Parallel Journeys Book Two—FIreskin


Andrew’s Journal

1 Afterlife


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It’s a foggy night here in the outskirts of Seattle, where my Mothership is docked.

Mothership. It’s just my name for the camper van I live out of. There are ordinances in almost every city against camping in a vehicle, and yet I’ve managed nearly five years without getting caught. She’s one of the few constants as my life tracks ever deeper into the unknown.

I’m enclosed within her stealthy interior, blackout curtains drawn, so no stray photons from my laptop escape the tinted windows. I’m careful to keep any trace of my presence from leaking out. A passerby would see only rain beading up on the sheet-metal skin of a generic Sprinter van. That, and a magnetic sign advertising an imaginary electrician company. My friend Jason got it for me to disguise the Mothership as a work van.

I don’t expect much scrutiny tonight. I’m docked beside a vacant lot, with only dead grass for company.

But it’s not just my van that needs to be stealthy. My whole life involves cloaking, secrets, and hidden mutilation.

I too am not what I seem.

I’m twenty-two, but most people assume I’m younger. There’s always been something off about my age. Even as a child, people said I didn’t speak or write like a kid. Or even someone from the present age.

This may be because I grew up spending more time with books than with peers. In addition, my parents and their friends were university professors, and the language I was exposed to was intellectual discourse, not contemporary dialect. Or perhaps it’s because I’m, as my aunt used to say, “an old soul,” so my diction sounds older than it should.

Before I began searching for my missing friend, Alex, I made my living as a freelance photojournalist. I specialized in long-form articles on subcultures. Traveling as a stranger in strange subcultures. Observing without drawing attention to myself . . .

. . . I’m hesitating. Of all subjects, writing about myself is the most awkward. But I can’t afford to be paralyzed by self-consciousness, or this journal will never happen.

There’s a commitment I need to make—no takebacks. I need to keep my fingers moving on the keyboard, and nothing can be deleted once it’s written. I can’t leave room for doubt, I must keep going. It’s the only way to the truth of things.

So, who am I? What am I?

As I said, I’m a traveler, an observer, and what little others can see of me is mostly illusion. I’m twenty-two, but when people look at me, they assume I’m barely out of high school—good-looking and slightly androgynous, with high cheekbones and long, dark hair. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much of an illusion, but it is, especially the good-looking part.

Hidden beneath my clothing is a mutilated landscape, what I call my Fireskin, flesh horribly disfigured by burning gasoline. And beneath my Fireskin, I’m—what? A mutant? A freakishly weird something-or-other? Still trying to figure that out.

As a child, I felt the heavy weight of secret knowledge even before I had any grasp of it. It was like a dark planet I could barely see, but its tidal pull was strong.

I had paranormal experiences and perceptions before the accident, but after . . .

After the god-hammer of fate, the six-thousand-pound metal fist of a drunkenly careening pick-up truck slammed into our little hatchback at eighty miles per hour . . .

After the explosion of metal and glass killed my parents and cast me across the threshold of death . . .

After being pulled back into this reality, reborn in a mutilated body, my fifteen-year-old brain massively altered by concussion, third-degree burns, and intravenous opioids . . .

After . . . afterlife . . .

The life I’m living after death and near-death experience is a paranormal life, a life driven by ever-stranger perceptions and encounters.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been searching for my closest friend, Alex. We traveled together in this Mothership for three years, rarely apart for more than a few hours.

Two months ago, while I was out walking alone, Alex packed up his things and disappeared into the night. But he did leave a letter, words that still weigh heavily on my mind. Finding him gone was a terrible shock. But maybe it shouldn’t have been because I knew he was deeply troubled.

At seventeen, less than a year before we met, Alex tried to “take his skin out of the game,” as he put it. He nearly succeeded. He would’ve died but for the unexpected intrusion of a friend who found him unconscious and bleeding out.

Like me, Alex had experiences at the threshold of death that left him permanently altered and deeply scarred. I came back fireskinned. But when Alex returned, he felt like he’d been left with no skin at all.

Besides the scars on his wrists, Alex’s body is as flawless as mine is mutilated. But something essential was lost. He returned from the edge of death, stripped of a protective layer that kept him separate from others. His mind was laid bare to paranormal perceptions. A naked psychic empath. And for Alex, this was a constant source of torment.

“I’m skinless,” he told me the day we met. “But not in a way that exposes my insides. Other people barely see me. I’m skinless in a way that exposes me to what’s inside of everyone else.”

The skinless exposure zone Alex lives in threatens his sanity and survival. Before we met, he adapted by disconnecting from everyone and living on the road.

He once said, “Passing by strangers is like an endless horror movie, but at least it’s always changing.”

He tried to warn me off when I invited him to travel with me . In addition to his other problems, he told me he’d been diagnosed as borderline and bipolar.

“Those are just labels,” I told him. “My parents always quoted E.L. Doctorow, someone they studied with at NYU, who said psychiatric diagnostic labels were just the ‘industrialized version of storytelling.'”

But Alex knew, and I soon discovered, that industrialized or not, some part of those labels did apply to him. When I did some reading on borderline, I recognized many of his difficult aspects. He did give me fair warning.

Even before the suicide attempt, he told me, he had a history of lashing out at people close to him. And after, his moods became even more volatile. So, it was safer for everyone if he kept people at a distance. Even those he loved.

But that didn’t stop me from wanting to be close to him. I was enchanted—attracted to Alex on every level. And our first encounter revealed shocking parallels between us. For better or worse, we were destined to meet.

I was nineteen, and with zero experience saving anyone, no shade of doubt tempered my desire to rescue Alex and be his friend. Even now, after the three turbulent years of our shared journey and his sudden departure, I still believe I can save him.

But if I let it, reason makes a devastating case against that belief. I can’t heal myself from my own torments, so what sense is there in believing I can heal Alex if given another chance?

There may not be much sense to it, but my dreams compel me to search for him. They fill me with dread that his life is in danger.

In the dreams, I always find Alex in a desperate state, wounded in body and mind. He’s terrified and alone, wandering the streets of a desolate, nocturnal city.

That’s where I found him last night, reaching out to me for a few heartrending moments of contact. Only this time, something was different.

As usual, when the dream begins, Alex hides in the shadow of a sooty apartment building. He comes toward me on the deserted street, drawn by the security of my familiar presence.

Alex stands near me, his back to a brick wall, his eyes flashing fear as he scans around us for danger. There’s a terrible wound to his left arm, which he’s bandaged with rags. His other hand clutches a broken mop handle, ready to fend off attackers, though no threat is visible on the empty street. He’s traumatized and verging on panic.

It’s terrible to see him so wounded and alone.

He’s about to tell me something, the same something he’s been trying to tell me for weeks in the dream, when I notice a new detail behind him on the wall. A faded poster that looks like a map of some sort. It’s vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place it.

Alex turns toward me, his eyes frantic. A single word escapes his mouth.


And the dream abruptly ends.

I wake up gasping for air, my whole body shaking with his desperation, an urgent desire to rescue him searing my heart . . .

I was too overwhelmed at first to recognize the significance of the new detail. But once I calm down, I see it.

In the many weeks of having this nightmare, the dark city was always bare and grayscale. But this poster behind Alex had faded color.

It looked like a weathered advertising bill, but it included a map of some kind of settlement shaped like a polygon with rounded corners. It’s fuzzy when I think about it, and I can’t recall many details, but that shape—I’ve seen it somewhere. But where?

Ah, I’ve got it now. The Renaissance Fair.

It’s a map of where Alex and I met. I was led there three years ago—led to Alex for the first time—by a dream.

But what use is that now?

I’ve been searching for him for weeks without any clues, and now this dream with a map? And yet, it was a dream that brought us together in the first place . . . maybe this new dream is trying to lead me back to him?

I wrap a blanket around myself and open my laptop, keyboard and screen glowing to life.

I should record that first dream. Maybe there’s something in it I’ve missed.

2 The Young Traveler

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When the dream begins, I’m on a moonlit, cobblestone street with wooden structures—a tavern and shuttered shops of various kinds, many with hand-painted signs illustrating what they offer. Occasional flickers of amber light filter through diamond-pane windows. Straw and horse manure litter the ground, and my senses are lit up by the aliveness and immediacy of this place.

I see the silhouette of someone small and agile step out of a doorway, his cloak flowing behind him as he walks swiftly up the street.

He turns and looks at me when he reaches the corner. I sense he expects me to follow, so I do. He doesn’t look back again as I trail him through a maze of narrow streets.

We end up at a canal of the sort you might see in Venice or Amsterdam. He halts at the edge, and I stop when he does to keep a respectful distance. He stands perfectly still, watching the flowing water. Moonlight reflects on the dark ripples, which lap against the canal’s walls.

It seems like he’s contemplating something.

He’s still for a minute or two before he resumes walking swiftly down the street parallel to the narrow waterway, approaching a bridge that spans the canal. His gait slows as he steps onto the bridge and walks to its center, stopping to study a small brass object in the palm of his hand.

The time feels right to approach, so I step onto the bridge and slowly walk toward him. As I draw closer, the object in his hand becomes visible—a brass compass. He gazes at it intently.

Just as I’m about to reach him, I’m halted by vertigo, as if the bridge were swaying beneath me. But it’s not the wooden planks that are moving.

The time-of-day shifts from night to dawn, late afternoon, sunset, and back to night. The progression of dark to light and back to dark again quickens until it becomes stroboscopic. Yet the young traveler stands there unperturbed, still gazing at his compass as time cycles around him.

He glances up as if wondering why it’s taking me so long to approach. I step closer until we stand only an arm’s length apart. He raises his eyes to meet mine, and . . . everything changes.

Our eyes become portals merging us into a swirling, amorphous space.

We’re removed from time, as if our bond has always existed. Like we’ve always relied on the polarity of the other. I need the dynamism of his mercurial essence, while he needs my stability.

When we emerge, it’s predawn and we’re still standing on the bridge. He raises the compass as if he’s showing me a revelation. The compass dial is altered—it has Roman numerals like a clock face instead of cardinal points of direction.

“This is a map of where to find me,” he whispers.

Then there is a pop, and the glass and dial vaporize into colored plasma, opening an aperture of black space in the center of the compass in which a green double-helix spiral rotates. My gaze becomes transfixed by the moving spiral. I feel myself being pulled into it.

That must have been the end of the dream because I can’t remember anything after that.

When I wake up, his words echo in my mind.

This is a map of where to find me.

The words carry an edge of urgency. I know I was dreaming, but the traveler feels like more than a dream character. He played one, as I did for him, but those guises were shed when we merged.

But how can I find someone without even knowing their name? I don’t even remember his features clearly. I was so transfixed by his gaze, and then by the compass, that I can’t recall the details of his face.

His words perplex me, like a Zen Koan.

This is a map of where to find me.

Did he mean the compass was the map of where to find him? A compass is a navigation tool to be used with a map. How could it be a map itself? It looked like an ordinary compass when I first saw it resting in his hand. But then, when he whispered his few words, it had Roman numerals instead of cardinal direction markings as if it were a pocket watch. Was it indicating a point in time to meet him?

After he spoke, the compass transformed once more. The center of it looked like a spiraling strand of DNA floating in space as if it were promising evolutionary metamorphosis if I found him.

Is there a set of coordinates I’m supposed to decode from what seems like symbolic dream content? Perhaps the mysterious compass conveys a path rather than a destination, a suggestion to navigate through mystical intuition rather than a set of coordinates on a journey of transformation.

And yet, his words were urgent, as if he were giving me specific space-time coordinates I should act on immediately.

He was holding the compass when he said, “This is a map of where to find me.” But he didn’t say, “This compass is a map of where to find me.” So maybe “This” meant the whole encounter?

If the whole encounter is a map, where does it lead? Am I to find him in the past, in what looked like a Renaissance-era town?

I search my memory of the encounter for clues, and a possibility occurs to me. Someone once suggested I write about the subculture of Renaissance festivals, but I never followed through. Perhaps this dream is calling me to finally do so. And it is the right time of year for outdoor festivals.

My heart lightens with the thought, and I feel a call to adventure. A quick search online, and I discover that a Renaissance fair is happening less than fifty miles away. I fire up the Mothership and take off immediately . . .

That was three years ago.

Now I’ve had this new dream about Alex with a map of the Renaissance fair where we met. Should I go there again? I don’t see a reason why he’d be there. It’s the wrong season, and the fairgrounds will be empty.

Or is the dream of the nocturnal city functioning like the dream that led me to the Renaissance fair in the first place? Should I be looking for a city as bombed out as the one in my nightmares? My journalism career has led me all over this country, and I don’t think a place like that exists here.

Since Alex left, I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on our travels together, looking for patterns I may have missed. The nightmares have made that search even more urgent, and for the last few days, memories of our first encounter keep resurfacing in my mind.

It feels like my subconscious wants me to notice something I’ve overlooked. Maybe that whole day is a kind of map. Physically searching for Alex has gotten me nowhere, but maybe if I unfold that map, it will give me a clue about where to find him.

That’ll take time, and I can’t do it here in the Mothership.

The weather is dark, gray, and rainy, and it’s been that way for days. The overcast sky does little for the two solar panels on my roof that charge my coach batteries, so I won’t have enough power to run my laptop for long. I also feel the need for strong coffee . . .

3 Behind My Sunglasses

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I wander out into the rainy grayness in search of coffee, my laptop protected by a weatherproof messenger bag. Even the outskirts of Seattle must have coffee shops.

I catch a promising glimmer of chandelier light behind a storefront window, refracting flashes of color that draw me inside.

Most coffee shops are too noisy and distracting, but this one is on a deserted side street with few customers. The lighting is tastefully subdued, and the atmosphere intriguing. Gilt-framed mirrors reflect the chandeliers twinkling above antique-looking marble-topped tables. There are inset shelves that display 19th-century oddities, such as a ceramic hand illustrating palmistry lines. Every detail is artfully blended to create an ambiance of old-world elegance surrealized by a Victorian steampunk motif.

Three women work behind the counter, and they appear to be in on the same secret. They’re polite, but in a formal, distant way that discourages chattiness. This pleases me greatly. They appear to share my preference for privacy over loud and intrusive American informality. Perhaps they’re a sisterhood of highly conscious lesbians or something like that.

Whoever they are, they’ve somehow set up the atmosphere of the coffee shop in a way that subtly discourages the shout-talking folk who so often keep me from writing in other coffee shops. You know the kind I mean—the over-loud, over-caffeinated, ever-erupting with explosive guffaws of cackling laughter types who assume that talking in an extremely loud and relentlessly emphatic way—No, she didn’t!!!”, etc.—elevates the art of mundane conversation into a rip-roaringly hilarious entertainment worthy of broadcast to anyone in earshot.

So far, the customers here are quiet and few. Nevertheless, I’ve secluded myself in a back-corner table.

Arabica-scented steam rises from my crazily oversized white ceramic cup, which compliments the Alice-in-Wonderland, neo-Victorian elegance of the place. Though it’s quiet, I still need a couple more layers of seclusion, so I put on my dark sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones. Behind the lenses, no one can tell when my eyes are closed. And I need darkness to reach back into my memory and pull that day to the front of my mind.

The day I met Alex.

4 An Offer of Friendship

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The festival grounds are surrounded by grassy fields. Within are trees and permanent structures, mostly shops with thatched roofs. The shops feature Renaissance-themed handicraft—swords, amulets, chainmail, pewter tankards, and the like.

I arrive as the gates are opening and default into photojournalist mode. I spend most of the morning interviewing people who work in the shops or are paid by the fair to parade around in elaborate Renaissance costumes.

I’m taking a few photos of a blacksmith when I catch a glimpse of what appears to be a young elf in a green cloak watching me.

I turn toward him and—ripples of déjà vu—I’m certain he’s the traveler from my dream.

He approaches, and I discover my mind has played a trick on me. I was sure he was dressed as an elf in a green cloak, not an unexpected sight in a Renaissance Fair, but actually, he’s not costumed at all. What I’d perceived as a cloak is merely a weathered green hoodie.

He has a friendly, trickster glint in his large blue eyes, and he’s wearing a travel-worn backpack like he’s living on the road.

“Forgive me, my lord,” he says in pseudo-archaic dialect, “but I’m curious about what you’re doing with these strange devices.” He nods at my camera and the voice recorder dangling from my neck. His voice is lyrical, and his words cleverly emulate the actors who cosplay at the fair. I can’t tell if he’s serious or not, but I catch a glimpse of interest glowing in his eyes. Then, as if he can’t stand still, he begins circling around me, juggling four multi-colored balls.

“Oh, I’m just—my lord,” I stumble on my words awkwardly, trying to match his dialect, “I’m just a humble traveler from the future here to learn about this realm. I’m a—I belong to a guild of word and picture makers called photojournalists. Would it be possible to interview you?”

I see my words pop into the space between us like dialogue bubbles in an off-kilter cartoon.

There’s a feeling of mutual interest, but I’ve defaulted into photojournalism mode out of nervousness, seeking permission to turn him into an object of passing observation.

Instead of responding yes or no, he catches the balls with a whirling finish and says nothing at all. Instead, he retrieves a small camera from the pocket of his hoodie, points it at me and takes a picture. Then, still gravely silent, he removes his backpack and fishes inside of it, producing a battered notebook and a pen. He opens it and hovers the ballpoint above the page.

“So,” he asks in a serious interviewer voice, “what got you into photojournalism?”

At first, I can’t tell if he’s mocking me. It’s so absurd that I break into a reflexive laugh.

He finally cracks a smile and laughs, shrugging off his journalist persona. The awkward tension goes with it, and I finally feel like I can talk. Neither of us wants to play interviewer and subject.

“I’m Andrew,” I say, extending my hand.

“Alex,” he replies, shaking my hand and bowing slightly.

A stout, bearded man clad in chainmail and leather wanders by. He’s chewing on a giant, steaming club of flesh—an oversized turkey leg. I grimace at the sight.

“I love the Renaissance,” I say, “but not the food. I saw a Thai restaurant while driving into town this morning. It looked cool from the outside. Care to check it out? I’d like to buy you lunch.”

Alex’s eyes widen, and then he looks shy and embarrassed. I realize he’s living on the road and not getting enough to eat.

He recovers his composure quickly and studies me with streetwise wariness. I’m afraid I was too forward, and I’m not sure what he’s read in me.

Apparently, I pass a test because he breaks into an amiable smile.

“Ah, what a kind gentleman you are,” he replies. “I’d like that very much.”

“Excellent. It’s only a few miles, and I’ve got a camper van— I mean a carriage —I mean a kind of horseless coach out there,” I say, struggling to recover the fair dialect. I point to the field used as the festival parking lot. “It’s right there.”

“Lead the way, good sir. Lead the way,” says Alex, adjusting his backpack. “I’ve been walking all day.” For just a moment, he drops the Renaissance flourishes and seems vulnerable, struggling with physical exhaustion.

We’re silent as we enter the field. The grass, blue sky, and dazzling sunlight— everything is glowingly alive and flowing with energy as if I’m seeing through the eyes of Vincent Van Gogh.

I feel myself drawn by a powerful current.

I experience our destiny as a physical force, directional as a compass needle and perilous, like a strong undertow pulling us into mysterious depths.

Does he feel any part of that?

His eyes are serious and alert like a soldier’s on patrol.

I sense we’re both secretive travelers, accustomed to being mostly invisible to others, and neither of us knows how to handle there being two of us.

I turn to steal a glance at Alex. He’s instantly aware, and defensively turns to meet it.

Our gazes meet across a boundary of charged tensions and . . .

At the same moment, we recognize the telepathic perceptivity in each other’s eyes and immediately look away.

We keep walking, silently agreeing to act as if nothing happened, but the tension between us reverberates like sound waves between struck cymbals.

Realizations flood through me. I knew he was acting earlier, but it wasn’t just to blend with the Renaissance fair. He played the part of an excited young adventurer to deflect my gaze from deeper scrutiny. The harlequin jester character, who charmed and captivated me, cleverly disguised the empath who was peering warily into my soul.

As we walk, the awkward tension settles into gentle respectfulness. Without having to say it, we agree to avoid eye contact and the other’s private space.

I’m too caught in my own confusion to realize that we’re both filled with hope, excitement, and fear. We want to be seen, but we’re also desperately afraid because we know our hidden mutilations will be exposed. In our different ways, we each feel starkly inferior to the other.

I’m too preoccupied with fear and self-hatred to recognize Alex’s feelings. My inner tormentor is busy lacerating me with a sharp, new cutting-edge—the painful contrast between Alex’s uncanny beauty and the fireskinned horror hidden beneath my clothing.

Why did I have to become so hideous? No one as beautiful as Alex will ever want me. I’m a monstrosity. What could I ever offer—

But then, something unfamiliar intrudes on my self-inflicted suffering. As Alex walks beside me, I sense his own pain and loneliness. And there’s something more—a gentle warmth reaching out to me. It’s tentative and vulnerable, like an offer of friendship from a lonely child.

Now that I’m writing about it three years later, I see aspects I never did before. The shameful wounds that caused each of us to feel inferior were also what had brought us together.

That day my inner torment struck chords of sympathetic resonance within Alex. He knew self-inflicted pain better than I did. The sharp edges he used to cut himself included a razor blade he’d used only a few months before to slash his wrists.

He couldn’t see my Fireskin yet, but he felt the suffering of it and a solidarity of pain. And he sensed he’d be safe in my company. So much past trauma taught him to make sure of that before letting down his guard.

I thought I was the one who extended the bond of trust to Alex when I later invited him to travel with me, but that was only on the surface. Actually, it was Alex silently reaching across the scar tissue that lay between us, who offered the bond at that moment, the bond that held us together through the tumultuous years of our journey.

Even now, across the unknown darkness of our separation, I feel that bond connecting us . . .

When we reach the Mothership, it looks like it’s posing for a magazine ad. It’s spotlighted by sunbeams, and the silver flake paint sparkles like it’s covered with pavè diamonds.

“Welcome to my Mothership,” I say.

Alex perks up at the sight of the camper. He circles it, taking in the tinted windows and solar panels on the roof.

“Man, I’m impressed,” he says. “You travel in style!”

“Thanks. This is my home, ship, office, kitchen, everything. I live and work out of it year-round.” I open the coach door and gesture inside. “I can stow your pack.”

He unbuckles it and passes it to me with a sigh of relief. As I lift the awkward bulk of it, I feel a surge of protective instinct. This pack is all he has in the world.

Alex steps into the camper, his eyes glimmering with curiosity and approval as he takes in details of the well-equipped interior.

“I wish I had something like this,” he says, buckling into the co-pilot seat.

As I navigate the maze of cars in the festival parking lot, Alex notices a purple crystal lightly rattling on my dashboard.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a star sapphire crystal. I got it in Tucson at the annual gem and mineral show that takes over the whole town every winter. See how one end is polished into a dome? It refracts a star if you hold it up to the light.” Alex picks it up and angles it toward the sun. “It’s a lucky talisman, so I keep it on the dash. I call it ‘the Star Chrysalis’ on account of its shape and size.”

“I see,” says Alex, studying it with childlike fascination. He tumbles the crystal, finger-by-finger across the back of his hand, the way some people can with a large coin, before placing it back on the dash.

Alex glances at his backpack as we pull into the restaurant parking lot.

“You can leave it in the van if you want,” I say. “I’ll give you a ride back after lunch.”

“Thanks,” he says, removing a shoulder bag. “I must trust you because I’m breaking one of my rules—to never leave my pack out of sight. All my stuff got stolen from my tent a few months ago, and I’ve been married to this thing ever since.”

He sighs and pats it affectionately.

“Sorry, old friend, I know this hasn’t been easy on you either.”

He puts on his shoulder bag, and we walk into the Thai restaurant. It’s five minutes past opening time, and we’re the first and only customers.

The interior is unusual and fantasy-like. The ceiling and walls, covered with wooden slats interspersed with porthole windows and Tikki décor, conjure a Disney pirate ship. Except for a few bamboo plants, none of the interior design seems particularly Thai, though the waiters look Asian.

I unsling my camera from around my neck and set it carefully on the window ledge beside our table. Beyond it, the Mothership rests at the end of the lot, and small bursts of late morning traffic rise and fall from the road.

Alex asks me to recommend something, so I order two vegetarian green curries with tofu, a double order of spring rolls with peanut sauce, and coconut waters.

“Thanks,” says Alex after the waiter departs. “I haven’t eaten in such a beautiful restaurant in a long time.”

He seems shy, and I wonder how long it’s been since he’s had a decent meal.

The spring rolls and coconut water arrive almost immediately. They’re soon followed by large bowls of green curry emanating fragrant steam with reddish-green basil leaves floating on top.

It’s so fulfilling to see Alex enthusiastically devouring the food that I don’t want to distract him with conversation. Then, halfway through his meal, he pauses, puts down his spoon, and leans back in his chair. He seems to glow with caloric replenishment and warming spices.

“Thank you, sir, your generosity is most gratefully appreciated. I’m in your debt and at your service,” he says, bowing his head formally as if he’s a character in a Dicken’s novel who might be an exceptionally well-bred young man or the Artful Dodger.

As we talk, his charming trickster persona alternates with a multitude of others, sometimes shifting mid-sentence. But the characters disappear when something touches one of his many raw nerves.

When I ask what inspired him to go on the road, he replies, “I wasn’t getting along with my family . . .” before trailing off into a distant gaze. Then his face blushes as if he’s said too much, and he snaps back into his young adventurer character. “And I wanted to get out and see the world and what fate might bring my way.”

He quickly turns the conversation to me.

“And what about you? What got you into writing about subcultures? Is that your way of seeing the world?”

“Well . . .” I have a canned answer to this familiar question, but I want to offer more than prepackaged words. “It is a way to see the world. But it’s also because I’ve always been an outsider. I like to observe people, but I feel like a visiting anthropologist, never part of any tribe. So, if that’s how I experience life, might as well get paid for it, right?”

Alex’s stare intensifies.

“That’s really how you feel? Like a visiting anthropologist?”

“Sorry,” I say, my face flushing, “I know that must sound horribly condescending—”

“No, no, no, it doesn’t sound horrible,” says Alex, cutting off my apology and flashing a conspiratorial grin. “It might be the greatest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Why?” I ask, not sure if he’s making fun of me.

“Because I thought I was the only one who felt that way. And I’ve always assumed my need to be alone means I’ll always be poor. But you actually found a way to keep your distance and get paid for it! That’s brilliant!”

“Thanks,” I say, delighted by his compliments.

I can hardly see the irony through my overwrought feelings. We’re bonding over being detached anthropologists, but I’m feeling more like an insecure teenager desperate for Alex to like me. I look for a way to return the appreciation.

“You know, people ask that question all the time, but you’re the only one to get the truthful answer out of me. I’m not sure how you did it. Maybe you’re the one who should be interviewing people. You’d be really good at it,” I say, catching myself in an overly enthusiastic smile. “How long have you felt like a visiting anthropologist?”

“I’ve always felt like a stranger in a strange land, as they say,” Alex replies. “But after some weirdness I went through a few months ago . . .” he hesitates, a shadow of pain passing across his face. “Since then, I’ve had to live as an outsider. And I don’t know if this is exactly what an anthropologist does,” Alex pulls a battered blue notebook out of his shoulder bag, “but I always find myself observing people and taking notes. I’m obsessed with recording dialogue I overhear, word for word.”

“That’s exactly what anthropologists do,” I say. “And journalists. Those word-for-word notes are like gold when it comes to writing about subcultures. Way more revealing than putting a microphone in someone’s face. I wish you were there on my last few assignments—I mean it’d be great to capture the candid stuff I miss because people know a journalist is recording them.”

“Well, you’re welcome to use anything I picked up at the Renaissance fair or elsewhere in my travels if it helps with an article. I’ve never found a purpose—for the notes, I mean.”

“I’d love to read through them. And of course, if I use any of it, I’ll give you credit in the article—”

“No, no, I don’t want any credit. I’d be happy just to know it was put to use.”

Alex turns his notebook so the front cover is oriented toward me.

“This whole notebook is full of stuff I overheard.”

The cardboard cover is decorated with an intricate design embossed in shiny, ballpoint pen ink. The intricacies flow organically from a single phrase, “The Great Design,” rendered in a graceful script.

“Wow,” I say lamely, “that is a great design.”

I regret my words as soon as they come out of my mouth. Alex hastily puts the notebook back in his shoulder bag, his face flushing with embarrassment.

“Those words don’t mean I thought my design was great,” he says resentfully.

“No, no, I’m sorry, that came out totally wrong—I know what you meant, but I was—

“You know what I meant?”


“OK, well, since you know what I meant, why don’t you tell me?”

“Well . . . you meant life is a great design.”

Alex doesn’t contradict me, but I sense I’m still on trial and need to defend my point. I’m learning for the first time what I’d learn all too well in the future—it’s so easy to accidentally wound Alex’s pride, and once it happens, it’s hard to recover his trust.

“It struck me because I experience it all the time—a level of design under the surface you can sometimes glimpse but never fully understand,” I say, sitting forward in my chair as I organize my thoughts.

“I hate when people talk about the randomness of life as if they’re giving you this great insight into what’s really going on. They act like they’re pulling back the curtain to reveal the ultimate nature of reality. And for them, the ultimate revelation is that everything is meaninglessly random. The only miracle in the universe is their sophistication at getting the cosmic joke.”

Alex listens intently, but I can’t tell if I’ve convinced him yet.

“I saw this interview once where a famous British atheist said human beings were no more significant than mold growing on a shower curtain. But he said it in a smug, self-satisfied, smarter-than-thou tone as if he thought he was mold of a higher order than the common sort who aren’t in on the joke.”

Alex laughs appreciatively, so I continue.

“This kind of person pulls randomness out of their hat, like the most tired of magicians’ rabbits. And even though they’re one of many performing the same disappointing trick, they act like they’re offering you this cutting-edge revelation suitable only for tough-minded sophisticates like themselves. And they give these ludicrous examples to prove the randomness of everything. Like, if I hadn’t been five minutes late, I never would’ve been standing at the street corner and never would’ve met so-and-so, or the car wouldn’t have hit me, etc. They don’t seem to realize their examples don’t illustrate randomness at all. An infinite number of other events could’ve happened, but they didn’t. A fateful and particular pattern played out. But because they can think of alternative possibilities, they come to the absurd conclusion that what actually did happen was just random.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” says Alex, his face dimpling into a smile.

“I once heard a podcast with an information scientist who claims true randomness is an unproven assumption, and that one day the mistaken belief that anything could be random will be recognized as the greatest error in the history of science. Not that I actually know anything about the science behind this . . .” I add sheepishly, realizing I might be overselling my point of view.

“I totally agree with you, man,” Alex responds. “You don’t have to know any science to see life isn’t as random as some claim. But I get where they’re coming from because most of the time the great design is hidden, and a lot of stuff does look random . . .”

Alex pauses before falling into a more subdued tone.

“Most of my experiences might as well be random, though, as far as I can tell. I mean, I do have weird perceptions, but I guess they could be seen as random in a way too.”

“What kind of weird perceptions?” I ask excitedly, hoping to find more common ground.

“I don’t know, man,” Alex says, suddenly becoming wary and dismissive. “They were just weird perceptions, like seeing creepy stuff in people. It’s nothing worth hearing about.”

My curiosity was too forward. I’m desperate to learn more, but I don’t want Alex to withdraw further. I consider telling him about the dream that led me to the Renaissance fair.

No, he might see it as a cringeworthy romantic overture.

My self-doubt creates a lull in the conversation, and I can tell Alex is waiting for me to pick it back up again, testing me to see how I’ll recover.

“For some reason . . .” I begin, unsure which direction to take, “when you first approached me, I thought you were dressed up as an elf. I guess it was the green hoodie.”

My words immediately seem irrelevant, but Alex greets them with an impish smile.

“So, you assume I’m not an elf?” he says, feigning offense.

“Well, from a statistical point of view,” I say in my best expert-witness voice, “one assumes most people are not elves.”

“But if people can dress up as elves,” Alex responds, “shouldn’t we assume elves can dress up as people?”

“Sure, sure,” I say, trying to stay in character. “Sounds reasonable. Do you consider yourself a member of the elf persuasion?”

Elf persuasion? Does that mean I’ve persuaded myself I’m an elf or that I persuade others I am?” asks Alex.

“Both, I suppose,” I reply. “I was looking for a less blunt way to pop the are-you-an-elf question. I know it’s quite a personal thing. But if you self-identify as an elf, I respect that. We should embrace a diversity of species, including elves.”

“Well played, sir, how diplomatic of you,” says Alex with a smirk. “The truth is I do identify as an elf sometimes, and others do seem persuaded. People often say I look like one. That’s why I wear a green hoodie. But it’s ironic you’d put me on the spot about it when you look as much like an elf as I do.”

“I do?” I ask.

“You don’t see that?” asks Alex.

“I never really—” I say, but Alex cuts me off.

“C’mon, the mysterious eyes, long hair, high cheekbones—you’ve definitely got the look. Takes one to know one, they say. Put on a green hoodie, and I guarantee you’ll get elf projections.”

Even though it’s easily hidden by clothing, I’d always thought of my Fireskin as ruining any look. I feel a twinge of pain at the thought of Alex discovering how wrong he is.

“I meant that as a compliment, by the way,” says Alex, reading my discomfort. “I think elves look pretty cool. I don’t mind looking elfy most of the time. Well, some of the time at least, but . . .” he slumps back in his chair and sighs. “I’m just really, really small. In middle school, I was a star athlete, until my classmates turned into grown men, and I stayed tiny. It kind of sucks a lot of the time . . .”

Alex looks miserable at the recollection, but I’m touched that he’s trusting me with such a vulnerable disclosure.

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty small myself,” I reply, trying to brush away his worry. “Better to be quick and agile than big and clumsy. Your juggling skills are impressive. I’m not surprised you were an athlete.”

“Yeah,” says Alex gloomily. “Was.”

“You know, from an evolutionary point of view, it’s more efficient to be small,” I say, grasping for something encouraging. “Most astronauts are on the small side. Nobody wants a big, beefy astronaut sucking the oxygen out of the space capsule.” Alex smiles, so I keep going. “They want every kid to think they have the potential to be an astronaut. But the sad truth is that only the few, the proud, the way-smaller-than-average test pilots have the right stuff.”

“OK, OK, you can stop now,” says Alex smiling. “But, thanks, man, I appreciate it.”

“Speaking of the great design,” I nod toward his shoulder bag, “doesn’t it seem more than coincidence that both of us are travelers writing down overheard speech and taking photographs?”

“Maybe,” says Alex. I see a flicker of wariness in his eyes as he reads something in me, but I’m not sure what.

“Yeah, maybe,” I defer. “I guess lots of people write stuff down and take pictures when they travel.” I look for another direction. “Do you do other kinds of writing?”

“I journal,” Alex replies. “A few poems here and there. But mainly, there’s this one story I’ve been working on.”

“What kind of story?” I ask.

“Well . . . I’ve got a long way to go,” Alex replies. “It’s all a bit disorganized right now, but mainly it’s about this fourteen-year-old boy who finds himself caught between two worlds. He’s in a terrible car wreck that kills his parents and leaves him in a coma for several months.”

My eyes widen with shock, and I stop breathing. I drop my fork and look up at him.

Is he a psychic trickster pulling memories from my mind?

“What?” asks Alex, raising an eyebrow.

“I . . .  I’ll tell you, but can I hear more about the story first? What happens after the coma?” I ask.

“Well, a lot happens during the coma,” Alex replies. “On the outside, he looks brain-dead. But within, or somewhere, he experiences a whole other life, a magical life, in a world with elves and wizards—yeah, I know, it sounds like the worst story ever, but I’m not trying to win awards or anything, I’m just writing it for myself . . .

“The doctors try a risky procedure to see if they can shock him out of the coma,” Alex continues. “They inject him with an experimental drug mixed with adrenalin. It nearly gives him a heart attack, but it works. He wakes up to discover he’s an orphan lying in a hospital bed, his body so weak from months in a coma he can barely sit up. Metal pins hold his legs together, and he’ll never walk without crutches. He’s not sure which world he belongs to, and he’s desperate to return to the magical realm, which is better in every way than his miserable existence in the hospital. He’s sure the other world still goes on without him, but he’s clueless how to get back.”

Alex pauses, sensing the shift in my energy. He looks at me uncertainly, not sure how to read my reaction. My heart is pounding, and I struggle to get myself under control.

He’s seen through to my life story and Fireskin.

“Anyway,” Alex says as he studies my face. “Like I said, I realize how lame it sounds, but it’s like this obsession. I started working on it in high school and can’t let it go.”

“It’s—” I sputter, “No, it doesn’t sound lame. I’m just shocked.”

“Shocked? About what?” asks Alex.

“About your story,” I reply. “It’s damn near the story of my life.”

“What?” says Alex, studying me. “Wait, seriously? You’re not kidding, are you?”

I don’t even know where to begin. But Alex reads my hesitation and leans forward encouragingly.

“What happened? Tell me.”

“Well . . . for one thing,” I reply. “I was in a car wreck when I was fifteen. It killed my parents. Killed me too. But they resuscitated me, obviously. I was in a medically induced coma for a few days—”

“Oh man, I’m really sorry,” says Alex. “I would never have—”

“No, no, it’s . . . it’s OK,” I reply. “And I want to read your story. I think it’s fascinating and happening for a reason. I mean, what are the odds?”

“The great design at work,” says Alex carefully as he tries to gauge where I’m at.

“Yeah, exactly,” I reply. “But it’s OK. Really. It’s been years. And the whole experience made me the person I am. For better and for worse. Also, like the character in your story, I had a near-death experience. It wasn’t a whole other life, but I did encounter another world. And the people there were like elves. I mean, they didn’t have pointy ears or anything, but they were beautiful and had an uncanny glow. Sounds like a hallucination, of course, but one of them communicated with me, and he seemed as real as you do. And, like your character, I woke up in the hospital and found I was an orphan . . .”

This is the moment to confess the Fireskin. Better get it over with before an accidental tug on a shirt sleeve gives it away.

But the color drains from my face as I summon my nerve.

“Hey, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” says Alex, sensing my anxiety.

“No, no, I do want to . . .,” I reply. “I woke up from the coma, but it wasn’t quite like your character, getting shocked awake with adrenalin. I was pumped full of pain meds, so it was a more in-and-out process, and . . . You can’t see because I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt—but I’ve got third-degree burns all over— I call it my Fireskin, but anyway—”

My face flushes, and I grasp at the first question I can think of to deflect.

“So, your character—did he get burned in his accident?” I ask.

The straw I grasped for explodes in my hand like a firecracker as I realize my question is begging attention to the very thing I’m desperate to get past. Alex studies me.

“No, my character didn’t get burned,” he replies gently. “But if it makes you feel any better, his legs got shattered into like a million pieces, and he was never going to be able to walk without crutches. So, there’s that.”

“Oh, well, I guess he got it worse than me,” I reply. “But at least he got to live a whole other life before he woke up,” I say in mock complaint, trying to seem casual about everything.

“OK, but wait a sec,” says Alex. “I hope this isn’t too hard to talk about, but I’m trying to wrap my mind around this.”

I feel a dread certainty he’s going to ask about the Fireskin, and then he’ll want to see it.

“You said you had an encounter with another world while in a coma—and elves?” he asks.

I let out a breath as relief pours through me.

“Yeah, it was brief,” I reply, “but I was in another world. The few people there looked like elves. I mean, they looked like people, but really beautiful, and they had this radiant vitality. So I’ve always thought of them as elves.

“I’ve never actually talked to anyone about this,” I say. A twinge of conscience forces me to add, “Well, at least not extensively. . . But perhaps recounting my experience could inspire some added details for your story, being they’re so similar.”

“Please,” says Alex.

“OK,” I reply. “Well, the accident happened at night. A drunk driver slammed his pickup truck into our little hatchback at around eighty miles per hour. I was told my parents died instantly. I still choose to believe that. I survived because I was in the back seat and a fire-rescue team got to the wreck in minutes.

“I detach from my body and see the aftermath of the accident below me. Red and blue lights flash across the twisted metal hulks. Broken glass strewn across the asphalt glitters with the strobing of colored light.

“Although it looks eerie, a scene of total devastation, I’m surrounded by an atmosphere of calm reassurance. Everything seems to be exactly the way it needs to be. The wreck is just something that unfolded in time, like a flower bud opening its petals at the right moment.

“I ascend above the highway, the whole region, then the planet from the perspective of outer space. Suddenly, I’m hurtling through a tunnel, or wormhole or something, faster than light-speed. Instead of stars, there are streaks of light.

“It’s over in moments, and I’m left floating in a dark space where everything’s perfectly still and quiet. The floating gives way to a sensation of rising from the darkness like a scuba diver out of deep waters. As I rise, I become more physical.

“I emerge onto a grassy field. It’s a warm, sunny day. Sitting beside a patch of wildflowers a few feet away are a boy and two girls who appear to be my age. Their long hair gleams in the sunlight, and they have a strange glow. The boy smiles as if he’s known me his whole life and is welcoming me back after an absence.

“I start to experience physical sensations—the warmth of the sun, the fragrance of the flowers, leaves rustling in the breeze.

“Everything is vivid, but I don’t feel my body having any weight as I sit on the grass. I seem to be made of energy. And there was another oddity I overlooked until I reflected back on it. At least, it didn’t feel odd at the moment. It was apparent one of the girls was much younger, but physically all three looked about the same age. The difference was in her eyes. In her soul.

“The boy looks at me and asks, ‘May I approach?’

“I nod, and he sits down before me. His green eyes reflect wisdom far beyond his apparent age. I feel fully seen and accepted. He understands I’m in shock, and he’s calming me with his presence . . .”

Telling Alex about the encounter makes it feel like it’s happening again. As I look at Alex, his large, curious eyes peering into me, I realize he’s like them—a certain glow, uncanny eyes, and physical beauty.

“Did you get to talk with him?” asks Alex, interrupting my reverie.

“Yeah, we talked. He said much more than I can remember, and—maybe said isn’t even the right word. Things seemed to be—mutually apparent. I knew he was Jeremiah, and he referred to me as Andrew, though I don’t recall ever telling him my name.”

“But you said there was some talking,” Alex presses eagerly.

“Yeah, near the end,” I reply. “He asked me a couple of questions.

‘How old are you, Andrew?’


‘What’s the last thing you remember before you came here?’

‘A car accident, my parents, I left my body, I left the Earth . . .’

‘I see,’ replies Jeremiah.

“Right after he said that something life-changing happened. We seemed to merge through our eyes. It was a blissful feeling, but hard to recall. The last thing I can remember him saying is, ‘I think it’s time for you to go back.’

“And what happened after that?” Alex asks.

“Next thing I see is the crumpled ceiling of the car,” I reply. “I hear sheet metal being wrenched and glass crumbling. A fireman is yanking the car door open, his face illuminated by flashing lights. He turns his head to shout, ‘He’s not breathing!’

“There’s a moment of vertigo as I’m being carried by someone, and I lose consciousness again.

“When I wake up, I’m somewhere else entirely. Another reality. I see a kid about my age, who I later learn is named Tommy. At first, I’m just an invisible observer. I watch him climb a rope ladder into the branches of a large tree. He reaches a wooden platform and climbs through a hole to come out topside, where there’s a beautifully constructed treehouse surrounded by a little deck.

“The boy turns around to take in the view. Now I can see his face, but it’s like one of those optical illusions where your mind keeps switching between two different ways of seeing the same image. He both is and isn’t Jeremiah. Visually, they’re a mirror image of one another. But Jeremiah, though he bore no physical sign of age, was far older and wiser. And this boy is an actual kid about my age. His faded denim shorts and T-shirt are what any kid might wear, but he has dazzlingly green eyes and a radiant vitality. But it’s not just appearance. He has the same essence as Jeremiah, just in a younger form.

“There’s loose lumber on the platform, and futuristic-looking power tools armored in weathered teal plastic. Using his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, he surveys the surrounding forest. Then he picks up a tool and sets to work making a round door hatch for the hole in the platform.

“He’s so comfortable with the power tools, they seem like an extension of his body. He moves with astonishing speed but never seems rushed, as his movements have a graceful fluidity. His project must be based on a plan, but his actions seem effortless and spontaneous like it’s all a highly skillful form of play.

“The treehouse flows perfectly with the shape of the tree. It looks like a ship made to float on branches rather than waves. Every contour and detail of his woodwork has a look of organic inevitability and yet, he seems so young to have achieved such exquisite craftsmanship.

“I watch him with fascinated admiration. I want to know him, to be part of his world . . . I want to . . . to be like him, I almost want to be him, he’s so . . .”

Suddenly, I feel overcome by embarrassment.

“That sounds crazy,” I say with a forced laugh, “hearing it out loud.”

I have a panicky feeling Alex might get up and leave.

“And, yeah, I realize it could all be hallucinations from the pain meds, or whatever—

“No, don’t do that,” says Alex in a serious tone.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t back away from it. We both know it’s not crazy. And it’s not because of the medication.”

We both know?”

“Right. We both know. I’ve had just as weird an encounter, and it probably saved my life.”


“Don’t worry,” Alex interrupts, “I’ll tell you all about it. But, please, keep going.”

I put aside my curiosity and continue.

“OK, there was a discontinuity after I saw Tommy working on the treehouse. I turned my head for a moment to look at our surroundings, but when I looked back, my vision flashed forward. I was now watching Tommy on a different occasion.

“It must be days or weeks later because the treehouse is finished. His mood and whole way of being are so different. Before, he moved so quickly, but now he lies back on the treehouse deck, looking up at the clouds. He’s immersed in the moment, experiencing the beautiful summer day with all his senses, flowing through some deeper current of time.

“I’m absorbed by the depth of awareness in his gaze until I feel myself being pulled into him.

“Looking into his eyes becomes looking through his eyes.

“It happens so naturally I don’t even notice the difference at first. I’m no longer an outside observer—I’m an inner witness of everything he’s experiencing.

“It’s as if my wish to be him is coming true. I feel the sun’s heat on his skin, the light breeze through the leaves and branches.

“But then . . .

“Thunder clouds roll in, and the temperature drops. A perception comes to his mind—something terrible coming.

“Past the horizon line of his vision, there’s a curtain of shadow he must part to know what’s coming.

“I stay with him as he shoots out of his body and reappears by the side of a dirt road. There’s a backpack at his feet. I feel the tension of his muscles as he hoists it, and the weight of it thudding against him somehow brings a revelation of the darkness he’s facing. It doesn’t lift the curtain completely, but many perceptions flood in. A great loss, a great tragedy, has befallen him and the world. Then the moment loops. He hoists the pack, and it thuds again. Loop. Thud. Loop. Thud. Each time brings deeper feelings of fear and dread. I stay with him through all of this.

“The last thud jolts him—us—back to the deck of the treehouse, where he sits close to the edge of the wooden platform, trembling. I’m watching him from the outside again.

“Everything I felt for him has changed. When I first saw him building the treehouse, I admired the graceful way he inhabited his body and the swift precision of his every movement. I wanted to be him and live his carefree life, surfing waves of summery euphoria in a beautiful, natural world. But now I realize that he, too, is haunted by an ominous sense of destiny, and I feel an intense kinship.

“With ragged breaths, he fights to stabilize his body on the deck. He wraps his arms around himself and prays for help.

“I want to lift him out of his despair, and my desire is so strong that it reaches him across whatever barriers lay between us. He sits up and looks straight in my direction, even though I’m not in his world yet. Not visible. And then—a tingling sensation—a tectonic shift in the whole reality—and the mirror between our worlds melts.

“As his eyes focus on me, I become more spatially aware. I’m floating just beyond the treehouse deck. It’s strange, because until he could see me, I had no sense of being physical.

“A wave of shame passes through me—”

“Shame about what?” Alex interrupts.

“My burns. I look like something out of a horror movie, and he’s so—I’m afraid he’ll be sick when he sees what I look like. But instead of turning away in horror, his eyes lock onto mine, and I feel him holding on to me.

“It’s like he’s been in moments like this before and understands how to handle them.

“And it feels like we’re so alike, but also so different.”

“Different how?” asks Alex.

“Well, it’s apparent he’s living in a small community in the woods, and he seems so wholesome and uncorrupted. I grew up in Manhattan, so I feel like a city mouse encountering a country mouse. We’re from different worlds.

“I sense he’s aware of this too but isn’t put off by it. He’s just happy to see me. His eyes are warm and welcoming. He pats the wooden deck beside him, inviting me to join him. I sit across from him and become more embodied as our connection strengthens.

‘Hey. I’m Tommy. What’s your name?’


‘Where are we?’ I ask.

‘Vermont,’ he replies. ‘In a Valley of the Green Mountains.’

“As I look toward them, a shudder of instability passes through me. I need eye contact with him to keep my form. He understands and holds me with his gaze. I watch his chest rise and fall as he slows his breathing to calm the turbulent energy between us.

‘What happened to you, Andrew?’ he asks gently.

“I tell him about the accident and leaving my body.

“But when it’s time to tell him about showing up in Jeremiah’s world, I hesitate. I sense it would violate something.”

“Violate what?” asks Alex.

“I don’t know exactly,” I reply. “It was an intuition. Perhaps telling Tommy about another version of himself would’ve been too much of a shock. So I just told him I lost consciousness, and when I awoke, I found myself floating near his treehouse.

“I tell him about experiencing his vision with him. The approaching darkness. Tommy’s posture relaxes, and I see appreciation in his eyes. I realize then what he needs—someone who knows the burden of dark visions and can understand him. No one had ever shared his burden of being set apart. It’s a kind of fulfillment I’d never experienced either, and it makes me want to live.

“These new feelings melt my defenses, allowing his gaze to travel deeper into me, and for me to comprehend more of him.

“We’re both driven by a powerful current of hidden purpose, a force so encompassing of who we are, it never occurred to us it could be shared with another. What had always set us apart was bringing us into communion, dissolving all boundaries between us.

“And then, our physical surroundings become an impressionistic blur, and we merge. The outside world disappears into a color-shifting flow of energy. I’m no longer sure where one of us leaves off, and the other begins. In some place outside of time, we become a single being with two souls.

“I know that doesn’t make sense, but it happened. We were in a state without beginning or end. On some level, I believe it may still be happening. And yet, in my present state, I can’t return to that moment to describe it any better.”

I trail off into silence, feeling that merged state still out there but unreachable.

“Wow. Is that how it ends?” asks Alex.

“No. But I sensed it was about to. We emerge from that infinite space, still sitting across from each other in the treehouse. I have an impulse to say something, but I’m not even sure what because all I get out is his name and then there’s an electric shock, like being struck by lightning. I have no memory of anything after that. I’ve always assumed that was when they restarted my heart. The next thing I remember is waking up from the medically induced coma.

“This happened four years ago, and yet the effect of the encounter increases with time. It feels unfinished, like I’m meant to help Tommy with his mission. I came out of the near-death experience with a compulsion to search for him. And that intention has only gotten stronger. But the more I think about it, the more impossible finding him seems. The whole experience is riddled with time paradoxes.”

Alex raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah, time paradoxes,” I repeat. “Aspects that don’t make sense from a single, linear-time perspective. Tommy lived near the Green Mountains of Vermont. It was summer when I encountered him. The accident happened a hundred miles from the Green Mountains in upstate New York, but on a winter night.

“And I have contradictory perceptions about him. It feels like we’re living in parallel with each other. And yet, I also feel like he’s upstream in time, somewhere in the future.

“But despite the temporal inconsistencies, the need to search for him has grown. It’s actually why I started doing photojournalism about subcultures. Tommy didn’t tell me in words, but I sensed he lived in a small community in the woods. And he did say we were in the Green Mountains of Vermont, so I visited every intentional community in that area. That led to writing an article on intentional communities in Vermont, but it didn’t lead to Tommy. Searching for him, and others like him, has become my life mission.”

“And that’s how we met, isn’t it?” asks Alex.

I nod, and a brief silence follows.

As different as they are in some ways, the similarities between Alex and Tommy are striking. They’re both so intensely alive and empathically attuned to the moment. They share an uncanny physical beauty and athleticism. The precision and speed of Tommy’s carpentry work mirrored the uncanny dexterity of Alex’s juggling.

And yet their differences are equally stark. Tommy felt at peace with himself and was so trusting, while Alex seems to be hiding some deep suffering behind a shifting array of personas. Tommy was aware of darkness approaching, but Alex seems like he’s been through it.

“OK,” Alex says, pulling us out of the awkward silence, “so what happened after you woke up from the coma?”

“Well, it was like how it was for your story’s character. I came back with an overwhelming sense of being in the wrong world. At first, I was so high on pain meds I wasn’t sure what was real. And yet, though nobody told me while I was still in critical condition, I knew I was an orphan.

“Whenever they left me alone, I’d close my eyes and try to go back to sleep, hoping to rise through the darkness again to be in the sunny meadow with Jeremiah, or the treehouse with Tommy. But mostly, I wanted to be back with my parents when we were packing up the car for the trip. I could prevent the accident if only I could return to that moment. But even through the opioid haze, I knew that wasn’t possible. And Jeremiah—he felt at a much further remove, like someone living in another dimension. Tommy, though—he feels close and far away at the same time. It’s like we’re living alongside each other, but in parallel dimensions or timelines or something. He still feels close, but—”

“Parallel lines can’t meet,” says Alex.

