fire thoughts at 3am

Identifiables go first. It’ll all burn the same, but I’m paranoid, and I want my IDs to melt and liquify till there’s no chance of being found before burning the other, more important things. There’s no way of googling this without looking like a weirdo, so the first time will have to be a charm.

I’m in the middle of the woods, looking like a witch preparing a meeting of a coven. I was responsible enough, though, to set up contingency plans. I have a fire blanket, for instance. I don’t want the whole forest going down with me.

Clothes are next, because I figure the fabrics will create a slow burn that can sustain the rest of it. I’ll only keep what can fit in a small backpack, and that sure as hell won’t include the clothes with dark memories attached to them.

So the fancy bras go first. I feel like a ‘70s feminist until I remind myself that mine is a selfish liberation–a revolution of one. And soon, that one will cease to exist to the rest of the world.

The slips, the graphic tees, the pajamas with cats on them. Truth be told, my backpack is already packed–filled with muted colors, whites and grays and blacks. Clothes I’ve never worn before, never would’ve worn before.

Everything must go. Like a going out of business sale at a store with sentimental value but no prospects of a future. I mentally prepared for this, knew what I had to do, but the tears fall anyway. There’s no way to practice dying, even if you know you’ll keep breathing afterward.

There’s an origin story. Of course there is. I won’t get too into mine, but it mostly consists of hurt and death. The real death of others, the almost-death of myself at my own hands, and now this fake death I’m staging. Permutations of death, caressed by a jazzy, sullen sadness. A singer under a lone and foggy spotlight, scatting the blues over improvised chords that somehow find their form.

Photo albums, old letters and notes, postcards from places I’ve never been but others have. All curling and yellowing inside the pale fire on this cold night, snow around the fire like a cosmic contradiction.

The rest of it goes in easy after that. Trash bags that I filled with my things, emptied out into the fire, trash bags that I dragged over from the trunk of my car, the car that I’ll douse with gasoline and torch when I’m done here.

This first fire dies, and I kick in dirt to cover the ashes, snow to cover the dirt. And just like that, I’m gone. Dead but still breathing.

I walk back to the car, gas can in hand and lighter in my pocket. The full moon’s peeking up low behind the bare trees of this quiet forest. There really is life after death.

In the Dark

We’re in the dark, slow dancing to a song we barely know the words to, mumbling, mostly just picking up the melodies and harmonizing on the chori, making up our words and movements as we go till we’re melting together, here, at night, with the storm outside, with old Christmas lights strung up inside as the only light for us to dance by, something lofi, something chill, with words aching past quivering vocal cords, kissing every half step, sweat running down your forehead like the raindrops that are on the window, raining, trying to hold this moment in our hands like a childhood snowglobe that’s been scuffed but is still kept for sentimental value, moving past assuring each other that we’ll end up together in the end, somehow, the finality of it like a semi truck sending us flying down concrete, knowing full well, now, that this is the last moment we’ll ever spend together, that I have to leave, for reasons we didn’t want to face at first but now have to, waiting for something to happen, some epiphany, some moment like in a dream, like in a movie, then trying to forget it, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, conducting this moment like it’s a symphony, and I’m trying to remember forever the shapes of your face, the curves of your body, wondering if there will be a satisfying denouement, some word at the end to make it right, or if death is always something that happens with a whisper and not a bang, and I’m wondering what it’ll be like to be in my final moments, not just this one here with you but my last on Earth, if it’ll be quick, they never really know do they, and you’re trying to console, trying to make this all okay, because that’s who you’ve always been, using your half of the glass to fill mine, to make me see, to be my eyes, my light, my world, and it only makes sense that I’ll lose it all when I lose you, because the storm is starting to hit, and if you look close you can see the waves as they crash onto our block outside the window, the raindrops joined by branches and leaves, wind threatening to crack it, to break it all, and there was never any way out of this, no evacuation possible for us, no money for gas, never enough of anything but love for us, between us, and we’ve decided that we’re going to slow dance in the dark for one more song and make it right in our own way.

Chuck

I remember at a young age being at Chuck and Mary’s house and seeing the framed picture Chuck had on the wall, a crying man’s fingers trailing over the Vietnam Memorial Wall, his buddy reflected in the smooth stone, still in uniform. I didn’t have a way of conceptualizing any of what Chuck must have gone through at that point. War to me then was propping up green army men and zooming jeeps along the carpet by hand. I couldn’t understand Chuck’s long pauses, the way he stared through things, the weight that each of his words carried.

