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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Everlasting Life

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Death hung above Karen’s head like a dark shadow, ready to quicken, ready to smother her and snuff out her life. She remembered being put to sleep in the hospital for surgery a few weeks back. It felt like that now, no pain, only a bone deep weariness. The sole difference was that this time, when she fell asleep, there would be no waking.

She tried to summon every scrap of her remaining strength, as if combined, these fragments might somehow compose a spark that could jump start her failing body. But there was no fuel left for her body to burn, only the ashes of so many spent years, ready to be cast to the wind and forgotten.

Don’t let me die!

The words ran over and over again through her mind, a mad litany rattled off to an unknown god.

She could no longer open her eyes, and the darkness behind them was beginning to merge with a deeper darkness, one that whispered of oblivion.

“Karen.”

Startled, she wanted to ask who’d spoken—she thought she’d been alone—but she couldn’t open her mouth to speak.

“Karen,” said that voice again, cool, sterile, like windswept leaves.

Was she hallucinating? She’d read once that people on their deathbeds imagined all sorts of things, one last supernova of the senses before the brain shut down for good.

“I’m real, Karen.”

Yes, she believed it, though she had no particular reason to.

“Let me help you, Karen. Let me give you back your life.”

How can you do that when I’m so close to death, she wanted to ask.

“I can do all things,” said the voice as if it had read her mind. “All you have to do is ask.”

A convulsive chill surged through her spine like a high voltage current.

I want to live, she thought. No matter the cost, I want to live. Nothing can be worse than death.

“Granted.”

Sleep, if it had weighed on her before, was now an avalanche, pelting her on the head, driving her down into endless dark.

I imagined it after all, she thought, a mad sort of clarity coming over her at last.

If you’re real, speak. Prove to me you’re not a delusion.

Silence.

Speak, dammit!

Exhausted, Karen’s mind collapsed into darkness.

*         *         *

She opened her eyes the next morning, alert, wide eyed, reeling. When the doctors came in, surprised by her sudden turnaround, she asked with bugged eyes if anyone had been with her during the night.

She’d been alone, they assured her, she must have been dreaming. They released her and sent her home.

She still had the old aches and pains, the same brittle bones that were prone to breaking if she wasn’t careful how she walked, the same chronic cough. But she was grateful to be alive, to discover there were years left for her body to burn after all.

Then, one by one, everyone she loved began to die. First her sons and daughters, then her grandchildren, then her great grandchildren.

These last looked upon her in their final days with the kind of uneasy reverence one might show to some terrible, unspeakable god. Deep down, they knew her long life wasn’t natural, but like terrified children they were unable to articulate their fears, and instead they kept their distance from her until death had its way with them and delivered them from her sight.

She lives in a convalescent home now, far away in both place and time from where she’d once settled in another life. She sits on a rocking chair in a dark, shadowy corner, rocking, rocking, waiting for an end that will never come.

Only in that terrible half-life is she at last able to count the cost of her gift, not in fact a gift at all but a curse. Everlasting life, she thought, mad with despair.

Death would have been better.

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Death by Ice

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If John didn’t find shelter soon, he would die.

It was his thirty-seventh birthday. He’d always wanted to see snow, so he and a group of friends had rented a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains to celebrate. A huge snowstorm had swept the region the night before, leaving behind humongous drifts of crystal white.

“Let’s go hiking,” Alicia had said, and everyone thought it was a great idea. They donned extra layers of clothing and snow jackets, took their phones for group selfies and resolved to be back in time for dinner. Unfortunately, John had gotten separated from the group.

“I have to go back,” he’d said after only twenty minutes of walking. “I want to change into my snow boots.”

“You know the way?” Alex asked.

“Of course. A quarter mile there.” He pointed back behind them. If it weren’t for the fact that they’d teased him for his terrible sense of direction, he would’ve asked for company.

Now, John trudged through waist-deep snow and shivered. He’d lost the path a while ago, so that all that surrounded him were large gray rocks and towering pines. The cold had leeched through his jacket and snow pants, seeping into flesh and bone, and he could no longer feel his limbs. Was this how he would die? Would he exit this world only thirty-seven years after entering it, all because of a pair of shoes and a bruised ego?

I won’t die. That’s ridiculous.

He reached out to steady himself against a nearby tree and paused. How long had he been walking? Two hours? Three? He needed to rest.

No! screamed a half mad thought that bubbled out of a partially frozen mind.

