What is Death?

I was driving on the freeway with my father when he said to me, “I am not afraid.”

I was taking him home from the hospital. We’d been there to see his oncologist, who told us that his cancer – which at that point had spread to his pancreas, liver, brain, and lymph nodes from where it had originated in his lungs – was not responding to chemotherapy. This was two weeks before dad’s oncologist made the recommendation that he go on hospice. But the truth of his death, that modern medicine was no longer going to be borrowing him any more time was already too heavy in the air to remain unspoken.

I will never forget how he said those words to me, “I am not afraid.” He said them with bluntness, honesty, and sadness. I responded, “I don’t think there is any good reason to be afraid.” We both accepted that the conversation was too difficult to go much further than that, so it didn’t. Not then. Less than a month later, he was gone.

I was with him when he took his last breath at 2:21 in the morning, kneeling at the side of his hospital bed in the living room of the house I grew up in. My mom, sister, and a smattering of aunts and uncles were there, too. There are so many details about that night that I somehow both wish I could forget, and that I am grateful I never will. Every time I shut my eyes I am back in that room with him. I have dreamed about it. Had nightmares about it. Written poems about it (though I won’t claim they were good). Had flashbacks akin to the kind that resurface years after a bad trip, usually triggered by something terribly mundane – a half-finished package of saltines in the back of his truck (his comfort food after the nausea got bad), the childish drawings and “get well soon” notes still displayed above the fireplace, or any reference at all to sleeping on the floor (where I was supposed to crash that night, because every other bed and couch in the house was full).

I want to be out of that room. But simultaneously, I don’t. I have ran through it over and over again in my head. Every detail that is also somehow one huge, amorphous blur. Part of me wants to remain there for the rest of my life, because he is there, too. There is nothing I wouldn’t give just to touch him again. To hold his hand. To hug him one last time. The most painful memory of my life, of the night my father died, is also somehow the one I hold nearest to my heart.

What even is death?

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Dore, “Farinata degli Uberti addresses Dante,” from The Divine Comedy

Death is Confusing

Confusion makes up the largest percentage of what death is to us. This confusion is the source of its power, its gut-shaking ability to make us fear.

The reason why that is, at least, is not a mystery. No one has ever come back to tell us how it is. Death is a one-way gate, the farthest point at which the living may walk together. Once passed through, no individual may tell us, write us, email us, or comment on our Facebook to advise us on anything, much less what they see beyond the opacity of that point when they leave this world. No one, without exception (unless you count ghost stories and religious parables, but – and I say this with the utmost respect – the things we believe on faith are not the same as those empirically sourced from our senses).

My father was, and then he wasn’t. At one second, he was a living, breathing actor; matter that could question and want and wonder. The next, there was only the matter; there was no “him” there anymore, at all.

What greater mystery could there possibly be? And what can we even attempt to do in the face of one that cannot, by definition, be solved?

I ask myself, “Why him?” all the time. Why did he have to die from a disease I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy? Why did he have to die only four years after he retired from a lifetime of service to our country and to this planet? Why did he have to die so young, on the morning of his sixty-seventh birthday? Why didn’t I get another twenty, thirty years with him? Why will my children never get to meet the most amazing and loving man I have ever known?

Why?

Why?

My girlfriend told me she still goes through this when thinking about the partner she lost several years ago to stomach cancer. “Why him?” And I agree. Why? I never met this man, but from what she tells me, he was an incredible person: kind, joyful, just; the kind of individual this world needs more of, not less. Few things more clearly illustrate to me the inexplicable unfairness of death than a bright young man being taken by stomach cancer before he turned thirty. And yet, he was.

We all know someone who has died. Most of us know, and love someone who died far too young, from some terrible disease or other unfathomable circumstance. If that is not you, I consider you incredibly lucky. But even if your only exposure to the unfairness of death is from reading the news, we all know what it means to ask, “Why?”

Why him? He was so young.

Why her? She was so kind.

Why can’t some evil bastard get cancer for a change? It’s always the good ones.

Why Alex?

Why dad?

Why any of them?

“Why?” is the ubiquitous question we ask in the face of death, except in those rare cases of grandparents who were fortunate enough to die old, surrounded by their loved ones and content with their life’s achievements.

Because none of it makes any fucking sense.

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Böcklin, “Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle”

Death is Acceptance

My godfather Chris, who also died from cancer in his sixties, used to joke when passing a cemetery, “See? None of us is getting out of here alive.”

There is no mincing words about this. I am going to die and so are you. People who have not witnessed the death of someone they love may read that sentence twice. Those who have will not need to.

Death is us. It is the father and the mother and the daughter and the son. Death is all the people you ever knew and all those you never will. Death is you. Death is me. So long as there is a “me,” there will be death. We can’t escape it or choose it any more than the skin we are born in, because it is who we are. Not “what,” but who. Death is the cessation of our existence, the end of our time as conscious actors, at least in this physical universe, and as a lover and sometimes writer of stories I can tell you wholeheartedly that always, without exception, the ending is just as important as the beginning and middle.

You are not a whole person without your death. Sorry. But it’s true. The story of your life cannot be complete without that last period at the end of that last sentence. Your death is part of who you are, and in some ways, is the key thing that defines you.

Do not mistake this to mean that I am saying “we are how we go,” because I am not. There were many things that defined my dad, from superhero father who would have done literally anything for his kids, to environmentalist bad ass who spoke truth to power, to doting grandfather AKA the Papa Monster who would chase my shrieking nieces around the house making fake munching sounds if he caught them sitting in his favorite stool; he was all these things and more, but “cancer patient” is not on the list. His disease was something he suffered greatly from, and ultimately what ended his life. But he never complained, and it was not who he was.

So no, I do not meanwe are how we die.” But we are how we live, and the moment we die is when the book goes from open to closed.

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The tree of life from Aronofsky’s “The Fountain.”

Death is (Least of All) A Biological Process

The following description will likely be scary to contemplate for those who have not been with a loved one when they died. For those who have, it likely will not be.

At some point, for whatever reason the Fates choose for you, your body (as well as mine) is going to stop working. You will stop breathing and your heart will stop beating. At some point shortly before or shortly after that, your consciousness will end, and the warmth you took for granted for however many years you were alive will start to disperse, until the body you formerly inhabited eventually reaches equilibrium with the ambient temperature of the room. By then, all your memories and thoughts and dreams of your life will have permanently vanished. If there is a soul, and I hope there is, by this moment it has gone to wherever it needed to go and will not be coming back. And then the matter you once animated will be lifted into a casket and buried/cremated at high temperatures/turned into a tree/disposed of in some other cool way some San Francisco hipster tech startup markets as “the latest revolution in ethical funeral practices.”

The important thing about this description is that it is a biological process no different than eating, drinking, sleeping, pooping, peeing, getting drunk, getting sick, throwing up, daydreaming, having sex, bleeding, suffering from vitamin D deficiency because you work in the video game industry, or losing your temper when your significant other eats all your cereal.

Dying is what bodies do. You breathe because you must. You also stop breathing because you must. There is not one bit of difference between these two phenomena. Death is not the negation of being born, but the fulfillment of it.

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Death, from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

Death Is Not Inherently Terrifying

It is a philosophy major cliché to boldly and pretentiously wax about how we shouldn’t fear death. I know, because I was that philosophy major, and the only academic recognition I ever received while I was in school was for a paper I wrote about the Epicureans of Ancient Greece, which I presented at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Student Philosophy Conference, and was titled “Should We Fear the Pale Horse?”

The Epicureans were men who hung out naked in a walled garden all day eating grapes and philosophizing, with no “distractions” that could lead to fleshly attachments, such as allowing the presence of the opposite sex. Wait, what?

