It wasn’t supposed to be like this, the hero thinks blankly. But how else would it have ended, if not like this?
For all the stars in the sky, the light does nothing to make the bloodstained field any less terrible. On the ground, the corpse stares soullessly at the uncaring heavens. The hero had always imagined it would end differently, hundreds of different confrontations like shattered glass strewn around him.
A battle for the ages, like the prophesy had proclaimed, some grand confrontation on a thunder-backed hill, clashing swords until the grass catches, til it burns down the hill in a terrific crescendo? The villain, begging for mercy as words of vengeance were spat down to tear-filled eyes? Or a softer ending, perhaps: the impossible confrontation that ends with clasping hands. How laughable.
Nothing so grand. A battle is never the fairytale it's presented as. There is no grand strike, no singing, no stairs of Valhalla, shining with the long-sought rewards.
Just the sounds of soldiers rooting through the bodies. Just the distant sounds of weeping, the cries of the wounded, those who refuse to be claimed by death without a fight.
Just a corpse at his feet, torn apart.
Just the strange thought that lingers behind his eyes - In the eyes of a stranger, would this all look different? Would a different set of eyes notice how similar the armour was, rather than the stark difference in the colours of the tattered flags strewn around the hill?
The start of this all had felt like foreplay, a burning so deep that he’d been screaming the battlecry, rather than chanting the words. But now it’s just terrible silence, and the dead eyes of a man.
He stares out at the countless bodies - fallen heroes, that’s what they’ll be called in the songs. No one will bother telling how many cried in the end, nor how the arrogance that comes from tempting fate shrivels in the face of a raised sword or hissing arrow, a charging horse.
Even now, the few survivors well enough to stand are trudging up the hill towards him with tired grins on their faces, insults thrown at the corpse on the ground when they notice it.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, the hero thinks.
A challenger approaches, the challenger lurks in the pixels of a screen
Or does it lurk in the doubt,
coiling in between my ankles, cold scales and leeching warmth away
What if, it calls, sings softly, in the voice it has always had, even in childhood
Pictures of horses, of dragons, drawn to life with seemingly effortless swipes of a pen or pencil
And beside that paper - me, unmarked paper, a growing resentment
Why bother? it hums, sliding up around my neck to reach the ears I haven’t grown into yet
Why even try translating your imaginings onto paper, when others can do that?
The dragon that hesitantly comes to life looks at its cousin with mournful eyes -
flat, undefined, as though it died confined to be 2-D on the page - no muscle
no grandly arching wings stretching nearly off the page
See? whispers the voice (sad, triumphant, angry, who can truly tell)
It leaves trails down my mind, across my thoughts - blood trails of apathy that ache like infected cuts.
It doesn’t bother to use fangs - who has need of teeth when apathy burns for longer?
Its apathy births a twin - indelible, its own teeth bared in denial.
Why not try? it roars, where the other voice whispers.
everything starts small, everything grows -
The coiling presence doesn’t bother to laugh, but its twin cringes away regardless.
Do we really believe that?
(It doesn’t limit itself to reality though, that’s the cruel irony.)
With every scroll, it awakens.
We’ll never be that good, it hisses.
Its solutions sing sweet as rotting fruit, but by far, its cruellest trick is impersonation.
A facsimile, a false twin rises from the apathy,
a wounded voice.
We’ve done well before, it speaks, and it speaks truth (another bitter cruelty).
Would it not be better to take up an already shining creation, to present it under a shifted light
rather than stare at the void of an empty paper, a blinking curser, a scribbled-over sketch?
You know that one’s good, at least.
Most days, it’s hard to even tell if the false twin is false - it speaks with the same voice as bared-teeth obstinance.
What if, sings the voice, coiling between indecision and the blank pages
Better not to try than to be bitten, says the voice below the song.
The twin snaps and snarls at the apathy drifting around its head,
roars at the blood trails left by its twin, the cruel mirror
(is it cruel, if it speaks truth? Does it?)
They share the same frustrations, it seems.
Another empty page, and two sets of eyes watch the curser blink,
drifting around my ankles, snapping at their twin, pushing it back down -
It is always unknown, which will win at the beginning of things.
A new challenge - is it worth facing, or is it better to read other works, feeding insecurity to the ever-growing ouroboros.
The snapping of teeth, a hissing retreat.
The soft words linger, even as the words appear to fill in the void.