“Yeah, exactly. But I keep hoping they will anyway. And when I was in the hospital, I had only just encountered him, so he felt so close. I kept hoping we could connect in the Dreamtime. Unfortunately, I always woke up to pain and disappointment. I haven’t had another encounter with him since the near-death experience.”

“I’m sorry, man. That sounds pretty rough,” Alex says. “But if you’re still willing, I’d like to hear more about what it was like waking up in the hospital. But if it’s painful—”

“No, no—it was painful to go through, but talking about it is therapeutic, if anything, so thanks for asking. I should warn you, though—a lot of it is quite gruesome. Sure you want to hear about it at lunch?”

“Definitely,” replies Alex without hesitation.

“OK, well . . .” I hesitate for a moment as I try to figure out where to begin, “it’s actually hard to say when I woke up. They kept me in a coma for several days, and I was intubated—on a ventilator even when they woke me. Then I was put on powerful sedatives that cause amnesia. And that’s not a side effect—it’s by design.”

“Why did they want to give you amnesia?” asks Alex.

“Some procedures are so painful you’re better off not remembering. So they medicate you into amnesia to reduce PTSD. Like when they had to clean the donor sites. Those are places where they remove healthy skin for grafts. They’d give me propofol—that’s the anesthetic that killed Michael Jackson—but they couldn’t give me so much that I was out completely. And they also gave me Fentanyl. I’m sure you know what that is.”

“Of course,” says Alex. “Someone I went to school with died from that shit like a month ago.”

“Sorry—” I say.

“No need,” Alex replies. “It wasn’t anybody I was close to. Anyway, I want to hear more about your experience. What else did they give you?”

“They gave me a powerful barbiturate called Versed— that’s the one that causes amnesia. They also had to ensure I was sedated enough to stay completely still during procedures.”

“Damn, man, that’s intense,” Alex says, his eyes glowing with curiosity.

I’ve learned from experience that some guys tend to be fascinated by grotesque medical details, and I’ve performed this rap many times before. I feel it’s helping me gain respect with Alex, like I’m telling an epic war story, so I’m eager to continue.

“When you get burned that bad, they ‘ve got to rush you through multiple complex surgeries. And it’s only since the nineties that they had the medical tech to bring someone with as many injuries as I had back to life.

“They’ve got to get the dead skin off as quickly as possible before it causes massive infections. The process of removing the dead skin is a weird term—debridement. One of the burn nurses joked that she underwent debridement when she got divorced. That joke made the term seem creepier. You’re supposed to be married to your skin till death do you part. But the fireskinned must go through this gruesome divorce.

“After the divorce, I needed massive skin grafts. This is kind of gross, but they grafted cadaver skin on me at first.

“Cadaver?” asks Alex.

“Corpse—dead peoples’ skin,” I clarify.

“Ahh,” he replies.

He seems unphased, so I continue.

“They had to keep working on me constantly, right to the edge of what my body could take. Then there’s the trauma of having healthy skin removed to make the permanent grafts.

“Metabolically, it’s like running a marathon for several days straight, so they had to insert a feeding tube to pump enough calories into my body for it to keep up. Luckily, I was fifteen, and my regenerative capacity was at its peak.

“But anyway, getting back to your question, waking up was more like fever dreams, these nightmarish intervals of semi-consciousness. My brain was bleeding from a major concussion, and had further damage from lack of oxygen, due to my heart stopping for at least thirteen minutes before they could get it going again. Later, when they gave me a series of cognitive tests, I got higher scores than anyone they’d ever tested. By nine minutes, most people have severe brain damage, so that makes me a medical anomaly.

“In the early weeks, though, I had lots of cognitive problems. When I was conscious, I hallucinated. But it all seemed so real. I think some of the hallucinations were intentionally frightening because my body needed a surge of adrenaline at certain moments. Like I was sure millipedes and spiders were crawling everywhere. Medical staff would shine flashlights on the walls to show me they weren’t.

“Anyway, it was a month before I had anything resembling normal consciousness. And even when I did know what was happening, I could barely speak because the intubation damaged my vocal cords.

“Gradually, I regained some speech and mobility. However, once I could move, I had to constantly repress the desire to scratch everywhere because my whole body was itchy. The itchiness is caused by nerves regrowing through subdermal layers. So even if I was allowed to scratch, it wouldn’t do anything because the nerves hadn’t reached the surface of my skin.

“By that point, I knew I was in a hospital, but I was still totally confused about what was real and what wasn’t. It can still seem unreal when I go back once a year to get these laser treatments—”

“Laser treatments?” asks Alex.

“Yeah, it’s this specialized procedure to help with scar tissue. When skin cells regrow, it’s like they lay down this kind of scaffolding, but not in a normal way. They do it in parallel lines that contract the whole scar into bands, which limits mobility. It’s called burn contracture. That’s the real problem. Depending on where it is, contracture can hurt your joints, so they cut into it to relieve the pressure. The laser treatments are like thousands of tiny cuts that get the skin cells to grow in multiple directions. They use fractional lasers—”

“Fractional?” asks Alex.

“It just means the laser is split into thousands of different beams,” I reply. “They burn a grid pattern of centimeter-sized squares onto your skin. The squares are made of tiny perforations that look like pixels.

“Perforations?” asks Alex. “That must have hurt.”

“Oh, it definitely hurts, it feels like you’re inside a bug zapper, but I’d rate the pain as a five out of ten. Well worth it, though, because it can prevent the need for additional skin grafts to release the contracture, and those are like a twelve out of ten!”

“The part that seems unreal is that for a week and a half after the procedure, my skin has this grid pattern, so it looks like I’m part organic and part computer-graphic wire frame.

“Trying to keep my Fireskin elastic enough to move properly is a lifelong problem. I need to go back every year for more laser treatments, and every morning I’ve got to put on lubricating lotions to work through the stiffness.

“Getting back to waking up in the hospital, I was in and out during the ICU phase, and it was like a fever dream with scary hallucinations. Thankfully, I was asleep a lot of the time. But I’d always wake up to unpleasant sensations—tubes stuck in my arm, antiseptic smells, the itchiness. And I was getting woken up round-the-clock for these painfully invasive procedures—needles, cleanings, and dressing changes performed by blurry figures rustling around me, their voices an incomprehensible murmur.

“When left alone, I’d drift along at the edge of sleep and oblivion—an unformed place between worlds. When the opioids dissolved my physical discomforts, it felt like I could choose which reality to be in, only I had trouble navigating there.

“The reality I didn’t want was the hospital. When they worked on me, I lost my freedom to drift away. And they attended to me around the clock. I felt like a burnt meat puppet with its strings cut, helplessly bound to a hospital bed. I didn’t complain, but I wasn’t always rational enough to appreciate that they were saving my life. I was a brain-damaged fifteen-year-old high on pain meds, and they were constantly intruding on my states of chemically induced disassociation. Eventually, I got better at reminding myself they were just doing their jobs, and I always cooperated as best I could.

“When I stabilized, I started to accept that all other realities were fleeting, while the hospital had a nightmarish permanence. But I still wanted out. Out of the half-burned body, out of the whole reality.”

“Yeah, I know how that feels,” says Alex. “Not the hospital part,” he adds hastily, “but wanting out of the whole reality.”

“Well, we’re in good company,” I reply. “Lots of people feel that way. It doesn’t always take a major trauma like I went through. And I’m not saying I went through anything worse than anyone else—I don’t want to throw myself a pity party—”

“No, no,” replies Alex. “That’s such a horrible experience—no one can call that self-pity. And listen, man, I know this isn’t easy to talk about, and I really appreciate it.”

“Thanks,” I reply..”

“How long were you in the hospital?” asks Alex.

“Three months,” I reply. “But time stretched, and every week I was conscious felt like a lifetime. The first month I was in the ICU, then I was transferred to a step-down unit, then a month of rehab.

“After three months, I was discharged, but I was still totally disabled and had to return to the hospital every day for another month and a half. I was weaker and more incapable of helping myself than I was as a child, but my Aunt Leah was a patient caregiver.

“Recovery was a slow process. It took about eighteen months to regain most of my range of motion. I had to do all these painful stretches—like standing while two physical therapists slowly pulled my arms apart like a crucifixion. It was a long time before I could even put a shirt on by myself, and I still need to stretch every day to keep my arms flexible.

“For a year and a half, I was either homebound or back in the hospital for follow-up surgeries. Burned skin looks like this distressed hide or something, but it’s actually much thinner than regular skin. Any little cut and you’ll keep bleeding because the skin doesn’t heal well, and infection is a big risk. So I couldn’t go anywhere. Maybe that’s part of why I like traveling now.”

“Making up for being housebound for so long?” asks Alex.

“Yes, exactly,” I reply.

“I have an uncle who got burned pretty bad a few years ago,” says Alex. “He was trying to barbecue while shit-faced drunk and squirted lighter fluid from a can into a fire. Just his arms were burned, but he had to get grafts. You must have had a lot of stitches.”

“Mostly staples,” I reply, “thousands of these tiny metal staples. One staple went into a nerve which was . . . annoying. And they didn’t get them all out—some of them scarred over and are still inside me. After doing some scans, they discovered how many got left behind.”

“Damn, man. I’m sorry, that all sounds rough,” Alex says. “Anything else you can tell me about the hospital phase?”

“I just wanted out,” I reply. “Everything seemed wrong. Grieving for my parents, prolonged nausea from the medications, the fluorescent lights reflecting off the linoleum floor, the helplessness, pain, and weird sensations of my injured body—it all merged into a vast sense of wrongness about the default reality.

“I felt like an alien trapped inside a half-burnt kid. Everything about the hospital world seemed distorted, unnecessarily brutal, and ugly. The staff looked malformed, even grotesque. And my own body seemed like a monstrosity. Tommy, Jeremiah, and the two female elves I encountered during my near-death experience looked how people should. But nothing in the world I woke up in looked right.”

“Damn,” says Alex, “that’s a lot heavier than what my character experienced. Did life get any better when you recovered?”

“The feeling became more tolerable,” I reply, “and I came to appreciate certain people. But on some level, this reality still feels wrong to me.”

I pause to take a breath, feeling a weight lifting off me. I didn’t realize how much I needed to confess my alienation from the species.

“So, that’s why I’m a visiting anthropologist,” I add, “traveling the world as an observer because I can’t shake the feeling I don’t belong here.”

“Well, it still sounds like you’ve made more peace with this reality than I have, says Alex. “That stranger-in-a-strange-land thing, I’ve always felt it, and it’s only grown more intense with age. Life got way worse for me after I turned seventeen,” he says, his voice dropping to a confidential tone. “Like you, I had a near-death experience. Only mine wasn’t an accident. I tried to take my skin out of the game.”

Alex pulls back the sleeves of his hoodie to reveal razor scars on his wrists.

He’s laying out his life before me like a Tarot spread. Now he’s just turned over some major arcana—the Hanged Man and the Death Card.

For the first time, I see the depth of his torment and his precarious hold on life. I have a surge of protective instinct, but I also sense he’ll resent any expression of sympathy. Right now, he just wants to get his story out, and any words from me will make that awkward.

Alex tucks his wrists back under the sleeves of his hoodie.

“It should’ve worked. I picked a time when no one would be home for hours. The only reason I’m here is because of my friend Chase. Well, friend isn’t quite right. But I wasn’t answering my phone, so he drove to my house where he found me unconscious and bleeding out.

“I didn’t go to the hospital, and hid the scars from my family, so no one ever found out. I’ve never even talked to anyone about this till now.

“Sometime before Chase found me, I experienced another dimension. It was made up of all these crazy geometric shapes, continuously morphing and weaving into each other.

“But I wasn’t tripping or anything. It felt like an actual world going on behind this one. To this day, I have a sickening feeling I saw what’s really going on, and all this,” Alex makes a sweeping gesture, “is just a simulation.

“The feeling’s been with me ever since,” he says, shifting in his seat uneasily. “What if all this crazy shit keeps happening because none of what we’re experiencing is real? The world seems wrong to us because it is wrong. We’re all being suckered by a simulation. The more I think about it, the more it all seems like a setup. I was bleeding to death. My brain should’ve been completely messed up. So, where did these super intricate visuals come from? Even at my best, I couldn’t imagine anything so complex.

“As my brain shut down, it lost its ability to process the simulation. It was like I zoomed in too far on a photo and got lost in the pixels. I saw the stuff behind the curtain you’re not supposed to see—whatever is generating our experience. I was lost in the reality factory that’s normally behind the scenes—the machinery that creates . . . this,” says Alex making the sweeping gesture again. “The world beneath this one was weirdly beautiful in its way. But it was also. . . appalling.”

“Appalling?” I ask.

“Yeah, appalling,” Alex replies. “Because there’s no human scale to it. It’s like for a fish—water is its default reality—the only dimension it’s ever known. Have you ever seen a fish pulled out of the water? For a while, it flaps around desperately, trying to get back to where it came from. And then it gives up, and there’s this glassy, shocked look in its eyes.

“That’s what I felt like. Everything I ever thought or experienced had no meaning in this geometric world. Patterns weave in and out of each other in impossible ways, and your mind can’t catch hold of anything. And it’s not just me—lots of people see the same thing when they smoke deemsters. I do too.”

“Deemsters?” I ask.

“DMT,” he says. “But this was even more terrifying because it felt like I’d lost contact with the simulation forever. A fish out of water.”

Alex pauses and shifts in his chair again, as if he needs to move his whole body to come at the subject from a different angle.

“I have no idea what’s behind the simulation. And I’m afraid to find out. Maybe our bodies are like virtual reality suits. When they’re working right, we can experience this world normally. But if your suit takes some heavy damage—if you slit your wrists open or get badly burned in a car accident—you find yourself in a processing area outside the simulation.

“You found yourself in a better place—a sunny field with elves—but I landed somewhere . . . inhuman. Maybe I was being punished for breaking one of the key rules of the simulation . . .”

“A rule against suicide?” I ask.

“Yeah. Thou shalt not off thyself. Or something like that.  Maybe you’re supposed to take whatever the simulation throws at you. If, instead, you hit the reset button, the system drops you from the surface of the world into the plumbing beneath it.

“I got a forbidden glimpse behind the curtain, and now I’m cursed with it. Sometimes that makes me feel . . . insane.” There’s a flash of fear in Alex’s eyes. “Does any part of that make sense to you? Have you ever gotten the feeling this could all be a simulation?”

“All the time,” I reply. “So, if you’re insane, then we both are. I’ve doubted this reality since I was ten. My questioning began as soon as I was old enough to reflect on my experience. As a child, I was tormented by paranoid feelings that most people were simulations. I called them extras. I thought about asking my mom how I could tell if she was still really herself and not an imposter. I never did because I was too afraid of how she might answer—”

“Exactly!” Alex breaks in. “That’s the kind of thing haunting me. How can I tell if anybody else—if any of this is real? Does anything I do even matter?”

“I think it matters,” I say, “even if it is a simulation.”

“Even if it’s a simulation? How would that work?” asks Alex.

“Look at it this way,” I reply, “suppose this is a simulation. We appear to be sentient beings in the simulation together. Some of what you’ve said deeply affected me, and vice versa. That matters. Effecting another sentient being is the definition of what matters. And you shouldn’t question your sanity for having doubts about reality. We’re not alone in questioning it.

“Hindus believe we live in a realm of illusion called Maya, a magic show happening within God’s consciousness. And Gnostic writings from two thousand years ago claim the world we perceive is created by a parasitic species called the Archons.

“Some physicists claim that billions-to-one odds favor the probability we live in a quantum computer simulation. Replicated experiments have proven that observation alters what’s out there. Multiverse, parallel worlds, and observer-dependent reality are all aspects of mainstream physics.

“But I’m not sure it matters what we’re made of—quarks, probability waves, superstrings, quantum-computer-generated matrix source code. It’s all just the stuff that dreams are made of. And dreams are as real as anything else. Anything that exists is real. Any dream you ever had, or fantasy flitting through your mind, has a factual existence. You thought of that particular at that moment and no other. The complete history of the multiverse must include every thought since each is an event. And if we’re composed of zeros and ones generated by alien quantum computers, then the pattern of zeros and ones is real. A simulation is as real as anything else because it exists.”

“Never thought of it that way,” says Alex. “But I think you’re onto something.”

“At the end of the day,” I continue, “hair-splitting logic can’t prove anything. But what we do has moral consequences. I feel we’re both self-aware entities. How we act toward each other is more meaningful than what sort of insubstantial stuff we’re made of.”

“I like that perspective,” Alex says. “It makes life seem less scary.”

He sits back, and I can see his mind turning, realigning the world around him. He steals a quick glance at the few other customers in the restaurant.

“I don’t know about these folks,” he says conspiratorially, “but I feel you’re as real as I am. Regardless of what we’re made of.”

He smiles slyly, raising his coconut water, and we toast our shared reality. It’s a small gesture, but deeply satisfying. It’s the kind of mutual recognition I’d been searching for all my life.

“Anyways,” Alex goes on, “that’s where my doubts about reality began—finding myself trapped in a geometric dimension while bleeding out. Something happened, though, after I went through all that.”

His voice drops to a whisper.

“I fell into a black nothingness, where I was completely alone with my pain and terror and—”

His eyes dilate as he stares into the table as if it were a deep pool of memory.

“I—I can’t talk about that part. It’s too . . . Someone pulled me out of the darkness and saved my life—someone from another plane of reality. But the person who physically lifted me back into this world, this reality, was Chase, ironically a kid I found really annoying.

“The reason I’m alive is because of him. I called him a friend earlier, but he wasn’t really.

“Chase was a sketchy kid I barely knew. Dealing weed was our only connection. I was his plug, and when—”

“Plug?” I ask.

“His dealer. He ripped me off a few times—minor amounts, but only because I didn’t give him a chance to steal more.

“He was a typical stoner—one more of the revolving cast of shady types drifting through my life. He wasn’t interesting or even all that likable.

“The day I did it, Chase needed more weed, and my phone was off. So he drove to my house and found me lying on my bathroom floor in a puddle of blood. He wrapped my wrists with duct tape. I’m not sure where he got it—I was pretty gone at that point. Guess he had it in his car.

“When he shook me awake, my brain had no filters, and what I saw changed me forever . . .”

“What did you see?” I ask.

“It’s like . . .” Alex struggles for words. “Normally, you’re hidden inside your skinsuit, right? Others can pick up on your body language but can’t directly read your feelings. You can be in a packed elevator, and smell someone’s cologne or hear them breathing. But you don’t know what goes on inside their skinsuit, and vice versa. It’s a basic privacy we take for granted. A normally functioning brain has an immune system to keep other people’s insides out.

“My whole life, I’d seen people from the outside. I’d never really felt the full depth of anyone. But when I opened my eyes and saw Chase, I actually saw him. All of him. His feelings and life force. It was like a portal opened between us and . . . he was so full of compassion. I never expected that. He felt for me and what I’d done to myself. And I sensed his darker emotions, too—shame for his mistakes in life, bitterness, and deep resentment.”

“Resentment of others?” I ask.

“Yeah, but beneath that, a resentment of himself and having no purpose,” Alex responds. “Resentment that he was wasting his time and not developing any talents. He felt like a total loser. Seeing what I’d done to myself shocked him. He wasn’t alone in those feelings. Maybe that’s what opened the portal between us.

“At the same time, I had compassion for him.  I thought I was the only one ashamed of living the way we did. We hid our feelings beneath a thick skin of sarcasm and indifference. But in those moments with Chase, our insides were exposed. It was a sad revelation, but it deeply connected us. A primal bond formed. It was emotional and . . . animal.”

“Animal?”  I ask.

“Yeah, animal,” says Alex, lowering his gaze. I sense him repressing tears. Finally, he takes a deep breath and resumes.

“I’m lying there half dead, but I feel the bond with Chase in my whole body. I can barely see his face, and everything else is a dark blur. I’m too weak to even lift my head. My life depends on this other animal. We’re like two little monkeys alone in the back of a cave. I’m as helpless as a newborn, and he’s doing his best to keep me alive. My life is literally in his hands—in his nervous and shaky hands, as he wipes blood from me with a towel soaked in warm water.

“The towel felt like a mother cat’s tongue licking blood from a newborn kitten. My eyes were closed, and I felt Chase’s whole being flowing through the pulse of his fingers like it was keeping my heart beating and . . . it overwhelmed me with . . . empathy.

“I understood him in those moments even more than I did myself or anyone else. Chase was a weak, confused kid who couldn’t find his way. He knew he wasn’t smart or good-looking or good at anything. He lived a lonely and miserable life, trying to make his way around forces larger than he was. His parents were self-medicating wrecks who came home exhausted from work. They didn’t have the energy to keep track of him or give him more than the basics.

“Chase was background noise in the lives of other people. He needed to be loved and guided, but others, including me, barely noticed him. I felt the sadness and desperation of his whole life trembling through his hands . . . But I was too weak to show appreciation.

“I was in and out of awareness. At some point, he must’ve cleaned up the floor and traces of blood because no one ever found out. He helped me to his car, and somehow got me to his basement room. I woke up in a makeshift nest of blankets on his floor.”

“Why didn’t he call 911?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” says Alex. “We never talked about it, but Chase knew the weed was in my house somewhere, so he probably thought we’d get in trouble. Or maybe he was just running on instinct. All we cared about was staying high and living without adult interference. So it was definitely in our MO to avoid the attention of authorities.

“Chase left me a big bottle of orange juice and an empty bottle to pee in. I was too weak to stand for three days. Mostly I was down there alone, but every so often, he’d check on me to see if I needed anything. And his parents never bothered to come downstairs. Like I said, they never paid much attention.”

“Did you two ever actually talk about what happened?” I ask.

“No, not at all,” says Alex. “The situation made him nervous. He didn’t want any more to do with it. I heard him playing video games in another part of the basement sometimes, and he came and went, doing whatever he usually did.”

“And the bond you felt with him?” I ask.

“Gone. It existed for the first few minutes after he found me. But once he got me to his basement, I was just another sketchy situation he had to deal with. When I healed enough to leave, I gave him all the weed I had left. I owed him that much. He started dealing to my old customers, and I withdrew from everyone. I really don’t think he missed me.”

“Wow, sounds pretty cold,” I say. “But he did save your life.”

“He did, indeed,” replies Alex. He reflects silently, taking a sip of coconut water before continuing.

“I meant to take my skin out of the game, and in a sense, I did. I’m still here, but skinless. Not in a way that exposes what’s inside of me. Others barely see me at all. I’m skinless in a way that exposes me to the darkness inside everyone else. That’s why I live on the road. I need to keep moving to deal with the horror show.”

Alex looks at me, his eyes searching. I sense his hope that I’ll understand and accept him despite his strangeness. But there’s also wariness, as if he sees something in me that might destroy that hope.

“I experience time . . . differently now,” Alex says, sitting up straighter in his chair and taking a deep breath. “It’s hard to explain . . . I head home the day I’m strong enough to walk out of Chase’s basement. Fortunately, it’s a warm day, and the movement revives me. But my sense of time is altered. Maybe it already was while I healed in the basement, and I didn’t notice. But the people I pass on the street appear to move in slow motion. And they’re loud. Psychically loud. The stretched time forces me to see extremely unpleasant things about them.”

“Forces you?” I ask.

“I had no choice,” Alex says helplessly. “I was raw.”

“What did you see?” I ask.

“Negative thoughts and feelings they had about themselves and their lives. Addictions, shameful secrets. A bit like what I saw in Chase, minus the compassion.

“The perceptions are disturbing, and yet they seem obvious. Like it’s all there for anyone to read, in their eyes and bodies and everything. But then I start to get flashes. Flashes of memories burned into them— flashes that burn into me . . . ”

Alex trails off. I’m desperate to hear more, but I don’t want to press him.

“Look, if it’s too painful . . . ” I say.

“No, no, you’re the first person I’ve ever wanted to tell,” says Alex. “It’s just graphic. . . Like there was this teenage girl. I got flashes of her alone in her room, slashing parts of her body hidden by clothing. I saw her fleshy inner thigh while she cut it with a razor. And I felt the fever of self-hate driving her to do it.

“Then there was this guy—an obese middle-aged guy walking down the street. When he gets close, I’m barraged with images—he’s at his kitchen counter pouring himself a drink before refilling the whisky bottle with water. He doesn’t want his wife to know how much he’s drinking. I feel the shame burning inside him. Shame of being weak, fat, and impotent.

“I saw each person move through time in their own way. Some sped through it. Fueled by anxiety and caffeine, their thoughts were a red-hot jumble spinning inside them like overheating motors. They seemed about to burst into heart attacks, like they needed death to cool them down. Others were depressed and moved agonizingly slow like flies stuck in a grease trap, oil-soaked wings wrapped around them like straitjackets.

“And I can’t stop myself from seeing these things.

“I’m desperate for refuge, so when I reach my neighborhood, I go to my favorite park. I call it Sundial Park because it has a giant sundial in the middle of it. But instead of peace, I find a gang of shady-looking train-hopper kids eyeing me down. I’ve met some cool drifters on my travels, but this crew oozes horrifying images, the worst I’ve ever seen. The shock in a victim’s eyes after being slashed with a knife. Someone getting curb-stomped on a street corner. And even more unspeakable—things done to children. Things you can’t unsee. I got out of there as quick as I could, but the images still burned inside me.”

Alex takes a deep breath and measures me with his eyes, deciding if he should continue.

“I don’t want to exaggerate my troubles. Today I’m in a better mood, and the Renaissance fair doesn’t attract the worst kind of people, so this is about as good as it gets,” he says with a weak smile. “How much comes through varies, and it’s usually nowhere near as bad as that first day. It’s not like I pick up everything going on in everybody. It’s mostly just the dark side of people. But it’s a vicious circle. The darker I feel, the more darkness I see, which makes me feel even worse.

“As traumatic as the flashes are, they come from a survival instinct. They’re like the warning label on a bottle of poison. A normal person might pick up a creepy vibe from someone, but for me, the warning-label images light up like Roman candles.”

“That’s terrible,” I say.

“Well, I’ve had a lot of time to understand it better. I have a theory. When I slashed my wrists, I think my body interpreted it as a predator attack. It turned on this over-active radar system to prevent another one, and I can’t turn the goddamn thing off.

“So anyway, I get home to an empty house and go straight to my room, where I curl up under the covers, trying to quiet my mind. But I start hearing muffled voices coming through the walls. It’s as if the toxic thoughts of the people I passed are still coming at me, and the images attached to them are like insects crawling around in my head. I want them to just Go. The fuck. Away. But they keep torturing me.

“I curl into a tighter ball, hugging my knees to my chest, and start shouting, ‘Stop!’ ‘Go away!’  And it actually works for a second, but only while I’m shouting, like my voice and will are a protective field. But the moment I’m silent, the field collapses, and the muffled voices and hideous images swarm back in.

“They’re eating me alive. And the more terrified I become, the more they feed. I think . . .” panic flickers in Alex’s eyes, “I think there are beings who feed on fear. And they still feed on me. It’s like they never fully leave.”

Alex searches my face for a moment, then his muscles tense as if he’s about to get up.

“So yeah, anyway, sorry to lay so much heavy weirdness on you at lunch. I’ve never talked to someone about this. If you’ve had enough, you can just drop me back at the fair or whatever. It’s cool, I get it.”

Suddenly, he stands and puts on his shoulder bag.

“Alex, wait—” I can’t believe how badly he’s misread me. “Just—please sit for a minute,” I gesture to his spot at the table. “Please.”

“No, no—it’s all just too messed up,” says Alex. “I know—it’s crazy. It’s OK—I really think I should just—”

“Alex, please.”

He studies me uncomfortably. The panicked, untrusting part of him is out the door already, but another part, the vulnerable part desperate for understanding, wants to stay.

“Please. I haven’t had enough of you. Far from it,” I say. “And I know exactly what you’re talking about.”

“You do?” asks Alex.

“I do,” I say, leaning forward. “Just hear me out. You see into people. And I’ve felt you reading me—”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” says Alex, his face flushing as if I caught him shoplifting.

“No, no, no, don’t be sorry. I want you to read me. Read me right now. Do I seem like someone who’s had enough?”

“I don’t know. Do you?”  he asks resentfully. There’s an edge of defiance in his voice, like he’s hardening himself for a rejection he knows is coming.

“Just read me.”

Alex stares into me. I feel his energy slow down and become more focused. The directness of his gaze is arresting, but I try to open myself to it. I only hope he doesn’t see all the way to the bottom of me. Not yet.

“No,” he finally says. “No, you haven’t had enough.”

“Exactly!” I say. “That thought couldn’t have been further from the truth. I want to—no, I need to—hear about the weirdness. All of it.”

Alex looks confused, and his defiance collapses. He hesitates, but then settles back into his seat.

The waiter passes through our side of the restaurant, and I lower my voice. “Do you want more food? I’d like to get you something else.”

“No, I’m OK, but thanks,” says Alex.

I catch the waiter’s eye and order two more coconut waters. Alex looks at me expectantly.

“How could you have missed me hanging on your every word for the last hour? Play the tape back a couple of minutes—what were you just talking about?”

He looks unsure what I’m getting at.

“You were talking about beings who feed on fear, and the more you fear them, the more they can feed on your energy, right? Then, like two seconds later, you started walling me off, thinking I was weirded out. But there’s no way you read that from me because I was totally intrigued. I watched fear come over you, and then you projected onto me the opposite of what I was feeling. And yet, you’re an empath.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” replies Alex. “I freaked out too fast to realize.”

“Exactly. Look,” I continue, “I’ve had my own experiences. That swarm of insects in your mind, they’re parasites. I research them, and everything you shared is super fascinating and valuable to me.”

“You research them?”

“Well, second-hand, I suppose. It’s mostly this one website I’ve been following since I was a kid. It was created by an eccentric friend of my parents who’s become an occasional mentor to me, helping me to understand paranormal things. But yeah, we’re not the first to observe these creatures. You can find references to these fear-feeders in all cultures throughout history. The Buddhists call them Pretas or hungry ghosts, and the Christians call them incubus and succubus.”

Alex lets out a breath and leans back in his chair.

“I had no idea. I mean, I thought I was alone with this,” he says, looking at me earnestly. “It totally makes sense that they’re parasites. Parasites are sneaky. Here I am talking to someone who might finally help me understand this shit, and then an attack just happens? I was about to tell you what they looked like, and maybe they knew it because I suddenly felt super self-conscious, like I was annoying you with crazy talk. And all I wanted was to run away.”

“That definitely supports something I’ve observed about them,” I reply. “Parasites need to be sneaky because they work in our blind spots, misdirecting our attention to evade our awareness. They need to blind us to feed undetected.”

“But how do we see them?” asks Alex. “I mean, is there any way to defend ourselves?”

“Well,” I reply. “I don’t know if it would work for everyone, but I discovered a way during an attack.”

“What happened?” asks Alex.

“It was a few months ago in my camper,” I reply. “I had a migraine that evening. It was nothing out of the ordinary, I’ve had those all my life, but it made it hard to fall asleep. Finally, I did, but in the middle of the night, I was jolted out of a nightmare. My mind was awake, but my body was paralyzed. It’s happened to me before, sleep paralysis, but this was different. I had the unnerving feeling that something was in the van with me. Something. . . dark. Restraining me.

“It’s hovering above me, a cloud of darkness suctioning my life energy. It’s as if it slipped between dimensional planes, like a bedbug crawling out of a crack between floorboards to feed on me.

“I’m terrified, utterly helpless. But then something more powerful than fear rises up in me—the will to fight back, but even more, the will to know. I’d been researching these parasites, and here’s a live specimen caught in the act. So, I consciously choose to go through my fear, and my will flares out into the darkness like a glowing sword pulled from a sheath.

“As soon as I begin to observe its behavior—pry into it with my awareness—there’s a shift in the flow of energy in the Mothership, and the thing, whatever it is, disengages from me. Before I make out any physical details through the darkness—if it even had any—it vanishes like a puff of smoke, suctioned back into another dimension.

“That’s amazing,” says Alex. “So, you think just being aware of that creature stopped it from feeding?”

“I think it was a particular type of awareness,” I reply. “When I shifted from frightened victim to observer, my energy became toxic to the feeder. I see the various energies we output as a spectrum of color temperatures. Spiritual and intellectual awareness fall in the blue range, while fear, anger, and greed are in the red. Parasites are specialized feeders. They need red-spectrum energy, just like leeches need red blood.

“At first, I was glowing red with panic, and the creature was greedily slurping that up. The moment I became curious to observe, my energy shifted into the blue spectrum. And for shadow-dwelling feeders, that kind of energy is a burning death ray.”

“Like ultra-violet light is for germs?” asks Alex.

“Yeah, exactly. If you can convert the red fire of fear into the blue light of awareness, you can stop the feeding. When you activate your will to know, your awareness focuses into a penetrating beam, like a searchlight burning into the shadows.

“That understanding has been a kind of armor for me. Ever since that encounter, attacks have been rare and much more subtle.”

“Do you think it’s because your energy has become toxic for them,” asks Alex, his eyes lit up with fascination, “or because they don’t want people to see what they’re doing?”

“I think it’s both, really,” I reply. “But it all starts with awareness. There’s an alchemical principle: As above, so below. In the above world, the macrobiological world, parasites outnumber other species four to one. Most animals host parasites, and many parasites host other parasites, and so on.

“The world that is figuratively below the macrobiological is the microbiological realm, which is also riddled with parasites. All viruses are parasites, for example. Above the macrobiological, is another realm where these mind parasites exist. Just as UV light kills microbiological parasites, the light of our awareness is toxic to the unseen parasites from the spirit world.

“But I also suspect there are hidden feeders. Higher-order parasites that are much harder to detect. They avoid those who could expose them to the light of awareness, working in the shadows to keep our whole species in a state of fear, hatred, and greed. And they’re patient. Bedbugs can wait in floorboards for months to feed. Lower-order parasites wait for someone to be intoxicated or emotionally vulnerable to evade detection. Higher-order parasites are even more patient. They can hang back and manipulate powerful individuals to keep civilization in turmoil. And we’re too distracted by strife to see who’s harvesting all that negative energy.

“Our species assumes its place is at the top of the food chain. But what if this assumption is a carefully maintained illusion, convenient to those who are actually at the top? We assume we’re divinely ordained to turn other animals into livestock. And yet, we might be more oblivious than cattle being led to the slaughterhouse.”

“That’s horrifying,” says Alex. “You really think we’re being harvested?”

“Well, it’s pure speculation, of course,” I reply, realizing I may be overselling my case again. “But there’s precedent for ignorance of a whole dimension of life. Until the microscope was invented, we were clueless about the microbiological realm. Back in the day, surgeons washed their hands after surgery, but not before. When the blinders came off, we awakened to the shocking reality that we live amongst a stunning variety of tiny creatures, invisible to the naked eye.

“But, unlike the microbiological plane, hidden for most of history, energetic organisms have always been known. Every culture from every era has names for them. They each have practitioners—shamans, priests, exorcists—officially designated to help people deal with infestations. Only one culture in human history dismisses eons of human testimony about this realm of life.”

“Ours,” says Alex.

“Exactly. At least that part of our culture that’s fully invested in materialism and disregards the spiritual world. True believers in scientism assume that science, without any investigation, has somehow disconfirmed a dimension of life recognized by every other culture. And there are so many consistent patterns in what these societies observe.”

“Like what?” asks Alex.

“Some of the same patterns you can detect in both the micro and macro-biological dimensions of life,” I reply. “Almost every ecosystem has symbionts, predators, and parasites. These three types are basically just classic types of relationship between organisms.

“The third dimension of life—”

“Third dimension of life?” interrupts Alex.

“Yeah, the first two are the macro and microbiological dimensions. The third involves organisms that seem to be made of energy rather than carbon. And yet, they follow similar patterns—and behaviors as organic life. As above, so below. But it, too, is a diverse ecosystem with the same classic relationships of energy exchange—symbiosis, parasitism, and, in rare cases, predation. The micro and macro-biological dimensions are overlapping food chains, so—”

“OK,” says Alex, “I get the food chain idea, but these higher-order parasites you say are above us on the chain—what are they?”

“It’s hard to know for sure,” I reply. “Studying this dimension of life seems almost impossible, like trying to explore a dark continent by holding a flickering candle to a keyhole. Most feeders I’ve experienced are instinctual creatures like parasitic insects, driven by blind and relentless hunger. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a higher-order parasite, but from my research, I understand them to be more like puppet masters. They manipulate thoughts and feelings from the shadows, pulling invisible strings to control our species.

“Two thousand years ago, the Gnostics named the highest order of feeders the Archons, which means rulers. They described them as masters of deception and believed the world we live in is a corrupted plane of illusions created by the Archons to keep us enslaved.

“The Gnostics claimed the Archons purposefully distort our religions to keep us in a state of eternal conflict—a forever war. And to keep us in that red zone, they also need us at war within ourselves. Consumed by inner and outer conflicts, we’re blind to their machinations. We spend our lives oozing fear, rage, and base desires—a rich harvest for their insatiable hunger.”

“OK, the Gnostics believed that, but do you?” asks Alex.

“Well, I’m more interested in exploring than believing. I probably shouldn’t have used the word belief. The Gnostics were against blind faith. They prefer knowing to believing. They focused on learning from their individual experiences rather than blindly following sacred texts or priests. Their main goal was achieving gnosis, inner knowing of the transcendent through experience and intuition.”

“Yeah, I get it,” says Alex. “The more you believe, the less you can learn. If you think ancient texts have all the answers, there’s no need to explore the unknown.”

“Well said,” I reply. “And you also lose your searchlight if you think science has closed questions about subjects it hasn’t even begun to explore. Paranormal researchers say science should investigate the unexplained, not explain away the uninvestigated.”

“I like that—learning to question the unknown rather than explain it away . . .” Alex says, trailing off into his thoughts. “You said the higher-order parasites might be more like puppet masters,” Alex continues. “I think I might have encountered one. I never finished telling you about my attack.”

“Please,” I reply.

“So, like I said,” Alex continues. “I’m in bed, eyes closed, with all these dark voices invading my inner space. I found shouting pushes them away, but only momentarily. I was definitely in the red zone of fear and rage because they kept swarming back in.

“Maybe it was like what you experienced, a will to know that allowed me to see them—these worms swirling around me, glowing with a pale light from feeding on me.

“Some burrowed into me, while others floated around me like space debris. And beyond them, I see this spindly silhouette. It’s the orchestrator, and the worms are its instruments. It hangs back, looking for holes in my defenses to invade.

“The sight of it is too much for me and throws me into a panic. I scream ‘Noooo!!!!’ and push out with my will again. Then, like a drowning man gasping for air, I cry out, ‘Help me!!!’

“And then bam! I shoot out of my body like a bolt. Like, out of the whole reality. But not how you experienced leaving your body after the accident. I didn’t look back and see the scene from above or get any image of how I traveled . . . it was like . . .” Alex struggles to think of a comparison.

“I saw a documentary where a fighter pilot described what it was like to hit the eject button. Explosive charges ignited under his seat, shooting him from the burning fighter jet like a cannon shot. He said it was the most violent thing he ever experienced. For me, it was like I hit the eject button, but instead of a seat, I was strapped to a lightning bolt, shooting me into a different reality. It was so intense I blacked out.

“When I come to, I’m hovering near the vaulted ceiling of some large, glassed-in structure. Like a kind of futuristic, giant greenhouse. Below is a kid about my age. He’s tending to each plant, trimming them a bit, and making neat rows of bamboo stakes to support their stalks.

“As he works, I tune into his feelings. I can’t read his mind, but I feel the background of his thoughts. On the outside, he looks healthy and fit, but within, he’s suffering. I don’t know any details, but I sense his isolation. It’s like he’s being held captive by something, forced to live and work in this giant greenhouse because of something really dark, like end-of-the-world dark.

“His essence feels familiar, and I get a flash of déjà vu.

He’s the one who pulled me up from the darkness during my suicide attempt.

“I watch him methodically tend the plants. His situation is clearly more desperate than mine, but something tells me he’d never off himself. He’ll keep working till his last breath if it could help anyone. I was always so cynical about other people. I assumed everyone was selfish, so I was too. But I began to wonder if I could have been like him if I’d been raised differently.

“He looks up just before the encounter ends, his eyes searching toward me like he’s aware of being watched. I want to make contact, but something pulls me out of the alternate reality, and just like that, he’s gone.

“My eyes blink open, and I’m back in my room. There are no feeders anymore. No voices coming through the walls. I’m safe. Weak and dehydrated, but safe.”

Alex lowers his head in contemplation before he resumes speaking.

“I lay in bed for a while, trying to understand what happened.

“I called out for help and got it, but I have no idea how or why. The encounter gave me this strong feeling that I should persevere, like the kid in the greenhouse. Otherwise, I haven’t found any great purpose for my life. And yet, just knowing he’s out there gives me a kind of hope.

“Anyway, that was my strange encounter. Whatever pulled me from my bedroom to that giant greenhouse saved me from those feeders. And seeing that kid dealing with his own darkness probably kept me from finishing the job I started when I cut my wrists.

“But it’s not like I found Jesus or something and my whole life turned around . . .”

Alex looks down again, his expression darkening.

“The strange perceptions continued,” says Alex. “I saw ugly things in people I didn’t want to, so I kept to myself. I didn’t even leave the house for the first couple of weeks. But it wasn’t exactly a refuge. I picked up every unpleasant thing about my mom and her latest lowlife boyfriend.

“Slowly, I figured out ways to suppress the visions somewhat. Distracting myself works OK if I’m just passing people in the street and don’t have to interact with them. Listening to stuff on headphones. Keeping my hands busy with something. Avoiding eye contact is crucial. They say eyes are windows to the soul. For me, they’re windows into all the darkness in people’s souls.

“As soon as I was well enough to work, I got a job as a dishwasher at a busy restaurant. I loved it when there was a rush, and I could turn on the speed. I was a super-fast dishwasher and working at top speed blocked out unwanted perceptions. I’m pretty sure my speed weirded out some of my coworkers, but no one was going to complain that I did my job too quickly.

“I worked nights and otherwise retreated to my room. It wasn’t much of a life, but I read a lot and worked on my writing and drawing. Actually, now that I think about it, I made some sketches of the kid in the greenhouse.”

Alex reaches into his shoulder bag and retrieves a well-worn sketchpad. He opens to a few studies of a huge geodesic greenhouse. When he turns the page to the sketch of the boy, I’m almost too shocked to speak.

. . . The long hair, elegantly thin eyebrows, and perfect bone structure of his face.

It’s him,” I say, astounded. “It’s—Tommy!”

“Seriously?” says Alex. “The same kid you saw in the treehouse?”

“Definitely. He looks older in some way, like he’s been through more since I met him. But that’s him. It’s a perfect likeness.”

The sketches are superb, like studies done by a Renaissance master. It’s the first physical artifact of Tommy I’ve seen in this reality, and the drawings feel like the contour lines of a map to another world.

Then, as if it had been waiting for this exact moment, a poem I’d memorized long ago comes spilling out.

“What if you slept

And what if

In your sleep

You dreamed

And what if

In your dream

You went to heaven

And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower

And what if

When you awoke

You had that flower in your hand

Ah, what then?”

Alex looks intrigued.

“It’s a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” I say. “Your drawing is like finding that flower in the waking world.”

“Would you like it? I can always make more,” offers Alex.

He grabs hold of the drawing, about to rip it out of the pad.

“Oh, no, no,” I respond, “I can’t take that from you. But can I take a picture of it?”

“Of course,” he replies.

I snatch my camera off the window ledge.

“Would you mind?” I ask, gesturing for Alex to hold up the pad.

He displays the sketch pad beside himself with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, and I can tell he doesn’t like to be the center of attention. Observers are usually uncomfortable being observed. Still, he holds it long enough for me to take a few good shots.

“For both of us to have encountered the same kid in a near-death experience,” I say, “is proof we didn’t meet by accident. But it looks like we crossed paths with him at different points in his life. What was he doing in a giant greenhouse?”

“I don’t know,” Alex replies, “but he definitely wasn’t happy about being there. I haven’t made any sense of it, but I get the same impression that he’s upstream in time. At one point I saw a futuristic-looking robot traveling across the greenhouse. Actually, I made a drawing of it.”

Alex flips the page of his pad to show me a detailed, colored-pencil sketch of a robot. Its body is black with diagonal yellow hazard stripes, and it looks too well-designed to come from the imagination of anyone but a robotics engineer.

“I mean, it’s not like we don’t have robots now,” Alex says, “but this one seemed way more advanced.”

The mystery hangs silently between us until I recall that Alex hasn’t finished his story.

“So . . . you were working as a dishwasher and isolating at home. When did you start living on the road?”

“Almost a year ago,” Alex replies.

A year? That’s a long stretch. What do you do for money?” I ask.

“I trim weed for outdoor grows in Humboldt County,” says Alex. “If you’re a real scissorhands, and willing to work long hours, you can make three hundred bucks a day. I can trim faster than anyone I’ve met, not that it’s much of a talent. A week or two at a trimming camp can fund my travels for a couple of months.

“But it’s tedious work and taxing to be around the same crew during marathon trimming sessions. Sometimes it’s like eighteen hours straight. I listen to music and podcasts and focus on keeping the scissors always moving. But unwanted perceptions usually leak through anyway.

“Most of the trimmers are harmless stoners, but there’s still plenty of dark stuff in them that slips out. They’re generally tolerant, but some get strange vibes from me. Others resent my speed. It’s understandable because I get paid more, and the more weight I produce, the less work there is for them.

“It can get kind of oppressive after a while, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, I guess,” adds Alex, making a weary effort to get back into his young adventurer character. “I’ve earned a reputation for speed, so I can usually find work when needed. There’s a camp coming together in another three days, so I’ll be heading that way soon.”

My heart sinks. The thought of us separating had been so far in the back of my mind. I don’t want to seem desperate, but I grope for a way to extend our time together.

“How are you getting there?” I ask.

“Probably just stick out my thumb,” says Alex. “It’s how I get everywhere. It usually works fine, but I’m kind of sketched about it at the moment.”

Alex’s tone is casual, but I see fear in his eyes.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Something really bad,” says Alex. “But it was kind of my fault in a way. My skinlessness can create weird situations on the road.

“When I’m alone in a car with someone, I can’t keep intuitions about them away. I think people unconsciously sense this and want to talk to me. They want to tell me their secrets, so I listen. I mean, it’d be rude if I just sat there with my headphones in and ignored them the whole time. And there’s a lot of desperately lonely people out there. Sometimes it’s fulfilling. I get to the end of a ride and feel like I’ve actually helped. But a lot of the time, it’s draining and disorienting. People dump all these heavy problems on me.

“A few days ago, a guy really unloaded on me. He rambled on and on about how his ex-wife screwed him over and took his kids and his money. But the whole time he complained, I got flashes of disgusting things he’d done to her and other women. Like really low-budget porno shots in motel rooms. The lies he told, combined with the gross images, drove me crazy. Finally, he dropped me off at an exit ramp. But long after his taillights disappear into the night, the disgusting images still swarm around me like flies.

“I wait three hours for my next ride, the whole time consumed by this disgusting psychic cloud. I made up my mind to never let anyone get under my skin like that again.

“So I start building a kind of armor around myself, a shield of my own energy. I’m busy with that when a car finally pulls up, and I get in without even looking at the driver.

“As soon as we pull out, I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake. The driver is a guy in his thirties with a handlebar mustache. He reeks of cigarettes, whiskey, and rage. Maybe meth rage. I never would’ve gotten in the car if I hadn’t been suppressing my ability.

“He starts hitting on me immediately, asking if I’d ever hooked up with a man before. He puts his hand on my leg, and when I pull it off, his rage fills the car like a gasoline fireball. He slams the pedal like a maniac, doing something like fifty over the speed limit.

“Violent flashes erupt from him, but I summon my will to keep them out of my mind. I’ve got to keep my head clear. I think about jumping out of the car and doing one of those roll maneuvers I’ve seen in movies, but I realize we’re going way too fast.

“I’m praying we get pulled over or something, and my prayer is answered but in a different way. We come over a hill and find traffic stopped by an accident. The flashing lights of police cars and emergency vehicles never looked so good.

“The car screeches as he slams the brakes, swerving to the shoulder of the highway as he barely avoids plowing into the row of cars in front of us. We come to a skidding halt, and before he can grab me, I throw open the passenger door and jump out. I’m even able to yank my backpack out of the back seat before he can stop me.”

Alex pauses and takes a deep breath. The harrowing story triggers a protective feeling, and my mind races.

I should drive him to the trimming camp. Maybe I could write about the subculture of illegal weed growers in Humboldt .  . .  No, they’d probably be paranoid about journalists, and it would put him in an awkward position.

I don’t know if Alex sees the wheels spinning in my mind, but he gives me an appraising look.

“Anyway,” he continues, “it was a scary experience. But it taught me a lesson. As disturbing as my ability is, it’s dangerous to suppress it. I think it’s a natural survival instinct I always had, but the suicide attempt intensified it. Now, it’s just part of who I am, and I have to live with it.

“But traveling is also a kind of search mission too. I’ve spent the past year working through these fringe crowds hoping to find—I don’t know. Someone who experiences what I do, or understands it at least . . . I can’t be the only one to sense such things. So, I keep an eye out for others with the ability. Once in a while, I see someone flowing through time differently, but it hasn’t felt right to approach anyone until today. With you, it was like we were already friends, picking up an earlier conversation.”

Alex’s recognition leaves me almost speechless. He needed to find me just as badly as I needed to find him.

“Thanks,” I stammer, “I’m so glad you did and . . .

I pause. Something forces me to blurt out a question,

“So, have you gotten any warning flashes about me?”

“No,” replies Alex smiling. “Not at all. Quite the opposite. You seem really safe. But . . .” he hesitates.

My breath catches as I feel a ripple in time, like a future memory of pain, and my whole body begins trembling. Alex lowers his voice to a whisper.

“No warning flashes, but . . . I sense you’re attracted to me. I get that from a lot of people who pick me up for rides and others I run into. But with you, it doesn’t feel dirty like it does with most of them. I don’t have any problem with it, but I should tell you I’m not into guys that way. Sorry if that’s a disappointment, but there’s nothing I can do about the way I am, just as I’m sure there’s nothing you can do about the way you are. I’m attracted to girls, but mostly, because of my ability, it’s hard for me to be intimate with anyone. What I really need more than anything is . . . a friend.”

Alex looks down and takes a deep breath. When he looks up, time slows, and I see the naked empath.

The wary street kid has relinquished his defenses. His eyes are portals of telepathic emotion. Instead of reading me, he’s allowing himself to be read, his most private feelings, the depth of his loneliness. He fears his inability to fulfill my Eros has already doomed a companionship he desperately needs. I realize his suffering is deeper than mine, and his intentions are more honest. While I was becoming infatuated with my fantasy of him, he was hoping for a friend. We’re both desperately lonely.

“A friend is what I really need, too,” I say, my heart pounding. “And as far as the attraction—that’s a line I’ll never try to cross.”

“Thanks for understanding, man,” says Alex. “That means a lot. I hope we can be great friends.”

“Me too,” I say, feeling a surge of hope. “You know, I’d really like to give you a ride to your trim camp. After what you just told me about your last hitchhiking experience, you probably shouldn’t be sticking your thumb out right now.”

“Really?” Alex perks up. “It’s not out of your way?”

“Not at all. I was thinking about heading up north anyway,” I lie. “Or you could just skip the camp and travel with me.”

The offer leaps out spontaneously, and I instantly see hesitation in Alex’s face. It’s too forward, but something compels me to keep talking.

“You could help me explore American subcultures. Never a dull moment. Figure out what makes people want to live in the Renaissance and trade in their smartphones for chainmail.” I add in a lame attempt at levity.

Alex breaks into a smile.

“I mean, somebody’s got to answer these questions, and I’ve been working alone for far too long. I could use a traveling companion, and there’s plenty of room in my camper for the both of us.”

“Yeah, but I’m broke,” says Alex, his mood growing dark again. “I can’t throw down for gas or food. That’s why I’m going to the trimming camp.”

“Well, that’s no problem at all,” I reply. “Living out of a camper is cheap—I’d spend the same on gas anyway. Plus, I’ve been getting paid more than I’ve found anything to spend it on. And—do you have a driver’s license?”

“Sure,” says Alex.

“Great,” I reply, “you can share the driving. We’ll cover more ground, and two of us will see and hear twice as much wherever we go. Which means more opportunity for work, and more money, so you’d be more than pulling your weight . . .”

I stop myself because I sound desperate, but I also see Alex struggling with something. His face is pale.

“Thanks, man,” says Alex. “You’re very kind, and that’s incredibly generous, but I don’t think you realize—I’m not an easy person to live with. I go through extreme mood swings. And my abilities aren’t just disturbing for me. They affect others. Even before I lost my skin, I had a history of lashing out at people close to me. So, I couldn’t let you—”

“No, I want to,” I interrupt. “Alex—I need to be your friend,” I blurt out.

Alex looks conflicted. I realize I’m coming on way too strong, but I can’t stop myself.

“What I mean is, we met for a reason. And this shouldn’t be the end of it. Don’t you feel that? It’s all part of the great design. For both of us to have encountered Tommy—it means something, right? We don’t know what, but I want to find out. With you.”