But those Epicureans were still pretty smart dudes. They were avowed materialists in a time when denying the existence of the gods was a serious crime, and they didn’t give a fig leaf about being executed for their lifestyle, because they (famously) held that death is nothing to be feared. They believed there is only matter and void, and that when you die, you simply go back to being matter of the non-thinking variety. To put it in philosophy major-friendly terms: if there is no subject left to feel the pain of dying, then it causes more pain to fear death while you are alive than it does to actually die.

Yes, they denied the existence of a soul, of an afterlife, and of a creator. I do not deny those things. But they were right from the biological perspective. And I agree with them that we should not fear being dead, because it means our suffering has ended. It is pretentious and meaningless and stupid and empty to say that.

It is also true.

I am thankful my dad is not suffering from his cancer anymore. I miss him and love him so much it brings tears to my eyes just writing those words, “I miss him.” But watching him in agony the first time the pain truly crippled him and he had to leave my nieces playing in the backyard on Easter Sunday to go to the fucking emergency room in an ambulance caused my heart to hurt worse than it ever had in my life (and there were a few times my heart got hurt pretty bad). The pain hit him like a knockout punch. I watched him physically wilt.

For the last six months of his life, he was in and out of the emergency room or urgent care every other week. When he wasn’t in the hospital, he was asleep on the couch. I spent half a year at home, but I feel like I barely spent any time with him at all. I wish I could turn back time and just sit with him there again, listening to him quietly sawing logs. My dad had a great snore, which no doubt caused my mom some irritation over the almost four decades of their marriage, but even that, I miss. The more his health declined and the closer the end appeared, the more I grew to value those little things.

There is, to be sure, another side of death that more closely resembles the movies, the side that rears its ugly face during war and terrorist attacks and Tarantinoesque rampages of glorious revenge. But I do not think that is the norm for most people. For most of us, our face of death will be that of our loved ones. And now that my eyes are open to this, it is very difficult for me to associate death with the emotion of fear.

The “death is scary” zeitgeist, I think, mostly comes from Hollywood. Our view of the transition we all must make from living to dead as something inherently terrifying and bad is the amalgamation of a lifetime of seeing people dying in horrible ways on screen, as if the death of a person is something to be exploited, or that the physical event that ends our biological life is the main thing about death we should concern ourselves with. In either case, it isn’t.

“But bro, these ghosts have unfinished business out here. Brains are gross! Tiddies AND brains? NC-17! Click click pop, problem solved. OMIGOD that part where the old lady was like SHAMBLING through the hall toward her and the music was like REE REE REE? So freakin’ scary dude! LMAO dracarys on all you punk Lannister bitches!”

Listen, I am not shitting on violent-ass movies. I love violent-ass movies. I am simply stating that the reality is much different.

The reality is:

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Death Isn’t Fear; It’s Heartbreak

When I got the news that dad’s targeted treatment was no longer working and the doctors were recommending more “aggressive” treatment with chemo (which is U.S. Medical Industry Newspeak for, “The shit is killing you, and it’s time to move to our last lines of defense and say a few prayers”), I moved home. This was six months before dad died.

We made plans. We made plans to go wine tasting. We made plans to go to his favorite Korean restaurant. We made plans to go kayaking, and when it grew clear that was impossible, just to go for a drive out to the coast. None of it ever happened. We made plans upon plans that never came to fruition, because my father, a former park ranger, EPA agent, volunteer at the Point Reyes National Seashore, and lifelong lover of the outdoors, spent the last six months of his life in too much pain and too exhausted to do much of anything but sleep.

A week before he died, he suffered a stroke that completely immobilized him. He couldn’t even turn himself over in his hospital bed. I am grateful – no, that is not enough, I consider it a sacred privilege – that I was able to care for him at the end of his life the way he did for me at the beginning of mine. But that doesn’t make it hurt less.

That is what death is. Death isn’t “the most terrible of all bad things.” It isn’t a horrifying monster that snatches you up in the night. It isn’t being asked to leave the party while everyone else gets to stay.

Death is a piece of your heart that gets taken away forever, that you can never have back. All you want is to hold it again. One more reassuring hand on your shoulder. One more loving goodnight kiss. One more scolding word. One more warm embrace. One more time rolling your dying father on his side so he doesn’t get bed sores. But you can’t, and you never will, because that piece of your heart is gone.

Am I scared to stop existing? You bet. I don’t want to go in some horrible way that will make my last minutes/days/weeks/months on Earth a living hell. Being shot. Stabbed. Burning to death. Drowning. Dying young. Or maybe dying young would be better. But probably not.

I am terrified of death, but it isn’t because I fear the void is dark. What I fear is that I will arrive at my own end with regret that I didn’t spend more time with the people I love, or that I didn’t live the way that I wanted to and create enough meaning and purpose for myself. And, as a selfish and often thoughtless person, what I fear even more than those things is that I will not have done enough good in this world to help ease the suffering of others.

In dad’s case, thankfully, that last one was never a question.

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Friedrich, “Stages of Life”

Death is a Paradox

So, what is death?

Death is confusion that leads to understanding. Mystery that leads to acceptance. Fear that leads to courage. Pain that leads to gratitude. Warmth that leads to cold. A phase change that cannot be reversed. A 3000-word post that has bled from my heart onto these empty pages, but somehow leaves me no more comfortable with its subject than I was before.

Death is the last and greatest paradox. Paradox: an unsolvable problem. I don’t have any answers. But I do want to propose something.

I propose we tell the truth. Speak about death and what it is. We may never fully comprehend it. But maybe we don’t need to.

Share the dead with the world. Their ideas, dreams, and lessons only continue so long as someone wills it. Keep their echo going.

Find the equality in death. Death is the one thing we all have in common. No one is born to the same conditions, or with the same talents, abilities, or deficiencies. Death is the one thing that makes us all perfectly equal.

Find the fraternity in death. There is no medicine that can help ease the pain of a loved one dying, except the kindness of those who have gone through it, too.

I will never forget the drunk dude who approached me at a dive bar the night of my dad’s funeral and told me how his mom had passed from cancer a year before, who embraced me like I was his brother and said that it was going to be okay.  This man was a complete stranger who in other circumstances would’ve been giving my friends and I the stink eye.

Or how about the random lady at the yacht club the night my dad died, when my buddy invited me out so I wouldn’t be alone? She hugged me like I was her own son after telling me how her husband had died of liver cancer seven months earlier – they had four kids in college.

Or how about my Aunt Margaret, who took such good care of my mom, taking almost a month out of her life to stay at the house and dealing with a nightmare rental car corporation that tried to charge her $5,000 to change her drop-off location in the bargain?

Or how about the way my Aunt Louise cooked huge pots of minestrone soup for all the tired family members who were coming and going the last week of dad’s life? Home-cooked minestrone. That is delicious.

Or how about the way my Uncle Chris kept our fridge stocked with beer? Always 805, the good stuff.

Or how about the way my nieces kept wanting to play hide and seek even after the grownups were ready to head home from the wake, because “the sadness [was] in the house?”

Or how about all the people I had never met or couldn’t remember, who came up to me before and after the funeral to tell me stories about my dad, and immediately treated me like we, too, were dear, old friends?

It helped. All of it. That’s the point. Death gives us a glue that cannot be found anywhere else and cannot be undone. In a way, it makes those relationships bulletproof. You do not understand the thing that is bringing you together. But goddamn, does it force you to open your eyes to the light in that other person.

The dying get morphine. We get each other.

And this is what I have learned.

Poetry: “Love”

Love is a father
Holding tight to your hand.
Love is the losses
That you never planned.
Love is the laughter
Drifting from the yard.
Love is the gatherings
When times grow hard.
Love is the crib
That swayed you to sleep.
Love is the bedside
Where your family weeps.
Love is a close race
Down buttered corn.
Love is the embrace
When voices grow worn.
Love is a treasure
That crossed half the world.
Love is a note
Wrought from misspelled words.
Love is the piece
Of the Endless we scrape.
Love is a bus
When no one is awake.
Love is the first light
That makes way for dawn.
Love is what remains
When all else is gone.

