Frost

He resists the voices, even as they wrap around him. He fights but is soon overwhelmed. There are simply too many of them. He feels them clawing at his mind, dragging at his psyche, pulling him down into unknown depths — and suddenly he is very afraid.

His head tilts forward, and streamers of smoke pour from his nostrils, black as soot, back into the red box. They carry with them a single wisp of white smoke, a wisp that appears to undulate away for just a moment. But more black fingers of smoke wrap around it, pulling it in, holding it tight, and soon all the smoke is once again contained within the box.

His body falls limp, coated in frost, half draped across the table. His eyes are empty white orbs, colorless and dead.

Two figures stand at the door to the room. One goes to the table and replaces the lid to the box, which closes with a quiet click. The other fishes the obscene coin from the dead man’s pocket.

The two men exchange a glance, and the smoke merchants leave without ever saying a word.

Memories Even of Memories

He dips his finger into the smoke, and it clings to his flesh like tar, even as tatters billow up and swirl around his hand. He lifts his hand to his face once more, inhaling the smoke in one long stream. He leans back, head tilted upward, euphoria making every nerve ending in his body pulse with pleasure.

Memories pour through his mind, memories of a place long ago and far away, memories of a place that no longer exists and hasn’t for aeons. He sees himself in a splendid city of crystalline jewels, flooded with thousands of others like him. He watches as he traverses a forest, both living and dead, both here and not, as he seeks out a treasure he can no longer remember. He feels his boots crunch on ice and snow, feels the breath of a blizzard on his skin — and he shivers in response.

But amid these memories he senses something else, something… unexpected. He senses life. And suddenly there are voices in his head, all speaking to him at once.

You have found us!
Welcome home!
We have missed you!

Smoke

He licks his lips in anticipation, ignoring the searing pain of his torn tongue and the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. Carefully he reaches forward with both hands and takes hold of the box, gripping the top four corners between his thumbs and forefingers. He pauses, careful not to jostle the box and risk losing any of the precious contents inside.

Then, gently, delicately, he lifts the lid from the box, slowly flipping it over and setting it to the side, revealing the prize he has waited for so long.

Inside a grey cloud of smoke boils restlessly. The smoke is dense, heavier than the air around it. Very little of it escapes the box. Here and there white streamers rise to the surface then sink back into the depths. An occasional wisp rises into the air, and he reaches out, gently coiling the wisp around a finger.

He leans in, inhaling the wisp as it unwinds from his hand like a serpent — and he smiles a feverish, toothy grin. His eyes dilate into black holes of emptiness, and he begins to laugh.

Blood and Runes

He wastes no time. Already the moonlight has crept across the box, and if he misses this opportunity, it will be weeks before another presents itself.

He slips his tongue between his teeth — and bites down, hard, severing the flesh. He takes the torn tip of his tongue between his fingers, even as his mouth fills with blood. He turns his head to the side and spits, a misty spray of blood and saliva.

Then he leans forward, the moonlight washing over him, and licks the top of the box. He takes his time, caressing the box with his tongue with a movement that is almost sensual. The blood from his mouth fills the depressions in the wood, up to the brim and then some, so that each appears as a black bead of fluid in the moonlight. The box itself drinks up the remaining blood, so that when he is done and straightens again, the box appears to have been set with dark, glistening glass jewels.

It is enough. With a click a seam appears around the perimeter of the box, and wisps of vapor seep through the gap.

Moonlight

It is night now, and moonlight pours through the one open window in the room. The moon outside is full, the light it casts bright and rich. Almost the moonbeam reaches the table. Almost it reaches the box. The moment he has been waiting for has very nearly arrived.

He continues to hold station against the wall. His body is sore from remaining motionless for so many hours, but he barely notices. His focus is single-minded, his muscles taut with anticipation. The moon continues its descent, the beam of light it casts now touching the table surface and beginning to inch toward the red box positioned at its center.

Yeeeesssssss, he thinks to himself and releases a held breath.

Finally, the light slips over and around the box, and the surface of the box changes with the light. A series of geometric depressions sink into the wood, each separate from the others but seen together forming a rune-like shape.

He moves instantly. The moment he has been waiting for has arrived, and it will pass far too quickly.

The Red Box

The box rests on a small, round table, perfectly centered on its rough surface. The man who purchased it stands across the room, leaning with one shoulder against the wall, staring at the box without really seeing it, lost in contemplation. Before him lies the prize for which he has sought so long, but the moment to open the box, to grasp the prize within has not yet quite arrived.

