You’re a Tricky Devil to Find

Written: 07/06/2015
Revised: 10/03/2019
Prompt: It’s late at night and there’s a knock at the door. You answer it to see a stranger dripping with the rain. “You’re a tricky devil to find,” he says.

“Good,” I replied. “Let’s keep it that way, shall we?”

I quickly ushered the man inside and relieved him of his umbrella. He shrugged off his coat and handed it to me without so much as a ‘thank you.’ I offered him tea as a formality, and to my relief, he promptly denied. “Gives me the runs,” he groaned.

“That’s rather un-gentlemanly of you,” I observed. He said nothing, but the edges of his lips tightened almost imperceptibly, forcing a sly grin from me. I gestured towards the living room. “Please, have a seat. You must be exhausted after your trip.”

He furrowed his eyebrows before stepping past me, a slight limp impeding his progress. He gave the room a swift and thorough look over, pausing over nothing yet consuming everything in his gaze, then sat on the sofa. I sat in an armchair opposite of him, sinking into the leather with a sigh.

“So,” I said, “who is it this time?”

The man already had a pipe in his hand, prepacked and dry, eager for a flame. One end glistened under the blaze of a matchstick, while the other vanished into his bushy gray mustache. The hairs twitched and parted for a thick gray smoke. “Morgan,” he grumbled.

I chuckled. “Morgan, huh? What’s he want from me this time?”

The man nodded towards me. “Your head.”

I chuckled. “My head? That’s rather uncharacteristic of him, don’t you think?”

The man’s eyes glowed under the light of the matchstick, but he said nothing.

“Apologies,” I said. “I know why you’re here, and it’s not to hear me harp on about Morgan, though I must say the name leaves quite a sour taste in my mouth.”

“Same here,” sighed the man. “Try as I might, I could not convince him otherwise.”

“I wouldn’t ask it of you,” I replied, pushing myself from my recliner. “Morgan’s a cowardly man, but he’s an arrogant coward.”

“The worst kind,” grumbled the man.

I walked towards the window and brushed the curtains aside. The torrential rain masked any hints of activity on the street below. “What’s your price?” I asked.

“Five million,” he said. I winced.

“You know I can’t afford that,” I said.

“Then perhaps you can afford the alternative.” He stood to leave. “Good day.”

“Wait!” I threw the curtains shut and turned to him. “I can pay you, but I can’t pay it all at once.”

The man tore the pipe from his mouth. “Astor, do you understand the risk I’m taking by speaking with you? If Morgan finds out we’ve been meeting-”

“Morgan won’t find out if no one tells him,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder, “and since we’re the only ones who know about this, no one is going to tell him.” I offered to relight his pipe and was received with a grunt.

“Morgan may be stupid,” said the man, “but he’ll find out eventually. Every time I meet with you, I’m taking my own life into my hands. Prove to me that you’re worth it.”

I offered him a smile. “My good man, five million pounds is no easy sum to come by, even for a resourceful individual like myself. You will have your sum, and in return I expect-”

“You shall expect nothing until I have the full amount,” he snapped.

“Surely I cannot pay you if Morgan has his way,” I replied.

“If Morgan has his way, we both suffer. What do you will presume will happen, should Morgan find his top man conspiring with his top rival?”

I sighed and looked him over once more. “Alright, you’ll have your five million. I shall have my bankers disburse the money to your account over the next three months.”

“Make the call,” he said sternly. I nodded and invited him into my office, where I contacted the local branch via telephone.

He scoffed as I hung the receiver. “’You know I can’t afford that’,” he mocked. “You’re a snake, you are.”

I grinned. “Why else would Morgan want me dead?”

He shook his head and turned to retrieve his coat. “I shall inform Morgan that you traveled to America. That should afford you enough time to get your affairs in order before he sends more of his men.”

“America? What makes you think Morgan will fall for that?”

For the first time that evening, the man smiled. “I shall inform him that you went aboard the RMS Titanic. If all goes as planned, he will assume you were caught unaware and perished in the aftermath.”

I could not help but laugh. “This is a tricky business we’re in, isn’t it?”

“You need not remind me. I’ve already spent too much time here. I bid you farewell – until next time.”

“If all goes well,” I said with a smile, “there won’t be a next time.” I saw him to the door, bolted it behind him, and started planning my next move.

You Find the Person Writing Your Story

Written: 03/18/2014
Revised: 10/03/2019
Prompt: You find the person writing your story.

To this day I can’t say with certainty what compelled me down that dingy and creaky staircase, led by a gnarled islander of indiscernible age. The air was damp and cool, and the cracked brick walls were soft with algae. There was a sick smell to the air, punctured here and there by a sharp, sweet, and smoky odor that I couldn’t identify. The rotting staircase groaned under our footsteps, yet despite the painful pounding of my heart, I felt an unwavering conviction to continue.

We reached the bottom, and I felt palpable relief as I stepped off the buckling wood onto well trodded earth. I turned to look back up the staircase but could only make out the outline of the steps and hand rails. The remainder faded into darkness. We were surrounded by inky blackness, and although my guide held a candle, it did little to stave off the dark.

The cellar seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions. We turned seemingly at random down hallways and through cracked doorframes, passing by countless more side rooms. Every now and then a lone candle created a bastion of light, and we stepped cautiously through these spheres of illumination. I was determined not to fall behind terrible intervening emptiness out of fear of losing myself.

After traversing the winding maze of candlelight, we approached a small opening that expanded into a dome-like stone cavern. It appeared as though the wall had been built hastily around the cavern, but was subsequently demolished. My guide stopped and turned to face me, the stones and bones in his dreadlocks rattling against themselves.

Our journey ends here,” he bellowed through mangled teeth. “But your journey is just beginning.”

I turned to thank him, and that was when I noticed the distinct lack of irises in his eyes. The shock didn’t hit me until I had already crossed the threshold and was standing in the cave, at which point the disturbing facts of my situation consumed me entirely. In front of me was an earthen room nearly 15 feet wide and 8 feet tall. The walls were coated in esoteric symbols and drawings drawn in what appeared to be dark mud, clay, or perhaps even blood. Parts of the wall were covered by tapestries, which displayed in vivid colors swirling lines that resembled eyes, animals, and human skulls. Countless candles and incense burners stood in a circle around the room, housed in ancient metal holders that resembled dragons, gryphons, and other mythological beings of power. In the center of the room sat a single pillow with a hookah in front of it, the single hose planted tantalizingly on its seat.

