Outsider

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This post was originally published through Patreon on September 27, 2017.

I hear the cadence of their voices, the rise and fall in pitch as their mouths open to form words, followed by sentences. I attempt to reproduce their style, but it is only an affectation, a counterfeit exchange. My true self is beyond expression. Bound by a centuries-old rite, it is out of reach even to myself.

I have spent the past twelve hundred years in exile. During my unnaturally prolonged life, I’ve had a front row seat to the violent mood swings of history. I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of nations, conversed in foreign tongues with people of every color, nationality, and creed. But in the end, I am and will forever remain the outsider.

It is my punishment for a crime I’m not allowed to remember. I am dead to myself, dead to the world. Yet I wander the Earth still, little more than an animated corpse.

The guards told me that the key to unlock myself lies within, and I search the tattered remnants of my soul for it each and every day. But perhaps they lied. Perhaps they only told me this to torment me, to set me on a quest that has no end. Sometimes, I wonder if they watch me still, if they laugh from the shadows at my foolish attempt to reclaim my lost humanity.

Either way, I’ll never stop searching. My determination is an indelible part of my nature—the only part they couldn’t take away—and I choose to believe that it will someday set me free.

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Surrender

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This post was originally published through Patreon on May 31, 2017.

“You found me.”

“You weren’t hard to find.”

Arcturial nodded. He hadn’t wanted to be caught exactly, but neither had he tried very hard to evade his captor.

“What happens next?” He looked toward the shadowy figure in the doorway.

The figure emerged into the soft, mystical glow of moonlight, resolving into a man of indeterminate features, skin tight and pallid, as if he donned a mask rather than a face.

“You come back with me,” the man said, “and we return together to the Council.”

Arcturial nodded again.

“Just as well. I’m tired. I don’t want to run anymore.”

“Five hundred years is a long time to be away from your kind.”

“It is.”

The man fell in beside him, and together they walked, boots clip-clopping through the darkened street. Arcturial flipped his gaze upward, finding the moon, white and luminescent. He drank in its otherworldly glow. He’d walked through hundreds of worlds, had existed long before the births of most, and still the vision was unlike anything else he’d seen before. He committed a snapshot to memory, for this would be the last time he saw it with his eyes.

“There will be punishment,” said the man.

“I understand.”

The echo of footfalls. Buildings rising before them, falling behind them.

“What was it like?”

Caught off-guard by the question, Arcturial stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“To live as a human. To feel, laugh, cry. What was it like?”

This was not a question he’d expected.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because,” said the man, features set in a perpetually emotionless state, “there are those of us who envy what you’ve taken, even if we will never partake of it ourselves.”

“I see.”

Now, it was the other man’s turn to nod.

How to sum up centuries of life in a human body that could never grow old or die? How to explain the desire and the need to feign mortality, to spend so many long years in the shadows, always on the outside looking in, knowing all you could ever do was pretend?

Arcturial thought before he spoke.

“Lonely.”

“Ah,” said the man.

Arcturial continued walking, and the man once more took up station beside him.

“I think we’ve gone far enough,” said Arcturial. “We should be hidden from any mortals who might have seen us in the alley.”

“Yes,” the man agreed, “I think it’s time to be on our way.”

The two turned a corner, taking a detour that was neither north nor south, neither east nor west. The blackness of night enveloped them like a cloak, and the physical world melted away.

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Up

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

Darkness surrounds me. I see only a silver flight of stairs that ascends into endless black. Only one thing is clear: there’s nowhere to go but up.

I begin to climb.

Each step is illuminated, and I look around and try to find the source of the light. But it’s a mystery. Just like this place. Just like myself.

It seems that hours pass before I finally stop to catch my breath, and when I do, I glance back to discover an infinite expanse of metallic steps, sinking down into the blackness below. Meanwhile, the air up here is warm and humid. I reach to wipe sweat from my brow, and that’s when I hear them for the first time. Voices, whispering beyond the void.

Cautious, I continue to climb.

One voice in particular distinguishes itself from the rest. A woman. The sound is warm, inviting.

“Life,” I hear her say, and then broken shards of memory invade me, flashing before my eyes. They are remnants of a time outside the darkness, and for a moment, I almost remember who I am.

I’m afraid, but the comforting voice urges me to continue.

The humidity has become a pressure cooking heat. Sweat pours from my face and neck like a river.

“Life,” she repeats. The word terrifies me even as it gives me strength, and I find myself scrambling up the steps two, even three at a time.

“Life. Life. Life.” The other voices have joined with the first, merging into a single-minded chant, an otherworldly chorus that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.

A beam shines above me now, not far from where I stand. The heat has become unbearable, yet I know I must press forward. All the while, the voices cheer me on.

My skin feels like it’s catching fire, and I can no longer breathe. I wobble, teeter, and for a moment I fear I’ll fall, that I’ll tumble down and down, all the way to the distant and forgotten bottom.

That’s when I see her, a woman clothed in white, iridescent robes, descending from the light like an angel.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says, taking my hand. “I’ll help you.”

Power surges through me at her touch. I’m in agony, yet I find I now have the strength to go on. Face covered in sweat, I climb the last step, reach out, and push through.

A solar flare: coruscating, blinding. The impurities of my old life burn away, until I am a part of the fire.

It no longer hurts. Instead, love and life surround me, welcoming me home. A column of white robed figures chant my name. My encouragers. They smile, and I greet each as an old friend.

“Well done,” says the woman who helped me through. Transfigured, she has become more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined.

My old life is over, and my new life has just begun.

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A Spell Gone Wrong

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This post was originally published through Patreon on February 28, 2017.

I hunker on the bare stone floor, shrouded in darkness, and scream. The room is silent, ghostly. I can see a sliver of moonlight leak through the bottom of the caged window like the tip of a dragon’s fingernail, but it’s swallowed at once by a palpable black void.

My home, it seems even the entire world, is gone, undone by my careless words.

My master was there when I uttered the phrase that brought about this ruin. He was smiling, encouraging me to continue, and I was eager to please. Then I opened my mouth, and he must have spied the latent syllables on my lips, for I glimpsed the sudden twist of his own, perhaps a warning in the making, just before I let loose a hailstorm of destruction.

Avenhalom.

The mystical word rolled off my tongue so easily. It tasted sweet, like honeyed milk. But as soon as the last syllable escaped my lips, I knew something had gone wrong. The sweetness turned bitter like ash, then acrid like charred flesh. I felt the air around me part like the Red Sea, and I became dizzy and lightheaded.

Stunned, I crumpled to the ground, assailed by a deafening, high-pitched whine. Then the world burst in a violent explosion that tore through my entire chest. I slipped inside myself, and the world turned black.

I woke on the dusty floor of an alien world that only vaguely resembled the home I’d once known. Everything had been consumed by darkness, made empty in a way I can’t describe. My master was gone, and with stomach-twisting certainty, I knew that I would see him no more.

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I Only Had To Bleed

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

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
—Ernest Hemingway

I huddle over my desk beneath the soft light of an incandescent lamp, brow furrowed, and stare down at the empty pages of my notebook. There’s a world out there somewhere, waiting for me to give it life. But I cannot find the words, and without them this other world can remain only a pale shadow, suspended in the half-life of the imagination.

I hear a thousand screams, a million, all from denizens of this other world. “We want life,” they say. “Please, give it to us.” Their cries have become a fire that burns me from the inside out, until my soul can bear the pain no longer.

“All right,” I say. “I’ll try,” and the screams die down to an expectant whisper.

I tremble. I know the words will come if I ask them to, but they require a sacrifice, an offering as old as humanity, and I am afraid. I glance around the dim surroundings of my study, bite my lip, and turn back to the notebook at my desk. Resolved not to stall any longer, I pick up the pen, and in a single practiced motion I stab downward and break open an emotional artery.

The pain is tremendous, and at first, the words come in fits and starts. I have to drag each of them from my head kicking and screaming, sharp, sticking barbs that tear skin and flesh as I pull them out into the light. I want to stop and lick my wound. But if I do then it will heal, and my sacrifice will have been in vain.

So I toil through the night, through ice and fire, dredging up the best and the worst of myself as an offering, a vessel into which that other world might enjoy the coveted fruits of existence.

Just before dawn I finish, bloodied and bruised. The inhabitants of that world whisper their thanks. Tears well at the corners of my eyes.

It was nothing, I think. I only had to bleed.

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Old Friend

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This post was originally published through Patreon on January 11, 2017.

“Lisa.”

Her name is the first thing she hears. She opens her eyes, and the blackness over her vision lifts like a veil. Light. It nearly blinds her. She narrows her eyes to slits, and the scene resolves into a pair of burning globes in a sea of roiling green.

Where am I?

She rolls onto her side and becomes aware of the rocky ground beneath.

She wonders again: Where am I?

“Lisa.”

“Who’s there?”

Anxiety takes root. She staggers to her feet and beholds the alien landscape once more. She notes the sea of green is actually a sky, though not like any sky she’s seen before, and that the globes suspended within are actually twin suns.

What is this place?

“It is home.”

“This isn’t my home,” she says aloud. Then she pauses. Isn’t it? She can conjure no memory of her origins. Once more, she panics. She scrambles to dredge up something from that inaccessible part of her mind and comes up short.

“Who are you?” she asks.

“A friend. You will remember in time.”

The cryptic reply, though frustrating, is strangely comforting. It grazes a segment of her heart that was previously hidden, and it entices her, makes her want to learn more.

“Come.” The word is not a command but a request, humble and filled with unfathomable love.

“How?” She wants to follow, but she doesn’t know how.

“That is a question I cannot answer. You must find your own way.”

“I can’t go to you,” she argues, “if I don’t know how to find you.”

“Follow my voice, have faith, and all will be clear in time.”

She hesitates, examines her heart, and discovers a trust she hasn’t recognized until now, the quiet, logic-defying certainty that the voice is telling the truth, that it can lead her down the proper path. She takes one step forward.

Then another.

Then another.

In the centuries that follow, she will see many wonders, and though the voice will only be an infrequent companion, she will find it reveals enough to keep her headed in the right direction. She will grow in wisdom and love, and at the end of her journey—at the end of time—she will be greeted by the source of that voice not as a stranger, but as an old and constant friend.

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Human

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This post was originally published through Patreon on December 20, 2017.

Anita slipped, and her physical therapist had to catch her before she hit the ground.

“It’s okay,” the woman said, while Anita, her legs no longer able to support her weight, clutched hopelessly at the woman’s wrists for balance.

The hospital room where they held their daily sessions reeked of cleaning solutions and urine. It was the last place Anita would have expected to find herself when she was young.

She could have assumed one of a million other forms—could have experienced life as any species in the cosmos. But in her foolishness, she’d chosen to be human. She’d been quite taken with humanity at the time. The novelty of their paradoxical nature had delighted her: an odd combination of cool, dispassionate logic and fiery, unbridled passion.

Most fascinating of all had been the concept of mortality—the notion that life not only had a beginning but an end. As an immortal being herself, the idea had only been a theoretical complication that made little practical sense. She couldn’t have imagined what it would mean to age—to feel life, energy, and health drain from a body that withered further with each passing day. Only now, as a human herself, could she understand what it was to be bound by the irreversible machinations of time, and it was too late for her to change her mind.

“Follow me,” the PT said, and she led Anita around the perimeter of the room in a vain attempt to engage muscle groups that would never function again.

Didn’t the woman realize the horror, the utter futility of the human condition? Couldn’t she understand that it was only a matter of time before she herself would experience a similar degenerative illness? Or, if her muscles didn’t fail her, it would be her mind, or cancer, or a virus, or one of a thousand other afflictions. That, Anita thought with more than a twinge of bitterness, was the human race’s reward for a life well lived.

A tear fell, hot against Anita’s skin. It stung her eyes, and she blinked it away before her therapist could see that she’d been crying.

“There you go,” the PT said after Anita took a single shambling step forward. “You’re getting stronger.”

Would the woman ever stop patronizing her?

At last, after ages of endless, fruitless struggling, the hour lapsed, and the woman let her fall back into her wheelchair—a rickety metal cage as good as any prison—and rolled her outside for a stroll through the hospital’s grounds.

