The leaves of the soul-tree dance above as he turns another page. The afternoon sun warms him, almost too much—the tree has yet to grow large enough to provide more than a few hours of shade a day, and even then only if he lies in just the right spot.

His step-father casts a bigger shadow than the tree, and that shadow approaches, covering Aiken in its darkness.

“Reading?” says Tarin, crossing his arms against a barrel-shaped chest. Dirt stains his clothes and sweat drips from his brow. “You’ve always got a damned book in your hand. Ain’t you got chores to do?”

“I thought reading was a good thing,” says Aiken, though already he wishes he hadn’t said a word. He smells a hint of alcohol on the breeze, and he knows—he fears—what that means.

Tarin bends closer to the boy. The smell of whiskey assaults Aiken’s nose, the shadow darkens around him.

“Reading don’t put beans on the table,” says Tarin.

A callused and unforgiving hand slaps across Aiken’s face to hammer the lesson home.

Aiken wipes his mouth on his sleeve, slapped-out spit soaking into the linen with sprinkles of blood whose stains will serve as a remembrance of the lesson for years to come.

“Now,” Tarin says, “ain’t you got chores to do?”

Aiken closes his book and stands, a hand against the tree for support. He nods at his step-father, afraid what any more words would bring, but even silence is the wrong answer.

“Guess reading don’t teach respect, either.” Tarin stretches out the fingers on his slapping hand, still red from the last assault. “I asked you a question, boy.”

“Yes, sir.” says Aiken. He stares at the pain-hungry fingers.

“Look me in the eyes when you talk to me.”

Aiken follows his command. “Yes, sir,” he repeats.

He notices the emptiness in Tarin’s eyes. No emotion, not even a hint of anger or hate. His soul might as well be buried at the tree, too. There’s nothing left of it inside him.

Aiken walks on to his chores and tries to remember if things had always been this way, tries to find sympathy for a man who lost his wife and was at least good enough to raise a child that wasn’t his. He rubs his sore jaw, and gives up trying.

Tarin breathes behind him like a bull. The sound fades as he walks on.

Then he remembers: it has always been this way.


Aiken wakes the next morning before the sun, before the birds, in an hour so early it could still be called night.

He leaps from bed and thrusts his mother’s book into the back pocket of his jeans (he slept in his clothes to get to work faster). He’s hard at work before the door can slam behind him with a thunder-clap that could wake the spirits in the early morning silence.

Aiken finishes his last chore just as the sun begins to stretch its rays above distant hills, waking the rest of the world. There. Done. Now maybe he’ll let me read.

Free of the demands of his world, Aiken hugs the tree. He reaches his arms all the way around, imagining his mother’s embrace. Then he takes his customary place in the grass, back against its trunk, book in hand. The rough bark scratches his back through his thin linen shirt just like his mother once did. An echo on the breeze, he hears the door slam again.

Tarin stumbles along the front walk, hungover, or still drunk, or maybe a mix of both. Aiken knows the squinting eyes of his step-father are seeking him out, and it doesn’t take long for the man’s whiskey-drowned brain to think to look at the tree. Tarin forces an off-balance, but determined step toward the tree. Aiken tries to disappear into the pages of his book.

A cloud of dust assaults Aiken’s face, dragged up from the foot-worn path to the tree by Tarin’s drunken stumble. Aiken coughs. Tarin growls.

“What the hell did I say about all this damned reading?” Tarin raises a fist. “Wasn’t I clear enough yesterday?”

“My chores are finished.” He pauses, then remembers to slip in the obligatory, “sir.”

“Chores done?” Tarin slurs his words, seems to struggle to even get them out of his mouth.

“Yes, sir. I didn’t think you’d mind me taking a break with all my work done.”

Tarin surveys the farm, no doubt looking for evidence of a job half-done. Aiken remains confident he will find nothing.

Tarin lets out a snort that reminds Aiken of a warthog. “Maybe you need more chores, then, since you seem to be so damn fast.”

“I did the work, Tarin, did everything you had on my list. Just let me read. Please just leave me alone.”

Tarin twists his face, looking like an ogre trying to think of something intelligent to say, or trying to think at all really.

