Alone

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Philosophers have pondered it. Theologians have pontificated about it. Scientists have been skeptical of it. Life after death. The great beyond. Sarah had been afraid of it, then had slipped silently into it during the night.

She had no idea how she’d met death. She could only remember waking in a dark place, unable to move her limbs because she had no limbs to move. Her nature, her mode of being, had been turned on its head in an instant. It took her ages to come to terms with the loss, to begin exploring the depths of her insubstantial self.

When at last acceptance came, she drifted through the cosmos, ready to begin whatever journey lay ahead. Moving was not so much an act of the body as it was an act of the will, a projection of thought and mind.

She called out, hoping to find others like herself, but no one answered.

Was that what death was? To be alone? The thought terrified her. If her eternal vocation was to exist in such a state, she’d rather the darkness had consumed her.

She continued to skid through the universe, crying out in increasingly panicked outbursts.

Hello? Is anyone there?

She felt her soundless voice reverberate, ripple out through space and time. But again, there was no reply. If she kept this up, she was certain she’d go mad.

Had she gone to Hell? As she streaked through a thousand worlds in silence, she pondered this terrible prospect.

Hell. Was that the reward I earned in life?

She tried to remember but could not. Her old life had faded until it left only the vaguest of impressions, a formless shadow in the dark.

Is anyone there? Please, answer me.

She projected herself further. Further. Like a heat-seeking missile, she launched herself as far as she could go in search of companionship.

Sarah.

A silent whisper, echoing across the void in reply. Her name. Someone had used her name. At last, an answer to her call. If she had a body, tears would have poured from her eyes.

I’m here!

Sarah, follow my voice.

And Sarah did. On and on she went, zeroing in, while every so often that voice would say something new so she could pick up its trail and continue following after it.

Sarah, over here. That’s it, Sarah. You’ve almost made it.

There was light in the distance, not the kind she had once witnessed with her eyes but something different, a radiant, all-consuming fire that warmed her essence.

Just a little further.

The voice was close now, still separated from her by some unfathomable chasm, but close all the same.

Suddenly, the light was a searing fire that burned just to look at it.

Sarah, you’ll have to jump.

I’m scared.

But she ached to pass through it, to see what was in store for her on the other side. Most of all, she longed for communion with the voice that had reached out to her at the height of her terrible loneliness.

Just let go and jump.

Sarah felt power mounding in her. Fear and desire warred with each other in greater and greater intensity, until the fire in her own soul was a greater agony than the fire she contemplated crossing.

That’s it, Sarah. Jump!

She did as the voice commanded. There was a timeless instant in which agony reached an excruciating peak, in which she could feel all the impurities of her former existence smelted away. Then she was pure, pristine, and the fire could no longer harm her.

She was a part of the light now, and inside of it she could at last behold the one who’d spoken to her with a kind of awe she’d been incapable of in life.

Welcome home, Sarah.

Love filled her to capacity. The chasm had been bridged, and Sarah would never be alone again.

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The Generous Patron

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This story is dedicated first and foremost to my generous and supportive patrons ♥

“Damn.”

Alan sighed and dropped his hands. A moment later, the half formed construction of fire that hovered before him vanished. Without its flickering light, the market stall was cold and dark.

He’d tried to make a Phoenix. Not an actual living creature that could take to the sky, but a forging of elemental magic, a work of art, a tribute to nature’s greatest and most breathtaking creatures.

But nobody had come to visit. Nobody had come to see his spectacular figures of ice and fire, so what did it matter that he hadn’t gotten this last one right?

His big brother’s words came back to him.

There’s no money in magic. Go out and find a real job.

But Alan had been young and idealistic. He believed the world needed magic, that without its beauty, the awe that it inspired, life wasn’t worth living. Now, Alan thought maybe his brother had been right all along. Maybe there was no place for his kind of talent.

Cold and alone, Alan started packing up for the night.

He was about to unravel the cord that anchored his tent to the ground when a soft female voice startled him.

“I’d like to see what you have to offer.”

Alan spun, almost knocking into a nearby table, and spied a young woman dressed in a dark coat, eyes catching the light of distant lanterns so they seemed to glow.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, catching his breath. “I’m closing.”

