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Day One Hundred and Twenty-one: A World to Build

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

I used to be lonely here.

For good reason, of course. I never saw another living soul. Ever. From the moment I woke up on the beach, with the sun rising in my eyes. Cool blue water, verdant grass, and trees everywhere. The sand was bright and hot under the summer sunshine, and the air smelled clean and pure, like it had just come into existence itself. The whole world looked new and clean.

And it was mine. All mine.

The first day I explored. I walked through the forests, silent and perfect. There were animals in those woods, but they were peaceful. Cute, even. Cows, pigs, sheep – there were even wolves, but as long as I didn’t give them any trouble, they left me alone. I walked and I walked, wondering if I would ever see a road or a house or a bridge, or any sign that another person lived there other than me.

But I never did, no matter how far I walked.

The sun rose higher, and it seemed like only minutes had passed since I was on the beach. I called out, and no one answered. I found a high hill and climbed it – there was nothing to see but wilderness for miles and miles. It was a gorgeous wilderness, don’t get me wrong. Sweeping bays and tiny ponds, vast deserts that stretched all the way to the horizon, and soaring mountains that pierced the slow-moving clouds.

No cities. No towns. No villages.

No sign that there was any living, thinking person in the world but me. And I wasn’t even entirely sure who I was anymore. The first thing I could remember was the beach – there was nothing before that. Just a yawning mental blackness that made my stomach turn to contemplate. My name, my life – was I married, did I have kids? Friends? A job, anything?

It was all gone. All of it.

Someone had done this to me. That was the only explanation I could come up with at the time. Someone had taken me from my life and brought me here, to some deserted part of the world, and let me go. But for what? To prove a point? For revenge – had I wronged someone? Had I trespassed in some way that was so horrible that the only way to make up for it was this bizarre exile? I felt, deep in my heart that that couldn’t be right. I couldn’t be the kind of person to do something so horrible.

But how could I know that?

I screamed into the empty, pristine air, and it echoed back and forth among the mountains. It came back to me with all of its rage intact, undiluted by distance, and I felt even worse. It was not the echo mocking me, it was myself. I turned around, looking for someone to attack, someone to blame for this.

There was nothing nearby but trees. So I hit one. I just pounded my fists against it, screaming and raging, words coming out of my mouth that even I couldn’t understand.

And then it happened. The thing that would eventually make this whole place make sense.

A section of the trunk just… fell out. Right in front of me. While the rest of the tree remained upright and calmly enjoying the sunlight. Unconnected to the ground, blithely ignoring gravity, the tree stood. I looked around – no one was watching, there were no supports, no strange devices holding the tree up. I walked towards it, and the block of wood…

It’s hard to explain this. I have no memory of the world as it would have been any other way, but I also know that this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. Trees don’t float. Blocks of wood don’t jump into your hands and then just go somewhere else until you need them. But here, in this place, they did. I hit the tree again, and another block fell out. I took it, and hit, and took another. When the trunk had gone, the tree’s leaves – still floating in the air with nothing to hold them – just vanished, one by one.

I tried another tree, and had the same result. Soon I was carrying a dozen of these blocks, but I didn’t know where I was carrying them. My hands were empty, and there was no way I could have ever carried five trees worth of wood in my pockets, I knew that much.

The sun was beginning to set, marking the end of a day that seemed to have lasted only minutes. The western sky was going orange and red, and when I turned around, a bright full moon was rising in the east. With night coming, there were plenty of chances to fall and get hurt – the jagged hillsides would be unforgiving if I should stumble, and there were no doctors to be found. I stood on a hilltop and watched the moon come up, surrounded by gently twinkling stars. In the darkness, I could almost pretend I was somewhere normal. I struck the earth at my side. A chunk of it flew into my hands and vanished.

Almost normal.

The night air was cool, and I lay back to watch the sky. And that’s when I heard the noise.

It was somewhere between a growl and a gurgle, and it traveled directly to my brain by way of my spine. I stood and cast around in the moonlight for whatever had made that noise.

I heard it again, and I wanted to be sick. My heart was pounding against my chest, my breath was coming quickly. There was something out here with me, and its breath, its horrible stench rise from the very ground.

The first blow came to the back of my head and I fell to my knees. When I looked up, there was a green-skinned… thing standing before me, its arms stretched out and its mouth open like a gaping wound. It growled and came at me and I screamed-

I woke up on the beach, with the sun rising in my eyes and a scream of horror on my lips.