A galaxy’s worth of energy roiled just beneath her skin, the inner workings of an ancient soul that would have dwarfed the entire cosmos if not for the fact that it was locked inside this lumbering clod of cold and sallow matter.

They passed through a pair of broad double doors, and Anita squinted up at a sudden burst of bright and early sunlight that warmed her skin and made her drowsy.

She didn’t try to stay awake. Sleep was one of the few blessings left to her. It was in sleep that the force which bound her to her body weakened, allowing her to shoot across space and time as she had once done before her human incarnation.

Eyes fluttered, consciousness guttered, and soon, her soul was soaring through the stars again.

Anita.

The voice was familiar to her.

“Father?” She hadn’t heard from him since she’d taken on flesh and blood. Could he rescue her from this awful life? “Father, please, release me from this prison.”

The universe rumbled with his reply.

You chose to be human. Would you turn your back on who you are now that life has become difficult?

“This body is worthless. It binds my soul like a ball and chain.”

Did you not enjoy your life when you were young?

“I did.”

Then what right do you have to complain now? You wanted to experience mortality, and that means accepting the feebleness of age along with the exuberance of youth. The two form an inseparable whole.

“But it hurts.”

Yes.

“Then what use is it? All the things I’ve accomplished as a human will amount to nothing.”

You’ve been human for so long that you’ve started to think like them. You see everything in terms of the past and the future. You forget that you are timeless, that your life on Earth is but a dream.

Everything you’ve accomplished in your mortal body will remain a part of you after you die. That’s what mortality is. It’s a transformation, one that most of your brothers and sisters, by their own choice, will never know. It will leave you forever changed, a new creation born of the intersection between two paradoxical natures. That is a miracle, and one for which you should be grateful.

“But I’m afraid.”

Then you understand what it is to be human.

Anita contemplated this in silence for some time.

Go. Her father’s voice was warm, compassionate. Live what life remains to you. Cherish the sorrows as well as the joys. They are the crucible in which you will become something greater.

“Yes,” she said. “I understand. Thank you, Father.”

I love you, Daughter.

“I love you too.”

Anita awoke a changed woman. All her former bitterness had melted away beneath the blinding light of the sun. There would be pain, there would be weakness, and there would be humiliation. But she would no longer complain. She would let each experience educate her, just as her youth had educated her, because what else was human frailty, she thought, but another lesson to be learned?

She would take the good with the bad, and when her time on Earth was finished, she would be reborn. Such was the life she had chosen, and she would no longer turn her back on it.

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The Fifty-Seven

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This post was originally published through Patreon on August 16, 2017.

I sit at the bus stop just before sunset and wait for the 57 to arrive. I’m the only one here, but that’s not a surprise. Not many ride this bus anymore.

This city’s always been my home, but over the years it’s changed, and I hardly recognize it anymore. Nothing’s different on the surface. You can still see the old courthouse looming across the street from weathered concrete apartments that haven’t seen a fresh coat of paint in thirty years. But the city’s heart has undergone a strange transubstantiation, leaving me alienated and as good as homeless.

They say the bus’s purpose is to take care of people like me—people who’ve become vagrants in their own homes. Officially, the line stopped running sixteen years ago, but every so often someone goes to the abandoned stop, and after the sounds of the approaching vehicle have faded into the distance, they’re gone and never heard from again. Now, I’m about to find out for myself exactly where it goes. Hell, the moon, outer space, doesn’t matter. Anywhere is better than here.

The 57 pulls up at last, plastered with ads for products that no longer exist. It slows to a stop, hissing like a snake. The doors swoosh open, and I take one last look around.

“You coming?” calls a gruff voice. The interior is consumed by shadows, so that I can only make out the driver’s smoldering red eyes.

“Yes.”

My pulse quickens when I meet his gaze. I step inside, and I jump back when the doors swing shut behind me. I take my seat, and a moment later the bus rattles up to speed.

My former home recedes into the distance, and soon, there is only darkness ahead.

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The Other Side

Nigel May/Shutterstock.com

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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