“That’s a shame.”

“You wouldn’t be interested, anyway,” said Alan, years of bitterness rising to the fore. “Just worthless avatars, nothing of actual value.”

“I’d like to be the judge of what I find interesting.”

A breeze swept through the dwindling market, kicking up dried leaves, yet the fabric of her coat remained untouched. There was something about her stately presence that unnerved him, and he felt suddenly as if he were dreaming.

“I only dabble in magic,” he found himself saying, averting his gaze. “Surely you’d prefer something of more practical value.”

“I happen to like magic.”

He stared at her for a moment, then nodded. Fine, he could cycle through a few forms. When she tired of his art he could send her on her way and be that much closer to going home.

“All right,” he said, and he sat down before the broad oak table he’d almost toppled a moment before.

What should he make for her? He tried to think of something captivating, but found he was too self conscious to think clearly.

As if sensing his vulnerability, she sat down in an empty chair across from him and took one of his hands into her own.

“Go on,” she insisted. “Form whatever’s in your heart.”

Now, the light in her eyes radiated patience and kindness, and he found a comfort so unexpectedly powerful that the walls inside his head began to weaken.

Whatever was in his heart. Yes, he supposed he could do that. He didn’t know this woman, but in this intimate moment that passed between them he was certain he could trust her, that he would be safe expressing a piece of his truest self.

Alan closed his eyes.

The form that leaped to mind nearly arrested him with heart stopping wonder. An expression of vulnerability and longing, of an age old passion, once dusty and dry, its dying flames stoked at last.

His hands started to move, animated by a force not entirely his own. The woman, the tent, the other stalls, they all fell away, burned to ash before a blinding interior vision. The form he beheld was a soul without a body, an essence in need of life. Alan was the vessel through which it could achieve that life, and he was eager to fulfill its need. He reached beyond himself, beyond the world, into the vast, limitless universe and its roiling sea of unrealized power and potential.

He channeled that boundless reservoir of energy, dividing what he took into its constituent parts. From one, he drew scintillating fibers of bright, orange fire, serpentine tongues that lashed through the air in bright, sparkling flashes. From another, he drew frosty tendrils of ice, subliming into the wind in gentle, billowing wisps like smoke.

Then, like an artisan weaver, he wound these two elemental threads together into a single, seamless fabric, a bold, exotic material of contrast and extremes. When he’d spun enough, he tied it off, holding it suspended in the air, now a lump of clay to be molded, shaped and refined with each pass of his deft and dexterous hands.

The basic form complete, he reached out once more, spinning invisible threads of wind and air. These became the life force that would bind the whole together.

Finished at last.

Alan opened his eyes. The world came back into focus, and he almost jumped when he saw the woman sitting close. He’d been so lost in what he was doing he’d forgotten she was there.

Above both their heads, there now hovered a bright, fiery dragon, shot through with strands of icy blue, broad wings flapping in the air, sending down heavy gusts of frigid winter wind as well as hot, baking heat. A masterpiece.

The woman clapped her hands.

“It’s wonderful!” she exclaimed. “The best I’ve ever seen.”

Alan blushed. “Thank you. It’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”

Alan let the elemental form persist until he felt the fibers begin to buckle, eager to be released. Sadly, regretfully, he let the cord that anchored him to his creation go. The dragon above their heads vanished in a puff of smoke.

“It is everything,” she said, with such gravity that he was taken aback. “There are those who do practical things, and they are important, because without them the world cannot function. There are also those who do beautiful things, and they too are important, because without them the world cannot remember why it functions.”

Tears sprung to Alan’s eyes as the idealist of his youth burst from its hard, cynical shell.

“You are a maker of beautiful things,” she continued. “You are important and necessary, and I would like to be your patron, if you would have me.”

“My— What?” Alan’s heart seemed to stop.

She wanted to be his patron. He nearly trembled with shock.

“Your magic must live on. You won’t survive here, in this world of practical things. You were made for a different life, and I would like to be the one who makes that life possible.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, his voice suddenly husky and hoarse. “Thank you.”