The day was bright and beautiful and clean. The sand was just beginning to warm. A sheep came over and nuzzled me, just to see what I was. I was on my feet in moments, looking for the thing that had attacked me, but it was nowhere to be seen. All that I had collected was gone – I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I also knew that this beautiful, peaceful place hid dangers – terrible ones.

I stumbled up a hill and began hitting trees. Within minutes, I had more blocks than I knew what to do with. When I inspected them, I found that they fell apart in my hands, making boards, which in turn would splinter into poles. I made a box, a workbench to craft with. I had poles and boards, so making tools was easy – a primitive shovel, a pick, an axe. They all went into that same no-place as everything else, and they made collecting easier. I found that I could pick up soil, sand, stone – pretty much anything I could see.

And always I kept my eye on the sun.

As it neared the top of the sky, I knew what I lacked – shelter. I threw together a tiny house, all boards and stone and with a wooden door that just barely held back the night, when the night came. And from inside my little shelter, when the darkness came, I could hear them coming for me. I could hear that horrible gurgle-growl of the thing that had gotten me the night before. The clicking and clacking, the hissing and crawling of other creatures that I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to.

I spent that second night in darkness, but I spent the night alive.

When the sun rose, it burned away the things that wanted me dead. I looked around at my hut, at my tools, and I understood what I had to do.

I had to build. It was me against the world, in the most literal sense. But if I did it right, it would be my world. And I would build my own civilization where those things could not step foot.

I used to be lonely here, but not anymore. Every day is full of collecting and making and building. Every night is filled with making plans and digging into the depths of the earth for the materials I need. The monsters outside the walls don’t trouble me anymore. The ones I meet underground are quick work for my diamond sword.

This is a world of my making. And there is so much more to make….

Day One Hundred and Thirteen: Dear Diary

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment

September 11th, 2011

Dear Diary,

There are some days you just want to leave alone. You want to step quietly and not raise a fuss, and wait until it’s over. I guess this is one of ’em. All those months of planning, working out the bugs and getting my ducks in a row, I guess the time just slid by me. I was all ready for the Big Day, my day to shine, and then I actually turn on a TV for once and…

Ah, well. Could happen to anyone, I guess.

You would think that it wouldn’t matter so much, even to a guy like me, but it does. It really does. I mean, all you see on TV are those videos of those towers falling and people screaming, and you know – you know what’s going to happen next, and it just Breaks. My. Heart. The whole country goes nuts and empties its coffers chasing shadows around the globe. Civil liberties get bent and twisted into granny knots. Hell, that halfwit President actually managed to get re-elected, and if I were a betting man, I would never have put money on that. Nuh-uh. But I guess you can’t underestimate what kind of dumb shit a frightened populace will pull, when its back is up against the wall. Something to remember, I suppose, for all of us in Tha Biz.

And you know I wasn’t the only one taking notes on that day, right? The blogs were just humming with activity – screen captures, photographs, and theory after theory after theory. There were at least two guys actually down there taking air samples and trying to figure out if some kind of hallucinogenic chemtrail gas had been released and the towers were actually still standing. Dumb idea, that. Mind control gasses don’t work through TV cameras, I told one of ’em, but he wouldn’t listen. The rest of us just started spinning out scenarios whenever we were able to tear ourselves away from the news.

Here’s the weird thing about that day: the people who remember it – i.e. everyone – don’t remember it the way they think they do. Did you know that there are people out there who honestly and truly believe they saw the first plane hit the tower on live TV? I know, right! Even Dubya thinks he saw it, and unless those nutball Truthers are right, he’s retouched his memories just like the rest of us did. And that’s what really amazes me about humans, you know? That we can take something real, an event that truly, objectively, measurably happened, and just… change it! Just like that! We have the power to utterly alter reality with that little three pounds of  meat between our ears, and that’s without any kind of ESP or alien mind control rays or time-lost mental manipulation helmets. Utterly fascinating.

That probably explains why Charlene broke up with me. Hey-yo!

Well, that, and the arrest, but I think she really overreacted to that. It’s not like anyone died, or anything. Well, not died. You look back on it, and it’s a funny story. It would have been great for the grandkids, but no – little miss Law and Order doesn’t want to have grandkids with a convicted felon. Fine. ExcUUUUUUSe me. I’ll just take my clone army and go home, then.