Alex looks into my eyes, reading me, and I stop talking to welcome his scrutiny. I know my conviction, sincerity, and need are real, and I want him to see that. But looking back, I realize he saw more of me than I intended. I was caught up in the moment, but I think Alex foresaw the storm clouds ahead.

“OK,” he says in a quiet voice. “But all I can say is I’m sorry if I’m ever a disappointment.”

“It’s OK,” I say, but I realize words aren’t enough.

I take a deep breath and summon all the courage I can find to unbutton my left shirt cuff. Slowly, I pull up the sleeve to reveal the worst part of my Fireskin.

“We’re all a bit broken, right?”

Pain and empathy well up in Alex’s eyes as he takes in my ruined arm. Then he does something I could never have anticipated.

He reaches across the table and gently grasps my forearm with both hands. I instinctively recoil, but he looks me in the eye and doesn’t let go. Slowly, tenderly, he begins massaging my mangled skin. My arm trembles and I let out a shaky breath, forcing myself to relax as his compassion flows into me.

My heart beats wildly as I feel the bond between us taking hold. We’re loners, solitary travelers who’ve hidden our vulnerabilities even from ourselves. It takes the eyes of the other to see through the scars and the insecurities. And for the first time since my accident, sitting with Alex in the Thai restaurant, I finally feel seen for who I really am

5 Stormy Latitudes

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That was the moment our bond became real. We’d found one another. And despite what the future would bring, we never looked back.

Our journey to so many amazing American subcultures, from a community of obsessive LARPers to a tiny Amish village, a shared journey lasting almost three years, was, as Alex often put it, epic.

Our adventures were intense. But as dramatic as our immersion into those subcultures was, our fellowship was our greatest challenge, lifting us to the highest highs and plunging us into the lowest lows.

There were battles, soulful intimacies, celebrations, and agonizing misunderstandings. But even in our darkest moments, need kept us together, and we persevered as co-pilots of the Mothership.

We kept an eye out for others like us everywhere we traveled. Tommy was never far from our minds, and we searched for any clue that might connect us to him again.

Was he living in our time or some possible future? What was the darkness he labored under in that giant greenhouse? Was he seeking us too?

There were always more questions than answers, but we felt the Great Design drawing us forward.

Beneath everything was the central question—why were we brought together in the first place? And what did these strange experiences mean? We spent long hours discussing our paranormal encounters—the mergers and out-of-body visions. I was sure we were part of an evolutionary shift. A metamorphosis. Jeremiah seemed to be on the other side of this transformation, while Tommy was closer to where we were.

But Alex was often skeptical. His belief rose and fell with his moods. On darker days, he found my conviction that we were part of an evolutionary metamorphosis, grandiose and naive. He wasn’t shy about pointing out the depressingly mundane aspects I’d overlooked, like how conveniently wish-fulfilling my theories are. And his criticisms always had irritating grains of truth. My desire to see everything as mythic created blind spots.

To be fair, his paranormal experiences were usually intrusive and painful. Mine were rarer, but often positive, so it was easier for me to believe they served an evolutionary purpose. And he had no real sense of Jeremiah. Despite my skill with words, I could never fully convey the qualities I felt in him, and why I believed he was the next step in our evolution. Jeremiah seemed to be effortlessly in command of his paranormal abilities. Alex had witnessed Tommy doing farm chores, but he never encountered Jeremiah, so he didn’t have the inspiring example I did of how much we could change.

Despite his doubts about my theories, there were areas of mutual perception that Alex never questioned. We both sensed it, something dark coming, like a massive thunderhead gathering above us.

We needed to reconnect with Tommy to learn what lay ahead.  But while I felt that was possible, Alex believed our encounters were one-off events possible only at the brink of death.

Chaos and calm were never far apart.

We were two extremely introverted loners accustomed to living within our own highly pressurized weather systems, but for the three years of our shared journey, we merged into one. The intensity of the turbulence was part of why our time together felt like a high-seas adventure. There were always storms on the horizon, but we could never sail clear because we carried them within us . . .

6 It Just Is

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I’ve been sitting in this coffee shop for hours, and the rain is still coming down. The lighting outside hasn’t changed since dawn, and I’ve been so immersed in reliving our first day that my sense of time is confused. A shift change brought new, pleasingly aloof women behind the counter serving coffee and food, customers have shuffled in and out, but everything is more-or-less the same. Still, I sense a great change is coming.

I feel connected to Alex, as if we’re suffering through something together. Like we’re mountain climbers exposed on a steep rock wall with a storm coming in. We’re carabined onto the same rope but there’s no anchor point. If one of us slips, we’ll both fall.

There’s nothing I can do with the weight of these feelings but keep writing about my time with Alex.

There’s still so much of our relationship I don’t understand. There’s also what I know but am not strong enough to accept.

I don’t want to create an impression of Alex’s moods as something inflicted on me. My soul needed his aliveness and engagement with the moment, even though I knew the weather between us could shift in an instant from a glorious summer day to a brutal storm, threatening shipwreck. His mood swings were fateful, tidal—a force of nature never to be tamed by talk or pills.

But Alex wasn’t the sole cause of the turmoil we endured. Intense forces within me also pressurized the atmosphere between us. True to the promise I made in the Thai restaurant, I never tried to cross the line or do anything to violate the boundary of our incompatible desires. On the surface, I always showed restraint. I overcompensated, partly from honor, partly from fear of experiencing Alex’s aversion. I was never the one to initiate a hug or do anything that could be taken as an expression of desire.

But Alex is an empath. He always sees what’s behind the curtain. And beneath the curtain of my reasonableness and consideration he saw the eternal flame burning inside me—the insane hope that one day he’ll love me enough to cross the boundary and be . . . some sort of magical sexual savior, healing my deepest wounds and fulfilling my deepest desires.

Pathetic, right? It’s not like I don’t know how pathetic that is. Worse than pathetic, it’s unethical to desire someone to be something they’re not. I feel shame and guilt about it, but I don’t seem to have a choice. Eternal flames don’t come with an off switch. It’s one of those things that just is. It’s a drug I’m fatally addicted to. Snatch it away from me, and my will to live collapses.

Even more confusing was that as much as I wanted to be with Alex, I also wanted to be Alex. In the same sense that I wanted to be Tommy when I first encountered him.

It was tormenting not to light up in his eyes the way he so radiantly lit up for me. One-sided attraction creates huge blind spots that exist to this day. Blind spots that hurt us both. The harmful impact of all that sexual tension on Alex is something I still can’t bear to see. It would break me down.

I’ve had my own uncomfortable experiences with people who thought they were attracted to me. All it takes is long-sleeved shirts and pants to pull off a cheap magic trick that makes me seem good-looking. My exposed skin is the smooth, antimatter opposite of my Fireskin.

Usually, these deluded admirers are not people I’d want to be with anyway. Nevertheless, there’s always this painfully grotesque aspect I must navigate—an illusion they’re not aware of. If they saw all of me, their attraction would turn to revulsion.

Fear of that revulsion has kept me from physical intimacy with anyone. It wasn’t until Alex came into my life and took hold of my fireskinned arm that I dared to feel it was possible. Even though I knew it wasn’t.

Intellectually, I realize the right thing is to just accept his unavailability. But my feelings don’t care about intellectual understanding. For them, the acceptance of permanent unavailability is a death sentence.

Most of the time, Alex was compassionate toward my Eros. But it was more than mere tolerance. My one-sided attraction was intrinsic to our bond. It was implicitly understood but too difficult to talk about, so we left its mysterious centrality undefined.

Another part of the truth is that Alex often seemed to enjoy my appreciation of his beauty. In a generous mood, he had the power to dramatically affect what I was feeling with a hug. Other times, my tormented longing must have tormented him.

So why would two people continue to live with so much unresolved tension?

Maybe we could’ve had an easier friendship if I wasn’t so attracted to him, but neither of us is driven by easygoing fates. Nor were we designed for casual, easygoing relationships. Alex lives on the glowing edge of the moment. Without the painful intensity of my unfulfilled desire, I wouldn’t have had the energy to meet him in his perilous zone.

Bittersweetis that the right word? It sounds too weak. If it is the word, then the bitterness was agony and the sweetness euphoria.

Despite all that, our bond was far more soulful and heartfelt than either of us had experienced with anyone else. Alex needed me, and he acknowledged that many times.

Yet this bond lived alongside the fiery boundary of envy between us, fueled by inner torments. I saw Alex as the hauntingly beautiful, unobtainable object of my deepest desires. And it was hard to appreciate his beauty without triggering the painful awareness of myself as a fire-skinned mutilation.

And Alex’s feelings for me were an even more volatile mixture of love and envy. His fragile pride felt continually wounded by my education, intellectual lineage, and successful career on which we were both financially dependent.

In fairness to Alex, I should admit the obvious—my life was infinitely more fortunate than his. Yes, I’d been traumatically orphaned and fireskinned. But before that, I felt loved and honored by my parents. I was their gifted only child, admired by their intellectual friends and colleagues for my precocious language and thinking skills.

After the accident, my aunt Leah became my legal guardian. She was thoughtful, intelligent, and nearly as introverted as I am. We lived together in my parent’s apartment with mutual respect and care not to invade each other’s space. Thanks to a large insurance settlement, my medical needs, living expenses, and education were provided for. And there was enough settlement money left over to buy the Mothership.

Alex and I both went on the road at eighteen, but under very different circumstances. I left after graduating with honors from NYU, and a family connection to a high-profile magazine facilitated the publication of my first article. Yeah, beginner’s luck plus nepotism is the dirty little secret of my modest success.

But when Alex set out, it was with nothing but a knapsack and a few dollars in his pocket. He was brilliant and multi-talented, but he’d dropped out of high school. And whatever family connections he had were good for getting street drugs and probation, but little else.

Alex’s home life was an unrelenting horror I can scarcely imagine. He told me bits and pieces, but never wanted to discuss it in detail.

He was the only child of an alcoholic mother who attracted a revolving door of sketchy guys. Typically, she brought them home the day they met. Alex never even learned his father’s name. He said his mom didn’t know which of her boyfriends at the time had knocked her up.

One night, Alex confessed he was beaten and raped by one of them. The next day, when I gently tried to discuss it with him, he stormed off and didn’t return till late at night, warning he’d be gone for good if I ever referred to it again.

On another occasion, I asked Alex what he thought about his gift of physical beauty. There wasn’t a trace of pride in his three-word answer,

“It just is,” he said.

It was simply a fateful given, a just is like my eternal flame. And, like so many just is things, it was both blessing and curse. The body I saw as perfect, he saw as a dangerous vulnerability. What I assumed was a magical superpower, he viewed as a weakness that led to him being beaten and raped. But the main reason he covered up was because prowling glances could flash into his mind with pornographic images of what the prowler wanted to do with him.

Traveling with me instead of hitchhiking had removed most of that danger, but we both drew the same sort of prowling glances on the road. Yet while Alex often wore oversize hoodies to hide his looks, I wore long-sleeved shirts to hide my mutilation and create the illusion of two good-looking kids, when actually, there was only one.

Strangers couldn’t know or see the truth. That every morning in the Mothership, while Alex buried his perfect body beneath layers of baggy clothing, I’d spend the better part of half an hour applying lubricating lotions to my painfully constricted scar tissue. It was a ritual of shame we performed both together and painfully apart.

In our public disguises, Alex envied my education and journalism credentials as if they were a glittering suit of armor. He said I exuded an upper-class aura that led people to take me seriously. Meanwhile, he assumed others saw him as my impoverished sidekick.

Preoccupied with my own insecurities, I didn’t believe I had any advantages worthy of Alex’s envy, and that blinded me to the full extent of his shame and suffering.

The body I so desired and envied was the same body whose wrists he had slashed. His grim, it just is, answer reflected the diminishing way he viewed his whole life and identity. When he looked at himself, he saw only shadow.

I understood Alex better when I did some research on borderline personality. His basic sense of identity had been neglected and abused from the earliest age. The chaotic instability within him was not something he asked for. It was forced upon him, just as Fireskin was forced upon me. We were both mutilated by fate, but Alex’s injuries came earlier and cut deeper.

In his worst states of inner torment, he would lash out at me.

These episodes pushed us to the edge of endurance and sometimes past it. In those moments, we were partners in suffering, nearly drowning until the storm spent itself. Then we’d find ourselves exhausted and needing each other again, like two helpless children clinging desperately to the same life raft.

But it was my choice to go through that. My soul craved the sort of intimacy only possible with another soul living at the edge.

A surveillance-camera view of our relationship would probably make me look like the good guy, and Alex the problem child. It would show Alex lashing out, and me not responding in kind. My politeness and restraint were part consideration, and part carefully crafted performance.

A surface view of our relationship would miss so much hidden depth. Underneath was a molten flow of raw energy and telepathic perception.

By acting as the calm, reasonable one on the surface, I unintentionally put Alex in the role of initiating the extremes and feeling the most guilt about the consequences. I left him to bear the responsibility of our conflicts alone, a weight that must have felt crushing. I can only assume that was part of what drove him away . . .

The cursor pulsates like a lighthouse beacon, commanding me to look deeper into these stormy latitudes, but even the thought of writing about our worst episode makes me shaky.

I haven’t been fully honest here. A sentence in the letter Alex left probably explains why he took off.

I don’t think this is good for either of us.

He had good reason to write that after what happened a few nights before he disappeared.

7 FIreskin Rainbow

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I feel disloyal even writing about that night. I don’t want to make Alex look bad and give the false impression that he was always mean to me. He did lash out sometimes, but more often we played off each other in oddly comedic ways and had fun in each other’s company. So, before I do write about that night, I want to first talk about an example of how Alex went out of his way to help me where he could.

Alex always encouraged me to let go of shame about my Fireskin. He never acted grossed out by it, and he often helped me stretch my arms and apply “Bio Oil”—I know, that sounds really gross, but it’s just the brand of lubricating lotion I use to loosen my scar tissue in the morning.

One experience stands out, a kind of initiation Alex created that liberated me from the need to always hide my Fireskin.

We had been following the Rainbow Tribe while I worked on an article about that subculture. They are essentially a leaderless group of mostly transient individuals who meet periodically in the middle of national forests all over the United States to camp out together for weeks at a time. But there are also international gatherings held around the world. Their name, “Rainbow,” although often mistaken with the LBGTQ+ community, is meant to symbolize the connectedness of all peoples in all walks of life. Although there are certain similarities, rainbows hate comparisons to Burning Man, as their movement dates back to 1971 and there’s no admission fee, amplified music or VIP camps. Actually, Burning Man borrows key ideas from Rainbow, such as a gift economy. While Burning Man began as anarchists blowing things up in the desert, it later became a highly organized legal entity. Whereas Rainbow has always operated outside the law and with no official structure. Most people go by rainbow nicknames, the location constantly changes, and people find gatherings via word of mouth and social media.

The National Rainbow Gathering is held at a different national forest site every year. It revolves around the Fourth of July, when there’s a big peace prayer and celebration. Alex and I had been at the National since “seed camp” when infrastructure—water filtration, kitchens, etc.—were being built, so this was around three weeks into the gathering for us.

We were walking in the main meadow where everyone was assembling, the air rippling with heat. It felt like we had stumbled through a portal into the plains of central Africa. Alex had his shirt off, lots of people did, and as usual, I felt uneasy by all the looks he was getting. Alex didn’t seem to mind. He told me that in big crowds, there was so much psychic noise that it suppressed the eruption of individual shadow images.

He could tell I was suffering from the heat because of my long-sleeved shirt and the inability of fireskin to sweat. There’s a silent peace prayer till noon, so he motioned me to follow him to the shady treeline to talk without disturbing anyone.

“Listen, Andrew, and hear me out before you say no. I think you should take your shirt off and own the Fireskin. And I think Fireskin should be your Rainbow name. People here are gonna think that’s badass! They’ll see you as one of them and less like a journalist observing them.”

I’m stunned by his suggestion and unsure how to react.

“Alex, sun damage causes burn contracture.”

“Oh, c’mon, Andrew, you’ve got sunscreen in your bag. Give it to me. I’ll put it on for you.”

The offer of tactile contact was too generous to refuse, so I took off my long-sleeved shirt and let him put it on. He knew what he was doing—committing me to the initiation. I couldn’t let him do that for me and then just put my shirt back on after.

It turned into one of the most amazing days of my life. After the long OM that concludes the silent prayer, I joined the mass of people dancing around the Peace Pole.

No one but Alex and medical workers had ever touched my Fireskin before, but that day at least a hundred strangers gave me hugs. I think I got more hugs than anyone. It was like everyone there was an empath.

I started introducing myself as “Fireskin,” and people did think it was cool. It melted away any journalistic distance when I did interviews. I kept my shirt off the whole day, and even at night around the fires and drum circles.

Alex is an amazing dancer, and movement helps him keep dark visions away. He actually got me to dance with him around the fires. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t half bad once I let intuition take over my movements.

That night, I had a surreal and life-changing encounter around one of the fire circles. I met another burn survivor who was also dancing shirtless!

His name is Sven, and his burn pattern is worse than mine as it goes up to his neck and chin. But he was way ahead of me in owning it and having a positive attitude. He calls his fireskin a “six-million-dollar tattoo.” Sven is small like Alex and me and looks like an eighteen-year-old hippie kid with really long hair, so I was stunned to find out that he was actually a thirty-three-year-old analytical chemist who works for a major bio-tech company.

He gave me all his contact info and asked me to come with him to a Phoenix Society meeting later in the year. I did, and that led me to other burn forums, where I spoke about my recovery and listened to many other survivors’ stories. Eventually, I wrote an article about the subculture of burn survivors.

Sven is still a great friend and inspiration. We meet regularly at the Phoenix Society and at the annual Rainbow Gathering.

Anyway, with the support of Alex and Sven, I went shirtless for the rest of the gathering, and became known as Fireskin to the Rainbow community.

That experience led to two of the best articles I ever wrote. It was, like I said, a kind of initiation, a transformative experience that wouldn’t have happened without Alex.

But . . . I’m also digressing, hesitating at the brink of confronting our most painful episode, the night that led to our separation.

8 Bad Night

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It was a bad night for us both. I had insomnia the evening before and felt impaired all day. Maybe some part of me sensed what was coming.

We were camped at the edge of a Walmart parking lot in Missouri, and Alex was having a bad night. Really bad. The worst I’ve ever seen. A full-on dark night of the soul. He was in tears part of the time, which was a rarity for him. He was angry, bitter, and frustrated with every part of his life.

I was trying to pull him out of his despair but failing miserably. There was no power behind my words because I was despairing myself. Alex was attacking the whole mythology I’d built up around us. And, as always, his attacks were hard to fend off because they contained disturbing elements of truth.

“I’m not this special mutant you think I am,” he says bitterly. “I’m not like you. You’ve made something of yourself, turning your strangeness into a creative career. You have a purpose in this world. But what am I? I’m just a fucking sidekick traveling around with you. It’s pathetic.”

“Alex—again with the sidekick thing? I’ve never seen you that way for a single second. You’re incredibly talented and—”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffs. “You’re the only one who even notices my so-called talents. Maybe they only seem like talents to you because you’re so into me. A more objective person would see me for what I am—damaged goods.”

“Alex, that’s not what you are.”

“Right, like you know what I am. You’re always telling me what I am.  But you’re wrong. What I actually am is a high-school dropout whose only employable skills are dishwashing and weed trimming.  I’m not this evolving mutant about to have some grand metamorphosis—into what—an immortal elf like Jeremiah?

“Look, I’m not saying he doesn’t exist, but you keep saying he lives on another planet or in another dimension. I mean, what the fuck? How would I ever become that?

“When you turn yourself into an elf with amazing superpowers, come back to me with your grand evolutionary theories. But I live in this world, Andrew. And here, I’m just a loser hanging out with a guy who’s infatuated with me and can afford to keep me around.”

Alex stares me down. My posture slumps from the weight of all the doubts he’s leveled at me. I know if I don’t respond soon, he’ll take my silence as agreement. But then I see a possible opening, a way to argue against his despairing view that rouses what little energy I have left.

I sit up straight and summon the will to turn the situation around.

“I wish you’d stop putting yourself down, Alex. It’s not helping. Of course I’m not objective about you any more than you’re objective about you. But I think I can make an objective case for you being more of a mutant than me, Tommy or even Jeremiah.”

“Oh reaaallly? Wowww, sounds like I’m about to hear another fucking amazing Andrew theory,” says Alex, his face lighting up in mock surprise. “This should be entertaining. Go ahead. Tell me your objective theory about me being the top mutant.”

“OK, I’ll do that,” I say, defying his taunts. “You’re right—you’re not like me. Or Jeremiah. Or Tommy, for that matter. The rest of us are like unusual flowers grown in expertly tended gardens. I grew up in the most culturally enriching subculture imaginable. New York City can be gritty and oppressive, but no one can call Manhattan a backwater. My parents raised me in the Ashkenazi Jewish intellectual tradition of scholarship and aggressive Socratic dialogue. They were professors at Columbia, and so were most of their friends. Some of those brilliant people were highly neurotic, but often in interesting ways—”

“You mean like you?” Alex says derisively.

“Exactly. Like me,” I shoot back with a smile, trying to spin his diss into a compliment. It fails to lighten his mood. “And, like me, they were complex people. Even their foibles had interesting aspects. Everyone around me helped my mind and talents develop. My parents argued sometimes, but they loved each other. And in that world, I was treated like a young prince with infinite potential.

“Now, look at Tommy. He obviously had a superb upbringing in some kind of wholesome, loving community, allowing him to fulfill his own creative pursuits. A kid from a more supposedly privileged family would’ve had helicopter parents. They wouldn’t have let him climb a tree, let alone build a treehouse with power tools based on his own inspiration.

“A loving community was implicit in everything about Tommy. Yet he could set himself apart when needed, and space allows for growth. Even the way the treehouse looked—like a seed pod resting in tree branches—reflected him being in a favorable place for metamorphosis, and—”

“And this is all going somewhere, right?” Alex interrupts. “I know you’re impressed with his treehouse, but I don’t see what any of this has to do with me.”

“I’m getting there. Just give me a chance. It’s hard when you keep interrupting.”

He’s thrown me off, and it takes me a moment to get back on track.

“Now look at Jeremiah—and, yeah, I know you’re tired of hearing about him—but he arose in an even more ideal world a community of extraterrestrial elves or something like that.

“My point is it takes a whole village to raise a mutant child. But you, you’re an anomaly. You’re like an exceptional flower growing from a crack in the cement despite people dropping smoldering cigarette butts on you.”

I mean the analogy sympathetically, but Alex flinches. It’s too painfully close to the truth.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” I say quickly. “Look, Tommy and I both had darkness to deal with too. I got orphaned and fireskinned at fifteen. By the time you saw him, Tommy was enduring some sort of apocalypse. But that stuff happened to us after we’d been tended in our gardens and had healthy cores.

“Meanwhile, from the earliest age, your core was under attack. So for you to be a functioning person means you have a super-strong essence. And teaching yourself to draw like a Renaissance master and your other creative skills, that’s an objective accomplishment unique to you.”

Alex looks at me incredulously for a moment, then slowly claps his hands in mock applause.

“Wow. Great speech, I’ve got to admit. A bit flowery— but I’ll give you an ‘A’ for effort and imagination. You really pulled out all the stops. No question—you’re the greatest orator I’ve ever met. Anyone can see why you were the prince of your tribe of Manhattan Ashkenazi college professors.”


“But your little theory doesn’t hold up, does it? I mean, aren’t there people who wrote great symphonies, made great discoveries, whatever, who also had really messed up childhoods? My childhood was fucked up, but I can draw and juggle. Wow. So what? That doesn’t exactly make me one of the X-Men, does it?”

He’s deflated my argument, and he knows it. I’m searching in vain for a response when he suddenly turns to focus on me.

“You just don’t see me for what I am, Andrew. For how fucked up I am, and for the total nothing I’ve made of my life. Your infatuation with me, what you call your Eros, totally blinds you to my reality. I guess I can’t blame you for that. But this crazy mythology you’ve built up around me just isn’t healthy for either of us.

“Aren’t you the one who writes about subcultures having their own quirky religions? But have you ever taken a good look at your religion? The Andrew-and-Alex-romantic-evolutionary-quest religion, or whatever the fuck you want to call it?

“Look, I think you’re basically a good person—I do—but you’re not a whole village, are you? Did it ever occur to you I might need to meet some other people, some of whom should be girls? No. You don’t think about that because it’s not part of your religion.

“I’m not trying to be harsh. I want you to be fulfilled, man, I really do. It’s just your total lack of sexual experience that makes it seem mythic to you. But because of my life experience, it’s always going to seem dirty to me.

“You feel uncomfortable when people are attracted to you because you think they’d be horrified by your Fireskin. And yet it never occurs to you how uncomfortable it is to be seen as this magical mutant when I know I’m not.

“Look, I don’t enjoy raining on your mythological parade. I’m not trying to oppress you or anything. So if you can take any pleasure from thinking about me when you jerk off, or whatever, feel free. Just take me off the fucking pedestal, please. It’s exhausting.”

Alex’s onslaught leaves me shaking. There are devastating elements of truth in everything he says. But reducing my feelings for him to an annoying pornographic addiction is a gut punch.

But what if he’s right? Maybe my love for him is just a masturbatory fantasy.

No! It’s something beautiful. But he’ll never see it that way.

Whatever it is, my obsession isn’t good for him. It’s going to drive him away.

I can’t hold back my tears, and then, without fully intending to, I express my despairing thoughts aloud.

“I’ve failed you,” I say. I just mean that I’m a fuck-up in general and feel guilty about projecting so much heavy shit on him, but he doesn’t take it that way at all.

“You’ve failed me?” Alex snaps back, more furious than I’ve ever seen him. “Just who the fuck do you think you are? Some sort of God? And I’m your flawed creation you’re weeping over?”

He lunges toward me, grabbing me by the shoulders and shoving me against the Mothership’s inner hull. He’s right in my face, eyeing me down. As he glares at me, time slows, almost pauses. I should be rattled, yet for some reason I’m perfectly calm, utterly fascinated with what I see.

Alex’s eyes are uncanny, more alive, and mutant-like than ever before. They’re the glowing event horizon at the boundary of his turbulent inner chaos. Almost like a vision rather than a threat to react to.

I’m in the eye of the storm, the first calm moment of the night. But suddenly, I wonder if I’m acting appropriately.

Would it be better for me to shove Alex away?

I just don’t feel any fear or anger to motivate such an action. Perhaps part of me likes the physicality of the moment.

Alex releases me and falls back to his side of the sleeping platform. My strange calmness has thrown him off, but he’s still furious.

“This is all about you, isn’t it?” he says. “You failed me? So fucking self-important. You really think you’re my savior, don’t you? If you’re such a great savior, why don’t you try saving yourself? I can’t fucking believe how patronizing you are. You must be the most patronizing motherfucker on the planet. You remember that young Amish guy you liked so much—the one you thought had such a benevolent aura or something like that?”


“Yeah, exactly, Liam. He was annoyed by your condescension too.”

“Did he say something?” I ask, my voice shaky. I was sure Liam thought highly of me.

“No, he didn’t say something,” Alex replies furiously. “Of course, he didn’t say something. He’s AMISH, remember?

“Seriously? After all this time, you think people need to say something for me to know what they’re feeling? You still don’t have the first clue who I am, do you? Do you, Andrew? I see through people, whether I want to or not. Remember? Just like I can see through all your patronizing bullshit. I can see what you really want with me. And this thing you keep hoping will happen between us, this great romantic fantasy—It’s NEVER gonna happen!”

His words slash out like a razor. Then, without warning, the strength needed to hold up my body gives out. Like a puppet with cut strings, I collapse. My body curls into a fetal position, and I—I disassociate from everything—my fireskinned body, Alex, the back of the Mothership, the whole reality.

My love is a lie. It’s all just a selfish obsession. All I do is drive him crazy with my madness. I’m the failed creation. I should’ve died in the car accident. My love is defeated. I want—I need to die.

Suddenly I’m being shaken out of my pit of despair and back into my body. Alex has me by the shoulders again, only now he’s sobbing.

“I don’t want this,” he chokes out through his tears. “I don’t want this, Andrew. I didn’t mean to—”

His words are plaintive, and he’s beyond distraught. I can’t bear to see him so helpless. The urgency to save him from his own sorrow revives me, and I struggle to sit up.

He needs me. He needs me to become Andrew again.

The voice that comes out of me is ragged, crushed. But I put everything I have into it.

“I know,” I tell him with conviction. “I know, Alex. It’s OK . . . We’re going to be OK somehow. Both of us . . .”

My words break through his panic and regret, and he pulls me into a hug. A release of tears shudders through both of us, then gradually subsides.

The storm passes.

Exhausted, we fall asleep, lying close to each other for safety.

The following morning, I’m still quite shaky. I look out the window, and the Walmart parking lot is quiet and misty with intense humidity. It almost looks abandoned.

I say good morning to break the uneasy silence, but my voice is slurred like it was when I first awoke in the hospital, high on opioids and struggling to act normally.

 I’m not really myself anymore, but I owe it to Alex to get my shit together and keep the Mothership afloat.

Alex appears less damaged, at least on the surface. Like so many of our fights before, the storm clouds in him give way quickly to other moods. But he’s also making a conscious effort to be gentle as I work on recovering myself. He’s attentive and supportive. He offers to put lubricating lotion on my Fireskin, and I let him.

I have to pretend to be OK, or he’ll feel even more guilty. In our different ways, we’re both struggling with shame.

But I’m definitely not OK. I’ve never felt so fundamentally broken. Our fight has shattered my whole mythology. Alex’s disgust with my selfish savior complex has exposed me as a total fraud.

“I’m not sure who I am anymore now that my faith is gone. All I know is that I can’t let my despair become Alex’s problem. For three years, I’ve been burdening him with my deluded romantic hope. I’ve never said it aloud, but the weight of my delusion has been on him the whole time. Exposing him to the darkness that’s taken its place will only make the situation worse.

I try to focus on practical tasks as we prepare for a long eastward journey, but all my actions feel hollow. I’m as drained of deluded hope as Alex is filled with guilt. Neither of us has the emotional buoyancy to keep the Mothership above the waterline, but we’re still going through the motions.

For Alex’s sake, I wish I could switch on the witty, enthusiastic person he’s used to, but it takes all the energy I have just to keep my body moving through the necessary chores. My one organizing purpose is not to burden him anymore.

From the day we met, I had relentlessly mythologized our relationship. I needed Alex to believe we shared a sacred quest to find Tommy and go wherever the Great Design called us. And that’s the more defensible part of the religion. The completely indefensible part is the eternal flame, my neurotic hope for something impossible between us.

My religion, like most, has tragic magic woven into it. All creeds that center on the love of another person have a fatal flaw. The same thing that makes you shine with the light of faith can also cast you into the dark night of the soul.

But if I don’t snap out of this soon, it’ll make him sick. I can’t afford despair. It can’t be hidden from an empath, and it’s too much for him, or anyone, to deal with.

So, I reach for the one drug capable of reanimating me. Knowing where it’s gotten us so far, it’s the last thing I should do, but I have nothing left to grab hold of . . .

I secretly double down on my religion. I latch onto the idea that Alex needs my stability more than ever. I need to believe in myself as his savior to overcome my despair.

Maybe this fight had to happen. Maybe I’m helping Alex after all. Descent into darkness is a classic part of the hero’s journey, right? We weathered the storm. We’re still in the Mothership and on the quest. Alex needs to believe in the metamorphosis. All we need is a revelation. A shared revelation. It’ll happen, I know it. I just need to hang on until then. Anything’s possible. Where there’s life there’s hope.

I repeat such thoughts to myself all morning as we prepare for travel. And then, all afternoon while Alex drives, I repeat them like mantras until they become true.

Later that night, as if I had willed it to happen, the shared revelation comes.

9 A Full Moon in Mississippi

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It’s a full moon and a warm night as we drive through a rural part of Mississippi. There’s no Walmart or truck stop around when we get tired of driving, so we turn onto an unpaved country road the GPS says is public access. We follow it to a spacious turnoff, where we hide the Mothership within the encircling shadows of tall elm trees and a symphony of crickets.

Alex offers to cook dinner, and I let him. I step out of the Mothership and into the cricket symphony.

I walk into the nearby woods, entranced by the cricket’s fractalizing composition. Its rising and falling waves play against the counterrhythmic pulsations of yellow light from a swirling constellation of fireflies. It’s a beautiful sound and light show, and a moment of peaceful distance from the strain of our fractured relationship.

All insects should be crickets and fireflies, I think as I swat a mosquito. Well, maybe not all—butterflies are pretty cool, and bees are necessary.

I realize my whimsical thoughts are a sign I’m reviving from yesterday’s dark night of the soul. I look up at the full moon and feel like a butterfly emerging from a broken chrysalis. There’s a feeling of midsummer night dreams flowing through the air.

This is the right time and place to try one of our psychic experiments. If anything could summon a shared revelation and heal the rift between us . . .

Hopeful possibilities light up in my imagination like the fireflies. My religion, the one Alex shattered just last night, is recasting its spells of enchantment into the night.

The reverie is interrupted by Alex opening the back door of the Mothership and calling out to me that dinner is ready.

He’s made one of our favorite meals—pasta primavera and garlic bread. During the meal, I suggest a psychic experiment.

“Yeah, sure, why not,” he says. “But maybe in a bit. We should let our food digest first.”

So, after dinner, we sit at the table in the back, pursuing our individual creative activities. Alex is working on a drawing, and I’m writing whatever comes to my restless mind. I need to write them down to get them in order. It’s therapeutic, and I often make discoveries that way. And I’m feeling hopeful about the approaching experiment. But it’s hard to gauge Alex’s level of enthusiasm. He’s often described these experiments as psychedelic, but he gets annoyed if I make too much of them. And he hasn’t wanted to do one in a while, so I wonder if he’s just trying to be nice. He’s been on his best behavior since my breakdown.

We discovered these experiments, this mutual paranormal state, only a few days after we met.

The first time it happened was totally spontaneous. We were engrossed in an intense conversation, when we both paused to think, engaging in silent eye contact for a few seconds.

Suddenly, Alex’s eyes seemed to grow larger while all the colors in the Mothership shifted, and the interior space flattened like a video projection. Everything except Alex’s eyes seemed a mere backdrop to an unstable portal between our psyches. It was such a startling transformation that I thought someone must’ve slipped me LSD. The state lasted for seconds before we broke eye contact. I was too stunned to speak.

“Wow, what was that?” asked Alex.

Before I could say anything, he described his experience—which was nearly identical to mine.

So we tried it again and discovered all we needed was silent eye contact to enter this paranormal zone. We eventually developed a whole ritual to get into the right headspace, and we always did them at night before bed.

Yeah, I realize if you stare too long at anything, you can bring on eye fatigue which distorts vision. But it was more than that. I liked to think of them as experiments with telepathic merging. But the merger part was always more aspirational than actual. All I can truthfully say is that strange perceptions happened.

Sometimes we did it like a staring contest, but mostly we let our eyes go out of focus. I also experimented with focusing on one of Alex’s eyes and then the other, and I’d get different feelings from each one.

It was the only paranormal experience we could make happen on demand. But we were never able to bring the experience into a meaningful focus. We felt like infants on the verge of a new means of communication, but without anyone to guide us.

I never said it aloud, but I hoped this state would turn into the kind of merger I had with Tommy and Jeremiah. If that happened, it might heal our conflicts. We’d understand each other and achieve a greater union than . . .

But I didn’t share that hope with Alex. He experienced some telepathic melding with Tommy, but it wasn’t mutual and all-encompassing like mine. I feared he would see my goal of a total merger as part of my deluded romantic aspirations, and then he might not want to participate.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I remember writing something related to the experiments earlier that night. Given the painful aftermath, I haven’t wanted to look at it. But maybe I should. What I was thinking before may be significant. I’m going to look for that. . .

OK, it’s not something I wrote expecting anyone else to ever read. It’s kind of raw and . . . embarrassing. But so is this whole journal. I’m just going to paste it in anyway.

10 Is that all there is?

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I can’t help wondering if the experiments never become the transcendent merger I want because they’re corrupted by my romantic longings. But my desires don’t feel corrupt. At least to me, they don’t. To me, they feel like an urge toward metamorphosis.

We’re painfully divided in so many ways, and I want to overcome that. Seeking another merger experience seems evolutionary to me, but what if Alex is right? What if it’s just infatuation dressed up in a New Age/Sci-fi costume?

No, it’s more than that.

What I experienced with Jeremiah and Tommy was real and life changing.

But, yeah, if I’m honest, the infatuation is definitely part of what motivates my desire for a merger experience with Alex. So, I guess it’s both.

And yet, I feel the evolutionary and infatuation aspects aren’t entirely unrelated. Maybe Alex and I are members of the same sub-species, and the metamorphosis needs us to merge energies. I’m an intelligent person. Why should I be so infatuated with someone who’s so unavailable? There must be something more to it.

Yeah, but maybe the something more is just my vanity. I don’t want to admit a pathetic adolescent crush on someone, so I inflate my desire into a grand, evolutionary design. Isn’t that what abusive gurus do? They convince themselves and others that fulfilling their desires is a path to enlightenment, but really they just want a harem. Am I like that?

But how could I be? I’ve never had sex with anyone. And I’ve never crossed the line with Alex. I’m attracted to him— OK, I’m extremely attracted to him—and sexual desire is intrinsic to that, but I don’t just want . . .

Alex assumes my attraction is this pornographic thing. But he also says it doesn’t give him the dirty feeling he gets from others. So, I’m not sure how he perceives it. Maybe I’m just afraid to find out. Sometimes, it feels like he finds it flattering or pleasing in some way, but other times he seems annoyed.

I’m not saying I don’t have fantasies about him. I do. But they don’t feel pornographic to me.

I’ve tried watching porn, of course, but it usually grosses me out. Most of it seems like low-budget horror movies. Even if they have nice bodies, it feels like half a notch above autopsy footage. If that’s all that sex is—yikes!

Instead of the porn soundtrack, I hear Peggy Lee singing, “Is That All there Is?”

Is that all there is to a fire?

Is that all there is to the sex circus?

A bunch of gruesome, sloppy acrobatics?

Is that all there is to love?

If that’s all there is, I’d feel like Peggy Lee, ready to take her last breath and get it over with.

If that’s all there is.

But I know from my merger experiences—that’s not all there is.

And yet, in a fantasy world where Alex was attracted to me, of course I’d want to have sex with him. I just wouldn’t want it to be as dull and impersonal as it is in porn. Sure, I’d want it to be physical, but I’d also want it to be emotional and soulful. Why settle for one-dimensional when something could be multidimensional? I’d want our intimacy to be like an Alex Gray painting with every kind of energy exchanged.

But I also realize what I want is not going to happen. And even though he’s given me permission, I’m conflicted about indulging in fantasies about Alex, because I know he wouldn’t want to live them out. It’s like I’m wronging him to even go there in my imagination. And they only add fuel to the eternal flame.

The point is, I’m not anti-sex—I just feel like sex can be more than what it seems like in porn.

I realize I’m a naïve, inexperienced romantic. But, however rare, people sometimes have transcendent, loving, sexual experiences, right? It’s not just me making that up. Sure, I realize it’s not the norm.

Alex views sex as dirty, a cheap thrill like hitting a crack pipe in someone’s basement. But like William James says, all that’s necessary to disprove that all crows are black is one white crow. All the human testimony about these rare, transcendent sexual experiences can’t be fake. There must be some white-crow experiences. And if there are, why would I want to settle for less?

And, really, I am a white crow! I’ve had two transcendent merger experiences. And they felt as complete and intense as they could possibly be. I didn’t come out of those experiences and think, yeah, that was cool—but too bad he didn’t blow me.

No!!! That was the furthest thing from my mind because those experiences were far beyond that.

To me, the porn world looks like black crow hell. And no, it’s not just sour grapes because I’m fireskinned. If that kind of sex is what I really wanted, of course, I could find it with someone.

Jason has always had a thing for me, even though he’s seen my Fireskin. To him, it’s like this cool gothic-punk body modification or tribal scarification or something like that. He agrees with Sven that I should think of it as a six-million-dollar tattoo. I don’t get it, but I guess some boats float on strange waters.

But to want these intimately gruesome physical experiences with strangers! That’s not just gross—it’s appalling! OK, yeah, I get it—it’s some sort of acquired taste, apparently. I may not have experience, but it’s not like I’m totally clueless about how other people see sex. All I’m saying is that porn-type sex isn’t right for me.

Most people would see my attitude toward sex as childish. What a fool I must be not to realize that the greatest reward in life is the same-old, same-old, golden-oldie dumb animal trick of repetitiously bringing genitals into contact with other genitals. Rinse, repeat. What an amazing discovery! What kind of a pathetic loser would want anything more than that?

Jesus, I sound like some kind of religious prude. Dissing promiscuity has got to be worse than dissing mom, apple pie, or the American flag. It’s not like I would ever say any of this aloud. Imagine the ridicule I’d attract as a twenty-two-year-old virgin dissing the world’s oldest and most popular activity!

But I’m not trying to stop black crows from doing whatever with other, consenting black crows. I have no religion controlling how I feel. It’s not a moral thing. It’s not like I think they’re condemning themselves to hell with carnal sins. It’s just that to me—pornos look like home movies from hell.

11 Shared Revelation

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Looking at the entry now, I realize it’s an unflattering sample of my tormented inner conflict. But that’s what I wrote before Alex pulled me out of my spiraling rant.

“Hey,” he says, “I finished my drawing. I’m ready for an eye contact thing if you’re still up for it.”

We collapse the table and turn the back of the Mothership into our sleeping platform so we can sit across from each other without anything between us.

We dim the lights and, as usual, take a few minutes to get comfortable and collect ourselves before we begin. We always stretch and do head rolls for neck relaxation to help with sitting still during the eye contact. When we’re done, we take a few deep breaths with our eyes closed and allow time to slow.

When I open my eyes, I see Alex has gotten there before me. He’s sitting with perfect posture, waiting for me.

Déjà vu.

It feels like he’s always been sitting there, waiting for me to really see him.

The grace of Alex’s physical form lights up poignant feelings of appreciation. The golden glow of his skin and hair—the supple musculature of his small but perfectly proportioned body.

A moment later, this light is eclipsed by bitter feelings. Our sharp, double-edged blade of envy glows in the shadow of my mind.

But when I meet Alex’s gaze, everything changes.

The blade is glowing on my side only. Alex has dropped his protective boundaries and is waiting for me to finally see him— the naked empath.

The blade of envy falls from my mind.

I pass through many layers of perception.

Seeing Alex’s beauty as a cruel weapon held over me is an evil delusion. He did not choose his looks and sexual orientation to hurt me, no more than I chose my Fireskin and unrequited longing.

I continue to relax my gaze into Alex, and time slows as each heartbeat expands into waves of empathic awareness. My mind had been a box crowded with nervous scribbles, but as Alex’s empathy infuses me, whole new dimensions are revealed.

I’d only seen Alex through a glass darkly, my vision distorted by cartoon mosaics of projected mental images. Now my eyes and heart are opening and I’m beholding Alex revealed in his complexity and hidden depth. I see his confusion, despair, and inner beauty.

His eyes are portals of sadness, pleading with me to accept his darkness and forgive his sins. In his gaze is gratitude and solidarity.

He’s filled with shame and fears that I’ll abandon him for all the times he’s lashed out at me, especially our last fight. He fears that I resent him for it. And within him are elongating shadows of suicidal despair.

I’m desperate for Alex to see himself as the beautiful being he is. At the same time, I feel Alex’s deep compassion and acceptance. He sees me in a way I can’t see myself. He understands my talents and torments—my desire and commitment to do right by him despite my conflicted feelings. Alex’s eyes quietly plead with me to see myself as he sees me.

My center of gravity reverses polarity and flows outward toward Alex as he flows outward toward me. Our eyes sparkle together in mutual recognition and—

We merge.

The outside world vanishes into a spiraling maelstrom of color and light. We become a state of being, transcending space and time, self and other—

We’re two sides of an infinity loop, glowing in the night of time. One dynamically unstable soul with two polarized selves. Alex is the mercurial one, an essence I need, while I provide the stability he needs.

Then, as spontaneously as we merged, we diverge, erupting out of the singularity and back across the event horizon as we descend into our separate selves.

But just before we return to our bodies, there’s a moment between dimensions where I glimpse another reality.

Alex and I stand across from each other in a darkened street of abandoned buildings.

“It’s too late,” he says despairingly.

“What’s too late, Alex?” I ask, but he just stares at me with sad resignation.

The moment closes, and we’re back in the Mothership, still sitting on the sleeping platform. Alex gazes downward, seeming as disoriented as I am.

Did he experience all that too?

We avoid eye contact until I break the awkward silence.

“Man, did you just . . . ”

“Yeah, that was insane,” Alex replies in a strange voice.

“You wanna go for a walk to clear our heads, and maybe talk about what just happened?”

“You go ahead,” he says, still avoiding my gaze. “I need time alone. To contemplate.”

“Sure,” I say.

It’s part of my code—I always retreat if Alex requests space. So I head out into the humid night. My intention is to walk down the creek-lined dirt road long enough to give Alex an hour of solo contemplation. We’ve just had this ultimate experience, but the way it ended leaves me with painful doubts.

We’d always talked at the end of experiments, taking turns describing our perceptions. But this time, I felt Alex distancing himself. He didn’t even look up when I was leaving.

Bitter tears stain my face as I walk into the night. I’m scarcely aware of my surroundings as I descend into regret and self-recrimination.

The experience freaked him out. It was too much. And now he’s questioning our whole connection. I can feel it. I’ve become a disturbing presence taking up too much space in his mind. He’s done with me. What we had was fragile, and I’ve destroyed it with this experiment.

My whole body senses the terrible jeopardy between us. And yet, it’s still a shock on every level when I return to the Mothership an hour later.

I expect to find Alex in a difficult state, but that’s something we can work through. We always do. But this time, he’s just gone. I step outside the Mothership in case he’s nearby gazing at the stars or something.

“Alex!” I shout into the night. “Alex, are you there?” I yell toward the woods. But I know he’s gone. In my desperation, I step back into the Mothership as if he might be hiding inside somewhere, even though I realize the absurdity. I look around.

And that’s when I see the phone I’d given him resting on top of a handwritten note in the middle of the sleeping platform. I pull out his letter and read.


As you know, I haven’t been happy for some time. I need to venture off. I’m not sure where, but I must travel alone. Please don’t try to contact me.

I’ll always be grateful for you appearing out of the chaos of this world to help me. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.

I do love you, but not in the way you need. I’m unable to love anyone in the way they need. I hope you find someone who shares your Eros, because I want you to be happy and fulfilled. But this isn’t good for either of us. You’re better off without me.

I don’t want you to think this is temporary. We need to separate permanently. Just live your life and let me go.

I hope you’re blessed, as you deserve to be blessed. I wish you well and hope you find everything you’re looking for.

With all the love I can find,


P.S. I’m sorry for all the shit I put you through. Please don’t hate me.

I’m shaking as I put the letter down, on the verge of another collapse, but Alex isn’t here to snap me out of it.

I need to take action, to move before I collapse.

I’ve gotta get away from this place. I need to make it to a truck stop or somewhere with people around.

I stagger into the driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition.

12 A Demoralized Crew of One

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In the dark days following Alex’s departure, I feel only half alive, and so does the Mothership.

This vessel had so recently been full of talk, arguments, laughter . . . Now it hosts a demoralized crew of one. And I have only just enough energy to go through the motions of continuing the journey.

As sunk as I am in grief and abandonment, I’m also desperately concerned about Alex. He walked off into the night with nothing more than a backpack, and no safe refuge waiting to take him in.

I try to revisit our last experiment, that sense of really seeing Alex and of being seen, and the merger where we seemed two parts of the same being. I try writing about it, but words are made to render subject-and-object events unfolding in space and time. They can’t map a moment of timeless unity, so all I produce are flattened counterfeits.

But words aren’t all that fails me. My consciousness can’t make it back to the merged singularity. All I can perceive is a Hawking Radiation of fragmented memories emanating from that eternal moment.

My interpretation of what happened—that we had always been and always would be one soul with two selves—might just be a romantic fable I’d like to believe.

13 Our Shared Cloud Folder

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At first, I felt honor-bound to respect Alex’s wish to be left alone. I clung to the hope that he would eventually relent and contact me. But the truth is, it wasn’t just honor that kept me from reaching out. Knowing Alex, if I did anything to intrude on the space he asked for, it would only lengthen the time of separation.

But an odd thing happened since the merger, I stopped getting my weekly migraines. Instead, I have recurring nightmares that leave me in fear for Alex’s life. They forced me to break his wish for no contact. He left his phone behind, probably because I had paid for it, so email is the only possible means of communication left. I sent him a brief one telling him about my nightmares and begging him to get in touch.

He didn’t respond.

So the only option left was to physically search for him. I followed my intuition and what I knew of Alex’s travel patterns before we met, any clue that could bring us back together.

A week ago, an uncertain lead from Alex’s cousin, Rebecca, brought me to Seattle. Though it little resembles the abandoned city of my dreams, I’ve spent the past few days looking for him here.

I’ve debated sending another email, but it seems pointless . . .

Actually, now that I think about it, there’s another way to communicate with him. Well, it’s more of a slight possibility of communicating with him.

Long ago, we set up a shared cloud folder where we posted writings for the other to read. I could post this journal and continue writing it there. Maybe he’ll go back to the folder to look for something he wrote and see that I added this. Curiosity might tempt him to read it.

It’s a long shot, but the possibility of my words reaching him breaks through my sense of abandonment like a ray of sunlight.

Alex, I know it’s unlikely, but in case you read this—anytime I have shelter, food, money, or anything you might need, you have those things too. Just tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you.

14 An Origami of Illusions

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Another troubling dream of Alex suffering in that dark city woke me in the pre-dawn. The urgency of it forced me out onto the foggy streets of Seattle to resume my physical search. I spent the morning and afternoon walking. After distractedly eating a veggie burrito, I pressed on into the evening. As always, I let intuition guide me, having nothing else to go on. I seemed to be getting nowhere when I had one of the weirdest encounters of my life.

I’m still struggling to make sense of what happened. But I was led by a strange boy, if he even was a boy, into a dilapidated ranch house at the edge of the city, and off into, what—another fold of reality? The boy—or whatever he was—seemed to have preternatural knowledge about my search for Alex and much else besides. He gave me more help than I could ever have expected from a stranger, but I’m still disoriented from our encounter.

I was led through an intricate series of illusions that folded together like origami. And when the last crease was made, he set his creation in the palm of my hand before vanishing as mysteriously as he’d appeared.

It’s an hour since I left him, and my sense of the up and down and sideways of reality is only just beginning to come back into focus. And yet the boy . . . the boy himself is becoming less distinct.

If he had a face that was truly his, it’s lost to me, shuffled away in a long lineup of disguises he assumed. But it’s not just the boy fading from my mind. Each step I took from his ranch house felt like it was erasing itself. Like if I were to turn around, nothing would look familiar, and I couldn’t get back to him if I tried.

While the end of the encounter feels like it’s retreating from my mind, the rest is still so vivid. I should get it down in writing before it goes too.

15 The Supermarket Lady

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At nightfall, I was walking in a light drizzle. The dampness contributed to the demoralizing sense that I wasn’t getting anywhere.

The bond with Alex was so telepathic when we were together, but now I sense no trace of his presence. I feel nothing, or worse than nothing—a vague, forbidding coldness.

A thick fog moves in as I walk through a neighborhood near the edge of the city, close to the Sound.

Perhaps it’s only the murky darkness tricking my eyes, but I turn a corner and suddenly see him. Alex. He’s mostly a silhouette walking ahead of me up the block, but I’m sure it’s him.

I pick up my pace, and adrenaline surges through me as I close the distance.

I’m less than a hundred feet away when he stops to unlatch the gate of a neglected-looking ranch house.

“Alex!” I call out, but he doesn’t even glance in my direction as he enters the house and closes the door behind him.

“Alex,” I shout as I run up the walkway, “Alex, please, I need to talk to you!”

I knock on the door, and a moment later, the lock turns.

The door opens a crack, pulling the brass security chain taut. Through the gap, peers a gaunt, elderly woman. Her eyes are clouded with cataracts, and she gazes at me with a look of uncomprehending irritability, teetering at the edge of senile paranoia.

Her face falls like a stone into the depths of my mind, memories rippling from the point of impact.

I know her. I was a child when I saw her last, but her face is exactly the same—like she hasn’t aged.

The impossibility of it freezes me in place.

She’s a delusion—she’s a flaw—she’s—

Cracks tessellate through my mind and fracture across the whole surface of reality.

This can’t be, but it is—she’s, she—

Memories flood through me. The name I gave her as a child pops into my mind—

The Supermarket Lady . . .

16 Capgras Delusion

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To explain the Supermarket Lady, I must go down a long and twisted rabbit hole.

The Supermarket Lady was an old woman, gaunt and shabbily dressed, who always seemed to be in the tiny Manhattan supermarket near my building, where I lived with my parents. She had this haunted, desolate look as though she had wandered in from a bad dream.

I never saw her buy anything except instant coffee, cottage cheese, and saltine crackers. She was the strangest of many odd neighborhood characters and the only one I gave a name to. But I didn’t think much about her until—

Like a recursive fever dream, images of that terrifying day loop through my mind . . .

