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albertnothlit

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albertnothlit last won the day on May 26 2016

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About albertnothlit

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    Sci-Fi
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    Sci-fi, fantasy, LGBT-friendly fiction, videogames, traveling, learning new languages.

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  1. albertnothlit

    Shamrock Lite

    I'm so glad you liked it! I don't usually write about magic (since I'm more of a sci-fi kind of guy), but it was great fun, and I'm very happy to hear you enjoyed it.
  2. albertnothlit

    The Missing Hikers

    Thank you for your comments! I'm so glad you're finding the story entertaining despite (or because of?) its decidedly dark tone, and the next chapter will, hopefully, add another piece to the puzzle and open up yet more questions as to what is really happening... I can't wait to share the next chapter this coming Monday. I'm hard at work on this story, dedicating some time each day whenever work permits. It's all going according to plan so far! Thank you again, -Albert.
  3. albertnothlit

    The Missing Hikers

    If the modern theories of Mr. Freud are to be given any credence, then my subconscious mind must have suppressed the horrific events of that fateful night soon afterwards as a protective measure for my psyche. For at least eight years after the event, I managed not only to avoid thinking about what had happened, but also to build my personal life, hobbies, and interests to be radically different from what they had once been. It was only later in life that I began to relive parts of the aftermath of the catastrophe through nightmares. I would dream I was walking through blackened snow, threading my way across a field of corpses. Some other times I would dream of what became the longest day of my life as I waited for my family to come rescue me. It was nighttime again by the time my father arrived. He found me huddled together with Charles and promptly took us both back to Albany. As for the complete picture of what had happened – this I was only able to piece together later. Back then, I was too emotionally disturbed to care about it much. I was told by my mother that I was assailed by night terrors each and every night for months. I refused to go out when it was dark, and my personality changed completely: I became taciturn, withdrawn. I would barely speak and I would spend the days in my room, reading or making up for the lost hours of sleep by taking very long naps during the daytime, when I apparently felt safe enough to lie down in bed and close my eyes. Psychotherapy as a concept did not even exist back then. My emotional healing was therefore entrusted to time and prayer. I do remember going to church much more often than usual, and having long conversations with the minister where he would wax at length about philosophical matters which my youthful mind was in no shape to comprehend. All I understood was that my best friend had been taken away from me, for I did not see Charles again for many years after my father took us home. All I felt was a constant crawling sort of dread that was with me from the moment the sun rose to the moment it set. And, as soon as darkness swept over the land, the dread became terror, cold and hot at the same time, prickling along the back of my neck and whispering that I was in terrible danger. This malaise was a constant companion to me for years. It changed me. I became much more fearful and all but lost my sense of adventure. I abandoned many of the things I had used to enjoy doing, and I destroyed the one telescope I owned despite the fact that I knew that it had cost my father a small fortune to acquire. Those were dark times indeed. Much later, my father revealed to me that he had even considered the possibility of having me committed to an asylum, but he had decided against it in hopes that I would find my way out of the tragedy by myself. He was right, in a way. Time did pass, and eventually, one small step at a time, I began to resume a life of normalcy, far removed from what had happened. I distinctly remember that the thing that bothered me the most about the tragedy was that, for me, it had shattered my world – but for the rest of the people around me, it barely held any significance. There had been lots of talk of the freak accident immediately afterwards, of course. Journalists pestered my father for a while, desperate for any shred of fact which they could then build up into a complete narrative. Some of the more adventurous among them made the trip to the site of the Grand Hotel, or used of their contacts among the local rangers to learn more details, and it is ironically thanks to them that I was able to fully understand the extent of the tragedy so many years later. The fact that fire had literally rained down from the heavens in the form of the bolide caught the attention of the public like nothing else. Was it a sign from God? Had Mr. Wentworth been such a corrupt and evil human being that God Himself had decided to smite him at the site of his arrogance by destroying the symbol of his triumph? Later visitors to the site reported that the bolide must have exploded over the lake, less than a mile from the ground, judging from the way the trees all around lay flat against the ground, their trunks set on fire and immediately extinguished again by what must have been a pressurized shockwave of titanic proportions. The lakebed itself had become a shallow crater, and at the rim, where the Hall had been, there was nothing but rubble. And corpses. The entire American side of the Wentworth family had been killed that night, along with twelve guests of various degrees of notoriety, their families, and twenty-one servants which had been catering the event. The main building of the Hotel itself, however, had been all but untouched due to its distance from the explosion. Aside from broken windows blasted apart by the shockwave, there had been no structural damage to either that edifice or the observation tower where Charles and I had been. In fact, he and I had taken refuge in the main Hotel, along with the handful of surviving servants, on the morning after the event. A thorough criminal investigation of every detail was quickly postponed and then canceled indefinitely by the local police due to the undeniable fact that it had been a natural disaster, and the remoteness of the site. To truly catalog and investigate everything would have taken a prohibitive amount of manpower and taxpayer money, so the site was merely declared out of bounds to the general public, as it was still private property, and the flow of gruesome details which the press fed on was cut off permanently. Albany forgot about the tragedy almost as swiftly as its fervor for morbid information had spiked during the first weeks after the event. I was unable to forget, of course, and it confused me that the rest of the world appeared to be carrying on as if nothing were the matter. How could they not understand that something so terrible had happened? A very clear memory I have from that time is of me sitting at my bedroom window, looking out onto the street and watching people pass by. They would be smiling, talking, sometimes even laughing. How could they? Did they not understand? Or… Was I so insignificant that I did not matter? Dark thoughts chased themselves around in circles in my head. I could not comprehend many of the things that had occurred and I had no one to talk to – my partial hearing loss made ordinary conversation a chore, which further isolated me from others. The only other person in my immediate circle that appeared to have been shaken by it all was my father, but I barely saw him for months after he had rescued me and Charles. It was easily the busiest period of his entire career, and it is only now that I am able to see just how hard he worked out of love for the friend he had lost when Mr. Wentworth died, and how fiercely he fought to justify Mr. Wentworth’s trust in him. The legal battle for the Wentworth fortune was vicious. Even though most members of the immediate family were dead, with the evident exception of Charles himself, relatives appeared to sprout up from the ground itself, dozens of them, both from neighboring states and from the English branch of the family, each of them with a claim to the fortune and to Charles. My father had been granted extraordinary powers in Mr. Wentworth’s will in case of a tragedy but even then it took years of litigation to fight off the greedy clawing hands of cousins and second cousins and even third cousins who wanted either the Wentworth transportation company, the fabulous Albany mansion, money, or custody of Charles as a ticket to being rich. Charles himself expressed to me, much later, the deep thanks he felt towards my father for having fought so fiercely to ensure Charles’s independence and financial well-being. My father was able to reach a compromise with the more prominent members of the Wentworths living in England, agreeing to send Charles to a boarding school in that country under the supervision of his relatives, but at no point did they or anyone else but Charles himself hold a claim to the fortune which was his by right. Charles left for England one week after the tragedy and I did not see him again for more than eight years. I sent him letters at the beginning, but these went unanswered. He did not send me any correspondence. In a way, this might have been for the best, because we were both able to move on with our respective lives and it was only much later, when Charles returned to America, that we even dared to talk about that day amongst ourselves. My own life was relatively uneventful for many years. As soon as I was able to push away those horrible events from my mind, I suppressed them entirely and slowly regained a measure of my old personality. I began to train as an aide to my father, who clearly thought of me as his inevitable successor in the family law firm. My true passion still lay in science, but learning the workings of law was a welcome distraction until I was old enough to decide for myself the path I wished to follow. Slowly, over the years, I became more confident and outgoing despite the awkwardness brought about by my impaired hearing. When the time came to decide where to pursue my professional studies, I announced that I would be joining the Physics department at the University of New York at Albany, which my father, although surely dismayed, nevertheless supported. It was during August of that year, as I was about to turn twenty and move into student accommodation at the University, that the event which had scarred my childhood was tangentially brought back to the public’s general awareness by the sensational disappearance of all but one member of a group of hikers from out of state. At the beginning, I refrained from following the story in the newspapers because I was afraid of the memories it would conjure. The disappearance had happened, according to reports, less than ten miles away from the site of the now nearly-forgotten bolide explosion. As the story gained traction, however, it became impossible to escape it, and so I began to read about it in the news. The more I read, the more disturbed I felt. For the first time in years I felt the insidious crawling of panicky fear on the back of my neck. I became convinced that this new event was connected to the first, although there was no evidence to suggest that, and the increasing strangeness of the entire affair was not only unwelcome but also somewhat threatening – although just why, I could not have said back then. Now I know better, of course. I understand that there must have been some degree of intuition present in my subconscious mind which understood the deeper meaning behind two extremely unlikely tragedies happening in such close proximity to one another. Some primal instinct must have warned me that there was true danger about… And yet, despite these feelings, I became just another avid reader of the news as more and more hints and fragmentary pieces of evidence were discovered during the efforts to ascertain what had happened to those who had disappeared. The group had consisted of seven experienced hikers, five men and two women. They had all been in their early twenties, with the leader of the group, a man named Jonathan Smith, being the oldest at twenty-three. The sole survivor was a younger man, a fellow named William Robertson, nineteen years old. They all came from Maine and had been students of medicine. According to the testimony of family members and friends, all seven people had frequently gone out hiking in the past, with Smith in particular having several mountain ascensions and successful cave exploring sorties to his name. The year before their disappearance, all seven had made a similar trip in the Appalachian Mountains with no major incidents having happened, and this was one of the factors which contributed to so much time having elapsed between the time the tragedy befell them and the beginning of earnest rescue efforts. Before leaving, they had all notified their families that they expected to be back during the last week of June, but that they could well be one or two weeks late in case they decided to continue exploring or if they discovered something particularly interesting. Therefore, fears about something having happened began only after the second week of July had come and gone. A search party was dispatched a week and a half later, and it was only in August that the first reports began to come in. From the beginning, there was a very strong suspicion that foul play had been somehow involved, and it centered around the seemingly fortuitous survival of Robertson. Public interest was consequently high, which was both a curse and a blessing – it ensured that the investigation became a priority for the pertinent authorities in the area, but it also attracted many unscrupulous journalists who, eager for morbid details, made the entire affair a kind of serial mystery which may have fascinated most of us, but which must have been torturous for the families and friends of the people who had disappeared. I was one of those fascinated by the macabre, I am sorry to admit. After all, the more details that were discovered, the more questions there arose. But I get ahead of myself. The full mystery of the event became apparent only after several weeks of intense reporting. At the beginning, the newspapers merely mentioned that the whereabouts of six out of the seven people were unknown despite the fact that their camp had been found relatively quickly, and in nearly perfect conditions. Of the people themselves there was no sign. Interviews with the inhabitants of the village of Tupper Lake, which had been the last stop the group had made before ceasing contact with the outside world, revealed important pieces of information which were helpful in building a picture of what had happened at the beginning. This village, bordering its namesake Lake, was small enough for most of its inhabitants to clearly remember the arrival of the group at the beginning of June. They stayed for two nights in the tents they had brought, enjoying the lake and trying their hand at fishing. The local grocer gave a detailed account to the investigators of everything he had sold the group: simple fare for their trip, rope, oil for their lamps, and soap. He recalled thinking that the seven young people got along very well, and neither he nor anyone else in town gave voice to any complaint regarding the hikers while they stayed in the vicinity. It was at Tupper Lake that Robertson, the sole survivor, was later found, but despite the feverish zeal of the general public in trying to blame him for the tragedy, there was little evidence to suggest that he could have had anything to do with it. To begin with, he survived because of the simple fact that he injured himself while fishing. According to his own report and that of the minister’s wife, Anabelle Dover, who treated him after the accident, he was trying to reel in a particularly large catch in the lake when he lost his footing and fell into the water. He had been standing in the shallows, but his right foot was caught between two rocks and he sprained his ankle seriously enough to prevent him from accompanying his friends for the rest of the trip. There was ample evidence supporting this, and there was also the fact that Robertson himself had been the one to contact the authorities when he had waited already for weeks in the village and his friends had not returned. If he had been to blame, why would he have done this? Then there was also the fact that the last camp of the hiker group had been discovered nearly 50 miles away – a prohibitive distance for someone to cover with a sprained ankle. Nevertheless, Robertson was taken into custody and submitted to exhaustive interrogation. He gave an accurate report of the entire trip up until the moment when he had been left behind because of his injury. He described Smith as being a capable leader, knowledgeable in wilderness survival and very