The Darkness That Brooded Over The World

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I am Avani. I was born of the sun’s flame and a child’s innocence, of the dew upon the flower and the first fall of snow. My hand has guided the rivers and the seas, tilled the soil and smelted ores. I am the mother of a noble race, the Queen of a people proud and fair, the founder of a nation expanding its dominion into unknown lands.

He is nameless, the shadow of creation’s first light, a darkness and void upon the horizon, a twisting, contorting mass hanging in space, hungry, implacable, and cold. He came from outer reaches, seeking life. His presence blotted out the stars as he descended slowly, slowly, to engulf us.

I approached him. Upon the tallest mountain I met him, my slender fingers reaching through the swirling winds upon the peak to touch the oily membrane of his being. Up he drew me, thin tendrils wrapping around my wrist, my arm, until I was enveloped.

Within were narrow corridors that shifted as I walked, coiling about each other and writhing with slow, sinuous motion. No light except my own pierced the black fog. The corridors opened into caverns, empty expanses devoid of sound and movement, where my feet made no noise and my voice shriveled into silence.

Caverns led finally to the well from which deep tremors emanated, the breathing of the great beast, and into which all light and matter made its way.

I descended into this pit. There he waited, the true form of this monster. He was a gray, shriveled creature. He had no eyes and upon his long limbs were claws and his mouth was always open.

I stood before him, and he gazed at me with his mouth. We did not speak, but I understood. He would not be appeased. My world would be his. He had sought it, claimed it, hungered for it. What was green must fade; what flowed must be dried up; what was sung must be silenced.

But I am of the stars and of the earth, of the seed and the storm. In me is beauty and life. And so I began to give of myself in that dance that embodied all that I am.

He devoured the motions; he gnawed upon the grace; he sucked the marrow from the rhythm and licked the hesitations with relish. Below, among my people, time passed. As I poured out my being, the harvest came and was gathered in, the snows fell and melted, the rivers swelled and the grass grew green. I circled around the deep well, which led to the open maw, a silent song in the dark, and below, among my people, there arose a lamentation. The words rose up, a song of loss, and it spoke my name. It was my memorial, the remembrance of Queen Avani who ascended the mountains and entered the void. I heard them sing and I joined my dance to their words. And time passed into the open mouth and below, my people, my children, grew and the cities grew and the borders marched forward until one touched the next and all was peace. Generations passed without me, births and celebrations and new years, and beneath it all was the punctuated sorrow, the annual remembrance of the Queen who entered the Darkness that brooded over the world like a bird hovering over its nest. The dirge beneath the prosperity of my people became the melody of my dance, and its beauty renewed what had been consumed. And below, among my people, rockets were built and launched and the green wake of our expansion continued into the space between stars and upon planets wild and wonderful. And from everywhere, from every corner, came again and again the deep, lonely words to me, the lamentation sung across space and filling it with tears.

And I remain alone in the belly of the first and final evil, seducing the insatiable until light goes out or Death dies, the song of sorrow throughout Creation straining forward toward that final chord that will bring all sorrow to its end.

After Death

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StockSnap / Pixabay

The woman knew her husband was in a mood by the way he avoided her. It hadn’t been like that in the beginning. He had never prowled around in that sullen silence either. No, he had been effusively talkative, grabbing her hand and showing her a snail upon the melon leaves or flinging himself onto the grass to gaze upon the blue sky, his hand in hers. She hadn’t known how wild and free and daring he had been in those days, not until he changed.

She conceded she had changed as well.

Dinner was sparse–that was his fault; he hadn’t found anything better–and he chewed the tough roots with such an air of disgust, she forgot she had planned to stay silent and not play into his self-pity.

“Stop making faces. You think I like this?” she demanded. “I hate it.”

He looked defiantly at her. “And me?”

“Maybe I hate you too.”

“You should. I hate you enough most days.”

The words hurt. She was not used to such pain, and she wanted to lash out, to inflict pain in kind. She took a long breath, trying to calm herself. “So what happened, dear Husband, to put you in such a foul mood?”

He looked away. “I need a reason? Isn’t this enough?” He motioned to the tent behind them, to the fire and the hard ground where they sat. “This whole cursed world!” He stood and paced and let out a sudden sort of roar.

“Something did happen,” he said, sitting down again but shaking now with bottled energy. “I might as well tell you. Remind you. I went there today.”

“You said you were–”

“I lied. I meant to. But I went there. I had to see him again.”

The woman shook her head. “What’s the point?”