There’s no other way to say it: Chuck is one of the toughest people I’ve ever known, but the kind of tough person whose armored exterior hid a sweet and mushy interior. He’d die to protect the people he loved. He had a way of getting me exactly what I wanted for Christmas, giving a matter-of-fact “you’re welcome” when I’d jump up and down and scream “thank you.” He’d take me aside, ask me about school, football, work, writing. I don’t know if he knew it while he was alive, but in a lot of ways, he was like a father figure to me.

As Chuck got older, his health deteriorated. He suffered illnesses I could never withstand, and he did it with grit, toughness, and humor. Maybe it was something he picked up in Vietnam, maybe it was just a part of him, but it seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down. I watched him lose weight dramatically, watched his mobility go away, watched him have to suffer the indignities of a body that simply didn’t want to do what he needed it to do.

As I grew up, Chuck went from being the guy whose presents I looked forward to every holiday to the guy who would level with me and talk through just about anything I was going through. Even as his body failed him, his spirit remained the same. It seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down.

Even to the very end, he remained that strong motherfucker, that guy who could disarm you with his dark humor and who hid how much he cared beneath his indomitable toughness. And sure, his humor got darker, and things pissed him off a bit more than they did before, but who could blame him? He was fighting the hardest battle of his life.

Chuck’s passed, and the hole is there, but I don’t think he’ll ever truly be gone. He’s just on the other side of the wall now, finally meeting up with his buddies after all these years. His body is strong again, and he can go where he wants to go, do what he wants to do. Not even death can keep Chuck down.

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A Wake/Awake

I found my grandfather in the sepia-tone photos of him they kept on the mantle at the wake. He wasn’t old enough for them to be daguerreotypes like in cowboy times, but they kind of looked like it. Only this cowboy had a leather helmet and pads stuffed with straw for Chicago winter, eyes asquint like they’d always be, even when he was happy.

There existed in my mother’s family a whispered legend; not often spoken but well understood–Grampa was eternal, a force of nature like entropy or nuclear fission. This Irish Catholic wake was going to live up to its name. It didn’t matter that Grampa’s sickness turned him into a Peruvian shrunken head with a body to match. He’d be upright in the casket before long, stuffing his pipe and telling us to mind Father’s homily.

Grampa didn’t have names anymore, just initials. PGN. He lost his names in the war. Which war? Doesn’t matter. Tuck in your shirt. And shut the door while you’re at it. Were you raised in a barn?

This was a Special Family Occasion, which basically meant my dad didn’t have to hide his flask. This was the year 2007, after my dad lost his job but before he and my mom divorced. He’d transitioned from telling me about the various alien races that controlled every aspect of society to communing with them directly; telepathically. He kept telling everyone who’d listen that he didn’t kill PGN; it was a setup; they had to believe him. They all just shook their heads.

Mom had on her back brace and splint and foot cast and the trusty sling she’d bust out for SFOs. And the perfume. If you couldn’t hear her telling everyone about how she had scoliosis, and COPD, and kidney failure, and seizures every other Tuesday, then her perfume gave her away.

My big brother Drew was almost out of basic; they let him come home for the funeral. I eyed his crew cut over guzzled cups of coffee and wondered why he was calling me by my real name instead of “Chubs,” why he wasn’t using my shoulder to work on his jab. He told me in basic he saw a guy try to off himself with an M16. Drill sergeant came in as the guy was trying to pick his nose up off the floor, but he couldn’t do it because of how slippery the blood made everything. Told me some other guys were caught fucking each other, that they’d had their heads put through drywall by a different drill, been discharged on the spot. There was a window overlooking the parking lot in this coffee room. I rattled off every car brand in sight before Drew could quiz me on them.

PGN had a yellowed Charlie Chaplin poster hung on the wall at his old house, at the top of the stairs. Charlie looked demented in it. Drew told me he looked fine from his angle, but I wasn’t tall enough to see the difference. We used to collect mothballed pillows and race down the steps whenever Grampa had one of his coughing fits. Would joust with borrowed wheelchairs and stolen tree branches outside the hospital when PGN was first admitted. If he’d seen the silver dollar bruises we gave each other he’d flip his shit, but we hid them well.

Mom came in with her Polaroid to take disposables. We gave her a smiling one and Drew wanted one where we flipped off the camera. That’s the one I kept, one of the few of Drew left after they brought him back in a box and Mom laid up in bed for a month or more, crying for me to bring in more pictures. She wasn’t eating. I told her she needed food more than pictures and she called me a bastard and locked me out. I slept on the lawn that night and watched the stars.

But the wake. While we waited for PGN’s second coming I cornered one of his old war buddies. Tried not to stare at his crocodile skin. Wasn’t entirely successful. Told him my Grampa was a war hero, then tried to squeeze in a question mark at the end. He poured me a little of what he had flasked and told me to sit. I did. His eyes were a blind man’s gray, but I could tell he saw me.

Grampa was an engineer in the war. Built bridges. Worked on one that spanned a deep, otherwise impassable gorge out in the middle of nowhere. His crowning achievement. A beauty. Took months of hard labor, most of which he put in himself. Anyway, when they were about a week away from completion they spotted the enemy, on the other side of the gorge. Ten men for every corps man under PGN. Heavily outgunned. Not a chance in hell.

-So what did my Grampa do?

-What did he do?

-Yeah.

-He burned the bridge down.

-He was a good man.

The man’s crocodile hand was firm. I drank what he gave me, mostly so I’d have an excuse for the watery eyes.

PGN never did wake up. Or maybe he did but didn’t want to give it away. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, I didn’t go home with Mom and Dad. Neither did Drew. Instead we marched home together, kicking errant stones and surveying all the land that belonged to us, all the land that could never be ours.

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Henry’s List

urban volcanos


_ Henry’s son’s coffin’s wood’s grain had little knots and imperfections in it.

_ The little knots and imperfections were lowered into the ground on a Sunday.

_ Dirt hid them forever.

_ The pastor’s fingers’ sweat stuck pages from flipping chapters and verses and a fly went by.

_ The pastor had a name and everyone else there had a name.

_ Things still needed to be bought at the store.

_ The store stored people who could keep living and who needed their receipt.

_ Henry did not need his receipt or his change.

_ There was a Bible with mustard pages.

_ It had brittle pages. Paper pages.

_ Henry wrote in the margins and added footnotes and scrapped the whole thing and started a new draft.

_ The TV had a voice that synced with the birds who owned the sky outside.

_ Henry emptied his stomach onto his bed on a different Sunday.

_ There was a numbered list.

_ Laundry detergent was seventh. New bedsheets eighth.

_ Henry collected the empty cans that rashed along the train tracks next to his house and crushed the cans with his teeth and licked the rims but didn’t drink what was inside.

_ Lip balm was ninth.

_ Henry’s son’s mother’s house had an alarm system.

_ The alarm sounded like Os being called out in a storm.

_ Henry’s son’s mother’s lover had a dog that had teeth.

_ Antibacterial was tenth.

_ Is.

_ Henry is most alive in the half-awake morning seconds before memory catches up with consciousness.

_ Henry is running and watching things.

_ One of the things is a crushed brown leaf that doesn’t belong to him or anyone else and never will.

_ Henry’s son was eleventh. Henry’s son was eleven.

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GRAM’S DRAGON

“Tell another, Gram. Please?”

The window beside Gram’s bed opened on a summer sunset, the last of the sun’s rays glinting off machine displays and diffusing in little golden snakes that George made a game of watching slide up and down the tubes that the doctors put in Gram’s nose. Scoot this way and the snakes slide up. Scoot that way and they slide back down.

“All right. Just one more, Curious George.”

His and hers matching smiles. Hers tired, his ecstatic.

“And it’s a true story now, so you better listen close.”

George unconsciously scooted closer in his chair, tiny legs dangling well over a foot from the floor.

“Who’s in it?”

“Well, me. Me and a dragon.”

“A dragon?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Come on, Gram. There’s no such thing as dragons.”

“Maybe there aren’t any dragons now, but there were plenty when I was a little girl. And believe it or not, your old gram fought one. That’s right. Trying to catch the rain with your mouth open like that?”

“Sorry. Where does the story start?”

“The only place a good spooky story can start. In the cellar.”