resourceful. He was at a loss as to explain what could have happened – as far as Robertson knew, Smith had followed the plan to the letter, staying close to the route they had all agreed they would take during the hike. It was reported that Robertson appeared to show genuine grief after the first corpses were found, particularly when he was notified that his fiancée, another member of the group named Amanda Terrence had also perished. Some people suggested that there might have been a love triangle at play, perhaps some sort of romantic vendetta, but it was all just wild speculation. The facts remained impenetrable and confusing. First, there was the hikers’ camp. It had been found just a few miles along the same valley where Charles Wentworth’s property was located. There had been three tents in total and, judging from the contents within, each one had had two occupants with the third one having been shared by the two women. Nothing had been stolen, as far as the investigators could see. In fact, several relatively valuable personal effects were found in the tents, undisturbed. They included things like an ornate gold pocket watch belonging to Richard Madison, twenty years old; pearl earrings and a matching necklace belonging to Sarah Graham, twenty years old; and Smith’s own cigarette box with mother-of-pearl inlays. None of it had been taken or even ostensibly displaced. This made it difficult to attribute the tragedy to a common robbery, since it would have taken a dim criminal indeed to go to the trouble of killing six people and not taking anything with him. There was also no evidence of large animal tracks anywhere, so something like a bear could not be blamed. If it had been an animal attack of some kind, evidence of the violence would have been everywhere and this was not so. There were wolves in the area, or so some believed, but in the summertime there was plenty to eat and the local rangers very impatiently explained to journalist after journalist that wolves would not attack such a large group of humans unless starving and desperate for food. No tracks belonging to these creatures had been discovered in the vicinity either, so the wild animal attack hypothesis was quickly snuffed out. The undeniable state of matters was that, aside from the mild predation of scavengers who had quickly moved in to consume whatever food had been available over the weeks before the investigators arrived at the scene, nothing in the campsite had been damaged – with the exception of the tents themselves. These presented the first wholly incomprehensible piece of evidence in the case, and they were the subject of much speculation. It had thankfully not rained at all from the moment of the disappearance until the camp was found, and so the contents of the tents themselves had not been damaged, but had it rained it would all have been drenched in short order, for each of the tents had been slashed open… from the inside. Of this there could be no doubt. All three of the tents had been cut open with a sharp implement, probably a knife, and the jagged flaps presented a mystery which was very hard to make sense of. Why had the occupants done this? The only possible explanation was that they had felt compelled to escape their tents as fast as humanly possible, but if so, why had they not simply gone out the entrance? True, the tents themselves were very sturdy and, according to Robertson, Smith had insisted that they seal the entrance during the night with state-of-the-art zipper closures which would discourage animals from venturing in as they slept. Undoing the zipper was a matter of just a few seconds, however. For all six occupants of the three tents to have slashed their way out of the very place in which they had decided to spend the night implied that they had been terrified to such a degree that even at delay of a couple of seconds must have seemed unacceptable. They must have seen or known of something so dangerous that they were forced to escape in the fastest possible way. Venomous snakes were the first suggestion from idle journalists. Perhaps, some of them posited, the group had settled down for the night, zipped up the tents – and then discovered a viper coiled among their sleeping bags. There were several problems with this hypothesis, nevertheless, such as the fact that, so far up north, snakes were not common creatures. Besides, while one snake discovered in one tent was within the realm of possibility, what were the odds of three snakes hiding in three tents at the same time? There was much debate about this. People’s imaginations ran wild, with many of them sending letters to the editors of the newspapers publishing the story and offering their own increasingly harebrained explanations for the mystery. No explanation was satisfactory, however, and as more information was released, I grew still more puzzled by it all. The six people on the expedition had left their tents as fast as they had been able to, leaving everything behind. Everything. When it was revealed that they had also left behind their clothes, I did not know what to make of the information. Apparently, all of them had taken off their clothes and tossed them carelessly in the tents before leaving. What could have possessed rational people to do that? True, the summer nights were hot and they might have all desired to be cool by remaining in their underwear, but why had they run away into the wilderness, barefoot, not even bothering to take a shirt or a jacket or a blouse? No matter how experienced the person might be, venturing out like that in the middle of the night, when the improvised escape must have taken place, spelled out a death sentence. It was a sentence that, it was soon confirmed, had been ruthlessly carried out. The first two bodies were found an astonishing fifteen miles away, half-buried in a ravine that was partially swamped by an overflowing river. At first, nothing but the names of the two deceased individuals were released in an effort to show respect for what had befallen them: they had been Richard Madison and Jebediah Hurt. However, a particular journalist named Eoin Caine, who had a reputation for reveling in reporting about the morbid and the violent among the seedier literary circles in New York City, sent back copious notes which were published by the Evening Herald, a relatively unknown and sensationalist newspaper which circulated only amongst the superstitious and the poorly educated. I procured copies of it all through the extent of time in which the tragedy was covered, however, and only later did I come to learn that Caine, although unscrupulous and greedy, had been thorough in his reporting. It was through his lack of morals that I was able to build a more complete picture of the tragedy which had befallen the hikers. I hesitate to speak of the awful details… but I must. The bodies of Madison and Hurt had been found in a partial state of decomposition, as was to be expected, but what had not been expected at all was the evidence at the scene and the injuries and marks on the corpses themselves, all of which indicated without a doubt that the two men had fought each other to the death. Their bodies were completely naked and lacerated everywhere by the thorns at the bottom of a ravine. They appeared to have tumbled into it after already having been fighting for some time, judging by the broken knuckles on the right hands of them both. Madison’s jaw had been fractured in two places and Hurt had lost two of his front teeth. Madison’s hand, clutched tight in rigor mortis, still held a disturbingly large tuft of Hurt’s own hair, which Madison must have ripped out with incomprehensible violence. Hurt, on his part, had also evidently inflicted his own share of damage on his opponent. Two of Madison’s ribs were broken, and around his neck there were the unmistakable signs of a stranglehold, which might very well have been the cause of death. Hurt’s death had been likely brought on by a collapsed windpipe, which had been crushed by a savage kick or some other devastating blunt impact. Madison’s arms had been gouged in two separate places by bite marks as of a ravenous beast, but Caine, in his reporting, made it very clear that the investigators knew without a doubt that the bites had been inflicted by Hurt. That was not all. For inside of Madison’s clenched jaw, something had been found… Something which explained the fact that Hurt’s left hand was missing its index finger. The horrifying violence of the discovery was almost too fantastic to believe. These were medical students; kind, well-liked members of their communities. Most people elected to decry Caine’s reporting as mere inventions and vagaries of a pathetic self-proclaimed journalist who wanted some notoriety at any cost… And yet, much later, Charles and I went to the village by the lake and interviewed the investigators who had discovered the bodies. They confirmed everything that Caine had reported. What had happened? What could have transformed two fine young men into murderous animals? Why had they killed each other in such a brutal fashion? Why had they traveled so far to begin with and how had they managed it at all, naked and barefoot as they had been? Why? There were, of course, no answers. And when the next three bodies were found, even more questions came to the fore. The next people to be positively identified were the two women, Amanda and Sarah, as well as a man named Giovanni Russo. Only Smith, the expedition leader, was nowhere to be found… For the time being. But as Caine reported on the conditions in which these three corpses had been discovered, even the gruesome and horrifying details regarding Hurt and Madison appeared mundane by comparison. These corpses were found much closer to the campsite, but they had been… buried. It was only after the second round of searching that the sheriff himself stumbled upon a mound of earth, disguised in the undergrowth of a particularly dense part of the forest – a mound which turned out to be a mass grave. Inside it, according to the reports, a gruesome sight awaited. All three bodies bore signs of injuries sustained before death. Russo had cracked ribs and both legs had been broken somehow. One of the female corpses, although it was never revealed which one, was missing its eyes. The skin on all three of the bodies had been lacerated everywhere, and their feet showed clear signs of having been used to walk, barefoot, through punishing terrain which had rendered them little more than bloody masses which must have caused unbearable pain. Nevertheless, the most horrible thing about the discovery was their hands. According to Caine, who claimed to have seen the corpses himself, the fingers on all three bodies had sustained terrible damage. It was as if they had used their bare hands to dig their own grave and nobody could offer an explanation as to why. The marks all around the pit were clear enough, however. These young people had either been compelled or driven by madness to dig the very hole in which they would be buried, an act of such cruelty if indeed it had been forced upon them that I shuddered to even imagine what they must have gone through. Several of them had lost their fingernails but appeared to have kept on digging nevertheless. The pit had been carved out in a frenzy, that much was clear, and once the terrible task had been accomplished, all three of them had been killed, dumped into the grave, and buried. Only Smith could have done this, and before the discovery that proved without a doubt that Smith had also perished, he became the locus of rage, indignation, and horror about the entire affair. His family suffered threats by family members of the other victims, but there were people, myself included, that wondered whether he really was the culprit. After all, how could he have managed to coerce three people into digging their own grave? And how had he killed them? For, despite their numerous wounds, investigators found no evident cause of death on any of the three bodies. Asphyxiation was quickly ruled out, as was blunt trauma, strangulation, or blood loss. The corpses had been found carefully laid out next to one another, hands crossed over their chests… but no one could fathom how they had been killed in the first place. It was yet another puzzle which, compounded with the disturbing manner of the death of the other two members of the group, offered no rational solution. For the better part of a week, before Caine published his most popular article yet, blaming Smith was the only way to even partially understand the situation. And yet, horribly, six days after the discovery of the mass grave, a volunteer investigator named Jonah Gordon found… Smith. Part of him, at least. I do not know whether Smith’s family felt any measure of relief at the incontrovertible proof that their son had not been the murderer, or whether they instead were engulfed by grief and horror at the fact that only his severed head was found, partially buried in the mud, at the edge of one of the shallow lakes which had arisen after the bolide explosion many years prior. The discovery had been made within Wentworth property, and so some speculated that perhaps Smith had been killed by a ranger or warden employed by Charles Wentworth to watch over the perimeter of his land, but my father, when interviewed by the local papers, was quick to point out that Charles had not hired anyone at all to watch over the ruins of his property but a single groundskeeper, who had no orders to use violence on trespassers at all. Indeed, the entire area had been essentially abandoned since the tragedy and nobody had had reason to go there after the husk of the never-to-be-built hotel had been stripped of all valuables by creditors. My father, as the legal American representative of the Wentworths in the state, granted full access to investigators, but after an entire month of searching they had not found Smith’s body anywhere. Another piece was added to the chaotic and ghastly puzzle. Nobody knew of any animal which could inflict such a clean slicing wound as to have the effect of beheading a human being with the precision of a guillotine. Not even a deranged human, unless extremely skilled and well prepared, could have come close to perpetrating the gruesome act with such perfection. There was also the fact that, try as they might, investigators never found the slightest trace, track, or hint of any other human being in the vicinity. What, then, had killed Smith? For he could not have done this himself – there was no possible way. If he had indeed been the murderer of his other companions, somehow managing to incite two of them to fight to the death and forcing three others to dig their own grave, why would he have then been beheaded? And by whom, or what? No weapon was found, no blade. No body. The only thing which was pointed out by the doctor who examined the already-decomposing head when it was delivered to the village by the lake was that decomposition itself was not progressing as fast as it should have been in the hot summer weather. Closer inspection by the doctor attributed it to the fact that the head appeared to have been colonized by a variety of mold with which he was not familiar, and which appeared to be limiting the normal spread of bacteria through the decaying tissues. Alas, for a long time I held the belief that the doctor had simply come across something akin to the penicillium fungus and had simply not known it for what it was. Now I know better… But at the time, no more thorough analyses were carried out and the head was simply shipped off to Maine for interment. Soon after this discovery, information on the matter dried up due to the fact that there was simply nothing else to report. The entire search effort had been prohibitively expensive, and after the corpses had been dutifully shipped to their families along with the personal effects of all of the victims to whatever catastrophe had befallen them, public interest in the tragedy declined very sharply. Caine tried to keep the matter alive for some time by focusing on the angle that perhaps Robertson, through mysterious means, had orchestrated the entire thing – and yet it was impossible, the mere speculation refuted by the fact that Robertson had been in no condition to travel and by the fact that there were dozens of witnesses all over the village where he had stayed who had seen him, each and every day, until after the first body was found. As for myself, I tried to forget about the matter as August turned into September and a particularly challenging semester at the University began. I was successful for the most part, but a fragment of my mind had latched onto the horrific events and would not let go. There was no rational binding thread between this tragedy and the one I had survived so many years ago, and yet I could not shake the thought that perhaps the two things were somehow connected. How I curse my insightful instincts. How I wish I had never harbored even the slightest fragment of curiosity about the affair. But I did, and I was not the only one, I later discovered. Because that September, after a decade of not seeing him, Charles came back to America to study at the University at Albany.
  4. albertnothlit

    Shamrock Lite

    Thank you so much for your comments! StonyCreeker - I'm so glad you found the story entertaining and even a little emotional - you have no idea how much feedback like yours means to me. I've missed being active here, but I'm feeling better all the time, through the ups and downs, and I'm remembering more and more why I love writing more than anything else. Fae, thank you for your kind review! I'm glad you liked the story - and you're right, youth is so relative, even among us and without any magic involved.
  5. albertnothlit

    Shamrock Lite

    One lifetime of experience, and suddenly... magic. Richard has come to Ireland to reflect on years gone by, not to become mixed up in the affairs of the fairy folk. The handsome stranger he meets will not be denied, however. He makes Richard young again - for a price.
  6. albertnothlit

    Shamrock Lite

    One Richard Trowes got on the tour bus with resigned exhaustion. The trip that had looked so good on the travel agency's web site was proving to be insufferable, and there was still one more day to go. Plus, whatever remained of that afternoon. He shuffled onto his seat, wishing he weren't surrounded by teenagers who had not stopped talking amongst themselves for a single moment since the group left the hotel. Had he ever been as loud as they were now? Richard doubted it. After putting noise-canceling headphones on so he would at least be listening to his music, he stared out the window as the bus started on its way. At least the scenery was beautiful. In that, the web site photographs could never do justice to the real thing. The northern coast of Ireland was breathtaking, even in March when the occasional patch of snow could still be seen on the fields. The sky above was a leaden shade of gray, but Richard had already seen how quickly that could change under the influence of the tireless wind. Early in the morning, they had been at some castle whose name Richard had already forgotten, and the waves of the ocean crashing against the old stone walls had made for a surprisingly vivid, nostalgic picture. It was the only picture Richard had taken so far. He supposed he was old-fashioned, but in his day, photographs had meant something. You had a limited supply of them, and then you had to wait for them to be developed, and the suspense of getting your finished product was almost as nice as the event which had warranted those mementos in the first place. He understood the convenience of having the possibility of taking unlimited photographs with digital media, but he suspected that those who did ended up with folders upon folders of bad pictures that they looked at once in their lives, if at all. Maybe they would browse through when they got back from their journeys, but just to see what to post on whatever social media web site was popular at the moment. Not him. He had a professional camera, most definitely not digital, and he only used it for special things. The low, rolling hills of gray and white and even the stereotypical emerald swept past his window as the bus drove on. On the right lay the ocean, and far away, the white tips of other islands or maybe Scotland. Most of the land Richard saw was carefully tended. There was little wilderness left. Fences divided every acre and sheep marked different colors pastured where there was no snow, sometimes already followed by this year's young calves. George would have probably said something along the lines of how nice it was that the circle of life carried on, right upon seeing the baby sheep, and Richard would have countered with some sarcastic argument of his own. Except George wasn't there anymore. At times like that one, when a memory of him came upon Richard unexpectedly, the loss felt as fresh and raw as it had at first. It had been years already, but Richard found it hard to let go. They had known it was bound to happen, they both had, and yet Richard had always managed to convince himself that George wasn't as old as his birth certificate said. Now, more than a decade later, it was Richard who was feeling the years, and all these young people around him only made it worse. They made their last stop, the grand finale of that day's tour, at the Giant's Causeway. Richard stepped out of the bus with silent gratitude, stretching out his legs. It was cold out, but he was dressed well. He ignored the guide and left on his own to explore. The views there were magnificent. After paying for an audio tour he was never going to listen to, Richard followed the tourist path that snaked over the edge of the seaside cliffs and could do nothing but stare at the beauty of nature. The sun came out for a little while, even, showing him water of indigo and blue and emerald. The shadows played games with the jagged rocks where they met the ocean, and the wind swished through fields overgrown with golden and green grass. He passed through the stunning geometric formations of the Causeway without stopping because there were many other tourists nearby. He followed the path as it led up and away from the crowds, to higher places from which he could see the ocean as it turned the color of iron when the sun hid behind another blanket of clouds. The chill of approaching evening was deep, but so was the sense of isolation, of silent history and those who remembered. When the fierce wind blew past him, trailing the sharp smell of the ocean, he could almost imagine he heard the sound of flutes in the distance, amongst forgotten ruins and hidden places. This is what he had come for. Here he could feel the true soul of the Old Country, the place his great-grandparents had once left behind. "I'm finally here, George," he said softly, touching his wedding ring with his thumb. "Just like I said I would. I stopped putting it off and came…home." "Oh, wow. Is there a camera nearby? Because that totally just made me cry," a male voice said from behind. "What?" Richard snapped, turning around. "Hey, easy there," a tall man answered, palms facing upwards, a small hiker’s pack slung over one shoulder. "I just thought you were filming a scene in one of those depressing artsy movies that earn a lot of awards just because the old guy's wife is dead." "Husband," Richard corrected, feeling his surprise turn to anger. "Oh, really?" the man answered, and gave Richard a quick once-over. "Would have never guessed, with that old-timer daddy look you have. Unless you're going for it on purpose?" Richard was speechless at the man's rudeness. He stared at the newcomer with his most intimidating glare. "Sorry, big guy!" the man apologized. "Don't tear my head off or anything, okay? I was just having a little fun, is all. I see you there standing, looking so depressed surrounded by this natural beauty, and I just had to say something. Hell, you were making me feel depressed and that's something some people would not think possible. I'm Brian, by the way." He had spoken so fast that Richard was already shaking Brian's hand in greeting before he had registered everything. "And you are?" Brian asked. "Huh?" "What's your name? Oh, no. Don't tell me you have Alzheimer's already." "Richard. And stop with the old jokes already, okay? I'm only sixty-two." "Only… Right. If you say so, Richard. That's a nice name. But it's so formal, though. Can I call you Rick? Ricky? Or Dick? Dickory doc—" "Stop," Richard said, getting more annoyed by the second. "Just leave. Go back to your tour bus or whatever and leave me alone." Brian grinned, a sly tilt to his lips. "And what if I want to stay here?" "What?" "You heard me. What if I want to stay here with you?" He followed that up by approaching Richard and touching his shoulder in a suggestive way. Richard backed away, shrugging Brian off. "Don't," he said. "Touchy, aren't we?" Brian replied, still smiling. "Come on. I like you, Richard. Ricky. Don't tell me you don't like me." He pointed at himself with a theatrical flourish, and in spite of everything, Richard had to admit that Brian was attractive. He had flowing black hair, jet black, just long enough to appear wild but not messy. His eyes were a deep emerald green, and he had an easy smile that slanted slightly to one side, showing his bright and perfect teeth. He was only wearing a light sweater despite the weather, and the fitted garment hinted at a muscular physique underneath, but not bulky. If Richard had had to guess, he would have said that Brian looked like a ballet dancer in his prime. "See?" Brian prodded, smiling even more. "You like me. I knew you would." "So what?" Richard countered, flustered by the man's directness. "So come over here. Follow me. I know a more secluded place where we can…get to know each other a little better." An alarm bell went off in Richard's head. A young, attractive guy, feigning interest in a sixty-year-old? It had to be some kind of rehearsed charade that would end up with Richard all worked up and several hundred dollars poorer. The guy probably targeted every tourist group, maybe several times a day, until somebody fell for his act. "No, thanks," he replied. "Not interested, but you're a great actor. I couldn't even tell you're from here. You have a perfect American accent." "What do you mean, no thanks?" Brian answered, as if Richard had just insulted him. "Just because you're all hot and buff doesn't mean you can reject this!" Another grand gesture. Richard snorted. "Buff? Come on." "Yes, buff," Brian replied, raising his eyebrows in mock derision. "And your fire-red hair, if you have to make me say it. I don't usually like guys with chin beards but you somehow make it work. And I like your eyes, okay? So blue, just like the ocean. Plus, you have a great tan." Richard tried to keep his composure, but he burst out laughing. "What?" Brian asked, indignant. "You have got to be kidding me. Are you blind?" Richard patted his large, round belly. "I haven't worked out in years. And see my hair? Maybe we are not speaking the same language, but this color is white. Just like my beard, all of it, not just the chin. And finally, unless I somehow got sunburnt from the last thirty minutes out under the Irish sun, I don't see how you could call this pasty paleness tan. Really, your entire number was very good until that last bit. If you want to flatter an old man, you don't start inventing details about him." Brian said nothing at first, just glared at Richard with a frown and his hand beneath his chin until the older man stopped chuckling. "Can I talk now?" Brian said. "I think it's best if I leave," Richard told him. "My tour bus will be driving off very soon, I think." Brian started nodding, then angrily stomped his foot. "I can't stand him," he said under his breath. "Even if I need him. He's so full of himself!" "Excuse me?" Richard interrupted. Brian ignored him. He continued talking to himself. "But you saw the look in his eyes, didn't you? So? So, he can help! Well I don't know that. Not for sure. Unless…" "I'm going to go now," Richard said, already backing away from what had to be a disturbed person. "Good-bye." Brian waved him off with impatience. Richard started walking away, already wondering how fast he would have to walk to make the rendezvous with the rest of the group. Judging from the pack of unmistakable teenagers that were still hanging out by the ocean despite the urgings of the tour guide, not very fast. "Okay, fine! Wait!" Brian shouted. "Sorry, I'm already late," Richard lied. "Oh, no. You're not going to make me beg." Richard turned around with exasperation. "Listen, why don't you—" Brian wasn't there. Richard turned back to face the road, and suddenly Brian was standing in front of him. "How did you do that?" "I just remembered something," Brian said brightly. "It's so weird, dealing with you people. You see everything one way only." "What are you talking about?" Richard asked, feeling somewhat alarmed. He wondered if Brian was dangerous. "I’ve got something to show you," Brian told him, rummaging around in his backpack until he found what he was searching for. "Here! Look and see, Mr. Hot Stuff." He had a mirror in his hands. It was quite large considering it had come from such a small backpack, but Richard had already had enough. "Listen, Brian. I need to leave." The other man blocked his way. "Ricky, Rick. Don't be a Dick and look. Time ticks." "What do you—?" Richard did not finish his question because he glanced at the mirror and caught a glimpse of himself. Of another self. "What the hell?" Richard swore. The person in the mirror mimicked his exact motions. "Aha! Got your attention, didn't I?" Richard raised a hand to his cheek. Instead of his beard, he felt smooth softness, all the way down to his chin, where a carefully-trimmed patch of red glinted in the afternoon sun. Just like his hair. Richard touched it with hands that were shaking from shock. It was bright red, with flashes of orange and crimson in the light. He ran his fingers through the thick, full strands and could do nothing except marvel. The eyes of his younger self looked back at him full of awe and wonder, and when he glanced down, away from the mirror, the hands he held up to his face were those of a strong man. He even had a tan. "What is this?" he whispered. Then, slowly, he raised his eyes to the mirror and stared at himself as he had been forty years ago. The image was still there, but it was more than that. Richard straightened up to his full height for the first time in ages, and he felt…good. The many small aches and pains that had accumulated over the years and which he had gotten used to were gone. In their place, Richard felt an electric sensation of vigor and strength coursing through his veins. "Told you," Brian said with a smirk. "You're hot. Now are you going to follow me or not?" Richard followed. Several minutes passed in a daze. They were walking through a field covered in patches by late snow when Richard's brain finally accepted that it was not a hallucination. Whatever was happening was real. "What did you do to me? Who are you?" he asked Brian. Brian stopped to glance his way. "Let's just say I liked your eyes, and I need you to help me with a little problem, okay? You can stay like this as long as you help me, but don't get excited or anything because it's not permanent. One night only. Come on, I'll take you to my home." "What kind of problem?" Brian rested his hand on his chin again and looked up as if he were actually thinking about it. "Hmmm, nope. Too complicated to explain. I think it's best if you see it." "You said you liked my eyes?" Richard asked, following Brian when he started moving again. "Yeah. Wow, you're insatiable, aren't you? One must keep a steady flow of compliments going your way or else you're not happy." "What?" "Never mind. And yes, I like them. It's why I chose you." "Why?" A brief pause. When Brian answered, his tone was very different, almost serious. "Because you have wisdom." Two The end of their fifteen-minute-long walk turned out to be a parking lot. "This is your home?" Richard asked. Brian looked at him with annoyed disbelief. "What? Who do you think I am? This is where I parked my car, is all." "Oh, right. It's just that I…" "You what?" Brian asked irritably as they got in the car. The doors shut beside each of them, isolating them from the world. "You thought I lived in a wee hollow under a tree? Is that it?" "I didn't say that." "Oh, let me guess. You want me to be wearing the green suit. Shamrock and all, is that right, laddie?" Brian demanded, changing his accent completely. "Sorry, didn't mean to offend you," Richard told him. "This is all a bit much, to be honest with you. Being young again out of the blue is confusing." Brian nodded, appearing mollified by the apology. When he next spoke, he sounded like his old self again. "Well, all right. I suppose you can't help it, being one of them. Let me guess: this is the first you've seen magic in your life." "Or felt it," Richard answered, flexing the muscles in his arms. "Yes." "Typical. Well, hold on, because I'm a terrible driver, and we've got a long way to go." "That's not very reassuring." "Which is why I said it," Brian told him, rolling his eyes. He started the car, and they drove away. It was strange, but Richard did not feel the slightest amount of worry about where he was going, or what he was leaving behind. He doubted the tour guide would even remember him, and back home there was nobody waiting. As he felt the roar of the engine under his seat, the main thing Richard knew was elation. He felt free. Brian had not been lying about his driving abilities. By the time an hour had passed, they had been in more close calls with oncoming traffic than Richard had seen in his entire life. "Slow down!" he shouted when a van missed them by inches. "You worry too much, you know that?" Brian commented, casually looking away from the road. "Car!" Richard yelled. Brian turned back just in time to avoid it. "Relax. We're almost there." "I thought you said it was a long way," Richard told him. "And I wasn't lying, Ricky. I've had to make the jumps very small so nobody will notice. It's awful nowadays, having to hide from you people at every corner. Thankfully, there are still wild places in the Isle, like this one." Richard looked back at the road. Where a second ago there had been low hills and farmsteads, there were now trees. Trees everywhere. "How did we…? Where are we?" "In my home, of course. I told you I was taking you there, didn't I?" "Yeah, you did," Richard said absently, admiring the ancient forest all around. The car could scarcely weave through the tight corners of the dirt road. After a while, even that was insufficient. Brian stopped the car and they got out. "Well, here we are," he announced, and made a strangely formal gesture linking both his hands. "May you be welcome." "It's beautiful," Richard answered, and he meant it. He felt like it would be a great pleasure to run in this forest. It was a pleasant sort of shock to remember that now he could. He felt he could run to the end of the world with strength like this. "Does it have a name?" "It's the forest," Brian answered, looking at him again like Richard was slow. "Oh, you mean the name you people gave it. I don't care to remember it, to be perfectly honest. It's just one more mark of your intrusion. Come on, then. You didn't get to look that hot again for free, you know. You've got to help me with my problem." "You still haven't told me what it is," Richard said, following in Brian's footsteps as he made his way among the trees. "It's better if you see it." They walked for what appeared to Richard to be a long time, and night fell very suddenly. He could see almost nothing in the darkness. Sometimes, he was following Brian just by the sound his feet made as they moved through the undergrowth, and twice, Richard panicked when he thought he had become lost. In the end, though, they crested the