Journey’s End

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It was big. World-sized big. It towered over her, blocking her path. So, this was what her journey had come to. Centuries of trudging through deserts and mountains, seas and jungles, space and time, only so that minutes from her journey’s end, a stone wall could block her path. It shot up into the sky and out of sight, extended to the left and right as far as the eye could see.

She fell to the dusty ground, bowed her head and cried.

She could remember when she’d first set out, how young and beautiful she’d been, so full of ambition and drive. She cleaved to her mission with an almost childlike devotion. Then she aged. Her features weathered, until she was like many of the deserts she’d passed through on the way. Youthful optimism yielded first to caution, then to exhaustion. In the end, only gritty persistence and determination saw her come so close to the other side.

She’d faced many obstacles, pushed through quite a few toils, trials and dangers. There were times when she was convinced she couldn’t go on, when she thought in long bouts of despair that she might as well lay down to die, letting her bleached bones adorn her incomplete path, serving as a warning to others who might dare follow in her footsteps. Then she reconsidered, thinking that perhaps she should encourage rather than frighten her fellow explorers. After all, more were setting out every day for the same reason she had, to be a part of something bigger, something transcendent and everlasting. So instead she let her struggle bear witness to the fact that anything was possible, that if you wanted something badly enough you could seize it by sheer will-power alone.

And that’s all this was, she realized, another obstacle, one more test before she could finally indulge in the fruit of her labor. She only had to be strong, to pick herself up from the ground one last time.

She rose. Beat the dust out of her shirt, pants and boots. Wiped away her tears. She stared at the rock face before her, until a grim smile pushed past her ancient features.

“Okay,” she said to the wall. “Let’s do this.”

She launched herself at it, pried, picked and climbed for as long as she could. But the hard granite surface was unyielding. It dug into her skin, scratching, tearing, bleeding.

Then, just when she’d offered all her strength, when she felt she had no blood left to shed, a harsh baritone rumble swallowed the world. The wall moved down, sucked into the Earth. She watched, mesmerized, until first the sky, then the mountains beyond became visible. An entire vista opened before her eyes, a glittering otherworldly refuge of gold, silver and crystal. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

When the last of the wall had disappeared beneath the ground, she stepped forward. She’d done it. She was on the other side.

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Going Home

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Jack stood facing the Pacific, dwarfed by the vastness of the ocean. He was nothing before that endless expanse of blue. The vastness of the ocean made him ponder the vastness of the cosmos, transcendental, eternal. A tailwind kicked up behind him, billowing his shirt and jacket. He hugged himself and shivered.

He wanted to go home. He’d been away for too long, had almost forgotten what his other life was like. He’d married. Had kids. Grown old. He looked down at his hands, gnarled with age.

A wave rolled in, frothing at the edge. It reached as far as it could, grazed the surface of Jack’s feet, then retreated, leaving behind a briny footprint.

His children were grown now and had families of their own. They hardly visited anymore. Would they miss him when he was gone? He supposed they might. He knew all too well that you never appreciated something until it was taken away.

No matter. They had all they needed to be self sufficient. For a season they would mourn, and then they would go on to enjoy long, happy lives.

He peered at the sea with the rabid hunger of someone who hasn’t eaten for months. The water called to him, sang his name in its maddening siren voice. The surf curled around his toes, tickling, teasing.

Jack had had enough of time. He would return to the sea, allow the water to take him, diffuse him, spread him around until he was as vast and timeless as it was. Someday he would emerge and venture back onto dry land—he thought the world might be very different by then, just as it had been on his last return—but he didn’t want to think about that now.

He stepped forward, pulled his head back in ecstasy as the ocean embraced him like a prodigal son, and he disappeared beneath the surface.

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Love Between the Lines

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He begins to wake.

The dream warps, fades, falls away to the space between. On the periphery of his subconscious, just before the threshold of reality, is where he meets Diane.