It’s at this point that I relegate the experience to dream and fantasy rather than truth, for when I glanced back at my companion I noticed with a dull horror that the door had vanished. Somehow, I had been sealed in the room. I don’t know why I treated it as little more than a passing observation, but I was nonetheless drawn to the heart of the chamber and the unknown possibilities it concealed.

I sat cross-legged on the cushion and took a haughty drag of the hookah. My lungs filled with an intoxicating chemical both sweet and sharp, with a bitter aftertaste that left my head reeling. I exhaled and billowed smoke that seemed to cling to the outlines of the drawings and tapestries and left me feeling both dizzy and exalted.

I cannot say how much time passed in that room, my head throbbing with auditory and visual hallucinations from worlds both known and dreamed. Despite the seclusion, I felt observed by some unknown force watching from beyond of the walls of the cavern. The tapestries stared at me mockingly, and for a while I shunned them. It was only when I focused on the roof of that cavern that I noticed new forms taking shape, forms that would haunt my reality for as long as I continued to exist.

It was a subtle shift in the nature of the dome that first drew my attention. As I stared at that smooth, blank ceiling, I started seeing tendrils of smoke seeping upward out of the corner of my vision and congeal in geometric patterns. The smoke swirled, pooled, and curled around itself, shrouding the roof in a muddled gray cloud. Small dots leapt out of the haze and grew into symbols, then letters, and eventually words. The words began to form phrases, sentences, and entire paragraphs – many of which I recognized from my own writings – and I watched with a sort of horrified fascination as a condensed history of my life’s work congealed in the growing cloud. I focused on a particularly dense string of sentences and realized that the words were reflecting not only what I had created, but what I had personally experienced. The words in the cloud described the beginning of my life, my childhood, my adolescence, my early adulthood. They described my dissatisfaction with my everyday life, the thoughts and actions that led me to this room, and the thoughts and actions that were currently defining my experience. I was reading about the life I was living at this very moment.

I anxiously glanced around at the cavern walls and almost shouted. Where there had once been form, shape, and color, there were now only streams of symbols and characters moving and leaping through an empty white void of timeless space. What was once a brass candlestick holder was now a sentence describing the holder, shaped and sculpted as to impersonate the holder’s physical form. I was seeing the world through an abstraction of literature and symbolism, exactly as I thought it and exactly as it was occurring. I collapsed onto my back with my head on the pillow and stared deep into that-

“mystical swirling congealment of smoke on the ceiling,” came a firm voice from within my mind. “My head reeled as I surged to my feet and glanced around for the source of the voice. There was no longer a cave, no real world to speak of. Where was it coming from? The voice dictated all of my thoughts and actions before I realized I was experience them. ‘You wish to know what I am,’ it said. ‘Or rather, who I am.’

"I nodded.

"To understand that, you must first know who you are. Or rather, what you are.

"What I am? I thought. A sentence describing a staircase appeared in the air before me, first forming a single step, and then another step, and then another step. My stomach churned and I held my eyes shut while I pushed myself onto my feet. I took a step onto the shifting, whirling staircase, and glanced back just as the sentence describing the pillow vanished into the air like a wispy trace of incense.

"As I ascended, I saw vague images of myself on either side of me, as though I were walking through a gallery of paintings coated by a film of text. I saw faint outlines of myself at various points of my life, from some of my most memorable moments to the most mundane. Here I was celebrating a birthday, here I was publishing my first story, here I was drinking a cup of tea. It was as though I were reliving my life moment by moment, each vivid memory formed out of a foundation of words and text. I was visualizing memories through descriptions of sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and sensations. The world was a book, and I was merely a character wandering among the pages.

“At last, he understood. For much of his life he felt that there had been some force guiding his actions, dictating his behaviors and experiences. After all, it justified his understanding of fate and destiny: ideas that are shared among even the most distant and unconnected human societies and cultures. There had to have been some sort of being or force behind the utterly incomprehensible workings of the world, and this must have been it. What made him more curious, however, was what kind of reality this ‘creator’ must have lived in. Was the creator’s reality similar to his own, or something unimaginably profounder? Why would an all powerful being relegate itself to controlling the life of a creature as insignificant and inconsequential as him? If reality was nothing more than words conjured in the mind of a greater being, what was the point of creating a world whose participants suffered so profoundly? Why create a world whose inhabitants would live, suffer, and die in the name of falsehoods? Was this creator ignorant of their struggles, or merely cruel?”

I reflected on these thoughts for countless eons, and when an eternity had passed I found myself back in the hollow earthen dome. The world had regained its normal form, only now the hole in the brick wall was open. My guide was nowhere to be found, but to my shock I found that I didn’t need him: the staircase, now lit by numerous candles, was directly in front of me.

To this day, I’m still haunted by traces of that forbidden truth. Every now and then as I’m sitting at my kitchen table or driving to work, I’ll see a faint glimmer of text stream across a light post, wrap around my steering wheel, or waft through the steam from my coffee. The mirages vanish as quickly as they appear, but they always leave behind a stain of doubt and existential dread that I don’t think I can ever truly suppress. There are times when I long to hear the voice of the creator once again, but perhaps, for the sake of my own sanity, it’s best that I don’t.

When the Sky Fell

Written: 12/23/2014
Revised: 10/03/2019
Prompt: “I was there when the sky fell.”

I sat at the edge of Acropolis, Venus’ first floating city, my feet dangling far above the fiery maelstrom of the planet’s atmosphere. I often wondered what it would be like to fall, how it would feel to be simultaneously crushed and fried by Venus’ heavy sulfuric clouds. High above me a dull gray rock hovered listlessly in the sky, surrounded by blackness. A long time ago it was called Earth, but after the disaster it had been renamed to Sol-3.

An old man seated himself on a nearby park bench. He hailed me on a public channel and, without even introducing himself, started rattling off stories about growing up on Sol-3 during the 21st century.

“Oh yes, I was there!” he cried, waving an arm in the air. I could hear the faint mechanical whir of his suit’s actuators over the radio’s background static. “2052 was the year, and what a year, too – we’d just elected our first woman president, and then the planet got destroyed. Poor woman, didn’t even have time to unpack her bags.