“Come on,” she said, “I’ll help you tear down. We have a lot to discuss.”

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From Life to Death

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CRACK.

Thunder crashed, tearing the sky asunder. A storm of apocalyptic proportions. But Martha didn’t jump as so many of her neighbors did. She’d been expecting it since she was five.

The year she died.

She set her things aside and walked into the pouring rain. The street was nearly empty; most had gone inside when the rain started. There were only a couple folks standing in their front yards, staring up at the sky as if Hell had descended from the clouds, and Martha guessed she could understand. That last crack of thunder had packed quite a whallop.

The sky was a writhing mass of charcoal clouds, pluming like broad stone columns, blotting out the sun. Martha gazed up and tried to spot the form hidden within.

“Come out where I can see you,” she shouted. “Let me look at you.”

She glanced across the street, self conscious in the wake of her outburst, and of course there was Harold Vernor staring back at her. Well, let him think her a senile fool. She had other things to worry about.

A second peal of thunder, like a mortar bursting in the sky, followed by a bright, strobe-like flash. The sound set off at least a dozen car alarms.

Martha stood there waiting.

MARTHA.

“I was wondering when you’d show yourself.”

Martha had been five the year she contracted pneumonia. Everybody expected her to get better, even her doctor, so it came as quite a shock when she took a turn for the worst and teetered on the precipice of death. The storm had come then just as it came now, frightening people with its great pounding cries like artillery fire.

It had approached her on the doorway of death, and in a voice only she could hear, it offered to restore her life. In return, she would let it take her again at a future time of its choosing. The idea terrified her, but if she turned down its offer she was sure to die anyway. So she agreed, and she woke the following morning as if she’d never been sick.

Now, just as before, rain pelted the street in a series of rapid fire plinks, so that Martha was soaked to the skin.

IT’S TIME.

“I figured as much. Can’t say I’ve had a bad life. Had my fair share of scrapes and bruises, but I guess I came out okay in the end.”

Two more explosions. Light electrified the sky.

“Anyway,” she continued, “I’m ready now.”

YOU ARE BRAVE.

“Not brave, just old enough to know I’ve had enough.”

THEN COME, AND LET ME TAKE YOU HOME.

A column of light like liquid fire, bolting from the sky. It struck her in the head. Martha rode that wild surge into the arms of her savior and destroyer, leaving her smoldering body behind.

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The Magic Returns

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He sits in a cold, dark corner, alone and afraid. It’s been too long, he thinks. He’s like an ancient, dried out riverbed, where the magic hasn’t flowed for ages. What makes him think he can summon it now?

Once, he was capable of great things. Through his unique talent, entire worlds emerged from nothing, whatever the heart and mind could conceive. He took it for granted, thinking it would always be there to serve him.

But he was soon swept up by worldly concerns. He stopped using the magic, stopped creating, and though the fire inside never stopped burning, it grew small and ashen through a chronic lack of practice. He was too busy with work, he told himself, too busy trying to feed his family, too busy doing a hundred other things. Only later, when it seemed too late, did he realize those were excuses, that he could have retreated to his study for as little as five minutes at a time, because there were always pockets of time to be found if only one was dedicated enough to search for them.

He hasn’t created for so long now that the channels through which the magic once flowed have closed up. It’s too late, he thinks. Only the fire inside still burns, no longer just a pile of dying embers as they’d been for so many years, but a raging inferno.

He sits at his old desk because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“Is this what you want?” he whispers to nobody in particular, “To mock me? To remind me that I gave up?” Mad with grief, he hardly knows what he’s saying.

Anguish reaches a climax. He feels small and helpless, like an ant caught up in a sandstorm. There’s nothing to lose anymore, only an ache that will grow deeper and fuller the longer he stays away.

He reaches into the void and at long last does the only thing he’s ever known how to do.

He closes his eyes and opens himself to the magic.

At first, nothing comes. In a moment of despair, he’s certain his worst fears have been confirmed. But then he hears it building as if from a great distance, and the shriveled conduits in his mind quiver with anticipation. The dam breaks, and the dried up riverbed floods once more, a raging rapid of pent up magic he thought forever inaccessible.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting in the dark before the colossal torrent finally ebbs. When he comes back to himself, he stares at his latest creation, mute and disbelieving.

