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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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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The Book

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There is a book. It is written not in English or Spanish, Greek or Latin, Hebrew or Arabic, but in the wordless language of Creation. It is a series of divine utterances, a wellspring of stars, energy and life.

Once, it was passed from one keeper to the next, an unbroken succession rooted not in blood or prestige, but honest merit. It was a cosmic secret to be guarded, and it was never to be opened. But thousands of years ago, the last keeper tried to violate this rule. He was slain, and the book went missing. Those who remembered it had children, grandchildren, then died. The book passed from memory to legend, and from legend it was forgotten.

Like an ocean swell, civilizations rose, civilizations fell. All the while, the book hid beyond the shadows, watching, waiting for its next keeper, someone worthy of its secrets, someone who would at last be allowed to open its dusty weather-worn pages, for it so longed to be read.

Now, it sits upon a humble library shelf.

Today it spies Garrett, a child of ten, who happens to be at the very same library. The book gazes down at him, peers into his soul, sees that he is worthy. It drops from the shelf into the boy’s backpack, and the boy, unknowing, carries it home with him. He does his homework. Watches TV. Eats dinner. Prepares for bed.

Meanwhile, the book finds its way onto Garrett’s mattress, and there it waits beneath the covers.

After Garrett climbs into bed, after the winds of sleep have begun to carry him away to secret lands, the book nudges his shoulder.

Garrett wakes.

Half asleep, he reaches out, taps the ancient leather spine with his fingers. He opens his eyes. Fully awake, he rises to a sitting position, reaches into the sheets and pulls the book out into the open. Where did this come from, he wonders. He opens it. A warm light shines on his face.

Garrett flips through empty weathered pages, and a universe springs to life.

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Choices

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Janelle stood before a network of interconnected roads, celestial paths across space and time that fanned out into the horizon and beyond, forking and dividing in an increasingly complex and unforeseeable set of possible futures. So many choices. It was dizzying, thinking of all the places she might go, all the things she might see. Some were good. Others were not.

She hesitated.

She’d spent her whole life preparing for this moment, taught by her tribe from birth that someday she would have to stand before the Great Road and walk toward her destiny.

They’d promised her a guide, someone who would travel beside her unseen and pick her up when she couldn’t go on by herself. But now, at the outset of her journey, she felt alone, and that made her afraid.

Faced with an infinite array of choices, how was she supposed to pick the right one? She could see one, perhaps two steps ahead, could calculate the probabilities and possible outcomes as she saw them, but beyond? Her journey might have promising beginnings, yet end in disaster only a few steps ahead. Every step forward, every fork in the road was another risk, and one way or the other, whether her travels were long or short, fortunate or unfortunate, no path continued forever. One day, at the end of her road, there would be a door, ready to take her to the other side. Not knowing where that door might be or where it would lead terrified her.

But she couldn’t stand here forever. Some had tried, had spent their entire lives paralyzed by indecision, too afraid to move. But they had eventually been escorted away in shame, forced through their own door before their journey had even begun. Janelle had no desire to pass over her journey.

The end, she realized, would come for her whether she was ready or not, so what was the point in stalling? She would have to go, hope she was headed in the right direction and trust that her unseen guide would catch her if she fell. Her tribe had said the first step would be the hardest, that once she got moving she wouldn’t want to stop. It was time to see if that was true.

She took a deep breath, her heart thumping in her chest like an overworked piston. She glanced down at her feet, swallowed a lump that had formed in the back of her throat. She lifted one foot, then the other.

There was a shift, an instant of double vision as the world changed, and then her surroundings resolved. She looked around, overcome by cosmic beauty such as she had never seen before. She was overcome with joy. Now she was hooked. The fear remained, but was superseded by a deeper desire, an inborn need to discover what else was out there. There was a whole road just for her. There would be joys and sorrows, conveniences and hardships, but in the end, it would all add up to one hell of an adventure.

Janelle found the next fork. Stepped. The world shifted.

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Thread

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It was with her for as long as she could remember, a thin golden thread of light that tugged at her as if she were a hooked fish. She had no idea where it came from or where it led. She only knew that it was always pulling, that with every passing year the tightness increased until the pain was too much to bear.

Nobody else could see it. Not her mother or father, not her relatives, not her friends. It got to be so bad that she spent most days alone, afraid others would think she was crazy.

On her eighteenth birthday, the pain blossomed into searing fire. Not knowing what else to do, she left home, left behind everyone and everything she’d ever known. She followed the pull of the thread out of Phoenix, out of Arizona, out of the US. Traveling helped; the thread slackened when she followed. She spent most of her life allowing it to drag her across the world, never knowing where or if it would end.

Now, after more than forty years of never staying in one place, she stands before a tiny redbrick house in Belgium and knows that she’s come home. She sees that the golden thread leads here, that inside the house there is an even brighter glow. This is where her journey ends.

She swallows, takes a deep breath, walks up and knocks on the door. There’s a brief moment where she wonders what she’ll do if it doesn’t open, and then it does. Gold floods her vision.

“Come in,” says a kindly voice. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

She enters. The door closes behind her.

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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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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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