"Yessir, I remember it like it was yesterday – you kids have your fancy cars what fly themselves. Ours went on the ground, and you had to steer them yourself! You know what it’s like to hang your head out the window while you’re screamin’ down the highway at a hundred miles an hour, boy? It’s like getting slapped in the face by God!

“Boy I tell ya, those were good days! Cheap food, cheap fuel, cheap entertainment – you could walk down to your local Walmart and get a quart of good old pasteurized cow’s milk for just 30 US dollars! None of this pressurized pill crap that costs a day’s worth a credits. Why, we had watermelon, bananas, apples – the real fruit, mind you! Food didn’t come in pill form back then, no sir.

“Yeah, they were good days alright. Right up until this whole ‘solar flare’ business. Didn’t take it seriously at first. Solar flares are a common thing, you see. Happen all the time. Usually they just blow right past us.” He exhaled sharply and gestured with his hand, as if blowing into the sky. “But this one was different. Yessir, this was a big ‘un. Said it wouldn’t leave much behind if it hit us direct. Scientists started getting nervous, and then the big-wigs got nervous. And when the big-wigs got nervous…well, let’s just say lotsa folk started gettin’ a little unhinged.

“We had some time, though. Which was good, ’cause NASA was in a sorry state those days. Far cry from the boys who put men on the moon, I’ll tell ya that much. But once this solar flare thing came out, boy did they start movin’. First it was the spaceports, then cities like Acropolis here, then the transport ships: ‘Movers’, we called ’em. I remember it like it was yesterday – me, my sister, and the few belongin’s we had between us, linin’ up to board the Verne with damn near the whole planet. I’d never seen so many people in my life, but they got us all in, somehow. I begged my sister to take the window seat, but she wouldn’t hear it. Boy, what I saw that day as we took off from Earth for the last time."

There was a hollow thud as he went to wipe his eyes.

"Ain’t nothin’ more terrible than leaving your home for the last time. Not your house or your country, mind you, but your home planet. The only world where you know you got all you need, the only place where you can find a good meal, clean water, and a place to rest your head. We didn’t hafta worry about space suits or pressurization or muscular atrophy or none of that. ‘Round here you can’t open the windows and let in fresh air, or smell freshly cut grass, or go jump in the lake after a long day of work. No playing fetch in the yard with your dog, no fishing down by the river, none of it. Not anymore.

“Those breathtakin’ blues and whites you see in the history holos? Gone, peeled back like a sheet a plastic wrap. Left this pale, disgustin’ looking shade of brown and green, like the planet had died right then and there. And for all intents it did – ain’t nothin’ on Earth still alive these days. That’s right, Earth, damn it, not ‘Sol-3′." He sighed deeply. "But I s’pose that’s God’s way, ain’t it? You never know what’ll happen ’till one day it does, and come to find out there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. You’re just too small. Best you can do is turn away from the past, look ahead, and hope for the best. Yessir, one can only hope…”

I looked back up at the drab gray rock in the sky. I don’t know how long I spent staring at that barren surface, tracing the ancient ocean valleys and mountain ranges, outlining the giant continents and twirling rivers and great lakes, wondering just how many lives were lost in the catastrophe that spread our species across the solar system and killed so many others. I turned back towards the old man, but only found an empty park bench.

The Locked Room

Written: 12/19/2014
Revised: 10/04/2019
Prompt: For years, a room in your house has been locked from the outside. You’ve always been told that you are not, under any circumstances, allowed inside. Today, you noticed the key sitting in the lock…

I stared absently at the TV, hands folded in front of me while I kicked my feet on the couch. My ears were trained to the sounds coming from upstairs. Mom was about to leave. My heart raced in tandem with her footsteps down the stairs.

“I’m heading out,” she called. “I’ll be back in an hour.” I heard her walk into the living room and stop just before the threshold. “Joey…”

I turned to look at her.

“…don’t go upstairs.”

I quickly looked away, feeling my face get hot. How’d she know what I was thinking?

“I won’t ma,” I lied through my teeth.

She sighed, "Please, Joey. I’ll be back soon," and headed out the door. I waited until the bolt thudded into place before sneaking over to the window and peeking out from behind the curtain. Her car backed out of the driveway, slowly sped up down the street, then disappeared around a bend.

Time to go.

I turned off the TV and got together my pre-assembled, hand-picked explorer’s kit: flashlight, walkie-talkie (for calling backup), hammer (in case of monsters) and a few snacks in case I get hungry or have to camp out overnight. I tip-toed up the stairs and held my flashlight in my hand, holding my breath as I approached the far end of the hallway. There, a narrow dark staircase spiralled up to a door unlike any of the other doors in the house. It was old, intricate, and had a wobbly handle carved out of some kind of crystal. The chipped keyhole was just below the doorknob. In my kit, I had a heavy brass key that I found playing in the basement. I tried the doorknob just in case and felt it wriggle, but it was otherwise locked in place. I peered down the hall to make sure the coast was clear, then slotted the key and started to turn. It was a pain to turn and kept snagging, but after trying a few times the lock clicked and the door started to swing inward.

The door revealed a large attic space with an ancient dusty carpet glowing under the filtered rays of the mid-morning sun. It gave the room an almost fiery hue, emphasized by the twinkling of dust motes floating in the sunlight. The room was empty except for the furthest corner, which held some kind of table covered by a sheet. The walls were bare, showing peeling wallpaper of splayed white flowers stained brown with age.

Turning off my flashlight, I tiptoed into the room. My sneakers sank into the old carpet like quicksand, and I gripped my hammer tightly in case of any surprises. I wound my way along the wall towards the ghostly pile at the far corner, constantly looking left and right. The dust was almost choking, and I had to pull the front of my shirt over my nose.

I reached the far corner of the room, where the grimy statue-esque sheet stood towering above. My heart was ready to jump out of my chest, but I steeled myself and pinched the corner. After a few minutes I heaved the sheet off in a single go, kicking a storm of dust into the air. I was expecting something bad, but what I saw made me drop my hammer and rooted me to where I stood.

The sheet hid a small wooden table topped by a stone tablet and a framed picture. I’d seen similar tablets scattered across great open fields, like the one where my grandpa had been buried in the ground. Leaning against the tablet was a picture of me, a picture I don’t remember posing for. It looked recent…actually, it looked like it was just taken. The picture itself was old and fuzzy, but I could see faint details of the room behind me, like the dirtied flowers in the wallpaper. I looked to the tablet, and when I read the text I screamed and fell to the floor. On its stone surface was engraved my full name with two dates beneath it: the day I was born, and today’s date.