“He stood there, tall, much taller than you or me. I noticed that more this time, how large he is. How much more powerful. And he has that sword. It blazes, an edge of fire ready to consume us. I watched him, hidden, to see what he did. He did nothing but stand there, waiting. What is he waiting for? For us attack him? He would strike us down with a single blow. And so I stood and approached. I wanted to see what would happen. He watched me. His face was stern, and when I looked into those eyes, I saw how small and ugly and wretched I am. I turned and ran away.”

After a moment, he continued. “When I’m away from him, I think we can take it back, that we can reach out our hands and grab it, make things like they were before. But as soon as I look into that face….”

The woman’s initial thought was to berate her husband for his stupidity, but she knew that she felt the same, that she dreamed of going back, that she would do almost anything to reverse what had happened, and so she said nothing.

Evening came and darkness grew and they sat by their pitiful little fire, silent.

He spoke again, “This…death, everyday this dying, bit by bit. What hope have we?”

She answered. “Adam, you know.”

“When I look at His guard, I doubt He will restore us. He is so silent now.”

Eve looked at the sad form of her husband. “Do you really hate me?”

Adam looked up. “Sometimes. No, not often. Just when I hate myself.”

“Come here.”

He stood and walked slowly toward her.

“Something happened to me today,” she said. “I wasn’t going to tell you. I was going to keep it to myself.” She looked away from him, to the ground. “We’ve changed so much. We had everything, we had Him, and now all I want is mine, mine.” She looked up at her husband, saw his face illuminated in the fire light. She took his hand and pulled him down beside her. Then she placed the hand upon her round belly. “Do you feel it?”

A smile, slow and true, blossomed, an echo of his old joy. “It’s moving.”

“Father will bring us back,” she said. “He has promised us a child will bring us back. And He will forgive us.”

Adam kissed her gently on the cheek and wrapped his arm around her. She laid her head on his shoulder.

The darkness deepened and the fire burned and they sat in silence, listening for the voice they once heard.

Close the Door

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Linda pressed the door carefully closed, listening for and hearing the soft metallic click of the latch sliding into its place. The sound was a comforting one, far more satisfying than the dull pneumatic sigh of a glass door swinging back into place or the slight bang of a sliding door, not to mention the infuriating futility of a revolving door. No, the quiet little click whispered comfortingly to her. Everything done and in its place. It is finished.

It had taken long to learn such pleasures. Her parents had screamed at her–CLOSE THE DOOR! As a child just beginning to push her way through these wonderful portals–CLOSE THE DOOR! If she stepped out of her room to check on something–CLOSE THE DOOR! She’d been threatened and punished and smacked and begged with tears–CLOSE THE DOOR!

And now she did. Involuntarily, she even pulled shut doors in hallways as she walked. She eyed car doors hanging open too long in the parking lot with trepidation. Four months ago, she had visited a local college campus, thinking she might pursue further education, but ten minutes in the dorms, with doors flung back perpetually, young women like her moving in and out like worms in a rotten apple, she had decided against it.

She changed into pajamas, closing the dresser drawers firmly. Drawers did not count, there was no requirement to close them, but she did so anyway, out of a sort of affinity. She was still adjusting to her new apartment. She had moved out only a month before into this tidy little place. It had two doors, one that led outside to the loft stairs and another guarding the bedroom. This she had closed with such gentle pressure.

She read awhile in bed, a manual on minimalist living, then shut off the lamp and fell asleep.

She awoke. It was still dark. And the question that sometimes came to her, only in the dark hours of the night, confronted her once again.

What if she did not close the door?

What if she left it open just a sliver?

Heart beating fast, she rose and hurried to the door. She touched the knob lightly with her fingers. She felt along the edge to feel it flush against the frame.

What if she opened it, just a little, and left it? What was the harm?

She pressed herself against the plywood, breathing hard.

“Are you there?” she whispered.

Silence. Then, softly, so softly: “Yes.”

Her hand gripped the knob. “Do you want in?”

A tremor of the air: “Yes.” Then, another exhalation: “Finally, yes.”

She turned the knob slowly. She heard the rub of metal as the latch moved.

CLOSE THE DOOR! Her parents spoke as clearly, more clearly than the thing waiting for her.

She tentatively turned the knob further, trembling, the sensation that pulled her from bed now coursing through her. She did not know if it was fear or hope or the nauseating pleasure of rebellion.

The knob stopped. It would turn no further.

“Are you safe?” she asked.

There was no answer, no sound. She stifled her breathing to listen and heard nothing.

“Are–?” Her voice broke. “Are you there?”

There was nothing behind the door. She knew it. Deep down she knew that there had never been anything, that her parents had been cruel, abusive, that she needed the certainty of a closed door, to be trapped in a small little room. If she opened the door, she would find nothing.

