Saturday, March 28, 2020

Tomorrow never comes

For three years, with increasing alarm, astronomers had been tracking an astroid. From far out in space, the trajectory was indeterminate: would it be a near miss or direct hit? But as it got closer it became clear that this would be a cataclysmic event. Human life would become extinct.

Most folks planned to die with their families. But Xavier had an ace up his sleeve. That's because Xavier had a time machine. He could elude doomsday by escaping into the past. 

But that was complicated. For one thing, you couldn't travel back to a time before you existed. Your conception was the terminus ad quo for time travel. So the timeframe was limited to the span between your present and you personal past. 

Another problem was keeping the time machine a secret. Who could he trust to tell? People would kill for the time machine. If the authorities found out about it, the government would confiscate the machine. How could Xavier use the time machine to save himself and his loved ones from encroaching oblivion? 

If he told his parents or his brother Damien or his best friend, they'd tell their other loved ones, so that knowledge of the time machine would become widely known. But there was only one time machine. It had to be a closely-guarded secret for Xavier to use it. 

The question was who to leave behind to. They had no future. Only a past. And some of them didn't have much of a past to retreat into. His older brother Damien had little kids. Damien couldn't take them with him if he went too far back into his own past. His kids didn't exist when he was young. Xavier knew that Damien would rather die with them than leave them behind.

When you traveled from the present to the past, you aged down. Your age corresponded when you were alive. So you had to decide where you wanted to reset the lifecycle. Xavier didn't wish to be a little boy again. It would have to be when he was a teenager, maybe in junior high or high school.  

The machine could be programmed to repeat one day from the past, or the same week, or the same month, or the same year. When it came to the end of programmed interval, it would repeat the process. Xavier had a happy childhood. He was raised on a ranch in Montana. He loved the out of doors. The seasons, fields and streams, mountain views, and horseback riding. That was his preference. It also gave him a chance to be reunited with his late grandparents. 

In a sense, his loved ones didn't have to use the time machine to avert the future. They'd die in the near-future, but exist in the past. If he didn't tell them, he wasn't really leaving them behind. He hadn't abandoned them. Because he'd find them in the past, as if they were waiting for him. They'd still be there, just like before. 

If you traveled from the present to the past, you remembered the future you came from. But if you didn't reenter the past from the future, you didn't know the future, since you hadn't experienced the future as of yet. Living in the past, you didn't exist in that future. 

In a way, Xavier couldn't save his loved ones from the future.  They had no future. It was sufficient for him alone to use the time machine. To program it for a particular period. To be repeated. That way they'd be reunited in the past. And only he'd remember the ill-fated future. He was conferring immortality on his loved ones through a temporal loop. And they wouldn't know the difference. Every time it reached the end, it would revert to the beginning. A process that reset their memories. Only Xavier would recollect the whole story. Not just the timeloop but the impact event. 

Yet there were tradeoffs. For his loved ones, it was always like experiencing that year for the very first time, no matter how often it repeated. But Xavier's memory transcended the temporal loop. He was consciously revisiting the same year every time, day after day. To stave off tedium, he didn't simply relive his past. He did different things. It gave him a chance to do a lot of reading and thinking. To explore. To spend more time with Damien and their grandparents. 

Xavier had never been very religious, but with so much time on his hands, and the need to do something new to stave off the deadening repetition, he began to read the Bible. That opened up a whole new world for him. A future beyond the future cataclysm. An afterlife beyond extinction. 

He began to wonder if, by delaying death indefinitely, he wasn't cheating death. Was he missing out on something better? Were his loved ones missing out on something better?

At first there was no sense of urgency. He was safe in the past. He couldn't die in the past. 

Or could he? Did the fact that he survived right up to the brink of doosmday mean he was immortal so long as he remained in the past? The fact that he originally made it that far meant he hadn't died in the past. 

But as he thought more about it, maybe he could die in the past. Originally, he lived to a certain age because he did certain things. He avoided fatal accidents. 

But by consciously returning to the past, over and over again, he wasn't simply retracing his steps. For the sake of variety, he was doing different things in the past than the first time around. He wasn't reliving his past, but revisiting an particular time and place. And he was free to vary his routine, to avoid tedium. Indeed, it became increasingly hard even to remember what his original past was like. It became a blur with each new iteration of the time-loop. 

