An Unexpected Visitor

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Martha glanced at the clock on the wall. 8:00 p.m. She sighed, turned off the TV and prepared for bed.

While brushing her teeth, she gazed into the mirror, and not for the first time, she wondered what the hell had happened. In her mind, she was still a nineteen-year-old woman, yet she now had the achy, arthritis-ridden body of seventy-five. She could feel the weight of time pressing down on her, breathing down her neck, stalking her in every unseen shadow. She never failed to be surprised by how ephemeral life seemed in these vulnerable moments, like vapor that was solid to the eye, yet parted and evaporated to the touch.

She spat her toothpaste into the sink, rinsed out her mouth and turned off the light.

Ghosts of the past visited her as she tossed and turned through the night, visions of people and places that had either changed beyond recognition or were no more. The world seemed pliable in that place between dreams and the waking world, a land of impossible geometries and infinite possibilities.

It was in one of these not-quite-dreams that Martha received an unexpected visitor.

“You returned,” she said when she spotted him floating in the window sill.

“I promised, didn’t I?”

“I was fifteen when I last saw you. You promised to come back, but I gave up on you by the time I was thirty-five. Why did you take so long?”

The phantom reached out with insubstantial hands. “You were young. You needed experience that only age could provide.”

“Well, look at me,” she snorted. “You certainly got what you wanted.”

“But don’t you see? You are so much more lovely now.”

She said nothing.

“I have something for you. Open your hands.”

Martha had not seen this particular visitor in decades, yet she trusted him now and did as she was told.

“You saved us. An entire world exists today because once you loved. Now, that world belongs to you.”

Martha looked down at her gift and gasped. She held the universe in the palm of her hand.

“My final gift to you,” said the apparition, and then he smiled and disappeared.

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Roots

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The universe was weakening.

Betty could feel it fraying around the edges, the evil beyond pounding against the celestial gates. The cosmos wouldn’t hold for long, and when its defenses fell, it wouldn’t just be this universe that would suffer. Hers was the cornerstone, the center of all existence, the universe in which all other universes derived their being. If she didn’t do something soon, all would be lost.

She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Let her soul slip from her body. The cosmos absorbed her into itself, until she was sailing across space and time. The fabric of existence quaked and shuddered with the force of the Darkness’s attacks, and she felt herself falter, gutter like a flame caught in a strong wind. But she would not let the world she loved die with her.

She pressed on.

She let the Darkness draw her, let it tug her along the macrocosm’s star spangled surface like a lure. It was hungry, eager to consume, and she would use its hunger against it.

One rumbling quake after another, each like a mountain hurled at her from a world-sized sling shot. Soon enough she found herself at the source, a bulge in the cosmic substrate, a festering pustule that was growing like cancer just beneath the surface.

I can’t do this. The thought skittered along the membrane of her mind, but she ignored it. She could, and she would. All of reality depended on it.

She let the Darkness pull her in further, until the g-forces from that supernatural black hole threatened to pull her apart. Then she reached out it was like sticking the arms that were back with her body in tar took hold, slowly peeled back the layers of empty space.

The darkness shuddered, reeled.

WHAT IS THIS?

It was aware of what she was doing now. She had to work quickly. She inserted herself into the place between, felt for the roots of this deadly celestial blight and pulled.

Another rumbling shudder.

I WILL CONSUME YOU.

Waves of despair crashed over her, and she faltered once more. She could feel those poor souls who were trapped on the other side, wailing in eternal despair. It was catching, and like a hook those dark emotions began to reel her in.

But Betty wasn’t having any of that. She sent out roots of her own, a blinding sprawl of interconnected fibers. They anchored her to space and time, where she stood fast and let the Darkness’s greedy tugging work against itself.

Sure enough, the more ardently it struggled to pull her in, the more the hold of its own roots weakened, unable to withstand the intense shearing forces.

There was one final shudder, one that nearly did her in, and then Betty felt the first root snap. One by one the others followed.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? the Darkness bellowed, its disbelieving howl rippling across the universe. I AM UNDONE.

The last of its roots disengaged and the Darkness was cast out at last, hurtling into the empty void beyond.

Exhausted, Betty surveyed the damage. It was extensive, she thought, but with time and help it would heal. She considered her body back home, an unfathomable number of miles and eons behind her, and let it go. She was part of the universe now, ageless and eternal.

She extended her roots as far as they would go, hooked into the wounded patch of space and time like a scab. Yes, she thought again, the cosmos would heal. Together they would grow into something stronger, something greater.

The Darkness would return, but with her and the cosmos joined, they would be ready.

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Life in Reverse

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It was happening again. A cosmic hiccup. A moment in time, repeated.

The world moved around her, but in reverse. How many times had Stacy been through the same series of events? She might have been through a single iteration, or she might have been through a thousand. Forward. Then backward.

Water rose from the shag carpet like Jell-O, streamed back into a glass that reflected sharp needles of light as it fell upward, arcing through the air and finally righting itself on Mary Anne’s serving tray. The woman back-stepped from pale and mortified to warm and boisterous.

In an insane corner of her mind, the part of her that was convinced she’d done this long enough for the sun to burn out, Stacy wondered if God had found some particular event in the world so funny that he’d had to hit the rewind button to watch it again.

Then she wondered if this was Hell.

Mark’s shoulder disconnected from Mary Anne’s, just as his foot parted ways from the table leg that had tripped him. His head came up like an Olympic swimmer rising from the water. All of this in a world without sound.

How could that be? Shouldn’t she hear everything, but backwards? Did it have to do with waves of sound traveling backward instead of forward, toward instead of away from the source? Maybe, though she suspected that wasn’t quite right.

During all of this she was frozen, like the ice sculpture mounted beside the chocolate fountain, dripping backwards as it spontaneously refroze. Like the T-1000 in the Second Terminator movie, she thought, and a mad giggle would have escaped her lips if she could have opened them.

Lucy stepped back into her field of vision, approached her in a strange backwards walk as she undismissed herself from Stacy’s company. She had no idea how far back time would go before things righted themselves, but a sense of certainty was mounting that the stage was nearly set for the next iteration. She thought of the movie Groundhog Day. Was there a lesson in this? If so, why couldn’t she remember any of her previous experiences? She suspected, much to her horror, that this was pure accident, that the universe wasn’t so neat and orderly after all. That, more than anything else, scared her.

If this was immortality, she wanted to die.

Lucy’s mouth opened. The arm she’d withdrawn from Stacy’s shoulder returned. And that was when she felt it, a tug, an instant of hopeless disorientation as the universe stopped, tilted, began to spin in the opposite direction once more. In one infinitesimal moment she felt she was on the precipice of something, that she existed outside space and time, that she was nearly a god. Then memory drained from her head like water down a sink.

“Stacy,” said Lucy, a hand on her shoulder. “It was so good of you to come. Let me see if I can find Steve so he can say hello.” She left Stacy, gone in search of her boyfriend.

Then there was a shocked cry, a mortified apology and the dull thud of a glass landing on the carpet. Stacy’s eyes went to the wet spot, and she could swear that just beyond that darkened halo of shag carpet there was some cosmic secret, a hidden trap that was about to spring.

Another tug, then a pull. The muscles in Stacy’s body froze, and a knowledge that wasn’t quite memory returned to her. It was happening again.

A moment in time, repeated.

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A Father’s Encouragement

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“Come on, son. You can do it.”

“No, Daddy. I can’t. It’s too hard.” Conall pushed, slammed into the invisible wall with as much force as he could muster, and still wasn’t able to break through. “Help me.”

“This is something you have to do yourself.”

“Help me!” Couldn’t Daddy see that it was too hard? Conall was only seven. Traveling, pushing through the boundary between the worlds, was beyond him.

“You have to learn, son. You can’t stay in one world forever, and I won’t always be around to help you.”

“But I don’t want to. I’m not ready!”

“You are ready. I learned at your age, and so did your grandfather before me. It runs in the family. You can do it. You’re strong.”

Conall tried again, took hold of space and time, pushed and stretched them as far as they would go. For a moment the fabric of reality bent further than it had before, and he thought this time he might actually poke through. But then it pushed against him once more, casting him back into his exhausted body as it collapsed.

Conall’s face turned red. He’d tried a dozen times. Space and time were pliable, yes, but also firm and durable. He could stretch them, but only so far. Tears spilled from his eyes, and he had to work very hard to stop them. He was a failure. He would be the only Doran in fifteen generations to settle on a single world, incapable of pushing the frontier any further. Daddy would be ashamed.