Just a couple minutes. A couple minutes to rest his aching muscles, a couple minutes to calm his nerves. Then he could press on. In the back of his head, that manic voice continued screaming for him to go on. But he was no longer listening.

He dropped to his knees, rested his head against a nearby tree trunk. He reached back with numb hands to form a crude pillow, and he wondered vaguely why he couldn’t feel the bark.

Just a couple minutes.

John closed his eyes.

*    *    *

He woke to scratching. Eyelids fluttered, and for a moment he was dazzled by the golden light that filtered through the treetops. Then he felt it again, coarse and painful. He stumbled to his feet. His heart jumped into his throat.

John was surrounded by horned creatures twice as tall as himself, balanced on horse-like haunches and blood-soaked hooves. They reached out to him, scraping with scythe-like claws. He scrambled back. Bumped into a tree. Fell into the snow.

They closed in, began to rip skin and flesh. It was like having his heart carved out of his chest with an icicle. He cried out, coughing as his lungs hitched on the frozen air. He tried to pull away, but they’d pinned him against the tree so he couldn’t move.

Each slashing claw stole more of his warmth, until his teeth chattered like machine gun fire.

“G— g— go away,” he rattled.

Slash. Cut.

He tried to fend them off with useless hands.

Slash. Cut.

Black began to creep in from the corners of his vision. His arms and legs were dead, frozen weights.

Slash. Cut.

The image before his eyes constricted to a narrow white tunnel.

Slash. Cut.

Then light. Dazzling. And warmth. Suffusing. John marveled as feeling flowed back into his limbs. It was not the painful pins-and-needles sensation he’d expected, but a near instant restoration of feeling and motor control. The black that had conquered his vision dispersed. Now, he could see not only the world around him but more, a whole other realm that waited just beyond the threshold of space and time. There was love, and a presence that wanted to protect him. John called out to it, and it answered.

The horned creatures shrieked, shielding their eyes against the sudden burst of light. Hooting and snorting, they staggered away.

The light coalesced, assumed form and substance. It was the most beautiful thing John had ever seen. It had come to his rescue because it loved him, and he found that he loved it in return. He was no longer afraid to die, not if the light would take him with it.

John opened himself to its embrace. He felt a tug. A pull. His body fell away, left to freeze in the snow. John gazed down with disinterest.

The light swept him up and carried him home.

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Dying Breath

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“Time to sleep, little one.”

Jerome’s eyes began to droop.

“Mommy loves you very much.” She bent down to kiss his forehead, then walked back to the doorway, where she paused for a moment before turning off the light and closing the door.

Jerome stared up at the ceiling, watching the shadows change shape. Too young to form cohesive thoughts, all he could do was feel the lingering love of Mommy like a warm blanket as he drifted to sleep.

For a moment, he teetered on the edge of the waking world. Then he plummeted and all was dark.

* * *

Jerome woke on a bed of straw. He was not an infant but a man, elderly and gray, with an off-white beard that stuck out of his face like a clump of weeds. It was here, in the space between time, that he could remember who he was once again.

In a far off realm, in his true body, he lay dying in a hospital bed. But a woman, a young doctor he’d been sure he knew from somewhere but whose face he couldn’t place, had given him a special gift.

“A life for every dream,” she whispered so only he could hear.

He asked her what she meant, but she only shushed him and told him to go back to sleep.

She whispered something else, a baritone rumble that swallowed the world in a primordial language he felt more than understood. He closed his eyes. When he awoke, he found himself here, on this very same bed of straw.

Now, every time he closed his eyes, he woke someplace new. He would be a different age, exist in a different year. Each step on his sojourn through the cosmos was a flicker, a snapshot in time. Yet a billion snapshots later he was still drifting, with only these brief interludes in his bed of hay to remember who he was.

Someday, it would all come to an end, for a dying breath could only be stretched so far and so thin. But for now he would linger, unsure if what he’d been given was a gift or a curse.

Who would he be the next time? Jerome lay down and closed his eyes.

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Prey

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A shadow grazed the surface of the wall. Jackson whirled, momentarily dazzled by the piercing gold of nearby street lights. Nothing. Rivers of sweat flowed down the tiny crevices of age-worn skin, while his heart pounded out morse code. He was prey. That knowledge propelled him into the night.

A flashbulb of memory like a strobe: Mom and Dad, cradling him in their arms, the reflection of a past love so strong that tears began to mingle with the sweat. How he missed them. He’d been safe then. The world had been safe.

