Can You See Me?

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Can you see me? I’m standing right in front of you.

I’m the guy with the soiled, unkempt beard, the haunted eyes, the mouth that hangs slightly agape in an expression of permanent disbelief. I don’t bother trying to get your attention. I know you’ll just look past me, that you’ll either be unable or unwilling to acknowledge me for who and what I am.

The world, once hospitable to my kind, has shunned me. I was cast into the streets like a dog banished from the pack, left to forage for myself in the dim shadow of the forgotten.

I cannot die, not unless the world dies with me. And oh, how I wait with bitter anticipation, how I labor for that day.

There are advantages to a life unseen.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Redemption, Part 5 of 5

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Read Part 4 here. If this is your first time reading, you can find Part 1 here.

He did not see the ceiling of the bedroom, but stars in a moonlit sky. He pushed himself to his knees in a dark alley. There was a stench, foul and sour. It was a smell he’d once grown accustomed to, a smell he’d almost forgotten.

Crumpled against a concrete wall to his left was the slumped figure of a man. He crawled toward it. He lifted one of the man’s sleeves, examined with almost clinical detachment the needle marks on the man’s arm. He searched the chest for signs of breathing and found that it was still. The man was dead.

“You died there,” said a little girl’s voice.

He turned.

“The same night. I watched it happen.”

Yes, he could remember now. Trembling, he’d stumbled into that forgotten pocket of concrete and asphalt, feeling like shit. He’d administered an extra potent dose of heroin. It had been his last high.

The girl, though young, shone with an ageless wisdom that he found difficult to bear. He averted his eyes.

“I’m ready,” he said.

“For what?”

“For Hell. That’s where you’ve come to take me, isn’t it?”

The girl stepped forward — he watched the pink plastic lining of her shoes glisten in the moonlight — and pulled him up by the chin.

“Is that what you want?”

“It’s what I deserve.”

He stared into her eyes. The girl, by way of reply, knelt beside him. He closed his eyes, prepared himself for what would come. He didn’t expect what happened next.

The girl pulled him into her arms and embraced him like a mother. Emotion swelled, a tsunami of sensation that nearly drowned him. He sobbed and wailed and moaned like a lost child, and the whole time the girl held him, cradling his head against her tiny shoulder.

When at last the storm subsided, she pulled away. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and gazed up at her, unable to comprehend such reckless and unconditional love.

“You were desperate. You were a slave to your addiction.”

“There’s no excuse for what I did.”

“No,” the girl agreed, “There isn’t. There is love in you, but it’s tarnished, impure. It must be cleansed. Justice and love demand it.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’ll have to do this again.”

“No,” he said when he realized what she meant. “I can’t.”

“You have to. You must confront your evil and the pain it’s caused, over and over again, until little by little your spirit is broken. It’s your punishment and your redemption. You must be broken before you can be made into something new.”

“How long?”

“As long as it takes. Some go through it only once. Some for much longer. Some never find their way through.” She gave him a warm and reassuring smile. “You’ve been at it for a while. I think you’re almost done.”

He looked up, and when he did he spotted another door, just like the first, standing a few feet away from him in the alley. There was fire and pain beyond the threshold. He could feel it. It would burn him, consume him whole.

“The fire is necessary,” said the girl, as if sensing his thoughts. “It burns away the impurities. Your soul will be smelted and refined until it’s been reduced to love, and when that’s done you’ll find rest.”

He found a different emotion then, one he’d not experienced before. Hope. It overcame him. There would be fire, and it would hurt. But then there would be healing, and he would be made whole. He would atone, and then he would find peace.

He pulled himself to his feet. Gritted his teeth. Walked forward.

“I’ll be waiting for you,” said the girl behind him, “to greet you as a friend on the other side.”

He opened the door. Stepped through.

He was consumed by the light.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Redemption, Part 4 of 5

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Read Part 3 here. If this is your first time reading, you can find Part 1 here.

The man stood in a girl’s bedroom, surrounded by police. They’d cordoned off a section of space near the bed. Sitting with their backs against the wall were a man and a woman. The woman was crying into the man’s shoulder. The man, also crying, held her in the crook of his arm.

On the floor by the bed was a chalk outline. Only, when he turned away and looked back again, it had been replaced by a body, the body of the young girl he’d seen in the photos. He wanted to look away, but his eyes had affixed themselves to hers.

The girl looked like she was asleep, except that her head was tilted at an unnatural angle and her eyes were open, glazed and unfocused.

He squeezed the bear against his chest.

He felt so much, a dimension that could not be perceived through the eyes but only through the heart. The room was pregnant with terror, loss, hatred and despair. The emotions writhed as if they were alive. They beat like a heart, and with each pulse the man felt as if he’d been punched squarely in the chest.

Who could have done this?

He tried to speak, to grab the attention of the couple and the officers. But neither group acknowledged him. It was as if he were speaking from the other side of an unbridgeable chasm.