“It’s time to let go,” he finally forces out, and Aiken is almost fooled by the false compassion in the ogreish voice until he notices Tarin’s eyes. He’s staring right at the book.

“Not that, Tarin.” Aiken pushes himself to his feet and pulls the book tight against his chest. He leans back against the tree as if he can gain sanctuary, if only he can squeeze into the trunk itself. “I’ll do more chores. I’ll do all the chores. Just don’t take her book from me.”

Tarin holds out an open hand, his slapping hand.

“Your mother’s gone, boy. Dead. It’s about damn time you man up and move on.”

Aiken tries to ignore the demanding hand.

Tarin won’t let him.

Tarin swipes at the book but Aiken pulls away. Tarin swings at the boy’s face, a fist this time, and Aiken drops to the ground, the book falling inches from his fingertips.

He stretches out for the book but the heavy boot of Tarin crushes down on book and fingers alike. Aiken cries out like a wounded pup.

The boy tries to pull together enough strength to fight back, but his second lunge is as weak as the first. Tarin peels his boot away from the smashed fingers, his boot-print lingering in the boy’s gentle skin.

Aiken reaches out his arm, body still sprawled on the dirt path, mouth bleeding, eyes drowning in tears he refuses to let fall.

Tarin stares at him with a dull, but rock hard expression. “This is for your own good, boy.”

He engulfs the book in his giant, ogreish hand and walks away, stumbling now only slightly, and leaving a trail of dust and dead grass in his wake.

Aiken weeps. He crawls through the dirt, blood dripping from his nose and mouth, leaving dark blisters of mud along the path.

He reaches the welcoming blades of grass encircling the tree and curls up in a few water-seeking surface roots. The roots embrace him as a mother holds her newborn child. They soak up his tears.

“I’m sorry,” he says, wiping blood, spit, dirt and tears into an ugly stain on his sleeve.

A warm breeze whispers to him through rustling leaves and he feels somehow comforted. He sleeps in the tree’s embrace.


Summer yields to fall. Aiken finishes his chores, stays out of trouble, and avoids the tree for fear of bringing any more attention to the only thing he still has to love. When the anniversary arrives, though, he can’t stay away.

Aiken drifts his soft fingers along the rough bark of the tree. He sits, leans back against the trunk, and out of habit, tries to open a book that he no longer has. He pulls his legs to his chest, buries his face in his knees, and cries.

The whisper of the leaves consoles him.

For a moment.

Tarin’s voice tears through the breeze like a knife through silk.

“Men don’t cry,” he says. “Time to grow up, boy.”

“Just leave me alone.” Aiken doesn’t even raise his head. “Today of all days, just leave me alone.”

“What have I said about looking at me when you speak, boy? You need to learn some damn respect if I have to beat it into you.”

Tarin kicks him in the leg. Aiken feels the ache and burn burst through his thigh.

“Get up, boy. I’m gonna teach you respect once and for all.”

Aiken stumbles to his feet, if only to try and lessen the coming assault. The thick, dark bottle sways in Tarin’s hand, the last remaining swallow splashing within.

Aiken ducks just fast enough for the bottle to shatter against the tree instead of his face. He looks back.

The splatter of dark red beer drips along the trunk, seeps into glass-cut bark. He remembers his mother the night she died, battered and bloodied as she lie in bed unconscious. “A bad fall,” he had said at the time.

Somewhere in his soul, Aiken knows it was a lie, has always known, and after ten years of simmering, the truth is bubbling over.

Aiken turns to the ogre of a man. A moment of fear distorts his ogreish face before it returns to its usual hard yet slack-jawed expression.

“You killed her,” Aiken says, hands clenching at his sides. “Gods damn you. You killed her.”

His face is a mess of rage and tears as he springs at Tarin, fists flailing like bluegills dying on the river bank.

Years of abuse, all the anger and hate rained down on him since his mother died, all the pain she must have endured to protect him while she was alive—it all comes flooding into his brain. The dam of innocence, or maybe denial, shatters into a thousand pieces. Tarin beat her, and that night, he beat her to death. It all comes together, snaps in his head like a shotgun.

Aiken lands a punch into the alcohol-infused fat of Tarin’s gut. His fist sinks in like he’s hitting a marshmallow. He isn’t even sure Tarin can feel it.

