Flash Fiction

Starting Over

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“I can’t do it.”

The Sacred Library had been silent save for the quiet whisking of a thousand pens in a thousand notebooks, each lying open before an acolyte in training, and the words bounced around the cathedral-style building before fleeing down the halls and out of earshot.

Wendy had her own pen, but unlike the others, hers wasn’t moving. Instead, she was looking down, watching the world inside her notebook tear itself apart.

“I can’t do it,” she said again, quieter this time.

It was one thing to take a book off the shelf, gaze at the words on the pages, and read the world that was etched between the lines. It was another thing altogether to become its author. A successful reading required great skill, but even that level of talent was a drop in the ocean compared to the otherworldly challenge of Creation.

Wendy had survived three years of training, but now, after constructing her own world piece by piece, it was unraveling. She peered through the symbols written in her notebook. She watched the sea levels rise, the winds gain speed, the ground begin to shake, and all she could do was sit and allow the apocalypse to unfold.

“What’s this now?”

Wendy turned to find Randal, one of the Library’s oldest disciples, standing behind her.

“I can’t do it, sir.”

Randal took the notebook from her trembling hands and started from the beginning, flipping through each page and reading her world just as Wendy had learned to read a dozen others.

“Mmm,” said the old man with the utmost gravity. “I see the problem.”

“There are so many variables, so many loose ends. It got off to a decent start, but now as I approach the end, I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.”

The disciple’s robes swished as he took a seat beside her. He turned back to the last empty page, and after looking her in the eye, returned the notebook. He leaned in close, and in a conspiratorial whisper, said, “I’ll tell you a secret. No creation is ever a lost cause.”

“But I’ve already written so much, and every line at the end depends on another line from the beginning. How can I fix something that rests on such a faulty foundation?”

“By going back and rewriting the foundation.”

“But then the rest of the world will collapse.”

The disciple nodded.

“And in its place, you can build something better.”

That was a possibility Wendy hadn’t considered before. She bit her upper lip in thought.

“No acolyte,” the old man continued, “has ever gotten a new world right on the first try. Nor, for that matter, has any disciple. But if you love something, you don’t give up on it. You return to the forge and you try again, as many times as it takes. You examine your world through the critical eye of a surgeon. You determine what it was that lead to its demise, and then you pluck it out. You revise, then revise again, until someday, somehow, your world finds its soul and can live apart from you, as all great masterpieces do.”

Now, for the first time, Wendy turned the pages backward. She traced through her world’s evolution, from its birth at the core of a primordial star to its violent and premature end. There were, she realized, a great many things she would have done differently.

“It’s really okay to start over?” she asked.

The disciple flashed her an enigmatic smile.

“As many times as it takes.”

He left her to check on the other acolytes, but Wendy, knee-deep in the storms of Creation once more, hardly noticed.

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Fire and Stone

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Adam had been walking through the tunnel for some time. He could not remember entering, nor could he remember why. Nevertheless, lost in both space and time, he continued walking, searching for the answer to a question long forgotten.

The tunnel was hot, uncomfortably so, and the longer he went on, the hotter it got. Making matters worse, the walls were drawing closer. At first, he’d thought it was his imagination. Now, however, he had to squeeze through to move, and soon, he was certain, they would close around him completely, trapping him underground with nothing but the dark and the heat to hear his dying screams.

He’d already tried to turn around, so many times, in fact, that he could no longer remember which way was forward and which way was back. Not that it mattered. Either destination led to his destruction.

Embrace the heat and the stone.

A shard of memory, flaring in the dark like a spark. It was soon followed by another.

Become one with the underground, or else it will destroy you.

The words, spoken in a desiccated rasp, were accompanied by the image of a gnarled old woman, huddled close to a dwindling fire. Adam seized on what little he could remember, but there was nothing for his mind to grab onto, nothing but the heat and solid stone.

Lost, alone, and far out of his depth, he sunk to the ground, sweat rolling down his face and neck. Was this how it would end, deep underground without even the comfort of knowing why he’d descended in the first place?

Embrace the heat and the stone.

The words had the air of a prophecy yet to be fulfilled, a conditional destiny that hinged on his willingness to do as the old woman said.

Adam picked himself up, almost out of breath and uncertain how to proceed. The heat was getting to his mind, making him lightheaded and sluggish. Even though he hadn’t moved, he could feel that the walls were closer, that they were almost on top of him, that in a moment he would only be able to walk sideways, and that in a few more moments he would not be able to walk at all.

Embrace the heat and the stone.