I’m eleven-years-old, excited to see this new place, Boston, with my parents. I’m happily taking photos when, suddenly, everything becomes nauseatingly overbright and overloud. I’m hoping it’s not, but phantom lights scintillate and zig-zag in my head, and I know that it is.


All too well, I know the classic aura of its oncoming misery. I keep it to myself for a few minutes, dreading to tell my parents the day-spoiling news. But my mom catches on before I have to.

We step into a large drugstore to get Ibuprofen. Merciless fluorescent light gives a razor’s edge to every mundane detail. I wander away from my parents to search for a bathroom in case I need to throw up. And that’s when I see her—in the middle of an aisle—hundreds of miles from where she should have been—

The Supermarket Lady.

Horror paralyzes me as her bony hand reaches for a jar of instant coffee.

I stand there gaping until a new terror seizes me.

If she catches my horrified expression, she’ll know that I know.

Then they’ll all know that I know.

I whip my gaze away and retreat from the aisle. I try to keep my eyes focused on the linoleum floor, but the light it reflects sets off sparks of pain in my head. Nevertheless, I keep my head down as I follow my parents out of the drugstore. The migraine keeps them from questioning my preoccupied silence as we catch an Amtrak to Penn Station, and then a subway to our apartment.

The whole time, my head throbs with fearful perceptions. What if the strangers we pass are not people, but extras—person-shaped automatons? They fill in crowd scenes everywhere I look, swarming into trains and subways, mutely walking down sidewalks holding lumpy plastic shopping bags in the hot sun.

I try not to focus. I can almost fool myself into believing they’re real if I squint and glance across them quickly. But horrified curiosity forces me to look closer. The illusion of realism collapses as I behold the shoddy, counterfeit motions of hollow, doll-eyed puppets going through their programmed routines.

They’re a mechanical swarm, army ants endlessly looping around a Mobius strip. They run on rails, like the subway trains rattling by. The man spitting on the platform has always been spitting there and always will be. It’s all just loops, loops, loops . . .

A horror show is unfolding in my mind, but from my parent’s perspective, I’m just quietly following them home. I probably look a bit preoccupied and anxious, but that’s expected when suffering from a migraine.

It’s dark by the time we’re back in our apartment. I go straight to bed, exhausted by headache and anxiety.

A nightmare wakes me in the early hours of the morning—a terrifying vision of my parents being quietly taken away in stretchers in the middle of the night, while two identical-looking replicas of them tiptoe into their bedroom and slip under the covers.

I sit up in bed, afraid to leave my room, afraid of who or what might step out of my parents’ bedroom. I want to ask my mom how I can tell if she and my dad are themselves and not identical-looking impostors.

“Silly, of course we’re impostors!” I imagine her smiling reply, “You’ve always known that. Why should it bother you now?”

This is the most horrifying answer I can think of, until I imagine her saying,

“Of course I’m not a replica! Whatever gave you such a crazy idea?”

But she says it with this ever-so-slightly crooked smile and a spiteful glint in her eyes. Because we both know it’s a lie.

Ever more horrifying possibilities spin around me. Once they know I know, the whole game will be up, and then—

Terror keeps me from even trying to imagine what might come after. I’m hiding under the covers as my anxiety verges on a panic attack.

I must do something to stop it.

I summon my will to reach for my phone and do what I usually do when facing the unknown—poke around online.

It takes me about a minute to learn the type of paranoia I’m experiencing is well-known and surprisingly common. And it has a name—Capgras Delusion.

Capgras Delusion, Capgras Delusion—

I repeat the name a few times, and it’s like cutting the strings of the red-eyed puppet whispering in my ear.

“Capgras Delusion,” I say aloud over its crumpled remains.

Maybe the Supermarket Lady wasn’t even there. Maybe it was all just a stupid Capgras Delusion brought on by the migraine.

A little more searching reveals migraines are known to cause paranoid hallucinations.

I saw some other old lady in the drug store and hallucinated her into the Supermarket Lady.

The rational simplicity of this explanation causes my panic to dissipate in favor of surging pride.

My mind is a monster-slaying, mystery-solving hero.

I discovered my one all-purpose superpower. Others might underestimate me as an eleven-year-old boy. But I was a boy hero, as logical as a Vulcan science officer.

“In Gotham City today, scientific boy hero Andrew solves yet another terrifying situation of high strangeness using only his logical, emotion-free intellect.”

Needless to say, my super-logical boy-hero identity, worthy of being emblazoned on lunchboxes and movie posters, had a brief shelf life. Had he persisted, perhaps I’d be one of those smug, professional “skeptic” types, debunking every sort of paranormal mystery I’d never experienced from my armchair while smoking a pipe.

In practice, I found my ever-so-logical boy-hero started every adventure by slipping on a banana peel and plunging into an abyss. His trusty flashlight and notebook slip out of his hands as he plummets down a bottomless rabbit hole where logic is exposed as a puny screwdriver held up against an interdimensional, metamorphic multiverse of irresolvable paradoxes.

That night in my bed, I thought I’d defeated the little red-eyed puppet of Capgras Delusion. But its slippery shadow burrowed into the fertile recesses of my eleven-year-old mind, persisting as a whisper of suspicion, ever insinuating that things are not quite as they’re trying to seem.

17 The Origami Boy

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Now the Supermarket Lady has found me again, standing at the front door of a ranch house on the outskirts of Seattle. As I recognize her, those childhood whispers of ontological suspicion amplify into the wailing police siren of full-blown paranoia.

There’s a high-pitched ringing in my ears —tinnitus, I suppose—and through it, I hear someone’s voice. I can’t make it out, but I see the security chain release. I’m being invited inside.

I step into a shabby living room illuminated only by a black-and-white television with a test pattern mandala glowing on the screen. There’s no Supermarket Lady anywhere to be found, or even an old woman. Standing before me is a pale, finely featured boy of about fourteen.

Suddenly, I realize the fog-shrouded night has played a terrible trick on my overwrought mind. Hair that looked white is actually light blonde. The wrinkles I saw were just a mottling of shadows thrown by the screen door, and the cataracts are just reflections in the boy’s large, intelligent, blue-gray eyes. I’m struck by the odd formality of his clothing—an immaculate white button-down shirt and neatly pressed gray trousers.

It’s probably just part of a parochial school uniform.

I stammer out a few words,

“I—I was looking for a friend of mine. Was that—were you—that must’ve been you—the one I saw—coming through the front door?”

The boy nods, his expression gravely sympathetic.

“Yes, that was me. Sorry for the part I played in the confusion.”

His voice is low and mellifluous, yet every word is clear. But his response is absurdly deferential, as if good manners required him to take the blame for my mistake.

“No, no, my bad, my apologies,” I reply. “Sorry to bother you.”

I’m about to wish him good night, but the boy looks into my eyes with a searching gaze that holds me in place.

“Perhaps I can help,” he says.


“Help you find your friend.”

He elegantly gestures for me to enter further, like a maître de leading the way to an available table. His manner is quietly confident, and I’m so rattled by my misperceptions that it doesn’t occur to question his offer.

He leads me from the darkened living room and into a wide, polished marble corridor. Bronze sconce lights with flame bulbs protrude from pillars that line the hallway, giving everything a flickering, orange glow. Mirrors and filigree molding accent the walls, and a series of tall mahogany cabinets lead my attention forward. Through their beveled glass, I see a collection of antique nautical instruments—sextant, astrolabe, ship’s chronometer, and other brass instruments I can’t identify.

I’m so taken by the displays that I barely notice the intricate, almost organically patterned Persian rugs stretched out beneath our feet, so thick that neither he nor I make a sound as we pass.

At the end of the corridor, we enter a round chamber with a domed ceiling. It looks like the private study of a wealthy 19th-century gentleman, with rounded walls paneled in dark wood. Draperies of wine-dark velvet cover the windows, and curved floor-to-ceiling bookcases hold antique, hand-bound books with titles embossed in gold.

I’m dazzled by the old-world elegance of the room. The boy’s face dimples into a smile as he watches me take it in.

Glittering from the domed ceiling above us is a magnificent chandelier, a prismatic cloud of diamonds and icicles dripping with color. Beneath this sparkling firmament are a pair of green-velvet wingback chairs and a small marble-topped table set with a few liquor glasses and decanters. The boy pulls out one of the chairs for me.

“May I offer you something to drink?” he asks.

I nod almost automatically.

From a crystal flagon, he pours an amber liquid into two glasses, passes one, then sits across from me. I assume the glass contains cognac, or some other costly liquor, and hesitate.

Is it appropriate to let an under-aged kid serve me alcohol? Come to think of it, it probably isn’t legal to enter a home at the invitation of a minor.

My judgment feels addled.

“Don’t worry,” he says reassuringly as if in response to my hesitation, “this drink contains no alcohol.”

The boy raises his glass in a silent toast. Cautiously, I take a sip, and a medley of flavors swirls across my tongue—apple cider infused with almonds, apricots, and currants, with hints of cardamom and anise emerging from the background. Its effect is warming and enlivening in the way of an elixir rather than a stimulant. I take another sip, and waves of relaxation pass through me.

Time begins to slow, almost imperceptibly. I welcome the slowing and relax into it. It’s a deepening of time, giving me more space to watch each moment unfold. I begin to understand what’s happening.

It’s not just the drink. The boy is altering the atmosphere and flow of time.

I raise my glass to take another sip, and he mirrors me. As I put down my glass, so does he. He notices I’m studying him and relaxes back into his chair, opening himself to let my scrutiny go deeper. As his body shifts, the energy and tempo in the room shift with him.

Through uncanny means, perhaps a form of sympathetic magic, he’s altering our reality. But he does so with such simplicity and grace it’s hard to notice. Nevertheless, my eyes are opening to his subtle orchestrations. I’m awake inside an illusion—a mirror world—but its reflections still encompass my sensorium.

There’s a feeling of dishonoring him as my mind labels what I’m experiencing as “illusion.” Nothing seems false or deceptive. The setting expresses the boy’s imaginative intuition of what will please me. A gift. One he has artfully constructed out of something other than ordinary matter. Like he’s folded time and space into an exquisite origami and placed it in the palm of my hand.

There’s a depth to the origami I can enter with all my senses. Each of the three inner chambers—the shabby living room, the corridor, and the gentleman’s study, is more beautiful and fully realized than the one before. He’s reading me to learn what will please me.

The boy’s eyes are completely unguarded, inviting me to perceive his every intention. Realizations pour into me, like the knowledge granted in a dream.

His appearance is also part of the origami, a form he’s chosen. He’s like a mirror. My desire projected Alex’s image into the foggy night, and he merely reflected it back. When our eyes first met through the crack in the door, my fear of the unknown projected the image of the Supermarket Lady, and he allowed it to reflect back as well.

Gazing into his eyes, so much has become implicitly apparent. But I still need the confrontational power of words to get a firmer grasp.

“You’re not who you appear to be.”

“No, I am not,” he agrees without hesitation, his tone slightly sad but not apologetic.

There’s an emotional resonance to his voice that goes beyond the meaning of his words. The sadness feels connected to the visual alteration of his person—it’s not his preference, but there’s a need for it which he respects.

“Why can’t you appear to me as you really are?”

“I wish I could,” he replies in a wistful tone. “The way I appear to you is only slightly altered, but for now, I must hold back from showing more.”


“It’s something I feel like wind or tide . . . It’s . . . not in accord with this time.”

He chooses his words with great care.

“I . . . crossed over here from . . .  somewhere else . . .”

A shadow of remembered suffering darkens his expression for a moment before he continues.

“My presence here creates a risk of disturbing things that shouldn’t be disturbed. There’s a narrow current I follow leading me to where I’m needed.”

“A current?” I ask.

“Yes,” he replies. “Sometimes the current is like a powerful undertow, resisting a certain direction of travel. It holds me back from lines of interference as it pulls me along open channels. I don’t always know why it leads me where it does. In our present situation, though, I think I understand. Knowing more about me would be a diversion from your own current, the one that brought you here—the mission to find your friend.”

I want to pierce through the mysteries of this encounter, but I feel the truth of his words. And my heart holds me to the search for Alex.

“You said you may be able to help me find him,” I say.

“I think you sense more about your friend than you realize,” the boy replies. “You’ve been having dreams about him, haven’t you?”

I nod.

“Perhaps I can help you to bring more of that to the surface,” the boy suggests. He sees the agreement in my face.

“Close your eyes,” he whispers.

I do, and as I take a deep breath, space opens around me . . .

I pull free from my physical body and begin to float upwards. I feel a scratchy texture as I pass through the roof, followed by effortless ascension into the air above the house. Far below is my fireskinned body, like the anchor of a ship. A silvery tendril of light connects me to it, but this link is infinitely elastic. I am unbound by space and time, free to go wherever my heart desires . . .

Effortlessly, I drift at cloud height through a night sky. Seattle melts away. Sliding below me, I see the sooty topography of the dark, abandoned city. Alex is down there.


His name erupts from me like a beacon.


Vertigo, like a blindfolded somersault off a high dive—I plunge from cloud height to a few stories above street level where I drift through a shadowy canyon of abandoned structures until my eye is drawn to an apartment building up ahead. A single window glows from the upper floor. It’s the only light in the desolation of shadows. I’m like a lost sailor being guided to port by its radiance.

I approach the window to peer inside, and what I see pulls me closer.


He’s not aware of me, but the sight of him is overwhelming.

Incandescent light from an old desk lamp reflects off the battered tabletop, illuminating Alex’s expression as he writes in his notebook. He’s serious and intent, leaning into his work with his whole body. The sleeves of his worn flannel shirt are rolled up. I watch the shifting tension of muscles and tendons in his forearm as he sweeps his pen in continuous motion, like the stylus of a seismograph. Line after line of script flows from his hand, tracking neatly across the faint blue lines of notebook paper.

Next to him are two neat stacks of notebooks. They’re old-fashioned composition books—the kind with black cardboard covers speckled with white amoeboid shapes and bound by a strip of black adhesive. One of the stacks is noticeably thicker, its pages already embossed with his handwriting.

He’s doing the work he needs to do—reexperiencing memories from a place of deep forgiveness and insight. Sorrow and regret surround him, but also a strong sense of purpose.

Alex is alone in this night world, but it’s the first time in two months I’ve had a vision of him that wasn’t all anguish and fear. A desire to know what he’s writing comes over me.

Alex turns over the next page, stops, and puts his pen down. He senses something. He looks up and gazes right into me. But as soon as our eyes connect, the dark city dissolves around me.

Effortlessly, my awareness recouples with my body which envelops me with its familiar warmth. I take a deep breath, gazing into the phosphine-speckled darkness behind my closed eyelids. When my eyes open, the boy sits across from me, watching with infinite patience.

“I saw my friend,” I say. “In the place from my dreams, a city that’s always dark. Do you know where that is?”

For the first time, the boy looks uncomfortable.

“Yes,” he replies.

“Can you tell me?”

“No, I’m sorry, but that tide I mentioned, runs strongly against my saying. I must not interfere.”

I sense that he’s at the limit of the help he can give.

“Thank you,” I say and bow my head toward him.

The boy returns my bow.

“I think you are on the verge of learning more,” he says calmly.

“Something about Alex’s situation is coming toward you. There hasn’t been anything you could do about it, but soon there will be.”

His last words feel portentous, and silence falls between us.

We both stand, sensing the circle of our encounter closing. I follow him from the study down the long marble corridor back to the shabby living room. The boy goes to a dusty bookcase to retrieve something and returns with a small, brown paper parcel which he holds in the open palm of his hand.

He looks different now. His appearance is not dramatically altered, but he’s more physically solid and less refracted through illusion. Before, he seemed willowy and pale, but now he has the healthy glow of someone who spends most of his time outdoors. There’s a relaxed and confident athleticism in the way he stands. His eyes are a darker shade, but I can’t be sure of their color in the dimly lit room.

“Something practical to help you with your search,” he says, extending his hand to offer me the parcel.

I feel something dense and cylindrical within the brown paper.

“It’s nothing personal,” he says in an apologetic tone. He seems slightly embarrassed by the plainness of what he’s given me.

“Will I see you again?”

My question catches him off guard. He closes his eyes for a moment to look for an answer.

“I hope so,” he says. “I want to meet again, but we travel into the unknown. Some of what lies ahead is formed, but most of it still waits for us to give it shape. When I look into the horizon of your future or mine, I see a loosely sketched map. But the next time I look, the map may be different, or there might not even be one. There may be only clouds scattered about by the wind.”

The boy pauses as if sensing a shift in the current.

“However, I do feel our connection will reunite us,” he concludes.

He looks at me as if we share a vast history. Like we’ve taken leave and found each other many times before. My heart understands even as my mind draws a blank.

“Take care of yourself, Andrew,” he says before stepping back into the shadows. And then . . .

There’s a gap in my recall. An interlude of vagueness.

I have a muscle memory of passing through the front door and down the steps. My visual memory, though, is blurred as if I’d seen everything through frosted glass. I mostly recall the comforting feeling of him gently easing me from the origami into the foggy Seattle night.

I’m halfway down the block before I even realize I’ve started walking away.

A mournful feeling comes over me as if I’ve lost someone close. I turn to look back at the ranch house. It’s a dim shape in the fog, like a derelict ship drifting from view. I sense the boy has already moved on.

I walk swiftly for a couple of blocks, trying to distance myself from the mournful feeling. I pick up my pace to fight the chill of the night.

Something thumps against my thigh with each step, a weight in my front coat pocket. I reach in and feel the brown paper wrapping, the cylindrical shape, and remember it’s the boy’s gift. I let my fingers slide across the texture of the paper, hoping it might reconnect me to him somehow.

I’m too curious about what it contains to take another step. I stop under a streetlamp and carefully unravel the brown paper. I could rip it open, but the parcel feels like a sacred object, the one concrete thing the boy gave me. I want to be sure not to neglect any part of its mysterious content.

The wrapper might not be as plain as it looks. Perhaps there are messages or maps sketched on its inner surface.

I turn over every fold of paper but find no words or drawings.

What I do find is a single object—a massive, tightly coiled roll of hundred-dollar bills held together by a red rubber band.


The sight jars me like a physical force. At first, instead of recognizing monetary value, I’m struck by the dangerous look of the thing. It’s like something you’d find in a gangster’s overcoat pocket, keeping company with a revolver and an eight-ball of coke. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps a magical origami artifact or something bearing the mark of the boy’s personality.

I shake off my startlement, undo the rubber band, and quickly shuffle through the weathered bills to see if he left a note or anything I might have missed. Nothing. Then I realize I’m standing under a streetlight holding an enormous wad of money.

Thankfully, the street is deserted. I shove the bills back in my pocket and nervously resume my swift pace.

After a block or two, my jarred thoughts settle into grateful appreciation. The boy seemed embarrassed when he warned me the gift wasn’t anything personal. Perhaps this was why he wrapped it in plain brown paper.

But of course, the gift is crucially valuable. He’s given me the most universal resource in the world. I’d burned through most of my small savings while searching for Alex, but now I have enough to buy food, fuel, and what little else I’ll need for a year or more.

Thank you. If you can still hear my thoughts, thank you.

I’m on a solitary mission, driven by anguish and urgency. But now I have a wad of cash and an ally who’s given me hope that something will change soon.

Hope gave me the energy to work through the night writing this.

Alex? Alex, can you hear my thoughts?

Look for my words. They’re in a bottle cast out into the turbulent sea of zeros and ones circling our world. You can find them if you want to.


Whatever you’ve done. Whatever’s been done to you. However broken you feel, however lost, don’t give up. We’re still linked. I know you’re out there—I’m here—come out of the shadows and take my hand. Please—give me another chance to help . . .

18 Coaxial

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The past few days since my last entry have been traumatic. I’ll do my best to reconstruct what happened.

The morning after meeting the Origami Boy, I’m shivering when I awake, my eyes blinking open fearfully in the darkness.

Above me is a constellation of tiny lights glowing amber, red and green. They are beacons of familiarity that help ground me—the charging indicators of a few devices I plug in nightly to replenish with trickling electrons while I sleep.

I grope for my favorite blanket that had slid off the sleeping platform. I drape it around me, feeling its comforting texture on my Fireskin as I sit up in the predawn darkness of the Mothership.

It’s hard to tell if I’m shivering from the cold or the suffering I felt from Alex in a new dream encounter.

In the dream, Alex is walking down a dark street wearing the same green hoodie from the day we met, only now it hangs about him in tatters, its color barely perceptible in the monochrome shadows of the desolate city.

I feel him shivering as I draw closer. I want to catch up with him, but I can’t. When I try to increase my pace, a force restrains me, holding me at a distance. I become a silent witness to what happens next.

Alex’s face is hidden by his hood as I follow him into a moonlit park. We travel through a maze of gravel paths and dense hedge walls interspersed with willow trees and wooden footbridges surmounting streams.

Alex knows his way through the labyrinth. I trail closely as he moves through many twists and turns before disappearing into an ellipse of shadow behind a hedge wall. The shadow is a narrow gap. I follow, passing through a tangle of branches and emerging into a grassy clearing.

We’re in a circular area, perhaps twenty-five feet across, empty but for a few park benches resting at the hedge-walled circumference. Alex stands still at the center of the circle.

Almost hidden in the grass before him is a metal disc the size of a manhole cover. I draw closer and see it’s a shallow dome of bronze with a locking wheel. It looks like the hatch of an ancient submarine.

Alex kneels before it and slowly rotates the wheel several revolutions counterclockwise. I want to stop him, I have to stop him, but I’m still only an invisible point of view, helpless to do anything but observe. I hear a locking mechanism release. Alex swings open the hatch and lowers himself inside, pulling it shut above him. The hatch closes with an ominous CLANG.

Heavy vibrations ripple through me, and I become embodied. I rush over and grab the wheel, straining to turn it, but to no avail. It’s frozen in place.

The hatch is embossed with Roman numerals like a clock face. Lying in the grass beside it is an object Alex has left for me. A watch.

It’s the same elegant, Omega diving watch he gave me the day we met. As I lift it from the grass and raise it into view, feelings and images come with it—the memory of him giving it to me . . .

We’re in the Mothership about to pull away from the Thai restaurant. I see Alex retrieving the watch from where he kept it hidden deep in his pack as he tells the story of how he found it in a park—a glint of metal catching his eye from within a muddy puddle. He washed it off in a nearby water fountain and immediately recognized its value. It was in perfect condition, but he never wore it. He stowed it in his pack and never showed a soul besides me. It was the most valuable thing he’d ever owned, but he wanted me to have it. I tried to refuse the gift, but Alex used his hands to close mine around it.

As I hold the watch in my dream, I hear Alex whispering in my mind,


“CO-AXIAL” is a word printed on the dial, a type of watch movement. But it feels like something more . . .

I step onto the bronze submarine hatch, the Omega flat in my hand like a compass as I align its hour marks with the Roman Numerals below. The hatch feels cold, and I begin shivering. Beneath it, I feel certain, is the vacuum of outer space. Alex has entered its freezing void.

How long can he survive there? He’s slipping away from me.

“Coaxial,” Alex whispers urgently.

He’s trying to tell me something. Trying to imbue the word with deeper meaning. It’s something crucial . . . a bond, maybe?

The hatch begins moving beneath my feet, and I step back as it swings open. The pull of the vacuum collapses me to the ground and sucks the air from my lungs. Desperately, I clutch at the grass, but the void pulls me under . . .

I wake up. It’s dark, and I touch my phone to check the time—

3:01 AM

That’s when I see it, an email notification from Rebecca, Alex’s cousin.

The subject heading is “Sad News.”

Andrew, I’m so sorry to have to tell you this . . . Alex is dead. He hung himself last night back in Cascade. None of us even knew he came back. He didn’t leave a note. We’re all in shock.

I’m so sorry.

19 The Line Feels

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It’s hard to revisit that moment. I was thrown into a state of madness—a chaotic turmoil of grief and denial. A survival mechanism kicked in and forestalled collapse by pulling me into a state of unreality where anything was still possible. Anything but . . .

Alex is in Cascade—I finally know where to find him. He’s in trouble.

That crazy talk from Rebecca—his family is going to drive him crazy!

I need to get to Cascade as fast as possible!

My mind fires thoughts, like tracer rounds into the darkness. Seconds later, with an adrenaline-fueled urgency, I turn the key in the ignition and drive off.

Tears stream down my face, my foot pressing down on the accelerator as I push the Sprinter to its limits. Keeping my momentum hurtling down the highway allows me to stay just ahead of the tidal wave of grief swelling behind me.

I try not to think about the terrible things Rebecca wrote in the email, but they’re too disturbing to shut out.

She’s morbidly confused. Can’t take her literally. That whole family’s a bunch of crazy drama queens. Alex came back, and they just want to keep me away!

I press hard on the gas coming out of a curve I took at the edge of what the Sprinter’s higher center of gravity will allow.

As long as I’m racing toward Alex, his fate is unsealed.

To keep other thoughts away, I loop the oracular words of the Origami Boy like a mantra.

Something about Alex’s situation is coming toward you. There hasn’t been anything for you to do about what’s going on, but soon there will be.

Now there is something for me to do—I just need to get there in time!

Cascade . . .

The one place I didn’t look. Why Cascade?

You said it was the last you’d ever return to. You must be in desperate trouble if you’re there.

Rebecca has gone bat-shit crazy! They’re all out of their minds! I’ve got to get you out of there!

Alex . . . please . . . just hold on . . .

As I drive, I try reaching out, all my urgency pouring into the telepathic channel that once flowed between us. But there’s no response.

The line feels—

I focus on the yellow and white lines unwinding before my headlights and repeat the Origami Boy’s words—soon there will be.

Cascade is in Northern Washington, near the Canadian border. I drive straight through the night and into a fiery dawn.

I need to get there before they drive him completely crazy, and he runs off somewhere else!

20 A Razor Blade within a Rainbow

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When I finally get to Cascade, the town feels quiet and surreal. Everything is incongruously lit up by sunshine and a cloudless blue sky.

I have a destination in mind—Alex often mentioned finding refuge in what he called Sundial Park, which apparently had a giant bronze sundial at its center.

The bronze numerals on the hatch in the dream—it was like a sundial. So that must be where we’re destined to reconnect.

I search for it and set my GPS.

I close in on the park in a matter of minutes. My lack of sleep, and the layers of unreality I’ve wrapped around myself, merge into a dreamlike state that slows the fiery panic I felt racing to Cascade.

Now I’m here at Sundial Park, and I can see it’s the same place I dreamt about. I feel its mystery drawing me in, like currents pulling a ship into a deep inlet.

Slowly, I roll into a space at the edge of the parking lot and kill the engine. Time deepens in the silence.

I emerge from the Mothership, my trusty shoulder bag bandoliered across my chest as if I’m expecting a journey. I let the current lead me into the park.

The day is glowingly alive yet peaceful. The sky is a radiant blue, and golden rays of sunlight illuminate the leaves like shards of chlorophyll-stained glass. The park doesn’t host a single other person, only squirrels, and chirping songbirds.

Alex can’t possibly be dead on a day this beautiful.

Have there ever been people here? It seems too idyllic to be fully real.

I’m pulled deeper into the park until I reach a circular area paved with flagstones. I immediately recognize the space from my dream, but the submarine hatch is gone.

In the center of the circle is a magnificent bronze sundial with a patina of copper oxide. The dial’s dorsal fin projects an ominously precise triangle of shadow between Roman numerals.


I take a seat on a wooden bench facing the shadow clock.

In my dream, Alex disappeared down a hatch embossed with Roman numerals. It had a metal wheel at its center that he turned to unlock. Maybe there’s a way to turn this sundial back twenty-four hours—Maybe things don’t seem real because they aren’t. Not fully. That’s why there are no other people here—What if this park is an origami creation, a real and unreal place, a place where the irreversible is reversible?

One email does not make someone dead! Least of all Alex.

The email could’ve been a prank. Maybe he sent it himself through Rebecca’s account to bring me here!

What the hell is an email anyway? It’s just an eruption of zeros and ones in the carnival mirror maze of the internet. I was on coffee-shop WIFI all day. Anyone could have dropped a keylogger into my laptop and seen what I’d been writing about. I wrote that I was in Seattle following a lead I got from Rebecca. All they had to do was pull her email address from my contacts and—

Wait a minute . . . Jason!

That motherfucker!

This is a classic Jason hack! How could I have missed that? That’s all he does, day after day. And he’s done it to me before. His little interventions, he calls them. He promised never to do it again. Goddamn it! How could I be stupid enough to believe the promise of a professional hacker not to spy on me again?

Connect the dots, Andrew. It just so happens that the one person from NYU you’ve stayed in touch with is a legendary hacker who’s always been weirdly into you. His keylogger would’ve telegraphed a stream of my overwrought feelings. He must’ve got annoyed—jealous over me obsessing about Alex. The last time we talked, he told me I was better off without him. “Just get on with your life,” he said. This is so like him. How did I not see that?

I look around and notice a security camera high atop a metal pole pointing down into the circle. I feel Jason watching me through it. I stare into the camera and raise my middle finger to show I’m onto him. I imagine his bulky form sitting in a swivel chair with six computer screens glowing around him, my journal open in a neglected corner of one. His mind is in Adderall-and-energy-drink fueled multi-tasking mode. Mostly, he’s focused on bigger and better things, but when he needs a break from manipulating code, he checks on the keylogger for a laugh. Setting up the email spoof intervention would’ve been a five-minute diversion.

I try raising my middle finger again to the security camera to let him know I know, but I’m having trouble raising my arm, because in my haste to get here, I neglected to put any lubricating lotion on my Fireskin.

My hand drops.

Suddenly, I don’t know.

My adrenaline is falling below the level I need to sustain the unreality, and the tidal wave looms up behind me.

My mind can no longer stay ahead of what my heart knows.

I remember the way I was trembling just before I found the email.

I must have known what was coming.

My mind asserts its repressed logic, lighting up the red dots on the map of Alex’s suicidal trajectory—a previous attempt using lethal means—the despairing belief his life was going nowhere— male borderlines have the highest suicide rate.

Alex, you actually did it, didn’t you? Alex . . .

The possibility of him being alive pops like a thinning soap bubble.

My disassociation collapses, and so does my body. I slump over on the bench and curl into a fetal position, closing my eyes as I sink into despair.

I’m too late. Why didn’t I search for you here? Why . . . Alex . . .

My heart tries to call out to him, but I’m stopped by a dream memory. Alex disappeared beneath a bronze hatch with Roman Numerals. When the hatch lifted, the vacuum swallowed me.

You’ve taken your skin out. You’ve gone into the forever void. Only there’s no YOU anymore, no Alex in the void—just everlasting nonexistence.

You let the void swallow you, and I want it to swallow me too.

Despair draws across my mind like a heavy blackout curtain. I’m falling into the eclipse when a surge of energy stirs beside me.

 Someone else is on this bench.

Survival instinct kicks in—I’m in a vulnerable state in a public park. My eyes blink open to see if it’s a threat, and . . .

He’s there.


Glowing with life, sitting beside me on the bench.

His eyes are wide with amazement, like a child seeing things for the first time. He radiates euphoric discovery, gazing at the park like it’s the dawn of a new reality. He’s so luminous but—

He’s not solid . . . He’s not . . .

I try to look directly at him, but his image fragments into a flickering superimposition of perspectives, like a Cubist painting.  Like something unreal. The implication is like a razor blade within a rainbow.

He’s really done it. He’s shorn himself of flesh. Yet, somehow, he’s here.

“Wow, I can still see everything!”

His words glow in my mind like musical notes.

“I’m still here!” he exclaims, but to no one in particular.

He’s vibrating with primal, existential excitement.

His luminous form becomes more definite, and I notice he’s wearing his favorite red-and-blue flannel shirt and jeans. He’s staring into the world with wonder, but his vision doesn’t seem to include me.

Just as I think that he turns to me with casual friendliness, as though we’ve been hanging out all day.

“So, what do you think about all this, Andrew? Pretty fucking weird huh? Can you believe I’m still here? I offed myself, but I’m still here! How is that even possible?”

I respond to his voice from where I hear it—within.

“Alex, what—”

“I don’t really know,” he cuts me off before I can finish my question. “Before I felt your presence, everything was just vague and shadowy, like a dream . . .”

His eyes dilate as he trails off uneasily, but he quickly snaps out of it by turning his attention toward me.

“Come on, walk with me. There are parts of this town I want to show you.”

Alex takes to his feet. Afraid of losing him, I get up and follow. There are too many questions to know where to start.

He leads me from the park and into a tree-lined neighborhood. As we walk, he continues to radiate existential excitement, delighting in the sensory impact of everything.

Wow, this is crazy—this is crazy, isn’t it? I’m still here!”

His voice erupts inside me with nervous, manic energy.

“I just can’t believe I did something so drastic,” he says. “This is so weird—You gotta admit, Andrew, this is pretty fucking weird, isn’t it? But you do realize you’re talking to a dead kid, right? You realize that, right, Andrew?”

“I realize I’m talking to you,” I reply cautiously.

“Oh, nice one, Andrew. What a clever man you are—so diplomatic, so politically correct.”

Alex’s taunting sarcasm is reassuringly familiar. But it feels like he’s barely holding on. The tension between us has a sharp, new edge, and he’s brandishing it at me. He needs to, otherwise he’ll cut himself with it.

“Alex, I—”

“I realize I’m talking to you,” he says, caricaturing my voice. “What a cautious diplomat you are. You do realize what that means, right, that you’re talking to me now?”

“I do.”

“That I did it—I actually fucking did it—”

I can feel him turning on himself, working into a full-on panic.


“I just fucking did it. And there’s no undoing it. No going back. My skin’s out of the game. Permanently. But somehow, I’m—and now—you’re here—talking with a dead kid—”

“Alex,” I say gently into our thought space, “I realize—but you’re still you. We’re still connected. Stay with me.”

“Oh really? You sure about that?” he taunts, “Sure you want to ‘stay’ with a dead kid? Jesus—doesn’t sound very healthy Andrew. What’s going on, what are you attracted to dead people now?”

“Alex—I—whatever you are now—I just—I don’t want to lose you again,” I say with my whole being.

Alex grows quiet. He’s unable to hide his vulnerability in our telepathic atmosphere. Underneath his taunting sarcasm is desperate need.

I stop walking to speak from my depths.

“I still want to be your friend. I want us to stay connected. I need you.”

As he retreats within to consider, his image flickers and fades from view. A moment of panic grips me. I focus all my energy on where he’d been standing, and Alex reappears.

“Thanks, man,” he says, his voice soft and relenting. “I could really use a friend.”

His voice reaches into my soul. Without the need for vibrating airwaves and eardrums, our communication is so direct.

Maybe it will help to say something positive.

“You know, the way I hear you now, it’s so much more intimate than—” I stop myself from saying normal talking, because that might upset him. “More intimate than breath-talking.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Whatever,” Alex replies impatiently. “It doesn’t feel particularly new or magical to me. It’s familiar somehow . . . I just feel—sad and confused. But I guess this is a pretty good day for you, isn’t it? You got what you wanted, Andrew—you got me back in your life.”

“Alex . . . it’s true. I wanted you back. But not like this.”

“Oh yeah?” Alex scrutinizes my words for anything he can take offense at. Finding nothing, he continues. “OK, sure, I believe you. But look, why don’t you just say it? I did something irreversibly stupid. I cashed in my body and got absolutely nothing for it. I wanted to escape, and now I’m right back where I started. Only I don’t even have a legit existence anymore! I shouldn’t even fucking be here anymore! I’m just the ultimate loser. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”

No, Alex, it’s not what I’m thinking. It might be what you’re thinking, but—”

“So what then?” he asks challengingly.

“I’m . . . I don’t even know what I’m thinking. I’m just grateful we can still communicate, but— I don’t know what to think, Alex. I’m . . . I’m still in shock.”

The inarticulate sincerity of my reply derails his momentum, and Alex’s antagonism deflates.

“Yeah, well, I guess it’s a lot to process, isn’t it? I don’t remember being dead before, but this feels . . . so depressingly familiar. It’s like a recurrent nightmare I can’t wake up from.

“Everything was just so—vague and in-between, like I didn’t have enough energy left to fully exist or to fully not exist—and then your presence on that bench drew me. You were like a docking station glowing in the vagueness. Your presence gave me the energy to come back into focus, into being. I left to be on my own, and now it looks like I’m dependent on you again. I’m only here because you’re here. So what does that make me?”


“Stop, Andrew, I don’t want to hear—”


“Stop fucking trying to comfort me, Andrew! There is absolutely nothing for me to be comforted about! Maybe you’re the one that’s holding me here. I shouldn’t even exist anymore, but you’re just so obsessed that—”

Alex pauses as a young mother and her daughter walk past us. They glance at me with polite curiosity. It’s the sort of look we used to get when we traveled together, but their eyes settle only on me. I feel Alex beside me, trembling with anxiety.

“You’re the only one seeing me and hearing my thoughts. So, what the fuck am I now? Some kind of pathetic ghost? Your goddamn ghost sidekick? Now what? What am I supposed to—”

“Alex!” I shout, trying to break through his panic. “You’re still you. I don’t know what any of this means. But if you exist, you’re real. You’re real, I’m real, and we’ll figure this out. Together.”

“Great. I’m real. For now. So fucking what? This sucks, Andrew. I still feel all the pain, but even worse. Everything I tried to escape. Everything that led me to that rope. It’s all still burning inside me. But I’m already dead—I can’t kill myself twice. So what the hell am I supposed to do? And how do I know it’s not just you, your obsession with me, forcing me back into existence long enough to have this pointless conversation. Why can’t you just let me go?”

“Alex, stop blaming me for a second and listen. I didn’t intend any of this. At least not consciously. When you found me, I had just accepted that you were gone forever. I don’t know how you’re still here. If that’s my doing, it’s news to me. Maybe it’s . . . well, I’m starting to get some intuitions—but you usually mock what you call my Andrew theories.”

Alex is silent, considering.

“No, I want to hear them,” Alex replies. “There’s something weird going on here I don’t understand, and I realize freaking the fuck out isn’t helping.

“Look, man,” he continues, “I know I’ve mocked some of your ideas in the past, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being an asshole to you in general. I just can’t help it sometimes. I always know when I’m hurting you, even in subtle ways, and I always know that I’m the one being an asshole, not you. But I really want to hear what you have to say now. Really. I’m ready to listen.”

“OK,” I start carefully. “I think . . . I think it’s all tied to the metamorphosis.”

I feel a twinge of exasperation in Alex, but he doesn’t actively protest, so I continue.

“All the paranormal events we’re experiencing, the parallels we discovered the day we met—they’re all deeply significant. I still believe they’re related to an evolutionary metamorphosis we’re fated to contribute to. You can say I’m just trying to work everything into my Alex-Andrew religion if you want—there’s probably some truth to that. But those things did happen. The night you left, we merged in some kind of profound way, didn’t we? Our minds—”

“Yeah . . . we did,” Alex replies. I’m with you. Keep going.”

“That experience is related to what we’re experiencing right now, isn’t it?”

“How do you figure?” asks Alex.

“The link,” I reply. “The connection that opened between us that night. My intuition tells me the experiment—the metamorphosis—is still happening. Our ability to stay linked to each other, even now, is part of it. We don’t know where it’s all going, but we need to endure through the darkness . . . like Tommy. We need to let this strange experiment keep running. Neither of us is in control, but something obviously wants it to continue.”

Alex calms. Apparently, it’s what he needed to hear.

We’d been walking through residential streets, but now we’re on a commercial avenue. Alex feels more solid. His energetic location by my side is stable, and I don’t need to look at him to feel his intense presence.

Suddenly, a group of thirty-somethings comes spilling out of a restaurant. They’re a cacophony of caffeinated banter and obnoxiously loud bursts of laughter, and they reek of cologne.

We both recoil from this frenzy of false selves, but what is extreme irritation to me is catastrophic torment for Alex. In this new completely skinless state, he feels them like a cloud bristling with static electricity. Their psyches are charged and ready to unload dark telepathic flashes. It’s an unbearable intrusion that threatens our link.

I dash across the street, trying to protect our fragile connection. As I do, my heart surges with adrenaline.

I make it across before I realize what’s happened.

Alex is no longer beside me.

He’s within.

The transition was so seamless—I didn’t notice when it happened. Once I catch my breath, I become aware of the warmth of an added inner glow. My senses are amplified by the doubled attention they’re receiving. The field of energy around me is larger and brighter.

I’d always been a singleton, alone within my envelope of Fireskin. Now I understand the word Alex whispered to me in the dream.


I resume walking, processing the novel sensations of being together in this way. When we reach a block devoid of pedestrians, Alex reappears on my right side. The shift from inner to outer is easy and fluid, and as soon as it happens, I feel both gain and loss. We’re not as intimate, but seeing him embodied fuels my attraction.

Alex secludes his thoughts from our telepathic mutuality. He’s containing himself and being careful about boundaries. I sense embarrassment.

“So . . . that just happened,” he says, breaking the silence. “Was that weird for you? I won’t do it again if it bothers you.”

“No. It didn’t feel weird or bothersome or anything like that. It felt perfectly natural,” I say encouragingly. “But what was it like for you?”

“Different. Safer. And . . .” Alex hesitates, embarrassed again. “It was more physical. I felt your sensations, and everything was more alive and less like a dream. But it’s weird being in a body that’s moving without my control. And it’s not like you invited me in or anything . . . I guess I should apologize for invading your inner space, but it wasn’t something I consciously chose—it just happened. Like a reflex.”

“Well, it’s OK,” I say. “Do it whenever you want. You could try again right now. See if it’s something you can do consciously.”

Alex lights up within me—the transition as effortless and fluid as before.

“It’s weird,” he says. His voice is closer and brighter, like hearing music through earbuds rather than speakers. “I’d rather be independent, but this takes much less energy. The further I get from you, the more everything feels like a dream and outside of time. Being outside of you—”

Alex shifts, showing up again on my left, walking beside me.

“There’s this strain, a continuous effort. I’m in a body of some sort next to you. It feels normal, but staying visible takes energy, like I’m projecting my image, but—it’s mostly your desire to see me creating an opening between us. So we’re both expending energy to make it happen.”

Instead of responding with words, I turn toward Alex, emanating my desire to see him. He lights up vividly and gives me a knowing smile, as charismatic as ever.

“Guess you finally got me where you want me,” he says with a glint in his eyes.

He’s taunting me, but his tone is more playful than before.

“Now I actually need you to look at me that way.”

I feel a flush of shame as I take his meaning. He’s caught me looking at him in a way I’m not supposed to. Alex picks up on my thought process.

“Don’t feel bad about it, Andrew. It’s like a warm flow of energy that helps me come back to my body . . . whatever this body is. Otherwise, I feel lost in a murky world of shadows. A world that lacks color and warmth . . . You’re like a glowing campfire.” He mimes holding his hands above a fire. “And when you look at me that way, it’s warm enough to make me feel like I have skin again.”

At first, Alex’s words fill me with gratitude and relief. My desire is finally welcomed. The attraction that strained our relationship is now a source of nourishment. But then my inner tormentor cuts in.

Oh great, Alex can accept your attraction now—Now that he no longer has a body!

Resentment flares up in me, but I quickly suppress it, fearful that it will leak into the telepathic atmosphere.

Too late.

“All about you again, huh?” Alex says bitterly. “At least now you don’t have to worry about me running off with some girl. Suicide is the ultimate self-castration.”


The glow of his presence beside me dwindles as his dark feelings pull inward. I want to console him, but I don’t know what to say.

I try to reach him with my mind, but he walls himself off from me completely. The moment he does, the ground beneath our feet starts dissolving—a vicious riptide is sucking Alex downward into the void I felt in my dream—

“Andrew!”  he cries out.


“Andrew—help me!—I’m—”

A surge of survival energy, like nothing I’ve felt before, bursts out of me toward Alex, wrapping around him desperately. It wrestles him from the riptide and pulls him into my core.

The interdimensional suction vanishes, and we’re together again, sharing my body. I’m trembling, my heart is pounding, and my breath comes in gasps.

A terrible realization forms in our shared thought space—emotions are now existentially consequential.

Our emotional bond drew Alex back to the realm of the living. But it works in reverse as well. If the link between us breaks, the riptide will pull him down into—

We see a vision of Alex falling an impossible distance to the dark city below. It’s a realm that has a claim on him. A claim it exerts with an insidious gravitational pull. If the link between us breaks, he’ll disappear into its shadows forever.

Alex shudders with fear.

For now, at least, we’re together, and he’s safe. Yet, as we cling to each other, another fearful thought erupts into our mutuality.

How long can we hold on this way?

A tremor runs through my body.

I could lose Alex forever.

The orphaned, burn victim inside me takes over, and the fear of abandonment begins shutting me down. I curl into myself and regress. Suddenly I’m fifteen again, waking in the hospital and realizing my parents are dead, and I will always be a fireskinned horror.

I lose everyone I love.

I’m sinking into despair when I feel a flood of compassion buoying me up. It’s Alex, pulling me back to him. His energy is tender and vulnerable—the love of another soul who needs me as desperately as I need him.

What’s always been beneath the tense surface of our relationship is coursing through us. It’s—a love that can’t bear for either of us to be helpless and alone. A love that’s stronger than attraction, desire, or romance. It’s the love between brothers, the love of two soldiers shivering together in a foxhole, the love of . . . it doesn’t matter—it’s every form of love. The roles, the genders don’t matter.

It’s a love more primal than the bodies costuming our souls. It’s always been there. It will always be there. No matter what separation we have to endure, no matter what skins we lose, no matter what dimensions lie between us . . . we’ll always be part of each other.

Our feelings echo into the vastness of time as we recover in our coaxial space.

It’s a space so complete I can’t will myself to leave. But Alex knows we can’t stay in this timeless zone, so he gently pulls us back to the surface of the world and its flow of events. Back to where the body we share stands on the sidewalk, swaying slightly, unobserved on a quiet street.

“C’mon,” he says, in a tone of mischievous adventure. “Let’s get outta here. There’s a few things I want to show you.”

He leads us through a complex route of odd landmarks—a street corner where he once saw a junkie shooting up between his toes, a rusted-out vehicle where his childhood crew used to blow up M-80s, Chase’s house.

At one point, Alex leads me through a gap in a chain-link fence outside an abandoned construction site. We’re in woods, thick with vegetation. As we walk, I feel sparks of pain on the backs of my hands which I assume are biting insects. He looks at me and smiles.

“Stinging nettles,” he says, “they help keep people away. They won’t bother you if you keep your skin from brushing against the leaves.”

I follow him to a flat-topped boulder beside a scraggly creek.

“My secret sanctuary,” says Alex as he climbs onto the boulder. “I used to come here to escape the drunken chaos at my house. This is where I learned how to draw. Look, I left that!” he exclaims, pointing toward the ground.

It takes me a few seconds to see what he’s pointing at. It’s the decaying stub of a yellow pencil. He seems oddly pleased by this meager evidence of his former existence, a small mark he’s left on the world.

As the tour continues, I begin to notice something strange. It’s like Alex is threading a needle through time and space to line things up. Navigating us toward some small events he considers significant.

Alex is silent as he leads me into the center of a weedy vacant lot. Then he tells me to look up just in time to see a hawk fly by with a field mouse in its talons.

“Why did you want me to see that?” I ask.

“What do I have in common with the mouse?” he asks in return.

“Oh,” I reply.

“You keep forgetting that you’re talking to a dead kid,” says Alex, giving me a serious look. “This isn’t going to last, Andrew. You should be prepared for that.”

The finality of his words fills me with sadness and loss as we approach an abandoned gas station. I sense it’s where the whole route was aiming all along. I follow him to the back of its concrete island, which adjoins trash-filled woods.

“This is where I smoked deemsters for the first time,” says Alex. “It’s where I first started questioning the nature of reality.”

It must be a new form of telepathy, because somehow, I see this moment from Alex’s past as if it’s happening right now.

Alex sits on the cement with his back to the gas station. He’s no older than fifteen. One hand holds a glass pipe, and the other a white plastic lighter. He sparks it up and inhales, trying to hold in the smoke.

He stares into the woods, and his eyes dilate with astonishment as the tree branches become fractal neon tentacles, weaving into each other.

Our perspectives separate, and we’re sitting next to each other, looking out into the technicolor forest. The intensity of the light and motion almost stops my breath. It’s not just a memory anymore—it’s happening now.

What is this, Alex?’

“You’re the man with a theory for everything,” he responds. “What do you think it is?”

I take a breath and try to get my mind to focus.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “Some sort of visual telepathy, I guess. I shared your memory . . . and now it’s like an augmented-reality backdrop. But it’s so . . .”

“Weird?” Alex suggests.

I nod.

“I know, right?” says Alex grinning. “Flashbacks are a trip. And yeah, that’s as good a theory as any.”

We gaze out at the spectacle for a few more seconds. Then Alex gets to his feet and stands before me. Behind him, the neon forest darkens and becomes deeper. Its branches are no longer fractalizing. It feels still and expectant.

I stay seated, my heart pounding in my chest as I look up at him.

“I’m sorry I made you suffer so much, Andrew,” he says, looking down at me compassionately. “I should have thought more about how my actions would affect you.”


“Just listen, please . . .” he says, “A few others are out there grieving for me. I’m the source of their suffering too. I should go to them.”

“Alex, I know you’re trying to do the right thing, but if things get dark—I won’t be there to help pull you out of that downward spiral. It’s going to be really difficult, and I’m afraid—”

“I know,” he says gently.

The thought of him getting lost in the night, of not returning, seizes my heart.

“I don’t want to lose you again. Please—promise to come back.”

“I will, Andrew . . . I will come back.”

I can feel the moment closing down around me.

“Alex,” I say with all my being, “No matter what happens, you have a place with me. You can experience the whole rest of my life if you want. We can share everything.”

As the words pour out of me, my pledge takes on a formal quality, like a sacred oath.


The word appears in our mutual thought space, but it’s unclear who spoke it.

Alex’s eyes are wide and full of compassion. He puts his hand to his heart and bows his head before walking off into the darkening forest.

As I lose sight of him, the seeming depth of the forest morphs back to the trash-filled woods.

I stand up, feeling desolation and loss but also grateful for our brief reunion. Alex has gone where I can’t follow, but he still exists.

I walk back to the Mothership, where I spend the evening writing this journal entry.

Gusts of wind howl outside as I write, some strong enough to cause the Mothership to sway on its suspension.

I’m still by Sundial Park. I usually relocate at night to reduce the risk of getting caught camping in my vehicle. But I don’t want to move from here. I want to be where Alex first reappeared to me. He could probably find me anywhere, but I feel closer to the possibility of his return here.

The sound of the wind carries me off to sleep.

In the depth of the night, about three AM, I’m awakened by an urgent tugging sensation. It feels more physical than emotional. A lifeline connects my body to Alex, and he’s struggling to come back.

I sit up in bed and use my will to pull him toward me. Suddenly I sense movement near the edge of the sleeping platform. Alex is there, in the dark.

He doesn’t have the energy to project thoughts or images, but I feel his diminished form and sense what’s happened. What he found in the night has weakened him. His energy is almost gone, and his awareness has regressed with it.

What little I sense of his thoughts is incoherent. Still, I see flickering images of grieving family and friends surrounding him like a feverish haze. He crawls over to me, gravitating to the glow of my life energy, and curls up in a fetal position. Eventually, I fall back asleep.

21 The First Thing I Remember is This Thing Here

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When I awake, he’s gone, and I feel no trace of his presence. I feel numb, like I was hooked up to a Novocain IV all night. I make myself some tea and sit by a window in the back of the camper. The parted curtains reveal an empty park and an overcast sky.

While Alex was with me, the emotional intensity of our connection was overwhelming. But now that he’s gone, fear and doubt expand to fill the vacuum.

Was that really Alex? What if it was all self-generated, my own grieving psyche creating a few paranormal effects?

I open the lid of my laptop out of habit. When the screen lights up, I feel a tingling sensation in the air around my head.


No response. I take a deep breath and focus.


“Yeah, I can still hear you,” he replies.

His voice is distinct but far away. The contact awakens my heart from its numb stupor. The link between us is still alive, but it’s only a shadow of what it was yesterday. My desire amplifies a faint signal traveling across dimensions.

“Yeah, something like that,” Alex whispers in my mind. His voice is tired, and he’s slightly exasperated with my dramatic way of thinking—a signal traveling across dimensions. His energy is greatly diminished, and it feels like he’s been in this state for a while, far longer than the few hours I’d slept.

“Time isn’t the same here. Not the same at all,” he says, picking up on my thoughts.

“Where are you? I want to see you.”

“I don’t have enough energy for that anymore,” says Alex gloomily.

I refuse to accept this. I need to see him. I close my eyes and strain to visualize his form, but there’s a boundary between us.  Finally, my focused desire breaks through, and Alex’s silhouette appears in a background of murky darkness. As I stare, his image clarifies like a slowly forming Polaroid.

He’s standing in a dark space, looking pale and gaunt. The radiant glow from yesterday is gone. His clothes are worn, almost tattered, and he exudes shame.

The vision fades.

Did I lose him again?

“Alex!” I call out in a panic.

“I’m still here, Andrew.”

“I can’t see you anymore. Can you see me?”

“Yeah, that part is easy, but not the other way.”