The door slammed shut behind me.

The Clockmaker

Cover for The Clockmaker

Written: 04/18/2010
Summary: The village of Couperin is home to the world’s finest, proudest, and most obsessive clockmakers. Except, of course, for the old man on the hill. When a young apprentice confronts this mysterious being, he finds that behind every clock’s gears, springs, and crystals lies far greater secrets than he ever imagined.

In the small mountain village of Couperin, whose residents knew each other better than they knew themselves, there was a rabid fascination with clock making. Every one of the village’s residents took delight in designing, building, and sharing clocks of all different shapes and sizes. The wives would carve out the tiny intricate mechanics, the husbands would assemble the often unwieldy frames, and the children would watch with fervent curiosity at the clicking gears and swinging pendulums. Strewn across the lawns and streets were countless clock prototypes, finished and unfinished, their synchronized ticking resonated across the hillside. The people of Couperin were very attached to their creations, and refused to sell their clocks for profit. To them, the clocks were both a pleasure and a necessity: their fantastic designs instilled pride in their creators, and they were very accurate in keeping time. One afternoon, it was discovered that an old man who lived in the tower just outside their village had been copying their creations. Before sunset, nearly all of Couperin’s residents were standing on the village square in arms.

Men and woman shouted in anger, their furor punctured by the ringing of the town church’s great bells. In the center of the ruckus was the village mayor, struggling to maintain civility. After a threat by one man to raid the tower, the mayor determined that anybody approaching the tower would have his clocks confiscated or destroyed. The citizens were furious, but immediately went silent following the mayor’s declaration. It was an outrage to have a replica made of your clocks, but to lose the clocks themselves was unimaginable. The villagers’ eyes traveled up the hill where the old man’s tower stood overlooking the village square. The church bell struck the night hour and the crowd dissipated with murmurs of indignation.

Far away from the activity of the village square, in a small shed nestled under an outcrop of trees, a young boy was hard at work over a set of wooden cogs. His eyes pored over markings on a dusty sheet of paper. The markings were blueprints for a skeleton clock, a clock with a naked frame, that he conceived while the rest of his family was sleeping. Traditionally, a boy waited until he was sixteen before he crafted his first clock from scratch. The village elders made a big ceremony out of it: there was a sermon, a certification, and the boy was given his own pocket watch. The village recognized him as a man and ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. The boy was ten years too young, but he was so eager to receive his pocket watch that he practiced daily on making the perfect clock.

The shed door suddenly opened, and a group of giggling children burst inside. A couple of boys rushed inside with fresh grass and dirt stains on their jeans. A young girl was twirling a weed between her fingers and periodically inhaling its pollen. “Knew we’d find you in here, Francis!” an older boy called as he crossed the frame of the door into the workshop. The young boy, hard at work sanding the teeth of a cog, quickly hid his plans and pushed his creation aside.

“Hi,” he replied sheepishly and turned to face the group. Wood shavings covered his overalls.

“You been cooped up in here all day again, ain’t ya?” The older boy asked. Francis didn’t respond. “Why don’t you come out and play with us?”

Francis shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not really in the mood.”

“Ah, you’re never in the mood!” Responded the older boy. “Come on, it’ll be fun! Me and the guys are playing tag on the hill! It’ll be great, right guys?” The other boys nodded, and one playfully shoved the other.

Francis paused for a moment, then turned back to his desk. “That’s ok. You guys go ahead. I’ll play some other time.”

The older boy gave him an incredulous look. “There ain’t no other time with you, Francis! You’d really rather spend all day cooped up in here than go outside and have a little fun?”

Francis said nothing and looked at the other children. The other two boys were tugging at each others’ shirts, and the girl was still transfixed by her dandelion.

“Hey, you wanna hear somethin’ neat?” The older boy said, leaning closer. His voice became quieter, almost a whisper. “While we was playing tag on the hill, we got a peek in on that old tower.”

Francis looked back at the other boy and widened his eyes a bit. “You guys went near the tower?” He said, and felt a hand clasp over his mouth.

“Shhh,” the older boy commanded, keeping his voice low. “Keep quiet! You want everyone in town to hear ya?” He took his hand off of Francis’ mouth. “Yeah, we went up there.”

“But you’re not supposed to go up there,” said Francis. “What about the old man?”

“What about him?” The older boy asked casually.

“You know what the adults say,” Francis said, his voice gradually become louder. “He’s an evil wizard who tricks people into coming in his house and kills them!”

At this, the two boys giggled madly. One raised his arms and moaned loudly, like a pint-sized monster of Frankenstein. The older boy raised his hand and shushed them, and the moaning dimmed down to an intense giggle. “When are you gonna stop believin’ in fairy tales, Francis?” Mocked the older boy. “We was just up there, and look at us! We’re alright!”

The two young boys, who were now wrestling playfully, waved to Francis as though reassuring him that they were still alive. Francis shrugged his shoulders.

“Come on,” said the older boy, “what are ya scared of? Some creepy old man who doesn’t even exist?”

“I’m not scared,” Francis quickly retorted.

“Then come with us and show us how brave you are!”

Francis hesitated for a moment, then brushed the wood chips from his overalls and followed the other children through the door.

Francis gazed up the worn, overgrown path before him. Hundreds upon hundreds of discarded clocks were strewn across the ground: old beastly machines with cast iron frames, rotting grandfather clocks with cracked or missing bonnets, small bracket clocks flattened against the ground as if thrown from a great height, and all shapes and sizes in between. Gears, bells, dials, and weights littered the path by his feet. Francis felt sudden pangs of uncertainty as he made his way up towards the tower, but he also felt the eyes of his peers watching from the edge of the hill. He approached the hefty wooden door to the old man’s tower and, placing both of his hands on the enormous frame, took a deep breath before slowly pushing inside.

The first thing he felt was a rush of cool air. The interior was dark and damp, and the stone walls resonated loudly with the clicking of what sounded like thousands of clocks. The racket was nearly deafening, but Francis made sure to close the door quickly before anyone else could see him. There was a lit torch on the wall that gave off a small, pale sphere of light, allowing Francis to peer around in the dimness.

