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.

Alexandria

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Alexandria stood by the curb, looking out at the street as the sky poured rain. Meanwhile, a group of other kids was playing hockey. She didn’t ask to join. She knew they’d only laugh.

She stared after them for a moment before making her way along the sidewalk. The clouds above were a roiling sea of gray. The gloom pressed in around her, but it was not an uncomfortable feeling.

She could feel the imagination inside of her, crackling with feral wildborn magic. The storm amplified her power, so often latent and inactive, and she could feel a whole universe of possibilities fanning out before her.

Alexandria snapped her fingers. A world emerged. She snapped her fingers again. It disappeared.

Let the other kids have their game. She had something better.

Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage Illustration #1

He sees the boy, pumping his legs as he soars through the air on a swing, and he almost smiles. How carefree and innocent the boy is, not yet aware of the world’s cruel designs. His own childhood is a distant thing, far removed from who and what he is today.

The boy releases the chains. He leans forward, and when the swing is at its apex, he slips from the seat. He hurtles through the air, lands on his hands and knees, and grins.

Play. It’s a concept he’s thought about a lot. In the small hours of the night, when he lays awake unable to sleep, he stares beyond the ceiling, pondering its manifold mysteries. The imagination of a child, he thinks, is a thing of boundless possibilities, a grasp toward the infinite, an exploration of a vast, unformed world filled with all the things that might yet be. It is an art, he thinks, a special kind of magic that he lost the moment he was Changed.

He brushes the thought aside. There will be time for reflection later. Right now he’s focused on the boy. He stares at him from behind a broad oak tree, shrouded in shadow.

Today, the boy will be his.

* * *

His name is Gol. He is not an ogre or a troll, a gnome, a fairy or a centaur. There are no stories written of his kind. To the best of his knowledge, he’s the only one of his kind. He was once human like the boy, but he is human no longer.

He is the latest incarnation of an ancient lineage, a succession stretching back beyond the foundation of the world. He cannot reproduce, but like humans he’s compelled to propagate, to continue the work of his ancestors. Though he’s lived for thousands of years, has witnessed the rise and fall of long-forgotten civilizations, in the end, like all living things, he too must die.

He’s spent a great deal of time pondering his origins. The memories of his ancestors are a part of him, but they’re so numerous and convoluted by the ravages of time that the secrets of the distant past remain shrouded in mystery. Someday, before the stars have burned up all their hydrogen, before the world is an icy ball of lifeless stone, before the universe is a tepid mass of eternal darkness, he hopes his progeny will solve that riddle, that perhaps they’ll even find a way home. But that will be a task for the boy and his descendants.

His own days are nearly at an end.

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The Forgotten Magic

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The man stood beneath the moon and the stars, desperate and afraid. The world was bearing down on him, threatening to crush him under its immense and unyielding weight. He leaped into the air uselessly, tried in vain to spread his arms and fly.

Long ago, on the outer periphery of time and memory, he could have done it, could have sprouted wings, kicked the dust from his feet and soared into the air. But that power was lost to him now, forgotten with age and responsibility.

He couldn’t go on. He no longer had the energy to trudge through the trenches of daily life. He needed to escape, to run far away from the world and its heartless machinations.

He leaped again, flapping his arms from side to side like an off-balance windmill. It was useless. The man nearly cried.

When had the world lost its magic? When had it transformed from a bright glowing ball of potential energy to a soulless machine that had consumed his humanity and left nothing of it for himself? He had given the world everything, and the world had spared nothing for him in return.

The man looked up, away from the world. He gazed at the stars, and they gazed back at him with ancient understanding. If only he could touch them. They seemed to call his name, and he was certain that all he had to do was answer.

Had he changed? Was that why he’d forgotten? Perhaps the world had always been what it was. Perhaps the problem was not that the world had changed, but that he himself had changed. Perhaps the magic was not gone after all. Perhaps it had only been neglected, a childhood toy abandoned in the attic.

He basked in the light of the moon, bathed in it until he felt pure. Finally, he donned the cosmos like a cloak. The stars accepted him then, adopted him as their son, and in a flash of clarity they granted him the gift of memory.

He let it all go. He laid his burdens before the stars as a sacrifice, an offering to be exchanged for something much older, something pristine, something everlasting. He closed his eyes and the magic overtook him.