slope of a gentle hill and sudden light assaulted Richard's eyes. "See?" Brian told him. "There it is." After blinking a couple of times, Richard was able to see better. Below his eyes, a chaotic scene was unfolding. News crews. The first thing he recognized were the sources of all the lights, and he realized they were news crews. There were small cars and big vans, bright floodlights and dozens of cameras that he could see even from a distance. People were milling about a clearing in the forest, maybe fifty of them from what Richard could see. There were tents erected all around the edge of the clearing, and as he was watching, a helicopter approached, flying overhead, searchlights swaying to and fro as it illuminated the forest canopy. "And they're ruining such a nice night too," Brian complained. "The equinox is almost here." "What is going on in here?" "What we always feared would happen," Brian answered, with sadness in his voice. "But come, you need to see. And maybe, maybe you can help." They made their way down to the clearing. They had just reached the perimeter of the zone, however, when a burly security guard blocked their path. "This is a restricted zone," he told them, reaching for what looked like a taser. "Authorized personnel only." "Sorry," Richard mumbled. "I don't think—" "We're authorized," Brian told the guard, but his voice sounded suddenly strange to Richard. Like many people speaking at once. "Let us through." "Of course," the guard said, stepping out of the way. "What…?" Richard whispered. Brian winked at him in response. They made their way through the crowd and nobody challenged them again. Most people were too busy to notice them, anyway. Some reporters were rehearsing speeches, while others were standing at the edge of the forest speaking directly to cameras. Richard caught snatches of their words when he passed by. "… first confirmed sighting of a supernatural…" "… an elaborate hoax, but it may very well be that…" "… since early morning today, but aside from the one specimen…" At the very center of the clearing, there was a roped-out zone that had been erected around the stump of what must have once been a mighty tree that had grown in the clearing. On top of the stump was a cage. In the cage, there was a girl. At first, she looked normal to Richard, but it was because he was seeing her from the front. When they got closer, his vantage point changed and he got to see her back. Two small, sparkling wings protruded from it, fluttering helplessly against the bars of the cage. "This is my problem," Brian said. Three The girl was not crying, but the way she hugged her knees to her body telegraphed despair. Richard was speechless that nobody had thought to give her a blanket in this cold night. She was wearing only a sheer dress of simple fabric, with a garland of flowers over her head. "She went all fairytale on us with that look," Brian commented. "And after I took her to London to pick out a new wardrobe. Can you believe that?" Richard was not sure, but he could have sworn that beneath Brian's contemptuous tone there was worry. Real worry. "But this is inhumane!" Richard protested. "How is this even legal? That's a person in there!" "I'll overlook the insult because I know what you meant," Brian answered, "but what you see is not what everybody else is seeing. I'm filtering her glamour for you. Here. Have a look." Suddenly there wasn't a girl inside the cage anymore, but a cat-sized blue dragon with sparkling wings. "What happened?" Richard asked. Brian snapped his fingers. The girl was back. "At least Linora had the sense to put on a disguise before they caught her," Brian said. "Come on. I'll take you to our van." "What do you mean?" Richard said, but his question was answered when they walked a few steps ahead and stopped at one of the largest vans parked in the clearing. Its windows were darkened and Richard could see nobody in the driver's seat. "Everybody else sees CNN on this one. Come on, Ricky. Follow me." He stepped through the door with Brian behind him. It was very dark inside. As soon as they both were through and the door shut behind them, however, light blazed all around. Richard covered his eyes from the sudden glow and then glanced about, dumbfounded. He was in somebody's living room. There was a lit fireplace at one end, and windows which showed the breathtaking view of cliffs falling to the sea. There were several comfortable chairs and sofas set around a low circular table, upon which rested a beautifully carved hourglass whose sand was even now trickling to the bottom. "There's no way," Richard said, almost to himself. "There's no way this fits inside a van." Someone chuckled to his left. "It seems you chose a smart one, Brian." Richard looked as a door he had not noticed before opened to his left. A short figure entered, trailing leaves and broken branches in the gust of a blast of wind. As soon as he shut the door, everything was quiet again except for the crackle of the fire. "Please, take a seat," the figure said. He had a long white beard and a wide grin, and shuffled along as if moving cost him the greatest effort. "You might want to go easy on the postcard theatrics, Old One," Brian commented. "Ricky here just loves them." "Is that so?" the old man said, and the next time Richard blinked he was seeing a tall, broad-shouldered man with clean-cut hair of gray and white, wearing a fitted suit and a spotlessly white shirt. He could have been a bank executive. "Is this better?" "Uh…" Richard mumbled, looking from Brian to the new arrival. "Brian, you really should have prepared Richard for the state of things. Look at him, he might be about to faint." "Nonsense, that's just Ricky's natural state. Come on, Rick, say hi to the Old One." "Owen will suffice," the Old One said, stretching out a hand for Richard to shake. "I like the sound of that name." "I'm Richard," he said automatically. "Well, Richard, have a seat," Owen told him. There was nothing left but to obey. They sat down, Owen on one side, Richard and Brian on the opposite end on a large sofa. "Since time is of the essence, I will be brief," Owen said. "Linora made a very grave mistake and gave her trust to the wrong person. It has happened before, of course, but never like this. She granted permission, freely given, when she should not have done so. Now the secret of her existence is out." "And with hers, that of all of us," Brian grumbled. "Brian is correct," Owen agreed. "There are ways open to us on how to proceed with an emergency like this one, but all of them involve more magic, and I know in my heart it will just make things worse." "Old One," Brian cut in, "if we could just blast these people away, or at least take Linora—" "No," Owen replied forcefully, and there was a rumble of something deep and ominous behind his voice, like distant thunder. "The one thing I have seen clearly is that disaster follows this night if we take any of those paths. If this crisis is to be averted, it must be done with the help of one of them. Finding this person was your task. I just hope you chose well, Brian." "So do I. Come on, Ricky. We have work to do and one night to finish." "What do you mean?" Richard asked, looking at both of them in turn. "You haven't explained anything! What do you want from me?" Brian ignored him and led Richard out of the strange living room despite his protests. Once outside, Brian shuddered. "Ugh," he said. "I'm glad we're out of there. I can never stand to be in the presence of the Old One for very long." "What do you mean? He seemed overly serious, but not too threatening." Brian barked out a laugh, which ended halfway. "Oh, you're serious. I have to remember this. It's going to make a great party story." "Why?" Richard demanded, getting angrier the more Brian refused to answer questions in a straightforward way. "Why?" Brian echoed, and raised one eyebrow. Richard couldn't help thinking that he looked very handsome when he did that. "Because you're half blind, Ricky, that's why. You didn't really see him, his overwhelming presence… Never mind. I'm standing here arguing with you when we should be thinking about what to do. So. Any ideas?" Richard started massaging the sides of his temples with his fingertips. "Don't do that," Brian told him. "It makes you seem old. Enjoy your youth while you have it! Quite literally, in this case." The many reporters and their cameramen entourages were steadily converging around the center of the clearing, where they could have a good shot at Linora's cage. There appeared to be some kind of supervising agency ensuring that everybody got their turn to film in an ordered fashion, which was something Richard had never seen before. There was even talk of an organized news conference in the morning. "That's us, in case you're wondering," Brian commented. "We're doing what we can to keep things ordered but there's only so much corporate pressure will accomplish. We need a solution and we need it now." "Okay, I need some quiet. Come on, let's head on to those benches over there." "Ooh, getting all bossy? I think I like it." Richard sighed. When he had managed to find a secluded spot away from the action, he made Brian sit down and he did the same. "Let me see if I understood everything. This girl, Linora, is one of you." "Unfortunately." "And somehow she was exposed. People know she is, well, different." "I showed you the little dragon," Brian replied. "That's about as different as you can get. When this night is over, her glamour will wear off for good and everybody will see her true form, just like you did." "Okay. So you need people to forget about her somehow, before the morning." "Yeah. That's where you come in. If she is exposed to the entire world beyond the shadow of a doubt, we all are. You don't want to know what happens then. Let me just say that the war is going to be very, very long." "Right. How about this," Richard proposed, scratching his chin beard in a habit long forgotten. "We claim she's a hoax, some kind of patchwork animatronic, incredibly realistic." "Already tried that. It just so happens that the guy she exposed herself to in the first place was a biologist." "Fine. How about we say she is a classified military project?" "We tried that once in Nevada and now the place has become a legend. No, thank you." "You have leverage with these people, right? This supervising agency I keep seeing? Why don't you just order them to leave?" "Ricky, not to be offensive or anything, but that is the stupidest suggestion you have yet made and that is saying something." "Great. Whatever," Richard said, turning away. "It's you who needs me, right? That's why you picked me. I'm just trying to help you, but I think I've had enough. You never answer any questions directly, you keep making fun of me for not knowing things I could not possibly know, and you all but kidnapped me from my peaceful tourist tour. Change me back to my old self, please. I need to check out of my hotel tomorrow at noon." There was silence for a couple of heartbeats, and then a very long, drawn-out sigh. Brian scooted down the bench until he bumped Richard lightly with his thigh. He smelled like pine needles and moist earth. "You never, ever heard me say this, okay?" Brian started, staring at the ground. "I apologize." "What?" "Oh, no. You're not going to make me repeat it. You heard me. What I will do is explain how things stand since it seems you're a little thick. We do have people in key places, yes. Some of them have authority over some of the news crews you see here, but not all. Besides, the one thing we've learned in all this time is that you people only get more curious if you're told not to look at something. We can't go that way. It would not end well down the road, trust me. What we need is a simple solution, not something strange and convoluted. We need the perspective of one of you, because let's face it, it's hard to understand how you think." "Likewise," Richard grumbled. "Hey, I upheld my end of the deal," Brian objected. "Don't you feel great? Don't you look great? Because you do." Maybe Richard was imagining it, but the shadow of a shy smile appeared fleetingly on Brian's lips. "A deal you struck without my consent," Richard said. Brian rolled his eyes. "Details. Now help me. Come on." "Give me some time. You can't just ask a man to come up with a solution that will hide the greatest discovery in human history, just like that." Brian had stopped looking at him, though. "Um, Ricky? Our deadline might have expired sooner than expected." "Why?" But Richard glanced at where Linora was held captive, and he suddenly understood. There was a flurry of activity around her, with people talking in loud voices and ignoring the efforts of those who tried to establish some kind of order. Enough cries of 'Girl!' and 'Wings!' reached Richard's ears that he could very well guess what had happened. "The glamour wore off?" he asked Brian. "Oh, yes," Brian answered, with dread in his voice. Four It was madness. Some people were trying to reach into the cage, but every time they did so sparks flew out, and the person was thrown back. After the third try, a generalized cry of panic created a ring around the tree stump where the cage was resting. Linora was standing in it, hands held at either side, palms glowing blue. Her eyes were wild, and they reflected the light from a dozen cameras in a strange way. "It's too late," Brian said sadly. "It's already happening." The shocked silence held for a few moments, but Richard knew it would break and then there would be violence. He had seen it happen before during his service time, had witnessed firsthand how quickly civilized humans could become pack animals. Strange, how the one thing that could sway entire crowds without igniting them was— "The Prestige," he said to himself. An idea was forming in his mind. "Yeah, it's not really the time to think about who will get more prestige from this." "No, Brian. The Prestige. It's a movie. About magic." "Oh, that one. Never saw it. Was it good? Because Rotten Tomatoes was raving about it, but—" "Brian, listen to me!" Richard interrupted, seizing the hand of the other man. Behind him, murmurs were already starting where the crowd gathered. "You can do tricks, right? Magic tricks?" "Excuse me?" Brian asked, affronted. "I can do more than magic tricks. I can do real magic. I could turn you into a rabbit so fast your ears would—" "You'll be my assistant, okay?" Richard said urgently. "Me? Assistant to one of you? I don't think so, hot stuff." "Brian, what is wrong with you?" Richard exploded. "This is bigger than your vanity, understand? One minute, you're telling me how important all of this is, and the next, you're arguing about nothing. Now, listen. You do everything just as I tell you to do it. Don't talk, just obey. Got it? If you don't, I swear, I'm going to tell the Old One that it was all your fault." "Fine," Brian said with a pout. "No need to threaten me like that, and besides, don't you remember that he specifically forbade us to use any magic?" "The Old One forbade you, not me. If I tell you to do something, it's not really your fault, is it?" Brian grinned that sly lopsided smile that already made Richard's heart race a little faster. "I like the way you think, Ricky. Maybe that wisdom I saw was real after all." "Just do what I say. Can you make us wear nice tuxedos?" "Done." Richard took a look at himself. His clothes were now black and white. They fit perfectly. "Oh wow," Brian commented next to him. "You are…dashing." "I'm going to need you to do everything I need in the exact moment I need it. Is there any way for you to read my mind?" "Of course there is. I'm going to need your permission, though." Beyond them, in the crowd, some of the loud voices were turning into shouts. A bright flash of blue came from the cage. "I give you my permission to read my mind. Let's go," Richard said. "Make my voice sound loud, as if I was wearing a microphone and there were loudspeakers all around." "I'm intrigued," Brian replied. "All done." Richard nodded and stepped into the circle of lights. "Welcome one and welcome all!" he roared, and his voice echoed throughout the forest. Richard was trying to channel his inner ringmaster, but his knowledge of magic show protocol ended there. The announcement had the desired effect, however. Every person turned to look at him, and he even saw Linora fix him with a wild look inside her cage. "Um, thank you all for coming," he stammered, dazzled by all the lights and the sight of so many people staring at him. Silence. It was expectant, tense, and incredibly fragile. Richard tried to think of something to say, but his mind was blank. One of the reporters took out a tablet and began making notes. It reminded Richard of the inevitable office intern that was always around in every board meeting, and that mundane thought was enough to snap his mind out of his attack of stage fright. Richard had given hundreds of presentations in his life, had made tough sales to groups of skeptical investors, and had even trained people on how to work under pressure. He knew how to do this. He just had to think of it as him selling them something. "You're probably wondering what is going on," he said, wading through the crowd with a confidence he did not feel. Brian was right behind him. "What is this in front of you? Is it a dragon? Is it a girl? Or is it that most magical of creatures, a fairy?" Richard heard Brian gasp behind him, but he could not spare a reassuring gesture in that direction. He had the attention of the audience now, and he needed to deliver his sale before they started to second-guess what they were hearing. He stepped right next to Linora, making a grand sweeping gesture with one arm which made those who had gotten too close take a couple of steps back. "Is magic real, then?" he asked, giving just the right intonation to his voice. He had gotten used to relying on just that throughout the decades, but he suddenly realized something. He was young again. And he was very attractive. He flashed a winning smile towards a pair of young reporters, and they started giggling. "Or could it be that everything is only…an illusion?" Change my clothes now, he thought to Brian, hoping the man would receive it. I'm wearing only a Speedo, standing on a patch of beach sand, a bright yellow reflector on me simulating the sun. Richard snapped his fingers, praying it would work. It happened. There were gasps in the audience, and Richard felt the cold bite of the night wind on his exposed skin. Cameras flashed, microphones drew nearer. Someone whistled a loud catcall. The sand underneath Richard's toes was warm, and after a slow bow that triggered spontaneous applause, he chanced a look at Brian who stood nearby in his tuxedo. Brian winked his way in a very lascivious manner. Change me back. A second later he was wearing a tuxedo