She released the knob and heard the click. She pressed the surface of the door to ensure its fastness. She returned to bed and tried to sleep.

She had never opened the door. She thought she would, finally, in her own apartment. To prove to herself that nothing was there. That there had never been anything.

Because there was nothing.

Nothing behind the door.

If she opened it only a sliver, and let it be, she would see that.

Tomorrow she would leave it open.

Tomorrow.

But tonight it was closed, and she was safe.

The Sentinel of Castle Margoron

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1980supra / Pixabay

The castle, begrimed by salt and seagulls and empty years, rose from a promontory that overlooked a violent sea. A narrow isthmus connected the castle to land, worn away by waves and no wider than two, maybe three, men walking comfortably abreast. The water churned far below among jagged rocks.

A simple guardhouse of moss-covered stone stood at the head of this natural bridge. In its dark doorway stood the sentinel, an old man named Gregori. He wore baggy pants, ill-fitted chainmail, and a white skullcap that covered his bald head. His hut lay not far off, and here he stood day by day on the remote edge of a wild land.

This day came another man, cloaked and wearing a sword over his shoulder. His deep blue eyes peered out from a sun-darkened face. He came with purpose to the sentinel at the guardhouse and asked, “Is this the Castle Margoron?”

“It is,” answered the other.

“Has it remained abandoned?”

“For forty-eight years no man has entered its gates.”

“And still you stand guard?”

Gregori removed his cap to scratch his head. “You have not come this way by accident. Few do. You know what occurred in this place?”

“I’ve heard what others tell. What say you?”

“Evil. Formless, sightless, heartless evil.” He spoke low, as if another might hear. “Murder. Betrayal. Treachery. Blood stained the floor and walls, men slaughtered dear friends, parents slit their children’s throats. I was not there, or I would not stand here today. The thing that came out of the sea, that crept up from its depths, that the men and servants and livestock imbibed in their feasts and fed upon, it lingers there, brooding, cunning, patient.”

The traveler, pulling back his hood to reveal blond hair, apprised the castle across the narrow bridge. “I have come to defeat this evil. It is time Margoron is restored.”

“You cannot slay this evil with a sword.”

“I am well-prepared for the task.”

Gregori sat upon a rock at the gatehouse door, obviously placed there for that purpose. “An army cannot defeat it. The world cannot. It is not that sort of thing. It is malevolence, envy, murder, lawlessness. A sword will only give it strength.”

“If it is so omnipotent,” the traveler asked, “then why has it not engulfed the world?”

The sentinel, who had been studying his hands, raised his head. “Can you tell me it has not?”

“It doesn’t matter. I have come for this purpose. Will you stop me?”

Gregori reached into a pocket and retrieved two smooth stones. He showed them to the traveler. “What is the difference between these two stones?” he asked.

“May I hold them?”

Gregori gave them to the man, and the traveler handled them inquisitively before returning them. “Except for the ordinary difference between two rocks, I find nothing noticeable.”

The sentinel nodded. “But there is a fundamental distinction. This stone is ordinary, as any you might find on the ground. But this stone, it has killed a man.”

“How can you know that?”

“I have stood here at the edge of Margoron for many years. I know its taste, its aroma. I feel it upon this stone. An evil act changes the object. It is desecrated. If you touch what is unholy, you become unholy. Margoron emanates wickedness. You will not purge it. It will infect you, like a mold, like a rash, like a disease that eats away at your bowels.”

“You have stood here too many years with no one to speak with,” the traveler said kindly. “It has made you imagine things that are not.”

The sentinel bowed his head and said nothing.

“If this evil is as great as you claim, it must be destroyed. I was a priest before I took up the righteous blade. Now I am a paladin, one of the few in the world. As I said, I did not come unprepared.”

“No one does,” Gregori said gloomily.

“You think me so weak?”

“We are of the earth. It is from deeper earth. There is an affinity between us. It is not weakness. It is nature. It will change you, and you will only be more terrible for your supposed strength.”

“Will you stop me?” the Paladin demanded.

Gregori showed open hand, the stones held loosely in one. “I am an old man and have no sword.”

Throwing off his cloak, the Paladin revealed gleaming armor. He strode onto the bridge, sword drawn, and continued forward boldly. Gregori stood to watch him. His hand reached into a pocket. He retrieved a sling. He placed one of the stones in it, whirled it quickly about his head, and released. The stone struck the Paladin in the back of  the head. He stumbled, fell over the edge, and plummeted.

The sentinel returned the sling to his pocket and turned to watch for the next traveler, tears in his eyes and upon his cheeks.