 

In memory of my father John

6/21/1952 – 6/21/2019

Remembering Gene Wolfe (From a Fan Who Never Met Him)

“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.”

The moment I read those words, as I sat on the deck of my college house cracking open my first copy of The Shadow of the Torturer the summer after sophomore year back in 2006, I knew in my gut and in my heart this cat could never be put back in the bag. Gene Wolfe’s monumental Solar Cycle was already old then – it was originally published in the 1980’s – and Mr. Wolfe had been on my radar since I was a kid, when I saw the below illustration of the Alzabo in Wayne Douglas Barlow’s Barlow’s Guide to Fantasy. But I knew from the instant I opened the first volume of Book of the New Sun that I would never read another work like it, or come to know through his words another author like Gene Wolfe.

So much digital ink has been spilled over the years attempting to interpret Wolfe’s dense and mind-boggling opus that I will spare spilling more of it here. To the uninitiated, Book of the New Sun is the fictional autobiography of the supreme ruler of an Earth (stylized as “Urth”) so far in the future that the sun is dying. The hero of the story is Severian, and the prose acts as his personal confession booth for his long and zig-zagging path from lowly orphaned torturer tasked with murdering the political enemies of his government, to traveling headsman famed for his mercury-veined executioner’s sword, to short-lived stage-actor, to war hero, and eventually, savior of all mankind.

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“The Alzabo,” from Barlow’s Guide to Fantasy by Wayne Douglas Barlow

Needless to say, Severian is not always a good man… much less an honest narrator. He’s an asshole. He hand-waves away any number of violent crimes (sometimes without even an attempted justification). He lies to the reader about a ton of shit, and portrays himself as the best thing since sliced Lembas bread in pretty much every situation he retells. He uses big words and obscure words and words that have been retired from the English language altogether for no goddamned reason other than to confuse and derail you. He leaves out important details of events, and leaves it up to you to read between the lines (or rather, reread between them) and find out what is really going on.

Yes, he was written this way on purpose, although that purpose changes depending on who you ask.

To me, aside from being a complex and deeply flawed character, Severian is a masterful exercise in the age-old idiom that “the villain is just the hero of the other side;” he is a clever deconstruction of the “Chosen One” archetype, a self-confessed bad man who ultimately turns it around, though his redemption is far from total, and comes at a high cost to those around him.

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U.K. Cover Art for The Shadow of the Torturer by Bruce Pennington

For many of us, this series was our first exposure to an unreliable narrator, and opened up worlds within worlds we never thought possible concerning the power of storytelling; it gave us a glimpse behind the magician’s curtain, and there was not a Great and Powerful Oz, but turtles, turtles all the way down. For others, Book of the New Sun is a maddening, unreadable,  problematic slog that one would be better off throwing against a wall before that infamous traffic jam in the portcullis that closes the first book.

Book of the New Sun isn’t an easy read by any means. I’ve since read the series four times cover-to-cover, and I still find it difficult. I am still finding new secrets and cooking up new fan theories to explain the murkier and more vile parts of the story with each successive read-through. Those of us who love this series, and the rest of Wolfe’s work, may indeed be crazy for loving it. I don’t know.

What I do know is how it changed me, not only during that first read-through that summer after sophomore year on my favorite sunny spot on the deck of my college house, but upon every subsequent reread.

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Severian and friends as Adventure Time characters, by artist PandaFunkTeam

I can cleanly divide my life both as a reader and a greater individual into two distinct eras: before Book of the New Sun, and after. It was the gateway drug that hooked me on the author who would eventually become my favorite of all time, whose every word I would one day cherish. It was the story that convinced me villains are more interesting than heroes. It was the masterful lesson to an immature and undisciplined pupil that a writer does a far greater service to their audience when they assume that audience to be intelligent, and write their stories accordingly.

Gene Wolfe was the writer who taught me to say fuck you to my lingering doubts, and to put my own stories out there. Because I realized that if even one reader out there enjoyed the stories I wrote and found some meaning in them, it would be enough.

Gene Wolfe’s readers don’t number in the single digits, though. From at least the 70’s on, when his breakout novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus was published, he was a household name in science fiction and fantasy literature. As far as I can tell, he was considered a “writer’s writer” almost from the beginning – which is not to disparage people who don’t try to write fiction, only to say that for those of us who do attempt this typically punishing and only sometimes rewarding hobby, every one of Wolfe’s novels dually acted as a master class on technique, as well as a plethora of renewed inspiration. Ursula K. LeGuin called him “Our Melville.” George R.R. Martin sought his advice. Neil Gaiman wrote an extremely flattering essay about how to read Wolfe’s work with an open mind (and a dictionary at hand), and the New Yorker even named him “Science Fiction’s Difficult Genius.”

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A quote from Book of the New Sun.

But I don’t really care about any of that anymore. Maybe I did, once. Maybe seeing those platitudes attached to a writer whose stories I was head over heels for did cause some psychological transference on my part and make me feel cooler or better at books for having read him, not to mention a bottomless envy at a level of skill and imagination I was (and am) certain I could never possess.

On top of all that, you will find no excuses that “we must separate art from the artist” here. No one I have ever read or heard from ever had a negative word to say about him. By all accounts, Mr. Wolfe was a kind man and a gifted teacher; a devoted Catholic, loving husband, decorated veteran of the Korean War, and a regular of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop who helped countless up-and-coming science fiction and fantasy writers find their own voices. He not only wrote the books other writers wish they could  write, he was the writer other writers aspire to be.

Although I never met him, as I process the news today that he is gone, at the age of 87, I feel like I’ve lost someone I knew deeply and personally, a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. Someone whose voice guided me through the years and rekindled my imagination when the winds of pain and hard times threatened to extinguish it… for whatever one person’s imagination is worth. Maybe it isn’t much, but I know I’m not the only one.

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I will never forget reading The Shadow of the Torturer literally to pieces. It was the first book that I read so hard it fell apart, not least because it (and I) pretty much lived on that deck that summer. Well, technically it was the omnibus edition of Shadow & Claw – the first two books in the series – but whatever.

I will never forget the lyrics to the cheesy love song about Severian and Thecla that I wrote and played to a few of my college friends, who I was disappointed to discover had no idea what the hell I was so poorly singing about.

I will never forget the first time I discovered the Urth.net newsletter and stayed up until 7AM reading it with my mouth agape in despair to learn that all my perfectly-dotted theories about the last twelve Gene Wolfe books I’d read were completely and utterly wrong.

I will never forget how much Pirate Freedom rekindled my love of seafaring, swashbuckling adventures after spending five years of my video game career in the doldrums of making games about pirates whose main concern was experience points.

I will never forget what it felt like waking up early for weeks on end while traveling through Europe to read and reread On Blue’s Waters and In Green’s Jungles because I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. My kindle spent so much time plugged in during that trip I was worried it might kick the bucket and explode.

I will never forget rolling my eyes and laughing out loud at all the weird, perfectly Eastern European bureaucratic nightmares in The Land Across, which I read while living in Poland, where it took the government the better part of a year to issue me a work permit.

I will never forget the impact these stories had on my life, the compass they became for me, and at times, the spark.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Wolfe, and thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Sincerely, a fan.

Looking for beta readers for my next novel

My next novel, a standalone horror story about a lost town in the desert tentatively titled The Drying, is currently in the motions of editing and revision. No, that is not the cover. I made that cover in Canva in five minutes. I don’t have a cover yet or a professional editor. I’m still undecided on whether I want to seek traditional representation for this one, or self-publish.

This is my third full-length novel. It is much closer to Lurk than it is to Corruption in style and content. The characters are less unlikable than my last books, which is a big departure for me, since I usually write about assholes. This story is an homage to the survival horror games I played growing up, and is heavily influenced by them – most obviously Silent Hill. But there are some other tasty mixers. There’s a little bit of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, and Stephen King’s Desperation/The Regulators. Maybe even a pinch of the Tremors movies, too.

