Shadows

They buried Boneheart Cole Carrow in shallow grave on the battlefield where he fell. For long years afterword, people avoided that burnt and broken land with its memories of tragedy and strife. So, no one knew when the tree began to grow.

It was a jagged, twisting thing. The old men would spit on the ground when they passed the place and would warn their children and grandchildren to stay clear of Carrow’s tree. It was considered a sign from heaven when the tree was stuck by lightning during one late summer storm.

Only, the tree didn’t die. New branches rose from the charred stump like a clawed hand rising from the grave. Men declared the field cursed, and none would build or plow or even cross through that place. A wood grew up around the undead tree. Or, as some whispered, that one forsaken tree, glutted on blood, had spread like a weed until it had become a forest unto itself.

Generations later, the battle has been forgotten, as has Boneheart himself. But the trees still stand. The folk of that region know to avoid Carrow Wood. Old twisted branches claw toward the sky and cast long, dark shadows.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Oblivion

I feel the pull of oblivion.

I’m about to die, and no one will ever know. It was a risk, they told us, but not one I ever took all that seriously. Instead, I had imagined celebrity. I had expected interviews about the courage it took to leave my planet and sail off into the unknown.

Stupid.

The crushing pressure of inevitability.

Half the reason I left was because I knew no one would miss me. Exploration! Adventure! The advancement of the human race! It sounded fantastic – like an opportunity to give my life meaning, instead of surrendering to the empty void that was open in front of me.

Ironic.

I’m falling, and I may never stop.

If it had been a supernova, then eventually earth would have found out. Centuries later, that annihilating light would have reached terrestrial eyes. They would have known my fate, if not the details. Even if it was a simple equipment malfunction, remains might have endured. But nothing escapes a black hole. No distress signals, no wreckage, not even light.

Inescapable.

What was it all for?

Wonder and awe. Light bends and swirls. Time stretches and breaks apart. Reality ripples. The universe consumes me.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Millennials

He smiled broadly as she approached. “Wasn’t sure you’d come.”

She shrugged, settling into her chair. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know, might be busy or have trouble finding the place or just … you know, not be interested.”

“I’ve never missed one of our appointments before, have I?” she said frankly.

“Appointments.” He chewed on the word, swallowed it reluctantly. “Well, how’s the last century been for you?”

A frown. “Perhaps you should be a little more discrete.”

“Huh? Oh, about the time thing?”

“You remember what happened in Byzantium…”

She was always cute when she was flustered. “Hah! How could I forget! But folks aren’t that superstitious these days. You tell one of these so-called ‘millennials’ that you’ve actually been alive for millennia, they’ll think it’s a pickup line.”

A flat stare. “Do you spend a lot of time trying to pick up young people?”

“I knew you were gonna go there.” Voice low, teeth clenched. “Atom bombs, lunar landings, global warming, the internet—all the miracles and catastrophes of the last century, and you want to talk about her?”

Slow, anguished words. “Perhaps we are both selfish and narrow-minded. Perhaps, despite the evidence, we are both still human.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Sloppy

“Sloppy,” the old man announced, shaking his head.

Mara’s brush hesitated, her brow furrowed. “Sloppy? I’ve hardly even begun.”

A flippant wave at the canvas. “And you paint as though how you begin does not matter.”

She examined her scant progress, suddenly hyper-aware of its imperfection “But I can just paint over all this anyway, can’t I?”

Thick white eyebrows arched in exaggerated shock. “You think you can cover over your inadequacies so easily? I teach artists, not house painters or politicians. Every brush stroke matters. To make a masterpiece, every drop of paint must serve the whole.”

The words stung, and they confirmed her own suspicions. “So, I’m just doomed then. Anything that’s not perfect from the start should just be thrown out, right?”

“No, no,” he began bellowing, then paused. With an artist’s eye, he observed her downward glance, closed posture, inward agony. “No, child,” he resumed more softly. “What I mean to say is that if you try to hide your mistakes, then the whole painting will revolve around them. You must move forward from the failing, acting because of what is before you, not because of what could have been. Only then can you achieve wholeness.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Table

A creak, a figure in the doorway. He lunged for the table, for his pack, for the gun inside, but found a rifle pointed in his face instead.

“What are you doing in my house?” the newcomer asked.
“I didn’t think . . .” he hesitated. He couldn’t claim the home seamed abandoned when he had been caught stealing as much unspoiled food as he could carry. “I was hungry,” he said instead.

“You’ve been fighting in the war?” the other man asked.

His uniform was disheviled and discolored, but still recognizable. “Yes, sir.”

“And where’s your battallion?”

No answer.

The man behind the rifle studied the intruder: young, shaking, ashamed. “I see.” He gestured to a chair on the opposite end of the table from the soldier’s pack. “Sit.” The soldier complied. “Hands on the table.” Keeping the rifle aimed, he circled the table and stepped into the kitchen. Ignoring the scattered foodstuffs, he instead withdrew a tall glass bottle from some corner and set it on the table.

A confused expression. “But . . . you know what I am.”