He swings another wild fist, at Tarin’s jaw this time, but the man catches his arm with reflexes that belie appearances, preventing the blow from hitting its target. Tarin twists the boy’s arm back until Aiken is sure it will snap.

“I’d break your damn arm if it wouldn’t just mean more chores left undone.” Tarin turns the boy and smashes his face against the tree, its bark sticky with beer. “Now, I told you what happened the night she died, and you’re better off just believing what I said than coming after me for what you think might’ve happened.”

“You did it, damn you.” The tree bark muffles Aiken’s voice. “I can see the pain in her tree.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Tarin says, a slight chuckle quivering on his voice. “You see it in the tree?”

“You’re damn right I do. It’s her soul-tree, it’s connected to her, and she is showing me the truth.”

Tarin pushes the boy harder against the tree. “What’s she feeling now, huh? I’ll tell you what. Fear.”

Tarin laughs. He pulls on Aiken and drags him up the path.

“You and your tree,” he says. “I never should have planted that damn thing for you. Some stupid tradition of your mother’s. And what do I get for honoring her beliefs? A damn ingrate of a step-son. Well, I’m done with it.” He glances back over his shoulder, looking at the tree as he stumbles forward. “I should just cut the damn thing down. Maybe then you could move on.”

Aiken unleashes a shriek that could scare Death herself.

“You can’t cut it down. Her soul would wander for eternity without a place to rest.”

Adrenaline bursts through his body and Aiken renews his struggle. Even at his best, though, he isn’t strong enough to take on Tarin.

“And what are you going to do to stop me?” Tarin pushes the boy into the dirt. “You’re as weak as she was.”

Aiken jumps to attack, only to be caught again, arm twisted behind his back, tears trying to force their way to his eyes. Rage burns through him, its pain magnified through a lens of helplessness.


Tarin shoves the boy into his room. Aiken stumbles to the floor, weak from fighting the whole way back like an outlaw dragged to the noose.

Tarin doesn’t say a word, just slams the door as he leaves.

Aiken crawls to his bed and buries his face in his thin feather pillow. Tarin’s footsteps return moments later and Aiken’s body tenses, but the door never opens.

Aiken hears shifting wood. He hears nails being driven, shaking the walls as if the harder he hit, the stronger they’d hold.

Aiken’s room darkens as the sun gives up for the day. Aiken doesn’t really notice the change. His face still buried in the pillow, he wishes it were his soul in the tree.


Sometime in the night, after dinner Aiken guesses, though his hunger pangs remind him he hasn’t eaten, Aiken hears footsteps just outside his window. He pushes himself out of bed. The window pane feels cold against his swollen face.

He looks into the darkness, trying to see what Tarin is planning next. Light flickers from the lantern swaying in the man’s left hand. Aiken thinks he can see the gleam of metal in the other hand, but it’s hard to make out in the extra darkness of Tarin’s barrel-shaped shadow.

Aiken tries to push open the window, to see better, but it’s nailed shut, too. He doesn’t know when it happened, but he’s damned sure who did it. Gods damn it. All these years. What a damn idiot I’ve been to trust him.

Aiken breathes against the window and wipes the condensation away with one of the few spots on his sleeve that isn’t crusted with blood. He opens his eyes wider, then squints, trying to understand what Tarin is up to in the darkness.

Tarin reaches the path to the field, the path to the tree, and there, with the added light of the lamp post, Aiken sees it.

The axe hangs from Tarin’s hand, its sharpened edge sparkling in the dim lamplight with enough shine to burn into Aiken’s eyes like the sun.

The axe.

Aiken feels the chill of the metal, feels the cut of the blade. He runs to the door, right into it, shoulder first, hoping to knock it down like a hero. His heroism gets him nothing but hurt.

He kicks the door, tries to put his foot right through. He tries punching a hole in it, aiming for what looks like a weak spot in the wood. It isn’t.

Aiken does more damage to himself than the door.

An image flashes in his mind of Tarin taking a few warm-up swings as he walks down the path.

Aiken grabs a chair and swings it at the window. Glass shatters. He tries squeezing through the wooden framework, slices himself on the window’s jagged remains, but can’t fit through the small gap.

Tarin mumbles something in the distance. He’s at the tree.