And so he waits.

A scent of smoke passes before his nostrils, one with which he is familiar. It matches the scent of the smoke within the box, and yet he knows the scent is not really there. It is a memory, of a time long past, but one which his brain, his body remembers all too well. The mere memory is so strong, so palpable, that for a moment he nearly loses his resolve and dashes to the box to tear it open immediately.

But instead he closes his eyes, takes deep breaths, and clears his mind of all thoughts. It would not do to be premature, he reminds himself. You have waited this long. You can wait a little longer.

Smoke Merchants

He winds his way through the chaos, trying to avoid bumping into anyone. Such a thing is nigh impossible here. But it hardly bothers him. Here, anonymity is paramount.

Finally, he reaches a dark corner where two grey men sit. He sits across from them, aware of the open room at his back. An acceptable risk.

“You have it?” he asks the men. They exchange nervous glances.

“ID,” one says, voice tense.

“Of course,” he replies and produces an odd coin from a pocket. It is large, embossed with an image so profane the two merchants visibly flinch. It is enough. One of the grey men reaches down and produces a small, red box. He handles it gingerly, sliding it across the table.

“You know what this contains,” the merchant says.

“Of course.” At last! His eyes are captivated by the box, riveted by his prize. Without looking up, he says, “You may go.” The merchants are gone in an instant.

“I have you now,” he says and grins. He lifts the box near his face, inhaling deeply. He can almost smell the smoke inside.

Bearers

Olivia hits the ground with a sickening crunch, but she barely feels it. Her vision is swimming, her ears ringing, and it takes her a moment to realize she’s landed left hip on the pavement, her arms supporting her upper torso. Her jaw throbs with a dull ache, the site of the punch that sent her sprawling. She shakes her head slowly, lightly, trying to clear the disorientation. It helps, some, as her vision snaps back into focus. She is relieved to see Petalbloom still held securely in her right fist.

Slowly, carefully, she pushes herself up to her knees and then to her feet. Petalbloom’s Weight resists the motion, but only slightly, as if to remind her of what it is. She hefts it reflexively, sunlight glinting along the length of the 12-inch blade. With her free hand, she wipes a dribble of blood flowing from her burst lower lip down over her chin.

That should not have happened, she thinks, staring at the blood glistening on her fingers. Then aloud, “That should not have happened.” She turns to face her assailant, who stares her down mere steps away in the alley, smug expression fixed on his face.

“You,” she says, a puzzled tone to her voice. “You’re a Bearer?” His response is to spread his arms wide and grin even wider, as if to say, So? Only one of his hands is gloved, and she realizes, too late, that the glove itself is an Object. It is wrapped in that unmistakable aura of Weight that all Objects possess.

Which only confuses her further. “You’re a Bearer,” she repeats, incredulity replacing confusion. “And you fight me?” she asks. “Why?”

He laughs, dropping his arms and tilting his head back, roaring at the sky with obvious delight. Then he looks back at Olivia, his eyes cold and hard, all traces of a smile wiped from his face. Olivia notes a glimmer of madness in those eyes and feels the flesh on her arms prickle.

“Why not?” is all he answers.

“But, Bearers are supposed to be heroes,” she stammers, that note of confusion returning to her voice. “We don’t fight each other. We fight monsters. We fight evil. We push back the darkness wherever we find it. That is our purpose and our calling. No Bearer can claim an Object without first accepting those terms.”

His face turns suddenly angry, livid with rage, and she feels a cold fist of fear in her belly. His next words are even colder, like frost on a mid-summer’s day.

“Go be a hero, then, Olivia Childress,” he spits, and she tries not to let the shock that he knows her name show on her face. “Not all of us are meant for such things. Maybe some of us are meant to be something else. Maybe some of us meant to be antiheroes. Maybe some of us are meant to be Breakers.”

He turns on his heel and begins to walk away, and Olivia feels that cold chill of fear on her skin once more at that word she has never heard before but immediately recognizes as somehow being fundamentally wrong.

One final question escapes her lips.

“WHO ARE YOU?” Her own voice is deafening, enhanced by the Weight she bears. It thunders down the alley, bouncing off the walls. The ringing returns to her ears, nearly drowning out his answer.

“You’ll know soon enough, Olivia child!” His laughter drifts back to her even after he turns a corner and disappears from sight.