“Conall, you’re trying too hard. Don’t force it. The harder you push, the harder it pushes back. Remember what I taught you.”

“I can’t do it.”

“You can. The blood of your ancestors is in you. You have their strength.”

Conall took a deep breath, shut his eyes and reached out once more. He seized space and time, grasped them firmly inside his mind, and pushed. The universe met his show of force with one of its own.

Then Daddy’s words popped into his head. Don’t force it. But how could he get through to the other side if he didn’t push? This time he felt more closely, examined the weave of the universe in greater detail.

There, a loose thread. How had he missed it before? He pulled, and it slipped free with almost no effort. There was a frightening moment in which he could feel the cosmos groan, where the fibers of reality unraveled, coming apart like a frayed tapestry. Then space and time righted themselves, became whole once again. And where he’d tugged one of those fibers loose there was now a hole, a soft spot where one world bled into the other.

“Daddy, I did it!”

“Yes,” Daddy said, smiling. “You did. I’m proud of you.”

“Daddy, can we go through?”

“If you want to.” He swept Conall into his arms.

They stepped through together, father and son, and emerged in a new world.

This piece of flash fiction is dedicated to all the fathers who, like mine, have been an unwavering source of love and encouragement from Day One. Happy belated Father’s Day!

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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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The Machine

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If you listen carefully you can hear it, the low bass rumble of hulking iron gears winding behind a cosmic curtain, beyond space and time. It sustains the universe, scaffolds reality. Once, when the machine was new, when it was well oiled and regularly maintained, it made little sound at all, just a gentle soothing hum that saturated the universe with newborn energy.

But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the steady nearly-silent rhythm began to change. At first, it was just a tiny ping in the engine. Then the oil began to burn and the gears began to grind. Yet the machine continued to operate to specification, and the universe chugged along for another fourteen billion years.

Then the ball bearings gave out. The machine started to crack and squeak, and the universe began to spoil. Stars began to lose their heat. Gravity began to lose its pull. Time warped and stretched like taffy. All the while that incessant squealing permeated the cosmos, driving men, women and beings of indeterminate gender mad.

Finally, the timing belt snapped and the whole thing unravelled. There was a crash, a thud and the machine simply stopped running. Reality wavered. Faded. Disappeared.

For ages the machine sat in disrepair, silent and still, ruined and forgotten in the darkness outside creation. Then its maker stumbled onto it while seeking parts for another project. He considered leaving it, for he was a busy man. But nostalgia seized him, and he was overtaken by an unexpected sadness.

He toiled in endless dark. He replaced the timing belt and the ball bearings. He lubricated the sensitive inner workings. He filled the reservoir with a fresh carton of oil.

When at last he was finished he flipped the switch. The machine spun to life, and the universe was new once more. And in the background, permeating space and time, was that familiar, ever-present hum.

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What is Time?

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For the first few years of childhood, we exist in a bubble. Inside this bubble, the world is in stasis. We know our place in the universe, and consequently the universe doesn’t seem to be all that scary a place. Then something curious happens.

The world begins to change.

At first, it only seems to change in small ways. We notice the cycles in the sky. We begin to track the passing of the seasons. But the things that really matter, the people we love and the security we find in the bosom of the familiar, they remain fixed, and so we regard these discoveries with only a passing curiosity. Then something uncomfortable happens.

The world changes some more.

The warm inviting cocoon that we were born into begins to break down. We graduate from school. Get a job. The people we love move on. Important landmarks are torn down to make way for shopping malls and apartments. One by one, everything we loved is either rewritten or lost forever.

Before too long, we’re surrounded by a hostile alien world. We start to feel the ravages of age, creeping up on us like deadly vines, and we realize it’s only a matter of time before this cruel existence of ours comes to an unpredictable end. We gaze about, exiles in our own backyard, and we can’t help but wonder, “What is time?”

Time is currency.

Each of us has a fixed balance, deposited at the moment of conception, and everything we do is accompanied by a corresponding withdrawal. Like money, we can choose to spend it wisely, doing worthwhile activities that enrich ourselves and others, or we can fritter it away on wasted hours, sitting around on the couch or laying in bed because we have nothing better to do. We would do well to make the most of what we have, lest we spend our deathbed hours as beggars, scrounging in the gutter for chronological crumbs in our haste to make up for a lifetime of regret.

Time is a veil.