Aiken scans the room, looks for anything that can help him, for anything that can give him hope.

Then he hears it.

The thunder clap, the haunting, echoing sound of the first chop of the axe vibrates through his bones, rattling his teeth. The second chop roars through the sky and pierces his soul like lightning.

He falls to his knees, hammering at the door with fists as broken and beaten as his heart. He cries, pleads to Tarin, too far away to hear. He begs the gods for mercy.

Aiken hears the slow, stretched out crack of a tree tearing in two. He hears the maniacal screams of Tarin. And then he hears nothing.

Silence conquers the world.

In that silence, in his pain and exhaustion, Aiken collapses at the base of the door and passes out.


Sunlight warms his broken body. A bird sings just outside his window, as if to ease his suffering.

Aiken opens his eyes. They burn from so many lost tears. He reaches an aching, swollen hand to the door knob, turns, pushes.


His prison remains.

He gathers strength and calls out to Tarin in a hoarse, breaking voice.

No response.

He tries again, managing a stronger yell, closer to a scream. The hated sound of Tarin’s name on his lips stings their chapped flesh. His voice echoes through the room.

Still no response.

He needs to see for himself.

His body hurts but his willpower is renewed.

Aiken breaks a splintered strip of wood from the chair and pries at the door.

The chair piece snaps, but not before moving the door just a hair, an inch at most, but it’s something, and it inspires him. It gives him hope.

He pulls off another piece, thicker this time, and crams it into the slowly-widening gap between door and frame.

Aiken pulls on the chair piece, levering it against the prison door. Nails squeal as they pull from the wood, the sound of freedom.

He pulls harder, closes his eyes, yells, curses the world, and puts everything he has into breaking out of his bedroom prison cell.

The wood snaps. He loses his grip with a jerk, and falls back onto the floor.

He’s almost too afraid to open his eyes.


The door hangs open.


Aiken expects the charging footsteps of Tarin.

He hears nothing.

He creeps through the doorway, wary of his unseen enemy, and makes his way to the front door.

Nothing moves outside, save the birds, and Aiken feels bolder in his solitude. The cows remain in the barn, a sure sign Tarin hasn’t yet begun his chores.

Still too hungover, I bet. Must’ve celebrated too much after killing her soul.

Aiken’s first step hits the path in a burst of dust. He breaks into a sprint fueled by a mix of fear and hatred. In the distance the tree comes into view.

A mirage.

Or a miracle.

Aiken falls against the rough bark, squeezing his eyes shut to hold in the dream. He hugs the tree, stretching around the trunk to lock his hands as he always does, but can no longer reach all the way.

He opens his eyes, surprised, and sees it, real, right in front of him. It lives. It survived the dark night of Tarin.

Through tearing eyes, tears of joy this time, Aiken takes in the sight of the now-great oak. The tree spreads out above him, tall and proud, with strong boughs and a thousand verdant leaves. The barrel-sized trunk carries a deep scar in its side, but remains as solid and sturdy as stone.

Tarin calls out, his voice muffled, sounding a world away. Aiken ignores the sound. He places his hand on the tree trunk and thinks of his mother, always his protector. Even now. He laughs, and it’s the truest, most honest laugh he’s had since she died.

He slides a hand down the trunk, letting his fingers bump across the scar. He curls up in the cradling roots and feels the mother-like scratch of the bark on his back. He feels the comfort of whispering leaves that no longer struggle to protect him from the hot sun overhead.

Aiken remembers his mother, distant memories of childhood, and decides to take a nap, perhaps to dream of her. They were better days, those days lost to memory, and in the whispering breeze, he knows better days will come again.

Aiken lies next to the tree and begins to drift away to sleep, though he hopes to not nap too long. He still has to find her book. And there are chores to do of course, twice as many as before.

Herman pushes through the crowd of spirits, seeking out his target so he can get the message, get out of the Light, and pay his rent on time. It’s not going to be an easy day on the job.

"The hand of God is coming."

The spirit shouts at him. A woman, but not the one he needs to find. She stands so close he can feel her breath on his face, or he could if she still breathed. She’s wearing a robe of pure white, the same as the other spirits of the Light, and appeared in front of him from out of nowhere (which was almost as common as the robe).