Another shadow, glimpsed from the corner of his right eye. Once more he whirled. Once more nothing. He knew he wouldn’t see it coming, that even if he’d been looking straight at it he’d have only seen a blur of color here, a lessening of light there. The Wanderers were amorphous. That was why it was chasing him, to steal his body. They were like supernatural hermit crabs, except they didn’t wait for the owner of the body to die before snatching it for themselves.

Jackson turned a corner, sprinted until he nearly slammed into a concrete wall. A dead-end alley. Fuck, he’d turned into a dead-end alley!

Nobody knew what the Wanderers were nor why they’d come, only that one day they’d invaded en masse, blanketing the world in darkness. Civilization hadn’t completely unraveled, at least not yet—humanity was strong; Jackson had faith it would endure—but like Jackson’s life, it was on the brink.

He clawed at the far wall, forced himself to turn, and there, standing before him, a vision of darkness only half glimpsed. Even in the night it was visible, an inkblot on the surface of the world that shifted before his eyes every time he tried to get a clear reading. He stumbled forward, bumped into another wall, stumbled forward again. Then he tripped over a concrete brick and went flying into the asphalt.

Pain, bright and flaring. Vertigo seized him and he felt like sicking up. It was upon him now, he could feel it. Not a physical weight but a heavy burden nonetheless, coiled like a snake, ready to strike.

On the precipice of death, he saw who he was reflected through the viewfinder of eternity. Then it lunged and the world went dark.

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The Foolish Apprentice

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“I told you how to do this already.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jess, stumbling over the title, tiny pearlescent beads of sweat popping from his forehead. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Amos sighed. Hovering over his apprentice, he watched with consternation as he made all the wrong weaves, a misstep he’d tried to correct over a dozen times during the past week.

Suddenly there was a bright electric flash like a strobe, and Jess staggered back.

“Jess!” cried Amos, though he was too late to stop it. He was equal parts relieved and enraged to find he’d come away from his mistake uninjured. “Goddamnit, Jess! You could’ve killed us both.”

Jess looked back at him blankly.

“Here,” said Amos, collecting himself. He raised his hands into the air. “I’ll show you again.”

He proceeded to step through basic fingerings he’d learned when he was ten. He penetrated empty space, took hold of two threads. He tucked one behind the other and twisted until the pair was taut. Then he relaxed his grip and let the weave unravel slowly between his fingers. It emitted a soft, golden glow.

“The weave for light,” said Amos flatly. “The tighter the twist, the more energy that’s released, the brighter the light.”

“I mostly had it,” said Jess, rising to his own defense. His cheeks had turned pink. “I just gave it too much tension.”

“And almost blinded us both,” snarled Amos. “You can’t just let go of a weave like that. You have to let it unwind slowly, keep it under control. Magicians have burned themselves to cinders for making mistakes like that.”

Jess balled his hands into fists.

This wasn’t working. Simon had said the boy was headstrong, and that was true enough, but what he’d left out was that the boy was also a fool. Take either attribute apart from the other and you’d have something Amos could work with. If the boy were headstrong but talented, he could find some way to channel his pride toward a healthy confidence. If the boy were foolish but humble, he could be patient, step through the basics over and over again, confident that he would pay attention and eventually learn. But a headstrong fool? There was nothing to be done for that.

“Listen,” said Amos, and he had to swallow a vile insult that had risen up into his throat. “I know you’re anxious to get through the basics, that you want to be a great magician like your father, but you’re young, you know nothing and it takes time. Your father was a great man because he knew when to listen as well as when to lead, because he spent hours in his workshop after you kids had gone to bed and drilled himself in the essentials.”

“My father?” shouted Jess, leaping to his feet. “What do you know about my father?”

“Quite a bit more than you, apparently,” said Amos, trying to keep his voice level. “He never would have put up with your refusal to listen, your stubbornness in the face of correction. I would’ve thought you’d know better.”

“My father said I was destined for greatness,” argued Jess.

“Maybe. If you’d spent more time under his tutelage before he died, perhaps you would’ve learned what it takes to be great. But now? I’m beginning to think you’ll never learn.”

Jess looked like he was going to say something. Tight cords bulged from his neck. But after a moment the rage drained out of him and his head fell into his hands.

“He always made it look so easy,” said Jess in a vulnerable tone Amos had not heard before. “Before he died, he made it look so easy, and then Simon tried to teach me, and I couldn’t get it, and I felt so stupid. I got frustrated, and I thought, ‘if only Dad were still here to teach me himself.'”

