Death of a Fire Starter

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A ring of fire surrounds her. Its heat rises in bright, shimmering waves, baking her skin. How long does she have left? Three minutes? Five? Samantha draws into herself, wracks her brain for any opportunity to escape. But she knows death is inevitable.

All around her, hooded men and women stand at a safe distance, flickering as if ghosts.

“You knew the price of disobedience,” they told her before lighting the fire.

Samantha did, and if she’d been given the choice again, she would have done the same. If the Fire Starters had been able to forge ahead with their original plan, thousands of innocents would have burned.

The Fire Starters have always been her family. They took her in when she was a child and raised her as their own. For all their grievous faults, they were good to her, and choosing to betray them was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do.

She knew their history. She understood the crucible of relentless persecution in which the Fire Starters were transformed into the despots they are today. As she grew older, she tried to open their eyes, to show them a better way of living.

But when they decided to burn a city for refusing to pay them tribute, she knew no amount of reasoning would be enough to stop them. So she warned the population ahead of time, and when the Fire Starters came to destroy them, they found the city deserted.

Her only worry now as she burns to death—as she scents her hair smoking at the tips—is for the rest of the world. What will they do when their only advocate among the Fire Starters is dead?

And then it occurs to her. Perhaps she can’t save herself. But maybe, if she can find the strength within her—if she can intensify the flames—she can take her family with her.

She reaches for the Spark—the primordial power within as well as the source of every fire—and finds it waiting, as bright and fulminating as it was the day the Fire Starters taught her how to reach for it. She takes hold of it now and pairs it to the flames already blazing around her.

The fire responds at once, resonates with the fire within herself. The flames intensify, wild tongues reaching for the twilit sky, and she feeds it with all her remaining strength.

She hears their startled screams and knows she’s done it, that there’s no way they’ll be able to escape. They’re surrounded, just as she’s surrounded. Her own life is nearly extinguished, her vision turning black like her soon to be charred remains, but at least she’ll go with the knowledge that she was able to take them with her, that she was able to save the world from their wicked rule.

Let’s go, she thinks, into the fire we ourselves started.

Awareness gutters, and Samantha slips into the dark.

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The Dance

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This post was originally published through Patreon on June 19, 2016.

They came from beyond the horizon, endless columns of armored soldiers backed by billowing plumes of dark gray soot. Rusted helmets and breast plates gleamed beneath a sky of blood, while moth-ridden flesh festered in great open wounds. Brandishing shield and sword, they pressed forward, forming an impenetrable wall.

Meanwhile, the last remnant of humanity stood atop a ledge of stone, an elderly man donning a flowing robe of dazzling white. His face was a warren of dried up lines where the tears had etched his skin. Blue eyes glistened when he spied the advancing army in the distance. There was some distance left for them to close, yet he could already feel their dead eyes upon him, eager for his own demise, eager for an end to the dominion of men.

The sound of marching boots boomed with increasing volume, and when they finally stopped, an eerie silence descended on the desert below. The man stood defiantly before them, and they glared back up at him with a hatred for everything that lived. He heaved a slow, weary sigh, peered into the heavens, and began to dance.

Hands outstretched, he pulled at unseen strings, arms swooping in and out, forward and back as he moved with agile grace along the ledge. Below, the land rose and fell in waves, undead soldiers scrambling out of formation as great pillars of stone rose and fell beneath their feet. Some were impaled. Others were tossed against the rocks.

He began to twirl, his robe gently stroking the ledge, and the air below began to moan, coalescing into a storm of sand and dust. He thrust his arms forward, and the billowing wind charged into the mass of remaining soldiers. Stones and debris pelted down on them, knocking them backward, their sun-bleached bones crashing into the walls and bursting into clouds of dust.

He leaped into the air, pushing down as he landed, and below the earth began to quake. He moved his arms up and out, and below the earth split in two, tearing open along a jagged seam. Bodies tipped and fell, smashing into the ground below.

He finished with a pirouette, swept his arms outward with his head held low, and below flames erupted from the ground, scorching everything that remained.

He opened his eyes, looked down, and gazed at the battered bones and smoldering flesh. Humanity was saved. He made a formal bow, spared the carnage below a final parting glance, and turned back the way he’d come.

The dance was done.

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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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Summons

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It came for me.

In the dark of night, it came for me.

A creature like a man, only its skin was porcelain white, a phantom wreathed in moonlight. It smiled with bloodless lips, and from the endless depths of the dark it bade me follow after it.

There was no running, no bargaining, no arguing my way to freedom. I’d seen its kind claim others, seen its feral, animalistic rage as it made short work of those who would not answer its call willingly.

So I hunched my shoulders, skin cold to the touch, and nodded.

The creature turned to make its way down the graveled walkway, and I followed in its wake, wondering what the purpose of its summons could be, wondering if I’d be alive to recount the tale by morning.