None of this strikes Herman as unusual. He’s been a messenger for years and feels like he’s seen it all. The shouting is new, though. The dead are generally more peaceful.

"I'm sorry lady," He says. "I can't help you. I’ve got to get a message back to the living and my sixty is almost up."

Herman attempts a quick juke around the spirit.

She counters with a quicker disappear-reappear trick, putting herself right back in his face.

Herman glances at his wrist. There’s no watch—it remains in the lab, on the body he left behind in a state of controlled-death, a term coined by the mad men in marketing. Still, the habitual movement somehow helps him keep track of the minutes.

Fifty-five, he thinks, could be more. This bitch is killing my count.

"Look, lady. I don't have time for this. Put in a proper request if you want. I've already got a message to retrieve, and I'm damn near out of time."

The woman reaches for him.

"The hand," she starts to say.

Herman jerks away.

The spirit lunges.

Herman flinches back, and the pure, white light fades to black, and the blackness gives way to the flickering fluorescent light of the lab. Herman's body feels like a trash compactor; his spirit gets crushed back inside. He comes to, regains once more the pains of the living world, and feels the frustration of a failed mission.

"Shit." His mouth expels the word as soon as he opens his eyes.

"I take it you didn't get the message," says Chuck, the operator, looking down at him with bulging eyes that fight a thin mustache for the title of oddest feature of an odd face.

Rumor has it his eyes were normal once, until a bad reaction in his first cross-over nearly surprised his eyes right out of their sockets. He was reassigned to operator duty within an hour by the higher-ups.

"No-go, Chuck. I was close, but this damn woman kept getting in my way, shouting at me like those end-of-the-world crazies on the street corners."

"Don't worry about it. Your record is spotless. I'm sure the boss will let this one slide."

"Yeah, but I don't get paid for a failure. Send me back in. Fifteen minutes. I can finish the job."

"C'mon, man. You know I can't do that. That was your sixty for the day. Get your recovery time and come back tomorrow. I'll keep the coordinates locked so you can get right back in. I haven't seen any new requests and the night shift's been pretty dead lately."

Chuck pauses for a laugh, but Herman isn’t into puns.

"Lighten up a bit, man,” Chuck finally says. “Laughter is good for the soul, you know."

"Fine, fine." Herman pulls himself off the dispatch table. Chuck helps him to his feet.

"You good?" asks Chuck.

"How long we been working together, man? You know I'm fine." Herman pushes Chuck’s helping hands away.

Chuck raises them in surrender.

"Alright, alright. Guess I'll see you tomorrow, then."

Herman grabs his coat and walks back into the land of the living. The sun fades behind sky-reaching buildings draped in silhouettes that remind him of staggered tombstones. He walks beneath leafless trees, through the dead cold of winter.

Herman is used to being acutely aware of his pains and sufferings after a mission, but there was one thing he still can’t shake: that nagging, constant feeling that his body is always decomposing, always one second closer to death.


The spirit haunts Herman's dreams through the night, reaching for him, trying to touch him, grab him, pull him into the fires of Hell itself. He tries to scream, but has no voice, tries to run, but his feet don’t move. Looking down, he sees them stuck, sunk into a putrid, black mud that boils around him.

The spirit lunges at him. He closes his eyes, and opens them again to find himself shaking, cold, damp with sweat, but safe in his bed.

Herman pushes himself out of bed and out of the bedroom, away from sleep, away from his dreams.

His eyes flinch at the repulsive brightness of the telescreen as it sparks to life. An antique clock stands sentinel in the corner. Its hands jerk to eleven. The late news takes over the video feed.

"Religious fundamentalists proclaim the end of the world,” says the news anchor. She’s older than the youthful appearance she tries to pull off: hair clearly dyed, face so tight it’s devoid of emotion, and breasts with more lift than a twenty-year-old in a push-up bra. Herman wonders idly why anyone bothers with it all.

The woman continues. "A spokesman for the group is calling on citizens to repent before judgment rains from Heaven like fire." She does air quotes as she says the last bit.

More of this shit.

He flips though the channels and finds refuge in some classic cartoon from the turn of the century. The animation is junk, but the story engages him enough to make him forget his dream.