So perhaps he could die in the past by doing something different. Suffer a fatal accident. Snakebite. Breaking his neck falling off a horse. Shot to death in a barroom brawl. His current past wasn't the same past that led up to his original future. Every time he did something different, that was a pathway to an alternate future–a future in which he didn't originally exist. That raised time-travel paradoxes, and he wasn't sure how seriously to take it. Too much to lose by finding out the hard way.

It's not as if he couldn't die no matter how recklessly he behaved. He wasn't indestructible. Not that he was reckless, but the prospect spooked him. Traveling back into the past, he initially lost his fear of death. But it now occurred to him that his confidence might be misplaced, because he was changing variables. 

And there were worse things than death. Damnation was incomparably worse than death. Of course, death was often portal to hell, but in his case that was self-fulfilling. He hadn't prepared himself for death. He thought he could keep it at bay indefinitely. So there was no pressing need to repent, to think about God, to be worshipful or engage in spiritual examination. Yet maybe he was just lucky up to this point, and his luck might run out. 

And not just for himself, but for his loved ones. Could he actually protect them by keeping them sequestered in the past? Because he did different things, they did different things in response. So maybe they, too, were now at risk. Were they heavenbound or hellbound? Having read the Bible so often during the timeloops, and attending church, he began to share the Gospel with his parents, grandparents, and brother. 

He then decided if he should destroy the time machine. If he did that, it would restore the status quo ante. They'd all die in the impact event. But maybe the solution was to move forward, not backward. Not hide in the past, but accept death as a portal to heaven and the world to come.   

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Reconciliation

Nolan and Jordan were childhood friends. Best friends from preschool upwards. Came of age together. Now on the verge of high school graduation.

Nolan's dad as a highly successful, hard-driving businessman. Very competitive with his son. Nolan could never please his dad. It's like every day was a performance evaluation. Every day he had to prove himself to his father. And he never measured up. This instilled in him a deep sense of self-loathing. 

Nolan was an only-child, and his mother walked out on the marriage, after she got fed up with a philandering husband. All the affection and attention came from Jordan. Their friendship was the only thing that kept Jordan from sliding into suicidal depression and drug addiction. But when he was at his dad's house he used to get drunk.

Indeed, their friendship is what probably kept him straight. With a dad like that he was a higher risk of becoming gay, but Jordan offset that risk factor.

Nolan's dad envied and resented their friendship. Resented the amount of time Nolan spent with Jordan. And the resentment showed. The more he resented the friendship, the more time Nolan spent with Jordan. He virtually moved in with Jordan.

But Nolan was always torn between his indispensable friendship with Jordan and his instinctive hunger for his father's approval. Nolan's dad sensed that and used that as a wedge. He plotted to break up the friendship.

Nolan's dad arranged to have Jordan framed for a crime he didn't commit. He offered to make Nolan a junior partner in his business–on condition that Noland testify against Jordan. At first, Nolan's dad treated his son the way Noland always longed to be treated. Praise. Demonstrative affection. Gone was the usual judgmentalism. He manipulated Nolan's vulnerability. And it worked. Nolan testified against Jordan. But he hated himself for doing it. It made him nauseous. And afterwards he was plagued by guilt. It plunged him into suicidal depression.

In addition, the charm offensive wore thin as the natural impatience of Nolan's dad resurfaced. He reverted to berating his son as a loser who could never do anything right. In his father's eye, Noland would always be a failure.

Nolan was in despair. He contemplated suicide. He lost his one indispensable friend through an unforgivable act of betrayal, and got nothing in return. What was he to do? The thought crossed his mind to recant his perjury, but he couldn't afford to lose both of them. He burned his bridges with Jordan when he falsely accused him on the stand. If he recanted his testimony, that would burn his bridges with his dad. And he had no guarantee that Jordan would take him back. A gamble he couldn't afford to lose.

He finally decided to do the right thing. He recanted his testimony. Jordan's expression was inscrutable.

Jordan understood the extenuating circumstances of the original perjury, but that didn't excuse it. Recanting his testimony was a mitigating factor. He redeemed himself on the stand. Jordan knew Nolan better than anyone. Knew how hard it was for Noland to do that. Knew the cost. It was the bravest thing Noland had ever done. Indeed, it was the only brave thing Nolan had ever done.   

By contrast, the expression on the face of Nolan's dad was anything but inscrutable. A sentence of banishment.

Jordan's lawyer motioned to have the charges dismissed. The judge agreed.

Nolan was still in unbearable suspense. But Jordan took him back. They never talked about the trial.