Transformed into something both new and ancient, he spread his arms, which transformed into the wings of an eagle. He flapped, and he could feel the air push back against him, countering gravity, bearing him high into the atmosphere. He flew toward the stars.

He didn’t look back and he never returned.

Afraid of the Dark

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Mom tells me not to be afraid of the dark. But I know better.

“There’s nothing that can hurt you,” she says with a smile before kissing me on the forehead and closing the door behind her. That’s when I pull the covers over my head like a burial cloth and lie awake with my eyes open until I see the light again.

Once, I took her at her word and slept with the covers off. I trusted her then, was sure that if she said something it must be true. I’d begun to drift, to straddle the world of dreams in freedom and peace.

That was when I heard a voice.

“Christian,” it said, sounding like the rustling of dry leaves.

My eyes popped open.

“Christian, come to me. We’ll have fun together, you and I.”

I threw the blanket over myself like a ward, praying it would be enough to protect me.

“Christian,” it said again, a low susurrus whisper. “I’m here in the dark, waiting for you. Won’t you come? You’ll never have to sleep again. We can play, you and I. We’ll have so much fun.”

That was when I learned the truth, that there are things in the dark that can hurt you, that mothers and fathers don’t always know everything.

I didn’t sleep that night, and I don’t know if I’ll ever sleep again.

Time

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It’s amazing how slowly time seems to go as you experience childhood. You have those landmark days like Christmas and your birthday to mark the year, and it seems almost a lifetime in-between.

You grow up a bit.  Time starts to pick up its pace, but not by much.  You spend six years in Elementary School, convinced you have life all figured out.  Then you reach the end of your sixth grade year, and the pressures of the unknown begin to gnaw at the back of your mind as you contemplate the notion of — GASP! — Junior High.

By this point, time’s speed has increased markedly.  However, you soon discover that Junior High is no big deal, and you once more begin to believe that you have life all figured out, that things will always be as they are in that moment.  You have some notion of existing in a transient state, but as you deal with new friends, new enemies and the stresses that come with peer pressure, it’s really the last thing that enters your mind.

You reach the end of your eighth grade year, another milestone, and uncertainty creeps into your mind once again.  This time, it’s the frightening prospect of High School.  You’re not quite as worried about High School as you were about Junior High, but fear gets the better of you just the same.  You endure sleepless nights over summer vacation dreaming about forgotten classes, getting lost in an endless maze of foreign buildings and embarrassing moments with your peers.  Finally, you attend your first day of school, realize it’s nothing new and settle into your home away from home for the next four years.

This is the moment that time really decides to kick itself into gear.  People always used to tell you this would happen, but you never really believed them. You lose old friends, make new ones, lose yourself, find yourself.  When it’s all said and done, you’re standing there amidst your family and peers getting ready to receive your diploma.  You sing your school’s Alma mater one last time, and you find yourself trying to hide unexpected tears as you realize that, despite what you thought at the time, those really were the best years of your life.

How Can I Rediscover the Magic of Childhood?

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Your alarm clock rings at seven in the morning. You wake up. Yawn. Stretch. Groan. Great, you think. Another day. You go outside to grab the newspaper, wrapping a robe tight around your waist to block the cold, grumbling about work and the weather. You look up, ready to go back inside, and that’s when you spy a cluster of neighborhood children across the street, running, jumping and shouting like manic chimpanzees.

First you think, why aren’t they in school? Then you remember it’s the middle of July. When did I stop looking forward to the summer, you wonder. You ponder this mystery for a while, and when the answer comes, you sigh in resignation. It’s when I left childhood behind, you realize. It’s when I grew up.

Why is our adult vision constrained to such a narrow field of view, composed only of the ordinary, the boring and the mundane? Children, by contrast, seem capable of perceiving so much more.

In fact, it appears that our kids interact daily with a world unseen, a parallel universe whose existence is always just out of reach to the rest of us, and we secretly (or not so secretly) envy them.

You rightly wonder, “what magic power do children have that I don’t?”

Children look at the world with fresh eyes.

To a child, everything is new. They haven’t had time to articulate the familiar. They haven’t yet derived the abstract theoretical models that make the world predictable. To a child, shadows, reflections and moonbeams are magic, entities without explanation, realities which are to be accepted at face value.