He can feel himself slipping, feel the world around him breaking apart like dandelion puff in a breeze, and it’s in this moment that she caresses him against her breast. He cannot see her, and he dares not open his eyes for fear of shattering the fragile state in which he enjoys her divine company.

He wills the encounter to last, wills the future to melt like the wax of a brightly burning candle to reveal a single ever-present moment. But sooner or later the bubble will pop, and he knows that when it does he’ll be left alone in the dark, awake, heartbroken, aching for the next time their worlds intersect.

There is no lasting peace for him, no enduring joy. There is only Diane and their love between the lines.

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The Gift

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The man sat on a long wooden bench, watching a little boy no older than two play in the grass. He saw him kick a soft blue ball and thought the sight should have made him smile. But he only felt despair, an aching emptiness that had hardened his heart long ago. He’d lived a long life, had expected so much and received so little. He had no spouse, no family, no friends. He’d spent the better part of his life drifting from one thing to the next, always in pursuit of something better, a dream only half glimpsed, always on the edge of the horizon and forever out of reach. Now his life was like his eyes, blurred and unfocused in his old age.

The boy chased after his soft blue ball. When he caught up with it he laughed, drew back his right leg and kicked. The ball rolled along the dewy grass, cut across the asphalt path and skittered to a stop just below the man’s worn brown shoes. He looked down at the boy, and he tried so very hard to smile. Instead he sighed, gave the ball a light kick and watched as the boy took off after it.

The boy picked up his ball. Returned to the man. Eyed him curiously and smiled.

The man said, “Hi.” He tried to make his voice light and playful. He succeeded only in a tone that was dull and flat.

The boy frowned and came closer, cradling the ball in his arms. He peered into the man’s eyes, tilting his head slightly, and extended his arms outward, gesturing with his soft blue ball.

“Ball?” The boy dropped the toy into the man’s lap.

His eyes brimmed with unexpected tears. “For me?” he asked, pointing to himself with a finger that trembled only partially due to old joints.

The boy smiled in reply.

Such kindness. For what seemed the first time in a very long life, the man cracked a smile, thin and awkward as it was. The boy had given him a gift greater than anything he’d ever received. A tiny spark that had lain dormant in the man’s heart for many years ignited, and he let the awkward smile bloom into a broad grin.

The boy saw the change in the man’s face and giggled.

That was when he realized he too had a gift to give, a gift he’d almost forgotten, a gift he’d never expected to give himself.

The man said, “Come,” and the boy came.

“For your kindness, I give the oldest gift, the oldest and the greatest.”

He extended his right hand, laid it atop the boy’s head. A sudden gust of wind scattered strands of the boy’s light blond hair.

The man closed his eyes and turned his gaze inward. He peered into the boy’s heart, examined the boy’s future. He saw all that the boy was and all that he would become.

“You will hold this gift in your heart always. I pray that you treasure it and that you never let it die. Most of all, I pray that you’ll have the opportunity to share it with another.”

The boy frowned, comprehending nothing. No matter. Knowledge would come when the boy was ready. Knowing was its own gift, one that gave itself in its own time, one that could be accepted or rejected when the boy came of age.

The man muttered a string of words he’d once thought himself incapable of articulating, and for a brief moment the space between the boy’s head and the man’s hand seemed to glow, a brilliant gold that highlighted the boy’s blond hair. A moment later the light died and the man opened his eyes.

The man said, “Go.” He said it gently, smiled warmly.

The boy took his ball and ran, bobbing awkwardly as he kept the toy clutched against his tiny chest.

The man exhaled deeply, content. Finally, he’d given what he himself had received so many decades ago, a light he’d turned away from when he was a young man. He hoped the boy would pass it on. He was strong, and the man had seen great things in his future.

His life’s work, he now realized, was complete. He’d done what he came into the world to do, and now it was time to go home. His eyelids grew heavy and began to fall. His breathing slowed, and he fell into a permanent dreamless sleep.

He was free now, and he would never be unhappy again.

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