A tear fell from one of the boy’s eyes, and Amos’s appraisal of him changed. Perhaps Jess could be reached after all. Maybe his pride was a facade, a front he’d erected to protect a battered ego further embittered by the premature loss of his father. With some patience and kindness (God knew this was not his forté), perhaps the boy would turn out all right.

“Jess,” said Amos, “Your father spoke very highly of you. I believe you can do this, but you have to be open to correction. You can’t take it as a personal affront every time I point out that you’re doing something wrong. Part of your father’s greatness was in his willingness to own up to mistakes and fix them. If you do the same, you can be like him, I’m sure of it.”

“You think so?” Jess looked up then, and Amos’s heart softened.

“I know so.” He placed an affectionate hand on the boy’s shoulder. He would take him under his wing, he decided, not just as a mentor but as a guardian and a friend.

Jess nodded, sniffled, reached toward his nose to wipe away more tears. “Show me again?”

Amos reached into empty space once again, and this time Jess paid attention.

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His Domain

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A gust of frigid night air blew past James as he wound through the park, making him shiver. Like a dream, only he knew he wasn’t asleep. The world was unnaturally quiet and still. There was only the wind, sighing like a mournful spirit.

Orange lamps lit the edges of an asphalt path, but the dim illumination only seemed to hint at all the things it refused to reveal. So many dark corners and hidden shadows. Anything could be out there, watching, waiting, hunting.

The most distressing thing was that he couldn’t remember why he was here. Memory was a vague thing, a thin mist that parted and evaporated whenever he reached for it.

James’s eyes flitted from one shadow to the next. He licked his lips. They felt cold and dry. The wind was blowing harder now, trees swaying back and forth in a harsh rhythm. Leaves and branches played a haunting tune, a dry rasping sound.

James caught movement on his right. He whirled, strained to hear. But there was nothing. More movement to his left, the slightest flicker on the edge of vision. Again he whirled, and again there was nothing.

James ran. Lamps and trees streaked by in a blur until his side ached and his breath started to come in ragged puffs. He had no idea where he was going, no idea what he was running from, only that he couldn’t stop, that stopping meant dying.

It seemed the trees and asphalt went on forever. He could make out buildings on the horizon, a smattering of yellow-orange windows like distant stars, but running never seemed to bring him any closer.

James’s heart pounded, until it had become a high frequency beat that made him feel lightheaded. Eventually he stopped, and when he couldn’t catch his breath he fell to his knees, gulping for air. He wanted to keep running, but when he tried to scramble to his feet he only succeeded in falling to his hands and knees once again.

“Why do you run from me?”

James froze. He tried to discern the source of the voice, but it moaned and whistled with the wind so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“They all do, you know. They all believe they can escape. They think that if they run fast enough, that if they run long enough, they can get away, that they can cheat me out of what’s always been mine.”

The wind was now whipping at James’s hair and clothes in a violent gale.

A figure emerged from the shadows, not from a place of hiding but from the shadows themselves. It loomed over him, wearing the blackness like a cloak.

James wanted to scream, to summon anyone who might be close enough to help. But whatever sound he’d wanted to make had gotten caught in his throat. Finally, in a hoarse whisper, he croaked, “Who are you?”

“Yes,” the figure mused in that same elemental voice, “and they always ask me the same thing. Who am I? Why have I come? And you know, they all know the answer before they even ask. Deep down, they’ve always known the answer.”

The figure knelt before him, and as he leaned in with a face that was shrouded in darkness, the air grew colder. “Have you figured out who I am yet?”

James had lost most of his body’s warmth. He shuddered, hugged himself with shaking arms. “Death.”

“Yes.”

James’s vision blurred around the edges.

“You’ve come to take me,” said James. “Because I’m yours.”

“Yes, you are.”

The blackness enfolded him, blinded him.

A breeze grazed the surface of his left ear like a kiss. “Death is my domain.”

A flicker of consciousness, like a sputtering flame, and then James went to join Death in the dark.

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The Edge of the World

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He was nine the year he lost his grandfather. All that was left was a note: “Gone to the edge of the world.” He never saw him again. At age seventy-five, the man decided to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.

His grandfather would tell him stories about the edge of the world, how his own father had taken him to see it when he was only a child, how they’d sailed across the ocean for months on a private boat, how the experience had haunted him the rest of his life. He’d said that with every passing year it called to him with increasing urgency, until it was all he could do to keep from running away and jumping into the empty cosmos beyond.

He used to think they were just stories. Now he knew better.