“It’s kinda like the observation mirrors they have in interrogation rooms,” he replies. “It takes no energy to look through it from where I am. But for you to look through the reflective side of the mirror takes far more energy . . . And I’d rather you didn’t see me the way I am now anyways.”

“Where are you?” I ask.

“The place where fools who waste their lives go.”

I sense the dark city of my dreams.

“Can you come here?”

“No,” he says with frustration, “I told you. I don’t have enough energy anymore.”

“Well, use mine,” I say desperately. “Please—can you just use mine?”

“No. Just listen to me, Andrew . . . you’re already burning too much energy just trying to keep our minds connected.”

“But I’m also getting energy from being linked. There’s a flow—I can feel it!” I exclaim, and I mean what I say, but I can sense his doubt.

“If you say so. Look,” Alex says, his voice subdued and resigned. “I wish it could be like before—believe me. I like being able to talk to you, but the world of the living is drifting further away. I don’t have enough energy anymore. And even if I could cross over, I’d be drawn back . . . It’s gravitational, this place. You felt it pulling on me when we were together. This is where I belong. I appreciate the company, but I don’t think this is healthy for you, and we won’t be able to keep it up. We just need to let it go.”

Tears roll down my face as I sense his loneliness and desolation. A gentle glow of compassion radiates weakly from the dark background of his feelings. He wants to offer what little consolation he can.

“Don’t worry about me, Andrew. I’m safe now, if you wanna call it that. I know how to survive in this place. Just get on with your life. I can take care of myself.”

“What’s happened, Alex?”

“What needed to happen. What always happens . . . The day we spent together was like a beautiful dream. But a dream can only last so long. I always fuck up my life and end up back here.

“Being in your world made me really tired. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I was here, the world where I belong. This city of everlasting night. Part of me has always been here . . .”

“You seem so far away,” I say, “and yet you feel even deeper in my mind than yesterday.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think the two-way part will last. And I don’t think it should. It won’t be healthy for you to keep this up.

“What you offered—the chance to share your life—created a link to your awareness. I can look in on you. I’m grateful, but don’t expect much from me in return. Watching you is easy—it’s passive, but I don’t have the energy to light up for you on the other side of the mirror. Our timelines have drifted apart and will continue to drift further. There’s nothing we can do about it. . . I’m sorry.”

We fall silent. Loneliness hangs like a heavy curtain between us.

It feels like Alex has been living in this desolate place for a long time. I envision him in his darkened room, gazing through our two-way mirror. But it’s unclear whether it’s the past, present, or future. Time is a muddle.

“Yeah, that’s pretty close,” says Alex. “It’s good to know you have some inkling of what I’m going through.”

“But I know so little,” I say, trying to contain my desperation. “I want to understand what you’re experiencing in—”

“No, Andrew,” Alex cuts in. “You shouldn’t know too much about this place. It wouldn’t be good for you.”

“I don’t care. I want to know anyway,” I push back. “Alex—if we keep drifting apart, this could be the last time we speak. And I need to know. I need to. For my own sake. I don’t care if it’s good for me or not—Please, Alex, I need to know—”

“Really? You sure about that, Andrew?”

“I’m sure.”

“You don’t realize what you’re asking for. I can show you, but there’s some sick shit going on here that’s hard to unsee. This place is for those who deserve to be here, fuckups like me who chose to abandon life.”

“I still want—I need to know what you’re going through.”

A long silence follows, and I wonder if I’ve pushed too hard.

“OK,” he says finally. “You might be right about it being our last chance. The longer I stay here, the further apart we’ll get.”

A dim, almost imperceptible glow appears in the formless darkness of our thought space. The glow develops into a silhouette of Alex and then a complete image of him standing alone in a dark room. I can make out the scuffed floorboards beneath his feet, and a small desk and narrow bed behind him.

“I thought taking my skin out of the game would take away my suffering,” says Alex. “But I was wrong. Unimaginably wrong. Now I’m alone with my pain in this fallen place—a city of lost souls. They’re out there, stalking around in their various states of hunger and torment.

“I’m safe from them here. This is a protected space. So, don’t worry about me, Andrew. It’s not much of an existence, but I’m exactly where I deserve to be.”

The dingy apartment slowly becomes more visible. An old gray wool blanket covers the narrow bed. Beside it is a worn wooden desk and chair. Alex stands before the only light source, a window conducting a sliver of moonlight. It’s just enough to illuminate his expression as he peers through the louvers of the Venetian blinds.

“This place isn’t much, but it’s mine, and no one can get to me here. But outside—” Alex gestures toward the window, “—is a diseased world. A horribly dangerous place for a young suicide.

“When you destroy a body full of life, remnants of that energy follow you here. If you’re young and newly dead, you light up in this night world like a sparkler. Hungry ghosts sense the fresh energy and seep out of the darkness to feed on you.

I woke up from our day together and found myself out on the streets—unprepared, raw, and radiating life energy.”

Alex stares into my eyes, summoning me to stare back into his. I do and feel myself disappearing as I enter his memory.

I’m standing in a desolate street of burnt-out buildings. It looks like a city that was firebombed a century ago and abandoned.

I’m seeing through his eyes.

“Alex,” I say in wonder, “I’m—”

“I know,” he says matter-of-factly.

“But . . .”  I struggle to organize my thoughts. “If you have the energy to show me your memory like this, why can’t you come back to my world?”

“This barely takes any energy at all,” Alex explains wearily. “My memory already exists. You’re the one expending energy to look into it.”

I don’t feel any loss of energy, and I have many questions, but I sense Alex’s impatience. What appears magical to me seems grim and commonplace to him, so I still my thoughts and go with the experience.

“It’s always the dead of night here,” he explains. “Dimly illuminated by an invisible moon. And time . . . time has no current, no relevance. Everything just is. Yeah, I know that doesn’t make sense because events still happen. But this place doesn’t care about making sense. It just is. I still have some life energy. I still experience time and events, like talking to you right now. But there’s no day cycle, no stream of change toward anything, just everlasting night—lost souls existing in the shadow of time.”

I see through his eyes as he surveys the burnt-out desolation and perceives the time vacuum.

“It all looks so empty, doesn’t it? It’s not, though. It’s an emptiness riddled with parasites. Ravenously hollow ones. They gnaw on their emptiness deep in the shadows. They are like bedbugs that can hibernate for months beneath floorboards but revive when they sense an energy-filled body.

“See them?”

Alex pulls me deeper into his memory, yet it’s as if I am him experiencing for the first time. His senses fully encompass my awareness. My perspective is so merged with his I’m not even sure what pronoun to use. Him? We? I?

Gradually his sensorium overwhelms my own, and Andrew is extinguished in the maze of memory. I become Alex, alone, frightened, newly arrived in this city of darkness.

I look around and detect motion but can’t see anything. And then, from my peripheral vision, I glimpse a distortion in the air. Something is emanating from the shadows and flowing toward me. It’s nearly invisible, like glare filtering through polarized sunglasses—rivulets of almost nothingness, seeping from cracks and crevices.

They draw closer, swirling around me, and begin siphoning my energy. I feel a black void like a pin prick form within me, a core of desolation that expands the more they feed. What their pale tendrils absorb animates them, and they loom up, shapeshifting into hideous forms.

One of them takes the form of a baby with rotted-out eyes. I can’t look away from it, and the surge of energy it receives causes new deformities to blossom forth. It bristles with vibrating rattles, each a tiny baby with rotted-out eyes. Waves of rattling pass through it, creating hypnotic rhythms.

I stand there, paralyzed, realizing their manifestations are hooks of fear meant to catch hold of my attention. The energy of my gaze is a feeding frenzy for whichever of them can hold it.

I try shutting my eyes to deprive them of energy, but I can’t keep them closed for long. It’s hard to look away from shapeshifting demons. The terror compels me to watch.

A giant crab-like manifestation scuttles into view, its long, distended pincers slick in the moonlight. It picks its way around me in a long slow arc. The others mimic it until I’m surrounded by crabs with beady eyes on stalks. They click and clack their claws in a new hypnotic rhythm, working in unison to pry a twisted vision into my mind.

I resist the intrusion, but it breaks through anyway. I see the mangled corpse of a seagull lying at the edge of an ocean tide. Crabs emerge from the foam and meticulously devour the flesh of the bird.

They work like efficient surgeons until all that remains are delicate, bleached bones glistening with seawater. The skeleton looks peaceful, drifting at the tide’s edge, purified of organic decay, washed by the pulsing foam of seawater.

The sound of the lapping water gently expands in my mind, relaxing my vigilance, and lulling me into a dark and paralyzing undertow. The seduction of their entrancement is pulling me under. They watch me with their beady, lifeless eyes, waiting for me to succumb. I can feel my soul, my very essence, what makes me me, draining away. It’s—

A shockwave of energy hits the feeding circle.

The swarm of parasites is thrown back like a mass of crabs tossed from a bucket. They spill away from me in a frenzy of clicking and clacking.

A man in a dark, hooded cloak stands at the center of their retreating perimeter. He holds up a curved mirror and sweeps it around the circle, forcing the creatures to behold their reflections. The effect is like burning a swarm of insects with a magnifying glass. They shrivel in agony and twist away as tendrils of smoke. Others see the mirror coming and shrink back into the darkness before it can reach them.

Silence overtakes us as the street regains an eerie calm. The man turns to face me. He has an ominous look—large, dark eyes glimmering from a face hidden within the shadows of his hood. He radiates power.

“Come with me,” he says, his voice grave with authority. “We don’t have much time. This is no place for a youngling. You are drawing The Ravenous from all over the city.”

I rise and follow him warily, my vitality returning with each breath. We walk several blocks in silence and eventually reach a long alleyway that cuts a tight path between the shadowy buildings.

Dark windows gape as we pass. Behind each curtain and blind, an anemic hunger stirs in the void.

The alleyway terminates at an old iron gate, which the man opens with a key. He quickly locks it behind us as we step into a courtyard. Barren trees stand like sentries around the walls of the enclosure. An ancient-looking statue of a woman in a gown overlooks the space. It feels protected somehow, a place the hungry ghosts can’t enter.

The man turns around and throws back his hood, revealing long, glossy black hair and dark, intelligent eyes. His pale skin has a subtle luminosity in the shadowy courtyard. He, too, looks almost like a statue, with chiseled, dramatic features. He stands silent and aware, surrounded by skeletal tree branches and the silhouettes of buildings faintly illuminated by the invisible moon.

Although he bears no physical sign of age, there’s a sense of long persistence in time about him. With the near glow of his skin and his eyes’ timeless depth, he looks like a romantic image of a vampire.

“Yes,” the man says with dignified sincerity, “it would not be unjust to think of me as a vampire because I am consuming some of your energy even as we speak.”

A surge of fear rises in me. I instinctively take more space from him in the courtyard.

“Don’t be alarmed,” the man says. “It is true I feed, but I do not devour. And I can provide many valuable returns for what I take, if you’re willing to trust me.”

“Trust you? Why should I trust you? You just admitted you’re a vampire.”

“I said it would not be unjust to think of me as one, but that does not mean I’m a predator. Members of the Guild I represent are more like guardians. Like all creatures, we feed, but we are more like goat herders who take milk from their flock but do not slay them. A shepherd protects his flock from predators and other dangers, while the flock brings the shepherd livelihood. They share a sacred bond.”

The man’s voice has a seductive gentleness.

“Yeah, but I’m not a goat,” I say defiantly.

“Fair enough,” he says with a slight smile. “I’ve created a false impression. I often forget to adjust my words for people from different times. My metaphor was ill-chosen for one from your age of commerce and dazzling machines. Shepherding must seem as remote as a fable . . .”

He pauses, staring deeply into my eyes. A strange sensation—I feel him gently parting a curtain in my memory to get a general view of what it contains.

“This fallen world we share has elements of what you would call an economy. The most precious substance here is a type of energy, a living astral energy infused in new arrivals. We call this precious energy Laepur. And you, a self-slayer who so recently had a young, vital body, are exceptionally rich in the highest quality of Laepur. Every part of you exudes its glow. As you have just experienced, it’s perilous to be the bearer of Laepur unless you can protect it. Just as The Guild has cloaked and warded this courtyard, making it a protected space, you can learn to guard your energy. Without such protection, you will be like a child carrying a basket of gold coins into a crowd of thieves and cutthroats.”

“What makes Laepur so valuable?” I ask.

“It has useful value only to The Guild,” the man responds, “but it’s an object of ferocious desire to many others. This world is filled with creatures who can sense the Laepur glowing in you, and their insatiable hunger draws them from the shadows. The Ravenous, as we call them, seek to devour this substance wherever they can find it. And whatever they devour is wasted. To these hollow creatures, Laepur is nothing but a morbid addiction. They feed but are never full.”

“What exactly are these . . . Ravenous?” I ask.

“They were once people, but their souls have hollowed out. They have descended into nearly mechanical parasites that swarm when they detect Laepur nearby. For a youngling like you, who’s so rich in this substance, they are a devouring pestilence. But I can teach you how to become invisible to them.

“The Guild has learned to harness the power of Laepur and make valuable use of even minute quantities. We use it for—greater purposes.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“Such secrets are revealed only to those initiated into The Guild,” the man replies,” All I can tell you is that the relationship between this world and the world above is changing. Guild members seek to atone for our former lives by doing what we can to serve others and expand the light of awareness across both worlds. We also seek to help the penitent survive threats and evolve into greater states of self-awareness.”

The Guildsman pauses to study me.

“There are basic aspects of Laepur you must understand. For one, you will never again possess as much as you do now. At the moment, it’s escaping from you like steam rising from a cup of tea. There are ways to slow the loss, but in time, every remnant of your original Laepur will evaporate into the night. As it does, you will likely find yourself driven to seek it from younglings—new arrivals to the dark city.

“Your first taste will make you an addict. And once you begin taking without consent, you will spiral downward. Eventually, you’ll become a lone Ravenous and then a member of a Swarm.

“However, should you choose to initiate with The Guild, we can train you to honorably infuse yourself with Laepur from those who bear it.”

The thought of feeding on others fills me with revulsion.

“Yes, I felt the same way at first,” the Guildsman’s eyes meet mine with a kind of cold empathy. “But did you not enter the world above feeding upon the fluids of your mother’s life in her womb? Once born, your appetite grew, and you suckled milk from her breast. When weaned, your appetite intensified until you needed to devour vast quantities of plants and animals, or derivatives of their life substance.

“Above or below, to thrive, we feed upon others. The difference is between those who feed with mindless greed, and those who take with honor. Members of The Guild only draw nourishment from those we serve.”

“Nothing about that sounds honorable,” I counter. “You say you’ve been feeding on my energy, but I didn’t consent. That’s not honorable—it’s theft.”

“No, it is not theft,” the man replies, “For I merely feed on your radiant Laepur as it evaporates into the night. I could take more, but would never dare to, unless you were to offer it in exchange for what I provide. If I were to succumb to taking without consent, I would become one of The Ravenous.

“Nevertheless, you only have the power of consent because of my forbearance. As you are now, many, including me, could devour you against your will. To give you the power of consent, I will teach you how to resist being fed upon. Then you may surrender to me what you deem fair, if anything. We need to establish this from the start. Do you consent to learn?”

The Guildsman studies me with timeless patience. He’s measured out my options in such a way that the scale can only tip in one direction, and he knows it.

I don’t want to become an apprentice vampire or whatever his Guild would make of me, but the alternative—an image of the bristling rattles surrounding the baby with rotted eyes shudders through my mind.

“Yes,” I say quickly, shaking the image away. “Yes, I want to learn. Teach me.”

“We will begin with what you want to prevent. I will briefly feed on you so you can recognize the sensation. Then I will teach you how to block it.”

The Guildsman closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. As he inhales, a rivulet of vitality flows from my core toward him. I feel a thrill running through me as he feeds. It’s weirdly pleasurable, even sexual, and the current causes him to glow brighter.

He takes a second breath and suddenly, the rivulet becomes the gush of a major artery. He halts the feeding abruptly, opening his eyes in astonishment.

“You are linked!’ he exclaims, studying me with newfound fascination. “You have a bond with someone in the living world!

“Ahh! This is a precious thing,” he continues. “Cherish this bond, and keep it hidden, for a link of this vitality is soon broken. The living are driven by powerful currents of time and sensation. We may catch their attention when they dream or slow the flow of time with contemplation, but we cannot stay in phase with them for long. We are suited to be amongst them as unseen observers. We should never intrude upon their attention unless we are trying to serve them. However, while this link persists, it will slow the decay of your Laepur.

“It is possible, if you have the talent for it, to project your awareness, even an image of yourself, to the world of the living. But that takes a lot of energy. Unless you are willing to feed off the living, it’s quite difficult to maintain an active presence in their world of time and substance.

“Looking in on their lives does not take energy—however, it can fill you with regret if your actions have been a source of suffering for those you’ve left behind. Sometimes that is a necessary form of penitence.”

The Guildsman stops and looks at me sympathetically.

“I’ve said enough. You need solitude. Arriving in this realm is a shock on every level of one’s being. You need time alone to recover and contemplate your last incarnation. This ought to occur before anything else. Until you have done that work, leave The Guild from your mind.

“I will find a protected space for you. But before we leave this courtyard, you need to learn how to cloak and contain your radiance. Watch closely.”

The Guildsman focuses intensely and begins moving like a Tai Chi master, rhythmically passing his hands over his body, palms down. As they move, his hands emanate a faint light leaving tracers in the air. These phosphorescent effects diminish as his energy field retracts until he vanishes in the dim courtyard’s shadows.

I scan the darkness where he last stood, but there is nothing but hollow moonlight. Every trace of him is gone. Then, like flicking a switch, the Guildsman reappears in an instant.

With his guidance, I practice the ritual. I relax my body and deepen my breath, passing my hands, palms down, near the surface of my skin. I try to imagine myself invisible. But nothing happens.

“You are thinking from the outside,” the Guildsman says. “Turn your attention inward. Concentrate from there. Pull inward from your core.”

I shake myself loose and try again, slowing myself and going inward. I feel the Guildsman’s eyes on me, scrutinizing my every move.

“Do not feel me,” he commands. “Do not give me even an atom of your attention. Being invisible means giving nothing to those who might see you.”

I try to mute the world around me and keep my hands moving, corralling my energy inward, but I feel hopeless. Ridiculous. Then, just before the panic of self-doubt takes over, I start to sense it—Laepur, concentrating within.

It’s a warmth within me—a reservoir of energy, and it’s contained as if my body were a vacuum-insulated thermos.

The Guildsman circles around me like a wolf sniffing out its prey.

“Well done. You are energetically invisible as far as I can discern. You no longer emit or reflect even a mote of light.”

It seems impossible. I sense no change to my exterior, and he’s looking straight at me.

The Guildsman picks up on my doubt. He produces the curved mirror from his cloak and holds it up at eye level. All I see is an empty courtyard reflecting back.

“Look closer,” he says knowingly.

I stare deeper into the mirror and see a vague silhouette of distortion where my body should be. I’m gone, but I’m still here. When I raise a hand to touch my face, the vague, distorted outline of my arm in motion cuts through the reflection of the courtyard, like an invisible hand making ripples on the surface of a lake. When I drop my arm back to my side and stand perfectly still, the distortion clears, and any sign of me vanishes.

“You will likely go undetected if you need to travel the city,” the Guildsman says, pocketing his mirror again. “Only someone trained by The Guild could detect your presence while you stand still. But be cautious when you move. Keep to shadowed areas when possible. Traverse alleys and along the darker sides of buildings. Avoid open spaces if you can.

“Now, before we leave here, we must perform a final test of your new shadow armor. Stand still and seek to contain your energy while I try to feed on it.”

I still myself as the Guildsman takes in a slow deep breath.

At first, it’s subtle, like a drop in the surrounding air pressure, but then I feel his suction pulling on my shadow skin. The suction becomes like octopus tentacles wrapping around prey. I hold my ground and retreat within my own Laepur. As I do, I feel the suctioning tendrils drop away like dead leeches.

His attempt to feed is a waste of his energy, not mine. I’m impervious, like an astronaut in a spacesuit with a self-contained atmosphere.

“Good,” the Guildsman says. ”I want you to uncloak and then recloak.”

I feel the polarized contrast of sensations as I do, the energy of visibility and the containment of being cloaked.

“This seems to already be second nature for you,” says the Guildsman, observing me closely. “Past training, perhaps?” His eyes study mine.

“Stay cloaked and follow a pace or two behind. We will search the city for a place of refuge.”

The Guildsman leads me through a twisted labyrinth of alleys until we arrive at an apartment building in somewhat better condition than most of the others. He approaches it like a wary alley cat sniffing for danger. When we reach an outer wall, he lightly touches it with his fingertips, sensing what’s within. We circle the building as he examines it in this way, probing for hidden dangers.

“Yes, this one,” the Guildsman says after checking the perimeter. We’re standing in the back of the building in a cement yard. “This one is quite suitable. It was warded long ago by a member of the Guild, and it’s been uninhabited for quite a while.”

I follow him back to the front entrance, where he takes hold of the doorknob and turns it cautiously.

We step into a small lobby. It’s dark and gloomy inside but not disordered. It has a distinct, old-apartment-building smell, something like dusty steam radiators, old wool coats, and damp umbrellas.

“An upper-floor apartment is usually safest, but you should rely on intuition. Choose your refuge.”

I still myself and listen with my whole being, until an impulse pulls me to the central stairwell. The black-and-white checkered steps are well-worn, and the smoothness of the banister under my hand has a strange familiarity. I’m drawn all the way to the top floor, pulled by a kind of muscle memory to a door with “86” affixed to it in brass numerals.

I turn the knob to step inside, and the Guildsman follows. The dingy interior resonates uneasily in my mind. Intimate memories of every crevice and scuffed floorboard lurk behind a thin curtain of forgetfulness.

“I’ve been here before,” I say.

“I see,” replies the Guildsman. “It explains why this place seemed suitable. And the way you learned cloaking—it’s obvious you’re relearning techniques you already know. Many self-slayers are caught in a pattern of returning to this world by their own hand. Often at a young age. Some join The Guild to free themselves from that cycle. Perhaps you have been approached by us before. Something to consider during your time of recollection.”

I nod, my attention distracted by the sense that every shadow in the room holds hidden content.

The room is dark, the few simple furnishings worn, but everything is neatly ordered like it was awaiting my arrival. There’s a window covered with dusty Venetian blinds.

Beside it stands a small bookcase with three shelves of shabby books. Every frayed binding and stained cover seems weirdly familiar.

The Guildsman reaches toward the bookcase and then withdraws his hand as if not daring to touch sacred objects.

“It’s propitious such rare objects were left for you. You’ve returned to a fallen world, yet you must be guided here by some fate,” he says as he parts the blinds to gaze thoughtfully at the city. “We’re high enough in this warded building for you to safely look out from this window.”

I peer through the gap in the blinds. The opening provides a vantage of block after block of apartment buildings, tar-covered rooftops, and streets of elongated shadows. An oppressive stillness seems to weigh everything down.

Surrounding the apartment are sooty, brick buildings. None of them appear to be taller than eight stories or so. They resemble the bleak tenements found in any industrial city of the early twentieth century, with narrow windows and iron fire-escapes. As I stare at them, I feel a leaden gravity pressing on my chest.

“It’s better to turn your attention within,” the Guildsman says.

I snap the blinds shut and turn back to him.

“I will leave you to contemplate in solitude,” he says. “If you decide to join The Guild, just think of us, and one of our number will find you.”

I’m still unsure about his guild, but he feels like the only chance of a friend in this place.

“Hey man . . .” I say awkwardly. “I really appreciate your help.”

“It is my honor to be of service,” he replies as he bows and heads for the door.

“Wait, what do I call you? In case I see you again,” I ask.

The Guildsman smiles.

“Ah, you’re so newly arrived from the realm of the living where names are given freely. They are almost never exchanged here. They can give another power over you. However . . . you may call me Elam. I do not ask your name. That’s a decision you can make later, should our paths cross again.”

I sense a long entanglement with him but am unsure whether it lies in the past or future.

Before opening the door, he turns back.

“Lock this behind me.”

The door clicks shut, and Elam’s presence is quickly replaced by the echoing history of the room. The apartment’s familiarity envelops me.

I sit down in front of the bookcase. My hand knows what book to reach for—Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I withdraw it slowly, and a card falls to the floor. It’s yellowed with age and bears my handwriting. The card reads:

The first thing I remember is this thing here.

Written underneath is the month, day, and year of my birthday in the life I just ended.

The card drops from my hand. Memories, like pale flowers, blossom on a vine reaching far back into the night of time.

This room, this place—it’s mine. I’ve killed myself before. So many times. Never able to live past my youth. Again and again, I’ve retreated to this nocturnal world to lick my wounds and reflect on my defeat.

I lift the card from the floor and restore it to its place inside the book, which I carefully return to the shelf.

There’s a small penknife on top of another book. Its handle looks like yellowed bone, but when I lift it, I see it’s some early cellulose form of plastic. I unfold the skinny blade, which glimmers in the silvery twilight of the room. I can see its edge has been honed to razor sharpness.

There are a series of lines scored into the side of the bookcase, some nearly faded into the dark wood. I grip the penknife like a stylus and score a new line beside the others . . .

22 Alone

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The shared memory ends, and I become conscious of myself as Andrew again.

I’m sitting in the back of the Mothership with my eyes closed, waiting to hear Alex’s voice in my mind.

“I bowed my head and wept,” says Alex. “The bottom fell out of time. The moment dissolved into all the other times I’d wept before this bookcase. The life I ended was merely a day in a cycle of day and night swinging back and forth like the pendulum of a clock.

“But then I heard you calling my name. And I realized—our link—this hasn’t happened before. It’s something new.”

“Have we—” I start to ask.

“Yes,” Alex replies. “We’ve been connected as far back as I can see, but this is the first time your voice has reached me here.”

He grows quiet, and I feel his exhaustion.


“Yeah, I know,” says Alex. I tried to prepare you.”

“I need you,” I say. “I need us to stay connected.”

“I’ll be able to look in on you,” he replies. “There may be moments when I can communicate, but this is my world now, Andrew. Its hold on me grows stronger, and my link to your world grows weaker. In some other lifetime, we may meet again . . .”

Alex makes a last effort to send an image of himself. His eyes are tearful, but it’s too much for him to maintain, and he slips from my mind into the inky void.


I’m in an empty space of inner vision.

If I don’t open my eyes, I won’t have to move on in a world without him. But reality quickly intrudes. My inner silence dissolves into the physical sensations of being in the Mothership.

I am alone.

23 The Star Chrysalis

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That’s everything that’s happened so far. When I look outside, the day seems like it’s on pause. The sky is the kind of overcast that numbs time.

And yet, the watch Alex gifted me ticks away on my wrist like it’s waiting for me to do something.

This watch still holds the intention Alex had when he gave it to me—his intention to solidify our bond. It’s a link between us. There’s a magic to certain objects. The Mothership is full of things Alex knew intimately and touched often. Is there a way I can use them to strengthen our link?

I just consulted the online oracle I use frequently, and synchronistically, it gave me card 358, Creating your own Magic. The image is of an old silversmith holding a talisman with wings and gemstones over a piece of paper to reveal the shadow it casts as well as the light it conducts. The card includes Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic: The science and art of creating change in conformity to will.

It refined the idea forming in my head. So many objects in The Mothership are powerfully linked to Alex—his sketchbooks, for one. Is there a way to reconnect with him through an artifact infused with his energy?

There’s one object in the Mothership imbued with more of Alex’s energy than any other. As I mentioned before, from the day we met, he was fascinated with what I call the Star Chrysalis—a sapphire crystal on my dashboard. It’s a dark-purple, two-inch-long hexagonal crystal that looks like a chrysalis. One end is polished into a dome so that when tilted toward a light, it reveals the crystal’s asterism—a little star with six rays.

When I was driving, Alex often did contact juggling tricks with it. It was an outlet for his nervous energy, quickness, and dexterity. And I was often amazed by what he could do with this slightly irregular object in a moving vehicle. An expert contact juggler would struggle to perform such tricks with a perfect sphere while standing on stable ground. Alex could roll it back and forth along the skin of his bare arms and hands with fluid grace.

Once, when Alex had to return to Cascade, I tried to give him the Star Chrysalis.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “When I get back, I expect to find it here.”

And that’s where it is right now, resting on the dashboard exactly where he left it three months ago.

I recognize the sentimentality. But Alex put so much time and energy into doing stunts with it. The link was intensely physical, like that of a master violinist with their Stradivarius.

Hang on, I’m going to get it . . .

I feel a warm glow from the sapphire infusing my palm as if it’s alive. It’s the energy of Alex’s mercurial essence. Maybe if I keep it close to my body, I can sustain him with my energy.

I feel the circuit of energy. The flow is highly directional—a beam moving through the crystal’s elongated axis and focusing into the six-rayed star as if it’s a flashlight emitting a star beam. It feels like it’s reaching across the interdimensional void toward him.

But I can’t just keep clutching the Star Chrysalis. I want to be able to wear it like an amulet.

I can think of some practical solutions, but they’re all rather tacky. The easiest would be a beach bank— one of those plastic, screw-together cylinders on a string that people use to keep money dry at the beach. I could pack the chrysalis in tissue paper to keep it from rattling around. Wearing plastic is lame, but it’ll keep it close to me until I arrive at a better solution. I recently saw them for sale at a CVS. There must be one in a town this size.

OK, I did a search, and there’s one about half a mile from where I’m parked. I can walk there in a few minutes.

24 Sarah and Mahj

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The mission to acquire a beach bank never happened, but something much more interesting did . . .

I step out of the Mothership, the sapphire clasped tightly in my hand. Sunlight breaks through the overcast sky as I stand at the edge of the park. The warm light is dappled with dancing leaf shadows. I hear angelic music from somewhere in the park, which gives me a feeling of stepping into a dream. The sound is like a telepathic whisper, yet it’s audible in the outside world.

I wonder if my mind is conjuring the music from the sound of the wind, but for a moment it sounds like distant singing. It’s louder to my left, and as I start off that way the singing becomes more distinct.

At the far end of the park, I see the back of a slender figure sitting on a park bench, the partial silhouette of an acoustic guitar poking out from either side. I draw closer.

The singer is an exceptionally beautiful woman, about twenty years old. She’s sitting with the casual, athletic grace of a ballet dancer, her olive complexion framed by a profusion of long, brown hair. Her hazel eyes gleam with mystical awareness and her eyebrows are knitted in concentration on her instrument.

Graceful fingers against steel strings. Her engagement with the music is both devotional and spontaneous. She’s wearing a handmade jacket of dark green and brown velvet with a pointed hood and pinecone-shaped buttons.

Without interrupting her playing, she gives me a welcoming smile full of luminous warmth and impish humor. I’m the only witness to her extraordinary performance.

Her voice is as lyrical and mysterious close up as it seemed when mixed with the wind at a distance. A travel-worn guitar case is open before her, a scattering of crumpled dollar bills and glimmering coins on the deep-blue velvet interior. I take a five-dollar bill out of my pocket. When she finishes her song, I approach to drop it into the case.

“Thanks, that’s very kind,” she says.

I’m struggling to think of an appropriate compliment to offer about her music when I notice a large woven blanket beside her displaying a collection of jewelry. I’m immediately transfixed.

There are bracelets made of hammered, inlaid metal and amulets of crystal intricately wrapped with silver and copper wire. I kneel down to study them.

“You made these?” I ask.

“No,” she replies. “My friend Mahj did.”

“They’re amazing,” I say, picking up a textured silver bracelet inlaid with garnet, citrine, and amethyst.

“Let me know if you see anything you like. We’ve got more besides these.” She gestures toward a nearby stack of presentation cases.

I unfold my hand to reveal the Star Chrysalis.

“Does Mahj make custom pieces?” I ask. “You may not believe this, but I just stepped out of my van looking for a way to turn this into an amulet.”

I tell her about my plan to get a plastic beach bank from the drug store. She smiles knowingly.

“I think we can do a little better,” she says, grinning at the synchronicity. “Mahj should be back any minute. My name is Sarah, by the way,” she adds, extending her hand.

“Andrew,” I reply. “Oh, and your music. I was so drawn in by the jewelry I never got to say. Your singing—when I stepped out of my van, I thought I heard angels in the distance.”

“Thanks, man!”

“Well, it’s really appropriate—” I hesitate, unsure how much to disclose. “This crystal . . .” my voice catches, “it’s connected to my best friend. He used to live in this town.”

“Did something happen to your friend?” she asks gently.

“Yeah . . . he’s no longer with us,” I reply. The silence is strained, and I feel an inner version of Alex objecting to the vagueness of my statement. “He took his life a couple of days ago.”

The color drains from Sarah’s face.

“Oh wow, I’m so sorry. Was he . . .” There’s a moment of confused hesitation, a sense she has to ask something but fears my answer. “Was your friend by any chance about our age? Small, blonde, blue eyes?”

“Yeah,” I reply, taken aback.

She balls her left hand into a fist and brings it to her mouth, biting down on her clenched index finger.

“I’m so sorry. . .” she says.

“You knew Alex?” I ask.

“Alex . . .” she says, pronouncing his name thoughtfully as if hearing it for the first time. “I feel like I do, but I only met him once. I mean if it was him. A couple of days ago, right here in this park. We didn’t have much time together, but it was one of the strangest encounters of my life. I’ve been thinking about him ever since. Actually, the song you heard me singing was something I just made up, inspired by that night.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“A guy I know from a couple of festivals dropped a small bag of shrooms into my guitar case earlier that day and said, full moon tonight before he winked at me and walked off. I ate them as soon as the moon came out. When they kicked in, I felt the call to adventure.

“Mahj wasn’t up for tripping that night, so I set out alone without a destination. As soon as I saw this park, I felt its mysterious vibe and wanted to explore. Everything was all in shadow, like an enchanted forest or something. I took a few steps, and it just swallowed me up. Suddenly I was in this whole other world.

“I realize I was high on shrooms, but every step seemed to take me deeper into something.

“I followed this hedgerow until it opened into a big circular clearing paved with flagstones. There was a giant sundial in the middle—you must’ve seen it coming from that side of the park.”

I nod.

“Such impressive ancient tech,” Sarah continues. “Like it was excavated from Atlantis or something like that. A real power object. At least—that’s how it seemed while I was trippin’.

“But it wasn’t just an object because there was a person who seemed to be part of it. Standing perfectly still in front of the sundial was this intriguing-looking boy. I notice he’s small, but his shadow is long in the moonlight. I remember it streaked onto the sundial like the hand of a clock. To my stoned imagination, it seemed like he was making himself the shadow pointer of a moondial.

“The whole experience was like a waking dream. I felt like I knew a whole story about this kid—that he’s a time traveler, the moondial is his time machine, and I showed up just when he was about to use it to disappear from my world.

“I don’t want to disturb him, but I’m curious to see what a time traveler looks like, so I slowly approach. He turns like he expected me to be there. Now that I can really see him, his time-traveler vibe shifts. It’s weird, because I can still feel all that depth of history flowing through him, but he looks my age. Maybe a little younger. He’s wearing a dark hoodie. And he’s got these dark circles under his eyes with this haunted look, like he’s traveled across eons of time and experienced a lot of tragedies.

‘Hey man, I was about to roll a joint. Wanna puff?’

‘Sure,’ he says. ‘Very kind of you.’

“I pull my papers and little jar of weed outta my bag and set em’ on the edge of the sundial. I wasn’t sure if I was disrespecting his time machine by doing that, but he doesn’t say anything. I get the feeling he hasn’t slept in days and is living at the edge of a dream.

“Rolling the joint feels oddly serious, like a ceremony or something.

“The whole time, he just stands there looking out into the darkness of the park like it’s the night sky. It seemed like he wasn’t gonna talk unless I did first ya know? So I tell him about the guy who gave me the shrooms, and how I was drawn into the park and to the sundial.

“I can tell he’s listening, but he still doesn’t say anything. It almost feels like he knows what I’m going to say before I say it. I offer him the joint. He takes a couple hits and passes it back without a word.

“I really wanna break through the silence, so I ask him if he felt drawn to the park like I did, and, ya know, what he’s doing here on a full moon. And he says,

‘Trying to escape my inner demons.’

“Like it shoulda been obvious. So I ask him, ‘What kinda inner demons?’

“He takes another hit. And when he exhales, it feels like time is slowing down. The air gets really still, and the smoke starts to play around him in these delicate swirls.

‘The kind that burrow into your soul and hollow you from the inside out . . .’ he says, real matter of fact like.

“I start to feel frustrated by his knowingness as if I’ve asked him all this before, and he seems to pick up on it instantly.

‘Actually, I have different kinds of inner demons,’ he says in a way that sounds a little apologetic. Like he’s sorry for how he’s been talking to me and is making an effort to give me straight answers.

‘There are the ones I’ve given birth to out of bitterness. From what was done to me and vile deeds I’ve done and can’t forgive. But there are also intruder demons—little worms and parasites crawling inside me, feeding on my dark feelings.’

“And then he’s quiet again. Like he’s lost in those dark feelings. I feel sorry for him and want to give him a hug, but I sense it wouldn’t go over right. We’re just too out of synch, and it’s hard to think of what to say next.

‘What can you do about inner demons like that?’ I ask. ‘I mean, wouldn’t they stick with you wherever you go?’

‘Exactly,’ he says, with this mysterious smile, like I just summed up everything.

“He turns to stare at the sundial, and I get that time-traveler vibe again like he’s just waiting for me to leave so he can dip off in it. So I point at the dial and ask what it means to him.

‘It means I need to escape time.’

“Our eyes meet, and I see so much sadness and regret, like he’s caught up in some deep tragedy. Then he turns away quickly, looking all ashamed for some reason. ‘Thanks for smoking me out and talking to me,’ he says with a humble bow. And before I can say anything back, he turns and walks off into the night.

“I sit by the sundial for quite a while, feeling this deep regret. Maybe it was an effect of the shrooms, but it felt so intense. Like I’d missed some crucial opportunity. He was so beautiful and mysterious. I wanted to know more about him, but I didn’t even get his name.

“It feels like we had this encounter before. Maybe many times before. And each time I failed to . . . I don’t even know. Do or say the right thing, I guess.

“It’s all so confusing and haunting because where do the shrooms leave off and reality begin? I can’t tell . . . I’m sorry to go on like this, I just can’t get him out of my mind. Does . . .  Does that sound like your friend?”

“Yes, that was definitely Alex. And I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but I can relate to the regret. I’d been searching the country for him, but I didn’t find him until . . . Until it was too late. So, I’m the one who failed to help him. . .”

I stop myself.

I shouldn’t burden her with my feelings.

“Listen,” I add, “please don’t be hard on yourself about the role you played. When you met him, he’d already decided to end his life. There was nothing you could have said to change his mind. You gave him authentic human contact before he stepped out of time. And for that, I’m forever grateful.”

Just then, a startlingly handsome young black guy approaches us. He’s got long dreadlocks and an easygoing physical charisma undermined by brows furrowed with concern. There’s a moment of awkward tension as I realize this is Mahj, and that he’s not just Sarah’s friend, but her boyfriend. Seeing the emotional intensity in our faces, he’s understandably wondering what’s going on between us.

“Hey man,” he says to me before turning to Sarah with a puzzled look. “You alright, Sarah?”

She lets out a heavy breath as if clearing away her sadness and nods to him.

“Yeah. I’m good,” she says warmly. “We were just, um . . . This is—”

“Andrew,” I say and extend a hand to him. After a moment of hesitation, he accepts it.

“Mahj,” he says with a shake. “What happened? Am I missing something important? You guys look extremely serious.”

Sarah catches him up on our conversation, and his mood quickly shifts toward sympathy.

“I’m sorry to hear about your friend,” says Mahj. “I’d be honored to turn your crystal into an amulet. May I see it?”

I place it in his open palm. He weighs it in his hand and turns it over, studying it closely.

“It’s a beautiful crystal,” he says. “I’m trying to think of the best way to set this. I think it’d look best in copper, but I can do it any way you want.”

“Do it the way that feels right to you,” I say, confident in his ability.

I gesture toward the jewelry displayed on the blanket.

“All your pieces have a look of organic inevitability, like artifacts of an ancient culture.”

“Thanks!” says Mahj, his face lighting up. “I’m used to people saying my work looks cool, or awesome, or whatever. But, organic inevitability—I’ll have to remember that one.”

I reach toward the blanket to pick up the bracelet that first caught my eye. It’s made of hammered, antiqued silver, inset with tiny cabochons of citrine and garnet. Engraved on the silver band is an intricate geometric pattern. It looks ancient and other-worldly.

“This is beautiful. What are you selling it for?” I ask, remembering I’m flush with cash gifted by the Origami Boy. It seems appropriate to trade some of that strangely-gotten money for a magical artifact.

“I’d like to get three hundred for that one,” Mahj says.

“Sold,” I reply. I reach for my wallet and pull out three hundred-dollar bills.

“Thank you,” Mahj says, “we really needed a sale. Here, let me show you how to put it on without bending the metal.”

I hand him the bracelet, and he gently takes hold of my wrist. I’m slightly surprised by the tactile contact and hope he doesn’t feel the weird topography of fireskin beneath my long-sleeved shirt. I can’t remember when anyone last touched me.

“See, you just come in at an angle like this and let it move into your tendon. Then you just let the other side slide over.”

The polished inner surface of the cuff rests comfortably on my wrist. Mahj gives me a warm smile and lets go of my arm.

Even after he removes his hands, the bracelet feels strongly infused with Mahj’s energy. It was his original design, and he must have spent hours intensely focused on crafting it.

“You can sit with us while he works on your amulet if you want,” says Sarah.

“Thanks,” I reply.

Sarah resumes singing and playing guitar while Mahj pulls out tiny pliers and spools of copper wire in different gauges. With the two of them occupied by their respective arts, I let my thoughts wander.

Ever since I was a child, I’d been aware that certain objects retain the vital energy of someone closely associated with them.

The sapphire was imbued with Alex’s essence. But now the amulet is being infused with Mahj’s energy as he weaves his copper wire with the concentrated focus of a surgeon. Sarah’s song, inspired by Alex, her story of their encounter, and the Star Chrysalis being turned into an amulet, all fill me with hope that my relationship with Alex is still unfolding.

Mahj and Sarah are such a beautiful and talented couple, I can’t resist idealizing them. They seem less like people from the present era and more like mystical travelers. They obviously live on the road, traveling along the margins of society as Alex and I had, interacting with various subcultures. But unlike us, they don’t seem like lonely exiles.

I grew up in Manhattan, where beautiful people tended to walk around as if a spotlight were following them, their whole being focused on exuding a glossy force field of camera-readiness. But Mahj and Sarah seem unselfconscious of their looks as they sit on the grass and assume the status of street people. Their energy is flowing into their arts and not on giving off glamorous attitude.

While Sarah pauses to re-tune her guitar, I tell them about Alex juggling the crystal.

Mahj stops wire wrapping and stares at me intently.

“Wait,” he says, “tell me again what your friend looks like.”

I do, and his stare grows even more intense.

“Did he work trimming weed in California a few years ago?”

“Yeah,” I say with curiosity. “He was on his way to a trimming camp when I met him.”

“Oh my God,” says Mahj. “I met him once too. It was a few months after I went on the road. I was working at a camp down in Humboldt.

“I slept out under the stars, and when I woke up in my sleeping bag, I saw something that made me wonder if I was still dreaming. There was a kid with blonde hair dancing by himself in the sunlight. Spinning around his body was some kind of orb. I kept closing and opening my eyes, thinking that I was still dreaming or that my eyes were playing tricks on me. Finally, I had to get up and go to him.

“The orb turned out to be an acrylic contact juggling sphere, glittering like crazy in the sunlight as he did amazing contact juggling stunts. I mean, lots of festival kids juggle or do fire dancing or whatever, but this was like Cirque-de-Soleil level. When he saw me approaching, he did a few more tricks and then swept his arms down and bowed toward me like a magician at the end of a performance.

“I asked him a few questions about what he was doing, which he answered, but I got the impression he was shy and secretive. He said if he knew anyone was up, he’d have gone deeper into the woods to practice.

“I kept asking questions, and he opened up a little. He told me he had watched some videos but was mostly self-taught. I got him to show me a few of his tricks, and he had me practice with the orb, but I kept dropping it.

“He seemed so solitary and private. It felt like it would be disrespectful to approach him again. I saw him at the camp for the next few days, but that was it. I’ve always wanted to thank him because he inspired me to get into contact juggling. It’s become one of the great loves of my life.”

“I know we’re in his hometown,” I say, “and that explains why I’m here and why Sarah would have encountered him in his favorite park. But for all three of us to have a connection to Alex . . . It seems . . .”

“Improbable?” Mahj says.

“Yeah,” I nod in agreement as the mystery of it resonates between us. “Still, I’m guessing none of us are living statistical lives.”

“Well said,” replies Mahj, giving me a dazzling smile. “We’re not living statistical lives, indeed.”

“Something brought the three of us together. . .” says Sarah, trailing off.

In the gentle silence that follows, that “something” floats all around us.


Sarah looks to Mahj as if seeking his assent.

“Hey, if you’re OK with it, we can do a little performance in honor of Alex,” she says.

“I’d like that,” I reply.

Sarah attaches an electric pickup to her acoustic guitar. Mahj picks up three slender rods lying on their trade blanket. They have taped gripping, and one of them is longer with translucent tassels at either end.

“What are those?” I ask.

“They’re called devil sticks. It’s a type of juggling that’s been around forever, though you don’t see it as often as other forms.”

He holds the two smaller sticks in either hand and balances the tasseled stick between them. Sarah begins playing the same chord progressions from earlier, but now the music is reverberating through her battery-powered amp.

She hits a loop pedal to play lead over the rhythm, adding more and more layers on top of each other. As she plays, Mahj spins and stalls the tasseled stick back and forth between the hand sticks. He twirls it between his legs and behind his back, rolling it all about his body in a remarkable display of balance and athleticism. It’s an acrobatic dance.

Guitar chords shimmer in the air. They loop and superimpose—musical phrases resonating with perfect harmony. It reminds me of a favorite piece of Icelandic music Alex and I used to play at the start of every journey—”Missing at Sea” by Maggie Björklund.

The looping of the guitar chords and gyroscopic dance are hypnotic, and time spirals inward. I’m compelled to close my eyes as the outer world recedes from attention and is overtaken by an unfolding inner vision.

I’m peering down into a desert of red stone canyons and giant buttes.

My vision floats across the landscape and is drawn to a circular area of sand surrounded by large boulders. A few feet above the sand is the same bronze sundial from the park. It hovers in the center of the clearing like an alien spacecraft.

The dial is blurred by vibration like a speaker cone, but I notice the sharp angle of its triangular hand points toward me as if demanding something.

The dial throws a dense shadow onto the sand below. My vision travels into the shadow, where I witness a scene unfolding at the edge of the park at night. I’m standing next to the Mothership while Sarah and Mahj load up their camper.

We’re about to caravan somewhere.

It’s a possible future, a beautiful path. But . . . It’s not my path. It would be a diversion from a greater fate and necessity.

Suddenly I’m tumbling slowly, end over end, through space. . . I’m not sure how long I’ve been there or if I’d ever been anywhere else . . . My body feels fuzzy like it’s made of dust or tiny crystals . . .

“Hey man, are you OK?” A voice reaches me in the void . . . I open my eyes.

Mahj stands before me, looking concerned, devil sticks tucked neatly under his arm.

“Everything OK?”

“Oh,” I shake myself back into this reality. “Yeah, sure. Sorry, I was just spacing out and getting hypnotized by the juggling and guitar loops. It was quite a show,” I say, my face flushing with embarrassment as I realize I’d closed my eyes during his performance. “Sorry, I just—I had an inner vision come up.”

“No worries, man. I understand,” says Mahj smiling and giving me a friendly pat on the shoulder.

And it seems like he actually does understand.

“I should probably get back to work on your amulet anyway,” says Mahj.

“Sure, sure,” I say, still clearing my head. “Hey, I’m gonna go for a walk. I’ll pick up some sandwiches or something for everyone and come back in an hour or so.”

“That’d be great. Wire-wrapping burns a lot of calories,” says Mahj laughing. He swaps out his devil sticks for a pair of needle-nosed pliers while Sarah thoughtfully experiments with guitar chords. I leave them to their pursuits and walk back through the park toward town.

25  New Life

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I feel altered by the vision, but also get the feeling I’ve missed or misunderstood parts of it. I walk through a vague miasma of free-floating anxiety, as if I’m forgetting something of crucial significance.

In the vision, I’m in a zone of dangerous unreality, a nexus of alternate timelines. Fateful currents swirl around me, and I could easily drift into the wrong one.

And—it’s not just the vision—I’m in that danger right now.

Naming my predicament diffuses some of the anxiety.

The vision showed me the possibility of an alternate life—departing from Sundial Park with Sarah and Mahj. It’s not just a notion—glimpses of that timeline play in my mind. I see myself telling them I write about subcultures. They confer with a glance and ask me if I want to travel with them to one.

I want to say yes, but I can’t. I have to follow a darker and more difficult path. Intuition tells me I need to leave soon after Mahj finishes the amulet.

But leave to where?

I walk until I come across a Thai restaurant that does takeout.

Hopefully, they’ll appreciate Thai food more than sandwiches.

Waiting for the food to be prepared, I realize I’ve unconsciously chosen Thai because of the nostalgic resonance with my first meal with Alex. There must be a childish longing in me to create a parallel first meal with Mahj and Sarah. My romantic nature, always drawn toward the impossible, is attracted to both of them.

I feel the longing more acutely when I return with the food. They greet me with enthusiasm and devour every bit of it, which feels almost absurdly fulfilling.

When we’re done eating, I retrieve my laptop to catch up here. I alternate between observing them and writing for the rest of the afternoon and early evening. Mahj is intensely focused on the amulet while Sarah plays music and interacts with the few people who stop to listen and make small donations.

It gets chilly when the sun goes down, so I invite them into my nearby Mothership.

“That’d be great,” Mahj responds. “I’m almost done, but low light and chilly fingers don’t mix well with wire-wrapping.”

Once inside, Sarah and I watch as Mahj finishes the amulet. I’m dazzled by his creation when he hands it to me. The Star Chrysalis is secured by a spiraling weave of copper wire that’s intricate but also extremely durable. I know it’s newly made because I watched it come together. But once finished, it exudes this uncanny quality of timelessness, an ancient feeling like it’s endured eons to get to me.

Mahj attaches the amulet to a sturdy copper chain and adjusts the length, so it rests in the center of my chest. I put it on, and its warmth emanates into my body.

Whatever the source, it’s not a subtle feeling I have to strain to perceive but a distinct current running through me. It may be wishful thinking, but I feel the energy flowing through the amulet is nourishing Alex.

I get The Origami Boy’s roll of cash, peel off three hundreds, and hand them to Mahj. “Is this enough for your work?”

“Whoa, are you sure? That’s more than I was going to ask,” Mahj protests.

“Of course, I’m sure,” I reply. “To be honest, I’m no authority on jewelry, but most wire-wrapped stuff looks sloppy and thrown together. But every one of your pieces is masterful. If anything, I’m underpaying you.”

Mahj laughs warmly.

“Well, you’re very kind,” he says, passing the cash to Sarah. “Thank you.”

“This is enough for us to get down to New Mexico,” she says as she adds it to their stash. She turns to me. “How do you fund your travels, Andrew?”

The moment becomes dreamlike as I give my well-rehearsed answer about subculture journalism. My vision of the red desert superimposes on the present. It’s exactly as I saw it. Mahj looks to Sarah, and they come to a silent agreement.

“We’re headed to Taos,” he says brightly. “There’s a community building houses called earthships out in the desert. You should come with us. I mean, it’s obviously a subculture, and we’d both enjoy your company.”

“That sounds fascinating,” I reply. “Thank you. But . . . I’m already committed to another destination.”

I feel a tug of regret answering, and once the words are out, I realize I can’t follow up with an answer about where I’m going. Because I don’t know.

“Hey, I’ve got a bottle of red wine,” I cut in before either of them can ask. “Do you want to share some before I go?”

“Hell yeah!” they reply in near unison.

I retrieve the bottle that’s been sitting for months in a galley cabinet. It gives me a chance to think of a destination, but I’m uncomfortable with lying. Fortunately, I don’t have to, as they don’t ask.

When I sit back down, Mahj is rolling up a blunt. I pour the wine, and Mahj sparks up. I take one half-hearted toke to be sociable but decline every round after.

I’ve gotten creative inspiration from weed but smoking in a social setting rarely works for me. I usually get anxious and feel alienated from the group. Even back in the day when I was interested in weed, I noticed that smoking more than once every couple of days made the medicine lose effectiveness. I know it works differently for others. But for me, if used often, weed becomes more like a sloppy intoxicant, dulling my mind rather than expanding it.

I’m not sure why, but I start feeling uneasy as I watch Sarah and Mahj smoking without any apparent benefit to their state of mind. I get up and set my ceiling exhaust fan to max to keep the acrid smoke from lingering.

Yeah, I realize most people don’t smoke to expand their minds but to chill out. Also, I realize that I’m the one who impulsively offered the wine and set this up. And wine’s not usually a consciousness-expanding drug either.

I’ve been alone or traveling with Alex for so long that I forgot just how awkward hanging in group settings is for me.