This will not be the next great American novel. I doubt it will be the next great anything. But it’s a little fun, and if you dug Lurk, you will probably dig this one, too.

What I need:

  • someone who will read the story in its second draft form and offer ideas about how to make it better.
  • someone who likes and reads horror.
  • someone who is patient and can look past occasional rough bits of dialog and typos.
  • someone with a sense of humor.

Jesus, this is starting to feel like I’m writing an online dating bio, so I should probably stop there. If you think helping an indie author craft his next story sounds like a good time, smash me a message on that contact page.

 

I Was a White Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for Twelve Years

I was recently promoted to the rank of blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by Professor Hans Hutton. But my first BJJ class was all the way back in late 2006. At the time of writing, that was almost twelve years ago. Yes, you read that right. I was a white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for twelve years.

Blue belt promotion under Professor Hans Hutton, June, 2018

I initially became interested in the martial art and sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu while in the home stretch to earn my shodan (first degree black belt) in Japanese jujutsu. I was the personal student of my sensei, and was training in that far more traditional art 5x a week.

So I can’t say it didn’t hurt when I realized upon learning about “that other kind of jiu jitsu” that most of the techniques I had spent so many years trying to master would not be any more useful to me in a real fight than knowing how to tie the belt.

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Japanese jujutsu black belt test at UC Santa Cruz. Hakama give you wiiiiiiiiings!

My first Brazilian jiu jitsu class was in 2006 at the University of California Santa Cruz, in the school BJJ club run by Paul Schreiner and Garth Taylor. I distinctly remember one day asking Paul if wrist locks worked from standing; Paul held out his hand and told me to turn his wrist. I couldn’t. So much for my black belt in Japanese jujutsu.

And so I jumped in, head-first. Within days of starting, I became totally enamored by BJJ. I watched every Gracie challenge on YouTube and went to as many classes as possible. I got pinned to the mat by 1,000-pound knees belonging to guys who had used their training in real fights, in MMA matches, or at the beach, or wherever. My second week, one blue belt got frustrated with me being unable to perform a hip throw during a self-defense drill and told me, “If you do that again, I’m going to toss you on your head.”

It was awesome. What was normal in BJJ class would’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal in my former, more traditional art. Bloody, drenched in sweat, and aching in muscles I didn’t know existed, I was hooked.

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East Cliff, Santa Cruz, CA

But, as painful as this is to admit this even with more than a decade of hindsight, I was also undisciplined and immature back then… even more so than I am now.

I brought friends to class who ended up training more often than I did. We were all so stoked on “the Jits” that we would even hold fight nights in the living room of our college house and wrestle each other to submission on the carpet, sandwiched between a huge, probably lethal brick fireplace and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that led out to the porch. Not the greatest or safest place to train. We would talk on and on about jiu jitsu at parties like we were guests on the Joe Rogan podcast, but with each passing month I began to dread training, because I secretly hated to lose.

I was young and dumb, and didn’t understand the value of consistency. Twenty-one year-old me was too much of an egotistical little shit to realize that I had to get back on the horse as soon as I was done falling.

So I fell, and I fell.

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Fight Nights at Sunnyslopes, AKA “The Real Sunny Hill,” ft. Sean and Josue. I miss that Lord of the Rings poster…

By early 2008, within a year of starting BJJ, I had quit. Of course, I didn’t know I had quit. In my heart, mind, and occasional YouTube comments, I was still 100% “in” jiu jitsu. But I started making excuses and stopped going to class: “I’ll go next week,” “I tapped that new guy with an Americana from mount, so I don’t need to go to class,” or the most common, “I still hurt from the last one… I’ll go back next week.”

I still wanted to train, and dreamed of one day not tapping every five seconds. I constantly told myself I would get serious about it again “soon,” but could not bring myself to put in the mat time necessary to improve.

Days turned into months and months into years. I spent the next eight years being THAT GUY, the one who shows up to class once or twice a month, takes it personally when he gets steamrolled, and disappears again. I moved from school to school, and city to city like a drunk looking for his next storefront to sleep in. I took my inevitable defeats on the mat as personal bruises rather than what they are, as opportunities to grow.

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Don’t. Quit.

Although quitting jiu jitsu back in 2008 is probably my life’s biggest regret, the lesson I take from it is that it’s never too late to pursue the things in life that give me a sense of purpose, just as it is never too late to try to amend my mistakes.

I have struggled with depression since I was a teenager. Sometimes, it was crippling. When I moved abroad for work in 2013, the demon came back in a bad way. Then one night, after an eye-opening conversation outside a Scottish bar with a fellow martial artist (and now dear friend), I had an epiphany and saw that maybe self-medicating my problems with alcohol, funny memes, and horror fiction was no longer the only option.

Why not go back to jiu jitsu? Why not try again? Is there anything stopping me but fear, and my regret about quitting? 

I asked this to myself, and I had no decent answer.

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Krakow, the city of Polish kings, and the place where I fell in love with jiu jitsu again.

So, I enrolled in a BJJ academy in Krakow, Poland, where I was living at the time. The instructors spoke English very well, and immediately welcomed me on the mat despite that I was foreign and my Polish was terrible. Those first few months back in were rough. I got my ass kicked by 16 year-old prodigies and big new guys alike. Three months in, I tore my groin and had to sit out for another few months. That false start, and the guilt I already felt for being gone so long, took their toll.

But I did what I had never successfully done up to that point, and I got back on the horse. My injury healed and I kept going to class. Eventually I reached the point where I was training 3x a week. I pushed myself to not miss class unless I was sick. I was sad to leave the academy when it came time for me to go back to the United States, but I knew that no matter where I landed, I had to keep training.

My career as a screenwriter for video games has given me many opportunities to travel, but this has also meant I never stay in one place for long… jiu jitsu academies being no exception. In the three years since I started training again, I’ve been enrolled at four academies: in Krakow, in Boston, in Los Angeles, and my current school in Munich. I’ve done two BJJ Globetrotters camps, and dropped in at at least ten schools in the USA and abroad while I was traveling. At each of these places, I got my ass kicked, I made dear friends, I learned great techniques, and most of all, I felt like I was with family.

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A finer group of human beings, I have never met: Hidden Hand Jiu Jitsu in Hermosa Beach, CA.

That is what jiu jitsu is to me. It is the family I get to choose. And family isn’t only there to make you feel good or support you when times are tough. Family is also there to push you and force you to try to become the best version of yourself.

My experience in jiu jitsu so far fills me most of all with a deep sense of gratitude. What a privilege it is to take these first steps on my journey with so many incredible people. How lucky I am to learn these lessons from them: that no matter what negative bullshit life throws my way, I still have the power to grow; and no matter how dark things get sometimes, there is still always a place I can go to feel welcome and where my problems vanish, where I can find tranquility: the mat.

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BJJ Globetrotters Summer Camp in Copenhagen, 2017.

Whenever I travel to a new city, whether it’s for work or leisure, I always bring my gi. A few weeks ago I was vacationing in the Black Sea region with some work friends. We were in Chisinau, and my first Google search was for BJJ academies. I found one and dropped in for a few classes. The experience was incredible. Most of the guys had only been training a few months under their instructor, a brown belt, and I don’t think any of them were older than twenty. Yet the students were tough, and the instruction amazing despite the language barrier. After only a few classes, I felt I had made friends who I would be happy to see again ten or twenty years from now.

Some people tell me I am crazy for training when I’m on the road. But I know that deep down, there is a quitter in me who would love nothing more than to win. I cannot let him. If I take a break of one or two weeks for no reason other than I’m in a new place, he might peak his ugly face out and throw me off the path. Weeks could turn into months again and months into years. Of course I still struggle with putting my ego in check every time I get smashed and feel butthurt about it, but here is one example of where ego can be a good thing: if I let my inner quitter win, it would mean one more fall, and I’ve already been down that path – I don’t want to go there again.