Children don’t know that the wind is composed of loosely coupled molecules, driven about by pressure and momentum. They only feel the cool restorative touch of its invisible caress. Children don’t know that a rainbow is the product of a spectrum of electromagnetic frequencies refracted at different angles through a prism. They only perceive an inexplicable burst of multi-colored light in the aftermath of a storm.

This simple humble acceptance of the world as it is inspires wonder and stimulates the imagination.

Children are faced with a universe saturated in magic. They marvel and conclude that anything is possible.

If birds and planes can fly, why can’t people? If animals, people and other more exotic forms of life can exist, why can’t fairies, dragons and monsters?

Because anything is possible, the world of reality and the world of fantasy are inextricably linked; one connects directly to the other. Through humble awe and wonder, a child is issued a passport to the world of the imagination. Children pass back and forth between the two worlds so fluidly that unless we’re paying close attention, we might not even realize they’re gone.

We adults, on the other hand, take our limited knowledge of the world for granted.

We assume that things will always work the way they do because they always have. Our vision narrows, and anything that doesn’t fit into our empirical model of the universe becomes impossible.

Birds and planes can fly, but not people. Animals exist, but never monsters. There are people, but no fairies, orcs or gnomes.

One by one, the possibilities dwindle. Our vision of the world continues to constrict until we become stodgy old men, cynical and philosophically nearsighted; before we know what’s happened, the world of fantasy has evaporated. We experience sadness in the wake of its disappearance, but we have no idea where to find it again. Instead, we look on as our children pass back and forth between the worlds, and we spend the rest of our lives lamenting the loss of our imagination, convinced that it’s an inescapable consequence of growing up.

But adulthood done properly is actually childhood fulfilled.

What we need is not to surrender what we know of the world in favor of ignorance, but to surrender our skeptical attitude in favor of simple awe and wonder. We adults lose access to the world of fantasy not because we articulate a more complete model of the universe, but because in doing so we often refuse to believe in anything beyond it. We believe that all we know is all there is, and as a result we lose our sense of mystery and wonder.

We must look beyond the surface, so that we can once again perceive the world through a fresh pair of eyes. We understand that a rainbow is the product of light of different frequencies refracted at different angles through a prism. Instead of saying that’s just the way things are and shrugging it off as a solved problem, we might instead dig into the mystery a bit further.

Why does light of different frequences refract at different angles? And what, for that matter, is light? Suddenly, we discover that there’s a whole new set of mysteries, waiting to be explored. We’re plunged into a winding rabbit hole that takes us deep into electromagnetism and the other fundamental forces of nature, things which simply exist for reasons that we don’t yet understand.

Once again, everything is new, and we find that we can use our imaginations once more. If electromagnetism can exist, along with gravity and the strong and the weak nuclear forces, why not other fundamental forces of nature that we haven’t yet discovered?1

The reason why we search for what we lost in childhood is that we’re still children.

We might have bigger bodies, and we might know more about the world and how it works than we did in our nascent existence. But inside, we’re still that five-year-old kid we thought we left behind so many years ago. This is good news, because it means that what we thought we lost when we grew up was really never lost at all! Awe and wonder are accessible to everyone, children and adults alike. We might have learned some bad habits in our old age, but it’s never too late to change our attitude.

Adopt a new outlook, and the magic you thought you’d lost what seems a lifetime ago will return in spades.


Footnotes

1. When I first started studying Math and Physics in 2006 (God, I’m old), I dreamed up a fifth fundamental force of nature that governed interactions between objects at a distance. I came up with a mathematical model to define its properties, then plugged it into real physics to discover how it would behave if it were real. I spent five years combing through the math and making sure everything was consistent, and when I was done I had a new realistic magic system ready to use in a new fantasy series. Now that’s imagination!

A Case of Mistaken Identity, Part 10

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You can read part 9 here. Reading for the first time? You can find part 1 here.

I rushed headfirst into the closet. It wasn’t until I brushed past hanging coats and pants and nearly bumped my head against the wall that I realized the doorway to the other world had already closed.

I felt as if all the wind had been knocked out of me. I slumped against the wall, closed my eyes and covered my face with my hands.

I’d been so close.

Tears squeezed out of my eyes unbidden, and I was overcome with despair. I would never get home now, I thought. I was stuck in a hateful world with a hateful mom and a hateful brother. I would never see my real mom again, and my double would continue to enjoy the life he’d stolen from me justice-free.