A child’s dress of paisley print catches the lone strip of dusky light filtering in through dingy house’s main windowpane. A tiny buckled shoe mounts creaky cellar stairs. Tentative steps down and into the dark, a pause at each creak so as not to be heard. Fumbling in the dark as she swings her tiny hand blindly, searching for the string. Catches it and yanks it down, bringing light from a flickering bulb.

The cellar’s dirt floor scuffs up dainty buckled shoes, then paisley print dress as miniature Gram takes a seat and begins her excavation.

Tiny hands soon make purchase with something smooth. Dirt under carefully kept nails as she goes to work unearthing her find. It’s a clear, empty bottle caked with clinging dirt. Delicate fingers clear away what they can, and are given “Jim Beam” for their efforts. The dig continues, and more of Jim’s fellows are found. She piles the bottles neatly at her feet.

“They were real dragon eggs?”

“That’s right, Georgie. Real dragon eggs.”

She reaches the last one–it’s especially delicate. As she works at clearing off the label, the fragile bottle’s neck breaks away in little Gram’s hands. Bottle strikes pile’s top and begins a bottle avalanche. Partially shatters as the others clink loudly. Breath is held. Body is frozen. Name is called from upstairs. Bellowed is more like it. She doesn’t answer. Bootsteps overhead. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Shadowed form at stairs’ top.

“So help me God, if you’re down in that cellar…”

Little Gram looks around. Hiding options are few. Her eyes settle on the musty, dusty workbench on the other side of the room. She scrambles and hides under it as heavy boots stress cellar steps. Her father reaches the final step and looks at the neat pile of bottles for a moment. Studies it.

“And the dragon caught you stealing the eggs?”

“Mmhmm.”

An inarticulate yell. A steel-toed boot kicks the pile and shatters a few against the far wall. Tiny Gram shakes involuntarily as her father sways on his feet and booms her name.

George was actually at seat’s edge, his eyes wide and expectant. His tiny chest rose and fell quickly as Gram took her time with the story.

“And what happened next?”

The sun was nearly set on the horizon now. Gram looked very tired. Her machine beeped steadily; slowly.

“The dragon came peering into my cave. It was so close I could practically feel the heat of its firebreath on my skin.”

Gram’s father drops to his knees and crawls past the clutter that surrounds his workbench. Glassy eyes peer into deep shadow. Tiny Gram scoots back as far as she can, squeezes herself against the wall to avoid the light that spills against the floor and threatens her darkened hiding place. Her father’s beer breath makes her eyes water. She plugs her nose and tries to hold her breath.

“The dragon had me trapped. There was no way out.”

Dirty, thick hands clutch and grab mere inches from little Gram’s face. Fingertips graze errant bangs that have since slipped past hair ties. Bulky shoulders eclipse bulblight and threaten to close up her last remaining escape route.

She scurries out before they can and runs for the cellar steps. Her father wheels around and catches her hair in a painful handful. Pulls her back into the dirt with a slam.

All light had nearly faded from the hospital room’s windowed view. Gram seemed on the verge of sleep–or something else.

“What’d you do then, Gram?”

A defiant smile lit her weary face. Made it glow.

“I did the only thing I could. I fought.”

Little Gram scrambles to her feet, tears threatening her eyes. Three objects appear in her bleary vision: her father’s hulking form, the cellar steps, and the ruined bottle pile. She runs for the pile and grabs the first bottle she can find. Its jagged neck slices her fingers, but she raises the bottle anyway. Throws it at her father’s head. Grabs another before his shock can wear off. Throws that one too. A glittering barrage strikes from every angle, till his arms are up at face level and his screams sound more pained than angry.

When the last bottle goes, she scrambles up the steps and out the front door. The screen door slams and rattles as she clears the precipice and kicks up dirt behind her in a thick cloud. She’ll find no bottles buried beneath this dirt.

The machine’s beeps slowed their song then, display’s lines dipped and swayed lazily as George stared awe into his Gram.

“And that’s how…”

A deep, labored breath.

“…how your old gram beat the dragon.”

A weary, knowing smile. She took George’s tiny hand in her own and closed her tired eyes for the last time.

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EBB AND FLOW

The creek beside old Bay Colony was dead and so was the man laying in its dry bed, our little tire swing making the tree branch it was attached to creak as the tire swung lazily and cast little curved shadows over the man’s face, this way and that. This way and that.