He falls asleep on the couch.


The alarm screams from the bedroom, dying to a ghost of a whisper by the time it reaches a still-sleeping Herman in the living room.

His eyes crack open.

The clock looks blurry, but he makes out the numbers.



Herman walks through the lab door too late to care.

"You look like Hell," says Chuck, already booting up the computer.

"Tell me about it. Didn't get much sleep." He can't say anything about the dreams, can't give Chuck a reason to call off the job. He needs to get this mission done, and get the paycheck that comes with it. "Just plug me in, man. Let's get this one over with."

Herman lies back on the table and pulls the mask tight over his mouth and nose. He flashes a thumbs-up at Chuck.

Chuck taps in a few commands on the keyboard and presses a few buttons on the medical equipment that surrounds the room. He straps Herman's body to the crossover table, attaches a handful of leads to his body, and turns back to the computer.

"Here we go," says Chuck as he keys the last few commands.

Herman catches the first whiff of gas, something like rotten eggs, assaulting his lungs.

"I'm sending you to the same location I pulled you from yesterday." Chuck looks over his shoulder at Herman.

Herman responds with another thumbs-up and sets his gaze on the fluorescent light above him. He inhales deeply—he got used to the smell of the gas long ago. His eyes itch, then his nose, then throat. He doesn't scratch any of them. The rotten egg smell fades away.

Herman maintains a steady, deep breathing as long as he can. The room spins, though only slightly. When the nausea hits, he’s glad didn’t have time to get street meat on the way in.

Chuck prepares for the intubation. Herman lets his cares drift away, along with the light, and he finds himself in a darkness so black, it can only be death.


In the distance, a spot of white grows. Herman feels like he’s conducting a train through a tunnel, racing through darkness, seeking an escape. The white spot burns to blinding levels. Herman doesn’t flinch.

The imagined train stops. He’s back in the Light.

Herman looks around to find his bearings. It’s more feeling than anything. The Light makes no effort to provide landmarks to travelers. The landscape is pure white, disrupted only by the coming and going of spirits, families greeting new arrivals, sending away those who arrive too soon.

He surveys the Light, searches for his assignment. He saw a picture in the lab, but it’s always iffy if the receiving terminal pulls together the right image from the energy the spirits push through.

He knows the target is a woman, though. That much was clear from the picture. And young, or young in appearance at least. Not all spirits keep their wrinkles when they die at an advanced age, so there’s no telling how old she really was when she passed. Herman has an odd feeling this one really died young, though.

He glances among the crowd of faces. None match the image in the receiver. He’s in the right place, he knows that much. She has to be here somewhere. He keeps up his search. Maybe she just hasn’t appeared yet.

Herman feels a presence behind him and wonders if his body feels the same chill that’s shooting through his spirit like cracking ice.

"The hand of God will bring its wrath."

Not this again. He turns away, or starts to. Then he feels it, feels the cold hand on his shoulder. Shit.

A blaze of intense fear engulfs his spirit as if Satan himself lit the match. A flashing, incomprehensible array of images burn through his mind like some sort of televised torture experiment. Fire, death, destruction. The theme is clear.

Herman swipes blindly at the spirit, tries to free himself from her grasp.

"What does this mean?" he hears his own voice ask.

The spirit releases him and he looks into her eyes. There is no peace in her soul.

"The hand of God comes," she says in a soft, haunting voice, "and you must—"

The light fades.

Herman screams for her to finish.


He tries to will himself back to the Light, reaches out to grab something, anything, but the void between life and death is eternally empty.


Wan, fluorescent, light.

Herman opens his eyes. He pulls at the intubation tube, choking, coughing, finally ripping the tube from his mouth in an arching spray of spit.

"Shit, man." Chuck rushes to his side. "Hold on."

"What the hell, Chuck?” Herman’s voice strains to make sound. “That was nowhere near sixty minutes. Put me back in."

He grabs for the gas mask.

Chuck pulls it away.

"I almost lost you in there. What the hell happened?"

Herman sits up, slams his hands against the table. "Put me back in, Chuck. I don't have time for this."

"Can't do it, man. I'm not sure I could bring you back from that again."