He was an educated man, and he knew the world was round. He’d flown all over the globe, had explored more than a dozen countries in pursuit of something elusive and unseen, something that up until very recently had remained an unarticulated mystery. He also knew that if you sailed long enough you’d encounter the edge of the world. He was certain because he’d been there.

He’d sold everything he owned, bought a small boat and sailed for months without stopping, just as his grandfather had told him. It wasn’t hard to find. He only had to choose the brightest star in the sky and follow it across the horizon. But the journey was long and perilous, and after he ran out of food and water he was sure death would take him.

That was when he found what he was looking for.

Most people, if they believe in the edge of the world, think it’s somewhere in the middle of the ocean, a colossal Earth-sized waterfall cascading down into endless black. His grandfather had known better, and the old man had passed the knowledge on to him.

His tiny boat washed up on an impossibly large shore, a flat carpet of wind-smoothed sand. He blinked when he came to a stop, hardly daring to believe he’d been successful. He tumbled awkwardly over the side, pushed himself to his feet and reached back into the boat to pull out an old gas-lit lantern. He removed a set of matches from his pocket, which he’d carefully packed inside multiple layers of plastic zip lock bags to keep them dry, and ignited the burner to produce a flickering flame. Finally, lantern at the forefront, he pressed into the dark, the flame forming a small orange halo on the sand.

His grandfather had told him this place was special, that here it was always night, and what he found corroborated the old man’s story. Though his watch said it was two thirty in the afternoon, the cosmos were laid bare before him, naked and unashamed, stars dusting the sky like ground gemstones. And ahead, just a few hundred meters away, was the edge of the world.

It was not the steep drop of a precipice. Instead the sand, turned pale gray in the light of the moon, faded to black like a fine mist, pocked occasionally by tiny wellsprings of darkness like mini black holes. As he walked, the ground became mushy, soft and pliable. And ahead, where he dared not go, it thinned to a nearly transparent film, beneath which there was only the black of space and the shimmering stars beyond.

He lifted his head and the lantern, risked a peek over the edge. But the space beyond swallowed the feeble light and refused to reflect any of it back. Well, he supposed there were some mysteries that weren’t meant to be solved, at least not on this side of the cosmic divide.

Anyway, he would discover soon enough what the universe was keeping from him. It had been calling to him for a while, only he hadn’t recognized the call for what it was. Until now.

He stood at the edge and gazed into eternal night. “I’m coming, grandfather.”

Then he closed his eyes and jumped.

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Redemption, Part 5 of 5

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Read Part 4 here. If this is your first time reading, you can find Part 1 here.

He did not see the ceiling of the bedroom, but stars in a moonlit sky. He pushed himself to his knees in a dark alley. There was a stench, foul and sour. It was a smell he’d once grown accustomed to, a smell he’d almost forgotten.

Crumpled against a concrete wall to his left was the slumped figure of a man. He crawled toward it. He lifted one of the man’s sleeves, examined with almost clinical detachment the needle marks on the man’s arm. He searched the chest for signs of breathing and found that it was still. The man was dead.

“You died there,” said a little girl’s voice.

He turned.

“The same night. I watched it happen.”

Yes, he could remember now. Trembling, he’d stumbled into that forgotten pocket of concrete and asphalt, feeling like shit. He’d administered an extra potent dose of heroin. It had been his last high.

The girl, though young, shone with an ageless wisdom that he found difficult to bear. He averted his eyes.

“I’m ready,” he said.

“For what?”

“For Hell. That’s where you’ve come to take me, isn’t it?”

The girl stepped forward — he watched the pink plastic lining of her shoes glisten in the moonlight — and pulled him up by the chin.

“Is that what you want?”

“It’s what I deserve.”

He stared into her eyes. The girl, by way of reply, knelt beside him. He closed his eyes, prepared himself for what would come. He didn’t expect what happened next.

The girl pulled him into her arms and embraced him like a mother. Emotion swelled, a tsunami of sensation that nearly drowned him. He sobbed and wailed and moaned like a lost child, and the whole time the girl held him, cradling his head against her tiny shoulder.

When at last the storm subsided, she pulled away. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and gazed up at her, unable to comprehend such reckless and unconditional love.

“You were desperate. You were a slave to your addiction.”

“There’s no excuse for what I did.”

“No,” the girl agreed, “There isn’t. There is love in you, but it’s tarnished, impure. It must be cleansed. Justice and love demand it.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’ll have to do this again.”

“No,” he said when he realized what she meant. “I can’t.”

