Regret

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There is no greater puzzle, no greater struggle, than the beginning. The first note of a sonata, the first stanza of a poem, the first stroke of a painting. All that comes after builds on what came before, and if the scaffolding established at the start is weak, the whole piece comes tumbling down.

It was the reason I never put my own skills to use, the reason my house had always been a tangled jungle of loose leaf pages, saturated with ideas I never had the courage to pursue.

I would come home from work, bleary eyed and broken. I would descend the shadow engulfed stairs that led to my desk beneath the moldering ceiling of a neglected basement, and there, in the dark, I would set pen to paper. For a little while, I would labor under the delusion that this time, things would be different; this time, I would follow through with my design; this time, I would impart substance and life to an idea that I was certain could change the world.

Then I would stare at the latest fruit of my manic depressive mind, pondering its intricacies, its peculiarities. I would sigh, turn out the light and go to bed, abandoning my brain child to rot along with the house’s foundation.

Time slipped, until I grew old. I never stopped telling myself that this time, things would be different. But one day I fell ill, and after an extended stay in the hospital I realized I wasn’t going home. On the precipice of death, I thought of all my unfinished designs, and like an absent father, I wailed and lamented for all the lost years that I could never reclaim with my children.

Better to have tried, I thought, to have started something imperfectly than not to have started at all. But somehow that was worse, somehow that was more painful.

“I loved you all,” I whispered, but as I closed my eyes, as the final curtain began to fall on my life, I realized with mounting terror that this was a lie.

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Better Off Inside

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Light penetrates my eyes. For a moment I gaze up, squint through the bars of a prison abandoned for centuries, and consider my escape. Then the light begins to burn and I look away.

The bars have rusted through, have even crumbled to powder in places. Yet I remain.

All of us remain.

Part of the prison’s success was the way the guards got into our heads, the way they convinced us we deserved persecution, that we were better off inside.

The world is dangerous for a monster like you. We locked you away for your own good.

Humanity ultimately forgot us, as humanity forgets so many things. They were free, we were not. Out of sight, out of mind. I imagine our existence became the subject of legend, that once enough time had passed even the legend began to fade. I don’t remember how long we’ve been down here, nor do I remember when they stopped sending their guards. I only know they don’t hold power over us any longer.

But we won’t leave, because fear has become our new jailer.

Don’t you think I yearn to be free? Don’t you think I would give my soul to break out of this cage that binds me beneath the Earth, to crawl through the shaft that connects us to the surface and enjoy fresh sunshine once again?

Ask any of us and we’ll tell you the same thing: we fear what will happen if we leave, what you’ll do to us if we’re discovered again.

You enjoy your light above. We’ll make the darkness our own.

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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.

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Showdown

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Fear. It surrounds me.

I awoke this morning to discover that dangers and perils of every kind had gathered around me during the night, intent on doing me harm. I look each in the eye. I swallow.

A showdown.

How did this happen? I cast my mind into the distant past, try to pinpoint the exact moment the trajectory of my life turned in this direction. I fail.

I shut my eyes against the inevitable. “Take me,” I whisper, “I won’t be afraid anymore.”

I wait.

Slowly, I open my eyes. They haven’t gone, but neither have they moved. This time I thrust my chest out more boldly. “I said, take me!” I cry into the morning, naked and vulnerable, daring them to attack. “Do what you came to do.”

Silence.

I begin to shake, not with fear but with adrenaline. A giddy absurdity overtakes me, and the enemies that stand before me are transfigured. Weapons, armor and bared teeth become plastic toys, children’s costumes and empty gums, flailing before me in a parody of force.

I learn the truth.

My enemies, who had been so strong in their denouncements, who had whispered of my destruction in the middle of the night, who had vowed to tear me limb from limb the instant I ventured into the world they’d been guarding so jealously; they had only ever been harmless spectres, useless projections sent to prevent me from taking what had always rightfully been mine.

I stand.

I look at my aggressors, impotent and without life. I step forward. They shout at me through silent lips, brandishing their plastic pitchforks and red-capped toy pistols. I laugh. The sound is a deep, earthy rumble. It consumes me, makes me whole.

The spectres disappear.

I am reborn.

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