There is nothing left, inside my walls
No thrumming life, no tiny two-beat heart
The sea has carved away even the harshest edges,
Not even leaving behind the memory of being
Just soft impression - no more teeth, no more struggle
All is returned to the waves, the womb
As you lift the empty vessel to your ear,
listen to the roar of the sea
and remember that we are not so different
Frozen time [TW: graphic descriptions of injury, death, and a car accident]
The aux cord plays the song she's had on a loop in her mind for days, and she hums along, half-listening. The sound is starting to become familiar, the lyrics quickly jumping to mind
- she memorizes lyrics quickly, though she can never sing them on demand. How many times has she listened to this today, she wonders vaguely as she approaches the roundabout. The song is dull, now. She glances down, finger poised to skip, but not yet, first she has to make it around the curve to the exit, and then -
He and his friend are half-laughing as they drive, happily complaining about the assignment they'd been working on for the last three hours, but it's 9 PM now, time to relax. His friend slaps his arm in response to his last gripe, head thrown back. His friend laughs loudly, a barking laugh with a perfect three-three ratio of silence to sound, and he laughs along, his own amusement a run-on line, no pauses. He shakes off his distraction as his friend continues to laugh, the sound still filling the jeep as he approaches the roundabout -
The rain on the warm summer pavement gleams with the lengthened strands of reflected lights. The roundabout is ahead, and she's driven it hundreds of times, it's just a few blocks away from her old house. She drove around it as a kid, so many times, and remembers seeing that one jeep they all saw occasionally, the one with the birds. There had been a parrot in the passenger seat, a blue macaw, sapphire blue, and small cages piled in the back seat, bright flashes of green, lovebirds and budgies. She had never got a good glimpse of the driver, a woman. She turns down the music, maybe she should skip the song? She had only ever looked for the birds. The light of the streetlights aren't as bright as the macaw in her memories, but still special in their own ways, glowing up like a second world. She wonders what the woman had looked like, as she pulls into the roundabout with a finger hovering over the skip button, not quite looking up ahead as a jeep pulls ahead -
His eyes hurt a bit, after staring at the screen of his laptop for so long, the transition to driving too abrupt - it feels like his eyes have to catch up, and they ache, not that he's focusing on it. As his friend laughs, he reaches up to adjust his glasses, rub at his eyes a bit - maybe he needs to update his prescription again, he thinks absently, even though he saw the doctor last year about his eyes. Do you see an optometrist twice a year, or is once a year ok? He reminds himself to ask mom, when he gets home. Meanwhile, he blinks several times fast as his friend nudges him with an arm, bringing up that last meme. He laughs along, it was a good one, clever. He tries not to think about his aching eyes as he glances both ways, not bothering to stop fully as he pulls into the roundabout, glancing left, at the fast-approaching car -
The car is still cold, even though she spent a good five minutes waiting for it to warm up, but it does take a bit to warm up. It should be ok after another few minutes. The familiar song plays as she approaches the roundabout - the one where the bird lady used to drive. Maybe she should turn up the heat a bit. She wishes this car had nice heated seats, but it doesn't, and the intrusive cool that comes with the rain seems to drift though the sealed walls of the car, straight through her jacket to her skin. The front-facing vents which blow warm air towards the passengers aren't very efficient. She should have worn gloves, but the ones she has keep shedding their cheap suede covering, and the bits get stuck under her nails. She taps a cold finger on the wheel, absently humming to the song. She should skip it, she knows the lyrics mostly. If she was wearing gloves, she wouldn't be able to hit the skip on the warm screen of her phone, she thinks, hovering a finger over the skip. She pulls into the roundabout, and that's enough of the song, she hits skip with her cold finger just as a jeep pulls directly in front, and she gasps as her wide eyes meet his, just as the music changes, the headlights blinding on the side of his door as she tries to hit the brakes -
He laughs as his friend gestures dramatically about the assignment, wagging a finger in the exaggerated way their teacher always does. His eyes hurt a bit, and he fiddles with the stitching along the back of the steering wheel covering to distract himself, neat raised lines. He wonders if a machine did that as he gives up and surrenders to the need to rub at his eyes, listening to his friend recite that great meme. He lifts a shoulder, but the seatbelt rubs too much - he's always had sensitive skin, and it rubs, even through his shirt and jacket. He pulls it away, but it snaps back, and his friend snorts a laugh, seeing him do it, raising an eyebrow of false judgement. He reaches over to shove as his friend laughs, the guy isn't even wearing his seatbelt, he can't judge too hard, and he should be wearing it, but it's only a short drive. If a cop comes, he can get it on fast enough, not that he's driving badly, he's still got his learner's license, he's gotta be careful. He lets the seatbelt snap back into place - he's at the roundabout, and he pulls out, just as a black car rounds the bend - he feels the exact moment the hairs on his arms stand up as his eyes widen, meeting the eyes of the woman in the car as she drives straight towards him, and he tries to accelerate away, panic rising -