“You have to. You must confront your evil and the pain it’s caused, over and over again, until little by little your spirit is broken. It’s your punishment and your redemption. You must be broken before you can be made into something new.”

“How long?”

“As long as it takes. Some go through it only once. Some for much longer. Some never find their way through.” She gave him a warm and reassuring smile. “You’ve been at it for a while. I think you’re almost done.”

He looked up, and when he did he spotted another door, just like the first, standing a few feet away from him in the alley. There was fire and pain beyond the threshold. He could feel it. It would burn him, consume him whole.

“The fire is necessary,” said the girl, as if sensing his thoughts. “It burns away the impurities. Your soul will be smelted and refined until it’s been reduced to love, and when that’s done you’ll find rest.”

He found a different emotion then, one he’d not experienced before. Hope. It overcame him. There would be fire, and it would hurt. But then there would be healing, and he would be made whole. He would atone, and then he would find peace.

He pulled himself to his feet. Gritted his teeth. Walked forward.

“I’ll be waiting for you,” said the girl behind him, “to greet you as a friend on the other side.”

He opened the door. Stepped through.

He was consumed by the light.

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Redemption, Part 4 of 5

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Read Part 3 here. If this is your first time reading, you can find Part 1 here.

The man stood in a girl’s bedroom, surrounded by police. They’d cordoned off a section of space near the bed. Sitting with their backs against the wall were a man and a woman. The woman was crying into the man’s shoulder. The man, also crying, held her in the crook of his arm.

On the floor by the bed was a chalk outline. Only, when he turned away and looked back again, it had been replaced by a body, the body of the young girl he’d seen in the photos. He wanted to look away, but his eyes had affixed themselves to hers.

The girl looked like she was asleep, except that her head was tilted at an unnatural angle and her eyes were open, glazed and unfocused.

He squeezed the bear against his chest.

He felt so much, a dimension that could not be perceived through the eyes but only through the heart. The room was pregnant with terror, loss, hatred and despair. The emotions writhed as if they were alive. They beat like a heart, and with each pulse the man felt as if he’d been punched squarely in the chest.

Who could have done this?

He tried to speak, to grab the attention of the couple and the officers. But neither group acknowledged him. It was as if he were speaking from the other side of an unbridgeable chasm.

He bent down beside the girl and gazed into her lifeless eyes. So young. A tragedy. He wanted to join the man and woman in their mourning. He reached out, touched a strand of the girl’s hair.

A bolt of something like electricity flowed into him. He twisted and convulsed.

A flash of light and he was the girl, lying in bed. She heard a sound outside and woke with a start. She clutched her bear against her chest, prayed that whatever had caused the sound would go away. Then she heard scraping at her window. There was a shudder, a click and the thin layer of glass that separated her from the outside world came undone.

A man slipped through the opening, dressed in dark clothing. A stench filled her nostrils. She gagged and failed to suppress a cough.

The man turned toward her. When he met her eyes his own widened. She tried to scream but he’d already pounced, had already grabbed her throat. All the while that horrible odor assailed her.

There was a moment of disorientation. Thought and vision split into two.

He was the girl, staring up at a strange man, the life leeching out of her as she clutched feebly at her throat. He was also the man, a junkie without money in desperate need of a high.

All the girl wanted was for her parents to rescue her, to hold her, to tell her they loved her and that everything would be okay. All the man wanted was to stop the girl from screaming, to get out of there before the cops were called and he was sent to prison.

Her world went dark. He felt her body crumple in his hands.

There was another bright flash, a solar flare of white, and once again he was just the girl. She stood above her body, looked on with confusion as her parents burst through the door. They found her body on the ground. Ran to her. Cried out in disbelief.

She shouted at them, tried desperately to tell them she was okay, that she loved them. But they couldn’t hear her. Then a light appeared, a tunnel perpendicular to space and time, and she was drawn toward it like a moth toward a flame. She went to it, allowed it to consume her whole. It was the most natural thing in the world to do, as natural as breathing…

The electric current ceased and the man collapsed face-first onto the floor. He was himself once more.

He’d killed her. He remembered now. The red welts that ran up and down his arm, they were needle marks, and the bear was what she’d been holding when he’d snuffed the life from her. Revulsion wracked him in waves, and he curled into a ball and sobbed like a baby. How could he? What had he done? He deserved Hell. He was the apotheosis of Hell.

A voice, addressing him by name.

He sniffed, opened his tear-streaked eyes and looked up.

Read Part 5 here.

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