The Other Side

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This post was originally published through Patreon on May 23, 2017.

I wasn’t ready to die. I suppose no one is.

As mortals, we have a strange fixation with immortality. We understand that each of us has a clock embedded deep within, set to an unknown length of time; that when this time is finally up, when our clock’s internal mechanism winds down to zero, we’ll be thrust headlong into the uncharted lands of death—and into light or oblivion, who can say? Yet each of us holds to the secret belief that there must be some way to get ahead of our fate, that there must be some trick, some unexplained force of nature that, once harnessed, would allow us to reset that clock, or even stop it.

This was my belief until the end. And even when that end had come and gone, I was still convinced I could do things differently, that I could scrape together whatever temporal crumbs were left and use them to accomplish all the things I’d said I would do in life.

Well, you can guess how that worked out.

One moment, I was lying in a hospital bed, tubes and sensors protruding from my arms like cybernetic tentacles as the cancer devoured my body from the inside out. The next, I was standing on a hot desert road, surrounded by nothing but asphalt, sun, and endless sky.

First, I just stood there thinking, “This isn’t right. I’m in the hospital.” Then I shook my head. “Shit,” I said, and after the absurdity of my situation had truly sunk in, you could say I threw a bit of a tantrum. I shook my fist at the indifferent sky, shouted useless invectives while stomping and fuming like a toddler who’s just had his favorite toy taken away.

A good long time passed before I realized there was no way left to go but on.

And on I went. On, on and on, with a bloated sun razing my neck and shoulders, and a dry, arid wind cracking my parched and blistered lips. A strangely corporeal experience, I thought, for someone who’d left his body behind in the hospital. At times, I’d pray for death, only to realize soon after that I was already dead. Then a terrible despair would surge through my soul like an ocean, and I would break down all over again.

This is Hell, I would think. I hadn’t been good enough in life, and eternal suffering was my reward. But then the sun would set for the night, the air would cool for a little bit, and the sky, transparent to the cosmos, would fill me with the hope that this too might yet pass.

A quest, I realized after one particularly scorching day. I was on a quest, like King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail, or Odysseus in search of his lost home in Ithaca. A quest for who or for what I couldn’t yet say, but in my heart I knew it was the truth.

That night, I heard the stars sing.

A haunting alloy of otherworldly harmonies, they addressed me by name—not my given name but my true name, the one etched indelibly into the substance of my being. Their voices reached into my weary soul and offered me their everlasting light.

A transformation had begun, and no longer would I allow myself to be discouraged. I dragged my desiccated post-life body across the endless asphalt by day, and drank from the light of those angelic voices by night.

On and on they carried me, across the sand and the centuries, until now, at last, I stand before the Celestial Gate, those radiant stars lighting the way home.

Now, there’s only one thing left to do. Weak kneed and teary-eyed, I knock.

“You are well traveled,” come their collective reply. “Come inside, and make yourself at home.”

The gate opens, and of what I see beyond that cosmic threshold I could write entire books. But I hear them singing again, calling on me to take my place in the sky, and I will not keep them waiting any longer.

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Emily

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This post was originally published through Patreon on September 12, 2017.

Emily gazed down from the balcony of her studio apartment, the evening shadows lengthening as the sun dipped below the horizon. She watched people pass along the sidewalk, watched cars pass along the street. A rhythm, she thought, an elaborate choreography that dazzled her every bit as much as it had when she was a little girl.

There were those who hated the city—those who thought it too congested, polluted, or confining. But not Emily. The city had a life of its own, a vibrant soul born of the intersection between its many citizens. She and the city enjoyed a symbiotic relationship; it nurtured and sustained her, while she defended it from harm. Like a superhero, she would sometimes think after coming home from the cinema, and then she would giggle like a little girl, delighted by the fanciful notion.

She was standing over the railing, just as she was every night, when she heard the cry. Loud and shrill, it shattered her concentration. The sound was tragically common in the city, and it broke her heart each time to hear it. Somewhere, in Emily’s beloved city, someone was in danger.

So she closed her eyes, and she shifted her focus from that which could only be sensed with eyes and ears to that which could only be perceived through the heart: a vast shimmering network of interconnected threads, joining every soul in the city to every other. She reached out to the closest thread, and she felt for the vibrations that traveled along its length like a phone line.

Another cry.

The thread quivered, and Emily traced it back, flying through the space between space. The souls around her blurred, streaking past her like a stained glass mosaic.

There. A young woman—perhaps nineteen or twenty—and a man barging through her door. His face was covered, and a drunken lust and violence swirled through his head like a snowstorm.

Someone must have heard her call, but as was so often the case in the city, help was in short supply. So Emily did the only thing she could. She tugged on neighboring threads, sending out vibrations of her own.

HELP THE GIRL.

She tugged and tugged without success—there were so many hearts calloused by the daily horrors of modern life—but at last, just as she thought her resources exhausted, she felt a reply. A retired cop, gray haired and out of shape as well as out of practice. Bitter and alone, he was the sort who would have preferred to be left alone. But Emily kept tugging on his heart, and he found himself unable to turn away.

Deep inside, beyond the jaded, street-wise exterior, he remained just and duty-bound, like the day so many years ago when he was first sworn in. Emily felt his unconscious reply, a resonant hum feeding back along that intricate network of souls. It was his own soul’s way of letting her know he was on his way.

That was when Emily disengaged and reconnected with her body.

Once more, lights and colors filled her vision. She gazed down at the city again, its silent lover as well as its protector, and she prayed as she so often did that the little she was able to do would be enough.

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Balthor

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This post was originally published through Patreon on November 29, 2017.

It calls itself Balthor.

A being of indeterminate form, a fleshless apparition that stalks the cosmos like a wraith. Where, how, or when the name came about, it cannot remember, nor does it care. It has only one desire, a single driving force that’s guided its malignant actions from the moment time began.

Prey.

Like a poisonous vine, it sends out runners, undulating fibers of energy that crisscross the universe in an intricate network of overlapping threads. Reaching. Searching. Probing for life.

Earth.

It’s one of the many worlds Balthor has encountered over the course of its ancient life, and it teems with organisms of every sort. Balthor quivers with desire. Long has it been since Balthor has fed. Hunger ravages its incorporeal shell. Now, at last, it has found a world filled with light, with hope, with love—with all the things it lacks in itself, yet requires in order to survive.

Its runners close around the glowing planet until its light begins to dim. Slow at first, Earth’s inhabitants don’t notice anything is wrong. Yet their trust in each other fades. Love ebbs, and in the spreading darkness, selfishness and insecurity take root.

Soon, Earth has grown accustomed to the darkness, and Balthor, no longer needing to take it slow, gorges. It drains the Earth of every good; like a cosmic vampire, it leaves behind only a cold and empty vacuum in its wake.

Earth cannot survive for long, but what does Balthor care? It will feed, and when Earth has withered and died, it will move on, just as it always has.

Such has always been its nature, and such will its nature remain.

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The Day Earth Disappeared

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I was five the day the Earth disappeared. My father had gathered us together beneath a late night moon, and when he had our attention, he said:

“The Earth is no longer safe for us. We have to go.”

“What?” I was devastated. I had friends. I went to a good school. I’d just started to settle into my new life as a human, and now he was telling us we had to go.

“I’m sorry,” my father continued. “If there was any other way…” He trailed off, gazed toward the star-encrusted sky. “Perhaps the next world will be more accommodating.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but my father had already uttered the sacred words, and any further argument was quashed by the surging, hurricane-strength wind that swallowed the world and cast us into darkness.

Through stars and empty space we tumbled. Time stood still, and our souls, once more without shape or form, slipped and slid from one part of the universe to the next, drawn by an unseen gravity toward whichever world would become our new home.

“I hate you!”

Now, as an adult, I understand that my father was looking out for us. But my five-year-old self couldn’t comprehend the brutality of the situation, and as far as I was concerned, it was all his fault.

“I’m doing this to protect you,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “You’re doing this because you don’t want us to be happy. I hate you. I wish you were dead.”

I felt the collective gasp of my mother and sister beside me, but I stood my ground. In that moment, I believed all the worst things about my father, and I hated him as much as any other child who ever hated his parents for taking something of value away.

I thought he would argue, that he would threaten me for talking back. Instead, he gazed upon my undefined features with such love and commiseration that the raging fire within me began to cool.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and the sincerity and conviction in his voice reduced me to silence.

I brooded the rest of the journey. Love and hate waged a bitter, violent war in my heart, and I couldn’t bare to look at any member of my family.

Then our new world came into focus. There was the sensation of stretching as we passed through the cosmic veil—like a thin, rubbery membrane that wrapped itself around our souls. Thought and will coalesced into flesh and blood once more, and when I opened my three new eyes onto a bright, vermillion sky, I broke down at last.