After three to five years.

Where was I? Oh. Yeah. That day. The whole re-making of reality thing aside, that day taught me so many lessons. The more you step back and really look at it, you really see how the world works, you know? I mentioned the Truthers before, right? They’re brilliant – I love ’em. I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with one of them or anything, but they are a classic example of how people can believe what they want to believe, no matter what actually happened. They see fire acting in a way they don’t expect fire to act, and they connect the dots themselves. BAM – thermite. They see a building fall the way they don’t think a building should fall. BAM – controlled demolition.

So that’s trick number one: find out what people already believe, and reinforce that belief. Then they’re all yours. In the palm of your hand, as it were. So if I were to, say, spread rumors about a certain political figure that he was secretly associated with the nation’s sworn enemies, well… There’d be a population of folks who’d believe it, right? Even if the “evidence” was a picture I’d drawn in crayon and pulled off a refrigerator, they’d swallow it whole! Put a little money into a nice video presentation, hack into the screens around Times Square? One maniacal laugh and I’d have their hearts and minds before you knew it.

And why? Because they’re scared. You watch thousands of people die and two huge buildings just crumble to rubble and see if you don’t have to go change your shorts. I had thought that movies and video games had really inured people to violence on a massive scale, but it turned out not to be the case. People are just as capable of succumbing to utter mindless terror as they ever were. The fact that it was a freak, one-off occurrence? The fact that your chances of dying in another attack like that were essentially zero? The fact that twice that many people die in the United States every day, just by being there? None of it mattered. People were terrified.

Which is why they call it terrorism. Duh.

But the best part was that even people who were nowhere near New York and Washington were scared! There were folks down in Taint County, Arkansas who were utterly convinced that the tehrists were going to fly a plane into their municipal waste treatment plant any minute now. The whole country was completely controlled by fear, and they let it happen. The government took advantage of it to try and remake the Middle East, the media used it to boost ratings, and that ol’ devil Bin Laden used it to stroke his own ego. Resources that could have gone to helping people were poured into a financial black hole, and everyone was so focused on that one little thing that they didn’t see their entire economy curling up and devouring itself. I just think about that and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

That one act – that one, simple act utterly changed the world that day. Nineteen guys with box cutters, for god’s sake. Not an unstoppable giant robot or a moon base from which to rain destruction, or even a canister of horrible neurotoxin attached to a dirigible, the way they used to do it in the good old days. Some half-trained zealots with sharp implements and all the conviction in the world.

Man. There’s no way I can top that.

So I’ve powered down the robots, left the internet unhacked, and set my orbital space laser to standby. Oh, don’t worry, diary – I haven’t given up just yet. My undersea dome has escaped detection so far, probably because it’s not sitting on an oil field or anything. And before you ask, no – I had nothing to do with that quake in Japan. That was probably someone else, someone too dumb to claim responsibility for a perfectly good tsunami.

It just wouldn’t seem fair, is all. I know, I know – when did I ever care about fairness? True. But still, even in the world-domination profession, you have to have some standards.

Besides, Bin Laden would probably just take credit for it anyway. I swear, I put that man’s brain inside a robot body as a favor, and suddenly he thinks he’s just King Terror. I guess some people’s standards are just a little bit lower than others.

Well, diary, I gotta go. I may not be conquering the world today, but that doesn’t mean I have to sit on my hands. That army of lava men isn’t going to train itself.

See ya.

Day Seventy-five: Coach Class

August 4, 2011 Leave a comment

I jerked awake when the plane hit turbulence. It was right in the middle of a weird dream, one that I couldn’t remember very clearly, and there was that moment of disorientation where I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. For all I knew, it was still the dream, and I had dreamed that I woke up.

The droning sound of the engines filled the darkened cabin and I tried to stretch my legs – not easy for a six-foot guy in economy class. The only bright side was that the guy in front of me hadn’t put his seat back, so I had some room, but not a lot. I unbuckled my seatbelt, stood up, and stretched the kinks out of tight muscles. The cabin was quiet, except for the engines, and it looked like the movie was over and everyone was getting some sleep. I wanted to check my watch, but then remembered that I’d put it in my bag. It seemed like a bright idea at the time, but now I wasn’t so sure.