Anyway, once Sarah and Mahj are thoroughly stoned, the social atmosphere, at least in my perception, grows stagnant and slack. They become giggly and unfocused, talking a little about this and a little about that. I make the minimal efforts courtesy requires of me, pretending to be engaged with their meandering talk, but they seem oblivious to my disengagement.

It’s painfully disappointing to see this charismatic and talented couple become dull and self-absorbed. I felt close to them before, but now it’s like they’re on the other side of the Grand Canyon.

I didn’t feel that way when Sarah was intently focused on her music and Mahj on the amulet. I’ve always lived on mission time. But now Mahj and Sarah are on giggly hangout time, and that’s a mode I’m allergic to. I can’t wait for them to leave so I can be alone with my own thoughts.

Yes, I realize how much that makes me seem like an uptight asshole. Maybe Alex was right when he said I’m the most condescending motherfucker in the universe. But when intoxicated people get into this kind of mental channel-surfing mode—jumping from one ill-formed and unfinished thought to another—all I hear is the dread ticking of the clock. I feel as suffocated as I would in a bingo hall or an ice cream social at a retirement home. It’s not that I’m saying my way of spending time is better than theirs, just that mine is more suitable for me.

Actually, that’s not quite honest. I may not be saying it’s better, but I am thinking it. I just find mundane social situations frustrating and claustrophobic, and I don’t seem to have a choice about that. It’s intrinsic to my nature to be allergic to relaxed social time. It may be prideful delusion, but I always feel imbued with a seriousness of purpose, a life mission requiring me to be disciplined and focused and to live on an edge.

In college, people always told me to lighten up, chill, and live a little. By live a little they meant stay up all night hanging out with random people in various states of intoxication, fragmented conversation, and flirtation. They were always laughing at shit that had zero humor value unless you were intoxicated in exactly the same way they were. I particularly hated it when they laughed about sex as if we were all in on the same joke.

Maybe I’m just bitter and jealous because of my fireskin. Maybe if I could get drunk and casually flirt with people, I’d think it was a blast. It’s not like I don’t understand why they’re into it. Maybe I’m just a social misfit.

For better or worse, what works for a lot of other people just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel like a member of a different species when I see how all-in people get in mundane party mode. They talk over each other, their faces flush with excitement, desperately eager to interject inanities and laugh uproariously at their own idiotic jokes.

Nothing they say is even remotely funny to me, but everyone laughs right on cue. And all the while, they’re hyped up with the sense they’re livin’ large and are cool for using all the same embarrassingly lame slang words and catchphrases everyone else is busily wearing out.

No one seems to notice how tired it all is, how indistinguishable from countless other party scenes and hangouts. On the contrary, they seem to think there’s something revolutionary about being drunk and promiscuous. Somehow, by aimlessly partying and getting loud and obnoxious, they’re renegades, raising their collective middle finger to the system.

But to me, they are the system.

They’re more completely systematized than sanitation workers backing up garbage trucks or office workers in cubicles shuffling papers in the accounts-payable department. At least most people working such jobs have the good sense to feel bored and disaffected by the mundanity of what they’re doing . . .

Damn, maybe I shouldn’t have written all that.

Just one of those agro rants that used to fill my journal when it was completely private. But now that I’ve written it out, I can’t take it back. Mostly it’s just a reflection of my being freakishly introverted and not well adapted to group social situations. And I realize my complaints are grossly unfair to associate with Mahj and Sarah, who aren’t stereotypes, but unique, talented people. They’re just not at their best when they’re stoned. And to be fair, if journalism has taught me anything it’s that even people who seem stereotypical can turn out to be far more complex when you really get to know them.

The problem with Sarah and Mahj was that I’d been idealizing them all day—a bit infatuated with both of them, to be honest. Had we parted ways earlier, they’d have remained forever idealized in my imagination. But given enough time with anyone, enchantment always turns to an equal and opposite disenchantment.

Now that I’ve written that out, I see the contradiction. Alex. My endlessly enchanting disenchanting person. And whenever I stop venting and really look into my feelings—it’s all contradictions and paradoxes.

Earlier in the day, I admired Mahj and Sarah’s charisma and looks, especially their casual unselfconsciousness about their physical beauty. But now, hanging out with them in their off time, and seeing them interact as a couple, the same qualities make me feel both envy and annoyance.

How easily they take for granted their attractiveness to each other and their general coolness. They can afford to be loose and giggly. So opposite of me and Alex. Or really, me and anyone. Or, for that matter, Alex and anyone.

And yet, it’s the very fact that I don’t fit in so comfortably that makes me who I am. Just like how Alex’s tormented empathy makes him who he is.

Feeling like an uncomfortable visiting anthropologist allows me to see and be aware of so much that comfortable folks miss. So, yeah, I’m jealous of them, but I would also never trade places, either.

Anyway, when it comes time for Sarah and Mahj to leave, my irritation and feelings of social alienation dissolve, and my perception comes back into balance.

They’re no longer my idealized fantasies of who they are, but they’re still beautiful, talented people I will likely never see again. Each of us had our own connection to Alex, and our paths fatefully converged for one day.

As I walk them back to their camper, the social claustrophobia of hanging in the Mothership fully releases.

I feel heartfelt gratitude for the day we’ve spent together. On some level of reality, our meeting feels like a great accomplishment or joyous victory for all of us. I realize that doesn’t make much logical sense, but I think they feel it too—both of them are beaming.

They each give me a hug, and the physical contact feels profound, at least for me. It’s the only tactile contact I’ve had with anyone since Alex left, and it makes parting from them even more difficult.

When I close the back door, there’s a feeling of closing off any possible shared destiny. Part of me still wishes I could go with them to the earthships in New Mexico, but there’s a deeper feeling that I will soon be led elsewhere, and I’m thankful for what we shared.

Mahj’s bracelet is securely on my wrist, the sapphire amulet is close to my heart, and Sarah’s song still echoes in my mind. Today would’ve been a day of overpowering grief and abandonment, but because of them, it was filled with new life.

26  The Way Remains

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Sleeping in the back of the Mothership, I flow through deep currents of dreamless sleep until I arrive at my destination and wake up within a dream.

I’m in the same desert from the sundial vision, surrounded by a moonlit landscape of mesa and giant, red-stone buttes. I look down and see sage growing from the sandy red soil. When I look up, I find The Origami Boy standing before me, his blue-gray eyes studying me with compassion.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says. “I don’t know the details, but I know your friend is gone. I think you should meet me here. I can guide you if you’re willing.”

“I am,” I reply.

A long journey begins taking shape in my mind. Roadways and elevations rush past, long stretches and tight switchbacks, link and diverge until the way is etched into me. The path ends seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a point off a rough dirt road in the desert.

“You’ll remember when you wake,” he concludes with an assuring nod.

The dream ends, but the way remains.

It’s still predawn, but my sleep was deep and restorative. Hurriedly, I slather lotion onto my fireskin and get ready for departure.

I fire up the Mothership and wind my way through darkened streets and onto the highway. As I accelerate along the exit ramp and merge with the interstate, I feel a release of confinement. The sapphire amulet, dangling from its copper chain, hangs in the center of my chest.

The possibility of a strengthened connection to Alex gives me hope as the Mothership accelerates away from Cascade, Washington, headed Southeast toward Arizona.

I keep trying to reach out to Alex on the long drive. As I focus my thoughts, a memory of our encounter two days prior plays in my mind—Alex walking off into the darkening forest.


I turn toward the co-pilot seat, hoping to see Alex, but it’s empty.

I want to believe the link is still active. And yet, it’s hard to trust such perceptions when my physical senses report only silence and emptiness.

There are times when I don’t feel him at all. Memory and imagination are ready to animate him before my eyes and heart, but it’s just not the same as when he’s actually present.

Come back, Alex.

What if our last encounter really was the last?

My thoughts project into a receptive space as if an open channel waits to receive them. But it’s not Alex on the other side.

An image of the Origami Boy appears in my mind. He stands in a moonlit plain of sagebrush and piñon trees. His presence is a navigational beacon.

He beckons me towards him.

When we first met, he offered to help me find Alex. Maybe he can help us stay linked.

The drive is a blur of blacktop, gas stations, rain, and more rain. A stormy weather system bogs down the whole region of the country. Intense crosswinds, never easy on high-profile vehicles, force me to grip the steering wheel tightly as the Mothership is jerked across the lane by gusts of wind.

The day turns into a driving marathon. Though I started predawn, the bad weather slows me considerably. Eventually, I make it through Washington, Oregon, and a good part of Idaho. By the time I pull into a truck stop near Twin Falls and kill the engine, it’s well into the evening, and I’m completely spent. I step out of the Mothership and look around, realizing I’d spent a night here before in my travels with Alex. It had been summer then, and the cornfields were verdant and ripening toward harvest. Now they’re little more than stubble.

27  Crossing  Over

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I cross the Arizona state line the following day. The rain I battled for most of the journey vanishes, but high winds still sweep the plains as I pass through a vast desert landscape. The sun is setting, and there are no other vehicles on my stretch of the road.

I turn off my headlights for a few seconds and see the silhouettes of giant stone buttes haloed by stars. They seem ominous and powerful, like nuclear reactor towers.

The Origami Boy’s instructions lead me to a barely visible sign indicating a turn onto a dirt road. It’s actually just a cattle trail running between two crumbling fence posts.

The road is rutted, and I drive slowly, fearing I’ll lose traction as I steer between the deeper ruts and sand traps. Objects rattle in the back cabin, and gravel pings against the undercarriage as I navigate with my highbeams.

I continue until the road ends at a turnaround worn into an expanse of sagebrush.

I pull in, kill the engine, and click off the twin-spotlighted glare of my headlights. The Mothership is suddenly enveloped by darkness and the sound of wind flowing over her hull.

My eyes gradually adjust, and through the dusty windshield, I see an expansive mesa illuminated by silvery moonlight. I slip on my nylon parka and my weathered camera bag and step out into the night.

The wind-blown expanse of sagebrush is broken by towering stone buttes. The nearest one is a great looming presence, radiating immense power like a silent and impersonal desert god.

The dirt road is the only evidence of human civilization.

I walk a few paces into the sagebrush and survey my surroundings. When my gaze returns to the Mothership, The Origami Boy stands several feet in front of me.

He’s perfectly still, as if planted in the ground along with the sagebrush. His eyes are hyperalert, like an animal sensing danger in the night. He’s wrapped in a cloak dappled with camouflaging colors of desert plants and red sand. The wind stills, and he steps forward to greet me.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says. “And I appreciate you coming to meet with me so soon after,” he adds, looking at me thoughtfully. “Perhaps you can take comfort from some of what I know about your friend’s departure.

“I know it’s not what you wanted, but it was a fateful inevitability. His path was already chosen. That’s how you were able to dream about it beforehand. You did everything you could to find him, but he didn’t want to be found. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone could have stopped him. And now—he’s gone from this world, and yet, your bond is still alive.”

“How do you know these things?” I ask.

“I will explain, but not here. We should relocate. For now, I’ll just say that dire forces have compelled me to crossover and offer you an initiation. If it works, it will accelerate a metamorphosis already underway in you—

A metamorphosis?

“—but the path I offer is difficult, and I honor your right to decline.”

Metamorphosis—already underway?

It’s a shock to hear him use the word I’ve always believed in, but Alex always doubted.

“The metamorphosis is real, Andrew. But you’re still in an early part of it.”

“You said the initiation will accelerate the metamorphosis if it works. What would cause it to fail?”

“It includes a dangerous phase that could threaten your sanity. So, you’re wise to be cautious. And once again, I fully respect your right to decline.”

A gentle wind ripples his cloak as he studies me.

“I don’t mean to make this sound like the sort of challenge you must accept. I’m guided by my inner truth, but don’t presume to know anyone else’s. Only you know what’s right for you.”

“Tell me what the initiation entails.”

He gives me a solemn nod, and the energy around him starts to swell. He looks calmly into my eyes while his form shimmers and changes. It’s a dazzling transformation. The same being holds my gaze even as the color of his eyes shifts to green, and his hair becomes luxuriantly long and golden. Only as the brilliant glow around him fades back into the moonlit night, like something newly forged and cooling, do I realize who is standing before me.


He looks the same as he did when I first met him in the meadow during my near-death experience, but—there’s a shocking alteration.

He’s covered with dozens of lacerations that are still healing into scars. They crisscross in long, twisting lines down his face and neck, like the map of a cruel journey.

In every other way, he’s uncannily beautiful and bears neither sign of age nor the awkward, unfinished aspect of youth. It makes the scars stand out with painful incongruity.

He gives me time to settle after the transformation. I know who he is, but I need to hear him say it.



Memories of our earlier encounters flash through my mind. But so much has changed.

“Your scars—what happened to you?”

“Part of the price of crossing over. . .”

I sense the terrible sacrifice behind Jeremiah’s words, but he diverts me from dwelling on it with a smile of deep appreciation that lights up the space between us.

It feels like he’s known me longer than I’ve known myself.

“Come,” he says, “I will take you to another world. A much better place to discuss the initiation.”

Another world?

I follow him unquestioningly into the brush, certain that he means to conjure another origami of some sort.

“Oh no, nothing like that,” he says.

He points across the mesa to a blur of varicolored light pulsing in the distance.

“Out there in the sagebrush is an opening to another world. An Earth, parallel to this one.”

“A parallel Earth?”

“Yes. It will make more sense once you experience it for yourself.”

His words are surreal, but he speaks them in such an authentic manner that I fully believe him.

We’re silent as we walk. Though we’re two pairs of footsteps, all I hear is the occasional crunch beneath my feet. Jeremiah creates no sound or ripple of disturbance as he moves through the night. He’s vigilantly aware of our surroundings, as well as the soulful undercurrents of the moment.

We’re punished by a fierce headwind as we approach the source of the light, causing my eyes to water and my vision to blur. With each step, the ground scintillates and dances from the brilliant lights ahead. I’m squinting so hard I have to keep my eyes down and focused on Jeremiah’s feet.

We cross the edge of a clearing, where I blink my eyes and look up to see the cloaked silhouette of Jeremiah. He’s walking undeterred toward a turbulent vortex blasting out wind and colored light.

The power of the anomaly makes me stop. It’s almost impossible to comprehend. It’s like a tornado crackling with kaleidoscopic lightning.

Without breaking stride, Jeremiah walks directly into it. The wind violently blows his cloak around him, but his posture is calm and erect. He stands in the center of the vortex, illuminated by the spinning fury. There’s a flash, and then he’s gone.

Holy shit! Did he just get vaporized? No—he knows what he’s doing, and I’ve got to follow or get left behind!

I take a deep breath and step into the anomaly.

Extreme turbulence.

It feels like I’m about to be stripped down to atoms, but when I reach the center, it’s perfectly still, like the eye of a hurricane.

The stillness alters time, slowing the fury of spinning motion until I can resolve its elements.

And it’s the strangest thing I’ve seen in all my life . . .

I’m in a vortex of luminous filaments, twisting and sparking with energy, and they have no beginning or end. They’re like the glowing strands of a double helix being whipped around by some unseen rotational force. Even more bizarre, the strands form into a funnel that folds in on itself again and again and again.

For a blinding moment, it feels like a ground-emanating lightning strike is erupting through me. The bolt rips out of me with a sudden—Flash!

28  Wen’s  Way  and  Shadow  Journeys

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I’m standing in the same spot, hearing a scream fading into the silence of the mesa. It takes a moment to realize the scream was mine. I’m hyperventilating, but there’s no anomalous vortex or even any wind left to disturb the stillness.

Jeremiah looks at me calmly, waiting for me to catch my breath.

“What was that?” I gasp in shock.

“A portal,” he replies in almost a whisper as if he doesn’t want to disturb the silence around us.

“Traveling across time or long distances of space in a single reality is often more difficult. But it’s possible to slip into a parallel reality with barely a ripple of disturbance. See if you can feel what’s different.”

Faint moonlight illuminates the mesa, and I can smell the sagebrush all around me. Here and there are boulders and piñon trees, and the whole landscape seems to emanate silence.

Jeremiah watches me patiently as I begin to perceive the difference. This is the same mesa, but not the one where I parked the Mothership. Geologically it’s the same, but this land does not have the name “Arizona.”

I suddenly grasp the reason for the overwhelming quiet.

I’ve lived my whole life with a blaring radio of others’ thought forms in the background of every moment. The blare was so incessant I wasn’t aware of it. But here—it feels like I’m the only human being.

I’m an alien presence. My black nylon camera bag rests against my ribcage. It’s the most familiar of objects, but in this place, it’s an anomalous artifact of polymers, lenses, sensors, and computer chips in a world innocent of such things. My presence as a technologically outfitted Homo sapien feels like an ominous intrusion.

The fertile silence settles over me, a silence I’ve never known was possible.

I want to ask Jeremiah a question but speaking aloud in this realm feels wrong. It would be a crude way to communicate, like yelling through a megaphone to an attentive friend standing next to you. Instead, I speak to him as I did with Alex.

Can you hear my thoughts?”

“Yes,” he replies. “But it won’t disturb anything to speak aloud here. I’ve prepared a campsite nearby with food, water, and wood for a fire. It will be a more comfortable place for us to talk.”

As we walk across the high plain in the moonlight, the air fragrant with the scent of desert plants, I become aware of time unfolding in a strange, new way. This is a primordial world, free of human time frames and tempos.

We approach a rock formation, a crown of red stone emerging from the plain of sagebrush. The stones are fringed with an aura of barely perceptible indigo light, like the distortion of air beyond the blue flame of a gas stovetop.

We pass through the crown of stones to a circular area of fine red sand. At the center is a fire pit of precisely fitted rocks surrounding a teepee of sticks and kindling.

There’s a stack of firewood, a pile of folded wool blankets, a woven basket filled with pine nuts, and glass water bottles.

The campsite has been assembled with ritualistic care, like a tea ceremony. It feels protected and intimate.

Jeremiah divides the wool blankets into two piles to make seats for us.

“I gathered these pine nuts from the surrounding mesa, and the water is from a nearby spring. Eating and drinking the matter of an alternate realm helps ground you there. On the other hand, if it’s a world you want to escape, it could trap you.”

I grab a bottle and a handful of pine nuts. Jeremiah reaches into a light shoulder bag made of the same camouflaging material as his clothes. He pulls out a small ceramic cylinder which he uses to ignite the kindling.

Soon the fire blazes, sending sparks flying up and disappearing into the high desert night. He feeds the fire larger pieces of wood until it becomes a crackling orange glow pulsating with warmth.

“What is this place?” I ask.

“I call it the Green World,” Jeremiah replies. “It’s a version of Earth where humans never evolved.”

“Is this your world?”

“No,” he says plainly. “My world exists in a timeline that diverged from yours four years before I was born. The differences between our timelines became more pronounced over the years. Nevertheless, I grew up on an Earth similar to yours. The main difference is that technology advanced more quickly in my timeline.”

“You grew up on Earth? Where were you after that?”

“When I was fifteen years old, my small, intentional community was chosen, without our permission, for a . . . strange experiment. We were rendered unconscious and put into suspended animation. When we woke, we found ourselves aboard a space-faring biosphere that had left the solar system far behind.

“Our journey through space lasted for a generation. And during that time, some of us became a new species.

“Obviously, space travel will alter anyone. Our ship had about half the gravity Earth has, which affects bone density, among other things. Far more powerful, though, was being separated from the rest of the species. Our exile felt like an amputation. We had been part of a planetary body with so much life force. Then suddenly, we were splintered off that body and cast into the endless vacuum of space.

“No human community had ever been in such a state of isolation, with all its energy concentrated into one space-faring crucible.”

“Was your small intentional community in Vermont? Somewhere in the Green Mountains?” I ask.

“Yes,” Jeremiah replies, “and I know what informs your question. It will all become clear soon. Our community was based on permaculture principles and nonviolence. There were other such communities scattered around the country, but we were an unusual group. All eighteen of us were members of a human subspecies with metamorphic potential. This is a key part of what drew us together in the first place, but it wasn’t until after the abduction that we became aware of it.

“Several of us had a history of paranormal experiences, and two of us, including me, had visions of global apocalypse in the months leading up to the abduction. We assume that whoever designed our experiment, must have known about the unusual evolutionary potential of our group.”

“You mean the people who abducted you? You don’t know who they were?”

“We were never able to figure that out. The scale and speed of the ship were far in advance of any technology publicly acknowledged on Earth. Whoever built it had gone to great lengths to leave no fingerprints. We never found anything on the ship to identify its exact origin. Every detail, down to the computer chips inside components, lacked identifiers. No national insignia or corporate logos anywhere.

“But who would go to all that trouble? What would be the point of secrecy after we’d left the solar system? And why wouldn’t they have programmed the AI in control of the ship to tell us once we came out of suspended animation?”

Jeremiah stares deeply into the fire, as these old, unanswered questions resonate within him.

His disclosures are dizzying, but I trust him implicitly. Though my mind is swimming with questions, I try to regain my center. I sit back and stare into the fire. Smoke seasons the air around us with aromatic hints of pine and juniper.

“Why does it feel like you know me?” I ask. “I mean—more than our brief encounters.”

“Because I know the version of you in my timeline,” Jeremiah replies. “You were eighteen when the divergence occurred. I learned about your early life history from the Andrew I know. Until you were eighteen, you and he were the same person.”

I’m staggered by this revelation of another version of me living off-planet. Jeremiah gives me some time to absorb the news before he continues.

I met the other Andrew when I was fifteen, and he became part of our community. At the time, he told us he was twenty. In actuality, he was thirty-seven, but the metamorphosis had halted his aging. He didn’t admit his true age until we were on the ship.”

“So he was part of the community that traveled through space?”

“Yes. We’ve been close since I was fifteen. Much of what I know, I learned from him or with him.”

“Does he also know Alex?”


“And in your reality, did Alex—”

“Yes, he did. That’s why I said it was inevitable.”

I let his words sink in.

“And you said dire forces compelled you to cross over?”

“Yes. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Andrew, but your timeline is heading toward an extinction-level event—the extinction of the human species. I’ve been sent back to make an intervention . . . That’s the main purpose of the initiation I’m offering.”

The extinction of the species.

I’m stunned by his certainty of an impending apocalypse. My mind is a swirl of questions, and there are too many to choose just one.

Suddenly, a glowing question mark materializes in the smoke rising from the fire. It’s bright green and bloated like a balloon. It floats before us for a moment and then pops like a bubble.

Just as quickly as it goes, a vast proliferation of similar question marks fills the space around us like rapidly popping popcorn kernels. Each is multi-colored and uniquely shaped. They flash into existence, flittering around us like weightless confetti glowing colorfully in the night.

In a cascade of pops, the question marks disappear into nothingness. Jeremiah smiles at me, his grin almost childlike.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll get to all of them.”

I let out a breath.

“How did you do that?” I ask. “Was that something you created in advance?”

“Not consciously,” replies Jeremiah. “I just have a general idea of what I want, and some larger mind manifests it.”

He pauses to add wood to the fire, which crackles and sends up a plume of sparks.

“It’s like how dreams occur,” he continues. “We don’t design every detail of a dream in advance, do we? And yet dreams are far more complex than what I just created.

“You once—sorry,” Jeremiah says, catching himself, “the other Andrew once explained it to me that way. He theorized that dreams are generated by the cosmos.”

Jeremiah shifts his tone of voice to perfectly mimic my parallel self, the Andrew he knew so closely.

“Even the dreams of ordinary people,” he says in a perfect semblance of my voice, “are as dazzling and multi-layered as a David Lynch film, and yet they’re invented on the fly. My theory is that they’re generated in spontaneous collaboration with the cosmos. Our psyches are like bubbles, floating in a field of infinite potential.”

I’ve had similar thoughts, so it’s easy to believe another version of me said them. Jeremiah continues in his own voice.

“Conjuring the question marks was a spontaneous collaboration of that sort. It’s something like lucid dreaming. The field of infinite potential recognizes imaginative intentions and realizes them for you, generating images as effortlessly as a dream.”

“So, when creative people say they were inspired, or they channeled something that just came through them—that’s the field working through them?”

“Partly,” he replies. “There might be rare cases where it all flows in from the field, but they’re probably overstating the case. Usually, it’s more collaborative. The artist’s psyche holds the seeds of creation, and the field is the nurturing soil that allows their visions to grow. However, there are times when the seeds come from the field itself, and then the reverse is true. We become the soil that helps them grow.”

“And when we share visions telepathically—that’s like our individual bubbles overlapping?”

“Something like that,” he says. “Though any spatial metaphors are a bit misleading. The bubbles can overlap in nonspatial ways that don’t require physical proximity to another psyche.

“The telepathic state is like a mutual dream where our imaginations may collaborate, and usually without the need for conscious direction. I intended to manifest the question marks, and then it’s as if some larger processing power rendered the details. And when two people have a strong telepathic rapport, visualizations don’t have to be consciously summoned by one or the other.

“Once you become used to this way of interacting with people, it’s almost painful to remember the limitations we once had. Now it seems hard to believe that we could only make these little mouth noises prior to this evolution.”

As Jeremiah falls silent, a vision appears—it’s like a beautiful Hudson River School landscape painting of the Old West, but it lives and breathes.

The dying embers of a spectacular sunset illuminate two Native American camps.

They’re separated by a deep canyon with a river flowing far below. The teepees of each camp are conical silhouettes against the reddish-orange horizon. The natives surround large campfires, flapping blankets to relay smoke signals across the canyon.

It’s a beautiful evocation of an old way of communication. Smoke signals and mouth noises were high magic in their time.

“I stand corrected,” says Jeremiah. “A butterfly should not view caterpillars as inferior, but as beautiful and necessary manifestations of its own lifecycle.”

I decide to confront the darkest of Jeremiah’s revelations.

“You said humans are heading toward extinction.”

“Yes. But from your place in time, the extinction is in a future that is still partly unformed.

“My hope is that your initiation, if you choose it, will generate ripples leading to a timeline in which the extinction doesn’t happen. Whatever new species may arise from it, the main trunk of human evolution will continue into an alternate future. The extinction timeline will still exist, but only as the lesser timeline, like a sickly branch off the trunk of a tree. Some life will continue in that branch, but humanity will not.

“Sorry, it’s a flawed analogy, and I’m not explaining this very well,” says Jeremiah, seeing my perplexed look.

“What you need to understand is simpler than it sounds. Right now, there are only two timelines to consider. There’s yours, and there’s the one I come from, which branched away when you were eighteen. When you were fifteen, there was only one Andrew, so the one I lived with had the same near-death experience you did. That’s how I know about his encounter with an alternate version of me named Tommy.”

“But wait, if my near-death experience happened three years before the split, how could I have visited with you? Your timeline didn’t even exist yet.”

“It didn’t exist during the moment in time where your physical body was, but when you left your body, you left linear time behind.

“But please don’t think that I understand everything about time anomalies and how it’s possible to cross timelines,” adds Jeremiah, “I don’t. Like you, I know what happened from my perspective in time, but how it all works is far beyond me. And what I know of the larger patterns—the extinction and timeline split, comes from someone I encountered named Wen, who was able to step out of linear time to view certain things. But even he didn’t know how it all works.

“Anyway, getting back to the Andrew I know, you and he were the same person until the timelines split. After, your lives probably diverged only slightly at first, but more and more as time went on. I’m guessing you both had similar relationships to Alex.”

“How much do you know about Tommy?” I ask.

“Only what I learned from the other Andrew, who told me about the brief moments they shared in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He also told me about Alex’s encounter with Tommy.

Unlike you and the other Andrew, Tommy and I were both born after the divergence. Therefore, we’ve always been different people. However, though I was given a different name, we both grew up in an intentional community in the Green Mountains and built treehouses. So I think our lives must have been quite similar until we were fifteen.”

“Alex had a vision of Tommy as a captive in a giant greenhouse. Did anything like that ever happen to you?”

“In a sense, it did. The giant spacecraft that made the crossing had many areas where we grew plants for food and oxygen which could be considered greenhouses.

“But I think Alex’s vision of Tommy must have been during the extinction event on Earth. It sounds like he was living in a self-contained environment, perhaps a biosphere. If the extinction was caused by a plague or something poisoning the planet’s atmosphere, biospheres would be needed as survival shelters.”

“That makes sense,” I say.

“But there’s a lot more I can’t make sense of,” Jeremiah continues. “There’s a connection I have to Tommy that remains a mystery. It’s haunted me since I was fifteen and relates to how I ended up in a space-faring biosphere with the rest of my small community.

“I built my treehouse at the edge of our land, about a quarter-mile from our cabins and other buildings. I was sleeping in it on the first night of summer when I was awakened by the sound of helicopters.

“I look out and see them hovering just above the treetops. They’re matte black and have no lights or markings. They circle above our settlement, releasing a yellowish gas that is blown downward by the rotors. It’s inexplicable and terrifying. We’re just a tiny community living in the woods, not bothering anyone. Who would want to do this to us?

“Part of me wants to run to town to get help, but something tells me not to, that I should move closer and find out what’s going on.

“I climb down from my treehouse and walk stealthily along the field where the helicopters are landing. I’m careful to stay hidden by the surrounding trees.

“From the edge of the woods, I’m horrified to see people in tactical gear and gas masks carrying everyone away in stretchers and onto the helicopters. One of them is giving orders. I draw closer under cover of tree shadows and see the commander is some sort of military robot or cyborg.

“It must have infrared vision because it turns in my direction, locating me in the darkness. I stand still, in case I haven’t been detected, but it strides toward me. I want to flee, but I know I can’t outrun something like that. I expect it to shout orders or grab me, but it halts a few feet away and just stands there. Whatever intelligence is inside of it observes me through its black lenses. It feels like it’s keeping a respectful distance, so I won’t be frightened.

“Time slows, and I get this strange feeling, as if the cyborg knows me and has waited a long time for this encounter. Finally, it breaks the silence—’Tommy,’ it says, as if that’s my name.

“And that’s the last thing I remember on Earth. I must have inhaled some of the gas because my memory stops there.

“When I regain consciousness, it feels like I’ve been asleep for a century. We were never told how long we’d been put down, but it was probably only a few years. I’m completely disoriented and physically ill, like an unnaturally reanimated corpse.

“When my eyes focus, I see a pale-green medical robot staring down at me. It hovers above me as it goes through a series of diagnostics, gently palpating my abdomen with silicon-padded fingertips.”

“At first, I’m the only one awake, but then the robot moves onto Andrew. One-by-one, it revives all of us.

“Once we’re all awake, the AI informs us that we’re onboard a space-faring biosphere, navigating across the galaxy. We were chosen to be part of an evolutionary experiment. The biosphere will sustain us for the generation it will take to reach our destination, an Earth-like planet chosen for our future colony.

“None of us could ever solve the mystery of who took us. I was haunted by the abduction even more than the others because I’d seen it happen. And my interaction with the cyborg felt so—personal.

“The Andrew I knew was the newest member of our community, having been with us only a few months before the abduction. Until I recounted my experience to him, I had no clue why the cyborg called me Tommy. Then Andrew shared his near-death experience, and his encounter with a boy named Tommy who looked just like me. It was why Andrew had sought out our community in the first place. He’d been searching for Tommy ever since his NDE. Instead, he found me. After sharing these mysteries, we became close friends.”

Jeremiah becomes silent, and I gaze into the fire, trying to absorb the implications.

As he described his encounter with the cyborg, it seemed like I was looking out from his memory, as I’d done with Alex. I saw the cyborg’s looming form and the complexity of its exoskeleton. And I felt Jeremiah’s haunting perception of the dark figure as it cast a long shadow across time.

“You say you’re here to catalyze a metamorphosis in me that’s already underway. Ever since the car crash, my life has become more paranormal. I’ve had ideas about it, but—what exactly is the metamorphosis?”

“The species you’re emerging from, Homo sapiens, is rapidly evolving,” Jeremiah replies. “It wasn’t always. There were stretches of hundreds of thousands of years when people made the same kind of stone ax. But the Homo sapiens of your time are in an acute metamorphic stage. If that evolution continues, they will likely emerge into several new species. Some may involve genetic engineering and the union of man and machine, while others may be self-evolving forms of artificial intelligence.

“But I’ve only been able to observe the development of one new organic species—the one to which I belong. The one you are evolving toward.

“The name we’ve given to our species will sound mythological, but we don’t think of it that way. As the metamorphosis took hold, we came to share an intrinsic awareness that . . .  we are elves.”

Jeremiah’s words hang in the air, rippling with unreality. Disbelief makes me wonder if I’ve heard him right.

“Elves?” I ask.

“We had to call ourselves something, and wherever that name came from, we had a hunch it was an anticipation of our new species. But the similarity we felt was more influenced by modern fantasy books and films than the old Celtic version of elves. At first, we regarded the name as more of a whimsical place-holder, but over time we concluded this mythical name anticipated an actual biological type.”

“And—being an elf means what? That you don’t age?”

“No, we do age, but not like humans do. And there are many other differences. Right now, you are what we call a protoelf. You have the strong potential to become an elf if the metamorphosis continues. However, extremely few protoelves experience any degree of metamorphosis. Most regress over time and become more human. They simply age out of their potential. Unless one grows up in a community with some who have completed the transformation, it takes extraordinary catalysts to cause that potential to actualize.

“Many evolutionary changes exist as a latent potential for eons before they fully manifest. What triggers these changes are exceptionally ideal conditions, including just the right sort of catastrophe that necessitates transformation. In our case, we had elements of both. Also, our biosphere was an isolated evolutionary cauldron, like the Galapagos Islands. But instead of being separated from the mainstream of evolution by an ocean, we were set apart by lightyears of space. Because of that, our development was swift.

“Like the other Andrew, your life has been a strange combination of ideal and catastrophic elements. It takes a lot to disturb the equilibrium enough to catalyze a quantum evolutionary shift.”

“And what does that . . . quantum evolutionary shift—the metamorphosis—consist of?” I ask. “You say you age, but I don’t see any physical sign of it.”

“It is largely a process of etherealization. The ratio of ordinary energy shifts in favor of astral energy. And by energy, I also mean matter, which is just a special case of energy. We used to say that astral energy is at a higher frequency, but one of the more scientifically inclined members of our community said that’s wrong, and that we should not talk about frequency in relation to this. His argument was quite technical, and I can’t recall the details, but it seemed well-reasoned.

“At first, we felt awkward using old Theosophist words like astral and etherealization. But any other terms would be equally arbitrary.

“We’ve never pretended to understand entirely how the metamorphosis works. Our small community doesn’t have enough scientifically trained people for such a vast undertaking. A planet with billions of humans had yet to fully understand how ordinary matter and energy work. Our understanding of how astral variants work is still extremely primitive.

“What I’m about to tell you is how some of us think about it. We don’t even call it a theory—it’s just a rough and ready understanding. Still, it does seem to accord well with our experience.

“As the ratio of ordinary energy shifts toward the astral, there are a whole series of other changes, such as a cessation of conventional aging and an increase in telepathic abilities. Protoelves are humans with more astral energy and varying degrees of metamorphic potential. But potential is not enough.

“Many of those with us during our crossing did not metamorphose. They became old while our bodies remained youthful. It was—”

Jeremiah falls silent, and I feel him containing a depth of emotion.

“It was a difficult part of the process. Difficult for those who failed to metamorphose, but maybe even more so for those of us who did, those who live on in their absence . . .

“But wait, you were already a small group—how could this even smaller group who underwent the metamorphosis propagate a new species? There’d be too much interbreeding.”

“The ship did come with a cryogenically stored diversity of sperm and ovum, but eventually we realized in-vitro pregnancies weren’t necessary, because the metamorphosis somehow eliminated the possibility of recessive traits.”

“We struggled to understand why some underwent the metamorphosis, and others didn’t. The strongest correlation was that metamorphosis favored those, like me, who were young at the time of the abduction. We realized how many factors, especially on Earth, were weighted against the transformation. Almost every life choice alters the ratio of astral and ordinary energy.

“Protoelves are on a spectrum but are usually much closer to being humans than elves. In normal circumstances, protoelves don’t metamorphose. On Earth, there are so many poor influences—addictive substances, factory-made food, opportunities for meaningless sexual encounters, destructive relationships, oppressive jobs, lack of meaning—you name it. As a result, most protoelves lose their potential. Those who can remain protoelves into middle age and beyond are usually remarkable in all sorts of ways. And an earthbound protoelf that can undergo any degree of metamorphosis is an anomaly.

“Like you, the other Andrew was such an anomaly. I know you to be capable of the full transformation because he was the catalyst for those of us who underwent the change. As the first, he was the only one who could guide us through it. When he looked back on his life, he found his metamorphic process had no clear beginning. Signs of it were apparent as far back as he could remember, but his near-death experience was a prime catalyst.”

“Do you know much about his relationship with Alex?”

“Yes. For one thing, I know their relationship was a crucial metamorphic catalyst. After Alex’s suicide, they became an inter-species symbiont—a hybrid entity Andrew called a coaxial, with two psyches sharing two bodies. One body was primarily organic, and one was mostly astral. They found a number of ways to strengthen their link. For example, Andrew would visit Alex during lucid dreams.

“In one of their encounters, Andrew gave Alex an item of jewelry, an amulet he was wearing. Apparently, the dream object became an astral version, so they each wore the same talisman, Alex possessing an astral version of the physical version Andrew wore.”

I feel the warmth of the sapphire amulet resting in the center of my chest, but I don’t say anything. Jeremiah smiles, sensing the shift in my attention.

“You carry it with you already. Perhaps it will serve you in the same way.”

I place my hand over the amulet as Jeremiah tosses more wood onto the fire, sending up another plume of sparks that disappears into the desert night.

“We believe the potential for elf metamorphosis arose in the human species long ago, and perhaps this accounts for some elf lore. Apparently, the metamorphosis is a massive epigenetic change that can happen to certain protoelves in exceptional circumstances. The species, however, would seek to suppress such a massive mutation.

“Organisms seek homeostasis. Homo sapiens react immunologically to any mutants in their midst. As the other Andrew put it, they defend their equilibrium. Mutants are a threat to the consistency of the genome and potentially to the social order. In the schoolyard, the nation-state, or wherever collective human social structures exist, they tend to be harshly repressed or destroyed.

“Homo sapiens once lived amongst Neanderthals and other hominids, but somehow, they predominated. The human species is not inclined toward tolerating other hominid species living amongst them. Some evolutionary biologists believed this was the source of racism and developed a theory of pseudospeciation—human races tend to perceive each other as if they are competing hominid species. Since elves actually are a different species, if we lived in the past then we most likely had to cloak ourselves to escape genocide.

“To the collective human ego, the metamorphosis of the old genome into something new would be perceived as apocalyptic. Similarly, a caterpillar’s immune system attacks what are called imaginal cells that will eventually congregate and turn into a butterfly. The older species reacts immunologically to the emergence of a new one.

“To avoid attack, many protoelves instinctively learn to hide their differences, and may also actively suppress their protoelf aspects to fit in. If you don’t want to be a protoelf, it’s easy to destroy your potential. A highly processed diet is enough to reduce astral energy to the normal range.”

“Do you think you’re the first elves? Could there be others?”

“Perhaps in the deep past, other protoelves underwent the metamorphosis, and maybe that accounts for the lore. We don’t know. Any elves amongst the human population would be forced to disguise themselves to avoid persecution. But even if they hid their abilities, they couldn’t stay in one place for long because people would discover they weren’t visibly aging. So they would have to keep moving, cloaking themselves and covering their tracks through time.

“You’ve already found some ways to deflect dangerous attention, but soon that won’t be enough. As the metamorphosis continues, living in your world will become increasingly dangerous. You’ll need the advanced self-defense skills and cloaking techniques we’ve developed.

“Even if you don’t choose the initiation, I’m willing to help you with these survival skills.

“In your world, protoelves attract many forms of attention, some of them quite dangerous. They light up as glowing splinters in the minds of other humans, attracting envy, desire, and hate. And the more anomalous they are, the more dangerous attention they attract unless they learn to hide it.

“In our new world, the first-generation elves discovered that many of us had tragic histories of attracting sexual predators back on Earth. And—something of that nature happened to me a few weeks before the abduction.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say. “That didn’t happen to me, but it did to Alex.”

“Yes, I’m aware of his unfortunate history. Protoelf bodies are more etherealized, which also means a reduction of entropy and random defects. It increases the likelihood they’ll be well-formed and pleasing to look at.”

“Beauty is not just a byproduct of evolution, but one of its central aims,” I point out, “Darwin made that case in 1871, and that view has made a comeback recently.”

“Yes,” Jeremiah replies with a smile that tells me my other version must have made the same point.

“Of course, most attractive humans are not protoelves,” he continues, “just as some protoelves are not particularly beautiful, but the correlation is strong. And even if they are not conventionally attractive, they have a certain glow that draws attention. Protoelves are perceived as a genetically exotic race. This causes some to desire them sexually. Some may also want to dominate them out of a feeling of genetic competition. Sex predators may be motivated by a combination of these instincts.

“The other Andrew was also targeted for a sexual assault in his late twenties, but by that point, he had metamorphosed enough to defeat his attacker in an unexpected way. The kinesthetic discoveries he made that night evolved into a new type of martial arts. It’s an art we practice more as a discipline than anything we actually need in our mostly peaceful community.

“Cloaking, and this form of defense, are part of a set of practices we call The Vehrillion.”

“The Vehrillion?” I ask.

The word sounds oddly familiar to me, but alien at the same time. I can’t place it.

“Yes. An unusual name, I know,” Jeremiah says. “It actually started as a joke. We were talking about what to call our new practices, and Andrew said ‘Well, it’s got to be something cool and mystical sounding, something like The Vehrillion,’ and we all laughed. Later, he said the word was just something he made up on the spot, a variation of some name he read in a fantasy novel. When we tried to think of a different name, they all sounded lame and pretentious, so we decided to use the joke word so we wouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Jeremiah smiles at the memory, and I see a side of him I haven’t seen before—a lighter, playful self—enjoying himself in the company of friends. He still seems otherworldly, but I catch a glimpse of the teenager he once was. Beneath the cruel lattice of scars and the teacher role he feels duty-bound to assume, his playful self is still alive. He’s both old and yet still young—not just physically—but in other ways too. It’s a new category of age that’s hard to grasp.

“Over the years, the name came to seem inevitable,” he continues. “So, we called our school The Vehrillion. Eventually, some of the next generation of elves—those born on the new world, or Gen Elf as we called them, wanted to join. So we developed an initiation process for them. Everyone in the community knew the joke origin of our name. Still, we always started by emphasizing that history to Initiates.”

“Because you didn’t want to become a cult?”

“Right, and we saw how easily that could happen. A healthy sense of humor about ourselves helped keep us from becoming dogmatic and pretentious. The founding members, including Andrew and I, didn’t want to be seen as an elect. Paranormal abilities can cause ego inflation and power trips, and we were always aware of that hazard.

“Also, we didn’t want to create tradition-bound magic. We were more on the side of chaos magic, where the individual is encouraged to create their own rituals and meanings. An attitude of creative play and experimentation was welcomed. Initiates were told to use the Vehrillion as a starting point to invent their own individual variations. We were eager to learn from them. Playful confidence enhances creativity—’the confidence of a four-year-old wearing a Batman T-Shirt’ as someone put it. We were all just partners in learning and didn’t want to create any sort of hierarchical priesthood.

“Despite our resistance to grandiosity, the Initiates started calling us, the founding members, The Adepts, a name we resisted. Eventually, we gave in, but to avoid a closed hierarchy, we insisted that anyone who reached a certain level of training would also be called an Adept.

“The one area we did take seriously was ethics. Using magic to interfere with anyone’s free will was forbidden unless such means were necessary to prevent some far greater harm. The powers we taught were dangerous to anyone who hadn’t integrated their shadow. So, before Initiates could receive the inner teachings, they had to undergo a difficult, even sanity-threatening ritual we call The Shadow Journey.”

Jeremiah gets up to bring more wood from the pile at the edge of the circle.

Shadow Journey.

The name resonates strangely in my mind. Jeremiah adds a few branches to the fire, and I wait for the crackling to subside.

“And this Shadow Journey is the initiation you’re offering?”

“The beginning of it. The most difficult part.”

“You say it’s sanity threatening?”

“Yes, but that’s not the full truth. For some, it threatens sanity, for others . . . we’re still trying to help them recover.

“This is why we’re careful not to prompt the Initiate’s decision. Many who have seen the effects of the Shadow Journey wisely chose not to undergo it. We honored that decision as coming from their inner truth.”

“What makes it so dangerous?”

“It involves bizarre identity transformations. Sometimes the Initiates experience whole lifetimes as other people, even other species.

“Some think of them as complex hallucinations in something like the Dreamtime or another level of reality. One Adept, Justin, calls them The Bridge Realms. He thinks of them as parallel realities created during Shadow Journeys. Justin is an anomaly—he’s taken Shadow Elixir multiple times, so he knows more about it than anyone.

“Others believe the Shadow Journey takes you into preexistent parallel realities that your psyche tunnels into. Nobody knows for sure. But wherever it takes you, it’s extremely disorienting to return.

“Some take years to recover, and others—well, as I said, others may never fully recover their sanity. That’s why we honor the right of refusal until the last moment—we never know who will come through intact. But those who have come through achieve an awareness of their own darkness. It’s an important step in the process of shadow integration. This work, though, is never complete. It’s understood, like all aspects of self-development, to be an ongoing process.”

Jeremiah pauses, studying me with calm appraisal.

“The other Andrew was the one who developed this initiation. He tested it on himself and underwent the first Shadow Journey with no guide. His experience was terrifying, even shattering, and yet he recovered well. This is why I think your chances are better than average. But you and the other Andrew are not the same person. He underwent the experience later in life when he was further into the metamorphosis. He also had many more years of inner work to prepare him. On the other hand, you will have an Adept as a guide.

“The truth is there’s no way to fully assess the risk. Every Shadow Journey is unique, so your intuition is the best indicator of whether you should attempt it.”

I take a deep breath and exhale, feeling the weight of this terrifying decision. “I don’t suppose there’s any alternative initiation—like going on a hike until I figure out what my spirit animal is or something?”

Jeremiah smiles at my gallows humor but doesn’t say anything.

“How does it work?”

“It involves taking a mostly astral liquid we call Shadow Elixir. Technically, you could categorize it as a hallucinogen, but it’s far more powerful than any such substance known to humans.”

I try to contain my revulsion, but there’s no concealing strong feelings from Jeremiah.

“I loathe hallucinogens,” I say. “I have a bad history with them, though not for lack of trying. Mushrooms, LSD, DMT, ayahuasca—each made me feel like I was dying. Dying a terrible death where my psyche was being ripped apart. Some people take mushrooms or acid like tickets to a rollercoaster ride. But for me, they’re like undergoing chemotherapy while getting fried in an electric chair. Even weed can make me paranoid.”

“I understand how you feel,” replies Jeremiah. “The other Andrew shared your history with those substances. And yet, it was his alchemical research that led to the development of Shadow Elixir. The distillation of it was a dangerous and volatile procedure that undermined his physical and mental health while it was in process. All the Shadow Elixir we have was created during that one experiment.

“Was he—how long did the journey consume him?”

“From our perspective, only three days. For him . . . he said it was lifetimes. Grotesque lifetimes. But again, his initiation is by no means a direct indicator of yours.

“The other Andrew’s courage was unique, as he took a psyche-shattering dose before the Elixir’s full effects were known. He didn’t have the benefit of everything we’ve learned to assist Initiates. An Adept always serves as a minder for the duration of the experience. We also have Initiates start with a microdose before and a micro-microdose after to help integrate the experience.

“By telling you the other Andrew’s history, perhaps I’ve made it seem inevitable that you should follow the same path. If I’ve created that impression, let me correct it now. What was right for him may not be right for you. Respect for the free will of others is at the core of the Vehrillion. This is a matter of your inner truth, and I want to emphasize again that if you choose not to go forward, I will respect that.”

The choice to accept, to consume this inhumanly potent hallucinogen, is terrifying. Jeremiah is offering me a dignified escape route. But . . . backing down now will mean abandoning everything—the initiation, his vast knowledge of both the metamorphosis and the Vehrillion, Jeremiah himself. It would be sticking my head in the sand and choosing a lesser destiny.

And the stakes go far beyond my own interests. The lesser path could lead to the extinction of the human race.

Jeremiah’s scars bear witness to the suffering he endured to give me this opportunity. And I believe him implicitly.

He’s giving me this choice because he thinks it might prevent extinction.

My whole being radiates fear as Jeremiah is, no doubt, well aware. I’m hesitating at the edge of an abyss, and every second gives my fear more space to expand.

“I’ll do it,” I say firmly. “I’ll take The Elixir.”

Jeremiah nods gravely, but otherwise is careful not to react to my decision. His neutrality seems intentional, part of the code of respecting free will by not showing bias even after a key choice.

“What one Andrew can do, so can another,” I add, trying to lighten the moment. “I’m ready.”

“I admire your determination, but we should spend more time together before you take the Elixir. Being in the company of someone on the other side of the transformation acts as a catalyst. Also, I’d like to prepare you for changes you can expect once the metamorphosis accelerates.”

I let out a breath, relieved there’s still time and preparation before . . .

“Let’s talk about what changes when a protoelf becomes an elf. There’s lots of continuity with our more human selves. We’re still the same people in many ways, with flawed personalities, relationship problems, and many of the same issues that trouble humans. Our bodies have all the same organs, and we do have an aging process—though, as I’ve said, it’s quite different from human aging. We have greater regenerative abilities and aren’t plagued by illness. We recover quickly from injuries, though only up to a point. If severe enough, they can still be fatal. We are amortal, not immortal. Though we can usually avoid fatal accidents for a few reasons.

“Many humans have short-term clairvoyance. Ours is just enhanced. Our intuition and ability to perceive remote events in space and time allow us to sense most approaching hazards.

“Our physical senses are heightened as well. We see, hear, taste, and smell things undetectable to most humans. Our bodies also tend to be smaller and lighter, contributing to our speed and agility. As for our diet, we don’t need to eat as much. And a lot of what humans eat we find repugnant. We don’t tire as quickly as humans and can go longer without sleep.

“Our experience of time is different. For example, we can quicken our metabolism and reaction time in emergency situations. In effect, the world around us slows down, giving us more room to act.”

“And what you conjured in the ranch house—some kind of enchantment—is that something all elves can do?” I ask.

“Yes, but to varying degrees. All elves can share visualizations, but those trained in the Vehrillion can do more. If ethically warranted, we may create illusions in the minds of others, as you’ve experienced. We can appear to them in altered forms or use illusions of invisibility to cloak ourselves.

“But there are even greater differences between us and our source species. For example, elves can merge with other sentient beings in profound ways. We still enjoy the same physical intimacies, but the ability to merge energetically has largely overtaken the more physical way most humans experience sexuality.

“We can also merge our awareness with inanimate objects to pick up memories imbued in them.”

“Well, non-elves can do that too,” I point out. “It’s called psychometry. I’ve felt memories from certain objects.”

I reach for the chain around my neck and slide the sapphire amulet out from under my shirt.

“Alex used to do juggling tricks with this crystal, and I still feel his energy in it.”

“Yes,” Jeremiah says, his eyes intent on the gemstone. “This is not surprising given you’re an evolving protoelf. Maybe I’ve given a false impression. Evolutionary changes emerge episodically long before they characterize a whole species. All the paranormal abilities we possess first emerged in human beings. They’re all on a spectrum. Elves are just further along that spectrum.”

“You read minds so well—I’m wondering if you still speak aloud like we’re doing now, or is all your communication telepathic?”

“No, we still speak aloud when the moment calls for it. It can be a way of showing emphasis or more appropriate for circumstances where telepathy might be too personal and invasive. Like when expressing strong disapproval of something. We’re not perfect. We still yell at times and curse aloud if we’re frustrated. Sometimes even elves need to tell someone to fuck off.

“In general, we’re still a work in progress. As I mentioned before, aging for us involves a gradual etherealization—as astral matter and energy increase, the organic variants diminish. This enhances all the abilities and aspects I’ve mentioned. But we don’t know where this process leads because we’ve had only so much time to observe it. Even amongst the eldest of us, the etherealization continues.

“There are many other differences, but it will be better to discover them yourself after the Shadow Journey. Everyone develops in their unique way, and we don’t want to burden you with expectations. But . . . now that I’ve described it more, do you still wish to proceed? The right of refusal continues until the moment you take the Elixir.”

“Oh, I’d like to refuse—I’d love to refuse—but you said there’s an extinction coming . . . if there’s anything I can do to prevent it, I should. Still, I’m one person—I don’t understand, how can I possibly create that much change?”

“Don’t underestimate the difference one person can make. The more anomalous you are, the more change you create, for better or worse. The mission seems overwhelming because you’re thinking of it in causal terms. I must do A to cause B. But sometimes, we create change by simply being, rather than by a specific action.

“You’re right, though. There is much ambiguity in all of this. I have no way of knowing how or even if this intervention will succeed. We can only work with what is presently in front of us and hope for the best. This is the opposite of a causal mission, where we have an exact physical objective. We have a general goal, but we cannot structure in advance the means we need to get there.

“I may have an influence on you that creates a butterfly effect. And you may, in turn, generate your own effects, the ends of which are unknowable. Through your own subtle means, you may alter the human timeline just enough to bypass extinction.”

“But why be subtle? Why not a decisive act like whatever created your timeline?”