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Dropping in for a class at Bercut Fight Club in Chisinau, Moldova

To me, Brazilian jiu jitsu is the most miraculous invention ever created by man. It teaches the weak to become strong, the cowards to become brave, and the smaller person to prevail by using leverage and gravity. But jiu jitsu is even more miraculous than that. It taught a depressive, lazy, pessimistic fuck like me the value of discipline.

I have learned that defeat, injury, and illness are not merely frustrating setbacks, but inevitable ones. Even with the desire to train hard and improve, sometimes there will be real reasons I cannot; from viruses,to broken digits, to my life uprooting and thrusting me elsewhere across the globe. There is nothing I can do to prevent temporary set backs. The only thing I can control is picking up and moving forward again.

Killers in action at Hutton Academy, Munich, Germany

I try to think of cities that have never been rebuilt. I cannot. I try to think of artists who created works I admire who did not similarly go through many periods of self-destruction and rebirth. Again, I cannot. My friends and family have changed – and I have changed also, haven’t I? I have, many times, and often I have grown and adapted with or because of those people.

Perhaps, so it is in jiu jitsu, it is also in life: the things that are most meaningful to us are those that we must perpetually rebuild in the hope of making them better.

I know this is only the beginning, and I eagerly await all that lies ahead.

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Lots of gis at the BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp.

Fiction: This Door is Locked

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

Few things were more unpredictable, or harder on the stomach than traveling through the Doors. An air car dropping too fast off a high platform, maybe, or launching into space on the equatorial fast track for the first time.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move, I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

Instinct drove his hands into his pockets, where he found his supplies were almost gone. He had a few vacuum-sealed bags of Earl Gray, enough water to last another day or two, three protein bars, and a picture of Rose smiling under an umbrella on a rainy Budapest riverside. Their second date, David remembered, back before they were both starving professors trying to eke out a living in the oversaturated, over-priced wasteland of New York.

An old, hollow pain in his heart made David think about taking a running leap off the cliff’s edge, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to splatter himself on those distant, glaive-like rocks, to feed whatever creatures lurked beneath the waves of this planet’s briny, black ocean, wherever this planet was. But he knew it was just the pain of seeing her face again.

This world, the world of the fjords, is the best candidate we have for being their home world. If I’m going to do it, it’s not going to be until after I find them.

There was no other way down from the devil’s tower that David could see. Returning through the Door was never an option, either. Escher Doors were one-way.

Where the hell is my ship? He could remember landing it, but not where, which meant the memory wasn’t very old or very recent, but somewhere in the middle.

The Escher Doors robbed you of your short-term memories. That was the price you paid to wander through them. But David had been wandering long enough that the oldest memories of his pilgrimage had started becoming fixed. It was only a matter of time until-

The wind howled, cold biting through David’s jacket, making his knees buckle and collapse. He fell onto his knees and vomited again on the snow, the empty contents of his stomach an embarrassingly small offering to the gods of this stark, frozen world.

Gotta find shelter. Fast. Too weak to try climbing. Body temperature dropping. I need something to eat. I’m so hungry.

The thought of food was enough to motivate him to move. He found his feet, brushed the snow and loitering bits of vomit off his beard and clothes, and began frantically searching for something, anything, that would point the way to the next Door.

But there was nothing. Soon the gray, glass bottle bottom sun sank behind the fjords, and David was forced to make camp, digging a tiny shelter in the snowbank under the foot of the island’s single tree that he hoped – no, prayed – would keep him alive until morning.

A green light caught his eye while he was digging, far off across the fjords and the bruised, purple sea, as the dusk finally deepened.

It was only a tiny, green glimmer, so miniscule that if David didn’t know what it was, he might have mistaken it for some bioluminescent animal prowling the shoreline. He watched the soft, jade light flickering on and off, as regular as a heartbeat, until he was done digging, then as he laid shivering in his shelter, waiting for sleep to take him. He watched it when he woke up at night to urinate, and again when the wind howled like a blizzard of throwing knives over the mouth of his shelter.

David knew the light’s source could only be one thing. It was one of the ten million-year lamps that guarded each Escher Door, the beacons set to guide the Wanderers on their long, endless pilgrimage.

He awoke to the grey light of dawn seeping over the fjords, and a soft, mechanical buzzing in his ear. David leapt up out of his snowy bed, and immediately kicked himself for being so easily startled. Each Escher Door was fitted with a resupply station to replenish those who traveled through it.

Rose would be laughing at me right now.

The pain of losing her was always the worst after waking up. Her voice echoed in his mind’s ear: I don’t want you to go. What if something bad happens to you?

He saw her wiping her eyes on the back of her wrists, took them, and kissed her on the eyelids.

Nothing bad is going to happen to me, babe.

What had the old man had said about redemption being the inversion of selfishness? David couldn’t remember.

The whirring sound grew louder with each handful of snow. His fingers scraped metal less than a foot down, and the bare corner of the small, spherical delivery plate of a food printer peered up at him.

The machine had sensed him exit the Escher Door and cycled on sometime during the night. David couldn’t blame a machine that was several million years old for taking a few hours to turn on. He only hoped that whatever it printed was still edible.

Thankfully, it was. The raw, dirty paste that fed from the printer’s nozzle into an insta-fabbed leaf cup tasted disgusting, but it gave him enough strength to get up and move around.

He washed his face and hands with the snow, placed the leaf he’d eaten out of in the printer’s recycling bay, and started looking for the path that would lead him to the next Door, which he now knew for certain was hidden on top of the devil’s tower.

Within minutes, David found the hatch.

It was an old fashioned trapdoor built into the ground and hidden under several feet of snow, not five paces away from the nutrient station. The hatch hissed open as he muscled through the ages of rust and time that had sealed it.

David crouched and lowered himself into the dark dampness of the ancient stone stairwell. It was several degrees warmer here than up top, and grew even warmer as he descended. Automated lanterns in the ceiling and walls flickered on as he passed. The lanterns had been one of the first subjects of David’s study when he began specializing in Wanderer culture back at the university in New York.

Feels like that life belonged to a different person, David reflected, as those old memories came back to him: of cramming to finish lesson plans, and braving hordes of students at office hours; of pinching every penny so he and Rose could make rent each month on that stupid, microscopic studio apartment that always stank of burning roaches; of practicing with the band, of missing practice; of the rare one or two days a year when they got a gig, and he could let it all go; of his fingers dancing up the worn neck of his Engelhart stand up double bass, the only item of any value he and Rose owned; of Rose’s eyes glimmering, inches from the stage, as if they existed only for him.

At last, the stairwell opened to a wide tunnel hewn into the glistening rock of the channel floor. Huge dripstones hung from the ceiling like a theater of forgotten puppets, overgrowing the ancient pictograms the Wanderers had cut into the walls.

Those mood pictures were the only form of writing the Wanderers had left behind. David had once published a theory that the indecipherable, swirling doodles had held religious significance, that they didn’t tell a story, but were more akin to visual hymns.

They are formless. Pure. Like jazz, they wander without knowing the road, only the destination.

But like all David’s theories, that one would likely go unfulfilled unless David found what he was looking for. The Wanderers appeared to have destroyed all written records of their history once the Escher Doors were built, including any discernable map to where the Doors led, which was why David’s mentor Dr. Liapis had informally given the long-since-vanished alien species their moniker. No physical remains of the Wanderers’ bodies had ever been found.

They went through the Last Door, David thought, gazing at the swirling, mystic spirals that graced the cave walls. And the Last Door is here. On this world. It has to be. All of my research pointed to the Fjord World being the end of the pilgrimage. It was some kind of last rite for their species, the last staging ground before moving on to their promised land.

I’ll never know until I find that Door. I’ll never know until I walk through it.

The tunnel went on for so long that David lost all sense of time. He was hungry again when he finally saw the tunnel’s endpoint, a filled-in halo of white light gleaming in the distance above him. The tunnel curved upward and David ascended into cold air.