He bent down beside the girl and gazed into her lifeless eyes. So young. A tragedy. He wanted to join the man and woman in their mourning. He reached out, touched a strand of the girl’s hair.

A bolt of something like electricity flowed into him. He twisted and convulsed.

A flash of light and he was the girl, lying in bed. She heard a sound outside and woke with a start. She clutched her bear against her chest, prayed that whatever had caused the sound would go away. Then she heard scraping at her window. There was a shudder, a click and the thin layer of glass that separated her from the outside world came undone.

A man slipped through the opening, dressed in dark clothing. A stench filled her nostrils. She gagged and failed to suppress a cough.

The man turned toward her. When he met her eyes his own widened. She tried to scream but he’d already pounced, had already grabbed her throat. All the while that horrible odor assailed her.

There was a moment of disorientation. Thought and vision split into two.

He was the girl, staring up at a strange man, the life leeching out of her as she clutched feebly at her throat. He was also the man, a junkie without money in desperate need of a high.

All the girl wanted was for her parents to rescue her, to hold her, to tell her they loved her and that everything would be okay. All the man wanted was to stop the girl from screaming, to get out of there before the cops were called and he was sent to prison.

Her world went dark. He felt her body crumple in his hands.

There was another bright flash, a solar flare of white, and once again he was just the girl. She stood above her body, looked on with confusion as her parents burst through the door. They found her body on the ground. Ran to her. Cried out in disbelief.

She shouted at them, tried desperately to tell them she was okay, that she loved them. But they couldn’t hear her. Then a light appeared, a tunnel perpendicular to space and time, and she was drawn toward it like a moth toward a flame. She went to it, allowed it to consume her whole. It was the most natural thing in the world to do, as natural as breathing…

The electric current ceased and the man collapsed face-first onto the floor. He was himself once more.

He’d killed her. He remembered now. The red welts that ran up and down his arm, they were needle marks, and the bear was what she’d been holding when he’d snuffed the life from her. Revulsion wracked him in waves, and he curled into a ball and sobbed like a baby. How could he? What had he done? He deserved Hell. He was the apotheosis of Hell.

A voice, addressing him by name.

He sniffed, opened his tear-streaked eyes and looked up.

Read Part 5 here.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Redemption, Part 3 of 5

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Read Part 2 here. If this is your first time reading, you can find Part 1 here.

The man stood in the middle of a spacious living room, and he wasn’t entirely sure how he’d gotten there. He knew only that he’d entered through the front door. A tiny worm of recollection niggled at his brain, but all he could dredge up was a black void where memory should have been.

Light streamed through the windows, framed by white, semi-transparent curtains. Ahead, picture frames hung on a wall above a brown leather couch. Had he been here before?

He glanced down at himself. Clutched in his right hand was a worn stuffed bear with one of its eyes coming out of the socket. Where had that come from?

He ambled toward the couch, glanced up at the rows of pictures. Each one portrayed a little girl at various stages of development. In one, she was being pushed by an older man in a car-shaped stroller. In another, she beamed up at the camera from a teal beach blanket. In each frame, she wore the same enthusiastic smile, an involuntary gesture that communicated contentment and a general love of life.

A scream.

He jumped, turned toward the stairs where the sound had come from. A dark foreboding seized him, as if a part of himself already knew what he would find if he followed after it, and didn’t want to pursue.

Another scream, weaker. Then a strangled, muffled cry. Then silence.

He wanted to run, to bolt back through the front door and never return. But instead he walked to the stairs, pulled forward by an invisible line.

He took the steps one at a time. Each footfall triggered a camera flash of memory. He was a father reading a magazine on the couch. He was a mother brushing her hair in the upstairs bathroom. He was the same father rushing up the stairs two at a time after hearing his daughter scream. He was the same mother dropping the hairbrush on the floor and running toward her daughter’s bedroom after hearing the same scream.

The bursts of memory became longer, more frequent and more coherent as he neared the top of the stairs. Like a quilt, the man had become a patchwork of other lives, all converging on a tragic event that had taken place in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

He reached the top step and squeezed the stuffed bear against his chest.

He honed in on one of the doors in the upstairs hallway, and as soon as he spotted it he knew that that was where he needed to go. He took hold of the knob. Twisted and pulled. Walked forward.

Once again, he was consumed by light.

Read Part 4 here.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Redemption, Part 2 of 5

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Read Part 1 here.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been running. The light seemed to be getting larger, yet still he hadn’t reached it. He was moving as fast as he could, had been pushing himself as fast as he could go, but he wasn’t tired, and he was too focused on reaching it to even care if he was exhausted.

Flashes of memory strobed through his mind at irregular intervals. He saw a house. A flower bed. A mailbox. He would poke at each recollection, only to discover every time that it was a dead end.

When the light finally took form, he stopped. Suspended in the darkness was a simple wooden door, slightly ajar. Bright white light spilled out from the inside and was swallowed by the blackness beyond.

He approached the door slowly. He reached out to examine it, and when he caught sight of his arm in the light he was struck with wonder. It was the first time he’d seen himself since he’d woken.