A cosmic curtain, time keeps the past, the present and the future neatly partitioned, allowing us to experience life in manageable bite-sized chunks. Usually this veil is opaque. But every so often, especially as we advance in age, it begins to stretch and pull like taffy, made thin and partially transparent so that in moments of intense reflection, we feel that if only we peer a bit closer, we might yet sight those spectres of the past we’d thought lost years ago.

Time is an ocean.

A vast expanse of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, we navigate its treacherous waters like sailors, attempting to stay afloat for as long as possible while we map the uncharted regions of the future.

Time is motion.

Like a river it flows, sweeping us away in its implacable current, making vagrants of us all. Those who stop and turn back to mourn the increasingly hazy past are dragged by their feet kicking and screaming, torn away from everything and everyone they ever loved.

Time is a fire.

It blazes across the universe, burning everything in its path, reducing the cosmos to ash. Not a one of us escapes its ageless and insatiable maw. It strips us to our souls, consuming the rest in a brilliant infernal flash. As Delmore Schwartz puts it in Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day, “time is the fire in which we burn.”

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You Are a Universe

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Have you ever gazed at the stars, pondered a vastness you couldn’t begin to comprehend and asked yourself if you’re really that significant, if you’re anything more than a speck on a grain of sand in a sprawling desert?

If so, take heart. Though you may be small in stature, the world inside your soul is astronomical, a boundless cosmos pregnant with thoughts and dreams, experiences and beliefs, all of which cluster into more complex structures: the humanities, the sciences, an infinite expanse of human endeavors that’s as vast as any material universe.

At the beginning of life, like the beginning of our universe, your mind, though tiny, is a roiling mass seething with enormous quantities of potential energy. In just a few short years, it expands. It acquires language and experience. Synapses form, transforming your brain into a thinking feeling powerhouse. In the process, prototypical thoughts and beliefs collide. Some are annihilated; others emerge from the rubble.

As you age, these units of thought coalesce, condensing into more stable structures. Your experiences, your perceptions, all that you think and feel, everything that defines you and makes you who you are is drawn together. Then, pressurized in the forge of the imagination, it ignites. Books are written. Technologies emerge. Diseases are cured. Outward expressions of the soul burn like stars, saving the world from darkness.

At some point in your life, you’ll likely be pulled into another person by the intense gravitational force of love. There will be a collision, and like the Big Bang, a whole new cosmos will form, a world filled with shared dreams and common experiences. Couples will cluster into families, families into communities, communities into states and nations, worlds stacked upon worlds.

When faced with the enormity of the stars, you might be tempted to conclude that your existence is just so much flotsam adrift in a celestial sea. But though you may be small when compared with the length, width and height of the universe, if you instead measure yourself against a more existential dimension, you’ll discover a whole new universe, waiting to be explored.

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How Your Imagination Is Like a Mirror

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I’ve always been fascinated by reflections.

On the surface, a reflection is so ordinary, so mundane, so uninteresting. And why not? We see them everywhere we go. We look at our twin in the mirror every morning. We catch glimpses of upside down skies in puddles left behind by rainstorms every Spring. And we know — have known since early childhood — that they’re nothing more than reflected rays of light. How can something so simple and so common possibly be interesting?

But what if a reflection were something more? What if, whenever you looked in the mirror, you glimpsed the doings of another world, parallel in every way to our own? Perhaps these are not merely rays of light reflected back from our universe, but rays of light projected from another. Maybe, this other universe is populated with its own people, each gazing into their own reflections, worlds stacked upon worlds. And perhaps some of them are gazing back at us.

Suddenly, by the incredible power of the imagination, something ordinary has been transformed into something extraordinary. Your vision has been forever altered. For the rest of your life, when you look in the mirror, a part of you, if only a very small part, will wonder if the man or the woman you see every morning is really just a reflection.

And that’s not all.

The sense of mystery and childlike wonder that you experience in your imagination, it bounces back. It’s reflected, like light off a mirror. You begin to see ordinary things in this new light, and you suddenly realize that they’re not so mundane and uninteresting after all.

In the case of a simple reflection, you might ponder the nature of light. You might wonder what makes it bounce from one surface to the next. Eventually, you’ll feel the need to search for answers. And when you do, you’ll discover just how surreal and otherworldly reality actually is.

Once you do, neither you nor the world around you will ever be the same.

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