The tunnel exited onto a snowbound isle in the middle of the fjord, a meter or so higher than sea level. The island’s only feature was an ornate stone archway guarded by a blinking, floating buoy that spat bursts of brilliant green light every few seconds – the same light David had seen from the top of the devil’s tower. A few scaly birds resembling Terran sea gulls nested on the buoy.

The Escher Door was a little one, built for local on-world travel, not the slightly larger kind that could jump you across entire arms of the Milky Way in the blink of an eye. Wherever it led was somewhere relatively near, and paying for the ride would cost only a negligible amount of David’s short-term memory. Any apprehension he might’ve felt was forgotten as soon as he stepped through, as was everything else he’d felt since waking up the previous afternoon: the cliffs, the tree, the shelter, the dirty paste, the tunnel and its incomprehensible wonders.

David forgot everything but jazz, and Rose.

***

A wall of cobwebs met him on the other side. He felt sick and tasted bile in his mouth. His memory came back much quicker this time, as did the pain of Rose’s absence. Some old argument effervesced from the buried annals of his mind.

If you don’t go, David, how will we ever have a future? How will we afford to have kids, a state-of-the-art home gym, to live in the Bay Area and buy a cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas, so you can busk with your band on Nob Hill?

I don’t know, Rose. I don’t know how we’ll do those things. But this feels wrong. It feels like I’m about to make the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

Then don’t go.

Don’t say that. You know I won’t.

I love you. And I’ll support whatever decision you make.

His fingers instinctively found the worn, smooth corners of the amber bracelet she had given him to match the necklace he got for her their first Christmas together. They had chosen amber because it was the only precious stone either of them could afford. The sunburst stones still held their cool, dusky glow, but the silver setting was tarnished and ruined. Three of the amber leaves in its spiraling tree motif had fallen out. David couldn’t remember when.

Still, it was the last piece of her David still had other than that old picture.

Rationally, he knew Rose might no longer be alive. Nobody knew how the Doors worked, if Door travel actually was as instantaneous as it seemed, or if there were relativistic effects like those that accompanied normal acceleration. Would he return to Earth to find that Rose had grown very old, like the twin who was left behind from Einstein’s infamous paradox? Or worse, that she was several hundred, or several thousand years dead?

You made this choice for a reason, he reminded himself. And now you’re going to see it through.  

He exited onto a huge plaza at the heart of a vast stone city nestled between the walls of a great fjord. A hundred tawny torches blazed silently from the walls of the abandoned metropolis.

The plaza was made of many small islands floating upon an oblong lake, all connected by causeways that formed a shallow quincunx of canals. The horizontal pattern mirrored the vertical one the city itself carved from either side of the fjord. It was the most awesome architectural marvel David had ever seen.

Thousands, perhaps millions of stairways, tunnels, and arched doorways dotted the sheer cliff faces, weaving a singular, flowing mood picture a hundred times larger than Manhattan. The telltale glimmers of uncountable lanterns sparkled in every groove and spiral.

At first glance, it looked like a giant, stone-wrought maze. But as David’s eyes studied the rolling, fluid images cut into the escarpment, he began to see that none of it was supposed to be connected at all.

A city of neighbors who could never meet. A multitude of Doors leading to nowhere and everywhere at once. But that was the point, wasn’t it?

As much as he wanted to stay and fall upward into the pale vertigo of that infinite city forever, David didn’t have time to stand around gawking. The sun had set, the moons were rising, and despite the queer calm of the air, he didn’t want to get stranded again without real shelter or food if the weather changed for the worse.

There was a small, minaret tower watching over the plaza of canals that looked different in style and structure than the surrounding buildings. Its light was yellow, not green, and it appeared to have been recently built.

David headed towards it, finding the most direct path he could across the interconnected islands of the plaza. When he was halfway across, he noticed that the yellow light wasn’t a beacon, like those guarding the Doors, but an indoor light shining through an open window.

Someone still lives there, David thought. Door Traffic Control, maybe? A caretaker? No. That’s a human structure.

Someone else is already here.

The possibility that he might not be the first to have discovered this world, that he wouldn’t be the first to wander through the Last Door, filled David with deep, existential dread. His fear was tempered only by the thought of taking a long, deep drink of clean water and filling his belly with something hot.

Dr. Liapis and I were the only two people who were supposed to know about this Door-path. No one else so much as speculated about it, let alone that it could lead to the Last Door. It was a shot in the dark, which is why he sent me all the way out here instead of coming himself.

A dark shape blotted the light in the window. David’s blood turned to cool sludge. Who the hell is that?

When David reached the foot of the tower, a distinctly human shape stuck his head out of the window and called down to him, in American English, “Look at you! You made it in one piece. Open the gate and come upstairs. There’s hot food and tea. The door’s automated. The password is Charles Mingus.”

David tried, but the door of the tower wouldn’t open. “Did you say Mingus? As in, the jazz bass player, Charles Mingus?”

“The legendary, the one and only. But just hold on. That old thing can be a real pain in the ass if you don’t know how to jangle it right. I’ll do it for you. Be right down,” the man said.

An instant later the door to the tower slid open, and David was enveloped in a bubble of warmth and light.

An old man stood in front of him, silhouetted against the light spilling out from the interior, but David could see him clearly enough to know he was no one who had ever worked in the very small, very catty academic field of Xenoanthropology, at least while David was alive.

The man was short, much shorter than David, and completely bald save for two slender gray quasar jets of hair sprouting from either side of his head. He wore a water-reclaiming outskin that resembled a suit of tight, but comfortable pajamas, and his eyes held the two-tone look of someone who is used to having two conversations simultaneously – one with the person they are speaking to, and a separate one about that person inside their own head.

The old man extended his hand. “Pleasure to finally meet you, Doctor Tovakol. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

David shook the old man’s hand and said, “Hi. Look, I don’t mean to be blunt, but…”

The old man cut him off. “You thought you were the only one here. It appears you are not.”

“All right,” David said. “So, who are you?”

“I’m Nobody,” the old man said.

Great, David thought. This guy isn’t just a lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere. He’s a cracked lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere.

“Is that your first name or surname?” David said.

The old man tilted his head, his tone losing its hint of jovial amusement. “Did I stutter, Doctor?”

“Look. I’m sorry. I’m really thirsty and I haven’t eaten in… well, I can’t remember how long, but it’s been a while. Can I come in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “I thought you’d never ask.”

David followed the old man inside. “Wait,” he said. “I have to know something. Were you really the first one? Or have there been others?”

The old man paused, setting one foot on the stairs. “I was, and remain, the first and only human being other than you to ever take a living breath on this world. Not that it matters. It was never ours to discover.”

The old man’s humility made David angry. “So I was right. This was their home world? Or at least, their capital?” David said.

“This entire galaxy was their home. But yes, this planet was where they first evolved from the primordial soup. It remained sentimental to them, until the very last shedding of their lower culture.

“Now, please, Doctor. I’d prefer if we had this conversation upstairs,” the old man said.

They went up the tower, ascending a simple spiral stairwell lined with a hypnotizing array of stone panels floating in protective vacuum cases. At first David thought they were mood drawings, salvaged from some corner of the Wanderers’ civilization he had yet to see, until he noticed they were laser-etched.

“You’re mapping them,” David said.

The old man turned and looked down at David over his shoulder, stopped and leaned on the handrail of the stairs. “I was, yes. Or rather, I was trying to, until I learned the Door-paths can’t be mapped. Come along. These damned stairs get a little harder to climb each day, and soon I won’t be able to ascend this phallic eyesore at all.”

“But… “ before David could speak, the old man cut him off.

“If you wanted to ask why, you should’ve majored in philosophy. Come along now. This way.”

David kept his mouth shut, ascending the rest of the long, winding stairway in silence.

The tower’s penthouse was a circular room with panoramic windows looking out over the dusk-lit fjords. The only furnishings were a twin bed and slapped-together kitchenette, and a crude worktable.

