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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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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Everyone Dies

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When Jill turned the corner and saw what was waiting for her in the street, she knew her life was over. Dread settled in the pit of her stomach, and she found herself backing away. Only she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

If she could see it, it could see her.

Indeed, the creature turned, and though it had no eyes—only a dark emptiness hidden inside a thick black cowl—she felt its gaze like a javelin through the heart.

Wide-eyed, she watched it approach, the dark fabric of its robes rippling languidly over asphalt as it crossed the street to meet her.

No, she thought. It isn’t supposed to end like this.

But in moments it was in front of her, and Jill knew she was going to die.

“You gave us quite a chase,” the Reaper mused. Its voice came out a haunting, otherworldly whisper, like wind funneling through a narrow tunnel.

Jill wanted to say something but couldn’t. She was too lost in the vistas of abject terror to open her mouth.

“Do you wish to end this now,” the Reaper asked, “or do you want some more exercise first?”

Jill prickled with a sudden flare of anger, and for a moment, her fear abated. The Reaper had a job to do, but it didn’t have to be so fucking condescending.

“So, this is it then? All this education and life experience, just so I can lose it all now?”

“My dear, sooner or later, everyone dies.”

“Then why not later? I have a lot going for me right now. There’s so much I can contribute to the world. Give me ten more years. Then you can take me.”

When the Reaper spoke again, there was no hint of its prior mocking. Its tone was serious, and if Jill didn’t know any better, she’d also say caring.

“You know that’s not how it works. Not even I’m allowed to decide who lives and dies. We Reapers receive our orders, and we carry them out.”

Yes, she had to concede that this was true. And why some people lived to a ripe old age while others expired young, she would never know. All anyone could say for certain was that one day, sooner or later, your number would be called.

“It’s really not so bad,” the Reaper continued. “Many die more slowly from terrible, debilitating diseases. Death by our hand is much quicker, much more humane.”

Jill snorted. “There’s nothing humane about you.”

“True enough. Would it help if I told you that the one who decides your fate isn’t as capricious as you make him out to be? That there’s a plan in the midst of all this madness?”

“Not really.”

The headless cowl nodded, as if the Reaper hadn’t expected any other answer.

“Come,” it said. “Take my hand, and see what awaits you in the life to come.”

Jill hesitated a moment longer, but there was no point resisting the inevitable. She nodded. Fine. Her time was up, and that was that. Goodbye, Earth. Hello, Great Unknown.

Its hand on her shoulder was like a dousing in arctic waters. She felt all the warmth—all the life—drain out of her body like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But the Reaper was right. It really wasn’t so bad. And when everything went dark like the void beyond the Reaper’s cowl, Jill found herself contemplating her life, wondering if it had really been all that important to begin with.

After all, nothing in this world was permanent. As the Reaper itself had said, sooner or later, everyone dies.

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Answering the Call

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I.

Shining.

Resplendent.

A world of white sand and endless palms, of navy blue skies and shimmering otherworldly horizons.

You belong. You are one of us.

It calls to me. In the dark and endless night, it calls to me.

Come. Be one with us.

But I can’t. Not yet. The tether that binds me to my Earthly life holds fast; I cannot escape.

Oh, but that other world: It calls to me, and every day, it gets harder to turn away.

II.

A dream.

I am floating. Soaring through the clouds. Riding a jet stream through endless blue.

Not clouds anymore but foam, like the froth from a just opened bottle of champagne. And water, sparkling like a bed of polished sapphires.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

I am ache and need. I know no other purpose, no other destiny than to answer this ancient, unyielding call.

A hand, reaching from beyond to carry me away. I stretch to grasp it with my own. But it’s so far away, so very far away…

I come awake beneath the dim and silver light of the moon.

A spark kindles in my chest—a smoldering ember of pain and desire that I realize now will never die—and I lie awake until the sun’s first rays pierce my bedroom window with their sickly, comatose light.

III.

Pain.

I turn my weathered, pockmarked face toward a gray and ashen sky and cringe when the worn out joints in my knees issue a loud, crackling pop.

I behold the world from the other side of time, as an old man who’s ascended the golden ladder of life, only to discover it was never actually gold, only worthless, tarnished brass.

The spark that erupted in my chest long ago has transformed into a fire. I am immolation and desolation made flesh—consumed by hurt and heartbreak, and ravaged by broken promises, I am cast adrift.

Come.

For years, I’ve ignored that other world’s call. It was just noise, I told myself, a foolish fancy with no real-world significance. Only now, my “real-world” life is useless to me.

Old and infirm, I can no longer work, and those I once loved are dead. The Earth, rich in promises, has gifted me with rags.

Now, I strain at last to hear that other world’s voice—Come. You belong. You are one of us.—and bring it into focus once more.

I know now where my true home lies, and I turn away from my former life to follow after it.

IV.

A threshold.

Beyond: blue skies, white sand, and endless sparkling ocean. Behind: gray clouds, desolation, and endless darkness. It’s a wonder I remained for as long as I did.

The entrance to that other world is ringed in fire, but I do not hesitate.

I walk forward.

Forward into the fire.

Forward into love.

Forward into the light.

V.

A flash.

Pain.

I cry out, hold fast to that other world’s call as my old self is burned away.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

Suddenly, the pain is gone.

I am a new creation.

Love envelopes me.

I am home at last.

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Quest

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Bright, shining, like precious metal. A cosmic mystery, embedded in the center of the universe. I reach out to touch it, to be one with its magic. But like similar magnetic poles, it repels me, pushes me back whenever I get close.

“You can look,” it taunts, “but not touch.”

But I’m unable to look away. Within its boundless folds is something vital, something necessary for my soul’s survival, and it is my mission, my life’s work to get at what’s inside.

Like King Arthur quests for the Holy Grail, I quest for Truth. It can repel me all it likes, but I will never take my eyes off the Light. It calls to me with its divine and supernatural song, a chorus of elysian notes that has long since conquered my weary, downtrodden heart.

For now, it will remain out of reach. But I know that in the fullness of time, my quest will end. This mortal shell will fall away. The universe will unfurl to reveal its cosmic fruit—immortal, transcendent—and on that day, my soul will rush forward, swelling with anticipation, and be one with it at last.

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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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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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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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