After high school graduation, they moved out of state together. Married girlfriends a few years later, and remained best of friends until Nolan died of liver cancer at 33. Nolan's dad always blamed Jordan. After Nolan died, his father shot himself.

A vine with two branches

Zach first met Jeremy during Zach's freshman year of junior high. Jeremy was a year ahead of him. They were complete strangers–or so it seemed. But they took a liking to each other and began to hang out a lot. There was a certain affinity that drew them to each other, even though they couldn't quite put their finger on it. It went deeper than natural rapport between best friends. The more time they spent together, the stronger the sense of affinity. They could anticipate each other's thoughts. They could anticipate what the other was going to say next. It was uncanny, as if they had overlapping minds. 

Zach always suspected that he was adopted, but he never asked his parents. A part of him didn't want to know that his own parents rejected him. 

But the dynamic with Jeremy made him wonder if they might be related. What were the odds? Under what circumstances could they have been separated? It seemed so far-fetched. And yet they appeared to have built-in bond. 

So Zach asked Jeremy if he thought they might be related. Jeremy didn't think that was possible. Still, when he got home, he posed the question. 

The expression on his mother's face was a dead giveaway. Turns out she had Zach and Jeremy out-of-wedlock by the same boyfriend, but at the time she couldn't afford to raise both as a single mom, so she put Zach up for adoption. They were too young to remember each other.

Jeremy was shocked. All these years he had a brother he never knew about. Never suspected the existence of a younger brother. He felt betrayed. All the lost years. 

So that explained it. Their minds were indeed linked. A part of each other, not just genetically but psychologically, like two branches of the same vine. 

It took Jeremy months to forgive his mother, and even then a part of him held it against her. As for Zach, when the situation was explained, he understood his mother's motivations. She was in a desperate situation at the time. It wasn't malicious. It wasn't intentional rejection. 

But he just couldn't get over it. He couldn't bring himself to meet her. It cut too deep. It was too awkward. How as he supposed to act? She both was and wasn't his mother. She hadn't raised him, so he didn't know how to act around her. 

He did track down his biological father, but out of curiosity, not reconciliation. After meeting his father, he could tell he didn't miss out on not having a father like that. 

However, Zach and Jeremy now had each other, and made up for lost time. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Born lost

In high school, Danny was a loner. He wasn't a loner by choice. He was a military brat. Because his father was so often away on tours of duty, Danny's  mother divorced him. There was a nasty custody battle, but it made little difference because Danny preferred to be with his Dad, so even if his mother got custody, Danny ran away.

The fact that his dad was routinely reassigned to new places, along with Danny's status as a runaway, led to chronic dislocation. They never settled down. Danny never had a chance to make friends. He often lived alone while his dad was on tour, and when his dad was home, he was verbally abusive to Danny. He took his pent-up frustrations out on Danny.

So Danny was torn. He was lonely. Desperately needed good friends, but afraid to make friends because he'd lose them and leave them behind when his dad was reassigned to a new place. Danny was on the football team, but standoffish.

Then a new kid showed up at school. Kevin appeared out of nowhere during midterm. Kevin was a bit mysterious. Aloof. Lived alone, like Danny. No one knew anything about his background. He was both an academic whizkid and very good at sports. Seemed to have a way of reading minds.

Despite being standoffish like Danny, Kevin made a point of reaching out to Danny. Tried to befriend him. And, indeed, they seemed to have a lot in common. But Danny was hard to get close to. 

There were caves in the area that local boys used to explore. For safety they'd usually go in groups of two, three, or more, with flashlights. It was easy to become hopelessly lost in the caves.

Danny explored the caves on his own. One time his flashlight fell through a crevice. He was instantly plunged into pitch darkness. 

Fear immediately swept over him and grew on him. He was lost. Really lost. There wouldn't be a search team to rescue him because no one knew that he was exploring the cave. He told no one. 

So the sense of fear enveloped him, like the enveloping darkness. Smothering, suffocating despair. He was used to being a loner. Used to being lonely. Now he was lost. With nothing but his thoughts. Waiting to die. No one missed him. No one looking for him. He was more alone than ever. He couldn't be more alone. Danny rarely cried, but now he began to cry.

Then he heard footsteps, but he didn't see a flashlight. The footsteps came closer. He shuddered in fear. 