Instead of the expected, stereotypical piles of dusty vellum scrolls, glass beakers, and spider-infested grimoires, the old man’s study was crowded with piles of curved, sanded wood in various stages of becoming large, stringed musical instruments.

David recognized the pieces instantly. He’s making standup double basses.

Here was the scroll, half-finished. There, the neck and belly, missing only the final polish. The vices of the old man’s workstation held the youngest iterations, naked in their raw hillocks of sawdust, while his completed works surrounded his bed like a guardianship of wooden soldiers.

“Curious, isn’t it? That two musicians should find each other all the way out here, at the fuzzy edges of spacetime. Please, give one a try,” the old man said.

David touched one of the finished basses, admiring the old man’s handiwork, tilted the hollow body into his arms and plucked out a few notes, the opening riff of Mingus’s Hog Callin’ Blues. The instrument’s sound was deep and elegant.

The old man beamed. It wasn’t pride David saw gleaming in his eye, but the deep respect of process. “You haven’t seen the trees of this world yet, but they are truly grand. The wood gives a different sound than what you get back on Earth. That’s all it is. My skill as a luthier is still light years away from decent. But the wood compensates for my shoddy craftsmanship. I suppose in another fifty or a hundred years, I’ll start to get the hang of it.”

David gave a polite smile. “You’ve got one hell of a hobby,” he said.

The old man went over to the kitchenette and put a pot of water on to boil. “Tea?”

David nodded.

“Earl Grey?”

David took a seat at the kitchen table. “Yes. Black.”

“How would I get milk out here, young man, or sugar, for that matter? Even these tea bags are probably a few centuries old, taking Door travel into account. Thankfully, they’re vacuum-sealed.”

The old man handed him the steaming mug. David sipped it, letting the heat spill down through his body. When was the last time he’d had a cup of real tea? Not since leaving the ship, he thought. Days? Weeks? Or was it years ago?

“Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty,” the old man said, taking a seat at the table beside him. “I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I have will not be satisfactory. You will just have to accept that you won’t know everything, yet.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” David said.

The old man cleared his throat and began: “The Doors have funny effects on time. You and I both have passed through probably one too many for our own good. Because of that, there are at least three of us who know about this place: you, your professor, and yours truly. I’ve dedicated my life to studying the Freeway, ever since I was your age, and I still haven’t figured out exactly how it works, nor how I arrived before you did, you being the one who is actually credited with its discovery back on Earth.”

“I am?” David said.

The old man nodded. “You are. I have scarce communication with them these days. The Freeway isn’t as exotic a subject as it once was. Research into it barely receives any funding at all. The people’s imagination has seemingly moved on.”

David shook his head. “How? We barely know anything about the Wanderers back home. I’ve never even heard the Escher Doors referred to as the Freeway before you just said it. But, I admit, we know even less about the effects of traversing them, so, I’ll concede that anything’s possible,” he said.

“Ha! Wanderers…” The old man cackled. “I remember when I used to call them that. Of course, it’s been decades.”

What do you call them?” David said.

“Why, nothing. They were Nobodies. Like me.”

“I don’t understand,” David said.

The old man gave him a sympathetic look. “The enigmatic ancients you have traveled so far and sacrificed so much to study were a self-annihilating culture. Not suicidal, mind you – they sought to eradicate the idea of personal importance, of being someone, from their cultural id. It’s the entire reason they constructed the Freeway in the first place.”

“That’s a theory I haven’t heard before,” David said.

A fire lit in the old man’s eyes. “It is only my professional opinion, but it’s one I’ve formed over tens of thousands of hours of meticulous research, decades I spent here alone, freezing my bloody butt cheeks off and surviving off of protein paste so I could one day tell you about it. Do you think I would have chosen this path if I didn’t have at least a solid inkling of what’s going on?”

“I suppose not,” David said.

“The Nobodies’ civilization advanced to the point where they realized that rampant individualism was the driving force responsible for the worst evils of their world: greed, poverty, famine, war. Yet, it is in the nature of all intelligent beings to be self-interested, and technology only amplifies this primitive urge. Considering the level of technology they had, it was only a matter of time before they destroyed themselves, and the entire galaxy along with them.

“So the Nobodies started a gargantuan project, the largest in their history, to eradicate the ego from their species. They built the devices we call Escher Doors, a vast network of portals placed at seemingly random points throughout the Milky Way, which wipe the short-term memory of anyone who walks through them.”

“I think I follow you, so far,” David said.

“This network is what I have come to call the Freeway, because the Nobodies believed that traveling it was the only way for the individual, and thus society as a whole, to become totally free,” the old man said.

“Free of what?” David said.

“Of the baggage of egoism,” the old man said.

“And do you believe that?” David said.

A smirk curled up the side of the old man’s lips. “Does it matter what I think? You’re going to complete your journey regardless of what I tell you, even if I say with 100% certainty that doing so will mean not only erasing every last shred of your desire to become Someone of Importance… it will also mean you can never, ever return home.”

“You found the Last Door,” David said. It wasn’t a question.

The old man’s fingers tapped out a burning rhythm on the tabletop. “That is an interesting way to phrase it. The answer to your question is yes, but in my experience, that way of seeing things is not entirely accurate. The Doors work like jazz. You wander through them, experiencing riffs on a scale, but there is no definite structure, no pre-determined road to where you are going. The music can go on forever, or it can stop as soon as the musician – or the audience – grows tired.”

“Did you find it or not?” David said.

“Calm down, Doctor. I already told you I found the Door you’re looking for, and passed through it. But while it is true that all Doors lead to the same place, eventually, the Door you came here to find is certainly not the last.”

David was about to open his mouth and demand that the old man take him, but the old man put a gentle hand on his, all blue veins and pale wrinkles, and said, “I know what it is you want. Why you came so far. Why you gave up what you did, even nearly losing your life. I have no quarrel with any of it, Doctor. I understand. I was young once, too. I simply want you to be ready before I take you there, to be prepared for what will happen to you. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be before you finish your tea.”

They set out into the eternal twilight, two lone pilgrims wandering through howling drifts of snow and shadow, their own shapes cast indecisively, growing long, then short, then long again as they passed under the periodic lights of the city.

“It took me almost a decade to realize they never lived here,” the old man said as they walked.

“How?” David said.

“Tested the soil. No signs of carbon-based life ever having settled in these dwellings.”

A sudden wind bit into them, driving the cold deep beneath his skin. It never seemed to end, that cold; hadn’t, since he’d started wandering through the Doors; even the brief respite of warmth and light in the old man’s study hadn’t driven it away for long.

“Where are we going?” David said.

The old man pointed.

Far ahead of them, the ghostly tip of a high hill could be seen rising from the city’s labyrinthine skyline, conjoining the massive canyon walls into a single line of impassable, craggy white.

They began to ascend, and soon David could see the city’s shape falling away around them, a spiraling maze of concentric stone rings of which the hill they were now climbing was the center.

“So why’d they build a city they never intended to live in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “Did you notice anything different about the doors of those houses we passed?”

David squinted to look at the distant, twisting avenues winding up the cliffs. All of the arched doorways had been intentionally sealed by piles of rubble.

“They’re blocked,” David said.

“Yes. They are,” the old man said. “All of them, closed until the end of time. Except, those aren’t houses. By the time this city was built, the Nobodies’ society had already advanced past the point where they lived in houses at all. They carried everything they needed on their backs. Every door you see in this city is an Escher Door.”

So they are, David realized. There were hundreds of them, thousands; uncountable portals leading to myriad worlds scattered further across space and time than the imagination could grasp.

This isn’t a city. It’s a transit hub. How did I miss it before? Or did I already know, and forgot?

The old man seemed to read David’s mind. “Yes, this place was the great hub of the Nobodies’ Freeway. And now every gate in the terminal is closed, every single Escher Door here, except the one you came through, is a collapsed, dead end.”

“Why?” David said.