A shrug. “What? Lost? Stupid? Scared?” The rifle lowered as he produced two glasses. “What are you? Are you my guest? Or my enemy?”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Asphalt

Ten miles into the ride, he had entered a sort of trance. Thoughts had faded along with the early aches of his stiff muscles.
The rhythm of his pedals
The wind in his face
The asphalt beneath his tires
The breath in his lungs
Rising
Descending
Pushing
Turning
The sound of a car
A quick glance over his shoulder, then eyes ahead
A bird
Not even that close, and it had flown past in an instant, but that was all it took.
A swerve
A wheel dropped off the asphalt
The world flipped on its side
A crack
A horn
Screeching tires
A roaring engine
Wind
Asphalt
Breath
And finally, pain.
At first it was everywhere, but thought was quickly returning, and he was able to take stock.
Left calf
Right wrist
Both palms
Left shoulder
Chin
Head?
No, just the pounding of his pulse in his ears.
He was alive.
Eyes opened, and he saw. Swaying stalks of corn. A car quickly receding into the distance. A vast immensity of blue. His bike.
It was in better condition than he was, wheels and handlebars still straight, he just needed to fix the chain.
Home was only ten miles away.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Vitals

Carla had been watching the monitors, so she was already dashing toward her patient’s room when the code blue announcement came on overhead. Aurelio was coming from the opposite direction with the crash cart, but she was the first to reach the room. What she found was a panicked tech alongside a very awake and alert patient. What she couldn’t find however, and what none of the other doctors, nurses, or other clinicans could find were any vital signs. No pulse, no respiration, no blood pressure, and a temp slightly above room temperature.

“Is something wrong?” the elderly man would ask.

Carla would look to whichever practioner was fumbling to assess the patient, and when they avoided eye contact, she would answer, “Just some trouble with our equipment.”

He was still apparently fine the next day, though his appetite had vanished with his heartbeat. Security was posted outside the room to keep away the curious, leaving Carla even more uncertain what to tell the visitor who had shown up asking about him.

“Are you family?” Carla asked.

“Not quite,” the old woman answered. “He broke a promise, see? And he doesn’t get to die until I get what I’m owed.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Prophet

“What can we brew for you today?” Lizzie asked with a friendly smile.

“Behold!” the customer cried, “though bitterness pours out in a flood, the frothing tide of plenty shall yet uplift the soul.”

“Whole milk latte,” Lizzie replied, entering the order into the register. “Anything else?”

“Know ye, all are born to covet and crave; only they that surrender avarice shall find true joy in life’s gifts.”

An understanding nod. “That will be $3.84.”

Caleb was a regular who spent a few days each week prophesying on the opposite corner of the intersection. He held out a five dollar bill saying, “The hand that offers coin and the hand that receives, both are servants to the hunger of profit.”

“You really can’t turn it off, can you?”

“Nay . . . er, no.”

She shrugged, holding out his change. “Your drink will be ready shortly.”

Coins scattered across the counter. Caleb gripped Lizzie’s wrist tightly. Eyes unfocused, voice haggard, he spoke. “Love hearkens on invisible wings. Truth spoken plainly cuts with a razor’s edge. Truth hidden is a not mercy but slow poison. Answer.”

The counter vibrated. Caleb collapsed. Someone screamed. Lizzie stood petrified, staring at her phone. Her boyfriend was calling.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Line

“Oh,” Anya said, “I didn’t realize there would be a line.”

The older man in front of her glanced back at the new arrival. “A lot of people arriving all at once,” he explained.

“Right. I guess there would be.” The line shuffled forward. “You look familiar,” Anya said. “Have we met?”

“I doubt it,” he replied, still facing forward.

Anya shrugged, asking instead, “So, what did you do . . . you know, before?”

He sighed wearily, answering, “I worked in government.”

There’s a thankless job for you. I was a waitress, got no end of grief from customers, but at least there’s still a tip at the end.” A shadow fell over Anya’s expression. “I was working when it happened. I . . . think it was a bomb. You?”

“A bullet.” He winced as though he could still feel it. “In the back.”

“It’s all just madness, isn’t it? You have to wonder if the people responsible for all this really believe it’s worth it.”

A somber silence. “Maybe they did,” he finally replied. “But once they’re here, about to be judged . . . how could they?”

That’s when Anya recognized him. “You’re . . . You . . .”

“Yes,” came a voice like the grave, “I started the war.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Guitar

Deb had left work early and come home to an unnervingly empty house. Fortunately, the discordant notes trickling down from the attic let her know where to find her husband. She pulled down the stairs, braced herself, ascended.

“Hey Springsteen!”

Startled, Paul looked up from his guitar, then smiled widely. “You’re home!” Deb pulled up a milk crate beside the dusty trunk he was sitting on; they kissed. “Listen to this,” Paul said, giving a strum. “Can you believe how sweet this baby sounds, even after all this time?”

“You’ve always taken good care of it.” He strummed a couple more times, then began very carefully but clumsily shifting between chords. “How long have you been at it up here?”

“A couple hours,” he said, focused intently on his fingers, “ever since I got home from the appointment. I tell ya, honey, this is it. This time I’m finally going to master this thing.”

Deb let him continue until a grating jangle of notes broke his concentration. “Paul,” she said softly, “how bad is it?”

His chin quivered. “I always struggled with that ‘A’ chord. My fat fingers . . .”

“Paul?”

“It has to be this time,” he said. “My last chance.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox