The Writer

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Jared’s eyes popped open at 3:17 in the morning. His head was pounding. His brain was a jumbled kaleidoscope of broken thoughts and disjointed memories, and at first he couldn’t tell where he was.

Then the pressure in his head increased. Jared moaned. He tossed the blanket aside, fumbled in the dark for the light switch, then walked briskly to his desk and picked up a pen. He groped the hardwood surface for his notebook, and when he found it he pulled it open to where he’d left off that afternoon.

Jared began to write.

Images of a life not his own funneled slowly from his mind, through his hand and onto the paper beneath him. It was dizzying, looking through two pairs of eyes at the same time. He was Jared, the writer who lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment. He was Arthur, a balding art mogul in his mid-forties, gulping for air as his studio partner plunged a six-inch serrated knife into his back.

As he scribbled furiously, trying to relieve the pressure, he wondered if he was writing the story or if the story was writing him.

He’d never asked for this. One day in high school, he’d been sitting in his sixth period English class when a story had come plummeting out of nowhere. It seized control of his senses, then raped him repeatedly as he sat there helpless in front of his teacher and his peers. All he could do was write it down, scribbling in his three-ring binder so fast that he nearly tore several pages, hoping and praying that somehow he could get it out of his head without anybody noticing that he was no longer paying attention.

Since then, his life had been a never-ending series of unpredictable encounters.

After a time, the well-spring ran dry. His viewfinder into Arthur’s soul vanished, and he was left gasping for air with his head in his hands. After taking a few minutes to catch his breath, he turned out the light. He returned to the covers, drenched in sweat, and he prayed. He asked God (if there was a God) to take this from him, though all the while he knew his prayer was in vain.

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An Immortal in Exile

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I walk across the beach, following the ever-shifting outline of the water. The sun has begun to set; the sky is blossoming with fire. I watch the surf churn and froth as it rolls in and out. I find the waves contemplative. They comfort me, draw me into myself as the water is always, inevitably, drawn back into the sea. I step into the tide on a whim, and cool briny water surrounds my legs, sometimes splashing as high as my knees.

I stub my toe on a rock and a sharp staccato curse escapes my lips. It tears me away from my center, and for a moment, I wonder at the fragile nature of my body. I look down, spot a chunk of granite half buried in the sand and pick it up. I hold it toward the light, examine the structure closely. I was there, I think, when it was formed, when the Earth itself was just a rock hurtling through the cosmos. I toss it back into the ocean and watch it land with a plop.

I try to remember the distant past, and sometimes I can almost glimpse the life beyond. But so much of who and what I am is inaccessible to me. I am an ocean, of which my humanity is only a remnant small enough to be caught in a glass jar. Like Jesus in the New Testament, I have a dual nature. I am both human and divine.

I have assumed many forms, have lived many lives spanning the gamut of time and space. Like light through a prism, I have been split apart, reduced to a broken spectrum of partial selves. I have inhabited countless worlds, existed as many species, loved and lost a thousand times for every star that’s ever burned in the sky.

I drift from one life to the next, a cosmic vagrant, the fullness of my being always just out of reach. I only ever know what I need to fulfill my current life’s purpose. I must regard everything else as a mystery.

I am an Immortal, but before the gas clouds of this universe had even condensed into stars, I was exiled. The scope and nature of my crimes are lost to me, incomprehensible to my present form. I only know that I must atone. I strive in each life to make my brethren proud, because I know they’re watching and await my return. I know that someday I will redeem myself, that there will come a time when I will finally die my last death.

A wave rolls in, this one particularly strong, and I panic as I picture the sea preparing to swallow me whole.

I often imagine ways that I could die. It amazes me that after so many lives on so many different worlds, I could still fear something so banal. But my frail human psyche has bound me hand and foot to the dictatorship of instinct, and I must endure the biological imperative to survive like everyone else.

During the night, I write. It’s the only way I can confront the shadows that haunt me in the small hours, the only way for me to give them form and expression. It’s my way of capturing small remnants of who I was. Yet words are imprecise, and there are so many thoughts that are inexpressible, transcendent, atoms of being that predate my humanity.