Then a familiar voice spoke to him: it was Kevin. Kevin spoke softly so as not to startle him unduly, but his voice echoed in the caves. Kevin put his hand on Danny's head and stroked his hair a few times to reassure him. Danny was still trembling in fear. He got up. Kevin hugged him until Danny stopped trembling. Then Kevin took him by the hand and led him out of the cave. It was night, with only starlight to see by. 

Denny had no idea how Kevin could find him in the dark. How did Kevin know he was there? How could Kevin navigate the cave without a flashlight? 

Danny was afraid to be alone that night, so he spent the night at Kevin's place. Indeed, he stayed with Kevin for several weeks to rebuild his shattered sense of security. 

They talked about the cave. Kevin said everyone is born lost, as if they were born in a cave. They don't know the way out, and some of them are so used to living in the cave that they're afraid of leaving the cave for the outside world. They refuse to escape even if given a chance. They fear the light. 

After a few weeks, Danny moved back into his dad's house. But he didn't see Kevin at school. So he went to Kevin's house, but it was deserted. Bare, except for a Bible Kevin left behind.

So Danny began to read Kevin's Bible. Kevin was gone. No one ever saw him again. He left as abruptly as he came. 

Who was he? What was he? Maybe he was an angel. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Bridge over hell

Jeremy was raised in a run-of-the-mill evangelical church. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. Average sermons. Average music. No sensational miracles. No sensational scandals. 

When he turned 16, he discovered atheism. Surfing the web, he was confronted by slew of objections to Christianity. And since his own faith was just hereditary and intellectually rootless, he became an atheist overnight. 

Then he had a dream. In his dream there was a bridge across a canyon. Far below the bridge, at the bottom of the canyon flowed a river of fire, like molten lava. There was no way around the canyon. It ranged on either side as far as eye could see. 

Flames shot up from the river, licking the bottom of the bridge and flaring above it in sheets of fire. Almost like lanterns on the the rails of the bridge. It was dusk, but fire made the walls of the canyon gleam with flickering light. 

Across the canyon, he could dimly see a meadow with a stream, and verdant foothills above and beyond. But behind him all was rocky and dry. 

As he stood there, at one end of the bridge, a trickle of people–his age or older–came up from behind and passed him by. He watched them cross the bridge. 

But there was a troll at the other end of the bridge. A troll with malignant fiery eyes, who blocked their way. When they tried to force their way through, he picked them up and pitched them over the side of the bridge. They caught fire on the way down, so intense was the blazing river below. 

Jeremy was becoming thirstier by the minute. A raging, unbearable, overpowering thirst. More than anything he wanted to cross the bridge and drink from the stream, but he dare not contend with the troll. 

Then another man came from behind and passed him by. A bearded man in a robe with a nimbic aura. When he came to the troll, the man stretched out his hand, making the troll levitate and fall over the side of the bridge. 

He then motioned Jeremy to come. The bridge was hot underfoot, causing Jeremy to quicken his pace. After crossing over, he drank from the stream. The meadow was fragrant with scented wildflowers. He began to climb a footpath leading up the foothill, curious to see what was on the other side, when he awoke. 

He was back in bed, in his oh-so familiar bedroom. Indeed, he never left. Everything was ordinary again.

He washed and got dressed. As he pulled on his shirt, it had an usual fragrance, like wildflowers. 

After that, he started reading the Bible again. He read about Jesus, with his nimbic aura at the Transfiguration, and again, when Jesus appeared to John on Patmos. 

He shared his dream–if it was a dream–with people at church. And his classmates. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Hell's back door

Logan and Liam were hellraisers long before they died and went to hell. When they were still alive, they thought hell was a big joke. Even so, they quipped about how, if hell was real, they'd rather end up there because it was way more fun than heaven and all their friends would be in hell. The wisecracking was enjoyable until they died together in a car wreck. 

For some newcomers, hell was initially exhilarating. They were finally in their natural element. However, it didn't take long for the rush to wear off. 

To their everlasting consternation, hell had no women. Or, for all they new, hell had women, but hell was sexually segregated. 

In addition, hell consisted of roving, marauding goon squads who periodically captured and tortured members of opposing goon squads. They'd skin you alive or pull your teeth out or bury you up to your neck, pour honey over head, then empty a jar of fireants on your head. Fun stuff like that. And the damned rejuvenated, so the cycle continued ad infinitum. Maybe all of hell wasn't that bad, but for hellraisers like Logan and Liam, that's what they experienced.

Demons were the prison guards. Damned humans made deals with the fiendish guards. Hell was the ultimate place where everyone had his price. 