“I’m sorry,” I bawled. I reached for my father, who was lying on the ground beside us, and let him take me into his thick, alien arms. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“I know,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, too. We’ll find peace and happiness soon, son. I promise.”

I nodded, face wet with tears and snot, and got to my feet so we could behold the unfamiliar landscape together.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too.”

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The Enemy Within

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This post was originally published through Patreon on December 5, 2016.

Emily trembled in the dark. She was not alone.

“You can’t get rid of me so easily,” her demon snarled, a writhing mass of black. “You’re not strong enough.”

It had controlled her for most of her life. It was the power behind her throne, the puppeteer that pulled her strings from beyond the shadows.

“You hurt me,” Emily whispered.

Her demon didn’t reply, only issued a rumbling laugh that shook the world around her.

“You used me.”

Her heart pumped like a piston, her hands were sweat-soaked sponges, and the world tilted and began to spin. But she would not let this creature consume her. It thrived on her anxiety and fear, and there was nothing else for her to do but cut the cord.

Something in her features must have caught her demon’s attention, because it stopped laughing.

“What are you going to do?”

By way of reply, Emily pulled a knife. It caught the glimmer of a distant light and seemed to burst in a white pyrotechnic flash. She hiked up her shirt and looked down.

Beneath, attached to her clammy pallid skin, was a shadow blacker than the dark that connected her to her demon like an unholy umbilical cord. She seized it with her other hand. The knife hovered, ready to cut.

“It would hurt both of us,” her demon rasped. “You wouldn’t dare.”

But Emily would. She’d had enough, and she hesitated for just a moment before thrusting the blade down.

Both screamed. Emily and her demon threw back their heads as one and howled like mortally wounded animals. Through the bond they shared, each could feel the other. Fear rebounded, a feedback loop of mounting trauma that nearly destroyed them both.

Then there was a snap and Emily recoiled.

She smacked hard into the wall behind her, and a single starburst of pain drove her to to her knees. When it began to subside and she finally had the chance to catch her breath, she examined the skin beneath her shirt once more.

Clean. Her skin, in fact, had already started to fill with color. She gazed up, terrified the creature might be waiting to pull her back. But this time, Emily was alone.

Taking a deep breath, Emily let her face fall into her hands and cried.


George, a junior high school janitor, struggles to protect his disabled twin Bill from an otherworldly evil. In the process, he discovers a startling secret about his brother—one that leaves him questioning decades-old assumptions and wondering which of them truly is the stronger half.

Purchase your copy of The Stronger Half today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover editions! Signed and discounted copies are also available through my Gumroad store 🙂

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Death of a Fire Starter

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A ring of fire surrounds her. Its heat rises in bright, shimmering waves, baking her skin. How long does she have left? Three minutes? Five? Samantha draws into herself, wracks her brain for any opportunity to escape. But she knows death is inevitable.

All around her, hooded men and women stand at a safe distance, flickering as if ghosts.

“You knew the price of disobedience,” they told her before lighting the fire.

Samantha did, and if she’d been given the choice again, she would have done the same. If the Fire Starters had been able to forge ahead with their original plan, thousands of innocents would have burned.

The Fire Starters have always been her family. They took her in when she was a child and raised her as their own. For all their grievous faults, they were good to her, and choosing to betray them was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do.

She knew their history. She understood the crucible of relentless persecution in which the Fire Starters were transformed into the despots they are today. As she grew older, she tried to open their eyes, to show them a better way of living.

But when they decided to burn a city for refusing to pay them tribute, she knew no amount of reasoning would be enough to stop them. So she warned the population ahead of time, and when the Fire Starters came to destroy them, they found the city deserted.

Her only worry now as she burns to death—as she scents her hair smoking at the tips—is for the rest of the world. What will they do when their only advocate among the Fire Starters is dead?

And then it occurs to her. Perhaps she can’t save herself. But maybe, if she can find the strength within her—if she can intensify the flames—she can take her family with her.

She reaches for the Spark—the primordial power within as well as the source of every fire—and finds it waiting, as bright and fulminating as it was the day the Fire Starters taught her how to reach for it. She takes hold of it now and pairs it to the flames already blazing around her.

The fire responds at once, resonates with the fire within herself. The flames intensify, wild tongues reaching for the twilit sky, and she feeds it with all her remaining strength.

She hears their startled screams and knows she’s done it, that there’s no way they’ll be able to escape. They’re surrounded, just as she’s surrounded. Her own life is nearly extinguished, her vision turning black like her soon to be charred remains, but at least she’ll go with the knowledge that she was able to take them with her, that she was able to save the world from their wicked rule.

