Branwin

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A bright rectangle of light fell on the cold stone floor, and Branwin blinked. How long had it been since he’d seen light? He squinted up at an iron door that hadn’t opened for centuries.

“Branwin.” A hooded figure stepped over the threshold.

Branwin tried to use his lips, but they were like rusty hinges and he could only manage an inarticulate squeal.

“Not mad yet, I hope.” The figure chuckled, pulling back the hood to reveal the face of a man. Branwin scurried like a spider into a dark corner.

Branwin didn’t like him. There was something about the man that touched on uncomfortable memories. If only he’d go away and close the door behind him. But instead he came closer, until he loomed over Branwin, teeth gleaming like knives. Branwin’s inhuman eyes flitted back and forth between him and the walls.

“I need your help, Branwin.”

A flare of strange memories, bursting in Branwin’s head. Shards like stained glass. Memories of a life before the dark, before he’d been transformed into this creature of the shadows in exchange for immortality.

“I see I have your attention,” said the man, and he knelt beside Branwin, as if he were a dog who needed to be reminded that his master still loved him. “I know it’s difficult to talk, so just listen.”

Branwin’s eyes locked on the man’s, so human, so unlike his own. He squatted on all fours, braced to run.

“You made a foolish bargain,” the man continued, “The choice was yours, of course, and if I could have left you here alone I would have. But times have changed. The Republic is crumbling. Old barriers are failing, and people of your power and skill have become valuable.”

A spark in Branwin ignited, a furious hatred that erupted like an active volcano.

“This form you assumed shouldn’t have been possible. The most powerful mages of our time believe you are only a legend. You not only changed your shape, you changed your essence, your soul. Not a change for the better, I would say, but I digress.”

The man set a hand on Branwin’s disfigured shoulder, and an internal spring uncoiled. Branwin pounced, slamming him into the moldering wall.

“I could kill you,” Branwin hissed, the first words he’d uttered in over seven hundred years. It was all coming back to him now.

Surprisingly, the man laughed. “Yes, my old friend, I have no doubt you could. But don’t you wonder, dear Branwin, how it is that I still live?”

Branwin blinked. His humanity was coming back to him, and with it his curiosity.

“I’m not immortal, alas, but I’ve lived for centuries so far and will live for many more, all while retaining that which is essential to my humanity. I could teach you how. There are other ways to prolong life, most not nearly as…unfortunate as the path you chose.”

Something reminiscent of hope surged through Branwin. His inhuman state seemed on the verge of shattering, and he wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

“Come,” said the man, holding out his hand. “Let me fix you.”

Branwin gazed up at him with slitted eyes. He considered the possibilities, his forgotten humanity blossoming at long last, and after a timeless moment of silence in the dark, he took the man’s hand and let him pull him to his feet.

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The Game

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Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

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The Magician’s Heir

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I sit outside, take a bite of my club supreme on white, and gaze out over the contours of my life from the other side of time. So much has happened in the intervening years, so many terrible, unimaginable things. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was a character from a novel, the dark protagonist caught up in a strange, otherworldly fantasy.

I squint up at the sun, turn my gaze toward the tops of towering downtown office buildings, and size up the world around me, no longer big enough or important enough to hold my interest. I moved on long ago, and the hollow half-life of humanity means nothing to me now.

I was thirty-three the year the magician took me. Thirty-three. The number felt old then. I could already see the threat of death looming in the distance, peering at me from the shadows when it thought my back was turned. But now, in the context of eternity, it is nothing, only a mote of dust against the backdrop of the cosmos.

“You will be my heir,” the magician said. It was not a question. This after having been the man’s hostage for more than six months.

“There will come a time when you’ll have no choice but to accept me,” he said. “You’ll see.”

And with time, I did.

He changed me. Not all at once, not in a blinding flash of brilliant neon light, but incrementally, a hardening of the heart here, a withering of the soul there. I thought I could resist him, that I could resist becoming like him.

But I was wrong.

He took all that was dear to me, all that I loved and valued, all that I held close to my heart, and burned it to ash.

“Are you beginning to understand?” he asked one day as he stepped over the remains of my mother’s charred and tortured body, a glowing demon haloed by fire.

By this time, there were no tears left for me to shed. I said that I did, and as the flames cooled to smoldering embers he grinned, showing all of his razor-sharp teeth.