Covering the dirty stone walls and the dusty floors were countless more clocks. Almost every square inch of the room, save a small path on the floor leading to a wooden staircase, had some manner of clock ticking or clicking or ringing away. With a bit of a surprise, Francis noted that some of the clocks looked very familiar. He had seen similar models at his neighbors’ homes, the village square, and even his father’s own workshop. Despite the racket, he decided to approach the old staircase at the end of the hall.

Nearly halfway down the hall, as he gingerly stepped over the machines littering the pathway, he felt a strange and sudden sense of disorientation. The din of the clocks was becoming quieter, and for that he was relieved, but the light of the torch was leaving his eyes and it was becoming far more difficult to see. He made more careful note of his footing to adjust for the darkness, but he realized he was having more trouble moving than normal. His feet felt like lead and his limbs grew stiff until they froze in midair. The hallway stretched before his eyes, and each individual clock seemed to meld into the next. In a panic, Francis tipped himself over and shouted as he struggled to move his arms. Instead of instantly crashing to the ground, Francis felt himself slowed by some strange buoyancy. The ticking of the clocks grew not only quieter, but slower. What was once a loud commotion became a distant silence, punctured every few moments by the tick or tock of a single clock. Francis could no longer think, or feel, or act. He could only note the ticks of each clock droning in his ear. In the center of his vision, out of the blur of clock faces, he saw the faint silhouette of an old man, and then sudden darkness.

Francis awoke with a start and a shout. Quickly glancing around, he noticed he was in his bedroom at home, and had full control over his arms and legs. The sun was high over the horizon and poured light through his window. He stepped out of bed, relieved at first, but paused as he noticed something very odd about the height of his floor. Rather than jumping down from the mattress, as usual, his feet actually touched the ground. Francis rushed across the room to his mirror and froze as a pale, wide-eyed adolescent greeted him in the filmy glass. Francis bolted downstairs into the kitchen and came across his father, who was tinkering with a broken clock and digging into a bowl of oatmeal at the same time.

“Father, father!” Francis shouted. He quickly cupped his hands over his mouth, shocked to hear a deep and baritone voice from his own lips. His father quickly looked up at him and muttered a “mornin’ Francis”, before going back to his work. For a moment, Francis simply stared at him in disbelief. “That’s it? ‘Mornin’ Francis’? That’s all you have to say?”

“What more do you want me to say?” Asked his father, poking at the inner mechanisms of the clock.

“Have you seen me!?”

Francis’ father tiredly raised his eyes. Just then, Francis noticed that his father appeared somewhat older than he remembered him. There were a few more wrinkles under his eyes, and gray hairs were beginning to poke out of head. Francis also noticed several changes around the house. There was new furniture, new dressings for the walls and floor, some of the older fixtures had been repaired or replaced, and dozens of new clock designs littered the halls. Francis looked out the window and saw that the streets were growing smaller, compacted by clocks he’s never seen before on his and his neighbor’s lawn.

“Are you alright son?”

Francis slowly turned from the window and sat by the table. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just…I guess I just had a bad dream. What are you working on?”

Over the next several days it became clear to Francis that something in the old man’s tower caused him to forget the past ten years of his life. Everything from that fateful moment until now was unrecoverable; most regrettably, he couldn’t remember his own ceremony into adulthood. He had the pocket watch to prove it, but not remembering the event made him feel empty inside. Francis was also more upset when he learned what his new responsibilities were. ‘Becoming an adult is more than just making clocks’, his father lectured as he dug out rakes and shovels from the tool shed. Cleaning, gardening, running errands, and watching the younger neighbor children were some of Francis’ least favorite yet most frequent activities. Francis constantly pondered the day he entered the tower. The children who watched him enter say they saw him leave only moments later, and his family members recall the past ten years as though they happened yesterday. As the days dragged into weeks, and the weeks into months, Francis began to long for the days he missed out on, the days he could not remember. He resolved to go back to the tower. He could not turn back the hands of time, but at least he might be able to get some answers.

Francis timidly opened the doors to the worn tower and stepped inside. He was surprised to find most of it remained unchanged. Discarded clocks still lay everywhere, ticking loudly. The torches on the walls burned brightly: he could feel their heat in the cool damp air. Francis cautiously made his way inside, but as he approached the staircase he began to feel the same binding sensation he felt the last time. His breath shortened, his limbs went stiff, and the hallway seemed to stretch off into the distance. Francis tried to cry out, but his breath stopped before it left his mouth. His vision faded, and once again the world went black.

Francis could barely open his eyes by the time he regained consciousness. He felt weak and sore all over, and his limbs were trembling with exhaustion. When he opened his eyelids, the world around him was dark. It was night; moonlight spilled in through the window and a candle flickered faintly in the corner of the room. Francis opened his eyes further and looked around. He knew it was his bedroom, though he did not want to admit it to himself. The floors were filthy and the wooden walls rotting. The springs of his mattress squealed as he struggled to the side of the bed. Francis slid his wrinkled feet into a pair of slippers and strained as he walked to his old mirror. He used the cuff of his robe to rub away the grime, and with his burning eyes he examined a withered old man staring back at him. He was almost unbearable to look at: gray, thin, hunched over, and barely clinging to life. Francis didn’t bother to check the rooms of his siblings and parents. Rather, he imagined they were still there sleeping soundly.

With great effort and despair, Francis left the rotting house and stepped onto the street. The dusty dirt roads had been paved over with cobblestone, new houses had sprung up all around his own, and the large wooden grandfather clocks of his day had become iron monoliths stretching far overhead. Francis choked at the idea of missing out on so much. Overlooking the village, despite all its years and almost resplendent in the moonlight, was the old tower. Francis gazed at it with a mix of emotions: longing and hating, desiring and averting, wishing and hoping for an answer. He wanted to know the reason for his life, why the things that happened happened. Above all, he wanted to meet the old man.

Francis opened the great door as the moon reached its zenith. It had taken all the energy in his body to carry him up the hill, and he knew he couldn’t go any further. As he collapsed at the entrance of the tower, he heard a set of footsteps rushing from the end of the hall followed by a gentle old voice whispering incomprehensibly. He felt a pair of arms reach around him, and he was lifted into the air.