The old man’s chest puffed. “Because I closed them. I was spending too much time wandering, and I had work to do. Funny, isn’t it? Traveling through the Doors was the one thing that prevented me from crafting my theory about how they worked.”

They reached the summit of the hill. A single, familiar light burned through the pirouetting snow devils, above an archway whose Escher Doorway was still open.

“I thought you said they were all closed,” David said.  

The old man cracked a smile. “Part of me wants to leave you to figure it out for yourself, but without knowing what I’m about to tell you, it will be impossible. Besides, I won’t get another chance to say it. This is the last time we will see each other, Doctor Tavakol, for a very long time,” the old man said.

“Tell me,” David said.

“We were both mistaken about how the Doors worked when we first arrived at this place. The Doors are purposeful errors in the spacetime quantum structure, like playing a wrong note on purpose during a concert. Except, spacetime is a self-correcting architecture. It is always stable. The Nobodies found a way to exploit that stability, by hacking one of its fundamental rules, that forward motion through time is an inherently destabilizing motion. The universe balances itself by constantly replaying its own melodies and harmonies so there are no wrong notes.

“You aren’t transmitted the way a photon is when you travel through the Doors. The act of the universe rebalancing itself is literally making you a false correction somewhere else, at some other time, to balance out the error you’ve made in the present by opening it.

“That is why Door travel costs memories, and why walking through that…” the old man pointed to the Last Door where it stood, now a mere fifty meters ahead of them across the hilltop’s flat, snowy plateau, “…will not take you where you wish to go.”

“Where does it go, then?” David said.

“Only where you need to,” the old man said.

They were almost to the Door now, so close David could practically feel its shimmering veil washing the pain of regret from his mind.

The old man grabbed his arm as he was about to step through. “David, please. The Nobodies went through this Door for the exact opposite reason we did, that you still feel you must. But I promise you won’t find them through this Door. I beg you to reconsider. This Door does not lead to Someone.”

David looked down at the veiny, pale hand grasping his arm. The old man’s sleeve had fallen back to reveal the ancient glimmer of a silver bracelet bearing the shape of a spiraling tree. Most of the tree’s amber leaves were long since fallen, but the few that remained still held their dusky, sunburst glow.

The old man winced and withdrew his hand.

But David couldn’t turn back, not after coming so far, after sacrificing so much. “If I don’t, I’m nothing. We both know I have to do this,” David said, and stepped through the Last Door.

The old man sighed. “I’ll leave the light on for you.”

***

The room was a tiny, hot mess high in the sky traffic zone of some ancient upper Manhattan smogscraper, the furniture all clinging to the corners between the poorly placed abutments and piles of discarded clothes, barely a hundred square feet if you included the bathroom and oven-less kitchen. The window was open, as always, an almost futile measure to beat the brutal heat of the New York autumn. Dusk had already settled, and far below, the slow, perpetual red storm of the city churned indifferently under sideways pillars of pollution. Somewhere in the apartment, a woman was crying.

David knocked on the bathroom door, wiggled the knob and found that it was locked. “Rose?” he said.

The sobbing ceased for a moment and resumed.

She’s pretending not to hear me over the noise of the fan. He knocked again. “Hey baby? Are you all right?”

Another long pause, then a faint, whimpering, “No.”

“Will you come out?”

A moment later the door opened. Rose stood in the doorway, her face framed by a halo of wild curls. She gave him a teary frown and hugged him like she’d never let go, said, “I don’t want you to leave.”

“I know, sweetheart. But we talked about this. This is what’s best for both of us. You said that. Remember?”

Rose nodded.

“Do you know how much I love you?” David said.

Rose pulled back, wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist. She nodded. “Yeah.”

He kissed her on the eyelid. “I’m sorry, baby. I wouldn’t have taken this assignment if I knew it was going to hurt you. We both knew this was coming. We don’t want to live like this forever, right? What about the cottage in Bolinas?”

A fresh wave of tears spouted. She buried her face in her hands, said, “I’m just going to miss you so much. What if something bad happens to you?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen. I’ll be back. I promise,” David said, feeling more false than he ever had in all his life.

She walked him out to the hall to pick up his bag, since there wasn’t enough space for it on the floor of their former – now Rose’s – apartment, then they stepped out onto the platform where the air taxi was waiting to take him to the university’s orbital fast track. He kissed her deeply, gazing long into the eyes of the last woman he would ever love, whose heart he was again breaking in pursuit of a dream, as he had countless, unremembered times before, as he would countless, unremembered times again.

I’ll fix this. I’ll be back as soon as I find it, he convinced himself. But as the air car lurched and fell away from the platform and the waving, weeping figure it held, another, deeper part of him said, No, David. You won’t. The mistake has already been made. Every choice is a door, and this door is already locked.

***

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second before he ran off the edge, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks lurking a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

***

(First published in the Time Travel: Short Stories anthology from Flame Tree Publishing.)

Poetry: The Barghest’s Revenge

I.

The Barghest rose from stirring gloom
Through creeping shadows of my room
The dangling keys about his wrists
Like tiny bells foretelling doom.

O’er to my bed he slithered, black
His skin mottled like mordant wax
All tufts of hair in ancient cysts
Sprouting from nose, toes, ears, and back.

With a voice smooth as mercury
Thus he whispered, musically
“Find you the door that matches this,”
And in his hand offered a key.

The toothed, black spindle in his palm
Was twisted, sharp, nine inches long.
Heavy as ages in my grip,
It filled my ears with eldritch song.

“Go you to Edinburgh, my dear,”
The monster said into my ear
“In Robert’s Close, when moonlight-kiss’d
By his name, you must dig near.”

“There you will find a secret trove
Buried ‘neath the roots and bones
With this key I to you inflict
The chance to see your sweet love, Rose.”

I did not ask him what he meant
I did not call him when he went
Drifting like some poisonous mist
To dissipate into the vent.

A year had passed since Rose’s death
Nights I spent whoring, whiskey-vexed
Her shape was still equally missed
On unwashed sheets only half dressed.

For every love has its goodbye
All bright flowers wither and die
Time and death, we cannot resist
And sirens stir in the decline.

 

II.

I left my silver weapons home
‘Twas ten good years since they had shone
Our land dreaming and safe adrift
At last its final devils gone.

We cleansed the highlands and the low
Purged clear loch to Roman stone
Bags of copper spilled through our fists
With not a monster left to roam.

The last ones fled, or hid, or died
I can still hear every black cry
Those loathing hexes, gravely hissed
The Barghests’ were no milder kind.

And now I traveled those same roads
Until that Royal Mile I strode
Robert’s Close, could such place exist?
The cobbles cursed under my brogues.

In Grassmarket, at last I found
An alleyway, all spectral-bound
A name was written in dark script
Of a prince who’d never been crowned.

I scored a shovel for my work
In rusted iron, solace lurked
Imagining my future tryst
I staked it in the hardened earth.

Three feet deep, lay a small casket
A crude, wicker, coffin-basket
Its hard shell made my shovel slip
I kneeled down and unlatched it.

Inside the box, a woman’s skull
But no, not human, not at all
The fangs, the hair, those silver wisps
All bound within a crown of awls.

 

III.

The Barghest rasped into my ear
“How could they bury my love here?
Give her a grave as poor as this?
Monster hunter, it was but fear.”

“During your righteous purge for men
You toxified my family’s den
Never will my wife part her lips
To sing our babes asleep again.”

“See you why I had to infect her?
Why your Rose never got better?
The great trouble with fairness is
Blood for blood just makes us wetter.”

Oh how I raged, debased, and howled
I slashed them, punched them, kicked, and scowled
But my foe had returned to mist
I lay amidst a leering crowd.

I was street-side, covered in filth
A madman preaching madmen’s ilk
I closed my eyes and reminisced
As watchmen drove me up the hill.

Now in my cell, dank, black, and bare
I can taste the old, piss-sour air
I dream of secret doors promised
And retch at demons hidden there.