again. The sand and the reflector's light disappeared. There was another amazed gasp, but this time Richard used the pause to walk to the other side of Linora's cage. "Who is to know what is real and what is not?" he said as mysteriously as he could manage. "Take this young lady, for example. Is she what she appears to be? Or could she be something else, something the world has never seen? With your permission, fair lady, I will free you from your cage so we can have the answer to this riddle." Richard was banking on the fact that Linora would understand the true meaning of his words. He saw how she looked quickly at Brian, who nodded, and then back at Richard. "I grant you permission to release me," she said with a very musical voice. Richard smiled. "Then be free!" Make her invisible, he thought to Brian as he grabbed the cage with both hands and lifted it clear off Linora. And have a bunch of doves fly away into the night in her place, only to fall back as gold coins. The doves exploded with a flutter of wings, but screams of fright turned to joy when the reporters saw dozens of white birds taking off into the night sky. They had just disappeared above the reach of the reflectors when each of them burst into puffs of feathers, letting big golden coins fall to the ground. Linora looked up at Richard with a guarded glint in her eyes. He gestured urgently with his head towards the trees. "Now's your chance. Go!" he whispered, and for once his voice did not boom throughout the clearing. She hesitated for a moment longer, scrunching up her nose as if she were sniffing the air. Then she left, running away in leaps and bounds like an escaping hare. When she was at the edge of the trees, she turned back once. Thank you, she said, but the voice was in Richard's head. Her eyes glinted blue in the night, and then she was gone. The act was not yet complete, though. The reporters were almost done picking up the coins that had fallen to the ground. "We all are something else, something other than what we seem," Richard continued. "Is it gold you hold in your hands? Or is it something else? Something entirely different?" Make giant screens appear all over the edge of the trees, where it is dark, he thought in a flash to Brian. Have them show a white background. A flick of his hand, and suddenly the clearing was surrounded by giant screens flooding the place with their glow. There were more excited cries and cameras swiveled every which way. "If the audience were so kind as to return the gold," Richard asked with a conspiratorial grin. "Right here, on the tree stump, in a pile." There were nervous giggles and murmuring, but everyone complied out of curiosity. Soon there was a big pile of coins glittering in front of Richard. Cover the coins with a curtain, he told Brian. "With the help of my assistant here, I will show you the true essence of these objects, and the reason you are here tonight," Richard said grandly, by now enjoying the way his voice echoed throughout the space. Brian bowed with easy grace to his right, flicked his wrists and suddenly had a thick velvet curtain in his hands, shoulder-high. He stepped along with it until he was standing in front of the coins. Then he crouched behind the curtain, let go, and he was gone. The curtain stood on its own magically, hiding the coins from view. There were isolated claps, but most of the audience knew the big thing was still coming. Like in the movie. It was time for the prestige. Richard thought out his last instructions to Brian in a quick silent flash. Then he saw the coins change in front of his eyes, still hidden from view of everyone else. "Introducing," he all but shouted out, "Shamrock Lite!" There was a bright flash and the curtain disappeared in a puff of multicolored sparks. The screens all around began displaying the words 'Shamrock Lite' along with quick, non-stop clips of attractive people drinking something from a bright green can. Upbeat electronic music began to play from unseen speakers, and the social media tags for the new beverage were shown prominently every few seconds. As soon as the sparks fell to the ground, where they still glinted and burned, what had been a pile of coins was revealed to now be a pyramid made out of the same green cans. They were emblazoned with the words 'Shamrock Lite' and the green of them seemed almost translucent, as if the cans themselves were transparent, allowing for glimpses of the green liquid inside. "The soda that is not what it seems," Richard announced, wrapping up the commercial. "The soda that is pure magic. Available everywhere starting March 17th." Wild applause. Richard gestured with both hands, inviting people to come and take one of the cans, which everyone started to do. Cameras were still flashing while reporters opened the fizzing cans, which would spray green-and-gold sparks as if it were soda fizz. Everyone was speaking at once, and Richard made use of the confusion without delay. Make me invisible and let's go. Brian, unseen, nevertheless delivered. A moment later, Richard lost sight of his own body and took off at a run towards the dark forest around them. Nobody seemed to have noticed that their improvised illusionist was gone. Five Brian appeared, laughing, right next to Richard on top of a hill well away from the clearing. "I can't believe it! They fell for it!" he exclaimed, wiping tears from his eyes. "I would have never, ever thought about doing what you did, Ricky. Who knew? The best way to hide magic from you people is to show you it exists! Despite all your technology, you are still impossibly dumb." As if to prove his point, Brian made a little ball of light appear above them to provide illumination, almost as if he were daring any people to come and see. "You're welcome," Richard grumbled, but he wasn't even mad. The wild run through the forest had not winded him at all, quite the contrary. His heart was pumping and his body tingled. He wanted to keep on running for days and days on end. Too bad this youth would end in the morning. "Aw, don't get sad," Brian told him, still reading his mind apparently. "It was the deal, remember?" "Yes, the deal I never agreed to. I thought permission was supposed to be important in magical transactions, judging from everything I've seen." Brian waved his hand and Richard was visible again. "Oh, yes, Rick. Always and foremost." "Then why did you change me, just like that, at the Giant's Causeway?" "Because I don't care about the rules, obviously," Brian answered. "Why do you think the Old One chose me? Sure, they all pretend to hate having me around, but whenever there's a crisis who do they call first? Me. I'm the one who gets things done." "What's going to happen now?" Richard asked. "I left without any explanation. I hope I didn't make things worse." "Are you kidding me? The important thing was to get Linora out of there. Without one of us captive, there's nothing they can do. Besides, I already told you we have people working amongst them. They will be cleaning it up, don't you worry." "And that soft drink I invented?" "Well, that part is a bit trickier," Brian admitted. "The most likely thing is that our marketing department will be hard at work for a day or two creating a campaign for your product, and then we'll have to start selling it until people forget about it. Which shouldn't take long, given the horrendous name you chose for it." "Hey, I was under a lot of pressure in case you don't remember," Richard argued. "I did the best I could, and I think it went over well." "That's an understatement, Ricky. Don't be so modest." "What will happen with the stuff you created for the show? The sodas and such?" "Well, most will disappear as soon as the sun comes up. Much like our gold, the stuff we create tends to not be very permanent." "Just like in the fairytales," Richard said, smiling. "Hey, some of those really did happen," Brian told him. "I wouldn't be laughing about that, if I were you." "Are you in any tale I know? Maybe something that was turned into a Disney movie?" "Ha, ha. You're so funny, Richard. Do I look like a princess?" "Honestly?" Brian punched him in the shoulder. "This is how I look, incidentally," he explained. "Anything larger or smaller is just for show, though I do try to blend in by leaving out a few details." "Like what?" For an answer, Brian shook his head. When he stopped his ears appeared to lengthen at the tips, and his hair was now much longer, reaching almost to his waist. When he looked up, his eyes reflected the light with a feral flash. Richard thought he saw Brian's emerald eyes start glowing. Another shake, and Brian was back to normal. "In any case, I like it better like this. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to concentrate on your strange mental instructions during the show when so many people were looking at me adoringly." "Right," Richard said. "Most of their attention was on me." "Keep on telling yourself that. You may be hot, Ricky, but you're not that hot. And besides, you wouldn't even be here if I hadn't chosen you. It was only my great experience and expert judgment in bringing you along that made it possible for us to patch things up with those reporters." "Hearing you talk, it would seem you did everything when it was my idea that saved the day." There was a faint stirring in the night air, and a hint of warmth threaded itself through the cool night. "Do not worry, Richard," a feminine voice said from the darkness. "We will remember what you did for us this night." "Oh!" Brian exclaimed. "Linora, honey, I totally forgot I still had you invisible. Here you go." Richard was a bit startled by the appearance of Linora next to the two of them. She was still wearing her light dress, barefoot in the chilly forest. She appeared completely at ease, and it took Richard a moment to notice that her long hair was flowing, moving as if underwater, even though there was no breeze at the moment. "I have lived for many, many lifetimes," she told Richard, "and yet tonight I was saved by the wisdom of someone much younger. You made right a mistake of mine which would have threatened us all, and for that, I am grateful." She made a formal bow. "Um, you're welcome," Richard said, feeling a little uncomfortable. "Glad to have helped." "It is as the Old One says," she continued. "Time builds complacency in ourselves, and too much confidence in our own talents can lead to catastrophic folly." "Or," Brian interrupted, "or, someone could stop spending so much time staring at her own reflection in the lakes that never freeze and come join the rest of the world into the modern age. Just a little suggestion." Linora smiled, nodding as she conceded the point. "Perhaps Brian is correct, after all. Not all of us are as comfortable as he is in a world that changes so quickly." "Wait," Richard said. "Your name is really Brian?" "Why? What's wrong with Brian?" "I don't know," Richard admitted, shrugging his shoulders. "I just thought you would have a name more…mystical. Or something. Don't you have a real name?" Brian and Linora exchanged a look. Then they both burst out laughing. "What? What's the matter?" Richard asked them. He had to wait for a full minute before the laughter died down. "Ricky, sometimes I forget just how incredibly naïve your kind can be, and then you come running to remind me." "What did I say?" Richard huffed, frustrated. "Our real name is something we do not speak," Linora answered. "Not lightly, nor to strangers, and sometimes not even to those whom we hold most dear. It can lead down pathways unseen. Such power over another person is not something that should be easily given, or taken." "Well, you both know my real name," Richard countered. Linora smiled enigmatically. "We do not. Maybe not even you know it all, not yet. You are still so very young." "It has been a very long time since anyone called me young," Richard observed. "Trust me, Ricky," Brian told him, "you are. Especially compared to Linora here. Not that it shows with wrinkles or anything, but the Elder Spirits have been around for…how long?" "Many ages," Linora said. "And yet, we always find something new to marvel at, a new fluke of chance or a twining of lifelines too numerous to count. What I had thought of as a great tragedy and the source of my greatest shame has turned out to be an encounter such as I had never experienced before. A rare thing indeed." An owl hooted in the distance. "They're calling you, honey," Brian told Linora. "Do put in a good word for me with the old guy, okay? Tell him that sometimes it's better to bend the rules a little bit than to go around expecting everyone to behave, just as he wants to, when it's obvious a more creative solution is the most efficient." "I will. But before I go, I have something for you, Richard." "For me?" "Of course." Linora extended her wings fully, and it was like seeing the stars from the sky burst into light in the night. She looked at Richard for a long moment, and then she smiled. It was such a beautiful smile, so full of innocence and joy, that Richard felt his heart melt with adoration. "Thank you, Richard," she said, and her voice sounded many-layered. "May you always be followed by gentle birdsong when you walk in the forest, with soft needles underfoot and the fragrance of pine in your wake. Farewell." A flash of light, a hint of summer fragrance, and she was gone. "Oh, wow," Brian commented next to him. "You got the full blessing and everything. I hadn't seen her do that for a few good centuries. You're going to be the envy of the forest, you know that? And why doesn't she give me anything, huh? I helped!" Richard didn't answer at first because it was as if his senses had been opened. After Linora's words something had changed. Where before he had been half-blind in the darkness of the night, now he saw the faint stirrings of the branches in the trees as night animals scurried on them in their search for food. The wind was no longer cold, but refreshing, with a hint of moist earth and growing things that were waiting, ready, for the right moment to blossom. The silent flight of an owl overhead eclipsed the moon briefly, and the far-off cry of a nightingale adorned the night with its beauty. He looked up at the sky. There were stars above him, too many to ever count, and yet now it seemed to him that if he chose one of them, and focused, he could begin to perceive things about the twinkling lights that escaped definition. For an instant, his perception changed, and it felt to him as if the stars were barely moving, and instead, it was him spinning through the void, traveling at a dizzying speed in a never-ending tour of the heavens. With an effort of will, he wrenched his gaze from the mesmerizing spectacle above and glanced down. There was life everywhere he looked, from the canopy of the trees to their roots underground. He took off his shoes, hastily pulling off his socks as well. There. Much better. He could feel the earth through the soles of his feet, and it seemed to share part of its mighty vitality with him, inviting him to join in…something. He did not have a word for it, not yet. It felt to Richard as an invitation that was part sensation and part instinct. Slowly, and yet growing with every heartbeat, he started to feel a yearning to reach out with a sense he had never known he possessed. He even found himself lifting his hand, fingers outstretched, as if to touch something that was just out of reach. Brian was looking at him with his usual handsome smile and an interested expression in his eyes. "You can hear it, can't you?" "Hear what?" Richard asked, catching himself in the act of turning his head, trying to listen for something. "Ricky, don't be thick. It's the Song of the forest." He was right. There was something underneath every other sensation, a sort of thrumming, life-filled beat. It did not reach his ears, but rather his heart. "I do," he said, and his voice was full of wonder. "I can hear it." Brian did something unexpected then. He stepped closer and took Richard's hand in his own. "Um, Richard?" he said to him, using his full name for once. His voice sounded different too. Almost shy. "I’ve got something to confess to you." "What's that?" Richard said, noticing that he was slightly taller than Brian. The touch of the other man's hand in his was warm, and it added to the Song in a way he could not describe. "I didn't only choose you for your wisdom," Brian said, hesitating. "I chose you because…well, I like you. Your heart, your intentions. The way you love." Richard thought fleetingly of George. "That too," Brian said. "The pain you feel, the loss. And I would like… I mean, if you think you're ready to move on…" "What are you saying?" Richard asked, although he already knew. "I like you, Richard. And I'm lonely. It's been so very long since I was last able to be myself, you know? Nowadays, it's all pretending, taking care that no one sees who I really am, cherishing the few nights I'm able to be out in the forest, and even then, I run through the trees alone. I thought… Well, maybe you would like to join me. For a lifetime, or more. So we could run through the forest together." Richard held the other man's eyes with his and opened his heart to him through the mental link they still shared. He let Brian see his sadness, the way he had stopped living life long since in a silent wait to die. Richard's life had already been over, and he had not noticed. He had no one to go back to, and no one would miss him if he disappeared. Finally, he thought of George, of the way he would smile and probably tell him to not be stupid and take this incredibly good deal he was being offered. It was a new chance at life, of a different kind. He stood there, thinking, hand linked with Brian, for a very long time while the forest sang around them. "I thought my youth would only last until the morning," Richard said at last. Brian smiled in his usual sly way. "Haven't you been paying attention? I love to break the rules." "Where would we live?" Richard asked him. "Here, and not here," Brian answered. He gave Richard's hand a little squeeze. "There're places we can go together that don't appear on any map. Places where it's always spring, or always summer. Oh, and I have this really cute apartment in Dublin I just refurbished. You've got to see it." Richard laughed. "I think I would like that," he said. Then he leaned over and gave Brian a kiss. It started out soft and tender, but it ended hard and deep. "Whoa, a forceful guy," Brian commented when it was over. "I like that." Now it was Richard's turn to grin. "And you haven't seen anything yet." Brian pushed him away and started running. "Not if you can't catch me!" he called. Richard sprinted after him, running gracefully through the forest at night. The sound of his laughter echoed through the trees, trailing a fragrance of pine.
  7. albertnothlit