Unfinished

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congerdesign / Pixabay

After days of gray clouds and constant snow, the sun shone in a clear, pale sky. The temperature hovered just above freezing. In the sunlight, it seemed positively tropical after weeks of single digits plus wind chill. Towering heaps of smudged snow glistened on the corners and curbs. The streets shimmered springlike, and even the sidewalks no one shoveled were showing patches of concrete.

Jon walked by his window, looking for his measuring tape, and saw Scott taking off his hat and unzipping his coat across the street. His neighbor had been attacking his driveway with his steel shovel for the better part of an hour , breaking up the packed ice and snow and lugging it away. The cement beneath seemed newly poured, bright and wet in the sun.

Digging in the junk drawer, Jon found the tape measure and headed back to the bathroom, glancing again out into the sun-drenched world. Scott had moved to the corner where the water from the street’s melted snow collected. He wore rainboots and waded into the depths of icy water and plunged his shovel into the slush along the curb.

Scott was a good neighbor, meaning he kept his lawn presentable and kept to himself. Vaguely curious and ready for any excuse not to continue with his own project, Jon threw on his shoes and walked across the street.

“Hey!” he called. Scott, slaving away with sloppy shovefuls, did not hear him. Jon stepped into the deep, piled snow of the curb. “Hello, neighbor!”

Scott looked up, red-faced. He waved distractedly, out of breath.

“Enjoying the thaw?” Jon asked.

“It’ll freeze again by Saturday.” He returned to shoveling.

“What are you doing?”

Scott stopped once more. “Trying to find the drain grate. Do you remember where it is exactly?”

“No. I guess I never paid attention.”

“Me neither. I think it’s just about here.” He dug his shovel into the snow and pulled out a heavy, dripping pile.

Jon lingered, thinking of the pristine wall in the bathroom he was suppose to cut a hole in. Katie wanted it done before she returned from her trip tomorrow. “So, how’s the wife?”

“Sick.” Slush and ice landed at his feet.

“Got the flu, huh? I hear it’s nasty stuff.”

The shovel hit the curb. The water did not drain. “Worse.” Scott straightened himself and looked up at the sky, breathing hard.

“How do you mean?”

Scott shrugged. “Cancer. Chemo. She feels so bad some days she wants to die.”

Jon wished he had just returned home. “I’m sorry.”

Scott put his strength into shoveling again.

“Can I do anything to–”

“Nope,” Scott said.

“I can do this if you need to go.”

“I’ve got it.”

Jon stood there, watching his neighbor splash in cold water, shoveling with a frantic rhythm that would make John Henry proud. He didn’t know if he should say something or just walk away quietly.

Suddenly, he noticed the water draining. Scott stepped back and watched with satisfaction.

“You work with the Street Department or something?” Jon asked.

“Just needed done.” Scott continued watching the water, content. Eventually he looked up. “Your driveway need shoveled? I’m in the habit just now.”

“It’s good. Thanks.”

Scott nodded. The water was almost gone, with rivulets still joining from farther down the street.

Jon had an idea. “You any good with home construction?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“How about electrical?”

“Passable.”

“Wife wants a space heater installed in the bathroom wall. I could use some help.”

Scott looked toward his home.

“Unless you’re busy,” Jon said.

“She’s sleeping just now. Nothing I can do.”

“Pretty sure I’ll electrocute myself without a bit of guidance.”

Scott stepped onto the sidewalk. “I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

“Thanks.”

Scott nodded. “Just glad to help.”

‘Tis Not the Season

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The children stared at her, uncomprehendingly.

“Did I stutter?”

The littlest, Kandace, smiled brightly, thinking it was some sort of joke.

“It’s time to take down the tree,” she repeated.

“Why?” Kayley, the middle child, asked.

“Because it’s the middle of January.”

“I don’t want to take it down,” said Kaiden, the oldest.

“Well, we’re taking it down anyway. And all the rest of the Christmas decorations.”

“What decorations?” Kayley asked. Kandace repeated “What derasion?” and wiggled.

“The paper snowflakes and the popcorn strands and–”

“Can I eat the popcorn?”

“No, Kaiden. It’s stale. It’ll taste like cardboard.”

“I like cardboard.”

“No. Okay? And all the lights need to come down out of your rooms, and–”

“Not the lights!” Kayley shouted. “I love the lights. It makes my room pretty.”

“Pretty lights! Pretty lights!” Kandace danced and looked to Kayley for approval.

“The lights are coming down, and that big candy cane you guys made out of the paper towel rolls, and the Nativity–Kaiden, did you ever find Baby Jesus?”

“He’s in my Ninjago lego, I think.”