"The hand of God is coming. That's what she said. I've got to go back to see what she means."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"The same spirit as yesterday, man, only different this time. And she touched me. Made me feel her fear. Made me see it."

"Shit, man."

"Put me back." Herman yanks the gas mask from Chuck's hands. "Now, damn it."


Herman sees the change in Chuck's eyes. He’s felt their fear, too. Chuck’s never mentioned it, but Herman understands it now.

"You're done for today," says Chuck. "Sorry, man. This one is for your own good. You've just got to trust me."

Herman stops arguing. "Maybe I just need some rest."

"Good idea." Chuck unhooks the leads. "You alright to go home? Alone, I mean."

"Yeah. I'm fine. That's why the boss likes foster kids. We're used to everything being screwed up, and used to dealing with it on our own."

"Alright, man. Get some rest. If you don't feel up to it tomorrow, just call in. I'll get someone to cover."

"Sure. I will."

Nobody would mistake his words for truth, but Chuck doesn’t say anything. Herman walks out the door, turns for home. He doesn’t go.


Herman pushes through the door of his favorite cafe, just a few buildings down from the lab. He orders a coffee, black, and grabs a table next to the window. Shift change is in an hour. Chuck will go home, and Herman will go back to the Light. He just has to wait it out.

His chance comes sooner than expected.

A guy walks into the lab wearing a black knit cap pulled low enough to meet the red scarf crammed into the collar of a long, gray winter coat. Herman doesn't recognize him, not that he can even see the guy’s face, and he doesn’t really know anyone from the night shift, anyway.

A few minutes later, Chuck stumbles out, using the door jamb for balance. He hurries into his car and peels away.

Still upset about earlier.

Herman waits for Chuck's tail lights to disappear, then walks back to the lab. A light dusting of snow falls, coating him with white as he walks like a ghost in the twilight.

He pushes open the door. The night operator turns, startled at the unexpected company.

The operator’s still dressed for the cold. Bright eyes peer from dark eye shadow and mascara like a predator in the jungle night. Herman’s lost for a moment, and keeps to himself the embarrassment of thinking the operator was a man.

"Sorry about the intrusion," he says. "I'm Herman. Day shift. I don't think we've met."

Herman extends his hand. The operator reaches for her pocket.

"No need for identification," says Herman. "You've got honest eyes." He smiles.

Her eyes remain cold.

"If you don't mind," says Herman, "I've got a mission I need to finish. I know it's a bit unorthodox, but we were cut short earlier, power grid issues, so I didn't get my full time in. If you could let me—"

"No problem." The scarf muffles her voice. "I'm not expecting anyone soon. Go ahead with whatever you need."

"Awesome. Thanks so much." Herman lies on the table and reaches for the mask. "Chuck probably left the coordinates loaded, so just gas me and I'll be on my way." He laughs.

The operator straps Herman to the table, surprising him with her strength.

She turns the gas on.

Too much. 

And what about the leads?

He tries to protest.

She pushes the mask hard against his face. He sees something in her eyes, panic maybe, or fear.

Herman pushes against the straps with his body. His breathing quickens as he fights for life.

His eyes burn.

He blinks away tears.

He wants to puke.

The room spins like an out-of-control carousel.

He pushes against her with his last bit of strength, then gives himself to death.

Herman floats above his body—not the usual crossover. His body lies below, dead, still strapped to the table. The operator, the impostor, types madly at the computer terminal.

Trying to save me.

He fears he’s wrong, knows he’s wrong.

A rush of black-clad figures bursts through the lab door. The operator turns, shouting directions to the mob as they unleash their terrorism on the lab. The crash of their destruction is muffled, like Herman’s under water. One of the terrorists flips Herman's table, sandwiching his body against the floor.

Then they rush out just as quickly as they invaded. The impostor pulls a can of spray paint, red, from her bag. She scrawls a warning across the clean white wall. The words streak down the wall like blood:

You have been judged by the Hand of God. You have consulted with the dead and are deemed unclean. Repent, for the end draws near.

The impostor escapes, jumping over Herman's limp body. The door hangs open behind her, the darkness of night a harsh contrast to the light of the lab.

Herman stares into the night. The fluorescent light fades. Darkness engulfs his world.


Herman comes to in the Light. He tries to find his bearings, though he no longer knows what he’s looking for. He feels a presence behind him.