At least with everyone sleeping, I was free to walk around. I strolled up the aisle, stopping at every exit row to stretch a bit and try to look out the window. Nothing but my dim reflection out there, and even if that wasn’t there, the window was still way too small to see anything. The toilet was unoccupied, which felt like a minor victory, and I took my time in there. When I got out, I walked right up to the business class curtain and imagined, for a brief moment, what it would be like to travel that way. I’d gotten lucky once, and was bumped up. I remember it as a paradise in the sky, an Eden of air transportation, and that knowledge makes every coach class adventure seem that much worse.

My legs felt a little bit better, and my head didn’t feel so stuffy. I bent down to touch my toes a couple of times and peered into the cabin attendants’ kitchenette. They had left some drinks and cups out for self-service. Smart move, I thought, as I helped myself to some orange juice. On a little screen in there, I saw that we still had at least six hours to go and I sighed. These international flights were long and tedious and horrible, but they were worth it. When I saw my little girl – though she was growing bigger all the time – it made all that time wash away like it had never been.

I stretched one more time and made it back to my seat. I buckled up, wrapped the blanket around me, and used the soft hum of the engines to lull me back to sleep.

This time I remembered the dream a little better. It was a violent one, the kind you’d rather not have on an airplane. There was lightning all around me and people pressing in from all sides. Then a guy who looked kind of like my old boss and a little like my grandfather walked up to me with a gun in his hand. He pointed it at my heart, said, “Are we clear?” and then pulled the trigger.

I woke up again, and the dream slipped out of my mind.

I got up and stretched my legs. In that dark, humming cabin, I had no idea how long I had been asleep. Maybe an hour? Thirty minutes? Time runs differently on airplanes, especially when you’re flying to the other side of the world. It backs up on you and then pounces forward. It walks away a bit and waits for you, and then walks away again. It’s not the same orderly procession of seconds, minutes and hours that we’re used to at ground level.

I got to the kitchenette and poured myself an orange juice. While I gulped it down, I looked at the display. Six hours left. I sighed and dropped the cup in the garbage. It looked like I had barely slept at all.

Once back in my seat, with the seatbelt buckled and my mask on, I told myself that I would get some real sleep this time. I yawned, a real jaw-cracker, put my head back, and was out in a few minutes.

This time the dream wasn’t violent, jut weird. I was in high school again, standing in the gym. A kid, one of the freshmen maybe, kept hitting me with a basketball. Not angrily, not like he was trying to hurt me, just a steady rhythm: he’d bounce the ball against my chest, it would hit the floor, and then he’d catch it and do it again. After a few times, he looked at me and said, “You queer?” Then it all started again.

After maybe three iterations of this, I woke up.

I walked down the aisle again, shaking out my legs. I made another trip to the bathroom and washed my face. No one looks good in an airplane bathroom, no matter how good-looking they might be otherwise. There were circles under my eyes, which were getting kind of bloodshot. I splashed some water on my face and peered into the mirror. No, I would never be mistaken for a good-looking man, but even so, that mirror made me look positively grim.

This routine of sleeping, dreaming and waking was starting to take its toll. I wanted to sleep, but if this was how it was going to go, then I figured I could just stay awake until we landed. It would be hard, especially with everyone else just snoozing away like –

I stopped a few rows up from my seat, and looked around at the other passengers.

Nobody was sleeping.

Every person, in every row, was awake and staring straight ahead. There was no movie, nothing for them to watch, but they were all facing forward, heads up and eyes open. Nobody was reading or listening to music or trying to fall asleep. No one was dozing off or playing a game. Everyone was just staring.

I backed up and got a good look at the rest of coach class, and it was the same in every row and in every seat. All the passengers were up, but no one was doing anything. I looked around for a flight attendant, and couldn’t find anyone. My chest clenched in panic. I saw the curtain separating us from business class. It was normally an unstormable barrier, but I figured these were special circumstances. All the other passengers on my flight looked like they were moments away from starting a full-blown zombie movie, and I really didn’t want to be caught up in the middle of that.

I grabbed the curtain and yanked it aside. Standing there was one of the missing flight attendants – tall, dark, dressed immaculately. She looked me up and down and said, “You do not belong here.”

“I know,” I said. “But there’s something weird going on back there. Everyone’s awake and -”

She put a hand on my shoulder and bent down a little to look me in the eye. “No,” she said. “You do not belong. Here.” She put her other hand on my chest and pushed, and that push was like a kick from a mule.