“On your feet, sir,” the kindly old voice said, and Francis felt himself walking up the stairs. The torches on the wall grew brighter and gave off more warmth, and the ticking of the innumerable clocks was far less noisy than the lower section of the tower. Upon reaching the top of the staircase, he was helped into a rocking chair on the opposite side of a large workbench. Partly blinded by the torch light, Francis could barely make out the image of an old bearded man across from him. The man was brushing aside materials and blueprints until the workbench was almost entirely clear. Then, the man reached into his pocket and set down an ornate hourglass. The sand was falling at an unusually slow rate, as though it were extraordinarily dense, yet the vast majority of it had already fallen to the bottom chamber. Francis guessed there would be less than an hour left before the timer ran out, but realized that couldn’t be possible because meant the timer had been running for a very long time.

“How do you feel?” The voice said, startling Francis. “Not easy being so old, is it?”

Francis slowly raised his head and focused his eyes. “Are you the clockmaker?” He asked with a raspy voice.

“I am,” replied the man. “I don’t mean to frighten you, Francis, but I’ve been watching you for a rather long time.”

“Why?” Francis asked, a little more alert.

“Couperin is an intriguing place Francis,” the man said. “I’ve been…studying the way you and your neighbors live. You’re always concerned about time: time for this, time for that. There’s never a time for everything. Draw your plans, work quickly, and get the job done so you can move on to the next. But what I found most unusual is how you discard your clocks the moment you’re done with them. You take no enjoyment in the things you’ve made because you’re so eager to make something new.” The man moved the hourglass closer to Francis. “Do you see this, Francis? Take a close look. This is the time of your life. The first grain fell when you were in your mother’s womb; the last will fall when you draw your last breath. Tell me: where has it all gone?”

Francis reached over and picked up the hourglass. He felt small and fragile. He tilted it this way and that, but the stream of sand always fell straight into the bottom chamber. He placed it back onto the table, upside down, and watched impassively as the sand shot straight up, defying gravity and pooling at the top of the timer. He felt distanced from his own life, even as he saw it slipping away from him.

“The clock is really a fascinating invention,” said the man as he inspected a small cog, “although it’s merely another desire of man to gain some control over himself. Order, formality, organization; these all run counter to nature. The world is a dynamic place, Francis. And what about time itself?” The volume of the man’s voice was increasing. “You praise it, you hold it in high regard, you look to it in times of trouble, wishing you could move through it or against it but never with it. And so many of you, after realizing you no longer have time, wish you could have more or wish you could have managed it better. What good is a clock, then, when it only helps you consider what may be or what may have been?”

Francis could barely focus on the man. His eyes were still on the timer.

“Listen to me, Francis,” the man said. His voice had regained its original soft, compassionate tone. “The future isn’t important. The past isn’t important. What’s important is the moment that you’re living in. You were so concerned about other times that you forgot about the current time, the present time, the one time that really matters.” The man stood and walked to the far wall of the tower, where he reached toward a cluster of ornate wooden clocks. Out of the dozens, he pulled down a brilliantly ornate wooden bracket clock and placed it on the table in front of Francis. Francis’ dim eyes searched it in hopes of recognition.

“This is the clock that you and your father built on your sixteenth birthday,” the man explained. “It was the most beautifully crafted piece on all of Couperin. You always kept it by your side when you were growing up, to remind you of the day you became a man. Now you will use it to count your final moments.” The man pushed in his chair and walked away. Francis let his eyes drift to the clock on the table. He felt a sudden burning hatred for it and everything it stood for. The pure polished white face, the perfectly distanced markings, and the smooth iron hands twitching over it all. He felt sickened by the mere sight of it. He felt his limbs growing more tired, and the reservoir of sand in the hourglass approached its few final grains, but he pushed himself onto his feet and approached the workbench. The ticking of the bracket clock grew louder the closer he got to it, driving his anger until both the clock and his rage were roaring in his head. As the last few grains of sand tumbled down, Francis lifted his creation and smashed it against the floor. Blackness encroached his vision. Before he collapsed, he looked up at the clockmaker and saw a joyful smile on the old man’s face.

Francis was sitting on his front porch and wondering why the village suddenly seemed so expansive when a young friend of his approached. She was twirling a dandelion around between her fingers, and waved to him as she approached.

“Hey Francis,” she said with a smile. “What are you doing?

“Hi,” Francis replied. “I’m just thinking.”

“About what?” Asked the girl as she sat next to him.

“About this weird dream I had last night.”

The young girl gasped. “I had a weird dream too! I dreamed there were a bunch of these weird ticking things all over the place, and there was this old man who lived in a creepy old tower on the hill over there who did nothing but build more ticking things!” She pointed to the empty hill overlooking the village.

“Really?” Francis said with a chuckle. “That is weird.” He realized why the village seemed so much larger. What seemed like a lifetime ago, the streets of Couperin were littered with fanciful devices that made strange repetitive sounds and had thin rods that traced a circle over a bunch of markings. Now Francis was six years old and, despite never seeing one of these devices in his lifetime, he somehow knew what they were and how they worked. He couldn’t remember what they were called, but it didn’t really matter.

The girl shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll tell you about it some other time. Want to go play?”

Francis smiled and helped her to her feet.

Magical Pajamas

Written: 12/29/2014
Revised: 10/04/2019
Prompt: Whenever the main character wakes up from a dream, they have in their pocket whatever they had in their hands or were using during their dream, thanks to their magical pajamas…

My first memory was of Errol smiling into my crib. He had a smile that could resolve any argument, and a personality to match. Whenever I felt tired, anxious, or just fed up with life, Errol would be there to remind me that it was ok, everything was alright, and I was a stronger person than I gave myself credit for, even if I couldn’t understand it at the time.

As a kid, I remember Erol getting me my first camera as a birthday gift. It was nothing special, just a cheap little point-and-shoot. Back in the days when film had to be developed, I would save my pennies and run down to the store, cradling the old roll like an infant. I had boxes of photos of us diving in the local lake, horsing around in the woods behind the house, and leaping off the old tire swing in the backyard. The world was a canvas waiting to be painted with our whims and actions; each photo was a masterpiece of our time together.

As an adult, I remember having deep conversations with Errol over Facebook and Skype. His life’s mission was to travel the world and donate his time and money to helping the less fortunate. As long as other human beings suffered, he suffered. Whenever he had time and money to come back to the States, we’d meet up for beers or revisit our childhood stomping grounds, reminiscing over younger, more innocent days. Days when the weight of the world hadn’t yet fallen on us. On his last visit, I decided to pay back his gift with a digital camera, but only on the condition that he use it to chronicle his adventures. Within days of him leaving, he treated me to an ever-growing mosaic of foreign faces, places, and snapshots of human kindness that made me deeply question my relatively stale, listless, and self-absorbed suburban lifestyle.