Let’s go, she thinks, into the fire we ourselves started.

Awareness gutters, and Samantha slips into the dark.

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Fighting the Shadow

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It reaches out from the depths of space—creeping, feeling, groping for purchase. Like a poisonous vine, like a venomous serpent, it trawls the cosmic waters in search of prey.

Until today, my people were out of reach. Until today, the Builders protected us. Until today, all was well with our world.

Until today.

When the walls came down, when our once protected corner of the universe became contaminated by the darkness from the outside, panic reigned.

How could such a thing have happened, and why?

We sent our strongest warriors to petition the Builders for help in mending the breach. But once they passed beyond our borders, they were never seen again.

Now, I’m the only one of our people left, the sole surviving remnant of a once proud and sprawling civilization. Such tragedy. I cannot bear it.

My loved ones, dead.

My world, consumed.

Despair has taken root in the chaos that was once an able mind, and I can feel the Shadow’s tendrils reaching inside of me, eager to consume the last remaining crumb.

I cannot let it win.

No! I won’t let you have me!

Oh, no? comes its reply.

A war ensues, a battle that rages on as the universe tilts and tumbles, as time processes through an uncountable number of eons and epochs.

I am broken—easy prey, it must have thought on the eve of battle—and am always on the brink of annihilation. I am saved from tumbling off sanity’s bottomless ledge by sheer will power alone.

I am almost spent, and I can feel the Shadow’s laugh as it prepares to swallow my shattered soul and end our ageless struggle for good. But I hold, because I know something the Shadow does not.

The Builders are coming.

I can see them on the horizon, a resplendent light that rekindles my weary heart with hope. The Shadow cannot see them. Its focus is on me, and all I have to do is keep it occupied long enough for them to arrive.

So I hold.

And I hold.

And I hold.

My redemption is at hand, if only I can stand long enough to survive.

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Aftermath

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This is a companion piece to another story, “Fallen,” which you can read here.

When the Invaders were defeated, we thought the war was over. Once again, we were our own masters, capable of determining our own destiny. But now, here we are more than a decade later, and the world is just as cruel, just as barren as it was when our former conquerors remained in power.

I stare at a shimmering sky, the sun a blot of crimson fire, and dream of what life was like before the war. Before we learned of other worlds and the beings who inhabited them.

Before the Invaders.

I remember movies. TV. The Internet. I remember hamburgers and french fries. The ocean. The simple joys of leaving work before sunset or strolling by the courthouse in Downtown Long Beach after lunch. There are a million other things, all random creature comforts I never had the foresight to appreciate until the Invaders wiped them all away.

The sight of a bloated sun suspended over the horizon makes me sick, and I turn my back to it, my body casting a long, razor-sharp shadow across the crumbled, overgrown sidewalk. I try to think on happier times, but evidence of the Invaders surrounds me at every turn.

Ruined sky scrapers jut into the blood red sky like monster’s teeth, broken glass glittering, twisted support beams looming. In the movies, we used to imagine precisely this scenario, munching on our popcorn, our malt balls, and our Sour Patch Kids, secure in the belief that Armageddon was only a distant fantasy, that there was no way the universe could conspire against us in such a severe and irrevocable way.

We were like children: simple, naive, and oblivious to the horrors reality had yet to spring on us.

The sun begins to set; the world is on fire once more. The brackish light assaults me, unleashing a rapid-fire succession of memories, each more grisly than the last. I push them away with some effort, back into a dark corner of my mind where they’ll emerge later to haunt my dreams.

Our settlement is close, only a half mile. One of the few dilapidated apartment buildings that survived the war, it’s where my friends and I spend the night. It isn’t much, but shelter is hard to come by, and it’s a comfort just to have somewhere to call your home.

I hear a harsh gurgle below and recoil. Laying on the broken cement beside my feet is a creature, grasping at a splotched and bloated neck. My God! How could I have come so close to it without realizing?

Cast in the fiery light of sunset, the broken Invader still appears menacing, a looming specter ready to pounce the moment my back is turned. I shake my terror aside. It’s dying. It can’t possibly be a threat.

“Not so powerful now,” I say, and then I stop to stare.

Its misery conjures in my heart the tiniest pang of sympathy. But the emotion is short lived. This thing, along with the rest of its kind, stole the world from us, murdering hundreds of millions of people in the process. It deserves all of its anguish and more.