“Why is he there?”

“I needed him for my movie.”

“Of course you did.”

“Baby Jesus!” Kandace screamed. “Baby Jesus coming!”

“Yes, Kandace, Christmas is about Baby Jesus. Baby Jesus came. Time to move on.”

Kandace frowned. “Baby Jesus?”

Kayley patted her sister on the head. “Don’t worry. He’s not a baby now. He’s two, just like you.” Then she looked seriously at her mother. “I don’t want Christmas to be over.”

“It was over like two weeks ago,” Kaiden lectured. “I’ll show you on the calendar.”

“That’s not what I mean!” Kayley pushed him.

“Don’t push your brother, Kayley. Kaiden, stop being a smart aleck.”

“Kandy smart, Kandy smart, Kandy smart,” Kandace repeated until mother acknowledged that she was.

“I love Christmas,” Kayley whined. “I don’t want to clean up.”

“Yeah, why can’t we keep the tree?” Kaiden said.

“All the needles are falling off.”

“I’ll clean it up. I’ll even water it.”

“You were supposed to be doing that anyway.”

“I forgot, okay? I’m not perfect.”

Kayley was close to crying. “I don’t want to put everything away. It’ll look ugly.”

“It’ll have to look ugly then.”

“Can’t we just keep it up till next Christmas,” Kayley asked. “Please?”

“Kayley, Christmas isn’t till next year,” Kaiden said.

“What? How long is that? How many days?”

“Like 600,” Kaiden said.

“One, two, twee, four…” Kandace started counting. Then she threw up her hands. “Hide-n-seek! Hide-n-seek!”

“Not right now, Kandy,” Mother said.

“You want to keep the tree up, don’t you, Kandy?” Kaiden said sweetly. “Tell Mommy you want to keep the tree up.”

“Tree up!” Kandace said.

“Enough! We’re taking down the tree and the lights and the decorations. Everything is coming down! Do you understand? It’s time to make the house clean.”

Kayley burst out crying. Kandace looked up at her sister and then hugged her leg. “Kaey sad.”

“Do we have to?” Kaiden said sullenly.

“Yes! Now!” As they moved off slowly, whining, she added, “Don’t look so excited.”

“What did you say?” Kaiden said.

“Never mind.”

As Kayley removed each ornament, she stared at it longingly. She held a heart ornament that held her name and the year of her birth for a long time. “Mommy, when’s Valentine’s Day?”

“Next month.”

“When we’re done, I’m going to cut out some hearts. I love hearts.”

“I’ll draw some pictures,” Kaiden said. “We can use them for Valentine’s.”

“I’ll put pink all over my room, ‘cause pink means love.”

“I’ll take the leftover candy from my stocking and make a candy store.”

“Me Kandy, Me Kandy!”

“Mom, can I have that candy cane we made?” Kaiden asked. “I need it for my candy store.”

“I need pink paper, Mommy. Where’s my pink paper?”

Mother sat on the couch with a sigh. “Mommy’s going to have her coffee. Then we’ll talk.”

The Ravine

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Bitter winds disturbed the bare branches, which creaked and muttered and hissed. Samuel had smashed his hat on his head so tightly the wind couldn’t budge it, but he felt the cold even through his long fur-lined coat. He trudged forward across the hard ground, breaking sticks and turning autumn leaves to ash. There was the faintest shimmer of snow on the wind that a cold metallic glint over the land.

Samuel’s pistol hung heavy in its holster. The knife on his belt pressed cold against his leg even through its sheath.

This was a barren land of thick forests and mountains beyond the edges of civilization, beyond even where the frontiermen like Samuel trod. If anyone lived in these parts, he lived as solitary as a man on the moon. Samuel had seen perhaps two birds in his journey, but neither squirrel nor rabbit nor deer in the last two days. Just dark leafless trees and the occasional evergreen surrounded by a thick mat of dead needles.

His path would take him to a deep ravine, a chasm of sheer walls. A river once ran white at its bottom, long ago. Now only sharp rocks lay tumbled in the dry bed. A man in town, a self-proclaimed explorer, had gone that far and returned. It seemed to Samuel the perfect location for the fruition of his many years of planning.

He reached the ravine’s edge. It gaped before him, and he was moved by its depth and breadth. The sky was low and gray. It was neither night nor day, but a colorless inbetween.

He inched his feet forward until his toes hung over the edge. A gust blew hard against him. He wavered uncertainly and smiled, his gun hand twitching. His prey was near now. He edged farther out.