The sound of metal colliding, the screech of tires on wet pavement, then horns, brakes, silence. The rain patters against the pavement, unbothered -
The cars slam together, and three bursts of white slam out of the cars as airbags deploy, as the driver door of the silver jeep crunches inwards, as the windscreen of the black car shatters, the driver jolting forwards at the impact - their eyes meet before the metal collides, two terrified souls trapped in horror together before everything turns to chaos -
She feels the impact rattle through her bones, and for an instant, she's floating, weightless. She can feel the moment something in her neck snaps when the cars hit, and she feels a flood of pain, so intense that she can't even scream, and the world goes black as the car jolts forwards. She doesn't feel it when her body slams back into her seat, as the airbag deploys. She doesn't feel the warm blood trailing down her coat, the glass shards embedded so deep they scrape bone in some places, she doesn't feel the way her leg is caught by a rugged piece of metal, pinned, as the car jerks to a halt, too caught in the other to move forwards as he foot slips off the pedals -
He doesn't know what happened. He can feel something on his face, and everything is cold - what happened? He tries to move, but his body isn't responding. Was he - what was he doing? He looks to his left, and sees a wall of metal - he doesn't have one of those at home. Does his friend? His friend was just here, sitting beside him. Where is he? He tries to move his neck, and gasps at the feeling, the jolt, a pain he didn't expect, but he can move it, and he does, looking to his right -
She lies there, motionless, seeing nothing as she stares forwards, blood leaking from her wounds, her neck twisted harshly. Her eyes are blue, like the feathers of a macaw. There is nothing behind the blue of her eyes.
He tries to scream, but his throat won't move, and all he does is make a terrible choked sound as he sees. His friend is half-though the windshield - he wasn't wearing a seatbelt, they had been driving - why hadn't he been wearing a seatbelt? His friend isn't moving. He tries to move his arm, and it's shaking, and it's cold - he can't see what's on his hand. His glasses are gone. Where are - not important, he tells himself, and his arm is uselessly patting the back of his friend's thigh, the only thing he can reach, but he isn't moving, and he can't call out - out! He has to get out, then he can help, get to his friend. He tries to move, and he can't - Why won't his legs move? Why is - is everything blurry? Course it is, he doesn't have his glasses. The thought, inane as it is, makes him giggle, the sound choked, hysterical. He needs to get out, then he can get his glasses, he must be in shock. His legs aren't moving. He squints, trying to see his legs. There's so much everything in the way, metal, a deflating airbag, covering his legs. His legs - they must just be buried, he thinks, under all this wet metal. He whimpers a bit when he sees how much is in the way, tries to see, he can't see it well without his glasses. Everything is definitely blurry. He doesn't want to be here. He - he wants to be home, he thinks, and his mind latches onto the thought.
It's - it's really cold here. He tries to move up, out, but he can't feel his legs, his legs are buried, and his hands are cold and wet, covered in something? He needs to see, but he can't see anything, everything's too blurry. He's tired. He can - maybe he should rest, before he tries to move. It's getting warmer - he can take a break, then get out. Then he can...
His head slumps forwards into the wet airbag before he can finish his thought.
Stop. But there's no stopping this.
The shouts of others from outside as they try to help, but how? They shout back and forth, but no one moves. No one wants to make it worse. Soft exclamations, curses, prayers. Someone's calling 911.
The boy doesn't feel the moment his brain stutters to a stop, his body spasming once as it tries to move the blood which keeps draining from the mess of metal that tore through his legs, leaving exposed veins, nothing stopping the blood from flowing out, away. He doesn't wake.
On the hood of the jeep, the left eye of his friend is wide. A shard of glass has ruined the right eye, which oozes blood and rain. The cause of his death is unrelated to the glass.
The girl's eyes, macaw blue, reflect the artificial flashing blue and red of the ambulance's lights.
Fatal crash, the article reads. Three casualties.
A terrible revelation
It doesn't matter what those words are -
There is no marker - no red sky warning of the oncoming storm.
You'd be lucky to get any sense of threat, that feeling of looming foreboding that you push aside with a laughing nonchalance.