Joey got there first and poked the man’s chest with his walking stick, making it rise and fall in a way the man’s lungs could no longer do.

As I looked at the man, all I could think was that all that talk of dead people looking so peaceful or else like they’re sleeping and all that is a bunch of bullshit. He wasn’t there. There was no one home. His open eyes might as well have been marbles plugged into a mannequin’s head.

Joey started laughing at him, like his death was some knee slapper that Joey came up with himself. Everybody else laughed with him in nervous titters that echoed across the banks of that muddy creek. I’ll say everybody even though I didn’t laugh too, because once I saw that body it was like I wasn’t inside myself anymore. I was no more present than the man was, and he wasn’t home. His marbles for eyes said as much.

“Touch his face.”

Joey glared at Danny with that look he reserved for keeping people in line. He brandished his walking stick.

“Don’t be a pussy. Touch his face.”

I guess the last thing Danny wanted to be thought of as was a pussy, because he did just exactly what Joey told him to do, with his bare hands even. And right when he was going to stand back up, Joey kicked him in the ass, made him fall over on top of the body.

There were titters and belly laughs from the everybody that didn’t include me. The mannequin’s marble eyes were passive.

Joey turned around then as Danny scampered to his feet. He saw I wasn’t laughing.

“Whatsamatter? You bitching out?”

I guess the urge to laugh was just a little late for me, because I did it just then, alone, right in Joey’s face. I don’t know why. He jabbed me hard in the stomach with his walking stick, tip first. I fell to my knees, couldn’t breathe any more than the marble-eyed mannequin could.

Joey rose with the chorus of laughter. He fished around in his pockets for something. Finally found what he was looking for.

He jammed a firecracker into each of the body’s nostrils and pulled out the lighter he stole from his mom, the one she used to light her spoons with.

Trick.

Sparks, but nothing else.

Trick.

A momentary flame, but the wind blew it out.

Trick.

Joey was on the ground and I was on top of him. I don’t know how. My fist came up and I watched it come back down again, collapse Joey’s nose and retract. The everybody that didn’t include me made noise again, but it wasn’t laughter this time. It was quiet and surprised, and it ebbed and flowed in the air all around us. It sounded like this:

“Oh.”

The oh made me get back to my feet and off of Joey. The oh made Joey’s nose start to run with a dark red stream. The oh made Joey run back home and kept the everyone that didn’t include me frozen where they stood. The oh made me remove the firecrackers from the man’s nostrils. The oh made me sit and guard his body until the sirens arrived.

I never saw Joey again. I guess the oh made that happen, too.

The creek came alive after that day, and it’s never died again since.

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SPLASHDOWN

“Grandpa, you member that time I was on the slide that one time, and you put the swimming pool under it and it was summer and we were cooking burgers?”

“I remember.”

“And and mom didn’t want me standing at the top but you told her it was fine and you were watching and there was the wavy air coming from the grill and I said how it made your face look all funny looking through it?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Yeah and you called it a cool word and I yelled it out loud and I went down the slide and into the water with all the leaves in it and the bugs. What word did you call it?”

“Refraction.”

“Yeah! And I went down the slide and got a wedgie cause it was all dry on the slide and the hose fell off the top of it and I said ‘Refraction!’ and it was all sticky on my skin cause of how dry it was and it made the fart noises and my face went in the water first. And you member what I said?”

“Mmm mmm.”

“Come on grandpa, you member! You’re smiling!”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah!”

“Hmm… Was it flashbrown?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Slashcrown?”

“Mmm mmm.”

“Stashfrown?”

“No, grandpa!”

“How about… well, no it can’t be.”

“What?”

“It couldn’t possibly be…”

“What, grandpa?!”

“Splashdown?”

“Splashdown! And I jumped out of the pool and swung my arms like this!”

“Oof.”

“I’m sorry, grandpa! I’m sorry! It was an accident!”

“It’s fine. Grandpa’s fine, it’s just the machine. The nurse’ll fix the beeping. Don’t worry.”

“I’m sorry, grandpa.”

“I said it’s fine.”

“I’m sorry you don’t feel good and don’t look good.”

“It’s… look, stop crying. Come here. Come here. It’ll… look here. It’ll be alright. Where… don’t cry, be a big boy. Where I’m going, they’ve got slides everywhere. Honest. And there’s burgers on the grill, too. Big juicy ones. Refraction all the damn time. And you can slide and eat whenever you want to.”