“Gradual development allows for greater evolution. By acting subtly, the intervention filters out through more people—more psyches are influenced. As opposed to a macro shock, like an asteroid hitting the planet, changes over time allow for more free will and unique variations. There’s more room for individual development where many psyches aggregate enough change to alter the timeline permanently.

“When change is delivered as a single shock, there’s a high risk that the pendulum may swing back regressively, which could be another path to extinction. You can’t just attack one source of darkness, because others will rush in to take its place. The hope would be for the species to gradually become more aware of its darkness and for a sufficient minority of conscious people to shift the collective.”

“But your intervention with me isn’t subtle,” I point out. “You’ve taken me to a different world, and the next step involves taking a life-altering substance.”

“Well, you’re right, of course. It seems like a total contradiction, but I think my means are more subtle than they appear. The other Andrew created the Shadow Elixir and went on the first Shadow Journey. I am merely bringing closer what, in one form or another, you would probably find on your own. You’re already a change agent. The initiation merely accelerates the trajectory you’re already on.”

“I understand.” I say, “But it’s still disturbing to know how much is at stake and—I have no clue how to create the right butterfly effects.”

“You may not have to alter your behavior much at all. Extroverts favor causal or chemical means like political activism, while introverts like yourself tend to work through subtle, alchemical means such as art or—like what you already do, writing articles about subcultures. Exposing people to the unfamiliar alters the collective psyche.

“The other Andrew often quoted Jung, who said, There is no hydrogen bomb in nature. That is all man’s doing. We are the great danger. Psyche is the great danger. Andrew pointed out the problems we left behind on Earth—violence, environmental destruction, economic injustice—were all one hundred percent psychological products. But psyche can also be the source of positive change, especially when alchemical means are focused on influencing the collective toward transformation.”

“I can see that, but surely I need to do something different to alter the extinction path.”

“It would be impossible to do exactly what you were doing before taking the Elixir, even if you wanted to. The Shadow Journey and other parts of the initiation will change you in unpredictable ways, so it’s inevitable that your actions will be altered, new pathways opened, new butterfly effects created. You haven’t undergone the initiation yet, so it’s too soon to worry about after.”

“OK. I accept the ambiguity. I’ll do my best, and if enough time goes by and there’s no extinction, I guess it will mean that I, or someone, or something, altered the timeline.”


Jeremiah seems pulled away by something. He’s staring into the fire, and whatever he sees there darkens his expression.

“What is it?” I ask.

“A vision of my last Shadow Journey, the one that led to crossing over to your world. I think it’s coming up because it needs to be shared before you take your own journey. It’s not something I want to relive, but it will explain why I’m here, and it needs to be part of your preparation. If you’re willing, you can experience it with me from a merged-identity perspective. It’s the most immersive way of sharing an experience we’ve found.”

“I’m willing,” I reply. “I’ve had that form of sharing before with Alex.”

“Yes, I thought that might be the case,” replies Jeremiah. “The other Andrew did as well.”

“Even when you told the story about the cyborg, I started to see him from your perspective.”

“That’s a good sign,” says Jeremiah. “It’s a perfectly natural ability. You almost certainly won’t remember any of this during your Shadow Journey. Still, it will be within you somewhere, and when you return, it may help you understand what’s at stake.”

“When I went into the forest to take a microdose of Shadow Elixir, I didn’t foresee the crossing. I was seeking a vision to help my world survive a great darkness that had befallen us. But the Shadow Elixir brought me visions of the Earth we had left so far behind.

“You will share my sensations, thoughts, and emotions. It will happen in stages until you completely lose awareness of yourself and become fully immersed in my perspective.

“I could encounter you in my memory, and you wouldn’t notice the contradiction. You would just experience this other person, Andrew, from my perspective. The experience will help prepare your psyche for the identity shifts of the Shadow Journey. Do you consent to this temporary loss of self-identity and immersive transfer?”


“Close your eyes,” Jeremiah whispers, “Take some deep breaths and just allow yourself to be open to my perceptions.”

I do, and slowly the fuzzy, phosphine-mottled light show behind my eyelids clarifies into a starlit night.

As with the shared memory I experienced with Alex of his awakening in the city of night, the merger with Jeremiah’s perspective happens in fluid stages. Soon, it becomes so encompassing that any sense of my self as Andrew is completely submerged . . .

Below me, I see a forest of coniferous trees. My vantage point dives through the thick canopy until it descends below the tree branches and rests just above Jeremiah’s head. He’s camouflaged in a blanket of velvety fabric that blends with the shadows and carpet of pine needles. There are no scars on his face.

He kneels beneath a tree, his cloak pulled around him. I sense his fear and determination. His eyes pull me into him, and once I’m within, I become aware of much that has led to this moment.

Visions appear, like ripples in a scrying bowl—elusive when I try to see details. As they bounce and play off one another, from the edges of the bowl toward the center, a shimmering light radiates through them and the visions coalesce.

I’m detached when each vision begins. First, I see Jeremiah from the outside, but then I’m drawn into his point of view and see and feel through his perspective.

In the opening vision, I see Jeremiah with the other Adepts, drinking tea as he sits at a table in a meeting hall. The walls and furniture are all made of wood and beautifully crafted with sweeping curvilinear lines. The serene perfection of the interior contrasts the anxiety the Adepts feel as they discuss foreboding dreams and intuitions.

My perspective merges with Jeremiah’s as he tunes into the undercurrents of foreboding. The conversation is interrupted as I, and the other Adepts, sense something invading our world. We perceive the intruder as a nucleus of evil burrowing into a cave system deep beneath Mount Liatrin, east of our settlement. The evil flaunts its presence, but its exact form remains hidden, surrounded by dark cloaking fields. There’s nothing we can do to stop its invasion of our world.

Once situated in its unassailable fortress beneath the mountain, the entity releases its cloaking, allowing us to behold its essential nature.

It is an Archparasite, endowed by the cosmos with the powers of a demigod.

It penetrates the Adepts’ minds with a telepathic command—

“Unless the worthiest of you comes before me, I will devour all of you.”


A second vision. It’s a few days later, and I see Jeremiah walking with the other Adepts in moonlight toward The Initiate’s Lodge.

My perspective merges again when we arrive at the Lodge and find three Initiates have gone missing, leaving behind a letter addressed to us. Anxiety radiates in our mutual telepathic space as each of us struggles to contain our fear.

Horror shivers through me as I read the letter.

“We, who were not thought advanced enough in our training to undergo the Shadow Journey, have chosen to act while others remained passive in the face of this existential threat. We have chosen our own initiatory quest—to confront and defeat this enemy. Perhaps when we return victorious, you will recognize the folly of underestimating our courage and abilities.”

The heroic grandiosity of their wording reveals The Archparasite’s potent ability to twist minds and desires. I feel a moral obligation to attempt a rescue even as I realize this is exactly the parasite’s intention—to lure us into its trap. The other Adepts see it too.

A moment after we perceive the trap, a hurricane of telepathic shrapnel penetrates our minds. Each bit of shrapnel is a shard of memory ripped from the minds of the Initiates.  The parasite has repurposed the broken fragments of their psyches into a weapon.


After the attack, I see Jeremiah set off alone into the forest.

My perspective merges with his as I become conscious that there is a vial of Shadow Elixir in my shoulder bag.

With each breath, I focus my intention. The elixir must reveal a way for the elves to survive.

I set out a blanket beneath a coniferous tree in a secluded grove and prepare to take Shadow Elixir. In my left hand, I hold the vial. The darkly iridescent ceramic vessel is topped by a spire-shaped stopper that rises to a point. I remove the stopper with my right hand and dip the top of it into the vial. I focus on manifesting visions that will help us survive the threat as I touch the point to my left wrist. An inky black dot on my skin disappears as the liquid sinks into my body.


I see geese flying in a perfect V formation through a stormy sky. A moment later, I share their vantage looking down at a turbulent ocean teeming with human thoughts and primal emotions. The clouds part further, revealing the source of the psychic turmoil.

Two fleets of ships—complex structures of wood, rigging, and sailcloth—move slowly through the water. They’re adorned with brightly colored flags rippling in the wind. We fly above them, looking down at their billowing sails. The vessels are crawling with men frantically adjusting ropes, hoisting sails, and readying weaponry.

Canons are pushed through hatches in the ships’ wooden hulls until they bristle with exposed artillery. The two opposing fleets bear flags of different colors, but the thoughts, feelings, and activities of the sailors are almost identical.

The men are straining their muscles and tendons to the limit. I feel their hearts race as spurts of adrenaline pump into their blood. There is a potent mix of smells—saltwater, gunpowder, canvas, wood, tar—but cutting through all of those is the smell of sweat and fear.

Commands are shouted, followed by a deafening roar of explosions as fusillades of cannon-fire erupt from both fleets.

All these complex wooden structures, full of moving parts and people, become one chaotic frenzy of fire and smoke, screaming and blood.


A young sailor kneels on a ship deck slippery with blood. His hands grasp a fallen comrade who is beyond help, his liver pierced by a huge wooden splinter. His gaze radiates agonizing love as he looks into the pale blue eyes of his dying friend. Their eyes become portals, and they merge, their souls united as they struggle to stay alive together for a few more seconds. They’re protoelves, and moments before death, they’re discovering that they have a bond that transcends bodies.

The departing spirit of the wounded sailor rises, and I go with it.

The details below blur into a turmoil of fire, smoke, blood, and suffering as we ascend rapidly. At the edge of invisibility, I perceive something— a hungry web, like a dark funnel in the sky, absorbing the energy of all the torment and rage.


I’m breathing oxygen-rich air pumped into my helmet by a black rubber hose. My fighter jet’s acrylic canopy allows me to glance down at my target—a formation of gray battleships moving through the ocean.

My mind is a cold mechanism driven by adrenaline and the roar of jet engines. Needles tremble on an array of analog instruments around me. I extract critical information from them, flick a switch that arms my weapons—


I stand close to a worker in a slaughterhouse factory line. He stares straight ahead, his eyes dimmed by infinite boredom and numbness. His plastic uniform and face shield are splattered with blood and brain tissue. He holds a stainless-steel pneumatic gun in his gloved hand as he fires a bolt into the heads of cows coming down a chute toward him—


I’m back in the fighter jet, breathing oxygen that smells of black rubber. The diaper in my flight suit is saturated with urine.

I’m cruising above cloud level, accelerating toward Mach 2, when I’m nearly blinded by the light of a hydrogen bomb detonating. The dome of an artificial sun looms up and swells outward. I bank a harsh turn. Brutal G-forces press me into my seat as I desperately try to accelerate away from the approaching shockwave—


I’m hovering above a robotically controlled surgical procedure. Minutely articulated mechanical arms are working on two bodies bristling with cables. An AI system is performing an experimental procedure to transfer the mind of a dying man into a fresh, young body lying beside him, but both bodies are flatlining.


I’m in a banquet hall, humans sitting at tables of white linen. They wear costly fabrics and perfumes, and their pockets are filled with slender machines of metal, glass, and silicon. They have cunning eyes and faces adorned with subtle cosmetics. Spells of deception and power are woven into their every glance and spoken word. With metallic cutlery, they dine on the cooked tissues of their fellow mammals—


Five children, three girls and two boys, sit in a circle in a grassy field. They live in an Eastern European village that’s about to be invaded.

My attention is drawn to one of the girls. Her name is Lydia, and she’s the leader of this small group of children. She’s only twelve, but she radiates old-soul wisdom and character. The charismatic force of her personality has convinced the other children they can influence the crisis with psychic intention. They grasp hands and close their eyes as they sit in their circle.

I realize they’re initiating themselves into the first level of the Vehrillion, and I want to help. I feel their seriousness, moral purpose, and will to rescue their imperiled nation.

The way Lydia has set up the ritual is brilliantly direct and will have powerful effects. Unfortunately, it will also create seeds of discord within the group. She is about to link their psyches into a telepathic mutuality, but she is the only one in the group strong enough to cope with such a boundary dissolution. The psyches of the other children are much less developed, and they’ll be traumatized.

My desire to help intensifies and—


I’m in an astral version of my body, and my awareness extends into someone else, a young protoelf with great metamorphic potential.

He’s in his college dorm room, sitting up in bed, staring at me with fascination and desire. His body is thin and underdeveloped, and his face is too peculiar to ever be handsome. It’s narrow with a weak chin, and dominated by his large, incandescent eyes, a beak-like nose, and sensual lips that look like a comic afterthought.

His gaze is psychic, but in a highly immature and adolescent way that doesn’t distinguish between vision and projection. He sees me as ideally beautiful, and his gloating smile emanates delight at what he thinks of as his ability to conjure me like a personal genie.

Realizations about him flood into me.

His name is Wen, and he perceives his paranormal gifts with feverish grandiosity. His arrogance attempts to compensate for insecurity about his appearance. He’s fueled by rage and thinks of himself as infinitely superior to the same peers he envies and wants to prove himself to. He wants to shock them with his paranormal abilities and show them the funny-looking kid is actually a powerful wizard. If only they could see him in this moment of triumphant magic.

I light up like a trophy in his dilated eyes. His energy is fiery with mystical curiosity mixed with sexual excitement. He desires me to become more solid and approach, but he’s summoned more than he realizes.

Gently, I draw closer. I want to be careful because my presence will alter him in ways he can’t anticipate.

As I merge with him, the energy of his immature sexuality expands into something larger and more encompassing than anything he’s ever felt. I’m more aware of him than he is of himself, and my love honors and accepts the unfinished complexity of his light and dark, his passions and fears. His gloating curiosity transforms into awe and heartfelt gratitude. New paranormal talents are awakening and about to flower in him. He is a seed crystal, and our merging has altered him profoundly. It’s fulfilling to give this strange protoelf something he desperately needs.

The intervention is complete, and now I’m being withdrawn. I ascend into a luminous cloud of unformed possibilities scintillating above the Earth. Below, a few protoelves are awakening in the Dreamtime. They sense my presence and want to make contact, but a force constrains me. Wen is the one I was meant to influence.


I’m back in my physical body, sitting beneath the tree on the carpet of pine needles, the stoppered vial of Shadow Elixir resting before me.

Sitting across from me is a finely featured boy of about fourteen. His body is completely astral, but stable and perfectly realized. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt and dark trousers. His large, blue-gray eyes are somber and preternaturally aware. He’s studying me patiently, giving me time to compose myself and speak first.

But there’s something more he’s waiting for.

An odd familiarity hides beneath his appearance. His presence alters my time perception, and a strange impression arises. It grows stronger, though it doesn’t make any sense. Finally, I have to say it.


“Yes, Jeremiah,” he replies in a soft, mellifluous voice. “I’m Wen, the boy you just encountered. But what was a moment ago for you is my distant past, and I’m no longer the person I was then.

“I must speak to you in oversimplifications because speaking is oversimplification. But it’s what we have to work with at the moment.

“You see me in a form I’ve chosen for most of my travels. It’s right for me in ways I can’t fully rationalize. Perhaps it humbles me in a way I need. But I must confess that you’ve been the muse of my long journey, and long ago, there were times when I presumed to take your form. That was shameful behavior on my part, but a compliment to you, I hope.

“I have long thought of you as my guiding star. If not for you, I’d have become something monstrous. My desire to reconnect with you after our first encounter inspired me to pursue lucid dreaming, out-of-body experience, and remote viewing. I’ve waited so long for this chance to tell you how much you mean to me.

“But this opening exists because I have the bittersweet opportunity to help you fulfill your Shadow Elixir quest. I can tell you about the nature of the parasitic threat to your world and point you toward a perilous mission that might remove it. But . . . personally . . . I don’t want you to undertake this mission, Jeremiah. It’s horrifically dangerous. If I were embodied, I’d lack the physical courage to even consider it.”

While Wen speaks, I engage the Vehrillion truth-saying practice. His words light up as fully authentic. If there’s any misinformation, it’s not intentional. And the practice reassures me that despite the lingering effects of the micro-dose, I’m having an actual encounter.

“Yes, I have nothing but honesty for you, Jeremiah,” Wen says, reading me reading him. “And I will disclose everything I’ve learned about the threat, but there’s no rush because we’re meeting outside of clock time. So, I hope you’ll allow me to talk about myself first. I’ve waited lifetimes to speak to you, the one person who has shown me deep love and understanding.

“My life has been disgraceful in so many ways, and I’ve only myself to blame. If not for you, disgrace would have turned to irretrievable darkness. Instead, I’ve left the worst of my sins behind and discovered ways to do a little good.

“A year after our encounter, I was feverishly pursuing psychonautical experiments, especially out-of-body exploration. I was desperate to find you again, as you were central to my selfish mythology. And with all my contempt for my peers, I was just as oblivious as they were to the churning of world history. Current events were just an archaic newsreel backdrop to my personal movie—the one where I played the starring role.

“We were busy competing for attention on social media when our egocentric movies were rudely interrupted by breaking news. As it turned out, we were living through the end of human history. A viral plague called The Whip was tearing through the world. People began dropping like flies, torn from their bodies through gruesome deaths.

“Governments began distributing packs of euthanasia pills called The Dose for any who wished to avoid the horrific death brought on by the virus. But my inflated pride disdained such a pharmaceutical escape hatch designed for the masses.

“Even as a child, I was disgusted by the thought of being merely one of billions of meat bodies, trapped along with the rest of the species in a gravity-bound, animal shell with gross functions. Adding insult to injury, my body was inferior to most of my peers, which was an even worse affront to my pride.

“I wanted to live in the non-linear time of my imagination. Time navigable by desire and will. And I hated what I considered mundane and mediocre, which was almost everything and everyone. My greatest contempt was for the social matrix of my peers. They judged me by my inferior appearance, failing to recognize my great talents. But it was an envious antipathy, because I was desperate to show them how great I was.

“When the unstoppable nature of The Whip was disclosed, I hatched my escape plan. I would graduate from the mortal coil before my classmates and show them, show the world, that I did it my way—Wen’s Way.

“I needed no factory-made pills to bring on a sleepy, unconscious death. Instead, I’d achieve a magical afterlife, empowered by what I read in my Alistair Crowley books. Or so I thought.

“So, one night, while still perfectly healthy, I left on an out-of-body experience. I ascended until I could see the curvature of the Earth. Hovering in the upper atmosphere, I severed the silver cord that connected me to my homely physical form. Far below, still lying in my dorm bed, that body became an uninhabited husk.

“I was unbound—a shapeshifting, interdimensional traveler. I achieved my exit, my way—Wen’s Way. But few bothered to notice when the whole species was dying off. I’d cheated death by a few weeks at most, and selfishly cut and ran with little regard for those I left behind. Instead, I left a demented and grandiose note about my escape plan, a note which failed to express the slightest appreciation or compassion for anyone.

“So, I never got to show my peers my true greatness, but I did get what I asked for, a life freed from the surly bonds of meat embodiment and linear time. But, as they say, the most tears are shed for answered prayers.

“Have you ever heard Frank Sinatra’s egoistic and self-satisfied swan song, ‘My Way?’”

I nod.

“Like Frank, I did it my way. And like Frank’s way, Wen’s Way was selfish and hedonistic. Wen’s Way is a curse I’ve brought on myself.

“My life as an interdimensional traveler was a self-castrated existence. When I cut the cord, I thought I’d be liberated and empowered. I imagined myself able to fly off to the stars and visit extraterrestrial civilizations. I could go anywhere in human history if I really wanted to . . . but I didn’t. Loneliness kept me bound to the times and places where I could witness people of my own era.

“I was a spoiled child with infinite opportunities to be a voyeur, but nothing else. I thought being noncorporeal would cure my tormenting jealousy of those who had better bodies and opportunities for sexual escapades, but actually it only made things worse. I bitterly envied those who lived out an entire embodied lifetime. They had opportunities to create soulful bonds. Even if it was only to a dog or cat, it was more than what I had.”

Suddenly Wen looks away, and when his gaze returns, it’s dark and full of self-loathing.

“As I was saying, my only bonds were voyeuristically one-sided. And the lives I followed before I came to your world were finished. Everyone had already died from the Whip or another cause. From my unbound perspective, these completed lives were like spinning vinyl records, each densely grooved with linear time tracks. And I was the diamond needle that could precisely choose where to insert myself. Once I made contact with the spinning surface of a life, I’d become immersed in its unfolding moments. I picked up the subtlest vibrations, reading the thoughts and feelings of my subjects. I didn’t experience their lives as recordings but as real-time vibrations conducting right through me.

“My relation to the finished aspect of the lives I followed was part of a multi-faceted paradox. Looking into one facet, I saw the inexpressibly beautiful intimacy I often felt with those I followed. But looking through another facet, I saw myself in a horrifying light. I was tainted, sinful, and perhaps evil. I was a shadowy interloper stealing experiences, invading privacy without consent. And I was often resentful and jealous, a castrated observer watching from behind a glass darkly.

“And yet, there were occasions when I could step from behind the glass and have moments of influence and even interaction. If one of my subjects was dreaming or in an extraordinary state—for example, if they’d taken a powerful hallucinogen— contact became possible. And anytime I actualized that potential for contact, I had influence, even if my subject didn’t consciously remember when they emerged from the dream, trip, or whatever. But those moments of influence were also the source of painful doubts. How much had I helped, and how much had I harmed? I didn’t know. Worse, I was aware I didn’t know, yet I kept at it.”

“Wen,” I interrupt, “that’s an honorable doubt anyone daring to relate to another should have. None of us can know perfectly how much benefit and harm we cause. It’s often ambiguous, but we need to keep at it. Without ambiguity, there’d be no relationships, just puppet shows.”

Wen considers my words and studies me in grave silence.

“Thank you, Jeremiah. I do see the truth of that. But with me, it’s a partial truth because I invade lives without consent.”

Wen’s eyes are needy and yet profoundly aware and intelligent. He’s a tormented soul who has waited so long to be heard and to hear from me. But he’s so unusual that I could easily fail to give him the understanding he needs.

My mind reaches back to seeing him in his dorm room, and I gain a new insight. Beneath his studies of Alistair Crowley and feverish psychonautical experiments, I sense a Roman Catholic ancestry. I’m not sure how conscious he is of its influence, but I see how much his view is shaped by sin and redemption. And the form he’s chosen for himself presently—the white button-down shirt and dark gray trousers—gives him the looks of a penitent boy in a parochial school uniform.

He sees himself as a sinner and me as a semi-divine being. He’s looked up to me for so long as if I were a stained-glass window in the cathedral of his personal religion. He needs me to hear his confession and offer some sort of absolution.

“Wen,” I begin warily, trying to navigate the slippery line between acceptance and excusing his transgressions, “the form your relationships take is new to me and hard to evaluate. A core principle of the Vehrillion is to refrain from using its powers of influence on another without consent. But there are exceptions for high-stakes situations where powers of influence are needed to prevent some greater harm. For all your moral ambiguity, you seem to be serving as an evolutionary catalyst. I don’t know if that exception excuses what you do, but it’s how we’re together right now.

“Like any of us, you arose out of the cosmos to play your role. I live that way. I am here to play my role. But I strive to do so with all the ethical awareness I can summon.

“I don’t mean to sound preachy—your remorse shows that you realize that do as thou wilt does not mean acting out every personal desire but acting from your True Will.  Your true purpose. Though finding that and staying true to it is a lifelong struggle.”

“Thank you, Jeremiah. I’ve tried to live that way, and I eventually reformed my transgressions. But in the early days, Wen’s Way was less about do as thou wilt and more about doing what I felt like, even though I was filled with painful doubts.

“Not that it excused anything, but I was also highly confused by paradoxes I could never resolve. How could I influence the young psychics I followed when their lives had already happened? I’d heard of retrocausation and other exotic time theories, but I was too greedy for interaction to theorize about it. During those precious moments of contact, I felt alive and powerful.

“But those were rare occurrences, and mostly I was behind the dark glass. Even worse was when I became bored, disappointed, or bitterly envious of a life I tracked. If a subject enraged my expectations, I could drag the needle across the record and spitefully put it down at the last hour of their life to see how it ended. But when I did that, my spite usually turned into pity and compassion.

“As you can see, my relationship with time was capricious. If I chose the right track, I could become wonderfully immersed. But when things went wrong, I’d often feel compelled to break contact. And even if I wasn’t displeased with a subject, there was a periodic need to disengage. Like a deep-sea diver who must eventually come up for air, I can only stay immersed for so long before some cyclical necessity compels me to come up to the vacuum. So even when immersed in a life, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I would have to pull away before long. It was a curtain of shadow behind every experience.

“Those were agonizing moments. It was like lifting my diamond needle up into the empty space above all the records. There I’d feel the hollowness of my unbound existence—the place where my alienation was absolute.

“When I was in the vacuum, my relationship to time didn’t feel like a superpower. It was a cheap addiction. Still, I could never face the void for long, so I kept dropping my diamond needle into the lives of others.

“I pursued what I thought of as your example and chose interesting psychic kids. Following my desires, I mostly haunted attractive young male psychics, the sort I always wished to befriend when I was embodied. I lived vicariously through these favorites. Their lives were ongoing dramas I returned to again and again. When I found someone interesting, I always followed them in the chronological order of their timeline. I didn’t jump ahead and see how they died unless, as I’ve said, they greatly disappointed me.

“Obviously, my visitations were based on egoistic desire. If their life took a turn I didn’t like—if they fell in love with someone, for example, I might petulantly abandon them. I was always jealous of others who could participate directly in their lives. And if they aged in a way that made them less attractive, I’d leave them and look for someone new and more intriguing. Shallow, I know.

“My glamorous notions of being an interdimensional traveler gave way to the envious life of a hungry ghost.

“Being near my favorites made me feel alive. But I stopped short of trying to steal their energy. It radiated from them in great abundance, so there was no need to take more than what they freely gave off. At least, that’s the way it started.

“Then my visitations developed . . . transgressive aspects. Sometimes, when one of my favorites masturbated, their energy field opened in a way that allowed me to enter their fantasies. I’d shapeshift into forms to attract their energy, and this allowed me, in a guise, to light up in their imaginations.

“I couldn’t see any obvious harm to them, and I had many rationalizations. If anything, I was just intensifying their autoerotic experiences. I didn’t really manipulate their desires—I just took the form of them.

“It was so exciting to be in a guise they found beautiful, and that gave them pleasure. But for me, it was an intensely guilty pleasure because I realized the hollowness of my justifications. I was being deceptive and acting without their full awareness or consent. They didn’t realize who they were actually giving energy to.

“I became ever more addicted and intrusive. Eventually, horrifying visions of myself becoming a malevolent vampire convinced me I had to stop. It was a hard habit to break because I had nothing as exciting to take its place. But I knew I’d lose my soul if I continued.

“What saved me was revisiting our first encounter. I returned to it again and again. You showed me what loving someone could be. And it was so much nobler than my sneaky ways of getting off through shape-shifting and deception.

“I fasted from such transgressions and revisited our encounter whenever I felt tempted. More than ever, you were my guiding star. And yet, I’ve never been able to love anyone in the way you loved me, with complete acceptance and unselfishness.

“As a voyeur, I was always a harsh critic of imperfections I found unattractive. If I got annoyed in any way with one show, it was easy to change the channel to another. Only after I abandoned my addiction completely, did I discover a way to be a beneficial influence. I couldn’t make love to those I desired, but I could still love them. And so I did. And sometimes, in their darkest moments, I could feel the subtle influence of my love guiding them away from despair.

“Those rare occasions of conferring a blessing did not remove my doubts and guilt. I was still invading their privacy without consent. So, it’s hard to say if even those moments where I was able to help were warranted.”

Wen lapses into regretful silence.

“Wen,” I say, “I’m not in a position to absolve or condemn your actions. You’re right, it is hard to say what’s warranted or not in such unique situations. You were relating in the only way you could. Hasn’t there always been testimony about spirits watching over people? In those dark moments when your influence guided someone in need, maybe you were something like a guardian angel.

“Ethical awareness does not mean ethical clarity. I’m not clear about the ethics of what I’m saying to you right now. My ethical awareness is more like a candle shinning into a vast field of ambiguity.

“In the early days of exploring our new world, I sometimes had to drive our ATV at night by headlights. There was some risk, but it was workable. And when it comes to relationships, we’re all driving at night by our headlights. We see only so much, but it’s all we’ve got.”

“Thanks, Jeremiah,” says Wen pensively. “That’s a generous perspective. But to follow your analogy, in my shameful early days, I was like a drunk driver careening down an infinite highway with no cops or speed limits. As I reformed, I became less intoxicated, but I was still an unlicensed driver making up my own rules.

“However, I did become more selective about who I followed. I was still led by desire, but my passion evolved. I sought out those on a path to make a positive difference in the world.

“The most interesting of these was a boy named Andrew who lived in Manhattan. When I first found him, he was only eleven, far younger than anyone I’d ever been drawn to. That kept my interest from becoming sexualized.

“I followed Andrew with obsessive fascination, but a force constrained me from attempting to communicate with him. I sensed he was following a crucial destiny that wouldn’t allow me to interfere with him in any way. So I could only passively witness his life.

“If you were the star above me, Andrew was the planet around which I orbited. I had an absurd romantic fantasy that when Andrew grew up, he’d be my ideal future partner, my true love.

“Andrew’s magnetism for me was uncanny. He was precociously intelligent and imbued with a seriousness of purpose and studious discipline. I knew he had a special significance to the world. Through him, I began to perceive deeper patterns at work. Possibly my visitation experiments weren’t completely selfish and random.

“But my love for Andrew wasn’t as pure as I’ve made it sound. Although I admired him far more than anyone else I followed, my admiration blurred with jealousy. And in darker moments, my love for him soured into bitter envy.

“If only I had grown up with his privileged life. He was surrounded by brilliant and talented adults who recognized his abilities and nurtured them. His insights were so much wiser than mine had been at that age. And he was so much better looking.

“It wasn’t just that he was beautiful. As I said, everyone I followed was. It was the way Andrew was beautiful that was so enviable. He looked so mysterious and intelligent, and others treated him accordingly. I grew tired of people looking at him with shining eyes. It stirred up bitter memories of how I’d been picked on and underestimated when I was his age. I also resented that I was blocked from communicating with him. It was as if the cosmos had judged him as far too good for me, and that I might corrupt him if we ever made contact.

“Still, I loved and admired him too much for my envy to become ill will. What helped keep my jealousy in check was that he was a loner, as I had been. Beautiful as he was, he had no lovers to cause me the most bitter kind of envy. But, of course, he was still so young, and I feared the day when he would fall in love with someone. If that happened, I might’ve been forced to abandon him. Partly out of conscience, partly out of sparing myself agonies of jealousy.

“To keep myself from becoming too obsessed with him, I also followed several others. I’d pick up Andrew’s timeline again when I felt deserving and could bring my best to the witnessing. This prudence turned out to be quite fortunate.

“I’d progressed significantly in my meandering path of self-improvement by the time I witnessed his horrific accident and near-death experience. Along with the reform of my ethics, my ability to travel across timelines had evolved considerably. And my love for Andrew had matured. So, as much as I abhor physical pain and injury, I stayed with him during the terrible accident. That allowed me to follow him as he left his body and traveled across timelines to another planet.

“There, I discovered the truth of the deeper patterning. My love for Andrew had finally brought me back to you.

“But to stay with you required a terrible sacrifice. Andrew was quickly pulled somewhere else, and I had to decide in an instant whether to follow him or not. I sensed if I departed, I’d never make it back to your world. And for all I knew, Andrew might be about to enter a higher afterlife where I couldn’t follow.

“I’m rationalizing the choice after the fact—it was a case where I was limited by linear time and had no space to think it through.

Stay or go?

“I stayed, having finally achieved something I had so long desired—not only finding you but also leaving the Earth behind for a new world!

“But like everything I’ve found in this disembodied existence, blessings always came with curses attached. As with Andrew, I was blocked from communicating with you or any of your new species. And when I tuned into your awareness, I discovered our encounter had not yet happened in your timeline. You had no knowledge of my existence, which intensified my loneliness.

“And yet, there were amazing blessings as well. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered another version of Andrew living in your world! But he was not the young Andrew I knew. He was, like you, timelessly beautiful, wise, and accomplished.

“I bonded deeply to both of you, though I must confess, there was . . . Well, envy has always been my worst inner demon, and the depth of the bond between you and Andrew—I’ve never witnessed a relationship so—admirable. So complete.

“What helped me deal with the jealousy is that you weren’t selfishly obsessed with each other. Instead, you and Andrew were joined by purposes that went beyond the personal. You were united to serve your species and advance the Vehrillion. The nobility of it shamed my jealousy.

“Eventually, I got past part of that shame by viewing you and Andrew as one entity with two symbiotic parts. But—I’m ashamed to confess—I’ve never gotten past all the envy. And now, watching you go out to the forest alone, wanting to spare Andrew and the others from the darkness consuming your world . . . How can I envy someone so unselfish and willing to sacrifice?

“I should be more grateful. Finding your new world was a blessing that has allowed me to grow and develop. When Andrew’s near-death experience brought me to you, I entered the live broadcast of an unfinished reality that pulled me in and drew me along with it. I’d arrived in time to witness most of the development of the Vehrillion. It was the perfect school for me, except—as I said—I was not allowed any contact, even in dreams. I was a silent auditor, always behind a glass darkly. Like so much in my life, this new chapter was both blessing and curse.

“And yet, even though I was always aware of being set apart, I no longer suffered stagnation or monotony. My understanding of magic, the science and art of creating change in conformity to will, and how to do it ethically, grew immeasurably. And I had no transgressive temptations because no intrusion was possible.

“Sometimes, I flattered myself that I was The Invisible Adept. As time went on, I realized a certain validity to the idea, and it began to gain hold. There were certain techniques I was more skilled at than any of the embodied Adepts, especially remote viewing. I was desperate to contribute my talents and knowledge to the Vehrillion. Slowly, I developed more acceptance and patience. I knew the deep patterning had something meaningful in mind for me.

“I tried to accept the barrier as something set by a benign force furthering my development and hoped that one day I would become part of the community.

“Now that day has come. The barrier has finally lifted, but there’s a curse within the blessing. Instead of joining the community, it appears this breakthrough is being allowed so that I can offer you . . . exile. And that’s only if you survive.

“I can fulfill your purpose in taking Shadow Elixir, but the price of that blessing is you, Jeremiah. All the patterning points to a mission that would sacrifice you for its needs. Not just sacrifice you, but put you at the mercy of unimaginable evil—”

Suddenly, Wen breaks off, overcome with emotion. His head drops, and he sobs uncontrollably.

Instinctively, I reach out and pull him toward me in an embrace. He rests his head on my chest as I pour comfort and love into him. He’s a deeply wounded soul who has suffered terrible loneliness and rejection. Though he chose much of his descent into darkness, he’s been struggling to redeem himself and do good. Finally, he’s earned the chance to communicate, but the weight of what he has to tell me is crushing the healing and fulfillment he so desperately needs.

When I sense he’s ready, I merge with him gently in a way that allows him to feel safe and cared for. I want most for him to feel appreciated, but that part of him is still closed off. His feelings of unworthiness don’t allow him to fully embrace the moment.

When we separate, tragedy and dread still pervade our mutuality.

“At the time I witnessed you walking in the forest,” he resumes, “summoning your will to take Shadow Elixir, I sensed something momentous was coming. I didn’t know it would lead to our first encounter, and lifetimes later, to this one. But when I followed you into that encounter, I felt a great circle closing. Finally, you’re aware of my existence, and I have something to offer—what you sought through Shadow Elixir. But it will likely lead to your destruction . . .”

Wen breaks off again, and I feel his reluctance to share what he’s learned. What he’s said already is terrifying—exile, being at the mercy of unimaginable evil, my destruction. I take a deep breath and do a practice to contain my fear. Whatever it is, I must face it.

“Wen, I need to know. I understand the dread attached to this mission, but I want to free you from as much of it as possible. Your intention is to help. You’re not responsible for what you’ve discovered. I took Shadow Elixir to understand the nature of the parasite and to find a way to keep it from destroying us. It will be my choice to accept or refuse, so the responsibility is on me, not you. You are honorably fulfilling your duty. Please continue.”

Wen nods, his expression grave.

“When The Archparasite invaded your world, I saw a possible way for me to help,” he begins. “I could step out of linear time to remote-view this entity to see where it had come from and why . . . But even though I was at a safe remove from it, what I saw tested the limits of my endurance.

“The lifecycle of this creature is complex and riddled with paradoxes. I’ve had to unravel so many tangled threads, and each one is stranger than the last. It’s hard to know which of those threads to pull on first.

“But before I delve into the nature of The Archparasite, there are aspects of your whole existence that need to be revealed first. These hidden realities will explain why the parasite invaded your world. Only then will you fully grasp the scope of your mission.

“Shortly after I was born, there was a split in the human timeline. I grew up in what I’ve come to think of as the main trunk, while you’ve lived your entire life in a branched reality. This crude trunk-and-branch analogy has flaws, but we need some way to picture it.

“The Andrew you know is a hybrid of these timelines. He was eighteen years old at the time of the split, which is why there are two versions of him. There’s the one you know, and there’s the Andrew I used to follow, whose near-death experience led me from his timeline to yours. Obviously, he survived, because the Andrew of your world did, and up until the age of eighteen, they were the same person.

“The trunk continued growing rapidly for another nineteen years after the split. Then it was lost to the extinction caused by the Whip. The Earth of your branch went through a parallel extinction after you left. You and Andrew had visions of it before you were abducted.

“Your mission would be to subtly influence the past of the trunk timeline before the extinction. If the right butterfly effects are set in motion, the dead end could be bypassed. And if that works, it will also remove the threat to your world.

“But, even if this intervention succeeds, your sacrifices would be immense and irreversible. First, you’d have to survive a horrifically dangerous journey into the past. Once there, you’ll be in a zone of unformed possibilities.

“Although you’d be in the past, from the perspective of your unfolding individual timeline, the outcome of that journey is in your future. I can’t fully resolve the paradox between free will and precognition, but my sense is that the future contains a mixture of formed and unformed elements. Some parts look determined and can be remotely viewed, but they might still be subject to change. When it comes to your future though, it’s all a wildcard, and I can’t view any part of it.

“And there’s another part of this intervention I can’t access. Much of the patterning seems to come through a higher dimension that’s not bound by the same reality parameters we are. I can’t see into that higher dimension, so I have no idea what sort of intelligence might be at work, or even if it should be thought of as an intelligence.

“All I can do is share the causes and effects that I can comprehend. As Andrew so often says, reality is not only stranger than you think—it’s stranger than you can think. I’ve been shown enough to offer you a basic map of what surrounds your mission, but as you know, the map is never the territory.

“As I explored, I always tried to keep in mind one of the principles Andrew made central to the Vehrillion.

The mature and evolving mind embraces complexity and ambiguity. We’re surrounded by unimaginably vast mysteries that are themselves evolving. As our sphere of awareness expands, so too does the circumference of the unknown.

“What is within my limited sphere of knowledge is that the pattern requires an Adept to make an intervention in the past to bypass extinction. But I don’t know where in the past you’d be sent, nor what you should do when you get there. Those choices are beyond the scope of my awareness and will be decided in the infinitely greater realm of the unknown.

“As far as I can see, the journey across timelines would be a one-way ticket. If you survive the extreme dangers of traveling to this past, you’d be exiled there. Everything and everyone you know and love in your present world will be lost to you.

Depending on where you’re placed in time, you might have to witness the extinction if your influence doesn’t have the desired effects. You could also be inserted decades or even centuries before the Whip, and you’d have to survive that long to know if your mission succeeded.”

“So, I would need to alter the past of the main trunk, but in some unspecified way that influences humanity away from extinction?” I ask.

“Yes,” Wen replies. “The mission does not come with any sort of plan. But whatever alteration you make must be subtle to conserve the main trunk of the human timeline—to stay within it and not create a new branch.

“The extinction timeline already exists and cannot be prevented. If the mission works, that timeline would be shunted to the side. It would continue as an alternate reality where the Earth will slowly repair itself. Presumably, some lesser evolution would continue without human beings. But in the intervened reality, the main trunk of the human timeline would continue. Humanity would be spared, and the curse that has befallen your world would also be removed.

“Traveling to the past would take you across an event horizon into the unknown. Your very presence there would be a wild card. Hopefully, where you’d be inserted into the past would give you clues about what to do next. The only advice I can give is to keep to subtle means. If you create too much of a disturbance, you’ll cause another split in the timeline and you’d be shunted into another branched reality. That would be a mission failure because there’s crucial evolutionary value in conserving the trunk and allowing it to grow past the extinction.

“Based on my own travels and the extreme limits imposed on me, I expect you’d feel a constraining force keeping you from making too much of a disturbance. But I sense your constraints won’t be as extreme as what was imposed on me. I think you’d have more latitude. Where I was forcefully kept from interfering, you might only feel resistance. But be guided by those feelings. You need to be very precise about where you focus your influence.”

“But Wen, our first encounter was in the past, and you say it had huge effects on your life. Haven’t I already violated this guiding principle of subtle means?”

“No, and for a key reason to bear in mind if you choose to proceed. Influencing someone who is already on an anomalous path is permitted. The system appears to have already accounted for that person being an anomaly. Encouraging them to be even more anomalous doesn’t disturb the equilibrium enough to create a new branch. I’ve observed this many times.

“The only people I could influence significantly were already psychic, wildcard types. And the more anomalous they were, the more I was allowed to step in. Where this broke down was with young Andrew. I wasn’t allowed to influence him at all because he’s like a Major-Arcana Wild Card. The powerful currents of destiny around him kept him out of my reach.

“Perhaps this is why, until this encounter, I’ve been blocked from communicating with elves. It’s as if your whole world was an experiment driven by powerful forces of destiny that didn’t let me intervene until you ventured alone into the forest and took Shadow Elixir.

“What was behind that experiment, what led the timelines to split, was initially cloaked from my remote viewing. Eventually, I was able to pierce through enough to see the basics. A single mutant was inserted into the past who had so much intention and ability to create massive technological change that his arrival caused an immediate branching.

“This shock intervention reduced the evolutionary potential afforded by gradual development. Nevertheless, it was a necessary structural alteration. For one thing, without the branching it caused, you wouldn’t exist, so the possibility of a more subtle mission involving you wouldn’t exist either.”

“Whatever the source of this mission design,” Wen continues, “it has not just come to us. There are incomprehensible forces above the labyrinth, but at the center of it lies The Archparasite. It has been shown the same design and realizes how this intervention could serve its interests. It wants its host species revitalized so it can continue feeding and further its lifecycle.

“You took Shadow Elixir to learn about its nature. To fulfill that intention, I must lead you now into the darkest part of the labyrinth.”

Wen pauses, his expression haunted, as he summons his will to continue.

“As horrific as The Archparasite is to contemplate, we must acknowledge that its lifecycle is inextricably woven into a larger evolutionary process that includes us. Development requires adversarial forces. Parasites and predators exist in every realm of life I’ve observed. Perhaps from a large enough perspective, even the most monstrous beings would be revealed as symbionts necessary to processes beyond our comprehension.

“The Archparasite invaded your world because of the extinction of its host. For millennia, it skillfully harvested human energy. This allowed its lifecycle to progress. But then its own machinations indirectly led to the extinction of Homo sapiens. That disaster is what set your path in motion. It’s what led to the intervention that caused the split. It also caused the parasite to come to your world to seek an Adept for this mission.

“Throughout human history, The Archparasite was the hidden consumer at the top of the Earth’s food chain. While harvesting, it supported the deluded belief that mankind was the top. A master manipulator, it kept the species exuding the energies it feeds on—the sweet red ethers of fear, rage, dark sexuality, and suffering.

“Technological evolution helped increase the size of the host and led to many feeding frenzies that furthered its lifecycle. It orchestrated its dark effects so successfully that, like many human tyrants, it did not realize when it had overreached.

“The parasite had always possessed certain individuals to act as its agents. It infected their minds and set them to create chaos and suffering. Some were juggernauts of destruction, like Hitler, and others focused on individual acts of evil—such as serial killers and rampage shooters. Some became heads of state, large religious sects, or giant corporations. Others worked on smaller scales as cult leaders or abusers tormenting a single school, church, or family.

“But The Archparasite had a fatal blind spot. It failed to realize that technological evolution put the means to sterilize the entire species into the hands of a single dark agent.

“The parasite infiltrated his psyche when he was a child, cultivating his ferocious ambition and infusing him with its own desire to exploit and torment the human race. He was ideally placed in a family of industrialists that ensured he had the skills and means to amass wealth and technology. By middle age, he was playing his intended role so well that The Archparasite left him unattended. It did not perceive his illness and secret project until it was too late.

“Shortly after the dark agent discovered his body was riddled with metastasizing cancer, he used advanced AI and biotechnology to engineer The Whip. Possibly he became aware of his manipulation by the parasite and wanted to destroy its host species as revenge. There would be a certain irony if that was the case, as all viruses are parasites. Or maybe his rage and will to power wanted all of humanity to share in his terminal diagnosis. His motives could have been no more profound than whatever motivates a rampage shooter, only he had the biotechnology to create an assault weapon that could take the down the whole species.

“Whatever he had in mind, it had never occurred to The Archparasite that one of its minions could strike out at the very entity who had summoned it into existence. But this is what happened—a mere puppet had struck out with a death blow.

“The Whip was released, and as the species that had swollen to many billions began to rapidly die off, The Archparasite withered with it. At first, its own death spiral had an orgasmic intensity as there was so much fear and suffering to feed on. But it was a death orgasm, le petite mort becoming le grand mort.

“The death feast was self-limiting and rapidly dwindled to nothing as the extinction unfolded. The host was disappearing into an abyss, dragging the parasite with it. But it wasn’t organic enough to die. Instead, it shriveled into a famished wraith tormented by a gnawing hunger it couldn’t satisfy.

Even after the human population crashed, other sentient animal life on the planet still exuded suffering, but this was horribly inferior nourishment. Its powers diminished as it sucked desperately at these lesser ethers.

“As the parasite emaciated, it found that paradoxically, this dwindling afforded it a new power. With a more etherealized body, it could extend tubular organs of astral matter into the past. These feeding tubes terminated in suctioning orifices allowing it to vacuum ethers from past eras of human suffering. But what flowed back into it from these organs had a horrible thinness, more like the ghost of the ethers it sought rather than the rich organic ethers themselves.

“The parasite lived on in a diminished, famished state that left it unable to complete its lifecycle. The larger evolutionary experiment it was part of hit a dead end. At that point, an intelligence or higher force operating above the labyrinth apparently intervened to revitalize the system. The Archparasite assisted the intervention by using one of its feeding tubes to insert a mutant into the past. This created the new timeline with accelerated technological evolution and split humanity’s evolution in two. On the surface, it seems this was a failed intervention, as it did not prevent the extinction of Homo sapiens. But it did lead to the elves’ evolution on a distant planet.

“Your new species began to thrive, and the possibility of a second intervention was revealed to The Archparasite. As I’ve said, it now seeks an Adept it can insert into the past to revitalize the main trunk of the human timeline. This would allow the parasite and its host species to continue their entwined lifecycles.

“Once it obtains the Adept it considers right for the mission, it will leave your world. Your kind is not the parasite’s host species, and it cannot sustain itself here. You lack both the quantity and quality of energy it needs. Elves are infused with varieties of astral energy that are moderately toxic to the parasite. But although it cannot further its lifecycle here, it can overwhelm your small community with its array of dark powers. If it served the parasite’s purposes, it could devour all of you.

“This aspect of the creature provides a degree of predictability. You can count on it to do what it thinks is in its best long-term interests. It is far more rational and consistent than a chaotically evil human agent. It doesn’t randomly do things because it can, or act impulsively to vent rage. The only irrational aspect I’ve been able to observe is in relation to what might be considered its sexuality. It can get into a state of passionate intoxication and even orgasmic frenzy when there is a surge of human suffering. Otherwise, its parasitism means it weighs everything as an energetic calculation and considers both short and long timeframes. It seeks to take as much as possible from humanity and give nothing back but suffering. But it’s shrewd enough not to knowingly kill the goose that lays golden eggs of agony, but to keep it alive so it can continually harvest those eggs.

“As horrifying as this is, it also means that underneath the unfathomable complexity of some of its manipulations, is a logic with relatively simple parameters. On that level, it’s as structured as a virus or a thermodynamic formula.

“The only way for your kind to survive is to cooperate with the parasite’s task of intervening in the past. I think you can count on it acting to further that intervention because it doesn’t just serve its interests—its survival and lifecycle depend on it.

“What you cannot count on is the parasite finding you to be the ideal Adept to carry out that intervention. If it finds you lacking, it will destroy you in unimaginably cruel ways. Your only survival path is to prove your ability to serve its purpose as well or better than any other Adept. If you go to The Archparasite and are found to be insufficient as a seed crystal, it will likely preserve you in a state of torment to bait Andrew to come forward.

“Jeremiah,” says Wen mournfully, “Your capacity for love and selfless duty is noble and far beyond me, but I fear The Archparasite will turn those qualities into a tragic flaw it will use to destroy you. You have every right to refuse this mission.”

“Wen, I have no desire to be a martyr, and as you say, my fate is still unformed. But when I compare the value of my life to the possibility of saving two species . . . I must choose the mission.  Please, tell me anything else that will help me succeed with it.”

Wen seems to retreat inside himself for a few moments as if he’s lost in silent prayer. Eventually, he nods gravely.

“The parasite’s mind is like a skeletal labyrinth, every part of its intricate structure a splinter of bone, sharp with hunger. Do everything you can to keep it out of your psyche.

“For some inscrutable reason, The Archparasite has morphed into an earlier, semi-insectoid form of itself—a kind of hive queen that some ancients called Medusa and others Viealetta. I’ll use this latter name to prepare you for her present manifestation. Nevertheless, we must be aware that this ancient form and apparent insectoid gender is merely one of many guises she can assume. Her actual gender and nature are too complex and alien for us to fully comprehend.

“She is not a she, but I suggest you don’t challenge this particular deception. Instead, give the impression that you accept it. Since you can’t help but to underestimate her, you can counter by encouraging her to underestimate you at first. But ultimately, your goal is for her to estimate you as the Adept best able to do the intervention.

“Your goal for the first part of the mission is to walk a knife-edge of mutual interest. You need to demonstrate that you are worthy of the mission.

“Viealetta manipulated the three novices into the grandiose delusion that they could defeat her. But to even think of defeating her, is to be defeated by her.

“Don’t let her trick you into believing you can control her. From what I’ve seen, she manipulated the three in such a way that they accepted being devoured. Her preferred method is to twist consciousness rather than engage in physical assault. She hungers for the psyche more than the body that hosts it.

“Whatever happens, always defer to your intuition over anything I’ve said about Viealetta. We can’t anticipate her actions, so all you can do is adapt in the moment.

“I will follow you for as long as I can. Perhaps there’ll be another chance to communicate, or maybe the barrier will be reimposed now that I’ve fulfilled this purpose. Terror of this creature, and what it might do to you, will likely cause me to retreat from your timeline and focus on Andrew. I’m sorry, Jeremiah. I’m not the self-sacrificing and courageous being you are. But I’ll pray for your well-being, and I’ll always be grateful for your presence in my life.

“Now, I must withdraw so you can act on your chosen mission. Good luck.”

Before I can thank him, Wen disappears, and I’m alone again beneath the coniferous trees.

29 Viealetta

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The metallic taste of the Shadow Elixir still permeates my body, but it fades quickly as I alter my metabolism to neutralize it.

I take some deep breaths to focus my resolve and tune into my immediate surroundings.

My night vision is acute, and my ears pick up the minutest sounds of the forest. I detect many layers of scent—pine and the musky earth are dominant, but there are others. My cloak keeps my body warm, and I stretch before I get up, brushing pine needles from my clothes. I have a bag made of the same self-camouflaging, velvety material as my cloak, and I sling its soft strap across my chest.

My footfalls and movements scarcely make a sound as I walk swiftly, blending with the shadows and the gentle night breeze. Taking deep breaths, I engage a series of Vehrillion practices, adding layers of cloaking and defensive shielding. With each inhalation, I add another band of protection.

When the light from our three small moons is just right, I catch iridescent glimpses of my shields. They have a layered, wavy structure like fine Damascus steel, but they’re a living membrane with curvilinear surfaces that reflect the energies around them. Now that they are stable, I embed them with mirrors and false images to deflect telepathic probing and return only meaningless distortions.

When my shields are as strong as I can make them, I begin hiding away vulnerable parts of myself in the memory palace I’ve built within my mind over many years. It’s surrounded by high, impenetrable walls like a medieval fortress. I take vast sections of my personal memories, especially anything related to Andrew, and lock them away in rooms deep within the palace. If I fail, and he should have to face Viealetta in my place, I don’t want her to know anything about him.

If Viealetta is as powerful as Wen says, no amount of cloaking will prevent her from detecting my approaching presence. Yet the complexity of my cloaking fields will give her an indication of my level of training. My goal is to limit her perception to those basic facts, without anything more personal spilling out.

I pass from the forest and into the damp floor of the valley where Mount Liatrin looms above me, its dark mass outlined by stars.

I begin to perceive Viealetta as a nucleus of evil beneath my feet, tracking my approach. As I traverse the valley, the throbbing pulsations of her hunger are perceptible through thousands of feet of insulating soil and stone. A primordial sensation activates in me. It’s one that animals, even insects, can recognize—the feeling of prey being stalked by a predator.