Then the words drop from a smiling mouth, or a serious face, or a face you can't see, because the words drown out everything else, heavier and more terrible than any thunder.
They careen though your head, they bolt and funnel through the understanding, the truth that you'd carried, sure of its steadiness, until now -
You won't remember the face of the speaker, as they offer condolences, or as they laugh at the look of shock on you own pale face, as your thoughts are cruelly scattered, as they collide, tumble together into a flood of meaningless static and rain.
Now what, a soft thought breaks through the downpour
There are no answers, no step-by-step plan
Even if there are faces around you, comforting hands on shoulders, consoling words, none seem to break through the shower of understanding -
The truth drops into place with the sound of a judge's gavel striking wood, sliding into place with terrible certainty.
There is no way to return to that cloud-light happiness of before -
a moment so far away even though it was only moments ago.
The beads whisper ssshhhh as they shift,
tumbling over and into each other like waves.
A child laughs in wonder at the brilliance
the beauty formed
from cheap glass beads and a paper tube
Turning, turning, turning
until the patterns become muted
by the loss of novelty.
There's a sad longing in knowing
How impossibly long it would take
To see that same first pattern again
But that wouldn't matter,
as the child cannot recall just what it looked like -
They just turn the Kaleidoscope,
knowing the pattern is never the same.
Tenebris - Excerpt
“It all worked out in the end. You got back safely, and you survived. That’s the important thing.”
He gives me a thankful look.
“Any final thoughts?” I ask.
He nods, takes a few seconds to think.
“It was all…so much. It really scared me, and I had no way of knowing that I was even alive. I don’t know how long I was actually in the blackhole, and that scares me a lot. Even if it was a major breakthrough, the first mission sending a living human through a blackhole…I don’t think I ever want to do something like that again. It was nearly too much for me to handle without a partner there with me, I think. I’m glad we did it, I know that the data we can recover will be revolutionary, but I don’t think it’s worth it to try again with people. It was…terrible. I was so alone…”
His eyes look helpless, far away. I lean forwards and take his hand, and he blinks, starts a little. He laughs quietly as he squeezes my hand back.
“Maybe next time we should play it safe, yeah? Caution is probably better in the long run.”
He nods at me, signalling he’s done.
Alpha cuts the recording.
He exhales heavily. Everyone crowds around him, talking over each other until Hiwara speaks up.
“That sounds like it was terrible,” the engineer says seriously.
He laughs a little. “It really was. We definitely should have sent a dog in first.”
“The important thing,” Dumont chimes in, “Is that you got back safely.”
“Yeah,” Nolan says, and he looks at me, and his eyes are warm, “I’m here now, with you all. I’m not alone anymore.”
I smile back at him.
I ignore the twinge in my mind still screaming at me that something is wrong.
To the Darkness
When I was little, you seemed so big. I hated the thought that you lived in my closet - if the door wasn't closed, you'd get out.
I never saw you, but I knew things about you: You had teeth, and claws, impossibly long, pulled into a smile as you watched and waited for my vigilance to slip. You were fast, but could move without sound, snaking along the floor at the base of the bunkbed's ladder. You had big, big eyes, and could see everything.
I knew your weaknesses. You hated to be disturbed, and you hated to be seen - a sweep of the light, and you'd recoil into smallness. You respected the borders - no climbing over the railing, no climbing up the ladder, you didn't try opening the closet door if it was shut.
You knew mine. The light only reaches so far, and you moved faster than I - you might not have been able to open the door or climb the ladder, but you'd send me wondering and worrying until the only relief was the sweep of the headlamp, just to make sure. You would watch, laugh silently when I snatched my hand back to safety after trying to be brave. You would chase me up the basement stairs, would follow me on vacations, only kept back by the sounds of my family sleeping blissfully around me.
We were both stubborn. I shoved blankets in the cracks of the lower bunk to keep the light out at night when my sibling's reading kept me up past sleeping time, hating the light as much as you did, close beneath me even if I didn't think you were in the shared bedroom. I was afraid of you, but I knew you wouldn't cross the borders - I got rid of the night light when I got my own room in the new house. You never bit my hands or feet when I got too hot in the summer night and trailed them over the side.
My new bed is heavy - no space below it, pressed as it is into the carpet. The drawers beneath it are full of childhood things and spare blankets - you can't live there comfortably. But my closet door is still shut at night. Sometimes, the old fears come in, but I laugh and roll over, showing my back to the darkness. I face the wall, stare at the dark paint and nothingness until I drift into dreams.
But I still close the closet door where you might still live before I go to sleep.
