Homecoming

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An almost volcanic heat rose from the dark green lake in heavy, steaming clouds, while the sun, smoky and dim, lent the day a faded, dusky cast. Andrea peered up at the thick, leathery trees, which clung to the perimeter of the water like towering ancient sentries, then back at the squat, vine-encrusted hut where she and her husband, Zemon, had lived for the past seven years.

A strange world, with little that resembled the home she’d grown up in. But Zemon was a native, and she’d decided to follow him back. It had been a difficult adjustment, and even now, she couldn’t say she loved this world. The days were intolerably hot, the locals could be private and standoffish, and while beautiful, the alien plants and wildlife, along with the brilliant emerald green oceans that covered ninety-eight percent of the planet’s surface, were irreconcilably different from her world of bright sun and blue skies.

But today, things were going to change. Today, they were going to pass through the Iron Gate and move back home to her family.

Ready, Andrea?

Her husband’s words unfurled inside her mind without sound. After all these years, the experience still sent a shuddering thrill across her body.

Soon, dear.

He came up behind her, his eyes reflecting back the dim, uneven light from above, and encompassed her in his lithe, silvery arms. She could sense his sadness. He tried to mask it, but she knew him too well, and it was impossible for him to be anything but himself with her.

Andrea reached out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.

It’ll be all right. We’ll only be gone a few years, and then you’ll be home again.

It was the compromise they’d struck the day they agreed to spend the rest of their lives together. Seven years in his world, followed by seven years in hers.

Zemon nodded.

A curious combination of anticipation and guilt fluttered in her chest as she conjured a mental image of her hometown in Iowa. She thought of her parents, her grandmother, her nieces and nephews, all living together under a single roof. She thought of fresh baked bread, biscuits and pie. Most of all, she thought of endless corn fields and navy blue skies, all priceless treasures of an ordinary life she hadn’t appreciated until after she’d gone away.

Now I know how you felt when you gave up part of your life for me.

At least there’ll be cornbread, she replied.

Zemon’s eyes lit up, a bright yellow rush of avaricious desire.

Yes, cornbread.

And grits.

Yes, he agreed. And grits.

Once more, Andrea would be the native and Zemon would be the foreigner. But he loved her as much as she loved him, and through that love, they would forge a path through the next seven years.

Come.

They clasped hands, and together they set off for the Iron Gate.

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Donald

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“It’s so beautiful.”

Jackie lost herself in the endless expanse of blue. The surface of the ocean rippled forward and back, and she found herself hypnotized, drawn into its mysterious depths and all that lay beyond.

She couldn’t make out her lover’s expression—indeed, she could make out little of the creature at all save for a faint shimmer that wavered in the air before her like a mirage—but she liked to imagine he was smiling with her, that, though he was not human, he was capable of perceiving the beauty of the world around them through whatever senses he possessed.

After an extended silence, she turned, headed for a large, flat stone that jutted out of a larger cliff face and sat to watch the sun set beneath the rolling waves. Soon enough, her spectral partner followed.

“When I was a child,” she said without looking up, “my brothers and I would come here with our parents. They would play volleyball or build sand castles, but I always headed straight for the water.”

The tides of time began to pull her in, and soon she was drifting, wading through the distant past, through a time when the world had been a simpler place, when the world had been a convenient mosaic of black and white truths. Oh, what she would give to experience those years again, to travel back to childhood in the body as well as in the mind.

“I used to pretend the water was evil, that I had to swim against its malicious currents while it tried to drown me. I imagined it nearly overpowering me, only just before I gave out, I’d always spy a secret island in the distance and swim toward it, knowing that was where my quest would end.”

Jackie sighed, and when she gazed up at the coppery light of the setting sun through her mostly transparent companion, she wondered if he understood.

“What do you think, Darling? Was I a silly little girl or what?”

She blushed like a schoolgirl, but somehow she didn’t mind. With Donald—that’s what she called him, though she didn’t know if he was male or female, or indeed, if he even had a gender—she felt safe and confident. Their relationship was by no means sexual. The magic they shared transcended such banalities, and she’d disavowed such unfulfilling pleasures long ago.