When I hit the floor, all the breath got knocked out of me. She walked over to stand over me, and she looked a thousand feet tall. A few other flight attendants gathered as well, each one of them fierce and beautiful. “You do not belong here,” the first one said again. “Go back.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, holding my chest. I tried to get up, but she pushed me down again, and again it felt like something slammed into me.

“Go back,” she said.

“I can’t go back!” I tried to scream. “Not if you keep hitting me!” I tried to stand up again, and one more time, her hand moved out – gently, slowly, and yet unstoppably, and pushed me in the chest. And this time, I nearly blacked out when I hit the floor. My vision swam and my ears rang and it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t tell where up and down were, and I felt like throwing up.

“Is he back?” The voice was indistinct and different – not the Valkyrie flight attendant who had hit me. Another one?

No. Not them. This time there was laughter and cheers as I took a breath. I blinked my eyes open and there was a crowd around me still, but different. Their faces were expressive, human, and – if I had to guess – very relieved. I tried to sit up, and one man, an older-looking gentlemen, touched my shoulder gently. “You lay back, son,” he said. He was hard to understand over the humming of the engines, and a little hard to see in the cabin darkness, but he held a flashlight and I could see well enough by that. “You gave us quite the scare.”

He turned and said something to a flight attendant, who dashed off. I looked around at the people staring at me, leaning out of their seats and looking my way. There were two patches with wires stuck to my chest, leading to a plastic case that lay in one of the seats. “What happened?” I asked, though it mostly came out as “Wuhhuppn?”

The older man smiled. “You went and had yourself a heart attack,” he said. “Pretty bad one, too. Thought we lost you for a moment there.” He looked up at a young man, a teenager really, who was kneeling behind me and grinning stupidly. “You’re lucky this young man knew CPR,” he said. “Also lucky that the plane had one of those AED things on board.” He gestured at the plastic case.

My brain put the pieces together slowly, but when they came together they started to fade. People were going back to their books and magazines and the movie, and pretty soon the flight attendant, the teenager and the old man helped me into an empty seat in business class. My chest hurt, and it tightened as we went past that curtain, but there was nothing to worry about. They got me settled in a seat, gave me some orange juice and told me there would be a doctor to meet me when we landed.

A heart attack. I shook my head in wonder and tried to remember what had happened. Little flashes came to me – people sitting, a bathroom mirror – and then faded away like mist in the morning.

I put the cup down on the seat tray and lay back. Each breath hurt, but each breath after that hurt less. I felt tears well up as I thought of what had almost happened, and I didn’t wipe them away.

After a while, I slept. And I had no dreams.

Day Sixty-nine: Lygophilia

July 29, 2011 3 comments

The first thing I do is wait for the sun to set. It takes a long time, if you wait for the whole thing. I mean, just seeing the disc of the sun finally drop below the horizon is great, but there’s still so much light out there. Red and purple and orange, bouncing off clouds and refracting through the air. You usually have to wait an hour, maybe more, for the terminator to truly pass you by and for the sunlight to be gone for good.

I used to be terrified of this. I can still remember running home before sundown, looking at the beacon of safety that was my house, all brightly lit inside and out. I could feel the darkness nipping at my heels and all the things it contained. All the ghosts and goblins and werewolves and vampires. The night was hungry for the blood of a little kid, and I ran like the wind to deny it a meal.

Now I stand on tiptoe, a feeling of tingly excitement growing in my belly. When the sun is finally gone – well and truly gone – there is still light that needs to be taken care of. Unlike the sun, though, I have a little more control over this.

If I had my own house, this would be easier, and someday I hope to. But right now I make do with what I have, and what I have is a little apartment with west-facing windows. The living room is no good. I put up blackout curtains, but they still let light in around the edges, tiny trickles of illumination that find their way through the gaps no matter how careful I am with them. There’s also the myriad lights from the TV, the computer, the DVD player, all the electronics that we all use to make our lives better and easier. I tried putting black tape over them, but there was still the tiniest, faintest glow – nearly imperceptible, but not imperceptible enough for me.

I could use the toilet, but – no. I mean, if all else fails, it’s certainly dark enough, but it’s the toilet.

The shower room, on the other hand….

