Best Friends

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Don stood outside a pair of broad double doors, torches in iron scones along the walls casting a dim orange glow in the late night darkness. At his word, the doors would open, and then he would carry out his duty. But for now, he waited.

The night was cool, serene. The chirrups of crickets, the rustling of treetops, these spoke a comforting lie. They told the story of a world whole and intact, of a world untouched by the atrocities of a civil war that had almost destroyed humanity itself. Don wanted to steep in its sweet murmurs, to find what refuge he could in the all too brief illusion.

But Don had a job to do, one that shouldn’t wait any longer than necessary, and after a dusty bone weary sigh, he signaled to the guards.

The doors opened.

Light flooded out from a humongous palatial chamber, a coruscating electric blue. No illusions here. Tapestries lay in tatters on the floor alongside clotted blood and broken bodies, strewn about as if toys abandoned by a spoiled child.

At the center, where the light originated, was a man in a sword torn uniform, about the same age as Don, with snow capped hair and a permanent frown line, etched by time and turmoil into a face that could no longer move save for the lips. Presently, those lips were curled into a sour grimace of disgust.

Don could see that even now, the man fought against his restraints. It was a futile effort, of course, and the man knew it as well as he.

Don approached, the light beginning to thicken like gel around him. Not too close, his advisers had warned. The light was a trap. It was how they’d captured the man who stood before Don now. If he got too close, it would harden around him just like it had his prisoner.

“It’s been a while,” said Don after searching for words appropriate to the occasion and coming up short. A headache was blooming in his left temple, and his stomach had started to churn. The sight of his best friend Arnold bound by the light, no matter how evil he’d turned out to be, still rattled the cage around his weary soul with grief.

Arnold sneered but did not answer.

“You destroyed my kingdom. You destroyed the world. It will take centuries to rebuild.”

The sneer widened.

Don shivered, and the light around them turned a darker shade of blue. Who was this man? They’d grown up together in the castle, and though Don had been a prince destined for the throne and Arnold had been a servant destined for the stables, he’d loved the boy like a brother and had treated him likewise. But this man couldn’t be the same person he’d grown up with. Couldn’t be the same. Couldn’t be the same.

Yet here he was.

“Why?” It was not the question Don had meant to ask, but it bubbled out of him anyway, with all the force of an active volcano. “Why, Arnold? I trusted you. I loved you.” His voice cracked around the word love. “You were part of the family.”

When Arnold didn’t answer, Don raised his voice. “Do you not know I have the power to destroy you? Answer me!”

No reply. The light flared.

Don’s hands trembled at his sides. Love, he reflected, was a dangerous thing. Wonderful, exhilarating, at times liberating, but dangerous all the same. He had loved his friend Arnold, had welcomed him into the royal house as an equal, and a broken world had been the result.

The light’s shade darkened once more, and Don felt a love already starved by the horrors of war dwindle further like a guttering ember. It cried out in its death throes, interceding on his friend’s behalf, but ultimately fell on deaf ears.

“By order of the Crown and in defense of the Common Realm, I sentence you to death.”

Don snapped his fingers, and the light rushed inward, coalescing around Arnold, crystallizing around flesh and bone. Arnold’s mouth twisted into a final derisive grin, then opened wide as he let out a muffled agonized death cry. He arced his back, pulled taut by the matrix of light turned substance, then cried no more.

Why did you do this, old friend?

Don would live the rest of his life without the answer.

The light died, leaving behind a block of stone with Arnold’s body encased inside, and Don’s childhood heart died along with it.

Next week, I’ll kick off a seven part flash fiction series called, “A Proposal.” Don’t miss it!

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.