As an old man, I watched Errol wither under the weight of his own generosity. He had given too much of himself and suffered for it in the end. As payment for improving the lives of those around him, he sacrificed his own health, and although he was only two years older than me, it looked as if we were decades apart. He died when I was 70, and I held his hand as he took his last breath. I didn’t take many pictures after that.

When Errol died, the wonder and joy of the world died with him. I realized that my own time in this world was running short, and while I was too frail to create new memories, I could still relive older ones. I climbed up to the attic and found the old boxes where my pictures and video cassettes lay collecting dust. One by one I scanned each image and digitized each cassette, amassing a digital graveyard of Errol’s experiences and memories. I saved this archive to a hard drive, which I carefully wrapped in electrostatic plastic and tucked safely into my pocket. When I was certain I had accomplished my goal, I opened the window in my office and leapt onto the asphalt three stories below.

I felt a palpable sense of relief as I opened my eyes and saw my bedroom. I was once again a young man in my apartment, waking up from another long, hazy dream of Errol. Yet today, there was something different. Something pressed against my thigh. I reached into the pocket of my pajamas and pulled out a small hard drive in an electrostatic bag. Vivid images from my dream rushed into my mind, and I closed my eyes as hot tears welled. I gently set the hard drive on my desk next to the only picture of Errol I owned, a picture of him as a toddler just before he died in that fateful accident over two decades ago.

Returning to Earth

Written: 01/23/2016
Revised: 10/07/2019
Prompt: After the fall of their interstellar empire, humans became space nomads. After 2000 years of searching, you and your crew have finally rediscovered the legendary home world, Earth.

I often wondered of the emotions that ran through the minds and hearts of those first explorers to venture off of their home planet. What a rush it must have been, escaping the bonds of your mother world and losing yourself in the vast cosmos, vaulting deep into the unknown skies where asteroids flit between sleeping stars. The dreams and aspirations of an entire species looking ever-upwards, contained in just a few individuals. The weight of responsibility – the fear of failure – must have been unimaginable.

So I thought as I gazed out of the porthole towards a distant blue dot: Earth.

A faint gust of air brushed against my cheek, followed by a gentle hiss and a distinct sense of ozone. The oxygen scrubbers were on the fritz again. I’d have to daydream another time.

I propelled myself out of bed and guided myself through the living quarters, launching between the hand holds and suspension beams lining the ship’s halls. I passed by the ship’s old science labs, long-since re-purposed as a hydroponics lab and living quarters. A shuddering cough came from one of the bunks.

I continued on through the central hub to the mess hall, where I found most of the ship’s passengers eating in somber silence. The downcast eyes gazed tired and haggard while bony hands fumbled at the airtight seals of the meager rations that remained. These poor, emaciated creatures, surrounded by cold steel and artificial food in a vast empty void, sat in small close circles as our ancient ancestors once sat in groups around a fire. They were still human, and they still held hope in their hearts. A smile tugged at my lips.

I floated towards a group of people who were once very familiar to me, but were now so thin that I could hardly recognize them.

“Do you know where my father is?” I asked. Several of the heads shook, but one looked up at me.

“He’s in the bridge,” the wretch replied. I bowed my head, then kicked off towards the heart of the ship.

The bridge soon spread out before me, a wall of lights, switches, consoles, buttons, monitors, joysticks, levers, and dials, each of which seemed to flash and buzz a distinct tone, light, or rhythm. A pair of seats stood in the center facing the front of the ship, and two pairs of arms extended from behind them. The beeps and clicks of the controls broke the monotony of the ship’s ambient hum.

“Father?” I asked, cautiously drifting towards the seats. One of the arms froze in mid-air, then continued after a brief pause.

“Yes Aria?” Came a voice heavy with determination and exhaustion.

“How far?” I asked.

“Not far.” He said.


He paused. “Tomorrow,” came the reply. I ducked out of the room, content for the day. I floated back out of the bridge, but paused just out of sight.

“You shouldn’t lie to her,” came another voice, that of the co-captain. Father chuckled.

This was our nightly ritual. Every night, I asked him when we would arrive back on Earth, and every night he told me ‘tomorrow.’ It was how we stayed optimistic, how we stayed motivated, how we smiled through the food shortages and life support failures and months of drinking recycled water, breathing recycled air, and eating recycled food. No matter how grim today seemed, tomorrow always promised new blessings, new opportunities, and new adventures. We always remained hopeful that tomorrow would be the day of our salvation, the day that we finally set foot back on our homeworld. The day that we returned to Earth.

I had just enough strength to drift into bed. Before succumbing to sleep, I turned to look out the viewport once again. The pale blue dot seemed so close, so utterly and tantalizingly close. Although it was still many millions of miles away, each day brought us closer yet. Soon – tomorrow – we would be home.


Written: 01/06/2015
Revised: 10/03/2019
Prompt: There are no stars, no sun in the sky. Fire invisibly produces heat. Light is a very rare element which can be found buried in the earth. The ancient art of extraction is perilous and almost lost. You are one of the last of the lightminers.

I anchored myself to the cliff face and leaned back into the void. Reaching for my sonic whistle, I turned my head to the emptiness behind me and gave a soft blow. The sound echoed off the sheer rock walls of the cylindrical chasm surrounding me, and from its echo I could ‘see’ where I was. There seemed to be solid ground not too far below, so I loosened my anchor and rappelled the remaining few meters.

My boots kicked up a small cloud of dust as I landed. I hammered another anchor into the ground, tied off my rope, and loosened my harness a bit before blowing into my whistle. A large, empty, cavernous expanse extended all around me, littered here and there by piles of stone and enormous stalactites. I felt my way along the uneven floor, careful not to disturb any loose structures. I cornered a wide stalagmite and came across an opening in the cavern wall. Beyond, I could hear drops of water splash into a shallow pool.

When I entered the side passage, my eyes suddenly burned beneath my eyelids and a bolt of piercing energy seemed to strike the very center of my mind. I shielded my face, turned away, and blew my whistle.