For some reason, the bathroom was built against an inside wall of the unit. So there’s no window – just a fan to keep air circulating. The fan is no problem. It’s not noise that I’m trying to get rid of. It’s big enough that I can stretch my arms out and touch nothing, which is what I need, and there’s nothing in there that creates a shadow.

I bring a candle with me. Not for any practical reason, really. If I wanted to, I could just flip off the light switch. But this is important. This is a ritual. And rituals need to be important.

An old book on photography taught me how to make a light-lock: a two-stage entry into a room that’s designed to minimize the amount of light getting in. The one I made is temporary. Putting it up and taking it down only takes a couple of minutes, and the whole thing just clicks together. When it’s done, a heavy black curtain blocks the door to the bathroom, extending at least another foot in every direction.

Candle in hand, I go in and shut the door behind me. There’s a draft-snake that goes at the bottom. I lock the door. Again, ritual.

The bathroom lights are bright and fluorescent. They make me look terrible in the morning, but they do that to everyone. I light the candle and turn off the lights, and that feeling in my belly grows. It’s still fear, I know that much. But it’s fear that’s been tamed. It’s been brought to heel like a lion at the circus. The fear is a beast that I broke many years ago.

It was that, or go mad, after all. And even though the beast has been made docile, slow – it still needs careful attention in order to keep it from remembering what it was.

The candle goes on the floor, and I sit in front of it. I close my eyes and try to feel the candle’s light hitting my face, my skin, my hair. It’s sunlight, really. It’s sunlight held captive in the cotton fibers of the wick, in the wax rendered from plants or animals long dead. The little sun shines on me, and it’s the only thing in the world besides myself.

I open my eyes.

I blow it out.

The darkness rushes in to take the place of the light, it floods the room now that the pressure of luminescence has been removed. I can feel it, this absence, this great shadow, all around me. I don’t know if my eyes are open or closed, and I don’t care. The darkness holds me, it cradles me, it caresses me and it presses in on me. It clings to me, to every inch, and when I open my mouth, it floods inside.

Now I’m home.

Day Fifty-three: Sun Worshiper

A green field.

A green field and a blue sky.

A green field, with long grass as far as the eye can see, waving in the gentle breeze and whispering its secrets to anyone who can hear them. A blue sky the color of eternity itself, broken only by the bright white clouds, stately and grand, that sail from horizon to horizon.

A warm and bright sun, hanging high in the sky. It keeps all of this running, The grass, the wind, the clouds, the sky.

I lay back in the grass and ponder it all. The light from the sun hitting my face left eight minutes ago. It flew through the emptiness of space, the fastest thing there is, and it still took eight minutes to get to me. And each photon, each tiny, indivisible bit of light, had spent hundreds of thousands of years – maybe millions – getting out of the unimaginably hot and dense center of the sun in the first place.

The light hitting my eyes is older than human civilization. It has struggled greatly to reach me.

I pluck a long stem of grass from the earth and put one end in my mouth, chewing on it as I lie back. I taste… something. That indefinable grassy earthy taste, and it tastes good. The sunlight that fell here yesterday is the green of today, sharp and bitter on my tongue. The other grasses whisper in the breeze, not mourning their lost cousin, not resenting my destruction of their kind. They simply exist, drinking in the sunlight as they have always done and will always do.

The breeze brushes past me, generating another burst of whispers from the grass. That, too, owes its life to the sun. The intricate interplay of heating and cooling, convection and rotation, it all keeps the air from ever being too still, too dull. Energy from a vast nuclear furnace millions of miles away, a body that would vaporize the world if it could, delicately ruffles my hair.

So too with the clouds, and the trees on the edge of the field, and the insects that fly around through the grass. And me. Without the sun, we are as naught.

I stand up and look up towards the sun, lower in the sky now than it was when I came here. I close my eyes and feel the warmth and try to imagine the impossible journey that sunlight has made. I can’t. My solid-state human mind cannot begin to empathize with an indefinable photon. But I can appreciate.

Carefully, I disrobe, removing my clothes slowly and carefully and folding them on the grass. I turn in the sunlight and try to feel how the heat warms my skin, how my very body reacts to the light, generating vitamins, slowly burning and marshaling its defenses, releasing the chemicals that control my health and my mood and which make me who I am. It feels like a shower, like a flood, a flood of warmth and life and love.