“Then come,” he said, taking my hand and leading me into the dark. “I have much to teach you.”

It was in the ashes of my old life that my new life began.

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Caleb

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I was ten the year Caleb disappeared.

We were sitting on his porch, sipping lemonade beneath a pallid morning sun. He was showing me his rock collection, teaching me about all the different kinds of minerals, how and when and why they were formed.

“The Earth has so many stories to tell,” he said with the wisdom of someone much older, and he gazed into a piece of smoky quartz as if it were the solution to some profound primordial puzzle.

He had a way of making the ordinary extraordinary. I didn’t know half as much as he did, but it was enough just to listen to him talk, to absorb even a fraction of his knowledge.

Then he got quiet, and when I asked what he was thinking he told me he had a secret.

“You have to promise not to tell anyone.”

“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”

He paused. “Dad and I are going away.”

“On a trip?”

Caleb shook his head.

“Where? For how long?”

“I don’t know. Forever, I guess.”

The words formed a fist that punched me in the stomach. I almost doubled over. My best friend was leaving. Tears welled at the corners of my eyes.

“Why do you have to go?”

“I don’t know. Dad just said the world’s changing, that it’s time to move on. He said we’re leaving today.”

I was shocked. I stared at the street, silent and still, until Caleb spoke again.

“Dad says you can come inside to say goodbye. But you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

Caleb opened the door.

I followed.

The inside of his house had always been off limits. In spite of my pain, I felt a distant thrill. I was doing something that until that day had been forbidden. I expected the interior to be different somehow, like the threshold between Earth and some alien world. But it was only an ordinary living room, with a TV, a lamp and a couch. Just like my own house.

“Hello, Daniel,” said Caleb’s dad, emerging from the hallway with a leather suitcase. He was wearing a black suit and tie, with a matching fedora on his head. “We didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.”

“Will you visit?” I asked in desperation.

Caleb glanced up at his dad, who smiled and said, “Maybe. If we can.” Then he looked down at my best friend and asked, “Are you ready?”

Eyes downcast, Caleb said he guessed he was.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “Maybe I can write.”

But Caleb only shrugged and took his dad’s hand. “Bye, Daniel. I’ll miss you.”

They began to fade.

At first, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I blinked, closed my eyes, expected it to be some trick of the light. But when I looked at Caleb again he was transparent, only a ghostly apparition in place of the boy he’d once been.

“What’s happening?” I thought maybe I was dreaming, that I’d wake up to the familiar relief of my blankets and pillows, secure in the knowledge that Caleb wasn’t leaving after all.

“Remember,” said Caleb’s dad, hardly more than a glimmer, “You have to keep this a secret. We’ll visit if we can.”

Then they were gone.

In the months that followed, they were the talk of the neighborhood. What had happened to them? Were they okay?

“Caleb was your best friend,” Mom asked me once. “Did he tell you anything?”

I shook my head. Caleb was my best friend and I promised to keep his secret.

The house is abandoned now. The paint has begun to peel and the yard is a jungle of overgrown weeds. I wander by from time to time, childhood memories passing through my head like phantoms, wondering if someday he’ll return. But deep down, I suspect he’s moved on, and I wonder if he would even recognize me if our paths ever crossed again.

Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s having an adventure. I only wish I could have joined him.

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Training

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John hears a sound. Turns.

Click, click.

It’s coming. He wheels around and takes off through the tunnel. He can still hear it as it closes in. He doesn’t dare look back again. Looking back means slowing down, and slowing down means dying.

Click, click.

He hardly registers the fowl miasma that hangs over the dungeon, a putrid sulfuric rot, though it took him aback when he first entered the place.

When was that?

He tries to remember, but whenever he reaches back in time it’s like slamming into an iron curtain. All he knows is that he’s being pursued and he has to get away.

There are brief flashes in the dim surroundings like a strobe, flickers of a life before the dungeon. Colors and lights. Flowers and trees. A family. Kids. But none of these ever resolve into the fully-clothed specters of memory.

CLICK, CLICK.

It’s almost on top of him now. Perhaps thirty yards, maybe twenty. John’s heart jackhammers. He can feel a power blossoming inside, strangely familiar, a latent ability to do…something, an ability that only expresses itself when he’s in danger. That power is important. He knows it as a matter of instinct. There’s something he has to remember, something crucial. He has to—

Claws clamp down into his back, an impossible weight that sends him tumbling to the ground. The foul water that was at his feet splashes into his nostrils, so that he feels for a moment like he’s drowning.