This time, the words seemed to come from outside his head. Not sound, not exactly, but a vibration, a low, resonant rumble that could be felt through the floor and the walls. The Earth was speaking to him. Or was he hallucinating? Adam was not sure which, not sure it even mattered.

The heat.

Like an oven, roasting him alive.

The stone.

Pressing down on him, pinning him to the ground.

Adam closed his eyes, the fire in his heart nearly extinguished.

The heat. The stone.

In his head, the two words merged into a back and forth rhythm, and like rubbing two sticks together in a forest, the resulting friction began to warm him from the inside.

Heat. Stone. Heat. Stone.

Faster and faster the rhythm went. The heat inside of him grew hotter, brighter. This interior heat was somehow different, not harmful in the least but rather a counterweight that helped him to keep his balance amidst the heat and pressure from the outside. Adam’s mind was coming back online, and through the rapidly growing fire in his head, he began to perceive in the underground an ancient forgotten purpose.

Become one with the underground.

Now, Adam had an idea of what that might mean. He was on the threshold of a grand and irreversible transformation, but first, he had a choice to make. Either he could give up his old life on the surface, embrace his new purpose, and live; or else hold onto who he’d once been, and deep within the heart of the Earth, lay down and die.

The heat.

The stone.

Adam did not wish to die, and it was clear to him that there was no way to go but forward. His choice was obvious, then, and in the searing darkness of the underground tunnel, he answered the Earth’s call.

Like an animal in a cage, he threw back his head and screamed. He hit the wall behind him, but the blow did not hurt. Instead, flesh and bone fused with stones and minerals. Caught now in the gravity a wild and ancient dance, the souls of Adam and the Earth twisted, pulled, merged, forming one inseparable whole that was neither Adam nor the Earth but something more.

This composite entity regarded its nascent existence with almost reverential wonder. It could now perceive in its entirety the ancient purpose that Adam had only glimpsed in the underground, a commandment older than the universe, and with its heart set, it began the work necessary to fulfill it.

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End of a Cycle

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It was almost 11:30 when Samantha turned off the TV. She’d been watching NBC’s New Year’s Eve 2020, and just before the screen went dark, Carson Daly had asked someone in the audience about their New Year’s resolutions. Until then, the impending reality of 2020 felt as distant as it had in January of 2019. Then the audience member spoke, a young man in his early twenties—”In 2020,” he said, “I’m going to eat right and lose weight”—and Samantha’s entire world turned upside down.

Now, without the flickering light of the TV to brighten the room, Samantha sat on the couch in almost total darkness, the surrounding silence interrupted only by the occasional car, partygoer, or distant firecracker. So many people celebrating. If only they knew what 2020 had in store. Some would be happy, of course, as she herself should be. Others not so much.

She glanced down at the phone in her hands to check the time.

11:40.

Twenty more minutes, Samantha thought, and then the cycle would start anew and the world would be different once again. Already, she could feel the ancient power flowing through her veins. A wonderful sensation, to be sure, but Samantha was afraid of what it meant for the rest of the world.

Outside a child shouted, and for a moment all she could think about was what kind of world they might grow up in. Would they be pushed to the outer fringes of society as Samantha and her kind had? Long ago, at the start of the previous cycle, her species had risen to the full height of their strength. At the time, they’d shared the world with humanity, and humanity had had no choice but to accept it. Then, at the lowest point of the cycle, when their power waned and they were at their weakest, the humans attacked. They executed the leader of Samantha’s people and exiled the rest, scattering them to the four corners of the Earth. The memory of who and what they were faded. They became the subject of legend, then myth, and in the fullness of time, they were forgotten.

Now, their time to reclaim the world was at hand, and Samantha’s people had a long memory.

She should have reveled in the imminent revival of her species, but instead feared for her human friends and co-workers. She knew that as a species they could be cruel, that their anxiety over the unknown easily turned from fear to hate and from hate to violence. But those responsible for the oppression of her kind died long ago, and the humans who lived today deserved the chance to prosper and learn from their ancestors’ mistakes.

If they persecuted the humans today, then at the next low point in their cycle, the humans would persecute them, establishing a second cycle, not of power and strength but of violence, hatred, and destruction. Could they find the courage and conviction necessary to forgive humanity and to dwell among them as brothers and sisters? Many desired such a relationship, Samantha included, but did they represent the majority?

At 11:57, Samantha stepped outside to watch the crescent moon in the sky. She glanced for a moment at her neighbors’ homes, and with her head bowed, uttered a silent prayer for peace and forgiveness in the new year.

Happy New Year, guys!
– Jeff

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