Another blast of wind swept down and struck him. He had been waiting for it. He turned. For a moment only the toe of one boot rested on solid ground as he lifted the other foot and pivoted. He had drawn his gun and fired. He heard the dull impact of a body hitting the ground. Stepping toward it, the man appeared, thin and white-haired. He did not bleed. His arms lay pinned to the ground, and he seemed unable to lift himself.

He stared wide-eyed at Samuel as the other towered over him, holstering his gun. “Please, I’ve had an accident,” the man said. He wore a tattered coat and no hat. A pair of round spectacles lay cracked nearby.

“Stop with the playacting,” Samuel drawled. “I know what you are.”

“I can’t move. I’ve been injured. Help me. Please. Be kind to your fellow man.”

“That bullet was enchanted to pin you.” Samuel unsheathed his knife. “And this was forged to get me what I want.”

He knelt and with effort flipped the man onto his face.

“Why are you doing this?” the man asked, his face plastered against rock.

Samuel placed the knife flat against the man’s back, between the shoulder blades, and began to draw it toward him. Something unseen resisted the edge. Samuel worked at it with slow, steady strokes. The man tensed and trembled in pain.

“Because I’m my own man. I came to the frontier for freedom, but as long as you’re followin’ me, I ain’t free, no matter where I go.”

With a final effort, the knife finished its work. In Samuel’s hands appeared a large white mass of feathers. He placed it nearby and set to work on the other side of the back. “Eyes on me all the time. I noticed. Tryin’ to work me this way and that. No more. Eventually everyone is gonna wanna be free. I’ll show them how. I’ll show ‘em. And we won’t stop with your kind. We’ll keep goin’ up, to the very top. Then we’ll be free. Then everything will be frontier in every direction for everyone.”

He finished the second amputation. The wings were huge on the black ground, like piles of fresh snow.

“I served you. You would have fallen if I hadn’t—”

“I knew that, didn’t I?” Samuel snarled. “I didn’t ask for your help. This is my life. Mine. And now I know you’ll leave me alone.”

Samuel removed his coat and then his shirt. Flecks of ice stung his skin. He took up one wing and, holding it by the joint, pressed it against his back. It melded into his skin. He screamed with the pain of it. He no longer felt the cold because of the burning. Panting, he took the second wing and did the same. Finally, he stood, his skin flushed, and opened the wings until they spread wide and brilliant against the gray world.

“You will fall,” the man said. “If you do this, you will fall and no one will lift you up.”

“I’m already fallen. That’s what the priests say.” Samuel flapped the wings tentatively.

“What is it all for? What will you do?”

Samuel smiled. “Whatever I want.” He lifted himself into the air and crossed over the ravine into lands where nothing lived.

To Remember

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Sadie took a deep breath, praying she didn’t make a complete fool of herself. She had searched out Cassandra Rosenthol through the coffee shop windows before entering so she wouldn’t stand in the middle of the shop looking around like a dope. She only had one chance to make a good impression. She approached the table and said, “Hi! I’m Sadie Bloom from the Eastdale Express,” and held out her hand.

Cassandra stopped her work coloring an abstract design of swirls. She shook Sadie’s hand with a smile. “You remind me of my friend Alyssa Green. Something about your glasses and blue eyes. We sat next to each other in Spanish class. One Thursday in December when we were freshman, Senora Sanchez—” She shook her head. “Sit down, please.”

Sadie sat, setting her backpack by her feet and digging out her notebook. She opened the recording app on her phone. “Do you mind if I record this?”

“That’s fine.”

After a few more arrangements, Sadie thought she was ready. She hadn’t done many interviews and she wanted to get this one right. It could be a big story, at least for her school paper. Cassandra was special. “My newspaper advisor Mr. Jones told me you used to go to Eastdale.”

“Graduated almost 16 years ago.”

“And you have a superpower.”

“He would say that. My brain just works differently, that’s all.”

“You have photographic memory.”

“Not quite. I have vivid personal memories. I can tell you what I ate for lunch on the first day of second term in eighth grade, but I couldn’t tell you more than a half-dozen words I learned in Spanish class the year after. I can recall every day since I turned 10, but don’t ask me what year George Washington crossed the Delaware. I have a horrible memory for numbers.”

Sadie wrote as quickly as she could but was still writing for too long after Cassandra finished. Sadie hated that awkward silence. And she realized suddenly Cassandra would always remember how slowly she wrote and if she asked any stupid questions. “How does it work?”

“Scientifically, go ask the neurologist. As far as I’m concerned, it just does. When I saw you, you reminded me of Alyssa. The association brought a flood of memories, like a movie playing alongside the present moment. I was back in Spanish class with her. If I let it, one memory brings another, and I can spend an hour enveloped in them. It’s like when YouTube keeps playing one more video unless you press pause. And it’s not always easy to press pause.” She lifted her coloring book. “This helps focus me.”