At last, a work of art he can call his own.

Tears blur his vision as he realizes the truth, that the magic never left him. He turned his back on it for a while, but it was always there, waiting for him to embrace it. Like a guiding star, it reorients him. Old priorities wither before a renewed sense of purpose.

For the first time in decades, he can call himself an artist.

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Mirage

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Richelle wandered up and down Sunset Boulevard, purse swinging by her side, holding up a hand every so often to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun. Everything seemed perfectly ordinary, and yet…

Something wasn’t right. There was nothing wrong with her surroundings as far as she could tell, nothing wrong with herself. But at the same time, everything was wrong.

A shimmer caught Richelle’s eye and she turned.

A towering skyscraper stood to the west, gleaming beneath the sun like a world-sized diamond. It snagged her gaze and refused to let go. As she stared, something inside of her snapped into focus.

She had to get to that building.

She was walking faster now, high heels clip-clopping like horseshoes on the hot cement. People continued about their business, yet she thought she caught them eyeing her askance. She could hear voices now, as if from far away, a low, vibrating hum almost too low for her to hear.

What were they saying? She thought if she listened carefully…

Someone bumped into her, shoving her to the ground.

“Sorry, lady,” said a man in a white polo. “Didn’t see you.” But somewhere beneath his voice, she thought she’d heard another: “It’s her!”

Rattled, she picked herself up, stammered, “that’s all right,” and brushed past him.

In the distance, that crystalline edifice called to her, shimmering like a mirage. Only she thought that wasn’t quite right.

The world is the mirage. That building is the only real thing here.

The thought was earth shattering in its clarity. There came another.

Have to get to that building.

But no sooner did she continue walking than another man in a white polo bumped into her.

“Pardon me,” he said, scurrying off. And somewhere beyond, in another layer of reality: “Stop her!”

Reeling now, Richelle broke into a sprint.

Have to get to that building!

Smack. Another man in a white polo.

“So sorry!”

Smack. Another man in a white polo.

“Excuse me.”

Smack.

Smack.

Smack.

Richelle was surrounded now, drowning in an ocean of men in white polos. Her breath came in increasingly shallow gasps.

What is this?

All around her, beyond the absent minded apologies, clamored a chorus of darker voices.

“Can’t allow her to reach the building.”

“Can’t you see her?”

“She’s over there.”

“Stop her!”

They were not men, she decided, nor was this a real city. Moreover, they knew she knew and they were trying to keep her from discovering the truth. Richelle was angry now.

Planting her feet to the ground, she hefted her purse in both hands and swung it in a wide arc.

It whistled through the air before smashing into a target.

“Ouch! What’d you do that for?” The man clutched a bleeding nose and stared at her as if she’d gone insane. Beneath his voice was another: “Kill her!”

The ocean of bodies pressed tighter, became a swarm of flesh-eating flies. All the while she swung her purse, slowly pushing on, inching her way toward the building.

She couldn’t remember how long she’d been fighting, but when she looked up again the sun was a bloated red ball hovering close to the horizon, and directly before her was the building, only yards away now, a wildfire of reflected light that seared her retinas whenever she looked directly at it.

Richelle screamed, a feral cry that seemed to resonate with the city and its malicious inhabitants. The men clutched at their ears as if enduring  an unbearable agony, and Richelle continued shrieking until her lungs were depleted and her throat was raw.

When she could no longer sustain the sound, she made a beeline for those last few yards, ignoring the arms that reached for her, trying to grab fragments of clothing and hair, trying to pull her back into the crowd.

Richelle stopped just short of that magnificent structure and was suddenly dwarfed by its size. She squinted up at the fiery light reflected from its surface, and for a moment it seemed to capture a different light, scattering it across the city in an otherworldly spectrum.

On the surface, it appeared transparent and made of glass, yet it was opaque to her in some way she didn’t understand. Her eyes fixed on a simple door, set into the foundation, the only part of it she could see clearly.