Meanwhile, he can feel the creature on top of him, pushing, tearing, lacerating his upper back, shredding it to blood-soaked ribbons. John screams, the sound bouncing off the walls in an endless cascade of agony.

Every nerve has come alive, high tension wires that send thousands of volts coursing through his body. He can feel the power within, pulsing, waiting for him to take hold. Yet he does not know how, and with each feeble reach it fumbles away from his grasp, bounding off into the dark. And then the creature’s humid maw has opened wide above him, breathing its stink over the back of his neck. John screams again.

More pain. Then darkness.

* * *

John surges into consciousness, crying out as the final drops of world-shattering torment drain out of him.

When it’s over he stops. Rises. Looks around.

He now finds himself in a tiny stone chamber, surrounded by brightly burning candles. Beside him, eyes closed, kneels an old woman, her face obscured by harsh lines and shadows.

“Where am I?”

The woman answers without opening her eyes. “Give it a moment to come back.”

And as if her words were a command, the iron curtain in his head parts.

“Oh no,” he says, and he drops his head into his hands. “I failed again.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” says the old woman. “You still have a ways to go, it’s true, but you’re not a failure.”

“I still couldn’t do it. The power, I felt it inside of me, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it.”

“Perhaps not,” she agrees, “But you sensed it, and that’s a start. We’ve been through this exercise a thousand times before. Until today, you’d never even realized it was there. Something changed this iteration. You sensed it, waiting, and you knew you had to reach for it.  You’ve improved very much.”

“What use is it if I can only sense it?”

“You have to sense it before you can use it.”

John looks up, stares at the old woman beside him. She’s now opened her eyes. “I’m scared.”

“We all are,” she says. “These are dark times. But you’re learning. Sooner or later, you’ll master it. Sooner or later, you’ll reach for it without thinking, and that’s very important, because when the peril is real, when the Chancellor steals your memory in earnest and throws you into his pit to play his game, the power will be your only advantage.”

“I want to go again. Please,” he says, “Let me go again.”

“You need rest.”

“Just one more time.”

She stares into his eyes, and she must see something burning in their gaze, for when she speaks again she gives her reluctant assent.

“Just once more. Then off to bed.”

John nods, relieved. His contest is a month away. If he can survive, if he can beat the Chancellor’s game, perhaps the man will grant him an audience. It would be the first time the Chancellor has allowed it in fifteen hundred years. And then, well, anything is possible.

“Close your eyes,” says the old woman, not unkindly, and he does as he’s told.

Once more, a fog settles over his mind, and the neurons in his head realign. The iron curtain closes. And then he’s in the dungeon, running, trying to get away.

Click, click.

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The Stone

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“Psst, boy.”

Adrian glanced toward the alley, where an old man stood hunched against a brick wall.

“Boy,” he repeated. “Come here. I have something for you.”

Curious and heedless of potential danger, Adrian did as he was told. When he was close enough to get a good look at his soiled rags, and to smell that he hadn’t bathed in weeks, the man glanced sideways, as if nervous he was being watched.

“Take this.”

Adrian looked down at the man’s closed fist.

“A gift,” he said, shoving a smooth round object into Adrian’s left hand. A moment later, he darted off into the shadows.

Adrian examined his prize.

A stone.

Brow furrowed, he continued home and placed it atop a shelf. He didn’t think about it anymore that day.

Meanwhile, the stone waited.

That night, when Adrian returned to his room to sleep, he found the stone where he’d left it. He picked it up and carried it with him to bed. Beneath the moonlight spilling through the window, it seemed almost to glow. Suddenly, his imagination went wild, and he was certain this simple object could reveal the universe’s deepest secrets.

When exhaustion overtook him and he finally fell asleep, the stone was still clutched between his fingers.

He dreamed that night.

He was tumbling through the stars, falling, floating, jets like cosmic sparks shooting through space. Galaxies spiraled in the distance, galaxies of every shape and size, whirling, colliding, bursting in blinding coruscating flashes.

Adrian felt lost, but he was not afraid because he held the stone.

“The cosmos are yours now,” said the voice of the man he’d met in the alley. The universe shook with the force of his words. They were a binding, the oldest and most powerful kind.

