death

Firefighter

Selin Serhii/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on February 20, 2018.

The fire was so much worse up close.

Eric had seen it on the evening news every night since he was ten. He’d watched it gain a foothold, watched it advance, watched it spread like a contagion through most of the world, until Earth’s entire population, as far as anyone knew, consisted solely of those lucky enough to have lived in or retreated to a tenacious cluster of neighborhoods in Fort Worth, Texas.

Nobody knew where or when the fire had started. Perhaps someone had left a faulty device plugged in at home while on vacation, or perhaps someone had cast a still-smoldering cigarette onto a clump of dry and flammable weeds. All anyone knew for certain was that the fire was impossible to put out. Every time they fought it with water and flame retardants, the wind would blow it in a different direction, or the heat would burn so strongly that the firefighters had no choice but to pull back and retreat.

Like it was alive, Eric had come to believe. Like it had a mind of its own. And now, standing before the dwindling Fort Worth perimeter inside the small scrap of civilization that hadn’t yet been consumed by the fire, he thought that assessment was accurate.

Burning columns of flame rose high into a rusty, soot-filled sky as if taunting the survivors. Come get me if you can, the fire seemed to shout, and all the while it pushed against their failing defenses, promising to eliminate the final remnant of humanity.

But Texas wasn’t built that way, and neither was Eric. He believed it was better to die defending one’s homeland than it was to cower in defeat, and though the end was nigh—though everything he’d ever known stood at the utter brink of annihilation—neither he nor his fellow firefighters were going out without a fight.

So Eric donned his helmet, suit, and hose. He took a deep breath through his fogged respirator, then angled his head toward the sky to offer up a final prayer.

Then he charged headfirst into the flames.

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Up

Quick Shot/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on March 29, 2017.

Darkness surrounds me. I see only a silver flight of stairs that ascends into endless black. Only one thing is clear: there’s nowhere to go but up.

I begin to climb.

Each step is illuminated, and I look around and try to find the source of the light. But it’s a mystery. Just like this place. Just like myself.

It seems that hours pass before I finally stop to catch my breath, and when I do, I glance back to discover an infinite expanse of metallic steps, sinking down into the blackness below. Meanwhile, the air up here is warm and humid. I reach to wipe sweat from my brow, and that’s when I hear them for the first time. Voices, whispering beyond the void.

Cautious, I continue to climb.

One voice in particular distinguishes itself from the rest. A woman. The sound is warm, inviting.

“Life,” I hear her say, and then broken shards of memory invade me, flashing before my eyes. They are remnants of a time outside the darkness, and for a moment, I almost remember who I am.

I’m afraid, but the comforting voice urges me to continue.

The humidity has become a pressure cooking heat. Sweat pours from my face and neck like a river.

“Life,” she repeats. The word terrifies me even as it gives me strength, and I find myself scrambling up the steps two, even three at a time.

“Life. Life. Life.” The other voices have joined with the first, merging into a single-minded chant, an otherworldly chorus that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.

A beam shines above me now, not far from where I stand. The heat has become unbearable, yet I know I must press forward. All the while, the voices cheer me on.

My skin feels like it’s catching fire, and I can no longer breathe. I wobble, teeter, and for a moment I fear I’ll fall, that I’ll tumble down and down, all the way to the distant and forgotten bottom.

That’s when I see her, a woman clothed in white, iridescent robes, descending from the light like an angel.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says, taking my hand. “I’ll help you.”

Power surges through me at her touch. I’m in agony, yet I find I now have the strength to go on. Face covered in sweat, I climb the last step, reach out, and push through.

A solar flare: coruscating, blinding. The impurities of my old life burn away, until I am a part of the fire.

It no longer hurts. Instead, love and life surround me, welcoming me home. A column of white robed figures chant my name. My encouragers. They smile, and I greet each as an old friend.

“Well done,” says the woman who helped me through. Transfigured, she has become more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined.

My old life is over, and my new life has just begun.

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The Other Side

Nigel May/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on May 23, 2017.

I wasn’t ready to die. I suppose no one is.

As mortals, we have a strange fixation with immortality. We understand that each of us has a clock embedded deep within, set to an unknown length of time; that when this time is finally up, when our clock’s internal mechanism winds down to zero, we’ll be thrust headlong into the uncharted lands of death—and into light or oblivion, who can say? Yet each of us holds to the secret belief that there must be some way to get ahead of our fate, that there must be some trick, some unexplained force of nature that, once harnessed, would allow us to reset that clock, or even stop it.

This was my belief until the end. And even when that end had come and gone, I was still convinced I could do things differently, that I could scrape together whatever temporal crumbs were left and use them to accomplish all the things I’d said I would do in life.

Well, you can guess how that worked out.

One moment, I was lying in a hospital bed, tubes and sensors protruding from my arms like cybernetic tentacles as the cancer devoured my body from the inside out. The next, I was standing on a hot desert road, surrounded by nothing but asphalt, sun, and endless sky.

First, I just stood there thinking, “This isn’t right. I’m in the hospital.” Then I shook my head. “Shit,” I said, and after the absurdity of my situation had truly sunk in, you could say I threw a bit of a tantrum. I shook my fist at the indifferent sky, shouted useless invectives while stomping and fuming like a toddler who’s just had his favorite toy taken away.

A good long time passed before I realized there was no way left to go but on.

And on I went. On, on and on, with a bloated sun razing my neck and shoulders, and a dry, arid wind cracking my parched and blistered lips. A strangely corporeal experience, I thought, for someone who’d left his body behind in the hospital. At times, I’d pray for death, only to realize soon after that I was already dead. Then a terrible despair would surge through my soul like an ocean, and I would break down all over again.

This is Hell, I would think. I hadn’t been good enough in life, and eternal suffering was my reward. But then the sun would set for the night, the air would cool for a little bit, and the sky, transparent to the cosmos, would fill me with the hope that this too might yet pass.

A quest, I realized after one particularly scorching day. I was on a quest, like King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail, or Odysseus in search of his lost home in Ithaca. A quest for who or for what I couldn’t yet say, but in my heart I knew it was the truth.

That night, I heard the stars sing.

A haunting alloy of otherworldly harmonies, they addressed me by name—not my given name but my true name, the one etched indelibly into the substance of my being. Their voices reached into my weary soul and offered me their everlasting light.

A transformation had begun, and no longer would I allow myself to be discouraged. I dragged my desiccated post-life body across the endless asphalt by day, and drank from the light of those angelic voices by night.

On and on they carried me, across the sand and the centuries, until now, at last, I stand before the Celestial Gate, those radiant stars lighting the way home.

Now, there’s only one thing left to do. Weak kneed and teary-eyed, I knock.

“You are well traveled,” come their collective reply. “Come inside, and make yourself at home.”

The gate opens, and of what I see beyond that cosmic threshold I could write entire books. But I hear them singing again, calling on me to take my place in the sky, and I will not keep them waiting any longer.

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