“Stop her!” those voices commanded again, but it was too late. Her hand was already on the door.

She turned. Pulled.

The door opened.

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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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End of Days

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I tried to stop them.

I failed.

An entire world reduced to ash. The memory haunts me still. I would pray for death, but I’m immortal and cannot die.

I saw them coming when the universe was only a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth. Once, they’d been my companions. But when I tired of death I turned my back on them. I was troubled that they’d followed me and knew someday I’d have to stop them. But they were still far, and as the cosmos matured, I was caught up in caring for it, in helping it to thrive.

I was most fond of Earth. The humans, though quick to anger and capable of great evil, were nevertheless a noble race. Quirky and extravagant, yet I fell for them just the same. If I could have, I would have forfeited eternal life in exchange for theirs.

Again, I saw them coming, those demons of ice and fire, the Old Gods I thought I’d shaken so long ago, and again I did nothing. They were still a long ways off, and there was still so much left for me to do here. Humanity was evolving, and I had to help them grow, had to steer them clear of the path that would otherwise lead to their self-destruction.

Millennia passed. The universe ripened. Humanity reached its apex. I couldn’t have been more proud. Then I heard their raging shouts echo across space and time, the war cries of the Old Gods, and I knew I would have to stand up to them at last.

They came brandishing weapons and armor, the lust for death and chaos burning in their eyes. I stepped between them and the universe and said, “You will not pass.”

They looked first to me, then from one to the other, sneering as if enjoying a private joke at my expense.

“What are you doing?” their leader asked. His voice rolled across the stars like distant thunder. “You were once one of us. Why would you stop us now?”

“I’ve cared for this world since it was an infant. Please, leave us in peace.”

Centuries passed as we gazed into each other’s eyes. Then their leader threw back his head and laughed.

“You are a coward,” he said. “It is well that you left us.”

They advanced.

“Stop!” I shouted. “I won’t let you pass!”

Teeth bared, I flung myself at them. But they were too strong and numerous, and I was easily overpowered. They tossed me aside like a piece of flotsam, and that was when I heard their leader shout, “Burn it all!”

Men, women and children wailed as the End of Days arrived, as Earth was transformed into a celestial funeral pyre. And my former companions didn’t stop there. They marched through the universe, tearing everything down. I shouted after them, begged them to spare what little was left. But by the time they’d gone nothing remained, only a barren wasteland and I, its single surviving inhabitant.

I hung my head and wept. They’d salted everything, so that nothing like humanity would spring up again.

My children. My purpose.

Gone.

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Balance

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“Got any change?”

The young couple before him averted their gaze and continued walking. Chris sighed, sat down beside his stolen shopping cart and watched traffic coast up and down Sepulveda Blvd.

He reached up to adjust the frayed, weather worn beanie on his head, and to wipe a slimy streak of brown sweat from his forehead. The day was hot, and boy, what Chris would have done for some air conditioning.

Ah, well. He deserved this. He couldn’t say why, since most of his life had been one misfortune after another, but somewhere in the back of his mind he believed he must have had his fair share of luck, that now all he was doing was paying it back.

Balance. A sorrow for every joy, a broken bone for every healthy year. It was as if the universe were run by an omniscient, omnipotent accountant with a cosmic ledger to balance before the day was out.

In fact, in a previous life, Chris had found a way to cheat that ledger, to enjoy a lifetime of good fortune without any of the corresponding bad. Or so he’d thought. Turned out, the accountant had been watching the whole time, and like a dutiful IRS agent, he’d ensured Chris would pay his debt with interest.

“Hey, Mister, got any change?”

A man in a dark flannel suit stopped, turned and crinkled his nose. “Get a job.” And then he moved on, leaving Chris to wallow in the heat of Los Angeles.

Oh, did he have to pay.

At the end of his original life, Chris had sat before the Great White-Robed Bureaucrat himself.

“It appears you have a negative balance,” and Chris had just sat there in the man’s office, gazing outside as other souls passed through the celestial gate and into the next life.

“There’s interest, of course,” the accountant continued, punching buttons on an antiquated calculator. “And penalties.” More buttons.