And then he was opening his eyes, and all he could see or hear was the pale light of the moon and the chirping of crickets outside. He glanced at the ordinary-looking stone, still firmly grasped in his left hand. It felt warm.

Adrian smiled.

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Alexandria

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Alexandria stood by the curb, looking out at the street as the sky poured rain. Meanwhile, a group of other kids was playing hockey. She didn’t ask to join. She knew they’d only laugh.

She stared after them for a moment before making her way along the sidewalk. The clouds above were a roiling sea of gray. The gloom pressed in around her, but it was not an uncomfortable feeling.

She could feel the imagination inside of her, crackling with feral wildborn magic. The storm amplified her power, so often latent and inactive, and she could feel a whole universe of possibilities fanning out before her.

Alexandria snapped her fingers. A world emerged. She snapped her fingers again. It disappeared.

Let the other kids have their game. She had something better.

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Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage Illustration #1

He sees the boy, pumping his legs as he soars through the air on a swing, and he almost smiles. How carefree and innocent the boy is, not yet aware of the world’s cruel designs. His own childhood is a distant thing, far removed from who and what he is today.

The boy releases the chains. He leans forward, and when the swing is at its apex, he slips from the seat. He hurtles through the air, lands on his hands and knees, and grins.

Play. It’s a concept he’s thought about a lot. In the small hours of the night, when he lays awake unable to sleep, he stares beyond the ceiling, pondering its manifold mysteries. The imagination of a child, he thinks, is a thing of boundless possibilities, a grasp toward the infinite, an exploration of a vast, unformed world filled with all the things that might yet be. It is an art, he thinks, a special kind of magic that he lost the moment he was Changed.

He brushes the thought aside. There will be time for reflection later. Right now he’s focused on the boy. He stares at him from behind a broad oak tree, shrouded in shadow.

Today, the boy will be his.

* * *

His name is Gol. He is not an ogre or a troll, a gnome, a fairy or a centaur. There are no stories written of his kind. To the best of his knowledge, he’s the only one of his kind. He was once human like the boy, but he is human no longer.

He is the latest incarnation of an ancient lineage, a succession stretching back beyond the foundation of the world. He cannot reproduce, but like humans he’s compelled to propagate, to continue the work of his ancestors. Though he’s lived for thousands of years, has witnessed the rise and fall of long-forgotten civilizations, in the end, like all living things, he too must die.

He’s spent a great deal of time pondering his origins. The memories of his ancestors are a part of him, but they’re so numerous and convoluted by the ravages of time that the secrets of the distant past remain shrouded in mystery. Someday, before the stars have burned up all their hydrogen, before the world is an icy ball of lifeless stone, before the universe is a tepid mass of eternal darkness, he hopes his progeny will solve that riddle, that perhaps they’ll even find a way home. But that will be a task for the boy and his descendants.

His own days are nearly at an end.

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The Book

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There is a book. It is written not in English or Spanish, Greek or Latin, Hebrew or Arabic, but in the wordless language of Creation. It is a series of divine utterances, a wellspring of stars, energy and life.

Once, it was passed from one keeper to the next, an unbroken succession rooted not in blood or prestige, but honest merit. It was a cosmic secret to be guarded, and it was never to be opened. But thousands of years ago, the last keeper tried to violate this rule. He was slain, and the book went missing. Those who remembered it had children, grandchildren, then died. The book passed from memory to legend, and from legend it was forgotten.

Like an ocean swell, civilizations rose, civilizations fell. All the while, the book hid beyond the shadows, watching, waiting for its next keeper, someone worthy of its secrets, someone who would at last be allowed to open its dusty weather-worn pages, for it so longed to be read.

Now, it sits upon a humble library shelf.

Today it spies Garrett, a child of ten, who happens to be at the very same library. The book gazes down at him, peers into his soul, sees that he is worthy. It drops from the shelf into the boy’s backpack, and the boy, unknowing, carries it home with him. He does his homework. Watches TV. Eats dinner. Prepares for bed.

Meanwhile, the book finds its way onto Garrett’s mattress, and there it waits beneath the covers.

After Garrett climbs into bed, after the winds of sleep have begun to carry him away to secret lands, the book nudges his shoulder.

Garrett wakes.