But the sight of its swollen, puffed up eyes reminds me of my mother, whose life was mercifully (or not so mercifully) cut short before the Invasion began by an aggressive form of breast cancer. During her last days, her eyes looked the same: red, swollen, and tear-streaked.

I cannot help myself. Pity blossoms in my heart like a sorrowful flower.

I see, in this filthy creature’s eyes, something like remorse. I want to insult it. I want to make it feel hated in its final moment of life. But I cannot. My weary, war-torn heart won’t allow it.

I kneel beside the creature, cautious. Pity doesn’t make me stupid. I know what it’s kind inflicted on the world and I maintain a safe distance. But I cannot leave it alone any more than I could leave a human stranger.

When our scientists released into the atmosphere the gas that ended the war for good—an otherwise harmless compound that was lethal to the Invaders—we celebrated.

The world was broken, but for the next few nights, at least, people lined the streets, shooting fireworks into a bruised and swollen sky, while one by one, the Invaders fell, clutching at their useless, air-starved throats.

At the time, I rejoiced with everyone else. Now, faced with this pitiful creature, I find in my heart only a dull and weary ache. The world has known enough war for a hundred generations, and if our species is to survive, we’ll have to embrace love and forgiveness going forward.

At this pivotal point in human history, Earth teeters on a precipice.  So I stay, long into the night, and I clutch its withered hand in my own and wait with the Invader in silence until it breathes no more.

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Cycle’s End

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The sun: so bright, so warm against Tolvar’s skin. It feels good, feels right. To think, it’s been a thousand years since he saw it last. The world has changed since then. Where it was once covered in grassy knolls and sprawling forests, it now sprouts towering glass buildings and endless asphalt roads. A glittering cosmic jewel, the Earth, yet a jewel with a significant flaw.

Tolvar’s seen the news. He understands what so many others do not, that humanity is just as petty, just as tribalistic as it was a thousand years ago. He can sense the constant animosity and tension as if they’re a noxious gas poisoning the atmosphere, and he knows the well being of the world hangs by a single thread.

Well, what’s the modern saying Tolvar’s become so fond of? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Of course, things won’t remain the same once he’s had his way with the world.

Oh no.

He almost succeeded the last time, and if Andric hadn’t intervened, the world would have burned.

“Give them time,” Andric said, and Tolvar couldn’t argue, for his cycle had come to an end and it was his brother’s turn to rule. Well, now the reign of Andric—of saintly, human-loving Andric—is over, and Tolvar’s restoration is at hand.

He approaches a small white house in a quiet neighborhood and knocks on the door. A moment later, an old man answers.

“Is it time already?” The old man (Andric) sighs.

“Yes, brother.”

“Be kind to them.”

“Of course.”

But both men know there will be no peace until the cycle starts anew.

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Sand Castle

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This post was originally published through Patreon on July 12, 2016.

Cindy sat on the beach, her back to the ocean. She was digging, extracting large scoops of dark wet sand with her hands to form the gate towers of a lopsided castle.

She’d been alone for almost two days. Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes, but she continued working, first sculpting the basic structure, then patting it down so that it was smooth and seamless. Beyond, the waves crashed into the rocks piled along the shore.

Her parents had died in that ocean, victims of a devastating shipwreck, and Cindy was the only survivor. The tears that breached her eyes threatened to usher in massive racking sobs, but she held them back.

She had to be strong if she wanted to get home.

When the castle was finished, she dug a shallow ring around the perimeter, followed by a jagged line that connected it to the shore. When the next wave washed in, it flooded the tiny rivulet, and when the mote around the castle was full she swiped her hand through the makeshift canal, cutting off the water’s path back to sea.

She rose to her feet to survey the structure with a critical eye. Close. It lacked only one thing. She bent down once more to carve her family’s crest into each of the four walls.

Finished.

Cindy touched the castle with her right hand and closed her eyes, waiting until the sand grew warm against her skin. Soon, her ears could resolve the clangs of blacksmiths at the forge, the clopping of horses’ hooves, the chatter of stable workers, soldiers and serfs. She smiled despite the tears that stung her eyes. It was working.

She reached farther, through the castle walls, through the keep, into where her aunt and uncle sat on the throne. She called out to them, and they heard her distant cry at once.

A breeze brushed back a strand of Cindy’s hair. There was a whoosh, a pull, and when Cindy opened her eyes again, she was home.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on an empty uncharted shore, there stood an abandoned sand castle. Elegant, intricate, a master work of magic and engineering. But like Cindy’s parents, it would soon be swept away by the sea.

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