“Mom.”

I stopped crying. I looked up and cocked my head so I could hear better.

“Mom.”

I heard it again. I knew that voice. It was quiet and filled with pain. Tom.

Despair vanished, replaced with the raw instinct to survive. I scrambled off the floor and ran from the closet. I paused in the doorway, looked for signs that Tom had seen me, then jogged silently toward the stairs.

I heard him call again for his mom. Each time his voice grew softer, farther. I moved down the steps as fast as I could manage without making sound.

I halted when I reached the bottom. Once again, like the first day I’d come to this place, vertigo and a sense of otherworldliness swept over me as I took in the living room before me, all at once familiar and strange.

Then Tom called again from upstairs, and the spell was broken. I dashed for the front door. I panicked when at first it didn’t open, and it took me a moment before I realized I had to undo the lock. I ran outside, sailed across the concrete path and darted off along the sidewalk, into the moonlit night.

I ran. I ran some more. I didn’t stop. I looked around at the houses in my neighborhood. Mirror-Eugene’s neighborhood. The houses were similar but different. The street was more rundown than my own, as if it had suffered years of neglect. It reminded me of some of the more destitute communities in my own world, which I sometimes saw pictures of on TV.

I ran until brief pinpricks in my right side blossomed into sharp stabbing pains. I slowed, and only when I stopped did I realize my breathing had grown ragged and that I could barely stand. Adrenaline had abandoned me, leaving me weak and disoriented.

I gazed about, lost. At some point I’d wandered away from the area I recognized, even more dilapidated than where I’d started. Large concrete structures loomed overhead, stained and chipped with age. Many were surrounded by chain link fences, some of which were topped with barbed wire. Plumes of smoke rose into the air, illuminated by the moon and artificial lighting so that they seemed like spirits rising into heaven.

I would have been scared had I not been so exhausted. I leaned against a decrepit wall and closed my eyes.

I thought I’d only take a minute to rest and catch my breath.  But when I opened my eyes again, the sun was up, I was on the ground and I wasn’t alone.

Continued next week…

A Case of Mistaken Identity, Part 9

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You can read part 8 here. Reading for the first time? You can find part 1 here.

I stepped out into the hallway, quivering with adrenaline in the aftermath of revenge. Each of my senses had stretched as far as they would go, so that I was no longer certain if the creaks and thumps I heard were real or if they were a product of my frenzied imagination. I stopped, paused to make certain the footsteps I heard were my own, then crept along the hallway like a spider, keeping as much to the feeble shadows as possible.

Soiled ivory-colored objects lined the walls at intervals, strung together so they resembled primitive necklaces. Some were long, others were short. Some were connected by balls and joints, others hung by only the string that bound them. I peered more closely, and almost gave myself away with a cry when I realized they were bones.

I moved faster.

I was halfway to the stairs when I heard a sound, a faint clicking noise, followed by what I was sure were feet padding across the carpet. It came from the open doorway of a room very close to where I stood. My head swiveled first to the room to see if I’d been spotted, then around again in search of cover.

I spied a bookcase filled with dusty weathered volumes beside me. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could find, and I dove for the shadow it provided.

I froze. Waited. Listened. When I was certain it was safe, I crept closer to survey the threat and to figure out when it would be best to continue my trek down the stairs.

The light inside was dim, and I had to strain my eyes to see. When I caught sight of my double’s mom, I nearly recoiled again. But her eyes were closed, and she was sitting Indian-style on the floor in front of her closet. She obviously hadn’t seen me. Around her neck hung a necklace like the ones I’d seen on the hallway walls. I stared at her, trying to discern what she was doing.

Suddenly her eyes popped open. I ducked behind the door frame, and I waited for ages before I dared peek again. When I did, I found her staring ahead at her closet. I relaxed.

She got up, and as if in a trance, she began to move toward the door. She reached for the knob and opened it. I gasped.

I’d seen this once before, when my double had opened my closet door and shown me another world. I was certain I’d discovered a passage home. I would follow her through the door, and then I would find mirror-Eugene and make him pay for what he’d done.

I rushed into the room. Fear evaporated, reduced only to raw instinct and determination. The door closed behind my double’s mom just as I reached the knob. I grasped it. Twisted. Pulled.

The door opened.

Read part 10 here.