I could hear the steady, irregular rhythm of far-off cars, while all around, I was serenaded by a chorus of nearby crickets—a funeral dirge to lead the creature and I as we hiked across the street, then along the sidewalk on the other side.

A million questions surged through my head like an angry sea, but terror held my desiccated tongue and I remained silent.

We headed out toward a busier street, and I pondered what others would think if they saw the creature that walked in their midst. A ghost? A corpse in motion? No, likely just a man; perhaps a bit too bright in the glow of nearby headlights, but a man just the same. Most lack the training we possess and can’t perceive the darker proportions of the world with clarity.

At last we turned a corner and stepped up onto another house’s porch, haloed in bright gold light. The creature reached out with its too-thin fingers and knocked on the door.

When it opened, when the thing inside gestured for us to enter, my heart sank, for I was certain now I wouldn’t see the sunrise.

“I’ve been expecting you for a while,” its dry voice rasped.

I pressed forward, determined not to let my fear show.

The darkness of the house’s interior enveloped me.

The door closed.

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Blue

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Because I attended the ConDFW in Texas this past week, I didn’t have time to prepare a new piece of flash fiction. Instead, I’ve reposted one of my Patreon shorts from last year. It should be new for most of you. I’ll have an original story for you guys next week 🙂

The stone had always been blue. Since time unremembered it had sat, polished and round, mounted in the center of the city. The people would go out in the middle of the night when it shone most brightly, and in the presence of that otherworldly glow, they would kneel and pay it homage.

It was their bedrock, the binding force that kept them civilized. A covenant between man and the infinite. So when the stone stopped giving its light, when the city’s streets went dark for the first time in recorded history, chaos loomed.

“It’s the end of the world!” they wailed. “The Gods have abandoned us.”

The priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said, taking up defensive positions around the stone. “It is only a test. We must be steadfast in our faith. Then the Gods will show us their favor once more.”

The people grumbled, restless and uneasy, but, one by one, they returned to their homes, some to pray, others to brood in silent worry.

The following night, they approached the center of the city. Once more, they saw the stone was dark.

They turned to the priests and asked, “What explanation will you offer us now?” They were wild-eyed, terrified, and half out of their minds.

Once more, the priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said. “The test has not ended. Be strong and keep the faith of our ancestors.”

“The Gods have abandoned us!” they cried. “What use are you now?”

“Be still,” the priests admonished. “The Gods have done no such thing. Return tomorrow, and you will see for yourselves that the stone gives light once more.”

Again the people grumbled. Some challenged them further, some even threatened violence if the stone was not restored to its former state as had been promised.

The priests watched them turn back, watched them disappear like apparitions, and, inwardly, they trembled. They had not a clue why the stone went dark, nor when it would share its light again.

“Please,” they implored together through a formal rite of prayer that hadn’t been invoked for more than a thousand years. “We beseech thee, the Gods of our ancestors, return to us thy divine light so that order might be restored.”

Exhausted and afraid, they retired to their quarters to sleep.

That night, the children of the city dreamed. They saw the pillars of their civilization crumble, saw their elders perish in an all-consuming fire that seemed to rise from the bowels of the Earth. An ancient cycle was nearing its end, and in that dream, a voice urged them to run if they would be a part of the next.

They each woke in a cold sweat, eyes lit with terror. But none spoke of the strange vision until much later.

The third night approached. The priests went out ahead of the crowd and observed with growing terror that the stone was still dark. They held the people back with exhortations of prayer, but, in the end, they could delay them no longer.

When the people beheld that infernal darkness, the priests tried once more to pacify them. But the citizens of the city were enraged. They were certain now the Gods had abandoned them, and all their priests could do was offer empty promises of salvation.

“The Gods have defied your predictions,” one man cried, “yet you would stand here and assure us all is well. We’re through with your lies!”

The people attacked.

The children, left behind by parents who’d already feared the streets would grow violent, heard a whisper ride in on the coattails of the wind.

Get out. Find safety outside the city walls and don’t return until the next full moon.

One by one, they filtered out into the dark.

Meanwhile, the people, having sacrificed their priests, turned on each other. A frantic, desperate bloodlust had filled their eyes and they were overtaken by an urgent need to destroy. They swept through the city like a plague, looting, murdering, burning buildings to the ground, so that in the end only a single person remained. In his final moments, he gazed up at the moon, mad with lunatic understanding, and ran himself through with his sword.

*               *               *

On the next full moon, the children crept back to the ruins of their city as the voice had told them. They passed the skeletal remains of their homes, the stinking, bloated bodies of their dead parents. The younger ones threw up. The older ones took them into their arms and led them away.

They found the stone, standing in the center as it always had. They gathered around it and lifted their voices in prayer. For a moment, there was only the wind, which whistled through broken archways and windows like a ghost. Then there was a flicker and a flash. They opened their eyes. The stone was blue once more. The children offered thanks.