“Is it nice being able to remember everything?”

“Say I’m with Alyssa in Spanish class. Joel’s there, too, right behind me. I’m not a good student, I’m too distracted, and I’m always saying the wrong thing. I remember trying to answer Senora’s question. I’m even more awkward in another language. Joel calls me chica loca, whispers it just loud enough for me to hear it. That reminds me of him laughing with his friends at me in the hallway. I remember putting my science notebook, black, in my backpack and seeing them all looking at me. And that flows into him tripping me in the cafeteria. I almost don’t catch myself, and I want to cry, but I don’t, and the tears stay hidden, almost ready to burst out all lunch period. And at the spring dance he comes and asks me for a dance, but when I’m in his arms, all embarrassed and hopeful and terrified he’ll find me ugly, I see his friends’ faces and I know it’s all a joke. Then I start crying. I remember exactly how it felt, crying there in the middle of everybody.”

Sadie realized she hadn’t written any notes. She had never talked with an adult who remembered what it was like being a teenager, really remembered. She didn’t even look at her notes for the next question.

“There must be happy memories, too, right?”

“Oh, of course. But associations don’t always move in one direction. Sad memories can lead to happy ones, and good memories to bad. I don’t control them. So when I see Joel, sometimes I’m stuck on the dance floor, crying.”

“Do you still see Joel?”

“Every day.”

Sadie imagined reliving her worst days continually. “Don’t you want to get even with him?”

“Sometimes. More often than I should. Are you religious, Sadie?”

“Sure. I believe there’s a god.”

Cassandra shook her head. “That’s not quite what I mean. When you remember everything, you become cynical, bitter. People are horrible, and time doesn’t erase anything. But my God taught me to forgive.”

“How?”

Cassandra laughed. “I don’t know. It’s very, very hard some days. But he doesn’t forget and he forgives me.”

“And that’s what you do when you see Joel?”

“Yes, Sadie. Every day. Sometimes every ten minutes. Because I married him.”

Sadie looked at her, then scribbled out all her prepared questions and turned to a fresh page. “That’s the story. That’s the superpower. Tell me more. Please.”

Welcome to Broccoli World!

1

“You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not.”

“There’s no such place!”

“Yes, there is.”

“No way. You’re a liar. Liar! Liar!”

Julia sighed. The second graders had only just started their lunches and she already needed to quiet them down.

“Brock, Aiden, inside voices, please.”

“Miss Hulbert,” Brock whined (she was pretty sure he only spoke in whines), “tell Aiden to stop lying.”

“I’m just telling him about my fall break,” Aiden said.

“There’s no place called Broccoli World!” Brock yelled. “You’re just tricking me. He’s being mean, Miss Hulbert. Tell him to stop being mean.”

“I’m not being mean,” Aiden said.

Aiden was a sweet kid with worn, out-of-style clothes. Julia saw his parents more than most at school events, looking tired but happy. “Is Broccoli World one of the stories you’ve been writing, Aiden?”

“No. Everyone went on vacation last week. I went to Broccoli World.”

“I went to Disney World,” Brock said importantly. “We go every year.”

“I’m sure you do.” Julia returned her attention to Aiden. “I’ve never heard of Broccoli World.”

“That’s because it’s in Minnesota.”

“I see.”

“It’s just starting up, too. My dad really likes broccoli, that’s how he heard about it. Broccoli’s like his favorite vegetable. I like it, too, even without dip. It makes you feel big and important, like you’re a giant chewing up trees.”

“Broccoli’s gross,” Brock said. “My mom never makes me eat broccoli.”

Julia ignored him. “But what is Broccoli World? A museum?”

“Yeah, there’s a museum. It was boring. Too much to read and mostly a lot of black and white pictures, like of Chinese people farming and stuff. Did you know China grows the most broccoli in the world? But there’s a big indoor play area with slides and rope bridges and lots of tunnels, in this giant, like three-story tall, broccoli. The best section’s up in the floret—that’s what you call the forest-y part. There’s a big ball pit and lots of springy floor. And next to that’s this thing like a botanical garden, with all three types of broccoli in it dyed or painted or something all kinds of colors to make shapes and characters, like Minions and Groot and My Little Ponies.” He made a face. “My sister loved that.

“There’s a hotel, too, and the carpet’s all green and trippy. Dad says it was like watching Fantasia the way some people did back then, whatever that means. Dad made us try some of the chocolate-covered florets. Not good.