I gaze up. The sun is gone now, the sky transparent to the cosmos. I drink it in, eternal mysteries that are no longer mine to understand. I utter a silent prayer, a plea for mercy that I hope my kind will hear, and I accept by faith that they do.

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The Machine

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If you listen carefully you can hear it, the low bass rumble of hulking iron gears winding behind a cosmic curtain, beyond space and time. It sustains the universe, scaffolds reality. Once, when the machine was new, when it was well oiled and regularly maintained, it made little sound at all, just a gentle soothing hum that saturated the universe with newborn energy.

But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the steady nearly-silent rhythm began to change. At first, it was just a tiny ping in the engine. Then the oil began to burn and the gears began to grind. Yet the machine continued to operate to specification, and the universe chugged along for another fourteen billion years.

Then the ball bearings gave out. The machine started to crack and squeak, and the universe began to spoil. Stars began to lose their heat. Gravity began to lose its pull. Time warped and stretched like taffy. All the while that incessant squealing permeated the cosmos, driving men, women and beings of indeterminate gender mad.

Finally, the timing belt snapped and the whole thing unravelled. There was a crash, a thud and the machine simply stopped running. Reality wavered. Faded. Disappeared.

For ages the machine sat in disrepair, silent and still, ruined and forgotten in the darkness outside creation. Then its maker stumbled onto it while seeking parts for another project. He considered leaving it, for he was a busy man. But nostalgia seized him, and he was overtaken by an unexpected sadness.

He toiled in endless dark. He replaced the timing belt and the ball bearings. He lubricated the sensitive inner workings. He filled the reservoir with a fresh carton of oil.

When at last he was finished he flipped the switch. The machine spun to life, and the universe was new once more. And in the background, permeating space and time, was that familiar, ever-present hum.

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Grace

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Grace clutches a ragged teddy bear to her chest. It reminds her of her parents. The memories are bittersweet.

She gazes up, squints when her eyes reach the bright lines of yellow light that penetrate the wooden slats a hundred feet above. She blinks away tears.

She sidles to the right, her long dress brushing the dirt beneath her legs, and she feels the tug of iron chains binding her to the stone wall. She expects it, though it continues to fill her with despair. She returns to her previous position and the chains slacken. She closes her eyes and dozes.

She never meant them harm. She came after her parents died and left her orphaned in the woods outside their village. They took her in, fed her, clothed her. They took her to church. Taught her to pray. Then they discovered she was different.

They called her a demon. Spat on her. Beat her. Dug a prison beneath the earth, clapped her in chains and left her there to rot.

For the first few days she’d cried out in disbelief. Trembling and wailing, she begged them between racking sobs to take her back. She promised to be good, but nobody listened. She was an uncomfortable truth that was better off buried and forgotten.

She heard their whispers, knew they expected her to die. Yet years passed without food or water and she survived. They said it was unnatural, that she was the spawn of Satan. Every now and then, one of them would gaze down through the wooden slats, peer into her tear-streaked eyes and look away.

A generation passed. The children grew up and ventured out in search of a better life, and one by one the remaining inhabitants grew old and died. The last of them to peer down into her prison had white wispy hair and a thin grey beard. He cocked his head at her, hesitated, moved closer as if wondering what to do. Then he gritted his teeth, clutched his chest, closed his eyes and collapsed.

The first years of her life had been filled with love and light. She’d danced beneath the trees, sustained by the sun, the wind, the earth and the sky, a child of wild nature-born magic. But bound beneath the earth in isolation, her good nature soured. Her heart grew hard, and spite consumed her until her only wish was to set the world on fire, to look on with delight as the skin of those who imprisoned her crackled, blistered and popped.

She knows that one day she’ll be free. Perhaps her chains will rust through completely and she’ll dig herself out. Or perhaps someone will wander by unknowing and rescue her. It’s only a matter of time.

Grace dons a wicked smile.

The villagers could have bred a saint. Instead, they bred a monster.

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The Tunnel

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There is a tunnel buried beneath the layers of the world, outside time, outside creation. It is dank and musty, pregnant with rot and decay. The walls are smeared with the stale blood of creatures extinct billions of years before the Big Bang.