    Chapter 26 - Getting unstuck

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments, and for continuing to read my journal entries and supporting me. Though it’s hard for me to recognize my own progress sometimes, I also think that the fact that I have started writing creatively again is definite proof of how far along I am in my journey, and it is something I can think back on when things get bad and anxiety threatens to erase the rational part of my mind. I can remind myself that I have gotten so much better that now, I am no longer in just desperate survival mode, but I am also doing other things, things I enjoy and which can give meaning to my life. If you had told me a couple months ago that I would be publishing a new story by now, I would not have believed it. But that just goes to show that healing is possible, even if the journey is tough. I’m sure plenty of challenges lie ahead still, but I’m beginning to believe I can be strong enough to face them. Michael, I’m sorry to hear that your husband is going through similar hardship. I send both you and him a virtual hug, and I hope he gets better soon.
  8. albertnothlit

    The Bolide

    Thanks! I have always liked stargazing, and when writing this chapter I often thought of looking at the sky years ago, recognizing the constellations, and seeing how they moved across the sky over the course of the year. There was always an element of wonder and awe as I watched the stars, but also a tiny bit of fear at the vast unknown... which I'm channeling here.
  9. albertnothlit

    Prologue

    Thank you very much! I have always loved the literary feel of the language of those times, the wonderful formality it conveyed, and the armchair-and-snifter-of-wine fireside atmosphere it always made me think of. I'm glad I was able to successfully convey the feel of times gone by!
  10. albertnothlit

    Chapter 26 - Getting unstuck

    My psychiatrist once told me that, for some people, it is hard if not near impossible to stop the vicious cycle of stress. When we encounter a scary, dangerous, or threatening situation, the brain sets in motion an entire cascade of reactions all over the place to help us better survive that event. It could be something literally dangerous, like running across a snake as you walk, or something a little more abstract, like having to give an important presentation in front of the board of directors or whatever. In normal people, once the stimulus is gone, i.e., the snake left or the presentation is over, things go back to normal relatively quickly. The ‘stress circuit’ is shut off and the body returns to a normal state. This involves things such as hormone levels, like adrenaline and cortisol, whose concentration in the bloodstream decrease over time as you calm down. Those hormones are very useful in the short term because they prepare your body for immediate action, and, under ideal circumstances, they perform their function and not much else. However, there are people like me who either have great difficulty or simply cannot shut off that stress circuit. Once it is engaged, it gets stuck. I have felt it happen to me many many times in the past. I will face a situation I consider stressful or anxiety-inducing – it could be anything: a nightmare, a bad night’s sleep, a problem at work, and many other things – and the entire stress reaction is triggered. Not only is the trigger quick, but it is also much more intense relative to the original stimulus than in a person who does not suffer from chronic anxiety and depression to the level I have. I often know that my reactions are disproportionate negatively speaking, and yet it is one thing to know this and another thing to be able to control it. Even something simple, like maybe not doing the full number of laps around the pool that I had planned, can be blown out of proportion really easily and it becomes a huge thing that generates stress and feeds on itself and other negative stimuli, growing ever larger. Once engaged, the cycle of stress cannot be easily stopped. Cortisol levels do not go down or go down very very slowly, for example. I am forever being bombarded by little spikes of adrenaline by this or that mundane circumstance which others might not even pay attention to, but which to me appears like a bombshell. Even tiny things, like missing the bus and having to wait five minutes for the next one, will sometimes make me feel devastated. The relative devastation is then amplified by other things which have happened, big and small alike, and the end result is that I spend the majority of the day forever fighting against the jittery, uncomfortable, and electric feeling of being in constant danger by an unknown source that I cannot predict, control, or overcome. Living in this manner, over a long enough period of time, is debilitating. Since my brain is constantly thinking that I am in mortal danger even though it’s not true, my body is forever kept in a state of alertness and tension. This leads to many minor and not so minor issues, not only in my mind but also in my body. Things like lack of sleep, problems with digestion, increased heart rate and so on are things that I constantly have to deal with because my stress levels are way too high most of the time. However, I am not helpless, and I have learned several strategies which can help, and which I would like to share now in case they might be helpful for someone else, in case you’re also suffering from strong anxiety which can border on panic. One of the things that works the best is getting distracted. Something I have done a few times, and which has worked wonders for me, is leaving my usual environment and engaging in an interesting activity for an extended period of time, for at least a couple of hours. It is not easy – when I am fearful and anxious I do not want to do anything which deviates from the routine, because any deviation feels threatening and scary. However, if I find it in me to have the strength to, for example, go to the theater to watch a play, or maybe go to a new restaurant I have never tried, or simply go out for coffee with a friend and talk about anything but the things causing the anxiety, then, upon coming back home, it is much harder for me to just drop back into the usual anxious thought patterns that plague me otherwise. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it is because distracting the mind constantly, for a few hours at least, is enough to sort of interrupt the circuit of stress and perceived danger which is self fulfilling. However, if it is interrupted, then it takes some external stimulus to get started again and, if there are no stimuli, then the anxiety recedes. It is not a magic wand, but it does help, especially if it the distraction is something completely out of the ordinary which takes me out of my comfort zone for a little bit. Another thing that I do very often to help me chase the anxiety away is what I’m going to call healing affirmations. This is nothing particularly metaphysical or anything. It consists on taking a few minutes for myself and, while concentrating, telling myself positive things that are true. I usually pair these affirmations with simple yoga movements that I have recently learned. I have a very analytical mind and I am a hopeless skeptic for the most part, but I do recognize the value and helpfulness of doing this. My therapist suggested it and I find it is a powerful tool in bringing things into proper perspective. It’s important that the affirmations be true for me. It’s not about saying generic things that I don’t believe or which don’t apply to me. It’s about telling myself very specific things, kind of like counting my blessings and using them to chase away anxious fears which have no real foundation. If I shine the light of reason on them, I will see that they are just shadows which fade away. In my case, I tell myself things like: I am not in danger. I am safe. I also say other, much more personal things, things which directly contradict whatever the fears are whispering in my mind. I visualize getting rid of them as I exhale, and I accompany the thought with a physical motion, as if pushing the negativity away. It works. It does help. I don’t know exactly why, but I think it has to do with the fact that what I am saying is true, and saying it aloud, and training my body to link these things to physical motions, generates positive associations which make it easier for me to let go. Because that’s the hard part… Letting go. I cling to anxiety in a perverse manner. It is something bad and which hurts me, but it is also something known. It is something which I can face and overcome, face and overcome, and sometimes I can feel myself kind of clinging to it, refusing to let it go. I don’t like it but I’m terrified of what things will be like if I don’t have that constant stressful pressure urging me forward and driving my actions. Through therapy and introspection, I have come to see that all of this comes from a place of deep hurt and emotional trauma which makes me terrified of experiencing anxiety while, paradoxically, refusing to let it fade because living without it brings something unknown which I find even scarier than the known evil. The solution, for me, and I am still working on it each and every day, is to change my attitude towards anxiety when it comes. Anxiety is not a good sensation. It brings emotional and physical pain. It threatens to drive me into a panic attack when I feel like a cornered animal unable to escape it. But anxiety, at its most basic level, exists because sometimes we need it in order to survive. It is there to help us fear predators, to worry about the coming winter, and many other things besides. It is only hurtful and bad when it gets out of control, so I’m trying to react to it when it comes by thanking it. I try to say, thank you, anxiety. You are here because it is my body’s and my mind’s reaction to the fact that they perceive I am in danger, but I’m not in danger. Thank you for helping me when you did, for urging me forward to do things that I might not have done without you in order to survive. You can leave now, though. I let you go. I won’t fear you. I will show you the way out and let you go. It’s difficult. I’m not always successful because fear and the threat of a panic attack can sometimes all but erase my mind’s logical capacity for thought, and even things which I know to be true are hard to understand and internalize when I feel like that. But sometimes I do have the presence of mind to remember that I need to let go, and sometimes, very few still, although hopefully more will follow, I am able to let go and able to accept that many of my fears are unfounded and that being anxious all the time is not helping me anymore. Little by little, I hope to make this a habit. I hope to be able to react instinctively to growing anxiety with patience instead of fear. The mere fact that I can think about this strategy, and that I have attempted it a few times already, shows that I am making progress, I think. Finally, the thing that has been helping me out the most in recent weeks has been writing. Having an activity that means so much to me is quickly becoming one of my support pillars. The thing about depression and anxiety and panic is that it separates you from your hobbies and from all the things you used to enjoy. It happened to me. I still haven’t recovered fully – I can’t really watch TV anymore, for example, and it’s been a long time since I watched a movie because I really wanted to. But there’s one activity that means a lot more to me than any of those, and it is there that I have been concentrating my efforts. At the beginning, finding the strength within me to simply sit down and write a little bit was too much for me. I would try and fail, try and fail. It would send me careening into a spiral of negativity, because I would often think that I would never write again. It made me very sad, because writing is one of the things which gives my life meaning, and I would wonder whether, some day, I would be able to return to creative worlds of my own invention. It took time and constant effort. I essentially forced myself to write, at least a tiny bit, for many weeks. It was different from writing in this journal, because creative writing of fiction takes, for me at least, a lot more effort and concentration and planning. But I really wanted to write again. I knew, and I still know, that having a creative outlet is one of the things which helps my peace of mind the most, and so I kept at it, even when it felt like I was going nowhere, even when it felt like I was wasting my time or hurting myself by trying to do something which I was, perhaps, no longer capable of doing. Slowly, a story began to form. At the beginning it was hard, and it took me a long time to finish the prologue, for example. However, as the weeks went by and I kept writing, I found myself actually looking forward to those hours I would dedicate for me and me alone so that I could write. I was working very hard on this because writing means so many things to me. It is my way of reaching out, of thanking everyone who has been there for me throughout this harrowing journey, and it is also my way of reaching out to myself, of giving myself the opportunity to express my feelings in a constructive way. Last Monday, after several weeks of hard work, I was finally able to publish the prologue and the first chapter of that story. It was a huge milestone for me, reached through constant effort, and it was wonderful. I’m finding it less difficult to keep writing, and the more I do it, the easier it gets. It makes me feel better overall, not only because it something productive but because it’s something I have fun doing. Having fun is one of the best ways to fight the bad feelings and to help me replace anxiety with positive emotions. I will sometimes find myself looking forward to my writing time, and I know that, eventually, writing will become one of the most important tools to help me heal – it already is, since writing here in this journal is so important to me. Writing a fiction story, however, is the next step, and one I thought I might never be able to take again. Now I have, and I want to keep going forward. Each of these strategies is helpful in its own way. They don’t always work, of course – sometimes I have horrible panic attacks and I can do nothing but try and withstand them until they go away. Other times, however, I find that polishing these tools is helping me cope with the bad episodes and it also makes them less likely to happen in the first place. When the stress circuit gets stuck in my brain, for whatever reason, these strategies can help me get it unstuck. What follows, sometimes, is wonderful beyond description. I have sometimes felt… Calm. I have felt the worry and the fear fall away from me like heavy packs I am leaving behind. In those moments, I can almost glimpse happiness again. It’s an emotion I thought I had lost, but it’s still there, waiting for me to be ready. Everyone of us is different. Things that work for one person might not work for someone else. Nevertheless, I thought I would share the strategies that have been working for me in case they might help another. Thank you all so much for reading. I wish you peace and happiness.
  11. albertnothlit

    Keep Quiet

    Thank you so much, AC - that's high praise indeed! I'm really happy to be back and writing - I hope you'll enjoy the story
  12. albertnothlit

