Aftermath

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This is a companion piece to another story, “Fallen,” which you can read here.

When the Invaders were defeated, we thought the war was over. Once again, we were our own masters, capable of determining our own destiny. But now, here we are more than a decade later, and the world is just as cruel, just as barren as it was when our former conquerors remained in power.

I stare at a shimmering sky, the sun a blot of crimson fire, and dream of what life was like before the war. Before we learned of other worlds and the beings who inhabited them.

Before the Invaders.

I remember movies. TV. The Internet. I remember hamburgers and french fries. The ocean. The simple joys of leaving work before sunset or strolling by the courthouse in Downtown Long Beach after lunch. There are a million other things, all random creature comforts I never had the foresight to appreciate until the Invaders wiped them all away.

The sight of a bloated sun suspended over the horizon makes me sick, and I turn my back to it, my body casting a long, razor-sharp shadow across the crumbled, overgrown sidewalk. I try to think on happier times, but evidence of the Invaders surrounds me at every turn.

Ruined sky scrapers jut into the blood red sky like monster’s teeth, broken glass glittering, twisted support beams looming. In the movies, we used to imagine precisely this scenario, munching on our popcorn, our malt balls, and our Sour Patch Kids, secure in the belief that Armageddon was only a distant fantasy, that there was no way the universe could conspire against us in such a severe and irrevocable way.

We were like children: simple, naive, and oblivious to the horrors reality had yet to spring on us.

The sun begins to set; the world is on fire once more. The brackish light assaults me, unleashing a rapid-fire succession of memories, each more grisly than the last. I push them away with some effort, back into a dark corner of my mind where they’ll emerge later to haunt my dreams.

Our settlement is close, only a half mile. One of the few dilapidated apartment buildings that survived the war, it’s where my friends and I spend the night. It isn’t much, but shelter is hard to come by, and it’s a comfort just to have somewhere to call your home.

I hear a harsh gurgle below and recoil. Laying on the broken cement beside my feet is a creature, grasping at a splotched and bloated neck. My God! How could I have come so close to it without realizing?

Cast in the fiery light of sunset, the broken Invader still appears menacing, a looming specter ready to pounce the moment my back is turned. I shake my terror aside. It’s dying. It can’t possibly be a threat.

“Not so powerful now,” I say, and then I stop to stare.

Its misery conjures in my heart the tiniest pang of sympathy. But the emotion is short lived. This thing, along with the rest of its kind, stole the world from us, murdering hundreds of millions of people in the process. It deserves all of its anguish and more.

But the sight of its swollen, puffed up eyes reminds me of my mother, whose life was mercifully (or not so mercifully) cut short before the Invasion began by an aggressive form of breast cancer. During her last days, her eyes looked the same: red, swollen, and tear-streaked.

I cannot help myself. Pity blossoms in my heart like a sorrowful flower.

I see, in this filthy creature’s eyes, something like remorse. I want to insult it. I want to make it feel hated in its final moment of life. But I cannot. My weary, war-torn heart won’t allow it.

I kneel beside the creature, cautious. Pity doesn’t make me stupid. I know what it’s kind inflicted on the world and I maintain a safe distance. But I cannot leave it alone any more than I could leave a human stranger.

When our scientists released into the atmosphere the gas that ended the war for good—an otherwise harmless compound that was lethal to the Invaders—we celebrated.

The world was broken, but for the next few nights, at least, people lined the streets, shooting fireworks into a bruised and swollen sky, while one by one, the Invaders fell, clutching at their useless, air-starved throats.

At the time, I rejoiced with everyone else. Now, faced with this pitiful creature, I find in my heart only a dull and weary ache. The world has known enough war for a hundred generations, and if our species is to survive, we’ll have to embrace love and forgiveness going forward.

At this pivotal point in human history, Earth teeters on a precipice.  So I stay, long into the night, and I clutch its withered hand in my own and wait with the Invader in silence until it breathes no more.

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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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Redemption, Part 3 of 5

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Read Part 2 here. If this is your first time reading, you can find Part 1 here.

The man stood in the middle of a spacious living room, and he wasn’t entirely sure how he’d gotten there. He knew only that he’d entered through the front door. A tiny worm of recollection niggled at his brain, but all he could dredge up was a black void where memory should have been.

Light streamed through the windows, framed by white, semi-transparent curtains. Ahead, picture frames hung on a wall above a brown leather couch. Had he been here before?