Rebirth behind a screen
Adaption, evolution - it comes for all things. They've changed like everything has, shedding skins as the world spins through time.
Lust pulls a long drag from a cigarette, grinning. Its newest script hangs from the limp, shaking hands of the actors trying not to be sick, not bothering to protest regardless. They look at Lust with eyes that are dead when not illuminated by red camera light, as they slip into their false persona for the scene, back out of it just as quickly to turn to what relief they can find. Don't worry, Lust croons, pressing money, drugs, noose-tight contracts into desperate delirious hands. Cameras, recorded videos, faked expressions and exclamations, hidden pain - the numbers of viewers only climb with each dawning day. The triple-X ratings and urls burn behind Its soulless eyes.
Greed hides behind walls, behind deals, behind suits and smiles and lies. Power comes to those at the top, and Greed finds the cutthroat climb exhilarating. Money pours though tightened fingers into crypts, into vaults, into the newest corruptible climber. One more, add it to the pile. Journalists circle like mosquitoes, causes represented by forgettable faces praise what little runoff flows their way. Greed sees itself in faces of anyone else who climbed this far, the faces at the table. Who cares if the world is dying? they laugh together. Investments grow, bribes are given with sly handshakes and unspoken threats as Greed looks towards new interests - anything to add to the hoard.
Gluttony is twinned, split apart and still ravenous. The older twin laughs as it watches endless videos, new recipes, new eating challenges, new lives wasted by hunger that never lessens - It works closely with its siblings, feeding the fear of not enough, never enough. It turns the gaze of the world away from consciousness - why not have another bite? it croons, revealing in supersize, in the appetite of the ignorant, of the rich. The younger twin whispers behind a new face, a six-pack of abs, a new morning routine video. It promotes moderation - count your calories, watch your weight, follow this new diet. Organic, Vegan, Raw, a million trends to try, a million voices clamouring for recognition. Here's a tip to loose ten pounds, here's a weird trick, here's a recipe. You want to look your best, don't you? it laughs. Effortless results, It promises, heaping lies and misinformation like another serving on the older twin's plate.
Sloth lives happily in a world of automation - no need to get up when it's delivered to your door, it thinks. It has climbed upwards like Greed, but instead of climbing ever-further, settles into contentment like a hibernating bear. It is content to watch, to forget the world in order to sit in front of a screen - shorter, faster, no need for pointless exposition when the action starts faster than ever. Shrinking attention spans and voices that it chooses to trust soothes it to sleep. No need to read when the information is delivered in a five-second snippet. No need to dig further when its faithful siblings speak and drown out all other voices.
Wrath cackles as it starts another pointless war. Anonymity is a shield, is a weapon sharper than any other sword. It uses carefully cropped facts, anecdotes, taking what suits it to form a bludgeon. Gaslighting, laughing, excuses, abuse, form into words, into accusations. Blood pounds in its veins as it read over the debates - the old arguments for fox-hunts and bullfights roaring alongside new defences over locked-ring boxing, the newest action movie promoting the bloody fight of a new white hero, the right to bear arms. It pulls up another enemy to throw into the ring. The argument is perfect, is beautifully sincere in asking for engagement. It doesn't matter. It's a fight, like any other. It stands on both sides of the argument, screaming slogans that go unheard by both sides, misrepresented facts and tear-jerking stories, quotes, verses. Anything to fuel the fire.
Pride's streams are the most-viewed as it denies allegations, as it covers over accusations. It's perfect, and its viewers agree. It reads the comments, calls the names of those who do it a favour, pretends to care, pretends to be thankful. It knows it's so much more important than anyone else - if it wasn't, why would it be this successful? It offers advice like alms to the hungry masses - it just takes hard work and dedication, it promises. It ignores circumstance, the privilege of birth, of colour, of country - The angry comment sections wondering if Pride is simply ignorant to the struggles of others, or if it doesn't care, demanding acknowledgement are blocked or shoved away by a crowd of follower's praise. Pride moves on to plan their next perfect post - it doesn't care, and why would it? Life is perfect.
Envy has grown into a thousand platforms, seethes and cries unseen for what it cannot have. It scrolls endlessly, liking and replying false congratulations as it hates with a hundred-million unblinking eyes. Each smiling face, each newly-launched success sinks into resentment that festers around it. The perfect lives of its rivals mocks it through the newest successful post. How dare they, it thinks, it echoes. It has pages of wish-lists, piles of credit cards, anything to fill the void, but it will never be enough.