A basic job of demons is turning humans to the dark side. New arrivals in hell had intel on the living, intel on their classmates, coworkers, and other suchlike. In exchange for demonic favors, newcomers would debrief demons on the vulnerabilities of their classmates, coworkers, and the like, giving the demons an opening. 

Newcomers demanded different things in exchange. If, say, you were killed by a rival gangbanger and wanted to exact revenge, you could have a demon arrange a freak accident. Soon you assailant found himself in hell with you, and you had the element of surprise. 

There was an ancient, immemorial rumor that hell had a back door. That it was possible to escape if you could find the back door. 

Some of the damned had long memories because they'd been in hell for so long. The quest for the back door to hell, if it existed, was a diversion and preoccupation of the damned. Was it just a legend to give the damned a perverse sense of false hope? Only the demons knew for sure, but demons were notorious liars. 

In hell, the only disincentive to lying is that if you wanted to make a deal, you had to keep up your end of the bargain. If you had a reputation for reneging on a deal, you couldn't be trusted to do a favor in exchange for a favor. 

According to one rumor, the back door to hell was hard to find because it moved around. It might be in one place one week and another place another week. 

By calling in a lot of chips from gambling debts, Logan and Liam finally got an up-to-date map to hell's back door, drawn in demon blood. When they got there, at the end of a dimly-lit tunnel, sure enough there was a door. But was it the door out of hell? 

Using a one-time key, they unlocked the door and went through it. The door closed and locked behind them. 

It looked like they are back on earth, above ground. Indeed, it was a trail through the woods, on the edge of the small down where Logan and Liam grew up. They made it!

They went inside the local bar to rustle up some beer and broads. But no one was there. Just the jukebox wailing and echoing in the abandoned tavern. The whole town was deserted. Every house was empty. A ghost town. And the sun never rose. Just the glaring street lights. And a howling, dusty, bitter wind. 

They were still in hell. The backdoor as an ambush. A trap. 

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Waiting in vain

Weston was Dora's only son. A teenager. She became increasingly dependent on him for companionship, protection, and help around the farm after she was widowed. But war was looming. She dreaded the prospect that he'd be conscripted to fight. Dreaded that she might be left alone to fend for herself. Dreaded for his own sake that he might die in battle. 

She prayed that they'd be spared, but no amount of dread or prayer kept the day from coming when she watched him ride away to war, leaving her behind and bereft. As she watched him turn his back and start up the road, watched his receding figure, watched him passing out of her life, she didn't know when, or if, she'd see him again. Didn't know when, or if, he'd ever come home.

Days wore into weeks, then into months, then into years. She prayed day and night for his return. She struggled to manage the farm by herself. Sometimes the parson could spare a bit of food. She watched neighbors move away and childhood friends succumb to illness and malnutrition. 

One day, as she was sitting on the porch, she saw a familiar figure limping towards the house. She leaped out of her chair and ran to him as best she could. They embraced. And then she woke up. It was only a dream.

Another day, as she was peering through the kitchen window, she saw a familiar figure riding towards the house. She rushed out of the house to greet him. She was overjoyed to see him and he was overjoyed to see her. It almost seemed too good to be true. And then she woke up. Alone in bed. Alone in the chilly darkness. Another fickle, tantalizing dream.

Finally the war ended. Her side lost. But she continued to hope, wait, and pray for his return. Yet as the weeks wore into months, he didn't return. She never received official confirmation that he died, but had he survived, he should have come back by now. It was too late to hold out hope.

So she painfully reconciled herself to the fact that all that time she was hoping in vain, praying in vain, waiting in vain–for a reunion that never was to be.

Yet if she had it to do all over again, she'd do the same thing. Even though she waited in vain, he was still worth waiting for. She had nothing better to look forward to. 

She refused to say good-bye. She couldn't go forward or backward. So she just wandered in circles. 

Then she herself sickened. Struggling for every breath. She was nearly bedridden. Then she saw him come through the door. She must be dreaming again. Indeed, she was dreaming. She was dying in her sleep.

But this time it seemed different. Weston was different. Radiant. Healthier than when he left for war, so long ago.

It was a dream, but more than a dream. The waking world was fading like a dream as the dreamworld became a bridge to heaven. He had died on the battlefield, years before. Now he came from heaven to bring her back. He took her by the hand. As she rose from her deathbed, she was young again. Then they walked into the light, as the world behind them went dark.