Caught Between a Lull and Quiet Place

I’m sitting here right now, trying to decide what to do with myself. And I don’t mean just on an immediate, here-and-now, should I pick up a controller and play a game or write a story sort of way, though that’s certainly a part of it. I mostly mean it in the sense of what do I do with myself moving forward with my life? I find myself caught in this lull of a place where I’m unable to find work, much as I need and want it. I’m either overqualified for certain positions I’ve applied for or job postings change scope mid-stream so that my application is no longer relevant to the position or maybe I’m just interviewing badly. I don’t really know, but whatever the case is, landing a job has become this herculean task that has started to feel impossible. And it doesn’t help that my anxiety disorder, while much improved from what it was even just a couple of months ago, still limits and prohibits me from taking on work that is fast-paced and high-stress. I’m working on that, trying to retrain my brain to interpret those panicky fight-or-flight signals as excitement and enthusiasm rather than fear and trepidation. But it’s not easy, it’s a process, and it takes time.

I’ve been telling people recently that if there’s one single lesson I’ve learned above all others this past year, it’s patience. When I got out of the hospital last April 28th (yes, exactly one year ago today), I had the expectation that, for the most part, I’d be better and healthy again within six weeks. And guess what? Here I am a year later, much improved but still struggling in some areas. Yes, I do feel healthier and stronger as a person than I have in several years, in spite of the lingering anxiety. I’m more stable and more self-aware than I have been in years. But I’ve also had to learn that healing takes time, it requires patience because it can’t all happen at once, as much as one might want it to. It takes effort and discipline and consistency to change your lifestyle to accommodate the changes in your brain and body and overall physiology. There are new skills to be learned, new coping methods, new ways of thinking and behaving, new habits to form, all the while wrestling and struggling on a daily basis with the depression and anxiety that started this whole mess to begin with. And the medication that is available for treating these disorders is a God-send, but it can’t do it all. You have to do your part, too.

There are plenty of hard days as you work through things, but as you do you find those hard days occur less and less frequently, even if they never go away completely. But you learn how to do self-care, how to be patient with yourself and not blame yourself for regressing, because that’s what it feels like. Going backward. Teaching yourself a healthier form of self-talk is important, catching yourself when your thoughts turn negative and turning them around into something positive. Inserting reminders that your brain is lying to you, that you have worth and value, that people actually do love and care about you. And again, all that takes time to learn and turn into a habit.

And of course, life doesn’t just stop around you and wait for you to catch up. It keeps on traveling by all lickety-split, almost seeming to laugh at you as it does. You find yourself moseying along at what already feels like a break-neck pace but is more like a cripple hobbling along on crutches. You find yourself watching things happen that you want to be a part of — and just can’t right now. And you either have to learn to make your peace with that or give up altogether — and I don’t consider the latter to be an option.

So I find myself caught between a lull, where I can’t find work and have trouble sometimes finding ways to occupy my free time, and what feels like a never-ending quiet place, because it feels like nothing is ever going to change. I fight impatience on a daily basis, both to continue finding victory over my anxiety and with the frustrating process of finding an employer who will hire me. I also face discouragement and loneliness and criticism — and facing all those things down demands patience. I’ve been learning more and more over the last several months to lean on my faith and rely on my God, trusting that He has a plan for all this and that it’s part of His plan for me right now to be exactly here. It’s a difficult thing to accept most days, but it is what it is and there’s nothing for me to do but accept it and continue to be patient, to wait on His plan. His timing is perfect, his plan for me is flawless, and I just have to trust and hope and wait.

It’s a journey and a process, and I continue to take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and sometimes even one breath at a time.

Weeping in the Willows

The child sits at the base of the tree, silently weeping. Her arms are crossed over her upraised knees, her face buried in her arms. Tears fall from her cheeks, staining her pants and the soil on which she sits. A few even land on the tree roots.

A gentle touch on her cheek startles her, and she looks up. She is alone, the canopy of the willow sheltering her.

The tree itself rustles, its branches gently swaying. The child’s misery turns to puzzlement. There is no wind, and yet the tree sways of its own accord.

More tears slip from her eyes. Another gentle touch, this time on her opposite cheek, and she turns to catch sight of a branch brushing a tear away. A single, salty drop rests on a leaf then drips to the ground as the branch pulls away.

The child is in wonder, her pain momentarily forgotten. She looks up at the tree, amazed to see a face there, sad but compassionate.

Her tears flow anew, her grief given release. She leans her head against the willow as its branches envelop her in a tender embrace.

Jack-of-All-Trades, Master of Words