“I was wondering when you’d show yourself.”

Martha had been five the year she contracted pneumonia. Everybody expected her to get better, even her doctor, so it came as quite a shock when she took a turn for the worst and teetered on the precipice of death. The storm had come then just as it came now, frightening people with its great pounding cries like artillery fire.

It had approached her on the doorway of death, and in a voice only she could hear, it offered to restore her life. In return, she would let it take her again at a future time of its choosing. The idea terrified her, but if she turned down its offer she was sure to die anyway. So she agreed, and she woke the following morning as if she’d never been sick.

Now, just as before, rain pelted the street in a series of rapid fire plinks, so that Martha was soaked to the skin.

IT’S TIME.

“I figured as much. Can’t say I’ve had a bad life. Had my fair share of scrapes and bruises, but I guess I came out okay in the end.”

Two more explosions. Light electrified the sky.

“Anyway,” she continued, “I’m ready now.”

YOU ARE BRAVE.

“Not brave, just old enough to know I’ve had enough.”

THEN COME, AND LET ME TAKE YOU HOME.

A column of light like liquid fire, bolting from the sky. It struck her in the head. Martha rode that wild surge into the arms of her savior and destroyer, leaving her smoldering body behind.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

The Magic Returns

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

He sits in a cold, dark corner, alone and afraid. It’s been too long, he thinks. He’s like an ancient, dried out riverbed, where the magic hasn’t flowed for ages. What makes him think he can summon it now?

Once, he was capable of great things. Through his unique talent, entire worlds emerged from nothing, whatever the heart and mind could conceive. He took it for granted, thinking it would always be there to serve him.

But he was soon swept up by worldly concerns. He stopped using the magic, stopped creating, and though the fire inside never stopped burning, it grew small and ashen through a chronic lack of practice. He was too busy with work, he told himself, too busy trying to feed his family, too busy doing a hundred other things. Only later, when it seemed too late, did he realize those were excuses, that he could have retreated to his study for as little as five minutes at a time, because there were always pockets of time to be found if only one was dedicated enough to search for them.

He hasn’t created for so long now that the channels through which the magic once flowed have closed up. It’s too late, he thinks. Only the fire inside still burns, no longer just a pile of dying embers as they’d been for so many years, but a raging inferno.

He sits at his old desk because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“Is this what you want?” he whispers to nobody in particular, “To mock me? To remind me that I gave up?” Mad with grief, he hardly knows what he’s saying.

Anguish reaches a climax. He feels small and helpless, like an ant caught up in a sandstorm. There’s nothing to lose anymore, only an ache that will grow deeper and fuller the longer he stays away.

He reaches into the void and at long last does the only thing he’s ever known how to do.

He closes his eyes and opens himself to the magic.

At first, nothing comes. In a moment of despair, he’s certain his worst fears have been confirmed. But then he hears it building as if from a great distance, and the shriveled conduits in his mind quiver with anticipation. The dam breaks, and the dried up riverbed floods once more, a raging rapid of pent up magic he thought forever inaccessible.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting in the dark before the colossal torrent finally ebbs. When he comes back to himself, he stares at his latest creation, mute and disbelieving.

At last, a work of art he can call his own.

Tears blur his vision as he realizes the truth, that the magic never left him. He turned his back on it for a while, but it was always there, waiting for him to embrace it. Like a guiding star, it reorients him. Old priorities wither before a renewed sense of purpose.

For the first time in decades, he can call himself an artist.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Everlasting Life

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Mirage

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Merchant of Desire

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.