The sun is not the sun anymore. It is the creator of all things. It is the generator of all life, that to which we owe our existence. Though I know it cannot love us, I feel the heat as its love. Though I know it cannot see us, I know its light sees us all. And though I know it cannot judge us or damn us or redeem us, I know that it was once part of us, and we of it, and that one day we will be again. The sun gave us birth and it will accept us in our death many, many years from now, and once again all that ever was will be one again.

I turn to the sun and I bow, hands together.

And though I know it cannot hear me, and would not care even if it could, I say:

“Thank you.”

Day Forty: Happy Birthday [REDUX]

On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. This month, we’re going back to the beginning – Happy Birthday. Enjoy.

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The day after the Rapture was my birthday. I had hoped for trumpets and celebrations, for the face of God to appear on Earth. I thought the dead would rise again, that the oceans would be as blood and the sky as flame, that animals would speak in the languages of man and utter the terrible truths they had known for so very long.

Before the Rapture, there was the Hype. You couldn’t drive through the city without seeing one of those billboards, or one of those trucks that just drove around all day blasting sermons out of huge speakers. The late-night hosts were having a ball with it, and the Internet did what it does best – relentlessly mock. I joined a Facebook group that promised to loot the houses of Raptured families, and I joked that if I was going to be watching the Tribuations, I might as well do it on a 65-inch LCD TV.

I didn’t believe it, mind you. I wandered away from the church years ago, and even then I had trouble accepting the whole “The Bible is the Word of God” thing. I didn’t even bother to go on Easter and Christmas anymore.

Nonetheless, I found myself looking forward to it, almost hoping that it really would happen. After all, angels coming down from Heaven, the return of Christ Almighty and the torments that would be visited upon the Unsaved, well… How could you not look forward to that? Angels with swords aflame would come flying from the clouds to carry off the elect. I figured music would rain down from heaven. It would have sounded like the kind of music Bach heard in his head but could never quite get down on paper. I expected the earth to shake and crack and rend itself asunder as great gouts of sulfurous steam jet forth, blasting the flesh from the bones of anyone unlucky enough to be in its way. There would be wonders and horrors enough for a hundred lifetimes, and I would get to see it all.

What I saw on that day was this: On the train, a young woman – probably about thirty or so – looked up from her book, said, “Oh.”

Then she vanished. And that was it.

Maybe I was the only one who noticed, maybe no one wanted to make a fuss about a young woman who disappeared like a soap bubble, but there it was.

“Oh.” Gone.

It happened again a few more times during the day. An elderly man who just started laughing before he went; a small girl who was singing and vanished mid-skip; a Starbucks barista who managed to hold on through making a double latte. She put the cup on the counter, called the customer’s name, let out a deep breath and then just… wasn’t there anymore.

And it seemed like nobody noticed but me. Everyone went about their business, doing whatever it was they did on a Saturday afternoon. Twitter was humming along as it always does, but the only mention of the Rapture was to make jokes about it. Not once was there a, “Hey, did anyone see people disappearing? That’s kinda #weird.”

The next morning, the morning of my birthday – and allegedly the first day of the Tribulations or whatever they were called – the sky was grey. Not turned-off TV gray. Not a foreboding, hard-rain’s-gonna-fall gray. Just a lack of any kind of color. Just gray. The air was heavy and muggy and sluggish, barely moving through the world. What sunlight filtered through the gray sky was weak and attenuated. There was no birdsong outside. There were no insects traveling through the air.

My morning coffee was weak and bitter, my toast crumbled as I bit into it. My shower was lukewarm, no matter how I twisted the knob. My clothes made me itch. My hair lay flat on my head, and my skin was pale and dry and old.

My boyfriend stumbled out of bed and grunted something that was probably “Good morning,” but really could have been anything. He dropped a box on my desk and said, “Huppuhbufduh,” before crawling back into bed. The box wasn’t even wrapped. It was from a box of granola bars that he’d taped shut. Inside was a pair of socks. One of my pairs of socks.

I spent five minutes just staring into the refrigerator.

All that was on TV was cooking shows and home shopping.

The dog didn’t eat. The cat just slept.

That last part, at least, was normal.

So I’ve been sitting here. I’ve been through Facebook and Twitter and Flickr. I’ve gone through all my feeds and my bookmarks and forums. I’ve read through webcomics and funny cat caption sites. I’ve sleepwalked my way through some games, both online and off. And now all I can do it sit. Because I can’t think of anything better to do in this grey and heavy post-Rapture world.