Chris watched a woman with gray hair pause on the threshold of two worlds, biting her lip. An angel stepped up beside her, nodded, and a moment later the woman turned and went through.

“That amounts to two and a half lives,” said the accountant behind his desk, double checking his work. “Of course,” he mused, “You really can’t have half a life, can you? We’ll just round that up to three and refund the difference when you reach the other side.” And then he nodded, satisfied. “Sign here.”

Chris signed and waited to be born again.

In his first makeup life, he was the child of an addict, grew up in a crack house, became an addict himself and spent the rest of his life rotting in prison. In his second, he was a refugee from the Middle East, denied a visa by every country that interviewed him. He died of malnutrition at age forty-five.

Absent the occasional dream or moment of déjà vu, he was never aware of his past lives. But every time he died, after his life had flashed before his eyes like an old-fashioned movie reel, there was that damned bureaucrat to remind him how much time he had left.

Now, Chris was on his third life, and unbeknownst to him, he would spend the rest of it believing his fortune was just on the other side of the horizon.

“Got any change?”

A woman looked down at him in her suit and tie, had pity and threw sixty-seven cents into the coffee tin beside him.

“God bless you, ma’am,” and he meant it.

He stared down at his day’s earnings, a total of $3.27, and allowed himself to smile. Soon enough, he thought, his luck would change.

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An Unexpected Visitor

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Martha glanced at the clock on the wall. 8:00 p.m. She sighed, turned off the TV and prepared for bed.

While brushing her teeth, she gazed into the mirror, and not for the first time, she wondered what the hell had happened. In her mind, she was still a nineteen-year-old woman, yet she now had the achy, arthritis-ridden body of seventy-five. She could feel the weight of time pressing down on her, breathing down her neck, stalking her in every unseen shadow. She never failed to be surprised by how ephemeral life seemed in these vulnerable moments, like vapor that was solid to the eye, yet parted and evaporated to the touch.

She spat her toothpaste into the sink, rinsed out her mouth and turned off the light.

Ghosts of the past visited her as she tossed and turned through the night, visions of people and places that had either changed beyond recognition or were no more. The world seemed pliable in that place between dreams and the waking world, a land of impossible geometries and infinite possibilities.

It was in one of these not-quite-dreams that Martha received an unexpected visitor.

“You returned,” she said when she spotted him floating in the window sill.

“I promised, didn’t I?”

“I was fifteen when I last saw you. You promised to come back, but I gave up on you by the time I was thirty-five. Why did you take so long?”

The phantom reached out with insubstantial hands. “You were young. You needed experience that only age could provide.”

“Well, look at me,” she snorted. “You certainly got what you wanted.”

“But don’t you see? You are so much more lovely now.”

She said nothing.

“I have something for you. Open your hands.”

Martha had not seen this particular visitor in decades, yet she trusted him now and did as she was told.

“You saved us. An entire world exists today because once you loved. Now, that world belongs to you.”

Martha looked down at her gift and gasped. She held the universe in the palm of her hand.

“My final gift to you,” said the apparition, and then he smiled and disappeared.

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The Music Within

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The music called to him, and Steve skipped work early to follow after it.

He rushed home, head down, walking back to his apartment. All the while that spectral, otherworldly tune twined through him, shooting feelers into his heart, penetrating the darkest corners of his soul. He bolted up the stairs, dug through his pockets for his key, opened the door and slipped inside.

The room was dark, with only a sliver of late-afternoon sun seeping through the shuttered window. But he didn’t turn on the light. Instead, he sat beside the coffee table where his violin lay, the polished surface catching the minuscule light from the window so that it seemed almost to glow.

He took the instrument into his hands, and the music within swirled, coalesced. He ran a finger along the smooth, wood-grain surface. An electric charge surged down his spine. The music was pounding at his skull now, demanding to have its way with him, and he was ready to oblige.

It was going to sweep him away, he thought, carry him to that other world once more, a world where music was the language of creation, a world under siege, a world that needed his help if it was going to survive. He was afraid, but the music had embraced him like a lover, and Steve was powerless to resist.

He held the bow above the strings. Paused. Sighed.

He began to play.

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