In the morning, the older ones started to rebuild.

The land’s thirst for blood had been sated.

The new cycle had begun.

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Birth of a Soul

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Fingers working. Pen scrawling. Mind racing. A cascade of symbols. An avalanche of thought. A word emerges, followed by another. Ideas burst in Jaiden’s mind like the birth of stars.

A singular voice echoes through her head, begging for life. The sound is faint but clear, and Jaiden tries harder, forces her wrist to move faster. But a dull throbbing pain has blossomed in her left temple, and after a while, she decides she’s had enough for the night.

The words stop. There’s a single agonizing cry from a soul desperate for release, then silence. The universe in Jaiden’s head is still once more.

She caps her pen and sets her notebook on a dusty shelf. Tomorrow, she thinks with some trepidation, will be the day she finally finishes. Her work has been slow going until now, and until today, she thought it would never be finished. Now, she’s afraid of what will happen when she commits the last few sentences to paper.

Never mind. Not something to think about tonight.

She ascends the darkened staircase leading from the basement to her kitchen. She brushes her teeth, turns out the light, and slips into bed.

Tomorrow, she thinks as she drifts into the cold, black void of sleep. Tomorrow, the struggle will come to an end.

*               *               *

Light. It pokes her in the eye, startles her awake. She glances at the clock. 9:37 a.m. She gets out of bed, pulls a robe tight against her body, and ventures back to the kitchen.

The house is quiet. She’s lived alone for as long as she can remember, has never known any other kind of environment. She finds the silence contemplative. It speaks to her more loudly than words, impresses upon her truths that are inaccessible to her when she’s downstairs working.

What was life like before she started writing? She asks herself this question often, and can never think of a satisfactory answer. It’s as if she was born into the world exactly as she is in this moment, forever static and unchanging. The idea unnerves her, and she refocuses her thoughts on other things.

Before she can rest for long, she hears the voice inside her head. Its invisible feelers twine through the crevices of her brain, making itself known, making itself understood. Jaiden can feel its eagerness, its desire to be released into the world at last, and she can deny it no longer.

She glances at the basement door, afraid. Down in the basement is where her notebook and pen wait for her to return, where they wait for her to finish what she’s started. She takes a deep breath. Sighs.

No peace, Jaiden thinks. No peace until she gets this thing done. She opens the door and works her way downstairs.

*               *               *

Once more, the words flow. They form an electric current that hums inside of her as they surge toward the pages of the notebook.

The voice, once a whisper, has grown louder, closer. It urges her to hurry, speaks of pain and suffering as it awaits its incarnation.

Jaiden’s forehead beads with sweat, and her heart pounds like a race horse, until her chest has constricted and it’s become difficult to breathe.

She has to rest, has to take a moment to catch her breath. But the soul that occupies the space between her mind and the notebook will wait no more. It’s just a hair’s breadth from life, and it won’t be denied.

There. Just three more words. Jaiden scribbles the first one down, but has trouble lifting her pen to write the second. She feels faint, lightheaded. Her head falls to the surface of the desk, but she won’t give up, not when she’s so close.

Like a child learning to write for the first time, she grips the pen in a tight-balled fist. She places the next word down.

Only one left.

Jaiden’s head is pounding, and her vision has blurred around the edges. A stroke, or a heart attack? She doesn’t know, only knows that she has to keep going, that she has to push the last word out before it’s too late.

Only three letters. She can do this. She lifts the pen. Writes an E. Stops. Winces. Lifts the pen once more.

N.

Light bursts behind her eyes like a camera flash in the dark, but she forces her fingers to work, forms the final letter of her opus.

D.

Just like that, the pain climaxes. There’s a moment in which Jaiden teeters on the edge of excruciating agony. Then her eyes close and her head smacks against the surface of the desk.

No more words, no more pain.

Only darkness.

*               *               *

She opens her eyes to the dull orange light of a nearby lamp. She squints. bobs her head. Looks around.

She is not Jaiden, but the soul Jaiden worked so hard to release. She marvels at her newly acquired body, flesh and blood rather than thoughts and ideas. She flexes her fingers, her arms.

A miracle.

She does not know what has become of her creator—where she’s gone, or if she’s survived. Her only clue is the vague notion that all of this has happened before, that in the fullness of time it will happen again, an endless procession of life and death, of creation and annihilation.

An idea—a soul in need of life—will come to her one day, she’s certain. When that day comes, she’ll have to write it into existence and sacrifice her own life in the process. That is how it was always done, and how it will always be done.

For now, however, she will live. For now, she will drink in the miracle of consciousness. She rises to her feet, bows her head out of reverence for her creator, and climbs the stairs.

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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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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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A special shout out to my new patrons, Lisa and Shaka! If you want to read early drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write, as well as receive free copies of all my books in the digital format of your choice, become a patron by clicking here.

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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