Demons, volcanoes, the collapse of causality. Any of those would be better apocalypses than this. Screaming ghosts, empty graves, bloody skies. At least they’d be exciting. Interesting. Something worth writing about.

This just… is.

Day Thirty-four: Saudade

June 24, 2011 1 comment

It was a feeling too big to hold on to. Every time I tried, the fingers of my mind would slip, like trying to hold onto soap in the bathtub. It was right in front of me, all around me, inside and out, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t handle it, make it make sense. I had lost everything. Everything. How do you hold on to a concept like that?

The fire department arrived about two minutes after I made it out. Those two minutes stretched into eternity, an eternity where I could see and hear everything I had ever worked for, everything I had ever loved, burn and die. In my mind, I saw the flames eagerly devouring hundreds of books, falling from their shelves as their pages fluttered through the air like the wings of brilliant birds. Books I had read and loved, books I had yet to read. The fire annihilated them, one at a time and all at once.

I remember the neighbors holding me down on the lawn as I screamed and tried to get in.

The rocking chair that my wife’s mother had left us. Solid oak, hand-carved by her father. It was the chair in which my wife had sat as a little girl when she learned her letters, when she read her bible. It was the chair I sat in when our little girl wouldn’t sleep, or our boy wanted to read. It was the chair I sat in on that last night, when the love of my life left this world. It was rendered down into char, stripped and eaten alive.

The fire department arrived in a flurry of noise and light. Three trucks, bringing flashing red brilliance to the night and an order where there was none. The flickering of the flames was brought to heel by the oscillating red brilliance. The aimless wandering of neighbors was undone by the men of great purpose who came to fight fire with water. They turned their hoses on my house, and kept others ready in case the fire spread.

Photographs in the dining room, all in an old Macy’s shopping bag that my mother had given to me. Some of them went back to the late 19th century, images of stiff and uncomfortable people trying to leave their mark on the world through this new and magical medium. My great-great grandmother, in her youth, was a woman of vibrance and mischief, a woman I never would know. If the flames didn’t get them – and I was sure they did – the water would seep in, find them, and insinuate itself. The moisture would warp and twist and inflate the photographs, and if anything at all was left, it would be only a piece. An eye. A hand. The top of someone’s head.

I sat on my lawn, as close as the firefighters would let me get. The night had turned cold, perhaps just in comparison to the waves of heat coming off the home I would never live in again. I was in my pajamas and my coat, the only thing I could grab on the way out. We had played that game, my wife and I – what would you save? And in my head, in the peaceful security of a glass of wine in the living room, I had mapped it all out. Despite the impending certainty of destruction, I would calmly and carefully gather the items I needed – wallet, phone, the bank book – and the items I treasured – the photos, my first edition Mark Twain, our wedding album.

I had none of those. Escaping the house was gone from my memory, erased in a moment of madness and terror. I had myself. I had the clothes I was wearing.

That’s it.

The lady from across the street brought me cocoa. I took it, and I think I said thank you. I sipped it as I watched my house burn. All that I had been, all that I was, was gone. Up in smoke.

So I remembered. I thought of the house, of each room. The living room we repainted three times because the green we thought we bought wasn’t the one we had in mind. The bathroom where our son almost drowned when he was three, where I pulled him back from death on a floor tiled with flowers. The bedrooms that we went back to night after night. The bed that we slept and fought and loved in. There was a cabinet door in the kitchen that didn’t shut right. A chair in the den that we couldn’t move because it would reveal the wine stain on the carpet. The huge dinner table that hosted Thanksgiving every year. That framed painting that our son did in college that a team of wild horses wouldn’t get me to admit was terrible.

It was all there, in my head. In my memories.

I sipped the cocoa. Several other neighbors had come by, asked if I was okay. I may have nodded. The firefighters were shooting water into the upstairs window, into the bedroom that our daughter defiantly painted black when she was in high school. While her mother and I were on vacation, of course.

The house was huge, in my memory. Room enough for decades. For armies of people. Everything we had was in there, somewhere. The feeling of the rag rug in my “study,” the smell of the incipient mildew in the basement. The hum of the refrigerator and the sound of rain on the skylight. It was all there, and bright, and real.

I sat on the lawn. I watched my house burn.

And I was at home.