He turns, and he finds himself face-to-face with the woman he fears most.

"I'm sorry," she says, all urgency gone from her voice. "I did all I could."

"Thank you," says Herman, confused, but growing confident in the Light. "I was looking for a woman when you stopped me before. I was supposed to take a message back for her. If I can, I'd like to at least apologize for my failure."

The spirit looks at him. She seems to investigate his face, comparing him to some database in her mind, or maybe some joint consciousness of the spirits.

"Perhaps I can help," she says, smiling.

She takes his hand. He sees no destruction, no fire, no death. He feels peace, and goes with her, his new guide through the Light.

"I think I may know who sent for you," she says, walking him through crowds of reuniting families.

"How?" he asks, but already the spirit consciousness is coming to him and he begins to understand.

His guide offers no explanation, only smiles. She points ahead to a figure standing, waiting, apart from the crowds.

"Is that her?" Herman asks, turning to his guide.

She’s already gone.

Herman walks toward the distant figure. As he approaches, she turns, and he sees her face.

She’s beautiful and young, auburn hair cascading along her white robe, eyes sparkling like stars on a moonless night. She’s the woman from the image, and in his death, he knows her.

She’s a young spirit in truth, died in childbirth, he knows this now, and she has a message for him.

"I've been searching for you," says Herman. "You asked me to receive a message for you."

The woman steps closer, reaches out to him, embraces him.

All through his body, he feels her love. The last memories of death, of terrorists, failed missions, the decay of life—it all fades away. The spirit hugs him, and speaks, her words a whisper through the windless Light.

"Welcome home, Son."

One of the effects of rebooting a creative life after so many years is a back log of ideas. For over a decade, I've let all my ideas sit untouched, but with this new creative push, I’ve started a fire under their feet. Unfortunately, they're fighting to be first through the door, jamming the fire exits and burning up inside me.

An abundance of ideas may be a good problem to have, but the lack of focus leaves me frozen and unable to make progress.

I've lost track of the amount of false starts I've had on novels, or even short stories. I bounce between typing stories (for speed) or handwriting them (for enjoyment). Even with typing, I can't decide on using Word, Docs, or Scrivener, so I go from one to the other, looking for some kind of magic switch that will give me the boost I need.

The problem is that none of this helps. All it does is slow me down.

If you've read The War of Art, you will recognize all of this as Resistance. My only consolation is that I'm not alone, that everyone goes through this, and that so many are able to come out strong on the other end.

It's a struggle that we all face at some point. For me, the answer is simple (though not easy): pick a project and write until it's done. Then start the next project.

Those ideas aren't going anywhere, and this lack of progress isn't helping me work through them any faster.

It's really just a mind set, a lack of determination, a battle of wills. Writers often need to just write their way through a problem. That's the solution here, too.

I will work through this Resistance.

And so will you.
I left the military to follow the dreams of my family. Now, leaving the corporate world behind, I have a chance to follow dreams of my own. I’m in a position to refocus my future and it is both exciting, and frightening.

In the last few years, I've found myself in a position to leave the corporate world in the dust and refocus my life on the things that matter most. My family and I have changed our goals to be more in line with what we want and not what the marketing executives of the world tell us to want. It's a liberating change and, among other things, has allowed me to go back to childhood dreams in search of a new career, so to speak.

Childhood for me was a time of the arts, mostly drawing and writing, and I'm excited to get back into that world that I loved so much. I've jumped back in head-first and finally decided I needed a place to take things further, to share what I'm doing with others and seek out my community of like-minded thinkers and doers. And so, a blog was born.

I'll share stories and sketches, as well as life-inspired ramblings, in hopes of finding an audience, a community, and hopefully more than a few friends along the way.

It's a strange endeavor for me, but an exciting journey, and I intend to enjoy every step of the way.

After a few tries at a "real" job, I'm in a position to pursue childhood dreams. It's a second chance of sorts, and I intend to enjoy every step of the journey.

I've been a serviceman, a businessman, and a family man, but it's that family that lets me pursue the things I love. I'm blessed with an amazing wife and a pair of adventurous kids that keep me on my toes.

I have a long list of dreams to chase, so I'd better get to work.

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