Addiction

Beth looked at the stranger across from her.  Broad shoulders draped in an overcoat.  Hat covering his short hair (or perhaps mostly bald head?).  His age was impossible to determine looking at him.  He might have been in his forties or his sixties.  The way he looked, something about it, reminded her of…  someone?  She couldn’t place him.  What had he said his name was?  Thomas?

The man was talking about someone else, someone she also didn’t know. But someone he was trying to warn her about.  “I don’t know how to explain this to you, but let me try an analogy.  You probably like to drink alcohol.  Or maybe you like sex.  But you don’t understand the alcoholic’s craving or the nymphomaniac’s desire.”

Beth had no idea where he going with this.  Addiction?  To blood?  Was he trying to tell her that vampires were real?  Maybe her first instinct, that he was just a crazy person, was right after all.

Thomas continued before she could leave.  “Well, he’s addicted to life.  Everyday he’s alive is another day off the wagon.  There’s no twelve-step recovery program for life.  And every moment leaves you wanting more.  The only cure for this addiction is death.  The advantage is, you don’t have any relapses.”

“So what?  Nobody wants to die.  I mean, sure, some people commit suicide, and there are people with death wishes.  But everybody else wants to live, too.  What makes him so special?”  Beth was at the end of her patience with this.

“No.  You’re right that most people like living.  But that’s like you liking alcohol or sex.  Most people don’t think about living all the time.  Sure, they might worry about death from time to time.  Maybe when they’ve had a close call, or someone close to them dies.  But I’m talking obsession here.  He is constantly thinking about life, his life, and how to prolong it.  It consumes him.  And it’s that obsession that sustains him.  It has sustained him for a very long time.”

“How… how long?”

“At least several hundred years.  And he is a dangerous man.”

Driving Home

His mother heard him yawn in the backseat.  She turned around to check on him.  Out in the country, there weren’t any street lights, but she could just make out his face.

“You tired, honey?”

He yawned again.  “A little.”

“Did you have fun at grandma’s today?”

A sleepy smiled formed on his mouth.  “Yep.”

“Why don’t you sleep while we drive home?”

“Okay.”

He stared out the window.  It was too early in the season for snow, but the car was still too chilly to sleep.  Also, the sky was full of stars.  Outside of the city, there were so many more to see.  He recognized a few constellations from his books.  He tried to remember how to tell the time from the position of the big dipper.  It had something to do with where it was around the North Star, but he could never keep it all straight.

There were no other cars on the two lane road, so the only lights besides the stars and the dashboard were the flashing red lights on towers in the middle of farm fields.  Whatever the towers were there for, the lights seemed to say they were working.  But there was no obvious explanation.

Finally, he asked.  “Mom, what are those red lights for?”

“What red lights?”

“Those ones, on the tower over there.”

“That’s so airplanes don’t fly into the towers.”

“Oh.”  She had answered his question, and it made some sense, but something still didn’t seem right.  However, the car had warmed up, and sleep seemed more and more irresistible.  The last thought before he drifted off was why had they bothered putting towers up just to support lights to keep airplanes from flying into the towers?  It seemed simpler to just not put up the towers.  By then, sleep had taken hold.

Boxcars In The Woods

Sam and Pete had been friends forever, though that’s not a very long time when you’re only twelve.  Saturdays were always spent walking through the woods, and today was no exception.  Still, they had never wandered quite this far in, so coming upon a small clearing was a new discovery.  It was only a few paces across, and at the far side, there was a train car.

Actually, there were several train cars, but only one was in the clearing itself.  Other cars were attached at either end stretching off into the woods in both directions.  They weren’t tanker cars, nor cars for livestock, just standard boxcars.

Sam spoke first.  “I didn’t know tracks ran through these woods.”

“Me either,” Pete replied.  “Should we leave?”

“Nah.  Let’s check ’em out.”

With Pete in tow, Sam moved closer.  Weeds had grown up around the tracks and wheels, which were coated in rust.  They tugged at the door on the side of the car, but either a lock or more rust held it firmly in place.

“Well, that didn’t work,” Sam said as he slumped to the ground.  “Why are these even here?”

Pete sat down next to him.  “I don’t know.  Maybe the government is hiding something in them.”

“Like what?”  Sam was very interested.  Pete usually knew stuff, even if he wasn’t always as eager for adventure.

“Hmm.  Maybe bombs?  I saw a show once where they had this missile ready to fire at a moment’s notice.  They kept moving it on trucks so that enemies couldn’t find it.”

“Really?  But what good is having stuff like that out here?”

“Yeah.  You’re probably right.  They wouldn’t put a bomb on a train and just leave it somewhere.  The point in the show was to keep it moving.”

“So what else could it be?”

Pete thought for a few moments, then it came to him.  “Well, there’s boring stuff like files or something, but there’d be no reason to leave them out here.  But if it had to do with aliens, they might want to keep it hidden.  Maybe it’s a wreckage of a crashed UFO.”

“Really?!  That’s so cool!”

“Well, we can’t know for sure unless we get inside.  But we can’t get the door open, so I guess we won’t find out.”

Sam smiled.  “I’ve been thinking.  There are ladders at the ends of the car.  I could use them to get up on top and see if there’s a way in up there.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.  What if you fall?”

“I won’t fall.  C’mon.  It doesn’t hurt to at least check.  Don’t you want to know?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  Let me go up there, and I’ll tell you what I see.  If there’s a way in, you come up.  Got it?”

“Sure.”