    Prologue

    Nice! That's the vibe I was going for - glad you liked it!
  13. albertnothlit

    The Bolide

    I often wondered, in the years following Charles’s disappearance, whether the friendship which linked us had been the inescapable product of fate, random happenstance, or something much more sinister. In hindsight, however, I now see that circumstances surrounding us both were such that it was all but inevitable that we should become close companions since childhood. He and I came from very different backgrounds, but the business relationship linking our two families linked us as individuals as well. Charles was the sole heir to the Wentworth fortune, the amassing of which was due entirely to his father, Abraham Wentworth. Through shrewd business dealings, Wentworth the elder had managed to secure his position as the sole transport provider for machinery for Standard Oil in the entire Midwestern United States. His business grew exponentially and so did his notoriety. By the time Charles was born, Abraham Wentworth was easily one of the five richest men in Albany and he did not hesitate to proclaim this fact through ostentatious shows of magnanimity and frivolity. While it was true that the Wentworth name was largely considered nouveau riche by the more established families in New York State, the sheer magnitude of the influence wielded by Charles’s father opened all doors for his young son. He was born into opulence and comfort, and yet these luxuries were always to be tempered by the emotional poverty brought on by his isolation from others. Charles would often confide in me that he never knew quite where he belonged. It was not at home among the rich old families, which looked down on him simply because of the fact that his fortune was less than a generation old. Neither was he at home among the members of the middle class, with the exception of myself. His fabulous wealth made such a thing all but impossible and he forever felt trapped between the two worlds. Maybe that is why our bond grew so strong from the very beginning. He was the quiet intellectual type, almost stereotypically awkward when it came to social occasions. I was loquacious and outgoing, a yin to his yang. By all accounts, we should have had a very hard time tolerating the other, but instead the opposite happened and we came to rely on our differences almost as much as on our eventual similarities. My own father was nowhere near as rich as Abraham Wentworth, but he was a very capable attorney at law and he had always worked very closely with Mr. Wentworth, even before the days when the latter had become fabulously rich. My father was always an honest man, pious, and not envious in the least, qualities which Mr. Wentworth very quickly learned to prize highly as his fortune grew and he became ever more constantly besieged by people who were after his money and nothing else. Mr. Wentworth entrusted him with the most sensitive manners, and my father repaid this confidence with capable work, professionalism, and a genuine sense of justice. As a result of this, it became commonplace for our two families to meet at the Wentworth mansion in Albany all through the years of my childhood. It was in this manner that I came to know Charles, who shared my age, and we quickly became playmates. Even despite everything that happened afterwards, I cannot help but allow myself a wry grin as I recall our childish adventures, as we called them, running around together through the enormous mansion pretending we were explorers or pirates or soldiers. Charles had a never-ending supply of toys, and there were always sweets of various kinds to be found in his bedroom, a space so big that the entire lower floor of my house could have easily fit inside. Nevertheless, and this is undoubtedly a result of my father’s stern moral guidance, I do not recall having ever coveted anything of Charles’s. In fact, during my visits the two of us made it almost a point to fashion our own playthings from random materials found either in the mansion or around its huge gardens. I remember always finding it curious that Charles appeared to be almost ashamed of the many things he had, but his dismissive attitude towards the evident social and economic differences between our two families always made me feel at ease and I quickly learned to treasure my friendship with him, independently of who he may one day be and what he may inherit. My parents always encouraged my friendship with Charles, frequently stating how I should learn from him and be thankful for the many opportunities which presented themselves to me simply by virtue of being Charles’s only friend. I remember attending science fairs, going to museums, seeing wondrous beasts at a private circus, and puzzling over curious inventions throughout the many occasions when I was invited to go with him so he would not be lonely. By the time we were ten years old, we were as close as two children could ever hope to be, and so it was all but natural that I should receive an invitation to spend the holidays at the site of what would become the Wentworth Grand Hotel, tucked away in the mountainous wilderness that stretched between Albany and Montréal. Keenly do I remember the thrill upon receiving permission from my parents to go with him. A suitcase with my best clothes was packed the very next night, and I left with Charles and his family, two weeks before Christmas, my excitement mirrored only by Charles’s own, since it was to be his first time at the hotel site as well. This Grand Hotel project was the subject of much talk back in Albany. Supporters of it lauded Mr. Wentworth’s willingness to stimulate the local economy by committing to such a gigantic enterprise. It was to be, once finished, a combination of skiing resort, luxury hotel, and entertainment center. I later read articles concerning the construction plans, where optimistic reporters described the Hotel with no shortage of superlatives. It was to rival its luxurious counterparts in Switzerland, while sporting all the comforts of the modern age. It would be a place where only people of notoriety would gather, a social and business locus for the influential and the visionary. It was to be almost entirely self-sufficient in the summer, and during the winter its insatiable need for foodstuffs and fuel would bring much-needed jobs to that mostly undeveloped rural region of the state. There was even talk at one point of founding a satellite town for the small army of staff that would be required to keep the compound working smoothly while at full capacity. Nevertheless, the derisive voices outnumbered the hopeful ones by quite a large margin. As Abraham Wentworth’s personal attorney, my father was from the very beginning outwardly supportive of the enterprise. I now suspect he might have had inner misgivings about an undertaking which essentially jeopardized the entire Wentworth fortune, but he would not tolerate criticism in his own home and on three separate occasions was forced to terminate business relationships with clients because they shared the sentiment of the educated elite – that Mr. Wentworth was a fool who wanted to create demand for luxury where there was none. The mere concept of a hotel so far removed from civilization seemed laughable to some, as I later discovered through readings of the newspapers of that era. It was an act of hubris, many wrote. Others thought it was an ill-conceived attempt at integrating the Wentworth family into the larger sphere of the established influential and the rich, while still others believed it to be the ultimate expression of naïve American entrepreneurship, laudable up to some extent, yet hopelessly doomed to fail. None of those things were known to me at the time, however. All I knew was that I was on my way to a magical place, a kind of castle in the middle of the wilderness, which Charles had described extensively even though he himself had also never visited it. When we arrived, the weather was bitterly cold, but our shivering was quickly forgotten as soon as we caught sight of the – to our eyes – magnificent work in progress. The hotel grounds were surrounded by forests that appeared to be ancient, as if they had stood there from the very beginning of time. There were mountains on every side, but the hotel itself was nestled inside a wide valley that appeared to have been made for the express purpose of hosting a castle, fortress, or large building. When we visited, work had been going on for about two years at the site, and the entire lower floor of the enormous edifice had been finished and made suitable for habitation. Though I did not know it at the time, Mr. Wentworth had apparently drawn heavy inspiration from the palace of Versailles in modeling his hotel. The main building was surrounded by geometric gardens, wide and shallow artificial lakes, and statues everywhere. There were plans to build a golf course, a hedge maze, a tropical greenhouse to rival those at Kew in England, and an observation tower complete with its own little restaurant from which the night sky would be observed by the guests on clear nights of fair weather. Of all of them, the tower was the only one that neared completion. Everything else was still only very roughly outlined, when at all. Nevertheless, I very clearly remember the feeling of awe that came over me as I took in the scenery and marveled at the fact that everything I saw belonged to Mr. Wentworth – and, by extension, to Charles as well. We wasted no time in exploring. Despite the fact that the weather was not at all willing to cooperate with our daytime exploits, we quickly became familiar with the entire ground-level layout of the future hotel and the grounds surrounding it. The place was a dreamland for two boys eager to discover new and interesting things. We would often escape the supervision of the various servants tasked with watching over us and would don our warmest winter gear to go outside in the snow. Sometimes we would go into the gardens and build forts surrounding this or that statue, to later have snowball wars with one another. Other times we dared each other to walk out on the precariously frozen ponds and artificial lakes – one time, we both fell in when the ice gave way under us, but we did not grow ill and the incident only emboldened us to go further out in search of strange rocks, hidden places, and the little wildlife that ventured out into the cold at that time of year. Of particular fascination to us was the observation tower. Entry was barred to it, however, as we discovered to our mutual dismay. When Charles brought this up at dinnertime about a week into our stay, Mr. Wentworth mentioned that it was too dangerous still, particularly considering that the seasonal workers he had hired had left behind all of their tools, scaffolding, and various other implements of their trade inside, in preparation for next spring, when they would come back to finish. To our ears, that only made the place seem more mysterious and alluring. We became convinced that the tower was full of treasure waiting to be plundered, and as the days crawled ever closer to Christmas time and the terrible tragedy which would engulf Charles’s entire family, we became more and more obsessed with breaking into the tower and watching the stars from the rudimentary observation deck which had already been partially built. Nighttime was my favorite at the hotel site. Charles had always had a fascination with the stars, and the suite we shared throughout the holidays was generously outfitted with no less than three different telescopes, each one of them exquisitely crafted. Two of them could be easily carried wherever we wished, and we used to take them out as soon as the sun set to catch glimpses of Mars, Jupiter, and even far-off Andromeda. The pristine mountain air made such observations much more rewarding than among the murky lights of Albany. It was a joy to watch the craters on the surface of the Moon with such detail that I almost felt I was there, standing on the barren Lunar wasteland. Every now and then there would be meteor showers, and even without telescopes, the spectacle was breathtaking. There was something majestic about the solitude surrounding us, the untamed wilderness all around, and the heavens above us with all of their mystery and their unknowable beauty. It soon became our objective to find a way to sneak out unseen in the hours of the night and find a way to set up the telescopes on the observation tower. We imagined we would be able to see wondrous things from that vantage point, and spent many a night fantasizing about perhaps discovering a comet or a planetoid which would bear our name. Charles was passionate about the entire enterprise of scientific endeavor and discovery. He kept a somewhat chaotic journal of all of our noteworthy observations, and would speak for hours about his many thoughts concerning the inner workings of the universe. Despite his young age, his grasp of Newtonian mathematics was excellent, and he was able to come up with complicated predictions, diagrams, and models which I scarcely understood. I did grasp the greater picture, however, and I believe it was during that holiday that my love for astronomy was truly born. I was nowhere near as bright as Charles was, but I was diligent and meticulous where Charles tended to sometimes be absent-minded and disorganized. Even back then, I think we both knew that we made a good team when working together. Nothing we set our minds to could offer successful resistance in the long run - or so we believed. An inevitable corollary of this overconfidence was the fact that we eventually came up with a plan to break into the observation tower for an entire night of stargazing. Charles had been observing a particular area of the sky with great interest, believing that a certain tiny object his telescope was able to show him was a comet heretofore unknown to science. Based on his – to me – unfathomable calculations, he had concluded that this object would make its closest approach to Earth two days after Christmas. Over the days, we planned our nighttime sortie with great care. It was a thrilling adventure, and one in which I proved my worth as a partner by securing the keys to the locked doorway of the tower at ground level. It was not easy, but I have always had the gift of persuasion. I used the fact that I came from a middle-class family to befriend the servants, and eventually learned where the keys were kept when one of the teenage maids was showing me around the big rooms which would, when the hotel was finished, house dozens of cooks, gardeners, janitors, and the like. On the night we had decided to carry out our daring adventure, all I had to do was grab the keys from where they hung – nobody questioned me because nobody saw me. They were all busy, besides. A big family event had been planned. This was the other part of our own plan. There was to be an important reunion on the very night of the comet’s closest approach to Earth. Mr. Wentworth had invited most of his close relatives and a few select acquaintances for a banquet and a night of entertainment which would helpfully serve as the first of many important social events to build the renown of the Wentworth Grand Hotel. We were of course supposed to attend, but both Charles and I knew that, once the event started, we would scarcely be missed since it would be mostly adults talking about business or politics or other boring topics. We, as the youngest children around, would be all but invisible and sneaking out after dinner would be quite easy. The location of the banquet helped us as well: it was going to be held in a smaller building somewhat detached from the main compound, a low but wide open edifice which bordered the largest lake in the vicinity. Although many of the more luxurious touches were absent from this future ‘Great Hall’, as it was called, it was already a remarkable feat of engineering. The Hall had windows on every side, offering unparalleled views of the surrounding forest and, of course, the lake as its focal point. It was big enough to comfortably hold about two hundred people, and it had its own kitchen and a ludicriously ornate fountain at its center. All around the marble-tiled space surrounding it, tables could be set or taken away as needed, the space swiftly transformed from a sumptuous restaurant into a dazzling dance hall, with plenty of space for guests, musicians, cooks, and more. Simply keeping the space heated in the wintertime cost a fortune, or so I had heard over breakfast a couple of times already, but Mr. Wentworth wanted to use it as a showpiece for what his Hotel would eventually become. As such, the banquet was incredibly important and everybody felt the pressure. On the night of the event, most of the servants were diverted towards that secondary building to prepare everything. Guests arrived either on the day itself or the night before and were quickly shown to suites similar to Charles’s. Both he and I were pestered by his mother to make sure we would be presentable for the evening, but everyone was so busy that we were easily overlooked amidst the bustle of activity. It was no trouble at all to help myself to the key ring which would grant access to the tower. After dinner, just as we had predicted, we slipped away from the restaurant unnoticed and went straight to our suite to grab the telescopes, warm clothing, and food which we had previously stashed away. We then exited the building through a side door and, scarcely feeling the bitter cold, made our way through the snow straight to the observation tower. It is odd to have two diametrically opposite interpretations of the same event in one’s mind at the same time. I can remember clearly the excitement I was feeling. I was an adventurer, doing something forbidden, about to engage in exploration of the heavens with my best friend. I was sure we were going to make an exciting discovery. Perhaps we would make it into the papers. As my shoes crunched through the snow, I distinctly remember imagining how proud my father would have been to discover he had a brilliant scientist for a son, a gifted astronomer – even if most of the actual thinking had been done by Charles. But there is also another interpretation of this event, and it brings the dread that comes with hindsight. That night, our lives changed forever and mine has since been marked by terror. I lost my childish innocence in being confronted by death so suddenly and so brutally. I saw my first corpse that night – I saw many corpses, in fact. I don’t remember crying too much, but I do remember the nightmares that plagued me for weeks afterwards. I remember the way I would scream myself awake in my bed, tangled in my own sheets, shaking. I was young enough to be able to process the tragedy and move on, or so I thought for the longest time. Now that I know reckoning is upon us all, however, I realize with grim disappointment that I never moved on. I simply thought that the mad stroke of luck which had saved my life would keep protecting me indefinitely. This is not so. After all, how can I call it luck to have witnessed the things I saw? That fateful night started out very well, nevertheless. Getting into the observation tower was surprisingly easy with the proper keys in hand. Inside, we were greeted by a wide and cluttered space that had been stacked, floor to ceiling, with construction material and various implements, only some of which I was able to distinguish with the help of the lamp we carried. I was curious about the tools and containers all around, but Charles was adamant that we needed to make good use of the time before we were discovered, and so he led the way towards a spiral staircase in the center of the main room which led straight up. The climb seemed to me so long in going up, and yet I seem to have gone down it in just a couple of panicky hops a few hours later, when disaster struck. The first time, though, I was mesmerized by the interplay of shadows which swung this way and that in the wake of Charles’s handheld lamp. The staircase reminded me strongly of those which can be found in lighthouses, and the effect was compounded when we finally came to a landing several dozen feet above the ground, where a sturdy door barred access to the observation deck. The keys made short work of the nearly frozen locks which stood in our way and the door creaked ominously as we pushed it outwards. We were greeted by a burst of frigid winter air, and I remember thinking that perhaps we were not dressed warmly enough for several hours of silent contemplation of the sky. I said nothing, however, not wanting to appear a coward in Charles’s eyes, and made my way with him onto the deck. Despite the cold and the ferocity of the wind at that height, I could not help but gasp in childish awe at everything I could see. The valley stretched out in front of me, majestic. Behind us, the bulk of the hotel was visible only as dim lights here and there flickering from small square windows. Much further back, by the lake, the Great Hall was blazing with light in comparison, so brightly, in fact, that I worried all that light would make our observations difficult. Faintly, carried by the wind, I could hear distant strains of music from the celebration that was already underway, enlivened by the many guests that would be attending. I must have looked back for longer than necessary, because Charles came to me and told me that we were missing nothing – it would be boring to just sit around in the party unable to leave. Here, we had total freedom to do science. I needed no further coaxing. We set about preparing our telescopes. Charles made sure that everything was aligned properly, and in the meantime I protected our chosen spot from the wind as best as I was able to, dragging wooden boards and other bits of furniture to create a very rough and improvised shelter from which we could watch the heavens above. Soon, I forgot about the cold. There was a meteor shower and never have I seen something as spectacular as the one that night. The mountain air, true to its promise, was so clear that I felt as though I barely needed a telescope to see fascinating details in the celestial bodies around us everywhere I looked. While Charles was busy locating his elusive comet, I dedicated myself to the telescopic observation of Jupiter and marveled at the fact that I could almost see such a gigantic world from so far away. I then set my sights on Saturn, hoping to see its rings, but the telescope I had was not potent enough and all I could see was a blurry dot of light, which nevertheless amazed me. Everywhere I looked, the sky was ablaze with light. I saw Sirius and Betelgeuse, the Pleiades and Orion’s belt. I saw shooting stars as bright streaks, gone so quickly that I doubted they had ever been there in the first place. I looked far and wide, fascinated. It was only when Charles called me urgently to his side that I snapped out of my reverie and realized my hands and face were already numb. My friend’s excitement was palpable. He directed me to look, quick, through his own telescope. I immediately recognized Charles’s proclaimed comet – only it was much bigger now. I pointed that out to him excitedly, mentioning how much larger and clearer the glowing body could be seen… And it was only as I was about to finish my sentence that the true reason for Charles’s excitement dawned on me. The object was much bigger than before. The increased clarity and great vantage point of the observation deck were not enough to justify this increase in apparent magnitude. “It is coming this way,” Charles said. “My comet is headed for Earth.” I aligned my telescope with his and we spent nearly an hour observing. Charles produced a notebook out of the folds of his jacket and quickly began a series of calculations that I could not follow. It was only when he looked up, wide-eyed, and pointed towards the last few scribbled numbers on the page, that he explained the conclusion he had arrived at. The comet would pass very close to Earth – perhaps close enough to skim the edge of the atmosphere. He explained that, while he had initially thought the object to be much further away due to its small size, the rapid changes in size and brightness which we had recorded could only be explained by the fact that it was actually very small, half a mile in diameter at most, and already very close to the planet. I recall asking him if the comet would impact with our world. He laughed and pointed to a confusing diagram that he claimed showed the comet’s orbital path. It would come very close, he repeated, within a few hundred miles or so, but the probability of a collision was astronomically small. He pointed at the stars, squinting as if he could see the object without a telescope through will alone. As long as the object’s path remained unchanged – I have often wondered whether fate has a sense of humor, because, and this remains crystal clear in my memory, as soon as Charles uttered those words while we looked up at the sky, we both saw the tiniest flash of light coming from the direction of the comet. Charles’s sentence trailed off to be swallowed by the wind. I could hear the music coming from the party much more clearly now, and yet it seemed to me like Charles and I were all alone on an island of darkness, the last two people on Earth. We both remained motionless for a heartbeat. I wondered whether I had imagined the flash of light, but when I looked to my left and saw Charles’s frown, I realized he had seen it too. We all but dived for our telescopes. And what we saw… At the time, I was much too young to jump to the conclusion which all but froze Charles in place. All I saw through my own telescope was that the tiny point of light had become several much smaller points of light, moving away from each other like a fireworks explosion in slow-motion. I did notice, though, that after only a few seconds one of the points of light grew so much in brightness that, looking up at the sky with my own eyes, I distinctly saw the trail it left as it arced across the heavens. A shooting star. I was smiling as I looked at Charles, pointing out the fact that we were incredibly lucky to have witnessed such an event. What were the odds? The expression on Charles’s childish face froze the remainder of my words in my throat. He was evidently terrified. He, too, was looking up, but instead of wonder I only saw fear. I asked what was wrong but he only shook his head and lifted a trembling arm to point above us. I witnessed a beautiful spectacle which was slow to unfold. That first shooting star was long gone after an hour or so, but soon afterwards there were dozens of shooting stars trailing across the sky with brilliant flashes. I must have gasped in awe, but I did not come to share Charles’s prior terror until nearly two hours later into the frigid night, when the number of shooting stars grew to such proportions that I began to worry that something was not right. True fear took hold of me when one of the shooting stars passed directly overhead, burning up in the atmosphere with such ferocity that it lit up the night sky for an instant, like a flash of lightning. I asked Charles what was happening. He was looking at his notes frantically, mumbling, and the only meaningful words I could make out were ‘unnatural speed and trajectory’. I was going to ask more, but then the bolide came. It was sudden – it was terrible. It brought death upon us all. It started out as yet another shooting star, but this one did not trail across the sky. It was a dot which simply grew larger and larger. First it was as bright as Sirius. Then it was as bright as Venus at dusk. A minute later, it was brighter than the Moon when full. And then, with seconds left before impact, my brain finally understood the fact that this was a projectile from outer space which was headed directly for our position. I was not smart enough to try and seek shelter. The thing flashed bright before I had made up my mind and so I stared, rooted to the spot, helpless, and saw night turn into day. The light came first. It flooded the valley, cold and white, as bright as the sun. The sky overhead turned blue for an instant as the bolide passed overhead and then the projectile exploded in the atmosphere. An even brighter flash of light blinded me completely. Then there came the noise. The sound of the explosion was the most painful thing I had ever endured. I lost a significant portion of my hearing from that day on, as did Charles. I remember screaming but not being able to hear myself – and then I was thrown to the ground by the shockwave. Scorching heat slammed into me. I could not breathe. I was lying on the ground and I did not remember how it had happened. Everything had been too sudden. When the ringing in my ears and the painful after images in my eyes faded enough to permit rational thought, I struggled to sit upright and looked around. The first thing I did was crawl to Charles. I shouted his name but could not hear my own voice. He was still unconscious, and I could not make out whether he was wounded in any way or not in the flickering yellowish light that came from below. I rubbed my eyes again and again, trying to focus, uncomprehending. As the minutes went by and Charles did not awaken I began to fear the worst. I was also coughing incessantly, and it took me a long time to understand that I was doing so because of the smoke. Confused, I looked round and for the first time cast my gaze upon the valley below. The forest around us was on fire. This was the source of the yellow flickering light. I tried to stand up for a better look but was quickly overwhelmed by nausea and dizziness. I settled back down next to Charles and nearly cried with relief when his eyes fluttered open. We stayed together for what might have been an hour or more, there on the blasted observation deck of the tower. We did not feel cold – the flames saw to that. Strangely, it did not occur to me to fear them. The shock of the explosion was all I could think of. I kept looking up at the sky in case the event were to repeat itself, but above us there was only darkness and nothing more. Charles kept repeating something but I could not hear his words. It was only after he recovered enough to become agitated that he seized both my shoulders and all but shouted in my face: “The party!” It was a couple heartbeats before I understood what he was saying. Once I did, though, we both helped the other so we could stand up and look further out. I saw the blazing desolation that the explosion had left behind. Although it had felt as if the bolide had disintegrated immediately above my head, in fact I saw that the enormous blast zone it had left behind, the rim of which was clearly outlined by burning trees, was actually nearly a mile back, where the lake was. Where the Hall had been. Again, my mind was slow to comprehend. It was only when Charles began sobbing uncontrollably next to me while looking at the dark wreck of what had been a building full of people that I realized what had happened. The bolide had obliterated the Hall. When the morning came, I would also see that it had also vaporized the lake itself. By this time, my hearing had recovered enough for me to hear Charles’s heart-wrenching wails of anguish. I tried to hug him but he pushed me away. “They are dead,” he whispered, his voice trembling in terrible fashion. “They are all dead.”
  14. albertnothlit

    Keep Quiet

    Where Charles Wentworth is now, I do not know. I thought he was dead. It took decades to get over the heartbreak of his disappearance. And yet now that he has sent me a message, I feel not relief but horror… because, if my interpretation is true, then we are all in danger. The message in the sky is clear. Humanity may be about to go extinct.
  15. albertnothlit

    Prologue

    A full moon is coming, and I fear its gibbous one-eyed gaze. Throughout the years I had managed to bury my doubts and most of my memories concerning the horrific events which surrounded the ostensible death of my colleague and friend, Doctor Charles Wentworth. I had even managed to convince myself that some of the things I witnessed during that final night had been nothing more than hallucinations wrought by frayed nerves and physical exhaustion. As far as the police were concerned, my testimony sufficed and my alibi was bulletproof. Their final report stated that Dr. Wentworth had wandered off into the woods which surrounded his observatory and had never been seen again. After a few halfhearted attempts at search and rescue, which were made logistically and financially demanding by the remoteness of the location, the official stance was that he had been probably killed by a bear or some other large predator. The possibility of recovering his remains, wherever they may lie, was considered too remote to warrant further expense of manpower and the case was considered closed. I was initially suspected to have had a hand in Charles’s disappearance, but both the testimony of the many servants and the fact that I all but abandoned my promising career in astronomy as a result of evident grief convinced people eventually that I was innocent of any misdeed. If only they knew. I was the last person to see Charles and, while I had no active part in his disappearance, I also had no active part in preventing it. The terror of that night paralyzed me when action on my part could have perhaps changed the outcome of events, and it has followed me ever since. It is the reason why I cannot bear to look through a telescope anymore. It is the reason why, to the dismay of the national astronomy community, I retreated from active research and destroyed all of my records and Charles’s notes. I have often wondered if I acted correctly – after all, in pursuing the quiet life of a tenured Physics professor which I now lead, I have essentially acquiesced to slow down the intellectual progress of humanity by the mere fact that I have kept from it the fascinating conclusions that the mind of Charles Wentworth arrived upon, decades before Einstein became a household name. Charles was indeed a genius. Though we were formally colleagues, I often felt more like an assistant in that mine was the responsibility of day-to-day logistics while he dedicated his days to fascinating sessions of pure logical thought and his nights to feverish experimentation and observation which could prove him right. Had he not disappeared when he did, his findings would have been published and our understanding of the universe would have been advanced by at least two decades. His gifted mind appeared to be uniquely suited to peer through the often opaque veil that separates the inner workings of the universe from the understanding of the human mind. Using nothing more than mathematics and logic, he predicted certain things about the nature of what is now called space-time which would only later to be experimentally proven. Grimly do I remember the day I learned that Einstein’s concept of gravitational lensing had been proven by an observer on a ship out at sea during a total solar eclipse a few years ago. It had been possible, the article said, to see the light from a star directly behind the sun, because the sun’s mighty gravitational field bent the space around it such that light traveled in a straight line across it, but along a curved path from our perspective. Charles had predicted such a thing a long time ago. He even had a trip planned to Africa in order to witness a solar eclipse for himself and see whether his mathematical models were correct or not. He would have done it… Had that night never happened. It is odd, I must confess, to suddenly be casting my mind so far back into a past I thought I had buried forever – and odder still that it is not the first time I have gone through such an experience. I am astounded by the clarity with which the memories come forth upon being summoned by my mind. It has been almost forty years since Charles disappeared, and I daresay nobody living now remembers him but me. As the years went by after his case was laid to rest, my own life settled into a mundane yet comfortable routine through which I managed to forget everything that he and I had learned and discovered when we were still young men. I had made peace with the past. In burying all knowledge about the events which separated us forever, I was preventing similar horrors from happening elsewhere in the world. In keeping my silence, I was protecting not only myself but every single human being on this planet. As long as the knowledge remained lost to obscurity, we would all be safe… Or so I thought. But now my hands tremble as I write these lines, and I cannot help but shiver at the knowledge that the stars are shining in the night sky outside my home. I have drawn all the windows so as not to catch even the slightest hint of a sliver of hated moonlight coming from the bloated orb which even now rises over the horizon. Hiding as I do, however, a frail and terrified old man, will do little to stop the horror that is coming. Silence is no longer safe, and so I have decided to publish these memoirs in the hopes that there is still enough time for us to rally, to do something before it is too late. I doubted the signs for too long and every day, every minute, is now precious. I had to make sure of my conclusions, however, and my frantic correspondence with my erstwhile colleagues leaves no doubt. Observations around the world confirm the minute and seemingly meaningless signs that would of course never attract attention on their own… but, when taken together by someone who understands their true significance, paint a terrifying picture that is beyond my capability to truly comprehend. The arguments are quite theoretical; the portents subtle, complex, and mathematical in nature. They cannot be ignored, however. I tried with varying degrees of success - until last night. Now, I cannot sleep. I received a message which leaves no doubt whatsoever as to its terrible, unbelievable source, but even that pales in comparison to its horrible import. It is little wonder, then, that my colleagues have noted something is amiss. My niece, Anna, bless her heart, commented on my erratic emotional state this morning after her daily visit. I tried to make light of it, ascribing my mood to the expected vagaries of age, but I fear I may have only aroused her curiosity as to the true source of my discomfort. After all, how could I ever explain the petrifying fear I now feel of the open sky? I dare not leave the house and expose myself again to that yawning chasm of blackness, not even in the morning time because I know things that make those other spheres beyond our fragile little world loom like ravenous titans about to pounce over us all. I cannot hide my anxiety from others anymore. Certain of my so-called quirks have been accepted by my family over the years, of course. This latest bout of terror on my part could easily be justified by it being but the latest in a series of odd particularities about myself. My sister and her children have all come to terms with the fact that I suffer not the slightest bit of mold anywhere in the house, for example. I am so fastidious about keeping things clean, both in my personal abode and in my office at the University, that I have twice been approached by representatives of the psychiatry department with offers to perhaps talk about the reason behind my obsession with cleanliness. On both occasions, I politely but firmly declined. If only they knew… But what does a psychiatrist know of the terror microscopes inspire in me? And how can a biologist understand my primal fear of exotic metals like iridium? And how can a geologist ever hope to comprehend the fact that meteor showers send me scurrying into the depths of the cellar, so that I may be as far away from that horrid cosmic spectacle as possible? There is only one other person who understands, but he is gone. At least, I thought he was. Now I know differently, and only after I have recounted the full measure of events which have led to this day will others be able to understand why I am beside myself with anxiety bordering on panic at finding out he still lives. These pages offer no solace. In their wake, there will only be hopelessness. But the truth must be told when there is still time. We may yet be able to do something… Even if the only thing we find out we can do is pray for some kind of miracle which may spare the most urgently endangered species on the surface of planet Earth: humans.
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