I sense her parasitic intelligence enclosing me in a bone labyrinth of sharp, dry edges, a billion thorns and poison-filled stingers scratching at my defenses. To calm my fear, I suffuse the space inside my shield with blue light. I focus on my body and the immediate environment, ensuring my movements flow with the rhythms of the night.

I progress in this way until the lowlands of the valley begin to slope up and away, and soon I’m standing at the base of Mount Liatrin. It glowers above me like an angry giant, its massive presence an intimidating contrast to the smallness and vulnerability of my body.

An opening in the rockface resembles the entrance to a termite mound, as though giant insects had burrowed into the mountain and left a debris field of gnawed stone around the hole. It’s a hideous orifice, a mortal wound penetrating the heart of the mountain with infection. Even the sight of it fills me with dread, but I realize that any hesitation at the threshold will signal weakness.

I cross inside without breaking my rhythm and step into a damp tunnel of excavated stone. There is an acidic smell—an apparent off-gassing of the extreme quantity of insect metabolism employed in the burrowing. I activate my Navigator Medallion, a silver disc with embedded lenses. It emits a hemisphere of illumination.

I’m in a corridor of dark rock with harsh angles, and the light from my Navigator throws back an oily sheen coating the rocky surfaces. Moisture from an unseen source makes the rocks wet and slippery.

I follow the corridor as it curves and narrows until I can no longer stand upright. I’ve reached the aperture of a tight, descending corkscrew and the only way to enter is to crawl on my belly. I stow my cloak in my bag and push it ahead of me.

Soon, the trickle of water flowing down through the corkscrew soaks everything. I intensify my breathing to maintain my core body temperature. Bodily intelligence takes over, allowing me to move as efficiently as possible through the intestine-like bends of the descending tube.

The corkscrew terminates in a jagged, vertical shaft, where water drips through an opening. The rock is slippery, but the shaft is so narrow that extending my limbs is enough to control my descent. Footholds and handholds abound, though many secure positions must be gained by allowing jagged rock to press against my back and other parts of my body. As chilling water drips beneath my clothing, the bruising pressure of the rock feels like I’m being chewed by dull, stone teeth.

A dreadful silence encompasses me, broken only by my sharp measured breaths. Eventually, the shaft begins to swell outward so that my limbs can no longer extend across it. Years of training in Vehrillion arts of balance and movement engage the challenge.

I shift my left foothold to a lower rock. At first, it feels solid, but then suddenly, it gives way and plummets into the darkness. The unexpected shift in weight breaks my other foot loose, and for a panicked moment, I’m holding on with just my hands as I scramble to regain my footing. Then, just as I find purchase, the sound of the rock’s impact comes echoing back up the shaft.

If I slip, this is all in vain.

My vigilance heightens. I probe for cracks in the rock face with my fingers using all my senses to feel the underlying fissures and weaknesses before I trust my weight to anything. And in this way, I descend, like a fly walking backward down a steep wall.

When at last, I reach the bottom of the shaft, my hands burn with abrasions and bloody marks. I’ve landed on a tiny rock and gravel platform over which a thin surface of icy water flows. The temperature has dropped considerably with the descent, and the chill steals over me when I stop moving.

A couple of feet above the shaft floor is a tiny opening that is the only way forward. I remove my bag and push it ahead of me to squeeze through the opening and into another downward-sloping tube.

Slowly, I push my bag and crawl on my belly over the jagged rock and gravel, shivering from the cold water flowing along the ground. The tube descends, spiraling again like a giant corkscrew, and I keep crawling forward, allowing it to take me wherever it goes.

The corkscrew becomes narrower, and soon I long for another vertical shaft that, no matter how treacherous, would at least allow me to stand and expand my limbs. I have no choice but to keep squirming forward relentlessly, hoping I’m not getting squeezed deeper into a dead-end from which it will be impossible to retreat.

I lose my sense of time as I become a crawling thing of meat and bone caught in the deep bowels of the planet.

Then there’s a change in the sound of the water and the flow of cold air about me. The tube curves around a final bend, and up ahead is a gap where the flowing water vanishes into some space below. I crawl forward until I’m at the edge of the opening and can shine my Navigator light downward.

It’s a sheer vertical drop into absolute darkness. I poke my head through the opening and adjust the focus of my Navigator’s beam to survey what’s below. The tube has terminated above an enormous cavern. I’m somewhere on the roof of a high-domed space of rock. Glittering stalactites, like crystal fangs, spike out all around. Far below is a dark lake of inky blackness.

There’s no way to climb down, and retreat is unthinkable. My only way forward is to plunge through the opening and into the lake. I try to probe beneath its surface.

The intense beam of my Navigator reveals a forest of tall stalagmites rising from the lake bottom. Hopefully, there’s enough water to break my fall and give me space to avoid being impaled by a crystal spike.

I crawl forward and perform a practice to slow the perception of time and heighten my senses to adjust my diving form as I plummet.

With a final breath, I push myself through the aperture and plunge into the cold, open air. At maximum velocity, I shatter the still plane of the dark lake and submerge into the icy water, contorting my body to avoid the point of a giant stalagmite.

I rise to the surface and swim toward the nearest shore about 50 yards away. I climb onto solid ground, shivering and wet, but my clothing is made of a survival cloth that sheds moisture quickly. I maintain vigilance so I can respond to any attack in a splintered second.

The ripples from my impact on the lake gradually subside. Water drips from the opening far above, but otherwise, there’s perfect stillness and silence.

I engage focused breathwork, raising my metabolic rate and core temperature until my clothes fully dry. At the same time, I work on renewing my shields, which have been diminished by the impact.

I sense Viealetta tracking my every move, but she no longer feels like a nucleus of evil pulsating with appetite. Instead, I detect the shadowy coolness of powerful cloaking fields and an attitude of watchful waiting.

At the outer boundaries of my shields, I detect the most subtle and devious telepathic probing. The design of the probes reveals a deep knowledge of Vehrillion shielding, and I wonder about the three missing Adepts.

Did they employ the same strategies I am playing out now?

I continuously adjust my outer boundaries to better deflect the probes, but it’s difficult and draining. The force of a conventional telepathic attack could be converted to reinforce shielding, but Viealetta is hitting me with a negative energy I cannot convert. My shields burn away the dark, probing tentacles trying to penetrate me, but this takes a continuous output. Even if she can’t feed off the energy I expend, it still extracts a cost from me.

I feel a profoundly disturbing resonance as I survey the large, domed space with the focused beam of my Navigator. The despair of the lost Initiates echoes all around me. I can’t tell if this emanation is an actual remnant of them or a deception. I suspect it’s suffering Viealetta extracted from them and is now telepathically projecting. With a shock, I realize that if this atmosphere of despair is an illusion, then she has already infiltrated my psyche. I tighten the shielding energy around me until the echoes of their agony fade from my perception.

The beam of my Navigator reveals several openings into antechambers, alcoves, and corridors of hidden depth. After completing my survey of the domed space, I walk along the narrow edge of the lake and climb the craggy rock wall surrounding it like an amphitheater. I decide to enter one of the larger antechambers to wait out Viealetta in a space with fewer entrances.

The antechamber has a high arched ceiling, like a cathedral. Stalactites glitter in the focused beam I project as I examine the space. Besides the opening on the lakeside, there’s an interior opening that’s large enough to admit a creature of gigantic size. It seems more likely Viealetta will appear through this entrance rather than being exposed on the shore. My stance is relaxed and alert.

My first perception of its approach is an acidic odor, followed by the sound of a scurrying multitude of creatures. Like heralds at the front of a royal procession, a wave of albino insects pours forward. Their ranks divide with military precision until they cover every surface of the antechamber, even the arched ceiling.

The tiny creatures are of numerous invertebrate species, mostly insectoid, while others resemble minute crabs or arachnids. Curtaining the interior entrance is a boiling mass of centipedes.

The anteroom is now a living white cathedral with waves of movement passing through insectoid antennae. Only the small circumference in which I stand, protected by my Vehrillion shielding, is free from their horrible vibrations.

A pulse of energy passes through the tiny creatures as the maelstrom of boiling centipedes covering the entrance gives way, opening a large aperture. A massive form, the size of a mammoth but moving with the springy, stealthy grace of a tarantula, emerges through the parted curtain.

My mind struggles to take in the asymmetric complexity of its shape. Pale insects crawl over every surface of its body so that, at first, it seems entirely composed of a moving mass of insectoid forms.

Her head is enormous and is in the shape of an upside-down teardrop, with the swollen top terminating in a loose approximation of a face with two glittering black orbs for eyes. It’s expressionless beyond the rage and greedy hunger emanating from its black orbs. Her bulbous cranium is translucent, like a giant blister covered with blue veins. It appears almost liquid, like an egg yolk. A corona of chaotically moving hair-thin, red antennae surround her face and more sparsely wriggle from her almost-liquid skull.

Her lower body is a hybrid of insect, arachnid, and crustacean components. Beneath its skin of scurrying insects, I can see the outline of articulated armor. Bristling from it is an array of coiled scorpion stingers and pincers of various sizes and shapes as if each were designed for a different cruel purpose. The whole creature is composed of organic, negatively charged astral tissue, a type of matter I’ve never encountered before. It emits a high-frequency whine I struggle to block out.

I maintain my stance and breathe evenly, sensing the bone labyrinth of Viealetta’s mind. She examines me for betrayals of nervous tension, searching for edges of fear she can pry open to invade my psyche. I can feel insistent telepathic signaling at the surface of my shields, but I refuse to let her in. A telepathic link to her is far too dangerous. If she wants to communicate with me, it will have to be through audible speech.

Suddenly, her glittering black orbs shoot focused bursts of intense mind pressure against my shielding, piercing the arrow of her will through my eyes and nearly into my brain. The energetic force of it is almost physical, and my knees buckle.

I summon all my energy to strengthen the shielding near my face and head. My outer boundary glows like the heat shield of a space capsule burning through the atmosphere as I repel the intrusion.

But this is a misdirection, and I’m blindsided by a massive hive attack emanating from the myriad creatures in the antechamber. A chorus of a billion insectoid minds emits a scream that aggresses every part of my shields. Their collective force compresses the spherical space of my shielding, and I collapse to the ground. A telepathic image breaks through, a horrifying vision invading my mind.

The three Initiates stand naked before Viealetta. They’ve lost their will and are submitting to being devoured. Viealetta rears up before them, opening a slit in her abdomen to engulf them directly into her body.

Horror shakes every part of my being, and I scramble to suppress the intrusion. I pull my shielding in tight against me, a body shield only a centimeter thick. As my field contracts, the mass of vibrating insectoids rushes in until I’m engulfed. They halt at the threshold of my body, screeching all around me. I bend my head downward, close my eyes and quickly retreat into the inner stronghold of my memory palace. I enclose myself within its high fortress walls and lock myself into a secret chamber. When I close the vault, the distant screaming outside the fortress ceases. I take a deep breath, wrapped in perfect silence, as my energy continues to pull inward and beyond the reach of any intrusion.

The attack has become a waste of energy, and I feel the compression outside the fortress release. I’ve shown that I cannot be overcome by brute force. I open my eyes and rise to my feet, feeling the imperviousness of my body shield, and Viealetta seems to perceive the stalemate.

“If you wish to address me, you must speak aloud,” I say.

Her glittering black orbs study me silently. There’s a hissing sound, like steam escaping a valve, as her unused vocal passages are cleared and readied for audible speech.

A voice as cold and cutting as a razor slicing through leather emanates from ventricles on the flanks of her body.

“Who comes before me to be devoured?”

“I’m not here to be devoured, but only to pass through the portal that leads to the past,” I reply in an even, neutral tone.

“Only?” it replies with a hissing sneer. “How dare you use such a word for a privilege denied to your kind?”

She doesn’t deny the portal’s existence, but would refuse my entrance to it? This is all a test to see if I’m worthy of being let through. OK, I’ll play along.

I raise my posture and respond in a booming voice.

“Who denies it?”

The answer is obvious, but I decide to adopt the mocking, arrogant tone of an over-confident warrior. I want Viealetta to misjudge my strengths and weaknesses.

“I deny it,” she responds coolly, “and I punish unto death and beyond any who question my authority. Like your three little friends. Would you like to see them?”

Viealetta turns and raises a flap on her pale, translucent hide. Within the pustulous glow of her inner body are the shriveled, degraded forms of the three Initiates. Arterial tubes leech onto their eyes, ears, mouths—every orifice. They’ve become fetus-like organs of sustenance within its body.

Horror and revulsion nearly shatter my resolve as I struggle to hide as much of my reaction as I can.

“I keep them around for old time’s sake, squeezing sweet drops of nectar from what’s left. But I’ve sucked on them so often they’ve gone rather stale, while you are so fresh and sweet. Don’t worry, I’ll eventually let you join them, but only after you beg and grovel for the privilege.”

Viealetta lowers her flap and turns back to me, radiating hunger. The revulsion coursing through me nearly ruptures my defenses.

I recite Vehrillion principles in my mind to disassociate from the horror.

All is mind. The cosmos is mental projection. Everything arises from thought. With my thoughts, I shape my destiny.

I take the horrifying image of the three withered Initiates, label it “artifice,” and lock it away in my memory palace so it cannot haunt me.

“Would you like to start begging?” Viealetta hisses. “To be with your poor lost friends? I’m hoping you’ll say no, I’m hoping you’ll resist to the last. There’s nothing so sweet to me as that sort of sport.”

I focus on my shields and maintain a mocking attitude.

“Nothing seems so sweet as that which we can never have,” I reply. “We both know it serves your interests to let me across that portal. All I ask is that we move in its direction, and then you’re welcome to chatter on and on. Travel in the wrong direction, and I’ll know.”

“Ahhhhh, now that will be amusing. I think what I will enjoy most is the slow climax of fear and pain as you start groveling on your knees to join your three little friends. They all beg, sooner or later. So, yes, as you wish. I pledge solemnly to lead you toward the portal. But first, I must rest and refresh myself. I suggest you do the same. The way forward is neither smooth nor clear, but you will reach your portal eventually.”

A thin, milky film creeps across its glittering black orbs. With mind-numbing speed, armies of albino insects race over the surface of her body, into and out of orifices. At the same time, strands of spider silk blow out from thousands of spinnerets. Gradually, the scurrying armies of creatures become invisible beneath a white cocoon shrouding Viealetta like a royal canopy of woven silk.

I remain in my relaxed but alert stance, aware of the myriad tiny eyes observing my every breath and minute movement. While my face remains impassive, my mind races through many vital considerations.

I showed I could repel a brute-force telepathic intrusion, and she switched to psychological attack. If that’s the game she’s playing, my life depends on being as opaque as possible. A single careless word or gesture will reveal qualities Viealetta can use to register my personality and break it. For eons, she has observed and exploited every vulnerability of hominid psyches. She knows the nuances of every language, audible or telepathic, and can read into every movement or shift of tone. She knows our weaknesses better than we know them ourselves.

I replay every word of our exchange but gain little insight. She has agreed to lead me toward the portal. When I test this statement with discernment practices, I detect trickery but no blatant falsehood. Yet how can I be sure?

One thing seems certain, though. We’re both playacting. She realizes that I’m far more skilled than the three Initiates, and that I’m aware of the intervention. Still, she’s testing me, and if I’m deemed inadequate for her purpose, she won’t hesitate to destroy me.

But what’s happening beneath her canopy of white silk?

I know she doesn’t need rest. Probing with inner vision and remote sensing, I detect a furious metabolism that has raised the temperature within her cocoon to an atmosphere of high fever. Within, masses of insects serve as an army of robotic technicians under precise telepathic control. Extensive surgeries are being performed, and whole areas of tissue are being excised and reconfigured.

What’s she doing in there? What’s her plan of attack? How should I prepare?


I consciously silence my speculation. I cannot allow restless thoughts to tumble through my mind, as that will only exhaust my spirit.

I should rest.

While keeping my senses alert and shields up, I quiet my mind. My eyes remain open so I can respond to a sudden threat with great speed, but I allow parts of my brain to sleep and recuperate.

Partly awake, partly asleep, I remain in my stance for hours until I hear the gnawing sound of innumerable insect mandibles. They are devouring the cocoon. Gaping holes open in the silken canopy, and all trace of it soon dissolves. Armies of insects scurry away with quivering masses of still-living tissue, and the nature of Viealetta’s metamorphosis is exposed.

She stands before me, reconfigured with a strange female appearance. She has reduced her size and complexity, and parts of her appear more hominid-like. Her body has two main segments. The one facing me is fashioned into a roughly human female form—naked, pale, and hairless. Her face retains the glittering black orbs for eyes and the hideous corona of red antennae, but it’s become expressive with puffy cheeks and a mousy look of fear, confusion, and anxiety. She’s squat, shaped like an ancient fertility doll with pendulous breasts and an exaggerated vagina.

She is not a she, I remind myself. This is all deception.

One hand has ordinary stubby fingers, and the other has human-looking skin and finger-like joints but is shaped like a coiled scorpion tail bristling with more of the undulating, hair-thin red antennae.

This is the human-looking segment of its body. The other, much larger segment closely resembles a headless albino spider, but it has an enormous scorpion tail protruding from its rear, counterbalancing the weight of the humanoid portion. This scorpion tail coils and uncoils rhythmically. The scorpion-tail hand on her humanoid half also coils and uncoils in this breathing way, but in a dissonant rhythm. The effect of the two stingers’ out-of-synch movements is nauseating and disorienting.

The humanoid part is connected to the much larger spider body via a thick, flexible neck at the base of its spine. This neck is large and strong enough to suspend the female form a few inches from the ground like a puppet. The spider legs are ever in motion, moving her backward and forward and side to side, while the humanoid portion faces me, its soft flesh jiggling as its arachnid-like locomotive platform moves it about.

The reconfiguration seems designed to play on both instinctive sympathies and primordial revulsion.

But why this metamorphosis now?

Viealetta had time to transform while I struggled through the cave. Has she registered me and reconfigured herself based on what she perceived of my vulnerabilities? Or does she periodically transform herself to keep victims off balance?

“Sire,” the pale woman whispers submissively, “what is it you require of me? I want only to serve you.”

Her tone is anxiously obsequious as if she fears dreadful punishment for the slightest transgression.

“I hope you’re amusing yourself with this puppetry, Viealetta. You know what I require of you. Take me to the portal.”

“Oh, Sire, why do you call your poor servant, Lianna, by this terrible name?”

Her facial expressions are the perfect semblance of a nervously servile creature. Every nuance of her speech and body language conveys the sense of a much-abused servant, filled with fear and a desire to please. Her scorpion-tail hand lies limply at her side as if she’s ashamed of its deformity. Uneasily, I notice parts of me beginning to regard her new form as timid, even as my mind recognizes the subterfuge. I decide to minimize communication until I understand the psychological warfare at play.

“Since I am your Sire, Lianna, I command you to take me toward the portal without further discussion. And I’ll thank you not to talk out of turn.”

“As you wish, Sire.”

With the help of the flexible neck attached to her arachnid lower body, her humanoid form makes an exaggerated curtsey. Then, while still facing me, her spider legs carry her rapidly backward through the rear entrance of the anteroom. The retinue of albino insects and arachnids part away from me as I follow. She scurries quickly with her multiple legs, and I struggle to keep up as we descend through a winding stone corridor.

In the silence that follows, I have space to study the transformation. The puppetry is quite effective in many ways. Although my mind sees through the deception, my bodily instincts register her humanoid puppet body as analogous to my own. Viealetta is skillfully manipulating my ancestral instinct to stereotype various body types and tones of speech. Viealetta is sidestepping my mind and convincing my body she’s low-status and timid, lulling me into a false sense of control.

But at the same time, the invertebrate part of her—the arachnid locomotive platform—seems designed to awaken even deeper mammalian instincts within me. Fears of biting, stinging creatures. By mixing powerfully discordant biological forms, she’s throwing my bodily intelligence off balance. Part of me interprets her as a self-abasing human, while another part registers her as a dangerous invertebrate. The cognitive dissonance taxes my inner resources.

As I study this manipulation, I recognize a shocking flaw in my own strategy. Viealetta carries within her the entire history of human fears and frailties. By breaking and devouring the three Initiates, she acquired intimate knowledge of elf body and psyche. I’d been attempting to hide any trace of my personality by adopting the consistent tone of an arrogant, over-confident warrior. But in doing so, I’ve created a stable frame of reference for Viealetta. The simple subterfuge I’ve chosen must be laughably transparent to her. And now the slightest deviation from this contrived performance will reveal volumes about my underlying personality.

I consider camouflaging myself by adopting a random assortment of personas when I communicate with her. But this requires abandoning my previous strategy in favor of a shape-shifting approach. To do so would mean acknowledging Viealetta as the master while reducing myself to imitative disciple.

I remember Wen’s advice to trust my intuition above all else.

It’s risky, but I decide to forgo a conscious strategy, choosing instead to respond spontaneously as the need to communicate arises.

As if aware of my new strategy, Viealetta tests my defenses with more of her maddening roleplay.

“Oh, Sire, I hope it’s not disrespectful to ask this, but do you really want to find the portal? I sense you’ve tricked me into this dark space to have your way with me.”

I ignore her speech to show that I feel no pressure to respond to such nonsense. She stands there motionless, watching me demurely. It’s a clear statement that I won’t make it to the portal unless I play her game.

“I have to say I’m disappointed in you, Viealetta,” I reply, shaking my head in mock sadness. “I’ve heard that you’re a highly capable creature, and yet, here you are, right from the start, playing exactly the sort of tired mind games I expected. Is there any way you can rework this antiquated routine to make it more interesting?”

Lianna bows her head in a pose of abject shame and submission as if she’s meekly awaiting punishment.

“Oh, Sire, it frightens me to hear such strange things I cannot understand. It makes my poor head too dizzy to lead you. Please, Sire, have mercy on poor Lianna.”

Viealetta is adamantly refusing to break character. I decide to play the part indicated for me, but with sarcastic exaggeration.

“Oh, poor, dear Lianna, please excuse my frivolous jokes. I know you only wish to serve your Sire, so I won’t torment you with further discussion. I’ll leave your poor little head free to concentrate on guiding us to the portal.”

“Oh, Sire, if you want to have your way with me, you need only ask. There’s no need to mock me with such a joking tone.”

Viealetta still refuses to move, forcing me to recognize another rule of its game—I must not only play the part indicated for me, but do so convincingly. Even a facetious tone is enough to create an impasse. This last demand makes me wary, and I make no reply.

How far can I let this playacting go?

If she demands that I play Sire more and more convincingly, I’ll give her a powerful lever to twist my mind. But each second I keep silent may reveal weakness and hesitation. To cover my uncertainty, I extend the silence while I stand before her in a bored pose. I want to see if I can get her to make the next move. Silent moments stretch long and uneasily as I study the glittering black orbs and the chaotic rippling of her corona of red antennae. Finally, Viealetta speaks.

“Oh, Sire, these strange stares and silences make me feel so vulnerable. It feels as though you are undressing me with your eyes, though I have shed all my garments as you desire. If you want to enter me, you know you need only say so. Sire, you know Lianna can deny you nothing.”

“Thank you, Lianna. There is one thing you can do for me. It’s simply to continue leading me toward the portal. And please indulge your Sire in one more kind service and refrain from conversation as far as possible.”

“Oh, Sire, poor Lianna has trouble understanding you when you talk in such a strangely calm way. I’ve grown accustomed to your angry manner.”

Now I know where Viealetta is trying to take me with its puppet games. She’s going to demand an ever-angrier tone from me, and I’ll have to accept the potent manipulation of playacting an ever more sadistic Sire. I can’t let that go too far, but I have to do something to end the impasse.

“Lianna,” I reply in a severe tone. “I command you to lead me to the portal.”

Viealetta, apparently satisfied with this victory, curtsies and begins moving again.

Her spider platform scurries faster than before. She moves so nimbly over the jagged rock floor I can scarcely keep up. I’m loath to reveal a physical limitation, but I’ll exhaust myself trying to maintain my shields and match her furious speed.

“Lianna, slow your pace.”

“As you wish, Sire.”

She begins crawling with agonizing slowness, testing my patience instead of my physical endurance.

“This is too slow, Lianna,” I say firmly. “Continue at a consistent, moderate pace.”

“Oh Sire,” she replies in the tone of a long-suffering, humble creature being humiliated by capricious orders, “I so much want to obey you, but your orders are terribly confusing.”

She races ahead and then abruptly slows, races, and then slows at random intervals. Once more, I’m being successfully conditioned. If I try to use my assigned role as Sire to control her actions, I‘ll be made to regret it. She’s training me to submit to her lead while also insisting that I maintain a dominant tone and manner.

After a long and weary route through massive stone tunnels, we enter a deep corridor not quite high enough for me to stand erect. Viealetta’s arachnid portion flattens to enter the passage and continues along unimpeded, but I’m forced to walk in an uncomfortable, crouched position.

There’s a battle in my mind, intuitions pointing in opposite directions. Although my truth-detecting technique reveals Viealetta is leading me toward the portal, I’m also aware of trickery. I realize she’s taking sadistic delight in drawing out our journey by leading me on a needlessly roundabout route. But I also have an intuition that as unpleasant and disturbing as she is to deal with, Viealetta is holding back. So far, it all seems more like testing than torture. The implication is that she still regards me as a potentially valuable specimen and wants to observe me under stress. But if I fail her tests . . . I’m under no illusion that I could defend myself or escape her lair. The only hope is to be found worthy of her purposes.

As I struggle to follow her, there’s a tactical consideration I can’t ignore any longer. By forcing me down a corridor where I must walk bent over, Viealetta has intensified the war of attrition by several notches. A contorted spine constricts the energy flowing through my body. My shields are weakening, and I’m becoming vulnerable to telepathic attack. I can’t allow this to continue. I’d rather she killed me outright than allow her to gain a hold in my mind.

“Lianna!” I call out in an angry tone. “I insist you tell Sire how long this corridor is and estimate the time it’ll take us to cover that distance.”

“Oh, Sire, you know my poor little head is no good for calculations. If you want to beat some sense into me, I understand and will submit to your discipline.”

Her latest demand is a line I will not cross.

“I’m through with this game, Viealetta,” I respond adamantly. “I won’t follow you another step unless you draw a map of our exact route here in the dust, with correctly scaled distances. And I will not degrade myself by descending to corporal punishment under any circumstances. Show me where the portal is.”

My role change brings Viealetta’s arachnid body to a halt. The Liana appendage stares at me with a look of mortal terror. She takes a half step back and cowers. When she speaks, she stammers as if fear is choking her voice.

“Oh, oh, oh, si-si- Sire, you’re si-si-scaring pa-pa-pa-poor L-Li-Li-Lianna, I da-da-don’t na-na-know wha-wha-what you wha-wha-want mi-mi-me to da-da-da-do.”

She emits a long, whimpering whine that seems to go on forever. My heart rate increases rapidly, and I recognize my body’s immunological response. The whining, and the stammering preceding it, are acoustical spells with twisted information encoded in them. What she couldn’t insert telepathically, she’s infiltrating with the one channel I’ve had to leave open. I focus on canceling the frequency of her whine while allowing my hearing to be sensitive to any other ambient sound.

Viealetta is instantly aware of my new defense and goes silent. Her glittering black orbs study me as I work to maintain my patient, restful stance.

Abruptly, Viealetta’s humanoid form stops cowering. Her mousy expression dissolves, and her face puckers, revealing wrinkles and heavy jowls.

“How boring of you,” she hisses in a new voice, “to take so long to ask these simple questions.”

She sounds hoarse and husky, like a lecherous chain-smoking old woman, and her newly deformed face squints at me with narrowed eyes. Even though my mind knew it was an act, I’d been so conditioned to expect the submissive Lianna puppet that the alteration is a shock. She scowls at me with disappointment and disgust as if I’m a male prostitute whose services she has paid for in advance only to find me unable to perform.

“Who knew that little elf boys have become so dull that a simple game would have to be drawn out to such tediously fatiguing lengths. And yet you still haven’t seen through it.

“Show me where the portal is,” she says in the high-pitched falsetto of an annoying child. “Did it never occur to you how I could be leading you toward the portal no matter which way we went? Turn off that stupid light, little boy, and I’ll show you the portal.”

Warily, I dim my Navigator. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a faint glow coming from the arachnid portion of Viealetta’s body. Within its translucent tissues, there’s a slowly undulating intestinal tube. It has a baleful luminosity like the shimmer of a hungry moon.

“Behold the portal to the past that lives only within me,” says Viealetta, her husky voice taking on a taunting and grandiose aspect. I feel dull-witted to have failed to consider this possibility. Inside her body is the ideal place for the portal, allowing her to extend a feeding tube to directly absorb ethers of past human suffering. I engage my truth-detecting practices to be sure and suddenly catch a glimpse of something in the dark.

It’s like seeing through a door opened by a crack that’s quickly pulled shut. An intricate lattice of spells is woven all around me. Despite all my training, I’ve failed to detect it. Some spells are long and woven together in repeating patterns. Other spells hang just outside the web like magnets misdirecting my attention with great precision. Wary as I am, Viealetta has tricked me into vastly underestimating her powers.

And yet, she is giving me this glimpse intentionally.

But why?

My mind sparks with intuitions.

Somehow, I‘ve passed her tests, and she’s giving me a lesson to help my mission succeed. The glimpse is meant to show me how much my conscious mind has missed and that the dark side of nature is more complex than I can comprehend. Perhaps the Lianna test was to see if I could be tempted toward dark, forceful actions or to arrogantly think I could control what’s beyond my comprehension. It’s a humbling lesson meant to imprint the need to confine myself to subtle means. But I can’t presume she’s done testing me.

The glimpse I’ve been afforded, and the realizations it was meant to provoke, pass in a couple of heartbeats. But within those moments, there’s a sense of mutual respect, dark and light recognizing in each other an intelligence needed for the functioning of the whole. The door closes, and Viealetta resumes her role as Archparasite.

“You see the portal you desire,” she says, her voice slowing to a darkly seductive tone. “Now, little boy, relinquish your shields and remove your garments. The only way to the past is through me, and I allow such privilege only to the most beautiful and succulent flesh, unadulterated by modesty.”

Viealetta’s black orbs glitter at me, and her excited metabolism heats to a feverish intensity. I light my Navigator and see a long slit opening along the length of her rapidly transforming puppet torso. My mind and heart quiver with terror.

Is this how she devoured the three?

But her body is the portal. There must be a chance of my survival, and I cannot afford to hesitate at the brink of this terrible crossing.

I dim my shields as I remove my clothing, which I stow in my cloth bag and tie to my ankle. As my shields begin to flicker out, I slow my perception of time and summon hyperawareness. Finally, I fully relinquish my shields. I struggle to repress muscle tremors as only a few feet of air separate my naked skin from physical contact with Viealetta.

The vertical slit on the humanoid torso puckers open and unhinges wide like the jaws of a snake that’s already paralyzed its prey with venom. Struggling to overcome fears too dreadful to name, I step toward the opening.

Suddenly, Viealetta hisses with a violent intensity that could shatter atoms. Her whole body blows up like an angler fish as her corona of hair-like red antennae shoots out as electrically vibrating tentacles. Then they retract, ensnaring my naked body and lashing it with flames of white-hot agony. Secreted flesh-dissolving acids cut into my skin, allowing the tentacles to voraciously suck my blood.

The pain is blinding. It’s as if the energy of a hydrogen bomb were shooting through my nervous system. Frantic to escape the lethal tentacles, I dive into the opening.

A shocking reversal of sensation.

Opiate fluids stream into my wounds. Viealetta has tuned her body chemistry to transform the pain of myriad acid burns into seizures of pleasure erupting through me, nearly extinguishing my mind.

The urge to surrender to this ecstasy is overwhelming, but if I hesitate, in a few more heartbeats, Viealetta’s parasitic womb will enslave me forever.

I squirm deeper into her body and push into an undulating tube.

Pleasure reverts back to pain, but I keep moving.

Suddenly, I‘m falling into a non-place, an ether-like limbo of concentrated suffering. I plummet through the red vapors of her feeding tube into an agonized scream emanating from a billion voices.

My identity merges with the culminating death moments of countless human lives as they’re devoured in states of absolute horror.

I’m an emaciated woman watching passively, paralyzed by despair, as men in Nazi uniforms slide me on a metal plank into a gas-fired oven.

I commit suicide with razors, ropes, pills, and bullets.

I wither on hospital beds penetrated by plastic tubes.

I am cut down on battlefields.

I am murdered by enemies and lovers alike.

I fall through this endless scream until I rupture another membrane and tumble into a night sky. Cold air whips past me as I drop. The red desert below rushes toward me like a brick wall, about to pulverize my body.

At the last second, Viealetta’s acid-dripping tentacles lash around me once more. Their grasp is a fiery detonation of agony as they again suck blood from the wounds they open. But they also slow my descent. When I’m a few meters from the ground, her tentacles break away, retract and vanish into the sky, and I drop to the desert surface.

I’m engulfed in blackness before my consciousness shocks itself into restarting with a gasp.

I’m naked and bleeding out, my life energy spilling onto the red sand as I struggle to stem the blood flowing from a hundred lacerations. My body begins to convulse, and I use all my will to stay conscious and force it to stabilize. Unconsciousness now would mean certain death.

My nervous system dials down the pain enough for me to function. A couple more heartbeats and the wounds begin to coagulate.

I need to get my body out of shock.

I activate my Navigator and feel its radiance stabilizing my energy and heart rhythm.

Then I remember—Healing Elixir! My bag is still attached to my ankle. I untie it and find the flask. With trembling hands, I unscrew the cap and take a sip.

The elixir is a potent, mostly astral medicine designed to catalyze regenerative capacity. As it ripples through my body, the fever and infection diminish. My wounds are acid burns and damage is still being done. The lash marks singe my skin like red-hot toaster wires.

Hastily, I pull a cloth from my bag, dip it in elixir and dab my wounds. Every movement is agonizing, but the topical application neutralizes the burning acid and begins to seal the lacerations.

I retrieve my clothes and put them on. The soft fabric comforts my skin and protects me from the cold desert night. I draw the hood of my cloak around me, insulating the warmth of my core. Although I’m profoundly weakened, my body has stabilized and is regenerating.

Out of immediate danger, I realize something—Viealetta precisely calculated the amount of blood loss, injury, and pain she could inflict without destroying my viability.

Now that I’m no longer bleeding out, I’m able to scan my environment and evaluate the situation.

I’ve landed in a red desert near the entrance to a canyon. All around are medicine plants of the high desert—sage, agave, yarrow—fringed in blue electricity. Towering buttes rise up in the distance like giant lodestones charged with planetary energies. They resonate with cosmic time and exude stoic indifference.

I’ve survived, but I’m weaker. And it’s not just the blood loss and injuries—those will heal. The Earth’s gravity is significantly stronger than on my home planet. I also feel the weight of the collective human energy which pervades even this isolated desert. And I sense something else—this desert has open boundaries with other worlds and dimensions.

Strong winds sweep across the mesa. With them come visions of certain anomalous protoelves. Whether they know each other or not, their hidden network exists. They need to find each other to stimulate their metamorphic potential. My vision focuses on the one protoelf here with whom I have shared such a long destiny.

Andrew . . .

30 Adapting  to  Changed  Circumstances

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Our identity merger folds in on itself and releases. I come back to myself sitting across from Jeremiah, who watches me silently, his face illuminated by the glowing campfire.

The sight of him is disorienting. I’d been experiencing through his eyes, his whole sensorium, even his mind, and heart. But now I’m Andrew again, seeing him as a separate person. The trauma I experienced as Jeremiah quickly dissipates.

When I feel grounded enough in my own identity, I break the silence with a question.

“The boy I encountered at the ranch house. You copied Wen’s chosen form—why?”

“It was just an intuition,” Jeremiah replies. “I had to choose some form other than my own, and he confessed to copying mine, so I thought I’d return the compliment.”

“I’m so sorry for what you suffered,” I say, “but if you were able to bring both of us to this other world, couldn’t you have traveled to the past without Viealetta?”

“No. We’ve learned how to sometimes view events across time, but not to travel there. I brought you here through a naturally formed portal in the desert. I didn’t create it. Perhaps one day, the Vehrillion will advance to where we can create such gateways, but for now we can only detect and use ones that already exist.”

We fall silent as I ponder my next question. I’m most curious about his relationship with the other version of me. But I can’t bring myself to ask. Jeremiah’s suffered too much, and from what I’ve learned from Wen, it would be the single most painful subject I could bring up.

“And what’s happened to you since you fell to the red desert? How have you managed to survive?”

“I’ve simply adapted to my changed circumstances like any living creature must,” says Jeremiah, smiling in a way that lightens the darkness of his painful crossing. Just as I begin to wonder more, I feel Jeremiah’s invitation to return to a merged perspective. This time, switching identities feels fluid and smooth, like slipping on a silk shirt.

When I become Jeremiah again, I’m walking in the moonlit desert when I sense a strong force emanating in the distance—a directional flow that feels physical, like the current of a river.

I follow this current a quarter mile or so until I reach a patch of ground that seems to be its source. Something is buried just beneath my feet that I’m meant to find. It feels dangerous but of high value.

I use a flat rock as a shovel and begin digging. Thankfully, the red dirt is loosely packed, and my rock shovel hits a sheet of shiny black plastic just inches below the surface. Carefully, I unfold it and find neat stacks of money intricately printed on high-quality paper. They’re hundred-dollar bills, and as I touch them, fear rises through my fingertips, bringing flickering memories of the man who buried them. The images coalesce into a feverish montage of the last night of this man’s life.

I feel his sweaty desperation as he uses a plastic ice scraper as a shovel to bury his ill-gotten loot. I see his panicked drive away from the burial site. His raw terror when the window of a black sedan rolls down beside him. His hand shakes wildly as he reaches for his gun though he knows he won’t be able to draw it in time. A muzzle flash from the sedan the instant before the bullet ruptures him into the void.

The money I’ve unearthed emanates fear from the dark chain of events that led to its being here. Before lifting the cache from its makeshift grave, I use breath and intention to cleanse as much of the taint as possible.

A twinge of curiosity.

I remove a single bill from one of the packets to study it in the moonlight. It’s a precisely constructed magical artifact woven with spells in the form of images, letters, and numbers. Most of the magical artifacts I’m familiar with are handmade, but these were designed by a government and produced by machines. The bills bear energetic traces of those whose hands have touched them, but they were manufactured to be imbued with collective power.

Money. An artifact from such a distant past. I was a different species the last time I touched it. But here on Earth, these bills are potent manifestations of the dominant magic. It’s a dark magic in many ways, but I can obtain any physical resource I need with it.

I replace the bill and stow several dozen of the packets in my bag.

After reburying the remaining loot, I note the spot and consider setting cloaking wards to keep it hidden. But I have no greater claim on this treasure than anyone else, so I leave it unwarded. Besides, even though money is highly valued by humans, a few inches of dirt will be sufficient to hide it from untrained eyes.

31  Microdose  Visions

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Jeremiah gently diverges our identities.

“Viealetta,” he begins, “or some other force that wanted my intervention to succeed, landed me close to this buried treasure. It wanted me to have this world’s universal resource—the one that can supply any other necessity to fulfill my mission.

“Many of my abilities are lessened here to various degrees. But so far, no hazard or obstacle has hindered my ability to travel where the currents require me to go. Since I’ve no claim on these artifacts, just a greater ability to locate them, I let them pass through me freely. I’ve been able to help several needy people I’ve encountered on my travels by giving them a few of the bills.

“We can return to that spot in the desert to obtain more. But even if it were gone, there must be many other poorly hidden caches I could seek out if necessary. Anyway, that’s how I’ve been getting by.”

We lapse into a restful silence that allows me to consider my next words. A new concern comes to mind.


I clutch the star sapphire amulet and try to feel him.

Nothing. The line feels . . .

Panic rushes through me.

Is it possible that going through the portal shattered the mirror link? I took that step without even thinking about how it would affect him.

I close my eyes and focus inward, probing the darkness for any sense of Alex receiving me. Nothing. The link is broken. A pang of guilt hammers into me like a nail.

I’ve betrayed my promise that he could witness the rest of my life. By crossing through the gateway, I’ve abandoned him . . .

An image of Alex forms in my mind. He lies huddled on the tattered covers of his single bed, his back toward me as he shudders with sobs. I see him as if through a sheet of dense, filthy plexiglass. No sound, no energetic contact, just despair.

The image vanishes. I need to get back and find him!

I look up and see Jeremiah patiently giving me space. He’s aware of my feelings, but he’s not intruding on them.

Jeremiah has made no complaint about his permanent separation from the other Andrew. He’s sacrificed so much to bring me here. He doesn’t deserve this.

I’ve got to compose myself.

A sobering clarity washes over my panic.

I can’t go back . . . not yet. Too much is at stake.

I take a deep breath and sit up straight, struggling to contain my feelings and steady my nerves before I speak.

“I’m sorry for what you’ve had to suffer through to be here,” I say. “I won’t let it be in vain. I will take the Shadow Elixir, whatever the danger.”

Jeremiah nods solemnly.

“The fact I had to suffer to get here does not oblige you to anything,” he replies thoughtfully. “Your decision is your decision, not only by right of free will, but because you are the only one in a position to know what you should do.”

“I understand what’s at stake,” I reply, “but I’m not just putting myself at risk by saying yes. My connection to Alex is already broken. I just hope it can be restored. How will it be affected by the Shadow Elixir?”

“Your link to him will almost certainly remain broken while you are under its influence,” Jeremiah replies. “The Shadow Journey will have profound effects that will alter your relationship with everyone and everything. Once you take the full dose, you will not be able to connect with Alex or anyone outside your shadow experience. You will lose connection with your own identity as you undergo dark and grotesque lives as others. Less than three days of ordinary time will pass in the outer world, but what you experience may seem to last for lifetimes.

“During the three days, your body will be in a feverish state of metamorphosis as organic molecules are replaced by astral variants. You’ll awaken dehydrated, and there will be plenty of bodily stress, but that will be nothing compared to the psychological disorientation and trauma of adapting to an altered version of your original identity. However the process plays out for you, it will take time to ground and stabilize your newfound self.

“I sympathize with your reluctance to further risk your bond with Alex. Once you recover, though, you’ll likely be far better able to link and communicate with him than you were before. It was so with the Andrew in my world. Though as I’ve said, his path is no guarantee of yours.”

Hesitation is only increasing my fear. I’ve stalled long enough.

“I’m ready,” I say.

“Good. It’s better not to wait,” replies Jeremiah. “While your mind journeys, it will be far safer for your body to remain in this world, where the darkness is not as dense and overpowering as on the Earth you know.”

“I understand,” I reply, taking deep breaths to calm my flickering heartbeat.

“We begin with a microdose. Your identity should remain intact, but the visions will be strong. After the microdose, we’ll move on to the full one. As I mentioned, the shadow initiation puts your body in a feverish state, which will cause dehydration. So I’ll give you small sips of water during the three days when possible. But it won’t be enough. It never is.”

Jeremiah passes me one of the green glass water bottles.

“See if you can drink all of it.”

He waits while I uncork the bottle and drink until I’ve downed it all.

He then lifts his right hand, palm facing the night sky. He takes a deep breath and when he exhales, a transparent, cobalt-blue sphere emerges from his mouth and hovers a couple of inches above the center of his palm. It looks like the highest grade of blue sapphire, about two inches in diameter, but it has a subtle internal luminosity.

Jeremiah holds his hand steadily, allowing me to stare into the depths of the sphere. It’s alive, the way a cell or a star is, and the feeling of its aliveness is calm and aware. The optical clarity and midnight-blue color of the orb are also its essence.

“It’s an orb of sapphire elemental,” Jeremiah says. “I’m manifesting it through the Vehrillion. Let this medicine infuse you. To behold it is to have it with you.”

Jeremiah moves the orb closer, and the energies flowing through my bodily organs subtly realign, calming and clarifying my thoughts and feelings.

“Form your hands into a bowl.”

I do, and Jeremiah carefully spills the glowing sapphire into my cupped hands. It passes through my skin and dissolves into me, its blue energy coursing through my body.

Jeremiah reaches into his cloth bag and produces a dark flask topped with a spire-shaped cap. It’s black, with iridescent striations that glimmer in the firelight to reveal its curvilinear contours.

“Ready?” he asks.

I nod, and with ritualistic deliberation, he removes the top and dips the spire into the flask.

“We begin with the micro dose. Hold out your left hand.”

Jeremiah touches my palm with the tip of the spire, leaving an inky black dot on my skin which quickly disappears as it’s absorbed into my body.

My eyes shut, and I feel the world collapsing in on itself and then expanding again. I open my eyes.

I’m sitting in the same mesa, but Jeremiah and the campfire have disappeared. I feel the beat of my heart slow along with my breathing.

There’s an odd sensation on the surface of my body as though I were—

I look down, and it takes a long moment to comprehend what my eyes see. Dark threads emanate from my whole body, undulating like the tentacles of a jellyfish.

My vision moves closer, and I see that each thread is a nerve cell, a shadowy black neuron, with complex dendrites interconnecting it with other neurons.

The dendrites and axons undulate and pulsate with a dissonant rhythm that makes me nauseous. The neurons pulse with the inversion of my arterial pulsation, the anti-heartbeat of my heartbeat. As my heart pumps blood out, these parasitic neurons absorb some of my vitality.

The rhythm and counter-rhythm are perfectly synchronized. I’m not sure if the pulsating nerve tissue is an organ surrounding my body, or if I am an organ within its body.

I struggle to contain my revulsion and continue observing. At certain nodes of the web, tangled dendrites form into a bulbous nexus of nerve tissue with a hollow space inside. Floating within those bulbs are pale worms glowing like hungry moons. They feed within a parasitic ecosystem for which I am the food source.

At the outer edges of this ecosystem are loose threads of nerve tissue waving in amputated torment. The vortex that displaced me to the Green World ripped them from their surrounding matrix of nerve tissue. The torn extremities flail about spastically in a futile effort to reconnect to their neural web.

Horrifying realizations blossom in my mind like dark flowers. But before the terror of what I’m seeing can fully seize me, the blue sapphire appears in my mind’s eye. The orb’s energy is still inside me.

I summon it to the surface of my body until I emanate a blue glow, causing the whole webwork attached to me to undulate in chaotic torment. I breathe out blue light from my skin, and the dark threads burn away.

The elixir has allowed me to gaze into shadows and see that which it’s forbidden to see. On Earth, we live within a parasitic matrix that invisibly harvests our energy. Its perpetual suction is an insidious taxation of human vitality.

A new vision flickers into my mind.

People going about their day gazing downward with broken spirits. Above their bent heads is a dark, coagulated sky.

Their bodies don’t move through free space but rather a web of hungry neurons. They’re living on the surface of a parasitic brain that darkly influences their thoughts and taxes their vitality. All their fears, hatreds, jealousies, addictive passions, and lethargic indulgences are a harvest of sweet ethers.

A new vision appears, a moment in history that happened before I was born, but it seems as if it’s alive and unfolding right now.

I’m in New York City on the morning of a beautiful, late-summer day. There’s sunshine and blue skies, and I see the gleaming Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the near distance. The towers are perfectly intact, and people are going about their business as usual.

They’re unaware of what’s happening. The parasitic webwork surrounding the towers is in a state of extreme excitement and accelerated growth. Densely entangled nerve tissue masses all around them.

Hidden above them is The Archparasite, Viealetta, orchestrating a massive harvest only minutes away. A rapidly sprouting webwork of hungry neurons surrounds the towers, ready to absorb all the terror and suffering about to be released.

Flying toward the towers is a living puppet show playing out in the cockpit of a commercial jet. Viealetta is acting from within the hollowed-out fanatics, gazing out at the towers through their eyes. They gleam succulently in her mind.

She is in a frenzied excitement to rupture those towers, to tear into them like a starving bear ravaging hives full of golden honey.

The towers are ready to burst—all those gallons of living blood about to vaporize in the fiery combustion of exploding jet fuel. Gorgeous spurts of red ether will release instantly followed by a floodtide from the shock and horror of billions of people watching it on their screens.

Viealetta vibrates with excited anticipation.

The planes collide with the towers. First one, then the other. Each impact and subsequent collapse set off vampiric orgasms that shiver and pulsate through the whole neural web.

Viealetta glows at the center of this vibrating web in the form of an albino spider, rapidly inflating as she becomes engorged with ether. The red antennae surrounding her dozen eyes vibrate electrically in a silent orgasmic scream. My whole being trembles as I behold the feeding of this godhead of evil. Suddenly, her ancient name comes to mind. Medusa. Her hair of snakes was an early vision of a being too terrible to behold. But, before Medusa can paralyze me with dread, my vision pulls away.


A man with dark eyes looks out from a high office tower window, viewing the world through a mind of cruel stratagems.

I enter his psyche.

He is at a nexus of wealth and power, and that is one of the factors shriveling his soul and souring his tissues. His body is riddled with metastasizing cancer, and he burns with bitter rage. He’s filled with hatred for his entire species, the swarming masses of people on the streets below, and the organic matrix that gave rise to him. He’s programmed a powerful AI to engineer a series of viruses—


Now I see this man from the outside. His body has spinnerets like a spider. They’re where his genitals, stomach, heart, mouth, and eyes should be. Silently, the spinnerets emit axons and dendrites of parasitic nerve tissue flowing into the larger world.


A stream of people walk down a busy city street. Their hazy outlines are highlighted by the rays of a setting sun. I watch from the middle of the street as they pass in slow motion, their elongated shadows bobbing almost weightlessly as they amble through my view.

As dark whispers invade their minds, spinnerets in their eyes emit filaments of nerve tissue into the surrounding atmosphere.

I gaze into these people, recognizing different energetic configurations. Some are puppets whose minds are merely echo chambers for the dark whispers. They are hollow folk, operated by the parasitic web. Others still have cores of self-awareness that vary considerably in radiance and structure. Many are dim like dying stars, but a few shine brilliantly in the darkness. These people are aware of the whispers and see into the black magic behind them.


Dark threads wrap around me, cocooning me in parasitic nerve tissue.

There’s a strong smell of hospital antiseptics. The cocoon is made of densely interwoven gauze bandages stained with darkened blood.

I lay curled up in my hospital bed as it wraps tighter and thicker around the naked wounds of my Fireskin until I can’t breathe through its suffocating mass.

The bandaging cocoon engulfs me, and I thrash about as a creature of white gauze before losing consciousness.

32 The Full Dose

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I awaken by the campfire lying on my back, a folded blanket placed carefully behind my head. Jeremiah sits beside me while the sapphire orb hovers above the center of my body.

I’m in shock, but my mind is clear enough to realize I’ve survived the microdose of Shadow Elixir. I’ve been shown things I didn’t want to see, but that needed to be seen. The visions are like fiery brands that have burned their marks into my mind.

I feel Jeremiah encouraging me to sit up.

“Deep breaths,” he whispers. He uncorks a bottle and passes it to me. I take a drink and feel water replenishing my body. My mind, however, still reverberates with horrifying visions of Viealetta’s dark web.

The experience was like a fever dream. I’m not sure how literally to take it.

“You’re right not to be sure about such visions,” says Jeremiah.

“Some parts may be literal actualities, and others mythological metaphors. We have to allow the line between those to remain ambiguous.”

He pauses to study me.

“Drink as much as you can,” he says before continuing.

“Literalists who experience visions become possessed by them. For the possessed, the fever never breaks, and they are filled with a rabid desire to spread the psychic contagion. Jung described archetype-possessed people as terrifying invalids who think they are on a mission to save the world.”

“But—” I set my water bottle down and try to focus on Jeremiah, “you and I—we think we’re on a mission to save the world.”

“Exactly,” he replies. “It’s an uncomfortable irony, isn’t it? There’s a slippery line between being inspired by visions and becoming possessed by them. We, too, are vulnerable to being fooled by what we see emerging from the unconscious. There is also danger in assuming that everything we see is non-literal. Visions may often reveal truth, but that truth can be literal or symbolic, and we must carefully discern between those possibilities. When the boundary between those is ambiguous, we must avoid premature conclusions, lest we become a possessed true believer or a possessed debunker.”

I try grasping Jeremiah’s words, but the paradox rattles my staggered mind. Then I think of a new question.

“What was coming back from your Shadow Journey like?”

“It was—” Jeremiah pauses to think, “—insanity—total reality disorientation and confusion. I felt like I woke up not into reality, but into the weirdest dream I’ve ever had. Only that weird dream is what’s real, and who you think you are, and your past, is the illusion. I felt like I was drowning, and the only way to come up for air was to accept the weird dream as my new reality. That part is . . . unavoidable. It was an adjustment, but I did eventually come back to myself, and gained wisdom from the experience.”

“OK,” I say with a long exhale. “Well, I think you’ve prepared me as much as possible for something that nothing can prepare me for. Hopefully, I’ll recover as well as you and the other Andrew did.”

“Ready for the full dose?” Jeremiah asks.

I nod slowly.

He carefully pours Shadow Elixir into a tiny concave bowl carved into the underside of the spire-shaped stopper. The liquid is shiny black, like fountain pen ink. He spills it onto the palm of my left hand, and it disappears beneath my skin.

The sapphire elemental hovers at the edge of my awareness as I lay my head back on the wool blanket. I close my eyes once more, and the world goes dark.



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