“Why are you sick?”

“Cause that’s what happens sometimes to us old folks who’ve overstayed our welcome. We’ve gotta go some time. Like when I’d have you over in the summers. You couldn’t have stayed with me forever, huh?”

“But I wanted to.”

“Come here. Come here. It’s okay. It’ll be okay. I’ll just be away for a while is all. That’s all.”

“Can I come with?”

“Not yet. Not for a very long time. You promise me that.”

“But–”

“Promise me.”

“Promise.”

“Good. And I promise you something too.”

“What?”

“Any time you need me I’ll be there. Right here.”

“In my heart?”

“In your heart.”

“How?”

“It’s a long story. I’d bore you to tears. And it seems like magic, but it’s not. Just like refraction. Just like the birds in the sky. Like the men that landed on the moon. It’s real.”

“Oh.”

“I mean it. Like that time… you remember the time I showed you the men who landed on the moon?”

“Mmhmm.”

“And their space shuttle lifted off, and soared through the sky, and into space?”

“Yeah.”

“Well that shuttle had to come back some time. It had to make splashdown, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, that’s me. I’m lifting off and soaring through the sky and off into space. And I’ll be gone for a while, and it’ll be sad, but I’ll be back. And when I see you again, you know what I’ll say?”

“What?”

“Splashdown!”

“Splashdown.”

“Hmm hmm.”

“Grandpa?”

“Hmm?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

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THE EXAMINED LIFE

The man was simply born without the ability to conceptualize death. Period. The whole thing was chalked up to childhood ignorance at first, mental capacities, that sort of thing. But bring up the subject and you’d see for yourself. He’d give that same blank stare that was his norm, smile and just nod. Oh, you could try explaining. Many have. But it wouldn’t really get you anywhere. You could sit this guy down for like an hour, tell him that he was going to die as was everyone and everything he’s ever known, you could say that he would no longer exist one day, not even in the minds of others… Hell, you could kill a person right in front of him and all he’d likely do is smile and ask you why they stopped moving.

He was a freaking scientific anomaly. The tests were inconclusive, but what could you expect? We know far less than we like to believe, even in these matters. The big test was his parents. They aged, and he got that well enough, but the cut-off between life and death was where his brain just froze up, like some loading screen stuck at ninety-nine percent. Even at their funerals he wound up consoling everyone else, wondering all the while what they were all so darn upset about.

He had no ambitions really. Why would he need them? He didn’t know he was going to die some day, so he in turn had no urgent desire to accomplish anything before said death. He liked reading and so he did a lot of it. That was that. He was a daredevil without ever really trying. He’d cross streets at red lights, cars missing him by inches most of the time. He once leapt off his house’s roof just to see what it would feel like. It wasn’t like he couldn’t feel pain. That wasn’t it at all. If anything, he was hyper sensitive to it in general. And he wasn’t suicidal either. How could he be? He didn’t even know he could kill himself, let alone die at all for that matter.

It didn’t even change when he got the diagnosis. His chest had really hurt something awful, and he was coughing up blood. He went to the hospital more because the whole thing was unpleasant and frankly kind of distracting. Inoperable lung cancer. Terminal. Those words could have been exchanged with, “How do you do?” and you would’ve gotten the same response from him. He had six months at most, the doctor bearing all of the somberness for him as he told him the news.

And so the man went home and kept reading the book he’d been wrapped up in before the appointment. The next day he went to work, engaged with his coworkers and friends, and just generally lived his life. Six months came. And then a year. Then two. Five. Ten. The man still coughed up blood from time to time, but his existence wasn’t dramatically impeded. He just kept on living.

Years went by. The man withered and aged, but he just saw it as a natural progression. What needed to happen as far as he was concerned. His hair grayed, receded, fell out. His skin sagged, hung down like wet paper. Before you knew it, he was ninety-seven years old. And on a particularly warm summer evening he tucked in for the night, content with the great book he’d just finished reading. He dozed off, peaceful as can be. And then…

He woke up the next morning. What did you expect me to say? That he died? Because he didn’t. Not then, and not ever. He didn’t know that he could die, the thought never struck him, and so he just didn’t. For decades, centuries, millennia… People and civilizations rose and fell before him and still he lived on, just reading his books. Minding his own business. And so he will for all eternity.