It is a prison, erected to contain a race of pestilence and destruction that had once spanned the breadth of creation. They spread like cancer, defiling everything in their path with a cosmological blight that nearly brought all of reality to its knees. Entire universes fell in the attempt to take them down, and only when the Immortals came were they finally forced to yield.

If death could have stopped them, the Immortals never would have built it. But they would only have assumed another form, and their evil would have continued to dominate. The only way to protect the cosmos was to quarantine them: to lock them away forever in a tomb of stone, fortified with wards and seals to prevent their escape. The Immortals gave their very life essence to strengthen and uphold it, to keep the walls solid and substantial against their feral, outraged cries.

But now the place lies in ruins, corrupted and forgotten—those who built it having moved on. When the prisoners were abandoned, they wondered if their captors even remembered they were there.

The seals weaken with the passing of the ages. In some places, they are stretched so thin that the prisoners can once more sense the outside. They scratch at the walls with insubstantial claws, and the structure gives, ever so slightly, in tiny, imperceptible increments.

Time has made them hungry. The Immortals thought starvation would break them, make them weak and vulnerable. But it only strengthened their resolve to ravage the cosmos once more.

Now they sense a breach, a rip in the fabric of their prison, and they rush at it with teeth bared, picking and tearing, prying and pulling. They work with grim anticipation.

They know the walls are about to come down.

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#OneLineStories

 

I’ve started a new series on Twitter under the hashtag #OneLineStories. The idea is to capture the essence of (or at least hint at) a complete story in a single tweet. How am I doing? Tweet me back, or reply in the comments below!

You can read my “One Line” stories by clicking here.

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The Puddle

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I remember standing on the playground at school after a storm, my hands numb from the cold, my nostrils filled with the scent of wet earth and asphalt. I peered down at the blacktop, made slick and shiny by the rain, and I scurried to where the water had pooled into a large sprawling puddle. I stared, transfixed by that shallow body that seemed so deep, and my breath caught. Was that just a reflection I could see, or was it, perhaps, some exceedingly rare glimpse of another world?

I felt that all I had to do was jump, and I would find myself falling, tumbling, down and down into endless blue. Or perhaps floating, flying, borne by great billowing clouds and fearsome bellowing winds, up into that vast ocean of upside down sky. Holding my breath, I took a leap of faith and jumped. But beneath my feet to break my fall were the shoes of an upside down boy.

He looked just like me. I gazed down, sad, and he gazed back up with the same doleful expression.

I stepped back, and the boy beneath my feet did the same. I waited, hoping he would go away. But when I slowly craned my neck forward to make sure my path was clear, I saw the boy had returned. I took a deep breath. If only I could slip past him. If only I could trick him into moving away. I cast another furtive glance over the edge of the puddle, but the boy was still there.

I made as if to draw away, then suddenly whirled and lunged into the air with eyes closed. I felt the rush of frigid morning wind as it whooshed and whipped over my arms and shoulders. I was certain I’d outsmarted him.

The puddle shattered as my feet struck the water, and a magnificent spray of shimmering liquid glass rained down around me. For a fraction of a second, I was certain my body would clear that thin barrier between the worlds, tumbling and falling into infinity. But when my descent was stopped short, I opened my eyes. I looked down, and there was the boy, gazing up at me. His face was set in a solemn expression. There would be no freedom that day.

I stood and stared at the boy who had denied me access to his endless world of blue. Only after the bell rang and a teacher took me by the shoulder did I go, and as I proceeded toward the dim and dreary classroom where I would be locked away for the remainder of the day, I glanced back at the puddle, that gateway into another world. The boy was gone, but it was too late.

A captive sun pushed through charcoal clouds, and throughout the day, while I sat at a desk with my head bent low in my hands, it drank up all the water. That temporary portal into another existence receded, falling into itself until at last there was hardly more than a drop. All the while, I imagined the mist that would have risen up around it, the soul of a dying world.

After school, I stood over where the puddle had once been. I mourned the loss of a world. I mourned the loss of freedom.

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