The transparent shimmer edged closer, the darkening light of the sky swimming before her eyes like an ocean in miniature, and her breath caught in her throat.

Time slowed. Stretched. Stopped.

No matter how many times Donald tried to communicate with her, no matter how frequent the effort had become over the course of their long and passionate love affair, it was something she would never get used to.

He reached out, and the air above her shoulder wavered. Her eyes glazed, and the world around her disappeared.

All-consuming darkness. Then, a moment later, a blinding flash of light. The world shattered into a kaleidoscopic cyclone of colors for which her mind could assign no names.

Then slowly, as if requiring considerable effort, the disjoint visions condensed into a comprehensible whole.

An ocean. Not water—not, in fact, matter of any kind—but an ocean nonetheless. And within, both a part of the ocean and not, a vast and timeless consciousness.

And Donald, no longer an invisible ripple of light, but a radiant Goliath, an entire cosmos of thought, dwarfed only by the endless ocean that surrounded him.

Pain, sharp and stinging. Without explanation, the ocean cast Donald out like a disease. Cut off from the vine that had once given him life, he began to shrivel, and the light inside his soul began to dim.

Then a girl, a tiny soul, chained to a feeble body of flesh and bone. Yet what she lacked in power, she more than made up for in love. She beheld Donald—whose nature couldn’t have been more foreign to her own—at first with curiosity, then acceptance, then at last affection.

Donald marveled at this resplendent creature, whose brilliance lit his gray and dismal world like a torch, and as she matured, as her mind and body grew to match the ageless wisdom in her soul, they gave themselves to each other in love.

The vision faded first to darkness, then back to the moon and the twilit sky of the beach.

Tears streamed down the sides of Jackie’s face. Donald had never told her the heartbreaking story of his origins, nor of how her love had saved him.

“I love you too,” she whispered.

They sat together until the sky turned black, then headed home.

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2 Ways That Characters Are More Intimate Than Best Friends, Husbands and Wives

If you’re like me, reading fiction usually involves an endless string of love affairs and heart breaks. It’s always the same. I meet someone new. I fall in love. I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I burst with joy when my character is happy. My heart aches when my character is hurt. I’ll invest hours of my time into the relationship, only for it to come to a sudden abrupt end when there are no pages left to turn.

The relationship between Reader and Character is intense and intimate. What follows are two ways in which this relationship is more intimate than those we share with our closest friends and spouses.

1. You, Along With the Author, Are a Character’s Co-creator.

In real life, when you meet another person, what follows is purely a process of discovery. Who that person is has already been fully defined, independent of you. A real person always exists outside your mind. You may be lead to believe certain things about who that person is based on your own observations and biases, but whether or not those beliefs are correct has nothing to do with you.

By contrast, while the author might provide you with certain details regarding what a character looks like, what he thinks about or what happens to him throughout the story, he’s only partially defined. It’s up to you to provide the missing pieces. Unlike a real person, your character only has the fullness of his existence inside your mind. As a result, it’s as much a process of creation as it is one of discovery. Together, with the author, you give life to this other person.

The unique role that you have as a character’s co-creator is what allows you to understand him so intimately. Who he is depends in part on who you are. Because of this, you know this person more completely than you could know anyone else.

2. The Relationship Between Reader and Character Has No Boundaries.

In your relationships with real people, there are always boundaries. Between husbands, wives and best friends, there are always secrets. When dealing with real people, you can only completely know yourself. What your friends and spouses experience in their own minds you can only experience imperfectly through what they choose to reveal.

In your relationships with fictional people, this is not the case. In fiction, a character’s innermost thoughts, desires and motivations are all laid bare before you. You can peer directly into a character’s mind and soul. You can know a character better than he knows himself.

Conclusion

There’s a reason we connect so profoundly with well written characters. It’s basic human nature to crave love and intimacy. We strive to know others, for it’s in knowing that we can love. The fictional characters we encounter in stories might not be real, but the love that we have for them most certainly is. It’s a very unique kind of love, one that, in some ways at least, exceeds that which we have even for those real people who we hold closest of all.

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