Half asleep, he reaches out, taps the ancient leather spine with his fingers. He opens his eyes. Fully awake, he rises to a sitting position, reaches into the sheets and pulls the book out into the open. Where did this come from, he wonders. He opens it. A warm light shines on his face.

Garrett flips through empty weathered pages, and a universe springs to life.

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The Foolish Apprentice

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“I told you how to do this already.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jess, stumbling over the title, tiny pearlescent beads of sweat popping from his forehead. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Amos sighed. Hovering over his apprentice, he watched with consternation as he made all the wrong weaves, a misstep he’d tried to correct over a dozen times during the past week.

Suddenly there was a bright electric flash like a strobe, and Jess staggered back.

“Jess!” cried Amos, though he was too late to stop it. He was equal parts relieved and enraged to find he’d come away from his mistake uninjured. “Goddamnit, Jess! You could’ve killed us both.”

Jess looked back at him blankly.

“Here,” said Amos, collecting himself. He raised his hands into the air. “I’ll show you again.”

He proceeded to step through basic fingerings he’d learned when he was ten. He penetrated empty space, took hold of two threads. He tucked one behind the other and twisted until the pair was taut. Then he relaxed his grip and let the weave unravel slowly between his fingers. It emitted a soft, golden glow.

“The weave for light,” said Amos flatly. “The tighter the twist, the more energy that’s released, the brighter the light.”

“I mostly had it,” said Jess, rising to his own defense. His cheeks had turned pink. “I just gave it too much tension.”

“And almost blinded us both,” snarled Amos. “You can’t just let go of a weave like that. You have to let it unwind slowly, keep it under control. Magicians have burned themselves to cinders for making mistakes like that.”

Jess balled his hands into fists.

This wasn’t working. Simon had said the boy was headstrong, and that was true enough, but what he’d left out was that the boy was also a fool. Take either attribute apart from the other and you’d have something Amos could work with. If the boy were headstrong but talented, he could find some way to channel his pride toward a healthy confidence. If the boy were foolish but humble, he could be patient, step through the basics over and over again, confident that he would pay attention and eventually learn. But a headstrong fool? There was nothing to be done for that.

“Listen,” said Amos, and he had to swallow a vile insult that had risen up into his throat. “I know you’re anxious to get through the basics, that you want to be a great magician like your father, but you’re young, you know nothing and it takes time. Your father was a great man because he knew when to listen as well as when to lead, because he spent hours in his workshop after you kids had gone to bed and drilled himself in the essentials.”

“My father?” shouted Jess, leaping to his feet. “What do you know about my father?”

“Quite a bit more than you, apparently,” said Amos, trying to keep his voice level. “He never would have put up with your refusal to listen, your stubbornness in the face of correction. I would’ve thought you’d know better.”

“My father said I was destined for greatness,” argued Jess.

“Maybe. If you’d spent more time under his tutelage before he died, perhaps you would’ve learned what it takes to be great. But now? I’m beginning to think you’ll never learn.”

Jess looked like he was going to say something. Tight cords bulged from his neck. But after a moment the rage drained out of him and his head fell into his hands.

“He always made it look so easy,” said Jess in a vulnerable tone Amos had not heard before. “Before he died, he made it look so easy, and then Simon tried to teach me, and I couldn’t get it, and I felt so stupid. I got frustrated, and I thought, ‘if only Dad were still here to teach me himself.'”

A tear fell from one of the boy’s eyes, and Amos’s appraisal of him changed. Perhaps Jess could be reached after all. Maybe his pride was a facade, a front he’d erected to protect a battered ego further embittered by the premature loss of his father. With some patience and kindness (God knew this was not his forte), perhaps the boy would turn out all right.

“Jess,” said Amos, “Your father spoke very highly of you. I believe you can do this, but you have to be open to correction. You can’t take it as a personal affront every time I point out that you’re doing something wrong. Part of your father’s greatness was in his willingness to own up to mistakes and fix them. If you do the same, you can be like him, I’m sure of it.”

“You think so?” Jess looked up then, and Amos’s heart softened.

“I know so.” He placed an affectionate hand on the boy’s shoulder. He would take him under his wing, he decided, not just as a mentor but as a guardian and a friend.

Jess nodded, sniffled, reached toward his nose to wipe away more tears. “Show me again?”

Amos reached into empty space once again, and this time Jess paid attention.

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