Dangling from the low ceiling of this small alcove were thousands upon thousands of tiny wriggling worm-like creatures tangled in a massive network of fine webbing. They were coated in small bubbles of fluid that slowly accumulated, fell, and landed in a pool on the ground. As I slowly lowered my arm, I noticed the darkness I had grown so accustomed to gradually vanish, replaced by a bright and luminous blue glow. I slowly opened my eyes to a blur of light, dancing and throbbing in front of me.

As my eyes adjusted, I stood amazed at the sight before me. The alcove was painted in a deep blue glow given off by the countless worms dangling from the ceiling. Each creature held pearls of white light that squirmed up and down their bodies like millions of moving stars. As each creature moved, so too did its bio-luminescence, creating a shimmering wall of light across the roof of the cavern. Each drop of water caused light to ripple and bounce across the surface of the pool and spread to the far reaches of the alcove.

The tangled web created a contrast of sharp white lines against the dark stone behind it. I took off my glove, held out my hand and saw for the first time the intricate patterns of skin under pure light. I noticed the pits and callouses that I was so accustomed to feeling from years of climbing, while the complexion stood out as an almost translucent paleness. My body, which looked so odd in the glow of natural light, was a tangle of shades and colors, from the black bands of the harness to the brown bundle of rope dangling off my backpack. The fabric of my clothes created oceanic waves beneath the stark tightness of the harness’ bands, while my arms and legs seemed almost luminescent in comparison.

After spending some time in admiration, I started collecting. I bundled as many of the worms as I could in jars, but left most of them behind. I’ll admit I made this decision not out of respect or to maintain their population, but because I wanted to keep the beauty of this place intact. This was going to become my own personal retreat whenever I grew weary of darkness.

I stepped out of the alcove back into the main cavern and raised the jar above my head. Waves of light washed over the stone, bringing the sharp edges and sheer walls to life. Metals and minerals embedded in the stone gleamed as I passed by as if winking at me before sparking out of existence. I stumbled through this strange and alien landscape for some time before getting the idea to blow my whistle. The bland, wavy echoes were nothing in comparison to the sharp, vivid illusions that met my eyes, and so I left the whistle behind. It was eagerly swallowed by the darkness.

I affixed myself to the rope and began the long trip back up. With the worms lighting the way, it promised to be a hell of an ascent.

Book Deal

Written: 03/22/2014
Revised: 10/03/2019
Prompt: All books have been banned. Describe a drug deal of books.

The half moon had long since peaked before I dared venture out into the cold night, bundled tightly to protect myself against the frigid air. I pulled my knit hat low and walked down the snowy sidewalk, one of a mere handful of souls that dared brave the freezing night. The few people that I passed paid me no mind, and for that I was more than grateful.

The alley appeared exactly as I’d dreamed it would. Narrow and hunched, it reminded me of the old library I frequented as a child, with its cramped aisles and book stacks that seemed to stretch into the ether. I longingly recalled winter days spent poring over the epic fantasies of Tolkien and Jordan, uncovering Earth’s strangest mysteries with Verne’s scientists and explorers, falling into abyssal despair and madness with Lovecraft’s doomed souls.

It’s been a long time since I’ve held a book. A real book. Ever since Disney’s "Gutenberg law" outlawed traditional media, anything that isn’t licensed or part of a franchise has been hard to come by. I thought I would adapt, I thought it would be fine, but over time I could feel my mind wasting. I felt…starved. Thankfully, an old college friend put me in touch with someone who could help. Or, at least, I hoped they could.

There came a narrow gap between two buildings. Ducking under an archway, heavy cigarette smoke filled my nostrils. Wisps drifted around a tall, slender figure covered in furs, leaning against the brick wall. The smoke seemed to hang frozen in the wintry air.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” I stammered, but I couldn’t tell whether it was due to the cold or anxiety. The person’s face – it seemed to be a woman – was mostly obscured in shadow. She took a long drag on her cigarette, bringing it down to the filter.

“It tolls for thee,” she replied in a brisk Serbian accent. She tossed the butt to the floor and it fizzled in a small puddle. She turned towards me and a pair of sharp eyes glared from underneath the hood of her coat. Her face was thin and gaunt, but her eyes were fire.

“Do you have the lit?” I whispered.

“You have the money?” She whispered back. I reached into my coat pocket and unfolded a bundle of money. She glanced at the amount and scoffed.

“I sell lit,” she said firmly. “For this, you would not get a writing prompt response.”

I sighed, and reached into my other pocket for more. I didn’t want to spend it, but opportunities like this were rare. She quickly pocketed all of it.

“Come,” she commanded. I followed her down a steep flight of stairs into a cellar apartment. As soon as the door opened and that familiar musty odor assailed my nostrils, the money became inconsequential.

Spread across tables and chairs were countless volumes of literature, no doubt liberated from old libraries and shuttered bookstores around the world. Every genre was represented, with collections from authors both familiar and unknown to me. My heart raced as I recognized covers that I hadn’t seen in decades, and I fought the urge to caress each volume as I passed by.

My host spoke to me as I browsed, but her voice seemed distant. “You are lucky. I have some new Tolstoys and a Nabokov, there, on the table to your left. I also have Orwells that just came in last week: Animal Farm, and 1984."

I stumbled through the vast, subterranean library in dumbfounded amazement. For a moment I fell back into my childhood, where I spent hours traversing the aisles searching for a book that would practically leap off the shelves at me. My eyes fell on a dusty hardcover – the complete works of Shakespeare – and it was love at first sight.

“Ah, so you are a poet,” she smirked. “Go on, you may have one more, but be quick.”

Channeling my inner child, I scanned the floors, practically crawling, and came across a tattered Don Quixote. Without a second thought, I clutched both books to my chest, thanked my host, and parted under the cover of darkness.

The moment I locked my front door behind me, I tossed off my outer clothes and fell to the floor of the entryway, staring at my bounty with a fluttering heart. I cannot say how long I sat there running my hands over the aged covers, flipping through the soft pages, inhaling the sweet, dry musk of time-eaten ink and paper. My watery eyes could hardly discern the text, but I could feel the words through the haggard pages, the slight bump of the ink, and the bent spines. The feeling that I was once again reliving my childhood days in that old library was nothing short of orgasmic. I knew that I would read these novels again and again, and prayed that I would someday once again find myself in that magical apartment, stumbling among the piles and rows of forbidden fruit. In the meantime, though, I had my fix.