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MORTAL COIL

CRACK.

Was it a branch this time? One last holdout felled from the burnt-out husks of the saplings that encircled the area? He was foggy, and he couldn’t remember anything. What did he need to remember? His brain was on fire with the effort of recall.

The ropes dug into his wrists. He couldn’t see their purple hue with them behind his back, but he figured as much from the tight, blinding pain. His hands were swollen to double their size. But what did he need to remember?

He looked out over the field, and it was madness. There were great shrieks coupled with the staccato of merciless laughter. There were men’s bodies beaten and bruised beyond repair, and the agents that did it, in their black uniforms. He could remember.

He looked away from the bodies of the men, repulsed. His eyes trailed the shimmering deep red of the water in front of him. It was a pool of some kind, made filthy with the blood of the men who were dumped there. It was a stinging smell, but it didn’t come all at once. It waited for the view to be taken in in its entirety. There was death here. There was destruction.

The water led to the statue. Bold in its design, it left the witness paralyzed with the fear of what it represented. A stone arm stretching high into the heavens. To dizzying, impossible heights. And at the top, a clenched fist. It could be that of God himself. But God wouldn’t support this. No, he couldn’t believe that a creator would ever support this.

But whatever Joshua thought next, he… Wait. Joshua. That was his name. His head was on fire and his wrists burned their own bitter melody, but he knew his name. Was that what he needed to remember? No, there was something else. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he did. The black shirts were making their rounds, he wouldn’t have time.

Out beyond the burnt-out sapling husks, beyond the pool of red and the clenched fist, there were the charred remains of the buildings that once stood. Now they were nothing more than hunks of stone and glass piled atop each other, but they were once assembled into magnificent shapes. In the old days, people used to live there. Not in the dirt and brambles, like they did now.

There was something else. Something about the buildings. What was it? Its shape came to him in waves, his brain on fire with the effort. There was one among them that stood. One building that the black shirts overlooked in their rise to power. It was surrounded by the trees before they were burned down, by the water before it was turned red with the blood of other men. And she lived with him there.

Who was she? She was important, he knew that much was true. Why couldn’t he just remember it all? The black shirts were coming, and he wanted nothing more than to remember before they got to him. It would set him free. Free from their death squads, from their psy-ops tactics and misinformation. He could know things as they truly were.

The black shirts set up a smoldering fire right in front of the pool. They laughed mirthlessly as they tossed the ruined bodies into it. The smoke billowed up to the heavens, to the place where Joshua thought God might be. But not God as the black shirts thought of him, as the state and as absolute power. Not the concept he defied, the reason he was tied here in front of this tree in the first place.

He thought of a cool wind on a warm summer’s day, with his lady beside him in the last building standing. Her name… Mary. That was it. It was Mary and he knew that. He knew it with as much certainty as the blinding pain in his wrists, the searing of his mind deep in thought.

There they stood in the building, as if it was yesterday. He remembered the steam against the window, how Mary spelled her name upon the glass. He remembered her flowing hair, how it smelled as it brushed against his cheek. He remembered the slam of the door as it gave way. The pounding of boots as the black shirts forced their way inside. How they made him watch her die, even after he shut his eyes and struck out at them.

And then he remembered what she told him. That nothing could keep them apart, not even this mortal coil. She told him of the stories from long ago, how even the black shirts would fade from memory in time. That they’d have their place in paradise, in this life or the next.

Joshua’s eyes filled to the brim with stinging tears. He remembered. He knew what he needed to know. The black shirts were approaching. And as they did, something else came to Joshua. That fist wasn’t always there. In the old days, before the black shirts carved it, it stood for courage, and honor, and sacrifice. It was a monument to a man. A man named Washington.

The black shirts approached, they grabbed at Joshua forcefully. But even so, he felt nothing.

CRACK.

Off in the distance, a gunshot left one of the other men motionless. And then it came to Joshua. His one last memory. He remembered that first CRACK, what it really was. It wasn’t a branch from the husk of a tree. It was a bullet plunging into his own brain. He remembered this as the blood dripped slowly from the wound over his right eye.

They tossed him into the fire with the rest, but the bullet prevented him from feeling any pain. Instead, he was wrapped up in the warm embrace of his Mary, ready to rejoin her in another time and another place.

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