“But the indoor waterpark was awesome. There was a lazy river dyed yellow to look like cheese and it had one of those big funnel slides, but the funnel was done up like a toilet. It was hilarious! I thought it was because sometimes kids try to dispose of their broccoli, but Mom said something about it helping with constipation. Anyway, it was great. I rode it like a hundred times. When Dad said it was time to go home, I was really mad. It ended up being a pretty cool place.”

“Yeah, well, I saw Darth Vader,” Brock said.

“Everyone’s been to Disney World,” Aiden said. “I’m the only one who’s been to Broccoli World.”

“You’ve never been to Disney World,” Brock said. “You told me so last week.”

“So?”

“Well, it’s really cool. Way better than Broccoli World.”

“Brock,” Julia said sharply, seeing the look in Aiden’s face. He was fighting back tears. “Take your tray and go sit over there. And no more talking. Now.”

With a huff and a sneer, Brock did what he was told.

Julia sat next to Aiden. “Now, Aiden, tell me the truth. Is there really a Broccoli World?”

“Miss Hulbert, there’s all kinds of crazy places out there. There’s a museum about Ramen Noodles in Japan and a place called Dollywood. Why can’t there be a Broccoli World?”

“Aiden, no one likes broccoli that much.”

“No one should like spam, either, but there’s still a museum for that.”

“It’s okay if you didn’t go anywhere special during break. I didn’t go anywhere.”

“My dad’s really good at making up stories. He does it all the time when we’re taking a walk or driving around. It makes life great.”

“You’re not too bad at it either. But you can’t lie to your friends.”

“Brock’s not my friend.

“You know what I mean.”

“Okay, Miss Hulbert.” He smiled at her. “I’m going to bring one of my pictures in from Broccoli World in tomorrow.”

“Aiden….”

“Just for fun, okay?”

And, she had to admit the next day when he showed her the picture of them at the entrance to Broccoli World, all smiling, Aiden had a quite a talent for Photoshop for a second grader.

The Sorrow

0

Once a year they brought the Sorrow from her hermitage in the hills so that she could speak to them and remind them of the world that had once been, to speak from the affliction that science had cured. They gathered in the stadium by the tens of thousands, talking and eating hot dogs until, small and lonely, she walked across the field to a stage placed in the center. A chair sat on the stage, which she sometimes used. The people grew quiet and waited for her to climb the steps.

Some years she sat and stared at them, saying nothing, sullen and strange, with eyes unlike any they now possessed. One year, early on, the Sorrow had wept with full-bodied convulsions. She had just been informed of the death of her mother upon her return to civilization. The footage of this occasion was shown in high school science classes and parodied in commercials. Most years she spoke a little of what she felt; the crowd listened as they might to the reading of an old and important document.

The Sorrow was old now. Her hair had once been blonde. Her face, magnified on the Jumbotron, was wrinkled. It was her eyes the people studied. They fascinated, entranced, confused. They were windows into an alien landscape, a glimpse of something enormous and captivating and almost repulsive.

Today she gained the stage and did not sit. She looked at the rows of murmuring spectators and turned slowly to take them all in. Water hovered over her pupils. It slid down the creased cheeks. This was new. It was not a convulsion, not an angry explosion (as it had been in many of her appearances), but silent streams flowing from the orbs.

The people waited for her to speak, enthralled by her expression. She looked up at her own face on the screen and turned away. She found the chair and sat, head bowed. Long minutes passed before she looked up and began to speak.

“I had planned what I was going to say to you, but I did not expect….” She shuddered and breathed deeply. “I do not know if you can understand what I want to say. You have removed sorrow. You have eliminated the sense of loss. But you have become what you took away. I look at you and see the hole. That is why I weep. You are missing. You are pretend people. I envied you. For years, I hated you. I was afflicted and you were at peace. I wept and you laughed. I suffered the night and you played in the sun.”

In earlier years, this might have been spoken with bitter rage. Now she spoke softly, with that strange timbre that denoted an emotion they did not comprehend. “Do you ever think of sickness or tragedy or death? Do you consider God? Can you consider him? My God wept. What can that mean? He suffered. It says that he must suffer, that that was his way to bring man to God, the plan set in motion since before the beginning of the world. Can you understand such talk? Tears brought God to me. They brought me to God. But you? What are you? Can you have anything to do with him? How can you possibly taste him? Will there be a new heaven and earth for you, when you have no tears to wipe away?

“I fear you are lost. I fear you are without hope. And it hurts. I wish you knew how it hurts.”

She began to cry again, softly but deeply, and she did not speak again but wept for a long time, her face in her hands.

The next day, everyone said it was the best Sorrowing they had ever seen.