Sam stood and walked over to the nearest ladder and began to climb.  Pete followed and watched his friend from the ground.  Just as Sam was about to reach the top, the car lurched  He grabbed on tightly to the rung as he feet slid off.  It took him a few seconds to find his footing again.

“What are you kids doing here?”

Pete turned around to see a large man walking out of the woods parallel to the tracks.  He was dressed in jeans and a plain, black jacket.  But Pete’s eyes were immediately locked on the rifle slung over his shoulder.

“Uh…  We were just curious about…”

“Did you go inside?”

Sam landed next to Pete.  “No, sir.  We couldn’t move the door.  But just now, the car moved.  I think there is something in there.”

The man laughed, but his eyes stayed dark.  “No, there isn’t.  The engine was just hooking up.  Now get out of here.  Don’t get any silly ideas about it.  Okay?”

Sam nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

Pete looked like he was about to say something, but Sam grabbed his arm and pulled him back into the woods the way they had come.  After they had gone quite a ways, Sam stopped and turned back to him.  “Now, what were you going to say?”

Pete rubbed his arm where Sam had grabbed him.  “I was just going to point out that the car you were on moved first.  It jostled the other cars.  If an engine had hooked up, the cars would have moved in sequence.  The motion wouldn’t have started in the middle like that.  What do you think it was?”

“I don’t know.  But let’s get out of here.  And maybe,” Sam thought about the man who had warned them away, “maybe we shouldn’t tell anybody about this.  At least not right now.”

“If you say so.”

The boys finished the journey home in silence.

Wholeness

Perhaps survival is my punishment.  When I set out to destroy Cepheus and his Terrgat, I expected to die as well.  Somehow, I was spared.  And now I must live with the fact that I devastated an entire city, an entire corner of the world.

The rune Sowelu, wholeness, stares up at me from my casting.  I had to face what I had done.  Own it as part of myself.  Only then could I be reconciled with myself.  Only then could I be whole.  But how to do that?

Everyone seemed to know that a mage – or, on some tellings, dozens of mages – had wreaked such terrible destruction.  I even heard my name whispered now and again.  Rather than save my comrades, I have confirmed all the suspicions planted by the king and his soldiers.  Mages were hated, and the Terrgat had the support of the people, more than ever.  They should have been finished, but those away from the capital now had the people’s sympathies.

All of this because of me.  And that accounting does not include the loss of life that I brought about with the ritual.  Was it grief that drove me?  Or vengeance?  Or maybe merely an overconfidence in my own ability to control and predict the forces I unleashed?

The temptation to wallow in my failure, even to swear off using magic ever again is great.  Though it would undo nothing, my conscience might be eased by such an empty gesture.  Sowelu warns against that course, however.

I am a mage.  Denying magic would mean denying part of myself.  Preventing wholeness.  Magic is but a tool, and one I have used carelessly.  But giving up the tool solves nothing.  Being more thoughtful on how the tool is used is what is called for here.

I cannot save this world from itself.  I know that now.  But I am not helpless, and my survival has made it clear that I am not done here.  I may need to learn how to live with myself, but I gain nothing from denying who I am.  I am a mage.  Now I need to find out what that might mean in this new situation I have brought about.

Who Doesn’t Love R.E.M.?

“You better not have forgotten the pizza or the beer.”

He smiled as she opened the door.  In one hand was a pizza box, and in the other a case of beer.  “Of course I wouldn’t forget.  Wouldn’t want to ruin our last night together.”

As he walked through the door past her, she said, “I guess that’s one way to think of it.”  She led him to the living room, where the television was already on.

“Has it started yet?”

She shook her head.  “No.  Soon, though.”

As if on cue, the program on the screen was interrupted by a special news bulletin.  The newsman looked shaken.  “An earthquake has hit the Pacific Northwest.  Scientists say that it is at least a magnitude 9 on the Richter scale.  Already reports of widespread destruction and casualties are coming in.  A tsunami is expected to hit the area in the next ten to fifteen minutes.  Please get to higher ground if you are in the affected region.”

“Well, I guess it has now.  Give me a beer.”

He handed her a bottle.  “Are you sure there is nothing we could have done?”

She took a long pull before answering.  “Like what?  Stopped tectonic plates?  Prevented volcanoes from erupting?”

“No, of course not.  But couldn’t we have warned people?”

“We’ve already been over this.  No one would have believed me.  And it’s not like there is some safe place to go.”

“I suppose not.  It just feels… I don’t know… morbid?… just sitting here watching it all fall apart.”

“Yeah.  I guess you’re right.  Besides, the broadcasts won’t last too much longer.  Might as well turn it off.  Eat our pizza.  Enjoy each other’s company while we still can.”

They spent several peaceful minutes in silence, following her advice.

Finally, he spoke again.  “I haven’t asked, but how long…?”

“…until we die?  We’ve got time.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, storms, and floods.  It takes a while for a planet to wipe itself clean.  It can’t happen all at once. We have until midmorning tomorrow.”

They fell silent once more, and she leaned on his shoulder.  She could feel his tension, which should have bothered her, but it just made her love him more.  She didn’t regret her lie; he deserved a little peace before the end.  He had already done so much for her.  Maybe she shouldn’t have told him about her visions, but she had needed someone to talk to.  He had gotten her through the worst of it.  And in just a couple of hours, it would be all over.

“Come on,” she said, tugging at his sleeve.  “If this is it, I want to be in your arms in bed when it happens.  Not everybody gets to spend their last hours with the person they love the most.”

He nodded and followed her into the bedroom.  When the earth did get around to them, there was no place else to be.