His arm was dotted with tiny red welts that ran along the length of his veins. When he touched one, he found that it was tender.

After a failed moment searching for a corresponding memory, he glanced back up at the door. He placed his hand beneath it and verified that there was nothing to hold it up. Then he tested the sides a few inches beyond the frame and found that they too were empty. He walked around, and when he came to the other side he discovered that the door was gone. He panicked, came back around and was relieved to see that it had reappeared.

Madness.

Where did the door lead? He wasn’t sure what would happen if he entered, but there was nothing for him here, only emptiness for as far as the eye could see, as if the world beyond the door had never been defined.

He gazed at the opening, hypnotized by the light. He had no choice. For better or for worse, it was clear that he was supposed to enter. He took hold of the knob, a ball of cool brass that sent a chill down his spine, and he pushed the door the rest of the way open.

The man walked forward and was consumed by the light.

Read Part 3 here.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Redemption, Part 1 of 5

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Falling. Tumbling. Fire. Burning. Screaming.

The man woke with a start. There was still a residue of anxiety, the vague feeling that he was being pursued, but it was already slipping from his mind, and by the time he rolled over onto his side, it had left him completely.

When he opened his eyes, blackness rushed to fill the vacuum. He panicked. Had he gone blind? He groped for the edges of his mattress and instead made contact with some other smooth surface, soft and pliable, yet firm and unyielding. Where was he?

Memory tickled the periphery of his mind, but each time he reached for it, it would disappear like a mirage.

He scrambled to his feet and wheeled about, searching for something with which to orient himself. After a while he spotted it, a pinprick of light that pierced the darkness like a white-hot needle. Its distance was impossible to judge.

Was it real? He was afraid that if he turned away, that if he did so much as blink, it would disappear into the ether.

But the light stubbornly tugged at his eyes and refused to let go of his gaze. He paused for a moment, unsure, then chased after it.

Ahead, the light grew larger and brighter.

Read Part 2 here.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Gone

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Everything was fine, until he made a mistake.

It’s gone now, the world, or at least the world he’s always known. A subtle slip of the tongue, one mispronounced syllable, and the universe collapsed. So many lives, squeezed out of existence. Friends. Family. Cities. Nations. Gone.

He tries to undo the damage, to bring them all back. But every word moves the universe one step closer to ruin. At last he stops, too devastated and out of breath to continue. He stands alone in the dark, the world hazy and insubstantial.

He calls the words back, recants the damage wrought by his careless tongue. But once uttered they will not return. The universe will not allow them.

He surveys the empty void. He does not speak again.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Afraid of the Dark

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Mom tells me not to be afraid of the dark. But I know better.

“There’s nothing that can hurt you,” she says with a smile before kissing me on the forehead and closing the door behind her. That’s when I pull the covers over my head like a burial cloth and lie awake with my eyes open until I see the light again.

Once, I took her at her word and slept with the covers off. I trusted her then, was sure that if she said something it must be true. I’d begun to drift, to straddle the world of dreams in freedom and peace.

That was when I heard a voice.

“Christian,” it said, sounding like the rustling of dry leaves.

My eyes popped open.

“Christian, come to me. We’ll have fun together, you and I.”

I threw the blanket over myself like a ward, praying it would be enough to protect me.

“Christian,” it said again, a low susurrus whisper. “I’m here in the dark, waiting for you. Won’t you come? You’ll never have to sleep again. We can play, you and I. We’ll have so much fun.”

That was when I learned the truth, that there are things in the dark that can hurt you, that mothers and fathers don’t always know everything.

I didn’t sleep that night, and I don’t know if I’ll ever sleep again.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Shattered Reality

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Déjà vu. Everything is the same as it was before.

Jordan sees her by the register, standing in line with a gallon of milk and a plastic bag of carrots. She looks so much like the woman he’s been searching for, the woman he loved for many years, his wife and the mother of his child. He wants to run to her, to embrace her, to tell her they can be a family again. But before he can move he knows it isn’t her.

She looks the same. She has the same dark brown hair, the same olive skin, the same heart-shaped face. He knows that if he approaches her, she’ll grab her ear and smile in the same self-conscious way that won him over so early on in their relationship. It’s Karen, but it isn’t his Karen.

He was foolish to toy with something as brittle as space and time. He breached the barrier between the worlds, and the universe shattered, torn into a billion partial reflections of his own reality. He was flung clear of the blast, soared headlong into a cosmos that was not his own, and now he must find his way home.

For a moment, just like every other moment since the accident, he considers that this world is good enough. He reaches for her. Puts his arm down. Reaches for her again. Finally, he hangs his head. This is not his home, not his Karen. She’ll have chosen another Jordan, and they’ll have had another baby Angelina. Not his home. Not his wife. Jordan turns away.

He opens the palm of his hand, raises it toward the ceiling, and a gateway appears, a hole in space that only he can see. He marches forward, resigned, and is consumed by gray.

Maybe the next world will be his own.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

The Writer

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.