He glanced down at himself. Clutched in his right hand was a worn stuffed bear with one of its eyes coming out of the socket. Where had that come from?

He ambled toward the couch, glanced up at the rows of pictures. Each one portrayed a little girl at various stages of development. In one, she was being pushed by an older man in a car-shaped stroller. In another, she beamed up at the camera from a teal beach blanket. In each frame, she wore the same enthusiastic smile, an involuntary gesture that communicated contentment and a general love of life.

A scream.

He jumped, turned toward the stairs where the sound had come from. A dark foreboding seized him, as if a part of himself already knew what he would find if he followed after it, and didn’t want to pursue.

Another scream, weaker. Then a strangled, muffled cry. Then silence.

He wanted to run, to bolt back through the front door and never return. But instead he walked to the stairs, pulled forward by an invisible line.

He took the steps one at a time. Each footfall triggered a camera flash of memory. He was a father reading a magazine on the couch. He was a mother brushing her hair in the upstairs bathroom. He was the same father rushing up the stairs two at a time after hearing his daughter scream. He was the same mother dropping the hairbrush on the floor and running toward her daughter’s bedroom after hearing the same scream.

The bursts of memory became longer, more frequent and more coherent as he neared the top of the stairs. Like a quilt, the man had become a patchwork of other lives, all converging on a tragic event that had taken place in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

He reached the top step and squeezed the stuffed bear against his chest.

He honed in on one of the doors in the upstairs hallway, and as soon as he spotted it he knew that that was where he needed to go. He took hold of the knob. Twisted and pulled. Walked forward.

Once again, he was consumed by light.

Read Part 4 here.

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Redemption, Part 2 of 5

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Read Part 1 here.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been running. The light seemed to be getting larger, yet still he hadn’t reached it. He was moving as fast as he could, had been pushing himself as fast as he could go, but he wasn’t tired, and he was too focused on reaching it to even care if he was exhausted.

Flashes of memory strobed through his mind at irregular intervals. He saw a house. A flower bed. A mailbox. He would poke at each recollection, only to discover every time that it was a dead end.

When the light finally took form, he stopped. Suspended in the darkness was a simple wooden door, slightly ajar. Bright white light spilled out from the inside and was swallowed by the blackness beyond.

He approached the door slowly. He reached out to examine it, and when he caught sight of his arm in the light he was struck with wonder. It was the first time he’d seen himself since he’d woken.

His arm was dotted with tiny red welts that ran along the length of his veins. When he touched one, he found that it was tender.

After a failed moment searching for a corresponding memory, he glanced back up at the door. He placed his hand beneath it and verified that there was nothing to hold it up. Then he tested the sides a few inches beyond the frame and found that they too were empty. He walked around, and when he came to the other side he discovered that the door was gone. He panicked, came back around and was relieved to see that it had reappeared.

Madness.

Where did the door lead? He wasn’t sure what would happen if he entered, but there was nothing for him here, only emptiness for as far as the eye could see, as if the world beyond the door had never been defined.

He gazed at the opening, hypnotized by the light. He had no choice. For better or for worse, it was clear that he was supposed to enter. He took hold of the knob, a ball of cool brass that sent a chill down his spine, and he pushed the door the rest of the way open.

The man walked forward and was consumed by the light.

Read Part 3 here.

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Redemption, Part 1 of 5

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Falling. Tumbling. Fire. Burning. Screaming.

The man woke with a start. There was still a residue of anxiety, the vague feeling that he was being pursued, but it was already slipping from his mind, and by the time he rolled over onto his side, it had left him completely.

When he opened his eyes, blackness rushed to fill the vacuum. He panicked. Had he gone blind? He groped for the edges of his mattress and instead made contact with some other smooth surface, soft and pliable, yet firm and unyielding. Where was he?

Memory tickled the periphery of his mind, but each time he reached for it, it would disappear like a mirage.

He scrambled to his feet and wheeled about, searching for something with which to orient himself. After a while he spotted it, a pinprick of light that pierced the darkness like a white-hot needle. Its distance was impossible to judge.

Was it real? He was afraid that if he turned away, that if he did so much as blink, it would disappear into the ether.

But the light stubbornly tugged at his eyes and refused to let go of his gaze. He paused for a moment, unsure, then chased after it.

Ahead, the light grew larger and brighter.

Read Part 2 here.

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